Stella Ridley 07-12

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Stella Ridley 07-12

07

Miz Minnie’s Boy

If Molly and I were at home, Matu forced us to be in attendance during Miz Minnie’s visitation. This was odd, for we were taught never to pry, never to talk about other people, never-ever-ever to speak ill of anyone, and never to repeat things about other people that people said to us. I suspect that Matu wanted to make sure that Miz Minnie’s visits weren’t a total waste of time and intended them as some kind of lesson for us. Indeed, “Don’t be a Miz Minnie!” was a powerful admonition in our house and cut short our speculating aloud about things we knew nothing about. Perhaps Matu also viewed these occasions as opportunities for Molly and me to learn graciousness, patience, how to look convincingly attentive no matter where our minds were roaming, roaming, how to sit still without fidgeting. I also suspect we were required to partake of Miz Minnie’s visitations to curtail the degree of gossipy detail she felt compelled to deliver and thus to curtail her visit. It hardly mattered to us anyway since we viewed disease, deformity, death, the draft, and a host of other things as if they happened only in some other country, some country that was far, far away from that of our childhood.

Because we associated Miz Minnie’s wound-up and wiry appearance with advanced age and associated her with the Old People’s Room, we thought she was old as the hills, but she wasn’t. People tolerated Miz Minnie because there was always the chance that some gossip that might be hurtful to others might be helpful to them, or because they found her amusing, or because they knew of her own hardships and privations in life and pitied her and felt that her tale-mongering fulfilled some obscure need in her. There was no Mr. Minnie in sight, and in addition to what Molly called her “visitating,” Miz Minnie was working part-time in a bank and raising a son all by herself.

Everyone knew who “Miz Minnie’s boy” was, and nobody anywhere except the meanest of children would dare harass or try to hurt him even though there were several things about him that just screamed for attention from bullies, who, as hateful as they are as individuals often nonetheless police the boundaries of what communities consider acceptable. It was impossible for Miz Minnie’s boy to obey that first commandment of the playground: don’t stand out. First of all, his name was Rupert, which seemed both foreign and somehow ornate and therefore feminine. He routinely made the best grades in his classes, and he was extravagantly talented, could play both the oboe and the bassoon (weird, suspect instruments). And he was gorgeous, a regular pre-Raphaelite boy with flawless olive skin and deep-pooled eyes and long-long dark eyelashes to just break your heart. (He was a year ahead of Molly in school. And of course we were always both a little in love with him.)

I guess you can see that if Miz Minnie’s boy’s name had been some familiar diminutive like Jocko or Butch and he had spent class time throwing sticky spitballs and loudly passing gas instead of paying attention or if he had played more familiar instruments, the tuba, perhaps, or even the clarinet and had mildly unruly hair or a discreet scar on his cheek or just some freckles, he would have fit right in with the other boys. But he didn’t.

Looking back on it now, I think that probably the only thing that protected him from the harsh punishment difference elicits in restrictive environments was his mother’s widespread reputation as someone who knew or could appear to know everything about everybody. We could write Miz Minnie off as an entertaining, harmless busybody, but one sure thing about gossip is that once it gains currency, it doesn’t matter if it isn’t true, and protests against its untruth just keep it circulating. Thus, being known as a gossip made Miz Minnie herself a potential bully and gave her, as ridiculous as it seems, a kind of power she wouldn’t otherwise have had.

Bless her heart. She was doing something that would have been unforgivable in someone with real power over unrelated others–a boss, for example–but she was a mother. It was probably the only way she could try to protect her boy. If Miz Minnie had not been a woman, she probably would not have been an endlessly-dropping-in-on-people gossip. If she had been, for example, a stocky, brawly, easy-to-offend man, she could have been menacing with greater clarity and much, much less elaborate effort.

08

Men

Men were not much in our lives. Papaw was very much in our lives, and we knew that he had done manly things—had fought in a war, plowed fields, worn a suit and tie to an office somewhere, and so forth–but those things were in the past, and by virtue of his age and function as Matu’s helper, he was really a kind of honorary woman. Our little orbit had some men in it—male relatives, family friends, female friends’ husbands, sons, boyfriends—but we saw them only briefly and at a distance, usually just before we were banished to the banister or the bed when an adult party was getting into full swing. There was my second father, Uncle Robert, of course, but he was in some kind of business that required him to spend practically all of his time in what Aunt Deena called “exotic, mosquito-infested locales.” He was home three times a year—at Christmas and Easter for a few days, and then in the summer for a weeks’ vacation with the family, a week that he spent mostly on the telephone. He always brought us lovely jewelry or objets d’art, the latter made of materials that were later outlawed for such uses. He phoned at least once a month, and he clearly adored Matu—unless I misunderstood the way he looked at her when she didn’t know he was looking, kind of like the way Wolf looked at the bowl in which his meal was being prepared. And he loved his family, and when he was around, he lavished his robust love on all of us. Still, I never had a Daddy-type name for him—my childish pronunciation of his name as “Uncle Robber” stuck for me. Once when I called him Uncle Robber, Matu got down on my level and moving her mouth in an exaggerated way said, “Rob-urt. Urttttt, Tella.” I was very confused, thought she was telling me to say “Robber Urt,” but Uncle Robber immediately said, “Don’t correct the child, darling. I rather like it. It makes me feel like a swashbuckler. And perhaps she has had some insight into my character, eh?” He said this last smiling broadly, putting his arm around Matu’s shoulders and giving her a squeeze. Perhaps I have imagined since that she winced.

It always took me awhile to warm to Uncle Robber, perhaps because I was jealous of the way he took Matu away from us when he phoned or was at home, or because I was protective of Matu, or even because I was attracted to him in some creepy infantile way. But I think it was just that I saw him so seldom: he was only an occasional man. As I got older, I came to understand his devotion to his work and his charm, and I learned much about him, both good and bad, that made him a steadier figure in my life. But I had no such understanding at the time that I am speaking of. It doesn’t matter anyway–one’s daddy doesn’t count as a man-man any more than the boys one grows up with count as man-men except by special dispensation.

When Molly and I thought about or discussed Men, we had men we did not know in mind, and even the usually intrepid Molly was shy around such men. We were afraid of them, a bit awed by them, voraciously curious about them. They seemed so foreign to us that we often stared at them as if they were exhibits in some zoo. When we were quite young, we followed the Mail Man from house to house whenever we saw him, although “stalked” him would be a more accurate characterization of what we did. And we followed the pest control man—the Bug Man—all over the house and yard until Matu finally impressed upon us that was spraying poison for bugs. Actually, we quit following the Bug Man only because it made Matu so upset. The bit about the poison didn’t scare us at all because—and Matu didn’t know this—we routinely rode our tricycles behind the Mosquito Truck that drove slowly through the neighborhood filling the streets and yards with an enticing, delicious-smelling cloud of poison. We really loved the Mosquito Truck, though we never saw the Mosquito Man.

Despite our positive experience with deliverers of mail and dispensers of poisons, we were afraid of what we called The Strange Man, afraid in the same way we might have been afraid of ghosts or monsters: repulsed and intrigued at once. There was one candidate for The Strange Man that we watched carefully, the Butcher Man at the local market. He was very tall and lanky, and his head, forearms, and hands were too big for his body, and there was something scarily mechanical about the way he moved. (Years later, Uncle Robber brought the family some shadow puppets from Bali, and when he held the first one up for us to admire, Molly and I looked at each other and simultaneously said “The Butcher Man!”) When Matu went to the glass case to point and ask about this or that and place an order, we would hang back, wide-eyed, and just stare at him, even though Matu had given us several lectures about the rudeness of staring.

In some universe, to some female somewhere, I suppose the Butcher Man might have been an attractive man—someone had told him he was, or he imagined he was, or maybe he was just insane. When Matu was standing there waiting and using the time to review her shopping list, he would slyly look at us while he was cutting or slicing or hacking or grinding or pounding. He would cock his head to the side and repeatedly wink at us, and once he pursed his lips up and sent a slow, wet kiss our way. Everything about him and his work was made to seem sharply clean and efficient—the glass, the butcher paper, the knives and equipment, the white coat and hat he wore. But he seemed sloppy and somehow filthy to us, and the smell of the meat we associated with him became repulsive. We announced rather casually at dinner one night that we would no longer eat meat, and we refused to do so until Matu just gave up and let us be vegetarians, which we still are to this day.

09

Ice Cream Murder Man

When Baby Robert came along and our Little Mama duties began to include him, we had ready access to a male specimen, and our attention in the man department turned to the issue of physical equipment. “It looks like a little Vienna sausage!” Molly shouted the first time we changed his diaper, but her shout scared him and he began to wail, so he became our baby and not an example of a little man. Still, we had some wild speculations about male anatomy and how it might be related to procreation, and we loved to be outraged by our own imagination. We felt sorry for what would happen to Bobby as he grew up.

Long before puberty, we began to cast about for sources of information. At the drugstore, while Matu was occupied with the pharmacist or the perusal of beauty products, Molly and I would cruise the magazines, delighted that we could read and thus learn things that Matu didn’t want us to know. Once we flipped through a magazine to find an article titled “What Men Really Want” and we had just run across the phrase “hand job” when Matu snatched the magazine from us, crammed it back into the rack, and gave us that raised eyebrow look before shepherding us out the door. “What do you think it means?” I whispered to Molly in the car. “Maybe it means manicure?” she said. “Well, that’s stupid,” I said. Molly said, “Well, why do you think it’s called a man-icure?”

Given the things we associated with men and the cockamamie information that we possessed, we spun out between us a cartoon universe of sex. But we knew, too—although grownups tried to shield us from it—that Strange Men could be dangerous agents of death. Just before school let out for summer one year, a ten year-old girl was kidnapped, driven to a secluded spot near the lake, and raped and murdered—the paper said “violated.” The man who did this was the Ice Cream Man who had been in every neighborhood and knew every child. He ran over her with his car before he left the scene. I would not have known any of this had it not been for a girl in my class named La Rue Jones. At recess, she related, with great relish, many details of this inconceivable and frightening occurrence. She said that her mother had forbidden her to look at the reports in the newspaper but she had sneakily clipped them out (probably with the blunt scissors we were still using in school) and kept them hidden in a shoebox in her closet. We weren’t exactly sure what “violated” meant, or rather, I wasn’t sure—I think La Rue knew everything there was to know, some of it firsthand. Even if the paper had said “rape,” however, I wouldn’t have known what it meant. All I knew of rape was the rape of the Sabine women, which I took to be a massive raid in which women were carried off to be made into slaves. La Rue said that “violated” meant that having sex killed you.

The Ice Cream Man, The Murder Man, had a family—a wife and two young daughters of his own. He had raped and beat the girl and then run over her with his car—back and forth, back and forth, over and over before driving away to get home in time to have dinner with his family.

10

A Smooth Intoxicating Man

Deena was married once to a man named Rusty Balecoeur in an extravagant wedding at the church. I cannot recall the wedding because I was totally focused on my get-up, more specifically, I was totally focused on my petticoat, which had a welt-raising elastic waistband and was made of layers of stiffly undulating netting that had a gravity all its own and thus did not immediately move with me when I moved. Not that I could have moved easily anyway– my white patent leather shoes were stiff and slick as sheathes. The neck of my dress was high and tight and became more so with each passing minute as if I were wearing an unfriendly and very large snake. At least it felt that way: I had always been told I did not have an accurate perception of what my clothing was doing to me. I recently ran across an old photograph of Molly and me wearing our Deena’s wedding outfits—I guess we must have been in the wedding because our dresses were identical, although Molly apparently got the friendly one. I’m sure a chorus of “they look like twins!” attended this public showing of us as it always did. The dresses actually look quite fetching—like creamy decorated cakes. Molly is smiling, and I am grimacing. Have I mentioned that I abhor confinement of any sort, even that of clothing?

Rusty was a smooth, “intoxicating man” (we got that phrase from a magazine). He smelled like vanilla, was slender, and had clean, crisp rather fox-like features. I have always associated him with cream puffs and eclairs and rich icing—I’m not sure why, perhaps because of the wedding cake, which appears in another photograph as an extravagant edifice of white-on-white roses and lilies of the valley, its layers separated by small Corinthian columns. Whoever took the photograph really focused on that cake—the top of the photograph is cut off where the little bride and groom surely stood in their happy doll-like way ready to lead their secret lives. I’m sure that it was a joyous occasion; I’m not sure altogether why it struck me as barbaric on the whole.

Being near Rusty was like being under some kind of spell in which he was the only other person in the world whenever he turned his eyes on you. When he looked at you, it was as if he made you over into the smartest, most beautiful self you had in you. He charmed Deena, charmed the whole family, and apparently he was generous with his charm and eager to spread it around. It seemed impossible that he had a brittle temperament or that he could be mean. But he was. I never knew, of course, what exactly transpired between him and Deena, but I gathered that he had rigid, unyielding notions about Deena’s wifely role and treated her as if she were some kind of subsidiary factory requiring close supervision and an iron hand.

Where did he come from? It still amazes me that in a culture that measures people first by where and what people they come from, no one really knew where Rusty came from—that seemed to be part of his spell. I recall that shortly before the spell broke, Rusty’s background suddenly became a repeated topic of discussion. One time, Matu and Mamaw, who liked to drink martinis when they cooked together, spent a good half hour while preparing dinner speculating on Rusty’s place of origin. I remember looking up from the kitchen table where Molly and I were shelling English peas and seeing Matu turn from the stove brandishing a wooden spoon in the air and loudly saying, “Arcady?” “Oh, no, no, no,” Mamaw said. “Maybe Sand Hill?” “Red Cloud?” “Dublin?” “Florence?” And then they went on about their preparations periodically announcing from the refrigerator or the stove or the pantry the names of farfetched towns and cities and even small communities as if we were on a train passing through some nightmare version of geography. I can look across that table right now and see Molly looking at me and crossing her eyes, a talent that I myself lacked.

Even if we acted as if Matu and Mamaw were ancient and frazzle-minded, we too were concerned with where Rusty came from. Lying encased in blankets and quilts in our twin beds—it was winter when Rusty came into our lives and summer when he departed—Molly and I speculated that Rusty came from some island or prairie-like reserve of men, for we knew that men did things in groups. We argued about whether these men lived in houses, or tents, or caves, or just perpetually rode around on horses in all kinds of weather. We firmly agreed, though, that only men lived there, for part of Rusty’s charm was that he was unlike anyone we knew. For one thing, he always acted as if he were an honored guest who was pretending to be humble. He went just a bit too far in his displays of humanness—for example, insisting on helping wash the dishes and then lingeringly and extravagantly rolling up his starched sleeves and smiling at us all with his precise white teeth.

There was something predatory about him, as if he might smile at us all and then eat us all up. That was the thing about him that was just thrilling. Molly and I always eagerly anticipated his visits, for we loved danger as only protected children can. We loved all moments in life in which something wild and untoward was going on but no adult would or could comment on it. And it’s hard for me to explain, but such moments always had a particular kind of smell, faint but definite, like milk when it’s just on the verge of going sour. When Rusty was at our house, it felt as if some excessively well-mannered wild animal had suddenly been allowed to sit at the table with us, although I suppose he seemed exotic just because he was a man who, no matter how much time we spent with him, was a strange man (but clearly not The Strange Man).

11

Deena Draws the Line

One day Matu, ferrying us about in the station wagon—took advantage of a momentary lull in our various to’s and fro’s to drive to Deena’s house to get the sewing machine she had lent Deena. We had already heard Matu’s impassioned mutterings about Deena’s thoughtlessness and so forth. Matu rehashed all this aloud as we drove along. When Matu talked to herself like that, we settled down. Actually, it frightened us, made whatever might happen next seem uncertain—there was more than one occasion on which I felt great relief when I was finally dropped off for a piano lesson or swimming school. At any rate, Matu was so involved in enumerating Deena’s vices when she pulled up to Deena’s house that she didn’t immediately see what we saw: Deena standing at her gate looking back toward her house, toward a screaming white line that ran all the way up the walkway and up the front stairs and into the house. She had a paintbrush in one hand and a bucket of paint in the other.

Right there at the gate, Matu and Deena began one of those intense buzzing grown up conversations, so intense that they didn’t notice us getting out of the car and following the line up the walkway and into the house. Well, Deena did look up once– when Adela was tapping at the line with her toe–and sharply said “Don’t step on the paint.” It was a very hot day—now that I think of it, we had our bathing suits on, must have been on our way to swimming lessons—but it was cool in the breezeway that ran down the center of the house. “What is it?’ Adela said. Molly snorted with irritation and said, “Silly! You can see it’s a line.” “But what is it for?” I said. “Maybe it’s art,” Adela said. We walked the length of it toward the back of the house, and then it seemed as normal as anything else in our world. We went out in the backyard to find Rusty’s dog, Pete, who was tethered to a clothesline and very happy to see us.

Despite the many times I tried to send my ears into rooms where adult discussions—many discussions—were going on, I couldn’t find out exactly what was going on with that line. Matu complained, as Rusty apparently did, that the line was “scandalous,” that it could be seen from the street and that anyone who “dropped by” could see that it ran the length of the house: “What will people think!” Of course, I wasn’t very interested in what “people” thought—I wanted to know what Deena was thinking. That line clearly took some time, required some deliberation and planning. It was perfectly straight and had clean edges. She must have been thinking all that time. Or maybe she had already done all her thinking and the line was the end of thinking, a kind of attenuated punctuation mark. Deena was not the kind of person to nurse resentments or allow wounds to fester. She would say or do, and then it was done. She didn’t have to paint it all the way out to the street, of course, to say something with it to Rusty, who apparently didn’t like whatever it said and disappeared from our lives rather abruptly.

Later in life, I was to think often of that white line Deena painted down the middle of her house. I appreciated then, as I had not as a child, the eloquence and restraint of it, the way it probably wasn’t really open to a whole lot of interpretation. I thought regretfully and sadly of my own marriage. Aunt Deena would never have let things with a man get to that point.

12

My First Friend

When I entered public school, I became a public loner—that kid at the edge of the playground studying her shoes or walking back and forth on the periphery as if in some invisible cage. The first friend I ever made on my own was Ouida St. John. We were in the same mathematics class and shared the distinction of being the only students in the class who had barely a rudimentary clue about the subject matter no matter how hard we worked on our homework. Somehow we migrated—perhaps the teacher migrated us—to the back of the room, and as long as we were quiet there, the teacher, who had openly given up on us, let us do as we pleased. So we passed notes—Ouida’s were almost impossible to decipher—or, when other students were engaged in noisy math games, we chatted without fear of getting black marks for conduct.

Ouida was the most fascinating person I had ever seen. She had red hair that was so thick that it was often matted—now that I think about it, she looked like an uncoifed and otherwise unkempt Little Orphan Annie. She had large eyes that were the color green that you sometimes see in opals. She lived on the Gold Coast, an isolated and impoverished area of town near the river—when we had to drive through the Gold Coast, Matu always made us check to see if our doors were locked. And if that wasn’t enough to make her an impressive character, for I thought of her as living a kind of frontier life, I learned also that her mother did not make her bathe every day and brushed her hair for exactly two minutes and then stopped whether it was tangled or lopsided or not. But what made her most impressive was that her father had once seen the devil in the family bathroom.

Ouida was rather blasé about the devil, but she was afraid of all domestic animals, especially dogs, and thus extremely impressed that I had a dog named Wolf. I could have told her that Wolf was so extremely gentle and good-natured and smart that he had practically been my nanny, and since he was very old in dog years by then, he didn’t even get around very well anymore. However, I was desirous of impressing Ouida, and in my first foray into outright lying, I told her that Wolf had killed my parents when I was a baby and had raised me in the woods until I was five years old and a band of gypsies found me and took me to Matu to raise.

I didn’t want to let on that her father’s sighting of the devil was extremely thrillingly scary to me, so I stretched out my questions about the event, nonchalantly asking how tall the devil was (about three feet), what color he was (the color of cooked crab), and how he behaved (he just stood there and shimmied). I suppose that she was doing the same thing, for her questions about my life with Wolf always cropped up a bit too casually. At any rate, I wanted to keep close to Ouida in case the devil showed up again and had something to say this time. After pestering Matu about it for weeks, I was allowed—probably because Matu was distracted–to invite Ouida home with me after school.

As we gangled up the walkway to the house, Matu stepped out to greet us and looked as if she had been slapped. But Matu could regain her composure more quickly than most and smiled at Ouida and welcomed her. Quida was careless and managed to knock several things over within a few minutes of entering the house. She took one look at Wolf and screamed bloody murder, which sent Wolf up to my room where I later found him under the bed. When Matu gave us a snack at the kitchen table, Ouida chewed with her mouth open, smacked her food, and wiped her mouth with her forearm. Later she reared back and let out a long, multifaceted belch followed by a sigh of satisfaction.

These things—which only added to her mystique and my admiration—must have driven Matu wild. I noticed that when Matu was leaving us to our “tea” she raised her hands head high, palms inward and slightly shook them. I had no idea what that might signify, though I was to learn what it signified thoroughly and at length later that evening.

When we drove Ouida home, I could probably have heard Matu grinding her teeth if I had not been sitting in the backseat so thoroughly engaged in a discussion with Ouida about the offspring of humans who had mated with bears and foxes and the recent abduction by aliens of one of her neighbors. (Ouida was a regular font of things such as these). As we drove up a narrow muddy potholed road to her house, her mother stepped out onto the sagging porch, and while I saw a glamorous exotic woman, Matu, I’m sure, saw a disheveled painted whore.

Ouida got out of the car with her heavy book bag and her mother shouted, “Where the fuck have you been you little bitch?!” I was so unaccustomed to hearing such language that I leaned up toward Matu and asked, “Is she talking in French?” But even as the question left my lips, I didn’t need to know the words to understand their attitude and intent, and I was gripped with fear that Ouida’s mother might hit her or knock her down. She didn’t (although, Ouida reported to me, she did both several times later). Instead she walked up to the car, grinning with a big fuchsia-pink mouth and gray teeth and said to Matu, “Why, Miz Ridley, I didn’t know my girl’s with you. I worry so when she’s not home to do her chores.” Matu muttered something—I thought perhaps she was speaking in French—and the woman nodded and headed back to where Ouida was waving from the porch, and we slowly pulled away.

When we got onto the main road, Matu began to drive much faster than I had ever seen her drive before. She was also in a rare state for her: speechlessness. I wondered how, if Ouida in fact had not told her mother where she would be, her mother knew Matu’s name.

Matu and I had several rounds about whether I could go to Ouida’s house or Ouida could return to mine. Nothing she could say about Ouida’s parents or where Ouida lived could impeach the character of my friend in my eyes. And Matu didn’t have the high moral ground on this one either. She was caught between her notions of social hierarchy and propriety and “breeding”– after all, the laudatory phrase “well bred” carries with it the notion that the only excuse for bad manners and bad thoughts is congenital defect–and her ostensible belief in the things we were taught about social equality in church, where we were told that Jesus loves the little children of the world red and yellow black and white, and in school, where we learned that all men are created equal. Matu couldn’t quite find a way to reconcile these things to my satisfaction, and I was as stubborn as she was, though not yet as practiced at it.

What could Matu do? If she thwarted our friendship, she would have to defend her actions in ways that directly conflicted with the moral standards she proclaimed to adhere to. If she allowed our friendship to develop in its own way, Ouida and I might tire of each other as we grew and changed, but Matu would have thought that improbable. She knew that my affections were true and strong and all the stronger for being seldom bestowed. No, she would have thought it most probable that Ouida would be more and more in our lives—birthdays, holidays, perhaps even vacations—and that it would then become her duty to teach Ouida proper manners and so forth and thus, in effect, by letting me be friends with Ouida, she would have yet another child to raise.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter, although conflicts of this nature would repeatedly rise up as the years passed. Matu was freed from whatever quandary she was caught in when Ouida’s mother was found stabbed in a motel and Ouida was whisked off by a distant relative to live in another state. Naturally, Ouida’s state of orphanhood made her dearer to me. I attempted–through a kind of conversational sidling—to plant the idea of adopting Ouida in Matu’s mind. I think it was the first time Matu ever held up her index finger and said “Don’t” in a voice so arresting and fascinating that I tried to elicit it at carefully timed intervals thereafter. Ouida and I actually exchanged letters a few times. I treasured every belabored and smudged letter, and have them still. Ultimately, my fascination with Ouida could not withstand distance—particularly distance from the possibility of visiting her home and seeing first-hand the site of the sighting of Satan. Nonetheless, from time to time I think of Ouida with fondness, and, I suppose, a kind of love. Wherever she is now, I hope she knows I was her true and loyal friend.

. . .

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