by Lori Jakiela
I get takeout from The Super Happy Panda Buffet on Wednesdays between classes. The Super Happy Panda Buffet is a grease pit, but it has a decent Szechuan tofu and vegetables. The shrimp fried rice comes, inexplicably, with raisins. The lunch combo is five dollars.
At the Super Happy takeout window, a giant red-and-white cat raises its good-luck prosperity paw. The cat is a Maneki Neko, my friend Kai told me once. Kai is from Taiwan. Now he runs a car repair shop near my old neighborhood in Queens, NY. There’s a huge cat just like this one over the counter in his shop, too.
The cat’s actually a Japanese tradition. “Whatever,” Kai said. “Everything Japanese was first Chinese. Luck is luck.”
The Super Happy Buffet cat is electric. Its arm moves up and down. The paw opens and closes. Hello. Goodbye. Its eyes blink and roll. The coin around the Maneki Neko’s neck sparkles like real gold.
“I like your cat,” I say today to the boy who hands me my order, but he’s already moved on to the person behind me.
I eat in my car between classes and brush rice and soy sauce off the seats. Today, when I crack open my fortune, it reads, “Life is unpredictable. Enjoy the ride.” Which sounds like my mother, who speaks in fortune-cookie clichés and mixes her metaphors the way bartenders mix drinks.
“Don’t put all your chickens in one basket,” she says. “Don’t count the eggs before they’re hatched.”
“Sorry honey. I can’t,” my mother says when I call from my office to see if she wants to go out for dinner. “I have to pack.”
“You have to what?” I say.
I haven’t been listening. I’ve been flipping through student essays I’ve avoided for weeks. Most of them are about dead grandmothers or dogs. The one in front of me is written in the voice of a dog. The dog is angry. He peed on the living room rug. He has regrets, but mostly he feels justified.
“Why do you beet me, with the newspaper?” the dog wants to know. “Does my tale not wag, in joy? Does my bark not pleas?”
The dog is not a strong speller. He has problems with homonyms and comma splices. He’s read too much Shakespeare.
“Thelma and me,” my mother is saying. “We’re going to Atlantic City tomorrow. Didn’t I tell you?”
She didn’t tell me, but lately my mother who’s ill, who I’ve moved home to care for, who I thought needed me, has been making a lot of plans.
“You’re on your own tomorrow,” she’ll say. “Thelma and I are hitting the yard sales.”
“I have to get to bed early,” she’ll say. “Pep and I are going for brunch.”
My mother’s friends all have perky one-syllable names. Dot, Pat, Pep, Flo, Barb, Toots. This seems odd, since their favorite shared pastime is scanning the obits and posting death notices on their refrigerators.
“This is just what happens when you get old,” my mother says as she tucks another obit under a magnet. “It’s like checking the weather.”
Considering the obituaries, I should be happy when my mother’s focus turns to yard sales, brunch, get-togethers. I should be happy she’s getting on with things.
“You should get more rest,” I say.
“Do you think you’re o.k. to be driving at dusk?” I say.
“Do not get the fettuccini Alfredo,” I say. “Anything but that.”
And now this.
Atlantic City is 350 miles away. Six hours by car.
“Do you mean one of those overnight deals?” I say, and picture my mother on the road, her suitcase full of pills.
“No,” she says. “Five days.”
Aunt Thelma got a last-minute deal on a senior citizen bus trip. The package includes bus fare, a boardwalk motel, a baggie of casino chips, coupons for free hot dogs and shrimp cocktails, one buffet dinner, multiple free drinks, and one Vegas-style show.
Now I picture my mother pumping quarters in the slots. Her arm is automated like the Super Happy Buffet cat’s. Her heart blinking. Smoke-filled casinos. Bells, whistles. Showgirls in ostrich feathers. Trays overflowing with whiskey sours and cheesy puffs.
“Don’t you think that’s a little much?” I say.
“It’s too good to pass up,” my mother says. She sounds breathy, staccato, and for a minute I suspect she’s smoking again, sneaking her old Kool menthols, filling the kitchen with smoke rings, then airing the house before I get home.
“Besides,” she says. “Your father and I used to do these trips all the time. You know how much he loved Atlantic City. We used to walk the boardwalk and hold hands. You know your father. He loved to hold hands.”
I try not to correct my mother when, out of nostalgia or grief or loneliness, she makes her marriage seem like a 1950s TV show.
“Oh your father,” she says, exhaling. “He was so romantic.”
My father had tender moments, but he wasn’t romantic. He was jealous. My mother had always been beautiful, with 1940s movie-star curves, and she attracted attention. In our town alone, both I and my father suspected the tax man, the shoemaker, one pharmacist and several neighbors had, for years, been in love with her. This was the reason for my father’s handholding: to make sure my mother could never get too far away. He loved to hold hands, especially in public to show everyone she belonged to him.
It didn’t get better as they got older. Once, when my mother was in her early sixties and my father was close to seventy, a trainer from my mother’s cardiac rehab center sent a card. My mother had been feeling bad about her progress. The trainer was kind, twenty-something, a college student whose taste in gym wear leaned toward purple spandex. The card had an inspirational message from Helen Steiner Rice. It was covered in bluebirds. When the trainer signed it, he added his phone number.
“What the hell is this?” my father said. “What kind of monkey business is this bastard trying to pull?”
My father waved the card in my mother’s face. Then he tore it to pieces. Then he pieced it back together with masking tape. When he could make out the number, my father picked up the phone.
“If you ever so much as look at my wife,” my father said. “I’ll kick your ass into next Tuesday. Are we clear, sicko?”
Then he slammed the phone down and threw the card in the trash. He must have fished it out later because, after he died, I found it hidden in his underwear drawer.
But these days, my mother wants to remember boardwalk strolls, moonlight and romance.
“Overnight would be fine,” I say. “You could go down, play some slots, walk the boardwalk a little, think about dad and come home. But five days?”
“I’ll be fine,” she says. “I’ll be with family. You can go check on that apartment of yours.”
For the record, I’m 35 and live with my mother. I make sure she takes her pills. I watch her breathe while she sleeps. I stay in my childhood bedroom, with its pink shag carpet and sherbet-y pink walls and one decades-old Donald Duck nightlight my mother insists is not a fire hazard.
I am my mother’s caregiver, a role that has given me purpose and direction and allowed me to put off my own life as long as possible.
Still, I do have an apartment. It’s more of a life raft. I store things there. I don’t have any furniture I didn’t have to screw together, which means everything I own is lopsided. In the refrigerator, there’s wine, a dried-out tube of wasabi, some packets of soy sauce and one family-sized jar of mayonnaise.
The last time I’d dropped by the apartment to pick up junk mail, I bumped into my neighbor Simon.
“You’re back,” he said. Simon is about a foot shorter than me. His eyebrows line up with my chest. It’s overkill for him to avoid eye contact. He was avoiding eye contact.
“Remember when you said I should watch things for you?” he said, grinding a toe into the filthy hallway carpeting like he was trying to stub something out. “Well, I borrowed some CDs.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “You can keep them as long as you want.”
“I took a bunch of my CDs to the record store,” he said. “You know, to sell them. And I sort of sold yours, too.”
“I don’t think I’m missing anything at the apartment,” I tell my mother. “I’ll probably just stick around and make sure things are good at the house.”
There’s a pause, silence. “I’d rather you didn’t,” she finally says.
A tiny spider scurries out from around the pile of papers. I grab a stapler and whack it flat on the dog essay. The spider’s a smudge, an ink blot.
“What’s that?” I say to my mother.
“I’m going to be gone, so there’s no point in you staying here,” my mother says, and what she means is: I’m not welcome.
Until my mother got sick, I never had keys to my parents’ house. Even as a young child, I always asked before I went into the refrigerator. I kept my voice down, my towels folded and squared off. I hadn’t thought about this much before this moment.
I’ve been, for all my life, my mother’s houseguest. A visitor. A welcome visitor and, at times like this one, a necessary visitor, but always that.
“You have your own things to worry about,” my mother is saying. “You need your space.”
What she’s talking about, I don’t know.
“In Japanese, you say bai bai, like in English. In Chinese, you say zai jian,” my friend Kai said. “It means ‘see again.’ Or not.”
When I take my mother to the bus station the next morning, she’s giddy. She’s wearing pink lipstick and a purple velour tracksuit. The tracksuit has sequined roses across the chest and back. She looks like a country music star. The roses glint in the sun. The velour picks up everything. My mother is running a piece of masking tape over her clothes, gathering it up into a sticky ball of dandruff, hair and fuzz.
“It’s important to look nice,” she says. “Some people don’t care how they look. Some people would show up in their underwear if they thought they could get away with it.”
I’m in one of my dozen black turtlenecks. My jeans are ripped, wrinkled. I’m not wearing makeup and my hair is frizzed. I look how I feel – tired, disoriented, defeated, a caregiver who’s losing her patient to the land of craps and slots, a woman beyond the possibility of love and its long highways, a woman who looks in the mirror and thinks, what’s the point? The kind of woman who, within a few years, will get a lot of cats, and I’m allergic to cats.
“You should wear more color,” my mother says, though she’s not really looking at me. She’s working the tape down each leg now, a sound like tearing. “You look washed out. People will think you’re not taking care of yourself. They’ll think you’re depressed.”
She hands me the wad of tape and moves toward the bus. I follow behind with her carry-on, an avocado green train case that as a child I thought glamorous. It looks like treasure, the kind of case movie stars keep their makeup in. It has gathered silk pouches, a secret jewelry compartment, and an oval mirror on the inside of the lid.
My mother has packed her medicine, makeup, a clean shirt in case of spills, and several rolls of quarters and nickels so she won’t have to wait in line for slot-machine change. It’s a trick she learned from my father, who used to carry his slots-change around in a tubesock.
All the change has made the case heavy. I follow my mother on board and store the case in a luggage compartment up front behind the driver.
“Make sure you get help with this,” I say.
“No way,” my mother says, curling her finger into a hook. “I need that with me. Bring it here. These people steal.”
I look around the bus. It’s half full, all senior citizens who, despite their tennis shoes, couldn’t run fast enough to steal anything. One woman near the front is trying to read a pill bottle. A man, her husband maybe, is stretched out in the seat opposite. His post-cataract-surgery sunglasses are black and thick and big enough to blind a horse. The bus driver looks in his rear view mirror and frowns. I mouth sorry. Then I pick the case up and carry it back a few more rows to where Aunt Thelma is already sitting.
Aunt Thelma is wearing a velour tracksuit, too. Hers is black, practical, sequin free. Her lipstick is red. It’s bled onto her teeth and into the tiny lines around her mouth. I suspect Aunt Thelma was here before the bus was. “To make sure we got a seat,” she’d say.
My mother points and I put the case under a seat in front of Thelma, who’s already doling out complimentary coupons, looking smug and in charge.
“Have a great trip,” I say to everyone. To my mother, I say, quieter, “Take it easy, okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” she says, pounding the vinyl seat like she could soften it up. “After all, I have angels on my shoulder.”
My mother with her drama and clichés. At first I think she’s being metaphorical, a walking fortune cookie. I think she’s talking about my father, maybe, or even about my grandmother. My grandmother was a good gambler. She could scan dozens of bingo cards in seconds. She played with the intensity of an air traffic controller. My father had terrible luck, but maybe the afterlife has given him an edge. Whatever it is, I think my mother means she’s getting help from the other side.
Then she stops pounding the seat, looks up and giggles. She points proudly to her right shoulder. It glints more than the rest of her outfit, and I see the angels are literal. They’re piled up, an infestation, like ladybugs.
For weeks, my mother’s been collecting these angel stick pins. They are popular at grocery and card-store checkout counters. The angels come with inspirational messages like “Your friendship lifts me up on angels’ wings,” and “You’re the angel of my morning,” and “Here’s your very own angel to help you through.”
All my mother’s sad, monosyllabic friends collect these angels, too. They send them to each other as gifts. A basket in my mother’s makeup drawer is full of them. There are little metal angels and some ceramic ones with red cheeks and lips. There are angel pins that double as magnets. Some of these now hold up all the obituaries and bad laminated poems on my mother’s refrigerator. There are angels attached to the pull strings on all her lamps. She’s stuck angels on her shower curtain and on the lapels of her coats. There is an angel prayer card glued to the car dashboard and angels huddle like barflies on the sun visors.
“Someone’s looking out for me,” my mother says, glancing out the window now, already moving away from me, free and on the road. “Don’t worry.”
I look at my mother, the gaggle of angels on her shoulder, the line between superstition and belief, between symbols and real meaning, between what we can control and what we can’t.
My father held onto my mother’s hand because he was afraid to lose her.
She lost him instead.
He never thought about that.
The summer I was six, my father tossed me in the deep end of the pool at the Wilmerding YMCA. Six years later, he took me to see “Jaws.”
“I thought she’d bob up, like an apple,” he said about the first incident.
“Christ it’s only a movie,” he said about the second. “That shark didn’t even look real.”
Now I doggy-paddle like a pit bull. I breaststroke like a frog in mud. I’ve read Peter Benchley’s novels and every National Geographic story on ocean predators. I do not miss Shark Week. I am a fan of all the Cousteaus. I am knowledgeable about drowning. I am knowledgeable about sharks. Which means I’m terrified.
I never had to worry much about a real shark encounter, though, because on all of our annual vacations to Florida, we rarely made it to the beach. My mother hated, still hates the beach.
“All that sand,” she says. “It gets in everything and you can’t get it out.”
“Seagulls,” she says, shuddering, “Filthy birds.”
“And those people,” she says, “with their asses hanging out. They need their heads examined.”
And so we spent most of our vacation time at theme parks and buffets. And we were all okay with that. But then “Jaws” came out, and a few months after I’d seen Quint swallowed whole, when were peaceably holed up at the Days Inn pool in Fort Myers — my mother in her green bikini with the lace-up top, my father in his plaid swim trunks, me lolling around the shallow end on the back of a raft shaped like an alligator — my father, who believed fear kept people safe, decided to test things.
“Let’s hit the ocean,” he said, and he was smirking.
“You know I hate sand,” my mother said, her face hidden under a floppy beach hat and white cat’s eye glasses. My father held her hand. He bent down and lit his cigarette off her own. My father smoked unfiltered Pall Malls. My mother smoked Kools menthols. This, I thought as a child and still think now, said a lot about them.
My father, in his sweetest voice, said, “Just this once. The kid should see the beach.”
“I’m o.k. How about ice cream?” I said and held my grinning alligator raft tight around the neck. “How about the zoo?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” my mother said, and I wasn’t sure whether she was talking to my father or me.
My mother leaned back and blew smoke rings. They floated off, a stream of tiny life preservers.
“Come on, princess,” my father said. “Be a sport. This will be fun.”
At the beach, I dug my toes into the sand and scanned the waves.
“What the hell?” my father said when he saw me far from the water, digging a moat around my beach towel. “You’re not even going to dip a toe in?”
I could tell he was happy.
My mother, reconciled to the sand-filled hour we’d have to spend being dive-bombed by seagulls, figured she’d show me. She took off her beach hat. She pulled on her bathing cap – a pink rubber number with wriggling daisies.
She looked like a mental patient in a water ballet.
She looked like a woman with a puffer fish on her head.
“Don’t be a chicken,” she said. She tucked her arms into wings and did knee bends. She strutted and cawed out into the water.
I was about to tell her not to splash, that sharks love warm and waist-deep water, that Florida was the shark-attack capital of the world. That Florida was where things happened.
And then something happened.
There was a fin. It was large and black and came within a foot of my mother. Then it went back under.
My mother shook her daisy head.
“Chicken,” she yelled. “Chicken of the sea!”
The fin came up. The lifeguard adjusted her cleavage. My father fiddled with his transistor radio. The fin splashed down and came up again, followed by a fat man in snorkeling gear. In his right hand, there was a net full of crabs. He flopped from the water like a giant bean bag. His flippers were black and shiny fins.
“We’re having seafood tonight,” he yelled to his wife, who waved back.
By then I was sobbing.
“I thought you were dead,” I told my mother.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “We’re on vacation.”
As a native Pittsburgher, Lori Jakiela (rhymes with tequila) has a weakness for gigantic deep-fried fish sandwiches, thinks slippy is a real word, and sometimes drinks Iron City Beer for sentimental reasons. Miss New York Has Everything (Warner Books) was published in January 2006. Jakiela’s essays and poems have appeared in DoubleTake, River Styx, Creative Nonfiction, The Pittsburgh Post Gazette, The Chicago Review, 5 AM, Nerve Cowboy, Tears in the Fence, Chiron Review, Slipstream, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, The Regulars — a collection of poems and essays — was published by Liquid Paper Press (See Links) and was awarded first prize in Nerve Cowboy’s 2001 chapbook contest.