Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Survivor's Story

I remember my parents pulling up to the drive-through window of this state line bar, it was the last day of our vacation and we were on that endless drive home, forty miles left to go.  They bought a six pack and then sat in the parking lot drinking beer and smoking cigarettes while we whined in the backseat about the heat, the drive, the smoke, our siblings' encroachment on our space.  They drank two beers each and then they started the car and drove the remaining bone weary miles home.  It was the 70's and our parents remained doggedly uninterested about the effects of  drinking and driving and second-hand smoke. 

I always wondered about the why of those beers in that hot dusty parking lot. Why didn't they just keep driving and wait until they were in the swamp cooler comfort of our own home?  My best guess is that my parents were bidding a last sad farewell to the carefree, careless days of vacation, or maybe they were drowning their sorrows of leaving the cool, verdant mountains for the vast stretch of nothingness in which we lived.  They needed that one last taste of sky blue waters.

I rarely remember my parents going to a bar or beer joint in our hometown, there were the random and sparse evenings out with friends and maybe an occasional Friday night at the VFW, but, by no means, would Mom and Dad be considered regulars at any of the local watering holes.

But vacations were different.  Every day when the heat descended and the fish quit biting the Hickey clan loaded into "Old Blue", our station wagon, and headed to town where Mom and Dad would settle into a duct tape scarred vinyl booth at a local beer joint and us kids would hit the nearest general stores with our sweaty, stink bait scented dollar bills burning holes in our jean shorts.

Eventually, money spent, we slunk back into the beer joint and threw ourselves, one by one, into the booth and commenced pouting the appropriate amount of time required to drive our parents to the desperation of throwing coins at us for the pool table or pinball machine.  They gladly paid the ransom for just a few more minutes of dark, smoky respite from the endless tangle of kids and fishing lines that defined our family vacations.

Scarred floors.  Barmaids with terrifying hairdos and sassy mouths.  Sitting at the bar with my ice cold bottle of Dr. Pepper.  Spinning bar stools. A painted lady on the floor at Joe's Place in Cimmaron, New Mexico.  A creepy  two-headed calf with beady wall-eye stares in some nameless bar in Red River.

My parents kicked back in a booth, laughing over cold beers and a smoldering ashtray.  My mom with a bandanna in her hair and rolled up jeans.  So young.

I treasure those memories, they are as much a part of me as blonde hair, green eyes and my inbred, deservingly under appreciated, Hickey sardonic drollness.

I miss those places.  I can't but help miss them.

 But miss them is all I can do.

When I rolled by that bar on my own last stretch of vacation a few days ago, I felt a rueful melancholy smile lift the corner of my mouth.  I had a kid stretched out in my backseat asleep, my grandchild, and I would no more think of pulling into that parking lot and drinking beers than driving on home...not lately, any way.

I drove those remaining empty miles to my hometown to drop the grandkid off and to spend the night with my oldest son.  Later that afternoon I headed to Walmart to restock my supply of Diet Pepsi.  As I was pulling two liters off the shelf by the gross, an older woman turned her cart into the aisle.  We glanced at each other and then took longer looks.

"Mary Kay, isn't it?" she asked.

For my whole life I have been running into this woman and she always calls me by my "baby" name and she always says the same thing.

"I remember when we lived across the street from your parents.  Your mom and I were both pregnant with you girls.  Such good times."

I nodded.  I've heard it so many times before but I never tire of hearing it.  We exchanged the usual.
"Where is ?"
"How is ?"
"Can you believe how this town has changed? And not for the better."

Skirting, skirting, skirting.


"We lost Jolene, you know?" she asks.

I nod.  I did know.

"She drank a lot."

I nod again.

"I did too.  For a long time," I say.  It is the only meager comfort I can offer, my clumsy attempt to tell her she wasn't the only mother who lost a daughter. It wasn't her fault.

She patted me on the shoulder.

"It happens."