On Wednesday morning,I woke up with a stuffy nose to an entirely new Alabama, a crisp and cold one. As I walked to Alaska’s room that morning, the frosty grass of the dorm circle crunched beneath my shoes. You don’t run into frost much in Florida — and I jumped up and down like I was stomping on bubble wrap. Crunch. Crunch.
Alaska was holding a burning green candle in her hand upside down, dripping the wax onto a larger, homemade volcano that looked a bit like a Technicolor middle-school-science-project volcano.
“Don’t burn yourself,” I said as the flame crept up toward her hand.
“Night falls fast. Today is in the past,” she said without looking up.
“Wait, I’ve read that before. What is that?” I asked.
With her free hand, she grabbed a book and tossed it toward me. It landed at my feet. “Poem,” she said. “Edna St.
Vincent Millay. You’ve read that? I’m stunned.”
“Oh, I read her biography! Didn’t have her last words in it, though. I was a little bitter. All I remember is that she had a lot of sex.”
“I know. She’s my hero,” Alaska said without a trace of irony. I laughed, but she didn’t notice. “Does it seem at all odd to you that you enjoy biographies of great writers a lot more than you enjoy their actual writing?”
“Nope!” I announced. “Just because they were interesting people doesn’t mean I care to hear their musings on nighttime.”
“It’s about depression, dumb-ass.”
“Oooooh, really? Well, jeez, then it’s brilliant,” I answered.
She sighed. “All right. The snow may be falling in the winter of my discontent, but at least I’ve got sarcastic company. Sit down, will ya?”
I sat down next to her with my legs crossed and our knees touching. She pulled a clear plastic crate filled with dozens of candles out from underneath her bed. She looked at it for a moment, then handed me a white one and a lighter.
We spent all morning burning candles — well, and occasionally lighting cigarettes off the burning candles after we stuffed a towel into the crack at the bottom of her door. Over the course of two hours, we added a full foot to the summit of her polychrome candle volcano.
“Mount St. Helens on acid,” she said At 12:30, after two hours of me begging for a ride to McDonald’s, Alaska decided it was time for lunch. As we began to walk to the student parking lot, I saw a strange car. A small green car. A hatchback. I’ve seen that car, I thought. Where have I seen the car? And then the Colonel jumped out and ran to meet us.
Rather than, like, I don’t know, “hello” or something, the Colonel began, “I have been instructed to invite you to Thanksgiving dinner at Chez Martin.”
Alaska whispered into my ear, and then I laughed and said, “I have been instructed to accept your invitation.” So we walked over to the Eagle’s house, told him we were going to eat turkey trailer-park style, and sped away in the hatchback.
The Colonel explained it to us on the two-hour car ride south. I was crammed into the backseat because Alaska had called shotgun. She usually drove, but when she didn’t, she was shotgun-calling queen of the world. The Colonel’s mother heard that we were on campus and couldn’t bear the thought of leaving us family less for Thanksgiving. The Colonel didn’t seem too keen on the whole idea—”I’m going to have to sleep in a tent,” he said, and I laughed.
Except it turns out he did have to sleep in a tent, a nice four-person green outfit shaped like half an egg, but still a tent. The Colonel’s mom lived in a trailer, as in the kind of thing you might see attached to a large pickup truck, except this particular one was old and falling apart on its cinder blocks, and probably couldn’t have been hooked up to a truck without disintegrating. It wasn’t even a particularly big trailer. I could just barely stand up to my full height without scraping the ceiling. Now I understood why the Colonel was short — he couldn’t afford to be any taller. The place was really one long room, with a full-size bed in the front, a kitchenette, and a living area in the back with a TV and a small bathroom — so small that in order to take a shower, you pretty much had to sit on the toilet.
“It ain’t much,” the Colonel’s mom (“That’s Dolores, not Miss Martin”) told us. “But y’alls a-gonna have a turkey the size o’ the kitchen.” She laughed. The Colonel ushered us out of the trailer immediately after our brief tour, and we walked through the neighborhood, a series of trailers and mobile homes on dirt roads.
“Well, now you get why I hate rich people.” And I did. I couldn’t fathom how the Colonel grew up in such a small place. The entire trailer was smaller than our dorm room. I didn’t know what to say to him, how to make him feel less embarrassed.
“I’m sorry if it makes you uncomfortable,” he said. “I know it’s probably foreign.”
“Not to me,” Alaska piped up.
“Well, you don’t live in a trailer,” he told her.
“Poor is poor.”
“I suppose,” the Colonel said.
Alaska decided to go help Dolores with dinner. She said that it was sexist to leave the cooking to the women, but better to have good sexist food than crappy boy-prepared food. So the Colonel and I sat on the pull-out couch in the living room, playing video games and talking about school.
“I finished my religion paper. But I have to type it up on your computer when we get back. I think I’m ready for finals, which is good, since we have an ank-pray to an-play.”
“Your mom doesn’t know pig Latin?” I smirked.
“Not if I talk fast. Christ, be quiet.”
The food — fried okra, steamed corn on the cob, and pot roast that was so tender it fell right off the plastic fork — convinced me that Dolores was an even better cook than Maureen. Culver Creek’s okra had less grease, more crunch. Dolores was also the funniest mom I’d ever met. When Alaska asked her what she did for work, she smiled and said, “I’m a culnary engineeyer. That’s a short-order cook at the Waffle House to y’all.”
“Best Waffle House in Alabama.” The Colonel smiled, and then I realized, he wasn’t embarrassed of his mom at all. He was just scared that we would act like condescending boarding-school snobs. I’d always found the Colonel’s I-hate-the-rich routine a little overwrought until I saw him with his mom. He was the same Colonel, but in a totally different context. It made me hope that one day, I could meet Alaska’s family, too.
Dolores insisted that Alaska and I share the bed, and she slept on the pull-out while the Colonel was out in his tent. I worried he would get cold, but frankly I wasn’t about to give up my bed with Alaska. We had separate blankets, and there were never fewer than three layers between us, but the possibilities kept me up half the night.