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I have always hated flying. The idea of it is an affront to nature. People are meant to stay on the ground.
I put down the classifieds and glanced at Carrington, who was sitting in her high chair and feeding long strands of spaghetti into her mouth. Most of her hair was fastened into a sprig of hair at the top of her head and clipped with a big red bow. She was dressed in her diapers and nothing else. We had discovered that cleanup after dinner was a lot easier if she ate topless.
Carrington regarded me solemnly, with a big orange smear of spaghetti sauce across her mouth and chin.
“How would you like to relocate to Oregon?” I asked her.
Her small round face split into a grin, displaying a set of widely spaced white teeth. “Okeydokey.”
It was her latest favorite phrase, the other being “No way.”
“You could stay in day care,” I continued, “while I go up in a plane and serve little bottles of Jack Daniel’s to cranky businessmen. How does that sound?”
I watched Carrington meticulously pick out a shred of cooked carrot that I had sneaked into her spaghetti sauce. After divesting the strand of pasta of as much nutritional value as possible, she put the end in her mouth and sucked it up.
“Quit picking off those vegetables,” I told her, “or I’ll make you some broccoli.”
“No way,” she said, her mouth full of spaghetti, and I laughed.
I pored over the notes I had made on the jobs available to a girl with a high school diploma and no work experience. So far it seemed I was qualified to be a Quick-Stop cashier, a sanitation pump driver, a nanny, a cleaning lady for Happy Helpers, or a cat groomer at a pet clinic. They all paid about what I had expected, which was next to nothing. The job I wanted least was to be a nanny, because it meant I would be taking care of someone else’s kids instead of Carrington.
I sat there with my limited options spread around me in the form of newspaper pages. I felt small and powerless, and I didn’t want to get used to that feeling. I needed a job I was going to keep for a while. It wouldn’t be good for me or Carrington if I hopped from place to place. And I suspected there wasn’t going to be much rising through the ranks at a Quick-Stop store.
Seeing that Carrington was depositing her carrot bits onto the newspaper in front of her, I muttered, “Quit doing that, Carrington.” I pulled the paper away and began to crumple it up, and stopped as I saw the orange-speckled ad on the side.
A new career in under a year!
A well-trained beauty technician is always in demand, in good times or bad. Every day millions of people go to their favorite stylists for cuts, coloring, chemical treatments, and other necessary cosmetic services. The knowledge and abilities you acquire at East Houston Academy of Cosmetology will prepare you for a successful career in any aspect of the beauty business you choose. Apply for a place at EHAC, and let your future begin.
Financial aid available to those who qualify.
You often hear the word “job” in a trailer park. At Bluebonnet Ranch, people were always losing jobs, hunting for jobs, avoiding jobs, nagging someone else to get jobs. But no one I knew had ever had a career.
I wanted a cosmetology license so badly I could hardly stand it. There were so many places I could work at, so much I wanted to learn. I thought I had the right temperament to be a hairstylist, and I knew I had the drive. I had everything but money.
There was no point in applying. But I watched my hands as if they belonged to someone else, wiping off the carrots and ripping out the ad.
The director of the academy, Mrs. Maria Vasquez, sat behind a kidney-shaped oak desk in a room with pale aqua walls. Metallic-framed photos of beautiful women were hung at measured intervals. The smell of the studio and workshop rooms drifted into the administrative area, a mixture of hair spray and shampoo, and the tang of perming chemicals. A beauty shop smell. I loved it.
I concealed my surprise at the discovery that the director was Hispanic. She was a slim woman with highlighted hair and angular shoulders, and a stern, strong-boned face.
She explained that the academy had accepted my application, but they had only so many students they could provide with financial aid each semester. If I couldn’t afford to attend the school without a scholarship, then did I want to go on a waiting list and reapply next year?
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, my face gone stiff with disappointment, my smile a thin fracture. I gave myself an instant lecture. A waiting list wasn’t the end of the world. It wasn’t as if I didn’t have a lot to do in the meantime.
Mrs. Vasquez’s eyes were kind. She said she would call me when it was time to fill out a new application, and she hoped to see me again.
On the way back to Bluebonnet Ranch, I tried to envision myself in a green Happy Helpers shirt. Not so bad, I told myself. Organizing and cleaning other people’s houses was always easier than cleaning your own. I would do my best. I would be the hardest-working Happy Helper on the planet.
While I was talking to myself, I didn’t pay attention to where I was going. My mind was so busy, I had taken the long way instead of the shortcut. I was on the road that passed the cemetery. My car slowed and turned onto the cemetery drive, heading past the cemetery office. I parked and wandered among the headstones, a granite and marble garden that seemed to have sprung from the earth.
Mama’s grave was the newest, a spartan mound of raw earth that interrupted the orderly corridors of grass. I stood at the foot of my mother’s grave, somehow needing proof it had really happened. I could hardly believe my mother’s body was down there in that Monet coffin with the matching blue satin pillow and throw. It made me feel claustrophobic. I pulled at the buttoned collar of my blouse, and blotted my damp forehead on my sleeve.
The stirrings of panic faded as I noticed something beside the bronze marker, a liberal splash of yellow. Skirting around the edge of the grave, I went to investigate. It was a bouquet of yellow roses. The flowers were in an inverted bronze holder that had been buried so the top rim was flush with the ground. I had noticed vases like that in the catalog at Mr. Ferguson’s funeral home, but at three hundred and fifty dollars apiece, I hadn’t even considered buying one. As nice as Mr. Ferguson had been, I didn’t think he would have thrown in the expensive addition, especially without having mentioned something.
I pulled one of the yellow roses from the bouquet, and brought it, stem dripping, to my face. The heat of the day had brought it to its strongest essence, and the half-open blossom was spilling out perfume. Many varieties of yellow rose have no scent, but this kind, whatever it was, had an intense, almost pineapple fragrance.
I used my thumbnail to peel off the thorns as I walked to the cemetery office. A middle-aged woman with reddish-brown hair shaped into a helmet was seated behind the welcome desk. I asked her who had put the bronze vase at my mother’s grave, and she said she couldn’t release that information, it was private.
“But it’s my mother,” I said, more bewildered than annoyed. “Can someone just do that?…Put something on someone else’s grave?”
“Are you askin’ if we should take it off?”
“Well, no…” I wanted the bronze vase to stay right where it was. Had I been able to afford one, I would have gotten it myself. “But I do want to know who gave it to her.”
“I can’t tell you that.” After a minute or two of debate, the receptionist allowed she could give me the name of the florist who delivered the roses. It was a Houston shop named Flower Power.
The next couple of days were taken up with going on errands, and filling out the application for Happy Helpers and going for the interview. I didn’t get a chance until later in the week to call the florist. The girl who answered the phone said, “Please hold,” and before I could say anything, I found myself listening to Hank Williams crooning “I Just Don’t Like This Kind of Livin’.”
I sat on the lid of the closed toilet seat, the phone loosely cupped to my ear, and watched Carrington play in her bathwater. She concentrated on pouring water from one plastic Dixie cup to another, and then adding liquid soap and stirring with her finger.
“What are you doing, Carrington?” I asked.
She poured the soap mixture over her tummy and rubbed it. “People polish.”
“Rinse that off—” I began, when the girl’s voice came through the receiver.
“Flower Power, can I help you?”
I explained the situation and asked if she could tell me who had sent the yellow roses to my mother’s grave. As I had expected, she told me she wasn’t authorized to divulge the sender’s name. “It says on my computer there’s a standing order to send the same arrangement to the cemetery every week.”
“What?” I asked faintly. “A dozen yellow roses every week?”
“Yes, that’s what it says.”
“For how long?”
“There’s no stop date. It could go on for a while.”
My jaw dropped like it was on hinges. “And there’s no way you could tell me—”
“No,” the girl said firmly. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“I guess not. I—” Before I could say “thank you” or “goodbye,” there was another ring in the background, and the girl hung up.
I went through a list in my mind of every possible person who would have arranged such a thing.
No one I knew had the money.
The roses had come from Mama’s secret life, the past she had never talked about.
Frowning, I picked up a folded towel and shook it out. “Stand up, Carrington. Time to get out.”
She grumbled and obeyed reluctantly. I lifted her from the tub and dried her, my gaze admiring the dimpled knees and rounded tummy of a healthy toddler. She was perfect in every way, I thought.
It was our game to make a tent out of the towel after Carrington was dry. I pulled it over our heads and we giggled together beneath the damp terry cloth, kissing each other’s noses.
The phone ringing interrupted our play, and I quickly wrapped Carrington in the towel.
I pressed the receiver button. “Hello?”
“This is Maria Vasquez.”
Since she was the last person I had expected to hear from, I was temporarily speechless.
She filled the silence smoothly. “From the Academy of Cosmetology—”
“Yes. Yes, I’m sorry, I…how are you, Mrs. Vasquez?”
“I’m fine, Liberty, thank you. I have some good news for you, if you’re still interested in attending the academy this year?”
“Yes,” I managed to whisper, sudden excitement clutching at my throat.
“It turns out that another place in our scholarship program has just become available for the fall term. I can give you a full financial aid package. If you would like, I can put all your registration materials in the mail, or you can stop by the office to pick them up.”
I shut my eyes tightly, gripping the phone so tightly I was surprised it didn’t crack from the pressure. I felt Carrington’s fingers investigating my face, playing with my eyelashes. “Thank you. Thank you. I’ll come by tomorrow. Thank you.”
I heard the director chuckle. “You’re welcome, Liberty. We’re pleased to have you in our program.”
After I hung up, I hugged Carrington and squealed. “I’m in! I’m in!” She squirmed and shrieked happily, sharing my excitement even though she didn’t understand the reason for it. “I’m going to school, I’m going to be a hairstylist. Not a Happy Helper. I don’t believe it. Oh, baby, we were due for some good luck.”
I didn’t expect it was going to be easy. But hard work is a lot easier to tolerate when it’s something you want to do instead of something you have no choice about.
Rednecks have a saying, “Always skin your own deer.” The deer I had to skin was school. I had never felt as smart as Mama had thought I was, but I figured if I wanted something badly enough, I would find a way to wrap my brain around it.
I’m sure a lot of people think it’s easy going to beauty school, that there isn’t much to it. But there’s a lot to learn before you ever get near a pair of scissors.
The curriculum had descriptions of courses like “Sterilization Bacteriology,” which required lab work and theory courses…“Chemical Rearranging,” which would teach us about the procedures, materials, and implements used for permanents and relaxers…and “Hair Coloring,” which included lessons on anatomy, physiology, chemistry, procedures, special effects, and problem solving. And that was just the beginning. Looking over the booklet, I understood why it would take nine months to get a degree.
I ended up taking the part-time job at the pawnshop, working evenings and weekends and leaving Carrington in day care. Carrington and I lived on next to nothing, surviving on peanut butter and white bread, microwaveable burritos, Oodles of Noodles soup, and discount vegetables and fruit from dented cans. We shopped at consignment stores for clothes and shoes. Since Carrington was under five, we were still eligible for the WIC program, which helped with vaccinations. But we had no health insurance, which meant we couldn’t afford to get sick. I watered down Carrington’s fruit juice and brushed her teeth like a maniac because we couldn’t afford cavities. Every strange new rattle of our car warned of some expensive problem lurking beneath the battered hood. Every utility bill had to be scrutinized, every mysterious extra fee from the phone company had to be questioned.
There is no peace in poverty.
The Reyes family helped a lot, however. They let me bring Carrington to the shop, where she sat in the back with her coloring books and plastic animals and sewing cards while I worked. We were often invited to dinner, and Lucy’s mom always insisted on giving us the leftovers. I adored Mrs. Reyes, who had a Portuguese saying for just about everything, like “Beauty doesn’t feed the pigs.” (Her criticism of Lucy’s handsome but shiftless boyfriend, Matt.)
I didn’t see much of Lucy, who was going to junior college and dating a boy she had met in a botany class. Every now and then Lucy would come into the shop with Matt, and we would talk across the counter for a few minutes before they left to go out to eat. I can’t say I didn’t have a few moments of envy. Lucy had a loving family, a boyfriend, money, a normal life with a good future. Whereas I had no family, I was tired all the time, I had to count every penny, and even if I were looking for a boyfriend, it would have been impossible to attract one while I was pushing a stroller everywhere. Men in their twenties are not turned on by the sight of diaper bags.
But none of that mattered when I was with Carrington. Whenever I picked her up from day care or Miss Marva’s, and she came running toward me with her arms outstretched, life couldn’t have been sweeter. She had begun to acquire words faster than a TV preacher sells blessings, and she and I talked all the time. We still slept together every night, our legs tangled together as Carrington chattered. She would tell me about her day-care friends, and complain about the one whose artwork was “just scribble-scrabble,” and report on who got to be the mother when they played house at recess.
“Your legs are scratchy,” she complained one night. “I like ’em smooth.”
That struck me as funny. I was exhausted, worried about an exam the next day, I had about ten dollars in my checking account, and now I had to deal with a toddler criticizing my grooming habits. “Carrington, one of the benefits of not having a boyfriend is that I can go a few days without shaving my legs.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means deal with it,” I told her.
“Okay.” She snuggled deeper into her pillow. “Liberty?”
“When are you gonna get a boyfriend?”
“I don’t know, baby. It might be a while.”
“Maybe if you shave your legs, you’d get one.”
A huff of laughter escaped me. “Good point. Go to sleep.”
In the winter Carrington had a cold that wouldn’t go away, and it turned into a hacking cough that seemed to rattle her bones. We went through a whole bottle of over-the-counter medicine, but it seemed to have little effect. One night I woke up from what sounded like dog barks, and I realized Carrington’s throat had swollen until she could only breathe in shallow pants. In a terror worse than anything I had ever known, I drove her to the hospital, where they admitted us without insurance.
My sister was diagnosed with croup, and they brought out a plastic mask attached to a nebulizer machine that pumped out medicine in a gray-white mist. Frightened by the noise the machine made, not to mention the mask, Carrington shrank into my lap and cried pitifully. No matter how I reassured her that it wouldn’t hurt, it would make her better, she refused until her body spasmed with coughing.
“Can I put it on?” I asked the RN desperately. “Just to show her it’s okay? Please?”
He shook his head and looked at me as if I were crazy.
I turned my wailing sister around in my lap so we were face-to-face. “Carrington, listen to me. Carrington. It’s just like a game. We’ll pretend you’re an astronaut. Let me put the mask on you for just a minute. You’re an astronaut—what planet do you want to visit?”
“Planet H-h-home,” she sobbed.
After another few minutes of her crying and my insisting, we played Carrington-the-space-explorer until the RN was satisfied that she had inhaled enough of the Vaponefrin.
I carried my sister back out to the car in the cold dark of midnight. By then she had exhausted herself and was sleep-heavy. Her head dropped on my shoulder and her legs wrapped around my midriff. I relished the solid, vulnerable heft of her in my arms.
As Carrington slept in her car seat, I cried all the way home, feeling inadequate, anguished, filled with love and relief and worry.
Feeling like a parent.
As time passed, Miss Marva and Mr. Ferguson’s relationship acquired the knotty tenderness of two independent people who had no reason to fall in love but did anyway. They were a good match, Miss Marva’s peppery nature balanced by Mr. Ferguson’s stubborn tranquility.
Miss Marva proclaimed to anyone who would listen that she had no intention of getting married. No one believed her. I think what finally did Marva in was that despite his comfortable financial situation, Arthur Ferguson was clearly a man who needed taking care of. He had missing buttons on his shirt cuffs. He sometimes skipped meals because he simply forgot to eat. His socks weren’t always matched. Some men just thrive on a little nagging, and Miss Marva came to acknowledge that she probably needed someone to nag.
So after they had been dating for about eight months, Miss Marva fixed Arthur Ferguson his favorite meal, beer pot roast and green beans and a big skillet of cornbread. And red velvet cake for dessert, after which, naturally, he proposed.
Miss Marva told me the news sheepishly, and claimed Arthur must have tricked her somehow, because there was no reason a woman with her own business should get married. But I could see how happy she was. I was glad that after all the ups and downs of her life, Miss Marva had found herself a good man. They were going to Las Vegas, she said, to get married by Elvis, and after that they would see a Wayne Newton show and maybe the fellas with the tigers. When they returned, Miss Marva was going to leave Bluebonnet Ranch and move into Mr. Ferguson’s brick house in town, which he had given her leave to redecorate from top to bottom.
It was less than five miles from Miss Marva’s single-wide to her new residence. But she was traveling a greater distance than you could measure with an odometer. She was moving into a different world, acquiring a new status. The thought that I would no longer be able to run down the street to visit her was unsettling and depressing.
With Miss Marva gone, there was nothing keeping me and Carrington at Bluebonnet Ranch. We were living in an old mobile home worth nothing, sitting on a rented lot. Since my sister was going into preschool next year, I needed to find an apartment in a good school district. I would find a job in Houston, I decided, if I was lucky enough to pass the upcoming Cosmetology Commission exams.
I wanted to get out of the trailer park—I wanted it even more for my sister than I did for myself. But at the same time it would be cutting off the last link I had with Mama. And Hardy.
My mother’s absence was driven home every time I wanted to tell her about something that had happened to me or Carrington. Long after she was gone there were moments when the child in me who wanted comfort still cried for her. And then as the grief was weathered by time, Mama slipped farther away from me. I couldn’t remember the exact sound of her voice, the shape of her front teeth, the color of her cheeks. I struggled to hold the details of her like water cupped in my hands.
The loss of Hardy was nearly as acute, in a different way. If a man ever looked at me with interest, spoke to me, smiled, I found myself helplessly searching for hints of Hardy. I didn’t know how to stop wanting him. It wasn’t that I had any hope—I knew I’d never see him again. But that didn’t stop me from comparing every other man to Hardy and finding them all lacking. I had exhausted myself loving him, like a blackbird fighting its own reflection in a plate-glass window.
Why was love so easy for some people and so hard for others? Most of my high school friends were already married. Lucy was engaged to her boyfriend, Matt, and she claimed to have no doubts at all. I thought of how wonderful it would be to have someone to lean on. To my shame, I fantasized about Hardy coming back for me, telling me he’d been wrong to leave, we’d find a way to make it because nothing was worth being apart from each other.
If loneliness was a choice, what was the other option? To settle for second-best and try to be happy with that? And was that fair to the person you settled for? There had to be someone out there, some man who could help me get over Hardy. I had to find him, not only for my own sake, but for my little sister’s. Carrington had no masculine influence in her life. All she’d had so far was Mama, Miss Marva, and me. I didn’t know psychology, but I was aware that fathers, or father figures, had a big impact on how children turned out. I wondered if I’d had some more time with my own father, how different my own choices might have been.
The truth was, I wasn’t comfortable around men. They were alien creatures, with their hard handshakes and love of red sports cars and power tools, and their seeming inability to replace the toilet paper roll when it was empty. I envied girls who understood men and were at ease with them.
I realized I wasn’t going to find a man until I was willing to expose myself to possible harm, to assume the risks of rejection and betrayal and heartbreak that came along with caring about someone. Someday, I promised myself, I would be ready for that kind of risk.