I stood there stock still with my fists clenched so tight I thought that I would break my knuckles. It was my first real glimpse of her; something that a grown up would call an epiphany. The shock of what I was witnessing still turns me cold inside to this day. It was only a kiss and it could have been innocent, but it wasn’t. It was in her eyes; the look that told my heart everything that it would ever need to know about the woman that I loved without hesitation. I had never seen her smile that way before. It was an unguarded, unrehearsed contortion of her face seemed so foreign to someone like me.
The two of them sat across from each other in the diner downtown. They shared coffees and glances and even the untrained eye knew them to be in love. Mary Anne ran the place and she was present as well, just there behind the counter where I could find her just about any day of the week and bribe her into fetching me a frozen Coke from the treasure chest behind the counter. Now she sat with her back turned to them reading one those rags that piled up at the register at the IGA. She was ignorant of the pair of them and their mating ritual just feet from her, or so I thought anyway. The way the she treated me from that day on should have informed me of her pity. I never had to bribe her for my frozen Coke again because she always just handed it to me from then on and with a nice kiss on the cheek no less.
I can remember how the light filtered into the window in the late afternoon. Mary Anne was a worse housekeeper than she was a waitress and the ancient dust clung on the glass like a fresh coat of paint. Someone of my same height had rubbed out a nice peephole and I couldn’t keep myself from using it. I planned on going downtown to spy on the ring of international agents that were bound to be populating the town’s only eatery. I was going to use my vantage point to get the drop on them. If I couldn’t find any agents within at least I could sneak up on some unsuspecting customer and give him a good fright. Scaring someone’s pants off in broad daylight would have been my crowning achievement to date. My two older brothers refused to join me in my adventure and decided to go down the block and join the other boys in a game of touch football. Since I was the youngest of most of them and being much smaller, I wasn’t interested in the least. Besides touch always became tackle which became Smear the Queer and I guess the other guys thought me queer since I always ended up being it. The spy game was a much safer occupation for me.
Daddy had gone down to Charlotte to pick up some parts for the Roadster and wouldn’t be back until late. I had this plastic Goody comb that I used as a combination gun-walkie talkie. I had wandered the couple of blocks that comprised downtown kicking an old tin can in front of me and humming as much as I knew of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, which wasn’t much at all. I had heard it at the concert given by the Chamber of Commerce every Saturday night at the bandstand down on the square and thought it pretty catchy. That was way before I got my first taste of rock n’ roll. The day was not so hot and sunny and I had about six pieces of Pal bubble gum in my mouth. Pal was the best since it only cost a fraction of a scent apiece and was always readily available at Pickwick’s sundry store. Sometimes if Daddy gave me a nickel I would splurge on Bazooka, but the pickings were slim so I had to make due.
I was working up a bubble the size of my head when I saw Tommy Martin crash his Schwinn right in to the side of the trashcan outside of the diner. I was laughing so hard I almost evacuated on myself. Tommy would later make me pay for it, but man was it worth it at the time. He was just killing me when he sprang back onto his feet after he wiped out like nothing had happened. He dusted off his ripped jeans and made sure his hair was set back in place. I offered him my gun to fix his hair but he just gave me a dirty look and turned to examine the damage to his bike. He had bent his front wheel pretty badly and had totaled the trash can. I was waiting for someone to come out of the diner and give him a good going over for damage to the bin, but to my disappointment no one bothered. The catastrophic indentation of the tire rim was just too much for him to bear and he threw the bike down in disgust, stomped over to the dusty window and sat down on the sidewalk. Although I could see no real abrasions of bruises to him personally the depression of his wrecked bike was just too much for him to bear and he started to cry.
I didn’t know what to do. So I did nothing; I just sat down next to him and offered him a piece of gum. He told me in his emotional, jerky voice how his dad would hide him once he got home for wrecking his bike again. He knew that it wasn’t the end of it either since he would be losing his allowance for as long as it took to replace the rim as well. To tell the truth he was depressing me so bad that I was about to start bawling myself. We sat there and kibitzed a while until he felt better and was getting up to leave. I told him that maybe we could talk Mary Anne in to fronting us enough for a soft drink or something and for him to see if she was working there first. It just happened that he was about the same height as me and he used my spy hole to see if she was inside.
“Hey, ain’t that your Ma in there,” Tommy asked.
“Move over and lemme see,” I said pushing him to one side so I could get a good look.
“That is her. Maybe you could go ask her for a nickel or somethin’ we could split on somethin’,” Tommy said hopefully.
I didn’t answer him. My eyes were glued on the pair of them and I couldn’t look away. His hand reached across and brushed hers gently, causing her to blush so hard that I could plainly see it from where I stood outside. I had never seen him before. He looked like a big city man to me, as if I actually knew what one of them looked like. It didn’t matter where he came from; I knew what his intentions were. I wasn’t as dumb as some people thought I was, heck I had even kissed Amy Pisgah behind the school in second grade and now my own mother was blushing like Amy did when I offered to walk her home.
To my later detriment the rubbed off circle was big enough for Tommy to watch through too, and to my horror he was now putting two and two together just like me. The truth finally dawned for him and he slowly turned around and stood with his back against the window, trying hard to forget what he had just witnessed. He would remember all too clearly later when he told everyone that would possibly listen that my mother was in the diner playing footsies with some city boy. I just wish that he hadn’t been so much tougher than me when I tried to make him shut his mouth later on. I still have the scar just below my left eye to this day.
“Hey, uh pal, I gotta get goin’. Pop’s gonna kill me as it is anyway,” he said stepping to where he had flung his bike. He picked it up and wheeled it down the street as fast as he could go, not once looking back at me. I watched him until he turned the corner at Pickwick’s and was lost to view.
I turned back and looked inside again. He talked. She smiled. She talked and he shook his head and cocked it to one side. They touched now and then, faking like they were going for the sugar or a napkin the wipe some unseen smudge off of the table. She was beaming like I had never seen her before, and she looked twenty years younger. She wasn’t an old woman or unattractive, but time and worry had worn her to a fraction of what she once was. No matter what life had thrown at her though she had no excuse to be sitting in broad daylight across from another man. The thought of someone besides my father touching her in that way made my blood boil. Besides she had treated us with contempt and aggression for most of our lives and she was sitting there coyly smiling and flushing pink for this interloper. He didn’t deserve the kindness that was owed to me.
I had just about enough of watching and I was bound to act. I plucked up my courage and pushed the big glass door open. The cool of the air conditioning tempered my anger a bit, and the fact that the two of them were staring right at me. Mary Anne saw me and retreated to the kitchen. I thought at first that she was going to fly off that fake leather chair and take my pants down right there in front of God and everybody. I would have been relieved if she had done so because it would have meant that she was her old self. Instead she turned her head and looked me square in the eye. She had the look that I had given her a thousand times when she caught me with my hand in the candy jar. It was a mixture of shame and fear that I knew all too well. In that second my heart broke in two.
“Charles, this is my youngest son Bennie. Bennie this is Mr. Charles Macon from Mount Airy. He is down here on business,” she stammered, her eyes now cast down to the table.
“Hello there Bennie, you’re a fine looking young man. I can see some of your momma’s good looks in you,” he said in a snake oil salesman’s voice. I almost vomited when he ruffled my hair with his greasy hand. What I remember most clearly was the gold pinky ring that he wore.
“Bennie, what are you doing down here all by your lonesome?” Momma asked me, not caring what kind of answer that I would give. She was already reaching for her purse for the payoff.
“I was just helping Tommy get his bike home after he had a wreck,” I lied, never taking my eyes off of her. She still thought something was intensely interesting about that diner table.
“Here take this nickel and go get yourself a soda pop or something. I will be home after a while to get supper for you boys,” she said. She held out a shiny buffalo nickel. As I picked it from her hand I could feel that they were cold and clammy. I also knew what Judas Iscariot must have felt like when he picked up his thirty pieces.
“Oh Thelma, that’s not enough for a boy his size to have any kind of fun with,” Mr. Snake Oil said as he handed me a gleaming quarter. I guess that’s how much he thought my momma was worth to me, and at the moment in my pain and hate, I would have taken a single red cent for her.
“No Mr. Macon that is just too much for a boy his age,” Momma interjected. It was a weak gesture made just to be polite. She had already sold herself for nothing.
I turned and made for the door. I caught the proprietress peering through the porthole in the swinging door where she stood curiously watching. The same look of shame and fear that I had witnessed not three minutes before was fixed on her horsy face. She had been caught with her hand in the candy jar too since she had been willing look the other way as a woman that she knew to be a wife and mother flaunted herself to another man. If Mister Caldwell the owner would have been there that day he would have tossed both of them out on their ears and promptly called my daddy.
I heard the bell above the door clang alarmingly as I opened it and stepped out into the brightness outside. I ran to the trashcan that Tommy Martin had wiped out and threw up in it. I was dizzy and disoriented. She hadn’t told that slime ball to hit the road and that she was going home. No, she was still in there with him and she had dismissed her own son with a payoff, and only a nickel no less. At least the other guy had enough decorum to offer more of a bribe.
I walked about half of the block and sat down on the bench outside of the barber shop. I felt cold and more alone that I ever had in my whole life. Then it hit me that maybe I had been wrong about what I had thought that I had seen. It was a possibility that I was just reading into things; I had been wrong before and would be wrong at least once almost every day of my life. I decided that I needed a little more solid proof and not just hunches to go on so I sat there on that bench and waited for them to come out. Surely she would exit alone and make for home. I realized that if she did I was a sitting duck on that bench, but I was willing to risk it.
I sat there for a good twenty minutes before I heard the faint ringing of the chimes from the diner. Since they were the only ones inside I knew that one or both of them was exiting. I dodged behind the car that was parked at the curb beside that bench and I hunkered down out of sight. I peeked up through the back window and saw that they had left in tandem and had turned away from me as they were walking down the street. I followed stealthily as they walked the block and half to the Crazy Eights Motel that stood on the corner. I stood transfixed just across the street as Mister Snake Oil went inside presumably for a room and my mother sat on the hard steel bench outside of the shabby office. I could see him yucking it up with Sandy Belles dad who owned the flea bag motel.
He came out of the office key in hand and she rose to greet him with a kiss. I began to sweat wildly as he returned it and led her by the hand up the flight of stairs just in front of them. They topped the stairs and entered the second door on the left. The access was pitted and worn and bore a large 202 on it. They both disappeared inside.
I was in a panic; I didn’t know what I should do. Although I knew about kissing and things of that nature, I wasn’t positive what they were doing in there. My brothers had told me the disgusting things that parents did when they were alone, but I was sure that they were lying to me just like they always did. My curiosity was always my downfall. I slunk across the street and hooked the stairs on the opposite end of the building from where the office was so that Mister Belle wouldn’t see me. Each step seemed to take an hour as I traversed the stairs. Every step seemed an eternity as my wobbly legs led me past the numbered doors on my right.
I stopped directly in front of 202 and tried to look into the window. The heavy curtains were drawn tight and I couldn’t see anything. I could hear the muffled sounds of laughter from within. I knew that voice even through the dampening of the window. She was in there with him having a better time than I had ever remembered her having before. I was burning with the desire to know what was going on behind that door. I got brave and tried the door knob and to my great surprise it was turning slowly in my hand. I swallowed hard and flung it open with one good push.
Momma never came home again. I expected her to be there making dinner when I got back from wandering around town. Daddy came home from Charlotte about nine o’clock that night and questioned all of us about her, but I wasn’t telling and my brothers knew nothing. He waited a few days and called in Doc Sheffield the town marshal for help, but nothing ever came of it. They figured that some drifter had taken her from the house and done away with her in the woods somewhere, but I know better. Every now and again I think that I see her around town, but it isn’t her. I am always glad that it isn’t. I wouldn’t know how to act or what to say to her if it was her. My fool heart was broken on the day when I saw what I saw in room 202 of the Crazy Eights Motel and it will never be the same again.