Chapter One: Dreaming Through The Twilight
"You ought to join the military, Southpaw," my dad said. I smiled at his term of endearment, Southpaw. When I was a little girl, he'd tried to force me to be right-handed by tying my left hand behind my back when I wrote. At some point, sensing futility, he'd given it up and now seemed to enjoy my left-handedness. We were sitting on the back steps. He smoked while I sketched the pine trees behind our house, drawing with an ink pen in a spiral notebook that was supposed to be filled with notes for my upcoming American history final.
"We're pulling out of Vietnam," he said. "You wouldn't have to worry about going to war." He sighed. "Anyway, it'd get you out of this godforsaken place." He dropped his cigarette, snuffed it out with the toe of his shoe, and sauntered down the steps -- heading to the bar.
I watched him throw a hand briefly into the air and climb into his car. I waved back, knowing he'd come home drunk and ready for a fight. I worried that his mild suggestion to join the military might turn into a demand come midnight. I cringed at the thought of how my present situation -- graduating without any prospects -- might turn into a salient point once he'd had a few drinks. The previous Friday night, he'd come home from the bar, and before Mother had time to turn on the lights, he started shouting, Barbara, when are you going to get a job?! The fact that I was still in high school, didn't own a car, and lived miles from the bus stop didn't seem to enter into the question.
I tossed my spiral notebook onto the porch and climbed onto the glider of my baby sister Janet's swing set. I threw my legs over the backseat, flipped upside down, and closed my eyes. My long hair swept the grass as I pumped the swing into motion. I let my mind wander. Within seconds my favorite daydream filtered in. I'm at the opening of my first art show. Gorgeous paintings line the gallery walls: water lilies, several views of a haystack, bright sunflowers (images mentally swiped from my mother's art books). Suddenly a New York City gallery owner arrives. She's wearing a black dress with a bright red pillbox hat and matching lipstick. Thrilled with my artwork, she throws her arms around me. "You are brilliant," she declares. "I'm taking you straight to the Big Apple."
Just then someone climbed onto the other seat of the glider. "What are you smiling about?" Doris Ann asked.
"I'm not smiling," I said, opening my eyes and glaring at my younger sister. She flipped upside down and put her head next to mine. "You wanna walk down to Junior's house?" she asked.
Junior, our closest neighbor, lived a mile away. "It's too hot," I said, shrugging my shoulders, irritated. "And I'm trying to think."
"Think about what?"
"About joining the military," I lied, closing my eyes again. My daydream instantly changed to olive drab. I snatch up a rolling grenade, toss it away, and fire off a round, saving my platoon. For my heroism, I'm stationed back in the States and given a job creating a new, sharper design for the military camouflage uniforms. The pattern I create is used universally for uniforms, helicopters, and vehicles.
Doris Ann threw her hands behind her head. "When you join the military, I'll have a bedroom all to myself."
Just then Willie chased John around the side of the house with a water balloon. John, screaming his head off, climbed over Doris Ann and me and kept running. Willie did the same.
"Get out of here!" I shouted, slapping at them as they dashed away. I squeezed my eyes shut. Suddenly a New York gallery owner arrives. She's wearing a black leather pantsuit and love beads with a big peace sign. Happy with this daydream, I smiled to myself.
I heard the screen door slam and opened one eye. Mother stood on the porch. As the glider swept back and forth, I could see half of her, then all of her, then half again. My baby sister Janet, who was four, came out and caught hold of Mother's skirt at the curve of her hip. Like a snapping turtle, she'd hold that fabric in her fist until it thundered. But from the stormy expression on Mother's face, thunder was on the way. I waited for her to say my name before opening my other eye.
"Barbara," she called, "do you want to wash the supper dishes or play with Janet?"
I opened my eyes and winked at Janet. She laughed, knowing the answer, and bounded down the stairs and jumped into my arms.
"What were you smiling about?" she asked.
Doris Ann scooted over and I pulled Janet onto the glider. "I'm smiling at you," I said.
I joined the Navy -- because the uniforms were bell-bottoms. But when I went for my physical, the first thing the doctor checked was my heartbeat. He put the stethoscope on my chest and moved it around. "Have you had rheumatic fever?" he asked.
"When I was thirteen," I answered.
He shook his head. "She's out," he shouted. A nurse came to escort me out of the examining room.
"Wait," I cried. "I've got to get in." But the doctor waved me away.
Months went by. I helped Mother look after Janet, helped her wash clothes in the wringer washer, weeded the garden, played horseshoes with Willie and Doris Ann, taught my youngest brother, John, to walk all the way around the house on an empty fifty-five-gallon drum, sketched the pine trees. I spent more time than ever daydreaming, but when I opened my eyes and left the dream behind, I couldn't see a future at all. My life had come to a standstill.
My neighbor introduced me to Rudy. He was in the Army, stationed at Fort McClellan, a military installation on the outskirts of Anniston. "You're tall," he said, eyeing me from head to toe.
"Yeah," I said, embarrassed.
"My ex-wife was short," Rudy said. Then he asked me if I'd ever been with a man. "I'm looking for a pure woman this time."
We got married at the chapel out at Fort McClellan. Dad was supposed to give the bride away, but the military police at the front gate arrested him for public intoxication. My older brother David had to stand in for him. (My oldest brother, Stewart, who would have been next in line for the honor, had joined the Marines.) After the wedding ceremony, the guards called the chapel. As a wedding gift, they were releasing Dad without a fine. We could pick him up on the way out if someone sober was available to drive his car home.
"I could hardly be called drunk," Dad said as the guards helped him into the backseat of our car. Mother turned away and wouldn't speak.
I was glad to see him, glad he wasn't in jail. "Dad, you missed the wedding," I said, flashing my ring in his face.
Dad nudged Mother. "If I'd known they considered a few beers to be intoxicated, I wouldn't have wasted twenty bucks on this monkey suit."
Copyright © 2004 by Barbara Robinette Moss