Authors: Lori Reisenbichler
YOUR MOMMA WAS A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN
oday, Lakshmi and I try out a new yoga class, held in the space behind the Oasis Verde coffee shop. They have child care, which means Toby and Sanjay can play near the urban farm’s community garden. After class, we linger over green tea.
“Something has to give,” I say. “I need a direct line to John Robberson.”
“Well,” Lakshmi says, “I don’t know what else you could do.”
I take a sip of my tea and look around the coffee shop. It’s comfortably rustic and familiar . . . except for the guy at the counter. He’s in his mid-thirties and wearing a suit, which isn’t that unusual. It’s his hair. It’s unusually thick and slicked back, about a half inch from qualifying as a pompadour. I’m having a déjà-vu moment. Then it clicks.
Eyes still on that hair, I say to Lakshmi, “Have you ever heard of Vaughn Redford?”
“The man who talks to people on the other side. The medium.”
“What are you talking about?”
In the midst of a sleepless night several months ago, I was flipping channels and came across an old television show where this thirty-something guy from the Bronx—looking like someone you wouldn’t notice on a subway, except he’s got the same near-pompadour hairdo as the man at the counter—comes into the audience and brings messages from people who have died back to their loved ones. The show is a live taping of the process. I watched the entire episode, fascinated. Back then, I would’ve put him in the same category as a street magician. But now . . .
I tell Lakshmi about a woman in the audience whose son had died in a car accident. When he “came through,” he told his mother that the wreck was his fault and that she should stop blaming the kid in the car who hit his.
She sees the value in it as a benevolent service to the grieving mother, allowing her to forgive the survivor of the accident and accept her son’s death.
I pull out my phone and do a quick search for Vaughn Redford. Not only is he still doing performances, I find his schedule and gasp.
“You’re not going to believe this. He’s coming to Phoenix. Right before Memorial Day. This could be the ticket.” I squeeze Lakshmi’s hand. “Will you come with me?”
That déjà-vu moment does me more good than forty-five minutes of warrior poses. On my way home, I congratulate myself. That’s the ticket, all right. It’s my chance to talk to John Robberson without risking Toby in the process. If he’s got something to say to my kid, or even through my kid, he can say it to me. Through Vaughn Redford.
Later, in my garden, I start to ruminate on the possibilities of having a real link between this world and the spirit world . . . and, well, I can’t help thinking of my mom.
What I’d give to connect with her, to see if she’s watching Toby grow up from beyond. I wonder if she’d appear to me. If I go to see Vaughn Redford, it stands to reason that the most likely person to show up for me would be my mom. I can feel my heart swell with longing. I can’t believe how much I would like to have seen the look on her face when she met Toby. She would be so proud of him.
I have to bring Toby, of course. Otherwise, John Robberson might not show up.
I stand up and brush the soil from my knees. I stuff the weeds into the garbage bag and spin the bag until the top twists shut. I have no idea how I’m going to break this one to Eric.
We’re due for our monthly visit to Pa this weekend. On the way there, I mention Vaughn Redford, but Eric just snorts and we don’t talk for the rest of the drive. He doesn’t want to hear about it.
On this visit, Toby is learning to play checkers with Pa. Every time we come, Pa has a goal for Toby. Once, it was showing him how to use a screwdriver. He’d sat outside with Toby for hours, with an assortment of screwdrivers (“This here’s a Phillips”) and a couple of two-by-fours. By the end of the weekend and prior to his third birthday, Toby knew how to use a screwdriver. Pa has no appreciation that Toby might be more likely to poke his eye out than use it correctly. I actually love this about Pa.
But this weekend it’s checkers, and Toby’s developmental limitations are showing up. Eric rescues Pa from his grandson’s short attention span and propensity to make free jumping kings out of his checkers without regard to the rules.
It’s cooling off a bit right before the sunset, and Eric decides he’ll take Toby to the mall to run off some steam in the air conditioning. This frees me up to talk to Pa alone about the Vaughn Redford opportunity.
I’ve been thinking about everyone’s “most likely person to appear.” I figure the more people who show up with the same desire, the better the odds. So if I want my mom to show up, I need to bring who she wants to see, which means I need Pa.
He’s thinking about getting new reading glasses. “I’m not getting old, mind you. My eyes are just more experienced now.”
I say, “That’s what life is all about, isn’t it? Experiences?”
How lame. I sound like I’m inserting one of those intentionally chipper segues that morning news anchors use. He looks at me sideways before he answers.
“Well, baby girl, you can’t avoid ’em, that’s for sure. But I don’t have to lay down in front of a tractor to know that it’s most likely gonna smash my skull flat. There’s some experiences I guess I don’t need to sign up for.”
This isn’t going to be easy. All day, I’ve been making random statements about life and asking him for advice. He doesn’t seem to be suspicious, but soon I’m going to have to say it. Not the part about John Robberson. That would be a deal buster. So I focus on Mom. How do you tell your dad you’ve bought him a ticket to go see a medium and you’re actually very excited about it because you hope, for his sake, that your dead mother will speak to him from the “other side”? So I blurt it out, exactly like that.
About the time I say “other side,” he says, “Whoa there, baby girl.”
I smile as innocently as I can.
“Want to start all over with that?”
So I say it in slow motion, laying the groundwork, first talking about Vaughn Redford and the TV show. I even bought him a book in large print that tells the story of Vaughn Redford’s unusual life. He takes it from me, says thank you, ma’am, and sets it down on the coffee table without opening it.
Working his back molar with a toothpick, he says, “Say your piece.” He leans back in his recliner, puts his toothpick down, and makes a zipper motion across his lips. He sticks the imaginary key in the front pocket of his jumpsuit.
I explain what happens on the TV show and tell him my idea about the “most likely person to appear.” I think he gets the idea of what I expect when we go. Not that he’s interested.
“What if you could talk to Momma again? What if this guy isn’t a total fake? What if Momma has a message for you? Wouldn’t you want to hear it?”
I take one look at his face and stop talking. I put my hands in my lap.
“You done?” he says.
He makes a big show of pulling the imaginary key out of his pocket. He unlocks the imaginary lock on the zipper on his lips and saves the key. “The thing is, baby girl, your momma was a beautiful woman . . .”
This is how all his memories start. He’ll say this beautiful-woman thing, then tell me some story about his wife, his bride, his partner in life, my mother. And at the end, he repeats it again, the same phrase.
He says it as if I never saw the woman while she was alive. She was a beautiful woman. As Pa, the smitten husband, tells it, she was a professional beautiful woman. By this, he means her part-time modeling career. My mom was a model for a local dress shop. The guy had advertising ambition and used her in TV ads and direct mail. It was nothing, small-time local stuff, but she was recognizable. If nothing else, her part-time job set her apart. She wasn’t like the other moms. She didn’t aspire to be the homeroom mom. My mother had other talents. She was tall and thin, and clothing hung just right on her.
Nobody mistakes me for a model. I inherited Mom’s statuesque frame but not her practiced poise or her meticulous grooming. About the time most girls get interested in those things, I rejected them. In junior high school, when I let my naturally curly hair grow long, into a wild, spectacular mass, it activated a pervasive negative commentary on her part. By the time I graduated from high school, I hated her almost as much as she hated how I looked.
After Toby was born, I regretted the conflict so acutely that I cut my hair into a pixie of soft curls I hoped Mom could see. She was right about the hair. I’m grateful for what I got from her—clear skin and high cheekbones—but I chose not to inherit my mother’s ability to put makeup over the chronic disappointments of life. So every time Pa starts a story with the beautiful-woman thing, there’s a little part of me that undervalues her perfect exterior finish.
He doesn’t. That’s the sweet thing about it. He’s not being superficial or denying anything. He knew what was underneath and genuinely appreciated her, inside and out.
It was a long time before I realized the way Pa talks about her says more about him than it does about her. I have to admit, there are times when I long for my husband to look past my faults and describe me with such consistent adoration. Hell, I’d be happy if he just stopped making fun of me at every turn.
I refocus in time to hear him finish the story, the one I already know, about how when Mom was sick, she told him she would wait for him in heaven. But he tells it the long way, and it breaks my heart to remember those days in the hospital. Pa and I have never talked about the very end, when she started to say all the hateful things the tumor squeezed out of her. Eric tried to explain the geography of the brain, tried to assure me she didn’t mean any of it, but it was hard not to take it personally.
Pa shifts in his recliner. “So, baby girl, if your momma tells me she’s gonna wait for me in heaven, then who am I to be summoning her out in order to give me a message? Isn’t that kind of rude of me, to pull her away from whatever heavenly activities go on up there, so she can come back and tell me she loves me? I know she loves me. She loved me when she was here, and that don’t stop just because she’s there and I’m still here. I don’t need no damn psychic telling me my business. There ain’t nothing he can say that’s gonna make any difference to me.”
“Okay, Pa, okay.”
The next thing out of his mouth surprises me.
“What I can’t figure out is why you want to go. What is it your momma didn’t tell you? What do you not know? What do you need to hear from her?”
I look closely at him, his crazy eyebrows knitted in concern for me, sitting in that plaid recliner in his jumpsuit. He’s getting more and more eccentric as he gets older. And here he is, trying his level best to figure me out like a Sunday crossword. The old goat.
My voice softens and I say, “I want her to see Toby. Then, I guess, she’d really see me.”
“Baby girl.” He stands up, picks up a nearby picture of me holding Toby as a baby, and sits down on the sofa next to me. “Look at him. Look at you. Did you ever see anything so perfect in all your life? How can she keep from seeing that?”
I nestle under his arm, my head on his chest.
“All right, baby girl, I’ll go. For you.”
I squeal and give him a big hug. “Thank you!”
Eric and Toby return, and Toby runs to me and gives me a big squeeze.
“Young man,” Pa says to him, “do you know that your momma is a beautiful woman?”
THE PISTOL IS A DREAMER
efore you go,” Pa says the next morning, as I’m preparing bowls of strawberries with yogurt and granola, “I thought you might want to meet Dottie.”
I clank the spoonful of yogurt on the side of the bowl to release the dollop. “If you want us to meet her, we’ll be happy to.” I hand him the bowl. “If it’s important to you.”
He takes it and shuffles from the kitchen to his recliner in the living room. He hesitates, then waves his hand at me. “I don’t care that much, to tell you the truth. But she wants to meet you. She’s been driving me nuts, asking me if I’m ashamed of her, talking like a crazy woman. Last time I saw her, I said you guys were coming down and she kept yakking for a half hour until I told her I’d introduce her to you. You don’t have to do it.”
So it’s not serious, at least on his part. I walk by his chair and smooth the white hair on his head. “It’s okay. I’ll meet her if it’ll get her off your back and things will go back to normal.”
Pa takes a bite of strawberry and mutters, “All I did was go to the casino with her on that damn bus they take every week.”
“What, did she want to hold hands on the way home?”
He complains about there being so many widows in his trailer park, he can barely say hello without them baking him banana bread and putting on their lipstick every time he comes by. Eric comes into the kitchen with Toby in his arms and says, “Who is putting on lipstick for you?”
“The ladies in the trailer park,” I explain with a smile.
“They want a piece of me, I tell you.”
Eric says, “You know your problem, Pa? You’re a chick magnet.”
Pa laughs. “I can fix that. I’m about to break out that deer piss I got left over from hunting. If I wipe myself down with it real good, that ought to nip it in the bud.”
Toby wants to play the “jumping game,” his new name for checkers, and Pa is happy to oblige. Eric steps outside to return a work phone call and I settle in Pa’s recliner to read the paper. I don’t see any listing for Vaughn Redford’s appearance, now only a week away.
We agree to meet Dottie for a late lunch, which in Tucson means one o’clock. When Dottie walks into the restaurant, she’s wearing pink Bermuda shorts and a matching shirt with a tiny lizard pin attached to her left shoulder. Not in the front, where people wear name tags, but on the top of her shoulder, tentatively, as if it has only recently claimed its space. I’m trying not to stare at it, but Toby points it out in a way that makes it okay for me to examine it a bit closer.
Dottie, to my surprise, seems to have made no effort to counteract the deep laugh lines around her eyes. A good sign. I like it that her face isn’t pulled tight or shellacked with pancake makeup. She has a pink manicure and wears her blonde hair in that once-a-week-at-the-hairdresser teased-up kind of style, the one that makes women buy satin pillowcases so their hair won’t get messy while they sleep.
“You must be Dottie. So nice to meet you,” I say, finding it easier than I thought it would be to see Pa escorting a woman.
I order for Toby as soon as we sit down. He’ll do a lot better sitting here in a booth for an hour if I get him fed quickly. I dig in my bag and pull out a travel game that has plastic cars, buses, and trucks in a puzzle, and Toby entertains himself.
The adults make polite conversation about Tucson. Dottie orders a margarita and tells Pa about one of their neighbors in the trailer park who had a heart attack.
“They ride the casino bus together every week,” Pa explains.
Dottie launches into a detailed description of her last slot jackpot. I keep an eye on Pa the whole time Dottie is talking. He interrupts her often, and she talks right over him. When he pokes fun at her, she laughs. They argue about whether she can make more money playing slots than he can at the poker table. Pa maintains that Texas Hold’em is a game of skill that can be learned. She shrugs her shoulders. That little lizard pin catches my eye. It seems animated by Dottie’s movements.
It occurs to me that a habitual gambler might not be the best companion for Pa, who I can picture standing with her in line at the ATM in the lobby of a casino. My mother would’ve never set foot in a casino. I visualize Dottie’s manicured hands turning black from handling coins and fight off a grimace.
Toby finishes his macaroni and cheese, and Eric agrees to split a chocolate shake with him. Toby crawls under the table to sit in Pa’s lap, which puts him next to Dottie. He touches her shiny pin with one finger, almost petting it.
Dottie laughs loudly. “Isn’t he cute? He’s my little reminder.”
“Reminder? Of what?” I ask.
“Oh boy. Here it comes.”
Dottie gives Pa a playful poke in the ribs.
He says to me, “If you didn’t think she was loco before, now you’re going to know it for sure.”
The waiter returns with the milkshake, and Toby scrambles back under the table to Eric. Between spoonfuls, Eric makes a scribble on the back of the kiddie menu, and Toby draws around it to turn it into a figure. They call this “the scribble game,” and it works in restaurants. As long as they have paper, Toby will sit and draw. It’s good, but it means Eric is completely disengaged from our conversation.
“Lizards are a symbol for your dreams,” Dottie explains. She goes on to tell us she’s one-sixteenth Navajo so she’s an expert on totems.
Pa interrupts, “I keep asking her where the hell in Arizona her people found a big enough tree to carve a damn totem pole.”
I suppress a smile.
“Totems don’t have to be ten feet fall. We don’t see too many now, but we keep the spirit alive. We have oral traditions, passed down from generation to generation,” Dottie continues, undeterred. All animals stand for something, and all of us have a totem pole of animals that define our lives. At the top of Dottie’s totem pole is a lizard.
“It means I’m a dreamer,” she says, petting the rhinestone lizard, “and it never fails. Whenever I wear the lizard, it catches the eye of the person I dreamed about.”
I sincerely hope I’m not the reason for the lizard pin. Surely this lunch—meeting Pa’s daughter—isn’t a part of her dream. I’m beginning to feel like an unwilling co-conspirator.
She reaches across the table and puts her hand over mine. I don’t pull away, mostly because I don’t know how to do it without seeming impolite.
Toby announces that he has to potty. I pull my hand away from Dottie to allow room for Eric and Toby to leave the booth.
“Are you talking about me?”
“Close. Guess again.” Then, turning to Pa, she says, “She’ll figure it out. She’s a smart one.” She swipes the salt from the rim of her glass, licks her finger, and takes a shot-sized swallow of her margarita.
“Who?” I ask, clearly not wanting to guess.
“Him. The little squirt.”
The air conditioning is cold, and I rub my bare arms to settle my goose bumps. Striving for carefree, I ask, “What about him?”
“He has a special talent, doesn’t he? For seeing things you don’t?”
I’m not about to talk to this woman about John Robberson. I pause, then say, as nonchalantly as I can, “Oh, I don’t know about that.”
“Yes, you do.”
I stop rubbing my arms and cross them in front of me.
She says, “You’ve never dealt with dreams, have you? Don’t worry. I’m not pushing anything on you. I’ll just tell you what I dreamed, and you can decide for yourself what it means.”
I look over at Pa, but he’s cleaning his fingernails with his pocketknife. I can’t believe he can tolerate this woman.
Dottie takes my silence for consent. “Okay. In my dream, I’m underwater and all of a sudden he’s there, the little one, scared at first, but you know how when you fall in the water, you go down awhile, then at some point, you start going up again? Right when he hits that point, right before he starts floating up again, he hangs there in slow motion for a spell, then he looks right past me and I can feel it, he isn’t scared anymore. Then, whoosh, he’s gone.”
“Hmmm,” I say at the pause, but she’s not finished. My heart is pounding in my ears.
“You know how in dreams you can jump around? Well, boom, just like that, I see boats all lined up in a marina, but it’s like I’m overhead, looking down on it. This little guy is lying faceup on the dock, his hair plastered down on his forehead. I can hardly see him; there’s a bunch of people standing around, and they’re all worked up while one guy bends over him. Not sure who that is, but it doesn’t matter. Then, boom, the dream jumps again, and I see everything like I’m lying on that dock right next to him. An airplane flies overhead, and it drowns out the crowd for a minute. He opens his eyes and sees it, then he gets flipped over and everyone is in his face, and all he wants is to tell you something real bad.”
“What does he tell me?”
“That’s when it fades out, so I don’t know. That means it’s not for me.” She takes another sip of her margarita. “So, when it happens—when, not if—I’d listen if I were you.” She settles back into the booth. I can picture her blowing smoke from the barrel of a recently fired handgun.
“Wait,” I say, glad Eric’s not at the table. “You can’t tell me my son is going to drown and not tell me how to prevent it.”
“Calm down, sweetie. I didn’t say he was gonna drown. I see him on the dock. The dream is about what he says afterward.”
“No offense to your dream, but I’m not about to let Toby flounder around in the water, unsupervised, just to see what he’s going to say right after he almost drowns.”
“Hate to break it to you, sweetie, but it’s not up to you.” Dottie digs in her purse for her lipstick, which is the exact shade of her Bermuda shorts. “Or even about you. Everything happens for a reason. If one day that little guy ends up in the water, you can bet there’s a reason. I’m betting it’s bigger than you. I’m betting it’s not about you being a bad mommy. And I’d bet a jackpot that you know more than you’re letting on.” She pops the lid back on her lipstick. “Remember, the first thing he says after he sees that airplane—that’s the message you’ve been waiting on. You’ll know what to do.”
Eric and Toby return to the table and Pa says, “Glad you’re back. We need another level head at the table. These two can’t decide which end of the crazy bone to chew on.”