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Good as it Gets

By Sonja S. Mongar


My grandmother leans against the milkshake machine, thin in her starched white waitress uniform, one arm across her waist and the other one poised with her cigarette like a forties movie star. The cigarette is nearly burned to the filter; a long cylinder of ash hangs on. Her hand trembles as she shifts her cigarette. Her lips pucker slightly in anticipation, even before the filter makes contact. Quivering, they press together and pull a hard drag.

I am fascinated by her baubles and make-up, a face colored by bright rouge, heavy black eyeliner, eyebrows penciled in where the real ones were plucked clean, and a gash of red lipstick. Gaudy earrings dangle from her ears and rings lock reddened, arthritic fingers on hands that I have seen scrub, lift, squeeze, carry, wash, and plunge into boiling water and cleaning chemicals without a thought of rubber gloves. Bangle bracelets jingle and slide around on her arms as she ignites her next cigarette from the butt of the last one. She moans under her breath, every few minutes—soft and short, barely audible.

I'm almost eight, my sister is six, my brother is three, and my uncle, John, is seven. We sit quietly at the counter of the downtown Denton café sucking root beer through a straw while my grandmother and mother talk. The café smells of bacon grease, coffee, and something burned. The nicotine yellow curtains ripple slightly as customers come and go. Flies buzz by the counter every now and then.

Denton is the smallest town I have ever seen. It begins and ends along the short line of downtown storefronts—nothing but Montana wheat fields before and after that. The café serves the farmer and ranchers and the railroad crews and truckers passing through.
“So what are you gonna do now, Sis?” My grandmother says, using my mother’s childhood nickname.

“I don’t know,” Sis replies.

I like the sound of “Sis” and how it warms my mother’s face. My father calls her June, her middle name. It comes out of his mouth hard and stilted like he’s barking an order. I like the way “Sis” feels as it rushes up under my two front teeth. I think I would like to call her “Sis” too.
My mother’s lost weight since we left Eugene. Truck drivers and farmers turn their heads to look at her when they come in for lunch. She is beautiful with her creamy skin, soft brown hair and large, clear Scandinavian blue eyes. She is especially beautiful today, with a scarf tied at her throat and a touch of lipstick. I think she should have been a movie star.

She perks up under the scrutiny of their eyes, lowering her eyelids, showing two rows of perfect white teeth. Coyly brushing a harsh black shock of hair from her face, my grandmother perks up too, a sparkle to her worn demeanor.

No one in the cafe can believe my mother is the mother of three. They smirk, and nudge each other when they realize she’s a divorcee.

“You know what they say about divorcees?” I had heard right after Uncle Sonny saved us one night with his .22. He shot it at the rear end of a car as it fishtailed on the dirt road that ran in front of the house where we had been asleep. I heard laughter from the car through the thin walls, my uncle yelling and swearing, and then the crack of bullets. I thought they were from town and didn’t like us because we were strangers, the same way the kids at the depot had thrown rocks at my sister and me when we first arrived.

“Don’t tell anyone at school I’m divorced,” my mother said later trying to explain. I didn’t really understand but feared they’d come back.

My mother spells some words to my grandmother. I can read between the lines. My father is “sleeping with another woman.” This must be the real reason we have come to live with my grandparents, instead of an earlier explanation, “we don’t get along any more.”
I try to imagine my father sleeping with another woman, two heads on pillows and bodies making dips and valleys in the blankets, faces buried in morning shadows. He snores loudly, his hairy beer belly rising and falling. I wonder what the woman looks like and if she’s as pretty as my mother.

My grandmother listens, nervously sucking her cigarette and staring out of the dim windows. Maybe she’s thinking about her three room Milwaukee railroad section house with its orange peeling paint where the winter comes in leaving snowdrifts in the corners and the summer brings dust that chokes the light out of the windows. Or maybe she’s thinking about the Great Depression. She had to eat dog gravy, a mix of water and flour poured over bread, because there was no food. Maybe she’s thinking about cooking that for supper tonight for the four mouths added to the six she already has. Or maybe, she’s thinking my mother should’ve stayed with my father no matter what because this is as good as it gets. She lights another cigarette and lets a tiny moan slip out.


 

Sonja S. Mongar is a journalist and a writer of creative nonfiction. She has recently published an experimental cyberspace memoir, Tomfoolery: A Study of Autobiographical Narrative in Cyberspace (thescreamonline.com) as well as essays in Opus and The Philosophical Mother. She is currently working on a full length memoir entitled The Bear Went Over the Mountain, and an autoethnography entitled, Cora Paul: A Post Victorian Woman in the American West. Mongar currently lives and teaches in Puerto Rico.

Photo by Raymond Ellstad, used with permission

 

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