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
“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
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
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 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.
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.
Ellstad, used with permission