The First Chapter of Cloud Cuckoo Land
The Day Prairie Rose, Texas Disappeared From The Map
By Lisa Borders
My Grandma was the thriftiest woman in Prairie Rose, Texas. This was a self-proclaimed title. Thrifty is not the same as cheap, and it’s not stingy, she’d tell me as we rode clear to Beaumont in her ancient New Yorker, 17 miles just to visit a store that had paper towels five cents cheaper than the store near her home. Cheap is, however, exactly what Wendell at Wendell’s Garage seemed to think of her when she’d bring the car in for yet another repair.
“Ma’am,” he’d say, taking off his cap and smoothing his curly brown hair, “if you don’t mind my saying so, you’re being penny wise and pound foolish. It’s time for you to invest in a new vehicle.”
“That’s the trouble with you young people today,” Grandma would say. “You throw everything away.” Remember now, this was 1977 or thereabouts, long before anybody except a handful of leftover hippies ever thought about recycling.
She’d look at me and say, “You witnessing this, Miriam? This young man wants to take all my life savings so he can sell me a new car, when my New Yorker’s been doing right by me since your Momma was a girl.”
“But Ma’am,” Wendell would say, still working those curls with the palm of his hand, “I don’t even sell cars here. I just fix ‘em. And I make more money off you, Ma’am, than anybody in town. I just hate taking it from you, is all, when it feels like robbery.”
“You hear that, Miriam?” Grandma would say. “Smooth, that’s what they call that kind of talk. You know, Wendell, when your Daddy owned this garage he’d never have questioned but that a fine automobile like mine should be fixed and fixed until it up and died. You don’t just abandon things, you know.”
It was that word, abandon, that always made me sad, and Grandma didn’t seem to notice it, but Wendell did. He’d give me a cold Coke if it was hot out, which it usually was in Prairie Rose. Sometimes he’d put the quarters in the machine for me, and sometimes he’d open it with a key. I had a crush on him almost from the first time I saw him, which would have been shortly after Grandma took me in, when I was 11.
Wendell’s hair was thick and curly, the color of sand on the beach. It was always mashed down in a cap, a different cap every time I saw him: Valvoline, Goodrich, Conoco, Lone Star Feeds. He wasn’t tall, but his hands were huge, the skin on his palms rough and thick and tanned brown as baseball mitts. His fingers and under his nails were always stained with grease.
It didn’t take long for me to decide that Wendell was my long-lost father. Never mind that his light blue eyes didn’t match my dark brown ones, never mind that Wendell’s last name, Hewlitt, didn’t even come close to the name I was given on my birth certificate, Ortiz.
I decided that Annmarie, my mother, had lied about who my father was, like she’d lied about so many other things in my life before the night she woke me in the pitch dark and drove me to Grandma’s, leaving me half-asleep on the doorstep for Grandma to find with the milk and the morning paper.
Not that dumping me at Grandma’s was the worst thing Annmarie’d ever done to me. In fact, it turned out to be the best. Grandma’s house was the smallest and most weatherbeaten on Sour Lake Road, but it was a royal palace compared to the apartments and trailers I’d lived in with Annmarie. By the end of the first week I was at Grandma’s, she had taken me shopping to three different towns for new clothes on sale, started me in school, and given me a list of chores to do — washing the dishes, taking out the trash, making my own bed. In exchange for this, I woke up every morning to a closet full of clean outfits, the smell and sound of flapjacks sizzling in the kitchen, a sandwich sitting in a bag, waiting for me to take. I knew a good deal when I saw one.
By the end of the second week, Grandma had me signed up for the church choir, after she heard me singing while I was doing the dishes one night. It was an old Bessie Smith song one of Annmarie’s boyfriends back in Vidor had taught me.
“Lord, child, where’d you get a voice like that?”
I shrugged, brushed my bangs back with my forearm so as not to get suds on my face. “Tommy Clayton taught me the song.”
“Who’s Tommy Clayton?”
“Annmarie’s boyfriend,” I said, leaving out the fact that he was about eight boyfriends ago. I didn’t want to see Grandma get agitated.
“Now Miriam,” she said, putting her hands on my shoulders, “you forget about all your Momma’s doings. You’re here with me now.”
I wanted to ask her for how long I was there, but I knew better than to push my luck. Instead I said, “Is it okay if I still sing the songs Tommy taught me?”
She laughed. “I didn’t mean you had to forget all that. You sing whatever songs you like.”
I started practicing with the church choir the following week. Thanks partly to my voice, partly to the frequent gallbladder attacks that kept the church’s best soprano away from too many rehearsals, within a month I became the youngest soloist ever at the Home Sweet Home Baptist Church.
School and homework and choir practice and household chores still left me plenty of free time to wonder about Wendell. Once I’d decided he was my Daddy, I could think of nothing else but him. I imagined myself making change for the customers in the garage, wearing one of Wendell’s caps, whistling the way he did to call Duke, his German Shepherd, whose black-and-tan coat always felt greasy from brushing up against the machinery. I could even see us down at High Island Beach, me throwing a frisbee for Duke to catch in the surf, Wendell laughing from the spot where I’d buried him in the sand.
Soon Grandma’s car troubles were not frequent enough to suit my needs, and I had to find another reason to go visit Wendell on my own. One Saturday I hopped on my bike, an old no-speed of Annmarie’s which Grandma had resurrected from the back shed, and rode it past the garage seven times until I thought up an excuse: I needed air in my tires.
“Is that right?” Wendell said, and he was smiling as he guided my bike over to the air pump.
When he was finished, he got me a Coke and sat me down on a chair in a corner of the garage.
“So Miriam,” he said, wiping his hands with a grease-stained towel, “how do you like Prairie Rose?”
“I like to be called Miri,” I said. One of Annmarie’s boyfriends had made up the nickname because I hated Miriam so much, and it just stuck. “Prairie Rose is okay.”
“Miri, is it?” Wendell laughed. “Fits you better. Your Grandma treating you okay?”
I nodded. “I like living with Grandma,” I said. “Everything in her house has a place it belongs. When I lived with Annmarie, everything just ended up on the floor, or piled on the kitchen table.” I threw Annmarie’s name in to see what effect it would have on Wendell, if he’d gasp at the sound of it, sit me down and tell me how he was my Daddy and he and Grandma and I would all live together now, like a family.
Wendell just looked surprised, though, and I realized for a second that he might not be my Daddy, he might not even have known Annmarie when she lived here, and yet I was talking to him like he knew my whole life story. I hadn’t been at Grandma’s long enough to realize that everybody in Prairie Rose did, in fact, know my whole life story, and each other’s.
“Annmarie’s my Momma,” I added.
“I know,” he said. “I was just surprised you called her by her given name.”
“She didn’t like me to call her Momma,” I said.
Wendell shook his head. “That would be Annmarie for you,” he said.
I felt my palms get sweaty then, and I rolled the cold Coke can in my hands to cool them down. I knew I’d been right. Wendell was going to claim me, and he would buy us a house with big windows and a sun porch for Grandma, a huge backyard for Duke. He’d be in the front row of the church every Sunday, beaming with pride at my solos, and after the service he’d accept compliments about my fine singing voice with a simple, “That’s my girl.” I rubbed the Coke can like it was a magic lamp that would grant me these wishes.
“I knew your Momma,” he said, “in high school.”
“Did you date her?” I blurted, too excited to be discreet.
“Date her?” Wendell chuckled. “I wouldn’t have had a chance. I was two years younger than your Momma, and she was dating seniors when she was still a freshman. I liked her, though. We all did.” He had his cap off again, smoothing that hair.
“Why?” I wanted to shout, but it came out as a whisper. I felt anger flashing through my hands to the Coke can, a hot and bitter pain that seemed to turn the can instantly warm. It was a feeling I’d had many times toward Annmarie, but this time it was at Wendell, for not being my father. I imagined the can was a weapon I could use against all the people who’d hurt me in my life. That didn’t leave too many still standing.
“Why what?” Wendell asked, innocent to the fact that I was about to destroy him with my mighty can.
“Why’d you like her?”
“Well, Miri, your Momma was beautiful. You know.”
I shook my head. Not even my powers of imagination could place Annmarie as a beautiful girl. By my earliest memory she looked hard and mean, and she probably wasn’t even 20 yet.
“How long’s it been since you seen your Momma, honey?” Wendell asked.
“Not that long,” I said. “It’s just she was never beautiful, is all.”
“Was when I knew her, honey,” he said. “She had this long, shiny brown hair and these big old dark eyes, just like yours. Real sad eyes.”
That was the final insult, worse even than him not being my Daddy. I looked nothing like Annmarie, at least not the Annmarie I’d known, and no one had ever before dared to say that I did. Wendell’s fate was sealed.
“Her hair’s blond now,” I said, putting the Coke can down like a grenade on the bench where he was sitting. “Bleached.”
I ran for my bike, hopped on, and pedaled as fast as I could, my voice working up and down the scales they taught me at choir practice as my legs pumped the bike. When I thought I was far enough away I let loose with my secret weapon, my high note, a sound so clear and piercing it could surely ignite an explosion that would take the whole town up into the sky, splitting it into pieces so small that even Grandma couldn’t put them back together, pieces that would slowly bleed down like raindrops and then disappear, one by one, into the Gulf of Mexico.