The Fenns – Chapter Six

From Coffee Cans to Green Dresses

“I can’t believe we have to report back to school this week,” Karen lamented. She had talked Julie into coming with her while she ran back to school errands.

Julie hadn’t wanted to. She’d done her own back to school shopping at the beginning of the month. Unlike most teachers, she was one of the few who enjoyed opening up her classroom in the early part of August and performing the types of basic housekeeping and readiness activities that everyone else saved for the first days before the students arrived so that they had all in the ready but the actual lesson plans. Julie preferred to gear herself up for the inevitable with cleaning, unpacking and organizing so that when the first day back for teachers arrived, she could devote the little time there was between meetings to preparing to teach something substantial. She had a reputation for being one of “those” teachers, who spent a few minutes on the rules before plowing right into the work and who might even give homework on the first day. In truth, Julie assigned homework on a needs basis. She didn’t believe in it and was so dismissive of its necessity she didn’t even argue the point anymore. Her rules were simple in any case,

“Don’t piss me off,” she told each class. “I’m an easy person to get along with so long as you understand that I have plans and subverting them irritates me.”

But Karen dangled Target and a non-fat chai from Starbucks in front of her and like Pavel’s dog she responded, rationalizing that a teacher could never have too many boxes of Kleenex and economy sized boxes of number two pencils.

“Do you remember that boy a few years back whose nose ran constantly. Thick, green and as constant as a leaky faucet?” Karen asked after Julie shared her theory on tissue.

“And he’d wipe it on the back of his hand and then spend the next thirty minutes rubbing it to paste with his index finger and dust it off onto the floor after?” Julie asked for clarification purposes. Nose picking, she’d discovered to her disgust, was a life long habit for some.

“That’s the one,” Karen confirmed. “He used to get sent to me just about every class period during the cold and flu season because no one could believe the kid was simply a walking snot spigot.”

“I had to train him to use tissues,” Julie said. “I thought he was embarrassed to use them at first and call attention to the chronic snot stream, but the playing with boogers thing suggested otherwise.”

Karen nodded. “Do you remember his parents?”

Julie did. She’d seen more examples in support of Margaret Sanger’s birth control theories than she cared to recall over the years. There was the 26 year old man with the twelve year old son who she encountered during her first years as a middle school teacher. The twin boys who were about as close to being raised by wolves as she had ever seen. Their mother was a schizophrenic that social workers thought could be trained to be a good parent. She kept those babies locked in a bedroom closet for the first 18 months of their lives until family members were finally able to secure custody of them. One truly memorable parent encounter occurred at her very first parent/teacher conference. She sat across the table from a shaggy haired boy who seldom produced anything other opportunites to be sent to the vice-principal, although he did a credible job for her, and his Hell’s Angel mother. Jet black hair cut in the obligatory mullet of the working poor, her Hank Jr. concert tee was hacked at the shoulders and the neckline so her red bra-straps could peek out. Her right arm sported a full-sleeve tattoo of a thorny vine climbing up to culminate in a rose. On her left shoulder was the picture of a very little girl with nothing to identify her but the dates of her birth and her death. She sat stone-faced while Julie walked her through the reports from the various subject area teachers and the boy did a slow slide down the folding chair until he was just about eye-level with the table. After she finished, Julie asked if she’d any questions and the woman turned to her son and with a disgusted sneer announced, “Well, that’s it for you. No more cigarettes until these grades come up.”

But Snot Boy’s parents were a horror on another level. Julie understood where Cigarette Boy and his Biker Mama came from, and why they were likely to never rise above themselves or their circumstances. Snot Boy’s parents were nice people. They wanted to be good parents, but they just weren’t smart enough. Julie wasn’t sure just how mentally disabled the couple was, but it was more than evident that they were. She suspected that the boy was not, and he would go on to prove her right, but sweet as they were and try though they did, Julie couldn’t help but wonder what this boy might have been and could have done in the hands of more capable parents.

They were each pushing carts, but Julie’s was a prop. When Jimmy had been first ill, the only outings she had aside from the time she spent at work was when she needed to go shopping. For groceries. For household necessities. For clothing. Once Jimmy’s illness forced her to take an extended leave from work, shopping was sometimes her only brush with humanity at large aside from the few friends Brecca had who would brave their hospice-like home and, of course, Karen and her sisters, who barely counted as at large.

She followed Karen around from one aisle to another without much enthusiasm or even feigned interest. Karen noticed but pretended not to. She could be hard on Julie. When she felt her friend was slipping too far into herself which, in Karen’s opinion, was not good for her or for Brecca, she could be as brutally edged as Gemma, but she recognized that there were times when Julie just needed to be a widow, addled and absent. Karen, however, did not think she needed to allow Julie to do this in the cloistered atmosphere of her home all the time and coaxed and prodded her into the world as much as she was able.

They rounded a corner, passing the pet aisle. Decorative pet food containers caught her eye and she stopped for a moment.

“Thinking about caving and getting Brecca that purse puppy?”

“We looked for urns here.”

“You were going to bury Jimmy in a doggy dish?”

“The woman at the funeral home mentioned that some people saved money through cremation and that we could use containers that could pass as urns, so we came over here one evening and looked around. Jimmy thought that the doggy treat canister was about the right size, but we couldn’t figure out how to get the dog image off the side. I mean if we had a dog, we could have just said the dog was representative of Jimmy’s great love of dogs, but he didn’t even like dogs. He thought his mother would have gone for it anyway because she’s just that dense, and you know, she collects anything with a dog on it. She would have thought it was …… I don’t know, something sugary and hard to keep down. We almost bought the coffee container at the Starbucks but in the end I just couldn’t see myself burying my husband in the yuppie version of a coffee can.”

“He did love their mocha lattes,” Karen pointed out.

“Yeah, but I think people would have noticed the Starbucks’ logo at the wake and judged me. I mean, aren’t we supposed to pull the credit card out of ice and spend money we don’t have to bury the ones we love? Lavish funerals are representative of our love for someone, right?”

“Not everyone thinks like that,” Karen assured her.

“Most everyone does,” Julie disagreed. “And if it’s not money, it’s the number of times you choke back tears or break down completely or it’s how often you visit the grave later and decorate it with crap that just gets ruined in the rain or the snow if it’s not blown away by the wind or stolen by teenagers who think it’s funny to steal knick-knacks from the dead.”

“Let’s check out clothes,” Karen suggested in such an obvious attempt to change the subject that Julie smiled in spite of rising irritation, allowing herself to be led to the women’s department where designers trolled for dollars from women they secretly deemed too fat and frumpy to wear their knock off’s. Julie had lost enough weight from her already slender frame over the months that she could wear just about anything she took from the racks, but she hated clothes shopping with Karen. She could mix and match a hundred outfits in the time it took Karen to second-guess her way to a single shirt or pair of pants. She was grateful that Karen would listen to her talk about things like having considered burying her husband in a coffee can without cringing or telling her she shouldn’t be dwelling on it any more. Past is past, Gemma would say. Let it be and think happy thoughts was the general response of most others she might encounter. And with a pinch of pixie dust, I could fly, thought Julie. Like a pig.

“Do you have anything summery casual yet not mommish?” Karen broke in.

She was rummaging through a rack of skorts, rearranging as she did so. Karen was a store employee’s dream. She put things back where she found them and tidied up after other customers who dropped or reshelved items without regard to where they’d found them or in what state.

“I need something like that?” Julie asked, wrinkling her nose at the selections Karen held up for her approval. “And does anything say ‘mom’ like a skort?”

“I am not toned enough for shorts and little skirts and dresses screams out denial,” Karen said. “And yes, you do. You agreed to go to Summer Fest this weekend, remember?”

She didn’t and couldn’t imagine what state of weakness she was caught in that prompted her to acquiesce to such a thing.

Summer Fest was a weekend long ritual marking the end of summer. The downtown came alive for a weekend with morning farmers’ market and a day long craft and arts market, punctuated with street performances ranging from puppet shows to juggling troubadours reciting Shakespeare and magicians who lured children with balloon animals and pulled chocolate covered coins from behind sweaty little ears.

In years past, Jimmy and Julie would stroll the farmers’ market in the morning, studiously avoiding  the throngs in the afternoon by hanging around the marina on the only asset of worth Gemma walked away from her marriage with – a boat that served as the family’s equivalent of summering in the Hamptons.

“I’d have wrestled that worm I was married to in a blow up pool of jello for that boat,” Gemma declared.

And when the sun would begin its stealthy descent behind the bluffs, they would all make their way to the Clock Tower Square for the live bands and dancing.

“I don’t need anything new,” Julie said.

“I can’t imagine how you couldn’t,” Karen said. “Everything you own hangs on you like bad wallpaper.”

She dove into a nearby rack and emerged with a Marilyn Monroe over the subway grate dress in a pale green that Julie knew would pull the muddy grass color out the hazel mish-mash of her eyes. Not wanting to, she wanted the dress anyway. Like many random things of late, it tugged at dormant dreams and wants and needs.

“This is perfect,” Karen declared, holding it up against Julie’s slumped form. “You have great shoulders and you’ve always looked great from behind – even when you’re so thin, you are covergirl ugly.”

“How could I not be sold with such a winning sales pitch?” Julie asked, taking the hanger by the neck but holding it away from her as though it smelled bad.

In the fitting room, Julie craned this way and that. She was too pale. Too skinny. Her hair was in need of an expert and not her customary sheering on the fly in the en suite with whatever pair of scissors she could find. But all those things aside, Julie liked the way the skirt flounced around her knees, brushing her bare thighs in a way that reminded her it had been a long time since anyone had seen them.

Later that evening, alone again because the newly single mother of a teenage daughter spends a lot of time being envious of the latter’s social life, Julie danced around her bedroom in the dress. Slowly she swayed like a little girl pretending Swan Lake until she ran out of space and fell backwards on the king-size bed, the blades of the ceiling fan shadowing her in turn.

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