Charles Dale Perry's mother was known for washing her hands. The summer that Charles Dale came to live with my family, she was up to at least forty times a day. If she forgot and took the mail out of the box before the sun had time to bake off the postman's germs, or if she had to give Charles Dale's little brother an enema, the count could go as high as fifty.
When my mother told me that Charles Dale was coming to stay with us and that his mother was going to North Austin to a psychiatric hospital, I cried like a kid Charles Dale's little brother's age. It wasn't that I didn't want him to live with us -- he was my second best friend -- it was that his mother was my best friend.
Lou Jean Perry was the only person I ever knew who could scare both my mother and my grandmother. Neither of them was afraid of Jesus, and only one of them was afraid of God, but both were afraid of Lou Jean. My grandmother was afraid of her because of the effect Lou Jean had on my mother. My mother was afraid of the black hair that hung over Lou Jean's shoulder and straight down the center of her cleavage, a braid as thick as a woman's arm, and of the black pencil, soft as a Crayola left on a hot sidewalk, that Lou Jean used to color the pale white skin around her blue eyes.
When Lou Jean left that day, sitting with her right shoulder blade against the passenger door of her mother's white Cadillac, everyone on the street noticed just one thing. She didn't wave to Charles Dale or David, who stood with me on our lawn. My mother stood behind the three of us, her arms spread out to catch me on my right shoulder, Charles Dale on his left. With David in between us, where he could feel it too, she sent waves of motherly concern down her hands, out her fingertips, and into our August-brown bodies. The neighbors watched and thought how lucky Charles Dale and David were to have my mother step in. My mother watched and thought how lucky she was to have Lou Jean drive off. My father stayed at work.
Just as the Cadillac got to the end of our block, before it pulled on to Fifth, Lou Jean turned in her seat and leaned through the window, her hair crow's-wing shiny under the noon sun. And still she did not look at us.
Instead, she tilted her head back further and further, lifting her chin until her eyes were locked on the tallest point of her house, where the second story was capped by a tiny bell tower. She stared at a point high up on the hot stucco, and seeing where her eyes went, Charles Dale, David, and I turned to stare at the exact same spot. While the neighbors poked each other to make sure nobody missed this, her last broad daylight act of craziness, and my mother tried to decide what we were staring at and if she should herd us on into the house, we looked at the spot and then back at Lou Jean, making sure we knew exactly where she was looking. When we could no longer see the car or hear its motor, my mother took David by the hand and led us inside, away from the twelve-o'clock glare of neighbors' eyes. I tried to glance at the spot one more time as we started to the door, but I couldn't see around my mother's body.
"My mom said you can come over if you want" was the first thing Charles Dale Perry ever said to me. I was sitting on the curb the day we moved in, hoping kids would come out of one of the houses. In the three and a half hours we had lived there, I had seen none. He spoke from directly behind me, and I had to turn all the way around to look up at his face. The late afternoon sun was so strong behind his head that I couldn't see what he looked like, but I was so ready for company that it didn't matter. I said, "Okay," got up, and followed him into the house next door to ours.
The Perrys had lived in that big Spanish house since before the boys were born. "Old money," said my dad. "And crazy as peach orchard boars, every one of them," said my grandmother. My mom said nothing.
The house had been bought for Lou Jean and her husband by her parents just before Charles Dale was born. When I followed Charles Dale through that door for the first time, Lou Jean's husband had been dead a year and a month, the first and only person in Rosalita to be killed in Vietnam.
Lou Jean was in the kitchen, a huge room covered in Mexican tiles and hand-painted wooden cabinets. The floors were spotless gleaming saltillo. The counters and walls were cobalt blue with small touches of terra-cotta and forest green. The cabinets were painted with jungle birds, toucans and macaws and parrots, with tiny hummingbirds feeding at the knobs. Even the ceiling was painted, in swirls of icy blues and greens. It was like walking into a magic cave with a stream flowing through it, where birds and animals come to get out of the heat. I wanted to lie down on that tile floor and turn my face side to side, press each cheek against the shine until I soaked up all the cool.
Lou Jean turned from the carrot she was grating and saw me staring at the floor. "Hi, Kayla," she said, surprising me by knowing my name, and then added, as if she could read my mind, "I just mopped it. It's clean." Thinking she meant it was all right for me to lie down, I did, stretching out on my stomach and extending my arms so my elbows and palms could feel the cool too.
Charles Dale laughed, a snort really. His voice was shocked. "She's lying down on our floor." It dawned on me then that his mother must not have meant for me to lie down on her tiles; she was just saying that they were clean. Now I was stretched flat on the kitchen floor of a house I'd never been in, in front of the first kid I'd met, whose name I didn't even know, though for some reason, his mother knew mine.
I pushed myself to my knees as quickly as I could, wanting to be up and out of there before I did anything else stupid, but just as suddenly, Lou Jean was at my side, her hand on my shoulder. "Charles Dale Perry. What do you think you're laughing at? This is what tile floors are for. This is how they do it in Mexico. Down in old Mexico, I mean. Away from the border." She lifted her braid from where it hung between her breasts, threw it out and around her right shoulder to her back, and got down on the floor in the same position I had been.
I looked at Charles Dale to make sure they weren't playing some kind of joke on me, but he was staring at his mother, as surprised as I was. Slowly, I got down on the floor beside her, moving over from the last place I'd lain, to make sure the tiles were as cold as possible. I turned my face on its left side and out of the corner of my right eye, I could see Charles Dale staring at us, a grin on his face. His smile was familiar, like someone I knew, and I decided he wasn't really mean, just not sure how you were supposed to act when people lay down on your kitchen floor.
"Y'all are crazy." He shook his head and sighed as he climbed down beside us, slowly, shyly, although by now I could tell he was dying to try it too. Pressing against the floor, his face was dark, tanned, almost the color of the saltillo. His hair was the same color as mine, the kind of hair that bordered between brown and blond, depending on the time of year. His eyes were also brown, with golden flecks, as if the sun had claimed them too.
We lay there until our undersides were cold as grass snakes, grinning at each other and occasionally changing the position of a foot or arm to let another part get cool. Finally, Lou Jean got up, stretched her arms back over her head until they touched the floor, a perfect backbend in the middle of a kitchen, then rose up and went to the sink. She washed her hands and said over her shoulder, "If you two will go drag David out from in front of that television and wash his hands and yours, and wash them good, now, I'll make you raisin-and-carrot salad with baby marshmallows in it."
I believe it's possible there is no such thing as crazy. Or maybe that there are degrees of craziness, some worse than others. And I also believe that what some people think is crazy is not really crazy at all. To me, that June afternoon, when temperatures were already in the hundreds, it seemed like the most sane thing in the world to keep a kitchen floor clean enough to lie down and cool off on.
I was thirteen that summer, and had begun to claim and proclaim all the ways I was different from my mother. I was especially interested in things that she, with her increasingly poor taste, might find abhorrent. Lying down on a kitchen floor certainly was one of those things.
When we had washed up, the three of us stood in the light of the kitchen window and watched Lou Jean finish the salad. I was enchanted. In my house, a salad was iceberg lettuce and cherry tomatoes, or maybe, if we had company, canned pears with Miracle Whip and grated cheese on top.
At home, marshmallows were only found floating on hot chocolate, after dinner. After you had eaten your iceberg lettuce salad. And now, as Lou Jean's smooth pale hand, clean as a Bible, reached into the bag and came back out, I felt as if it were telling me a secret. "Listen closely," it said. "Most people wouldn't tell you this, may not even know it themselves, but marshmallows can be salad. Watch this." The hand opened above the bowl, marshmallows fell down like pearls, and I stood speechless, entranced. Until the spell was shattered by my mother's voice, calling me home.
I crossed their yard and ours, hands wrapped tight around Lou Jean's gift, a turquoise Tupperware bowl of salad, so focused that I did not notice my grandmother's Buick parked out front until I heard her voice in the kitchen. She grabbed me before I was all the way in the door. Her arms around me, she buried my face in her stomach and kissed the top of my head, then stood back and looked down at me seriously. My grandmother was a large woman. Tall and sturdy, she reminded me of a water tower, her white fluffy hair sitting like a cloud around its dome.
"Do you know how glad I am that you're going to be living back here? Do you know how much fun we're going to have? You've got to spend the night with me on Fridays when football starts and ride shotgun to the games. We've got to help those Panthers win. Will you do that for me and those poor old Panthers?"
I nodded yes to every question. "And, Gran," I shot out before she could go on, "I already met some people. A woman. And a boy. Two boys, one's my age. And the lady's gorgeous. She can do backbends. Maybe they can go with us to the games."
She looked at my mother over my head, then back down at me. "Well, that figures -- that you'd not even be here one whole day before you found a friend. And you're going to make lots more, do you know that?"
"I know, but these people are right next door. I never had a friend that lived next door before. She made this." I turned toward my mother, who had just lifted a blue enamel turkey roaster out of a cardboard box.
"What is that?" She looked at my grandmother before she looked at me.
"Carrot-and-raisin salad." I didn't tell her it had marshmallows in it. "Now you don't have to cook."
For a moment, it was quiet, then my grandmother, behind me, said, "Well, isn't that nice."
"Just lovely," said my mother, shoving the empty cardboard box across the kitchen floor with her foot and pulling a full one toward her.
Something about the speed of the boxes wasn't right. "What's the matter? Do you have a headache?" I asked.
"Not yet." She ripped apart the folded flaps of a box, then slammed both hands down into its newspaper-wrapped contents. I glanced at the side of the box to make sure it wasn't marked butcher knives. She looked at the bowl in my hands and shook her head, as if I held something dangerous. "Put that in the refrigerator and go start unpacking your stuffed animals. Dad's gone to get hamburgers."
"Okay," I said, "but I'm having it for supper with my hamburger."
Mother stood with a cheese grater and a colander in her hand. She gave me a long look before she spoke. "By all means, Kayla, you can have it for supper with your hamburger."
"What's wrong with you?" I asked. Silently, she put her hands on her hips, and looked at me with her eyebrows raised to their full I'm-waiting-for-you-to-remember-I'm-the-boss position.
As I passed through the swinging door into the dining room, I heard Gran say, "What do you think you're doing?"
I stopped on the other side of the dining-room table as I heard another box slide across the floor and, above it, my mother's voice: "What does it look like I'm doing?"
"Being mean to your daughter, it looks like to me. What are you mad at her for?"
The sound of the boxes stopped. "I'm not mad at her."
"It sounds to me as if you are. It sounds like you're mad because she met your next-door neighbors and liked them, although why they're your next-door neighbors, I still don't understand."
"Leave me alone, Mother," I heard as the noise of flying boxes started up again. "I haven't been back a whole day yet, and already you start in."
My grandmother's voice was louder now, "Sarah Jo, listen to me. Stop kicking those damn things, and listen to me." Her voice grew calmer and slower then, as the noise from the boxes stopped. "I don't know what you've done. I don't know why you've moved here. In this house, of all places. Why have you done this?"
"How many times do I have to tell you? Because we liked this house best, of all the ones we looked at."
"Who the hell is we? You can't mean Kayla, because she hadn't even seen it when you bought it. And I know good and well Phil wouldn't choose to live here. He just did it to pacify you."
"Are you sure, Mother?" my mother's voice interrupted. "Are you sure and certain that Phil didn't want to live here, that it wasn't exactly what he wanted?"
For a long time they were quiet. Then Gran spoke again. "I meant what I said about Kayla. You can't expect her to take sides. You can't get mad at her for liking the neighbors you chose." Then very slowly, she said, "You can't expect her to hate somebody just because you do. It isn't right."
The kitchen was quiet then, with no sound coming from my mother or the boxes, and my grandmother continued, "Let her be a child. And you be a grown-up."
When Mother didn't respond, Gran asked, "Honey, why did you do it?"
The boxes started flying again, and over the noise, almost shouting, came my mother's voice. "I'm not telling you again. Because we liked the house."
Hearing the jingle of Gran's key ring, I ran for my bedroom, and just as I cleared the door, I heard her as she left the kitchen. "Sarah Jo, you are my daughter and I love you more than life itself, but I swear to God you would worry the balls off a brass monkey."
Copyright © 2001 by Cindy Eppes