by Susan Coppola
|She always had the best colors, nail polish I mean, hot pink pyramid passion, deep red winter wine or, my favorite, pearlized pink lady. I loved to visit Aunt Irene or Rennie as we called her. Mama didn’t use nail polish. She said it wouldn’t make any difference if her nails were pink, purple or green. Said she’d still be working the IHOP on Route 210 and living from one tip to the next. Once I tried to sneak a bottle into my jeans.
“Junie, what you got there?” Rennie walked toward me as I sat on a daybed in the sunroom of her cluttered, but cozy, old house. Two mockingbirds squawked outside the jalousie windows.
“Nothing. Just a polish is all. Can I keep it?” I felt my face flush.
“Why sure Jit, just ask me next time, okay?” She always called me Junie or June Bug or Jitter Bug or Jit. She was crazy big on nicknames, said it was the proud part of being from Alabama.
“Sure. Sorry,” I said.
Her flip-flops padded across the tan and green speckled linoleum floor. My head was down, painting a shimmery sweep of color on my left big toenail. Rennie seemed to know everything except how to find a man who’d stick around or live long enough to be any good. She’d always say that with a laugh and a blast of cigarette smoke that puffed from her mouth like an old Ford with a bad exhaust. She was seventy-two and been through four husbands; two divorces and two funerals. She was actually my great aunt, my grandma’s sister, but she said that made her sound too old so she came up with Rennie instead. Grandma died when I was three so she kind of patched that hole in my life. Today I was at Rennie’s ‘cause Mama had to work. Maybelle Wells went to her daddy’s funeral in Mobile so Mama took her shift. It was Saturday breakfast and tips would be good.
“How about some deviled eggs, Sugar?” Her hair swirled around her head like a blond tornado. Her lips flashed pink and silver as shiny as fishing lures.
“Yes, please.” I sat with one knee up at the gray and white swirly top kitchen table with the thick silver legs and I fanned my toes with the TV Guide. I admired the finish, touched one to make sure they were dry. Rennie stood at her chipped white sink, a newspaper in her hand. She told me she’d put an ad in the paper, said she was looking for a new beau.
“You know I been through just about every available man in this town except Reverend Jackie Thompson. Maybe it’s time I give him a spin.” She cackled. “Wouldn’t that set tongues to waggin’ at Sunday service?”
“Why not? He’s a nice man and I’ll bet he’s lonely. His wife died a long time ago, right?
“Well it’s been a few years, but Junie, some things ain’t about nice. People have their own ideas about proper and I don’t think I’d fit the bill here.”
She had a funny smile, as if she was going to cry but just putting on the brave as Mama called it. Like once when our power was shut off. We sat in the dark for three nights putting on the brave till she had enough money to get the electric turned back on.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “It’s nobody business who loves who except the folks doing the loving.” She set the eggs down in front of me and gave me a hug.
“You’re a doll, June Bug. I wish the whole world thought like a twelve year old.” I smelled her Shalimar and felt the tickle of dangling earrings on my neck. I loved Rennie. There was no one else like her.
We finished lunch and she went to take a nap, called it her beauty rest, but she’d been doing a lot more of it lately. Mama came in about three o’clock, found me sprawled in Rennie’s favorite recliner. My legs dangled over the side, feet swishing back and forth while I admired the silver pink beauty of my toes.
“Hey, honey. Where’s Rennie?” She put her pocketbook on the end table and took off her coat. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail with streaks of gray. She didn’t “hit the bottle” as she called it, like Rennie did. Said she didn’t believe in fooling herself or anyone else about her age.
“Taking a nap. How was work? Tips good today?” I asked. Some days she smiled, some days she wouldn’t answer at all.
“Yeah, decent enough. Not as good as a Sunday shift, but it’ll do.” She kicked off her shoes and plopped on the sagging sofa. I hated to see her so tired.
“Yeah?” Her voice was soft and dreamy.
“Rennie was talking about dating Reverend Thompson before, then she got kind of sad. Said something about it not being proper. I don’t get it.”
Mama laughed. “Lord above! She said that? Jackie Thompson after all these years….” She shook her head, did that tisking thing with her tongue, her mouth bent in a crooked smile. I smelled the scent of magnolias, like sugar cookies mixed with lemonade, coming in through the front window.
“I don’t understand.”
“Not much to understand. Back about a hundred years ago, Jackie Thompson and Rennie were sweethearts. Dated for years then out of the blue he up and joined the seminary and Rennie ran off with Bobby Evans. Couldn’t stand the thought of being a preacher’s wife. Said all the smiley, kissy face, hand shaking that went with it, she might as well be a politician’s wife – least there was money in that.” Mama giggled and shook her head as if to shake free some more memories.
“You mean Mr. Evans at the hardware store?” I pictured him with his big belly and red face, his Ace Hardware shirt with his name stitched on the pocket; so weird to think of him once being a part of our family.
“Yes. It didn’t last very long. I was about your age. Times were different back then. Dothan was a small town with small-minded people.” Mama’s words were cut short.
“Still is, Katie dear.” Rennie’s hair was all pushed sideways from sleeping. Her eyes looked puffy and soft like a baby’s fists. Mama gave me a wink. I knew to hush up.
“Hey sweetie.” She pulled a cigarette from her mouth long enough to give Mama a kiss then popped it back in. Her lips puckered as she sucked in the smoke, reminded me of a pacifier.
“Hey, how about we go to Clem’s?” Mama asked, changing the subject. “I’m about twenty minutes rich here and want to treat you gals to dinner.”
I jumped up as if my legs were rubber bands. Clem’s was my favorite. They had the best ambrosia: mini-marshmallows, Cool Whip, and sweet pineapple chunks.
We piled in the car like a bunch of kids going to a birthday party. Mama hadn’t driven two blocks when the coughing fit started, the worst one ever. Mama pulled the car over.
“Here, take a sip.” She handed Rennie a bottle of water and patted her forehead with a hanky. I hung over the back seat and fanned her with an old copy of the Eagle.
“Thanks.” Her hand shook. She put the bottle to her lips and took a long swallow.
“Ahhhh.” She let out a sigh, sat up straight, patted her hair, and handed the hanky back to Mama. “Come on chickadees, let’s get going. That catfish’ll be gone if we don’t shake our tail feathers.”
But she was wrong. There was plenty of catfish and ambrosia and it was a perfect dinner until Rennie had another fit on the way back to the car. She spit something into a napkin then got real quiet on the drive home.
The following Saturday the phone rang right after breakfast. Bad news always seemed to come early like it wanted to hurry up and ruin your day. Mama answered. I watched as she squeezed her free hand in and out, making a fist, something she did when she was upset. Then phone to her ear, cord stretched tight, she ducked into the bathroom. When she came out, the look on her face reminded me of the time Carolyn Shelby’s mom called to tell us Carolyn had been hit by the car.
“Oh honey, I’m so sorry. We’ll be right over. Love you.” She hung up and turned to me with tears in her eyes like clouds piled up on a hot summer afternoon.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, baby. Rennie’s got lung cancer.”
“Oh no…” I would have asked more questions, but Mama started sobbing. We hugged. I squeezed my eyes closed tight as if to block out the truth.
On the drive over, Mama told me Rennie’d been given about six months to live. Said we’d have to put on the bravest brave we could and help her through. I wondered who’d help me.
Rennie was stretched out on the recliner, TV remote in hand. She’d been watching Let’s Make A Deal, but muted it when we walked in.
“Just don’t start in again. Don’t want to hear another word.” Rennie snapped the remote as if it controlled Mama’s volume too.
“Okay fine, I’ll live with your decision. Doesn’t mean I gotta like it though.” Mama grumbled.
“What are you two talkin’ about?” I hated that Mama still kept things from me.
“Rennie’s not having any treatments, honey.” I couldn’t believe it. Rennie was such a fighter. Why give up now?
“I don’t understand. Why not?” People were such a mystery. It bothered me when it was someone I loved.
“June Bug, we all gotta make our own choices. Always said my smokes are my only vice. I don’t drink; don’t even know how to swear. Although Lord knows I wish I did, for times like this. Besides I’m not leaving this earth looking like the moon-faced Buddha down at Chung’s Chinese restaurant. The way the doctor told me, won’t make a flea’s bit of difference anyway.”
“But it makes a difference to me! It’s not fair.” I threw myself onto the couch, eyes welling with hot angry tears. “What am I supposed to do without you?” I couldn’t find my breath like the time Russell Zator knocked the wind out of me in gym class.
Mama opened the blinds. It made the room brighter, but now I could see the gray of Rennie’s skin. A lump the size of a hush puppy rose up in my throat. I swallowed hard to push it back down; that squeezed the tears loose. I tried to look away, but she caught me.
“Jit, come over here, honey.” I leaned over the recliner and breathed Shalimar. She wiped my cheeks. “Come on now, sweetie. Dying’s just the other side of living, the other side of the coin. You’ll always be in my heart and I’ll always be in yours so I’m not really leaving, just going into hiding deep in your soul.” Her eyes met mine. They seemed to hold the answers to questions I hadn’t even thought of. She flashed a sassy smile. “Besides, the Lord’s not finished with me yet. I still gotta find myself one more good beau before I’m done.” We laughed too loud.
She had her bad days too. I caught her crying a few times. I always joined her. It felt good to let out the sad. It got so built up sometimes I felt like I was choking on it. She kept herself busy answering the letters she got from the personal ad. And it may sound strange, but the ad was a blessing. Those letters gave her something to look forward to, a few good laughs. And then one day, the right letter came.
“Jitter honey, turn up the light, would you please?” She lay on the sofa. Her hair, now streaked with gray, spread across the pink pillows behind her like a silver fan. She’d quit touching it up. Said she didn’t have the energy or the time.
“Sure thing.” I pulled the chain on the lamp. She put on her glasses and opened a cream-colored envelope. I watched her face as she scanned the words. When she reached the bottom, she took off her glasses, wiped her eyes and let out a long sigh.
“The good Lord certainly does work in mysterious ways. His wonders to achieve. It’s from Jackie and I do believe I’m going to answer this one.” Her face looked brighter than it had in weeks. It took me a minute to remember that Mama called Reverend Thompson “Jackie.” Then I knew the reason for the smile.
Rennie did reply to Reverend Thompson’s letter and they went on a date the following week. She said she didn’t believe in mincing around and told him straight up about her cancer. He didn’t care. We’d go over to her place and cook dinner twice a week while they’d sit on the couch holding hands. Mama said they were like a couple of teenagers again. Outside Rennie’s front window, the seasons passed. The magnolia tree shed its creamy blossoms, the mockingbird was long gone to his cool weather home farther south in the bayou.
By winter, the cancer came on strong and fierce and Rennie seemed to slip farther away every time we’d visit. Reverend Thompson had taken to staying overnight just to be near her. He’d cook her favorite pecan pancakes for breakfast, lunch and even dinner if she wanted. When she got too weak, he’d cut them and feed them to her. I’d never seen a man so kind and gentle. I realized Rennie was right. Real love never dies, just sits on a shelf in your heart until you’re ready to take it out again.
On one of Rennie’s last good days, Mama and I walked in to find her lying on the sofa. Reverend Thompson sat at the far end with her feet in his lap. Her eyes were closed and she was smiling like someone had just told her every great secret in the world. I watched as he put some lotion on his hands and squeezed her toes and rubbed her heels with his palms then dried them with a fluffy white towel. He opened a small glass bottle. I smelled nail polish. His head was down as he painted her toenails and in that swirl of pink I got to see the true color of love.
Susan Coppola has been writing since early 2005. She has been a finalist in five writing contests including Glimmer Train Press Short Story Award for New Writers Fall 2005, Cedar Hill Press, J.D. Vine Publications, Southwest Writers Group and the Phillip Mangelsdorf Prize for Writing Excellence. She has performed memoir pieces for Lip Service, a spoken word production held at Books and Books in Coral Gable, Fl. Currently a member of a weekly writer’s workshop/ critique group in Miami, she is working on a screenplay centered around horseracing in turn of the century Brooklyn.