Once Upon a Time
“Trailer trash!” It's what my mother used to say. People who spit on the sidewalk or threw trash out car windows were subject to such immediate judgment. So were those who neglected to say “Sir” and “Ma'am”. And those who talked loudly in the cinema. As well as those so crass as to mop up runny egg yolks with toast while eating in a public place. It was a long list. As a young child, I tried very hard to learn all the expected etiquette because the thought of becoming trailer trash seemed seriously worse than death.
I remember a time in the first grade when I failed a spelling test. There I was staring at my test paper with a failing grade written in red. I had no idea whether failing a spelling test would make me trailer trash but I wasn't about to find out. I crammed my failure under a rock as I walked home. In those days, parents were not required to sign off on things like that so my mother never knew. But three years later when I misspelled the word understand during a spelling bee, my mother was there to witness my humiliation. Do I know why I put an h at the beginning of the word? There were only two of us left on the auditorium stage so perhaps the nervous hiccup that emerged when I opened my mouth transferred its h to my word. I felt horrible as soon as my spoken letters took audible shape. “How could you be so stupid!” My mother hissed in my ear as I slunk from the stage. Trailer trash is what I understood.
Later on, I came to realize that trailer trash encompassed an anti way of life. Simply put – anything that did not fall within the realm of what was acceptable in my mother's world. Anything not white, Christian and middle class (aspiring to be upper class) with manly men and girly women. My first transgressions were only a few of many to come.
The Curious Incident of the White Gloves
The day came. I was 14. It was 1968. I was scheduled to attend yet another young lady luncheon hosted by the local chapter of the Junior Women's Club. Picture this -- 20 or 30 young girls dressed up in their luncheon clothes. Our luncheon outfits were finer than what we wore to church. At that age, we were not yet allowed to wear nylon hosiery to church or to school but we were expected to wear it to luncheon, just as we were expected to wear our best dresses and dainty white gloves. We would troop into the dining room at the club's hall and sit in small groups around tables adorned with crisp white cloths. There we were served chicken, potatoes and some kind of vegetable along with Southern sweet tea. There was always a floral centerpiece. We were provided the correct cutlery (all 8 or 10 or however many unnecessary pieces of it) and endeavored to use it neatly and properly. We were ladies-in-training. The only missing elements were the future husbands for whom we would one day provide feminine refinement.
That day I could feel the rebellion building. I hated those luncheons but I put on my dress. I even put on the hosiery, stuffing myself into the obligatory girdle and hooking the nylons to it. (Pantyhose had yet to become a thing. One still bought nylons at the hosiery counter in the local department store where they came in flat boxes, folded and wrapped in tissue.) I opened my accessory drawer, pulled out a pair of white gloves and decided I'd had enough. Just like that. I put them away again, buried them deep underneath a pile of colorful scarves. When my mother opened the bedroom door to see what was keeping me, she found me lounging on the bed wearing a pair of jeans and a knit shirt.
“Kelly!” Her tone was appalled. “Get dressed right now young lady. We're going to be late.”
“Not going,” said recalcitrant me.
She cajoled. She whined. She got stern. But in the end, short of forcibly redressing me and dragging me out to the car, there really wasn't much she could do. I was banished to my room for the day. (“Don't you dare come out, young lady, unless you need the bathroom.”) Oh, woe was me. I had a stack of books begging to be read and enjoyed a peaceful afternoon with my imagination as company.
When Sunday rolled around, I figured that a successful strategy was worth repeating. Church? “Not going,” I said. Banishment round two.
I never went back to either – the luncheons or the church. Okay. I went to church for the occasional christening and other special occasions. Then there was that brief, regrettable period where I was enamored of a boy who was a born-again Christian but that is another story. On the whole, when I recall my teenage years I mostly remember my metamorphosis into trailer trash.
“We never discouraged you from following your interests, did we?” My dad once asked me this.
I had to think about that for a minute or so. In junior high school, I used to talk about becoming a nuclear physicist. I read both science and science fiction, once writing a short paper on time as the fourth dimension that was inspired by Einstein and H.G. Wells. No one ever told me not to do those things but I also knew that no one seriously expected me to follow that kind of career path.
“No,” I said in response to my dad. “No you never discouraged me but let's be honest. You expected me to get married. You expected to hand me over to someone who would take care of me for the rest of my life. It's just that you never encouraged me either.”
He looked hurt then so I went on to say something else he expected. “I know you only wanted what was best for me. Truly.” We left it at that.
I did get married. The constant tug of expectations can be hard to resist, like being pulled along behind a tractor where you are constantly sowing seeds to grow those expected realities. When Daniel came along, marriage seemed like the thing to do. What a nice guy. Everybody thought so. He wanted to be an actuary. He loved finance and financial stability. He was tall, blond and lanky. My family loved him. How could I go wrong?
Something apparently obvious to everyone except me: marriage requires intimacy. No, I don't necessarily mean physical coupling. (Though yes, that too.) What it requires at the core is the kind of intimacy that uses the mundane to bind people together. Think of it as a kind of relationship super glue. It's all the little things – the shared morning coffees, the automatic swapping of the front page and comic sections of the newspaper on Sundays, the love of pasta, the appreciation of one's green thumb by the other's brown, the knowing who washes and who dries without the need to say. So many small things that form the mosaic of intimacy between two. I was always focused on the large, looming things while the small stuff went begging for appreciation.
Here's one thing I remember:
The phone rings. I pick up the receiver. “Hello?” I say.
“Is Danny there?” Danny? Spare me.
“No, I'm sorry. He's not here at the moment.”
“Uh, okay. Can I leave a message? This is Sh...”
“Nope.” I hang up the phone.
Sh... (I imagine the rest) can find him on her own. Sh... can join Di... and He... and all the other trailer trash searching for my husband, I think. Good luck to them.
Not long after that I changed. I say I changed because I'm certain Daniel didn't. He went on as before, seemingly content with his life as it unfolded. He still looked at me now and then with that look, saying something like, “Hey, Kel. How about a little snuggle time tonight?” He still took my hand, pulled me up from the sofa and led me to our bedroom for a little pleasure. That was all as it always had been. But when we were unclothed and stretched out on top of the sheets, I began to imagine that one of them was with us. Sometimes it was Sh..., sometimes Di... or He... She was always beautiful. Sh... was blond. Di... had lovely cocoa-colored skin. He... was a redhead with a freckled nose. We were never alone, Daniel and I. Funny but I didn't mind. It was more comfortable with three. After a time, I began to fantasize about them when I was alone. Di(ane) was my favorite. I often imagined the two us on top of the sheets, just us two, her long chocolate legs entwined with mine. I spent daydreaming time with Sh(aron) and He(len), too. Those were such lovely days. I wanted my own floozy. So what did that make me?
The Lizard King
I live alone now. It suits me fine. Danny eventually married Shannon. (Yes, her name was Shannon. Petite and brunette. Go figure.) Danny and Shannon sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g. Sorry, I'll stop now. Me, I rented this little house in town. It has a sitting room with French doors opening out to the backyard. Sometimes I sit there in my recliner to see what I can see of the life outside.
“Are you sure you can't work things out?” My mother asked when I informed her that Daniel and I were divorcing. “What will people think? What will you do?”
It's 1990, I wanted to say. Nobody is going think anything because nobody will care. I wanted to shake her really. Since shaking one's mother is not so much the thing to do, I let the words roll over me, imagined them floating out the window where they vanished into the puffy, white clouds overhead.
“I do have a job,” I said. “I'll be fine. Don't worry.”
Things I did not say included: I'm getting one of those messy, shedding dogs soon, a big one; I plan to get some unnatural color in my hair; I'm reading that book you hated; I still haven't figured out how to arrange flowers; I have a girlfriend; I'm content.
When I moved into this house, I put a small chair on the concrete stoop outside the back door. I never sit there much because it's usually either too sunny or too wet. Eventually the lizards moved in. They've been there for several years now. They sleep underneath the cushion. Once the sun comes up and the day warms, they stretch out on the arms and the back of the chair. There is one male and several females. The male always has the highest perch. Mostly he sits and surveys the yard. But sometimes when I'm sitting in my recliner, he turns and looks at me through the glass door. He pumps himself up and down, periodically throwing out his flashy orange dewlap in an effort to stake his claim and intimidate his rival – me. Silly boy.
Here's what I wonder. When the lizard family moved into my chair, were they moving up or down in the world? Does the chair represent a mansion of sorts or do the tree-loving lizards sneer at the chair-lovers? Do lizards even worry about such things? I suspect not.
“Take care of yourselves,” I often say to the tiny ones. “Enjoy the day. Be happy out there.”
© Karen Kleis – All Rights Reserved
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