One of my co-workers gave her a damp rag, which she waved across the table in slow, studied circles. She then extracted an enormously long cigarette from an intricately beaded case, looked at it with a mixture of anticipation and satisfaction, and copying FDR, propped it in her mouth. She lit it with a flourish and sucked in the life-sustaining smoke as if she had just emerged from underwater. This was the first inhalation since the beginning of her monologue. I wanted her to continue, but she held the smoke several seconds before exhaling a thin stream that extended several feet. She looked at me deliberately, as if her next utterance had been carefully planned.
"I wanted to take a costume design class there, and they said all snotty 'No, you can't take this, you don't have the necessary pre-requisites' but they didn't know I'd been sewing all my life and there wasn't anything I couldn't make, and they did want my money, so they buckled under, the cowards! They don't stand for anything. Look, I made this outfit, well, hell, I make all my clothes, just about, I mean, the ones you can buy are either so overpriced it's insane or they're made in Malaysia or whatever and fall apart the first time you wash them. What do those people know about our clothes? I often think of some poor woman chained to an old Singer pedal machine sewing clothes for us and looking at them and wondering 'What kind of people wear these things?' you know what I mean, they wear coconut husks and grass skirts. Anyway, I ended up sewing and doing some of the design for 'Antigone', did you see it? no, I suppose you wouldn't have been old enough, well, when they reviewed the show in the paper they made a special point to comment on the costumes, and though my name wasn't mentioned, I was just a seamstress you know, not any fancy designer, I thought I might want to do that, but I just can't be on my feet like I woulda needed to, so I work where I can sit down, which doesn't use my talents as well as I would like, but with my bad back, and now I can't hardly go up and down stairs, and of course I've gained all this weight since then 'cause I don't get around as much." The cigarette danced in her mouth as she spoke. She paused and inhaled deeply. "You should have seen me before I got hurt, I used to have all the guys hitting on me, even when I was married, and though that bastard cheated on me, I never did...I don't know why." Another extended pull on the cigarette, to clear or cloud her brain? "I didn't, not once, as long as we were together, then after I got out, he left me, the worm. No note, not brave enough to tell me, nothing, just gone one day, so I guess he had some babe somewhere while I was locked up. Just disappeared--don't that beat all? Without those three adopted kids I don't know what I would have done, because my kids were so young then, I mean what could I do?, I was gone for almost a year, then I could hardly move, and had to go to therapy once a week, that's when he should have been there, you know, he promised in sickness and health, but I found out how much that promise meant to him. He preferred someone else's health to my sickness, and what do I get for all those years of putting up with him?"
She sucked on the cigarette for a final, long pull, and exhaled a truly impressive quantity of smoke. After twisting the butt into the ashtray as she probably would have liked to do to her husband, she looked at me in a way few people do.
"I'm probably boring the hell out of you. If you need to escape, well, go ahead and leave. If you want to just get away, this'd be a real good time to go. I understand I can be just a little bit foolish. I don't go out much except to come here. This is the most fun I have all week. You saw me, I have a lot of friends and I meet all kinds of different folks. I'm not shy. I like to get to know people; and I like just about all of them. This is really a great place, you know, for fifteen bucks I can come and feel like I'm that close" her thumb and forefinger pinched a sliver of air "that close to fortune and the good luck I've forgotten all about outside this room. I've had some bad breaks, and it's fun to come here and feel that I'm as lucky as anyone. I win just often enough to make me feel that way. We all come early on the same days, smoke and laugh and hope for the best. If anyone in our group wins the jackpot they bring dinner for everyone next week. So we're always pulling for each other. It's sorta family. Ever go to a casino?" I shook my head no. "They're terrible. All these people looking like robots. There's so much money floating around they get crazy. And you can't be sure someone's going to win. Everyone's playing against everyone, and they're all against the house. Here, there's a winner right in this room every game every night--I got the same chance as anyone, as long as I pay attention!" I nodded, unsure what my role was. She nodded back. "Damn straight! You know, people want excitement, but don't know how to get it. This is the real stuff--better than watching that phony excitement on television or the movies. People go to the movies and spend as much as I do and just stare in silence and watch made-up adventures. Or they are too lazy to go out so they just rot at home watching TV staring at a bunch of people screaming at each other. I watched it a lot in the hospital, enough for a lifetime, 'cause I realized the whole point was to make me feel bad. But not too bad, 'cause then I'd kill myself and couldn't watch anymore, so I got to be better than the real idiots but wanting to be like the goddamn 'Rich and Famous'. And they laugh at us!" I suppose my face showed a question. "Sure, they either want me to feel that there's a bunch of expensive stuff out there that I don't have but I oughta get, or they want me to make friends with all those cute, clever, people who have a fun life or a great family or cool apartment. They don't do anything but sit around and say smart things to make each other laugh, and I'm supposed to make these people be my life. Buy magazines about them, watch other TV shows about them, go to movies with the same people in them. No thanks. I sat alone and watched all that crap for a long time and finally realized that my life was not like that and was never going to be like that and I got so I couldn't even turn the damn thing on. What we got here may not be much," she swept her arm across the table demonstrating the expanse of the room, "but it's real and it's ours."
"How did you adopt those three kids?"
"Did I mention them? I can talk so fast even I don't know what I'm saying. Well, I had three of my own and three adopted ones, and they were a handful, I can tell you, but I don't know how I would have raised those little ones, the three of my own, without their help, because my husband, well, he decided he wanted more than I was willing to give him, course I could hardly move, with my back and all, well, I told you all that already, but yes, I did adopt three teenagers, all three from nasty homes." Surprisingly elegant fingers extracted another cigarette. She lit it and again inhaled deeply. "Noah was the first. I met him one day in my daughter's school, when she was in the first grade, and he was in the fifth, oh, I guess it was the fourth, because he was there for a couple more years with her, anyway, I was there for a program, Thanksgiving, I think, or maybe, well, no it couldn't have been Thanksgiving because I had my hat on, and I only wore it in the spring. That's what got us started, he was staring at it; he loved my hat, it was an old thing of my mother's, you know, one of those 30s hats with a bird in a nest on it, the kids all loved it--I would lean down so they could see it and whistle and they would always jump. Anyway, Noah wanted to see it, so we started talking, and he had the cutest, most intense eyes, but quiet, yes, he was afraid to say anything unless I asked him a direct question, anyway, after that, I always made a point of saying hello to him whenever I went to the school, and I went often, I really took good care of my kids, since we never left town I used all my vacation days for school stuff, and he started being friendlier, I talked to him nearly every time I was there. One afternoon, when he was in seventh grade, he called me and asked if he could come over. I had not seen him all year, you know, he was at a different school, huh! I don't know how he even found our phone number. Hmmph, next time I talk to him I'm gonna ask him how he did it."
She stopped her wiping, which didn't seem to be accomplishing much anyway, leaned back, and looked up, seeing the happier days when she was a good mother and an attractive wife. Or so I thought. Another deep puff, and I realized she was smoking in the same way people smoke marijuana, savoring every lungful. She finished the cigarette in silence. I had never seen anyone who seemed to revel in the act of breathing smoke-flavored air more than she.
"Now, I told him he had never been to our house, and I wasn't sure he could find it, but he said he knew exactly where it was. I told him I'd come and get him, but he was emphatic he didn't want me to come. He showed up about twenty minutes later and was weeping, looking as if he had been swimming in a muddy pond and with those beautiful eyes just bubbling with tears. I asked him if he had gone to school that day, and he started whimpering and said his mom had locked him in a closet for three days with no food or water or anything, and his dad had come home and let him out, and he went and got a drink of water, and when his folks started screaming he went out to a gas station and called me." She crushed her completed cigarette and immediately lit another, the smoke satisfying some deep hunger. "So I looked into those desperate, blue eyes, you know he wasn't really much to look at, scrawny and small, but those eyes melted me, and said 'Noah, are you telling me stories?' and he started bawling, then stopped quickly and stared at me with those eyes, still oozing tears. 'I want you for a mother.' I told him he already had a mother, but I would let him call his folks and he could stay for dinner." Tears were beginning to form in the corners of her pale eyes, tear ducts buried deep in folds of soft butter. "I called his house, and his mother cursed a blue streak and told me she was going to call the police and accusing me of kidnapping and all kinds of things, talking a mile a minute and never letting me get a word in. She slammed the phone down and I stood there so confused I didn't know what to do. I did know he shouldn't go home, so I looked at him and said 'I can't ever be your momma, because, no matter what happens to her, you already got one of those, but I will let you stay here until we get this straightened out.' He hugged me with a squeeze I had never felt from my own children or my husband; he clutched as if we were flying through space together. His parents weren't married I guess, hell, I don't even know that guy who let him out was his dad, and I suppose he skipped out, afraid maybe they'd put him in jail for letting this kid be treated that way, and his momma came over a couple of days later screaming at me and acting all crazy. I wasn't stupid enough to open the door, so I just shouted back at her through the window. I told her that Noah was staying with me and I'd be happy if she called the police, or I could do it myself if she thought that would help us fix things up, and then she really went berserk, but I didn't care, I saw she'd probably kill Noah if she got a hold of him. She shrieked 'Go ahead and call the cops', course, I left out a few of the French words she used, and she kicked my front door so hard she smashed a big hole in it." She beamed, the first sincere smile I'd seen from her. "You know, we bought a steel door after that, and I was kinda hoping she'd come back, but we never heard from her again. I don't know where she went, because when I did call the police later they couldn't find her. Thank God that woman only had one child! Now, why are you interested in my life story anyway? You're just sitting there lapping it up like a kitten with a plate of milk."
I realized I had stopped my cleaning and was immobile, listening raptly. I didn't think I'd be chastised for my indolence. "I like to hear about different kinds of people, and I like to find different kinds of people to admire." She smiled again. It was clear I was scoring points. "I haven't had any experience like what you're talking about, and it's easy for me to stereotype the people in a place like this. You help me break those stereotypes, and I'm grateful."
"Do you mind my smoking? I can't come here without smoking up a whole pack. That's why I buy these silly long things--they last longer so one pack is usually enough, and no one else likes them so they don't bum 'em either! Not very generous, is it?" She didn't wait for my response to either inquiry. "Filthy habit, but I've been doing it for nearly fifty years; started when I was nine, there, don't mind telling you I'm fifty-seven in November, and it's kind of hard to imagine quitting now, and hell, who cares if I'm alive or dead anyway?"
"How about all those kids of yours? They care, I'm sure." She winced. Maybe they didn't. I quickly changed the subject. "Were you the oldest graduate in from college?"
"You woulda thought so, but there were several geezers even older than I was. I was the oldest in most of my classes though, all them itty bitty girls in there, don't look older than my granddaughter and she's almost in high school. But, you know what? Most of those girls looked up to me after a while, you know at first they were kind of rude but then they got serious and made me feel like I was there for a reason other than just me."
"What kind of degree did you get?"
"That's another funny story, because I ended up getting a liberal arts degree; I just kept finding more things I wanted to do and more things I was good at. I graduated with a 3.4 GPA...not bad for a crippled old lady who got out of high school before a lot of my teachers were born! I loved going back to school, I got involved in all sorts of things that I had never thought about before, you know after all those years of being a mother I thought..."
Supe interrupted. She politely but firmly told us it was time to close up; they only had the hall until 11:00 PM.
I got up quickly, feeling as if I had been caught doing something wrong. I looked across the table, and after finishing her cigarette, she pushed her bulk into something approximating an upright position. I thought of sea creatures crawling onto land for the first time; it appeared she was extricating herself from some primeval mud. "Well, thanks for listening. I enjoyed chatting with you, and I hope I'll see you again another night."
"Can I accompany you outside?"
"Sure, but my bus stop is right out the door--that's why I come here."
"May I offer you a lift home?"
"Naw, never mind. I have a pass and it don't cost anything. Thanks for listening. Have a nice night."
I walked to my car, waved to her as she stood at the bus stop, and drove home, my mind swirling with images. The thoughts and ideas here written were formulated during that drive. I was only beginning to organize it when I found myself outside my front door. For the first time in over an hour, the external world intruded. I was overwhelmed with how badly I stank of cigarettes. I removed all my clothes and sealed them into a large trash bag, awaiting my next journey to the laundry, and scalding my body in the shower, willing, if necessary to remove a layer of skin to eradicate the residue. That towel joined the other malodorous clothes inside the bag. I was restored, though not thoroughly cleansed. And I was in shock. Writing was necessary to pull it together. I sat down to begin this narrative. Then I realized I had never learned her name.