The Words of the McCarthy Family
I was procrastinating again... which was not unusual for me... I could have written the book on procrastination... except I just could never get around to it. Mother’s Day was Sunday and this was Friday, so I had only a little time left to get my act together and get downtown to get my Mom a present.
I was planning to meet my friends, Currie, Carpenter and Short after school; downtown at the soda fountain at Rexall’s Drugstore. That’s where we would have a round of cherry cokes before we headed off to the carnival that had blown into town for the weekend. I figured between cherry cokes, I’d slip over next door to Belk’s, pick up a gift for Mom and then we would be off to the carnival. I had saved up about $10 dollars and, being the early 1960’s, that was more than enough to cover Mother’s Day with plenty left over for cotton candy, bumper cars, the Round-Up and maybe even a candy apple for the ride home.
I was starting to realize, at age twelve, that buying a gift for your Mom gets harder as you get older. Dads were another story. For their appointed days, “hammer time” had a decidedly different connotation before that rapper guy stole it. It meant a quick pop into the hardware store for Dad’s present... no muss, no fuss.
Age twelve is just about the crossing-over point for when buying Mom a spatula, wrapping it in tissue paper and sticking a bow on it no longer passes for “cute.” Becoming twelve was the age when males forever leave the safe haven of “isn’t he adorable” and enter the eternal dark forest of having to decipher -- and potentially misread -- what women expect of them.
So, I meet up with Currie, Carpenter and Short at our usual post at Rexall’s drugstore. We read a few comic books off the rack... check out the 45 RPM record shelf and then hunker down for a couple of cherry cokes... REAL cherry-cokes, by the way, and not that chemical liquid they put in a can these days and call cherry coke. After a couple of tall ones and a pack of “Sugar Babies,” I had my friends sufficiently sugared-up and brain-addled. I figured it would be a good time to slip out unnoticed and go next door to Belk’s. I muttered something about going down the street and being back in a minute. Currie, Carpenter and Short, in the throes of a sugar-enhanced pubescent disorientation, didn’t notice a thing.
I knew this year I would have to do something more for Mother’s Day and that it would require me to enter a territory that, for a 12 year old boy, was alien soil: the women’s department of Belk’s department store with its array of unknown feminine artifacts and disturbing, possibly lethal, odors. I had to fight the instinctive urge to head toward the familiar terrain of the household goods section where the spatula set with colored handles was on sale for $4.99. My male brain was screaming “the perfect gift -- the perfect price.” I resisted the urge, stayed the course toward the Women’s Department until I had crossed over the invisible line that separated it from the Men and Boy’s Department -- I was in. Years later, I would have a similar feeling... when I crossed the border into East Germany.
As I surveyed the array of powders, crèmes, sprays and perfumes, my only thought was how to avoid any possible direct contact with any material that may leave even a molecule of its fragrance on me. Had it been possible, I would have gladly donned a chemical protective suit and a full-faced self-contained breathing apparatus. I could not afford the taunts of my friends whose olfactory receptor neurons were more than able to cut through the millions of Slurpie molecules, the essence of smeared melted Snickers, bike grease and perspiration to find that one molecule of Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew. “EEEWWWW, you smell like a GIRL!” “DO NOT!” “DO TOO” “SHUT -- UP” “NO, YOU SHUT-UP... AND WHEN I SEE YOUR FACE I WANT TO THROW UP!”
As I pondered between the Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew or Revlon Essence, a most dreaded noise broke in, “HEY McCarthy, whacha doin over there?...THE BRASSIERS ARE OVER HERE!!... chackle..chackle..yuk yuk. It was Currie, Carpenter and Short... apparently the sugar-induced disorientation had prematurely subsided. They had returned to their normal truculent, boorish selves and came looking for me. I had to think fast.
“Okay, let’s get to the carnival, guys” I say “Well, ain’t you gotta buy something for your mommie for mommie’s day?” “huh... me… no… I’ll get her something later” “get her a spatula... they like stuff like that” said Currie. “Cmon let’s go”
We mount our bikes and head off to the carnival. I figured I’d better come back tomorrow without Currie, Carpenter or Short hanging around. But with only one day left before Mother’s Day, that would be cutting it close.
I would have to write a whole separate story to fully describe the unique sub-culture of those puzzling people known as “carnys,” the people of the carnival world. In the 1960’s they would crisscrossed the rural South and set up in open fields on the outskirts of tiny communities like my hometown, Aberdeen, North Carolina. For us kids, nothing short of magic had come to town... mysterious outsiders, some with real foreign accents who were from far, far away... bringing their fun and excitement into town. We figured, Aberdeen being the universal center of dullness; the more one moved farther away from that epicenter, the more fun and excitement would ensue. That was the allure of the carnival. These were outsiders coming here! Outsiders, BRINGING the fun and excitement from out there... hauling it in, literally, on trucks… and bringing it to the epicenter of dullness to save us! We couldn’t wait to go and now it was here. Little did I know, that I was about to have an experience that would remain with me for the rest of my life.
Standing in the midst of the carnival was indescribable. I can still close my eyes today and locate the section of my brain where is eternally filed all the carnival aromas, images and sounds from all those years before. I smell the corn dogs, the French fries in paper cones, the sounds of the bumper cars with its electric arm sparkling high upon the ceiling. We loved the bumper cars. They were the best. “Pre-driver’s education” is what we called it... which may have be a precursor of sorts because a few years later me and Gerald Kirk would find ourselves flying upside down at 115 mph in a real bumper car... but that’s another story.
All of these vivid sights, smells and sounds of the carnival washed over us; its fun machines whirling and twirling, freeing the townspeople of their chronic dullness -- literally flinging it out of them -- and, as if in celebration of that, a constant chorus of delighted human squeals and screams covered us like confetti from every corner of the carnival grounds.
But then there was this one area of the carnival in the far corner that was different altogether. This was the gaming area; where some serious business was going on. This is where money was put up, skills were tested and judgments of those skills were rendered. That’s where I found it... the nickel roll table. Just roll a nickel across a wooden table that was painted with various colored numbers and depending on what number you landed on... you multiplied your nickel by that number. Landing on a 10 meant you won 50 cents.
I had 10 bucks neatly folded in my pocket... the 10 dollars from which my Mother’s Day gift would be purchased. I figured I had about a three dollar cushion... I’ll roll a couple of nickels and then peel-off for a corn-dog and then hit the bumper cars. That was the plan anyway, that is until I started winning from the first nickel I rolled. Nickel after nickel, as if under the control of a laser guided beam... just headed straight toward the big numbers... 25 cents, 40 cents, 50 cents... the dollar double!... this was a magic ride I had never known... it was exhilarating... I was invincible!
My pockets were soon bulging from my weighty bounty. I took a moment to attempt to count up to see where I was, but the old man next to me smoking a fat cigar just tapped me on the shoulder and told me “count later kid, you’re hot, keep rolling.” So I kept rolling and winning and rolling and winning. Pretty soon a crowd had gathered, including Currie, Carpenter and Short stunned to see that something I was doing had drawn a sizable crowd; a crowd that was cheering... cheering for me!
I must have stood there for over a solid hour and at the end of my run, when I finally decided I had won enough, I stepped back and took a deep breath and announced: “I’m cashing in” I told the lady running the nickel table. “I’m done.” Everyone gathered around me gave me a hand, patted me on the back, “you done good, boy” they said and dispersed. The lady, counted my winnings.. “$35.85” and handed me three crisp 10 dollar bills, a five and 85 cents in change. I had never held so much money in my hand ever in my life. I was overjoyed and triumphant.
“What are you going to do with all that money?” Currie, Carpenter and Short all wanted to know at once. “Oh, I don’t know… I’ll think of something.” I was feeling like J. Paul Getty. It was getting dark so we said goodbye and all headed in our separate directions home. I turned and started to head up the long hill toward my house about a mile away. As I got to about a half a mile away, an irritating thought just kept flying about my head like a bug. “You quit too soon”... “go back”... “100 dollars... it’s yours..but you walked away.” I stopped at the crest of the hill and turned around to gaze backward at the pathway from which I had just traveled. It was now pitch dark and the lights of the carnival sparkled like diamonds at the bottom of the hill. Above all of the carnival sounds that came winding up the hill, I swear I could still hear the nickels rolling on that old painted wooden board. “I’m going back” I said to myself and with those words, I whipped my bike around and head back down the hill and in so doing, joined the company of an ill-fated breed. First there was Lot’s wife, then there were the rebellious Israelites on their way to Mt. Horeb and now, there was me. Later, the prospect of turning into a pillar of salt would seem preferable.
Do I really need to go into bloody detail of the total slaughter that transpired there? Don’t you already know? Can’t you guess? Didn’t you know as soon as I turned around, as soon as I looked back? I wish you could have been there to warn me... but on the other hand, in retrospect... something was to happen there that I will never forget.
The lady at the table looked up and saw me coming. She smiled and said, “I knew you’d be back.” And so it would go... I tried to stop myself when I got down to $20.00.. but I kept telling myself... lying really… my luck was about to change. I was invincible... it was coming… it was coming. Then I was down to 15 dollars... then 10. At 10 dollars, something tried to remind me that I had to absolutely stop at 7 dollars, because that was for Mother’s Day... Belk’s.. Estee Lauder and the Youth Dew stuff... Mom... what about Mom!
I guess the most shocking thing was how easily I was able to shut down that voice within me... to ignore all that was truly important just to keep going... past 7 dollars to 5 to 3... Mother’s Day was the least of my concerns now. I had tasted the exhilaration of winning, of invincibility and I wanted it back! I’m down to 4 nickels... then three, then two... then one and when the last nickel was gone... it was that same old guy with the fat cigar who had the last word. Standing nearby, he had been watching... “you shoulda gone home kid... that’s what happens.” I just stared straight ahead “yea, that’s what happens” I quietly whispered to myself... “I shoulda gone home.”
Regret is an agony... it grows in your soul and clutches your heart; if you let it, it can put out the fires of future hopes and dreams. On the other hand, regret can also point us to the truth and awaken us to what we should have already known. Regret has to be handled like uranium: it can poison you or empower you.
For me, the next morning, I was feeling a bit poisoned. There is that moment, right after one first awakens, when a bad dream dissipates like smoke as waking consciousness returns... sometimes, after a particularly vivid dream, waking up even provides a palpable sense of relief for having escaped the dire consequences that, thankfully, were restricted to the dream-state.
On this morning, I longed for such a relief... but it was not to come. I knew tomorrow was Mother’s Day and I would not be prepared. What would I say? What will Mom say?
For the rest of the day, that last Saturday before Mother’s Day, I found myself to be extra-attentive to what my Mom was doing and toward what mood she was headed. I guess I never really took the time before to notice my Mom... I mean, to really watch and notice her; what she was doing or how she was feeling. I noticed that she didn’t seem to have any thoughts whatsoever that tomorrow was supposed to be a very special day for her... in fact, she didn’t seem any different than any other Saturday... which meant she was busy, always doing something... cleaning, fixing, planning, cooking, giving out instructions, “put this here... take that and put it outside... go upstairs and get your dirty clothes and put them in the hamper”... she really did work hard, I thought to myself... much, much harder than I ever did. I guess I hadn’t noticed until now because I had just been assuming that this was what she did for fun... like what Currie, Carpenter, Short and me did when we would get together... running free... playing under a sparkling sun or leaning up against a tall Carolina pine, smelling the pine sap or sucking on a honeysuckle and tasting it’s sweet nectar in the springtime, throwing pine cones and dirt clods at each other... fun-stuff… that was our way to have fun and I thought that all she was doing everyday was having fun her way... to cook, to wash, to scrub, to budget my father’s money, to shop, to buy our clothes and to clean and clean and clean. Now I was starting to think that maybe this wasn’t all that much fun for her.
It made me reflect upon the times in the past when I noticed that my Mom was kind of quiet. Maybe she was tired... and maybe sad sometimes. We had moved to North Carolina in 1958 from New Jersey. It was such a different world. We were the only Irish Catholics in the whole town... we WERE the Irish Catholic community of Aberdeen. I began to think that maybe my Mom sometimes missed her parents, her brother and sisters, her friends. I began to think that maybe I should notice things like this more... but just as that thought passed by, I suddenly heard my mother’s voice calling me to come move something or take the other thing and bring it to the back. That was another thing I just realized... that no matter what time I got up, my mother had been busy already for many hours.
“What am I going to do about tomorrow?” I kept thinking to myself. I had no solutions and I was getting desperate. I had to think of something.
I decided I’d look for a couple of dimes, maybe even a quarter. I searched every pocket, every corner of every drawer. After a couple of hours of searching, I had amassed a total of 45 cents. 45 cents... that’s it. Even in the 1960’s, 45 cents wouldn’t buy much of a Mother’s Day gift... not even a spatula.
In a total, illogical, contrary act of desperation, I decided that perhaps I could hit the Aberdeen pool hall and muscle my way into a match with the high stakes crew that gathered at the back table. I’ll take my 45 cents, get a game and see what happens... it was my last chance to get the 7 or 8 bucks I needed before Belk’s would close at 5:00 pm.
The Aberdeen Grill and Pool Hall was a legendary institution in Aberdeen to which I had recently been initiated. It was where young boys from about age 12 would begin the natural migration, like geese, from the grill-side, with its booths, soda fountain, and burgers, through the swinging double doors leading to the darken pool hall in the back. The pool hall was filled with the smoky essence of sweaty mill workers, railroad men and the new vocabulary that pervades a place where sums of money suddenly change hands. Their acceptance of me on the day I moved from the front, grill-side to the backroom was as a significant moment for me as had been my confirmation ceremony at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church.
This day, I eased through the swinging doors quietly and moved to the side. The only light in the pool hall was the florescent lights that hung low over each table, illuminating the green felt table top with a glow and making the colored billiard balls look like candy.
I sat there quietly. The high-stakes crew was stationed at the back table as always. Slowly my convoluted, desperate plan seemed to idly seep out of my brain. I just sat there motionless, feeling a bit empty when, suddenly, a new idea... a different course... a much more challenging one, entered my brain. I would simply tell my mother the truth. I would tell her this whole stupid story and how bad it made me feel. I will tell her I now know how foolish I was and how sorry I am that I could not give her the honor she so richly deserved. I would tell her how I had noticed new things about her and that I could see that so much of her life was not fun, but was hard work, and that she was doing it for me, for us. And then, I will say thank you Mom and I’ve learned a lesson and I will try to be a better son and a better man. And then I would promise to give her a much better Mother’s Day next year. “That’s what I will do” I said to myself. As this sensation of clarity came over me... I began to feel an incredible weight being lifted off. I also, noticed that I was starting to cry. One thing I knew, I’d better not let anybody in the Aberdeen Grill and Pool Hall see I was crying... I might get excommunicated.
I quickly bolted by the high stakes boys at the back table and then out the backdoor of the pool hall. This led to the back lot, a little used, most God-forsaken patch of useless real estate on the face of the earth. It was filled with nothing but high weeds, broken boards, abandoned rusting metal, old tires and broken glass. I sat down on the wooden stairs that extended out from the backdoor and tried to collect myself before I headed back through to the front side where I had parked my bike. “Nobody ever comes back here,” I thought to myself.
That’s when I looked up and to my left. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Growing up the side of the brick building next to the pool hall, nearly thirty feet high, was absolutely the largest, the most beautiful rose bush I have ever encountered in my entire life. It was of staggering height and breadth, majestic, covering the entire side of this sagging old abandoned brick building; growing up from out of the broken glass, rusting metal and straggly weeds. The roses themselves were breathtakingly beautiful, perfectly formed and far too numerous to count. I could only think of one thing: Mom loves roses.
Some say a dozen red roses works magic upon a woman... try 150 and watch what that does. Until the day she died, she never stopped talking about it. Since that day, no matter what unhappy circumstance befell her or how foul was her mood (inspired, usually, by one of my antics) all I ever had to say was “Mom, remember that Mother’s Day and all those roses?” It was the instant sunshine button.
In case you are wondering, I never did tell Mom where I got those roses. Of course, after I dumped 150 perfect long stemmed roses on her lap, a mother, after the initial ecstasy and euphoria subsides, is prone to question where and how does a 12 year old procure 150 perfect roses. She couldn’t help but imagine that somewhere in Aberdeen, North Carolina, there was some genteel southern lady whose prize-winning rose garden had been pulverized by me.
I assured my Mom.. “Mom, don’t worry... these roses were grown specifically for you” After several years passed and without the Aberdeen Chief of Police ever knocking on her door with a warrant for her arrest... she started to believe me.
I thought about telling her, but here’s the thing... I didn’t think she could believe it... you see, I’m not even sure myself what happened that evening behind the pool hall. What I mean is... I went back there a couple of days later. I wanted to see that rose bush again because I didn’t even put a dent in it after picking at least 150 roses. I just couldn’t get over how amazing it was that such a beautiful specimen of nature could emerge out of the dark and dank forgotten terrain of the back lot of the pool hall. I returned to the pool hall, headed out the back door and turned toward the sagging brick building; expecting to, once again, meet the stunning majestic presence of the rose bush... but, instead, only bare brick and mortar remained; an empty and flat wall... the roses were gone... they were gone. No roses, no bush, nothing remained, no digging, no holes, nothing moved and transplanted... all gone except for the scraggly weeds, the rusty metal and broken glass.
You see, I was right, those roses had been specifically grown for my Mom. One thing is for sure... that was her best Mother’s Day present ever.