Aftertaste

Yvonne Chism-Peace


Single Mom had always been the wallflower sort. That was why her ex had been so attracted to her: he was a great dancer and paradoxical. At any large social gathering she always found a friendly shadow and set herself down in it. There she scrutinized the bright and frenetic: the buzzing, cooing, grunting, screeching. She was not afraid of people. Hers had been a passive sociability nurtured by a childhood with TV as her only sibling and after-school playmate.

The perfect theater for Single Mom was McDonald's down the hill from her new Skymount apartment. There her rite of passage from dependent security to precarious self-sufficiency was played out. Call it "The Fall from the Garden of Eden to the Flesh-Pots of Minute Meals."

On job-hunting days Single Mom left Jamal at the Tot Drop, found a cozy two-seater by the window facing the mini-mall parking lot, and took two hours to sip two cups of coffee. In between she reread want-ads checked off in red ink, adding an asterisk beside the ones she found most interesting, but didn't bother to investigate. She had the unemployed divorcee blues. The second cup of coffee was a stall. What she really wanted to do, she did. Single Mom watched.

***

Suburbia, with its garbage locked and sealed to keep the raccoons out, has its own homeless folk. Riverdale has two. Every day, rain or shine, one or the other shuffles into Single Mom's view at the window. One, a wiry black gnome, simply stands near the door for hours without moving a muscle. Quarters drop into his limp extended hand like magic. He also begs for cigarettes outside the public library and the parochial school. In her mind, Single Mom calls him Smoky.

Today Smoky's buddy is standing near McDonald's entrance. Circles spends hours along the narrow mall flanked by Food Emporium and the movie house. Often he finds a particular spot and walks around and around, mumbling with the ghosts of his life, or he wanders between cars in the parking lot. But he never gets hit. And he never begs. Where he gets money for coffee and Egg McMuffin, Single Mom can only guess. Perhaps where he finds cigarettes. On the ground. Single Mom, like Circles, drinks coffee from one bottomless cup. The manager leaves him alone unless he is disgustingly unwashed. Like today. Single Mom smiles as a worker brings the thin brown paper bag to him outside. Who could feel sorry for Circles? Such resiliency. Besides, he looks too much like Popeye.

Single Mom shrugs, takes a sip, then searches for another caricature to distract her from the want-ads. Surrounded by a stack of library books, white-haired Mrs. Magoo sits in a booth meant for four people and reads a tabloid up close, a quarter-inch from her face. The paper flat down on the table top, she sniffs across the print like a white Pekingese. A chain smoker like Circles, eating little - perhaps a hash brown - Mrs. Magoo is puzzling, a public recluse. Single Mom remembers meeting her once walking two sheepdogs too late at night.

Oh, no! Single Mom starts folding up her want-ads. Bluebeard has just breezed in! He talks to anyone who has ever worn a skirt. Single Mom herself has avoided him for months. Without invitation he always chooses a seat near a group of women and includes himself in their conversation. Teenagers snicker as they prepare to leave. Young mothers smile patiently. Women of his generation (over sixty) badger and indulge him. She isn't afraid. He is harmless and slightly deaf. A never-been-married mensch who feels more comfortable with women.

Well, not all women. Single Mom chuckles as Bluebeard scurries to another line, steering clear of the female to his right, Lizard, a wiry, short late-fiftyish housewife with a bleached Joan of Arc haircut. She plays tennis every morning with the men, not one of whom is her husband who takes the Wall Street express bus at 7:30 A.M. After her morning game, Lizard always jogs down the hill for two cups of coffee and ten cigarettes. The woman is a twenty-four hour smokestack. Yet it seems to take no toll except on her skin, which is wrinkled and tough. The sight of it always makes Single Mom more aware of her own vanity. Her dark, dewy skin. Like a cup of Lipton tea. Lizard fascinates Single Mom, who often studies her from the apartment windows overlooking the courts. Lizard always plays tennis a second time just before dinner. In between she swims in the indoor pool at the recreation hall. Tennis, swimming, tennis again. Spring, summer, fall. What a life.

***


The fast food aficionados congregate in shifts. If Single Mom misses the Golden Years Breakfast Club, she catches the Diaper Derby after lunch. Her Skymount days lengthen into months; she tucks a tiny notepad into the shoulder bag bought for brief job safaris from the Bronx to Manhattan. On the bus she spots more eccentric neighbors. There is La Gionconda: the eternal art student, a black-haired sprite in a black dress or coat, trim and shapely at seventy-three on her way to classes in post-abstract expressionism. There is Mama San: a grandmother, no taller than an upright poodle, even with her teased silver blond hair and spike-heeled shoes. Sometimes she wears lacy anklets (her granddaughter's?) with white sandals. She never appears in public without her micro-mini skirt and chewing gum. All the bus drivers love her.

Deep Freeze is one of five black teenagers in Skymount. Single Mom finds his mind over matter awesome. In dead winter he treks to school with nothing but a short-sleeved black tee-shirt tucked into his green army pants. When it snows, he adds a cotton army shirt. His green beret seems to bark: "Sure, I go to Bronx High School of Science. Make my day."

Briefly Single Mom imagines herself the object of chivalry. A light-skinned brother with good hair goes out of his way to greet her, even when she is half-way down the Skymount hill. Such a trim tennis player physique, the type to make her heart hip-hop! Single Mom crowns him BND: Boy Next Door. Then slowly she realizes he speaks to everybody like long lost kin. She is not special. She becomes suspicious. Nobody could be so pure.

***


Despite her fear of success, Single Mom does find work: a part-time teller's job five blocks away. She is good at it, but when offered a promotion to full-time status, she almost declines. Is she weary from work or weak from worry? Keeping elaborate case histories of her neighbors, giving them names, places of birth, education, financial success and failure devour tons of her psychic energy!

Fortunately, Single Mom uses McDonald's as an after-school program for Jamal who is now in the first grade. With a bunch of kids from the public school, he romps on McDonaldland's plastic merry-go-round and sliding board until she arrives at 5:15. Sometimes she purchases dinner there. Better yet, she brings take-out from The House of Many-Singing-Birds on the corner and boldly eats Moo Goo Gai Pan under America's Golden Arches. To save face she orders a large orange drink and apple pie (which looks like an egg roll anyway). What an ingenious way to eat alone with her son without really being alone! Single Mom has a benign addiction: dining in a large room full of familiar strangers. Like party-crashing without the counterfeit invitation. Some nights it is a three-ring circus like "All in the Family", "Alice's Restaurant" and "One Day at a Time" played simultaneously. A quick-fix moveable feast.

Single Mom might have spent years consuming fast-food heart-warm. But one evening Wraparound's Wrap-up turned into heartburn.

***


Wraparound is well-off; she wears at least two of her several fur pieces any day the temperature dips below fifty degrees. Sometimes a floor-length purple cape with a black mink lining and fox tails. Sometimes a boa of raccoon or fox with its matching helmet. Or a long light wool duster with genuine astrakhan cuffs and collar. She even has an ermine muff and hat shaped like a flying saucer. One never sees her collar bone and shoulders or her upper arms (which must be ample) because she always wears a shawl. Even during the dog days of August. Speaking of dogs, she rarely graces McDonald's without her most faithful attendant, her son. Over twenty, he has the acne face and sloping shoulders of a brow-beaten fifteen-year-old dork.

Everything Wraparound symbolizes, her son contradicts.

The mother is elegant, the son is a klutz. The mother is articulate, the son is mute. The mother wears fine jewelry on every finger, the son wears a frayed jacket. The mother discourses upon her private music students (she sang opera years ago), the son scans the want-ads for a job. The mother sits grandly surrounded by fascinated peers of both genders, while the son sits meekly by her side, the only one of her court under fifty.

Does anyone find this lopsided duo upsetting? Single Mom has never heard a peep or felt a ripple. Wraparound as bird-of-paradise is adored, even by the other women, sparrows to a one. Over the course of two hours, Wraparound never nibbles, never has more than a drop of coffee. But management never complains. She is a magnet; every night her entourage spends over fifty dollars on decaf alone.

One night Single Mom buys a third cup of the real thing, begins to speculate.

Wraparound is a Russian duchess, a mere newborn when smuggled out of her country on the eve of the Revolution by her nanny whose son later married the orphan. Unfortunately, their genes were no more compatible than borscht and pizza. The marriage failed, but not before a son was born, who unfortunately took after his ne'er-do-well father who ceremoniously abjured forever the finer things of life and returned to the proletarian paradise, thus abandoning to the hurricane of bourgeois misfortune his old mother who had long ago saved him from military conscription by hiding him in their last barrel of wheat-

Hup-urp! Single Mom hiccups and blinks when did this craziness begin? Hup-urp! Hup-urp! Single Mom burps and wheezes how did all these people get here? Hup-urp! Hup-urp! Hup-urp! Single Mom belches and whimpers where's Jamal? He is leaping about McDonaldland like a tadpole on a pogo-stick! Single Mom wants to believe - His soprano voice will deepen? His spaghetti arms and legs will thicken into Olympic muscles? His bean-shaped head will mature into genius? Of course, he'll turn out O.K.

Hup-urp! Hup-urp! Hup-urp! Hup-urp! Single Mom feels her stomach tighten. As she gathers up the remains of Jamal's Happy Meal, something rises to her throat like a wave. She is barely out the door when it breaks like a jug of brine, then plops a dull fluorescent pool at her feet. Like an unwelcome mat. A low murmur gushes from the small crowd waiting for the last picture show.

"You sick, Momma?" Jamal tugs at her slacks. "Momma, you sick?"

"No, sweetie. I'm just a spectacle."

Puzzled child in tow, Single Mom doesn't miss a beat, almost pirouettes, scurries up the hill.


© Yvonne Chism-Peace

Yvonne Chism-Peace writes poetry under the pseudonym Yvonne. Her books of poetry are IWILLA SOIL, IWILLA SCOURGE, and IWILLA RISE (Chameleon Productions Inc. 1985, 1986, 1999). Her short story, "The Dusk," was published in The Saint Ann's Review (Fall/Winter, 2001). She was the poetry editor at MS. magazine (1974-1987).


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