Looker

by Erin Pringle


LOOKER


     Understand your mother and I had driven three hours.  We got up early after sleeping poorly then on the road.  She wanted to stop, snap a picture of a stand that sold pumpkins palm trees pecans, but I'd forgotten the camera.  Plus we were tired.  We lounged naked a hot month to afford the tickets, so we kept the windows open but the upstairs neighbors yelled.  Your mother's leg thrown over my back.  Outside the concert a woman with a whistle sat on a horse by a pond.  Moss in that pond not like the condoms in the river. 

     I counted ten condoms yesterday on smoke break.  Think if I'd stood there for half an hour.  An hour.  If I were still there how many condoms. 

     Understand your mother wore vanilla perfume on her wrists her neck beneath her knees. 

     Two hours. 

     Understand she was a looker.  You've seen pictures of when she was.  The one of her in a green bathing suit holding a cigarette over the kitchen sink.  Doris Day your grandmother called her.  Understand that night definitely she wore a yellow tube top.  Believe me it was tight and I could tell no bra because she was excited why wouldn't she be.  The AC off all month to afford tickets.  We bought generic and turned lights off in rooms we weren't in.  We lounged while neighbors argued about babies.  The wife wanted the husband didn't.  Your mother wanted to pet the horse's nose but didn't. 

     Back then your mother wore perfume I liked.  Back when she was a looker and stood at sinks in bathing suits. 

     We hadn't gone out alone for a month--my hands on the wheel--her feet waving out the window at people we sped by.  She saw things your mother.  She saw cigarette smokers in drivers' seats.  She'd watch peripheral because directly would make them turn. 

     We didn't take a blanket.  She thought maybe maybe not.  Why bother she decided, and when we were on the lawn, everyone with tickets lounged on blankets, as if in their own backyards.  Not many had yards your mother assured me. 

     The balcony neighbors drank wine then bickered.  Maybe their names were Cheryl and Dick.  When we moved in they invited us up your mother said why not so we brought a bottle of wine because that's what you do. 

     Understand your mother knew what was what. 

     When the concert began everyone stood on the blankets so what's the point she said.  The horse's nose was white and brown and breathed on my arm when I walked by.  Your mother wanted but didn't. 

     Your mother was a sleeptalker.  In the mornings I'd tell her what she'd said then she'd laugh and kiss my ear. 

     I held her belt loops during the slow songs, and she rested her chin on my neck or scratched between my shoulder blades.  We have no pictures of the little stand under a thatched roof and palm trees.  The sign's paint dried mid-drip: PALM TREES PECANS PUMPKINS.  At the concert she couldn't find her cigarette lighter, so when people held theirs in the air, she turned to the boy behind us with an unlit in her mouth. 

     Your grandmother was wrong about Doris Day.  More like Janis Joplin without freckles.  During fast songs she bumped against me because her body couldn't control the music--her hips swinging--hair all over.  Everyone else stood.  Everyone else stoic.  Ten thousand stoics.  That many people makes me think death.  All these people will have children grow old die maybe tomorrow in a car wreck at a usually safe intersection.  Back window blood shards.  All these people twenty thirty forty fifty then returning to reunion concerts to relive the experience.  But they won't. 

     Ten condoms in five minutes can you believe it? 

     Cheryl and Dick immediately opened the wine.  They pulled two more chairs and we sat circled on the balcony.  They were older and told us what they were like when they were us and visited people like them on balconies for wine. 

     Were the condoms all from one couple, or did someone stand at another bridge dropping them in to make me wonder? 

     Back when your mother was a looker we walked naked and survived without blankets.  Your mother shouldn't have smoked.  If I'd remembered the camera then you'd see her bent over the bridge in her yellow tube top squinting over moss into sunset.  Or the stoic holding up his lighter and your mother turning with the unlit cigarette between her lips. 

     They toasted advice.  Cheryl said always have something you both enjoy.  They hiked.  They took their weekends to the mountains.  Cheryl watercolored flowers.  Dick collected leaves.  He promised to show me but didn't. 

     Why did all those concert couples bother hugging since they'd split up in a month a year or marry have kids and die of pressure in the heart?  The kid will take it hard and that absence always with him.  Even at concerts. 

     Cheryl held her wineglass over her heart and said hold every moment dear because there comes a time yes a time.  We didn't understand. 

     Vanilla and sweat were enough back then.  At night your mother sleeptalked thoughts she wouldn't tell me when I could respond.  That's how I found out about you. 

     Your mother wasn't Day or Joplin but someone famous in a foreign country. 

     If I closed my eyes 10,000 people weren't dying behind hospital mini blinds and there was only her arm brushing mine--vanilla.  Understand I forgot the camera, but she forgot the blanket on purpose. 

     I love you the first time in her sleep.  In the morning when I told her I love you she tapped her fingernails on the counter.  Understand she tapped her fingernails when nervous or avoiding. 

     I don't know what happened to the green bathing suit. 

     She did not tap about you. 

     After the wine and balcony your mother said Cheryl and Dick aren't happy.  Far from in fact.  She made us promise never to have only paintings and leaves.  Believe me your mother was.  If there'd been a camera. 

     All those condoms making their way down and me ashing my cigarette in the same river.  It made me sick is what it did. 

     How could everyone stand there with crossed arms I needed to know.  Who? your mother asked on the car ride home windows up feet on floorboards.  Maybe she feigned sleep when talking.  I was there when her heart stopped talking. 

     The horse trotted around after the concert.  The whistle in the woman's mouth.  She stood between the grass and pond and people filing back to parking lots.  She said keep off the grass.  Order.  Order. 

     I don't know who took the picture of your mother in the kitchen.  I don't know what she's saying but her mouth is open maybe laughing because she sees herself as a picture in an album.  Saw herself looking through the album at not just you and me but all of us looking.

     I don't know what happened to the album. 

     If it rained and the ground turned to mud then our blanket would be ruined your mother was adamant.  Understand she didn't like ruin.  The mossy pond the river condoms all those people finding out next week they're pregnant but their heart's watering lungs. 

     Understand your mother wanted to pick you up.  Understand she couldn't bend over. 

     Your mother stamped with the drummer.  Her whole body taking in music and giving back.  All those people's mailboxes full of hospital bills their pictures on gas station coffee cans because now the windows must be closed. 

     I held your mother tight and inhaled.  The sign's red paint was a heart mid-drip.  I didn't buy band T-shirts because we'd wear them a while then give them to the thrift store and what's the point of someone wearing our shirts but not understanding how excited your mother was in her yellow tube top and how she knew the horse's nose was soft.  Order!  People wouldn't stay off the grass because what's the point in shuffling behind someone behind someone just trusting the someone else knows?  Only a few climbed the fence.

     Any day we expected Cheryl down the stairs with a suitcase of watercolors.  We didn't sleep well because the heat your mother's leg sweating across my back and our neighbors--baby--I don't want a baby--liar--you promised. 

     Understand only a few jumped the fence and everyone else died or divorced. 

     Understand 2,880 condoms if I were still smoking by the river. 

     Understand your mother's heart moved to the wrong music I'm sorry we didn't cross the fence.  We were tired.  10,000 mossy faces.  The path to the parking lot was through a grove of trees.  I never slept because her words at any moment.  I held her wrist.  I counted the heartbeats.  I sang slow songs in case her pulse would listen.

     Order on the path.  She saw and turned.  She saw trees and pulled me.  Believe me I followed. 

     I don't know who took the picture of her not looking like anyone foreign or famous.  No one only wants faded watercolors discolored leaves but try to understand. 

     Think if your mother never smoked cigarettes.  If she never got sick.

     Order on the path. 

I'm so sorry she cried in her sleep her arms outstretched I didn't tell her in the morning.  Understand everyone.  We didn't.  They saw her hold my waist and scratch with her fingernails but everyone forgets cameras.  They didn't know tapping meant.  Believe me her body was a safe intersection without a blanket beneath the trees thatching above us.  Her body a picture of yellow music.  All was her hands rubbing my jeans her breath vanilla her legs hot around my waist.  The vanilla purest in the inch behind her ear.  Understand your mother was.  We didn't think about balconies or condoms.  Your mother was.  It wasn't until we were in the car the radio off the windows up that we thought about you.  That night her sleeptalk said she knew the very moment.  She did not tap about you your mother.

ERIN PRINGLE’s fiction has been published in Drunk Duck, Indiana English, and Quarter After Eight and is forthcoming in Quarter After Eight and Downstate Story. Her fiction has won honorable mentions in the 2002 Bloomington, Indiana National Society of Arts and Letters (NSAL) short story competition and in both the 2002 and 2003 Stony Brook University Fiction Contests. Her poetry won honorable mention in the 2002 Hoffman-Kleiner (a.k.a. Academy of American Poets) poetry competition, and won first place in 2003. Both her fiction and poetry received second place in the Mary Reid MacBeth Contest. She is an MFA student in fiction at Southwest Texas State University (recently renamed Texas State University) where she has been awarded the Rose Fellowship.
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