Bluebird of Unhappiness

by Cherri Randall

I am bitter and jaded, but not over the business of my parenting. It doesn’t help, but is not the principle reason. I am not bitter and jaded over men either, although when I think of writing the sentence I am a practicing heterosexual I scoff at myself. I am not practicing enough to count lately. I am bitter over the fact that my daughter Carly’s friend Andrea went home this morning in my other daughter’s shirt that says “Miami Beach.” It is a souvenir I bought Kim three weeks ago on my first trip to Florida. It was my first time on an airplane, my first time to see the ocean. Andrea lives two blocks away and though no one consulted me, she and my girls planned for her to spend the night. She came like a generic Barbie doll with no extra clothes and when she spilled ketchup on the shirt she was wearing, Kim loaned her the first thing in her closet so she could change. Experience tells me the shirt is gone for good. I have a running inventory in my head of clothes that have similarly exited my home being worn by other people’s children. This sounds petty, and I have better uses for my memory bank than this apparel log, but the list is still there next to the one where I have done the most driving and bought the most fast food and/or did the most cooking for other people’s kids.

But my feelings are hurt that it was the new Florida shirt. Everyone assumed I would be okay with Andrea spending the night and the shirt didn’t matter the same way the radio goes on in the car and I never pick the station. Andrea is spending a lot of time here because she just quit working at McDonald’s, but the whole time she worked there and had disposable income, my girls never saw her. Now she is broke and hanging out around here, and Carly has been stuck buying her dinner twice when they went out to a restaurant. Carly does not work at a job, being more commerce-oriented than labor-oriented, but still, she has to earn her own money and does it principally on eBay.

Andrea’s parents are divorced and this morning she showed me the most recent bruise where her father hit her. I want to kill him. For hitting her, yes, but mostly for telling her later he was on pain pills and a little drunk and lost control and it wasn’t his fault.

“Andrea, how old is your father?”

“Old. Over 40.” Gee I feel great, but this is not about me. I take her into my arms and hug her and won’t let go, whispering into her ear, “This is his fault. He is old enough to stay in control or know when to absent himself if he can’t maintain control.”

I lean back and look into her eyes. She is on the verge of crying. “He’s stressed out,” she says, defending him.

“Is that your fault?” I counter. She shakes her head no. “Your beautiful skin should not be black because of his problems,” I tell her, and then I let her go. She walks out the door in Kim’s shirt, and I cannot do anything but stand there and watch. For this, I hate her mother.

Andrea is Carly’s age. She is the middle child in a family with three girls. The oldest – Sara – is grown and married. Andrea still lives at home with her sister Erica, who is Kim’s age. When we moved here, Erica and Kim hit it off in 5th grade when Kim was the new girl and their teacher asked Erica to show her around. The first time Erica came over, she met Carly and immediately matched her up with Andrea. It was very convenient to have two sets of sisters/friends. Two years ago, amidst divorce, Andrea and Erica’s mother, Sharon, told her daughters they had to get jobs and buy their own clothes because they were on limited funds. Sharon was working for Tyson and by this time drawing Social Security benefits for the girls – the most reliable child support payment system in the world. Their father really does have some health issues requiring pain pills and disability. Sharon began working nights at Chick-Fil-A with Erica. Andrea went to McDonald’s. At that time, they lived several miles the other side of Lake Sequoia in a sprawling ramshackle house with few screens and fewer curtains down a road that my Dodge Neon could not navigate.

The girls had a slumber party out there, but when they came home and told me how many bugs, scorpions, and cotton-mouth snakes they saw and how one of the snakes bit their little terrier mutt named Bridget and she died, I had to put an end to all excursions that direction. We were still new to the geography at that time, having come from the southwest corner of Oklahoma for me to attend grad school at the University of Arkansas. There was no place a Neon would not go in Oklahoma unless there had been flash floods gully washing some rural road and leaving ruts. The worst thing that could happen to you going down the highway and losing control was you might hit a ditch as much as eight feet deep, or you might plow across a wheat field and get some farmer shaking his fist at you from across the land. But you didn’t die or even damage the car most of the time.

Driving here for the first time on I-540 from Ft. Smith, I had to concentrate on the center stripe and grip the steering wheel in both fists to stay sane. The drop offs were the kinds I had only seen in movies set in Colorado and I could imagine a Neon spinning down one of those mountains and making about six or seven complete flips before coming to rest. This was not a stunt I wanted to try especially in a Dodge Neon. The first time I took Andrea home, it was dark and I started down the road between her mailbox and her house. That was very bad, because I got about halfway there before figuring out that not only could I not go forward anymore, I also could not turn around, so I was going to back up a quarter mile in the dark on the road to perdition. On top of everything else, there are trees in Arkansas. This is not surprising to most people, but I am not most people. I spent 38 years landlocked in the middle of that song, the one that goes and amber waves of grain. On this road, the trees grew right up next to both sides, and their branches interlaced creating an overhead canopy. I had no previous idea I could feel geographically claustrophobic. The Neon headlights made the feeblest illumination in that dark green tunnel and we were driving backwards. Almost to the paved road again, I glanced at Carly, my eleven-year-old little city slicker.

“Mom,” she whispered.

“Yeah, Baby?”

“If there was really a Big Foot,” she breathed, “He’d step out any minute now.”

I couldn’t panic or she’d see it. I gunned the pedal to the floor and we shot out onto the main road by the mailboxes. Thankfully, there was no oncoming traffic. My baby sighed audible relief which I vaguely sensed over the pulse pounding in my chest.

Because of where they lived, Sharon and the girls had to have a big 4WD pick-up truck that drank gas. I suggested to her that they move to town, that there were vacancies in my apartment complex. By this time, I had upgraded to a Ford Focus. Not my dream car, but the first new car I’d ever owned, and evidence of the power education had to transform my life. The Neon was the first car I had ever gotten financed. Sharon said the girls needed the yard and she could never be happy in an apartment in town. We were both busy and lost touch. It would have been convenient to have a friend who was the mother of half of a set of sisters/friends, but it just didn’t work out that way. I had my poems to write, papers to grade. Her girls were going to high school and working 25 hours per week in the local fast food industries. Sharon was moonlighting, and between that and transit between Lake Sequoia and the Springdale Tyson office where she worked, she showed up late one too many times and Tyson fired her. She gave each of her daughters $800.00 for Christmas that year out of her 401K when it disbursed.

The girls blew it on iPods and clothes. Andrea bought her sisters expensive gifts and they gave her nothing. Andrea breaks my heart. The only time she came over during this two-year McDonald’s period in her life, I was shocked. She had lost weight, looking pallid and pasty white. When she came out of the shower, her hair was thin like she was in chemo or a third-world country and I panicked. I grabbed her in the hall.

“What is wrong with you?” I demanded.

“What? Nothing!” she countered defensively.

“You are sick, Girl. Do you have cancer?”

“No!” she was nearly hysterical, and I knew I had goofed big time someway, but I didn’t know how.

“This is not your hair. This is not your beautiful thick brunette head of Pantene hair. What are you doing to your hair?”

“I have to wear a pony tail to work everyday. It wears my hair out.”

I could tell she knew her hair was not right, but she had no idea what was wrong, and no medical insurance and no mother around to confide in. Even though her grades had plummeted, Andrea was still in school everyday. She was working more hours than the law recommended, and she had a boyfriend who also worked at McDonald’s to take up whatever spare time she might have left. Her mother was working for Wal-Mart by then after a brief tour of the land of striped sunshine for writing hot checks at the grocery store since she couldn‘t get food stamps because she owned that house. She was never home if her daughter had wanted to talk to her. Andrea answered my questions at the kitchen table while I made pancakes, her favorite breakfast.

“Tell me what you eat,” I told her. “Don’t lie,” I said, wondering how on earth I was going to handle my daughter’s friend with anorexia when I had my own daughters, my own students, my own electric bill, my own finals coming up.

She told me what a typical week was like, and for caloric consumption, it was adequate. But nutritionally, it was Pittsville. There was no protein in her diet or anything green. I pumped her full of vitamins and took away the pancakes and put sausage and eggs in front of her. She was living on McDonald’s French fries. No breakfast, no lunch, head straight to McDonald’s. Nibble fries for free when no one was looking. Come home exhausted at 10:00 p.m. with more fries. Employee discount meant she could get super-size fries half price after working a six-hour shift.

“Why,” I was driven to ask, “Don’t you get a Big Mac once in a while? Don’t you like meat?”

“I can’t afford it,” she said.

“You’re going to have to quit blowing your paychecks on clothes,” I told her.

That was when the real story poured forth.

The French fries were from the boyfriend – Aaron’s combo meal every night. He ate the burger and she got the fries. He paid. Andrea had no money because her mother was taking all of it for bills. Andrea tried to hide her money and her mother found it anyway. Andrea tried not cashing her check and her mother took the check in entirety and cashed it at her bank. It is legal for mothers to do this. What is not legal is to have no food in the house to nourishment for children. That is neglect. Sharon would go buy several cases of ramen noodles and endless envelopes of Kool-Aid on the first of the month and that was what they had. It was a far cry from the freezer on the back-porch being stuffed with products from the Tyson employee store. I nearly drooled the time Carly told me Andrea went on the back porch and opened this big coffin thing and it was a freezer stuffed with nuggets, hot wings, chicken strips. I was careful never to cook chicken when Andrea spent the night because she hated it. Now, she had gone so long without enough protein that she was suffering nutritional deficiencies. She thought she had traction alopecia – baldness from a particular hairstyle. I told her if she didn’t start eating about 60 grams of protein a day, she was going to be bald by the time she was 17 and the ponytail had nothing to do with it.

I did not have access to the Tyson employee store, but I had recently been to a discount market in Alma called A-Z with Atkins products stacked on pallets floor to ceiling. I bought a cart load discounted about 97% off. I sent Andrea home stocked up with every flavor of shake and protein bar the company ever marketed. I am happy all these months later that even with bruises, even with paying her mother’s electric bill and insurance, she at least has her pretty hair back.

In the divorce, Sharon got the house and land since it was inherited from her parents. Her husband took all the furniture and the hot tub that was for his back problems. Because Sharon owned assets, she could not qualify for food stamps or state-issued medical coverage for her children. Every dime she made went for payments, insurance, and gas to drive the ¾ ton Chevy truck back and forth between first Tyson, and then Wal-Mart, and her homestead. She needed the big truck because of the geography. Because of the big truck, all her money went on payments, insurance and gas with nothing left for groceries. Because she wouldn’t give up the geography, she couldn’t get any help for her children. Within two years of the divorce, she lost the house and land over back taxes. Now, she is living two blocks from me in a run-down rental house. She still wants her kids to have a yard, and in the middle of this yard is their 10-foot trampoline right off the main road with major traffic. No teenaged girl is going to be caught dead on a trampoline in that location. I don’t know what kind of background Sharon has that defines her concept of what it means to be a good mother. A free-standing house with a yard ranks higher than medical care and adequate nutrition. I live two blocks away in an apartment and I drive a Ford Focus and I wish my kids had a trampoline growing up. But I really like it that they have all their hair.

Sharon got fired at Wal-Mart. I don’t know why. On the first of August, two days before Social Security payday, she called me and asked me if she could ask me for a favor, and I said go ahead.

“Well, my truck ran out of gas on Huntsville Road and I just barely made it turning into the yard and into the driveway. I get paid Thursday but this is Tuesday and Erica gets off work at Chick-Fil-A at eleven tonight. Erica gave me five dollars for gas yesterday but it ran out already.“

I rolled my eyes, but I was on my cell phone and she couldn’t see me. I knew she was going to ask me for gas money. I just knew it in my gut, and I anticipated her request and subverted it.

“So you want me to pick Erica up from work at eleven?” I interrupted.

There was a pause. I was offering a desperate woman a solution to a problem, but it was not the solution she had originally envisioned. It did not solve Wednesday or Thursday with no gas, but it did solve right this moment.

“Could you do that? Do you mind? Would it be any trouble?” The questions jumbled forth. I wanted to answer them literally. Yes, I could do that. I have a good car that can go six miles one way. Despite the distance, the traffic means it will be a fifteen minute trip at least. It will end up costing me the better part of an hour and half a gallon of gas at a time of day I’d rather be sleeping and a time in history when gas prices have soared beyond imagination. I understand how she could be out of gas in that truck of hers since I am having issues with a 4-cylinder Focus.

Andrea was with me when she called. When I took her home later, I gave her $10 to give her mother for gas. Not for Sharon, but to make sure Erica got to work on Wednesday too. Not for her, but for me, so she would not call me anymore. I thought she would be too ashamed, and I am ashamed that I hope I guessed right. But I am a grad-student who is not teaching this summer session, and it is a long month before I get another paycheck and I have my own daughters. They would like ten bucks to blow on earrings or happy meals or a couple of movies from Blockbuster. And here I am giving that money away to someone too proud to live in an apartment or drive an economical car.

I could gleefully drop Andrea’s father deep in the everglades with a bunch of jerk-eating crocodiles awaiting his arrival after what he did to her. I could drop her mother there too, but first, I’d like to cut off one of her feet just to be sure. It is not my responsibility to provide protein or souvenir T-shirts for any daughter I did not birth. All those years when my kids could not go out in the snake- and tick-infested country and eat chicken nuggets, I had all four girls at my house at my expense. Somebody could have dropped off a bag of hot wings once in a while. While everybody was out spending retirement funds, we weren’t invited to go anywhere, but now times are hard and here are these girls at my house again.

So I hate other women sometimes for being stupid, for not realizing their daughters have outgrown the trampoline and the yard was never a safe place and finishing high school is important. I hate them for all their bad choices that exploit their daughters’ futures and leave them with bruises. The night I made hamburgers and potato soup, we also had about six bags of Sun Chips in the pantry from my latest drive to Alma. Andrea ate a 1/3 lb burger, a huge bowl of soup, and an entire bag of chips during a movie. Carly said she could hear her chewing, but she just endured it. We hardly see Erica – she had $900.00 saved for a car and this summer is working two jobs. Chick-Fil-A and Steak & Shake. We went to Steak & Shake one night and she was our waitress. I left a $5.00 tip. Last week her mother took her “car fund” for bills and Erica promptly quit the second job.

On a few occasions, I have borrowed money from my daughters. It almost kills me every time. I would rather bounce a check or pawn my guitar – but Carly, my future CEO, says that is stupid with the surcharges and interest. So I have borrowed from them but they are always the first bill I repay, and this has only happened in extreme emergencies – generally when something broke on the car which is why I love having a new car with a warranty. Once, we found school clothes on clearance when I was broke and they bought their own clothes with their money. Later, I repaid them. They didn’t expect it, but I said it is my responsibility to provide your basic wardrobe till you graduate from high school at least. I can’t buy Coco Chanel or Prada, but they look as good as their friends do.

After dinner, Carly was washing the dishes while I was on my computer. I could hear her in the kitchen griping about every little thing. The greasy damn pan. The unrinsed dried ketchup on plates that was now hell to get off. The job being shitty. I got tired of the four-letter words showing off for Andrea. I went in and drove her out of the kitchen, ticked off myself that in putting up leftovers she had used yards of foil, spattered the dish soap on the back splash, all on a night nobody even asked if having an overnight guest was allowed.

That is the thing I hate the most about other girls’ mothers. They make me think I am doing the most and getting the least and question everything I believe about raising my own girls. They make me keep score and feel petty. I feel like the victim of a brood parasite, a species like the American cowbird or the European cuckoo, which lay their eggs in the nest of other birds and therefore rely on the incubation and care of strangers. But the worst species for egg-dumping is the bluebird. Experiments have proven that five percent of adult male bluebirds invest in caring for a chick that is unrelated to them, but this number jumps to 15% for adult female bluebirds. Patricia Gowaty, evolutionary biologist at the University of Georgia, relates she has even seen female bluebirds maim and kill each other, an outcome never witnessed between males of the species. And all that time before Gowaty did her research, everyone thought they were out there flapping around, happy as larks.

I do not watch much television, but when I do, the girls and I like shows with Alton Brown and Emeril. I like how Emeril always has a fully-stocked pantry. I think sometimes if I was hosting a cooking show, I would be telling my audience what to substitute for expensive spices, what can reasonably be left out of the recipes given on other shows. Last night, during commercials, Carly told me Andrea miscarried Aaron’s baby last year. Carly thinks she is lucky. I think her body was so nutritionally compromised she could not sustain a pregnancy. The chicks of bluebird hens lay eggs, becoming the next generation of bluebird hens. We were watching “House Hunters“ when Carly told me this. There is no market for a show called “Section-Eight Apartment Hunters.“ Nobody cares about the real lives of bluebirds except a few scientists and somebody like me. This revelation about bluebird parenting does not surprise me at all. My theory is the bluebird hens call it like they see it; not being ‘civilized,’ they maim and kill without legal repercussions. I want to live in my own little birdhouse where I do not know other bluebirds exist. I do not want a big truck, but a vehicle worth $30,000 instead of $15,000 might be nice. It is not that I wanted my children to grow up untrampolined, yard less and terrier-free.

God, I am a bitter and jaded hen these days.