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Burdens
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Laura Susan Johnson
I became a writer at age 11 beginning with stories of the family pets. Now my dream is to publish unusual, quality gay fiction. Crush is my first novel and I'm now working on my second. 
By Laura Susan Johnson
Published on 12/19/2011
 
Alice is overweight, overtired, overworked and overwhelmed. Mama's had a bad stroke, Aunt Sue seems selfish, and cousin Lainie is perfect. Nobody seems to care about Alice's burdens. Then she meets Sylvia.

Burdens by Laura Susan Johnson

Burdens

 

By Laura Susan Johnson

 

Mama and Aunt Sue are already ready for church at eight-thirty and I’m still worrying my way through a scant assortment of "dressy enough for church" clothing, all in size twenty-two, woman. It’s Easter Sunday, and my three skirts, five blouses, and one dress are all in dark colors more suited to fall or winter.

I try the dress first, a somber navy blue with buttons down the front and too large white lapels...too tight, everywhere. My bloated middle pooches far out and I can see my own pale white belly flesh through gaping holes the buttons create. The shoes follow suit, cutting into the tops of my feet and leaving red dents. That lovely time of month is probably close at hand, not that I keep track, or have any reason to. My knee length black skirt fits okay, so I try my maroon cotton button-down shirt. My boobs look huge and saggy and repulsive. I get so mad sometimes. Lord, why couldn't you have given me a couple more inches in height rather than this…this overly abundant tit tissue?!

But He never answers that question for me. The gold and black silk shirt with gold threat embroidery has the same effect as the maroon one, only ten times worse. Too loose in the wrong places, too tight in other wrong places. It has a ruffly, frilly collar and frilly sleeves. It looks plain stupid. I add a black scrunchie to my long, straggly mousy hair and laugh at myself with meanness. I look like an overgrown eight year old. Disgusted, I finally settle on a stretchy lycra-cotton blend long sleeved blouse in the bleakest shade of solid black. Halfheartedly, I decide I have to have some kind of embellishment for the plain skirt and plainer blouse, so I carelessly throw a black and gray crocheted shawl around my neck and shoulders.

Outside, the sun is coming up over the treetops and the birds are singing their praises. I look like doomsday from head to toe. I smear pancake colored makeup over my pimples and the dark circles under my eyes. Lastly I shove on my black loafers. I’m trying to disguise my gait with confidence, but instead of a brazen stomp or even a proud march, I have the same ol' familiar waddle that reminds me that I am overweight. Mama and Aunt Sue sit at the table, clicking their shoes on the linoleum and their long nails on their coffee cups. Mama smiles. She always smiles. "Hungry?" she asks. "We still got about an hour," Aunt Sue says chirpily, "even though we oughta get goin' in about twenty minutes or so." Church was a half hour's drive away, in Monroeville.

I feel my black pantyhose pinching into my waist and shake my head. If it were possible, I'd peel my skin apart and have my soul jump into a thinner, trimmer, more comfortable body. Like Lainie's. She's my cousin, Aunt Sue's daughter. They're from up north, Nashville. And they do so look like country singers. Aunt Sue, with her red hair and long burgundy painted nails, looks a lot like Reba McEntire. She's wearing a really bright pink dress with big white flowers and lace at the collar. Tall and slender. Mama, like me, is short and rotund. I wonder if Mama's ever been jealous of Aunt Sue. I know I'm jealous of Lainie. She has beautiful platinum blonde hair with bangs that behave themselves in spite of this deep southern humidity. She was ready for church hours before I was. She used her curling iron this morning while I was still in bed, watching her do her hair with one eye open and the other eye drooping shut, wanting more sleep. Since hitting twenty-nine, I have no energy, I tell you, none! Yesterday, while we were at the bazaar in Monroeville, Lainie was full of pee and vinegar, dashing here and there, with Aunt Sue keeping right up with her, while Mama and I sort of walked a few yards behind. I got pooped out just looking at them. Lainie's twenty-two, seven years my junior. She's ahead by millions of points...attractive, young, energetic. She stepped effortlessly into a

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light mauve, size two, one piece dress that molds becomingly to her long thin waist...zipped herself up with nary a grunt or sigh. Even her mauve and silver sandles, her little round purse, her lipstick! match her dress to perfection.

I look at the little mound of maple flavored sausage links and shake my head again. My stomach is gnawing itself in protest but I feel so ugly and frumpy and inferior on this fine Easter morning...I pray the whole event will pass quickly. The sooner I can get home and get out of this torture chamber girdle, the better.

Lainie comes gliding down the stairs. I can almost hear some famous theme from some glamorous old Hollywood movie announcing her descent. She too, declines an offer for breakfast, and I feel like wailing at her, "Why not?! You could stand to gain a few, you perfect stick, you!" Instead, I go out to the front porch. I can't bear to be around such perfection if I can help it. The sun makes pink light everywhere. Our house is pink instead of whitish-gray. The shadows of the elms and birches and beeches are long and thick. It seems like it should be dusk. The air smells like morning though, dewy and wet and cool and grassy. It'll be uncomfortable soon enough, muggy, sultry, sweaty, with the screeching calls of a thousand species of bugs.

County Route 59 goes past our house before making a sure and certain turn to the south, toward Mobile and the Gulf Coast. Most days I can count on one hand the number of cars that pass leisurely, almost politely, barely stirring up any dust. I inhale deeply the smell of wet mud and the perfume of Mama's coral and white roses. Soon enough I will despise myself for having let myself go to where I can't get into nothing in my closet. Good thing it isn't July or August, or I'd really hate myself.

"Alice, hon, you look so pale and plain in that black," Aunt Sue says, opening the screen door to let everyone out. "Don't you have anything more springtimey or Eastery?"

"Yeah, Alice, what's with that black and gray thing on you?" My cousin Ed comes bursting past Aunt Sue, wearing a white shirt and tan slacks. "Looks like a dead 'coon or a possum!"

"It looks like you're going to a funeral," Lainie says, demurely, like she's trying to help me. I'm about to die of embarrassment. Might as well overdose. "This is the only thing I had to wear. I'm real bloated, about to start my period probably."

Ed snickers. Aunt Sue shushes him, and Lainie just stares at me like I've just said something Ed shouldn't have heard because he is a boy. Oh brother, he's a boy all right. About the most immature nineteen year old I've ever known. We've never gotten along. He teased me mercilessly for years, especially during those first years of puberty. God, I'll never forgive him for that. I, in turn, treated him like the obnoxious brat that he was...and still is.

I wind the black and gray shawl more securely around me, as if I'm about to go out and be pelted by heavy rain and hail. Mama smiles at me, recognizing my defiance. It's all I have, and she likes how I whip it out when I'm under attack, especially from Ed, Aunt Sue and Lainie. She doesn't voice her support of me out loud though. She doesn't say much at all nowadays.

Aunt Sue, one hand on Mama's shoulder and one hand holding the car keys, herds us out to her waiting car, a brand new powder blue cadillac. Uncle Clay bought it. It's their third cadillac in the last eight years. He makes great money at his job at Boeing in Tulsa, building and servicing the big jets. Before her stroke, Mama said, "They're tryin' to keep up with the Keatons, and the Keatons just got a brand new Infiniti, so Clay and Sue will be comin' up with one of those come hell or high water, I just know it. Of course, if Clay ever stumps his toe or falls down and gets hurt and can't do nothin', what a sad day that'll be!" He stays gone all week, and then flies home to Nashville on weekends. It's been that way for years, and Aunt Sue never talks about moving to Tulsa. "I love Nashville," she says now, her polished nails tapping on the dark gray leather of the steering wheel. "So much action and excitement. I love noise. I'd never make it five

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minutes livin' in the country. Uriah? No way. Not even Monroeville would be big enough for me."

Nobody's listening to her except maybe me. Mama and I have heard Sue say this same stuff over and over...Uriah is the tiny town we live near. We know her reasons.

She directs her talk to Mama, but Mama is just staring out the passenger window blankly. "But, if'n y'all come up to Nashville an' live, I'd surely look after you," Aunt Sue continues, and her eyes meet mine in the rearview. "I'd think you'd love it up there, Alice."

I reply with a feeble, "Oh yeah?" and run my fingers over the luxurious textures of the luxury-mobile I'm riding in. Warm smooth leather, rough furry carpeting, soft plush velour. I love the velour. It's comforting. I lean foreward and inhale the back of Mama's seat, that "new car" scent. Aunt Sue just got the car three weeks ago, she says, after Uncle Clay got his yearly bonus. Lainie looks at me with a shocked expression on her face, like I'm some pervert inhaling used panties.

I don't bother trying to explain what I was doing. I've long since given up trying to be friends with her or Ed.

During service, my ankles wobble whenever we stand to sing hymns or to pray. These hose are cutting me in two. I again have an uncontrollable urge to rip open my skin and jump out of my lumpy, frumpy two hundred pound body. I feel a swift rage rise up in me.

Nothing goes my way! Never! I could have finished school and become a veterinarian, even a vet tech; I could have had some real money flowing in to help care for Mama! But no, nobody helps me! Why won't Aunt Sue help?! She's her sister! It ain't fair! She and Clay are well off and livin' it up and I'm down here struggling every single day! She won't offer to come down and help and she says she can't leave Nashville and live in a small town and she'd go crazy and blah, blah, blah! And Mama won't leave Uriah and go up to Nashville 'cause she loves it here and lived here all her life! Why won't she leave? She's so selfish! Aunt Sue is selfish too! Everyone is being so selfish and I'm the one who gives and gives and gives!

I work ten hours a day in a damn crampy office dispatching to truckers and by the end of the day I feel like my head is gonna explode. I get home and there Mama is, needing me. She can still walk and she can still talk, but she leans some to the right and the left side of her face is droopy and her smile is different than it used to be. I'm so tired and angry. At everybody. At Aunt Sue for being privileged and spoiled; At Lainie and Ed for the same reasons, and for the way they treat me, like I'm just some big, fat, stupid lump of fat instead of a person; At Dad for running off and marrying that bimbo in Tallahassee who is only eight years older than me! At Harlin for getting married before me even though I'm the eldest, and having a baby boy and moving to Missouri last summer; At Mama for having to have a stroke and suddenly becoming so dependent on me… At myself for eating every time I'm stressed, angry, sad, bored, et cetera. I eat every evening when I come home from work, eat to calm myself and to soothe the twitching of my raw nerves. Ten hours a day of constant voices, phones, static, the burning light of a computer terminal, and the probing pain of an earset to wear when communicating with men on the road.

It's rough. I eat when I feel sad for Mama, when I realize that the woman I knew as so vibrant, brassy and independent is gone, replaced by a humble, much quieter, asymmetrical woman who gets very emotional if left alone too long. The pounds packed on so fast that I was astonished to see two-hundred instead of one hundred sixty.

The rage inside me grows. It's powerful enough to make me really want to take my hymnal and throw it, just heave it across the room. It doesn't matter who I hit. The bitterness surges through me even as I sit down limply when we're bid to do so. When

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we're at last dismissed to go eat Easter dinner, I stand and prepare to file out with the rest of the mass to the fellowship hall.

As soon as I rise, the room around me sways and I sit down again, feeling weakened by my deluge of emotion. I feel faint too, not nauseous, but faint, tired, limp. I lay my head back against the cushion of the pew and close my eyes.

"What's with you?" asks Ed. He shoves my legs aside and gets past me, following Mama and Sue and Lainie to where the food is.

The moments pass by slowly and I feel more and more weak and faint. I hear a voice above the loud ringing in my ears, "Excuse me, can you tell me where the restroom is?"

My eyelids feel like they each weigh a ton. I shove them open and see a young woman, weighed down with a diaper bag and a baby carrier in each hand. What did she say? "The ladies' room?" I know where the ladies' restroom is. I've been going to this church on and off for the past twenty-five years or so. My head throbs, my ears ring, the world spins. I don't know. "I...I..."

"The little girlies’ room?" She looks at me anxiously. "Gotta change some stink'ums here."

I don't know where the ladies' bathroom is. I can't think. I can't hear her anymore. I can only see her mouthing words to me. "Are you all right? You look pale."

I'm floating above myself, yet at the same time sinking into a frightening, hissing white ocean. A hand takes me firmly by the shoulder and sits me back down. I didn't realize I'd stood back up and tried to walk. I don't know where I am right now.

"Alice! Hey! What's the matter?"

I only mumble. I don't have a real sentence in my head, only mumbles. I can't even think.

"I bet her sugar's low," says the voice of the young woman with the baby stuff.

"She ain't diabetic that I know of," I hear Lainie say.

I keep trying to stand up again, but Ed holds me down. After a time, I hear Lainie saying, "Here, Alice. Drink this."

It's apple juice. I'm weak I keep nearly dropping the cup, so Lainie holds it for me. I feel a sharp poke in my ring finger and the young woman says, "Sugar's only sixty-two. Let's get her some more juice."

A few minutes later, I'm feeling a lot better. I don't feel so confused and sick and although I now have a terrible headache, it's nice to be aware of the fact that I have a headache. I drink more apple juice and eat a few bites of carrot cake.

"Feelin' better?" asks the strange young woman, still holding her two diaper bags and two baby carriers.

I nod. "You got twins? Or are you just watching all your friends' kids for 'em?" I'm trying to be funny but I only sound grumpy...embittered and sarcastic.

But she laughs. "They're both mine. Robbie and Rory." I look into each carrier and see a small pink face surrounded by billowing blue and white.

"How'd you get your finger-sticker out with your hands so full?"

She laughs again and smiles and I notice that she has a really pretty face. Dark brown hair, green eyes and a little gold stud in her left nostril. "I just put Robbie down and dug in my pockets, " she replies.

"Oh," I say, and feel stupid. "Thanks." I'm sure that this will be all. She's probably anxious to go eat, go to the bathroom, just go. "Oh, uh...the bathroom is down past the hall on your left."

"Went already," she says, looking at me strangely.

"When?!" I almost yell. I'm glad Lainie and Ed have returned to the dining hall. The stranger just smiles some more. "Come on, let's go eat."


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I guffaw nervously. "Oh, well, thanks for helpin' me. Um, I guess my sugar got too low. It was awful. But I feel better now. So...nice talkin' to ya."

"Name's Sylvia," she says, and I shake her hand. "And you're Alice, right?"

"Yeah," I shrug. "Alice. You here with your husband?" I blush and add, "Or their Daddy?" I glance down at her burdens.

She frowns a little. "Naw, he isn't here. Let's go eat before it's all gone."

She follows me to where my folks are seated, their plates already mostly empty. Lainie and Ed stare as we sit down. Aunt Sue smiles. Mama smiles her sweet crooked half-grin.

Sylvia talks to me all during the meal and after. Even talks with her mouth full. But I like her. I appreciate her conversation if only because it's taking me out of my own head. I'm still mortified that I fainted and got sick in front of her, unable to answer even a simple question because my brain had had no sugar in it.

"I'm a nurse," she tells me. "I've been working over at the Haven of Rest nursing home in town here the past few months. Moved here from California last winter, but I was born and raised in Monroeville till I was about seven…” She stops, like she feels embarrassed. “You live in Monroeville too? Never saw you before today."

"Live with my Mama in Uriah, 'bout fifteen, twenty miles from here, " I say. "I don't go to church too much. Mama goes every Sunday, gets a ride from Mrs. Flynn or Mrs. Bayliss."

"What do you do for a living?"

I hang my head. "Wantin' to finish school, honestly." I try to keep my voice down. "Work as a dispatcher for Burdell Truckin'."

"Married?"

I flinch, imagining Lainie's and Sue's mocking eyes on me, the fat, dumpy, depressed old maid. I say bravely, "Naw," and smile with my chin up. "You?"

"Was. He left. Got cold feet after the boys were born." She smiles but it's sad, and I know she's being brave too. "He went back to California. It's just me and these two now."

"He might come back," I try to reassure her...then I feel like an idiot. \

"Eh," she says. "It's okay. I'm doin' fine."

When everyone, including me, has eaten two helpings each of turkey, ham, dressing, mixed vegetables and all, plus one piece of cake, we're full and happily miserable.

Well, actually, I feel embarrassed miserable. Ate too much again, I scold myself. Made a pig of yourself in front of her. Her, who I already like way too much. The kind of like that makes you want to cry at stupid times. She's big too, I think. But she just had babies, two of them. She needs the energy from the food. Big in the hips, big breasts, but otherwise pleasantly plump, stocky and healthy looking, not blubbery fat like I am. What burdens she has, I think as I walk with her to the front lawn.

The noon sun seeps into the black I'm wearing and I start sweating immediately. I gotta get home and get outta these hot, tight, miserable things and into those baggy ol' sweatpants I live in.

Mama, Aunt Sue, Lainie and Ed are already in the car. Sylvia looks tired and more than ready to put her two babies in their car seats and give her shoulders a rest.

"Uhm," I stammer, "could I call you sometime and we could go do somethin'?" There, I've said it. I hunch my head into my shoulders and squint, awaiting the stinging reply, "Aw, hell naw! You eat like an ol' hog sow! What an appetite!" Or, "Sorry...I don't know what you were thinkin' , but I was just bein' nice. I'm not interested," Or the worst, "Naw…but you think Ed...or Lainie...would go out with me?"

I open my eyes a little and see her smiling at me. "I was just gonna ask you the same thing, but I didn't know if ..."


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Now I smile. "You have a nice smile," she says. "I don't think you smiled before this or I'd have noticed."

I try to say something but my mouth won't move. So I just keep smiling, can't stop.

Sylvia gets into her little blue Nissan after she puts her two little boys in the back. "I gotta bring them with me, you know. Don't have a babysitter right now."

"I don't mind," I say through my smiling teeth. I look at the babies beyond the dusty glass of the side window. They're both being so sweet and quiet. I know they won't be like that forever, small and pink and silent most of the time. But I don't care.

"Okay then, I'll be expectin' your call." She drives away. I get into Aunt Sue's caddie and see four flushed, sweating faces staring at me. "It's about time!" grumbles Aunt Sue. The air conditioner blasts cold air at all of us, but I see the mustache of wetness above everyone's upper lip.

Mama smiles and winks at me. Ed's heckling me, as always. "Got a new lady friend?" He says this every time I have a girlfriend, or even a friendly girl. "I don't have a new anything," I smile.

"Yet," Ed teases.

"Oh, Ed, shut up," Aunt Sue moans.

Ed smiles at me, even after Aunt Sue's reproof.

Lainie's staring at me, as always. The confidence I felt is rapidly withering away. "What?!" I snap at her.

"Oh, nothing," she says in a strange, soft voice. "I was just thinking, you...you look nice today."

I glare back at her. "Spare me." No way am I gonna believe a compliment from her, the beauty queen.

"You do look pretty today, love," says Aunt Sue. "You look really pretty." She turns to Mama and says, "I can't make it down 'til August. But Clay's okay with everything and from there we'll work it all out." Mama nods. My eyes catch hers in the rearview and she winks at me again.