The Giant on the Oprah Show
Keep a diary, and someday it will keep you.
Thursday, Sept. 15, 2006
This is my diary, my pathetic little conversation with myself. No doubt I will burn it halfway through. I’ve never been one to finish anything. Mother used to say this was because I was born during a full moon, but like everything she says, it doesn’t make a lick of sense.
It isn’t even the beginning of the year. Or even the month. It’s not even my birthday. I’m starting, typical of me, impulsively, in the middle of September. I’m starting with the facts.
I’m thirty-eight years old. I’ve slept with nineteen and a half men.
I live in Alaska, not the wild parts but smack in the middle of Anchorage, with the Walmart and Home Depot squatting over streets littered with moose poop.
I’m divorced. Last month my ex-husband paid child support in ptarmigan carcasses, those tiny bones snapping like fingers when I tried to eat them.
I have one son, age eight and already in fourth grade. He is gifted, his teachers gush, remarking how unusual it is for such a child to come out of such unique (meaning underprivileged, meaning single parent, meaning they don’t think I’m very smart) circumstances.
I work as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant. This is a step up: two years ago I was at Denny’s.
Yesterday, I was so worried about money I stayed home from work and tried to drown myself in the bathtub. I sank my head under the water and held my breath, but my face popped up in less than a minute. I tried a second time, but by then my heart wasn’t really in it so I got out, brushed the dog hair off the sofa and plopped down to watch Oprah.
What happened next was a miracle, like Gramma used to say. No angels sang, of course, and there was none of that ornery church music. Instead, a very tall woman (who might have been an angel if heaven had high ceilings) waved her arms. There were sweat stains under her sweater, and this impressed me so much that I leaned forward; I knew something important was about to happen.
Most of what she said was New Age mumbo-jumbo, but when she mentioned the diary, I pulled myself up and rewrapped the towel around my waist. I knew she was speaking to me, almost as if this was her purpose in life, to make sure these words got directed my way.
She said you didn’t need a fancy one; it didn’t even need a lock, like those little-girl ones I kept as a teenager. A notebook, she said, would work just fine. Or even a bunch of papers stapled together. The important thing was doing it. Committing yourself to paper every day, regardless of whether anything exciting or thought-provoking actually happens.
“Your thoughts are gold,” the giant woman said. “Hold them up to the light and they shine.”
I was crying by then, sobbing into the dog’s neck. It was like a salvation, like those traveling preachers who used to come to town. Mother would never let us go but I snuck out with Julie, who was a Baptist. Those preachers believed, and while we were there in that tent, we did too.
This is what I’m hoping for, that my words will deliver me something. Not the truth, exactly. But solace.
Sunday, Sept. 18
Already I’m slacking. Writing is like working out. If you miss one day, it’s easy to convince yourself to miss another.
I’m an artist. I write this rather shamefully, as if admitting to an embarrassing medical problem that I have no right to be embarrassed about since I clearly brought it on myself.
“She’s obviously talented,” the art teacher informed Mother during my fourth-grade teacher conference, and Mother hung her head, her white-gloved hand tightening around the Ivory soap sculpture I had fashioned into a Campbell’s soup can. By the time we walked out to the car, my sculpture had melted under the wrath of Mother’s grasp.
Growing up in Dowser, a little southwestern Michigan town whose only distinction was an award-winning badminton team, I took every art class the high school offered. I even managed to win a few “prestigious” awards: the Dorothy Maloney Fellowship for Duck Drawings; the Hardings Grocery Store Cuts of Meat Award; and the Southwestern Michigan Lookalike Contest, where I painted the assemblymen in drag and almost got Mother kicked out of the Women’s League.
All this might sound heady and exciting, except that in our stuffy little farming community, the liberal arts were looked upon as a minor sin. Mother squirmed each time I brought home another award, while my older sister, Laurel, sighed and squared her shoulders, knowing it was up to her to do something with her life, since I was so obviously throwing mine away.
I slid through my senior year with Cs and Ds, skipped graduation, and hitchhiked down to the Greyhound station, where I made a one-way reservation to Farmington, New Mexico, the farthest my money would take me. I wore my lucky peasant blouse and carried my new Kmart suitcase, stuffed with art supplies, stray earrings, photocopies of Frida Kahlo’s paintings, and a brand-new diaphragm.
Things didn’t quite work out as planned. Trying to make it in the art world is like trying to have an orgasm when you’re not in the mood: You strain and struggle and twist yourself into impossible positions until you almost, almost (oh god, oh yes, oh plllleeeassee) get there. But you never quite manage, and instead of being blissed out on pleasure, you find yourself attending other people’s shows and pretending to be happy for them when all you want to do is give them a swift kick in the ass.
That’s what happened to me. I lost my orgasm. My resolve followed shortly afterward, along with my standards. I started settling for a little less here, a lot less there, and before I knew it, I found myself living in Alaska, a state so far removed it’s not even included on national weather maps.
Then I met Barry and really lost my steam. Years passed in a blur and the minute Jay-Jay popped his head from between my legs, it was sore nipples, sleepless nights, and Barry and me arguing about whose turn it was to buy diapers. Our arguments quickly escalated until he moved into a shabby apartment in Spenard, a down-on-your-luck neighborhood famous for its cheap hookers and even cheaper drugs, and I bought a shabby trailer less than a mile away. This is typical of Barry and me. We’ve been divorced almost three years yet neither one of us has the gumption to move on. We claim that this is so Jay-Jay can move back and forth between us but really it’s because we don’t know how to let go. Sometimes, I’m ashamed to admit, we still…
Whew, there’s the groan of the school bus grinding its way up the hill by Westchester Lagoon. In a minute Jay-Jay will charge through the door. “Mom,” he’ll scream, demanding food and attention, love and understanding. And I’ll give it to him, messily, badly, my hair falling down, my armpits reeking because I forgot to put on deodorant this morning. Jay-Jay is tall and blond, his legs starting to thin, poor kid. He’s caught in that awkward stumble of pulling away from the cute-little-boy stage. He’s choosy about food and movies, and so good-natured it’s easy to forget how smart he really is. He’s just Jay-Jay, a skinny kid with freckles who picks his nose when he thinks no one’s looking. He smells of milk and grass. What I like is the smell of his feet. Embarrassing, but while he sleeps I sometimes sneak into his room, lift his foot to my face, close my eyes, and inhale: subtle and slightly sweet, not yet sour, a bit musky.
Soon he’ll wear huge sneakers and clomp around the house. He’ll smell of sweat and get pimples and hard-ons. He’ll jack off in the bathroom and borrow the car without asking, while I sit home reading trashy magazines, hoping and praying that he doesn’t turn out to be as big an asshole as his father.
What’s on my kitchen table:
Alaska Airlines Visa bill: OVERDUE!
JCPenney credit card bill: PAST DUE!
Anchorage Pet Emergency bill: DELINQUENT!
Ken doll, with the head cut off
Sex and the City DVD covered in ketchup
Wednesday, Sept. 21
It’s 9:30 a.m. on a sunny autumn day, and I’m sitting at a cleared space on the kitchen table, munching on Chex Mix and watching the dog dig holes in Mr. and Mrs. Nice’s yard. It’s almost time to pull on my wrinkled blouse and stained apron and head out the door.
My food service career began over fifteen years ago at a truck stop in Camp Verde, Arizona. Easy money, I thought, and a perfect way to supplement my art, which I was sure was about to take off.
When it didn’t, I hit the road and spent the next three years following the festival circuit in the summer and waitressing during the winters. I spent my days out in the desert sketching naked men I picked up in bars, transforming their tired bodies into paintings of cowboy butts floating in the air like helium balloons and penises shaped as the arms of saguaro cacti. I hadn’t snared a gallery show, but I was getting by. I had my own business cards (my name misspelled, but you can’t have everything) and a faithful following of women in Birkenstock sandals.
One night, camped out on the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona, red sandstone smeared across my face and arms, I dreamed that Gramma was standing in front of me, a white egg in each palm. I woke up sweating and irritable. Gramma, my father’s mother, was Polish and fat and smelled of onions and garlic. We had always been close. We were the messy ones, the stumbling ones, the ones who goofed up and knocked things over. Mostly, though, our relationship went like this: She cooked and I ate. She talked and I listened. She made messes and I played happily in their wake. Just thinking of Gramma made me so lonely that I broke down and called her from Holbrook the next morning.
“Yah,” she answered in her heavy Polish accent. “That you, Pushski?”
I asked her what it meant to dream of an egg. “Raw,” I told her. “In a shell. In someone’s hand. And white, almost luminous.”
“It mean,” she said slowly, “that you is brzemienny.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I shouted.
“You sure?” she asked. “You got the blood?”
“Yes,” I lied. After I hung up, I sat on the wilted ground outside the phone booth. I knew Gramma was right. I was pregnant and I had no idea who the father might be: That cowboy from Winslow who never wore underwear? That cowboy I picked up outside of Flagstaff who had a belt buckle larger than my head? That older cowboy who walked with a limp and lost three fingers off his left hand to a horse bite?
To make a long story short (and the less I talk about this phase of my life, the better), I had an abortion at the clinic down in Tucson. As soon I was declared “normal” at my six-week check-up, I walked to the highway, stuck out my thumb, and waited for a ride. I left everything behind, even my car. It was the price I had to pay, was still paying, since as soon as it was gone that child connected to me tighter and firmer than if I had birthed it myself. I learned too late that some things can’t be left behind, that they seek you out, show up at your doorstep late at night.
“Sins make you fat,” Gramma used to say. I thought she meant it literally, that sins would cause weight to form on your body. But after the abortion I understood what she was really saying: sins bring you down, make you heavy. That they make you fat with your own misgivings.
I eventually reached Alaska, met and married Barry, and worked and quit and worked and was fired from a variety of waitressing jobs. We had Jay-Jay and our own house and a golden retriever named Almond Joy. I stayed home most of the first year, stumbling around in a sleep-deprived haze while Barry stormed off to work every day. As soon as I put Jay-Jay down for his midmorning nap I’d hurriedly pull my art supplies from the closet (I was down to two colors by then, phthalo green and cadmium orange, which sucked since everything came out a grainy, brownish mess). I was halfway finished with an Alaska nude Last Supper, but I was having trouble with the toes, which resembled slugs. Jesus’ thighs looked especially nice, though, very strong and competent and tinted an almond shade I was particularly proud of (I had mixed in a small bit of Jay-Jay’s infant formula to lighten the paint colors). Right when I hit on the brilliant idea of covering the apostles’ feet with bunny boots, Barry up and quit his job. I tried to keep painting but it was impossible. I threw my supplies back in the closet (just the phthalo green—the cadmium orange had given out the week before) and joined my husband on the couch for morning marathons of PBS shows: Mister Rogers, Barney, Reading Rainbow. I ate too many bowls of cereal, lulled into a sugary stupor so that I would often look at us all curled up in our pajamas at one o’clock in the afternoon and think, Isn’t this cozy?
The day I pinned a dish towel around Jay-Jay’s squirming butt because we had run out of diapers was the day I shook off my inertia, pulled on the only skirt that still fit, and marched around the restaurant circuit. I hit all the places that frequently hired but rarely advertised: Sea Galley, Sourdough Mining Company, Peanut Farm.
“I’ll call you,” everyone said. But no one did. It wasn’t my spit-stained shirts or lackluster hair that turned them off as much as my desperation, which emitted from my skin like a nasty odor.
One night in the Safeway, as I hurriedly wrote out a check I couldn’t cover for milk and crackers, the scrappy manager from the Denny’s accidently rammed my shopping cart. He remembered me right away—I had worked for him a few years before, quitting to hike the Resurrection Trail, only to be hired back again, only to quit to kayak Prince William Sound. He eyed my meager purchases and slyly mentioned a day shift opening. Would I be interested? I swallowed my pride, added three Mounds bars to my order, and said I would. Then I drove home to share the good news with my soon-to-be ex-husband.
“I got a job,” I yelled. Barry grunted from the couch.
“Cool,” he said with disinterest. “Where?”
“Denny’s.” A long pause, and was it my imagination or did he actually sneer?
“Well, it ain’t the Hilton, but you’ll do just fine,” he said. Then he turned to Jay-Jay and patted his dish-toweled butt. “Sport, get your daddy another one of them beers.”
This is the truth: I used to lie awake and imagine my husband’s death. I imagined this right down to the clothes I would wear to his funeral—a simple black dress and a pair of designer shoes. In these fantasies, my expensive feet floated a few inches above the ground like in those pictures of the saints on holy cards. Like I was suddenly blessed.
For the past two and a half years I’ve worked at a restaurant called Mexico in an Igloo. It’s as tacky as the name implies, a monstrous igloo-shaped building that squats over half a city block, with cactus and tequila bottles jutting around the door and window frames. Tourists love it and locals tolerate it because the food is homemade, the drinks stiff, the salsa hot enough to knock sweat inside your winter drawers.
I start off each shift strong but fizzle halfway through. I don’t have the pizzazz it takes to be cheerful seven hours a day. By the time I pick up Jay-Jay from his after-school Camp Fire program, I’m itchy and irritable. He usually has the good sense to keep his mouth shut on the ride home. Once we walk in the house, however, he lets loose, his words shooting from his mouth so fast I often jump back as if under attack. Poor kid, it’s not his fault his mother hates her job. I try to listen, I really do. But some evenings I stare into his eager face as he goes on and on about some complicated story and want to yell, “Stop! Stop being so happy!”
Instead I smile my fake waitressing smile and make little cooing sounds of approval.
Then I warm up some bread. It’s my favorite thing after work, thick, sturdy wedges of brown bread so dense I have to rip pieces with my teeth. Jay-Jay munches the crust while I work my way through the middle sections. It’s satisfying to eat this way, no plates or silverware, only our mouths chewing. On Fridays, I spread open the paper to the entertainment section and daydream of myself as Talented Artist, my hips swaying under a long silk skirt as I give an interview to the snotty arts reviewer from the local paper.
“I know what it’s like at the bottom,” I say as he eyes my breasts (in this fantasy, I have hefty and enviable cleavage). “I lived in a trailer park for years, and the shading from this period was influenced by Kmart blue-light specials.”
These little fantasies calm me down enough so that by suppertime, Jay-Jay and I are able to enjoy a nice meal out in the living room, eating on TV trays while we watch Vanna applaud as contestants spin the big wheel.
“She’s pretty old, huh, Mom?” Jay-Jay says. “She’s been on forever.”
“Yes, honey, she has,” I reply. And I stare at the screen, the wedges on the wheel going round and round, my stomach full and gurgling, the dog lying on my feet, and the TV gives off a tint that makes everything around us, from the mangy carpet to the cracks in the wall, look homey and warm and inviting.
It isn’t, of course. But it’s a nice illusion.
Ms. Carla Richards
202 W. Hillcrest Drive #22
Anchorage, AK 99503
Dear Ms. Carla Richards:
We regret to inform you that your application for a Platinum Alaska Bank Visa Card has been declined.
After reviewing your rather entertaining credit history, we feel it is in our best interest to keep you securely focused on your current plan.
As always, thank you for choosing Alaska Bank Visa Card.
Douglas R. Winnington
Junior Account Supervisor
P.S. Did your August payment get lost in the mail again?