Honey, You’ll Be Wanting My Autograph

By Mary Creech Gulledge

cole, the tall, creamy, coffee-skinned hunk at the Salvation Army soup kitchen, is smiling at Delores. She has gone up to the window and asked for another doughnut and he is giving her one, right in front of God and everybody.

Every Tuesday, Mrs. Alligator Shoes brings in three boxes of hot Krispy Kremes, her fruity perfume blending with the smell of sugar and freshly cooked dough, and though Cole has made it clear that all of us in the Tuesday night crowd can have only one, he’s got to be kidding. Giving us just one of those sweet babies – that melts in our mouths way too fast – is like handing a kid an ice cream cone and telling him he can only have one bite.

So me and Tombo give Delores the evil eye. Crazy old Elijah puts his hands over his ears, moans a pitch perfect B flat, and walks up to Delores and stomps his foot down on her left big toe. She hollers and drops the doughnut, and Elijah takes his hands away from his head just long enough to scoop it up and mash it with both hands into his mouth, his slimy tongue licking the sugar off his chin.

“Elijah, time for you to leave,” Cole says and pats Delores on the shoulder as he moves from behind the counter and takes hold of Elijah’s arm.

“You’ve got to behave, or you can’t come back, and you know I want you to come back.”

“You can’t fool me,” Elijah says. “I know you want to poison me with that food you cook so you can harvest my organs. That’s why I have to go for the doughnuts.”

Cole sighs. “Good night,” he says, as Elijah, in his ratty old army jacket that he won’t take off until July, storms out, moaning, into the street.

Tombo and me look over at Delores and we bust out laughing.

“Hey, Delores,” Tombo says, winking at me. “Bring me and Nikki a doughnut.” And Tombo and me just fall out of our chairs we are laughing so hard.

Delores looks so sad I almost feel sorry that we’re giving her a hard time, but then I look at her coat, that glorious purple coat that would have been mine if she hadn’t snatched it first from the almost-new donation pile at the Rescue Mission next door.

Delores has been on the streets for years. She’s nothing like me and Tombo. We’re just temporarily having a string of bad luck. We’re going to have our screenplay made into a movie, and I’m going to get my three year old back from that social services psycho who put her in foster care. Tombo is a genius and he has big time connections with publishers and agents. His first cousin Max travels back and forth from Wilmington to Hollywood, and he has promised Tombo and me that he’ll read our screenplay the first chance he gets.

Tombo and me are just brilliant when we write together. I think of something and then he thinks of something and, before you know it, we are scribbling down ideas that, one day, will bring Steven Spielberg to add the soup kitchen’s number to his cell phone contacts.

Our screenplay is about a man and woman who meet in Paris and fall in love, and even though the woman is already married, she just can’t stop thinking about the perfect man of her dreams. They meet every week at the top of the Eiffel Tower, and then, one night she waits and he doesn’t show. She doesn’t mean to, but she is so upset from crying that she leans too far over the edge of the railing and falls to her death. A tragedy that will be pure gold at the box office. Max is going to love it.

With money from the screenplay, I can buy a house in a good neighborhood and get my daughter Laney away from those foster parent subversives who everybody knows have ties to Al Qaeda – everybody, that is, except the idiot who placed her.

Just yesterday, Lorraine, the clueless case worker at the women’s shelter, had the nerve to say that she had a job for me doing clean up at the K and S cafeteria. She said, “Nikki, if you follow the rules, you can stay at the shelter every night for sixty days and save seventy-five per cent of what you earn for a nest egg-if you also work at the job full time.”

“I’m a writer,” I say, “and my talent will be wasted if I’m peeling onions and washing pots.”

“Only for a while,” said Lorraine without batting an eye. “And who knows? You might have some experiences you can write about.”

Come on, Lorraine, get real with your red-headed, freckled faced self. Who wants to go and see a movie about people working their butts off for minimum wage?

My last job writing ad copy for the Mr. Cash store allowed me to use some of my writing skills, at least, and I would still be there now if the boss hadn’t started sticking pins in his Voodoo doll that he named after me. Even though I never actually saw the doll, I know he kept it in his desk and stuck it with two or three new pins every day. I know for sure, because I saw the way he looked at me, and I felt the pricks.

Tombo says, “I reckon it’s time for us to find a spot for the night.”

Everyone else has cleared out of the dining room. I glimpse Delores in the hall, limping towards the side door, and I’m glad to see she’s lost the swagger that really gets on my nerves. Cole is already getting out the mop and bucket, and two ladies from the Junior League are wiping down the tables. They’re wearing enough gold to open a pawn shop.

I walk outside with Tombo and he touches me on the shoulder and says, “See you later, kid.” I watch him amble on down the street towards the men’s shelter, pulling his flask out of his coat pocket and taking a swig. Of course I have my new bed that Lorraine has arranged for me, since she somehow thinks the K and S is in my future, but it’s seven blocks away.

I’d rather stay on a park bench across the street, but even though it’s not dark, I see I’m too late. A large woman with Food Lion plastic bags stuffed with I don’t know what all flops down on the only unoccupied bench. Another woman called Bad Mona, who has dark green snake tattoos up and down her wrist, comes out of nowhere and yells, “That’s mine, get up.” The woman on the bench gets up, though her blank expression doesn’t change. She walks off, clutching her bags for all she’s worth, and Bad Mona shakes her fist at her back and says, “Don’t you know that’s my bench? Where you been, not to know that bench got my name on it. Now you get your fat ass on down that road. Nobody messes with Mona, you hear?”

I stretch out on the grass, at the bottom of a confederate soldier on a horse, the bronze statue a nice barrier between me and Bad Mona. I pull the hood of my coat up around my head and think about my daughter, Laney.

I know that I did the right thing, leaving her with Mama. On my last night at home, I punched a hole in the wall, though anybody would have done the same thing if they had been pushed to the brink like I was.

Right after Laney was born, things went pretty well, considering that Donnie left me as soon as he found out Laney was on the way. He had looked down at his shiny, patent leather Nike basketball shoes and said, “Nikki, I ain’t got it in me to be a daddy, especially when that baby might be as crazy as you.”

The life started to leak out of me. While I stood like a sentry on the screen porch at Mama’s, Donnie came close, touched my cheek, and let his fingers rest with no weight on my cheekbone; his eyes bore through me, the deep look that had pulled me to open my arms and legs to him, and then his arm fell to his side. He turned; I watched the back of his head, his thick, black hair facing me, and I couldn’t imagine that my own fingers had ever found a home in those silky strands.

I watched my Donnie move farther and farther away, and just before he walked out, the same way my daddy walked out on my Mama when I was five, I rushed at him, threw my arms around him from behind, squeezed his six-pack abs with all I was worth, and screamed, “Don’t you dare leave me to have this baby alone, Donald Lee Jenkins,” and Donnie, he didn’t try to turn around. He just pried my hands from around his waist like I was made of pipe cleaners, walked down the porch steps, and let the door slam, bounce, and slam again.

Laney was born in the spring, her head full of her daddy’s hair. She had big, soulful eyes that Mama said were just like mine. I said, when she was a minute old, all covered with goop and blood and looking like an angel, “Oh, precious girl, you’re going to have a life like Lois Lane.” Even after hours of pushing and panting, I knew I was nuts to tell this miracle, squirming in my arms, that she would live like a character from a rerun I’d watched while counting contractions. Crying and smiling and kissing her toes, I sang, “Lois Laney, your mama’s zany. I’ll name you Laney, cause I am zany.”

Now don’t roll your eyes when I say the truth came faster than a speeding bullet. Lois Lane was a talented writer, the kind of writer my eighth grade teacher said I could be because of my big vocabulary, and, not only that, Lois could count on Superman to get her out of trouble. Not like Daddy. Not like Donnie. My daughter’s head bobbed at my breasts and I sang again, “I will name you, Laney, and I’m not zany, it won’t be rainy on this day, Laney.”

Mama and I took Laney home. For the first two years of her life, we had a system: Mama worked as a receptionist for a bunch of young lawyers who worked out of a house within walking distance to our apartment. I stayed home with Laney, feeding her, changing her, talking and singing. On some days, I’d give her a bath and dress her up before I’d stroll her to the shopping center. Her little head of dark curls just shone as I walked behind her. Pushing her over the cracks in the sidewalk, counting aloud each one and listening to Laney try so hard to talk, I couldn’t help smiling, I was so puffed up with pride.

Then, in late January, when Laney was two and a half, Laney and Mama got sick. Mama had been diabetic for a long time, but all of a sudden, she couldn’t keep her insulin regulated. Her left foot was turning black and blue and she couldn’t go to work.

I was nursing Mama when Laney got the croup. Her fever was so high one night that I sat with her on the steps outside, hoping the freezing weather would bring her temperature down. She was hot and limp in my lap, but we sat together, Laney and me, and when I could no longer feel my feet, Laney’s fever had broken.

I stayed in my nightgown a whole week, tending to Laney and making sure Mama got her medicine. Laney was cranky and crying and wanting to get into everything. One night, I tried to give her the antibiotic they gave me at the emergency room, and she cried, “No, no, no, no,” and she started to kick me. I should have waited for Mama to help me, but she was in the tub.

I sat on the floor and straddled Laney, without putting my weight on her.

“It’s OK, it’s cherry flavored,” I said. I moved the syringe towards her mouth and she twisted hard, shook her head back and forth, and pushed her knees into my stomach. I stood up and watched her scream and kick, her cries getting stronger, wilder.

Her dark eyes rolled; her high-pitched wails zapped me with bone-deep pain. She was a bundle of electric zigzags, a seek-and-destroy sound wave that kept coming and coming.

I reached down and grabbed her. I shook her hard, shook her again.

Her cries stopped just like that; she was quiet, completely quiet.

I looked at her and she looked back. She melted into gulping sobs.

“Laney, baby, it was for your own good,” I yelled.

She kicked my knee. I almost dropped her, but I held on. Her mouth was right at my ear and she squealed; I jerked her out in front of me. Could those be my hands that gripped her? My arms that yanked her?

The devil laughed inside my head.

“What are you doing?” Mama screamed. She limped towards me, her hair wet and tangled. She smacked her cane across my back; I couldn’t breathe, my knees went weak, I watched my Laney hit the floor.

“Get away from that child, now,” Mama said.

I ran to my room. I heard Mama pick Laney up and say, over and over, “It’s all right, honey, it’s all right.”

My heart was pounding. What had I done? How could Satan just take me over without me even knowing he was there?

I punched the wall, my fist making a hole. The blood spurted from my hand, and while a stream of red trickled down the broken sheetrock, I lay on the floor and cried.

I left that night, long after Laney and Mama had gone to sleep. Taking one last look before I walked away, I stood over Laney’s crib and whispered, “I’ll be back.”

Now, ten months later, I lie on the park’s hard ground and wipe my eyes with my sleeve. Except for the row of street lamps, all I can see are shadows, and the statue is hard against my back. I shiver and get a whiff of bourbon. Bad Mona turns over and mumbles in her sleep. I’m stiff and damp, but I tickle my face with the rim of fur that lines my hood, and I scrunch up against the soldier and wait for dawn.

When there’s just a bit of light, I look around for a place to pee. I don’t see any cops, so I walk into the alley beside Tony’s Pasta Express. You never know who’ll be lurking around, and I would rather have stayed in the park, but when you gotta go, you gotta go. I pull my pants down and squat, as close to the park as I can, and I will tell you, it feels as good to pee in an alley as it does in a toilet when you’ve held it way too long.

Back in the park, I’m thinking a cup of coffee would be really good right now. I decide I’ll walk to the shelter and talk to Lorraine. Even though she can never make me take that job, I want to sit at her desk and watch the freckles on her face move around like lightning bugs when she talks and laughs. Not to mention I want a shower.

Sheila, Lorraine’s assistant, sees me through the video camera over the door to the shelter, and she lets me in.

“Where were you last night?” she says. “Lorraine was worried.”

“I had other plans,” I say. “Is Lorraine here?”

“In her office.”

I walk back to her office and Delores and her purple coat are sitting beside Lorraine’s desk. Of all people. Lorraine’s probably ordering doughnuts for her right now.

Lorraine says, “Hi, Nikki. I’m glad you’re here. If you can just wait in the TV room, I’ll come and get you when we’re finished.”

“Don’t be in no hurry,” says Delores.

In the TV room, some old woman wearing a hairnet and construction boots is dozing on the couch. Flopping down in the puffy chair across from her, I close my eyes. I wonder how Mama’s getting along.

Whatever remnants Satan had left in me, Mama had knocked out. Still, I knew he would come back for me unless I was strong enough to see him a mile away.

Until then, I would stay away from my baby girl, and she would be safe with Mama. God approved of my plan, because he sent me Tombo the first night I went for a free meal from Cole.

The screenplay’s almost finished, and when it sells, people will be falling all over themselves to see the movie and get my autograph. I’ll be getting advances on my next script. That’s when the devil will tuck his pointy tail between his legs and find some other poor soul to do his dirty work; he won’t have a chance in hell to invade someone as strong and successful as I’ll be.

Right now, I just need Lorraine to help me get Laney with another family until I can get her back for good. Laney wouldn’t be with a foster family at all if Mama hadn’t had to get four toes taken off soon after I left, and Aunt Merna, Mama’s sister, hadn’t died of cancer. With Mama having a tough time recovering, she couldn’t take care of a toddler by herself, and I wasn’t yet able to risk going back home.

I jump and open my eyes. The woman across from me is snorting like a horse in heat. Lorraine comes to the door and waves at me. I wave back and walk to her office.

Delores walks past me and spits on my sleeve. Sheila jumps in and pulls her away, but she needn’t have bothered. I have bigger things to think about than people like Delores who plan to be moochers their entire lives.

I settle into the chair across from Lorraine’s desk and she, again, offers me a bed at the shelter. She smiles, and I see concern in her freckles. “Nikki, you’re smart, “she says. “If you let us help you, and you help yourself by working hard, you can have enough money, in just a few months, to rent an apartment. Show that you can keep your payments up for six months, let the social worker help you work through some things, and you’ll have all you need to provide a good home for Laney.”

While Lorraine is talking, I start staring at the pile of paper clips on her desk. She waits for me to look back at her before she goes on. “You can really do this, Nikki,” she says. “Since Laney qualifies for our preschool program, you should be able to look after her and keep your job.”

I want a shower. I want to be washed in Lorraine’s concern. I hate Lorraine. She thinks she is so fine with her own chair and desk. She leans back in her chair and pushes a strand of her curly hair behind her ear. She is so sure she’s got me.

“I just want a shower,” I say. “And then, I’ll be on my way.”

“Please stay with us, Nikki.”

“And work for months at the K and S?” I cannot lower myself. The devil will be licking his lips; I’ll be his easiest prey if I even consider it.

I cannot say this to Lorraine. I put my hands on the arms of the chair and stand up.

Lorraine is quicker than I am; she jumps up and stands between me and her office door. She leans into my face, looks hard into my eyes and says, “Listen to me, Nikki. Here’s the bottom line. If you don’t take this job-or one like it, they won’t let you get Laney back!”

For just a minute, I believe her. My stomach falls into my knees, I miss Laney so much. Lorraine is trying to help, but I see now. She won’t ever get it.

“I don’t have time for the shower after all,” I say.

I pat her arm, walk out of her office towards the main door, giving Shelia a nod. Hang on, Laney. It won’t be long now. The screenplay’s almost done.

——————–

Mary Creech Gulledge holds a B.A. in English from Meredith College and a Master of Education from NC State University.  After teaching high school English for many years, Mary taught continuing education classes at Meredith College and wrote articles for teacher and philanthropic publications. Currently working on a local project to increase the academic success of at-risk high school students, Mary lives in Raleigh, NC with her husband, Brooks, and their children, Jim and Laura.


One Response to “Honey, You’ll Be Wanting My Autograph”

  1. rachelstar says:

    Love it! I could taste the Krispy Kremes as I read your story! Jeannie