For the last forty years of her life, my mother tried to preserve her beauty by wearing a short black wig. She said the hairpiece was easier to maintain than her own locks, and every few weeks she took the wig to the beauty shop to have it washed and set. In the days leading up to her appointments, the underside netting would start to reek of sweat, like the inside of my baseball caps. We lived in Tennessee, along the Cumberland River, and when the summer heat attacked her insulated head, she’d go shut herself in a dark bedroom and let a fan cool the bald patches stretching along the line of her part. I was the only one allowed to see her without her wig. In high school, she was almost crowned Miss Bethlehem, Tennessee, and she wanted people to believe she still had the good fortune of being one of the top beauties in the county. But somehow her luck receded, and only a few years after graduating, she found herself married to my father and quickly losing her hair. She believed the two were related.
“Look what he’s done to me, George,” my mother whispered as she fingered her exposed scalp. “You’d think I had cancer.”
I was only ten at the time, skinny for my age, but I knew how to cheer her up. While she lay in bed drinking scotch and milk, I’d cram her wig on my head and prance around the room in a pair of her high-heeled shoes. If my mother was on her second or third drink, she’d let herself smile and then show me the proper way to walk like a woman. The two of us would put books on our heads to improve our posture, and then move slowly down an imaginary catwalk. When the scotch ran low, she’d go back to talking about how loving my father was like dying of cancer.
When the scotch ran low, she’d go back to talking about how loving my father was like dying of cancer.
In those early years, my father sold cars at the Ford dealership in town, and his long hours left my mother and me plenty of time for these strange games. On weekends, when I rode with him in his pickup truck to take our garbage to the city dump, he warned me that I was too much like my mother—stubborn in my desire to be miserable.
“I’m sick of you two moping around in the dark,” he said. “Do you want to be a part of this world or not?”
He thought I was being sullen when I didn’t say anything, but how could I answer his question? He seemed to have things all wrong. I’d seen the pictures of my mother when she won first runner up in the city beauty pageant, and I’d read the love letters men once wrote to her. If unhappiness lurked in our house, he must have fathered it. My stoic expression frustrated him to the point that he’d bat me away, like I was a wisp of lingering perfume, so when my parents divorced a few years later, I made sure to smile wide for him as I slowly waved goodbye.
When I got married and started my own family, I understood my father a little better and his mad desire to connect with the strangers living under his roof. One day I picked up my wife’s cell phone by mistake and found a naked stranger hidden among the photos. When Vicky stepped into the room minutes later, not realizing what I’d just discovered, her smile looked as if it belonged to some old friend I’d lost touch with. I wanted to ask my father about our now shared feelings of isolation, but he had died of a stroke while I was in college.
On a Monday night in August, a few weeks before I started another year of teaching social studies at Bethlehem Middle School, my mother called to say she was moving out of the retirement community in Alabama, where she’d lived for two years. There’d been a fight.
“A fight?” I took off my glasses and set them on the notebook filled with scribbled lesson plans. “Did you hit somebody again?”
“Of course I hit her,” my mother said. “She sent that child into my room, alone, without even knocking. I warned her about it. If it’d been a man’s room, that girl could have been raped.”
Every Sunday, a single mother from the Baptist church brought her six-year-old daughter to the retirement community, hoping to save a few lost souls in the fourth quarter of their lives. The girl entered unlocked apartments to leave pastel pamphlets with Bible verses written in cursive. That Sunday in August, my mother yanked the girl out of her room, nearly dislocating the child’s shoulder, and when she found the mother with the King James tucked under her arm, my mother slapped her. I’m not sure what else transpired, but the board at Spring Meadows thought it best my mother find somewhere else to live.
“Remember when your father wanted me to baptize you? This was nothing compared to that.” In the background, the theme music to Jeopardy played, reminding me how my mother liked to watch game shows while she drank to prove that alcohol didn’t dull her wits.
In the background, the theme music to Jeopardy played, reminding me how my mother liked to watch game shows while she drank to prove that alcohol didn’t dull her wits.
"So now you’re homeless?” I asked.
“I guess I am.” She coughed. “You ready for company?”
I wasn’t. My wife believed my mother was a bad influence on our daughter, Elise, who had enough problems without the old woman implanting more. At the age of four, Elise was in the low range for language development. Vicky and I understood her, but to others, she spoke an alien language that, with its overuse of the letter “F,” sounded vaguely profane. We believed this inability to communicate was why she’d started biting other kids in her preschool.
“I suppose I can come get you next Tuesday,” I said.
“That’s no good. They want me out by Friday. I told them the feeling was mutual.”
“This Friday? But we’re going up to French Lick this weekend.”
“French Lick, Indiana?” My mother laughed, causing the ice in her drink to rattle. “Jesus Christ. Why?”
I’d asked the same question when Vicky told me of our plans. She’d apparently won a raffle at work, with the prize being a weekend in her boss’s timeshare. It hardly seemed worth the three-hour drive, but the resort, Vicky pointed out, had a spa, and with all the trouble we’d been having with Elise and with our own marriage, she needed a massage and a few days to unwind. My mother didn’t say anything as I relayed all this.
“I guess you could come with us. Vicky mentioned there’s an extra bedroom in the condo.”
“Goody.” My mother laughed again, and the wet sound let me know she was already drunk. “I’ll make sure to bring my good hair.”
That Friday morning, on our way to French Lick, we stopped by the Greyhound station to meet my mother. She didn’t have a car because she claimed my father had organized a network of salesmen, stretching throughout the southeast, who were determined to swindle her. She believed her picture was posted in every car dealership, with a prize from my late father’s estate going to any man who could best cheat her. That’s how she became a reluctant supporter of public transportation.
“If I smell, it’s your father’s fault. He knew I’d never let one of his cronies con me into a car payment.” She sniffed both of her shoulders. “Somebody on that bus had a serious body odor problem.”
A black wig, freshly washed and styled at the beauty parlor, framed her ashen face and curled around the arms of her sunglasses. She sat in one of the waiting area’s green plastic chairs, and from her purse, she removed a pink flask with the word “Granny” bedazzled across the front. Even though she hated that name, it was the best Christmas gift I ever bought her. “Let’s have a toast before our trip.”
She sat in one of the waiting area’s green plastic chairs, and from her purse, she removed a pink flask with the word “Granny” bedazzled across the front.
She’d stopped drinking scotch and milk during those lean years following the divorce, and now she seemed to have no preference for what soothed her.
“Don’t let Vicky see this,” I said, taking the flask. My wife and daughter were waiting outside in the van. I swallowed two gulps of vodka and returned the flask to my mother. She took a sip, closing her eyes as she drank. The expression reminded me of the way she once sat in front of the fan, letting it send away whatever bothered her. On my third drink, I noticed the old man with a glass eye, sitting in a wheelchair near my mother. When she turned to see what I was staring at, she grinned and handed the stranger her flask.
“This is Jorge,” she said. “Jorge Jimenez.”
I nodded. “Jorge.”
My mother leaned forward. “His wife just died.”
While the old man drank, my mother explained that he’d been a photographer and gallery owner, in spite of the fact that he’d lost his right eye to a childhood disease and a cataract now clouded the left one. They’d met at Spring Meadows, and she thought a trip to French Lick would cheer him up.
“He’s still a good photographer, even though he’s mostly blind.” She blushed. “I’d show you the ones he took of me, but I don’t think you’d want to see them.”
“What do you mean he’s coming with us?” I looked from the old man to her and then back at the old man.
“I don’t want to be stuck by myself while you’re having a nice family vacation.”
“Are you serious, Mom?”
My mother squinted, as if she couldn’t make out what was irritating me. “We only decided he was coming this morning.”
When I mentioned that Vicky wouldn’t want to share her weekend with a stranger, my mother pounced, accusing my wife of being antisocial.
“You always liked having people around,” she said. “Even at night, you were so social you had to sleep between your father and me. That’s probably what killed us.”
“We all get scared sometimes.” Jorge handed her the flask.
“George was too old to be so afraid,” my mother said.
“I should just leave you both right here,” I said. “I can’t believe this.”
“Here, take this.” She handed me one of her pills. “It’ll calm you down.”
My mother had a prescription for Xanax to combat her fear of flying, though I don’t remember her ever riding on an airplane. I swallowed the small blue tablet with another swig of vodka. As I waited for it to take effect, I experienced a twinge of nervousness that reminded me of Vicky. The naked man on her cell phone was named Steve—an old boyfriend from college. She swore they’d only sent pictures; he lived too far away in California for anything worse.
"What’s wrong with this guy, he’s got to send you photos like that?” I’d asked.
Vicky stared at her cell phone. “Maybe he’s in love with me.” Her response felt loaded with implications I didn’t care to think about.
“How am I going get Jorge Jimenez into the van, anyway?” I now asked my mother. She pushed his wheelchair toward the exit, leaving me to collect her luggage.
“The chair folds up,” Jorge said. “Be careful. It’s the only one I got.”
“Your mother is out of control.”
“Your mother is out of control.” Vicky sat in the van’s front passenger seat, tapping her bare feet against the dashboard. She wore a black Bethlehem Middle School t-shirt with a faded yellow lion on the chest. Her thighs curved out of a pair of tight-fitting khaki shorts, and as I eyed the exposed skin, I prayed for the pills to kick in. Jorge and my mother stood like strangers at the entrance to the bus station, not saying a word to each other. Vicky watched them through the windshield. “Smells like you guys had a little party in there. Can you drive? You do remember that your daughter is in the car?”
“It was just a sip.”
“Is he granny’s boyfriend?” Elise asked in her strange, garbled language. She sat in a car seat behind us, where the air was suffused with spoiled milk. Animal Cracker crumbs coated the seats, and as I watched my daughter idly kick her feet, I suddenly began singing, “Hey-la, hey-la, granny’s boyfriend’s back.”
“Daddy’s crazy,” Elise said, laughing.
Vicky pressed the balls of her feet to the windshield. “What do you want to do?”
My mother fidgeted with her wig, and from across the parking lot, she and Jorge had the awkwardness of teenagers on a blind date. “It’ll be just fine, little darling,” I said.
“Shit.” Vicky closed her eyes. “You’re already gone, aren’t you?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You’re right, Elise,” she said without joy. “Daddy’s crazy.”
My mother sat next to Elise, in the van’s middle seat, so Jorge could stretch out in the back. He was a short man, dressed in black slacks and a red plaid shirt my mother must have laid out for him. Coarse gray hairs curled out of the unbuttoned top of his shirt, and he played with these strands while his cloudy left eye stared at the back of my mother’s wig.
“How’s my pet?” my mother asked Elise, rubbing her granddaughter’s head like a dog. Playing along, my daughter panted and barked at her grandmother.
“Don’t do that, baby girl,” Vicky said. “She’s not an animal, Barb.”
“Put your seatbelt on,” Jorge whispered, but my mother didn’t seem to hear him.
“I didn’t say she was an animal.” She took off her sunglasses, careful not to disturb her wig, and put them into her purse. “Did I call you an animal, Pet?”
"Vidal was your pet,” Vicky said, referring to my mother’s dead Jack Russell.
“Barbara,” Jorge said a little louder. “Your seatbelt?”
“‘Pet’ is a nickname.” My mother said. “I could come up with a nickname for you, if you’d like?”
“I think your hair’s crooked, Barb.” Vicky turned back in her seat while my mother checked her hair in the window’s faint reflection. No one spoke for several minutes. When we turned onto the interstate, Jorge told my mother to fasten her seatbelt.
“God damn it, Jorge, OK.” My mother jerked the seatbelt across her waist. “He’ll drive you crazy. He’s afraid of everything.”
When she calmed down, my mother explained that Jorge’s late wife had been an engineer with Union Carbide, and that she’d had a nervous breakdown in 1984 after a leak at one of the company’s pesticide plants killed thousands of people in Bhopal, India.
“She used to tell me she killed more Indians than John Wayne,” Jorge said. “Then she hung herself.” He rubbed his left leg, which seemed to be bothering him. After a few minutes, he changed the subject and told us about the gallery he once owned.
“You know photography?” he asked. “Bruce Barnbaum exhibited there.”
The sound of his labored breathing carried us through western Kentucky, where billboards chided the locals for turning their pastoral farming towns into meth country.
The name meant nothing to me, and I told him my favorite photographer was the guy who dressed dogs up like people. Jorge turned to the window, ignoring my response. Eventually, he started snoring. The sound of his labored breathing carried us through western Kentucky, where billboards chided the locals for turning their pastoral farming towns into meth country. We crossed the Ohio River into Indiana, and the arrival of a new state coincided with the pills asserting themselves.
My fingers loosened their grip on the steering wheel, and I remembered a night when Vicky and I drove three hours west just so we could make love in Arkansas. Our goal in those days was to couple in all 50 states, and that was the only border with Tennessee that we’d missed. After a quick groping in a gas station parking lot, we went inside the convenience store to buy sweet coffees and a postcard as proof of our amorous adventure. Then we crossed back into Tennessee for a few hours of fun in Memphis. Let’s go to Graceland, Vicky had shouted while we stumbled down Beale Street, and using a map we took from a hotel lobby, we found the shuttered gates leading to Elvis’s palace. Years later, the product of our love—Elise—laughed when I told her the King died on a toilet, but at two that morning, we clutched the music notes on the gates and told stories of the mansion we’d one day occupy. Hours later, as the sun left its rosy lipstick impression along the eastern horizon, Vicky bought me breakfast at a Waffle House. We sat on the same side of the booth, tickling each other under the table, and I shoved my empty coffee mug into her purse as another souvenir of our happiness. Who knows where that mug is now?
French Lick, with its sulfur springs, was once a famous spa town that attracted rich, ailing souls in desperate need of the waters’ miracle cure. A resort hotel, with a wide front porch for patients to convalesce, was built at the turn of the last century, and a recent renovation restored much of its former grandeur. A new casino grew like a tumor off the original building, and as we drove by on the main highway, my mother leaned against the window.
“This doesn’t look so bad.” She turned to Jorge. “There’s a casino. Maybe you’ll get lucky.”
“Mom.” I looked at her through the rearview mirror, and then nodded behind me to Elise. My mother stared for a moment at her sleeping granddaughter. “She understand me?”
“Yes, she can understand you.” Vicky turned in her seat. “She’s not an idiot.”
“You know I meant because she’s asleep. You’re trying to bait me, Vicky.”
“Do we have our own room?” Jorge asked. He rubbed his good eye as if it ached from a lifetime of pulling double duty.
My mother reached back and took his hand. “He doesn’t like to sleep alone. Especially since his wife died.”
The tenderness in her voice surprised me, and I recalled the night she and my father told me they were getting a divorce. Afterward, we tried to have dinner like a normal family. My father fixed her a scotch and milk, and when he handed it to her, she pressed her face to his shoulder. They stood that way for a long time, and it was the first time I ever thought they might actually love each other.
They stood that way for a long time, and it was the first time I ever thought they might actually love each other.
“I hate to disappoint everyone,” I said, “but we’re not staying there.”
The French Lick Hotel sat at the bottom of a wooded hill. An asphalt road, about the size of a golf cart path, took us up into the trees that hid a complex of 1970s-era townhouses.
“Are you serious?” my mother said.
We parked under a maple, and the coolness of the late afternoon surprised me. In only three hours, we had passed through the summer and into a new, colder season. After unpacking Jorge’s wheelchair, I unlocked the door to our townhouse and let everyone inside. It smelled like an empty apartment—the odor of fresh paint and air fresheners trying to mask all those previous lives.
“Which room is mine?” Jorge asked. He sat in his wheel chair on the kitchen’s red tiled floor, looking at the staircase leading up to an open landing.
“We’ll take the master.” My mother pushed Jorge through the doorway next to the stairs. “Since it’s on the first floor.”
“This will be relaxing,” Vicky said as we dropped our stuff in the smaller room upstairs with the two single beds. Maybe it was her tone, or the unhappy feelings cool air often brings, but for some reason I told Vicky to shut up.
“You’ll be perfectly comfortable here, texting pictures to your boyfriend,” I said. “Or maybe you can get that blind fool downstairs to snap a few shots of you.”
My wife paused, looking at her bag on the small bed. Then she turned, put her hands to my face and made me look her in the eye. “You should be angry. This is good.”
“I can be an asshole if you want.”
“What do you want?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” I stuttered. “I want everyone to be happy, I guess.”
Vicky rubbed her eyes with her shoulder. “But we’re not happy. You have to see that.”
After unpacking my suitcase and enjoying a few of the cocktails my mother had smuggled with her, I announced that I was going to take a walk around the complex. Vicky was asleep on the sectional, and my mother had just poured herself a fresh glass. Elise—small framed, like her father—climbed onto my shoulders, and I marched us to the door, whistling the theme music to “Bonanza”—a TV show my father watched on reruns every Sunday afternoon. He’d bought me a plastic holster with a metal toy revolver for my birthday one year, and I’d draw and shoot at the cowboys on the screen. If one fell dead, my father would flick me a Hersey’s kiss from the crystal bowl resting on his stomach.
“Nice shooting partner,” he’d say, winking at me.
That memory had me hugging Elise’s legs tighter against my neck, and I galloped out the door, telling her the bandits were on our tail. She giggled, but when we stepped outside, Jorge called out for us.
“Can I tag along?” He rolled toward the door while Elise, impatient for her ride, shook fists full of my hair like a horse’s mane.
“The more the merrier,” I said.
Outside in the twilight, I walked slowly through the parking lot so Jorge could keep up. After a few minutes, I lowered Elise to the ground because my shoulders ached from carrying her. Acorns and small twigs littered the broken asphalt that led us to the edge of the complex. A few people sat on wood decks, drinking wine or beer while watching the sunset. They waved to us and pretended not to stare at the strange procession we made.
“You want to go into town down there?” I nodded toward the trees, which blocked our view of French Lick.
“That’s fine,” Jorge said. Elise complained that she was tired, so Jorge lifted her onto his lap. She leaned into his chest, resting her head beneath the old man’s chin, and I held the back handles of the wheelchair as we made our way down the hill. For a moment, I imagined I was pushing my father, and the reminder of his absence stung worse than it had in years.
She leaned into his chest, resting her head beneath the old man’s chin, and I held the back handles of the wheelchair as we made our way down the hill. For a moment, I imagined I was pushing my father, and the reminder of his absence stung worse than it had in years.
“Jorge,” I said in the dwindling light. “Why’d your wife kill herself?”
The dark outline of his body turned rigid. A car drove toward us on its way up the hill, so I steered the wheelchair onto the gravel shoulder and into the tall grass. When the car passed, honking some admonishment at us, I righted our course back onto the pavement.
“It’s not polite to ask questions like that,” he said. Maybe it was my imagination, or all the drinks and pills, but his voice sounded like my father’s. For a few minutes, I didn’t say anything.
“How’d you know she hung herself?” I asked. “You’re blind as a fucking bat.”
He barked something about me being a drunken shit, and I started laughing until there were tears in my eyes. When we broke through the trees, and the town was visible below us, I let go of the wheelchair and let gravity pull it a few feet down the hill.
“Stop that!” Jorge said when I caught it. Elise squirmed in his lap, burying her face into his shoulder. “Ouch!” Jorge yelled. “She bit me!”
We stopped at a sports bar honoring French Lick’s favorite son—Larry Bird—so Jorge could go to the bathroom, and while he was in the toilet, I examined the display cases filled with old trophies. They reminded me of the plaques that once hung in our den, naming my father the Ford dealership’s top salesman. Those awards were now in a landfill somewhere. Why hadn’t anyone thought to preserve his victories?
Jorge, who assured me he didn’t want or need my help, returned twenty minutes later and asked the hostess for a table. When I suggested we should be getting back, he announced that he was staying there.
“I’m sorry she bit you,” I said.
He didn’t look at me. “You’re all too reckless,” he said.
The hostess, a college-aged girl with a more sympathetic smile than any of our crew, pushed him to a table in the back. When I asked how he’d get home, he told me to go to hell. I didn’t really care, did I? After a few more attempts at reconciliation, all I could do was lift Elise onto my shoulders and head back toward our condo.
My thighs and shoulders ached, and halfway to the top I had to stop to catch my breath. I sat in the wet grass, lowering Elise from my shoulders, and for several minutes I listened to the domestic harmony of insects cohabitating in the shadows. A car passed, sending a breeze that lifted my daughter’s dry, corn silk hair.
A year after the divorce, my mother experimented with a long, blond wig. One Friday afternoon before my father came to pick me up, she spent hours in the bathroom, applying her makeup and carefully setting her hair. When she was ready, she slid on the red dress my father once liked, and then she sat with me on the front porch, waiting for him to arrive. This was back when she still smoked, and she kept opening and closing the top to the cigarette pack. The smell of her perfume—a lost odor to me in those months after the divorce—hinted that the life we once knew was coming back. She must have had a speech planned, or maybe a flirtatious smile, but when my father pulled up in his truck, he simply honked twice and waved for me to come along. Go on, my mother finally said. She stayed on the porch, watching us leave, but I couldn’t bear to look at her. I think she believed a new hairdo was all she needed to wipe away the hurts that once nagged their marriage. How did we come to think that love could be renewed as easily as changing wigs?
I think she believed a new hairdo was all she needed to wipe away the hurts that once nagged their marriage. How did we come to think that love could be renewed as easily as changing wigs?
That night, everyone in my little clan felt the need to heal something that afflicted them. When I returned to the condo, my mother and Vicky demanded we all go find the mineral springs. They were both drunk or looped on pills, and from the red-eyed looks they exchanged, I could tell a cataclysmic battle had been waged in my absence. When I told my mother that Jorge had abandoned us, she acted relieved, saying he would have slowed us down on this new journey.
The four of us got into the van, and while Elise napped, I drove through town and along back roads, looking for the healing waters. My mother passed her flask around, and we said nothing while partaking of this communion.
“I don’t think we’ll find it,” my mother said after a half-hour of wandering. There was a smallness in her voice that reminded me of those early days after my parents split up. We were on the main highway, less than a mile from our condo, when I spotted the French Lick Creek. It wasn’t a mineral spring, but it’d have to do.
“The spring feeds into this creek,” I lied as I pulled onto a gravel road, next to some trees.
We stepped out into the night, just beyond the reach of a streetlight, and hiked through the brush toward the still brown water. Vicky held Elise against her hip, and the two of them disappeared through the shadows. My mother moved slow, stepping carefully over limbs and mounds of dirt. We heard a splash from up ahead, and then the sound of my wife and daughter laughing.
“Don’t be too upset with her,” my mother said. “You have a right to be angry, but it might not be worth it.”
“Forgive and forget, right? Did you ever forgive dad?”
I eyed her wig, which caught the glow of a distant streetlight, but said nothing.
We reached the edge of the creek, where Vicky and Elise had removed their clothes. The water stank, but the sound of it swishing smoothly against their naked bodies awoke the ancient urge to wash away my sins. I pulled off my shirt and took off my pants. When I waded into the water, I felt something shift within me. I found my wife’s body, and held it while she swung our daughter. Behind us, the water rippled. I turned and saw my mother. No wig adorned her head. Any remaining hair had been shaved away, leaving a bristly scalp. I opened my arms, and she joined us while Elise splashed water onto her grandmother. If anyone had seen this baptism, they’d have called the cops and the newspapers, but all I could do was stand in awe of the beauty my mother had tried to hide for these last forty years.
Author Commentary: For about eight years, my parents owned a time-share condo in French Lick, Indiana. We went every August, before the start of school, spending most of our time in the hotel that once catered to people looking for cures in the area’s mineral springs. The house I grew up in, in Tennessee, was near an abandoned mineral spring resort—Idaho Springs—but a fire destroyed it early in the 20th century. The idea of healing waters, along with the concept of baptism, always fascinated me, but I could never figure out how to put it into a story. When my grandmother passed away, I started writing a piece of fiction about the wigs she wore, and as the story progressed, the mineral springs somehow flowed into the narrative.
Charles Booth earned his MFA from Murray State University, and his fiction has appeared in The Greensboro Review, The Southampton Review, The Pinch, The Heartland Review, Booth, and SLAB. He won the 2017 Alligator Juniper National Fiction Contest, and he earned second place in the 2014 Playboy College Fiction Contest. He lives in Middle Tennessee with his wife, Danica, and his son, Reynolds.