By Beth McMurray
My mom had postpartum depression. Not the baby blues type, but the type where she took off and left and went back to Tennessee, to the parts where trailer trash fit right in, leaving my dad and me living in a house atop a liquor store in a suburb of San Francisco. As trailer trash we didn’t fit in that suburb. That’s why we hid in a house atop a liquor store, a safe distance from other residences, in the only place in the area we could afford. Our backyard was the tar and gravel roof of the sofa outlet.
When my mom left shortly after my birth, so did my dad’s dream to buy out the liquor store and replace it with a baby clothes store. No matter, he still had a baby to clothe. And feed. He got a job at a pizza party restaurant. He dressed up as Chuck E. Cheese. He celebrated kids’ birthdays. My mom was depressed on my birthday, but my dad had enough energy to celebrate even a stranger’s birthday. He also got a job as Scooby Doo at Paramount’s Great America theme park. For years he was Chuck E. Cheese and Scooby. His dream was to become Sourdough Sam, the mascot of the San Francisco 49ers.
We used to watch 49ers games together on the TV in the living room and my dad pretended to be Sourdough Sam. I would ask, “Sam, where ya from?”
My dad would point towards the East Bay Hills. “From oer thar, in dem dare hills.”
“Are you married?”
“I’m friends with many cheerleaders!”
Halfway through the football season, I finally asked, “Dad, do you really know any cheerleaders?”
“Sure, all ov’ ’em up in dem dare hills.”
“No Dad, really. Is my mom a cheerleader?”
“No Lauren, she’s not.” He scrunched his empty diet orange soda can and hustled into the kitchen.
Until I turned eight, I always hoped to find a card from my mother on my birthdays. That’s when the kids on TV after school specials would hear from their lost parents. But on my eighth birthday I forgot to check the mail because my dad surprised me with a puppy. Woofers became my good pal. When I fell on the roof he would lick my scraped knee. Dogs have something special in their saliva that helps clean bacteria. That’s why dogs are always licking themselves.
Woofers came at about the same time I became friends with Jenna. Jenna and I were in Miss Gladstone’s third grade class together. But Jenna was short, more like a second or first grader, and other kids made fun of her because of her red-orange hair. But Woofers didn’t mind her and Jenna liked Woofers. We were all having fun running around the house, but when I chased Woofers into the backyard Jenna stopped running and got a worried look on her face.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“My mom told me not to play on the roof.”
“She said it might cave in.”
“I go on the roof all the time. So does Woofers.” I pointed to Woofers, who was running back towards us. “It doesn’t cave in.”
“My mom says it could. I don’t wanna fall through.” Jenna’s face showed me what happens when you have a mother—you become a scaredy-cat.
My dad had to go out of town in the middle of the school year and arranged for me to stay at Jenna’s house. He said he had to go to the east coast to fill in as Mr. Peanut because the real nut guy was sick. He sent me over to Jenna’s house with a grocery bag full of Planters snacks. At the door I asked Jenna, “Have you heard of Mr. Peanut?”
“He’s the Planters nut guy. He travels the country in the Nut Mobile. But the real Mr. Peanut was sick so my dad got to be Mr. Peanut! And they gave him lots of snacks.” I handed the grocery bag to Jenna’s mother. We went into the kitchen to look through the bag—Cheez Balls, Cheez Curls, Trail Mix, Honey Roasted Peanuts, Almonds in Chocolate.
“Mom, can we open the Cheez Balls?” Jenna was bouncing in antsy excitement.
Jenna’s mom’s forehead got all wrinkly and I could tell she was figuring out how to say no. “How about the Cheez Curls instead?”
“But Mom, the balls are more fun.”
“Jenna, the balls are dangerous. They could get lodged in your throat. I don’t want you girls to choke. You can have the Cheez Curls, but chew carefully.” Jenna’s mom grabbed the Cheez Balls and slammed them shut in the cabinet above the sink.
I was sure when my dad came back from his trip he’d let me have Cheez Balls. I thought I could choke just as easily on Cheez Curls as Cheez Balls. When her mom was out of the room I told Jenna, “You can have Cheez Balls when you come to my house.”
“I don’t want to. I don’t want to choke.”
“Jenna, you’re being a silly scaredy-cat, you won’t choke. Don’t worry. I wish my dad didn’t leave so we could have Cheez Balls.”
“Why is your dad going to Tennessee anyway?”
“He’s not going to Tennessee. He’s going to the east coast.” I crunched on a Cheez Curl.
“I don’t think so.” Jenna carefully nibbled a Cheez Curl. “He’s going to Tennessee. My mom made him leave an itinerary and that’s where he’s going.”
“It doesn’t matter. No Cheez Balls until he gets back.” I had thought he was going to the east coast, but then I thought maybe Tennessee was the east coast. My mom was in Tennessee and I wondered if was he going to see her. I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t know what an itinerary was anyway.
At school, while Dad was away on his trip, some of the older kids were picking on Jenna. She was watching me climb the jungle gym and the other kids kept saying, “You’re a virgin! You’re a virgin.”
Jenna finally got pushed into defending herself: “No I’m not!”
All the well-vocabed kids laughed.
When my dad got back from his trip, as soon as we entered our house I asked, “What’s a virgin?”
He let his suitcases thud on the living room floor. “Where did you hear that word?”
“School.” I hugged Woofers, who was so happy to see us he couldn’t stay still for the hug.
“That’s not a word you need to know right now.” Dad gave Woofers a quick pat on the head and left into the kitchen.
I followed him. “Why?”
“You don’t need to know it yet.” He quickened his pace.
“When will I need to?”
“Not now.” He opened the refrigerator and grabbed a diet orange soda.
“Not now.” He slammed the refrigerator door.
“Maybe when you can ask your mother.” He stormed off to his room.
The chance to ask my mother came sooner than I would have guessed. My dad was out being Scooby and I was in my room playing football hangman on the NFL website for kids. A knocking on the front door made the walls in my room rattle. Woofers started barking.
I peeked out the window on the side of the front door. There was a tall woman with wavy, shoulder length hair like mine, only dirtier blonde. She had droopy ice blue eyes that melted into droopy shoulders. It got me thinking maybe there should have been an eighth dwarf named Droopy, to be friends with Sleepy and Grumpy. As I was thinking this, the knocking returned and startled me into opening the door.
Woofers kept woofing so the woman had to speak loudly, “Are you Lauren?”
“I’m Sophie, your mother.”
Woofers just kept yapping and I joined in on the “woof woof.” I didn’t know what else to say. And I just hoped my mother was thinking that when you ditch a baby the baby turns into a lunatic. A certifiable, barking lunatic.
Sophie took a step inside and panned the living room. “So where’s your dad?”
“He’s with Shaggy.”
“Shaggy is Scooby’s pal.” I tickled Woofers on one of his favorite spots in the middle of his back.
Sophie walked toward the couch. “Are you talking about Scooby that scaredy-cat dog?”
“He’s not a scaredy-cat. Ghosts are scary.”
She sat down and a cloud of Woofers’ dog hair puffed from the couch. “So when do you expect your dad home?”
I shrugged my shoulders and sat on the floor with Woofers.
She crossed her legs and more dog hair puffed from the couch.
I petted Woofers.
She thumbed through one of the magazines on the table.
I rubbed Woofers’ belly.
Sophie put the magazine down.
I stopped petting Woofers and looked toward the kitchen. “Do you want something to drink? We have water, milk, and diet orange soda. I don’t know what else, but there’s also lots to drink downstairs.”
“At the liquor store?”
“Is it handy living above the liquor store?”
“I guess. You know there’s another house on a liquor store in our city. On top of the Liquor & Food Mart Lottery & Lotto Neighborhood Store. But that’s more in an area with other houses.”
“A residential neighborhood.” She picked the magazine back up.
“The Liquor & Food Mart Lottery & Lotto Neighborhood Store has an Icee machine. But downstairs from us is more like an adult liquor store. My dad and I once walked from here all the way to the Liquor & Food Mart Lottery & Lotto Neighborhood Store and I got an Icee. I wanted to walk there again with my friend Jenna, but she was too scared to walk that far. She said her mom told her that kids get kidnapped if they walk too far alone.”
Sophie shifted in her seat and more dog hair puffed from the couch.
When my dad came home Sophie was thumbing through one of the magazines and I was petting Woofers.
“Sophie, what are you doing here?” I couldn’t tell the tone of my dad’s voice because Woofers drowned it out with his welcome-home bark.
Sophie stood and my dad reached up to hug her. I worried the hours of wearing Scooby and Chuck E. Cheese heads were making him shrink.
“Please, sit down, relax.” He motioned toward the couch. “Let me get you something to drink.”
“Have anything besides water, milk, and orange soda?” She sat down again.
“It’s diet orange soda,” I said as Dad disappeared into the kitchen.
Dad soon came back with two bottles and offered one to Sophie. “How about a beer?”
Sophie shook her head. “Just water for me, thanks.”
“The diet orange soda is pretty good,” I said.
“Sure then, I’ll try that.”
Dad disappeared into the kitchen and came back with two diet orange sodas. He gave one to me and one to her.
She looked at my dad as she opened the soda and it made the classic pop and hiss. “We need to talk.”
“Lauren, why don’t you go play in your room,” Dad said to me. “Be careful with your soda.”
I went to my room and sat by the heater because that’s where you can hear what’s going on in the rest of the house. Jenna and I figured that out one day when her mom came to pick her up and was talking to my dad in the living room about the dangers of ball-shaped food.
I sipped my diet orange soda and listened to Dad and Sophie. They talked about some boring things, and then Sophie said, “I’m pregnant.”
I didn’t hear my dad say anything.
“It’s gotta be yours,” she said.
“How is that possible? We used protection.”
“Guess it was meant to be. I wanna do it right this time. I’m ready. God’s giving us a second chance,” she said.
“I’m still working on the first chance,” Dad said.
“I can’t do this without you.”
“Well I’ve been doing it a long while without you, Sophie. You have a kid who has spent more time with a damn dog than with her mother.”
“She seems a little strange…”
“I can’t believe I’m listening to this,” Dad said. There were footsteps in the hallway and then a pound on my door. “Lauren, grab your coat, we’re going out for pizza.”
I found my coat and ran into the living room as Dad was asking Sophie, “Are you joining us?” The look on her face was the same as when Woofers can hear a buzzing fly, but can’t find it. Sophie didn’t answer, but followed us to the car.
Dad took us to Pizza & Pipes. The organ player was there that night and a fake monkey crashed symbols along with the music. The music was loud and obnoxious in a good way. I think Sophie said, “It’s kind of loud in here.”
My dad read my mind and asked, “Lauren, want some quarters?”
While we waited for the pizza, Dad and Sophie talked and I went to lose my quarters in a claw machine. I returned to the table empty handed and the pizza still wasn’t ready yet. I sat down and my dad said, “Wait just a minute! I think there’s another quarter…” He reached behind my ear and sure enough he found another quarter. I followed him to the claw machine, he dropped in the quarter, and with his gotta-win-game-face on he maneuvered the claw and grabbed a stuffed animal—a baby lion. Dad was always good at the claw machine. He tossed me the baby lion and we raced back to the table.
“The pizza’s finally here.” Sophie glared at the grease-glistening circle of yumminess.
Dad served us slices and even offered one to the new baby lion. Sophie patted her slice with a napkin. I gave her a weird look. The cheese stuck to her napkin and I could tell she was frustrated as she tried to separate the napkin from the pizza. I added the evil eye to my weird look.
“I’m soaking up the grease,” she said.
“Pizza’s supposed to be greasy,” I told her.
My dad said something, but his mouth was full so I didn’t understand him.
In the car on the way home Dad said, “Lauren, what do you think of the idea of moving back to Tennessee?”
“How can I go back to someplace I’ve never been?”
“Oh, you’ve been there. You were there before you were born.”
“How could I have been somewhere before I was born?”
“Tennessee’s real nice.” I saw him looking at me through the rearview mirror. “We could get a much bigger house and a big yard. Maybe even with grass.”
“They don’t have Pizza & Pipes in Tennessee. Only in California and Washington. It said so on the menu.”
“They do have Chuck E. Cheese,” Sophie said. “Your dad could still be Chuck E. Cheese.”
“Dad wants to be Sourdough Sam. You can’t be the San Francisco 49ers’ Sourdough Sam in Tennessee.”
“We’ll think about it,” Dad said glancing at Sophie. “We won’t make any rash decisions.”
I had trouble sleeping that night. Woofers wasn’t sleeping either and kept getting up to sniff at the bottom of my closed bedroom door. Dad was snoring in his room, but Woofers and I were used to that. I got out of bed and put my ear up to the heater vent. Sophie was crying in the living room. She sounded a little bit like when Woofers begs for food, only sadder. Since I couldn’t sleep I turned on my computer to look at football team websites. Sophie was still crying.
I went into the living room and handed Sophie the new baby lion. “Lions are for courage,” I said. She put the lion on her lap, sniffed, and wiped her eyes. I asked her, “Do you know much about football?”
“Only a little.”
“There’s a team in Tennessee. They were the Houston Oilers, then the Tennessee Oilers, but after they moved to Tennessee they changed their name to the Tennessee Titans. Their mascot is T-Rac. He’s a raccoon.”
“I bet your dad could be a good raccoon.”
“I think so too.”
“Lauren, how’d you get so much courage?”
I thought about my friend Jenna who was a scaredy-cat because she had a mom. Since I didn’t know how to explain that to Sophie, I just shrugged my shoulders and went back to bed. It was quiet now, so Woofers and I had no trouble falling asleep.
Beth McMurray writes in the San Francisco Bay Area and teaches public speaking and writing at San Jose State University. She enjoys hiking and spends many miles pondering the ways her students teach her about the changing nature of language. Find Beth lurking on Twitter @mcmurray_beth.