By Jeffrey Matucha
The Jacaranda Gypsy
by Christine E. Warner (Excerpt)
My mother decided we should say one last goodbye to our grandfather before we left on our journey. We were moving. Again. I didn’t really know why, but I was convinced it had something to do with my father. Most likely he was a fugitive. Again. And when your father is a fugitive that pretty much makes you one too.
I didn’t mind my new status; I welcomed it. Being a fugitive is much more interesting than being a regular, boring kid. Plus, I hated the cold, long winters in northern Vermont where the January gloom lingered much too long. I loathed the small town culture of never-ending gossip where everyone knew each and every one of your family secrets. I particularly hated being the only family in town labeled as not-quite-white-enough to trust.
My mother was the one who forced us to say one final goodbye to our grandfather. I sincerely hoped it was the last goodbye. I don’t mean I wished death upon the old man or anything vile like that. I just knew I never wanted to repeat this awkward scenario ever again.
Pop-pop. That’s what my mother referred to him as, but I never really did call him that. Actually, when I really think about it, I never called him much of anything. My two older brothers called him a petrified turd and an old crabby asshole behind closed doors once or twice, but I never told my mother. And I definitely never would. She really loved her father, but my brothers and I certainly didn’t. It’s kind of hard to love a man that calls you a half-breed.
My grandfather was a hard man with hard eyes. He was ghastly monochromatic; his skin silver-white, and his slicked back hair a shade that matched so closely you’d think he was from some fiendish netherworld. His eyes though, were what we all feared the most, because when he looked at you, I mean really looked at you, you could feel those eyes. They stabbed and stung. They hurt.
I had never had a conversation with him. He had never read me a story while bouncing me on his knee like those silly Norman Rockwell paintings you picture in your mind when you imagine grandfathers with their grandkids. He had never hugged me or dried my tears when skinned knees or childhood disappointments overwhelmed me. He had never even smiled at me. My memories, as well as the photographs my mother kept stuffed in the back of the closet in old tattered shoeboxes, contained no recollection of my grandfather being anything other than a mean old man.
On that day, my mother made us scrub ourselves clean and put on our Sunday-best outfits. I wore a maroon dress with thick striped tights and patent leather Mary Janes. It was really more of a little girl’s outfit, not something most almost-thirteen-year-old girls would ever wear, but it was the nicest thing I owned at the time. Besides, I thought grandfathers probably preferred to see their granddaughters looking more like young kids anyway. Somehow, it just seemed sweeter. Definitely a hell of a lot sweeter than the outfits most of the girls at the junior high school wore.
I was young for my age anyway. I was born premature, a diminutive four-and-a-half pounds, and had trouble catching up ever since. I had always been the smallest in my class, ever since kindergarten. I know this as a fact, because the teachers always lined up all the students on picture day from smallest to tallest. Only once was someone in front of me, and only because she was one of those little people persons. I’m not exactly sure what you’re supposed to call people like that, but she just didn’t grow. Then, when I was eight years old, I was identified as such an exceptional student that I was moved up a grade. By the time I reached junior high, I could keep up fine with the academics, but I felt so much less socially mature than the other kids that I usually tried my best to just steer clear of most of them.
I wasn’t eager to grow up anyway; I liked being a kid. I still climbed trees, caught pollywogs, lightning bugs
and caterpillars, and enjoyed games like jump-the-river, hopscotch and double-dutch jump rope. Also, I was much less developed than the other girls. I didn’t even really have breasts yet. Well, of course I had breasts, everyone does. However, according to my mother, I didn’t need a training bra. She didn’t understand that no one really needs a training bra. Girls only wear them to save them from the embarrassment when changing for gym class in the locker room. And, to be perfectly honest, even though I was already in junior high, I hadn’t even started my period. Of course, none of the other girls knew this, because I lied and told them I had started back in the sixth grade. I wasn’t exactly the best liar, but I could get away with it from time to time, especially when I knew it would save me from unnecessary adolescent ridicule.
Dominick, my slightly older brother, wore a navy blue suit with a crisp white shirt underneath. The suit was nice but was definitely made for someone who didn’t like cheeseburgers quite as much as he did. The pants were bursting at the seams, and the jacket didn’t really fit quite right. Mom bought it at a church rummage sale the previous summer for two dollars. Maybe two-fifty. Dominick kept tugging at the sleeves as if he could make them longer. The crotch was so tight; he winced in pain and kept pulling down on the pant legs to gain a little comfort. I imagined his balls squished flat against his inner thigh like a grotesque wad of Silly Putty. I wanted to laugh at him and his Silly Putty balls, but I refrained. Laughing at Dominick usually led to a punch to the gut or something a whole lot worse.
My oldest brother Dimitri wore a classic black, wool pea coat over a pin-striped, button-up shirt with dark jeans. I was surprised our mother let him wear jeans. She hated jeans for special occasions, and she most certainly considered this rendezvous something much more than jeans-worthy. Maybe she let it slide since they were new and not faded out or worn in the knees like all the other clothes the boys had. They weren’t secondhand jeans either; they were brand-new from the Sears catalog. They didn’t have any of the usual signs of daily wear-and-tear and no holes either. And not a single grass stain. I can’t even begin to explain how much my mother hated grass stains.
I wondered why we needed to look so good just to say goodbye to that grumpy old man. Pop-pop. He wasn’t really anything to us kids. Regardless, my mother piled us in the rusted-out station wagon and reminded us of our manners as she waited for the engine to warm up.
“Make sure you’re polite. Don’t be loud. Sit still. Don’t touch anything. Don’t say anything. Unless...Unless, he asks you something. Then be sure to answer him. Politely.”
Usually, my mother selected her words carefully and spoke in poetry. She’d say things like “as I gazed upon the glowing autumn moon” or “bright stars danced like balle- rinas in the sky.” It was as if her daydreams came out in words. But not on this day. On this day, she spoke in short determined phrases. She was always so much different when she was anxious. And nothing made her more anxious than Pop-pop.
Of course, my father wasn’t with us. He wasn’t welcome and knew well enough to stay away from the old man. Wish I had done the same.
My grandfather hated my father. Hated him so much he didn’t even go to my parents’ wedding. My mother wanted her father to walk her down the aisle, like in one of those traditional fairy-tale weddings, but he never even showed up. It was a story I had heard at least a hundred times, maybe more. I always imagined my mother in her antique white gown and lace veil waiting and waiting. The clock ticking as the minutes dragged on and on. My mother, with her auburn hair neatly piled high on top of her head, crying until her mascara smeared and smudged across her face leaving her with bloodshot raccoon eyes. Pop-pop didn’t care. He told her later, he just sat home all day “cursing his daughter’s decision to marry a no-good gypsy thief.”
No one spoke on the way there. Our rusty station wagon tumbled down the icy country roads, rattling and shaking so much I nearly got seasick. I pressed my forehead against the cold glass of the window. We rolled along, past farms and meadows, the sides of the road packed with the dirty mud of last week’s snow. A few optimistic trees were starting to bloom, but the air still held the frozen chill of winter. Although it was springtime, the drab grayness synonymous with New England winters still clung to everything and everyone. I longed for the hot days of summer when the blacktop scorched the bottoms of bare feet, popsicles melted before you could finish them, and the neighborhood kids put on their swimsuits and raced to the nearest creek.