Anne Anthony: Music As Her Refuge (Fiction)

Southern Legitimacy Statement
Anne Anthony lives in North Carolina though when she engages you in conversation it’s clear she was born above the Mason-Dixon Line. Still, if she’s reading you her stories, sometimes her voice slides into the gentle sway of her legitimate Southern neighbors. Her characters take her down that path. Their voices louder the further south she traveled and she’ll swear to you that some part of herself lived here a lifetime or two ago.

Music As Her Refuge

“Set the table. Dinner’s almost ready.” I cross the kitchen to where Stacey’s doing homework. Her quick flip from some website to her calculus worksheet tells a different story. Music buzzes from her earphones.

“You flunk calculus and you’re back in public school,” I shout. “Don’t pretend you can’t hear me, sweetheart.”

Money’s tight since my husband died. My second job waitressing on weekends barely covers her tuition. I can’t afford the extras she expects. I recently introduced her to the sales rack. She’s never looked at a price tag in her fifteen years of life. Maybe she shouldn’t have to look, maybe I’ve failed her as a mother.

I never looked at prices either, but I never shopped for myself. Every Fourth of July, Mama rode the bus downtown. She stuffed her waitress tips, loose bills collecting in her underwear drawer, into her pocketbook and headed to Martin’s Clothiers. Clothiers. Mr. Martin believed a grand name improved the quality of his clothing. He was mistaken. Other stores fared better their clothes all USA made lasted for years.

By the time I reached Stacey’s age, I’d stopped growing. Working at the restaurant on weekends with Mama kept me moving and trim. I expected little from her shopping trip for my senior year. Besides my sights were set on college not clothing. Mama pondered where I got the notion that I was college-worthy. Never told her, it was Mrs. Malone, my English teacher, who said as much, helped me fill out forms, reviewed my application essay and believed I stood a solid chance to get into State, her alma mater. Back then, I believed she could open doors to a different life and truly, that year, I believed more in myself than I ever believed again.

That summer before my senior year, Mama returned with her arms piled high with packages tied with cotton string and wrapped in brown paper. She dropped them on my bed and giggled. If I didn’t know her better, I’d have thought she’d been drinking.

“Open the small packages first,” she instructed.

Unwrapping each package brought no surprises — cotton slips, socks and underwear, white blouses to wear under last year’s sweaters. Inside the rectangular box was a pair of penny loafers she promised; last year’s model had been re-soled so often I walked unevenly. When I noticed she already added a shiny penny, I grinned. The only unopened box was the hefty square one secured with a ribbon, not string. I never received such a grand package before.

“What’s this, Mama?”

“Open it.”

I believed she held her breath when she sat down on my bed. Her hand stroked the comforter she knitted me last winter. Shades of purple and blue kept me warm when we turned the heat down at night. She spent three months working on those tiny squares that she bound together with threads of magenta. Gave it to me as a birthday gift instead of the typewriter I wanted. My lackluster ‘thank you’ exposed my disappointment. She patted my hand, sang lyrics from a song popular at the time, ‘Can’t always get what we want.’ But when Mama couldn’t look me in the eye, I was certain disappointment flowed both ways. Motherhood can be a thankless job. Today, her knitted spread still covers my bed preserving Mama’s love better than some outdated typewriter.

I untied the silky ribbon from the box and gently lifted the lid with both hands. Tissue paper covered something blue. When I pushed back the paper, I screamed a joy I hadn’t felt since riding a pony the day I turned five.

“It’s, it’s so.” I couldn’t express my delight. When I pulled it out, I got smacked with reason. “Mama, you must have spent a fortune.”

I held the dress up against myself; my fingers gentle and cautious as if touching a sacred thing and marveled at my reflection in the full-length mirror on my closet door. The silky blue dress flowed like a river in moonlight. The length of the hem cut above the knee higher than Mama usually approved.

“Try it on sweetheart.”

I stripped to my bra and underwear faster than a rabbit running from old Mr. Casey’s beagle. After I struggled my arms through the sheer sleeves, Mama zipped up the back of the dress. The neckline was cut low but still looked decent. I stepped back from the mirror to admire the dress, oh who am I kidding, to admire myself and noticed only then the tears welling in Mama’s eyes.

“Did I do something wrong?”

“You’re beautiful Martha like a grown woman.”

I laughed because nothing inside me felt grown-up. I told her just that which made her laugh and stopped her tears.

“I bought the dress for your graduation day. I wanted you to look picture perfect. You deserve a fine dress after working so hard.” She wiped both eyes with the cuff of her sleeve.

Looking at my own daughter sitting there, using music as her refuge, I wonder how I could have gotten things so wrong. She never appreciates what she’s been given. I reach over and remove the phone from her hand, lift the laptop, and I believe got her attention for the first time in years.

“Hey, what…,” Stacey yells.

“You’re smart but lazy. That’s changing. First thing Saturday morning, you and I are going to the mall.”

“You’re taking me shopping?” She brightens with expectation.

“Nope. You’re filling out job applications and getting a job. Until you land one, no phone, no laptop. And after you start working, half of what you earn goes into a savings account. One quarter goes into my hands so you’ll appreciate how much it costs to support your sorry ass. And the last quarter goes into your hands. Use it however you want. Because this bank.” I point to myself. “Is closing your account.”