In the summer of 1968, right after my mother’s latest relationship catastrophe, my sisters and I found ourselves in a two-bedroom apartment on the south side of Nashville, bewildered shipwreck survivors washed up on a beach after a night of violence with our baggage strewn about us, Gilligan’s Island minus the laughs. My mother and I got the two bedrooms where we stored boxes and some banged up furniture we’d managed to retain as we moved about middle Tennessee between her romantic typhoons. My three younger sisters slept on daybeds in the living room and kept their clothes in cardboard boxes which they arranged along the wall in an order which worked for them. In that apartment we did as much climbing and stepping around as we did walking.
The apartment complex had a swimming pool, and when you’re a 14-year-old boy, living out of a suitcase in an apartment with four females, all of us just one move ahead of the bill collector, a swimming pool counts as luxurious living. We could walk over to it anytime we wanted, and being in Tennessee, it was open most of the year.
That pool gave me something nice to say about where and how my sisters and I lived when the subject of home came up at the new school. It was like name dropping; it sounded good. There were even times that school year when I almost invited a friend home to go swimming “in our pool.”
Only once in my life have I ever wanted to be a lifeguard, and that reason had a name, Elaine, a 25-year-old beauty who lived with her husband in the next building in our complex with her fifth husband.
“Men can’t handle her,” my mother said. I was left to wonder what that meant. Being 14, I did a lot of wondering about Elaine.
I attributed her five marriages to bad luck with men, a perspective borne out by my father’s misbehavior before he deserted us and my mother’s string of boyfriends whose antics often resulted in us moving on Fridays (always Fridays) and leaving our friends at school without saying goodbye.
I believed it because I needed to believe it. Elaine was a beautiful woman, and I was 14. And male. It never occurred to me, at least back then, that she might be trouble.
Elaine lived at the pool as much as my sisters and I did.
She was brunette with skin as brown as her hair from a youthful career of sunbathing around pools in lounge chairs. This was a time when women thought nothing of baking themselves in the sun without regard for skin damage. No one had heard of ultra violet sun rays and ozone layers, or if they did, they didn’t understand it.
Elaine had her own pose and look. She always reclined with one knee slightly raised, the other leg extended. If gold ankle bracelets existed in 1968, she would have worn them on each ankle. She liked gold, golden necklace around her neck, gold hoop earrings, couple of rings, also gold.
Elaine’s bikini was always a blue. I can’t ever remember seeing her in anything but some shade of blue. Unlike red which is gaudy or green which is too much like Christmas or even white which contrasts too sharply with a chocolate tan, Elaine’s blue accentuated the presentation. At a time when breast implants and botox injections did not exist and before surgical tucks and zips became commonplace, Elaine was real, every curve, cut and crease; you’d need a road map to avoid getting lost in them.
My lifeguarding fantasies that summer involved the same scenario which featured me diving into the pool, gathering the struggling Elaine in my arms and delivering her safely poolside. She would be overcome with exhaustion from her ill defined watery ordeal, and I would carry her limp body up out of the water and place her back on her lounge chair where a kind of CPR would be practiced which had more in common with a Snow White kiss than the chest compressions, nose pinches and counted out blasts of breath associated with true resuscitation. Elaine would be excessively grateful upon being brought back into the world of the living.
The truth is Elaine rarely got into the pool, preferring to spend hours in her lounge chair glistening in the sun. Sometimes she removed the spaghetti straps of her bikini bra to make sure that no skin went unbaked. Otherwise, she just laid there like an exotic snake warming in the sun, beautiful and vaguely dangerous. That cot was her throne as far as I was concerned. Except for the large round lenses of Elaine’s oversized sunglasses, Cleopatra would have looked like that laying back on her own cot in the sun around the royal swimming pool with a couple of pyramids in the background for atmosphere and some slave girls fanning her with ostrich feathers.
If Elaine got into the water at all, she was in and out of it, stepping down the cement steps one step at a time as if she was afraid to fall, and maybe she was. The water would ruin that brown hair piled up on top of her head in the manner of the day, not a full bee hive but the next thing to it. She never got her hair wet at all which accounted for it never being wet or mussed in my lifeguarding rescue fantasy.
When the water worked its magic on her bikini, there was not much left for me to imagine. At these moments I thanked God I was neck deep in water which I imagined was rising up in steam around my head from the boiling passion of my thoughts.
These brief wading exercises were rare so I had to remain vigilant or I would miss them.
Once, Elaine entered the water when I happened to be dawdling near the steps.
“Hello Michael,” she said and smiled at me.
That ‘hello’ went into my ears, traveled down my spine until it got down there where it grabbed me with a firm tug. Her voice was warm like the melted butter my mother told me Elaine slathered up and down her arms and legs.
“Yes mam,” I said because I had been taught to be respectful of my elders even when I was thinking about …what I was thinking. The proper response would have been “hello” or “good day” or even “Do you want me to be your sex slave?” Anything but “yes mam” which makes no sense at all to anybody. It isn’t even logical.
I wish I could tell you that this is a ‘coming of age’ story where a young boy becomes a man under the prurient tutelage of a beautiful older woman, but it is not. Those kinds of stories only happen in the movies. Reality is always less eventful and mundane… more boring than you expected which is the true definition of reality. (Elaine did pilot me through the shoals of puberty many times even if, for her part, she was only present in my fevered imagination there in the dark of my bedroom.)
1969: At Sea Again
The inevitable happened at the end of my sophomore year at John Overton High School. One day after school, I picked up the telephone and a woman, angry and snarling, cursed my mother, alluded to some kind of misbehavior and slammed the phone down. This was one of those conversations for which a hearer is required, not a listener. Either the woman thought I was a grown man or she didn’t care. I believe I was supposed to pass on the gist of her commentary to my mother. I never did.
I did not think well enough of the woman or, I am embarrassed to say this now, my mother, to care. I’d been through this in one form or another many times before. Women cursing in our doorway or shouting vile things to my mother and me from a passing car. A phone ringing, someone hanging up. Even a poison pen letter I found with words I had to look up in a dictionary. (Have you ever actually heard someone you know use the word “fornication” in real conversation?) I’ve spent a good deal of my adult life trying to temper my capacity for contempt, which is deep and unrelenting and not one of my more admirable qualities.
My mother came home from her receptionist job that day with eyes swollen and red and took refuge in her bedroom with a migraine and a bottle of her “nerve pills.” Next, my mother’s boss called and asked me to tell her that he was sorry “about everything”, something else I declined to pass on to its hysterical recipient. (See what I mean about contempt? Even now, I am trying not to say what I am really thinking.)
My mother did not go to work the next day. There was a routine we followed when these things happened.
I saw my sisters off to school and reasoned with my mother through the door between her bouts of hysteria. I asked about any paychecks which might be coming her way, our bank account status, refundable security deposits and bills due and of course, the move that was sure to come and how we were going to get from point A, here, to point B, somewhere else, and when, which was always as soon as possible.
My sisters went to school until the weekend although they were smart enough to stop doing their homework. Why waste that effort? That Friday, my mother told the girls to leave their books at school. That’s how we knew that we were really leaving a place and my mother wasn’t making one of her threats.
We spent the weekend packing while my mother regained enough balance to retake the helm of our foundering ship. I led my sisters up to the Piggly Wiggly, and we collected broken down boxes from the dumpster. I used the $5 my father had sent me for my birthday to buy a massive roll of duct tape. We wrapped the dishes in our clothes and towels and filled the boxes beginning with the possessions we most needed like dishes and in some cases most treasured, my sisters’ musical jewelry boxes, an antique lamp and a coffee grinder once possessed by my mother’s grandmother.
We moved without telling the school people goodbye (kind of like skipping out on the landlord in the middle of the night), leaving behind everything we could not pack into an uncle’s pick up truck, an aunt’s car and our own sputtering Ford.
The funny thing about the kind of poor we were…everything got smaller every time we moved. The house we owned when my father lived with us had been exchanged for a rental; the next house we rented had one less bedroom and no garage; the next smaller still. The three-bedroom apartment became a two bedroom affair. We shedded possessions all along the way. Start living like that when you are young enough, and you’ll disappear by the time you leave home for good.
I allowed three trips back and forth between our new encampment in a neighboring town and the apartment complex; anything requiring more than three trips we would not have room for. I looked for Elaine every time I carried a box from the apartment. I wanted to wave goodbye to her which in my mind would be an act of intimacy, but I never saw her.
Our moves (I went to 9 schools in 12 years.) were associated in my mother’s mind with starting anew. “Things will be better,” she promised me as I picked up a box, and I listened, nodded and thought I would just settle for getting there without having a flat tire.
As we drove away that last time, I put Elaine away in my mind, just like that, one of those things you get rid of. Off we went, that last load tied down with ropes high above the cab of my uncle’s pick up truck, swaying into every curve, teetering over the rough road and threatening to tumble every time I got comfortable thinking we just might make it.
Life Happens, Time Passes
In my high school mind the whole world was on fire, riots in cities, demonstrations on college campuses which always devolved into running melees, everybody upset about something they could do nothing about. Literally, on the other side of the world the obscenity of Vietnam was unfolding on the television news every night. Thousands of teenage boys not much older than myself had already lost their lives, their futures and all thoughts and dreams of women like Elaine. The television news kept a running body count on Friday evenings like sports scores. (All of us accepted that as normal. Now that I have a grown son myself the grotesqueness of those times offends me in a way I can’t even begin to describe.)
We had our own problems, still always moving, never owing enough money to be sued for but never having enough money to pay all of our bills either. I learned to prioritize payments; I resigned myself to the cruelty of partial payments. When I was old enough, I went to work.
Life happened to me after that—the service, college, law school, marriage, children–I did not think of Elaine much and when I did I wondered if she was as beautiful as I remembered.
Everything that life gives you reality takes away, youth, looks, ideals and ultimately even life itself; it may take time, even decades, but reality always comes back around to take it from you, and that happened to me with Elaine.
40 Years Later
Several years ago, on my way to a courthouse in a rural county, I stopped into a coffee shop called “Bean and Brew” over near Vanderbilt University on the nicer side of Nashville. My client was slow in paying his legal bills, so it did not matter if I was late. In fact, I decided to be late.
On this side of town, people drive safari-size SUVs and fret over climate change. There always seems to be a crowd of students in the shop using the place like a library. The coffee shop was packed, and the line to order the decadently overpriced coffee snaked all the way back to the doors. I got in line and looked over the sitters and the talkers and the faces jammed in newspapers and phone screens who seemed to exist there for my benefit, like extras in a movie scene whose job it was to look boring and ignore me.
Maybe they performed their parts too well; maybe I just sensed it was time to advance the scene. I turned my head toward the counter and saw Elaine for the first time in 40 years. I knew it was her even before I squinted my eyes and angled my head to study the woman, the clipped nose, the brown eyes, the gold hoop earrings. Even her hair was the same color although she must have dyed it. She was older obviously, but it was her. She was standing behind the glass counter where they displayed the stale pastries and appeared to be rearranging them. (You’ve got to be hungry to gnaw on one of those muffins. I never saw anyone ordering pastries anytime I visited there.)
Gone was the pile of brown hair on top her head. Women stopped wearing their hair fluffed up like that decades ago. Elaine wore a small paper cap which matched the brown uniform they had given her to wear. The woman who once rocked my known world with her blue bikini was now dressed like a school cafeteria lady or a McDonalds worker. The uniform hung on her, and I could see that the hips were gone along with the bounce and the flounce. Look at the wrists, hands and neck of any older person, and you’ll see all you need to see to know about the rest of them.
Elaine must have been aware of her losses considering the extravagant smears of make-up on her lips and eyes. Her make-up appeared even more out of place there in that shop in comparison with her other younger female co-workers who had received no instruction in life on the benefits of tactfully applied make-up or did not care because this modern world they moved in demanded nothing from them, and they knew it.
She looked tolerated, one of those old people young people treat like an impediment in their path which they can do nothing about, the clichéd mossy stone in a rushing stream. It wouldn’t have surprised me if they made fun of her behind her back.
Worse, Elaine appeared out of place, uncomfortable and unsure. The woman, who at 25 must have walked through a crowd of business suits as if she were parting the Red Sea, now looked uncertain, tentative. I watched her move the dried out pastries about and look around for something else to do. The coffee shop and its worker bees bustled and buzzed around her as if she was not there. Maybe this was her first day on the job.
How does a 65-year-old woman go from being a Playboy model in a lounge chair by a pool to a cafeteria lady in the middle of a shop named “Bean and Brew” on a Monday morning in Nashville? Too much time around a pool and too much reliance on youth’s tenuous charms? You’d think with a basketball team of ex-husbands she’d have married one whose social security would be sufficient to save her from toiling in her golden years at “Bean and Brew.” The world is going to get you in the end.
My last name is unusual, and Elaine knew my mother well in the year that we lived at the apartments. She might even remember me if I told her who I was. I had no qualms about doing that; I was a trial attorney with many years of experience in courtrooms and in front of juries. I could handle Elaine Adams; I was not intimidated at all.
But I didn’t do it.
Elaine passed by me carrying a plastic bag toward the trash bins at the front door. Although I was staring she did not notice me at all. Never even made eye contact. Her perfume competed with the smell of ground coffee, and the perfume was winning.
As she walked back to the counter I noticed that she had stepped down the heel of one shoe and that there was a bandaid over the heel of that foot.
She washed her hands at the sink and turned as the line moved me up to the counter.
“Have you been waited on sir?” she asked me. It was her voice. It was Elaine all right.
There must have been a moment in her life when Elaine decided not to go to the pool. And after that, she never went again. What a sad moment that must have been for her. That was the day when she must have given up, said her goodbye to something she knew existed but could not define or articulate. Did she grieve?
Other men might have got her aside to speak to her, tell her that they would recognize her anywhere, that she had not changed at all, maybe even confessed that childhood crush. She might have appreciated that.
“Yes mam,” I said. That’s it; that’s all I said.
The line moved forward and carried me with it toward the cashier.
Maybe Elaine was one of those things I left behind. Something I did not have room for anymore. If I’d left it behind, that is where it belonged.
As I pushed through the front door, I did not even consider looking back. Outside the sun glared, the cars went by too fast and the people on the sidewalk ignored each other, and I stepped out among them, holding my coffee well out in front of me because I am a careful man.
Michael Gigandet is a lawyer living on a farm in middle Tennessee. He has a JD degree from Vanderbilt University.