This is a long one to make up for not posting for a few days! If you want to start from the beginning of the novel, click here
We stopped at a chain hotel in Yulee, Florida. We both went into the lobby and Chris told the girl that we wanted two rooms. She looked from him to me and back to him. He said, “She snores,” at exactly the same time I said, “He snores.” She said nothing. I like discretion in my customer Service Representatives. The girl filled our request and we went to our rooms adjoining with no connecting door. I ordered the pizza to be delivered and Chris and I waited outside of our rooms for the pizza man to arrive. Snow stood faithfully by my side on the sidewalk.
The sun had been down for two hours, but the night was clear and the air warm and humid. Not unusual for Florida.
I signed for the pizza having given them the card number over the phone. Chris looked at the pizza box and then me. “This is stupid. We can eat either in your room or mine. I don’t want to stand on the sidewalk while chewing on pepperoni.”
I nodded and went into my room. He followed holding the box and the bag that held our fizzy drinks. The room had a small table, so we ate there, devouring the entire medium pizza. I gave Snow the pizza bones.
After our meal, Chris went to his room with no argument and I immediately got into the shower. I rinsed my shirt out in the warm water and hung it on the towel bar to dry using a hanger I put in my suitcase for that purpose. I wanted to see if the hype was true. If so, the shirt will be dry and odor-free in the morning.
I felt better after standing in the water longer than I would have had I been at home. I dried my hair with the hotel dryer and wiggled between the clean sheets. With HBO playing quietly on the TV, and Snow softly snoring beside me, I fell asleep. No scary dreams or monsters under the bed. The monster stayed in his own room.
The next morning, Chris and I walked to the Waffle House across the street from the hotel and ate a carb-filled American breakfast. I limited mine to eggs, bacon and toast, while Chris loaded up on the same, plus hashbrowns.
I trotted back across the street to the hotel to finish getting ready to continue our journey and to take Snow for a walk. I left her in the room while we ate breakfast and she ate all of the Blue Buffalo I put in her bowl and drank most of her water, so she was ready for her morning constitutional. I picked up her poo with the doggy poo disposal bag and dropped it in the dumpster at the back of the hotel. Snow was eager to get back in the car and travel.
I brushed teeth and hair. I gathered all of my belongings quickly because I didn’t unpack the suitcase. The shirt I put on before breakfast behaved as promised. It dried overnight and didn’t smell funky. The hype is right, so far. I would see in a month if it still held true.
Chris still puttered in his room, so I opened the back of the Cayenne, put my suitcase inside and decided it was my turn to drive. We mapped our journey at breakfast–head west on Interstate 10 to Alabama, Mississippi and into Louisiana. We may even be able to get to Texas before stopping again.
Chris glared at me when he saw me at the wheel. I popped open the back of the Cayenne and he tossed his suitcase in like he was throwing for the winning touchdown. Snow gave a yip because he startled her. He said, automatically, “Sorry, Snow, but your mom pissed me off, again.”
“Hey, genius, if you dump out your mother’s ashes, you get to clean them up. And bring up a bottle of water.” I said.
“Why can’t I drive?” he asked handing me the bottle through the open window.
“Because,” I said.
“That’s it? Just because?”
“That’s what I said,” He glared some more so I said, “You can drive when I get tired.”
He crossed in front of the car and pulled the passenger door open. After fumbling with the seat belt he said, “Whatever.”
He reeked of cigarette smoke, again. “Open your window,” I commanded.
“It’s hot out there,” he countered.
“Then quit smoking and you can keep the window closed.”
“Are you going to gripe at me all the way back home?”
I pulled out of the hotel parking lot, stopped by the front desk long enough to check out and then headed on I 95 S to catch I 10 W. Maybe we could make it all the way to Texas today, a twelve hour drive.
Driving down the Interstate highway proved to be less than exciting. The lack of interesting scenery lulled me into drowsiness. Chris napped, outright, and I grew angrier every time I glanced in his direction. The very least he could do was to stay awake and help me stay awake. I pointed the car to a convenience store and went inside to buy a huge cup of coffee. I took advantage of the restroom and headed out of the store in time to see Chris lighting a cigarette. At least he had Snow on a leash so she could pee while he smoked.
I pumped gas. Chris aimed for the car, so I let Snow back into the backseat. He went inside the store to, presumably, use the facilities. I pulled the Cayenne up to the front of the store and away from the gas pumps to wait for him. He returned with a bag of doughnuts and a cup of coffee for himself. “You want a glazed?” he asked me and I reached into the bag to remove the sticky pastry. He reached inside and broke one in half for Snow. She gulped the donut down without even tasting it and look at him from the back seat with great expectations. He fed her the other half of her donut and told her to lie down after she gulped it away.
“Thanks,” I said. I licked the sugar from my fingers and inched the speedometer up another five miles per hour.
“You’d better be careful. You are going almost 80 and the speed limit is 70,” Chris said to me.
“No, kidding. I am keeping up the the trucks and they keep tabs on the cops, so I don’t have to.” He crashed into a mailbox just the previous day, so I didn’t want to hear any diving advice from him.
“Fine. Do it your way,” he said.
I blew out an exasperated sigh. Then, “Okay. I am making a new rule for the car. Whoever is driving gets to decide the speed, the route and what music to play,” I said, setting Sirius to Jazz.
“You have a lot of rules,” he commented.
“I’m not done. No smoking in the car, no talking to or texting your girlfriend while we are in the car. Does that cover it?”
He grunted, then said. “And we have only been on the road since yesterday. This will be a fun trip with you making up rules all day every day.”
“You hear that Lillian?” I addressed the back of the Cayenne. “Your son doesn’t like to follow rules. Big surprise, that.”
“Do you always talk to dead people?” he asked, unkindly.
“Your mother is with us on this trip. It is the least we can do. Talking to her. We don’t want her to get lonely.”
“I don’t want to talk to her,” Chris said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“I am pissed as hell that she died.” He turned his gaze to the trees along the highway.
A breakthrough. Christian Matthew Archer Junior admitted to being angry that his mother died. “You know, Chris,” I said. “If you talk to her, you won’t miss her so much.”
“Talk to her about what?” he demanded.
“Anything. Everything. She’s your mom and in her eyes, you are perfect. Nothing you say or do will make her think less of you.”
“I feel stupid.”
“Okay. I will start. Hey, Lillian. It’s been a fews days since you died. We had a nice wake for you and over a hundred people showed up. We rented the Garden Club for the day and it was decorated with roses from your garden. We put that portrait of you that hung in your guest room on an easel and draped a blue scarf over the edges. Because your dress is blue in the portrait, Lily and I decided a blue scarf was better rather than black. We know you are not a slave to convention. We drank your favorite wine and played your record albums on the turntable.”
“Mom had great taste in music,” Chris said. “She liked a lot of different kinds, depending on her mood. One day it was Beethoven, the next it was Pentatonix.”
“The wake was really nice, Chris. You should have been there.”
“I hate funerals.”
“Chris, a wake is not a funeral. Everyone shared memories of Lillian. We laughed at jokes she made. We talked about our favorite things about her.”
“I thought it would be everyone crying and talking about how bad they felt.
“No, not at all. The only tears were right at the end when we gave her a final toast and said goodbye.”
“Maybe I should have gone to the wake. What stories did you hear?”
My first impulse was to snap at him and tell him he should have gone to the wake and he would know what others had to say. But, we had to start somewhere to get along. So, “Jeff Richardson, you know the guy next door to her, told a story about Lillian hanging up clothes on the line she strung between those two big oaks in her backyard. She reached up to hung a sheet and her pants fell down around her ankles. She wasn’t wearing any panties that day and he said her backside was the whitest thing he had ever seen. And if her backside was white her face was the reddest he had ever seen. He politely turned his back while she pulled her pants back up. She said to him, “That will teach me to come outside with no step-ins on.” He said back to her, “At least you washed before you came outside because no one’s butt can be that white if it’s dirty.”
“She said to him, “A true gentleman would have pretended he saw nothing.” And then Jeff said, “Mrs. Lillian. You have been telling me since I was nine years old that I am no gentleman.” Then, Lillian said, “And I was right.””
Chris started to chuckle and then he laughed in earnest. “I can see all of that happening. Mom really did tell Jeff he was no gentleman the first time he came into her house without wiping his feet. He’s older than me, so he mostly came over to visit Matthew. I was the little brother who was always underfoot and he and Matt tried everything they could to get rid of me. Jeff bought the house from his parents when they went to the retirement community in Florida. Jeff has kinda looked after Lillian all these years. He kept her car serviced, cleaned her gutters, shoveled snow from her driveway. Things I should have done. That’s why I know he will fix the mailbox I ran over.”
Lillian adored her youngest son and he spent as little time with her as possible. Another taboo topic Chris refused to discuss. I decided to find out why by going around to the back door.
“You remember Joyce Broome?” I asked.
“Yes. She and mom had lunch together at least once a week. I never understood why she and mom were so close. Mom was sixty years older than Joyce.” I glanced at my husband. How could he be so out of touch with his mother’s life?
I told him, “Joyce used to write a gossip column for the Pilot. She published a story about Margaret Whitney that was not terribly flattering and Lillian got mad about it. She went to the newspaper’s editor to complain about the story and he sent her to Joyce. Lillian marched up to Joyce’s desk and told her that the story was incorrect. Joyce asked Lillian how she knew that, and Lillian explained that she and Margaret had been friends right up to Margaret’s death a week before. After they talked for a few minutes, Lillian told Joyce that she needed to be a serious writer instead of writing gossip that had no basis in truth. They went to lunch to further discuss it. Finally, Lillian became Joyce’s mentor and muse. Everything Joyce wrote, she ran by Lillian to get approval. Joyce learned to love Lillian very much.”
“I didn’t know that,” Chris said.
“Joyce told the story at the wake. I never knew the whole story, either, until then. Joyce said Lilian used to tell her, “You’re not writing for a rag, girl. You are a good serious writer, so ditch the gossip and write the truth.” Joyce said Lillian taught her to be a reporter. Joyce finally won a Pulitzer for a story about a homeless woman who slept in her car four nights a week because on her salary at her receptionist’s job, she couldn’t afford an apartment. She went to a Motel Six every weekend to wash her hair, wash her clothes and to sleep in a real bed.”
“Joyce won a Pulitzer? That’s amazing.”
“She just finished her third novel and it is getting published in a few weeks.”
Chris looked over his shoulder for long minutes and then said, “Mom, I am really sorry I missed your wake.”
“Do you know her favorite joke or her favorite story?” I asked Chris.
“Uh… I don’t think so.”
“It’s one she tells about Barney Simpson.”
“Barney is Matt’s friend who is a gymnast and who almost got into the Olympics?” Chris asked me.
“Yes. That’s him. When he first met Lillian he told her he was a gymnast. Lillian said, “Really? Can you do a backflip?” Barney replied, “Yes. Can you?” and Lillian said, “No. You’ll have to teach me. I’ll be able to do it because I can do everything else.” Barney said he believed her because she was Lillian and no one ever doubted anything she said. And when Lillian was 60 years old, she did a backflip on Barney’s trampoline.”
Chris thought for a moment and then said, “That’s not really funny.”
“That was her favorite story–doing a backflip at the age of 60. Oh, her favorite joke. Sally Friedman told the story. She said that Lillian and she went to a Bette Midler concert and Bette told a Sophie Tucker joke that Lillian loved.”
“Who’s Sophie Tucker?” Chris asked.
“She was in the Ziegfeld Follies. Sophie told jokes because she thought she was big and ugly and she wanted people to laugh with her and not at her. Anyway, Lillian’s favorite joke was borrowed from Bette Midler who borrowed it from Sophie Tucker. Sophie is talking to her friend Clementine and a delivery man brings her two dozen yellow roses. Soph read the card and it said, Love always from your boyfriend, Ernie. Soph looks at Clementine and says, ‘Clem, you know what this means, don’t you? I’ll have to spend the next two weeks flat of my back in bed with my legs spread wide open.’ And Clem says, ‘Why? Soph? Ain’t you got a vase?’”
At the wake, I laughed again at the joke that I had heard Lillian tell many times. Most of the time she only said the punch line, “Why? Soph? Ain’t you got a vase?” anytime someone misunderstood something she said. I had to ask her what it meant and when Lillian told me the joke, I laughed all day, every time I thought about it.”
For the first time on our trip, Chris laughed. Out loud. For nearly a minute. Not the hysterical laugh while watching clothes fly out of a dresser. This was a real laugh from the real Christian Matthew Archer Junior.
Then, Chris said, “I always thought it was that line from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when Butch blew the railroad car, the safe and all the money to smithereens: You use enough dynamite there, Butch?”
I laughed again, remembering Lillian did say that line whenever someone did too much of anything.
I pulled the car over and we got out at the Welcome to Alabama sign. That selfie captured our giggling faces as we remembered Lillian’s jokes. I emailed it to Mr. Cartwright.