GCSPrank Is Here

For people who spend the day saying and writing things that others accept, while thinking things that are infinitely more interesting.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Mae Helen

A sky-blue uniform stretched to polyester limits over a generous frame. Sensible shoes. Hair always neat and black as a starless night. When you walked into the bowling joint and she was there, you could feel it. A certain vibrancy. Then her mellow voice calling out “Hi, honey!” or “Hello, darlin’!” Sounds corny, but it was like coming home.

If you dropped in more than once, she’d ask your name. More often than not, the next time you came in, she’d remember it. Many times people would come in and say “Hey, Mae Helen! Remember me?” and she’d give them a square look and say their names. The only time I saw her miss, she retorted “I don’t remember your name, but you owe me some postage.” The guy laughed and paid up.

She sold mail-order gift jewelry, but not to everybody. She would keep the catalogues near the counter and if she thought you were worthy, you’d be shown one or two. Took me two years before she showed me one and I bought something just to make sure I’d remain in her inner circle. When I tried to pay her up front, she waved it off and said “Wait until it gets here and see if you like it.” I joked that I could spend the money by then and she said softly “You can pay me later. It’s important that you like what you’re giving.” I have forgotten what I bought (a bracelet?), but her words have guided my gift-giving ever since.

Late at night, Bill, Don and I would often drop by to eat chili and barbecue beef sandwiches, gourmet chow from Mae Helen’s food emporium. The chili was one of those all-day deals: in the pot before noon, a rich mélange of texture and flavors by midnight. I quipped that by then you couldn’t tell the beans from the beef. But not in front of Mae Helen.

Bill and I would ask for really hot barbecue beef sandwiches and I may have indicated they weren’t spicy enough once too often. One night, she tossed in a little extra sauce from a small bottle she had tucked in a corner. One bite later, I was learning how to breathe without a trachea when she turned casually and asked “Hot enough for you?” I so wanted to say “Yes,” but broiled vocal cords don’t work at will. I limited my response to a nod, sipped some water and gamely made my way through my usual four sandwiches in what became a very long night.

Mae Helen was soft where it mattered and hard when it counted. You were always welcome, but you had to behave to her standards. One night, a drunk guy interrupted my bowling, yelling and taking shots on my lane. I went and got the heaviest ball in the joint and urged him to use it because he was a big, strong guy and needed a heftier ball than what I used. When he tried to grab it, I dropped it through his hands onto his foot. His scream froze the place. While he was down, I finished my game.

Feeling smug, I sat down to order chili and sandwiches. Mae Helen nodded, started to make up the order, then came and leaned over me. I was suddenly engulfed by her presence. “I saw what happened,” she said. She held my gaze for several seconds. “Was that really necessary?”

I have been scolded, reprimanded, criticized, dressed down, threatened, badgered, attacked, scorned, spat upon and reviled by dozens of people in my life. I am not evil and I am not proud of being such a frequent target, but it’s a fact; I have learned to live with it. But never have I felt so—crushed. Her tone was level, her words soft and simple, but I would have given a lot to erase what had happened and avoid being the target of Mae Helen’s disappointment.

She served my order, leaned on the counter and we talked for hours. After that night, I often dropped by just to see her. She knew. I wasn’t the only one.

When I said good-bye to her for the last time, she must have sensed I wasn’t coming back. “Do you remember everything we talked about?” she asked suddenly.

I thought for a few seconds. “No.”

She nodded as if the answer pleased her. “You will, sugar. I know you will.”


Post a Comment

<< Home