Saturday, July 9, 2011

Walking to St. Louis

When my recently widowed mother moved to town from the country, she had to hire someone to stay with me while she worked to bring home the bacon. My favorite caretaker was, we’ll call her, CeeCee Lee, who was full of adventure stories such as her memorable “Rutabaga Man” that made no sense whatsoever. She was also very unorthodox in her idea of entertaining children. For example, she spent hours spitting Sweet Garrett spurts at ants and any other insect that ventured by in the back yard. She was grumpy in the morning but she got friendlier as the day went on.

Ceecee Lee liked beer so much she could hardly make it through the day without a cool one. Often, after my nap she would take my hand and off we would go, walking to St. Louis, which is what everyone called her part of town. Most of the time we went to the dark, humid Hilalli Bar, where perfumed women in bright clothes played dominoes with enormous men flashing gold teeth.

Ceecee Lee and I went there so often that I was considered a regular. The emaciated old bartender gave me ice-water and Safe-T-Pops (those penny suckers with limp loopy stems) every visit and he called me Danny Boy. In that culture, everyone had two names and if you didn’t have two they supplied the second.

When Ceecee Lee mellowed out, having polished off a beer or two, we’d head for home. Every time, just before we arrived, we had the same conversation:

“Is that a good sucker Dennis Dale give you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I bought that sucker for you, you know.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You are not going to tell your mamma we went to St. Louis, are you?”

“No, ma’am.”

“That’s good. You so sweet. You don’t want to get your Ceecee Lee fired, do you?”

I didn’t know at that young age what getting fired meant, so one night I asked Mother about it.

“Where did you hear about someone getting fired?” Mother wanted to know.

“CeeCee Lee.”

“Does she think I’m going to fire her?”

“I don’t think so.”

Mother could tell I was leaving a lot unsaid, so she undertook an investigation, involving my aunt, her sister, as a spy. When Aunt Sis reported one of our afternoon jaunts, CeeCee Lee was history. I hope she knew it was not I who betrayed her. I lived in that town until I was grown and I never saw her again. One of my friends from her part of town said word was she went to California with a gambling man.

I missed her and I missed my Safe-T-Pops. Nothing you do for a child is ever wasted or forgotten. Although Mother disapproved of our outings, and I appreciate her caution, the deep entertainment and acceptance I felt abides. Intercultural awareness is best introduced early in a child’s life. Every time I hear dominoes shuffling or see the sparkle of a gold tooth, I feel a benign chill like ice-water and a Safe-T-Pop craving follows.

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