Lola. Galveston 1988
There is always an open suitcase on the floor. Even if she’ll stay somewhere for months, even if she’ll consider the place her home, the suitcase will be there—a reminder that even places where we feel at home are borrowed places. Our earthly bodies themselves are borrowed, more temporary than we wish to acknowledge. Belonging is an illusion. The thought is sometimes comforting, sometimes terrifying, depending on where she’s at—physically and emotionally. On this particular morning on Galveston Island she clings to it as a beacon of hope, something mooring her to her will to live, for on this mirage of a sandbank it’s harder than most other places for a girl to wake up and wish to carry on.
She rolls her aching head on the musty pillow that reeks of cigarettes. She licks her parched lips. The room is both too hot and too cold. How can that be? She concentrates on finding a layer of gas scent floating between the notes of stale tobacco, sweat, perfume, and alcohol in the air. She listens for the hiss of the old stove. It’s there. She smiles through her nausea. Who would have thought that contraption actually worked? Charming, her landlady had called it just weeks ago when Lola, wary of living off Cheryl’s charity in Houston after having missed Grace’s funeral and sat through the reading of the will in a drunken haze, had come down to the Island and rented this dump. Lola had almost asked if the large roaches she’d seen unapologetically make their way across the floor just days ago when the weather was hot were charming too. If the landlady had given them names.
The other day, the day the temperature had dropped so low Lola had finally decided to learn to use the “charming” contraption, at the risk of self-immolation, she’d seen a lizard in the bathroom, running across the tiny claw-foot tub. A green lizard, the kind that were abundant in the summer. Everyone wants to call them geckos but they’re actually anoles. Having grown up here, Lola knew that. She was familiar with lizards. Still, she’d screamed, but then she’d allowed herself to sink to the floor laughing. She’d made no effort to find and evict the trespasser. Lizards needed to keep warm too. Perhaps lizards needed it more than other creatures. Perhaps there was misery worse than hers in this world, and if sharing her shabby dwelling with a tiny lizard was her one way of helping someone, why not be gracious about it?
Now, surveying the man in her bed through half-closed eyelashes, Lola hopes for the tiny lizard to emerge from its hiding place and crawl into his mouth. She’d die laughing. But no, for it would surely lead to the demise of her only friend. And by that she means the lizard, not the man. As far as the man is concerned, she doesn’t even know his name. Come to think of it, the same is true for the lizard. Antonio, she thinks quickly. I shall name the lizard Antonio. And even on this nauseating morning, naming the lizard brings her pleasure. Her first gesture of the day, other than rolling her aching head, sniffing the stale air, and half-opening her lids, all of which makes for a miserable experience, is reaching for the glass on her nightstand, not to drink water, though water is much needed right now, but to spill just a tiny drop of whiskey on the ugly particle board, a small symbolic gesture to baptize the hiding lizard in absentia. “Oh, Antonio,” she mumbles. “What are we gonna do?”
The man gives a noncommittal moan. She hopes his name is not Antonio. She hopes he’ll go back to sleep. Or better yet, leave. Yes, she most definitely wants him to leave. She lingers next to him a moment longer. But she knows what to do. She stretches her aching body, gets out of bed, and almost stumbles over the open suitcase on her way to the bathroom. It’s a distance of about two feet and she can’t even walk that without impediment. But it could be worse; she could have stepped on poor Antonio. “Stay put, Antonio,” she mumbles, imagining him hidden in a crevice, enjoying the heat from the gas stove, his little lizard eyes closed.
She bangs the bathroom door shut as loudly as she can. The whole flimsy structure shakes, and the liquid in her stomach gives a perilous jolt. At least she’s by the toilet. The bathroom is freezing, and she’s no clue where her robe is. She drapes a towel over her shoulders, turns on the faucet, and waits for the water to warm to a palatable temperature. Meanwhile she fumbles with the switch on the radio, gets a whole mess of static, and finally finds a country station to blast. True to expectations, Mrs. Clyde starts banging on the ceiling adding to the racket. Lola turns up the volume and greedily gulps down some water from the faucet, still too cold and tasting metallic. She gargles with mouthwash in a last-ditch effort to keep herself from vomiting. She’s heard it ruins one’s teeth, and she sure can’t afford the dentist.
“I’m gonna call the police, you harlot!” Mrs. Clyde screams out her window. Harlot, Lola repeats in her mind, looking at herself in the mirror. Hangover and all, she doesn’t look too bad. Her smudged makeup, even, is more attractive than it was when she applied it yesterday. She hears motion next door. Her teeth clatter. “Don’t cry over spilled perfume,” the voice on the radio sings. Hurry up, cowboy, Lola thinks. I’m cold.
When she finally hears the front door bang shut, then heavy footsteps down the stairs, she turns off the radio and the shower, opens the door, and plumps down into her own warm if not fresh-smelling bed. A few hours later, showered, teeth brushed, curls newly fluffed and sprayed to their most rebellious glory, she carries two heavy bags of laundry down the stairs and stops briefly in front of Mrs. Clyde’s door. She arranges her humble peace offering on the rickety bench the woman sometimes sits on to smoke: an orange, a quarter of a pack of cigarettes, a pack of cinnamon gum, and a hand-scribbled note that says, not for the first, but hopefully for the last time, “I’m sorry. Won’t happen again. Love, Lola.” She swallows back tears, for the small gift reminds her of Grace. Oranges and cinnamon, two of the treats of her own lonely childhood elevated by her aunt’s raspy voice and dramatic gestures to seem decadent, almost magical. She wishes the memory would make her smile, but her wayward heart convulses with guilt and sorrow. How many Christmas morning oranges has she missed? How many cups of cinnamon tea? But it’s no use crying over spilled milk. Or spilled perfume, as this morning’s song put it.
“No use crying over spilled perfume,” Lola hums as she unlocks the shitty car she bought with money borrowed from Cheryl, then fumbles for the lever that’s supposed to open the trunk, but that lately poses much more resistance than necessary. Everything in her life is as difficult as her unruly hair. But my hair is lovely, Lola thinks. This is the first day of the rest of my life, she tells herself as she wrangles the bags into the trunk of her beat-up car. Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard that refrain before. What she’s also heard before is the sad sound the car makes when it refuses to start. Lola lets her head sink to the steering wheel. If she were not so dehydrated, she might cry. Cheryl’s husband had warned her against buying this clunker, but Lola didn’t want more charity. She wanted a car of her own she could drive away in. Apparently she just wanted to break down and be stuck on her own terms.
She gets out of the car, considers kicking it. If this were a movie, she’d kick it hard. But in real life, what good would it do? She forces open the trunk again and rummages through the bags of laundry. She hopes Mrs. Clyde is not looking out the window to see her. She can’t help sneak a glance at the house, and sure enough she thinks she sees the curtain move. Stupid nosy old cow! But what business is this of Mrs. Clyde’s? Dirty sheets being pulled and rearranged into two lighter and more manageable bags of urgent laundry don’t make noise or cause other disturbances. A pair of black lace panties flies out of one of the bags. Lola picks them up and holds them out defiantly. An old man on a bicycle whistles. Lola wishes she had a bicycle of her own.
Finally, she manages to balance the laundry into two bags that are not too heavy, two bags she can carry the three blocks to the washateria on Broadway. Let Mrs. Clyde watch her, who cares? It’s not illegal to walk to the laundromat. It’s not even immoral. Plenty of good and righteous people do this every day. When the clothes are in the machine, the right amount of quarters inserted, an overpriced pouch of detergent bought and poured in the right slot, Lola feels her body relax. A new bed is a new lease on life. She wishes she could smoke, but she left her last cigarettes as an apology gift for Mrs. Clyde.
Might as well quit cold turkey. She’s been trying to do that ever since she got on a plane back from Spain, too late for her aunt’s funeral, dazed, drunk, and broke. She’s been meaning to quit smoking, drinking, nightclubs, all the toxic things. She’ll save money that way. This is her new life. She’s already aired out her place; now she’ll have a clean bed and no vices.
Next, she needs a job. She has nobody to serve as a reference. And a bit of a bad reputation in this small town despite having stayed away for twenty years. But she’s not a bad-looking gal, and once she puts on something nice, does her hair and makeup, she might be able to charm some shop owner into hiring her based on her appearance alone. The shadow of her wayward past won’t help. But new misguided people move to the Island every day. People who never knew of Grace or Lola. People from Houston or from much farther away. People who come and open shops. The shops always close down within a year or so, but Lola is not looking for employment that will last. A temporary gig is better than no gig at all. She’s happy with this plan. But for now she’s still hung over, her face a little drawn, and doing laundry and cleaning up her room is exhausting. She might as well rest today, then look for a job tomorrow.
By the time she gets back home, her hunger is something that can no longer be ignored. She doesn’t even have the energy to make the bed. She looks in the pantry. A sad can of beans, a can of cheap coffee, half a bag of store-brand noodles. She contemplates putting the noodles on the beans, the beans on the noodles, whatever, and her stomach turns. She counts the money in her purse. After laundry it’s exactly five dollars. Not much, but the bar around the corner has a happy-hour special, dollar nachos. Pretty bad, but still better than beans on noodles. She knows from experience they frown upon customers ordering the nachos and not getting a drink, but that they’ll serve her all right.
She takes one last look in the mirror, applies a little blush, some eyeshadow, a little mascara. One last spritz of hairspray on her curls, though the can is almost empty. She doesn’t even change clothes because she doesn’t want her clean stuff smelling like smoke again.
When she enters the bar, Mike, the bartender greets her with a nod and a wink. “What’s your poison, Lola?”
“Just the nachos, Mike. Thank you.”
“The nachos and a rum and Coke?”
“Just the nachos.”
“Gin and tonic?”
“Just the nachos.”
“Shot of tequila? On the house.”
She feels a little faint. “Don’t tempt me, handsome.”
But when the nachos come, looking and smelling less appetizing than she remembered, Mike sets a cocktail in front of her too. “Seabreeze,” he says. “From the gentleman over there in the corner.”
Lola turns to see a moderately attractive man in dark jeans and a green plaid shirt. She knows she should send the drink back, but she loves sea breezes. Besides, when’s the last time she had anything with a smattering of Vitamin C in it? Won’t she get scurvy or something? The thought of the orange she left on Mrs. Clyde’s doorstep comes back to haunt her, as does the vision of Grace and the many oranges of her childhood offered like they were precious gifts. Precious indeed, and Lola didn’t know to appreciate them. She needs that drink badly. Besides, if she gets scurvy how will she find a job and pay the rent and fix the old clunker and care for herself and Antonio? She smiles at the stranger, then takes a long sip of the cocktail. It’s fresh and delicious, the right balance of grapefruit and vodka. It instantly revives her.
An hour or so later she’s kissing the man up against the side of a building. The bar? Her house? Does it matter?
Childhood Memories. Somewhere Near Atlanta, 1950
Lola is about six, though of course, now looking back, she can’t be too sure. This is not her first memory, but perhaps it’s the first clear one, or rather the earliest one that plays like a movie in her mind, the first coherent string of memories she can piece together in a way that makes sense. In this string of memories, Meme is the most beautiful woman in the world. She’s made of fairy dust and magic. Her fingertips smell like vanilla, her skin has a sun-kissed hue to it, and her hair falls in magnificent waves down her shoulders. They live in a two-room apartment Lola vaguely remembers, or maybe she just thinks she does. All the places she’s lived with Meme blend in her mind, as do all the men in Meme’s life. At this particular point in time there is no man, and Lola likes that. Meme takes her with her to run all kinds of errands. Some of the errands are boring, but some of them are fun.
Today Meme went to see a woman who was haggard and red-eyed, and she spent what seemed like an eternity talking to this woman behind a closed door, while Lola was instructed to play with a little girl she did not like. The girl wore a starched white pinafore and owned about five large and a bit scary-looking dolls that were as carefully outfitted as she was. She seemed wary of Lola touching the dolls. There was a nanny, or perhaps an aunt in charge of this little girl and her dolls, and this woman took Lola to a small bathroom with a pink porcelain sink and instructed her to wash her hands. “Your mother should really brush your hair,” the woman said, pursing her lips. Lola was afraid this mean lady would do it herself, and it would hurt, for it hurt each time Meme tried, but the lady had no intentions beyond expressing disapproval. Lola had already learned that many people enjoyed disapproval more than ice cream. Perhaps if they had too much of it their tummies would ache. She wanted to make this woman’s tummy ache. She just hadn’t figured out how yet.
Even after returning from the bathroom with clean hands, the little girl in the starched pinafore said she preferred that Lola not touch the dolls. Perhaps they could play with something else instead. Or perhaps Lola would like to read quietly? Lola did not like to read, she did not even know how to just yet, but she sat on the floor in the girl’s room and paged through a stack of books. The books had no pictures, only letters.
The girl arranged all the dolls on her shelf, then gave a dramatic sigh. “All this because Father went away,” she said, and the aunt or nanny admonished her.
“Don’t talk about such things, Mary Lou. These are grown-up matters.”
Lola could hear Meme laughing in the other room. The aunt or nanny had a stricken look on her face, as if the laughter displeased her as much as Lola’s matted hair. Bored with the pages of letters in front of her, Lola had a bright idea. She scratched her scalp. She kept at it until the gesture could no longer go unnoticed.
“Oh, no,” the nanny aunt said. “Please tell me you do not have head lice!”
“I do,” Lola said, smiling pleasantly. “I have head lice.” She scratched again, harder. This really amused her. She’d once heard Meme talk about lice when she was on the phone with someone and debating the merits of sending Lola to school. “I’m not sending her to school so she can be brainwashed and get head lice,” Meme had said.
“I got them at school,” Lola now told the nanny aunt. In truth, Lola did not attend school and would not until the next year.
“Well, maybe we should go outside,” the nanny aunt now said. It was hot outside, hot and steamy, but Lola sat on a bench in the shade bored as could be paging through the same stack of books, which the nanny aunt said she could keep. The girl in the starched pinafore did not accompany her outside.
Later, much later, when Meme finally came to retrieve her, Lola left the books on the bench. She did not care for them. She imagined the nanny aunt burning them in a bonfire to get rid of the lice.
“Oh, no, baby! You were out here in the heat all this time?” Meme lifted her up in her arms though Lola was much too big to carry. “Well, I need to buy you a big ice cream so you can cool off.” And Meme put her down, then took off running so Lola would chase her. On her good days, Meme was much like a child herself. They both ate ice cream for dinner. Lola wondered if her tummy would hurt, and if this was well deserved for being wicked to the nanny aunt. Then they stopped by a flower shop. Meme produced a huge stack of cash out of her velvet purse. “What did you say to that woman?” she asked Lola, kissing the top of her head. “You must have said something to scare her, which was smart. They always give you more money when they’re a little afraid of you, my pet.”
“I said I had head lice,” Lola declared proudly, and Meme erupted into shrill laughter.
“May I help you?” a severe woman behind the counter asked.
“Why yes,” Meme said. “I’m here to buy flowers. In fact, I want to buy all the flowers in the shop.”
After acquiring more flowers than anyone would know what to do with, Meme gave some as a gift to the severe woman. She gave some to people passing by on the street. She gave a single red rose to a beautiful young girl in a well-tailored suit, and she whispered something to her Lola could not hear. Only about half the flowers made it to their rooms, but there they filled the bathtub and sink and all the cooking pans. Meme declared it was more important to have flowers than to brush one’s teeth or to bathe or to cook. They ate stale crackers before going to bed, and in the night, Lola was awoken by Meme’s convulsive sobs. The bed shook because her mother was crying so hard. Lola squeezed her eyes shut and pretended to sleep. She knew from experience this was wisest. Soon, Meme got up and started pacing. “I don’t believe you,” she shouted. “The devil is a liar!” Lola knew her mother wasn’t talking to her. She also knew there was nobody there. She counted sheep. She counted imaginary lice. Waiting for Meme to calm down took longer than waiting for her earlier in the day in the heat. At some point, however, Lola drifted off. When she awoke the next day, all the flowers were gone. Meme was dressed in a green dress and had a lot of makeup on. “Good thing you’re awake, child. We have that pretty young girl we saw yesterday to call on, and I think it’s best we catch her early.”
The ebook version of Lola Is Never Drinking Again is set to be published on May 7th. I’m working on making the paperback available around the same time too.