Mama always hid her mouth when she laughed. Even when she spoke too gleefully, mouth stretched too wide by those happy muscles, teeth too visible. I can still recognize someone from my neighborhood by their teeth. Or lack of them. And whenever I do, I call these people family. I know immediately that I can trust them with my dog but not with the car keys and not to remember what time, exactly, they’re coming back for their kids. I know if we get into a fight and Johnny shows up we’ll agree that there has been “No problem, Officer, we’ll keep it down.”
I know what they hide when they hide those teeth. By the time Mama was fifteen she had three left that weren’t already black or getting there, and jagged. She had a long time to learn how to cover that smile. No matter how she looked otherwise, tall and long-legged, long brown hair, pale skin that held its flush, it was this something vulnerable about the mouth and eyes too that kept men coming back to her. The men would likely say this was due to her willingness to welcome them back, and Mama may have been an easy lay, but I’m cool with that because any easy lay will tell you, making it look easy is a lot of work. Still, no matter how fine she looked, especially after she got herself a set of fine white dentures for her twenty-fifth birthday, Mama never forgot how ugly she felt with those snaggly teeth. In her head, she never stopped being a rotten-mouthed girl.
It’s the same with being feebleminded. No matter how smart you might appear to be later with your set of diplomas on their fine white parchment, the mistakes you made before the real lessons sunk in never fade. No matter how high you hang those documents with their official seals and signatures, how shining and polished the frame, your reflection in the glass will never let you forget how stupid you felt when you didn’t know any better. You never stop seeing those gaps in your smile.
Here are two things of mine: a glass unicorn with golden hooves, the body broken in several pieces, and what looks like a broken necklace. Did I break these? I stroke the horse’s thigh, this yes, but the necklace, no. The necklace came to me like this, links of smooth, small pebbles in shades of underwater. Each stone has clasps of metal on its ends or hardened bits of glue from where the clasps, once upon a time, connected. What is missing, what I do not have, is the letter that explains these stones, and what it is I’m to do with them now. The letter was written from my grandma to me on a late Christmas, written on onionskin paper (as she always wrote) and in black felt-tip (as she always wrote) with all of her usual underlines and emphasis, and I remember at least these words . . . these stones are like the women in our family, some disconnected, some lost, but each part of a greater chain and each beautiful in its own way. There were once many strands, but here are all that remain. It will be up to you to keep them together. I also know that these words were said better, so much better, by Grandma Shirley Rose. But she’s not here. What’s here are these stones, this broken horse, stacks of letters in felt-tip and onionskin, a tattered Girl Scout Handbook, a welfare file copied from carbon paper, burnt-out votives, shotgun shells, tennis shoes, one green thumb, and me. My name is Rory Dawn Hendrix, feebleminded daughter of a feebleminded daughter, herself the product of feebleminded stock. Welcome to the Calle.
Just north of Reno and just south of nowhere is a town full of trailers and the front doors of the dirtiest ones open onto the Calle. When the Calle de las Flores trailer park was first under development on the rum-and-semen-stained outskirts of Reno, all of its streets were going to glow with the green of new money and freshly trimmed hedges and Spanish names that evoked the romance of the Old West. At the first curve off the I-395 a promise was erected of what was to come, bold white letters against a gold background, CALLE DE LAS FLORES—COME HOME TO THE NEW WEST. But soon after the first sewer lines were laid down and the first power lines were run up, the investors backed out because the Biggest Little City in the World was found to be exactly that, too little. With its dry, harsh climate and harsher reputation, Reno could not support suburbs of a middle-class kind, and the new home buyers needed to make the Calle’s property values thrive never arrived. Once the big money figured that out, the big money said adios and Calle de las Flores ended before it’d begun.
Broken in half during the first Sierra winter, what remains of the sign still stands at that first curve off the interstate. Warped by the weight of too much snow and disappointment, beat down by too many punches from the fists of Calle boys, the DE LAS FLORES have scattered to the winds. All that’s left to speak for the neighborhood that grew up around it is the word CALLE, its two Spanish L’s asking why on a desert-bleached sign.
Mama says my brothers were the only reason she’d not followed Grandma to the Calle years before, so when the boys left home to free fish from the ocean with their delinquent dad, we left Santa Cruz and the man who was my father in the rearview. Mama had come to Reno the first time years before that, when she was getting divorced from my brothers’ daddy. She’d had to stay here for six weeks to make it legal, and even in that short time was able to find a job, so she knew she could find work here again, running keno or making change, and Grandma Shirley agreed. Grandma used to live in California too but she moved here before I was born, moved for good after living here temporarily to finally escape marriage to Grandpa John, Mama’s dad. She found she could escape his memory easier here too. Not only that, the pay was higher and the rents were lower, so Grandma gave up the wet and wild nature of Santa Cruz for the death and dirt of Reno’s high desert in order to make a fresh start, and four years later so did we. By then, Grandma had put in her time, marking tickets behind one keno counter after another from Boomtown to the Strip before she eventually got a job tending bar at the Truck Stop right at the end of the Calle. The desert sand of the Calle couldn’t be more different from the sandy beaches of Santa Cruz, but the cement and glass and ringing slots of Reno’s downtown still felt more like home than anywhere else because this was the first place that ever delivered what both Hendrix women wanted— freedom from their husbands. The Biggest Little City in the World took them in and set them free, and after Mama had paid her own casino dues, she spent months of long nights picking up shifts for the bartenders that came and went at Grandma’s side until she finally got called down to the Truck Stop to talk about working a regular shift.
Mama parks next to the Four Humors Ice-Cream Truck, and inside the Truck Stop, the Ice Cream Man himself is parked on a barstool. Mama says that the Ice Cream Man spends a lot of time at her bar but it’s the first time I’ve seen him here, and as we walk past him all I can think about is all that ice cream sitting out in the sun while he sits in here in the dark. Mama sits me at a table by the jukebox and turns my head away from the bar, points me toward the toys she’s put on the table. “Stop staring now, R.D.,” she says, “and keep your fingers crossed.”
My favorite toys are ones Grandma made, crocheted and stuffed: a polar bear with green scarf and hat, a family of mice, the littlest one holding a red lace heart with Grandma’s careful “I love Rory D.” stitched across its front, a yellow chick inside a cracked egg bright with spring flowers. Every day I bring a different one to show-and-tell, and today Mama had Grandma Mouse and Mama Mouse in the car with her when she picked Baby Mouse and me up from first grade. At first we four just sit facing each other and pretend not to be nervous for Mama over at the bar, but then I start looking through the labels on the front of the jukebox and forget I was nervous at all. There’s “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” and “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” and Mama always has quarters for “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and I like “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” and I like that I can watch the people at the bar reflected in the jukebox’s glass case. There are two regulars I know, the Ice Cream Man and Dennis, but Mama is talking with a dark-haired woman I don’t know and can barely see, she is so short and tucked away on the other side of the bar.
I see Dennis has a pile of toilet paper in front of him and I know what he’s doing. Every time we come in to say hi to Grandma, Dennis gets up from his place at the very end of the bar, goes into the bathroom, and comes out a minute later. He takes toilet paper back to his seat where he sits squishing and turning and rolling it into the shape of a rose. It’s always a rose and it’s always for me. The first time he gave me one, he put his empty hand out for me to shake and I felt Mama go stiff and dangerous beside me. Grandma spoke up, soothing, “Jo, Dennis has been here longer than the Truck Stop has.” And to me, “R.D., would you look at that flower.” I shook Dennis’s big hand, which felt too rough to grow a flower out of TP, and said thank you and he went back to his seat. There are ten toilet-paper flowers on the shelf by my bed, and number eleven is interrupted when the Truck Stop door opens and in walks Timmy’s mom. I know Timmy from sometimes when we get babysat together so I know his mom too, but today the Hardware Man is hanging on his mom’s arm and I forget what I’m doing and drop Baby Mouse down the side of the jukebox remembering how the Hardware Man brought Mama in one night after driving her home from the Truck Stop. I watched his shadow over Grandma’s shoulder when she leaned down to hug me and whisper goodnight, but he didn’t whisper at all when he offered too many times to tuck Mama into bed. He kept offering even after Grandma left until Mama told him loud and clear, “Thanks for the ride, Jack.” She said “ride” like a car door slamming, quick and hard enough to break a finger, and that must’ve been what convinced him it was actually time to go; besides, his name isn’t Jack.
I push my cheek against the wall to where I can see Mouse caught against the jukebox in the dark. I kneel down and scrunch up as close as I can, reach my hand through cobwebs and cigarette butts, stretch my fingers, feeling for a leg or whisker, and finally, mouse tail. I hold tight with thumb and finger, and pull. She sticks but she comes out. The heart is unstitched from one paw but Mouse held on to it with the other and I am dusting her off when Mama comes over and says, “Friday and Saturday nights, Ror. Come meet my boss.”
At the end of the bar, Dennis finishes flower number eleven and messes my hair, and I wish my thank-you smile was loud enough to cover the Hardware Man’s voice saying, “Another jailhouse bouquet, Dennis.” And to me, “One day a real man’ll bring you a real bouquet, hon.”
The Hardware Man says “bouquet” like it looks, “ bow-ket,” and I don’t think before I say, “It’s bouquet, Jack. Like okay.”
From the corner of my eye I see the Ice Cream Man swivel away on his barstool like he just remembered he’s there to drink, but Dennis laughs loud and slaps the bar. I figure that’s going to make the apology I’ll have to say worth it when the Hardware Man starts laughing too, even though there’s not much funny in his voice: “O-kay, bou-quet! Got a smart one here, boys, look out! O-kay! Bou-quet!” He hits his knees and says it over and over, “ O-kay! Bou-quet!” until Timmy’s mom puts her hand on his arm and says to me, “Why Lori, you’ve got such a pretty face,” without caring if I’m pretty at all. Her bright blond hair is in big silky curls and they bounce when she turns and says to Mama, “This must be the first time I’ve seen Lori’s nose out of a book,” and she sure cares how pretty Mama is because her eyes move up and down and get narrow like her voice, but Mama’s voice rolls right back at her, growling with r’s, “Rory is the best reader in three grades.”
Timmy’s mom’s face goes white and dumb and my face goes pink as mouse ears with the hot shame of being smart and rubbing the Hardware Man’s nose in it and I’m still burning when up comes Pigeon. Pigeon is the tiny lady with dark hair who gave Mama weekend shifts we can count on, and she cuts right through all the laughter and growling, bends down, and takes my hand. She says my name right, like if she’s been saying it all her life, “I expect I’ll be seeing a lot more of you, Rory Dawn,” and we shake on it, like grown-ups.