I’m so known for my nonfiction that people forget — what am I talking about, I forget — that my career plan was to be a novelist. So I’m going back to my roots and offering a bit of fiction.
My Sweet Sheri Sue is a short story published in a slightly different form in the anthology Red Boots & Attitude: The Spirit of Texas Women Writers. I hope you enjoy it; it’s a story that’s close to my heart.
* * *
I offered Sheri Sue my sunglasses. I said, “They’re so nerdy that they’re in style.”
She put them on and strutted herself and her fat butt around the nursing home like she was a Paris model on a New York runway. There she was with black-lensed sunglasses held together by tortoise shell horn rims and wearing a washed out navy blue alligator T-shirt. Thin denim jeans clung to her thick thighs like a static-filled polyester slip and hiked up at her ankles to reveal piano legs. Black high-top Reeboks worn without socks thickened her ankles even more, like too much flour in white cream gravy burnt black.
And I swear to God she strutted and strolled like she owned the world. With every twist and turn on that imagined runway, she flapped open her toothless mouth and tried to grunt a laugh. But since she can’t talk, nothing came out except a sound equal to a cow groaning.
I applauded, though. Hell, yes, I applauded every step and turn she took. I whooped and hollered and whistled. I was damn envious that she could be so carefree, so unselfconscious, that she could prance with pride and dance among the cold aluminum tables like she was the most beautiful, sexy, desirable woman in the entire world. And at just over 30-years-old, with that glow in her eyes that could light Texas Stadium, she probably was the most beautiful, sexy, desirable woman in all of the Resting Pines Nursing Home.
My sweet Sheri Sue. I can’t remember ever meeting her. But I can remember not knowing her. I didn’t know her in elementary school. That was at Central Elementary in the Irby Independent School District, deep in the Pineywoods of East Texas. I know I knew her by the time we were in junior high because I remember going to the Ice Capades in Houston with her. Her parents drove. Her boyfriend went with us. He was good-looking with hair the color of copper-tinged clay and skin just as smooth. I used to find that clay down near Boykin Springs.
I never went to Boykin Springs with Sheri Sue. It was a place you went with your parents when you were a child and your boyfriend when you were a teenager. I never went as a teenager. I bet Sheri Sue did. Back then, she was slim but had a rump that swayed to a Motown rhythm when she walked. She had long, straight hair the color of fresh honey sitting in the sun. Her hair stopped the same place her skirts did, just past that vibrant rump. And her boyfriend, I believe Eric was his name, wore black horn rimmed glasses. Not like my sunglasses, though. His were definitely out of style. Everybody was wearing wire rims then, being the late sixties and all.
But Eric, he made up for his out-of-style glasses by being in high school. Sheri Sue, an eighth grader, was dating a high schooler. I was envious back then, too. I remember the three of us sitting in the backseat of her parents’ long blue Oldsmobile. All the while, I was wondering why in the world she hung out with me. Why she, a popular girl dating a good-looking high schooler, was my friend. She never made me feel like a third wheel, not even when I dropped a fried shrimp in my lap. We were eating lunch at Kapan’s when I dropped that shrimp. It left a gross ketchup stain at my crotch. I glared at that stain when I thought no one was watching. She acted like she never even saw it. I owed Sheri Sue for never laughing at my stain.
I remember her side of the car had Eric’s initials painted on the door, on the inside, right under the window, in black paint that stood out from the beige vinyl interior. I remember staring at those initials, fingering them, wondering what it’d be like to have Eric as a boyfriend. Any high schooler as a boyfriend. Any boy as a boyfriend. I stared down and studied the hair on my legs. It was long, black, and coarse.
* * *
Sheri Sue handed me back my sunglasses. I guess she didn’t really need them in that nursing home. I’m not sure she ever went outside except when she walked me to my car, and since I only visit her maybe once a year, she doesn’t really need sunglasses for that. But she could watch TV in them. The lenses may look pitch-black, but they aren’t really. Sheri Sue loves TV. I think sometimes more than me. I can’t really blame her. Her TV is much more reliable than I. It visits her every day. I only visit her when I’m in town from LA and feel the need to pay her back for her years of kindnesses. I’m like a rich conman, who every so often gathers his ill-gotten dollars and tips God a few copper cents in thanks that he hasn’t gotten caught … yet.
* * *
We both stared out the length of windows that line the north side of the linoleum-floored cafeteria. Sheri Sue had quit laughing, or at least she’d quit hanging her mouth open and bouncing her head up and down to show she was laughing. And after I’d applauded and whooped and hollered, I couldn’t think of anything to say. So we stared out the windows. It’s awful hard to think of something to say to someone who can’t speak back to you.
Outside, oak leaves glistened like polished amber in the warm November sunshine. We should have been down at the lake drinking beers instead of sitting in that nursing home listening to some helpless, old woman vainly cry out, “Help me. Help me. Will someone please help me?” Sheri Sue didn’t seem to notice the woman’s wails. Maybe Sheri Sue was already down at the lake, at least in her mind. God only knows where my mind was.
Down at the lake, Sheri Sue was a star. She was the best-damned water skier for four counties over. She moved with the grace of a swan, and not, like now, a swan who’d suffered a stroke ten years back. Her parents said it was caused by the birth control pills she took. Her doctor said it wasn’t. I don’t know. Maybe it was the drugs she took – the illegal ones. Maybe it was the alcohol she drank. Maybe it was the two combined. Maybe it was the stress. A wayward and unemployed husband. A daughter who had yet to eat her first birthday candle. Maybe it was … I can’t think about it. Besides, why think about it? What’s done is done. Lennon got shot. That can never be changed. Sheri Sue had a stroke. That can never be changed. Then she had another. And then another. And she’ll probably have another before she hits thirty-five.
I still picture her gliding across that mirror-smooth lake on one water ski, cutting and slicing so that she drenches me, her spray slashing into my eyes so that I cannot see. But back then I could hear her laugh. It bounced across the water like a perfectly skipped stone. It gave me confidence to try what she did. And try I did. Over and over again. With her shouts of encouragement coming from between shining teeth. “You can do it. Come on, you can ski. You can get up. We’ll stay here all day until you do. No, that’s okay. I don’t need to ski. You can do it. You want me to get in the water and help you up? How about I ski beside you and hold you up? You can depend on me? I won’t leave you. No, I promise I won’t drop you.” I got up. On one ski. Today, I’m the best-damned skier for four counties over.
* * *
“How big is Shannon?” I had searched my working brain far and wide to think of something to say.
Sheri Sue responded by standing up tall for her five feet three inches and throwing her shoulders back like she was a hot-panted drum majorette just about to march on the field at state contest. She grinned real big with lips folded under her gums and twirled her one good hand up to shoulder level.
“That big?” I said. “Nah. Can’t be. She’s only what? Ten? Eleven?”
Sheri Sue charaded ten or eleven.
I didn’t know which, so I repeated, “Ten or eleven. Ten or eleven,” trying to sound admiringly, like I understood everything perfectly.
Sheri Sue knew better. She slumped into her chair and stared out the window.
The oak leaves waved freely in the breeze. The waxed glare of the beige linoleum floor waved across her face and reflected a sickly pallor.
“Do you get to see Shannon much?”
Without looking at me, Sheri Sue shook her head an adamant once and clearly uttered, “No.”
No is the one word Sheri Sue can say. I wonder if she said it when her husband let his buddies rape her. He took her to a party out in the woods. She was the party. They tasted her and tossed her out like she was a store bought cake. A hungry bum came along and cleaned up the pieces. That was just before her second stroke.
“Why not?” I said.
Sheri Sue shook her head another forceful no.
“Problems with your mom, huh?”
She ignored me just like she always ignored me when I visited her home, at her mother’s house, before Sheri Sue went to the nursing home. She ignored me just like she always ignored me when I played with quiet Shannon and talked with Sheri Sue’s mother rather than bother to spend the effort to communicate with a mute. That was before her third stroke.
“It’s not something you want to talk about, huh?”
She turned to me and smiled. There was so much fear, love, and loneliness in that smile that …
“Do you still like it here?”
She grinned and nodded her head and opened her mouth to give a laugh of hello to the janitor. He was a good-looking, big, black fellow. He waved hello back and then walked on.
We stared out the window again.
I raked my fingers through my hair. It was brittle with the residue of hairspray. Spritz, that’s what they call it in the beauty salons of Beverly Hills. Spritz, I guess they think that sounds prettier than hairspray. Hairspray sounds like the fifties, like bouffants, like Eisenhower, like a time when wars were won rather than never ceasing, like people who were nerdy and didn’t know it, like the time when tattoos weren’t trendy, when tattoos were only for hoody boys.
I’ve never seen Sheri Sue’s tattoo. I hear it’s on her left shoulder. Left, like Democrats. Her parents were Democrats. Back then everybody in Texas was a Democrat, at least when it came to local elections. But I bet they voted for Nixon. Everybody did. Well, almost everybody. Sheri Sue didn’t. I didn’t. We weren’t old enough.
I guess she got that tattoo when I was off at that Baptist college and she was God knows where doing God knows what. My mother only hinted at it … like a veiled threat. I heard rumors of Sheri Sue sleeping with this construction worker or that drainpipe digger in this little town or that. They were always between jobs. Not the towns. The boys. For all I know, she never hit a lick of college. Guess she didn’t need it. She certainly knew more about life than I did. You don’t learn much about life when you’ve got your head buried in a textbook that spends three chapters discussing the minor prophets of the Old Testament … but conveniently leaves out Song of Solomon.
* * *
I felt a little uppity pride creeping up the toes of my black alligator cowboy boots, the legs of my professionally faded and torn Levi’s, the arms of my lipstick red, double-breasted Italian blazer, and the neck of my silk French scarf. I tried to keep it from inching into my contact-lensed eyes. I didn’t want my Sheri Sue to see it. But I felt so damn good. No, I felt such relief to know that I didn’t look like these people with their gray faces and their gray hair and their gray clothes in their gray world.
Even Sheri Sue looked gray. Her bobbed hair, now brown as good soil, wasn’t gray, but she looked gray. I tried again to think of something to say to her. Long minutes of silence passed, silence that you never hear on Rodeo Drive. There is too much gossiping over sex lives, too much traffic, too many cars filled with too many people all with the identical woven blonde hair spritzed into the identical costly style. And they think they’re progressive. Right.
My fingers stuck in my spritzed hair. I yanked them out. “The last time I was here I told you about Jericho. Remember?”
Sheri Sue lazily nodded her head like she was getting ready to watch another tired episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
I had only mentioned to her that I was interested in a guy named Jericho. Nothing more. Nothing less. “Jericho,” I said, “the alcoholic.”
Her eyes popped wide with shocked interest.
I knew I had her. “Jericho,” I giggled, “the sometimes dealer.”
Her mouth gaped open with laughter.
“Jericho’s not his real name.”
She folded her arms on the table and bent closer to me.
“He changed his name for show business. He’s really an actor. He only deals between jobs. Says it helps him get more jobs. His name change, that is. His real name is Earl. But don’t ever tell anyone. I can depend on you for that, can’t I?”
She locked her lips shut with her good fingers.
“Well,” and I leaned conspiratorially into her, “I need your advice. Love life advice.”
She bent even closer to me, grinning like a horny girl inching her way through a pinup calendar of naked firemen.
“Well, see, …” All of a sudden I started to get embarrassed thinking about reality and thinking about image and trying to figure out what I was going to tell her. “Well, I wonder if I’m pursuing him too much. I’m wondering if I’m scaring him off.”
I backed off, and Sheri Sue briefly flayed disinterested arms before turning to stare out the window.
“I should forget about him, huh?”
She studied the scene out the window even though it hadn’t changed in a season. It was the same season as fifteen years ago when I had sneaked up to her bedroom window at six on a Saturday morning. I was in high school. She was still in junior high, I think. Dry leaves crunched under my feet and woke her mother. I was there to tell Sheri Sue I had just given my life to Jesus. She seemed happy for me. Her mother seemed pissed.
Oh, what the hell. I couldn’t lose her. I buried my head in my chest, anxiously letting my hair fall over my eyes. “Well,” I said, “I went to bed with him on our first date.”
Her glance shot toward me like a flying silver bullet.
“It wasn’t even really a date. He asked me over to watch TV. Our relationship consists of nothing but TV and sex.”
Her jaw snapped with laughter.
“And you know what? I don’t care. I like it like that. He’s good in bed.”
Her head nodded like an oil pump working overtime.
“He’s da-amn good.”
I actually thought she was gonna whoop and holler herself. She pointed at me. She turned away. She laughed. She tried to garner a straight face. She looked back at me. Her grin stretched clear across the state. She slapped her thigh. Her head bounced up and down again.
“If my mother only knew, she’d lay down and die right here and now.”
Sheri Sue smoothed her good hand through the air to indicate my mother laid out in her coffin. Then she laughed some more. Slapped her thigh again. Pointed at me. Chortled some more. Pointed at me. And laughed some more.
I began to feel awful self-conscious. “It’s not that funny,” I moaned.
She kept laughing, her head bobbing up and down until I thought it was going to wear out and fall off.
And then, I wanted it to. With every dip and bob of her head, I began to feel that Sheri Sue was laughing at me, not with me. My self-consciousness swirled into hurt. Still, she laughed. I asked her to stop. She kept on. I asked her again, and she grabbed her face to close her mouth. Holding her mouth was the only way she could keep from snickering. Then she busted out all over again.
“Please, stop,” I said.
She looked back and started giggling. She grabbed her face again and turned away. Finally, she stopped, but she wouldn’t look at me. She couldn’t without laughing at me.
I didn’t know which was worse, having her laugh at me or not having her laugh at all. “Sheri Sue,” I said.
She refused to face me.
“Sheri Sue.” I called her name over and over until she looked at me. “He’s really good in bed.”
Tears rolled from her eyes as she laughed again. Then she reached over and laid her good hand on my arm. I covered her fingers with my own. Her fingers felt like warm, soft breadsticks. I looked into her eyes. They were as brown as ground cinnamon and as bright as polished apples. The only thing missing was sweet sugar.
“I mean no one’s ever made me feel like he does.”
She reared back her head and laughed. She laughed so hard that I actually thought I heard a sound peep out. That was the sweet sugar.
And I laughed too. “So now I guess you know the truth about me. I ain’t no saint no more.”
She leaned her elbows on the table, propped her head in her hands, and smiled at me.
“I guess I may burn for it.”
She said nothing.
“But I think it’s worth it.”
She howled. This time a sound actually did peep from her mouth.
I pushed my chair closer to hers, looked around the cafeteria to make sure none of the old folks was listening, and said, “So, what do I do about him? Am I pursuing him too much? Since I’ve been home this week I’ve sent him three letters and one little gift. It’s just a little gift, though. A little horny longhorn,”—she laughed—“to remind him of me.” I glanced around the room again. “So what do I do?”
She got serious again.
I waited for an answer. I expected an answer. After all, she’d just peeped a laugh, twice I thought, and she could plainly get out no. No was a sentence. I just needed and wanted a little longer sentence. With a noun and a verb. For Sheri Sue, and for me.
She pulled back from me. She spastically twisted her arms into the air and turned away.
I wanted to pull a new language from me. One we could both speak and understand. “Forget him, huh?”
Without looking at me, she took her good arm and swam it through the air, like a large fish trapped in a small cooler.
What the hell’s that supposed to mean? I had asked her a yes or no question. She could have answered me that. But she refused. “Move on, huh?”
She stared again at that damned oak tree.
I was ready to find a buzz saw and make firewood out of the stupid thing. “This is better than your soap operas, huh? My life is just one big soap opera.”
Disheartenedly, she swam her hand through the air again.
Again, I tried to act like I knew what she was saying, and again she knew damned well I didn’t. I didn’t even know whether she was trying to give me an answer or whether she was trying to say she didn’t want to give me an answer – like it was something I had to decide for myself. But I really wanted an answer.
I stared at that oak tree. It was turning gray in the fading light.
I searched my brain. “Does that friend of yours, what’s her name, that Havard girl, does she come to see you very often?”
No, shook Sheri Sue’s head.
No, she shook her head.
“Does anyone come to see you?”
“No,” she said.
I drummed my fingers on the table. I listened to the old woman in the lost distance cry out, “Help me. Help me. Will someone please help me?”
“Does she do that all the time?” I pointed in the direction of the cries.
Sheri Sue smiled.
I drummed my fingers again. The nervous beat seemed to ricochet off the tabletop and bounce from wall to wall to wall to wall. I looked at my watch. I tapped the dial. “Well, I guess I oughta get out of here. I’ve gotta catch my plane back to California.” I laughed. “See if Jericho’s waiting for me.” I stood up.
Sheri Sue did too.
“Will you walk me to my car?” I said, as I took a step in the wrong direction.
She moved the right direction.
But before we got to the door, we were stopped by a barricade of a half dozen gray wheelchairs filled with slump-shouldered, stubble-faced men in gray-stripped pajamas. I wanted to break the hell out of there. “Someday you and Shannon are going to have to escape with me to California. We can all go to Disneyland.”
She smiled and leaned down to hug one of the men. At sixty or so, he was the youngest and best looking of the bunch. And his teeth matched Sheri Sue’s. They weren’t there. He clutched her hand as though she’d just given him the gift of life. She probably had. I maneuvered on down the hall. “Help me,” I heard the old woman cry.
* * *
Long, lean trunks of the East Texas pine trees split the pink rays of the setting sun. I wanted to reach out and grab hold of some of that natural beauty and import it to the silicone streets of Beverly Hills. Sheri Sue grabbed me and hugged me tight, tighter than she had the old man. I hugged her back, just as tight, tighter than I had the created and real Jericho. She felt comfortable against my body, like those rose pink rays of sunshine that warmed my face. But too much sunlight can damage. I was the first to pull back. Such expression scared me. Honest expression. Lonely expression. Lovely expression. Between two friends who are strangers. Between two strangers who are friends.
“Take care,” I said, and I jogged to unlock my car.
She moved just as quickly to the passenger side.
I giggled as she placed her hand on the door handle. But the passenger side remained locked. “Take care,” I repeated as I climbed into the car.
Sheri Sue tried to open what should have been her door.
Nervous laughter slipped from my lips. Was she kidding around, or what? I wasn’t about to unlock that passenger door. She said she liked it at the nursing home. I started the car, thank God it started first try, and she removed her hand from the door handle. I threw the car into reverse.
Sheri Sue backed up.
I watched her as she crossed the parking lot.
She watched me as I backed up and drove away.
And she waved.
And she waved.
I reached the highway. I watched a logging truck chug by. Then a pickup truck streak by. And then another. I waited for an eighteen-wheeler, just a speck on the horizon, to grow and roll by. And still, in my rearview mirror, Sheri Sue waved.
She just wouldn’t do. Short. Dumpy. Out of style. Sick. She looked like a hick … with a ketchup stain at her crotch. I jammed the car into reverse and wheeled it backwards, kicking gravel into the faces of the stars rising in the dusk. I threw open the passenger door. “Get in.”
She did. She smiled.
I skidded onto the highway, and we were nearly minced into fiberboard by an oncoming logging truck. I looked over at her. She swam her arm through the air. And we both laughed. Flirting with death was fun. Maybe my sweet Sheri Sue had known that all along.