Saturday, February 26, 2011

Characterization Exercise- May

May is 77 and her toileting consists of refreshing her wavy, silver-white pin-curled hair, gargling mouthwash, brushing her one top tooth, polishing her lavender-rimmed glasses, and smoothing on a berry-shade of lipstick.

Tolstoy is a favorite Russian author of hers. She's read War and Peace three times but doesn't like the last few chapters, "A big downer," she said. President Carter turned her onto it. "It took him three years to read it" she said, "and though I'm not educated, it didn't take me that long."

I thank her for the copy of Anna Karenina, a Christmas gift, along with the ornament-sized garden gnome. She thinks she's got me pegged with garden gnomes, and she might be right. I now own four, each from her, two outside and two inside. Though I want to know her thoughts on Anna Karenina, and why she had to buy a copy for me, instead of letting me borrow hers, she's launched into the cat report. It turns out Miss Kitty, who is two and a half, had to have some teeth pulled.

"I thought she was turning into an affectionate cat again," May said. "But no, it was her teeth. When she stopped eating, I knew it was a trip to the vet."

A few weeks before Christmas, I called May on the fly and invited her on a trip to Target. I'd promised at least five months before that I'd take her with me next time I went. I hate Target. But I hate Target less than I hate Walmart. This time it was Zhu Zhu Pet shopping for Christmas. Last time, my son had nothing to wear to the Colorado Ballet, so we bought a pink and white pinstripped shirt, with black dress pants, socks and shoes.

May, a consumate non-driver, swears that walking everywhere she goes maintains her girlish figure so she can keep wearing the dresses she loves, but Target is not within her usual range, and Target has affordable jarred yeast, superior to all the single-serve packets (they're ruined so easily) and essential for a fixed-income baker. May bakes cinnamon rolls, strawberry-butter cookies, peach pies and whatever else is in season. She's befriended many of the downtown Golden merchants by delivering homemade baked goods, especially merchants that might have items in her favorite shade of lavender, like Baby Doe's or Chelsea of London, a lingerie boutique.

If I had to confess one thing to May, it would be that I don't eat her food. It's not that I haven't, under pressure, but me and my stomach prefer not. May has a dim-dusty, cat-lady kind of place with German style, white lace curtains. Her bedroom is at the front of the house, and her bathroom is at the opposite end, through the hallway, living room and Pepto-pink kitchen. Not long ago, it was impossible to walk all the way through. Baby-dolls, boxed Barbie dolls, doll houses, plastic horses (like Secretariat, winner of the 1973 Triple Crown), and all the Disney Princesses are now stuffed, with care, into her collection of display cases and dark bookshelves. Her last broken hip, when she was on the floor, cats keeping her warm, reeking of urine and worse for three days, really changed her attitude about cleaning up. During the hospital stay she was pressured to give up her home. Her cats were blamed. It got ugly. So, she's really been working on it, vacuuming out the horse-sized, cat-hair, dust bunny in her ancient floor heating vent, for example.

Anna Karenina, it turns out, reads like a chaste soap opera laced with the minutia of Russian ruling class life during the late 1800's. Boring? Until now, frankly, yes. But it is masterfully written, and I find that I'm connected to the material in a few hard to ignore ways.

My interest in the ruling classes has been raised a few notches recently, say, from zero to seven. Betty Mays Lancaster, attorney-at-law, is the reason why. Betty seems to be on a bucket-list kick, though she wouldn't put it that way. She has thirty percent use of one lung and seventy percent use of the other (pleurisy), along with recent shoulder replacement surgery; though body parts are failing, her brain seems very much intact.

I met Betty eighteen years ago, in 1993, when my grandmother Assunta died. Betty was executrix of Assunta's estate and though I thought she was ancient then, she's more ancient now, and wants to write a book about my grandmother. She wants my help in writing a book, to be exact, and here I am, reading Anna Karenina, wondering truly, what that must have been like, a child member of the pampered, ruling class. And she was; my grandmother's title was Archduchess of Austria, (aka: Princess of Tuscany). She spent her early childhood, up to age seven, in Vienna. She was the Emperor's great neice, living in Schloss Wilhelminberg, with layers of servants, dedicated to her care. Her mother, the Infanta Blanca of Spain, dealt with her at a distance, through nannies, a governess, tutors and cooks not to mention the distance of of being the eighth child of ten. Assunta would disapprove of name dropping, but never-the -less, my maternal grandmother, Assunta Alice Ferdinandine Blanca Leopoldina Margaretha Beatrix Josepha Raphaela Michaela Philomena Hapsburg-Lothringen, grew up in an Austrian castle and died in a Texas convent, which at least partly explains how I came to grow up in central Texas foster care.

The second way in which I'm connected to Anna Karenina, the soap opera part, is the soap opera part. The story itself. Anna, it turns out, is an adulteress who throws herself in front of a train, a successful suicide, to escape the mess she'd made of her life.

I'm not an adulteress, but on bad days I want to be. To tell you the boring truth, in a non-original way, I'm a two-year old trapped in a thirty-eight year old body, with the episodic sex drive of an eighteen year old boy. (If we get drunk, you might refer to us as Texas Peach. That cute little drawl comes out, right along with her two-step, farm-girl sweetness.) It's a little crowded in here, humid even, like the inside of a fogged up car. So let me repeat, I'm not an adulteress, but on bad days, I want to throw myself under the fuck-train and get rammed into oblivion.
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