Friday, June 17, 2016

June 17, 2016--Always Talk To Strangers: Sue Ellen

From July 18, 2007--

In the Safeway parking lot in Estes Park, Colorado, on route to Wyoming we met, let me call her, Sue Ellen

Into the bed of her battered pickup she was loading dozens of 24-packs of Pepsi, regular and diet; Seven-Up; Sprite; Dr, Pepper; and H&W Root Beer.  It was hot, maybe over a hundred in the starkly shadeless lot. 

“Sheet,” I thought I heard her say.

Ordinarily I would have ignored her, especially in this heat and considering I was lugging a sack of my own groceries.  But, perhaps because we were beginning our vacation, had nothing urgent to tend to, or maybe as the result of being a little oxygen-deprived because of the altitude, I stopped and offered to help her unload her enormous shopping cart, large enough, it appeared, to hold a full-size refrigerator.  She was soaked through from the effort but didn’t acknowledge my offer and again, this time I was sure I heard her, muttered to no one I particular, “Sheet.”

I should have taken the hint and moved on; but, trying to be helpful, and perhaps to lift her spirits, I said, “Looks like you have quite a party planned for the weekend.” 

At that she wheeled on me and, with hands on her considerable hips, dripping sweat on the asphalt, spat, “I should be so lucky.”  Maybe really meaning to say, “Why don’t you go back to where you came from.  The last thing I need is to be talked down to by a big-city faggot like you.”

With a snort she turned away from me and resumed unloading her cart.  She had nothing but sodas in it—no chips, no beer, no cold cuts.  She seemed to have told me the truth when she said what she said about not having a party planned.  Again I should have gone on my way, but for some reason didn’t.  Maybe, as I always do when traveling in rural areas, I was clinging to romantic notions about how friendly and welcoming folks generally are who live in small towns, and I didn’t want my first encounter to be so off-putting.   It threatened to impart a sour note to a time we hoped would be sweet and relaxing—we had been so stressed the last few weeks back in NewYork.  So in as light and friendly a tone as I could muster, considering how she had dismissed me, I said to her aggressively turned back, “You must have a large family.”  

As I spoke these words I was mortified to realize I was likely being inappropriate—too intrusive and intimate—and perhaps insulting, considering how large she was and thus what I might be unintentionally intimating about the size of, not the number in her family.

Without deigning to face me, still half-buried in the shopping cart, she said, giving equal, measured emphasis to each syllable, “I do not know what your problem is mister.  I’m workin’.  Is that OK with you?  Or don’t you have anythin’ better to do?  Like maybe having a glass of Chablis wine or somethin’?”

Though that should have been more than enough to suggest to me that it was time to join Rona in our rented car—it was clear from the look on Rona’ face that she was feeling, even though she was too far away to hear, that I was making a total ass of myself—I stood there watching the soda lady slam case after case into her truck, uttering now a stream of “Sheets.”

“So what’s your problem?  I’m beginnin’ to think that you’re quite a creep.  Or worse. A perv.”

“No, really, I only stopped to help, thinkin’ you could use some considerin’ the load you got there.”  I caught myself unwittingly slipping into my version of Western-speak and also was alarmed by my careless use of the possible “load’ double entendre.  But, undeterred, I pressed on, “You told me in no uncertain terms that these are not for a party and that you’re workin’,” I couldn’t stop myself—blame it on the altitude.  “Mind my askin’ what kind of work you do with all them sodas?”

“I run two vendin’ machines,” she muttered under her breath.

“Sorry?  I didn’t follow you.”  What business of mine was any of this?  I thought in another minute Rona would be askin’ where’s the nearest divorce court.  And I could surely understand why.  But I was fully into finding out what all this soda was about.  “‘Vendin’’ machines’?  You said you ‘run’ ‘em?”

Why she continued to deal with me, I’ll never know, but she did, “Yeah, like I said—I got two: one out by the gondola, you know that goes up that mountain over there,” to show me where she swept a massive arm in the direction of town. “The other one’s down outside the ‘mergency room.  At the hospital.”  She tossed her head to the right in the direction of, I assumed, the hospital.

That’s what you do?  Your work, I mean?  You said you was working.”

“So what’s so wrong with that?”  Before I could say “Nothing,” she raced ahead, “I know what you’re thinkin’—‘Big freakin’ deal—this bitch’s got two little soda machines and she calls that “work.”

“No, no really, that’s not what I’m thinkin’; but I am thinkin’ . . . .”  Thankfully I cut myself off before I could add, “What I am thinking is how you can make a living from this.”

“Right, you’re wonderin’ how I can make a livin’ from this.”  She noticed my impossible-to-contain smile.  Rona leaned on the car horn and I tossed a grin in her direction to indicate that things were going better, and as a plea to her to give me a few more minutes.

“Well . . .”

“Fair question.  Though it’s frankly no business of yours.”  She paused as if considering whether or not to finally end this.  I would not have blamed her—I was way off base.  But still I stood there just looking toward her.  “I ask myself that every freakin’ day,” she had decided to continue with me, “And can’t come up with a good answer.  But I’m not cut out for desk work and I’d kill myself before I’d work in one of them motels or restaurants agin—‘Can I get  you some more coffee?’ If I ever have to say that again in my life, all the time smilin’, I’d cut my wrists or put a bullet through that guy’s head.  Of course I’m kiddin’, you know,” I thought I saw the first inkling of a crooked smile.  “Though I wouldn’t want you to thinkin’ I’m violent or anythin’.  Though if you asked Gil I’m sure he’d have a different story.”

“Gil?” I asked.

“Yeah him.  Carly’s father.”


“My daughter.  Just turned fourteen.  That’s her in the cab.”  I looked in that direction and saw a mass of streaked hair just above the back of the passenger seat.

“She looks nice,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“Shot him in the balls.”

“Sorry--Who?  Where?”

“The balls.  His dick.  Probably what you’d call the penis or somethin’”  She snickered at that.  Seeing me cringe, she said, “I’m Sue Ellen by the way.  You already met Carly.”  I introduced myself and extended my hand which Sue Ellen didn’t take.

“It’s not my business, But why did you . . . ?”

“‘Cause a her.”  She indicated she was referring to her daughter.

“Gil . . . ?”

“That’s right.  I told him six months prior I’d cut his balls off if he touched her again.  Which I didn’t, but I shot him there front and center after I found him in her room at 2:00 am.”  She looked over toward Carly.  “Never needed to do any time for it.  Everyone knew he got what he deserved, includin’ the police and the sheriff.  They all call him Capon now.  Lots a laughs all round.  That prick bastard.  I shoulda shot ‘em dead!”

“I’m sure Carly’s happy you didn’t.  I mean they might have put you in jail and maybe even taken her away from you.  You know, put her in a foster home.  That would have been, who knows, even . . . .”

Worse?”  Sue Ellen completed my thought.  “I’m not so sure ‘bout that.  Look at me--I’m such a good mother?  Maybe Carly’d be better off with someone else.  And I’d be where I’d at least have a roof over my head and get three squares a day.  Don’t sound so bad to me.”  She was now looking me straight in the eye.  I found it difficult to return her look—this was way, way more than I had been seeking when I stopped to offer to help with the sodas.  I had just wanted to be friendly, chit-chat a little, and maybe soak up some local color.  Here I found myself, less than two hours after landing in Denver, in the middle of a family soap opera.  Feeling like a total creep with nothing helpful to say or offer.

Still I tried, “I’m certain things will get better for you.  Carly’ll graduate from high school, maybe then go on to college, and make a good life for herself.  Isn’t that what we want for all of our children?” I wasn’t about to tell her then that I didn’t have any children of my own.  “My father used to call it ‘improvement in the breed.’  Sounds a little insensitive—children are of course not horses. But my dad’s was a good point nonetheless, don’t you think?”

“To tell you the honest, with all due respect—‘cause I assume he otherwise was a fine man--but he sounds like an asshole.  There’s not much improvin’ in the breed ‘round here, not even with the horses.  And when it came to me and that shit Gil, what popped out in our Carly ain’t such great shakes.  I’m sure it’s all Gil’s fault, but she’s been on lithium for six years already, got kicked out a school more times than I can count, and I’m sure’ll be droppin’ out for good soon as they let her.  Of course knocked up just like me.  So there’s your improvin’ in the breed for you.”  Snorting again, she dismissed me with the back of her hand and returned to loading up her truck.

Rona gave the horn two brief taps.  She had given me the time I had sought and, sensing things had taken a bad turn, in spite of my earlier indication of reassurance, was looking over at me lovingly and sympathetically.

Not knowing how to think about her situation or what else to say, feeling guilty and wanting to get away, I said clumsily, “All the best to you, Sue Ellen.  And to you Carly—good luck.  Nice to meet you.”  Her window had been rolled up all this time and I’m sure she had not heard one word that had passed between her mother and me.

Without looking back, I loped over to our car, tossed the groceries into the back seat, climbed in, gave Rona a peck of a kiss, shifted into reverse, and headed to our motel.  

"What was that about?" Rona asked half drugged due to jet-lag and the heat.

"Darned if I know."

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