Before Daddy died all he could eat was cotton candy. Every day after school for the last week of his life, I'd ride my bike two miles over to the Wal-Mart in Rosburne, buy the pink and purple sugar-coated air and ride two miles home surrounded by hot, sticky plastic bags of spun sugar that drew every fly and mosquito in Johnson County, Texas, all the while hoping he'd still be alive when I got home.
When the guy at the food counter saw me coming, he'd say, "Here comes my cotton candy girl."
Finally I had to tell him, "I am not your cotton candy girl." I said it real firm with my voice landing hard on the am not. And so from then on he'd say something like, "Here comes the cotton candy girl" instead. Maybe he was afraid of being accused of sexual harrassment or something, even though I didn't think "the cotton candy girl" was much better. But I'd said all I could say to him. I hated going in there. I think he had it in his mind that because I bought cotton candy every day, I was coming in to see him. He'd say stuff like, "No wonder you're so sweet, eating all that cotton candy." And I wanted to scream at him, "It's for Daddy, you moron. He can't eat anything else!" But instead, I'd say, "Don't you have a girl friend," or something stupid like that. And he'd say, "Just waiting for you to grow up, sugar."
Three days before Daddy died, I told my brother John that I just couldn't go back in there. "Tell him the truth, Laurel," John said, "and he'll probably leave you alone."
I never did tell the clerk, whose name was Billie--spelled like a girl would spell it--about Daddy. It was hard enough just knowing it without having to explain to strangers that Daddy was back at the house dying. But I think John must have stopped by on his way home from the stockyards where he had a job shovelling manure and said something to him because the next time I went in there, Billie just smiled at me and handed me three bags of cotton candy.
On the day of our final exams, I got up extra early to give Daddy a manicure. Daddy always liked to keep a neat appearance, and when he died I was sitting on his bed with him, filing his nails. First his breathing got slower and slower and then stopped for a while. Then he started breathing sort of normally again. Then time between stopping and starting got longer and longer. We had been told that this was a sign. We had been told that with the narcotic patch he would not suffer. But suffering or no suffering, death was coming for Daddy.
In one of the counseling sessions with the hospice worker, we had pretended that we were all in the room when Daddy died. At Daddy's pretend death, I had reached for Mama's hand, she had started praying, and John had started singing Daddy's favorite song, "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," making his voice sound as much like Willie Nelson's as he could. At Daddy's real death, I screamed so long and so hard that my throat was raw for days after.
John heard me screaming and came running out of the bathroom, still wet from his shower with his undershorts stuck to him and wearing a Dallas Mavericks t-shirt two sizes too small. Daddy had bought it for him at an exhibition game last year when he still felt good enough to go places. "He's dying," I screamed. "Daddy's dying!" John told me the other day that all the time I was screaming and crying, I was still filing away on Daddy's nails. John punched the hospice worker's pager number into the phone and then ran to get Iz.
Iz is Isabella, my Mama's grandmother. She raised my Mama right down the road from where we live now. Iz came running--curlers in her hair, bathrobe flying. She climbed onto the bed next to Daddy and pulled him into her arms like he was a baby, and then she started praying the Our Father in Spanish, the way he liked to hear it, and didn't stop until he was dead.
Mama didn't get home til after he died. She had run out real quick for Daddy's shampoo, the kind that smells like dried-up flowers. He was the only one who liked it. On the day Daddy decided to end his treatment, I had used the last drop. The doctor at the dialysis center put the narcotic patch on Daddy and sent him home. "I guess we won't be needing anymore of this, will we," Daddy said in a whisper while I was shampooing his hair. I just shook my head because I was afraid if I said anything Daddy could hear that I was crying. I tried hard to keep back my tears. Most of them went right down the drain with the flowery suds that rolled off Daddy's head. By the time he died, his head had gotten so small and light that it was like scrubbing a puppy's scalp or a little baby doll's.
That morning right before Daddy died, Mama saw the empty shampoo bottle in the bathroom trash can. She took it out and set it on the little beautician's sink that Daddy's twin sister, Aunt Jillie, had installed for him at Christmas when he got too weak to wash his hair in the shower. "Daddy's out of shampoo," Mama had almost screamed. "He needs more shampoo!" John had offered to go get it, but Mama didn't want us to be late for our exams. Driving fast into Rosburne for shampoo on the morning Daddy died was probably the first time in a week that Mama had left the house. When she got back, she saw the hospice worker's car in the driveway and came running into the room with a look on her face that I've been trying to forget. She kept saying over and over, "I just went to get his shampoo. You know Lonny, his hair never smelled like anything but a wreath of flowers."
And then she made us go to school. She said Daddy wouldn't want us to miss our final exams. But we knew that she wanted us out of the house. When we left Iz was talking to Mama in soft Spanish whispers in a language Mama hardly understands anymore and we never learned. Daddy didn't speak it at all because his family is white, but he loved to listen to it, especially Iz's prayers. Then Mama made Iz leave too, and I think she is still a little mad about that. She wanted to be with Daddy until he was gone. But Mama told me that she needed to be alone in the house with Daddy one last time, and she didn't want us kids or Iz to be there when the van came for his body.
We didn't do so good on our exams, but our teachers all understood and gave us make-ups. The whole time I was trying to think about Peru's major exports, I kept hearing Daddy's voice.
"Laurel," he told me the night before he died when I got real scared and begged him to go back on dialysis, "nothing is going to keep me alive now. Not dialysis. Not cotton candy." He squeezed my warm hand in his cold shrunken one and looked at me with his green eyes tired of pain.
After Daddy died it seemed that everyone thought they knew what he would have wanted. People were always telling us to do things because Daddy would have wanted it that way. We knew all along it was mostly the way they wanted things. John tried to tell Mama that Daddy would have wanted him to quit his job shovelling manure in the hot summer sun, but Mama was pretty sure that was not what Daddy would have wanted.
And when I announced that I didn't want to go to cheerleading camp, Aunt Jillie said I should go because Daddy would have wanted it that way. Maybe. But I know for sure it was what Aunt Jillie wanted. She had been a cheerleader herself all through high school and even into college and I think she sort of saw me following in her footsteps. For the whole month before Daddy died Aunt Jillie would drive up from Waco on the weekends just to help me practice my moves and yells. Mama would help Daddy out into the yard and he'd watch us, clapping and whistling when we did especially high jumps and neat perfect splits. Even though Aunt Jillie is forty, she can still turn a beautiful cartwheel. When tryout time came, John promised that all his friends would vote for me, and so even though I was absolutely terrified, I went ahead and tried out.
Actually, cheerleading is kind of humiliating. I didn't know that until we had to do some cheers out in front of Wal-Mart when we were raffling off a CD player to raise money for cheerleading camp. When Aunt Jillie and I had cheered together, it was like a game that Daddy could play, too. And when I tried out in front of the whole school, I was so scared that I didn't even know where my body was. But when Billie stood outside the Wal-Mart and blew me a kiss while I was doing my best split jump, my short skirt flying up over my back, I was embarrassed. "Must be some kind of moron, a grown man flirting with a fourteen-year-old girl." That's what Daddy had said when I told him about Billie bugging me at the food counter. He told me to stay away from Billie.
Right now there's lots of people I'd like to stay away from. One of them is Pinkie Eppes who I ended up rooming with for five days at cheerleading camp. Before Daddy died, she told everyone that he had AIDS. When I told Mama that Pinkie was spreading rumors about Daddy having AIDS she got real mad at first and started yelling at me, like I had been the one to say it. "Laurel," she screeched, "this town has about 500 people in it. Every one of them knows your Daddy and knows he's been going into Rosburne for dialysis three times a week for the last six years. They know that he doesn't have AIDS." And then she calmed down, using the voice she used with her rudest customers at the Department of Motor Vehicles and said, "Even if he did, he would still be your Daddy, and we would love him and take care of him right here at home like we're doing now." She was saying that so I would know not to gossip about people even if they did have AIDS, which I already knew anyway.
Right after that Pinkie Eppes started acting like she was my best friend. I think Mama must have had a talk with Pinkie's mother, Brenda Sue Eppes, who she has known all her life but who makes her uncomfortable because now she has so much money. She married some son of an oil man who buys ranches and raises weird animals likes emus and uses Mopeds for roundups. The NBC news even came out here and did a story on the Eppes' ranch once. I remember watching it with Daddy. He said, "That's what Texans who have more money than brains spend their time on." He didn't have much respect for Danny Eppes, partly because of his crazy livestock and the Mopeds, but mostly because he named his only daughter Pinkerton. "Pinkerton Eppes," he said one time when I was talking to him about Pinkie's gossip, "you name a girl Pinkerton and try to make it better by calling her Pinkie and what kind of kid do you expect to get?" It got so that I couldn't mention Pinkie's name without Daddy saying, "Laurel, you want to work my nerves, just start talking about that Pinkie."
I did talk to Daddy about other things, though. When I got home from school, he'd sit up in his bed and I'd help him eat otameal or little cups of applesauce, and later when he couldn't eat even that, I'd pull little balls of cotton candy that felt like hair with too much mousse on it out of the bag and hand it to him a little bit at a time. He would get relaxed and ask me questions about school and how my day had gone. Sometimes, when he wasn't having a good day, I think he got me confused with Aunt Jillie. He would ask me about cheerleading, even before tryouts. I wasn't all that crazy about the idea of being a cheerleader, but everybody said it would be good for me. Before Daddy died, I got elected to Junior Varsity and discovered that I had to raise $400 to go to cheerleading camp. After Daddy died Pinkie's mother offered to pay my way, and was real lucky that Mama didn't slap her. "Just because Lonny is dead doesn't mean we're poor." That's how Mama explained it when she yelled at Brenda Sue Eppes outside in the high school parking lot.
When I told Aunt Jillie that I didn't want to share a room with Pinkie, she offered to drive over from Waco to the university at San Marcos where the camp was being held and room with me. As much as I love Aunt Jillie, I couldn't think of anything more humiliating than having my aunt come babysit with me at cheerleading camp. Plus, she's so depressed about Daddy that she can't go for long without crying.
She called Mama the other day to tell her that she had finally slept through the night and didn't cry all day. When she hung up the phone, Mama said, "Next thing Aunt Jillie'll be telling me that she went potty all by herself!" We laughed, but we were kind of embarrassed, too, because we have been acting pretty strange ourselves. Late at night Mama sometimes crawls into my little twin bed and sleeps beside me until the sun comes up, and then she tiptoes away, maybe thinking I don't notice when I spend the night smashed up against the wall. One afternoon when I got home from school I heard Iz singing Spanish songs in Daddy's smokehouse. When no one's home, I sneak into Daddy's LaZeeBoy recliner and turn on the vibrator and smell Daddy's soap and the grease from his pickup. The night before Mama and John drove me to cheerleading camp I got up about 3 a.m., which used to be one of Daddy's medication times, and saw a light in the kitchen. From the hallway I could see John sitting in Daddy's place at the head of the table. He had on an old workshirt that Daddy used to wear when he drove the backhoe for Franklin Machinery. It floated around John like a cape. Before Daddy got so sick, he had been a big man.
Aunt Jillie didn't come to cheerleading camp with me, but when I got there, she called to tell me that she had been having a vision of Daddy as a little boy. When Daddy and Aunt Jillie lived on the farm in New Mexico, they had a dog that Daddy named Ring because it was black all except for the white ring around his neck. I have seen snapshots of Daddy and Aunt Jillie playing with Ring in the big field of alfalfa that was in front of the farmhouse where they grew up. Aunt Jillie told me, "Lonny would take off out into that field of deep green with Ring gripping the sleeve of his jacket in his teeth and they'd be gone til dinner time." That's how she was seeing Daddy--as a little boy in a bluejean jacket walking across a deep field of alfalfa with his dog holding onto his sleeve, a little boy with his back to the window where she stands watching him walk away. She said this vision of him was one she had carried in her mind ever since she was a little girl. All the time I was at cheerleading camp, I kept dreaming of my little boy Daddy swimming away with his dog through a deep green sea.
While we were at cheerleading camp, Pinkie took it upon herself to explain to all the girls that my Daddy had recently died. Whenever she decided the other girls were laughing too much and being too loud, Pinkie would get a real serious look on her face that is not quite pretty, but real made-up and say, "You know, Laurel's father just died. She needs quiet now." The truth is that I liked hearing them gossip and laugh. I probably would have joined in except that right before Daddy died, he kept asking me about cheerleading camp like I had already been there. Being there, I'd get confused and feel like I was living in his mixed-up idea of time. Once when we got third place in a yell rally, I thought about calling Daddy and telling him. Then I thought I already had told him. And then I called Mama and told her my throat was real sore. We cried for a while before I hung up.
One night our cheerleading sponsor--also my Geography teacher who did not make me take another test on the exports of Peru--took us out to a park on the banks of the San Marcos River where there was a little carnival. Girls were going on the ferris wheel and the Tilt-A-Whirl and sometimes being silly and driving the little kid cars and boats. The night air was so hot it could have been day. Cicadas were calling and along the banks of the river where it wasn't lit up by carnival lights, there were fireflies flitting back and forth in the trees. I walked along the river by myself and came to a booth where an old woman was spinning cotton candy around a metal tub, catching it on a roll of paper. Round and round she whipped it, from nothing into sweet air. For a long time I just watched people come and go as she spun batch after batch of pink cotton.
When I started to leave, the old woman handed me some cotton candy that seemed to float on the air, not the stuff that was squashed into a plastic bag like the kind from Wal-Mart. I walked over to the river and sat down between the roots of a large cottonwood tree. I breathed in the scent of hot sugar and air and remembered the sweet smell of Daddy's breath before he died.
Aunt Jillie tells me that some day I will not mark all time with the death of my father. That time has not come. The time I am living in now is like the picture Aunt Jillie has of Daddy walking with Ring in a field of alfalfa. I live in a vision of myself without him. Sometimes I try to think about what I will be like in the future. When I imagine myself a grown woman, a mother, telling my little girl about the summer I went to cheerleading camp, I can only begin my story one way. Before my Daddy died, all he could eat was cotton candy.