By: Trina Askin
Mary from Little House on the Prairie is speaking at the only chain bookstore in the foggy-grayish, small city of Harrisonburg, VA, where the prone to sadness can almost always feel the heavy weight of the Shenandoah Mountain. And I say Mary and not Melissa Sue Anderson because for the forty-five minutes she is at the podium, this is exactly who she becomes. I don’t mean she is in a bonnet with a butter churner giving a, this is what it was like in the prairies, demo. I mean she keeps answering questions about blindness as though she were actually blind. She tells a few stories of the antics between her and Melissa Gilbert (Laura) and Alison Arngrim (Nelly) and then what it was like to be a child star in the 1970’s. But mostly, especially during question and answer time, it is about the blindness.
There is a good crowd, or at least a typical one, for a weekend daytime reading. The people here are mostly older, but there are some high school age freak and goth kids who look like they stumbled on this by accident or to be ironic, except for the one swinging her soft pink scarf over her, probably hand me down shredded at the ends, Deftones t-shirt. This is the girl telling her smart-aleck whispering friends to shut up, that Mary was fricking awesome, the best one on the show.
And she was. Mary was often over shadowed by her adventurous sister, Laura, who needed others to see her inquisitive, exploratory nature. But Mary did things with quiet dignity and grace. She read by candle light. She could find life in books; she did not need to roll around in the dirt and prove she was just one of the boys like Laura did. Also, she faced true heartache with dignity when she went to see her douche-bag of a fiancé in the booming city of Chicago, only to catch him with a sleazy bimbo. Who would cheat on sensible but tenderly kind Mary anyway? Mary never married in real life but wasn’t the actor who played Adam so much more gentle and handsome than Laura’s Almanzo? And just think back how humbly, heroic Adam was with that fire and how much he loved Mary that he was so afraid if she were no longer blind, he would lose her to the seeing world— a prick or possessive romantic, probably debatable.
There is another woman who sees this Mary character in rightfully claimed celebrity status. She is wearing a Sex Pistols t-shirt tightly fitted to her plump body. Her frizzy hair is graying at the bottom ends almost matching the faded color of her shirt shoulders, where the curls dangle. She is with a gentle looking, much taller, and grinning man, who lets his cane rest on the chair next to his. I notice his thick, dark-framed glasses, and I wonder if they should be asking him about what blindness is like. Then I feel awful for even considering this stranger’s need to be put on the spot as a way of replacing the audience’s ridiculous intent of making a TV character come fully to life. From the time they sit down, the middle-aged punk rocker is waving her hands in the air and making dirty looks at the teenage and young adult staff, who are mostly gabbing by the paranormal genre section. They are too distracted to see her hushing motions as they make their back and forth, one-sided critical statements in unwarranted pretentious ways, about a new teen popular fiction book, in which a girl has the power to stop Armageddon if she falls in love with a demon and gets him to be prom king. The sort of remaining Baptist in me, says a prayer in my head just in case.
In the children’s book section, maybe about twenty feet from the Mary Ingalls reading, stands a woman alternating between a Viking hat, a turban, and Eskimo fur hoods speaking in quite offensive, over the top accents and then leading the kids in an off acapella clap in: “Diversity, diversity education is the key.” Earlier, the woman had referred to herself as Singing Ham Pam. After signaling over and over at the children’s performer, moving her hand up and down as though a cafeteria monitor trying to silence her song, the aggravated audience member marches over and says, “Excuse me, my blind husband and I are trying to hear one of his childhood heroes, one of the only people in 70’s television who knew what it was like to be blind.”
The smug costumed performer appears afraid and dumbfounded for a moment. But within seconds, she becomes confidently forceful with the woman standing there with a hand cupping her hip and a mean glare. She begins to speak as though having waited ten years to make this pandering speech: “Understanding cultural diversity is a way of fundamentally understanding who we are and the passing through neighbors and friends of our lifetime; it is the only way wars will end and hatred, hate crimes will disintegrate. And I will not quiet for some washed up 70’s television star from a show that promoted stereotypes of our country’s great Native American peoples.”
The performer, now dressed in a teal sparkling hijab, goes back to clapping and singing with exaggerated bravado and fist pumps up in the air: “We are the great human race. Yes, made up of so many different colors and shapes.” Her song repetitively goes on as the angry complainer, maybe ashamed to have been rebuffed and out done by such a clownish woman, rushes back to her seat, tells the man they are going home, and a lawyer is going to hear about all of this. Her husband does not seem to want to budge. He sits there listening calmly with his hands peacefully folded in his lap. But the woman insists, saying how disrespectful this has all been. Mary has been going on reading gracefully, either not able to hear or afraid to get involved. As they head to the information desk, the woman on the prowl for a blue shirt manager to approach, Mary is telling the story of the time she loses her glasses and gentle Pa’s stern reaction. And I start to drift off remembering what an odd television show this really was.
In the books, Pa was mostly working the farm, following his wanderlust, or telling the children stories of his strict boyhood when Laura complained about having to be stuck indoors on Sunday. And yet on the show, Michael Landon always inserted himself as a pre-Highway to Heaven angel or hero— even helping lead in the blowing up of the town when developers came into Walnut Grove. Thinking back now, that was a very disturbing and surreal storyline indeed for such a supposedly touching family show. And remember the attacker on Mary in the blind school, how Pa came and went all Chuck Norris on him— I don’t remember that from the books at all. A man wearing yellow suspenders and a thick striped red tie that matches him to a 1974 B- grade department store clerk rubs his messy gray hair, and brings the incident up to her, “Were you scared?” Perhaps the sincerity of his tone is even creepier than the questions about the glasses episode, in which he diligently paraphrases his commentary on an interview with Anderson printed in the Weekly Reader that was passed out to his sixth grade social studies class. But of course, she just went right along with it, channeling her hostage mode.
I will probably always remember this day at the bookstore, February 3, 2009, because Little House on The Prairie, the TV show, was very real to me despite all its fictionalized ridiculousness. Every weekday morning during our summers, my brother, sister, and I crowded in front our second home and our playground, the unpredictable prairies of Minnesota brought to us curiosity of the TBS morning block. This went on for a period that spanned our elementary school and middle school years.
Our father had extreme paranoia during this time and wouldn’t let us out of the house at all without his supervision, afraid of kidnapers due to his obsession with 48 Hours and Dateline. Once he even did a mock kidnapping as a lesson to my mother due to catching us, three yards from the house, tossing a nerf football. Sometimes when my mother knew he was traveling further out for business to Charlottesville or Roanoke, she would let us go out to the cul-de-sac to ride bikes with Jason and Eva, who were close to our ages. Jason was a grade below me, and Eva was two.
Jason was a shy, sensitive boy, who sometimes periodically spent time in a juvenile mental health center. My mother had us make him cards and Bible verse bookmarks. She told us his stay had something to do with drawing unsafe pictures—things like Superman holding an upside down torched American flag. “His mind is getting sick and we need to pray for healing,”
she would say. But then a few weeks later, I overheard Mrs. Eastman speak to my mother about him as we walked to the mailbox— our father watching us that drizzling Saturday, probably holding his gun beside his stretched-out tracksuit. The weight gain started with the anxiety he had begun to have about even leaving us in the house on our own while at work, as well as from his developing hypochondria. He had a terrible fear of abandoning his earthly family for his heavenly one.
Mrs. Eastman, the cul-de-sac’s gossip queen, always invited anyone who was outside to come see her mums garden and then would find a way to brag about, not only her horticulture masterpieces, but also her investigative accomplishments, doing things such as pointing to her green binoculars on the deck rail and saying, “You’ll never believe what these binoculars saw last night across the street.” Then she would give a tidbit, usually in regard to Kelly Baker letting some motorcycle man inside the door. Mrs. Baker was the aging sorority bleached-blonde haired woman whose husband was always at the church choir or hand bell class and on Thursdays, something about The Rise and Shine Brothers: a new approach to the ex-gay movement, another thing I wasn’t supposed to overhear my mother discuss but did. There was a sick feeling emerging in my stomach when we had gone to the mailbox that day and I overheard Mrs. Eastman telling my mother that Jason’s actions were getting more violent towards his father. She went on confidently telling my mother that he was experiencing separation anxiety with his sister, sometimes at school, insisting she join his class, or he join hers despite them being a year apart.
Eva seemed to be a happy-go-lucky kid, always riding her bike, playing the mini radio at the handle bars, singing along almost in campy Broadway style with some song perceived uncool by kids our age due to it being outdated by a few years, usually some poppy Madonna or George Michael eighties hit about parties or dancing. Then, she would inevitably make a hard fall on the concrete; luckily, she wore a large pink helmet and neon New Kids on The Block knee pads and had by her side a heavy friend from my grade. Everyone her own age said the big girl had cooties and was made fun of for not only her weight but always wearing rotating various colored versions of polka dot fleece that looked more like sleepwear, so of course she was teased for not being able to fit in normal clothes. Still, she had an utterly undeniable, almost dangerous type of confidence, which showed with the glaring smile on her face picking Eva up and sticking her in a shopping cart, we believe was shoplifted from the grocery store. She couldn’t fit on a bike. They were handle bars to wheels she could push around in the meantime.
I will probably also remember this day in the bookstore because it is the day I sleep with Jason. At twenty-seven, it is how I lose my virginity. My celibacy preservation started out for religious reasons then dating just seemed tiring, and I wasn’t the type of girl for a one-night stand—or at least that is not who I believed I was. Jason is quite boyish still but handsome. His brown, leather coat and baggy, denim pants bulk his thinness a bit. He is twenty-six and works mostly at the coffee bar. He approaches me after the reading at the store café, where he is wiping down tables, and I am loitering at one with a cinematography journal that I know I won’t buy. I look up shyly to his, “Wow—I remember you, so I guess you grew up to be very beautiful.” He is sweet as I hardly feel beautiful, having gotten myself thirty pounds overweight— my once hopeful face turned dowdy and my once considered mysterious sad eyes morphing into just the worn-out fade of a deadbeat, tired of her own wandering and nothingness. I have been waitressing some shifts at The Grill across from the college, telling people I am working on my art, but really, I’ve just been driving around the western and northern parts of Virginia, convincing myself it is all in the name of getting ideas for my mostly imaginary film. My parents live ten minutes away, still in the home of my childhood, and my father is mostly better now. My parents and I are very close, just as I am with my sister in Richmond and my brother down in Chapel Hill. It is a type of closeness that perhaps resembles people who just got out of a cult— there were wrongful things done to one another but at the same time a bonding grew from it. Because, who else could understand the fear and overly protective boundaries instilled in us?
Though it is not completely true, I tell Jason I am making a film about the contrast and merging to similarities of Virginia regional areas due to new development. Sometimes when relatives ask why I am waiting tables and not using my double major degrees in Sociology and English, I also tell them I am saving for film school, though I have yet to apply anywhere. Jason says, “very cool” to my film concept and tells me to come out with him by the strip mall’s back dumpster for his smoke break. When he walks out, I am taken by how manly and grungy he has become, that unshaven almost golden beard and those moody-deep but kind green eyes. I love how he smiles walking towards me, saying we should work on some projects together, as though he is a big deal in the industry and not someone who just doodles comic book ideas in his private journal. But I take it more as friendliness, a nervous enthusiasm than arrogance. He offers me a cigarette, but I tell him I don’t smoke, and I am scared of how increasingly easy it is for me to tell flat out lies these days. “A film maker who doesn’t smoke, that is a new one,” he mumbles strangely in a way that makes me confused if he is trying to sound like an older man in some sleazy, but artsy film noir, where he plays some twisted mentor or if he just says things with a punch. But maybe not; maybe he is just being cute. He is very cute.
When I try to fall asleep next to him in his grey sheets with stereotypical, immature aimed for college dorm psychedelic paraphernalia and hard rock band posters staring at us, I remember how sad I was that day when my mother told me even if my father did start going to work again that I still couldn’t ride bikes with Jason or let him come over to trade baseball cards. “He is a dangerous boy now,” my mother said regretfully and with hints of sorrow. And then I begin to put it together after all those years. I remember the winter I was ten and Jason was nine, his mother moved out to an apartment with Denise, a woman who played pool, bass guitar, and drove a pick-up truck. All things I didn’t know women could do back then. When the two of them drove into the neighborhood for custody visits, they would park in the middle of the street and blast Poison and Lita Ford songs while calling Jason, Eva, and whatever neighborhood kids were out, including myself, over to the parked truck. The two of them would be lip-syncing like animated, ridiculous rock stars, saying things like, “Don’t you love my microphone?” Usually, they were pointing to a can opener or a faded empty cola bottle. Jason’s mom was a bartender, and at thirty-eight had an overwhelming confidence of a seventeen-year-old. She was going to really make it with her and Denise’s self-proclaimed edgy band, who I thought from a demo she once blared to the neighborhood, sounded a lot like a not so great karaoke version of The Bangles.
Jason tells me, fifteen minutes after our awkward yet strangely tender and moving sexual encounter, how he still gets sad but is done with the crazy shit, and that he has marijuana and pharmaceuticals to thank for this. His legs and arms wrap around mine gently, and I am touched that he wants to bond himself to me so affectionately. Yet, I feel uncomfortable with this somewhat forced sense of intimacy.
I lay awake and now recall a January evening of that same winter when I was ten. My father was staying in a hospital—a kind my mother said fixed brains. I was playing touch football on the snowy hill, in the middle of our cul-de-sac during dusk. When we were younger, it was called the mountain. When we were older, it became just a mound. I remember Jason’s father, white bearded and a close talker, came out to join us for a game, though his son was on restriction and couldn’t leave the house.
He took my sister and me behind some thick evergreens, so we could work out a secret plan. Then, he traced the play plans with his ungloved finger on our white jackets. I remember his fingers and palm pressing in hard triangular motions up and down our bellies to our chests. Then he unzipped, going inside our coats and clothes onto our cold skin, saying we needed to feel the plans, to feel them on our heart. When we said we understood them, he kissed us on our lips, wet and sloppy, saying, “A secret kiss for good luck.” My brother was too busy huddled with his team to notice. The other kids seemed oblivious.
I feel guilty for not telling, anyone, for not protecting my eight-year old sister, Jason, or Eva, who is said to be doing well these days as a physical therapist in training up in Delaware. But at the time and many years after, I wasn’t sure what all that was about, other than something felt gross and wrong, and yet like I was something special—worthy of a secret bestowing of affection and attention. But that special feeling was slowly, though fully, erased by fear and shame. Then for many years after, I must have blocked out the whole thing until this morning just before the dawn’s orange rising. Or, no I have remembered sometimes, but have always nudged myself it was just a dream. Though now I know that explanation will no longer be enough to believe.
I want Jason to wake up, so I can tell him, I know, that nothing was his fault, not even his violence. But I fall back asleep, and in two hours, get up to walk to my car and then go home to vomit. Jason texts; he wants to know where I am and if I still wanted to go to the short film festival at the college with him this afternoon. He writes that he knows this is cheesy, but last night he was more himself than he had ever felt in a long time and he was not talking about “just that,” making an awkwardly polite note though he really enjoyed our physical connection as well.
But I don’t answer. I am going to drive very far away today, gathering ideas for a segment in my documentary that becomes more and more unreal to me every day. Part of me just wants to stay home and call my sister, who is happy now and is probably right this moment, snuggling with her boyfriend, Joseph, the town fire fighter hero and their puppy, Tank, taking a well-deserved rest from her beloved job as a children’s hospital nurse. So, I don’t call. And then part of me just wants to drive back to Jason’s apartment to be held within his depression and tenderness, but I am afraid of what I might say to him, afraid of what else I might remember.
While driving past the junkyard gardens of my neighborhood and car washes on the way, I think about the woman and her blind man, which is odd because I end up seeing them as I stop at a McDonald’s for a coffee. She is standing with him in a line and asks for a brail menu. She asks this to a cheerful brown skinned, turned bronze under the fluorescent light, teenage girl, who moments before kept going on with exaggerated hand waving motions, rapping on her own a Missy Elliott song that stopped playing minutes before. She kept going in a more joking manor with each lyric, trying to cheer up the disgruntled, tired employees, who showed no interest in her interpretation of a song that was over ten years old.
But now, suddenly, her eyes go sullen. Her mouth gives an apologetic frown: “Unfortunately mam, I don’t. We don’t. Would you like me to help him read the menu?”
The woman looks down at the counter, as though calculating her next move.
“I can help,” the kind girl at the cash register repeats.
“Can I just make a suggestion to you? When you want to help someone, you speak to them directly,” the woman states coldly. “Do I look like his fucking babysitter to you? Huh?”
The girl shakes her head, “No Mam. I am so so sorry. And I am going to suggest to the manager you know about the brail.”
“Yeah, I’m sure your professionalism will be rather convincing.”
“Enough. Enough,” her husband interrupts, who until then had his arms folded, his head hung to the ground. “I don’t like when you do this. I’m sorry for my wife,” he says shamefully to the trembling girl at the cash register.
His wife does not change her expression. She does not even acknowledge the manager, who is adjusting his glasses and rubbing his tie of yellow M’s, which from a distance actually look like beautiful little birds in a navy night sky. I worry he will go yell at the cashier, but he doesn’t. Instead, he turns to the aggravated woman. “Mam, this here, Ms. Sheryl is doing all she can to help. Can you and this kind gentleman please go have a seat. I will come out and take your order, with two meals of your choice on the house.”
A worn-out tired man standing in the back of the line, wearing radio gear, mutters down to the dirty, boot-tracked in slush red floor, “Shit, look at this disruptive bitch getting off scot-free with a freebie meal. I bet her husband’s not even blind. Smooth motherfuckers.”
“Come on,” the woman’s husband says as he gently rubs her shoulder. “Let us not make a scene. Let us have a seat.”
“And let them treat us like children or send us to the outcast table,” the woman says. Then she looks up to the manager. “Fine you win, we are leaving. All we wanted was a brail menu. That is all.”
Her husband begs her to calm down, says he is really hungry and wants to know if they can just sit down.
“Don’t put this on me! Don’t put this on me!” she keeps shouting as she nudges him further out the door.
And the good part of me that never seems to know how to make its way out, wants to run after them, hold the man’s hand and say that I am sorry his wife puts him in the situation. I also want to hold the hand of his wife, tell her that I am sorry that life puts her in this situation. I want to tell the employees at the restaurant they handled it all with such grace and kindness. I want to tell Jason I knew what was happening all that time, but I wanted to forget it, and for many years I sort of did. I want to phone my sister and tell her if she ever wakes up panicking, imagining a white field with a never-ending resurrection of gray hands, rising from ugly roots and weeds, drawing scrimmage plans with blood to games along the melting flakes, that I too understand that dream. And when my father was away, and we spent the night in Eva’s room, and I woke up at two a.m. and didn’t see her in the bed that I shouldn’t have believed her when she said Mr. Kelsie took her to the study to work on a surprise birthday card for her mom. I want to cry; I want to call Jason and tell him I want to tell his sister I am sorry for believing her. But all I do is order a cola. And when the bullied cashier hands it to me, I forget to say thank you or to respond to her wishing me a great day.
By ten a.m., I am already facing outside’s weather fit for another day of roaming—the light snow falling on melting ice puddles, and car exhaust heater smoke drifting all around. From now on when I think of kindness, I’ll think of the woman who brought Mary Ingalls to life, and how despite our insane expectations, she just went along losing herself for us, the ones watching and waiting—our whole lives one great memory of invention and escape.