Karen Carpenter was emblazoned into my retinas in the mid-1970s. I see her as the delicate, elfin creature who tiptoed into the spotlight inside the Hersheypark Arena and simply said “hello.”
That night, Karen wore a bell-bottomed, lace pantsuit and a metallic gold belt. Pantsuits were the rage then. Everyone was wearing them from Gloria Steinman to Charlie’s Angels. But this pantsuit! Fashioned entirely of beige lace. I imagined an elderly, nimble-fingered woman from Bruges, pins pressed tightly between her lips, toiling under weak candlelight with her loyal, calico cat by her side. The lace maker had read the measurements sent by the famous American pop star to a tee. That pantsuit fit like an elegant glove.
As soon as I sat down in my seat eight rows from the stage’s lip, I pretended my concert companion wasn’t there. I vanished the form of her body inside a navy pea coat perched loosely around shoulders into thin air. I blockaded her Shalimar perfume scenting our section like an old flower delivery inside a closed room and concentrated instead on the hopefully intoxicating qualities of second hand pot smoke.
I have no idea how or why my mother and I came to be sitting at that concert together. It was out of our ordinary. We never transcended. We never became more than what we were by blood. We almost never did “friend things.” It wasn’t meant to be. We were too different, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Even with the attendant mystery of why my mother and I attended a concert together once, I remember what a good performance it was. In addition to Karen Carpenter’s outfit, I have a permanent recording of her unique and beautiful voice inside my head: deeply resonant, pure, strong. But when she sang of being on top of the world, her smile was staged, a Cheshire grin on a thin face. Her brother Richard, seated at the piano, had the opposite problem. He was too consistently perky, bobbing his head every second note even during the sad songs like the one about rainy days and Mondays and having the blues.
It’s raining on a Monday. My mother forgets what day it is now. Her short-term memory has gone missing and the other parts of her, her distant memories, her sense of humor, are frequently on the fritz.
Today, she has forgotten more than usual. The index card standing at attention in the middle of her kitchen table is waiting in vain to learn: “TODAY’S DATE IS…” The Lilliputian billboard offering a daily reality check has taken the place of traditional, cheerful seasonal centerpieces and candleholders. I pick up the nearby red pencil and print: “Monday, October 7, 2019.”
“Here is your tea, Mom. No sugar, right?”
“I don’t want that milk.”
“Tea requires a drop of milk, remember? To protect teeth enamel. How about a cookie?”
I open the “sweets cabinet” underneath the toaster oven, noting the blackened toast crumbs and frozen pizza cheese coating the bottom tray like an ugly scab. Some changes about this kitchen of my childhood I will never get used to.
My mother’s sweets cabinet never harbored much promise while I was growing up in that house. Not today either.
“Fig newton or a gingersnap. Unless you want a Saltine or a box of golden raisins.”
“No chocolate chip?”
“No chocolate chip.”
“Forget it then.”
I give her one of each kind of cookie. She bites and chews.
“These cookies are stale. I can’t believe your father hasn’t inhaled them yet. Still good though. These are the classics, figs and snaps. Stick with the classics, Virginia. You’ll never be sorry.”
My mother stands. Limps. Retrieves both cookie boxes. Leaves the cabinet door open in a wide yawn. Takes one more of each variety for he paper plate. I put up my hand in protest when she reaches in for more. She hands over two fig newtons anyway.
“Speaking of the classics, Mom, how about pea coats. Remember those? People still wear pea coats.”
“Those were smart. Nice, big buttons with embossed ship anchors I think. Sailor coats.”
“Remember when you and I saw The Carpenters at the Arena? Remember the lace pantsuit Karen Carpenter wore?” I ask.
“I don’t really like pantsuits on women. Pantsuits make them look like astronauts.”
“What’s wrong with women being astronauts?’
“Nothing, I guess. If you want to fly to the moon, go ahead.” A rare laugh erupts from my mother, but it doesn’t succeed in changing the flat expression that has come to reside on her face.
“Do you remember that, though, Mom, when you and I went to the Hersheypark Arena and we saw The Carpenters? We sat really, really close to the stage?”
Outside, the rain intensifies. In the street, drops dart earthward, bounce off the standing, trampoline puddles. A red bird waits under a grey shrub, twitching nervously. Down the cement sidewalk, across the street, and up an identical walk, Mrs. Milhimes’ has arranged her customary, autumnal display of rust and yellow mums. The straw-hatted scarecrow stuck in one of the pots doesn’t like cold rain on his face. He’s slouched forward. He’s waiting it out.
My mother blinks, smiles weakly, swallows cookie.
“Yes, I do. I surely do,” she responds. “Didn’t we have a lot of fun together.”
I open my mouth and close it. Outside, the red bird decides she can’t wait huddled underneath shelter forever. She leaps, lifts her wings and flaps silently away.
Virginia Watts is the author of poetry and stories found or upcoming in Illuminations, The Florida Review, The Moon City Review, Palooka Magazine, Streetlight Magazine, Burningwood Literary Journal, Ginosko Literary Journal among others. Nominee for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net 2019 in nonfiction, Virginia resides near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.