Imagine you're looking through a collection of short stories. One of the titles
catches your interest. That's the story you want to read first. What might the
title be? Invent a title that would make you want to read the story. Now, write a
story to go with that title...
Pretty Ain't All it's Cracked Up to Be
They say Mama was the prettiest girl in Clinton County, if not the whole state of Tennessee. Some folks said she could have been a movie star, and that she was prettier than Greer Garson. I thought they were just being mean. Old Mrs. Garson played the piano at our church – she wasn't pretty at all. She was wrinkly and had stockings that she rolled down to her knees, and wore ugly house dresses that looked like Mama's kitchen curtains.
I was six the summer that Mama got sick. She got lots of headaches, and had to lay on her bed, on top of the bedspread. I'd get her a cool washrag for her forehead when she'd ask.
“Thank you, Baby. Now, you just be real quiet while Mama gets some rest.”
I'd sit at her vanity and try on her rhinestone clip-on earrings, and wish the drapes were open so I could see the sparkles they sent across the room when the sun shone in. When I knew Mama was asleep, I'd tiptoe out and sit on the swing on the front porch and wait for Mrs. Miller from across the street to see me.
“Gloria, is your mama feelin' poorly again? Come on, let's go in the kitchen and get supper started – your daddy will be home from the plant soon. I'll pour you a glass of lemonade and make you a cucumber sandwich and you can help stir the beans.”
Afore long, Daddy would come bounding up the porch steps and walk into the darkened living room. “Ah, I see she's in bed again, Agnes. Thanks for getting supper on the table.” He'd take a dollar out of his pocket and give it to Mrs. Miller for her trouble.
“Now Glenn, I don't want your money. You know as well as I do that you'll be helping me when my shingles come loose next Spring. You just keep your money.” He'd smile a smile that meant that he wasn't really happy, and put the dollar back in his wallet. He and Mrs. Miller went out on the porch to talk – they didn't want me to hear them, but I hunkered down under the window sill and listened anyway.
“Agnes, it can't go on like this, I'm going to insist that she go to Crestview. Doc Harner says that's the best hospital for someone with nerves as bad as hers. I've already called Sylvia's brother, Mike. He and his wife Teeny will be here on Thursday. They'll help me with Gloria until Sylvia gets better.”
“That's probably for the best, Glenn. I hate to see you folks have all this trouble, and it's a shame that Sylvia will be so far away. It'll be hard on you and especially on Gloria, not havin' her mama to take care of her.”
“I don't want Mama to go!”, I sobbed. “I want her to stay here – I can help take care of her, Daddy!”
Daddy rushed back in and picked me up in his arms. “Gloria, honey, your mama needs the doctors at the hospital. Doc Harner can't fix her here. Bad nerves are hard to fix, because the doctor can't see them, not even with an X-ray machine. Remember when you got an x-ray of your arm, and we saw your bones? Well, Crestview has special doctors that don't need x-rays to help Mama. She'll go there and come back, as good as new, I promise.” He kissed my forehead, hugged me tight, and put me back on the floor. “Let's go eat supper, I'm starved.”
Daddy and I ate supper in the quiet kitchen. After we ate, he stacked the dishes in the sink and asked me if I wanted to play a game of Crazy Eights. He made funny faces every time I laid down a match he wanted. We laughed, and he talked about how Uncle Mike and Aunt Teeny would take care of me while Mama was away. “It'll be fun, Gloria. Uncle Mike is Mama's big brother, and he always took good care of her. And Aunt Teeny! Well, from what I hear, she is one of the best cooks around. I'll probably have to buy you new clothes because she'll be sure to fatten you up!”
I took a bath and got ready for bed while Daddy did the dishes and checked in on Mama. Daddy came in and tucked me in and read me a chapter in Little House on the Prairie. I giggled when he'd try to do Ma's voice. When he was done, he put the book on my nightstand and turned off the light. He kissed my cheek and fixed the sheet around me. “Good night, Punkin. I swear, you get prettier every day.”
When I woke up the next morning, I heard voices coming from the kitchen. I jumped out of bed and ran to see what was happening. Uncle Mike and Aunt Teeny sat at our table, drinking coffee. Doc Harner was there, too – he was helping Mama walk to the back door. “Mama! Don't go!” I started to cry.
“Hush, Gloria, your mama is going to the hospital today, like we talked about.” Daddy's voice carried from out on the back porch, where he was holding the screen door for Mama and Doc Harner. “When I get Mama in the car, you can give her a kiss goodbye. Be a good girl and wait until I get you.”
Aunt Teeny got up and put her arm on my shoulder and turned me around. “My, Gloria, look how big you've grown! You must be six inches taller from when I saw you last summer! Go to the bathroom and wash your hands, and put some slippers on before you go out to hug your mama. Now scoot.”
I ran into the bathroom and peed as fast as I could, afraid that Daddy would leave before I was done. I washed my hands in cold water, and dried them on the yellow towel hanging by the sink. I rushed back into the kitchen and stood at the screen door, watching for Daddy.
It was only a minute before Daddy came to the porch and told me to come out. “Hurry, Gloria, give your mama a kiss and hug and be quick about it. I have to have her at the hospital by ten, and it's already getting' close to eight.”
I walked over to Mama's side of the car. I was crying, and I wiped my nose on the hem of my nightgown. “Gloria, honey, it's okay. I'm just going to the hospital to get the once over. As soon as the doctors see that I'm fine, I'll be home. Let me hug and kiss you, angel. You be Mama's good girl now, and mind Uncle Mike and Aunt Teeny, okay?” Mama's face looked pinched, like she was sucking on a lemon candy from the drugstore. I think she was trying not to cry. I hugged her tight, my nose smelling her perfume on her neck.
“I love you, Mama. I don't want you to go!” I started crying hard again, and Daddy had to come pry me off of Mama's neck so he could close the passenger door. Aunt Teeny took my hand and led me back to the porch. As they drove out of the driveway, I saw Mama's face, she was crying, too. She put up her hand to wave, and I waved back. Aunt Teeny gave my hand a squeeze, and opened the screen door.
“Sit down, Gloria, I'll get your breakfast on the table. Do you want toast or a biscuit?”
I didn't want to eat. I wanted to run after Daddy's car and bring Mama back. When I didn't answer, Aunt Teeny put a biscuit on my plate to eat with my scrambled egg and bacon. She handed me her hanky, and I wiped my eyes and blew my nose. “You have to eat, Gloria. Your mama would want you to be a good girl and eat for me, baby.”
I felt chilled the whole time Mama was gone. Even though it was summer, and summers were warm in Tennessee, I started wearing Mama's pink sweater with the crystal buttons all day long. Aunt Teeny said, “You must be missin' your mama awful fierce, Gloria. You're chilled to the bone.”
As I poked at my food, Uncle Mike watched me. “Gloria, you are just as pretty as your mama. Did I ever tell you that your mama was my favorite pretty girl when she was little? I took good care of her, and took her for rides in my car and bought her candy and pretty hair ribbons. I think you may be my new favorite pretty girl. Would that be okay with you?”
I nodded, still too sad to talk. I took a few bites of my egg and nibbled on the biscuit. “Uncle Mike, do you think Mama will be home by next week? She promised that she'd take me to the county fair.”
“Honey, if your mama isn't back by then, then I'll take you to the fair. I bet you'd like to throw darts and ride the ponies and get some cotton candy, wouldn't you? Now wouldn't that be fun?”
I started to cheer up, thinking about all the fun we could have at the fair. But then I got sad again, because Mama wouldn't be here to take me. “If Mama's back, you can go with us, Uncle Mike.”
Mama wasn't back in time for the fair. Uncle Mike took me, and we had fun. I played the fishing game and threw darts and Uncle Mike threw ping pong balls into jars filled with colored water and won me a big stuffed bear. He named it Shorty, which was a silly name for such a big bear. Uncle Mike made me forget about Mama not being with us. He let me ride the Ferris wheel three times, and didn't even get mad when I threw up on his shoes after we rode the Tilt-A-Whirl.
Daddy and I got used to having Uncle Mike and Aunt Teeny at home. Aunt Teeny was a good cook, and she'd let me help bake cookies. Daddy started working overtime at the plant. He needed the money to pay Mama's doctors. He'd visit her every Sunday afternoon. I wasn't allowed to visit her at the hospital, so I'd sit in my church clothes and wait for him to come home and tell me about his time with Mama.
“Gloria, Mama was in a good mood today. She's feeling a little better, but bad nerves need a lot of rest. She's taking drawing classes and getting lots of rest. Today, we went for a short walk, and she picked these wildflowers for you.” Daddy handed me a bunch of wilted flowers. I sniffed at them, they smelled like stinkweed. “I guess they wilted in the hot car, honey. Maybe next time, I'll take a vase with water, so they'll look as good as new.”
Some Sundays, the visits didn't go so good. Daddy would come home, looking sad and lonely. He never told us what was wrong, but I figured that Mama must have had a sick headache and was asleep. He'd pick me up and twirl me around and smile a big smile, happy to see me. Sometimes, we'd walk down to the drugstore and he'd get me an ice cream cone. If he was feeling really sad, he'd let me get two scoops. He'd whistle Shenandoah as we walked home. Since he was working so much, Sunday afternoons were about the only time I got to spend with Daddy. If he was sad about Mama, I'd act silly to try to cheer him up. I was careful to be on my best behavior, just like Mama would want me to be.
One Tuesday morning in the hottest summer ever recorded, Aunt Teeny decided that our house needed a good cleaning. She tied a scarf on her head and talked about how the living room rug needed cleaning and how the cobwebs were taking over the crown molding. “Let's get out of here, kiddo”, Uncle Mike said, as he jumped up from the sofa and started sneaking toward the front door, like he was a spy or something. “When your Aunt Teeny gets her mind to cleaning, then it's time for us to make our escape!” He grabbed my hand and pulled me out on the front porch. We sneaked, giggling, to his car. He opened up the driver's side and lifted me onto the seat. “Slide over. You'll be my helper today. Let's go out to the lake and feed the ducks...ah, but first we need bread! I know, we'll stop at the bakery and get a couple of donuts and some bread for the ducks.” We drove off, leaving Aunt Teeny in the living room with a stepladder and a feather duster.
Uncle Mike drove to the bakery. I slid across the seat and got out of his door. “My princess, may I take your hand?” He was so silly. He held my hand and we walked into the bakery and went to the donut case. I picked two donuts with sprinkles, and Uncle Mike picked a sticky bun. He grabbed two cartons of milk from the refrigerated case and paid the cashier. “I'm taking her royal highness to feed the ducks. He held the back of my sweater like a train and said, “Isn't her royal pink robe beautiful? Do you have any stale bread you can sell me?”
The cashier smiled and added a bag of bread to our order. “Have fun, your highness!” she called as we walked out the bakery door, the bell tinkling against the glass.
“Okay, Princess Gloria, we're off to have a royal adventure. Are you ready?” Uncle Mike asked as we got back into his car. “First, let's turn this car into a royal coach. He moved some levers above his head and pressed a button. The roof of the car moved backward, and I turned around to see it disappear behind the back seat. He pulled out of the parking lot and we drove toward the lake. People on the street were staring at our coach, there weren't many convertibles in our town. I felt like a fairy princess riding in the front seat. Uncle Mike had his arm around me, holding me close.
“Uncle Mike, that sign says 'Lake'!” I can read a little bit, even though I don't go to first grade until September.
“Oh, you are a clever little princess, aren't you? Are you ready to exit your coach and visit the lake?”
“Yes, Uncle Mike...no, wait, what should I call you?”
“I think I shall be Prince Pumpkinhead today”, he said.
“Unc, I mean, Prince Pumpkinhead, you are silly!”
“Let me grab our royal food and drink and escort you to that throne, shall we?” He led me to a green wooden bench. When I sat down, Mama's sweater slipped through the gaps in the seat and dragged on the ground. He opened our cartons of milk and handed me a donut. He watched me gobble it up, licking the frosting from my fingers. “My you are a hungry little princess today...would you care for a drink?” He handed me a carton of milk and a straw, and I started drinking. He reached over and rubbed my cheek and moved my hair away from my face. “You are so pretty, Gloria. You may even be prettier than your mama.”
“Prince Pumpkinhead, I miss Mama so much. When do you think she’ll be home?”
“It’s supposed to be a surprise, Princess Gloria – but I guess I can tell you. Aunt Teeny was cleaning because your mama is coming home today. When we leave here, we’ll go see her. But remember, sweetie, she’s still sick, so you’re gonna want to be quiet and let her get well, okay?”
When the ducks had their fill of stale bread, Gloria said, “Uncle Mike, I know how to behave around the Queen.” With that, Gloria executed a perfect curtsy. "Prince Pumpkinhead, it's time to return to the castle so I can have tea with the Queen."
And so they did.