I’m no Mata Hari but I’m good at what it takes to get a mother-in-law. Not good at the marriages or the swindle of supper and spouses, mind you, but a woman’s got to be specialized or her duties get outsourced to Japanese massage parlors. What Consumer Reports won’t tell you is that the Thai massage parlors are the cheapest but only because the girls are trafficked, and once they get here they can’t go back for fear of ruining their husband’s honor.
What I like about mother-in-laws is how they’re past all that. They treat honor like a rest stop along the early travel routes and they don’t do rest stops anymore but head straight for the 24-hour neon gas stations. Honor is legend on a road atlas but now we have GPS and even the legends are disposable.
In 7th grade, I started collecting postage stamps, the unmarked pristine variety. The kind you have to touch with gloves so none of the backs got sticky. There are actually special lamps used by Philatelists to check the back of a stamp for marking. I didn’t have one of these lamps but I knew about them.
My first mother-in-law bonded with me over the stamp collection. Ginny always wanted George to marry a nice girl, she said, a girl with her head on her shoulders screwed tight. When she saw the shelf in my condo–an entire shelf of stamp albums, each stamp classified by date and value–Ginny clapped her hands together, said the rehearsal dinner should have a philatelic theme.
George and I started a vegetable garden. We killed our first tomato crop by having sex too close in a sensitive phase in the lunar cycle. But the cucumbers grew big as elbows.
My grandfather died. George went to the funeral with me and helped carry the casket. They used the words “bore” to describe men who carry caskets, as in the man bore the casket. He was a true bearer of caskets that George. But caskets are not crosses no matter how you phrase it.
In addition to all his power tools, my grandfather left me his Romanian stamp collection–seven albums of stamps minted by Romania’s communist government prior to his defection. He brought the stamps with him to America but left behind photos, maybe the ones with the wife and daughter he kept in a bottom drawer. The photos remained uneasy access.
I knew the stamps were worth a fortune, but valuation was out of my league so I started attending the stamp club on Thursday nights at the library. That’s where I met Richard, who knew more about stamps than Teddy Kennedy.
George found out about the affair when I left my stamp books in the living room one Thursday nights. George bore the stamp albums with the same diligence he’d offered the casket. He brought the albums to the library but I wasn’t there. That’s because I was having sex with Richard at the high school ballpark under the aluminum bleachers.
Ginny and George could never trust me again. George didn’t say much except he wanted a divorce and he didn’t want the house so Richard moved in. After Richard and I got married, we had to share a car for a month while his motorcycle got repaired. When I drove Richard to work at the newspaper in the mornings, sometimes Ginny would be standing alone outside the library holding a white poster board sign that said some mumbo jumbo about stamp clubs being Sodom and how they didn’t need to rest at the library.
When I moved, Ginny always moved back. But we didn’t talk or wave.
Richard’s mother was a widow whose husband died young because he was a stock car racer and there weren’t any rules to protect racers back then. I loved talking to Sara Beth about history. She didn’t care a thing about stamps but she could name every moonshine still in the state of Georgia because her daddy had been a tripper, one of the secret ghost that hauled illegal liquor from stills to urban centers in the South.
SaraBeth loved to watch him work on his car inside the old barn.
“Her drove a 1940 Ford and he painted that car a different color just about every week to avoid gettin’ caught by the law.” When Sara Beth talked about how fast her daddy drove, she pulled the air through her teeth sharp and fast, like a popper toy or a penny whistle.
I told SaraBeth if sounded like an exciting childhood, and she knew to take it as a compliment–there was that sense of things between us. When Richard found a job in Opelika, I favored Sara Beth so much it made the move look too much like hazard. I started giving fabric away and drawing X’s through calendar pages. Richard worried I was moping around the house too much and not getting out.
“Richard, I’m avoiding the hazards.” The deluge of slippery acorns was not easy to avoid in November.
Richard was sympathetic after I read him an article in the doctor’s waiting room about how hormones make women angry.
“Well, you are pissed a lot. But you didn’t seem pissed a last night when we were one big naked knot of limbs.”
“I wasn’t pissed then–and I’m not pissed now. But I feel like you’re always trying to decipher me, un-code my words like I’m the kind of person who doesn’t just say what she means.”
He rubbed his beard and said women can be funny that way. They tell you they’re sad when they’re actually raging. A good man smells the hops before the brew and sets into motion a pre-apocalyptic sex scene between two married humans fully aware that the world might end at any moment. A good man doesn’t try to fix a heart with a hammer and duct tape. A good woman gives up her mother-in-law collection.