Hot Tin Roof: Three Heart Harmonies

Hot Tin Roof
Hot Tin Roof is a program to showcase current literary work produced in Iowa City. The series is organized and juried by representatives of three Iowa City-based cultural advocacy organizations: The Englert Theatre, Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature and Little Village magazine.

Three Heart Harmonies

By Diane LaDuke

Bullets of sleet clatter hard against the windows. Stel, my infant son, trembles. I hold him tight against my heart to sooth him.  My wife and daughter sing carols from the kitchen. Their duet offers a warm respite from the winter blitz. Tonight, my heart is full and peaceful. But, hearing their voices is a reminder of another Christmas Eve, when my heart was a tormented shell.

Three years ago, I made weekly trips to Danville to take my five year old daughter, Docie to visit her mother, Hanna. Hanna had gotten into some legal trouble. Her criminal activities shattered my nerves and my world. We divorced; I got Docie, Hanna got a year in a halfway house, Haven of Hope.

I picked up Docie from her best friend’s house and we drove east to Danville. I was a wreck of derelict emotions during our drive to the Haven. My body was a psychiatric Petri dish, tics and phobias, spastic nerves. I was so tense, I had no neck. Hanna had done a bad juju of voodoo on me when she took the low road of crime. It turned out she was bi-polar. I was a disaster as a single parent and blamed others for my shortcomings. I became callous and mean.  My sister called me a human bunion, always rubbing people the wrong way….she’s a riot.  Docie and I sang songs in the car to lessen my anxiety, sure beats a Thorazine drip.

Entering Haven of Hope, the lack of hope was palatable. The house reeked of regrets and cigarettes. The residents followed us with squinty, pinched glances. Even the Christmas tree had an attitude; it leaned sullenly against the wall like a grounded teen. My heart hurt for Docie to see this rough chunk of life, but I wouldn’t keep her from her mother. I wasn’t that much of a jerk.

Docie and I hung our coats in the overcast hallway. Elvis was whining that it would be a blue Christmas without us from a distant radio. I braced myself for Hanna’s shards of anger. She harbored a vendetta against me for my custody of Docie.  My therapist cautioned me to be firm, but supportive. Hanna’s parole officer warned against “tipping the boat”. They obviously heard about the human bunion issue. But, I would be pleasant on Christmas. That was my plan anyway.

A blubbering sound from the kitchen caught my ear. I peeked around the corner and saw a distraught woman sitting at the table. Between sobs, she eyed a line of English muffins covered with tuna fish. Squirting honey onto the tuna, she methodically pushed these little mounds of hell into her large painted mouth. Confusing me with someone who cared, she looked up and said, “I was terrified when I was sentenced to Haven of Hope, so I accidently threw bags containing my clothes into the garbage and brought the bags of trash with me,” she gestured to piles of large plastic bags. “Hi, I’m Stella.” I turned away. I had no compassion or sympathy for these women. To accept them; meant accepting Hanna, that wasn’t happening. So, I distained them, it gave me power. It felt good to be better than somebody at this point in my life.

Docie had to use the restroom, so, we walked across the hall. As she entered the room, she said in an impossibly sweet voice, “Daddy, could you untape my butt?”

As I looked down, I noticed her backside was crisscrossed with cellophane tape. Using a sing song voice that only a five year old or a Miss America contestant can get away with, Docie told me that Kimmie , her best friend, had taped her butt shut. This happened during a game of doctor, “to keep the butt juice from coming out.” A high squeak escaped from my mouth, a porky pig sound that Hanna laughed at during our heated fights. I started to peel away the tape, abruptly I snapped. My shame and self loathing as a parent ignited a fire of anger. I was pissed off at everything; Haven of Hope, Stella, Docie’s butt crack, my missing balls. Docie was watching, so, I cooled my rage. In replacement, despair and doom looped around my shoulders like drunken old friends.

Listening to Docie’s soprano belting out “Lord Baby Cheeses” from the bathroom, I suddenly longed for tenderness and kindness. I hated my coconut shell heart. This physical need seemed overwhelming. Shuffling my wilted ass back to the kitchen, I saw Stella sitting forlornly at the table. She threw me a wet messy mascara grin and patted the bench next to her. Maybe it was Docie’s sweet voice or Stella’s puffy Chicken of the Sea face, maybe it was that magical Christmas time. Tears clouded my eyes, but, I actually saw Stella. We both owned a forgivable past and an uncertain future. Her anxious face mirrored mine, well, except for the mascara. Who the hell was I to judge? My daughter was wrapped up like a white elephant gift, for God’s sake!

I felt a slender, almost dangerous ripple delicately slide across my hard heart. So, I stood tall and said in a high cheap voice,”Hey, I have six nipples, wanna see?”

I lifted up my Metallica t-shirt so those eraser heads could salute. Tiny black hairs defined each nipple like spider legs. Stella stared, I could hear her counting.

I lowered myself to the bench, feeling ridiculous after the freak show.

“Wow, nice to meet you, too,” purred Stella.

Surprise replaced Hanna’s usual sarcasm as she sashayed into the kitchen later. Stella, Docie and I had ravaged the remaining tuna melts and were singing three part harmony on “Puff, The Magic Dragon.” We looked like a bad Christmas card photo, lined up on the bench, smirks smeared across our faces, my nipples exposed.

Smile and say Cheeses!

Diane LaDuke is seventy-two years old, was born and raised in Iowa City, and now lives in Goose Town. She retired five years ago and this is her first fiction story. She is currently taking writing classes at the Senior Center and has finished twenty five essays of her “Life Story”. This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 186.

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