Beyond The Baby Blues
By Margo Ball
I saw Johnny Cash in Franklin Center on my way to the Stop and Shop. There are a bunch of problems with that—the biggest one being that he’s dead. He wasn’t an impersonator either, no theater arts dude from Dean College working up an act. This guy was the real deal, the original Johnny Cash. He was strolling right down Main Street dressed all in black like he does: black pants, black boots, black shirt. He had one of those bolo ties around his neck and a guitar strap across his chest diagonally. He was sort of shrunk-up and wrinkled like you’d expect for an old guy, but he had that square jaw and crooked slit of a grin that you could never fake.
So I definitely saw Johnny Cash, who is definitely dead, walking in Franklin Center, and now I guess I have to admit that Maureen might have a point about my brain not working right since Lily was born.
The weird part of it is, I don’t even like country music.
I didn’t tell Maureen about seeing Johnny Cash but I think she can tell something’s up. Every time she comes for one of her home visits, the first thing she does is put all the shades up and turn the music down. She gives me one of those you-know-better looks over the top of her granny-glasses because I guess when there’s a baby in the house you’re supposed to keep it bright as a spotlight and quiet as a morgue.
Or maybe Maureen just doesn’t like country music either. It’s really growing on me, though. I picked up this CD of Johnny’s down at Strawberries, and I’ve been playing it to death ever since. There’s something real dark and rainy about his voice that gets to me. And it’s so cool that every song tells this little story, like nursery rhymes but for grown-ups: Froggy went a-courtin’, got in a bar fight, went to jail, left somebody or got left behind.
It’s got me thinking that maybe Johnny and I could be friends. We’ve got stuff in common we could talk about—like for instance our dads. Johnny would say, "My daddy was a mean son-of-a-bitch." And I’d say, "I hear you, John. My dad kicks people out—it’s like his specialty. He kicked my mom out when I was little, kicked her so far she landed somewhere out in California. Then my brother, Ricky, got the boot for being a ‘wise-ass.’ After that it was like I did all this crazy shit just to see what would make Dad get rid of me. I finally found something that did. I named her Lily." Then Johnny would give a little laugh and say, "I know what you mean, little lady."
So I’ve been going back to Franklin Center looking for Johnny Cash. (I’m definitely not telling Maureen about that or she’d drag me straight to the shrink.) I park on the street just past the train tracks in front of The Acapulco. Lily thrashes around in her car seat sometimes, which gets on my nerves and makes it hard to hear the music, but mostly she just sleeps or stares out of the window with her mouth hanging open, like she’s looking at Paris or Rome instead of Franklin, Mass.
Johnny comes by the same time almost every day, right about when the kids are getting out from the high school. He walks straight through the little clumps of them with their backpacks and cellphones—but they never even look at him. I guess that happens: you do one little thing like die and people don’t even see you anymore.
It’s the same with me ever since Lily was born. I don’t think anyone really sees me either. Not even Maureen: I’m just another "teenage mother" case to her. Sometimes I wonder if she sees a file number across my forehead when she looks at me. But I guess Maureen is all right. She brings me back issues of Tiger Beat and Seventeen, which is nice. I tried hinting that I’d rather look at Adventure Travel or National Geographic but she has her idea of me all cemented in. And of course there’s always some pamphlet slipped into the pile like "Getting Your GED" or "You and Your Self-Esteem." The other day there was this one called "Beyond the Baby Blues," which sounds like a country song title but, trust me, it’s not.
Back when I was in school and got pregnant everybody paid attention to me; I was like a rock star for awhile. Lissa and Andrea kept asking me a zillion questions and they listened to what I said like it was important. When my belly got real big they laid their hands all over it like it was this beautiful rock they were covering with starfish.
Nobody touches me anymore—except for Lily, but that’s more like a sticky glomming on than real touching. And sometimes Maureen will brush my hair a real long time when I’m having trouble getting the crying stopped. I’ll bet Johnny knows how it feels to be untouchable. I’ll bet he doesn’t cry about it.
I never saw the thrill in trains before I started listening to Johnny’s music. Lots of his songs have trains in them and even the ones that don’t have that railroad sound to them—not "chugga chugga choo choo" or anything that lame, but this rocking, rushing sound that makes you feel like you’re going somewhere.
All I know about trains is that when the commuter rail pulls out of Franklin Center it runs pretty much straight through the yard behind my apartment and makes the whole place rattle like a Tinker-toy tower. The amazing thing is that Lily never wakes up when a train goes by. Any other time she’ll start howling if I so much as sneeze, but sometimes she’ll be sleeping in the bed with me when one of those trains comes roaring by. I’ll jump like a gun’s gone off but she’ll lay there, dead to the world, her little mouth open in a circle like she’s trying to whistle. It wipes me out, it really does, how she lays there so peaceful when it sounds to me like the end of the world.
Maybe in her last life Lily rode the rails—if you believe in reincarnation like they do in India. I think it’s a nice idea: getting a do-over like that. One would come in real handy right now because I messed up bad this time. I was wanting to impress Maureen, figured if I cooked a real honest-to-god meal she might think I could handle myself and ease up on me.
I got the idea from Lily—not that she said, "Mommy, cook dinner" or anything. She was just sitting in her bouncy chair staring at me, and I got to thinking how she doesn’t look one bit like me, except maybe that we’re both soft and pasty as that Pillsbury Boy. She doesn’t look like Randy either, except for being bald, and maybe he doesn’t even shave his head anymore; I wouldn’t know. But I got to noticing that she sort of looks like my mom; she has the same blue eyes—big ones, like almost too big for her face. The way they were looking at me made me think of when I was in kindergarten and would bring home these mad crayon scribbles and paint blobs to give her. Mom would kneel right down on the kitchen floor and her eyes would get huge like she was looking at an original Rembrandt. She’d say, "Oh, baby, that’s really something!" and give me a kiss that would leave a big red smear on my cheek.
All of that reminded me how Mom used to make these killer scalloped potatoes and ham. I didn’t have any ham in the house, not the real Easter kind, but I did have some Oscar Mayer slices and a bag of Idaho spuds. So I started peeling potatoes, and you have to slice them real thin which I was having trouble doing when Lily starts screaming, and I’m busy with the potatoes but she won’t stop, and I beg her "please stop" but she won’t even when I yell "Shut up!" and all of her crying is making my milk come in and my tits are burning, really burning, and they’re starting to drip and the potatoes aren’t thin enough, they aren’t thin like Mom’s were, and my shirt’s getting soaked and Lily won’t shut up and the potatoes need to be thinner but my hands are soaked and suddenly Maureen is there, grabbing me and wrapping my hands in towels. The sink is all splashed with some kind of red juice. I ask Maureen, "Who spilled that in there?" but she’s not listening, she’s just kind of moaning, " What did you do? Oh, what did you do? What did you do?"
So now I’m going to that shrink without even telling anybody about Johnny. Dr. Pazchic is OK, I guess, and he doesn’t look like Woody Allen or Freud like I thought he would; he’s sort of young and looks like my old guidance counselor. I hope he gives better advice than that guy did. Dr. Pazchic gave me these pills I’m supposed to take twice a day, but you can’t drive when you’re on these things, so how am I gonna go see Johnny? He nods at me now when he walks by and I nod back—just like we’re old pals. I swear that does me more good than any little pills.
Maureen caught me skipping pills and taking Lily out in the car. She made all kinds of threats about putting Lily in foster care and I cried and promised I’d take the pills and stop driving and do whatever she said if she just wouldn’t take Lily away. You could tell that’s what she was supposed to do, probably wasn’t even supposed to give me a chance to beg. But Maureen’s a class act, I can see that now. She gave me another chance, but she moved herself in here and is watching me like a hawk every minute. I can tell she’s not supposed to be doing that either, not supposed to get "personally involved" because I hear her lying to her boss on the phone about having to take care of a sick aunt. It’s actually nice having her around. She’s real good at guessing on "The Wheel of Fortune" and she makes a veggie lasagna to die for.
There’s no way I can see Johnny anymore, though, which is really getting me worried. What if he goes away somewhere before I get a chance to talk to him? What if he just leaves?
I snuck out a little after nine o’clock. Maureen had fallen asleep during a CSI re-run and she was sleeping pretty soundly; she’s not so jumpy now that she actually watches me swallow those pills. And Lily was set for awhile, she had just drunk so much her belly was like a little terry-cloth beach ball. I drove over and parked in the usual spot and put on my Walk The Line CD. Then I concentrated like you wouldn’t believe, made my thoughts into a megaphone hollering, "Johnny Cash! Come out, come out wherever you are!"
I must have done that a long time and somewhere in there I fell asleep, sound snoring asleep like I can never manage to do at home in my own bed. Then a noise snapped me wide awake and there was Johnny Cash, knocking on my car window. My heart was beating like crazy when I rolled my window down. He leaned his elbows on the doorframe as easy as his own back fence and said, "Hey there, little lady, can I do something for you?" No one can tell me that wasn’t the same voice I’d been listening to every day for the past month. And that voice was talking to me, wanting me to talk back–which I couldn’t seem to manage right that minute.
He smiled, tipped his head a little sideways and said, "How about we get something to drink? You like the Acapulco?" For all the hours I’d parked in front of it, I’d never actually been inside the Acapulco, but I nodded yes and he stepped back to let me out of the car, holding one arm out for me like a real gentleman.
Nobody looked up when we went inside. There was Johnny Cash, the original Man In Black, and nobody could get their noses out of their margueritas long enough to recognize him. The hostess smiled big and said, "Two for dinner?"
Johnny said, "The bar’ll be fine," and she lost her smile real quick. She flicked her hand at the bar and we went over and climbed onto these tall stools. The bartender plunked down a plastic basket of tortilla chips in front of us.
"Can I get you something, amigos?" he said, even though he looked more Italian than Mexican to me.
"A whiskey for me and a Coke for the lady," Johnny said, which was a big relief, because showing my ID would have been a problem. The waiter brought our drinks with some more ‘amigo’ talk and we sipped them a long while without saying anything. In the mirror behind the bar our faces sat up like surreal doll heads above the line of tequila bottles. Dollar bills were tacked up all around the walls of the bar with messages written on them like "Happy Birthday, Lou" and "Richie Dunn was here." I wondered how so many people had money to throw away like that. If I’d stripped those walls I could’ve gotten six months worth of diapers or a one-way ticket to California.
And so I’m thinking random things like that and sitting next to the not-as-dead-as-you’d-think Johnny Cash, and I have a whole list in my head of things I want to say and ask him about. Instead, I open my mouth and say, "Sometimes I feel like putting a pillow over my baby’s head and holding it there until she stops breathing."
Now that would freak most people out. But Johnny just finished off his whiskey, nodded like he’d heard that same thing about a zillion times before and said, "Well, little lady, I guess things happen that way sometimes. I wouldn’t worry myself over it much." And as it got through to me that Johnny wasn’t going to call the police on me, or the shrink-mobile or even Maureen, I kind of went limp, my head flopping sideways onto his shoulder. "Thank you," I said, which wasn’t too brilliant but was all I had right then. Johnny flicked a couple of bills onto the bar and, with his strumming hand against my shoulder blade, he steered me down off of that stool and back to my car. Johnny said goodbye to me and I said goodbye to Johnny.
That’s the last time I saw Johnny Cash. I still look around a little when I drive by the Acapulco or a train station. I still listen to his songs; I think I’m hooked on those for good. Sometimes I even sing them to Lily when she has trouble sleeping. That girl really does love her railroad rhythms.
Margo Ball's work has appeared in Red China Magazine and The Christian Science Monitor. She currently resides in Massachusetts where she endeavors to prove that creative thought is still possible while raising three boys.
Photo "Foggy Train Tracks" courtesy of A. Syed, Midland, MI.
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