“Hello?” I answered.
“I’m so sorry, sir. I must have the wrong number,” she said in a crisp but identifiable voice.
Click. Dial tone.
“Yes, excuse me sir,” her tone dead serious, overly professional. “I’m trying to reach a young man I once knew. The one with the big brown eyes and brown hair? The one who loved his grondmotha? Do you know where I might find him?”
“Nanda, it’s me. I’m right here. And I’m still him. I’m coming to see you this weekend, I promise.”
“Sir, would you be so kind as to let me speak with the lady of the house?” Knowing I couldn’t win, I covered the receiver with my hand, “Mawwww-awwwwm, it’s Nan-daaaaaaa,” yelling toward her closed bedroom door, “And she’s on a tear!”
“Shit. Not today. Mo-ther pleeeeze!” my mom cursed to herself before picking up the phone.
Keeping my word, I spent the following weekend with Nanda. Our first task was to make a list of errands: post-office, pharmacy, gas station, and Mike’s Grocery. And for our special treat, we made the traditional pitstop at Dairy Queen for Nanda’s HungerBuster and my Peanut Buster Parfait. Drive-thru window be damned, she pulled that Buick LeSabre right up to the front door across three parking spots, over-braked with a short squeal from the tires, then lay on the horn until someone came out. I just sank into the floorboard and begged her to let me go inside for help. Don’t move. You just stay right where you are mister. That’s what these people are supposed to do. As the uniformed employee approached, Nanda hung her fleshy arm out the window, cigarette in hand, and flicked ashes onto the ground. Her voice full of affectation she began, Pardon me, I don’t mean to be a bothah, but would you be so kind… and she placed her order.
The car horn was also Nanda’s all-points bulletin when I was out of pocket or had opted not to stay with her that weekend. She’d drive through our neighborhood near Tanglewood, lay on the horn, lean out the window and holler: Michaaaaael? MichaelWaaaa-aaaayne? Michael D. and I would scamper from hedge to hedge (making sure to skip mean ole Mrs. Queener’s yard altogether), keeping an eye out for that big Buick LeSabre as it crept through side streets and four-way intersections in search of the brown-eyed boy who loved his grondmotha.
On special occasions we took Nanda to nice sit-down restaurants like The Hush Puppy or Steak ‘n Ale. Either the service was too slow or the food unsatisfactory, and she’d request to speak with the manager. She always found something that required her speaking to the manager. In her overstated formality which incorporated an intermittent English accent, Pardon me suh, would you be so kind as to tell your manager I’d like to speak with him at once? or, Well! I’ve nev-ah been treated like this be-foah! Danny and I sometimes laughed at these performances, but mom never did. She’d be furious.
When Danny graduated from his green Huffy bike to a learner’s permit, he served as Nanda’s designated driver for weekend errand-running. I’d be on my knees in the back seat, hanging my head over the front like a panting labrador. But if we ever became restless or said something about needing to get back home, Nanda took great umbrage and saw it as disinterest and disrespect. With Danny at the wheel, she once got out of the car at a red light and began sauntering down the street clutching her oversized purse, her prodigious, dimpled backside (what we called moooooncraters) outlined through snug polyester pants undulating left-right-left, chin held high in indignation. We rolled down the windows with Danny inching the car alongside her and pleaded for half a block before she got back in. Pardon me gentlemen, do I know you? Danny’s patience with these antics had worn thin and shortly thereafter, it was me who was left to smooth her ruffled feathers.
Whereas I opted for keeping the peace when Nanda was on the warpath, my brother sometimes called her on it.
“Nanda, why are you being this way?” he’d ask.
“Oh Master, I am sorry I cannot please you.” Down on her knees she’d go, prostrate before him, a lanky teenager with a chipped tooth.
“Nanda, please stop. Get up. Get up!”
“Yes, your majesty,” her hands outstretched and head bowed. And for the rest of that day, no matter what my brother said to her, she’d only respond with “Yes, your majesty” or “Yes, Master.”
On our way home from successful curbside service at Dairy Queen, Nanda took the scenic route and drove through the outskirts of town. Passing abandoned oil derricks and rows of rust-stained metal buildings, she pointed upward toward a radio tower whose end I could not see and began, There’s an ole big black bird up there, you heard about him? Her voice lowered to a husky, once-upon-a-time whisper. His wingspan is the length of this Buick. He lives in that tower up there, way up yonder on the very top. You see him? He can see you. And he’s a-watchin’ your ev’ry move. If you aren’t a good little boy, he’ll swoop down and snatch you from this car with his claws and take you up to his nest. Never to be heard from again. All the way home I kept thinking I’d seen a flash of something black in the high clouds above.
When mom and Danny came to pick me up late Sunday night, a heated argument between her and Nanda ensued. We were told to stay in the back bedroom with the door closed. I remember Nanda saying, But you’re not doing right by those kids and They need a real home. You can’t be running up and down the road, honky-tonking with every man you meet.
It was soon after her second divorce that mom moved us to East Texas where Papaw had relocated with Texaco years earlier. Disappointed in her single lifestyle and doubting her ability to raise us boys on her own, Nan and Pap were certain we’d benefit from cross-town family who only had our best interests at heart. For this was the early 70s when divorce and single mothers were not yet ubiquitous. Nanda didn’t approve of mom waitressing in cocktail bars and playing the tambourine in a Houston rock band. She didn’t approve of our being under the watch of sitters other than herself. And she most certainly didn’t approve of the suspected overnight male guests hosted now and then. Heading for the bathroom in the middle of the night, I once heard what I thought was my mother groaning in pain. Frightened, I crept to her bedroom door and peeked inside only to see a white muscled butt bouncing in the dark. A mixture of fear and wonder knotted in the pit of my stomach. I closed the door. Although I shared most everything with Nanda, this I didn’t. I knew there’d be trouble.
Then I heard my mother crying and shouting back, Why won’t you let me live my life? I’m doing the best I can. But it’s never good enough for you, is it? Never god-damned good enough! Spying from the hallway, I saw Nanda slap my mom so hard that she fell to the floor. She landed on all fours, motionless in her candy-striped pants and white top. The next thing I knew mom ordered us to get into the car, lock the door, and wait for her. Under no circumstances are you to unlock those doors! Confused and frightened we sat waiting in the backseat, our bodies outlined in dark blue shadows. Moments later Nanda flew to the car and rapped on the windows directing us, You better unlock that door! Nanda loves her babies, now. Just unlock this door, dammit! I heard her rattling each handle and slapping her palms against the windows. Danny warned, Don’t move. Be still. Don’t look at her. But I looked up and right into those green tinted glasses and wild black eyes. I’d always been Nanda’s baby, her Turtle Dove. She was my fierce protector and biggest fan. If I changed my cursive handwriting from straight up and down to a backward slant, she was fascinated to know and see. When learning to play the violin, screeching my way through “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” she was thrilled to hear and applaud. If mom and I were at odds or if Danny picked on me, she had my back. We were buddies.
So I pulled the lock, and we were wrestled swiftly back into the house. Nanda had called the constable to file a complaint, but mom had left before he arrived.
Once inside, Danny was taken to Papaw’s bedroom and I to Nanda’s. As she tucked me into bed, she claimed to hear something outside. Shhhhh. Dja hear that?? Wait. Shhhh. Listen. It’s that ole big black dog hittin’ the side of the house. He’s trying to get in. Hear ‘em? Shhhh. The gravelly alto of her voice, the wild eyes behind those green tinted glasses. Yes, I heard it. He’s liable to break through one of these wind-uhs if he even hears you a-breathin’. He’s roamin’ the land, searchin’ for little boys to eat. But as long as you behave, you’ll be safe. Right here with me.
Peering out the bedroom window and into the darkness, I offered my faint reply, I’ll be good, Nanda. I promise. I’ll be good.