I live in a Freedom Home. Some of my girlfriends call it an old double-wide, but it’s perfect for me. I like to think that I feel more free there. That I am more free.
For example, when I’m washing my hands in the powder room, I look at the word “FREEDOM” on the sticker on the windowsill, and I think about that time I crawled in there back in ’88 because I lost my keys coming home after working at Albemarle Pork. Scraped the dickens out of my elbows so they was red as my Aunt Dee (who was part Cherokee), but since when can you crawl in the window of a regular house? I mean, it would most likely be ten feet off the ground. A Freedom Home is low to the ground, kind of hunkered down like a cat looking to pounce on a mole. Heck, mine sits right on the ground, since I didn’t have enough money for a proper foundation when I bought it. Never got around to having one dug, even after I’d saved a little.
Keith, the salesman at Freedom Homes, he told me, “Miss Millie, that thing will last ‘til the Rapture.” And owing to the fact that a person would probably keep more valuable stuff inside a proper house, they’d have that window locked up tight as a pork belly after a feeding. Me, I keep my windows wide open, so they can just come on in and take what they need. No sense trying to hide anything. I keep my mother’s pearl earrings and the title to my Cutlass at the bank, and most everything else in there is just pictures or stuff I made.
Don’t get me wrong. I like things as much as anybody. Had me some of them porcelain clowns, the kind with each one a different face. I’d been collecting them since 1973, when I first saw them in the S&H Green Stamp catalogue. Every time I went to the Pig, I’d save those things and lick them and paste them in those books. Hurts my eyes just thinking about it now, but back then I was in my 40s, didn’t need reading glasses yet, the boys was in junior high or high school, and I loved nothing better than to think about new ways I could get me some of them stamps.
After I had the whole set of twelve—crying clown, balloon clown, clown with three dogs, even the best one, clown on a elephant—it just didn’t seem so important anymore. I sat there in our old house—not a Freedom Home, mind you, just a normal, brick ranch out near the Lee Highway—and I looked at all the expressions on their faces. It seemed to me, before I had the whole set, those clowns represented every possible feeling. Funny clowns. Confused clowns. But when they were just sitting there in front of me, all twelve of them together didn’t seem to add up to even one real feeling I ever had. Not that awful ache in my stomach after I lost little Jennie in May of ’60. That was like one of them ice cream tubs at Baskin Robbins after it’s been scooped clean: cold and raw and empty. No clown for that one. No clown for how proud I was the day Joe Junior won that spelling bee in third grade, and definitely no clown for when he robbed the Seven-Eleven and ended up in the state penitentiary.
I visited him for ten years, bringing him my chess pie, his favorite, which sometimes they’d let me take through all those gates, and other times they’d just toss out right in front of me, didn’t apologize or nothin’. I used to cry my eyes out thinking about him in there. That he had no real home, that he was someplace where they told him to do everything, even when to use the commode, and that boy, well, he just hates to be bossed. I used to think that if he coulda just settled down with that nice Vicky from over to Buena Vista, taken the job with his dad, he coulda bought that house next door to our old place and we’d all be there, pleased as punch, with grandkids running around and Joe Senior messing with that old Ford pickup. But Joe Junior was always thinking he could find something better, and always finding a mess of trouble instead.
Funny how I was fixed on that one idea for so many years. I pushed it and pushed it, making everybody talk about it at barbecues and after church. I kept on it till I near drove everybody crazy. One Thanksgiving, I brought it up at the dinner table.
“I heard the Nielsen’s are moving out to their granddaddy’s farm.”
“Yeah,” Joe Junior said, “they always were a buncha rednecks anyway.” He always ate curled over his plate like a dog that gets fed once a day, like he was protecting his food from everybody else. Made it hard to see his face, but I could tell his ears had gone red with anger.
Everybody laughed, but I just kept on. “I think maybe they’d consider an offer before they put up their For Sale sign.”
“Mama, how many times do I have to tell you,” Joe Junior hissed. “I am not gonna buy a goddamn house.”
Joe Senior hated to hear swear words, so he shot Junior a look. “Not at the table, son.” So quiet, that man, but he could scare us all with just a few words.
Joe Junior leaned forward over his turkey and mumbled something. All the boys liked to keep their brown hair short, like their Daddy’s, but Joe Junior’s hair was long at that time, and it fell forward around his hands.
“What’s that, honey?” I asked.
He leaned back and hollered, “I am 20 years old! I don’t care what fantasy you have in your head, Mama, but I don’t want a mortgage, I don’t want a wife, I don’t want any more responsibility right now—get that through your head!” He threw his napkin right in the gravy, and everybody just sat there, forks full of sweet potatoes or creamed onions.
Ricky was still a kid of 14 then. Couldn’t get him out of those rock-and-roll T-shirts, and when he wasn’t in school he was playing video games at the Pig. He put down his fork and said, “Heck, Mama, I’ll buy that house with you, and we can make it into a museum, like Graceland. We can charge lots of money, and have a Jungle Room and everything.” That cracked them all up, but I ran out to the kitchen, crying my eyes out. Today I see how funny it was, but at the time I just stood over the turkey pan, crying right into the dishwater and wiping my face with rubber gloves.
Yes, I am glad Joe Junior didn’t do any of that. Maybe that sounds funny, but I guess the Lord works things out the way he wants them. He’s got another two years in the pen, and he’s been studying for the GED. Something about prison helped him, and that’s the God’s honest truth. And I will make a confession: if I had to live next to any of my grandkids, I’d just about lose my mind. I love them, but on my time, when I’m ready. Twenty years of raising kids, and you think there’s nothing else. What a big fat lie! They’re like a hairdo you’ve had your whole life, and even though it doesn’t really look good on you anymore, you don’t even think that maybe you could try another color, or cut it nice and short. Then one morning you go to Hair Today, and you sit in front of that mirror with Georgina behind you, and she says, “Now, wouldn’t you look good as a redhead.” And you don’t know why but you say, “Okay, Georgie, be my guest!”
When my kids left, it took me a good long while to not automatically wake up thinking about how I had to buy more toothpaste, or that I had to plan when to shave my legs so I could wear shorts to Frank’s football practice on Thursday. Then one day I realized that I hadn’t even thought about buying Spaghettios for the longest time. After I had a good cry on it, I dried my eyes and just got to work giving things away that I hadn’t used in years. That felt good, I will tell you. But I never would have found that out if my plans had come true. Amazing how life makes you want something so bad, then if you never get it, you can be so grateful.
Or God grants you your wish, and it makes you feel just terrible. After Joe died, those china clowns were four rows of silliness in my walnut hutch. Four rows of me bein’ a fool. Here Joe was alive and breathin’ and so good looking even in dirty jeans and an old plaid work shirt, and he’d come home from building some new bank or an addition on somebody’s house and all I’d want to talk about was the next clown I aimed to get me and how many stamps it would take, or could we rent a little beach house down to Pensacola in April, or why didn’t we get a satellite for the TV…?
Not that he was perfect. That man was hard to please. Very little tickled him, except fishing and car racing on TV. But I feel like we was just gettin’ ready for some good things to happen to us, and then he up and had a stroke. Age of 52. Hardly old enough to be an elder at Calvary Baptist, and he just keeled over right there in Goker’s Hardware. I looked at those clowns for a month, crying, praying about what would I do now.
Joe and me, we had a lot of fun in our day. While the boys were still young enough, we left them with Mama and Daddy and went over to Gatlinburg once in awhile. Joe liked to ride the chairlift into those mountains, since he had family over that way and went as a kid sometimes. In summer the mist is so thick you can kiss right in public and nobody will say boo. Funny that I have such good memories of the place, ’cause that’s where he told me about Kelly. Kelly, the girl who answered the phones for him and the other boys at the contractor’s office. It was smart of him to do it when we were halfway up the hill; otherwise I might have got in his truck and gone home all by myself, even if I didn’t know how to drive a stick. He kept his face turned the whole time he told me about it. How he meant it as a fling, but she fell in love. That he felt like a heel. Why he knew it was over.
“Millie, I mean to fix this,” he said. I looked at the back of his neck, where the sun made tic-tac-toe marks out of the lines in his pale skin, and I confess I wanted to hit him right there with something heavy, like a tire iron or a hammer, something of his to make it all the worse. Just up and kill him and then get off the lift at the bottom so quiet and leave him to keep on riding all day long ‘til the teenagers closed down the place at seven or so. I’m sure the folks going down on the other side of the chair lift thought we were a happy couple just plum amazed by the beautiful scenery. In truth, we was like those clowns with their backs to each other, touching shoulders but too mad to turn around and have it out.
“There’s no fixin’ something this broke, Joe.” I looked at my hands, the hands I had worked on for a week to get them smooth and pretty for him, shaped the nails so I could tickle his back just the way he liked it: slow then hard.
“I know I don’t deserve another chance. But I am scared, Millie. I am scared to death of losing you.” He still didn’t turn around, but he reached out his hand and took mine. It was big and warm and callused, but it felt like a stranger’s hand.
“Are you hungry?” I asked him.
He shook his head.
“Well I am. Let’s go get us some barbecue.”
It wasn’t easy, that time. They had to fire Kelly, and she called a few times to the house, crying and goin’ on about everything. I didn’t make a peep, didn’t even give Joe the look that I wanted to give him, the look that would say how he had ruint the good thing we had. I just got his clothes cleaner, cooked his favorite chicken cutlets with gravy, made sure the boys were out of the house when the NASCAR came on. Everything perfect, except we didn’t have the thunder in the sheets that was always an easy thing between us. It took a long time for that to come back. When it did, I said extra prayers to the Lord for fillin’ our house with love again.
The sweet times lasted just a few years, though. After he passed, I found out Joe let the life insurance lapse, so I only had the house. I hadn’t worked since I was a checkout girl at the Pig in high school, but Albemarle Pork took me on. Watched sausages and hot dogs and bacon come off the line, shoved them into Styrofoam trays, then guided them into the machine that wraps them up in cellophane. It sounds easy, but it is not. Those slabs of bacon come gushin’ out of the slicer like water over a spillway, and you’ve got to flip them into the tray, make sure they’re clean (no bone, no hairs, nothing to scare a customer) then line them up just right so they’ll fit into the wrapper.
I hated it. At first anyway. Hated the smell, a strange kind of sweet like gardenias mixed with the metallic smell of blood. I never could get that stink out of my clothes, so I started to buy stuff at the Goodwill to wear under the white smock, then I’d burn it after two weeks.
The other girls, they were younger and made fun of me. “Oh that Millie, she’s so slow,” they said behind my back but loud enough so I heard every hateful word. “She’s like to fall asleep standing at the belt. Gonna end up inside a package of hot dogs.” They even called me Breakfast Patty for a while, ’cause I brought my own biscuits before the morning shifts.
For the longest time I kept to myself. Never was much for chitchat. Plus, I had lived with men so long, I forgot how mean women could be. Eventually, though, the young ones married off, had kids, and the ladies who stayed got closer to my age. We started going to the movies together, especially ones with that cute Patrick Swayze. Saw everything he did: “Dirty Dancing,” “Point Break,” and that one where he goes to India and saves all those poor little children, “City of” something—“City of Angels”? Maybe.
It was one of those ladies, Helen, who told me about Freedom Homes. Even with Joe Senior’s Social Security, I was having a hard time with the mortgage, and I didn’t really need all that space. Joe Junior was sent up, Frank was married and already had two little ones, and Ricky had signed up with the Marines.
“What do you need with a big old house, Millie?” Helen asked me one day after we saw “Ghost.” Helen has that kind of thick hair that is just naturally wavy, lucky girl. And whenever she asks me something important, she pulls a strand down and twists it. That’s what she did that day in the movie theater parking lot, just twisted and twisted it, and said, “Why don’t you come see my Freedom Home? It won’t take but a minute.”
I admit, I did not like the idea of even visiting in a mobile home before Helen. I took great pride in the fact that no one in my family lived in a trailer, as I used to call them. But hers was just so nice inside. Paneling, nice carpet, even a fireplace with those electric logs that heat up and everything. She had a nice set of linens for her table she got from her sister who died of liver cancer, and pictures of her and her husband Bobby before he passed. And a dishwasher! I’d never had a dishwasher in my life. Maybe that was what sold me. The idea that I’d never have to scrub another plate as long as I lived.
We talked about it some, and she told me that there was a quarter acre available right next to her there in Blue Ridge Estates, and that with the money I’d get for the house I could buy the land, the Freedom Home and still have plenty left over. I could work part time at Albemarle Pork or even quit and just live on the Social and Medicare for my heart pills. “It’s time, Millie,” Helen said. “You’ve been holding onto that place far too long.”
I went home and looked around. Same old TV tables leaning up against the same old wall in the den, leftover from when Joe and me would watch the news and “Star Search” and that bass fishing show he loved so much. Same old pictures of the boys in school, Ricky in his dress uniform, my grandkids Tiffany and Tommy. Same old kitchen utensils I’d inherited from Joe’s mother, rusty spatulas and mixing bowls with chips in the edges.
All of a sudden that house looked like somebody else’s. Like a big old burden. Like something I had to take care of instead of someplace I lived. I called Keith at Freedom Homes, mostly because it made me think of Flag Day, and of Ricky on his ship. One week later my home came down Highway 29 on a 18-wheeler. I used to laugh at those things, or yell at them when they took up too much road and scared the tar out of me, but now when I see one I just wave at that truck driver. I’ve got a Freedom Homes sticker on the passenger window of my Cutlass, so they figure it out and wave right back at me. It’s kind of like a club, I guess.
People make all kinds of fun about mobile homes, but speaking for myself, I can’t believe I waited this long. They are warm, they are convenient, and I clean my Freedom Home in the time it took me to wash the kitchen floor in the old place. It is just heaven.
The last thing I gave away was those clowns. I packed them up real good and tucked them under the lacy pink bedspread Joe would never have stood for, until I could figure out the best place for them. Frank’s wife Lisa hinted around that she wanted them, but that just didn’t seem right. That girl is too greedy, and anyway, I didn’t want my grandkids growing up with just 12 ideas for feelings. The more I thought about it, the more they belonged someplace where they could do some good.
Then I saw a report on the news about this house in Lynchburg for retarded kids, and that did it. The lady there acted so surprised, I thought she’d break one of my nails she shook my hand so many times. Now they’ve got those clowns locked up in a glass case in the front hall. She told me in a little thank you note with a clown on the front — so thoughtful — that the kids really like them and have even given them names. The one with the elephant they call Dumbo, because they love that movie so much.
After I drove home, I sat on my stool in the kitchenette and looked out at the straw they’d laid down on top of the grass seed. It was early April, and the dogwood tree they planted for me was just getting some buds on it. Ten years later and that tree has already grown eight feet, and the pink blossoms are exactly the color of Joe Senior’s freckles. But I don’t get sad about him near as much over here. Helen is right next door, and a couple other ladies we play cribbage with live close by. We’ve got a well for now, but the city keeps growing and they say we’ll be on town water in another year or two. And every morning, when I open up that dishwasher and find a whole row of dishes that I did not have to clean, I thank the Lord that I live in a Freedom Home.
Then I go outside and water my roses, and I knock on Helen’s door so we can make some coffee and think about what movie we want to see on the weekend. Lately she’s been sweet on that Spanish boy Antonio Banderas, but I don’t know. I’m still on the fence.
K. W. Oxnard’s work has appeared in many literary journals such as Story, TatlinsTower.com, GlobalGraffMag and Reed, and she is a regular op-ed columnist for the Savannah Morning News. A graduate of New York University’s MFA program in fiction and a twelve-time recipient of fellowships to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, she has also been a finalist in the following contests: the 2015 Southwest Review’s David Nathan Meyerson Prize for Fiction; the 2014 River Styx Schlafly Beer Micro-Brew Micro-Fiction contest; and the 2002 Sarabande Books Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. And she was a semifinalist for the 2015 Lascaux Review Prize in Flash Fiction and the 2002 Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Prize in the Novel.
*Offensive language is included in this fictional work according to the author’s wishes in best serving her character’s development.