We could have started earlier but we never did. The thrill of danger and the giddy chaos made us wait. Right off the bus we’d hit McCarley’s Exxon station for vending machine Cheetos and Slim Jims or, if we scrounged for extra coins, it was chewy Sweet Tarts and Coke Slurpees from 7-11. Star Trek began at four and we needed our provisions. Whether it was Klingons, tribbles or poisonous lotus flowers, my brother and I were riveted to the screen—he claiming Mom’s faux leather recliner and me lying on my stomach in the middle of the living room floor, palms against cheeks. An hour of unsupervised bliss. Working directly across the highway at Gibson’s Department Store, Mom typically got home around a quarter after five. So we drifted aimlessly in the eye of the storm and suspended all brotherly bickering, tacitly regarding this time as sacrosanct. The TV screen faded to black. A small white dot just off-center grew ever larger. Cue the music and the god-like voice began: Space… the final frontier… giving me chills. That and being strangely excited by Captain James T. Kirk’s snug fitting uniform and assertive commands. To boldly go where no man had gone before never sounded better.
Credits rolling and the punitive big hand of the sunburst clock pointing at twelve meant one of us shouting Fifteen minutes! and our running wildly through the apartment, bumping into each other like Laurel and Hardy or the Keystone Cops. Push-pinned onto the cork bulletin board in the kitchen along with report cards, utility bills, and a silver coach’s whistle was a list of our daily chores written in Mom’s impeccable English-teacher-cursive. There’s a place for everything and everything in its place, she loved to preach. One misstep and there’d be hell to pay. The last thing you wanted to do was upset Mother’s delicate disposition.
Danny raced to make Mom’s bed and tackled the bathroom by slinging powdered Comet on every surface—ceramic and otherwise—while I knelt on a dining room chair and washed dishes, white mountains of foam pouring over the side of the sink getting more water on me than anywhere else. My next task was clearing Mom’s vanity which was cluttered with makeup, hair accoutrements and eerie bald styrofoam heads. There were brushes and combs, eyeliner and lipstick, an eyelash curler and curling iron, rollers and their clips, bobby pins, hair pieces small and furry (like tribbles!) all of which had to be returned to their rightful places.
Inordinate preparations for Mom’s face and hair took place each workday morning. Leaning into her dual-sided makeup mirror with its frightening magnification capabilities, she’d start with foundation. The beige dollop on her middle finger was dabbed all over her face until it looked like she had some errant strain of the measles. Then working like an artist, she smoothed out the creamy discs using concentric rotations until the mask was complete. Puttin’ on my face, she called it. Following the painstaking application of eyeliner and careful gluing on of Midnight Blue eyelashes, she’d arch her brow like Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett, carefully tracing each eyebrow with a tiny black pencil. The final touches were quick pats of the powder puff and lipstick tested by two red smacks on a paper towel which also served as coaster for her morning coffee.
Her hair was a veritable high-rise construction project. There was the intense half-hour teasing of her entire head, the end result resembling the comical finger-in-the-socket mad scientist; next, with her mouth sealed tightly around spare bobby pins, a hairpiece would be mounted and tightly secured to the base for scaffolding; last, the teased nest was brushed and smoothed over this additional formation to create extra height or sometimes a swirled pseudo-beehive do. Come check for holes! mom summoned us (a request that would continue far into our adult years) and Danny or I came back to her bedroom hitting a misty wall of perfume and hairspray. While she sat eyeing facial touch ups at her vanity, we’d scan the back of her head and use a pick comb to even things out. The entire morning ritual was an amazing feat which lasted well over an hour. Her achievements even proved to be life-saving when, involved in an accident where her car was overturned crushing the windshield and pinning her in, EMS rescuers said her hairpiece had cushioned a potentially fatal blow.
A quarter after five and the last-minute details included lighting Gibson-discounted vanilla scented candles, a quick vacuum to fluff the shag, and preparing Mother’s standard after work drink—beer and tomato juice over ice. We were set. Thanks to those high-heeled shoes and living on the second floor, we could hear her distinctive click-clack-click-clack all the way up the stairs warning ambush. I’d sit on the couch feigning boredom as she made her entrance, waiting to see what her temperature was that day. It typically ran pretty high and her inspections rarely went without incident. Spotty vacuuming, a dirty countertop or clothes left on the floor resulted in audible exhales through flared nostrils and cabinet doors being slammed shut. We’d scurry about and redo the areas called into question. Instead of No more wire hangers! it was How hard can it be to do what I ask? How hard? Worst case scenario was the What I’ve Sacrificed speech and a below the belt, Do you want to go live with your father? Well? Do you??
No, we didn’t.
But there were those occasions when Mom’s good day at work lent itself to a more appreciative evaluation of our efforts. There was praise for a job well done and generous I love yous. Maybe even a special treat like getting to stay up late or ordering pizza or the best splurge of all, eating out. Let’s load boys! And before piling into the Mustang II, I’d run to my room in frantic search of my favorite t-shirt, the one with the iridescent arrow and “Get Down” written across the front. Barreling out of the apartment I felt the breathless elation of adventure.