Ewing Eugene Baldwin
Spoiler Alert: This is not an essay on Lepidoptera. The author is decidedly not an etymologist. We will not be exploring crepuscular, diurnal or nocturnal moth facts here. Moth trivia will appear from time to time, but only in service of the story.* Mottephobia sufferers may read on with no fear. Well, maybe a little trepidation. Moth-ers (mawthurs) may be disappointed. Sorry about that.
Foreshadowing: Take away the hyphen of Moth-ers, and what have you got?
Editorial: Moth haters: A silkworm by any other name is still a moth. I’m just saying.
Ah, you are thinking, alright then; I’ll just relax and read. I wouldn’t relax, if I were you. But unless certain fringe speculations re theoretical physics should be proven to be true, I am not you. I am me.
Call me Ishmael. Or call me what my high school mates called me: Ish. Repeat what my German grandmother would proclaim when she was upset with me: “Ach, Ish!” Who would name an innocent child Ishmael? A certain pregnant person reading Moby Dick, while awaiting labor, that’s who. Said pregnant person who, upon gazing at her massive, swollen abdomen proclaiming the impatient, kicking inhabitant to be “as big as a whale.”
I have a mother. You have one too. You wouldn’t be reading this otherwise because you wouldn’t have been born. Your mother may be deceased. In that case let us hope she is a wrinkled angel wrapped in white, exclaiming with exuberance about flying in the heavens and not (I’m not speaking of your mother, of course) arriving at the below-ground Dante floor on the Elevator of Death, meeting the Devil and soon, very very very soon, her unrelenting lectures on how to improve Hell drive the Evil One to his knees in prayer—until he tries to barter with God and give my—anyone’s— mother back: And God replieth cheerfully, “No thanks.” Pax tecum; rest in peace.
Have you seen the TV show, Everybody Loves Raymond? Do you remember laughing at Ray’s mother’s schemes, her embarrassing antics and unrelenting pushiness? Would you be laughing if that was your mother?
Speaking of moths: My mother is like a giant hawk moth—if giant hawk moths were human-size that is. Darn it—excuse my language—my mother is a human-size giant hawk moth! There, I’ve said it. *Trivia alert: Giant hawk moths, Manduca sexta, belong to the Sphingid family. They have the longest tongues of any moth or butterfly. They are masters of camouflage. They are found mainly in Arizona.
Mother’s tongue unfolds like a party favor, the one where you blow into a mouthpiece and a flattened tube of paper unfolds and inflates and a shrill noise is emitted. That noise was emitted in my house for my entire childhood. And there was Mother’s sesquipedalian, throbbing tongue: she continuously, compulsively, wetting her fingers on her moist tongue protruding through the pie hole of her over-lipsticked mouth.
Mother has sampled parts of me—ears, cheeks, head hair, head hair products, nose hair, nape of neck, eyelashes, armpits, pimples, scars, dandruff—a million times. Seeking what? Grime, stickiness, waxy build-up, psychic aura, scabs, oily skin, unspeakable boy smells, crime? Mother believed that criminal behavior could be detected on the face. By criminal I refer to the rite of boyhood stealing—of cookies say, or of dime store candy or my brother’s piggy bank; of innocent boy lies, revealed—so our giant hawk moth opined—by the dilating pupils of the eyes; of lust—I won’t go there. Mother went there, I won’t go there.
And, of course, *moths are most active at night, which terrified me as a child, you know, things under the bed, fear of darkness. Mother came into our bedroom every night, after she thought my brother and me to be asleep. Maybe Parker was asleep. I lay under the sheets, my hands instinctively jammed in my jammies, and listened as Mother crept, making the rounds, checking the chests of drawers for God knows what, or, when we were teens, for dirty magazines, riffling the pages of our books for secret message stashes, crawling along the baseboards, groping under the beds, sizing up each item of dirty clothing in the laundry basket, sipping and sampling liquids from half-empty glasses, tap-tap-tapping for false walls in the closet. I swear I heard the flapping of wings, giant moth hawk wings. There was no use looking for her in the dark, she camouflaged as wallpaper or tiles on the floor.
At the dating time of her sons’ lives, mother performed the same tongue-to-fingers routine on the budding, luscious girls—all right, budding, pimple-faced, twitchy, pale, gnawed fingernails girls we were dumb enough to bring home.
Perhaps this explains why Parker and Ish almost never had second dates. And our first dates told all about the family Almendinger at school, and the legend of “The Tongue” was born. Superman was the big TV show at the time. The Tongue made Superman (actor George Reeves in a faux muscle suit; he committed suicide, which depressed Parker and me for years) look like a, well, pretender, which is what he was.
Editorial: Suicide is the coward’s way out. Ishmael and Parker Almendinger did not commit suicide. No, they were brave little soldiers, considering the fact that their commanding officer was General Tongue, aka Giant Hawk Moth, and their last name was Almendinger and “dinger” had a certain connotation which could make a boy’s “dinger” shrink smaller than a *crepuscular caterpillar.
I don’t wish to mislead you. Aside from the aforementioned moveable muscular structure, Mother looks nothing like Raymond’s TV mother. She is handsome, thin—even stately, with tastefully coiffed grey hair. She wears slacks and orange Fighting Illini sweatshirts. She owns thirty-one orange Fighting Illini sweatshirts. She has a computer; she surfs the Web and does e-mail. She is a Groupon groupie. She shuffles along like a cross country skier, minus walker or cane. Her voice sounds flute-like, as though she were speaking words while inhaling, making everything she says sound like a question. She has wonderful posture.
Eventually, in our late twenties, Parker and I married sturdy, corn fed southern Illinois girls. (Ah-hah, you’re thinking, error, giant hawk moths are Arizonians, and this story is set in Illinois; ah-hah to you, I riposte; Mother was born in Bullhead City, her family moved to the Land of Lincoln when she was eight; settle down, read on.) Parker married a puppy-like woman who didn’t mind being licked. I married good old Trudy, not a pimple on her, and strong and brave is my little hawk moth net. She loops her invisible net of personality over Mother, never taking lip, finding the good where others fail, standing straight, if short, and resolute. Like a lithe soccer goalie (I know, mixed metaphor, moth nets and soccer nets—so sue me), Trudy, her white hair bobbing, dodges and darts and deflects Mother’s proboscis and probing; she pooh-poohs Mother’s apocalyptic warnings, machinations, fears, protestations, prophecies, gossiping, homilies, advice and, thank God, views regarding sex, the “Woman’s Burden.” It was love at first sight for Trudy and me, and she presented me with my very own spine, a spine I proudly inserted and carry to this day.
Oh yes: I had a father. He was a guard at Lincoln’s Tomb in Springfield, not a demanding job, as President Lincoln did not move around much. Father would come home from work and sit in his command chair in the living room, sipping homemade dandelion wine out of a jug, watching anything on television—infomercials, soaps, talk shows, B movies, commercials, politics, the American Indian image that appeared at the end of the broadcast day—all the time Mother exhorting him to improve his sons, his posture, his sloth, his manners, his lack of faith, his ambition, his moral ambiguity, his blood pressure, his piles . . . and he never uttered a multi-syllabic rejoinder. His tongue never revealed itself. My brother and I, when we came upon certain lascivious knowledge in the fifth grade, tried to imagine our giant hawk moth’s tongue and Father’s invisible tongue intertwining. We. Could. Not. Yet, we were born; we stood before a floor-length mirror and poked at one another; we saw therefore we were alive; therefore the giant hawk moth and Silent Bill “did it”—at least twice. Yuck.
But this is not a tale of one’s past, a “My mother ruined my life, which is why I’m a drunk/drudge/dudgeon/curmudgeon/punching bag/miscreant/misogynist/skirt chaser/bed wetter.” No, I made it through life as a respected Protestant minister and a gifted water colorist, with paintings shown in many galleries; I am in my element when I paint: waterfalls and old churches and ice formations and forests and sunsets. And Trudy, bless her, ministered to the sick and needy, and she gardened, and we had three wonderful kids, and now we’re doting grandparents, and we’re retiring to Ashville to be near our granddaughter and “all’s well that ends well.”
Except for one thing.
“Mother,” I said nonchalantly, on the phone the other day, “how’s the packing coming?”
Mother answered nonchalantly, “What packing?”
“The packing,” I reminded her nonchalantly, “you’ve been working on because we’re selling your house to move you in with us in Ashville, only you refused and said you wanted to move to Terre Haute instead, to be with Parker and his family, but you don’t speak to Parker and he wants no part of you, so you’ll be alone in case of emergency, but Trudy and I are moving to Ashville with or without you, four hundred miles away from you, and we are not making weekly round trips to help you when a light bulb burns out, and you were told we had to drive to Terre Haute this week to home shop because your current house, which I own, which I bought for you because you said you didn’t want to interfere with Trudy’s and my life (but you have interfered every day for ten years, you Manduca sexta; you’ve bought me underwear and socks for ten years when I am perfectly capable of buying underwear and socks; you’ve criticized my sermons for ten years because I am not ‘Jesus-ee’ enough for you; you have criticized Trudy for her cooking, her makeup, her haircuts, her driving, her unskilled, improper wifehood, her child rearing because Trudy wouldn’t check her teenage son’s room for porno, she would have been shocked if he didn’t have a stash of porno, it’s what boys do, a man thing, maybe our mothers drove us to it), your house, my house will be occupied by strangers next week—”
I sighed nonchalantly, a yoga-style sigh, lasting for ten seconds. Trudy and I have been experimenting with Tantric Yoga.
“Do I hear a nonchalant sigh, Ish?” Mother inquired. “You don’t tell me anything? And that Trudy? Shut up, shut up, shut up?” Mother was speaking to her whining, shivery one pound rat dog with rheumy blue eyes, Beanie, who is about two hundred years old in human years. “She doesn’t want me?” Mother said.
“I mean Trudy, you silly Ishy? Howl like a fire engine, Beanie baby?” I heard this cracked, ancient cawing noise over the phone, Beanie the fire engine, followed by a dog fart. At least I hoped it was a dog fart. “Beanie baby loves me unconditionally?” Mother was an admirer of the self help books written by the pseudo-philosopher, Dr. Wayne Dyer. He alone is why I am in favor of taxing the rich.
“Oh, Trudy wants you,” I assured Mother, recalling the New Year’s Eve when Trudy and I and Uncle Jake and my brother—when we were speaking—and their wives invented a parlor game we called “Clueless” in which the players assume the roles of a family plotting to kill their mother, and I drew Cousin Mustard with the arsenic-laced orange juice in the scullery, which is okay because thoughts aren’t actions in spite of what the Old Testament says, that ‘eye for an eye’ BS—excuse my language—and there is ‘to be’ and ‘to be’, if you catch my drift and what is death but the New Journey. Right, Dr. Wayne Dyer?
“I want to die among my friends?” Mother said. “And lie in the ground next to your sainted father and watch TV?”
My sainted father had been buried with a miniature bronze of Abraham Lincoln and a small TV in his casket. I doubted that the reception was very good. As for the Great Emancipator, picture a six inch-long bronze of him placed in Dad’s cold, rigid right hand, at waist level, sticking up like a— . . . Decorum and the fear that my beautiful granddaughter might read this, keeps me from elucidation.
And so off we drove: my giant hawk moth, Beanie baby, Trudy and me, Springfield to Terre Haute. What’s a few hundred miles when your reward is you’re ditching—I mean helping—your mother?
We discovered a trailer park—the management called it Sunshine Homettes—and a For Sale double wide camouflaged with so much exterior bordering and aluminum hems you couldn’t see the wheels. That baby was not hitting the road. Two bedrooms, two baths, a doggie door for Beanie, who could now howl like a fire engine for Hoosiers. And Mother proclaimed it Paradise. She got on her cell phone with the Justin Bieber ring tone and called her local homeys, and it turned out there were three old friends within six miles of her.
My brother was literally 10.4 miles away, but figuratively, he was on the moon. We called Parker and told him about Sunshine Homettes and he thanked us, his voice dripping with sarcasm. We knew eventually he’d end up shopping for nectar for our giant hawk moth and Kibbles for Beanie. We knew he’d drive Mother to the doctor, the chiropractor, the dentist, the ophthalmologist, the senior center, the bowling alley, the miniature golf course, the old ladies clothing store, the local Canada goose hangout to feed the poor buggers stale Wonder Bread, the Protestant cycle of churches, the coffee shop for Wednesday coffee, the Terre Haute City Council meetings. The Springfield City Council could rest easy now; dingbat Mrs. Gretchen Almendinger would no longer rise as a citizen grandma and protest every single item on the agenda—excluding senior issues, of course—no longer stand outside in public with a protest sign reading, “Why Don’t You Just Kill Old People?” And passers-by would toss coins at her feet. Oh, Terre Haute, tremble. Tremble. Tremble.
So back we drove to Springfield, one happy giant hawk moth in the back seat singing Bringing in the Sheaves about a hundred times, Beanie baby farting and howling like a fire engine, Trudy and me listening to oldies with the sound turned up, talking excitedly because we were halfway through our journey: back to Terre Haute for the big move then on to Ashville, to our love nest with the swimming pool; Ashville, where Southerners were unfailingly polite, where Andy, Opie, Gomer and Aunt Bea were everywhere you looked, where the winter climate was mild, and the yard was grandchild friendly.
Trudy and I like each other. For thirty-plus years, it has been like we are always just meeting, always in love and lust. I am her man, even though I’m portly and balding and my name is Ishmael Almendinger. Trudy is encouraging me to package my sermons into a book: Ishmael to Asaph: Collected Sermons. Women don’t judge men like men judge women. I am a lucky man.
I was a lucky man.
We packed up Mother’s belongings. When we finished I collapsed and savored a glass of water. When Trudy was finished, a half hour after I thought we were finished (“Men usually get done before women,” Trudy said. I wondered, how many ways did she mean that?), some muscular young men moved the pile into a truck and drove off, to rendezvous with us at the homette in Terre Haute. We walked through the house and garage to make sure every last thing was removed, the now empty place awaiting the new owners tomorrow. We were climbing into the car when Mother said she wanted one more last walk-through to check that the stove burners weren’t on. Sometimes a burner would come on but not light. She picked this moment to tell us that. We smiled wanly and said go.
This is the slow motion part. You know, the movie switches to slow motion when everyone onscreen sees something the viewer can’t see and one of the actors points at the monster, the crashing meteorite, the killer with a knife, the ex-lover walking out, the tornado bearing down on Ma and the youngins, the cowboy riding off into the sunset. And some ubiquitous actor mouths the words: “OH NO!” or “STOP!” or “PLEASE DON’T KILL ME!” or “HOW COULD YOU!” or “DON’T GO, SHANE!”
We watched as Mother climbed the front steps. She pulled a package of cigarettes and a book of matches from a pants pocket. “Mom . . . doesn’t . . . smooooke!” She lit up, inhales and entered the house. “Mom . . . doesn’t . . . smooooke!” Through the picture window, we saw her walk into the kitchen. “Mom . . . doesn’t . . . smoooooke!” We watched as a bright orange flame bubbled out from the kitchen and the house blew up: KABOOM! We saw smoky space where a house once stood, our mouths agape. We stood in a rain of detritus, of blown to smithereens two-by-fours, of twisted aluminum, of brick dust. I shouted to the ruins: “WE’RE SORRY . . . WE CALLED YOU . . . A GIANT HAWK MOTH!”
Came the fire engines, came the paramedics in the ambulance, came Beanie baby howling like a fire engine, newly like an ambulance, rubbing up against my leg like he knew who his daddy was, its Hoosier mommy no more. Only a little flame fluttered now, coming from the gas pipe poking out from the foundation, once attached to the stove.
We stood stunned and watched fire professionals do their work, milling around in smoke that slowly settled, like a curtain closing on a play. We watched the horror on the faces of the neighbors and heard their homilies: “That Miz Almendinger, what a gem.” “She was a sweetheart, always wavin’ at the kiddies.” “She always over-tipped the pizza delivery guy.” “She grew the best Beefsteak tomatoes and she insisted on us helpin’ ourselves.” “She gave me two hundred dollars to replace my busted windshield when she knew I was out of a job. Saint Almendinger is what that lady is. Was.”
That was when we saw another flame, a match in the gloom. That is when we saw a giant hawk moth, my mommy from BullheadCity, through the smoke, sitting on the hillside above the bye-bye, gone-gone, boom-boom house. That is when we raced, as only sexagenarians could do, around the foundation of the house. Mother watched us and puffed away at a Virginia Slims, a thick smudge of black and grey covering her face and hands and flickering tongue, her orange-and-ash Illini sweatshirt of the day and ash-white pants rent, and shoes black with soot. Trudy and I panted and fell at her feet.
“I am fine?” Mother said. “Why the fuss?”
“When did you start smoking, Mom Almendinger,” Trudy asked her.
“About the time you two told me you were abandoning me? I needed some comfort? My friend Delvina Cartwright introduced me to cigarettes and Scotch? I like cigarettes and Scotch? Heck, I’m eighty-two? I sure am not afraid of lung cancer and I like getting high?”
“Mother,” I said—
“Don’t you start on me, Ishy?” Mother warned. “The burner was on and not lit? I told you it was broken two years ago?”
“You never did.”
“I did until I was blue in the face? Now I’m black in the face? I’m a black woman? Look here, everybody, look, look, I am a black woman?”
“Why aren’t you dead?” I asked.
“I was lifted up?” Mother said nonchalantly, “and plopped down here? Don’t ask me? Ask God?”
Dear God, why did You save my mother from a gas explosion that should have cremated her? Why did You, in Thy Universal considerations, decide to save the life of a nondescript old lady? You crashed those students in that school bus in Texarkana. You allowed that serial killer in Wauwatosa to kill prostitutes. You leteth Paris Hilton et al make sex tapes. If Trudy and I madeth a sex tape, You’d hit us with a lightning bolt. You winked at Hurricane Katrina, the Japanese earthquake, global warming, Kim Jong IL, the Tulsa tornado and Home Alone, Three. You even let Newt Gingrich rise like a Phoenix! Now Trudy and I have our very own Phoenix. Don’t get me wrong. I know a miracle when I see one, I’m on Your team, remember. Just curious: Why not more tears from that concrete Virgin Mary impression in the underpass on that Chicago freeway? Why not lift the Pope out of the Vatican and fly him around in Your spirit hand to bless the world? Why not turn on Dad’s TV in the grave and reanimate him and Abraham Lincoln and let them watch reruns of CSI: Miami, making Father Abraham weep at the futility of war? (If David Caruso is an actor I’m a croupier on a cruse ship.) Why me, God? I’m just saying.
And now . . . this. There is a cigarette smoking, Scotch swilling giant hawk moth in my house here in Ashville. There is a farting old dog howling like a fire engine in my house. Mother decided that You had given her a sign, and she needed Trudy and me more than a homette in Terre Haute. I ask Your Infiniteness, what is so frigging bad about a homette in Terre Haute? I am thinking of moving to a homette in Terre Haute. I own one. I also own a concrete pad in Springfield, which the new owners returned on account of there being no house attached to it. And there is ourSpringfield parsonage, which we can’t sell because of the housing market. To sum it up: two houses, a concrete pad and a homette. We’re like those couples on those home flipping reality shows. You love David Caruso more than you love Reverend Ishmael Almendinger—not that I’m jealous.
Trudy is talking about an open-ended plane ticket to see the world, solo. We were going to swim naked in our swimming pool in the dark. We were going to play “Doctor/Nurse” (Trudy would be the doctor, I the nurse) in every room of the house. Trudy would nix the sex tape, but she wouldn’t hold it against me. She’s married to a man, after all. I know, I know, starving babies in Africa and all that. Did You know—of course You know, You’re omniscient—my fathead brother calls every night and laughs hysterically then hangs up? God, are You listening? God, can You hear me, alongside my warm, sleeping Trudy in my dark bedroom? Can You hear the chest of drawers opening, the farting, senile rat dog gasping for breath and padding about, listing from paw to paw, its ancient vocal chords no longer capable of howling like a fire engine, just rasping like a fingernail on a chalkboard? Our bookshelf of serious books featuring the complete works of Charles Dickens and Cormac McCarthy, the book pages riffling in hopes that hidden secrets will flutter to the floor, the searching for smut, the scuttling along the baseboards, the probing under the bed, the incessant metallic-like ruffling of paper-thin wings, the long, probing tongue poking the soles of my feet? Can you hear the underwear and socks being carried out only to be replaced by more underwear and socks? Do You hear the sibilant song of the giant hawk moth in the key of D-flat? I’m cursed with perfect pitch. Rhymes with . . .
©2014 Eugene Baldwin