Home Ec

Home Ec

Because of her bulk, my sister smuggled scissors into places like JC Penney, Belk, and Merry-Go-Round. She’d pretend to interest herself in both blouses and dresses hanging on those circular silver garment racks at Casual Corner, Kmart, and Cato, work her way around to the Size 4s and 6s, then snip off the labels. I don’t know if she stuffed them into the pockets of her own Size 18 moo-moos, stick them in her mouth, shove them into her enormous armpits, or slid them into her size 10 moccasins. Because Carlinda took—and thrived in—Home Ec, she knew her way around a Singer Touch Tronic sewing machine. She’d clip off the labels to her own clothes, then attach her stolen tags seamlessly. We didn’t notice until she got caught. By “we,” I mean my parents, plus me. Why would I even care? I had enough problems with weird half-inch-in-length eyebrows, set at the far ends of my forehead, which looked like someone pausing or forgetful making a dash mark in typing class.

“Your mother’s busy, so you have to go with me, Melvin,” my father said to me one day, maybe an hour after I’d gotten home from tenth grade. This was a Thursdayday in April, and I wasn’t one of those kinds of students who participated in sports, nor got involved in various after-school clubs that all our teachers seemed to hate. I don’t want to say that I held my classmates in contempt, those who chose to play baseball or run track, the others who sat around playing chess, or speaking French to one another while eating, I don’t know, crepes, but I preferred to go home mid-week and stare at the wall.

I could run two miles in ten minutes, if it matters. I just chose not to do so. I was the Bartleby of my particular high school. I’d rather sit home and read, than participate with fools.

“Go where?” I said to my dad. He didn’t make eye contact. I didn’t look up from my book.

My father wore blue polyester pants that held a maze-like pattern. “Your sister seems to be in trouble. We have to go now.”

I got off the couch and, I’m sure, huffed with agitation, as I normally did when things got thrown on me, like having to cut the grass, or clean up after our dog because I forgot to let her out. My father put on his special wingtips, the Size 15s, even though—I found out later—he wore a regular sized 10 1/2 at best. My father, who worked on and off part-time as a salesman, plying anything from vacuum cleaners to Better-than-Brillo, wore oversized shoes because he thought it gave him an advantage. Later on I learned that there was some kind of correlation between large feet and penis sizes. Did he know this? Was he going door-to-door and showing off these shoes in order to both mesmerize and conjure unsatisfied women? I don’t know.

Full-time my father supposedly sold life insurance. I guess when people wouldn’t buy the, say, snake bite kits, he’d go straight into the importance of life insurance.

I said, “Where are we going?”

My father put on the outsized wingtips and said, “Why can’t your mother ever be here during these times?”

My mother worked as an emergency room nurse. I don’t know about every other hospital in America, then or now, but it seems like her schedule changed sporadically, from first to second to third shift. My memory might be wrong, but I remember my father serving breakfast more often than not, and it usually being nothing more than bacon. No eggs or toast, just bacon. Maybe he had something against pigs.

I said, “Why couldn’t have I thought to be on the Geography Club Team, which meets every Thursday gearing up for that year-end competitions?” because I kept a sullen tendency. As an aside, I probably knew more about Africa than anyone else in my high school, because I had a certain fascination with Maasai warriors, ostriches, and distance runners from the Rift Valley.

I felt glad that my father didn’t walk with a cane. He gave me a look like he would’ve hit me, had he walked with a limp. I can’t be certain, because he turned his head somewhat, but I think he said, “Goddamn you, you son-of-a-bitch, sometimes you burn my balls.” He said something, I don’t know. He said, “Get in the goddamn car. We got to make our way to a place called Debs and Brides to figure out your sister.”

I knew he meant business. I’m not sure why I envisioned my mom standing around with a mask on her face, unaware, handing a scalpel to somebody I didn’t know.


They held Carlinda in the employee break room. A security guard sat there with her. That’s what they told my father when we entered Debs and Brides, a place with linoleum floors that used to be an S.H. Kress five-and-dime store in our town. I mention “linoleum floors,” because my father strode down an aisle, flanked on both sides with what appeared to be prom dresses. I lagged behind, thinking about Idi Amin. My father’s wingtips kind of flip-flopped, that’s how hard he walked. I don’t want to say I found myself daydreaming about going to a senior prom in a few years, on a date with a woman wearing a backless sequined ruby-red dress like the one that caught my eye, but the next thing I knew, I found my father sprawled out on the floor, next to one of those knee-high yellow CAUTION WET FLOOR signs, except this one read CUIDADO SUELO MOJADO, Spanish for the same predicament.

My father yelled out, “Owww!” of course. I stopped in my tracks. One of his shoes flew off and kicked a red, white, and blue dress that, to be honest, might’ve caused a young woman to unintentionally start line-dancing.

I should’ve rushed up to him. I should’ve said, “Are you all right?” From the back of the store, I’m pretty sure I heard my sister yell out, “I’m back here,” and “I’m innocent!” I should’ve run up and grabbed one of my father’s elbows to help him up. If cell phones had been invented by this time, I should’ve called 911. He’d cracked his head hard on the linoleum, and some blood—not a lot, but still, blood—spread beside his right ear.

Then I got to thinking about how weird it would be if my father got sent to the hospital, and needed some kind of surgery, and got wheeled in to where my mother stood there. I thought about how Carlinda might start screaming, with no one there to get her, how she was hungry, and wanted some bacon, or at least a few packs of Nekot peanut butter cookies.

I said, “You’re embarrassing me. Get up.” My father’d either gone into a coma, or was playing possum, I couldn’t tell. I said, “Hey, Dad, there’s a woman back here who wants to buy some insurance.”

He didn’t move. I thought, What would he want me to do? so I tiptoed around him, and went to find my sister. I figured this was one of those “You’re the man of the house” times. Don’t get me wrong: I knelt down to make sure he breathed. He did. I looked at his face, but his eyes had kind of rolled back, which scared me somewhat. I thought about how my father looked a little like what I imagined Hiempsal looked like back in 117 BC, when Jugurtha ordered his cousin’s death back in ancient Numidia.

Someone working at Debs and Brides must’ve noticed what went on, because over the loudspeaker a woman called out, “We need some help on Aisle Two.” Over the years, when I tell this story at parties—now that both my parents are dead—I always say the woman said, “Clean up on Aisle Two,” but it’s not the truth. At family reunions, or Christmas parties, when Carlinda’s around, she stares non-stop, almost daring me to re-tell the story. I won’t do it in her presence, basically because something happened on this day. She joined a gym, she lost a hundred pounds, and she became a weightlifter who won a number of southeastern competitions. My sister could beat me up with one punch, the kind of right jab that would make me hit the floor and bleed from both ears.

Anyway, I got there with the security guard and Carlinda. I said, “Dad’s had an accident.”

She sat on a plastic chair. On the table between her and the guard sat at least ten scissored labels. I said to the guard, “Do you speak Spanish?”

He shook his head No. I said, “Neither does our father. You might want to go help out back there.” I pointed my thumb behind me. I said, “You might have a dead guy in the prom dress section.”

My sister put her head down in her hands and cried, but I don’t think it had to do with Dad. I think she realized she owned a problem or two. I’m no psychologist or soothsayer, but I think Carlinda might’ve thought about how she either wanted to lose some weight, or quit snipping tags, or quit eating bacon for breakfast. Me, I thought about Kip Keino—who won gold medals in the Mexico City and Munich Olympics—and wondered how he would deal with this situation.

The security guard—why would there even be such an employee at a small southern town dress shop?—grunted up and went out to check the situation. I said to my sister, “Grab those tags and let’s get out of here before anyone notices.” This might’ve been the first sign that I would choose a fitting way of life, either as a docent at the History of Slavery in the South Museum, or as a voice-over actor who offered PSAs for CrimeStoppers, if not both.


My mother wasn’t happy, certainly. Sure enough, she got word about her husband between helping out with appendectomies. An ambulance took him to the hospital, but he got checked out in the ER and got sent home with Tylenol. Meanwhile, Carlinda and I sat in the den, trying to think up excuses and lies. I wasn’t old enough to drive without a parent in the car. When Carlinda and I escaped Debs and Brides we took my sister’s car out of the parking lot. Dad’s Buick remained there. My mother showed up right at dusk, my father shuffling in, wearing one shoe, behind her.

“What the fuck is going on?” my mother said, still wearing scrubs. I’d never heard her curse before.

My father sang, I swear to God, the theme song to the Jetsons cartoon. He smiled at Carlinda and me. He held up his palm. He said, “Hey, kids.” He wore a white gauze headband, like that dude playing the flute in that painting.

I started thinking about Idi Amin again, and later on would wonder about the connection. Maybe “Meet George Jetson” had the same number of syllables as “Idi Amin,” I don’t know. Same with “Daughter Judy” and “His boy Elroy.”

Earlier, Carlinda and I agreed that she should say how she got mislabeled, so to speak, as a shoplifter, that it had been a mistake, that someone else clipped label sizes and she’d been almost-arrested illegally. But my sister blurted out, “I might have a problem.” She said, “I can’t believe you’ve never noticed when doing the laundry,” to my father, who normally put clothes in our ancient, leaky Maytag.

My father smiled so much we could notice how he missed a molar on the left side of his face. He said, “Whoa! It looked there for a minute like I might’ve succumbed. Good thing there’s a life insurance policy.”

I’ll admit that, there for a few years—maybe straight through college—I dropped a fascination with Africa’s ostriches and supplanted it with any kind of research into personality changes after traumatic head injuries. I found out that my father shouldn’t ever drink, that he might be prone to future seizures, that he might become colorblind. He’d sleep a bunch at first, then go forty-eight hours as an insomniac. Driving at night would be a problem, because he might be prone veering off the road, blinded by headlights. There were a hundred symptoms, some of which might’ve been “not scientifically proven.”

My mother stared at Carlinda, then glanced my way. She said, “How long have you known about this little problem, Melvin?”

I shrugged. I said, “Maybe four or five hours.”

Now my father began singing the theme song to Gilligan’s Island. I didn’t have any kind of African-related places or names to fit in with the lyrics. My mother took my father by the bicep and said, “How’s about you go lie down for a while. I’ll come bring you supper in an hour or so.”

I said, “Hey, can I go take a run?” because I’d not done so that day. Normally I got up before dawn and ran six miles in thirty-six minutes, which, I found out later, would be the cause of my shin splints and tendonitis. Later in life, it would be the cause of bad hips and knees and ankles.

Carlinda said, “Can I go with Melvin?” She’d never said such a thing. It would turn my thirty-six minute run into a couple days, I thought.

“Neither of you are going anywhere,” my mother said when she returned from taking Dad to bed. “We need to go pick up your father’s car. Carlinda, you’ll have to drive, and I’ll drive the Buick home.”

Normally my mother took a shower straight after her shift. I don’t know if our local hospital didn’t have shower rooms for doctors and nurses, but sometimes she came home looking like a gunshot victim. The driver’s seat in her own car—a normal Plymouth—probably held more DNA than the Avalon Cemetery in Soweto, South Africa.

We got in Carlinda’s car. She drove. I sat in the back seat. My mother said, “There’s no reason to be ashamed, Carlinda. Good god. I work with a nurse who weighs at least three hundred pounds, and she’s brilliant. Unless she drops a sponge or something, leans down to get it, then wallows around on the operating room floor for a while holding up someone getting his gall bladder taken out.”

I thought, Kip Keino beat Jim Ryun by three seconds in the Mexico City Olympics’ 1500, then won the 3000 steeplechase in the Munich Olympics. I thought, Mama Cass was a big woman. But then I couldn’t think of any of that band’s songs. Thank goodness, so I couldn’t replace lyrics with, say, Robert Mugabe, or the Mau Mau Rebellion. I sat in the back seat and didn’t think about how my father may have gotten out of bed, found the phone, and called a lawyer friend of his who, years later, would be one of the first attorneys in our area to buy TV ads.


My mother might’ve been a good nurse, but she wasn’t much when it came to looking into the future. She didn’t have any expertise in logic, or cause-and-effect. We got to my father’s car and my mother said, “You ride with me, Melvin.”

I got out, huffing and groaning, drooping my head, shuffling. My mother jangled car keys as if she were about to throw dice in that craps game.

Carlinda drove off before we even got in Dad’s car. She went in the direction of our house, but we didn’t see her for another, oh, year. My mother filled out a missing person’s report the next day, and so on, but Carlinda—even with her size—seemed to disappear. They say that obese people tend to be invisible, and evidently it’s the case. I’ll just go ahead and say that the next time any of us saw Carlinda, she’d dropped a good hundred pounds. Maybe she went to live with a relative who promised to keep the secret, we never found out. Carlinda returned, she re-enrolled to finish her senior year of high school, and then she ended up in subsequent years on ESPN, either arm wrestling or power lifting.

That section of my life—my ninth and tenth grade years—kind of blurred together. I worried about my sister, sure. I know my mom did, too. Somehow, though, my father rarely mentioned it. No, he found himself engrossed in not knowing Spanish, and meeting with Mr. Clardy, his lawyer—a man who wore a black clip-on Kentucky gambler tie.

While Carlinda fled, and while my mother and I drove the thirty minutes back home, my father got on the phone with Mr. Clardy and explained his situation. Understand that this was a long time before all this “anti-woke” nonsense, or about how people thought “You better speak English if you live in America.” Sometimes when I think back on this period of my life, I wonder if my father unknowingly started a Revival of Xenophobia so prominent in the twenty-first century.

I quit running. I got tired of the track coach saying he’d get teachers to fail me if I didn’t join his team. My mother tacked photocopies of Carlinda on every telephone pole in the

Carolinas. I guess my father went back to work, but who knows? It does seem like we went from pot roast to near-goulash—elbow macaroni, hamburger, paprika—for most evening meals. While my father accidentally started a right-wing hatred group, my mother tried to run the nascent Hamburger Helper industry out of business.

“Billy says we have a case. We’re about to get a house in Myrtle Beach!” my father said when my mother and I returned, not knowing that there’d be an empty bedroom in our ranch-style house.

I turned on the TV and sat on the couch. We got three channels back then. Because it happened to be a Thursday, Benson came on. I liked Benson. I liked to think that somehow the actor Robert Guillaume’s relatives originated in the Rift Valley.

“I don’t know who Billy is,” my mother said. Peripherally I could see her grab my father’s bicep again, like she wanted to take him back to bed until his head cleared.

“Well,” my father said, way too loudly, “that sign didn’t say anything about ‘wet floor.’ It was all in Spanish, nothing in English. Billy says we can sue Debs and Brides, no problem. He said there’s been—I don’t know the word. He said it’s happened before.”

I yelled out “Precedent,” from the den. Sometimes when I took those morning runs, I carried a paperback dictionary with me.

My father, for some reason, said, “Watch your mouth, son. You don’t know how easy it would be to paint a bull’s eye between your far-apart eyebrows.” What did that mean?

My mother called back at me, “It’s his head injury, Melvin. Don’t worry. You dad’s going to say a number of non sequiturs for a while.”

I’d not gotten to “non sequiturs” in the dictionary. The actor who played Benson said, “That’s two words,” while watching TV when an announcer said something about how the basketball team can change the way things are going with one word, “fast break.”

I thought, of course, It’s as if someone is watching over me, seeing as “non sequitur” might be two words. I thought, Poor Carlinda, probably driving from one drive-through window to another, over and over. “Can I go out for a run?” I called into the kitchen. “Please, please, please?”

I got no answer, so went into my room and changed. Understand that by this time darkness had hit. It wasn’t that much different than mornings when I ran, with streetlights on. I took off, not cognizant of how my father would eventually win a six-figure settlement, even after payment to Mr. Clardy. I didn’t know that Debs and Brides would end up closing altogether because of my father’s lawsuit, and that—because of our town’s small size—prospective debutantes, bridesmaids, and brides would, in the future, travel sixty miles away to gather their appropriate finery, or wrestle with a Singer Touch Tronic while turning curtains into evening wear. I ran at a six-minute pace, looking for my sister’s car along the way. Bats flitted above, casting shadows, which made me flinch. I thought, Don’t trip and hit your head, don’t trip and hit your head, something I’d say to myself every day of my life.


About the Author

Singleton's published ten collections of stories, a collection of essays, two novels. He lives in South Carolina.


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