Flying Purple People Eater: 1958

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Flying Purple People Eater: 1958Saturday morning, as soon as Howdy Doody is over, my dad starts jingling his keys like Captain Kangaroo and says, okay, Susie-Q, let’s get this show on the road. My mother says, Vince, don’t let her have any lemonade. She’s sitting in the phone chair with her feet up on the banister, twisting the cord in her fingers the way she always does.

I mean it, she says. The acid upsets her stomach.

Yeah, okay, he says. He winks at me.

I mean it, my mother says again.

I  heard you the first time, my dad says. Lets the door slam behind us.

*

My dad drives with one hand, the other arm out of the window. The wind blows his hair straight up, like Felix the Cat’s when he sticks his finger in a lamp. My mother said, don’t do that, you could be electrocuted. When I was little, I kissed myself in the toaster. You could have been killed, she says. But all I did was burn my tongue.

My dad looks at the gold watch on his wrist and says it’s about time for the Wabash Cannonball, and turns the car down the street to the train station. That’s our favorite Saturday place to go when it’s just us, no Mom or my sister Denise along.

Mr. Rink, the stationmaster, comes out of his office when he sees our car. He has something wrong with his leg that makes him walk funny, tipped over and crooked. The mean boys at school make fun of him. My dad told me never to do that because it’s cruel. You know what cruel means, don’t you?

Yes, I said. It means like when you hit your dog.

Something like that, he said. My dad told me that Mr. Rink got his leg shot off in the war for being a hero. Now he doesn’t have any hair and he wears gold glasses like Grampa Pamp. My dad has black hair he can’t keep combed with a yard rake. That’s what my mother tells him. Everyone says my dad looks just like a movie star.

Well, Vince, says Mr. Rink, like he’s going to say something else, but he never does. They just stand there looking at the tracks, with their arms folded. Men don’t seem to mind not talking.

I feel the train shivering up into my feet before I see it. The engineer blows his horn twice and that’s when I see the headlight come around the curve.

Right on time, says Mr. Rink.

I wave and wave. The engineer waves back at me and I wave at the cars with people in them though they go by too fast for me to see their faces. Then I wave at the men on the caboose until I can’t see them anymore.

My dad says the train used to stop here, on the way to Detroit, but that was a long time ago.

*

My dad lets me play with the radio in the car. I turn and turn until I find a station that’s playing “Purple People Eater,” my favorite song in the whole wide world. My dad can sing all the words. When he says, “eatin’ purple people and it sure is fine,” he wiggles his eyebrows up and down, the way he does when he plays a joke on my mother.

My dad says, How about lunch at Norm’s? He says things that way all the time: How about cleaning your room? How about setting the table? That means I should do it.

Norm’s restaurant is on a corner by a stoplight. There’s a big icicle on the front door, which means it’s Air Conditioned Inside. It’s so cold when I walk through the door the hair on my arms sticks straight up. I sit on a tall stool next to my dad at the bar who tells me to be careful, no monkey business. I saw a man fall over one time when we were here. His head was bleeding and the ambulance came and got him and the siren was loud. My dad told Norm it was because Paul Schneider never met a whiskey bottle he didn’t like. That was the name of the man who fell.

Norm takes the cap off a beer bottle and gives it to my dad. My dad always drinks Stroh’s beer, because he’s loyal.

Like a king, I say.

He laughs and says, No, that’s royal.

Norm always says that the day my dad drinks some other kind of beer he’ll retire and move to Florida. Norm hates Florida, nothing but bugs and old biddies, so I don’t know why he would go there.

We’re the only ones in the whole place except for some people who are sitting in a booth eating hamburgs, two men and a lady. The lady is turning the pages on the jukebox. All the booths have their very own jukebox. You can put your dime in right there at the table and push the number of the song you want. I can read most of the names on the songs on the jukebox by myself. I always play E6, “Purple People Eater.” I know the number by heart. The lady plays Johnny Mathis, ugh. My mother listens to him in the afternoon while she’s ironing and cries.

Because I need a good cry sometimes, she told me. You will too, someday.

Norm doesn’t like the jukebox because it drowns out the Tiger baseball game on the radio. He says, one of these days, no jukebox.

No money in my pocket, he says. It all goes to a bunch of Italians in Detroit.

You sound like a broken record, my dad says. No pun intended.

Well, it’s true, Norm says. He walks away, rubbing his hands on the towel he wears around his waist.

Norm rinses out a metal thing like the ones they use for milkshakes at Kresge’s. He takes a bottle out of the refrigerator and tosses it in the air, catches it behind his back. I should tell him that my mother said I shouldn’t have lemonade but I don’t.

Seen Mattie yet? Norm says to my dad. He pours from a bottle of fizzy stuff and puts a top on the metal thing.

Mattie who? my dad says.

Come on, Norm says. Heard she’s divorcing that Toledo guy. Or divorced him.

He shakes my lemonade a couple of times and pours it into a glass full of ice and puts a cherry in it. I look at the bubbles coming up the side of the glass. A long time ago, my dad told me the bubbles were alive and they were running away from a monster at the bottom of the glass. I would drink my drink fast, but I couldn’t ever catch the monster.

How long she been home? my dad says.

A while, Norm says. You want to use the phone?

I wait for my dad to tell me I can’t have the lemonade but he’s not looking at me. He’s ripping matches out of a book and throwing them in the ashtray. So I drink my lemonade all the way down until my straw gurgles and my dad says, Quit it, that’s bad manners.

Who’s Mattie? I ask him.

Someone from a long time ago, he says.

*

I drink two lemonades and then I have to go to the bathroom. My dad says, Okay, see you. I can go to the bathroom by myself, but not my little sister Denise. One time when my mother was with us, too, we were eating at the Big Boy and Denise stayed away a long time and when my mother and I went to look for her, she was sitting on the toilet crying. She was locked in and couldn’t get out. I said, dummy, look, you could have crawled out under the door, but all she did was cry more and my dad spanked me for being mean to her.

People write on the wall of Norm’s bathroom. I like to sit and figure out what the words are. Shit. Bitch. Purgatory. Bastard. I stay in the bathroom for a long time, reading, and when I come back my dad is talking to some lady. She’s sitting in my seat. She has hair that’s curly all over her head like my mother’s when she sets it on Spoolies and my dad always says, Marie, which light socket did you stick your finger in? The lady’s hair is red and she’s got blue stuff all over her eyes.

I give her a mean look so that she’ll move over and give me back my seat. But she doesn’t.

This is Susan, my oldest daughter, my dad says to the lady.

The lady is drinking beer like my dad’s, but she drinks from a glass. She takes little sips like my mother says you should drink hot tea. Her lips leave a big red mark on the glass.

She says, Honey, you look so much like your dad.

My dad says, Susan, this is Mrs. Dunlap.

She says, You’re so big, honey, in a way I don’t like at all.

My dad doesn’t call her Mrs. Dunlap. He says Mattie and looks right at her eyes.

Norm makes another lemonade for me, only this time he doesn’t throw the bottle up in the air. He’s watching my dad and Mrs. Dunlap. They’re laughing at something from a long time ago.

In high school, says Mrs. Dunlap.

Before Mom? I say.

My dad says, You going to help Norm with lunch?

Mrs. Dunlap is putting her hand on my dad’s watch and looking at him. Norm says, Come over here, Susie, and give me a hand with these here burgers. I try to hear what my dad is saying over the noise of the sizzle. He’s talking the way my mother does when she doesn’t want me and my sister to know what she’s talking about.

Norm says, Okay, now, the buns. He says not to worry when I burn one. I put pickles on all of the plates. I put ten on my dad’s plate, one on top of the other. My dad likes pickles.

Norm takes the top off two more beers and gives them to my dad and Mrs. Dunlap. My dad’s face is red and he’s laughing a lot, rocking back and forth in his chair. I’m afraid he’s going to fall off and smack his head like Paul Schneider. Norm puts three cherries in my lemonade and I eat them real fast, one right after another.

Mrs. Dunlap has her face in her hands and I think she’s crying and I hope so because I hate her. But she looks up and she’s laughing. Oh, Vince, you can still do that to me.

I ask my dad if we can go home now.

In a minute, he says.

Now, I say.

Mrs. Dunlap says, Oh poor little girl I’ve taken your daddy away haven’t I? She gives me two dimes and tells me to go play the jukebox. The dimes feel hot, like they’ve been in an oven. I punch E6 twice.

When the music starts, I sing as loud as I can: One-eyed, one-horn, flying purple people eater.

So, my dad says. You staying in the same place?

I kick my feet up. Pigeon-toed, undergrowed, flying purple people eater.

Why? Mrs. Dunlap says. Like you’re going to stop by sometime?

I stick my arms out like an airplane and start to spin. We like short-shorts, friendly little people eater. I spin and spin. I see Norm and then I don’t and then I see four Norms and four Mrs. Dunlaps and four of my dad.

What a sight to see.

I stop spinning when the song stops but the room keeps going around and around and around and I can’t help it, I throw up all over the floor, lemonade and hamburg and pickles. My dad is there, I feel him leaning over me, but I don’t look at him because he’ll be mad at me and then he says, It’s okay, Susie, it’s okay, and so I start to cry.

*

The whole way home the baseball game whispers from the radio. The car seat feels rough on my cheek, the same as my dad’s jacket when he carries me up the stairs and tucks me into bed. My mom sits next to me and rubs my back until I fall asleep.

When I wake up, it’s dark. I hear the television and Mom saying, Didn’t I tell you about lemonade?

Voice like that, you’ll wake up the dead.

I told you, she says.

You did. Now drop it.

You saw her, didn’t you?

I told you to drop it.

I pull the pillow over my head until all I can hear is the roar of the train. I put my hand on my stomach and press the place where it still hurts down deep. When I push on it hard, I can feel it rumble.

It’s the monster. I swallowed the monster and now he wants out of there.


Photo used under CC.

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About Author

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Sarah Freligh is the author of Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis. Her fiction and poetry work have appeared in Sun Magazine, Hotel Amerika, BOAAT Journal, diode, SmokeLong Quarterly, and in the forthcoming anthology New Microfiction: Exceptionally Short Stories (W.W. Norton, 2018). Among her awards are a 2009 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a grant from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in 2006.

1 Comment

  1. Tanya Brooking on

    Flying Purple People Eater – terrific! Why do I feel like Susie somehow “won”? 👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽

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