Goldie and Melba
By Jessamyn Rains
The young woman was pale and rail-thin, and her blond curls had been dyed black and straightened. She was working the morning shift at the Waffle House in Grandin, Tennessee, breaking open rolls of coins very slowly and dropping them, one at a time, into the register.
Her aunt Melba stood on the other side of the counter, pasty and freckled, with long, braided gray hair. She wore purple polyester pants and a red sweater with a groundhog on it, and she carried a huge tiger-print satchel over one shoulder.
“What on earth did you do with your hair, Goldie?” Melba asked.
“I go by Leah now,” the young woman said.
“Fine. But that hair…what’s wrong with the way the Lord made it?”
“Nothing, I’m just helping him out a little.”
Melba rolled her eyes and looked to her left and right, as if searching for someone to corroborate her opinion, but the restaurant was empty, except for the two of them.
“Heard you got you a new baby,” Melba said, finally.
“Yep,” Leah answered.
“I woulda thrown you a shower if I’d a’ known,” Melba said.
Leah continued to drop coins into the register and did not answer.
“Did ya know I’m workin’ back at the City Zoo?” Melba asked.
“Thought you were retired,” Leah said, still dropping coins.
“Got too bored,” Melba said. “Missed the animals, too.”
“Thought you were just the janitor,” Leah said.
“Yeah, but that don’t mean I can’t be friends with the animals.” Melba took the satchel off her shoulder, set it on the counter, and pulled out two Grandin City Zoo coffee mugs, filled to the brim with candy corn.
“Brought you some presents. For you and your husband,” Melba said, setting the mugs on the counter.
“Don’t got a husband,” Leah answered.
“Well, you got you a man somewhere, if you got a baby,” Melba replied. She reached into the bag again and pulled out a book. “And I brought this for ya. Signed by the author.”
Leah set her coins down and took the book out of Melba’s hand.
It was entitled Odyssey of a Princess. On the cover there was a woman dressed in white, walking through a swamp with an alligator at her heels. Beneath the title were the words, “A thrilling new novel by the bestselling author of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: A Memoir.”
Leah flipped through the book to the back page, where there was a picture of the author, a large fuzzy brown bear with a blue polka dot tie. Underneath the photo was a note, in blue pen: “To Goldilocks: Thinking of You. Sincerely, Earl J. Bradford.”
“Where’d you get this?” Leah asked.
“Found it.” Melba said.
Leah looked at Melba doubtfully.
“You comin’ for Thanksgiving? Your mama’s comin’,” Melba said.
“Don’t know—hadn’t thought about it.”
“Well you better think about it—Thanksgiving is less than a week away.”
“Me and Mama ain’t on the best of terms.”
“I know,” Melba said. “But she’s been living alone all these years. You best come see her.”
Leah didn’t answer. She stuffed the book into her apron pocket and turned around and began arranging cups and platters on a shelf.
“You’re welcome,” Melba said, after lingering a moment. She picked up her satchel and left.
Melba returned to the Waffle House the next day around the same time. There was a man behind the counter with slicked-back hair and thick glasses, stuffing paychecks into envelopes, checking names off a list.
“Lookin’ for my niece,” Melba said, when she reached the counter. “I guess she goes by ‘Leah’ now.”
“Leah Billingsley,” the man said, shuffling through his stack of envelopes. He pulled one out and set it on the counter in front of Melba. “She ain’t here today,” the man said. “She called in sick this morning.”
“Says she’s got the flu. I had to pull a double to cover for her. I been here since six last night.” He wiped his forehead. His dark, thick eyebrows were raised high above his glasses, as if he were trying with all his strength to keep his eyelids open.
“You better get you some of that coffee,” Melba said, nodding to the half-full pot behind the man.
“Nah,” he said, “I wouldn’t give that to my dog.”
“You look like you’re about to keel over,” Melba said.
“I’ll be alright,” he said. “You wanna take her paycheck over?”
“Alrighty,” Melba said. “You get yourself some rest, young man.” Melba took the envelope from the counter and left.
She got into her rusty blue 1984 Ford Escort and started the engine. She looked at the envelope in her hands. Leah’s name and address were typed on the outside. Melba drove to the address—apartment 3C in a run-down complex called Mountain View Village—and knocked on the door. She turned the knob without waiting for an answer; the door opened an inch, the length of the chain lock.
“Yoo-hoo! It’s just me! Yer Aunt Melba!”
She could see through the crack in the door that the apartment was in a state of disarray: clothes hanging out of unpacked boxes, a baby bed in the living room, a dresser in the kitchen.
“Yoo-hoo!” Melba called again, louder, and banged on the door. “Got yer paycheck!” There was the sound of a baby wailing, and Leah appeared, dressed in PJs, looking flushed and unkempt.
“Aunt Melba, you woke up the baby,” Leah said, irritably. She lifted the baby out of her bed, then came to the door and unlatched the chain. “I’m sicker’n a dog. Why you have to come hollering like that?”
“Thought you might need your paycheck.” She handed Leah the paycheck, then took the baby out of Leah’s arms. “What a precious angel!” she said. The baby began to cry again.
“She don’t like you, Melba,” Leah said.
Melba lived on Juniper Mountain, in a little trailer up against the woods with a mysterious-looking shed behind it. Her lawn was full of garden gnomes, flamingoes, old furniture, and rained-on cardboard boxes full of moldy clothes and papers that had once belonged to some nearly forgotten ancestor.
The inside of the trailer was just as festive as the outside. Endless figurines were displayed on shelves. Completed puzzles hung in frames on the walls: a little red barn, horses, kittens playing with string. There was a fully decorated Christmas tree, strings of lights, and cardboard cut-outs of elves and reindeer dangling from hooks in the ceiling.
Melba poured herself a glass of sweet tea and sat in a faded blue plaid recliner next to her green landline phone with an extra-long cord. After guzzling half the tea and pulling a crocheted blanket onto her lap, she picked up the phone and dialed her sister Louella’s number.
“I saw your baby. She’s back in town, workin’ over at the Waffle House. Stayin’ at Mountain View Village, apartment 3C in Grandin. You better go see her, she’s sicker’n a dog… No, I ain’t driving over to your place, I’m tired… You’d be tired too if you’d been drivin’ around all morning in an old beat-up car.”
Melba drove down the mountain the next day with a crockpot of chicken noodle soup and knocked on the door of Leah’s apartment, turned the knob without waiting, and pushed the door open the length of the chain lock.
“Yoo-hoo!” she yelled.
She’d recognized Louella’s sporty little white car in the parking lot, and now, as she peered in through the crack in the door, she could see that in less than twenty-four hours, the apartment had been transformed. Boxes had been unpacked and cleared away; furniture had been rearranged; a large TV had been set on an entertainment center in the front of the room; a huge floral recliner had been placed in the corner; plants were hanging from the ceiling; and a large, framed family portrait hung on the wall above the couch.
She could smell bacon frying and biscuits baking.
“Yoo-hoo!” she yelled again. “It’s Melba!”
“Hold your horses!” came Louella’s shrill voice. Then came her heavy step across the brown carpeted floor.
Louella unlatched the chain, and Melba stepped into the apartment. She saw Leah lying on the couch, apparently sleeping, with Odyssey of a Princess upside-down on her chest.
Melba followed Louella into the kitchen, where the baby was sitting on the floor, babbling and banging a wooden spoon on a plastic bowl. Melba set her crockpot on the counter and reached down to pick the baby up. “You’re gonna have the blonde curls just like your mama! Oh, you’re gettin’ teeth! You sweet little thing!”
The baby started to cry.
“Give her to me,” Louella said, taking the howling cherub. “You make the coffee.”
“Hold on a minute, I gotta plug my chicken soup in,” Melba said, looking around for an outlet.
“She’s had chicken soup already, up to her eyeballs.”
“More chicken soup ain’t gonna hurt her.”
“No, but I’ll tell you what will hurt her. Giving her books by that bear. All she does is lay there and read that dumb book. Won’t even watch any TV. It’s gonna ruin her eyesight.”
“Reading ain’t gonna hurt her either,” Melba said.
“Rubbing her face in it, ain’t ya,” Louella said. “What she done wadn’t that bad. You and me done worse when we were little.”
Melba found a canister of Folgers and began spooning it into the coffee maker.
“It wadn’t her fault what happened to them bears,” Louella said.
“Never said it was.”
Louella set the baby back down on the floor and took a Virginia Slim out of her bright pink leather cigarette case and lit it up. “I guess I was a bit hard on her,” she said. “But she coulda gotten killed. And I had social services breathing down my neck for two years.”
“Nobody blames you, Louella.”
“Of course they blame me,” Louella said. She took a puff off her cigarette. “Didn’t you read the book? ‘She was a poorly brought-up little girl,’ it says. Hundreds and hundreds and thousands of people read that. Pretty much ruined her life. Ruined mine too.”
“You seem like you’re doin’ alright to me,” Melba said.
Louella was large and round, with a blond bouffant and ruddy skin, dressed head-to-toe in a fuchsia jumpsuit with matching painted nails.
“Yeah, I did alright in the divorce,” she said, a bit ironically, puffing on her cigarette. Melba thought her eyes looked a bit swollen, as though she’d been crying.
“Plenty of people in the world have it worse.”
“Never said they didn’t,” Louella said, getting up to look for an ashtray. She settled on a Styrofoam cup. “But what about Goldie?”
“She goes by ‘Leah’ now,” Melba said.
Louella put out her cigarette. “Next time you call before you bring chicken noodle soup,” she said.
Leah had recovered by Thanksgiving, and Louella had moved into her apartment with a large, flowered duvet and a blow-up mattress, more or less permanently. The two of them woke early Thanksgiving morning and made ham, a sweet potato casserole, two pumpkin pies, a green bean casserole, and two dozen dinner rolls. Melba made a fifteen-pound turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and jello salad.
They ate at Melba’s trailer on red and orange paper plates, atop a kitchen table covered with a huge blanket with a cross-stitched turkey in the middle.
After the food had been eaten and the dishes cleared, Louella dozed off in Melba’s faded blue recliner. After she’d been snoring about twenty minutes, Melba turned to Leah and said, “Let’s get the food packed up and get going.”
“Where to?” Leah asked.
“We’re gonna take these leftovers to some hungry folks.”
Leah couldn’t argue with this. They packed up all the uneaten food in plastic containers, stacked it in cardboard boxes, and loaded it into the trunk of Melba’s Ford Escort. They put the baby with her car seat and a small fold-up stroller in the back and drove down the mountain and through the nearly deserted streets of Grandin.
It was dusk when they parked the little car outside the tall black gate of the City Zoo. Melba got out of the car and began to unlock the gate.
“What are we doin’ here, Aunt Melba?” Leah asked.
“Delivering the food to some hungry folks.”
“At the zoo?”
“Shh,” Melba said. She looked around and whistled. Leah took the baby out of the car seat, put her in the stroller, covered her with a blanket, and pushed the stroller back and forth to quiet her.
Melba opened the gate a crack, poked her head in, and continued to whistle. She looked back at Leah. “They’re coming.”
“Who?” Leah asked.
Leah peeked through the opening in the gate and saw four small dark figures ambling toward them. When they reached the entrance, Leah could see, under the streetlight, that they were indeed spider monkeys. Leah moved the stroller so that it was positioned behind herself and Aunt Melba.
“Shhhhh,” Melba said, with her finger on her lips, looking first at the monkeys, then at Leah. “We have to be very quiet, or we could get in big trouble. Guys,” she said, addressing the monkeys, “we need help with some boxes. Wait here with the baby, Leah.”
Melba walked to the trunk and opened it. The monkeys deftly lifted the boxes and noiselessly carried them into the tall black gate. Leah entered behind Melba—after ensuring that she was a safe distance from the monkeys—and Melba locked the gate behind them.
“Take one to Ms. Erma and share the rest.”
The monkeys started laughing and chattering, and they split up in four different directions, carrying the boxes of food.
Melba and Leah entered the tall black gate and walked through the zoo, pushing the baby stroller. In some places, it was dark and silent; in other places, the lights were on. When they reached the central courtyard, there appeared to be a cocktail party of sorts happening: there were chimpanzees, giraffes, donkeys, and various birds eating hors d’oeuvres on small plates—little pieces of cheese wrapped in meat—and they were drinking something from clear plastic cups.
“I hope that’s non-alcoholic,” Melba remarked to a large bird who wore a feathered hat with a veil and sparkly bangles up one leg.
“What’s it to you?” the bird asked.
Melba sniffed but declined to answer. “Where’s Mrs. Bear tonight?”
“She didn’t feel like coming out. She wanted to stay in and watch TV. It’s getting close to that time, you know.”
Melba leaned toward Leah and whispered, “She means close to hibernation time.”
“Well, hope y’all had a Happy Thanksgiving,” Melba said.
“Not much to be thankful for in this place,” a donkey remarked.
“Could be much worse, my friend,” Melba said.
“Easy for you to say,” the donkey answered, turning her head away.
They continued to walk through dark and silent places, through noisy and light places, until they came to the glass bear enclosure. Leah couldn’t see any of the bears, but through the glass, she could make out the basic shapes of trees and branches, caves, and little pools of water.
The American Black Bear’s enclosure was a departure from this theme: it was a cozy room with soft light coming from a floor lamp. The room was open at the front, like a stage set, and covered with glass. There was a bed against the wall, where the bear was lying, under a pile of quilts and blankets. She could see the top of the bear’s head, covered with a flowered cap. Across from the bed, on the other wall, there was a little round table with a bunch of wildflowers in a vase. There were bookshelves lining the walls. On a white dresser in front of the bed, a small black and white television was blaring.
Melba knocked softly on the glass.
The bear did not move, though Leah could see the rise and fall of its body under the blankets.
Melba knocked again. “Erma!”
Melba knocked once more, and then the body under the covers began to stir. Leah saw two great furry feet at the end of the bed, and, finally, the bear sat upright and turned toward Melba.
“Were you sleeping or watching TV?” Melba asked.
“Both at the same time,” the bear replied with a touch of growl in her throat. “Come on in,” she said. “I’m not exactly decent,” she added, pulling a robe down from a nail on the wall and covering her pink flannel nightgown.
Melba quietly and deftly unlocked the bear’s enclosure and slipped inside, holding the door open for Leah and the baby. A spider monkey, who had been waiting quietly outside, scrambled in after them, setting the box of food on Erma’s table. Then he scrambled out and down the dark hallway.
“Thanks, Hank!” Melba called after him.
Erma was sitting on the edge of her bed, cleaning her glasses.
“How you feeling?” Melba asked.
“Fine. Just because I’m old don’t mean I’m sick. “
“I know that,” Melba said. “Have something to eat.”
Erma slowly got up and made her way to the little table. She sat down on one of its straight wooden chairs, opened the containers, and began to devour the food at a speed that was shocking to Leah, who was standing awkwardly with her back to the glass wall, next to the baby in the stroller.
Melba and Erma seemed to have forgotten her.
The baby became restless and fussy. Leah lifted her out of the stroller and tried desperately to quiet her, but she clearly wanted to get down and explore. Finally, Leah let the baby down onto the floor. The baby crawled over to the bookshelf and began grabbing books and throwing them.
“No, no,” Leah said, and she scooped up the baby and held her tightly until she screamed so loud that Leah let her down again. Then the baby crawled over to a basket full of yarn and was about to tip it over when Leah picked her up and gently reprimanded her. The baby got down a third time and was going toward a basket of laundry when Erma said, in a loud clear voice, “That baby is just like her mama.”
Melba, Leah, and the baby stopped and stared at the bear.
“Do you know me?” Leah asked finally.
“Of course,” the bear said, staring straight into Leah’s eyes. “I smelled you a mile away.”
There was a dead silence.
“You were that little child who snuck into my house and ate all my son’s porridge and broke his little chair.”
Leah looked at the bear without speaking, then shifted her gaze to the ground.
“Because of you,” Erma continued, “we got picked up by animal control and brought here. We woulda been euthanized if it hadn’t been for Melba here. They never found Earl. He was hiding in Melba’s shed. She found him and raised him like he was her own son.”
Leah looked at Melba.
“I made a little bedroom for him in the shed,” Melba said. “No one ever knew he was in there. Then after he grew up, I got him a job as a forest ranger. Kinda like Smokey.”
“How come no one ever told me?” Leah said, finally. “I got a butt-whoopin’, and Mama gave me a hard time about it the rest of my life. Had to go away and change my name and everything. But I never knew what happened to y’all.” Tears of shame and humiliation welled up in Leah’s eyes and dripped onto the baby’s head.
“Oh, it’s all right,” Erma said, a little gruffly. “It’s water under the bridge.”
“Her bark is worse than her bite,” Melba said to Leah. “She gets low blood sugar. Just wait ‘til that food kicks in.”
“What do you mean, it’s all right?” Leah repeated.
“I mean it’s all right,” Erma said. “Let it go.”
“How can I let it go? You lost your baby ‘cause of me. All the books say I was a poorly brought-up child—that’s what made Mama so mad—but I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was just looking for friends.”
“We know, Leah,” Melba said.
Leah looked from Melba to Erma, then back to Melba again. The baby squirmed violently in Leah’s arms. Leah set her on the floor, and she crawled over to the bear and tried to scramble onto her lap.
“No, baby!” Leah said.
“It’s okay,” Erma said, “I won’t hurt her.” And she picked the child up, set her on her lap, and looked into her face. The baby reached up, touched the bear’s soft cheek, and babbled.
“She’s beautiful,” Erma said, staring at the baby, “for a human.” Then she looked at Leah. “You still looking for friends?”
Leah wiped her tear-streaked face. “Well, I just moved home after being gone a long time, and now that I have a baby, none of my old friends really come around...”
“You come see me,” Erma said. “Bring me food. They never give us enough around here. Especially in the fall. They call themselves zoologists, but they just don’t get it.” She looked up and down the hallway contemptuously.
Erma seemed to be in a much better mood after this, and the conversation lightened. She had all kinds of stories about the animals in the zoo—their feuds, their loves, and their idiosyncrasies.
But Leah still had questions she wanted answered.
“Aunt Melba,” she said, when the conversation waned, “if you had a key to this place, why didn’t you just let Erma go?”
“Well, I offered to come and get her and Harry in the middle of the night. Offered them the second bedroom at the trailer. No one woulda looked for ‘em up there. But Harry had a heart condition, and he was getting good medical care at the zoo.”
“He probably lived ten years longer than he otherwise would have,” Erma said.
“Then, a year or two after Harry passed, Erma found herself a new boyfriend,” Melba added.
“He’s much younger,” Erma said, “but no one judges me at my age.”
After an hour or so of talking, Melba got up to leave. “We need to get back and make sure my sister’s okay,” she said to Erma. “She’ll have a heart attack out if she wakes up and finds we’re gone.”
“Young lady,” Erma said, addressing Leah, “you ever had a bear hug?”
Leah shook her head no. Then Erma beckoned her over and she came, tentatively, handing the baby to Melba, in case it was some kind of trap.
Erma took Leah into her fuzzy arms and hugged her tight. She held her for a long time. When she finally let go, Leah’s face looked different somehow. Melba wondered at first if Erma had squeezed too tight and hurt her. Then she realized what had happened:
“She done squeezed all the sadness outta you,” Melba said.