The Best Pie in Winnie, Texas (from Just Call Me Little Shit)

Here is another scene from the someday memoir of my summer of 1972. It’s not complete and needs some work, but I’ll never forget stopping at a diner in Winnie, Texas.  We were so hot and miserable. Texas seemed to go on forever.

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I call this fictionalized autobiography;  it’s based on truth but the truth as I remember it from the perspective of a ten-year old girl who lived it 45 years ago. I might have the timelines and details and confused, and some of it might be as I dreamed it rather than as it was.

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Many of my memories are about food. I was a chubby kid (still am!), getting my weight issues honestly through genetics and my mother. Plus a love of sweet and salty. My brother, at 14, could and did eat everything. “All you can eat” were his favorite words. My sister Ellen, hating being on the road and having to stop at gas station bathrooms and roadside diners, ate a lot of yogurt when she could get it and cottage cheese when she couldn’t. How I longed for greasy, salty, diner food! But it was made clear that I would be made miserable if I indulged.

fries     Fries versus cottage cheese.    plate-cottage-cheese-25961453

Years after the diner in Winnie, Texas, I read the short story “Full Count” in Elizabeth Berg’s book The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted and Other Small Acts of Liberation (2008), and Janey’s story was so familiar.

 

Here’s mine. [text copyright 2017 Genevieve Cottraux]

I’ve lost track of what state we are in; maybe we are still in Texas. It seems to be Texas for days. My stomach growls. Even though we have an ice chest near my nest in the way back, Van has made it clear that snacking in the car pushes his buttons.

            “What, are you eating again? No wonder you’re chubby.” Of course, this is directed at me. Neither Steve nor Ellen is in the least chubby. Steve is a teenage boy, a bottomless pit of appetite, tall and skinny. Ellen at sixteen, lives on yogurt and Tab diet cola. Mom and Van smoke and drink up front, but we sit quietly in the back, hoping not to rock Van’s shaky boat.

            My stomach growls again. I can’t help myself. “Are we stopping for lunch soon? I’m really hungry.”

            Mom looks back at me, brows furrowed. Van doesn’t turn around, but exhales cigarette smoke with a big sigh.

            Texas heat, cigarette smoke and hunger are making me reckless. “I’m really hungry. Are we ever going to stop for lunch?”

            “Can’t you wait until dinner?”

            I stare at the back of Van’s scrawny neck and wish I was brave enough, or dumb enough, to aim a spitball at him.

            I don’t know if they are really hungry or feeling sorry for me, but Ellen and Steve both chime in, “We’re hungry, too. Let’s stop.”

            “It won’t take long; let’s pull over and get something,” my mother looks at Van, pleading for us. Van sighs again, outnumbered.

             He doesn’t speak, but I can tell he’s starting to simmer with annoyance. There’s a roadside diner not much farther down the highway. The parking lot is full of trucks with Texas license plates. The diner sign flashes, “Last chance to eat in Winnie, Texas.” I’ll take it.

            We file into the crowded but blissfully air-conditioned diner. A friendly, uniformed older waitress clears off a table for us and brings ice water. She smiles at me. I smile back, glad to see a friendly face on this endless, hot journey.

            Van orders black coffee. Mom follows suit. I know she wants cream in her coffee but Van has aimed a chubby remark or two at her, too. He rarely eats, living on cigarettes and black coffee alternating with whiskey.

            The motherly waitress looks to the three of us expectantly.

            “I’ll have a side of cottage cheese and ice tea, please.” Ellen looks down at the damp table and disdainfully picks up a spoon, inspecting it and then wiping it with a napkin. She hates being on the road.

            I’m being my usual indecisive self, fidgeting with the laminated menu, so Steve jumps in. “Cheeseburger, fries, and a chocolate milkshake, please.” We are proper Southern children in our way, always putting in the please and thank you.

            My mouth waters and my stomach growls painfully. Oh, do I want what he’s having! Would a tuna sandwich and chips be less likely to attract Van’s attention?

            “Your turn, honey. What sounds good?”

            It all sounds good; that’s the problem.

            “Honey?”

            “The fruit plate, please.” I can’t look up at her.

            “Are you sure? Not many little girls order that; it’s usually their mamas.”

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            We wait for our food. Van relaxes, or what passes for it with him, lights a cigarette. I guess I’ve passed the test.

            My brother makes endless puns on the town name. “Winnie is hotter than poo” sends us into fits of laughter.

            The food arrives. I look longingly at my brother’s plate, cheese oozing out from the burger, as he pours red, silky ketchup on the fries. Ellen barely touches her cottage cheese. I pretend each bite of fruit is a greasy, salty fry.

            The waitress comes back, plates of cherry pie for all of us. “Couldn’t let these growing children leave without some of the best pie in town. On the house.” She looks at Mom and Van as she sets the plates around.

            “You’ll hurt my feelings if you don’t eat it.” She smiles at me and hands me a clean fork. I almost hope Van will call me Little Shit in front of this angel waitress as I take a bit of the best pie I have ever eaten.

 

Today I was going to post the scene in which my mother marries Van, but went with Winnie, Texas instead. Maybe I am craving pie!

Next time. Or maybe something else, who knows. It’ll be the day I wrote whatever I wanted. To small acts of liberation!

Just call me Little Shit

About 3 years or so ago, I started to write a memoir of the summer of 1972. When I enrolled in a Ph.D. program, I put aside the work in progress, but I still think about it a lot, and hope to get back to it someday. I envision something poignant yet with humor, along the lines of Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy. If you can’t laugh at your own dysfunctional family, life can be pretty grim.

 

A little back story: in the summer of 1972, my mother, who until late 1971 had seemed to be a sensible, level-headed woman, married her second husband, Van, who I thought then and still sometimes think, was the devil. He was tall and freakishly thin, with a pointy beard. He smoked and drank pretty much all of the time, and didn’t really seem to like children.

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My mother, at the time 36 years old, a pretty widow with 4 children, had dated and had some serious beaux, some of whom we all liked and wouldn’t have minded her marrying. All 4 of us were in agreement that we greatly minded her marrying Van.

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My beautiful mother in 1969.

But marry him she did, on July 15, 1972. She sold our beloved house on Dyson Drive, and we moved to the previously unknown (to us) city of Sacramento, California.

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Or some of us did. Cathy, #1 sister, was already married herself, with an adorable baby who I was going to miss seeing grow up. Ellen, next up, was forced on the death march to Sacramento, but then would fly back to Atlanta to finish her senior year of high school while living with her best friend. Brother Steve and I had no choice in the matter. I was 10 and he was 14. I even considered asking to live with my grandmother, Nanna, but I was a little afraid of her anyway and figured it wasn’t going to happen.

We were loaded up in the Chevrolet Impala station wagon, and began the 2 week trek along the southern route from Georgia to California. Remember, it was summer and there was no air conditioning in said station wagon. No one used the term second-hand smoke. MADD had yet to be formed. And Ellen has a tendency to car sickness (somewhat exagerrated in my writing, sorry Ellen).

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Van did all of the driving, both he and Mom smoking and drinking Seagram’s Seven with ginger ale the entire journey. He had this black case that looked like it was for some sort of spy business; it was the mobile bartending set.

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He was never pulled over for drinking while driving or, as I hoped he would be, child endangerment. In my daydreams while in the hot, smoky car, we would be taken by law enforcement and sent back to Nanna and Cathy in Atlanta. My mother would cry and realize the error of her ways, Van would be thrown in jail, and we’d go back to life as it was meant to be.

No such luck. I spent a lot of the trip in the “way back” of the station wagon, as far from the front seat and the devil as possible. Have you seen the film The Way, Way Back? That brings up a lot of memories for me.

way way back
Liam James in The Way, Way Back (2013).

That’s the summer I was given my nickname Little Shit. Of course, Van was the only one who ever called me that, or even seemed to think I was such a thing. He did bring out the worst in me, I admit.

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At the Alamo on the 1972 cross-country trip. From left, Van (aka Satan), Ellen, Steve, and me (aka Little Shit). I don’t remember what I was mad about.

 

I’ve decided to start posting some excerpts of what I’ve written so far, just for fun. It’s the first draft, not particularly polished. Today’s vignette takes place in the New Mexico desert. We have just spent way too long in Texas, and are finally headed from El Paso to Tucson, Arizona.

 

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[text copyright Genevieve Cottraux 2017]

“I really need to pee!” I wail from the way back of the station wagon, where I’ve set up camp behind the ice chest with my books and art supplies. Ellen moans from the back seat, “I have to throw up.” She’s been carsick since we left Georgia. We all hoped the straight, flat roads of the New Mexico desert would help, but she’s still curled in a hot, sweaty, miserable ball. Up in the driver’s seat, Van takes a sip of his drink and, through exhaled cigarette smoke, says grudgingly, “Okay, but be quick,” as he pulls off the road into the only gas station for miles.

            I jump out of the car and run to the gas station bathroom. As I hurry back out, I can see Steve’s gleeful face at the back window, waving goodbye to me and pressing down the door lock as the station wagon pulls out of the gas station and enters the lonely highway, a trail of dust in its wake.

            I don’t cry. I don’t chase the car. It’s hot in New Mexico, but different from the heat of Georgia, and I like the way the sky stretches out in all directions, nothing green to be seen. “Excuse me, sir, is there a Coke machine?” The man at the pump points the way. I finger the cat’s-head shaped coin purse I have tucked in my pocket, insert the coins in the machine. It’s my favorite, the Coke in small glass bottles, and it’s icy cold.

            I can see the car heading across the desert, getting smaller as it heads toward Tucson on the way to California. Part of me wants it to keep going without me, but part of me wonders how long it will take Mom to notice or care that I’m not in the car.

            “They’ll come back,” says the attendant, whose name patch identifies him as Eddie. “Not the first time a family’s driven off without somebody. There’s a chair inside, where it’s a little cooler.” Maybe he’ll adopt me, I think. He seems nice enough, and I much prefer his smell of gasoline and oil to Van’s smell of whisky and cigarettes. I sip the Coke and wish I had my book. I look longingly at the television set in the corner but Eddie doesn’t take the hint.

            I don’t wear a watch, and have no idea how long I’ve been sitting here, my shorts-clad legs sticking to the vinyl chair and my hair damp against my neck. “Here they come,” points out Eddie, though the overloaded station wagon is hard to miss in the empty surroundings.

            “Little shit,” Van grumbles as he opens the car door and lets me in. Mom is lighting a cigarette. Ellen is clutching her paper barf bag. Steve is trying not to laugh. I get in the car and crawl over the seats into the way back. I wave to Eddie as we pull back out on the highway.

 

 

Please let me know what you think! I’ll post more bits and pieces if you like them. I think the next one up might be Mom and Van’s wedding.

Peace and hugs from A Girl Named Little Shit.

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