Chapter 2: "Cactus Pete"
“My name is Cactus Pete,” I said, holding back a rising sob.
“And do you know your last name?” asked the woman next to the microphone.
“Yes, well, the doorman calls my mother Mrs. Baker.”
“Is there a Mrs. Baker in the store?” the woman asked over the loudspeaker at Best & Co. “If so, please come to the Customer Service desk on the first floor. Your little girl, uh”— she turned to me. “Did you say your name is Cactus Pete?” she asked.
“Of course, dear.” She clicked the mic on again. “Mrs. Baker, I repeat, Mrs. Baker, please come to Customer Service. Cactus Pete is here looking for you.”
I sat next to the woman, her small working space piled with boxes and a big trashcan overflowing with pieces of paper. My stomach ache had started when I realized I was alone, but I didn’t want to announce that I didn’t feel well; the woman might look at me with a sad face that would make me cry. While I ran my eyes up and down the aisles, I explained how I had become lost.
“Why did she do that—my mother,” I sputtered. “Why did she have to walk so fast —down the street, through the store—so fast. If I stopped for one second, just one second— and this time it was to look at the dancing ballerina in her pink dress—Mother disappeared.”
“Did she tell you to hurry?” asked the woman, flipping her cigarette lighter open and shut.
“Yes, she told me to hurry. I know. But I had to stop.”
“How old are you, Cactus Pete?”
“I’m six years old, nearly seven. I’ll be seven in April.”
“I like your very fetching coat, and isn’t that something—you have a matching hat.”
“I like hats.”
“And those leather leggings,” she said, pulling out a long, thin cigarette from a Pall Mall pack. “They must keep you warm on a day like this.”
“Yes, they’re called chaps. Cowboys wear them.”
“Yes, yes,” she answered, drawing in the smoke and looking around the store. “I’m sure your mother’s just as upset as you are. Don’t worry, she’ll be here any minute.”
“I don’t know, she might forget. She almost forgot me last week.”
“No, don’t be silly, of course she won’t forget.”
We sat in silence for a long minute.
“Look, someone’s coming now.”
I saw Mother hurrying through the aisles, unbuttoning her big black-and-brown herringbone winter coat. She saw me and put her hand to her heart.
“I thought I’d lost you. Yes, I’m Mrs. Baker,” she said, turning to the woman while catching her breath. I quickly got out of the chair to run toward her. Then the tears started.
“Cactus Pete is brave. She’s been waiting quietly,” said the woman. “We were both a bit worried; the store is so crowded during the holidays.”
“Thank you for taking care of her. We’ll go more slowly now, Joanie.”
Mother didn’t call me Cactus Pete; that was my father’s name for me. She didn’t
see me as a cowgirl. Though she walked more slowly, she started talking fast.
“We’ll pass through the perfume section; you can spray the bottles. We’ll try on some hats, those funny big hats; you love hats. Then we’ll go wherever you want for lunch.”
It was 1950, and in those days Mother was distracted—with me, anyway. She always seemed to be somewhere else. On one particularly bad day, my sister Alicia and I thought maybe Mother had other children somewhere—a secret life. I would come to understand that she didn’t want another life; she just didn’t feel comfortable in the one she had. Always correct and proper, it didn’t occur to her she might have other options. How could she know? How could any woman know, in the rigid culture of 1950s America, that there was something more?
Anyway, when she married Father at the age of twenty, and for quite a long time after, her choice must have seemed a good one.
Most of all, Mother wanted to feel safe. After all, she had three daughters to raise and a husband to care for, and she wanted to do what was expected of her, whether that was participating in New York City society or her church group, “or even just the damn Junior League,” according to Aunt Billie. Mother equated safe choices with happiness. But Aunt Billie said Mother never made truly happy choices.
I was in my mid-teens when Aunt Billie told me in her deep Southern drawl, “The world won’t make you safe, Joanie. So you might as well choose.” She told me that life is all about choosing where and how to belong, that you couldn’t just belong. I remember she paused a moment, then added, “Well, I mean you can ‘just belong,’ but it’s about taking a risk, making it your choice, not following some foolish rule book.”
Billie didn’t like rules; they made her claustrophobic, she told me. She was different from Mother, whose life seemed to be governed by The Magnolia Code.
“But you have to know there’s always a price to pay,” Billie instructed. I can hear her stressing the words price to pay as she gave me her serious look. “Remember there are consequences to one’s choices, or non-choices,” she said. “But in the end, life’s a bit of a dance,” she said lightly, “so you might as well be yourself, ’cause everyone else is already taken.”
I knew there was something right about Billie’s attitude, her dare to be herself. I liked the idea that life’s a dance, but of course at the time I wasn’t sure what she meant. Now I know from experience that Aunt Billie was right; she was especially right about Mother, who had made her choice but wasn’t prepared for the “price to pay.”
Sometimes Mother seemed trapped; she walked fast, even in the apartment, always busy, like she was looking for something, or as if she needed to find the exit. My sister Alicia once commented with a smirk that maybe Mother was looking for herself—just not in the right places.
Excerpted from The Magnolia Code