This week Curtis (he’s very wonderful) turned 24. To celebrate we ate barbecue and ice cream cake (not together). We ate at a small restaurant in Big Rapids (not to be confused with Grand Rapids, Eaton Rapids, Elk Rapids, Long Rapids, or Maple Rapids. Michigan loves her rapids).
Moving casually, our waitress told us she’d be right back. She returned to take our order and stood leaning on an empty chair behind her, only pulling out her pad of paper as an afterthought. Tan and mellow, her grin showed bright white teeth and her long dark hair hung in a loose braid. Wearing a black shirt and cotton denim shorts, she was decidedly informal. Adorning her wrist was a tattoo in a script font that read, “Hannah.”
She was a great server, and she’s probably a normal person with a normal life (although, are any of us, really?). But if she were in one of my stories . . .
“Muh-LIIIIIIHH-saaaaaaaa!!!!!!!” Cramming a wad of wrappers under a log, the small girl with brown hair gulped, then turned swiftly and ran up the path back toward the clearing. Trying to beat another screech that she knew was coming, she splashed through the creek instead of taking the longer route over the bridge. It didn’t save her from the next ear-shattering call. “Muh-LIIIIIIHH-saaaaaaaa!!!!!! Sw-EEEEEEEEEEE-tiee!!!!!!!”
Moments later, she emerged from the woods and ran up to the rail of a woman standing near the back porch. Hanging loosely over her shoulders, her pink shirt reminded Melissa of a curtain wafting in the breeze. The woman frowned down at her with untrimmed gray eyebrows.
“Where have you been? What were you doing?” Melissa shrugged and looked at her feet. “I’m SURE you were doing something wrong.” Shaking her head timidly, Melissa mumbled,
“I wasn’t, I promise.” The woman narrowed her eyes, cast down an accusing scowl, and turned.
“It’s time to make dinner. Get inside and help me.” Moving toward the house, Melissa dreamed of the chocolate she’d been chewing on moments before. Great Aunt Phillips had been watching her since her parents died, and Great Aunt Phillips lived an ascetic lifestyle. No sugar. No games. No movies. No dancing. No friends. No fun. No laughing.
It wasn’t exactly an ideal life for an 11-year-old girl, but the thing that rattled Melissa most had nothing to do with all the rules. Instead, it was the way Great Aunt Phillips used her name. She used it like a leash or a whip—always summoning Melissa back with it, or chastising her for some innocent childlike behavior that “Will NOT be tolerated.” Hearing her mother laugh “Melissa” out had given her a love for her name, but the way Great Aunt Phillips bellowed and screeched it was becoming a misery that she tried constantly to avoid.
Not rebellious enough to run away, Melissa stayed with Great Aunt Phillips until the day after she turned 18. After seven years of decidedly gray living, she woke up as an 18-year-old plus one day, left the house, found a job at a restaurant, and got a tattoo.
It didn’t take long for her to pick up the new handle. As a server she was constantly saying, “Hi there, I’m Hannah, and I’ll be looking after you tonight.”