In the corner of my grandfather’s carry-out, I sat on a ripped, green vinyl chair. I could feel the cotton stuffing coming through the cracked vinyl on the back of my thighs and the cold metal of the legs left cool ghosts on my calves. Fans buzzed and turned back and forth tirelessly and the ding of the cars coming through the drive-thru was constant. Sticky yellow flystrips dangled from the ceiling, speckled with victims and swaying with the fans as I watched my grandfather and my mother move busily behind the counter, scanning lottery tickets, passing 12-packs through customer’s car windows, and packing their cigarettes.
It was summer in Ohio in the 1990s, and the fields were green, the sun was hot, and my shoulders were freckled. Inside the fluorescent lights of the store, my skin looked even darker as I picked at my knee. I spun the vinyl chair back and forth waiting for my mother to come with the acid. That summer, warts decided to pop up all over my right knee. I was horrified. I spent afternoons on the picnic table with my cousins finding ways to cover my knee and spent days at the pool with towels draped over my legs.
When we went to the doctor, he said, “Typical. Only way to get rid of them is to kill the mother. Kill the mother and you’ll kill them all.”
“Which is the mother,” we asked.
“You won’t know until you kill her,” he replied.
So we bought liquid acid in a small glass jar, stuff that dried in hard white caps, and put it over each wart on my knee. We liked to guess which one was the mother and and my mom would cuss as she put the acid onto my skin, “Damn you, mother wart.” Mom made jokes, her permed hair brushing my arm as she bent down to look at my leg. I watched her dip the wand into the brown bottle and lean down close. I cringed through the burning sensation that came with each dab of the brush. Mom blew onto the clear liquid, turning it white as it dried.
Once she covered them all, she stood up and twisted the top off of a glass bottle of Diet Pepsi. “Do you want the first swig? It’s my favorite, but I’ll let you have it,” she smiled. Her eyes twinkled and I looked at her hands as she extended the bottle to me. Her skin was the same color as my shoulders and her knuckles were large between slim finger bones.
“Sure,” I said, taking it from her with both of my hands. I looked up at her as I tipped the bottle back and leaned into the vinyl. Mom lit a cigarette – a Misty Menthol – and took a long draw while I admired the rainbow on the square package sticking out of her jeans pocket. She wiggled her eyebrows at me and I handed her back the bottle with my stubby fingers. I was always envious of her long sturdy digits and the strength in her hands.
She took the Diet Pepsi from me and tilted her head back. She drank it like Cindy Crawford did in the commercials, lips relaxed so that I could see the pop passing from the bottle into her mouth. She handed it back to me and I greedily took a sip. It was so different from that first sip, now tainted with smoke and menthol – and I loved it. But she was right. Nothing beat that first drink from a bottle of Diet Pepsi.
I felt her hand, cool and wet from the bottle, on my shoulder as she pushed me off the vinyl chair. The rough edges of the cracks scratched my skin and the concrete floor felt cool against my bare feet. “Now get back outside,” Mom said. She took one more drink of the pop and handed me what was left of the bottle and sent me back across the blacktop to my grandparents’ farm house.
One night toward late summer, I climbed into bed and pulled my knees to my chest. When I looked down, the warts were gone. I yelled for my mom and she came bounding in to rejoice. We’d killed the mother.
I have never slept as good as I did that night. Each time my mother let’s me take the first swig of a Diet Pepsi we’re sharing, I remember the smell of vinyl and summer and victory.