Whenever I need a dollar for my meeting, I head to the top drawer of my vanity and hit up the little tin where I keep my mad money.
If I have to, I don’t ever mind dropping quarters into the basket when it comes around, but I kinda feel like a broke ass if I scatter a pocketful of nickels and dimes in there. Nobody gives a shit what type of money I’m using, but I still get worked up about it.
Let’s be real. Change is for little kids, and even that’s a stretch. Just ask the Tooth Fairy. Anymore, she deals almost exclusively in greenbacks and gift cards.
I’d been meaning to ask my husband if he might bring me back some singles the next time he went to the bank. Or better yet, would he make a special trip so I could have what I wanted right away?
But I kept forgetting, until I’d used up most of the quarters. That’s when I said something. And the next day, when there were no more respectable coins, I was instantly annoyed.
“Dave, did you remember to go to the bank?” I asked, cupping ten dimes in the palm of my hand and tapping my foot.
“I didn’t get a chance, my Mary. I’m sorry.”
Which I do believe to be true, because I married a truthful individual. My husband is practical with his time, conscientious and generous of heart. When I ask for stuff, no matter what it is, this man does his best to be accommodating. He is a magnificent partner.
But none of that mattered right then. I needed a dollar in paper money, damn it. Not all this fucking change. God forbid I had to feel a feeling I didn’t enjoy.
I hollered up the stairs. “Have you boys got any singles?”
“I do,” Desmond said.
“Can I get one? I promise I’ll pay you back.”
Yes, relief. At least somebody around here wasn’t purposely trying to make my life miserable.
“You got any interest in these dimes, kid?”
“Yeah, I’ll take ’em.”
Desmond leaned over the bannister, and we traded legal tender.
“That worked out pretty good,” I said to Dave, tucking the dollar into my bra. I grabbed a soda and gathered my things to leave.
“How many dimes you think we’re gonna find in the dryer tomorrow?” he asked.
I paused to consider the question as it involved math, which really isn’t my bag.
“I don’t know. Ten?”
Well, sure enough, the following morning, ten little pieces of silver made their way into the big metal cylinder where all the clean, wet laundry goes to mingle and get fluffy. Dave stacked them into a slim tower on the kitchen counter.
I’ll admit, I felt a little foolish. I’d made such a big stink the day before with all the tracking and transferring of currency. My reflex was to scoop up the change and return it to my container. After all, that’s where it belonged. It was mine to begin with.
Dave handed me the twenty singles he’d gotten from the bank.
“Thank you,” I said, carrying all the money into the bathroom.
I opened my tin and stared at its contents. I didn’t want to reimburse Desmond the dollar I borrowed. I tried to convince myself he didn’t care and neither should I.
Separating one single from the stack, I carried it upstairs and placed it on top of some books on his desk. I stood there, admiring what I’d just done.
I thought I might go get my phone and take a picture. It seemed like something I might want to look at again sometime.
I hesitated picking up the telephone when it rang, in case it was my mother. I never knew what to expect, so I let the machine absorb the impact of whatever she had to say. Even though our relationship had improved a thousand percent since I got sober, I still had to brace myself before I called her back.
I wasn’t comfortable yet asking God for help with intricate processes, like returning phone calls. I didn’t want to bother him. Back then, I didn’t think he could help with stuff like that.
“Listen, hon, I know you’re busy. But I’m gonna need you to take me to Kohl’s. I’ve got to get out of this house.”
“What do you think?”
Answering a question with a question was one of my mother’s favorite conversational tactics. Responding with vague gems like Why bother? and What do I care? helped keep her listener engaged and confused at the same time, reducing the likelihood of having to provide any concrete facts. Withholding critical details made her problems unsolvable, which therefore kept the focus on her pain. And that pain was her main source of energy.
If I didn’t have my wits about me, I ran the risk of getting sucked into an emotional black hole from which there was little chance of escape. Unless I agreed that my father was responsible for the unending sorrow she endured at his sinister hands. And I couldn’t sign on for that. He just wasn’t capable of that kind of advanced strategy. He might have been when he was younger. Maybe, but I don’t think so.
Dad had become a vulnerable old man who needed protection and care, while Mom was still waiting for apologies she’d never receive. He couldn’t recall any of the disappointing memories that fueled her resentment. And what was the point of all that anger? She carried it around everywhere, making her life a lot harder than it had to be. My heart broke for both of them.
“How’s Daddy?” I asked.
“How should I know?”
“Isn’t he there?”
“Of course, he’s here. Who else’d be stupid enough to put up with his shit?”
“C’mon, Mom. You’re not stupid.”
“I never said I was.”
“You kinda just did.”
“Who’s side are you on?”
“Why don’t I come get you tomorrow, after I drop the boys at school?”
“That’d be great, babe.” I loved when my mother spoke sweetly to me. She did not trust me easily, but I knew she appreciated the things I did for her and my dad. We’d shared some beautiful moments together, amazing gifts of my recovery. “Just give me a ring in the morning, so I can get this fat fuck dressed and out the door,” she said. Such moments were fleeting.
“He’s coming with us?” I asked.
“What else am I gonna do with him?
The next morning, my parents were waiting on the sidewalk outside their apartment complex. I beeped the horn and waved to my dad. He waved back but just stood there. It was only after Mom elbowed him and started moving toward the car that he followed her.
“Ask him where all the jelly went,” she said, as I strapped him into the front seat and her into the back. I fastened the seat belts neither of them would ever buckle on their own.
“What’s she talking about?” My father shrugged his shoulders.
“Three brand new jars, Mary. All empty. I can’t even take a shower without him spooking around in shit he shouldn’t.”
“Is this true?” I asked him.
“Mom, why’re you buying so much jelly? You trying to kill this guy?” I laughed, and so did Dad.
“I’m glad you think it’s funny,” she half sobbed. “Can’t I ever have anything nice?”
I’ve always enjoyed going to Kohl’s. For me, it’s one of the few department stores where I feel confident I’m making smart purchases. I know exactly where to find the styles that fit me well. I get psyched when I can buy two shirts for thirteen dollars.
I don’t belong in big open markets like the mall. There’s just too much stuff to look at, and it’s coming at me all at once. But I do like their soft pretzels, and that little cup of cheese sauce they sell for fifty cents extra. Sometimes, I get two, because the cups are so small.
Mom’s mission to Kohl’s was often spent preparing for one specific event – my father’s death. Although Dad was not dying, this detail did not stop my mother from procuring clothes they both could wear to his funeral. She mentioned, quite unselfconsciously, that she looked forward to burying him. How she longed to be free of the burden of the old man’s care. Perhaps, she dreamt of the day she would finally be recognized for her tireless efforts on his behalf.
When Mom was in a benevolent mood, she opted for soft corduroys and textured sweaters that might flatter Dad’s massive frame. Sure, he was a pain in the ass, but he should look presentable at his wake. If she was pissed at whatever he’d done or failed to do, she headed straight for the misses’ section, slapping angrily through each rack, in pursuit of the blackest blouse she could find – one that could accurately reflect her suffering, as if that were possible.
“Which one?” she asked, holding up two nearly identical shirts.
“They look like everything else in your closet.”
“I hope you never have to go through this kind of grief.” She jammed the hangers back onto the rod and continued her search for deathwear.
“What grief? Is Daddy sick?”
“Not yet, but he will be someday. It’s only a matter of time. Shit, I could die tomorrow.”
Mom steered her shopping buggy into the aisle. I called after her. “Where are you going? Let’s find you something while we’re here. For when it’s your turn.”
“Don’t you dare put me in my coffin wearing black. And nothing whacked out, either,” she said, lowering her voice. “I mean it, Mary. I’ll haunt you forever.”
“What color, then?”
I checked my watch, becoming acutely aware of the time.
“We’re gonna need to wrap this up soon. I’ve gotta get the guys,” I told this to the back of my mother’s jacket as she kept walking. I caught up with her when she stopped at a display table stacked with men’s pullovers. Again, I tried to remind her that we had to move things along.
“They get out at 2:30. We better go.”
“Relax, you won’t be late,” she insisted. “Isn’t this beautiful?” She lifted a cream-colored turtleneck by its shoulders.
“Get it for him.”
“Why? He’d have it shitted up in no time.”
“He’ll be dead. How much damage can he do?”
She tossed the sweater back on top of the pile. “God can hear you, you know.”
I felt the tug of my commitments, but I didn’t want to make waves. Once Mom’s bra was strapped to her chest and she was outside the house, it was hard to reel her back in. She didn’t want to go home. I understood why. Her life was grim by design. She had TV, the telephone and church on Sundays, none of which brought her any joy.
“Go check on your father,” she said, waving a hand toward the registers. I did what I was told.
I found Dad where my mother had deposited him, parked on a white metal bench at the entrance to the store. He stared with amusement as a toddler stomped around in the foyer, opening and closing the automatic doors with his efforts.
I plopped down next to him and sighed. “Hey, big fella. What’s up?”
“Just this,” he said, pointing at the little boy.
An older woman appeared, calling “Joseph!” She grabbed the child’s hand and dragged him back inside the building. He screamed as if he’d come face-to-face with his executioner.
“Are you hungry?” I knew he would be.
“I am,” I said. “I wish they had a soda machine.”
“How ’bout an ice cold beer?” he asked. He didn’t mean any harm, just trying to be friendly.
“How can you say that?” I gave his big leg a playful smack. “You know I don’t drink anymore. Fuck, neither do you.”
He chuckled. We sat there for a minute or two in the vacuum of that exchange.
I love sleeping over Noreen’s house. Mom’s only ever let me go a handful of times, but it’s always my favorite thing to do.
Noreen is my best friend. She and I met in kindergarten. We’ve had the same teacher every year since then. High school starts in less than a month. I’m excited, but also nervous. I don’t want us to get separated, but I realize it has to happen because we’re taking a couple of different classes.
I’ve tried begging Mom to let Noreen stay the night with us, since I always get invited over there. She says there’s no room on the floor upstairs, but I know that’s just an excuse. At Noreen’s, we sleep on the pull-out couch in the middle of the living room. The real reason is because Mom can’t trust that Daddy won’t come home drunk and embarrass everybody. She’s afraid Noreen will see what really goes on at our house, that she’ll go home and tell her mother.
I can share bits and pieces with Noreen, but not the really ugly stuff. It’s too hard to explain. There’s no way she’d understand. Besides, I don’t want her to think we’re animals. So mostly, I make like I’m happy and pretend everything is fine.
Noreen’s parents are nice. They’re both from Ireland, with thick brogues that take a little getting used to. Her mother is gentle and soft spoken. I’ve never heard her raise her voice at any of her daughters. There are four all together, and Noreen is the youngest.
Mrs. Harrington thinks the world of me and my sister, how we’re both so smart and well-behaved. Judy was picked for the principal’s pin every year in grammar school, and we both got straight A’s. “Your mother is fortunate to have such good girls,” she says. I wish Mom could see me the way this woman does.
This summer, I slept over Noreen’s twice. Once in July for her birthday, and again, last week, just because. This visit was more fun because Noreen’s other two friends from the neighborhood weren’t there. Marie and Susan are okay, I guess, but I like it better when it’s just the two of us.
Fine, I’ll admit it. I’m jealous of the time they spend together and the stuff they get to do. These girls have a lot of freedom. They pretty much come and go as they please. They never have to ask permission to use the phone, cook food on the stove or watch TV. They get to wear as much makeup as they like.
I find their fearless application of jet black eyeliner to be especially fascinating. This procedure involves the careful use of a cigarette lighter which heats the tip of a narrow pencil to near melting. When gently dragged along the rim of one’s exposed lower eyelids, the effect creates dramatic allure and instant maturity.
What’s gross about this amazing beauty technique is the wet goop that collects in the inside corners of their eyes. I can’t stop staring whenever I see it. I want to dab my finger into these angry booger globs, but I can’t. It’d be like trying to pick someone else’s nose.
The rest of their faces get the once over, as well. Blue and green eye shadow is popular. Lips coated with roll-on gloss, sweet smelling and so shiny, they look as if they might shatter into pieces. Brightly colored plastic combs with fat handles protrude from back pockets, ready to feather hair in a moment’s notice.
I felt like I was dropped into a lot of action I knew nothing about and could barely keep up with. I measured myself against these two girls I didn’t know and wasn’t sure I even liked. So what if I don’t know all the words to “Paradise By The Dashboard Light.” It doesn’t make me a bad person.
On the way back from eating pepperoni slices at the pizzeria on East Tremont Avenue, men in cars yelled and honked their horns. I wasn’t sure who they were beeping at. It definitely wasn’t me. I’m the fat one. Probably Noreen, she’s the tallest and looks older.
Even though it was a little creepy, all that attention was exciting. We eyeballed every vehicle that cruised along the street, searching its contents for cute guys. How else are girls supposed to get boyfriends, anyway? This must be how.
When it’s just me and Noreen, it’s easier to concentrate. I don’t have to compete with anybody else or worry about being left out. A bigger group has too many moving parts. I wanted my best friend all to myself.
This last visit, my father was supposed to take me to Noreen’s house after he got home from work. When he was two hours late. I knew why, and I started getting worried I wouldn’t be able to go. He did have liquor on his breath when he eventually showed up, but Mom made him eat a plate of spaghetti and decided he was okay to drive. She also made me call as soon as I arrived to let her know I made it in one piece.
Noreen explained what to expect when my period finally came. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I was the only girl in the ninth grade who hadn’t gotten it yet. Everybody I knew had menstrual cramps, especially on days there was gym.
“Has Judy gotten hers?” she asked.
“No idea. If she has, she won’t tell me.” My sister is private about everything. She doesn’t trust anybody. Besides, she knows I’ll blab stuff to the whole world, especially if it’s a secret.
The next morning when I woke up and went to use the bathroom, there was blood in my underwear. Not a lot, but enough for me to realize what it was. As much as I loved being with Noreen, I wanted to go home.
She suggested I rinse my briefs with a little soap and water in the sink to get the stain out, handing me a plastic bag to put them in. I wasn’t sure if I understood how to use a tampon, but the maxi pad was easy to figure out, fastening to the crotch of my underwear with an adhesive strip. I positioned it right in the middle and waited for something to happen.
After breakfast, I called my mother and told her the news. “Mom, I got my period,” I said, crying into the telephone.
“Oh, Jesus Christ, Mary, pull yourself together. So you’re a woman now, big fucking deal.”
Today is Mother’s Day, so we’re in Edgewater for a barbecue. All my cousins are here, the whole family. Yesterday, we got hotdogs and chop meat for hamburgers at the A&P, Cheez Doodles and ice cream sandwiches for dessert. Mommy was up late last night, making macaroni salad to bring with us this afternoon. I like macaroni when it’s plain, but she ruins it when she puts onions and green things in it.
There’s a box of chocolate covered cherries on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen here at Uncle Mike’s. Aunt Margaret said we could have some if we don’t break balls. So already, I helped Daddy load beers into the big cooler and covered them with ice. Then I asked if I could put Squeeze Cheese on stuff – crackers and celery. But mostly, my fingers.
I love chocolate covered cherries. I’ve had them once before, on Valentine’s Day. There were two in a box Mommy got for herself at Simelson’s because she knew Daddy wouldn’t remember. She opened them up right outside the drug store. I took a little nibble, so I could see the insides first. I wasn’t sure if I was gonna like it or not. The syrup leaked down my hand. It was messy, but the cherry was so good. Mommy ate hers in one bite. I wanted to go slow and make mine last.
Right now, I keep trying to think of things I can do to get attention, so I can have my candy sooner. I’m real good at making beds, but all the beds are already made.
Aunt Margaret let me tidy up her jewelry box. I untangled the necklaces and put them in the two bottom drawers, bracelets in the middle section and earrings on top.
There’s an ashtray filled with change in one of the bedrooms with so many quarters. There’s gotta be at least, I don’t know, a lot of money in it. Quarters are the best kind of change. With a quarter, you can buy two things of gum and a Charleston Chew. With a bunch of quarters, you can get even more.
I linger near the bureau where the ashtray’s at. I steal three quarters and stir the coins that are left. No one will notice anything’s missing, and even if they do, they won’t think I did it. They’ll blame Donald or Joseph before they blame me. Those boys are always getting into trouble.
I go ahead and take some dimes and a few nickels. I’m hardly ever in places where I get to spend money, but I feel better just having it. I could buy a lead pencil and a big pink eraser from the supply closet at school. Maybe even chocolate milk with my lunch.
The bulge in my pocket makes a jingling sound when I walk, so I transfer all the change into a piece of paper towel and tuck it behind some shampoo bottles on the window ledge in the bathroom. I’ll come back and get it later, when it’s time to leave.
I get excited when we come to Edgewater. I want to run wild like my cousins. They get to do things I can’t. When I ask, my mother “No,” and “Don’t ask me again.” My sister and I have to sit around with the boring adults. Judy brought her book with her, so at least she has something to do. I have nothing. Mommy says I should play with Christine, but she’s kinda still a baby.
After the boys return from wherever it was that they went, probably buying candy up at the stores, we sit on beach chairs out back and play cards. War and Go Fish are the only games I know. Michael Kevin just came home, so now, it feels more like a party. He’s fifteen and really fun to be around. He puts the big stereo speaker in the window and blasts “Honky Tonk Woman,” over and over. Nobody makes him turn it down.
I don’t know how it happened, but all of a sudden, Michael is cooler than anyone I know. He wears dungarees with boots and no shirt. He has hair under his armpits. When some kid rides up on a minibike asking for a cigarette, Michael gives him one. That’s how I know he smokes.
I take a black cherry soda out of the cooler and start shaking it to the music. When I pop the top, all the soda goes everywhere. My clothes are drenched, and the patio is dripping in sticky red liquid. My cousins laugh, so I grab another can, kicking this one across the porch and down the stairs before opening it up between two parked cars. A volcano of orange explodes and fills the street, spraying both vehicles and the sidewalk in front of the house. Everybody cheers.
I move in for a third try. Donald says I shouldn’t, that I’m gonna get in trouble, but I don’t care. I fish through the ice for a ginger ale. That’s when Uncle Mike comes charging out the back door. He grabs hold of Dennis and Joseph, picking them up off the ground by their shirts. The rest of us scatter.
Uncle Mike punches Dennis in the arm, so hard it makes him cry. When he kicks Joseph in the behind, he loses his balance and they both fall over. I’ve never seen Uncle Mike so mad. “Get the hose and clean this shit up,” he says, gritting his teeth.
Neither boy tells on me. I feel bad but say nothing. I’m too afraid. I go inside, past the kitchen where the grown-ups are laughing and being all loud. Into the bathroom again. I lock the door and check on my money. I sit on the toilet for a little while and think about more stuff I can buy.
It feels like we’ve been here forever. I wish we could just eat and go home. Daddy went with Uncle Mike to Joe Maloney’s house, and they’ve been gone for almost three hours. My mother sent the boys up the block to check on things. They came back saying Daddy’s drunk, that he took his pants off and can’t put them back on. Now, he’s standing in the middle of the street in his underwear. Somebody needs to go get him. Mommy won’t do it, she’s too embarrassed.
Neighbors steer my father this way, while us kids watch from the porch. Some of my cousins’ friends imitate him, stumbling around and crashing into each other. They think it’s funny. Daddy has a big knot on his forehead, and the front of his boxer shorts are soaking wet. Two men guide him up the stairs and back inside, where no one else can see.
Once they get him cleaned up, Daddy falls asleep on the bottom bunk in the boys’ room. Us kids take turns watching the doorway in case he wakes up to pee and doesn’t know where he is. Everybody else eats, and the grown-ups keep drinking.
When things calm down, I remind Aunt Margaret about the chocolate covered cherries. She opens the box and lets us each have one. I want to save mine for as long as I can, but my hand is hot and the chocolate starts to melt. “Eat it, stupid,” somebody says. They’re just jealous because theirs is gone already.
Everyone gets excited when we hear the Mr. Softee truck, two blocks over. Mommy reaches for her pocketbook, slung along the back of the chair. She gives Judy money to get us ice cream. As we charge out of the house and down the steps, I finally eat my candy and start to run. When I trip on a piece of broken sidewalk, it flies out of my mouth and tumbles across the pavement. I fall on one knee and both hands.
Christine catches up to me. She is pushing a baby stroller. Her doll is naked and has green magic marker all over her eyelids and one cheek. “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” but I still cry. There is blood. We both stare at my chocolate, caked in crud on the filthy ground.
“Don’t be sad,” she says.
“But there’s no more,” I sob. I knew it for a fact. I saw the empty box in the garbage. I cry even harder.
She looks up at the ice cream truck and back toward the house. “If you watch my baby, I’ll get you a rag.”
As soon as she leaves, I pick my candy out of the dirt and put it back in my mouth. It makes a crunching sound inside my head when I bite down, but it still tastes like chocolate.
“Judy,” I whispered. “Are you still up?” I stood in the doorway that separated our bedrooms. Of course, I knew she was reading. That’s all she ever did. Being smart was so boring.
“Maybe. What do you want?” She turned the flashlight off and slid her book underneath the pillow.
“Do you think Daddy’s okay?” I asked.
“How should I know?”
“I don’t want him to die.”
“Don’t be stupid, my sister replied. “He’s not gonna die.”
It was a bunch of hours since the last time Daddy called, around dinnertime. Mommy couldn’t even understand what he was saying. She screamed into the phone, trying to get him to tell her where he was, who he was with, but he couldn’t answer any of her questions. Somehow, he’d gotten lost, somewhere between downtown and the Bronx.
“I can hear you breathing. Gene,” she said. No response from his end of the receiver. “Honey, are you hurt? Gene.” She was angry, but at least she called him ‘Honey.’
Mommy made us girls go to bed when the 11 o’clock news ended. I wasn’t even tired. I could stay awake alot longer. I paid attention to the whole program too, just in case there was a story about a man who was drunk and forgot where he lived.
“We want to wait for Daddy,” Judy said.
“Get upstairs.” Mommy’s rosary beads were in her lap. She cleared the phlegm from her throat and lit another cigarette. “You’ll be dragging your butts in the morning.”
I laid in bed for nearly an hour, trying to make the phone ring with my mind. Wishing Daddy could find his way back to our house. Praying God would keep him safe.
“Judy, can I sleep with you?”
“Please,” I begged.
“Fine. But just for a little while. And keep your big leg away from mine. You make everything all sweaty.”
“I promise I won’t move or sweat.”
I woke up when the doorbell rang. It was still dark outside.
It’s him,” Judy said. “I told you he’d be all right.”
At first, I was glad Daddy was okay and not dead. But things always turned into a different kind of scary once he resurfaced. He’d deny he was drinking, but it was obvious. He thought it was funny, staggering around while Mommy yelled. If he wasn’t so bad off, Mommy would try and sit him down at the table where he ate like an animal, spilling food all over whatever he was wearing.
She tried keeping him away from the second floor so he wouldn’t get hurt, but he needed to use the toilet, and he couldn’t understand why she wanted him to pee in a big pot. We all climbed the stairs all together, in case he lost his balance. Me and Judy waited outside the bathroom door while Mommy helped him with his pants.
This time, when he finally made it home, we creeped into the hallway and peered down the stairs into the foyer. Mommy unlocked the door, and Daddy bounced from one wall to the other as she tried to get him out of his coat.
“Why are you all wet? Did you?” She leaned in to smell his clothes. “You did, you dirty bastard. You pissed yourself. I’ve had it with this shit. I mean it this time.” Daddy just stood there, like a dummy. “What is it that you want from me?” Mommy pounded a weak fist into his chest. She made like she was gonna cry. Her voice got wobbly, but she never gave in all the way. She wouldn’t let herself be sad.
Me? I cried at everything, including right then. Judy ran and got me some toilet paper from the bathroom, but she only brought back two measly sheets. So when I blew my nose, it went all over my hand and face. I wiped it on my nightgown and the rug. “Mommy,” I sobbed loud enough so she could hear me.
“Get your asses into bed, girls. “Father of the Year” is home!” She said it in an ugly voice. “I hope you’re proud of yourself, Gene. I sure married a winner.”
Judy stood up and climbed onto her mattress. She arranged her blanket and stuffed animals for sleep. When I tried crawling in next to her, she stretched her arms out at her sides. “No more, Mary,” she said. “Go back to your own room. It’s too crowded with you here.”
I stood there, waiting for her to change her mind, but she wouldn’t.
“You don’t love me.” I said, even though I knew she did.
“That’s not true. You just want your way.”
“It doesn’t matter. I never get my way.” I started crying again.