She cancels their Friday night visit. She has to stay late at her job. That’s what she tells the dad. The tone of his voice suggests he doesn’t believe her. She holds on tightly to the lie, offering up details about the imaginary project she’s responsible for. The pressure and the deadlines. He doesn’t care. He had plans with his girlfriend, and now, those plans have to change.
“Can you bring him first thing in the morning?” she asks.
“That depends. Will you be home?”
His question is not unreasonable. He’s stood outside her door before, knocking. With their son in one arm and a shopping bag filled with overnight clothes in the other. No answer. She can’t be counted on.
Fuck you, she thinks. You don’t get to judge my life, now that yours is going so great. Everyone’s life is great compared to hers. She believes this.
But right now, she is optimistic. She has money to pay a debt with some extra and a bullshit excuse to leave work early. As soon as she irons out a few details, her situation will improve. She’ll get what she needs and be able to think straight. Come up with a plan to make everything better. Everything. She believes this, too.
Early Saturday, she makes it back to Queens with only moments to spare. The previous night, she should have left where she was before it got too late to leave, but she was very high and couldn’t move. Mostly, that’s just how things go. She doesn’t think or talk about it.
She runs the last eight blocks as fast as she can, in shoes not meant for running. Her throat burns in the freezing cold air.
Please don’t let his car be out front. Please, he can’t see me in yesterday’s clothes. Please don’t let them have come and gone already. Please, I just need one more chance.
She does not recognize any of these thoughts as prayers. They’re just part of the begging that goes on whenever she’s in trouble.
The child unpacks dinosaur pajamas, pants and a shirt, colored pencils and books. None of his belongings are kept where she lives. He is a visitor in his mother’s life, and she in his.
She admires his new coat. “This is nice,” she says. Together, they struggle to undo the top button.
“Look at all these zippers!” he declares with pride. Demonstrating their usefulness, he reveals the contents of pockets filled with tissues and Chapstick, a tiny race car.
She reaches for one that runs the length of his sleeve and gives it a tug.
“That one doesn’t do anything,” he says. “It’s just for show.”
He stares at cartoons right next to the mattress where she’s dozing on and off. Every ten minutes or so, he leans over her sleeping face.
“Mommy,” he whispers loudly and waits.
He pinches her eyelashes with his little fingers. She swats his hand away.
“What are you doing?”
“Pulling your eyelids awake.”
“So you can watch me watch TV.”
“Stop,” she groans. She is suddenly sick to her stomach. She gets to her feet and barrels into the bathroom, cupping a hand over her mouth.
Oblivious, he relocates himself and his toys to the hallway. He continues his work, arranging Ninja Turtles on the linoleum.
“Mommy, come and see my setup.” He hums the theme song from his favorite show as he carefully prepares Michelangelo and Rafael for battle. He explains what each turtle is doing and why. Every move they make is important. They rely on one another.
“Mommy. Mommy. What are you doing, Mommy?” He presses his lips into the crack of the bathroom door.
“I’ll be right out,” she tells him.
She flushes the toilet and splashes water on her face. She trips over his splayed legs and crawls back on all fours to the blankets.
“What stinks in there?” he asks.
“Nothing,” she says.
“It smells like throw up.”
“It does not.”
She races to pick him up from the birthday party he was invited to that afternoon.
“Don’t be late,” he tells her when she drops him off.
“I won’t,” she snaps back. But she is.
He is standing on the sidewalk, holding a goody bag and a ceramic dish he painted that reads “Grandma.” A man is locking the door of the storefront where the party was held. A young couple loads their car with balloons and tattered decorations, a case of leftover juice boxes. All the other children are gone.
“Where were you?” He is almost crying.
“Home.” It’s true. Even there, she loses track of time. Every time.
“You only had this one thing to do, and you couldn’t even,” he scolds, as if their ages are switched, and she is the six-year-old. He sounds exactly like his father.
They walk back to the basement together in silence. He will not hold her hand when they cross the street.
I think I like it better when we have school. Summer is so long and boring. Too many empty hours with nothing to do. We never go anywhere. I wouldn’t be able to tell which direction time is traveling if it weren’t for the TV shows that guide us through drab days toward dreary, uninteresting nights. Except for when Daddy comes home drunk. Then, we get some excitement, but never in a good way.
It’s muggy outside and stale everywhere in the house, except for my parents’ room where there’s an air-conditioner, but they only turn the machine on at night. And we’re not allowed to touch it. I stand in front of the big box fan in the middle of the kitchen as if it’s an activity. It’s so hot, I feel like I don’t even know how to make any thoughts to think.
“Go get a book and sit on the stoop,” my mother barks, dismissing my complaints. She knows I hate reading. “For Chrissake, give me five minutes to myself.”
I take the transistor radio outside and try to find a station with good music. I catch the end of “Dream On” by Aerosmith, disappointed when the song is over too soon. I mumble along to “Stuck in the Middle with You,” making up most of the words because I can’t understand what they’re saying, and I don’t wanna feel left out.
Mommy gets nervous at 4.30, when the Puerto Rican guys start trickling out of the factories at the end of their shift. They cut through our block to catch the subway that takes them home to the rough neighborhoods they come from.
I say “Hi” to the young boys that pass by. Some wear tank tops, and others are shirtless. Not a lot of ladies. And they aren’t friendly like the men.
“Shut that shit off and get your ass back in the house,” Mom scolds from the front door.
“You just told me to come out here.”
“Then put a sweater on.”
“But it’s like a hundred degrees.”
“You heard me. Don’t encourage them.”
When she says this, I can’t help but feel like I’ve done something wrong. Something I should be ashamed of. I am nine, maybe ten years old.
While she’s on the phone, I sneak a jar of peanut butter up to my room and eat half the way down with my fingers. I press my lips and tongue against the screen while I look out the window. I step back and stare at the mess I’ve made.
In the summer, I am the first one awake, besides my dad. He has lots of jobs. It’s still nighttime when he leaves for work. He delivers newspapers in Manhattan. He’s also a cop. Plus, there’s the Coast Guard. Aside from the drinking, I really don’t know what he does at any of these places.
My mother irons his uniform shirts and sometimes, I help. But I only like doing the short sleeves because they’re smooth, with no creases or buttons. She used to iron his handkerchiefs too, but not anymore. I guess he can use Kleenex now to blow his nose, like the rest of us. Mostly, he just sucks all that snot and phlegm back down his throat.
I wish we had the kind of tissues that pop up from a slot in the top of the box, but they’re expensive. Whenever Mommy buys them, I pull all the tissues out, one after the other, like a magician. Then I flatten and stuff them back in the box so she won’t notice. But she does, and it makes her angry.
Cigar smell is like my alarm clock in the morning. And the sound of the old man next door coughing up bite-sized chunks of his lungs into the street. I asked my mother what’s the matter with Mr. Pezzullo. She said he can’t stand his wife. That he’s trying to smoke himself to death. It’s his only way out.
Mrs. Pezzullo wasn’t so bad in the beginning, when we first moved here. But ever since we got our dog, she’s been mean. She says I shouldn’t let Girl make cocky outside her kitchen window. And if I do, I should pick it up.
How? With my hand? And do what with it? Where else are dogs supposed to go to the bathroom?
I try to be quiet whenever we walk past their house. It’s hard to make Girl hold it until we get around the corner, to the empty lot next to the Foggy Bottom. If people are hanging out in front of the bar, we go up as far as the grass by the gates of the cemetery. No one bothers us there.
I won’t even look at the dog when she’s making Number Two. I pretend it’s not happening. The way she’s all hunched over with her back legs shaking. The worst is when flies land on it, like they’ve been waiting for her to finish. So gross. Plus, she starts kicking up rocks and weeds as soon as she’s done, like she’s celebrating or something. I get embarrassed. I yank on the leash and drag her away. Let’s just go already.
I wonder if Mrs. Pezzullo hates dogs as much as her husband hates her. Maybe she hates all animals. Last week, I saw her throw a pot of water on this big cat that keeps trying to get on top of all the other cats. He ran down the alleyway, screaming.
In Judy’s room, there are library books everywhere. All she ever does is read. To me, reading is for idiots. Nothing fun ever happens. You just sit there, staring at words and turning pages. I can’t think of anything dumber.
I crawl over on my hands and knees to the edge of her bed to see if she’ll wake up and keep me company.
“Not yet,” she says.
“In a little while.”
“How long is a little while?” I ask, but she doesn’t answer. She’s already decided I’m no longer there.
The air-conditioner is on in Mommy’s room, but if I go in there now, she’ll wake up. And I won’t get to watch TV downstairs while I eat my breakfast.
At six in the morning, it’s still dark in the kitchen. But I don’t turn any lights on. I don’t make decisions like when the day officially begins and ends. I’m a kid. Instead, I squirrel around in the cabinets for something to eat. I’m hungry all the time.
We have three kinds of cereal. I start with a big slab of Shredded Wheat and cover that with layers of Frosted Flakes and Cap’n Crunch. I wish they’d make a cereal that’s just Crunch Berries. That’d be so great. The same goes for those little marshmallows in Lucky Charms. I love them, too. If you ask me, there’s never enough.
I go back to the shelves where the food is kept, searching for ingredients to add to my recipe. I find a half-empty bag of chocolate chips meant for baking and a small plastic container of ice cream sprinkles. I load those on top, coat everything with extra sugar and flood the bowl with milk.
The bottles are still on the counter from last night. I hate seeing them there. Liquor’s not an everyday thing around here, like beer. There’s always beer. This stuff is different. It makes Daddy stupid, and that makes Mommy hate him.
I unscrew the top from the brown bottle and pour two inches worth down the drain. I do the same with the clear bottle. I refill them both with water from the faucet. I return them to the cabinet in the living room, tucked away behind several tall, narrow boxes decorated like Christmas presents, something fancy called Creme de Menthe and two large jugs of white wine.
I carry my special creation into the TV room and sit myself close enough to the set so I can still reach the channel changer without having to get up.
There’s nothing on this early except the news and Sesame Street. Even though puppets are for babies, I watch anyway. Everything about what I’m doing makes me feel sneaky and secretive. I don’t wanna get caught. If anybody comes, I’ll slide my bowl under one of the big chairs and pretend I haven’t eaten yet. I have to remember it’s there, though. Last time, I forgot, and Mommy found it a week later when she was vacuuming. She got really mad.
The whole room reeks of her dirty ashtray and no matter where I move it to, I can’t get away from the smell. I slid that thing way to the back on top of the piano and covered it with the TV Guide, and still, the stink won’t go down. We’re not supposed to open any windows unless Mom says it’s okay. She’s afraid we’ll get robbed in our sleep, and maybe raped. I’m not even sure what that is, but it sounds bad.
I hate when she asks me to clean out her ashtray, but I’m not afraid of yucky things. Judy won’t do it. She runs the other way.
“I need a favor, kid,” Mommy says, a bit nicer than usual. I love when she calls me ‘kid.’ “Dump this for me, will ya?”
I pinch the edges of the square glass dish and shake the contents into the garbage, careful not to get any on my fingers. I rinse the soot and particles with soapy water until it’s nice and clean again. She knows I do a good job.
I want to concentrate on this show, but my food tastes like cigarette butts. I can’t take the stench. Maybe if I put the phone book over the TV Guide. That might help.
Uncrossing my legs, I place my heaping breakfast next to me with care. When I lean forward to get up, I clip the rim of the bowl with my foot, and cereal goes everywhere.
In a panic, I shovel handfuls of wet slop into a pile. I scrape the spoon along the surface of the carpet, mashing soggy flakes deep into the coarse fabric.
When I hear Mommy on the stairs, I scramble to my feet. Her furious presence fills the doorway, her flimsy nightgown held together under one arm with safety pins. I wish I didn’t have to see those parts of her body she warns I’m gonna have – someday soon. I don’t want any of that. Or this. I stand in the middle of the room, frozen.
“What’s wrong with you?” she bellows, pulling at her own matted hair, as if to keep her head from toppling clean off her shoulders. She lunges at me, begging the question again. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
I fall to my knees and cover myself with both arms.
I pretend I am sick so I can stay home from school and be with my mother. It’s not like she ever does anything exciting. She cleans and talks alot on the phone. She watches TV, and I like TV.
I fake a myriad of illnesses – stomach virus, stiff neck, sore throat, ear ache. Whatever it takes to get her to question my health and keep me from wearing that stupid uniform for the day.
Sometimes, I’ll go to sleep with the idea already in my head. And by the early morning, that idea becomes so strong a need, I feel like I can’t possibly leave her.
Daddy’s alarm clock rings in the middle of the night. I listen for the sound of his heavy belt buckle as he steps back into the pants he’s removed just three or four hours earlier. He runs water in the bathroom sink and brushes his teeth. He loosens the phlegm in his throat, spits it into the toilet and leaves it there, floating. He takes his gun from the top of the refrigerator. I watch from the stairs as he pulls his coat on and closes the front door behind him. I imagine him walking to the subway in the darkness. I wait for the sound of the train that takes him to places he’d rather be.
“Mommy.” I stand in front of her side of the bed. “I don’t feel good.”
She reaches over and pats at the empty pillow, still damp with my father’s drool.
“Did he leave?” she asks.
“Is the door locked?”
“C’mere to me,” she says, pulling my body close to her warm skin and resting the palm of her hand against my forehead.
“You do feel warm,” which is exactly what happens when you rub your face back and forth on the carpet in the hallway.
She draws back the quilt so I can climb in next to her.
“Do I have a fever?” I ask. I want one very badly. I don’t care if I come across it dishonestly. Running a temperature means I can write my own ticket. Eat soup and toast with jelly in my bed. The collapsible metal tray makes me feel like more like a patient and less like a burden. Color and do puzzles in my bed. Mommy will send Judy to school with a note for my teacher. I’ll even get to do homework in my bed.
When she doesn’t respond to my question right away, I begin to panic.
“Can’t I please stay home with you?” I cup my hand over my mouth and start to cough, hoping this makes my condition seem more severe. I wish I could make myself throw up. Then she’d have to believe that I’m telling the truth.
When I was drinking and carrying on, my life was filled with fights and fall outs. I was in perpetual battle mode. I took on boyfriends, neighbors, bosses, strangers. Every single person on earth was out to get me, and I had to be ready.
It’s not like I understood how to communicate my thoughts or exercise any self-control. I didn’t know what it meant to mind my own business. Ijumped into the ring as soon as I heard the bell.
I don’t remember ever winning one argument. That’s because I was always drunk, my opinions never made any sense, and I flat out sucked at fighting. I got my clock cleaned on a regular basis. I could never figure out how and where I went wrong.
Today, I let go of my need to be involved in altercations. If someone wants to get into it with me, the smartest move I can make is to simply walk away. I’m grateful my legs aren’t broken. I like to keep them that way.
I called the house from a pay phone. My mother answered. Her voice, a mixture of worry and disgust before I even got the chance to try out any of the lies I’d practiced in my head or made up right there on the spot.
“Where are you?” she demanded.
“I’m fine, thanks,” I replied. You know what? Fuck her. I should have known she’d be like this. “Is Daddy around? I have to talk to him about something.”
“What are you, new?” she asked. “He’s not here. He’s never here. You’ll talk to me.”
It was hard to get around my mother, an angry roadblock of a woman. I did not want to approach her for money or help, even though I needed both.
“You lost your job, didn’t you?”
“They cut back the whole department.”
“I knew it. I knew you’d get fired.”
“I wasn’t fired, Mom. I got laid off. It’s different.”
“It’s all the same shit with you,” she insisted. “So what are you gonna do now? Sit around with your hand on your ass?”
“No. I’ll find something else. I was talking to my neighbor upstairs, and he said I could probably get unemployment, so I gotta figure out how to do that.”
“Oh, yeah? Your neighbor upstairs?” She made what I said sound dirty. “What are you doing telling everybody your business for? They don’t need to know. Jesus, Mary. When are you gonna learn to keep your goddamn mouth shut?”
I could hear the sound of a match being struck as she started a new cigarette, inhaling deeply. Through the receiver, she blew smoke in my face.
“Christ Almighty. My daughter.” She paused for emphasis. “My pride and joy. On the fucking dole.”
It’s not like I expected the conversation to go well, but this was pretty bad. Plus, I still needed money. But I couldn’t get the right footing to ask. I think a part of me already knew she’d say ‘no,’ but I got caught up in the argument. Maybe all I’d get to do was make her aware that I was struggling. You know, to spread the pain around.
I should have just hung up. But instead, I fed more change into the slot so the operator wouldn’t cut us off. The line clicked twice and went quiet for a second.
“Mary, are you there?”
I could hear my mother’s panic – that perhaps we’d gotten disconnected, and I was gone from her grasp. But I wasn’t equipped to work that fear to my advantage. She was too loud and quick and strong. And I was a weakling.
“Where’s that animal you’re tied to? Can’t he take care of you?” She meant Charlie. He was back in jail. “Tell you what, don’t answer that. I don’t wanna know.”
“I can take care of myself,” I said.
“Sure, you can.”
“I could use a loan, though, Mom. Please. Just to have my phone turned back on. So I can get work.”
“No friggin’ way am I handing over the contents of my wallet. I’m done laying out for you. You’ll have to run this horseshit past your father.”
“Then I’ll call back. When will he be home?”
“How the fuck should I know?”
Dad tapped on the basement window with his car keys the following morning. I heard the sound in a dream, at first. A bird, pecking on a tree made of glass. Peck, peck, peck. Shattering everything, right down to the roots. I’m not sure how long I was out of it. The room was quietly streaked with sun when my eyes finally started closing. I did not think sleep would ever come. And like most nights, there was crying.
He tapped again, and I woke up. “Come to the back. I’ll let you in.” I waved at his shoes. That’s all I could see.
I threw a blanket over the wine box next to the mattress on the floor. I gathered up the spent beer cans and whatever all else looked suspicious and unproductive.
He came down the stairs carrying a cardboard box filled with spaghetti noodles and tomato sauce, peanut butter, sugary cereal for when my kid came to visit, milk and juice.
“This is from your mother,” he said. “I gotta use your bathroom.”
He peed with the door open, whistling through his teeth and farting to his own melody.
“Did Mommy tell you I called?”
He flushed the toilet and zipped his pants in the hallway, went to the fridge and looked inside. Not much in there except salad dressing and six or eight beers.
“I’m taking these,” he said, grabbing two with one hand. “I’ll pick you up tomorrow early. You can give me a hand with some shit.”
“What kind of shit?”
“Does it matter?”
It didn’t, really. But goddamn it, I was still broke and running low on everything I needed to get high. And maintain. Without money, I’d be scrounging around, borrowing from people. I hated that. Selling things I tried to convince myself I was done using. Like my blow dryer. And the fan from the kitchen window. Two folding knives belonging to Charlie. You know what? Fuck him. He ain’t even around to help out. The little Christmas tree my sister bought us, even though I swore up and down I hated the holidays. Clothes she gave me, and clothes I stole from her closet.
My father looked over the top of his glasses, caked with dirt and covered in smudges. “Listen to me.” He spoke just above a whisper. “Are you listening?”
“Whatever this stupid shit is that you’re doing, you gotta knock it off. Personally, I don’t give a damn. But you’re killing your mother.”
I wasn’t sure if he knew what I was into or not. He’d likely beat my ass if he did. Or maybe not. The man was impossible to read.
“Eat something,” he said. Then he left.
Eat something. That’s a good one. Like anybody could eat with my problems. No job. No money. He don’t care. He just said so himself. “Personally, I don’t give a damn.” Personally! Like he’s a real person. You know what? Fuck him. Fuck all of them.
As always, I began obsessing over whether or not I’d get to sleep at a reasonable hour, which I never did. I was routinely gassed, to the point where being awake just bummed me out. I don’t think I was depressed, even though I felt weary and short-changed all the time. I was either drunk and high or hung over and strung out.
Would I get enough rest if I went to bed at midnight? I started the countdown in my head. Nine hours from now, I should try and lay down. But how could I with so much to do? What if it was more like two or three o’clock? And Dad showed up early? I added and subtracted measurements of time and energy.
Would I be too tired to swing that gigantic mop at the bar? Cranking the lever to squeeze the gray water back into the bucket over and over, trying to make a dirty floor less dirty. Hosing off the picnic tables and rinsing the garbage barrels out front.
I reminded myself to bring the radio, so I’d have music to listen to while I was there. They had beer, which was good. Pitchers I could fill and bring upstairs while I did my work. The old guys behind the bar never minded. I made my own good time. Was this my new job now? Fun janitor?
Would Dad pay me right away? I thought about money being pressed into my hand and gone again without ever knowing the inside of any of my pockets. I always spent way more than I made and saved nothing.
During the rest of the afternoon and evening, I established a mental list of needs, as well as the step-by-step instructions I’d have to follow in order to secure these needs but would probably ignore if I could come up with different, easier ideas.
There are few situations more strenuous than time spent procuring supplies to get a load on. It can be such lonely, demanding work. There’s considerable strategy involved. Fundraising and backup plans. Travel time – for me, all on foot. I’d have to see who was around. There was usually someone around at the usual places. Unless no one was there or no one who knew me was there. If I had a little cash, just enough to get in the door, so to speak, I could ask for certain individuals who wouldn’t mind helping me out. Dudes who sometimes let me go on less.
“You seen Jigsaw? Topo? Edward?”
“Nah.” These guys would look at me like I was making names up. They’d turn their backs and pretend I wasn’t there. I’d have to keep moving. I have no game. I’m not that slick.
On to the next place where maybe they could hold some of my stuff or trade. I never saw my things again.
Small degrees of success might take hours and consume whole days, barring distractions like work and relationships. Neither of which I had at the moment.
Heading home with modest results, a side trip to the liquor store and warm beers from the supermarket, I happened upon a set of fancy, red books stacked on the easement of Yellowstone Boulevard, half a mile from my house. Encyclopedias grouped into four bundles with twine, roughly seven or eight books each. Too heavy for me to lift.
I decided right then and there that Kirin needed these books. My son deserved a good education. I envisioned the two of us pouring over each issue together, learning about the world as it was documented back in 1969, when this particular edition was published. In twenty five years, surely not much had changed with regard to our simple interests. Vehicles, in general, had withstood some updates, yes. But planets, flags, dinosaurs and hot air balloons looked pretty much the same. What a great find!
I returned to the basement on Alderton Street and dropped off my groceries, filled a plastic cup with wine, did a little coke and went back for the books with a steak knife to cut the ropes so I could carry four or five at a time. Motherfucking encyclopedias are heavy!
Start with 6 trips to the book stash x 11 blocks one way, 22 blocks round trip. That equals 132 blocks, coming and going. Try to remember that amount. You’ll need it again later.
I don’t know how long it took me to complete my mission. A bunch of hours. I walked and toiled well past dinnertime, my eyes darting in and out of first floor apartment windows where tables were set for meals and children did homework in families not fractured by mothers incapable of getting their fucking acts together.
More hours passed, and day became night. Although grateful for something constructive to do, I was also getting tired. Stopping at my place to drop off each load, I peed and snorted drugs. Filling new tumblers with wine to keep me company on the way there and stacking the empties behind a tree at the scene of the abandoned books to mark my progress. I trudged back home, arms filled with sophisticated facts.
It’s hard to leave the house when there’s coke, but I did it. I finished the job! At least, I thought I did.
I stood amid my newly acquired library of knowledge, wiping down each issue and grouping them alphabetically. A through D. E, F. Hmmm, where was G? H through L. M through P. Q, R, S, T. U through the rest of the other letters and those extra bullshit companion guides. Where the fuck was G? No way it wasn’t there with all the others. I must have left it behind.
So back to the trash pile I went, where I searched, to no avail. No G anywhere. Lots of other cast off items, crap I had no use for. A box of small appliances. Who needs a blender without a lid? Several well-worn frying pans and a large wok, mismatched plates and cups. A makeup bag with what looked like expensive cosmetics inside. That, I took, along with my collection of used wine cups, sticky and crawling with ants.
I checked the time on the clock in the window of the dry cleaner – 5:25 a.m. The morning world began to stir. Vans filled with bread and pastries zoomed past, newspaper delivery trucks. Express buses filled with commuters who slept well, ate well and somehow managed to stay employed. Workers heading to jobs I used to have.
I went home and made up my face in the narrow mirror that came with an eyeshadow tool kit. I did not recognize myself when I was done. I lay back on the mattress and tried to feel ready for sleep. I did the last bit of math in my head, adding 22 more blocks to my earlier sum and deciding I’d walked 154 blocks in total. That’s almost eight miles.
I stroked my eyelashes, still caked with mascara. They reminded me of plastic spiders. I tried to scrape them clean with my fingernails, pulling and stretching the lids away from the rest of my theatrical features. In those last moments of visible darkness, I plucked and picked at them until I was sure there were none left.
I dozed for a while, trying to recall the big long word that means you’re afraid of spiders. It begins with the letter “a.” The S book would probably know that information, and I was glad to have it. But I must have passed out.
In the car with my father, heading to the bar, I tried to make small talk.
“I found a set of books in somebody’s garbage last night. Encyclopedias for Kirin. They look expensive. It’s good to have encyclopedias, you know? We had them, remember?”
Dad raised his eyebrows. He was listening, I guess, so I kept talking.
“Problem is there’s no G. I looked everywhere.”
“Maybe that’s why they threw them away.”
“Yeah, maybe. But they’re still really good books,” I insisted.
“He’s never gonna know what a giraffe is.”
I rested the side of my head against the window and considered how this omission might shape my son’s future.
Dad patted my leg. “He’ll be all right. It’s not that big a deal.”
Yes, I spend a lot of time with my drug dealer’s wife. But let me be very clear about one thing. We’re not friends. She thinks we are, and it gives me the creeps.
“There’s my Mary,” Laureen gushes, when I finally get one of them to open the fucking door and let me in. She poses at the top of the stairwell in an undershirt and pajama bottoms, one hand on her boney hip and the other outstretched in my direction.
“How do you people stay in business?” I ask. “I’ve been leaning on the buzzer for twenty minutes.” It was really more like five, but everything feels longer when you’re waiting, right? Laureen ignores my complaints and continues to sing my praises.
“Let me look at you, girl. In your little work clothes. Now, I’m happy,” she says, first nodding her head up and down, and then, side to side. “I was so sad before. I cried for three hours.”
“You did not.” I know she’s teasing. She squeezes my face between her knuckles and kisses me on the mouth. Her breath is awful. I can’t describe what it smells like, so I won’t even bother.
“I love what you’re wearing.” I’m dressed in pants and a coat that I bought for seven dollars at the Salvation Army. “I mean it, honey. You could be a model.” I hate the way Laureen looks at me and my things, like she’s starving. I don’t have much, but she has nothing. And realizing this makes me very uncomfortable.
“Pretty, pretty Mary. How’d you get to be so funny and amazing?” Laureen leans against the kitchen counter that’s come loose from the wall, and no one is fixing it. “We are so much alike, don’t you think? I swear, we could be sisters.” My skin crawls whenever she says this, which is often, and I hate it every time.
She leans in, as if to share a secret. “You know, guys are always telling me, ‘Laureen, you’re so pretty.'” Her words drift, and she is somewhere else for a minute. “What was I saying?”
“That I’m funny and amazing.”
“Right, right. See? You know. Funny and freaking amazing!”
I follow Laureen down the hallway. Considering how many people are actually inside this apartment, the living room is quiet, except for the TV. There’s no picture on the screen anymore, just sound. Everybody here is doing their thing. Manny can get whatever you need, but most folks smoke crack. They come to buy and get right to it, sometimes turning hours into days. I always try to have my thoughts straight before I show up.
“Just pay for your shit and go home,” I tell myself. “Pay and go. Pay and go.” I do not want to be here. This place is scary, but nothing is ever that easy.
“How’s your job, hon? Is it good?” Laureen makes like she’s interested. I used to try and tell her shit, but she’s not paying attention so I don’t try anymore. “I want a job,” she muses. “I can do shit. I got skills.” Her voice becomes a little sing-song, and I resent it. “Get dressed up. Ride the train. Talk on the phone. Mary, can’t you get me in at your work?”
“I’ll ask.” Of course, I’m not gonna. The girl’s a fucking wreck.
I watch my drug dealer’s wife load this big, fat rock into a beat-to-shit asthma inhaler. I wish she would just shut the fuck up, and she will. I move a little closer on the couch.
Laureen is obsessed with the condition of her mouth. Many of her teeth are already gone. Mine are just starting to come loose. The way she carries on gets worse when she’s high.
“You smell that?” She points to the infected holes in her gums. Here we go again. “There’s something in there. Something’s in my mouth. Don’t you smell it?”
“I do,” Manny says. He’s chopping coke and laying out a row of scrawny lines for two girls that sit on either side of his filthy shoes. “It smells like somebody puked in a bag of shit.” He slaps an open palm against his knee to confirm his own joke.
“Can you check for me, babe?” She means me. “Just look and tell me what you see.”
“I don’t know what I’m looking for.”
“Please,” she begs. I peer into her gaping maw with one eye closed.
“Did you find it? What’s in there?”
“Laureen, there’s nothing. Go rinse your mouth.”
An industrial-sized bottle of mouthwash, the kind that looks like piss, sits on an old door they use as a coffee table. Laureen takes a long swig, puffs out her cheeks, swishes it around and gobs her backwash into one of two Styrofoam cups reserved exclusively for this purpose.
Do not touch or look inside either of these cups. She recycles the swill from the first one and spits it into the second. This procedure may be right up there with one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen a person do.
I had this boyfriend who took a shit on the floor once because I wouldn’t unlock the bathroom door. We just broke up. Another time, I watched two dogs eat from the same bowl. When one of them threw up, the other one ate it. But maybe that doesn’t count because they were animals and not people. Animals don’t know any better.
Occasionally, someone will drop a cigarette butt into the gravy-like murk of Laureen’s spittoon. This makes her absolutely furious.
“Hey, asshole!” she yells into the disinterested face of a nearby guest. “This cup look like an ashtray to you?”
It kinda does.
I think Manny and Laureen are married, but they might not be. Manny’s a shit heel, though. I still can’t believe I walked in on him and this older woman. She was on her knees in the kitchen. He smiled when he saw me. I wasn’t sure what I should do, so I turned around and went back in the other room.
He came looking for me after. “So, how’d you like that before?” Still grinning.
“Like what?” Laureen asked.
“Some cryptkeeper bitch was sucking my dick. Man, she tugged so hard, I had to make sure it was still there when she finished.”
Somebody laughed. I don’t know who. I couldn’t look. Laureen went back to her business as if he never said anything. I left right after that. I didn’t even wait until it got light out. I walked home 38 blocks in the dark.
Laureen calls me at my job. I can’t remember giving her my number at work or the address, but I must have. I don’t think she has the brains to find me otherwise. To look something up in the Yellow Pages or ask the operator for help.
“Hey, it’s me.” She heavy breathes into the receiver. “Give a guess where I am.” Immediate panic prevents me from any logical thinking. “Right downstairs!” She’s excited. “I came to see you.”
How am I supposed to explain Laureen to the people I work with? What’s with the crackhead? they will surely wonder. I thought I could keep these two things separate.
“I’m going into a staff meeting,” I tell her. That’s a lie.
“Right this minute?”
“C’mon. I just wanna say ‘Hi.’ Plus, I gotta use the toilet.”
“I can’t. I have to go.” I hang up the phone. It rings again, almost immediately. I walk away from my desk, down the corridor and into the file room. I hide there for a while and hope to God she won’t be able to find me in this building. I pray she’s too stupid to figure it out.
I start buying my dope from another supplier. This guy in Shipping and Receiving was very forthcoming as to where he gets what he needs to keep him working such long hours. I wonder if he likes me. It’s hard to tell. He’s scattered. And one of the girls in my department said he’s about to get fired if he keeps fucking shit up.
I haven’t seen or heard from Laureen or Manny in almost a month. Not since the day she was here.
This morning, the receptionist handed me a message from some lady named Carolyn. I didn’t recognize the number, so I just threw it away. When she calls back again, I pick up the phone.
“Is this Mary?”
“I’m Laureen’s mother.” My heart starts to race, and my ears feel hot. “Have you seen my daughter?”
“You can tell me, dear. I promise I’m not mad.”
“Laureen talks about you all the time. She says you’re like her best friend. She needs a friend.”
“I don’t know where she’s at.” That’s the truth.
“Will you let me know if you hear from her? I’m so worried, Mary.”
Just the way she says my name, it makes me want to cry.