I go to church to find out more about who God is. There is so much to learn. I know barely anything.
I should probably sit closer to the front.
* Artwork: Sterrenkijkster by Jantina Peperkamp
I go to church to find out more about who God is. There is so much to learn. I know barely anything.
I should probably sit closer to the front.
* Artwork: Sterrenkijkster by Jantina Peperkamp
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.”
Sharing honest conversation is so much more satisfying than spreading overheard gossip. I love learning how to communicate in healthy ways.
* Artwork: Revelation No. 1 by Danny Galieote
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.
* Artwork by Amanda Elizabeth Joseph
God forgive me. She’s my own mother, but I hate it when she cries. Familiar as I am with the routine anger and resentment she has toward my father, I am never ready for all that unexpected sputtering and weeping. It seems to come from out of nowhere and goes through me like a knife.
One minute, we’re talking about something harmless like Reduced Fat Triscuits and the next, she’s completely distraught over whatever Dad’s done that can never be forgiven. Like the way he keeps waking up every morning and breathing.
Granted, he’s no picnic. But she’s still pissed about antics he pulled thirty and forty years ago. He didn’t care about her feelings then, and he sure as shit doesn’t give a damn about them now. When is she gonna figure that out?
I swear, it’s like she’s half stupid or something. It breaks my heart to think that’s the case. Over and over, she persists with the same hateful, unverified claims.
“Why don’t you tell your daughter how you clogged the toilet again?” she asks.
My father smiles and laughs gently, as if responding to a joke about farts.
“He does it on purpose, you know. He holds his shit in all morning and waits until I get into the shower. I’m trapped like a fucking animal. I can’t even wash my face in peace.”
“Did you call the landlord, Mom?”
Her voice begins to waver. “Please, Mary. I can’t look that poor man in the eye anymore. You have no idea what it’s like to live this way.”
And she is right. Sort of. What my parents share is a very specific brand of crazy. But over the years, I did take what I learned from their expert tutelage and went on to destroy nearly every relationship I can remember. How to ignore the other person and communicate in riddles. The disappearing act. Withholding affection to manipulate situations. Explosive, misdirected rage. And much, much more.
So I do get whatever this is. I didn’t just arrive on the scene of this circus fire. I’m quite used to the smell of smoke by now.
“See if he’s hungry.” Mom flicks her wrist in my father’s direction. A plastic bag of cold cuts flops onto the kitchen counter like a fish.
“Hey, Daddy. You want a sandwich?”
“Of course, he does,” she says. “All I want is some decency. Is that too much to ask?”
Maybe that’s what I find so frustrating. She doesn’t make any reasonable requests. Just hateful demands that can never be met by this elderly man who was once a much younger man with the same limited emotional range.
Only now, he’s old. His memory is shot. When he knew you before, he treated you like shit. He knows even less about you these days. Except that you’ll wipe his ass for him. I’m sure he sees that as a plus.
I’m not suggesting it’s right or fair. My mother doesn’t deserve this much unhappiness. But it certainly is her whole world, and she protects it fiercely. I wish there was something I could do to make things better. I’ve been wishing this my whole life.
Mom does not want my help. She makes it very clear that no one can help her. She is all alone in her disappointment. How am I supposed to penetrate that kind of willfulness? I try. I’m willful, too. But she only lets me in a little bit. In a moment of clarity, I realize that’s all she has. Our relationship exists and survives on scraps. I have always wanted more.
You know, when we were kids, and she hated him, I thought I understood why. It didn’t seem like my dad loved her. Or anything else, really. He came and went along his own trajectory and behaved in ways that frightened us all.
“What will happen if they get a divorce?” I asked my sister.
Judy was older than me. She seemed to have a loose grasp of what was at stake. She might have been twelve at the time. “They’re not getting a divorce,” she said.
“Well, if they do, I’m going with him.”
And not because we shared a special father/daughter bond. He couldn’t take care of himself, never mind us girls. Mom swore he’d die on his own, and I believed her. Still, I wanted out from under the weight of her everyday misery.
“You don’t get to pick,” Judy informed me. “We’d have to stay with her.”
“You can stay,” I told her. “I’m leaving.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am,” I muttered under my breath.
My cousin Donald’s seventh grade homeroom teacher was divorced. I think Judy had her for Science. She wore false eyelashes and high heels to school. She gave the kids gum. My mother couldn’t stand her.
She was the first ‘Ms.’ I’d ever encountered. That’s what they called you when you weren’t married anymore. When your husband left you because you were a whore.
Dad shuffles into the kitchen at the mention of food and sits with us at the crowded table. Piles of bills, newspapers, prescription bottles and half empty coffee cups cover every available surface. I slide the paper shredder over to make room so he can eat lunch.
Mom loves that shredder. I bought it for her two Easters ago. She seems to take great delight in obsessively reducing things to ribbons.
“Shred these,” she demands and tosses a stack of paperwork at his belly. Old Pennysavers and flyers filled with coupons.
My father picks up a church bulletin and feeds into the narrow slot.
“Not that!” she growls and yanks the sheet, jamming the machine. “Can’t I have anything nice?”
And here come the tears.
I just want to eat lunch.
Mommy promised if I was good, we could have grilled cheese at the counter in Woolworth’s. No more hamburgers, not since the last time we ate there. She said the chop meat was bad. It tasted fine to me, and then all of a sudden, I didn’t feel good. I threw up next to a baby carriage right out front. Mommy covered it with a bunch of napkins, and we left.
We’re on our way to the bank which is so boring and a hundred times worse than any other store I can think of and most churches. There are no chairs or pews. If you want to lay down, you have to do it on the giant dirty rug in the hallway but with so many people coming in and out, there’s really no room.
I stare into the big metal ashtray in the doorway. It’s almost as tall as me. There’s a piece of pink gum resting right on the edge of the dish, almost separate from the squished cigarette butts and candy wrappers. It looks fresh. I can still see teeth marks.
Mommy waits on line. She is next. It looks like she knows the lady behind the counter. This is gonna take forever! But now, at least, I have something to do.
I sing some of the words to “Hey There, Georgy Girl” as we walk together down the street. I heard it on the radio when we were in the pharmacy getting a birthday card for my cousin.
You’re always window shopping, but never stopping to buy.
So shed those dowdy feathers and fly, a little bit!
“What’s in your mouth?” Mommy asks.
“A song,” I say.
“Spit it out.”
She holds her hand in front of my mouth, and I swallow.