“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.
“Well, neither do I.”
I sit on the landing at the top of the stairs. Mommy said you’ll be home soon. She called your job when we got back from school, and they told her you already left. That was three hours ago. I’ll stay right here and wait for you.
Today is my birthday, and you said you’d bring that little radio for me to have. I’m not thinking about anything else right now except you walking through the front door with the present you promised.
I’ve seen transistor radios before. Some of my cousins have them. I really want one of my own. Then I can listen to music whenever I like. Finally, I’ll know all the words to “Spirit in the Sky.” It feels like my whole life’s about to change.
I imagine this big party. Our whole family is there – aunts, uncles, all of us kids. Somebody whistles, and the room goes quiet. One of the grown-ups lifts me up onto a table littered with ashtrays, half-empty bottles and glasses of beer. I take requests and sing my heart out all night long. It’s a dream of mine to be everyone’s favorite.
But right now, I really have to pee. Mommy let me have some ginger ale a little while ago, and I drank the whole can. I go back inside. Judy’s in the bathroom with the door locked again. She likes to read books while she’s on the toilet.
“Open up. I need to make.”
“You have to wait your turn,” my sister says.
“I’m telling Mommy you won’t let me in.”
I return to my perch on the steps, cupping myself with both hands when I sit down. The lady from downstairs must be making supper. Whatever it is smells really good, like Italian food, but I don’t think they’re Italian. My mother can’t stand Eleanor or her cooking. She hates Eleanor’s whole family. She says they’re two-faced and can’t be trusted.
I think they’re nice. Eleanor and her husband hold hands in church. They’re quiet and keep to themselves, except when they complain to the landlord about stuff, like whenever we have company. Because there’s almost always fights, big ones. Daddy fell down the stairs at Easter.
Somebody’s shadow fills the front hallway. It’s just Eleanor’s husband. He comes home the same time every night. Last week, he taught their youngest kid how to ride a bicycle. Gregory’s about my age, I guess. I watched them from my bedroom window. His dad ran alongside the two-wheeler, holding onto the back of the seat. After a few tries, when he let go, Gregory was doing it all by himself. “Good job, son!” the man cheered. “So good!”
We don’t have a bicycle. It doesn’t matter. No one’s gonna teach us anyway. I bet Eleanor’s husband doesn’t drink.
I ran and told Mommy what I saw, Gregory riding without training wheels. She was in the kitchen, stabbing tuna fish to death with a fork. A cigarette dangled from her mouth, and one of her eyes was shut to keep out the smoke.
“You steer clear of that kid,” she warned. “There’s something really wrong with him.”
Back in the summer, Mommy caught Gregory scratching his bare hiney across the bricks on the side of the house. He talked back when she scolded him.
“Mind your own business,’ he said. “You ain’t my mother.”
She picked him up by the back of his shirt and dragged him along the sidewalk with his pants around his ankles. She rang the doorbell and banged on the window. He screamed bloody murder the whole time, but Mommy held on tight.
“You’re not perfect,” she told Eleanor when she came to the door, dumping Gregory at her feet.
Sometimes, I can’t decide if Mommy is a hero or a monster. Maybe she’s both. Now, I have to pee really bad. I try for the bathroom a second time and jiggle the knob.
“Judy, open the door. I’m gonna have an accident.”
“No, you’re not,” she says.
“Then, can’t I please just go in the tub?”
“It isn’t, and I’m telling.”
I try to get Mommy’s attention, but she’s on the phone, deep in a conversation that could last for the rest of my life. “Judy hates me,” I sob. “She wants I should pee my pants.”
“Not now,” my mother says and keeps talking to whoever’s on the other end of the line.
I go back to the foyer. I reach inside my bloomers and try to pinch my pee pee hole shut so everything will stay in, but it’s no use. I pee all over my hand. It soaks through my shorts and spreads to the carpet on the top step. And even though my socks and slippers are soaked, I am relieved, but only for a minute. Then, I’m just scared. I sit there in the growing darkness. I know I’m gonna get hit.
The front door opens, and there you are. It takes you forever to find your key and figure out what to do with it. I can tell you’re not right. Holding onto the walls as you climb the stairs, you lose your balance and lurch forward, catching the bannister with your elbow and sliding to your knees. I’m afraid to say anything, in case you fall backwards and crack your head open.
“Daddy, I’m here,” I whisper like I would to a stray cat in the street that I wish would come to me. Your head tilts toward my voice. You manage a smile, and now, I know you’re drunk. You never smile otherwise. Mommy’s gonna be so mad.
“Do you have the radio?” I ask.
You stare at me like a dummy, like you can’t understand what I’m saying. I move closer to the wall so you can pass. You lean on my shoulder and guide yourself through the doorway. The rug makes a squishing sound under your feet. Mommy starts hollering as soon as you’re inside.
I cover my ears and start singing. I make up my own words to “Spirit in the Sky.”
Press PLAY below to listen to the story…
Charlie’s moustache smelled like bug spray when he kissed me. Of course, he was fucked up. He’d been in the Bronx all day, doing what he always did whenever he had money. Spent it on dope.
Charlie had tons of reasons for going back to his old neighborhood. This guy he knew had a job for him, somebody else needed a favor. He had to check on his mother. He made like he was this good son who took care of business, but he wasn’t. Mabel couldn’t really depend on her children.
It was the drugs that pulled Charlie toward Harding Park – every time. They sucked me in too. I hated being down there, but I made excuses, same as him.
“Whaddya mean, ‘What is it?'” Charlie asked. “It’s a duck. I think.” But neither of us knew for sure.
“Why is it here?”
“I thought you might want it,” he said.
“Want it for what?”
“I don’t know. Just to have.”
I had no interest in whatever this was standing in my kitchen, with its bulging eyeballs and beak hanging wide open. It took a few steps backward and slid across the linoleum in its own shit.
Charlie’s thing was angel dust. He’d been smoking it since he was a teenager. He dabbled in coke and weed over the years, but he always came back to his beloved zootie. I never understood why he loved the shit so much. It took him on the most disturbing trips in his mind and turned him into a violent monster that terrified everyone. Charlie’s drug of choice never looked like it was any fun.
He tried to explain what happened that afternoon and how he came upon this strange creature. He’d wandered onto the jetty after he got high, like he usually did. He stood there for a long while, just staring at the river. He described how this time, when the waves rolled toward the edge of the sky, they burst into flames. And how a demon emerged from the fire, chasing an angel that carried something in her wings.
When she flew past the clouds and tumbled to the ground, Charlie ran to where she had collapsed in the snow. As he reached out to help, she reeled back with such force, he was knocked off his feet. That’s when he saw the bird, struggling in the icy water just beyond the pier. He scooped him up by his neck, wrapped him in a dirty blanket he found in somebody’s boat and returned to Queens on the subway.
“What’s the matter with him?” I asked. “He looks sick.” With big, red welts all over his face, some of which dangled from his forehead and drooped across the bridge of his nose, I wondered out loud if he had cancer.
“He ain’t sick,” Charlie insisted. “He’s just ugly. Help me figure out a place for him to sleep.”
Between the two of us, we understood very little about living things and their requirements. I suppose I should have known better, being a mother, but I couldn’t take care of my child. I wanted to. I barely made the rent every month on our basement shit hole. Charlie kept breaking stuff neither of us knew how to fix. We both had drug problems that governed our decisions. I hated admitting that my son was better off with his dad. So instead, I resented everyone who hassled me about my behavior. I disappeared whenever things got heavy.
Reluctantly, I emptied out the bottom drawer of a bureau and lined it with old shirts. This was a stupid idea. “He can’t live in the furniture forever, you know.”
“My cousin, Harry’s got a doghouse he ain’t using. That’ll work.”
I wished Cancer Duck looked more like a normal, healthy bird. The rest of his body was okay, but that face. Plus he had these thin, red ribbons with tiny bells tied to each of his ankles. They were all caught up in knots, and he could barely walk. Charlie explained what he knew about Santeria, which was big in the Caribbean communities around where he grew up. Animal sacrifice was part of certain religious rituals.
“I need something to cut these with,” Charlie said. I brought him the sharpest knife I could find.
“Maybe he was in a duck fight, like what they do with roosters,” I suggested.
“Ducks ain’t like that. They’re gentle.” Like Charlie would know. “Let’s name him ‘Romeo,'” he said. “He’s a lover, not a fighter.”
Our houseguest seemed quite content swaddled in his makeshift bed of stale laundry.
“Goodnight, Romeo,” I whispered as I eased the drawer closed a little bit. I guess I was glad that one of us could sleep.
I returned to the kitchen and the baggie full of cross tops I kept in my bra. I licked my finger and pressed it into the sack, so that seven or eight pills stuck to my skin. I scraped them onto my tongue. I poured another tumbler of wine and got back to what had become my life’s work.
The next day at lunchtime, I went to the bookstore near my job and read everything I could find on ducks. I found out that Romeo was a for real breed called a Muscovy. Muscovies are born resembling most other ducklings, but they get more banged-up looking as life goes on. I understood what that was like.
Relieved by the news that he wasn’t dying after all, I stopped at the Petland Discount on my way home from work. I approached a teenager dangling from a step ladder, his arm submerged up to his elbow in murky fish tank water. I tried not to stare at the boxer shorts that held up his pants.
“Excuse me. Can you tell me what ducks eat?”
At first, I thought maybe I’d made a mistake, that this young man wasn’t an employee. But then, I realized he just didn’t want to deal with me. I stood there for a moment, trying to figure out what to do. I glanced around the store for clues. I drifted toward the birdseed display and examined a few bags, hoping to find a picture of a duck, smiling and eating his favorite meal.
“There’s a feed store up on Metropolitan,” he said as he dried his hands on his saggy jeans. “They probably have what you need.”
“Is it far?” I asked. “I’m on foot.”
“Don’t know.” That was the end of our conversation. Positioning himself on a stool by the window, he reached under the counter for a bag of Skittles, signifying that he was officially on his break.
I went home and wheeled my shopping wagon all the way to the place he’d mentioned and back, about seventy five blocks. When I got back to the basement, I showed Charlie the fifty pound bag of duck chow that I’d bought. He wasn’t happy, probably because he wasn’t high.
“We don’t need that expensive shit. The swans down Harding Park eat garbage, and they do just fine.”
“But this is really good for him. It has a lot of vitamins in it. Plus, corn and stuff.”
“I’m gonna need twenty dollars,” Charlie said. He had to go see somebody about a job.
Romeo loved his new diet, and he seemed to enjoy living in the fenced in area behind our house. He was a pleasant companion. Muscovies do not quack, but he communicated in other ways. He wagged his tail whenever he saw me. He made good-natured huffing and puffing sounds. He pecked at my shoes to get attention.
It was no surprise that Romeo did not care for Charlie. As soon as the bird saw him, he disappeared inside his plastic Igloo. I could not let on that Romeo brought me so much joy, or Charlie would surely get rid of him. Some nights, I wished there was enough room in the doghouse for me.
A few weeks later, the man who owned the feed store asked how my duck was doing.
“He couldn’t be better,” I said.
“Glad to hear that, young lady.” Mr. Lee smiled as he rang up my order. “You’re over there by Flushing Meadow, aren’t you?”
“I’m off Yellowstone Boulevard, by the Roy Rogers.”
“For some reason, I thought you were on the pond. Let me ask you, then. Where’s your water source?” He sounded concerned.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Well, ducks need to be near water, you see, so they can wash their heads and faces. It prevents infection and cataracts and such. My dear, your duck’s gotta exercise so he can thrive.”
I ran all the way back to the house, clutching my bag of hay. Actually, I stopped at the liquor store to buy wine, and the bodega for beer. But then, I walked really fast the rest of the way. Charlie was shaving his head in the bathroom when I got there.
“Romeo needs water or he’s gonna die!” I repeated what Mr. Lee had told me.
“He gets wet when it rains. That’s good enough.”
“Mr. Lee said ducks have to swim and moisturize so they can stay healthy.”
“I’m sick of hearing about this fucking bird. And who the fuck is this guy?” Charlie got himself so worked up, he cut the tIp of his ear with the straight razor. When he pounded on the sink, the corner snapped off and broke into several pieces. Great, something else that was my fault.
I went outside and dragged my next door neighbor’s hose across the yard, Romeo waddled from his enclosure and stepped into the metal lasagna pan I began filling with cool water. His mouth was open, and I could see his tongue. I swear, it looked like he was saying, “Aaaah.”
A few days later, Charlie approached me with a proposition. So many of Charlie’s best ideas began with me handing over money and ended with him needing an ambulance.
“So, I could use about thirty dollars,” he said.
“Alls I have is enough to get me back and forth to work,” I told him, which wasn’t true. I also had my liquor and drug money. Let him get his own.
“C’mon, please.” I hated when he begged. It made him sound like such a baby. “I’ll have a surprise by the time you come home.”
I worried when i didn’t hear from him all day and grew increasingly nervous when I got off the train later that evening. I could hear music as I turned the corner onto our street – Guns N Roses, Appetite for Destruction – one of the only two cassette tapes Charlie owned. The other was Metallica.
When I reached the driveway, I saw Charlie’s brother, Ned and his best pal, Stevie. They were super stoned and covered in mud, surrounded by empty beer cans. Charlie emerged from the basement, holding a set of pliers and what was left of the tooth he’d just yanked out of his own mouth. Blood dripped from his chin when he smiled.
“I knew I could do it. I told you I didn’t need a dentist.”
I stepped over the shovels that littered the sidewalk. I ran to the fence to check on my duck. And there was Romeo, peacefully paddling back and forth in an old porcelain bathtub the boys had confiscated from a junkyard earlier in the day. They’d strapped it into the back of Stevie’s Datsun pick-up, drove it quietly over the bridge and sunk it in a large hole they dug in the rocky ground near the doghouse. They ran a trench out the bottom so it could be drained and refilled as necessary. As crazy as it looked and as dangerously high as these guys were, they did a really fine job. Romeo was thrilled.
Stevie got to his feet and gave me a sweaty hug. “That bird is lonely, Mare. He needs a girlfriend.”
“I need a girlfriend.” Ned said, as he wiped the dirt from his face with the front of his shirt. “And a wife.”
“I’m glad I got a wife. I love my Rose,” There was pride in Stevie’s voice.
“I love Rose, too,” Ned added, throwing a playful arm over his friend’s shoulder.
“Keep your fucking hands off my wife, Ned. I mean it.” And Stevie was serious. “I’ll slit your throat.”
“I’m going in,” I told them both. I needed a drink. Charlie had thrown up at the bottom of the basement stairs. He wasn’t grinning anymore, but at least the color had returned to his cheeks.
“They’re gonna need money for gas,” he said. Stevie was in no condition to drive and I knew they weren’t gonna buy gas. I just wanted them to leave, so I could get my load on in peace.
In a month, it was my birthday and Mabel called, all excited. She had a special gift. Charlie’s brother, Rob drove her out to Queens to come and see us. She stood at my screen door, clutching a similar looking Muscovy as Romeo, only smaller, bundled up in a beach towel.
“This one’s a girl,” she said. “Call her Juliet.”
“Where’d you get her, Mom?”
“Hunts Point Market. She was gonna be somebody’s dinner.”
I was so moved by Mabel’s thoughtful gesture and glad for Romeo to have company.
Romeo and Juliet really hit it off. I loved that they got along so well. Most evenings, they were waiting for me at the gate. I brought my wine and pills out back while I changed their bedding and water. They nibbled raisins and Cheerios from the palm of my hand. I stayed with them until it got dark and the mosquitoes started biting.
Everybody needs somebody. And I had Charlie, but it was a terrible thought. I wondered if I could ever get away. He would never let me leave, and I had nowhere to go. I was so stuck. Some nights when he was sleeping, I let myself consider what might happen if I took a hammer to the back of his head. It wasn’t a real plan or anything, just a drunken, desperate idea. But I knew I’d never be able to do it, to keep hammering until he was dead. Charlie was too strong. He’d get up and finish me off, for sure.
The lovebirds continued to thrive. They took turns swimming in their bathtub and sitting on the eggs that came as a result of their coupling. We ate omelets with cheese until the weather got cold.
During this time, Charlie was in and out of jail. Mostly, I was the one who called the police. When he punched me in the face as we walked along Ascan Avenue, I crossed the street with a hand cupped over my eye and told two cops on bicycles. They rode around and found him. The night he broke my nose and knocked my tooth out, back in, he went. The ducks and I were always grateful to see him go and anxious when he returned.
Life was peaceful whenever Charlie got locked up, but having him gone seemed to underscore my own drinking and drug use. I hated thinking about it, so I dropped the charges, and the chaos continued.
“Charlie, wake up! The ducks are gone!”
I was scared to go back outside. I’d been awake all night, as usual, drinking and snorting and pilling myself into a frenzy. I waited until the sky started to brighten before I transferred my empty bottles to the outside garbage cans. That’s when I noticed both gates were pushed open the wrong way. There were footprints of varying shapes and sizes, heading in different directions.
“Get up, Charlie. Something bad happened.”
“I don’t care,” he said, rolling over on the mattress and facing the wall.
“Please come. Somebody stole my ducks.” I tugged at his arm like a child.
“I hate you. I hate this shit,” he muttered under his breath.
I believed him, but I needed his help. I stood over the bed, pleading until he sat up and reached for his boots. I clung to the back of his sweatshirt as we followed the tracks over to the far side of the property where nobody ever went. Clumps of bloody feathers were strewn everywhere, so many that it seemed unlikely there’d be anything left worth saving.
I was right. Jammed into a break in the fence was what remained of Romeo’s body. Something had tried to pull hi,. through the chain link, tearing his head clean off in the process.
“Find the other one,” Charlie called over his shoulder. I just stood there in the snow, in my dirty clothes from the night before, unable to think or move. The sound of the phone ringing pulled me back inside the house where none of this horror existed. Whoever was calling kept hanging up when the machine came on.
“Hello,” I sobbed into the receiver when it rang the next time, my hands still trembling from the cold and carnage.
“Mary, it’s Artie from next door. I don’t know how to say this, but there’s been an accident.”
“Yeah. I know.” At least I thought I knew.
“So you’ve already seen her? I’m sorry. It must have been a truck.”
“Her? Wait. What do you mean?”
“Out front,” Artie said. “Tell Charlie to bring a shovel.”
Nothing good could ever have come from my time with the ducks. My actions only led to their suffering. Besides, Charlie was gonna kill them eventually, anyway.
A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head.
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished.
For never was a story of more woe,
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
– William Shakespeare
My mother has a bright pink coat with three giant matching buttons. She wears it on special occasions and to church in the spring, with a dress and low heels. God hasn’t said okay yet to pants on Sunday.
I was sad when I noticed the cigarette burn on the cuff of one of the sleeves. She must have looked away for just a minute. Chatting on the corner with a neighbor or another mother from school maybe, while the embers bore through the material to the silky lining underneath. They left an orange ring, surrounded by a thin brown border that won’t go away.
The hole’s in such a weird spot, and some problems are too hard to fix. I guess Mommy has to learn to live with things just the way they are.
I sneak into my mother’s bedroom when she’s on the phone. I rummage around in her drawers and closet, trying on clothes and shoes, scrutinizing myself in the big mirror. I check on her pink coat and look for the hole. I hate that it’s still there. I slide my finger inside the tiny opening and make it bigger.
With each visit to her closet, I grow that hole. I get more and more worried about its size, but I can’t seem to leave it alone. I panic every time Mommy gets dressed to leave the house. Surely, she’ll realize the hole is getting larger. But she never says anything, so I just keep at it.
Me and my cousin, Michael Francis sit across from one another inside Tony’s, a luncheonette right up the street from Aunt Joan’s house. Our mothers bring us here on Fridays. We wait for the older kids to be dismissed from school. Michael and I are still too young for full days. We only go for a few hours in the morning.
I’m getting good at the alphabet. I’ve got the first half memorized – all the way to M, for Mary. The rest of the letters are hard. My teacher says I’m smart, and I want to believe her. She’s the teacher, so she should know, right?
I can’t tell if Michael likes me or not. My guess is he doesn’t. He is careful and quiet, and I’m neither of those things. I picked him some dandelions before we got here, but he didn’t want them. He wouldn’t even take them from me. He just walked away. I don’t know much about boys. I get afraid around my cousins, even though we’re related.
Mom and Aunt Joan meet here for the usual meal, coffee and cigarettes. Us kids eat grilled cheeses while our mothers talk about everyone and everything but mostly, the people who make their lives miserable. Daddy’s name comes up a lot.
My lunch arrives with a pickle. I don’t want that thing anywhere near my sandwich, leaking its juice all over my bread, so I rake it to the edge of my plate with a fork. It’s hard to pretend it’s not there, spoiling the rest of my food.
Me and Michael are trapped in this booth, and we can’t get out. Our mothers are blocking the way. Nobody cares that we’re dying of boredom. At least Michael has two little cars to play with. He drives them back and forth through the contents of a sugar packet. I wish my cousin would let me play with him, but he’s not gonna. I’ve decided he hates me.
After lunch, we sit around for five hundred hours. Mommy and Aunt Joan smoke and stamp their butts out into some uneaten coleslaw. They flick ashes into our half finished Cokes. Lipstick is smeared along the rims of both coffee cups. What’s left of our meal is too disgusting to even look at anymore.
I press my face against the window. Outside, three construction workers in orange vests feed a thick hose into an open manhole. They stop what they’re doing to watch this girl cross the busy avenue. She’s wearing a short skirt and fancy pink sandals. When she runs, I can see her underwear. The men whistle. They call out to her, and she smiles.
“What a disgrace,” my mother says as she lights another cigarette. “There’s a bimbo who’s looking to get raped.”
Aunt Joan recognizes the girl. “That’s Josephine’s daughter, Monica. You know her.”
“I don’t know a Josephine.” For whatever reason, my mother can’t stand either of these women.
“Sure, you do. She works at the bakery.”
“Oh, her. She’s the one whose husband ran off last year. Am I right?”
“For Chrissake, Mary. He died.”
“God forgive me, I guess she got what she deserved.”
“Monica’s a sweetheart,” Aunt Joan insists.
The men’s shouting gets even louder as the girl continues up the street. Finally, she swings around, holding up a middle finger. They love this reaction. They howl and high-five each other as she disappears inside one of the stores on East Tremont.
“Dressed like that, she’ll be knocked up in no time.”
And now, I am nervous for Monica. I don’t want anything bad to happen to her or her pretty outfit. I hate when Mommy ruins the thoughts I’m thinking.
I also hate flies. and they’re everywhere in this place. Some are small, others, fat. All different types, buzzing around our leftover french fries and messy puddles of ketchup. They zip across the edges of the table, crawling along the tips of our knives and forks. When they dive-bomb onto my face and neck, I slap at my own skin to get them off of me.
“You’re so dramatic. Give that shit a rest,” my mother says. Like it’s easy.
I reach inside the sleeve of her everyday jacket, the ugly brown one. I feel around for a tear in the fabric, something I can tuck my fingers into. But the lining is smooth, the seams, intact. There is nowhere for me to hide.
Mommy grabs at my arm and squeezes really hard. It leaves a bright pink mark.
Charlie had an older brother named Rob. I liked Rob. I thought he was a good guy, but I could never let on because of how jealous Charlie would get.
“You’re always taking his side,’ he’d insist, no matter what we were talking about. “Why don’t you just admit you wanna fuck him? Then you ain’t gotta be such a dirty fucking liar no more. You fucking liar. Whore.”
Rob was big, but not nearly as big as Charlie. He didn’t have to be. He was still scary when he lost his temper which, thank God, wasn’t often. And he did seem to have a gentle side. There were glimpses, here and there.
Rob looked after the kids in the neighborhood. He fixed their bikes. He bought them juice and cereal when their mothers had nothing in the fridge except beer. Old ladies adored Rob. He drove them to the check cashing place and stopped at the Mini Mart on the way back so they could get their scratch offs. When Rob had money, he filled big aluminum pans with cat food and left them by the back door of the house. All the strays came to eat. When he was broke, he shot at the same cats with a bb gun.
Buried beneath all the mean parts, there was goodness. Charlie was wired similarly, but he wasn’t nearly as nice.
Rob kept everyone at arm’s length – to protect himself, maybe. He had to. None of us were trustworthy. But I could tell he hated me the least. He grabbed me by the elbow one afternoon when Charlie was off somewhere getting high.
“Is he still hitting you?” he asked, turning my wrists over and pointing to the bruises on the inside of my arms, where Charlie liked to twist the skin.
“It’s not so bad.”
“You know, I used to think you were smart, when you first started coming around here. But now, I realize you’re an idiot.”
“You don’t mean that, Rob.”
“Sure, I do. You think you can change my brother? He’s a fucking beater. You ain’t worth shit to him. Everybody warned you. Mom, cops. They’ll keep telling you. He’s gonna kill you someday, stupid. It may happen by accident, but that don’t matter. You’ll still be dead.”
Rob did two and a half years on a robbery charge upstate. He got off the needle when he went to prison and stayed clean the whole time I knew him. The boys smoked crack in the house so he moved into a small Budweiser trailer they kept in the front yard.
Rob’s aluminum home had a door, and he cut a hole in one of the walls to let air and light in. Winters on the water could be bone numbing, especially in a little metal box. Rob remedied this situation by running a heavy duty extension cord up the steps of the house and into the kitchen so he could power a space heater and not freeze to death in his sleep. Come July and August, he enjoyed the artificial breeze of a box fan.
I never set foot in the trailer. Rob kept to himself, and he didn’t need company. His only occasional guests were the prostitutes who called to him around the clock. They hollered into his homemade window, hoping for the opportunity to swap goods for services.
“Rob, you in there?” You got a cigarette for me?”
“Janey needs one, too. C’mon, Rob. Help us out.”
“Scram, bitches. I’m sleeping.”
“Go wash yourselves.”
“We will. Just let us have a few puffs.”
“You smell like piss. Get outta here.” He scolded them like a disappointed parent.
The girls in Harding Park scared me. They wandered up and down the road that stretched along the jetty, waiting for men in cars to stop and ask how much. I’d convinced myself I wasn’t like those crackheads. I had a job and a place to live. I bought my drugs with my own money. I was just there visiting.
Charlie’s mother, Mabel was a tough old lady. The boys broke her leg one night during a fight. They fell on top of her while she was trying to pry them apart. When they asked her how it happened at the hospital, she wouldn’t say. She loved her sons and didn’t want them to get in more trouble than they already were.
Mabel owned the house they all lived in. She paid the bills whenever she could. Rob worked odd jobs and gave her money regularly, with which she bought groceries and cooked for everyone who was hungry and needed a meal. After supper, she fed the dogs in the kitchen. The ones that fought over food ate on the porch.
One night while Mabel scraped leftovers into the outside bowls, she heard a noise and saw something tearing open the plastic bags in the garbage can. She called to Rob who grabbed a woolen afghan off the back of the couch. Together, they creeped into the darkness and flung the quilt like a dragnet over whatever was out there. The sounds it made were exactly like what I imagine a lady being murdered sounds like.
They gathered up their bizarre prize and hurried back inside before the police came. When Rob unwrapped the blanket, a magnificent blue and yellow macaw flapped its wings and crashed repeatedly into the ceiling, frantic for a way out. She clearly did not see herself as having been saved. She lurched and careened from chair to table, screeching and shitting everywhere. Eventually, the poor thing came to rest on the shower rod in the bathroom, panting and sobbing, “Raw! Raw!”
“She practically knows my name,” Rob said. He looked almost happy.
There wasn’t any room for Mackey to stay in the trailer. Plus, the temperatures in winter and summer made it dangerous. Instead, Rob built a five foot pen and bolted it to the floor in the living room so nobody in the house would get any ideas about stealing his bird. He put a padlock on the door. There were two keys. He kept one, and Mabel wore the other around her neck on a shoelace.
Rob fed Mackey people food – sweet potatoes, macaroni and rice. He cut up fresh fruits and vegetables. He made treats from strips of rawhide rolled in peanut butter, covered in bird seed and crushed nuts.
Mackey was a mean motherfucker. If you got too close, she’d growl in a menacing way. She only loved Rob. She recognized the sound of his truck pulling up in front of the house. She fluffed her feathers and swung from the rope that hung from the center of her crate. When she saw him, she screeched with delight like a lovesick fool.
Charlie’s cousin, Pete lived in a tent on his dead mother’s property. Her house burned down the year before, and he had nowhere to go, so he slept on the ground. For a while, he had two dogs that kept him safe from the other crackheads who tried to collect on the debts he owed or steal what little he had. But he couldn’t take care of anything, and the dogs ran off.
Pete pushed a shopping cart around the neighborhood, digging through dumpsters and other people’s garbage for stuff he could trade for liquor and dope. Maybe Pete was 45, but he looked a thousand years old. He hadn’t a single tooth left in his head, his fingernails were long and sharp. His body curved forward and back, in the shape of a question mark. Cousin Pete wasn’t long for this world.
One afternoon, Pete stopped by to see Rob. He wasn’t allowed in Mabel’s house anymore because he stole meat from the freezer, and she put him out. He waited by the cars while Rob finished taking a shower, pacing back and forth in the street, ranting and raving about this friend of his who told him some important news Rob absolutely needed to hear.
Rob came to the doorway wearing a Muppet Babies beach towel around his waist. He stood there cleaning his ears with a Q-tip and examining what he found. “What do you want, Pete? I ain’t got all day.”
“I know that’s right, cuz. You’re a very busy man. I see how busy you are. You’re straight up, Rob, and I respect that.”
He rattled on and on about a story he’d heard from someone who knew somebody that saw something on the news where two junkies broke into the bird sanctuary at the Bronx Zoo and took off with seven or eight parrots.
“How much you think something like that costs? A parrot,” he asked, checking Rob’s face for a reaction. “Anyway, my friend told me people were saying you had something to do with it. That maybe you had some kind of fancy bird up there in Aunt Mabel’s house you ain’t telling nobody about.”
“I’m going inside,” Rob said, turning back toward the kitchen.
“Hold up, hold up,” Pete begged. “I just thought maybe if I told you what they told me, you might wanna, you know, speak your truth and what not. Then I could go back to my friend and let him know there ain’t no reason to be wondering about what you did or didn’t do. You follow what I’m saying?”
“No. Get off my property, Pete.”
“C’mon, cuz. You gotta know I respect your privacy. All I’m saying is how everybody needs to mind their own fucking business. Am I right? Pete didn’t wait for an answer. “But if I could just come inside, maybe use the bathroom and get a little something to eat, I’d be so grateful.”
If you leave right now,” Rob said, “I won’t have to shoot you. Your choice.”
“Rawb! Rawb!” Mackey squawked through the living room window when she heard the sound of his voice.
“You hear that?” Rob asked as he took one last drag off his cigarette and flicked the butt toward Pete’s shoes. “You go tell your friend I got his mother inside my house, and I gotta get back to her.”
Rob shut the door and rummaged through the toolbox that he kept locked and chained to the radiator in Mabel’s bedroom. He reached into Mackey’s cage and pulled her from her perch. Tucking her body under his armpit, he pried the ID band off her leg with a pair of pliers. She screamed the whole time.
High on crack, I spent hours staring into Mackey’s cage, trying to fix Charlie with the power of my mind. I worried whenever he disappeared and waited in fear for him to return. I watched Mackey frantically ring her bell and peck at her blurry reflection in this little toy mirror she had. She chewed her own chest and back, breaking the skin with her razor sharp beak. She scratched her face with those giant claws, tearing herself to pieces for reasons she couldn’t explain. She cried out for an angry man to save her.
Years later, I was sad when I found out that Rob had died. I don’t know how it happened, and it wasn’t my place to ask. I had left that world behind and all the people in it.
Everyone in this story is dead, except me. And sometimes, it feels like I should be doing something more with this information, knowing that they’re all gone. But what? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s enough to just treat these memories gently and keep moving.
Regardless of the fact that I was five and seldom knew what to expect in just about any given situation, I looked forward to starting school. I had watched my sister carry herself through that first year of academic training with ease and decorum. I wanted everything Judy had been given. She could spell and read and count to pretty big numbers. She knew the words to a few clapping songs, as well as the days of the week. Access to storybooks and finger painting, pretzel rods, sandwich cookies and very small containers of milk. I thought I’d be able to slide right into the same kind of lifestyle she clearly enjoyed.
Kindergarten orientation did not go as smoothly as I’d anticipated.
I can’t recall exactly what my preparation entailed on the morning of that preliminary meeting. I probably ate cereal and read the back of the box as though it were the Daily News. Most likely, I fought my way into a pair of navy blue leotards at my mother’s insistence. If the TV was on – and why wouldn’t it be? – I watched it.
Despite my excitement, I hated having to leave my mother during the day. I worried that she might be lonely. I’d be lonely in the house all by myself, but she said she’d try her best to manage while us girls were away.
Mommy and I waited among the informal crowd to be introduced to Mrs. Hughes, a gently swaying tree of a woman with large hands and a kind face. Word from the front of the line was that we needed to know when we were born, which seemed easy enough. We didn’t even have to get the year right, just the month and day. I double-checked these details with my mother, just to be on the safe side.
September 10th. Of course, I knew this. But now that knowing was part of a necessary test, I was afraid I might not remember. I tried to store the information inside my brain.
As we new students were gingerly separated from our parents and inched our way closer to the desk where the interviews were being conducted, I became less confident in my ability to pull ahead as an early classroom favorite. There were so many other children who seemed smarter and much more interesting than I felt. Everyone looked like they were already friends.
I smiled at the little boy directly in front of me, but he was mean and didn’t smile back. I eavesdropped on his brief exchange with our new teacher. When asked about his birthday, he said, “September 12th.” By the time it was my turn, I was confused which date was which and repeated what I’d just overheard.
“Are you certain your birthday is the 12th?” Mrs. Hughes asked. She glanced at a piece of paper that seemed to indicate otherwise. “Perhaps there’s been a mistake.”
I stood completely still and said nothing. I scanned the collection of mothers, searching for my own, even though I knew she’d be angry that I got the answer wrong. I started to cry.
“There, there,” Mrs. Hughes rose from her chair and kneeled beside me, jingling my wrists in efforts to keep me from falling apart. She smelled like powder and peppermint, and I loved her immediately. I’d spend the rest of that year trying to get her to love me back. “Why don’t you take these crayons and have a seat at the red table?” She gestured toward the opposite side of the room.
I got as far as the orange section and sat down, unable to control my tears. I had wanted everything to be perfect. I couldn’t even look at the other kids. I crossed my arms over my chest and tucked my hands under my armpits. I closed my eyes and waited for somebody to go get my mom.
Mom keeps a wicker basket filled with photographs in her bedroom upstairs. When she’s on the phone and I’m bored, I can spend hours rifling through the contents of each envelope, investigating the past and studying the details of each situation and event. I scrutinize multiple copies of the same exact picture with only the slightest variations. Countless weddings, baptisms and other sacraments, my dad and uncles in an array of standard military uniforms. My sister, Judy and I, taking turns on a tricycle. I hold thin strips of negatives up to the light, hoping for secrets not yet revealed.
I can’t help being drawn to that frayed black and white print of my father as a teenager. The one where he’s pointing a rifle at an older man’s head. I don’t recognize this other person. Mom says it was Daddy’s favorite uncle. That he’s dead now, but not because my father killed him. It’s hard to imagine Daddy having a favorite anything.
There’s also that photo of Dad and Aunt Joan on New Year’s Eve. They’re propped up next to each other at a party, in front of the little white Christmas tree on top of the TV set in my parents’ living room. A hand is pushing their heads together so they kiss. I can tell just by looking at my father’s face, he is drunk. I hate this picture. How could my mother let her sister act like that?
Mom swears there’s nothing to worry about. “Honey, there isn’t another woman in this world stupid enough to put up with your father’s bullshit. I couldn’t give him away if I tried.” I fold the photo in half and bury it beneath the others.
I search for three nearly identical snapshots of my cousins, Michael Kevin, Jeanne Marie and Dennis, taken a few years before I was born. Toddlers of varying ages, dressed only in undershirts and cloth diapers, loosely supervised on the roof of the apartment building in Manhattan where our families lived. Where our mothers hung laundry, smoked and gossiped while the men were at work. After supper, they all returned to the roof to relax and enjoy a few too many beers. Wearing sunglasses and holding cans of Schaefer, each of my cousins smile for the camera, as if they’re already in on the joke.
I brought the picture of Jeanne Marie to school one time last year. I showed it to all my friends in the fourth grade schoolyard and told them it was me.
The last photograph is the worst, but I find myself staring at it the longest. It’s from last summer. I’m sitting cross-legged on a towel at low tide in Edgewater Park. We’re visiting my cousins at their house on the Bronx side of the Long Island Sound. I’m dressed in a yellow and white bathing suit that no longer fits me. I insist on wearing it because I want this place to be the beach, but it’s not. There’s sand, yes. Sort of. It’s more a combination of crushed bricks and mud.
Shattered beer bottles, garbage and the occasional dead fish litter the shore. Empty, dark blue mussel shells slice into the bottoms of my feet. Ropes of seaweed wrap around my legs when I’m in the water. I get scared and scream. The other kids tease me because I can’t swim. They sing the “Baby, Baby, Stick Your Head In Gravy” song.
All the grown-ups, except my mother, are drunk. She’s angry with my father because he went up the road with some of the other men and hasn’t come back yet. He always ruins everything.
In this awful picture, I’m eating a hamburger. There’s ketchup on my cheek and chin, a can of Shasta soda between my legs. My pale, white belly flops over my bikini bloomers. I’m getting fat, and I don’t know how to stop it. I can’t imagine why anyone would take this photo. It looks like I’m about to cry.
Today is the day I separate this memory from the others in the pile. I tear it into small pieces and those pieces into tiny ones. I flush them all down the toilet and try to pretend I’m someone else.