In writing class, the prompt was to make a list of all the people you love.
This is gonna be easy, I thought. And long. I love so many people!
I put Dave first on the list. And then, the boys – Kirin, Desmond and Bro, in age order.
Perhaps I should bump Kirin up to the top. We’ve known each other the longest. I put an asterisk next to him with an arrow.
But in fairness, my husband has been through the most. Surely, he deserves a little something special for all these years of devoted service. I was gonna say abuse,’ but I suppose it hasn’t been that bad.
I draw a smiley face next to his name with a heart and an exclamation point. Plus an arrow, only going in the opposite direction from Kirin’s.
It’d be nice if I had a yellow highlighter, but I can never find one when I need it. The kids use them for school, they don’t replace the caps properly, and the ink dries up. I end up throwing a few away every time I open the drawer where we keep the pens.
If they ask, which I can’t imagine they will, I’ll just be honest and say the list goes from shortest to tallest. Which, so far, is the truth when you think about it. But they don’t think like I do so they probably won’t notice.
I remember when Charlie’s brother, Ned, robbed a bunch of Starter jackets from Caldor. It was Christmastime, and the stores on Bruckner Boulevard were mobbed. I’m not sure how he and Timmy wound up over there. Somebody must have driven them. It’s not like they had the car anymore.
I still can’t believe they got away with it. Eleven or twelve coats between the two of them. I wish I could have seen what that looked like. Just a couple of holiday shoppers trying clothes on in front of the mirror, zipping up layer over layer. Drifting toward the side exit near the Radio Shack and disappearing across the parking lot in the snow, wearing almost a thousand dollars worth of merchandise.
I remember how excited the boys were when they got back to the house. Ned draped two towels over the window in the front room and laid everything out on Mabel’s bed. We stood there for several minutes, marveling at this sudden windfall.
“Mare, you’re in charge of watching these coats,” he said. “Make sure nobody steals them.”
Within no time, people from the neighborhood began showing up to get in on the action. Everybody wanted one of those jackets. They arrived on foot and in borrowed vehicles. One guy rode over on a little girl’s bicycle, the kind with the wicker basket attached to the handlebars.
“It’s practically brand new,” he said. “Kylie don’t use it no more. She’s with her mother now, since January.”
Some folks actually had money, but most presented items to trade and invitations for future questionable opportunities. They rolled balding tires into the yard, carried boxes of purloined goods up the broken steps and into the kitchen.
“Check out these beautiful shower curtains, Ned. There’s at least two dozen here. All unopened, still in the package. Just take a look at the detail. They got all kinds of beads and shit along the bottom, very fancy. You could go down the subway and sell these for whatever.”
Jewelry, cartons of oranges and mangoes, cigarettes, cases of beer and bottles of homemade wine covered the table where Charlie’s mom sat, peeling and slicing vegetables.
Throughout the afternoon and well into the evening, they kept coming. If not to purchase, then simply to congratulate Ned and celebrate his accomplishment. It was nice to see him do so well for himself. It’s not like it happened all that often.
Charlie couldn’t see it that way. He was jealous of his brother’s good fortune and grew increasingly annoyed that he wasn’t the center of attention. He skulked around the perimeter of everyone’s good time like a big, stray dog you might cross the street to avoid. Clenching and unclenching his fists gave him something meaningful to do with his hands.
When he disappeared for a while, never a good sign, it was a clear indication that somewhere along the way, he’d found a bag of dope to bring some fairness back into his life. Mabel sent me looking for him when she realized he was missing.
“Will you find my son, honey?” she asked. Her voice was weary, as always. “He can’t be far.”
She was right. He sat brooding on top of a pile of garbage in the alleyway between the houses.
“Where you been, Charlie? You in there?”
I waved my hand slowly in front of his face and was careful not to touch him. It took a little while for my words to journey from his ears and burrow through the drug to reach his brain.
I proceeded with a degree of caution. “You need to get yourself a jacket before there’s none left.”
“I don’t want their fuckin’ stolen shit,” he mumbled. “And neither do you. Understand?”
“Just come inside.”
“Let me see if I can get this straight,” Charlie challenged from the doorway, gripping a coffee cup filled with freshly mashed potatoes in one hand and a spoon in the other. “You just walked out the fuckin’ door wearing seven coats. And nobody stopped you.”
“That’s right,” Ned agreed. “Nobody stopped me.”
“Not one fuckin’ motherfucker said nothin’ to you.”
“Nope. Wait. I mean, yup.” By now, Ned was quite drunk.
“So you want me and Mom and whoever else is here to believe they just let you have all them coats. You’re shittin’ me, right?”
“C’mon, man. It’s Christmas. Why would I shit you?”
“Why? Because you’re full of shit, Ned. You’ve always been full of shit since before I can’t even remember. Fuck, I could kill you right now if I wanted.”
You just knew that coffee cup wasn’t gonna make it out alive. He hurled it across the room with such force, it shattered against the wall over the couch where Ned and several other young men were sitting, flicking little bits of ceramic and potato everywhere.
Charlie’s other brother, Rob, made us leave.
“Get the fuck out, you fuckin’ animal.” That’s what he said.
I remember the whole ride home on the bus and train from the Bronx into Queens, I kept thinking about how much I would have loved to have one of those starter jackets. The only other warm coat I had was the green one they gave Charlie when he was locked up through the winter. It read CIFM in bold faced script across the shoulders.
“What does it mean?” I asked when we first met.
“You’ll find out.” He thought it was funny, how little I knew.
Charlie told me I couldn’t wear it unless I covered the letters with electric tape. I was so stupid back then. I thought it was like a varsity jacket, except for jail.
I buy apples for the deers that live in the woods behind our house. I usually get the little ones. They come in plastic bags of ten and twelve at the supermarket. I’m not sure how much they cost. Five dollars, maybe six.
That’s the kind of life I live now. I just get fruit without checking the price. Add a sack to the top of my grocery cart when I’m shopping. I have enough money. If and when I’m making a list, I might jot down ‘apples.’ I use parentheses and write ‘some for us’ and ‘some for my friends,’ with a smiley face in the margin. We all like different varieties.
I don’t mind admitting that I come from a place of such hunger where, often times, I paid for my wine in quarters.
I love when our dogs follow me out to the backyard. They chase each other and watch me toss apples over the fence.
He limps behind several other young bucks, all with new, velvety horns. That’s how I can see that they’re boys. One of his front legs is lame. He tries to hold it tightly to his chest, but it dangles without purpose as he stumbles along on his three remaining spindles. Nancy next door let me know he was there. She sent a text message as soon as she saw them this morning.
“Oh, no,” I say, as I watch from the window.
My children are eating their breakfast. Pop tarts and yogurt, the kind that comes with its own granola.
“What’s the matter?” Rory asks.
“It’s a deer. His leg looks so broken.”
“Wait. Broken? Mom, we have to call someone. Animal Control.”
He begins searching my phone, as if I have that number on speed dial. As if he’d know what to do when they answered the call. As if they’d come immediately with the ability to make things better.
“It’s not that easy,” I tell him. “He doesn’t want our help.”
So you’re not gonna do anything?”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“You probably need to stop with the apples,” Rory adds.
“I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”
I stand there for several minutes, until the slow moving group disappears beyond Jennifer’s shed.
None of this is my fault. I say these words inside my head, to comfort myself.
He ran up from behind and threw a hug around her legs as she heated a pot of water for tea. I think that’s how it happened.
Kirin arrives for his visit with gauze, ointment and medical tape to hold the dressing in place, detailed instructions.
“Grandma says you’ll have to change my bandage.”
They send him with scissors. I do not have any, but I resent this gesture. Because I should have lots of things and don’t.
“Does it hurt?”
“You want cereal?”
It is Saturday. He watches cartoons while I try to concentrate on getting it together so we can go do something.
I really don’t remember what was so important that we couldn’t just leave. Everything was crucial back then. Making lists and arranging piles of stuff, folding and tearing up pieces of paper. Moving the bed from one side of the room to the other. Counting pills and losing count, having to start all over from somewhere in the middle.
We ride the bus to Toys-R-Us. We buy an action figure there and two big bottles of wine at the liquor store. He is hungry. We pass three fast food places until we get to the pizzeria that sells beer. There’s a black and white movie playing on a small TV on top of the fridge where they keep the sodas. Kirin only pays attention to the commercials because they are in color. When he’s done eating, we go back home.
It takes me all day to even look at the wound, a deep and throbbing third degree burn that spreads across the width of the child’s upper arm. My guilt catches in my throat as I pull the bloody cotton from his skin. I am confused by what I see. The whole area looks like uncooked meat.
Kirin holds his breath. His eyes are squeezed shut, and when he opens them, he asks, “You know what you’re doing, right?”
I cannot help but feel relieved that I was not to blame for what happened.
But aren’t I? After all, a little boy should be with his mother.
I was the one who wanted the second dog, a sibling for the first. At least, that’s the angle with which I approached my husband – the importance of family.
“She looks so lonely,” I said to Dave.
“But she’s not,” he replied.
And as much as they love her, the kids weren’t all that anxious to add even more doody to the piles of doody they’re already picking up. Sure, it’s a funny word, but let’s be honest. Doody is sobering.
“Mom, things are fine just the way they are.” Desmond was particularly insistent. “What’s gonna happen when we leave for college? Two dogs will be more than you can handle.”
“Son, college is like five years away.”
“The time goes fast, though. I’ll be gone before you know it.”
I read somewhere that animals cannot embrace new information until the specifics are physically introduced into their lives. They’re not equipped to appreciate changes to their environment before said environment is actually changed.
For example, I told Zerega that Jesco was coming.
“Soon, you will have a baby brother. And he will be your favorite friend.”
As I spoke, she listened intently for key words, like “cookie” and “supper.”
Some nights before I passed out, I tried adding up how many guys I’d slept with. I didn’t mind losing count. I liked the idea of being “experienced.” But looking back on things, I don’t think that’s how I came across. It’s pretty safe to say – availability was the main message I projected to any young man who stumbled drunkenly onto my path.
I preferred guys who drank heavily. It was familiar. That’s how I did things. With a beer in both hands, I felt much more confident and qualified to even be considered fuckable. Booze got my foot in the door and encouraged it up the pant leg of whoever seemed interested in helping me not feel so inadequate.
I brought sketchy behavior to each and every intimate encounter I was involved in. I was manipulative. I oversold myself. Plus, there was always the insecurity I felt about my body. Sleeping with me was a complicated transaction that so many boys came to regret. There were so many boys.
And as for the speed, that shit kept me on the clock for longer periods of time. I covered more territory, looking for that special anyone who was interested in my particular brand of entertainment. Which was… whatever.
Hey, you. I have something you might like.
I suppose I thought I knew what an orgasm was. I could have sworn I’d been having them all along. Sex was fun. It was a thrill to take my clothes off and be with another person in such a unique way. I longed for immediate closeness. I suppose that was my goal. If I could ever see clear enough to have a goal, which I didn’t. Nor did I realize that physically, there was more. An extra prize at the end.
Until the orgasms started happening – quite by accident, really. But seeing as though I was always high and half in the bag whenever I got laid, I never quite understood what I’d done to create that mysterious feeling. Or how to get it back again. Or if it even happened to begin with. I wasn’t sure. With so little information and an obvious lack of focus, the results were hit or miss.
Instead, I continued to put on quite a show. I made noises I thought were appropriate. I tried to lay still when we were done, so he could sleep. My partners praised themselves, and I thanked them. Even though it often felt like I was doing most of the work.
I just wanted him, whoever he was, to stay with me.
As soon as we are finished here, I will want more. More than you can give me. You’ve made it very clear – I am not for you.
“Look, we can’t keep doing this. I already got somebody.” You smile when you say it. “She’s nothing like you. She’s a good girl.”
Yet when I call and plead into the phone, “Please, be with me,” here you are again. Like you’re doing me a big favor. I pretend not to notice.
You take it all anyway, every last ounce of my desperation. I almost insist. I can’t help myself.
Please tell me what I can do to change your unchangeable mind. Because I want whatever this is. And isn’t. The more I surrender, the less I have of what is left of me. And despite how awful this feels, I whisper, “Thank you. That was good.” It’s a relief to unload this emptiness into your reluctant arms.
Let’s just go again. Again. You can hang out awhile and leave, like always. I’ll show you how okay I am with you not caring. I’ll keep drinking after you’re gone. I quit counting how many pills. I just take them and take them. If I brush my teeth, it will feel like I’m starting over. That helps. I can stay awake until you come back. I’ve found a way to stretch time, get everything done. And still be available, just in case.
I’m never quite sure what to do with myself when I’m alone. I always need, I don’t know… something.
I should be vigilant. What if your heart opens and you see worth in me? Then maybe, I can actually mean something to someone.
I will wait for you for as long as I have to. I’ve put you in charge.
He sleeps right after sex. They all do, it seems. But not me. My head spins and swims, filled with all the wine left in the house and my drugs. The low murmur of unanswered questions.
Will what just happened change how he feels?
Will those things I swore I’d never do – and just did – improve my chances?
Is he my boyfriend yet?
I know! I remember what he said. You don’t have to remind me.
But don’t I get anything for giving it all away!?
I wish I knew where this was going. It feels like nowhere. It’s confusing to be loved so hard, and not at all.
My mother used to tell me, “Mary, you can’t love anyone until you learn how to love yourself.”
What the fuck is that supposed to mean? Like she would know. I love myself just fine.
She’s so stupid with her fucking riddles that make no sense. It’s not even her saying. She stole it from an Ann Landers’ column she tore out of the newspaper and taped to the fridge so I’d see it. In a letter from this girl who kept sticking her fingers down her throat to make herself throw up.
Here in the dark, with the distraction of no distractions, I struggle to be still. His breathing is rhythmic and smooth, punctuated by little clicks that seem to come from the back of his teeth and disturb only me. I want to climb inside his mouth and see what’s making all that noise behind his tongue. And get it to stop.
I feel left out again. I guess all the fucking is done for the night. The lights are back on in my mind. I am sweaty and sad. I reach for parts of his body that will respond to my touch, to get away from my own thinking.
“Cut it out.” I wait a few minutes and try again. “This is why I hate staying here.” He brushes my hand away and yanks the blanket out from under my leg. “These sheets stink.” He says it to be mean. I know he does.
I make my way to the bathroom. I sit on the toilet and squeeze my eyes shut. I am sore, and it hurts when I pee.
There are two hours left for sleeping, but I can’t sleep. It’s four o’clock. Soon, it will be five. Then, six. Two hours until it’s time to get up and go to work. But not if I don’t lay down. I stand in the shower with my arms crossed over my chest and fingers locked behind my neck. This seems to hold me in place. My eyelids come down. My heart and brain don’t feel tired, but they’re separate from the rest of me. I’m like a bunch of worn out puzzle pieces that belong in different boxes.
I let my mouth hang open. Water collects inside like a puddle. I listen to the bubbling sound. I pretend I’ve just woken up from a wonderful dream, where there’s enough time, enough rest, enough attention, enough of everything I need to go around.
I dry myself off. I crush a few pills quick and prepare a hefty morning line of speed. Man, I’ll need a big one.
Uuuuhn. There. That’s better!
Now, I’m two hours early for whatever’s next. One hundred twenty minutes ahead of the game. I’m ready! I’m ready. You see, it all depends on how you look at things. Me? I try to stay positive however I can. I’m resourceful like that.
I come back down the hallway and stop in front of the baby’s crib. I wake him up, so I have some company in the kitchen. He likes to pick his own cereal, so I put the boxes on a low shelf where he can reach them. It makes him feel like a big boy.
There’s this huge cardboard box filled with lightbulbs in the basement at my parents’ house, gathering dust amidst all the other miscellaneous piles of crap. Shelves crammed with broken appliances and dirty stuffed animals. Beach chairs and suitcases, even though we never went anywhere together. My father’s cop equipment, his riot gear and helmet. Plus all the groceries – big bags of cat food and jars of tomato sauce. Hundreds of cartons of cigarettes, bottles of booze and aspirin. Dad has his interests.
“Hey, garbage picker!” my mother yells from the top of the stairs in the kitchen. She flings a bag of 8-track tapes aimed at his head. “Get this shit out of here before I blow my stack.”
Mom sent me home one day with a Ziploc bag filled with lightbulbs, all different wattages. Each carefully wrapped in paper towels so they wouldn’t break. The first one I tried was burnt out, but the rest were okay. It took a while to use them all.
I have one lightbulb left. I carry it with me from room to room when it gets dark, twisting and untwisting the bulb from each socket as I go. I need light so I can see what I’m doing. Pouring wine in the kitchen, rinsing soapy clothes in the bathtub, chopping up pills and snorting them. I can get very busy folding tiny pieces of gum wrappers and magazine scraps to make a chain that will never become a rug. I also look for lightbulbs I know I don’t have.
I devote an old sock to this procedure. I wear it like a glove as I approach the hot glass, so I don’t burn my fingers. But I still get burnt. The more I drink, I forget.
I know I’m gonna need a new bulb soon. This one is starting to flicker hesitantly when I pull the string to turn it on. The thought crossed my mind last night that perhaps I should go upstairs and ask my neighbor if she could lend me one.. I even practiced my question out loud, just to see if I could say it without sounding too fucked up.
“Hey, Mindy. do you think I could borrow a lightbulb?”
I counted how many words I’d have to say to get my point across. Ten simple words. Eleven, if lightbulb is two words. But I’m pretty sure it’s one. I might have been able to do it, too, if Mindy got home from work earlier. But she stays at the hospital until 9:30, and by then, I am always half in the bag. I couldn’t ask.
I sit crouched on the living room rug when my lightbulb gasps its last weak breaths. I’m sifting through a pot filled with fish tank gravel that I’ve poured out onto a metal baking sheet. I am separating the granules by color. It’s a big, unnecessary job, but I am focused on the task at hand. I don’t even have fish anymore. Charlie poured a bottle of PineSol into the water and killed them all. But maybe I could get more. Someday.
When my wine cup is empty, I unfold my legs to stand. I stretch the right one first. And then, the left. Both are stiff. They ache from being locked in position for so long. I tell myself I am good at concentrating, and that’s why they hurt. I locate my sock and reach above my head to unscrew the bulb. I hear the quiet sizzle through the delicate glass membrane. That final “pop” startles me, and I jerk my hand away.
I stand there in the darkness, staring at what was the ceiling a minute ago. But now, who knows?
“Shit. Shit. Shit.”
Reaching for the wall in the foyer, I turn into the small kitchen and move toward the refrigerator. I pull the door handle open. And once again, there is light. And wine. I pour my drink to the top and lean against the counter. What to do… It’s after midnight – too late to start ringing doorbells for help.
I stare into the shelf where the thick beam of light originates. I can see the appliance bulb doing its job along the back wall of the fridge. Maybe I could just switch out the lightbulbs. What a brilliant idea! They look to be about the same size. And then, I can get back to my work. It’s worth a try.
Waving my arm into the air above where I think the outlet dangles, I locate the dead bulb and with two hands, carefully begin its removal. That’s when I hear the rusty, crunching sound. Like a confused animal, I position my face to receive the strange noise. It stops when I pause the unscrewing. And begins again when I continue with the bulb’s extraction. As I persist, the crunching is accompanied by a small explosion – tiny shards of glass plink off my forehead and cheeks. Some rest just inside my open mouth.
“What the fuck?”
My hand remains cupped and extended above my head, but I am no longer holding the precious bulb. That space is empty. I’m afraid to reach for the socket, for fear I will die by electric shock. Something terrible has happened, but I cannot explain it to myself. I step on fragments of unseen glass in my bare feet.
I creep along carefully into the kitchen and spit slivers of lightbulb into the sink. My guess is the bulb has somehow shattered. I rinse my mouth with some wine and knock back a few more pills from a little batch I have in my pajama pocket. I thought I was done with the speed until tomorrow, but this crisis has officially established the new length of my night.
I venture into the black to retrieve my gravel project. I carry the baking sheet back through the rooms and take a seat on the floor in front of the open refrigerator. I resume my sifting and sorting until the morning sunlight arrives, piercing its way through the dirty basement window. Finally, I can assess the situation.
It seems the lightbulb has indeed broken off inside its electrical base. I can see the delicate guts and wires protruding from the end of the suspended cord. I have no idea how to fix this. I will ask at my job when I get there. Plus, they’ll probably have lightbulbs in the storage closet or something.
Climbing into the bathtub to take a shower, I briefly consider that I might still be drunk from the night before. But as I scrub my hair and face, I decide I am more tired than wasted. I am in good enough shape. I will go to work, secure a lightbulb and bring it home. I feel optimistic.
I can’t believe there are no standard sized lightbulbs in this whole fucking place. It’s all recessed Iighting – big, round canisters that aren’t worth a shit to me. I’ve checked every office and bathroom. Not one goddamn desk lamp anywhere. And don’t even suggest I go buy a lightbulb. That’s not an option. I have no extra money. Plus, I still owe two girls here twenty dollars each, so I can’t tap anyone for a loan.
I’m just gonna have to try and find a lightbulb elsewhere. I’ll figure something out.
In the meanwhile, I explain my current quandary to several co-workers. I ask if they know how to remove the damaged lightbulb pieces without electrocuting myself. Evidently, it’s as easy as cutting a potato in half and jamming the open end into the broken works. But c’mon, if I can’t even secure a lightbulb, how the fuck am I supposed to get a potato? Really.
At lunchtime, I meet up with my dealer and collect a little dope on credit. Enough for tonight and tomorrow. The day after that, I get paid and will have extra money again. I can buy all the lightbulbs I need. Fuck, I don’t even want any lightbulbs, but I probably should get a couple, just to have.
It is freezing shit with light flurries at 5:30 when I leave my job. I will wait to buy wine from the liquor store near my house, so I don’t have that far to carry the big bottle. Even though I just bought from there last night, and I don’t want the guy who works behind the counter to think I have a problem.
Once in Queens, I purchase my alcohol with sixteen cents left over. The streets are slippery as I walk past several restaurants, the movie theater and a Rent-A-Center that never seems to have any customers. I continue half way down the avenue and double back, sweeping the display window for information to support an idea that’s just coming to me.
Appliances in the front area – TVs, stereos, washer/dryer combos. Sectional sofas, daybeds and coffee tables in the showroom. Dimly lit, but lit nonetheless by a forlorn collection of lamps that no one seems to care about. Except me. I care.
Here on the Island of Misfit Light Fixtures, there is much to choose from. A gigantic giraffe with a sateen shade protruding between its antlers, three monkey faces stacked like a totem pole, a mermaid with mean-spirited nipples. Sprawling, tri-headed contraptions that loom menacingly over recliners with cup holders.
There are two bundled figures scraping and salting the sidewalk outside the store.
“Hey, are you open?”
“Go in.” One of them gestures toward the door.
A buzzer rings as I step inside. An elderly woman sits with her legs crossed on a bar stool near some rugs suspended from the ceiling. She shouts into the telephone in an ancient language I do not recognize. I don’t know. Egyptian, maybe. It sounds like she is fighting with whoever is on the other end of the line. She does not acknowledge my presence, and I am relieved.
I move quietly into the back area and begin turning lamps on and off, testing each model. Most are duds. But the one I find resting inside a dusty porcelain bowl is a keeper. I unscrew the bulb from its chamber and slide it gingerly into my coat pocket. As I turn to make my exit, I notice some change on the ledge of a wall unit – three quarters and a dime – just sitting there, minding its own business. I take that, too.
They have lots of merchandise in this place. Not everything is ugly. I suppose I might be interested. It would be nice to have new things. Perhaps a bed for Kirin.
I found a twin mattress and box spring around the corner from my house. They’re in decent shape, no gross stains or anything. I bought Lion King sheets and a comforter, but it’s been weeks since he’s come to stay. Charlie is jealous and unpredictable. I am afraid to bring my boy around.
The old lady is making coffee for the shovelers. Perhaps they are her sons. She yells at them from the doorway with maternal familiarity.
“Do I need a credit card to buy something here?” I ask.
“No buy. Just rent.”
“Why? Don’t you have a credit card?”
“You got a bank account?”
“You’re a grown girl. You get a bank account,” she says. “Many good items here.”
Fuck this bitch. I thank her politely and leave.
The snow is really coming down now. It’s easier to walk in the middle of the street. I follow the tire tracks of passing cars and trucks. This blanket of white will seal me inside the basement for hours. I’ve got wine and my drugs, a lightbulb and now, enough money to buy a potato.