They have beach chairs on the patio at our neighbors’ up the street, and not just the ordinary kind where you’re sitting straight up. These are chaise lounges, for lounging. Which is a fancy word for laying down outside on the patio. Near the pool. In your backyard. We haven’t got any of these things at our house, and I am jealous.
My sister and I weren’t even supposed to be at this party. Mommy said no at first, even though Judy begged. She and Virginia are in the same class. But then, Nanny Ray died. And they didn’t want kids at the funeral. So, here we are.
I was fine with not going when we got the invitation in the mail. My name wasn’t even on the card.
Besides, I can’t swim, and my bathing suit doesn’t fit anymore. I tried it on, and it’s too small. I stare in the mirror at my legs that are bigger and fatter than everyone else’s my age. I pull all the extra skin to the back so they look normal, but when I let go, they’re ugly again.
Mrs. Gallo gave Mommy two bathing suits that belonged to her daughters. I liked them both, but they’re old-fashioned and a little baggy. I was afraid I’d get laughed at, so I’m wearing my regular clothes. And if anyone asks why I’m not going in the pool, I’ll just say, “I don’t feel like it.”
Mom made us bring towels from the bathroom, in case we get wet. All the other kids have the cool ones you see at the beach, with pictures of flowers and rainbows and spaceships. Mine is light blue and has a big rust stain on it.
There’s a long table that stretches across the back deck, covered in balloons and streamers, napkins that say Happy Birthday. Next to each plate is a little paper basket filled with m&ms. I linger near the action, swiping a few pieces of chocolate from each cup.
This toothpick of a girl comes up to me. I don’t know who she is. “Stop eating all the candy,” she says.
“Don’t lie. I saw you.”
“I’m not lying.”
I walk away in the middle of her scolding me. My cheeks are hot. I wish I was skinny.
I kill time circling the outside of the pool, while bodies leap and splash along the surface of the water. Somebody calls my name, and I ignore them because I know if I look up, they’ll dump a wave in my face. I’ve seen them do it to other people.
I stop over where the dad is busy cooking hotdogs on the barbecue. He smokes a cigar and talks to his wife through the kitchen window. He’s wearing a light green apron that’s really for ladies.
“Having fun?” he asks.
I don’t want to hurt his feelings, so I tell him ‘yes.’
He clears his throat, steps to one side and spits into the grass. “You and me both, kid,” he says. I wonder if he means it.
I wish I knew more things about this party, like when it ends. I wish I didn’t break the Cinderella watch I got for my Communion. Then I’d know what time it is and how much longer before we can go home. I loved that watch. Mommy told me to be careful and not wind it too tight, but I didn’t listen. Now, the slipper floats around inside the glass, and the clock part doesn’t work either. I should probably throw it away, but I can’t just yet.
The same thing happened to my cousin, Donald. Only with his watch, the big hand came lose from Flipper’s belly. The small hand just spins and spins.
Johnny is Virginia’s younger brother. I’m not sure what grade he’s in. He still holds his mother’s hand when they cross the street. So do I, but not because I want to. Mom makes me. Johnny pretends he’s asleep in the yellow chaise lounge I’ve decided is my favorite. I wait for him to get up.
“Can I try?” I ask, when I feel like I’ve waited long enough.
“I’m not done yet,” he says.
“I know. But when you are, I want a turn. Okay?”
“Can I be next?”
“I don’t care.”
Until today, I guess I thought Johnny was nice. But now, I think he’s a jerk. And all of a sudden, I feel like I might cry, except not here. I want to cry in my own house. But who knows when that’ll happen? It could be hours from now. I wish I could find my sister.
Finally, he leaves. I turn around and lower myself into the center of the chair. I lean my shoulders against the backrest and slide my legs across the bottom section. I’m almost completely laying down. I try to look up at the sky, but the sun is too bright. I cover my face with my hands. Tears escape out the corners of my eyes. They trickle into my ear and down my neck. This chair really isn’t as great as I thought it would be.
Daddy found six orange life jackets in somebody’s garbage and brought them home. I helped him unload the car and marched across the kitchen wearing one.
“Get that dirty shit off your back,” my mother said.
“They’re good for the beach. Do you want I should drown?”
“You can’t swim, numbnuts. Outside.”
“They’re brand new,” my father insisted.
“They’re soaked in piss, Gene.”
“Who cares once they’re wet?”
We’re going to the Boat House, just meand Dad. Our lunches are packed in two brown paper bags. Cold cuts and mustard on a roll for him. Cream cheese and jelly for me. Mom got the good bread, and I asked if she’d cut my sandwich into four sections so it lasts longer. Fig Newtons and frozen sodas wrapped in tin foil.
I wait in the car when we stop at the beer distributor to get supplies. Two cases of Schaefer Shorties and a bag of ice. I wonder if Uncle Mike will be there, and my cousins. I hope so. It’s more fun with the other kids around. Judy didn’t want to come this time, and Mommy didn’t make her. I don’t think she likes the Boat House so much anymore. She says it’s boring. I still love it.
It’s easy to forget we live this close to the water. There’s no water in my neighborhood. And I wouldn’t know how to get here unless somebody was driving us. We wouldn’t even be going this morning unless Daddy had a good reason. He doesn’t just take us places because it’s fun. He’s not like that.
Past that last busy intersection where all the stores are, and the long crash wall and those little houses where the sidewalk ends, look, it’s the ocean – or the river or whatever. All blue and sparkly, it just appears out of nowhere, and you can’t believe it’s not fake. Seagulls fill the sky. Even the air smells different, salty. Big and small sailboats, fishing boats, rows and rows of them, parked and strapped to the docks that fill the marina.
We go a little further and turn into the first driveway that leads to the boatyard. Slow, tires crunching rocks and shells, the dust makes it hard to see what’s coming. Canoes and dinghies, stored three and four deep, line either side of the road. Giant fan blades and motors, maybe. Who knows? Greasy piles of junk. Somebody left their dog tied to the fence. He stands up when the car gets closer.
Three young boys feed a trash can that’s already on fire. Daddy turns the radio down and pulls over to their collection of cardboard and wood, pieces of a broken bar stool.
“Why don’t you fellas take a walk?” he suggests through the open window.
They stop what they’re doing and look at each other.
“Fuck you,” one of them yells.
“Yeah, mind your own business.” It’s pretty clear they all feel the same way.
“You don’t want me getting out of this car,” my father says. When he reaches for the door handle, they take off running. He laughs, and I laugh, too. Except I don’t think it’s very funny.
Daddy knows a guy named Erik. He’s got a boat. It’s not a nice one, but when the men can get it going, he’ll take us for a ride. I sit in the way back. I grip the railing and pretend I’m not afraid. As soon as we leave the pier, I start counting how many times my father reaches into the cooler for another beer. He gulps them down faster than everyone else, like he’s in a contest. I get scared when he tries to help with the anchor. I imagine his feet getting tangled in the ropes. That he’ll hit his head, fall into the water and sink to the bottom. I don’t wanna think about it right now. Maybe today will be different.
The door’s already propped open as we pull up to the dirty blue shack. We stack the life vests Mommy wouldn’t let us keep along the front of the house and go inside.
The smell of this place takes some getting used to. Wet clothes and rags, fish, beer and blood. Glue traps hang from the ceiling and door frames of every room. Long, yellow adhesive strips covered in dead flies, bees and wasps. There is no more room to die, and the insects that remain seem bolder and more hysterical. They land on my face and neck, dive into my ears. Some of them bite.
“See if you can’t clean up a little in here.” Dad points to some of the empty sardine tins they use for bait, Chinese food containers and beer bottles that fill the sink and lay strewn about the kitchen counter. “Use this.” He kicks at a busted up plastic hamper that’s already got a bunch of ketchupy paper plates and Styrofoam cups in it. Other stuff like macaroni salad and half-eaten hotdog buns.
When I pull it away from the wall, something gray and fast skims across the floor and behind the cabinet. I dig my fingers into Daddy’s arm and make a sound that surprises us both.
“You see that squirrel?” he asks, grinning.
“Un-huh.” I know he’s lying. I let go of him and get back to work.
I can hear someone coughing in the other room. I turn off the water, dry my hands on my shirt and go see. Whoever she is is laying on the couch, naked from the waist down. When I turn around, my father’s gone. He’s already up the road, talking to one of the Mikes. There’s like six of them.
“Daddy, there’s a lady inside. She’s not wearing any pants.”
I follow the men back to the house and through the kitchen. “Stay here,” Dad says. He grabs a beach towel that’s tacked to the window and covers the woman’s legs. I watch from the doorway.
“Hey, Murph. We got company,” Mike says, nudging her with his knee. “Murphy, wake up.”
She groans and turns over, face into the sofa cushions. The towel twists around her waist, and I see her hiney again. Daddy picks her dungarees up off the floor and lays them on top of her. A box of cough drops fall out of the pocket.
He looks at me. “Go outside,” he says. I do what I’m told.
I sulk all the way over to the car and try to sit on the hood, except it’s really hot and burns the back of my thighs. I could walk down to the jetty, but it’s too far to go all by myself. So I sit on the steps of the trailer next door, watching people go past with their fishing poles and buckets. When that gets boring, I wander nearby into the tall grass.
There’s a cat between some tires and an old barbecue grill. I can tell right away that he’s dead. His eyes are open, and there’s a stick jammed in his mouth. That’s the worst part, the stick. Why would somebody do that? Flies try and land on his fur. I swat them away. I hate seeing him like this. I pull the stick out real fast and throw it as far as I can.
I find an empty grocery sack from the Grand Union. I tear it open and make a tent to cover his body. I use rocks to keep it from blowing away.
When I get back to the house, I smell coffee. Murphy’s sitting up, and now, she’s dressed. Her eyelids lift when I say “Hi,” but she doesn’t answer. She holds a hot cup to her lips, fingernails outlined in dirt. She looks terrible. I plop myself down close to those cough drops still on the rug.
“Everything alright with you two?” Dad asks, like she and I are sisters who need to get along. Neither of us say anything. “I’m going with my friend here to take care of something.” He points over his shoulder. “Couple minutes, that’s all.”
“Can I come with you?”
“It’s not necessary. Stick around here.”
Murphy falls asleep eating a donut. She snores, but not very loud. I eyeball those lozenges. Pine Brothers, my favorite. They’re the honey kind, though. Not cherry. But that’s okay, I like those, too. I decide I should just take one. She won’t notice. I reach over and sneak the box into my lap, hooking my finger into the crumpled wrapper. They’re all stuck together, but I jiggle two loose. I put both in my mouth and check to make sure she hasn’t seen me. I tuck the box back into the shoe she’s not wearing.
I wait a few minutes and reach for the box a second time. I take another cough drop and seal the package shut again. Back in the shoe. I repeat this procedure until there are none left. I don’t want her to know I stole them, so I stuff the empty box inside my underwear.
Three men come into the house to visit with Murph. I don’t recognize any of them. They look surprised to see me.
“Hello there, little girl. Where’s your father?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is he coming back?”
“I guess.” I wish Daddy was here right now. I can tell they wish I wasn’t.
“Hey, Murph. Let’s us go for a ride.”
“C’mon, sweetheart. Get up.” One guy gives her shoulder a shake.
Why can’t they leave her alone? She never even opens her eyes. She must be so tired. Or sick. Or something.
I stand up and head into the bathroom, even though it smells worse in here than anywhere else on Earth. I close the toilet lid, so whatever’s in the water doesn’t get me. I lean against the door, thumbing through an old TV Guide from two months ago. I circle my favorite programs in my head.
Other people show up and leave. I hear them laughing. It sounds like they’re still bothering her. I wish they’d just go away. I want my mom.
Daddy doesn’t seem that bad off when he gets back. I don’t even care. I just wanna leave. But It takes a few more beers and another hour to get that happening.
They’re all drinking and smoking, telling dumb stories. They play music nobody cares about anymore. Murphy’s perked up quite a bit. She sits like a baby in some old man’s lap, giggling and stroking his greasy hair. He whispers into her ear, and she kisses him with her mouth open.
I beg my father, “Please, can’t we go?”
Finally, he reaches into his pocket for his keys and turns to Murphy. “Gather your shit,” he says. “We’ll take you home.”
“Relax, Gene. The lady wants to stay.” All of a sudden, she’s everyone’s favorite.
“Yeah, Gene. I wanna stay.”
Daddy takes one elbow and lifts her to her feet. She reaches for her duffel bag and almost falls over. We usher her into the car. She tries to talk to my father as we drive, but he’s not interested in anything she has to say. We drop her off in front of a bar on East Tremont Avenue and wait until she disappears inside.
“Who was that?” I ask as we head back to the house.
If I had wine glasses, maybe I wouldn’t drink as much. I used to have some, but when they broke, I just never got around to replacing them. I’ve got those plastic stackable cups. They’re nice and big, but wine glasses might help me measure better.
I read somewhere you’re only supposed to have two drinks a day. Any more than that, and you should be wondering whether or not you have a problem with alcohol. Which is fucking ridiculous because everybody knows two drinks doesn’t do shit. But whatever.
Wine glasses would be nice for when I come home after work and make myself dinner. I don’t do that. I think about preparing real food. Meat and vegetables, spaghetti. I envision playing music while I cook. I make a salad, pour a glass of red wine and sit at the table to eat, like they do in the movies.
I’d need lettuce. And a table.
At lunchtime, I go for a walk. I stop at Jack’s, where everything they sell is 99 cents.
I buy a package of baloney and four dark blue wine glasses. I think they’re elegant, and they look like they can hold a lot. The sign above the shelf screams “GOBLETS!!!” in giant lettering.
The girl at the register wads up two of the glasses in newspaper and crams all of them into a flimsy plastic bag that says “Have a Nice Day.”
“Excuse me. Can I get an extra bag?”
She doesn’t answer. She looks mean, and I don’t ask again.
When the bag slices open on the stairs of the subway later that evening, three of the glasses shatter. The one that remains intact, I carry home. I peel the sticker off the bottom and fill it with box wine, right up to the top. So full, I have to take a few big sips before I can pick it up.
I carry that and a flat, ceramic plate into the other room where I can sit on the floor and set up my coke.
It’s okay, living in the basement. I listen to the sounds of progress coming from other parts of the house. Footsteps on the stairs, telephones ringing, water rushing through the pipes whenever the toilets flush. I feel remotely connected to what going’s on beyond the monotony of how I spend my time.
Michael lived in the apartment on the first floor. He had this girl hanging around a lot when he first moved in. Sometimes, I’d hear them having sex. Or fighting. Then she just stopped being here. I liked that he was alone. I didn’t have anybody either.
I asked one of my other neighbors about Michael.
“Steer clear of that guy,” Eddie said. “He’s no good.”
But what the fuck does Eddie know? He has no friends.
Somebody told me Michael was a deejay. He had hundreds of records. I watched him load equipment into the car at night and carry everything back in the house the next morning. I couldn’t believe this was a real job. It seemed more like fun than work.
I met Michael for the first time in the hallway where we lived. Some of his mail was in my slot, so I rang the buzzer and waited for him to answer.
“Mary. From downstairs.”
“What do you want, Mary from downstairs?”
“I’ve got an envelope addressed to you. I think it has money in it. Lots of money.”
He was smiling when he opened the door, just wide enough so I could see how young he was. He looked like a little boy who shouldn’t be home by himself.
“Thanks,” he said, “but this is junk mail.”
“It’s not your fault.”
We stood there for a long minute, not saying anything.
“I have a bunny, you know.”
I didn’t know.
He pulled the door a bit wider, so I could see. A small beige rabbit, nibbling at a Styrofoam cup and some other garbage left there on the floor.
“Her name is Jewel.”
“That’s beautiful.” I crouched down and called to her as if she were a cat. When she ignored me, I felt stupid and stood up again.
“She used to be Luna for a while, when she belonged to someone else. But you can write whatever you want on their dish and change the name. That’s what I did. I used a magic marker.”
He gestured toward an empty fish tank that took up the entire coffee table. The plastic bowl inside read “Jewel.”
“I gotta go,” Michael said. “So you’re gonna have to leave.”
He pretty much shut the door in my face. I could smell his drugs all around him. I wondered if Michael was retarded or just high.
Michael’s alarm clock went off at 6:30 pm every evening. The floorboards creaked as he padded around right above me. Some nights, he left the house for a little while and came back. Left again. I knew what he was doing up there. Same thing as me.
I obsessed about Michael. I hurried home from work, hoping I’d see him smoking cigarettes on the front steps. He ignored the doorbell and my attempts to visit. I climbed the fire stairs that separated our apartments and sat on the landing in the dark. From my side of the door, I listened to the endless flick of the lighter, the gurgle and popping sound of his burner. His cough.
“Hey, Michael. Michael.”
“I can’t right now. Not a good time.”
“I have a present for Jewel.”
It wasn’t much of a gift. Two soggy paper plates, filled with chunks of fruit and stapled together. Leftovers from a staff meeting at my job. Nobody seems to mind that I bring the extra food home. I always ask first. They’re only gonna throw it away. Sometimes, they have pizza, bagels and spreads. I take that too, for myself and my son, when he comes over. But he doesn’t like cream cheese, just butter.
“It’s strawberries,” I said.
“I don’t need your help,” Michael whispered.
“I’m not here to help.”
He undid the deadbolt and slid his hand through the opening. “Give it.”
I did. Then he closed the door and locked it. I kept knocking until he let me in.
Within a week, we were smoking crack together whenever we could. I called out sick from work a lot.
“Kirin has chicken pox,” I told my boss. “In his throat and the crack of his ass.” That’s where I had them when I had them, eight years ago. And it sucked.
I left elaborate stories on her voicemail. “The doctor says Kirin has diabetes.” I’d leafed through the symptoms in a booklet at the checkout when I went to buy beer, Diseases of the Human Body. “The poor kid’s been so hungry, and he can’t hear what the teacher’s saying. I’m gonna have to take him to get glasses, too. But don’t worry, I can do that over the weekend.”
When Jason called, wondering where I was on the weekends I was supposed to pick up our son, I started hiding. I deleted his messages without listening to them. I unplugged the answering machine so he couldn’t scold me. The phone company disconnected my service when I threw away the bills.
“Why don’t you ever see your kid?” Michael asked.
“He lives really far.” It sure seemed that way.
“You must miss him.”
“I do.” I really did.
So many times, it felt like I was dropped into the middle of a discussion Michael was already having with himself.
“I went to rehab, you know.”
I didn’t know.
“It was my mom’s idea. She thought I had a problem.”
“I used to. Maybe. It’s all good now.”
Michael had trouble paying his rent and put the glove on me for a loan.
“Just two hundred dollars,” he said. “I’ll get it back to you in three days.”
“I ain’t got that kind of money.” It wasn’t a lie. Plus, I knew he’d never repay me. Every penny he made, he spent on drugs.
“So, you wanna fuck?”
I was relieved when he asked. Maybe that meant he wasn’t mad. I didn’t want him to be mad. I didn’t want him to make me leave.
I guess I said ‘yeah.’ I meant ‘yeah.’ But neither of us moved from our places on the couch.
I guess I thought Michael and I were a thing, a thing that if I just worked at a little harder, might not be so bad. But being together was never good. When I could be still, I let him climb on top of me, press into my willingness with what little focus he had. Sometimes, he cried. He rubbed at his eyes like a toddler, reluctant to nap.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered into my neck. “I can’t.”
“It’s okay.” I didn’t know what else to say.
Jewel’s cage was filthy and the smell so awful, we carried it onto the back porch and left it there. She roamed from room to room, as if she were searching for something she’d misplaced.
Whenever I sat on the toilet, I stared at little holes along the baseboard that kept getting bigger and bigger. Small drifts of powdery plaster collected in front of these breaks in the sheetrock.
“Should she be eating the wall?”
“Not really.” Michael said. “Maybe she’s hungry.”
“I think she is.”
But we ran out of food and didn’t buy more. We talked about it, though. All the time. Jewel ate candy wrappers and cigarette butts. She threw up everywhere.
Dead animals are scary. In lots of ways, they look like they’re still alive, but you know they’re not. And even if you are in a position to help them, you can’t, because they’re already gone. It’s too late. But I should have known something bad was gonna happen. I hate that I kinda did.
Jewel lay sprawled in the kitchen, a frayed extension cord still dangling from her tiny mouth. I nudged at her lifeless body with my shoe, but her face was stuck to the floor, dried blood caked into the fur beneath her chin.
“Michael, something’s the matter with Jewel.”
“She’s asleep,” he said. “Don’t touch her.”
A week later, Michael died in his car. He was going back to work, a sweet sixteen party in Flushing. But first, he went to score some straight coke. He was trying to put some distance between himself and the crack. His heart stopped, right there in the parking lot of the venue. My landlord told me.
Michael’s mother and another lady cleaned out the apartment. I could hear them crying as they crammed all his shit into garbage bags and piled them into a minivan. I hid in the closet when they came to my door.
“We know you’re in there. Please talk to us,” one of the women pleaded.
I was afraid. And way too high to have a conversation with them about their dead child.
The next morning, I saw Jewel’s empty fish tank on the curb by the driveway. When I got home later on, it was gone. Just like Michael.
I’ve been back in the Bronx for less than two weeks, trapped with my parents in the house I grew up in. My mother and I both swore over the heap of our dead bodies I’d never live here again. She’s been nastier than ever since I returned. I have a new job lined up, but it doesn’t start until the first of the month.
I call my sister every night, half crying, half joking. “Please, Judy. Won’t you let me come out there by you? I can’t stay here. I swear, I’d kill her in her sleep, put a pillow right over her face, but she’s awake around the fucking clock.”
“I have to talk to Andy. I’ll let you know what he says.”
My sister and her husband are schoolteachers. They own a home on Long Island and talk about getting a pool. They have no kids yet. To me, they look like grown-ups.
My father was supposed to be home around lunchtime so we could drive to Queens and borrow my son from his grandmother’s for the weekend. I stare throughthe screen door, trying to will his car to come lurching around the corner.
“He should’ve been here already. I told Jason three o’clock. He’s gotta work at 4:30.”
“Well then, I guess you’re just gonna have to call and tell him you’ll be late.”
“Why can’t Daddy ever just be where he says he’s gonna?”
She wastes no time refocusing on my failures.
“There’s something you probably should have thought about before you went and had a baby you can’t take care of.”
“Thought about what, Mom? Needing a ride four years in the future?”
“You know everything, big shot. You figure it out.”
When Dad finally shows up, I’ve been waiting on the stoop for nearly two hours. He bounces a tire off the curb, rolls down the window and asks where my mother is.
“In the kitchen.” I open the passenger side door and plop myself down on a pile of newspapers, plastic bags and garbage. He stares straight ahead for a minute, weighing his options. It’s clear he’s already had a few. His eyes are glassy, his features, slack. There’s beer on his breath. We roll away from the sidewalk and down the street.
We only go about five blocks. He pulls into the parking lot behind the auto supply store.
“Stay here,” he tells me. “Lock the door.”
Hustling a few dozen steps, he contends with the zipper on his pants and takes a piss against the side of the building.
My father drives with a can of Old Milwaukee between his legs, two warm cases in the back seat. We listen to the radio. I mention things I think he might be interested in, but he has no interests. I keep talking anyway. We crawl over the 59th Street Bridge during rush hour. By the time we get to Queens, he is gassed.
It looks as though Jason and Kirin have been standing there forever. As the two of them approach the car, my father drains what’s left of his beer. I try to tuck the empty underneath my seat with the others, but there’s no more room. I throw my jacket over the beverages behind us as my son climbs in.
“Hi, honey,” I say.
“We were waiting and waiting.”
Jason’s head and shoulders fill the driver’s side window. He glances around the inside of the car, seeing whatever it is that he sees.
“Everything okay here?” he asks, the way a cop might.
“Yup. We’re good.” I say it louder than I need to, hoping the sound of my voice will keep Dad alert and connected to what’s going on.
Jason repeats his question. “Everything alright, Gene?”
He calls my father by his first name. Who the hell does he think he is? Daddy doesn’t answer.
“Can we go?” Kirin groans. He squeezes between us in the front seat, draping himself across the center console. He ignores my suggestion to sit down. I’m not the parent in charge.
“Put your seatbelt on back there.” Jason’s voice is gentle when he speaks to our son. I am jealous of their relationship.
“I can’t find it. There’s too much junk.”
“He’s gonna need a seatbelt, Gene.”
“Yeah. I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you, kid.”
I feel bad for Jason. For a minute. As we drive away, I watch him get smaller and smaller.
As soon as we’re home, I tell my mother what happened.
“You should have heard him, Mom. Trying to shame Daddy like that.”
I exaggerate the details, presenting Jason in the worst possible light. I want her to be angrier at him than she is disappointed with me. It’s not fair, but I do it anyway.
She supervises while I give Kirin a bath, making sure to remind me that I’m washing him all wrong.
“You know, Mary.Your father may be a frig, but drunk or sober, he’d never let any harm come to that baby.”
“I know that, Mom.”
“What a set of balls on that kid.” She’s good and annoyed now. “Let’s be honest. It’s no surprise you fucked shit up, but I was damn good to him.”
I like where this is going. It almost feels like we’re on the same side.
I help my son into his pajamas and brush his clean, damp hair away from his face. He smells like cookies. My mother jerks the hairbrush out of my hand.
“Give me that,” she says. She combs his hair in the opposite direction.
She cancels their Friday night visit. She has to stay late at her job. That’s what she tells the dad. The tone of his voice suggests he doesn’t believe her. She holds on tightly to the lie, offering up details about the imaginary project she’s responsible for. The pressure and the deadlines. He doesn’t care. He had plans with his girlfriend, and now, those plans have to change.
“Can you bring him first thing in the morning?” she asks.
“That depends. Will you be home?”
His question is not unreasonable. He’s stood outside her door before, knocking. With their son in one arm and a shopping bag filled with overnight clothes in the other. No answer. She can’t be counted on.
Fuck you, she thinks. You don’t get to judge my life, now that yours is going so great. Everyone’s life is great compared to hers. She believes this.
But right now, she is optimistic. She has money to pay a debt with some extra and a bullshit excuse to leave work early. As soon as she irons out a few details, her situation will improve. She’ll get what she needs and be able to think straight. Come up with a plan to make everything better. Everything. She believes this, too.
Early Saturday, she makes it back to Queens with only moments to spare. The previous night, she should have left where she was before it got too late to leave, but she was very high and couldn’t move. Mostly, that’s just how things go. She doesn’t think or talk about it.
She runs the last eight blocks as fast as she can, in shoes not meant for running. Her throat burns in the freezing cold air.
Please don’t let his car be out front. Please, he can’t see me in yesterday’s clothes. Please don’t let them have come and gone already. Please, I just need one more chance.
She does not recognize any of these thoughts as prayers. They’re just part of the begging that goes on whenever she’s in trouble.
The child unpacks dinosaur pajamas, pants and a shirt, colored pencils and books. None of his belongings are kept where she lives. He is a visitor in his mother’s life, and she in his.
She admires his new coat. “This is nice,” she says. Together, they struggle to undo the top button.
“Look at all these zippers!” he declares with pride. Demonstrating their usefulness, he reveals the contents of pockets filled with tissues and Chapstick, a tiny race car.
She reaches for one that runs the length of his sleeve and gives it a tug.
“That one doesn’t do anything,” he says. “It’s just for show.”
He stares at cartoons right next to the mattress where she’s dozing on and off. Every ten minutes or so, he leans over her sleeping face.
“Mommy,” he whispers loudly and waits.
He pinches her eyelashes with his little fingers. She swats his hand away.
“What are you doing?”
“Pulling your eyelids awake.”
“So you can watch me watch TV.”
“Stop,” she groans. She is suddenly sick to her stomach. She gets to her feet and barrels into the bathroom, cupping a hand over her mouth.
Oblivious, he relocates himself and his toys to the hallway. He continues his work, arranging Ninja Turtles on the linoleum.
“Mommy, come and see my setup.” He hums the theme song from his favorite show as he carefully prepares Michelangelo and Rafael for battle. He explains what each turtle is doing and why. Every move they make is important. They rely on one another.
“Mommy. Mommy. What are you doing, Mommy?” He presses his lips into the crack of the bathroom door.
“I’ll be right out,” she tells him.
She flushes the toilet and splashes water on her face. She trips over his splayed legs and crawls back on all fours to the blankets.
“What stinks in there?” he asks.
“Nothing,” she says.
“It smells like throw up.”
“It does not.”
She races to pick him up from the birthday party he was invited to that afternoon.
“Don’t be late,” he tells her when she drops him off.
“I won’t,” she snaps back. But she is.
He is standing on the sidewalk, holding a goody bag and a ceramic dish he painted that reads “Grandma.” A man is locking the door of the storefront where the party was held. A young couple loads their car with balloons and tattered decorations, a case of leftover juice boxes. All the other children are gone.
“Where were you?” He is almost crying.
“Home.” It’s true. Even there, she loses track of time. Every time.
“You only had this one thing to do, and you couldn’t even,” he scolds, as if their ages are switched, and she is the six-year-old. He sounds exactly like his father.
They walk back to the basement together in silence. He will not hold her hand when they cross the street.
I think I like it better when we have school. Summer is so long and boring. Too many empty hours with nothing to do. We never go anywhere. I wouldn’t be able to tell which direction time is traveling if it weren’t for the TV shows that guide us through drab days toward dreary, uninteresting nights. Except for when Daddy comes home drunk. Then, we get some excitement, but never in a good way.
It’s muggy outside and stale everywhere in the house, except for my parents’ room where there’s an air-conditioner, but they only turn the machine on at night. And we’re not allowed to touch it. I stand in front of the big box fan in the middle of the kitchen as if it’s an activity. It’s so hot, I feel like I don’t even know how to make any thoughts to think.
“Go get a book and sit on the stoop,” my mother barks, dismissing my complaints. She knows I hate reading. “For Chrissake, give me five minutes to myself.”
I take the transistor radio outside and try to find a station with good music. I catch the end of “Dream On” by Aerosmith, disappointed when the song is over too soon. I mumble along to “Stuck in the Middle with You,” making up most of the words because I can’t understand what they’re saying, and I don’t wanna feel left out.
Mommy gets nervous at 4.30, when the Puerto Rican guys start trickling out of the factories at the end of their shift. They cut through our block to catch the subway that takes them home to the rough neighborhoods they come from.
I say “Hi” to the young boys that pass by. Some wear tank tops, and others are shirtless. Not a lot of ladies. And they aren’t friendly like the men.
“Shut that shit off and get your ass back in the house,” Mom scolds from the front door.
“You just told me to come out here.”
“Then put a sweater on.”
“But it’s like a hundred degrees.”
“You heard me. Don’t encourage them.”
When she says this, I can’t help but feel like I’ve done something wrong. Something I should be ashamed of. I am nine, maybe ten years old.
While she’s on the phone, I sneak a jar of peanut butter up to my room and eat half the way down with my fingers. I press my lips and tongue against the screen while I look out the window. I step back and stare at the mess I’ve made.
In the summer, I am the first one awake, besides my dad. He has lots of jobs. It’s still nighttime when he leaves for work. He delivers newspapers in Manhattan. He’s also a cop. Plus, there’s the Coast Guard. Aside from the drinking, I really don’t know what he does at any of these places.
My mother irons his uniform shirts and sometimes, I help. But I only like doing the short sleeves because they’re smooth, with no creases or buttons. She used to iron his handkerchiefs too, but not anymore. I guess he can use Kleenex now to blow his nose, like the rest of us. Mostly, he just sucks all that snot and phlegm back down his throat.
I wish we had the kind of tissues that pop up from a slot in the top of the box, but they’re expensive. Whenever Mommy buys them, I pull all the tissues out, one after the other, like a magician. Then I flatten and stuff them back in the box so she won’t notice. But she does, and it makes her angry.
Cigar smell is like my alarm clock in the morning. And the sound of the old man next door coughing up bite-sized chunks of his lungs into the street. I asked my mother what’s the matter with Mr. Pezzullo. She said he can’t stand his wife. That he’s trying to smoke himself to death. It’s his only way out.
Mrs. Pezzullo wasn’t so bad in the beginning, when we first moved here. But ever since we got our dog, she’s been mean. She says I shouldn’t let Girl make cocky outside her kitchen window. And if I do, I should pick it up.
How? With my hand? And do what with it? Where else are dogs supposed to go to the bathroom?
I try to be quiet whenever we walk past their house. It’s hard to make Girl hold it until we get around the corner, to the empty lot next to the Foggy Bottom. If people are hanging out in front of the bar, we go up as far as the grass by the gates of the cemetery. No one bothers us there.
I won’t even look at the dog when she’s making Number Two. I pretend it’s not happening. The way she’s all hunched over with her back legs shaking. The worst is when flies land on it, like they’ve been waiting for her to finish. So gross. Plus, she starts kicking up rocks and weeds as soon as she’s done, like she’s celebrating or something. I get embarrassed. I yank on the leash and drag her away. Let’s just go already.
I wonder if Mrs. Pezzullo hates dogs as much as her husband hates her. Maybe she hates all animals. Last week, I saw her throw a pot of water on this big cat that keeps trying to get on top of all the other cats. He ran down the alleyway, screaming.
In Judy’s room, there are library books everywhere. All she ever does is read. To me, reading is for idiots. Nothing fun ever happens. You just sit there, staring at words and turning pages. I can’t think of anything dumber.
I crawl over on my hands and knees to the edge of her bed to see if she’ll wake up and keep me company.
“Not yet,” she says.
“In a little while.”
“How long is a little while?” I ask, but she doesn’t answer. She’s already decided I’m no longer there.
The air-conditioner is on in Mommy’s room, but if I go in there now, she’ll wake up. And I won’t get to watch TV downstairs while I eat my breakfast.
At six in the morning, it’s still dark in the kitchen. But I don’t turn any lights on. I don’t make decisions like when the day officially begins and ends. I’m a kid. Instead, I squirrel around in the cabinets for something to eat. I’m hungry all the time.
We have three kinds of cereal. I start with a big slab of Shredded Wheat and cover that with layers of Frosted Flakes and Cap’n Crunch. I wish they’d make a cereal that’s just Crunch Berries. That’d be so great. The same goes for those little marshmallows in Lucky Charms. I love them, too. If you ask me, there’s never enough.
I go back to the shelves where the food is kept, searching for ingredients to add to my recipe. I find a half-empty bag of chocolate chips meant for baking and a small plastic container of ice cream sprinkles. I load those on top, coat everything with extra sugar and flood the bowl with milk.
The bottles are still on the counter from last night. I hate seeing them there. Liquor’s not an everyday thing around here, like beer. There’s always beer. This stuff is different. It makes Daddy stupid, and that makes Mommy hate him.
I unscrew the top from the brown bottle and pour two inches worth down the drain. I do the same with the clear bottle. I refill them both with water from the faucet. I return them to the cabinet in the living room, tucked away behind several tall, narrow boxes decorated like Christmas presents, something fancy called Creme de Menthe and two large jugs of white wine.
I carry my special creation into the TV room and sit myself close enough to the set so I can still reach the channel changer without having to get up.
There’s nothing on this early except the news and Sesame Street. Even though puppets are for babies, I watch anyway. Everything about what I’m doing makes me feel sneaky and secretive. I don’t wanna get caught. If anybody comes, I’ll slide my bowl under one of the big chairs and pretend I haven’t eaten yet. I have to remember it’s there, though. Last time, I forgot, and Mommy found it a week later when she was vacuuming. She got really mad.
The whole room reeks of her dirty ashtray and no matter where I move it to, I can’t get away from the smell. I slid that thing way to the back on top of the piano and covered it with the TV Guide, and still, the stink won’t go down. We’re not supposed to open any windows unless Mom says it’s okay. She’s afraid we’ll get robbed in our sleep, and maybe raped. I’m not even sure what that is, but it sounds bad.
I hate when she asks me to clean out her ashtray, but I’m not afraid of yucky things. Judy won’t do it. She runs the other way.
“I need a favor, kid,” Mommy says, a bit nicer than usual. I love when she calls me ‘kid.’ “Dump this for me, will ya?”
I pinch the edges of the square glass dish and shake the contents into the garbage, careful not to get any on my fingers. I rinse the soot and particles with soapy water until it’s nice and clean again. She knows I do a good job.
I want to concentrate on this show, but my food tastes like cigarette butts. I can’t take the stench. Maybe if I put the phone book over the TV Guide. That might help.
Uncrossing my legs, I place my heaping breakfast next to me with care. When I lean forward to get up, I clip the rim of the bowl with my foot, and cereal goes everywhere.
In a panic, I shovel handfuls of wet slop into a pile. I scrape the spoon along the surface of the carpet, mashing soggy flakes deep into the coarse fabric.
When I hear Mommy on the stairs, I scramble to my feet. Her furious presence fills the doorway, her flimsy nightgown held together under one arm with safety pins. I wish I didn’t have to see those parts of her body she warns I’m gonna have – someday soon. I don’t want any of that. Or this. I stand in the middle of the room, frozen.
“What’s wrong with you?” she bellows, pulling at her own matted hair, as if to keep her head from toppling clean off her shoulders. She lunges at me, begging the question again. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
I fall to my knees and cover myself with both arms.
I pretend I am sick so I can stay home from school and be with my mother. It’s not like she ever does anything exciting. She cleans and talks alot on the phone. She watches TV, and I like TV.
I fake a myriad of illnesses – stomach virus, stiff neck, sore throat, ear ache. Whatever it takes to get her to question my health and keep me from wearing that stupid uniform for the day.
Sometimes, I’ll go to sleep with the idea already in my head. And by the early morning, that idea becomes so strong a need, I feel like I can’t possibly leave her.
Daddy’s alarm clock rings in the middle of the night. I listen for the sound of his heavy belt buckle as he steps back into the pants he’s removed just three or four hours earlier. He runs water in the bathroom sink and brushes his teeth. He loosens the phlegm in his throat, spits it into the toilet and leaves it there, floating. He takes his gun from the top of the refrigerator. I watch from the stairs as he pulls his coat on and closes the front door behind him. I imagine him walking to the subway in the darkness. I wait for the sound of the train that takes him to places he’d rather be.
“Mommy.” I stand in front of her side of the bed. “I don’t feel good.”
She reaches over and pats at the empty pillow, still damp with my father’s drool.
“Did he leave?” she asks.
“Is the door locked?”
“C’mere to me,” she says, pulling my body close to her warm skin and resting the palm of her hand against my forehead.
“You do feel warm,” which is exactly what happens when you rub your face back and forth on the carpet in the hallway.
She draws back the quilt so I can climb in next to her.
“Do I have a fever?” I ask. I want one very badly. I don’t care if I come across it dishonestly. Running a temperature means I can write my own ticket. Eat soup and toast with jelly in my bed. The collapsible metal tray makes me feel like more like a patient and less like a burden. Color and do puzzles in my bed. Mommy will send Judy to school with a note for my teacher. I’ll even get to do homework in my bed.
When she doesn’t respond to my question right away, I begin to panic.
“Can’t I please stay home with you?” I cup my hand over my mouth and start to cough, hoping this makes my condition seem more severe. I wish I could make myself throw up. Then she’d have to believe that I’m telling the truth.
I called the house from a pay phone. My mother answered. Her voice, a mixture of worry and disgust before I even got the chance to try out any of the lies I’d practiced in my head or made up right there on the spot.
“Where are you?” she demanded.
“I’m fine, thanks,” I replied. You know what? Fuck her. I should have known she’d be like this. “Is Daddy around? I have to talk to him about something.”
“What are you, new?” she asked. “He’s not here. He’s never here. You’ll talk to me.”
It was hard to get around my mother, an angry roadblock of a woman. I did not want to approach her for money or help, even though I needed both.
“You lost your job, didn’t you?”
“They cut back the whole department.”
“I knew it. I knew you’d get fired.”
“I wasn’t fired, Mom. I got laid off. It’s different.”
“It’s all the same shit with you,” she insisted. “So what are you gonna do now? Sit around with your hand on your ass?”
“No. I’ll find something else. I was talking to my neighbor upstairs, and he said I could probably get unemployment, so I gotta figure out how to do that.”
“Oh, yeah? Your neighbor upstairs?” She made what I said sound dirty. “What are you doing telling everybody your business for? They don’t need to know. Jesus, Mary. When are you gonna learn to keep your goddamn mouth shut?”
I could hear the sound of a match being struck as she started a new cigarette, inhaling deeply. Through the receiver, she blew smoke in my face.
“Christ Almighty. My daughter.” She paused for emphasis. “My pride and joy. On the fucking dole.”
It’s not like I expected the conversation to go well, but this was pretty bad. Plus, I still needed money. But I couldn’t get the right footing to ask. I think a part of me already knew she’d say ‘no,’ but I got caught up in the argument. Maybe all I’d get to do was make her aware that I was struggling. You know, to spread the pain around.
I should have just hung up. But instead, I fed more change into the slot so the operator wouldn’t cut us off. The line clicked twice and went quiet for a second.
“Mary, are you there?”
I could hear my mother’s panic – that perhaps we’d gotten disconnected, and I was gone from her grasp. But I wasn’t equipped to work that fear to my advantage. She was too loud and quick and strong. And I was a weakling.
“Where’s that animal you’re tied to? Can’t he take care of you?” She meant Charlie. He was back in jail. “Tell you what, don’t answer that. I don’t wanna know.”
“I can take care of myself,” I said.
“Sure, you can.”
“I could use a loan, though, Mom. Please. Just to have my phone turned back on. So I can get work.”
“No friggin’ way am I handing over the contents of my wallet. I’m done laying out for you. You’ll have to run this horseshit past your father.”
“Then I’ll call back. When will he be home?”
“How the fuck should I know?”
Dad tapped on the basement window with his car keys the following morning. I heard the sound in a dream, at first. A bird, pecking on a tree made of glass. Peck, peck, peck. Shattering everything, right down to the roots. I’m not sure how long I was out of it. The room was quietly streaked with sun when my eyes finally started closing. I did not think sleep would ever come. And like most nights, there was crying.
He tapped again, and I woke up. “Come to the back. I’ll let you in.” I waved at his shoes. That’s all I could see.
I threw a blanket over the wine box next to the mattress on the floor. I gathered up the spent beer cans and whatever all else looked suspicious and unproductive.
He came down the stairs carrying a cardboard box filled with spaghetti noodles and tomato sauce, peanut butter, sugary cereal for when my kid came to visit, milk and juice.
“This is from your mother,” he said. “I gotta use your bathroom.”
He peed with the door open, whistling through his teeth and farting to his own melody.
“Did Mommy tell you I called?”
He flushed the toilet and zipped his pants in the hallway, went to the fridge and looked inside. Not much in there except salad dressing and six or eight beers.
“I’m taking these,” he said, grabbing two with one hand. “I’ll pick you up tomorrow early. You can give me a hand with some shit.”
“What kind of shit?”
“Does it matter?”
It didn’t, really. But goddamn it, I was still broke and running low on everything I needed to get high. And maintain. Without money, I’d be scrounging around, borrowing from people. I hated that. Selling things I tried to convince myself I was done using. Like my blow dryer. And the fan from the kitchen window. Two folding knives belonging to Charlie. You know what? Fuck him. He ain’t even around to help out. The little Christmas tree my sister bought us, even though I swore up and down I hated the holidays. Clothes she gave me, and clothes I stole from her closet.
My father looked over the top of his glasses, caked with dirt and covered in smudges. “Listen to me.” He spoke just above a whisper. “Are you listening?”
“Whatever this stupid shit is that you’re doing, you gotta knock it off. Personally, I don’t give a damn. But you’re killing your mother.”
I wasn’t sure if he knew what I was into or not. He’d likely beat my ass if he did. Or maybe not. The man was impossible to read.
“Eat something,” he said. Then he left.
Eat something. That’s a good one. Like anybody could eat with my problems. No job. No money. He don’t care. He just said so himself. “Personally, I don’t give a damn.” Personally! Like he’s a real person. You know what? Fuck him. Fuck all of them.
As always, I began obsessing over whether or not I’d get to sleep at a reasonable hour, which I never did. I was routinely gassed, to the point where being awake just bummed me out. I don’t think I was depressed, even though I felt weary and short-changed all the time. I was either drunk and high or hung over and strung out.
Would I get enough rest if I went to bed at midnight? I started the countdown in my head. Nine hours from now, I should try and lay down. But how could I with so much to do? What if it was more like two or three o’clock? And Dad showed up early? I added and subtracted measurements of time and energy.
Would I be too tired to swing that gigantic mop at the bar? Cranking the lever to squeeze the gray water back into the bucket over and over, trying to make a dirty floor less dirty. Hosing off the picnic tables and rinsing the garbage barrels out front.
I reminded myself to bring the radio, so I’d have music to listen to while I was there. They had beer, which was good. Pitchers I could fill and bring upstairs while I did my work. The old guys behind the bar never minded. I made my own good time. Was this my new job now? Fun janitor?
Would Dad pay me right away? I thought about money being pressed into my hand and gone again without ever knowing the inside of any of my pockets. I always spent way more than I made and saved nothing.
During the rest of the afternoon and evening, I established a mental list of needs, as well as the step-by-step instructions I’d have to follow in order to secure these needs but would probably ignore if I could come up with different, easier ideas.
There are few situations more strenuous than time spent procuring supplies to get a load on. It can be such lonely, demanding work. There’s considerable strategy involved. Fundraising and backup plans. Travel time – for me, all on foot. I’d have to see who was around. There was usually someone around at the usual places. Unless no one was there or no one who knew me was there. If I had a little cash, just enough to get in the door, so to speak, I could ask for certain individuals who wouldn’t mind helping me out. Dudes who sometimes let me go on less.
“You seen Jigsaw? Topo? Edward?”
“Nah.” These guys would look at me like I was making names up. They’d turn their backs and pretend I wasn’t there. I’d have to keep moving. I have no game. I’m not that slick.
On to the next place where maybe they could hold some of my stuff or trade. I never saw my things again.
Small degrees of success might take hours and consume whole days, barring distractions like work and relationships. Neither of which I had at the moment.
Heading home with modest results, a side trip to the liquor store and warm beers from the supermarket, I happened upon a set of fancy, red books stacked on the easement of Yellowstone Boulevard, half a mile from my house. Encyclopedias grouped into four bundles with twine, roughly seven or eight books each. Too heavy for me to lift.
I decided right then and there that Kirin needed these books. My son deserved a good education. I envisioned the two of us pouring over each issue together, learning about the world as it was documented back in 1969, when this particular edition was published. In twenty five years, surely not much had changed with regard to our simple interests. Vehicles, in general, had withstood some updates, yes. But planets, flags, dinosaurs and hot air balloons looked pretty much the same. What a great find!
I returned to the basement on Alderton Street and dropped off my groceries, filled a plastic cup with wine, did a little coke and went back for the books with a steak knife to cut the ropes so I could carry four or five at a time. Motherfucking encyclopedias are heavy!
Start with 6 trips to the book stash x 11 blocks one way, 22 blocks round trip. That equals 132 blocks, coming and going. Try to remember that amount. You’ll need it again later.
I don’t know how long it took me to complete my mission. A bunch of hours. I walked and toiled well past dinnertime, my eyes darting in and out of first floor apartment windows where tables were set for meals and children did homework in families not fractured by mothers incapable of getting their fucking acts together.
More hours passed, and day became night. Although grateful for something constructive to do, I was also getting tired. Stopping at my place to drop off each load, I peed and snorted drugs. Filling new tumblers with wine to keep me company on the way there and stacking the empties behind a tree at the scene of the abandoned books to mark my progress. I trudged back home, arms filled with sophisticated facts.
It’s hard to leave the house when there’s coke, but I did it. I finished the job! At least, I thought I did.
I stood amid my newly acquired library of knowledge, wiping down each issue and grouping them alphabetically. A through D. E, F. Hmmm, where was G? H through L. M through P. Q, R, S, T. U through the rest of the other letters and those extra bullshit companion guides. Where the fuck was G? No way it wasn’t there with all the others. I must have left it behind.
So back to the trash pile I went, where I searched, to no avail. No G anywhere. Lots of other cast off items, crap I had no use for. A box of small appliances. Who needs a blender without a lid? Several well-worn frying pans and a large wok, mismatched plates and cups. A makeup bag with what looked like expensive cosmetics inside. That, I took, along with my collection of used wine cups, sticky and crawling with ants.
I checked the time on the clock in the window of the dry cleaner – 5:25 a.m. The morning world began to stir. Vans filled with bread and pastries zoomed past, newspaper delivery trucks. Express buses filled with commuters who slept well, ate well and somehow managed to stay employed. Workers heading to jobs I used to have.
I went home and made up my face in the narrow mirror that came with an eyeshadow tool kit. I did not recognize myself when I was done. I lay back on the mattress and tried to feel ready for sleep. I did the last bit of math in my head, adding 22 more blocks to my earlier sum and deciding I’d walked 154 blocks in total. That’s almost eight miles.
I stroked my eyelashes, still caked with mascara. They reminded me of plastic spiders. I tried to scrape them clean with my fingernails, pulling and stretching the lids away from the rest of my theatrical features. In those last moments of visible darkness, I plucked and picked at them until I was sure there were none left.
I dozed for a while, trying to recall the big long word that means you’re afraid of spiders. It begins with the letter “a.” The S book would probably know that information, and I was glad to have it. But I must have passed out.
In the car with my father, heading to the bar, I tried to make small talk.
“I found a set of books in somebody’s garbage last night. Encyclopedias for Kirin. They look expensive. It’s good to have encyclopedias, you know? We had them, remember?”
Dad raised his eyebrows. He was listening, I guess, so I kept talking.
“Problem is there’s no G. I looked everywhere.”
“Maybe that’s why they threw them away.”
“Yeah, maybe. But they’re still really good books,” I insisted.
“He’s never gonna know what a giraffe is.”
I rested the side of my head against the window and considered how this omission might shape my son’s future.
Dad patted my leg. “He’ll be all right. It’s not that big a deal.”
Yes, I spend a lot of time with my drug dealer’s wife. But let me be very clear about one thing. We’re not friends. She thinks we are, and it gives me the creeps.
“There’s my Mary,” Laureen gushes, when I finally get one of them to open the fucking door and let me in. She poses at the top of the stairwell in an undershirt and pajama bottoms, one hand on her boney hip and the other outstretched in my direction.
“How do you people stay in business?” I ask. “I’ve been leaning on the buzzer for twenty minutes.” It was really more like five, but everything feels longer when you’re waiting, right? Laureen ignores my complaints and continues to sing my praises.
“Let me look at you, girl. In your little work clothes. Now, I’m happy,” she says, first nodding her head up and down, and then, side to side. “I was so sad before. I cried for three hours.”
“You did not.” I know she’s teasing. She squeezes my face between her knuckles and kisses me on the mouth. Her breath is awful. I can’t describe what it smells like, so I won’t even bother.
“I love what you’re wearing.” I’m dressed in pants and a coat that I bought for seven dollars at the Salvation Army. “I mean it, honey. You could be a model.” I hate the way Laureen looks at me and my things, like she’s starving. I don’t have much, but she has nothing. And realizing this makes me very uncomfortable.
“Pretty, pretty Mary. How’d you get to be so funny and amazing?” Laureen leans against the kitchen counter that’s come loose from the wall, and no one is fixing it. “We are so much alike, don’t you think? I swear, we could be sisters.” My skin crawls whenever she says this, which is often, and I hate it every time.
She leans in, as if to share a secret. “You know, guys are always telling me, ‘Laureen, you’re so pretty.'” Her words drift, and she is somewhere else for a minute. “What was I saying?”
“That I’m funny and amazing.”
“Right, right. See? You know. Funny and freaking amazing!”
I follow Laureen down the hallway. Considering how many people are actually inside this apartment, the living room is quiet, except for the TV. There’s no picture on the screen anymore, just sound. Everybody here is doing their thing. Manny can get whatever you need, but most folks smoke crack. They come to buy and get right to it, sometimes turning hours into days. I always try to have my thoughts straight before I show up.
“Just pay for your shit and go home,” I tell myself. “Pay and go. Pay and go.” I do not want to be here. This place is scary, but nothing is ever that easy.
“How’s your job, hon? Is it good?” Laureen makes like she’s interested. I used to try and tell her shit, but she’s not paying attention so I don’t try anymore. “I want a job,” she muses. “I can do shit. I got skills.” Her voice becomes a little sing-song, and I resent it. “Get dressed up. Ride the train. Talk on the phone. Mary, can’t you get me in at your work?”
“I’ll ask.” Of course, I’m not gonna. The girl’s a fucking wreck.
I watch my drug dealer’s wife load this big, fat rock into a beat-to-shit asthma inhaler. I wish she would just shut the fuck up, and she will. I move a little closer on the couch.
Laureen is obsessed with the condition of her mouth. Many of her teeth are already gone. Mine are just starting to come loose. The way she carries on gets worse when she’s high.
“You smell that?” She points to the infected holes in her gums. Here we go again. “There’s something in there. Something’s in my mouth. Don’t you smell it?”
“I do,” Manny says. He’s chopping coke and laying out a row of scrawny lines for two girls that sit on either side of his filthy shoes. “It smells like somebody puked in a bag of shit.” He slaps an open palm against his knee to confirm his own joke.
“Can you check for me, babe?” She means me. “Just look and tell me what you see.”
“I don’t know what I’m looking for.”
“Please,” she begs. I peer into her gaping maw with one eye closed.
“Did you find it? What’s in there?”
“Laureen, there’s nothing. Go rinse your mouth.”
An industrial-sized bottle of mouthwash, the kind that looks like piss, sits on an old door they use as a coffee table. Laureen takes a long swig, puffs out her cheeks, swishes it around and gobs her backwash into one of two Styrofoam cups reserved exclusively for this purpose.
Do not touch or look inside either of these cups. She recycles the swill from the first one and spits it into the second. This procedure may be right up there with one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen a person do.
I had this boyfriend who took a shit on the floor once because I wouldn’t unlock the bathroom door. We just broke up. Another time, I watched two dogs eat from the same bowl. When one of them threw up, the other one ate it. But maybe that doesn’t count because they were animals and not people. Animals don’t know any better.
Occasionally, someone will drop a cigarette butt into the gravy-like murk of Laureen’s spittoon. This makes her absolutely furious.
“Hey, asshole!” she yells into the disinterested face of a nearby guest. “This cup look like an ashtray to you?”
It kinda does.
I think Manny and Laureen are married, but they might not be. Manny’s a shit heel, though. I still can’t believe I walked in on him and this older woman. She was on her knees in the kitchen. He smiled when he saw me. I wasn’t sure what I should do, so I turned around and went back in the other room.
He came looking for me after. “So, how’d you like that before?” Still grinning.
“Like what?” Laureen asked.
“Some cryptkeeper bitch was sucking my dick. Man, she tugged so hard, I had to make sure it was still there when she finished.”
Somebody laughed. I don’t know who. I couldn’t look. Laureen went back to her business as if he never said anything. I left right after that. I didn’t even wait until it got light out. I walked home 38 blocks in the dark.
Laureen calls me at my job. I can’t remember giving her my number at work or the address, but I must have. I don’t think she has the brains to find me otherwise. To look something up in the Yellow Pages or ask the operator for help.
“Hey, it’s me.” She heavy breathes into the receiver. “Give a guess where I am.” Immediate panic prevents me from any logical thinking. “Right downstairs!” She’s excited. “I came to see you.”
How am I supposed to explain Laureen to the people I work with? What’s with the crackhead? they will surely wonder. I thought I could keep these two things separate.
“I’m going into a staff meeting,” I tell her. That’s a lie.
“Right this minute?”
“C’mon. I just wanna say ‘Hi.’ Plus, I gotta use the toilet.”
“I can’t. I have to go.” I hang up the phone. It rings again, almost immediately. I walk away from my desk, down the corridor and into the file room. I hide there for a while and hope to God she won’t be able to find me in this building. I pray she’s too stupid to figure it out.
I start buying my dope from another supplier. This guy in Shipping and Receiving was very forthcoming as to where he gets what he needs to keep him working such long hours. I wonder if he likes me. It’s hard to tell. He’s scattered. And one of the girls in my department said he’s about to get fired if he keeps fucking shit up.
I haven’t seen or heard from Laureen or Manny in almost a month. Not since the day she was here.
This morning, the receptionist handed me a message from some lady named Carolyn. I didn’t recognize the number, so I just threw it away. When she calls back again, I pick up the phone.
“Is this Mary?”
“I’m Laureen’s mother.” My heart starts to race, and my ears feel hot. “Have you seen my daughter?”
“You can tell me, dear. I promise I’m not mad.”
“Laureen talks about you all the time. She says you’re like her best friend. She needs a friend.”
“I don’t know where she’s at.” That’s the truth.
“Will you let me know if you hear from her? I’m so worried, Mary.”
Just the way she says my name, it makes me want to cry.
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?”