Every time I look at my beautiful engagement ring that I’ve worn now for quite a few years, I’m amazed I haven’t sold it yet.
Thank you, Twelve Steps.
Every time I look at my beautiful engagement ring that I’ve worn now for quite a few years, I’m amazed I haven’t sold it yet.
Thank you, Twelve Steps.
God forgive me. She’s my own mother, but I hate it when she cries. Familiar as I am with the routine anger and resentment she has toward my father, I am never ready for all that unexpected sputtering and weeping. It seems to come from out of nowhere and goes through me like a knife.
One minute, we’re talking about something harmless like Reduced Fat Triscuits and the next, she’s completely distraught over whatever Dad’s done that can never be forgiven. Like the way he keeps waking up every morning and breathing.
Granted, he’s no picnic. But she’s still pissed about antics he pulled thirty and forty years ago. He didn’t care about her feelings then, and he sure as shit doesn’t give a damn about them now. When is she gonna figure that out?
I swear, it’s like she’s half stupid or something. It breaks my heart to think that’s the case. Over and over, she persists with the same hateful, unverified claims.
“Why don’t you tell your daughter how you clogged the toilet again?” she asks.
My father smiles and laughs gently, as if responding to a joke about farts.
“He does it on purpose, you know. He holds his shit in all morning and waits until I get into the shower. I’m trapped like a fucking animal. I can’t even wash my face in peace.”
“Did you call the landlord, Mom?”
Her voice begins to waver. “Please, Mary. I can’t look that poor man in the eye anymore. You have no idea what it’s like to live this way.”
And she is right. Sort of. What my parents share is a very specific brand of crazy. But over the years, I did take what I learned from their expert tutelage and went on to destroy nearly every relationship I can remember. How to ignore the other person and communicate in riddles. The disappearing act. Withholding affection to manipulate situations. Explosive, misdirected rage. And much, much more.
So I do get whatever this is. I didn’t just arrive on the scene of this circus fire. I’m quite used to the smell of smoke by now.
“See if he’s hungry.” Mom flicks her wrist in my father’s direction. A plastic bag of cold cuts flops onto the kitchen counter like a fish.
“Hey, Daddy. You want a sandwich?”
“Of course, he does,” she says. “All I want is some decency. Is that too much to ask?”
Maybe that’s what I find so frustrating. She doesn’t make any reasonable requests. Just hateful demands that can never be met by this elderly man who was once a much younger man with the same limited emotional range.
Only now, he’s old. His memory is shot. When he knew you before, he treated you like shit. He knows even less about you these days. Except that you’ll wipe his ass for him. I’m sure he sees that as a plus.
I’m not suggesting it’s right or fair. My mother doesn’t deserve this much unhappiness. But it certainly is her whole world, and she protects it fiercely. I wish there was something I could do to make things better. I’ve been wishing this my whole life.
Mom does not want my help. She makes it very clear that no one can help her. She is all alone in her disappointment. How am I supposed to penetrate that kind of willfulness? I try. I’m willful, too. But she only lets me in a little bit. In a moment of clarity, I realize that’s all she has. Our relationship exists and survives on scraps. I have always wanted more.
You know, when we were kids, and she hated him, I thought I understood why. It didn’t seem like my dad loved her. Or anything else, really. He came and went along his own trajectory and behaved in ways that frightened us all.
“What will happen if they get a divorce?” I asked my sister.
Judy was older than me. She seemed to have a loose grasp of what was at stake. She might have been twelve at the time. “They’re not getting a divorce,” she said.
“Well, if they do, I’m going with him.”
And not because we shared a special father/daughter bond. He couldn’t take care of himself, never mind us girls. Mom swore he’d die on his own, and I believed her. Still, I wanted out from under the weight of her everyday misery.
“You don’t get to pick,” Judy informed me. “We’d have to stay with her.”
“You can stay,” I told her. “I’m leaving.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am,” I muttered under my breath.
My cousin Donald’s seventh grade homeroom teacher was divorced. I think Judy had her for Science. She wore false eyelashes and high heels to school. She gave the kids gum. My mother couldn’t stand her.
She was the first ‘Ms.’ I’d ever encountered. That’s what they called you when you weren’t married anymore. When your husband left you because you were a whore.
Dad shuffles into the kitchen at the mention of food and sits with us at the crowded table. Piles of bills, newspapers, prescription bottles and half empty coffee cups cover every available surface. I slide the paper shredder over to make room so he can eat lunch.
Mom loves that shredder. I bought it for her two Easters ago. She seems to take great delight in obsessively reducing things to ribbons.
“Shred these,” she demands and tosses a stack of paperwork at his belly. Old Pennysavers and flyers filled with coupons.
My father picks up a church bulletin and feeds into the narrow slot.
“Not that!” she growls and yanks the sheet, jamming the machine. “Can’t I have anything nice?”
And here come the tears.
I just want to eat lunch.
Mommy promised if I was good, we could have grilled cheese at the counter in Woolworth’s. No more hamburgers, not since the last time we ate there. She said the chop meat was bad. It tasted fine to me, and then all of a sudden, I didn’t feel good. I threw up next to a baby carriage right out front. Mommy covered it with a bunch of napkins, and we left.
We’re on our way to the bank which is so boring and a hundred times worse than any other store I can think of and most churches. There are no chairs or pews. If you want to lay down, you have to do it on the giant dirty rug in the hallway but with so many people coming in and out, there’s really no room.
I stare into the big metal ashtray in the doorway. It’s almost as tall as me. There’s a piece of pink gum resting right on the edge of the dish, almost separate from the squished cigarette butts and candy wrappers. It looks fresh. I can still see teeth marks.
Mommy waits on line. She is next. It looks like she knows the lady behind the counter. This is gonna take forever! But now, at least, I have something to do.
I sing some of the words to “Hey There, Georgy Girl” as we walk together down the street. I heard it on the radio when we were in the pharmacy getting a birthday card for my cousin.
You’re always window shopping, but never stopping to buy.
So shed those dowdy feathers and fly, a little bit!
“What’s in your mouth?” Mommy asks.
“A song,” I say.
“Spit it out.”
She holds her hand in front of my mouth, and I swallow.
I smashed my thumb trying to open a bottle of wine with a hammer and a butter knife, and now, my finger hurts like crazy. I ran it under cold water. Motherfucker bled like a pig.
Probably gonna lose the nail. Shit looks split right down the middle, which I wouldn’t even think is possible unless I saw it with my own eyes. And now that I’ve seen it, I still don’t believe it. Like shutters on a haunted house. One panel all busted up in the frame and the other hanging loose by a hinge.
I had to sacrifice an old pair of pantyhose to stop the bleeding. Nylon is not a particularly absorbent material, I realize that now. But I think I did a good job. I started with the foot section and wrapped it round and round my thumb a bunch of times. Tore it from the bloomers part with my teeth. I got a shoelace from an old pair of sneakers I don’t wear anymore and tied it up nice and secure, like I was MacGuyver.
I’m gonna look on the bright side. At least the bottle didn’t break. There’s a goddamn mess for you! And a waste of some perfectly good wine when the glass is all shattery and shit.
Don’t worry. You can still have what’s in there. Just hold a piece of paper towel over your cup. If there’s any shards or slivers, it catches them.
I might even squeeze the wine out of the napkin and drink it. Depends on how much is left.
* Artwork: Green Pieces by Todd Ford
I glance at my phone, look at Facebook real quick. I check e-mails, out of habit more than anything else. I’m not expecting any highly important correspondence to come through. It’s mostly junk. It always is.
Still, I pause at the message that starts with “You have been selected by People Magazine…”
Hmmm. Perhaps someone has written to them about me. A friend, I’m guessing. An individual who is rather fond of me, no doubt. What a nice thing to do. I can only imagine what he or she might have said.
Dear People Magazine:
I know this girl. Her name is Mary. I feel like I need to tell you about her.
A brief synopsis of my character and unique talents, followed by a flattering list of awesome things I guess I do that this person has noticed and felt compelled to share with a national publication reserved almost exclusively for artists and celebrities. Wow.
I click on the link and read a little further, beyond the preliminary caption.
People wants me to consider subscribing to an additional magazine. Sports Illustrated. They think I might like it.
Forget all that stuff I just said. Clearly, these idiots know nothing about me.
I slept over this girl’s house last night. I don’t know her well, but we work together. She’s friendly enough.
She made such a big fucking deal about how much she loves to party, so I got us some blow. We hit a few bars in her neighborhood, which was fun. I generally like to stay in one place, though. I concentrate better. She seemed to know a lot of people. But Bayonne is loud and crowded, especially on Fridays in the summer. And sometimes, cocaine makes me feel lonely.
In the bathroom, she wouldn’t shut up about all these guys who apparently are just dying to sleep with her. Yeah, okay.
She got too drunk way too quick, if you ask me. Which, c’mon, that shouldn’t even happen when you have coke. Falling out of her shoes. She spilled a Bay Breeze down the front of her shirt. They made us leave the last place we were at. She started something with the dude working the door, running her mouth like an asshole.
We walked around for nearly an hour before she sobered up enough to remember where the fuck she lived.
“It’s this way,” she kept saying. Then she’d stop to throw up between every four or five cars. I swear, I would have left her there, only I don’t know my way around New Jersey. And she hadn’t paid me back yet for the drugs I got us that I ended up snorting all by myself anyway, hunched over on her couch next to a pile of rank laundry.
I should have saved what was left, since the whole night kinda sucked. But maybe you know how that goes.
I listened to her crying into the phone, pleading with some idiot she used to go out with.
“Just come over,” she begged. “I’m horny.”
I waited until she got into the shower this morning before I went through her wallet. Relax, I didn’t take everything. Three twenties and a five should cover my hardship. Let her think she lost it in our travels. Serves her right for getting so sloppy.
“You got that money you owe me?” I ask when she’s done drying her hair.
She empties the contents of her purse onto the bed. “Shit,” she says.
“What’s the matter?” Like I don’t know.
She checks the pockets of her coat. “Nothing. Can we stop by the bank when I drop you at the train?”
“Sure. That’ll be great.”
* Artwork: Q Train by Nigel Van Wieck
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.
* Artwork: The Last Jacket by Szabolcs Szolnoki
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.
* Artwork: Young Deer by Tamer Marzio
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.
* Artwork by Scott Conary