I sit on the landing at the top of the stairs. Mommy said you’ll be home soon. She called your job when we got back from school, and they told her you already left. That was three hours ago. I’ll stay right here and wait for you.
Today is my birthday, and you said you’d bring that little radio for me to have. I’m not thinking about anything else right now except you walking through the front door with the present you promised.
I’ve seen transistor radios before. Some of my cousins have them. I really want one of my own. Then I can listen to music whenever I like. Finally, I’ll know all the words to “Spirit in the Sky.” It feels like my whole life’s about to change.
I imagine this big party. Our whole family is there – aunts, uncles, all of us kids. Somebody whistles, and the room goes quiet. One of the grown-ups lifts me up onto a table littered with ashtrays, half-empty bottles and glasses of beer. I take requests and sing my heart out all night long. It’s a dream of mine to be everyone’s favorite.
But right now, I really have to pee. Mommy let me have some ginger ale a little while ago, and I drank the whole can. I go back inside. Judy’s in the bathroom with the door locked again. She likes to read books while she’s on the toilet.
“Open up. I need to make.”
“You have to wait your turn,” my sister says.
“I’m telling Mommy you won’t let me in.”
I return to my perch on the steps, cupping myself with both hands when I sit down. The lady from downstairs must be making supper. Whatever it is smells really good, like Italian food, but I don’t think they’re Italian. My mother can’t stand Eleanor or her cooking. She hates Eleanor’s whole family. She says they’re two-faced and can’t be trusted.
I think they’re nice. Eleanor and her husband hold hands in church. They’re quiet and keep to themselves, except when they complain to the landlord about stuff, like whenever we have company. Because there’s almost always fights, big ones. Daddy fell down the stairs at Easter.
Somebody’s shadow fills the front hallway. It’s just Eleanor’s husband. He comes home the same time every night. Last week, he taught their youngest kid how to ride a bicycle. Gregory’s about my age, I guess. I watched them from my bedroom window. His dad ran alongside the two-wheeler, holding onto the back of the seat. After a few tries, when he let go, Gregory was doing it all by himself. “Good job, son!” the man cheered. “So good!”
We don’t have a bicycle. It doesn’t matter. No one’s gonna teach us anyway. I bet Eleanor’s husband doesn’t drink.
I ran and told Mommy what I saw, Gregory riding without training wheels. She was in the kitchen, stabbing tuna fish to death with a fork. A cigarette dangled from her mouth, and one of her eyes was shut to keep out the smoke.
“You steer clear of that kid,” she warned. “There’s something really wrong with him.”
Back in the summer, Mommy caught Gregory scratching his bare hiney across the bricks on the side of the house. He talked back when she scolded him.
“Mind your own business,’ he said. “You ain’t my mother.”
She picked him up by the back of his shirt and dragged him along the sidewalk with his pants around his ankles. She rang the doorbell and banged on the window. He screamed bloody murder the whole time, but Mommy held on tight.
“You’re not perfect,” she told Eleanor when she came to the door, dumping Gregory at her feet.
Sometimes, I can’t decide if Mommy is a hero or a monster. Maybe she’s both. Now, I have to pee really bad. I try for the bathroom a second time and jiggle the knob.
“Judy, open the door. I’m gonna have an accident.”
“No, you’re not,” she says.
“Then, can’t I please just go in the tub?”
“It isn’t, and I’m telling.”
I try to get Mommy’s attention, but she’s on the phone, deep in a conversation that could last for the rest of my life. “Judy hates me,” I sob. “She wants I should pee my pants.”
“Not now,” my mother says and keeps talking to whoever’s on the other end of the line.
I go back to the foyer. I reach inside my bloomers and try to pinch my pee pee hole shut so everything will stay in, but it’s no use. I pee all over my hand. It soaks through my shorts and spreads to the carpet on the top step. And even though my socks and slippers are soaked, I am relieved, but only for a minute. Then, I’m just scared. I sit there in the growing darkness. I know I’m gonna get hit.
The front door opens, and there you are. It takes you forever to find your key and figure out what to do with it. I can tell you’re not right. Holding onto the walls as you climb the stairs, you lose your balance and lurch forward, catching the bannister with your elbow and sliding to your knees. I’m afraid to say anything, in case you fall backwards and crack your head open.
“Daddy, I’m here,” I whisper like I would to a stray cat in the street that I wish would come to me. Your head tilts toward my voice. You manage a smile, and now, I know you’re drunk. You never smile otherwise. Mommy’s gonna be so mad.
“Do you have the radio?” I ask.
You stare at me like a dummy, like you can’t understand what I’m saying. I move closer to the wall so you can pass. You lean on my shoulder and guide yourself through the doorway. The rug makes a squishing sound under your feet. Mommy starts hollering as soon as you’re inside.
I cover my ears and start singing. I make up my own words to “Spirit in the Sky.”