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 don’t know,” I sob. “I’m disgusting.”