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.”