“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” ~Muriel Rikeyser
Summer was finally here and I sit here on my grandmother’s stoop, with my journal on my lap, sinking my teeth into a crisp Lupini bean straight from the jar, because that’s how my grandmother said you were supposed to eat them. Digging my fingers into the cool liquid that they swam in, popping each one, setting them free from its pod into my mouth. Nothing tasted better on a hot summer day. The salty gush of water reminds me of the beach and growing up in New England where you are never too far from the ocean. Living in public housing systems however made it feel a thousand miles away. Any chance to bring it closer was all I ever thought about doing even if it was all just a trick. Like Bernice says, “any time you get a chance to lie to yourself honey, do it! Lord knows life is too damn hard to be dealing with realities.”
I remember one time Bernice was in the kitchen with my grandmother reading Gypsy cards at her perfectly squared dining room table for four. It has a metal strip that ran seamlessly around the edge of it. When I was short enough to barely see over the top of it while standing on the floor, I used to make faces in my reflection. Which the metal curves saw fit to distort and made me look like a balloon head. It made me laugh. That was until Chin-Chin my grandmother’s mixed breed dog with the sense of a bag of beans came by and knocked me right into it, face first. By the time anybody realized what had happened Chin-Chin left the scene of the crime and was dancing in front of the refrigerator as if nothing had ever happened and I looked like an idiot who had just smashed my own face into the floor. Bernice hated that dog. “Get that damn inbred mutt out of this kitchen Maria!” she would yell. My grandmother would always shoo him away, but only when company was around. She damn near let him share her cereal bowl when it was just the two of them around. Sometimes she said, “he loves me, how can I say no?” Well isn’t that the crux of every relationship she has ever had right there if I do say so myself.
My grandmother took in every stray animal in Bristol county, including the kind that wore pants. At one point my mother said, “you cannot go over grandma’s house until she gets her man infestation under control.” I had no clue what she was talking about, but I just played outside my own section of the project row until grandma called and said the coast was clear. When I asked her what a man infestation was she didn’t answer, but instead began a month long vow of silence with my mother. This didn’t really affect me though; since they lived five project blocks apart on the same row. My mother would watch me walk down to grandmas and back home again. I just had to put up with listening to the two of them bicker about each other. I was the pawn in between who they were trying to convince one was better than the other. My mother would let me stay up later than my bedtime and would say, “I betcha grandma wouldn’t let you do that!” Grandma would make me sugar bars, fresh baked sugar bars right out of the oven and send me home. My mother would scream about my sugar rush and plot her next act of revenge before sending me to my grandmothers again with the head lice I caught from the girl that lived next door. I didn’t mind though, I loved going to my grandmother’s apartment. She never hit me and always taught me things I knew someday would come in handy.
Most weekends I stayed over my grandmother’s house and she would teach me stuff. I learned how to sew buttons on an old housedress my grandmother had. She kept a bucket of sewing stuff for me and let me learn how to use it. I believe I was seven years old when she realized I had put all 36 buttons on and mended all the slits she made on purpose for me to learn how to sew them shut. She made more to teach me blind stitching on another discarded housecoat she didn’t wear anymore. Soon she said she would teach me how to mend the bottom of pants legs. Something us short women need to know in life she said. My grandmother was also an avid crossword puzzler. She had tons of dictionaries, puzzles, books, and reading glasses all over her apartment. I used to try them on, but couldn’t see a blessed thing and often knocked myself stupid on something or other. I was, have been, and always will be I suspect an accident waiting to happen.
Being accident-prone was convenient for my mother. I have seen the inside of the emergency room more than I have seen the inside of my classrooms. The doctors, the nurses office at school, my teachers all have my mother’s home phone number on speed dial, and know each other by first name for as many times I’ve had to visit each one. One time when I was about six I was on the see saw with a friend and she decided she was done while I was still on the other end, up in the air. I fell straight down and busted my rear-end on the ground. It knocked the wind right out of me and I couldn’t sit for a week. No one saw that coming, least of all me. Some officials from county showed up and asked me questions and then left. I never saw them again. Not after my 50th nosebleed, not after my mother did cut my cheek open when she backhanded me wearing her fancy rings, and not after I told the kids at school about how my mother made money dancing for men in a club getting paid “under the table.” My mother made it very clear that I would be sent somewhere much worse if I did tell them anything and I could not even imagine what was worse so I kept my mouth shut. “What happens in our house stays in our house,” she mentioned almost daily. My teacher once said to me after class one day, after everyone had left for the day that she was going to call the authorities back to my house after I was absent 44 times in school and it wasn’t even Spring break yet. I was sent home because of a lot for random nosebleeds that started in school. The school nurse said the hot radiator heat of the winter was drying out my nose membranes causing the bleed. But most of those 44 days were plain absences. Sometimes my mother just didn’t want to be left alone.
Absences and not finishing school was something that didn’t bother my mother. She never made it past the eighth grade. She did say that I was no dummy like her though and I would go to college. I could just get my GED someday and go like everybody else. What you do before that isn’t really important. She said that money was all that mattered in life. All anybody cared about was how much money you had in the bank, on display in your house, and how much you had to flaunt. I could make money someday when I go to college, but until then mommy does what she has to, to keep a roof over our heads. Bernice said my grandmother can see the future in those Gypsy cards, but she wasn’t able to see why my mother was so messed up. “To close for comfort,” she used to say to me.
When Bernice left grandmas that afternoon she tucked a few dollars into a coffee can that she kept hidden when she wasn’t doing business and said “from your lips to God’s ears.” She was Catholic after all. Bernice stopped next to me on the stoop to take a deep breath of fresh air. The smell of cigarette smoke trailed behind her, following her from the kitchen, as if trying to escape on the tails of her summer dress and barely together pair of sandals. She stood there as I wrote in my journal, while I observed her detailed pedicured toes that were perched over the edges. The talon like nails were all painted red, deep blood red, as though she had recently swooped down for a fresh kill and shellacked it on contact for that glossy fresh kill look. I scanned up to find Bernice looking, toward a neighbor, across the way, talking to his daughter on their stoop. She was in my class at school. Nadia didn’t have many friends to speak of. Her dad didn’t let her come off the stoop to play with anyone and grandma said I wasn’t allowed over his house either. “It is a goddamn shame what goes on in that family,” stated Bernice as if we were engaged in a conversation I wasn’t aware had started. “What goes on? I asked. Nadia is my friend in school. She’s nice,” I added. Bernice looked down at me and pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head to look straight into my eyes. “Don’t you ever go over there Abby? That man is sick and he doesn’t belong having no daughter or any other little girl near him, asks your grandmother. He’s just sick!” she sternly replied. She slipped her sunglasses back onto her nose and walked towards her own stoop, a few rows down from grandma’s. She turned only to say “tell your grandmother I hope she’s right, because if she is I won’t sleep alone tonight!” she chuckled, clicking her talons on the pavement as she walked away. I threw my empty disposable cup of Kool-Aid I was drinking into the outside trashcan, grabbed my journal and headed into the house. Before I shut the door I looked over at Nadia playing on the stoop. She wasn’t smiling, but instead looked sad. Her dad emerged from the darkened doorway, almost as if he had seen me watching and stood there looking at me. He had his hands in the pockets to his white shorts, no shirt, and as he took his hands out to open the screen door I jumped, quickly closing my grandmother’s screen door and me inside her apartment. I had no idea why I suddenly felt weird. It felt as if bugs were crawling all over me. My grandmother called to me from her den to watch some TV. Which meant, naptime for her and TV time for me. I loved being at my grandmother’s. She knew how to make me feel safe when life outside her door categorically put all of that into question.
I look back now and wonder if my grandmother knew, playing Gypsy cards with Bernice that afternoon that she was the dharma in each of our lives, in a neighborhood overflowing with dark depravity. Whether it was reading Gypsy cards to give people hope for the future or teaching me how to sew a button on, my grandmother was the neighborhood teacher who brought about cosmic order in the lives of those that saw no future and felt so far away from freedom. Overlooking the Bay, my tiny apartment may not have much to offer, but I could smell the fresh salty air wafting through the trees outside and think to myself I would give up all modern conventionality as long as it came with a stoop. I rose to toss the empty jar of Lupini Beans into the outside trash recycle container and was stopped by the thought, Bernice was right. My grandmother may have been able to seen the future, but it was the rest of us who saw the flaws in her cosmic universe.
Journal, I can’t tell you how I feel because how I feel right now isn’t how I am going to feel in a few hours, or a few days. Yet, if I wait long enough this same exact feeling, the feeling I feel right now will return and I will choke back telling you all over again and that is why I can’t tell you how I feel.
“Hey Abby … how’s it going?” interrupted Jimmy, the neighbor boy, who was two years older and years ahead in experience with life. I put my journal down to look up at him standing there. Jimmy is an attractive guy with chestnut brown hair, dark tanned skin from his Portuguese heritage, and green eyes like the dad he never knew. He has on his typical outfit of blue jeans and random saying or band name t-shirts. Today he has on Pink Floyd. Jimmy says you can learn about life through music and bumper stickers. Jimmy’s mother Patsy is very hands-off when it comes to parenting him and his sister Kelly. Patsy has watched me a handful of times when my mother was, well I guess you could say out of it, but still at home. Patsy would come knocking on the door and say she has some food she just bought or a movie she rented from Major Video and told me to come over and watch instead of being cooped up inside while my mother takes a nap. Only once did my mother wake up and storm over freaking out, followed by dragging me out screaming that she didn’t have permission to take me and I didn’t have permission to leave. Patsy just learned to keep our visits shorter and Jimmy supplies my mother with a few bags of weed and the occasional score of speed, which seems to keep her mouth shut.
“What are you doing?” he asks knowing the answer is obvious but with some new weird social awkwardness I’m not used to seeing on him.
“I’m sitting here writing, what else would I be doing?” I replied.
“I figured, but I was bored, so I came to bother you,” replied Jimmy with a smirk on his face.
“Where’s Kelly and your mom?” I ask.
“Kelly’s off with some guy she picked up earlier today at The Harbour Mall and you know Patsy, she’s probably blowing some guy at South Main Place so she can bring home dinner or new tires on the Chevette,” Jimmy said while looking off into the distance, seeing it all play out in his head, but then shaking it off and changing the subject. “Do you want to run up to the corner and get some Stuffed Quahogs? I’m getting hungry.”
“I would but Maggie has been on a war path lately and I saw she’s got a new bottle of Southern Comfort in the fridge, which means I better not push my luck,” I replied. Just then I got this feeling that Maggie was there and listening. The hair stood up on the back of my neck and instinct turned to fact when Maggie manifested from the doorway behind us.
“Abby, get inside and Jimmy you better be getting home now. Patsy will be wondering where you are,” insisted Maggie, but we all knew that was a lie. I grabbed my journal and headed inside, Maggie barely moving out of the doorway to let me pass and I instantly knew she was in rare form, I was catching a beating tonight.
Jimmy was the kind of neighbor that was the best of both worlds. He was a great friend to have when you needed shit to get done, quickly, quietly, and with a certain moral flexibility that some situations called for in my world. Jimmy was also very attractive and manipulative. He could charm the oxygen right out of your lungs while convincing you that you could still breath without it and you’d believe him. The reason why we made such great friends and neighbors was that none of his manipulation worked on me. I think it was because of Maggie that I learned to smell bullshit a mile away and his was an odor all too familiar to me. So when he tried to use his charms on me and slide a kiss in between my words as I was talking about the up coming food festival at St. Anne’s Church, it was followed by his busted up lip and my swollen knuckles. Not only did we both laugh about it, we both knew we would never talk about it again. I am only telling you, journal, because I know you won’t tell and you won’t judge me. I also know that if I don’t write it down, it ceases to be real. I need it to be real. I need something to be real. I have to go, but just know, I need something to be real.
“Why don’t you just leave? You know, just run away or something,” asks Jimmy as he elbows me over and over again in the side waiting for an answer, but half because he has joked in the past that he likes to nudge me because it makes my boobs jiggle and he ‘kinda likes it.’
“Where exactly am I supposed to go?” I reply while pushing him with my elbow letting him know I know exactly what he’s doing and he needs to stop before I bust his lip open again. I think it was about five or six months ago when Jimmy tried to get me to kiss him after I learned that he discovered that our attic crawl spaces were connected and he could just sneak into my bedroom through a tap door in my closet ceiling. He snuck in one night and I woke up with him staring at me while I slept. Before I could scream he covered my mouth and put his finger to his mouth to say shhhh. Once I calmed down he told me how he got in and told me he’d been keeping a watch over me because he saw all the sleazy guys my mother has been bringing home and he just knew something was going to happen. I told him it was a poor excuse and he was probably one of those sleazy guys and he tried to kiss me. I punched him so hard I had to make up an excuse about falling out of bed the next morning to my mother when I came down to breakfast with my hand all swollen. She didn’t seem to believe me but I’m sure she couldn’t think up what did really happen so she let it go. Jimmy promised to never sneak into my room again without my permission unless he heard a struggle of some kind and I promised to keep my punching down to a minimum as long as he kept his lips to himself. “There is no where to go Jimmy. This is it.”
Journal, I know he means well, but Jimmy just doesn’t see the larger problem. I am stuck. Maggie is my mother. I can’t change that and even if I did, whom will she have? Liz may be around now, but that will change. She is just as bad as she is. Liz comes and goes out of our lives depending on the fights they have. Maggie needs me and I am her daughter. I can’t leave.
“Abby come downstairs! I have someone I want you to meet!” Maggie yelled upstairs to me in that tone that tells me she is up to something. What could she possibly have done now? I know she didn’t bring home another pet because if she had she would have run upstairs with it and told me it was for me but now I have to clean up after it like she did with all those damn birds, fish, hamster, and that damn dog that wouldn’t leave my room and Maggie got jealous of her being in here and would lock the dog in her bedroom at night with her. Eventually they all die, even the dog. God knows what she did in there with that damn mutt.
“Abby! Are you coming?” she harkens and now I know something is going on. If she were alone she would have never called me twice. She would have come upstairs already and threatened my life for making me her call me twice. That means someone is down there with her. Oh God! It has to be a man! Oh hell, there goes my plans to be left alone in my room. Now I have to pretend my mother is normal and we are just one small happy family.
“I’m coming mom! I am just putting away my laundry! I’ll be down in a minute!” I say to buy some time so I can put on my fake smile and prepare my token lines that I say to all of them. Them. They never stay long. One right after a friggin nother, they all come, stay for a while, pretend to be my daddy, say some slick shit to me on the side about how my mother is nuts and then they leave. They are all the same. Well, lets get this over with.
As I walk down the stair and turn the corner to enter the living room this man sitting in our chair, my chair, looks up at me and gives me a look that instantly sent a chill down my spine and sparked electricity down through my shoes and created a slightly audible zap in the carpeted stairwell before I fully landed on the very last step, unable to commit to entering the living room and really not sure why.
“Abby, don’t be shy, come sit here with mommy,” Maggie says with the sugary glaze of an after hours late night donut on the shelf of a gas station Dunkin Donuts. I pull myself from the last step and make my way towards my mother while I feel the heat of this man staring at me as I pass.
“So Lenny, this is my Abby. Isn’t she beautiful?” Maggie asks, as if I am a prized pig on the floor of an auction waiting for the highest bidder.
“She sure is Maggie, she takes after her mama that’s for sure,” said Lenny in a way that seemed rehearsed and scrubbed of any obscenities that he seemed to be thinking prior to making that hospitable reply.
“Abby is really smart too. She doesn’t do well in math, but outside of that, Abby really is one smart cookie,” furthered the sale of the prized pig. I shoot her a look to let her know I am not okay with all of this.
“Well, I know you have homework to do, so why don’t you go back to your room honey and get it done. Mommy will have dinner on soon and I’m going to show Lenny what a good cook I am. It’s American Chop Suey tonight,” Maggie said in her best June Cleaver impression that started to curl the milk that was in my stomach from an hour earlier and before I tossed it all up, I excused myself and shuffled as quickly as possible up the stairs. I knew I could make it through dinner, but I had no clue if I could keep it all down and if Lenny was a keeper as Maggie always says or he’d be leaving by dessert. All I knew is that something wasn’t right about this guy and I didn’t care enough to find out what. I’m just glad Jimmy isn’t more than earshot from my room.
The school bus always leaves me dizzy after the long ride from school in the afternoons. I used to get a ride from Stephanie, a friend from school but her parents hired a driver to take her to and from school because they can afford that kind of thing and the school bus fighting has been out of control lately. The last straw was when a girl threw her fruit punch all over Stephanie’s sweater and pulled her hair out in one spot. I grabbed the girl and punched her in the throat and the back of her shirt over her head and shoved her between two seats until the bus driver broke it up. I got two days bus suspension and Stephanie got a private driver. I can’t complain though because on the good days driving in on the bus I smell the bakeries in the morning and get to school feeling just fine. Gold Medal Bakery is a staple this city and the smell that goes with it. I used to love driving by it on the school bus, but now I smell it and I think of going home, since I live right across the street from it now. After school I feel sick and dizzy with the thought of going home.
I hate going home. I never know what Maggie I am walking into. Is it the Maggie that is cleaning, R & B records playing on her old console stereo system, smile on her face, fresh made iced tea and all kinds of chatter about plans for great things that are going to happen? Is it the Maggie that is depressed, playing her records that remind her of something she is missing, while playing with her Gypsy cards trying to predict a future that she’ll never have and a man she’ll never meet? Is it the Maggie that has sold all of our stuff because who needs it anyway we’re going to hit the lottery, God told me! Or is it the Maggie who is angry that she has a child, no man, zero self esteem, voices in her head telling her that she is worthless and will never amount to anything and one more glass of booze will make it all better, but instead ignites her desire to beat the holy hell out of me, only to apologize for it later when the buzz wears off? I’m banking by the look on her face, that it’s lucky number four tonight and I better brace myself for it or at the very least get a few drinks in me too without her knowing so it dulls the sting that comes from a backhand across the face with her fingers all dressed in gold just for the occasion. Everything from her Mother’s Ring to the Filigree rings she has on her three other fingers and thumb all on display for special occasions such as these and first dates. My mother doesn’t adorn brass knuckles, because those are obvious, people see those coming and know what to expect. My mother works off of the element of surprise and catches people off guard. That’s how she gets her edge over on people.
“Just who the fuck do you think you are? Sitting there talking to that boy like you have a friend in the world and like you’re going to fuck him or something. Just who the fuck do you think you are?” ranted Maggie, while holding her Southern Comfort on the rocks in her left hand, wearing her purple thigh length satin housecoat with black trim, sans the barely visible cigarette burn holes she made me mend to remove the memory.
“I don’t think I’m anybody, I just …” I started to respond when out of seemingly no where, yet an undoubtedly expected place Maggie hauled off and back handed me. The searing hot sting of the rings slicing through my cheek and lip, followed by the quick stunned thought of not this again only to end up in the same cowering position I always end up in, in an attempt to gain mercy from the court.
“I know you didn’t think and that is why you need me. Without me you would continue to make these same rookie mistakes. You don’t know your ass from your elbow and you need me to make decisions for you. I know! You’re a child. I’m the adult! I’ve lived a life that would put the hairs on the back of your neck on end,” she rants at times like these.
It is the daunting monologue of a drunk unaware of their bored audience, yet without care if they are in the first place. The world is her stage when she is like this and interrupting her is futile.
“That smack. That smack was nothing compared to what your grandmother put me through and I don’t abuse you like she abused me. I am correcting your behavior because if I don’t then you’ll make the same mistakes I did in life and I’ll be damned if I let my child ruin her life like I did because I didn’t have anyone there to make decisions for me. You need me,” Maggie trails off into the other room, never having spilled even the slightest of drops from her glass, she downs it and heads back to the refrigerator for a refill. I sit with my back pressed up against the wall, my ass glued to the floor, as tears sting my cheeks the salt mixes into the wounds that are swelling with each breath I consciously take. Maggie begins to speak again in an incoherent tone as it gets louder and I can feel she is walking back towards me and every muscle in my body tightens out of anticipation of act two. I don’t fear her, but that doesn’t mean I like taking a hit either.
“It’s just you and me kid. Remember that. No one is going to protect you like your mom does. I have your best interest in mind. Not my mother. Not that boy next door and certainly not Patsy. Remember that. You are nothing without me,” Maggie declares before heading upstairs, drink in one hand and a handful of 45’s she picked up earlier today at The Music Shop when she convinced me that we needed to start our day by going downtown and see a man about some speed he was selling and that it was the real deal, none of that back of the magazine bullshit as she calls it. I guess whatever type of pills he gave her, plus the booze, lead to this all too often event in my life. Today was not uncommon, but it certainly chips away at me every time it happens and the anger I am stuffing down inside of me will certainly break someday, but today is not that that day. Today I wipe my face with cool water and sit on the stoop outside and tell myself, everything will be okay, someday.
Journal, So here she is again. My mother has to be the loneliest woman on Earth. Why can’t she just be alone? Why can’t she just raise me and stop dating all these men who come in, use her, abuse her, talk sideways to me, make promises to me, make promises to her, and then within a blink of an eye are gone? Why can’t she just keep her damn legs closed? I am so sick and tired of her shit. Night after night, I have to put my headphones on and try to drown out the sounds of her fucking fill in the blank guy of the week and yet she sits around preaching virginity to me as if it were some precious jewel and she wants me to keep mine forever.. “No guy is going to want you if you marry him and he finds out you’re not a virgin” she keeps saying to me and then turn right back around and says “you better know how to please a man in bed because if you don’t, he’ll leave.” Which is it crazy pants? I don’t give a shit about needing or keeping a man. If I ever get a boyfriend or get married it is because I’m already independent and can support myself. No man is going to tell me what to do, push me around, cheat on me, or make sexual suggestions to my daughter and I’ll put up with it because I am trapped and paralyzed in my own fear. No man. No woman. NO parent!
“You wait out here in the waiting room with Liz while mommy goes in to see the doctor and when we get home you do whatever Auntie Liz says to do and just let mommy sleep. Ok?” Maggie said to me just before a protester busted into the front door of the clinic and started screaming, “BABY KILLER!” The clinic staff shoved him out the front door, throwing his sign right after him that depicted an alien looking baby like thing that was floating in a pool of blood on a photograph, but it really looked like spilled sharpie ink. The staff looked as though it was just another usual day at work and went right back to chatting with the front desk nurse about what restaurant he took his wife out to last night on her recommendation and they loved it. Throwing the protester out was not even mentioned and already a distant memory. Another nurse came out from behind the bulletproof window they were talking through just to talk to those of us sitting in the waiting room. She was young and had pretty features. You could tell she took care of her hair and skin. They both were glowing and she seemed to be smiling even though no effort appeared to be put into it. That was just her face at rest. She almost looked like an angel. Her nurse’s cap sat like a halo on top of her dark black hair that streamed down to her waistline and met her hourglass shaped nurses uniform.
“Don’t worry everybody. We apologize. That happens from time to time. The police have been called and you are safe,” announced the back desk nurse who seemed to be wearing a bulletproof vest under her hourglass uniform, but insisted we relax.
“It’s okay sweetie, that happens. You’re safe with your Auntie Liz. I’ve been here tons of times and it happens. It’s just crazy old men who think Jesus is going to send us all to hell for murdering babies,” followed up Liz.
“Are you murdering babies?” I asked.
“It isn’t murdering babies. It is no different than starting to cook something in a pan and you realize that there is something wrong with the dish and so you wash out the pan and leave it clean for the next time you cook in it,” explained Liz.
“So you’ve been here tons of times, to clean your pan so to speak?” I asked.
“Huh, oh yes, well not just for me. Your mom and I were regulars here at one point because we were young and stupid. My parents would have killed me if I came home with a baby before I was married to your Uncle Doug and I could only tolerate having one kid with him, but that was just to anchor him, you know, well, anyway, there was all the times Maggie just couldn’t…..well, long story,” Liz said without hesitation until the end where she realized she was divulging way more than she had planned to and quickly wrapped it up. It is what it is I guess. She just never told me all this before and I were stunned. I don’t think I was stunned about all the abortions as the protester called them, but stunned that my holier than thou, pro-virginity thumping mother had been riding her high horse all these years while riding all the men she could get her vagina on and aborting babies one right after another instead of just going on birth control. A friend of mine from school Stephanie uses birth control because her mother put her on it. I slept over their house the other night and her mother asked me if I wanted her to take me to the clinic and she would even ask my mother for permission. I knew Maggie would refuse, so I thanked her but passed. For Stephanie’s fifteenth birthday she took her to this same clinic I am sitting in right now to get pills that would stop her from having a baby if she “chose to become sexually active.” If a teenage girl can be responsible why can’t my middle aged hag of a mother? Lord, this woman works my last nerve!