In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
Subscribe and Save up to 45%
“Let’s have drinks,” Donna said. “What do your parents drink?”
Last Mother’s Day, my father ordered my mother a foamy frozen something or other at a restaurant. But she only sipped the fuzz on top and the waiter ended up taking it away.
“They don’t really drink,” I said. “Let’s smoke. Let’s go to Sunny Mart and buy some cigarettes.”
But Donna didn’t want to smoke because her father, who lives in San Diego and jogs every day, promised to give her two thousand dollars when she turns twenty-two if she can swear on a Bible that she’s never smoked. He gives her money for good grades, too.
“How do you know he’ll make good on it?” I asked.
“He will,” she said. “Besides, smoking gives you bad breath. You can get cancer.”
I stole a cigarette from my grandmother’s purse when I was ten. I hid it in my treasure box for two weeks and then I lit it in the back yard while my parents were out and my grandmother was watching “Jeopardy.” I just let the smoke sit in my mouth for a few seconds. It came out in a cloud. From everything I had heard about cigarettes, I thought it would taste bad. It did, but not in the way I expected. Actually, I liked the taste. Maybe I was used to it from breathing in my grandmother’s smoke. She lived on our sun porch one summer and from June to September our house smelled like cigarettes. My mother complained to my father about it, and he asked my grandmother to please refrain from smoking at the dinner table. She kept smoking there anyway. It didn’t bother me.
My father and grandmother don’t get along too well. By the time he was born, she was tired of being a mother. She left him for the older kids to worry about. She had a last fling before osteoporosis set in. She went to Las Vegas and lost a lot of money. This is all according to my mother.
I admire my grandmother. She knows a lot about crime from watching so much TV. She showed me how to kick a guy in the balls if he tries anything funny. She also showed me how to play twenty-one. We kept a running score all summer and I came out on top. My mother says I’ll never see the five bucks my grandmother owes me.
Donna went downstairs to poke around in the kitchen. I could hear her moving things on the shelves. I came downstairs and sat in my father’s chair. My mother bought lace rectangles to cover the bare spots on the arms. She rearranges them about a million times a day. I lifted one off and stroked the shiny material with my fingers.
“What’s Postum?” Donna called from the kitchen.
“My father drinks it,” I said. “It’s a substitute for coffee. I think they invented it in the Depression when people were too poor to buy real coffee. It’s made out of molasses and grain and stuff.”
Donna came into the living room with her hands behind her back. I knew she was holding something, but I didn’t feel like asking what. She was getting on my nerves. My parents asked me to invite her to sleep over because they were going to a wedding in the Berkshires and staying overnight in a hotel. It’s not far from here, but my father worries about drunk drivers on the road late at night.
“We depend upon you to be honorable,” my father said, and Donna snickered just loud enough for me to hear.
My father uses unusual words. He didn’t go to college. He bought a used set of the Great Books with money he earned as a stock boy in a supermarket after school. He reads them at night after he gets home from his job as an ad rep for a shopper. He’s read about half the set, so he knows a lot of big words. He likes to use them. What’s so funny about that?
My mother said, “Girls, please don’t forget about the paperboy coming. The bell’s broken, so listen for him. The money’s in the kitchen in an envelope.”
She was pulling on a new pair of black leather gloves. I gave them to her for Christmas. They have rabbit fur inside. I spent about half my Christmas club money on them, which meant I couldn’t buy the sweater I’d planned to give Donna. Instead I bought her a bottle of cologne she hasn’t worn yet. She gave me a wide leather belt I showed her once in the mall. It cost $30, unless she got it on sale, but I doubt it. I felt a little bad about it.
“They fit nice, don’t they, Ma?” I said.
“They’re wonderful,” she said, and wiggled her fingers so I could see how happy they made her. “Oh, there’s frozen pizza in the freezer, or you can have some leftover stew. Whatever.”
Five seconds after my parents pulled out of the driveway, Donna was up the stairs and in their bedroom. She opened the closet and homed in on a brand-new silk dress my father gave my mother for Christmas. She didn’t have time to get it hemmed for the wedding. The tags were still on it.
“Hey,” Donna said. “Let’s dress up and pretend we’re on dates.”
Donna has bad pimples on her chin, whiteheads, and the thought of her pulling my mother’s brand new silk dress over those pimples made me sick.
“You can’t wear that,” I said.
And that’s when Donna said, well then, let’s have drinks. She said it twice. The bottle behind her back turned out to be crème de menthe. Somebody gave it to my father as a Christmas present two years ago. He gets lots of bottles of weird liquor as gifts — banana liqueur, apricot brandy, cherry cognac. He says they’re business exchanges and he keeps them in a cupboard in the back hall just in case the guy stops over someday. Then my father can offer a glass of the stuff to the guy. My father is thoughtful that way.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, he says. I asked him what Great Book that was in, but it turned out to be in the Bible.
“Ray,” my mother said this past Christmas Eve, when he came home with this awful-looking bottle of pre-mixed daiquiri, “throw it out. Mr. Holland will never stop by here, and if he does you can tell him you drank it and enjoyed it very much.”
“I will not lie. I will not compromise myself for the sake of saving cabinet space,” he said, and he put the bottle in the back hall cupboard with all the other bottles.
My father may be the last good man on earth. My mother is good in her own way, always saying please and thank you, even to the rude paperboy, who goes to my school and does serious drugs, everybody knows it, but my mother acts like he’s the Beaver. She gave him homemade chocolate-chip cookies for Christmas. He practically threw them back in her face. He wanted money, of course. A guy who does drugs on a regular basis, a guy who punched a history teacher at my school and she had to get false teeth, a guy like that, he wants money, not cookies. But I can’t tell my parents these things. They’re too good. They worry about drunk drivers and escaped convicts from the prison the next town over, but beyond that, they think evil is far away. They trust me.
I didn’t want a drink. I wanted Donna to walk down to the Sunny Mart with me to get a pack of cigarettes. I haven’t tried smoking since I was ten and I wanted to inhale this time. I had it planned all week. My parents have never offered me money not to smoke.
“It’s too cold out,” Donna said. “Maybe if we have a drink first, I’ll feel like going out.”
She giggled when she said the word drink, which is something my parents and their friends never do, but which I’ve heard Donna’s mother do. Donna’s mother is a seamstress. She works all night and sleeps all day. Donna is not allowed to go into the room where she works. Mrs. Lucia drinks gin. Her cocktail hour starts at 8 in the morning, when I stop by Donna’s house every weekday on the way to the bus stop.
I was raised to be polite, so I’ve never asked Donna why her mother works all night instead of during the day. She would tell me if she wanted to. Also, I can tell Donna is embarrassed by her mother and appreciates my not saying anything. I listen, but I don’t say anything.
When I come into Donna’s house in the morning, Donna is usually in her bedroom, running late, and her mother is in the den with the shades pulled down. She balances a glass of gin on her knee. Some mornings she watches TV and doesn’t say anything to me. Other mornings she gets out of the reclining chair and leans in the doorway of the den swirling the ice cubes in her glass and talking to me. I think maybe she embarrasses herself a little bit. She always makes a point of apologizing for the mess in the hallway, where she leaves clothes on an aluminum rack for customers to pick up. Mrs. Lucia does fittings from 9 to 10 a.m. and 5 to 7 p.m. She sleeps in between. People come in and out of the hallway all day long picking up dresses and suits and leaving money in a big coffee can on a round table. I wouldn’t feel safe sleeping while the front door was wide open, but it doesn’t seem to bother Donna’s mother.
She must be a good seamstress. No one seems to care about the liquor on her breath. On the other hand, maybe she doesn’t charge that much. Anyway, she sounds apologetic on those mornings when she talks to me. She says something like, “Well, Toni, it’s the cocktail hour in this house. I like to have a little drink before I hit the sack. I like to unwind with a nice drink. It makes me feel civilized.”
And she giggles when she says the word drink.
I really wanted that cigarette. Drinking to me is no big deal. I’ve had wine at dinner on holidays, and all it ever did was make me sleepy. My father believes a little wine with dinner on special occasions is fine.
“Making liquor a forbidden fruit is what causes children to grow up and become drunk drivers,” he says.
I won’t have my license for two years in any case.
“All right,” I told Donna. “I guess we can have a drink.”
Donna’s eyes got shiny. She ripped off the paper round the neck of the bottle.
“There’s tons of booze here,” she said. “No one will know the difference.”
Then she held the bottle up to the light, like mothers hold their babies up for other people to admire.
“I like the color,” Donna said. “It’s pretty, don’t you think?”
It tasted like mouthwash, better than wine, I thought, but rougher on the throat. After the second glass, my skin felt tight and rosy and I stopped being irritated by Donna. In fact, I had an urge to hug her and tell her what a great friend she is. But I didn’t. We are not big huggers in my family.
It was only 4 in the afternoon, but it was already as dark as midnight because a rain storm had started up. I only noticed it because the cat scratched at the back door to be let in and when I looked out, I saw a big tree branch down in the back yard and the rain silver in the light over the garage door. My father always puts on the garage light when they go out for the evening. By then half the bottle was gone and Donna was crying. I couldn’t make out what she was crying about. I just stroked her hand and let her cry. I had forgotten all about getting cigarettes at the Sunny Mart.
Finally, she stopped crying. Her eyes were so bright I couldn’t stand to look at them. Suddenly, she was laughing and then I was, too. We stretched out on the carpet and laughed so hard I thought I would throw up. Then Donna ran up the stairs, still laughing, and I stayed on the floor looking up at the stucco ceiling my father plastered himself. I got this idea in my head that my father had mixed human hair into the plaster — mine, my mother’s, and his — and I was amazed that I had never noticed this before. I wondered how he got the hair without my knowing. I could see my hair cracking through in spots here and there and my mother’s curling around the light fixture and my father’s bristling along the edges, like a miniature barbed-wire fence.
Donna stood over me in my mother’s new dress. It hung crooked and was much too big. I didn’t laugh. I stood up and tried to fix the buttons. My fingers wouldn’t work right. Donna held her breath.
“Breathe,” I whispered in her ear, and she did, very slowly, like you would for a doctor.
I went for some scissors to cut off the tags, and when I came back Donna was standing in the front doorway talking to someone. I came up behind her with the scissors in my hand.
“You’re wet,” I said.
“No kidding, genius,” Davis said. He’s the paperboy. “I just covered this topic with your friend here.”
That got Donna and me laughing again. I had always been a little afraid of Davis, but he looked pathetic right then. His jean jacket was buttoned up to his neck and his wrists stuck out from the sleeves. Just those two or three inches of wrists sticking out from his jacket made him look naked. He’s tall and has a thin mustache. He’s really too old to be a paperboy. I think he stayed back in school a couple of years.
“Christ,” he said. “You two are cocked. Kind of young, aren’t you? Folks away?”
“Please come in,” I said very formally, remembering my manners.
Davis looked behind him and came in. He smiled at Donna.
“Going out somewheres?”
“Perhaps we may go out,” I said. “To the Sunny Mart, for instance.”
“Christ,” Davis said again, and reached forward suddenly to touch the sleeve of my mother’s new silk dress. A dark splotch exploded beneath his fingertips. Donna stood very still, looking at the fabric clinging to her forearm. Then Davis’s hand dropped to his side. Donna took the scissors from my hand and snipped off the tags hanging from the cuffs.
“The money,” he said. “You owe me two weeks, plus tip.”
He smiled when he said tip.
I went to the kitchen to get the money. My mother had left it in an envelope on the counter, but I had a hard time focusing my eyes and it took me a while to find it. Donna was gone when I came back. Davis was sitting in my father’s chair. His sneakers had tracked mud all over the carpet. I had the feeling he had been examining our possessions.
“Here,” I said, and held the envelope out to him.
He stood up, but he didn’t take the envelope.
“How old are you anyway?” he asked. “Don’t I see you at school with the little junior high brats?”
“I’m fifteen,” I lied. “Where’s Donna?”
Davis shrugged his shoulders.
“You like to drink?”
“Sure,” I said. “Sure,” I said again, because I had the feeling I wasn’t pronouncing it right. It sounded to my own ears like an L had slipped in there somewhere. Davis laughed.
“Yeah,” he said, and held out his hand for the envelope. I had to step forward. Davis pulled his hand back at the last second. The envelope swished past him and hit my thigh. He laughed again.
“You drank your reflexes all to shit,” he said.
I laughed, but it didn’t sound like my laugh. It seemed to come from far away, from the ceiling maybe, or from upstairs, where Donna must have been.
“I’m going to do you to death,” he said. “How about that. Not because you’re pretty, either, because you’re not, but because you can’t stop me. How about that. Tomorrow, you probably won’t remember I was here. That’s how drunk you are. How about that.”
“Let’s have a drink,” I said.
But I didn’t really want one. I wanted to get a roll of paper towels and clean up the mess Davis had made in my father’s chair and then I wanted to tackle the tracks on the rug. I wanted to make Donna take off my mother’s dress. I was thinking of how I could put the tags back on, maybe with a stapler.
I was thinking I wanted to go to the Sunny Mart and get a pack of cigarettes. I would smoke one and hide the rest. My parents would never know the difference.