Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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My mother had convinced herself — and us — that they would never go through with it. But the eviction notice said the marshall would arrive at 8 a.m., and he did. She tried stopping him with lies. “Mr. Levine said he’ll wait for the rent. He told me himself. I spoke to him yesterday.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the dark-suited marshall told her, but he wasn’t. He put his badge back into his vest and began his work. My mother kept at him, but Cait knew better. She packed boxes, stuffed everything she could into the cartons Owen had gotten from the supermarket.
It was our first apartment on our own — three rooms for the five of us. Cait was fourteen; Owen, nine. I was twelve, sneaking into adolescence with the body of a child. Liam was seventeen, broad shouldered by then, as tall as my father, and sullen. He missed the old neighborhood where he could sing a cappella in the hall with Big Al and Guido. He left his dirty clothes for Cait to pick up and spoke his anger in the falsetto voice of the Clovers’ song he sang, strutting through the three tiny rooms as he got himself ready to go out. By the time he left, he would be hardened, his mask in place.
But I knew what was underneath. More than once I had watched him lean over and place the needle carefully, precisely on the song he wanted to hear, and deliberately, soundlessly slip his hands palms down beneath his thighs, and secretly, relentlessly rock himself against the deadened springs of the armchair, back and forth and back and forth and back and forth to the rhythm he desperately needed. He closed his eyes, and the emotions he had forbidden his face appeared in the lines of his mouth, and he would sing.
Before we left my father, my mother sometimes filled the waiting with song. To distract our fear, she would prompt each of us, and our voices would join; the sounds were rarely so beautiful as they felt. But there were nights when they conjured something even in my father — times when he would keep the door from slamming and stagger over to our circle. No interruptions. No hello. Only the surprising sound of the chord we’d forgotten was missing.
While Cait packed, Liam crammed his 45s back into their dust jackets. He had dressed, filled a gym bag with clothes, slid his skinny comb into his back pocket, tucked a can of shaving cream into the corner of the bag. His toothbrush and the last of our toothpaste were in there, too. He stuffed his carrying case with as many records as it could hold, slipped another batch under his arm, took some more in his other hand, and picked up his gym bag with his thumb. He saw me watching him and gave me his toughest look. “Don’t you say nothing,” he said, then left.
I went into the bedroom and found the uniformed moving man standing before the dresser I shared with Cait, gathering in his broad black hands all the little perfume bottles and jewelry cases we’d collected. I went to the corner of the room and picked up the clothes I’d neglected to put away the night before. I didn’t want those hands on my petticoat, didn’t want him to see how frayed my panties were.
When he left, I went to the spot where the dresser had been, my clothes rolled into a ball against my chest. The man had placed the things from our dresser into a shopping bag, and the jewelry cases had come open; our chains and beads lay tangled among the bottles of perfume. One of the bottles had broken. The smell of Midnight Passion made the room all at once ridiculous.
In the place beneath the dresser, the flowers in the linoleum had not grayed. Balls of dust wove around things lost, forgotten: an earring, a pen, a spool of thread, loose parts of a life escaping unnoticed. A fifty-cent piece was indented into the floor. I got it out, took it to my mother. She was in the kitchen, searching the bottom of her pocketbook for loose change. Four dollars, two quarters, some nickels, and a dime lay on the table before Cait. “Mama,” I said.
“Not now, Eileen. For Christ’s sake, not now.”
The marshall’s heavy step pounded echoes through the empty apartment. He hesitated in the kitchen doorway, uncertain whether to come in, mistakenly believing there was some protection in this circle of mother and children, some nameless boundary he could not trespass. “Is someone coming to pick up your things?”
“I’m calling a storage company.”
“Better have someone stay downstairs until they get here.”
The men had placed the boxes and the furniture on the sidewalk in the thin winter light, and the two Puerto Rican kids from across the street were playing on the couch.
“Get off there, Carlos,” I yelled, and they scrambled away. The furniture on the sidewalk made me feel like a stranger. The mattresses and the cushions and the skinny-legged tables looked alien. I didn’t want to belong to these things anymore. I couldn’t wait for someone to take them away.
I sat at the top of the stoop, away from the battered collection calling such attention to itself. Now and then a passerby — someone about to have a day like any other — looked from the furniture to me, my legs held tightly together, my arms folded across my chest. I tried not to see beyond my knees. I took the coin from my pocket and moved it between my fingers, glad I hadn’t given it to my mother. I liked the feel of it, the hardness, the surety that no one could take it away.
Liam crossed the street, rested his bag on the arm of a chair.
“Come on. We’ll go home.”
“You mean to Daddy?”
“I can’t. Mama . . . what will Mama say?”
“I’m going back. If you wanna come, I’ll take you.”
I was afraid. “Will Daddy be home?”
“He’s probably at the gas station. We won’t see him till he gets in. Who knows when that will be.”
“What if he’s drunk?”
“He won’t go for you. I’m the one who’ll get it.”
“I can’t leave.”
“Then don’t.” He left me there, got halfway down the block before I could catch up.
We walked, saying nothing. I could have been any kid walking with her big brother — a kid with a room, a dog, a phone number, things to do that day — but I knew I would never be a kid like that. No matter how many times we started over, no matter how many times we scratched out the past, the ache in our faces would give us away. I was no one. There was no more to it than that. All I knew was that it felt better with Liam, better than the smell of Midnight Passion. Better than my mother scrounging for dimes. Better than the sofa in the street.
My father still lived in our old apartment, the top of a two-family house about twenty blocks away. My fifty cents would have paid our bus fare, but I didn’t want to tell Liam I had it. I was afraid he’d spend it on cigarettes. I carried Liam’s gym bag. He let no one touch his records. It was cold, but he refused to close his coat. I was desperate for my hat, wondered if Cait would pack it away for storage by mistake. We passed my school. It was too early for the kids to be there, but lights were on in some of the classrooms and I thought I saw someone in mine. I remembered my homework was still in my book bag. No hat. No homework. I stopped walking. “I have a math test tomorrow, Liam. Tomorrow’s Wednesday.”
“Not for us, it isn’t.” He pulled me along and I came more willingly this time, seeing that whether we went back or kept going was all the same. The downstairs door of our old house was locked and the bell was still broken, so we walked down the narrow alley. A porch off the living room of the apartment looked over the yard, and a wooden stairway led up to a door in the floorboards. Liam could have climbed up and gotten us in because the latch had broken long ago, but when we got to the back, my father was sitting on the porch. The sight of him scared me.
We watched, studying his movements. I had not looked at his face in such a very long time, since long before we left him, and now I was hungry for it. Maybe Liam was too, because he didn’t call his name. My father was even then starting to look very old, his face creased by years of suspicion that others might see the kind of man he was. He had on his gray work uniform, one leg crossed over the other, and was staring past the antennae on the rooftops across the way. He hadn’t been up long; his cigarette shook in his trembling hand. I wanted to run then, before he spotted us, go back to the stoop and the furniture, wait for my mother. Liam grabbed my arm and called to him. He shot up when he heard Liam’s voice and leaned over the railing.
“Get up here, you two. Your mother’s been calling Mrs. Olsen.” He went back inside to let us through the front door. Liam dragged me back up the alley. “I don’t want to stay. I want to go back,” I told him.
“Back where? To what?”
“Mama’s worried about me.”
“Then go ahead back. You can hide in a dresser drawer and let them put you in storage.”
By then my father was at the door. “What do you two think you’re doing?”
Mrs. Olsen opened her door at the end of the dark hallway formed by the stairs that led up to our apartment. The morning light was unkind to her. Her face sagged and her hair was limp with the remnants of a perm. She wore one of those sweater clips to keep a dull green cardigan on her shoulders, and the sleeves hung loose. She looked at us for a second before she spoke, enough time for us to read what we knew every outsider thought of us. Our lives were a danger to them, but also satisfying; we made them feel better than they were.
“Your mother called here twice. She’s worried,” Mrs. Olsen said, looking at me. She crisscrossed the loose sleeves over her chest. “She said if you showed up here to tell you to call your Aunt Peggy’s house. That’s where she’ll be.” I was about to answer her when she closed her door.
We followed my father upstairs. Liam took two steps at a time, the way he always did. The banister felt good in my hand, familiar. This was the place we had found to make one last go of it as a family, to give ourselves one more chance. Such vulgar hope, so out of step with anything that had come before. We walked through the living room, into the kitchen.
“Take off your shoes,” my father said, “before that bitch starts banging her broom up at us.” We already had them off. The living room was nearly bare now; there was only the one armchair, and matching clown-face plaques still hanging on the wall near the corner, the table below them gone. The lamp had tipped over on the floor, and the lampshade was dented. I remembered the starched lace doily my mother had kept beneath that lamp.
The kitchen smelled like an ashtray. The table was a collection of playing cards, sports pages, crushed Camel packs, and dirty black ashtrays taken from the bar and grill. A pillowcase of his laundry was on a kitchen chair; his instant coffee jar was open on the counter, packets of sugar from the diner — some whole, some torn — all around it. The floor was sticky with beer.
“What’s gotten into you, running away from your mother like this?” The question was for me, not for Liam, who’d appeared on his doorstep often enough before.
“We got put out,” Liam said.
“Your mother never put you out.”
“The marshall. I’m talking about the marshall. Put us out of the apartment. The stuff’s in the street,” said Liam.
“You mean evicted?”
“Jesus.” He sighed and sat down, then got up again, knowing there was something it was proper to do now. He touched the top of my head and I think he would have comforted me then, held me even, if he’d known how.
“Did you eat?” he said.
“We’re all right,” Liam said.
“You hungry?” he asked me.
“I think so. I mean yes,” I said.
“Let me see what I’ve got. Wait a minute. There must be something here.” He pushed his way through the cabinets as if he’d never tried them before. He wanted so badly to find something for us, as though we were temperamental tourists who might leave at the slightest inconvenience. He pushed aside a bag of flour, a can of lima beans, cursing them. He found Rice Krispies and came back pleased with himself.
“Get us some bowls, Liam,” he said.
“I don’t want any,” Liam told him. He was screening the ashtrays for butts worth saving.
“Bowls,” my father told him.
Liam brought them and my father cleared a place for me with a sweep of his forearm. I was altogether taken by his doing. He had me sit, moved a bowl in front of me, then took the cereal box and began to pour, but he couldn’t hold still; the Rice Krispies sprayed about the bowl, the table. “Ahh, be Jesus,” he said, wounded. “I don’t need to be doing this for a big girl like you.” He went to the refrigerator for milk, put the pint on the table near me, and sat across and reached for a cigarette. I poured the milk and watched tiny curds nest among the rice. Then I looked at him, and before he could disguise it, I saw in my father’s face what it must feel like to fail. To fail beyond any hope of redemption. To know, finally, that you can change nothing.
“I’ll go out and get you something,” he said, “and I’ll call Aunt Peggy. Tell your mother you’re all right. I’ll take you over there after you have something to eat.”
“We wanna stay here,” Liam said.
“Here? You can’t stay here.”
“I ain’t going back,” Liam told him.
“I’ll tell you what,” my father said. “We’ll eat and go over to the arcade at Coney Island. We’ll make a day of it.”
He was our medicine man then, sure of the magic we needed. “I won’t be long,” he said, then got his wallet and went out.
For the first while, we believed this. Then it was hours already and we were all the more hungry. We went to the refrigerator again. Cans of beer were all he had. Liam took one out and started looking for the can opener. I found it in the sink with the dishes, a foot of slimy, wet string tied to one end. The doily was in the sink, a dishrag now. Liam opened the can and took it back to the living room.
I took one, too, and followed him. He was picking out some 45s from his box, moving into his ritual. He’d gotten the spindle onto the turntable, had the turntable spinning. He held four records in his left hand, evenly spaced along his fingers. He looked for one more. It would have to be just the right one. He’d play them in order, an order that had some meaning to him, some power. Once I heard the first song I’d know what came next. The record dropped; the arm moved. There was that expectant swish of the needle on the silent band: Robert and Johnny. “You’re mine and we belong together. Yes, we belong together.” I sang with him. He liked it, I could tell, although he remained expressionless, singing the song, drinking his beer, never looking at me. A connection permitted only because of the music. “I swear by everything I own that I’ll always, always love you.” He turned it louder, swayed with it, drank as the second record dropped into place: the Belmonts. “To spend one night with you in our old rendezvous.” Tangled falsetto voices, weaving around the words. Then the Five Satins. The Flamingos. “I don’t know if we’re in a garden,” Liam sang. He looked at the armchair. I left him alone and went to my old room, pretending I didn’t know what he needed to do.
My room was only wide enough to fit a bed from wall-to-wall. The full-size bed was pushed flush against the room’s only window. I climbed across the bed to look out. We’d left him at night after one more of his rages, taking only enough for a day. I’d come back since then, gotten my clothes, some of my dolls. I was at an age when I was ashamed to want them so badly. So I’d forced myself not to take them all. I picked up Betty, the tall, blonde bridal doll with the too-perfect face. Cait and I always made her the mean one. She was catty, hurtful. I could see she hadn’t changed.
I fell asleep to the rhythm of the armchair pounding against the wall and woke to my father slamming the apartment door. I thought at first that sleeping in that place again had brought me this familiar dream, but the phonograph needle screeched across the music and my father’s curses filled the night, vile, mad curses from an anger bigger and deeper and blacker than any cause I could reason. I jumped out of bed, weak from the fear of him. From the living room doorway, I watched him crack Liam’s 45s, fold them in his huge hand. Some bent and popped into his face. Liam grabbed for the ones that remained, and my father took him by the neck, slapped him, threw him down. Then my father saw me. Liam got up — to keep him from me, I think. What chance did he think he had against such hate? My father threw him down again. I didn’t scream because I had seen this before. But Liam was bleeding now, from the broken records or from the force of the blows, I couldn’t tell. Liam called my name. But I ran. Left him there. Ran to the porch and lifted the door in the floorboards, climbed down the narrow wooden stairs into the quiet of the yard, slipped into the alley’s narrow passage. Left him there. Because I believed that my father could not spare me this time.
A street lamp cast a weak, indifferent light where the alley met the sidewalk. At the top of the alley something caught what little light there was, a round reflection leaning upright against stubborn weeds that grew from brick, a circle of black circles poised as if waiting. At the corner, an old lady with a shopping cart waited to cross. She’d woven twine into the places in the cart where the metal netting was gone; some tape made the handle.
I reached for the record. The Clovers. I held it with two fingers in that caring way Liam had, like a lover almost, and slipped it between my sweater and my skin. I ran from the house and let the coldness of it contain me, keep away the feeling that I might break all apart. There ain’t nothin’ in this world for a boy and a girl but love, love, love. The woman rested against her cart, weary, and smiled at me, but it was too much of a smile, and I wondered if I had been singing.
Mary Ann McGuigan