My sister always had a mouth on her. It blossomed along with her raging hormones when she turned fifteen and I was twelve. Our mother, then thirty-seven, also developed a mouth of her own.
"Fuck you," Shelley would say.
Our mother would respond, "You know what? Fuck you too."
"Go fuck yourself!"
"You know what? Go fuck yourself."
"I fucking hate this house!"
"There’s a suitcase. Pack."
I tried to stay out of it, but one afternoon they were in the
"You know what? You suck too."
-- and I got stuck between them. All I wanted was a Yodel and an exit, and as I tried to navigate their stand off my sister sneered at me.
"Aren't you a fucking goody-goody." She looked at our mother and pointed at my Yodel. "You're gonna let her eat that before dinner? You never let me eat one."
“She’s thin.” My mother turned to me to avoid Shelley’s glare. "Put the Yodel back." I tightened my grip on it. It wasn't going back.
Shelley stared at her, shocked. “Do you see your fat ass?” Our mother was thinner than Shelley, but Shelley held her arms open as wide as she could.
My mother looked at me, angry yet pleading. "Put it back please. Don't be so sensitive.”
Could she be on my side once? I looked away and my eyes got warm. My sister shoved her face in mine. "Are you gonna cry now?" My lower lip trembled. I was going to cry, but not in front of them. I clutched the Yodel to my chest and as my eyes filled I bolted through the kitchen. I ran blindly down the hall then took the stairs two by two. I anxiously looked over my shoulder to see if I was being chased - I wasn't - then ran into my room. I slammed the door and stood there, seething.
The clock read 4:20 and in two hours my father would be home. I couldn't wait. When my mother and sister fought, he and I would go to his workroom in the basement or to the end of the driveway and loiter while he smoked. As I looked at my trolls and stuffed animals I heard Shelley's boyfriend's motorcycle crest the hill and pull into our driveway. Moments later a door slammed and I heard Shelley and Bruce rumble off.
A stuffed tiger my father bought me caught my eye and I suddenly remembered my father wasn't coming home. It had been two weeks since he had been banished from the house. We had spoken but I hadn't seen him; my mother was too busy to take me there and I don't think he was allowed to come get me. I suddenly wanted to smoke - I was brand new to smoking and was getting quite good at inhaling the Newports or Marlboros my friends could scrounge off their siblings or grandmother.
I looked at the smashed Yodel and knew I couldn’t take it anymore. I grabbed my suitcase and packed, then brought it downstairs.
‘Dulcinea’ from ‘Man of La Mancha’ was playing loudly in the kitchen and my mother sang along as she poured herself a drink. I slammed the suitcase on the kitchen table and she stopped singing. She turned.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“I want to visit dad.”
“I have things to do.”
“I want to visit dad!”
She raised her eyebrow. “Don’t you yell at me.”
“Tomorrow is Saturday.” I started whining and didn’t care. “If I don’t see him this weekend I’ll have to wait a whole other week.”
“I’m sorry, but I have things to do tomorrow.”
I started to cry. She pointed at the hall. “Out. Right now.”
“But I – “
“NOW!” She stepped toward me, threatening.
I ran into the hall, then slowed and sniffled my way up the stairs. I went into my room, slammed the door and cried. That night I stole a cigarette from her pack – I was getting bold – and she didn’t notice. The next morning I came downstairs and sat at the table and sulked. She was making a Jell-o mold for a golf luncheon.
“When you finish what you have to do, will you take me then?”
She ignored me as she moved the mold into the fridge.
“Will you take me now?” I whimpered.
She still ignored me.
“Do you think that maybe when you finish golf or whatever we can go?“
She wiped the counter, silent.
“Maybe later when –“
She started to laugh, both angered and amused. “Jesus Christ you’re a pain in the ass. Get your suitcase.”
I ran to get my suitcase as she clutched the phone and dialed. She barked into it, hung up and grabbed her cigarettes. She left the house and I ran after her, thrilled.
She dropped me in an apartment complex modeled after King Arthur's Court that was just over the border in New Hampshire. Every unit had fake turrets, a drawbridge that led to the front door and a large plastic coat of arms. My dad lived in the model apartment, a dark first floor one bedroom. It was filled with model furniture that abandoned the medieval motif for a K-Mart version of minimalism. He was thrilled to see me, hopeful to see my mother, but she drove off without looking back. I followed him down his shadowy entrance hall, through the sour smelling kitchen into the living room. Blue, green and white tubular furniture was stained in various brown hues and my father had strategically placed pillows to cover the worst ones. Though well swept and dust free, the model apartment was more crack addict street ho than Vogue cover. Seeing my dad in those surroundings and seeing how worn and sad he looked made me want to take care of him. I wanted to make it better, to fix what had happened, even though I didn't know what that was.
He smiled his warm, weary smile and we sat. He lit a cigarette and I watched him take a deep drag.
"Can I have a puff?"
He shook his head. "It'll stunt your growth."
"Just a puff. One puff."
He shook his head again and said, "You don't want to smoke."
I picked up his lighter, a gold plated Dunhill he recently got in London, and flipped the top open. I awkwardly spun three bars on the side and a flame shot out of the top. London had been a big deal for my parents, their first overseas vacation. This gold lighter was a fancy reminder for a man who had grown up in a slum.
"Just a puff?"
He plucked the lighter out of my hand and put it in his pocket. He exhaled and said, "Want to play miniature golf?" I leapt to my feet. Miniature golf was my game. Instead of tapping the ball under a dinosaur or rotating windmill I'd aim two holes away and whack it as hard as I could. My mother would scream, but he was my accomplice. My father would make sure no one was in the way and he'd send balls flying too.
We drove to the miniature golf course and it was perfect; a watery moat ran under a fake forest. I slammed the ball over the forest then my father gave me his ball so I could tee off into the parking lot. It started to rain so we went to the White Horse for burgers. I ate the bun and the pickle then bit the lettuce into a perfect square. My father picked around his plate. After he picked some more I put my square of lettuce down. "When are you coming home?" I asked.
"As soon as your mother lets me."
I looked into his eyes. He loved her more than anything and even then I sensed it wasn't enough. Why, I didn't know.
"Did something happen?" I asked.
He shook his head, a blend of not knowing and not wanting to think about it. That night we watched TV then he slept on the ugly couch and gave me his bed. He drove me home the next morning and instead of dropping me off he came into the house. When my mother came downstairs and saw him she sent me upstairs to unpack. I sat at the top of the stairs and listened.
“…Actually happy…don’t care…he wanted…” my mother said, indifferent.
“…We’ve known them…you left...she’s not…” he pleaded.
Their voices dropped and I could only make out a word here and there. It sounded like one of them had cheated. No matter how hard I listened I couldn't tell who did it. They began whispering and when I couldn't hear anymore I went into my bedroom and closed the door. In my sock was a Marlboro I stole from my dad, plus matches I snitched from his kitchen drawer. I went to the corner of my room and opened the window. As I lit that cigarette it struck me how perfect smoking was for thinking about complicated things. It took the edge off, made everything easier. I instantly wanted my own pack.
I dumped out my piggy bank and slipped my sneakers on. My parents were no longer downstairs as I hurried out the back door. I ran through the woods and down the old railroad tracks until I came to the corner store, the place where I got my Mad Magazines and Betty and Veronica comics. The counter man, Mr. Cahill, was curious when I walked past the magazine rack to him.
"I need a pack of Marlboros, please."
"Hard day at the office?" I shook my head no, eager to get our business over with. He glanced outside to see if someone was waiting for me. "I hear they're selling Connors Farm. Gonna put up condos."
I quickly nodded. "Marlboro cigarettes please. And matches." I dumped my pile of dimes, nickels and pennies all over the counter and he stared, suspicious. I stared back and a funny feeling came over me. It was a craving, my first.
"Who are these for?"
"My dad. He needs matches, too."
He reluctantly handed me a pack with matches. "Next time have your dad come in." I nodded and skipped on out of there. When I got back on the railroad tracks I put the pack in my front pocket. That bulge felt like a square of security – my first very own pack. I held my head high and headed home.