Chapter From Novel-In-Progress

My babysitter Mrs. Freed walked me up the apartment steps after school. A man was standing at the top, outside our door. He wore a glow-in-the-dark yellow shirt. The kind workmen who fix things in the street wear. He moved for me to pass by him, and I went inside.

            Grandma was talking to Mom. “Aubrie needs consistency, Deenie.” Sometimes Mom’s visits made Grandma mad, and my stomach hurt.

            “She needs her mother, not an old woman who won’t let her do anything.” I dropped my schoolbag. Mom came at me with her arms up. Was she mad at me too? I covered my face with my hands and closing my eyes. “Aubrie, baby, I missed you. Did you miss me?”

            “Hi, Mom.” I tried to hug her back, but my hands were squished between her chest and my face, like I was praying hard. I had forgotten how beautiful she was, even with purple hair.

            “We're gonna be a team again.”

            What did she mean? Teams played sports. Did Mom want to play a game?

            She unhugged me and smiled. I tried, but couldn’t ask if she gave my Orangina Marigold back to her friend Jacques. Mom didn’t like plants.

            But something was different about her. No fancy high heeled shoes or shop nails, just fun hair. Mom probably didn’t know it, but she was her own kind of flower. With no roots, she moved around on her own. She even smelled sweet. 

            “Deenie, please. That'll be the third school she's gone to this year. And that neighborhood is still bad." 

            In a high, squeaky voice, Mom said, “Go pack your things, Aubrie,” but frowned at Grandma.

            Mom had been staying in a condo with a friend. His grandchildren were my age, and were visiting too when Mom took me. The condo only let pets and adults live there. “Are we moving back to your old apartment?”  

            Mom stooped down and said, “I’m settled in a new one, baby. You'll love it. It has a real live bush outside the door.”

            I filled trash bags Mom handed me. Then squeezed Grandma good-bye. I thought she was fake crying because she put her finger in front of her mouth and flashed her new phone. She shoved it into my pocket, like the last time we played that game. I must have lost her other phone in Mom’s old apartment.

Mom turned from the kitchen holding up a gallon of milk. Grandma nodded, and she wiggled it into a bag of food from the refrigerator. Mom handed the food bag out the door to the guy in the bright yellow shirt. When he reached in to take it, I saw that his shiny hair clumped together. White stuff sprinkled the spaces in between.

            “Your mom said I can pick you up Sunday morning for church.” Grandma wiped her nose with a tissue. She had to be pretending because I never saw her cry before. I hugged her again, and left with Mom.

            “Where's the taxi?” I asked from the sidewalk. We couldn’t carry all those bags on the bus.

            “Lenny's driving us in his Toyota.” She pointed to a spotty blue car at the curb in front of us. The yellow shirt guy was inside.

            I got in the seat behind Mom. Lenny peeked at me in the mirror, and his big nose got longer. “Hiya, Aubrie. Your mom told me you’d be moving in with us.” His bad breath made me stop breathing so I couldn’t say ‘hi’ back. The window next to me wouldn’t go down.

            We were on the number 4 bus route, then turned off at the gas station where Grandma never needed to stop. I lost count of the blocks before we turned at another gas station. We bumped over train tracks and made a right turn, a left, and another right after we passed a bus depot. Then did a U-turn and parked. Were we in her old apartment’s neighborhood?  

            Mom’s new apartment was the same as the other ones around it, except for the bush. Crispy brown leaves stuck to its smooth branches. I wished with my eyes shut for green leaves to grow when summer came.

            “You can put your things in the living room for now, Aubrie,” Mom said as I stepped inside. She started unloading the food.

            Lenny put my trash bag of clothes in a corner next to the TV. “Don't shove my beer in the back of the fridge,” he called. Then let himself fall onto the couch, and turned on the TV.  

            Walls in that living and dining room were white. Furniture, jackets, shoes and my bags of stuff, lumped around me at the bottom of those smudged walls. I searched for a cozy space to settle down, peeping into the bathroom and bedroom. Besides plants, Mom hated pets, so why did it smell like she had one?   

            I didn’t know what to do with my body in that place. I tried staying near Mom. She yelled at me for being in her way; only one person fit in the kitchen. The table next to it had two chairs. I climbed onto the one farthest from Lenny. In front of me, piled up papers, McDonald’s wrappers, and mugs, blocked him, if I slouched. Grandma’s table never got that messy, even when she was too tired to clean up after dinner.

            Mom made grilled cheese and gave Lenny two. He ate them on the couch. I ate mine on my lap at the table. Mom finished making hers and flopped next to him.

            The papers moved a little when I shoved them. I wiped up that part of the table and started my homework; did three problems, then stopped. If I went to a new school, I didn’t have to do the homework from my old school.

            Mom froze, staring at the movie. She usually didn’t sit that still. Cars revved loud and shot at each other. Scary music played in between more weird sounds. I wanted to stuff cotton in my ears the way Grandma did to keep the medicine in when I had an infection.

            Lines of words zipped up the TV screen. Mom defrosted. I lifted my head from the table, wondering where the light switch was. What time did Mom go to bed? Most nights I didn’t feel Grandma getting into bed next to me because I was already asleep. Over the pile on the table, I asked, “Mom, where am I gonna sleep?” Besides the kitchen chairs, there wasn’t even a place for me to sit.

            “With me.” She threw her arms in the air, and jumped up. “Len don't mind sleeping on the couch.” It was the same one from the other apartment, only darker. Mom put her arm around me, and we walked into the bedroom.

             Clothes twisted in crazy ways on the bureau and bed, and dripped from the open closet door. More pants and shirts wrestled with blankets on the floor. “Where am I gonna put my stuff?”

            “We just have to get organized, baby. Len's gotta keep his things in his car because he's not supposed to stay here, with only the one bedroom. The state counselor that’s coming over thinks it’s just you and me here. But Len’s job helps with extra expenses. So remember, it's our secret game, okay baby?”

            I didn't hug her back.

            “Mom, I wanna go to sleep now.” But not in that room.

            “Sure, sure, go ahead baby.” She moved clothes from one side of the bed to the other. “I'll clear off my side later.”

The pillow on the cleared side was greasy with two black hairs on it. Not purple ones. Thinking of putting my head on it made my stomach mix around the grilled cheese.

            She started to walk out of the room, but I grabbed her arm. “Mom, please, can't we put clean things on the bed?”

            “Well, go ahead if you want to. They're in the bathroom closet.” She was leaving again, but I still held on.

            “Mom, I can't walk near the bed. I'll step on stuff.”

            “Aubrie, don't worry about it. Just get into bed. I'll get them later.” She pulled away.

            Something inside me had to get out, and I didn’t want it to be the grilled cheese. “This makes me sick,” I yelled. “I can't sleep in here. I can't even breath. I want to go home to Grandma’s.”

            Mom came back into the room. “All right, all right, I'll help you.” She kicked her way to the window, and opened it. “First of all, let's get Len's stuff together. Fold up any men's clothes you find, and we'll bag them. I'll put work clothes in the bathroom for him for tomorrow.” I let Mom get the men's clothes and picked up hers.

            A shower and glass of milk, after we were done, chased creepy crawlies from my skin. The piles on the bureau and closet door were higher, but at least we could walk around in there. If the clean sheets were Grandma’s, sniffing them would’ve put me to sleep faster.

            Lenny cursed in the bathroom about not finding pants he wanted. He cursed some more in the kitchen about dishes in the sink. Then about where his keys were. The apartment door slammed, cutting off his voice. I got up.                                  

Mom was texting on the couch with her coffee. I got cereal and sat at the part of the table that I had cleared yesterday. “What time are you going to work, Mom?”

            She still messed with her phone. “I lost my job.”

            That pet smell was all over her and the couch. Mom’s shorts were too big, and her long hair was in a knot on top of her head. Brown hair pushed away the purple from her forehead and from the side of each cheek.

            I asked, “What are we doing today?”

            “We can't do anything, Aubrie. I don't have any money.” Mom fibbed about the money. I saw Grandma give her some.

            I finished my cereal, and did the dishes. Got dressed and checked on the bush. A bus drove up to the curb near the apartments while I was picking trash from around the bush. Three kids got on the bus and it left. An older kid walked by with his backpack on one shoulder.

            Mom called, “What’re you doin’ out there?” She sounded interested.

            I went back into the apartment holding out an empty fountain soda cup with a straw sticking out of its lid, a McDonald’s wrapper, a broken pen with no ink inside, and a Mountain Dew bottle. “Cleaning up trash.” I threw them away and washed my hands.

            She was done texting when I plopped down on the floor in front of her and said, “We could listen to music and dance. Don’t you do that when you’re not working?”

            “I really need to get this apartment in shape for the counselor's visit.” She breathed out hard at everything in the apartment. Did she notice the smell? I didn’t want to embarrass her by asking about it. “And we'll have to sign you up for school before she comes.”

            Mom was sad. So, I stood up and wiggled. “Okay. Let's listen to music and do a cleaning dance.” If I made it fun, then she’d be happy. 

            “We have to hide everything that's Len's. I’m not sure how picky this new counselor is,” said Mom. The pet smell was almost gone. And she had let me wash the pillow in the front loader, after I reminded her about the money Grandma gave her. She didn’t get angry. Just told me to tell the counselor how much I loved living with her.

She high fived me. “Like I said, me and you make a great team, Aubrie.” We did make a great cleaning team. More fun than gym, but not as fun as the last apartment clean up.   

            Lenny came into the apartment when we were putting away laundry. He took Mom out to dinner. We still had food from Grandma’s apartment, so I ate her yummy left-over beef stew. On the back of my notebook that I didn’t need for science class anymore, I drew the bush with live leaves. I couldn’t remember enough about Orangina to draw her.

My bush drawing turned into skinny broccoli. That’s probably why I started to cry.

            Sunday morning Grandma was waiting outside to take me to church. Mom was still in bed asleep when I passed Lenny snoring on the couch.

            At the end of the Earth Day service, we stood in line to leave, waiting to greet Pastor. Church ladies held boxes of green leaves waving purple or pink or white flowers behind him. They picked out one container at a time, and handed it to whoever shook Pastor's hand. People ahead of us talked a long time with him. I squirmed in front of Grandma.

                              Forest & Kim Starr (Starr Environmental)

            When I got to Pastor, he asked how school was going. I didn't want to say 'okay' because that would be a lie. Grandma answered, “Aubrie is switching schools. She's with her mom now in another neighborhood.”

            “I’m sure you’ll do well in your new school, Aubrie.” Pastor shook my hand. Those leaves and flowers were waving at me over his shoulder from the narthex. I don’t remember if I said anything, or even looked at Pastor.

            I stepped past him. A lady pushed a sticker of a smiling blue triangle of arrows onto my blouse. Are church people allowed to touch me? Another lady lifted purple flowers above my head. I thought she was teasing me. I almost jumped to snatch it, but Grandma took it.

            She handed it to me as soon as we stepped onto the pavement. I carefully skipped ahead of Grandma with my impatiens. That was what the church lady called it. It didn't make me think of Orangina Marigold. It looked too different. Um, well, maybe it did remind me of her a teeny bit. But I didn't give it a special name, like Happy or Petals.

            Me and Grandma bused back to Mom's apartment after dinner. I didn't have a key, so I knocked. Lenny opened the door. I almost dropped the impatiens because Grandma pulled me close to her. She asked for Mom, but he said she wasn't home.

            I smelled Mom’s cigarette. It was different from Lenny’s toy one that needed a battery. “Mom’s hiding in the bedroom,” I whispered to Grandma, and stepped into the apartment. She stared at Lenny until he closed the door on her.

            Lenny followed me into the hall. He groaned as I shut the bathroom door behind me. I put the impatiens on the back of the toilet. Then changed my mind about leaving it there. Mom slipped into the bathroom past Lenny as I came out. He said, “Oh god, with the two of yous, I'll never get in there.”

            Someone might knock over my impatiens inside the apartment. Maybe that's what happened to Orangina. Growing things like being outside in the sun and rain anyway. Hmm.

            I visited the bush. My mouth, not my voice, talked to it about my impatiens living under its branches. If I had to move again, Grandma and I could come back and get it without bothering Mom. I was going to wish that no one would steal it. But praying might work better. So, I prayed.

            In the kitchen, I ran water into a cup and thought about what to do with my flower if I was still living there when winter came. 

            Lenny huffed when the shower hissed in the bathroom. He grumbled at the TV. Then opened the door, and stared at the bush. He leaned out close to where I hid my impatiens and looked down. Was he looking at my purple flower. Did he love plants too? Maybe all Mom's boyfriends did.

             Then I heard dribbling. I only saw Lenny’s back, but I knew what he was doing. He didn’t love plants! But how could he do such a terrible thing to something so beautiful? It couldn't even move to get away.

            Mom came out of the bathroom and fished a bar of soap out of one of the bags from Grandma’s. I couldn't help crying and pulling her towards the door. "Mom, Lenny's peeing on my impatiens."

            "Oh Aubrie, he's drunk.” Mom made the towel round her body tighter. “He doesn't know what he's doing. The rain'll wash it off."

            The pee sound kept going. “Make him stop, Mom.”

            “Aubrie.” Why was she yelling at me? “Men can’t cut off their stream like we can. He just has to finish.” Mom should yell at Lenny and save my impatiens. Would she save me if I was in trouble?

            He finally backed back inside. Mom smacked his shoulder. When she was mad at me, she hit me in the face, and harder. "Really? You couldn't wait two minutes? You scared my kid." She fumed into the bathroom.

            His head hung above me; a cartoon face with extra big eyes. A tattoo crept from inside his undershirt. I didn't know what it was a picture of, but it scared me. Him peeing didn't though. Why did Mom say that? When I cry I'm sad, not scared.

            Then I got mad when his nasty breath said, real slow like, "Oh, baby. You won't be scared once you're used to it." A sneaky laugh buzzed out of his nose. He messed with his zipper.

            I said it the way Grandma taught me: "If you touch me, I'll tell my grandma and she'll get my grandpa's service revolver and kill you in your sleep." It felt good saying it.

            His wet smile dried into a pencil line. My words made that happen. They plumped me up bigger. Lenny turned into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator.

            He moved out a week later when he didn’t have any more beer money. But his glow-in-the-dark shirts kept the hamper lit up at night.

            My impatiens died. I cried every time we passed it going out, or coming into the apartment. Mom used a napkin to get rid of the plastic planter with its poisoned soil. She threw it in the dumpster behind the complex, so I wouldn’t keep seeing it.

By the end of that month, we move too. Mom said we'd only have to live at Grandma's until she got another job.

            My bags of stuff, landing on Grandma's apartment floor, erased the weeks I was away.



Post a Comment

to top