That night, I’d just opened all the windows in the living room and collapsed on the sofa. My husband was sitting out on our stoop, listening to the oldies station too loud. I took my first sip of coffee when I heard Sammy talking to someone.
“Yeah, go on in,” he said, and the screen door squeaked and slammed. I didn’t know who he could be inviting in, maybe his cousin Billy. I was in no mood. I’d been waiting to see this movie on TV, a murder mystery with an actor I liked. I work long hours at the nursing home, so I don’t get too many moments to myself. I tried to get ready to see who I had to entertain.
Soft little steps in the hallway told me who it was: my neighbor, Terri. She’d moved to our street a while ago, and lived with her three kids in a small Cape a few doors down on the other side. I’d gone to high school with her. We’d gotten a little friendly, but not really close. We’d talk occasionally about neighborly things: city plow trucks, the garbage men who scattered our cans everywhere, or the cop cars we saw rushing to Success Village, the brick co-ops down the road. We lived in real houses on Success Avenue, and this made us feel superior in a tiny way, even though we knew there was no real difference between us and them.
It had been a long day. I didn’t want to see her. I was tired.
She looked older than forty-eight, but our neighborhood had the tendency to age women fast, me included.“Mary Ann,” she said, looking at me in the dark, squinting. She stood just inside the living room. Her brown uniform pulled against her skin, emphasized her extra weight. Her hair, two toned from a fading dye job, fell out of a messy bun. She looked older than forty-eight, but our neighborhood had the tendency to age women fast, me included.
I didn’t say anything. I already knew why she was there.
“I’m sorry to come here so late. I don’t want to bother you.” She blinked. “I just need a little money.”
This had been going on for years. She’d come here, desperate, asking me for ten here, twenty bucks there. I felt bad for her. Her husband had left her, and she was just getting by, but even less than the rest of us. She worked early in the mornings at UPS, loading trucks. I kept giving her loans, but then I’d seen her walking out of Barron’s, the bar on Barnum Avenue, loaded in broad daylight. My husband said, I told you so. You’re too soft. Now you know what she’s doing with your money.
“All I need is three dollars,” she said. She looked over to the front door, I guess trying to make sure Sammy didn’t hear.
I almost reached into my pocket, but I remembered what Sammy had said. If I gave her the money, I was proving him right, that I was a pushover. So I said, “No.”
I nodded to the doorway. “Will you please go?”
She stood there for a good five seconds. She opened her mouth to speak, but closed it without a word, without a fight. Then she left.
I turned back to watch my movie, but it was on a commercial. I laid my head against the back of the couch. I looked up to the mantle, at the pictures of my children when they were little, but I couldn’t really make them out in the darkness.
When the movie came back on, I realized I’d missed something important from before, but I tried to follow along. I wanted to forget Terri, but I kept thinking about her, about the money. I heard the damn screen door again and Sammy came in, carrying his radio.
“How much?” he asked.
“Three dollars.” I couldn’t figure out what she wanted with three. Not really enough for a drink, unless she was just a little short.
Sammy sat down on the couch, next to me, crushing the velour cushions. “That’s all?”
“Not too bad this time.”
“I didn’t give it to her.”
I thought he’d be proud of me, but Sammy’s eyes went droopy. “You should’ve turned her down if she was asking for twenty dollars, but what’s wrong with three? We could spare that.”
“Excuse me,” I said. “You were the one who told me to stop giving her money.” I picked up my coffee cup again, lifted it to my lips. It was cold.
“But three bucks? It’s nothing.” He rose from the couch, ruffled my hair, and walked into the kitchen.
I slammed my cup down on the table. “Never satisfied, Sam!” He turned the radio up louder, and I cranked the volume on the TV. I tried to watch the movie, but he ruined it for me. After about fifteen minutes, I shut it off.
It was always like that, the little digs, the disappointment. After the kids grew up and moved out, we were alone again. Freed from criticizing our children, we shifted back to criticizing each other. I blamed him for everything in the house that was broken, for all my lost Saturday nights wasted with his boring friends, for him not getting it up enough. He always complained about the thirty pounds I’d gained, the chicken wings I served over and over, the way I managed the money.
I sat in the dark for a moment, then reached into my pocket. I pulled out what I had, four dollar bills, all that was left after grocery shopping. Might buy me a new nail polish, if that. I folded the bills and put them back in my pocket. I grabbed the arm of the couch as I got up and stepped into my shoes.
“I’m going for a walk,” I said, but Sammy kept his head bent over his crossword puzzle. He didn’t say anything when I left, but I knew he was probably gloating. I was doing what he wanted, even though giving her the money was what I always did before. He just got to feel like he taught me a lesson.
I started down the street. I walked between parked cars, and checked for speeders before crossing. I didn’t know what I was going to say. Everything I thought of was wrong: I always gave you money before; I wanted to be alone; I just wanted a time when somebody didn’t want something from me.
I took a deep breath and climbed her stoop, which was missing a railing on the right side. I didn’t know how I could face her. I thought about leaving the money in her mailbox, ringing her bell and running. But I had to stay. I pressed her doorbell, but I didn’t hear anything. I waited a few moments, then I started knocking.
When the door opened, instead of Terri, it was one of her daughters, the middle one, who’s about thirteen. She peeked from behind the door, fingers curling around the edge. I couldn’t remember her name. I asked, “Honey, is your mom home?”
With her brown hair, the girl seemed to disappear into the darkness of the hallway. “She went to C-Town,” she said. The grocery store.
“Okay, hon, thank you—” The door clicked shut before I could finish my goodbye.
Maybe she just wanted a couple bottles of soda, a box of doughnuts, some tiny comfort.I stood on the stoop for a moment. I decided to walk there, see if I could find her and give her what she needed. Maybe she just wanted a couple bottles of soda, a box of doughnuts, some tiny comfort. I moved as quickly as I could, which isn’t very fast because of my bum knee. The ache started right when I was almost to the corner of Boston Avenue. I saw Terri turn onto the street. She carried a gallon of milk.
We both froze. Then she held up the plastic bottle. “I got home and the kids said we were all out.”
I stared at the milk. Shame filled me up, made my insides tight.
A wailing ambulance sped past us on its way to the hospital. We’d both been so accustomed to the noise over the years that neither of us turned to look. The sirens were a constant reminder of what living in Bridgeport meant: no matter what, somebody always had it worse off than you.
When it faded, Terri bit her lip. “I’m going to pay you back.”
My voice scraped its way out of my throat. “I want to apologize for before.”
Terri pushed a piece of loose hair off her face. “No. You don’t, really.”
What did she mean by that? That I didn’t have to or I didn’t want to? She moved to walk past me, but I stepped in front of her.
“You’ve gotta listen.” I tried grabbing her arm, but she shrugged out of my touch. “I always help you out, and I shouldn’t have gotten angry with you.”
Terri shifted the milk to her other hand, wiped the sweat of the bottle off her right. “Uh-huh.”
“I’m not that kind of person, you know that.” I didn’t like the upward turn my voice took, so I swallowed hard.
“And what kind is that?”
I looked at the bottle again. “You could have just told me what it was for.”
“Why’s that matter? People talk enough already.” She looked at me steady for the first time.
“How’d you pay for it?”
“And that’s your business?”
I dug my hands into the sides of my legs. “Ok, you’re right. But still.”
“I got one of the girls at the market to loan me what I needed.”
I knew it probably took a lot of talking to convince a total stranger. I couldn’t imagine what she said, but it must have been bad. It must have made her feel low, as low as I’d made her feel. I reached into my pocket, and my hand shook while I took out the bills. I held them out to her. “I have four dollars here. Go pay her back.”
“I don’t want it.”
“Take it.” I grabbed her right hand and pressed the money into her palm.
Her fingers curled around the bills, but she wouldn’t look at me. She balled up the money, paused for a second, then shoved it in her pocket. She walked right around me, not another word.
She took the money like I thought I wanted, but then I didn’t want her to anymore. I thought I caught the smell of whiskey. “You’re so high and mighty, Terri!” I called.
She never turned around.
I stared at the abandoned bank building on the opposite corner, the weeds shooting up from the cracked parking lot.
At home, the screen door slammed behind me, no tension in the spring anymore. Sammy was still at the kitchen table. He glanced at me. “You find her?”
“Yeah.” I walked to the sink, turned on the water, and turned it off again.
“And you gave her the money?”
“Yes,” I said, turning to him. “But she’d already bought the milk she needed.”
Sammy snorted. “How’d she pull that off?”
“She found somebody else to give it to her.”
“She don’t know how good she’s got it,” he said, turning a page in the crossword book.
“What’s so good?” I asked. “What’s she got to look forward to?”
Sammy put his pen down. “She’s got a job, she’s got a house. If she wasn’t a goddammed drunk, she’d be fine.”
I gripped the counter behind me. “How do you know that, Sammy? Take a good look around.”
He put both palms on the table. “Watch it,” he said.
“Nothing ever changes. We’re gonna work until we drop dead. We’re no better off than twenty years ago. You think that makes me happy?”
He stood up. “Stop.”
“Or what, Sam? What are you going to do?”
He took a step towards me and grabbed my upper arms. I thought he was going to shake me, hit me, but after a couple seconds he lowered his forehead to mine, shut his eyes tight and let out this cry. It took my legs out from under me. Then he just let go and walked away.
I slid down the cabinets and sat on the floor. It would’ve been easier if he had hit me. That I could have dealt with.I slid down the cabinets and sat on the floor. It would’ve been easier if he had hit me. That I could have dealt with.
It occurred to me that maybe this was how it happened to Terri. Maybe she pushed too hard one day, pissed off her husband too much. Or maybe it wasn’t that at all: maybe one stupid tiny thing, one thoughtless moment, was all it took for her life to go to hell. Did she even know when it happened? Would I? Was this it?
The faucet dripped and my back ached. I sat there for a long time, trying to make myself move. Get up, I told myself. You always get up.
But I just couldn’t go.