After Dad left, Mom stayed up late at the kitchen table with a bottle of red wine, staining her teeth purple and chewing the edges of her nails.
She did this for about three months. Then one day I came home after my last class—geography, I was in the sixth grade—and found her at her vanity mirror in her bra and leopard-print underpants, the scent of Diamonds perfume filling the room.
I caught my breath. “Is Dad coming home?”
My mother began rummaging through her closet; her voice was flat but commanding: “Oh, who the hell knows where he is.”
“Where are you going?”
She struggled to pull a fancy dress over her head without messing her hair and makeup. She gazed in the mirror, adjusting the straps. “Zipper me.”
Her bright red lips matched the polka dot pattern and I could smell the hairspray over her perfume. As I zippered her outfit, the fabric tightened around her hips and chest. My mother turned and posed like a model: one hand at her hip, one on the curve of her chin. “How do I look?”
“But what about Dad?”
The next morning, I felt awful. I hadn’t heard Rachel or my mother come home. I’d gone to bed after eating my hamburger creation and watching The Six Million Dollar Man.
My mother crouched down to my level and said in a sweet voice, “You should forget about that man. It’s just us girls now.” She smiled as if I should be happy. Before I could respond, she grabbed her handbag and reached for the door. “Your sister’s going to cook Hamburger Helper. It’s like mac and cheese except hamburger gets mixed in with the noodles. There’s a package in the refrigerator, keep it there until you’re ready to eat.”
I sat on the chair with my shoulders slouched. My sister was two years older and was often left in charge. After Mom shut the door, Rachel poked her head out of the bathroom. “Is she gone?”
“I think she went on a date,” I said, perplexed by my own words.
Rachel hurried from the bathroom toward our bedroom. “I’m going to Kara’s.” She pulled a pink blouse off its hanger.
“You can’t go to her apartment.”
Rachel pushed an arm through the sleeve. “Why not?”
“Mom said you have to make me dinner. If she finds out, you’ll be in big trouble.”
Rachel pulled a shirt over her head and stared me down. “Who’s going to tell?”
She kept staring until I said, “No one.”
I didn’t believe what Mom said about Dad. He wouldn’t leave us. Where would he go? I pictured him sitting at the counter of a truck stop diner, eating chicken-fried steak. I wondered where he was headed. Maybe he’s driving home this very minute. I indulged this fantasy for a moment, even let myself get excited about the possibility, but then imagined what might happen ifhe came home while Mom was out on her date.
I stood on my tiptoes and peered out the window over the sink to see if anyone was in the courtyard. It was empty except for big fat Chrissie Lester, who liked to drag Tippi, her mother’s Chihuahua, through the tall grass as the dog tried to pee. I turned back to the counter, spun the box of Hamburger Helper around and looked at the pictures. It looked nothing like the roasts or chicken dinners Mom made when Dad was around. Rachel passed by like a breeze. “I’ll be back later.”
The door closed and her clogs echoed in the stairwell.
The apartment was quiet. When my stomach started to rumble, I opened the box and turned on the stove.
* * *
The next morning, I felt awful. I hadn’t heard Rachel or my mother come home. I’d gone to bed after eating my hamburger creation and watching The Six Million Dollar Man. Most of the noodles stuck to the bottom of the pan and when I’d stirred in the hamburger the steaming noodles became cold. I’d fallen asleep with a heavy stomach, knowing something was wrong.
I rolled into my blankets. My belly gurgled and I heard what sounded like a pan being dropped into the kitchen sink. My mother screamed words she usually reserved for my father:
“What the hell did you do?”
Rachel jumped out of bed and ran to the kitchen.
“Look at this spot,” Mom shrieked. “You ruined my table!” My mother was always wiping her kitchen table and matching chairs with a washcloth. When finished, she’d push all the chairs into position, stand back and admire the shine.
After cooking the noodles, I’d put the pot on the table and spooned them into a bowl. I hadn’t realized the Formica tabletop was blistering underneath until I returned the pot to the stove. I wiped at the brown spot, but it didn’t come off. There was a circular burn about half the size of the pan.
Mom yelled, “What were you thinking?”
There were no excuses when Mom was mad.
Rachel said, “I made a mistake. I won’t do it again.”
“That’s not going to fix my table!”
I was glad that Rachel took the blame, but then I realized she had to. If Mom found out she’d gone to Kara’s place, she would ground Rachel—for a year, probably.
“I’ll be more careful, I promise.”
Just then I felt a powerful slosh in my belly. I ran to the bathroom and yanked down my pajama bottoms just in time. When Mom finished chewing out Rachel, she called for me.
I wished for her to leave me alone, but the bathroom door swung open and there she stood. “What’s wrong with you?”
“You poor thing,” she said, waving her burning cigarette.
With my head on my knees, I saw a sideways view of Mom and Rachel standing at the door, staring back. My mother took a long drag off her cigarette and pointed at Rachel as she exhaled. “Look what you did. You poisoned your sister.”
Rachel lingered in the doorway for a few seconds and with weary eyes we apologized to each other.
I crawled back to bed and slept the rest of the morning.
* * *
Later that day, my mother pranced through my room, smelling of Diamonds and hairspray, carrying a cup of Kool-Aid. “I’ve got to run some errands. Drink this,” she said, placing the plastic cup on the nightstand.
Mom never ran quick errands. Once she left, it took hours for her to return. After the front door closed, I slid out of my covers. I felt like I’d just gotten off a merry-go-round. I sipped Kool-Aid while studying my map of the United States, following the trail of pins. I traced the routes Dad frequently traveled. Imagining his eighteen-wheeler rolling along the highway, I wondered where he was at that very moment and if he was thinking about me.
A scream from the courtyard derailed my thoughts. I shuffled to the window to see Chrissie Lester yelling at her poor Chihuahua. Chrissie said she hated Tippi because her mother made her walk the dog until it did its business, but I suspected she was jealous. Her mother dressed the dog like a princess, carried it around in a handbag and spoiled it with treats, doling out doggie bonbons in a baby voice. Chrissie was the same age as Rachel, but much taller and wider. The kids at school called her “The Blob.” She’d stayed back a couple of years and was now in my grade. Mom told me to stay away from her, pronouncing simply, “She’s trash just like her mother.” I avoided her around the complex for my own reasons. Once she’d smacked my hand with a stick after I tried to pet Tippi. When I threatened to tell, Chrissie handed me the stick and said, “Hit me as hard as you want. I don’t care. Go ahead.” I told her I wanted to hold Tippi’s leash and she reluctantly agreed.
Now, Chrissie pulled the miniature mutt in its pink dress across the courtyard. The dog struggled to keep up, but Chrissie tugged her along, practically dragging the thing by its neck.
“Stupid dog! Can’t you even walk right?”
I kneeled on the floor, concealing myself, and put my mouth to the window and yelled, “Pissy Chrissie!”
Chrissie stopped. I crouched so only my eyes peered into the courtyard. Chrissie put a hand up to her forehead and looked up at the buildings, scanning from window to window.
That was the thing about the courtyard; you could hear everything but you could never tell, for sure, where it came from. I waited until she looked in the other direction and shouted, “Pissy Chrissie! What a sissy!”
“Who’s there?” she yelled, turning around.
“It’s your Mama!” I hollered.
After that, I got the giggles and fell to the floor with my hand over my mouth so no one would hear.
* * *
We never saw them, but we came to know Mom’s boyfriends by their leftovers. After every date, she’d bring home a doggie bag.
Mom seemed happier without Dad, which made life easier on Rachel and me. She’d tease her hair, put on her face and run out the door in a low-cut dress. My sister and I did what we wanted when she was gone, but there were lonesome days when I’d sit outside on the picnic table and think about my father. Our favorite outdoor game was Hide and Seek and the picnic table was always base. He would sit, resting his big head of brown hair in his hands, and start the countdown. Rachel and I would take cover around the sides of buildings, behind trash barrels, or between prickly shrubs. My dad was tall and more muscular than most, but even so, he never managed to catch Rachel or I as we made a mad dash for base. He usually feigned an unfortunate fall, lying on the ground groaning until we came close enough to grab and tickle.
“What’s the matter, crybaby?”
I turned to see Chrissie Lester. She lifted her big fat leg and rested it on the picnic table bench. I wondered how the hulking brute had come up on me so quick and quiet. I felt safe with the table between us, confident in my ability to outrun her. Tippi jumped onto the picnic table, panting and drooling on the silver-tipped collar of her polka-dot dress. I reached to pet her head but stopped halfway, recalling the smack I’d received last time.
“You can pet her. I don’t care,” Chrissie said.
“I don’t want to,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest.
I tried to think of something to say, but all I could think of were the terrible names the kids at school called Chrissie, the same names I’d yelled out my bedroom window.
“Your mother’s a whore,” Chrissie said. “I caught her in the basement doing something nasty with the landlord.”
I couldn’t think of a good response, so I said, “Your mother dresses Tippi better than you.” It seemed like a lame comeback, particularly since Chrissie and I were dressed almost exactly the same—navy blue T-shirt and tan Chinos—and Tippi wore a dress that looked like one of my mother’s date night outfits. Then to my own surprise I added, “Your mother dresses Tippi like a whore.”
Chrissie let out a real belly laugh. I didn’t know exactly why. She dropped Tippi’s leash and put her hand over her stomach as her head tilted forward. When she was out of air and red-faced, she sucked in another breath and laughed it back out. As I watched her, I couldn’t help smiling.
“My mother has that same dress!” I exclaimed as I pointed to Tippi.
Tippi licked Chrissie as she laughed, but then turned to bark at a figure in the distance. Holding my hand to my brow, I shaded the sun from my eyes and spotted her mother heading toward us. Chrissie saw her too. She grabbed Tippi’s leash.
“I gotta go,” she said, backing away from the table. “See you later.”
“Bye,” I mumbled, unsure of whether we were supposed to be friends now. Chrissie strolled away, gently coaxing Tippi along. She turned and said, “And I don’t care that you called me those names. It was kind of funny.”
* * *
Rachel and I never met Mom’s dates because they waited in their cars in the parking lot around the side of the building. She didn’t want them coming to the door. “You don’t need to meet them unless they’re serious,” she told us.
We never saw them, but we came to know Mom’s boyfriends by their leftovers. After every date, she’d bring home a doggie bag. One of her first boyfriends liked Chinese. Mom didn’t care for Chinese food, so she always came home with little white boxes filled with General Tso’s or Kung Pao chicken. In the morning, when Rachel and I saw the white container with silver handles in the refrigerator, we’d say in unison:
Chinese was our favorite. We’d warm the leftovers on the stove and devour them at the table.
When Mom finally crawled out of bed, she complained about the smell. “Do you have to eat that slop so early in the morning?” she said, a cigarette hanging from her lips.
After that, Mom started dating two pizza lovers. One liked thick crust, the other thin, but neither lasted long enough for us to learn their names.
While Chinese leftovers kept us happy on the weekends, Wednesdays became fettuccine Alfredo. Rachel and I knew, even before finding the gooey noodles soaked in a congealed cream sauce, that she’d been out with Morton. We could smell his cologne radiating off her as soon as she got up in the morning. We’d hold our noses and tell her, “You stink!” Mom called Morton the “Prince of the City,” even if she agreed that his cologne was a bit strong. She said he looked “regal” in his diamond-encrusted watch and tangle of gold necklaces. “Confident men aren’t afraid to wear jewelry,” she informed us.
One evening she bragged, “Everyoneknows him.” Her face lit up as she confessed, “No matter where we go, someone recognizes him. Always someone greeting him by name, calling him Morty, or Mr. Costello. We’re treated like royalty. Waiters give us the best tables. They bring bottles of wine, fancy desserts—always ‘on the house.’ I doubt he ever has to pay for anything!” She stood up, as giddy as a teenager and said, “I’ve got to show you something.”
She ran into her room and returned with a long, thin velvet box. She lifted the lid unveiling a string of bright diamonds. “What do you think?” Mom slipped the gleaming bracelet across her wrist, clasping the ends, twisting her arm side to side, allowing the facets to catch and reflect the light. “Isn’t it the most beautiful thing you ever saw? He said it put an extra sparkle in my blue eyes.”
“Mom, your eyes are green.”
“I know that, silly. But you should never contradict a man who gives expensive gifts.”
Mom wore the bracelet on her Wednesday night dates with Morton. She would plan her outfit around it. If the dress or blouse didn’t go with the bracelet, she would strip off the garment and try another. Between dates, the bracelet remained tucked in her underwear drawer; but one day when she thought I’d gone outside with Rachel, she left her bedroom door half open and I saw her lying in bed, naked, holding the string of diamonds at one end, and letting them dangle across her thigh. She then slid them up over her navel leading them through the soft crevice of her bare breasts. I backed away from her door, hoping the floor didn’t creak, wondering what she was thinking about.
On what turned out to be her last date with Morton, Mom came home early with her mascara smeared. Rachel and I were still up, watching The Love Boat.We knew something was wrong. The fettuccine Alfredo she always brought home was splattered across the front of her blue cotton dress. A few noodles were stuck to her heels. Her hair was tousled, but she didn’t seem to notice or care. She dropped the diamond bracelet on the kitchen table and it fell into pieces. Mom pushed back a strand of hair that dangled in her face and said in Clint Eastwood calm, “The bastard’s married.”
* * *
After that, Mom started dating two pizza lovers. One liked thick crust, the other thin, but neither lasted long enough for us to learn their names. Rachel and I preferred Stanley, or at least his taste in Chinese, but when Mom first mentioned Jimmy, we knew Stanley’s days were numbered. According to my mother, Jimmy was “young and fun.” Stanley, who had nurtured our taste for Kung Pao chicken for eight months, suddenly became “a big fat bore.”
“You’d think Dingle Balls could afford something besides the Mongolian Wok,” she complained, spraying her hair.
I laughed at her calling him Dingle Balls, even though I didn’t know what it meant.
“Every time I come back smelling like soy sauce.” She stubbed her cigarette in the ashtray and pulled a flower-patterned dress from her closet. “I can’t stand sitting across from him as he shovels it into his mouth.”
“Tell him you want to go somewhere new,” I offered, fingering the dainty necklace on the vanity.
“Don’t be silly, Jane. That would be rude.”
* * *
Even though Rachel and I hadn’t met Jimmy, we didn’t like him. Mother praised him for being “lively company” and “knowing how to treat a lady,” but he never showed up on time, which made Mom crabby, and he never produced any leftovers—no doggie bags or Styrofoam containers.
This went on for a few weeks. Then one night Mom bounded through the door early, red-faced and panting, and headed straight for the phone. I stood quietly in front of the sink as she dialed the numbers and cradled the receiver in her shoulder, pacing back and forth.
“Go to the living room,” she said.
I couldn’t hear my mother’s brief conversation, but she hung up and disappeared into her bedroom, then went out again a half-hour later.
In the morning, Rachel and I found a Styrofoam container. Rachel grabbed it and held it out of my reach as I jumped for it. “Hold on, Shorty,” she said, placing the container on the counter. The Styrofoam squeaked open and we found a grilled chicken breast with onions and peppers. We looked at each other in amazement.
Mom appeared in the doorway, looking tired but happy:
“It’s Tex-Mex, girls.”
* * *
Despite the new cuisine, Mom was still hopelessly in love with Jimmy-No-Leftovers. I overheard her talking about him on the phone with Sandy Horowitz. “He’s so wild. It’s what I love about him. What am I going to do? He’s handsome and funny but the guy can’t even commit to a time for dinner… I know… I know… I really should, but I can’t help it, he makes me feel so good.”
I repeated, word for word, Mom’s conversation with Sandy Horowitz for Rachel. She rolled her eyes and said, “Big deal.”
“She said sheloves him.That means she’ll want to marry him!”
“Does not,” she said. “We’ve never even met him.”
That Friday, Rachel and I hid outside between buildings, keeping watch around the corner at Mom standing at the edge of the parking lot. She stood prim, her dress pressed and hair smoothed, but as the minutes passed she paced the walkway in her heels and cursed. She was furious, we knew. After a half hour, she gave up and stomped back to our apartment. Jimmy-No-Leftovers became Jimmy-No-Show, so we hung out in the courtyard to give her time to cool off.
The next night, a stooped man with a bald patch emerged from an old brown sedan. He opened the passenger’s door and Mom slid into the car. Rachel and I giggled because he was such a dork. His comb-over barely covered half his head and it flipped up in the breeze. After the car pulled away, we headed back to the apartment. I parted my hair way off to the left and flipped it to the other side. “Hi, I’m Sy Sperling. I’m not only the Hair Club president, but I’m also a client.”
We joked about it the rest of the night. Could Mom really date someone that goofy?
The next morning, Rachel and I swung open the refrigerator door and gasped, “Oh, my God!”
Inside sat a white container with silver handles and a little packet of soy sauce resting on top.
“That was Stanley!”
* * *
The following Friday Mom got “ready” faster than I’d ever seen. She patted powder on her face at high-speed and wriggled into her red polka dot dress.
I told Rachel, “She’s going out with Jimmy-No-Leftovers, I just know it.”
At five-thirty there was a knock on the door. From the bedroom, Mom yelled, “Can someone get that?”
Rachel was sprawled across the couch. She poked me with her foot and said, “You go.”
I slid off the couch, hoping it was Sandy Horowitz lending Mom a handbag, not the landlord looking for rent. In the past week I’d already given him two lame excuses. I wasn’t sure why Mom stopped paying the rent on time, but she insisted that Rachel and I put him off. The landlord was an overweight man with hair sprouting from his ears. The first time he came collecting, I pretended I had no idea what “rent” was, and I told him I’d give the message to my mother. He returned two days later standing in our doorway picking his teeth with his thumbnail. I told him Mom wasn’t home. Looking me straight in the eye, he removed his thumb, sucked his tooth and said with a doubtful expression, “All right, then. Tell your mother. She knows where to find me.”
I swung the door open and saw a man with Elvis Presley hair.
“Hey, kid,” he said in a deep voice. He leaned back, glancing down the hallway. “Looks like I got the wrong apartment. I’m looking for Gerty Girl.” He chuckled, then corrected himself, “Gertrude Beckwith, that is.”
I stood frozen and astonished. I knew, even before my mother raced into the kitchen, heels dangling from her hands, trying to button her blouse, that this was the infamous Jimmy-No-Leftovers.
“What are you doing here?” Mom said breathlessly. “You’re supposed to—”
“I thought I’d surprise you.” He surveyed the apartment and focused on me and then Rachel, now standing behind me. “But I see I’m the one getting the surprise.”
Mom’s eyes widened as Jimmy did an about-face.
“Jimmy, wait!” she screamed from the doorway. He disappeared down the stairs. Mom slipped on her shoes and clattered after him, all the while pleading, “Stop, Jimmy, let me explain!”
Outside she tugged on his arm, crying, “Jimmy, please, don’t do this.” Tears streamed down her cheeks, but Jimmy kept walking. He pulled away from her with such force that my mother landed on the ground, but she reached out and clutched him by the leg.
That’s when I noticed all the people—neighbors, drawn by the spectacle—gathering. The landlord, out on his rounds, came toward our building. Chrissie Lester stood among the crowd, holding Tippi’s bedazzled leash. When Jimmy shouted at my mother to let go of his leg, Tippi bared her teeth and broke free, attacking Jimmy’s ankle. The little dog ducked Jimmy’s swats and bit and pulled at his pant-leg, barking and growling. Finally, Jimmy grabbed the dog’s collar and pulled himself free. My mother gave out one final cry, her voice cracking: “Jimmy, no! I’ll do anything you want.” Jimmy got into his car and tore out of the parking lot, leaving the air thick with burnt rubber. The landlord helped my mother to her feet and the crowd disappeared as quickly as it had gathered with low murmurs and shaking heads.
That night, Mom settled at the kitchen table with a bottle of wine. Rachel went over to Kara’s house. I sat alone at my desk, staring at the wall, following the course of Dad’s highway travels. Before going to bed, I took out the pins, folded the map, and dropped it into the wastebasket. Dad was never coming back.
It was just us girls now.