Courtney sailed through her mother’s Facebook page hastily and yet steadily. This was the act of an expert browser who had seen every corner of that familiar and cherished page a countless number of times and knew where every mundane click would lead to. She knew how many pictures were posted and where, how many status updates there were, her mother’s favorite music, books, and upcoming events. The articles her mother had “liked” or commented on. Her privacy setting. Her friends list. Her profile picture.
Her mother’s last post was one in which she had been tagged at a lunch with her long-time group of friends. Mostly friends from high school and her work at the restaurant. Twenty-three likes. Fourteen comments. She read through them, devouring every one of her mother’s responses, as a matter of course—simply going through her daily ritual of reading and memorizing every word on her mother’s Facebook page. Sometimes, she had this naughty idea of posting a status update for her, something around the lines of: “Hey, everyone, I’m back and rocking it!,” but she knew she was too much of a stable, solid-minded fourteen-year-old to mess with her mother’s friends in such a cruel way. Still, it felt so exhilarating to be able to pretend to be her mother on Facebook for one single, solitary moment. A cruel moment, nonetheless, but one in which she could bring her back to life.
“I won’t be able to drive you to school, Kiddo. I’ll drop you off at Shawn’s. Okay?”
She heard her father bellowing across the little apartment in the ugly, industrial part of Filmore. Her home. Her mother’s home where her mother’s geraniums now wilted in slow motion on the table stand next to the front door. They had been the focal center of her mother’s endless, universal optimism; what a fine thing to believe that a pot of geraniums could overshadow their poverty and struggles to make ends meet. Geraniums, her mother stubbornly believed, made a home that defied all socio-economic factors. Something as green as their leaves and as red as their petals would evoke a sense of belonging and continuity. A kind of richness. A home.
“No problem, Dad. Shawn’s mom said she can always drive me to school”.
She was fine with her father’s shortcuts in life, as she was used to them. In fact, she was actually happy that today was the fourth day at his new job at the construction site on Carlon Boulevard. A new development for low-income housing was being built, commissioned by the city and some developers, and her Dad was lucky enough to get hired to help build the scaffolds. Getting hired had meant a whole new palette of things for them; he wouldn’t be able to wallow in his sorrow, digging a grave on the couch drinking beer any longer, as he would have to go to bed early in order to be up early. Most importantly, he would earn income. His unemployment had long run out, and Courtney was tired of the shame she felt talking to her aunt Linda and asking for money.
She anticipated turning fifteen like a caterpillar awaiting the transition into a butterfly—the only difference was that she wouldn’t flutter her wings to freely venture out, but rather would find an employer. Fifteen was a whole lot better than fourteen if one wanted to work even at fast foods. Being on food stamps and dependent on sisterly affections in her mom’s family wasn’t the dream her mother had entertained for her; she had wanted Courtney to be well taken care of, to go to college, to become somebody. So, all things considered, she was actually thrilled that her father was going to work, even if it meant that she had to ask neighbors to drive her to school.
“Hey, Kiddo, tomorrow is Friday. I’ll get you the popcorn machine today on my way to work. My boss said it’s used but it still works. And it’s RED”.
“Really, Dad? Can he really just give it to you?”
“Oh, yeah. He said they have no place for it and it’s old”.
“Then we’ll watch Robocop and make popcorn Friday night?”
“You bet, Kid.”
“Oh my God! I can’t wait!”.
“And I’ll get twinkies, too”.
* * *
For as long as she could recall, she had dreamed of having a red popcorn machine. Something she had once seen in an old movie theater downtown when she was a kid—long before it became retro-cool and all the rich kids in uptown Filmore had brand new ones in their fancy basements. Her Dad was one to appreciate the popcorn machine, as it went hand-in-hand with the movie night. Robocop for him. Twilight for her. Rambo for him. Hunger Games for her. The Hobbit for both of them. Popcorn accompanying the marathon, of course. How lucky they actually were. Luck was $2.99. The affordable price of a big bag of yellow hard corn at the grocer.
“Dad, make sure you don’t get yourself in trouble. Just do what your boss says.”
“I always do what my bosses want me to do. What do you mean?”
“Nothing, I’m just saying. I put your lunchbox at the door. Just cheese. No ham left.”
* * *
Shawn’s mother was as courteous as every other mother of her friends that she had known. She would ask Courtney, sometimes incessantly, if she was okay. If she wanted to hang with Shawn later after school. If she needed anything. Courtney had never recovered from the little kitchen incident at Shawn’s house and really didn’t like Shawn’s mom at all. She had gone into the kitchen to ask for water when she had stumbled in on the conversation. She heard bits and pieces that had engrained themselves into the deep layers of her brain, tucked away where feelings towards Shawn’s mom were stored.
“Poor mother. So sad. Cancer. Her father. Alcohol. I really don’t. But—sorry. I keep Shawn. Can’t. Terrible.”
Over time, she had come to recognize the root of the nauseating, heavy, sour knot in the middle of her stomach that kept her company every time she was at Shawn’s: it was insincere pity. Thankfully, Shawn was nothing like his mother. The distance between the front door and Shawn’s room was always easily overcome and the two of them could be themselves in the privacy of his room. Planets away from his mother’s prim expectations, he could be his own lonesome self and dive full-speed into his monumental crush on the captain of the football team—an always welcome distraction for Courtney, giving her a respite from grief.
That day at school was in every way an ordinary day. Math and English were lived through like the familiar routine of a factory line. Bathroom break was enhanced by eavesdropping on some gossip regarding the school’s principal. Lunch was the reflection of the schoolyard’s sycamore in the cafeteria’s windowpanes, coupled with texting back and forth with her dad.
“How’s work going?”
“Good, Kid. I am standing on a beam 265 feet above the earth”.
Courtney could always make it through the day with an uncanny patient attitude stemming from the non-negotiable and profound knowledge that all school days end at 3:00 p.m. Her father’s black pickup truck was a welcome sight. When she jumped into the passenger seat, she could sense an instant unease filling the air of the truck like a poisonous gas. What was different? She could smell deodorant, a powerful dose of it. And somewhere deep in that smell lived another dreaded familiar smell. Before she could rationalize her feelings, her father’s tirade began:
“The foreman is an ass; he shouldn’t even be working in construction. He doesn’t know squat about buildings.”
“Is that your boss?”
“The jerk wanted me out from day one. He did everything to get me fired. I’m with the union, ya know. I can fight back.”
“Wait… you got fired?”
“I’ve got a lot of other jobs lined up. They think they can jerk me around; they oughta think again…”
The drive home through the long, wide streets of Filmore gained a sudden, ominous character. Courtney envisioned being someone else, somewhere else—perhaps a character in a Japanese anime; or a singer on a stage in New York a few decades earlier; or simply a dot; or a comma in an old, rusty book in the library being devoured by silverfish. Then, she heard and felt the big boom. Her father crashed his truck into a parked car as he was turning onto Carmen Street, not far from their home. It was a shocking jolt, in every way.
“What are you doing? Oh, my God!” She screamed.
Her father, without much hesitation, pulled the car in reverse and left the scene of the accident, in first gear, towards home. Not a word was uttered between the two. Courtney, upon arriving at home, almost instantly began a conversation with herself. How could she have believed even for an instant that he might be capable of holding a job? How could he flee the scene of an accident? Was he drinking? Again? What was she to do? The decision seemed inevitable. Years and years of life before her, beyond her, had made that decision for her. All it took were the mechanical motions of folding, pressing, choosing, touching, placing, and closing. Similar to the manner of walking that soldiers display. Under the spell of a higher power. A power beyond one’s own reach or doing.
When she found herself at Shawn’s door, she wasn’t in the slightest surprised. Shawn’s mother was courteous as always, Shawn’s bed warm, Shawn’s room large, as large as the strawberry fields behind Filmore. Her fingers and thumbs had begun the arduous task of searching every job site online with intermittent browsing of her mom’s Facebook page. Around 3 a.m., she saw her father’s texts:
“Hey, Kiddo. Where are u?”
“I need ur help. You need to tell’m that you were driving. they won’t do anything to u but I’d be screwed.”
“Where the hell are u?”
“Are at your bitchy aunt’s house?”
“ANSWER NOW OR I TAKE YOUR FUCKING PHONE AWAY”
“You stupid spoiled brat”
“I have the popcorn machine.”