Brighton, Summer 1983 – Mom Stabs Bobby

B’s attendance at the apartment was sparse enough, between his job and his glaring dedication to meetings.  She was under by the time he got home at night and picked fights about whatever she could think of.  He became more outspoken in her refusal to get “clean” – I had picked up on some drug references. B sounded as though he thought M was worse than she was before he met her.  She had indeed become virtually immobile – living perpetually on the couch with her coffee table of vital supplies and my regular trips to the liquor store.   They would even fight in the morning – she had me call the police from a pay phone once on my way to catch the bus for camp – the machine kindly returned the dime to me after the call.

The final call would not need to be made by me.  I don’t know that I would ever have told anyone about that last, pivotal incident that brought DSS finally to North Beacon Street in the middle of the night.  I would not have told my father, or my counselor at the New England Home for Little Wanderers.  Some things are too ugly to say out loud, some things you just know are going to bring the roof down. Even if you know the roof is coming down, or should come down, you don’t want to bring it down yourself. Not on your mother.

B’s brother was getting married.  She had to go. She wore the same blue silk dress she had worn to my First (and only) Holy Communion, with white dots and a ribbon draped prettily across her waist, strappy heels on her small, lovely feet.  She looked pretty, she was sober, she had my Jamaican girlfriend’s older sister babysit for me, despite my I-am-nine-and-sentient protests.  The night, for me, was uneventful, I was happy that she was out of the house, off of the couch, being a woman.  I remembered E’s wedding.  I had been proud enough to say “the bride is my Aunt”, but thought my mother had looked more beautiful and glamorous than I had ever seen her.  When I was younger, before the stairs, she had been a woman, a woman with wiles.  Even when there was blood, she maintained her femininity with a surety, a bravado, a grace I would stop attempting to imitate at some point in my twenties.  Her post-hospital/rehab/halfway house self was not at all womanly.  She was a ghost-woman, not even a shadow of what she had been, now overrun with an unmistakable current of fear, a fear she was attempting to drown with more force than she’d used at any time to date.   But tonight, she was female and I felt her power.  And somehow, for no articulable reason, I felt hopeful.

Screaming, angry screaming is what roused me later.  I opened the door.  M was drunk.  Still in her dress and strappy shoes, B still dressed in a suit. Him, sober. Clearly sober, even to a groggy nine year-old.  She was upbraiding him.  He just wanted to go to bed.

“I watched you!”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, just go to bed.”

“With you? Not in my bed! Get out!”

“P, I’m going to sleep.”

She hit him.  This kept him from going to sleep.

“I saw you do it. You got down on your knees, in front of everybody at that wedding, and you sucked your brother’s cock.”

That could not possibly have happened.  B saw me then. He wasn’t so much horrified as tired, probably he knew there was no shielding me from this, and no need, to really.

“J, go to sleep, honey.”

She whirled at me, angry at me too.

“Shut your door!”

I did. I climbed back into bed, trying to remember what B’s brother looked like.  It didn’t matter.  That didn’t happen.  Probably he had a nice wedding.  I hoped briefly that she hadn’t lost it at the wedding.

She contained herself, assumedly for my benefit, for a little while, but eventually I was up again, at my door, listening to things crash.  He was pleading with her.  Something wasn’t right.  Her voice was different – not angry now, but teasing.  Why did he sound so desperate? All I could hear specifically was him saying “PLEASE”.  So I opened the door.

He had undressed to his underpants.  She wore her dress but no longer the heels.  She was stalking him around the short space of the living room, with a carving knife.  I didn’t know whether they made carving sizes in S, M and L, but this was large enough for me.  Of course I knew she liked knives – she’d made them my personal hobby.  I had no record player with a diamond needle, but knives were accessible, I had stolen one from every house I’d ever been in, they were stored lovingly in my top dresser drawer.  I had never seen her use one though, just the fear in my throat, from time to time, that she might use one.  But now here she was, slender right arm clocked back, knife at her hip, its blade glittering in the dull light of the room.

“I’ll go, just let me put some clothes on, please.”

She kept jabbing it toward him, just tiny little forward movements, a cobra measuring its prey.  Deliberately driving him backward, he kept circling, past the door, perhaps not believing she would stab him, that she might be reasonable enough to let him dress.

“Nope, not in that room.  You’re never going into that room again, not after what everybody watched you do tonight.”

God, she was so fucking insane.  Again he caught sight of me but declined to call her attention to my presence.  No doubt for my protection.  Although I never feared for myself when the knives came up.  She had put the weapons in my hands.  She would not turn this bond on me.

“Please, I can’t go out like this.”

“You don’t have a choice.”

“I’ll be arrested.”

“You should be. You filthy son of a bitch.”

I felt bad for B.  Just for a moment.  Then he grew a sack and made for the bedroom, a slight shift in his face, one of resignation, he would put on pants, with or without bleeding for it.  He came towards me and she made a quick adjustment and was in front of him and driving the knife into his belly.  I saw it on his face before she pulled back and revealed the visual that corresponded with what I had heard.   He puffed out a not-all-that shocked gasp before she drove it in again, deeper this time.  He came to life then, driving her forcibly back towards me so quickly that I withdrew into the black room.  For her part, she seemed to literally fall asleep.  She had no physical response.  I could not see her face, but she made no sound, just lay on the bed where B placed her, the knife having clattered to the floor.

“Keep her here.  Keep her HERE!”  He pulled the door shut behind him and I could hear him crying.   Backed up against the door, determined to keep it closed until he escaped, only half afraid that she would rise up for another go, I watched her inert form.  She slept.  It couldn’t have been a peaceful sleep, and there could be no triumph in her mind, shattered as it was.  I heard the door to the apartment close heavily a few minutes later.  After a few minutes in a dark I had adjusted to I examined my sleeping mother.  She had blood on her beautiful hands, dried now.  I noticed for the first time that she had bitten her nails down until her fingertips were raw at some point during the course of the evening.  The ribbon was gone from her waist.  She didn’t look beautiful, lying there.  She looked finished.

© 2012 J. Gallagher

Failure to adhere to copyright policy will result in death by crushing

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Brighton Summer 1983 – She’s Fucking Lost It

Home life in M’s custody was always interesting but she was declining, becoming more erratic, more distant.  By summer we had settled into a pattern regarding her drinking.  Verbally, when she was sober or at least vaguely alert, she would maintain that she was clean, and had been the entire time we’d been in Brighton, pretending there were not, in fact, any number of bottles of alcohol in the apartment.  I would not challenge her on this outright. She had her moments of lucidity. She cooked and cleaned several times a week, dutifully packed my lunch for camp every day.  Otherwise she was tanked and the liquor was all over the place, palpable in the very air of the apartment.  In these more frequent events, if she was preoccupied, I would take the opportunity to seek and destroy her stockpile – vodka, whiskey, gin, Amaretto – a skilled endeavor that never earned a reprisal.   She drank and meted out abuse without any discernible pattern.  During these periods it didn’t matter that we would both remember tomorrow that she’d been wildly drunk.  It was just an unspoken “OK, fine, yeah, I’m still a strongly practicing alcoholic, what are you going to do about it?”

She was on me about child support, as if a nine year-old girl had any power to affect change in her favor.  She wanted more money, more often, delivered to her at the apartment door by my father personally on our biweekly visits.  My departure on those weekends was a major and much dreaded chore.  No doubt part of her design was to engage him in pleas or arguments.  When she was drinking she would sometimes discuss him with me, saying she wanted him back.  I never knew what to say, I felt bad.  I don’t think she ever knew the D that was now, he was a different person altogether and even at my age I knew he was forging a different life, one that did not include her.   Where???

Sometimes the context of the alcoholism was different, her entire personality was off and the subject lay like an open wound.  From my point of view anyway.  From hers, sometimes, sobriety didn’t factor into the equation at all. So she would lucidly ask me to go to the store to purchase her working materials for her.  Again, no questions asked.  In 1983 a nine year-old could still go to the liquor store and buy for her parents.  The drinking age was 18 at some point in the late ‘70’s, early ‘80’s, so I imagine they would not have sold to a teenager, but I had become a favorite at our neighborhood store and was always sent off with a free treat – a bag of pretzels, an extra sour pickle, Slim Jims – while running M’s errands.  When she ran out of money for booze, she would shamelessly, and probably uncontrollably, call D and harass and swear at him.

She would occasionally wake me in the middle of the night, wild-eyed, I thought not like a mother at all, even though the few other mothers I did know were not dissimilar to her.  The coffee table would be littered with empty bottles, like some sad ‘70’s liquor cemetery, though it was now 1983.  I would be barely cognizant of what was going on, just that by now I was freaked out, though this insanity was hardly un-routine by that last summer – wild mother on the loose, no sign of B, living room a battlefield of dissolution, the telephone looking misplaced and as unsettled as I was to see it removed from its place on the kitchen wall and planted on the armrest of the cream woven couch with the tufts of orange and brown bits of wool trying to escape from it.  The couch itself was aesthetically unsettling enough without the phone unsettling it further.

“You’re going to call your father and tell him you need money.”

“Why?” And what the hell time is it anyway?

“Because we need it.”

“Can’t I call tomorrow? It’s too late, we’ll wake him and Cathy up.”

She belted me across the mouth, backhand.

“Tell him there isn’t enough money for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

I hedged and looked around for any sign of help. The telephone was so conspicuous. I noticed small scraps of plastic wrap on the table, just tinged with white.  I thought about the $20 bill she’d sent me off with earlier that evening to collect her vodka.  She had pulled  it from a small roll of other $20s.  Despite its clear relevance, I declined to mention it.  One slap was quite enough.

I started to cry.  This angered her further.

“You can’t call your father? You can’t do this one thing for me, your mother?”

________________________________________

I think this was the exact moment that I consciously articulated to myself:  God, I wish you weren’t, anybody but you.  Particularly where I spent so much time with her younger sister, Eileen.  E had hair down past her hips, everyone always said like Crystal Gayle, though I hadn’t a clue who Crystal Gayle was, I imagined she must be quite beautiful.  She drove a 1974 soft-top Plymouth Duster, white perforated leather seats and a shiny black body.  She took karate lessons and was training for her second degree black belt. She also had the most wonderful collection of disco and funk records.  From “do not touch!”  I had graduated to carefully selecting and studying every detail of each record.  She had the Bee Gee’s, the Gap Band, Tavares, Bootsy Collins and the Rubber Band, Leon Haywood, and my personal favorite – Johnny Guitar Watson, who wasn’t strictly disco at all.

But my passion lay in her many Sister Sledge albums.  At the time I knew all of their names – now the only given name I can associate with Sledge is Percy, and she had him too.  The Sister Sledge records all had the four beautiful sisters on the front and back covers, artistically arranged in pink, red and purple silks, each sister dressed to complement the next.  E would put on whatever record I asked for and I would get lost in all of this talk of loving somebody today, or bringing your own baby, or we are family.  That was the one that received all the radio play but my refined disco palate preferred other gems. ‘Pretty Baby’ – the people don’t know what your mama knows/they don’t.  Or ‘Reach Your Peak’, although I had no idea it was about being naked.  I would listen to these records, studying the lyrics, the bass, the voices.  I was enraptured with all of it.  I would stare at the records covers, trying to associate a voice with a face.  The records had their names on them, now I have to Wiki ‘Sister Sledge’ on my 3G cell to conjure them – Kim, Debbie, Joni, Kathy.

Her living with my grandparents in Jamaica Plain meant I had spent substantial time with her, though visits were few and far between now.  When I was little she would pick me up from kindergarten (before I got myself expelled) and I would say to my few English-speaking classmates ‘Look, it’s my mother!’  I wanted so much for it to be true.  I would run to her and hold her in an embrace, never wanting to let go of her, her Crystal Gayle hair or her disco records.  When M collected me I would have to gauge her expression before committing to a greeting.

In a way, in the end, I was the closest thing E would have to a child of her own.  M’s other three siblings also declined to have children.  There is something telling in that, although I cannot fully decrypt its meaning.

________________________________________

And now at nine I was uttering it aloud in my head, consciously on that night, or morning.  I would tell her I hated her so many times that summer, starting when I realized:  a) that she was emotionally vulnerable; and b) that I had formidable skills in the manipulative arts.  For now I was hysterical and ashamed and knew you had to do whatever my mother told me to do, it was worldwide practice as far as I knew.  It’s been exactly 17 years since I last read the King James Bible but I am certain the rule remains, essentially:   Do exactly as your mother commands even if she is totally out of her mind and her demands are outrageous or your soul will be forever cast into the furthest reaches of a Hell you haven’t got the capacity the conjure in a mind of any age, never mind nine.

So I took the receiver as she dialed.

“Stop your crying!”

There was no answer.  I thought surely it was the salvation I hadn’t the time or presence of mind to have wished for in advance.

“He’s asleep, Mom.” It was a plea.

“No, try again, he’ll pick up.” She was crazed.

As we repeated this exercise three or four times, I tried to think of the proximity of his bed to the telephone in his kitchen.  It was a four-room second floor apartment in a lovely farm house on a nice piece of land with a Weeping Willow and a frog pond in the back yard.  The bedroom was beside the kitchen and the telephone was on the wall in the rear corner, by the enclosed rear porch.  In the time it took for me to determine how long it might take him to be woken up  by the ringing, recognize the noise as the telephone, and make his way to it, I had stopped crying and M had mercifully placed the receiver in its cradle.

And then it came to life all on its own.

She was delighted, visibly frenzied.

“That’s him. Tell him what I said.”  She snatched up the receiver on the second ring and forced it into my shaking and unwilling hand.

“Hello?” My father, tired. “Pattie?”

“Peanut butter sandwich.” She mouthed to me.

“Dad.” I was going to fuck this up, I could not do it, I could not beg.  It was just too damned shameful.

“J? What’s wrong?” Now alarmed.

“Nothing Dad, we need money.” Then I just burst into tears, no going back to something even vaguely coherent.

“Put your mother on the phone!” Now furious.  But furious in sobriety.  His fury no longer meant broken bones, lost teeth or brain damage.  Besides, he was many miles away and she could always just keep the door locked if he showed up, he couldn’t even get into the building without a key.  I noted all of this with a detached happiness and then M slammed down the phone.

“How difficult was it for you to tell your father that you can’t make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, because we’re so broke, because he owes me child support?” I hoped to never eat another peanut butter sandwich in my life.  But I didn’t tell her that. Instead I spat out the obvious, whatever the consequences.

“If it isn’t difficult why don’t you tell him?” I was still crying but now I was also outraged.  The phone was screaming off the hook, D apparently hellbent on waking everyone in our building.

She hit me so hard I landed first on the coffee table and then to the floor, taking all kinds of drunken-drug-addict-maniac paraphernalia with me.

“You’re a useless little shit.”

I thought my part was over.  She detached the phone cord from the wall to stop the ringing. I wondered whether my father would come.  I started toward my room, the promise of dark and quiet.  But it wasn’t to be.  She dragged me bodily back to the couch.  I stumbled on the pile of whatever that remained on the floor.  She forced me to lie on the couch and wedged herself in between the back of the couch and my now trembling frame.  She said nothing, just held me tightly and angrily.  For my part I didn’t move a muscle.  I could only look one way – at the horrible coffee table, mostly depleted of its stock of pure white trash.

I woke, recognizing that it was the same night, but inexplicably confused at not being in my bed.  I nearly fell of the couch.

“No you don’t.”

She was possibly more drunk than she had been when I had passed out.  She pulled me deeper into the heavily cushioned couch even as I tried, unsuccessfully, to regain my equilibrium.  I wasn’t quite awake enough to worry about pissing her off.

“I want to go to bed.”

“You are. Right here.”

Again she tensed her grip, spooning me, both of us lying on our right sides, me still feeling tenuous at the edge of the couch.  There was only so much room, her efforts were pointless and quite uncomfortable.  Not that the danger factor was particularly high, but how the hell was I supposed to sleep like this?

“I can’t sleep like this, there isn’t enough space.”

She just clutched me more tightly, my body enclosed in what always struck me as particularly strong  arms.  They were digging into my ribs on both sides.

“You will spend the night right here, with me.”

Ratcheting her grip up yet again, I could barely breathe.  I tried to say as much but she was already off.

“Maybe the next time your mother asks you to do something you’ll do it.”

This was my punishment.  Hours or moments later, eventually there was a shift in her leverage, she was growing tired herself, her voice not so frantic now, no more urgency, saying the angry words but with no anger behind them.

“Do you love me?”

“Yes, Mom.”

“Don’t you love me?” Now she sounded sad.

“Of course I love you.”

“What about your father?”

“What?”

“What if I want him back?”

I was aware that there was no answer to that, not an adequate answer.

“Mom.”

She was crying, quietly.  Her grip on me loosened briefly but I remained still.  I lay there listening to her cry, wondering whether this was going to be an all-nighter.  We’d had our share of those, but they used to be fun.  Before D dropped her down the stairwell, before she went into the hospital, before D got better at NorCap.

When I woke up it was daylight and I still lay on the edge of the cream couch, my mother’s arm draped over mine as she slept.

© 2012 J. Gallagher

Failure to adhere to copyright policy will result in death by crushing

Brighton, Summer 1983 – Paper Girl Abruptly Ends My Not-so-promising Hoodlum Career

A few more minor events stand out. There was a girl, 10 or 11, who had a paper route on North Beacon.  My little gang – my Lebanese neighbors, a Jamaican girl from across the street – and I secretly mocked her.  The must have been the only white girl in the neighborhood besides me.  We called her  “Paper Girl” and congratulated ourselves on our cleverness.

Having been on either end of “jumping” incidents in the not so distant past, I somehow got it in my head that I was tough.  My mother was a legitimate ‘tough broad’.  I must have assumed it was passed on genetically, like our matching strong, slender, veiny hands.  Sitting on the stone steps of our building, I finally had to realize my full badass potential.

“Paper girl!!!”

She was on the other side of the street, a main road, and not easily traversed.  Despite the distance, it was instantly established that of the two of us, she was, in fact, the badder-ass.  I had a cheerleaders baton, metallic blue, dimpled aluminum, an unlikely gift, I can’t imagine who was thinking what when they chose it for me.  Perhaps I’d stolen the thing.  In any event, Paper Girl was picking her way through four busy lanes of traffic without the benefit of a crosswalk or one of our usual protective adult escorts from the projects, and I took this opportunity to boldly take off running.  There was a large delivery truck parked just up the street and I took up a defensive position directly in front of it, in the road.  I stood there for a few moments, aware of my weapon, not daring to peer around the truck where Paper Girl was surely scouring the curb for my blood.  Rather, I studied the opposite sidewalk in the fruitless hope that Paper Girl’s sense of responsibility had overcome her hunger for vengeance.  I couldn’t stand in front of the truck forever.  I gripped my baton, heavy in my hand, and stepped cautiously beck onto my block of pavement.  There she stood, shoulders back, angry, intelligent face, fierce in her small femininity, with her canvas bag of newspaper draped across her frame.  I instinctively raised the baton in what I can only assume was some half-assed attempt to look threatening.  Paper Girl snatched it out of my hand swiftly and effortlessly, and held it, its blue tinted shaft sparkling dimly in the fading light, her expression shifting enough to convey her opinion of me as thoroughly unworthy.  I think I expected her to brain me with it, which struck me as fair enough at the time.  As it was, she nearly knocked me on my ass without so much as twitching a muscle of her own.

“What’s your problem?” This was not the stance of your average 10-12 year old.   She was a little taller than I was, bigger, dark hair, average looking, nothing distinguishing aside from her bearing and expression.  She was white, delivered newspapers in minority neighborhoods but didn’t go to school with us, a local Catholic school perhaps.   Whatever the case, she was at ease confronting a street rat without any back up.  And I found all of this very intimidating and strangely fascinating.

I had no problem, of course, so how could I respond to her reasonable, overtly-mature query? Nothing, I was just trying to look cool in front of my neighbors?

“Um, nothing, I’m sorry.”  My first ever impromptu apology, and genuine at that. I did not applaud myself.

“I don’t want to be called that.” Of course she didn’t.

“OK. Sorry.”

And just like that she dropped the baton, the metal and rubber stoppers clinking on the curb. I watched her and her dignity cross the street, for once fairly devoid of traffic.  My pals watched.  Kids didn’t behave that way, our underdeveloped egos are far too immature, there should at least have been raised voices, posturing, threats.  I started back towards my building and climbed the steps, passing my friends in silent shame.

“J, your baton.”

“You can have it.”

The 11pm rule was in effect and it wasn’t even dinner time.  Perhaps M would be too shitfaced to notice me and send me straight under the covers.  I didn’t care either way.  There was a lesson somewhere in the Paper Girl incident, and I had to decipher it, even if it meant solitary confinement.  I learned a lesson taught to her by blue-collar (we were no-collar), church-going parents who also instilled in her the value of responsibility and the value of a dollar earned, and the value of not taking shit from anyone. All of that by, what, 5th grade? I didn’t, or wasn’t able to articulate it to myself at the time, I just lay there on my bed, embracing the shame of the encounter – thinking why would I be mean-spirited to someone I had never met but who was unassailably respectable.  If you were mature enough to think in such terms, and I had only now graduated to them.  Something had happened – I felt ashamed and thought surely I would certainly never mock anyone again (at least to their faces, I was only nine after all and there’s only so long the impressions of a 10 year old declining to beat you with your own baton will remain.) There was a message of integrity somewhere in there, though lying there in the half-light with the constant sirens of God knew what emergencies and my mother with her vodka and Amaretto and her porn magazines strewn about the coffee table in the other room, it was difficult to adequately interpret it.

I would learn to employ the lessons subtly imparted on my by the pissed off Paper Girl. I scared off a few bullies in middle school (“Go ahead, kick my ass if it’s going to make you feel better, but I’m not giving you this necklace.”) and high school  (“What is your problem with me exactly? You don’t know me for Christ’s sake”.   Spoke my peace to otherwise terrifying bosses, stared down would-be attackers.  But I never realized any of it was an actual strategy gifted to me until the summer I was pregnant with my first child and became fed up with the local psycho Doberman pinscher.  I was 20 and without the baby-weight, amounted in stature to 5’3”, 90 pounds.  This figure of teeth, muscle and erect ears was always prowling the neighborhood, by Revere Beach, and just like everybody else, he became crankier, and therefore scarier, as the summer and its abusive heat wore on, tormenting passersby and never contained by what could only have been an asshole of a keeper.

I was headed to work one morning, walking to the Blue Line train where I got to drag my giant belly up several flights of stairs to be tossed about the ancient subway car until I switched to the Orange Line for a brief respite before switching finally to the un-air conditioned and always crowded Red Line. I dreaded the commute. And here was this dog, large, muscular, ferocious, ready to grind my bones to ash.  He began with a stalk and then started his growling and snarling that preceeded the volley of heart-stopping dog-shouting, threatening horrors beyond imagining.

The mother-to-be in me rose in a surprising fury. I recognized instantly that this Doberman was not the boss of me, not now, not ever, and that this was his desperate plea for me to put him in his place.  I had had it with this evil fuck of a dog.  I turned on him and he stopped short as if he’d reached the limits of his lead.  I spewed pure mindless fury.

“Back the fuck off you stupid son of a bitch, what the hell is your goddamned problem? I am through with your intimidation.  Guess what? I’m not afraid of you or your cropped tail or your pointy ears or even your perfect attack-dog teeth.  So you bring it motherfucker, go on, right now, do your worst badass-dog thing and be sure you enjoy it because I’m going to tear out your fucking throat!”

people, most people, decline to give our animal counterparts due credit – mental, intellectual, emotional.  This dog, he understood every word I said, nay, SHOUTED.  He absorbed the authenticity of my tirade, the sincerity of my threat, the legitimacy of my ability to carry it out, to realize my brutal promise.  He turned and fled from my otherwise vulnerable frame.  I never lost that aggressiveness, the quasi-courage that this dumbass dog wrenched out of me. But really it’s Paper Girl who’s to thank, wherever she is.

© 2012 J. Gallagher

Failure to adhere to copyright policy will result in death by crushing

Hyde Park, Winter 1981

I was used to running my mother’s errands, whether it was downstairs for sugar or up to Walk Hill Street for cigarettes.  There were two liquor stores within walking distance – Tops, blocks and blocks down on the Hyde Park side, or the convenient store directly behind our building, separated only by the train tracks and the projects.  As a kid, Dad had been a projects brat, but our existence had always stopped at the periphery.  I wasn’t particularly afraid of the projects, but was vaguely aware that their resident population consisted largely of minorities.

There had been substantial snowfall for days and since my grandfather had passed Mom had been mostly immobile, D wasn’t due to make his biweekly grocery delivery for a while.  We needed bread, milk, beer, cigarettes, juice and pickles.  My options were to go north to Walk Hill Street for everything but the alcohol and then head in the opposite direction for Tops or to traverse the tracks and make my way uncertainly through the projects to the bodega on Washington Street.  The bodega sold everything so I went to the enclosed rear deck while M wrote up a list for the clerk.  There was no open path to the tracks directly behind our place – I could see a path where kids had been climbing the walls of snow, plowed high by the commuter trains, in the vacant lot to one side of our building.  Just beyond that the bridge that crossed the tracks was visible and it appeared to be well shoveled.  So I opted for the one-stop bodega.

I dressed heavily and picked my way carefully through the selectively cleared edges of the projects.  Fifteen minutes later I was covered in snow with two heavy paper bags in my arms, a carton of orange juice peeking out of one of them.  I hugged them to my front, concerned for the integrity of the paper in the continuing snowfall.  When I had crossed the bridge earlier I had noticed a few breaks in the snow walls along the projects-side of the tracks.  I calculated that a trip directly through the buildings and across the tracks would get the bags home intact with better odds than the circuitous route to the more distant bridge.

It was quick enough work to the tracks and my neighboring peers had indeed made well-worn, defined footholds in the 10-15 foot mountain range of snow.  I negotiated it easily, slipping a bit on my behind on the climb down, but my purchases were unharmed.  I looked down the tracks, the bridge overhead in one direction, the top of our building visible through the scant and currently bare line of trees along our side of the tracks.  No clear crossing was apparent in the packed snow on the opposite side of the tracks.

I headed in the direction of the house, walking in the center of the tracks where the rails were visible in spite of the weather.  There were no trains approaching in either direction, just the barely visible figures of a few kids walking towards me.  I kept my eyes trained on the wall of snow, hoping for a sign of an easy way over.

The figures soon revealed themselves as three black kids – a girl, around my age, and two boys, one bigger than the girl, the other smaller.  They did not go to my school.  I had no response at first, save to keep examining the snow for any way over that menacing wall.  The falling snow made it difficult to see whether anyone had ventured over it earlier, the clean snow covering the frozen, exhaust-covered barrier every minute.  There weren’t many trains on the weekends.  I wondered if I passed the house whether there might be something on the other side.

I avoided eye contact with the other kids and in doing so received no notice of an assault before landing on my ass, my bags broken, their contents scattered.  Momentarily angry, I jumped back up only to be shoved straight back down by what now appeared to be a slightly older girl, eight to ten maybe,  I’ve-just-started-working-on-my-cold-as-ice-look, how’s it working? written all over her face.  It was working just fine for her, except for a slight hesitation.  This show was for the boys.

My fall the second time was nastier – I caught my foot uncomfortably in the ties and slipped, tearing my jeans.  My legs and behind began to soak through.

“Stay down, bitch.”  The younger boy giggled as she picked through my things.  Fighting back sobs, shivering and shamefully wiping at my nose with the useless sleeve of my jacket, I tried to get up, but she appeared at my feet with the half-gallon of orange juice.  She shoved it toward my face accusingly and proceeded to empty it there on the snowy tracks.  The new orange shade of the grimy snow did it, I just started to cry.  What the hell did I do to deserve this abuse from a stranger anyway?

I sat there in the snow, wet knees curled to my chin, bony ass quickly freezing.  It occurred to me that I had participated in a similar spontaneous attack that past summer on a girl I went to school with.  It was a Sunday morning and a friend from Jamaica Plain had moved into one of the triple deckers across the street.  Regina was a bigger girl with a mean streak.  I would have been labeled a ‘follower’ at the time, so when R followed this girl, whose home I’d eaten dinner at a few times and who I was friendly with at school, from the donut shop and proceeded to taunt her, I barely noticed my own adrenaline rise.  There were five or six of us, with R leading with cries for the girl to hand over her donuts.  The girl failed to comply and halfway up another block R tore the paper bag from her, spilling her Sunday morning donuts and sending our victim running.  We had kissed the donuts to heaven and eaten them.

No sooner had we proudly sauntered back onto our own block – our now officially claimed territory – than the father came shouting out of nowhere.  R ran into her house, everyone else disappeared, but I lived directly across this four-lane thoroughfare and my own escape was hampered by its traffic.  Traffic and shame.  The fact that he knew me to be a ‘friend’ of his daughter’s no doubt incensed him further.  I got in in waves of rage and all of its controlled physical manifestations.  M, standing on our deck across the street, looking on unperturbed while a grown man threatened me, gave the experience a surreal quality.  I was too shocked by the time he was done that I’d even participated, never mind the threatening dad part, I was too busy making excuses to myself (I couldn’t mentally locate any legitimate excuses for my behavior) to have said anything to him, much less have apologized.  I was disgusted with R by the time he stormed off, goddamned chicken, and when I asked M why she didn’t chime in, she said she thought we were ‘playing.’  I told her for the next time that I wasn’t in the habit of playing with grown men.  She must have been in an altered state.

So here I was now getting a feel for the other end of the stick.

“Where you live, bitch?”

Now I was a bitch.  I pointed to my house.  Its proximity did nothing to deter her.

“Get up.”

I’d really rather not.  I said nothing and readied my half frozen bones to be kicked.

“I said GET UP!”

“What do you want?”

“To give you your groceries back.”

That sounded unlikely.  My peripheral vision established that the younger boy had found the vodka.  I tried to calculate what this was costing my mother.

“Come on, that’s enough.” The older boy, shooting me a quick, apologetic glance, then a hopeful look towards their fearless leader.

“Shit.” If that’s what it takes.

And that was that.  They took the booze and continued up the tracks.  I sat there a few moments more, somewhat shocked, scanning for a way through the snow wall, seeing none.  I got up and looked over the small battlefield with my dead bread, flattened pack of cigarettes and dented gallon of milk.  The pickle jar was smashed, I hadn’t heard it, must have been too busy being thrown onto the tracks.  I wiped the hardening snow from my jeans and started to cry heavily and with fury.

I pocketed the cigarettes and wrapped the excess plastic of the bread bag around my cold fingers.  The milk was too big without a bag and by that point I really didn’t care what M would say.  I wasn’t following my tormenters back toward the bridge, she could come get the milk herself.  The snow was still falling and I just angrily started to climb into it, the house was all of 50 yards away. Two or three steps up the steep and hardened embankment and I would slide back to the ground.  I cried harder, looked back up the tracks.  The kids had disappeared, I cursed at them now.  I hurled the bread up and over our little mountain, nothing was going to happen to it, and I dug into the snow with my bare hands and tore my way to the top with great effort.  I slid down the other side, feeling vaguely as if I’d returned from an accidental trip to another planet.  I swiped at my face, plastered now with hair, snow and an amalgam of fluids, and caught sight of the bread just before the man picked it up.

“Tough climb.”  What now?

I leaned back into the snow, taking a quick survey of my surroundings.  We were backed up by the few trees at the back of the empty lot, covered in snow save for a few tracks.  My building was adjacent to the lot, literally a stone’s throw.

“Sorry. I’m Steve, I run the car lot just up the block?”

I nodded.

“I saw the Wonder bread come out of nowhere.”

He smiled.  It hadn’t occurred to me that the bread would be given even momentary independence.  I sat against the snow, my behind already as wet and cold as it could get.  The man stepped towards me, making an offering of the bread.  I glanced at the traffic – there was no danger here – and took the bread from his hands.  Before he’d gotten off his next awkward question, something about where I lived, we both saw M striding menacingly through the thickening weather.  It was no surprise that this man would become her next boyfriend, but of all of the men over the years he was the last I’d have expected to serve as the catalyst for the spectacular demise of my parents’ half-dead marriage.

© 2012 J. Gallagher

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