I was lying in bed, reading a tattered paperback, when my phone gave the little singsong chime that meant trouble. I closed my eyes and gnawed at my thumbnail, hoping it would trick my grumbling stomach into believing I was eating, while I momentarily avoided whatever problem the message was about. My mother was the only person who ever texted me, and then only when she needed something. At 10 pm on a Saturday evening, I could think of only a few reasons for her to text. None of them were good.
I laid down the book and pulled my wrinkly, wet thumb from my mouth then wiped it off on my shorts before reaching for my phone on the nightstand. It was an old model iPhone, the screen scratched and crazed and the pink case dingy and discolored. I was grateful for it, anyway. My mother had reluctantly agreed to let me use it when she bought herself a new one. It was one of the nicest things she’d ever given me.
Can u come get your mom?
Another momentary pause. Not long enough to really contemplate my answer; it’s not like there was much of a choice. Who else would come and get her? My father was six years into a ten year sentence at Pendleton Correctional Facility. Maybe if she’d texted him that night he’d be here now to take responsibility for her, but more likely I’d be called to come for both of them.
I flopped the arm with the phone over my eyes and sighed then rolled over and let my feet drop to the floor. I shoved them into my flip flops and trudged out to collect my mother. The house was dark — I tried not to waste electricity, but I switched on a small lamp by the front door so it would be easier to see when I had to wrangle my mother through the front door and down the hall to her bedroom. Maybe I wouldn’t bother; maybe I’d just let her sleep it off in the living room. The couch was lumpy, but I doubted she’d notice in her condition.
The August air was cool that late in the evening, and I rubbed my goose-pimpled arms as I hurried down the country road that stretched a dozen miles from our house with nothing but the occasional unbroken porch light to illuminate the way. The acrid scent of gasoline that normally rose up from the hot asphalt in steamy clouds during the day had settled in for the night, and I could smell the change of seasons instead.
Not that summer was any picnic, but it was better than the rest of the seasons. At least I didn’t have to worry about whether I would be warm enough with my sparse wardrobe choices, and I seemed to have less appetite during hot weather, although the scent of BBQ wafting from the neighbor’s grill was always torture. It was easier to go places in the summer, too, with no snow or ice to trudge through. I could make the four mile walk to the library in under an hour. Coming back took a little longer, when my arms were weighed down with heavy hardbacks.
In the summer, I would get as many books as I could realistically carry, the thick tomes filling my empty days with vicarious adventure. In the winter I tried to get what I needed from the school library and carry it home on the bus instead of trekking through piles of snow to the county library, but their collection was limited, and I’d already read most of the better novels they stocked.
A few dogs barked as I passed by their territories, their chains clanking as they rose to attention then snapping with a metallic clang when they reached the limit of their freedom. I empathized with their pathetic existence, neglected yet tethered in place by the very people who ignored them. I was tempted to unhook their chains and set them free, but would they be any better off, left to fend for themselves? Most of them had a roof over their heads of some kind, food and water if not always enough, and most were not abused, just forgotten — their novelty worn off, their owners distracted by the pursuit of other pleasures.
At least I had hope for the future; someday I would be old enough to get a job, save for college, maybe even earn a scholarship, and my life would be a product of my own choices instead. They couldn’t see past their current ennui. I wished I had a scrap of food to throw them, or even a leftover bone, but my own dinner had been hours ago — half the packet of ramen I had saved from lunch. Hopefully, Mom hadn’t drunk all the money tonight and I could persuade her to pick up a few groceries tomorrow. She was low on cigarettes, so maybe she’d go to the store.
The lights from Dave’s Dive illuminated the sky beyond the hill, and I quickened my step till I was practically jogging. I wished I had put on jeans before leaving or at least grabbed my jacket, but I hadn’t expected it to be this cold.
The sign above the restaurant said Dave’s Bar & Grill, but everyone called it Dave’s Dive instead. Dave didn’t call it that himself, but he never corrected anyone, either. The atmosphere didn’t seem to deter patrons; the little building was usually crowded with loud voices and sweaty bodies, barely visible through the haze of cigarette smoke. The air conditioning always seemed to be on the fritz, and the room was hot, even though it was cool outside now.
A bell tinkled as I yanked open the smudged glass door and scanned the room for my mother, looking past the dining room and into the bar area. Her head was lying on the bar, her bleached blonde hair covering her face, her fingers still wrapped around a bourbon. A leopard print high heel dangled from one foot, the other already on the floor beneath her. Once I saw her, I took a peek around the room, noticing mostly regulars. No one looked surprised; they already knew our story.
There was only one person I didn’t recognize, and my eyes were immediately drawn to him like a magnet. A busboy. Probably a new employee. He looked about my age but was most likely older since you had to be at least 16 to work there. I knew because I’d tried to get a job there a while ago, since it was the only place within a reasonable walking distance, but I won’t be 16 till next spring, so no luck there.
The boy was cute, cuter than most of the other boys at my school — tall with toned arms sticking out of his tee shirt and dark hair that swooped across his forehead. His eyes caught mine, and he flicked the hair back like Justin Bieber used to do. A wild bolt of electricity zinged through me, making me tingle with a sense of anticipation, as if my body knew something momentous was happening. My stomach clenched with a weird pang of longing, and I immediately looked away, embarrassed by my appearance and my immediate attraction. Strangely, when I peeked back again, the boy’s face mirrored my emotions. I shrugged it off; obviously I was misreading him.
I don’t think I’m ugly, but my clothes were old and faded, rumpled from a day spent reading in bed, and I hadn’t bothered to brush my rebellious hair before I left the house. I wasn’t wearing any makeup, either, but then I usually didn’t. Besides, boys don’t look at me like men look at my mom, with raised eyebrows and an exaggerated smile. Any attention directed my way is usually negative, so I do my best to avoid attracting it at all.
I headed over to my mother and shook her shoulder, hoping she wasn’t too drunk to walk to the car with me. She groaned and raised her head up enough to see who I was. Disappointed, she plopped her head back on the bar.
“Mom, it’s time to go home,” I whispered, replacing her shoes and wrapping an arm around her waist.
“I don’ wanna… I haven’t had any fun yet,” she slurred, weaving the half-empty glass of bourbon towards her mouth, but she couldn’t get her aim right.
“There’s nobody left to have fun with, Mom. Let’s go home and get some sleep. You’re tired.” I pulled her from the barstool, and she flopped her weight against me, causing me to stumble a little. When I straightened up, Bieber the busboy was staring at me, and my cheeks flamed. His eyes held only curiosity, not pity or disdain like most of the others gawking at me, and I wondered what he was thinking. I try not to think too hard about stuff like that, though. The things people say out loud are bad enough; I don’t even want to imagine the stuff they don’t say.
I shuffled forward in a practiced dance, leading my listless partner towards the door. We were doing just fine until that obnoxious Mike Ripley had to interfere.
“Hey, why don’t you let me take it from here, little lady? I can take real good care of your momma tonight.” He reached a hand around her waist, but I yanked her away from him, smacking my own hip into a table in the process and knocking over somebody’s drink. Beer sloshed on my shorts and icy rivulets ran down my leg. Mom grabbed onto my shirt for balance, and the thin tee shirt ripped underneath her long fingernails, exposing my old, stretched-out bra and my breasts that, although still small, had outgrown it and were mounding over the top of the dingy, cotton material.
I lost my balance, and we both tumbled to the floor, crashing into the nearby tables and chairs to a chorus of expletives. My breath escaped me, and I winced as pain radiated from my hip and elbow.
I looked up to see the busboy hovering over me with a concerned look on his face. He tried to maintain eye contact, but his gazed darted back and forth uncontrollably between my exposed breasts and my face. “You okay?”
I slapped one hand over my bare chest and hesitated before placing the other in his. It was warm and soft, the first physical contact I'd had in a while, and I gasped as the electricity I felt earlier hummed to life between our skin. I wriggled out from beneath my mother’s limp form then quickly let go of him. “Thank you.” My eyes dropped to the ground, and I reached to help my mom.
She moaned and whined a little, but she let me haul her up, and then we were moving again. I didn’t turn back to see the looks on the faces around us.
She perked up a little when the chilly air hit her, and it got a little harder to wrangle her into the passenger seat of her car, a 20-year-old BMW. She pursed her lips and frowned as I slid into the driver’s seat. “You can’t drive; you don’ have a license.”
“And you’re drunk, so I think I’m the safer bet.” I dug the keys out of the center console where she always tossed them and stuck them in the ignition. It took a few tries, but eventually the engine roared to life, and I inched out of the parking lot and onto the road. When I looked in the rearview mirror, I saw the boy standing just outside the door, waving his phone in the air as I drove away.
Copyright Kellie McAllen. All Rights Reserved.