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February 2011 Volume 13 , Issue 2 submit to us!

by Audrey T Carroll -- Contributing Author [Email This Story]

The men started coming around the house when I was six. Mom insists that no, I must have been older, at least eight, but probably ten. But she's wrong. I was six; it was the year she got me Pink and Pretty Barbie, and her man came with Connect Four.

Mark, the guy's name was. He was the nicest of the bunch, if you ask me. The first time we met was on my birthday, actually. The doorbell rang. I was in the living room, playing with my brand-new Barbie doll, taking her pink scarf and hat and skirt on and off and playing with her dangling crystal earrings, earrings like Mom had. I walked her up and down the marble table as I sat Indian-style on the red shag carpet. Usually, if the doorbell rang, it was a neighbor complaining about the noise. Mom liked to play her music loud at night. And so I thought nothing of it when I heard a deep man's voice. But then I heard him come inside. I thought he might have been a cop, and that the neighbors had finally called the police like they said they would when they came to the door. He was probably coming inside to arrest me, too, I figured, so I put Barbie down; I didn't want her to go to jail with us.

When my mother emerged in the doorway of the living room, though, she wasn't in handcuffs like they showed the people on Cops. Instead, she was holding a bouquet of red flowers. The man with Mom was only a little taller than her. He had short brown hair and big ears and was wearing a gray and white Hawaiian shirt.

"This must be Cassandra," the man said, smiling widely and kneeling down. He reached his hand out to me. "I'm Mark."

I just looked at him, my head tilted. He took away his hand, slowly, and stood up. Mark leaned close to my mother, whispering something in her ear. Mom laughed and playfully hit his chest with the bouquet in her hand. "No, no, she's fine," she answered back, much louder and giggling. "She's just too quiet." I noticed that Mark had a box wrapped in shiny pink paper in his hand. He must have caught me looking at it. He smiled and sat down across from me, handing me the present. A huge purple bow sat on top.

"It's for you."

Mom said something about water and left the room, but I didn't really pay attention. I took the purple bow off, carefully, and stuck it on the marble table next to Barbie. Then I ripped the paper from the box. It was Connect Four. I grinned at Mark. "Thank you!" I squeaked. The box was difficult to open, so Mark took it, opening it for me, taking all the pieces out and putting them on the floor between us.

"Now, do you know how to play this?"

I shook my head, staring at the yellow and red plastic circles.

"All right. Well, I'm going to teach you then, if that's okay." I nodded. His voice was nice, even though I wasn't really used to grown-up man voices. I never knew my father. Mom didn't mention him, and so I didn't either. He was probably just another one of her men, now that I think about it. "Red or yellow?"


Mark showed me how the chips went in, how it was basically a glorified version of tic-tac-toe. After showing me one game that he played by himself, we played a game. I won. Mom came back into the room. Mark and I looked at her, then continued our game. She sat on the green floral couch, watching us. We played another three games before I remembered she was there.

"Did you come to see Sandy or me?" she laughed.

"Ah, come on, Jan," Mark said as he blocked my diagonal win. "We're just having a little fun." My mother huffed, but neither one of us seemed to care as Mark won. The radio turned on. The glass cabinet of grown-up drinks--a cabinet that grew fuller as the years passed--opened, and I could almost feel that grin Mom had when she opened it, a big wineglass in her hand as she shook her hips to the song on the radio. I kept playing Connect Four with Mark, though, not bothering to turn around and find out if I was right.

I'm still not sure what ever happened to Mark. I mean, I'm sure Mom found something stupid reason to break up with him. She's really good at that. But what that reason was or when exactly he disappeared is beyond me. All I know is that he was gone by my next birthday. There were about half a dozen more boyfriends, or whatever she called them, that visited the house by the time I was ten. They weren't so sweet as Mark was. In fact, it was rare that the man or my mother noticed I was around.

By the time I was eleven or twelve, Mrs. Todd, my sixth grade English teacher, had been sending me to the guidance counselor. I guess she felt bad for me. Mom had been sending me to school in mostly thrift clothes, too-big, faded neon t-shirts and jeans with holes all over them, and some of the girls had been talking about me. I didn't mind ignoring them and just sketching in my notebook, but Mrs. Todd still sent me down to 113 every so often.

Miss Fry sat behind her desk, looking to me for an answer. It's always made me uncomfortable when people keep their eyes on me for too long, even as a kid. "I dunno," I mumbled, picking at my nails. "I don't really care."

"It doesn't make you angry or sad when they talk about you like that?" Miss Fry asked, leaning forward. Her long blond wavy hair fell in her eyes. Miss Fry had a kind face, even when she looked stern like she did right now. I shook my head. "How are things at home, Cassandra?"

I turned to my hands in my lap, fidgeting with the cuticles around my nails. "It's fine, I guess. It's just my mom and me."

"Do you talk a lot with your mom?"

Again, I shook my head. "Nah, she works a lot." She was out of the house a lot, at least.

"Do you have any other family members you can talk to at home?"

"No. I stay alone when my mom . . . " I looked back up at Miss Fry. She had the folder with my name in it open. My permanent record, I wagered. I thought about the men, about asking Miss Fry what she thought of the drinking and staying up late and playing loud music. The neighbors didn't even bother coming by about that anymore, and they certainly didn't come around for any other reason. I wondered, very briefly, if she could get inside my mother's head. " . . . when my mom's not around. Buh . . .  Uh, neighbors came by when I was a kid to watch me, but Mom says I'm old enough to take care of myself now." Miss Fry scribbled something next to the date on a piece of paper. I wasn't sure if I said something wrong or not.

"Does it make you upset when your mother isn't around?" Miss Fry asked. She pointed to a piece of paper on the wall with six-year-olds making faces and the titles of what they were feeling under them, from "Happy" to "Sad." "Which do you feel?" I shrugged. The whole idea of pointing to a face on the wall seemed silly to me. "Do you feel like hurting yourself?"

I didn't know much about suicide at the time besides the fact that it was "killing yourself." I wasn't sure what Miss Fry meant until the next year when we got letters home about a girl who was cutting herself in our grade. Maybe Miss Fry picked up on this, or maybe she was tired of me. Either way, she closed my folder and let me leave.

After school that day, I walked the fifteen minutes home. I always had a knot in my stomach walking home after a meeting with Miss Fry. What if she had called Mom and told her that I was all screwed up in the head? Or worse yet, what if Miss Fry had called her and Mom flipped out, angry that she'd been pulled away from Jim or Peter or whoever, and was pacing the floor, just waiting for me to come back so she could shriek about not acting like I belong in a crazy house?

I would stare at my shoes the whole way, beat-up sneakers that I had for years, ignoring the small houses I passed in the neighborhood. They were all the same, those houses: water-damaged white siding, narrow houses, built so close together that you could see from one clear in to the other. There wasn't any room between them, they were packed so tight. Finally, as I reached my house, I opened the door, the only red door on the block. Mom never locked it. I guess it added to that welcome feeling she wanted when she had the door painted red. We had a small house, but it was all Mom could afford between waitressing and the help of some of her male friends.

She never told me when she bought the house, exactly, but I didn't remember living anywhere else. Sometimes I wondered if Dad had bought it for her, when she said he was pregnant. Then he couldn't deal with her anymore, and he left. He left a note, but Mom lost it. She was absent-minded like that; it could have happened.

As I closed the door behind me, I could hear my mom laughing upstairs. Jim was probably with her. He'd been around for a couple of weeks now. Or maybe it was Peter by then. I walked past the living room and down the small hallway, into the kitchen. There was some noise on the steps as I dropped my book bag on a counter and opened the fridge. I pulled out the orange juice and headed for the cabinets. My mom and Jim were whispering by the front door. I turned around and saw her leaning on him, arms wrapped around his neck, like he was trapped. He reached down and started making out with her, his hands groping at her ass. I grunted and rolled my eyes, turning back to the cabinets to grab a cup. The door opened and closed, and then Mom came into the kitchen, taking the orange juice carton after I dropped it on the counter. I glanced at her. She was wearing her big purple sweater inside out, over some leggings. Mom drank some juice from the carton, then placed it on the counter.

"Heya, Sandy," she said, bubbly. "How was school?"

I took the orange juice back to the fridge and Mom pulled herself up onto the counter next to my book bag and sat down.

"Fine," I mumbled. I drank some, and then went to grab my bag. Mom took the bottom of my face in her hand, her acrylic nails pinching as she lifted my chin so I'd look at her. She moved my face to one side, then the other, looking me over.

"Oh, Sandy, you'd be such a pretty girl if only you'd wear some makeup," she said. She was grinning with her plumped brown lips and batting her eyes, thick with eyeliner and mascara, at me. I pulled away from her and grabbed my bag.

"You wanna go shopping?" Mom asked, kicking her legs. I shook my head. "Oh, come on. I'll buy you lots of makeup. All the kinds I have. Eyeliner and mascara," she said, counting off on her fingers, "and lipstick and lipliner and foundation and blush. It'll be so fun!" Mom slid off the counter. I backed away from my mother, feeling the weight of the backpack in my hand. I thought about going with her, for a second. Mom never really spent time with me, and I wondered if it might be fun. Before I could answer, she went on: "I know what we'll do! We'll go to the park! See if we can't find a nice boy skateboarding . . . " She bumped me with her hip. "Maybe we can finally hook you up with someone, huh?"

" . . . lots of homework," I grumbled. I shuffled up to my room, dragging my bag on the floor behind me. By the time we actually got around to going out, she'd probably have us going to the zoo. Maybe she'd find one of the more attractive workers so she could bring home another man.

The month before I graduated middle school, they held a career day for the eighth graders, where we moved around to different classrooms, depending on which careers we wanted to learn about. We had to choose three. I went to see the lawyer in the morning. All he had to say was that the divorce rate had been skyrocketing. Before lunch, I went to see the school nurse. She was talking about something, but all I could pay attention to were the ducks floating around on her sky blue shirt. After lunch, I went to the classroom with Miss Fry. Three other girls sat in the back row; I sat in front of the teacher's desk.

"Hello, ladies," Miss Fry said, standing in front of the chalkboard. "Miss Fry" was written above her head in neat script. "I'm Miss Fry, for those of you who don't know me. I'm the guidance counselor here. I . . .  I guess I should talk about what drew me to this job." She laughed, looking toward the back of the room. She got no response, so her eyes settled on me. "I guess what made me want to be a psychologist was a teacher I had my senior year of high school. She wasn't the best teacher in the world, but she showed me that psychology helps you understand people."

Miss Fry's eyes darted to the clock and back again. She seemed much more direct when I'd come down to her office. I felt a little bit bad for her. Honestly, it was weird to see her outside of that room, without the charts and motivational posters and file cabinets that I associated with her so strongly. Still, even with her nervousness, Miss Fry was better put together than my mother. She wore a pink button down-shirt and black dress pants. Her hair was frizzy and kinky, and held back with a headband. The only makeup she had on was lipstick. Her voice was calm in a way that my mother's never was, even when she was in one of her more relaxed moods. Overall, Miss Fry was just more easygoing and approachable, which I appreciated about her.

"You should definitely take electives in high school seriously. Um, so, the reason I wanted to work with chil--young people is that I remember how hard it is to be young, so I wanted to be there for people your age. It took a lot of work to get this position, but I feel like it was worth it in the end."

Mom hadn't gotten any schooling at all. In fact, she dropped out of high school her senior year. As I drew the stem of the flower I was doodling in my notebook, I thought back to my visits with Miss Fry in the fifth grade, about how I'd considered asking her what she thought of my mother. I wondered if I learned what she did, if I'd be able to get inside her head myself.

I started working at Charlie's Diner when I turned fifteen. College wouldn't be cheap, even at Bethlehem State, and I started building up the money as soon as I could work. Mostly I waitressed. It was rare that more than three tables were filled at any one time--it was the kind of place where even the coffee was awful--but on weekends, the place was usually pretty full. Mom never visited me at work, except for one night during my first year. She wasn't there for very long.

Readjusting my glasses, I listened to Crystal, one of the girls from my school, as she finished her order. The group of girls at the table wasn't exactly what I would call popular, but they were popular enough. I wrote down the Caesar salad with balsamic on my notepad, then stuck it in the pocket of my stiff yellow uniform dress. The table in the back of the restaurant was cleared out, so I ran over and started picking up plates.

When I turned around, Mom was coming in the front door, wearing her new black leather jacket and sunglasses. Gary came in with her, arm around her waist. Mom looked at the hostess' booth. There was nobody in it, so she looked around the restaurant. She caught sight of me, smiled, and waved. I took the plates into the kitchen, placed them in the sink, and ran right back out, wiping my hands on my apron. The table by the front had a couple of empty plates. Jamie was getting orders from another table. I walked over and picked up the two plates.

"Anything else for you guys?" I offered, smiling.

"Sandy!" my mom screamed from behind me as the woman at the table mouthed something.

"I'm sorry, what did you say?" I asked.

The woman opened her mouth to speak again. All I could hear was Mom laughing really loud, the way she always forced laughing with men. I closed my eyes and shook my head. Jamie walked up from behind me and placed a hand on my shoulder. "Go ahead. I've got this." She motioned toward Mom and Gary. I dragged myself over to them, barely able to make myself smile hello.

"Sandy! Didn't you hear me?" They smelled of cheap beer, a smell I'd become very familiar with by that age.

"Hi, Mom," I managed. I turned around and saw Crystal's table again, then pulled the notepad from my pocket; I hadn't put her order in yet. "Look, I gotta get back to work and . . . "

"No, no, no. Listen! Sandy! Gary and me, we wanna eat here, okay?" I sighed and nodded. "So, show us to a table!"

I took a couple of menus off the hostess' booth and led them to the table in the back that I'd just cleared. Taking a rag from my pocket, I wiped it down and put down the menus. Mom and Gary both slid into the same booth. It was a tight fit. She was basically sitting on his lap.

"Do you guys want anything to start with?" I had the notepad out.

"Um . . .  What do you want, Gary?" Mom asked, batting her eyes at him and clutching at his arm.

"A big burger," Gary slurred.

"Okay. What size do you want?" I reached for the menu to show him the options, but he grabbed my hand and stopped me from picking it up.

"No," he said. Gary let go of me, then held his hands up, about a foot apart, shaking them. "I want a really big burger, okay?"

"Oh, me too!" Mom squeaked, giggling. She kissed Gary, and continued to kiss him, a hand in his lap. I raced to the kitchen and put in the orders for Crystal's table and the two cowboy burgers. Then I got back out and passed by Crystal's table. The girls were laughing as they looked to the back of the restaurant. Gary was leaning on my Mom, to the point where I couldn't see anything of her but her hands and those red acrylic nails on his back. The girls turned to me and most of them managed to suppress their giggling. I headed back to the kitchen, hoping it would just look like I'd forgotten something. Once in there, I leaned against a steel counter and took a breath. My heart was racing and my chest was tight. My hands were so jittery, I thought they were going to start shaking violently. I waited for my breathing to become more regular, then I looked up. About ten minutes had passed. The salad and one of the cowboy burgers was ready. I took the plates and left the kitchen, looking first to my mother's table when I exited. She and Gary were gone. All that was left were the two menus on the table.

Later that night, I stumbled through the dark hallway by my front door and into the kitchen, where I flipped the switch for the ceiling light. I tossed my keys on the counter, where they clinked, and I heard the stool by the back door scraping. Mom must have been sitting on the barstool, but now she was standing, cigarette propped between her fingers, the smoke trailing out the cracked door. Mom sometimes liked to pretend she'd stopped smoking. She said something about being a good role model. Even went so far as to blame her men for the smell of smoke around the house.

"Jesus Christ, Sandy. You scared the shit outta me!" Mom took a long drag on her cigarette, then tossed it outside and slammed the door.

"Do you have any idea how bad my night was after you left?"

"Sandy, Sandy--"

"The cook got pissed when I sent back the burgers. He screwed up most of my orders after that. I barely got any tips, and I had to spend half my time fixing it. You and Gary really screwed me over, Mom."

"Sandy, honey . . . " Mom caressed my cheek. I first took note of what she was wearing--a shapeless gray sweatshirt over some old black leggings. I guess he was already out of the picture. "Gary said he was gonna pay, then he told me to cause he didn't have the money, and I didn't have any either, so--"

I pulled her hand from my face and shook my head. "I don't care." I didn't bother telling her about the girls making fun of me.

"Look, this is a really bad time to talk about this, okay? My head is killing me and . . . "

"Yeah, whatever." I left my mother, heading for my room upstairs.

I could hear Mom crying nights for the next couple of days. She barely came out of her room, so I had to pick up groceries when the weekend rolled around. I only ever really saw her out of her room when I woke up early in the morning for school, and she was passed out on the couch, the TV still going on some anti-aging cream infomercial. It was typical of her, acting all mopey after breaking up with Gary, though I'm sure she did the breaking up. She did this with every guy, but it wouldn't be long until she'd bounce right back.

When I was a junior in high school, I brought Joe Bailey, my lab partner, home with me. I didn't want him to meet my mother, but I figured she wouldn't be home anyway. She had been spending most of the past week and a half with Paul. She wasn't home. We went up to my room, opening our physics textbooks and sitting crossed-legged across from each other on my bed. We were studying for a kinematics test the week after. I flipped to the last page of the chapter, full of graphs.

"So . . .  Motion . . .  Yeah . . . " Joe flipped through the chapter, not pausing to read anything. "What is it we have to know again?"

I laughed. "Physics?"

Joe cracked a smile. He stared back down at the textbook, his eyes darting back and forth as though he were skimming it really quickly. Joe was easily the most intelligent of the boys in our class. I combed through the ends of my hair with my fingers, waiting for him to find something to talk about. He was one of the few people I talked to at school.

Suddenly, I heard the front door open, and footsteps up the stairs. I stared down at my textbook, hoping, praying, for once, that Mom had a man with her and wouldn't come into my room. The door opened.

"Sandy, who's car is--"

Mom caught sight of Joe. She sized him up, then looked to me. My eyes were wide, and I almost pleaded with her to just go and leave, pretend she was normal, not to make a scene.

"Who the fuck are you?" she asked, as though she'd just said, "Hello, my name is Janice Keller. How are you today?" She had a hand on her hip as she stood in the doorway.

"I'm Joe. Sandy's lab partner from school." Joe turned to me and whispered, "Maybe I should go."

"No, no, nonsense! Sandy never brings anybody around here, and it'd be nice to have someone new around."

"Okay . . . " Joe replied shakily.

"Now, Sandy's a terrible hostess. Would you like a drink?"

"I'm only eighteen."

Mom came into the room. "I won't tell anyone." She grinned and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Or you could have a Coke, if you'd like."

"I . . .  I should really get going anyway." Joe wriggled loose from her.

I . . .  have to pick my brother up from soccer practice soon . . . " Joe grabbed his book from my bed and bolted out my door. I didn't get the chance to see his face before he left, just the back of his head. I listened to his footsteps as Mom yelled after him:

"Fine! You really should have taken the drink! You obviously need to calm the fuck down!"

His car started up outside and then was gone. Mom walked back into the hallway. "What a little freak," she muttered.

I scrambled off my bed, shaking, and followed her into the hall. "What in the hell was that all about?"

Mom turned around, her eyes soft and her face relaxed. She tilted her head. "What? I was just trying to show him a good time."

"By hitting on him?" I screamed.

"Well, isn't that what you were doing?" Mom shot back a bit louder, her face and voice still calm.

"That's none of your God damned business!"

Then she shrieked: "Weren't you trying to fuck him? Isn't that why you had him in your room when I wasn't here?"

My hands were both balled into fists, and I was still shaking, still grinding my teeth. "No! He has a girlfriend!" I said, hoping she'd buy it.

"So? That never matters! I bet you were still trying to fuck him! And all I did was offer the boy a nice stiff drink!"

"I didn't bring him here just to fuck him! I'm not you!"

My chest rose and fell, a steady rhythm in the silence. Mom's eyes narrowed, and her lips tightened. I wouldn't take it back, or apologize for it. I hadn't expected to say it, but I was proud that I did. Mom stomped over to her room and slammed the door shut.

Mom had as many men as ever over the next year, but between work and school, I wasn't around as much as I used to be. Stan was around more than any other guy. He would be in the picture for two weeks, they would break up for a month, Mom would get another man or two, but then she'd end up back with Stan. I tried my best to ignore the laughing and squeaking from her bedroom on nights when they were getting along, and the screaming and slapping and crashing on nights when they weren't. It wasn't like I hadn't heard my mother fucking before, but usually the men had a scrap of decency and would wait until they thought I was asleep, or hush her. Maybe that was because I was a kid, or maybe that was because they, if nothing else, were better men than Stan.

On one of their "on" weeks, Stan spent almost every night at the house. I had just finished studying for my psych test. My hair was tied up in a sloppy ponytail, and I was in a tank top and shorts. I stumbled out of my room, rubbing my eye and yawning. Stan was standing out in the hall in a sleeveless white undershirt and dark boxers. He smiled at me. I nodded at him, my nose scrunched up. I had to squeeze between him and the wall to get past him. His moustache tickled my forehead, and I felt like something grazed my leg. He smelled terribly of smoke. I turned and looked at him once I was past. He just kept smiling under that gray moustache, then waved to me, winking.

"Good night," he said, opening the door to my mother's room and then closing it behind him. I stood in the hall for a moment, watching the way the shadows cast by the lamp in the corner seemed to be breathing slowly. My eyes hurt, and I felt dizzy. I walked back to my room, threw my textbook to the floor, and curled up on my bed, shutting my eyes.

One Saturday morning, before I headed to work, Mom came downstairs and sat on the couch next to me in the living room. She was wearing a pink robe. Her eyes were so tired and she looked so ragged that Stan must have been really good, or maybe she was finally getting old. It was always difficult for me to imagine my mother getting old. Not that that'd ever stop her guests, though. There was a thick ring of purple bruises around her neck. For a moment, I felt the compulsion to reach out and touch them. They looked surreal. But I controlled myself.

"Nice hickeys," I said, getting off the couch to finish my coffee in the kitchen. I was tired. The night before, her and Stan were being especially loud. She would scream--smack. She would be silent. Stan would scream. Furniture crashed. Thankfully Stan wasn't there that morning. He didn't call her back for a week, and she didn't have any other men around. It was strange, but I was grateful. I had enough nightmares about hearing my mother fucking in the next room. I only hoped that she wasn't crying too much before the next one.

It was the Thursday before my last day of high school. I had already been accepted to Bethlehem State as a psych major earlier that week, and I'd requested extra hours at Charlie's to build up more money. That Thursday, I worked until about six. I walked straight up to the bathroom when I got home. When I opened the door, the light was already on. I started to back out of the room, but paused.

Mom was lying half on the floor, propped up against the tub. She was breathing really slowly, so slowly I could barely tell. Her eyes were closed and her limbs hung loosely, as though she'd passed out again after drinking too much. Her mouth hung open a bit, as though she might start snoring, and she was drooling just a little. By the toilet, there was a pill bottle that, at first glance, I could have sworn was empty. I looked at the sight of her. She seemed half-dead on that bathroom floor, no makeup, hair a mess, wearing a regular old t-shirt and panties. My heart raced at the sight of her. I saw her for what she was, then--washed up and old and worn out. My stomach turned a little at the sight of it.

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Features -- February 2011 -- Beginning Month Issue