I sit on the rough cement steps of a country convenience store, keeping an eye on Mom. She’s been on the phone for at least an hour. She has a pile of coins on the small metal counter of the phone booth and slides them, one after another, into her palm, ready to react to the operator’s interruption. She does this every night. I stare at her back and at her long, tanned legs, which are wrapped in the leather straps of gladiator sandals. There’s a patch of coarse dark hair on the back of one of her thighs where she’s missed with the razor. The hair is dark, not like what’s on her head. It’s ugly and shocking. I run my hands over my own smooth thighs.
“Where were you last night?” I hear her ask. “I called at eleven o’clock. I called at twelve. I called at one.”
She pleads on the phone with who I know must be my father while she thrusts coins into the slot. I sit on the steps, wishing she would just stop crying, wishing we could just be normal. Ordinary.
“Why? Why? Why?” I hear her cry.
I also want to know why. Why has Dad just sold our house in Norwalk to move to the city, only to turn around and rent a house in Vermont that belongs to somebody else? Why did he leave us here after just two days? These are mysteries to me. He has to go to work, he says, but promises to make his way up on the weekend. We’ve waited and waited, but he hasn’t shown up. He doesn’t answer when Mom asks, “Why, why, why?”
Nobody tells us kids anything, but you don’t have to be Nancy Drew to figure things out. We’ve been ditched, stranded in Vermont without a phone.
“What did I do wrong?” Mom asks my father, her voice rising into a screech. “Why don’t you just tell me?”
“When are you coming back?” She bangs the receiver against the glass wall of the booth and pounds her fists on the phone. This is not the mother I know. I worry when someone arrives, wanting the phone. They’ll have to stand there and wait, just like me. She could be two hours. It’s embarrassing.
Dan and Tom are barefoot by the broken glass near the trash bin, collecting the shiny discarded tabs from beer cans. Dan finds an old fluorescent bulb and chases Tom with it. They run into the quiet road. Jon’s sitting behind the steering wheel of the car, reading a paperback by the map light. He likes sitting behind the wheel. Every chance he gets, he slides over to the driver’s seat. Sometimes I dream that he’s driving the car and nearly gets the whole family killed. In the dreams, we’re almost always in reverse. I wake up right before we go over a cliff or into a wall.
This morning, I picked up the hot toaster from the breakfast table and burned my fingers. Big puffy white blisters cover the tip of both my thumbs. I’ve brought a Tupperware container of ice water to plunge my fingers in whenever they start to hurt. If I take them out of the water for more than a minute, they start to sting unbearably. The problem is the ice has melted and the water is starting to get warm. I try putting my thumbs in my mouth, but my spit makes them hurt like my mouth is a pit of fire.
“Okay, okay,” Mom says to the prerecorded message. “Just give me a minute.”
She pushes the folding booth door open and gives my brothers a look. She can’t reprimand them, though, because the only thing she ever says when they’re being bad is, “Wait until your father comes home,” and that isn’t going to work anymore.
She beckons me over and waves a five-dollar bill, motioning emphatically for more change. She pushes the money at me, then slams the glass door shut, as though her hysteria can’t be heard from outside the booth.
There’s a cowbell on the door to the store, and when I walk in, the cute pale-skinned boy who works the cash register looks up and flicks his long, beautiful, silky blond hair back from his face with a cool jerk of his head. I know that he knows what’s going on outside. You can hear Mom from inside, and I wonder whether shame is something that shows up on a person’s face.
He’s older. Maybe sixteen. He must feel sorry for me because when I went in for change last time, he told me I was pretty. I’ve been thinking about him ever since. At night, I pretend my pillow is him and mush my face around on it. I think I might love him.
As soon as Mom said that we had to go use the phone tonight, I ran to my room to change into my best outfit, a turquoise and white striped seersucker jumper with daisy appliques on the straps. Like all of my clothes, Mom made it, but I like this one best because of the daisies. I’m wearing my blue sun-faded sneakers. The left shoe has a small hole right where my big toe is pushing through, but I’m hoping the boy won’t notice it.
Inside the store, I linger by the ice cream freezer, sliding the door open and pressing my blistered thumbs on the popsicles. I wonder whether I’ll have fingerprints when I heal. I take my time looking through the aisles, deciding on what to buy and how I’m going to ask again for just a little more change, please. For my mother. I cool my thumbs by sticking them to cans in the soda section. There’s a sign on the door of the soda fridge asking to please keep the door closed, but I can’t help it.
I decide on a can of Tab. I’m careful, when I give the money to the boy, to tuck in my thumbs so the blisters don’t show.
“How old are you?” he asks.
“Twelve,” I lie, regretting immediately that I hadn’t said thirteen. I’m actually still ten, but I’ll be turning eleven in less than a month.
“You look older,” he says. When he gives me the change, he touches my hand a little bit, and I blush.
Mom opens and closes the squeaky door to the booth just quick enough to get her change. It smells a lot like nicotine, and definitely like someone has peed in there. Moths hover around it for the light. I sit back down on the steps to wait. Occasionally, customers pull into the parking lot and try not to stare, but pass by slowly, the way people do when there’s been an accident on the road. Maybe they’re assessing whether there’s an emergency to deal with—a city woman screaming in a phone booth while her brood hovers around in the dark. For a little while the Tab stays cold enough to ease my pain.
Eventually, Mom hangs up the phone, blows her nose with one of the balled up tissues in her pocketbook, and leaves the phone booth with dry eyes. She looks at all of us and says, “Let’s go get ice cream.”
It’s Thursday night, and we’re at the auction that takes place in an old white church every week. I’m sitting with Mom, surrounded by tobacco-chewing men in overalls who smell like horses (or, worse, cows). Some of them sit beside their wives, who have brought their own cushions along to soften the pew. Mom doesn’t fit in, with her colorful bell-sleeved mini dress.
She is nothing like the farmers’ wives. They look her way when she jumps up waving her paddle, a paper plate attached to a popsicle stick with a number scrawled on it with a marker. Every time she raises her hand, plastic bangles clack in a stack on her slender wrist.
This is the first church we’ve been in for years and being in it is the only thing that energizes her, these days. It’s not God she worships anymore, though. It’s the joy of winning. She’ll bid on almost anything. Right now, she’s trying to get a weathered spinning wheel. She’s already bought one this summer, along with a copper pot, a broken old table she refers to as the “Duncan Phyfe,” and a rusted milk can she plans on spray painting and decorating with decals.
Every couple of seconds she heaves her paddle towards the babble of the auctioneer. It’s hard to get her attention while she’s bidding. She has to close the deal.
“Sold to the pretty lady over there,” the auctioneer says, pointing at Mom and hammering his gavel before moving on to the next item being hauled onto the stage by the hired hands behind him.
“Can I have some money?” I ask her.
“No. What for?” she asks, indicating to me that there might be a ‘yes’ coming up if I press. She’s already eyeing the new item, a battered chest of drawers. The auction hands are shuffling in a circle, displaying an old dresser like a prize on The Price is Right.
“A donut,” I answer.
“Get me some coffee,” she says, handing me a dollar.
This is the third time I’ve waited in line for food or coffee tonight. While Mom bids anxiously on relics and my brothers explore in the presale area for old farm equipment with sharp edges, my entertainment entails returning again and again to the refreshment stand where the boy from the phone booth store is selling hot dogs, chips, donuts, and coffee.
My thumbs have healed, but now I’m worried about what I’m wearing. My light brown corduroy culottes have little white broken lines on them, like dashes on a typewriter. The fabric, which my mother picked out, looks to me like salted pretzels. It’s also way too hot for corduroy, but they were the only things clean.
“Can I have a black coffee and a donut, please?” I say.
I can’t look up, right into the boy’s face, because I’m too shy, but I can see that there are two girls back there with him. One has a beaded headband across her forehead and a tiny peace sign on a thin silver chain. The other has on white cutoff shorts with slits up the side. I want to be both of them, or some combination of the two.
I instantly wish I had chosen something else to wear, even if it was dirty. The boy didn’t recognize me the last two times I stood on the line. Or he pretended not to. This time, he remembers as he’s giving me my change, as though the coins passing from his hand to mine remind him. The change.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
I answer, but I’m so nervous, it comes out hoarse and barely a whisper. I’m worried that my voice sounded like a croak. The girls laugh and then he laughs, too. I slink away, back to the pew, to deliver the black coffee to Mom.
“Hold on,” she says. “He’s about to do the boxes of contents.”
Later, we go pick up the spinning wheel under a tent in the back. While Jon tries to help figure out how to get it into the back of the car, I wander off. A group of teenagers leans up against trucks, drinking from cans to the sound of crickets. The boy from the store is one of them.
In New York City, people wear buttons and T-shirts that say Hell No, We Won’t Go or Draft Beer, Not Boys, but in Vermont, people seem more private about their protests. They go barefoot despite ‘No Bare Feet’ signs and drink beer in front of their parents. I had seen a group of people Mom called hippies bathing naked in the river by our rented home, and I think maybe these kids are hippies, too. I want to be one of them, but only so the boy will notice me again and again.
Mom kicks us out of the house, telling us to “get some exercise.” Jon, Dan, Tom and I go out into the woods beside our house where the pines are so thick you could get lost in there. Orange newts slither around on the ground, partly camouflaged by the rusty pine needles that have dropped and dried on the forest floor.
It’s so shady that barely anything grows below the trees besides moss, ferns, and little flowers called Indian Pipes. Indian Pipes look like white plastic and are almost see-through, like the jellyfish in the Long Island Sound back home.
My brothers have climbed up into what looks like hunters’ perches made from plywood and two-by-fours in the trees. They’re firing off rifles made from sticks, making the sound of whizzing bullets through their teeth. Pchew. Pchew. Pchew. They pretend to kill deer, rabbits, squirrels, and each other. They’ve brought piles of rocks up there with them and are tossing them like hand grenades, splashing them down into a nearby stream.
“Stop throwing the rocks,” I yell up at the trees.
Someone, maybe Dan, yells kaboom in an amazingly lifelike way.
Down below, just to the side of the rock downpour, I plan a comfortable home in a sunny clearing. I use a branch to sweep the floor of dried bark and pinecones.
“This will be perfect,” I say to myself.
I’ve made a pile of stones where the fireplace will go. Large fallen trees, soft from rotting, become my couches, upholstered in green moss. I imagine where the fishing poles will be stored, and how far I’ll have to go for water.
Little black bugs called roly polies scamper on the logs and under rocks. They curl up in a ball when I try to brush them away with my hand. Strong rays of sun finish off my happy home diorama. Despite the fusillade, it seems peaceful in the woods. Despite my fear of bears and snakes and hunters with guns—despite my fear of everything—being deep in the woods is the best way to avoid Mom’s sadness while she waits for Dad.
Dad’s Galaxy is coming up the driveway and honking just as we’re walking out of the woods, a maroon breath of fresh air. He has his friend George with him, a small man wearing a white undershirt and thick black eyeglasses. As they get out of the car, George looks like Clark Kent and Dad looks like Clark Gable, right down to his smooth black hair and very large ears. He looks like he’s returning from fishing. He’s got on his cutoff sweatshirt and old chino pants.
My brothers and I swarm the car.
Dad and George take an opened jug of red wine out of the car and put it down on the picnic table beside our painted rocks and jars of captured newts. Mom gets waxy paper cups from the kitchen. In the evening, when the fireflies start coming out and the mosquitoes start biting, George goes to the store to get more wine while the rest of us move inside to the living room.
The spinning wheel sits in the corner like dinosaur bones. There’s a musty old organ against one wall. During the day, Tom pounds on the keys of the organ, yelling, “Bah Humbug,” but tonight he leaves it alone. Moths stretch out on the screens of our windows. Once the sky turns black, night birds and insects create a cacophony outside.
“Isn’t this great?” Dad asks. “Isn’t this grand?”
In the morning, a long line of drab, canvas-covered army vehicles show up, creating a line like ants, moving slowly up our driveway and into our woods. Dozens of jeeps, trucks, and camouflaged young men with faces painted green invade us, turning our wooded playground into a military maneuver site. It’s as though we’re at war right here in Vermont.
My brothers are fascinated, and I’m worried about my homestead. Our dog Rigby, who’s tied up by clothesline to her usual spot between two peeling birch trees, whimpers all morning. We aren’t allowed in the woods.
Dad is back at the picnic table by early afternoon. A new jug’s beside him. George is helping Mom shuck corn. When she goes to the kitchen, he follows her. When she says she needs food, he offers to take her to the store. The sound of rifles pop like there are fireworks in the woods. Dad’s lit his pipe and I’m soothed by the familiar scent of his tobacco, but even with the gunfire, it’s too quiet.
Alcohol turns to acid when it gets inside Dad. He’ll taunt Mom. It could be the color of her hair that bothers him, the dress she wears, or a word she doesn’t say right. She says acrossed instead of across, and she says grosheries. Like many with midwestern roots, she ends her sentences in prepositions.
“I have a boyfriend now,” I say. “He works at the store.” Dad laughs at me.
In the evenings I’ve been writing a book, working on the floor of the hot living room with our large box of nubby crayons and a drawing pad while Tom pounds away on the old organ. My book is about a family of goldfish, each member carefully illustrated in bright orange, floating in blue-green water. I run inside to get my book to show off, but when I return, Dad’s already distracted.
“Let’s go for a drive,” Dad says. George stays behind because there’s not enough room for everyone, but the rest of us get in the Galaxy and go.
Dad takes us to a dusty dirt road that wraps around a lake that was created by building a dam. He’s driving so fast, it makes me cower from my spot in the back seat.
Tree branches that stretch across the road are thumping on the top of the car. Dan and Jon are laughing, and Mom is yelling for Dad to slow down, but he’s not listening. Tom’s next to me, hanging his head far out the window like a dog would, his hair flying around in the wind. A tree branch rips off the car antennae, which hits Tom in the chest. He grabs onto it with his little hands and looks shocked, just like he’s been shot by an arrow. Gobs of grease from the antennae are splattered on his dingy white tee shirt.
Mom screams again for Dad to slow down, but he won’t stop. He keeps pushing down on the accelerator like it’s a race car on a track, not an old Ford that has a tendency to overheat. Never mind that it’s filled with his kids and his wife, beach towels, and sand buckets.
Dad’s been crazy in the car before, like the time he took us to the Danbury Fair while drinking a six pack he kept perched on the dashboard. That day, he veered onto somebody’s lawn and sideswiped a whole row of hedges before swerving back onto the road in a hit-and-run. The hedge owner jumped into his own vehicle and came after us, but my father outdrove him while my mother screamed at him from her side of the front seat.
“This is it. You’ve gone too far this time.”
Now here we are again, only this time on a dirt road in Vermont with Tom bleeding grease from the antenna he’s still clutching, Jon and Dan yelling, faster, faster. I’m thinking he’s definitely going too far again, but don’t know what to say besides screaming stop. Stop. Stop.
And then, before us, is a shock Mom sees just a second before I do. The end of the road. When the lake was created, it submerged part of the road we’re speeding down. In a second, we’re going to be underwater. Dad slams on the brakes just in time. Everybody’s quiet for a minute and then Dad howls his heh heh heh heh laugh and everybody but Mom laughs with him, but I’m faking.
It’s a broiling summer night, one of those nights when you get twisted up in your sheets from thrashing in the heat. My windows are open, letting in the racket of crickets and the occasional wild howl from the woods. The soldiers are still out there, but they’ve put down their guns.
I’ve been awakened by the gushing sound of water filling the bathtub in the room next to mine. The sloshing, spilling, and splashing coming from the bath are different than the sounds my brothers and I made when we used to bathe together. Even when we were at our wildest, there was always playfulness to our ruckus. This is different. The tympanic sound of hollow thuds that I think must be elbows and knees banging into the sides of the tub echo from inside the bathroom.
“Stop it!” I hear Mom scream.
I listen to the struggle in silence. I’ve always been the one in the family to rush to Mom’s defense against my father, but it’s usually for petty teasing or too harsh a tone. This time, I’m afraid.
While I’m listening to my mother’s gasping above the loud spilling of water, I’m confused about what I am hearing and can’t bring myself to speak. I’ve been a quiet observer of a personality change in my father. He drinks too much, and when he drinks, he becomes what I’ve heard my grandmother say is a mean drunk. He breaks promises. He picks fights. He comes and goes whenever he wants. He lies. But I don’t want to believe he would hurt anyone. I lay there waiting for someone else to intervene. I think about the soldiers in the woods and wonder whether they can hear.
“You’re going to drown me,” Mom calls out. It sounds like she’s spitting out water.
I keep thinking that George will get up and do something. But what’s taking him so long? And what about Jon? There’s no way anyone can be sleeping through this noise. I strain to hear another voice. Is George in there with them?
I don’t know what to do. The water splashes some more, violently. Between words, there’s gasping. I can imagine the water through the wall, pouring out over the side, pooling on the linoleum floor, soaking up our threadbare mat.
“You’re going to kill me.”
Finally, I can’t take it anymore and I start to scream. Once I start, I can’t stop. I want to shout her name, yelling “Mom! Mom! Mom!” but instead I just repeat her words, yelling, “Stop it. Stop it. Stop it.”
It’s my father who comes to me, just as he has always been the one to come when I wake up in the night, screaming from another dream. Only this time it’s not a dream. He’s soaking wet and has a small towel wrapped around his waist.
“It’s okay,” he says. “Calm down. Your mother has had too much to drink.” He pushes my hair back and tries to caress my forehead, attempting to stroke me to sleep. I’ve never seen my father undressed before, and I don’t want to now. I squeeze my eyes shut and turn away. I want to disappear, to curl into a ball like a roly poly and be left alone. I don’t want him breathing near me, so I ask him to go away. Mom calls in to me that I should go to sleep, but for the rest of the night, I lay awake. Has my father become a killer?
In the morning, nobody says a word. George and Dad smoke their pipes from folding aluminum chairs in the yard while they watch the caravan of army vehicles leave the woods. As the trucks chug down our driveway, their enormous tires snap sticks and grind pebbles beneath them.
“What were they doing in there?” I ask Dad.
“Just practicing,” he says.
“Where’s Mom?” I ask, but I know the answer. She went right back to bed after breakfast. She’s in a war, and she’s losing, but she won’t give up. If there was a hospital for the wounded, she’d be in it, getting stitched up to return to battle.
Once the last of the trucks has left, Dad and George put their duffle bags in the trunk and open the doors to the Galaxy to cool it off. Dad doesn’t go back in the house before he leaves.
Mom takes us out that evening to our regular diner. It has Santa and his reindeer on the roof, though the lights around the sled aren’t turned on in summer. We sit at the small counter, the five of us in a row, looking straight ahead. We eat hamburgers and drink root beer floats, our favorite. Despite the puffiness in her eyes from crying, Mom seems relaxed and relieved.
She holds on to her coins when she pays, though, and asks for extra change. Soon she’ll be back at the phone booth, begging my father to return, and I’ll get to see the boy at the store again.
Laura Carraro is a writer and artist from New York who has earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work can be found in Hippocampus Magazine, Dorothy Parker’s Ashes, and Motherwell. Her memoir, Proof of Love, is out in the world seeking representation.