I was born in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, a Victorian-style nineteenth-century industrial center that produced machines, tools, clothing, paper, firearms…gamblers, welfare recipients, drunks, thieves, and whores—a small city full of people with even smaller dreams, day by day inching itself closer to self-cannibalism.
When I was in first grade, I would walk to the house across the street from school after the final bell rang. I would wait there until my mother got out of work—Mom was an accountant. The tawdry pit stop was ratty on the outside, tan with dark brown trim and an unkempt yard. The grass in the front had grown high enough to swallow the lonely rusted toys.
Inside the house were musty carpets and dark stains. The formerly white wallpaper had turned a smoky yellow and the air smelled of disease, puffing about like dust off an old couch. I tried not to breathe in too deeply until Mom arrived.
Who’d want to die in such a place?
The bathroom was the filthiest room in the hen house. I only went in there one time, the first day. It smelled like death fell in a pile of death, and the tub was unclean. I’d hold my piss and shit until quitting time.
At any given time there would be three or four, sometimes five other kids not talking to each other, glued to the idiot box, watching daft cartoons. We sat on the living room floor, tried not to acquire any contagions from the piss-stained carpet, and gorged on juice boxes and chocolate cupcakes—the Hostess kind with the white swirl on top. I’d trace my finger along the spiraled white path, staring at those hardened sugar lines before devouring the delicious chocolate lump.
I never engaged with the others, only observed. My mother told me the lady watcher had kids of her own, two, I think. Her name was Elaine. She was lethargic, smelled like menthols and maple syrup. I tried to figure out which ones belonged to the tired woman. Maybe the one picking his nose and wiping it on his green corduroys or the girl with knots in her hair or the one who never ate his cupcakes, having overdosed on its invariable emergence. In the end, they all looked the same to me, grubby.
Elaine was scantily on hand. She was no bird dog—an overweight fortysomething with ratty clothes, usually a large blemished version of her Sunday’s best. Her hair was light and stringy, down to her elbows and unwashed, and her face was woven tightly together with deep lines and pock marks. To be fair, she was never inhuman toward me or any of the other kids. She was mostly indifferent to our presence. Sad Elaine would walk heavy-stepped from the kitchen to drop off the sugar-water and candied treats, then off she went like a flight attendant on a long, turbulent voyage, disappearing into the melancholy kitchen. She’d plop back down at her weathered dining table, breathing heavily, exhausted by her arduous ten-foot beat. Then she’d light up another menthol and put on sad country music. She loved George Jones’ “When The Grass Grows Over Me” and played it religiously. I wondered if there was a husband. It was hard to imagine her with one. If there was one, he was never around, and I could hardly picture him as a fit man. But who knows. Maybe he was tall, dark, and dapper and worked three jobs. Elaine could have been a former beauty queen for all I knew, now with less time on her hands to work out, less time to watch her diet. I don’t think her life worked out the way she wanted.
I’m not going to let that happen to me.
She was doing what she had to do to make ends meet. It’s what parents do. They make sacrifices.
Finally, Mom would show up and I would breathe a big, fat sigh of relief. An influx of warmth would cover my body, blanketing the chill on my skin as she’d rush past Elaine with barely a glance, cradling the sum of me in her arms, the way only a mother can. I’d hold on tight, just long enough, without a word. Then we’d leave, I’d look up affectionately at my matron saint, and like that, the last two hours of my life would come to naught as we walked to our pea-green station wagon, hand in hand.
“How was school today, sweetie?” she’d ask.
“It was good. How was your day?” I’d say.
“Oh, business as usual, you know.”
“Munching numbers again?”
“You mean crunching numbers, hon?”
She’d smile. I’d laugh.
“Oh, yeah, right, crunching numbers.”
We never stopped the routine. It was part of a ritual that neither of us was willing to let go. That feeling, when Mom would pick me up from Elaine’s, it was a feeling of rescue. Mom was never late. She was always there just in time, before anything bad could happen. That all changed when I met Kenny Harris.