By Jessica Johnson
I think I have a faint memory of who you use to be…
Before you changed.
Or maybe that’s just what I wanted you to be…
I can’t remember.
But I remember these events vividly…
Stuffy. Dark. Crowded. We maneuver through this 80’s themed wardrobe. Mustard colored corduroy pants and thick matching shirts droop from a hanger in the front closet – in the foyer – by the door. Long leather belts hang from the rail – some multicolored, some plain, some so old I can see the creases in them from the wear and tear. There’s a million jackets and other bits and pieces of clothing hanging over my head.
Lined up on the floor are twelve pairs of shoes. Alligator skin church shoes. Those ugly “uncle” barbecue sandals with the slits on the sides. Military boots. Dirty old work boots. Dark brown flip flops that were once light but are now masked in muck and branded with five roundish oval prints. And two types of sneakers; one side off brand, the other side Jordan’s….old school Jordan’s.
“You be on the lookout, Jessica. I’ll search.”
I look at my twelve year old sister grudgingly. “You be the lookout, I want to search.” She pushes me. We fight for a minute, only coming back to our senses because of a noise we hear. I look. The coast is clear. I try to pull the door closed a little more so not to blow our cover, but the space is small and dark and it’s hard to breathe with all this stuff in it.
“I found it!” she screams at the top of her lungs. I turn around and slap the back of her neck, “Shut up!” I whisper just as loudly, “Before we get caught.” I lean over on my tip toes and peer down at my kneeling sister. The dirty old work boot is toppled over, it smells like corn chips collided with the whole box of Arm n Hammer. But I’m not concerned with that. I’m more concerned with our discovery.
Two small baggies filled with white baking soda, a slim square pack of something with white and brown sticks in it that read Marlboro, and a long skinny purple package that is apparently grape flavored. There’s also an owl on the package, but I don’t understand what that means. I try to grab all the items but my sister smacks my hand, “We have to get rid of this.”
“Why?” I ask. “We found it. It’s ours.” She doesn’t argue with me this time. I’m guessing it’s because she was scared. She never told me she was, but I could tell by her face. Her eyes get big when she’s scared and my god, they were HUGE. We race to the bathroom. My sister let me pull the sticks out the pack and we break them. They stink. But I don’t care. I was fascinated. We repeat the same heinous acts to our other findings. Some detectives we are, ha!
Months pass without any more leads on our first discovery. The only thing we consistently found inside those dirty old work boots were more white and brown sticks. We got tired of our hands smelling funny, so we let ‘em have it.
It wasn’t fun anymore. Plus my mom changed her schedule from night shift to morning, so we couldn’t sneak around as much.
They would argue all the time. My mom and dad. I seldom understood what they were arguing about. I was about eight years old, my sister was thirteen, my little brother was four and the last two were still babies. I just remember hearing, “Where’s the money Jim?!” or “Why can’t you just act right” or “Get the fuck out and leave us alone!” and then a door would slam and he would release a stream of cuss words into the atmosphere like the cancerous cigarette smoke he often confided in, blocking us all out like he so often did.
He was 5’10, medium build with a bald head, big brown eyes that I loved, and a big white smile to match. He worked a lot. He had two jobs. He was a warehouse worker from seven in the morning until seven at night and he told my mom that he cut grass the rest of the day, sometimes mowing over into the night. “You’re a fucking liar!”
Despite the fact that he worked a lot, we never had any money. I’m guessing that was one cause of the arguments…but it always seemed deeper than that.
I felt sorry for him nonetheless. It must be hard working two jobs and still having no money to show for it.
I seldom saw him because he left at about six in the morning and returned about two the next morning. But I could always hear him. I knew when he came in because I’d be in bed and he’d come through the door making a lot of noise. We always lived in either two or three bedroom apartments, so the noise traveled as fast as we did. First, I’d hear the infamous closet door creak and he’d grunt as he bent down to take off his work boots, placing them in the closet. It always took him a minute to leave the closet. Eventually I figured out why.
The door would squeak close several minutes later and then you could hear his short lived journey to my parent’s room adjacent from the foyer. The old rickety shower would make a noise similar to that of a car crank. I would doze off, but ten minutes later Irish spring would whiz up my nose, signaling to me that he was now passing my bedroom to get to the kitchen. I loved when he was in the kitchen because that meant he was cooking something that I could
sneak out of my room later and grab a bite of.
Pork chops, cheese rice, corn, soda, and some kind of dessert. His specialty. He would sit in front of the little box television that sat on the floor in the living room, eat and then sleep.
We moved so much that all the apartments started to collide into one. I lost track of which apartment complex had two pools and a tennis court and a computer room and things like that. I couldn’t remember which one of my friends lived where or their names or even the address of our apartments. I just remember we moved repeatedly. At first I thought it was fun, I would pretend that I was someone new in each apartment. But then it started to weigh on me and instead of pretending I was someone else, I would wish that I was someone else.
I remember asking my mom why we had to move again, I figured it was because he didn’t have any money. Where’s the money, Jim? You blew it, didn’t you? Just as I was getting comfortable, they would uproot me like an unwanted weed. She never answered me directly, but replied with a simple answer, “We’re getting closer and closer to finding our big ole house.”
That’s what kept me going. Well…that and the fact that I had no other choice.
After a while, some days at time, I would no longer hear him come in at two in the morning. In fact, days at a time I wouldn’t hear him come in at all. But then he’d make an appearance and continue his routine like he never went missing. On those days, when he did return, it was usually later than two in the morning and my mom would be up, waiting for his arrival. As soon as he stepped in the door, she’d aim the gun loaded with ammo. Like bullets, she’d let loose:
“Where have you been?”
“How could you do this again?”
“Look at you. A Fucking mess!”
“You don’t care.”
“What about your family, Jim?”
One of those days, he came in real late. Around four or so. I heard them arguing and usually I’d be too scared to get out the bed, but my attempts to concoct up enough spit to cool my mouth and quench my thirst failed miserably. I gagged hysterically like a cat coughing up the biggest hairball. I needed water. I let my feet hit the cool carpet. With my night gown hanging off my shoulder and my nappy hair atop my head, I cracked the door.
My mom’s back was turned towards me and I could see him standing in front of her. Alarmed by his sight, I jumped back. His shoulders were slouched over, he held a plastic bag aimlessly by his side and his other hand moved back and forth from rubbing his head to pointing in her face. He wore a dirty white t-shirt with a few holes in them, raggedy blue jeans, and those brown work boots. None of this alarmed me, but his face did.
His eyes were no longer brown, but red. Bags bigger than ever created a mountainous tyranny under his eyes. Yet they darted keenly from every focal point of her face. Alert. That’s the word that comes to mind. He looked weak and too tired to talk, but his eyes were at attention. They scared me. I tip toed back to bed no longer thirsty. Not quite sure why I felt sad or why tears filled my eyes.
Days like that, when he did come in late, I felt sorry for him – such long days at work and my god, it sure did show.
I just turned twelve years old a week ago when my dad came into my room to tell my siblings and me that we were going with him to Alabama. My mom needed a break and my dad’s side of the family were having a shindig. I liked going to Alabama to see my cousins so I didn’t mind. My older sister didn’t come along this time, matter of fact, she didn’t really like to go places with my dad much anymore after our closet findings. I wondered what changed her mind from time to time, but I never asked.
I started to get ready, remembering that my favorite jeans were in my mom’s room. As I left my room, passing through the living room to get to my mom’s room, I saw my dad kneeled down in the infamous closet. All the memories of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson filled my head immediately, but I paid it no mind. He jumped up once he saw me looking, “You almost ready, Jessica Marie?” He asked me, flashing that big ole smile and staring at me with his brown eyes. “Almost,” I replied. I continued walking, turning around to see him sliding the contents from his boots into his pocket. Little individual baggies of White baking soda, white and brown sticks, purple package. I let that moment slip my mind as I focused my attention back on my mission.
We left that evening and on the way there, my dad gave me twenty dollars. I was happy. He gave me money occasionally, but never that much. “You sure you don’t need this?” I asked, reminiscing on the many arguments my parents had. “No Marie.” We settled into his little green four door sedan and took off to Alabama. I sat in the passenger seat and drifted asleep to the smell of Irish spring and the voice of Alicia Key’s singing “Fallin” on the static radio. Happy.
An hour and a half later, we arrived. There was a ton of food and music, family and friends, joy and laughter. Everyone was having a good time. Without even noticing it at first, I found myself checking on my dad from time to time. It felt like a dream that I could actually see my dad instead of merely hearing him. He was there…Outside standing by my older cousin with a beer in his hand, talking loudly and having a good time. I wasn’t sure why I checked on him, I guess I thought that if I didn’t keep an eye on him, he would leave and return days later like he usually did, with no money and his big brown eyes gone.
Later that night, my dad drove us to our older cousin’s house, the same one he was standing by. He and my older cousins, amidst some other folks, sat in the living room drinking and smoking cigarettes while the kids and I went to the backroom to play. Hours passed and I could still hear him loud and clear. Tired from the eventful day, I drifted to sleep. When I woke up about an hour later, I no longer heard him. My heart sunk a little. Too scared to get up and check to see if he was there, I remained in the room.
I forced myself to relax. Breathing in and out, I smiled at the thought of smelling Irish Spring and seeing his big brown eyes as he handed me that money. I was happy again, allowing myself to drift back to sleep.
He eventually came back. It was dark outside – pitch black. He came into the room where all of us were lying. I was still asleep, but I could hear him. I thought it was a dream, until I opened my eyes. I didn’t notice him at first because he didn’t smell like Irish Spring but instead he reeked of beer, liquor, cigarette smoke, and weed. I was old enough now to decipher smells and was shocked by this new addition of weed. He looked around wildly, that’s when I noticed his eyes. I covered my mouth with the blanket as not to stifle out a yelp from shock. His eyes were red. They darted across the room, looking for something. I got up enough courage to ask what he was looking for. His eyes dropped to where I was lying – his eyes red and sharp like a laser. My heart jumped and thumped aggressively against my chest.
“Uh, Hey Marie, let me get that money, I’ll give it back to you.”
My heart sunk.
I immediately thought of my mother. You don’t care…What about your family?
I reached into my pocket, took the money out and gave it back.
I would have been confused as to why he wanted the money back if it weren’t for his slouched body that rendered exhaustion in contradiction to those red eyes that said he was alert. I would have been confused as to why he wanted the money back had it not been for those small white baking soda baggies that I saw in the closet years ago, now hanging out of his pants pocket. I was no longer confused. I knew what was coming next.
He left again.
My mom’s voice played in my head, over and over.
I now understood why they argued.
I now understood why my older sister was so scared that day or why she didn’t want to come along anymore.
That was the last day I felt sorry for him.