by Amy Bee
Featured Art: “Design for 4-seat Phaeton,” by Brewster & Co.
My mom kicked me out this morning. If you’re still here by the time Doug gets home, I’m having you committed, she said, so I put on some jeans and ran to my old elementary school across the street. I headed toward the two tubes next to the monkey bars. I’d spent a lot of recesses in those coveted tubes. Now that I was in 8th grade, the whole playground appeared fake somehow, like a toy model version of itself.
I ducked into one tube and lay so my body conformed to the cool, smooth curvature of cement. Wrapping my arms around my knees, I pressed toward my chin, and wished myself as small as possible; maybe I could also be a toy model version of myself. Phantom spasms of her anger coursed through me like a second heartbeat. The way she’d sat on my back and pulled me up by my hair to hit my face. How no one loved me, she’d yelled, no one except her. How she was the only one who wanted me in the first place.
I gazed at the graffiti inked in marker crisscrossing the ceiling above me. It read like a map of the universe conceived by grade school astrologers. Terry eats poop! Stay 2 cool 4 school xoxo! Jenni wuz here! I brushed a finger along the faded words, and carefully traced the scribbles one by one; mouthing each word in quiet incantation over and over until eventually, my tears dried out and the only heart left beating was my own.
Outside, the weekend janitor mowed away at a stubbly soccer field. Birds chirped. Kids played foursquare on the blacktop. My stomach rumbled. I checked my jean pockets and found 50₵. Enough for two Little Debbie Rolls from the gas station.
The U-Pump-It sat at the end of town above an empty lot, next to the local video store four blocks from our tiny townhouse. We moved here to Lafayette from Boulder about 5 years ago. I was in third grade then. Moving from where my friends were to a city which still had dirt roads felt like we’d migrated to a different planet, even though we were only 15 minutes away from Boulder. We lived in the “bad” part of Lafayette, which really meant we lived around other poor people.
The gas station cashier was the same grumpy guy from when us neighborhood kids stopped in after school for little packages of Lemon Heads and Nerds. I’d never considered his existence outside the context of after-school candy. But there he sat; a heavyset man on a rickety stool, smoking Lucky Strikes and scratching lottery tickets with a long, yellow pinky nail. He squinted hard and raised an eyebrow when I walked in. His eyes scrutinized me while I studied the Little Debbie snack rack. A tiny round fan buzzed in the corner. I selected the Swiss Rolls and solemnly placed them on the counter, unnerved by his old man stare.
I set my quarters down one at a time and pushed them toward his side of the counter. He swept them into his palm, punched buttons on the register, and tossed the quarters inside. “So,” he frowned, “who won?” He leaned back, crossed one tattooed arm over the other. Smoke curled out from the side of his mouth, like a heftier, scarier version of Popeye.
“Huh?” He’d never done much more than grunt at any of us before.
“The fight.” he nodded toward my face. “Looks like quite the showdown.”
My insides churned. “Do you have a bathroom I could use?”
He shrugged and slid a key attached to a fly swatter across the counter. “Have at it.”
I found the unmarked door to the bathroom. A mop soaking in dirty water leaned against one wall, a stained toilet and sink occupied the other. The cracked mirror above the sink had a whitish, oily substance caked on its surface. Beneath the goop, a worn-out face peered out at me. Her battered eyes glowed red and veiny, the skin around them an angry shade of purple.
I touched a puffy eyelid. Ouch. And I walked all the way to the gas station like this. In public. Self-pity washed over me. I gripped the rusty sink to remain aloft.
I couldn’t just stay in the bathroom forever. I threw water on my face and smoothed my ratty hair down as best I could. Scary Popeye was probably waiting out there. No way I’d let him see me cry.
I made my way back to the counter where my snacks were set to the side, next to the rack of Skoal. I flung the fly swatter key down and scooped up the Little Debbies in one quick movement. The cashier glanced up from a half-scratched Lottery ticket. I glared into his eyes as I strode past him. They were a brilliant blue. “You should see the other guy,” I said, shoving the glass door open as hard as I could. It closed behind me with a resounding whoosh.
I headed toward home while munching on Debbie Rolls, and cut through the townhouses and carports until I found my porch. The back door stood open. Through the screen, I saw my little brother at the kitchen table, just a tad too small for the height of the chair. He swung his chubby little legs energetically, fishing for cheese cubes from the giant white bowl in front of him. He spied me and a huge smile overtook his face.
Hi, Sisser! He waved five pudgy fingers.
Hi, Mark, whatcha eating? I could see my mom keeping busy in the kitchen.
Zeese, Mark said. Wan sum?
Okay, I reached for the screen door handle.
We’re not having guests right now. My mom continued to wipe down the stove. She didn’t look up.
I paused. Mom. Can’t I please come in?
We no have guess now! Mark imitated.
Stop it, Mark, don’t do that. It hurt extra fierce when he said it.
We’re busy, come back some other time, my mom said.
I stood still and watched them, unsure what to do. My mom kept her back to me, and Mark continued to eat his cheese happily. I was dismissed.
I made my way back toward U-Pump-It. I needed someone to help me. That meant calling friends collect to see if one of them would let me stay the night. I put it off for hours until the sun began melting into the mountains, then started with the friends who lived closest to me and worked outward. The third friend, Melony, answered.
“Why collect?” she asked.
“I’m sorry, it’s dumb, but do you think I can stay the night? Can you ask your stepmom?”
“But it’s a school night.”
I hesitated. I could either say it or I could hang up and stay the night in the cement tubes. “My mom. . .uh, well, I got kicked out.” My face flushed. “So I need a place to stay the night, I’m sure it’s fine, I just…”
“Just a minute,” I heard Melony call to her stepmom. Muffled voices went back and forth. The more I waited, the more I wanted to just lay down right there and give up.
“Erm, Hi, Mrs. Franks, it’s no big deal, I just need a place to stay tonight, please,” I said. “No, she won’t let me back in, I don’t know. I could try again, I just don’t know what to do, so I called, and….”
“Amy, tell me where you are. We’re gonna come pick you up.”
Relief rushed over me. “Thank you. Thank you.” I hung up and crumpled to the curb, exhausted. I wasn’t sure what I’d tell them about my face, and what would happen tomorrow, but at least now, it was in an adult’s hands.
They showed up about fifteen minutes later. Melony gave me a huge hug, and her stepmom studied me at arm’s length. “Well, now I know I did the right thing,” she said to Melony. Then to me, “I called the cops. They should be at your house right now. C’mon, get in the car. Are you hungry?”
My heart dropped. Oh shit, I thought. My mom’s going to be so pissed.
Family at Melony’s house runs differently than mine. Here, family means group participation: sports, movie nights, giant breakfasts, afternoon activities, help with homework. Their fights never surpass yelling. Stuff isn’t thrown. There’s no hitting or destruction of property, or months of being grounded. No one gets kicked out. Staying with them is how I picture summer camp. It’s vacation. It’s a version of life I desperately want to be a part of.
Living with Melony’s family is also being part of Melony’s neighborhood. A pretty neighborhood, with real houses, full of perfectly pleasant people, who are politely fascinated with the oddity of my insertion into their world. They know about me and my black eyes and my messed-up mother before I know anything about them. Their friendly curiosity renders me shy at first, but I slowly warm to the minor celebrity-status attention. Most everyone I meet comments on how smart I am as if surprised one coming from dysfunction and meager means could also be well mannered and coherent.
Stepmom Sherry puts me down in the basement next to Melony’s room—a twin bed with a sheet for a wall to give me privacy. It’s temporary. My mom has been arrested, so they don’t know when I can go home. There has been talk about me staying here, like a foster home, but it’s too soon to tell. Sherry tells the social worker the court assigned to me that she just wants to make sure I can carry on normal activities, like school. She doesn’t think my life should be disrupted. But my life is completely disrupted, and I hope it stays this way. Maybe I can stay with them forever.
A few weeks later, Melony’s Uncle Matt visits from Australia, and I’m smitten. He’s brash, has an accent, and goes on and on about a singer called Pink Floyd. He says Pink Floyd is known for Rock Operas. I can’t quite picture it, but I like how enthusiastic he is. My mom loves music, too.
The family decides to take a trip to a cabin in the mountains. I’m beyond excited. This is the kind of thing my family never does. Congregate. Family vacations. Outdoor activities. The only time we ever go to the mountains is when my Mom needs to visit her pot dealer.
At the cabin, I stay glued to Uncle Matt’s side. I love the way he tells stories like life is a funny, bawdy adventure. I hang on to to every word. When it’s time for a family hike, Uncle Matt and I trail behind, joking with each other until we reach a fork in the path.
“They took the easy way,” he smiles at me. “Let’s go this way, up the hills; I bet we’ll find something beautiful at the top.”
I hesitate. Melony and her family have rounded a curve up ahead.
“We can tell them we got lost.” He winks.
I nod in assent. Getting to be alone with Uncle Matt is more than I dared hope for. I follow him up a winding ribbon of dirt through dense trees, lightly sweating from exertion. Uncle Matt keeps up a string of banter and silly jokes as we climb, further and further from everyone else. I’m determined to not show apprehension. The last thing I want him to think is I can’t handle adventure. I keep smiling, even as the sun moves away from us and a chill hangs in the air.
The trail ends at a saddle between two mountains, and there lies the most beautiful lake I’ve ever seen. It’s an impossible shade of blue and green, and clear enough to see tiny minnows swim in and out of river rocks at the bottom.
“Wow,” I slowly breathe out. I’ve been holding it in without realizing it. Everything—the mountains, the lake, Uncle Matt—it’s all so momentous.
Uncle Matt comes up behind me. “It’s quite a sight, isn’t it?” He puts his hand on my butt cheek and squeezes.
“You can’t do that,” I say automatically. I move away and start back down the hill, face aflame. I’ve messed up. Now he knows I’m not old enough or brave enough or anything worth keeping. Shame fuels my trek back down the mountain.
We reach the cabin before the rest of the family. Uncle Matt grabs a Michelob from the cooler and says, “I shouldn’t be here with you when they get back.” I nod, feeling awful. He heads down to the boat dock, and I curl up on the couch, the memory of his touch on my butt burning its way through me. I fall asleep.
I wake to the sound of laughter. Uncle Matt is telling them how we got lost. Just a funny case of mixed signals, he says. I nod along, on the other side of the room.
Uncle Matt leaves on a road trip to California, and soon after, a postcard addressed to me arrives in the mail. On the front is a gorgeous picture of the full moon above a desolate Arizona canyon. The back has a message from Uncle Matt. It says:
Remembered how much you want to visit the desert canyons. Thinking of you—M.
“Why would he send you a postcard?” Sherry asks.
“I told him about how much I wanted to sleep under the stars in Arizona one day.” My heart beats like I’ve done a million jumping jacks. He thinks of me!
“But he didn’t send his own niece a postcard.” Sherry points at Melony, who scowls at me.
I don’t know what to say. This is where I should smooth things over. But he thought of me and sent me a message, and I can’t hide my goofy, lovelorn grin. Maybe he’ll come back for me. Take me to Australia, where we will watch Pink Floyd sing Rock Operas.
They hold a family meeting. Sherry says they’ve called the social worker, who will be coming soon to take me to a real foster home. “We always knew this would probably be temporary,” Sherry says. “You can’t stay here forever, it’s just not feasible. I have my own kids to raise,” she wipes a tear and hugs me. “You have difficulties I’m not prepared to deal with. I’m sorry, so sorry. But you will be okay.”
“You can’t just ditch her! It’s not right!” Melony yells and runs down to her room, slamming the door.
Melony’s dad sighs and pushes himself up from the kitchen table. “I’ll go talk to her.” He leaves Sherry and me with each other.
“I understand,” I say. I cry into her hair.
They live in a wealthy community, and they can’t get pregnant. They feel sorry for me. They have a vision of how I will be, with just a little polish and shine.
Their house looks like a furniture brochure. I look like a dust ball on their carpet. Margo takes me shopping. Blouses and pantyhose. A haircut and new earrings.
I get my own room upstairs, so clean and white I can’t relax. I tiptoe to the bathroom. I steal salami from the refrigerator.
I dream they will adopt me and we will go on exotic vacations. They will fix me, and I will be their daughter. The child they couldn’t have.
Margo teaches me how to bake lemon meringue pie. We talk. My voice sounds thick and unwieldy in the stainless steel kitchen. I try to dazzle her with my charm and wit. I’m obedient. I’m a quick study. I’m worth keeping.
Sometimes I make her laugh. Sometimes I think she likes me.
I stay away from Bob. I don’t want to be alone with him, just in case. He works all the time. I wonder if I’m here to be Margo’s project. I don’t mind if I am.
Things are looking good for me.
She lets me have sleepovers. I show my friends around with pride. See what I landed. See how big my family room is. See my new pretty family with sophisticated tastes. They are my family now, all mine. I get comfortable.
I get careless.
I want to be good for Margo. But I can’t tame my hair. Or my anger. Or my crying jags. I can’t smile all the time. I’m not organized. I’m not obedient. All the nice stuff they give me doesn’t cover up the dents and dings.
I sense her disappointment. She is pulling away from me, finding new ways to occupy her time. I hide in the bathroom. I steal cold hot dogs from the refrigerator.
After school, I find the social worker on the couch. Margo has some issues. She has some concerns. You don’t clean your room, Margo says.
You don’t use soap in the bath, she says.
I used the gel, I say. That’s for shaving legs, she says.
I’m sorry, I say.
She’s talked it over with the social worker. They think I would do better somewhere else. They’re not the right people for me. I panic and beg. I plead until I run out of breath. I promise a spotless room and a clean body and perfect grades and the right attitude, anything if I can just stay.
Go get your things, the social worker says.
But I have no things to bring.
It’s a halfway house for kids in between foster homes. The house smells like aged upholstery and Lysol. Doilies cover the coffee tables, the nightstands. A jar of peppermints stands next to a bread box on the kitchen counter. The man of the house is a trucker gone for long stints of time, while the lady stays home.
They are very, very old.
I’m sick for days. I can’t leave the bed. Even when I’m better, I avoid them. The kids. The scarred boy who shits daily behind the couch. The girl left in an empty apartment by alcoholic parents. The boy so abused by his dad, he no longer speaks to anyone. I don’t belong here, with these kids. I can’t. I’m not one of them.
Jen’s the only teenager. Stringy blonde hair whips around her face like electricity. The skull and crossbones tattoo on her wrist pokes through a dozen black bangles, warning all to Keep Out. She looks like a girl who knows how to escape, so I follow her around, accepting her angry outbursts as payment for the privilege of not being lumped in with those other children.
“Don’t touch my shit,” she often says, pointing a thin finger at my head. “I’ll know if you do.”
When Jen’s not yelling at me about The Man or accusing me of stealing her mascara, she gives me advice on how to cope. “Don’t cry in front of them unless you want extra chores,” she says while we walk to the gas station where the cashier sells Jen cigarettes. “And don’t talk back to them, because they’ll lock you in the closet.”
I wonder who could ever lock Jen in the closet. She’s just too fierce. She’s untouchable.
We hide behind the house. I watch her smoke. Her eyes never settle on my face. “And stay away from the guy next door,” she warns. “He likes to touch kids.”
Jen runs away. She doesn’t tell me her plan. She doesn’t offer to take me. Her absence shrinks me down into myself. I’ve gone into a strange half-sleep, taking objects from one room and putting them in another. Peeing in the bushes instead of the bathroom. Overeating food at every meal so a permanent lump forms in my gut.
I think a lot about the man next door. I play on the sidewalk between his house and ours. I wonder if he watches me through his window. Maybe he wants to touch me. Sometimes the curtains rustle, and I think I see his shape or feel his gaze. If he is looking, then I am not alone. I perform elaborate made-up dances, slow steps taking me closer to the shade on his lawn. If he opens the door, I will go in, I decide. If he calls to me, I will let it happen. I shimmy my hips and swing my arms, willing the shadow behind the curtains to call my bluff. Only at night do I shake and burn, terrified of myself.
Only at night do I think of my mother. They put me here with these tortured kids! Forgotten children unloved by their mothers! I practice my accusations into the pillow, enunciating each silent syllable to perfect effect.
The social worker comes for me, late one morning, with no warning. A bed has opened up somewhere outside of Loveland. I follow her to her car, wrists crossed as if I’m handcuffed, hips pointed one last time at pervy next door man. See ya, asshole!
In the car, I ask the social worker about Jen. She’s never heard of Jen.
Or, to her, we’re all Jens.
We drive up the gravel path toward my permanent foster home. Deer legs lay scattered across their lawn. A large Husky lounges in the shade, languidly gnawing through fur and tendon, his paw draped over a shiny black hoof.
We park next to a pickup truck. Two does and a buck are crumpled on the truck bed. Flies settle on still-wet noses. Giant, tufted ears look so soft, beg to be stroked, even, if I ignore the glassy eye-marbles or slack tongues hanging between teeth. Blood gently pools by the tire well. My stomach turns.
You’ve brought me to death.
My social worker sees me flinch from the deer legs and the carcasses. She sees the confusion on my face. “They’re butchers,” she offers, “for hunters. They cut meat and freeze it over there.” She nods toward a large building near some corrals where men in dirty boots and cowboy hats smoke and laugh with another man in a blood-smeared apron. The foster father.
I look back at my social worker. She’s a woman prematurely withered. Her tiny red car is crammed with case files and fast food wrappers. Lipstick-crowned cigarette butts overflow from the ashtray, leaving a cascading trail of ash down the dashboard.
“So. You took me from my mom to leave me here, with the butchers? That’s your expert opinion? That these people will give me what my mom couldn’t?”
She looks away. “Not me,” she shrugs. “The system.”
We get out of her car, and she pops the trunk. “Since this is your new home, the court had your mom pack up some of your stuff for you.” She points at two giant trash bags shoved between more wrappers and folded files and broken cassette tapes. A moldy orange pokes out from the spare tire. We pick up the bags and carry them to the house where a short round woman with a pinched frown stands at the entrance, tapping her nails against the torn screen door. She waves us in, barely looking at either of us.
“You just dump those bags right here.” she points at her feet. We are in an ugly yellow kitchen with dirty brown cabinets and green, grease-stained linoleum floors. A steep set of stairs leads down to a murky unknown. Further in, I can see a living room which looks startlingly clean; a stark contrast to the dingy kitchen and unkempt basement I will find out later constitutes my home. Never once do I step into that spotless living room to find out what laid beyond.
“I said, dump your crap out. Right here.” Karen, the foster mom, is looking straight at me now. Her eyes take me in but she doesn’t see me; she sees another foster kid and treats me accordingly. “We’re not going any further until I comb through every single thing you have. Or we can throw it all in the dumpster. Your choice.”
I look at my social worker for guidance. She wears a grim smile and stays close to the door, fidgeting with her keys. In her head she’s already in her car driving away, pulling long puffs on a Marlboro Red; onward to the next sad story.
My mother has thrown everything in these bags; even my books, my stuffed animals, my junk drawer full of trinkets and odds and ends. Karen watches over me while I pick up an item, show it to her, and await judgment. I get to keep my clothes, my Walkman, a few pens, and paper. Everything else is taken, some to be held in their garage in a box with my name, and the rest—toiletries and such—seized and locked in a cabinet somewhere in the forbidden zone of the house.
“All toiletries—razors, tampons, and such, are considered contraband,” Karen tells me. “If you need to shave I’ll allow you one razor. If you get your period, I’ll issue you some Maxi Pads. No Tampons. Anytime you leave and come back to this house, I’ll search you for drugs and /or contraband. We will not tolerate drugs in this house.”
I shove clothes back into a trash bag while they sit at a grimy dinner table, trading papers back and forth. Deciding my fate. I feel like I’ve had a layer of skin stripped from me and now the air burns.
Like twelve years of life has been flayed away.
I sit on the floor, sniffling to myself, waiting. Dan, the foster dad, comes in and out several times while I wait. Each time, he smiles at me. I smile back, but I find him creepy. He’s a thin man with a beer gut. His sandy hair and beard are long, and he wears thick glasses over eyes that are buggy and askew. And the bloody apron doesn’t help, either.
My social worker finishes up and prepares to depart. I stop her by the door. “What do I have to do to get out of here?” I ask. I try to hold it together. “Just tell me. There’s got to be a way people can get back home, right?”
She looks sad. “I’ll come check on you in a few weeks. The best you can do right now is be good.” She opens the screen door. “Just follow the rules,” she says.
The first weeks are hard, but I do learn to follow the rules. The teenagers teach me how to smoke, how to dress and how to be tough. We have to be tougher than all the fuckers at school who bully us for being foster kids. We’re attacked and scapegoated at every turn, by teachers, by adults, by authorities, by anyone with a scrap of power. Because we are the Bad Kids.
I learn how to hide contraband like razor blades and tampons and weed so they won’t be found. How to avoid our foster dad. How to sneak out and catch rides. How to find trouble. Because we no longer let trouble find us.
We sit out our time here on the porch and smoke cigarette after cigarette. We roll our eyes at the amputated legs surrounding us. We no longer cringe when we see the woolly ewes get their throats cut, or the friendly pigs strung upside down for slaughter. Nor do we flinch from the needy stares of married men with rough-cut thumbs hooked on spit-shined belt buckles.
And none of us wait for our families to call. Because we don’t let any of this shit touch us anymore.
Amy Bee contributes to the Sacramento News & Review and Good Times Santa Cruz. Her work has appeared in Ozy, Salon, The London Reader, and Indiana Voice Journal, as well as others. Her essay, “The Adult Section”, won the 2017 Sunlight Press Summer Creative Nonfiction Award. When she isn’t writing, Amy likes to backpack long distances and marinate in her ever-nagging existential worries. Find out about Amy’s current project at www.amy-bee.com