Doing Time in the Real World
Sherri H. Hoffman
The crying starts while I am folding laundry. Or maybe mopping up from the kidsí bath. The back door is bolted since the wooden stairs outside are falling down, but the metal slider window is up to let some air in, and the sobs come from the apartments on the hill above our trailer.
Thad squints out the window. "What the hell is that?"
The sound of it is not like after a fight or a sad movie. It is deep and private. Like the desperate end of something or a broken heart.
A cracked streetlamp lights the two blue dumpsters against the fence. Thad tips his head sideways, his ear almost touching the window screen. A sob stretches through the dark, ends in a hollow gasp.
"Maybe we should do something," I say.
Thad shrugs. "Did you get more beer?"
The girls are asleep in their bedroom, Rachel on the top bunk, Ruby spread-eagled on her back in an undershirt and a diaper. Thad built both bunks with rails since we never had a regular crib. Before bed, I gave the girls each a slice of bread sprinkled with sugar and warm milk. They ate the soft middles with their plastic Mickey and Minnie spoons, and I ate the soggy crusts since that was the end of the loaf and there would be nothing for breakfast now but eggs and yellow government cheese.
The front screen door squeaks. Thad says something. In the dark, the sound of crying rises and falls. I push the window closed over the girlsí beds.
On the porch, Thad is rolling a joint. Maverick lounges on the railing, two six-packs of Coors at his feet. He lifts his chin and a beer at me. Yellow hair hangs in curls to his shoulders. He is the same age as Thad, but single and Catholic and living with his parents, Robert and Marge, in the double-wide next door. Every weekend, he washes his souped up Mazda in the driveway wearing nothing but black shorts.
"Here." Maverick hands me the joint, flicks up a flame on his lighter. "Whoa, darliní," he says. There is a puff and sizzle.
"Damn, baby," Thad says. "Your hair was on fire."
A ridge of crisped hair above my forehead crumbles into ash under my fingertips. The long bangs on one side are gone.
Thad laughs loud. "Thatís some good shit," he says. "Makes your hair catch on fire."
Maverick snorts out a cloud of smoke. "You shouldía seen your face."
Heat spreads up into my cheeks. "Fuck you both." I pull the rest of my hair loose from my ponytail.
"Mav, did I tell you about the pork chops?" Thad points the joint at me. "My old lady shops over there on 21st. Buys some pork chops."
The center of my chest tightens. "Thad," I say.
Thad turns sideways from me. "You know the place?"
Maverick lights a cigarette. "Yeah, yeah. 21st Street."
"She brings home these pork chops." Thad holds one hand out like a tray, circles the joint over the top like a magic trick. "With a fly sealed up inside the plastic." He bobs his head up and down. "No shit. Got those bastards by the nutsack. Goddam fly still buzzing in the plastic. Pristine, this deal." He drags on the joint. "Pristine." He talks out smoke. "And Lisa blows it."
Thad had come back to the store with me, told the manager he was going to call the newspaper. The managerís face swelled up all red. But the young guy in the butcherís apron splashed with pink stood in the back and pressed his hands together, his face white as milk.
Thad talked loud, held up the package of meat. Customers pushing their carts bent their necks around as they went by. Like a car wreck.
"Letís take this into the back," the manager said.
Heat in my face, I grabbed a cart, threw in a couple trays of chicken, pork chops and hamburger. I took the package with the fly from Thad and shoved it at the skinny guy. "Itís forgotten," I said.
Thad caught up with me in the parking lot. He yelled into my face. "We had them," he said. "You blew our chance."
I yelled back. "You think theyíre going to give you anything? That guy punches a clock same as me and you." The yellow Styrofoam trays squeaked against each other. "Itís like sticking it to yourself."
Thad pounded his hands on the steering wheel. "Fuck! You didnít even get any steaks."
Maverick leans forward off the porch railing. "Not even a fucking steak?" he says. "No shit?"
The tightness in my chest swells to my throat. "Jesus, Thad. That was a fucking year ago." Their laughter bounces loud between the trailers. "Asshole."
Thad points a finger up over his head. "Crying section in the back."
The night air shifts down in layers, cools my face. The sobs have faded into a wave of slow moans, like low tide.
Maverick lights another cigarette. "No kidding, thatís some freaky shit."
Thad holds the end of the joint between his thumb and finger and tries to light it. "Thatís what Iím talking about."
"No, man," Maverick says, "that crying."
A voice comes up from the street outside the porch light. "Maybe she smoked some of your shit-weed, Ese."
Thad steps down off the porch. Sebastian moves out of the dark, shadows slipping down his hooded sweatshirt. They square up fists, knock them together. Sebastian is from #214 down the block, a single-wide that smells like cat piss even from the street. Thad breaks off two beers from the six-pack. Sebastian pops one open.
"Got a couple twenties," he says. A pair of Armani sunglasses perch on top of the dark hair slicked back over his head. Streetlight glints off a gold crucifix that hangs on the outside of his sweatshirt on a thick, gold chain. He takes a cigarette out from behind his ear, points it at Maverick. "Gotta light?"
Maverick hands over his cigarette butt. Sebastian nods his head up at me. "Hey, Lisa." His eyes are a flat brown, a blue teardrop tattoo on the outside corner of the right one. Last summer out by the pool, I traded Sebastian a blow job for a bottle of Tequila. Thad was driving a late route and Sebastianís wife had thrown him out again.
My beer is warm. "Howís Marcella?" I say.
Sebastianís eyes narrow and his thin lips stretch back over yellow teeth. He slides the Armaniís down from the top of his head. "Sheís at her sisterís."
Maverick is counting out a handful bills. "Iím in," he says.
Thad swings himself up the porch stairs by the railing. "Letís do it." They bang the screen door open, stomp through the kitchen to the back.
The front door looks right into the bathroom where Rubyís missing pink sandal is peeking out from behind the toilet. I pick up the shoe. The toilet seat is up and the bowl is yellow. "Jesus, Thad," I say. The toilet flushes with a rush of water. I put the seat down. "Asshole."
"Knock, knock." Maureenís clove cigarette seeps in through the screen. Maureen is #107 across the street. Her old man, Danny, is in Iraq, probably until after Christmas.
"Thereís beer on the porch," I say.
Rachel has stripped off her Barbie nightgown and kicked the sheets down against the wall. Ruby is upside down at the end of the bed. She sucks her thumb. She turns over when I open the window. The only sound is Maureen humming something from the porch.
"Beerís warm," Maureen says. She tucks her IPod into its sock. "Walk with me to Bernieís. I need cigarettes."
I kick the empty cans down into the grass. "The rugrats are asleep."
"Weíll be fast," she says. "Whereís Thad?"
"Sebastianís in back."
Maureen stamps out her cigarette. "They wonít wake up. Get some shoes."
A thin breeze shifts the heat around in the dark. The street through the trailer park is pocked with potholes and loose gravel. Our flip-flops snap against our heels and the warm asphalt. The growl of engines rises up from inside the Navy base and roars overhead as a pair of jets takes off. The engines flare yellow and white behind them. I light a cigarette.
"Give me one of those," Maureen says. "Did you hear about Sadie and Jim? She got probation, and heís doing time. One-to-five. I presume you know he did 18 months before." Maureen talks too fast and says things like presume and copulate.
"Whoís at Sadieís now? Thereís like ten different guys over there."
"Supposedly her cousin. What happened to your hair?"
"Fuckiní Maverick," I say. "Bastard torched my bangs."
Maureen turns around, leans up on her toes and pushes her fingers into my hair. Her fingers are cool and her breath smells of cloves. She touches the side of my face. "Fixable," she says. "Donít let that prick come so close. Heís his own communicable disease."
We cut along the chain link fence behind the Safeway. Behind the store, a white panel van is backed up next to the loading dock, rear doors open. The side of the van has a blue stick drawing of a fish. A man in a red store apron rolls a metal rack out from the store. He pulls bread from the rack and tosses it into the back of the van.
Maureen wraps her fingers through the chain link and shakes the fence. The chain link rings like bells. "Hey, mister!" she says. "Over here!" She waves her hands.
The man looks back over his shoulder into the store. He pats the air down around him. "Shut up," he says. "You could get me fired. Shut the fuck up!"
Maureen stops yelling, just waves her hands as if he canít see us. He looks back, pulls four loaves from the rack and heaves them over the fence. "Now get the fuck out of here."
We run through the alley, Maureen first. She cuts through the narrow gap between Bernieís Quick Mart and The Check Cashing Store. She dodges left. "Dog shit," she calls over her shoulder. Too late. My foot slaps right into it, and I slip and almost fall.
Maureen bursts out onto the main sidewalk. She leans against a parking meter. Her hair swings glossy and dark to her shoulders. She clutches a loaf of bread in each hand, holds it up in front of her. "Manna from heaven."
I hand her my bread. "Manna," I say. I scrape the bottom of my flip-flop against the curb, then take it off and scrape it against the brick wall of The Check Cashing Store. "Youíd think God could do better than pull-date."
At Bernieís Quik Mart, a brown and rust Cadillac with dark windows rolls slow to the curb. Pounding bass buzzes the frame. A side window whines, slides down, and the beat grinds loud inside. A narrow black face peers out, a woman, her braided hair tied back under a red bandana.
Maureen thrusts out her chest, plants her balled up fists on her hips. The plastic bread sacks fan out on either side of her like tail feathers. "You lost?"
Blue smoke flows out from the window. The pounding rhythm quiets. "You seen Sebastian?" the woman says. Her voice is low and coarse.
Maureen tips her head up and to the side, eyes leveled at the car window. "You seen Sebastian?" she says to me.
"I ainít seen him."
"We ainít seen him," Maureen says. The car glides slow to the corner, turns. "Bitch."
I take my bread from Maureen. "What? She donít got enough dope on her side of town?"
"Sheís lucky my Dannyís not around. He wouldnít stand for it." Danny beat up a black petty officer at Kooterís who sat around too long watching Maureen dance after Freedom Fest last September. The 304th was activated before Danny finished doing his 30 days, so he was flown straight out the day he was released. Maureen got his first letter a month later, forwarded from Mosul through Germany.
"You want another beer?" Maureen says.
We walk slow into the trailer park, bread in one hand, Milwaukeeís Best in the other. The dusty glow of the city spreads in a cloud to the edge of the sky, masks all but a few thin points of stars. On the corner, #52 is open, doors and windows, yellow light and the blink of television, infomercials loud into the street. A mob of tow-headed children crowd around the aluminum stairs up to the open door. One of the smaller boys, barefoot and shirtless, breaks away from the others, stands out at the end of the driveway and jerks his hips and arms at us. "Crack hoís. Crack hoís," he says.
Maureen finishes her beer. "Canít find your mama again? You little piss-ant. Get inside or Iíll call Child Services. Youíll all go to separate foster homes." She throws her can at the boy. The kids scatter. One of the littlest ones trips over the doorjamb at the top of the stairs and starts to wail.
"Damn kids," Maureen says. "It must be 2:00 in the morning. Crying babies and all."
The rows of trailers echo the childís cries behind and around us. It fades to a low wail, then rebounds in a higher pitch, regular, familiar. I thrust my empty can at Maureen. "Itís Ruby."
Around the corner, Ruby and Rachel walk hand-in-hand in the center of the road. Tears and snot run in streaks down Rubyís face and bare belly. She holds her binky up to her mouth, gasps in moist sobs. They are barefoot. Rachel is wearing her pink Barbie nightgown inside out. She drags Ruby up by one arm when she wobbles through a pothole.
I sweep Ruby up to my hip. "What are you babies doing out here?"
Rachelís dark eyes are too big in her narrow face. "Thadís noisy," she says. "We woke up."
"Thadís an asshole," I say.
"Ass-hoe," Ruby says, hiccupping between sobs.
The brown and rust Cadillac is parked in the driveway behind Thadís green Datsun. The trailer pounds with bass and the rap of voices, front door open. Maureen takes Ruby from my outstretched arms. "Get in your chair," I say. "Aunt Maury will make you some toast."
The bedroom door bangs open. Thadís long legs are bare, and he pulls a shirt on over his head. I jab my fist into the center of his hollow chest. "You bastard."
He holds up both hands. "Wait a minute, baby. Wait."
I punch him again, push past him to the bedroom.
"Wait! Lisa. Baby!" Thad says.
Sebastian is naked in the center of my bed, his chest and arms a tattooed web of blue and black. He rocks the black womanís hips into him from where she crouches on her hands and knees. Her thin breasts flop back and forth, nipples knobby like dark raisins. The air is thick with musk like raw ginger and the hint of ammonia. On the dresser top, a glass pipe burned black.
I can barely get enough breath to make words. "Get out."
Sebastianís teeth gleam white. The bed squeaks with rhythm. "Lisa. Baby. Wait your turn." He grabs the roll of braids at the womanís neck, pulls her head back. Her wide lips grimace, but she makes no sound, breathes hard.
I dump the laundry basket and swing it hard. "Get! Out!"
Sebastianís arms come up. The woman scrambles, grabs at her clothes, pink shorts on the bed. Plastic vial on the floor.
Sebastian stands up in the center of the bed, still hard. He spreads his arms. "Lisa, Lisa," he says. "Come here, baby."
A shoe. Coffee cup. Beer can. Hairbrush. Thadís jeans, balled up with the leather belt still in the loops. Sebastian ducks. Waves his arms. Covers his crotch with one hand. His legs pump up and down. Bamboo, water and black pebbles spray across the bed. He grabs his pants, grabs his pipe, dodges around on the floor and grabs his dope. He curses a steady stream, Spanish and English. A framed baby picture bounces off his bare back. Thad is in the doorway, eyes wide. Sebastian scuttles past him.
I scream. "Get out!"
Thad watches Sebastianís retreat. I hold a single finger up into his face. "You!"
He starts to say something. I snatch up the iron from the empty space built for a washer and a dryer, hold it up to my shoulder. My face is hot. I narrow my eyes at him. "Out!"
He backs down the hallway. The screen door slaps closed behind him.
Rachel looks at the door from where she sits at the kitchen counter. She licks sugar off the top of her toast. Rubyís head nods, eyes heavy, a fistful of toast in one hand, binky in the other. Maureen wets a kitchen towel and wipes Rubyís face and chest, pries the mashed bread from her fingers. I put down the iron and lift her, drape her arms and legs around me. "Rachel. Bed. Now."
With the girls in bed, Maureen waves from her steps across the street. She holds her hand up to her face, thumb and pinky spread. Her mouth makes the shape of words. "Call me." I sink down to sit on the porch step.
The air is still. Heat and dark hang like a held breath. Another pair of jets takes off. The roar of engines looms big in the sky and then fades to a rush that sounds like far away water. I pack a box of Marlboros in my palm and tear open the plastic wrapper. The cigarettes smell like fresh earth. I smoke in the silence until the gray light of dawn spreads and yellows into another morning.
Sherri H. Hoffman is a working writer in the Pacific Northwest and graduate of Weber State University. After nearly ten non-productive years, she returned to writing fiction, inspired and encouraged by the support of Wildfire Writing in Vancouver, WA and Dangerous Writers in Portland, OR. Recent publications include "Black Bird" (Editor's Choice Award) and "Thicker Than Water" (Editor's Choice Award), an excerpt chapter from a novel in progress of the same title. Other works are published in Etchings, Poetic Diversity, and upcoming in Duck & Herring Pocket Field Guide (10/08). Read more at www.sherrihhoffman.com.
Photo Courtesy of 123rf.
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Fiction Copyright © 2008 Sherri H. Hoffman. All rights reserved.