IT’S A HALF-DAY PASS and Miss Crawford says it’s not a choice. It’s part of the pre-release thing. They want you to do things with your kid again to get them ready. Miss Crawford says it won’t be hard for me because I haven’t been gone that long. I’d like to say to her, how do you know, going home in that Acura every day–you can see it from the window in the upstairs can, all gold and brand new–but I just nod and say okay because I get to see Teresa and I’m not going to mess it up over her.
I already got a present–a Pocahontas suitcase I bought at Toys R Us at lunch the other day. I asked Mr. Parkinson and he said he guessed it was okay if he walked me over. Mr. Parkinson’s all right. We walked all the way across the lot, talking about when I get out.
It was crowded because there were only a few days left. There was so much stuff, all the board games stacked up to the ceiling and all these moms with their kids, and there I was in my Wendy’s uniform, even the dumb visor, and I felt like crap because here are all these moms with their shopping carts full of stuff, even some dads there with them, and all I’ve got is twenty bucks and I got pissed off at Jimmy again for getting me into all of this.
The kids, they were great, running up to stuff and yelling, “I want this! Mom, I want this!” There was even one little boy crying on the floor next to this Nerf missile launcher he wanted it so bad. His mom was like, no, just standing there waiting it out.
I wanted to get Teresa a Barbie, a nice one. I’ve been working hard but they don’t even have to pay you minimum wage. I wanted to get one of the special ones–Pilgrim Barbie or Pioneer Barbie, Astronaut Barbie. I kept flipping the little price tags. Even the ones on sale were way too much. Mr. Parkinson said he’d pitch in but I couldn’t let him. He walked with me up and down the rows like he was my dad. We walked past all the dolls in pink and the plastic horses and science kits, the fake food and Easy Bake ovens, and then in the Disney aisle I saw it.
I didn’t even think it was weird for a kid–a suitcase. It was perfect because that’s all I’d have when I get out, and if she had one, we could be like twins. We’d just get on a bus and go somewhere way the hell away from Jimmy, I don’t know where, but I kind of saw the two of us standing there together with our suitcases, ready to go.
I’ve got it right here with me. I had it gift-wrapped at the store. I look at it once in a while while I get dressed, check myself in the mirror. My hair’s still wet cause the towels suck here and you’re not allowed a dryer. I’ve got my good jeans on and my best sweater, the butterfly pin my aunt gave me. Everything’s healed, the eyebrow’s coming in thick again. By the time I get out no one will be able to tell.
It’s almost twelve and I sit on my bunk next to her present and think of what I’ll say to her.
I missed you.
Merry Christmas, baby.
Finally I give up. When I get there, I think, I’ll know what to say.
Outside, someone pulls into the parking lot.
“Hey Margie,” someone calls down the hall, “your taxi’s here.”
It’s the regular van. Wanda’s got me on the clipboard. She flashes her badge as we go through the gates.
“I didn’t know you had a kid,” she says, like she knows me or something.
There’s a bunch of us on the van. Most I know except this tall kid with a patch over one eye and bright orange fingernails. She looks like she’s just started working, she’s still got that baby fat under her chin, and I think that it really hasn’t been that long since I was like that, it just seems that way. But then I think, is that a lie?
We go through New Britain and up Route 9 to 84 and into the city, the same way it takes me to work. There’s only a few snowflakes over the road, and no traffic. All our breath is fogging up the windows. I’ve got my present on my lap. Everyone has one, but mine’s easily the biggest. Everyone looks at it but no one says anything. The kid with the patch rubs a hole so she can see out. I wonder what her story is, and then I think maybe they’re right, maybe it’s better not to know.
Wanda turns off at Prospect, right where I used to work, and I’m like, oh no, I’m going to be first. She turns onto Flatbush by the VW dealer’s, and I’m right. We go along the barbed wire fence and rumble over the tracks.
“Marguerite,” she says from up front, like I might have gone somewhere on her.
“What?” I finally say.
“First off is first back on. You be outside and ready at five.”
We cruise through the old neighborhood, past the same two dudes hanging out by the corner bodega’s pay phone, the same doors boarded up, the same Chevys rusting on flat tires. My aunt’s is just up the block but Wanda stops and lets me out at the corner so she can make the turn.
“Five,” Wanda says, like it means something if I’m not there.
I get out and the cold jumps down my neck. The light drops and Wanda cuts the van left. It gets small, and all of a sudden I’m alone, only me and a few flakes sliding off the parked cars. It’s like for a second I can do anything I want to, and I think, there, that’s a present right there.
The block’s empty. My aunt’s half of the house is done up with blinking lights and a green wreath on the door with little red pinecones on it. I bet they have a tree with a star and everything. She’s probably already been to church with Teresa. It hasn’t really started snowing but she’s already salted the steps. The trike she got for Teresa sits in one corner. I stand there a second trying to figure out what I want to say.
I love you.
I won’t be long, I promise.
“Okay,” I say, and straighten everything before I ring the bell, then clear my throat.
There’s footsteps and the door opens. It’s Mr. Curtis the landlord in a green jacket and tie. The Patriots are on really loud so he can hear them. I can smell the ham from here.
“Marguerite,” he says, “Merry Christmas,” and bows like a butler for me to come in, and there she is, right behind him on the floor by the tree, playing with something in this red plaid dress I’ve never seen with white puffy sleeves. She has her back to me and she’s got pigtails. Even sitting down she looks bigger.
“Merry Christmas,” I tell Mr. Curtis, and walk right by him.
The first thing I say is her name. It takes her a second to look up from what she’s doing, and I see she’s putting all her little gifts into this bag–this bright vinyl suitcase with Pocahontas on it.
She looks up and for a second it’s like she doesn’t know who I am, but that’s not it, she just doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do. We’re even, because now I don’t know what to do with my suitcase, so I turn and hand it to Mr. Curtis, then bend down and give her a hug.
“Baby,” I say, “oh, I missed you,” and pull back so I can look at her. She’s got Jimmy’s big eyes and his tiny mouth. “Did you miss me?”
“Yes,” she says, not sure.
“Are you having a good time with your Aunt Caroline?”
I hold her close, and by now my aunt hears us and comes in. She’s just had her hair done so it’s really red and she has her emerald earrings on but still she looks old around the mouth and I feel bad for putting all of this on her.
She gives me a hug. I don’t let go of Teresa
“You look good,” I say.
“How are you?” she says, all worried like the one time she came to visit.
“Good,” I say. “Clean.”
“That’s great,” she says, “that’s really good.”
“Can I get you something to drink?” Mr. Curtis asks. “We’ve got some of that champagne without the kick.”
“Just water’s all right,” I say
We sit down on the couch and my aunt asks Mr. Curtis to turn the Patriots down a little. I keep Teresa on my lap, but she’s squirming, she wants to play with all of her new stuff, and I turn her loose.
“That’s a good-sized box,” my aunt says, pointing to it, and I tell her about the suitcase.
“Oh, that’s terrible,” she says. “I’m so sorry. If I had known.”
“It’s not your fault,” I say.
“I’ll take mine back,” she says, and we argue over it a little, then I let her win.
“Whoa!” Mr. Curtis says, watching some guy on the Patriots catch a pass. I give my aunt a look and she just shrugs, meaning she knows he’s not perfect.
A buzzer goes off back in the kitchen and she has to go do the potatoes. I want to help but she says no.
“So,” Mr. Curtis says when she’s gone, “when is it you’re coming back again?”
“March,” I say, “if everything goes right.”
“That’s great,” he says. “Your aunt’s very proud of you, you know.”
“I know,” I say.
“And Teresa’s a real darling, a really sweet kid.”
“Thanks,” I say.
Somebody fumbles and he forgets he’s talking to me. He turns the sound up to find out what’s going on, and I go over to play with Teresa on the carpet.
She’s got all kinds of stuff–a bunch of colored markers, pogs, some Hershey’s kisses in a little red fishnet stocking. She’s watching a wind-up frog hopping around, doing flips. My aunt used to teach school, she knows the fun stuff. I didn’t have time to check out the suitcase in the store, so I look it over. It’s pretty nice.
“Hey,” I say, “you know, I got you the exact same thing.”
She doesn’t get it, so I go get the box and open it for her.
She just looks at it.
“Funny, huh? I should have asked Aunt Caroline before I went shopping.”
“Aunt Caroline didn’t gimme it,” she says.
“Santa, I mean. I didn’t check with Santa.”
“It’s not from Santa,” she says, like I’m being silly.
“Who is it from?” I ask.
“It’s from Daddy.”
Jesus, I think. Great. Why didn’t my aunt tell me this?
“Did Daddy bring it over?” I say, and I must be getting angry because she just nods. I put my hands over my face and breathe like they teach you in workshop. “When did he bring it over?”
“Yesterday. He ate dinner with us.”
It’s just nuts. I sit there and watch her start playing with the frog again. It’s just crazy. Mr. Curtis is talking to the TV set, telling them to go for it. I get up and go through the dining room. The table’s all set–big platters, the cranberry sauce already softening in a dish.
My aunt is at the sink, draining the potatoes in a colander. The steam comes up through her hair.
I grab her arm. “What the hell is with Jimmy coming to dinner last night?” I say. “You know goddamn well he’s not allowed within five hundred yards of me or her.”
“Jimmy wasn’t here,” she says, looking at me like I’m crazy. “I wouldn’t let Jimmy near her, you know that.”
“Then why is she telling me he was here last night?”
“She’s telling you what?” she says, and I have to put my hands over my face again before I explain.
“Okay,” she says, “yeah, she’s been doing that lately, talking about him like he’s around. Mike says it’s normal.”
“I don’t think it’s normal,” I say, and I think, Mike? Since when is Mr. Curtis Mike?
“Jimmy’s her father,” my aunt says. “It doesn’t matter what he is, a child likes to have a father.”
“What about me,” I say, “does she talk that way about me?”
“No,” she says. “Sometimes. Yes. What do you want me to say–she misses you. She wants you to be with her.”
“I am going to be with her,” I say. “It’s not even four months.”
“A year is a long time for a child.”
“I know that. Do you think I’m stupid? Do you think I like being in there?”
Mr. Curtis looks in on us from the doorway, like someone’s called for him. “Everything okay?” he says.
“Fine,” I say, but he waits until my aunt says it too and then doesn’t go away.
My aunt goes back to doing the potatoes, slopping them into a pot. “Twenty minutes,” she says, and we clear out of the kitchen.
I go back to Teresa, Mr. Curtis goes back to the game. I look at her, trying to see what’s different, why she’s like this. She hums and grinds the frog along the carpet and sparks shoot out of its mouth. Maybe she’s fine, I think. I do the same thing every night, imagining reading her a story, tucking her in. It’s not much different.
“You’ve got to catch that ball,” Mr. Curtis says, and looks to me for support. The Pats are winning. Like I care.
In the back of the house a cork pops. “Okay,” my aunt calls from the dining room.
The ham’s a big one with the skin cut into little squares with a clove in the middle of each one. Mr. Curtis carves. I cut Teresa’s into bite-size pieces. She doesn’t trust the cranberry sauce. My aunt stops the production to say grace, and then for a few minutes it’s just eating.
It’s so good compared to the crap I’m used to that I laugh and then I have to explain why.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” my aunt says, and she really is proud of it.
The fake champagne tastes like diet ginger ale. Teresa’s slow, playing with her silverware, and I have to spear a piece, feed her like a baby.
“Don’t let her do that to you,” my aunt says.
Mr. Curtis isn’t going to get into it with us again. He’s on thirds by the time Teresa’s eaten enough.
And then there’s mince pie and custard, and coffee after that, and presents. I keep checking the clock. I get a picture of me from Teresa with MOM on it, and I give her a kiss. My aunt gives me a pair of dark green bath towels. Mr. Curtis gets a sweater and, finally, a book on trains. Outside, the trees are dark. Back in the living room, the game has changed, the Raiders and someone. Teresa draws pictures on her new tablet–the tree, me, her, Mr. Curtis. No Daddy.
All the coffee’s getting to me, and I excuse myself. In the bathroom, I open the medicine cabinet just to see if she’s cleaned it out. Nothing but razors and make-up, not even kid’s aspirin. It’s okay, I don’t blame her.
It’s the second quarter and dark out now. Across the street, blue and white lights are running around someone’s porch.
“It’s a quarter to five,” my aunt reminds me.
She holds my gloves while I get my coat on. I say goodbye to Mr. Curtis first. I thank him–I don’t know why.
“It won’t be long,” my aunt says, and her hair smells sweet like the ham.
“I know,” I tell her.
“And you,” I say, picking up Teresa, “I’ll be back to see you very soon, so don’t go forgetting your mom, okay? I miss you every day and I know you miss me too.” I don’t even know what I’m saying, but I’m holding on to her, I’m not leaving till I have to. “Merry Christmas,” I tell her, “I love you,” and she says it back to me the way kids do, not really meaning it. When I put her down, she heads for the tree, but my aunt stops her, makes her watch me leave.
Outside, I want to believe she meant the “I love you” part but it’s not true. They all wave from the door, and stay there till I’m halfway down the block. It’s way colder out now, I can feel it through my jeans.
The van’s waiting at the corner, sending out clouds of exhaust.
Wanda is pissed, but there’s nothing she can do. She slides the side door closed and the light goes out, then gets in again and it flashes for an instant.
We’re packed in there in our coats. As we slide under the streetlights you can make out faces. Behind me someone’s crying. At first I’m afraid it might be me. No one looks though, we all pretend everything’s fine. I think of what I’m going to say in Miss Crawford’s workshop, what I learned that was valuable from this experience.
I learned that my kid is messed up and it’s all my fault.
I learned that I should be with Teresa and not in this fucking shithole.
But I know I won’t say that. I’ll say something dumb like, I learned how important it is to make active choices for myself.
Wanda hits the on ramp and it’s clear that whoever’s crying is not going to stop. No one’s going to look either. Both of those things make me mad.
So I do. I sneak a sideways look behind me, and right then the light hits her just perfect, and who is it but the kid with the patch. Oh Christ, I think. We’re passing people, Wanda’s trying to get us back on time, and the kid’s just blubbering. I want to turn around and crack her a good one because it’s just depressing the rest of us. Sure, she’s a kid, but even a kid ought to know better. There’s a time you’ve got to smarten up, and she’s past it. That’s what I’ll tell Miss Crawford, I think. That’s what I learned. Don’t be stupid. Don’t be a kid. Just cause you want something so bad doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.