by Vanja Thompson
M y dad has a spotting bum lung and he needs to get back into the hospital and fast. But for right now, he is sleeping in our guest room, wearing his favorite putty-colored tee shirt. My daughter Sandra is dressed up in her magician's costume, sucking on her lower lip and trying her best to be a big girl while I apologize again for missing her show. My husband says, Are you sure we can't get a Grampy-sitter—Sandra's term—so you can join us? Just for three hours? I remind him Grampy tried to get the nurses to sneak him cigarettes while he was in the hospital.
Sandra picks at her glitter-covered shoe and says, It's not like he's a baby. Sheesh. Her new word. She gives me a hug at her father's urging and I squeeze a little extra tight, crinkling her purple cape.
I walk into the guest room and look down at my dad's bald head on the pastel yellow pillowcase. His teeth are in a glass on the nightstand and his puckered mouth does look like a baby's. A baby with a bad temper. The terrible seventy-twos. I look at my dad's fingernails. I'm going to need to trim them tomorrow. If he'll let me. I guess I could have called someone to come over. It would have been okay, just for three hours.
I'm nine years old, and we're staying at Mary Ann's on McAllister for a while, and I'm home alone. Just for three hours, I'm home alone. In San Francisco. The big city.
The day before my dad says, You have to get a job, Shirl. Mom says back, Why don't you? She says it like she's half expecting dad's going to run after her like that big gray bulldog on the chain in the Tom and Jerry cartoons. But my dad sits still and quiet and looks tired.
Mom says Who's going to watch Lainie? Because my dad won't be home, he'll be at the track trying to get us out of this hole, that's how he says it. I've never been left completely alone before at this point in my life. And my dad says it'll only be for a couple of hours each afternoon. Mary Ann doesn't leave until right before three and you'll get back at 5:30 and mom says okay, that she'll call the temp agency first thing tomorrow and dad says Go do it now and she leaves the room.
When I wake up, Mary Ann and Mom and Dad are talking, laughing loud and clinking coffee cups and silverware. Mom's on her way to a job in an office downtown. Seems like a party everyday when we stay with someone. Mom smells powdery like the department store and I inhale deep. She smells rich like the kind of mom I'd been hoping for for a while. That was the first time I'd seen her wear makeup. And the last time until her funeral. She'd borrowed it from Mary Ann. When she walks in the kitchen, Dad says Whoo-wee. Babe, you clean up real nice. Mom blushes and looks up to the heavens, as she used to say, and tells him to stop. They all laugh. I tell you what, Shirl, you're in the wrong line of work, Dad says, pointing with his cigarette, still laughing. We'll get you set up with a little side business down on the street, there, and before you know it our money troubles are over, know what I'm saying? Mom's smile drops like a dishtowel and she goes back into the bathroom. Mary Ann looks into the sink and I remember Dad shook his head and stood up. Then he left for the track.
Mary Ann and I watch TV for most of the morning. I'm thinking she doesn't like kids. She's got a lot of little things that she doesn't want me to touch. I'm nine for Chrissake, I'm not a baby, and I know not to touch stuff that doesn't belong to me. She smiles all the time and never knows what to say. She offers me food every ten minutes.
At two Mary Ann goes and gets ready for work, and I look through a magazine called Cosmopolitan and she says, that's not really for children, and I try to burn a hole through her head with my eyes.
She leaves and gives me a key and says Now, remember not to go out until your mom gets home, but if you have to go out for some emergency, here's the key to get back in. Don't leave the door unlocked if you go out. This isn't a safe neighborhood. Don't go out. Mary Ann was a ditzy broad, just like my dad said. Always talking in circles. But I agree; it's her house and I've got enough sense, even back then, to know to be polite when you're in someone else's house. Especially if you don't happen to have one of your own.
When I can't see the back of Mary Ann's toffee hair through the peephole anymore, I get down off the chair I've been standing on and that's when I start the strut. The I'm-home-alone strut. I'm feeling good. Grownup. I walk around from room to room—purple bathroom, orange kitchen, brown living room, purple bedroom, darker than the bathroom—for a good twenty minutes.
I walk around the place looking at stuff, looking for stuff, getting fidgety. There's a big bowl next to the phone and it's full of glass marbles and junk and keys and little bits that look like they might be toys, and pieces of gum. I take a piece of gum out of the fat blue Trident packet. And then I see it. The little bit of plastic. The key chain. It's an orange plastic form of two little naked people. A guy with chipped black paint hair and a woman with yellow painted hair and red lips, and the guy has a lever sticking out of his back and a very long stick of plastic sticking out from below his stomach. When I push the lever the plastic man and woman seesaw back and forth, him jabbing into her, jab jab, and my ears get hot and I can't say why but I'm sure I shouldn't be playing with this. Not just because it doesn't belong to me.
It's only 4:30 and I'm restless. I take the key Mary Ann left and string it up on a long piece of twine I've found. Then I add the key chain to my new necklace, jab jabbing it a couple times, and tie it off. There's a glossy pink lipstick in a tarnished silver tube in the bowl. I smell it. I touch it with the tip of my tongue. I realize I may not be the first to do so and I shudder. I go into the bathroom and I put on the lipstick. Put it on my lips and two circles on the apples of my cheeks and brush my frizzy hair as flat as I can with Mary Ann's big red comb. And I'm set. I brush off my tight Nilla Wafer-colored cords and pull down my striped sweater—I'm growing out of all my clothes—and scan the place and walk out backwards and shut the door. I'm out. And I check it. It's locked.
I am going out to look for a job so I can help get us out of this hole even faster. I walk quickly. I don't want to look like a tourist. I walk firmly past the Civic Center where the market is folding up and dirty people with shopping carts are lined up for about a mile. I walk so fast that the naked people rattle and the key flaps up and down on my chest, thunk, thunk, thunk, and I think it might make a hole right through my body, right through to the other side. Before we came here, when I was in school in Fresno, we did a thing in science class where we made a drinking straw go right through a raw potato. It's because of follow-through, Mr. Brundy said. The way it works is you hold the straw and you stab the potato hard. You act like the potato isn't even there. Like you're going to bring the straw right down through thin air. I keep walking and the striking of the key starts to feel good. I am chewing my gum hard and blowing bubbles, and the lipstick tastes sweet and I can tell people are looking at me and it feels nice. They are looking at me the way I look at those Cosmopolitan ladies I always see in heels and stockings and big gold earrings with the slicked back shiny buns and big sunglasses. I wish I would've taken Mary Ann's sunglasses from the bowl. But they were too big around my head. They're looking at me wondering where I came from and where I'm going to and I'm walking fast, standing tall as a twenty-year-old and chomping my gum and feeling the key, thunk, thunk, thunk.
I'm looking for an office building where they might need secretaries. I've watched a lot of secretaries on TV and Mom has explained it to me and I think it's a job I could do. I don't have any skirts, which is what most secretaries wear, but I clipped a picture of one out of the Sears catalogue at Mary Ann's and hid it in my pillowcase, and I'll order it as soon as I get paid. And I practiced typing a full page when we were staying at Jake and Sherry's in Sacramento.
I'm looking up at a building that looks officy. No flowers in the windows. No drapes. Looking up makes me a little dizzy when the clouds move and the buildings start to sway and bend.
I'm stung by a sharp clutch to my wrist. I flinch and snap to, looking around quickly, and the man holding my wrist puts his other hand on my shoulder and his mouth close to my face and says Don't be afraid. George is your friend, sweetheart. Let's get you a nice cold glass of lemonade right over there, see. He is pointing to a bakery full of coolers and colorful ice cream cartons. His warm breath coats my cheek like syrup, only sour. He says, You like ice cream? We'll get you a nice piece of pastry too. It's my birthday and nothing would please me more than to have a lovely young lady like you celebrate with me. George's pointy white collar is dirty and so is his dark blue suit. He doesn't have a tie on and his skin is shiny, sweaty.
I clear my throat and say I have an appointment, sir. I'm running late. Excuse me. I tug away but can't get loose, and George's tightly gripping fingers burn my wrist. He chuckles. I pull on my turtleneck for air; I'm choking and I'm too hot.
Now where does a pretty little lady like you need to be so badly she can't enjoy a nice pastry with a perfectly nice gentleman? Do tell, darling. George's eyes are yellow and they are too close to my face. He leads me to the bakery and I look around but nobody sees me now. People walk past us fast, chattering to each other. They aren't missing their appointments. I look up and see his hair is clumpy like a koala bear's and his face is spotty like he has freckles only they're not freckles. They're purple and pink and yellow like the funny pages when you look too close.
George says I can have whatever as we stand in front of the beautiful cakes in the case. When I don't answer him, George holds my wrist a little tighter and smiles. She'll have an éclair and a scoop of strawberry ice cream, he tells the woman behind the counter. He looks at me sternly as he switches hands to keep holding onto my wrist and reach into his pocket for money. When we sit down he lets go of my hand and says, Now can't you just relax for a moment? Wish George a happy birthday. I say I want to sit outside, not inside and he looks angry. I'm scared now and I think I'm about to cry when he says fine, fine, fine and scoops up everything and we go outside, where he sets our stuff down quickly and grabs my arm. I sit down and look at everyone going by and he kicks my leg under the table. He leans in and says Eat your ice cream before it melts and talk to me, you hear? I nod my head. Then he smiles and picks up the key. You a latchkey kid? I don't know what that means so I say no. Where you headed? he asks.
I'm not a kid, I say, and I'm going to work. I scowl. It makes me look older. He smiles more. Not a nice smile.
Tell me about your work, he says, and I feel his grip on my arm loosen a little.
I take a bite of cake and then I tell him, I work in an office. I have a meeting. He nods his head. I'm going to be late.
Don't worry, says George and he squeezes my hand with both of his big sweaty hands. He has a chunky gold ring on one finger and his nails are dirty. You'll get there in plenty of time. I'll give you a ride in my brand new car.
No thank you. Someone's picking me up. I try to stay calm.
I see, he says. Someone from your office? He laughs softly. I feel my face heat up. He leans in close and pulls my hand towards him. I can stab him in the neck with my plastic fork if I move quickly. Follow-through. He says, Now listen. It would make George very happy if you accompanied him to his birthday party. You will be the lady of honor, wouldn't you like that? It will hurt my feelings if you don't accept. You don't want to hurt my feelings, do you? he asks and kisses my squirming hand. His lips are soggy.
I look around. Still no one is looking at me. George's grip tightens but then he pulls his left hand away and touches my face. Chills. He runs his hand along the string and I pull back, feeling the twine dig into the back of my neck. What's this here, young lady? he picks up the little plastic people. Well, well. The gravelly chuckle again, and he's pulling the little lever with his other hand and I feel free and try to pull away but the twine is digging into my neck again. I pull the necklace off my head and run fast, knocking over my chair. I am running up Market Street back toward the Civic Center I hope, and weaving in between people as fast as I can. I'm not sure but I think I hear George yelling, although it could be anyone now. Seems I've run miles, but I haven't even crossed a street. At the crosswalk the light is green and I keep running. I hear some teenager say look at her go and I push on. But there is no Civic Center up ahead. There is no park with the shopping cart-pushing people. I keep running because in the other direction is George. I keep running when, through the crowd way up ahead, I see my mom walking toward me. This is what my mom looks like to someone who doesn't know her— she looks kind of happy, looking down at the ground, smiling, her wiry black hair falling around her soft cheeks, muttering to herself. She's probably repeating something funny she heard at her new job or something she told someone about my dad.
So here comes my mom and she looks up, and her mouth makes a big O and she gets flushed and she starts speeding toward me. I speed toward her too, and I am not feeling grownup at all anymore. I can't wait to put my arms around her and burry my face in her tummy where I can be safe. But that is not how it goes. She grabs my wrist and snaps it hard and rough and asks me what I think I'm doing and I tell her it's okay, I've locked the door, and I was just looking at the shops and I was going to be back before she got home. She steps back holding me at arm's length and her eyes shake and shine. I don't know what this face is. Her grip is almost as tight as George's. What the hell do you have all over your face? She licks her thumb and rubs my cheek hard and she yanks me behind her as we walk back to the apartment. And the whole time I'm scared we'll pass George and I only understand pieces of mom's breathy voice. Just three hours, she is muttering, three hours my ass.
My dad has two permanent vertical lines between his eyebrows. Even as he's sleeping, he's still frowning. Still worried. Still broke.
But he's staying in my guest room now, where he won't wear out his welcome, and where I'll take care of the little things, of the fingernails. Lainie, he still calls me, get me a Kleenex will you? And get me a smoke.
Can't blame the guy for trying, my husband says. Get me, get me, get me. I won't get him a smoke. And I won't leave him alone. Not for three hours. Not for a minute. Sheesh.
Copyright©2003 Vanja Thompson