From the Archives: Rumpus Original Fiction: Lunch Money
This was originally published at The Rumpus on March 27, 2019.
I love to watch the way my mother’s lips curl as she blows rings of cigarette smoke into the sky. Her mouth puckers soft and pink like a tiny strawberry, poised as if she’s about to lean in and whisper a secret in my ear. The smoke slithers out of her, leaking from the corners of her lips, reminding me of a kettle breathing just after its screech, exhaling the heat trapped inside.
Each ring comes out gently, a smooth trail of vapor stringing them together until they break, torn by an undercurrent in the breeze. They rush out of her with a gracefulness I don’t understand, a peacefulness I’ve never seen. Sometimes, I think my mother only knows rage and the way it weaves itself through everything, pulling tight. Sometimes, I think she only knows evil. But when we sit together on the balcony like this, wrapped in the thickness of heat and smoke, I see the truth. I see the sadness that sleeps just beneath her face.
The rings blow out limp and warped. I watch them fall apart on their way down, cracking open like rotten husks. A few manage to stay intact, stretching into thin, gaping halos that soon disappear. Even though she and I are next to each other I know better than to speak. Out here on the balcony, perched three stories above the ground, we’re in her world.
She stumbles around the apartment in nothing but a pair of underwear, her body and voice twisting along to some choppy rhythm playing from the radio she left on in the living room. Her voice is hoarse, deep and tattered. I should’ve hidden as soon as I heard her coming for me. I should’ve pretended I was asleep or reading. But the apartment is small, and by the time I knew she was coming she was already there, leaned up against my door frame pinning me with her dead, glossy eyes. Quickly, I scan for anything that might upset her: the empty bag of cheesy bread I bought with the quarters I stole from the laundry roll, the nail polish and gummy worms I took from the CVS up the block to treat myself after I got my test scores back. More often than not, she doesn’t realize where these things come from, but I like to be cautious.
“Kenni, babygirl, come sit with your mama.”
Her voice cracks around my name. For a moment, there is something bewitching about her drunkenness, the way it floats around her, tossing her back and forth as she waddles into the room. Her face looks old, wiped only half clean of her makeup. Black wisps of mascara fall from her lashes, red painted lips curve, licked dry and cracked. Her hair is slicked and oily, parted harshly down the middle and gathered into a pair of braids that just barely graze her nipples. She pats her feet to the beat, juts her hips, and raises her hand, thoughtlessly flipping one of her braids back so that it whirls out and slaps her across the back with a soft thud. She readjusts herself, leaning back into the shadows cast on the wall by my desk lamp so that for a moment her head seems to vanish, swallowed up by the darkness. She crosses her arms lopsided over her stomach, pushing it out so that it bulges.
“Did you hear me, Kendra? I said get up.”
Slowly she peels herself from the wall and steps further into the room until she is hovering just above me. I lower my eyes, hiding any emotion I still have from my face so that I look as empty as she is. She grabs the collar of my shirt and yanks. I brush her hand away, disgusted by the clamminess of her skin. I can smell it on her, the chemical scent of vodka seeping out of her pores, mixing with sweat and cheap body spray. Her nails, ugly neon orange and freshly manicured, graze my neck. She steadies herself on the desk, tapping her nails against the wood in annoyance. Yesterday they were still chewed off stubs, unpainted and raw—this, I know, is where my week’s lunch money went. A swell of anger rises in my chest and I am forced to hold it. Heat builds inside of me. This is where her money goes—up and out, always away from me.
“I swear to god Kendra if you don’t get your ass up when I’m talking to you.”
The sound of her voice makes me jump. I rise too quickly, and everything goes to black. If I don’t say anything soon she’ll get angry and start looking for things to argue about. It is my job to entertain her, to make sure she doesn’t do too much damage to either of us. I open my mouth and taste my hunger, metallic like pennies. A low groan vibrates in my stomach. She hasn’t mentioned anything about dinner, and I doubt she bought any groceries while she was out.
“Sorry, mama, I’m coming.”
I follow her out of the bedroom. She stumbles down the hallway, banging her thigh on a sharp corner of the wall as we make our way to the living room. Every light is on—the TV fuzzes with static, a rolling slideshow of family photos plays across the sleeping desktop. The music she was playing has stopped. The quiet of the apartment is broken only by the sound of cars speeding down the road from the open window that leads to the balcony. She mumbles something to herself, but I can’t hear her over the low roar of traffic. Suddenly, she twists around to face me, stepping closer so that she is right in my face.
“Did you hear me?” her eyes bob up and down like dead fish.
“No, I’m sorry, I was just—”
“Just what? Thinking? You think too fuckin’ much you need to listen more! You’re not special, okay?” she laughs a little, a crooked smile stretches across her face. “I said you need to move your shit. It don’t belong out here.”
She kicks my backpack out from the side of the loveseat, the same place I always leave it. Notebooks come spilling out, papers and pens scatter across the floor.
“I’ve told you before, keep your shit in your room. I don’t need this place getting dirty.”
I bite my tongue. The anger in me rises. Never mind that I am the only one that cleans or does laundry. I nod, muttering out an apology as I stuff everything back into the bag. She sighs, grabbing the pack of Marlboro Reds she left on the coffee table and taking them into the kitchen where she lights one on a burner.
“I’m going out,” she says, taking a drag from the cigarette. “Come with me. I’m not done talking to you.”
It takes twenty minutes to convince my mother that she has to put on clothes before going outside. I stand between her and the balcony, reminding her again that our building looks out to the rest of the apartment complex and that someone might see. Annoyed, she blows smoke in my face, flicking her half-finished cigarette past me and out through the screen door into the night.
“Don’t tell me what to do in my own apartment,” she says, her breath hot in my face. “Last time I checked, you weren’t the one paying any bills in here, so I don’t know who the fuck your lil’ ass thinks you’re talking to.”
“Someone might see you,” I plead, my voice breaking with embarrassment.
“Goddammit Kendra, move out of the fuckin’ way. No one gives a damn but you.”
She pushes hard against me, flinging me into the blinds. The sound rattles like laughter behind us. I press my back tight against the glass, digging my nails into the frame blocking the space between the screen door and the wall so that she can’t move me. I turn my head to the side and tuck my chin, making sure to avoid her nails. She tears at my clothes and I let her, sacrificing mine for the possibility of her putting on some of her own.
“What about just a t-shirt? You got that big pink one from Myrtle Beach. Or the polka dot dress Grandma made you? You look really good in that one,” I’m talking through tears.
My arms are tired, my shirt hanging off of one shoulder. But she doesn’t speak. She rams her body up against mine. Sick of holding her off, the anger inside my belly lashes out, pushing her hard and away from me. For the first time all night she looks at me, staring me, eyeing me up and down, with a strange anger. I brace myself, careful not to meet her gaze head on. Eventually, she breaks away, stumbling back into the kitchen where she has left her cigarettes, and lights another on a bright red burner she left blazing.
“Bitch,” she says, hissing smoke in my direction.
She won’t remember any of this in the morning. I can tell by the blankness of her face. Her words bleed together, a porridge of insult and slur. She looks like someone melting. I hold my position, not yet daring to move. As she crosses from the kitchen to the hallway I know she is making her way to her room. I don’t move until I hear her door slam. I don’t move until I am sure she has, for the moment, forgotten about me.
When she comes back I’m already sitting on the balcony, waiting. My hands are crossed over my chest, my legs just slender enough to slip through the bars so they can dangle. She is wearing the dress, the polka dot one I suggested, from a small collection of hand-sewn maternity dresses from my grandmother that she still wears to this day.
“These are my favorite dresses,” she told me a few summers ago. We were in the car driving to see a movie up in one of the nicer neighborhoods past the Mile roads. “Perfect for anything—cute as hell, too!”
I remember her face clearly, the way her cheeks caught the light coming in from the sunroof, how her sunglasses framed themselves so gracefully along her face while her hair whipped back and forth in the wind, black as ink. She was a beautiful person once, and often I found myself staring at her in awe, hoping to see some outline of my face in her own.
Back then the drinking was manageable, easy enough that it felt like fun. Sometimes, if she was in a good enough mood and not too sleepy from her wine, we would dance around the apartment listening to Sade, pretending to be spies or models as we slinked around the living room. Back then we had lots of things: inside jokes and nicknames, TV shows and board games. If she was cracking back then I couldn’t see it. By the time I noticed how completely she had broken it was too late.
When she comes back out she says nothing, incapable of acknowledging our fight. She sits awkwardly on the green dollar-store picnic chair, the only furniture we keep outside. Her feet are propped up against the railing, so that the chair leans back soft. Maybe she will fall, I think to myself. Maybe her head will crack open.
On nights like this, her world demands silence. Out here I can be with and without my mother. I can turn away from her, almost completely, and still be able to watch her out of the corner of my eye like a bird of prey. I imagine this is something like peace, this brief half-forgetting that we are sometimes able to achieve together. She pulls a Marlboro from her pocket, lighting it with what seems like the click of her nails. She takes a long drag and lets it out like a sigh. Something inside of her has gone quiet. Her gaze is fixed out hard against the distance as if she has seen through a rip in the scenery—the darkness where all of her hopes and dreams have dropped. The next time she exhales, she blows rings of smoke into the sky.
Lost in her own thoughts, I have fallen away. It’s easy to slip past her, and when I shimmy through the blinds and back into the living room, she doesn’t even turn her head. Inside the house is quiet, otherworldly. There are no signs on the walls of our fight. No evidence of what just happened, aside from my word and the nail marks on my body. I go to the kitchen first, looking for something to eat. I check the refrigerator just in case she went on a date or met a friend for drinks last night while I slept. Sometimes she’ll bring me leftovers to pick at: calamari or chicken tenders—if I’m really lucky, a whole piece of cheesecake. But there is nothing in the house tonight. Only a bag of bread and some butter, old grapefruit juice, and a frostbitten box of Lean Cuisine fettuccine.
I close the door and move to the sink, filling a mug from the cupboard with hot tap water and stick it in the microwave to nuke it. I watch the mug rotate, imagining all the ways my body might be altering beneath the radiation’s invisible rays. The hum of the heat and the spin of the mug is a dizziness is so close to elation that it almost makes me smile. I look at the clock counting down, watch it thin from three digits to two to—I yank the door open before it has time to finish, before the beeping startles my mother, refocusing her attention on me. I take the mug out and fill it with sugar and a bag of dusty raspberry tea. I move quickly, careful not to waste any time. I tiptoe out of the kitchen and down the hallway, pausing just once to check that she is still on the balcony. From the window I can see her, outlined against the night. She looks smaller, her hair flutters in the breeze, hiding her face. I look down at the mug and blow. The tea bag bleeds out.
My mother’s bedroom is big, nearly the size of the living room. She has her own bathroom, a closet big enough to lock someone in, and a large window that looks out onto a tidy row of pine trees that block just enough of the road outside. The door is never open, a barrier announcing the end of my realm and the beginning of her own. Knocked into the lower half of the door is a gaping hole—a split that inches up the length of a body until it fades right in the center of the door. I survey the hole and my mind begins to fog over. How long had it been since I had made that hole?
I remember taking the house phone from her when she wasn’t looking, deranged with fear that the creepy waiter at the Coney Island restaurant she had slipped her number to earlier that week would keep calling for her, trying to come by. I remember running from her once she realized what was happening, how she screamed and tore through the apartment after me. But that night she could barely walk and when she grabbed for me I slipped through her hands, bolting fast for her room. Frantic, I tripped over myself, hurtling knee first into the door where I caught on the wood. Blood flowed from my leg onto the door, but I felt nothing. The booze made her slow and by the time she reached me I had already dislodged myself, closing the door on her just as she came barreling through the hallway, locking her out of her own room. Inside and safe, I yanked the batteries from the phone and limped to her bathroom to pour a travel-size bottle of Smirnoff onto the gash in my leg. I will never forget the smell of blood and vodka mixing or the way it burned and bubbled against my flesh. That night I laid in her bed watching the traffic lights change from the window, casting strange red, yellow, and green shadows across her wall as she pounded her fists against the door until, eventually, she passed out there in the hallway.
I balance my tea gently on my wrist, steadying myself against her door. This is the quiet way to open it, the method that produces the least amount of creaking or attention. I push slowly against the handle, nudging the hem of the door along the carpet with my foot, pressing into the wood lightly. The door creaks open, moaning low as I swing it wider. It opens just enough to slide through: a crack small enough that I can slip behind it like a magic trick. Inside, the room smells musty and sharp, like licorice. I bring my tea close to my mouth and sip. With my foot I slide the door back to a slit thin enough so I can hear if the blinds move.
The floor is covered with barely worn clothes and shopping bags, old tabloids and crumpled tissues. The soft beige carpeting only surfaces every few feet. I tiptoe as quietly as I can, mindful to not knock anything down. I make my way to her bathroom, my first stop every time I come in here. As I get closer, I can hear the hum of the ventilation sucking and tossing the air around in its guts. When I open the door, light floods the floor, casting everything in harsh fluorescent glare.
I set the tea down on the counter, next to all of the other dirty dishes she has collected. There are mugs filled with olive pits and cigarette butts, bowls sticky with crusted balsamic and tomato. I sidestep the mess the best I can, my toes sliding around bottles of booze. In the corner I notice a large glass Smirnoff bottle leaned over on its side, nearly empty. I find her purse quickly, hanging on the neck of the door knob like an ornament. It’s small and always stuffed with old receipts, unlucky lottery tickets, and, less frequently, money. I make sure to do this first, to get this part over with as quickly as possible.
I count it only because I can, because I think it’s smart to know exactly what you are dipping your hands into. There isn’t much, only $19 and some change. I take two dollars in coins first, scraping them from the belly of her bag. These will be the least missed. In all of my time taking from my mother, she has never once noticed the change I stole. I take another three dollars from the small bundle of cash, slipping them deep into my jean pockets. I quickly hang her purse where I found it. With the money hidden, a small flower blooms in my chest. I have five whole dollars and if I’m smart I can make that last for nearly a week.
I’m so hungry I’m getting lost in thought, so pleased with the money I stole that I’m not paying attention to anything but the growl of my stomach and the lightheadedness that accompanies it. I pause for a moment, daydreaming of what I can do with the money in my pocket. I can taste french fries, feel the freezing sweetness of ice cream rolling down my throat as I rinse out a few of the dishes in her sink. I remember the cheesy bread I have hidden between my bed frame and start salivating. But there is something I have to finish, one more small measure I must take.
I line up the bottles along the edge of the sink: four small shooters and one nearly finished pint. I spent ten minutes fishing for them, pulling and checking each and every bottle thrown on the bottom of her bathroom floor. It’s lucky that vodka and water look so much alike. It’s even luckier that the sicker of the two smells and tastes so strongly that it makes the water vanish almost completely. One bottle cap of vodka dumped down the drain gets replaced with a bottle cap of water. I’m not really sure if this does anything or not but I like to think it slows her down. I like to think I can fool her. It doesn’t take long to fix them up, but the dizziness and hunger forces me to slow down. All I can think about is the pang in my stomach, the dull knife of anger that had been stuck in my side all day.
She bursts in when I least expect her and I am so terrified that I jump, hitting the wall. I freeze, suspended in fear. Her eyes go from me to the faucet where I left the bottles tipped over in the sink to spill.
“What are you doing touching my shit?”
Her voice is clearer. The cigarettes and fresh air must have sobered her up. My mind is in a panic. How did I not hear her coming? How did I miss the soft sound of the blinds swaying as she came back into the apartment? How did I not catch the crack of her feet as she came shuffling down the hallway or the low moan of the bedroom doors as she pushed it open? I trace the path she took in my mind, ticking off all of the alarms I missed. A swell of shame starts to grow inside of me, my own finger pointing at all of my mistakes.
As if to snap me out of my shock, she speaks again, louder this time.
“You can’t speak now? I said, what the fuck are you doing touching my shit?!”
I look up, locking eyes with her before looking away. Before I can open my mouth to answer she throws her hands across the bottles, sending them flying out towards me. They bounce off the walls, the last of their contents spilling out around us.
She is all rage—blind, cosmic rage so perfect that I am stunned. The smell of vodka rises. My shirt is wet with it, my arms slicked and stinging. The scratches from earlier throb, turning red as the dry blood dissolves away. Her hands hurdle towards me, hitting hard and flat until they coil and reel back into fists.
Pressed with my back to the wall, we eye each other. Under the bright bathroom lighting I can see every drop of anger on her face, every wrinkle and mole and laugh line turned against me. I can still hear the sound of the air vents spinning, their slow, rotating hum like the sound of cheering in the distance. She is yelling something vicious at me—I know it because of the way her lips turn back as she bares her teeth, but the words do not land. Hot spit pelts my face, her feet shuffle closer looking for a limb to kick and I don’t even think to move away from it.
There is a blank space where I know I can go now, a room of my own making that I can run off to and wait out the night. Just like my mother I have a large gaping hole, an opening I can slip in and out of. After the first few hits, the pain dulls. My skin is tender and gives like Play-Doh under the hands of a careless toddler. There is a dizziness around my head. A feeling so close to car sickness I worry that I might vomit. I blur in and out, see her hurtling towards me one moment only to blank out the next. For once, I’m allowed to flee.
As I begin to fall head first into my fainting, I remember the money. A thrill rattles through me, and for a moment I am back in the thick of it. My moment of clarity is too much. I see everything: the blood dripping from my nose to the floor, the flash of her dress as she rounds the corner and out of the bathroom, her purse and car keys in hand. I want to tell her not to go out driving, to rip the keys out of her hands, but I stop myself, letting go of my responsibility. Whatever happens to her now doesn’t matter to me. The room seems to be spinning, pulsing in time with a pain in my head. I spot the large bottle I found earlier thrown on its side next to my feet and remember her picking it up from behind me and raising it high above her head.
I check my pockets. I can feel the coins stacked tight against my thighs, the crinkled dollar bills folded into tight squares and tucked away. I am falling again, descending into a soft place. All I can think of as I drift off is the lunch money and how tomorrow I’ll have something to eat.
Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.