A Long Time Ago, In Another Lifetime

cup-of-soda-1328372“I just need to get an extension until the 15th, after that, we can pay the full amount,” I tell the woman behind the desk. He had told me to come down here to the gas company to get an extension on paying the bill. He said they would be less likely to say no if I went in person rather than going to the payphone on the corner to call, like I’ve done in the past when the bill wasn’t quite so far behind. Sure, easy for him to say, since I’m the one who had to walk the fifteen blocks in threadbare shoes in the middle of February with sleet outside to get a damned extension on the gas bill.

Can shoes be threadbare? I wonder while waiting for the woman to tap something into the keys of the large keyboard in front of the amber-colored screen of the computer monitor in front of her. When I came in here, all I wanted was an extension of a few days, but I figure asking for an extension until the fifteenth would be better. Give them something to negotiate with instead of just telling them what I really need. The woman refuses to extend me. She says I must pay at least a little bit of it right now. I feel in my pocket for the coins in there, knowing they’re not even close to enough to touch the monthly winter gas bill.

Then again, it’s unlikely Carlos* is going to have the money no matter what day I get the extension until, but it’s better to ask and do what he says than to face his wrath.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but the computer won’t let me extend the deadline for payment to avoid termination any past the tenth.”

I sigh outwardly but inwardly, I’m smiling. Well, no, I’m not, since a smile requires a mouth, and I have no mouth on the inside, but still. She didn’t realize what she had done. I only wanted a few days, and she said no, but when I asked for the fifteenth, she let me know an extension until the tenth was an option. Sometimes, when trying to get something from someone, you have to make it their idea. It’s hard for them to say no once they’ve already, unwittingly, said they could.

“Okay,” I state, “I’ll take the tenth then. I’m sure I can make that work. Thank you.”

Now it’s her turn to sigh. Gotcha!

“Fine,” she says, tapping a few keys. “I’ll give you until the tenth, but not a day later than that.” She points her finger at me, as though the finger point is going to make all the difference in my ability to pay, or my fear of her retribution if I don’t. Ohhh, ewwww, the finger point–so scary! It isn’t up to me whether the bill gets paid or not anyway. Carlos pays the bills. Because of him, I can’t work, yet, so I leave it up to him to take care of these things.

Unfortunately, more often than not, alcohol, weed, a little hash, and who knows what else takes more of our money than the bills do.

Oh, sorry. Carlos. You’re probably wondering who he is. I couldn’t call him my husband, since we aren’t married, and if I have any say over it, and I probably do, we are never going to be married, no matter what I might have told myself just months prior. I suppose Carlos could be called my boyfriend, but he is hardly a friend, though calling him a boy is pretty accurate. Oh, he thinks he’s a man, at twenty, but I’m only sixteen, and I’m more mature and responsible than he’ll probably ever be.

I sound pretty harsh about him, though, don’t I? I don’t guess I’ve always felt this way. I mean, there was a time when I was younger, all of fifteen, and was looking to get out of a bad situation at home. I decided to move in with Carlos. My parents, though, the nice-appearing middle class white southern family that they are, had the cops come and arrest me in my third period biology class and take me back home. When I set out to leave the next time, I wasn’t going to leave any chance they could drag me back there. I figured Carlos and I would get married, I’d change my name and go back to school with a new name the next year.

Now, sitting across from the gas company representative downtown, after having walked so far in the cold, I knew I’d rather die than spend a life married to him and living like this. I have no place else to go right now, though,  so here I sit, begging for an extension, degrading myself for someone who has come to mean so very little to me, in front of people who mean nothing and everything to me at the same time.

Pathetic.

“Thank you,” I say, flashing the gas company woman a big, and what I hope is sincere, smile. It’s hard to smile these days, at least, real ones. I still keep my sense of humor about me, dark as it might have become, because there are days it’s all that gets me through. But a smile? A real, genuine, happy smile? No, those appear to be extinct.

The wind is as cold as I remembered it from before I stepped into the building to escape its whipping and chilling ways, and I tremble when I walk around the corner of a tall building and the breeze gusts. It’s as though the cold air creeps into my body and systematically sucks out any warmth there, replacing it with the shivers of winter.

The walk back home will be a long and unwelcome one.

With only one buck and some change I found inside the gigantic unlocked vacuum canisters at the car wash, my trembling fingers—both from the cold and lack of a decent meal—reach for the money in my pocket and I decide to treat myself to something warm to eat at the Henderson Drug Company.

When I walk into Henderson Drug, the little jingle bell attached to the arm of the door rings, and the sound instantly transports me back in time to the soda fountain drug store counters of yesteryear—even before I was born–with the old-fashioned advertisements hanging on the walls, the pharmacist in the white lab coat who chats with customers amicably and knows as much about medicine as any general practitioner does, and low shelves lining the central part of the store, filled with medication, personal hygiene products, mouthwash and enemas—definitely not items you’d want to confuse in the dark before using.

There is an older gentlemen behind the counter, and by gentleman, I’m probably stretching it some. He wears a white t-shirt, stretched as tight over his chest as I stretched it by calling him a gentleman, and he has a full beard covering his face. He looks gruff, and yet, somehow, kind. Like a big biker grandfather. Something tells me he probably will appreciate that description, though he probably won’t admit to that any time soon, and especially in front of his biker grandfather friends. Though, clean him up a little and dip him in white, and I could see him playing Santa Claus with a baby on his knee and a twinkle in his eye, a Jack Daniels twinkle to be sure, but a twinkle nonetheless. Something tells me he’ll probably smoke Marlboros and not corn cob pipes too. Is that what Santa smokes? Corn cob pipes? I don’t know. Maybe that’s only snowmen who do that.

This is what I do when I’m nervous. I ramble. About nothing. Or worse, weird things. I’m not sure why I’m nervous. Maybe it’s because I’m not sure I’ll have enough money to pay for my meal. Maybe it’s because I’m afraid being out in public someone will see me, and I mean, really see me. Maybe it’s because I’ve been holed up in that crappy one-room shack Carlos calls a house for so long that I don’t remember what it’s like to be out in public with real people.

Are these real people? I wonder.

Shaking off the thoughts, I make my way to the lunch counter and sit on one of the swivel stools. I feel tall, up high, and I fight the urge to spin around and around on the stool like I might have just a few years ago. An elderly waitress asks me what I want to eat. I glance at the menu behind her. It’s plastic menu board, the kind with the little plastic letters that have plastic tabs on the back and are pushed into the grooves of the sign to hold them in place. Some of the letters are faded and broken. The ‘R’ in HAMBURGER hangs at an angle, barely holding on to the sign.

That’s me, I think. Barely holding on.

I order a hamburger. She asks if I want fries and a Coke.

Yes.

“No, thank you,” I say, fondling the money in my pocket and seeing the price for the hamburger at $1.89. I don’t have enough money for fries, I don’t think. I’m not even sure I’m going to have enough money for the burger, but I’m afraid to pull it out and count it now. At least if I can get close, after I’ve eaten the burger, they can’t take it away from me. When the woman, who eyes me curiously over her glasses, leaves to place the order with the biker grandfather hamburger grill cook, I take the change out of my pocket, sliding the dusty and lint-covered coins across the counter with my fingers, mumbling softly but out loud, wiggling my fingers and glancing at the prices on the sign.

I really want those fries.

I sigh. With tax, it’s likely I will barely have enough for the burger. I could have gone a little farther down the street and hit a fast-food joint, where the hamburgers, small though they were, were only 39 cents each. I could have had five, six or seven of them and fries maybe too. But I want to be here, in this place, with my memories.

I shove the coinage farther away from me on the counter, glancing around, and then slowly pick it back up and put it in my pocket, just in case some nefarious presence decides to come along and need my ten cents more than I do, leaving me unable to pay for my portion of a meal. It’s sad when the world can’t be trusted. It’s even sadder when I can’t trust the world, even if the world could be trusted.

When the woman brings the basket of food to me, she tosses it on the counter and I see the burger sitting wrapped in white wrapping paper and  french fries sitting next to it. I can’t afford the fries. I want them so badly, but I can’t. “Ma’am, excuse me, but…”

“On the house,” the woman says. She doesn’t smile, but her eyes are kind, somewhere behind the world-weary glares over the glasses. I nod my thanks to her, too choked up to respond.

Every now and then, the world puts people in front of me to remind me that not everyone in the world is out only for themselves. I smile back, a world-weary smile, and mumble my appreciation.

When I was a little girl, maybe nine or ten years old, my sister, who was a couple of years younger than me, had to have a lot of dental work done. My mother would bring her to the dentist that used to be next door to Henderson Drug, and we would sit and wait in the waiting room while the dentist worked his sadistic skill on my sister’s mouth. When we were finished, my sister’s mouth always hurt, and my mother, in a rare expenditure of money, would treat us to ice cream here at Henderson Drug.

It’s not that my mother and father were poor that prevented my mother from spending money freely. In fact, we lived in a nice home… well, I did, before I left my parent’s house to live with Carlos. I never really wanted for anything. Daddy spent money freely on things daddy wanted, while my mother, who had grown up dirt poor as the eldest child of seven and with no father, was rather miserly with money, thanks in no small part to the fact my father was not miserly with money. Unfortunately for my sister and me, daddy’s extravagances were mostly for things for daddy, though sometimes we benefited some too, like when we were one of the first if not the first of all my friends’ families to get a VCR and subscribe to HBO. It wasn’t until many years later I learned that my father had stolen the HBO by paying some guy to climb the pole back of the house and mess with a black box that sat at the top of the pole.

Back then, cable wasn’t quite what is now.

Still, we had big screen televisions, the kind that the mirror came out in the front and the three colored circles shined their lights on the mirror and then projected that on the screen. I used to like to play finger shadow puppets with that television. I was more of a reader, I guess. We had a pool table, a swimming pool, video game systems before video game systems were popular, and I even had my own phone. Not my own phone line, mind you, but a phone of my very own in my room. Not that I was ever allowed to call anyone.

For all appearances, we were a nice suburban type upper middle class white southern family.

While I sit chewing my hamburger, thankful for the free fries, the kindle waitress slides a glass of soda toward the basket of food in front of me.

“I made it by mistake,” she said, her voice gravely from age and years of smoking. “Might was well not let it go to waste now.” I chew the bite in my mouth and then swallow it quickly so I can say thank you, but before I can even get the air drawn in to say the words, she waves me off with a backhanded brush of her arm, “Think nothing of it.”

I glance down, unsure of what to do, then glance up at her again to smile my appreciation, but she’d already moved on to front register again and was lighting another cigarette.

I wondered what her life was like at her home. I was fast learning that nothing on the outside was ever what it seemed. the biker grandfather cook was probably a super-nice man. And the gruff waitress had turned out to be quite generous. I can’t help but wonder how many other families there are that, behind closed doors, things didn’t really look as they seem on the outside.

And even though I had moved in with Carlos because my home life with my parents wasn’t as grand as it seemed on the outside, that’s how it turned out to be with Carlos, too.

On the outside, he pretends to be this devoted guy, showing off at bagging a rich white girl. I guess he hadn’t really expected that when I left my parent’s house, the money he had gotten used to getting from me was going to stop. My mother had frozen my checking account, and because I was underage, my boss at the place where I worked fired me, though he did tell me to come back once I turned sixteen. That was in December, though it seems like a lifetime ago, and now here we are in January. I’m already sixteen, but I’m too afraid to go back to that place, too afraid my parents will be watching, waiting for me, or send the cops to come and arrest me again, maybe put me in some group home or hospital for crazy teens or something.

No, not a chance. I’m crazy, but not that kind of crazy.

Finally, my hands have stopped shaking from hunger, or low blood sugar, or the cold, whichever of those three that made my hands shake, or possibly a combination of all three that did it.

The food is good, and it’s almost gone. There’s no telling how long it will be before I get to eat again. Eating has become a luxury in my life, something Carlos doesn’t seem to think is important, since he gets to eat all he wants at work or at his father’s house, where he often stops on his way to work or on his way home from work. On rare occasions, I luck out and he’ll bring home a leftover burger or apple pie from the restaurant where he works. I’m not lucky often, but it does make the times I am lucky more special. I’ve gone from looking forward to a big Christmas with lots of presents to hoping for a leftover hamburger at the end of the day. It’s easy to fall, and fall fast.

I stare longingly at the ice cream counter, remembering my youth of only a handful of years ago. While my sister would get a banana split, or a malted with all sorts of nuts and berries all mixed in, or a sundae with a cherry on top and lots of whipped cream, I only ever wanted one thing: a plain large scoop of vanilla ice cream with a praline pecan sauce scooped on top. I like the way the pecans stick to the side of the ice cream but still tumble down it, like mountain climbers bouncing on the cliff overhangs on the way down, until the nuts plummet to the pool of sauce at the bottom with a small splash. I would eat all the pecans first, and then slowly scoop the ice cream, dipping it in the praline sauce and swirling it before taking a slow bite, letting the flavor slide onto and off my tongue before returning the spoon for another taste.

It was a simple pleasure. There are so few in my life now.

There was no happy ending to my impromptu meal at Henderson Drug this afternoon, I realize, staring longingly at the pecan praline sauce in the ice cream display a few feet from me at the lunch counter. Free fries are lucky; a free soda was a blessing. There is not going to be any free dessert. There never is. The sweetest things in life are free, unless it’s ice cream–and that’s really more poignant than it doesn’t sound like it is. I wonder if there would be a happy ending to my hapless existence. Will there be ice cream at the end of the meal of life?

All right, even I know that’s cheesy. It’s just…  I have to go home soon. If cheesy mental pontification delays the inevitable, so be it.

Carlos is going to wonder where I am. It’s never good for Carlos to wonder where I am. He and his paranoia are living proof that the imagination is always worse than anything reality can conjure.

I take a bite of the last fry and chew it slowly, thoughtfully, savoring every nuance of french friedness there was to savor, like a connoisseur of fine wines considers the delicate notes and undertones of certain varietal, I consider the greasy aroma and the high notes of seasoning salt, with a slight pinch of something sweet flavoring the crispy outside and mushy inside of the fry.

I pop the last bite into my mouth and roll my eyes. Avoidance doesn’t make for good mental talk, and makes for even poorer metaphor.

I push away the empty basket, finish the glass of soda the waitress had given me, and then make my way to the front register. It’s one of those old-fashioned push button types, where they pull a lever after pushing the buttons and the price displays in pop up numbers in a glass enclosure. This machine’s numbers don’t work—unless every order in the store costs $12.95—but the antique machine is still quite beautiful and ornate.

I reach into my pocket and pull out my coins and begin to count them when the waitress comes to the register and quietly says, “Like I said, hon, it’s on the house.”

“I thought you meant just the—” I stand there, mouth slightly open, and look up so that my eyes meet the eyes of the waitress. I swallow hard and nod, trying to pick the coins back up with my once again trembling fingers.

“Thank you,” I say. It’s simple, but it’s heartfelt.

She reaches out her hand and brushes a stray lock of hair away from my face. For a second, she looks at me, and I know she’s seeing the remnants of a black eye that I couldn’t quite hide completely with makeup this morning when I left on my winter trek to the gas company. She cups my chin in her hands and smiles, this time, a sad smile, a knowing smile. It was a smile of someone who had worn the same face. There’s a sisterhood, kinship, and quiet understanding amongst those who have worn these faces.

I look ashamed, I know, when I put my head down and mumble something incomprehensible, even to me.

“You’re welcome,” she says, retracting her hand as though I had bit it, and quickly turning around to wipe down the counter with the rag from her apron pocket.

I imagine she is hiding the welling of tears in her eyes. It’s okay. So am I.

“Thank you,” I say again, a bit louder, a little stronger, but still rather meekly. I don’t mean it any less, though.

Bracing myself for the cold wind that would bite through me when I step out the door of Henderson Drug, I can’t help but think the walk home would be a little brighter, a little warmer, a little happier than I had originally planned.

And it is, too, right up until the moment I have to stop in an alleyway, still about five blocks from home, and convulsions wrack my body and I heave, vomiting the contents of my stomach onto the ground behind a trash dumpster. It isn’t the way I wanted to end my first good meal in ages, but I am not always given a choice about such matters, especially recently. I hold my hands over my recently expanding belly and sigh.

Tears dotting my eyes again, hands and knees trembling from puking, and the acrid taste of greasy french fries and vomit still lingering in my mouth, I make my way back to the street from the alley and head back to the shack Carlos calls a house.

Like I said earlier, he is waiting for me. Mustn’t keep him waiting.

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