We were five kids with five different fathers—one jailed and then dead, two missing, and two unknown. Our mother, Cookie, was more gone than there, more drunk than sober, more mentally ill than mentally well. Cookie blew in and out of our lives like a hurricane, blind and uncaring to everything in her path. Once she arrived, she dispensed beatings, or tied my sister Gi naked to the radiator, or called all my sisters sluts and whores simply because in spite of the fact that they were starving, exhausted, and without heat in many New York winters, they remained beautiful, strong-willed, self-reliant, and loving. Cookie just couldn’t rip all that good out of them, but they hid it from her the best they could, storing all their sweetness and good will in me and our brother, Norm. Norm and I were the babies, the little ones, the ones they wanted to save. My sister Gi looked at me as her do-over. Everything that had been missing from her childhood, she brought to mine. Gi read to me, she piled clothes on top of me to keep me warm. She bathed me, brushed my light brown hair, and taught me how to count to ten in English, Spanish, and French. During the storms of my mother being home and in the calm of her absence, the only thing I knew for sure was that Gi would make everything okay. In this way, I was always safe, loved, and cared for. I was her Rosie, her sweetie, her bambina.
When she was nine years old, Gi wrote a poem that her teacher saved and gave back to her years later.
We didn’t know it then, but that poem and those words were words I would have to live by before I turned nine. Gi walked with me as far as she could. But in the end, there was nothing she could do to hang on to me when our mother and the county social workers decided I’d be better off without my siblings. This story is about the missing years when my sisters weren’t there to save me. These were the years I had to walk the lonesome road. And you can bet that as soon as I was upright and strong enough, I walked that road straight back to the people who loved me.
Gi told me we were moving again. If you count foster homes and living in cars, where I, as the youngest, slept in the footwell, we’d moved at least fifteen times already. And I was only eight years old. This move was worse, though. In this move, I was losing my sisters.
The oldest of us, Cherie, had already left to live with her husband and new baby. The rest of us had found ourselves, once again, to be wards of the state: Camille at seventeen, Gi, almost fourteen, Norm, twelve, and me.
We were in an upstairs bedroom of a house we called the Toad House, because it was drab gray with big front windows that looked like hooded eyes. My clothes were in this room but I’d never slept here. Gi, Norm, and I were like a litter of pups, curling up every night in the living room together where we felt safe.
Months ago, our mother, Cookie, had abandoned the four of us in the Toad House. Later that same day, Camille moved into her best friend’s house. She didn’t want to leave us behind, but she thought maybe if she had a real home and didn’t have to worry about food, she could get a few odd jobs and make enough money to buy food for us. When Cookie finally returned two nights ago, she beat Gi so violently that there were raised bruises like purple walnuts running from her brow to her cheek. Around Gi’s swollen and now-lopsided lips were craggy lines of scabs. Gi thought it was probably her social studies teacher, Mr. Brown, who called Social Services the next day. Gi told me she hadn’t realized how bad she looked until she saw Mr. Brown’s face turn white at the sight of her. It’s always harder to ignore the truth when you see that truth in someone else’s eyes.
Now Cookie was in the kitchen with a silver-haired social worker, and another social worker sat in the living room. She was a pretty blonde-haired lady who looked just like Mrs. Brady from The Brady Bunch.
“Why can’t I go with you?” I asked Gi. We were looking out the window at the two gray cars parked on the gravel driveway. One was waiting to take Norm and me away; the other was for Gi and Camille. After Gi learned that Social Services was snooping around, she called Camille at her friend’s house. Camille rushed home to take care of us.
“There are too many of us to fit in the same car, love bug.” Gi was as skinny as a piece of licorice, losing her hair from malnutrition and the stress of having to steal food just to make sure Norm and I would keep growing.
“But we always fit in one car!”
“Not this time,” Gi said. Tears streaked down her face.
I grabbed Gi’s licorice leg and said, “But you always said that we are so skinny we can all be folded up to fit anywhere. And we are really skinny now. We can fit in the same car!”
“Well, maybe we can, but the home that you’re going to prefers little kids like you and Norm because you’re cuter, sweeter, and easier to hug.” Gi picked me up and squished me in her arms. I could feel her bones and muscles and all her love coming out at me. Cookie, our mother, had arms as big as my belly. All that bubbling flesh, and she never used any of it to love us. There were boyfriends, however, men who got a charming, purring version of Cookie reserved just for them. Sometimes Cookie paid the rent with her flesh. Watching Cookie, I absorbed a quick lesson, barely understood at the time but later fully digested, of just how much utility the female form can hold.
“I’m not a baby,” I told Gi.
She brushed my hair with her darting fingers and said, “You will always be my baby, mia bambina.” Gi stopped talking for a minute, as if something were stuck in her throat. Her lumpy face was wet with tears. And then finally she said, “I’m so sorry, mia bambina. I’m so, so sorry.”
“But you didn’t do anything wrong! You were protecting me!” I started to touch my sister’s face but pulled my hand away when I remembered how much those walnut bruises had hurt when I’d touched them last.
“I was supposed to take care of you forever,” Gi said, and she began crying again.
With everything we’d endured, and everything we’d seen, you’d think we’d also seen a lot of crying. But we were scrappy, willful, and driven. We knew how to get a loaf of bread out of a grocery store with no cash in less than sixty seconds. We knew how to manage landlords, bill collectors, our mother’s old boyfriends, enraged wives (whose husbands had slept with Cookie), and nosy neighbors as they hunted down Cookie. We could convince an entire school system that we had a mother and a house—the only two things that could prevent us from getting split up and placed in separate foster homes. And we knew how to run from our mother when she was drunk as a rabid raccoon and ready to focus her heft and her misery on any one of us who got in her way. Especially Gi. Gi was the one with the father who had broken Cookie’s heart. In this way, I might have been luckiest. My father didn’t break Cookie’s heart—he just went to prison. And when he got out of there, he was murdered before he could break her heart.
In all of that, through all of that, no, we rarely cried. Until this day, when Gi just couldn’t stop.
My sister put me down and busied herself by sorting through my scavenged clothes, which she’d previously arranged on the floor by color.
“This will be the perfect outfit for when you meet your foster parents.” Gi sniffed back her tears as she lifted a pair of purple velour pants with a matching top that had lilies embroidered around the neckline. The outfit was spotless and shiny clean.
In spite of the chaos in our lives, in spite of the fact that our mother wouldn’t buy tampons for herself and instead used dirty washcloths that she left around the house, in spite of the uncountable rodents and their droppings that filled every crack in every house we lived in (like a grubby brown confetti thrown as a hurrah each time we moved in), my sisters kept things clean. They scrubbed, they organized, they folded . . . and they picked. The year we had lice, Gi, Camille, and Cherie tore through our scalps until we bled red polka dots. Like most of our homes, there was no hot water, and so no way to wash away the lice. We threw out our clothing, and at night we went to the Salvation Army, where we rummaged through the Dumpster until we’d found enough to replace what had been tossed away. This was how we got our clothes every season, every year. This is how I got my pretty velour outfit. “Here we go.” Gi pulled the top over my head and then stood there, her chest chugging up and down as she cried some more. It never occurred to me then that this had likely been some girl’s outgrown Easter outfit, worn on a day when a bunny delivered baskets of candy and there was a ham for dinner—two things I’d never yet had.
“My arms.” I wagged my hands inside as if I were trapped. Gi laughed, still crying, and helped thread my limbs into the sleeves.
“You’re going to look perfect for your new family.” Gi tucked my hair behind each ear and then held the elastic-waist pants open so I could step into them.
“I don’t need a new family.” My family was the only one I wanted. There was no difference between the heart that beat inside me and the hearts of my sisters and brother, beating outside of me. We were a single entity.
Gi cried harder now. She kissed me on my forehead and cheeks and then loaded my folded clothes into the Hefty bag. On top of the clothes she placed my favorite games: Candy Land, Parcheesi, and Operation. If we were missing parts to the games, Gi, Cherie, and Camille would always compromise by using random chess and checker pieces or pebbles so that all three games were complete. In a fractured life, my sisters were always trying to make things whole again.
We came downstairs. Norm sat silently on the couch in the living room, waiting to be told what the next move was. Cookie was still in the kitchen; she could hear us, but she couldn’t see us. There was an awkward bashfulness around Cookie after she’d let loose with one of her barbaric beatings. It was as if Cookie’s violence were a vicious animal caged inside her flesh and she had to be real still to keep it from busting out again. Of course, she’d never let that animal out in front of a social worker.
Gi dropped the Hefty bag on the living room floor. I wrapped my arms around her leg again and turned away from Mrs. Brady. Camille came downstairs carrying Norm’s bag of clothes. She set his bag beside mine.
“What’s in there?” Mrs. Brady asked. Her voice wasn’t like the mother’s on the TV show. This woman sounded hard, official, as if her throat was made of steel.
“Their clothes,” Camille said. You could tell Camille and Gi were sisters—she was a lighter, more round-eyed version of Gi.
“And some games,” Gi said.
“Take the games out.” Mrs. Brady stood and smoothed out her beige skirt.
“But these are their games that they love to play,” Gi said.
“Take them out. There will be games there.” She looked toward the door. It was time to go.
“But they have all the pieces,” Camille said. “They’re whole games.”
“TAKE THE DAMN GAMES OUT!” Cookie shouted from the kitchen. We were all startled at the sound of her voice.
Two days earlier, on Tuesday, our mother had come home with a carton of milk and a box of macaroni and cheese. She was drunk and angry because she had just fought with her latest boyfriend. There were no hellos or kisses. Cookie dropped the bag of groceries on the kitchen table, then dropped herself onto the couch and immediately fell asleep on her stomach. Her face was turned to one side, smashed up as if there were no bones. She snored so loudly and deeply that Norm and I laughed. “It sounds like a big old man,” I said, and we laughed even harder.
Gi made the macaroni and cheese, and the three of us sat on the living room floor eating the macaroni and cheese and drinking glass after glass of milk until the entire carton was gone. Gi and Norm finished their meals first and were relaxing with full bellies while I still ate. When I was done, I placed my glass on my plate and stood to clear my dishes. With my first step, my glass fell and broke on the wood floor next to Cookie’s boneless face. My mother instantly jumped up and lunged toward me. She grabbed my hair and shouted, “You stupid little twat!” When she jerked my head back, I dropped my plate and that broke too. Gi and Norm jumped up, and Gi pushed Cookie away from me. The fight that followed was so terrifying I could only see it as a series of frozen snapshots. There was broken glass; there was Cookie with her wooden-heeled shoe thrust into my sister’s back, and her face, and her arms, and her legs; there was blood covering Gi’s face; there was Cookie’s enormous body on top of Gi’s stringy one; there were words—Gi screaming and Cookie saying over and over again that she wished Gi had never been born; and there was Norm and me, both of us hollering, begging for Gi to stop fighting back so maybe our mother would finally stop beating her.
“Please, can we have the games?” I whispered to my sisters, ignoring the social worker.
“There are a lot of kids where they’re going, and there is no extra room for games,” Mrs. Brady said. My sisters gave each other a look—their expressions were so similar it was like watching only one of them in a mirror. Gi opened my bag and removed the games.
Camille held Norm’s hand and Gi carried me to the car. She sobbed in my neck as her footsteps crunched across the gravel. There was a pudgy man with hair all over his face waiting at one car. At the other car, where Mrs. Brady put my and Norm’s Hefty bags, was a big pink-faced man. He opened the back door and let my sisters crawl all over Norm and me as they hugged and kissed us good-bye. Mrs. Brady got in the front seat and immediately put on her seatbelt. Her back was stiff as she stared out the front windshield.
“Je t’aime,” Gi whispered in my ear, then she and Camille got out of the car. I reached up and felt my face, wet and slippery from my sisters’ tears.
Just as the man was closing my door, Cookie trampled out of the house like a drunken elephant.
“MY BABIES,” she wailed.
The man hurriedly got into the front seat and slammed his door. A sturdy click sounded before Cookie was at the window, her fists thudding against the glass.
“Don’t open the windows,” Mrs. Brady said without turning to look at us.
“My babies!” Cookie cried. “Don’t worry, my babies! I’ll get you back!” I watched my mother in her spandex jumpsuit bounce around outside my window. Her insincere pleading didn’t feel real—it was like watching a play at school. Norm was as impassive as I. What struck me at that moment was not Cookie’s emotions, rather it was how tight her clothing was and how much her body jiggled in spite of being bound in fabric.
I scooted up and looked out the front window as Camille and Gi got into the car parked in front of ours. Cookie didn’t put on a show for them. They knew things at the time that I sensed but couldn’t articulate until later: Cookie only wanted us for the welfare checks. It was money that benefited Cookie alone. Between mental illness and a fierce alcohol addiction, Cookie was walled into a windowless tunnel of her own desires. There wasn’t room in there for another being, even ones as pipe-cleaner scrawny as me, my sisters, and Norm.
Cookie ran alongside the car, screaming as we backed out of the driveway. Her giant breasts heaved up and down, almost in slow motion as she tried to keep up. We were only one house away when she stopped running, pulled a cigarette from her jumpsuit pocket, and lit up. Norm and I looked out the back window and watched the car Gi and Camille were in. We couldn’t see them, but we could see their silhouettes in the backseat. A bone-thin arm was waving at us—it was Gi’s arm, I knew. That arm, not Cookie’s hysterics, got me crying. And once I was crying, Norm cried too. We tried to keep it down, sniffling, our heads rocking as we sobbed. Mrs. Brady talked to us from the front seat. She wanted us to know that no one had room enough for four kids. And even if they did, the people who would take little kids didn’t want big kids. And the people who would take big kids didn’t want little ones.
When we pulled up to a stoplight, Gi and Camille’s car pulled right up beside us. Gi had her face against the window and was mouthing words to me: Je t’aime, mia bambina, je t’aime. Camille lunged forward so she was beside Gi and for a moment I thought they’d jump out and get in our car. But then their car turned right and ours turned left. A sound came out of me. Not a scream, more of a gasp. It was as if something had been pulled straight from my gut. I was crying harder than ever.
“It’s okay,” Norm said. He swallowed away his tears and put his arm around me. “Now it’s my turn to take care of you.”
Minutes later, we stopped in front of a sad-looking Victorian house. In the front yard were three cars, one of which was up on blocks and had no trunk or hood cover. Between the cars on the weedy dirt were bikes, skateboards, and wagons. Each one had something missing: a wheel, a seat, handlebars.
“Time to go, kiddos,” Mrs. Brady said, and she stood at the open back door.
“I want my sisters!” I cried and wedged myself against the backseat, refusing to leave.
“Norman, help your sister out of the car. Now.” Mrs. Brady said. The real Mrs. Brady would have used humor, or maybe she’d bring brownies or cookies out to the car. This Mrs. Brady was all business.
Norm, who was always pragmatic, said, “Ma’am, this looks like a bad place. And if Rosie doesn’t want to go, I think we better not go.”
Mrs. Brady lifted her shoulders and huffed. The pink-faced driver got out of his seat, opened the other back door and lunged across the seat. He grabbed my legs and pulled while I kicked and screamed. Norm held on to me, a determined gritty look on his face.
Once I’d slipped free of Norm and was left trembling on the ground, my brother scrambled out and picked me up. “We don’t have a choice,” he said. “But don’t worry, we won’t be here too long anyway.”
At the front door, on the cement stoop, was a thin woman with stringy brown and gray hair. She wore black leggings and an oversized Popeye sweatshirt. In the same hand in which Popeye held his pipe, she held her cigarette. She looked us up and down, her nose and lips contracted as if we smelled, and then she dropped her cigarette on the stoop and stomped on it with her white canvas sneaker. This was something I’d seen Cookie do many times, although Cookie was fond of high-heeled shoes that made a horse’s clop-clop when she walked.
“Thought you got lost,” she said. Her voice was like crushed ice.
“This one took a little longer than usual,” Mrs. Brady said.
“So these are the two, huh?” Her eyes were tiny blue pinpoints that she drilled into me for a second before drilling them into Norm.
“This is Norman and Rosanne,” Mrs. Brady said. “Kids, meet Mrs. Callahan, your new foster mother.”
“I want Gi,” I whispered.
“I got you,” Norm whispered back.
“They look too skinny to me,” Mrs. Callahan said. “I don’t want no finicky eaters, you hear? What I serve, they eat. This ain’t no diner and I ain’t no short-order cook.”
“I’m sure they’ll appreciate anything you put in front of them. They haven’t had a real meal in weeks.” Mrs. Brady gave a forced smile, and I wondered if she didn’t like Mrs. Callahan.
“And the stipend sure don’t give me enough money to buy them separate meals! It barely covers the cost of keeping them here. I do this outta generosity, you hear? You gotta be a giving and generous soul to spend your own money on people like this.” Mrs. Callahan’s nose lifted again. I wondered if she was part dog and that’s why she kept sniffing at us.
“I’m sure they’ll appreciate all your good will and all your good meals,” Mrs. Brady said. “Won’t you, kids?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Norm said, and he put his hands on my ears to stop me from shaking my head no.
“Becky will show them around,” Mrs. Callahan said and then she shouted into the house, “Becky! Now!”
A second later, a freckle-faced, open-mouth-breathing girl a little taller than Norm appeared. She wore small wire-rim glasses and had brown hair cut in the shape of an upside-down salad bowl on her head. When she stood still, her body made the letter S: shoulders slumped forward, back rounded at the top, stomach bulging, butt out. Below all that her legs splayed out wide, feet pointing into a V.
“Show ’em around the house,” Mrs. Callahan said, and she walked the social worker to the car, leaving Norm and me with splatter-footed Becky.
“C’mon,” Becky said and waddled away with Norm and me following, “Mom said we weren’t getting no more grimy rent-a-kids, but lookee lookee—” Becky looked back at us, as if to make sure we knew that we were the rent-a-kids to which she was referring.
We entered the kitchen. Becky said, “This is the kitchen. Obviously.” Norm and I looked at each other, trying not to smirk.
“You’re not allowed to touch anything in here. Ever. Unless you get permission from my mom, but she’ll never give you permission so don’t even ask.” Becky picked up a wrapped Twinkie off the counter, opened it, and ate it in three giant bites while Norm and I watched.
Becky was still chewing the Twinkie when we followed her into the living room. “Living room,” she said. “Obviously.”
Norm squeezed my hand, and I bit my lip so I wouldn’t laugh.
“You’re not allowed to go in this room. Ever.”
“Obviously,” Norm whispered. Becky didn’t seem to hear and galumphed away and then up the stairs, her feet slapping each step heavily. Norm and I followed quietly.
We stopped outside a bathroom with brown and yellow tiles, a sliding shower door, and a toilet that was missing the lid. Norm and I looked at each other, holding back our smiles. We’d had far worse. In fact, as far as bathrooms went, this was one of the better ones.
“Bathroom. Obviously.” This time Becky dragged out the word. As if the bathroom were even more obvious than the other rooms. “You and the other rent-a-kids have to keep it clean and you’re only allowed to use it in the day.”
“What if we have to go at night?” Norm asked.
“Hold it in,” Becky said.
“Obviously,” Norm said.
“Or use the bucket.” A jagged little smile slipped across Becky’s mouth.
“Bucket?” Norm laughed, and I giggled.
“You’re not gonna laugh when the door is locked and you hafta smell that bucket,” Becky said.
We followed Becky down the hall to a wood-paneled room with four sets of bunk beds and a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. The switch for the light was in the hallway, outside the room. Becky turned it on.
“Bunkroom. Obviously.” Becky pointed to the small stretch of wall where there was no bed. “Sit there an’ wait for my mom.”
Norman and I did as we were told. We both kept our eyes on Becky, all curved and splatty in the doorway. After a couple of seconds she turned her head and shouted into the hallway, “MA! I’M DONE WITH THE TOUR!”
Mrs. Callahan showed up, and Becky stepped further into the room.
“I don’t want no trouble outta you two, you hear?” Mrs. Callahan said.
Norm and I both nodded.
“You do everything we say, and we’ll all get along fine. And don’t think you can be sneakin’ around behind my back ’cause I got eyes and ears all over this house.”
I thought of floating eyes and detached ears bobbing against the ceiling like forgotten party balloons.
“And Becky here”—Mrs. Callahan pointed at Becky, who stared at her mother with open-mouthed wonder—“sees everything. There ain’t nothin’ that gets by her. You got it?”
“Yes,” Norm said, and he nudged me until I said yes too.
“You wanna tell the rules or me?” Mrs. Callahan said to her daughter, who had yet to close her gaping mouth.
“You,” Becky said.
“Fine. Rule One: all foster things in the bunkroom at eight p.m. with lights out.”
Becky smiled at the words foster things, and I wondered if she’d replace rent-a-kid with that.
“Rule Two,” Mrs. Callahan continued. “The bunkroom door stays locked from eight until six the next morning. Rule Three: if you have to go to the bathroom after eight, you use the bucket.” Mrs. Callahan nodded at Becky, who smiled and rushed to the closet. She slid open the door and pointed up and down with her thick arm at the blue plastic bucket.
“Can I tell ’em about bucket duty?” Becky grinned.
“Yup. Make it quick,” Mrs. Callahan said.
“You gotta carry the bucket downstairs,” Becky’s voice swung up as if this were a question, “and you can’t spill it or you’ll get in trouble. And then you take it in the backyard and you dump it into the poop hole.” Now she was really smiling. As if the word poop brought her particular pleasure.
“Rule Four,” Mrs. Callahan continued. “You can’t use the bathroom more than three times a day. This ain’t no toilet paper factory. And when you use toilet paper, don’t use more than three squares for number one and six squares for number two.”
I was wondering how she would know how many squares anyone used when Mrs. Callahan said, “Becky will know if you use too much and she’ll tell me.”
“Obviously,” Norm whispered, so quietly that I felt the words more than I heard them.
Norm and I spent the remainder of the afternoon on our bunk bed: Norm on top, me on the bottom. We were told the other kids had after-school activities and wouldn’t be home until late. Staying away from Becky and Mrs. Callahan seemed like a wise idea, so Norm and I planned to sign up for as many after-school activities as we could the following day.
Around five, Mrs. Callahan showed up in the doorway. Becky, her slumpy, open-mouthed shadow, hovered nearby. Behind them was a row of four kids varying in height from bigger than Camille and Gi to smaller than me. I quickly did the math: eight beds, six kids big and small. There was room for Gi and Camille after all. My eyes burned with tears of frustration.
“Here are two more trouble makers for ya.” Mrs. Callahan pointed at Norm and me. “These things seem a little dense to me, so you better tell them the rules again.” She turned and went down the stairs with Becky following. Our bunkmates filed in, each of them watching us as if we were cats about to claw them.
Black-haired Brian was the first to speak. He was creaky and stiff with legs that moved like they were made of aluminum pipes and arms that he spastically bent and straightened like folding yardsticks. Brian stuttered when he spoke, and his eyelids fluttered like nervous butterflies.
“I’m th-th-thirteen,” he said, after telling us his name. “Hopefully I’ll s-s-s-stop twitching when I’m f-f-f-fourteen, ’cause no one likes t-t-t-t-to hang out with a twitcher.”
I thought I would hang out with a twitcher, but I was too shy to say so and, also, I figured a thirteen-year-old boy wouldn’t want anything to do with an eight-year-old girl.
A little blond boy hung over the edge of the bunk bed, his hands dangling like he was about to jump into a handstand. “I’m Charlie,” he said. “I’m nine and my parents are in jail but I’ve got grandparents who like to see me when they have time. Are your parents in jail?”
Norm shook his head no and I shook my head yes—though I knew my previously jailed father was dead. Charlie didn’t notice. He just kept talking.
“That’s Hannah.” Charlie pointed to the girl in the bunk below him. Then he pointed to the boy in the bunk across from him. “And that’s Jason. They’re brother and sister, just like you. Hannah is ten and Jason is—”
“I’m eleven,” Jason said.
“Hannah doesn’t speak,” Charlie said. Hannah didn’t look up. With her head dropped like that I could see how knotted her wavy hair was. I felt bad for her that she didn’t have a sister like Gi to comb out her hair every night and every morning. And then I felt bad for myself because who was going to comb my hair now?
“Hannah hasn’t talked in a year,” Jason said. “But I like talking, so I do it all the time.” Hannah continued to look at her knees, Brian jerked and spasmed, and Charlie hung like a little white-haired chimp while Jason monologued about how his dad lost his job and started getting drunk every day. His dad didn’t mean to hurt anyone, Jason claimed, but he couldn’t help himself when he was drunk and so the social worker thought Jason and Hannah were better off here while their parents worked things out.
And then Jason asked, “So why are you here?”
I looked at Norm so that he would answer. I didn’t want to say what was in my head: We’re here because two nights ago, my mother beat my sister so badly her entire body looked like a swollen, purple piece of meat; we’re here because we were so hungry, we stole butter from the grocery store and ate it raw; we’re here because we had no hot water and no heat all through last winter; we’re here because our mother takes off for months at a time, and when she returns she drinks and curses and smokes and brings strange men into the house.
Norm said, “We’re here because our mom is too busy to take care of us.”
“What about your dad?” Jason asked.
I looked at Norm again. He and I had the same last name, Brooks, though we had different fathers. Norm was a real Brooks and he was the only one of the five of us who was born while Cookie was married to his father. Gi and my oldest sister, Cherie, had Cookie’s maiden name, Calcaterra. Camille’s last name was completely different. No one, including Camille, knew where the name came from. When we asked her about Camille’s last name, Cookie either shrugged or told us to shut the fuck up and M.Y.O.B.! Gi told me that by the time I came along, my normally shameless mother was embarrassed that each of her kids was from a different guy. So she gave me the last name Brooks to make it appear as if fewer men had fathered us.
“Our dad’s too busy for us, too,” Norm said. As far as I knew, Norm couldn’t remember his father. He’d left before Norm was three. I had vague, almost dreamlike memories of my father—they were sensory memories: the smell of spicy aftershave, shiny black shoes, whiskers that scratched my face when he kissed me on the cheek.
Brian and Charlie warned us to stay away from Becky.
“Sh-sh-sh-she’s evil,” Brian said.
“She lies like a fly with a booger in its eye!” Charlie said.
“Sh-sh-sh-she lies like a g-g-g-guy with a b-b-b-b-booger in his fly!” Brian said, and we all laughed until we heard the screeching voice of Becky from the bottom of the stairs.
“Rent-a-things! Dinner!” she shouted. I knew she’d put thing into action. Norm and I looked at each other. He was thinking the same thing.
Liver. After months of eating butter, saltines, and anything else Gi and Camille could get down their pants at the grocery store, the only thing I couldn’t stomach was liver. Norm looked at his plate, then mine. He tilted his body so our shoulders almost touched and whispered, “We’ve gone hungry most of our lives. No big deal if we don’t eat it.” While the other kids silently forked in the gray, slimy sheets of meat, Norm and I picked at the teaspoonful of peas on our plates. Becky had cut-up apple, American cheese slices, and a pile of tater tots with ketchup on her plate. I guess she didn’t eat liver either.
Mr. Callahan, our foster father, ate with his head tilted toward his plate, as if no one else was at the table. His skin was the same color and texture as the meat he put in his mouth. His hair looked wet and shiny, the color of steel cables. Mrs. Callahan and Becky chatted in louder than normal voices. It was as if they thought we needed a lesson in dinner conversation and they were going to provide it by example. I couldn’t focus on what they said because I was too enraptured by the way Becky’s lips flopped loosely as she spoke; and the way the nooks of Mrs. Callahan’s teeth had food crammed into them like putty. Every few minutes, she stuck her finger in her mouth, cleared out the gunk, licked it off her finger and swallowed.
When it was clear that Norm and I weren’t eating the liver, Becky tapped her mother on her bony elbow and nodded her salad-bowl head toward us. Mrs. Callahan slammed her fist on the table and said, “You two are disrespectin’ me! Go to your room.” Mr. Callahan continued to eat as if no outburst had occurred. Becky grinned, her face flushing pink as she watched us leave.
When the other kids returned to the bunkroom, there was a stiff-edged silence. I wondered if Becky or Mrs. Callahan was waiting outside the door, trying to catch one of us saying something bad about them.
Finally Jason broke the news, smiling as if he was taking joy in the message: “Mrs. Callahan says that you don’t get any meals for a whole week and you better eat everything you can at school ’cause that’s all you’re getting.”
Norm and I both laughed. After going without food, or with very little food on the weekends, school lunches were a banquet to us. We’d been living on free school lunches for years. This was something so normal for us, it didn’t even register as a punishment.
Jason looked bewildered. He grinned bigger and then he said, “AND—”
We looked at him silently.
“A-a-a-a-and what?” Brian asked.
“And, you have bucket duty for the week, too,” Jason said.
“S-s-s-sorry,” Brian said.
“Not your fault,” Norm said, and then he turned to me and said, “We’ll take turns and I’ll go first if you want. It won’t be the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
“I’ll go first,” I said. “I want to get it over with.”
Jason and Brian explained to me exactly where to go and what to do with the bucket in the morning. It seemed nutty to me that anyone with running water and working toilets would use the bucket system instead.
At eight o’clock the single light bulb went out and everyone hushed. Then there was the click of a key in the doorknob lock, followed by the firm clink of a bolt lock sliding into place. The descending footsteps that followed were neither Becky’s slumping waddle nor Mrs. Callahan’s flat-footed slaps. They were firm, solid footsteps. The silent Mr. Callahan. I guess he knew we were there, after all, though by the look on his face at dinner, you’d think he was blind to everything but the plate in front of him.
I lay in bed and listened to the TV in the room below us. Mork & Mindy was on. The last time I’d seen that show I was at the home of a friend from school. We sat in the living room with her mom, dad, and twin sister. Everyone was flopped over the couch, feet up on the coffee table, a bowl of popcorn being passed from lap to lap. And we laughed. I thought then, just as I thought now, that when I grew up I’d have a family, a couch, and a TV. We’d lie around watching Mork & Mindy together, and everyone would be happy and warm.
The next morning, I opened the closet door with one hand, pinching my nose shut with the other. While keeping my body as far away as possible, I reached in and grabbed the metal handle of the blue plastic bucket. Like a tight-rope walker, I went slow and steady to avoid sloshing. Out of the bunkroom, then down the stairs like a bride: foot out, feet together, foot out, feet together. Becky and Mrs. Callahan didn’t want the bucket carried through the kitchen so I went out the front door, through the junk car yard, around to the weedy side yard, past the stand-alone garage, past the corrugated metal junk shed (which Brian said was full of broken furniture), and into the dirt backyard to the poop hole, which was the size of a manhole cover and as deep as cellar stairs. I stood as far from the hole as possible, turned my face away so I wouldn’t have to see what I’d been carrying, and upended the bucket. A shovel stood, dug into the dirt nearby. I picked up the shovel, almost as tall as I, and shoveled in a few mounds of dirt. On the way back to the house, I stopped by the shed where the hose was. The bucket was rinsed clean before being returned to the bedroom.
After doing this for a few days, I realized that if the bucket had just held pee, things might have been easier. But one of our bunkmates was a night-pooper. Norm suspected Jason, as Charlie was a sound sleeper and had to be poked awake each morning, Hannah seemed too shy to ever poop in a bucket, and Brian shook so much there was little chance he’d be able to poop in a bucket without pooping on the floor.
One night, Norm asked the dark room: “What happens when the poop hole fills up?”
“It’s an old w-w-w-well,” Brian said.
“They’d probably make us dig another poop hole,” Charlie said.
“Yeah,” Norm said. “Then after a few years, the whole yard would be one giant poop hole.”
We all laughed at the idea of slumpy Becky, flat-footed Mrs. Callahan, and liver-faced Mr. Callahan living at the crest of a giant poop hole.
There was one nice thing that happened our first week at the Callahans’. Each day when we got home from school, Norm and I found food hidden under our pillows: bits of pancake, a handful of cereal, and half an orange each. We gobbled it up quickly before the floating eyes and ears bobbed into our room and caught us.
2 The Devil We Didn’t Know
Once we were allowed to eat with the family again, we also had to take part in kitchen duty. This was almost as bad as poop duty because Mrs. Callahan and Becky sat at the kitchen table watching while we cleaned up. Often there was a box of cereal or a plastic container of cupcakes on the counter, and I couldn’t help but stare at them as I washed and dried the dishes.
“Don’t you be getting’ any ideas about that food,” Mrs. Callahan often said. Or, “If them eyes could talk they’d say, ‘I want some that,’ wouldn’t they?” Becky laughed while her mother taunted me. And when I stood on my tippy-toes, carefully putting away the dishes I’d just washed, they would point and clap their hands as if it were a clown show. It was hard to get those glasses up onto the first shelf of the top cupboards with no footstool or chair to stand on. I could only get each glass to the edge of the shelf and so had to use subsequent glasses to push back the ones I’d already placed. When I dropped a glass (an unfortunate consequence of not being tall yet), I got the same punishment as when Mrs. Callahan didn’t think I cleaned the pans or stove top well enough: a beating with a wooden spoon. Of course Mrs. Callahan went straight for my head, standing over me like a machine, rhythmically whacking my crown over and over again. Sometimes she’d turn to Becky and say, “You have a go now.” Open-mouthed Becky loved nothing better than beating my head. She was taller than I was, but not as tall as her mother and she made up for the shorter distance between her raised arm and my head by bringing the spoon down with such tremendous force, I felt each hit echoing in my stomach and my vision blurred into a foggy black. It was a feeling that was both familiar and foreign. When my mother was home, she often whacked me on the head or body—wherever she could quickly throw a fist or foot. But my sisters had been a hair-trigger barricade between my body and Cookie’s. They were human bumpers who padded themselves around me as soon as the first hit was thrown. So I’d never endured a beating the way I endured them at the Callahans’. My intimate knowledge to this point had been only of a first blow.
I tried to do everything right so as to avoid the Callahans’ wooden spoon, but pitfalls were everywhere. Even if I did everything the right way, there was still the behavior of my foster sibs that could summon a spoon, or worse, to my head. Jason, in particular, brought a lot of trouble to the group. He refused to do his poop bucket duty, and no matter how much we begged and cajoled him, he wouldn’t relent. If the bucket wasn’t out, we weren’t released to meet the school bus, and if we didn’t meet the school bus, we didn’t go school. If we didn’t go to school, we were locked in the bunkroom for the entire day until dinner.
Brian quickly became my favorite foster sib. He nicknamed me Rosie Petals within the first week. Each day when we gathered at the school bus for the ride home, Brian stuck out his quaking hand for me to high-five.
“R-r-r-rosie Petals!” he’d say. “How w-w-w-was school?” My sister Gi had always asked me about school and she, too, had called me by a nickname, mia bambina. I started to understand then that curiosity is a form of love and that words can convey a feeling far beyond their meaning.
Of course there are nicknames that aren’t affectionate. Norm quickly dubbed Charlie Charlie Brown after he pooped in the bathtub and Norm had to clean it up. And Jason called me a baby because I was the only one who couldn’t tie my own shoes. Even Brian, whose hands darted to and fro, managed to tie his laces while mine were neatly stuffed behind the tongue of my sneakers. In addition to calling me a baby, Jason called me Raggedy Rosie and my brother Raggedy Norm because our clothes were so tattered and worn. I was switching back and forth between my fancy velour outfit and a pair of pants with holes in the knee. Norm had been alternating between two pairs of pants, although he was lucky enough to have three shirts that fit.
One Saturday afternoon when Norm and I sat on the back deck looking out at the poop hole and the hoarding shed, Mr. Callahan came outside. His metallic hair glinted in the sunlight.
“Come with me,” he said. I wasn’t used to hearing his voice and was surprised by how high it was.
We followed him past the living room to the hallway where there was an entrance to the basement. Mr. Callahan opened a squeaky door and motioned for us to go down. I grabbed onto my brother’s back and stood there. This cellar triggered an alarm in my body. I felt like a dog at an open cage door. Norm stood firm at the top of the stairs.
“There are old clothes down there for you to pick out,” Mr. Callahan said in his almost girly voice.
Norm shook his head no.
“I’ll sit in the living room over there,” Mr. Callahan pointed to the living room. “And you two go down and pick out some clothes.”
Norm nodded yes. Neither of us moved until Mr. Callahan was sitting in his chair facing the television. I stepped in first and then Norm followed and pulled the squeaky door shut behind himself.
“We’ll have a little bit of warning if he comes down,” Norm said, motioning with his head toward the door.
The basement floor was half cracked cement and half dirt. It smelled like a cave and there were mold spots on the walls like bruises on an old woman’s legs. Green crickets leapt across the floor, jumping out of the way of our feet. Against the back, bruisy wall were a washer and dryer. Next to the washer and dryer was an old nubby couch on top of which sat three cardboard boxes full of clothes. None of the clothes were folded. My sister Gi would have dumped the boxes and folded everything before deciding what to take. Norm found three pairs of pants and a blue striped sweater. I found two pairs of pants, a dress, and three cap-sleeved T-shirts that I knew would fit.
“Do we take it all?” I asked Norm. I didn’t want to be greedy, but it would be nice to have it all.
“Not sure,” Norm said. He scrunched up his mouth and stared at the clothes as if they would give him an answer.
“What if we take one top and one pair of pants each?” I said. I really wanted the dress. After my bath when I lived with my sisters, Gi would comb my hair and put me in a pretty dress. I’d never worn a dress to school. Any nice dresses we found in the trash bin, or in the bags dropped off at the Salvation Army after hours, were reserved for when I was so clean my skin squeaked if you slid a finger across my arm.
“Yeah, one outfit each,” Norm said, and he put back everything but one pair of jeans and the sweater. I kept the red cap-sleeved shirt and a pair of brown corduroy pants because I figured it would be easy to hide dirt on the dark colors.
When we came up the basement stairs, Mr. Callahan was waiting on the other side of the door.
“Thank you,” I said, still too scared to make eye contact.
“Thank you, sir,” Norm said, and he stuck out his hand to shake Mr. Callahan’s, then quickly pulled it away and tucked it into his pocket when Mr. Callahan didn’t respond.
By the time we’d put our new clothes away in the room, the other kids had gathered on the back deck. It had turned out Mrs. Brady was wrong and there were no board games, or any games, at this house. The only thing the kids did was stand on the back deck and talk about the Callahans (if they weren’t within hearing distance), make jokes about the poop hole, or laugh about something one of the kids had done in the night (Charlie fell out of bed regularly, Brian sometimes spasmed so fiercely his limbs hit the underside of Charlie’s bed, and Hannah, once, spoke).
I suggested a talent show, or a singing competition—something my sister Gi often organized when the five of us were together. Everyone agreed this was a great idea. Jason went into the house and came back moments later with Becky’s boom box, a box of tapes and, unfortunately, Becky. We could use her music, she said, as long as she could perform first.
After she finished singing “Paper Roses” along with Marie Osmond, Becky slumped into the house. She had no interest in seeing anyone else do their song.
Norm flipped through Becky’s tapes and picked out a Meat Loaf duet, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” Norm held his fist microphone close to his mouth and sang all the guy parts, which was most of the song. I didn’t mind; Gi liked this song, so I liked it, too. When it was time for the girl to sing, I lifted my fist microphone to my mouth, shut my eyes and belted out the words. In the song I asked if I would be loved forever. I imagined I was singing this song to my sisters. The three of them would answer me with Yes, of course we’ll love you forever!
Sometimes when we sat across from each other at dinner, or on the bus ride home from school, Hannah would lift her eyes and look at me intently. I imagined we were silently communicating, commiserating about the state of things at the Callahan house. I even heard her words in my head: Why does Becky get to eat hot dogs when we get split-pea soup?
After school one day, Hannah paused on the stairs leading to the bunkroom, turned, and gave me her look. I was right behind her, Norm behind me, Jason behind Norm, and Charlie Brown catching up from the bottom. Brian had stayed home that day as he’d had a fever the night before.
“What?” I said.
Hannah cupped her palm around her ear and leaned toward the top of the steps and we all did the same. It was moments like this when I connected the idea of being a foster kid with the idea of being an abused pet. We were cordoned off in rooms, sent to beds, and locked in at the owner’s convenience; we had a continuing growling hunger that had no correlation to whether we were fed or not; we were always grateful for the smallest scratch on the back, the tiniest morsel of food; and we continually feared the hobnailed boot to the sides of our heads. Like dogs and cats, instinct was the driving force that helped us survive. And instinct was directing us now as we silently lined up on the stairs and listened.
Jason started to speak, and I turned back and shushed him. There was a soft whimpering coming from the bunkroom. Hannah looked at me. Her yellow-brown eyes were the shape of lemons and when she actually made eye contact, they seemed huge and vibrating.
“Brian,” I said, and we all ran up the steps, Norm passing me on the way.
“They tied him up!” Norm said when we filed into the room.
Brian’s hands were bound in white sweat socks around which an extension cord had been circled many times. The extension cord led to the bottom of his bed.
Charlie dropped onto the ground and scooted under the bed.
“It’s tied to the springs,” he said.
“D-d-d-don’t touch it,” Brian said.
“We have to untie you.” Norm dropped to the ground below Charlie.
“N-n-n-no!” Brian said. Charlie and Norm scooted out from the below the bed and looked at Brian. “They’ll b-b-b-b-beat you if you un-t-t-t-t-tie me.” Brian swallowed like he was trying not cry. And then he smiled.
“Do you want another pillow?” I asked, and I grabbed mine from my bunk and went to stack it on Brian’s flat pillow, which looked dirty and wet, probably from him crying on it.
Norm and I then sat on the floor near Brian, Charlie hung over the bunk, Jason lay on his bed, and Hannah lay on hers as Brian told us what had happened. That day, when his fever broke, Mrs. Callahan asked Brian to bring the folded laundry up from the basement. He made it down to the basement, but couldn’t make it up the stairs without the pile of clothes scattering out of his flailing arms. Mrs. Callahan immediately dragged him up to the bunkroom and tied him to the bed. She told him to think about what he’d done wrong so that he wouldn’t repeat the same mistake of messing up her folded laundry.
“Does it hurt being tied down like that?” I asked. I’d seen my sister Gi tied to the hanging bar in the closet. But because Gi wouldn’t let Cookie get close enough to tie me up, I’d been able to avoid my mother’s worst tortures.
“I’m k-k-k-kinda used to it,” Brian said.
“How?” Norm asked. He went to Brian’s wrist and played with the cords, trying to loosen them. Brian jerked like a fish hanging on a hook.
“The l-l-l-last t-t-t-time I stayed home s-s-s-sick, they t-t-t-t-tied me up,” Brian said. Usually we didn’t have the patience to wait for Brian to finish a sentence and one or the other of us would jump in and finish it for him. But that afternoon, we all sat quietly and waited through Brian’s stuttering as he told us about the various tortures he’d received at the many homes he’d been in. The worst was the house where the foster mother was convinced that the reason Brian twitched was because the devil was inside him. With a cross nailed to the bed above him, and his arms and legs bound to the rails of the bed, the foster mother thumped Brian on the head with a bible while saying prayers and incantations to draw the devil out of him.
“Did it work?” Norm asked.
“N-n-n-nope.” Brian said. “I’m still t-t-t-twitching!” We laughed as if that was the funniest thing we’d ever heard.
With Brian tied up—the brutality directly in front of us—there was more of an openness in our conversation that night. Eventually we each listed the other foster homes we had lived in. For all of us, each stop had been transitory and rarely felt like a home where we belonged.
“Our two oldest sisters had to rescue Rosie from one home because she sat in a rocking chair all day and wouldn’t talk or eat.” Norm and I both glanced back at Hannah, whose head was dropped toward her toes. I knew what it was like to be silent like that. I remembered the terrifying aloneness I’d felt—aloneness as an impenetrable tangle of nerves in my body. When I opened my mouth there was no space for words to escape. Only my sisters could untangle me and clear the way for me to speak. The social workers had called it “failure to thrive.”
“Sometimes I have nightmares that I’m in that rocking chair again, all alone,” I said. “And I always wake up hungry.” Everyone laughed. It was then, when I remembered the feeling of hunger, that I recalled the food that had been tucked behind my and Norm’s pillows the week Mrs. Callahan decided we wouldn’t be fed. “Hey, were you the one who put that food behind our pillows?” I asked Brian.
“Yes,” Brian said. I had noticed that Brian never stuttered when he said yes. But he always got caught on no.
“You gave them food?” Jason asked. “Where’d you get food?”
Brian explained that with all his spasms it was easy to stuff food in his pockets. When his hands jerked under the table, everyone thought he was just twitching as usual.
“Thanks, dude,” Norm said, and he gave Brian a high five on his bound hands.
“Thanks,” I said, and I high-fived him, too. I don’t know why I wanted to cry just then, but I did. Maybe it’s because sometimes the small things could feel so huge. It was as if these gestures of kindness were pieces of wood I was gathering and—slowly, over time—I knew I’d eventually have enough materials to make a life raft and paddle away.
Brian had to stay tied to his bed during dinner. I tried my hardest to slip a bit of meat loaf under my shirt but Becky must have sensed something was going on as she had her pinpoint eyes trained on me the whole meal.
3Out of the Poop Hole
I thought about my sisters constantly, and I rarely thought about my mother. Yet Cookie was the one for whom the social worker had arranged regular supervised visits. Before the first two visits, Mrs. Callahan took Norm and me into the kitchen, fed us Oreo cookies and said, “If you tell anyone anything about what goes on in the privacy of this here home, I will shove my hand down your throats and rip your little lungs out.”
For the visits, Cookie was escorted to the Callahans’ by the Mrs. Brady caseworker. Mrs. Brady sat at the kitchen table, stooped over paperwork, ignoring us. We ate the sandwiches and bags of Lays potato chips Cookie had brought and listened to her talk about the people she’d met at her court-ordered Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Usually she made fun of them because they cried or did something she thought was particularly stupid. Norm laughed at Cookie’s stories, and I listened quietly and ate as much as I could, as quickly as I could, before the food was gone. When Cookie fed us like that, chatting in the voice she usually used with men who were giving her things such as liquor, cigarettes, affection, or an empty house to store her kids, I could almost convince myself she was a good mother. Once Cookie had left, Norm would talk about how much he missed Cookie and how great everything would be if we were with her again. After living at the Callahans’, I almost missed her, too. At least with Cookie I knew exactly what to expect.
The day Norm and I waited in the kitchen for Mrs. Brady to bring our mother for her third visit, Mrs. Callahan said, “One word about what happens here and you two foster things get the wooden spoon on your head.” Then she smiled, shoved the Oreo package toward me first, then toward Norm, and added, “In fact, all your little bunkmates will get the spoon, too!” Norm and I looked at each other and I was sure we were having the same thought: all but Jason, the real eyes and ears that reported to Mrs. Callahan.
For this visit, because Cookie had been sober for four weeks straight, Mrs. Brady stayed in her car in the driveway. Cookie made a big show of hugging us and kissing us when she first came in. Mrs. Callahan stood watching, a corkscrew of gray and brown hair spiraled up from the center of her head. It occurred to me then that in Cookie, Mrs. Callahan had met her equal. Visually they were misaligned: Cookie’s hair was a luxurious dyed black, her lips were the color of fresh blood, and she wore clothes that emphasized her massive breasts. Mrs. Callahan wore oversize sweatshirts with teddy bears on them, and her face and hair presented a coarse desert with no variation in color. Her eyes were as gray as her nearly invisible eyebrows and pencil-line lips. But they both knew who their audience was, and each had two distinct personalities according to who was present: the nice, kind mother or the abusive dictator who fed off brutalizing little children.
“Make yourself at home,” Mrs. Callahan said, holding the kitchen door open. She pulled her lips back in an approximation of a smile. We sat at the kitchen table and ate the bologna sandwiches and Frito chips Cookie had brought. As usual, Becky and Mrs. Callahan were flitting in and out.
“If I stay sober the next few weeks, I get to have you two come home for Christmas,” Cookie said.
“Will our sisters be there?” All I wanted for Christmas was to see my sisters. Period. I wouldn’t even consider wishing for a Teddy Ruxpin or a Lite Brite, or a pretty dress with a matching headband. As I’d never had a proper Christmas with a tree and presents brought by Santa Claus, those things seemed as likely as wishing I could be the first eight-year-old president of the world.
“Up to them,” Cookie said.
Norm upended the nearly empty bag of Fritos into his mouth.
“You don’t look so excited,” Cookie said to Norm. “Don’t you want to be with your mommy at Christmas? You’ll get presents. And candy. And did I mention presents?” When Cookie smiled, her face was almost unrecognizable. Her eyes turned into crescent moons and her lips stretched out like thin red rubber bands.
“We’re just tired,” Norm said. “But we’re excited.” He rubbed the top of his head where Mrs. Callahan had beaten him the night before. She’d gone at my head, too. Our crime this time: not emptying the poop bucket for Jason when he refused to take his turn.
“Do you have lice?” Cookie said. “Are these people dirty?” Cookie stood and leaned over Norm’s head. She pushed aside his short hair. He cringed when she touched the raised purple lump. “What the fuck happened here?!” Now Cookie looked angry. It was the face that usually preceded tossed beer bottles and sharp-heeled pumps to the thigh.
“You tell your mommy who hurt you!”
“No one,” Norm mumbled.
“Tell me who hurt you!” Cookie’s fury was growing, but it wasn’t directed at us. It was odd to be on our mother’s side of the anger, to be aligned with her.
Before Norm could answer, Becky shuffled into the room and went to the cupboard. Cookie sat down, and we watched as Becky opened a box of Ding Dongs and took out three that she held against her slopey chest as she slumped out of the kitchen again.
“Was it her?” Cookie whispered.
“It was—” I started.
Norm put his finger on his lips to shush me. He nodded his head toward the kitchen door. I didn’t want to risk our foster sibs being beaten, particularly Brian and Hannah. But the words were coming out of me with a force I couldn’t suppress. I was sore and exhausted. And, mostly, I was scared. More scared of the Callahans than I’d ever been of Cookie. In the Callahan house there was no Gi or Camille or Cherie to fight back for me.
“Mrs. Callahan,”I said.
“But it’s worse than that!” Norm said. Once I’d cracked open the reveal, he couldn’t stop himself from talking too. With tag-team sentences, we whispered everything: Brian being tied up; the wooden spoon on our heads; the fingers down my throat; the bunkroom door locked at eight p.m.; the poop bucket; Jason who would never empty the bucket; the withholding of meals as punishment; the fact that even when we were fed, it was from a menu far inferior to what was handed the princess of the house, open-mouth-breathing Becky; and the injustice of having had to take my favorite games out of the Hefty bag when we left home only to find that there was not a single game here.
Cookie gasped, cursed, and dragged her sharp red-nailed fingers along the bottoms of her eyes to wipe away black mascara tears. She scraped back the kitchen chair and hugged Norm, kissing him all over his head. Then she went to me and kissed my cheeks and the top of my head, murmuring, “My sweet babies, my sweet little babies . . .” It was such an odd display. All I wanted was to be loved and here she was loving me. But it didn’t feel any more real than Mrs. Callahan’s stiff, stretched smile. How strange, I thought, that it took another person beating the daylights out of us for Cookie to be horrified by her children being hurt.
Cookie sat and blew her nose into a paper towel. Mrs. Callahan came into the kitchen, took a bag of beef jerky from the cupboard, and then used her small teeth to rip open the package.
“Ya want some?” She held the open bag toward the three of us. Norm stuck in his hand and took a tiny, shriveled piece.
“Oh, take some more,” Mrs. Callahan shook the bag. “Take as much as you want.” Norm took a larger strip and handed it off to Cookie. Then one more that he handed to me. I immediately ripped it in half with my teeth and chewed the leathery piece like a wad of gum.
“I taught them not to be greedy,” Cookie said to Mrs. Callahan in her seduction voice.
“Looks like you did a good job all right,” Mrs. Callahan said, and she left with the jerky bag.
Cookie leaned over the table, and Norm and I leaned toward her. I was still working on my first bite of jerky.
“I promise, I will break you out of this shithole as soon as I can!” My mother knew as well as Norm and I that nothing good would come of a confrontation with Mrs. Callahan. We’d been removed from Cookie because she was an alcoholic who abused us. In a credibility battle between our mother and Mrs. Callahan, our mother would come out the loser. Cookie had never been sober long enough to get away with things the way Mrs. Callahan did.
Just get me back to Gi, I thought. Gi will take care of me.
The Sunday before Christmas, Mrs. Brady fetched Norm and me from the Callahans’ house. We had been granted a two-hour Christmas visit alone with our mother at her new apartment.
“R-r-r-rosie P-p-p-petals,” Brian shouted from the top of the stairs just before I walked out the door. “S-s-s-see ya on the f-f-f-flip side!”
“See ya!” I shouted. “If I get candy in my stocking, I’ll save some for you!” I knew there would be no Christmas stocking, but if my sister Gi was there, she’d probably have a sweet for me that I could share with Brian.
“We need to get a move on,” Mrs. Brady said, and she put her firm hand on my back and scooted me out the door to Norm, who was already waiting by Mrs. Brady’s car.
“Are my sisters there?” I asked as I fastened my seatbelt.
Mrs. Brady didn’t answer and instead slid on a pair of black sunglasses like the ones I’d seen on movie posters for The Blues Brothers. She backed out of the driveway and then put the car in gear. I looked out the back window and watched the Callahan house recede in the distance. Other than Brian, there was nothing in that house I’d miss if I never returned.
“Are my sisters there already?” I asked again.
“No,” Mrs. Brady said. “They’re—”
“How long is the ride?” I asked.
“Fifteen minutes,” Mrs. Brady said.
“Does the fifteen minutes of the drive count as part of our two hours?” I didn’t want the commute to cut into my time with Gi and Camille, and Cherie if she could get there too.
“No,” Mrs. Brady said. “Now let me drive.”
“If my sisters show up late, can we stay for two hours starting when they get there?” I asked.
“Rosie,” Mrs. Brady said, “your sisters won’t be there. But they’ll meet you at the Callahans’ when you get home from your mother’s apartment.”
“Wait! They’re going to be at the Callahans’? Do they know what time we’ll be back?”
“Yes. They’re bringing presents.”
“Can I wait for them at the Callahans’?” I flipped around to look out the back window. The Callahan house was long gone. Two hours with Cookie seemed like a torture I’d have to endure to get to my sisters.
“We’re going to see our mom!” Norm said. “Stop asking questions!”
I shut my eyes and thumped my back against the seat. I wanted time to accelerate like a fast-motion film. And then, once I was with my sisters again, I wanted it to slow to a dragging tenor hum.
I hoped my sisters would be allowed to visit for more than two hours. After all, they hadn’t beaten or starved us. All they’d done was steal food to feed us, wash us in cold water so we’d always be clean, and love us so much they’d take a wooden-heeled shoe in the face just to keep us safe.
Mrs. Brady stopped the car in front of a chipped stucco building surrounded by disheveled, slouchy duplexes. Half the front porch sloped off into the weedy front yard. There was a black-barred front door, making it look it like the entrance to a jail cell. Cookie stood at the end of the walkway in black spandex pants and a white blouse that ruffled down the front, giving her the look of the Looney Tunes Tasmanian Devil.
Norm rushed out of the car and wrapped himself around Cookie’s sturdy body. I stood on the sidewalk watching as Cookie kissed the top of Norm’s head and stroked his chocolate brown hair down behind his ears.
“I’ll be here at three sharp,” Mrs. Brady said. “If all goes well, we can do a visit like this every two weeks.”
“I’m sober as a judge,” Cookie said, and she gave Mrs. Brady that stretched-rubber-band smile that looked like it was about to snap and break.
We stood on the walkway with Norm reaching around Cookie and Cookie’s red-clawed fingers grasping my shoulder as we watched Mrs. Brady drive away. Once she’d turned the corner, Cookie peeled Norm off her, grabbed each of our hands and quickly walked us down the sidewalk, past the apartment building.
“Where are we going?” Norm asked. We both trotted to keep up with Cookie. She was yanking my arm so hard, I thought it might break off and then I’d look like the one-armed Barbie Camille once found for me in the Salvation Army Dumpster.
We stopped a block away, alongside a long brown station wagon with peeling fake-wood paneling. It was parked in front of a fire hydrant. Three tickets were tucked below the windshield, flapping in the icy breeze. I had been so anxious and worried about making it back in time for my sisters that I hadn’t noticed how cold it was outside until this very moment.
“Is this our new car?” Norm asked. He didn’t appear to be cold, though, like me, he didn’t have a jacket. Last week, the temperature had significantly dropped. I borrowed a big down coat with a fur-trimmed hood—probably a fifth-grader’s—from the lost and found at school and wore it home to the Callahans’. I got four days in that coat until a large girl with hair as orange as fire stopped me in the hallway and asked if it was hers. I shrugged my shoulders up and down. She reached her freckled hand into the collar and turned the tag out. On the back was her last name, O’Brien. My face burned with embarrassment as I took off the coat and handed it over to her. She took it without a word and tied it around her waist with the arms. She didn’t even put it on as she walked out of the building.
“This is our getaway car!” Cookie raised her eyebrows and grinned. She opened the back door and told us to get in. There were clothes, shoes, dusty blankets, mud-encrusted boots, old grease-stained McDonald’s and Wendy’s bags, empty beer cans, and the noisy foil and paper wrappers of Sno Balls and Mounds bars filling the backseat. It smelled like the clothing we got from garbage bins: the stench of used gym socks, fried grease, and cigarette smoke.
“Can we sit on your clothes?” I asked. Our mother was the opposite of my sisters in this way. While Cherie, Camille, and Gi pulled lint off sweaters and sprinkled water on wrinkled clothes and hung them up to dry with, hopefully, fewer wrinkles, Cookie treated her clothes, the only clothes in the family that were actually purchased at stores, like balled-up used Kleenex.
“No!” Cookie said. “Get on the floor, under the clothes. Pile everything on top of yourselves.”
Cookie stood at the open door and watched as Norm and I burrowed like a couple of hamsters. She leaned in and arranged more clothing on our backs. I heard the clinking of empty beer cans over my head as she piled those on, too.
“Norm, you’re the man now. You’re in charge, got it?”
“Got it,” Norm said, his voice muffled.
“You take care of your sister and keep her hidden until I get back.”
“Got it,” Norm said again.
“And don’t come out no matter what, you hear?”
“Got it,” Norm said firmly.
The door clicked shut, and then Cookie was gone.
Norm shook me awake, his hand under the pile of clothes that covered me. I tented a sour-smelling sweatshirt over my and Norm’s heads. He put his finger to his mouth in the shhh gesture. Outside the car I could hear Cookie yelling and screaming. And then I heard Mrs. Brady’s voice.
“Norman! Rosanne! It’s okay to come out!” Mrs. Brady called.
“Don’t move,” Norm whispered.
Mrs. Brady and Cookie stopped just outside our car. Cookie was crying as she talked, but it didn’t sound like there were any tears involved.
“And they had to shit in a bucket!” Cookie wailed. “A bucket! Now tell me, do you think it’s civilized in this day and age to shit in a plastic bucket?!”
“I promise you, we’ll find them and we won’t return them to—”
“Find my children now!” Cookie screamed. The conversation faded as Cookie and Mrs. Brady walked away from the car. Every now and then, one or the other of them would shout out, “Norman! Rosanne! Come out! You won’t go back to the Callahans’!”
Eventually there was quiet, and then the sound of a car slowly driving past us. Ninety seconds later, Cookie opened the squeaking front door. The car shifted to the left as she sat.
“Kids,” she said as she started up the engine. “Keep your heads covered. We’re making a break for it.” The tires screamed as we pulled away from the curb. Cookie lit up a cigarette; menthol filled the car and mixed with the other pungent odors.
“What about the visit from our sisters?” I whispered to Norm. “They’re bringing us presents!”
Norm shook his head, and I started to cry. I didn’t want to live at the Callahans’, but I didn’t want to live with my mother, either. I just wanted my sisters. I wanted Gi and Camille and Cherie.
“Mom!” I popped up from the rubbish pile like Oscar the Grouch coming out of his trash can. “Can we pick up our sisters?”
“Keep your head down for fucksakes!” Cookie shouted. She tossed her cigarette out the window and then shoved in a cassette and sang “Coward of the County” along with Kenny Rogers.
I burrowed deeper under the clothes, shut my wet eyes, and sent a message out to Gi that I hoped she would magically hear: Mom’s kidnapped us from the Callahans’. Come get us as soon as you can!
Before she left for school, Candice had given Norm and me a pink satin bathrobe and a white satin nightgown, both of which had belonged to her mother. These were to wear while we washed our clothes.
“I would give you my clothes,” Candice said to me, “but there’s no way they’d fit.” I had a feeling she was glad about this and wondered if she’d really let me wear her clothes if they did fit. I’d have loved nothing more than to put on something purple, sparkly, and feathery like the outfit Candice was wearing when we met.
Norm put on the robe and I put on the nightgown. The bottom dragged on the ground behind me and tripped me when I walked up the basement stairs after loading our dirty clothes in the washing machine. We spent the day in the peach and brown living room watching reruns of The Jeffersons and The Love Boat along with all the daytime game shows.
“You think Mrs. Callahan beat Brian and the other kids because we left?” I asked Norm. A commercial for Golden Dream Barbie was on. I’d love to have had Golden Dream Barbie with her stiff, white hair that could be styled using the tiny plastic curling iron that was included in her box.
“Mom told the social worker everything that went on in that house. I guarantee no one’s gonna spend another night there.”
“You sure?” I asked.
“Trust me!” Norm said. “I’m the man of the house and I know this stuff.”
I wondered why Cookie wanted Norm to be the man of the house. What about me? Couldn’t I be in charge, too? Still, I believed what Norm said. Believing that my foster sibs would be okay allowed me to enjoy the luxury of a satin nightgown, food in the refrigerator, and The Twenty-Thousand Dollar Pyramid.
“Will our sisters be able to find us here?” I asked at the next commercial break.
“Mom doesn’t want them to see us,” Norm said.
“She’s thinks they’ll call Social Services, or the heat, and turn her in.”
“No, they won’t! They have presents for us! They just want to visit!”
“She doesn’t trust them,” Norm said. “Now be quiet.” The commercial was over, and Norm was focused on the TV. I could no longer see what was on the screen. My head was fizzing and my body felt electric. I wanted Camille and her soft cheeks that folded into little apples when she smiled. I wanted Cherie, who was so grown up there was nothing she couldn’t do. And I wanted Gi. I was her bambina, the one she loved. Je t’aime, I whispered, hoping my sisters would feel the message, wherever they were.
After a five thirty dinner of hamburgers and tater tots—all made by Jeff and served by Cookie—Jeff went down to the basement and came up with a sparkly white plastic tree. Christmas was only three days away. Jeff sat on the couch, his long legs spreading out wide, and Cookie pushed her round body against him, giggling, as the two of them watched us three kids decorate the tree. Every ornament was either silver or peach colored. When it was time to put the big silver star on the top of the tree, Jeff slowly got off the couch, reached his large arm up and jammed the star downward once, quickly, onto the shiny white peak. His mouth was weighted into an angry frown, and I wondered why this beautiful tree didn’t make him smile. Cookie turned off the lights in the living room, and Jeff plugged in the tree lights. It was my first Christmas tree; I wished that my sisters could be there to see it.
“Isn’t this perfect!” Cookie said. She went to Jeff, wrapped her arms around him, and pushed her breasts into him as if they were dancing. Jeff stood still and solid as a telephone pole. But I could tell he liked it by the way he kept one arm firm on her hip. Cookie was always like this when she had a man: grabby and doting as if the man would evaporate if she diverted her attention from him for even one second.
“It’s a great tree,” Norm said. He had one hand on each hip, like a superhero about to take off, and was staring at it, up and down.
“A beautiful tree for this beautiful family,” Cookie said, her face alighting on Jeff. I still didn’t understand why she called us a family.
“I miss my mom,” Candice whispered to me.
“I miss my sisters,” I whispered back.
“This is going to be the best Christmas ever!” Norm said.
It wasn’t. Candice had a purple fake-fur Christmas stocking hanging from a gold hook on the windowsill. It was heaped and overflowing with chocolate Santas, malted milk balls, peanut butter cups, Butterfinger bars, Bottle Caps candies, and three little cardboard boxes, each of which had a pair of earrings in them. Cookie had taken a pair of Jeff’s large gym socks and written my name on one and Norm’s on the other. They were folded over the back of one couch. In our socks there was one chocolate Santa each (surely taken from Candice’s abundance), a peanut butter cracker snack pack (there was a case of them in the cupboard, and Candice put one in her lunch each day), a Twinkie (Candice’s lunchbox loot, too), an orange, a toothbrush, a comb (in Norm’s sock), and a hairbrush (in my sock). Norm ate all the food in about thirty seconds, then sat like a puppy next to Candice watching her slowly open a Butterfinger and bite off splintery chunks of it that she swirled around in her mouth without chewing. Later, when everyone was in the kitchen having breakfast, Norm stole a package of peanut butter cups and a package of malted milk balls from Candice’s stocking. He flashed them to me under the Christmas tablecloth on the kitchen table. I smiled and didn’t feel bad that he’d taken them. We both knew she had so much candy in there she wouldn’t even notice they were missing.
After scrambled eggs and sausages, made by Jeff, we returned to the living room for presents. Candice opened box after box, gifts from her dad, her aunts and uncles, her grandparents on both sides of the family. There was even a present from the mailman that had been placed under the tree, and Candice was the one who got to open it. Norm and I got one gift each. The tag said, “Love, Mom and Jeff.” For Norm, a brown snorkel jacket. For me, a pink snorkel jacket. Candice got a purple snorkel jacket from Cookie and Jeff, too.
It turned out my first Christmas with a tree and presents didn’t feel any more wonderful than all the Christmases I’d spent watching people on TV with a tree and presents. In fact, without my sisters around, it was far worse.
In January, my mother started her new office job. Norm and I still couldn’t go to school because Cookie was worried the heat would find out where she was and take her to jail. She explained one morning that she had multiple warrants out for her arrest ranging from shoplifting to hit-and-run to drunk driving to speeding tickets. I had a feeling she was almost proud of this list, of the number of things she’d gotten away with.
Norm and I stayed home and watched TV or played board games. If it was sunny out, we’d wander around the snow-covered backyard where there was no poop hole and no hoarding shed. I thought of my sisters every single day. In my head, I composed letters to Gi, telling her what I was watching on TV, or how pretty and tidy Jeff’s house was, or how Cookie loved Jeff so much she looked only at him when he was in the room. I never wrote the letters because I didn’t know where to send them. Cookie said she had no idea where my sisters were and that if they really loved me, they’d come to me. Every time she said this, I shut my eyes and remembered Gi saying Je t’aime. How could someone say that and not mean it?
Once Cookie was collecting a paycheck, she started going out after work, usually coming home after Norm and I were already in bed. One night there was knocking on the window of the first-floor den where we slept. Norm got up and opened the curtains. Cookie’s face was splatted against the glass. She was laughing and drooling.
“Open the fron’ door,” she slurred.
Norm and I tiptoed to the front door, unlocked it, and let our mother in. She smelled like beer, cigarettes, and sweat. Her blouse was misbuttoned, the left side hanging down like a pointed tail at her crotch. In one hand was the pair of suntan pantyhose she’d been wearing when she left the house. In her other hand were her white pumps.
“I los’ my purse,” Cookie said. “An’ my keys.”
“How’d you get home?” Norm asked.
“Where’s the car?” I asked.
“The car?” Cookie tilted her head like she was trying to remember. “Who the fuck cares!”
“Did you lose your wallet?” Norm asked.
“Mommy don’ have credit cards, honey—” Cookie dropped the pantyhose and shoes. She squeezed Norm’s cheeks, like she was about to kiss him.
Norm pulled his face from her hand. “How much cash did you lose?”
“Don’t you worry,” Cookie singsonged. “Mommy’s got it all unner control.” Cookie zigzagged toward the stairs. She went up one step, then back down again. Once more she tried: up one step, back down again. Norm went to our mother and pushed on her back.
“Help!” he whispered. I took Cookie’s hand; it felt sweaty, hot, and unfamiliar. I realized then that’d I’d never held my mother’s hand. I’d held my sisters’ hands—it was a rule, I had to have a hand when I crossed a street. But this lump of flesh was as foreign to me as if it were Jeff’s hand.
“Do you like the Bee Gees?” Cookie asked as we worked our way up the steps.
“Yeah,” I said.
“They’re good as Kenny Rogers. Kinny. Call ’em Kinny. No more Elvis! No more Ol’ Blue Eyes!” Cookie laughed. “One day I’m gonna fuck tha’ man. I’m gonna fuck Kinny Rogers. Right, Norm?” Norm didn’t answer. I had heard Cookie use the F word many times, but she’d never used it like this. My guess was that when Cookie said she was going to fuck Kinny Rogers she meant she was going to feed him. I imagined Cookie taking a silver fork cocooned in saucy red spaghetti noodles and jamming it into Kenny Rogers’s mouth. The idea made me smile.
When we got to the upstairs landing, Norm opened Jeff’s bedroom door and I pulled Cookie inside. At the sound of Jeff’s voice, Norm and I ran down the stairs and back into the den. We could hear Jeff yelling on the floor above us. Cookie was mostly silent. Eventually his voice lowered to a murmur. And then we couldn’t hear them at all.
By February Jeff had had enough. We were at the breakfast table when he told Cookie she had one week to get out. Candice stopped eating her cereal, her spoon poised in the air. She looked from me to Norm to me. Once she saw our impassive faces, she got up from the table, dumped her bowl in the sink, and left the kitchen. She was probably relieved to be getting her father back to herself.
Cookie dragged her long red fingernails from Jeff’s knee to his crotch. “Sweetie. You’re not serious now, are you?” she purred.
“One week,” Jeff said. He removed her hand and then stood and left the kitchen, too.
“WELL FUCK YOU, YOU UPTIGHT FUCKWAD!” Cookie threw her napkin on the ground and then swept her arm across the breakfast table, sending the box of Life, my and Norm’s bowls, and her and Jeff’s coffee cups sailing to the ground. “I’m not staying in this shithole another motherfucking minute,” she said, and then she left the kitchen as if nothing had happened.
5 The Devil We Knew
By lunchtime that same day, we’d landed at a hotel off the expressway. It was shaped like a white farmhouse with a steep, sloping tin roof. The parking lot cars all had New York license plates, but there were two trucks parked there, too. One from California and one from Florida. I’d never left Suffolk County, New York, in my life, and though I remained there now, the out-of-state plates made the hotel seem farther than it was from all the other places I’d lived.
“This sure as hell ain’t the Hotel California.” Cookie started singing the song. Norm and I sang along with her. When we sang together like this, I felt like we were a regular family, normal people. And I liked my mother when she sang: even though she barely carried a tune, she was happy, her voice didn’t have its sawtooth edges. She wasn’t angry.
Cookie was still belting it out as she turned the rearview mirror toward herself and applied a fresh coat of red lipstick and a few coats of black mascara. She fluffed her hair with her lacquered nails, then reached into her front-button blouse and pulled each of her breasts up higher in her bra before spraying her cleavage with Jontue.
“Showtime!” Cookie interrupted our song and waggled her fingers around either side of her face. She turned to us in the backseat and said firmly, “Wait here.” I wished we could go back in time, just forty seconds, so we could be singing again.
A few minutes later, Cookie returned to the car. She’d secured a highly discounted second-floor room and a job as the hotel barmaid. She’d be paid in tips, but she could drink for free. “Good enough for me,” Cookie said.
“Me too,” Norm said. He was picking out his clothes from the piles of garbage in the backseat. After our time with Jeff, we had more than one outfit each. And we had our Christmas jackets.
“You know a hot-sheets hotel like this usually only gets customers for a few hours, not for a few weeks,” Cookie said. “So they really appreciate a nice family like us classing up the joint.”
I wasn’t sure what my mother meant by a hot-sheets hotel, but I sensed it was somewhere my sisters wouldn’t want us to stay. “Can Gi, Camille, and Cherie visit us here?” I asked.
“Absolutely not!” Cookie said. “Those bitches will complain to Social Services about me, and then the gig is up.”
“But what could they complain about?” I asked. “You have a job. We have a place to sleep. We have clothes—” I picked up the pair of purple leggings Candice had given me.
“They’re lying twats!” Cookie said. “All of them! They’ll do anything to destroy this family. You watch!”
I knew if I started crying, Cookie would turn on me. I had to hide my love for my sisters from her or I’d be recategorized into a lying twat too. Whatever that was.
The hotel room had a queen-size bed, a daybed, and a cot. Cookie claimed the bed, Norm took the daybed, and I happily took the cot as it was on the far side of the room, away from the window and so away from the sound of drunken bar patrons wandering out into the street.
Other than the fact that Cookie wouldn’t enroll us in school, I didn’t mind living in the hotel. I felt safe as there were plenty of people around and always someone awake at the front desk. It was sort of like having a doorman or a butler. Once Cookie was making enough tips to pay for a second room, she moved in next door. I kept my place on the cot and Norm took the bed. This time, I was trying to stay away from the sounds that floated through the wall: Cookie in her happy singsong, adoring a man for a night or sometimes a few nights. If they lasted more than a week, she said it was love and called the group of us a family. When they left, Cookie blamed us.
“Clean yourselves up so you don’t drive ’em away!” she said one night, her wobbling body flopped against a wall. “No one wants a woman who passed two ratty lil’ terriers outta her twat!” I was starting to understand what twat meant and I immediately wanted to correct her. There were five of us. My mother had passed five of us out of her twat.
Most days Cookie watched TV until she had to go to work at night. When Norm and I were hungry, we knocked on her door. She’d reach into her bra and pull up a bill that was always slightly sticky and warm. If she handed us a twenty, we’d eat in the restaurant at the bar, ordering enough food to keep us full the whole day. It was fun to look at the other people eating there: lots of pretty ladies with glittery short skirts, heels as high as a steak knife on end, and eyelashes that were so long they looked like black butterflies. If Cookie handed us a ten or five, we’d walk along the busy road to the market about a mile away and buy what Norm always called the biggest bang for the buck. My brother’s single concern was quantity, not quality, and so our diet consisted mostly of giant bags of beef jerky and Circus Peanuts, which we could get for less than one dollar.
One day that winter, we turned into the neighborhood near the market. There were little detached houses, snow-covered lawns that didn’t have cars or bikes or broken toys popping out like junkyard tombstones, and curbside mailboxes where people had their name painted in cursive or with colorful doughy print. At the end of one street we found a library. This was almost as good as finding free food. No matter where we lived, my sisters had taken us to the library when we weren’t in school. There was heat in libraries, bathrooms with abundant toilet paper, and hot water if you wanted to wash your face. No one yelled at you or hurt you in a library, and there were books, of course. So many books that you could never, ever run out.
Norm started running, and I quickly caught up with him, almost slipping on the icy front steps. When we got inside, we walked a circle in each section until we’d found the areas where we wanted to park ourselves. Norm was near the comic books and graphic novels. He loved anything with robots, or monsters, or evil forces that threatened to destroy the world. I liked Judy Blume books about interesting girls who had a lot to think about and much to say. Every now and then, I’d stop reading, close my eyes, and imagine that I was one of the characters. My favorite was Sheila Tubman from Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. Sheila’s afraid of everything: dogs, swimming, thunder. But she gets herself through it all. I wanted to be Sheila the Great and live a life where thunder was the scariest thing around.
By spring, the librarians knew us and let us check out more than the limit of five books each. And because we were living in a hotel room, it was easy to find our books to return them when they were due. The farthest anything could hide was under Norm’s bed where the maids, who only came when they felt like it, never cleaned. I always hoped the maids would be our friends, or stand-ins for my sisters. They were young and pretty, like my sisters, and I wanted them to bring us candy, brush my hair, and put on talent shows with us. Instead, they ignored us, like a couple of forgotten pet goldfish in a murky-water bowl.
Sometime after Norm’s thirteenth birthday that summer, Cookie started taking daily trips out of the hotel. She’d return an hour or so later with a brown paper grocery bag filled with goods. There were lavender towels one day. A Mr. Coffee coffeemaker another day. Pillows and sheets. A radio. And purple sparkly rainboots for me that were about five sizes too big.
When she came into our room with a boom box and a shoebox of cassette tapes, Norm finally asked where she was getting this stuff. Cookie said, “It’s mine. Stuff I had in storage.”
I pawed through the tapes. “Saturday Night Fever!” I said. I’d never seen the movie, but every person in my family loved the songs when they came on the radio, especially Cookie. Camille had learned some of the dances at school and had taught me how to do them. She tried to teach Norm, but he was always going left when you were supposed to go right, and he tripped over his feet as if he were wearing his shoes on the wrong foot.
“Oh, let’s dance!” Cookie said.
When Cookie drank, each drink changed her, like layering a cake with different flavored frostings. After the first drink, she was still mean and angry. By the second drink, she’d quieted down a little. Following the third, she was fun—she’d dance, sing songs; she might put makeup on me or finger some gel into Norm’s hair. At the fourth drink, she started to get mean. And by the fifth, you didn’t want to be nearby if she was around because something terrible would soon be pounding down on you. (And if there was a first drink, there was always a fifth one.) But this day, the day she’d brought home the box of tapes, Cookie wanted to dance, and she seemed completely sober.
I put on the first song of the A side, “Stayin’ Alive.” Cookie clapped her hands, and we danced together across the flat-carpeted floor. Her butt bounced at its own rhythm when she moved, but she was a good dancer. Better than me, and almost as good as Camille, whose friends had called her the Dancing Queen. Norm sat on the bed and sang along in a perfect falsetto.
When the song was done, Cookie sat on the bed, panting. “If I hadn’t blown it by having you fucking kids I coulda kept it up as a go-go dancer.” And that was it. The moment was over.
The morning Cookie walked into our room carrying a large wooden jewelry box—its velvet-lined drawers crammed with silver and gold, diamonds and other stones—was the day she was arrested. Norm and I were out at the library when it happened. The front-desk clerk, a man with shiny strings of hair that looked glued to his forehead, told us the guy Mom was stealing from had confronted her in the parking lot. She went nuts and started punching and kicking him. That’s when the cops showed up and arrested her for theft and assault. The desk clerk’s thin lips formed an unmistakable smile when he said, “She fought hard against those handcuffs.”
My own hands went to my wrists and I felt sad and embarrassed for my mother. Norm had known all along, but he didn’t tell me until we’d returned to our room that the stuff Cookie had been bringing home belonged to Jeff. Cookie still had the key to his house.
Norm and I waited in the hotel room while Cookie was in jail. We didn’t know when she’d be coming back or if Social Services would turn up to collect us. Norm wanted to walk to the convenience store—he had eighty cents he’d gathered from pay phone change slots over the past week. But I refused to leave in case my sisters came to claim us. All day long, I sent Gi mental messages, quoting the directions from the one-page brochure at the front desk: One minute off the LIE! We’re the old white farmhouse with the new-found feel!
Cookie returned the next day. She’d called Cherie to bail her out.
“Is she going to come visit us?” I asked. “Did she tell Gi and Camille where we are?”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Cookie said. “Your dumb bitch sister told Social Services on me! Those girls don’t give a shit about you and they don’t give two shits about me. They’re never coming to visit!”
I didn’t believe her. I was Gi’s bambina. If she knew where I was, she’d show up.
The social worker we thought of as Mrs. Brady came to the hotel later that morning. Cookie put on the good-mother act. She stroked my hair and held Norm’s hand as she promised that she was still going to AA and calling her sponsor every single day. “I’m seeking therapy,” Cookie said. “I want to be a better person!”
Now that Norm was thirteen, Mrs. Brady was fine with us being alone when Cookie worked at night. If Cookie stayed sober and continued to go to meetings, Mrs. Brady said, she would work on getting Cookie official custody.
Norm whispered in my ear that the only reason we were being left with our mother was that Mrs. Brady was overworked and didn’t have the help she needed to deal with two kids kidnapped from an abusive foster home. I sensed that my brother was right. Cookie was obviously lying about going to AA—she worked as a barmaid! Leaving us with our mother was probably easier than having us in the system. Fine by me, of course. I didn’t want to return to the Callahans’. And I was thrilled to learn that now that the heat knew where Cookie was, we no longer had to hide from them. Norm and I could enroll in school.