Enough Troubles Already

I have two teen-age daughters about to have babies, a son home from Afghanistan, about to turn twenty-one. And families are falling apart every direction you look.

People are losing jobs, cannot find jobs, don’t want jobs, tax cuts, tax increases, Obamacare, the Tea Party, foreclosures, floods, drugs, alcohol and this feeling that America is losing its grip.

I am maximizing my efforts to make my family survive. I teach hotel hospitality courses at the community college. I bring home a good paycheck. My ex-husband is worthless. My children are in crisis.

In dark times I ask, though, can we make it through?

*   *   *

“Beth Cahill?”

“Here I am.”

I pictured her differently. My daughter Kennedy’s doctor, Dr. Pennebaker. She is short and athletic. Petite, like a dancer. Long nose. Hair which isn’t blonde or brown, and stays back away from her face using an elegant headwrap. Like an Italian actress from the days way back when.

She smiles. A coffee drinker.

“Kennedy says your son is home.” Dr. Pennebaker is chatting me up while they clean the goo from my Kennedy’s belly after an ultrasound. Everything is right on schedule with Kennedy.

“Lord,” I sigh, “did she say that? It is true. Donnie is home, and we’re glad to have him. Have him back home and in one piece. But it’s not the same.”

Dr. Pennebaker keeps smiling. It could be this is more conversation than she wanted. TMI.

“There is so much anger in him. Hostility.”

“Okay. Well, Kennedy is fine and she will be right out for you, Mrs. Cahill.”

Ms. I’m divorced a long time now.”

“Okay then. Kennedy will be right along.”

Poor Kennedy walks like a duck. Hands always pressed to either side of her bloated womb. “Mama,” she says breathlessly, “you gotta get me home quick so I can take a shit.”

“Oh, honey. Really now. We’re in public.”

“I don’t care, mama. I gotta dump like crazy.”

The other women watch us leave but I do not expect Kennedy to seem ashamed. She is like her daddy in that regard. Could care less what people think. Nothing to hide.

“Oh, honey,” I say after we get in my car, “you are gonna have to crack your window if you’re gonna pass gas like that.”

“I cain’t help it, mama. Crazy big baby. I got a huge big shit that’s about to come.”

“Hold on then. Crack that window. They say a boy always makes a mother do this at the end.”

“That right? Whew. Sorry, mama.”

“It’s no harm done, honey. Just let me get the back windows down a bit, too.”

*   *   *

Maureen is a different story altogether. She is only sixteen, a year younger than Kennedy, but her baby causes her only slight discomfort. Their due dates are two weeks apart, end of this month and middle of next.

Maureen has smoked this whole time. It made Kennedy too sick, thank god, as has just about all other smells and foods.

“My baby,” Maureen boasts, “is tough. Like a gangsta.”

Kennedy at least has a fiancé. They have a Christmas wedding planned, her and Mike.

Maureen claims to not even be sure who the father is and she will not talk about it anymore. “It’s my fault,” she tells me, “not yours.”

On top of it, Donnie is home. He just came in by bus this weekend. Straight to his room upstairs. Loud music. Sounds like he is exercising all the time. He won’t eat with us. He will sit in the kitchen, all the lights off, by himself, and eat. He refuses to let anybody come into the kitchen until he is finished.

I waited until this morning to tell Big Don his son is home.

“How is D.J.?” Big Don asked.

“He’s fine. Fit as a fiddle.”

Big Don said he wanted to come see him. I said give it a couple of days.

“You sure everything is all right?” he asked me. I said it was. The boy is just tired.

“Right then,” Big Don said. I could hear one of his dogs barking inside the trailer. It is one of the things I could not stand with him: dogs in the house.

“I’ll be around Saturday,” he said and hung up. Not one question about either of the girls.

*   *   *

I get both boys and girls in my classes, mostly kids with GEDs who have tried it in the workplace for a couple years without skills or training.

It cuts right down the middle, half seem eager to get the hospitality certificate, the rest just there to keep their parents from kicking them out.

It is blacks and whites, Latinos, some are mothers and fathers already, a few wear wedding bands. I teach them with all my heart. I have been where they are and know how hard it is.

I worked when I could while my kids were growing up. Convenience stores, supermarkets, the laundry uptown, a waitress job or two when I was younger. When they were in middle school I hired on to the Hilton Gardens out at the airport.

I worked hard. Nights until me and Big Don broke up, then days mostly. I was lucky. The economy was still good and places needed people. I advanced up to day manager, and then district assistant. I got to where the ladies at corporate would know my voice when they called. They gave me a nice reference when this job opened up at the community college.

“You teach girls to be maids, is all you do,” Maureen droned when I sat her down in her first year of high school when she was flunking classes. “You are a trainer of maids. There isn’t much lower than that.”

But Donnie acted proud. He got to drive the new car I bought—used, but not too old—and said he knew a girl I taught who already got a job with her hospitality certificate.

Kennedy said it was better now because she could tell her friends I was a college teacher.

“She teaches maids,” Maureen cut in. “Mama teaches maids and it’s not much is lower than that.”

I use the state employees’ bank now and I sit in the faculty rows at graduations—convocations. I don’t put on airs, but I know the score. I was about to put a down payment on a bigger house further out of town when first Kennedy, then Maureen, announced they were expecting. I still have the check in my purse. I have been saving ever since Donnie shipped out to Afghanistan. He enlisted to pay for college because he said no offense, but he wants to be an engineer.

“Donnie?” I say outside his door. It is locked tight as a bank vault. I knock again.

“Donnie?”

You can hear the floorboards creak as he walks around. He has taken the rugs out, rolled them up and put them in the garage. He has agreed not to wear his boots in the house. Kennedy said she could not sleep with his stomping around.

“Yeah? State your business, mama.”

I hate talking through the door because the girls will hear every word.

“Your daddy is coming over Saturday. I don’t know what time, but he’s coming to see you.”

The walking stops. The music quiets down some.

“Okay,” he says in the same disinterested voice. “I’m writing it in my calendar.”

One of the girls laughs. The toilet flushes and this is Kennedy calling for someone to bring her more tissue.

*   *   *

Mike, my future son-in-law, is coming over to help with the yard. Summer is over with and the leaves are soon to fall, plus there has to be something I can do with the driveway. It is a mess, with more weeds than rocks and lots of mud as a result.

Mike is the son of a barber and that is all I can come up with to say about him. He graduated high school this year and Kennedy has been trying to get him to join the army. He says war is not for him. There isn’t much he seems to be for. But when he sees Donnie, you can rest assured that will clinch his leanings to remain a civilian.

Water is boiling for instant coffee and the windows are turning blue with daybreak. There is a wind at the screens, steady and brisk.

I cut the television on like I do on work mornings, watch the news with the sound off. And then I hear somebody in the kitchen. Donnie is at the table with his cereal.

“Morning, sunshine,” I say. When I asked Donnie to help with the yard, he said forget it. That is why Mike is coming over. The lesser of two evils.

Donnie has buzzed his head again, so his skull is like a sickly peach. Milk dribbles down his chin as he looks up at me. He looks right through me. I guess he has been up all night again. Why else would he be sweating through his clothes already?

I leave before he tells me to, and before I can sit on the sofa Mike knocks. I tell you, you look at him and you would wonder why anyone could suggest he join the army. Then again, you can see just why he needs to.

He stands watching the silent screen while I go get my gloves and the key hanging by the kitchen door. I keep the garage locked on account of Big Don has sticky hands.

“What’s up there, D.J.?” Mike calls. He affects a deeper voice, I have noticed, around other men. It suits him better.

Donnie chews, wipes his mouth. He blinks and dips the spoon back into his cereal.

“Bye,” is all he says to me. Nothing to his sister’s fiancé.

Me and Mike are raking along, he is sweating like a pig and stops to smoke every ten minutes. Donnie passes in the back yard to the garage.

“What’s up there, D.J. Dynamite?” Mike calls. He squints at Donnie as Donnie passes like a man in his own world, not seeing or hearing a thing we do.

“Right there,” Mike says, “is why I won’t join up.”

I figured. Does not take much for some.

“He’s beaten up, sure, but he’s already a hero,” I tell Mike. I notice Mike’s hands are already blistering. I picture him giving the baby haircuts, doing little else.

I ask him how he and Kennedy came up with the baby-name: Cody. Kennedy will not tell me. Mike shrugs.

“It was Kenny’s idea,” he says. I hate it when he calls her Kenny.

“It’s a nice name,” I say, trying to be nice. He is helping out some, after all. Even though it is about to kill him from the looks of it. I can picture him being a chubby cook in the navy, and that’s about it.

“It was Kenny’s idea,” he says, squinting at the empty yard between the garage and the house.

*   *   *

Maureen’s baby is fathered by a black boy, is what Donnie says. He has not said it to me directly, so I had to hear this from Kennedy.

“Does your daddy know?” I asked, knowing this could be the start of big troubles—true or not.

Kennedy bites her lip. She asks for a hair tie. I had been trying to braid her hair but we gave up.

“Daddy don’t talk to me,” she says, hurt. “He don’t talk to Maureen, either. He only talks with D.J.”

And this is why I waited a few days to tell Big Don that his son was home on leave. Donnie is just home for two weeks, then back to Camp Lejeune.

I go up to Maureen’s room after I am done out in the yard, because I want to ask her before her daddy shows up, which I figure will be right at lunch. She is in bed, covers tossed aside, naked. Staring at the ceiling. So I ask her. Her eyes close and don’t open back up.

“Mama,” she says softly. She licks her lips, which are dry as paper. She looks so little, so young, so unprepared. I can see her taking my classes someday. We can sit at the kitchen table and study like we used to, before me and Big Don broke up.

“I need to lose weight before Kennedy’s wedding,” she says.

*   *   *

Lunch is whatever anyone can find to make a sandwich. I am tired of every time I cook, my Kennedy curls up next to the commode and retches her guts out. So we have been eating takeout for a month. I thought Donnie would complain.

Mike is standing at the refrigerator, holding the door open, when I come down. I am just about to say something when Big Don’t knock-knock-knock is at the front door.

Big Don is drunk. It is not even noon yet. He smells like he has been drinking all night.

“Darlin’,” he grins. And I slam the door and lock it. I call for Mike to lock the back door. I have to go do this myself because Mike has his hands in the bread and is afraid to let go. What kind of house did he grow up in? This makes me wonder about barbers.

Big Don is banging on the front door, hollering. Both hands it sounds like. The neighbors used to call the police for me when he was like this. But I guess they are out of practice now.

Mike is staring through the archway out to the living room where Big Don is now rattling the windows.

“Can I bring this upstairs?” he asks, waggling his ham sandwich, a bite already taken.

*   *   *

My daddy was in Korea and he said war does more than change a man. It turns you inside-out, he said. Like a dirty sock.

This week I had lunch with a fat little German woman who teaches psychology at the community college. I told her about Donnie. I listed a number of things, raising a finger up with each issue. I had two hands full-blown—fanned out like a mime—when I was done.

“You have any guns in the house?” she asked.

I do not. My daddy gave up hunting after Korea.

“He should be evaluated,” she said, going for the pepper shaker between us. She made it snow black flakes on her salad. “The army should have evaluated him already,” she said. Her accent makes the Vs sound enticing, strong.

“The marines, you mean. Donnie is a marine.”

She nodded. “Same thing.”

I am putting the phone back on the counter when I see someone at the stairs. It is one of those hard moments when you feel like this is a dream. You can hear every song you have ever heard, every flash of light you have ever seen. Bottled in an instant. In a moment which lasts an eternity.

“Mama,” Kennedy says, “I am having my baby now.”

*   *   *

We were packed in the ER waiting room for two hours, with face-rubbers and arm-scratchers of all types, waiting to hear some news.

Then Maureen, Mike and I get sent down confusing halls attached by outdoor tubes, until we stumble into the maternity waiting area. I don’t know why they would hide it back here such as they have.

The seats are warm, a tell-tale sign. Girls in this town do one thing well, and this is have babies. We cannot get the volume to work on the television in the corner, which bothers Mike.

“The car race is on,” he pouts. “If I could hear it, it would put my nerves at ease.”

Maureen looks at me and I shrug. I have a daughter in labor, another who will be here soon enough, a son who seems on the brink of madness, and a drunken ex-husband who may or may not be wandering my house freely, looking for money in my dresser.

“You don’t need the sound for it, Mike,” I snap. “It is a car race. They go round and round until one of them wins the checkers.”

My daddy’s brother, Uncle Roy Dew, raced stock cars on dirt tracks until he died on one.

Mike rubs his hands together and sputters. “I think I need a bag to breathe in,” he wheezes. His eyes are wet and pale as moons.

“Sit back, dummy,” Maureen says. “Tilt your head and breathe in four counts, then out real fast.”

I tell Maureen that her advice is flawed. You need to breathe in and out at the same pace. In through the nose, out through the mouth.

“You hear that, dummy?” she says to Mike.

Mike leans back and passes out, his arms falling limply at his sides. Maureen struggles up out of her chair and sighs.

“I’m gonna turn the TV to something else, mama,” she says.

*   *   *

It is not long after Kennedy has her baby that Mike goes back to hold it, to hold him—Cody. And Maureen chews her nails and watches Jerry Springer. There might be some fear in her eyes, some apprehension.

Big Don calls my cell phone and I don’t answer. I get to hold Cody, while Maureen lays her head on her sister’s shoulder and they cry like little girls.

The baby blows a bubble on my shirt and it is such a tiny bubble, like a goldfish sputters out. The fingers tremble and look both pink and blue at the same time.

*   *   *

It is late when me and Maureen go home. Almost midnight, but all of the lights are on. The television is running and there are wet-glass circles on the coffee table, my new coffee table.

Me and Maureen share a look. You hear the stories on the news of boys who take their own lives. You know it could so easily be yours as the next mother’s.

I am putting my purse in the chair when Donnie’s music thunders on. I laugh. I say it is the first time I have ever been thankful to hear that noise.

Maureen slumps in the other chair and chews her nails. They are down to the quick.

“Mama,” she says, “will you be happy like that, like with Kennedy’s baby, if my baby is black?”

I am not sure if that is Donnie’s booming stereo or the rising pulse in my head. There are enough troubles already. And I feel guilty for thinking this.

“How could I not? How could you even ask me that, honey?”

Maureen is all belly right now, just a pretty young head atop a belly, with a little girl’s knees below it. It is like she is twelve and has a basketball under her shirt.

“Daddy won’t,” she grumbles, hurt deep inside, you can tell. Like when Big Don told her she was too dumb for piano lessons. You just don’t tell a child of ten that she is limited by her own failings. It crushes a spirit.

I tell her to hold on a minute, that I have to go drop something in the mailbox. That I have this letter that I need to put in the corner box right now before I forget it again.

All the bank needs is this check, this down payment on that house on Cedar Lakes, which has more room for newborn babies and their too-young mothers, which has a basement for a young man to come home from war and be alone, and heal. It has a secrecy from Big Don, who will never know its location.

I am tired of us living like dirty socks turned inside-out. I am tired of worrying about the color of babies.

***

Sean Jackson lives in Cary, North Carolina. Jackson’s latest stories have been published in Niche, Beyond the Margins, and Thieves Jargon, Carte Blanche, Conte Online, among other literary magazines. He was a 2011 Million Writers Award nominee. He is currently seeking a publisher for a recently completed collection of stories. Previously, he wrote for newspapers in coastal North Carolina.

Comments

  1. Love this story! Humorous & poignant & rich and uplifting. Great characters.

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