Summer and Smoke

I fall a little in love with a man who is hanging around the campus like me. Turns out he is a Goddard drop out who never left, he used to stay in an abandoned log cabin but it burned to the ground a few months ago. At first I don’t understand that we are going to sleep at a different house every night, so Caitlin and I trail him from here to there, and soon I am too tired to think straight even though he is content to crawl under a table and sleep. He smells sour from wearing the same clothes every day.

This is not an improvement, I realize. I have made an unfortunate choice, I am not cut out to press my nose to the glass looking at happy families at play and I do not intend to wind up lighting matches to keep warm, no matter how pretty the flames. It is a mark of how much I grow to dislike this man that I run back to Peter. I hate not having a home.  I would make a terrible hobo. The first cardboard box I find, I would hang pictures inside, put a rug on the floor, and take out a long lease.

So I move back into the trailer with Peter at the end of June and apply for welfare and food stamps so at least I can buy milk for Caitlin and pay the rent.  By July Peter moves out to be with a girl at Goddard who looks at him adoringly, and I feel paralyzed. I sit on the couch in the trailer looking out at a meadow, smoking cigarettes and listening to music about unrequited love. In August, now it is almost a year since we left New York, I haven’t bothered calling my parents much, too busy for them I guess, the phone rings. My mother says how worried she is about me, my father won’t drive up but she will take the bus from the Port Authority terminal on 42nd Street all the way to Plainfield. She asks me to pick her up at the Citgo gas station on Route 2.

Caitlin and I wait on the wooden platform outside the gas station and Caitlin is playing, she’s 18 months old now and running and dancing from one end of the platform to the other. In an instant, with a shriek, she falls off the platform into the road. I rush to pick her up. She has scraped her forehead and nose and chin, she looks like a casualty on a battlefield and is sobbing. Finally by the time the bus pulls in she has stopped crying but is hiccupping and has tear tracks and dirt all down her face. I hold her on my hip, I am wearing a dirty Greek folk blouse and no bra and a long skirt and I am barefoot, my hair is longish and tangled, the last time my mother saw me I was wheeling the baby down Broadway in her carriage looking like a million dollars.

We get in my green Plymouth which I bought at a used car lot when I was working and am supposed to pay the dealer $100 a month, which I haven’t done for a while. I wind up keeping it another few weeks until the engine quits and then I leave the car on the side of the road and hitchhike home. But this day it runs. When we arrive at the trailer, I carry Caitlin inside and my mother totes her weekend bag. The baby jabbers and holds out her bottle to be filled, I set her down and turn on the record player and play Billie Holiday, when the record finishes it automatically starts from the beginning again. I could listen forever but my mother looks irritated. My mother finally takes the bottle and starts washing it in the sink, she has to move dirty dishes to one side. She looks under the sink for a sponge or soap but finally just uses her fingers and hot water. Caitlin climbs all over me watching her bottle.

My mother opens the refrigerator door and takes out a carton of milk. She opens the lid and recoils and says you can’t give this to the baby, we have to go to the store and get more, and I am annoyed at her, she is spoiling my mood. I have not cleaned or prepared for this visit, I have decided that my mother must accept me for who I am. “In a little while”, I say, and so my mother sits down and looks around and I get up and fill the bottle half way with water and offer it to Caitlin who takes one hopeful pull at the nipple and then tosses the bottle to the floor. So we finally get back into the car, my mother can’t drive or I think she would grab the wheel away from me, and head to the store in town, we pass hippies along the road and my mother stares out the window silently.

We get back, I fix Katy’s bottle. My mother bought two big bags of groceries at the store and we make bacon and eggs for dinner. When it gets dark my mother takes the bed, the sheets are not very clean but I haven’t had time for the laundromat. I sleep on the plaid sofa, it’s a little short but I pull my knees up to my chest. Next morning my mother leaves on the first bus out of town, she was supposed to stay another day but we get into an argument, the music is upsetting her, I horrify her, she cannot recognize me. I hardly notice that she is gone. I refill Katy’s bottle and turn the music up.

About Karen To and Fro

Everything you didn't want to know about me!
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