All last night I thought about what a mistake it’d been to move here. There was no way I could sleep with all the scraping and tapping going on, like frantic wings against the trailer trying to get inside. It was just a scrawny tree outside my bedroom, blowing in the wind, I knew that. I got up anyway, three times, to see Mindy in the dim light, sprawled on her bed, her hair curtaining her face like a secret. I tried looking out the kitchen window, hoping it would help, thinking I might see something beyond the darkness. At times like that it feels like there’s no rescue.
In the light of day everything has a more ordinary feel, even with the wind hissing through the cracks and darkness stuck in my belly. Mindy’s on the couch watching Dr. Phil, licking Cheetos dust from her fingers. Surfer Dude, the cat, watches with his one green eye as I drop sticky glasses into the steaming dishwater. The Crowd’s gathered around our picnic table outside the kitchen window again. For all I know, they were there last night, too. For all I know they’re always there, locked in place under the Florida sky, eating food from bags.
“See any dirty dishes I missed?” I ask Mindy. My daughter doesn’t say anything, just changes the channel with an orange thumb planted on the remote. A half-dozen channels flick by before I give up waiting for an answer and let the lemony water gurgle down the drain.
I would’ve gone back to Ohio that first week if moving here hadn’t been Mindy’s idea. The website boasted of spacious southern living with picnic areas and shade trees and housing that’d once been used by visitors to Disney World. “That’s it! That’s where I want to live. Can we, please?” Mindy’s eyes were that same clear blue they’d been when she was a toddler playing in the sunlight. I hadn’t seen anything close to that color in years. It made me weak with hope.
It didn’t take long to see the error in my thinking. The homes in Seascape Motorhome Park are arranged face to face, so that neighbors share a swath of dirt, two picnic tables, and a tree. Before Mindy and I even had a chance to cram our bras into the stubborn drawers, the almost-empty park filled with people hit by one disaster or another. Eight people moved in next door. That was last count, anyway.
The thin wiggle of shade from the tree falls on our table, clearly marked ‘61’ with the same black plastic numbers as our trailer and the chained-up garbage can, so there’s no doubt The Crowd knows they’re encroaching when they park themselves. They sit on top of the table, prop up their bare feet and leave crumpled bags and pickle juice behind like it’s their God-given right to use somebody else’s stuff. I’m not unfeeling; I sympathize. But that’s our picnic table they sit their asses on. I pay for it. It’s not as if we’ve got a lot here. A person has to protect the little that they have.
As usual, I’m the only one paying attention to the big-eyed boy who never wears anything more than a diaper. Seems like he should be trained by now. He’s playing in the dirt like it’s his sandbox, his slender fingers raking through the dust. My insides twist like a sheet in a washing machine every time I watch him. Give a kid a chance.
A gust of wind pushes so hard at the sides of our place that I grab the sink to steady myself. The neighbors’ open door slams against the gray metal siding, pulls away and slams open again. Surfer Dude stops clawing the screen and jumps down from the window sill. On his way out he leaves a trail of scratches on my arm.
Even with the insistent wind, The Crowd doesn’t budge. There’s a large woman with stars on her shorts and two girls sitting beside her on the picnic table, their heads huddled together like they’re the only two people in the world. A lanky boy stands guard with his hands in his pockets, his big clothes pressed close to his body by the wind, his tall hair jiggling like a rattle. The big-eyed boy, who’d been trying to stand, lands back on his diaper.
Mindy’s attention stays focused on the flickering screen. I dry the dishes, put them in the cupboard, wipe away some tiny ants from the counter. “So, what are your plans for today?” I practically have to yell because of the noisy fan and blaring TV. I give Mindy plenty of time, but she doesn’t answer. “Going anywhere?”
“It’s too fucking hot out there,” she says. It’s how they talk these days. There’s no anger attached to the word, but I think I’d feel better if there were.
“I noticed a couple of new jobs in the paper…”
Mindy’s thumb stays pressed on the remote. She’s only sixteen, but I signed her out of school because she wouldn’t go anymore. That’s part of the reason I agreed to move, I suppose, to escape judgment from my sister and the rest.
“Why don’t you come with me to the restaurant?” My voice vibrates from the power of the fan. “There’s air conditioning and, besides, it’s Johnna’s last day. You know, the pregnant girl?” Johnna’s the only person at Carol’s Café who talks to me. She fills water glasses and coffee cups and tells me how excited she is for her baby, but I know she’s scared. “We ordered a cake…”
“Give it up.” Mindy snaps her head forward so that her hair slides across her nose.
“Somebody’ll have to replace her,” I say. “Don’t you think you’d feel better if you got out of the house?”
“The house?” Mindy laughs like I’ve just told a joke. Our house in Ohio was no palace, but it beat this rattling tin can. Mindy laughs so rarely that I join her for a moment before it’s clear she’s taken sides. Even still, I try not to let go of the smile.
There’s a commotion on TV, people talking over each other and nobody bothering to listen. The words, ‘My daughter compromises herself’ slide across the bottom of the screen like it’s a breaking news flash. The girl in the middle chair looks like she’s thirteen-going-on-thirty, all uncovered and jiggling. Happy. Such a deceiving word. I’ve seen that look before, late nights in Ohio, Mindy’s face as she climbed out of one car or another. Our house was near a streetlight, so I always got a good look. The whole neighborhood got a good look, apparently, and never hesitated to comment, according to my sister.
“She can’t be in charge,” Fran warned me. “She’s too young for the big mistakes.”
“Mistakes are inevitable,” I told my sister, but within weeks Mindy and I were on our way south.
The TV flashes more shots of the purple-haired kid with her boobs jiggling over a skin-tight top, and for a moment my hands remember the soft, smooth skin of Mindy’s pudgy baby arms. The sensation fades, but a memory lingers, images flashing like an old movie reel – light, then dark; baby, then gone – until something takes hold and I’m back there, baby Mindy standing beside me on the front seat of my car – I never let her do that but the back seat’s covered with bags of our stuff and it’s only for a few blocks until we’re out of harm’s way – and in another flash Mindy has hold of my hair, tugging as she pivots in front of me, her forehead pressed against mine, and I’m driving even though I can’t see the road, can’t see anything but baby in front of my eyes and face, smothering my breath, that sweet-sour smell with tiny fists clamped onto my hair and twisting my ear while I’m trying to drive.
My only choice is to slam on the brakes, hoping we don’t hit anything, praying we stay inside the car. My hands are off the wheel and on her arms, trying to push her away, my fingertips and nails pressing into skin that’s warm and damp and squishy. She stares at me with those deep-blue blinking eyes. I jerk her away from me so that her head gets thrown back, then forward again. I hold my daughter at arm’s length, tears streaming from my eyes but not from hers. Not one sound. We’re cockeyed in the middle of Stanwick Street on a sunny summer afternoon, and I want nothing more than to keep her at a distance. It’s as if back then I could sense what we were to become; Mindy lying on the couch with her nose-ring and stretched-out black t-shirt, and me, hoping, but running out of hope. Fourteen years forward and back in an instant.
A round-faced woman stares out from the TV. Below her are the words ‘Panicked Mother.’ The woman starts to say something when Mindy flips to another channel. “No one wants to hear what that bitch has to say.”
Something inside me comes undone; I try to keep control. I don’t realize my hand is shaking until I grip the doorknob and step outside. As hot as it was inside the trailer, there’s no relief out here, even with the wind. The five-by-five porch, made with the same batch of decayed wood as the picnic tables, shudders beneath me, and I hang onto the rail as if everything’s going to collapse.
I’ll break the lease. I’ll take out another loan and sell every last thing I have, which isn’t much. At least we had some footing in Ohio. At least the faces around us looked like they might care, even if they cared too much and for the wrong reasons. No matter. Whatever it takes to get back, I’ve got to do.
“Hey!” It’s a woman’s voice coming from The Crowd. I look down at my feet and pretend I don’t hear. I’d go back inside if I thought it was an option. “Hey, come over here!” Sometimes there are no good choices, so I look up and try to manage a dismissive smile. The only one looking my way is the boy hanging his hands in his pockets. “Come on over here.” The woman with stars on her shorts faces in the opposite direction, but I’m sure it’s her. It’s like she’s trying to con me so everyone can have a good laugh. The two girls compare fingernails and don’t pay any attention.
Something about the boy’s staring eyes makes me decide to confront them, start my crusade to take back what’s mine. The only time Mindy or I’ve gone near that picnic table was the day we pulled into Seascape and spent the afternoon luring Surfer Dude out from under 62’s rickety skirting. Still, the table’s clearly marked. I make my way down the steps. “I believe you’re on…”
“Did you see me on TV?” The woman acts like we’re in the middle of a conversation, looking to me for answers that’ll resolve a thing or two.
“You were on TV?” So much for confrontation.
“Yeah, she’s a movie star!” the skinny girl wearing pink glasses says in a shrill voice. She shares a laugh with the girl wearing too much makeup. “Doesn’t she look like a movie star?” It’s hard to tell who she’s talking to because the girls gaze at each other.
Photo by Theophilos Papadopoulos