By Marc D. Goldfinger
The first thing I noticed after hugging the kids and wiping the tears away was the mound of plastic garbage bags in the middle of the living room—and the smell.
The two big dogs circled around the garbage pile. I saw my daughter creeping under a coffee table. The dust swirled around her small body and she pulled a little red kitten, mewling as it pawed at her arm, out from under the table. She ran over to me with a big smile on her face and I lifted her up. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my son watching us. There was a haunted expression on his face. There were more than ghosts living here.
I took Cress and the kids out to dinner. The kids had a great time. Jeanette kept jumping in and out of my lap. Donald sat quietly and ate his food. Cress asked me about prison. I didn’t have much to say about it. She kept tossing down beers and shots. Then she got sloppy and started hanging all over me. I remember how bad things were when the shit started and I had to go on the run. I felt like drinking. I didn’t want to because then I didn’t know what would happen next.
Jeanette and Donald ate ice cream. Cress was coming on to me hard. I was horny. It had been a long time. When I was in California I had been sleeping with this junkette that I had been shooting dope with. Another lifetime ago. I knew that there was no love between me and Cress but decided to sleep with her anyway.
Went back to the apartment with her and the kids. It was a first floor apartment in a two family house. The electric and the heat had been shut off for no payment. The water was still running. It was pretty cold still. Early May in New Hampshire.
I asked her how long the heat had been off. She said, “About two months.” I thought about the cold. I thought about the kids. I looked at the pile of garbage in the living room. The dogs were running around the living room and Jeanette was sitting with the little red kitten on her lap. I walked into their bedroom to check it out and stepped in dog shit. There was more than one pile in the room. Some of the piles had small footprints in them. I wanted to cry but prison had made me forget how. I wanted to kill someone. That was probably easier to do than cry.
I cleaned their bedroom. Donald’s sheets were stained with urine and smelled. Between shit and piss and salt wanting to kick out of my eyes I cleaned. When I asked Cress where the clean sheets were she said there weren’t any. I asked if the sheets on her bed were clean. She said they hadn’t been changed in a little while.
I walked around the pile of garbage in the living room, through the kitchen, down a hallway cluttered with debris and into her bedroom. Pulled the sheet off her bed and made one of the beds in the kid’s room. I told them that it was all right to sleep together tonight and that I would take them to the laundry tomorrow and out to eat again. They went to bed.
I took Cress to bed.
We fell asleep afterwards. I woke up in the middle of the night and went out to the living room to sleep. We never slept together again.
The next morning the kids came out. The only food in the house was peanut butter and bread. Cress came out of the bedroom and told Jeanette to make them sandwiches for breakfast. I asked Cress why she didn’t do it.
“Jeanette always does it. They can take care of themselves.”
I told the kids that they were going out for breakfast. I looked for their clothes. There were no clean clothes. I washed the dog shit off Donald’s foot and got them dressed in what was available. I didn’t bother with the clothes for the old lady. I figured she could take care of herself.
“Let’s go out for breakfast,” I said.
Jeanette put down the kitten and smiled at me. Donald took me by the hand and started chattering as we left the house. I looked back and saw Cress standing on the porch as we walked down the blacktop toward the center of town. She was smoking a cigarette and watching us.
Jeanette and I took turns pulling the wagon that I had found under the porch. She was pretty strong for a seven year old. The laundry bags bounced around whenever the wagon hit a bump. Donald was talking about another kid that he sometimes played with. I wondered where I could get them bathed in some warm water.
Jeannie wanted to help me put the dirty clothes in the washing machine. Donald wanted to play with one of the kids at the Laundromat. I let them.
We went to the little town restaurant to eat. I knew one of the waitresses from before I went on the run and then prison. She asked me how I was doing and if I was going to go back into business. I told her I didn’t think so.
“Oh, that’s too bad. There hasn’t been a reliable dealer here since you’ve been gone.”
I thought about what she said for a minute but it didn’t seem like a good idea. It had been fun and a good way to make money but prison was one long day at a time. I remembered looking out my cell window in maxi-tier when I first got there. The leaves were just starting to tinge with colour in the late August air of New England and I knew that I would be looking out at the leaves changing next year from the same building. My stomach felt funny with the memory and I pulled myself back to the table.
“I’m all done with the business.”
She smiled and nodded as I told her what we wanted to eat.
After breakfast we put the clothes in the dryer and walked around town. I met some other people I knew and chatted with them while Jeannie and Donald played with a couple of other kids. They asked me if I was going to go back into business.
“No,” was what I said.
They asked me if I wanted to smoke a joint. I told them I didn’t get high anymore.
“Oh,” was what they said. And they smoked the joint while we talked.
We went back to the laundry and pulled the clothes from the dryer. I taught Jeannie how to fold the clothes. She really got into it. Donald wanted to help. Jeannie said, “Let me teach him.”
Donald seemed to like that idea and that’s the way it went. Jeannie treated Donald as if she was his mother. Thinking about Cress, I decided that it was no surprise that things were like that. On the way home I bought cleaning supplies and stuffed them into the wagon.
I started with the children’s bedroom first. I pulled the dog-crap-encrusted rug out of the room and put it out by the garbage bin. I stripped their beds completely and dragged the mattresses outside to air in the sun.
Cress was visiting with a male friend. I asked them if they could help clean.
“Buy us some beer and we will,” she said.
“This is your place, not mine, I said.
“Yeah,” she said, and her male friend grinned.
I bought them the beer and they cleaned one room. Then they disappeared into the bedroom.
I tied the dogs outside. Jeannie played with the kitten on the front lawn. I came back into the apartment and lifted one of the garbage bags off of the living room floor. There were white maggots squirming on the floor under the bag. My throat felt funny and I carried the bag outside to the bin.
There were maggots all over the place under the bags. I counted the bags as I carried them out. Seventeen in all. I sprinkled soap powder on the maggots and mopped them up. I could hear Cress and her friend in the bedroom as I worked. Jeannie came in and asked where mommy was. I told her that I would take them out for lunch and ice cream as soon as I was done mopping the floor and that mommy was busy right now. She had the kitten in her hands. The dog was barking. I mopped the floor. The bed was creaking in the bedroom.
If the electric was working, I would have played the radio.
The dirty dishes spilled out of the sink onto the drain-board. Small bugs crept on the dishes. I figured they could wait until after lunch and ice cream. Jeannie was playing in the front yard and Donald was sitting on the couch picking his nose and thumbing through a coloring book.
“Are you guys ready to go?” I asked.
They nodded and then Cress and her friend came out of the bedroom.
“Are you going to invite their mother?” Cress asked.
“No,” I said.
“See how he is,” she said to her friend. “Prison didn’t change him.”
They laughed and clicked their beers together. I was glad I didn’t have a gun.
“Let’s go,” I said to the kids.
“What about mommy?” Donald asked.
“She’s not coming,” I said.
“I don’t want to go either,” said Donald.
“Come on with us,” said Jeannie.
I waited for him to decide. He grabbed his sister’s hand, glared at me for a second, and looked back at his mother.
“Go with daddy,” she said.
We went out for lunch and ice cream. I took them to the lake to play and we ran around and went nuts together. It was the best day I’d had in four years.
When we got back to the house there were some other people over there. They were all smoking dope and drinking beer and Jack Daniels. The kid’s mattresses were still out on the lawn to dry.
I dragged them in and made the beds. The dogs were back in the house. One of them had shit in the bedroom. I cleaned it up and tied them back outside. I told Cress that I didn’t want them in the house anymore unless she trained them not to shit on the floor.
“It’s my house and I’ll do what I like,” she said.
“Do you like your children walking through dog shit?” I asked.
The room got quiet for a minute. Nobody looked at anybody else. Even the dope and alcohol didn’t cut through that silence.
“I’ll let you keep them outside for now,” she said.
I put new sheets on the beds and then started washing the dishes. Cress and her friends went out to drink on the porch. Donald and Jeannie sat and watched the kitten push a dust ball around the room. There was something wrong with the plumbing and I couldn’t get the water to run fast, so I carried all the dishes to the bath tub. The bath tub had dog shit in it.
I cleaned the tub and washed the dishes. Swept and mopped the floors. Cress and her friends came in and she made a joke about the new maid. I didn’t say anything but if thoughts could kill I would have been a serial killer.
I took the kids out for supper because there still was nothing to eat in the house. I thought I would shop for some basics in the morning. No refrigerator. That would put some limits on my shopping. At least the dishes were all clean.
After supper I took the kids to play at an apartment building where they knew a bunch of other kids. I got to talk to one of the moms and found that her ex-boyfriend bought reefer off of me before the big bust. She hadn’t seen him in three years. Two of her three kids were his. He didn’t even know about one of them because he had gone before she knew she was pregnant.
Her name was Lisa.
“Can I bathe my kids at your place?” I asked. “No hot water at mine.”
“No hot water at my place either,” she said. “But the electric is on. If you want, we could heat a pot of water and fill the tub with that.”
When the options are limited, you learn to live within the limits. Sometimes.
“Okay,” I said.
We went inside with the kids, mine and hers, and she put a pot of water on the stove. It was a giant pot and would take a while to heat. She popped open a beer and asked if I would like one. I kind of wanted one but remembered what things were like once I started up. I never knew where things would end.
“No, but thanks.”
“Want to smoke a joint with me?” she asked.
I really thought about that one for a minute. One joint. How could that hurt? It had been so long. I struggled to remember why I didn’t want to smoke and things were not as clear as they had seemed to be.
I looked around for the kids and they were playing in the living room, all five of them. I took the joint and lit it.
Three joints later there was steam rising from the water and Lisa and I got all tangled up and there was steam rising from us too. I pulled my pants back up and filled the tub. First I bathed the kids, then took a bath myself. I hadn’t bathed since I got there. Over two days now. I didn’t know when the kids had last bathed. I brushed out Jeannie’s hair with one of Lisa’s brushes.
Later Jeannie fell asleep and I carried her home in my arms. Donald walked quietly beside me holding onto my trousers. Lisa had asked me to come back later but I thought I would just sleep on the couch after I put the kids to bed.
I thought about smoking the joints. Nothing really bad had happened and I didn’t start to drink or think about shooting heroin. It had been all right.
As far as making love to Lisa, well, things just fell into place. I guess it had been good for both of us. I just hoped she didn’t expect more than I could give.
Back at the house Cress was drunk and so were her friends. I put the kids to bed and sat up in the dark with them for a while. I was glad that they were sleeping on clean sheets. For a while I was worried that the noise would wake them but I guess they were used to it.
I went out to the porch and sat in one of the soft chairs. Fell asleep. Woke up to a crashing noise in the living room. I ran in and two of the guys were rolling around on the floor. There was blood and I saw a knife flash in the light. Everybody was yelling and I saw Jeannie standing at the door to the bedroom. Her eyes were open real wide.
I ran over to her and picked her up. One of the guys screamed and I saw the flesh hanging off his cheek. His teeth were showing and the other guy pulled back and stared like he couldn’t believe what a knife could do.
I had seen this go on in other places but, with my kids right there, I really got upset and blew up. I told everyone to get out. One of the guys started yelling at me and Jeannie was crying. I guess Donald was still asleep.
The police came over. They were surprised to see me and asked how long I planned on staying around. I told them I didn’t know. And that was the truth.
They took the guy who was cut up to the hospital, arrested the guy who cut him and everyone else went home. Cress kept drinking. Jeannie curled up with me on the couch and we fell asleep.
I woke up just as the sun was coming up. I eased myself off the couch so Jeannie wouldn’t wake up. Went outside and smoked a cigarette, then went to the country store to buy cereal and milk. I bought some ice to keep the milk cold for a while. When I got back Jeannie and Donald were huddled on the couch together. Donald’s pajamas were on the floor. They were wet with urine.
I stripped his bed and opened the window to air it out. I had left the dogs tied outside all night so the floor was clean for the first time since I had arrived.
I sponged Isaac off with cold tap water. He shivered and cried a little bit but he seemed happy to be clean. Jeannie was playing with the kitten as I put the cereal on the table, poured in the milk, and slapped a teaspoonful of sugar into each dish.
The three of us sat down and started to eat. The kitten jumped up on the table and started to eat out of Donald’s bowl. “No,” I said, and pushed the kitten off the table.
It jumped back up and crept over to Jeannie’s bowl. I pushed it down to the floor again. Jeannie asked me why I pushed it off the table and I told her that it was not healthy to have the cat eat out of our bowls while we ate.
While I was talking, it jumped back up on the table and started eating out of Donald’s bowl again. I was really annoyed and reached to push it away again. As I pushed, the kitten hissed at me. I batted the kitten off the table.
It seemed like slow motion, but it happened too fast to stop. The kitten hit the floor and slid into the metal leg of the cook stove. Its spine must have snapped and all of a sudden it screeched and thrashed all over the floor.
I looked at Jeannie and Donald. Their eyes were so big that they spilled into their foreheads and cheeks. The kitten was kicking its front legs furiously as it tried to run from the death that was enveloping it, but it became the death that it was running from.
It was over in about 30 seconds but the horror of the moment was eternal in my mind. Like a freeze frame, it kept happening, happening, happening.
Jeannie was bending over the still, small body and tears streamed down her face.
“What happened, daddy? What happened, daddy?” Donald asked.
“Daddy, daddy, will the kitten be all right?” asked Jeannie.
I kneeled down by the kitten and gently picked up its soft body from the floor. I had never felt more hopeless or helpless in my life. Empty.
“Jeannie, Donald, the kitten is dead.”
They both started crying. I wanted to tell them that it had gone to God, would rest in kitty heaven, all that stuff but I knew that nothing I said would ever make it right.
The children were crying. I was torn with sorrow as I looked at the dead kitten. Then I saw Cress, their mother, staring at us from the hallway.
“Daddy’s a fucking killer,” she hissed at the kids. “He should go back to prison. He killed the kitty on purpose.”
My chest ached, I was torn by compassion for the kids, mixed with hatred for their mother, I cradled the kitten in my arms. Jeannie and Donald stared at me and I knew that they could not, would not understand.
I asked the kids to help me lay the kitten to rest in the field in back of the house. I told them that we could pray for the kitty and my words echoed hollow in the terrible terrain of my mind.
Cress popped open a warm beer and chugged it down. She glared at me and I was not looking forward to what she would say. I found a shovel and walked out to the field with Jeannie and Donald. Jeannie held the kitten in her arms. The dogs pulled the chains out to full length and snapped back as they tried to follow us into the fields.
I dug a hole. Put the kitten in. Got down on my knees and said a prayer. Jeannie got down on her knees too. Sniffled back her tears.
“Is the kitten really with God?” she asked.
“The kitty is just dead!” boomed Cress’s voice from nearby. She unhooked the dogs and they bounded over and sniffed at the open grave.
“Jesus,” I said, “couldn’t you have waited till we buried the kitten?”
“Why,” she said, some animal is just going to dig it up and eat it anyway. You can thank daddy for this.”
The kids cried and I felt all my muscles tense up. One of the dogs went to pick up the kitten and I whacked it on the rump with the shovel. It yelped and ran.
“See,” Cress said, “see how daddy is! That’s why I hate him.”
I shoveled the earth over the kitten while the kids watched. Cress disappeared into the house. I tied two sticks together and stuck them into the ground above the grave. We stood quietly by the grave for a little while. Jeannie kept looking at me and then back to the grave. Donald was watching a beetle walk across the grave. He poked it with a stick and I walked back to the house.
Cress went out for a short time and brought back a bottle of Jack Daniels. I cleared the breakfast table and tried to wipe the memories of the morning away.
Jeannie sat quietly on the porch. I looked towards the back yard and saw one of the two dogs digging back in the field. Donald tore some of the pages out of the coloring book and they blew across the front lawn.
Just then Lisa pulled up in an old rusty pick-up truck. She got out and walked over to the porch. With a bottle of beer in one hand and a joint in the other.
Jeannie watched as she handed me the joint. I took a deep drag. Jeannie’s eyes widened in horror and she began to cry. And I remembered. I remembered the look on her face four and one-half years ago when the police handcuffed me and took me away.
It was the same look on her face.
I took another drag on the joint and asked Lisa if she wanted to go for some more beer. She nodded and I got into the truck.
I looked over at the house. Cress took a slug at the whiskey. Donald tore another page from the book. Jeannie curled up on the floor of the porch and I saw her small body shaking. The two dogs were tearing apart a small object in the field.
Lisa punched the gas pedal and handed me the joint. I took a drag and reached for her beer. She smiled and passed it over to me. The liquid slid down my throat but the taste in my mouth was sour. Only a shot of heroin could get rid of that taste. The terror of things slipping away ate to the core of my being.
The truck straddled the country road. I watched the white line in the center of the road disappear beneath the vehicle as we hurtled down the highway like a meteor out of control.