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HORSE THIEF and Other Stories
By Anna Balint
CURBSTONE PRESS Copyright © 2004 Anna Balint
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Visit
On my way out of the house I took it into my head to spin, my arms up over my head like an iceskater on TV. My pink dress opened round me to a flower. Mama Grace called out from the porch then, Be careful, Annie, in case you fall.
I knew I was closer to flying than falling.
My little brother Frank plodded ahead of me, hanging onto the caseworker's hand like it was a lifeline. Shirley her name was. Red hair bouncing, heels click clicking on the walk. Frank twisted his head to make sure I was coming. He'd asked me after breakfast, would I tell him which one was Mommy when we got there. "Remember the picture." I said. "The one where she's a princess, her hair shiny all down her back?"
Me and Frank took turns sleeping with that picture till it got raggedy corners and a crease down the middle and Mama Grace threw it away. Still, I knew I'd recognize Mommy right off, the way I did in my dreams.
Going into the waiting room through elevator doors was like entering an old dream. Past the guard with his shiny boots and straight up to the Who-Are-You-Here-To-See? Lady sitting behind glass as if she was in a bank. I knew Mommy came next, moaning something about a cigarette, Frank a baby still, crawling in circles on a linoleum floor. Somewhere there was a little room where they buzzed you in.
Shirley sat us on a bench under the window, me in my pink party dress worn especially for Mommy, Frank in his best ribbon shirt. I swung my legs, Frank copied. Lots of watching going on. The guard's eyes from under the brim of his hat, the TV camera's one red eye, my eyes too. All I saw was the same tore up plastic couches. Same cracked linoleum and brown stains on the ceiling. Same tore-up magazines wanting their covers back. Shirley smoothed my hair and the skirt of my dress, said again didn't I look nice. I swung my legs harder and fixed on the light over the elevator. Whenever it crept upward I felt a fluttering in my insides. Inside my head Mommy's feet kept stepping into the room. I dressed them in white skinny strap sandals to show off her red painted toenails. Then the elevator opened its doors and another wrong person got off.
Some complained in loud voices. Some were buzzed in behind the Who-Are-You-Here-To-See? Lady's secret door. Some told to wait. One lady fell asleep in a chair, her water-balloon feel spilling over the tops of her flat Mama Grace shoes. I kneeled up on the bench and looked out the window. Nothing out there but a parking lot and an alley with a garbage truck that roared like a dragon. At the end of the alley a glimpse of McDonald's where Mommy had promised we'd eat lunch. I squished my nose sideways on the glass and breathed a fog to write my name in. When I turned back around the clock on the wall said ten minutes after nine, still no Mommy and Shirley's foot had begun to jiggle. I filled my cheeks with air and popped them.
Then a couple of scruffy-looking boys tough-walked through the elevator doors with a policeman and a blonde lady. One boy was big, the other small. Their jeans were wet around the bottoms like they'd been walking in puddles. The small boy lay down on a plastic couch and fell asleep right away. The other boy flopped down on the other couch, and groaned and flung himself about until the policeman told him Go easy buddy. But the boy jumped up again and yelled at the blonde lady. He was hungry and when the fuck was she going to get him some food. I liked it when he said fuck with the policeman there. The little boy, who was about my size, was snoring by this time. I didn't know little kids snored. Mostly I was hoping for a fight. But nothing like that happened. The blonde lady whispered something behind her hand to the policeman and then put a hand on the big kid's shoulder. Okay Jerome, she said. Let's get something to eat. She shook the smaller boy awake, and they all left on the elevator again.
by that time the clock over the elevator said nine-fifteen. The ruffles on my dress itched and my Sunday shoes were too tight. Shirley tried to tell us a story to pass the time but it got hard to listen when those two boys came back from McDonalds wolfing down their fries. I gave up looking for red-painted toenails in white sandals.
Came a time when Mom left for a party with a six pack tucked up under each arm. She left two bottles of formula propped up in the corner of Frank's crib, and forgot to come back for three days, poor Frank wearing the same diaper the whole time, his butt raw meat. Just about wore his lungs out crying. Lucky for Frank I knew how to refill his bottles with pop. Lucky for me there was Halloween candy lying around even if there was no food in the fridge. Lucky for us a neighbor called the police.
I was Mama Grace's apple pie helper when she told me all that, apples waiting to be cut up in a bowl on the table. We lived in Grandma Addy's house on the reservation by then. I liked that house. The kitchen was big with a wooden table in the middle, all the other rooms small. Out there, Mama wore her gray hair in rollers all day sometimes, kept her feet in slippers. She wasn't always running off to work like before, in the city. Mostly I liked the outdoors with sage grass and tumbleweed, and big skies with chunky animal clouds.
That day Mama showed me how to hold the knife and cut away from myself. Look out for your fingers, she said one minute. Be careful. The next minute she started talking about Mom. Look where careless got your mother. Chop, chop. Another apple cut into four, out with the core and one piece for me. More bad things about Mom while she chopped the other three pieces fast. Chop, chop, chop, chop, chop. She cut so last she cut herself. She stuck her bloody finger in her mouth and sucked. I wished she'd cut it off.
Soon as Grandma Addy died we moved back to Seattle. Hated the gray shingle house on a street with not enough trees, hated the wire fence round the house, hated St. Joseph's school with its ugly brown uniforms. The only thing good was Mom calling. The whole year we were away she never called. But I saw a ghost on the railroad tracks one time. A lady with long braids and a long dress the color of river water. She had on a porcupine quill necklace and her hands moved like smoke. Mama Grace told me she was the ghost of a lady looking for her drowned daughter, lots of people had seen her, nothing to be afraid of. I wasn't afraid. I knew it was Mommy looking for me. It got so all my memories of Mom were ghosts.
Just hearing her voice made me cry the first time she called. "Don't cry, sweetie," she said. "Mommy's getting it together for her little girl, going to be driving all the way there to see you, okay, sweetie?" She talked like that, sweetie this and sweetie that, her voice a little rough, like she smoked too many cigarettes.
"Been through rehab for you, sweetie," she went on. "Finished up parenting class and done everything that damn judge told me to do." She called night after night. When she handed me the phone Mama Grace's mouth was a tight little button.
Pretty soon my head started to fill with Mommy everything. Mommy put Doritos and Lemon Hostess pies in my lunch box. Mommy picked me up from school and made the other kids jealous because she was way prettier than their moms. Mommy reading me bedtime stories. Come the night of the St Joseph's potluck, Mama Grace bringing tuna casserole instead of the coconut cake I wanted, kids asked me and Frank how come our mom was so old. I told them: She's not our real mom. Our real mom lives in New York and Hollywood. She travels because she's a model. In my mind Mommy started to look like Cher.
Then one day she really was coming. All the way from Portland. "Guess what, sweetie? Gotta a new friend gonna drive me up there in his Mustang. Be there in a couple of days. And if Grace lets us, we'll take you and Frankie for a spin. Hey sweetie! Maybe Mommy will move back to Seattle just to be near you guys. Find a nice place to live so you can come and spend the night sometimes. How'd you like that?"
Mama Grace always listened in on the other phone. "Don't be making promises you can't keep, Wilma," she said, and told me to hang up. She and Mommy talked on and on, Mama Grace's voice sounding hard and mean. "You need to tell her, Wilma," I heard her say. "Annie has a right to know. She's old enough." And then Mommy said something back to her that made her voice get wobbly. Good, I thought. I'm glad Mommy made her cry. I knew I'd be leaving that house forever soon as Mommy came into town in her red Mustang, with the top down, and her long hair blowing.
The elevator opened its doors again and out rolled a lady in a wheelchair. Mama Grace told me not to stare at people in wheelchairs, but I always did. This lady didn't have legs, just little stumpy thighs. The rest of her I didn't notice much until she'd wheeled her chair nearly on top of me, grinning right into my face, which made Shirley stand up. Then I saw teeth missing on the side of her smile, and her brown face, lumpy like Mrs. Potato Head, her straggly black hair gray at the roots. One of those beat up Indians from downtown. She couldn't stop grinning.
"Annie?" she said. "It's me, sweetie. Mommy." Then to Frank. "Hi there Frankie, big boy."
She put her arms out. I didn't budge. Frank neither. Her voice was right but she wasn't Mommy. Mommy looked like Cher. Then Frank jumped off the bench and grabbed hold of Shirley's arm. Shirley's blue eyes were round as marbles.
"Wilma? Wilma Folson?" was all she managed to say.
"That's me!" said the lady in the wheelchair. "And this here's Bob." She spun her wheelchair around and waved toward the little guy in back of her. I hadn't even noticed him till then. He was gray all over. Skin, hair, clothes.
"Howdy!" said Bob.
The lady in the wheelchair had a whole bunch of presents in a canvas bag fastened to the back of her chair. Barbie dolls with different clothes sets, crayons, magnetic letters for the fridge, a G.I. Joe for Frank. She said she'd get us more things when she got more money.
"I'm working on it," she kept saying. "Mommy's working on it."
Bob joined in.
"It's a struggle out there, but we're working on it."
Mama Grace used to complain how for a Tootsie Roll I'd walk off with a stranger. But I liked the toys. I liked the way the wheelchair lady kept saying I was pretty as a picture. "Isn't she, Bob?" I felt cheated too. Mommy had legs. She wore white sandals and red nail polish. Frank wouldn't even touch his toys.
We didn't have to get buzzed into a little room. The wheelchair lady said how about we head over to McDonalds right away, and Shirley said fine. We were allowed to order anything we wanted. I ordered super-size fries, a Big Mac and chicken nuggets, and a super-size shake. Then I found out I wasn't hungry. Bob said not to worry, Little Lady, what I couldn't eat, he sure could. Said he was regular vacuum cleaner, I was more interested in the wheelchair lady than food and went and stood by her.
"What happened to your legs?" I wanted to know.
Turning her chair around so she faced me, she took hold of my hands and rubbed her thumbs over the back of them. "Mommy got hit by a truck," she said. I liked the way she made my hands feel. Mama Grace never touched me much. "See... Mommy used to have some real bad habits, sweetie. I used to be a boozer. As in drunk... How the hell do you explain drunk to a kid, Bob?" Bob had his face full of French-fries, a splash of ketchup on his chin.
"Me and Frank already know about drunks," I said. "Mama Grace shows them to us downtown sometimes. Says we don't ever want to end up like that."
"Good for Mama Grace!" She shot Bob a quick look and let go of my hands, then pulled a cigarette pack out of her shirt pocket and lit up. After a couple of puffs she threw her head back and made a wheezing noise, and her eyes ran and she made all kinds of noise and coughed smoke. At first I thought she was crying. Then Bob started laughing and I figured out that's what she was doing too. I didn't get whatever it was that was funny but joined in anyway. We all three laughed till a zit-faced boy came over in his McDonalds apron and said Excuse me, ma'am, no smoking in this section. So we left. Everyone was done eating by then anyway. Except Bob.
A few blocks away there was a park. On the way there Mom says why don't I sit on her lap and she'll give me a ride. I didn't know whether I was ready to sit on those stumps and made a face. Mom laughed and patted them. "They won't bite you, sweetie." I still wasn't sure, but I rode for about a block. Her stumps felt like warm cushions.
In the park Frank wanted to go on a swing and for Shirley to push him. Then Mom wanted to push him and tried until her wheelchair wheels got stuck in the sand and Bob had to come and pull her out. Right away Frank hopped off the swing and went back to Shirley. I saw a shadow pass over Mom's face. But I'd already worked a swing of my own way high by that time, the skirt of my pink dress flying, my legs stretched and toes pointed. Suddenly Mom was grinning up at me, clapping her hands like I was in a show.
"Gee, you're gonna be in the circus one day, sweetie. Look at her fly, Bob. I used to do that too. Once upon a time."
After the swings she made her wheelchair spin around on one wheel real fast.
"Me too, me too!" I shrieked, and climbed back onto those cushion stumps and held tight to the arms of the chair so I wouldn't fall off. Mom spun the wheels with her hands, and the sky and treetops flashed blue and yellow, faster and faster, until the whole world was spinning, with one of Mom's strong arms wrapped round me to keep me safe. We scream-laughed like mad, Mom with her face right next to mine, while behind us our hair flew out in a wild tangle, dancing like kite tails.
When Mom braked, her chair squealed like a racecar and sparks shot out from under its wheels.
"Do it again Mommy!"
Mommy: The word popped out all by itself. No one else could make me feel that dizzy, my whole world turning.
Mommy and Bob insisted on riding back to school with us, and in the end Shirley said, Alright, but there wasn't room for everyone in her little car. I watched Mommy slide onto a taxi seat, slick like she did it all the time. Riding in back with me and Bob, Mommy curled her arm around me and we giggled and winked at each other. Frank rode up front with Shirley. By then it was too late to go back to Mama Grace's and change into our uniforms like we were supposed to.
"Guess you're just gonna have to go to school looking like a princess, sweetie."
Everything Mommy said to me sounded like a song, her face lit up like she'd turned on a magic light inside. Then we got to school and she wanted out of the car. All the kids were on the yard because it was lunch recess already.
Excerpted from HORSE THIEF and Other Stories by Anna Balint Copyright © 2004 by Anna Balint. Excerpted by permission.
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