Vanessa Willoughby’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
I trusted her because she had big eyes that sparked up like little bugs convulsing in bright claps of electricity. She smelled like rosewater. Before our interview, she’d sloppily applied the finishing notes of her makeup in her rented car, a basic sedan on loan until the autobody shop completed the repairs to the passenger side of her Volvo. She’d forgotten to wipe the burgundy lipstick off her front tooth. When she talked, I stared at that stain as though it wailed like a city traffic light. Loretta, my twelve-year-old sister, hovered in the back of the room, barefooted and stationed next to the open window. I could tell by the way she picked at her cuticles that she needed a cigarette. Nasty habit she picked up from a troubled best friend she no longer knew. She thought I didn’t know about her secret but I’d found an empty box of Newports in her trash. Too young to be smoking but it could’ve been worse. One of the girls in her eighth grade class got caught giving a blow job in the boy’s bathroom. Even though our age difference amounted to only a year, I felt like everyone in her age group acted out unprecedented forms of rebellion. They were not cursed with relentless curiosity but the sinister need to test their mortality.
The journalist couldn’t have been that old. I was thirteen and thought that anyone over eighteen seemed much more mature and experienced. Everyone towered over me. I mistook clues like the afterthought of alcohol on someone’s breath as earned authority, basis for unquestionable wisdom. I later learned that the journalist was fresh out of college. She’d thought that a university with a prestigious reputation and an expensive price tag would shine light on a clear career path. Her mother’s boyfriend had helped her land a spot at the local newspaper. The editor agreed because he owed the mother’s boyfriend a favor and the journalist was attractive but not in a threatening way, not the candy-lipped prototype of label-fiend-surgeon-sculpted-pill-popping-broken-doll housewives that he typically adored. The editor wanted a harmless distraction, the mother’s boyfriend wanted to look like a nice guy, and the journalist needed a job.
Life is easy when you can bend privilege to your will, monumental decisions akin to choosing the next chess piece rather than plotting the next step in a stacked battle.
“You poor girls,” the journalist murmured. When Loretta handed her a glass of tap water, the journalist wiped the rim with a napkin she found in her Michael Kors purse.
The children at the elementary school around the corner had just been released; they pushed through the metal doors like drunken conquistadors, their screams and screeches creating a strange, piercing music. The journalist teetered forward on the lip of my mother’s living room couch, the one covered in loud plastic. She acted as though she were truly sorry for her presence; the slick premise of guilt coated her movements, wrapped around the soft coo infused to the end of each question. An inviting fairy godmother equipped with a tape recorder and a wolf’s intuition. I felt as though she were some glossy, imaginary friend come to life, carefully stitching together memories I didn’t know existed.
After the interview, my sister gave her a tour through our split-level house. The journalist tip-toed through the rooms as though her stilettos would sink into a moving carpet of roaches and vermin. She didn’t ask too many questions during the tour, scratched things into her Moleskine, bit her bottom lip like someone were poking her stomach with barbed needles.
Loretta followed the journalist to the door, not out of hospitality or politeness, but to make sure that she’d really left. I stood in front of my sister as we watched the journalist start her car. The journalist didn’t roll down her window but she gave a little wave, a lonesome beauty queen sliding by on a sinking float.
When the paper finally hit the newsstands, Loretta woke up early. She rode her bike to the gas station because the police had seized Dad’s truck. When she got back, she walked into my room without knocking and sat on the edge of the bed. She read the journalist’s story aloud.
The journalist reported that our kitchen cabinets had been empty and the fridge was bare. Dad usually did the grocery shopping for the week on Sundays. He was arrested on a Saturday night. Loretta and I had been camped out in front of the TV, watching Ren & Stimpy. The journalist commented that “the children’s television habits were unmonitored…they consumed violent, low-brow, tasteless cartoons while their father surfed the Web, all unaware of the DEA agents stationed outside the front door.” The journalist said that despite our modest house, our father had dressed us in designer shoes and pricey jeans. She didn’t know that our father had an inherent knack for thrift store shopping.
Sometimes you can mistake a noose for a life jacket.
Sometimes Dad would take me on official business, if Loretta wasn’t home or he couldn’t find a babysitter. I thought of this as proof that deep down, Dad favored me over Loretta.
Sometimes we picked up “supplies” from Uncle Teddy. I was perceptive enough to figure out that Uncle Teddy, with his hairy chest and pit-stained wifebeaters, wasn’t really my uncle and he didn’t really work in waste management. Uncle Teddy liked the feel of cheap satin on his skin and couldn’t resist an IHOP with a pack of high school waitresses whose tips were dependent on how hard they laughed at his recycled jokes. Dad laughed at Uncle Teddy’s jokes because his job depended on his loyalty, his unwavering support.
One evening, Dad and I met a woman at the local McDonald’s. I was ten and thought I knew the limits of self-inflicted cruelty. She wanted her meth and she wanted it right away and she was good for the money but she couldn’t meet at her apartment complex because she was certain that her landlord, the “little piggy that he was,” was spying on her, and if he learned that she was having her drugs dropped off, he would surely evict her.
We arrived a little early. Dad bought me a vanilla milkshake and a large order of french fries. We split the fries while we waited. The blue-haired teenager managing the cash register looked ready to jump off the top of a building in order to cure her boredom.
“What’s going on in the world of my Little Miss Sunshine?” Dad teased, stealing a sip of my drink. He had a Burt Reynolds mustache and high cheekbones due to Native American heritage on his late mother’s side.
Although our ethnic makeup is probably more African American than Native American, Dad fiercely defended his Native heritage. He was tired, he said, of all the phony white people who claimed that they were part Cherokee or Sioux, using it as another marker of perceived superiority, like a magical, trendy fashion accessory of the season. Dad made sure to register us. My sister and I had tribal identification cards weeks after we were born. Unfortunately, our tribe is still not officially recognized by the federal government, despite numerous petitions. Dad once got into a fight with a man in the Wal-Mart parking lot over this matter of authenticity. I don’t remember how it happened, because it happened as quickly as the frantic energy that follows after a gun has gone off in a crowded nightclub. They traded insults and then there was shoving and then my father was connecting his knuckles with the face of this stranger with a bulging beer belly, energized by this injection of meanness singing in his bones. Dad believed in knowing how to fight, the pleasure of knowing how to throw a punch that not only landed but gifted the assailant with a thick bouquet of blood and humiliation. He considered this a timeless survival skill. He taught me how to fight and he enrolled Loretta in boxing classes when she was eleven.
“I hate Laura James,” I said, snatching back the milkshake.
“Ya, she’s this annoying girl in my class. I sit in front of her and she pulls my hair. She said my mouth looks funny because my lips are too big.”
Dad frowned. Back when our mother was in love with him, she said that it wasn’t his crooked smile that made her swoon. She said that it was the face he made when he was confused or distressed, that smoldering, quiet-burn, the furrow of the brow adopted by countless cinematic and television Bad Boys. Our mother was a little kooky like that; she could find the depths of beauty even in the ugly or the grotesque or the violence of destruction. Sometimes I think she just willed this beauty into existence. Dad broke her and she used twisted optimism and convoluted logic to hold on to her heart and her guts and her mind.
“Well, this Laura James sounds like a snot-nosed brat!” Dad exclaimed.
“Her family has a lot of money. They just got an in-ground pool,” I said. In our part of town, installing a pool in your background was equivalent to dedicating a downtown billboard to your American Express Black card. Getting an in-ground pool meant that you were members of an elite tax bracket, the kind of unspeakable wealth that clung to the fortunate members of our small-town royalty like a glittering force field.
“So? Didn’t you ever hear the saying, money can’t buy class?”
Dad was always talking to me as though I were some jaded, jet-setting intellectual, an emperor judging the selection of rowdy patrons at the coliseum. Even when he vowed to remember that I was still a child, the desperation to confide in someone other than his resentful wife made it impossible to stick to his promise. The desperation could not be ignored; it surrounded him like the stench of rotting meat.
“Well, it’s a good one to live by. This Laura girl is probably just jealous of you.”
“Jealous? Of me?” I wondered. I couldn’t fathom why anyone in my grade would be jealous of me.
“Because you’re going places, kid. You’re gonna be someone, someday.”
He winked. I didn’t believe him. I couldn’t imagine a life beyond Maine, could not imagine myself stretched past the confines of New England, could not imagine seeing the setting of the same sun in foreign places where my identity was not a blank canvas for other people’s projections but rooted in the confidence of my authority. It was a life I could barely articulate but deeply wanted. I could consume his other lies but I could not recognize the potential for my own greatness.
Dad’s customer decided to arrive at that moment, cutting short our conspiratorial conversation. She clomped through the door in plastic sandals, the kind college students use when navigating communal bathrooms. No one looked up from their food. She was a white lady with matted dreadlocks and eagle talon nails dipped in Wet N Wild nail polish, clumpy mascara turning her lashes into bundles of black stick-legs. When she opened her mouth, I didn’t expect the texture of her voice, the smoker’s low drawl, the way she made words heavy like caskets dropping from the sky. Her eyebrows were barely visible, like they’d been burned off and were in the first awkward stage of growing back. She could have been anywhere from eighteen to thirty.
“Heeeeey, Jack, you got my medicine?”
“Shit, woman, you know it. Sit down, slide in here next to my daughter.”
Easy arrogance curling like hair ribbons. That look in his eyes built upon selfish persuasion. He could make you forget that he was selling you drugs. He could make you forget that he studied Machiavellian deception. He could make you forget.
“Listen, I’m a little short. You know they only pay five cents for bottle returns? Fucking measly five cents? And that downtown pawn shop ain’t shit! They wanted to give me forty bucks for a real gold chain! What a rip-off. Greedy mothafuckers!” she ranted. The woman was an alien that I observed from the safety of a secret two-way mirror.
Dad nodded and rubbed his chin.
“I’m sure we can work something out.”
The woman playfully crinkled her nose and then smiled. The smile scraped away layers of strenuous years. She could’ve been a bright young thing who had recently sloughed off the remaining twinkle and charm of early adolesence.
Without another word, they exited our booth and headed to the back, towards the bathrooms. Dad gave her hand a squeeze, the generosity of a preacher delivering cryptic last rites.
Loretta reprimanded me about what I’d spilled to the journalist. She said that I’d been too open and I’d blindly reached out for the wrong sort of sympathy. The temporary mothering of a snake.
“You’re lucky you’re still here and not in jail,” she said. We were outside and she was pushing me on the swingset, the chains rusted, the seat as cracked as Loretta’s chapped lips. I wanted to fill my loneliness with people and knew it wasn’t possible, not when our family name had become synonymous with criminality and yet another “example” of black degeneracy.
Of course Loretta was right, so I didn’t argue. I opted to rescue Dad’s BB gun from the abyss of our garage, stomped off into the woods behind our house and shot at some unsuspecting squirrels. At the time, it seemed like the only healthy, constructive method of releasing anger and combating the coldness of my younger sister.
You probably don’t believe me but our father was a good father. Take away the drug dealing and the drug running and the drugs and he was just like any other father who loved his kids with breathless wonder. My father read us bedtime stories and sometimes changed the endings when we didn’t like them. He cleaned the house and washed the dishes and cut the crusts off my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He tried to help with our homework, was rusty with the English assignments, but was a better math tutor than anyone the school could have offered. Sometimes he gave money to homeless people, said “here friend, you need this more than I do.” He always made sure to chat with them for a few minutes, remind them that they were still people and not invisible.
He’s still in jail. He has tricked himself into thinking that he’ll get out soon.
My father does not comprehend that he’s been effectively erased from our family portrait, that he’s been reduced to a few letters in the mail every month, a placeholder for Loretta’s fear of intimacy, my night terrors washed in crimson and blue lights.
Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and a writer. Her work has been featured on Thought Catalog, The Toast, The Hairpin, Literally, Darling, and Bitch Media. She is a Prose Editor for Winter Tangerine Review and writes at www.my-strangefruit.tumblr.com.