There was a good chance my mom wasn't gonna let me into her house. The last time I saw her she was yelling at me to get the fuck out. I figured Reggie was still living there, that Republican asshole, and I had no idea how seeing him would go down. I knew if he was home he'd be in the living room, watching TV, so I went to the kitchen window instead of the front door. I was thinking I could avoid him. I knocked. Little raps, "tick tick tick," like pebbles hitting glass.
Nothing happened so I did it again. A light flicked on and my mom's big Humpty Dumpty face appeared in the window. Most moms would get scared by someone creeping around her house, knocking on her windows, but my mom didn't do scared. She did do pissed, which is exactly how she looked. Her hair was wild and her little eyes were darting around, searching the back yard for the prick who was knocking on her window, interrupting the bonus round of Wheel of Fortune.
It was dark out by then so she couldn't see anything. She disappeared for a minute and then reappeared with a flashlight, her face even more scrunched up than before. She waved the flashlight around until its beam found me, right in the eye. I squinted and put my hand up to block it. "Ma, it's me!" It was a half-whisper half-yell. Her shoulders sagged and her mouth turned down at the sides. She cracked the window and bent down to talk through it.
"What the hell are you doing out here. You can't use a damn door?"
I just shrugged. Her words made me realize the ridiculousness of the whole situation, but it was a warmer welcome than I'd expected.
I'd been gone for about three months. Was she worried that I was dead, or barricaded in some drug den in Utah with tattoos on his face, maybe catching Hepatitis C? Probably not. I'd called her when my phone was charged (which was rarely; Old Face made fun of me for even having one), but she never answered so I always just left a voicemail. Those messages sounded like letters from camp. "Hi, Ma. It's me. I'm in Tucson. I'm eating okay," or whatever. I only asked for money one time, but I was really desperate then. I knew she didn't have any, and even if she did. She wasn't giving it to me.
"Come around front," she snapped through the crack. "Reggie ain't home." Sweet relief. I'd been thinking about what I was gonna say to Reggie since Raleigh and I still hadn't come up with an answer.
The house smelled like dinner, cigarette smoke, and cats. I followed her into the living room. Everything looked more or less the same as when I'd left, except now there was a black leather recliner in the corner, blocking the fireplace no one ever used. It was a Republican recliner, all right. Oversized, showy. Invasive.
I dropped my duffel bag by the door. When she saw it her forehead knotted up.
"Is that my Pepsi Points bag? I been lookin' all over for that." There was absolutely no way that second part was true. "You just help yourself to whatever you need, huh? Jesus." She shook her head.
"What'd you cook?" I asked her. "Smells good."
"Spaghetti," she said in a who-wants-to-know type of way. "There's none left." She let herself drop onto the couch, keeping her right leg stiff and out to the side. This she elevated with a milk crate, my sister's Disney princess blanket on top for padding. So the gout was back.
Pat Sajak was reminding Lisa, a nice-looking lady with glasses and short brown curls, how much she had to work with: R S T L N E. I moved a stack of Reader's Digests to the floor and took their seat in the armchair. "Watch it!" Mom hissed. "Those are in order." One of the tiny magazines slipped from the top of the pile. Mom glared at it, not blinking. I reached down and returned it to its place on top of the stack.
"Where's Chrissy?" I asked her. I wanted to see my sister almost as much as I didn't want to see Reggie.
"She ain't home, neither. Went to a football game. Basketball game. I dunno." She waved her hand dismissively. "She's got a boyfriend now," she added. She lit a cigarette and turned up the volume. Lisa had three letters on the board. None were any that she had guessed. "Thing," was the clue. "Rat poison!" Mom shouted. "No. Not enough letters." She squinted in concentration.
"Poison doesn't end in an E, Ma."
"Well, look at college boy," she said without looking at me. "Cat pounce!" she yelled. "It's gotta be cat pounce." The letters matched up. It could have been cat pounce. But Lisa must have been drawing a total blank, because she just stood there going "uh...uh...." She didn't even have a guess. The clock ticked down. The buzzer buzzed. Mom shook her head in disappointment as Pat opened up the glittering envelope.
"How you been, Ma?" I asked. "You look good." This was a lie, and she snorted at it.
"Well I feel like shit. She pointed at her foot and took a drag of her cigarette. "Work is terrible." My mom worked at Publix, ringing up groceries. It was a very on-your-feet sort of job.
"They make you stand?"
"They gave me a little stool so I could sit."
"Nice of them."
She shrugged. "I wanted to apply for disability but Reggie won't hear it. Says only lowlifes rely on the government."
I did not take the bait. "Everything else okay? You talked to Gram? She doing okay?"
She nodded her head. "Long as you're in town you might wanna go and see her. She'd love to hear from you." She put a lot of emphasis on "you." It felt accusatory. She ashed her cigarette into a ceramic bowl shaped like a cat head.
"Is that a cat food dish?" I asked.
"Used to be. Now it's an ashtray." She picked up the remote control and brought up the channel guide. She scrolled into the high definition channels. "I hate those goddamn Kardashians," she said. "Look like trolls wearin' makeup."
"I don't know who the Kardashians are," I said.
She rolled her eyes. "What, they don't have cable on the commune?" She took another drag of her cigarette. "The whole world knows who the damn Kardashians are." She stopped scrolling and settled on Forensic Files. We watched in silence. After a minute she said, "Aw shit, I've seen this one. They catch the killer with a hamburger bun." But she didn't change the channel.
"Ma," I said.
"Could you turn the TV off and look at me, please? I'd like to have a conversation." She put the television on mute, but she didn't look at me. "I can see you're still pissed about what happened with Reggie," I said.
She snorted. "You think I was gonna just forget it 'cause you ran away? Don't work like that." She stubbed her cigarette out. "And anyway, I don't recall an apology."
"I know, and I'm sorry for that."
"You're sorry for what happened, or you're sorry you didn't say sorry?"
"Both, I guess." She just sat there staring at the hamburger bun, so I added, "I shouldn't have lost my temper."
"You attacked the man in his own home." The way she said it was really dramatic, like I'd done something unthinkable like kicking a baby or robbing an old person.
"It was my home, too," I said. I had expected a little push back. I'd promised myself I'd stay calm. Family is family and you can't outrun them. But Reggie wasn't family, so why should I have to sit around and listen to him talk about how all Muslims deserved to eat dog food?
"You called him some real mean names, Jason." She lit another cigarette.
That was a lie. I didn't call him anything he didn't deserve. I called him a fascist because he is a fascist. He hunts for sport, he openly hates anyone who isn't white, and he loves war. American war, that is. Any non-American war is fought by a bunch of savages.
Mom let her cigarette smoke go through her nose like a dragon. "What the hell are you even doing here?" She asked.
Truthfully, I didn't know. Old Face had plans to keep going after Oklahoma City, but he didn't ask me to come with him. That was fine by me, because I wasn't really sure I wanted to keep going.
I'd first heard about train-hopping from couple of commune punks I knew from The Well. They were really were into it, talked about it like it was paradise: no job, no obligations, no pressure. After things between me and Reggie exploded that day it seemed like the best way out, so I'd gone to the bar to find Keith. I figured he'd be able to point me in the right direction, and I was right. He told me about a trainyard on the south side of town that logged traffic year-round. All I'd have to do was sneak in and wait for my pony.
"You going alone?" He said, eyebrows raised high.
I shrugged. "I guess."
"That's fuckin' stupid," he said. "Go down there and hang around for a while. Look for a kid about your height, little rat tail hangin' down in the back, acne scars all over his face. He'll help if you tell him I sent you." He was talking about Old Face, and I found him right away. He said he'd go with me, that he didn't have anything else going on.
Keith was right—going alone would have been fucking stupid. Old Face knew all the ins and outs, and if it wasn't for him I might not have made it out of Tampa. He showed me all kinds of shit I wouldn't have known otherwise: that the best place to catch one is right out of the yard (trains pick up speed quickly), how to hide from the lonely conductor, how to grip the rail just right and use it to pull yourself up and into a car. My hand slipped that very first time, and I went tumbling into the gravel, missing the tracks by a couple inches. Scared me so much we rode that same train until it stopped for good somewhere in Kansas. Still makes me cringe when I think about it.
The plan was to make it to Seattle. I'd never seen the West Coast, and Old Face had been to California but never north of that. He wanted to see some whales. By New Orleans I'd started to miss the little things—coffee in the morning, showers, good quality toilet paper. Porn. But I chalked all that up to inexperience.
That run-in with Hank really spooked me. You always hear stories about crazy shit happening in train yards, but like with any other bad thing you always assume it'll happen to anyone but you. Me and Carolina and Old Face were somewhere outside of Oklahoma City, building a fire in a real sloppy camp we made about a quarter mile out of the trainyard. Old Face and I would have slept in the yards under some rusted out car, but Old Face said he didn't feel right taking Carolina in there. We'd picked her up a few nights before in Ft. Worth. They knew each other somehow, but the connection was so vague I can't remember it now. Friend of a friend, or something. He said he had a girl back in Clearwater, but I was pretty sure Old Face had a thing for Carolina. He was always explaining stuff to her, giving her tips on how to hop a fence or build a fire. It was stuff she already knew, and I could tell it annoyed her.
She never said very much to either of us, and I think most of the time she was tuning him out. But I also got the sense that she kept him around for a reason, like she had a plan for how she'd use him someday.
We were scratching out a fire when we saw a man approaching us. I guess technically Old Face saw him. Me and Carolina had our backs to the train yard. He stood up real quick, his left hand sort of reaching around for something in his pocket. But he was empty handed when he said, "Who's there?" I turned and saw a beanpole-shaped man creeping toward us, hands up in the air like he was saying, "I come in peace."
"Name's Hank," he said. "Don't mean no harm. Just thought you kids might like a fire." He was smiling.
Old Face looked at me, then at Carolina. If he was nervous he did a good job of hiding it. He nodded at our sad bundle of twigs. "We're all set," he said dryly. Carolina didn't take her eyes off of the newcomer.
Hank came a little closer. "You kids come from the gulf?" It was getting dark but I could make out the dirt around his fingernails when he rubbed his left eye. "They're underwater over there right now. Or so I hear."
"Santa Fe," Old Face said, lying.
"Huh," he said. "Not a lot of water out there, now is there?" We all stood there quiet for a minute. Then Hank spoke again, "You gonna ask me to sit?"
Old Face shook his head. "Not how it works."
"Oh it ain't?" he said. He took a couple quick steps toward us. "Why don't you show me how it works?"
Then Carolina surprised us all by standing up. She put her body between us and Hank, a small but determined barrier. I don't know where or how she got it, but in her hand she held a pretty decent sized knife. "You get the fuck out of here, right now," she said.
Hank looked a little shocked and a little impressed. I guess he hadn't considered Carolina, that when he sized us up he figured we were two dudes, plus one girl. "Does your mommy know you took her good carving knife?" he said. But he stood there looking at her there in the dark like he was trying to figure out what she was capable of. "All right," he said. "I'll make you a deal. You throw me something to eat and I'll make sure you guys pass the night out here unbothered."
Carolina just kept staring at him, but Old Face said, "Meaning what, exactly?"
He laughed. "You little fairies think you're the only ones out here? All kinds of weird motherfuckers make camp here, and most of 'em been doin' it since before your pussies had pubes. Now you show me what you got to eat and I'll make sure they don't bother you." He conjured up a loogie and spit it on the ground.
Old Face and I exchanged glances. He looked more annoyed than scared. He bent down, reached into his pack, pulled out a crumpled packet of Ramen noodles, and threw it at Hank's feet.
Hank turned it over in his hands. Even in the dark I could see the blue wrapper: Oriental flavor. I couldn't help but feel disappointed. Oriental was my favorite, and that was our last one. "That it?" he said.
"That's all we got," Old Face said. Carolina hadn't moved.
I thought he was going to ask for something else, but he just scratched his neck and said, "Tomorrow morning, you guys wake up, you start packing up all your shit, and you get the fuck out. Don't come back here, and make sure your friends don't either. Got it?" He waited for Old Face to nod, then he turned and walked off into the dark.
No one said anything for a while after that. Old Face went back to working on the fire. Carolina sat down and stared into it, the knife still in her hand.
I spoke first. "You think he wanted to rob us?" I was a little embarrassed by how squeaky I sounded.
"I think we'd be lucky if that's all he wanted to do," Old Face said without looking up.
So yeah. After that I headed back to Florida.
* * *
I considered telling Mom about it. Maybe her natural instinct to protect her offspring would kick in and she'd feel worried that I'd been so close to danger. But more likely she'd ask me why they called my boyfriend Old Face, so I just let it slide.
"Aren't you glad to see me?" I asked.
She looked like she was thinking about it. Finally she answered, "Woulda been more glad if you'd showed up with a carton." She unmuted the television.
When I was a kid she'd make fun of me until I cried and then make fun of me for crying, saying I was too soft and if I couldn't handle a little joke how the hell was I going to handle any "real world shit"? I don't know what she meant by that. Death, I guess? Illness? Famine?
In tenth grade I saved up a whole year's worth of lunch money and bought a leather motorcycle jacket from the Goodwill. I'd just bought Rocket to Russia and I wanted to look just like Dee Dee Ramone. The jacket didn't fit right—the sleeves were too short and belt hung kind of weird—and when she saw me in it she laughed and said I looked like a "turd tamper." I never wore it again.
When Reggie came along things between me and her got even worse. After Barack Obama got elected he pulled into the driveway sporting a new bumper sticker: "1 million people attended Obama's inauguration... only 14 had to miss work." He was really proud of himself, strutted through the house with his chest all puffed out. He even made us all come outside and marvel at it, like it was a product of his own hard work and not the result of god knows how many hours of third-world slave labor. I told him as much, and Mom snapped at me to hush because I didn't have a job and I supported Obama and so didn't that just quite prove the bumper sticker's point?
He moved in not long after that, and during that year I tried all kinds of strategies for dealing with him. I ignored him, I challenged him, I made myself scarce. Nothing worked. We'd always end up in the same room together, and pushing my buttons was one of his favorite hobbies. Eventually something inside me would start to boil and I'd end up calling him a Nazi. I think it was my mom's temper.
But that last time was the only time it ever got physical. The TV was on constantly in our house, and Reggie kept it tuned to the nationalist news station he loved so much. It was the height of the Syrian refugee crisis. Germany had just started accepting migrants, and Reggie was letting us all know how that it was "only a matter of time before Obama fills our country with sand nigger terrorists."
"What is it about white men," I said, "that makes them think their opinions are so goddamn important?"
"The fuck you mean?" he said, kind of chuckling. "You're a white man, too, Cracker Jack. Unless, what, you gettin' rid of your dick, too, like this whats-his-name nobody can shut the fuck up about?"
"I know when to keep my mouth shut," I said.
He scoffed. "Clearly that ain't the case," he said. He dug a pinkie into his nose.
"I realize that not everybody wants to hear me talk. You should learn," I said.
He hoisted himself from the couch—this was in the pre-recliner days—and stood over me. "You know what?" he said. "I take it back. You ain't a man, you're a boy. A teeny. little. boy." On each syllable he jabbed a stubby sausage finger into my chest.
"Now go practice what you preach. Shut the fuck up and let me watch my show."
I snapped. I stood up and started pummeling him. He laughed at first and tried to swat me off, but once I managed one good shot to his face he really started to defend himself. "I oughta knock your little faggot ass right out," he yelled. But he didn't hit me. He waited for me to swing, and when I did he caught my arm, wrenched it behind my back, and wrestled me to the floor. He had me pinned for a second, but I wiggled free and we ended up rolling around the living room like warring toddlers. At one point I had both my arms around his neck, squeezing as hard as I could. I remember thinking he was probably turning blue.
My mom ran in going, "Oh, Jesus Christ, you two!" She took a wide, defensive stance in front of the curio cabinet and screamed, "Watch the dolls, watch the dolls!" Reggie reached around and took a few cheap shots at my ribs with his left hand, but only one or two landed. By the time I let go of him he hadn't so much as messed up my hair.
"You're a fuckin' punk," he huffed. "You know that? You fight like a wittle bitty girl." He put his hands at his sides where a skirt would be and fluttered his fingers.
"You're a fascist. Hate monger." I spat the words out.
My mom stepped between us. "Enough!" she roared. "Get ahold of yourselves, both of you! Actin' like a bunch of fuckin' animals. Jesus Christ." It was the first time in quite awhile that I'd seen her so angry. Most of the time she looked subdued, like she'd just woken up from a nap. "Break my dolls," she said seriously. "And you'll have a real problem on your hands."
Reggie was adjusting his shirt, which had come untucked. "You tell that little fucker to get his shit and get out," he said to her.
"Oh, shut up," she said. "Just sit down and shut up." She was rubbing both of her eyes with one hand, looking really stressed out.
"Why should I have to get out?" I said. "I'm her kid. I was here first."
"You're the one always startin' shit," Reggie said. "I'm peaceful."
"Yeah, a real Dalai Lama," I said.
Mom just sat there rubbing her eyes. "Jason, get the fuck out," she said. She was back to looking tired.
"Are you kidding me?" I said. All I could do was point at Reggie. "Over your own kid?" You know how in cartoons they show a sad person's heart breaking into two pieces? That's how it felt.
"You did start it," she said. I thought she'd say more but she just let the words hang.
"Unbelievable," I said. "Both of you."
I went to the hall closet and got out the Pepsi Points bag. I threw in my phone, a couple pairs of underwear, a few t-shirts, a couple zines, and a copy of Of Mice and Men. When I left the talking head on TV was going, "Build the wall, and build it quick!"
* * *
"By now it was clear—a serial rapist was preying on Detroit's sex workers. He'd start in strip clubs and peep shows, tipping generously, buying rounds of drinks. Then, once he'd earned a young woman's trust, he'd invite her back to his house for a drink, where he'd drug her, restrain her, and torture her—" he paused "—when he'd had enough, he'd through the body in a dumpster."
"How can you watch this stuff?"
I took a good look at her, molded into the couch. Frowning, shriveled. When my mom was younger she was beautiful. Anyone who knew her then would say so. In her senior picture she looks like an angel, shiny blonde shoulder-length hair and bright blue eyes. Smile as wide as a dishpan. "All the men wanted me," she told me once. "But I wouldn't let 'em get the goodies."
"I don't come into your house and comment on what kinds of shows you watch. Oh wait, you don't have a house," she said mockingly. "Or a television."
"It's a choice, Ma." Television makes people lazy and unproductive. Anyway, most of it was advertising, and I resented being sold to.
"So choose to shut the fuck up about what I wanna watch."
"You've always been like this with me," I said. "Why are you like this with me?" My words came out pleading and sort of desperate. I felt like a little kid tugging at her leg for attention.
She smoked. "Like what?"
"You don't like me. It's obvious. You like Chrissy but not me."
She waved her hand like she was swatting a gnat. "Bullshit. Just tried to toughen you up. You're the boy. Boys need to know how to take shit."
"So boys need to grow up in a culture of violence in order to know how to be men?"
One of her eyebrows curled up. "Culture of violence?"
"Aren't you glad to see me, even a little?"
"Sure I am," she said. "You're my kid. But I can't speak for Reggie."
"I don't care about Reggie," I said.
"Look, you want the truth? I think you're soft." She lodged her cigarette into the side of her mouth and closed one eye against the smoke. Her hand disappeared into the mound of couch and flesh. She scratched an itch.
The television was still droning. "Authorities found the body face down in a dumpster with multiple stab wounds to the torso. They suspected foul play."
She puffed out a laugh. "Well, I doubt she stabbed herself a whole bunch of times and then jumped into a dumpster."
"Can you please turn this off?"
"See what I mean?" The cigarette wagged in her lips. "Can't even take a joke."
I chose my next words wisely. "I came here to make up, you know."
She removed her cigarette and ashed it. "You gonna make up with Reggie?"
I cleared my throat. "Is that what it's gonna take?"
She took a drag and waited for the smoke to clear before she said, "You come here to make up, or you come here because you need a place to stay?"
"I can do just fine on my own," I told her.
She sat forward on the cushion and squinted her eyes so she could see farther into me. "I don't believe you," she said. She relaxed back into the couch. "Where you staying tonight?"
"I got options."
It was a lie, and she knew it. She smirked and said, "I turned your old room into a home gym, but you could probably still fit. You got one of my sleeping bags in there, too?" She kicked the toe of her dirty slipper in the direction of the Pepsi Points bag.
I shook my head.
"Some hobo you are," she said, stubbing out the cigarette. She slowly lowered her foot from the milk crate, punched her fists into the fabric on either side of her, and heaved herself up. She limped toward the hallway.
"Ma, what are you doing? Do you want help?"
"I got it. You just relax." She was being sarcastic.
I watched her giant body disappear down the hallway. A commercial had propelled the television's volume to twice its normal levels. I reached for the remote in a panic, smashed the red button, and let the silence wash over me. I was feeling a little out of place after so much time away. It was a place I'd always considered mine—my eighth grade portrait was hanging on the wall right across from me—but now things were different. That fucking recliner was looming proof. The realization made me stand up.
My mom emerged again, dragging a plump tube of cloth behind her. "Here," she said as she flung it in my direction. "You can use Reggie's. Take one of those pillows with you." She nodded at the crocheted cat throw pillow behind me and sunk back into the couch.
"Last door on the right. In case you forgot."
I didn't know what to say so I just said, "Okay." I picked up the pillow from the couch and the sleeping bag from the floor and made my way back to what used to be my room.
"Hey," she shouted as I started down the hallway. She held up the remote. "If you're gonna be stayin' here you better realize I'm serious: don't be fucking with my TV." Noise filled the room once more.
I'd figured she was kidding when she said she turned my room into a home gym, but it now contained a treadmill, a few scattered dumbbells, five or six boxes of unmarked junk, and, of course, a TV. The setup didn't leave much floor space. I threw the pillow where my head would go. Then I pulled the totalitarian sleeping bag from its canvas cocoon, stretched it over the length of the treadmill, and laid on top of it. Above me a remote control peeked out of the treadmill's cup holder. I reached up, grabbed it, and pressed the power button. Keeping up with the Kardashians was on. I was asleep before the episode was over.
Caroline Knecht is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. She is the author of The Rock 'N' Roll Exterminator and the translator of Dictionary of Sexual Dreams. She studied English and Spanish at Ohio University and received a master's degree in writing and book publishing from Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. She currently works as a freelance copy editor, proofreader, and book designer, and also blogs about reality television.