Until it Aches
“So do you think there is an appropriate and inappropriate time to drink?
She said this with a concentrated slur. Her tongue peeking out the corner of her mouth.
I found this odd. She was always drunk.
“Really? Like when? At what point is it okay to drink?”
“Two. Two oh crock”
She was pasting things on index cards. Felt hearts and iridescent plastic birds. She liked to make that sort of art. The walls of our tent were covered in index cards like this. She works a lot. And she only drinks beer. And it only takes two to turn her small round face from bright and yellow to a dirty dark red placenta. She always looks hot and irritated. When she’s drunk her accent is more pronounced but like her it’s inconsistent. Sometimes her L’s are r’s and sometimes her r’s are ls. I can’t keep up with her drunk accent.
In some ways she is neat. She works in the nail shop. Her specialty is designs. She can paint any design you want and fit it on the head of a pin. Our tent was littered with all her practice rounds.
“Oh two…. like one plus one equals two.”
“No. One plus one equals zero.”
“I’m one your dad one and you.. BIG ZERO.”
By this she meant she tried to sell me once on the black market in China. She was so hungry but no one wanted to buy me. No one wanted a girl. She always liked to tell this stupid story.
“My fork? No way!”
I looked down at my bowl of noodles. I liked to swoop them around on my fork, raise it high above my head and twirl them one by one in my mouth.
She hates it when I do this.
She snatched the fork and glued it to her index card. My bowl tipped; the broth slopped onto the cardboard below my knees. A car drove by outside I could see there was a bag stuck to the back of it. The wind made it stick there. The person behind the car was worrying about the bag coming unglued and hitting her windshield. Falling in her range of vision.
She was a social worker. Her name was Marina. She was trying to park and whispering the serenity prayer to herself at the same time. She was afraid. Always afraid. Right now she did not know what was going to come of this meeting. She did not know if this bag was going to hit her windshield. It was 4:00 p.m. She was tired from the day. This was her normal time for a coffee break but she forgot to pick one up. She was afraid- there it goes again- she might miss the kid. She always missed the kid. Or they were lying. They lied a lot.
My mom shot an angry look at me, “Social Wolka!”
“Don’t say clap!”
I grabbed my backpack and ducked out the back of the tent. The tent was in a dirt part of a paved parking lot in Koreatown. In the front of the parking lot was a tire shop.
On my way home from school I pass ten KFCs, there are also eight liquor stores, twelve churches, zero supermarkets, two bus stops, two McDonalds, one Burger King, one Popeyes, the church closest to our tent has this sign: It says ‘Jesus Blood Cleanses From Sin’ isn’t that creepy? Anyhow I ran out the back of the tent and ducked low behind cars in the parking lot and over the little brick wall and past the first few store fronts and then into a store that sells party favors and balloons. A store so full and cheesy it makes you want to be young and poor so you can feel rich and full of want for pink tissue paper ornaments. I can look and touch things for hours here. They don’t mind. One time they gave me a treat here. It was a cookie. A white crumbly cookie with a rose on the outside. Like a Mexican shortbread cookie. It melted in my mouth and I could suddenly taste the work and grit that went into the cookie. The salt from the little brown hand of Jaime that delivered the cookies every morning on his bike. Jaime was not Mexican he was El Salvadorian, but either way he didn’t have papers and couldn’t go to school so he got up early and bought these cookies by the box downtown and put them in his back pack and jumped on his little bike. He sold the cookies for .32 cents each but bought the box for 6.00 because he was smart about business and because one of the first phrases he learned in English was “How much?”
It was a girl’s bike with a white basket and giant plastic flower on the front but he didn't care. He was just happy for the free ride. He got it from one of the guys in his building. The guys with the tattoos. That sat around and smoked and were all “Orale” all the time. Jaime was happy by the time he got to this store because it was his last stop before home but also because in this store was Suzie and Suzie was a little bit older than him but she sat at the front with her grandfather and an abacus and she liked to count out his cash and then count out his change and if she was really focused she would place each bill lightly in his palm. So something about this cookie tasted heavy and hard like life and struggle and waking up when it’s still dark out and then something about this cookie tasted really sweet like flirting but not heavy and gross flirting not flirting that would eventually lead to sex but the type of flirting that led to this moment right here. And when each little crumb melted on your tongue you wanted to trap it and keep it there forever.
Marina turned off her ignition and thought of the night ahead of her. She was going to have to stop at the bowling alley on the way home. There was no other way to shake this day. All those kids. There was the little boy Joseph with the train track scar of a phone cord around his neck. The parents claimed to not know where it came from.
“He was just playing and it was there.” Marina took a tour of the apartment. Wasn’t too bad. There were two bedrooms. There was carpet and heat and electricity and air conditioning and a fridge. And in the fridge was an opened can of tuna, a pot with cooked spaghetti noodles in it, bread, peanut butter, a lot of aluminum foil things. She opened the closet. There it was. A nail. In the wall. Holding a phone cord. The cord dangling. Just enough space between the nail and carpeted floor to dangle a boy. Lies Lies Lies. Fucken ugly liars. Her heart started racing she acted like she didn't see it. She closed the closet door. She looked at the lying ass parents in their lying ass faces and said, “That’s all I needed to see thanks.” Then she went out to her car. Her heart banging. BANG BANG BANG. She got in her car. Picked up her phone and called in.
“Hey this is Marina, um I’m just completing a report on Joseph Neutfeld. “
“Oh case number? Ummmm hhhhold on…..”
She dips into her big bag and flips through chart after chart… She pulls out Neutfeld all the loose papers fall out. BANG BANG BANG her heart goes.
“Oh not you sorry!”
“Okay here we are case number MC 1115467820781”
“Yes I found sufficient evidence of abuse and he needs to be removed from the home immediately.’”
“Huh? Where am I? Well I’m here. No I mean I’m out front in the car. Oh.”
“Umm you want me to do it. “
“Ummm okay. Yes of course I have a car seat.”
“Shouldn’t we call the police or something? Yes of course right away.”
Marina hung up the phone. Left her car. BANG CLANG BANG. Her heart. Went back upstairs to the apartment. She rang the doorbell. There was no answer.
“Hello! Mr. and Mrs. Neutfeld! It’s Marina the caseworker!”
She started knocking. “Please! I forgot something! One more thing. It will be quick!”
No answer. She heard shuffling inside. She knew they were there. It was like that summer she spent knocking on doors registering people to vote. Everyone ducking. Turning off the lights.
She banged. She pictured the little boy. Little Justin dangling from the cord in the closet. His hands tied behind his back unable to untie the cord. Hitting the wall with his feet. Pushing himself swinging back and forth between clothes until he got tired.
She pictured him white, and then pink, and then red, and then blue.
“OPEN THE FUCKING DOOR! I'm CALLING THE FUCKING POLICE RIGHT NOW!”
And she did. But they never came. And now she was here. For the third time this week. But she wasn’t here because her mind was already at the bowling alley
Marina walked up to the tent.
Tapped on the outside.
“Hello Mrs. Lu.”
“Yes Mrs. Lu.”
“NO! No Missus! ME just MISS!”
My mom scowled smelling of beer. She spit a wad of tobacco juice in a saucer.
“Oh yes of course sorry.”
“Is your daughter home?”
“This is not home! There is no dalter”
“Ummm is there anyone here by the name of Jennifer Lu?”
“NO! You come hele alweady! I tol you! Nobody with that name! Now go!”
“Yes I know I’m sorry to impose but at the high school they say they have a student there registered under the name of Jennifer Lu.”
Marina looks around quick she sees a lot of dazzling index cards stapled and taped to the insides of the tent. She sees two sleeping bags. One of them has a sock monkey. Mrs. Lu follows her eyes to the sock monkey. She reaches for it and picks it up.
“This my monkey!” She smiles beeming from ear to ear and holds the monkey close to her heart giving it a squeeze. “You like my monkeeyy ladeeeeey?”
Marina shuts her eyes exhales looks down “Yes yes that’s a very nice monkey. Now where is your daughter?”
“I have no dawtah. I try to sell her in China.”
“Excuse me, did you say you tried to sell her?”
“Yes but no one wants to buy. Girl no good.”
“So where is she now?”
“She is a doctor.”
“A doctor? But my records indicate she is only fourteen.”
“Yes she is so smalt she become doctor early.”
Mrs. Lu was looking around at her index cards searching for answers to all of Marina’s questions. At the moment her eyes were resting on a cutout picture of a stethoscope then they trailed over to an image of an English Bulldog. Below the picture it said “English Bulldog” and she giggled to herself because it made her think of all the signs in the restaurants around her tent for Bulgogi. The sad mushy dog face is what she pictured every time she saw one of those signs.
“Where is she practicing medicine?”
“English? I thought you said she was a doctor.”
“No. Yes. Medicine in English.”
“Yes that’s what I say England.”
Now Mrs. Lu looked frustrated.
“I busy you go now!”
She started scooting Marina out.
Marina was almost relieved to not have to face another rusty faced child today. She just kept on thinking about that bowling alley about hitting that 300. She’d gotten close in the recent past. She went to the bowling alley with friends. Sometimes her friends had the intention of setting her up with someone. Like last time. She was being set up. She knew it. The guy, his name was Reginald. He worked at a grassroots community organization. He was all well intentioned and tall and wore torn jeans. She knew he had all the necessary components like he fought for social justice and used all the PC terms and stuff but she did not believe him. Nothing on him smelled like sweat or hunger or suffering. He smelled like a desk job guy that liked to smoke pot sometimes and spoke conversational Spanish. She wasn’t interested. In fact all she was interested in was hitting that perfect score of 300. But she had one beer too many and thought of the little burned face of a child she saw earlier.
Her mother was concerned about her baby being cold so she stuck her in the oven to warm her up and when she got out of the shower the house was filled with smoke. She was accidentally cooking her baby. This is the kind of crap that popped up in Marina’s head at stoplights. That night it popped up in the bowling alley so she agreed to let the guy come home with her. She wanted to get it all out. She wanted to be held close. She wanted to be rough and loose and then somehow forget stuff scrub her brain clean for as long as she could. Skin on skin bone on bone rubbing and squeezing and pushing is what she wanted. When they got back to her place he couldn’t do it. He drank too much. He apologized and slept soundly pulling too many blankets with him. Marina thought of this now as she got in her car. A reminder, stay focused on the 300.
I saw her get in her car and started to walk back up the street toward the tent. She didn’t know exactly what I looked like. I could be anyone. I walked slowly. She drove towards me. Her eyes glanced at me. I looked back. I thought about the tent. How we had to sleep on the dirt. I thought of my mom getting so drunk she did not make it out of the tent to take a piss and sometimes it leaked over to my side. The little practice push pins sticking into my back. That one hand mirror I had to make my face and hair look presentable one day covered in mom’s glittery nail polish. She liked to paint over everything. I started to wish the social worker would see me. I looked at her sad like she should take me. She slowed down. I was going to graduate soon and would not be able to do anything else but maybe join my mom at her job. I’m bad at painting things. I don’t know how to color within the lines. I kept on picturing big ugly feet with gobs of toe cheese coming my way. The social worker was pretty. She looked mixed with something she was brown with curly hair. Her eyes were friendly if only I could go home with her. She drove a reasonable car. A Kia. I started to send her telepathic messages.
When Marina started heading towards the bowling alley she saw a girl down the street. Jennifer Lu. She thought it must be her. She looked the same age, same height. Who am I kidding? This is Korea town she could be anybody. The girl looked her in the eyes. She started to slow down.
I saw her slow down and knew this was the moment and thought of what I knew. I knew about a thousand lonely cold nights, I knew the cloak of shame that my mom and I surrendered to in that tent. But that is what I knew. Not like that night I went to that restaurant. My friend’s mom worked there. She was a waitress. I had to use the bathroom. I went in to the bathroom my mom trailing close behind me. We went to the toilet and when we got out there was a lady there. She was sitting there smiling holding a towel to dry our hands with. There was a glass jar with money in it beside her. There was a counter filled with sprays and gum and lotions. Everything looked so pretty so inviting. The lady she was nice looking too. But the jar with the money. How much did it cost to dry your hands? It was very confusing. My mom and I looked at each other and grabbed hands. We ran out. We were both wearing light blue jumpsuits and we ran until the balls of our feet ached and we made silly gestures with our hands. We made offerings to the air in front of us. I did not know that bathroom. There’s something about the smell of a children’s restroom. It smells safe. Like my only refuge. This is what I thought when I snapped my glance away and kept walking.