Meg Pokrass

Whenever I went into the basement my eyes found Daddy’s boxes full of unpublished stories, stacked neatly in prim rows, as if they were waiting for him to return from a trip. His clothes were in clear plastic bins. I recognized one of his shirts. It was a long-sleeved t-shirt with a dog on it. I could just see the shape of it at the bottom of the bin. Mom couldn’t deal with giving them away. I smiled at boxes and bins, saying in my head:

See you later, alligator . . . see you later, alligator . . . see you later, alligator.

Every morning, Mom’s pewter hair made her look ancient. My stepdad’s lousy “I’m a man’s man” cologne smell stunk up the bathroom. He worked in insurance, and thought he was friends with everyone.

Being a passenger all the way to school in her car was the price of being owned. She would pretend she hadn’t been crying. Prattling about this and that. She was clueless about the high-definition TV between us—showing a cheesy black-and-white movie (the kind you only watch in the afternoon when you’re sick).

Mom reminds me of those sad-looking leading ladies you catch in noir flicks. Her husband dies, and she remarries a hat-wearing hard-ass geek played by Fred MacMurray (the kind that gets irritated by everything, especially her kid). She predictably turns into a miserable, bitter character. So does her kid.

* * *

I had an office where I wrote my screenplays. Putting it together every day required patience, but it was worth the effort. I loved the building and the un-building (taking it down before she knocked on my door to say good night). Knowing that it would be stacked under my bed for the next day. It was always there, waiting, unbreakable. I had cut the cardboard pieces myself and they fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Everyday after school I went to work in there. I imported a jar of spaghetti sauce, thick Dutch pretzels, black-cherry cola.

I wasn’t really sure how I wanted the mother in my screenplay to look, though certainly not old. I wrote the first scene taking place in a beauty salon, the woman’s hair being colored a deep mahogany red, her scalp massaged by a stylist. In my mind, I conjured the stylist’s face, his attention to detail. The way he’d look at the woman, as if she were important to him. I’m not sure why he’d feel this way about her, but he does.

This stylist becomes her boyfriend. He loves kids, and he trains animals. He lives on a ranch. He smells like pine. He cooks omelets and crepes on Sunday mornings. He talks a little and listens a lot. He puts his arm around you only when you invite him to.

After writing this scene, I felt a longing for the stylist, as though he were real. I wanted him to wash my hair and trim it just so. I wanted to know what he really thought about my mother—the way she looked and who she had become. I brushed my hair out smooth, and the motion calmed me.

The fighting that happened every night like clockwork was going on behind Mom’s closed door. My stepdad was saying, “You see? You see?”

My mother was crying.

I went to say good night to Dad’s boxes. They were dusty. I said good night to them three times. I turned around in circles three times one way—then three times the other. When I closed the door behind me I heard a very quiet settling, like a sigh. I wasn’t sure, but I thought he approved of things.

I put the office away and turned on my sound-soother to help me fall asleep. I picked the rain forest setting. Birds were chirping, insects humming. They sounded so real.

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