Peggy Duffy

Angela waits in the small room outside the principal’s office. This is the third time this year she’s been caught smoking on school grounds, and Mr. Ringwald is making good on his promise to call her mother. “What’s a nice girl like you from such a nice family—doesn’t your mother work so hard—doing hanging out with that crowd?” he asks, indicating with a nod of his head the chair she’s to sit in.

She pushes her weight into the chair, tipping it so that it leans on its back legs against the wall that adjoins his office. She can just picture her mother being called to the phone, making her way through the rows of busy women, upset and in a panic that something has happened to one of her three children. Why else would they call her at work?

Her mother sews bras for a living. She gets paid by the bra, in cash, bills, and coins tucked into a white bank envelope at the end of each week along with the bookkeeper’s statement. One day last summer Angela rode the bus with her mother to pick up her pay. She had taken the day off to help Angela’s brother Joey move into his new apartment. Nineteen years old and already he was going to be a father, her mother told her on the bus.

The factory was a busy place, hot, the only air that circulated from the steel fans stuck in the windows at either end of the long room. High-pitched noises, countless rows of high-speed sewing machines, the constant buzz of women. They wore brightly colored, shapeless dresses, their shoulders almost touching as they hunched over their machines, sewing in swift, energetic bursts and chatting at the same incessant speed. Her mother paraded her past a line of them. Angela noted the kerchiefs wrapped around their heads, the sweat glistening on their foreheads, the wet patches that steadily grew under their armpits, the piles of elastic strips and foam cups everywhere.

“Ah, Angelina, so this is your daughter.”

“Come, let’s get a good look at her.”

Angela folded her arms across the flatness of her fourteen-year-old chest.

“Such a pretty face.”

“She looks more Italian than Irish, is good, is good.”

“Same face like her mama. She have a boyfriend yet?”

A woman at one end with breasts so large they pressed against the top of the table pulled a bra out from beneath her sewing needle, ripped the thread with her teeth, and held up the finished product. “She won’t need one of these for a while, eh?” Laughter, there was lots of laughter, yet they never paused from their activity, never stopped piecing together those fat padded bras the whole long agonizing time they were there.

Mr. Ringwald’s voice filters through the open door now, his rough tone unusually soft and understanding. “I know, Mrs. O’Donnell, that it’s hard for you to take off work. But according to school rules, I have to put Angela on in-school suspension. She can’t go back to class until a parent or guardian comes in to see me.” Angela knows what her mother says on the other end too, imagines her confusion. Mr. Ringwald tries to explain, very slowly, what in-school suspension is, then what the word “suspension” means. Angela smiles, pleased to be putting him to all this trouble; surely he is sorry he bothered calling her mother and wishes he’d let her go with another lecture.

Mr. Ringwald emerges from his office, the bulk of him filling the doorway. He’s stuck on himself, Angela’s sure, with a swollen head and a balloon-sized stomach to match. Probably drinks beer for supper, just like her father, lies too when he says he puts his students’ welfare first. “Your mother can’t come in until tomorrow morning. I’m afraid you’re going to have to spend the remainder of the day here with me. I can send someone for your books so you can study.”

Angela slouches down in the squeaky plastic of the chair, crosses her arms below the slight bulge of her chest, and pretends to sleep. “Have it your way,” he says. She hears him walk back into his office, hears the bell signaling the change of classes, opens her eyes and stares at the clock. Two-and-a-half hours left. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. How could she be so stupid? Marie and Christine didn’t get caught. Standing right next to her, the three of them freezing their asses off for a smoke. Mr. Ringwald sure had it in for her, sneaking up just as she’d taken a drag. They’d heard him coming, all right, and stubbed their cigarettes out on the hard ground, hiding the butts beneath their boot heels.

“What’re you girls doing out here?” he asked. She held her breath, the smoke burning the back of her throat. How long can a person hold their breath? She nodded her head, agreeing with whatever excuse Marie was giving, willing him to walk away. But no, on and on he went about how they shouldn’t be outside the school building during lunch period, they could only get themselves into trouble out here. She pressed her lips together, tighter, trying, trying, until smoke or no smoke, she couldn’t hold her breath any longer and a huge cough exploded out of her. The evidence of her misdeed hung heavily in a dark gray cloud between herself and Mr. Ringwald.

Marie and Christine walk by the office now, changing classes. She gives them and everyone else who passes her finest, most brazen look. Yeah, I’ve been caught, I’m suspended, the look says. She sits through two more class periods until finally the dismissal bell rings. He’s in her face before she can get up from the chair. His close-cropped hair stands in short gray spikes on the top of his head. “This is for your own good. In the long run, you’ll thank me,” he says. Angela meets his look, stares up into the bottomless blackness of his eyes, and says nothing.

She remains pinned to her seat, suspended in silence, while Mr. Ringwald waits for a reply. Although she feels herself begin to buckle beneath his scrutiny, she forces herself not to move, her eyes not to sway from his. Their eyes remain locked until, at last, he takes a step back and glances at the clock. “You can go. I’ll see you and your mother first thing tomorrow morning.”

* * *

The halls are already empty by the time Angela leaves the office. She doesn’t bother with her locker. Who needs books anyway? She lights up a cigarette before she’s even out of the building. What the hell, she’s already suspended.

It’s a half-mile walk to the bus stop, the January wind blowing through her sweater the whole way. Mr. Ringwald kept her so long, everyone’s already gone on ahead. She still has a block to go when she sees the bus pull up, and Marie and Christine climb on. She runs, the frigid air stinging the back of her throat, but she isn’t fast enough and, her nose dripping from the cold, she waits for the next bus. It’s a long ride with no one to talk to. She lights up another cigarette as she gets off the bus. Her brother Joey and his girlfriend Roxanne are in front of the drugstore on the corner. Joey waves her over and gives her a stupid grin.

“Hey, what’s happening, sis?”

Roxanne’s belly is huge, hanging out through the coat she can no longer button, and she has that same stupid grin on her face. Joey has his arm around her and the two of them sway in stoned harmony. “You coming to dinner?” Angela asks.

“I don’t know. Maybe. Depends.” Joey readjusts his sagging self, reaches into his empty shirt pocket. “Got a cigarette?”

“Yeah, sure.” She hands her brother the pack. Joey slides two cigarettes out. He places one between his lips, hesitates before lighting it. He stands, momentarily suspended in his stupor, eyelids drooping, cigarette hanging out the corner of his mouth. Then he pulls his arm from Roxanne’s shoulder, fumbles through the pockets of his navy pea coat, and comes out holding a much-used book of matches, the cardboard cover soft as cloth. He cups his hand against the wind and strikes the match, leans into the flame.

“You gonna be an aunt pretty soon,” he says, blowing words along with smoke out of his mouth. With his other hand, he pats Roxanne’s swollen belly. “Yeah, doctor says this baby’s just about ready.” Roxanne leans back and rests against the drugstore’s plate glass window. Her chin falls slowly toward the bulge of her chest. “Yeah, I’m gonna make sure she doesn’t feel no pain,” Joey says. “Babies hurt when they come out. Ain’t that right, honey? Doctor said he can give her something though, so don’t you worry none, Roxanne. I’m gonna take good care of you.” He places an unlit cigarette in his mouth, lights it from the one he’s been smoking and hands it to her. “Any day.” His voice trails off.

“Joey, I gotta go,” Angela says.

“Yeah, all right.” He looks down at the pack of cigarettes he’s holding and back at his sister. His eyes are a dark brown, almost black, but even in the dim light of dusk the pupils are little more then pinpricks.

“It’s OK, keep ‘em.”

The neon lights over the storefronts cast shades of oranges and blues into the approaching darkness as Angela makes her way toward the apartment building. She doesn’t mind the walk, the openness of the street, but she’s a bit sorry for her generosity when she reaches into her pocket for another cigarette and comes out empty-handed.

Angela sees her mother in the kitchen as soon as she enters the apartment, the aroma of cooked tomatoes rising up around her. She is a short, plump woman who fills the entire area in front of the stove, her hands gripping the long handle of a wooden spoon. Angela knows well the slap of those hands. Her mother strikes out now, without hesitation, the blow landing squarely on Angela’s cheek as she tries to squeeze past her toward the refrigerator. Angela feels the heat rise, the red, uneven blotching spread across the side of her face.

“I lose much money at work to go school tomorrow. Why you do this to me?”

Angela doesn’t answer. In kindergarten when she discovered the way her mother spoke to her was different from the way other mothers talked, she refused to listen to or answer her in Italian anymore. Her mother is forced to speak in unfamiliar English words strung awkwardly together which never fully convey what she means to say. Angela cares less and less each year about what her mother still tries to tell her.

Sometimes Angela likes to entertain the notion of what life would be like if her parents were killed in an automobile accident like her mother’s were when she was her age, but then her mother doesn’t drive and her father’s car was stripped of all saleable parts when he abandoned it last year after the rear axle fell off, so the whole exercise becomes pointless after awhile. Besides, there are no relatives in a distant country to ship her off to.

She pulls a carton of milk from the refrigerator, reaches for a glass in the overhead cupboard. She carries them to the table wedged into the corner of the room and pours herself a large glassful. Her mother stirs the thick, red sauce bubbling on the stove. “You see Joey?” she asks. What she really wants to know is if he’s coming for dinner. He and Roxanne have an open invitation which they accept a couple of times a week, arriving in varying degrees of stupor depending on how much money Joey’s managed to hustle that day. He drives a cab, deals a little dope on the side. Angela sees her mother tuck a few folded bills into Joey’s hand each time he leaves, money Angela knows he and Roxanne shoot up their arms first chance they get.

Angela takes a sip of milk and watches her ten-year-old sister Carmel arrange the mismatched plates and cutlery around the table. She appears to squat rather than stand on the linoleum floor. There is no part of her that isn’t round—her stomach, her face, her eyes—a combination of heredity and a fondness for mozzarella cheese. Her dark hair is pulled into a tight ponytail, which emphasizes the fullness of her face, an oversized burgundy bow clipped onto the top of her head.

“How can you do that to her?” Angela says. “Carmel, get over here.”

Carmel’s stomach precedes her as she marches over dutifully, pleased at her sister’s attention. Angela yanks out the bow to the sound of her screams. “Hold still,” Angela says. She drags her fingers through Carmel’s tangle of hair, now tumbling in a freefall of knots to her shoulders. “Get me a brush.”

“No kitchen, no kitchen,” her mother calls out. Her face disappears into the cloud of steam rising from the huge pot on the stove. She dumps a box of spaghetti into the boiling water. Carmel returns from the bedroom she shares with Angela. “Here’s my brush,” she says, eagerly. It’s pink plastic, with a Barbie doll painted on the back.

“Sit,” Angela tells her. She stands behind her and draws the white nylon bristles through the length of Carmel’s hair. She feels the strands stretch and ease back into place as she glides the brush from the crown of her sister’s head down past the tangled tips. She lifts the brush and repeats the motion, working her way through each section, carefully loosening and releasing each knot.

“No hair in no kitchen,” her mother calls out again.

“See how much better she looks,” Angela says, running her fingers freely through her sister’s hair. “Carmel, go look in the mirror.”

“Is fine,” her mother says from the stove. Angela thinks she has been granted a compliment, but when she looks up she sees her mother ladling sauce into a bowl of cooked spaghetti and realizes she only meant that dinner is ready.

She marches out of the kitchen and toward where she knows she’ll find their father. He is reclining in front of the TV in his brown vinyl Barcalounger, head cocked to one side, a puddle of spit collecting in the corner of his open mouth. Everything about him is familiar, the loud snoring, the stale and sour odors of sweat mingled with cigarettes and beer, the voice droning out the news in the background. If they’re lucky, he’ll sleep through dinner.

But tonight Angela wants him at the gray Formica-topped table. She wants to sit with her legs pushed up against the cold metal table leg and watch him down three or four cans of beer while simultaneously carrying on a one-sided conversation and shoveling food into his mouth. She wants to sit safe in the knowledge that her mother will not be able to say a word all through supper, will not chance arousing his temper by interrupting his steady stream of commentary.

First she reaches into the pocket of the t-shirt he wears in the overheated apartment and lifts out a pack of cigarettes. Despite his bloated face and stomach, and the fact that he hasn’t worked in construction since a wooden beam fell on his back ten years ago, his upper arms still bulge, the powerful shape of muscle clearly defined beneath the flesh. She shakes two cigarettes out of the pack for later, and slides it back into his pocket. “Carmel, time for supper,” she yells in the direction of his face, and just to make sure she disturbs him, she kicks the side of his chair.

* * *

“You know, I lose much money at work,” Angela’s mother says for the fourth time that morning. They have been waiting for the bus for over half an hour. It’s freezing outside and her mother has on that hideous coat of hers, the leopard-spotted hairy monstrosity she sewed from the imitation fur she picked up for next to nothing off the bargain table at the fabric store. Angela wears jeans and an oversized black sweater. She’d rather die of frostbite than be seen in the hand-me-down wool coat one of her mother’s co-workers sent home for her last week.

The bus pulls up with a hiss. Angela mounts the stairs behind her mother’s heavy footsteps and drops some change into the coin box. Her mother takes up the whole bus aisle in that coat. There’s one empty spot next to a white-haired, wrinkled man with a phlegmy cough. Her mother slides her bulk in beside him, wriggles down into the seat, and smoothes the fake leopard flap of her coat over her thigh. She perches her black leather handbag on her lap, the one that brought tears to her eyes when Joey gave it to her two Christmases ago. One of the straps is worn through, and the leather has not only lost its luster, it is cracked and stained in places. Still it is the only expensive item she has ever owned and she treats it with enormous pride. Angela’s sure her brother stuffed it under his shirt at one of those high-priced department stores downtown. She never asked him, but give her a break; he didn’t even bother to put it in a box.

Angela makes her way to the back, grabs onto the slippery metal pole as the bus lurches forward. Nobody on the bus knows this is her mother and she is not about to tell them.

“Hey, Angela, that you in the office yesterday?”

She looks over and sees Ricky with his buddies on the seat next to where she’s standing. He’s cute, skinny with dark, curly hair that coils over the top of his earlobes. She’s seen him in the halls at school, but this is the first time he’s ever talked to her.

“Yeah, got caught smoking,” she brags.

“You suspended?”

“I was, but I’ll be back in class today.”

“You know how that goes? Mr. Ringwald goes on and on to your parents about you like you ain’t even in the room.”

And her mother won’t understand half his words, she thinks. She’ll frown and ask him to repeat himself and she’ll listen as he tries to explain her misbehavior and poor attitude until behind the scrunched up, confused eyes will emerge a look of such extreme hurt and disappointment.

Angela risks a glance over at her mother and sees her settled in place, expressionless, buried in fake leopard, her round head popping out of the expanse of coat around her. It reminds her of the time when her father, in one of his magnanimous family moods, drove them to the beach for the day. She stood at the shoreline while the ocean licked her toes, later joined her brother and sister in the waves. Carmel seemed still a baby then, barely five years old. It is also the last memory she has of Joey leaving his arms bare, the inside of his forearms still free of the crooked track of needle scars that now grace them.

After lunch, they dug an enormous hole, and her father agreed to lie down in it while they covered him up until he was nothing more than a head of thinning brown hair in the sand. The three of them danced around him and laughed. The surface of the sand cracked when he tried to hoist himself up, but a spasm of pain from his bad back shot down his left leg and he was unable to climb out of the hole. He pushed his hands up, in surrender, and Angela grabbed one and Joey the other. She remembers the gritty feel of the sand as they pulled him up, the sting on her bottom right there on the beach, and him saying, “Just so none of you think you’ll ever get the better of me again.” Still she holds onto this memory, the same way her mother clasps that black leather handbag, as if for dear life, because even though it got old and ugly, it is one of the few things she has that feels valuable to her and she’s afraid of losing it.

Angela hears a familiar buzzing sound. Someone has pulled the cord on the bus, signaling their approaching stop. She pictures getting off the bus, the half-mile walk to school with Ricky and his friends, her mother in that horrid coat, and the contents of her stomach begin to bob and sway like something doesn’t belong in there. The cord sounds again and again as it is repeatedly pulled. All part of the morning routine. The bus driver, a fleshy, red-faced man, yells, “Cut that shit out,” like he does every morning, and then steps on the gas so that he has to really hit the brakes to stop, trying to throw a few of them standing in the back off balance.

Angela makes her way toward the rear exit of the bus. Ricky taps her on the shoulder as her feet hit the sidewalk. When she turns, he looks at her with these deep blue eyes that shine like sapphires in the morning light. He opens up one side of his army jacket to reveal the joint sticking out the top of his shirt pocket.

Her mother gets up with a start, mumbling, “Oh, oh.” Her stubby legs, encased in those heavy black shoes and thick support hose, thump down the bus steps behind them. Ricky pulls out a disposable plastic lighter and lights the joint, crooked and skinny between his thumb and forefinger. He takes a drag, then holds it out to her.

She hesitates. It’s something she’s never done before. The sapphires in his eyes grow round and tempting. Like a gift, he is hard to turn away. She takes the joint and raises it to her lips. What the hell, her mother won’t know what it is anyway. She inhales deeply.

Her mother remains standing at the bus stop, fat legs motionless. The sign above her says No Stopping or Standing. Screw her, Angela thinks as she walks away, lifting the joint to her mouth again and drawing smoke into her lungs. She feels an acrid burning inside her chest, a swelling in her head. Slowly she exhales, then takes another drag before passing it back to Ricky. She holds her breath. Her mother still hasn’t moved. She begins to giggle, releasing a gush of smoke into the cold air, struck by her mother’s stubborn stance below a sign that says No Stopping or Standing.

She’s cemented to cement, Angela thinks, giggling again. Her eyes move from her mother’s black shoes to that hideous coat, tracing the pattern of spots, and just as she begins to think of her as nothing more than a giant leopard about to pounce, her eyes land on her mother’s face. She takes in the broad forehead, the furrowed brow and pursed lips. But it is more than her mother sucking in her fat cheeks. It’s the look in her eyes, a look of loss and confusion so vivid Angela can visualize it spreading down her mother’s arms and legs, wrapping around her limbs and paralyzing her. She feels something, like hunger, in the pit of her stomach.

She pushes Ricky’s hand away and heads back toward the bus stop.

“This way, Ma, come on,” she says.

“I tell Joey, I tell you, all the time I say no smoke, is bad,” her mother says. She raises her arm, the black leather purse dangling by its one good strap from her wrist. Angela anticipates the movement of her mother’s hand up toward her face, the sting against her cheek. Her mother hooks her arm through Angela’s arm instead, closing in until the crooks of their elbows touch. Angela feels lightheaded, unsure if it’s the pot or some other unfamiliar elation. Her legs feel miles away from her body. She moves on unsteady feet, tripping now and then on the cracked cement in the sidewalk, the weight of her mother’s arm resting heavy against hers. Fake fur brushes the side of her sweater.

Like all fiction, “Suspension” grew out of a combination of observation, experience, reflection, invention and imagination. I was visiting my daughter’s school one day and spotted a mother wearing a coat very similar to the one described in the story. She was being led into the auditorium by her eighth grade son. The boy had his arm hooked through her arm and appeared to be whispering to her in another language (or maybe not—perhaps my imagination had already gotten the better of me). At any rate, had she been my mother and had I been fourteen, I would have been completely embarrassed. I was impressed by how proudly the boy stood beside her and started to wonder how it would be to have such a mother...and so the story seed was planted.

Note: This story originally appeared in the print magazine So to Speak.

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