A girl and her mother lived in a trailer, though the mother preferred to call it a mobile home. The girl didn’t mind the fake wood stickers plastered on the cabinets or the smell of the carpet. The girl loved the Little Mermaid and ALF…She loved wearing her pink shirt with Ariel on it, and her favorite stuffed animal was the Alien Life Form.
In the mornings the mother woke the girl up by hugging her. Even though the mother worked in the nursery at the hardware store, she always wore perfume that suggested otherwise. The perfume didn’t have the aroma of labor or a garden…Her perfume smelled like she intended to go to the country club, not sweat in a greenhouse all day. Maybe they owned a car, but the girl remembers walking to daycare in the morning and home at night…Actually the girl remembers her mother picking her up and walking her back to her mother’s work because they always needed the extra money.
To a four-year-old a hardware store is actually a massive playground. The gray concrete floors could hurt, so the girl learned not to fall. From the lumberyard she learned to love the fragrance of fresh sawdust. From the greenhouse she learned to tell the difference between good fertilizer and bad fertilizer by touch as well as which plants needed to be watered every day and which plants would drown if watered every day. The clanking of nails in bags heading towards the checkout became a comforting, nightly song for the girl. By the end of the day her mother still smelled like the the perfume.
The offices sat in a line in an upstairs area. The metal stairs leading to them echoed each step when the girl walked up or down them. Fascinated by the sound such a small girl could make, much to the chagrin of her mother’s co-workers, the girl would run up and down the stairs. They would scold her, “You’re going to hurt yourself!” “We’re trying to work.” “You’ll fall.” But she never did fall. When they grew tired of her excess energy bounding around the store and the stairs, they would encourage her to sit and color in the break room.
The break room served as a stark contrast to the freedom downstairs. All the walls were white and covered in comics about hating work. There was a small TV whose rabbit ears picked up a local station or two. Even when there was none brewing, the break room smelled like coffee…Which always made her feel nauseous at first, but then she would grow accustomed to it. The employees came upstairs occasionally to complain to each other about customers and to compliment the girl’s artwork.
Twenty years later the girl still remembers her two favorite people from that time in her life: Hector and Ms. Diane. Hector’s belly jiggled when he laughed. He always wore yellow suspenders with ruler tick marks on them. He drove the forklift in the lumberyard. Hector was older. He always shared Root Beer Barrel candies and cans of Mr. Pibb with the girl…Even if she was getting on all the other employees’ nerves. Then there was Ms. Diane who had her own little girl named Sarah. Ms. Diane always read books and carried a pencil (…In retrospect, the girl is almost certain that Ms. Diane was studying for her GED). As busy as Ms. Diane would be, apparently cramming, she always took time to talk to the girl. (In fact, the girl is now 100% certain Ms. Diane studied for her GED all the time because she remembers a cake to celebrate Ms. Diane getting it.)
The girl spent a lot of time looking at the rest of the store out of the window in the break room. Steel toed and white rubber boots marched in and out of store every day. She would see men in orange mesh vests and hard hats go to the concrete mix area. Men who didn’t bother to take off their tool belts inevitably walked to the kitchen fixtures or the cabinet aisles. Expectant mothers and newly wed couples could be found in the paint section. She rarely could see her mother walking around downstairs because the greenhouse was (obviously) outside of the main store. But one day she saw her mother walk back to the lumberyard with a man in a dirty white shirt.
The girl couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but she did not like the man in the dirty white shirt. She saw him a lot over the course of the next few weeks. Her mother and Ms. Diane would talk about the man in the dirty white shirt while they sat in the break room. The girl would overhear them say he came in for some lumber or pipes in the mornings. Then she would see him come in during the evenings and leave with a single screwdriver or a small bag of nails. Her mother always helped him. He always dripped with sweat and the grime on him seemed to be a part of his pigment.
One night the girl and her mother walked down the main road to get home. A white truck swerved almost hitting them. Her mother scooped the girl up quickly enough to not get hit as she stepped towards the ditch. The man rolled down his window, “Do you need a ride?” The cab smelled of leather and smoke. The girl sat crammed against the door on the bench seat because she didn’t want to be in that truck. The cracked leather on the seat dug into her legs. She leaned her head against the window and didn’t listen to what the adults were saying.
And so the story goes:
“He came back after he bought the lumber and asked to speak to the manager…What did you say to the manager?”
“I said I didn’t get everything I wanted. When he asked what I wanted I pointed at you.”
The first night he stayed over he ruined the girl’s cereal in the morning. The girl couldn’t reach the cereal in the pantry, so the man pulled it down for her. The girl reached for the box, but the man began pouring it into a bowl. She kept asking him to stop, but he just kept pouring. Then he added milk and went back into the bedroom. The girl plopped down in front of the TV and didn’t acknowledge him when he left the mobile home.
“What did you think of him?” her mother asked.
“I didn’t like him. He poured too much cereal for me. I can’t eat that much. It’s a waste,” the girl replied pouring half the bowl of cereal down the drain. “I don’t like to waste.”
“You’ll get used to him,” answered the mother.
There was one night when the man watched the girl while her mother went out. The mother didn’t get to go out often, so the girl tried to be good, but he made her go to be too early, so she snuck out of her room. Peering from the corner of the hallway in the mobile home, she could see him reclining in the brown corduroy Lay-Z-Boy, but she couldn’t tell if he was awake or not because of the glare on his glasses from the blaring television. The cheap carpet felt damp under her hands and knees as she crawled towards the chair to get a closer look at him. The man didn’t make any movements to indicate that he heard her or was even awake, so the girl sat up next to the recliner and started watching the TV.
She doesn’t know when it happened, but all of sudden the three of them lived together. They took their mobile home from the trailer park and moved it to his property on a dirt road. The man ripped a lot of walls out of both his mobile home and theirs. He tore down one outside wall in his trailer and one in theirs. He caulked the mobile homes together where the holes gaped. Only hard, bare wood laid as floor on either side of where the walls used to be. The girl did not like this, but what could she do?
Then the girl made the biggest mistake of the life she shared with her mother. She was on a roof somewhere. She can’t remember if it was their joint mobile home roof or if it was the man’s friend’s mobile home or if she was with the man at work, but she called him something she shouldn’t have. It fell out of her mouth. She wished she could’ve slurped it back up like a dog eating its own sick right then, but she couldn’t so then everyone got a whiff of it and grew nauseous. When she said it, he looked at her. As he looked at her, she wanted to fall off the roof, but she’d learned not to fall. She thought it meant they would be normal…Words like that made people normal, right? Everyone else had a dad. Why not her?