In school I sit at the back of the classroom, except for Mrs. Perkins’s chemistry lab because her room is set up with tables and she teaches from a different one every day. I think she waits for me to drop my bag before she picks which table to stand at. I see Mrs. Perkins up close a lot. During lunch, I’m out the side door by the art room. We’d get suspended if we were ever caught, not because we’re smoking (well, maybe) but because just leaving a door open at our school is this huge security violation. We could let anyone in with a gun I guess. And after school, I’m even further away than I was during school.
At home I am in my room. My half of my room. I share with my baby brother Shane. He’s only two which means I have to watch my language when I’m mad. When he was first learning to talk he called me TaTas which just about killed me even if he was cute. Tally, I’d say.
Mom put Shane in my room when he was only one. I pointed out his crib took up half the room but Mom just leaned against the door and sighed. She had to get up early with her job. She didn’t want to wake Shane before the sitter came and I left for school. The sitter is Charlene from next door. She’s such a tiny woman, hunched over. I don’t think she should be picking up babies anymore but Mom says Charlene’s fine. She was my sitter when I was little, when Dad took Mom on a date to Country Kitchen. Now when I get home from school Charlene talks a waterfall of the whole day, starting with breakfast.
Charlene is the one who found the water bottle of vodka under my bed. She found it because Shane found it and was rolling the bottle back and forth. Charlene got a cup to pour Shane a little water but he dropped the cup and started crying on the first sip. Charlene took a drink and yelled when I came in the door. Tally Ann! You don’t drink! You’re too young! Hold it together, girl! She waved the bottle at me and unscrewed the cap, poured the twenty dollars I’d given Carl Atkins down the kitchen sink. I tried not to cry. Shane was in his crib when I went in my room. I picked him up and said sorry.
Sorry means change, was something Charlene said once to Mom, after Dad apologized (again) for running around on her. This happened a lot before Shane was born and then not at all after because Dad didn’t come back. Mom never said anything to me but Charlene would come over late at night and sit at the kitchen table outside my bedroom while Mom whispered the latest betrayal. Charlene’s whisper was anyone else’s regular talk, so I picked it up. That man is a cad, Charlene said. That was the only time I heard Mom speak loudly to Charlene, when she said, No he’s not.
Dad’s rum was the first I tried. I had it the weekend after he left. Only a little, as much as I’d ever seen him drink. It was enough, burning my mouth and warming my belly. Dad wasn’t a cad. He was nice. It’s just he was nice to a lot of other women too. I settled on that conclusion, feeling a loyalty to him and a solidarity with Mom. Even after Dad left and Mom had to go back to work with a baby and a teenager to raise, she didn’t say anything mean so I didn’t either.
Someday I’ll probably explode from all the not saying anything mean. It happens at school when Sara laughs at my outfit and says, Dumpster vintage. Or when Mr. Oliver thinks I’m not trying hard when I spent an entire weekend writing his stupid paper about the Roman guard. It even happens out the side door sometimes, when Wolf or Midget says you never know, we might be siblings. As a joke, but still.
After Charlene yelled at me I begged her not to tell Mom, I won’t do it again. The next time I had twenty dollars (sorry, Mom), I went to Carl Atkins and asked what he had besides vodka and rum. Whiskey? he said so I tried whiskey. It wasn’t vodka, which meant I hadn’t lied.
That was a month ago. Sometimes I think I really am going to explode. I can’t because Shane is in the room. I think that was the point, like Shane is a goat in the horse’s stall. I can’t kick down doors if my baby brother is stretched out in his footie pajamas, arm’s length away. So I sit in my bed in the dark listening to Shane’s soft breathing, watching the passing headlights move across the wall behind his crib, and I take small sips from a jelly glass.
The next time I take twenty dollars (sorry, Mom) to Carl Atkins and ask for another water bottle of whiskey, he leans back and looks at me, head to toe. Not like when Sara finds a hole in my tee shirt or points out I’m wearing Mom’s old Reeboks. Carl assesses me fairly: quiet, pimply, a little doughy. He doesn’t take the bills I’m holding out. Instead, he asks if I’ve got any friends. I open my mouth and he holds up his hand and says, Please don’t say Wolf or Midget.
I was going to say Wolf and Midget. I think for a minute and say, I had a good friend, Jessica. Remember her? Red hair?
Carl looks up at the sky, thinking. Maybe, he says, Did she have an older brother?
Yeah. They moved last year.
Did you two drink together?
No, I say.
You’ve been drinking by yourself?
I look down at my shoes.
You’re kidding me.
I keep looking at my shoes.
Carl clicks his tongue, but not like a grandma. Shit, he says, You gotta stop. Lemme think. Carl looks back up at the sky. He says, Okay. You make a bottle like this last a month. You can’t be that bad. Are you that bad?
I shake my head.
Tell me how you do it.
I look at Carl. Really?
I take a breath and tell him about Charlene calling Dad a cad and how after he left for good I found his rum. I can’t drink rum anymore and I can’t drink vodka either because I told Charlene I wouldn’t. I drink like this, I say, and measure the bottom of a jelly glass, and tell him it’s only on the weekends after I know Mom is asleep and I just want to float a little.
Carl doesn’t laugh or snort. He doesn’t wrinkle his brow or roll his eyes. Is it fun? he asks.
It’s something, I say. I mean it that way. If Jessica were still here, we’d go to a basketball game and sit at one end of the bleachers, away from the girls wearing pastel sweaters and Uggs. We’d whisper what boys we thought were cute and do the wave even if we wouldn’t be in that gym when it was lit with twinkle lights for prom. I can’t sit at the end of the bleachers by myself. I think of Mrs. Perkins standing near me and looking up from her notes to catch my eye, a slight nod toward my pencil reminding me to take notes.
Carl sighs. You gotta find something better.
Like knitting? I don’t say it to be funny but it is and we both laugh. Charlene is always offering to teach me to knit.
Tell you what, he says, looking at the sky again, Let’s go fishing.
Part 2 tomorrow or the next day.