“Well, you can stay here as long as you need to,” he said, gesturing around the singlewide. It was small and dank and smelled kind of like pot and dirty laundry, but I felt safe here. This had been my home for most of my life, and while it might not have been a picture-perfect childhood, it hadn’t been too bad for a couple of white-trash kids whose dad took off before they hit grade school.
Well, good until Mom blew out her back and started drinking. Things went downhill after that. I looked around the singlewide, trying to think. How was this going to work?
“I don’t have any money,” I said. “I can’t pay you rent. Not until I get a job. Gary never put my name on the bank account.”
“What the f**k, Marie? Rent?” Jeff asked again, shaking his head. “This is your house too. I mean, it’s a shithole, but it’s our shithole. You don’t pay rent here.”
I smiled at him, a real smile this time. Jeff might be a stoner who spent ninety percent of his life playing video games, but he had a heart. Suddenly I felt such incredible love for him that I couldn’t keep it in. I dropped the ice and launched myself at him, giving him a fierce hug. He wrapped his arms around me awkwardly, returning it even though I could tell it confused and frightened him a little.
We’ve never been a touchy-feely kind of family.
“I love you, Jeff,” I said.
“Um, yeah,” he muttered, pulling away from me nervously, but he wore a little smile. He walked over to the counter, opened a drawer and pulled out a little glass pipe and a baggie of weed.
“You want some?” he asked. Yup, Jeff loved me. He didn’t share with just anyone. I laughed and shook my head.
“Pass. I’ve gotta start job hunting tomorrow morning. Don’t want to flunk a drug test.”
He shrugged and walked into the living room—which was also the dining room, the entryway and the hallway—to sit on the couch. A second later his ginormous big-screen TV flickered to life. He clicked through the channels until he hit wrestling, not the sport but the kind where they wear funny costumes and it’s like a soap opera. Gary was probably watching the same thing back at our house. Jeff took a couple hits and then set down the pipe and his favorite death’s-head Zippo on the coffee table. Then he grabbed his laptop and flipped it open.
Jeff’d always been the shit when it came to computers. I had no idea what he did to earn money—although I suspected he did as little of it as he could get away with and not starve. Most people, Gary included, thought he was a loser. Maybe he was. But I didn’t care, because whenever I’d needed him, he’d been there for me. And I’ll always be here for him, I promised myself. Starting by getting the place cleaned up and buying some real food. So far as I could tell, the man lived on pizza, Cheetos and peanut butter.
Some things never changed.
It took a lot of work to get the trailer clean but I enjoyed every minute of it. I missed Mom, of course, but I have to admit (if only to myself) that the place was a lot more comfortable without her around. She’s a terrible cook, she keeps the shades closed and she never flushes the toilet.
Oh, and everything she touches turns to utter chaos and drama.
Jeff doesn’t flush the toilet either, but for some reason it didn’t bother me as much. Probably because he’d not only given me the bigger bedroom, he’d also shoved a surprisingly large wad of bills into my purse that first morning and kissed me on the forehead for luck when I went out job hunting. I needed to find work despite sporting a nasty bruise on my face from Gary’s little love tap.
“You’re gonna kick ass, sis,” Jeff said, rubbing his eyes. I was touched he’d gotten out of bed to see me off. He wasn’t exactly a morning person. “Buy me some beer on the way home? And some of those coffee filter thingies… I ran out, and now I’m outta paper towels too. I don’t know if TP will cut it and I need my caffeine.”
“I’ll take care of the shopping,” I said quickly. “And the cooking,” I added, glancing toward the kitchen sink, which was piled high with dishes. And pots. And something green that might just hold the cure for cancer…
“Great,” he muttered, then turned and stumbled back toward his room.
Now it was two weeks later and things were looking up. For one, I’d made enough progress in the house that I wasn’t afraid to sit on the toilet any longer, or use the shower. My next project was the yard, which hadn’t been mowed in at least two years. I’d also gotten a job at the Little Britches Daycare, which was run by my old friend Cara’s mom, Denise. Cara and I had fallen out of touch when she’d gone to college, but I’d seen her mom around occasionally and always asked after her. Cara’d worked her way through law school and had a job in New York at some hot-shit firm. Her mom showed me pictures sometimes and Cara looked like a TV lawyer to me, all designer suits and fancy shoes.
Not me though. I’d had grades as good as hers, but I’d been in looooove with Gary, so I blew off college. Great thinking.
Anyway, Denise asked cautiously if I was still with Gary, eyeing the foundation I’d spackled over my bruise. I told her about my new living arrangements and that was that.
So I had a job now and while it didn’t pay much, I liked working with the kids and had even started doing some babysitting in the evenings for different families who brought their children to Little Britches during the day. Jeff loved having me around because I cooked and cleaned and did the laundry. I’d done all that for Gary too, but he never said thanks.
Nope, he just bitched about how I’d done it wrong.
Then he’d gone off and f**ked his whore.
I got off work at three that day, so I came home and made bread. Over the years I’ve perfected my technique—I start with a basic French bread recipe, but I add a ton of garlic, Italian herbs, five different kinds of cheeses and an egg-white glaze. The recipe makes two big loaves and I planned to serve it with spaghetti topped with fresh tomatoes from Denise’s garden and my signature spinach salad. Of course we couldn’t even come close to eating that much bread, but I planned to take the second loaf to work tomorrow for the girls.
Denise had a huge garden behind the center, and she’d told me to help myself. I planned to take advantage of it as much as I could before the season turned. I had this fantasy that I’d do some canning but it probably wasn’t realistic. I’d left all my equipment at Gary’s place, and I wasn’t ready to go back there. He hadn’t gotten in touch with me since I left (which made me happy), and I’d heard around town that he’d already moved Misty Carpenter into our bed (which made me want to puke).