A Saturday Morning, 1975 b.c.e
One, two, three, four, five…
One, two, three, four, five…
One, two, three, four–
As she lay in bed, Tess shoved the early morning hum of the street and small under-noises in the apartment out of her mind and focused solely on the little clicks she heard in Anna Lou’s room.
Tess knew about Anna-Lou’s habit. Her mother was a careless telephone gossip, especially when in her wine, which was pretty much always. “The doctor’s been feeding her Percodan and God knows what since they shot Lincoln.”–or something similar, was what Mom said to friends on the phone when the subject was Great Aunt Louise. For some boozy reason, Mom believed if she lowered her voice to a confidential tone that neither of her children would make a special effort to listen.
Tess had outstanding hearing. So fine that she heard the little clicks of pills being dropped back into their bottle. When it got late in the month, Anna-Lou obsessively counted her pills over and over in the morning. That’s when the pills stopped landing softly on other pills; that’s when they created clicks in the glass vial; that’s when she’d need a favor.
“Her Doctor Happy retired and moved to Phoenix,” Mom said on the horn, a few months back, a hush in her voice, “The new doctor refuses to refill early…Told her a month is a month…that he’d cut her off if she bitched–I hear she’s been limping into emergency rooms…”
Of course that didn’t mean a damn thing to either Tess or her big sister, Sara, at the time. But things change. And how. After Sara got expelled, arrested and sentenced to six months at the County Youth Camp for lighting up her gym teacher, and Mom suffered a subsequent mental breakdown that landed her in the State Hospital for a term of no less than ninety days (which turned into seven months), Great Aunt Louise, her only living relative, generously took in fourteen-year-old Tess. Anyway, that was the story: Sara the villain, Mom a victim, Anna-Lou the hero. The story was bullshit, and everyone knew it.
Tess lay flat on her back and stared at the ceiling, thinking. Her “bed” was a lumpy sofa in the living room. She had an idea what was coming later that day, and was already prepared for it. But she wanted to make the best use of her advantage, not to sell it too cheaply. There was no such thing as only fourteen in Tess’s world. She knew that those who got over were the smartest users. For two month’s running Tess had gone to the County Hospital with fake migraines and scored for Anna-Lou–who currently sounded eight clicks short of her refill date. Both of those events were on the house–favors, as Anna-Lou had put it. But this time there’d be a price.
“Good morning, Anna Lou,” Tess said, cheerfully breezing into the kitchen for “breakfast.” Not once during her childhood had she ever had a sitdown breakfast at home with the family, and that trend continued at Anna-Lou’s apartment. Tess grabbed a package of pop tarts and ate them cold.
“Good morning, dear,” Anna-Lou said in that woe-is-me tone of hers that Tess knew would make Sara want to drive a fork into the back of her head.
Anna-Lou’s idea of breakfast was even worse: toast slathered with greasy apple butter, endless cups of coffee and Taryton cigarettes. Her age was somewhere in that vast expanse between fifty-five and death. She was thickly built and always dyed her hair aiming at red but unerringly finding orange. There was a husband once, but he kicked off long ago. And a son, who lived three time zones away. Anna Lou lived just fine off her late husband’s social security and pension; currently augmented by whatever she got from the state for fostering Tess.
A little song and dance would have begun, if Tess hadn’t jumped it. Anna-Lou would have hemmed and hawed and, eventually, while cruising on whatever high her dwindling pills gave her, asked for the favor. That could take most of the day. Tess had no desire to spend the evening sitting in an examination room blowing smoke up some intern’s ass. Sara had taught her how to be prepared.
“The rheumatism bad today, Anna-Lou?”
A faint light suddenly shone in Anna-Lou’s dark eyes. And Tess could see the hurt within and identify with it. In this regard she was unlike Sara, who would have wanted to wipe the room with Anna Lou for casting such a light; Sara’s reaction to the endless small hurts in their world was unusually violent. Sara couldn’t strike the pain that permeated in every atom she saw, but she could light up the occasional gym teacher.
Tess was sensitive to sorrow–whether it be called hurt or pain. She recognized it in the unguarded faces and postures of the people who waited anxiously in front of her building on the first of the month for the mail to arrive, not knowing what they would do if the check was late. Tess later made paintings inspired by sorrow, that some called art.
Those tense faces would show relief, not happiness, when their brown envelopes arrived. Then many of those sorrowful faces got drunk, soon after. At this point in her life Tess feared drunkenness; the way it got into the ugly come-ons and the dirty leers of the men in her neighborhood, once she past twelve; it’s effect on her mother, who, to be honest, needed to dry out more than she had been injured by Sara’s behavior. But whatever was in Anna-Lou’s pills seemed to make her a better person; Tess had never seen booze do that for anyone.
“Poor Anna-Lou,” Tess said, all sweetness and light, after Anna-Lou nodded yes, like a child.
“And I bet that the doctor shorted you again?” Tess added, still holding her edge, although she hated to tease Anna-Lou–who really was nice enough–but it had to be done.
Anna-Lou again nodded, still like a child. Tess wondered if Sara would have struck her then; probably so.
“Hold on, just a sec, I think I might have something you’d like.” Tess pulled the step out from its place by the fridge and used it to boost herself to the top cupboard, where she retrieved something she had placed there two days earlier.
Tess set a vial containing thirty percodan on the table. The vial had no label, although it did come from a pharmacy, of sorts.
Oh, my, my, you couldn’t keep track of all that crossed Anna-Lou’s face. Disbelief, shock, fretfulness, joy, suspicion, hope–it all speeded across her otherwise unremarkable face. She opened the bottle and inspected the contents.
“They’re real, Anna-Lou,” Tess said, addressing what mattered most then to Anna-Lou.
“But, what, where, how?”
“I can’t tell you. But maybe once a month I might run into more of those, if you’d do me a favor.”
“You hitched?” was the first thing Sara said to Tess when they met in the common room at the Mission Hill Academy For Girls the next day.
“‘Hi Tess, I’m so happy to see you. So nice you come all this way just to visit.’ How come you guys don’t wear stripes like they do on TV?”
Sara led Tess to a table neither too close nor too far from the matron who was supposedly moderating the conversations taking place between seven other inmates and their families. Sara was tall, thin, dark haired, brown-eyed, and had a body more like that of a sixteen-year-old boy–especially so in the Mission Hill “uniform”–a pair of amorphous, pocketless blue jeans and an even more shapeless chambray work shirt (for the girls tended a farm as part of their “rehabilitation”). She had a long face dominated by a Roman nose and mouth capable of effectively conveying everything from grifting smiles to enraged snarls. Only Tess ever saw Sara’s real face.
“Didn’t I tell you about hitching,” Sara said, as they sat down at the table.
“So? And I glommed this stuff from Esser’s, too.” Tess reached into her jacket pocket and tossed a handful of penny candies, gum and Tootsie Pops on their table. She also deftly passed Sara a tightly folded wad of ten one dollar bills, which Sara made disappear up her sleeve and into her bra in one practiced motion.
“Gee, Tess, you oughta say that louder–I don’t think the matron heard you.”
“I SAID–” Tess raised her voice, then laughed and smacked her bubble gum, pleased with herself.
The matron glanced up from her paper, but that was all. The other groups of inmates and their visitors were too engrossed in their own business to care.
“The dope has eaten holes in Anna-Lou’s brain,” Sara said. “A dog could do a better job watching you. Shit, I see no reason to hitch back. I’ll tell them to fix you a bunk in the dorm–it’ll save time.” Sara said, quietly. Then she lowered her voice even more, parodying that of their mother, while on the phone. “There are seriously fucked up people back there, Tessie,” she added, hooking her thumb in the direction of the door she had emerged from earlier. “Hard core ‘tards they keep in padded rooms and never let out. Keep going the way you are and you’ll get to listen to them scream shit all night long.”
Tess smiled and shrugged. “Anna-Lou’s not so bad, now that I own her.”
In a domain where there was no such thing as only fourteen, there obviously couldn’t be a state of only sixteen, either. Something flickered in Sara’s face as she lingered on Tess’s remark. There was only one thing you could buy Anna-Lou with; and only one place for Tess to get it.
“You went to the Gray House,” Sara said, in a different tone; unlike that of her mother, it was a secret voice heard only by the sisters. “You’re going to like it here, Tessie,” Sara said, a fraudulent vulpine smile appearing on her face. “The bulls are always looking for fresh Valentines. Grape Kool Aid lipstick will go good with your eyes.”
Tess blew another bubble, which indicated boredom.
“Anna-Lou needed help, so I got it for her.”
“Didn’t she ask where you got it?”
“She didn’t say shit. Just swallowed.”
The Gray House had once been white, but the paint had been slowly peeling away like scab tissue for as long as Sara could remember. It was just another slumping turn-of-the-century great house converted into cheap apartments, yet it was always the drug house, no matter who lived in it. The city would close it down now and then around election time, but it always reopened. Mainly, it traded in reefer, blotter acid and dime bags of cross-tops–The Gray House did big business in speed–especially with the shipyard workers. Harder stuff, like percodan, could be had, but cost a dollar a pill. Although Sara had never set foot in the Gray House, all this was common knowledge in Corson Street.
Sara imagined Tess opening the strong box located in their hiding hole at a place they used to call Fort Oxenfree, when they were at ages that existed even in their world. She saw Tess remove some money from a stash of over four-hundred dollars that they had accumulated over the past few years, in various methods–selling pornography lifted from bend Elmo’s Adult Books at school, removing popular, untraceable objects from parked cars, lest the winos get them first, and selling them low at Dave’s Pawn, with whom they had an understanding. They’d had done all that and more, but they had stayed away from drugs because possession of even a joint could land you at Mission Hill longer than loosening a gym teacher’s teeth.
“Tell me why.” Sara said. And a special sort of sadness she associated only with Tess crept into her being. For all her brains, of which she had plenty, Tess was a defiant dreamer, who barred the truth entry to her wildly unrealistic schemes.
“Anna-Lou’s gonna talk to the warden and get you out early. She’s gonna say that you can live with her–us, too, til Mom gets better–and she’ll see that you are enrolled at a new high school.”
Sara closed her eyes. “Jesus, Tess. You spent money on a junkie’s promise?”
“Anna-Lou’s not a junkie, it’s not like she’s got a needle in her arm.”
No, Tessie, it is like that, Sara thought; “Sure, all right, we’ll see how it goes,” was what she said. Tess-specific depression had suddenly deepened into a bewildering helplessness. It felt as though someone had just informed her of Tess’s death, even though she was sitting right across from her. It prevented her from once again explaining the facts of life to her little sister. How Sara was lucky not to be at an adult facility; that Mom was a long way from getting better, on account of being a twenty-year lush, who now heard voices, and that Anna-Lou had all the pull with the local Powers That Be as Pebbles Flintstone–probably less.
In one motion Sara reached into her shirt then across the table and slipped the ten dollars back to Tess. “I’m feeling a little sick. You’d better go. Gonna get the matron to call a cab.”
Sara wasn’t the only Spahr sister who occasionally fell into depression. Although she had that interminable resilience peculiar to highly intelligent persons who are born with an immunity to common sense, there was always that moment of reckoning, when the Dream died, leaving behind a sense of sorrow that lay beyond the reach of art.
A letter came from Mission Hill: Sara had lost her visitation privileges for thirty days due to a fight in the lunchroom. This followed Tess’s slow realization that though she owned Anna-Lou, the woman was of zero use in the real world, and now she had to feed her. At least Anna-Lou came up with the money, which prevented further withdrawals from the strong box.
Within that brief stretch between the death of one dream and the virgin birth of the next, Tess came to breakfast one morning and sat at the table across from Anna-Lou, who never seemed to ever be unhappy at all–as long as she had her stuff. Her bottles were always fat and didn’t click toward the end of the month anymore.
Tess made eye contact with Anna-Lou and glanced at the ever-present vial. “May I try one?”