The dresser drawer is stuck. It always sticks. Humidity warps the wood. Abigail watches her mother and learns the routine. She says it only ever happened in the summer back home but here it’s a near-daily affair. The trick is to wedge the drawer back to ¾ of starting position, hip-check the face of it, and wiggle at an upward angle.
Abigail’s mother Charlotte stands in front of the mirror and smoothes out her clothes. Abby remembers when her mother used to work a normal job. White button-down blouse. Black slacks, pressed. Black shoes with modest heels. I don’t want to move. --Momma’s going to be an actress, sweetie. There are lots of jobs there for mommy.—What’s wrong with the job you’ve got?--Charlotte pushes her breasts together in a low-cut calypso dress and walks into a mist of perfume. She leans the side of her head toward the mirror to hastily insert a dangle-hoop earring, then tilts the other side in and repeats. Abby watches through a crack in the door. She sees her mother stumble on one leg to slip on high stilettos and catch herself, then sit down on the unmade bed to slip on the other shoe. She watches Charlotte toss a brown prescription bottle in her oversize purse and hears it rattle on her mother’s arm all the way to the bathroom until the shut bathroom door muffles what’s inside.
Abby goes back to the kitchen. There is no table. No chair. Just the bar stool with cracked leather upholstery and yellow foam that sticks out like an infected wound. She perches on the tall stool at the kitchen counter. The ceramic bowl in front of her is colder than the leftover Spaghetti O’s that have been fermenting in the refrigerator for two days. There are no clean spoons so Abby uses a serving spoon. The chipped metal handle is enormous in her hand. The Spaghetti O sauce has an icy metallic taste that makes Abby cringe.
“Save some of those for tomorrow, sweetie.” Charlotte’s heels announce her presence in the room before her voice. “You’ll be hungry and you’ll wish you hadn’t eaten so much tonight.”
Abby doesn’t respond. She looks down into the bowl of Spaghetti O’s and focuses hard, hoping that if she wills it she can transform them into something that tastes good. Maybe even something that doesn’t need to be microwaved. It’s been three weeks since Charlotte took the old microwave to the city. Charlotte grabs the bowl away from Abby and puts them in the fridge, next to the potatoes with mint-green mold on them. She clomps back across the small kitchen and leaves a vapor trail of perfume behind her.
“Where’s the TV?” Charlotte calls from the couch in the other room.
“You sold it,” Abby says.
“Yes. You said you would buy me new shoes for school with the money but you never did.”
“Oh, yeah. Mommy needed the money for something.”
“There was another letter under the door today. It says ‘Final Notice.’”
“Don’t worry about it, baby.” Charlotte turns over the couch cushion and reaches in the crevice along the arm rest until she finds her clear plastic purple-tinted lighter. The pill bottle in her purse rattles again when she fumbles around for her cigarettes. A car horn honks outside. “I’m coming, I’m coming,” she mutters to herself. She lights a cigarette and clomps to the front door. “Don’t wait up for mommy,” she yells. The door slams. The smell of K-Mart perfume and reservation cigarettes lingers.
Abby waits until she hears the car door shut outside and the battered muffler drone down the street. She waits a little while longer, then scuttles across the kitchen. She climbs up on the counter and opens the cabinet above the refrigerator. Charlotte never uses the high cabinets because there’s never any real food to put away. Abby pulls out a cardboard box filled with dusty paper plates with mistletoe and Christmas trees on them. She pulls out a stack of Styrofoam cups and puts them carefully on top of the paper plates. Then she reaches in back and pulls out a small television, draped with dish towels. The television is roughly the size of a basketball but square, with the channel knob long lost. Abby uses pliers to twist what used to be the knob. She sits on the stool and watches Bugs Bunny in grainy black-and-white. She knows the parts that are supposed to be funny but she doesn’t respond to them anymore, just lets her eyes glaze over. She cries a little for the first five minutes or so, then just zones out on the cartoons. When she cries she feels self-conscious, even though she’s alone. She turns the volume up a little and hides her face in the bend of her elbow. Abby sits up with a start when she hears keys jangle at the door and tries to turn off the television but can’t reach the pliers in time. Instead she turns the volume dial all the way down and puts a dishtowel over the TV. Charlotte comes in with a stumble and leaves the keys in the half-open door.
“It’s me. I forgot my—hey, what the hell are you hiding in there?”
Abby doesn’t say anything, just stares at her mother. Charlotte can see the screen lit up behind the towel. She lifts up the towel and looks at Abby.
“Where the fuck have you been hiding this?”
Abby looks down at the dirty kitchen floor.
“Answer me goddamn it.” Abby doesn’t look up, doesn’t see Charlotte’s hand slap the side of her face, just feels the sting and hears the ringing in her ear. “You think this is a joke? I asked you where you’ve been hiding this thing. I’ve been looking for it all week. You lied to me.” She slaps Abby again, this time harder. The familiar car horn honks outside in long, drawn-out phrases. “I don’t have time to deal with this shit right now.” She clomps away, then remembers the TV and turns back to unplug it. The screenshot of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd goes blank, but the image sticks for an instant and Abby isn’t sure if it’s the old screen or her eyes clinging to the familiar cartoon. Charlotte lifts up the TV and carries it like a baby to the front door. She balances it on one knee outside and slams the door shut. The keys jangle and the bolt clicks from the outside.
Abby cries even harder now. Deep sobs choke up in her throat. She waits in the kitchen until she stops crying. She has no idea how long it’s been since her mother left, or how long she’d been crying, since the clock battery was dead. The hands always point to 3:30, but Abby came home from school hours ago. She slides down the stool and scuttles to the bedroom she and her mother share. The room looks different. Abby has been sleeping on the couch for the past week since her mother started bringing home the man with the car. Empty beer cans lie crushed in the middle, shining on the floor along one side of the bed. An empty bottle of wine on its side. Twice as many cigarette butts in the ash tray. Abby scuttles to her secret corner in the back of the closet. She lifts the carpet in the corner and fishes around until her hand settles on the envelope. She pulls it out and smiles a little. She opens the card inside:
It’s been so long since I’ve seen you. I don’t know if your mother will let you have it or not but I’m giving you $50. It’s Christmas and it’s a grandmother’s job to spoil her grandchild. I miss you and I hope someday your mother will let you come visit me again in Lincoln. Your grandfather and I wish you all the best.
Abby puts the $50 bill in her pocket and folds the card back into the envelope. She folds the envelope in half and puts it in her school bag. She packs an extra sweater and an apple she stole from the cafeteria.
It’s a long walk from the apartment complex to the main road in town. Abby considers taking the city bus but she remembers that she needs exact change, and all she has is the $50. She remembers the route from last year when she and her mother moved from Nebraska. A big bus pulls out from behind the building as Abby comes to the door. She walks toward the big glass window. The man at the counter doesn’t see her at first. She clears her throat loudly and gets his attention. She reaches up with the $50 in hand. “One ticket to Lincoln, Nebraska.”