WHEN I'M IN TROUBLE
by Kate Senecal
The afternoon when Timothy comes over for a haircut, Mom makes me and Billy bologna sandwiches and tomato soup for lunch. She cuts mine in fourths, and gives me Billy’s crusts. I wish she had made grilled cheese instead, but I know better than to tell her this. I like bologna okay, as long as there’s both mayonnaise and mustard on it. With my mother, it’s like someone is always pinching her. Leaning over the table to hand us our sandwiches, her blond hair spills around her tight face. She keeps pulling on her hoop earrings and tugging at the tails of her shirt.
It’s a new one— the shirt.
It occurs to me that she is hoping Timothy will kiss her, and I think about this while chewing my sandwich and looking out the window. When our dad lived at home, he kissed her a lot. In the kitchen. He’d put his hands on her waist, and make like he was going to bite her ears and neck in the corner between the sink and the oven. Mom would just stand there and swat at him like he was a mosquito.
Issue #54 soundtrack: Leda "Halfway"
“Jake, not now.”
“Christ, Grace,” he said once when he pulled away to get beer out of the fridge, “you’re like a fucking ice princess.” Then he walked past us to go into the basement and work on those model cars he always built on the weekends.
Sitting at the kitchen table with Billy that day playing Go Fish! I liked the idea of my mother as an ice princess. It fit her. She was already so pale and tall, like my Swedish Barbie who I imagined ice-skated in the Olympics. She would wear a blue, shiny dress with a skirt that billowed out like a snow-covered mountain.
“Momma,” I said, “that’s a nice idea Daddy has. You could wear a blue dress that sparkles and stuff.” Bobby asked me for a seven, and I told him to go fish.
“Chelsea, shut your mouth,” she said, as if I had wounded her, and marched down the hallway into her room.
“What’s wrong with Mom?” Billy asked.
“I don’t know.”
“She’s so weird,” he said, and I laughed, took a sip of my orange juice, and asked him if he wanted to play Chutes and Ladders instead.
She stayed in there until dinnertime.
Today is the fifth snow of the season, though it’s barely November. It looks like we might have gotten a whole foot, which is enough for a snowman and a fort. I swallow before I’m done chewing, Billy drinks his soup straight out of the bowl, and my mother washes the dishes with a sloppy swish of the sponge and then puts them on the drying rack even though there are still suds on them. We’re all ready to do something else.
Mom’s slippers stick and un-stick down the hallway to the bathroom, where she heaves the hair-cutting suitcase out of the closet and carries it into the kitchen. She puts it on the counter next to the flour jar, opens it and lays all kinds of clips and combs and scissors out on top of a towel. I wonder how much hair this Timothy guy has, and I miss my dad. I liked it better when he lived with us. He’s in California with a new wife and new children. They’re her kids who have a different dad. He sometimes sends us letters, just to me and Billy, that tell us he misses us, but nothing else. I don’t really believe him, but Billy does. That’s because I’m eight and know more about when grown-ups are lying. I figure if he missed us so much he’d come back. I get up from the kitchen chair and ask if we can go outside, taking Billy’s bowl and plate with me to the sink.
On my tiptoes I can wash dishes.
She says we can, though I can tell she only half-heard what I asked, and I open the coat closet and fumble for our winter things.
“Why are there candles? Did we lose power?” Billy asks.
“They’re nice. You don’t think they’re nice? She’s different than when Dad was here-- hungrier-- and she is looking at Billy and me like something urgent is happening.
“They’re too much,” she decides, but then looks again at Billy, who is standing next to me waiting for me to give him his hat and boots, the fringe of his bowl cut so long it almost covers his eyes.
She blows them out like it’s a birthday party, and then stands back to get a full view of the counter that is covered in candles and hair-cutting tools and cookie jars.
Billy shrugs and puts his boots on. I zip up his and my snowsuit, tuck my braids inside of my hat, and then sweep his bangs into his.
“Maybe just half as many,” I say because she wants us to have an answer for her. Mom fumbles in the pocket of her jeans for her lighter and moves her mouth into a tired, grateful smile.
Outside we go to work, and I feel better. I am tired of all of these men, and how my mother is when they’re coming over. On my knees I let the snow soak my suit, and I palm a softball-sized chunk of it until my hands are too cold to hold it. The men are usually all right, and sometimes they bring us things like candy. Or this one guy, Jason, brought me a Little Mermaid T-shirt. I don’t wear it, though, because one time, a few weeks later, Mom came home from a date with him and cried and drank wine on the kitchen floor in the old, yellow bathrobe that Dad bought her until one in the morning. I sat with her, with our backs against the broiler drawer on the oven and held her hand, and she told me stories about how Dad was in high school.
“Your daddy doesn’t think I know how to be happy,” she told me while she poured the last of the wine into the jar she was drinking out of. “Fuck him, right?” I was so tired, and I didn’t say anything because I thought that what Dad had said was true.
I feel really serious about the snowman. I want it to be good. I push my snowball toward the driveway, and by the time I get to the mailbox, I’ve made a snow-boulder as tall as my belly button. I think about how Dad’s new kids don’t know anything about how good he is at making a snowball in California, then I feel sort of bad. They’re probably nice, and anyway, it’s not their fault.
Timothy drives a green truck, and as it barrels down the hill into our driveway, it spews the new snow all over the curb. He slams the door when he gets out, and waves like he knows us, and walks toward the house.
Billy stands still in front of his snow boulder, which is lopsided, and waves back excitedly.
He looks over at me and says, “He’s short.”
And he is. My dad would call him a “stocky son of a bitch,” which is what he used to say about the owner of the hardware store down the street that one time sold him a broken hammer. Timothy looks like him except he has a weirdly long, almost curly patch of hair on his chin.
He is not carrying gifts.
Billy is wiping his nose on his mitten, and I tell him to cut it out. “It’s gross.”
I swat at his hand that is little and round like a kitten paw. He jerks it away and a grating, whining sound comes out between his teeth. “No telling me what to do!” I let him walk to other side of the yard to roll some more snow around.
Sometimes he does this thing where when we’re at the store or something, he puts his hand down the front of his elastic-waist pants, and Mom is never paying attention, so I have to tell him not to. He always takes my Barbies and puts their heads in his mouth. Then he cries because the hair tickles his throat, and Mom yells at me for leaving them on the floor.
Sometimes I yell at her that it’s my room. “He shouldn’t be in here!”
“He’s only four, Chelsea,” she says.
“Right, old enough to be in a different room by himself!”
But arguing with Mom is useless. Even when I’m right she doesn’t ever change her mind about anything.
I tell Billy I’ll be right back, and head towards the house even though I already know Mom will be mad if I go inside. I stomp up the stairs trying to sound loud, but the steps are very slippery and I have to lurch forward to catch the handle of the door so I don’t fall. Once I get my balance back, I take a deep breath before opening the door, which is what my dad always told me to do before doing anything that was a big deal, like tap dancing for my dance recital.
I open the screen door first, and let it lean against my back. I know the metal must be cold, but I can’t feel it through my snowsuit. My whole body goes into the wooden door behind the screen, and it swings open, the way it does when there is a big storm and my mother doesn’t close it all the way. On the landing, I stomp my feet, and flecks of snow go everywhere.
“We want hot chocolate.”
This is an announcement. I am trying to make my voice big, like Cassandra’s who lives up the street and does morning announcements on the school intercom. She makes chicken nugget day at lunch sound important.
Timothy is already in my dad’s chair with the hair-cutting smock on. I think he looks stupid and shaggy, and I tell him so with my face while I pull off my boots. I take a long time getting undressed, partly because I’m trying to make curly-beard-guy feel squirmy, but also because the zipper in my snowsuit gets stuck. I jump up and down trying to get it to go, and finally it works.
The kitchen is smokey, and the lights are really blurry and dim. I think Mom will have a hard time seeing his hair, and I, just for a second, worry that she’s going to nip him in the ear or on his neck. Once she accidentally did that to Billy. It was only his second haircut ever in his whole life, on a night that Dad didn’t come home from work until after eleven. Mom left his dinner sitting on the table for those four hours, and got so impatient waiting for him she decided that it’d be good to give us haircuts. I put on Billy Joel because he was her and Dad’s favorite, and danced around to “Uptown Girl.” I sang every single word to her because I know all of them. She sort of laughed a little bit, but she was so mad at Dad that her hands were shaking, and she cut Billy’s ear and got blood on his shirt.
Mom and I went to a Billy Joel concert while Dad was packing his things into a U-haul. Billy stayed at Grandma’s house, and it was just me and her. The security guard guy told us that some people got upgraded to sit in the front row, and walked us up there. I couldn’t believe his hands on the piano, and I tried to think about how many times he must’ve played all of these songs. I mean, he’s pretty old. But my mom cried a lot, and I had to hold her hand even though I really wanted to ask her how many times she thought Billy Joel has sung “She’s Always a Woman.”
When we got home that night, the house felt strange. We were missing things like the toaster and the blender my dad used in the mornings to make smoothies because he doesn’t like to eat breakfast. There were two pans left instead of three hanging on the pot rack. I imagined my parents sitting at the kitchen table making a list of things that were my mom’s and things that were my dad’s. Maybe they ate Arby’s Roast Beef sandwiches, and fought about that pot.
“You don’t need four pots,” my dad might have said.
“You don’t need four ladies to kiss,” Mom might have said back to him.
“Be quick, Chelsea,” Mom says, but I take a long time opening cabinets where I know there is no hot chocolate, and climbing all over the counter to get mugs for Billy and me. I watch how careful she is with Timothy’s unruly hair, how she lets her hand rest on his neck and laughs in a high pitched, weird way when he tells her about the yoga class he teaches.
“I used to do yoga when I was in college. I always think I should get back into it.”
“Well, you definitely have the body for it,” Timothy’s voice is low like a dog growling. In fact, he sort of looks like he’s going to bite her, and he’s putting his hands on her middle and rubbing it. She giggles, and I hear her say something like, “Chelsea’s still in the room,” and this makes me want to take longer.
The water starts boiling, and the teakettle makes a screeching, hissing noise. I start humming, and turn off the burner, pour the water into the mugs, and stir the powder so that the spoon clanks.
My mother is cutting Timothy’s hair now. Long locks of it are floating to the floor like cartoon feathers, and he’s saying something about the importance of breathing. “Mrs. Martin, my teacher, says that it’s better to breathe from the bottom of your belly and then hold it until you think you’re gonna puke. She says it’s a test of strength,” I tell him, interrupting. Actually, George Christopherson said that at recess the other day, but I don’t think he’d carry that much weight with Timothy, so I lied about Mrs. Martin.
“That’s actually a terrible idea, Chelsea.”
My mother looks sideways at me a bunch of times, and mouths the words “Outside. Now.”
I pretend not to see her. I saunter past the kitchen table and Timothy, and make sure I walk through the pile of thick hair on the floor. I track it all the way to the mat where my wet boots made a puddle.
“Well, I don’t think you know anything about it because you’re probably stupider than my teacher.” I say this matter-of-factly, with my arms over across my sweater that has cats on it, and I raise my eyebrows at him the way Cassandra from up the street does to me when she wants me to know she’s older and better than me.
My mother slams the scissors on the table, and brushes hair off of the thigh part of her jeans in time to this huffing breathing she’s doing.
“Chelsea, I have to show you something in my room,” and she tells yoga-teacher Timothy that we’ll be right back. It’s like she is talking through her teeth. He nods, and slouches in my dad’s chair with sopping wet hair that’s too long for a man to have.
“You do what you have to do, honey,” and he gives me some sort of triumphant look that I don’t think grown-ups are allowed to give children.
In her bedroom there’s an old crucifix my grandmother gave her on the wall. It is above her bureau where her wedding ring sits, and I stare at it and cross my arms. My mother kneels in front of me, and she cups my chin, pinching my cheeks with her fingernails.
“You have to be nice to Timothy, Chelsea. Stop acting like a baby.”
“He’s stupid, Mom. I don’t like him,” I say. I don’t even know if this is what I think, if that’s really the thing I don’t like.
My mother sits on the edge of the bed, and rubs her eyes- her thumb in her left eye, her pointer finger in her right. She scrunches up her nose, and makes a sighing sound.
“You should be outside with your brother. Don’t you want to be a good big sister? He needs you to take care of him. I need you to take care of him.”
I can feel my nostrils flaring. Like a rabbit. My dad used to be able make his nostrils flare really fast, and sometimes he could move the top of his ears up and down. I tried to learn how to do this, and it would make me snort, and then he would tickle me on the carpet of the living room.
I stare at the throw rug near the bed, and the red, blue, and yellow woven stripes blur and swirl together.
In the next room, Timothy is whistling. My mother stops talking to me for a second, and leans her head toward the doorway to listen. Her eyes get soft and wet, and she smiles toward the doorway. She looks far away, but beautiful. Like she’s in a movie, and even though she’s standing right in front of me, I feel like I miss her very much. I wish that my father would come home and bring my mother with him.
“Chelsea, I need some grown-up time. Don’t you know that this has been a very difficult for Mommy since your father left? ” She trails off and does the eye pinching thing again, like every word requires a huge effort.
Her hands fall into her lap, and when she looks up at me I can tell she is so tired. There are purple shadows under her eyes, and the skin on the sides of them look like a crumpled piece of paper. She wants to know if I understand, and I do. I understand that she is doing something that makes my stomach hurt and my cheeks burn, and that she feels like she deserves whatever this is. I don’t tell her this.
Instead I say, “ It isn’t just you. He didn’t leave just you,” and the words feel hot in my mouth, like they are right but too old for me, too sharp for her.
There is what looks like a flash or a ripple that runs through her face, it changes so fast.
Then she slaps me.
I know I sort of deserve it. But I don’t care.
She cries a little and holds my chin again.
“Chelsea, don’t you ever….” But she can’t finish, and I know by the way her eyes are shiny that I have broken something. We are separate now.
I shake my head out of her hand, and reach for a tissue on the dresser. I hand it to her, and walk out of the bedroom, down the hallway, and to the door. I leave the hot chocolates on the kitchen counter.
Outside, Billy has almost finished the snowman, but is having trouble getting the head on top. My boots stick in the snow, and it feels hard and frustrating to walk towards him. When I’m next to him, Billy lets the head roll along the body of the snowman to the ground. His mittens are so big. Like giant oven mitts. I’m crying, and when he asks me why it feels better to be talking, as if since I left the house I had become a helium-filled balloon, and my little brother’s voice tugged the string and put me back into my body.
“Mom is mad,” I tell him.
Billy frowns, and asks why.
“Because she’s crazy.” Together we heave the snowman’s head on top, and I punch the snow around his neck to make sure it stays on.
“I told that Timothy guy that he was stupid and didn’t know about breathing. Now Mom says we can’t go back in there until he leaves.”
“Is he stupid?”
“Wicked. And his hair is way longer than Daddy’s.”
Billy waddles over to me and puts his head against my middle. I think he’s trying to hug me but the sleeves of his coat are too thick and his arms are barely touching me.
“I hate him, too,” he says. I rest my chin on the top of his head.
“Snowman needs a face,” I say.
So we walk around the yard looking for rocks and sticks. The snow man ends up with one eye that’s bigger then the other because most of the rocks are all under the snow so we can’t get to them. The tops of my mittens are starting to be soaked through, and I have to pee. We can’t go inside, though.
At least an hour passes. We’re tired. We stand on our tiptoes and look through the window of the kitchen door. Timothy has a new haircut and his hands up my mother’s button-up shirt. She is sitting on the counter, scissors and clips on the floor.
I sit on the steps, and the ice against my butt makes me have to pee more. I shake my leg up and down, and look at Billy with big, desperate eyes. He holds his knees against his chest.
“Can’t we just go in?” he asks.
“No. She’s too mad.”
So we sit, and the sun goes down, and the snowman starts to stoop forward, and my bladder burns. I start to walk in circles in the driveway, and think about how I shouldn’t have said anything. How I don’t do enough to make things better for Mom. And for Billy. Who, sitting on the steps, all small and cold, doesn’t have any idea that Dad isn’t ever coming home.
Finally Timothy opens the screen door and walks past us toward his truck. Then my mother comes, and I can’t hold it anymore so I do it. I pee. I feel it pool in the creases of my vinyl snowsuit. My knees are wet. My mother runs toward me just as Billy scurries into the house.
She kneels in the snow in front of me in just her blue jeans and that button-up shirt, and she hugs me and says, “Chelsea, baby, why didn’t you come inside?” She repeats the “why didn’t you come inside part” over and over. I make crying sounds like hiccups, and say I don’t know, and am glad just for right now that I’m not in trouble anymore.
Kate Senecal is a writer and copy-editor based in Northampton, MA. Her fiction has been published in The Foundling Review, and she will complete her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts in July of 2013.
Corey Pandolph is a cartoonist and writer living in New York City. His work can be seen in The New Yorker, The Huffington Post and MAD Magazine. He avoids pants whenever possible. Follow him on Tumblr and Twitter.
Leda are a five-piece indie rock band from Brooklyn. They represent the natural evolution of former Titus Andronicus guitarist Amy Klein's solo project, combining punk guitar lines and heavy drums with poetic lyrics, dramatic cello, and soaring vocal harmonies. The result is a sound that harnesses beauty and raw power in equal measure. For more, visit the band on Facebook, or catch them play in Brooklyn on Sept. 6 as part of BUST Magazine's August/September issue release party.