Mom put bottles filled with brown on the liquor store counter. She smiled at the man who took them. He smiled back. He had black hair with grease that made it stand up. Their eyes were locked into each other, Mom’s and the man’s. They were playing with a toy they liked that I couldn’t see.
They ignored me. I was a dog whose leash Mom had let go of. I wanted to reach for Mom’s coat but I didn’t. She wouldn’t want me to. I was trouble for her to manage. I should be quiet or she would say “come here” or “be quiet” or “stop that.”
The man put the bottles in tan paper sacks, took Mom’s money, and smiled even bigger. His happiness overflowed and he looked down and smiled at me, too. His happiness was dirty and I didn’t like him.
“Drive around back,” he said to Mom. As we walked back to the car in the cold, Mom was silently happy, glowing inside. Her happiness didn’t have anything to do with me and Dad. It was her own private happiness.
We got in the car and Mom drove to the back of the liquor store. There were lots of empty cardboard cartons stacked up on either side of a door. I wanted some to take home to play with but it wasn’t my place to ask.
“Stay here,” Mom said.
She got out, went to the rear of the car, and opened the trunk. The back door of the liquor store opened and the man came out carrying a case of beer. He was strong and carried the case like it wasn’t heavy for him at all. The muscles in his arms were big, bigger than Dad’s. The man set the case of beer on the ground and removed the case of empties that was in the trunk while I watched through the window. Then he put the new case in its place and shut the trunk like it was his own car. He smiled at Mom.
It was late afternoon, just before day starts changing into night. Time for Mom’s first beer.
I watched her pour amber into the glass. I felt excitement and anxiety as white foam magically mushroomed on the rising surface. Would the foam flow over the sides of the glass and make a mess? It didn’t. Mom knew how to pour it just right.
Mom lit a cigarette.
I heard Dad’s car rolling into the driveway. I ran to the back door and hugged him as he came in. I put my head inside his coat and smelled his smell. It was the greatest smell in the world. He pulled a comic book out of the big pocket in his coat and gave it to me. I was excited. He was happy because I was happy.
I went to the living room where nobody was so I could let my guard down and look at my comic book in peace. I didn’t know what ‘words’ were, but I devoured pictures, studying the faces of the characters for clues about what they were saying, doing, feeling. Once I got inside the pictures, each one was an explosion of candy in my eyes. Each picture was an entire world, all by itself. After a few pictures, it was too much to take all at once, so I closed the cover.
It was time for dinner. I didn’t really like to eat, but it was something they made me do. Mom and Dad ate at the dining room table. If I had to eat, eating in front of the TV was better than eating at the dining room table because I liked Superman and Mom wasn’t there to tell me I was doing something wrong.
Superman was flying on the screen, easier for him than it was for other people to walk. Mom brought in a tray with cornbread, green beans, and meat in salty gravy on a plate. There was milk in a glass, too much. She left, and I ate a little bit but mostly I watched how Superman did things. I almost had Superman figured out when Mom came back. I was in trouble because there was food on my plate.
“Eat your dinner,” Mom said. There wasn’t a second choice.
Mom left and I set to work. I’d forced most of the food down by the time she returned. I quickly stuffed the rest of the cornbread into my mouth because the longer she could see it the worse it would be. My cheeks bulged. There wasn’t room for my mouth to chew.
“Drink your milk,” she said.
I had to get rid of the cornbread first, so I concentrated and made all of my mouth muscles chew as fast as they could. Then I drank the milk while she watched. It took several rounds of drinking because it was so much and I had to rest in between drinks. Finally, I set the empty glass down she picked up the tray.
“Aunt Sue and Uncle J.D. are coming over,” she said.
This meant there would be no TV and I would have to play on the floor in living room where I could be seen but not heard. But they all would be busy with each other and they wouldn’t bother me. I would have the comfort of parents nearby but the freedom to play in solitude.
Aunt Sue and Uncle J.D. arrived. Mom had explained that they weren’t really my aunt and uncle, but that’s what I should call them. Dad shook Uncle J.D.’s hand and kissed Aunt Sue on the lips. Uncle J.D. kissed Mom the same. They liked kissing.
Then it was my turn. Uncle J.D. squeezed me against him but his belly was in the way of the hug. Then Aunt Sue reached for me. Her clothes were cold from her being outside but her hug was warm. I liked her.
Aunt Sue and Uncle J.D. settled into chairs. Mom brought everyone a drink – beers for Aunt Sue and Dad, something brown in small glasses with ice for Uncle J.D. and Mom. All of them lit cigarettes. Uncle J.D. had a fancy silver lighter that made a clicking sound when he flipped it open. He rolled his thumb on a little wheel and flame popped up really big.
Because we had company, Mom put a glass of cola on the coffee table for me so I could have my own private happiness. The bubbles in the cola hurt, like little pins sticking my tongue and the roof of my mouth, but the cola was sweet. As soon as I recovered from one sip, I wanted another. It was funny how you could keep wanting more and more of something that hurt you.
They were speaking adult gibberish but I saw that they were happy. It was an adult happiness. I was happy playing with my toys on the floor, they were happy playing with toys that adults play with. There was a soft glow in the room.
After a while, Mom told me to tell everyone goodnight. She took me to the bathroom and told me to pee and brush my teeth. I peed, careful not to get any on the floor. Then I stood in front of the sink on a step and squirted toothpaste on my brush and brushed my teeth. When I was done, Mom was waiting outside the door.
She told me to put on my pajamas and go to bed. I did. I turned out the light and pulled covers up to my chin so that only my face was exposed and the rest of me was protected from monsters. Then, after a while, Mom and Dad came into my bedroom. They had big smiles on their faces but it was for the fun they were having with Uncle J.D. and Aunt Sue. They wanted to get back to that.
They said goodnight, but I knew they didn’t see me. They were saying goodnight from a dream, lost in their own private happiness. If the house caught fire, they might not wake up in time to save me or themselves.
Mom took a bottle filled with brown off the shelf and gave it to the man behind the counter at the liquor store. Their eyes were locked into each other, Mom’s and the man’s. They were playing with that toy they liked that I couldn’t see. They talked for a while, but mostly they were looking at each other while they talked. The looking was more important than the talking.
The man shook open a brown paper sack and it made a loud smack. He put the bottle in it. He took money from Mom and smiled. He looked at me, then back at Mom.
“He’s a good kid,” the man said.
He was saying it to her, not me.
“I’ll meet you around back,” Mom said to the man.
We walked to the car and got in. Mom drove the car to the back of the liquor store. Mom parked and turned off the engine.
“Stay here,” she said.
Mom got out and went to the back of the car. She opened the trunk. The man came out the back door carrying a case of beer. He put it on the ground. Then, he lifted the case of empties out of the trunk and put the new case in. He still had that big smile on his face. He and Mom laughed. They talked for a while. Then they looked at me.
Mom opened the car door and got back in. She waved to the man as he went back into the liquor store.
When we got home, it was the middle of the afternoon. The postman was walking from house to house with his big mail pouch. I wondered how he could walk up and down the street carry something that big.
When he got to our house, Mom opened the front door and invited him in. The postman stood by the door with his giant mail pouch slung over his shoulder. He looked like he didn’t know what to do. Mom told him to come on in and sit down. He smiled and stepped into the house, lifting the mail pouch off his shoulder and setting it on the floor by the door. He sat down in the chair Uncle J.D. usually sat in.
Mom went to the kitchen and came back with two glasses of beer, one for him and one for her. He thanked her for the beer. They talked and looked at each other. Their eyes were locked into each other, Mom’s and his. I didn’t like it. But Mom liked it a lot.
They ignored me. I was like the chair or the rug, something filling in the frame of the picture as part of the background. Not a character in the story. They had to take me out of the story so they could enjoy their own private happiness. I had the comic book that Dad gave me, but I couldn’t make myself look at the pictures. I couldn’t stop watching Mom and the postman looking at each other. The more I looked, the more I wanted him to leave and felt like I wouldn’t be able to breathe if he didn’t leave soon. Finally, he stood and picked up his mail pouch. When he did that, Mom looked sad.
Mom took a bottle filled with brown off the shelf and gave it to the man behind the counter at the liquor store. Their eyes were locked into each other, Mom’s and the man’s. They were playing with the toy they liked. The man shook open a brown paper sack with a snap of his wrist and put the bottle in it. Mom handed him money. He shook his head no. Mom put the money back in her purse.
“Meet me around back,” the man said to Mom.
Neither of them looked at me.
I followed Mom out to the car and we got in. She drove to the back of the liquor store. She parked and we waited. The back door of the liquor store opened. The man appeared between the stacks of empty brown cartons. He held the door open and waved for Mom to come to him.
“I’m going to lock the doors,” Mom said to me in a low voice. She didn’t look at me. I knew if she caught me looking at her, she would get mad, so I turned away.
“You stay inside the car until I get back,” she said. “Don’t let anyone in this car and don’t unlock the doors.”
Mom made the lock click on all the doors and got out. She checked the doors from the outside, trying each one to make sure they wouldn’t open. Then she walked from the car to the man waiting for her at the back door of the liquor store, picking her way around the stacks of empty brown cartons that I couldn’t play with. The man opened the door wider. Mom went in and the man closed the door behind them.
I picked up the comic book that Dad had given me. I opened it and studied the pictures, focusing on the faces of the characters for clues to what they were saying, doing, feeling. I tried to get inside the pictures. Finally, I did, and I let each one explode in my eyes, an entire world, all by itself, sweet like cola, but with little bubbles that hurt.