by Lisa Yarnell
Cousin Natalie’s car is special like I pictured, a bright red one—nice except for the scratch running across the driver’s side. I feel better about everything just riding in it. The first thing she asks about is what all happened with my kids. It’s been over a month since that horrible night, and she never returned my phone call about it up until yesterday, when she agreed to give me a ride. I had told her over the phone that there was a gun involved, and the officers took the kids, but she doesn’t know the details. So, I give her the run-down.
“Terry brought home a firearm that afternoon. Just a little one, but it made me mad as hell, and we were fighting about it.”
“A gun?” Natalie asked. “What did Terry want with a gun? He’s so timid.”
“I sure as hell do not know,” I told her. “That’s what I kept asking him. But it was something about his friend Tiger called him over for a roofing job, and he couldn’t pay Terry cash, so he told him he’d trade him the gun.”
Terry has always had anxiety, I reminded Natalie, and our complex has some crime. With the babies, I guess Terry thought it would make him feel strong to have a weapon. I’ve given it some consideration, how all these things led to the social work people removing my children.
“And this got Primo and Talia taken away?” Natalie asked.
“Well, there’s more,” I said. “Me and Terry got real upset with each other over dinner. I started drinking purple passions, and he went upstairs to get high with the neighbors. We did not usually yell much, and I do not drink until the kids are in bed, and not even every night, but that’s how we showed each other we were in a disagreement. After a while, Terry came back down with the neighbors and went over to the barbecue grill where a bunch of people from the complex were having a party. It was getting dark, and I was getting--let’s just say it--drunk, and the kids were in bed.”
With Natalie, I don’t go into how, once I knew that me and Terry were going to have it out, I gave Primo some Benadryl, which puts him out for the whole night, usually. Talia, the littlest, was singing herself to sleep in the crib, and she sleeps like a rock. Usually I don’t leave those kids for nothing, but this was just outside to the barbecue grill, and the stars were all out. I needed to think.
I was pissed and scared about the gun, and I hated fighting with Terry. I couldn’t stand to think about even coming close to a break-up; we have survived on our own since I got pregnant the first time at sixteen years old, and I had no idea how I’d get by without him, or him without me. I was wondering about how we would work this out. Because we had to. We were a family.
What I tell Natalie is, “I went out and sat on one of the patio chairs, just drinking and watching Terry, waiting for him to figure out that he was the one who had done wrong. In a little bit, things around the barbecue grill started to get tense, like the whole night read our minds. Some woman started getting all sharp with her boyfriend about how to cook meat, and he poked her with a hot fork, and two other guys in the crowd started getting loud about who-knows-what, and then they started wailing on each other and knocked the whole grill over, and finally somebody who was trying to sleep called the cops.”
Terry was standing on the edge of the action, just watching, trying to think of how to make things up with me, I bet. I was on a slow boil, calming down from a rolling boil. I couldn’t hardly move because of too much to drink, and when the cops showed up, I was just gonna sit back and watch how they handled all this.
“I forgot about my kids!” I told Natalie.
I still can’t believe I just forgot about my kids, but the vodka must have flipped my mama switch off. After the cops had been there a bit, I heard a deep voice that got my attention, and I saw one cop, his hand on Primo’s head. I got up to say, “Son, what are you doing out of bed?”
The cop said to me, “Ma’am, is this your son? He’s got a gun.” And sure enough, with the fight and the partying and all, Terry had left that damn gun on the table, and Primo had woke up and got hold of it. It wasn’t loaded, but nevertheless, it all added up bad for the law--a 3-year-old handling a firearm, their daddy all high and nearly involved in the fight, me so drunk I could hardly walk. And on top of it, that gun that wasn’t legal for Terry to have, anyway.
“Rotten luck,” said Natalie to all this.
I thought, well, not much luck had to do with it. Me and Terry had been stupid, and despite all our previous efforts to make things right for our kids, we had blown it all to hell in one night.
“Where’s Terry now?” she asked.
“I’m not real sure,” I said.
“What? You’re not living with him?”
“No,” I said.
At first, I was still so mad about the gun and so crazy about where my kids had went, I didn’t care where Terry was, and then the apartments terminated our lease, and I didn’t have a car, and I didn’t have a place to stay, and all the assistance for families ended, and so I moved into next door with Nicky, who needed help with her children and said I could stay if I’d watch them on her school nights. I’d been too busy to chase Terry down.
“He came by two days ago,” I told her. “He’s says he’s on release and going to a JOBS program down in Palm Beach.”
She took it all in, and that was enough detail for her, for the most part. She wanted to know what my plans were.
“Stay cool. I’m trying to stay cool,” I told her, because that is one of the guidelines of family reunification. Commit. Communicate. Stay calm, cool, and collected. Create structure. I memorized those from a website I saw on getting custody back. It’s all the ideas I have about what to do.
Once we get to Natalie’s condo, it’s still light outside, and it’s all about show-and-tell for a while. She’s always got new jewelry, clothes, something for her kitchen, and this time it’s an espresso maker that she can use to make all the Starbucks type of drinks. She makes us lattes, then adds Bailey’s Irish Cream, a lot of it. I have not been partying ever since the incident, but I am happy to do so now. I have no responsibilities. We go out to her balcony to sit and look at the river, fish jumping, cranes and pelicans stopping by, just a bit of wind on the water, enough to make ripples that look like a flock of a million birds flying on the waves where the sunshine hits. I could sit there all night.
When we go inside to order some supper, Natalie shows me a mess of black computer things and cords on her coffee table.
“You can help me with a job for Jason,” she says. “I’ve got to do something for him tonight.”
And I realize she’s got us into some scheme. I’m not really pissed, but more like oh my god, not now, please. Some hijinks of Natalie’s is not going to help me create structure and show anybody I have good judgment. But I did call on her for the ride to take me to the supervised visitation with my kids, and she’s treating me to this little overnight party at her slick condo. So, if she’s got a scheme going, I guess I got to go along.
I say “What kind of job?” and she says we need to reprogram the computers on some old cars on one of Jason’s used auto lots, and I will get $25 per car. Whatever we’re doing to those cars, I know it’s gonna be shady.
“Odometer adjustments,” she says.
“Well, get me gloves,” I tell her. “I ain’t leaving no fingerprints.”
Natalie’s got light red hair, and she always goes to the trouble of putting waves in it. She’s got freckles that show through the makeup on her face and a big smile. I could be considered pretty, but I never tried to trade on it for a damned thing because, for me, I’m sure the price would be more than just letting somebody look at the sights. Natalie, on the other hand, she’s happy to get whatever she can out of looking so good. She is the only one of my whole family who did get an education, paralegal school, and every time I see her, there’s a new car, or a different apartment, or some new trip or gadget, and it’s all tied in to one man or another. Much of the time her arrangements with her boyfriends comes to some kind of drama.
My sister and me have always called her the Great Cousin Natalie, all the way back to when she would take us out for ice cream when mom and George were drunk or fighting. Having a car is a big deal in my family, and she’d always show up with a working vehicle, taking us to fancy dress stores when we were seven or eight years old, showing up when we could technically drive but had no vehicle, giving us fake i.d.’s when we were minors, and paying for our whole bill out at some club. So, she’s always been a great sight to see coming up the walk.
When we got into her car at Martin’s Towels, where I got a job last week, she told me his wife keyed her car. That’s the kind of drama I’ve come to expect with her. It’s a sweet car, red, of course, but that key mark uglies it right up.
I let her talk all about Jason and how much he wants to leave his wife and take her down to live in Key West at his condo, but first he’s got to make sure he’s got good help in place to keep the dealerships humming along, and he still needs to be there right now because it’s always something.
She says, “I bet you I could get Jason to get you a really cheap car, even free, if you can buy the insurance.”
This whole situation just seems like trouble with a big T, but my ears perk up because I need to go so many places to show the people I’m ready to be a fit mother. They want me to go to a substance abuse program. They want me to take parenting classes, and my social worker told me it would be good to start a G.E.D. And they ain’t offering me no rides to all that.
We get to the used auto lot about 10pm, and I do make Natalie stop at the CVS so I can get some kitchen gloves to cover my hands, because even though she says this is not a big deal, I will be damned if I am going to leave fingerprints all over somebody’s rolled-back odometer. I have not ever been desperate enough to risk myself for 25 bucks or whatever this is going to pay. I’m just doing it because Natalie asked. I don’t even know why Natalie needs it, either, but she has always been taken with the idea of doing something underhanded.
It don’t take me long to realize why I’m gonna be useful for this episode. Natalie’s slim, but she’s tall and big-boned, so I’m the one picked to crawl under the steering wheel and look for a plug-up for the car’s computer. She’s shown me a how-to video on her phone; it looks kind of like the one for my old printer, but she says it can be black or gray, and everything’s black in that space under the steering wheel. I can see why Natalie didn’t even change out of her sundress or those shiny yellow shoes--she’s just gonna sit up there in the passenger seat and type into that little computer thing once I hook it up, while I crawl around in the dark, all cramped up.
“Here, I’ll shine the flashlight down there,” she says all pleasant, like she’s doing me some big turn. And then she gets sharp: “Carrie, don’t lay on the gas pedal,” she says.
It’s not like there’s all sorts of room down here, but I twist the small of my back a little so that I’m not leaning on nothing, just twisting my neck up to try to find that little plug-hole up in the roof of this little cave.
“You remember what it looks like?” Natalie asks. And yes, I do, she just showed me that video not 10 minutes ago, but this is her way of rushing me. My back is twisted, my head is cramped, and she’s shining the light on the floorboard, and I say, “Shit, Natalie, give me that flashlight. It needs to point up!”
And, oh my Lord, I’d forgot how high and mighty she gets when you cuss her. She doesn’t say anything, but I can feel her huffing around up there; she pushes the flashlight in front of my face, and I have to twist my shoulder to take it in my hand. But then I find it fast, the spot where we need to plug the thing in, and then she gets busy on her little machine typing in whatever kind of wrong information she has come up with.
I want to get up. I got in fine from the side, but she’s shut the damn door to keep the car lights off, so I have to put both hands up on the seat, flatten myself, and squirm up from under the steering wheel.
“Don’t hit the gears,” she says, not even looking at me.
By the time we get to the third car--we’re going to do five, she says--we’ve got it down. They’re all Fords, and the plug-holes are all in about the same place. Natalie hasn’t said much, ever since I said shit, but just as I plug the cord into this third one, Natalie says it, too: “Shit, turn off the flashlight!”
And she dives down into the other side of the floorboard.
I turn off the flashlight and say, “What’s going on?” and she says, shush, and nothing else. Then I hear a car door slam, footsteps, and metal sound and some guy talking--sorta quiet but fierce:
”For Christ sake, the damn thing’s locked up! You got a tire iron?”
And I hear another guy from up by the road say, “Keith, just get back in the car,” and Keith tells him, “I can see it, right there. I could drive it straight out if I could break this damn chain lock,” and then he yells, “I want my damn car!”
I hear the other guy open and shut the car door and come up, and they’re talking for a minute, but quiet. Then I hear Keith say, “I’m coming back with a bolt cutter.” And apparently he’s leaving now, because I hear the walking and the car doors, and then the car start up and pull away.
Natalie has some trouble getting herself up from the floorboard, and it’s spiteful of me, but I think, see, it ain’t so easy.
“Oh my god, I need a drink,” she says, and danged if she doesn’t open her purse and take out a thermos and pour herself one. “You want?” she asks, and I say “no,” instead of “hell, no,” which is what I want to say, now that we’ve almost been caught in this damn scheme while I’m trying to get structure in my life and when I have to see a social worker in the morning.
“I think we should stop and go home,” I say, after I’ve squirmed out and am sitting with my gloved hands on the steering wheel trying to stretch my back out, but she says we need to finish this one, and we’re all plugged up, so she turns on her little box and fiddles with it for a while.
“I’m beat,” I tell her. “And that guy’s coming back any minute.”
“Oh, he won’t come back,” she says. “He just got drunk and wanted his repo. His friend won’t let him risk breaking in and stealing the car.”
I’m pressing my lips together trying not to say what she, my cousin, is making me risk.
When we get out of that car, I think we’re going to leave, but Natalie walks right on over to the next Ford, and I’m right behind her trying to tell her that we are not doing this.
“Natalie, damn it, we gotta git,” I say, cussing her yet again, and she whirls around so fast with that thermos open in her hand, and I bump into her, and the Bailey’s latte splashes all over my shirt.
“Do you want a free car, or not?” she asks me, with a tone like I am one ungrateful child.
“Natalie, we have no agreement that I’m doing this for a car. You didn’t even know I was going to be staying with you until yesterday--how’d you work out that I was going to do this and get a car?”
“Well, I could get you one, one of the older ones, if I talk to Jason.” She stopped. I think she knew I was getting exasperated. “Two more,” she said. “I promised, and I don’t want to disappoint him. I’ll owe you, Carrie.”
So I did it again. I crawled in under the steering wheel of Ford number four. I found the plug-up. Natalie did her thing, and then when I was coming up out of the well, I banged my head on the gearshift right on the side of my eye, and it hurt like hell, and I could feel it swelling up. I pictured myself with a black eye going in to see my kids, and I stretched my arms over that seat and laid my head down. Then I smelled the Bailey’s all soaked into my shirt and bra. I had brought a different shirt to wear tomorrow, but no extra bra. I was near crying. I said something.
“What?” asked Natalie, taking a sip of her liquor.
“How come no one in our family has any sense?” I asked. I was really asking the air around me, but Natalie took it as me really asking.
“Your mama and stepdaddy have no sense, and I hate to say it, but your sister Karen has no sense, but I do have good sense. You got some.”
“Natalie, you got me out here in the dead of night doing illegal operations on a car, getting banged up and smelling like Bailey’s Irish Cream, almost about to get caught by some yahoo with a bolt-cutter, all to make some married man happy who will probably not give me a car or you a condo, and this is the night before I have to show the social worker that I am an absolutely fit mother for my children. You do not have any more sense than any of the rest of us!”
She says nothing for a whole minute, while I lay there with my eyes closed, and then she says this, slow: “Carrie, it’s not my fault that you put your kids in enough danger so that the state felt compelled to take them into custody.”
And I cannot stand to be there one more moment. Not with her, who I now want to slap up and down, and not in this damn, dark parking lot that’s like some party for criminals stealing cars and rolling back odometers. The complex is a couple of miles from here, but I get out and start walking that direction. I know behind me Natalie is just shrugging her pretty tan shoulders. She won’t take my disrespect. She’s the only one who’s got it made in my family, and she knows it.
I try to stay off the highway just far enough so that I’m safe, but not on anybody’s property. This or that crunches under my feet, and I hope not to ruin the only pair of shoes I got. I pass some houses with grassy yards and shiny fences. Then I see some others that have patches of weeds and no fences. Nearly all of them have a mailbox that’s got flowers planted around it or a special something-pretty by the front door. And they all have an automobile in the driveway.
I pass some shopping centers with lit-up signs saying the store names, traffic lights with their color code to let people know what to do on the road. I can’t even count the streetlights ahead of me, all the same distance apart, and not a one with a burned-out bulb. Even the curb on the road seems like a miracle. And I start crying just to think about all the structure, all the damn structure, all the damn sense these people have, to set up these houses, plan out these streets, open up these stores, and get to and from it all with everybody safe, and I wonder where the hell does that come from.
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