As far as James was concerned, toilet paper was toilet paper. Didn’t matter if it was Charmin two-ply or the 99-cent bargain brand. Lynn tried to tell him different, that sometimes you just had to pay more for quality, but James would hear none of that.
“I’m not working twelve hours a day to waste my money on a name brand,” he said, pushing the metal grocery cart down the aisle.
Lynn sighed. She was working forty hours a week and figured she had a say in how their money was spent. She grabbed a box of unscented tissues and set them inside the cart. “Sally’s getting a cold,” she explained.
“I’m not cold,” Sally said. The five-year-old was clutching two pennies she had found outside on the sidewalk. When she opened her hand to tug on her mother’s skirt, the pennies fell onto the ground. “Wait!” she cried, then got onto her knees. The pennies hadn’t traveled far.
“Get C.J., will you?” James told his wife. “I don’t want him horsin’ around in the toy section again. Just because the store’s practically empty doesn’t mean he has the run of it.”
He didn’t know why his children had to misbehave so much. C.J. was in the sixth grade, but you wouldn’t know it by how he acted. Last week his teacher had left a message on their answering machine, saying that C.J. filled a glue bottle with white paint. And this was after he’d already gotten in trouble the week before, for sassing the teacher. Sally was only in kindergarten, but she could read books: the smart ones always turned out to be bigger handfuls than the stupid ones.
And then there was Ricky, two-years-old and the only one in the family with blue eyes, who sat in the front of the grocery cart, facing his daddy. “You’re gonna be a good boy,” James said to his youngest son. “Yes you are.” Ricky was half asleep, but who could blame him at 12:30 in the morning?
Lynn appeared with C.J. at the end of the toilet paper/tissues/diaper aisle. He didn’t understand why he had to walk with them the entire time, but Lynn told him to humor his father. “It’s the only time he gets to see you,” she said.
Two weeks ago, James’ boss told him he had to change to the night shift at
Brendamour’s, a sporting goods warehouse down at the corner of Mitchell and Spring Grove. That meant, in the only times he and Lynn were both home, one of them was sleeping. They agreed it couldn’t hurt the children to stay up late once in a while so the whole family could be together for a shopping trip to Kroger.
“We should’ve brought a list,” James said. “We’ll end up buying all kinds of things we don’t need.”
“Like toilet paper? Hon, you worry too much. We’re doing fine.” Lynn eyed a
package of Bounty paper towels. The strong lumberjack on the package suggested the strength of the quilted papers inside of it. Those would be nice to have in the kitchen, with two small children who enjoyed spilling things. While James was looking at the items to the left, Lynn grabbed a six-pack of Bounty paper towels and set it inside the cart.
“Dirty heaven,” C.J. said.
The eleven-year-old glared at his mother. He had been thinking about what happened when people died. Did they go to heaven, like the priest said each Sunday? And what was that heaven like? A clean place, full of sterile white clouds? What if it was dirty? The words “dirty heaven” stuck in his head like Barry Larkin’s 1997 batting average of .317.
“Quit lagging and get up front with me,” James said.
C.J. hurried to his father’s side, right behind Ricky in the shopping cart. He looked past his brother and into the cart: there weren’t any sweets, not even the sugar flakes instead of plain wheat, or pudding packs for after supper. C.J. wasn’t surprised. “If it ain’t breakfast, lunch, or dinner, we don’t need it,” his father always said.
The cashier rang up the items while Lynn waited at the end of the counter to bag them. James gave the cashier two twenties, then handed her a credit card. “Put the rest on this,” he said.
Sally cried “oops” as she dropped her pennies on the floor again. She got onto her stomach in between the checkout counter and the case with all the candy bars and gum. Stretching her arm and feeling underneath the case, she only found dust.
“Get up,” her mother said.
“Can I have another?” Sally asked.
“If I give it to you,” her father said, waiting for the receipt, “what does that tell you about money? That it doesn’t matter if you’re careless because someone will always be there to bail you out?”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“Don’t lose this.” James handed Sally a nickel, signed the receipt, then told
the cashier to have a good night.
After the groceries had been put away and the kids had been tucked in, husband and wife sat at the kitchen table.
“You should get going,” Lynn said. She squeezed James’ hand. “Blister?”
“It’s nothing,” James said.
“Doesn’t look like nothing. Babe, it’s bleeding. I’ll get you a bandage.”
“I’ll be late. Don’t worry about it.”
“It’ll take two seconds,” Lynn said, standing up. She ran upstairs to the bathroom and took a medium-sized bandage out of a box.
James was gone when Lynn came back down the stairs. She heard a door shut than ran outside to watch their brown station wagon slowly back out of the driveway. She waved good-bye then climbed onto the center of their unmade bed.
Lynn woke up at 6:45 that morning and couldn’t fall back asleep. It was just too hot. She tried thinking about numbers and sheep, and that awful movie she slept through last week, but nothing worked. Lynn turned off her alarm at 7:13, woke C.J. and Sally, then took a lukewarm shower.
Lynn’s parents never thought she should marry James, let alone have three of his children. “He’ll always be poor,” they’d said. “He just can’t give you everything you deserve.”
But Lynn knew after the first time he put her on the back of his bike, the chrome more polished than her parents’ silverware and the carburetor tuned to be the loudest thing this side of the river, that the money didn’t matter.
She had learned to be happy eating cereal for breakfast and drinking water with dinner. When she got pregnant with C.J., she didn’t even mind dropping out of her accounting program and getting a job as a waitress in order to move out of the apartment and into a house. If James could sell his motorcycle, then Lynn could make a few sacrifices of her own. The two of them stayed up all night painting the nursery dark blue and, after the paint dried, they stenciled white diamonds all over the ceiling. Lynn’s mother couldn’t believe that they’d paint a child’s room so dark. But Lynn just wanted her baby to be able to reach the stars.
C.J. had stayed in that room until he was six, when Sally was born. Lynn and James cleaned out the junk room, painted the walls off-white, and built a loft for his bed. Now he shared that room with Ricky, while Sally claimed the blue room as her own.
“Did you get your lunches?” Lynn asked her children while using her fingers to comb her wet hair.
C.J. and Sally each nodded.
“Backpack? House key?”
C.J. nodded, then let his head droop down again. He didn’t remember feeling so tired in his whole life. He heard his mom say something about a nice day at school, take care of his sister. C.J. hauled himself and Sally out of the house, thinking about which foot seemed heavier, his left or his right.
He was on the bus, sitting next to his best friend, when he remembered that he had forgotten to get a parent’s signature on his quiz over Trumpet of the Swan. He’d failed—his third “F” in a row. C.J. would likely get detention tomorrow.
Everyone had already decided that Sally was the smart one, just because she could read. C.J. didn’t learn until he was in third grade, and even now he struggled. But he didn’t care. The starting shortstop for the 2012 Cincinnati Reds wouldn’t have to know what happened in the fourth chapter of some book.
Later that day, after C.J. had received his detention slip and before the yellow buses had departed, he walked around the northwest corner of the school to where his best friend Will was standing.
“Got it?” C.J. flung his backpack against the wall.
Will nodded, pulling a single cigarette from his pocket. “You get a lighter?”
“Matches. Same diff.” C.J. handed his friend the match.
Will struck it against the brick wall of the school then held the flame under the tip of the cigarette.
They had finished smoking it—five puffs each—just in time to catch the bus home, taking the only seat still left, up front behind the driver.
C.J. called “seeya” to his friend as he and Sally crossed the street to their house, having to ring the doorbell three times because C.J. forgot his key again.
James opened the door, not saying a word as his two children walked past. He’d come off a twelve-hour shift and had finally fallen asleep after turning off all the lights and pulling down the blinds. When he heard the doorbell, he just knew C.J. had forgotten his key. He wondered if C.J. understood that his father didn’t sleep during the night when most people slept.
“Get,” he said to Sally after she’d ran into his room and plopped onto the bed.
James waited until she stomped off, then pulled off his pants and climbed onto the center of the bed. He could tell by the way the blankets were pushed that Lynn had slept in the same spot.
There was a sliver of light in the room where the blind was only pulled to just above the windowsill. The walls were dirty gray instead of the color of nighttime. James walked over to the window and tugged on the blind. It flew open, showing the walls for the eggshell white they really were. He pulled it back down, but when he let go, it went up again.
James counted down from ten, then walked into the blue room. He pushed Sally’s stuffed animals off the bed and got in between the pink sheets. Above him was a dark midnight sky, just like the one he saw as a boy in the Clermont County, instead of the polluted mud that was over his house, now.
The next thing he heard was the door opening downstairs and his sister-in-law’s scratchy voice. She must have been home with Ricky. Over the next two hours, while James was supposed to be asleep and while Lynn was still at work, Aunt Mary would fix supper for the kids. He closed his eyes and counted the number of nights it had been since he and Lynn had shared a bed.
During the week, Frisch’s was busiest in the afternoon. And that’s why Lynn was scheduled for the afternoons: she was the best.
The man nodded, smiling.
Lynn tapped the table with her pencil then stuck it behind her ear. “Coffee and cheesecake, coming right up.”
The customers knew Lynn as the one who got the orders right. Unlike the revolving door of waitresses that completed the staff, Lynn had worked at the restaurant for nearly ten years.
It was getting to be dinnertime, at home. Mary would make sure the kids ate, but Lynn wished she were the one to fix that supper. Sally would probably run inside James’ room, jump on their bed, and want him to play with her. She didn’t understand that Daddy works when everyone else is asleep.
“Here you go,” she said, putting a grilled cheese and fries in front of one of the newer customers. “Anything else I can get for you?”
“I’m fine,” he said.
Lynn walked into the kitchen and removed a fresh pot of coffee. When she came back out, C.J. and three other boys were being led to a booth in the smoking section.
He had come to Frisch’s because Will and Evan asked him. C.J. didn’t tell his friends that his mom was the senior waitress, or that he was afraid to sit in the smoking section because of what she’d think if she saw them.
A very large woman led them to a booth opposite the kitchen. C.J. figured she must have an awfully large husband. Who else would marry her? When she stepped away to get their drinks, C.J. held out his arms, saying, “Man, she takes up space.”
Will took out a menu and studied it, though all the three boys ordered were medium vanilla cokes because of the free refills. “Is that your mom over there?”
C.J. turned and saw her reaching across a table and taking empty plates.
“Will she bring us free food?” Evan slid out of the booth and stood. “Mrs. Walker!”
C.J.’s mom took the plates into the kitchen then came to the boys’ booth. She said hello.
“C.J. didn’t tell us you worked here,” Evan said.
Lynn just smiled, not wanting to embarrass her son.
“We were just, uh, wondering. Does, like, your whole family get to eat here for free?”
“No,” Lynn said. “We have to pay, just like everyone else.”
“Oh. You should go back to work then. That guy over there looks hungry.”
“Thank you, Evan.” She turned to C.J. and said, “I’ll see you at home.”
After Lynn had gotten back to her own station, she couldn’t help looking back at the boys. She wondered why they’d sit there, in the smoking section; although, she thought, it was farther away from her tables. If her mom had just been a waitress, perhaps she wouldn’t want her friends sitting nearby.
One of the boys, Will, was blowing straw-wrappers out of the booth and onto the floor. Evan looked as if he were tearing sugar packets and emptying them onto the tabletop. Their waitress, Cherry, kept putting her hands on her hips and looking exasperated, but she didn’t ask them to stop. Lynn didn’t think they were the sorts of boys C.J. should be hanging out with. But for as much time as Lynn spent with her son, perhaps C.J. was the one that the other kids should avoid. “Who knows?” she muttered.
A waitress, Pam, didn’t show up for her shift. The night manager asked Lynn to stay an hour later than usual. Lynn said fine, hoping that Mary had at least made sure the kids were in bed before she left.
None of her other usual customers were there now; rather, there were more families sitting down for late suppers. She smiled and gave lollipops to all the children, purple for girls and yellow for boys, unless they specifically asked for a flavor. Her own kids would demand both colors, she thought.
Sally picked up the phone and said, “Walker residence, who’s this?”
“May I speak to your mother or father, please?” The voice on the other end sounded angry, like Daddy’s voice when she made her own cake recipe.
“I’m calling from Franklin Elementary. Is your mom or dad home?”
She said her daddy was sleeping. Could he please call back?
The man said it was urgent, so Sally handed the phone to her C.J. He said, “Hello?” and then hung it up.
Two days later, after the school had called twice and after C.J. had been threatened with a home visit from the vice-principal, he told his father his version of what had happened, and why it was different than what Mrs. Perkins was going to say.
“We’re lucky she isn’t pressing charges,” James said. “She could have really pressed charges.”
“Against an eleven-year-old?” Lynn set an open can of beer in front of her husband. “Over twenty bucks?”
“You never know with people these days. It’s twenty bucks.” James took a long drink then said, “I knew something like this would happen. It would all come down like this. You working, me working, there’s no one to ask him how school went, or to make sure he’s hanging out with the right sorts of people. Something was going to happen.”
“We’ll talk to him,” Lynn said. “We’ll ask him why he did it.”
“Don’t we give him everything he needs?”
“We’ll have to set up a meeting with the teacher. We’ll talk and work things out.”
“When? When can we talk with her?” James pushed the beer across the table to Lynn. “I’ve got to—”
A scream came from upstairs. James and Lynn ran upstairs to find Sally in the blue room, wailing, her hand covered in blood.
C.J. stood in the corner, crying, “I called 911!”
Lynn kneeled beside her daughter and looked at the hand. There was a cut on Sally’s right index finger. That was where all the blood was coming from.
James brought a damp washcloth from the bathroom and the two of them cleaned the cut. After the blood was wiped away, there wasn’t anything but a half-inch sliver of red. Sally was still crying, “It hurts! It hurts!”
They all stopped when they heard the sirens out front. From the window, they watched three men jump out of a giant fire engine. James ran down to meet them at the door.
“Where’s the girl?”
James took his time. “My son might have called a little too soon. He’s scared to death of blood. My daughter just cut her finger, that’s all. We tell her not to use the good scissors—they’re just too sharp—but she likes to use them anyways. She’ll be fine, though. I’m sorry you came for nothing.”
Two of the firemen nodded and walked back to the truck. The third man said, “It’s no trouble at all. I have my first aid kit if you want me to take a look. She doesn’t sound too happy up there.”
“I’ll walk you up. Then I’ve got to be going to work.”
James put his arms around his daughter. “It’ll be ok, girl. Daddy’s got to go to work. Goodnight,” he said. He kissed his wife then left.
Sally was still crying, almost as hard as when she first saw her finger split open. C.J. was the one who screamed. Sally just cried.
“I hear that someone got a cut,” the fireman said, stepping into the blue room with a giant black case. “Here’s what I got for you. Your cut will heal up just fine, but I’m going to put this cream on it so it’ll heal a little faster. And I’ve got a ton of bandages, so you can pick your favorite.”
Sally picked a purple sparkly one that she could show all her friends at school. She wondered if it would glow in the dark.