Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island - Regina Calcaterra (2013)
7. Keeping Pact
1977 to Summer 1980
THE FIFTH WEEK of my sixth-grade year, the temperature reaches ninety-eight degrees, which feels even more suffocating in the back of Cookie’s station wagon. I wish Long Island’s scorcher Indian summer were our only source of discomfort. In the driver’s seat, with a beer between her legs, Cookie stays mum about our new destination, only directing us to smoosh ourselves and all of our belongings into the car: garbage bags stuffed with clothes, our black transistor radio, towels, sheets, cups, silverware, pots, coffee, beer, sugar, vodka, peanut butter, whiskey, jelly, flour, five kids, and one Cookie. We know the drill.
With all the bedding, housewares, and food, this is by far the most crowded our car has ever been . . . and this brings me to wonder whether Cookie ever thanked Karl for being such a good provider for us. She made me leave my phonograph, records, and books behind, but inside my shirt I hid my two Jesuses and my fifth-grade autograph book, plus some picture books for Rosie. I also grabbed a deck of cards for Cherie, Camille, Norm, and me to play with.
Cookie pulls into a gas station and parks next to the Dumpster. “This is humiliating,” Cherie says. We watch our mother approach drivers as they’re sliding the nozzle inside their tanks to fill up. However, we quickly learn our cue: When Cookie points to us fanning ourselves with hands of cards, we wave and put on expressions of misery and desperation . . . which is not all that challenging, under the circumstances. Finally, her shameless strategy gets us a full tank of gas.
As she takes the expressway ramp, Cookie announces: “We’re going to meet your grandparents.”
“Our grandparents?” I ask her. “You mean the ones you fibbed to Karl about?”
“You mean I have grandparents?” Norm says.
“I thought they lived in another state,” Camille says.
“What’d you think,” Cookie says, “that I was born from apes?”
I watch Camille dig her knee hard into Cherie’s, and with all our might the three of us try not to explode into laughter.
Forty-five minutes later we pull into the driveway of a blue ranch house with a garage attached and small, trimmed evergreen bushes lining the front bay window. Cookie puts the car in park and stares at the house with an awareness I’ve never seen her have before. “Get out,” she finally says, her eyes still fixed on the house.
We sit silently.
“I said, get out,” she growls through her teeth. “This’ll be a lot easier if they see you.”
The four doors of the car slowly move ajar, and simultaneously the house’s front door opens, too. With the help of a walker, a thin woman in a pink floral muumuu shuffles onto the porch. With dark, slanted eyes she stares at us, and at her side arrives a wrinkled, tanned man with navy Bermuda shorts met by knee-high black socks. My eyes are drawn up to his belly, which is as round and bare as a newborn elephant’s. There’s a showdown of eyes until Baby Elephant Belly speaks up. “Get the hell out of here,” he says.
We all look at Cookie, paralyzed to budge.
“Nobody move a muscle,” Cookie says. “We’re gonna do this my way. Kids, these are your grandparents—the grandparents who turned their backs on you, especially when you needed them the most.” She turns her gaze toward the two elderly figures on the porch. “Mom, Dad, meet Cherie. She’s fourteen. Camille is thirteen, Regina is ten, Norman is nine, and Rosie is four. These are your grandkids . . . do you get that? They have no place to stay, and unless you stop acting like careless fucks, they’ll be sleeping on the street tonight. Is that what you want?”
From the stoop, they peer at us, and the muumuu wearer tells her, “For God’s sake Camille, put your children in the car. Kids don’t need to witness all this.” Hearing Cookie called by her real name makes me curious about how she must have been raised. I can see that she and her mother share the same strong cheekbones and wide hips, but my grandmother appears much less combative than Cookie. I’d like to call her Grandma and ask her why she thinks Cookie is so mean.
“I have to go potty!” Rosie cries, and when everyone pauses to look at her, I whisper to Cookie: “I need to go, too.” The muumuu wearer looks at her husband and reluctantly opens the front door.
We all file inside.
When Camille approaches the bathroom with Rosie, Baby Elephant Belly takes her shoulder and says, “What the hell are you doing? That baby’s four years old now, she can go peepee on her own.” Rosie runs for the bathroom, then Baby Elephant Belly turns to me. “And you,” he says, piercing me with his eyes. “You better not take anything.”
“Oh sure,” I reply, surprising myself with my sass. Whatever this guy did to make Cookie turn out so nasty, there’s no way I’ll let him push me around. “You want me to give back the piece of toilet paper I use, too?”
“No,” he says squarely. Then he straightens up. “You can place that where it belongs.”
Their living room is a museum of wooden and glass curio cabinets featuring shelves and shelves of cherub-faced porcelain collectibles. On one wall I spot a photograph of a man who must be my mother’s brother, Nick, who once invited us to his Lions Club holiday party for poor kids. I nod toward his wedding picture. “Is that Nick?”
“Yes,” Cookie’s dad says.
I look back at the picture. “Any kids?”
Darn. I was hoping for cousins.
“Lots of attempts,” he says, “but so far nothing’s stuck. Better off, if you ask me. They got a pack of Doberman pinschers . . . real handfuls.”
I push myself to pee fast, anxious to exit the bathroom’s unloved, soiled motif. Now I see where Cookie gets her lack of taste in décor: Her parents’ bathroom boasts the color brown from floor to ceiling, plus a sliding glass shower door so covered in film you can’t see into the tub.
Suddenly I think of my uncle’s photo again and get a shiver. It occurs to me that with his sharp chin, black eyes, and short but ear-to-ear facial hair, it seems almost possible he could actually father a Doberman.
Cookie’s mom stands nervously inside the front door. “Thanks for the bathroom,” I tell her.
Baby Elephant Belly watches from the stoop as we surf over our belongings, squeezing into the car again. Cookie stuffs the twenty her mother slipped her inside her pocket, satisfied that our presence helped her seal the deal. She backs out of the driveway and drives just a few blocks before pulling into the back of the Waldbaum’s supermarket parking lot off of Sunrise Highway. She waddles into the store and emerges a few minutes later with a six-pack of cold Budweisers, two packs of Virginia Slims Lights, a loaf of bread, a jar each of peanut butter and jelly, and a roll of toilet paper. “We’ll sleep here for tonight, kids. Don’t worry. I’ll hit up their friends tomorrow . . . turn up the heat a little. They’re not going to get away with ignoring me that easy.”
Cherie, Camille, Norm, and I move a few garbage bags out of the station wagon to make room for all six of us to sleep. “Leave the important ones in here,” Cookie says from the front seat, “just in case we need to make a quick getaway.” Rosie climbs into a backseat floorwell, and Norm tucks himself in the other. Cookie relaxes against the headrest of the driver’s seat and cracks open a beer, and I huff silently when my sisters decide I should sleep on the passenger-side floor. “I’d rather sleep in the trunk with the bags,” I whisper to Camille, who uses her eyes to suggest I go with the flow. Then she and Cherie stack heads-on-shoulders in the backseat, lounging against each other with their eyes closed.
We wake to a car stinking of perspiration and cigarettes. Cookie rubs her eyes and announces, “I gotta go pop a squat.” After we’ve hauled all the bags back inside the car, she takes off down the highway and pulls into a McDonald’s.
“Mom, are we eating here?” Norm asks, his eyes wide as pancakes.
“What do you think, Norman? Huh?”
He says nothing.
“Are we eating here?” she mocks him. “Please. It’s for the bathroom and free napkins. We’ll need them later when we’re out of toilet paper.” She holds the restroom door open for us to file inside. “Try to look nice,” she says. “We’ve got a real important mission today.”
When she pulls into a post office, we all pile out and into the building. “Is Mike here?” she yells up to the clerk from the line. The clerk looks at Cookie like she’s a madwoman. “Mike Calcaterra?”
“He’s out on his route,” the clerk replies.
“Well let him know,” Cookie says in defiance, “that his grandchildren were here today, looking for him.”
At the butcher, she props her elbows high on the deli counter. “Hey, any of you guys seen Rose Calcaterra?” When the men working the slicing machines turn to her with bewildered eyes, she continues her pursuit. “I’m Cookie, Mike and Rose’s daughter.”
Her explanation does nothing to aid their understanding of what she’s doing there.
“I know, it’s been a long time since I’ve been in here. See, I stopped by their house earlier, and they weren’t home. I’m just trying to track them down— Oh!” she says. “And by the way, these are their grandchildren. I wanted to introduce them to their grandparents.”
Camille whispers to Cherie. “What in the world is she doing?”
“Just watch her,” Cherie says, and before long we begin to see the point. We troop into every grocery, deli, and liquor store in town, watch Cookie snow the workers with her harebrained story, and retreat to the aisles when they set us loose, telling us with pity to get what we need. Soon we have enough cigarettes, vodka, deli salads, beer, soda, bread, and toilet paper to last us days. At each stop, as the bell jingles to mark our exit, Cookie tells the clerk: “Just put it on Mike and Rose’s tab.”
ON NOVEMBER 9, I imagine that one day, when I’m an adult, a friend or my husband will ask me, “So, Regina, tell me: How’d you celebrate your eleventh birthday?”
“Oh, you know, like any kid,” I’ll answer. “Living as a parking lot gypsy and bathing in a gas station sink.”
We’ve spent the past two months sleeping in Cookie’s car, while she’s been cruising all over Suffolk County to stay under the cops’ radar since she never registered us for school this year.
But just as the stores and houses we pass are putting up Christmas decorations, Cookie finds a landlord who will rent to us with a welfare housing voucher. The problem is that his property is close to our grandparents’ house, and by now, our food supply in their neighborhood has already been cut off—except for the butcher, who feels sorry for my mother. He tells her to come in either first thing in the morning or at night, when there’s no rush of customers. Then, with clean white paper, he wraps up pigs’ knuckles, liver, and tripe.
“What’s tripe?” Norman asks.
“It’s cow intestines,” Cherie says.
“At least we’re eating healthy,” I joke with my sisters. Norman looks like he’ll vomit. But when we set the food on the table, we’re so hungry that we inhale tripe in its broth, and liver smothered in ketchup and mustard. This helps get it down without gagging.
The most thrilling feature in the new house is its portable washing machine. Cherie and Camille wheel it up to the kitchen sink and attach a hose to the spigot while Norman and I search the house for every piece of clothing we’ve worn since September. The excitement fades, of course, when we see how many times we have to run each load before our clothes actually look clean; and it takes no time to learn the washer’s other issue: The water inside never gets hot enough to kill the lice we picked up from one of the gas station restrooms.
Thanks to the lice, none of us pass the health exam that’s required to register for school in West Babylon. We spend our days at home with our heads under the sink, sudsing up with the lice killer we lifted from the pharmacy, then combing the eggs out of each other’s hair. When the neighbors learn the reason we never seem to be at school, we pack up yet again . . . leaving behind our clothes, blankets, towels, socks, and any ounce of self-respect that wasn’t compromised by lice and liver. I wonder how any landlord will ever house us again if word gets out how we left the place.
As their 1978 New Year’s resolution, Cherie and Camille have decided to make a change. “We want to move out,” Camille informs Cookie.
“Out of the car!”
Cherie tempers the conversation by adding, “I would like to go back to school.” I would like to go back to school, too, I’m seething to say, but I don’t dare utter a sentence that could leave me without allies.
By late January they’re both living at Kathy’s and it’s clear I’ll probably miss the sixth grade altogether on account of the fact that we’d need an address to register for school. While Cookie spends her afternoons in bars, Norman, Rosie, and I take short walks in the snow or stay huddled together in the car with garbage bags of belongings piled on top of us and layers of socks covering all our limbs for warmth. Sometimes the bar owners invite us inside to sit in a booth as long as we don’t run around; other times they let us split a hamburger if we wash dishes and mop the floors. One of them tells me, “You’re a good big sister, you know.” At first I’m confused when she slips me a five-dollar bill and puts her finger to her lips . . . then I get her point: If I don’t protect the money meant for the kids and me, Cookie will spend it on herself. “I like to work,” I tell the owner, delighted by her praise. It’s true—it keeps us warm and occupied, and we get to eat for free.
There’s also something in it for us when Cookie meets a guy at the bar: Either we get to sleep in his living room (taking savvy advantage of the chance to squeeze toothpaste onto our fingers for a long-awaited brushing) or we get the whole car to ourselves while our mother spends the night in a hotel.
Around town Cookie hears there’s a deli in Commack with an open cashier position. She agrees to take the job for less money than usual, since her new boss is giving her a perk by allowing us to move into the apartment upstairs, and for me the perk is that Cherie and Camille have agreed to move back in with us now that we live in a normal place again.
In February we all go to visit a school in Hauppauge . . . but since we don’t have records for the first half of the year, we’re not able to register. “We’ll climb on the bus every day anyway,” I tell Norman and Rosie, and the plan quickly proves successful.
One day, while I am eating the school’s free breakfast, Mrs. Young crouches next to my cafeteria table. “Would you like to come with me to the office?” she asks, and I oblige her, feeling safe that we have the same thing in mind. Together with the principal, we fill out registration forms for Norman, Rosie, and me so we can get credit and finish out the school year.
The only thing that will get you out of your situation is to stay in school, Regina.
I remember Ms. Van Dover’s words, so I perform well on Mrs. Young’s tests and participate not like my life depends on it, but because my life depends on it. I keep to myself during free time so that none of my classmates will ever ask to come to my house. When Mrs. Young sees me reading at recess, she gives me work sheets to practice long division and encourages me to take a stab at the challenge questions in our science books. The more work I have, the safer I feel.
Holding it together with a job is stressing Cookie to proportions we’ve never seen before. Making it worse is the fact that summer’s fast approaching, and the taste of independence that Cherie and Camille had living on their own is inspiring them to lash out. “I’ve got five kids, a household to manage, and a paycheck to keep!” Cookie says. “And now you sluts want to give me attitude?” Cookie stays out all night at bars or rolls out of bed just as we’re heading out the door to school. On the rare occasion she’s home when we are, the beatings are guaranteed and more brutal than ever. We all go into full-fledged survival mode and stay out of the house as much as we can when she’s home.
On the school bus, Camille adopts the nickname “Dancing Queen,” swaying and boogying to kids’ boom boxes and starting impromptu dance parties, in an attempt to preserve her fast-fleeting days as a teenager. When I ask her whether she ever flirts with boys when she goes to dances at the community youth center, she looks at me dubiously. “Haven’t you seen how Cookie behaves with men?” she says. “Believe me, I’m not dancing to meet boys. I dance so I can be me. It’s the only time I can really be a teenager.”
One night, I pray Camille will have beat me home when it takes me until almost seven to arrive from school. Instead I open the front door to find chicken cutlets frying on the stove, and Cookie, who turns to me with her eyes blazing. “Where the hell were you?” she says.
I hesitate, until I blurt it out. “I was looking for my coat.” She burns holes through me with her eyes, spurring me to share more. “It disappeared from my locker today.”
“Good goddamn job, you dumb shit. It’s gonna be a cold, wet April. What the fuck, Regina—is your head up your ass?” She pauses a second, but I say nothing. “So where’s the coat now?”
I shake my head. “I don’t know. I think someone stole it.”
Camille walks in just as Cookie hurls the pan of bubbling grease at me. My sister runs to me just as the hot grease splatters all over my forearms that I raised to protect my face, but Cookie grabs Camille by the neck and drags her to the front door. Then from the second-floor deck, she throws her down a flight of stairs, where Camille now lies hollering in pain. Cookie runs down the stairs and kicks my sister in the back. “That’ll teach you to interfere!” she roars.
“Great job, you sluts,” she says, walking toward the car. “You ruined my dinner.” She puts the car in reverse and leaves.
I throw on a sweatshirt to hide the instant blisters on my arms and run into the deli downstairs, pleading to Cookie’s gray-haired coworker Helen. “Call an ambulance, quick! Camille fell down the stairs!”
“Did she fall, or was she pushed?”
“Helen,” I beg, “please, just call.”
Later that night when Camille is discharged wearing a neck brace, the two of us phone Cherie from the hospital. Kathy picks us up, but when we arrive home, we have to curl up in the stairwell because the door is locked. When the sky begins to light up, Rosie pops her head out. “Norman and I were scared last night,” she says. “We were all alone.”
Camille shoots me a glance. “No you weren’t, sweetie,” Camille says. “We were here the whole time.”
We’re brewing coffee in the kitchen when Cookie’s car pulls up. Hearing her clamor up the stairs, Camille and I stiffen. I take a deep breath and prepare to play it cool. “So, I imagine you told the doctors what a horrible mother I am.” This is her hello as she eyes Camille’s neck brace and the bandages on my hands.
I take a moment to torture her with my silence. Camille seems to be in on the tactic.
“We didn’t say anything,” I tell her. “Just that I dropped a pan of grease and then Camille fell in it.”
“And you expect me to believe they bought that crock of shit?”
Camille and I look at each other and shrug. “Yeah,” Camille says. “They bought it.”
“We’ll see about that. You two clean up the mess you made last night. Camille, you better stay up here and rest today,” she says. “But Regina’s gonna help me at work. We don’t want any nosy teachers asking what happened to you two.”
AS THE SCHOOL year winds down, it’s completely clear that Cherie and Camille have no intention of hanging out here this summer. I ask Hank, Cookie’s boss, if I can start helping at the store. He looks at me with hesitation, and then thoughtfulness. “Your mother has had some trouble keeping up,” he admits. “How old are you again?”
I fold my arms across my flat chest to hide the prepubescent evidence. “I’m thirteen—and a half.”
He looks at me suspiciously. “Weren’t you eleven last week?”
“I’m a good worker, Hank, ask anybody.”
“All right,” he sighs. “But I’ll have to keep you hidden in the back. You’ve got to be older than fifteen to work in this state.”
“I’ll hide,” I promise. “I’m small, see?”
“And you’ll have to listen to your mother.”
I nod. Being with her in public is safer than being with her at home.
The first week, I come in every day after school and head back to his kitchen—a long galley with steel tables, a sink, and a big, industrial fan mounted on the wall over the oven. I slip on plastic serving gloves and roll up my apron to make it shorter, the way I’ve seen Cookie do with her skirts before she goes to the bars. Until six o’clock I work, shredding cabbage for coleslaw and peeling carrots and potatoes, then I clean up and take out the trash in time for the store to close at eight. After my first Friday on the job, Hank hands me fifteen dollars cash in an envelope. When we get upstairs, Cookie wiggles her fingers at me. “Hand that over,” she says. “Hank’s little pet, huh? You wouldn’t have gotten this gig without me getting you a foot in the door.”
I look at her in disbelief . . . and then I hand over the money. She opens the front door for my siblings to head out to the movies, leaving me at home by myself. “I’m sure you’ll find some way to occupy yourself,” she tells me. “You’re so goddamn resourceful.”
The next morning I put on shorts and a tube top and march back downstairs to the deli. “As long as you don’t mind,” I tell Hank, “I’m going to take deli orders from the cars while they wait in line for the pump.”
He looks at me in amazement.
“What?” I tell him. “I’m trying to earn a little extra cash, I didn’t solve the gas crisis.”
“You just solved my gas crisis,” he says, pointing to the traffic lined around the corner. I head out from car to car with a pencil and a tablet of order checks. “Hey folks,” I say through their windows. “Can I get you anything from the deli?” I schlep their cigarettes, chips, and sodas, gratefully accepting tips of a dime or whatever spare change they tell me to keep. Soon I’ve got the system down so well that I start pumping their gas for them, too, popping an average tip of twenty-five cents into my pocket after every fill-up. When Cookie comes downstairs for her shift, she looks at me suspiciously . . . but when she steps out back for a cigarette break, I spend some of my newfound salary to scarf down a sandwich and hide some snacks in the deli kitchen to give Rosie and Norman later.
I find work not only helps provide for my siblings and me—it also keeps my mind distracted from how my family is crumbling. When I’m idle, I’m in so much pain wishing my older sisters wanted me; or that just once, my mother would tell me she loves me. When Cookie’s working and Norm and Rosie are watching TV, I lock myself in my bedroom and cut my arms with scissors. I watch the skin give way, then the blood comes to a swell, and for a second there’s some release to the pain deep inside me. Sometimes when Cookie and I are working together in the kitchen, I try and flaunt the gashes just to see if she cares at all. One day, she finally throws me a bone. “You got a little problem with your arms there?” she asks me.
Behind her in the distance I see Hank working the register. I shrug.
Cookie laughs. “Next time, if you’re going to do it, do it right,” she says. “You cut on your wrists. Not your forearms.”
A few days later, I’m startled from my thoughts of this conversation when a man wearing a black T-shirt, jeans, and work boots appears at the deli’s Employees Only kitchen door. I take in the vision of him—dark curls framing a tanned, handsome face and eyes shining pure as onyx—then I get back to peeling potatoes. I pause, waiting to see whether he’ll say anything.
“Can I help you?”
He examines me, taking in all my features. Finally, silently, he shakes his head. I look back down to peel the potatoes; when I move my eyes to see if he’s still there . . . he’s gone. Although I don’t recall ever meeting him, something about his eyes is eerily familiar. I can’t shake the certainty that I’ve seen them somewhere before.
“HIS NAME IS Paul Accerbi.” The flicking sound of Cookie’s lighter collides with the ding of the dishes I’m setting on the table for dinner. “He comes waltzing in, digging through his wallet, then looks up at me—a deer in friggin’ headlights.”
I stop setting the table to stare at her.
“God, what I wouldn’t give to capture the look on his face when he saw me. ‘Your daughter’s in the back,’ I tell him. Do you know how long I waited to deliver that line?” She takes a drag of her cigarette. “Well, actually, I’ll tell you how long: eleven looong years.” She laughs, a cackle then a hack. “The look on the son of a bitch’s face, I thought he was gonna shit a bagel.”
I’ve just seen this man for the first time five hours ago and already I’m planning how I’d like to decorate my bedroom in his home. Dad, I’d ask him, will you hang a shelf where I can place all my Jesus figurines? He’d install blinds on my bedroom windows and check their locks every night at dark. Then he’d tuck me in, pushing the edge of my comforter between the mattress and box spring to make sure I’m safe and secure.
“See that?” Cookie says. “He took one look at your sore ass and left you again. Good thing you have me to care about you.”
But nothing she says about my father can bring me down from what I’ve just learned about him: that he exists. There’s someone else in the world with me . . . I’m not alone anymore. I’ve always wondered, Who is this man? Is he even alive? He’s not just alive, he’s handsome . . . and looks normal.
My universe has shifted.
Paul Accerbi. I had heard those words, but they have new meaning now. In our first apartment in Saint James, Cookie would tie me to the radiator and invoke his name as she beat me. “Paul Accerbi!” she’d scream, yanking my hair to pound my head on the floor or whipping my back with a belt. “He hurt me the MOST,” she’d wail. “So YOU will hurt the most!” I knew this from the first night that I met her when I was four, and she never let me forget it.
Cookie shared her stories of who each of our separate fathers were. Some we knew to be true; when she talked about Rosie’s dad and mine, her stories never changed about Vito and Paul. But the details always got blurred with the identity of the fathers of my other siblings—she claimed they ranged from famous pop singers from her go-go dancer days to gas station attendants she met on the rebound. What was shocking for me to learn about Paul is that he lived close enough that stopping in the deli for lunch could have been part of his normal routine.
After Cookie’s gone out for a drink, I grab the Suffolk County phone book; my stomach is doing flips as I near the first page of A. I scan the listings . . . until I reach the only name that matches his:
Accerbi, Paul & Joan
My father and what appears to be his wife live in Riverhead, which, if I’m reading the phone book’s map correctly, is probably a forty-minute drive east of our house. I flip back to the A’s and close the cover, staring at the no-nonsense yellow and the black text. Of everything I’ve ever read, who could have known that the book that would give me all the hope and answers I’ve prayed for would be the White Pages.
IN OCTOBER OF my seventh-grade year, Cookie is arrested again for driving drunk, with no registration and a suspended license. When they run her name through their records they discover she has outstanding warrants for bouncing checks all over Suffolk County. “How much money do you think Mom has bounced checks for?” Norm asks me.
I shrug. “Maybe a couple hundred,” I tell him, even though it’s more like thousands.
The cops come to our door, reporting Cookie’s trying to get out of jail by sobbing that her kids are alone and in need of their mother. It takes Cherie and Camille some very practiced skill to answer all their questions. “Have you looked after your siblings for days at a time before?”
“Not really,” Cherie says. “But we babysit them a lot.”
The cops ask Rosie and Norm to come chat. “Do your big sisters take good care of you?”
The two of them nod enthusiastically. Within a couple minutes we’ve convinced the cops that we’ll be fine until Cookie makes bail. But just as they pull out of the deli parking lot, Hank comes knocking. “When your mother gets back, tell her she has a week to get out of here,” he says. The next few days, I work morning, noon, and night at the deli to earn as much cash as I can. Hank drops a couple jars of peanut butter and jelly in a bag along with two loaves of bread. “That should last you kids awhile,” he says. “Right?”
I nod. “Thanks, Hank.”
That night, a cop car drops Cookie out front, and they set a court date for later in October.
We’ve always avoided apartment complexes because their management companies conduct background checks on the renters, but this time it’s the only thing Cookie can find that will accept a welfare voucher.
She’s been paranoid about the “pigs” ever since she left jail, so we all stay shuttered inside with the shades drawn tight and all the lights off. Cookie refuses to register us for school in case the authorities would use us to track her down. The first two weeks, she sends Cherie or Camille out every other day for cigarettes and food, until they deflate me with a joint announcement that they’ve decided to move back in with Kathy’s family permanently.
Norm, Rosie, and I are stuck—yet again—with Cookie in a cold, unfurnished apartment. It’s my job to get her cigarettes and food with our food stamps, but when I meet a friend my age down the hall, whose parents have an apartment that’s completely furnished, I catch a beating for taking the risk to draw attention to us. My embarrassment about the bruises makes me half-relieved when there’s a knock at our front door at the end of our first month. “Shit, the pigs!” Cookie hisses in the dark. “Regina, you answer it!”
“We know you’re in there!”
Calmly, I loosen the chain on the door to find two men in button-down shirts standing in front of me.
“We know she’s in here,” one of them says, wearing a shirt with the complex’s water fountain logo embroidered on the pocket.
“She’s not,” I answer, “and I’m not allowed to let you in when my mom’s not home.”
“Well, she better get here fast because the police are on their way.”
When I latch the door, Cookie lights a panicked cigarette. “What the hell am I gonna do now? They must’ve found out about my record and reported my whereabouts to the police . . . the motherfuckers.”
“Norm, Rosie,” I tell them, “get all your clothes. Towels and blankets, too.”
Cookie takes a load of our luggage out to the car. “I skipped my hearing and lost the bail money,” she confesses, as though we’re suddenly friends. “They probably have another warrant out for my arrest.”
“Then let’s hurry up and get out of here,” I answer.
She rolls out of the complex’s parking lot, chanting this rhyme:
We were here, but not to stay.
We didn’t like it anyway.
WHEN THE LEAVES start changing, it looks as though I may spend my twelfth birthday the same way I spent my eleventh: We live in the car while Cookie sits in bars. If she finds a man with enough class (or a wife) who will take her to a hotel for the night, she asks him to get us a room right next to theirs. I take baths so long I nearly fall asleep in the tub while Norm and Rosie stretch wide on the bed, watching TV like little kings. We live it up on these nights, knowing that in hours we’ll be back in the car, sleeping behind a nondescript supermarket or in the parking lot of the Smith Haven Mall.
In November, Cookie meets Garcia, a compact, kind-faced farmworker who frequents the pub that’s just down from the mall. When she tells him her kids are living in her car, he offers for Norm, Rosie, and me to sleep in an empty farm trailer all winter, if we’re willing to muck out the horse stables every morning. “He said there’s no heat in the trailer,” I tell the kids, “but it’s better than living in a parking lot all winter.”
In the hours of the morning when most kids are still slumbering before their parents wake them up, we’re rising from a shivering, teeth-chattering night to wash our faces using the hose inside the barn and a bucket of water with soap. Shortly after we’ve supplied the horses with water and hay is the best part of the morning: that’s when the workers arrive. They bring us breakfast of warm rolls from a nearby bakery or Hostess cakes, and sometimes they walk us to the pub for the soup and sandwich lunch special . . . but we always hurry to exit before Cookie parks herself at the bar for the day.
As far as caretakers go, I’m partial to Garcia, who looks out for us so well I don’t bother to wonder why he would never date Cookie.
He promises that after the horses get used to us, he’ll give us riding lessons. A few days in a row he teaches me to practice saddling up Dixie, a sweet nutmeg mare. After half a dozen lessons in the saddle, Norman, Rosie, and I take turns trotting her around as if she were our own, until one afternoon when both Rosie and the horse find themselves surprised. Apparently Dixie’s being sought after by an overly enthusiastic stud, causing all the farmworkers to crowd around in terror. One runs to rescue Rosie from the reins, while the two horses go on to give us all a lesson in horse mating so thorough I’m tempted to write in to National Geographic.
Garcia informs us that Cookie’s been living with a guy from the pub, so for Thanksgiving, the workers call Salvation Army to bring us a warm dinner. When the food arrives, the kids and I slip socks poked with holes over our fingers and open the Styrofoam containers heaped with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce. We scurry to take seats around our trailer’s folding table. “Let’s say grace,” I tell them. We bow our heads as I lead:
Bless us O Lord,
And these Thy gifts
Which we are about to receive from Thy bounty
Through Christ, our Lord.
When my sisters first taught me this prayer, they gave me permission to bless myself with the sign of the cross, even though none of us are sure whether I was ever baptized. I watch as Rosie and Norman dig into their dinners, reminding them to chew slowly. After dinner we eat the pumpkin pie the Salvation Army brought us, then we lounge on the floor to play board games with our stomachs so full we can barely move. “Does your belly hurt?” I ask Rosie.
“No,” she answers. “It feels delicious.”
As the weather continues to chill down, the workers begin to arrive earlier, allowing us to sleep in and stay out of the cold. The three of us begin to spend our days hanging out at the mall, watching shoppers’ carts fill up with gifts as little kids climb onto Santa’s lap. “Do you think Santa will ever bring us presents?” Rosie asks me.
“One day, sweetheart. When we stop moving around and we’re finally home for good.”
It’s almost Christmas when Cookie shows up again. She says welfare has a room for us in the Los Biandos shelter in Patchogue. There’s no mention of my going back to school, and part of me would prefer to stay on the farm with the workers who look out for us, but at the shelter we’ll get heat and three meals a day, plus running water in the shared bathroom.
I find my preferred spot is the shelter’s laundry room, where it’s warm and easy to strike up conversations with our neighbors. That’s where I finally meet a new friend. Just like me, Karen is twelve, and she loves to read like I do. We hang out, paging through magazines from the shelter’s shelves; or often Karen’s family invites Rosie, Norman, and me to sit with them at dinner in the shelter’s dining hall. I love this, because her mother is married, and her stepdad teaches us new words when we play hangman and Scrabble after we help with dinner cleanup.
Karen’s stepdad sits in one of the wooden-frame chairs in the shelter’s TV room, urging the baby as she practices walking or talking with Karen and me about what’s happening in the news. He’s the only man I can think of who has ever treated me like an adult, and he’s one of the only decent dads at the shelter.
One day when the laundry room is almost empty, Karen tells me her stepdad’s been asking her where I get all my bruises and cuts.
“It’s from my brother, tell him,” I reply. “You know boys, they love to wrestle.”
Then the man who runs the shelter starts watching me in the laundry room. When I’m in there alone, in the corner of my eye I watch him take a seat next to me.
“Regina,” he says. “Can you tell me where your mother spends her time?”
“Around,” I answer. “You see her sometimes, but usually she just sleeps a lot.” I pretend to concentrate on my magazine, an issue of TV Guide I’ve read a dozen times, aware that he knows my mother hangs around the shelter long enough to make herself appear present before she takes off for days to go hopping between bars and beds.
“I need you to tell me where the marks on your body come from.”
“Your family’s room is right next to the administration office, and some of the staff have reported hearing shouting, or often the TV’s on full blast.” When she is around to beat us, the loud TV is Cookie’s number one tactic.
“It’s my brother,” I insist. “You’ve seen how he plays.”
I put down my magazine with a huff.
“If you don’t tell me the truth, I can’t let you eat at mealtime.”
“It’s my brother,” I tell him. “If I were getting beat, don’t you think you’d hear it?”
I’d survived worse than not eating for a few days, and not telling and going hungry was better than the risk of telling and getting separated.
At Christmas, the shelter workers invite us kids to help them decorate a Christmas tree. Rosie, now six, gently takes my hand and looks on with a shy smile when Santa arrives carrying a sack on his shoulder. The shelter director encouraged me to make a wish list, so I asked for new Mad Libs game pads and Highlights magazines to share with Rosie and Norm. As the gifts are being handed out, he also tells me to write a list of books appropriate for seventh grade, and he’ll sign them out of the library for me. I jot down a dozen Landmark history books to read to Rosie, and a couple Judy Blumes. I figure, why not load up? You don’t have to pay at the library.
Then a few months later, in March of 1979, Cookie returns to the shelter and announces that she’s registered us back in school and rented the top unit in a duplex in Ronkonkoma. She drops us there and takes off immediately, which suits Rosie, Norm, and me fine: After having lived in the shelter for a few months, the three of us are so used to having friends around that every day after school we invite the neighborhood kids to our house. But the fun’s over one afternoon when Cookie decides to come home, taking me by the hair and dragging me into her bedroom. Our friends tear down the stairs and outside as Cookie grabs a belt then rips off my shirt. She lashes my back, over and over. I try for the door but end up huddled in the corner, and as she takes a break to regain her grip on the belt, I start fighting back. She fights for her breath as she hurls the belt and screams, “The more you fight it, you skinny little whore, the longer it’s going to take! You have boys over, you stupid slut? This is for your own good. You want to end up pregnant? Who’s gonna take care of your baby? Huh?” she demands. “Me?”
When she’s finished, she drags me to my room by my arm and tosses me inside. Quickly I put on a different shirt and shimmy down the back of the house, running out of the yard, dodging the commotion on the back porch as the neighbors point her to where I’ve gone. All one-hundred-eighty pounds of Cookie come heaving after me, and again she takes me by my hair and tugs me back to the house.
“Take off your jeans and your top,” she says.
I glare at her.
“Take off your fucking clothes, you whore. Rosie, Norman,” she says, “I want you to see what happens when you try to run away.” I make eye contact with Rosie, who’s looking on in fear as Cookie spins me so that my back’s facing her. I stiffen, hearing her arm rise high in the air. She whips me . . . and whips me . . . and whips me some more. I squeeze my eyes shut and bite my lip and then finally cry out in pain as my entire body feels like it’s swollen and red. Then she ties my hands together. She binds my ankles, and wraps my wrists around the closet rod. Once I’m hanging helpless inside the closet, she slams the door shut. I kick the door and scream, not able to control myself from giving her such satisfaction. The afternoon light streaming under the closet door begins to disappear swiftly, and the sensation is as though I’m being buried alive—chained up and shoved into a small space, the way she’d do when I was little. When my voice is gone and I’m certain my wrists must be sprained, I have no choice but to give up fighting. I struggle to keep my mind from panicking as the numerous incidents of being tied or chained up caused my intense claustrophobia. I fight off a panic attack by counting, then praying for any image that could possibly slow my pounding heart.
Then, I’m there: walking on the beach with my sisters and the kids, writing our names in the sand, floating in the water, and lifting up rocks to discover clams for dinner. I can taste the onion grass, feel the sway of the beach weeds bending against my knees in the breeze as we head out to swim on the floating dock.
IN THE MORNING Norman comes in to cut me loose, and I direct him as he gets Rosie ready for school. “You two cannot miss the bus,” I tell him. “You have to eat today, and I can’t go to school like this.” Not only are my wrists scarred, but my image is, too. I work my stomach into knots wondering what I can possibly say to my friends after they witnessed how my mother treats me.
Days later I’ve got bigger problems when the landlord opens the door and marches right past me, carrying our belongings out to the lawn.
“But it’s hardly even spring yet!” I tell him. “You’re expecting us to sleep out in the cold?”
“I’ve let you stay here three months,” he says, “which is two months more than your mother’s paid for.”
I turn to the kids, trying to keep my cool for their sake. “You stay here with all our stuff. I’m going to call Cherie. I’ll be right back.” At the convenience store up the road, I beg the clerk for a dime to call Cherie.
She shows up in her boyfriend’s car to get us and sets us up to sleep at Kathy’s house for the night. I dread her call to Cookie . . . who has no choice but to turn up the next morning with some BS story to try to rectify herself in front of Kathy’s mother. “Oh, just wait until they hear from my lawyer. I’m gonna sue their shorts off!” she says. We spend the summer and fall living out of cars, bars, and hotels, and my thirteenth birthday is just like my twelfth . . . which was just like my eleventh. Right before Christmas, Cookie finds us a place in Smithtown with a landlord who likes to pay her visits late at night in lieu of accepting rent.
But it’s all going as smoothly as I can hope when I’m able to register for eighth grade in the middle of the year, not revealing that I never finished seventh. Also, Camille moves back in when I persuade her during another pay phone call. “Smithtown’s close to Hauppauge!” I tell her. “You’d be close to all your friends!” She moves back in, and we stay through the spring . . . but at the beginning of summer, the landlord’s wife comes knocking when she finds out how the rent is being paid.
And then, before I ever see my eighth grade diploma . . .