Coming into focus (10)
and my first business...
My mother smoked many packs of cigarettes a day, and she’d often send me down to the gas station to get her more cigarettes. I happily did this because usually, I had some extra cash left over for a piece of candy or two, and I could head over to the laundry place and play an arcade game. They had a Tetris machine that I loved and could get my twenty-five cents worth out of. She’d also send my sister and me to check the mail at the post office, which was the opposite direction down the road. Next door was a little hamburger stand that also sold milkshakes. The prospect of getting a juicy, delicious fatty burger and a shake made the mile, or so we had to walk worth it. There was rarely any mail, so we usually came back empty-handed. Now and then, there’d be a few catalogs. My favorite was the Banana Republic because it looked like brown craft paper and had photocopied images on it. When you looked inside, you felt like you were about to head out on a safari. The company is very different today.
Now and then, usually around my mother’s payday, we would head to Gallup, NM, to go on a more significant shopping trip for longer-term supplies. I was stoked to go to the mall because I could go hang out in Kay Bee’s toy store. We didn’t have a consistent allowance, so I often didn’t have any money to buy anything in there that I wanted. If we wanted more money, we had to pick up cans around the compound, smash them and save them from taking to a recycling center where we’d make some money from them. It was gross work, so I had a long stick with a nail at the end that I used to get the cans out of the trash cans at the junior high and high school. They’d often have sticky residue leftover and sometimes bugs. I tried not to think about it, and instead thought of what I’d earn and what I’d save up to get.
Well, one day I was in the store, and there was something I wanted badly, and I didn’t have any way to get it. A Cabbage Patch radio set with headphones. It looked a little like a walkman, but it didn’t play any cassettes. I showed it to my Mom and asked her for it, and she said no. She mostly liked to drop us off in the toy store so we could fantasy shop and she’d pick us up later when she finished with her errands and then she’d tell us no repeatedly if we asked for something. I asked for more time in the store, and she was thrilled that she got more time to herself. I don’t know what came over me, but I went over to the headphones and shoved them in my jacket, and then I left.
The adrenaline rush I felt afterward wasn’t like anything else I had yet experienced in my life. The only thing that came close was when I’d lie to my mom about what my sister and I had been up to. I moved the cabbage patch radio into my sleeves and took my jacket off. I kept feeling it every so often and looking behind me to see if anyone was on to me. Nobody seemed to be. What had I just gotten away with? I couldn’t believe it.
My mother met up with my sister and me, and she had a tradition of taking us to either the Jelly Belly store or Orange Julius. We were allowed to have a small bag of jelly beans or a drink. It was my favorite part of the trip. This day was no different. I had been naughty, but I had something sweet coming.
It took about an hour to get home, usually from Gallup. We had a mix of paved and unpaved roads, and my mother’s vision wasn’t so great, especially if she decided to drive at night. She’d follow someone else’s tail lights as her guide to get home. When we had a smaller car, my sister and I’d sit in the back seat, and she’d be in the front, but once she got a truck, we rode in the back of the truck, which had a camper on it. Sometimes we’d get to ride in the front, but that wasn’t very much fun because my mother chain-smoked and she’d roll the windows up. I always felt like I was choking. So, being in the back of the truck was much better, and we could lay down and sleep if we wanted to. In my day, we didn’t care about seatbelts and didn’t have car seats.
When I got home, I hung up my coat and forgot all about the headset.
Well, somehow, my sister found it. I’m guessing she saw how misshaped my sleeves were on the coat and felt around to discover it. I never opened it, but it was mashed on the sides to fit into the sleeves. I had what was coming to me next because I had told on my sister so many times in the past, that she finally had something to nail me with. She took it straight to my mother and showed her. My mother was not happy at all. She never yelled at us, but instead, she would cut you down to a grain of sand with carefully worded stabbing remarks. I was grounded, and I had to take the headset back in person and give it back and apologize. We weren’t in Gallup often, so the weeks leading up to bring it back were excruciating. My mother didn’t talk to me much, and I knew how disappointed she was with my actions.
Eventually, we went back, and I thought I was going to hyperventilate in the care on the way to the store. I figured the store clerk was going to punch me. I mean, in my mind, I probably deserved that or worse. I walked up to the counter with my mother, and I placed it on the counter. The store clerk looked down at me and said, “Will that be all for you today?” My mother kicked my foot. “Uhm, I stole this from you two weeks ago, and I’m here to return it. The clerk was a teenager, and she shrugged out a response, “uhh, ok, thanks?”. My mother hoped that I had learned my lesson after that.
I desperately needed more ways to make money. Collecting cans was an unpredictable source of income and icky, dirty work. Sadly, I was too young to do most things. I asked my mom if I could do more things around the house, and she reminded me that it was my duty to do my part of everything, and she wasn’t going to pay my sister or me for it.
My weekly chore was cleaning the bathroom. I fucking hated cleaning the bathroom, and the thought of having to do it made my stomach turn. When everyone believed I was slow, I could get away with telling everyone that I forgot how to clean the bathroom and needed someone to show me again. However, now, nobody was buying that excuse anymore. To get through it, I would pretend that I was a mad scientist, and I was playing with magical chemicals. Or some days I’d be a wizard. That all ended when my cauldron, our toilet bowl, made a considerable poof noise and the substances I poured inside changed color. I don’t remember what I poured in there, but the reaction was enough to scare me from ever doing it again.
Another pastime, while I was in the bathroom, was taking my sink apart. I liked seeing how all of the pieces went together. I’d shut the water valve off and remove parts of the faucet. Naturally, this caused leaking to happen, and my mother would have to call someone from maintenance to fix it.
If I had something I could hold over my sister, then she’d clean the bathroom for me.
One day when I was thinking about how to make money, I opened the freezer to see if anything good was inside of it, and it was filled to the brim with pecans. My grandparents would ship us loads of pecans from Oklahoma from their trees, and they were perfectly shelled. We had gallon bags of them, and I knew there wasn’t any way we’d ever make it through them all. So, I decided to break them off into little bags and put them in a little suitcase. I took the nuts door to door of my neighbor’s homes and sold them for various prices. I wanted to see what the most I could ask for them would be that people would still pay, and it turned out to be $5 a bag.
I eventually told my mother about this, and she said to me that was clever as she had no idea what to do with the pecans, and they were just going to send us more. She usually ended up throwing a lot of them away. To my surprise, she didn’t ask to keep the money but instead encouraged me to use it and the money I had from collecting cans to buy a bicycle. That bike became my ticket to freedom. I would sometimes take it out and ride it in circles just because I could.
My mother started dating another teacher, Mansour, a Persian man who taught biology in high school. He’d come over to our place sometimes, but he wasn’t around much. We just knew he and my mother were a thing, and at night she was either teaching night school or out with him. We’d go hiking with them both on the weekend, which seemed to be their favorite thing to do together—that and sharding.
Mansour had two buddies. Michael and Charlie Seal. Michael taught math, I believe, and Charlie taught chemistry. Oddly, these two adult men lived with their parents in a stone building that was also a candy store called “Mama Seal’s.” They had every kind of candy imaginable. Some weekends they came along with us on our hikes, and we’d end the day at the candy shop, and for a few dollars, they’d let me take a bag home with me. Eventually, I stopped buying my candy from the gas station/laundry mat and heading over to their place instead. It was further, but it seemed worth it. I mean, god, they had everything. Lemon heads, nerds, gummies, fireballs, bottle caps you name it, they had it.
One day after school, I found my sister crying. She was staring down at the sink, and inside was broken glass. My mother was really into these depression ware carnival glasses that I guess were hard to find. They were iridescent and had grapevines on them. I’m not sure what was so precious about them, because I can now see a full set of them on Ebay for very little. My sister knew she would be in trouble and that I’d probably tell on her. She begged me not to. She carefully took the glass outside to the larger garbage bin and placed it in there, hoping our mother wouldn’t even notice.
I teased her that I was going to tell on her because I always loved having something up my sleeve to use against her. I was standing on the kitchen rug, and she pulled it out from under me. I fell backward, and the impact knocked the wind out of me, and I smacked my head. For a while, I couldn’t cry or breathe, but eventually, I started wailing.
It was the worst possible timing because my mother walked through the door and she saw me on the ground screaming. My mother grabbed my sister by her long hair and smashed her head on the counter, and started punching her. I stopped crying and watched this happen and thought for sure my mother was going to kill my sister. I had no idea what to do. We didn’t have 911. I ran over to the phone, and I saw Mansour’s number, so I called him. I pleaded with him to come over because my mother was surely going to kill Heather. He told me he’d come over and help, and before I knew it, he was at the door. My sister ran to our room and hid while Mansour and my mother fought.
The commotion ended with my mother agreeing that she wouldn’t touch my sister again in that way, but unfortunately, a few days later, she found the glass in the garbage can, and it happened again, and again, and again. It seemed that my sister couldn’t do anything that lived up to my mother’s standards, and she’d come home and take out any frustration she had on her.
I didn’t know what to do about any of this, but I decided that I’d never tell on Heather again. I kept her secrets, and she saved mine. Instead of working against each other, we started working together to avoid our mother. You never knew when it was going to happen, so we had to be diligent, and we had to stick together.
One night during the winter, our heat went out, and it was incredibly cold. My mother turned on the stove to heat us, and we went to bed. When we woke up, my sister smelled gas and started screaming at the top of her lungs. “Gas! Gas! Gas! Don’t light a cigarette!!!” We ran into the kitchen to find the stove’s fire had gone out, and the pilot light was no longer lit. All night we took in gas and whatever they treated it with, and I was incredibly sick to my stomach. I ran outside and started vomiting. My mother told us she couldn’t be late for work and asked my sister to take care of me. My sister said she couldn’t miss school and that I had to head there with her, so I did. I followed her to class and sat outside heaving. I crawled behind some lockers and fell asleep. I woke up much later and got myself home.
My mother immediately bought us electric blankets.
We’d had a series of incidents like these before, but I hadn’t paid attention to them until around this time. The nature of my situation started coming into focus. Before this, I was a kid on auto-pilot, and I didn't question too much that happened. It was just stuff people did, and I assumed it was all normal.
One year we were getting a Christmas tree in Chinle, and my mother left the car in neutral with me in it, and the car almost went over the canyon cliff. She jumped in just in time before we went over the side and fell to our death.
Another time our car broke down in a drive-through, and she had my sister who couldn’t have been older than 11 or 12 start it while she tinkered with something and my sister not knowing how to use a clutch lurched the car forward and knocked my mother over. My mother came back and berated her for not doing it correctly as if she were supposed to know how cars worked and how to drive.
We were in a head-on collision with another car on a dirt road late one night. My sister hit the windshield, and I was in the back seat, and my mother always told me that if an accident was about to happen, that I needed to curl up in a ball behind her on the floor of the car. I saw the headlights come towards us, and I curled up like I was supposed to. When the car was still, I finally came up, and my sister’s head was bleeding. I was amazingly fine and thought my mother was a genius for telling me to get down on the floor. The car that hit us fled the scene and left us there on a dirt road with nothing around. I don’t even remember how we got back, maybe my sister does. My mother, upset about the accident, started in on my sister, who was in shock.
These patterns started to emerge where my mother became a person we feared. We did everything we could to avoid her wrath, but unfortunately, no matter what we’d do, she’d become irate, and she’d mostly take it out on my sister. I never understood why she mostly spared me.
My mother and Mansour got married, and his family from Iran all came in to visit for the ceremony. We had so many amazing Persian treats. The table was covered with them, so I decided that day that Persians were pretty darn impressive because they had the most fantastic food.
My mother’s belly started swelling, and she explained that she was pregnant. And we were going to have another sibling. That summer, we didn’t go to my grandparents, and instead, I rode my bike around all summer. We moved from our two-bedroom place to one that was three bedrooms not far away. We said goodbye to the nun and the beekeeper, and I was precisely two minutes further from school. Once again, my sister and I had separate bedrooms, but we'd grown closer instead of farther apart.