In the Bag
A work of fiction by Oleander Ponders
We were drinking.
We took the kids out to eat, a little hole-in-the-wall Mexican place that had cheap beer on tap and two-for-a dollar tacos. The kids loved it because the waiters wore ponchos and fake mustaches and talked in silly fake accents, and they got coloring sheets with little boxes of crayons. Shaun loved it because there were about a dozen TVs, all broadcasting a different football game. I loved it because it was dark and the kids got their coloring pages and Shaun was watching his sports and they all just left me alone to my thoughts for a while. But we were together…you know, family time.
It was early November, and the rain was making a mess of everything. The clay soil at the construction sites had become dangerously slick and using the big equipment had become too risky so, long story short, Shaun hadn’t had work for over a week. To make things worse, tourist season had wound down six weeks ago. Day after day, I watched the restaurant get emptier and emptier and my tips get smaller and smaller. This happened every year, but when things were good in the summer months we tried to make up for the barebones finances we had been struggling with all winter. We spent like small-time lotto winners, too caught up in the fun of plenty that we forgot that lack would be coming around again. But even the summer fun had been scarce for the past few years. Circumstances had taken up all of our available—and some not-so-available—income. And now, November. I had worked a double that day at the restaurant and come home with just over $50 in tips.
We usually didn’t go out to eat—a couple boxes of mac and cheese, a bag of frozen green beans, and six chicken legs could feed us all for less than a third of the cost. But I was tired and Shaun didn’t cook. The choices were pb&j, do the cooking myself (and make the hungry kids wait an hour for dinner), or splurge on tacos. I suggested it, but Shaun jumped at the idea. I think he was tired of being cooped up in the house with the kids while I was at work. I could feel the cabin fever vibes coming off all three of them. Before we even left the house, we agreed to skip the beer, using cost as an excuse when the real issue was how fast we could dive into oblivion. We always talked about it ahead of time, and we always agreed to abstain. We had been burned. Oh, how we had been burned—but fire keeps you warm and life is cold, is it not?
The waiter took the kids’ drink orders, then looked at us expectantly. The moment of reckoning. Shaun and I looked at each other. Neither one of us wanted to be the one who caved.
“Sir? Ma’am? Something to drink for you?”
Still our gazes held, locked on to each other like shipwreck victims hold onto life preservers. The waiter shuffled his feet and tapped his pen on the pad. Finally I sighed and said “We’ll take a pitcher.” He made a mark on his pad. “And two ice waters, please.” You know, because water is healthier than soda.
The waiter very slightly rolled his eyes and said “Si, mis amigos” in a flat midwestern drawl as he turned away. A friend in need, indeed.
Spanish-language music competed with the game blaring from the closest TV. Addie and Nathan were bickering over a red crayon and, with his superior older-brother arguing skills, Nathan was winning. Addie’s scowl was reaching critical levels. I reached out to brush her sweaty curls out of her face, hoping it would provide a distraction. She whined, “Mama G, when will the tacos come?”
Nathan, two years older and, at the ripe old age of five, a self-appointed mentor to his sister, replied “They will come when they come, Addie. Sit you down and be still.” I froze, chilled to hear my own often-used words come from him, perfectly mimicking my enunciation and the tone of finality I used when I had had enough. I remembered using the same words with Brittany--their mama, my daughter--when she was small. But I didn’t want to think about Brit. Not now, maybe not ever.
“Tacos will be here soon, hun. They have to make them in the kitchen.”
She looked at me thoughtfully, then started coloring the printed coloring page. I’m not sure if she believed me or if she just didn’t want to contradict me. Try as I might my temper can be short, and I have snapped at her before for trivial things—even just for being in my personal space. It was hard going back to parenting after 10 years of the empty nest. It was hard having two kids to take care of after having only one precious daughter to take all my energy and parental affection. And it was hard to reconcile my good intentions with my exhaustion, my disillusionment, my brokenness. The memories broke my heart.
We went through two pitchers in the end. We made a spectacle of ourselves, I know we did, laughing too much and too loudly, the artificial joy the alcohol provided a better tonic for our spirits than all the self-righteousness of abstinence could ever be. I’m usually a happy drunk but Shaun, after the initial good-times rush, tends to go depressed. When I saw signs that he was starting to shift that way, I paid the bill with half of my day’s tips and we staggered out to the car, kids in tow. Shaun got us home—he always did—but I worried all the way that we would get pulled over. Neither one of us had ever gotten arrested for a DUI, and I didn’t want to start now, especially with the kids in the car. Their mama had put them through enough of that kind of thing.
When we got home, she was there. We hadn’t heard from her in over a month, but her car was blocking the driveway and she was sitting on the porch steps smoking a cigarette and rocking back and forth.
“What is she doing here?” Shaun’s words were slightly slurred, but I could hear the accusation in his voice. I was defensive immediately—how would I know? The last time I saw her, she had made a big scene, demanding the kids back. She still had legal custody, and she used it against us, agreeing to leave them with us if we gave her money. And God help us, we gave it to her when we could. There wasn’t much left after paying the bills for rehab and drug court, the “help” we gave her with rent, and the money that went into the raising of her kids—the groceries, the clothes, the little things that added up to a huge outpour of cash, more than we had coming in. We had been playing this game for more than two years now. She didn’t want the kids, they were just the button she pushed to get us to give in before we even started to fight.
She had been okay once. Stable, with a life already neatly laid out and just the living left to do. And, oh, did she love those kids—she would have done anything for them, died for them if need be. Sure, she was a single mama, but what of that? She had a good job. They would never have been rich, but they’d have made do. She drank a little too much, but who doesn’t, when it’s cold and stormy outside the house and inside the heart?
Looking at her crouched on the porch, I remembered the maelstrom. She changed after she met Justin. He was bad news from the beginning. No job and no interest in having one, no interest in the kids, and Brit started having more bruises than she could plausibly explain. And he was mean. I never heard him say anything that wasn’t barbed in some way. I think that was what bound Brit to him—a need to please him, win his approval. That was how she got started with the stuff. She was a bit plump, her body soft after nurturing two babies; and he hounded her for it, little comments that were meant to sound affectionate but in realty were cruel jabs. Then he told her he knew how she could lose a bit of weight. He had messed around with the stuff, but for some reason it took Brit in a way it never took him. It took over her whole life, eclipsing everything. When Shaun accused her of using “crystal,” she laughed, a harsh staccato bark that contained both derision and desperation:
“Crystal’s for the richy-rich college kids and the PnP pretty boys. Dirty tina’s cheaper.”
Shaun slammed the car door open so hard it bounced back, rapping him on the shin. He didn’t seem to notice, flinging himself out of the car and lurching into the steady rain towards the porch, leaving me to deal with Addie and Nathan.
Brit stood, her emaciated body covered with scabs and bruises, her sunken eyes surrounded by dark circles. Her unwashed hair had been twisted into a bun, but it sagged onto the side of her head and rainwater washed clean rivulets through yesterday’s makeup. Her dirty clothes—the sweater we had given her last Christmas and a pair of old jeans—hung off her like sacks. She was barefoot, and her feet were muddy. She started right away with her usual tactics.
“My babies!” she cried, stretching her arms to them.
Nathan dodged Shaun and flung himself at her. “Mama!” he shrieked, as Addie ploughed into them at a full-speed run.
“I got a new apartment, wanna come home with me?” Addie fell for it like she did every time, her little face lighting up with excitement. “Yay! Yay! Yay!” she chanted.
Nathan was old enough to remember the past, and cautiously asked “For real this time?” Brit opened her mouth to answer, but before she could--
“No!” We all turned to look at Shaun. He was still weaving back and forth a little, and his red face looked puckered, like he had eaten a slice of lemon. “Brittany LuAnn, the kids stay here.” Addie’s face crumpled, and she clung to Brit as Nathan tried to disentangle her fingers from Brittany’s sweater and pull her away. “She doesn’t really want us, Addie. C’mon.”
Brit switched gears. “I need…”
And again, Shaun barked “No!”
“No money. No kids. “
I gathered Addie in my arms and pulled her away from Brit, and took Nathan by the hand. We walked back towards the car since Brit was blocking the steps. My only thought was to get them out of the rain and away from the ugly scene that was playing out. Brit had always been a daddy’s girl, only needed to make sad eyes at him and he would crumble like a sandcastle when the tide comes in. This was something new.
She tried one last time. “Daddy, I…”
“NO!” Shaun was yelling now. “Go, do whatever it is you’re gonna do…just pay for it yourself and leave the kids out of it!”
“I’m taking my kids.”
Brit made as if to follow me to the car, but Shaun stepped into her path.
“You can’t keep them from me! They’re mine, you don’t have any rights over them,” Brit’s voice became shrill as she tried to push past Shaun, but he’s still pretty strong, even when he’s had too much. He stood firm, unmovable, as tears started trickling down his worn-out face.
“Stop doing this,” he cried, his voice ragged and audible tears in his throat. “Can’t you see what you’re doing to them?”
“They want to be with me!”
“No!” Shaun had his hands on her shoulders as she tried to push past him.
“I’m taking them!”
“Nathan! Addie! Run, get in my car!” she shrieked, trying to fling herself sideways out of his grasp.
His reflexes were sharp enough to hold on, but not fast enough to let go. She spun, overbalanced, and fell onto the stones bordering the muddy flowerbed, pulling Shaun on top of her. There was a sound, an ominous crunch, and she began to convulse. Blood mixed with rainwater in a halo around her head, and Shaun screamed.
The kids screamed.
Shaun was trying to scoop Brit up as her convulsions weakened. I was trying to hold on to Nathan’s hand as he tried to run to her, screaming “Mama” over and over. Addie fought to get out of my arms, shrieking wordlessly, and the neighbors came out on their porch cautiously to see what the screaming was about. Brit stopped moving, her mouth half open and her eyes half closed.
Someone called 911. Someone helped me hold onto the kids. Someone stood behind Shaun as he knelt by Brit, hunched and sobbing, “I’m sorry, sorry, sorry,” as the rain fell on her face. The police arrived, followed by an ambulance. Sirens. Lights. Faces and whispers and darkness. I don’t remember the kids being taken from me, but suddenly they weren’t there. They separated me and Shaun right away, and I was asked questions:
How did the fight start?
Why wouldn’t we let her have the kids?
How much had I had to drink?
I don’t remember what I said, but I remember what they said:
“Intoxicated…involuntary manslaughter…may be released on bond as early as tomorrow.”
“Intoxicated…state-approved foster care…court hearing to determine custody.”
I watched the paramedics load my daughter, hidden in a black bag covered with drops of rain that ran like Shaun’s tears. I watched the police load my husband, hands manacled behind his back, his head hanging. I watched the social worker load my grandbabies, tucking their little bodies and shocked faces into a bland government car as they cried for me to come save them.
As the last of the cars rounded the corner and the last of the neighbors closed their doors, I mounted the steps and went into the house to pour myself a beer.