Our Pad Thai and blended coffee drinks cover the tabletop. My mom sits at one end, her two musician friends on the other: a bassoonist and a clarinetist. My step-dad, Talley, and I sit at opposite corners. We are seated, slouching under the apple tree that droops over our back patio. Late summer has drawn the thick, sweet rot of the apples into the air, and hornets are circling its’ branches.
Ralph Banks just stopped by, showing off his fiancé. He hasn’t shown his face around our house in at least three years, and when he came through the door today, kept his eyes to the ground. Ralph is Talley’s “best friend for life,” or at least this is how Talley introduces him into the current conversation, and also for as long as I can remember.
Ralph grew up in a white neighborhood as the only black kid, and Talley, a white boy in the projects. To Talley, this inherently bonds them. They nod to each other like they’ve been there and back, like adolescents who refuse to accept that the rest of the world knows any more about anything than they do.
“We used to all share a classroom,” my mom tells the musicians.
A decade ago they were social workers together, but Talley is sick now and cannot work. He and Ralph were notorious in the agency for their obstinacies, the Bad Boys of residential treatment. They told bathroom jokes, made fun of the administration, and did what social workers are trained not to do: they took everything personally. My mom was hired to supervise Talley’s classroom when she moved out West and the rest is history.
“He works for juvie now,” Talley says of Ralph. “I fucking hate juvie—excuse my language—but I worked there for six months and I’ll never do it again. They just tear those kids apart, like meat. Limb from limb. Fucked up. Excuse me.”
The clarinetist shivers and nods. My mom puts her hand on her friend’s knee, as if to apologize for Talley’s abrasiveness. My mom laughs through her nose and the apology wilts.
Talley’s son Jones comes marching into the backyard, unannounced. This is his style. He smirks, and removes his headphones with his large, dark hands.
“Hey, shorty,” he says, drumming on the back of my head.
“Hey, Jones,” I say.
The musicians take in his girth and color, and Talley says, “This is Jones, my son,” in the same way he says, “This is Ralph, my best friend for life.” The musicians nod their tidy short haircuts, remaining still against the breeze.
Talley tells Jones that Ralph Banks has just been by to show off his girl, “a cute one,” and Jones laughs, thinking himself a stud: “Good thing I wasn’t here.” We all talk about the weather. We talk about the restaurant that the Pad Thai came from. We talk
about the microbrew festival happening downtown. A silence falls, and then the bassoonist notices our driveway. Two vinyl chairs and a 1960’s chrome table are lying dismantled on the cement.
“What’s the story with those?” She asks.
“I work at a second hand shop,” I tell her. “My mom and I started going to garage sales and stuff, and we sell our things to the shop for college money. I’m trying to pay for college. Talley’s been fixing up the things we find.”
“That’s right,” Talley jumps. “That’s right. See that thing over there? Total piece of shit—excuse me—but totally busted when we got it. And now look at it. You wouldn’t even know it, right?”
“Yeah,” the bassoonist says, “It’s—”
“I know! And all I used was shoe polish and sand paper that I found in our garage. Seriously. That’s it!”
“It looks great,” the bassoonist says.
“Yep. Hey, you wanna come look at it? Come on,” and he has the musicians rise from their seats to come and view his work. I glance at Jones, and we shake our heads at each other. He has his fist to his mouth, laughing. My mom says, “Funny boy,” referring to Talley, and then stares into the apple tree. We can hear Talley’s voice over the rustle of branches—
“And see, I attached a washer here—found that in the garage, too—…“
Talley brings the musicians back to the table. I can see that he has only just begun. Every horrible thing he has ever seen is trapped in the valleys of his face,
yellowing his skin and turning his eyes the deep, glassy brown of a frightened cow's. He is deciding what he wants to say first.
Jones began to speak, but Talley interrupts. He’s got it now.
“The first girl I ever kissed—her dad was a junk collector,” he says.
Our attention shifts. The clarinetist sips her drink.
“Really,” Talley says. “He was the real deal.”
We wait for the rest, attentive.
“And she! She was this big, fat Italian girl. Big girl. Her name was Regina. And she had this sort of first-generation pride in her, instilled by, well, probably her father.” Talley scoots his chair closer to the edge of the table. “We kissed during a game of spin the bottle with kids from the Terrace. God—you know what? I heard they tore that part of the projects down. It’s completely gone now. I can’t believe that! Just gone.”
“I was ten or eleven. And this girl, the junk collector’s daughter, was mean! She smacked me across the back of the head for that kiss.” He shows us, using his hands like paddles.
“So, where was I? Oh—her dad was a junk collector, you see? And everyone in the neighborhood made fun of him. But it’s not like the rest of our families were making any money doing what they were doing—working at tuna canneries, foundries, the ship yards hauling fish shit. You know what my mom did? She held cotton sheets up to a big, flat light looking for holes, fifty-five hours a week! But we all laughed at Regina’s dad. We thought, ‘Fool? Get out of the trash!’ You’re making us look worse, you know?”
I can’t imagine that any of us knew, but Talley kept going.
“He was always saying to Regina, ‘Don’ worry, don’ worry, don’ worry! I’ma buy us a house one day soon. And a Cadillac. And we won’ worry about money no more! No more!’”
“Where did he find his junk?” I say.
Talley throws his arms up and says, “Oh shit—excuse me—but I mean, really, everywhere. There were places all over the city where people dropped off their crap—rusty appliances, headboards, shoes—and there were places where factories left scrap metal. There were really places like that, places where people could just dump their shit! Even a small hunk of reused copper meant five dollars in his pocket. So he loaded his pick-up, and sold his findings to pawn shops, canneries, foundries—all of the places our parents were slaves to.”
A couple of years ago, the doctors told Talley he was sick. As soon as the diagnosis came through, his body started to shut down, piece by piece, as though it had been waiting all these years for someone to give it permission. He stopped working. He stopped eating. Now, at night, he fights in his sleep, and yells, and my mom has to clamp her arms over his body, which is getting smaller, and whisper in his ear. When the medication makes him volatile, she cries. In the daylight she rolls her eyes at him, and calls him “Talley boy.”
I watch Talley quiver with the story. He’s panting. I think about the junk collecting that my mom and I have been doing all summer, and I realize that what we’re doing is not new. We are continuing this lineage that Talley is talking about—this drive conceived of desperation. It’s not merely to make ends meet, because if that were the
case, these families in the projects would’ve started doing it, too, but rather, people do it to achieve the unreachable. They want more than food on the table. They want to send their kids to school. Give them ponies. Feed them frozen foods manufactured by brands they can be proud of.
Talley kept going.
“Then—me and Regina, and a bunch of the neighborhood kids were hanging out one day. And, no lie, her dad pulled up in a big black nineteen-sixty-five Cadillac.”
For a moment, I can see Talley, a little boy, shooting marbles on the street, with a purple-orange bruise on his cheekbone from his daddy. And I could see him watching the
Cadillac coming to a slow halt, the black paint sparkling and bottomless.
“His wife was in the passenger seat,” Talley says, “and Regina’s two sisters were in the backseat, and we were all staring because we’d never seen a Cadillac in real life! Her dad opened the door for her. ‘In, Regina,’ he said. ‘It is time to go.’ We were blown away! Regina got in the car. She didn’t even wave. She didn’t even wave goodbye.”
I can see him, watching the backs of their heads through the rear window.
“We never saw them again,” Talley says. “And their house, they just left it behind, unclaimed—closets hung with coats, milk in the refrigerator, everything.”
The clarinetist slurps the rest of her drink, and excuses herself. The bassoonist stands up to leave. My mom reaches for her, “He’s such a funny boy,” but the bassoonist waves her off, smiles, thanks us for the afternoon. Talley sits back and folds his arms, each bicep bursting with achy, green veins.
“You better believe it,” he says, as his audience breaks apart.
By the time Talley met Ralph Banks, hell raising in treatment programs, he was already sick. He just didn’t know. Nor would any one would tell him until after he had raised Jones, divorced his first wife, married my mom, took on her two kids like army coats, given her another—his first blood child—and settled in a tiny, white neighborhood on the other side of the United States, in a house with too many things.
He gets up and walks to the table and chairs in the driveway. He gets down on his knees and puts his face close to it. He picks up a square of paper and begins to sand away some rust.
“He’s always sanding things,” I say to my mom.
Jones brings his fist to his mouth, laughing again. My mom laughs, too.
“Cheaper than therapy,” she says.