A. J. Tierney: Stuck Like This Forever
I tiptoe through the kitchen and hop over the holes in the hardwood floor making sure not to wake anyone. The refrigerator hums until I unplug it from the extension cord and plug in a small lamp so I can see. I dress quickly for work as my little brother, little sister and a house full of dogs slumber away. I jiggle the handle on the backdoor and give it a shove with my hip. Baby, Bubba and three of their puppies bound toward me. They jump up leaving dusty paw prints on my pants. I shoo them away as I make my way to the chain-link fence. I crouch down and hold them back as I scoot out of the gate making sure they all stay in. Baby and Bubba circle before curling up on a tattered Superman blanket near the back steps. The puppies stand along the fence, tongues wagging. I glance back at the front porch and see a cat curled up on the old, faded couch. For a moment I think, we should really clean off that front porch; it looks terrible. But I’m not strong enough to move a couch and even if I were, where would I put it? I can’t change the front porch situation, so I continue my walk to work. The street is quiet at this hour. No booming bass from low riders. No hollering up and down the street from people wanting to pick a fight.
As I unlock and push open the front door of the law office, cool air rushes across my face. While I wait for the computer to warm up, I write down messages from the answering machine. Since it’s not quite 8 o’clock and I’m not expecting anyone at the office, I lock the front door, grab my purse, and head to the bathroom at the back of the office to brush my teeth. I turn the water on as hot as I can and run it over my toothbrush to kill any germs. Even without toothpaste my teeth feel cleaner.
As I sort client files back at my desk, I calculate in my head how much money I’ll make for the day- $4.25 an hour, times 8 hours gives me about $34. This will at least keep the electricity on to power the oscillating fan at night. But this still doesn’t solve the problem of where the money will come from to cover my mom’s bankruptcy payment and all the other bills.
I doodle on the edge of the calendar pad thinking about how my mother’s latest get-rich-quick scheme of buying run-down houses to fix-up and rent, has backfired. She knew nothing about fixing up houses but was convinced that this was the way our family could be rich. Most damning of all, she believed all the sob stories of potential renters and their empty promises to help fix up the houses in exchange for rent. Whether my mom collected rent or not, the bank people came knocking for their money.
The sound of the phone startles me. I clear my throat and answer, “Law office.”
“I need to make an appointment with Mr. Cabot.”
“He’s on vacation this week, but I could set a time for the end of next week.”
I scribble the person’s name in the tiny green box on the appointment calendar.
Keeping my mind focused is a challenge this morning. I’m happy that I have the comfort of the office with running water and electricity under the same roof, but my mind keeps going back to our house on 12th Street that we abandoned a year ago. When the electricity was turned off, we used flashlights and candles at night. Even without electricity we were still able to heat up cans of food on the gas stove. After the water meter was pulled, we carried buckets of water from the above ground pool to flush the toilets. But there was only so much water to carry in, and the toilets began to fill up. We finally left after a portion of the roof caved in. But my mom refused to let the house go, so she continues to make partial payments on the mortgage.
After leaving the house on 12th Street, we spent a few months in my mom’s other rent houses until the utility bills went unpaid and the meters were pulled. Now we’re living in her last two rent houses. All I can think is that we’re going to go through all of it again. But this time, there will be nowhere to go. My mom can’t get water turned on in either house. My little brother, little sister and I live in one of the houses with the dogs. My mom and older brother live in the other house. My mom’s strung an extension cord between the two houses warning us that we can only plug in one thing at a time so we don’t burn the house down.
Five o’clock approaches and I dread going home. I play my version of hopscotch on the way home to avoid cracks and weeds in the sidewalk. The cat is still perched on the couch on the front porch. The puppies run to the fence when they see me. I push them back and eke my way through the gate. Once I finish my feeding ritual, I plop down on the couch. My older brother’s police scanner sits on a shelf in the living room gathering dust. We don’t listen to it much anymore since we got in trouble for unplugging the refrigerator to plug in the scanner and food went bad. The police and fire channels were exciting at first. It was comforting to know that bad things were happening to other people, not just us. We were also able to pick up the conversations of truckers along their routes on Highway 69. Busted Penny was my favorite. She had a dirty mouth and a gravely voice that made me think of a tough old broad barreling down the highway, cigarette dangling from her lips as she cackled about another truck driver’s little pecker.
The heat in the house smothers me, so I decide to head to the library. The swoosh of the automatic doors releases a burst of cold air, and the fluorescent lighting casts a green glow over everything. I ascend the grand staircase and roam around the stacks of books. Reading for fun isn’t something my mom allows because we need to be working on her rent houses. But I find a Sweet Valley High book that I haven’t read and sit at a table to get lost in another world.
The librarian interrupts my reading with an announcement that the library will be closing in 15 minutes. This is my chance to wash up a little before I head back home. I leave my book on the table and hurry down to the bathroom. No one appears to be in here, so I wad up a few paper towels, dampen them, add soap and find a stall.
By the time I get home it’s already dark and not much to do but go to bed. I nestle into the couch and pray for sleep to come quickly. The rats come out once the house has settled down for the night. I wrap myself in a sheet like a mummy to keep them from crawling on me. I feel a slight thump and little feet scurry across my sheet. I try my best to pretend I don’t feel anything, but a little glint of moonlight shines in the rat’s eye and he walks around on me as if I’m in his space. I tilt my body back and forth like a log to try and shake him off. He pays me no mind and jumps down to look for crumbs we might have left behind. I hear the scratching in the kitchen and know the rat and several of his relatives have found a bag of dog food and are clawing their way into it.
When I wake the next morning, I unplug the refrigerator, plug in the little lamp, and see dog food strewn across the kitchen floor. I push it all in a pile with my foot. The floor creaks as I walk across and it starts the dogs in the bedrooms to barking. I put on a pair of wadded up jeans from a pile of clothes in the living room and smooth out the t-shirt I slept in.
Any hope of relief from the heat in the house will have to wait until I get to work. It’s steamy on my walk to work and not even 8 o’clock yet. When I settle in at my desk, there’s even less to do than yesterday. I try to pace myself filing and transcribing. At 11 o’clock I answer the phone and try to say “Law Office” but nothing comes out. The person on the other end says “Hello? Hello?” But nothing leaves my throat. I hang up and shake my head. The phone rings again, and we have the same exchange. After I hang up a second time, I massage my throat and don’t seem to have any pain. I try to say hello, and it comes out a little slurry; I feel a twitching in my left cheek. I rub it and think maybe I’ve been leaning on it with the heel of my hand and it’s fallen asleep.
Since it’s close to lunchtime, I decide to walk a couple of doors down and grab a pop and bag of chips. When I get back, I crack the can of pop open, and as I take my first sip only some of it goes in my mouth. The rest dribbles down my lip and chin. I find some napkins to clean up my mess. I rip open the bag of chips and begin to chew. A coppery taste fills my mouth, and I realize I’ve bitten my cheek. I try to spit into a napkin but my lips won’t come together. Spit, mixed with partly chewed chip and blood, slides down my chin and onto my shirt.
When I flick on the light in the bathroom, the dark circles under my eyes are more pronounced, and my brown eyes bug out a little. I step closer to the sink and peer inside my mouth. A shock flashes up from behind my left ear and into my left eye but my mouth won’t open all the way. When I try to smile, the right side of my face moves but the left side doesn’t budge. My right eye blinks, but my left eye stays open. When I try to speak, only a guttural sound comes out. I stand there uncertain what to do.
I stay at work, but my mind races around. What if I can’t ever talk again? What if I talk funny like my grandma after her stroke? Will I ever be in another play? Will people be afraid to talk to me when they see spit dribbling down my chin and one eye that won’t close? Tears spill from my right eye but the left remains dry.
At 5 o’clock I run home as fast as I can to show my mom what has happened to my face. I hunch over in front of her, still panting, grab her hands, and put them on my face. She helps me stand upright.
“Broken.” I barely get out.
She tilts my head back and forth, “Does it hurt?”
I shake my head. “Shocks.”
She continues to inspect my face. “ Looks like Bell’s palsy. Your Uncle Johnny had it too.”
“Fix?” My lower lip catches on my teeth.
“There’s no insurance for that. You’ll just have to rest.”
“Can’t blink. Hospital.”
“What makes your face more important than Greggie’s asthma? Or Tiffy and Ty’s teeth? We’re all going without. Not just you.”
No amount of begging is going to change her mind. My immediate escape is to the community theater rehearsal that starts at 6 o’clock. I avoid everyone on my way in and head back stage to arrange props. My friend Pruitt approaches me after rehearsal, “Everything alright, kiddo? You been awfully quiet.”
I had been in several shows with Pruitt. He was old enough to be my dad and in many ways he had looked out for me. I smile and point to the left side of my mouth. It doesn’t move. He leads me into the empty theater and sits me down. I talk slowly. “Mom says Bell’s palsy.”
“Well, I think she’s right about that.”
“No insurance. Stuck like this.”
“We’ll figure it out, kiddo. I’ve gotta friend I want you to meet. I’ll pick you up for rehearsal tomorrow and go see him.”
The next day we pull up to the front of Sound Warehouse. We wind through bins of vinyl records to the man’s office that is filled with stacks of cassette tapes. I stand a little behind Pruitt trying to hide my face. The man wears glasses with a slight tint to them. His left eyelid droops. He smiles, but the left side remains slack. “You want something to drink?” My breath hitches in my chest listening to his slurry words and watching his lips pull to the side. I crave one of the orange bottled sodas in his old timey vending machine but don’t want him to see me try to drink it and spill it on myself, so I shake my head no.
The man motions for us to take a seat. He takes his glasses off and rubs his eyes. “I was 19 when I got Bell’s palsy. Nothin’ they could do for it back then. They can probably do more now. I know I doc here in town that can help folks out.”
He hands me a slightly crumpled card that has “$35- Most meds free” scribbled across the back, but looking at Pruitt’s friend, I worry I’ll be stuck like this forever.
When I get home from rehearsal I am relieved to find my mom is gone. The note she left says she’s gone to Tulsa and will be back tomorrow. I lay on the couch massaging my cheek and drift off to sleep.
When my mom comes home the next day, I am anxious to tell her about Pruitt’s friend and the doctor that can help us. Before I get a chance she starts in with her plan.
She paces back and forth and starts in excitedly. “We need to do everything in the right order.”
“First, you have to quit your job.”
“We need to start building a case for the disability people.”
“Can’t you see the disability checks will continue for a long time? We start by showing you’re too upset about your face to keep your job.”
I try to interrupt her, but she shushes me and charges ahead.
“Then you must show them how bad your face is and that you’re too scared to go to school.”
“And where do you think that money’s gonna come from?”
“Scholarships?” I shrug my shoulders.
“You’re willing to gamble this family’s future on a maybe? This disability money is a sure thing. All you have to do is put on your best acting skills, and we will have a guaranteed $385 a month.”
All hope of fixing my face slowly dims with each step of her plan.
“My friend Trish is dancing at a real nice place in Tulsa.”
“Strip club!?!” I cross my arms and let out a little huff.
“Well, you may turn up your nose now, but she only works three days a week and brings home one thousand dollars. I’ve got you an audition this Friday.”
I try to shout at her, but I spray spit as my slurred words tumble from my lips, “I don’t want to strip!”
“Really, Adrianne, don’t be so dramatic. It’s better than giving it away to your boyfriends for free.” Her glare drills through me.
“But my face?” The words come out high-pitched and whiney.
“Trust me. No one will be looking at your face.”
A silence falls between us. But I am so tired, so very tired of the fighting.
“I’ll do it.”
The next day I make a detour on my way to work and go see Pruitt at his auto repair shop. “Mom says no doctor.”
He leans back in his chair, sucks on his pipe, and lets out a puff of sweet-smelling smoke. Then he picks up the phone and calls the doctor. The drive to the doctor’s office takes less than 10 minutes. As soon as I sign in the nurse takes me to the exam room. The doctor steps in, washes his hands and wastes no time in touching every inch of my face.
“It’s great Mr. Pruitt got you in here. Much more time and the facial muscles begin to atrophy and don’t regenerate.”
I stare at my fingernails, nibbled to the quick, “Don’t understand, sir.”
He runs his hands down along both sides of my neck and across my collarbones and shoulders. “Basically, the muscles in the face die and they can’t grow back. But we have great medicines to help you get better.” He gives my shoulders a light squeeze then loads several boxes of medicine in bags.
“You’ll take the acyclovir once a day until it’s gone. The prednisone you’ll take five for five days. Then four for four days and so on until you’re done.”
I nod my head.
“You’ll also need to protect your left eye until you’re able to blink again. Corneas scratch easily.” He pulls eye ointment and self-adhesive, flesh-colored eye patches from a cabinet.
“Wear to school?” Thoughts of pirates dance through my head.
He scoots over to the exam table on his stool. “It’s only for a bit. And I think there are little stickers in the box if you want to decorate the eye patch.”
My nose burns and I want to cry. I feel like a six-year-old talking about stickers, but then he pulls out a little sunflower with a happy face on it. That’s the sticker I’m going to wear on my eye patch the first day of school.
Pruitt meets me at the receptionist’s desk. She scrawls $35 on the checkout slip. He pulls out a wad of bills and pays it in full. He pushes the front door open and as we approach his car, I shake my head, “Can’t pay back now, but…”
He interrupts me by a wave of his hand. “You’re job is to take those pills and get better. You hear me?”
A near silent, thank you, is all I can manage.
That night my little brother, little sister and I curl up on the couches in the living room and turn the oscillating fan on, eager to get what little air rushes by. Sweat rolls down my temples as I try to drift off to sleep, but visions of a smoky, dark room invade my mind. Loud, thumping music and even louder voices of men hollering and whistling fill my ears. I imagine I’m on stage wearing little red sequined panties, my long, wavy hair covering my breasts. A mask decorated with black and red feathers covers my face. I turn over and bury my face as deep as I can into the couch. I beg God to give me a sign if this is really what he wants me to do. I pray for forgiveness for every time I’ve been a disobedient daughter. Every time I’ve fought with my mom. Every time I’ve been unkind or mean to someone. I finally drift off making a bargain with God that if he will spare me from having to be a stripper, I will be his devoted servant forever.
I’m up earlier than normal. It’s the day of my audition at the strip club, but I have to go to work first. I creep around the house and put a few things in a backpack only taking what I absolutely need: a pair of jeans, two pairs of socks, two pairs of underwear, three shirts and my journals. I read the note my mom left for me.
Pick you up at 5. Bring your red, shiny leotard and flesh shimmer tights.
The phones are quiet all day and there’s not much work left, so I spend the day doing word searches. Just before my mom is supposed to pick me up, I cash my paycheck and put all of the money in an envelope with a note.
I am so sorry but I can’t do this. Here’s some money to help. I love you but there are some things a child cannot do for her parent. I am so, so sorry.
I love you,
I fold the note neatly in thirds wrapping the money in the paper, seal it, and tape it to the front door of the law office. I hide under my desk and wait for her to arrive. I hear her rip the envelope off. There’s a short pause and she bangs on the door, “Open up right now!” My heart thrashes in my chest, and I curl my body tighter into itself knowing that door is the only thing between me and getting my ass beat. She continues to scream and pound. Then, the car door slams. Tires screech. Silence. At 5:15 I peek my head out and see the car is gone. And so is the envelope.
In the bathroom, I fill a little cup with water and slug back my pills. I study my face in the mirror. The doctor said it would be days before I might show any improvement. I take a long, deep breath. Now that I have left my family, I realize I haven’t given much thought to where I might go. At least for tonight, I know I’ll be alone in the office. God has taken care of me this day, and I trust he will take care of me tomorrow. I unpack my clothes from my backpack, make a little pillow out of them and rest for awhile.