McDonald’s was a long time ago. I wore a maroon visor and my cutoff jeans. I was fourteen, then fifteen. The walk was three miles and I did both ways, after school when the cars from Route 9 blew my hair straight back, then at night when I veered past the broken mattresses below the underpass. I had to wear that visor, which was the only part I hated and maybe the smell that fused with my sweat, a mop soaked in sewer water.
It was my job to take out the trash at the end of the night. Puddles of chocolate milk gurgled on the asphalt and I hauled the sopping bags over the fence. Trash juice ran down my legs and pooled through my sneakers, still damp from the last shift.
My first paycheck I cashed at the supermarket and left half for my mom in the breadbox. I made six dollars an hour, and with my first raise five cents more, but half that was something to her. Even so, I didn’t want to eat dinner off the dollar menu for the rest of time. Still, our manager Len let us store liters in the walk-in fridge and when my friends came I slid them trays of French fries when he faced the highway in the corner booth, sulking with his Sprite.
One job was community service so I didn’t get paid. September of sophomore year and I was caught in a car trashed with empty cans and unprescribed Oxy littered under the floor mats. Maria was a Mexican woman who ran the Salvation Army. Tuesday nights the trucks came to unload trash bags filled with gemstone rings, jean jackets, Sega games and paperbacks.
Before I stocked shelves, she let me sort the junk on a foldout table and pick the VHS tapes I wanted to keep. She let me pull my arms through the jean jackets, and she’d clap at me in the mirror. On the ends of the shelves were hairy lollipops, cold pennies, and tarnished quarters. I kept all the change. At the Coinstar I dumped my mason jar and the change rattled through the slot and the screen lit up like a video game with all those cherries and diamonds spinning and flashing.
I took the slip up front and had enough to pierce my lip. Maria was the only one to notice. She called me baby, blondie, lindo, conejito. When there were no customers she showed me Kodaks of her babies in Mexico. She’d drive me all the way home, her plastic rosary clattering around the rearview mirror. Most nights I’d find mom snoring on the kitchen floor, arms clasped overhead like a diver, her drowned breathing a radiator broken.
At Ernesto’s, the oversized white tee with the doughboy logo was a downgrade, but I could tie the extra fabric with a loose rubber band. I also learned how to swear in Greek and stretch pizzas that, despite my best intentions, melted into the distinct shapes of hearts. I then had to deliver them across town in my mom’s rickety Jeep that I started with a butter knife. One time Brendon LaMarre, the guy whose neck I stared at for two grades straight, swung open the door in his own band’s T-shirt.
“Nice shirt,” he said, snorting.
“You too,” I said, and wanted to hurl the steaming box into his garbage by the curb. I zoomed off and circled parking lots listening to the whole Radiohead album before I went back to pick up the next batch of orders.
In the summer, the lady who ran the restaurant at the golf course showed me how to drive the beer cart steady over bumps.
“Do not, and I mean do not, drive fast,” she said, her sunglasses on the top of her head. “You will tip this thing right into the swamp.”
In the kitchen I counted change, my back an hourglass of sweat, and she would whip up muffin batter with her eyelashes theatrically low, like I wasn’t what she measured.
The course was green as postcards, and I’d pop the cooler on the sides of the cart, a treasure chest of silver cans, three bucks each. A man in a pink polo, his temples beaded as the can in his fist, would tilt the drink back while I sorted through the ice, his eyes on the drawstring of my shorts.
The next summer I drove the cart like a maniac, tearing off into the woods while grown men waved clubs in the air, the tailpipe of the cart dripping gasoline. The branches in the woods made shadows of lace on the pages of the books I found in my attic—mysteries, the edges cornered. I wondered what my mom had been thinking when she read those same words.
Then I’d swerve back down to the course and charge five dollars a beer, looking down at the grass stains on the men’s golf shoes when they plucked out bills from their leather wallets. I looked them dead in the eye when I handed them their ice-cold Coors Lights, said thank you with my lips wide and pink. I was careful about the counting. I marked the beers and left exact change, to the cent, in an envelope at the end of the day. I’d store the extra cash under the pull-out register and slip the stack out when I drove back up into the woods before I parked the cart in the shed. I tucked the twenties into my bra. The way I figured it, what were two extra bucks to a hundred men when two hundred was a hundred extra for my mom? I didn’t get fired right away.
I cashed checks at Stop&Shop. I’d leave my mom big bills and odd change in the breadbox. I’d come back with groceries too, cream cheese, rotini, Toaster Strudels. One time I bought a whole rotisserie chicken, just for me, just once, and ate it on the bench by the mini carousel, pried it apart, peeled off the glistening skin and dangled it onto my tongue.
I didn’t buy nail polish or tampons or thick magazines. I bought gas for the Jeep, most times in quarters. I didn’t want to give my mom the chance to drive anywhere far. When she used the car, I’d find red Solo cups of warm chardonnay in the cupholders. I bought white paint at Ace when she asked me to sand the rotting back porch and fix the color. I poured the paint into an aluminum tray. It guzzled out in the heat and smelt like cat pee. My mom stood behind the screen door, cigarette up by her ear, the smoke twisting a gray wreath around her eyes.
“You’re doing a good job,” she said.
I worked at Staples and the lights made the insides of my eyes look like an Etch a Sketch when I shut them, my fingers pressed to my temples. One time I got a call and had to ask my manager Linda to drive me to the bank and then to the police station in West Roxbury during our lunch break. A third DUI meant I had to take the rest of the money from my savings. I signed a clipboard and waited. On her way home my mom talked to Linda about mousse versus gel and discounts for printers at Staples.
After that I was told to stay at the register, rearranging pens. I wrote things down onto the loose sheets of office paper that circulated the back rooms. I’d ring up a customer real quick, hand them the plastic bag and receipt with a genuine smile. Then I’d tilt my head to jot down estimates. By that time, calculating my earnings felt like loosening the cement that was drying inside me. I was seventeen. College was coming. I did basic math. It would take four months of six-hour shifts at Staples. If I took out a sixty-thousand-dollar loan, I’d be forty seven and a half by the time I could pay it all back. Other times I tried to write what I was thinking but it was harder.
I needed a side job. I saw a flyer tacked to a phone poll and started to babysit for a one-year-old down the street. Layla reminded me of someone I knew all along, her ocean blue eyes like secret tunnels. She nestled into my arm to take bottles, those eyes shut with trust. She tottered around the carpet, falling to her knees. She waved her hands for me to pick her up and I would rock her into my chest, not letting go, even when she kicked.
Layla’s dad insisted on driving me home. I climbed into his tall SUV and he drove the four blocks slowly then pulled over into the back parking lot before Comella’s. I wanted to mistake the A/C for his breathing. I stared at the teeth-whitening billboard across the street but he slid his pants down to the pedals.
“Will you suck it?” he said.
I bent down and he jerked his hand down my neck then crammed my throat with his cock that tasted like used Band Aids. Outside I heard a breeze and then the bird’s hysterical chatter, my ears warm and chirping. My sour spit slicked down him in white strings. As he started to cry, he came.
“Oh my god,” he said. “Oh my god.”
He covered himself and put his forehead on the wheel. I wanted to kill him.
“It’s okay,” I said, looking back at the billboard. “Don’t worry.”
I worked at the grocery store pulling spoils. Cardboard boxes of rotten bananas weighed more than I did, but I’d wheel them away with the dexterity of a gymnast. I kept an X-acto knife hooked to my side like a cop. I would slice empty boxes apart like they were faces I hated. They let me wear headphones and I’d zone out hard, hiding gum under my tongue for hours at a time. Yogurt was my favorite to stack. I’d kneel on the other side of the fridge with the cold boxes, the garage door open so the outside world looked green and remote. Six-packs of plastic felt cool on my fingertips, and I loved to get it perfect. On my lunch break I swiped a yogurt from the spoils bin, usually the top was only busted. I sat on the church steps and licked the top of the lid while a Catholic mass filtered out, women’s heels clacking past me, varicose veins flashing through flesh-colored tights.
I’d know before I walked home that my mom had peed her pants on the couch. Midnight and I’d help her step into a new pair of underwear in the living room. Oversized bottles of Carlo Rossi would be spread aimlessly across the coffee table like giant jugs of piss. She’d tip over, her thighs glowing in the darkness as she kicked her legs into the air, screaming generalities at a person who wasn’t there, “Not this time!” or “You knew it. Everybody was.” She’d tire of herself. She’d take her knees up to her chest on the carpet in some final heave then collapse onto her side. I’d get her up and she’d steady her palm on my back as I slid her leggings up one by one. For a quick moment I wanted to choke her with them, the stretched fabric wrung around her neck. Instead I whispered, “Good job,” or “Come on, now.”
I chopped onions and never cried. I did dishes, my sleeves rolled up past my sunburn, my wrists bumping against floating steak knives while the froth disappeared down the drain. Behind the bar I inhaled the sting when I poured Chardonnay. I climbed ladders to hoist the long ends of mops horizontally across a gray movie screen. You can’t imagine the dust, the accumulation of human hair. I was so small against the screen, the size of an ear.
I counted drawers, came to prefer numbers to words, the lull of exacting. I often checked my savings, swiping my card outside the vestibule to contemplate the tiny green digits. I filled out my FASFA and waited for mom to just sign the last page. I left it on the counter. I kept saving. I waited.
Kate Wisel is originally from Boston. Her fiction has appeared in The Drum, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Bartleby Snopes where she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was awarded “Story of the Month”, and elsewhere. She has received scholarships to attend the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference, The Juniper Institute, and the Squaw Valley Writers’ Workshop. Visit her online at katewisel.com