All We Had
Phil’s kitchen was littered with crap. A rotisserie chicken from the convenience store down the street sat on a plate at the center of his table. It glistened and shimmered with fat as it teetered unevenly on a pile of old papers.
It was June 2005, I was thirteen. My mother had just lost one of her part-time jobs at Walgreens and another landlord was threatening to kick us out. So with her movie-star looks and Oscar-worthy acting, voilà! Out of nowhere, she produced Phil, an instant boyfriend with a place to live. It was my least favorite of her acts, but it always worked.
It was over 95° that day in Orange, California. The breeze from the fan in the window traveled up the chicken’s spine and the remains of a few feathers quivered.
Phil sat next to my mother across from me. He reached forward, yanked off a drumstick, and the entire arrangement shook. “Mmmm, I just loooove chicken,” he drawled, biting off a piece. I hated all my mother’s boyfriends. Uniformly, they were jerks. This one, I decided, might also have some brain damage.
A 1-800-next-day-wall-to-wall-carpet installer, Phil claimed he could have a one-bedroom house totally carpeted in under two hours. He talked about his job as if he were a paramedic. “People need carpeting. It’s important,” he’d explained. “And for some, it’s urgent.”
Except for a trophy of thinning hair quaffed and perched on the front of his head, Phil was bald. He had a big bushy beard and his mustache grew all the way over his mouth. It squirmed on his upper lip when he chewed. It was gross.
He lived on the first floor of a run-down building on MacArthur Boulevard. His apartment smelled like carpet glue. Dark paneling was everywhere and half the ceiling was coming down.
“Oh, honey.” My mother patted Phil’s arm as if he were a baby. “I’m so glad you like the chicken.”
You’d never know it by the way she was acting with him, but my mother was fierce and smart. She could spot an asshole from a thousand miles away and her favorite word by far was fuck.
“I like them earrings, too.” Phil gestured, nodding and pointing his chicken leg in her direction. “They go real good with your dress.”
She clutched her chest in a soap-opera swoon.
I’d seen this act a million times before. If I had to classify it, I’d call it phony melodrama. And every man my mother ever dated fell for it.
My mother finished her ogling and got up to use the bathroom. With the chicken leg in his hand, Phil stretched out his arms, yawned loudly, and showed his crooked yellow teeth.
A truck whizzed by. The house shook and a sprinkle of plaster drifted down from the ceiling like snow. Phil gazed around with a dull look and went on chewing.
I eyed him across the table.
“Psst,” I whispered. He closed his mouth and looked at me.
“Yeah?” he said.
I moved closer, pulled my glasses down my nose, and looked him in the eye.
“You ever hit a woman?” I asked.
“No, ma’am.” He tugged on his beard nervously. “Never hit a one.”
I squinted my eyes lower. “Well, if you ever hit my mother, I’m going to set your beard on fire and watch you burn to the ground.”
My mother said I was born knowing exactly what to say and do. It was a gift she didn’t have.
Phil looked good and worried now. He picked his napkin up and wiped his forehead.
I withdrew. I pushed my glasses up and sat back in my seat.
“Know what happened to the last guy who hit her?” I asked.
“No, ma’am.” He pulled on his beard again.
“He’s dead,” I stated matter-of-factly, stabbing my last piece of chicken with my fork.
One of my mother’s ex-boyfriends was in fact dead, but not because I set him on fire. He died in a car crash with whiskey on his breath.
“And one other thing,” I added, “the bathroom is gross. Clean up your overspray and put the seat down when you’re done.”
He burped. When his mustache vibrated he seemed surprised to feel it move. He wiped his mouth, put his napkin down, and looked at me.
“Fair enough,” was all he said, smiling.
It sent shivers up my spine.
Clearly, Phil was an axe murderer. He probably had a freezer full of body parts hidden in a storage unit somewhere.
I searched his place for drugs and firearms. I was sure he had kiddie porn stashed inside a drawer. But I didn’t find a thing. He didn’t drink or yell and he went on saying nice things to my mother, about her hair, her eyes, her makeup, her clothes.
But Phil did not fool me. No matter how they started, all my mother’s boyfriends turned into assholes. It was only a matter of time before he did too.
Five nights later, I was lying in bed when I heard a floorboard squeak. I listened and waited, but nothing happened. The day had never cooled; the air was dry and hot. The only window faced the street. The corner pane was boarded up.
The plumbing clattered. A speeding car outside left a whoosh, and a smattering of shadows spun across the walls. Then, one by one, footsteps in the hall got closer. When my door creaked open, my throat seized. A shadow loomed in the doorway and blocked out all the light.
With Alfred Hitchcock lighting and the theme from Jaws hammering in my head, I waited for the axe to rise. I opened my mouth to let out a bloodcurdling scream. In a perfect finale, it would echo on through the night. But then I heard a sigh.
“Push over,” my mother said to me, “I can’t sleep.”
When life was just me and her, it felt like magic. When we slept, we fit together like spoons. We’d start out with her arm wrapped around me, and in the middle of the night, like clockwork, we’d switch. It made no difference where—we could be sleeping in an alley or on a single cot, but we never crowded each other or pulled the covers off no matter how small they were.
Phil, according to her, snored. But I knew what was really going on. She missed our late-night conversations like she always did and she was bored.
That night she chitchatted like nothing was wrong. She repeated several episodes of Roseanne verbatim. Normally when she did this it made me crazy, but I missed her too. So I laughed at all the right parts and hung on her every word.
Finally after two nights she dropped the charade and started talking about what was really on her mind.
“Phil likes kissing too much and his penis is small.” My mother never treated me like some stupid kid. We told each other everything, but this topic made me want to kill myself.
From what she’d said, the penis, I decided, was like a dim-witted dangerous child growing between the legs. But I knew when it was best to just listen. In exchange for her confidence, I remained neutral.
“I’m thinking about leaving him,” she finally said one night. And even though I wanted to shout, “Halle-fucking-lujah!” I maintained my cool and nodded, expressionless. If I didn’t, it could backfire. Like a stray cat, one false move and she’d be gone.
I got tired of waiting, so when Phil was on a carpet call, I took a gamble and made my move. I packed my stuff into two garbage bags and dragged them into the kitchen.
My mother was there cooking. Not in the way she usually did—by sticking already-cooked things in plastic containers into the microwave and pressing High. She was actually wearing an apron, chopping something, and trying to use the stove.
Phil had a crappy little TV with a coat-hanger antenna jammed in the corner of the kitchen counter and Wheel of Fortune—her favorite—was on. The image was fuzzy and blurry. It made the wheel look oblong. A plump lady in a plum dress took hold of the shape and spun it around. She bounced up and down and brought her small hands together in quick, staccato clapettes.
I cleared my throat. My mother finally turned and saw me, the knife limp in her hand.
I was tomboyish and rough around the edges, but she was classically beautiful. She had emerald eyes, flawlessly arched eyebrows, full lips, and a perfect figure. And she moved with natural grace, no matter how bad the conditions were around her.
But my mother was tired. She had me when she was sixteen, and even though she was now only twenty-nine, worry lines were beginning to define her face. In this light, her eyes were dull. The hints of gold in her light brown hair looked flat and dark. Her hair was up with her favorite tortoiseshell clip, but the clip had come loose and her hair was spilling out. She reached up and tucked a strand back in.
Her eyes slowly traveled down my arm and rested on my bags, but she ignored me. She turned away, picked her cigarette
up off the edge of the counter, took a drag, and started chopping again.
“Come on, Mom,” I pleaded. “We can go somewhere nice like the beach.” We were only twenty minutes from the ocean, but we’d hardly ever been. “We could get beef tacos—the crispy kind with extra cheese.” I knew that’s how she liked them.
There was more clapping on TV because someone bought a vowel. My mother looked to see which one.
Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. Vanna White turned over five e’s.
“Come on, Mom,” I said again.
My mother raised a finger (one minute please) as she sounded out the clue.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” I said. It was such a standard on this show.
“You know,” she said, then turned and glared at me, “I really hate it when you do that. I almost had it.”
“Well. I’m leaving. Are you coming or not?”
But she didn’t answer. She picked up the knife—chop, chop, chop.
“Mom!” I stamped my foot.
“I heard you!” She slapped the knife down and turned around to look at me. “You think I like it here any more than you do? Well, I don’t, but I don’t have a job, and we have exactly, let me add it up”—she looked at the ceiling and pretended to calculate—“no money.”
“So what?” I failed to see what else was new.
“We-have-no-money.” She enunciated loudly and slowly as if I were deaf, then picked up her cigarette and sucked on the end of it so hard the hollows of her cheeks caved in.
“Fine!” I shrieked. “I’ll go by myself.” I grabbed my bags and
dragged them toward the door.
Usually our fights escalated rapidly until we were shouting the single word jerk back and forth at each other, as if we were married. But this time, there was silence. The only sound was the tick, tick, tick of the knife on the chopping board.
“My hand is on the doorknob!” I yelled. “I’m turning it! I’m pulling the door open! Have a nice life! Good-bye, adios, arrivederci, sayonara!”
A truck sped by in front of me. An empty Bud can rattled along the curb behind it. A cloud of exhaust and the bitter smell of gasoline lingered in the street. The sun felt hot enough to burn the earth to ashes. The air was so stifling, I could barely breathe. My eyes fell out of focus. The city sounds of traffic moaned and slowed until I could hardly hear them. But the sound of my mother’s knife on the cutting board grew louder. My tactics usually worked, but I feared today they wouldn’t.
I took a step out the door. Flap, flap, flap. In the other room, the wheel of fortune spun around.
We had planned our whole lives out together. We dreamed someday we’d own a house. My version of it was always yellow with black shutters for contrast. A custom-made welcome mat would sit in front of the door with our names—Ruthie and Rita Carmichael—written in script at an angle. In my mother’s version the house was white and our names were written on the mailbox. But we both agreed: our house would sit back from the road on a corner at a pleasing angle and we’d have a pool.
“Bye.” I swallowed. I started to close the door behind me when her chopping stopped.
A long moment passed.
“Wait,” she finally called. “I’m coming.”
“Okay, that’s it, come on. Let’s go, move it, fast, before he gets home.” I knew the drill. My mother traveled with a tattered old suitcase and two garbage bags and I was lugging her last one. She stood in the doorway and waved me on. I headed for the car but when I realized she wasn’t following me, I went back and found her waddling out of the kitchen with the TV resting on her belly. “We can sell it at the pawn shop,” she said.
So I looked around and grabbed the closest thing—a toilet-bowl-shaped ashtray with a figure of a man squatting over it with his pants down. “He’s shitting cigarette butts,” Phil had said. “Get it?”
“That’s it,” my mother said, “just that one thing, now let’s go.” I ran my ashtray out to the car and when I turned around my mother was stumbling down the walkway. She was now balancing the TV with one hand on her hip. In the other hand she carried a lamp. “I really like this.” She lifted it slightly to show me. So I ran back in for another ashtray.
And, even though my mother had sworn we’d never do this again, before we knew it we were robbing him.