It wasn’t all my fault. They picked on me. They called me “White trash.” “Trailer park trash.” They trashed my locker and taped a note on the door: Garbage Dump. It dripped with ketchup, mustard, chocolate syrup. (Above each word was “blood,” “puke,” and “shit.”) Everything was gooey and dripped to the floor. The hall monitor yelled at me and told me to clean it up.
Why should I have to clean it up? They did it! I thought, but didn’t say. I was in enough trouble already.
Oh, I knew who they were. The snobs of Coral Springs. I lived in a trailer park in Margate. It wasn’t a pretty place. But I didn’t pick it, did I? Did I pick my parents? Sure didn’t! Did I ask to be born? Sure didn’t. Not in stuck in this life, anyway.
Who would pick drunks for parents? I sure wouldn’t if I had a choice. I’d live in one of them big houses in Coral Springs like them – the mall bitches who wore clothes with other people’s names on them. Who wanted other people’s names on clothes, anyway? Polo horses, LaCoste alligators. Dumbasses. Alligators were ugly as hell and horse poop was just about the worst smell in the world (second only to Pop’s puke).
I was gonna get even. You betcha. I had enough.
I found the school super in the basement. I was gonna miss lunch break, but what the hell. It was a long walk down there, and kinda spooky, with air-conditioning vents under the ceiling, all kinds of pipes and wires hanging down, cartons of stuff everywhere, and broken desks and chairs and other useless junk. He shoulda made a bonfire.
Jorge was a quiet, nice guy, kept his eyes on his work, not one of those lechy types. A little fat around the middle, lots of bushy black hair and a big moustache. His buttoned uniform shirt kinda bulged open over his rotund stomach. (Didn’t think I knew a word like rotund, right? You don’t know me yet, Jack.)
It took a while for Jorge to understand the problem. His English wasn’t so good. When he finally got it, he grabbed his cart with mops and brooms and pail and cleaning stuff and followed me upstairs. We took the elevator. I didn’t even know the school had one. It was hidden behind a door with a sign: “NO ADMITTANCE. AUTHORIZED PERSONAL ONLY.” I laughed at the mistake. Hah. Who was the dumbass teacher that spelled it wrong? Even I knew that, after I became good at spelling.
Jorge cleaned up the locker door mess for me, shaking his head all the while. By the hall clock, I saw I still had ten minutes till lunch break was over. Just enough time to hunt down my prey in the cafeteria. And the prey better had prayed. (I just love puns now that I’m a good speller.)
* * *
You’d think it’d be weird for a girl who lived in a trailer park to be named Tiffany, wouldn’t you? I once heard there was some fancy jewelry store in New York called Tiffany. My pop and mom named me after a jewelry store? How weird is that? What were they thinking, that I’d turn out to be some jewel of a girl? They got that wrong, didn’t they?
I spotted the skanks at their table with the jocks. They’re always with the jocks, aren’t they? Those kind of chicks. You never see them with the geeks or the average Joe types. Always the f—ing jocks. Hilary and Jen and Ms. Smartypants Melody. Named for a song. Well, she’d be singing a different tune soon, after what I had in mind.
I found an empty chair at a table about twenty feet away, half-hidden behind one of them column things that hold up the roof. They couldn’t see me, but I sure as hell could see them. I knew they always scooted out of the cafeteria a little before the bell and went for a secret smoke. But which girls’ room? That’s what I needed to know.
Tomorrow they’d find a little surprise waiting for them.
The kids were still in their pajamas when I got home. This was three-thirty in the afternoon, for God’s sake. It meant they never made it to school again. Mom and Pop were not home. That left the twins, Amy and Jamie, to watch the little ones, Ditzy and Pip. Amy and Jamie are eight. They’re smart kids, but they’re only eight. OK, I was left alone to take care of them when I was only eight, but they were in a crib then and the only trouble they’d get into was spoiling their diapers.
Ditzy - her real name is Crystal (another jewel, hah!) - is six. We call her Ditzy because she’s always dreaming about something far away. When you ask her something, she’s like “What?” Like she didn’t hear you the first, second, or third time you repeated the question. But she heard you all along. She just didn’t want to be bothered answering your stupid (to her) question.
And then there’s Pip. That’s Quentin, named for our grandpop. We call him Pip because he’s only four, and little for his age. He’s like a dot of a boy.
“Where’s Mom and Pop?” I ask, dropping my school backpack in a corner. “Did you eat today?” I start to clear away the cookie wrappers and left-over pizza on the coffee table. The table is wet and sticky where someone spilled soda pop. The TV is so loud, I don’t think they hear me, ‘cause no one answers. But what’s new about that in my family?
“Hello, I said! Where’s Mom and Pop?” I lower the volume, and Pip cries.
“Don’t know,” Jamie says. He’s my go-to guy. “Nothin’ much to eat,” he says. He did hear me. Just a little slow on the uptake to answer. That’s not because he’s slow, but Nickelodeon was more important. “The kids had bologna sandwiches. I had peanut butter. No more bologna, no more jelly left.”
I open the refrigerator. Yuck. Dead vegetables, sour milk, moldy stinky cheese, spilled whatevers. It smells. Really bad. And no beer stashed anywhere. Now I know where Mom and Pop went. They were clean out of the alcoholic stuff.
“Amy, take a bath with Ditzy. Jamie, when they’re finished, take Pip for a bath. Then get dressed.”
I shut off the TV. Pip whimpered a little, but I rubbed his little blond head and he hugged me around the knees, and I was forgiven. He likes hugs and touches. Which he never gets from the Parents, except for whacks on the backside, or worse.
While they went for their baths, I looked in their bedroom for clean clothes. Some underwear, but nothing else wearable. I went outside to the laundry shed and found a basket of clean clothes, all rumpled and smooshed together, but not too bad.
When I brought the clothes inside, Amy and Ditzy were already dried off and pulling on their panties. Amy turned away from me like she was hiding something, so I grabbed her shoulder and turned her around. Her back was striped red with welts.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Mom,” she said. She didn’t have to say more.
“He wanted Cheerios this morning and the box was empty, so he carried on like he does. Mom started hitting him to keep him quiet. I tried to stop her,” Amy said.
“OK,” I said. I knew what I had to do. I’d known since I found them in their pajamas at three-thirty on a school day. “I’m calling Mrs. Robbins.”
Did I have a choice? It’s not that I’m a rat or something, but I have to call Mrs. Robbins if the kids are left alone like that. Even though I’m only fifteen and three-quarters, I’d be charged with child abuse and neglect instead of the Parents. The kids didn’t like it. They’d rather stay home, all together in their little hive, in the trailer park and watch TV all day even if the Parents went missing.
Wouldn’t you know? Of course, the Parents arrived home just as the kids were being hauled away. This time, they were all smiling and sober, the Parents, and had Publix plastic bags filled with groceries. (They left the 12-packs of beer hidden in the shadowy back of the trunk so they wouldn’t be spotted.) This time the kids stayed home.
Later, I was walloped by my mom. She wasn’t even careful about hitting me where the bruise wouldn’t show. Instead, I had a nice black and blue mark the size of an apple on the left side of my face.
Life at home. Tiffany, the jewel, me.
OK. The plan was to hide in a bathroom stall before the Three Mouseketeers sneaked out for their midmorning smoke. But I was two minutes late because Mr. Spinoza held me back after class to chew me out for sloppy algebra homework.
The door to the girls’ room needed a good dose of WD-40. The hinges squealed a high-pitched “Sheeeeeeello” at me. And as soon as I entered, I could see I was up to my eyeballs in trouble. Not just any kind of trouble or only my eyeballs, but three other sets of eyeballs – all fixed on me. I was in the kind of trouble that screamed “Run!” The kind of trouble that made running impossible. The kind of trouble that was three hulking gang girls outnumbering me, without my planned advantage of surprise. The kind of trouble that if I screamed, no one would hear me. Not here in the girls’ room at the far end of the cavernous, silent gymnasium.
My hands were sweaty, gripped around Jamie’s plastic red Little League size bat, hidden behind my back. Something told me it was no defense.
“What are you doing here, bitch?” Melody said. She stepped real close, her perfect little nose almost touching mine, not in a nice Eskimo kiss kind of way either. She took a drag on her cigarette and exhaled the smoke right into my eyes.
“Nothin’,” I said.
“Nothin’,” she mimicked. “Then get out.” Up so close, I could see her makeup: black-rimmed eyeliner and thick mascara. Raspberry lipstick. She wore long light earrings, silvery like chandelier tiers with little bells on the ends.
Jen had slid behind me, blocking my exit out the door.
“Hey, guys, look at Miss Trailer Trash’s little treasure!” she said. She yanked at the red bat, and I let it go. No point now.
“Let me by,” I said. “I’ll get out of your way.” I moved a half-inch closer to Melody’s pretty face. I might as well tough it out. I was a goner anyway, so why lose my dignity too? I knew they didn’t only want me out of the girls’ room but out of their snooty school too.
Hilary casually pulled a majorette’s baton out of her backpack, then twirled it in a menacing way I didn’t really appreciate. I kept my eyes locked onto Melody’s but I could also see Hilary spinning the gleaming cylinder. It caught chinks of light from the overhead fluorescents like a weapon on fire.
“We’ll let you by, sure, won’t we, girls?” Melody said, laughing. “There’s bad stink in here.”
I was caught between the washbasins and the door, surrounded by the Three Miceketeers. The odds weren’t good.
Jen had placed the red plastic bat on the floor, leaning against the sink’s pipes, just out of her reach now when she’d moved a step closer to me. It was time to make this my game. I had enough of the cat-and-rats game we were playing.
Am I faster than them? That was the question. Would that twirling steel cylinder strike home before I could reach the door and freedom?
What would Clint Eastwood do? I thought. Distract, then attack.
I glanced at the bat, knowing Melody’s eyes would look in the same direction, then I struck. I pulled on her silvery, tinkly earring. I heard her awful cry as it tore her earlobe. Then I ducked down and, just like a soccer player, butted my head into Jen’s belly. She was thrown off-balance, and crashed into the metal towel dispenser, hitting her head.
I grabbed the bat from the floor, and brandished it like a sword at Hilary, who threw up her hands in defense.
Then just like Clint in a barroom brawl, I was out of there!
And into the arms of the law!
He stood there, all three hundred pounds of him, with a whistle hanging from his thick jelly neck. Mr. Malone, the boys’ phys ed teacher, glared at me as I stopped just short of tumbling into his wide stomach.
There was no way I could hide the bat, so I just let it slip out of my fingers onto the floor behind me.
Take your punishment like a man, I told myself.
And I was hauled off to jail.
Well, not right away, exactly. To the principal’s office. Mrs. Giraldi was out, they said, and I was to wait on the hard wood bench opposite the school secretary’s desk.
Melody, Hilary, and Jen were nowhere in sight. As I sat there biting my nails (a bad and, I have to admit, shameful habit I usually hide), I figured the three ratketeers probably were worming their way out of punishment and laying the blame all on me.
Sure enough, when Mr. Malone and Mrs. Giraldi walked into the office, speaking to each other in low whispers, I knew my goose was cooked, and I mean with skin burnt! I was done, over, roasted, toasted, done!
“Miss Thomas, please follow me.” Mrs. Giraldi, a pretty dark-haired lady with a too-large tush that shuffled from cheek to cheek as she walked on skinny high heels, opened her inner office with a key, then beckoned me after her without once looking me in the eye.
“Sit there, Miss Thomas.” She pointed to a leather chair beside her desk. She rang the intercom and asked the secretary to bring in my file.
“It will take a few minutes,” Jean the secretary said.
“We’ll wait,” Mrs. Giraldi said. She picked up the phone and listened to her voicemail messages while I bit my cuticles. I’d pretty much bitten the edges off all my nails by now. A clock on the desk said two-forty-five. In less than fifteen minutes the bell would ring to end the school day.
Fifteen minutes, I thought. I didn’t think I could sit still for the longest fifteen minutes of my life without bolting from the chair and running screaming out the door.
Finally, she hung up the phone, and turned to look at me. Her eyes were the kind of steely gray-blue that seemed to have a fluorescent lamp somewhere behind them. Cold and so bright they hurt.
“Well, Miss Thomas,” she began. “What do you have to say for yourself? Paramedics arrived to take Miss Reynolds to the hospital. She has a bloody gash on her head, and may have suffered a concussion.”
“It was an accident,” I said.
“An accident? The girls say you attacked them with a baseball bat. This bat.” She picked it up from behind the desk.
“I was defending myself, and Jen came after me. I pushed her away, and she fell.”
“You were defending yourself? The girls said you were hiding in the bathroom and attacked them when they came in.”
“No, they were smoking in there. They attacked me – three to one.”
“Do you mean to say you usually come to school with a baseball bat?”
“Uh, no. I found it in the bathroom.” (I really do hate to lie, but...) “I only picked it up when they started swinging at me.”
Mrs. Giraldi stared at me, her eyebrows raised above her black-framed glasses. I could see she wasn’t buying it.
Someone knocked on the door. Jean, with my file.
Mrs. Giraldi stretched out her hand to take the folder, then lay it open on her desk.
“Thanks, Jean,” she said. “That’s all for now. Please close the door behind you.”
Right hand cuticles were trimmed nicely now. I started on the left.
After a few minutes, Mrs. Giraldi looked up straight into my eyes. Damn, but her eyes were sharp as glass.
“What surprises me, Miss Thomas, is that you’re actually not a stupid girl. In fact, your scores and aptitude place you in the top percentile of your grade. Yet you consistently do poorly on tests, you’re absent a lot, and you rarely hand in your homework assignments. What is the problem?”
“I don’t know,” I said. Lame, aren’t I?
“Well, it looks as if you need to take school more seriously and learn there are consequences to your actions. You are suspended for a month. A community service officer is on her way to take you to the police precinct. Your parents have been notified and will meet you there.”
Oh, my God, I thought.
“One additional thing: Suspension is not a vacation. You will be responsible for all your schoolwork while you remain at home, that is if you are not incarcerated. That is all. Please wait here a moment.”
Then she stood up, her rump jiggling as if it were an independent creature, and went out of the office, closing the door again. When she returned (what seemed to be an hour later, but was only two minutes later), the community service officer was with her: an African-American woman with a pleasant face, short legs, and wearing a policeman’s uniform.
“Miss Thomas, let’s pick up your items from your locker. It’s time to go.”
Fast Forward: It’s Pizza Time!
You can already guess what happened at the police station, so why go into all the gory details.
My Pop arrived two hours late. Meanwhile I counted the perps the cops dragged in: DUIs, streetwalkers, gas station and convenience store bandits. It got to the point where I could tell you what everyone was wearing; it was that borrrrrrrrrring. I even forgot to be scared. (Which was a good thing, or I would've had to peel off my sneakers and socks and start gnawing on toenails next.)
Jen’s dad arrived and filled out a lot of forms. I knew it must be him because he kept looking at me as if I had leprosy. Remember leprosy? We learned about it in middle school. They used to think it was contagious so they took all the lepers (that’s what they called people with the disease) to an island somewhere. We saw old photos. So gross.
And that’s what it felt like to be suspended from school and under house arrest. Like a bleeping leper!
I had to stay home all day and take care of the kids. For the Parents, it was like they were on holiday. Boozing and staying out all night. Falling into bed before daylight and sleeping till the older kids came home from school, or waking for dinnertime.
Hah, dinnertime. A joke. No one went to the grocery unless there was no beer left. I learned to be foxy with the money. When Pop’s monthly disability check came in and he’d cashed it, I waited till they were dead asleep and then I’d take a hundred and hide it. He was always so stewed he never knew how much he had or had spent. I learned when Ma's unemployment check came in also, but I had to be cagier with her - taking the money out in fives and dollar bills so she wouldn't notice. She may have been a boozer, but cash sung to her.
So a couple of nights a week, after the Parents dragged themselves out of the house and into Pop’s beat-up Ford pickup truck, I ordered pizza or Chinese takeout, or the twins would walk over to Mickey D’s for some quarter pounders, fries, and kids’ meals with the plastic toys that the little ones loved. And that’s how we had food to eat.
And that’s also how I met Marc, the pizza guy, and fell in love.
Pizza Guy Plays a Guitar
The kids kicked an old beer can around the front yard while I read 1984. It was a weird book, about this Big Brother stuff, like government was watching everything you did. I could relate, you know, because police cars buzzed around our block a lot, and the Department of Children and Families people were always coming around. The book wasn’t my choice, but it was part of my English assignments. Yeah, like I said, being suspended didn’t mean you could get away from doing your schoolwork.
A Chevy Nova pulled into our driveway, and this dude with a Domino’s baseball cap slid our pepperoni pizza across his arms. He walked like a ball player, not as big as a football player, more like baseball or soccer, confident like. He sort of ambled up the gravel path, kinda twinkly smiling at me as he walked.
“For you, Princess?”
“Right, that’s me. Princess.” I made a face, but then I was sorry, because Pizza Guy’s whole face smiled back, lips, cheeks, eyes. Like a bright light. It was like a real smile, see. Not a phony one.
I couldn’t help but smile back. This time for real, also, like him.
“Your kids?” he said.
“Sure, I was an early bloomer,” I said.
He sat down on the trailer’s front steps, balanced the pizza on his knees, and took off his hat. Dark curls fell onto his forehead. I wanted to push them back, but that’s what he did, wiped his hand across his forehead, like he was tired or something. He had dark eyes with long lashes. His knee touched mine. It was warm. A tingle ran up my leg.
“Are you tired?” I turned my face toward him.
“Yeah, it’s the end of my shift and I was up all night.”
“Why were you up all night?”
“Oh, we played a gig,” he said.
“You’re in a band?”
“Yeah. What are you reading? 1984? Heavy-duty stuff.”
I shrugged. “It’s school stuff.”
He nodded. “You better bring the pizza in or it’ll get cold soon,” he said, then stood up and handed the box to me.
“Sure. Uh, I have the money inside. Can you wait a minute –or, uh, you can come in.” There was something about him, and I didn’t want him to leave yet.
“Sure, I can come in a minute.”
I called Amy and Jamie and Ditzy to come in from the yard. Pip was parked on the couch watching TV and sucking his thumb.
I went into the bedroom I shared with the kids and pulled out a ten-dollar bill and two singles for a tip.
Pizza Guy stood between the kitchen and living room.
“Uh, would you like to stay a while and have a slice?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “That’d be nice.”
I pointed to the kitchen table and Pizza Guy sat down. I set the table with paper plates and plastic cups, and got a two-liter bottle of Pepsi from the fridge. The little ones grabbed a slice each and plopped themselves down in front of the TV in the living room, leaving me alone with Pizza Guy in the kitchen.
It wasn’t as if I’d never had a boyfriend or something. But all of a sudden I couldn’t think of nothing to say. So I asked questions, one after another, questions, questions tumbled out of my mouth. What’s your name? What’s your band’s name? Where do live? How old are you? Got any sisters or brothers? Mothers or fathers? Pets? Go to school? Questions, questions, questions. If he tried to question me back, I’d just fire another one away.
He could hardly eat, I asked so many questions.
When he left, all he knew about me was my name: Tiff. That’s what I told him. Tiff, like “Tough.” Like better watch out, buster, or I’ll bust you. Inside I was like saying, Please don’t hurt me. I break real easy.
* * *
Pizza Guy – his name was Marc Jaffe – said he’d come back tomorrow at the end of his shift and bring his guitar so I could hear his music. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not, but I sure wanted to.