I peeked my head around the doorframe of my room to get a closer look at mom. This is the fourth night this week that I have seen her like this; lethargic, staring off into space, tears slowly sliding down her cheeks. Her thick chestnut hair, usually curled and pinned up in the latest style hangs limply over one eye. My mother is a beautiful woman both inside and out. Her smile, which reaches all the way to her vibrant green eyes, brings light to even the dimmest situations. Mom was born into a wealthy family. She had everything from maids to tutors to seven course meals, yet she says she hated it all. When she met dad, a humble steelworker determined to make a life for himself, Mom went with him and never looked back. They ran off together, married, and started a family as quick as you can say Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I often hear the men on the streets talk about how lucky my dad was to have her.
It is hard enough already with my father passing away six months ago; my memory of that day is so foggy. But now with the stock market crash and unemployment at an all time high, I don’t know how my mother has been as strong as she is. I only wish I could be as strong as her. She may be a rock in tough times, but I still worry. A lot.
I am the spitting image of my mother. Well at least that’s what everybody else says. From the green eyes to the delicate, petite stature, we could be twins. To put it bluntly, the only difference is I’m not nice. I do not laugh at a joke if it’s not funny. I do not smile at strangers on the street. I tend to think the worst of people. But at least I am honest. At least, that is what I say to myself. As a sixteen-year-old woman, I am technically supposed to be looking for a husband. I have no trouble catching the attention of men; I suppose my personality simply scares them away. And to be perfectly honest, I am ok with that.
I had my coming out party last year with all the other girls in my class. We wore pretty white dresses and had our fathers present us to society. All the girls loved it. I hated it. I am the type of girl who abhors those types of things- tea parties, luncheons, shopping. You name it, I attempt to avoid it at all cost. I like to think that I am following in my father’s footsteps, getting my hands dirty and making a life for myself, by myself.
As I walk my little brother Danny to school the next morning I cannot get the image of Mom out of my head. There must be something I can do to help. I have been searching for a job for days now, and I still have not been lucky enough to get hired. Finding a job in a time like this is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Danny tugs at the sleeve of my patched up sweater.
“What is it Danny?”
“Do you think mama is gonna get me the Lionel Electric Train Set for my birthday?”
I feel my stomach drop just the slightest bit. We will never be able to afford it. I’ve already looked at all the stores, comparing prices, and it’s all the same… too much for us. Before the stock market crashed, before Mom lost her job, before Dad died. It would have been no problem. Mom and I have been trying so hard to make ends meet, but it seems things only get worse. I really need to find work. Even though it’s just a stupid toy train it represents something much bigger. I’m not going to let this depression affect Danny.
When we get home from school later in the afternoon, I hear Mom talking on the phone. Normally this would not phase me, but she has that look on her face. She is talking in that voice that she reserves only for bad news and scoldings. Mom looks like she will be busy for a while, so I go to my room and start on my homework.
As I stare down at my math sheet I wonder why schools do not teach more useful information. Kids are dropping out everyday to help with the family and money, and I am stuck here learning about triangles and how to find x. Maybe if we were to learn something construct-
“Jo! Danny! Come here please,” Mom interrupts my thoughts.
Danny and I file into the kitchen while we shoot each other a confused look. “What is it mama?” Danny asks.
“Well,” Mom starts off in an unusually shaky voice. Danny steps closer and puts his arm around her. “You know how times have been tough. And well. I have been trying to do the best I can, providing for you two. But it just is not enough.”
Danny and I interject. We assure her that we are fine and there’s nothing to worry about. She waves us off, straightens her dress, and continues on with the affirmative voice we know so well, “We will be moving in with Grandma Helen and Grandpa Charles.”
I open my mouth to argue, but she puts her hand up. “There will be no discussion. We can pack our bags after supper.”
Danny looks from Mom to me back to Mom. “When do we leave?”
“You cannot do this Mom! There are other ways! I thought you said we would keep trying!” I slam my fist into the table and storm off to my room. My mind is running wild. There has to be another option. I cannot live with my Grandparents. Mom may be able to tolerate them. but I surely cannot. Always so condescending. Always so snooty. Always having their noses stuck up in the air.
Grandpa Charles and Grandma Helen never liked Dad. They heartily disapproved of Mom marrying him, and did not care to hide it. They thought he was not good enough for Mom and always made a show of pointing that out. And when Danny and I came along they looked at us like we were charity cases. How can Mom allow this?
I shove clothes into a bag, grab a jacket and climb out the window. As much as it pains me to leave Danny and Mom, I do not take another look back.
As I slow down to a trot and cross over the river, the rain starts coming down. This is such a cliche, I almost laugh to myself, but I do not. By now Mom will have noticed my absence. Good. I hope she gets my message. I will not move in with Grandma and Grandpa. Moving in with them is like giving up, accepting failure. I feel my cheeks flare up with heat. I do not care what happens to me, if there is one thing I will never give up, it is my pride.
I find my way to a boarded-up store. As I look up I notice the sign. Al’s Bake Shop. I sigh. Yet another business forced into bankruptcy. I pry a board off a window and climb inside. It smells of stale bread and mildew. I see broken tables and shattered glass scattered across the floor. I hear the drip of water hitting the tin roof. For a second I can almost imagine this place in its prime. Beautiful flowers in vases stand on top of the pretty lace table cloths that line the tables. The smell of baking cookies and cakes wafts out of the kitchen. The chatter of gay voices has a melodical rhythm- A whip of icy wind snaps me out of the trance. Being the early spring, it’s still pretty cold outside. I put on the rest of my clothes to conserve heat and curse myself for not being more level headed when I packed. Curled into a ball I look out the window at the stars, bright against the night sky. What am I going to do? But I am too tired to think so I close my eyes and fall asleep
I awake to the sound of cars speeding by. The occasional honk and curse words float through the window. I stand up and groan. My body is not used to sleeping on cement floors. My back aches and I cannot feel my fingers or toes. The sound of my stomach grumbling wakes me from my gloom. I need to find something to eat.
I make my way down the street looking for a cheap place to find some food. Of course I did not think ahead and grab any money. So I’m stuck with the couple of cents I have in my jacket pocket. As I eat my tasteless tuna sandwich I notice some hoodlum-looking boys giving me the once over look. I quickly get up and grab my coat.
They are following me, I can hear the pounding of their feet against the asphalt This whole running away thing is turning out a lot worse than I thought. “Hey baby! Come and talk to me and my friends.” They start cat calling and pick up their pace. I look back and then start to run. I cannot believe this is happening to me.
One of them grabs my arm and nearly yanks my shoulder out of its socket. I gasp in pain. “What’s a pretty girl like you doin in a town like this buttercup?” I can smell the whisky on his breath. I do not dare look him in the eyes, but I am certain that they are red like the devil. The rest of his buddies circle around me, taunting and making vulgar comments. I twist and squirm to try and get out of his grip. It is no use, the only thing I get out of it is more pain and a ripped shirt. The ripped shirt hangs from my bare shoulder. The feeling of vulnerability creeps inside of me.
I give up with my desperate efforts to get free and start looking around frantically to find somebody to help me. Everybody passing by looks at the ground and scurries away. The nerve. How can people walk by a young woman in a situation like this? I feel like the beaten man in the parable of The Good Samaritan. Just as they start taking me into an alley between two shops a grown man walks by. “Hey! What are you boys up to?!”
Almost at once the boys are gone. The man walks up to me. I stretch out my hand to him with the intention of getting some help to stand up. Instead he rips the gold necklace my father gave me off my neck. I freeze. He grabs my bag, pushes me back to the ground and briskly walks away. He looks back only once to see if anybody is following him. What has happened to society? I am speechless. Assaulted, mugged and homeless all in the span of twelve hours. I lean my back against the wall of the alley and cry.
After I try hopelessly pull myself together, I get up and walk into the nearest coffee shop. I do not have any money left so I just sit down and close my eyes. I rub my temples and try to relax. I have a pounding headache and the arm where the boy grabbed me is still sore. I put on my jacket to cover up my torn shirt. I examining my arms and find a multitude of scratches. I know I cannot survive all alone on the streets, I can barely make it through a day. I need my mother and brother, and they need me. I do not want to go home, but I have to. I just have to find a way to keep my sanity.
I have been sitting in my chair for more than ten minutes before the waiter comes up to take my order. “Sorry ma’am, we’re a bit short on staff. There has been a mass migration of people away from here. I guess folks just can’t afford to live in this part of the city anymore.” He pauses for a second and looks at my sorry state. “Is everything alright?”
I try hard to get words of assurance out, but I only manage a choked sob. His strong jaw tenses and eyebrows furrow into concern. “Stay right here, I will be right back.”
He comes back with a steaming cup of coffee. I eagerly drink it, letting the hot liquid burn the insides of my cheeks and my tongue. When I put the cup down I find myself looking right into his knowing brown eyes. I tell him everything. Verbalizing the whole story is such a relief. He just sits patiently and listens.
When I finish there is a couple seconds of silence. He runs his hand through his hair and shakes his head, then he gives me his perspective on everything. He finishes by saying, “Let me walk you home, I do not want you to get into any more trouble today.”
He walked with me back to my house. Just as I walk through the gate to our house I see Mom and Danny packing their stuff into the car. “Jo!” Danny dashes up and wraps his arms around me. I turn around to introduce him to Danny and Mom but he has disappeared.
My mother stands back with a smile on her face. “I knew you would come back.”
I take no time in telling her about my struggles on the street. “I just cannot do it myself mom. I thought I could, but it’s just too difficult. I need you guys. Even if it means setting aside my pride to live with grandma and grandpa.”
She takes me into her arms and holds me. “You do not need to say anything sweetheart. I know you thought I gave up, but I am just trying to do the best for you two. I do not want to move in with Helen and Charles either, but sometimes we have to sacrifice to make things better.”
She takes my face in her hands and looks me in the eyes. “Jo, I promise I will get us out of there as soon as possible. Grandpa is offering me a well paying job and I guarantee you, every cent is going straight into savings so we can get back home.”