The River

Monday, July 11, 2011

People still swim in the river, but it’s so polluted that when they get out and sit on a towel, their butts leave a grease print. Kids used to skinny-dip in it and have picnics on the banks when my mom was a girl, but now it smells like sewer water and basically, that’s what the river is. The paper mill messed it up and then the mill closed because it was run by a bunch of criminals and even though for thirty-some years people made a living there, they all ended up in the same place—out of work, and after all those years and boxes of paper, what good did it do anyone? All we have to show for it now is a closed factory and a poisoned river where the only fish that can still live in it are carp, and the one or two times I’ve seen some of them, they looked like scaly lumps with eyes. Turd-fish is what they are. I feel sorry for them for being so ugly and living in a toxic river but they are nasty. It’s like the paper mill crooks left their signature scribbled across every inch of the water—Tough shit! Yours truly, and every plant or fish or person living in or near it is friggin’ screwed.

The river starts up in Minnesota or maybe it’s Canada and they named it after some Indian chief called White Cloud. I like that name, even if it reminds some people around here of a brand of fancy toilet paper, which I suppose is a sick coincidence, because the paper mill used to make toilet paper, but not that kind. On school days when it’s warm enough, kids cut classes and go down to the smelly, sad riverbank to drink and smoke pot and get naked in the reeds, but I think that’s lame. There are snakes in those reeds, and some people saw a wolf or a coyote around there a couple of times too, but I don’t go mainly because I don’t like to drink until I get sick. If I am a priss, I could care less. I’d rather be classy, like those women who acted in black-and-white movies, the ones with the wavy hair and pouty lips and speaking voices like sharp knives—so quick and clean you didn’t know they’d cut you until a long time after they’d done it.

My dad, being one of the people who lost his job, is pissed off all the time, and Mom has started saying that she is going to leave him to stew in his own angry juices if he doesn’t get a new damn job soon and hold onto it. He worked as a house painter for a couple of months over the summer, but then he got into an argument with the boss who said he used too much paint and Dad lost his temper and quit. Mom said that she’s going to take me and move in with my sister Thea who lives four miles away in Sill’s Creek and doesn’t want us anywhere near her place unless we’re just stopping by to bring her stuff from the house, but it’s not like she can lock Mom and me out, especially because Mom would pay half the rent and cook for us, but with Thea working at the one Italian restaurant around here that isn’t just a greasy pizza place, she doesn’t really need to eat at home, if she eats at all. Lately she’s been on a diet because one of the cooks said she had a big ass, which isn’t true at all but she believed him because she has no real guy in her life and always feels crappy about herself.

I don’t think I want to go with Mom if she moves to Thea’s. Even though he’s a huge crab, I worry about Dad. I worry that he would go crazy if we left him. I’ve seen him crying and aside from a show about women in Africa getting their privates cut up, it is probably the worst thing I have ever seen. When he cries, it’s like he becomes someone I don’t know at all and won’t ever know and then he’ll turn into one of those weirdos who hang out by the VFW and make cracks about Polacks and how many nuns you need to change a light bulb.

He has a project that he’s working on instead of going to a job Monday through Friday, something he spends whole days at the library doing research for and I have to help him because he says it will build my character. He says I need to learn more than what they teach me at school, but I know that already. I’m supposed to learn how to take on the government and “the slimeball politicians who are criminals just like the paper mill bastards, only politicians get to rob everyone blind in broad daylight and then shake hands all around.” I need to learn to stand up for myself and write letters to the newspapers so that the politicians know that their slimeball moves are being noticed. Most of the time I don’t feel like doing any of this stuff, but for a little while he’s in a better mood if I do.

Right now he’s working on the river. He’s not letting me off the hook with this project either. I hate the word project because it’s now his favorite word and it means that I’ll have to spend half the afternoon doing something really boring. He wants to sue the big company that owned the paper mill and make them clean up the river and pay millions of dollars to everyone who lost their job over there. He’s trying to convince people he used to work with to sign up with him so they can turn it into a class action suit, which he says would give them a lot more power.

Mom says something else: “You’re not a lawyer, Tom. I hate to break it to you, but you have no idea what you’re getting into trying to take these people on.”

“They’ve destroyed our river and stolen our jobs,” he says back, his voice too loud. “If we don’t have a strong case, I don’t know who does.”

“Of course you have a case, but two things they have that you don’t are money and the best legal counsel available.”

Dad’s face gets even more squinty. “I’m going to find someone who will do it pro bono. It could be as important as the big tobacco case.”

Mom shakes her head. “Nothing will ever be that big again. Companies have new ways to keep people like you at bay.”

“Nope. You’ll see that I’m right.”

That’s his other favorite thing to say now. You’ll see. Mom rolls her eyes when he says it. “I must be blind because I never see a thing,” she says.

“You’re real funny,” he says. He’s mad but Mom doesn’t care. They are like two cats without claws who keep hissing at each other because they can’t do anything else.

Right now my job for this project is to look up law firms in the phone books at the library for New York, Chicago, Boston and a bunch of other cities, ones we can call and ask to help us with the case Dad is putting together. So far he’s gotten four other people to go in on it with him, which isn’t that great. He wants at least twenty, but most people he’s talked to don’t want to get involved. They think they’ll get visited by a bunch of goons who will slash their tires and beat them and their kids up in dark alleys, as if Hillview had any dark alleys. Or else they’re worried they’ll lose the new jobs they’ve found, most of which are cruddy, like delivering newspapers before the sun comes up or managing the produce section at the grocery store. Dad is now one of the guys in town everyone’s trying to avoid. Only the librarians like him, but they’re lonely old ladies who never worked at the mill so they’re cheering him on like he’s going to mention them in his will after he gets fifty million dollars from the paper mill crooks.

The other thing he’s working on is finding a scientist at a college who will tell us just how bad the river really is, in science terms. We know there’s bleach in it and mercury, but he’ll make it sound even worse and tell us if it can be cleaned up again so that more than just turd-fish will live in it. Dad is also checking with the hospitals in Sill’s Creek and Pikesville to see how many cancer cases have been reported in the past thirty-five years and how many more there are now than the time before the mill. Our drinking water comes mostly from wells and he thinks the river chemicals have seeped into them. I think the Cloud should be clean no matter what. Otherwise, if it’s just supposed to sit there and kill everything that tries to live in it, we’re no better than a backward country where little kids and poor people use their rivers as toilets.

So far I’ve found about twenty law firms that Dad thinks might be interested in helping us. He’s looked up half of them on the internet and he’s sure some of them take cases for free, but he still needs to get his statement together before he talks to the big shots. Now that he’s been working on this for almost a month and I’ve had to help him after school at least two days a week, he’s more grouchy than ever before. “I can’t believe how greedy those assholes were,” he says. “They knowingly poisoned the Cloud and stole from us and considered it their God-given right.” Once he even started crying right there in the middle of the library with people near us staring so hard they could have bored holes in our heads.

Mom thinks I need to tell him I can’t help him anymore. She says I need to do my homework after school and have fun with my friends and be a teenager like other teenagers, otherwise I’ll turn into a nutjob like him and no one will want to be around me either. It’s my senior year and I’m not supposed to spend it sitting in the library with Mr. Grumpus. She says she’s about had it and if he doesn’t move ahead with his case or friggin’ let it drop, she is packing up and moving us out.

What does Dad say about this? Nothing good, that’s for sure. He says things like, “Go ahead, Linda. You just go ahead and give up and let the world turn into even more of a shit hole while you treat yourself to Oreos and potato chips at the grocery store and watch your dipshit reality TV shows. I’ll live with my conscience and you can live with yours.”

“This case isn’t a job,” she says. “Even if you do get a lawyer to represent you and by some miracle you win, you’re not going to see any money for years. You need to find a new job right now and stop relying on our relatives for handouts.”

It’s like she just kicked him in the balls the way his face gets all puckered up and red. Dad’s aunt Bernice gave us a lot of money a few months ago but it lasted for about two days because we had so many bills. Then Mom’s brother, Uncle Steve, gave us some more money and that lasted for another two days. When Mom says stuff like this, Dad looks like he’s going to punch a hole in the wall like he did once when Thea didn’t come home for a day and a half after her senior prom. “If you’d have a little faith in me for once in your goddamn life . . .” he yells. Or, “I didn’t see you turning any of that money down . . .” or “What are you waiting for? The door’s wide open.”

At some point, she starts crying or else I start crying and then Lucy, our dog, starts whining and panting because she knows things aren’t right and pretty soon Dad turns around and stomps outside and gets in the car and doesn’t come back until I’m in bed and supposed to be sleeping. I think he acts like a jerk too much, but I feel bad for them both. It almost makes sense for Mom and me to move out but I don’t want to, even if the fighting would stop and maybe everyone would be happier, which is what Thea thinks more than I do, but she still doesn’t want Mom and me to live with her. The thing is, Dad’s a cool guy. When he’s not depressed, he’s the coolest guy I know and that’s not just because he’s my father. Before the mill closed and he started to wig out, everyone liked him. He had friends calling or stopping by all of the time which kind of drove Mom crazy, but she liked that he was popular, probably because it meant that she was too.

At the library today when he wasn’t paying attention, I went over to the newspapers and looked at the want ads. I did it so that Mom won’t dump him, but I didn’t find the guts right away to show him the pages I ripped out of three different papers and stuffed in my math folder. Things were a lot better when he was painting houses, even if he’d come home speckled in blue paint and dead tired and fall asleep at seven o’clock in front of the TV and start snoring so loud even Lucy would lift her head up from the floor where she’d been snoring herself and look over at Dad, probably trying to figure out why it sounded like someone was gunning a motorcycle in our living room.

“We’re getting closer,” he says in the car on the way home from the library.

“Good” is all I can think to say. The want ads are freaking me out, like I’ve got stolen money sticking out of my pockets. I can’t stop thinking about how mad he’ll get when I show them to him.

He looks over at me. “Don’t you want to know why?”


“I got two more people to sign on with me today. Mike Stone and Larry Wojciechowski.”

“That’s great.”

“There’s seven of us now. Which means I can start calling the law firms.”

“You don’t think you need more than seven?”

“That’s enough to start with, and once word gets around that we’ve got a lawyer, more people will get involved. And once the lawyer helps me reel in a good scientist and we find out what needs to be done to clean up the Cloud, you can bet we’ll start making headlines around here and everywhere else.”

I nod and stare down at my math folder. “That’d be great.”

“We’re going to shake things up, Penny. It’s about time too. Everyone’s so used to the poverty and the bullshit that they don’t get it could be a lot different if they bothered to get their fat asses off the couch once in a while.”

I can tell there won’t ever be a good time to say anything about the want ads. It’s like I’m trying to tell him I’m pregnant or a lesbian or I wrecked the car because my boyfriend had his face in my crotch. Dad is not the kind of dad who’d say, “Oh well, we all make mistakes. Live and learn, right?” That’s about as likely as him saying I should be a stripper instead of going to college because I’d make killer tips. The jobs I found for him aren’t that bad though—five for car mechanics, two for electricians and twelve for salesman, all things that Dad could probably do or learn to do pretty quick since he’s worked with machines and people all his life.

During dinner, which Mom and I eat in the kitchen and Dad eats in the living room in front of some news show that he’s talking back to as usual, I decide to cut up the ads and tape each one onto a separate index card before giving them to him. That way they won’t seem so depressing and he’ll actually want to look at them because they won’t all be crowded onto a page with a bunch of other ads for jobs he’d never want. I wolf down my spaghetti and race upstairs and get to it, telling Mom that I have a lot of homework to do, which is true but I’ll do it later.

By the time I’m done, I’ve got twenty-four cards for him because I found some other jobs like carpenter and lawn care professional and part-time dog groomer. He loves dogs so maybe he’d think about it. There’s one for a garbage man too but Dad wouldn’t want that job in a million years. He hates rotten smells, like chicken bones when they stink up the garbage in the summer. He says it smells like someone died and in a way he’s right, but guess what, we still eat chicken because we’re heartless bastards according to the two vegans I know at school who are really hardcore and eat beans and nuts and apples and that’s about it. Not even chocolate, which I couldn’t give up, even if God showed up one day and told me I could be a millionaire actress if I never ate it again.

Mom is already in their bedroom when I come downstairs with the cards. Dad is still sitting in front of the TV, watching some politician get all puffed up about the war because it’s not like he can ever watch something that might actually be fun. He looks tired and sad and whiskery, but he smiles when I come into the room and nods his head toward the couch. “Take a load off, Pen. You done with your homework?”

“Almost,” I croak out. My throat isn’t working right; it feels like someone jammed a sock in it.

He looks down at my hands. “What’ve you got there? More stuff for the Cloud project?”

I can hear my heartbeat in my ears it’s so loud. “No, but they’re for you.” I hand him the cards and before he knows what they are, he looks at them with this nice expression like they’re birthday cards, not bombs about to start World War III. “Car salesman?” he says, then flips to another one. “Journeyman electrician?” He looks up at me, a little confused. “What’d you do here, Pen? Is this some kind of school project you made from the want ads? Is it supposed to be a card game like Memory? You used to love that game.”

“Yeah, I guess I did. No, that’s not what they are.” It feels like I’m going to have a heart attack the way it’s pounding now. “I made them for you. So you don’t get your fingers inked up when you look at them in the paper.”

He doesn’t say a thing. I almost turn around and run upstairs before he can start yelling, but he just nods and pretends to be interested in them and then he puts them on the arm of his chair and smiles with the bottom half of his face and finally says, “Thanks, sweetie. That was very thoughtful of you, but maybe you should do your homework instead of worry about me.”

“It wasn’t a big deal,” I say. “It didn’t take that long.”

“Honey, don’t worry so much. Everything’s fine.”

He knows this is crap and I know it’s crap but neither of us says a thing. When I start to go, he says in a low voice, “Your mom didn’t put you up to this, did she?”

I freeze. “No.”

“Penny,” he says. “Turn around and look me in the eye. If she did, you can tell me. I won’t get mad.”

“She didn’t put me up to it,” I say, looking at him. But what if she did! I want to yell. (Let me tell you, if she did and I confessed, he would shout so loud the neighbors would hear and Lucy would start barking and then he’d start throwing things around.) But all I say is, “I thought of it myself. I thought you might like the jobs I picked out.”

He makes that half-face smile again. “Maybe you found some good ones. I’ll take a look. Who knows. But for now you’d better go back upstairs and finish your homework.”

Upstairs, I don’t do my homework. I start crying, which is one thing I’ve gotten really good at, so good that I don’t even smear my mascara anymore—I just point my face downward and let the tears drop out of my eyes onto my jeans. I’d call my boyfriend Brian but he is downstate at college now and almost never answers his phone, or I’d call one of my other friends but they’re sick of me whining to them every other day about how crappy things are. They have their own problems and one of them was even punched in the mouth by her stepbrother once and she didn’t call me or anyone else to cry about it because she was so embarrassed and mad. One thing Dad’s never done is hit Mom or Thea or me. He might yell a lot, but he doesn’t beat up on us. That’s one thing I know we should be glad about.

In the morning the cards I made him are in a messy pile on the table with a dirty cereal bowl that must be his because Mom doesn’t leave dirty dishes anywhere but in the sink. Dad’s not around though, and neither is Mom. The coffee pot’s still on and it’s almost full so they must be somewhere in the house. Lucy’s sitting by her dishes, waiting for me to fill up her water bowl and after I do, she laps away it with that soft sloppy sound that for some reason always makes me happy. Then I hear them. They’re down in the basement arguing and it’s loud enough that I can hear my name and I just know they’re fighting about the cards. “Of course Penny’s ashamed of you. We all are!” Mom yells. “A year, Tom. A fucking year you’ve been moping around like the world owes you something!”

“I’m not the only one who can’t find work. At least I’m doing something important with my time. The river will—”

“Fuck the fucking river, Tom. The river’s not paying our mortgage or car payments or buying our fucking groceries!”

I grab my book bag and I leave. I leave poor Lucy in the kitchen with her water bowl and the lunatics in the basement who will ignore her and forget that she can hear about ten times better than we can. I don’t want to know how bad her ears have been damaged during all of the fights they’ve been having. She’s probably going to go deaf soon and one day she’ll get loose and be hit by a car because she won’t hear it coming. I can’t think about this without feeling like I’m going to throw up. I should never have made those cards. If I weren’t such an idiot, I would have kept looking up law firms in the phone book and kept my stupid mouth shut. Or else I should have taken the cards back and told Dad that they were a memory game and that I forgot to make a pair for one of them so he’d better give them back until I fixed them.

He’s not an idiot though. I bet he knew what they were for right away. He didn’t think they were a game, even if that’s what he said.

I’m supposed to work with him at the library again after school but for the first time since we started, I don’t show up. I know I should and it’ll only make it worse when I see him at home, like I really am ashamed of him, which I guess is true but it’s more that I’m mad at him for not keeping the house-painting job or finding something else instead of fighting with the boss and walking off in a huff like a five-year-old. I know he’s pissed off and the whole thing with the mill was unfair but at least he’s not dying of lung cancer or has no legs because he lost them in an accident like one of his old coworkers or got beat up and shot by some teenagers like a guy his age in Pikesville did when he was out mowing his lawn on a Sunday afternoon. I know you’re not supposed to make yourself feel better by looking at how much other people’s lives stink, but it’s not like I’m the only one who does it. I know that’s not much of an excuse, but it’s the way it is.

I don’t go home right away either. I stop by Millie’s, which is an ice cream place I work at on weekends, and buy two scoops of double-chocolate brownie and worry about getting fat for a few minutes but once I’m done with the cone, it’s like it never existed. Who cares if I get fat anyway. Brian left a month ago and I haven’t seen him since and it’s not like he’s rushing home to see me every weekend. Thea said before he left that I should probably break up with him because he’s going to meet thousands of other girls and why should I sit here and miss him while he’s skanking around in Madison, but I didn’t want to break up with him and he said he wanted to stay with me too. Meanwhile, Dad’s obsessed with the river and Mom’s getting madder, and it’s only a matter of time before she makes me pack my bags and off we go to Thea’s.

It’s almost five-thirty when I get home, but no one else is there except Lucy who needs to go outside because she’s probably been holding it in since last night because who knows if anyone let her out this morning. Mom should have been home by four, but maybe she went to the grocery store. I go upstairs and start my health class homework, which is on skin diseases and so disgusting. Around six, Dad shows up, but Mom still isn’t back.

“Linda? Penny? Anyone home?” I hear him calling from the kitchen. Then he’s climbing the stairs and I’m wishing I’d gone to the library like nothing was wrong. But then I get a good idea at the last second and jump into bed and get under the covers.

Dad knocks and I answer in a weak-sounding voice and he comes in and stares at me. He didn’t shave for the third morning in a row and his eyes look kind of baggy. "Homeless guy" is what Thea would say about him. "Haggard" is what Mom would say. “Hey, sweetie. Are you all right? I missed you at the library today.”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe I’ve got the flu. I felt sick at school.”

“Did you take your temperature? Where’s the thermometer?”

I shake my head. “It’s probably in the bathroom.”

“Let me go get it.”

“No, not now. I think I just need to sleep.”

“Have you eaten anything today?”

“Yeah. I had lunch at school and a snack when I got home.”

“Maybe Mom can make you some soup when she gets here. Where is she? Is she still at work?”

“I don’t know.”

He looks at me for a while and I wonder if he knows I’m faking it but then he says, “I’ve got my statement ready. Tomorrow I’ll start calling the lawyers.”

“That’s great, Dad.”

“Yes. I think so too. We’re finally on our way.”

“Mom will be glad.” A total lie but I say it anyway.

“I hope so. I’ll let you get some rest now. Call me if you need anything.”


Mom doesn’t get home until after eight and by then I’m starving. I come downstairs to see if she’s brought anything home for dinner but she hasn’t. Dad immediately jumps on her and wants to know where the hell she was.

“At the movies,” she says.

“What?” says Dad.

“You heard me.”

“What about dinner?”

“I thought you were going to be at the library until seven or so.”

“Penny wasn’t feeling well and she didn’t go. I got home at six.”

Mom looks at me. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m okay. I had an upset stomach but it’s better now.”

“I’ll make you some noodles.”

“I’d like some too,” says Dad.

“You know where the pots are,” she says.

It would be funny if she were in a better mood because Dad can’t cook. He can’t even boil an egg. He can make toast and heat up leftovers in the microwave, but other than that, he’s a reject in the kitchen. It’s not really his fault though. My grandma wouldn’t ever let him try to cook when he was growing up, and then he married my mom when he was nineteen and she was the same kind of control freak as Grandma.

“If you want to be like that,” he says.

She looks at him, her face all twisted. “Yes, I want to be like that.”

I turn around right away and go back up to my room before I start screaming at them to stop it for one lousy minute. If I did, we’d all start screaming and then Lucy would get sick and throw up her dinner. When I’m in my room again, I don’t hear a thing which kind of scares me, like they’ve slit each other’s throats, but pretty soon Mom comes up with a bowl of buttered noodles and a glass of 7-Up and feels my forehead and says I’m a little warm but I’ll probably be okay if I get a good night’s sleep. She sits down at the foot of my bed and watches me eat the noodles.

“I saw the cards you made for Dad,” she says. “That was an interesting idea.”

I can’t look at her. “I just thought they’d be less depressing for him than the regular want ads.”

“I think we’re way past the point where things are only depressing.”

“Mom, I’m not feeling good. I don’t want to talk about this stuff.”

“I’m not much good at comforting you lately, am I?” She smiles but it’s not a real smile. She looks worn out and her eyes are wrinkly and her face is so white. She doesn’t look as pretty as she used to when Dad still worked and she was the principal’s favorite employee at the grade school where she’s been a secretary for a long time. “I don’t know what to say anymore, Penny. I don’t know what to do. Your father won’t budge and I’m tired of listening to his excuses and I know you hear us fighting and I want it to stop but if we keep living together, it won’t.”

My stomach starts getting sick, this time for real. “I don’t want to move in with Thea, Mom.”

“I know you don’t. I don’t want to either but I think we might have to. At least for a little while.”

“He’s going to start calling lawyers tomorrow about the river.”

“I’m afraid that doesn’t matter to me one bit.” Tears are rolling down her cheeks and she tries to hug me but the bowl of noodles starts to slide off my lap and I kind of have to push her away.

“I don’t want to live in Sill’s Creek with Thea,” I say, trying not to cry.

“It would only be for a little while. Until I can find us our own place.”

“You can’t afford one.”

“That’s why we need to live with Thea for a little while first.”

“I’m staying here.”

She gives me this long, sad look like I’ve just told her I cheated on a test. “You really want to stay with Dad?”


“The house could get taken away from him if he doesn’t find work and pay the mortgage.”

I shake my head. “It won’t get taken away.”

“It could, Penny,” she says, her voice so quiet.

“It won’t.”

She opens her mouth but then shuts it again.


“Never mind. We’ll talk more tomorrow. You should get some rest now.”

“That’s what I was trying to do before you came in here.”

“I’m sorry, sweetie. I shouldn’t have said anything. It’s been a hard day, that’s all.”

“I wish I’d gone to the movies.”

She doesn’t say anything, but her face crumples some more and I feel like absolute dog shit now. “I know this has been so hard on you too,” she says. “I hope I can make things better for us soon.” She looks at me but I don’t say anything. She says goodnight and goes. I should get up and go after her and hug her, but I stay on my bed, the noodles cold and greasy-looking now.

I call Brian but his phone is off. To his voicemail, I almost say, “When you finally get this message, don’t call me back. Don’t ever call me again! I know you’re screwing some skank down there,” but I’m not a crazy person. I would rather break up with him when we’re on the phone because maybe he’d try to convince me not to and maybe I would let him. I try him four more times and don’t leave any messages before I give up and turn off the light and try to go to sleep.

Around midnight I’m still awake because my brain won’t turn off, so I go downstairs to get some milk and a few of Mom’s cookies which are fake Oreos. It’s not like Dad really needs to give her a hard time about them since they cost about a dollar-fifty a box.

He’s still up and sitting in his chair in front of the TV, which he keeps on low, otherwise Mom would yell. I try to sneak past him but he hears me and calls my name.

“I’m getting some milk,” I say.

“Come in here and sit with me for a bit.”

I get the milk, scarf down three cookies and go into the living room where he’s watching Jimmy Kimmel who reminds me of a bear, except he talks and wears nice shirts.

Dad puts the TV on mute and looks at me after I sit down on the couch. I wish I hadn’t scarfed those cookies because it feels like I might throw up.

“I want you to know that I love you and your sister more than anyone on Earth,” he says. “I’d die for you girls. I’m going to turn things around soon, Penny. I know it’s been a hard year but I’m doing my best to turn it around for us. You mom says she’s going to move out and take you with her, and I understand if you want to go with her, but if you don’t, I’ll do my best to take care of you until you leave for college next August.”

“Is it because of the cards I made?”

“Is what because of the cards?”

“Is Mom saying she wants to move out because she thinks I’m embarrassed that you don’t have a regular job?”

He shakes his head. “No, no. Of course not. She’s been saying this for months now.”

“I’m not going with her to Thea’s.”

Dad looks so happy all of a sudden that I feel like a jerk because what if I change my mind? It’s not like I would, but what if I did? “You want to stay here?” he says.

“Yeah. It’s where I live.”

“Yes, it is where we live. I’m so relieved you feel that way. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“What about when I go to college?”

“That’s different. You’ll be an adult and college is the next step.”

“Is Mom moving out tomorrow?”

He takes a long time to answer. “That’s what she said.”

“Oh.” I don’t know what I think, but it’s not like I’m jumping for joy.

“We’ll be fine, Penny. Don’t worry. You can see your mom whenever you want to. She’ll only be a few miles away.”

I know it’s the cards that are finally making her do it. Dad can say what he wants to, but I know it’s those stupid-ass cards. If I hadn’t been such a know-it-all and pain in the ass, maybe Mom wouldn’t ever move out and Dad would get going on the river for real and things would be better finally.

In my room with the lights out and my cell phone on but no call from Brian, I sit there and stare at the windows with their pink curtains that don’t keep out much light at night or any other time. I know I’m not going to get to sleep at all, so I get up and pack a suitcase just to see how I feel about it. When it’s packed, I don’t feel very good. I don’t want to move out. I don’t want her to move out either. If she does, I’m not going to talk to her. Even on her birthday and Mother’s Day and Christmas and Thanksgiving, I’m not going to talk to her. Even if she stops trying to talk to me, I will not talk to her.

Friday, July 1, 2011