Fiction: Life Don't Come with a DVR
A version of this short story first appeared in The Avalon Literary Review, a lit magazine edited by Valerie Rubino out of Orlando, Florida.
Lately I’ve been watching a lot of Sesame Street. I’m thinking Bert needs a night out and a few beers. I bet Bert and me would have some things to say, some stories to tell. He could vent about Ernie, and I’d get to speak my piece about Mary.
Mary left me with her kid, Tabitha, about three months back. Tab was a cute kid, but I wasn’t cut out for no kid, not then. While Mary packed the bowl or chopped up her crystal in the bedroom, I’d drink a beer and hang out with Tab, her swallowed up in the pleather recliner I bought on sale and Big Lots and me in the brown love seat my mother gave me, hoping I’d come around more. We’d laugh at Big Bird and Snuffy and The Count on TV. I didn’t know there was a Super Grover “2.0,” or that it was even still on, to tell you the truth—course I hadn’t been around kids much since I’d been one myself.
I guess Mary and me could’ve learned a lesson or two from Sesame Street, been more content in the moment, with just counting with The Count. That’s what the leader at AA keeps saying to me. My buddy from high school told me about group, that it was the only way he kept from ending it. A man don’t know himself until a woman and a little girl come into his life. And lucky for me, I found out I wasn’t as bad as I figured.
But I wasn’t good enough to save the kid from her mother, or the mother from herself. I reckon you’ve seen enough TV to have your ideas about how it all hit the fan. Hell, I ought to have known one addict can’t save another one no way. All of us has to get right in our own time, and most of us ain’t on the same schedule.
Before Mary went wherever she went and we were still sleeping together, she told me she never wanted Tabitha around her grandfather. He’d kept Mary cooped up and in Christian school uniforms all her life, running off every boy who showed up at the door. She told me he’d yell she was going to Hell, just like her mother, who’d taken off with another man. “The damn Devil,” he said. I asked Mary if all he ever did was yell, and Mary snorted something and left it at that.
She was trying to explain away her ways, I reckon, like we all do when the mirror’s in front of us. I didn’t have no explanation myself, other than my daddy never did nothing to me or for me. But all the AA meetings in the world wouldn’t have changed what Child Protective Services thought of me no how. Not when the granddaddy has a 401(k) and used to be president of the Rotary Club over in Kenner. He lives in a big house with a gate around it, not too far from Lake Pontchartrain. I’ve been in and out of clubs and big houses most of my life, but none that a judge would approve of.
That’s how I met Mary, matter of fact. She was a cashier at the Save-A-Lot where I’m a stock boy. I’d noticed her red hair right away, smile as white as cocaine. This redneck asshole started bitching at her one day about ID’ing him for cigarettes, and I went over and stared him quiet—another man can see it, knows when you’ll do what he won’t. Plus, my head’s buzzed and I got a few tats on my neck, which tends to make people think I’m crazier than the rest of us. Anyway, Mary liked that, me sticking up for her, and she told me I ought to come to a rave on the outskirts of St. Bernard’s Parish. Some tweakers she ran with had a warehouse, turned it into a real-life Sodom, with DJs and glow sticks and enough Absinthe to fill the levees. Mary was tweaking so hard that she thought I was a narc when she banged up against me, bobbing her whole body to the thump, thump, thump that was making my teeth chatter.
“You’re an old man,” she yelled in my face. Thump, thump, thump.
“I ain’t but twenty-eight,” I yelled back. Thump, thump, thump.
Then she planted one on me. I tasted whatever watered-down beer she was drinking and the acid in the sweat around her lips. The strobes were flashing so bright and fast that I could barely make her out. But she had a few glow sticks strung together in a halo around her head, and her lids were caked with glitter. I could see that her eyes were red but there was some blue in ’em too. She pulled me off the dance floor to this makeshift metal table. I watched her suck two white lines into her head. Those blue eyes checked me over, and I was hooked.
Mary was twenty-three then, skipping from Louisiana to Mississippi and back, boyfriend to boyfriend, most of ’em dealers who helped her snort a life she could bear. I was no tweaker, but I wasn’t no count either, waking up to whiskey in my coffee, a twelve-pack a day. The sex with Mary was better than I’d had, though—or maybe it was the feeling after. Instead of just rolling off and leaving, I liked to look at her nose, the way it humped a little, the way her hip bones poked out, stuff I didn’t notice with other women. I thought maybe she was going to be my reason, that we were both feeling what I was feeling. That’s when she showed up at my place last Christmas with a knee-high version of herself and a bag of crystal, tied with red and green ribbon to be festive. The kid was Mary’s spitting image, a few more freckles, so sweet rain would melt her.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Picou,” Tab said and giggled through a gap-toothed grin.
“What’s so funny?” I said.
“Momma says your name is like pee and cool mixed together.”
I could tell she was practiced, that I wasn’t the first man to get this kind of song and dance. I saw Mary out of the corner of my eye, mouthing “shake.” Tab stuck out her tiny hand, fingers straight, thumb cocked back. It was quite the routine they had going, but I wasn’t fooled, just lonely’s all.
“Mr. Picou, that’s the biggest TV I ever seen,” Tab said. She hopped in my Big Lots recliner. “Can I watch?”
“My name’s Joseph,” I said, “but you can call me Joe.” I tossed her the clicker.
My TV was big, a flat screen, almost as wide as the brown love seat my mother let me have. Tab was glued to it. Mary and me drank in front of her, but I did all I could to make sure we went back in the bedroom for a toke, or if Mary needed a snort. Tab turned a knob inside me. But there were nights when I couldn’t keep it from her, nights when Mary would start carrying on about Oscar’s head spinning in the trash can or The Count getting so damn carried away that Mary would pull the blankets up over us all on the couch.
“I like Elmo best,” Tab would say, under there in the half light. “He’s a ginger like me.”
“You’re the prettiest ginger I know,” Mary’d say.
“You’re the prettiest ginger I know,” Tab would say back.
But life don’t come with a DVR.
I found frames for a couple of pictures I’d taken of Tab on my phone and had ’em printed at the Walgreens. I bought a vacuum, too, and a card table, that way we didn’t have to eat microwave dinners on our laps. I gave the white walls a fresh coat of paint and took a sponge to the scuffed wood floors and the toilet and the bathroom sink. In the end, though, Mary’s wrecking ball won out.
I told her she needed to lay off the Ziploc bags—Lord knows what she was doing to get ’em. I told her she was too good-looking to get puffed up and pockmarked that way. But I was starting to get on the other side of the pain she was still in, that hole you dig without even realizing the shovel’s in your hands.
On top of my shift at Save-A-Lot, I started working the overnight for a wrecker service. I needed all the money I could get to keep us in habits and Tab in decent school clothes. For her first day of kindergarten, I found a green dress at Wal-Mart that went real nice with her curly red hair. I told her to model it for her momma, and Tab ran into the bedroom.
“Look what Joe got me,” she said, twirling around.
I stood behind her in the doorway. I couldn’t get over how red Mary’s hair was spread across the white pillow. She had the covers pulled up over her nose, hiding her cheeks, cause they’d started to sag some. I couldn’t see her blue eyes. They were staring out the window, onto the small patch of grass where my landlord had planted hydrangea bushes. He’d let ’em die, and all that was left were a couple of hay-colored balls full of dead petals.
“That’s nice, honey,” Mary said, not moving a muscle.
Mary was gone before I got Tab home from her first day of school. She’d always threatened to take off when I’d call her out about the mess she was putting Tab in. I asked her once after sex why she didn’t want to get better for Tab, told her that this could be our life all the time, a man to take care of her and love her. I reckon I was getting tired of running, but Mary seemed numb to it, like after I pulled out she was just after the next fix.
She’d emptied the Mason jar I kept change in and swiped the Nattys in the fridge and a few of my black T-shirts that she wore as nightgowns. All Mary left me was a note on a paper towel: “I’ll be back for her. Sorry.”
Tab cried, not so much for her momma, but because she said that the next place wouldn’t have a big TV like mine. She said the next man wouldn’t let her watch Sesame Street. I’m not a fan of folks lying to kids. I’d just as soon have known the stakes myself, and maybe I wouldn’t be in the shape I’m in. But try telling a five-year-old that the only friends she’s got are a bunch of puppets on TV. For the next few weeks, I tried to clean up, just a six-pack a night to keep the clock ticking after Tab dosed off. Save-A-Lot let me work through lunch so I could leave early to pick her up from the after-school program. All the teachers would stare at my rusted pickup and me, like I needed a brand-new Cadillac and a collared shirt to come around kids, like a mustache and dirt under my nails would kill ’em or something.
Even the AA leader has taken to giving me the stare.
“Look,” I says to him. “I shoulda never took that woman and that kid in. No denyin that. I gotta live with that. But how do you put a woman out when her little girl’s in the other room countin with The Count?”
“You be a grown man and do the right thing,” he says.
It takes all I got not to sock him. I close my eyes and count like The Count in my head, trying to remember how many months it’s been since I slammed my mother’s back door. Last time I saw Momma I was pushing the ham and mashed potatoes she’d cooked for me around on my plate. She told me her heart was broke, watching me waste away, told me she’d raised a son with more to offer, that I’d lost my faith and I ought to pray.
Tab knew the end was coming. She had experience with it, even at her age, how it changed the color of the sun coming through the blinds. We spent our last afternoons in front of the TV, with bowls of Count Chocula. I’d ask her about kindergarten, and she’d tell me about a new word she’d learned and the states she’d memorized. “I want to go to California when I grow up,” she said. “And Hawaii, too.”
Then one morning, out of the clear blue, she asked: “Sesame Street isn’t real, is it?”
We slurped milk from our spoons.
“No,” I said, “you know it ain’t.”
“Teacher says ain’t ain’t a word.”
“Your teacher’s probably right,” I said, “but I ain’t smart like you.”
“You’re silly,” she said and smiled. “But I bet Sesame Street would be fun to go to, if it was real.”
“Yeah, I bet it’d be a good time.”
Tab turned her bowl up, and the milk, gone chocolate from the cereal, slid down her chin. She wiped her mouth on the Big Bird T-shirt I bought her.
“Is Sesame Street like Heaven?” she asked.
“Kids in my class say you can only go if you’re good and you believe.”
“Well, you’re good.”
“I believe,” she said. “Do you believe?”
I turned up my bowl of chocolate milk.
“I reckon so.”
“Me too,” she said.
That was the only time I flat-out lied to her. And like I said, I’d rather tell a kid what’s what now and not disappoint her later. But being around Tab taught me that believing is all we have to get by on sometimes.
I let my mother come around these days. We sit on the brown love seat she gave me and watch TV. I try to keep my mind off a beer and fill her in more and more on the gaps between us. I finally got up the nerve to tell her about Tab and Mary. I told her I hope the grandfather lets Tab watch Sesame Street.
“Surely his TV’s as big as mine,” I said.
My mother nodded at that.
“I hope Mary was lying about him being a Bible-beater and all.”
My mother put a hand on my knee then, to keep it from bobbing up and down. I let her leave it there. That wouldn’t mean nothing to CPS, but it means something to my mother.
“Maybe he learned his lesson with Mary,” I said to her. “Maybe he’ll take Tab for walks around Lake Pontchartrain, just to get her out from in front of the TV now and again.”
My mother nodded at all that too.