Excerpt from The Hierarchy of Weeds
Cardboard boxes slowly filled the living room but I was too afraid to ask where we were going. When mom announced we’d actually be moving to Florida to live with dad for a while I allowed myself to get excited. Thoughts of new places, people and white sand beaches filled my imagination. We flew to Pensacola just a few weeks before Christmas. Dad rented a large house with a big sitting porch and palm and pecan trees in the back yard. He bought furniture and filled the cupboards with groceries. Mom was secretly drinking. I didn’t need to see a bottle to know she was under the influence. Her belligerence smoldered and bubbled like a dangerous volcano. I sat tensely at the big oak dining room table. My brother, Kenny, sat across from me and we were both trying to finish a TV dinner, glancing nervously at the door and hoping dad would delay his return home. He didn’t and the inevitable happened. It was a one sided fight that ended in an agreement on dad’s part. He would pay for our bus fair to Pekin, Illinois, where mom’s brothers and father lived. We stayed in Pensacola for Christmas but it felt nothing like a holiday. A tree was put up in the corner of the living room but lacking enough decorations it looked as forlorn as I felt. It was the saddest Christmas ever. I felt sorry for dad—it seemed he had really tried, and he’d spent so much money on the house and furniture and now he’d pay our way to leave. We packed our clothes and left Pensacola on January 2, 1977.
The heavy wheels of the Greyhound bus plowed slowly through mounds of dirty snow in the parking lot. The bus depot in Pekin, Illinois was small and had a single row of chairs facing a long counter littered with pieces of the day’s newspaper and a few Styrofoam cups. The floor was slippery and dirty from the black snow that had been tracked in and melted, and although there was no one sitting in any of the chairs and no one appeared behind the counter, a black and white television, mounted near the ceiling, blared loudly as two soap opera stars declared their forbidden love for one another. The place smelled of smoke and sadness. After gathering our suitcases, we walked behind mom slowly out of the station, across the parking lot and towards the sidewalk. For the first time mom seemed a little uncertain and a little afraid. She did not even have a phone number for her brother. They had not kept in touch and had not seen each other or even talked on the phone since 1971. It took only minutes for the cold to creep under our thin layers of clothing, tapping at the back of our necks and behind our knees and even less time for the melting snow to find the tiniest of cracks in our shoes making the tips of the toes so very cold that it could almost be mistaken for heat. Across the street stood the City Center Motel. We walked instinctively in the direction of the flashing red vacancy sign. It felt good to set the suitcase down and to sit on the bed of the small motel room. No other comforts were to be had and I stared out the window as the sun began its fast descent over the tops of the few buildings that made up downtown Pekin. By now mom was a bundle of nerves, fidgeting with her purse, counting what remained of the money and then searching the phone book for her brother’s name. None were found and she instructed me and Kenny to put on our jackets –we would have dinner at the motel diner. Hamburgers and French fries stopped the hunger pains but nothing could calm the flutter of fear that rose in my stomach and lodged itself at the back of my throat, making my voice sound hoarse when I said ‘thank you’ to the waitress who removed my plate from the table. Mom asked the cashier if they knew the Taylor family. No luck. It was very dark now and very cold. The slushy snow on the sidewalks had frozen, becoming little mountains of ice that made walking difficult. Mom told me to wait in the motel room with Kenny. She would ask at the local tavern down the street. Mom approached nearly every person in the tavern until finally she found someone who knew her brother. We were not meant to be homeless and starving on the streets of Pekin, Illinois! Perhaps it was just that the odds were in her favor in a small town or it could have been the camaraderie and brotherhood of those men who worked the trades as almost all the men did there, knowing each other’s families; wives and children, as if they were one big family. Those who didn’t work for the Caterpillar plant worked in welding or some other line of construction and my uncles were welders just as their father had been. Aunt Dee, Benny’s wife picked us up from the motel the next day. In her home she buzzed around the large kitchen, somewhat nervous and eager to please, refilling coffee cups in between flipping fried eggs and turning the bacon before it burnt. Uncle Benny had Elvis Presley hair, blue black and thick and brushed away from his forehead in a pompadour style. He sat talking with mom at the round table in the middle of the room. I found him handsome and charming. “Dee, what’s wrong with these biscuits?” Benny tapped one on the side of his plate demonstrating the sound it made. He chuckled kindly and took a good-natured bite. Dee scooted to the stove and began poking at the biscuits with a spatula and turning them over to examine them. I sat with my three cousins in the living room. Lori, the oldest was my age and wore a black page boy style wig secured with a pink headband. She had a bad case of lice and ended up having to have her head shaved. Living near my cousins was even better than friends and I looked forward to hanging out with them. I met my grandpa Sherman too. He lived in Topeka, a very rural area, in a double -wide trailer with his girlfriend, Virginia. While grandpa was sulky and quiet like mom, Virginia was lively and one of the fattest women I ever saw. She was a good cook too and I loved her fried chicken, but I cringed one day when I saw her casually lick Crisco from a spoon after dropping a big clump into a skillet.
We rented a small one- bedroom apartment in an old Victorian house that was divided up into four units. Me, Kenny and mom slept side by side in a queen sized bed. Without an alarm clock I had to rain my brain to wake up every morning at six. I walked the half mile to Woodruff High School and for the first few months I was utterly alone and spent my lunch standing in the large third floor stairwell where a big picture window allowed a view of the athletic field below.
My dream of having cousins as best friends never materialized–mom had a falling out with her brother and his wife shortly after we moved into our place. I came home from school one day to find her furiously cutting up a beautiful knitted afghan that Aunt Dee made. White and lavender yarn fell into a soft mound at her feet and she said nothing as she swept the remnants into a paper bag and threw them in the trash. There would be no double dates with my cousins, no movies or sleep-overs and if that wasn’t bad enough I would soon lose the companionship of my diary as well. Near the end of the school year, when fireflies lit up the early evening and the streets were crowded with kids on bicycles, mom found my writing hidden under the mattress and read it. Mom’s eyes had that mean snake like stare and I knew she was drunk. She stood in the small kitchen at the sink with my diary clenched in her hands. Several pages had been ripped out and were either in the sink or on the floor. Adrenalin surged through my veins but I was too afraid to move or speak. Angry and betrayed– my thoughts ran backwards, re-reading any lines of past entries that might have mentioned mom. Her face was swollen and tired looking but her eyes, the pupils constricted to fine pinpoints, were alive with fury. She’d read something I’d written about her drinking. My stomach hurt and I could not stop the flow of tears. This seemed to make her even more upset and she raised my diary over her head and threw it at me in a final assault. The pages open and spayed like the wings of some crazed bird. My precious diary clipped my shoulder and fell against the front door. I grabbed it and ran from the apartment. I stopped running after two blocks, my asthmatic lungs failing to give me the stamina I needed to go further. Looking at the diary in my hands with so many pages ripped away, I knew it was useless to save it.
Three months later mom got a job as a maid at the Continental Regency Hotel in downtown Peoria and stayed just long enough to earn money for three one way train tickets back to Seattle. She swallowed her pride and called uncle Benny to ask for a ride to the station. He arrived alone and quietly piled our suitcases into the trunk of his car.
There is something special about time spent on a train, it’s a wonderful kind of limbo where worry has no purpose and it doesn’t matter what you’ve left behind or where you’re headed. I let myself fall deeply into a soft languor. I spent hours day-dreaming as farmlands and small towns rolled slowly by the window, looking as peaceful and trouble free as a Normal Rockwell painting. I dabbled in poetry and decided that it was an acceptable substitute for my diary and I refused to let my mind enter that vast unknown territory called tomorrow.
But tomorrow did come and the train rested its heavy steel wheels at Seattle’s Amtrack station 2 ½ days after leaving Illinois. Mom had written an old drinking buddy, Paul Koepplin, to ask if we could stay with him for a few days. He even agreed to pick us up at the station. Paul was a tall, bean pole thin man who looked elderly although he was only in his sixties. His hair was completely white and his clothes hung as loosely on his thin frame as his dusty white skin did on his prominent cheek bones. He had false teeth but seldom wore them and his mouth and lips had grown into the sunken position of toothless-ness. He had become a widower ten years ago. His two oldest daughters became pregnant and moved away as soon as biology permitted but the boys, Ricky 16 and Paul junior, 18, remained. It was easy to spot Paul’s car across the parking lot. It sat like an enormous metallic jewel upon the hot pavement; a turquoise Bonneville with white walled tires and winged tail lights– circa nineteen fifty something…. Ricky always drove his father and had in fact been driving since the age of 14 (his dad’s alcoholic nerves could not tolerate the demand for concentration and responsiveness to the conditions of traffic.) Ricky stood leaning against the door of the car. His arms were folded defensively against his chest except for when he needed a drag of his Camel cigarette. He had his father’s lankiness but not his thirst for alcohol—that trait his father shared with Paul Jr. Ricky was clearly not happy at having to bring home a car load of strangers but Paul and mom seemed to have a lot to talk about. They sat shoulder to shoulder on the red, fake leather seat engaged in happy conversation. Ricky moved the long bodied car gracefully over the asphalt parking lot and onto Fourth Avenue heading south. The summer sun was high and hot above the city. It was nice to be back in Seattle. Paul and his sons moved out of the projects about a year ago and now lived in a small rented rambler on south 144th, kitty corner from Foster High School in Tukwila. The house sat on a large lot and there were no neighbors to the left or to the right—just graveled space. Ricky parked the car and hurried inside, returning a minute later with a red colored Chihuahua in his arms. Paul Junior stood in the middle of the living room and watched as we carried in suitcases and bags, a mischievous grin on his face-he did not offer to help. The house was sparsely furnished; a tattered sofa and black and white television in the living room and a chrome and vinyl table with no chairs in the kitchen. The bedrooms held beds but nothing else and there were no pictures on the walls.
There is nothing out of the ordinary about the end of the month for most people, but for those on welfare it is almost always a sad, sad time. Money trickles down to pennies and food is scarce and sometimes supplemented by whatever the closest food bank offers (if a family is lucky enough to have a food bank nearby). Mom always bought a big load of groceries on the first, but at Paul’s house the one big shopping trip never happened and they were close to having nothing left to eat now. I followed Ricky into the kitchen, and sat down on the empty table while Ricky stood, leaning his lanky frame against the kitchen counter. He had finally accepted me and talked easily at times. “What do most people do when they get their money on the first? They buy food, right? Well my dad doesn’t do that.” I didn’t need to ask where the money went. Ricky pulled a dented pot from under the stove and filled it with water. I couldn’t imagine what he could cook with so little food in the house. When the water boiled Ricky added spaghetti, stirring it with a fork. Ten minutes later he drained the water from the pot, dumped the spaghetti in a plastic bowl, added a heaping tablespoon of margarine, a sprinkle of salt and pepper and happily offered half to me.
The first of July crash landed on the doorstep of the small house on 144th. Ricky agreed to drive his dad and mom on a few errands. Before three PM that day mom and Paul they were drunk. Paul Jr. had his own case of beer. Ricky was distant. I tried to pull him out, but he couldn’t be reached. He stayed outside for most of the day and evening working on the car, his small dog, Peppy, never far from his feet.
In August, a month after we arrived at Paul’s, mom found a place to rent; a furnished trailer in a mobile home park just a few blocks away. Our new home was a single wide, red aluminum trailer that sat on 42 Ave. South, just off of Pacific Highway. For the remainder of the summer we sweltered inside trailer number 51. The passing of Elvis Presley was the only marker that made one day any different from the other. Money was very tight. The rent took almost 50 percent of mom’s welfare check. I would have to get a job and after seeing an ad in the paper for a dishwasher at a nearby restaurant/cocktail lounge, I mustered all the confidence I could, walked in the door and after speaking briefly with the owner, was hired the same day. Luigi’s Italian Restaurant and Bar was on the corner of Pacific Highway, just a few blocks from the trailer. I worked after school and on weekends as a dishwasher and was soon promoted to bus person. The owner of the restaurant, Mr. Albanese was a volatile alcoholic prone to angry outbursts and after one such incident his entire crew (except the cook) up and left without notice. What used to be a thriving business deteriorated rapidly as the once loyal customers stopped coming. I stayed on and was promoted to waitress. I worked eight hours a day on weekends and six hours each day after school. I was exhausted and depressed. I gained weight eating leftover pizza and cheesecake. One day after school I pushed open the heavy wooden door to the restaurant and heard Maria, the owner’s wife screaming. I stood nervously waiting for my eyes to focus and adjust to the darkness and when they did I saw Ralph Albanese brandishing a shotgun and his wife trying to keep her distance. Without a word I closed the door and marched quickly to the crosswalk. I slapped the signal button hurriedly but it took hours to change. I used the payphone at Larry’s Market across the street and dialed 911. After giving all the information I could and answering the operators questions I hung up the phone and headed back to the trailer. I was not even tempted to wait for the police to arrive and I never went back to the restaurant–not even to get my final paycheck.
Mom grew tired of the struggle and applied for public housing again. We moved our meager possessions back to High Point, in a apartment that backed up to a green belt on High Point Drive. That summer my grandma Alice, dad’s mom, came to visit. Uncle Bill dropped her off but did not come inside to say hello. Grandma wore a long cotton dress that fluttered just below her knees and with her hair in a tightly coiled bun, I imagined she looked exactly the same in 1959. She was tall, straight backed and when she hugged me hello I could smell the familiar smell of her face powder. She stood back to look at me and took my hands in hers, sliding them across her cold palms, “you’ve got long fingers Barbara, you should play the piano.” Grandma wanted to take us out to lunch so mom called a cab and we sat awkwardly at the kitchen table and waited for the taxi to arrive. We’d been to the Hide-Away Café before. Mom liked the place because there was a bar in the back and she could order her favorite drink, a Manhattan. The café was quiet as we slid into a booth. In between bites of tuna melt grandma asked Kenny and me about school. Mom was quiet and taking more drinks of her Manhattan than bites of her sandwich and I watched her nervously. Back at the apartment mom began to pace. She lit a cigarette and waved it around in the air as if she was about to say something profound. She strode from the kitchen to the living room, her thrift store high heels clicking fast on the linoleum, as Kenny and I sat with grandma at the table who smiled sweetly, like a mouse about to be swallowed by a snake. “You never liked me did you?” Mom hurled the accusation at grandma whose lips drew into a tight, straight line. “Now Jessie I just want to have a nice visit with my grandchildren.” Mom moved closer to grandma, so close that grandma had to lean to the side in her chair to see mom’s face. “Jessie please…”
“Don’t say my name you ole biddy. You know what your son did his kids? He starved them!” Grandma rose slowly from her chair, “Barbara will you call your uncle Bill for me?” I was sad and embarrassed to tell her we didn’t have a phone and the one favor she’d asked of me, the one thing I wanted for her just as much as she wanted –could not be provided. She’d left our house and found a neighbor who made the call to uncle Bill. I watched from the kitchen window as she waited on the curb by the side of the road. One of her tan stockings had fallen to her ankle where it stayed, collapsed. Her square vinyl purse hung from a skinny arm and the white knit sweater she wore sat unevenly across her shoulders. She stood for nearly twenty minutes. A silver sedan pulled up to the curb and she was gone.