She squints into the afternoon sun to avoid the cop’s eyes as he leans against the open screen door. “All right, Maria,” he says, squaring his shoulders and digging into his pockets like all the cops she’s seen on TV. In New York this dope couldn’t be a crossing guard. He doesn’t even have the sense to keep one hand free to go for his gun in case of an emergency. “We’ve got your brother down at the station again. He was over at the Safeway on Dunklin this morning, walking up and down the rows, opening packages and eating the merchandise right then and there. Didn’t have a cent on him. You folks are going to have to keep an eye on that boy. Who takes care of him?” he asks, peering over her head into the cluttered living room.
She swallows angry words, the back of her throat tingling. “Listen, man,” she says, “I have to go to class and I work, and my mother has to break her ass just to feed us, dig?” She shakes her head. “We can’t be home all the time. You want to nail his feet to the floor, for Christ’s sake?”
“What I want is to stop all this shit,” he says, raising his voice and pointing a finger at her chest. “He keeps talking about wherever it was you used to live. That crazy shit don’t go in this town. Do you get my meaning?”
Yeah, she understands that her mother was an asshole to bring them to Missouri. She nods her head to the cop; she’ll make nice to get him off the porch and out of her face. “Yeah, yeah, OK, we’ll work something out,” she says. Two more weeks and she’ll be out of school and long gone, whether her mother likes it or not. “Sure,” she tells him, “we’ll get a babysitter.” Hah. There isn’t a person in this town, man or woman, willing to sit with a nineteen-year-old, three-hundred-pound retard who eats anything he gets his hands on. “My mother’ll come down before five.”
Closing the door, she leans against it for a moment, savoring how peaceful the small house is without Anthony.
Her mother comes in whistling a show tune, happy as a Rockefeller. She’s always saying how pretty Jefferson City is, how the air smells so good and nobody gets raped. Life is miserable, but the air smells good. Personally, Maria can do without this Garden of Eden.
“Where’s Anthony? Taking his nap?” her mother asks, patting her fluffy hairdo.
“He’s in jail again, raided the Safeway on Dunklin this morning. The cops were here a little while ago. Do you want me to come with you?” She talks fast, a little ashamed of the enjoyment she feels in watching her mother’s smile fade.
“Oh, shit, what’s the use of getting upset?” Her mother sighs. “But sometimes, God forgive me, I feel like leaving him there.” She shakes her head. “Maybe he’d take off a few pounds, the poor kid.”
Maria isn’t crazy about this wistful attitude. Obviously, someday Anthony’s going to eat so much he’ll split his seams like a pair of tight pants. And she’ll be left to clean up the mess while her mother pads around the house doing “woe is me.” Like now, checking envelopes and drawers, shaking the kitchen piggy bank, her shoulders rounded like an old woman’s.
“You won’t have enough to pay off Mr. Staple,” Maria nearly shouts. “He’ll probably want fifty bucks this time. I bet Anthony swallowed a whole aisle, shelves and all.” She can’t stop herself. “Or maybe he took a bite out of somebody in the checkout line.”
Her mother looks up from the folded dollar bills and loose change in her hand. “OK, OK, shut up, Maria. I got thirty-two dollars. If it doesn’t get him out, he spends the night in juvenile hall. But it’ll be all right. The social worker’ll send him home tomorrow.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she says, “everything’s always going to be all right around this dump.” She stamps her foot on the kitchen linoleum. “I, for one, want to go back to the Bronx. Anthony could go to the clinic during the day, and everything would be normal again. I’m sorry, but this place stinks, it really does, man.”
If just once Maria’s face didn’t get red, or her eyes tear up, maybe her mother would pay attention. But instead she always says, “It must be that time of the month,” or, “Growing pains.” It’s as hard to make her listen as trying to bum a quarter in the city, or get Anthony to go on a diet.
At the police station her mother stands near the plate-glass door, clutching her canvas pocketbook. The cops standing nearby and the one at the desk ignore them. “Get it over with,” Maria hisses in her mother’s ear, the palm of her hand in the small of her mother’s back. The buzz of the fluorescent light makes her head hurt. “Go on,” she says loudly, glaring at the dispatcher.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” he asks. His clipped mustache seems to be part of the uniform. He takes off his glasses, lays them on the blotter, and rubs the bridge of his nose.
“I’ve come to pick up my boy. I think he got lost in the supermarket this morning.”
“Yeah, he got scared and tried to eat his way out,” Maria says, ignoring the tug her mother gives the back of her skirt. “You know, it’s like eating popcorn at a scary movie. It’s like pregnant ladies getting hungry at three in the morning. He just gets nervous.” She feels herself losing control of her tongue. “There’s no clinic for nervous people here, there’s never anybody on the corner to talk to, so what’s he going to do all day except shove things in his fat mouth?” She stares at the dispatcher. She thinks for a moment that she has made him understand.
“Well,” he says, looking over their shoulders, probably at another cop who was mouthing something snotty or rolling his eyes, “what’s his name?”
“Anthony Bennetti,” her mother answers. “It’s sewed in all his clothes. He’s a good boy, really. Just a little, you know, nervous, like Maria said.” Her hands are folded in front of her like she’s going to take communion. Maria crosses her arms over her chest, determined not to act like some weepy, guinea Catholic.
“OK, here it is,” the cop says, after shuffling through the paperwork on his desk. “The manager over at the Safeway said he’d drop the charges if you could pay for damages out of court.”
“How much this time?” her mother asks, pulling the envelope with the money out of her pocketbook, her fingers shaking. Maria knows the price is going to be way out of their range. She winces as the change spills out of the envelope, bouncing and rolling across the scuffed tile floor.
“Mr. Staple is asking seventy-five dollars. He claims the boy got hot under the collar and knocked some things over.”
“But all I have is thirty-two and some change,” Maria’s mother says, her voice cracking. On her hands and knees, she collects the quarters and dimes first. “Do you have any money, Maria?”
“No,” she lies, feeling the heat in the muscles of her neck.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Bennetti,” the cop says, shrugging. “I’m afraid he’ll have to be remanded to juvenile hall.”
“You got five minutes, Mrs. Bennetti,” the jailer says as he leads them into the waiting room. Anthony waddles toward them, gulping air with every step. His round, puffy face is streaked and dirty.
“I’m sorry, honey, but me and Maria don’t have enough to get you out this time.” She reaches out and smooths the fine crown of curly, dark hair ringing his chubby face. “You’re going to have to stay until you see the social worker.” As he sits down on a wooden bench, Maria notices that his fingernails are bleeding.
“Stop biting them, Anth,” she says, slapping at the hand in his mouth. “Look, Ma, now he’s going to eat himself.” The jailer, who has been pretending to read a newspaper, glances over and laughs. Maria feels like a traitor as Anthony looks up at her, his large, brown eyes, like always, slightly clouded.
Her mother blushes all the way to her collar. “That’ll be enough, wise guy. This is your only brother.”
Maria gazes at him — at the soft mountains of fat from neck to crotch, at his red, meaty fingers — and sighs. My only brother, she thinks. He grunts as their mother tries to help him to his feet, her hands under his armpits as if she were picking up a baby.
“Don’t worry,” Maria tells him, “the time’ll go real fast. And when you get home I’ll make you a big bowl of macaroni, OK?” A smile distorts his face, and Maria feels like crying and telling her mother about the cash she’s hidden in a shoe box in her closet. “Everything’ll be OK, Anth, you’ll see.”
“Time’s up, ladies,” the jailer says.
“Mama,” Anthony groans as another cop comes into the room and reaches for his shoulder. He tries to pull away, and the cops wrestle with him. Then he’s thrown off balance and staggers into the wall, where he rests his head and sobs.
“My poor baby,” their mother says, trying to go back to him.
The jailer holds her arm. “Better to just go quick. Be easier on him,” he says. “We’ll take real good care of him. Nothing to worry about,” he assures them as he leads them to the door.
“Mama,” Anthony bellows, holding his crotch. They all turn and watch a dark stain spread down the left leg of his pants. In the silence that follows Maria thinks she can hear it trickle off his shoes.
Walking home from the bus stop after work the following night, Maria remembers their block in the Bronx, the blowing horns and screeching tires of cruising cars, the people walking up and down the street, the old ladies in sequined sweaters sitting on the stoops on spring and summer nights, the smell of a nice marinara or quattro formaggi in the stairwell, her best friend Elisa and the guys she could fall in love with, all those cute Puerto Rican boys who hung out on the corner and whom her mother told her to stay away from because they gave you too many babies for one apartment.
But here, on this street, everybody’s asleep before the ten o’clock news, which, it so happens, comes an hour too early. She picks up a rock at the curb, hurls it at a darkened porch across the street. It bounces off the step and lands in the grass.
In their own little brick house the lights are on in the front room. As she opens the door, she hears Anthony wailing and her mother chanting, “I’m sorry I slapped at you, honey. I’m not as patient as I should be sometimes. Everything’ll be all right, you’ll see. Maria won’t be mad at you.”
Maria takes a deep breath and steps through the door. “What do I have to forgive this time?”
“Well, look who’s here, Anthony. She won’t be mad at you.” She pats his hand and gives Maria a hard look. “He just got into your drawer while I was hanging out clothes. He didn’t mean any harm.”
Maria turns without a word and walks into her room. On her dresser are the remains of two tubes of lipstick she’d bought after her last paycheck. Passionate Pink and Scarlet Silk, both down Anthony’s gullet. She looks at the reflection of her thin, dark face in the mirror over the dresser and applies what’s left of the red to her lips. I’ve got to get out of here, she thinks, before Anthony takes a bite out of me.
The white dress she’s wearing for graduation reminds her of old movies. It has the kind of skirt she can twirl around in and still be decent enough for a PG rating. But the dragon tattoo on her left shoulder shows through the sheer material of the sleeves. Her mother had told her she’d regret it, but getting the tattoo was her way of remembering New York. It doesn’t bother her that the two fat girls in her gym class point and stare — rejects mocking a reject. In fact, she even enjoys it once in a while. Maybe when she picks up her diploma she’ll give the principal a flash of claws. One small shocker by the little wop from the Bronx.
Anthony giggles when she walks into the living room all decked out. “You getting married?” he asks, wiping his middle finger under his nose.
“Yeah, I’m leaving you, Anth. No more macaroni,” she says, shrugging her shoulders.
The tears in his eyes surprise her. “Don’t leave me,” he moans, clutching her arm as she reaches out to pat his cheek. “Don’t leave me, Maria.”
“She’s only teasing you,” her mother says, taking a long drag of her cigarette. “Aren’t you, Maria?”
“Of course.” She waves her mother off, frowns at the country-western singer on the television. Maybe I should just tell her that I’m planning to leave, she thinks. I’m legally an adult and a high-school graduate. She can do whatever she wants.
“Swear it on Mary,” Anthony begs, holding out the plastic replica of the Virgin he plays with in the bathtub.
“Come on, Anth. It’s all right.” She can feel her mother’s eyes on her but doesn’t look.
“Do it,” her mother says, tapping her cigarette hard on the edge of the ashtray.
“Oh, Ma, come on. Don’t make a big deal of it and he’ll forget in five minutes.”
“I swear on the Virgin I’m not getting married,” Maria says, patting the statue’s plastic robe.
“There’s more to it than that,” her mother says, frowning, though Anthony has already forgotten and is wandering toward the kitchen. “You’ve been acting pretty funny lately. You don’t tell me anything anymore. What’s going on?”
“Oh, I guess I’m just nervous about graduation and all,” she says, backing toward her bedroom. “We’d better start getting Anthony ready.”
The ceremony is a ceremony. Maria’s never been able to get very excited about them. But put these soybean-belt chicks in dresses on a stage, and they turn into Shirley Temple. And the boys are worse. They wear suits like they’re made of cardboard, and they use clip-on ties. She thinks of boys in the Bronx, how they loved vining, dressing sharp, how they’d beat somebody up for wearing a clip-on tie. She misses their tight, black pants and silk shirts. And sometimes, just sometimes, she misses what’s inside those pants and shirts.
From her seat onstage she can see Anthony stuffing cheese doodles in his mouth while next to him old Miss Perkins, the gym teacher, bounces around in her seat to avoid the crumbs.
“Maria Bennetti,” calls the principal. Certain she will fall, she steps up to the podium. She can feel sweat drip down her back, and her legs itch under her nylon stockings. Her head down, she snatches the diploma and shakes Mr. Tanner’s hand. Anthony and her mother clap furiously, but the sound is small in the big auditorium. If you measure popularity by the amount of applause a kid gets, she has to figure that they like her about as much as she likes them. But it doesn’t matter now because she’s finished. Back in her seat, waiting for the end of the roll call, she hears Anthony giggling.
“Yea, Maria,” he hollers, trying to jump up and down. “Yea, my sister.”
“I’ll work the counter,” Maria says as she ties on her Taco Bell apron. “Do you have me scheduled to work tomorrow, Rusty?”
“Yes, I do.” He moves toward her, wiping his long, thin fingers on the dirty towel hanging from his belt.
She backs into the door of the walk-in freezer. “Well, I was wondering if I could take the day off?” Her smile is phony, her speech practiced. “You know, I graduated this afternoon, and I kinda wanted to celebrate tonight.”
“Oh, you do?” Angling his head, he moves forward, swiveling his loose, skinny hips. “What’re you gonna be doing, sweet thing?” He presses close, pinning her against the freezer and trying to pry open her thighs with his knee.
“Now, Rusty, be a good boy,” she says, wiggling away.
“Aw, I’m always good, you spicy little encharito. I bet I can show you a few ways to celebrate.” His tobacco-yellow grin and the smell of old ground beef are making her stomach roll.
“I’ll relieve Valerie,” she says and runs for the counter.
“Was he saying things to you again?” Valerie whispers, making a soda. “He wanted to give me a ride home last night.” Maria watches the other girl’s hand as Mountain Dew starts spilling over the sides of the cup. “He even put his hand on my butt. But I slapped him a good one and called my mom. She says she’s gonna call the police if he does it again.” With her apron, Valerie wipes the sticky sides of the cup. “He better figure out quick that I’m not one of them kind of girls.”
If Valerie ever knew that she’d been one of them, thinks Maria — when she worked at Tino’s Grocery, all the times in the stockroom with Sammy Santangelo, and with the boy who played Joseph in the Christmas pageant, right there in the manger after midnight Mass! Instead, she says, “You’ve got a good idea there, Val. My mother and brother are planning to come for dinner tonight. I’ll call and tell them to come at eleven. That way neither of us have to worry about the jerk-off of Jefferson City.”
Valerie laughs so hard she has to recount her change. “Oh, Maria, you just don’t care what you say, do you?”
“That’s right,” she says, leaning against the counter, ignoring the impatient line of people in front of her. “Not at all.”
Her mother and Anthony get up to the counter at a quarter till eleven. “Maria, make me some tacos,” Anthony says, tipping his head to one side. His round face, when he smiles, is full of delicate dimples that make him look like a happy eight-year-old.
“Sure, sweetie.” She turns around so her mother won’t notice the tears filling her eyes. “Coming right up,” she says, her voice quivering. Rusty and the other employees are staring at Anthony, who leans his dark, chapped elbows on the stainless steel counter, his rear end sticking up.
“I hope he don’t scare nobody away,” Rusty drawls. “Make sure you rub that counter down later. You never know where his hands have been, but I got an idea.”
“The voice of experience,” Maria says, pushing past him to a box of taco shells.
“Just remember who’s in charge here, girl. And watch that mouth.”
“Taking your Playboy to the janitor’s closet later, Rusty?” She knows she should stop.
He leans over the work counter, forcing her to look him in the face. “If you plan on keeping this job, you better shut it now, girl.”
She smiles, wrapping up the tacos in clean strokes. “You’re the Taco Bell manager, Rusty, now and for always.” She walks into the closet and grabs her pocketbook, throwing a five at the register for the food. “I quit. Keep the change.” Hopping over the counter, she grabs her mother’s and Anthony’s arms, then blows a kiss over her shoulder. “Give my regards to Miss April.”
During the short drive her mother is quiet, but at home on the porch she says, “So what’s the bug up your ass, Maria? That wasn’t such a smart thing to do.” She sighs, but Maria can tell she is pleased. “One thing, we Bennettis stick together, don’t we, Anth? Maria wouldn’t let that man hurt your feelings.”
“Uh huh,” he mumbles between bites.
Maria feels good for once. The night is warm, the porch is comfortable, Anthony has his tacos, and her mother has her happy family.
“But you’ll need another job, won’t you?”
Maria can’t spoil the mood, not now. “Hey, I’m a high-school graduate. Maybe I’ll take the civil service exam.” Hell, why not? she thinks. “We stick together, we’ll get by.” ln the small patch of grass between the porch and the street, the insects are buzzing, and she finds the sound soothing.
Anthony has finished his tacos, and he claps his hands when their mother mentions dessert, a surprise for Maria. “Your graduation cake,” her mother says. Anthony takes Maria’s arm “like a gentleman,” as her mother loves to say, and escorts her to the kitchen. A chocolate cake, “Happy Birthday, Maria” emblazoned on it in red, sits on the table.
Maria doesn’t comment on the inscription but gets a knife and cuts in. When she reaches for a plate, she sees Anthony’s hands flutter up to his mouth.
“Stop biting your nails, Anth,” she says, squeezing his meaty shoulder. He smiles at her gratefully. She is anxious to give him the biggest piece.