By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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They call me the Greeter. I sell shoes at the Boca Raton Town Center mall — bedazzled stilettos and platforms, neon-strapped pumps saved for special occasions. I stand by the entrance of the store, heels dug into the carpet, tummy tucked in, and I greet people. Hi, how are you, sunshine? Have you seen our shoes today? I wear sparkling eye shadow for the job. Smooth down the shine of my hair with coconut-scented spray. I bend at just the right angle as I crawl on the floor, my legs spread like a dumb secretary in the movies, the perfect C-curve of my waist. I pull the shoes out of their boxes, the tissue paper out of the shoes. I slip them on one foot, then the other, and secure them just right.
That’s a perfect fit, I say, propped up on my knees. Take a walk in them.
No heel grips necessary, no insoles, no pads. I know how to fit a shoe.
You’re adorable, the customers will say. How old are you?
Sixteen, I say.
The customers hand over their credit cards, and I make my dimples show. Would you like to wear them out? You can’t return them if you do, but I’m sure you won’t want that!
I clean up the wads of tissue paper, use a metal wand to lift and store the boxes back in their proper places in the stockroom; I bang the boxes until the wall of cardboard looks smooth.
I move to the front of the store again after each sale. Suck in until my ribs show, try to catch the gaze of anyone walking by, Hello there. Have you seen these shoes?
On my break, I spend all thirty minutes smoking cigarettes in the mall alleyway, next to the dumpster. I close my eyes and lean against the wall, blowing smoke into the wet heat. When I finish, I chew out the final Parliament with my heel, clean the heel with a tissue, squirt antibacterial gel on my hands, neck, and face, rub cucumber-melon lotion on these places, smooth my hair again with coconut oil, and smack on a piece of gum. I am the Greeter. The Greeter must smell good. The Greeter must smile.
I count down the hours until my boss, Eliza, will drive me home in her black Pontiac, where we’ll chain-smoke, talk shit about our rudest customers. I’ll do my purification process all over again before walking through the front door of my home.
Nothing smells good at home. It’s been two years since my uncle got locked up in northern Florida and my father moved to New York to help take care of his business. Two years since he kissed my mother at the airport — It’s only temporary — with a small black suitcase in his hand.
Lately my mother has begun writing pages and pages of words by candlelight. The title reads, “Story of My Life,” but the words are all illegible. They slant off the loose-leaf pages and continue onto the dining-room table.
At home, my mother tries to cook food, but she forgets what she’s cooking in the middle of it. I find SpaghettiOs mashed up with scrambled eggs, coffee grounds on top. I find crumbling sheets of seaweed inside our containers of mint-chocolate-chip ice cream.
Want dinner? she’ll always offer, spooning out the mixture she made.
This is not a problem for me, because when I do eat, it’s a cold-cut slice of turkey that I roll up with a single slice of provolone cheese. I give myself up to fifteen minutes after eating the roll before excusing myself to the stock-room or school bathroom, where I jam three fingers at my tonsils until it gives. Sometimes I eat a handful of hard-boiled eggs. I hate them so much that the gagging turns on without effort, and I’ll take anything that comes this easily.
The Senior said he would give me a lift whenever I needed, so long as I let him move two fingers, sometimes three, up between my legs before my shift. I let him do this in the mall parking garage, bored, lifting up my school-uniform skirt, staring out the car window. Sometimes he jerks off in the driver’s seat with his other hand. He cleans up with a Papa John’s napkin.
Tonight, my mother calls me on the store line, when business is slow.
Hey, Greeter! says Eliza. It’s your ma!
What’s up? I whisper into the phone. I cup my hand around my mouth. What’s wrong?
Can I pick you up tonight? Need to talk to you about something.
Eliza’s taking me home, I say. Eliza always takes me home.
I’ll be OK driving, I promise, she says.
I can tell from her voice that she is, indeed, OK. It’s my mother on the other end. My mother, who gave me language; who grew up in a house of Chinese and Hawaiian and pidgin but still found her own vocabulary, her own exquisite handwriting; who used to spell words like Hello and You Are Mine in frosting on my breakfast Toaster Strudels until I learned how to read.
Sure, Mom, I say.
At 9:30 PM, my mother is waiting outside the back exit of the mall. She’s punctual, and I am impressed by this. As I walk over to the car, I pull a fistful of my hair beneath my nose to make sure it doesn’t smell like tobacco.
Hi, MomMom, I say, as I climb into her car. I snap the seat belt.
Hi, baby, she says, really looking at me, rubbing my knee. How was work?
Slow, I say. Didn’t hit our numbers.
I hate the idea of you and Eliza walking to her car this late at night, she says. It gets so dark here. Is there even any security?
This is the Boca Raton mall, I say. Safest place in the world. What’ll they do, hold us up with Botox needles?
Ten minutes into our drive, at a red light, my mother opens the car door and pukes on the street. We’re on Glades Road, and the headlights behind us are a blinding spotlight on her face, on the stream of yellow liquid spilling from her throat. When the light ticks Go, cars begin to honk. I rub my mother’s back. You OK?
I’m fine, she says. Something I ate.
My mother pulls over and pukes four more times before she asks me to drive.
Do you need to go to the hospital? I ask.
She’s all shakes, her lips greening. Her teeth clatter so loud I can hear them. Something I ate, she says.
What’d you want to talk to me about? I ask her. Why’d you pick me up?
I just wanted to see you, she says. That’s all. Just wanted to see my baby girl. She squeezes my hand.
My mother will later tell me that this was the day she made a decision — this was the morning she flushed the bottles of pills down the toilet in a colorful clicking stream, changed her bedsheets, got dressed, sprayed perfume. She wanted to pick me up from work and tell me about it — this new life that would unfold for us, this new chapter, how sorry she was for losing herself again, how she was done this time, she really was.
She’ll tell me she wanted to make me proud. She wanted to live. Instead, she’s sick all week. She kicks the new sheets off her bed. She sweats, sleeps, gags herself with the corner of her pillow when she can’t stop crying. She mumbles words to herself — sentences I can’t make out. She stares at the ceiling with eyes like seeds. Something I ate, she says over and over again, as I press cold washcloths to her forehead.
On the seventh day, after returning from a long afternoon drive, she is not sick anymore, but she is also no longer my mother.
The piercing parlor is just off the train tracks and you don’t need an ID to get poked. Instead, you offer to pay cash, keep a secret, and wear the shortest skirt you can find. This is what I’m told, anyway, by some of the girls at school. Addison Katz got her nipples pierced there, and she shows off the wink of silver by pulling her white uniform shirts tight against her chest. Can’t wear a bra till it heals!
I have the night off work, so I’ve decided to go to the train tracks after school and do my best. Jenny wants to get poked, too, and we decide that we’ll hold hands. I want my tongue pierced because it’s the one thing my mother has said she would break my neck over. Tattoo your eyeballs for all I care, she has said, but you’ll have a tramp-ring over my dead body. Or yours. Jenny says she’ll decide what to pierce once she gets there. She’s spontaneous like that. A few girls from school decide they want to tag along and watch. Even my old friend Beth shows up.
On the way to the tracks, I call my mother. I’m going to a movie with Jenny, I say. So don’t try to call me tonight.
Well then maybe I’ll go to the movies, too, she says. I could use a laugh, a self-date.
In the parking lot of the parlor, I roll my khaki uniform skirt four times and pull off the Soffe shorts I wear beneath it. I roll the skirt high enough that the slight curves of my butt show below the pleats. I goop on lip gloss. Tie my shirt into a neat side-knot to expose my stomach, my tanning-bed tattoos.
Seventeen? Eighteen? I ask Jenny.
You’re not fooling anyone.
Jenny has always looked older than me, and she’s wiser, too. She knew how to rim her lids with liner when I still used Milky pens on my own eyes, and she was the first person to tell me what a Brazilian wax is. Most important, she’s got the nicest, roundest ass at our school. I know she won’t have any trouble convincing the men inside.
The shop is quiet when we open the doors. Two men stand behind the counter, under a wreath of mistletoe, looking at something on their computer.
We’re here for tongue rings, says Jenny. And we’ll pay cash.
Four girls stand behind us in their school uniforms, waiting.
You old enough? says the bigger man, with butter-colored sweat stains mooning under his armpits.
Yes, says Jenny.
How ’bout little China?
Yes, I say. We’ve got cash.
All right then, says the thinner man. The holes of his ears dangle. Give us five; we’ll get set up.
I need a cigarette first, I tell the men. I’m trying to sound confident, mature. So I’ll come back in five.
Jenny joins me outside. She doesn’t smoke, but she likes the smell of it.
Can you believe it? she says. That was so easy! We didn’t need to suck a dick to make that happen.
We both laugh at this. I take a long drag and try to steady my hands. I am terrified of needles. We’re quiet as we watch the cars pass over the train tracks in hard thumps. This other part of town. Garbage blowing all over — plastic bags, McDonald’s cups — the smell of seaweed. Apartments nearby that we visit for public-school parties, the bad ones.
Shit, is that your mom? says Jenny.
It is. I hide the cigarette behind my skirt, instinctively, though I know she does not see me. My mother is driving her truck over the tracks. I watch her through the window. Sweet, pale moon-sliver of a woman, a sad face. Her black hair is cut jagged, framing her chin. My mother. From this view, she could be going to the grocery store to buy wonton wraps, going to Blockbuster to pick out just the right movie, meeting our family for dinner on the pier. But I know where she’s going in this part of town. My older cousin has told me where Benzo Brad lives, and I watch my mom’s car take exactly the turn I expect. Here we are on the same block, Mother, neither one of us near a movie theater, so far from where we ought to be.
Inside, I swish my mouth with so much Listerine it makes my eyes water. I lean back on the chair as the man adjusts his light, moving it along my whole body, taking his time. I open my mouth, and the man pinches my tongue with a metal claw. Drool pools around the corners of my mouth. I look him right in the eyes as he brings a needle the size of a soda straw to the underside of my tongue, jabs it up, delivers me the sharpest pain I have ever felt and a high I’ve never matched since.
My mother is no longer fighting the sick. She’s in her Other Place again, writing in her secret language across the pages, the table. Today she has conspiracy theories about how my father spends his time in New York. He has a mistress up there, she says. A white woman. Tall, giggly, in a pink dress. Nothing like her.
Not true, I say. He’s working hard in the city. Probably freezing right about now.
Go to school, she says, and maybe he’ll come home when you’re out.
I don’t think so, I say, kissing her on the head. I wonder if she knows who I am. Glad you’re feeling better.
The rage — it’s never toward my mother or father. It’s their dealers: Benzo Brad, Uncle Nacho, Nurse Harmony, Karate Kurt. I fantasize about slitting them with paper between the webs of their fingers, their eyelids. Karate Kurt has kids push the drugs for him, kids in his karate class. He gets them hooked. In two years he’ll wrap his lips around a handgun — later, Benzo Brad will do the same. I’ll smile both times I hear the news.
Addison Katz picks me up and drives me to school, popping her gum and chomping on about the Senior and how I should stop putting out for free rides to the mall. You’ve got quite a name for yourself these days, she says. Kinky Chinky. Remember when you were Queera? When you only hung out with the fat girl?
You gave the Senior a hand job last week, I say.
I didn’t do it for a ride.
Fuck off, I say. I hate Addison, but we’re friends because people expect us to be.
The day goes on like any other day. I cheat on my history exam using an answer sheet rolled up under my pen cap; I get another talking-to from my English teacher, who says she knows I’m not an idiot but I sure act like one. “Gregor Samsa can suck my dick”? Seriously? She slaps the pages on my desk, disappointed.
The Senior drives me to work after school. He reaches between my legs, but I tell him no; I’m on my period. Instead, we talk about some holiday rager coming up. You going? What’ll you wear? And, You think you’ll apply to college?
Nah, I say. I’m not smart like that.
I change out of my uniform and into my work clothes in his backseat. I spray the coconut.
My mother calls in the middle of my shift again. She sounds worse than she did this morning. She’s crying — I can’t make out her words.
Chicken is what I understand. Made chicken. Need sleep.
So go to sleep, I say. Eliza will drop me off soon.
But I don’t want Eliza to drop me off soon. I want Eliza to drive me all around town, and I tell Eliza this. I want her to buy me as many packs of cigarettes as I can afford, and a bottle of anything, and I want us to talk, the two of us, in her car, on the beach, anywhere. I want her emo music turned down low on the radio as I tell her what my life’s been like; I want to tell her about home, about the Senior; I want to tell her that once, I could have been an Olympic athlete, or a jockey. I want to talk to her until my mother wakes up. I want my father. Most of all, I don’t want to go home.
Instead, we drive around until 10:30 PM talking about guys, before Eliza says, I do have to go home, you know. I’m tired. You good?
Sure, I say. Of course.
Tell your mom I say hi, she says. Your mom’s the bomb.
She’ll like that, I say.
I look at my house: the fountain trickling near the entrance, the ginger plants that ooze fragrant juices when you squeeze them, the royal palms, the white stones and smooth wooden fence. It looks beautiful like this, peaceful even. Like my mother brought a small piece of Hawaii here with her. My home.
Inside, all the lights are off. I flip on the kitchen switch and watch cockroaches skitter across the counters, into the spaces between the crusty stove coils. Shoo, shoo, I say, making my way to the fridge for a drink.
Usually my mother’s food combinations are contained in a bowl or Tupperware, but this is different. There are chunks of chicken everywhere — smeared in peanut butter, most of the pieces raw. The chicken is on the shelves, in the drawers, sliding slug-like down a bottle of orange juice.
I go to my mother’s room. The lights are on, the TV blaring a special on country music. She’s lying sideways across the bed; her fingers are playing an invisible piano.
Mom? You OK?
OK, she says. Need sleep.
You need some water?
My eyes sting. I am used to this by now, used to knowing that I will never be used to this — that this part of her will never not break me, that this may be the rest of our lives. The two of us here, in this house, waiting for my father. The pill bottles and scorched foil. The chicken.
Good night, I say, and close the door.
I pick up my portable landline and call Beth.
What’s up? she says. It’s sure been a while. How’s that tongue ring?
I think my mom knows, I say. But I’m sadly still alive. I am shimmying my pants off, kicking out of my heels. I count the cigarettes in my purse. I keep the pack inside a dirty sock, in case my mother ever looks. Six left. I’ve changed into pajama pants and a sweatshirt when I say, I miss you, Beth. We used to do so much stupid stuff together.
We sure did, she says.
Tell me a story, I say. What’s new with you?
Beth is telling me about her family and the Tradewinds Christmas light show, her father and his new house, a new dance move she learned from her cousin, when I hear the crash. The crash sounds like wood splitting. Furniture, I think, but there is also a nauseating, thick-sounding thump. The sound feels like it takes forever. It breaks into its own syllables. By the time Beth says, What the hell was that? I realize that I’m already opening my mother’s door. Next to her bed, my mother’s body is rag-doll twisted on the tile floor. The nightstand came down with her — she must have tried to hold on to it. A pool of syrupy black blood begins to inch out around her hair like a halo, until it finds thin, straight paths on the grout between the tiles. Red foam swells out from between her teeth.
I hang up the phone. I am on my knees, bending over, staring at the eggshells of her eyes, afraid to touch her. There are no pupils, no screams. Her body convulses like it’s being shocked, or like it’s the trout she once helped me catch when I was a child. I caught it in a pond in North Carolina with a single kernel of corn. It flopped in my hands as I pinched the hook from its mouth — I just wanted to throw it back into the water where it could breathe, survive. Please, please, Mom, make it stop shaking like this. All that hurt for a kernel of corn.
It doesn’t even feel this, my mother said to me. Animals are resilient like that.
The paramedics will not let me ride in the back of the ambulance with my mother. You sit in front, they say. Ride shotgun like a big girl.
The way they’re treating me, like a child, is comforting. I want to stay curled up like this, in this dark seat, for the rest of my life.
So brave, the driver says. Not even crying.
Is she going to die? I ask. I don’t hear the sirens. The traffic lights whip by. Blowing through the reds is not as exciting as I imagined it could be.
I don’t know, he says. I can’t tell you that.
I want to crawl into his lap. This man. I want him to take me home and feed me.
I have my own waiting room in the hospital. It’s a tiny room with a closed door, with bars of light on the ceiling so brilliant they ache behind my eyes.
Do you have another guardian? somebody says.
I have a grandmother, I say. My mother’s stepmom. She lives nearby.
They call her.
After my grandmother arrives — She fell, Grandmother. She was sleepwalking — a group of men ask to speak to me alone. My grandmother leaves the room.
Unnatural is what I hear first. She fell unnaturally. The way she fell. Your mother. Twisted. Backward. Unnatural, the way the nightstand was. The way her arm was. Her neck. Does your mother speak English? Your mother’s not responding. Does your mother speak Chinese? Who is your mother? Did you want to hurt your mother? Do you love your mother? Were you mad at your mother? Are you in trouble at school? Where is your father? Did you strike your mother? Your feet, they say, your feet are covered in blood. Why didn’t you call sooner? We’ll get you some shoes. How long had she been like that? Skull fracture, they say. Are you sure you love your mother? Who were you on the phone with? When did you hang up? Unnatural, they say. Is she taking anything? On any medication?
No, I say.
Are you sure? This could be life or death, sweetheart.
I imagine police tape around my house, twitching in the wind. A stranger’s gloved hands finding the bottles of pills, the potions, opening the lids, photographing my mother’s clothes. I imagine them handcuffing my mother in her hospital bed, the way she would wake up, confused, bandaged, screaming for me. I imagine them sending me to live with a family that is not my own. I have protected my parents for as long as I’ve been alive. If someone comes after them, I have teeth.
Is she going to die? I ask.
My mother, I say. She just fell.
After my grandmother tells the doctors the truth — painkillers, opiates, drug addict, overdose, words I had never before associated with my parents because none of us had ever said them aloud, because there was never a name for exactly what this was — after my family in Texas drives through the night to clean out my house; after my father arrives two days later (something I will never — even after he dies — forgive); after the doctors stitch up her scalp, pump her stomach, intubate her, my mother wakes up from an induced coma. My family lets me see her in the intensive-care unit, but they ask that I do not speak to her. We need to discuss next steps first, they say.
My mother holds my hand in the hospital bed. This is not a private hospital room fragrant with roses. Rows of bodies are being resuscitated all around us — thin sheets hanging between each one. We look at each other, knowing. There is no coming back from this. This time is different.
Back home, my auntie Tao offers to adopt me. She shows me a website for Wylie High, in Abilene, Texas. You’ll have me and your cousins there, she says. You’ll make friends. You just have a year and a half left of high school. Think about it, she says. We have a nice church, and great hamburgers.
I’m not leaving her, I say.
I tell my father about this offer, hoping he’ll take me to live with him in New York.
You could like Texas, he says. Jesus people can be nice. Maybe you could use some nice.
The doctors send my mother home with pamphlets for treatment centers. They all look like hospitals to me — hospitals with palm trees and yellow doors and smiling people on lawn chairs. Be the best that you can be! one pamphlet reads.
Back at home, my family preps me on the speech I am supposed to give. You’re the only one who can do it. They will stand behind me while I speak, they say, and I am supposed to lie. I open my mother’s door and approach the bed. The room is dark, but I still walk around the Spot, as I will call it for the next twelve years, until this house burns down.
MomMom, I say, I need to tell you something.
She nods. She doesn’t speak. She knows what’s coming — we’ve been through this before. I can barely see her in the dark like this, just the shine of her pupils.
I’m moving to Texas. I’m enrolling in Wylie High. I’m going to go to church, I say.
I need to leave you, I say. I can’t be alone anymore.
She nods. I wonder if she believes me.
It hurts, I say. I tap a finger at my heart.
I know, she nods. When you hurt, I hurt.
No one can hurt you the way a mother can. No one can love you the way a mother can.
My father and I drop her off at a treatment center later the same day. We walk through the yellow doors and say our good-byes as doctors take her vitals. This is the first time I check my mother into rehab, though it won’t be the last. The next time will be just after my father dies, and I’ll be wearing his monogrammed shirt; I’ll sit in the seat he takes right now as he sandwiches my mother’s hand in both of his, saying, You’ve got this, baby.
When the doctors ask her to announce her drugs of choice, my mother lists them off quietly. Embarrassed, I think. She rubs her arms like she’s freezing, rocking back and forth. It is a long list. I feel guilty being in this room. This part of her life is both mine and not mine.
My father doesn’t say much on the way home. I watch his steady hand on the wheel, the gold recovery bracelet he wears now — a new ruby on the triangle for each year he is clean. Three by now. I’m sorry I left you with this, he says. I didn’t know what to do.
It’s OK, I say.
I’m not solid yet, he says. Not well enough to see it. To be around it. He begins to cry and shakes his head in a quick thrust, like a horse shooing off a fly. I can tell this hurts, and I know he’s been struggling. I know it by the way he picks up the phone when I call him sometimes. The drag of his voice when he says, I’m just tired, really, and his anger when I don’t believe him. I’m working so hard, but it’s so much fucking harder than you could ever know, he says, after he confesses to one drink, maybe two. And I hope you’ll never have to know it. He always hangs up on me.
In the car I say, I think you’re solid, and I’m so proud of you.
I’ve got to head back to New York, he says, but I’ll be back for Christmas.
That night, after my father takes off, I call the Senior. I ask him to score the best drugs he can find. After I smoke and swallow everything he gives me, I leave his house and drive into a ditch off a road in Weston, Florida. I fall asleep like that, behind the wheel, in this U-shaped ditch, the rain patting my windshield. By morning, nobody has found me. I drive home.
It’s Christmas morning, and I miss my mother. Her origami-wrapped presents, bows that shed glitter in a purple mist. I miss her cards for every gift, her writing in those loops and crosses — I love you to the moon and back. I miss her.
I drive to her treatment center, alone. She’s made it through one week of detox, and Christmas is my first allowed visiting day. A nurse leads me through a long hall to the backyard. The people inside stare at me. They must know I am my mother’s, I think. We look the same. There’s no mistaking it.
Outside, a fountain spits into the sky. The sun is beating down, and I’m sweating in my chair. I peel off my sweater. Pills of cashmere stick to my forearms like flies on fly tape.
I hear her before I see her. Merry Christmas, baby — behind me. I stand up and turn around as she opens her arms. We hold each other so close her hair is in my mouth. I crumple into her. I miss you, I say. It’s all I can seem to say. The tears come down my face without any effort, and, for once, I let it happen.
My mother speaks to me slowly, measured. I can tell she’s heavily medicated. We talk about the weather, the news, other patients inside the center. Good, good people. You’d like them. Some of them are around your age. Before I get to ask any more questions, our time is up.
Take care of yourself, baby, she says. She picks up a glass of water from a lawn table and sips it. She holds my hand a moment longer. You doing OK? She is earnest in her question.
Of course, I say. I sit up straighter. I smile.
Make your numbers tomorrow, she says. One of the biggest shopping days of the year.
That trout. I wrestled with the hook to free it; I was in a hurry. Easy, like this, said my mother, and she did it in one motion, a popping sound. The hook had pierced my finger, and I sucked the blood so hard my fingertip went white. I tossed the fish back into the mud of the pond, and the two of us watched it shoot off like a single strand of tinsel in the sun before it disappeared.
What I mean to say is, it lived.
T Kira Madden
T Kira Madden is a writer, photographer, and amateur magician living in New York City. She facilitates writing workshops for homeless and formerly incarcerated people and teaches in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College. “The Greeter” is from her debut memoir, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls.