© Copyright 2015 by Sara Jacobelli
She just showed up one day. Like a stray cat, she wandered into our little cement yard, hung around by the banged up metal garbage cans, looking all skinny and scraggly and hungry. Cept she wasn’t a cat, she was a kid, but I brought her in anyways. “What’s yer name?”
“Eliza. No. Phoebe. No. Esmerelda. No, Dorothy, like in the Wizard of Oz.” She followed me up the back stairs to the second floor.
“You can’t have that many names. Just one.”
“Well. Phoebe then. Phoebe Phinx.”
“Like the Phinx in Egypt? That big ole stone lion?”
“Yeah. Like that.”
“An how old’re you?” I took the key from my pocket and unlocked the back door.
“Ten. No. Eleven. Eleven an a half. No. Nine an a half.” Her clothes were too small and looked kinda babyish. She smelled like she needed a bath and her long hair hung in matted dry tangles. She had a tiny little voice like a canary and her breath smelled like old frogs.
“Don’t start that again. You only get one Age, just like you only get one Name.” I was starting to get tired of Phoebe already. “My Mom cuts my hair real short so it don’t get all dirty and messed up like yours. You gotta Rat’s Nest there.”
“Eleven, then, I guess.” She sat at the cluttered kitchen table with her Big Cow Eyes and greedily gulped down a Coke and chomped down a Devil Dog. She looked around the room like she just got outta jail. I knew I would get in Trouble. We had one six pack of Cokes and one box of twelve Devil Dogs. It was supposed to be a Treat. Everyone got one Coke each and one Devil Dog each. Cept Poppy. He got all the rest. The only way I could afford to give Miss Phoebe Phinx here a Coke and a Devil Dog would be if I gave up mine. And I couldn’t do that, specially while watching her gulp her Coke and munch her Devil Dog with what Mom would call Gusto. Just plain old fashioned Gusto.
“Well, my name’s Tory. Short for Victoria Maria Riccio. An I’m older’n you then. I’m twelve. Just started seventh grade at East Side Middle. You go there too?”
Skinny blonde Phoebe Phinx Gusto with the Big Cow Eyes polished off the last of her Devil Dog and licked the chocolate off her dirty fingers. Yuck. Her hair was what Mom would call Dirty Blonde, not Tow Headed Blonde like the Campbell boys down the street. I never seen her around before so figured they must be New.
“I don’t go to school,” she mumbled. She looked down at her bitten fingernails.
“I bite mine too. Nicky says I gotta stop, it’s disgusting.”
“My brother. He’s seventeen. He a senior over at Harding High School and he works at Food Fair. He’s a cashier. Poppy makes him pay thirty dollars a week Room and Board. Nicky says it ain’t fair an it ain’t. He’s got his license too, but he doesn’t got no car. You got any brothers an sisters?
“How come you don’t go to school? You ain’t missin nothin, by the way. That school is rough, some rough kids go there. They’s got drug dealers an gangs an everthin. Nicky says I’d be better off skippin school and goin to the library an readin books all day. He says my vocabulary’s gettin worser an worser ever day I go there. He says I’ma gonna go to prison if I keep goin to that school. My Aunty Ruthie, she says Catt-lick schools are better. Cuz they Strict an don’t allow no drugs or no gangs. They even had a guy with a gun at my school in the cafeteria. All the eighth grade girls said he was Fine too. But Poppy says he ain’t payin for no Catt-lick school when they got free schools. Aunty Ruthie says that Poppy’d rather spend his money Playin Poker an Bettin on the Ponies. That’s how men are, she says.”
This speech failed to impress Miss Phoebe Phinx Gusto. She burped an old frog smell burp. “You got anythin else ta eat?”
“Nah. I mean, I’d get in Trouble if I gave you any more food, I’m already gonna be in Trouble.”
“Just fer lettin me eat the One Devil Dog and drinkin the One Coke?”
“Yeah. Sure. Whattaya think, we’re made a money or somethin? Cuz they count everthin. They’re cheap. Don’t yer parents count ever Treat you got?”
Phoebe’s Big Cow Eyes got bigger. She shook her head. “I don’t got no parents.”
“Well, don’t cry then. What’re ya, some kinda Foster Kid?”
“Where they pay people to take kids nobody wants. Kinda like a Orphanage, but inna House.”
“No. I live by myself.”
“What? You can’t live by yourself. I ain’t never heard a no Little Kids younger’n me livin by theirselves. Hell, I’d go live by myself if I could. I’d get me an apartment all by myself an watch TV and read comic books an eat Hershey bars -Slim Jims-barbecue potato chips an drink Yoo-Hoos an swear to High Heaven an not go to Church and not go to School and not do no chores with nobody tellin me what to do.”
“I do live by myself.” She closed her Big Cow Eyes and chewed strands of stringy hair.
“You’re a Liar.” I stood up. “OUT! OUT! Yer a Phony Two-Faced Liar.” I seized the opportunity to get rid of Phoebe. The kitchen clock said five fifteen. My mom would be home from the Dry Cleaners by five thirty.
Phoebe shrugged, with the look of one who’ s used to getting tossed out. “OK.” She opened the kitchen door and took the stairs two at a time.
“Hey PHOEBE PHINX!” I yelled. “You comin back tomorra?”
She stopped by the stairwell. “You said you ain’t got no food left.”
“Well, maybe I could find somethin. You’re pretty Damn Skinny. “
Phoebe looked up at me and blinked her Big Cow Eyelashes. “You’re Skinny too.”
“Yeah, I am. But Poppy says I’m Strong Skinny on accounta he taught me how to fight when I was three years old. He’s a Boxer. When I went to kindergarten I beat up all the boys in my class. Oh and I’m the fastest runner in this whole neighborhood.”
“We could go shopliftin. We can’t go to Food Fair though, cuz my big brother Nicky works there. He’s a cashier. We could maybe go to Pantry Pride.”
“OK.” She leaned on the stair rail.
“Maybe my Mom could cut yer hair so it don’t look like no Rat’s Nest?”
“OK. Bye.” Then she was gone.
Mom came home late. “I work right across the street, but I gotta take That God Damned bus to run errands. I had to go all over Hell an back an that bus took Forever.” She opened the fridge and the freezer. “Whyn’t you take the hamburg out? Toldja take the hamburg out to thaw. Now we got nothin for dinner.”
“Fish n chips place cross the street? Please Mama. Every time I walk by, it smells so good.” I hung on her arm.
“Get offa me, you brat. Like we got money for fish an chips.” She lit a cigarette. “Crab cakes sound good though. Maybe on Pay Day. Or maybe Howard Johnson’s all-ya-ken-eat fried clams.” She noticed the Devil Dog wrappers in the trash can. “So what kinda party you’d have here with yer little friends? Somebody ate TWO Devil Dogs.” She opened the fridge door again. “An somebody drank TWO Cokes. Remember you better turn those bottles in for the deposit. They’re worth money.”
I sat at the kitchen table and drew cartoons on the brown scratch paper Mom always brought home from the Cleaners. “This girl was hungry, so I shared them with her.”
Mom lit a nonfilter Lucky Strike with her smelly Bic lighter. “Uh huh. Sounds like a lie to me, Victoria Maria. Sounds like you ate too much and better confess to Father Reilly.” She picked up the phone and dialed. “Hey Phyl. We got Mysterious Munching Moon Mice over here on East Main. Yeah, like on Rocky n Bullwinkle. They eatin all our food. They specially like Coca Colas and Devil Dogs.” Mom nodded her head. “Uh huh. Uh Huh. Your Aunty Phyllis says they got Mysterious Munching Moon Mice over there by the Projects too.”
She yakked on the phone with Aunt Phyllis forever. Then she slapped together tuna fish sandwiches for dinner. Nicky came home from the Food Fair and frowned at the tuna fish sandwiches. “No pickles?” He arched his eyebrows in that Nicky way. “And I pay Room and Board for this? The cupboards are bare, my dear.”
“Do we have chips? I could put chips on the tuna sandwich.” Nobody said anything.
“Maybe I’ll go live in a Foster Home,” I mumbled.
“Over my dead body,” Mom said. We all trooped into the tiny living room to watch TV. “Poppy’s not comin home tonight, kids, so we can watch what we want and have Peace and Quiet. Peace and Quiet.”
Nicky grabbed the TV guide.
“Star Trek tonight!” I screamed, jumping on Nicky and grabbing the TV guide. “We’re watching that, NOT some stupid English show on Public TV.” I grabbed the TV guide and pretended to throw it out the window.
“MOM! Make her stop! PLEASE! She acts like she’s been raised by wolves.”
“All I want is a cigarette and a drink and to put my tired feet up. My dogs. My sore ole puppy dogs from Standing Up at the Dry Cleaners all day.” Mom leaned back in her comfy chair. For someone who always declared she was “madly in love” with Poppy, she sure enjoyed those nights when he stayed out late.
“Alright, brat, your show’s starting in ten minutes. If only we had popcorn.”
“OK. OK. Inna minute.” I looked out the front window at East Main Street, the bus unloading the tired grubby factory workers. Neighbors going to the fish and chips joint. The hardware store and deli closing up for the night. Men grabbing the newspaper at the corner market. Grandmas carrying long loaves of bread back from the bakery. Mothers carrying freshly cut meat and cold cuts home from Gene’s butcher shop. The dark good looking rough looking Italian guys lounging in front of Paul’s Pizza. Laughing and smoking. The same guys every night. The faint sounds of the barroom jukebox. Fly Me to the Moon. The Lady is a Tramp. Summer Wind.
“When you get older, things’ll look better. You’ll look back at your childhood, East Main Street, these days, and it’ll look better. We’ll all be dead, up singin in heaven or down there rottin in hell, who knows, an you’ll miss us. I’m tellin ya. That’s how life goes. Youth is Wasted on the Young They Say.”
Nicky went back in the kitchen, rummaged in the cupboards looking for popcorn. “No Jiffy Pop, but I found something better. Dago Red.” He found a corkscrew in the kitchen drawer and popped open the bottle and poured him and Mom a glass.
“Me too. I want some wine too.”
“Alright, drink your wine, kid, and shut up and watch Star Trek. This is so classy, like the Forsythe Saga. Drinking Dago Red out of Jelly jars.”
“I met this girl today. She don’t got no home an she’s Hungry. Her name is Phoebe Phinx Gusto.”
“She DOES NOT HAVE A HOME. Speak English.” Nicky arched his eyebrows again and made a face. “Mom. That school is a Proverbial Breeding Ground for Criminals. She’ll be in a Women’s Prison before she makes eighth grade.”
“Her name’s Phoebe Phinx Gusto, and she lives by herself. You should see her Big Cow Eyes.”
“Your imagination,” Nicky said, toasting us with the wine. “Your imagination never ceases to amaze me.”
“Shut up, the show’s on. Tell us durin the commercial.” Mom rolled her eyes, puffed on her Lucky Strike. “Never heard a the Gustos.” She looked at Nicky. “Thanks, Nick. We’re like Millionaires over here, with TV an Wine.”
“Any break from you and Poppy fighting is worth a million to me,” Nicky said.
“Is anyone listening? I was always Mr. Spock when me an my friends used to play this when we were little. We used to play Star Trek all the time. Donny was Captain Kirk, then we had three Scotty Chief Mechanics. I played Spock cuz I have short dark hair. And I’m Smart and I’m Logical. We don’t play it anymore cuz we’re too old.”
“SHUT UP!!! The show’s on!”
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