I was clean three years and three months when Renee showed up with a toddler on her hip. It’d been almost as long since I last saw her and she looked skinny and washed out in a man’s flannel and blue sweats. Her roots were showing. The baby had blonde hair, my hair, and blue eyes with a little stripe of brown in the left one.
You gained weight, Renee said, looking me up and down. One of her eyelids drooped.
I just stared. Renee. I’d pictured this before, but I forgot what I’d wanted to say. So I just stepped back and let her in. She looked around, and it was like I could see the room for the first time, too. I wished I’d vacuumed because Freckles was a shedder. I wished I’d painted the water stain on the ceiling. I wished I had some baby toys, and I wished I hadn’t stacked the new TV on the old dead one.
This, Renee said, hiking the boy higher up on her hip. This’s Talon.
I took him from her and said, Hi Buddy. It’d been a long time since I held a baby. He was smiley in a fleece onesie that made him look like a penguin.
Talon, I said. Like bird feet?
Not the feet mom. Just the claws.
I said, Ahh I get it. But I didn’t. Freckles barked from the bedroom where I put him if anybody knocked.
I got myself a doggie, I said, my voice pitching in and out of baby talk. A little dog-a-log.
Renee asked for the bathroom and she went where I pointed, leaving me with this little guy. I looked him over. Chubby and quiet and clean. Half-her, so a quarter me. He gave me a feeling I couldn’t name. I said, I’m your grammy. You can call me Grammy. He squirmed to get down. The toilet flushed, pipes rattled. Renee came out and said she’d get their stuff from the landing.
First thing, I caught her up on the gossip in town, thinking I’d start somewhere we’d both agree. Then I tried to pry about where she was coming from, what her plans were. But she said, Please I can’t even think about it right this minute. So we watched the TV for a bit. Both of us full of words we wouldn’t swap. Where do you even start? Three years is a lot of days. I gave her and Talon my room.
The couch was too short for me, even though, at forty-six, I was already shrinking because of my discs. I’d tussle and Freckles would wake up, then I’d feel his dog breath on me in the dark. It would be Tuesday. Suboxone Day. Two weeks’ dose at once. I liked the girls in the clinic, and they liked me. They got me a card on Christmas and a gingerbread candle. Finally I said hell with it and took Freckles out in my PJs.
I lived in an apartment over a sub shop on Main Street, still as the cemetery. The fog made the streetlights look like a movie, which made sense because sometimes on walks I’d think about how my life ought to be a movie. A corny Lifetime special, like Cindy’s Redemption or Redeemed: The Cindy Berg Story. They could hire some pretty pale girl to play Renee but I don’t know who they’d get for my part. I’d want some of the details cleaned up so the story wouldn’t drag.
Renee slept through the morning, so I occupied Talon. We played with the wooden spoons and cooking pots that my mom bought me one Christmas, when she got me a KitchenAid mixer and a toaster and enough shit to stock a restaurant, like she’d thought bad kitchenware was the root of all my problems. The phone rang around nine. Mom.
Yello, I said.
Cindy?! Evelyn’s son saw you out in the middle of the night.
I was just gonna call you. Renee’s here.
You know she has a baby? Two and one month. Looks just like Dad.
Cind, she said. I sat down on the ladder-back chair in the kitchen. I always hated the way she called me Cind. Cind, sin. Sounds too much the same.
I said What.
When your back’s to the wall you can’t take steps back.
Yeah, Mom, I said. She was always talking about backs and walls.
Not even one. Not even a little step.
I gotta go before Talon sticks his finger in a socket.
Around noon I put Talon down for a nap on the couch. In the bedroom Renee was looking pasty, had sweated through the sheets. I told her I was leaving for a bit, and I checked the oil in my Escort and hit the road. Summer was on, and the laurels were blooming pink up on the hills. When I started Suboxone I didn’t have the Escort, and they’d only give me one day’s dose at a time. I’d take the shit rural PA bus system two hours to Bradford. Then I’d sign my name about six times and they’d take me in the back room and watch me put the strip under my tongue. Then I’d sign something else and walk a ways to the Walmart to wait another hour for the bus.
It was a year of that. Even on holidays. Then I got two days’ worth, then three. When I got my driver’s license back, mom bought me the Escort, and here we are at the yellow clinic, sitting in a strip mall outside town. Sometimes I’d see people I knew from before, but not today. The desk nurse had her hair pulled back so tight I could see her skull. I wondered what she thought of her job. I’d been an aide at the elementary school library for five years, and I can still smell the construction paper and school glue. But this place was so clean, it smelled like nothing. When she called for me, I signed some stuff and she gave me my box of strips. Then I signed the line that said Suboxone was a powerful and potentially habit-forming narcotic. We called it the No Shit Line.
Back home, I found Talon taking stuff out of the trash and stacking it on the floor while Freckles laid next to him, licking an empty tuna can. Already a team. I said doggie and pointed and Talon said doggie back. Renee was in the bathroom, and I could hear her getting sick.
I knocked and she said Go Away.
Coming in, I told her.
She had the dry-heaves, and I could see where she’d tried to smoke a cigarette but ditched it in the sink.
I asked her how long it’d been and she said eight, nine days. I looked at her suspicious, and she said well technically more like two. Then more retching. A balloon of a sound, like when a dog pukes. I reached over and touched her bony back and thought of a word. Exoskeleton. One time, Renee came home from elementary school demanding to learn all about exoskeletons. So we had to look it up in a dictionary, then go outside to find a few bugs to examine.
A bad math started working inside of my head.
I said, Let’s get you checked in somewhere. Look at me. It sucks but it works.
She gave me a fuck-off look.
Because I’d thrown her out before, and because of Talon and that exoskeleton girl, I went and got Renee one of my strips. I thought if I got her feeling better we could make her some sort of plan.
A couple hours later she got a shower and took a palmful of aspirin and Benadryl and a few glugs of Pepto. I made spaghetti. She told me she had some stuff to get from Talon’s dad. Clothes, documents.
Don’t. We’ll get you what you need.
She said okay, and pretty soon that Benadryl had her fading out in front of the TV. In the night I heard her up and pacing a few times, Freckles’ claws clacking as he followed her.
The next day I felt all right, so I split a strip between the two of us, but she was still too sick to come with me to the food pantry. I used to go every Wednesday for my community service, and after it ended I just kept going. Mom liked that I did it.
I said, Sure you don’t want to come? You’d get to hear the old church hags tell me how much better I look. Soon enough I’ll be a super model.
She laughed and it was good to hear it. Nah, she said. I’ll just stay here with my new boyfriend. Then she tapped the couch cushion and Freckles jumped up next to her and Talon. The three of them. Had to blink back a few tears.
Corn is corn, tuna’s just tuna. That’s why I like organizing the food pantry. My dad would have liked it for that reason. He liked stuff just right. Always had me saying Sir and Ma’am and Miss. Organizing nails into their own special ball jars in the basement. He was the best plow truck driver in the state, because he moved the snow around so neat. When he died, mom got more and more like him until you could barely stand her.
When I’d showed up one morning with Renee and a cracked jawbone, I’d been so worried he’d be mad at me when he got home that evening. I remember hearing him come in and ask Renee to untie his work boots. She was seven or so. Then a beer can popped in the kitchen, and he came into the laundry room where I was folding clothes. I said Sorry. I’m sorry.
He looked at my bruised face and said, I thought you said he hit you. Dad was never very funny, but we laughed and laughed. Then he helped me fold the laundry with those big knuckly hands of his.
That evening, Stan called and told dad that he wanted his station wagon back. Dad took off work and drove the station wagon up there the next day. 80 miles. Said Bart from work was picking him up. But a few hours later, dad just pulled back into the driveway with the wagon. I don’t know if dad paid him or threatened him or what, but Stan only ever sent me divorce papers after that.
About twelve years later was when I threw Renee out. I’d gotten back from rehab. Dad was dead six years. I tried to make it work. But she was using, and her boyfriend at the time was using, and I wasn’t. One night I came downstairs and they were lit with some town kid OD’ing on the kitchen floor. Sixteen years old, laying there like a sock.
I came back from the church and parked on Main Street. The street still had parking meters, though town council voted against collecting change anymore. It always made me laugh. Not worth it to use them, can’t afford to take them down. That’s life. I would have a real talk with Renee. Lay it all out there, all my many sorries.
I opened up the stairway door and here comes this tweaky guy down the steps. He was wearing a ball cap and on his forearm, a tattoo of a jack-o-lantern.
He said, Ma’am and scooted past me. Ma’am, like a boy scout.
On the landing there was a box of scuzzy baby toys and inside my place was more junk. Some of Renee’s clothes, some of Talon’s clothes, a little box of my dad’s stuff and another of ugly fake Indian decorations. Dreamcatchers, you know. All of it smelled like cat piss.
Renee was washing dishes in the open kitchen. She didn’t turn. I whistled and heard Freckles bark from behind the bathroom door. My own dog locked in my bathroom. That’s what did it. I said nice junk and picked up a box and dropped it back onto the floor. A ceramic Indian woman riding a horse fell out of the top and hit the floor. The head broke off. Bullshit junk.
Talon’s napping, Renee said with a pissy little uptick in her voice. She kept scrubbing that saucepan. Not looking at me. I felt something righteous boiling up in me—I had my shit together and she didn’t. But in counseling they’d taught me to use I feel statements so I said, I feel like you’re the stupidest person I’ve ever met.
She wouldn’t even turn around.
I said, Hello. You got a fucking kid, Renee.
I said, When your back’s against the wall you can’t jump.
I said, I mean you can’t take steps back.
Jesus Christ Renee, I said, do you even want a life?
She turned around and said, What.
Do – you – even – want – to – have – a – life?
She pulled the frying pan over her head and the suds ran down her arm. She stayed like that, still, for a second. My hands went up, an unlit smoke in the left one. Don’t shoot.
You, she said. You. She whipped that pan across the room, soapsuds flying like a sprinkler, and it hit the wall and spider-cracked the plaster. Freckles barked. She grabbed a plate and tossed it kind of tepid. Then they came one right after the next. Faster and faster. Coffee cups and plates and bowls and even a butter knife that hit me flat on the stomach. She threw the colander, the spatula, the wooden salad bowl an uncle of mine had made. I saw her glance at the knife block but instead she pulled off her shoes and chucked those too. I let it all come.
Now Freckles was clawing at the bathroom door, having a meltdown.
I said, Please stop. Please, stop. I’m gonna let Freckles out now.
Fuck you fuck you fuck you, she said. She slid down the fridge until she was sitting on the tile. I thought she would start crying but she didn’t. She stood right back up, not looking at me, swimming in that flannel shirt.
She wasn’t me—I saw it then. I didn’t know a goddamn thing about her, other than the drugs, and that she’d always been a fiery little shit. Her first word was No, when I’d tried to pry some cat food out of her hand.
Now, she held her mouth open like the words were trying to leak out.
What, I said. Say what you’re gonna say. Then I opened the bathroom door and Freckles came bouncing out. He went straight to Renee and flopped down in front of her, belly-up. Stupid fucking dog, she said.
We’re out of here, she said.
I watched her toss around clothes in the bedroom, quiet because of Talon sleeping. I felt stretched thin. There was me and my mom and Freckles and now her and Talon. How do you pick who you love the hardest? Who do you flick away? Leave the baby, I wanted to tell her. You can go but just leave Talon here, where I can do it right until you can. It made me feel like the biggest POS that ever walked. So instead I said, Stay. Please, Renee. I’ll go. Just don’t go running off.
I ain’t promising you that.
I said, Think. Then I harnessed Freckles and left, expecting they’d be gone when I got back. I thought about calling Children & Youth, but I didn’t know what to tell them.
We went down to the crick and walked, and I thought about Renee. There was a whole chunk of time, eight years or so, when my memories were all jumbled and out of sorts. There was Renee in her goth-girl stage, black lipstick and the works, slapping me when I’d passed out on the porch rocker. Renee taking my car at sixteen and not coming back for three days, and me doing nothing about it. Renee awkward and bird-like on the porch steps in a sequined dress before her first middle-school dance. Renee in the pom-pom troop, marching down the street in a parade with a deadly serious look on her face. She was nine when it started. Not it. I mean me. I started. And later all those so-called specialists telling me to forgive myself. Please.
The crick was slow and the top was heavy with bugs, too many to count. I used to count the days I was clean. But then I switched to weeks. Months. I should’ve stuck with days. That’s what matters. I could tally them up, count back and get a big four-digit number. Write it on a Post-it note for the fridge. One for me and one for Renee.
Either she’d be there or she wouldn’t be. I said it like a prayer and I walked until my feet hurt. Then we sat at a pull-off and listened to the peepers until way past dark. When I got home, the broke dishes were cleaned up but the junk was still there. It was the best box of junk I’ve ever seen.
I creaked open the bedroom door and Renee lifted up her head at the light. Talon was in bed next to her.
Sorry, I said.
You should be.
I wasn’t sure you’d be here.
Where the fuck else would I go?
The next day I gave Renee a full strip and another little sliver of one then I made eggs and milkshakes for breakfast because Renee used to like them so much. After breakfast we took Talon to the park with the jungle gym that looked like a log fort. All Talon wanted to do was scoop pea gravel in his shoes. Renee and I sat on the swings and watched him do it.
How’d the birth go? I asked her after a bit.
Compared to what?
Quick, mom. I woke Jimmy up and got my stuff and we were only at the hospital thirty minutes and here comes Talon, ready or not.
Is he okay?
Talon, I said. We both looked at him. Shoes full of rocks.
I wasn’t on shit if that’s what you’re asking.
I just mean he doesn’t talk much.
She shrugged. He’s shy.
You were a pain in the ass. Nineteen hours.
We laughed. You were born during the Olympics, I said. I was in the hospital room watching, thinking I wouldn’t want my daughter skiing down those hills like they do.
I’m more like those girls that do the ribbon dancing.
She jumped off the swing and went over to Talon. She put on his shoes and took him over to the jungle gym and crawled on all fours through one of those wooden tunnels, a lit cigarette bobbing in her lips. She got Talon to follow and they popped up a minute later on the deck above the big metal slide.
She touched the slide with her palm. Fucker’s hot, she said.
She sat and put Talon on her lap.
You watching, grandma?
The next day mom and me were sitting at the diner for lunch talking about nothing, like every Saturday. I’d given Renee a full strip and I was feeling a little like shit. The gravy fries weren’t helping. There was this tension between mom and me, hanging in the air like dust between us. She said, I’m thinking about getting a dog to help look out for things.
You should, I said. But my mom didn’t want a dog. She wanted me and Freckles to move in with her. She talked around every single thing.
When are you gonna come see Renee and Talon? I asked.
You could have brought them to lunch.
She’s still getting settled, I said.
You should’ve just brought him. He likes his grammy, doesn’t he?
Renee wasn’t so sure he’d be good on his own, I said.
As soon as I said it, I knew.
The door was half-open. The TV. Gone. The DVD player with the buttons that stuck. Gone. The little carved wood box of dad’s war medals. Gone. The KitchenAid, the toaster oven, the microwave, the change jar on the counter. They were quick about it. In my room, the jewelry box was tipped over and my couple of pieces of family jewelry were gone but for one hoop earring they left sitting on the bed. In the closet my lockbox was gone along with all my important papers and my Suboxone, too. I sat down on the bed, shaking like I used to shake, and tried to just think instead of feel. Then it hit me. Freckles. Jesus Fucking Christ where is Freckles.
I told mom that the dog was missing but nothing else. She offered to drive so I could look out the window. I couldn’t just call the cops, because when you lose Suboxone they tend not to give you any more, even when it gets stolen. I’d be back to day one, or worse.
We drove till we ran out of streets then we drove the little shoestring roads with the radio off. It was cooler in the hills, splotchy sun everywhere. I kept thinking I’d see something move so we’d stop and holler and wait. Freckles didn’t have any street smarts about him. Not a clue about roads and rednecks and bigger, meaner dogs. Around every corner, I expected we’d see him dead with his guts spread out on the gravel.
Renee accidentally let him out? Mom asked.
I said, Yeah but it wasn’t her fault.
After we looked for three hours I asked mom if she’d take me home then drive down by the crick because of how Freckles likes it. I told her I would make some calls and ask around town. The minute she was gone, I got on the phone, but it’s hard to find Suboxone anywhere but the clinic. The good news was nobody I knew really had H anymore, but the bad news was that they had just about everything else. Even pain patches. They take them off hospital patients.
I walked across town to the house with the laundry baskets on the porch for the cats, calling for Freckles the whole way.
A man opened the door and said, Jesus Christ Cindy Berg, did you just come to my front door? I’d tell you his name if it mattered. We used to be friends, real friends. He took care of me a couple of times.
I told him sorry. Forgot about the side door.
He left me in the front room to run upstairs. I could see in the kitchen where one of his grandkids, a girl about ten, was eating noodles from a cereal bowl.
I gave him my sixty bucks and left out the side door. Thirteen hydros and half a patch. Cindy please be careful with those, he told me as I walked through the yard.
At home I popped one and cut a sliver of the patch and put it in my cheek and let it go. Then I just laid on the couch. Without my stuff, the apartment looked like somebody else’s place. That somebody I used to be when I moved in there. I got half sick but then everything else was fine. Like swimming in grass. Humming like a weed eater far away.
I nodded off and woke up with Talon on my mind. Out there in this shit state, probably without as much as a car seat. I called Children & Youth and said, Hey I wanna make a report.
What is the child’s full legal name?
And who are the child’s guardians?
And how do you know the child is mistreated?
And in what way?
And where would be a good place to look for the child?
And your relation to the child?
And who, exactly, are you?
I didn’t even know his last name.
I walked the streets again and took two more and walked the streets again in the dark. I’d walked more the last two days than the last two years put together. My back hurt. At home I put another sliver of that patch in my cheek, thinking about how sliver sounds a lot like slither. Which one of us is the snake?
The next thing I knew, my mom was gimping around my place picking up the mess in her church clothes. It was early. Low pink light still. I said, They took my medicine, and she said she figured. I’d puked in the night and my ribs hurt. Lungs hurt. My mother had called the local SPCA and put some of her church hags on notice about Freckles. She said she didn’t call the cops because that wasn’t her call to make. She asked if I was sick from drugs or sick from lack of drugs.
There’s really only one kind of sick, I said.
I said, I’m out of medicine is all. They already told me at the clinic I can just get more tomorrow.
God that’s lucky. God you’re lucky.
After a while the phone rang and mom got it. They had Freckles in the pound in Smithville with a cut on his hip.
Yeah, she said. He’s alright.
I stood up and about fell over.
You stay. I’ll go.
I took a pill and that last sliver and a hot shower. It was nine days till next Tuesday. Nine different days or one day nine times, depending on how you count it. Then it could all go back to normal. It could be normal but it wouldn’t be fine. It never was and I finally saw it.
I laid down on the floor because of my back and made a mess of big schemes to find out where Renee went so I could go get Talon back and take good care of him. But come on, Cindy. Shut up. You’re high on the floor again without a pot to piss in.
I heard mom on the steps and sat up. She opened the door and let Freckles off the leash. Lampshade on his head. He ran and clocked his cone off the end table and kept coming with that stupid tongue of his out, and he jumped on me and knocked me flat. I scratched his pink goodboy belly until he started kicking his leg, strumming the guitar. He had a big square bandage on his hip. Stitches under it.
They got him on some medication, mom said. He’s a little dopey.
She sat down on the sofa and tried talking to me but I barely listened. I just looked at Freckles’ big tarry black eyes. He didn’t know nothing at all. I loved him for it.
What’re you going to do about this? Mom asked.
Not a goddamn thing.
Well what would you like me to do about it?
Even less than that.
That made her mad and I know why. She had to help, she couldn’t not help.
She said she had to go to her afternoon ladies’ club and made to leave. I wanted her to ask about me moving in again. Her place with the bathtub and the flowers and the big yard for Freckles to romp. But she didn’t mention it at all. I walked her out to her minivan and said bye. It was like a rope was tied to the van and to me, because as soon as she pulled away I felt like I had to run after her or get dragged behind. But she turned left and then it was just me on the bright sidewalk. I realized for the first time that my mom probably missed me, old me, the way I missed Renee. The same thick sadness for the ways we could have lived. And I think I missed myself, too, but differently. That lady at the library, humming some dumb song, thinking she had more future than past. Thinking that a bad marriage had been the worst of it. I missed that person the way I missed my dad. A settled sort of grief, dull and final.
I went inside and took three little pills and made some coffee. I wanted to smash the goddamn coffee mug but there was only one left. Clear a sign as I’ve got in my life.
All we got to do is keep counting, I told Freckles.
Thwack, Freckles’ tail said.
Calm down before you hurt yourself.
I told him to go lay down. I didn’t want that stupid tail to make so much noise. But he thought we were playing so he whined. I told him to stop it and he whined some more. I told him to stop it and his tail knocked the junk mail off the coffee table, junk like everything else left in the place. I hollered Lay Down and when he didn’t, I grabbed a catalog off the floor and cracked him in the muzzle with it, hard as I could. He ran around the sofa and came right back.
I said Sorry Sorry Sorry.
I said Let’s just keep counting. Up, down, whichever.