The year is 1952.
My mother spends her days stitched to a chair and stares out the kitchen window looking for my father, who has been on a drunk for two weeks. She worries he will come home and even though he has lost the front door key, will figure a way to break down the door and steal what little money we have. Every few minutes, she opens her pocketbook to count and recount the coins in her change purse, as though the act of counting and recounting will somehow increase the amount. At night, she hides the purse under my pillow.
Our apartment is on the top floor, and he would sometimes come from the roof down the fire escape and climb through the living room window. So my mother hammers a piece of wood over the window and tells me to go to sleep. I lie in bed, covers over my head, but I don’t sleep. I can hear my mother as she goes to the front door. Even though she has locked the door, she turns the knob and locks it again.
We are on “Home Relief.” A strange term since I haven’t seen any relief in our house. The “Home Relief” shows itself in a brown envelope with a black eagle stamp. It is supposed to arrive on the first of the month, but today is the fifth, and still there is no check. So my mother sits and waits, counts the coins, and looks out the kitchen window.
In the morning she tells me I don’t have to go to school.
“Maybe the check will come.”
I have missed one day already and today I’m supposed to turn in the money that I collected for the starving children in Africa. When I shake the mite box, it is silent. The coins are gone. I don’t know if my father took them or they are part of the change that gets counted and recounted by my mother. So, when she tells me to stay home, I’m relieved and spend the morning waiting for the mailman hoping to beat my father to the mailbox before he steals the check. I know he is hiding somewhere, just waiting.
I run down the four flights of stairs and check the mailbox. I do this most of the morning, up and down the marble stairs. A rhythm played out in childhood ritual. If I skip the second step on each landing everything will be fine. If I jump from the top step and touch the wall with my left hand, I will be safe. On the seventh trip I see mail in the neighbor’s box.
When I put the key in our mailbox, it falls open. At the bottom are burnt wooden matches that my father, in his drunken state has used to see if the check has arrived. On the floor is a ripped brown envelope with a headless bird.
I walk up the four flights of stairs very slowly. Count eight and then seven until I reach the top floor, I stare at the 5D on our door, use the secret ring, two long and three short to let my mother know it is me. She unlocks the door, and when I enter the apartment, I tell her, “The lock was broken. The mailbox smelled of matches. The check is gone.” I hand her the empty brown envelope. “I’m sorry, I don’t know how I missed him.” She says nothing, doesn’t even look at me. Just walks back to the kitchen, stares out the window and counts and recounts the coins in her change purse.
Phyllis Reilly is seventy-five years old and has recently returned to writing after a ten-year absence. Her poems have appeared in the Croton Review, Poets On, The Hudson Review and other small press magazines, and she has work forthcoming in Flash Fiction Magazine and Ponder Review. She started the Croton Writer’s group two years ago and has been working on her memoirs, along with flash nonfiction, short stories, and the occasional poem. “Living along the Croton River in New York has been a haven from the scary world we live in,” she writes. “I have a cat and a husband. Both of them are wonderful. Zoey, my cat always dances with me around the house. She loves Reggae, Blues, Latin and trashy 50’s music and doesn’t care who knows it. Life is good.”
Artwork by John Gallaher