You don't realize just how trusting you are, until you fall. Until you're walking through the door of your apartment complex and you place one foot in front of the other, without thinking for a moment that the very ground might fail you, until it does. Until you're reaching for your mailbox and you feel yourself sink, no, fall into the basement. And you look up, at the hole over your head, at your mailbox key dangling from the lock, at the ceiling far above.
Your ankle is twisted, possibly broken, so you're on the couch where you can sit with it propped up on two overstuffed throw pillows. Your daughter brings you grilled cheese, cut diagonally, while you watch Jeopardy! These people aren't so smart, you think as the three contestants clutch their buzzers and answer questions in the form of questions, and they can't even get one of them right. Like this one—a video question of a woman in the midst of ancient rubble; she's standing beside a column and asking about its style. It's Corinthian, you snort into your ginger ale. You remember that and you didn't even finish high school.
Your daughter offers to bring you more to drink, but you don't want to have to get up and hobble to the bathroom, so you tell her you don't want anymore, don't want to fill your bladder. She turns back to the kitchen and you think about what a good girl she is, better than some people thought she'd turn out. "You know, Mom," she tells you when she comes back in to the living room, "you could probably sue them for this."
"For what? For not looking down?" you ask.
"No, really," she explains. "Especially since you'll have to take time off work. And what if it's broken?"
You hadn't thought of that. That you won't be able to work like this, with your ankle heavy and throbbing and bulging beneath your purple skin, swelled up like a softball. You can't serve coffee like this, let alone wait on tables during the lunch rush."It's not broken," you assure her. You don't want to sue anyone, not for your own silly mistake. For not looking down. For trusting the ground to always hold your weight. Besides, it's a small building, a friendly building, and you know the landlord and his family. They seem like good, honest people. They've never raised your rent in the ten years you've lived here. Never left a toilet running or a hot water heater busted for more than a day or two.
It's not their fault, really. You saw for yourself when you climbed up from the pit and stood back and wondered how on earth you hadn't seen that before. How had you missed such an obvious thing, such a gaping hole?
"Even so." Theresa bends down over the swollen knot of your ankle for a closer look. "They should have made sure that that door had been closed while they weren't around." She winces and stands up straight, shaking her head.
"Well, yes," you concede, "that would've been nice."
"Let's see how this thing heals," she says and picks up your plate. "You should give them a call, and then see how things go. I mean, really, it could be broken."
You watch her brown ponytail swish over her back, bobbing between her narrow shoulders as she walks and think of when you first found out you were pregnant with her—how everyone told you what a terrible idea it was to keep her. Like she was some mangy puppy that had followed you home and you had a choice whether or not to take her in. Like she wasn't already in, even though the tests were all positive and your pants were starting to pinch at the waist.
Biggest mistake of your life, your mother had warned you. But then, what did she know? Her whole life was sunk into a never-ending bottle of Kahlua and most of her advice came out in slurred tirades while you were walking away.
If she could only see my mistake now, you think. If only she could see that things had worked out pretty well for you and Theresa. You named her that after the nun, the saint. She would've made a nice mother, you thought, if she'd only ever had children. So you named your own after her—and look at her now, propping your pillows and fixing your dinner while you're unable to do for yourself. A good girl.
She's never been one to give grief, unlike you—born to keep your mother up at night, worrying sick over all the things you must've been up to. She had only nodded when you told her about the pregnancy. You were sixteen and the boy was gone before your period was even late. "Knocked up," your mom said, sucking on a cube of ice. She crunched it between her brown teeth and then spit it back out, sliding down the side of her glass in watery bits. "Saw that one comin'."
She was always waiting for the worst, for the shoe to drop. And sure, you aren't rich and you still haven't finished high school and all that, but you have food on the table and a nice enough place to live, when you aren't falling through the floor. If this is the worst, if this is where the other shoe fell, then you'll take it.
The credits for Jeopardy! are running down the screen now, with the new champion shaking hands awkwardly with Alex Trebek. You ask Theresa to bring you more Percocet, but with only a sip of water.
When she takes the cup back and turns to the kitchen, you thank her and shake your head. She's the same age as you were when you found out she was coming.
The landlord's name is Gary, but everyone calls him Larry. It's because his last name is Lawrence, he explained back when you first moved in. You smiled when he told you, but still weren't quite sure what to think of it. Why not just stick with Gary?
It's a week after the fall and Larry and his wife, Mindy, are coming up to bring dinner for you and Theresa. A long overdue visit, he had explained when he called to invite himself over.
How nice, you thought and knew for sure that you wouldn't sue. Even though your ankle is now officially broken and is in an air cast that requires pumping, and then needs to be packed with ice, and then pumped again. Most of your day is spent either cold or squeezed.
"He's doing it out of guilt, Mom," Theresa tells you when you ask her to sweep beneath the coffee table. Still, she pulls the yellow broom from the closet and you don't say anything else.
It's noon and you wonder how the diner's doing without you. How the regulars must be wondering if you're in the hospital, or dead.
They must be thinking of you. It's the first time you've missed work in nearly five years, since the time you had that stomach flu and they asked you to stay home. But that doesn't count, really, because you still offered to go in.
From the window over the sink you can see clear down to the rusted fence at the edge of the parking lot, and beyond it to the train tracks. It's raining today and you're leaning over the counter to watch the fat drops splatter in the puddles along the tracks. You're not supposed to be standing; you're supposed to be taking it easy, keeping that ankle propped, cold or squeezed. But it's been a week now and you're tired of it. Gerald, the manager of the diner, just called to ask when you're coming back.
"You know I can't keep you on the schedule if you don't plan to be here," he said.
"Oh, I'll be back, Gerald," you said. "You can count on that. I'll be back just as soon as I can take this stupid air cast off, you wouldn't believe this thing." You would've continued, but he butted back in.
"Well, I'll give you ‘til Monday," he said. "Otherwise, we'll be forced to take you off the schedule, Daisy." He didn't say sorry or anything, just "Rules are rules."
You watch the rain come down and imagine the complaints of the regulars when they hear that you won't be coming back, that you were let go or fired, or quit, however they're going to explain you away.
There's Chuck who drinks his coffee black and eats pie with whipped cream for breakfast, like everyday is the day after Thanksgiving when people eat leftovers in their slippers and housecoats. He loves the way you tease him every morning, hand on your hip and finger wagging, before putting the dish down in front of him.
And there's Sadie, the thin girl with dark green hair, or at least it was dark green last time you saw her. Could be purple now, or red. She always curls herself in the corner booth, taking up an entire table with her laptop and music and notebooks. She's an art student at the community college down the street. Bad home life. She hasn't told you, but you can just tell by the vacant look in her eye. Because of this, you sometimes give her coffee for free, or sometimes even add berries and whipped cream to her waffles when all she ordered was a plain. There's a bond there, between women with bad home lives. You're pretty sure she knows it too.
Larry is short and heavyset. He's wearing a short-sleeved, plaid, button-down shirt, very Sunday-go-to-meeting. You wonder for a moment if he's here to evangelize you, looking so casually un-casual. Mindy is small beside him, tucked away like a turtle in a sleeveless black shirt. She's all bones and sharp edges. Her elbows jut outward as she peels the skin back from her chicken thigh.
Chicken and rice is what they brought. Theresa is on her second helping, eating like it's her last meal.
"Mrs. Fitzpatrick is moving," Larry tells you and you nod; raise your eyebrows to show interest. "New job out of state," he adds, as though answering a question posed by your brows. You're not even sure who Mrs. Fitzpatrick is, exactly, but these are the conversations you have with a landlord. You learn about the hot water heaters and the hissing radiators and about the people in 10B who leave their trash out on the fire escape until he goes and warns them to move it; every week he tells them. "It's a fire hazard, you know," he says.
Theresa clears the plates soon after you're done eating. While she's in the kitchen, you see Mindy jab Larry in his soft side and he clears his throat. "Um, Ms. Holloway," he says, but you stop him, tell him to call you Daisy. "Of course, Daisy," he says. "I was hoping you might be willing to take care of something for me." His eyes bounce over your head to Theresa as she returns from the kitchen. Mindy stands quickly and begins to gather salt and pepper shakers, napkins, serving spoons, anything she can fit in her bony little fists.
"Here, I'll help you," she says to Theresa and they both scuttle back to the kitchen, hands full.
"Listen, Daisy." Larry leans in toward you, his voice lowered. "It's not me, I trust you," he says. "It's my wife. She's convinced that we need this." You don't follow him. You're confused and he notices. "Here," he says and reaches down into his wife's wide black purse. He pulls out a single piece of clean white paper, with neat black type.
He slides it in front of you, careful to avoid bits of rice or chicken grease. You blink and look down at the page. It's small type, legal jargon. Without reading it, you know what it says. It says it's not their fault.
"Like I said, it's not me," he says again. "Mindy is just so nervous about these things." He's rubbing his chin now, pinching the stubbled nub between his chubby fingertips. "Look, you and I both know it was only an accident. And we're all so very sorry it happened." He moves toward you, placing a fleshy palm on your forearm. "This will just get Mindy off my case, you know?" He rolls his eyes, as though you're sharing a common understanding—Mindy is a horrible woman. "Do you mind?" he asks, pleading with his eyes.
He's such a nice man, you think, such a shame he's with that cruel stick insect. You shake your head. "You know this whole thing is just silly," you say and ask for a pen just as the kitchen door swings open.
"Mom," Theresa says and leans over your shoulder. She grabs the paper from you hand and demands to know what you're signing.
She skims it quickly and then tears it in two, a clean rip down the middle of the paper, the motion of which sends a chill through the room.
After Larry and Mindy leave and you prop yourself on the couch, ankle boot off, foot raised. You watch Wheel of Fortune instead of talking to Theresa. First company you've had in years and she had to go and do that.
The lawyer's office isn't impressive—brown paneled walls with hollow brown doors and dust in the corners. The carpet is dark green and matted down flat beneath your feet. Dean Murdoch, his name, is written on a gold nameplate sitting on his desk beside a plastic tier of papers labeled "In" and "Out."
Theresa found him on television and told you he seemed good, that he doesn't collect until you do. You thought that sounded about right. Why pay him if he doesn't win?
He may have looked great on television, but he doesn't look so hot today. His hair is greased down over his pink scalp, slicked over the shiny skin in black waves. It looks like it's wet, and maybe it is, because you can see he's sweating; little beads dot his hairline. It is warm and you wonder if maybe he should invest some of his winnings in an air conditioner.
And then it dawns on you that perhaps he doesn't win.
"Ms. Holloway, is there any evidence at all to prove that the area had not been properly labeled with warning signs?"
You stare at him blankly. "I'm not sure."
"Uh huh," he says. "You're not sure if you have any evidence to corroborate your story?"
You blink, wonder why you came empty-handed, why you came at all.
He turns to Theresa and asks her the same question. She looks just as dumbstruck.
"So, it's he-said, she-said," he says, tapping his pencil on the desktop. You and Theresa nod. "Then, I'm sorry ladies, but I just don't see enough of a case here. It's a minor injury."
"It's minor for some people, but my mom can't work," Theresa says. "She's going to lose her job over this."
"I'm sorry," Dean Murdoch says, "I truly am."
Theresa takes a fistful of hard candies from the bowl on his receptionist's desk as you walk out. "Here, Mom," she says and tucks them into your purse in the car. "At least you got something from it."
When there's a knock on the door at eight in the morning, you can be pretty sure it's not good news. And then, when you hobble out to the living room and no one's there, just an envelope slid beneath the crack of your door, you're certain.
It's from Larry and Mrs. Larry, citing various reasons for your impending eviction from their building, the most notable of all being that your rent is late. You have three days to either pay the rent or gather your crutches and get out.
You show the letter to Theresa over breakfast and tell her, "I guess we can try calling my cousin Sue over in Pittsfield."
She looks at you blankly. "Mom, we're not moving."
"I know it's not ideal honey, but I can't come up with the money in three days," you explain, dragging your spoon over the milky bottom of your cereal bowl. "Not with all these hospital bills and what with being out of work."
Theresa stands and takes the dishes to the sink. "You can't just give up," she says and walks out.
Half an hour later, she comes into the living room, stands between you and the television so that you have no choice but to look at her.
"You know, Mom, people are always taking advantage of you," she says.
"No they aren't, don't be ridiculous," you say, hoping that she'll step aside before the Showcase Showdown.
"Mom, it's true," she says and turns around, clicking off the television with her thumb. The apartment is silent now, save for the buzzing of the refrigerator. It's been loud for a few days, but you don't want to call Larry to come up and fix it. Not after the way you left things with him.
"You're too paranoid," you tell Theresa.
"And you're too trusting," she says. "And you just let everything happen to you, like you deserve it, even when you don't."
You blink at her for a minute, not sure where all this anger is coming from or how it came to be in front of you, your little Theresa standing there all pink-cheeked and hot, looking ready to spit nails if she could.
"Not all people are out to get us," you say calmly and try to meet her stare.
"And not all people are out to help us either," she says sharply. And then you're both quiet. You sit silently, letting the swell of the moment roll over you, staring at one another until it feels right to talk again, though you don't know what to say.
She's right, isn't she?
How else did you wind up here? A knocked up teenager, single mother, falling through floors, getting kicked out of apartments, and losing your job. Such a smart girl, you think and shake your head in concession.
"We should do something," Theresa says.
"Like what?" you ask, jokingly. "Go bowling? Order a pizza?"
"No, wait," she turns and darts back to her bedroom. "Look at this," she says when she returns and puts a clean crème sheet of paper on your lap. You pick it up. Dean Murdoch's name and address is all neatly printed on the top. It's his letterhead, you realize.
The letter is addressed to Mr. Gary Lawrence. It's short and direct, explaining his liability and threatening legal action.
"What is this?" you ask, squinting over the top of the paper at Theresa. "Did he change his mind?"
Theresa lets loose a big hooting noise, a laugh from her gut like you haven't heard in years. She leans down and snatches the letter from your hand.
"I wrote it," she says and holds it up to admire her work. "It's pretty good, huh?"
"Very, you fooled me," you say, almost proud of your daughter's eloquence. The letter is so professional. "You have a real talent here, hon," you tell her. "You could really make something of yourself after you graduate next year, even a legal secretary or something. One of those online courses, maybe."
"Thanks, Mom," she says, "but you know I'm going to school after I graduate. To an actual school," she clarifies, making you feel small, you with your little dreams. Like she hasn't told you a thousand times already that she's going to go to the community college for nursing. "I only did these for you." She folds the letter back up.
"I just want to mess with them, that's all." She turns back to her bedroom and grins. "I've got one in there for the diner too."
"Oh, Theresa, you didn't," you say, but really you think it's so sweet that she wants to take care of you. And you can just imagine the looks on Larry and Gerald's faces when they read their letters. The shock and realization of the injustices they have committed.
"Don't worry, Mom. No one's going to get hurt." Theresa slides the letter into a crème-colored envelope.
"But, sweetheart, we don't have any legal recourse, you heard Mr.Murdoch." You clear your throat, then clarify, "The real Mr. Murdoch said we don't have much of a case."
"What are they going to do? Put us in jail, a cripple and her daughter, over something as silly as impersonating a lawyer who does advertisements on his motorcycle during daytime television?"
You can see the commercial in your mind. Leather clad, with his helmet tucked beneath his arm, he points to the camera and says I'm Dean Murdoch. I'll get you what's rightfully yours and that's that. Such charisma and authority on television, nothing at all like what you get in person. That sweaty, greased up little man who doesn't see much of a case when there's one staring him down right across his desk.
"No one will even know that you were aware of it, Mom. I swear," Theresa says and pats the top of your head as though you're a cat or a toddler.
"Don't send them, Theresa. Please?" you ask her, but she's already walking out of the room. She didn't turn the television back on, so you just stare at your foot and try to wiggle your toes one at a time, wondering when you'll get to be the parent again.
When you were little and dreaming about your life, you always imagined more interesting things for yourself. A career, like a real one, not a waitress with a bad back and coins jingling around in the pockets of her apron. You dreamt of owning a house, nothing fancy, but you never thought of being a parent, living in an apartment paycheck to paycheck, listening to your Indian neighbors cook and smelling their food every time you stepped out into the hallway.
It's strange to smell someone else's cooking every day. Such an intimate thing to share—the scents, the seasonings, the time spent stirring and simmering, the preparation of a meal meant to be shared with loved ones, spilling out everywhere for any hungry nostril to suck up, walking to the elevator. Thank goodness bedrooms aren't closer to the front door, you think and imagine for a moment the awkward meetings of neighbors at the mailboxes, the lives lived one on top of the other on top of the other, the most intimate of acts all stacked and squeezed and seeping out into the hallways.
Theresa is working this afternoon at the diner. She'll bring home dinner and some pie for dessert too. Gerald agreed she could cover some of your shifts until you were able to go back. He called last week to apologize for his behavior, said he understood that the circumstances weren't your fault at all.
"The people have spoken," you told your daughter when you got off the phone. "My regulars have rallied for me."
"You think so?" she asked.
"Of course." You winked at her, knowing full well that she must've mailed those stupid letters and loving her despite it.
Mr. Lawrence came up alone on the day that the rent was due or else. He sat at your kitchen table and slid an envelope from his pocket, the official eviction notice, you thought. But when he opened it, it was a small stack of soft bills that feathered out from the white lip like wilting lettuce leaves.
"Take it, and give it back to me," he whispered. You just stared at him and then the bills and then back at him, round beads of sweat dotting the creases of his forehead.
"Take it," he said again, slower. "And then give it back to me." His voice was coarse and his brows rose conspiratorially.
And so you did it, you took the worn bills in your fingers, folded them against your palm and held them just long enough for them to warm in your hand. And then you gave them back to him.
"All set then," he said and stood and left you at the table wondering what had just happened and if you could stay in the apartment and what would his wife say about any of it.
"Look," you tell Theresa when she walks through the door. You're standing beside the couch without holding onto anything and only slightly favoring your healthy ankle. "I'll be back to work before you know it." And you can go out and try being a normal, reckless kid for a change, for god sakes, you think, feeling terrible that she's spending her summer waiting your tables.
"That's great, Mom," your daughter smiles warmly and lays down the plastic bags of diner food on the table.
"I can even help set the table," you say excitedly and hobble toward the kitchen, despite Theresa's wincing and lunging forward to assist you. "I can do it." You wave her away and push through the swinging door on your own.
In the kitchen, you pull open the utensil drawer and lean on the counter as you pick up the forks and knives and spoons. From beneath the plastic silverware caddy, you see the corner of a slip of paper, an envelope. You tug at it, and realize there's more. Two envelopes, blank, crème-colored, thick paper. You know them at once; they're the letters you thought Theresa had sent.
The door to your daughter's bedroom opens and closes and you hear music; she's turned on the radio. Looking down at the letters in your hand, they suddenly feel lighter, as though the paper is thin, tracing paper even—and not the official feeling, heavy bond that it is. You think for a moment that they're imaginary or at least flimsy enough to be crumpled in your palm. She hadn't sent them.
You put your full weight down on your ankle and it doesn't break. You walk to the table and it doesn't even hurt. You and your daughter share meatloaf and mashed potatoes and then split a slice of runny apple pie. The syrupy juice pools on your side of the plate and you joke that the floor is crooked and that you should write a letter to the landlord.
Theresa laughs, snorts a little milk through her nose and you're quick to dab her chin. You wad the warm, wet napkin in your fist and then stand up to clear the table.
Leaning on the edge of the sink, you run the water, warm over your hands. It fills the basin with tufts of bubbles and you tell Theresa without turning back to her, "You know, I think we're going to be all right."
"Of course we are, Mom," she says. "I trust you."
Copyright © Melanie Haney 2008.