Her brother did not come back that first week when Rena spent each night in the recliner with Logan clutched to her neck and all the lights on in the house, a Newport turning to ash between her fingers. He did not come back five months later, when Rena signed the guardianship papers, or a year after that, the day Logan cracked his head on the corner of a wall and she learned he was blind in one eye and required corrective lenses. Because Logan could not remember the man but only that he had existed, Rena told him his father was a policeman who had died protecting a family from robbers. She chose policeman because it was the opposite of her brother, who had been arrested more times than Rena could count and would likely end up behind bars, if he wasn't already. Upon hearing the news, Logan stared at the wall and breathed through his mouth, as he did when trying to understand something new, the wheels in his head almost audibly turning. A moment later, he nodded and went to Rena and pressed his forehead into her upper arm. "Don't be sad, now," Rena said, using her other arm to rub the boy's back. "You're lucky. Plenty of kids don't even have fathers."
But Rena was the one with luck. She discovered it, the summer after Logan moved in, wedged into the space between her belly button and rib cage while pushing a cart at the Stop-and-Shop. Logan, who was almost four and too large for the baby seat where he sat, the tips of his light-up sneakers smacking Rena's thighs, was sucking on his sleeve and humming the Thomas the Tank Engine song when Rena felt the first spasm, as if her insides were being tugged. She planted her feet and confronted the pain in the same way she confronted the stares Logan elicited from the other shoppers. In front of shelves of Jell-O, Rena squatted as the tugging wrenched, and there on the floor in front of her feet was a gold charm bracelet. Immediately, Rena felt a wave of relief and the cooling flush of sweat. The chain was heavier than she expected, and the tiny heart and key charms were dotted in diamonds. Logan pulled his sleeve from his mouth and reached for the chain and Rena let him rub it against his wet chin. She looked around to see if anyone had seen.
The man at the pawn shop gave Rena two thousand dollars for the bracelet, which she used to buy herself a six-month supply of Newports before the tax went up again, and bought Logan a Big Wheel trike and a beagle puppy, whom he named Shrek. Four months later, the luck returned. Rena was pumping gas, and to relieve the spasm she picked up a soggy scratch ticket that had been dropped to the concrete island under the pumps. It was a winner, unclaimed. Two weeks later, Tom Ford sunglasses in the parking lot in front of CVS. On those days, Rena and Logan would get take-out from Deng's and eat on the living room floor watching the Game Show channel, Shrek licking at Logan's greasy fingers, Rena thinking how lucky she was.
Mostly, they were able to get by on what Rena made working at the nursing home. They lived in the house Rena's parents left her when they died—both of them gone to cancer within a year of each other—a split-level with brown siding and yellow trim and wall-to-wall carpet that held the scent of her mother's beef stew and her father's Pall Malls. Her brother had inherited her father's cherry red Chevelle, which he ran into a tree a week after the funeral. Every few months, when Rena cycled into worry that her brother would suddenly show up, once again, on her doorstep—this time to take the boy from her—she made a phone call to the only place he ever worked, Bernie's Grill, and pretended to be a debt collector in need of his forwarding address. Last she heard, her brother was living in a halfway house in Bangor, Maine, which sounded very far away, to Rena. She put two stamps on the letter she wrote him there, to make certain he would receive the message that stated he had no rights to Logan, at least not as far as she was concerned. She almost included a school picture of the boy, eyes pinched in a grin behind thick glass, as evidence that Rena was doing just fine raising him, but she couldn't bring herself to part with the image. Her brother did not deserve to see it.
The year Logan was nine and repeating the fourth grade, Rena found a wallet under a chair at the DMV, where she was waiting with Logan to register the used pickup Rena had bought at auction. Rena put the wallet into the pouch of her sweatshirt and pressed it against her belly. With her other hand, she pulled Logan into the restroom, where she told him to wash his hands while she examined the wallet, not meeting Logan's gaze reflected in the mirror. Wetting her thumb on her tongue, Rena fanned through the twenties. She put the cash between her belly button and jeans and pulled her sweatshirt down over it, then helped Logan dry his hands and had him return the wallet to the lady at the desk. "Oh, bless you," the lady said. Looking into the wallet, her smile vanished. "Did you take any money out of this?" she asked. Logan froze, his mouth dropping open.
"It's okay if you did, honey. Just hand it over to me now and I won't say anything."
Rena swallowed a cough. She came up behind Logan and held his shoulders, gripping tightly to stop her shaking hands. "Is there a problem?"
The lady sat up straighter and sighed. "Ma'am, this wallet was reported missing earlier today. Five hundred dollars in it, and he's telling me there was nothing?"
"You calling him a liar?"
The lady blinked. "Are you lying, son?"
Logan's mouth remained open, his blind eye crossing just slightly into the corner of its socket. The guidance counselor from Logan's school had recommended a neuropsychology evaluation, but Rena did not need some overpaid doctor telling her what she already knew, that Logan was a slow learner and you might have to tell him the same thing several times before it sunk in, which was a part of him in the same way that lying was part of her brother—a congenital defect, and nothing to be helped.
Rena coughed into her shoulder. "Can't you see you're scaring him," she said, her voice trembling. The bills pressed into her belly, dampening from sweat. She had not been challenged in her luck, before. It made her want the money even more, as if her misfortune to suffer this indignity directly correlated to her entitlement of the reward. It was not altogether different from the way she felt about Logan each time she reminded herself her brother could come to take him back.
"I'm going to have to call security," the lady said. She picked up her telephone receiver and held it in the crook of her neck while she dialed.
"But," Logan said. He tried to squirm away from Rena's hold. "But," he said again. Rena squeezed his shoulders with her fingernails, unsure what else the boy might say. She was spinning, dizzy from how quickly the situation had gotten away from her. Before Logan could say another word, Rena pulled him backward and toward the door.
The lady had hung up and was watching them leave, as if daring Rena to lift her sweatshirt and reveal the money. Rena paused while Logan went to the truck, then pointed her finger. "Bitch," she said, as loudly as she could.
That night, while they ate lo mein and crab rangoon out of take-out boxes, Logan began to cry.
"Are we going to jail?" he asked.
Rena's lungs seized and she forced down a cough. "Come again?"
"Because you stole the money," Logan whispered, in between sobs.
"I do not steal." Rena pushed away her plate and patted her pockets to find her cigarettes. Her hands were shaking, again.
"But you take things that don't belong to you," he said. Rena bit on a cigarette and lit it using both hands to steady the lighter. Inside she was spinning again, as she had been at the DMV. "I do not steal," she repeated. She took quick drags of the cigarette until her ears buzzed and her lungs burned.
"Did I steal that wallet today?"
Logan's eyes stopped blinking. "No," he said. "But—"
"And did I steal the credit cards inside? Or the social security card? Did I do that, Logan? Did I?"
Rena dragged hard on the cigarette, her cheeks hollowing out. She flicked ash into the pot of dead chrysanthemums in the middle of the table. "Okay, now. And you returned the wallet, safe and sound, to that very unpleasant lady at the desk. So what if a little cash fell out? Should I go to jail for being a helpful citizen?"
Logan stared at the wall.
Logan said nothing. She snapped her fingers in front of his face. "Well?"
"Okay," he said, blinking.
"Okay what? I should go to jail?"
"I mean no. No."
"Are you sure about that?"
Logan rubbed his nose. "No. I mean yes." He inhaled with a shudder, and his face screwed up again, the tears coming silently, now. "I don't know."
Rena's anger drained, leaving her eyes wide and red-rimmed. Ash fell onto her fingers as the cigarette burned to the filter. She clenched her teeth. She saw all the boy had, and he knew it. "Well, that's fine," she said, pulling another cigarette from the pack with her unsteady fingers. "You know right from wrong; of course you do." She could not bear to have Logan think of her as a thief. Her brother was a thief. Rena was lucky.
Logan pressed his eyes with the heels of his hands. "Sorry, Rena," he said.
"Don't be stupid," Rena said. She cleared her throat, hearing the teary thickness of it. "Nothing to be sorry for. A little policeman, you are," she added, and just like that, Logan's face lifted and his eyes shone.
Years passed. Rena and Logan lived in a pattern of scarcity punctuated by wealth; Rena's luck arriving with enough frequency to keep them afloat. There was a set of hearing aids on a chair in the pharmacy waiting section, a lapis lazuli tie clip in an elevator, a solid gold toe ring at the beach. Rena's brother never came, though anytime a red car pulled into the driveway to turn around or a delivery man knocked at the front door when Rena wasn't expecting it, she turned to ice.
On the morning of his high school graduation, Rena woke up to find Logan already showered and working to button the cuffs of his white dress shirt while Shrek chewed his paws at the boy's feet. Logan had grown round in face and body, and his glasses had grown even thicker to keep his bad eye from drifting away on its own. Rena stood behind him with an unlit cigarette caught in her lips and reached for his buttons.
She wanted to find a suitable outfit for the occasion, though her closet, over the years, had dwindled to a handful of jeans on hangers and a collection of t-shirts. In the back she found an outfit of her mother's that she kept only because she couldn't stand to throw it away, a high-waisted dress made of corduroy that her mother would wear when she had to go anywhere of any significance, such as a sit-down restaurant or to court to watch Rena's brother squirm in front of the judge. She put on the dress and it was tight over her breasts but hid her belly, and fell close enough to her ankles so her sneakers could barely be seen.
The ceremony was in the auditorium of the new high school, which was built well after Rena had completed her education at the now abandoned building across town. Rena had been there only a handful of times for Logan's yearly IEP meetings, during which Logan's teachers and guidance counselor tried to convince her that Logan's inability to test proficiently was something she should worry about, as if they knew him better. She took a seat near the back, alone in her row. The other parents and relatives stood and sat in groups, chatting and laughing with each other and looking through Rena as if she were invisible. Rena wanted a cigarette.
The crowd quieted as a song began to play—something breezy that Rena didn't recognize until she heard "forever young" in the chorus—and the lights dimmed and spotlights shone on the graduates who were marching in, two by two, their white gowns swishing as they made their way to the stage. Rena squinted to see where Logan fell in line, but could not find him. The teenagers carried squares of poster board, and when they took their positions on the risers, they flipped their signs to reveal painted black lettering. Rena wondered, at first, if they were protesting, but as she focused on the words she saw one read "Pediatrician," held by a petite girl with tightly curled hair. Another read "World Traveler." A girl with a nose ring had "Organic Farmer." Rena did recall a note sent home explaining that the students would be thinking about, and then sharing, the person they hoped to become after graduation, though she had forgotten to ask Logan about it. She had not understood the purpose. It had struck her as preposterous. Why did Logan need to become someone new after graduation? Rena would be happy if he stayed exactly who he was.
Then she saw him, as he finally passed by, the last one in line and unpaired, as alone as Rena was. Logan grinned proudly at Rena and Rena gave him thumbs up, though she was looking at his backward piece of poster board and wondering what was on the other side. He positioned himself on the bottom riser and flipped his sign and held it up to his chin. Rena wished for it to be blank. But, it wasn't blank. The sign said "Polissman."
The crowd became silent. Rena coughed. Her neck pulsed and her dress became an oven. A burst of female laughter fluttered and then abruptly hushed. Why hadn't anyone helped him spell the word correctly? Would that have been so hard? Principal Garney took the podium and the parents murmured and clapped and several more giggled. Rena worked her jaw. She was shaking. No one was looking and yet she could sense them staring at her, somehow, and blaming her for raising a child to believe something ridiculous, that he was capable of becoming a policeman when he couldn't even spell the word.
A cough clawed its way out, and then another, and Rena pressed her lips together. Up on the risers, Logan was pushing the top of his sign into his neck as if he was trying to cut off his head. Principal Garney was talking about solid foundations and bright futures, and parents were filming with their phones. Rena had to leave. She hoped Logan wouldn't see her as she went out the side exit into the front entryway of the school, one hand over her mouth. Outside, in the parking lot, she allowed the fit to come, bracing herself with her palms on thighs. When she righted, her vision was blurry but further off in the parking lot, leaning on the hood of a red car, Rena saw a man and the man was watching her. He had dark hair, like Logan, that was pulled behind his ears.
It's him, she thought. After all this time, he's come.
Rena lit a cigarette, coughing on the first inhale. The smoke steadied her, though her lungs itched as if to burst. She squinted at the man, who had not moved. Polissman. It was just like her brother to show up after years of silence, expecting nothing to have changed because he had not changed, because he was not capable of change. Rena coughed again, then spit. She bit her cigarette and pulled up the hem of her skirt and began walking into the parking lot, toward the man. The man watched her come. Polissman, she thought again, and she felt angry, and the anger was toward everyone who had ever failed Logan and the person who had failed him the most was her brother, and now Rena was quite certain she would fight him, if that's what it took. She would not let him near the boy.
"You can't see him, Richie," Rena said through her teeth as she moved closer to the man. She dropped her hem and took the cigarette from her mouth and coughed into her fist. "I won't allow it."
The man held a phone and his hand and looked up. Rena could see, now, that he had not been staring at her but at his phone which was pointed in her general direction. Was he filming her? When Richie was fourteen and she was twenty-six he had used her identity to apply for multiple credit cards and ran up a balance that destroyed her credit for years. Maybe he had a new plan that involved posting a video of her online and then getting her to pay him to take it down; it wouldn't surprise her.
"Logan thinks you're dead, just so you know. I told him you were a hero." Rena finished her cigarette and flicked the butt in his direction. "So, you're welcome."
The man looked up from his phone, smiling blandly. He pulled one bud from his ear. "Excuse me?"
"Don't play that game with me," Rena said. How many times had Richie looked right at her, without seeing her? The first time her parents put him in the hospital it was Rena who went to visit him in that sweaty little room with metal chairs in front of a chained-up television, and he wouldn't even speak to her. Not one word, as if she hadn't driven two hours to get there, as if she hadn't smuggled in a package of Nutter Butters because they were once his favorite. "You have no right to be here, no right at all. What have you done for the boy in all these years? What's one thing?"
The man shook his head. "Can I help you?"
Rena cocked her head and tapped her forehead. "Come again? Can you help me? No, I don't think you can. It's too late for that. I fed him, Richie. I clothed him. I gave him a roof over his head, a bed. A dog!"
The man pulled the other bud from his ear and stood up from the hood of the car, which Rena could now see was not so much cherry red as stop-sign-red, and a Nissan. "Hey, lady, I'm just waiting for my cousin."
"He's graduating today, Richie. Do you know what that means?"
The man thumbed something into his phone.
"Look at me!"
The man looked. Rena searched for a sign of recognition in his eyes. She wanted to reach out, shake him, hug him, slap him into familiarity. She wanted him to tell her she had done a good job with the boy, because suddenly she wasn't sure if she had, she wasn't sure at all. She knew only one thing, that she had loved the boy more than anything else. That much, she had done. It was such a small thing.
"It means I did okay, Richie. I did my best. I made mistakes, I know that." Rena looked down at her dress and saw the scuffed toes of her white sneakers and thought Polissman. Logan's guidance counselor had suggested adult residency services for when Logan turned twenty-two; it was a few years off, but the wait list was long, at least for the better places. Just the phrase better places made Rena's hands turn to fists. "You can screw yourself," she had said to the counselor, whom she never liked.
Yes, there had been mistakes.
The man blew air through his mouth. "Okay, sure." He reached for the door handle.
"No, Richie, it's not okay. It's not okay at all." Rena suddenly remembered that the boy was inside the auditorium, up on that stage, still holding that terrible sign, probably. Had the principal called his name, yet? She had to go back. What would he do if he looked out into that snickering crowd and did not see one familiar face? Who would clap for him? And, in that moment, Rena saw Logan's face as he flipped his sign, the proud set of his eyes behind those glasses, his love for a father who'd never existed. Rena had lied to the boy, and that could not be undone. She felt that familiar pain in her gut that usually indicated imminent luck, and yet she had a sense not of good fortune but of the opposite—of having stolen something that she could not give back.
The man was in his car and reversing out of his parking spot. As he drove away, he put his arm out the window and thrust his middle finger at her. Rena gathered herself to scream but what came out, instead, was a hoarse whisper. The man sped through the lot, turned onto the street and was gone.
Rena lit another cigarette and stood there, watching the place where the car had once been. She rubbed the spot in her stomach that throbbed with promise, though there was nothing to be found on the pavement around her.
The man wasn't her brother. She knew that.
Her stomach cramped, and she thought, again, of Logan. Richie was not coming back, not today and not ever. She also knew this.
Someday she would tell the boy the truth, that Richie did not deserve him, and perhaps Rena did not, either. But now her stomach was pulling her back, toward the boy. Toward her luck. What she would find there, she didn't know. But it would belong to her.
Title image "Acquired" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2020.