“Sometimes it’s just your turn to go through hard times.” Damian Lillard
They were in a fix, and every time they were in a fix, Bernice had to do the thinking. They were two months behind on the rent. That’s why Leo, the landlord, kept eyeing their television. Well, nobody was taking her TV — not Leo, not nobody. It was their first widescreen. They got it on a layaway plan, back when Bernice was full-time at the Millock Nursing home. Now her hours were cut back and Cookie, her husband, was laid off. She still wasn’t budging.
“Be a shame to lose it, Bernice,” Leo kept saying, which was his prerogative, but he wasn’t getting it. She wasn’t going to miss her programs.
“It won’t kill us if we lose the television,” Cookie kept saying after Leo walked out the door. Leo’s son was waiting by the truck, flexing his muscles, smiling at Cookie there in the window. “What else we got, Bernice?” Cookie asked.
Nothing Leo would want. An old couch, a kitchen set, some dressers, and those stupid iron beds. Everything had come out of her parents’ house after they had passed away. It was supposed to be split between her and her sister, but Agnes didn’t want anything. That meant Bernice took it all, and then Agnes showed up, no job, her husband gone. So there they were, Bernice, Cookie, Agnes, and the kids, with nothing coming in but Bernice’s reduced salary.
Over the past year, they’d relocated three times, getting out before the landlord took their belongings. Usually, it was a simple matter of packing up and sneaking off. Leo was different. As landlords go, he was the smartest and cagiest. He moved quickly for a fat man, but his son was even quicker.
Well, they were getting out, whether Leo liked it or not. Cookie had his old van out front, backed up to the front door. He’d been to the liquor store, getting boxes, picking up some wine and pork chops. “No point leaving on an empty stomach,” he said, patting his potbelly. He went and started the old barbecue, pushing through the weeds to get at it. Agnes was out there, too, with the ghetto blaster, playing Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love for You,” at full blast. Bernice yelled down to her, saying, “Why don’t you hang a sign sayin’ we’re going, Agnes? You might as well.”
Agnes gave her the yap-yap sign, turning over the pork chops, smoke billowing. She was sitting in some broken chair the previous tenants had left.
“Are you burning those things?” Bernice yelled and, on cue, Mae Bell, her eight-year-old came running upstairs with a pork chop on a fork. It was burnt, and so was the one Cookie brought up to Bernice on a paper plate.
“Get’m while they’re hot,” he smiled, patting his stupid potbelly again. Mae Bell had barbecue sauce on her top, and no doubt Duncan was downstairs, all covered in barbecue sauce, too. Agnes had the babysitting skills of a turnip. “Why aren’t you watching them?” she yelled, pushing Cookie out of the way, going downstairs, Mae Bell following close behind.
Duncan, her youngest, was in the kitchen, playing with some neighbour’s cat. He kept trying to put his pork chop in the cat’s mouth.
“Shoo,” Bernice said, pushing the cat out the door, then opening the cupboards. Agnes hadn’t packed a thing. She was sitting out there with a gossip magazine in one hand, a cigarette and plastic wine glass in the other.
“For heaven’s sake,” Bernice said, grabbing some newspapers Cookie had stolen from a news box. “You kids go upstairs and pack your things. Go on. We’re getting everything in the van, then I’m watching my programs.”
Cookie was already banging away upstairs, trying to get the iron beds apart. Agnes came in with the last of the pork chops. “Why do you have to burn them, Agnes?” Bernice said, and Agnes said, “I can’t do two things at once, Bernice.” She went upstairs to get sunscreen, coming down later, saying Cookie was tearing the hell out of the bannister with those beds.
“Why did you keep those stupid things?” she said.
“Because I inherited them, Agnes,” Bernice said. “You did, too, but you were too good for our parents’ stuff. You had a big queen-size Beautyrest. Where’s it now, honey? Where’s your Beautyrest? And where’s Mr. Magic?”
“Shut up, Bernice.”
“I told you one day you’d be grateful for those beds.”
“Like hell I am. Where are we going, anyway? Don’t say Greta’s house.”
Greta was Cookie’s older sister. She was a Jehovah’s Witness.
“It’ll only be for a few days,” Bernice said.
“I can’t stand religious people. She’s the worst religious bitch I know.”
“She’s still Cookie’s sister, Agnes. She offered and I said yes.”
“I’ll sleep in the van.”
“There isn’t room. We’re not unpacking.”
“We’d better be stopping for cigs and lottery.”
“You can’t smoke at Greta’s house.”
“I’ll smoke outside.”
Agnes was heading out the back door again.
“Are you going to help me pack up this stuff or not?”
“I’m finishing my article. I’ll help when I’m done that.”
“Well, don’t forget the ghetto blaster.”
“I’m not going to forget your stupid ghetto blaster.”
There was a bang upstairs. Something fell over. Bernice went up and found Cookie crouching over Duncan, holding a towel to his head. “What happened now?” she said, gathering Duncan up, him crying away.
“He ran into the beds and knocked’m over,” Cookie said.
Duncan kept howling, and then Mae Bell was saying she didn’t want to move. Bernice took Duncan down to the living room while Cookie brought the beds down. Everything went out in the van, everything except the couch and the television. Bernice wanted them taken out last. “I’m watching my shows,” she’d said. “I don’t care if Leo comes snooping around. I’m watching Young and the Restless.”
She had Duncan on her lap now, stroking his head, watching her soap. Agnes came in and started watching, too. The ghetto blaster was still going full volume outside. Bernice told her to turn it down, but Agnes said she was engrossed, and so was Mae Bell, although if Mae Bell thought soaps were real life, she was going to be seriously disappointed.
“Why do you say that?” Bernice asked. “Lots of this stuff could happen.”
“You work with doctors,” Agnes said. “Anyone pinching your ass?”
“Watch your language, Agnes.”
Cookie came back inside, saying everything was loaded. He sat on the arm of the couch. When The Young and the Restless ended, they all got up, unplugged the television, and dragged the couch to the front door.
“This better be all of it,” Cookie said. “I don’t know where else I can put stuff. C’mon kiddos,” he said to the kids, taking them outside.
“I knew it,” Bernice said, “You forgot the ghetto blaster, Agnes.”
It was still blaring “Saving All My Love for You.” Bernice went through the house and out the back door. She unplugged the ghetto blaster. Then she took two mugs Agnes had left on the railing and washed them in the sink. She was drying them off with newspaper when she heard Agnes screaming out front.
“What the hell’s going on” she yelled, then saw Cookie through the front door, sitting on the grass, holding his nose. Standing over him was Leo’s son. Leo stood by van’s back doors.
“Get away from my TV,” Bernice yelled, coming outside.
Leo already had it half out of the van.
“We still aren’t square, Bernice,” he said. “I hope you know that.”
“All I know is you’re stealing my television — and assaulting my husband.”
“I barely touched him,” Leo’s son said.
“Let’s see what the cops say.”
“There won’t be any cops,” Leo said, rubbing his fat hands on his overalls. “Running out on your rent, Bernice? Doesn’t that constitute, what’s it called, a felonious act? Aren’t I allowed to do something about it?”
“You mean punching Cookie in the face?”
“It all could have been avoided. You know that.”
Bernice tried to push the television back in the van. Leo’s son was about to pull her away, but Leo stopped him.
“Bernice,” Leo said, “either I take the TV or call the cops myself.”
“Let him have the fucking TV, Bernice,” Agnes said, taking Bernice’s arm. “Let’s just get out of here. C’mon, I’m out of ciggies. You can watch Greta’s TV. It ain’t seventy-two inches granted. What is these days?”
“C’mon, honey,” Cookie said. He had two pieces of Kleenex up his nose and blood on what teeth he had left. “Greta’ll let you watch your soaps.”
He eased Bernice over to the passenger side of the van. The kids were already behind the front seats. Bernice got in, then Agnes, then Cookie. He revved the engine, sending exhaust through the open front door.
“Goodbye, stupid house,” Agnes yelled out the window.
They drove off, leaving Leo and his son standing there. They started loading the TV on Leo’s truck. Cookie honked and Leo gave a start. “And we’re off,” Cookie said, giving Leo and his son the finger.
Greta was waiting for them when they pulled up later. Her sweater was buttoned to her neck, arms crossed, the usual worried look on her face. Cookie got out first. “Howdy doody there, sister of mine,” he said to Greta.
Greta took the kids inside. Cookie needed the washroom. Bernice and Agnes stood by the street sharing a cigarette. Bernice started crying.
“It’s just a dumb TV, Bernice,” Agnes said.
“It’s all I’ve got.”
“You got us, you got the kids — hell, what do you want?”
“I want my TV.”
“We’ll get another one, for chrissake. Do another layaway.”
“I’ve got no credit, Agnes. They’ll stop my card.”
“Then wait till you’re back on full-time.”
“I can’t miss my soaps.”
“Bernice, look on the bright side. We ain’t living in that stupid house anymore. And we sure as hell ain’t freezing our asses off in some back room. Remember that?”
“Back room? What are you talking about?”
“Why would you think of that?”
“I’m just sayin’ it’s better than what they put us through.”
“Don’t talk that way. Our parents loved us.”
“They both did. They gave us everything they had.”
“Four stupid beds and some broken-down furniture,” Agnes said, lighting a cigarette off the first. “Remember him coming in drunk? Whose bed did he fall on? Not yours. I had to get in with you. Nobody touches sweet Bernice.”
“Is that my fault?”
“Did I say it was your fault? I don’t care whose fault it is. I just know we’re better off now. That’s all I’m saying. Better than then. Agreed?”
“Fine, agreed,” Bernice said. She looked at the house, the lights on, Cookie sitting on the Lazy-Boy. Greta was making Beefaroni for dinner. “We’d better go inside,” she said. “Can’t miss Greta’s Beefaroni.”
“Go on in,” Agnes said. “I’m having another ciggie.”
Agnes stood there in her stretch shorts, tank top, and flip flops.
“Who the hell invented Beefaroni?”
“Chef Boyardee, I guess.”
“Remind me to kill him when I see him.”
“It’s not so bad. Duncan loves it.”
“Go on then, I’m in no hurry.”
Bernice went up the walk, into the house. Agnes stood there looking across at the other houses, all with their lights on, people in Lazy-Boys. When she went inside, Cookie was spooning out Beefaroni at the kitchen table.
“Come get it while it’s hot,” he said. “It’s a delicious treat, ain’t it, kids?”
They were sitting at the kitchen table. Greta wanted to say Grace.
“Go ahead,” Agnes said, taking her Beefaroni over to the Lazy-Boy.
“Agnes,” Bernice said.
“I ain’t stopping you. Do your Grace bit. Praise the Lord.”
Agnes kicked off her flip flops and looked around for the remote.