Here come the hot dog men. Fuck, if they aren’t all foreign, all coming from lands with camels and beaches with black volcanic ash for sand or lands with wives with scarves up to the eyes, lands where love is through a hole in the bedsheet, lands where marriages are on hilltops, and goats, bell-necked, graze nearby. They are silent down the avenue except for the wheels of their carts and the slosh of the water their long skinny hot dogs float in. So early down the avenue there are hardly any cars, and they own the lanes, pushing their carts down the middle wearing sometimes three sweaters, their arms bulging in nubby hand-knitted yarns, their shoes sometimes not shoes, just sandals worn with socks, their hair greased or just greasy, the dandruff held tight behind bars of coarse strands of thick prickly hair at the napes of their cross-hatched necks.
I see them coming down the avenue from my fire escape, their cart umbrellas folded in.
Their slow walk is like an amble through a still sleeping village alongside a donkey-drawn wooden-wheeled cart loaded with bundles of sticks for starting small fires.
I know the one walking past the Charlie Bar across the street. He is named John. He gives me a Hershey from the bin at the bottom that stores the spongy buns. In summer I sit on his lap when it is slow, and morning, and eat the Hershey while I feel his fingers creeping up my waist and to my tits. Meanwhile, the hot dogs boil, the sauerkraut warms, and the sodas cool on ice.
John doesn’t have front teeth. He says it’s from eating rocks baked in bread where he comes from. He takes pictures of me with a camera he wears around his neck and shows me them developed. Bad pictures where the sun is behind me and I’m a whoosh of bright light, or under a park bush, too dark to be seen, maybe just my leg on the dirt that is patted-down park dirt, run over by rats at night and where minty gum wrapper is thrown throughout the day.
At home I sit on the toilet looking at the water heater where Louisa has drawn in cray-pas faces of the boys she likes at school. We all say she could be the artist. She has sketched me with the cat curled in my lap. It’s winter and so cold in the house the cats are always barnacled to us. When we’re sitting in chairs they’re on our laps and when we walk across the house they trot after us, waiting for us to sit again. When we sleep they lie on our heads and our backs and our feet and if we roll over or kick they grab onto us with their claws and dig in through the blankets, scared to be tossed from our warmth.
* * *
In the morning, when our mother wakes, she is the first to take the stick end of the plunger and break the ice in the toilet so she can pee without it splashing back. In our beds we hear the chink-chink of the ice cracking.
My father lives uptown with a short blonde he found on a set, porno or not, we don’t know. I looked through her drawers once and held up her lace bras and put one on and then my father called me from the other room and we went sledding down Dog Hill, me wearing the slut’s black bra number on top of Jody and Jody on top of Louisa and then we fell over at the end of the ride and bent the sled’s runner, our weight too much for the metal.
My father’s drinking and telling us how stupid his slut is because she thinks the sun is not a star. She’s not here because it’s Christmas Eve and we’re spending it alone with him in his apartment and she’s with her brothers somewhere out in New Jersey with a big fir tree they cut down off their parents’ land for their Tannenbaum. I’m beginning to think his slut’s smart, that maybe she’s right and the sun is not a star but it’s a planet and this adds to my choices of where I could go when I leave this world and I feel I’ve expanded my horizons and found the far west. My Christmas present is a doll with red hair and a plaid skirt but I give her an Indian name and call her Tenderleaf Teresa. The first thing I do after I unwrap her is cut her hair. I think it needs a trim. My brother laughs and tells me her hair won’t grow back. The cab ride home is like a rocket trip, we hit every green light and there are no other cars because it’s Christmas Eve. I’ve never gone anywhere so fast in New York in all my life.
I imagine I’m my father’s slut and I’m in New Jersey in a room that smells like Christmas and there’s snow outside on the ground lit up by moonlight and blond brothers in oxfords singing the first Noel and slightly swaying on the backs of their heels while they’ve got their arms around each other and around me. I imagine I’m his slut and I’m happy and it’s Christmas and I’m with blond brothers and the sun is a planet, and the phone is ringing and ringing somewhere in my parents’ country home and it’s my tanked sugar daddy trying to call after his four kids have left and now he wants me and he wants a little of my Hallmark Christmas, a piece of my pumpkin pie, a feel of glossy gift wrap and a whiff of the pine and a taste of what’s nutmegged and powdered sugary and meant well, the créche holy and blessed. It’s my scabheaded Cal, my drunk drunk on the huge-size Gallo they sell for mixing vats of sangria he drinks alone after his kids have scampered back downtown.
“Let it ring,” I say to my blond brothers, and we do and we continue with our Christmas and our swaying and watch ourselves armlinked and distorted in our red and green bulb tree ornaments as we sing.
My brother plays guitar in clubs till late at night and is hardly ever home during the day. Sometimes I wake in the night and hear him when he has come back walking through the house, his guitar case hitting up against a chair our mother forgot to move. She makes a path for him before she goes to sleep, like she’s clearing room for a dance floor, and I go to bed thinking I can’t sleep, something’s going to happen, people will come over and turn on music and there will be a party and laughter, but nothing does happen, my mother just comes to bed, sleeps alongside me and cries the way she always does.
John lifts me up onto a metal box bolted to the street lamp and as he does, he slides his hands up high under my knit top. I like it up high. I can see the whole park, a juggler or band or preacher at work in the pit of the fountain when it’s not on. The metal box is warm and it clicks when the light turns from red to green. John passes me up a hot dog and my soda and I watch a taxi cut off a car. The taxi driver starts yelling and the two men get out and stop traffic and all the while the metal box I’m on clicks while the light turns from red to green.
It ends with a horse cop on the scene. I can see his stallion. I think he’s trying to look at me, but then I see him rolling one eye so far back it looks like what he’s trying to see is inside his head.
Of course I get all the hot dogs I ever want. John tries to get me on onion, but I like them plain, no mustard or anything. I drink orange soda or sometimes cream. I sit on the curb and eat. John kisses me goodbye. He says it’s all he wants. I request the Hershey with almonds next time, nuts in things are my thing, I tell him, they’re my bag. He laughs, he says where he comes from hard-boiled eggs are baked into loaves of braided bread.
“What about the shells?” I want to know. “All that fucking sharpness in your teeth,” I say.
I curse all the time, or maybe it’s just “fuck” I always say. Fuck, I think it too, fuck, bread must have been all the hot dog men ever ate in their countries.
My mother says shit in French all the time. Merde when the electric gets cut. Merde when the candlestick wax drips onto her clothes. Merde when the gas gets cut too and we eat cold sandwiches each night for dinner. Merde in her sleep while I lie next to her in bed, merde a scream in a string of other French I do not understand. Maybe all the sleep-talking is why our father left.
* * *
An angel woke me when my sister was sleeping too close to the old space heater and the flame went off and the whole house smelled like gas. I tugged at my sister’s shoulder and tugged and tugged and finally her eyes opened and she told me to leave her alone, she was sleeping. The angel was floating above my head when it happened and she kept calling my name and I didn’t want to wake up either, but she was fucking persistent, this angel, and so I turned off the gas and saved everyone’s life.
I’m the one who shops and I’ve got ten bucks for two days to feed the five of us. Polly at the A & P knows I’ve only ever got ten bucks and she says “How ya doin, Smitty?” Then she passes through a bunch of my items without ringing them up and gives me a wink. I even come home with change. Tom does it too, but his nose is huge and red and usually has a ripe white pimple on it, so I don’t like to stand on his line, but like I said, he’ll do it too and not charge me for some items and wink when he’s packing the bags and call me Smitty.
Two weeks after Easter the store’s chocolate hasn’t all sold so Polly and Tom throw leftover chocolate bunny rabbits into my bag after I’ve already paid. My mother says Polly and Tom are saints and shakes her head and counts out loud in French the change I give her back and takes a bite out of my stale chocolate rabbit’s ear. She hands it back to me one-eared and I pick out the candy sugar eye and eat it and then put the rabbit back in its box and up on a shelf. Missing an eye, now it’s not able to look out its plastic window at me and my mother doing whatever we do in our house.
It’s summer now and so hot we’ve got maggots living on ooze that leaks from the garbage we keep piled in bags in our house. We’ve got no private pickup and we’ve been cited for leaving a bag here and there in the metal baskets on street corners.
“Merde,” my mother says and sprays the maggots with so much bug spray the maggots float off in little rivulets that head for the front of our house because our floors are slanted, and I feel in my sleep I could be tipped and slide off my bed right out of the window and onto the avenue.
Fuck, when it gets too hot I bring my mattress out on the fire escape and sleep through the night with the sound of the Charlie Bar music across the street being played from a jukebox. Facedown in the early morning I look over the fire escape at the tops of the heads of the hot dog men trundling their carts and I spit, hoping the wind will carry my spit and land on them.
We are leaning over our father’s shoulder, our long hair hanging down by his cheeks, the ends resting on the cotton cloth of his button-down shirt. He is sitting at the table and sketching Mickey Mouse on a pad of paper. We often ask him to sketch Mickey Mouse. It’s one of the tricks we know he can do for us. We are always amazed. His magic marker moves quickly and the sketches look just like Mickey. Standing beside him we notice that our father’s bald head looks like a relief map. There are scabs on it from hitting low doorways, where stray nails have cut, where sun has cooked the skin. Moles spread out like lake shapes and scars are craters and scattered strands of a half dozen hairs still hanging on are some kind of dune grass blowing in the wind. Wine too has formed red blotches on his head.
He sways and loses balance while standing in his summer rental telling me again his slut doesn’t know the sun is a star and how stupid she is. She is smart and she is upstairs already in their bed, away from him and his drunkenness, and I am still with him in the kitchen wanting him to sit down, he is making me seasick as he moves from side to side. I go to bed and I swear the moon is the sun, it’s so red.
In the morning he is at work on the Steenbeck, rewinding and fast-forwarding all day sounding like Oz, the land of the munchkins, only the picture on his screen is of military men.
“Values,” one man on the screen says, and my father rewinds.
“Values are,” the man says, frontwards and backwards, and I walk through the house all morning and wait for the rest of the sentence but my father never gets there. He stops the Steenbeck, the screen frozen on the man’s open mouth, and gets up from his chair, goes to the kitchen and makes a sandwich. In the kitchen my father asks me where his slut is and I tell him she’s gone on safari because I saw her pack water and a towel in her beach bag. He nods his head and makes me a sandwich of cucumber and mayonnaise and says on a hot summer’s day you don’t need anything else to eat. But after the sandwich I’m still hungry and eat crackers when he goes back to his Steenbeck.
“Values are an indescribable . . .” is what I get the rest of the afternoon. The next morning my father tells me his slut thinks it’s time I go home. I run up the metal steps and onto the train. I don’t bother to take a seat for the longest time, I look down in the space made where the two cars connect as we speed over the gravel-strewn ground that just looks like a blur.
Coming through the dark of Penn Station takes such a long time I could be in some other land where it’s night, and from the train wheels all I hear is the word, “values” frontwards and backwards and over and over again through the darkened land.
At home I am Sadie Somebody stripteasing on a tabletop for my sisters, undoing buttons of my rosebud pajamas. They are all laughing, and the dog is barking because I’m up too high and she wants me to get down the same way when we’re out in the water she bites at our necks to get a hold and tow us back to shore or the way she herds us away from the cars when we walk down the avenue. Fuck, a dog like that and who needs a mother or a father? But to her own she was unfit and ate them, leaving blood and fur in the pen after they were born.
My mother sleeps the sleep of the accident dead, not in deepness but in the way her arms are flung, like a person found on the side of the road thrown from a car, her arms twisted up around her head, her mouth agape, her body naked. When it’s summer it is so hot in our house she calls us tomatoes and the skylights make it a greenhouse. She says we are the five little tomatoes and how they grew and I tell her the book’s name is The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew and she says she doesn’t feel like a pepper but more like a tomato, bruised and caving in and on its way to seed.
I go to the park and I see the cop on his stallion again, and the stallion looks at me while I’m scratching my name with a pen into a park bench seat. The cop doesn’t care, but the stallion keeps looking at me like if he didn’t have the cop on his back he’d come right over and strike me down with his hooves. I give the stallion the finger, but only to his chestnut haunch when he’s already passed me by.
At home late that night our mother is drunk, hanging onto the bedpost with her shoes in her hand, laughing, saying she and her friends drove to Coney Island and swam in the waves. She gets into bed next to me still in her clothes and falls asleep smelling of ocean. Toward morning her liquor wears off and I hear crying and it isn’t until then I feel things are back to normal and I can really get some sleep.
My mother has forgotten to clear a path for my brother. He comes through crashing his guitar against a cherrywood straightback chair and from inside the case you can hear a few notes twang. He keeps walking and his guitar hits another chair and then another one.
“Godfuckingdammit,” he says and he drops the guitar and picks up one of the chairs and throws it across the house and then he picks up the chair again and goes to the back door and opens it and throws the chair down five flights of stairs where its legs and ladderback crack and break off. But one chair is not enough, so he gets the rest, all eight of them. He throws them all down, one by one, so that at the bottom of the stairs there’s a dining room set left to us when my father’s parents died, in a broken pile. Because of the garbage citations we’ve received, we can’t even throw the chairs out into the street, and instead me and my sisters have to carry the broken chairs back up to the house and add them to the pile of garbage. The broken chairs sit high up there at different levels looking like any moment they’ll tip over and block the path again.
John is fast-flipping his bin lids, adding the onions and sauerkraut and relish. Everyone wants a hot dog today. I sit on the curb and listen to the bin lids opening and closing and it reminds me of the sound the quarters, dimes and nickels make when you pay your fare and put them in the coin sorter on the city bus. I could sleep by that sound.
That night there is the feast and a ferris wheel to ride and I go up with Rena and her mother, who Rena never calls “mom” but always “Bonnie,” which is her real name, and Bonnie says there’s nothing to be afraid of, and that I should look at the stars above the city and see how beautiful it is. At the top, when we’re stopped for people down below to get off, Bonnie pulls out a black beauty from her change purse and pops it in her mouth and throws back her head to get the pill down. Her throwing back her head sets our car swinging and I tell her to please, please stop the swinging, but there’s nothing she can do and so I crawl out from under the safety bar and Rena and Bonnie try to pull me back down and ask me, “Baby, where do you think you are going?” and now the car is really swinging and I don’t know where I think I am going.
I look over the edge, I could shimmy down the ferris wheel bars with all the light bulbs attached and get back down to the ground where it’s safe, where the zeppoli vats filled with hot grease cook dough, and people on church steps sit eating pizza and gyros. I could go down there and be with them, but instead I am standing up in the ferris wheel car and the man down below wearing one heavy-duty work glove and pulling the ferris wheel lever is yelling at me to sit the fuck back down and then people on all the other cars are yelling at me to sit back down and Rena and Bonnie are pulling me down by my arms until I am down on the dirty metal floor of the car by Rena and Bonnie’s sandaled feet. I see that the silver polish Bonnie used to paint her toenails contains sparkles and they really are beautiful and look like millions of stars, more than I’ve ever seen in a city night sky.
I grow one tit first. My mother thinks it might be a cyst so she takes me to the free clinic where there are no private rooms, and in front of all the sniveling, runny-nosed poor children a doctor unzips my pants and pulls down my panties to check if the hairs of puberty have started to grow, which they haven’t. So the doctor’s miffed and tells my mother we should keep an eye on my tit, and for me to come back if the other tit doesn’t start to sprout soon.
Rena’s already got tits bigger than handballs. Boys at the beach come up to us and stand tall, shading our sun, and stare down at her tits, making comments, telling her she is fine, so fine. We talk as if the boys aren’t there and then we go jump in the ocean and curl up and hold onto our ankles and feel the roll of the waves breaking over us. We stay like that for what could be hours, just lifting our heads up occasionally to breathe, and then returning back under the water. When we go to sleep at night we feel like we’re still being rocked and swayed by the waves.
My father’s slut is flat. Her bra size is A ad infinitum. My one tit is already bigger than either one of hers. She looks like an old mother monkey in the wild who breast-fed for years and now she’s all dried up and all that protrudes are her two monstrous nipples that look like they’ve slipped halfway down to her belly. I know because my father has pictures of his slut nude framed around their apartment. I think my father loves her because she is so flat, because she’s narrow at the hips and looks like a boy from behind with her short blond hair, and then she turns around and you realize from her face that she’s a woman, and it’s a surprise and I bet that’s why he loves her.