By Courtney Miller Santo
Jade’s clearest memory is of the night her mother tried to drown her. She recalls loud, hysterical laughter as Jade told knock-knock joke after knock-knock joke. Tank who? Boo who? Olive who? Her mother laughed so hard she cried, and then the walls of the small bathroom were closing in on the two of them.
Her mother was not herself.
Jade slipped as she was getting out of the tub and as she fell backward, she sent a spray of water over the edge of the porcelain and onto her mother’s lap. She laughed, but her mother did not.
“What the fuck is wrong with you? she said before throwing the bottle of shampoo and clawing at the towel bar until it broke free of the wall—sending the towel into the water and the metal bar clanging into the toilet. Jade backed away trying to hide behind the shower curtain, but her mother grabbed at her and then lost her balance and fell into the tub. She flailed about until she took hold of Jade’s leg and then she pulled so hard and so quick, Jade’s head hit the bottom of the tub.
Before she could get her head back above water and scream, her mother sat on top of her and held her shoulders down. Jade thrashed, trying to get her head far enough out of the water to take a breath. The whole time, she kept her eyes open and locked on her mother’s face as she desperately tried to find a way to breathe until, at last, Jade’s brain buckled as the air remained out of its reach.
That night, which left Jade with a lifelong fear of water and the reasoning skills of a seven-year-old, was at once the end of her childhood and the continual extension of it.
More than thirty years later, Jade is trying to make a go of her life. For the first time she is living alone (under the close supervision of her state appointed guardian) and money has become the most important thing to Jade. An easy way to measure success.
Jade eyes the pile of dirty bills and grimy change, which is splayed across her kitchen counter like the remains of a heated game of Monopoly. There is a crisp twenty in the stash that lends a whiff of respectability to the entire mess, but the rest reeks of a life without a checking account. Jade wheedled the twenty out of her state-appointed guardian earlier that week and the rest she earned picking up discarded soda cans and hauling them over to a scrap dealer near Graceland.
Jade cannot be trusted with a check registrar and the only jobs she’s held have been part of outreach programs Last year, before she moved into her own apartment, Jade put together gift baskets for FedEx. For hours she sat at a long table in an adhoc workspace and carefully placed cans of smoked salmon next to boxes of crackers. Her roommate at the home, Joyce, had the enviable job of wrapping the finished baskets in colored cellophane. Jade tried that job, but was told she was too aggressive with the thin plastic and Joyce was called over to rewrap Jade’s baskets.
There is no cellophane in Jade’s apartment; she buys the heavy duty aluminum foil.
Jade counts her money twice before scooping it into the neon green fanny pack around her waist. It is enough money for the day, which she will spend at The Big One, the principle flea market in Memphis—The trip, which involves two busses, and the better part of three hours, has been part of Jade’s routine since moving into the apartment.
Routine allows Jade to live on her own.
Mary Elizabeth, Jade’s guardian, has a long list of routines—- some of which Jade follows and others that she doesn’t. When Mary Elizabeth came for her last visit, she taped a big yellow sheet to the refrigerator with the words, “PERSONAL CARE CHECKLIST” in large black letters.
Last week, after Mary Elizabeth left, Jade turned the yellow paper, so the letters faced the fridge and secured it with an oversized calico cat magnet. She hasn’t changed out of the blue nylon warm-up pants and oversized Garfield t-shirt she was wearing for the visit with Mary Elizabeth. There are more notes on the fridge, including a colorful picture sheet explaining the difference between dollars and change.
Jade knows these things, but since she’s had time to explore the city unsupervised, Jade has learned a few things. She’s found that if an item is marked $5 that sometimes folks will accept the nickel she pushes into their hand at the register as payment. This works especially well at the flea market. It does not work as well at the grocery store.
“Kitty. Kitty! Come here.” The orange and black tabby pokes its nose out from between the throw cushions stacked in the hallway. Jade leaps at her pet. She grabs Kitty by the neck and rubs her nose against the cat’s face.
“I’m leaving. You stinker.” Jade feels less alone since she’d lured the cat into her apartment using opened cans of smoked salmon. It is comforting to announce her comings and goings.
Jade runs when she sees the number 20 bus at the stoplight a few hundred yards from her apartment building and she starts to wave frantically. Sometimes bus drivers pretend not to notice Jade and drive past the stop. On a bad Saturday, it can take her two or three busses to get someone to stop. As the bus slows down Jade is muttering under her breath, “please stop, please stop, please stop.” The bus lets out a loud hiss as it pulls to the curb and Jade looks up hoping to see Gail, one of the bus drivers she knows.
“Thought I wouldn’t stop for you,” says Gail as Jade boards the bus.
“Never know,” says Jade. She tries to use sarcasm, but it comes out mean and growly. Gail and a few other people in Jade’s life understand this well enough to banter with her. Jade unzips her fanny pack and fishes out her bus pass.
“I don’t need to see that, honey,” says Gail, waving her hand at Jade. She looks at Jade’s ballcap and smiles. “You see the game?”
A woman sitting in the front of the bus loses patience with their chit-chat and pointedly brings the yellow, grease-stained apron she is wearing up to her nose. She breathes loudly and as Jade glances at her, she thinks that this woman with grey skin and dry brown hair is too old to serve people food.
Jade turns back to Gail and smiles revealing the three teeth she has left. “You see I got my hat on don’t ya?”
“They’re on a roll,” says Gail. “Might just make the finals this year.”
“Got to make them free throws,” says Jade as she moves to take her seat.
Before she is out of earshot, the waitress says, “God, Gail. Sometimes you are too nice.”
Jade knows she stinks, but she is afraid of the bathtub, especially of the water. She chooses a seat near the middle of the bus, takes out the CD player her grandniece gave her and puts in one of the six of Donny and Marie CDs she owns. It is their greatest hits. Jade sings along—oblivious to the tenor or decibel of her voice.
She sings beautifully, which is one of the many things she doesn’t yet know about herself. Her transfer stop comes up quick and as Jade leaves the bus through the rear entrance she glances up toward Gail and waves.
“You have such a sweet voice, honey,” Gail hollers from the front.
Jade flushes with embarrassment as she leaves Gail’s bus and walks across the transit mall. It is overcast, but not raining. She starts to worry about being early, but just as the worry turns to agitation, her eye catches one of the advertisements plastering the bus shelters and she is transfixed by the ad for a scratch off game called Blazin’ 8’s. The woman in the advertisement reminds Jade of her mother. She has dark hair and blue eyes.
The driver of the next bus is an asshole. After she boards he gets up tells Jade to sit at the back of the bus while he ushers his other passengers away from her. Jade pulls on her headphones and daydreams about what she’d do if she won the $88,888 advertised. The bus stops moving and people are unloading at the Fairgrounds.
Only the vendor gate is open and she sees people lugging card tables and wheeling suitcases through the entrance. She looks across the street at the convenience store and decides to treat herself to an icee before going to the Big One.
A greasy sort of teenager is behind the counter. He barely glances up as Jade enters his store. As she walks by his counter, he covers his nose. Jade harrumphs at him and walks to the icee machine. She looks at the spinning brown and red options and decides to take a taste of the cherry before choosing.
“You can’t do that,” yells the clerk.
Jade doesn’t answer. She slurps the cherry out of her cup and then fills it with the cola flavored icee. At the counter, roll after roll of lottery tickets sit beneath the glass.
“Lemme get two of those,” Jade says, tapping her yellowed and split fingernail on the glass.
The clerk grabs two Hearts a Fire tickets and tears them off.
“No! I want the eights, the eights,” says Jade.
The clerk moves his skinny hand and grabs the correct scratch tickets. Jade sees that he has red hairs growing out of his knuckles. It repulses her.
“$4.89,” he says.
Jade is already scratching her tickets at the counter. Small strips of grey paint lay curled up on the glass countertop.
“You can’t do that before you pay,” the clerk says. “Stop. You have to stop.”
Jade lays down the penny and fishes five ones out of her fanny pack. She takes the dime he hands her as change and scratches harder at the paint that covers the boxes.
“Go outside and do that,” the clerk says. He exhales loudly and then grabs a pack of cigarettes from behind him and pushes it against his nose. “I said get the hell out of here,” says the clerk louder than he intended.
A woman who has come into the store in her jogging clothing glances up.
Jade gathers the tickets, her change and the icee and heads outside without fuss. All the eights on the ticket are a good sign, and she wants to finish uncovering them. It is dim outside from the heavy cloud cover. Jade sits on the blue curb in front of a handicapped spot and finishes scratching. She uncovers the third eight in a row—like the slot machines down in Tunica. Jade thinks it is a winner, but she can’t read. She’s almost won before and been laughed at by clerks like the one in the store. So, just to be sure she scratches off the other ticket. It has two eights and then a two.
“Hah,” she says, understanding that it proves that the other ticket is good for something, but how much? She sets her drink on the curb and goes back inside the store. The woman in the jogging clothes is paying for lady products. Jade averts her eyes.
“Good morning,” the woman says brightly to Jade as she leaves.
The clerk grabs another pack of cigarettes and puts them under his nose. “What do you need now?”
“I won,” says Jade as she pushes the ticket across the counter.
“If you say so,” the clerk says and takes her ticket. He is eager to give her the bad news, but when he sees the numbers and then reads the fine print on the back of the ticket, his eyes go wide. He slides the ticket underneath the pack of cigarettes he is holding in is hand and sets them both on the counter.
“You won another ticket,” he says.
“No. God damn it. I won money,” insists Jade.
“Here’s your ticket,” says the clerk pushing the paper into Jade’s hand.
Jade kicks the hard plastic of the counter and chokes out loud gargling and strangling sounds as she starts to cry. “You’re a cheat. Nothing but a God damn cheat.”
“It’s not my fault you’re too stupid to read,” the clerk says. He comes around to her side of the counter and pushes her toward the doors.
Jade resists and starts to scream. “Get off me. Get off me. Get off me.”
The clerk gets Jade to the doors and as they open he gives her one final shove that sends her stumbling outside.
She walks right up and touches the glass, but they don’t open. Jade bangs and kicks at the locked doors. The woman who bought lady products gets out of her car.
“Miss, Miss,” she says to Jade. “Please, sit down on the curb and wait. I’ve called the police.”
“I don’t like the police,” Jade says. Her voice breaks in the middle of the sentence.
Mary Elizabeth especially does not like calls from the police.
“I’ll stay and I’ll tell them what happened,” the woman says. She then extends her hand toward Jade. “My name is Sissy.”
The formality of the gesture settles Jade’s emotions. She takes the woman’s hand and says, “You think it will do any good to wait?”
“It can’t hurt,” says Sissy.
“I bet it was a lot of money,” Jade says to Sissy who is standing by her car. “You know that I won, with that lotto ticket. I bet it was enough to go to L.A. or maybe even to get seats behind the bench at a Grizz game. I could use a lot of money.”
Sissy shakes her head. “Most of the time you only win a dollar or two in those games. You ought to be spending your money on something else. The lottery is just a scam. A cheat.”
“But I won,” says Jade.
Sissy starts to argue, but the roar of a police bike pulling into the parking lot cuts her off. Jade shrinks and edges along the curb toward the side of the building. Sissy walks right up to the guy and starts to talk with him. Jade can’t hear what she says, but she sees Sissy motion to her on the curb and then at the locked doors. The policeman and Sissy peer at Jade, who tries to look at them, but finds even the cloud-obscured sun is too bright for her eyes. She settles her eyes on their kneecaps and takes another sip of her cola flavored ice.
“Care to tell me what happened?” the officer asks. He pulls out a small notebook and takes off his gloves, which he tucks into his waistband. A pen appears from one of his pockets.
“He took my ticket,” says Jade, motioning toward the clerk. “I won a lot of money.”
“How much?” asks the policeman.
“I dunno know,” says Jade. She looks sideways toward the dumpster around the side of the building. “I saw him slide it under a packet of cigarettes.”
“Let me see the ticket he gave you,” says the officer.
Jade unclenches her fist. The ticket is soggy with sweat and it has been scratched off.
“This is used.”
“I just scratched it now, while you were talking.”
The police officer turns his back to Jade and takes a big gulp of air. “I’m going to go talk to the clerk.”
He walks up to the doors and he knocks sharply. He talks to the clerk and the two of them laugh. Jade throws her nearly empty cup toward the dumpster. She misses and as the cup lands on the pavement its plastic lid snaps off and a small bit of muddy brown syrup runs onto the concrete.
Sissy picks it up and tosses it in the dumpster. “I’ll go explain it to him again. I’m sure he can watch the security tape or something.”
Jade nods and then she looks across the street and sees that the Big One has opened. She takes a few steps toward it and sees a few soda cans behind the dumpster. They’re sticky and two of them are filled with urine, which Jade pours onto the sidewalk. Mary Elizabeth, her guardian, first told Jade about collecting pop cans. “Found money,” she’d called it.
When Sissy and the police officer exit the store, Jade is fully hidden by the dumpster. She leans against the bright blue steel container and listens.
“If she’d really won any money she would have stuck around. I know her type.”
“We could wait a bit,” she says.
“She isn’t worth waiting for,” says the officer. “You don’t run into a lot of these people. They’ll take every advantage of you being sorry for them. They can smell the guilt.”
“I want to file a report,” she says. “Any other person could file assault charges the way he pushed her out the door. There has to be some way to know if a winning lottery ticket is claimed by him in the next couple of weeks.”
“But how you going to find that woman? She’s just walked away.”
“I’ll find her,” says Sissy.
Jade considers coming around the corner and calling out, but she hears a pause, a hesitation, in Sissy’s voice and it stops her. Jade isn’t the sort of woman who wins things. She fishes a plastic trash bag from her fanny pack and stows the aluminum cans in the bag. This small gesture signals the true start of her day—she’ll collect more at the flea market and on the bus rides home she’ll check the trash cans and under benches at her bus stops.
The crowd is thick and no one makes room for her in the tight aisles. Jade finds a woman with a large baby stroller and falls in line behind her. People make way for the baby and Jade is able to follow. When they reach the section designated for collectibles, Jade peels off and starts to look around. On a table filled with metal lunch boxes, she finds a cardboard box with a vintage picture of Donny and Marie on it.
“This isn’t a lunchbox,” says Jade to the young woman behind the table.
The girl blinks at her and then shrugs. “It came with the lot of lunch boxes we bought at an estate sale,” she says.
Jade wrinkles her nose. “It’s not a lunch box. It’s for records.”
“Doesn’t matter. Everything is twenty-five,” the girl says. “Except Star Wars stuff. That’s more.”
Jade considers the box. It’s pink and purple and the picture on the front is one of Donny enthusiastically gripping the microphone. He is looking at Marie and both wear turquoise. The back has a different picture of the duo with Donny in a black velvet tux with a black velvet bow tie. Although both Donny and Marie are standing side-by-side, the spotlight is on Donny and it illuminates the mauve background and casts a halo around his head.
Jade remembers the velvet tux from when she was recovering from her near drowning. By that time her mother was gone and it was just Jade and her father. On Friday nights, he’d sit with her and watch the Donny and Marie Show. He’d rub her feet and sing whenever Donny sang. Her father had a voice that was older than Donny’s, but just as sweet. Then he’d pick her up and carry her to bed and tuck her in while singing the song that Donny and Marie closed the program with each night.
As she fingers the box, Jade begins to hum the tune to “May Tomorrow Be a Perfect Day.” She reaches into her fanny pack and fingers a quarter. She spins it between her index and thumb a few times feeling its heft. Then she puts it back and pulls out the dirty collection of ones and the crisp twenty that she swept off her counter earlier that morning.
“Hey!” she says to the girl tending the booth. “This is mine.”
The girl takes Jade’s money and without counting it dumps it into the register. Then she wipes her hand on her jeans and offers a Jade a plastic bag to put the box in.
“So, you must really like Sonny and Cher,” she says, pointing at the box.
“That’s my dad,” says Jade, running her finger across Donny’s velvet tux before disappearing into the crowd.
Copyright Santo 2016