by Jordan Dilley
Poverty made the best stories. Like the one of grandpa as a kid working on a government farm during the depression in the San Joaquin Valley. At the end of the day his fingers were stained orange with carrot juice; he refused to eat carrots for the rest of his life. A great-aunt had holes in her shoes her family couldn’t replace that she stuffed with newspaper, or catalogue pages. Halfway to school the cold rain seeped in regardless, desensitizing the nerves in her feet. I once saw her step on a tack without any reaction. I pulled it out of her foot, wary.
Several members in the generation before my parents had to start working young and didn’t make it past the eighth grade. They’d state this fact, a ploy to make the recitation of their later successes and exploits shine all the brighter. But that was back when you could still make a good living as a tradesman, have five bedrooms, two baths, a brand-new car, and a boat to take out on the lake. All for unclogging drains and laying new pipe. My uncles would mumble this to themselves over steaming cups of coffee at the kitchen table, button-up shirts stained with armpit sweat. You could almost see the columns of numbers scrolling past their eyes, an endless tally that only stopped for words like merger and redundancy. Yeah, we’ll call you when one of the kids flushes a sock down the toilet, Uncle Billy.
The stories we repeated to each other were different from what we shared at school, work, and church. “Did you hear Milly made the honor roll again? Two years running.” Or “Dave is on the short list for a promotion at work, always knew he’d find his niche eventually.” There we became people who always bought name-brand, went to the doctor regularly, and spent whole weeks at the beach during summer vacation. Unabashed revisionists, we reworked the stories of our lives, patching the moth-eaten holes with zip ties and duct tape, with free school lunch stubs, and shoe goo.
My own foray began with a green plastic swatter covered in fly guts. I was on fly duty, tracking a fat one through the house because we couldn’t afford to run the air conditioning and left the windows open during the night. The afternoon light shined off the old dried viscera, a calcified oil slick, layers upon layers of small victories against household pests. I was wondering if I should clean the thing, maybe soak it in the blue dish soap that could get burnt meatloaf off vintage ceramic, when Dad tumbled through the front door. It was four o’clock on Monday, too early. Sensing chum in the water, mom propelled herself toward him. Under her steam, they scuttled to their bedroom, the only room in the house bedsides the bathroom with a lock on the door.
Through the door I heard words like raider, takeover, and downsize. They were words I knew in a vague way, like how most people know what inflation was, but when asked to explain it, stumbled, repeating sound clips from their favorite talking head. The words were followed by a narrative that was doled out in small doses over the next months. Like snack-size packets of candy we were told Dad was thinking of a career change, that he’d decided to get out of the company before they could steal everyone’s retirement, and that he wanted to work someplace with a better chance of advancement. Things would be back to normal soon.
One of the few constants during those months was the yellow glow from the neighbor’s floodlights that lit up the popcorn ceiling of my room every night without fail. I picked out my favorite shapes: smoking caterpillars, castles, the faces of my favorite boy band members. But soon, they weren’t alone. Globs of polystyrene coalesced into wolves nipping at the feet of the caterpillars. Warts with little hairs sprouted erupted on those air-brushed boy faces. Columns of smoke rose from the castles. I forced myself not to look away. I concentrated and made arrows to pierce the hearts of those wolves. Scalpels and nitrogen took care of the warts. Helicopters drenched the burning castles in flame retardant.
But daydreams on the ceiling were a poor substitute for reality. The clicks roaming the halls at school couldn’t be transformed into innocuous insects or wished into impotency. Cracks began to show despite my family’s attempts to pass Dad’s job loss off as a positive. The hem of my jeans crept further up my legs. Even my T-shirts resisted my attempts to pull them down into the waist of my jeans, leaving my belly button on full display which eventually landed me with a dress-code violation. The next day I showed up to class wearing one of my dad’s old Bon Jovi T-shirts. It was baggy, but long enough that it reached past my butt.
When I went to friends’ houses their moms forced second, sometimes even third helpings, onto me at dinner. If a neighbor or someone from church was near my size and had had a growth spurt, somehow a sweater, or a pair of their dungarees made its way into my closet. In June, at the end of the school year, I had to tell the teacher in charge of the annual trip to the water park that I couldn’t go. She said I could, and I was, and that it had been taken care of. Another student heard this exchange and told another student who told everyone else. It didn’t take much for my vicious classmates to put two and two together what with the baggy hand-me-downs. School quickly became a relentless barrage of poor jokes and sideways glances.
I practiced shrinking into myself. I pulled my shoulders together and kept my head down. I wrapped my arms around my textbooks, to make myself a smaller target from behind. I learned which halls were deserted at which times and walked them like a ghost. Soon, fewer comments were lobbed my way. I let myself believe that my lonely hall-walking had paid off, that I had attained at least some level of immunity.
But when my parents’ check for school lunch bounced and the lunch lady handed me a form for free lunches, I knew I was wrong. This time there weren’t jokes, or nasty comments. The other students in the lunch line were silent, their heads cast down. Their embarrassment was the worst thing I never imagined. Worse than the snickers in the locker room when I wore panties three sizes too big given by an aunt who bought them by mistake. Worse than having Monopoly money balled up and stuffed through the vents in my locker.
That night, I relived the scene in the lunchroom while staring at the semi-illuminated popcorn ceiling. I wished my face hadn’t flushed red when the lunch lady handed me the free-lunch form and that I hadn’t tripped on the way out the door in my too-large shoes. Like a rat in a maze, I agonized over what I could have done differently to avoid embarrassment. I raced down another long straightaway, concocting lies I could have told the lunch lady, only to be met with another dead end in which I had to admit there was nothing I could have done to avoid the situation.
After a while I found myself thinking of the previous Sunday at church when someone asked Mom what dress I was wearing for prom. I wasn’t going to prom. I knew that and she knew that. Prom cost money. The dress, the dinner, and the tickets were more money than I could imagine parting with let alone having in the first place. Instead of simply saying I wasn’t going, Mom launched into a description of a pink dress with embroidered flowers and a tulle skirt that didn’t exist. Every detail was construed so specifically I began to wonder if such a dress really did exist somewhere. Not in my closet at home, but somewhere surely.
On the one hand, mom’s story was a lie. On the other hand, it was specific, and beautifully constructed. Lies, the real kind, were blunt ugly things, told of necessity or perverseness. There, in the nave, she pulled one dazzling strand after another from the air, and invisible to us, she wove them into a story, gave them substance. The whole construction was specifically her own, from the bishop sleeves to the cute Italian place my non-existent date was taking me for dinner.
I sat up in bed. The bobbles on the ceiling appeared sharper, though the neighbor’s light was the same soft yellow as always. The answer had been hanging over my head the whole time, clearly written on those castles’ stones, on the globular backs of the caterpillars.
The next day at school when someone made a joke about my ragged jeans which were worn down from me stepping on the too-long bottoms, I told them I was recycling clothing because it was more environmentally friendly. Did they know the amount of pollution their brand-new sneakers caused? The people in Asia whose water was poisoned because they walked around in neon T-shirts and dark wash jeans? I wasn’t sure of the facts, but neither were they. The faded band T-shirts I wore weren’t sad hand-me-downs anymore, they were vintage. They were bought by my dad during the actual tours with the money he made selling mushrooms to deadhead wannabees.
I started bringing my lunch to school, not because I couldn’t afford school lunch, but because it was healthier. School lunches were too high in fat, used too many animal by-products, even the vegetarian options. I pointed to the nutrition charts in health class, stressed the importance of complex carbohydrates and antioxidants; our teacher even asked me to do a special report on processed foods. At lunch everyone saw me eating a peanut butter sandwich (high in non-animal protein) and carrot sticks. At home I scarfed down cheap noodles dangerously high in sodium and slurped the sodas an uncle who worked at a bottling warehouse brought over for us.
I went over my new narrative every night, poking holes to see if it held water. I knew this story wouldn’t last forever. Eventually someone would see mom using food stamps at the grocery store, or me browsing the racks at Goodwill, but it didn’t matter. There would be new stories to tell, new versions of myself to unravel. Perhaps, when I was older, I would tell the real stories. Like my grandpa and great-aunts, I would tell grandchildren and nieces and nephew about cutting patches to mend my clothes from old bedsheets, or about how it was my job to collect meat drippings to use as cooking oil. But right now, I tossed a juicy leaf to the caterpillar inching across the ceiling.
Image via Ron Lach via Pexels