by Tom Liskey
When I was ten we lived in a narrow two-story clapboard that had been converted from a funeral home into low-rent housing. The place was a real dump. But there had been no single stroke of bad luck that drove us to this place. It was just the unforgiving calculus of divorce and bankruptcy.
The house's owners got out of the funeral business shortly before they retired. That happened at a time when more modern, larger establishments with plenty of room for parking were being built close to the highway. They didn’t put much money into the conversion and the work that was done was shoddy. But we got a good deal and leased the bottom floor. There was only one room there—and it was mine. My mother thought a growing boy needed some privacy.
The place must have been something grand in its heyday when this Mississippi River town was booming with commerce and industry. By the time we moved in, lead mining and rock quarrying had gone bust. The house, like our town, had fallen on hard times. The once ornate woodwork of the eaves had gaps in them, each empty space looking like a busted-out tooth. An iron smelter was only a few blocks away and the greasy sheen of smokestack grime covered the gable windows.
The owners had sealed the cellar off in my bedroom during the conversion from funeral home to rental unit with a wooden door. At night that six paneled door loomed large and terrible in my imagination. For some reason I believed that behind the door was where the dead had been washed and dressed for their final viewing.
We only lived in the duplex for the summer and part of the fall before my mom found work in a bigger city. All we had to cook on was a hotplate. So we only ate stuff like hamburgers, fried baloney, and hotdogs. Junk food. We didn’t have a fridge either and we kept quarts of milk in an ice cooler.
Before we moved into the duplex we had lived in a pretty little house near a lake beyond the town limits. Our neighbors—two elderly brothers who ran a small fishing camp on its banks—wore ironed overalls and trucker caps pulled low over their eyes.
A hand-painted sign on the side of the road near their property promised pristine waters brimming with overstocked bass just down the bend. But the brothers’ mucky water hole was barely a pond. They charged you by the pound if you caught anything. I went fishing there a couple of times, but all I remember getting was piddly looking perch.
We lost the house near the lake after my mom divorced my stepdad, a man from Georgia. She first met him when he called to offer his condolences when my dad died when I was five. He said he read about his death in the local obituary. That man from Georgia could spin a good yarn. The story he told her was that he knew my dad from his time working on a river tug. My mom and the man from Georgia only spoke a few times on the phone, but he swept her off her feet.
The first time I saw him he was clean shaven with a splash of cologne on his cheek. When he spoke, he always seemed to have a ready Bible verse on the tip of his tongue. The kind of things a churchgoing woman like my mother looked for in a suitor.
After a short courtship they married. But the man from Georgia started drinking again after the wedding. Back in the day in Missouri you called people like him ‘a six-pack charlie’ or ‘bottle-jockey.’ The thing was the man from Georgia couldn’t handle his liquor. He'd hit mom when he was drunk.
The last time I saw him was the year of the divorce. We heard he had been fired from the smelter and was living in a rooming house in town. But my stepdad was friends with a dispatcher and was hired on as a bus driver for the school district. He didn’t work my bus route, but I saw him at school once. He was eating in the cafeteria with some of the other drivers and janitors.
I got permission from a teacher and went to speak to him. When he saw me he didn't say a word. He just nodded for me to sit down. He had the red, puffy eyes of a man still nursing a hangover. Maybe the others didn't notice it, but I did.
We were both uncomfortable and I regretted approaching him. The strained father-and-son pretense had already crumbled. He asked about my mom as he slowly picked at his school lunch, looking past me most of the time. I didn’t tell him we had lost the house by the bass pond or that we were living in a rundown funeral home.
He kind of snickered when I mentioned that she had a new job. I felt heated because of it. When it was time for me to go back to my class, he slid two quarters across the tabletop to me. It was his change left over from lunch. The meal cost school workers $1.50.
“Get yourself a haircut.”
That’s all he said. I pocketed the coins.
I wanted that money to buy candy. I had a terrible sweet tooth back then. That’s just what I did. It was still hot for September and the chocolate melted on my tongue, but then turned sour in my stomach. I leaned against the building and barfed the chocolate up. I bawled my eyes out with snot and thin chocolaty streams of vomit running down my chin. I felt sick because I took those two coins from the man who had ruined us, from the man who broke my mother's heart.
My mom never found out about my taking the money, and I doubt she would have cared even if she had known. She would have probably made a joke about them being wooden nickels.
I almost told her once, about using the coins to buy candy that made me sick, but I never did. She’s dead now. She died shortly after my daughter was born. But something did happen to me the night I took the coins. I stopped being afraid of what was on the other side of the cellar door. It just didn’t scare me anymore.