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Happiness

by Jessica Hahn

 
  Fall 2013 Fiction, Memoir & Poetry Anthology  |  Contents  |  Authors  |  echapbook.com

 

1.

“I got a job at the Daily Scoop,” I say to Mom, who’s busy mixing Stoli and lemonade at the kitchen counter. Her face is tight. She’s going to Pleasanton Correctional Facility in a month or so, but I’m all about my job. I’m fourteen and the idea of working is a ray of happiness. I’m hovering on the edge of a rite of passage. Mom is going to jail. I’m moving to Uncle Phil’s. Natalie’s back from college to—hah—keep an eye on me. The future is nebulous as all fuck, but hey, I’m gonna be paid. I pour myself a lemonade.

Mom sits at the round table next to the French doors to the porch. The old chair with the scrape marks on the floor is her throne, and she sits and looks at the wall of windows, down at the valley San Francisco appears to be. I sit across, sipping on juice. For years she sat ringed by long-haired friends as they chopped up coke on mirrored plates, passed joints knobby as old man’s fingers, and yammered their stories long into the night while I brooded downstairs in fleece pajamas, wondering when they’d go home.

Ever since I could remember she worked. She didn’t believe in “work” per se, not in a traditional sense. “Work is for peons,” she once said when I was a little kid, giving me an aristocratic smirk as she chomped on a Benson and Hedges and swung her leather purse over her shoulder, grabbed her hairbrush and pulled it through her big blonde Janis Joplin hair. “Come on kid, let’s go.”

And I’d be dancing, just about. I was home for the day, for whatever reason, and lucky me got to follow her to her work.

 Her Sixties-era candy apple colored convertible Mustang guttered out of our driveway on the steepest hill in San Francisco, roared up Carolina to Coral, slalomed past the Potrero Hill housing projects, and cruised like a blazing fire into Hunter’s Point.

I leaned in, no seatbelt on, country music twanging on the radio. Wind whipped my long brown hair. Mom’s eyes met mine in the rearview mirror. “Don’t ever tell people about my work. Capiche?”

“I know, I know. You sell wood. Raven Industries, blah blah.”

I lay back on the black leather seat, hot as tortillas and smelling just as good, top down with the sun warm on my face.

Mom parked across the street from the warehouse on Evans Street, never in front. She was a dungareed figure, no bra under her Guatemalan shirt, her hair frizzy from the car ride, flip-flops slapping, purse swinging.

You could smell skunk from the sidewalk. We’d slip inside our warehouse, the cool air, dark space, and high ceiling like an urban cathedral. Even with piles of lumber there was all the space I’d ever want for roller-skating, spinning in circles, or pedaling a Big Wheel.

Way in the back was a room built of plywood. Under the doorframe and along the edges a golden glow emanated, like something nuclear pulsed inside. Faint strains of violin, flute and clarinet came from the vault. Mom opened the padlocks, revealing a glittering room with silver walls of Mylar, ceiling lights hanging like enormous fireflies, and a forest of bright green plants towering five feet tall out of black plastic pots. “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” played on the radio hanging on the wall. The humid air smelled thick and rich, warm and earthy, comfortable.

“Okay kiddo, you know the drill,” Mom said and hung her purse on a hook.

She was off with a hose, watering and humming to herself. Sometimes I’d put my book down—I always brought a book—and walk the aisles on the uneven floor, my fingers brushing the sticky leaves that hung like five-fingered paper-thin hands. My reflection was a funhouse face on silver walls.

On the ride home I asked, “Why can’t I say what you really do for work?”

We parked under our grape vines and our golden retriever barked behind our fence. Mom slammed her door. “Because if you tell people what I do,” she paused to fix me with her gaze, “the cops will take me away. You want me to go to jail?”

And for many years it was just so. She worked, and come summer we’d travel: Samoa and Micronesia, Madagascar and the Seychelles.

end of story

2.

I work at the Daily Scoop during my tenth grade year, before Mom goes off to Pleasanton, and while she’s there I make lattes with golden espresso and perfect foam cushions. I spread cream cheese on bagels, slice red onions thin as a sheet of Zig-Zags, scoop ice cream. Dylan is my favorite co-worker. He’s purple haired, wears tight black jeans and a pentagram pendant. I have a crush on him, but he’s gay. He’s the first friend who lives alone, in a beehive of an apartment complex off of Ocean Avenue, and I envy him. We believe in witchcraft. “Do what you will, but harm none,” is our motto. “What we do is secret,” we believe. We attempt astral projection and guided meditations. He tells me about his many past lives, and that he was once a pharaoh, and that he remembers being hung at Salem. He also regales me with the tale of how he jerked off on his bed while a workman watched from the telephone lines outside his window.

I’ve been living with Uncle Phil ever since Mom went to jail. He owns a bird store, woop de doo. He hates it. He plays the role of the quasi gay bird store owner, walking like a pigeon and prattling to the public about the difference between cockatoos and cockatiels. Standing on the concrete floor gives him sciatica, and then he’s a grumpy asshole when he gets home.

My room’s in the attic. Nobody enters but me. My room is my safe haven, a sacred place that smells of burnt sage and mugwort. I lie on my bed and meditate, feel myself rise. I soar out of the room and over the city with its glittering lights, fly across the bay, flying east under the moon or the sun, tethered by a glowing filament of floss unraveling from my solar plexus, a tenuous spider web between reality and dream.  

 The ice cream parlor is also a haven. The one time I run away because Uncle Phil dragged me by my leg from my attic room for not fucking doing some dishes. I run across Potrero Hill to the Daily Scoop and hide out in the bathroom until Dylan’s shift is over. He’ll take me home. We wait for the 22 Fillmore, but at the same time it lurches into view, my mother’s convertible roars up. My big sister, a furious Amazon without a clue as to what’s going on in my life, is driving. She slams the door so hard it’d snap your hand off. Her eyes are popping out her head. She screams at Dylan: “I’ ll fucking beat your ass if you fucking kidnap my little sister!”

Dylan throws up his palms. “But—but—”

“I’ll smash your fucking face in!”

Dylan flees onto the bus.

end of story

3.

“Whacha gonna do with all your moolah?” Mom asks me, sitting the required arms-distance away, the table between us. Uncle Phil sits at another corner, legs and arms crossed, eyebrows raised. We’re in a courtyard, sky overhead and grey buildings all around. Guards with guns lurk in corners.

Since Mom’s incarceration, I’ve changed. I know what it’s like, finally, to get drunk and stoned. I’ve been to my first punk show; the anger and simplicity of the music has an allure that Mozart can’t trump. My hair’s dyed a Crayola color, and my Army jacket is decorated in safety pins and patches. Mom’s changed too, lost weight and verve. Her complacency disarms me. She’s always been mom and dad, one tough broad. Now she’s trying to hold hands though her palms are too sweaty, and I feel better to just fold my arms. I want to leave this shithole.

Birds fly overhead. I’m thinking about a story Mom told me: “I take walks every morning around the track here every day, and sometimes I find these decapitated birds. They fly into the razor wire. They don’t see it. Poor things.”

My uncle looks at his watch. I glare at him. He’s got nothing special to get back to. He hates the bird store.

Money doesn’t mean happiness. Happiness is knowing I’d kept my mouth shut, that I never was a narc. Happiness is getting twenty bucks from Uncle Phil to get out of his house. Happiness is found at the bottom of a Mickey’s forty. Happiness is screaming into a darkened nightclub, jumping into the mosh pit. Happiness is being in control.

“Yo! Kiddo?” Mom says, fingering the hem of her ugly uniform. “Whatcha gonna do with all that moolah?” Behind her a guard shifts and I imagine forks in his eyes.

It’s not enough for a car to get out of town, I think. It’s not enough for what I want, which is to rewind time to when we flew over the hills in her red car and landed in warm earth, some safe cocoon of childhood where work just didn’t matter. I’m ready to go now.

 

end of story

© 2013, Jessica Hahn Go to top