There were times when I truly hated Mama. Times when, if she’d fallen over and died right there in front of me, I wouldn’t have felt a thing except maybe relief. Times when I wished I’d had the balls to stand up to her, to hurt her in the same way she seemed to enjoy hurting me. A particular instance comes to mind: she had me down on the floor in a corner of our tiny living room. She was kicking me. “Get off the floor, damn you!” she screamed, grunting from the strain of pounding her stubby bare feet into my ribs, like wooden mallets, angrier now simply because she didn’t seem able do any real damage. I stayed on the floor, hugging my knees, curled up like a potato bug. If I’d been stupid enough to stand up, she’d have gone back to slapping me in the face again (which is how this episode began), and I preferred being kicked to being slapped any day. Do what you want to the rest of my body, I figured, just don’t touch my face. At the moment I was hoping for neither, hoping she’d just get tired and go away, leave me the fuck alone.
I know: it was a lot to go through for something so ridiculous, so small. Mama had been in her bedroom putting on her makeup, getting ready to go out for the night. I’d just got comfortable lying on the couch in the living room watching The Beverly Hillbillies. My sister Karen was spending the weekend with one of her insipid friends over in Point Loma, and I was looking forward to having the house more or less to myself. “I want the dishes washed and the trash emptied,” Mama called to me. That’s the way she’d said it: no please, no would you mind? Just orders. When I didn’t answer, she called out again. That’s when I made my big mistake: yelling back at her that I wasn’t doing anything until she said ‘please’. I figured it was no big deal. Mama had been demanding the same thing from Karen and me for as long as I could remember. “Please?!” she said, in that voice. “Please?!” A moment later she blew out of the bedroom like a hot wind and belted me across the mouth with the back of her hand, hard. “I’m your mother, for crissake,” she spat at me. “You just do as you’re told, and keep your goddamn mouth shut, or I’ll slap you so hard it’ll make your head swim.” I hated how she always said, so hard it’ll make your head swim. She said that a lot.
I lay there on the couch, staring at her. I could feel my bottom lip quivering, and that sort of “fog” billowing up around me that always seemed to appear when I knew I was going to get hurt real bad. “Not until you say ‘please’,” I said through my teeth. It was someone else’s voice; I couldn’t hear myself in it at all.
Mama raised up her hand to belt me again, like a pitcher winding up to throw a fastball. Instinctively, I raised my arm—my hand clenched into a fist—to block her. I think it surprised us both. Truth is, it had never occurred to me to hit my mother, no matter what she’d been doing to me. God knows I’d often wished afterwards that I had. I can’t explain it; it just wasn’t an option, ever, in spite of the hatred I might have felt toward her. But at the moment she didn’t seem to know that. She jerked herself back, a flash of fear crossing her face. It lasted maybe a half-second, just until I lowered my arm and she saw I wasn’t going to actually take a swing at her. Her face turned red so fast it looked as if someone had switched on a lamp inside her head. She hit me again with all the strength she could muster. The blow was quick and hard. She actually knocked me off the couch. I fought to keep from crying— I hated it whenever she made me cry—but it wasn’t any use. I started wailing like she’d poured a skillet-full of hot grease on me. “Don’t you EVER raise your fist to me!” she’d screamed.
Ten minutes later, she was still going for me, stronger than ever, like I’d pulled the plug on some craziness in her. Finally, I couldn’t take it any more. I got up off the floor—she slapped me then, as I knew she would—and fought my way through her flailing hands, out the front door and into the night air where I could breathe. She stood at the doorway and was still screaming at me when I reached the sidewalk, something about not troubling myself to come home tonight, the door would be locked. “That’s fine with me!” I yelled back at her, still sobbing. She slammed the door shut and locked it. I’d have told her to go fuck herself, if I didn’t know I’d have even more hell to pay later.
It took me a while to stop my crying. Walking at night helped. The cool offshore breeze was heavy with the salt-smell of the ocean mixed with night-blooming jasmine. I took in huge lungfuls of the air, and my spirits lifted.
I didn’t have to think long about where to go. The city had built a new cement fishing pier at the west end of downtown Ocean Beach, which had opened just today. Governor Brown and Mayor Curran were supposed to have been there earlier today for the dedication, and they were having a beach party tonight to celebrate. Maybe I’d find someone there I knew from school. I strolled along West Point Loma Boulevard, then south along Abbott Street, toward downtown OB.
I was getting hungry. It occurred to me I’d just managed to fight my way out of having dinner at home. Not that it mattered much: Mama rarely cooked anything worth a damn this close to when she was supposed to get her welfare check, when the larder, so to speak, was nearly empty. I was pretty much guaranteed a dinner of boiled potatoes and canned peas. I decided instead to pay a quick visit to the Abbot Street Market. Luckily, the clerk was away from the front counter, stocking, I guessed. I grabbed a couple of boysenberry fruit pies and a carton of chocolate milk and walked out. I was in and out so fast he probably never knew anyone had been there. Then I ducked around to the alley in back of the store and found a dark corner where I could eat. It was so good I almost couldn’t eat it fast enough. Sometimes there just isn’t anything better-tasting than fruit pies and chocolate milk you’ve just stolen.
I could hear the pier party going on all the way from the market, which was more than a quarter mile away. When I reached the sand at South Beach, it was packed with yelling, bouncing people. The place roared. A rock band was situated on a wood stage underneath the new pier, blasting out Beatles songs. A man’s voice was yelling things I couldn’t make out from a loudspeaker. It was impossible to see, to recognize anybody in the dancing crowd. I pushed through the jerking bodies toward the pier, in back of the bandstand, where I thought there might be some room.
When I finally got there, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” was blaring so loudly I had to hold my hands over my ears, and the base guitar and drums made my stomach rumble in time to the beat. But I could see better. I found a place to sit on the concrete stairs leading from the sand up to the pier, where I wasn’t being shoved around. From where I sat, the crowd looked like a roiling ocean of suntanned faces that stretched back along the beach as far as I could see, almost up to North Beach. There must have been thousands of them, screaming, waving, dancing.
That’s when I first noticed the girl—or her legs, at least—standing at the bottom of the stairs below of me. One leg had a bruise on it, a dark blue mark the size of a silver dollar.
The girl must have seen me looking at her, because I caught her peeking up at me every so often, making her lips into a tight sort of smile, and then looking away again. Now I couldn’t not look at her, though I couldn’t say why this was so. She didn’t look much different from any other girl, and maybe not as good as most. Dull brown hair; skin white enough that she probably hadn’t been out in the sun for months; and she was a little big around her butt and stomach, like she was still baby-fat. She was holding a beat-up orange and blue bath towel around her shoulders. Even her eyes were nothing special, just a dull milk chocolate. But there was something else. Maybe it was the way she was using her eyes, getting bolder the more she looked at me, settling on me longer and longer each time she looked—and somehow making my stomach bounce and flutter. A tickling sensation like electricity flowed through my groin.
We stared at each other for awhile. Then, trying to be suave, I turned to look behind me, as though I was checking to make sure there wasn’t someone else she might be looking at. I turned back toward her. My face felt suddenly hot.
“There’s no one there,” I said. The words surprised me, coming from my mouth. I normally didn’t have the courage to talk to a girl I was drawn to but didn’t yet know. Most of my relationships with girls rarely got beyond staring at them over a long distance.
The girl blinked, and looked at my mouth as if trying to see what I’d said. “What?” Her voice was almost a whisper against the band, moving now into the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”.
“I SAID,” I yelled to her, “THERE’S NO ONE BACK THERE!”
She smiled at this, straight white teeth behind dark pink lips I hadn’t really noticed before. “I know that, silly!” she said, her voice barely audible.
Her towel slipped from her shoulders, and I realized why she’d had it there in the first place: the two pieces of her bathing suit didn’t match—in fact, their colors, a purple top and yellowish-green bottom, clashed pretty badly—and the bottom was pinned at her side with a rusty safety pin. She saw me looking at her suit, and the smile just sort of slid from her face. She shook sand from the towel and threw it back over her shoulders again and looked straight ahead toward the band. A new redness grew in her cheeks. I thought she might get up and leave, and I felt my heart begin racing. She didn’t move.
I stood up and moved down the stairs next to her. She glanced at me, then looked away. I told her my name. I asked her what hers was.
Her face softened a little. “Penny,” she said quietly. “It’s short for Penelope.”
I kept my eyes on her face; I promised myself I wouldn’t even think of looking at her suit again. I kept my mouth shut until she finally turned to look at me, until her eyes landed on mine and stayed there.
“Penelope,” I said, forcing my mouth into a smile. “I like it. It’s pretty.” Her expression didn’t change. I wanted her smile back. Maybe, I thought, if I tried harder. “I mean—what I mean is—“ I stumbled, “you’re pretty.” My heart pounded like a fist beating on my chest from the inside out. I wanted to get up and run away just so I could breathe again. I kept my eyes on her face. I wasn’t lying to her, really. There was something pretty about her, even if I couldn’t say just then what it was.
The rest of the night zipped by. We left the pier while the band took a break, and walked up and down the beach, talking. We hardly noticed the hordes of people milling about in the sand right next to us. Finally Penny started looking nervous, and asked me if I knew what time it was. I didn’t, but somebody walking by told us it was after ten-thirty, and her face turned suddenly dark. “I have to go,” she said. “My mom—she starts getting worried if I’m out too late.”
“Can I walk you home?” I asked.
She smiled, but there was something not quite happy about it. “No,” she said. “That’s really not a good idea. My Mom’s a little weird about boys and me. She doesn’t want me dating until I’m sixteen.” She’d already told me she was thirteen, and I recalled something troubled in her eyes when I’d first asked her.
“Not even just a little way?” I was trying hard not to sound like I was whining.
Penny shook her head and pointed toward a phone booth over by the lifeguard station. “I have to call her to come pick me up, and I can’t have anybody with me—at least, not a boy—when she gets here.”
She made me promise to stay put until she’d gone, then told me she’d see me at that same spot the next day at one o’clock. She walked across the sand to the phone booth. I watched her, and cursed myself for not having the balls to at least try to kiss her. She made her call, and then stood waiting alongside the lifeguard station. Once in awhile she looked toward me and waved, and my heart leapt. Finally, an old Buick pulled up to the curb and Penny got in, pausing for a brief second to look furtively in my direction. She pulled the door shut and the Buick chugged down Abbott Street and disappeared.
I was lucky that night: when I got back to the house, Mama hadn’t locked the door and wasn’t yet back from her nightly trolling. I washed up and went right to bed. Of course, I couldn’t sleep, for the music and Penny’s face floating in my head. At one a.m., Mama finally came in with someone whose deep voice I could barely make out. Mama chattered and giggled, and they went to her bedroom, and for the next hour and a half I had to listen to their pounding and Mama’s sickening noises through the wall. I wondered if I ought to have stayed out after all. Eventually they stopped, and I slept.
The next morning, I was up and out of the house by ten. My ribs were still sore from the beating I’d got from mama the night before, enough that I had to take a couple of aspirin before I left. Mama’s room buzzed with snoring in two different keys; apparently her latest fuck hadn’t left yet. I was tempted for a half-second to bang on her door for some change—I could get a Hostess pie for twenty cents—but then it occurred to me I’d have to look at her and the guy—at them—together. Fuck it, I thought. I could swipe one from the store down on Abbott Street again, and I had a few cents change of my own for a carton of chocolate milk.
Newport Avenue was already pretty busy; most of the shops opened at nine, and it was already near eleven. I made my way down to Dersch’s Jewelers which was at the corner of Cable and Newport, next to the Save-All drugstore. The doorbells tinkled as I walked in the door, and Mr. Dersch, whose daughter I had known back at OB Elementary, glanced up at me briefly. He had a black felt pad on the counter where he was showing a couple of women some gold chains. “Be with you in a moment,” he said. He turned his attention back to the women. Already I could tell this was going to be easy. A minute later and I’d pulled a green and gold St. Christopher medallion from its display on the counter at the far end of the shop and slipped it into my pocket.
True to her word, Penny showed up in front of the lifeguard station at one o’clock, and when I first caught sight of her getting out of her mom’s beat-up car, I saw she was still wearing that bathing suit, and it looked even worse in the daylight. But her hair looked clean and she had it pulled back into a pony tail that really did make her look pretty. And her easy smile when I stood in front of her was so good that, after awhile, I didn’t even notice her clothes, what sort of car her mom drove, wouldn’t have cared if she’d lived in a house that was even shittier than mine. We sat together on her bath towel in the hot sand, and she held my hand. I asked her to go steady with me. She looked at me nervously for a few seconds, and then said yes. Her eyes shone. I felt dizzy. I took my new St. Christopher out of my bathing suit pocket and put it around her neck. Then I gathered up all the courage I had in me and kissed her lips. She held the medal close to her chest for the rest of the afternoon, as if she were afraid it would fall from her neck. I couldn’t remember being happier. Ever.
But it was the same old story when I got home that evening: I couldn’t find anything to eat, and Mama was in the bathroom, getting ready to go out again. She seemed to have forgotten our fight from the night before, and I wasn’t about to bring it up. I fished around in the kitchen cupboards, and finally scrounged together a little peanut butter and some crackers. “Where are you going tonight?” I called through the bathroom door. I could smell the vinegar of her douche leaking around the edge of the door—it slapped me in the face like an open hand.
“None of your business,” she said, opening the door then stepping back to the mirror. The smell and the steam were too much: I went back to my peanut butter and crackers. I heard sprays spraying, makeup cases opening and snapping closed again. “By the way,” Mama said. “I talked to Elsie today. She told me she saw you down at the beach, and you were with some girl.”
“Yeah?” I said, my mouth full. “So?”
“So? I’m your mother, for crissake. I have a right to know what’s going on with my son.” She paused, waiting. “So who is she?”
I chewed on a cracker for a second or two. “Her name’s Penny,” I said finally.
“Penny?” Mama came out of the bathroom and took a glass from the kitchen cupboard and filled it with water at the sink. She dropped a small yellow pill onto her tongue and gulped it down with the water, then put the empty glass with the other dirty dishes in the sink. “Penny. What’s her last name?”
Mama’s face went a little sour, but I couldn’t tell if it was from the pill or from what I’d told her. “Martin? Where does she live?”
“Over by the community center. On Santa Monica. Why?”
Mama didn’t get the chance to answer: there was a hard knock at the front door, and when Mama went into the living room and opened it, there stood Penny, with an older woman whose tanned skin looked like over-baked bread crust. Mama looked genuinely shocked. “Oh, my God,” she said, laughing, “what a weird coincidence. We were just talking about you, Dee.”
“Barbara,” the woman said dully.
Oh, fuck! I thought. She knows Mama! A wave of nausea flowed suddenly into my stomach.
The woman looked past Mama, to me. “Is that him?” she asked. She turned to see Penny lower her head and nod. I could tell by looking at them both something was wrong.
“What’s going on?” Mama said to the woman, confused. “What’s happened?” Then she looked back at me with that sour look of hers. “What’d you do?”
“I didn’t do anything!” I said.
“He hasn’t done anything, Barbara,” said Dee. “Not yet, anyway,” She was still staring at me, hard. “Pen,” she said, “why don’t you and him go outside for awhile? I want to talk to his mother alone.”
Mama, still looking confused, swung the door open further, and I walked out, past Dee, and followed Penny behind the apartment out to the alley. She turned and looked at me, and I could see she’d been crying and there were probably more tears on the way. We stood looking at each other, and listened through the living room screen while the two women talked.
“I don’t know how this thing got started, Barbara, but I want it stopped. Now.”
Mama seemed to be thinking about this. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said finally. “What ‘thing’?”
“This—thing—that’s going on between your son and my daughter.”
“Oh,” said Mama. “I see. That thing.” She paused. “And do I get to know why I’m supposed to put a stop to this thing, as you put it?”
“Just this,” said Dee. “I won’t have my daughter hanging around, going steady, or whatever, with the son of a whore.” She said the word easily, as if she were reciting an item from a grocery list: bread; milk; kitty litter; whore.
There was a long silence. I imagined the two of them standing there, glaring at each other.
“Me?” I heard Mama say finally. “You’re calling me a whore?”
And then they were yelling.
I couldn’t hear the rest; it was like a fog had just rolled in like a misty wave around Penny and me, until I could hardly see or hear anything but her. “God, I’m so sorry, Billy,” she said, her voice sounding far away. “I’m so sorry. I told you, she’s weird about boys—!” She started moving away, sliding into the gathering dark, the fog. I reached for her hand but she kept pulling it away. Her lips stretched into a tight, sad smile. “Billy,” she said tiredly, “it’s no good. I have to go. Stay away. Before they’re finished. Can’t you understand?”
Just mentioning them brought their voices back to me and I clapped my hands over my ears to shut them out. But what I heard wasn’t so much a sound anymore as it was an idea, and there was no shutting that out.
“No,” I said to Penny. “Please, don’t.” I could feel tears gathering behind my eyes, stinging.
Penny let out with a quiet whine, as if she was near sobbing. She sighed heavily, then reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out my St. Christopher medallion. She pressed it into my hand. I let it fall to the concrete. She smiled. Tears spilled over onto her cheeks. Then she turned and walked away without looking back, disappearing into the fog that I hadn’t thought was real.
I don’t remember how long I stood there, alone in the dark alley, staring into the ever-thickening fog, listening to the braying shrieks of two worn-out whores: voices I knew I’d be hearing for the rest of my life.