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Felicia C. Sullivan

Night Work


1987 – A week before my twelfth birthday, my mother and I robbed a delicatessen. The morning of the robbery my mother fixed me an elaborate breakfast. When I woke, the house smelled of buttermilk pancakes and brown butter. From my bedroom, I could hear the sounds of frying – the crackling hiss from the skillet pans. I tiptoed into the kitchen. Sugared blueberries, raspberries, and diced bananas spilled out of small glass bowls. Fried sausage links and hot cakes topped with rich maple syrup covered my plate. The abundance of food irked me. We’d been living on thirty-nine cent packets of Oodles and Noodles for two weeks.

This was all suspect.

"What’s all this?" I asked, gesturing to the table teeming with homemade food.

"What does it look like? Breakfast. Eat before it gets cold."

"Where’s my Lucky Charms?"
"In the garbage," she said, whistling. "Cereal was yesterday. Today we have pancakes."

My mother sat down and watched me eat. Between forkfuls, she smoked Kent 100’s down to the filter, and when I was done, she collected the plates and piled them up in the sink.

"Get dressed," she said. "I have your gift."

In my room, double knotting my shoe laces, I wondered what my mother wanted from me.

Five hours later, we left our apartment.

Outside we passed windows displaying narcissus bulbs blooming wildly. A carousel of twinkling lights and large-scale nativity figures decorated lawns. Gutter puddles glimmered with ice that hadn’t completely frozen. The snow was coming down in sheets and I felt the crunch underfoot.

"Where are we going?" I asked.

"Into the city," she replied, curtly. But first we stopped in front of an abandoned house on 39th Street. Vacant warehouses, dilapidated cars with windows bashed in, sidewalks and storefronts covered in graffiti, Sharky was here, glass shards from smashed beer bottles, marked the street. The only sound was a Villabate’s Bakery delivery truck petering its way to the crowded thoroughfare of Thirteenth Avenue. The street appeared blighted, unpopulated and colorless with its grey buildings and dead weeds. We paused in front of one of the two houses on the street. My mother told me to wait outside, that she would only be a minute.

Planks of wood were hammered onto curtained windows. My mother entered through a front door that was missing a knob. I stood in front of the house, shivering and scared, rubbing my hands together. I kept loosing mittens and my mother refused to buy me another pair, telling me, "Suffer, and see how fast you appreciate what you have. A few days in the cold and you’ll never lose another pair again." Sometimes, my mother taunted me, "Can you feel your fingers? Are they numb yet?"

While waiting, I balled my hands up inside my coat. Snow continued to hail.

After an hour, my mother materialized, glassy-eyed, jittery.

"Let’s go," she said, tugging my arm, "we don’t have time."

At the token booth, I asked, "What’s in the city?"

She was cryptic in her response. "Your gift. I’ll tell you on the train."

We boarded the last car of the B train and sat huddled in a two-seater by the conductor’s booth. "We’re going back to the deli," she said.

I started to shake my head. My mother grabbed me by the chin and said, "Listen to me." Her eyes were so black. The car was empty except for two women barking at each other in Cantonese, arranging their red plastic bags about their feet.

"I’m listening," I whispered.

"All you need to do is talk for ten minutes. You can do that, right? I know you can talk. I’ll just be in the office collecting what’s mine…" And then my mother’s voice trailed off. Talking to herself, she seemed foreign, distant. "They told me they were closing down, they were going bankrupt, but they lied to me. Hired someone else. A woman they could get over on. Could fuck with. They think they can win over me, but I’ll show them." My mother spoke bitterly, her face tight. She pounded her thighs with her fists.

"They owe me," she said. "They took my job from me."

I wondered why my mother couldn’t just let it go, why she always had to hold on to her anger so hard.

"We’ll be home before you know it."

As we passed DeKalb Avenue, my mother told me a story about an old friend of hers, Carmen. Puerto Rican and loud, Carmen was the kind of woman that played Christmas songs all year long and was partial to cats. Wept buckets over strays. "Come to think of it, she cried over everything." My mother told me that Carmen frequented card stores and for hours she’d read over the tidy poems in the Get Well and Congratulations! sections. Storks and baby bundles sent her reeling. "Married herself a real bastard. A piece of work, Eddie was. Like Danny," she said.

I nodded.

"Fucked her up so bad one time, she developed this speech impediment."

My mother stuttered on occasion. Only smoking seemed to ease her speech.

"When Eddie died, Carmen was all dry eyes. Woman cried over everything but him. At the funeral, she spit on his grave. My kind of woman."

I clamped my mouth shut.

"You remember what I told you about my grandmother? Called me the black devil. I waited for that bitch to die just so I could spit on her grave, and I did," my mother said, and fell into quiet.

I met my grandmother once, at a diner. She wore her red hair in a bouffant; her eyes were dark green and glinting. Silver bangles lined her arms. She was funny, spoke with her hands – not like us, morose and dark-haired. I played my clarinet for her, belted scales. But when my grandmother leaned in to hug me, my mother shielded me with her arm.

"Don’t even think about it," she said.

"You’ll never forgive me, will you, Rosie?" she sighed.

"Your mother’s dead," my mother said, smiling. "One down, one to go."

My mother told me stories, horrible ones, about her mother locking her in a dark bathroom for days without food. Beatings with belts and wrenches. The multitude of men who played house in their home, took a liking to my mother’s pale skin, her long wavy hair. We got every nationality in our family, all kinds, my mother once quipped. When my mother was six months pregnant, her grandmother kicked her in the stomach and told her, "This is for your own good. Prevent you from bringing another devil into the world."

I was expected to hate my mother’s family just as much as she did. Yet secretly I was desperate for origin.

As we rode into the city, I realized that I couldn’t remember my grandmother’s name. And I felt more frustrated and confused, and wished for once that my mother would stop telling me all these things. Make me feel that I came from somewhere else other than her.

"Keep Muhammad busy for ten minutes, okay?" my mother said. We crossed over to Fifth Avenue. Black ice and slush covered the streets. Everyone rushed; all bundled up, they all had somewhere to go, Christmas shopping in full swing.

"What am I supposed to talk to him about? He doesn’t even know me," I whined.

"Make up something. Tell him about school. For Chrissake, do I have to do all the work here?"

I could tell I was pushing her. She could explode at any minute and she would blame me for ruining her plan, messing up everything.

Inside the deli, the overhead light fixtures were too bright, made the white floors and walls too astringent, medicinal. Ammonia and bleach hung heavy. The floors were still a bit damn from a mopping. Save for the overstocked shelves and cold cuts, the deli resembled a hospital. It suddenly felt wrong to violate this intimate space with our cruel intention – a place on the weekends where my mother and I temporarily played house. Only a few weeks ago, on these shelves gleaming white, I stacked soup cans; I took comfort in aligning these cans just right so their labels faced front, uniform and neat. I stickered boxes of sanitary napkins, pampers, Dixie cups and tubes of aluminum foil. While my mother planned weekly menu specials, I shook bags of Skittles and peanut M&Ms like maracas, pretending I was Carmen Miranda with a fruit hat towering over my head. Evenings, I helped my mother clean the Employees Only bathroom, filling it with freshly cut carnations and air freshener, an endless supply of soft tissue, just like a home should be – not like our house with its dingy, yellow toilets, overflowing garbage cans and mushrooming tiles – but a home I fashioned for myself.

Muhammad regarded my mother with suspicion, but softened in my presence. He laid a hand on my head; his fingers were warm and moist, smelling of stale cigarette smoke and cinnamon. His skin was leathery, marked by deep crevices, lined with age, but his eyes were consoling, glinting.

"Every time I see you, you never grow. You always the same size," he chuckled, fluffy my hair.

"She’s big enough," my mother said, a toothpick logged in her teeth. Advancing towards me, Muhammad stepped back and it felt as if I were being passed between them, an object in which to pet, to coddle. She massaged my shoulder, grinning. "I’ll only be a minute."

My mother came to collect the rest of her things and her final paycheck from the office. As soon as she disappeared, I became chatty. I told my mother’s former manager about my clarinet, Harry Penelope (named after a song in one of the John Holmes movies my mother hoarded, but I thought it best not to tell Muhammad), and how I could finally play the "Star Wars" score in addition to the national anthem. Might I play you a tune? Some scales? On and on I went. I don’t necessarily recall what I prattled on about, I just couldn’t shut up for there was a sense of urgency for my mouth to keep moving, for words to smoke out and cover the goings-on upstairs, and I grew petrified as I kept catching Muhammad eye the office door, silently timing my mother. His brows knitted, his jaw tensed.

"Just a second," he said, walking towards the office.

I felt sick – my hands numbed. I scanned the store searching for diversions. A stack of candy that I could accidentally knock over, display cases I could bump against, anything – but everything was tucked away, in its place, pristine and clean. Standing here, stalling Muhammad, serving as my mother’s accomplice, I realized it was a terrible thing to want to expose her, and at the same time, wanting to revel in a fistful of birthday bills. I opened my mouth but no sound came out.

Suddenly my mother surfaced, holding up a pair of sneakers, speaking in my stead. "I looked everywhere for them. Imagine these getting lost in such a small space. I found them in one of the file drawers," she said, doe-eyed and breathless.

Muhammad took my mother’s hand in his and said, "I’m sorry for how things turned out. Try to understand these things happen."

"Think nothing of it. I got what I came for," my mother said, and beckoned for me, "Come on, Lisa, it’s getting late. We have to go."

And with a wave, we left, and a few blocks down, my mother peeled five twenties from her bag that overflowed with cash, "Happy Birthday," she said. In the middle of the street she danced, swiveled her hips, snapping her fingers to an imaginary beat.

She shoved her head into her black bag and inhaled.

I held the bills in my hand. Back then, a hundred dollars constituted a vast fortune – I was rich! And the fact that we had just robbed a store – the weight of this crime, that my mother could get arrested, I placed in a home – fell to the wayside. All that remained was the money, the great sums of it, and the fact that my mother had won, again.

On Fourteenth Street, boxes – dozens crowded the narrow sidewalks; knock-off designer purses wrapped in wrinkled plastic sat on a crushed display. Foreign logos stamped on pleather. Short men with frayed belts buckled tight, stomachs spilling over their slacks, pointed to the colorful display of perfume bottles. A cigarette crushed between their lips, smoke pluming. And as we made our way to the subway, I peered quickly through all the storefront windows; the crowded, shabby displays of mannequins modeling garish heels, pocketbooks hanging from their arms like pendulums, the torn bean can labels peeking out from bodega windows, the skitter of mice between stores – all of this overwhelmed me. Everything appeared used, lifeless. Not like the deli we had just robbed, scrubbed clean. I brought my hand up to my chest, I couldn’t breathe. It was only when I let go, a few ten dollar bills fluttering away, that I joined my hand with my mother’s.

Felicia C. Sullivan is a New York based writer with an MFA from Columbia University. A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, her work has been published in Swink, Post Road Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, among other publications. Algonquin Books will publish her Memoir—from which "Night Work" is excerpted— in 2006. She is the founder of the literary journal, Small Spiral Notebook, and is also the co-founder of the Non-Fiction series at KGB Bar in NYC.

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