by Reyna Cornell. also published in The Chaffey Review.
The Biggest Lie I Ever Told
He always comes barging in while we are sleeping. I can hear him banging on the light blue thickly-painted door with a black letter “A” marking our apartment unit. “Nancy!” is the only thing I can understand him yell. I pretend that I don’t hear anything, and I hope that a train will go by and whistle and rattle the single-paned windows so that it will muffle the sounds of the pounds and screams at the door. My mom will eventually open it for him though, she always does. The thick paint always sticks to the door frame, which makes a crack and an unsticking sound loud enough for anyone to hear from upstairs. When she lets him in, he stumbles and stammers into the living room. He’s drunk, which I know to be pretty normal for him. I can tell that he’s drunk because I hear him call her names and the sound of a thud as he hits the floor. I can count on one hand for the number of times that I can remember him sober. There was also a period of time where I even called him “dad” because that’s what my youngest brother Sean did. That was before my mom started seeing Albert without him knowing.
Albert is always nice to us, my brothers and I, and he never drinks. He tells us jokes that always make us laugh and stories about his dad. On the weekends we go to Tri-City Park to ride our bikes and feed the ducks at the pond.
Albert picks us up in his new Ford Explorer. The floor is lined with the plastic that you normally see under computer chairs that sit at desks; it has little spikes underneath to grab the fabric on the floor. I sit behind the passenger seat, behind my mom, and my brother is sitting on the other side behind Albert. “You’re going to break it!” He snaps. I have a bad habit of clicking the button for the window to match the clicking sound of the turn signal.
“Sorry,” I say and then do it again a few minutes later. I thought I could be sneaky enough to mask the clicking with the blinker, but it never works.
“Are you guys going to feed the ducks today?” He asks. He always has a way of making everything sound funny, and would even throw in a Donald Duck quaking sound.
“Yep!” I say, holding up the plastic bag of moldy green and white bread that we had saved just for this occasion.
At the park there’s a big grassy hill that leads up to where the pond is. We find a spot to sit on the hill, underneath a tree for shade and lay out the blanket we brought.
“Are you ready?” He asks us, balling his fist and swinging his arm out, then in towards his chest. He looks just as excited as we are. He always has a smile on his face that makes his brown eyes and dark skin wrinkle on the sides; he loves being outdoors. His job is to maintain parks, cut the grass, trim the trees and the bushes, clean up any trash, along with fixing anything that is broken. He’s the only person that I’ve ever known to love his job as much as he does.
We walk up to the pond and he grabs the bag of moldy bread, splitting it evenly amongst the four of us. Three of his fingers on his right hand, from his pinky to his middle finger, are stubby. He told us that a long time ago he was mowing the lawn at his parent’s house when something got stuck and the mower shut off. He went to reach underneath to release the object that had clogged the blades, when the lawn mower suddenly turned back on, cutting off the tips of his fingers. I always think of him growing up to conquer that lawn mower, since he mows the grass at parks now.
“Ohh, Did you see that one?!” He exclaims. He is talking about a mallard duck that flew over the rest of them to grab the piece of bread that he threw into the water. His laugh is contagious, it starts off with a loud gasp of air as if he had been swimming underwater, then continues on with a chuckle.
On our way back to the apartment, my mom tells Sean and me not to say anything. “You didn’t see Albert, okay?”
“Why?” I ask, I always had to know why things were said and done, and I was known in my family as “the smart-ass” for my incessant questions.
“Because I said so” is all she said, and it was all I needed to hear.
When we get back to our apartment, I head straight upstairs to my bedroom. The apartment is old with ugly dark brown carpet that has black gum sticky spots scattered about. The walls have a yellow tinge to them as a result of my mom smoking in the house. Along with that, the whole apartment smells of cigarette ash and there are little remnants of perfectly cylindrical-shaped ashes on some of the counters and table tops. Our furniture is old and ripped on the seats and arms. I think it used to be threaded off-white with green and magenta threads creating Aztec-like patterns, but the green and magenta are faded and the off-white is now more of a stained dirty brown color. Halfway up the stairs, after rounding the corner before the kitchen, there is a square hole that’s barred off by white railing. You can see the living room from there; my brother and I would often sneak down and see what movies or TV shows that my mom was watching, only to be yelled at to go back to bed.
My room is a mess. Well, my brother sleeps in here too, but it’s my room, and it has always been a mess. I can never walk through my room without stepping on toys or clothes. Mom always told me to clean my room or else she would throw everything away. I never believed her, until one time she actually did throw our toys away. It was right after Christmas and most of our toys were brand-new. They were scattered about the apartment when my mom stubbed her toe on one of them. When that happened, she had had it. All of our brand-new toys went straight into the dumpster. That means no more catching rainbow-colored butterflies blown into the air by a blue plastic elephant called Elefun.
From my room I can hear Phillip drunkenly yelling at someone. I peek out from my room to see him, yelling questions at my brother that I don’t quite catch. He sees me.
“Come here.” He says with the curl of his finger, like a moth’s tongue unrolling towards the insides of an innocent flower, staring into it with its black eyes.
My mind bursts at the thought of me having done something wrong, but I can’t think of a single thing. I walk over slowly, dragging my feet and staring down at the ugly brown carpet. He’s standing where the white railing ends at the top of the stairs, I’m still thinking of anything that I could have possibly done. He grabs me by the shoulders and swings my back towards the stairs.
“Did you see Albert?!” He screams in my face, his breath reeks of that glass bottle with the clear liquid in it, the one with the mesmerizing gold flakes, and it makes my nostrils burn. I stare into his darting black eyes. Out of the corner of my eye I see my mom, leaning on the doorway to her bedroom, I look at her. I wonder for a moment why she’s not stopping him, why she is just standing there. She isn’t shaking her head to tell me to say “no,” but her eyes are begging me to lie.
“Answer me!” he shakes me by the shoulders and tears pour out of my eyes, my feet inches from the top step.
“No.” I finally say, remembering that she didn’t want us to tell him, and I was desperately afraid of getting in trouble.
“Did you see him?!” he shouts again.
“No!” I repeat, yelling, with a sniffle.
I can’t tell if he knows that I’m lying, but he lets me go and turns towards my mom and starts yelling at her. I don’t know what he says to her but they both turn and go into the bedroom, he slams the door behind them. I run back into my room and close the door, my tears and sniffles turn into bawling to a point where I can’t control my breathing. It sounds like a panic cry, and every second I breathe, I breathe in a sharp breath like a hiccup. I lay my head in my pillow and cry myself to sleep.
Lying to Get By
We just moved out of the old apartment into a new house. It is a pretty big house, where I have my own bedroom. This house is so great that we even got to see it being built up from a dirt lot, into a wooden frame, and then finally into a house with the light blue carpeting and tan ceramic tile personally selected by my mom. She says Phillip is the cosigner, whatever that means.
We have been living here for a couple years now and mom broke up with Philip. Even though, he still keeps coming by, banging on the front door and insisting that the house we live in is his. My mom isn’t happy with him and I think that we might be moving out soon to go live with my grandma.
My mom, my brother and I are moving back into the big house and Phillip is actually living with us this time. I don’t see much of him though, unless he’s not drinking, and when he is sober, he’s funny. He plays his guitar and sings songs like “La Bamba” and songs for my mom that he wrote himself and he taught my brothers Alec and Sean how to throw a football in the backyard. When he is drinking, he’s glued to the bed in the master bedroom, with the only signs of life being the comforters, sheets, and towels my mom would take into the laundry room covered in vomit.
My mom isn’t very tall and she looks even shorter than she is because she hunches over at her shoulders. She refuses to stand up straight, saying that her mom used to poke her in the back with a comb when she didn’t sit up when her mom did her hair. She has bright blue eyes and thin blonde hair. Whenever I go to the store with her, people say that I look just like her, but I don’t see it. I have hazel eyes, brown hair and I’m taller than her. I imagined that I look more like my dad, but I don’t know what he looks like. I don’t even know why I don’t know him. When people ask me about him, I normally just say that I don’t have a dad.
Going through the garage I find a briefcase, a small chest, and a sword that all belonged to my dad. I open the chest and within it are many little gold trinkets; medals, pins, dog tags, and a red nametag with white engraved letters that read “Cornell.” Some of the pins and medals are multicolored and striped; others are like points of arrows or in the shape of crossed rifles that read “sharp shooter.” The inside of the lid is brown velvet with the marine’s logo in gold. The briefcase is full of papers; a Valentine’s Day card from my mom, a little journal, letters, a blue ballpoint pen, cassette tapes, a photo ID of “Barry Michael Cornell,” and a used navy blue Bic razor. The sword has a white handle and a silver blade with different designs and patterns. I keep all of my findings hidden in my room, afraid that my mom will find them and get mad at me since she never talks about him.
“Do I have a dad?” I ask one night, knowing that of course I do.
“Yes.” She replies. We are laying on her bed in her room. It’s raining and the thunderstorm is loud and scary. I would rather not sleep in my room downstairs by myself.
“What’s his name?” I ask, I don’t want her to know I knew anything about him.
“Barry.” She answers, with her arm over her face. “And quit moving, or else you’re sleeping on the floor.” She’s trying to sleep and I keep flipping from my side to my back.
“Where is he?” I question, and focus on lying perfectly still.
“He’s in prison.” She says, with a hint of sadness in the tone of her voice. I had no idea that he was in prison. After finding his things, I thought that he might have died or left us. I wonder what it was that he did.
“He did bad things.”
“What bad things?” I ask, and I could tell that my incessant questions are starting to bug her, but I want to know everything.
“He molested your sister and her friends.”
“What does that mean?”
“He was bad and touched them.”
“Oh.” I say. Suddenly everything makes sense.
“Is that why Summer and Robert live with their grandma?” My older brother Robert and my sister Summer live with their grandma in Illinois, but I don’t know much else about them.
“Yes, they were taken away from me.”
“Is he getting out? Of prison?”
“I don’t know if he’s even still alive.”
“Because when people go to prison for hurting kids, they get beat up or even killed.”
I stopped asking anymore questions. I don’t want to know anymore. I am happy that I finally know something about him, but I am ashamed of what he did when I was merely a two month old. I silently cry myself to sleep; hoping that I won’t move and wake her.
There has been many times that I have woken up late for the bus, when this has happened, my mom would have to take us. Before we left the house she would write two letters for our teachers, one for me and one for my brother, explaining why we were late. The letters always began with “To whom it may concern, Please excuse Reyna for being late, etc.” And would go on with whatever made up excuse she could think of. I remember one time, while still living in the apartment, we purposely left my backpack at home; the note stated that our car had broken down and was in the shop with my backpack trapped inside.
The lies really never ceased. Instead they became a normal part of my life. I lied to my teachers about why my homework was never finished on time and why I was late, I lied to the school nurses saying that I didn’t feel well, but I just didn’t want to be there; I lied to my friends about my dad being in prison, and I lied to Philip about Albert any time he asked, always hoping that my mom would be done with him and leave him.
She eventually did break up with him again, but that time we were still able to live in the house, even though I knew he would still came by every now and again. For a while it was just us three, my mom, my brother, and me. I really didn’t see my mom much though. She has been working longer hours to be able to pay for the house. Our dinners frequently consisted of either crackers, salami and cheese or the already made Costco oven pasta-dinners that I would have to heat up for my brother and me.
Over the summer, my mom decided that she wanted to fix up the dirt backyard. She planned on putting in grass, a cement patio, and different kinds of fruit trees. When the men came and finished up the cement, I saw someone I recognized laying out the grass; it was Albert. I haven’t seen him in a while and it was nice to see someone that wasn’t drunk all the time. A few days later he dug holes for the trees. I was asking him what kind of trees they were when I hear someone open the sliding glass door to the backyard.
“What is he doing here?” he asked my mom. I turned to see that it’s Phillip asking why Albert, his brother, is in the backyard.
“He’s helping with the backyard, that’s it.” My mom insisted. I hated it when adults argued, so I decided to go hide in my room.
The next thing I knew, we were packing up our house again, but that time we moved into Albert’s house. After a year or so, my mom and Albert got married. For a while, it was nice having someone else in the house, someone else there that took care of us and told us stories. And everything was perfectly fine for a few years, until they got a divorce. My mom kept sneaking off to Phillip’s house, and Albert caught her, numerous times.
When Albert taught me how to drive, he would always point out and name different trees and plants, but every time we were in the car, he would ask me the same question:
“Do you know what kind of tree that is?”
“Jackoranda.” Without even looking I replied, and I was always right. Jackoranda trees are the big trees with the lilac purple flowers.
“They’re beautiful trees, but they’re a bitch to clean up.” He laughed, and I smiled.
I sometimes like to think of my mom as that tree; she’s a wonderful, beautiful person but her life is messy.