TWICE A WEEK THE WINTER THOROUGH
By Dan Berick
“This is another one of my mother’s great ideas.”
That was all that I could think of as I stood in the gray slush on the sidewalk outside the junior high school, looking at the sullen child standing in front of me.
My mother and her ideas, her charity, her strays.
“Chris honey, I told Marybeth that you wouldn’t mind bringing her little girl over to our place after school for a few hours. Her shift has changed at the hospital and there isn’t anyone at home for her in the afternoons. All you have to do is meet her over at the junior high and bring her here.”
My mother could not resist a stray dog, an extra kitten, a chain letter, a hard-luck story. Which explained the changing assortment of dogs and cats in the tiny yard of the bungalow where I lived with her and her boyfriend, Jerry. And explained Jerry, for that matter.
All I had to do. So there I stood, looking down at the scowling girl, who stood immobile in her grimy blue fiberfill coat and a decrepit old Buffalo Bills ski hat as the other kids streamed by into the late autumn afternoon.
“So you’re him? You’d better not touch me.”
(“Sweet little red-haired girl”, my mom had said.)
“Hey yeah, so…I’m Christopher. You’re Danielle, right?”
“Not Danielle. ‘Dannyelle’, is what my idiot mother named me. ‘Danny-elle.’ Jesus. I hate it.”
She glared at me from under the ridiculous hat. All I could see of her was red hair, enormous blue eyes, a round freckled face, and the shapeless lumpiness of her winter coat, cheap pants, cheap snow boots.
“Don’t ever call me that.”
“Sure, okay. What should I call you?”
That’s what my mother had volunteered me for that winter. I had graduated from high school and was working at the mall, taking creative writing classes at the community college, and telling myself I was going to be a writer. And now I was walking in silence under the leaden November sky, through the dead leaves and dirty snow, with the world’s angriest thirteen year-old girl.
Jerry was outside, smoking, when we got to my house, having passed the walk in silence.
“Hola, compadre,” he said, crushing out a Newport on the concrete step. “This must be the little lady your mom’s been talking about.”
She stared blankly at him, but Jerry’s bonhomie was undaunted. “Like they say, amigo, mi casa is su casa” he said, sweeping his arm towards the screen door.
The house wasn’t much (“…but it’s paid for”, as my mother always insisted on adding), a couple of rooms all on one floor and a crawlspace above. Dannyelle pulled her boots off at the front door, unzipped her coat, and sat down on the sofa, staring straight ahead, as one of mom’s cats stalked by her. She looked as lumpy and shapeless without her coat as with it on, the ratty old Bills hat pulled down low over her ears.
The room wasn’t much to look at either, a TV, the cats, a sleeping dog I didn’t think I recognized, some piles of Jerry’s car magazines, the cheap new “sectional” my mother was so proud of. The little sitting room opened onto the little dining area, with the kitchen behind and the two bedrooms beyond that. But it was paid for.
Dannyelle turned abruptly to see me staring at her, and I blushed furiously. “Jerry’s not my dad or anything,” I said. “And it’s not like he’s Mexican or whatever. I don’t know what’s up with that Spanish shit. That’s his new thing.”
She smiled at that, at least. Jerry came crashing back inside, stamping his feet, talking some nonsense about the weather and whistling tunelessly until Dannyelle’s mother pulled up outside and honked her horn, and Dannyelle pulled her boots back on and went out to the car for her ride home.
“She lives with her mother out in one of the mobile home parks,” my mother said later that afternoon, before I headed to work at the mall. She was still in her nurse’s scrubs, putting food out for the animals, and good-naturedly scolding at Jerry to pick up his crap for once, seeing as we were going to be having more company now. “Marybeth works part-time in the cafeteria at the hospital, her husband’s been gone forever, I don’t know how they get by.”
“Cute little thing,” Jerry said distractedly.
“You’re doing a good thing, Chris.”
“Better not leave those two alone, though, am I right?”
“Or else, ay caramba, amigo!”
“It’s a really good thing, honey.”
I bitched about it as much as I could, of course, but it wasn’t awful, not really. I usually didn’t work at the mall until later in the day, and I told myself I could use the break from “my writing” in the afternoons to get some fresh air. Honestly, I didn’t really mind walking around town a little, trying to look like a writer and hoping someone would ask me about college. And she was kind of a funny kid, I had to admit. It wasn’t like talking to a kid at all, really. She seemed to read everything, and notice everything, and it was like talking to an actual person, not a stumpy little girl in a grimy old ski hat. Better than talking to Jerry, at least.
That one afternoon, though, it was freezing and I was clapping my hands together on the sidewalk waiting for her, wishing I was home in my room, when she stormed through the sea of kids right past me, her red hair streaming in the wind, making me jog to catch up with her.
“Hey wait up…”
She charged on ahead, ignoring me.
“Hey…your hat! Did you forget your hat?”
She was missing that crazy Buffalo Bills hat she always wore. “Want to go back for it?”
“It’s gone, okay? Gone. One of those mongoloids in there stole it. I’ll never get it back.”
She was crying, standing there in the freezing wind.
“Hey, c’mon…don’t…it’s a hat…I mean, I love the Bills too and all, but….”
“It was my father’s, okay? The one thing I had that was his. The only thing. And now it’s gone.”
“Hey…” I tried to put my arm around her, but she shrugged away from me. “Don’t.”
She headed down the street away from me. I jogged to catch up with her again, took my hunter’s hat off, and put it on her head. “Here….it’s cold as shit out here, you need a hat. Take mine, okay?”
She pulled it down over her ears and rubbed at her eyes with her mittened fists. “Yeah, okay. Thanks.”
I was still thinking about that Bills hat a week or so later as I waited for her on that sidewalk, wondering whether it would be creepy if I bought her a new one for Christmas, and trying to look casual while Claudia Bennett and a couple of her friends walked by on their way home from the high school next door.
Claudia Bennett and her friends ruled the high school, even before they were seniors. They may have ruled our whole broken-down old city, for all I knew. Pretty, and thin, with clear skin and fancy coffee drinks and enough money to go shopping at the expensive mall over in New Hartford.
“Hey….it’s Chris, right? How are you? What are you doing with yourself?”
“You know…working some, going to college…regular stuff.”
“College…? Oh yeah? Where at?”
“Well, it’s just Mohawk this year, but, you know….”
“Oh community college”, one of the other girls said, and Claudia smirked along with them.
“Well yeah, I mean for this year….but my writing professor thinks….”
They were laughing and jostling each other, and already starting to walk away.
“Okay, so I’ll see you around Claudia,” I said feebly as they walked off, young and beautiful and bulletproof.
“I hate bitches like that.”
It was Dannyelle, who was standing behind me.
“Jesus, you startled me. What do you mean? Claudia’s okay.”
Danyelle scowled up at me from under my hat. “They’re laughing at you right now, Christopher. Right now. Jesus. And I don’t even care if you think I’m jealous of them because they’re pretty. I hate them.”
“But I mean, she’s…”
“Now you’re making excuses for them too, I hate it.”
“Why are you so angry about it? What do you care?”
She lapsed into silence for a block or so, kicking up the muddy clumps of snow, exposing the slimy layer of dead leaves beneath.
“I hate those people. I hate that they have real houses to live in, and don’t get their clothes from Goodwill, and don’t have fat idiot moms who gave them made-up names. I’m jealous of them, okay? There, you got me to say it, Mr. Writer. You happy? I wish I was them. I wish I had what they have. I wish I was pretty.”
There were tears starting out of the corners of her eyes, as she looked up at me defiantly.
“But you are pretty.” I didn’t even think before the words were out of my mouth.
“Just shut up, okay?”
She was pretty, though. It hadn’t really occurred to me. She was still chubby and lumpy with baby fat, still a kid, but she had enormous blue eyes and a spray of freckles across the bridge of her nose and eyebrows that started out honey-colored and paled to translucence as they approached the white downy fluff of her hairline at her temples. She was pretty.
“You’re pretty. You’re just still, you know…growing up or whatever. And you’re smart. And you see everything. You’re not like the rest of these people around here. And none of this…” I waved my arms, thinking of the trailer park and my street with its beaten-down row of bungalows, and Jerry with his Newports, and the empty factories in the valley and our whole run-down old city. “None of this can change any of that.”
“Please just shut up,” she whispered.
“What is that writing stuff supposed to teach you? Who goes to college to learn how to write, anyway?”
It was Dannyelle asking the question for once, not my mom or Jerry or one of the other nurses from the hospital or one of Jerry’s buddies.
“Yeah, I guess, but it’s…well it’s like any other craft, you’ve got to learn it, right?”
Dannyelle snorted. “Read some books.”
“I read a lot of books, thanks. But we study, you know, the construction of writing…”
“What’s your teacher like? Some old hippie who writes movie reviews for the Observer-Dispatch or something…?
“You mean ‘professor’….no, actually she…”
“She, oh that’s even better…let me guess, she’s the receptionist at a bank or something but she wrote a thing for a magazine once about ‘Historic Gardens of Upstate New York’…?”
“No, you’re not even close, smartass…”
“Shouldn’t you just be writing ? What do you need some community college mumbo jumbo for? Don’t you just write? And keep writing, and keep on writing until you can write yourself out of here? I mean, if you’re really a writer? Don’t you just try to tell your story, and keep telling it until you can get someone to listen?”
I didn’t really have an answer, but just then Jerry drove by in his beat up old Bonneville, shouting “Hola, amigos! Get a room, you two!” at us.
“Jesus, sorry, he’s just such a dumbass…”
“He’s harmless, though, right? He can’t help what he is. Nobody can.”
She was right about that. Jerry was harmless, dumb as a stone and lazy, but harmless. Smoking his Newports on the front stoop, shirtless in the warm weather with his gut hanging out and that stupid eagle-and-American-flag tattoo on his chest. Driving around in the Bonneville, listening to classic rock.
The Bonneville had swung back around, and there was Jerry again. “Hey compadre, why don’t I save everyone a little time today and take the little lady right on back to her place? I’m free as a bird this afternoon. Let’s boogie, mamacita, you’ll see this hombre manyana.”
Dannyelle rolled her eyes at me and climbed into the Bonneville, waving vaguely in my direction as Jerry cranked up the Bob Seger and drove off.
“Place is worse than I remembered.”
“What place, honey?” It was unusual for Jerry to make a serious observation about anything, especially while there was food at hand. My mother seemed almost as surprised as I was.
He paused, a forkful of mac-and-cheese midway to his mouth, and waved his free hand vaguely over his head. “That trailer park, what’s it called, Shady Hills? Where Chris’ little lady friend lives. Man oh man.” He shook his head, and addressed his attention back to his plate.
“Jesus, Jerry, she’s not my…”
“Marybeth says it isn’t so bad, honey.” That was my mom, always looking for the good side, for the happy ending.
I had tried not to think too hard about where she lived, honestly. Or what her life was like other than those few hours every afternoon. I was just doing my mom a favor, right? Helping out her friend’s kid. Anyway all of us in our little bungalows knew that the trailer parks were just one bad break away, a mile or two out there on Route 5, waiting for us.
“‘Course she does. Christ, what’s she gonna say?” From Jerry, this was insight of a high order. He chewed silently for a minute or two, and looked over at my mom. “Place wasn’t so bad when we were kids, was it? Were you ever out there much? Respectable, and clean at least. Lotta people lived out there. Now….” He shook his head.
“Now what?” I really didn’t want to know, though.
“Well amigo, it looked like the town dump as much as anything else. Trash piled up, beat-up rusty old trailers, broken bottles and weeds and shit…just crap everywhere.”
“No place for a nice kid like that little girlfriend of yours, amigo.”
“Christ, Jerry, she’s….”
“Not a good spot at all.”
A few times that winter Dannyelle stayed over at our house. It always seemed to be some kind of emergency involving the hospital or one of her mother’s other jobs, and always at the very last minute. We’d hear Jerry answering the phone, telling her mom it was no problem, and Dannyelle would pull her boots and coat back off and sit back down on the couch. Jerry loved having a bigger audience and of course my mother loved having another stray.
“Okay mamacita, we’ll prepare the presidential suite for you again.”
Dannyelle would just roll her eyes at him, and he loved that too, of course. He loved her. It gave me a glimmer of why mom loved him, I guess. Him with his big dumb heart, he loved that kid. And I guess he loved me, too. The ‘presidential suite’ was just my room, and after dinner, once I’d chased the cats off of the sectional and we’d gotten some bedding on it for me, she’d disappear in there and we wouldn’t see her until the next morning.
Mom and Jerry had a TV in their room, and mom worked a lot of early shifts that winter, so they usually turned in early, too. Leaving me on that sectional my mom was so proud of, pretending I was reading Dostoyevsky and imagining what life would be like when I could transfer from Mohawk and go away somewhere, anywhere but there.
I wasn’t more than half asleep when I was jolted by Dannyelle thumping herself down on the side of the bed.
“Hey….yeah, sure. What’s up?”
She was cocooned in an old robe of my mom’s, with a pair of Jerry’s enormous house slippers on and my hunter’s hat crammed down on her head. There was something wrong with the heating vent in my room, and the ‘presidential suite’ was always cold as an icebox.
She sat there on the edge of the fold-out bed, right about level with my knees, her chin in her hands, looking off into the semi-dark room. I could hear the noise of cars rushing by in the street, and the murmuring of the TV in mom and Jerry’s room. The headlights of the passing cars traced their way across the ceiling.
I nudged at her back with my knee. “Seriously, what’s up? You okay?”
“Ow. Quit it, perv.”
“No, really….should I put the light on?”
“No.” A long silence. Just the cars outside, and the TV, and the dog rustling around in the corner.
“Do you know what tonight is?”
“Tonight? I dunno, the Sabres have a playoff game or something?”
“Never mind. Just forget it.”
“The middle school winter dance is tonight.”
“Oh gross. It’s a big night for all those morons, I bet.”
She snorted a little. “Yeah I guess.”
“But it really sucks having to hear all those assholes go on and on about it, doesn’t it? And then having to see them all tomorrow.”
I had bent my knees up under the pile of my blankets, and she leaned back against them a little.
“I know it sucks, Danny. It’s shitty. It’s just shitty. It ends someday, but I know it doesn’t make it any less shitty now.” I didn’t know whether she hated being called “Danny” or not.
“Yeah.” More silence. That poor kid.
“Hey…I read that thing you wrote, that story in the notebook on your desk in there.”
“You read my notebook? Jesus….”
“It was right there. I wanted to see what all your writer stuff was about. Anyway I only read that one thing.”
“Which, the walk in the forest thing? It was an assignment for class, it’s meant to be like a fable…”
“It was awesome.”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard her. “You liked it?”
“Yeah. It’s a real story. Like a story in a book. I didn’t understand what you meant about those trees though.”
“Wait, what trees?”
“The poplars….why do you say the poplars are whispering? Is that a thing you made up?”
“No, they make a kind of noise….poplars, I mean. The little stem thingies on their leaves are flat, so they move sideways in the wind. They make kind of a shushing noise. If spring ever comes we can go over to the state forest and I’ll show you what I mean.”
“Shusshhh” she whispered, so low that I wasn’t sure I’d heard her.
We sat there like that for a little while.
“Anyway I’m sorry. About all of this, I mean. I know this must really suck for you.”
“All of what? What sucks for me?”
She didn’t say anything for a long time. Then she raised her hands, and dropped them on her lap.
“All of this. Me. Having to drag me around every day.”
She put her chin down on her fists and looked down at the floor.
“Hey…I mean, it definitely cuts into the time I have to enjoy sophisticated banter with Jerry, but, you know, it’s not…”
She looked over at me, and I could see tears glittering on her lashes, and she turned back away. Then she twisted around and for long a minute hugged my bent legs, and rested her head on top of my knees.
And then she vanished back into my room.
“Tell your story,” that’s what she’d told me. “Be a writer.”
Well, I’m not a writer, I never was a writer. I install commercial phone equipment, and I’ve got a service call to make here at the strip mall, right here where I used to work when I was a kid. But right now I’m just sitting in the van in the parking lot, wasting time. Maybe that fire in the trailer park did something to me too, the fire that killed Dannyelle and her mom, I don’t know. I still can’t even bring myself to think too much about it. I just try to tell myself she must have been asleep when that space heater blew, asleep so she never knew what was happening.
My mom passed a few years ago, way too young but hopeful to the last. Claudia works at the craft store here at the strip mall. This place did something to her too – this place, the baby at 19, a couple more right after that. And now here she is, one store closing away from having to go on public assistance and moving out to the trailer park. You’d never know there was that beautiful teenage girl buried somewhere inside the fat, tired woman at the cash register. At least she remembers who I am, now. I’ll go in there in a minute and flirt with her a little, the way old friends do, which I guess is what we are.
And Jerry’s still cruising around town, cranking his tunes and smoking his Newports. We get together and watch the Bills sometimes, tell some stories about mom.
“Tell your story. Write yourself out of here.”
This is my one story. I’m not writing myself out of here, not myself or anyone else.
I’m really sorry, Dannyelle. This is the only story I have to tell.
About the Author:
Dan Berick is a father, husband, and lawyer in Cleveland, Ohio USA. He studied Latin at Columbia University and went to law school at the University of Chicago. He has been writing most of his life but only very recently had gotten up the nerve to submit anything!