by Maria Espinosa

Hannah lay on the roof.  The rough pebbles and tar scratched her body.  She watched the people below: her mother and threepolicemen.  A branch from the maple tree waved in the wind and blew close to her face.  Through the green budding leaves she watched them, feeling as distant as if she were light years away, as if she were watching them through a kaleidoscope, blobs of shifting color and form.

For hours she had lain on the roof, and the sun was beginning to sink beneath the horizon. She heard voices and peered further over the edge.  Her mother and two policemen emerged from the house. They were right beneath her.  She could throw a pebble down and hit them.

“I don’t know where she is,” Gerda said in her sharp, cutting voice. “This morning we had a tiff—nothing much—I just want her to be okay.”  She broke into a sob. “It’s hard,” she cried. “It’s so hard.”   

Hannah wanted to howl with glee. She gloated, but the sadness was inside her.  She wanted to cry. Gotcha, Mom. Gotcha for all those times you hit out. Told us we were bad Screamed it was all our fault Dad left.

“We are so alike,” sobbed Gerda below. Her voice grew softer. “She is the one closest to me.”
Her sister Esther would go limp like a rag doll, willing herself to show no emotion, while Hannah would scream back. “Hannah, you’re the one with guts,” her father, Saul, would say.

One of the policemen was filling out a report.  What does she look like?  Medium height—about five feet three—thirteen years old—nearly fourteen.  Long wavy black hair. Birthmarks? Other marks of identification just in case she turned up in a hospital or worse?  Finally they left. She watched them get into the  car, and she crawled over to the other side of the roof so she could watch them drive off.  Then she crawled back to watch her mother pace back and forth along the deck. Saw her mother go inside the house.  Now Gerda would be on the phone, calling her friends, and everyone would be frantic.  Good!  Dad would be upset, too. Good!  Let him suffer!

            Why did you leave us?

Much later, after a thin sliver of moon had risen in the night sky, she realized she was hungry.  She was beyond hungry.  She felt light, spacey as she climbed down from the roof. When she got to the ground, she tightened the laces of her sneakers and walked along the dark street past the neat suburban houses with their shrubbery and trees, walked towards the center of town and then into a coffee shop.  She watched the people. There was gangly red-haired Andrew from her class with his Dad.  It hurt her to watch them together along with his yucky mother, who was smiling at the two of them.

“Can I have a glass of water?” she asked the pimply-faced clerk behind the counter.
“Sure, sweetheart.  Anything else?”
“No thanks.”

As he handed her the water, their fingers touched briefly.  “What are you doing out all alone?
Andrew and his parents glanced over at her from their table.

She shrugged and walked out. Slowly she sipped the water in its cardboard cup.  Where could she get something to eat?  She walked and walked until the street she was on gave way to a dirt road.  Walked up a hill.  And there just on the other side was her friend Jeanie’s house.  Several cars were parked outside, along with rusted wrecks of cars, a car engine, a cast-off refrigerator.  A dog chained to a post barked as she approached. “Hey, cool it, Smokey,” she said in a calm voice.

She had learned to act calm, to speak calmly when inside it was a tornado, a flood, an earthquake all combined.  The dog recognized her.  Slowly she came up to him and patted his neck.  He began wagging his tail furiously, licking her fingers. “Nice Smokey,” she crooned. “You’re a decent dog.”

A fat, dark-haired man in stained work clothes appeared on the porch. “Who’s there?”

“Come on in, honey,”
He had been drinking, she could tell from the way his breath smelled, and his hand on her shoulder gave her a sense of unease.
“Where’s Jeanie?”
“She’s upstairs.”
“I’ll go up and see her.”
“Hey, just a minute…” His voice, drunken and slurred, gave her the shivers. Where the hell was Jeanie’s mother?  She was usually around, a pale, frightened creature.  Hannah heard more men’s voices from the living room.  The sound of a game on television.  She ran quickly up the wooden stairs and along the narrow hallway to Jeanie’s room, pounded on the door, and walked in without waiting for anyone to open it.

Jeanie and her sister Maureen were lounging on the twin beds.

“Trouble with your Mom?” asked Jeanie.
Maureen was painting her toenails bright magenta.  Music was playing on the stereo.  Books were spread open on Jeanie’s bed. “I’m doing my math,” she said. “You can help me.”
“Okay,” said Hannah, glad of a task to do. “But first I need to eat something. I’m starving.”
Jeanie handed her a half-empty bag of potato chips. “Help yourself.”
“Is that all you’ve got?”
“Yeah….We can go down to the kitchen…but later.”
“Okay,” said Hannah, understanding all too well that neither of them wanted to tangle with her Dad or his friends.
“I hope they don’t stay too long.  Where’s your Mom?”
“With that racket downstairs?”
“Yeah. She’s tired.”

For awhile they worked on algebra problems, lounging on Jeanie’s bed with its white chenille spread.  Hannah lay on her stomach and burrowed against the mattress, right against Jeanie’s shoulder and arm.  Jeanie smelled slightly of vanilla soap.  She scratched numbers on a pad of paper with a ball point pen that spurted uneven squiggles of ink.  A bit smudged on the spread.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Hannah.  She went into the adjoining bathroom for a sponge to wash off the stain. The bathroom was littered with damp towels.  A roll of wet toilet paper sat on top of the tank.  There was none in the holder.  In contrast to Jeanie’s clean scent, the room stank of mold and wet towels.  Lipstick and cosmetics littered the counter.  She found a rag beneath the sink, wet it, and tried to clean off the ink stain on the bedspread, but it remained.

“Oh, never mind,” said Jeanie. She stood up and stretched.  Jeanie was shorter than Hannah, and very skinny, with freckles and auburn hair that cascaded over her shoulders. Very fair skin and green eyes.  She was popular in school. Inside the clique, to which she granted Hannah entrée, the clique which Hannah frequented on the outer edges.  She was wearing a white T-shirt and panties printed with small red hearts.

“I’m tired. I’m going to sleep,” she said. She went into the bathroom to brush her teeth and wash up, while Hannah put away the books on the bed, took off her jeans, and stretched out under the covers.

The floor creaked. Wind rose, and it blew branches against the window.  The voices downstairs died down.  It was dark all through the house.  Jeanie lay next to her, breathing softly in her sleep, her warm skin touching Hannah.  Soft warm body next to her, cuddle against Jeanie.  She turned and lay on her side, put her arms around Jeanie for comfort.  Jeanie barely stirred.

Steps in the hallway.  Door opening.   If Jeanie’s Dad came inside, she would scream. Scream and scream.  Slowly the door closed.  The steps receded along the hallway.  Hannah heard him piss in the bathroom, heard the toilet flush, heard something drop, and heard him curse. Her body tensed. Jeanie’s breathing grew more troubled. She rolled away from Hannah.

Hannah held her breath. Slowly the noises quieted down. Jeanie’s breathing resumed its natural rhythm.  Hannah pressed against Jeanie’s body for warm comfort, and finally she slept a little.

“Are you coming to school?” Jeanie asked in the morning.
“What will you do?”
“I don’t know.”

The girls dressed. Jeanie put her books into her backpack, and they went down into the kitchen which was littered with empty beer bottles, cigarette butts, dirty dishes, and the lingering trace of marijuana.  In the refrigerator there was white bread, peanut butter, and a half empty jar of grape jelly. They made sandwiches and heated up instant coffee.  Jeanie cut an orange, hard with age, into slices. Everyone else in the house was still asleep.  But just as they were leaving the house Jeanie’s mother appeared, a frail, slightly hunched figure in a faded blue bathrobe, hastily tied, her hair mouse-colored and straggly.  Her face looked pasty. Her eyes, however, were dark, intense, and alive.

“Have a good day, girls,” she said. She looked in dismay at the dishes and began to putter  around the kitchen.

Hannah parted from Jeanie where the dirt road gave way to concrete paving. While Jeanie walked towards school, Hannah turned onto the path that led to a bike trail. The sun gleamed on grass still wet with dew. The sky was so pale.  A large black bird circled above her, then soared higher and disappeared beyond the hills.

About the Author:

Maria Espinosa is a novelist, poet, and translator. Among her novels, Longing received an American Award and Dying Unfinished a Pen Oakland Award.  She received critical acclaim for her translation of George Sand’s nineteenth century novel, Lélia.  Espinosa has taught at New College of California, City College of San Francisco, and led a master class in Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies and periodicals. Her latest novel, Suburban Souls, is forthcoming with Tailwinds Press.