Partners in Crime, Part Four

April 13, 2023
2800 words

When Billy got old enough to start school and Dirk got his driver's license back, Mom began working at the Post Office. Most mothers in Hunter's Point worked at different things, some in stores, some in Laundromats, some as hairdressers. Since she mostly worked during school hours, it didn't seem to make much difference in our lives, except that sometimes we were under Dirk's charge and we were expected to do whatever he said.

With the money she was making plus the money Dirk made at the Shipyard, she began looking for a house they could afford within driving distance from both their jobs. They decided on a house in Pacifica, twelve miles south on Highway 1. Instead of living on the bay side of San Francisco, sheltered by the city, we would be living directly by the Pacific Ocean, down the peninsula and just across the street from cliffs that led down to a sandy beach. The little house had three bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, bathroom, a postage-stamp front yard and a long, narrow backyard. Jimmy would get his own bed, but share a room with Billy. I would have a room of my own. Mom was really excited.

But my friends weren't coming with us. And, more importantly, leaving the city meant that even if my father was interested in looking for me and Jimmy, he wouldn't know where to find us. That bothered me the most, but I couldn't say that to anyone, even Jimmy. I didn't remember the man, but I thought I knew what fathers were like. Fathers didn't forever forget they had children. Did they?

The day we moved, our job was to stay out of the way while Dirk and Mom packed the car. The bigger things they wanted to keep had already been moved to the house. The adults were deciding what to leave and what would fit in the Oldsmobile.

The car barely had room for us kids. Billy and Jimmy were tucked in the back seat between the clothes, linens, small furniture and plants. I got in the front seat by the passenger door. Mom told me to pull the car door closed, but I couldn't reach it.

Dirk said to me, "Get out and close it."

I wasn't sure how to do this, since that meant pulling it towards me while I was standing on the curb. I hesitated.

Mom said, "I'll do it." She leaned way over me and tugged at the door handle. In leaning out, she inadvertently placed her left thumb inside the door jamb. The door came forward and closed with a crunch as the door snapped the bone in her thumb. My mother cried out. I frantically pushed the door open and she pulled her hand out, the shattered bits of bone poking out of the skin amid the blood.

Dirk pulled a towel from the back seat and handed it to her. She wrapped her thumb in it and hugged the towel and her thumb to her body. She gasped and the tears came.

"Mommy, I'm sorry!"

The trip to the new house involve a detour to the emergency room. While my mother got her thumb straightened and splinted, Dirk told me it was my fault. "If you had done what I'd said, she wouldn't have been hurt."

Well, I knew that already. Even Jimmy couldn't console me.

Mom was off work for a week. The pain pills made her sick to her stomach. After yet another trip to the bathroom to vomit, I saw her enter the hall in the gloom of the early morning and I apologized again.

"It wasn't your fault," she said.

"But Daddy said it was."

She frowned. "Well, he's wrong."

This surprised me. I wondered what else Dirk was wrong about. And on what other things would she disagree with him?

The new neighborhood was different from the Projects. In the suburbs, we had more room, but we were also more isolated. It was as if living in separate houses made us each separate packages. Whatever happened in the house stayed there. It was, "A Man's Home is His Castle," and if he wanted to be mean and nasty, well, too bad for everyone around him. But his behavior was nobody else's business.

And everybody in the suburbs was White. For the longest time, that felt really strange to me. I knew I wasn't Black, like most of the friends I'd left, but I also knew that somehow I didn't fit in this place of separate houses and White people. I quickly learned not to talk about the old neighborhood. Kids at the new school thought living among Black people was something terrible and therefore I was suspect by associating with them. I was already different because my mother had a job. Most Moms in the suburbs went to Parent Teacher Association meetings at the school and took their children to extracurricular activities in the afternoons. While kids were driven to ballet lessons or baseball games, Jimmy, Billy and I had strict instructions to go straight home and stay there. Our afternoons were spent with each other, watching TV, doing homework and making sandwiches for dinner after we ate our main meal, a hot lunch, at school. Mom didn't speak any more about us being from all different races.

At school, Jimmy and I were also set apart from our classmates by the notes we brought to the office. On the rare occasions we were absent, Mom signed the excuses for Jimmy or Susie Ferron with "Mrs." and Dirk's last name. Having different last names was not a big deal at the school in Hunter's Point, but apparently it was in Pacifica. Inevitably, when I handed over the paper to the secretary behind the counter in the school office, the woman would screw up her face and ask, "Who is this Mrs.?" I would explain she was my mother and was married to my stepfather. The woman would look disgusted. No words were spoken, but her attitude of, "Oh, you're one of those," didn't need to be said. As if Jimmy or I had anything to do with our mother's marriages. Although my mother insisted she had to use her legal name, we asked her to add "Mother" in parentheses after her signature. That way we got the look without any explanation on our part.

After Dirk had kicked me home from the beach, I spent the next week at school hunched forward over the desktop with my weight on my elbows to try to keep my tail bone off the hard wooden chair. My sense of pride wouldn't let me mention the bruises that had bloomed on my butt like giant purple flowers. I couldn't bear for anyone to know somebody hated me enough to treat me that way. And if your own mother allowed you to be hurt like that, what would kids who didn't know you or care about you do? Bringing it up would certainly lead to bullying by my classmates.

My teacher was an affable woman who wore tight dresses in drab colors. I noticed she kept a can of diet drink on her desk for lunch. She tended to get cranky towards the end of the day, probably when her energy wore down from that low-calorie meal. During spelling tests, she liked to roam the aisles, enunciating the words slowly and carefully. When she walked by me that week, she grabbed my shoulder and pushed me back so I sat straight up, with my full weight on the tail bone. I gasped in pain and started to cry, but she continued down the aisle, repeating the words to write down as if nothing was out of the ordinary.

When we first moved to the suburbs, I complained to my mother that I missed my friends. We never went back to Hunter's Point to visit anyone. Her attitude was that we had escaped and good riddance. Several months after we moved, Mom read in the newspaper that a fire started in one of the apartment houses in the Projects and "the Negroes" threw rocks at the White firemen who came to help. The firefighters responded by pulling back and watching the building burn.

"You wouldn't want to live there now," she said.

It frightened me that it could have happened to our building. I knew my friend Debbie or anyone in her family would not throw rocks at people trying to help them. I hoped our old building wouldn't catch on fire and that Debbie would be safe.

In the new house, the boys had bunk beds in their room with a view of the backyard. My room was next to the bathroom. Dirk and Mom's room was in the front towards the street. Once my mother got better, Mom and Dirk put up wallpaper in my room. The background of the wallpaper was cream with rows of little pink dots in flower shapes separated by vertical stripes. I watched them trying to get the wetting just right. Several times the paper fell down as soon as it was smoothed on. The corners were tricky, too, matching the lines and making sure they were straight. But when it was done, it looked perfect. There was even a striped, dark pink and gold border at the top to cover the uneven edges. I don't know if they planned to wallpaper the other rooms of the house. My room was the only one to get done. Mom bought a lightweight coverlet for the twin bed with a pink gingham French poodle on a white background with a ruffled edge and sides of pink gingham that dusted the floor. That coverlet and the wallpaper made my room the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

The best part of having my own room was closing the door and no one could come in, at least in theory. The boys still barged in when they wanted. My haughty corrections that they needed to knock and get my permission were met with laughter and jeers. Still, I felt special. I didn't have to share with anybody. The boys even had to share their birthdays. Since Jimmy and Billy's birthdays were just nine days apart in the winter, they shared a cake, because Mom said, "We don't need two cakes so close together." We celebrated on Billy's birthday, "Because he's younger and Jimmy understands."

I got my own cake in May.

In the new house, Mom had a chance to bring out her special quilt. It was made with leftover scraps of dress material and cotton sugar sacks. The pattern was called "double wedding ring." She and I would lay on the quilt and she pointed at the different fabrics, "This was leftover from my dress," or, "This one is from a little dress I made for Nina (she pronounced it like the number nine), a friend's daughter. If there were scraps from dresses she made for my half-sister, Carolyn, she didn't mention it. She had sewed the quilt during the Depression, when she was married to her first husband. Now the quilt covered the bed she shared with Husband #3. I traced the circles with my fingers, marveling at how she'd taken rectangular shapes and made them into interwoven circles. She got such pleasure showing me that quilt. It made me wish I had known her when she was young, first married, before she had been knocked around by life and now seemed so tired.

Later, when Jim and I talked about the little house, we both agreed it was our favorite place after Dirk came into our lives. We had a lot of freedom. We could go to the beach. We could walk to and from school. In the afternoons, stuck at home, we had our own backyard. We could toss a ball, run around or play hopscotch.

Jimmy, Billy and I often went to the movies on Saturdays for the children's matinee, which consisted of a couple of cartoons, a Three Stooges comedy and a full-length feature, generally a Western. We were each given a dollar to spend. We learned personal finance on a minuscule scale while we figured out how much candy we could buy at the corner store and still have thirty-five cents we needed for admission. Who needed movie popcorn when you could load up on candy necklaces, red licorice and caramels? Sometimes we would splurge and buy chocolate, but that usually cost more money. We all went for the long-lasting, chewy, stick-to-your-teeth sugar bliss. And we all developed the cavities to prove it.

In addition to movie money, we got a small allowance for doing things around the house, like making our beds or washing and drying the dishes. In the new neighborhood, Jimmy had the opportunity to make some extra money on a paper route. This involved getting up in the dark to fold and tie newspapers. He was often late. Ray found a used junker bike and tried to teach Jimmy to ride it so he could get to the job faster. Jimmy quickly learned to balance and could ride straight, but the trick of making the bike turn eluded him. He got all the way down the block, the rest of us standing in the middle of the street, watching him ride. Where he should have turned left, he went straight. We saw him trying to turn the wheel, but he didn't lean into the turn. As a group, we all leaned to the left, as if our leaning would help him turn the corner. We were still leaning when he smacked dead on into the wooden fence where the street ended. Ray shook his head in disgust while Jimmy walked the bike back, the front tire rotating at an odd angle. Pretty soon Jimmy gave up the job. The rest of us were just as happy because we were tired of the boss pounding on the front door at 4 AM.

One Saturday, Jimmy decided he wanted to join the Boy Scouts. He left the house, then returned soon afterwards, looking disappointed. He had lost the quarter he needed for dues.

Dirk said, "Too bad. You should have been more careful. You can spend the rest of the morning in your room."

I said, "But I have money. I'll give it to him," I headed toward my room to raid my piggy bank.

"No, you won't!" Dirk barked. "He needs to learn his lesson."

I couldn't figure out how to give Jimmy the money without Dirk knowing, so we let it go. I doubt Dirk wanted Jimmy to join the Boy Scouts, anyway. There would be more money for uniforms, extracurricular activities, badges, meetings. Dirk would have to deal with other adults in the community, which was not something he liked to do.

By the end of the school year, I had made a friend. Joanne was a lovely, lively blond. She looked like a Barbie doll, with long, straight hair in a pony tail, blue eyes and long eyelashes. Since there was no one to supervise us after school, I sometimes went over to her house instead of going home. Joanne's mother was hard of hearing and Joanne thought it was funny to call her mother names under her breath.

While I was breaking the rules visiting friends, Jimmy and Billy spent afternoons having pirate fights with knives from the kitchen. When they ruined the blades by hitting them against each other, they would hide the evidence. ("Where did all the case knives go?" Mom asked while we all did our best to look innocent.) They didn't tell on me and I didn't tell about the knives or the burnt papers and matches I found in the metal dump truck hidden in the back of the boys' closet when I was looking for a lost toys.

Once we got a house and decent furniture, we were supposed to keep everything neat and tidy. But accidents happened. Mom bought a pretty lamp with two bowl-shaped milk glass covers that hid the light bulbs. One of the covers got shattered by a ball thrown in the house. (I didn't confess.) Mom was able to find a replacement. The second time the ball smashed into the lamp, the cover flew off and landed on the coffee table, knocking an arrowhead -shaped chip off the bottom. I was able to glue the chip back on and turn the repair to the back side. Unfortunately, we only had mucilage glue which left tell-tale jagged yellow lines.

After she reamed us out for doing stupid things, Mom sighed and said, "You can't have anything when you have kids."

© Copyright 2022, Bonnie Ferron