He jammed my thumb in the door. I think I was five and we were at Meme’s house on Social Street, across from the brick building that looked like a military base. The brick was coppery and the windows were framed in some kind of intricate verdigris stone. There was metal wire in between thick window glass plates and you could never see in. I never saw anyone go inside or come out of the building. While my thumb was warmly bleeding down my hand and arm, I looked at the chipped blue paint on my Meme’s porch, revealing weather-beaten grey boards that looked like massive, dead chunks of Weetabix. The wooden slivers stuck up all over indicating that no one could afford to care about this building, or the lime green and dusty yellow apartment buildings around us. The street was dry and the sun faced it, all the time. There were bits of burnt lawn in front of that brick building, but mostly everything looked parched, even the electric poles; their heavy black lines, sagging in the humidity. Cars drive past quickly. I always imagined they were driving to the better, shady neighborhoods, where the Maple trees were succulent and smiling and smelled green and inside the nice houses, people ate eggs for breakfast at a table and there was a pitcher of orange juice, sweating in golden sunlight. Like in some places, the sun is friendly and in this place, the sun was stinging and there was nothing pretty about it.
When would you ever need to drink an entire pitcher of orange juice? In those nice people’s houses, did they just throw out the juice they didn’t drink? A half-gallon is probably how much it would take to fill a pitcher like the ones in those commercials, where kids have clean and pressed outfits, and there’s actually time to eat breakfast before the dad goes to work and the kids go to school. How come the sun is so bright so early? Sometimes, I can’t find my shoes in the morning when we’re getting ready to leave. It’s not that our apartment is ever messy, ..sometimes it is, but mostly it’s that my head is messy. I’m always thinking about other things, like money and food, and my dad and my brother and sister and watching my mother look chronically panicked and angry.
Pieces of my thumbnail got crushed off. He was on the other side of the door so I stopped feeling anything. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to open it or close it more on my thumb. Sometimes, I think my dad was behind me, but that’s because of the picture we still have of him holding up the 50 lb. bluefish on this porch. I think I am alone. I can hear my Meme yelling in French, calling him a shit head or something like that. I remember merde. I can see the metal moving parts of the door jamb sliding over the parts of my thumb and out of the socket of the door frame. I can see the black, residual smears of door grease in the corners of the fixtures mixing with my blood and thumbnail bits.
In the kitchen was a black fridge and the round table with the sticky plastic tablecloth covered in painted images of plums, grapes, oranges and dark green leaves. My thumb is in a bowl of something, throbbing and my free hand is tracing the leaves while Meme sings the French song. I don’t feel like singing, but I like the sound of her nervous tune. He’s left us alone and is in the living room building a house of cards. I never understood how he did that. Even though I was young I understood drugs and what they did to people. Other relatives would comment my whole life on how I was always so quiet. “You never hear her.” “Are you in here? You’re so quiet.” “What a good child. She never makes a peep.” That’s because I was always listening, to everything anyone and everyone said. I don’t know why it made sense to me. I don’t know why I understood that the smell of burnt plastic was equated with his drugs; like the street being tarred mixed with a cigarette filter and the oil from his face in his mustache, lips and teeth. He kept some of the drug things in a rusted Sucrets tin. It was mostly always in his pocket or on a windowsill.
The living room of my Meme’s house on Social Street is probably in no way how I remember it, though it might be. He was sitting on her red and gold floral sofa (she took it to the Blackstone house after this), at a low wooden and glass coffee table, stacking the cards without shaking at all. The room was round, circular, with baby blue walls, ornate finishings, painted in fake gold and had two exits; one into the little kitchen and one into the front sitting room. But what I remember being above is really the best part, a domed ceiling covered in paintings of angels, like the ones in the Sistine Chapel, only bad. Cherubs. My Meme was obsessed with cherubs. She had a brass and glass curio full of tacky, angelic figurines and soaps in the shape of fat babies with wings that smelled like a Canadian nursing home. They were covered in dust in a wavy, porcelain clamshell, along with conch shells and pink, glycerin snails. We never used them but I played with them when I would hide in there. Can you believe this domed ceiling over him and his house of cards? I remember light too, so maybe there was a round, stained glass window. Those are common in old parts of New England, and especially Blackstone and Woonsocket. You could find yourself living in the shittiest neighborhood, like the empty house on Farm Street, and discover a little stained glass masterpiece in your stairwell or bathroom. My dad’s house now, which was Meme’s before, has rectangular and octagonal stained glass accents, complimented by a gloppy DIY paint job. It’s brown. The stained glasses are reds and oranges and blues, all deep jewel tones with very thick, black leading and geometric design. The glass is rippled, as if it’s chronically melting but never disappears.
Those houses were not originally built to be welfare apartments. I think it was my mother who once told us, while we were driving through a good neighborhood, that all the houses in Woonsocket used to be for very wealthy people. That our apartment was actually only meant to be one wing, or section of a big mansion. And that’s how all the apartment houses were originally built; the old ones anyway. Our apartment on Lincoln Street was just the normal projects; those cardboard pieces of crap that they built in rows all the same and charged $14 a week or something like that. The only good thing about living there was that Ollie’s Pizza was in walking distance and I used to paint on the red wooden fences that separated people’s ‘back yard’. It wasn’t a yard, just splotches of tar leading to some weeds and a giant stone wall. At the very top of the stonewall, probably three stories up, directly across from our back kitchen window, was a vicious dog on a staked chain. He barked all the time. Our clothesline ran from that back window, next to the fridge, all the way to the top of the stone wall where that dog was tied up. Sometimes I dreamt that the dog could run along the clothesline and get into our house and attack us in our bedroom. It was right next to that window. I would dream that he’d claw through my Smurfette poster and eat my baby brother and then claw up my face before I could fight back. He never did. But he could have, and who would have stopped him?
His name is Roland*. He’s my father’s youngest brother, the youngest of four. Reid, Luke, David and Roland…I don’t know of any Reid or Roland in the Bible, but Luke and David for sure. My father said that when Meme found out she was pregnant with him she tried aborting him every way she could; throwing herself down stairs, getting into a car accident, starving herself. But apparently, as it was God’s will, he stuck and was born and I’d wonder why for a long time.
So there he was, sitting with his house of cards, sort of anxiously muttering to himself while he stacked. He did this constantly. ‘Yowza, yowza, yowza, ak, ak, ak. Gah, gah.’ He never really said actual words that I recall, except for the warnings, which were clear as day and locked safely away in some cabinet in my head that has never actually opened. The rest of the time it was these pressured mutterings and laughter, for which there had been no jokes. No one else ever laughed, since most often following the laughter was some kind of ranting and storming and beating and my Meme’s bloody chin, or a crushed thumb, or something else broken. His hands didn’t shake while he stacked. His cigarettes were next to him, but he wasn’t smoking them. I was fairly certain, at times like this, standing under a cherub painting, and god-light in the tacky French room with velour furniture and a pedophile, that I was invisible. Neither Meme, nor Roland, and maybe not even God could see me. I could see me, from across the room, or above the room, or through the walls from the alley in between the next house. There was also a lounge chair. And that was ‘the’ chair. ‘Come sit on Uncle Roland’s lap.’ The furniture in the sitting room at this house was blue, I think. It didn’t move with Meme to the Blackstone house. Nothing really happened in that room except later, while my thumb was still throbbing, and wrapped now in some gauze from the one bathroom, we watched Helter Skelter. I think I’d had a bath because I remember my hair wetting the back of my nightgown and playing with an elastic band, as if I meant to tie my hair up but instead, was sucking the shampoo taste out of the ends while curling myself into a little warm ball on the corner of the couch. I stared at Meme who was eating cheese popcorn, her thing she made. It was regular stove popped popcorn, covered in this orange powder. I used to love it, but it probably made me sick. She was in her own chair watching the t.v as if we were watching a happy show, like Lawrence Welk, and not some psycho murder story. There were two people locked inside a bad hula hoop, wearing turtlenecks in a dark room. Roland kept laughing while I continued to mute myself with my own wet hair. I think it was Easter because I remember the wicker baskets on the hutch in the front bay window. I could smell that plastic Easter grass, and the sugar from jelly beans and white chocolate bunnies. I only liked white chocolate for the longest time. The chocolate bunnies were hollow and I liked the cracking sound they made when you punctured their surface with a tooth or a gentle finger. I think I liked the sound and smell of the cracking more than I liked actually eating them. I would also feel very sad for them, like I was hurting them by breaking them, even though they were hollow and couldn’t feel anything.
*all names have been changed