The summer months had flown by, and school would be in session soon. I was excited because Gus had called and said he was coming to get me for my birthday. I knew an upcoming visit from him meant Mama would be in a foul mood until he arrived and give me the cold shoulder for days after he brought me back home and drove off.
“He should be ashamed to show his face around here.” Mama had long forgotten she once loved my father. All I had to do was mention his name to bring out a bitterness unusual even for Mama. She resented his inconsistent coming and going from our lives. Using the words, daddy or father, to describe him was a no-no in our house.
“He treated me worse than a rabid animal deserves to be treated,” Mama said.
I didn’t remember Gus doing anything Mama said he did, so I never believed she told the truth about him. He never beat Ruth Ann or me, but he never showed outward affection toward us either and insisted we call him Gus. I just assumed it was because he wanted to treat us like grown-ups.
I assumed he wanted to love me, but he didn’t know how to. I accepted him the way he was and tried to love him anyway.
He told me once that I reminded him of Mama. He never explained whether that was good or bad. It didn’t matter. I always hoped he was a better man than the one Mama described and looked forward to the day when he’d come back home.
“Gus’ll never change. If he stopped coming around, we’d all be better off,” Ruth Ann said. She’d long given up on him and shared Mama’s disdain of him.
I threw a dictionary at her but missed my target. She threw it back, and it hit me. When Mama found out why we were fighting, she made me apologize and sent me to the back porch to stew.
“Your daddy’s not worth fighting your sister over,” she said as I shut out her voice with the slam of the backdoor.
I stayed mad at both of them for a week, right up to my fifteenth birthday. Gus had told me he would pick me up and take me to buy a present. I looked forward to his visit. I desperately wanted to see him. I couldn’t remember the last time he’d bought me anything.
With each of Gus’s impending arrivals, Mama walked about the house doing nothing except complaining. He wasn’t allowed to come inside, and Mama refused to go to the door when he arrived. It made more sense for me to wait on the porch, which provided some protection from Mama’s incessant grumbling.
“Jo, you’re nothing but ungrateful.” She rattled on about anything and everything. I’d already heard most of it before, including how Gus had hit her more than once and cheated on her with the woman he was shacked up with. “Acting so happy to see a man who wouldn’t do right even if the good Lord asked him to,” she said.
“One time, he hit a man with his truck because he’s evil,” I whispered the exact words as Mama spoke them. She’d repeated the story more times than necessary for me to remember. It didn’t take much effort to memorize words that hurt. It was August, and it felt like an eternity in hell waiting in the Texas heat.
I was relieved when he showed up. Mama had said he wouldn’t, and I was in no mood for an I told you so. He brought along Earline and Precious, my eleven and thirteen-year-old half-sisters. Despite being happy to see him, the day felt dulled with disappointment. I was six when Gus left. They were two and four years younger than me. Mama did the math and explained it to Ruth Ann and me.
“Hi, Gus,” I forced out the words and tried to smile and used the dusty sideboard to climb in his pickup.
“Aren’t you going to speak to your sisters?”
“Hey,” I said without looking at Earline and Precious as Gus put the truck in gear and drove away. I knew the day wasn’t going to go as I’d planned. I hadn’t expected to share my birthday with them, and he would likely buy them a present. It was no longer a special occasion.
I’d spent the week before my birthday combing store catalogs and knew exactly what I wanted. When we got to the store, I went straight to the shoe department and found the black and white saddle shoes. To be sure, I browsed all the shelves to make sure that’s what I wanted. Saddle shoes were what all the girls would be wearing on the first day of school.
“Do you have these in size eight?” I asked the sales clerk. She nodded and turned toward the stock room to retrieve the shoes. Earline and Precious copied me and told the saleslady their sizes.
“Wait a minute,” Gus said and took the display shoe from my hand and looked at the price tag.
“You’re going to have to pick something else. These cost too much.”
“But that’s what I want for my birthday.”
“Let your sisters get these. You can find something else.”
He told the sales clerk to bring the saddle shoes in Earline’s and Precious’ sizes.
That moment hurt like the cruel hunger pains that gnawed my stomach. Mama had been right.
While Earline and Precious tried on their shoes, I cursed Gus inwardly as I wandered the aisles looking for a pair that would be better than having nothing.
I couldn’t make up my mind, and Gus got impatient. He snatched a pair of moccasins off the shelf and handed them to the sales clerk.
“Give us these in size eight.”
I stared at the flimsy brown shoes in horror but remained silent. He’d never hit me, but admittedly, I had a slight fear of him since Mama had warned me that he was capable of all manner of evil. The last thing I wanted was more embarrassment. Earline and Precious were snickering at the moccasins.
I was relieved when we left the store, and Gus said he had to take me home. I wanted to get away from all of them as quick as possible. I focused on the street ahead of us as Earline and Precious chirped away, wedged between Gus and me.
When we pulled up to the house, I jumped out of the truck before it came to a complete stop. I didn’t say bye or anything else and didn’t look back. I was blinded by tears as I ran as fast as I could toward the front door and almost fell trying to get inside. Mama heard the commotion and came running toward me.
“He bought them saddle shoes and got me these,” I said and held the pathetic slipper-like shoes in the air for her to see.
“You were in such a hurry to jump in that truck. I tried to tell you.” Mama grabbed the shoes from me with one swoop and stomped into the kitchen. She took a large butcher knife from the drawer, speared one of the shoes, drew her weapon through the brown fabric, and sliced it in half as if gutting a fish. She threw both halves and its match into the garbage pail.
“You’ll go barefoot before I let you wear that demon’s trash.”
My only pair of shoes were riddled with holes, and I knew Mama didn’t have money to buy me new ones.
“What did we do to deserve such a pitiful life?” I asked Ruth Ann that night as I lay in bed crying.
“All the praying in the world and Mama can barely do anything for us. Gus won’t do anything. What’s God doing?” I demanded, loud enough for Mama to hear.
“You better shut up before Mama hears you.”
Ruth Ann turned over on her side with her back to me. Mama believed it was a sin to question God, and Ruth Ann had no desire for Mama to think she’d played a role in my infidelity.
“Maybe you’ll stop fantasizing about him now. It only makes matters worse,” she said and hid her head under the sheet. Three weeks after Gus dropped me off, the first day of school arrived. Mama managed to buy polish. It was not enough to make last year’s shoes look new.
I rearranged the pieces of cardboard covering the holes in the soles and tried them on with the dress Mama had made me out of bargain bin fabric. I studied myself in the mirror and thought about the upcoming days when I’d have no lunch or lunch money. I hated the thought of relying on Margie to keep my insides quiet underneath shoddy clothes and raggedy shoes. School days were longer when you began them hungry and remained that way until the last bell rang.
When I left the house on the morning of the first day of ninth grade, I bypassed Our Mother of Mercy and walked until I got tired.
I stopped in front of Ferguson’s Barbecue & Tavern and watched as Mr. Ferguson wiped down plastic menus, placed them between napkin holders, and arranged the bottled barbecue sauces on the tables. The sweet, smoky fragrance of charred meat permeated the air as my mouth watered, and I wished I could go inside and place an order.
I noticed a help-wanted poster in the window when I turned to leave.
“I’m here about the job,” I told him. I’d never decided anything so quickly before in my life.
“You ever wait tables before?”
“How old are you?”
He didn’t believe me, but he let me in, and I worked the lunch and early dinner shift.
When the restaurant closed, I packaged up enough pulled pork and baked beans to last us a week and went home to Mama dressed in a lime green dress with Ferguson’s embroidered just to the left of my heart that fit me perfectly, fifteen dollars in tips, and a better outlook.