Summer vacation had drifted by with the whim of a monarch. It was August and an upcoming visit from Gus meant Mama’s mood would be foul until he arrived to pick me up and remain as such for days after he’d brought me home and gone on his way.
“He should be ashamed to show his face around here,” Mama said. She’d long forgotten she had once loved him. He’d been mean-spirited when it came to Mama and she took exception to him coming and going from our lives. I understood this as normal. It was all I’d ever known or at least all I could remember of my mother and father’s relationship. Nevertheless, I was happy to see him when I could. I’m not sure why. He rarely showed any of us affection and insisted we call him Gus, rather than Daddy or Papa. I assumed he loved us and just didn’t know how to show it. Ruth Ann assured me that wasn’t the case.
“Gus’ll never change. If he stopped coming around, we’d all be better off,” Ruth Ann proclaimed. Hearing that, made me so mad once, I chucked a book at her. She threw a boot that landed square on my forehead, and we broke into an all-out brawl. Mama stormed into the room and pulled Ruth Ann off me and whipped me. Without asking, she knew I had started the fight.
When she left the room, I closed the bedroom door to escape what I knew she would say next, “Jo, your daddy’s not worth fighting your sister over.”
I woke up the next morning still angry but looking forward to what the day had waiting. It was my fifteenth birthday. Gus had promised he’d pick me up and take me school shopping. That meant a lot since he hadn’t bought me anything in a long time. I looked forward to proving Mama wrong. I also looked forward to spending time with him.
He wasn’t allowed inside the house, so I waited for him on the front porch, under the blaze of the Texas sun, for what felt an eternity of hell. It was better than waiting inside the house where I’d have no choice but to listen to Mama’s incessant grumbling.
“I can’t believe you’re so happy to see a man that doesn’t give a hoot about any of us.” She moved about inside the house, intentionally speaking loud enough for me to hear from the porch. At least I had a wall between us to protect me a little.
“One time he hit a man with his truck because he’s just evil,” she said, and I mouthed her words. I’d heard them so many times.
I was relieved when Gus arrived. Mama had said he probably wouldn’t show up. I was in no mood to hear, I told you so, which would’ve been guaranteed. I felt myself smile when his truck turned the corner and headed toward me. My joy quickly dissipated when I saw that he’d brought my half sisters, Earline and Precious.
They were her eleven and thirteen. I was six when Gus left us. I’d done the math and knew Mama had, at least, been right about him cheating on her.
“Hi Gus,” I said and forced myself to smile as I climbed in the dusty pickup.
“Aren’t you going to speak to your sisters?” He demanded in the form of a question.
“Hey,” I said without looking at them. Gus put the truck in gear and we drove away.
I’d spent the majority of the week before my birthday sifting through the JC Penney catalog and had something specific in mind. When we got to the store, I went straight to the shoe department and found the black and white saddle shoes that I’d put a checkmark beside in the catalog. I browsed all of the shelves just to be sure of my choice. Saddle shoes were what all the girls would be wearing on the first day of school and for once, I wanted to have something that everyone else had. As I walked the aisles, I heard Earline’s voice.
“Do you have these in size six?”
“And, I need a size eight,” Precious said.
I turned around, just in time to see Earline hold up the saddle shoe for the saleslady to see.
“Those are the same ones I wanted,” I told Gus and he checked the price tag.
“You’re going to have to pick something else. I can’t afford three pairs, and they asked me first,” Gus said.
The disappointment hit me like the cruel hunger pains that gnawed my stomach so many days of my life. I cursed Gus inwardly as I wandered up and down the aisles looking for shoes that would have to be better than having nothing at all. I couldn’t make up my mind and Gus became impatient. He snatched a pair of brown fabric moccasins off the shelf and handed them to the sales clerk.
“Tell the lady the size you need,” Gus said. I looked at the shoes in horror.
I was relieved when Gus said he needed to take me home. My day was ruined, and there was nothing that could’ve made it better. I stared silently through the passenger window as Earline and Precious sat wedged between me and Gus on the front seat of his truck.
When Gus drove up to the front of the house, I jumped out of the truck, I think before it came to a complete stop. I headed to the house, without looking back. I’d already decided it was the last time I’d get in it.
I cried as I ran up the porch steps. I nearly fell trying to get inside the house; blinded by tears.
Mama heard the commotion and rushed into the room to see what was wrong. I held the flimsy slipper-like shoes in the air for her to see.
“He bought them saddle shoes and got me these,” I sobbed.
“And you were in such a big hurry to jump in that truck. I tried to warn you not to get your hopes up.”
Mama grabbed the shoes from me with one swoop. She stomped into the kitchen, grabbed a butcher knife from the cabinet drawer, speared one of the moccasins, and sliced through the brown fabric 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,” she said.
The soles of the only shoes I owned were riddled with holes and I knew Mama didn’t have the money to buy me new ones.
“What did we do to deserve such a pitiful life?” I cried and asked Ruth Ann as she lay beside me in bed that night.
“You better shut up before Mama hears you,” she said and toward her back toward me.
“All the praying in the world and Mama can barely do anything for us. Gus won’t do anything. What’s God doing?”
“Maybe you’ll stop waiting for him now. It doesn’t make things any better,” she whispered before pulling the blanket over her head.
Three weeks after my birthday, the first day of school arrived. Mama had managed to buy polish, but it didn’t make my old shoes look new.
I rearranged the pieces of cardboard covering the soles and tried on the dress Mama had made me. I inspected myself in the mirror and thought about the days to come when I’d have no lunch or lunch money. School days felt incredibly long when you began them hungry and remained that way until the last bell rang. I had Margie, but as much as I knew she didn’t mind, I’d come to hate the thought of asking. I dread a long year of stomach growls underneath shoddy clothes and raggedy shoes.
On my way to school that morning, instead of heading toward Our Mother of Mercy, I detoured past Ferguson’s Barbecue. I peered through the pane glass window as Mr. Ferguson prepared for that day’s patrons. The sweet, smoky fragrance of charred meat permeated the air, and my stomach growled.
Mr. Ferguson placed plastic menus between napkin holders and arranged a variety of bottled barbecue sauces. My mouth watered. I wanted to go inside and place an order.
When I turned to leave, I noticed a help wanted poster in the window. I knocked and Mr. Ferguson opened the door.
“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?” he asked.
“Sure,” I lied as Mama and the ninth grade crossed my mind.
“How old are you?”
“Eighteen.” I was shocked, but relieved, that he believed me. He widened the door and invited me into the family style restaurant. He agreed to test me out on the lunch shift.
That afternoon, when I should’ve been returning home from school, I walked into the house holding a green dress, the same color as the sign for Ferguson’s Diner.
“I’ve made up my mind, Mama. I’m tired of being hungry all the time. I’m going to work,” I said. I held out the ten dollars in tips I’d earned that day for her to see.
Mama stood motionless. Her silence made me nervous. I wished she’d say something. I’d already prepared mentally.
“You’re going to regret this one day,” she said.
I knew there was no future in waiting tables, but it was quick money; a temporary solution to my biggest problem at the time.
I promised Mama I’d go back to school one day and had every intention of doing so.