The next morning the girls went off to school, all of them with pink noses and runny eyes. Lacey saw them down the hill, and she was jealous they were off to somewhere the thermostat was set much higher than fifty-five.
She took a shower to beat the cold, and it was the most pleasure she had felt since Robbie went away. Had water always been this warm and good? Her hands set to work on every inch of her, and the heat seemed to sink in deep, underneath the top layer of skin—what was it called? The epidermis? She had learned the name in high school. It was only these last few weeks, since the nurse moved in next door, that Lacey started remembering she hadn’t been half-bad at biology. She had seen the nurse driving down the road to her shift at the hospital and thought, I could have been you. Sure, the nurse was fat and had no husband and left her boy with a babysitter overnight, didn’t even bother with the leaves in the yard, but it was probably seventy, seventy-five degrees over in her bungalow, and wasn’t that worth something?
Lacey shivered, and wrapped her head in towels. She felt the sin of her wet hair. How much gas was she using now? How many percents did it take to heat the house every day?
She opened all the curtains to let in the sunshine, thinking some light might warm the place. Half an hour later, she went around drawing them all closed because maybe she was letting in a draft. She had lived in the house for four years, ever since Robbie moved them all up to the north of the county, and still she didn’t know how it all worked. When she went to get dressed, she had a sudden, terrible thought: How did the water get heated? Did that use up the gas, too?
She didn’t want to call Robbie’s old boss, but she did. There was nothing else to do.
“I’m worried it might be bad for the girls. All this cold.”
“Can’t you sell your food stamps?”
“We’ve got to eat, Annette.”
“Well, the cold never killed anybody. Take Robbie. He grew up in a tropical place, where it’s hot all the time, and look at how he turned out—”
“Annette, I’ve told you, it’s not his fault. He’s got . . . ” Lacey searched for the words, tried to remember the lawyer’s exact phrase. “A chemical unbalanced.”
Annette sighed. “You played dumb for too long, Lacey May.”
“All we need is a little loan.”
“No, ma’am. Robbie already cleaned me out, remember?” Lacey May didn’t like when Annette brought up the garage.
After all his years of working for her so faithfully, Annette had nearly turned him in until Lacey May showed up at Beard Street and begged for her to look the other way, just this once. All he’d done was sell off a few spare parts.
“Anyway, aren’t you still getting those government checks?” Annette said. “How’d you burn through the money so quick?”
When Lacey said nothing, Annette cursed. “You’re as shit-rotten as he is,” she said. “You don’t love those little girls half as much as they deserve.”Hank tapped a cigarette out of the pack and handed it to her. She bent over his lighter, and when she straightened up, she saw he was staring at her.
Lacey put herself to bed, her hair leaking all over the pillows. The dog followed her into the room, whimpering. She drew three blankets up over herself and started talking out loud. Why’d you buy me this house if it was going to be so cold? Why’d you buy me this house if you were going to leave me alone?
It had been good for a long time. They had bought this little wooden house, blue with white shutters, because it sat on a large patch of land at the bottom of a hill. Robbie had built the wrap-around porch himself, and they used to sit out back and drink beers after the girls had gone to sleep. If they drank too much, he would take her right there on the porch. This is freedom, he would say. I can fuck my wife under a sky full of stars, if I want. He could slap her rump and pull her hair, and she could bite down on his finger, and Lacey wanted it all, how he handled her, how it could feel like they didn’t just own the house, but the whole hill, the woods, their own skin, one another.
Those were the only times he was rough. He never hit her, or the girls, not even after he got real bad. He would scream and he would cry, but he raised his hand only if she asked him, and it was just a part of their way, as good a feeling as his cock prodding at the inside parts that made her sing.
It had comforted her when the lawyer told her about the trouble in Robbie’s brain. It was why he needed the drugs, why he would disappear and get up to no good. It wasn’t that he had stopped loving her or the girls. It was like being sick, the lawyer had said, but it hadn’t made much difference to the judge.
There was likely an event that had set him off—a catastrophic event, a tragedy. A trigger. Lacey May had tried to think of what it could be, but all the big things had happened long before. Robbie coming to this country, Robbie moving down from New York, Robbie’s mother dying in Colombia. There was the man he’d known from work, the one who left a little boy behind. Lacey had never even heard of the man until Robbie came home, turned on the news, and pointed at the awful picture on the screen, all the yellow caution tape spread over the lawn of a house on the east side of town. “They killed my friend,” Robbie had said, but, surely, it couldn’t have been that. No matter how she searched their past, Lacey May couldn’t find a reason.
When she was all out of tears, Lacey May got the coin jar out from under the sink, patted Jenkins good-bye, and drove along the service road to the store. Inside she found a clerk and asked for Hank, and she waited for him by the coin machine, trading in all her pennies for a flimsy receipt that said she had earned nine dollars. Hank surfaced from one of the aisles in jeans and a neon-yellow worker’s vest. His hair was long, combed over so it hung down one side of his face. He waved her out the sliding doors and into the parking lot, where he kissed her behind the ear and lit a cigarette.
“God, Lacey, you’re as pretty as you ever were. Do you know that? Your teeth are fit to eat.”
Lacey hardly felt beautiful at all these days. Her eyes were red from too little sleep; she hadn’t been able to afford her good shampoo in weeks. But she did still have her smile, at least. She looked at Hank and turned it on, explained about the 15 percent. She had been careful and budgeted for everything except the gas. It hadn’t gotten cold yet since Robbie went away. She didn’t know.
“You ever think about selling that house?”
“Robbie wouldn’t like that. It’s the only thing we got to pass down to the girls.”
“What good is the house if they freeze to death?”
“Can you bring me on to work or not?”
Hank tapped a cigarette out of the pack and handed it to her. She bent over his lighter, and when she straightened up, she saw he was staring at her. They had been teenagers together, all three of them, her and Hank and Robbie, when they were in high school and working at the Hot Wing. Hank had a face full of acne then, but it had cleared now to nothing but scars, dark shadows along his cheeks. He had always wanted her, she knew, and she had liked having him get things off a high shelf for her, or rush over with a washcloth if she burned herself with the oil. But Robbie was the one who had won her, and they forgot all about Hank until they came in to do their shopping with the girls, and saw him patrolling the aisles with his walkie-talkie and neon vest.
“You know I got a place?” Hank sucked on the tip of his cigarette and let it dance between his lips. “I’ve got a yard and everything. You and your girls would fill it right up.”
“You would do that for us? You’ve got an extra room?”
“I’ve got a pullout in the basement.”
“It would be tight, all four of us on the couch, but it’s better than letting the girls freeze—”
Hank laughed and shook his head. “Lacey May, you never could take a hint.”
Lacey looked at him, confused.
“Let’s put it this way—if you stayed with me, it wouldn’t cost you nothing, but it wouldn’t be free neither.”
The wind blew hard and kicked up the smell of gasoline from the pump at the edge of the lot. Lacey pulled her coat around her.
“How would I explain that to the girls? They think their father’s on the coast working a fishing job.”
Hank shrugged. “I’m a man, not a saint, Lacey.”She asked the girls to tell her what they had learned in school while she made their sandwiches and mixed chocolate powder into hot milk.
She stared at the white button on his vest: team leader. Until now she had never believed the stories she had heard about him. The rumor was that he gave the high school girls who stocked the aisles overtime and whatever shifts they wanted if they let him fondle their tits in the back lot during their breaks. It wasn’t the worst thing she’d ever known a man to do, but she wouldn’t have pinned it on a man like Hank.
“I think I’ll go inside and get a few things for the girls,” Lacey said. She stepped around him and walked toward the store. Hank called after her.
“You were always too proud, Lacey May.”
With her nine dollars, Lacey bought a tin of coffee, another block of cheese, a magazine about TV stars and their weddings, and a fistful of bubblegum lollipops for the girls. She drove back with the heat on low so she could idle in the driveway for a few extra minutes with the engine on.
When the girls clattered in after school, Lacey gave them each a lollipop, and Diane, who had lost three baby teeth to cavities, looked at her mother, as if to see if she were sure. Lacey nodded at her and said, “That’s right, sweetheart. Go ahead, let it rot your teeth.”
She asked the girls to tell her what they had learned in school while she made their sandwiches and mixed chocolate powder into hot milk. Noelle sliced the cheese into perfect thin squares. “You could perform surgery with those hands,” Lacey said. “Gifted hands!” She’d heard the phrase before, but she couldn’t remember where. Noelle didn’t seem touched by the compliment.
“How come Daddy doesn’t come back on the weekends? We’ve been to the beach—it’s not too far to drive.”
Lacey gave her a little tap on the nose. “Cause that’s when they catch the biggest fish—something about the tide. When he calls, I’ll have him explain it.”
“Is it still winter in our house?” Margarita asked, and Lacey kissed the top of her head.
“Yes, ma’am. Isn’t it fun?” She turned on the TV.
They watched a cop show, and the girls didn’t mention their father. They didn’t notice Lacey look away when the officers caught a burglar, wrestled him onto the shoulder of the highway.
The phone rang, and Lacey leapt up. It was Robbie! He’d received the money she put in his commissary, and soon it would all be worth it. The girls would hear their father’s voice, know he hadn’t wanted to leave them.Lacey dropped the phone and slapped her child. Diane tried to defend her sister and say they shouldn’t fight, so Lacey slapped her, too, and then Margarita for good measure, and sent them all to bed.
“Miss Ventura,” said a bland voice. It was the receptionist from yesterday.
“Yes, this is Mrs. Ventura.”
She waited to hear they’d found her a job, maybe in a laundromat, selling tiny bottles of detergent to people who had forgotten theirs, or a doctor’s office where she could label the samples of pee, point people to the bathroom. She had a good manner—her boss at the Hot Wing had told her so. She had her smile. Most of all, she wasn’t stupid. There was plenty she could learn to do.
“Mrs. Ventura, the check you gave us with your application bounced. We can’t process any paperwork until you write another and refund the thirty dollars we got charged for your bad check.”
“I had the money when I first wrote the check. Why’d you wait so long to cash it?”
Lacey didn’t hear the receptionist’s answer because Margarita had started to cry.
“Mama, I’m so cold. Why is it so cold?”
“Cause Daddy left us,” Noelle said. “He doesn’t want us anymore.”
Lacey dropped the phone and slapped her child. Diane tried to defend her sister and say they shouldn’t fight, so Lacey slapped her, too, and then Margarita for good measure, and sent them all to bed. She knew they would be warmer if they all gathered in her bed, but she let them cry softly into the dark. They were carrying on as if the heat weren’t on at all, as if she weren’t trying to do what was right. She hadn’t wanted to send the last of her cash to Robbie, but he needed all kinds of things in there: underwear and cups of instant soup. He needed money to place a call.
In the night, Lacey went to check on her daughters. She sealed the covers around their skinny bodies like cocoons. They slept heavy. How lucky they were. How little they knew. They sensed his absence only in the few hours before bed—Lacey never got away from it.
Excerpted from What’s Mine and Yours by Naima Coster. Copyright © 2021 by Naima Coster. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.