Black gnats whizzed Footer’s head as he peered into the house. It was built on land that once belonged to the Doreghtys and inside was a dark wood table with five chairs. Sweat slicked his armpits and neck, and a sour oniony smell rose from him. Footer nearly choked on the stench. He knew he’d never belong in such a kitchen, his mom pouring juice into his glass or joking with his father about something that happened before Footer was even born. He tried to avoid thinking about her but here it was all over again. Footer felt his blood bubble up into his face and his hands grew tingly and dotty with rage.
He kicked a basement window with his high top. Just nicked the glass but he was pissed, thinking about her. It was a summer night and heat surged from the ground. Locusts whisked the grasses. All those pretty little sounds she’d never hear. He kicked the window again. Glass shattered. This time he broke through.
Footer crouched inside the basement his breath socking up in his chest, his heart racing. He waited for footsteps or an alarm. But he only heard the tick of the water heater. In the dark he could see a plastic reindeer wearing a felt vest, a box full of framed photos, and half a dozen cases of soda pop. Who drinks this much pop, he wondered. Didn’t want to dwell on it but he wondered what his mom would have thought of him breaking into someone’s house.
Truth is he had no idea what she might think. He didn’t have a single memory of her. She had never touched Footer. She never held him in her arms and rocked him or sang him a lullaby. She had never seen his face. Footer had spent his first few years of life with his grandparents in Chicago. Didn’t remember much about them. They’d come to the States from Poland, worked at a bar owned by someone’s uncle. How Footer ended up with his mother’s brother, in Ingleside, he did not know.
If someone had tapped Footer’s shoulder then, asked him what he was looking for, he would have shrugged. Footer’s memory was like that. He would get hold of an idea and then it would just abandon him. It was no surprise they’d put him in remedial classes at school and one teacher had even hinted that he was slow. But the woman who taught English literature had complimented his imagination, the fantastic tales he could weave out of nothing. He’d always earned B’s in those classes without even trying. And then he started to do things like hide in the girls’ bathroom or read a nudie magazine in the back of class when he was supposed to be working on geometry. He got a reputation for being odd and he didn’t mind it one bit.
Footer finished high school and took a job plowing snow, then for nearly a year worked the register at a gas station until the place closed. But it’d been months now and he had spent the entire summer without work. He couldn’t even get a job working construction in the amusement park.
Footer sidestepped stacks of newspapers and bins of clothes and headed up the stairs. His skin grew tacky inside the cool house and for the first time all day the sweat that ringed his head dried. He scratched himself and bits of skin flaked off.
At the top of the stairs was a glass case filled with porcelain figures and plates, another table with a piece of lace down the center. The walls were papered with some sort of scrolling design of greenish blue and pink, and even now at this hour, just the one light from the street outside, he could see what little sense these colors had existing alongside each other. Beyond this was another set of stairs and a chandelier that looked like cubes of strung ice.
In the room on the other side of the stairs, he discovered the TV hidden in an enormous cabinet. He palmed the remote and let his backside sink into fabric as soft as butter. Footer imagined himself sitting there as they came in—the police, the owners—because it was inevitable that he’d be caught. Footer Portman was not a lucky guy. In fact, he had the worst kind of luck, just like his mother. How else did she end up in the ground in some Chicago cemetery with what he assumed was the cheapest of graves, just her name, the date of her birth, the day she died.
He lifted his feet on the couch, propped a pillow beneath his head, and leaned back. It had been surprisingly easy. He’d overheard some teenagers outside the liquor store where he bought his uncle’s booze saying how the rich folks who lived here went away on vacation for months at a time and the house was just sitting there: a goldmine. He hitched a ride out a day later. Knew if he waited any longer he was bound to forget, his mind worked like a sieve and he never was sure what would stick.
The image of his mother did. Ania was her name. In the newspaper clipping he’d found in his uncle’s dresser drawer her hair was parted down the middle and real flat on the sides. It was the 1970s after all. His uncle was several years older than Footer’s mother and was already out of the house by the time Ania was in junior high. Still, he must have known some things about her. Footer knew she had started nurses training because it said so in the article—she had attended Rush Presbyterian and he guessed she had been smart, into books and whatnot. So how had it happened? Who was Footer’s father and how well did they know each other and later, at the end, eight months pregnant, nursing school drop out, in the middle of one of the worst snowstorms of 1973 and only a man’s army jacket to keep her warm—what had his mother been doing out that late at night?
A distant sound drew closer as tires moved thoughtfully on the county road. Footer’s heart quickened. His hands grew moist, his mouth dry and the heat of the day again clamped down on him. He hustled upstairs where he found a cul-de-sac of rooms and stepped inside the first one. Through closed blinds he could see a car with its headlights off. He opened one of the closet doors and slid inside, crouched down against a stack of shoeboxes as dress hems dribbled over his shoulders. He grew warm and the air seemed to thicken. Car doors opened and closed in the driveway. And in the fear Footer had never felt closer to his mother.
He wondered if there had been an instant when it became clear to his mother that she was in trouble and that it would not end well. Here in the dark corner of the closet, he let himself imagine her. How Ania had been bundled in her dad’s old army jacket, two scarves around her neck, a pom-pom hat. Someone at the school had encouraged her to take a leave of absence from her training. She was a single mother-to-be, but still she lingered around the hospital, took the bus there from her house, would bring an apple, a few crackers. Ania hadn’t yet told her parents that she was no longer enrolled in classes. She parked herself on one of the benches outside the visitor’s entrance and watched people come and go. Sometimes, late in the day, when most of the nursing faculty had gone, she took her white cap out of her bag and pinned it on her head. She wanted someone to walk by and recognize her. Instead, everyone glanced at her face and then dropped their eyes to her belly. They turned away.
In the few sentences newspaper articles devoted to the woman who took his mother’s life, Footer learned that Maria Torres had told her husband she was expecting. She had gained twenty-two pounds since the fall and wore a pillow beneath her dress. He pictured them assembling a crib in what had been the apartment’s extra bedroom. Later, they made a toast with plastic glasses of juice at the shower hosted by her cousins. She just needed the baby. And then one night she spotted a very pregnant-looking young woman walking three blocks from her apartment.
It had been snowing all day but evening had come early and the snowflakes that fell beneath the orange haze of the streetlights seemed larger, softer. Ania liked the way they ticked her face, and so she let her bus pass without boarding, decided to walk for a bit. What was the rush in going home? Her mother refused to talk to her, her father barked orders—telling her to get him a glass of milk or pick up the newspapers. She was gazing up at the huge flakes, feeling more content than she’d felt in weeks; shuffling through new piles of snow on the sidewalk, peering in the shop windows—relishing the glow from the blinking sign advertising an all-night restaurant.
That was as far as Footer got when he heard them in the house, running up the stairs, his heart beating so loud he was sure it would give him away. Everything he wore soaked through with sweat. His mother had bled to death in a blanket of snow in the alley between a dry cleaners and an empty storefront and Footer would die in the heat that had overtaken his body.
He heard drawers being opened and slammed, things turned over. And then it came to him that these were intruders and they were casing the place, exactly what they’d realize Footer was doing if they found him inside the closet.
He squashed himself further against the wall, thought of his mother’s face again and it soothed him, this time a black and white photo he’d found in his uncle’s room. It was a picture of the four of them—Footer’s grandparents, his mother and uncle standing in front of a church. His grandparents were not smiling, noses straight as boards. It must have been his mother’s first communion because she wore a little crown with a veil and stood there with folded hands. If he squinted he could see where the softness in her face would disappear and the edges of her adult self would poke through.
His uncle stood off from the group, his head cocked just slightly to the right, just enough for Footer to understand that he didn’t want to have his photo taken; he did not want to stand beside his parents and go to church or attend the celebratory dinner at an uncle’s bar afterward. Later, he wouldn’t want to raise his sister’s illegitimate son.
Someone was in the room where Footer hid. A tiny beam of light darted along the bottom of the closet door. The intruder threw open the drawers and dumped their contents on the floor. “Ain’t finding shit,” the voice muttered. If they were going to hurt him Footer hoped it would be over fast. He didn’t know how much longer he could stay folded up, sweating away, his heart ready to rocket out of him.
So this is what it was like, he thought, seeing his mother’s face, the one from the high school photo, only this time it was snowing great white flakes and she was moving down Ashland Avenue, past Woolworth’s and an Italian bakery, the decision to let her bus go suddenly feeling like a bad choice. She had finished her thermos of water hours ago, back when she was outside the hospital, and now everything felt wrung with exhaustion. Her boots had worn a blister along the left side of her foot so as she walked she pushed this foot along and if she were to turn around she would see a heavy track in the snow from where she dragged it. She had enough fare for the bus but she was some distance from the bus stop and she could no longer feel her fingers or toes.
She hadn’t cried when the doctor had told her she was pregnant and offered to talk with her boyfriend. She hadn’t cried when George Portman had touched her middle and then pulled away his hand as if he’d been burned, and then he’d asked ‘Why’s your stomach so big?’ And she’d said, ‘What do you think?’ Already furious with herself, how foolish she had been.
The tears hadn’t come during any of it, but now they made great warm streaks down her face and she was miles from home, thirsty and tired. She had no one to blame but herself, she was thinking, wiping the snot on the back of her hand when she noticed a woman in a navy pea coat and matching beret. A little thing, the woman was suddenly right in front of Ania. “There, there, dear, it’s going to be okay. Maria will help you. I am here to help. The Lord God himself has sent me here to help you.”
“Thank you,” Ania said, her breath quick clouds. Maybe God had taken pity on her. The woman was so tiny and her features were in miniature. Ania let the woman—Maria—rub her back. This is what it would be like if I had a friend, Ania thought, and so she let Maria take her elbow. Maria said she lived around the corner and that they could go to her apartment and warm up. Ania was already thinking how nice it would be to take off the boots.
They turned into an alley where the glow from the streetlight dimmed. Maria turned toward Ania and gave her a smile like what you might offer a new kitty. She opened her arms and pulled Ania into them, hugging her.
Maria is pretty and small, Ania thought. She is my new friend. Ania sank into the warmth of her friend’s body until a sudden chill moved in, gripping her. She took a step back and could see that Maria was no longer smiling. She had unzipped Ania’s coat, which confused her. Had Maria wanted to see her clothes? “Esto es mio,” Maria said, thrusting a fist forward into Ania’s stomach. Ania stumbled and fell, all that soft snow feathering up around her. But on the ground the hurt seemed to spread and that’s when she saw Maria’s hand and part of her arm deep inside her stomach. An ugly ache clamped down on Ania, ricocheted through her body. She pressed a now-wet mitten on the oozing wound, and then tried to push Maria away. She thought the idea, but Maria, pretty and small Maria seemed so much stronger. “NO!” Ania cried, “Please stop,” she sobbed. This woman was not her friend. “Please,” she said. It was the only thing she could think to say.
Maria hesitated. “No te preocupes,” she said. “I take good care,” and then she offered that perfect bow smile and pushed Ania back into a pile of snow, only this time Ania could not lift herself. She watched Maria work inside her, saw the dull glint of the blade, and a great rollicking wave of agony contorted her; Ania vomited but since she was lying down only part of it left her, the rest slithered down the side of her face. Maria pushed aside part of her swollen belly and yanked and yanked. She could no longer keep her head erect, felt her flesh being turned and twisted, and then Footer felt himself rolled to the side and lifted, the white light from the flashlight on his face and all that sweat was met by dry air as they yanked him from the floor of the closet and shoved him hard and fast against the bedroom wall.
“Who’s this asshole?” They didn’t wait for a response. They cuffed him across the face and Footer refrained from moving anything at all except for his eyes, which shot from the guy holding the flashlight to the one in a tank top and high tops.
“How’d this fat fuck end up here?” The guy with the flashlight asked. The other one shook his head, didn’t turn his gaze from Footer’s. Finally, out the side of his mouth, he said, “Give us the dough.”
This is where Footer had to laugh, a friendly chuckle breaking the static coolness of the house because he had wanted money, he’d initially been interested in finding cash, stuffing his pockets with it, only sometime between arriving at the house and wandering the rooms, he had forgotten his purpose. It struck him as funny. What was he doing here if he wasn’t here to steal? He started to laugh again and shook his head, “Hey guys,” he began, ready to let them in on the joke, but then a great smarting erupted on one side of his head, and he sunk to the ground.
He woke on a lounge chair in front of furniture that hid the TV, his upper body listing to one side. When he righted his head, a burning sensation slid down his neck. He tried to touch it but he was tied up, his arms angled behind him, the rest of him fastened to the seat in some way. The head, the place where they’d hit him had swelled, making it difficult to see.
He preferred that they kill him, beat him badly and left him on the side of the road, but this, to be tied to this chair, in this house? He rotated his hands in their noose, tried to turn, but everything remained tight, fastened behind him. They had trapped Footer inside his body and the great irony of it made his jaw quiver. “Get me out of here!” he roared. “Get back here you bastards!” Let them finish him off. Let them do something, anything more than this. He knew they were still there. Anger riddled his body and he knew that when this was over, when he was freed, he would be different, changed.
“Bastards!” He called to them, bastard, he thought, of himself.
Someone approached in the darkness and hit him in the head in the same spot. Pain skidded down his back. He’d play dead like he might have done as a child, goofing around with his mother, crawling over her feet as she made dinner, her slippers shuffling on the linoleum while shooing him away. Good smells rose from the oven, from the soft curve of her hip; she stirred something in a pot with a spoon, then put the spoon down and turned to him, clapped her hands on her thighs, whistled to him and their game would begin. ‘Here puppy! Here pup-pup,’ she’d say, and he’d scurry up her legs, slip his hands up the ankle of her slacks. He’d be her puppy. He yipped and wagged his behind. She’d ask him to sit and he’d obey, and she’d pet his head. ‘Good puppy.’ Then she’d ask him to beg and he’d make his back ramrod straight, pull his hands up to his chest, bark. ‘Good puppy,’ she’d say again and scratch him behind the ears.
One of the two kicked him in the belly and Footer tried to cover the hurt with his hands but they were still fastened behind him; he rolled toward his other side, like she had lay in the snow, alone, waiting for the retired couple to find her on their way home from dinner.
He could feel the chill now and shivered, the snow, it swept across his face, the wind. A heave of rage bubbled inside him and he pictured himself springing up with his fists, with his teeth gritted, blood already in his mouth; he started swinging, pummeling them, these two punks, breaking into their house, the home he shared with his mother. Who did they think they were coming here, interrupting their happiness? He thought he could hear her, his mother, preparing dinner in the kitchen. He needed to teach these kids a lesson. “Just a minute, Mom,” he said, making a silent promise that everything from this point forward would be for her.