The Deadbeat

by Theresa Starkey

From the age of ten to seventeen I lived in so many places: in doublewide trailers, in a flat, a bungalow, in more than one ranch-style home. I lived in Valdosta, Hickory Flat, Ball Ground, Cartersville, Canton, Marietta, and across the globe in Algeria. I had lived with friends and their families, with my aunt and uncle and their son, with my grandmother and my stepbrother, in two different foster homes, with my dad and his new family. I was a lapsed Baptist, the product of a messy divorce; from the age of ten to fourteen I’d been a ward of the state. My mother had been declared unfit. I had experienced violence and witnessed it inflicted on others. My mother and I parted ways after she pinned me down on my grandmother’s front porch. She slammed my head down over and over. Inches away from my left eye the base of a rocking chair curved up like a painted white sickle. She had warned me seconds before that she was going to “kill my ass.” She had been drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon all morning and was feeling mean-spirited. I didn’t think she was serious, so I laughed at her threat. She was. I lied to the policeman when he showed up and asked me if she was the one who put that shiner on my face. He put her in the back of his patrol car and took her away to sober up in a cell. After that I chose to go back in the system. My dad had won custody, but I had wanted to be fair to her. She was a woman who saw herself as being wronged by everyone. I mistakenly thought living with her for a few months would be okay, while I waited on a visa and got my shots and passport in order to go live my dad in North Africa, in a town called Zeralda on the Mediterranean Sea.

As I saw it I had always been on my own. Houses, people, locations may have changed, but this feeling remained constant.

Lockheed transferred my father back to Cairo, where he’d met my stepmom six years earlier while working a contract for the company. His assignment became part of their courtship story, an international romance. He’d sit at the Jolie Ville Hotel bar after work or on the weekends and try to find the courage to go buy a pack of gum or cigarettes from the gift shop where she worked. It went on this way for months. She thought he was an odd man.

He converted to Islam to marry her. Her family loved him. He’d earned their respect. He had crossed a cultural and religious divide to win her hand. He was persistent. His courtship, religious conversion, and willingness to fight an ugly, four-year custody battle for me in the small Southern town of Canton, Georgia, where he was pegged as an outsider, were proof of enough of his tenacity. Growing up in boy’s home and as a tobacco picker had made him hard around the edges, but I’d seen him cry during the movie E.T. He blamed his tears on the cigarette smoke in the theater.

Now the five of us lived on a mountain called Mokattam with extended family living in various parts of the city. We lived several floors up in an apartment building with an elevator that was always out of order. I shared a small bedroom with my little brother and sister. My sister and I slept in a twin bed. She tossed and turned at night. I didn’t mind, though sometimes I slept on the sectional sofa in the living room to have a night off from being kicked or hit by her sprawling arms.

On top of the mountain were a lover’s lane, a discotheque, and a prison. Development was sparse then and most of our shopping was done in different suburbs of the city down below. Our school was located in Maadi. Being on the mountain was lonely. At night I’d sit at the bedroom window and count the cars that stopped at the distant four-way stop. I’d listen to the bark of wild dogs. Somewhere out there was my orange cat. I had brought him with me from Georgia. My stepmother was convinced that the rash my litter sister developed was from flea bites. All I know is that I came home from school one day to find our front door wide open. Panicky, I asked whether my cat had somehow gotten out. My stepmom told me not to worry, that she’d left it with a kind man who ran a nearby market. She said he liked cats. All I could think of is how out-of-place and frightened it must have felt. I knew what it was like to be dropped into unfamiliar territory.

There were other points of stress that boiled up, such as my wanting to run with my friends from school. We may have come from different countries, but we bonded over our ability to order drinks, party at nightclubs, and smoke cigarettes at the school’s back gate. We were reckless. We had a dangerous freedom and took advantage of it. One night a diplomat’s or oilman’s son snuck his parent’s car out of the garage. He was in search of thrillseekers and found volunteers. A bunch of us ended up in his car at the Wadi. We drove through the dessert with nothing around us for miles. The lights from the city grew fainter. The car moved quickly through the fog that hovered inches above a road that was barely visible through the headlights. It was a dangerous drive at night. One wrong turn could cause you to drive off a cliff. Someone had popped the Top Gun soundtrack into the cassette player. Kenny Loggins’s song “Danger Zone” blared from the car speakers.

The sandy-haired boy stopped his parent’s car and put it park. He asked someone to get ready to take the wheel. He climbed onto the hood and then up to the roof. He was high on hash and full of vodka. He pressed his belly flat against the car’s roof and stretched his arms out wide like a drunk saint wearing J. Crew. He screamed “Drive!” to the kid behind the wheel, who hit the gas. It must have felt like a mad rush. His stunt inspired others to take the same ride.

I was looking for an escape. Coming home late made me a source of gossip in our apartment building. Neighbors peeked out of windows to watch the foreign girl get out of a friend’s car or a taxi. The whispers, along with my desire to be out rather than on top the mountain, became of a source of strife between my dad and me. My stepmom didn’t understand my behavior, nor did she approve of it. Neither did my dad.

My best friend Phyllis lived in Georgia. She started to write to me around this time with a plan. She and I were going to live exciting lives of adventure and freedom. Phyllis was in limbo after graduating high school. My senior year was coming up. We’d live together as independent women far away from Canton, Georgia. This powerful story was told in epic form on the pages of notebook paper. Our lengthy correspondence included mixtapes that we made for one another with songs by Crowded House, Duran Duran, and The Cure. Our fevered letters were transformed into movie scripts with their own soundtracks.

I believed in the dream, so much so that I convinced my father to let me do it. I also believed that Phyllis was saving up glorious piles money like a committed miser. There was no doubt in my mind that she was getting things ready for our exodus into adulthood.

When I stepped off the plane my friend was happy to see me. She and her parents greeted me with hugs and excited chatter. It was a summer evening. Humid, not the dry kind of heat I’d left behind in Egypt. I was excited to have a roll of large bills stuffed into my bra. I had never had so much cash close to my heart. My dad gave it to me as starter money, along with the understanding that I had to get a job. Days later I learned that Phyllis didn’t have any money saved. Her parents weren’t as flexible as mine when it came to supporting our vision. She omitted this important detail from her letters. Her parents wanted her to enroll in Kennesaw College, to think about a career, to live at home.

They were good to me. Her dad helped me buy a car with some of my money. I bought a yellow 1975 MG convertible. He taught me how to drive a stick shift. The man had a temper. He only inflicted it upon me once. It was when Phyllis and I were following her parents back from Alabama to Georgia. I took an exit too fast off the highway and lost control of the car. It spun around several times. The breaks squealed. We screamed. Our bodies were jerked hard from side to side. The bass from an extended dance mix of Gene Loves Jezebel’s song “Desire” thumped in the car’s speakers. I gripped the wheel white-knuckled and felt the tug of my seatbelt like a giant rope burn. We ended up on the side of an embankment.

Phyllis’s dad stopped their car. He and his wife climbed up the embankment to us. Her father cursed me. His angry words were loud. Phyllis’s mother told him to calm down. His rage made me feel ashamed. He demanded to know why I going so fast. I didn’t have an answer. I drove the speed limit the rest of the way back. Phyllis turned the music down low to avoid any kind of joy. I couldn’t stay with her and her family.

I can’t remember how I ended up on my friend’s Cheryl’s couch. She was a friend that I had met back in the 9th grade at Cherokee High School. She was pretty with her long, wavy brown hair, unblemished pale skin, and red lips made bright by cherry-colored lipstick and gloss. The boys always flirted with her. She was only interested in her longtime steady, named Pop. He was a big stoner and really skinny. He didn’t talk much. The two always met at her locker before homeroom. They’d stand side by side with their fingers hooked through the belt loops of each other’s blue jeans.

Cheryl and her family lived in Cumming. Her mom had some type of healthcare job, if I remember correctly. She might have been a nurse. She was cool and turned me onto The Beatles’ White album. Cheryl’s stepdad wasn’t a fan of mine. To him I was just another teenager with problems, who didn’t understand responsibility and lacked a plan for the future. I had turned the family couch into my bed. It wasn’t a good situation. The stepdad had me pegged in a lot of ways. He didn’t care about the drama that had landed me in his house. He just wanted me out.

I found my way off his couch at an all-ages dance club in Marietta. That’s where I met my future roommate. Her name was Conda. She had a shaved head, wore a lint-free, all-black outfit, and wanted out from under her parents’ roof. I explained how I needed to find a place to live and someone to share the rent and bills with me. She was interested.

She and I searched for apartments. We drove around neighborhoods and took down numbers from “for rent” signs we saw, scanned the Creative Loafing, and made phone calls to schedule appointments. I was spending a lot of time with a guy named Derrick then. He was from Macon. He wanted to go to art school. He liked to draw, did sculptures, had a Rabelaisian laugh, and wasn’t afraid to wear a sarong. He was tall with a prominent nose, light reddish brown hair, and squinted when he didn’t wear his contacts or glasses. He loved the B-52’s, Morrissey, and Tangerine Dream. He hung around with a guy named Greg, who was his best friend from high school.

Greg drove a powder blue car, a vintage model with a white interior, and liked to listen to R.E.M.. He was a thin waif with sandy blond hair. He wore torn blue jeans, a white T-Shirt, and scuffed-up wing tips that were too big on his feet. The four of us liked to go to thrift stores to look for clothes, books, or albums. We’d walk around the High Museum on Wednesdays when it was free, and spent a lot of our time wandering around Oakland Cemetery.

Derrick wanted to stay with Conda and me on the weekends. His situation at home was tense. His younger brother was angry with him all the time. He made Derrick feel hated. His buddies teased him about Derrick being gay. Their jabs were filled with a self-righteous scorn that he chose to absorb, rather than deflect. Family can be cruel and cowardly.

The rest of my starter money went to the deposit on a two-bedroom apartment we found. For financial padding I pawned a twenty-four carat gold ring and a necklace that were gifts to me from my stepmom and my dad. The jewelry came Khan el-Khalili, one of the oldest markets in Cairo. The money was for gas, groceries and quarters for the laundromat. The man behind the pawnshop counter knew the gold was quality. His offer to me wasn’t. You don’t have the advantage when you stand on the other side of the counter in one those places. The cash was enough for a diet of Ramen noodles, sliced white bread, eggs, baloney, and processed cheese slices.

Conda and I lived in limbo for several days before we could officially move in to the apartment. The complex was two-story unit made of red brick. It sat on a hill alongside two other matching buildings lined with trimmed shrubs and maple trees. A swimming pool with a metal fence around it was located at the base of the hill. An elderly man, whose wife helped him clean the empty apartments before each new move-in, oversaw the complex. The couple’s children were grown. He was retired, but his role as property manager provided him with an income and an apartment in one of the buildings. The couple served us iced tea in their living room when I signed the lease. They took a special interest in me when they learned that my parents were halfway around the world. I assured them that my situation was just fine and that my father had promised to send me money in the mail.

Derrick, Conda, and I figured out ways to pass the time till move-in day. We stayed at a friend of Derrick’s one night and then slept on an old mattress in a small neighborhood park off Euclid Avenue. The park was partially hidden from the road by brush and thick summer greenery. We climbed the jungle gym, sat on the seesaw, and took turns pushing each other on the swingset under the clear evening sky.

It was after midnight when we pulled the mattress off the top of Derrick’s red Subaru. We didn’t have sheets or any kind of blanket. We slept in our clothes and shoes. Stretched out on the mattress we talked about our parents, about how great the apartment was going to be, and the different ways we planned to use cans of spray paint to fix up a coffee table and matching end tables. We talked about the stars overhead and watched the lights turn off behind the windows in the homes and apartments that lined the horseshoe-shaped street on the other side of the park. At dawn we woke to find ourselves an object of curiosity to a young couple out walking their dog. They stood at the foot of the mattress nursing their thermal mugs of coffee and looked down at us as their dog yelped on its leash. The dew-speckled blades of grass and morning coolness made everything feel clean.

Conda ran with a group of wannabe toughs just out of high school. They were Southern kids who saw Atlanta’s Little Five Points as I did, a bohemian paradise. On the weekends she and her friends panhandled for money in front of Fellini’s pizza joint or Pink Flamingos. They sat with the skater kids and Goth runaways that drifted up from Tampa. Most of the kids who sat under the storefront windows with their hands out wanted money for beer or that night’s cover charge. Some had left home because of some kind of wrong; most of them sat in the dirt and looked for marks just to spite their parents. They were temporary panhandlers who slipped into poverty on Friday and then out again on Sunday. Their weekdays were spent under the security of their parents’ roofs.

I found a job waitressing at an Italian restaurant named Gelato’s run by a Jamaican man named Jimmy. He called me his little sister. I worked there on the weekends and in the afternoons when I left Grady high school.

It was late in the afternoon when a rude girl named Michelle found me at the Little Five Points Pub. Not that she was unmannerly—she wore creepers and rolled-up blue jeans, like all the self-proclaimed rude boys and girls inspired by The Selecter and celebrated by The Clash. I had just sat down and ordered a hamburger when Michelle warned me that I’d better get home. She told me that I’d better hurry. Something was up with Conda. I was tired, hungry, now worried.

When I opened the front door to our apartment I found giant black lawn bags greeting me. The bags sat bloated on the kitchen and living room floors. The kitchen cabinets were emptied out except for a few chicken- flavored Ramen Noodle packets and a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. The instant meals were the only parting gifts she intended to leave behind besides back rent and several IOUs for utility bills. I had spotted her for months. She always claimed to search for work in the want ads of Creative Loafing and the Atlanta Journal. She turned down a job offer at the local dry cleaners. As she saw it there was no way she could work in place that radiated so much heat and steam.

I was never sure how she spent her weekdays after I left for school in the mornings. I had this naive faith that she’d find a job and wanted to. I was learning how to be wrong about a lot of things.

“What’s going on?” I felt like a wide-eyed dope asking the question. My mouth was dry. I felt flushed, desperate, and worst of all, small. My voice quivered. I heard it. It sounded like someone else’s. The answer was so clear. She was cleaning me out and okay with it. My early arrival was the only flaw in her plan and that didn’t seem to bother her too much as she dialed a number on the phone.

I watched her balance herself on the arm of the pink loveseat that came from her parent’s furniture store. She pressed the phone’s receiver to her ear and cocked her head to avoid looking at me.

I suddenly saw myself in our empty apartment with only my thrift-store mattress on the floor and images of U2 taped to my bedroom wall. The hardwood floors gleamed. Sunshine came through the windows, but there was no warmth here.

“I’m on the phone,” she said, and then laughed at something from the other end of the call.

“Hang up the phone and talk to me,” I said.

She put her hand over the receiver and finally looked at me. She pursed her lips and said, “I’m busy,” then turned away.

Right then I hated her. I hated her for her arrogance, for making me feel like something that belonged in one of those black lawn bags. I hated her for shedding her coveted independence so easily, for being a fake. I hated her for playing me and I hated myself for not wanting her to go.

I reached down and grabbed the phone cord and wrapped it around my wrist. With my balled fist I hit her hard on the jaw. The phone line popped out of the wall. She tumbled off the side of the loveseat onto the floor. I jumped on her and sat on her stomach like I was on a squishy saddle riding a rabid miniature pony. She tried to cover her face as I swung. Then she got one arm free and grabbed my arm. She was mad. She screamed at me, “When I get up from here I am going to put your head through the wall.”

I realized that the only thing that I had going for me was the element of surprise, and the surprise was over. She was bigger than me, chunky. She could kick my ass.

I jumped up and sprinted across the living room to where a broom was propped against the wall. I grabbed it and turned around to face her. She pushed herself up off the floor and tried to regain her balance. Her head swung slowly from side to side.

“I am going to fuck you up with this broom if you come near me,” I yelled. I gripped the handle in middle with both hands. She charged at me. I struck her three times, hard, with the end of the stick. Each blow made a muffled tock, tock sound. I think she was too pissed to feel anything. She took hold of the broom and we struggled, two unskilled wrestlers determined to take each other down.

The front door swung open. I couldn’t tell who made up the small energetic mob in our apartment. It all happened so fast. Michelle had rounded people up from the neighborhood. Conda and I were pulled apart by what felt like a dozen hands. I was crying and screaming. So was Conda. We sounded like backwoods Congregationalists speaking in tongues. Maybe we were channeling something, but it was nothing sanctioned by the church.

A boy in a bowler hat, white t-shirt and suspenders pushed Conda out into the hall. He locked the door behind her. The fight was over. Michelle and the others disbanded and left me alone. There was no small talk. They just left. I heard their footsteps as they descended the stairs. I waited for Conda to knock, but she never did.

I sat in the hallway next to the bathroom with the neon pink phone at my side. The apartment was dark except for the light that came in through the cracked blinds. I hugged my knees tightly to my chest and cried. I replayed the afternoon over and over in my head. I watched myself hit Conda, first with my fists, and then with the broom, the two of us pulled apart, our flailing bodies. The ring of the phone interrupted the nightmare loop. Conda’s mom met my hello with curtness and a news bulletin. She was going to file assault charges against me. Her daughter was covered in bruises. She wanted to know what I had to say for myself.

I told her I was sorry and that I wasn’t proud of my behavior. In my dark apartment I sat with my shame, not with feelings of victory or of being tough. I told her how I had paid for Conda’s portion of rent and bills for months. The fact that she planned to move out on the sly was too much.

I understood her anger and reasons for wanting to call the law on me. Her daughter was wrong, but that didn’t make my swinging fists right. There were no more tears to cry. I faced the harsh realization that I might be locked up, have a record, and no one there to bail me out. This was the bed I’d been warned about by my dad. I got ready to tuck myself in.

Conda’s mom never interrupted me. She just listened. When I finished talking she told me not to go anywhere and hung up. Where could I go? I didn’t have a car. The Marta bus system didn’t seem like the best way to outrun a pending manhunt. She called back around nine o’clock. She said she wanted to settle a few things. Her tone was matter of fact; first, she wanted me to know that she didn’t intend to press charges. She wasn’t happy about her daughter’s condition, but she didn’t approve of her behavior either. Second, Conda was not coming back to the apartment, ever. One of her sons would be by to pick up Conda’s clothes. As for the furniture, the drab pink sofa with matching loveseat, wooden coffee table, TV, and bedroom suit in Conda’s room, those things were staying to cover what was owed.

Several months later I stood at the corner of Euclid Avenue and Moreland and waited for the crosswalk light. A stream of cars slowly came to a stop. The idle of their engines faded as I turned up the volume on my Walkman and listed to New Order’s “Blue Monday”. The techno sound of typewriter keystrokes played as tired office workers headed home from their jobs downtown.

It started misting. The driver of a gray Mazda RXZ 7 turned on the car’s windshield wipers. The woman behind the wheel wore a soft peach-colored V-neck sweater and pearl necklace. There was no expression on her face. She just stared at me as I stood on the sidewalk. Her bobbed hair was perfectly styled. No strands were out of place. I studied her hair and powdered face. So much time went into cultivating that stylish, conservative appearance. As I looked at her I realized that she was no stranger to me. It was Conda. Her coiffed hair wasn’t real. It was wig. Six months had passed since our last encounter. Since then she had transformed herself into something shiny, seemingly delicate, and well ordered.

I kept a straight face as I met her gaze. The light turned. She looked away, put her car in gear, and drove past me. She headed down Moreland Avenue, away from Little Five Points. I never saw her again. If I did, I never recognized her.

THERESA STARKEY is the associate director for the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies and an instructional assistant professor at the University of Mississippi. Her work has appeared in the Oxford AmericanMississippi Review and elsewhere.