I committed perjury when I was 14 years old. Full-blown, felony-grade perjury. I looked it up once and they call it “aggravated perjury” because I did it during a trial. Up there on the witness stand my voice was doing that wobbly thing where you’re almost crying every time you open your mouth. It was honestly boring—juror number four snoozed the whole time and there wasn’t even an audience because who cares that my mom had some pills? But I said “so help me God” and then laid it on real thick and it became fact. Go read the transcript, it’s all there. A wrinkled lady typed it out on a weird machine—her bracelet jingling five feet from my face. Sometimes at a funeral or some other place with old people I get a whiff of her grandma perfume and it lingers and I take it home with me and then don’t sleep much those nights.
My mom’s name is Petunia because her parents hated her, so it was no wonder she ended up in prison while I lived with complete strangers on the outside. But I wasn’t always on the outside. My mom got knocked up by a pimp or something and a few months later her waters splattered all over the concrete in her prison cell. Not just on the floor—on the walls and bed, too. Her cellmate was pissed and tried to punch her in the stomach. Then my big head started coming down between her legs and the other lady vomited. That’s what she told me, at least.
She would get out sometimes—she called it being “on paper”—and as a kid I always looked for her in the newspapers but she wasn’t there. Once they even let me move back in with her. But it wasn’t long before she’d miss being inside and they’d take her back to her cell where they thought she belonged.
Eventually the CPS people found a family that was supposed to adopt me. They were nice people and had a dog that always smelled like farts and I swear they thought it was me at first because a junkie-prostitute’s kid must stink. They bathed me twice a day for about five years. Their house was on one of those cul de sacs with curbs and streetlights where the neighbors are always waving from their cars.
Me and Gretchen—their real kid—stayed up late one Saturday night with flashlights in a tent in the backyard. I made her laugh with some stupid story about a crazy woman in jail who slipped in a puddle and slid all the way to the moon. It felt good to make her laugh. She was a real beauty who also managed to be the nicest person alive and I really loved her, but nothing ever happened. Anyways, that night in the tent we got drunk on Dr. Pepper and Fritos and she told me her parents just weren’t sure about me, mainly because my mom had some disease and maybe I’d get it, too. She felt “so bad” and cried. I said, “It’s fine, maybe they’re weighing their options.” It was freezing that night and when Gretchen fell asleep I scooted real close to her and kept my eyes open the whole night so she wouldn’t leave without me. I still see them all at Christmas when they remember to invite me. Gretchen ended up being a lesbian.
My mom would write me letters from prison. Poof, from the belly of the concrete abyss, a splotchy envelope would appear with my name on it and hers followed by some numbers. They were all the same: so and so stole her shampoo and she really missed me and when she got out it would be different. They always ended with: P.S. Please add money to my comisery. No joke, she misspelled “commissary” as “comisery” every time. I’m sure it was a mistake because she was a drug addict, not a poet.
Then one time she got out and it was different. Poof, there was my mom who I’d never met. I mean, I had met her a hundred times but never met her. This time she showed up and she’s a puzzle with all the pieces in mostly the right places. She made eye contact when she talked, with straight words meant for me. Before that, her words were squidgy and always meant for her.
They sent her to this leaning, three-story house downtown near the fire station where a bunch of other criminals lived. It was like six to a toilet and they were grown women sleeping on bunk beds, but they were grateful for it. “I’m just grateful to get a second chance,” she said a million times. I could tell she meant it—it really was different that time. But I couldn’t just leave my foster family and start living in the leaning house with a bunch of ex-cons. My mom had to prove herself to the judge—this fat, white-haired guy who had probably broken up more families than drugs. I saw him at Walmart once in the candy aisle and he didn’t recognize me, which is funny because there’s not a guy on the planet who changed my life more than him.
When your mom is an addict, they are very particular about when you can see her. At first we only got a couple of hours a week together at the CPS office. Two hours of awkward, forced conversation, games of Monopoly, maybe a movie. And the whole time there is this bored caseworker in the corner jotting down every sneeze, wishing she could be at home with her own damn family. One time we watched that Tom Hanks movie where the kid turns into a grown man overnight. I had a heart attack when the lady was standing there in her bra and he touched her boob real slow—I just knew if I got a boner that caseworker would take my mom right back to prison herself.
Somehow I kept it together and the caseworker told the judge mom could be trusted without a chaperone. “Unsupervised visitation” they called it. Mom would pick me up from the house on Saturday mornings—we got the whole day, sun-up to sun-down. My foster parents lingered in the front of the house and poked their noses through the blinds as I left. They had their chance, I would think, walking out. Mom’s car smelled like bacon grease because she threw her dirty aprons on the floorboard on top of a mound of empty soda cans. The car was a wreck, but things really were different that time because she wasn’t a wreck like before. She was “so grateful” that her boss let her off on Saturdays so she could spend them with me.
So, that last Saturday she showed up in her bumperless Ford Taurus (she called it her “cli-Taurus” and I laughed but only because she thought it was hilarious); she had the biggest grin when I opened the door. I mean beaming like a lightbulb in a casket.
“Let’s go to the beach,” she said.
“The beach? I don’t have a swimsuit.”
She held up a plastic sack from the dollar store. “Yes, you do,” she said, pleased with herself.
“It’s like 3 hours away,” I said.
“We…,” she fixed her lipstick in the mirror, then looked back at me, “are going to the beach.” She reached over and playfully pushed my head away with the tips of her fingers. I tried not to smile and told her she was crazy but I really meant that I thought it was the best damned idea I had ever heard.
Then we drove to the beach.
I played it cool but every now and then I looked over and she was tapping away on the steering wheel to some Garth Brooks CD. Her left leg was wedged up under her butt and strands of hair lashed her face. We had to roll the windows down because she said the A/C only blew hot. The wind churned around us like an airplane propeller; gas station receipts sucked up and out the windows. It was easy to get lost in there with my eyes shut.
After a while the pines shrunk into shrubs and it was just small town after small town. This one lonely bridge soared up like a contrail over a stretch of swampland. My mom sat up rigid, afraid she might send us flying over the edge. She let out an exaggerated sigh when we finally reached the other side.
Across from the beach, we parked at a burger restaurant—one of those off-brand places called Dairy Prince or something. There were seagulls and seagull shit all over the parking lot. The lady at the register wore a red paper crown. It was embarrassing. I asked mom if she could afford it and maybe shouldn’t we just turn around and go back. She ignored me and ordered the burgers and fries. She even got milkshakes, which I knew was too much. We ate and talked about my foster family. I told her about the time me and Gretchen slept in the tent and what she told me about not getting adopted.
“Well,” she said, “Gretchen sounds like kind of a bitch for telling you that. But I am grateful for everything they’ve done for us.”
I assured her Gretchen wasn’t a bitch but she was distant for a while after. We finished eating and then changed into our swimsuits in the bathroom. Mine had a cartoon crab and barely fit but I didn’t say anything.
All she brought for the beach were a couple of bath towels which we spread over a spot in the sand. They were pink with bleach stains and I thought maybe they weren’t even clean. She looked out over the water with her fingers tugging at the hem of her t-shirt and I was starting to get nervous about what she would look like in her swimsuit. There were a million people around. But then she pulled off her shirt and shorts and it was just a normal body underneath. Better than normal, really, and I remember feeling weird looking at her. Her skin was like mayonnaise—convicts don’t get much sun—but her stomach and arms were shaped in the right ways; her top squeezed her boobs together in the right way. I really didn’t know the woman standing there. She was much younger than I realized. And as strange to me as to any of the other men on the beach pretending not to look at her.
“I’m going to get so burnt,” she said. “Let’s get in the water.”
I followed behind her and the water soon enveloped our knees then shoulders. It brought chill bumps and I tasted it, the stinging salt. We floated up and down with the waves, which is all there really is to do at the beach. Roast in the sand or bounce around in the water. She splashed me and I think it was sort of an apology. I splashed back and then she pointed toward a tiny black shadow pinned to the horizon.
“Look at that ship out there. Can you even imagine that?”
“What?” I asked, covering my eyes from the sun.
“Being out there. Living out there. I’d be too scared.”
“Yeah. Me too,” I agreed, really thinking that she’d probably thrive cooped up in a little box like that.
We had drifted a hundred yards down the beach, right in front of a couple with a baby in a stupid hat. We walked up out of the water and my mom smiled. “She’s precious,” she said to them. The woman said something like “she hates the sand” and my mom released one of those fake laughs people do when they are trying to be cordial. It was weird seeing her talk to normal people—I don’t know when she learned to do it.
We sat on our towels, my mom trying to shield herself from the sun with her t-shirt. I was thirsty as hell from the milkshake and saltwater but didn’t know how to tell her. Sand blew into my eyes and between my teeth and I sympathized with that baby down the beach. And we sat and talked and looked out at the ship sliding across a line, transporting oil or basketballs or hair dye to Puerto Rico or someplace.
“How’s work going?” I asked her.
“Good. They might make me an assistant manager, which will give us more money and some health insurance even. My parole officer says she’s proud of me.”
“That’s good,” I said. I wanted to say I was proud, too, but my stomach swirled up into my mouth and clamped it shut.
“In a few weeks I can start looking for an apartment for us. There are people who give money to help parolees pay for deposits and furniture and stuff. Can you believe that? I’m just so grateful for those people. And once we move in we can come to the beach every weekend if you want. How does that sound?” She grinned but her eyes glistened in fear for my answer.
I smiled at her. “It’s a little boring. Maybe some Saturdays we can just watch T.V.”
“That sounds nice,” she said, sifting a handful of sand through her fingers. “What about your little Gretchen?” She was teasing but also jealous, because Gretchen had been with me on the outside all these years.
“She hates the beach,” I lied, hoping to protect her. “She almost drowned at the lake one time and never gets in the water now,” I lied again.
“Geez,” she said.
The sun was halfway across the sky then, ticking over to sundown where it wouldn’t be able to supervise anymore. So, we loaded up our towels and left the beach. The cli-Taurus was covered in sand in no time. On the way out of town we stopped for gas—Mom had to rummage around for change just to get a few drops. I slurped down a gallon of water from the bathroom faucet, holding my nose so the turdy-soap smell couldn’t get in, then we started back home.
We hadn’t made it far, not even to the contrail bridge, when mom seized up and let out a “shit” followed by “shit shit shit.” Her eyes darted from the road to the rearview mirror. I turned and saw a police cruiser flashing its blues and reds behind us. For a split second her foot mashed the gas pedal and my head struck the headrest.
“What do I do?” she screeched at me.
What do you mean “What do I do”? I thought. My hands started to sweat. “Pull over!” I shouted, pointing to the side of the road.
She jerked the car into the small parking lot of a nail salon and clicked the car off. Melting into the steering wheel, she cried and kept saying her “shits” and I couldn’t understand why she was so upset.
“It’s fine, Mom. Just get your ticket and we will get out of here. I can help you pay for it.” My foster parents gave me twenty bucks a week to mow the lawn.
She leaned back and nodded but stared forward, quietly spilling tears all over her bare legs. The officer was at the window and bent into view. He told her she had a busted brake light and took her license and registration back to his cruiser. “See,” I said, “just a brake light. No big deal.”
Our car was parked right in front of the salon where a gaggle of middle-aged women congregated inside the window, leering directly into our car. I wanted to flip them off or yell at them but I just sat there, bouncing my leg. The whole car shook.
“Please, stop,” my mom said, lightly touching my leg. “You’re making me more nervous.” Her fingers left a wet sheen on my thigh, from sweat or tears or both. So, we sat in silence except for her sniffles. In the side mirror I watched the officer fiddle around in his car. He talked on a radio at one point. Finally, he emerged with his flat-black hat falling over his eyebrows. The gravel crunched louder and louder until he was back at Mom’s window.
“Alright, Miss Petunia,” he said, kind of sing-songy, “I’m just going to give you a warning for the brake light.” He jotted something on his pad. Mom relaxed down like a rag, heaving in relief. She slid her hand under my bicep and gave a little squeeze, sort of saying “you were right” and that reassured me. He handed her a slip of paper and peered at me and around the inside of the car, then said, “Is everything alright? You seem kind of upset.” Her fingernails poked into that soft skin on the inside of my arm.
“Yes, sir. I’m just very grateful for the warning.”
“Well, I can understand that,” he said, glancing into the backseat. “Dispatch also told me you’re on parole?”
Her fingernails burrowed in. “Um. Yes, that’s right.”
“I guess you know that means I can search your car?”
She nodded like a guilty person, lips quivering slightly on the edges, and I knew then why her instinct was to run from him.
“I think I’m just going to take a quick look . . . just to be safe.”
So, he searched for the hell of it, wearing rubber gloves like Dick Tracy or something. We perched down on the curb, the salon women gawking behind us. All they needed was popcorn for an optimal viewing experience. Mom’s eyes were raw like a T-bone so I reached out for her hand but she pretended not to notice. She hadn’t looked at me this whole time.
Dick Tracy’s feet hung out of the passenger door. He was on his stomach really digging in and I couldn’t believe the shoes they made him wear—black lumps glued onto his ankles like paint cans. He was just tossing garbage over his shoulder into the parking lot. He sniffed the seat cushions and the glove box then rifled through the center console, down into (and under) the cupholders, and even poked his pinky into the CD player like a moron.
Then I saw him jiggling the air vent and that’s when mom got hysterical again and whispered to herself, “I’m going back to prison.”
“You don’t know that,” I whispered back.
“I should have never taken this trip,” she said, which was a kick in the ribs. Then she turned and looked toward me but kind of past me. “You have to tell him they’re yours.”
“What are mine?”
“The drugs. There are some pills behind the vents.” She said it as if only an idiot didn’t know by now. I gave her a confused look and wanted to tell her it was her own stupid idea to take this trip and that she was just a diseased screw-up and I would probably be one too because of her and that’s why I couldn’t even get adopted. But I knew I would lose it if I said all that.
“Won’t I get in trouble?” I whispered.
At this, she scooted up right next to me, gentle like on the beach when we weren’t sitting in front of a crime scene, and put her arm around my back; our faces were buried in a small cavity behind her hair. Her breath filled the void—a foggy smell that lodged itself when I was a baby and now squirmed back out.
“Please,” she begged. “This will ruin me.” Her eyeliner-tears left a black streak on my cheek because our faces were so close.
Craig M. Foster is the 2021 winner of the Nancy D. Hargrove Prize for Fiction. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Jabberwock Review and The MacGuffin. He lives near the Arkansas-Texas border with his wife and three young sons.