Unemployed

When my adoptive mom loses her job, it’s my adoptive dad who freaks. She’s the cash cow, not him. She works for a book publisher, full-time in “special marketing and sales,” sometimes sixty hours a week. He teaches three courses a semester at St. Bridget’s.

“What do we do now?” he asks the night she brings home the news.

“I’ll find something,” she says. “Don’t worry.” The tone of her voice, though, tells me she’s not all that confident.

It’s June, summer’s just coming on, and there seems to be all the time in the world. But it goes by quickly, her three months severance pay sucked up by some phony headhunter with the promise of a “better paying job in the tri-state area.” Unemployment insurance helps us squeak by. My dad’s been off the entire time, and even when he returns to the university he won’t be bringing home one-tenth of what she made.

“I thought you said you’d find something,” he badgers.

“Times are rough,” she tells him. “We’ll just have to wait it out.”

I’ve contributed what I can. But a summer job grilling “elephant scabs,” and scooping ice cream for minimum wage at Hamburger Patty’s isn’t exactly the cushion he’s looking for. Besides. On September first Patty puts up the plywood and I start eleventh grade.

“Maybe you can ask for a few more courses,” my mother suggests at breakfast one morning.

“No way,” my dad tells her. “They’d have to pay me benefits, and there’s no freaking way.”

What I notice is this: as my father becomes more and more frantic, my mother grows more calm. She’s started gardening again for the first time in years. She gets up early, reads, and writes in a journal she won’t let anybody see. She cooks, nothing elaborate, but it goes down. At night she tells me stories about growing up in northern Ontario. “We had an outhouse,” she says. “And sometimes, in the winter, if you spilled water on the kitchen floor it was frozen before you got back with a rag.”

“Were you happy?” I ask.

“We didn’t know not to be,” she tells me.

Then, during Columbus Day weekend, my father loses it. He comes inside the house and tosses the car keys on the coffee table.

“Gas is up to three-sixty a gallon!” he shouts.

My mom and I are sitting on the living room sofa taking turns reading to one another from a collection of Gabriel Garcίa Márquez stories. She looks up and says, “We’ll cut back. We live close enough to town to walk.”

“What about this winter!?” he fires back. “With the price of home heating oil through the roof?!”

“We can use the fireplace,” she tells him. “We’ll cut down a tree. If we can’t do that, we’ll break up the furniture.”

“And what will we eat?” he asks, no longer quite so confrontational.

My mother remains placid, totally unruffled.

“Shit,” she says. “We’ll eat shit.”

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