I. Snow: 1975
I am four, and my mother and I are walking at a clip down Franklin Street. It is late afternoon, and it has begun to snow. Thick flakes glide silently past us through the air while the daylight dissipates. My mother has my hand clenched in hers. She yells at me, her voice breathy and bitter.
“You’re so selfish. You always have to have everything your way,” she is saying. She sounds as though she might cry. “We weren’t going to be there much longer.”
We have spent most of the day at Tony’s, the bar half a mile from our house. We usually sit at the short end of the L-shaped bar beside the small six-foot-high square windows looking out onto the street. Tony, a young Italian man with curly dark hair, gives me a free soda in a tall skinny glass with at least two or three maraschino cherries bobbing at different levels in between the ice cubes. My mother orders red wine, and my father gets beer.
“You think the world revolves around you,” my mother continues. “All Daddy wanted was another drink, and then we would have left.”
We occasionally eat lunch at the bar, since Tony has a tiny kitchen. But most of the time there’s nothing to do at Tony’s. Sometimes I play with the cigarette machine. Sometimes I sit and read the cartoony wooden bar signs over and over, especially the one with a numbered list on it that mentions something strange and scary sounding called a “hiball” and “having one or two in the afternoon.” Sometimes, when the kitchen is closed, my mother lets me get potato chips or beer nuts. And sometimes, like today, I don’t cooperate.
After my parents had fought over who would take me home and thus have to leave the bar, my mother had given in. Their friends had looked on with content amusement, thankful they did not have to concern themselves with the needs of a child.
My mother tugs on my hand. “Don’t you ever think about anyone except yourself?” she chides.
The snowflakes drift by and begin to collect on the pavement, turning it bright white despite the dusk. I am momentarily baffled at how the simple happiness snow brings contrasts with the dull ache in my chest caused by my mother’s words. These two things seem to come from opposite ends of the world, and I am so unsettled by the dissonance that I become dizzy and feel like I might throw up.
II. Gabe: 1977
Gabe is a children’s shoe salesman whom my parents and I know from Tony’s. He reminds me of Franken Berry with his bulbous body, bald pate, and broad chin. My mother and I go to his store every few months to buy me new sneakers because he gives us a discount.
He is very nice to us at the store. He gives me a lollypop wrapped in a clear square of ridged cellophane when my mother pays him at the register. His smile is genuine, and his voice is calm and measured.
But his huge forehead gleams with sweat like it does at the bar, tacking down the ends of his muddy brown bangs into damp, feathery curls. This reminds me that he is the same man my family has begrudgingly driven home from the bar several times due to his severely inebriated state. He is the same man who gets so loaded his body practically transforms into Jello, top heavy and incapable of stabilizing itself.
He’s also the same man who stumbles his way to my family’s table at local restaurants while we’re eating dinner and joins us uninvited. His eyes grow wider and more agitated with each glass of scotch as he barrages me with questions about school or boys or my piano lessons. My parents are less than thrilled by his company, yet they don’t chase him away. They let him slur on and on, more invested in being polite than in protecting me.
When I am older, around eleven, I will draw the line. I will tell my parents I refuse to go to certain restaurants for dinner or drinks because Gabe will possibly be there. To compromise, my father will check to make sure Gabe isn’t in the restaurant of choice while my mother and I wait in the car. However, Gabe will usually show up anyway, which won’t surprise me. What will surprise me is how I could have been smarter than my own father and known Gabe would inevitably materialize when he didn’t.
III. Quarter Man: 1980
At the bar with my parents one Saturday afternoon, a man staggers over to me as I am drawing. His youthful attire-denim jacket, jeans, and white T-shirt-is oddly disparate with his haggard face. He corners me between the wall at my back and the bar. I can see the rigid stubble hairs on his cheeks, and for a brief moment I am positive gauzy smoke tendrils exit his chafed nostrils, but it could just be the thick haze of the cigarette smoke in the air.
He says he saw me at the jukebox and asks if I like to dance. Although I am nowhere near puberty, my body registers the subtle sexual connotation of his inquiry. I shrug my shoulders; it seems safer than giving him a black or white answer. Maybe it’ll dissatisfy him and he’ll go away. Instead, he lingers. My parents and their friends are beside us, sipping their drinks. They all watch, yet no one intervenes.
The man shoves his hand into his jeans pocket, fumbles around, and pulls out some change, some of which clatters lazily to the dingy linoleum. I am suddenly lightheaded and realize I have been holding my breath. He studies the coins in his hand, momentarily transfixed, as if they are exotic seashells he has scooped up at the tide’s edge. He selects two shiny quarters and holds them out to me. “Here,” he drawls. “Play some music.” I’m not sure if it’s an offer or a demand.
I am constantly asking my father for quarters to play the jukebox. But I don’t want them from this man. I bite the inside of my lip until it bleeds. He stands there waiting, gazing at me sadly and hungrily. The quarters rest on his palm, a second pair of watchful eyes.
I extend my hand and try not to feel as he takes it in his and slips me the quarters. I thrust the warm coins out of sight into the left pocket of the new down vest I am wearing and wipe my hand on my jeans.
After we get home, I take off my vest and bury it underneath several jackets on the coat rack. It remains hidden and untouched until almost a year later, when in a fit of courage, I retrieve the coins from the pocket and hurl them into the kitchen trash can.
A. J. Tallman is a writer, editor, and musician living in Pennsylvania. Her creative nonfiction has also appeared in Lost Magazine online. Besides helming an anonymous blog about her childhood memories and writing book reviews, she is also working on a memoir.