On the Front Stoop

As I sit on the cement stoop in front of my house, I count cars, the number of people I see walking by, and the stains on our street. I imagine the oil marks and the tire tracks to be the faces of people I know—aunts, uncles, teachers that I used to have. While biding time, I realize that my life isn’t changing. I’m going nowhere like the stains that I see all around me.

I open the screen door and go back into our hot, stuffy apartment. I’m greeted by our broken air conditioner in the window, whose only function is to gather dust and cobwebs. I watch my mother make believe that she’s cleaning the house with an invisible broom and scrub brush. My stomach does somersaults as I look at her Betty Crocker chocolate cake, crumbled and split like an earthquake, sitting on the kitchen table. Her words break up and crackle when she talks, walking from room to room, chain-smoking menthol cigarettes without inhaling.

“You got to get used to it,” I hear my dad’s voice say, echoing from his urn on top of the mantelpiece. “You got to stay strong.”

“I’m trying to, Dad,” I say, “but sometimes it’s hard.”

I was in school the day that it happened.  The social studies teacher told me to go straight home, that my father had an accident. When I got to the house, Mom was crying, and my dad was already in the ambulance. He’d tripped down the basement stairs on an old paint can and hit his head squarely on the bottom step. All I remember is the blood stains on the linoleum floor, splattered in a pattern of dots that looked like the Big Dipper.

My mother hasn’t recovered. She hasn’t even bothered to remove the blood from the linoleum. “I’ll have someone come over and clean that up,” she always says, but she never gets around to it. She locked the basement door, so no one could go down there. 

The only thing she’s motivated to do these days is to take care of her precious red hair. She has long, shiny hair, but with an old woman’s wrinkled face. She keeps shampooing and brushing it, and wants to know if she still looks like a teenager.

“Do you like it straight or with a curl?” she asks.

“I don’t care,” I say, hoping that she stops bothering me.

She’s so out of it that she confuses her toothpaste for a tube of hemorrhoid ointment. She takes three showers a day but still smells funky because she puts on the same stained clothes. She walks in circles and talks in tangents. She never knows what to do next.

I heat a frozen pizza, take a couple of bites, turn up the dumb box and tune out my mother’s constant babbling. No matter how much she tries to get my attention by putting random things on my lap, I prefer sitting on my father’s tattered recliner and flipping the channels to talking.  

“I made a birthday cake for you,” she says, hoping to lift my spirits.

“My birthday isn’t until October, Mom. It’s July.” 

She shrugs her shoulders as if it doesn’t matter. To her, everything is jumbled together—the days, the months, the years. Everything is a pile of dirty clothes and dirty dishes that never get cleaned or put away.

I ignore her when she offers me a slice of crumbled cake and, instead, leaf through an old section of the sports pages, reading again about the recent trades the Phillies made and where they are in the standings.  Every Sunday like clockwork, Dad and I bought the Philadelphia Inquirer from a newspaper stand, ate bagels and cream cheese, and talked about nothing but baseball. He was a bigger fan than me, an expert from baseball’s glory days of Mays and Koufax, and often compared today’s players to the ones that he grew up watching.

“These guys nowadays don’t have good fundamentals,” he used to say. “Take Cookie Rojas, for instance. That man knew how to lay down a bunt.”

My mother must know that I’m thinking about my dad because she implores me to stop reading the sports section and look at a lame article on teenage acne. She hates when I mope around and think about him. All she wants to do is put him out of her mind, like Dad never fell down those steps and changed our lives forever.

“I already have a cure for my pimples, Mom,” I say sarcastically and pop a big zit right in front of her. She ignores me and takes an old dusty photo album from the closet that I’ve looked at a thousand times before. “None of these pictures are any different from the last time you showed me,” I say, raising my voice. “Why don’t you take some new ones?”

My mother is stuck in the past. She still has a flip phone. Won’t buy a flat-screen TV and instead watches black and white movies on a 19-inch Zenith and plays 45s on an old record player that’s seen better days.  Stuck in the past, she skims through her yearbook and imagines being in high school again, being that pretty teenage girl with shoulder-length brown hair who was carefree and never thought about death.

I go from one room to the next, trying to escape, until the only thing I can do is retreat behind my closed bedroom door and turn the lock. I lay on the bed, stare up at the ceiling cracks and think of the Phillies’ starting lineup. I imagine each player’s batting stance and write their names in the scorecard of my mind, scoring the number of singles, doubles, and homers they’ll have today. I even record how many walks and strikeouts the pitcher will have, right down to the number of pitches thrown. Of course, in my mind, they always win. In my mind, they never let me down. 

I ignore my mother banging on the door and catch myself smiling as I imagine my dreams of a world championship coming to fruition, my father up in heaven finally having something to cheer about as he watches the parade down Broad Street.

The phone rings in the living room to break up my reverie.

“It’s your friend!” my mother yells.

I unlock the door and quickly take her flip phone.

“I’ll be over in fifteen,” says Jeff. “Bring your glove and a ball.”

My eyes water and my mother gives me a look of concern.

“Thanks for rescuing me,” I say to my best friend.

“From what?” Jeff asks.

“Never mind,” I tell him. “I’ll be waiting for you on the front stoop.”