River of Fire, River of Light – Chapter 2


IT WAS JUST another stupid thing, something mama always said when things didn’t go right for them, which seemed to happen quite often lately, thinks Elizabeth, trying to stay awake now in the back of the droning van, looking up at the grayish indistinct ceiling. Like yesterday, truly an awful stupid day . . . she and Mikey seated on a shabby couch in the small dingy office of mama’s attorney, watched over by Mrs. Krebs, a very nice black lady whom she thought was Mr. Callahan’s secretary, although no one ever exactly said that.

Mr. Callahan was their mother’s attorney and he worried Elizabeth because he was supposedly a friend of mama’s, although Elizabeth had never seen him before, nor had ever heard mama mention his name, and anyway, anyone who was a friend of mama’s always seemed to cause them trouble somehow. The good thing was that Mr. Callahan wouldn’t charge them anything—mama said that he owed her a favor—which was of course very important since they didn’t have any money right then, and in fact never had any money, not since papa died, not that they had a lot before that. But when she and Mikey had been brought here before her mother and Mr. Callahan had gone off to court, the St. Louis Circuit Court down-town, and they had said goodbye, mama hugging them with huge tears in her eyes that Elizabeth knew she was trying to stop but couldn’t and saying that she loved them and would come back for them “No matter what happened.” Mr. Callahan hugged them too, Elizabeth especially, a little too long and hard she thought for someone she had never even met before, and her heart sank when he had shamelessly briefly groped her and at the same time she had caught a whiff of gin on his breath and she knew then that he had the same problem that mama had and understood why things had gone so wrong with their mama pleading guilty and now the sentencing that they had dreaded and prayed would be lenient was finally here and would probably not go so well for them today nor later nor for the rest of their poor lives.

And that’s what happened, more or less. The hearing ran late, and Aunt Nora and Uncle Bill didn’t arrive at the lawyer’s offices until after six p.m. It was a gloomy late May evening in the downtown, steamy, warm, and overcast, a light rain falling when they finally pushed into the seedy cluttered office, annoyed and wet, and encountered two anguished red-faced children who had obviously heard the news, that their mother had been sentenced to two hundred and fifty-two months, or twenty-one years in prison for driving drunk, a third offense, with her two children in the car and had killed the woman she had hit, a mother of two herself. The judge had wanted to make an example of her, Mrs. Krebs had quietly told them, her heavily penciled eyebrows arched, head sadly shaking, which was why the sentence was harsh.

Just another stupid thing. The next step, Elizabeth knew, would be Uncle Bill and Aunt Nora taking them back to their humble apartment on Dregnell Street, in what upbeat mama always called “Not the best neighborhood in St. Louis, but the best people,” to gather up and, as Aunt Nora phrased it, “settle” their belongings. And then, Uncle Bill and Aunt Nora, who had no children of their own, were taking them back to Greenwich, Connecticut where they told them that they had a nice big house and that she and Mikey would have their own separate bedrooms, and would have a “wonderful time together,” like going to “the City” to see the Rockettes and 30 Rock and Radio City Music Hall, and the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty and Central Park and Broadway and the Hard Rock Café and everything else that would be part of having a wonderful time together, except that their mama was locked up for a very long time and Aunt Nora was strangely vague about when they would get to visit her, as she and Uncle Bill didn’t often get back to the Midwest she had told them, and that Elizabeth and Mikey would have to be grown-up and accept that . . . or some such bullshit.

Uncle Bill was an investment banker in New York City and did “very well,” according to mama, who wasn’t doing very well herself, barely clinging to the menial jobs she had been able to find in this great recession year of 2009 after papa had died so suddenly. Mama was herself what she called the “black sheep” of the family, her older sister Nora, the favorite because, unlike mama, she was very attractive and popular, and an excellent student, receiving a scholarship to a “very good” college out east. And once she had left her less-gifted sister behind, Nora had never looked back, hardly ever communicating with her again. In fact, Elizabeth had only met her twice, before Mikey was even born, her fading remembrance of her aunt, a well-dressed attractive woman wearing an obviously expensive diamond necklace, matching bracelets, and fragrant of delicious perfume.

Elizabeth also recalled now that she had detected an unusually frightened edge in her mother’s voice when one time she had told her that because her rich snooty sister and very successful brother-in-law couldn’t have their own children, and that she, mama, had recently had some bad episodes with the law, the DWIs, she feared that they might try to somehow get custody of her babies. Mama had begun seriously tearing up when she had said this, not long after the immense tragedy of papa dying of the overdose and their shockingly rapid decline in circumstances, having to move into a crummy apartment from which mama was then gone so much, working the day job at the restaurant and the cleaning jobs at night to barely pay the bills, and often then out on weekends with her “boyfriends,” it quickly became obvious to Elizabeth that it was up to herself to hold down their little fortress.

It also became clear now that mama’s deepest fears have been realized, as she was now locked away, and Uncle Bill and Aunt Nora had swooped in to collect them. Elizabeth also knew that, unless she could do something, and soon, she and her brother would be taken far away from mama for a long, long time. Just another fucking stupid thing.

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