Its black edge was marbled silver. The case inside its case inside the gift bag inside my closet would have saved it those thousand nicks, if it wasn’t already slotted to become a receipt-less return, funneling my mom’s thoughtfulness into store credit. I pulled my phone from where it wedged between my thighs and blurred the day’s fingerprints into a single colorless arch across my bedspread.
“What word would you banish if you could? Mine would be— “
“Really?” I said, unsure if I was questioning his unfazed participation in my greeting-less call, or his response.
“It’s a French word and legitimate drink in Greece, but hearing it in a McDonald’s radio ad, it just sounds like every coffee culture cliché wrapped up in one bogus word. A poor satire sold for $2.”
Some people use their education as a weapon, as though they never learned that everyone starts out knowing nothing, and thus feel obligated to defend themselves against any assumptions that they didn’t always know everything they know now. Not my brother. The things he learned, he used, not wielded. They were tools shaped from previous not-knowing used to shape future further-knowing.
“OK. Frappé is dead to me.”
He laughed into the phone. “Good.”
“Do you remember the credenza?”
My brother’s eyebrows slammed together. I know they did. I could see it. See it as clearly as I could see the mess that lay outside my closed door. I could envision the way his peacock spray of hairs was reacting to my words, much the same as I could envision the way the runner in the hall veered into the wall, the center of its trellis pattern long lost to the shuffling of feet and stomping off of mud. I would untwist his brow if I could, same as I scooted the rug back to center whenever I left my room for class or a run. It was annoying to ask an obvious question with intention, I knew that, but how else is one supposed to open an awkward conversation? Plus, he’d cut me off before I could banish credenza and begin as planned.
“Yes,” he finally said.
I didn’t remember the credenza, at least not what it looked like. Or what it was actually called. The woman kept saying sideboard. My mother, credenza. Or maybe it was the other way around. Either way it was supposed to have become mine. Or really, my future daughter’s. That was how the credenza-sideboard moved, from grandmother to granddaughter. I'd thought about explaining that to the woman, but the way the back of her arms slid down over her elbows frightened me. In her tightening grip on the lacquered wood, the fiery stippling on the heft of her arms, the pricked red of her face, I saw a witch who could freeze her own melting. Plus, still two years away from my first period and already well-versed in the legwork expected of my ovaries, I feared my mother wouldn’t back me up. So I watched the woman heave my mother’s heirloom into the back of her SUV. She was solid earth buried beneath an avalanche of flesh - it had taken both my father and brother to unload it.
“Me too,” I said. Like I hadn’t just brought it up. Like I hadn’t just remembered everything I didn’t remember about it. Also, exactly like I finally understood that what had really been backed down that alley wasn’t the credenza-sideboard, but my mother’s chance to pass it down her line.
A string of silence trailed my response. Not distancing us from it, but underlining the space for its continuation. I pictured my brother sitting on his couch, the length of his legs putting his knees above his lap. I pictured him rubbing his palms against the rounded points of said knees, understanding that the credenza was a door.
“Do you— What else do you remember about that year?” I said, tapping a few imaginary keys on the bed beside me.
There was only one other time we’d come close to losing something. It was near the beginning. My father moved a piano from a woman’s north side home to her weekend apartment downtown, and needed the whole truck. It was too much stuff to safely unpack in one place so my mom, brother and I were each deposited in different alleys beside a stack of cardboard boxes and small pieces of furniture. A man in brown corduroy pants and flip flops approached my mom, or more specifically, approached the pair of floor lamps huddled beside the dumpster like displaced herons.
My mom explained the lie we had all agreed upon: while taking a shortcut through the alley back from breakfast (or lunch depending on the time of day) from that one place around the corner, do you know it?, we’d spotted that very same item, and our husband (or father depending on the person), had gone to get the car to bring it home. It wasn’t not true, the lie. Except the item was already ours. And it wasn’t a car, it was a moving truck. And it wasn’t a home, it was a moving truck. The man had chuckled, lightheartedly lamenting the loss of his presumed luck, and wished my mother a continued streak of her own. Then he walked away, probably on his way to breakfast at that one place around the corner, do you know it?
“A year is a long time, Sis. What do you want to know specifically?”
I nudged the plastic bag on the floor with my foot. The blue letters and yellow starburst folded into a truncated version of itself. It wasn’t cool to shop at Walmart. All of my friends shopped at Target. My roommates shopped at Target. The overflowing grey waste bin in our shared bathroom, with its cheap plastic basketweave and square of glue residue collecting hair samples, was no doubt from Target. But Walmart was familiar. Walmart, or rather, Walmart’s parking lot, had been open to us when every street in the city was somewhere from which we would’ve been towed. Walmart’s parking lot, it turned out, was where many of the sifted-out settle. Like the man whose brown sedan hopscotched around the lot. After the first few days, a truth slid between my ribs - he wasn’t sitting in the front seat with a newspaper spread across the dashboard waiting out his wife’s shopping. He was spending his afternoons in his living room catching up on current events. Walmart had given me something and I kept going back. Besides, Target is just Walmart with better marketing.
“Pomegranate Hibiscus or Ginger Cayenne?” I asked, pulling the glass bottles from the bag.
“What? Oh. Uhh— Pomegranate Hibiscus. But really…”
“I don’t have a specific, that’s why I’m asking.”
I don’t know if we’d experienced homelessness. We found ways to make life comfortable inside the walls we had. In that way, we didn’t not have a home. A traditional house might have made - had, in the past, made - those comforts easier to achieve, but home isn’t based on level of ease. I also don’t know if naming that time mattered. If naming anything matters. But what is a name, but a summary. A way to distill all of something into a manageable package. I suppose what I really wanted to know what sort of package my brother had been carrying around. Or if he even was carrying one. People can set down packages. We don’t realize that off-kiltering ourselves with the weight of a bloated Santa sack isn’t a requirement.
The psst of my kombucha opening seemed to offer up its own secret. Perhaps the information that I hadn’t carried anything for a long time. But in the underwear and wine bottles and chip bags and banana peels and egg-glued plates and coffee mugs with stratified inner rings revealing the time between rounds in the microwave that my roommates didn’t bother picking up, I’d found something to pick up. Heaved it right over my shoulder.
That the credenza-sideboard-opportunity-to-bequeath was the only thing we lost wasn’t because we’d perfected our system or run into a continuous streak of kind strangers like brown corduroy. There simply came a time when we no longer needed to unload the truck. Whenever gas or gas station hot dogs ran out, my brother and I pried open flaps, snapped a few pictures of whatever would bring in the most cash, and posted to the yard sale apps on his phone. When the item sold, my dad would park across from the nice apartment building near the park, and my brother would stand under its glass awning, earning 5-star reviews for his consideration in not making the purchaser get out of their car and go inside.
In this fashion, we emptied out the front half of our 16-foot box truck. Rated for a 2-3 room, 1 bedroom apartment, it soon held what was left of our home as well as the belongings of whomever dialed my brother’s number as stenciled on the side of the truck. Most things were easy to part with because most things just fill space. But there were things. Ones that hurt to lose.
“Fine— let’s see. The projects, mostly, I suppose. After I ran electric to the bed and Dad started trusting me to make changes, it became all about the projects for me.”
May is when the city undergoes its annual game of musical chairs. Leases end and mailing addresses shift. Spring being the season of pale yellow forwarding stickers. May was my dad’s busiest month. May was when one lease ended for us and nothing took its place.
In the beginning, the days were fine. My dad would drop my mom and me off at the lakefront, where we’d unload folding beach chairs long pulled out of shape by the heat of the sun and the weight of the sunner. For the broad strokes of daylight, we lounged by the water with the rest of the city. But nights inside the box were bad. The metal took the warm air and roasted it into something unbearable. While our parents were gone one afternoon, my brother drilled through the metal wall of the cab, the drill bit sending out peels of protest as curls of metal rigatoni landed in the groove of the seat cushion. I gathered them while he cut the plug off an extension cord, and from inside the truck bed, fed it into the cab. I held the cut end he’d snaked through and listened for the rattling shudder of the rear door coming down. I slid over as he pulled open the driver’s side door and climbed in.
With one of the razors our father used to slit packing tape, my brother shaved off some of the rubbery orange coating to expose the cord’s copper innards. Working carefully, he twisted them together with the wires coming from the plug head, and wrapped the juncture with a thick belt of black electrical tape, giving the whole thing the smooth bandaged look of an earthworm. He handed the plug to me to push into the bulky red and black power converter that was plugged into the cigarette lighter. Inside the bed of the truck, two box fans blew their resident dust into the air.
And come mid-October, when the city’s breath no longer came out a warm openmouthed haaaaa, but instead was a chilled whistle through tight lips, the fans would be replaced by a king-size heated blanket, and a small space heater smudging the cold air.
“The hammock was my favorite,” I said.
“I forgot about that.” The chuckle gurgled in his throat. “You have always had two speeds: fast as hell or dead asleep.”
“Still do,” I said, taking another sip. “That summer was actually when I started running.”
My brother breathed his contemplation of that information into the phone.
Laying on my stomach in the grass, many of those summer days, I watched joggers enter the frame of my mom’s chair legs. They’d disappear behind the distended blue and white plastic stripes supporting her frame, only to reappear in a blink on the other side. Many types of people run, I learned. Not just slim swinging ponytails and architectural calves with a limited swirl of hair, but lots of different people. I watched hundreds and hundreds pass. Sometimes so many runners would run by at one time that I couldn’t focus on any one color of spandex or pumping elbow, and they’d pass from view in a clump, like pasta someone forgot to stir. I couldn’t see a common thread running through them so I settled on the idea that maybe people who don’t run are the same ones who don’t use their teeth to open packages: they’ve forgotten they’re made of tools. I wanted to do it. I wanted to run.
My brother, who spent most days wrangling ungainly mattresses up narrow stairwells, wouldn’t join me, his refusals bouncing off the pages of one mechanical engineering book or another. So for the first two weeks, my mom also said no. She herself refusing to end up head-bowed behind a podium describing the green cotton shorts she’d last seen me wearing. Then one morning, as she whisked an exceptionally defiant clump of instant coffee, she said, “I suppose no one is going to grab you while you’re actually running. They’d do it when you stopped. So don’t you dare stop until you get back here.” And with that I became a runner.
“That might have been when you finally started running in a straight line,” my brother said, part of his voice trapped somewhere in the distance between us, “but you were always a million miles a minute.”
My next sip was sharp, too sharp. I’d tipped the bottle too close to my nose, swallowed too much. I angled the phone away from my face and coughed. Trying to rid myself of the acid-dredge feeling in my throat bought me more time than planned to figure out if my brother’s detail was something I knew. I breathed out. My running had always felt to me to be a fortuitous coincidence, not a natural conclusion. But I suppose most things only feel connected if we want them to.
“Speaking of which - it’s Friday night, you should be out and about, not on the phone with your brother half-talking about the time we lived in a truck.”
Half-talking. I was being fully called out.
I wasn’t ashamed of the time we lived in a truck. But I wasn’t as comfortable with it as he was. His admissions essay had been about retrofitting the truck to have heating and cooling. He’d somewhat artlessly embedded an analogy between his first attempt, which had drained the battery in under fifteen minutes and required changing the design to involve running the space heater for an hour with the engine on and then counting on dense foam glued to the walls covered by moving blanket to retain the heat overnight, and his ability to improve through a college education. But the improvements had worked. Both for the truck and for him. I also made details of my life sound like something other than what they really were.
Like how as an eleven-year-old I had a gym membership. I said it in a way that sounded a lot like I had amenities in my life that were superfluous even for adults. That’s the way I made it sound when one of my roommates came up behind me in the kitchen and eyeballed my screen over my shoulder. We both regarded the Etch-a-Sketch pattern GPS had made of my fourteen-mile circuit, and she declared me ‘freakish like in a good way’. I’d stepped on the backs of my shoes, shifting away, and mentioned the membership. Not the pasta-stuck running packs, but the gym at which I’d never run.
“Oh, wow,” she said, her gaze falling down her front. She seemed to be chastising herself for a lack of prepubescent foresight in requesting a gym membership. I wanted to run from the room, knowing that in my trail, her tie-dyed matching sweatsuit, which could resell for more than my monthly food budget, would provide the moral support she needed. That within seconds she would regain herself and muster the energy to drop some item or another in the hall on the way to her room.
But instead, I stood there flipping my phone around in my hand. Why did I feel the need to console her? To say ‘It’s okay that you didn’t have a gym membership. Don’t worry, I don’t think you were poor or anything.” Because I’d set her up to feel that way? Because being the way she was wasn’t at all what I was judging her for, but was exactly what I was judging her for?
“You going out tonight?” I said, tucking my phone in my waistband.
“Yeah. Probably,” she said, one socked foot on top of the other. “If I can manage to put my face on.” The snort was so quick and loud that for a moment I liked her.
I bent and hooked two fingers into the backs of my sneakers. “Cool cool. Well, have a good time,” I said, making for my room at a speed just north of awkward, “you know, if the face thing works out.”
“My roommates are so messy,” I cursed into the phone. “Slobs. They’re straight up slobs.”
My brother swallowed his next breath. This wasn’t a tangent. It was it. He knew it. “It’s your first semester, it’s okay to be nervous. It’s also okay to notice the things you are noticing,” he swallowed again, “but, you can’t blame them.”
“But. Nothing. If you don’t fault people their lack of walls, neither can you their having them. Hypocrisy runs both ways.”
“What about their lack of humanity?”
“They don’t lack humanity.”
“They lack something.”
“We all lack something.”
“You know what I mean.”
Every finger stuck in an ear, fly-trapped by wax, every inside-out sock by the front door, every fingernail coaxed between teeth, every drop of menstruation Jackson Pollacking the underside of the toilet seat, every tank top on the futon, every bag of popcorn eaten cross-legged on the kitchen floor. I picked every one of those things up and carried them. They were normal enough things. They were normal enough things if you had the walls to hide them behind. But to sit in the metal box of a moving truck, or to sit on the sidewalk, or lay across the park bench and do them, well, that silently defended the reasons you might be in those places to begin with. My roommates had the freedom of disorder because they could box it off. I’d understood, that first night I walked into the yellow and purple gym, with my hat brim pulled low and my mom’s keychain card held high, that I suddenly lacked that freedom. I had no tidy box in which to be untidy and so I had to be the tidy house.
Because the reality is that no one can tell on your first day of homelessness. Nor on your second. Nor your third. Your fourth. But when that vegetal tang begins to float off your skin, when the sun shades you the distinct brown of outdoorsiness, when the seams of your clothes gather your oils and diffuse them, people begin to notice. They also begin to create differences between themselves and you. But the only real difference I’d noticed was they had showers. Well, showers and washing machines. Well, showers and washing machines and a blanket blindness to the structure of our lives being a fragile illusion whose long-term stability comes from understanding as much and choosing to be a projector of our own illusion, instead of an audience member of someone else’s.
But people don’t pick up on that self-awareness, especially not when it’s mumbled from the pavement or shouted from the street corner, not the way they notice you haven’t washed yourself or your clothes. Without a shower and a washing machine, your animal shows too much and people make wider arcs on the sidewalk. Not because of the unwashed person in unwashed pants exactly - humanity isn’t pants and clean hair and forks - but because of our very thin understanding of what humanity actually is. Anyway, we had $10/month memberships at a 24-hour gym, washing ourselves acceptable while late-night hosts told jokes to empty treadmills.
“Do you want to be like them?”
“Like do I want to pick my nose when I think no one is looking? No.”
“No. Do you want to not know the things you know? Do you want to not know the things you are accusing them of not knowing?”
“Perfect. Case closed, Sis. Just consider that your silver lining,” my brother said. “Or if you’re still bent on changing how you think about that time, try considering that labeling something a ‘silver lining’ is a choice. Because making the negative aspects into the biggest aspects is also a choice.”
I tapped the bed beside me again. Dun-dun. Two taps. Dun-dun. It was the afternoon sound of a half-dozen wall-mounted laundromat televisions. It was the sound of an episode starting. It was the sound of the length of a full wash and dry cycle; the next hour’s dun-dun seeing us out the door. Through one specific afternoon’s fluke, it became the sound of my brother and I agreeing. Two more inaudible taps to the mattress.
I inhaled and released the words, “Dun-dun.”
“What was that?” my brother said. “I think I heard something, but it certainly didn’t sound like you cared at all about who that poor Jane Doe was.”
“Dun-dun.” I said.
“The whole building was burned down by a maladjusted super.”
“Ten years. For ten years he was kept in that basement.”
“Dun-dun!” I yelled into my phone.
“May the detectives return every child within the 24-hour window.”
I laugh-cried, unsure of which action was driving the other, “Thank you.”
“Have you talked to Mom and Dad?”
“A few days ago. They’re in Savannah. Mom says everything smells like horse shit and lavender, but that it’s the prettiest city she’s ever seen. And Dad talked about sitting in various courtyards listening to local students read poems they’d written.”
“That sounds about right.”
The picture had been taken at an angle from the front driver’s side. The photographer, Harold (Harry, as we’d come to know him) having stood a few feet back replicating the angle of every cover photo in the RV catalogs that he and Abigail (Abby, as we’d come to know her) had perused when seeking a home to park beside the ocean. Except, after only four years, Harry and Abby had unretired. Taillights pointed at receding waves, they’d headed back north. Their daughter, Judith (Judy, as we’d come to hear of her), had a daughter of her own and Harry had agreed to be the baby’s caregiver when Judy returned to work. Abby was going to become a docent at the conservatory near the zoo so that husband and granddaughter could stop in while she continued to experience the tropics in mid-January. They’d posted their picture just as my brother was posting an eye-level shot of a toaster.
Fourteen months after we’d moved out of our house, we bought the RV on a payment plan that I’m sure some FAQ section on the app had warned Harry and Abby against. We unpacked the moving truck in less than an hour. A slogan fit to go under my brother’s phone number if I’ve ever heard one. In the summers, we drove to Ann Arbor and Indianapolis and Madison. And when I moved into my new dorm, my brother already in his starter apartment buying used toasters and floor lamps off yard sale apps, our parents sold the moving truck and headed out.
“Hey, I just thought of something,” my brother said. “Maybe Mom will leave the RV to you.”