Grandpa Lost His Toothbrush
Grandpa lost his toothbrush, so he was in the bathroom squeezing toothpaste on his finger. He always leaves the door open, no matter what he’s doing in there. This drives Aunt Marcellina crazy.
Lots of things drive Aunt Marcellina crazy. She hates that Grandpa smokes, so a long time ago she threw away all the ashtrays. Now he uses any cup or saucer or plate that’s handy, and if there aren’t any handy, he lets the ashes drop on the floor. Grinds the cigarettes out on the floor, too. When he’s wearing shoes. Sometimes even when he’s not. They fight about this every day.
Aunt Marcellina drives Grandpa crazy, too. She makes us eat oatmeal for breakfast, and Grandpa can’t stand the stuff. So whenever Aunt Marcellina sets a bowl of it in front of him, he stands up and dumps the glop in the trash. Then she turns purple and screams at him for wasting food. Then he says some bad words and she yells at him for that.
“Why do you let her live with you?” I asked, soon after I came to live with Grandpa, too.
“Family is family,” he said. “You can’t turn your back on family. Well, you can, but then you’d be a goddamned son of a bitch. Marcellina knows she’s got a home here for as long as she lives. You, too, kid.”
Aunt Marcellina is not my aunt. She’s Grandpa’s aunt. She’s not older than him, though. She’s Grandpa’s father’s youngest sister, or something like that. She used to have a job and an apartment. She used to live in another city. One day she came to visit Grandpa and his wife—my Grandma, but I never met her—and she never left. Grandpa and Grandma had kids. Aunt Marcellina stayed. Grandma died. Aunt Marcellina stayed. All the kids grew up and left. Aunt Marcellina stayed.
This is not my home. I’m not staying here a minute longer than I have to. The only reason I’m related to these people is because nine months before I was born, a condom broke. My mom said that to me once. Actually, what she said was, “The only reason you’re here is because nine months before you were born, a condom broke.” I was four years old when she said that, but I remember. That was before she disappeared, and a long time before I knew Grandpa and Aunt Marcellina even existed.
Grandpa didn’t really lose his toothbrush. He threw it at Aunt Marcellina when she was yelling at him for leaving the bathroom door open. She was standing in the hall, and he spun around and hurled it right at her head. Aunt Marcellina dodged, so it hit the wall. She picked it up with her finger and thumb, like it was a dead mouse, and threw it in the garbage.
“What?” he said, without turning around. He was squeezing out a long stripe of toothpaste on his finger.
“Aunt Marcellina went out.”
“Jesus Christ, kid, go play or something.”
He hadn’t gotten dressed today. Not dressed to go out. He was wearing ratty old pajama bottoms and a t-shirt that was more holes than shirt. The veins in his feet were blue. His toenails were yellow. Aunt Marcellina hated it when Grandpa didn’t get dressed. She told him it wasn’t decent. Then he’d yell that it was his house, goddammit, and he’d sit around butt naked if he wanted to.
“Mother of god. Don’t you have any homework to do?”
“It’s Saturday, Grandpa.”
He grunted. “What time is it?”
“So she won’t be back for a couple of hours.”
Aunt Marcellina always had lunch with her friends Mrs. Waller and Mrs. Tepecik on Saturday, and then she did some shopping. Aunt Marcellina liked routines. Monday to Friday, she went out in the mornings. That didn’t help me any, since I was in school. She was always home when I got back. I never got a break from her, except on Saturdays.
“Grandpa, can I have a cat?”
Grandpa stuck his finger in his mouth and started spreading toothpaste over the five or six teeth he still had in there. This was a little disgusting. He ran the water, bent his head to take a swig and swish it all around. He spit. He spit again. Whenever I complained about anything, Aunt Marcellina would tell me I was very lucky indeed to live in a house with running water AND electricity. Not a lot of people were as fortunate as me. He took another gulp of water and swished some more. After he spat that out, he said, “Don’t be a dumbshit. You know how she feels about cats.”
I knew. The thing about Aunt Marcellina that drove Grandpa the craziest was how she always rushed out to the yard, front or back, it didn’t matter, and hexed any cat that set foot on the property. Loudly. In full view of the neighbors. Grandpa always had to run and haul her back inside. He told her that one fine day she’d look out the window and see the whole goddamned neighborhood out there with pitchforks and torches and a stake to roast her on, and god save him if he knew why they hadn’t done it yet, and when that happened she’d have no cause to bitch about it, because she was asking for it.
In the foster home with Mrs. San, they’d had a cat. It was nice. It was the nicest thing in that place. We had electricity for three hours a day, but we had to get our water from the government truck. Mrs. San made us eat oatmeal, too, and she never did the laundry so the kids at school made fun of me because I smelled. So I tried to wash some of my clothes in the bathtub, and Mrs. San found me and started hitting me with the toilet brush. We were only allowed to flush the toilet after we did number two, and then we had to scrub the bowl. There were four kids living there then. Two of them were older than me, so they made me scrub the toilet when it was their turns. The other one was just a baby.
“What the hell is it now?”
“Will you tell me a story?”
He didn’t turn around. He looked at me in the mirror above the sink. His eyes were droopy, and he hadn’t shaved for a few days, so his face was covered with white bristles. Grandpa hated shaving. He would’ve grown a beard a long time ago, but Aunt Marcellina wouldn’t let him. “You know how to make coffee?”
“Yes.” I did. I used to do it at the second group home I was in. The first group home, I was only there for a couple of days. I don’t remember it too well. But I lived in the second one for almost a year. I don’t want to say the name of couple who ran it. I don’t want to remember that place. But making coffee was one of my jobs.
“Scoot yourself into the kitchen and get a pot started. I gotta take a dump.”
“Okay,” I said, and by the time he got to the kitchen I had the coffee ready and a cup and saucer and spoon and sugar on the table (Grandpa never put milk in his coffee), and an extra saucer for him to use as an ashtray. When I came to live at Grandpa’s house, Aunt Marcellina sighed and said, “Now we’re going to have to budget for milk.” Then she said that if he’d give up his blasted cigarettes, they could afford chicken once in a while. He said, “Those no-winged, stump-legged things they call chickens now? No thanks.”
“Christ.” He looked at the table, then looked at me. He scratched his chest through one of the holes in his t-shirt. “I miss television, I really do. So what kind of story do you want, kid?”
“Tell me a story about Blue Street.”
He snorted. “You like monster stories now? I’d have thought you had enough nightmares already.”
“It doesn’t have to be a monster story.”
“You scream the house down, and then blab to Marcellina, she’ll skin me alive.” He filled his cup, dumped a ton of sugar in it, and sipped it without even stirring it. Then he got his cigarettes from the top of the refrigerator. He lit one. Then he sat down.
Then I sat down.
Grandpa finished his coffee and poured some more. He finished his cigarette, and lit another one.
“Once upon a time,” he said.
“Not that way.”
“What way do you want?”
“The real way.”
“Jesus.” He closed his eyes. “Ribbie lived in a little green house made of old oil drums and spackle, and he was famous for his sorrows.” Grandpa lifted one droopy eyelid. “Okay?”
“Is this going to be sad?”
“No, the sorrows are a different story. But he was famous for them, so I just thought I’d mention that.”
“Ribbie was a trader and a peddler, making his living by buying and selling. He traveled up and down and right and left, carrying his goods on his back, or pulling them along behind him on a wagon he’d made himself out of an old crate and some wheels he pried off a baby carriage. Everybody knew him. He was a sharp dealer, but not a crook. And because he was famous for his sorrows, he was popular at funerals. He had a real knack for getting the mourning going good.”
“Did he have a cat?”
“He didn’t even have a goldfish. Now, this Ribbie didn’t trade below Blue Street. He was kind of a nervous sort, and people liked to scare him, you know, tell him stories about creatures in the sewers and flying rat-people constructing their own city on the roofs of abandoned buildings.”
“I thought you said he was popular and stuff.”
“So why did they want to scare him?”
“Because people are shits. Now, Ribbie bought and sold, and traded and bartered, but he also collected. And there came a time when he had walked up and down and right and left and all over what remained of the world, and nowhere could he find what he wanted. So he put all his best trade goods in his backpack, and all his traveling gear in his wagon, and all his courage in his pocket, and set out for Blue Street.
“Now, getting across Blue Street wasn’t hard. The road and sidewalks were all broken up and his wagon bumped and jumped, and he stubbed his toe on a chunk of concrete, but that was it. Nothing jumped out of the shadows to eat him up. Nobody swooped down from the rooftops to tear his throat out. In fact, there weren’t any rooftops, because that whole block had been leveled. Flat, you understand? It was pretty much a no-man’s-land.”
“The monsters lived further in.”
“No monsters. Didn’t you say there didn’t have to be monsters? So. Okay. It was a fine spring day and the sun was shining. Ribbie started to whistle, and some birds whistled back. He kept on whistling, until suddenly he realized what he thought were birds whistling back at him weren’t birds at all, but a man with a hairy, snouty face and long nails like claws who was sitting on a pile of broken bricks and crap like that, and another man with spiky white hair and no pants on who was standing next to the pile of broken bricks. They smiled and waved. Ribbie considered running away, but he had his courage in his pocket, so he patted it three times for luck, and trudged on.”
“Who were the weird guys?”
“They were the Border Patrol. ‘Welcome, friend,’ said the hairy-faced man. ‘What’s your business here?’
“Ribbie said, ‘I’m a traveler and a trader, a dealer and a wheeler. I buy and I sell, I barter and I swap. I thought I’d try my luck in your fair town.’
“And Mr. No-pants said, ‘Town? We are an independent republic, you asshole.’ It was like he wanted to start a fight. Ribbie felt the spit dry up in his mouth. But the other guy patted Mr. No-pants on the shoulder, and said, ‘Free enterprise is good for business.’”
“Grandpa, now you’re just making stuff up.”
“Kid, you said you wanted a story. Stories are made up.”
“I want a real story.”
“Stick with me, okay? This is a real story.”
“You have my goddamn word.” He lit another cigarette. “So the hairy guy, he asks Ribbie what he’s got to sell. So Ribbie, what can he do? He takes off his pack and lays out some of his wares. Mechanical pencils with extra leads. Eyeglasses. Freeze-dried chewing gum. You ever have that? It’s nasty. A busted flashlight. Some plastic bags in pretty good shape. An ink-jet printer cartridge, vacuum-sealed. Buttons. Hand-made fly-swatters. You know. The usual.
“And the hairy guy starts laughing. He slaps Mr. No-pants on the back, and says, ‘What do you think, Bill?’ Mr. No-pants starts laughing, too. ‘Friend,’ says the hairy guy, ‘you are going to get your ass handed to you if you go to the market lot with this junk. I wouldn’t trade my mother for your whole pack.’
“Ribbie’s eyes get real wide. ‘Really?’ he says. ‘What would you trade her for?’ And the Border Patrol stops laughing, just like that.” Grandpa snapped his fingers. “Mr. No-pants showed his teeth. Before, he was laughing with his head turned away, so Ribbie couldn’t see. Now, he wanted him to see. His mouth was crammed with maybe a hundred teeth, tiny, slender, and pointed, like a fish’s. Only his were red. The hairy guy bent his fingers, to show his nails. He could push them out and pull them back, like a cat. Now don’t you start in about cats again.”
“Now, Ribbie began worrying he might be in trouble, and he hadn’t even crossed the border yet. But remember he had his courage with him, and besides, he’d walked the world, or what was left of it, and this wasn’t the first time people had showed their teeth, or their claws. Or their guns or their machetes or their socks full of rocks. He put on his best peddler’s smile, and said, ‘I’m not joking. I’m a serious businessman, me. What would you sell your mother for?’
“Hairy face said, ‘Believe me, you wouldn’t want her.’ And Mr. No-pants said, ‘Hey, she’s not as bad as mine.’
“Our Ribbie here, he kept on smiling. He took some more items out of his pack. Pipe tobacco. Ear plugs. Fishing line. A can of vanilla frosting. Eucalyptus cough drops. A ten-hole harmonica. A couple of magazines. A peg-board chess set. All of a sudden, the Border Patrol looked hungry. And Ribbie said, ‘I’ll take my chances at this market lot you mentioned. If you would be so kind as to direct me there?’ He talked like that to show he wasn’t a dumbshit.
“Mr. No-pants said, ‘So what is it you’re looking to buy?’
“Ribbie figured he had them, then. ‘Mothers’ll do. This is good stuff here. Worth more than one. You got a mother, too, huh?’
“Mr. No-pants said, ‘Yeah,’ but the hairy guy broke in. ‘We could just kill you here and take your shit, and nobody would ever know.’
“Ribbie felt his courage grow. ‘Nobody? Not even all those folks watching from across the street?’ Because across the street there were buildings still standing, and the buildings had windows, and at every window he could see three, four, five, six people crowding together, peering out, watching. ‘And besides,’ he went on, ‘if you kill me you can take all this stuff, sure. But that would be your one and only shot at getting your hands on quality goods like these. Back home, I have storehouses crammed to the ceiling with all manner of desirables. We do business now, maybe in a month or two I’d swing around this way again, and we could do business again. Now you think about that. You think about that for a minute,’ Ribbie said, getting nervous again, starting to sweat, because the hairy guy with the snout had pushed his claws all the way out and from where he was standing, they looked as long and sharp as a panther’s. And the other guy, with the spiky white hair and red fish teeth, he had no pants, remember? But he had something wrapped round and around his waist, and as Ribbie kept talking, doing his patter, this something started twitching and loosening—unwinding. Uncoiling, like a snake, and Ribbie got to worrying he’d come all this way just to end up strangled by some mutant bastard’s six-foot dick.”
“What about the people watching?”
“Which people watching what, now?”
Grandpa froze with his coffee cup halfway to his lips. I slid off my chair and got set to bolt out the back door, in case she blamed me.
It was Aunt Marcellina, home early from her Saturday afternoon out. There was no door between the kitchen and living room, just a rectangular entryway, where someone could have hung a door if they’d wanted to. I guess Grandpa never wanted to. Aunt Marcellina stood there in the entryway, two shopping bags at her feet, peeling her gloves off. She always wore gloves when she left the house. Except when she ran out to hex the cats.
“Just telling the kid a story,” Grandpa muttered.
“Why aren’t you dressed yet? It’s the middle of the afternoon! And I see you still haven’t taken the trouble to shave.”
She was mad at him, not me. Grandpa sent me a signal with his eyes. Get.
“Is that coffee?”
“No, it’s this new kind of mud-colored vodka.”
“You won’t sleep a wink tonight. Oh, lord.” She fanned the air. “You’re poisoning all of us with that vile tobacco, and you know it perfectly well. Where do you think you’re going?” That was to me.
“Outside? To play?”
“You have chores to do.”
“Oh, give the kid a break. It’s Saturday.”
“The green ants don’t take Saturdays off. Now do they? Do they, child?”
“No, ma’am,” I said.
So I had to put on my stomping boots and get the bucket and brush and dustpan from under the sink, and go down to the basement and kill green ants. “I want that bucket full, do you hear me?” Aunt Marcellina said. “Not half full. Not three quarters full. Full.”
I hate killing the green ants. It’s the worst chore ever. They’re almost as big as mice used to be in the old days, and they make this awful squeak noise when you break them. But they eat plastic, and Aunt Marcellina says it’s our duty to humanity to kill as many of them as we can. I don’t know why it always has to be my duty, though. Fortunately the stupid green ants are slow and pretty much blind. Not like the blade-birds. Aunt Marcellina won’t even let me go to school when there is a blade-bird alert, even though the school here has a special armored bus.
“Can I go out when I’m finished?”
“We’ll see,” she said, and went back to yelling at Grandpa some more.
And of course that afternoon the green ants decided to play shy. They like water and damp places. Sometimes after it rains, the sidewalks are covered with them, a roiling carpet of green. And Grandpa’s house is old and the basement is always damp. It was damp that Saturday, too. Even so, I couldn’t find more than twenty or thirty green ants to stomp. I was in the basement for hours. And then Aunt Marcellina came down. She called me lazy and said since I liked to goof off so much, I could stay down there all night and see how I liked that. If I wanted any dinner I’d better fill that bucket at least halfway, and if I planned to sleep in my bed instead of on the gol-darned cement floor, that bucket had better be crammed up to the brim.
She let me come up from the basement to pee, but then I had to go right back down.
After a while, everything got quiet upstairs. No more footsteps. I figured Aunt Marcellina and Grandpa had finished their dinner and gone to bed.
I was tired, too. My bucket still had only about thirty broke-backed and head-stomped green ants in it, but I was about to fall over.
If I turned the lights out, I knew they’d pick that exact moment to come swarming out of the cracks they were hiding in, so I didn’t. I didn’t like it down there, but I wasn’t going to cry or anything. But even Mrs. San never made me stay in a basement all night. A closet, yeah, but never a basement. Though to be fair, that was probably because her house didn’t have a basement.
The floor was cold. I had to lie on my stomach to keep the light out of my eyes. I made my arms into a pillow. I’d slept like that plenty of times before. No problem. Only not in a basement. But it was no big deal.
“Kid.” I woke up with Grandpa’s hard yellow toenails poking my ribs. “Come on, get upstairs and go to bed.”
“But Aunt Marcellina—”
“Hell with her. This is still my house, goddammit. No, leave the bucket. Leave everything. Come on.” He put his hand on my shoulder and steered me up the stairs and through the hall, and up the other stairs to my bedroom. Then he unlaced my big boots and pulled them off. He told me to never mind my pajamas and just get under the covers.
“What happened to Ribbie?”
“Kid, go to sleep. I’ll tell you the rest tomorrow.”
“But I want to know what happened.”
“Shit, kid, it’s just a story. You can finish it any way you want. Action. Ribbie pulls out a gun and blasts the ever-loving guts out of all and sundry. Romance. Ribbie finds the love of his life on Blue Street, and they settle down there and live happily ever after. Surprise ending. Ribbie throws off his coat, sprouts wings, and flies off into the morning sky. Or he grows roots and turns into a man-tree. Use your imagination.”
“But I want to hear how you finish it.”
“Christ almighty.” Grandpa sat down on my bed. He sighed. He rubbed his eyes. They looked red, and droopier than ever. Aunt Marcellina was probably right about the coffee keeping him up. “And here I was thinking I’d done my time on the bedtime story brigade. Though to tell you the truth, I wasn’t any great shakes at it the first time around. Fact is, I wasn’t any great shakes at much. So.”
I thought he was going to say something more, so I waited. Grandpa nudged me with his elbow. “What?”
“So where did we leave off?”
“The monsters were going to eat him, and all the people were watching from the windows.”
“What monsters? There’s no monsters.”
“The guy with the fish teeth and the other one with the rat face—”
“I never said rat face. I said hairy, with a snout. Okay, I remember now. The Border Patrol. They saw some of the things old Ribbie carried with him to trade and sell, and their eyes got hungry. Ribbie got a little nervous, sure, but he was a dealer and a wheeler and a glib-tongued son of a bitch, so—”
“But the hairy-faced man had his claws out, and the one with the fish teeth was going to bite him, and his teeth were red, like blood—”
“Sure, sure. But Ribbie had been in plenty of tight spots before. Kid, if you have nightmares, I swear I’m never gonna tell you a Blue Street story again.”
“I never have nightmares.”
“Ri-ight. Well, anyway. So he said, Ribbie said, ‘You can take my trade goods, you can slice me and dice me and boil me for dinner, but then you’ll never get any more, and I’ve got shitloads of good stuff back home, I’ve got storehouses and safehouses and wheelhouses crammed full of all kinds of desirable amenities, and you’ll never see a scrap or a thread of them if you mess with me now.’
“So the hairy-faced guy, he thought about that, and he pulled his claws back. His fingers looked almost normal again. And the white-haired guy, he closed his mouth. ‘How much for the lot?’ asked the hairy guy.
“Ribbie said, ‘What do you mean, the lot?’
“‘All of it. Your whole load.’
“Now, Ribbie put his hand on his chin and made like he was thinking real hard. He thought so long and hard the Border Patrol started sweating a little themselves, glancing at each other out of the sides of their eyes, you know. Because the more they looked at his trade goods, the hungrier they got. Finally Ribbie nodded, like he’d come to a decision, and said, ‘Two mothers. Can’t take any less.’
“The white-haired guy—oh, right, he had no pants—”
“And a six-foot dick.”
“People always exaggerate. It was four foot, tops. Mr. No-pants burst out, ‘Two mothers?’
“And Ribbie jerked his chin at the people all crowded at their windows, and said, ‘I bet if I took my merchandise over to your market lot, I could get three or four. Three, four, easy. Listen, you hicks, over at Tunbridge, you can get a mother for half a bolt of homespun and one rusty scissor blade. Independent republic, my ass. You dumbfucks haven’t even got your basic running water back yet. And what about electricity? Still with the candles and the floating-wick lamps made out of old soap dishes?’
“Didn’t that piss them off?”
“Don’t say pissed off. Oh, Ribbie knew what he was doing. Putting them on the defensive, see. Calling them poor, you get it? So then they had to prove they weren’t. Like when I tell Marcellina she can’t cook beans for shit, so then she makes chili. You follow?”
“I guess. Grandpa?”
“Aunt Marcellina says you’re scared of the dark. And of getting haircuts. And yellow clouds.”
“Marcellina can go take a flying jump. She’s one to talk. At least I’m not paranoid about cats. Any case, there’s some things you’d be a fool not to be scared of.”
“Why does Aunt Marcellina hate cats so much?”
“I’ll tell you that story when you’re a little older. Anyway. Ribbie’s poking their buttons, you follow me? He says, ‘Because maybe I’d like to do business with you again, I’m willing to take a loss, this one time. Two mothers, and you get the lot. But you know, I’m a busy man. People to see, places to go. So make up your minds, or give me a pass to the market lot.’
“The Border Patrol wave him away, and they put their heads together and whisper a bit. Then they wave him back, and Mr. No-pants says, ‘How about you throw in the stuff in your wagon.’
“Ribbie goes, ‘That’s my personal traveling gear. Nothing special. Just a tent and some pots, and a sleeping bag, and some tarps, and water purification pills, and pemmican. What do you need that crap for?’
“Hairy guy says, ‘The wagon load too, or no deal.’
“So Ribbie goes, ‘You gonna play it like that, I need to see these mothers first. I don’t want any grandmothers, you know, or spinster second cousins. Don’t you be trying to pull a fast one, now.’ And the Border Patrol, they look at each other, and the hairy guy gives a little nod. Mr. No-pants nods back, then ambles off, hops over the barricade and into the warren of streets that are still more or less intact.
“Hairy-face says, ‘Two genuine mothers, guaranteed. Shit, man, they’re mine and Bill’s. You’re getting a real bargain. Neither one’s past sixty. They’re good for a lot of years yet. Now get your stuff off the wagon.’
“Ribbie says, ‘When I see the goods.’
“So they wait, until No-pants comes back, leading a couple old ladies. The old ladies look plenty pissed off, probably because they’re tied together with a length of rope, and one of them is laying into No-pants pretty good with the blade of her tongue, and when the other one catches sight of Hairy-face, she starts in, too.”
“So they were really their own mothers?”
“Yep. So Ribbie unloads his wagon, and because he’s a nice guy, he tells the old ladies they can sit in the wagon and he’ll pull them to their new home. The old ladies say, “Wait until we’re clear of the rubble at least, you numbnuts, otherwise you’ll shake and rattle our bones to bits,” and Ribbie concedes they have a point there. So he takes the rope from No-pants, and grabs the handle of the wagon in his other hand. He can’t wave goodbye, but he gives the Border Patrol a nod and a big smile, which neither of them really notices since they’ve already started squabbling over the flashlight and the vanilla frosting and the paper clips, and he nods at all the spectators pressed against the windows, and when he gets far enough away that he can be sure Hairy-face and No-pants can’t hear him, Ribbie laughs and laughs, because of course he got exactly what he wanted.” Grandpa patted my knee. “You think you can go to sleep now, kid?”
“But what did Ribbie do with the mothers?”
“Why, he put them with the rest, of course. Didn’t I tell you he was a collector?”
“Well, that’s what he collected. Mothers.”
“Trying to find a good one. Oh, I think when he started—and Ribbie was only a youngster when he started—he was trying to find the best one. But by the time he made his way over what remained of the world and finally down to Blue Street, he’d figured out that a good one was good enough. Good enough for him, you understand? Because everyone’s different, and what’s good enough for one person isn’t exactly right for the next.”
“What did he do with the ones that weren’t good enough?”
“Oh, he kept them, the ones that wanted to stay. Put them to work, if they wanted to be useful. Let them go, if they wanted. Every year he tried out five, six, seven mothers. More in a good year. You see, the thing about Ribbie was that he was a stubborn bastard. Never gave up. He was disappointed over and over again, naturally, but he kept telling himself that one day he’d find the mother that was good enough for him. So he kept trying.” Grandpa reached to turn off the light. “Time to go to sleep now, kid.”
“Christ, that’s the end of the story. What do you want now, a drink of water?”
“No. Grandpa, that can’t be the end of the story. Did Ribbie ever find the mother he wanted?”
“I don’t know. All I can tell you is that he never gave up looking.” Grandpa stood up, and switched my light off, and left.
The next day I figured Aunt Marcellina would really let me have it, but she didn’t say a word to me. I went outside to play right after breakfast, but I didn’t really go out to play. I went to look at the homes in the neighborhood. The little ones and the big ones and the middle-sized ones. The wooden ones and the stone ones and the ones made out of oil drums, and the ones made out of crates and tarps. The ones with lots of people inside, and the ones with only one. The ones with kids and the ones without. The ones with mothers and the ones without. I didn’t want to get lost, so I kept swinging back toward Grandpa’s house to keep my bearings. I saw Aunt Marcellina standing at a window a couple of times, and then I saw her standing at the front door. Grandpa must’ve been just inside, because she turned and asked, loudly, “Whatever is that child doing?”
I couldn’t hear what Grandpa said. Besides, I was pretending not to notice her.
“Playing? That’s an odd sort of playing, if you ask me.”
“I’ll thank you not to take that tone with me. You’re a disgusting old man. You should be ashamed of yourself. No, I won’t come inside. You look like a bum, and you smell worse. I don’t care if it is your house. There is such a thing as propriety. Wandering around half the night, not letting decent people sleep—”
“A story? What kind of story?”
I’d edged pretty much out of earshot by then. I didn’t catch what she said next.
It was a fine spring day. The sun was shining. Some of the neighbors smiled at me. Some of them narrowed their eyes and wrinkled up their noses. I didn’t care. None of the homes I saw were good enough, but that didn’t matter. It was only my first day of looking. Grandpa said Ribbie looked for years, and never gave up.
I spied some cats on the steps of an old, broken down wooden house. I didn’t figure anybody lived inside that house. The windows were all busted out and a part of the roof had collapsed. The cats were sitting placidly on the rotten, splintery steps. One was gray, one was black-and-white, and one was mostly white with a little orange. Their front paws all in a row, their tails wrapped neatly around their bodies, they looked like they were waiting. The way cats, especially in groups, always seem to be waiting for something. Serene and patient. As I came closer, the gray cat blinked. The mostly white one with a little bit of orange turned its head slightly. The black-and-white one didn’t move at all.
“Hello,” I said. I thought, If Aunt Marcellina could see me now, she would kill me. “I have a question, if that’s all right.” Oh, she would really kill me. She’d kill me dead.
The gray cat and the little-bit-orange one looked at each other. The black-and-white one licked a paw, nonchalantly.
Well, they hadn’t said no.
“I’m searching for a good home. A good enough home. To tell you the truth, I only started today. I’m pretty sure that home isn’t here, though. Can you tell me where I should look?”
The little-bit-orange cat and the gray cat looked at each other again. Then they looked at me, and shook their heads.
Damn. Then I thought, maybe I asked the question wrong. You have to be careful with this sort of thing.
“Um…will I ever find one?”
“That’s two questions,” the gray cat said.
“I know. Sorry.”
“Yes,” said the little-bit-orange one. The gray cat glared at it, but the little-bit-orange one just shrugged.
I couldn’t help it. I started grinning, and jumping up and down. I must’ve looked like an idiot, but I didn’t care. They said yes! Well, the little-bit orange cat did, and that was good enough. “One more, one more!”
The gray cat hissed. The little-bit-orange one said, “Oh, play fair. Two will get you three. That’s the rule.” The gray cat looked disgusted, and twitched its whiskers.
“I need to know where I can get a good toothbrush.”
All three cats glared at me.
Oh. Right. “Where can I get a good toothbrush?”
And the black-and-white cat said, “Walk north on this street until you get to the end of the block, then turn left. You will see a yellow house, and a blue house, then some debris, and then two more blue houses. Do not go to the first blue house. Do not go to the second blue house. Go to the third blue house. The man who lives there has got at least a dozen toothbrushes. You’ll have to trade him your socks, though.”
“Why my socks?”
But three didn’t get you four. I knew that. It never had, not since the beginning of time.
“Thank you,” I said to the cats. They ignored me, but that was okay.
When I got home, Aunt Marcellina yelled at me for staying out so long. Then she yelled at me because I’d lost my socks. Then she sent me to the basement again to stomp green ants. There were plenty of them this time, so I filled the bucket pretty quick.
When I came upstairs, Grandpa was in the kitchen, smoking. Aunt Marcellina was in her room, doing something. It involved banging. Maybe she was trying to fix her dresser drawers again.
He rolled his eyes. “What.”
“I have a present for you.”
“Don’t need anything.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I want you to have it anyway.” I slid the toothbrush across the table. He put his cigarette down on a rusty old jar lid he was using for an ashtray. I guess Aunt Marcellina had pitched a fit about messing up the saucers again. Grandpa raised his eyebrows.
“Don’t go thinking this means I gotta tell you stories every night.”
“No. Just when you feel like it.”
“Kid, I don’t feel like it very often.”
We heard Aunt Marcellina coming down the stairs. Grandpa made the toothbrush disappear up his sleeve. He winked at me. I nodded. When Aunt Marcellina appeared in the entryway of the kitchen, she immediately yelled at me to go and wash.
She gave me a funny look. I knew it was because I was smiling. Grandpa was smiling, too. Aunt Marcellina didn’t know what to make of the pair of us. “I don’t know what to make of the pair of you,” she said. Grandpa started laughing, but I was already out of the kitchen by then, so I didn’t get to see Aunt Marcellina’s expression. I heard her yelling, though, even after I had shut the bathroom door. I didn’t care. She could yell all she wanted. I didn’t stop smiling, and Grandpa didn’t stop laughing, either.
Tomorrow, after school, I’d look again. And the next day. And the next. For years, if I had to. Cats didn’t lie. Everybody knew that. If I was stubborn like Ribbie, and never quit trying, I would find what I wanted. Not even ten Aunt Marcellinas could change that. I washed my hands. I washed my face. I brushed my teeth, just for the hell of it. Then I started to whistle.
Two seconds later, Aunt Marcellina started yelling. She must’ve been standing at the bottom of the steps. Must’ve run there. She could move real fast for an old lady. Her voice came through the bathroom door loud and clear. What did I think I was doing, making such a racket?
I didn’t answer her. I just kept whistling.
Patricia Russo’s stories can be found in the anthologies Corpse Blossoms, Zencore, Read by Dawn volume 2, and The Best of Not One of Us. She’s had stories in Talebones, Coyote Wild, City Slab, Ideomancer, and many issues of Tales of the Unanticipated and Not One of Us.