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Listener Essay - Red, Brown, And Navy Blue

  Kathy Curto is an Adjunct Professor of Writing at Montclair State University and her work has been published in The Inquisitive Eater, The Asbury Park Press, Italian Americana, VIA-Voices in Italian Americana, Lumina, The Mom Egg, Splash of Red and several newspapers covering the Hudson Valley. She holds a BA and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MSW from Hunter School of Social Work. In 2012 she was selected as one of the cast members of the first NYC Listen to Your Mother show, a national series of original live readings. Kathy lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband and their four children. This essay is also featured on Junk.

Jack’s scabs are back. Crusty and mostly brown but there are some red ones, too, and they go up and down his skinny arms. On the top of his arms he used to have smooth, round muscles that looked like perfect snowballs when he flexed which always made my mother say “Sure, this one’s Hercules with those arms.”

I told him once he had Popeye the Sailor Man arms. Except Popeye lost his snowballs again and now it’s just skin and scabs. Some of the scabs are round like mosquito bites but there are a few rectangular ones, too. I spend tons of time looking at my brother’s arms.

One of them even looks like the deep scrape I got on the back of my ankle last Tuesday when the screen door closed too fast and I lost my balance. I was wearing my new, navy blue Dr. Scholl’s and still wasn’t used to the bump under my toes. The special bump that’s supposed to make legs skinnier. That’s what the ad says.

“You’re gonna break your neck in those things,” my mother snapped when we were in Grant’s Department Store two weeks ago and I waved the pair of the sandals I wanted in front of her. “Ma, please,” I begged. She caved fast but, when I think about it now, I’m not surprised. She’s real tired these days and things are all mixed up. So she didn’t actually say yes to the Dr. Scholl’s but just motioned to put the shoebox in our shopping cart. Then she sighed her famous long, deep, hard sigh. She was fed up, I could tell. “Alright, let’s go pay,” she said and pushed the cart toward the registers. I walked beside her and when we stopped to wait next to the other shoppers who were buying summer shoes and bathing suits I noticed the frosty white eye shadow she put on that morning looked grey and there was a loose bobby pin just above her ear sticking up and coming out of her beehive hairdo.

And so as we waited together to pay the Grant’s cashier something hit me: I realized that she wasn’t the only one who was fed up. I was, too, but with myself. I was about to take the box back to the shoe department and say, Ma, I changed my mind but then the cashier said “Next!” so I just put them on the counter with our other stuff-- her new panties and the stockings she was buying for the lady on our block who doesn’t leave her house.

This truth of it all is this: I got the shoes because Jack’s using again. My mother’s had it up to here. These days she walks around with bobby pins falling out of her hair and dirty-looking eyelids. She’s tired, scared and worried and I should have just kept my trap shut about the sandals.

Navy blue Dr. Scholl’s that can make fat legs skinny are the last thing on her mind.

*** “Jack, stop picking at that,” I say. “It’s so gross.”

It’s eight o’clock on a Wednesday night and we’re lying on the couch in our den, eating pistachio nuts and watching The Waltons. He stops picking at his arm and then he starts throwing his empty shells, one by one, into the ashtray on the coffee table. When he does this I notice the scabs even more because he’s moving his arms around.

My mother’s lectures the last couple of years, the ones about Jack getting clean and staying clean obviously didn’t work. It’s not just Baggies of reefer and clips with feathers on the ends that he hides in stupid places like his underwear drawer and the console of his Camaro anymore. There are needles now, the Baggies are way, way smaller and the stuff inside is white powder not weed.

He calls it crank and my mother calls it crap. I only know what they call it and where he hides it because I snoop. I spend almost as much time snooping as I do looking at my brother’s arms.

Which brings me back to the den. I zero in on his arms again when he throws the nutshells. I try not to dwell because my mother is always telling me, “Don’t dwell, for God’s sake!”

I pray instead. Dear God, help him stop. Then I wonder if I should be saying make him stop instead of help him stop. Can God make somebody stop?

“Ha, ha,” I tease when he misses the ashtray. Then I smile which is weird and unusual because it makes the whole scene feel like we could have a white picket fence in our front yard. Or like we sit around and eat apple pie all the time. This worries me. We’re not a white-picket-fence-apple-pie family.

He laughs a small laugh and I wonder if he’s high. These days, I’m always wondering if he’s high. Then he tosses a whole nut at me and laughs again. I smile (Again? Is this a dream?) and am closer to the white fence and the pie than ever before. But I don’t throw any back at him. I want to but I don’t. I can’t. I want us to be like the brothers and sisters on television, like the families on television, who play football in their grassy front yards and toss nutshells at each other for fun. But we’re not like that. So I let him toss the shells at me and I don’t toss any back.

We finish watching The Waltons and he says, “I’m outta here.” Then he grabs the keys to his Camaro and leaves. I slip into my new Dr. Scholl’s. I want to ask God for skinny legs but decide to hold off until Jack gets clean. So I take a walk around our block three times instead.

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