October 20, 2012
My cell at juvie was midway down a long corridor with tiled walls. Just to the right of the doorway there was a small washbasin beside a toilet with no lid. At least it had a seat! At the end of the room, on the left side, a small table and plain wooden chair stood in front of a barred window that looked out on a grassy hillside behind the building. To the right of the window was a hard, narrow bed with a single gray blanket, a flat pillow, and yellowed sheets. The room stunk of Lysol; periodically, I heard heavy doors banging shut.
I asked the warden for a pencil and paper. “They’re forbidden.” I asked for something to read. “This isn’t a library.” I asked why I’d been allowed to a keep a lipstick and eyebrow pencil, since there was no mirror in the room. “This isn’t a beauty parlor.” Nevertheless, she brought me a hand mirror and said not to tell anyone, because it was against the rules. I would rather have had a book or a pencil and paper.
Lying on the bed, alternately looking at myself in the mirror and counting the cracks in the ceiling, I heard girls screaming and crying in nearby cells. Bored but not frightened, I was determined not to go berserk. I had expected going to juvie to be an adventure, just as running away had been. It had never occurred to me that juvie might be boring. I thought about Lucky, who was somewhere in the boys’ section of the building, and wondered if he was thinking about me. When we ran away, I was surprised that he got on my nerves. Was it always this way with a man you love, or was he not the right one? I felt older than my thirteen years.
I sensed there was something just beyond my consciousness that I needed to know about my life. If only I had a pencil and paper, I’d write down everything I could remember, especially the things I hadn’t dared to put in my sixth grade autobiography, and maybe that would help me figure it out. I traced my memories, searching for the missing piece.
I remembered how, when I was a toddler, sometimes my mother would lie on the floor and cry. I’d kiss her and tell her everything was okay, but she just kept crying and crying. This worried me. When we went to see Aunt Ethel and Uncle Dick, my mother would yell at my father to drive faster: she said someone was chasing us. She even wanted him to go through red lights. I’d look back, but I could never figure out which car was chasing us.
One night I was awakened by my mother’s crying. By now I knew how to climb out of my crib, so I got up and went to her. Sitting on the stairs, weeping, she told me she’d read in the newspaper that Auntie Ethel was dead. Daddy said it was just a bad dream and I should go back to bed.
Not long after that, my mother went to the hospital. She’d had a nervous breakdown. I was two years old; she was thirty-eight. After the nervous breakdown I felt like I couldn’t trust her to take care of me or even herself, and I always feared that she might have another one.
Someone slid my dinner through a slot at the bottom of the door: cold mashed potatoes, a cold, rubbery fried chicken leg, and some grayish green canned peas. This was even worse than my mother’s bland casseroles but better than starvation, so I ate.
I thought about my parents’ gambling: poker, bingo, horse races, Reno. My dad, who’d introduced my mom to gambling, took greater risks than she did, and she’d recently shown me the little black leather book in which he kept track of his daily winnings and losses at Golden Gate Fields and the card clubs, because she was concerned about the losses. I wished my parents would take up dancing or gardening—anything else! Why couldn’t they be athletic or musical? Gambling seemed like a horrible way to spend their time, especially since my mom was so worried about losing money.
My bed in juvie was hard. I would have liked another blanket and a better pillow. I folded the blanket in half lengthwise to make two layers and stuffed my skirt into the pillowcase. Thinking about the time my mother came back from Reno wearing a mink coat, I fell asleep.
The next day I alternated calisthenics with thinking about my childhood. There was nothing else to do except at mealtimes, when a tray of awful food was delivered to my room. When I finished eating, I’d shove the tray back through the slot at the bottom of the door.
My mother had only that one nervous breakdown, but she remained anxious and discontented, and she expressed it by yelling and nagging. “You’re nothing but a bookworm,” she’d say when I was reading. If I didn’t answer, her pitch would rise: “You’re ruining your eyes. Children need to play outside!” If the shades were up when I came home from school, she’d scream, “Pull those shades down! Any burglar on the street can look in at us.” If the shades were down, she’d scream, “Put those shades up! It looks like a funeral parlor in here.” I couldn’t make any sense of it.
Yet she tried to please my dad, me, and others. She fixed Thanksgiving dinner every year for twelve to fourteen people and never even asked for help with the dishes. She never asked my dad or me for help with the day-to-day dishes or laundry either. And she was generous to a fault: throughout my childhood she’d loved to buy not only me, but also my friends, toys and clothes whenever we went downtown shopping.
I thought a lot about my mom at juvie, but I couldn’t understand her unhappiness. Not until I was an adult would everything finally become clear: she’d lost her mother when she was seven and seen her father for the last time when she was twelve, and my father had gambled away her inheritance from her grandparents. My birth certificate gives his occupation as “self-employed bookkeeper.” I don’t know if he ever actually kept any books. What I do know is that my mother inherited five houses and money from her grandparents, that she gave one house to her sister and sold three, and that when the money was gone and the house we lived in was heavily mortgaged, my dad finally got a real job, as a teller at the Bank of America. They’d been married for twelve years, and I was four years old.
Often one girl or another was crying or screaming in a nearby cell. Between dinner and bedtime, it got particularly bad: several girls screaming at once. The place sounded like a torture chamber, and in a moment of panic I wondered if the girls really were being tortured. No, I assured myself, they were just going crazy because they wanted out of there.
On my third day at juvie, I was still in solitary confinement, and no pencil or paper had been forthcoming. I was tired of cold oatmeal, cold mashed potatoes, and cold, dry meatloaf and hamburger patties. I’d have given anything for another rubbery chicken leg like the one I had the first day.
I hadn’t figured out what I needed to know about my life, but I’d convinced myself that adults were no wiser than I was. The adults said it was wrong to steal. Is it really wrong? I asked myself. I decided it was wrong to steal from individuals but okay to steal from stores, because the store owners had more money than other people. The adults also said that sex outside of marriage was wrong. This, I decided, was ridiculous. Every animal on Earth does it. What could be more natural? I wished Lucky and I had made love when we ran away. Everyone was going to think we did, so I was going to get all of the notoriety and none of the pleasure. I wanted to have sex as soon as possible. Sex and marriage, in that order, would be my ticket to freedom. It was absurd, of course, but I could not escape my flawed logic.
My thoughts turned to my father’s mother, Grandma Ada, whom I’d adored. She had a guitar and an orange cat named Oscar. Although she always wore pajamas and a robe, her closet was filled with long dresses, some beaded, others with puffy sleeves. As a toddler, I thought the dresses were beautiful and hoped I could wear them someday, but what I liked best about visiting Grandma was that she never scolded me. She’d just coo, tell me the names of things, cut out paper dolls, and bounce me on her knee. The last time I saw her I was four. She asked me to pull a blanket over her and said, “I’m so lucky to have a sweet little granddaughter like you.” A few days later, my father told me she’d gone to heaven, and not long after that Grandpa Bill moved in with us.
Grandpa Bill died when I was ten, and I wore a yellow dress to the funeral. My mother urged me to go look at my grandfather, but I wanted to remember him sitting in his favorite spot, where he’d worn the upholstery thin on the red sofa in the living room, or reaching into his pockets for nickels and dimes to buy my artwork. “Why doesn’t Lucille want to look at her grandfather?” Aunt Ethel asked Aunt Liz. “Maybe she’s afraid,” Aunt Liz said, “or maybe she’s just too young to know what’s going on.” I thought, They have no idea what I’m thinking and feeling. It made me feel frightened and alone.
Now, at juvie, I was really and truly alone. By the morning of the fourth day, I was starting to wonder if they were ever going to let me out. I could understand what the girls in the other cells were screaming about, but I was determined to keep calm. I kept telling myself, They can’t keep me here much longer. I haven’t committed a terrible crime.
The fourth day, my lunch tray didn’t arrive. Instead, an enormous lady warden (was there a size requirement for working there?) escorted me to a dining hall, where I ate my cold, dry hamburger patty and instant mashed potatoes with the other girls, all of whom were wearing ill-fitting cotton skirts and blouses. After lunch the warden took me to a communal bathroom and told me to put my lipstick and eyebrow pencil into a big rusty red box with everyone else’s. I was surprised, because it was so unsanitary. Then she led me to an art class, where I started drawing a potted plant. Before I’d finished, she came back and said I was going to be released into my parents’ custody to await my hearing.
* * *
I had no concept of myself as a troubled teenager. I felt that I was normal and the rest of the world was screwed up, especially my aunts and uncles, my parents, and their friends, who included contractors, a carpenter, a barber, a car salesman, salesladies, housewives, and retired petty officers who’d served with my Uncle Dick in the Navy. All they liked to do when they got together was play bingo or poker and complain about taxes. This was not how I wanted to spend my time when I grew up. Worse, my Uncle Bob and Clyde, one of the petty officers, always raged about how the Democrats were ruining the country and the “niggers” and welfare mothers were bilking the system. I hated these racist and anti-poor tirades. Although my mom and dad weren’t the pontificators, they didn’t raise objections, either. It made me aspire to be a Democrat and a welfare mom. I wanted to be as different as possible from my family and my parents’ friends, although I was fond of Pete, a retired machinist who came from Denmark, and Eddie, a lawyer with one hand crippled by childhood polio, both of whom seemed more open-minded than the others and sometimes offered a compassionate word for black people.
I never hesitated to express my own dissent, and my aunts and uncles would have liked to muzzle me. Aunt Liz and Uncle Bob didn’t have any children and were strict adherents of the “should be seen and not heard” theory of child rearing, and I always infuriated Aunt Ethel and Uncle Dick by telling them they shouldn’t force Jan to clean her plate, on which Uncle Dick heaped adult-size portions. She weighed 150 pounds when she was eight years old and had to get her clothes at Lane Bryant, a store in San Francisco for over-size people.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell the difference between my commendable insights, such as the injustice of racism and enforced obesity, and my naïve ideas, such as the ethicality of shoplifting and the desirability of teen sex and marriage. Maybe what I needed to figure out about my life was that I wasn’t always right.
Part of the problem was that I wouldn’t take my mother’s word on anything because I felt that of the two of us, I was the more mature. My evidence included the fact that my mom and Aunt Ethel always took sides in my cousin Jan’s and my arguments, making our disputes their own.
On one occasion, when Jan was five and I was eight, we were eating at a card table in the living room. “My rose is bigger than yours,” said Jan, pointing to the pink rose on her slice of chocolate cake.
I called my mother and pointed at Jan’s cake. “Jan’s rose is bigger than mine.”
My mother took Jan’s plate and exchanged it with mine, saying, “That’s your piece.” When Jan started to scream, Aunt Ethel jumped up from the dining room table and yelled at my mother that it was her fault I was a spoiled brat. Then she rushed to the living room and took the plate to give it back to Jan. As my mother tried to grab it from her, the card table went over. I wasn’t sure if it was my mother or my aunt who pushed it, but I thought it was my mother. Jan and I stared at each other for a moment, then went to comfort our mothers, who’d started to cry.
I couldn’t imagine anything like this happening in the homes of my friends. The next day I asked my mother, “Who pushed over the card table, you or Aunt Ethel?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yesterday, when Jan and I were fighting about the cake, one of you knocked over the card table.”
“That never happened! You’re a liar!” she screamed, drawing back her hand and striking me on the shoulder.
I knew she loved me. I loved her too, but I also hated her, especially when she lied, yelled, or hit me. I knew that many kids had it much worse than I did, that some were starving in India and Africa (I was frequently reminded of this), and others were beaten by their parents or locked in closets right here in the United States. No one beat or molested me (my mother often hit me, but not hard enough to cause physical injury), and we always had enough to eat. The problems in our house were no greater than those in many homes. Still, I couldn’t forgive my mother for her yelling, spankings, and lies. I was unhappy and thought the love of a teenage boy and a baby of my own would solve everything.
* * *
Soon after getting out of juvie, I heard about a party. To look pretty I wore a rose-colored pleated skirt and a white angora sweater printed with pink roses. Perhaps I would meet a boy there who’d like to have a baby with me (also a wedding, of course). I was no longer sure that Lucky, whom I hadn’t seen since getting out of juvie because he was on restriction again, was my true love. The party was at the Craig’s house, a couple of doors away from Eileen, so I told my parents that I was going to see Eileen. Her mother, who was on to us, said Eileen couldn’t go.
The house was already hopping with teenagers when I arrived. I sat on the sofa in the darkened living room and lit a cigarette. A gangly boy handed me a beer. Feeling ill at ease, I tapped my foot in time to “Alley Oop,” hummed along with “I Love How You Love Me,” and looked at the boys. Most of them wore pointed shoes and had long greasy hair slicked back on the sides and tumbling down their foreheads in “waterfalls.” Perhaps because this kind of boy would evoke disapproval in adults, this was just the kind of boy I liked best.
A boy in a black shirt and white jeans asked me to dance. His face was very long, like a horse’s. It was a fast dance, and he was a good dancer. Thinking people were watching us, I felt awkward. The alcohol hadn’t hit me yet, but I started pretending I was high. This gave me an excuse: if I wasn’t a good dancer, it was because I was drunk. Smiling at my partner, I exaggerated my movements.
More boys asked me to dance, which made me feel special. Between dances I kept drinking beer, and before long I was stumbling and slurring my speech—no need to pretend. Galen Craig, who was throwing the party with his sisters, Carrie and Diane, took me outside and told me I was drinking too much. He said I’d get sick, people would take advantage of me, I’d get in trouble with my parents, and I might end up back in juvie. I listened, then went back inside and continued to drink.
LUCILLE LANG DAY has published creative nonfiction in The Hudson Review, Istanbul Literary Review, Passages North, River Oak Review, Willow Review, and many other journals. She is the recipient of the Willow Review Award in Creative Nonfiction and a Notable Essay citation in Best American Essays. She is also the author of the children’s book, Chain Letter, and eight poetry collections and chapbooks. Her first poetry collection, Self-Portrait with Hand Microscope, received the Joseph Henry Jackson Award. She received her M.A. in English and M.F.A. in creative writing at San Francisco State University, and her M.A. in zoology and Ph.D. in science and mathematics education at the University of California at Berkeley. The founder and director of a small press, Scarlet Tanager Books, she also served for 17 years as the director of the Hall of Health, an interactive children’s museum in Berkeley. The mother of two grown daughters and grandmother of four, Lucy currently baby-sits often and lives in Oakland with her husband, writer Richard Michael Levine. Married at Fourteen is currently available from Heyday. For more info, please visit http://www.lucillelangday.com