The Mouse, Her Kid, and Me
Jodi Sh. Doff
The Mouse is up from Florida, with her 15-year-old kid. I meet them and the Greek at some bar on the west side of Midtown. She looks the same, thinner, but tough. Still tough. Dark, gorgeous, hard. You could easily imagine her pulling a gun on you. It’s no strain to imagine her using it to shoot you. Pistol whip you. Tease you. Her kid didn’t get any of that. Her kid is not pretty. She’ll probably never be pretty. But she’s a kid, and she’s at least still got a chance at growing up tough, and not much chance at surviving if she doesn’t, what with her mother being partial to a rub ’n tug or a robbery and her father being in jail for the rest of his natural life.
We’re all four of us sitting in the leather banquette of some dive. It’s dark inside, and bright outside the way we used to like it and with the exception of the bartender and one or two guys hunched over the bar, the kind of guys that are always hunched over a bar, we’re the only ones here. It’s a Tuesday morning, as in not yet noon. The rest of the world is in their office, working on their first cup of coffee. This is the second bar. Maybe the third. It’s me, the Mouse, her kid, and the Greek.
Last time I ran into the Greek was maybe fifteen years ago, and he was working the door at a yuppie bar on Eighth Avenue, of which I have no idea how I came to be there. He was still looking good then—good for the Greek, who was never more than just your average Joe, which is how he could slip in and out of situations, because he was just average and not memorable and there are things you can do in your life where average is an advantage and can keep you under the radar—and he was nice too, and nice can keep you alive. Now he’s nice and fat, but still in a very average way. Positively round, he walks with a cane, that kind of fat. He’s still got the stutter and the jimmy leg, always going tap tap tap when he’s sitting. He used to run coke. Run after-hour bars. Run whorehouses. He was friends with the Mouse and her then-husband Johnny Blue Eyes, and I was friends with the Mouse and maybe the Greek and I were friends too, but if we were, I don’t remember it. I don’t remember a lot from then, there was a lot of coke and a lot of after-hour bars. Now he takes work in the men’s rooms of top-shelf strip joints when he can get it, handing out towels; selling condoms, cologne, and breath mints. It’s easy on him, he says, because he doesn’t have to stand or walk much, he can just sit by the sink in the toilet, hand out paper towels, read the newspaper, and wait for tips. He thinks maybe he’ll be working in a whorehouse again soon; he’s got a friend who…he looks at the kid and stops talking.
Oh, who c-c-c-cares what I do, he says and laughs. What he means is he’ll tell me later when there isn’t a 15-year-old kid sitting at the table with us. The Greek is still nice, and he’s clean now, maybe fourteen years, and me, maybe eighteen or twenty.
Oh, she’s heard everything, Mouse says and she laughs and the kid giggles and plays with the straw in her soda. I laugh, too, I’m almost sure I did.
The Mouse, she’s just coming off five years of house arrest. I had the ankle monitor removed last week, she says. She tells me she’s a licensed masseuse now. She says she’s clean. She says a lot of things, some of them might even be true, but most of them you could make book on the fact that they probably are not. She says she married the kid’s father—BamBam—and he’s away. That’s how you say it. Upstate. Away. BamBam went upstate and the Mouse stayed home for five years with an ankle monitor and the kid.
I was never really married to Johnny Blue Eyes, she says. Not really. It was like being married by a ship’s captain, she says. It didn’t really count.
They were married with the president of an outlaw motorcycle club standing in for a priest. Except he was also an ordained minister, and what he said and did counted, I say, exactly the way a ship’s captain counts.
Well, I’m married to Nicole’s father, she says. BamBam is Nicole’s father. I one-hundred-percent believe this because Johnny Blue Eyes was movie-star-good-looking and the kid is clearly not his. None of which matters because she’s two for two with maybe daddys in jail. And the Mouse is out sitting in one bar, then another, and then another with the kid, the Greek and me.
I don’t know it at the time, why we’re going from bar to bar. And it doesn’t seem the kid knows either which, looking back, is understandable, because no one wants their kid to know they’re using heroin. The Mouse wouldn’t care if I knew, but I didn’t. Maybe she thought I’d figure it out because the two of us used to do the same, going from this place to that one, looking to get high so we wouldn’t get sick, except we didn’t have to look hard because back then we knew where to go. Because we went every day. But I didn’t figure it out, and I’m glad, because it’s been eighteen or twenty years since my last glassine envelope, my last bag of dope, and some things you remember the good about, even when it wasn’t always that way. Some things you remember even the bad parts being good. Heroin is like that, for one example. The Mouse for another. But I don’t know why we keep moving until the Greek clues me in on the sly later when I’m getting ready to leave. He whispers to me about the whorehouse and his friend the madam and how things are getting better and how the Mouse is still on the game and on the heroin.
J! You know what she wants to be when she grows up? Mouse says. A stripper! Like her mother. She could do it too, look at her, she’s gorgeous.
Like I said, the kid is far from gorgeous. She’s not even in the same city as pretty. Maybe all mothers think their kids are beautiful, maybe they have to. Survival of the species. Maybe we’d kill our kids at some point if we didn’t think they were beautiful. She has a nice smile, looks like a nice enough kid. She looks younger than fifteen or fourteen, seems more like she’s eleven or twelve. Like she grew up on stories of New York, which is not the same at all as growing up on the streets of New York. She smiles like a kid, which is all she is. She looks at me like I’m a movie star, which I’m not. Not even in the same city.
Oh yeah, that’s what you want, I say out loud, for your kid to be a stripper. I sip my cranberry and Seven-Up. No booze for me today. Or the Greek. Probably not the kid either, but I can’t swear to it.
The Mouse says, What? We had fun, c’mon J. We had fun. And the money is good, why shouldn’t Nicole make good money?
Why, I think. Why not? Maybe she’ll find a husband, maybe she’ll find two, and they’ll both end up in jail. Maybe one will smash her face in with a black rotary dial telephone. We were all a little bit crippled when we showed up, damaged goods; we all came away at least a little more broken. Maybe she’ll one day be forty or fifty and lying to her own kid about what she does, lying to old friends, because they don’t give licenses out for the kind of massage you do no matter what kind you say you do, Mouse, no matter what you tell the kid, I know, and you know I know. We don’t lie about the stuff we have that’s good. We lie about the stuff we don’t have that sounds like it would be good. I don’t say that out loud, not any of it. After all it wouldn’t be right to say that kind of thing in front of the kid, and while me and the Mouse have been talking on the phone now and then it is the first time I’ve actually seen the Mouse since I got clean. The first time I’m actually meeting her kid.
The Mouse called me maybe seven years ago. It was the first time I’d heard her voice in years. I was clean a good long while, but I can’t say for sure exactly how many years it had been since my last drink, or the last time I’d heard her voice. She called and I don’t know how she got my number because it’d been a good long while since I spoke to anyone we knew and I moved once and she moved I don’t know how many times.
Did you know I had a kid, J? I did, she said. I do. She’s beautiful. Looks like her father, and like me.
I thought her and Johnny Blue Eyes would have a pretty kid. Mean and tough, but good looking. I hadn’t talked to her for years. I didn’t care that she has a kid, no matter how pretty it is. I said, Who gave you my number?
J? She said on the phone, If I go to jail, will you take my kid?
The kid was eight. Give or take. I mean, at the time the Mouse knew how old her own kid was. I mean, I don’t remember for sure. Single digit age.
If I go to jail, will you take her? Be her godmother, like. I might be going away, me and BamBam—she told me about BamBam who she married all legal, not like she married Johnny Blue Eyes which she said was not legal even though we both knew it was, and how BamBam is the kid’s father. I might be going away for sixty-five years, she said. Me and BamBam, sixty-five each.
I don’t ask her for details. There had never been enough cocaine or money. It was Florida. It was the Mouse. It was what you call self-explanatory.
At the time I’m surprised to hear her voice on the phone, because I do not remember us being all ‘let’s stay in touch’ the last time I’d seen her, years before the phone rang. Maybe the last time was when she gave me the pearls she asked Johnny Blue Eyes to steal for me. He was a good provider, a real good jewel thief, and when he finally got caught he taught the cops how to catch real good thieves like him, but sooner. And they went easier on him with the sentencing. He studied law in prison—maybe when he comes out he’ll be a paralegal he said. Only you can’t be an A-Number-One jewel thief your whole life and then go get a regular life just like that, working for someone who is making a lot more money than you. So Johnny Blue Eyes comes home, and then goes back upstate. And back. And back. Like he had a good long run and no one could catch him for a good long time, but once they did the spell was broken and he couldn’t get back in the A-Number-One groove again.
The day after Johnny Blue Eyes got arrested in Florida, the Mouse came up, handed me a pearl necklace she said he’d stolen just for me, and then she screwed my old man. Maybe that was the last time I saw her. It was for sure the last time I saw that pearl necklace. Screw you, I screamed, Screw you both, throwing the pearls at them as they walked out the door. I let her leave with both of them, my lover and my pearls. He is doing thirty-five upstate for a crime of extreme violence, wearing a bright orange jumpsuit and with no possibility of parole. I ride the 4am bus from Columbus Circle to visit when I can. Everyone on the bus is going to the same place for the same reason but no one talks to anyone else. No one says, how you getting along without your old man? Do the kids ask about their father, their brother, their uncle? Is your heart broken? Mostly we all sleep on the way up, and again on the way back. I regret letting go of the pearls.
J? Her voice came through the phone and I stopped thinking about the pearls, because that is the first thing I think about whenever I think about her. Not my old man really, although that’s what you’d expect, but mostly I just think about the pearls. She said, I can’t think of anyone else I’d trust to raise her. You’d take care of her, would you? Will you take my kid if I go away?
I will, I said. I told her, yeah, if you go away, I’ll take your daughter—this eight-year-old kid I didn’t know she had until three minutes ago. I hadn’t seen her or spoken to her since the pearls, still I’d take her kid, of course I would. She was my friend, she used to be my best friend. It’s why she’d brought me the pearls that night. I’d always wanted a real pearl necklace. She knew that. Sure, I promised, I’ll take your kid.
After I say sure I’ll take the kid I start getting greeting cards with photos of this not-very-pretty kid. Her name is Nicole. She’s not what I pictured because even though the Mouse had told me about BamBam, I still had the Mouse and Johnny Blue Eyes in my head because they were a fairytale couple and I thought for sure they’d be together forever, and he was movie-star-good-looking and the Mouse was the kind of woman who when she walks in, everyone turns around. Not fashion show runway beautiful. On the run beautiful. Hard. The kind of woman you think you might rob a bank for, or with. That kind of beautiful. The kid must take after her father who someone named BamBam which to me sounds like a name for a caveman, and that makes sense when I’m looking at the pictures of this kid they made. Eventually I find BamBam’s mugshot online and he’s not a bad looking guy, but I’m right, the kid looks just like a guy people would call BamBam. The Mouse sends Christmas cards, and Chanukah cards (because we are, both of us, nice Jewish girls) and Halloween cards, and updates, and photos, and sometimes the kid signs her own name, kid-scrawl-like, or the Mouse says Nicole says hi Aunt J even though I’ve never laid eyes on anything but a photo of this kid Mouse says she calls me Aunt J. I doubt it. She’s trying to push the kid into the cracks of my life. Insurance just in case something goes wrong I’ll already feel like the kid is mine. Feel obligated. She doesn’t know I feel obligated the first time I hear her say, If I go to jail, will you take my kid? Maybe she knows. She knows. She knew before I picked up the phone.
I didn’t have to make good on that promise. BamBam got fifty or sixty, and the Mouse got an ankle bracelet and the kid. And now the kid is fifteen or fourteen and she wants to be a stripper. In the time it takes to sip from my cranberry and Seven-Up, I remember more about me and the Mouse, about the way we were. Maybe it wasn’t the pearls, I think, maybe the last time I saw her she was standing next to Johnny Blue Eyes and he had a gun to my head over the fifty dollars I might have owed her because instead of giving her half the drugs, I used them all myself. I thought he should thank me for not giving his wife drugs, and she thought he should shoot me for the same reason. Or it was the night at the bar that she locked me in the bathroom with some girl who wanted to throw me a beating, because I’d screwed that girl’s old man. Which I did only exactly one time and it took forever to get rid of the clap because it wasn’t like regular clap, it was some super clap that didn’t give two shits about penicillin, so I felt like I’d already been punished for screwing him. I remember me and the Mouse were best friends and it wasn’t always bad, but it was violent sometimes even when it was good, and that is what friends are like and maybe it was fun despite all that but are you sure that’s how you want it for your kid? That she has a life like that? I think about being a kid and being naked on stage, because I remember that. The good parts and the not very good parts. About making the hard choices when you’re still really just a kid, not even out of your teens. And laughing. I think about dying. And everyone who did.
And Mouse says the kid wants to be a stripper like her mother. Like her Aunt J. She could do it too, look at her, she’s gorgeous, she says. I put my glass down on the scarred wood table, lean into the cracked red leather of the banquette. Truth is, I don’t know. I don’t know anything about anything and even less about kids. I’m not a woman who has kids, I’m a woman who almost had kids. One started dripping down my leg when I was on stage. Another got beat out of me in my own living room. There was a third, I don’t remember how that ended, but it ended before it could really have a chance at getting started. The fourth—that time I made a choice. I wasn’t exactly mother material back then. I wonder, was I her only choice the day she called and said, I have a kid. If I go to jail will you take her?
The Greek looks at me, but he doesn’t. Maybe he wishes he was home. Or that the Mouse was still in Florida. We both wish she was still in Florida. We’re both here for the same reason—we can’t say no to the Mouse. I’ve never said no to her, and truth is, I wanted to see her face, what it looked like after BamBam smashed it in with one of those old heavy black desk phones, the kind with the rotary dial and the long curly cord. He had to, because the marriage was violent sometimes even when it was good and that is what husbands are like, she said. You could really kill a person with one of those phones, not like a cell phone, or one of those cordless jobs that would just bounce off a guys head. You could kill a person with one of those rotary desk phones. I have one in my bedroom, on the night table, pale yellow.
BamBam didn’t kill the Mouse with that phone, he just smashed her gorgeous face in. In her mug shots, you can see how one eye is a little higher than the other, one cheekbone, but in person, she’s still my Mouse.
Nicole wants to be a stripper, my Mouse says. She wants to be just like us when she grows up, J. She could do it too, look at her, she’s gorgeous. Lookit, she got my tits, too.
Yeah, she could do it, I say. The kid looks at me and smiles, like I’m some kind of movie star.
The Greek pushes himself up with his cane and looks at my Mouse, her kid, and me. Let’s go, he says, I know a spot on 48th Street, and we follow him because even though I don’t know it at the time, we haven’t any of us found what we’re looking for yet.
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Jodi Sh. Doff is a New York based writer, and contributor to the Bust.com blog. Her work has appeared in xoJane, Penthouse, Cosmopolitan, and Bust Magazine, and been anthologized in Bearing Life– Women’s Writings On Childlessness; Best American Erotica; The Bust Guide To A New Girl Order; the awkwardly titled Hos, Hookers, Callgirls & Rentboys-Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money, and Sex, and its sequel Johns, Marks, Tricks & Chickenhawks-Professionals & Their Clients Writing about Each Other. She received her MFA from Lesley University where she advises a graduate seminar in the art of memoir, and is a mentor with the PEN America Prison Writing Program.