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The Trespassers

by MaryK 

Posted: 10 September 2014
Word Count: 3744
Summary: The Gallaghers are a working class family from the Bronx who have made the journey to Florida for the father to accept a job offered to him by an old friend.

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The Trespassers
Chapter 1.
It was after midnight when Pete pulled up the big wooden knob of station wagon’s gearshift into park. All five stared from car’s darkness at Gerry’s house. They were struck dumb, stunned to be here, facing the reason they gave up everything and drove for days, through accents that sounded like a foreign language, over roads so dusty that by the time they crossed the Florida State line, their Empire State license plate was impossible to read. The house was low and long and looked like it was glowing. It reminded Kit of one of those new Colorforms stickers she wanted very badly that you could put on your bedroom wall and watch in the dark.
Michael and John were in the backseat, Pete and Nora in front with Kit in between them. Kit forgot the pins and needles in her legs and the annoying hump on the floor. For five days the car was a tin box of bored whining kids, a battle scarred scene of territorial seat warfare. Pete’s arm swung wildly as he drove down I 90, trying to make contact with any one of his two sons to instill peace while Nora screamed that she’d make their father leave them on the side of the road if they didn’t knock it off.
But now the Gallaghers sat mute at the foot of the wide, pink house, the tall palm tree in front, bucket loads of stars in the sky. The only sound came from the unseen crickets going berserk. They sounded the way birds did when a cat got one of their babies.
This last part of the trip was the worst. They kept getting lost ever since they drove away from the gigantic orange with bellies full of free orange juice at the Welcome to Florida stand. Kit and Michael took fistfuls of brochures until the lady behind the information desk gave them a dirty look. For the rest of the way, John and Michael kept tearing the map out of each other’s hands and yelling the wrong way to go. But now Kit could only hear Michael’s breath through his mouth, the way he did when his allergies acted up.
“They’re mansions, Dad,” Michael whispered.
“What’d I tell you?” said Pete.
“You sure this is it?” Nora asked, trying to get her hair to lie down. It always went crazy in humidity. “Gadzooks, it’s soupy,” she said. “Makes the Bronx look like a desert.” Her elbow shot into the side of Kit’s head and she yowled with the pain and shock of it. But she stopped her complaint in its tracks when she caught a glimpse of her mother’s clear panic in the dim light of the streetlight. Even though she was only ten, she felt sorry for Nora, who was as scared of people she didn’t know as Kit was of polio shots. Nora only felt safe on the stoop with the neighbors who lived in their building or in the kitchen smoking and fighting with her sister Rose.
“They all look the same, these houses,” Nora said, digging deep into her pocketbook for bobby pins and her lipstick.
The tall palm trees were black against the dark blue sky that somehow looked like it had a light behind it. It reminded Kit of the Nativity scene Sister Kevin cut out from black construction paper for the bulletin board. She wondered if the Blessed Mother’s nerves acted up  on that donkey with Joseph pulling her through the desert, maybe getting lost, maybe saying to Joseph, like Nora said to Pete all through Georgia, “Maybe this whole thing was a stupid idea.”
The bobby pins didn’t help Nora’s hair. She tried lipstick. She pulled down the flap and tried to see her face in the mirror. “I can’t see a damned thing,” she said, sliding the red across her mouth. The windshield was splattered with yellow gush from dead bugs. The streetlights were dim like they were only half working but enough for Kit to see that Nora was right. The houses did all look the same.
“Are you sure this is the right house?” Nora asked.
“Sure I’m sure,” said Pete, reaching into his shirt pocket for Gerry’s card, the one Gerry gave him when they bumped into one another that time. Gerry was coming out of his mother’s wake and Pete was coming out of cleaning a chimney and Gerry didn’t recognize Pete for the soot on his face. But Pete knew Gerry right away and they got talking and by the time they parted, Gerry offered Pete a job selling houses with him. Gerry said he could sure use a guy like Pete, with the way he was with people. Gerry’s card was thick like cardboard, his address and phone number were printed in gold letters that Kit rubbed until Pete took it back, “Hey, Katrinka, you’ll rub it all off and we won’t know where to go!” Katrinka was one of his many pet names for Kit.
“I’m telling you,” Pete said, flipping open his cigarette lighter to see better, “This is the place.”
“Yeah, but just to be sure, maybe we should ask someone.”
“Who, Ma?” asked Michael, “There’s nobody on the street.”
“Where do you think everyone is?” asked Nora.
“Oh I don’t know,” said John in a voice he started using on them since they left New Jersey. It sounded like John discovered that there was a mix up at the hospital and this dumb family he got sent home with wasn’t his real family. Or maybe, Kit thought, he started talking that way after he came back from the seminary, which didn’t work out and that none of them were supposed to talk about. Maybe he always talked like that and she never noticed. But then she’d never been cooped up with her brothers this close for so long. They all shared the same bedroom but there was always a place to get away from each other, the fire escape, the roof, the stoop, the whole block of sidewalk or one of the empty lots near their building.
  “Maybe they’re inside their houses, in bed,” said John full of sarcasm.
“On an August night like this?” said Nora, “My God, everybody on the block’d be out on the stoop, talking, laughing, maybe cooling down with the Johnny pump opened.”
For the first time since they left, Kit felt a stab of missing home. The trip so far was all about motels that had swimming pools and soap wrapped up in paper like presents. Even the toilet bowls had a fresh strip of paper across them. Michael made like it was a ribbon cutting ceremony to have a crap. Kit thought he’d get in trouble for saying that but Pete and Nora laughed, they started out in such a great mood.
Kit remembered the way the whole block came out to wave them goodbye. She felt like Dorothy leaving the Munchkins. She felt sad watching the orbs of light on the water in the harbor around the Statue of Liberty. The sadness stayed with her until they got to the diner in New Jersey and she saw all those cakes twirling around in the glass cases like jewelry.
“Gerry’s not going to believe it when he sees me,” said Pete. “I don’t think he figured I’d  have the guts to make the move.”
“Dad,” said John, so quietly, it was hard to hear him. “You didn’t tell Gerry we were coming?”
“Wouldn’t be much of a surprise if I told him, Johnny, would it?”
Pete jumped out of the car and bounced up the path lined with small statues of Negro jockeys all in a line holding high lanterns in smiling welcome. When the door chimes tinkled Pete opened his arms wide. Kit knew he’d say, “Hey Mrs. Calabash wherever you are!”
“God I’m so nervous,” said Nora, sniffing her armpit and waving her hand over each one. “I swear if I knew how to drive I’d turn this damned thing around and go home right now.”
“And leave Daddy?” asked Kit, shocked.
The chimes sounded again, soon followed by a light in a room at the end of the house. The dark shape of someone opened the drapes a crack.
“Shit, someone’s home,” said Nora.
“How come I can’t say shit but you can?” asked Kit.
“You have to earn the right,” said Nora through her teeth where she kept the bobby pins she would shove into her hair.
The porch light went on and was immediately swarmed like a beehive of bugs. The interior door, behind the screen, opened. Pete shook his head like Jimmy Durante.
“Hey, Mrs. Calabash!” Everyone laughed when he did that for the people on the stoop, but whoever was behind the screen door didn’t. When he made a sound, his voice was high and keening, “Jesus Christ! I don’t god damned believe it!” The screen door opened.
Everyone in the car, even John, smiled, relieved. “He really is surprised,” Kit said.
 “I just hope Theresa got uglier,” said Nora.
“Ma!! That’s a sin.”
“God forgive me, I didn’t mean that.” Nora made the sign of the cross and then bowed her head and searched her bag again. “I just feel like hell.” She put on more lipstick.
“You look nice, Ma,” said Michael.
“Thanks,” said Nora, not believing him. “I should stay in the dark more often.”
Another light went on inside the house. A woman stood behind the man. There was something about the way she moved, the way the light shined over her head, Kit knew she was pretty. Pete was laughing hard and loud now, leading the man who had to be Gerry down the path to them. Gerry tied the belt of his bathrobe, which made Kit think about sleeping and alarm clanged within her.
“We’re sleeping here tonight…” she said.
“If not, we’re sleeping in the car,” said John. 
“But-“ she looked at Michael. Even in the dark she could see the whites of his eyes, wide, with the same fear. And by the way she put her bag down it was clear, Nora was thinking it too.
 “Don’t worry. I’ve got the rubber sheets,” she whispered, never taking her eyes off Pete and Gerry coming closer.  “I’ll make up the beds with our own sheets and blankets. No one will see. And don’t drink anything, either of you.”
“I swear I won’t, Ma,” Kit said, though her mouth was so dry, everything in there stuck together.
 “You hear me Michael?” hissed Nora.
There was silence from the back.
“I said- do you hear me?”
“I’m so thirsty, though,” he said like he might bawl.
Gerry put his hand was on the roof of the car, covered with Georgia dust. When he pulled his hand away and wiped it on the dark blue of the robe, it left the imprint of his hand across his front. He bent down to look inside at them.
“Holy mackerel,” he said. His teeth were very white. “You sure got a carload in there!”
While Pete told Gerry their names, Gerry rubbed his hands over his shiny black hair, leaving some more of Georgia streaked though it.
“You look as beautiful as ever, Nora,” he said. He never stopped smiling and sounding nice, but there was something about him that made Kit think he was worried. When he looked in the car, he looked like he just opened a sewer cap and saw something that spooked him but didn’t want to betray his fear.
“Well, I’ll be a monkey’s ass. Like I say, Pete, you sure got a carload.”
Pete crossed his arms across his chest and beamed, rocking back and forth.
“C’mon, Ger, tell me the truth,” said Pete. “You never thought I’d do it, did you?”
“A little heads up wouldn’t have hurt. Like I say, you sure got a carload…”
Kit looked around the car. She never thought hers was a big family like so many in the neighborhood, but there was something about the way Gerry kept saying carload that made her feel like she was part of a big crowd.
And there was something about the way he jerked his head back after looking into the car. Kit wondered if he smelled her mother’s armpits. Or something much worse: pee.  But he was too far away from Nora, and their sheets were washed in a laudromat in Georgia. Maybe we stink of something that we can’t smell but other people can, Kit thought. Like going into the apartment of a family who cook lamb.
“But see if I told you we were coming,” said Pete,  “It would a ruined the surprise.”
“You’re right, there” said Gerry, running his hand over his hair again. “It’s a little late now, but you gotta come by tomorrow, meet the wife.”
Kit noticed the slice of bread on the floor. The lady slathered it with too much mayonnaise so she took it off. That slice of bread looked so dirty there all of a sudden.
“So where you folks staying?” asked Gerry.
“Oh, well,” Pete coughed, clearing his throat. “We got a little waylaid. And we didn’t know any places to stay down here.”
Gerry’s eyes widened.
“And I’m a little low on gas. We could sleep here in the car in your driveway, if we wouldn’t be too much trouble.”
 “Give me a minute,” said Gerry rubbing his hand over his mouth. “To give Jean the heads up. You know how women can be about surprises.”
“Who’s Jean?” asked Nora, watching Gerry’s back walk back to the house.
“The wife.”
“Gerry’s wife is Theresa Donnelly.”
“Oh. They got a divorce.”
“You didn’t tell me that.”
 “Sure I did.”
“I would have remembered something like that. Oh my God, we’re staying with people who are shacking up. I wonder if that puts us in a state of a sin.”
“What’s shacking up?”  Kit asked.
“They’re married, Nor,” said Pete. “He told me they got married a few years ago.”
“Oh. When did Theresa die?” asked Nora. “I would have sent a mass card if I’d known.”
“She didn’t die and you know it.”
“Then Theresa’s still his wife, “ spat Nora, shoving her bag down hard and crossing her arms across her chest.
“C’mon Nor, it’s late. Maybe they got an annulment. Yeah, I think he said that.”
“Yeah, right,” said Nora.
Jean looked like she could be the mother in a TV show. The whole house could have been in a TV show, Kit thought. Her hair was blond and her bathrobe was pink. She had a fluttery way of talking in a southern accent that was soft and sweet, not like the waitresses who barked out orders for grits in the diners they ate in along the way.
“I just wish you told me,” said Gerry again when they were sitting down in the living room.
“Oh, Gerry, will you stop saying that?” said Jean, “Pete’s right; it would have ruined the surprise!”
When Jean laughed, she tossed her head back and showed all her perfect teeth without making a sound. Nora’s laugh could be heard a block away. Kit could have watched Jean throw her head back and laugh forever. Michael too, Kit guessed, by the way he never took his eyes off her either.
 “You must be famished,” she said when she heard about how they got lost and didn’t stop for dinner. “I don’t know too much about little girls, but I do know you can’t feed a young man enough. You must be sixteen, John? And Michael, fifteen?”
Both boys blushed scarlet through their crew cuts. “I’m thirteen,” said John.
“No,” said Jean. “You seem so much older!”
“Yeah, he’s even been to a-”
John and Nora shot Kit a look that shut her up but made her sullen. There were so many things she wasn’t supposed to say it was sometimes hard to keep track of it all.
“I’m eleven,” said Michael so low it was hard to hear him.
“Well, I don’t know what’s in that New York water, but I better get something for these boys to snack on.”
Jean wouldn’t hear of Nora helping. Nora looked a little crazy with her top lipstick going over her natural lip line. Jean told Nora where the powder room was if she felt like freshening up. Nora said she’d like that and grabbed her bag and ran down the hall.
With Jean and Nora gone, Gerry asked the boys if they liked fishing and Kit studied the room. It was better than Ozzie and Harriet’s house.
Gerry was telling them about a fish he caught when Jean sailed back holding a big tray of sandwiches, salted nuts and potato chips in glass bowls. It was accompanied with tall jug of pink lemonade with matching glasses, decorated with pictures of lemon slices. When Jean bent over to put the tray on the coffee table, Kit noticed that her bathrobe belt disappeared into her back through two slits on either side of her robe. She had never seen anything so beautiful. It was like a ball gown, that bathrobe.
When Nora returned, there was red, raw looking shadow all over her upper lip, where she must have tried to scrub the stray lipstick off. Jean poured drinks and castigated the boys for not taking enough. Jean behaved as if, of all the wonderful things in the world that could have happened to her in the middle of that night, having a couple she never met and their three children show up at her door would have been right at the top of her list. 
Michael avoided Nora’s glare as he gulped down the second glass of lemonade. When he burped, Nora covered her face in shame but Jean just laughed that tinkly laugh and touched his nose like Snow White did to Dopey. Looking at Michael in this new way, it occurred to Kit that Michael did look a lot like Dopey with that goofy grin on his face, blushing whenever he looked up at Jean. And she never realized his ears stuck out that much. She could almost hear him saying, “Aw shucks.”
The ice cubes melted in Kit’s glass.  The peanuts made her thirst worse, but she wouldn’t dare risk it. Aside from the motels on the road coming here, they had never slept in beds not their own.
Gerry yawned again.
“Where are our manners,” said Jean, “keeping you all up like this after your long drive? All of you must be exhausted.” 
Beds were made up for the three children in the Florida room off the kitchen. Jean hoped Nora and Pete would be at home in the guest room. When Nora said they had our own sheets in the car, Jean’s smile faded, replaced by a quizzical look and said she wouldn’t hear anything of the kind.
“After shoes, linen is my weakness,” she said. “I’m delighted for an excuse to use them.”
 “She’ll send me to the poorhouse with what she spends on sheets we never use,” said Gerry. 
“I just love all the new patterns they have nowadays,” she said. “No more boring old white.” That’s all the Gallaghers had. Boring old white.
“Don’t you love them Nora?” She asked but didn’t wait for Nora’s answer. She just opened some doors that disappeared into the wall and waved for them to follow and told them to leave everything on the coffee table until the morning.
 The Florida room was like a second, more comfortable living room with thickly upholstered furniture edged with white painted bamboo. The walls were covered in a bright green wallpaper pattern of lattice and vines that matched two of the chairs. She pulled the drapes shut against the big black square sliding glass window. Over another yawn, Gerry told them he’d take them on his boat in the morning.
Jean had made a bed for John on the couch, which was long and thin like him. Michale and Kit were put on two camp beds, side by side. Jean said nighty-night and left Nora kneeling between them, telling them not to worry, that they would be okay. But Kit could see she was as worried as her children.
“Do you want me to sneak out and try to get the rubber sheets out of the car?” she whispered.
“No, she’ll see,” whispered Michael even lower than his mother’s.
“We’ll be fine,” Kit said. “Don’t worry Michael.”
Nora said good night. Kit and Michael went to the bathroom one more time. When neither of them could produce another drop in Jean’s pink toilet, they got under the covers and listened to John breathing softly, asleep already.
“We need a plan,” said Michael. “We’ll pretend this is war and we’re sentries.”
“That’s a good idea,” said Kit, still scared, but liking the feeling of Michael treating her like an equal.
“You’ll have to have a lower rank than me with me. I’m eleven which is whole year older than you.”
“Okay,”  she said.
“You’ll be a private.”
“That’s fine.”
“If either of us falls asleep we’ll get court marshaled and shot by a firing squad.”
“Why? What if a person can’t help it if they fall asleep?”
“Tough. A whole division’s depending on us. The enemy is probably watching us now in the jungle out there.”
 Bugs, sounding like they’d be as big as birds, banged heavy against the screens over the sound of the humming air conditioner. Something clicked in the kitchen and the refrigerator started rumbling low.
“Just checking.”
“I’m not going to fall asleep,” she said. “I swear to you.”
“I know.”
Michael had never been this nice to Kit in her life. She never wanted to sleep.
“Do you think Jean’s beautiful?”
“She’s okay. Do you?”
“She’s okay.”
John shouted, “Get away!” They both jumped at the same time. John started talking gibberish that made them both laugh. Then he turned over and the room got quiet and Kit listened to the sounds of the fridge.
“Michael?” she said softly. He murmured something unintelligible.
“Why can’t we talk about what happened to John?” whispered Kit.
But Michael was asleep. Kit listened to the air conditioner humming and the sounds of her brothers, snorting and mumbling.

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