(Continued from West, This is It, and The Story of Everything.)
Jennifer closed the fence behind her and slipped into the alley, which was empty except for her neighbor’s trash can. She clapped her smokes against her grease-stained palm, then opened the pack and lit one.
The trash can was overflowing, oily pizza boxes staging their escape. She looked up at the house with its worn yellow paint and under-performing AC unit. Underwhelming as all get out. A rat torpedoed out from under the can.
She jolted back against the fence as the rat took off.
She wasn’t sure how much longer she could hide her smoking habit by skulking in alleys with rats. Brooklyn was almost three, and she was starting to develop what Jennifer’s brother called “spidey sense.”
“You can’t say shit around her, Jen!” he’d said. “Like, she knows which words are bad. She won’t repeat any nice stuff I teach her!”
“What, all those SAT vocabulary words?” she’d jabbed.
But her brother was right--Brooklyn absorbed everything. Jennifer didn’t need anyone else judging her, especially her daughter.
Her back pocket vibrated. Shelly.
Can you work 4 me tomorrow? Btw Dena’s fuel pump came in.
Jennifer visualized the tally she kept in her head.
Did she owe Shelly a favor? Shelly helped her study for their last test. But then Jennifer had bought Shelly a sub sandwich when she didn’t have cash two weeks ago. But Shelly had lent her a fake ID on Friday…
Jennifer hated her mind’s tendency towards transactions. But she couldn’t stop it. When the tally was complete, Jennifer texted her friend back:
Yeah, I got you.
She ground her cigarette out with the heel of her work boot and went back inside.
“I’ve got to fill in for somebody tomorrow. Can you keep Brooklyn?”
A timer beeped, and Jennifer’s mom bent to pull a casserole from the oven.
“What else would I be doing?”
“Mommy!” Brooklyn shrieked from the living room floor.
“You should go play with her now, at least. You’re gone all the damn time.”
“Mom, seriously? I’m in school literally every day, and I’m lucky Chuck can pay me for the extra time at the shop. I am trying as hard as I can to get out of your house and give Brooklyn a good life.”
“By being a mechanic,” her mom muttered, pouring an envelope of lemonade mix into a plastic pitcher.
“I am not having this fight again, Mom! Jesus.”
“Jesus!” Brooklyn said, swinging a My Little Pony around by its tail.
“Don’t throw that!” Jennifer said, at the same time as her mother spat, “Don’t say that!”
The pink pony flew over Brooklyn’s head in an impressive arc, then collided with a lamp, which rocked a few times before settling flat on its base, its shade askew.
“Brooklyn!” Jennifer scolded, scooping the child up on her hip. Brooklyn, knowing she was in trouble, began to wail.
“I just think you’re better than your current choices, that’s all,” Jennifer’s mother said, raising her voice. “You could have stayed in college. Gotten a real degree. A real job.”
“Do you see this dirt under my fingernails? It doesn’t get much more real than that.”
Jennifer swung Brooklyn around to her other hip and bounded through the front door.
Brooklyn cried louder.
“Will you just be quiet!?”
She set the toddler down on the dried-up grass of her mother’s front yard.
“I’m--hungry!” Brooklyn gulped between wails.
Jennifer threw her head back. She understood why all those people in movies screamed at the sky. Her brain reeled.
Better than her current choices! My current choices, she thought, are just what comes after my past choices! Sometimes you don’t exactly get a choice.
Jennifer had graduated from high school before getting pregnant. She would always give herself credit for that. She’d spent a semester at University of Texas at Austin, living in a dorm and everything. She took pottery and psychology and played intramural flag football. And she hadn’t been irresponsible. Which, she knew, maybe wasn’t the same thing as being responsible.
The rest of the scenario was so predictable it was embarrassing. She started puking over Christmas break. She did the shop-of-shame for a pregnancy test. Her boyfriend got spooked and peaced out. She moved back in with her mom. She dropped out. She craved Doritos and watermelon and maybe still smoked on the sly, even though she knew it was bad for the baby. She went into labor and cried because Brooklyn would never know her father. Her mom pushed her sweaty, pink hair back from her forehead and said, “This baby is going to have more love than it even knows what to do with.”
And she did love Brooklyn. Of course she did. But Brooklyn wasn’t going to make her drop out of the rest of her life.
Her phone rang.
“What?” Jennifer snapped.
“Oh, wow. Is this a bad time? Sorry. It’s Dena?”
Jennifer let go of a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding.
“Dena! Sorry. No, it’s cool. Hey, the RV part came in.”
“Hell, yes. That’s awesome. When can you install it? Chris wants to make it to Santa Fe by day after tomorrow. If that’s possible, I mean.”
Santa fucking Fe. Dena had no idea how good she had it.
The Chinook whined for a second when Chris cranked the ignition, then heaved to life. Dena and Jennifer sprung into a spontaneous victory dance, swinging each other around like some sort of western do-si-do.
“You fixed it! It works!” Dena laughed.
“No big,” Jennifer said. “I better get an A in this course, is all I’m saying.”
Chuck, Jennifer’s instructor, just grinned and shook his head, pacing back into the garage.
Inside the RV, Chris was posing for an on-the-road-again Instagram selfie.
“Hey, can I ask you something?” Dena said.
“Shoot,” said Jennifer.
“I don’t mean to be all weird and serious, but like--how did you find this place? How did you know you wanted to be a mechanic? You and Shelly and everybody--you guys are kind of living the dream.”
Jennifer looked at Dena--Dena, who was everything she had set out to become. Educated and untethered and adored.
“I don’t know,” Jennifer said, fumbling in her pocket for her cigarettes. “I think it’s only a dream until it’s yours.”
Written by: Dot Dannenberg
Photograph by: Jennifer Stevens