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John Palcewski's Journal

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Five Dollar Trick
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Back then I still believed you could get a second chance. I wrote Mike that I’d made a big mistake. I shouldn’t have left. What I did was terribly wrong. But now we ought to think of the baby. Our little Tommy.

Mike wrote back. "All right," he said, "I'll meet you at the Mayflower Hotel, in San Diego. We'll talk."

So there I was. The room was nice. White curtains, a view of the street in front of the hotel. Lots of traffic coming and going. Horns honking. People crowding the sidewalk, most of them soldiers and sailors. Khaki, and shiny brown shoes. And those funny white sailor caps, you can see them a mile away.

I turn on the Philco. The dial lights up in a warm orange and I twist the knob until I hear Glenn Miller. "In the mood." But I'm not in the mood right now, I want to jump out the window. What's going to happen? What will he say? I can't stand it. I take a long, deep breath and let it out slowly. I sit down. Smoke a cigarette. Punch it out. Get up, open the suitcase.

Damn! Everything's wrinkled. All right. Calm down. Put the skirts on hangers and put them in the bathroom and take a hot shower. Maybe the steam will smooth them out. Or maybe the hotel has an iron I can use.



I need a drink!

No. Don't touch that bottle.

I take off my clothes, fold them, put them in a drawer. The shower's knobs are white porcelain. The floor tiles are little white octagons. There's a shelf stacked with nice, thick terrycloth towels. I stuff my hair under my cap and step underneath the streaming shower.

The hot rushing water and the rising steam feels good. I stand like that for a long time, rocking slowly back and forth. I take my green bar of Palmolive and work up a good lather, and I rub myself all over, under my arms, on my belly. I look down at the suds as they swirl down into the drain at my feet, and I stand until the suds disappear and the water gets clear again.

Right after I heard that Mike had gone into the Army I went back to the house. Brown and red leaves covered the front lawn and sidewalk and rustled as I walked through them. I went up the steps and onto the porch. Old mother Quinn answered the door. She looked at me through those rimless glasses of hers, which reflected the light so it made it hard to see her eyes.
"And what might you want?" she asked, adjusting her blue knit shawl.
"I want to see Tommy," I told her. "And I want to talk."
"There's nothing to talk about," Mrs. Quinn said.
"All right, I made a terrible mistake," I said. "But Tommy is still my son and I want to see him."
"Oh, do you now? You should have thought of that before you went off whoring," she said.
"I didn't go off whoring."
"Oh, no?"
"Why do you hate me so much?" I asked her. "You've hated me from the minute you met me."

She looked me up and down. "You want to know what I think of you, Elizabeth Callan?" she said. "You're a disgusting, filthy whore, that's what you are. An unfit mother, that's the long and the short of it."
"I want to see my son."
"Go to court. See what they tell you about a mother who walks out on her only child. Go on."
"Please..." I said.
"Leave my property or so help me Jaysus I'll call the police." She slammed the door.

I turn around, close my eyes tight, and let the hot water hit my face, and I move my head slowly from side to side. I inhale the steamy air. I turn around again. The water hisses and courses and gurgles, a pattering and spattering and rushing. After a while I reach for the soap again.

I waited two, three hours in that hotel room. I got hungry but didn't want to go downstairs to the dining room. I guess I could have left a message at the front desk, but I didn't think of it at the time.

Pretty soon I got tired of listening to the radio, so I turned it off. I put a chair next to the window and sat there, chin on my hands on the sill, watching the people and traffic on the street below. So many people moving along, everybody with a place to go. An old lady with a dog on a leash. A sailor and a girl, arm in arm. Steppin' out. With my baby. The sky was deep blue and getting darker, and the streetlights flickered on and the storefronts glowed yellow.

Caroline told me that Mike had taken the baby to his mother's house, and she'd see old mother Quinn every once in a while with the perambulator, pushing it up the street, and then coming back again with a grocery bag in her arm. Caroline said that she'd heard that Mike decided not to wait until he got drafted; he went down to the recruiter and signed up with the Army.

He could have gotten a deferment, Caroline said, especially since he had a baby to take care of. But I told her, that's just like Mike. If there is a way of getting out of something, by God he'll find it. So he ships out to the Army, and ends up with a cushy clerk's job in Hawaii, while his mother takes care of the baby.

So I wrote to him. My idea was that I'd patch things up with Mike, then go back home and get Tommy. I'd get Mike to call his mother, tell her it was okay to let me have the baby. I'd take care of Tommy until...well, until Mike got his discharge and came home. Then...well, who knows.

I didn't want to think much about what would happen when Mike came home after the war. It would probably be just the same. He'd be just like he was before.

After Tommy was born it seemed that I could never catch up with things. And I wanted Mike to pitch in. One night when he came home from the mill I told him, "Look, I need some help around here. There's only so much I can do."
And he sat in his armchair throne and he looked at me like I was totally crazy. He couldn't understand what I was saying.
"Only so much you can do?" he said.
"That's right," I said. "I do all the laundry, all the food shopping, all the cleaning, all the cooking."
"But you've got all day to do that stuff," he said. "And besides, that's your goddamned job."
"It wouldn't kill you to change a diaper once in a while," I said.
A look of disgust suddenly went over his face. "That's your job," he said.

That night Tommy kept screaming and the sound of his wailing gave me a terrible headache, and it kept getting worse, and finally I couldn't stand it. I knew I was about to lose it, totally. And what paralzyed me with fright was the thought that suddenly popped into my head. It would be so easy to just pick up that screaming little thing and just slam it up against the wall...and THEN that god-awful wailing would finally stop.

And as soon as that thought entered my mind I shut my eyes tight and I trembled all over. I was that close, I know I was. I had to be insane. That was the only explanation. Because mothers don't ever think of killing their own babies. But I felt that if that baby kept screaming I would do it. I really would.

I saw Mike from the hotel window. It was him, all right. He was in his Army uniform, and he was walking along, arms swinging at his side. He didn't have a suitcase or a duffel bag with him. Why? He was supposed to have just arrived from Hawaii.

I waited. Ten, twenty minutes. He was probably down in the bar, knocking back a few. Getting ready for the big reunion. Jesus, I thought, nothing has changed. He can't do one goddamned thing without a few shots.

Finally, he knocked on the door.

He looked pretty good. He had a deep tan, which went well with his dark hair and Khakis. I picked up the scent of spearmint gum and whiskey, but he wasn't totally blitzed. He looked at me once, then looked over my shoulder at the room.
"Hey," he said.
"Hey, yourself," I said.

Mike sat in the armchair in the corner, and I sat on the bed. He wouldn't look me in the eye. Either he was looking at his glass, which I'd filled with scotch from the bottle I'd brought along, or he was looking at the pictures that were hanging on the wall, or he was looking at the lamp on the table beside the bed.
"Listen," I said. "I'm really sorry for what happened...”
"Don't worry about it," he said, waving his hand.
"I do worry about it, Mike. I..."
"Forget it."

What else did we talk about? It's hard to remember. I asked him about how the Army was treating him, and he said fine. He was in charge of a post office at Scholfield Barracks. The stripes on his arm meant he was an NCO, a non-commissioned officer. This sliver medal? Sharpshooter. That's right. Hard to believe, huh? From clerk in a steel mill to the man in charge of fifteen or twenty privates and corporals. He said he took a trip down to Pearl. It was awful, all those ships that were now just a huge pile of twisted metal. There's a big black statue up on a hill. King Kameamea. Palm trees. The water is so blue. And Waikiki. Diamond Head. It's really something.

After a while he gets out of his chair and comes over to the bed. He puts his arms around me. I taste the familiar taste, smell the familiar smells. Nothing has changed. It doesn't take him long. One kiss that starts out sweet. His idea of romance. One kiss. And then...

Nothing has changed.

I thought he'd roll over, and close his eyes, and drift off. But he jumped right out of bed. I watched him put on his underwear, his pants, his shirt. I watched him tie his tie in the bureau's mirror, tuck it into his shirt.

Mike stood at the end of the bed, and pulled out his wallet. He took out a five. Flicked it toward me. It fluttered down, like a fall leaf. Then he opened the door, slammed it behind him.

I didn't move. I listened very carefully to his footsteps down the hall. I heard the clanking of the elevator, the sound of the opening and then the closing of the doors.

When he threw down that five dollar bill I should have told him, no, Mike, this just isn't right. We’ve got to try again. We should think of Tommy.

Sure, I could have done that.

Couldn’t I?


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