Sixteen-year-old Mary Wolf can remember when her family lived in a house, when her father was a successful insurance executive who would jump through sprinklers with his briefcase just to make her laugh. But he never got back on his feet after his business collapsed, and he had to move the whole Wolf family into a giant RV, taking them on the road for a permanent “vacation.” Now he drives Mary, her pregnant mother, and her three little sisters from city to city, where they stay at campgrounds and parks with other homeless people, never remaining in one place for long.
Mary’s mother has turned to petty theft to make ends meet and her dad loses his temper too much to hold down a job, but both insist that everything is going to be fine. Watching her parents increasingly deny the reality of their situation, Mary can feel it: Her whole family is coming to the end of a road.
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By Cynthia D. Grant
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Cynthia D. Grant
All rights reserved.
It's easy for my mother to shoplift now that she's pregnant. She sails into a store like a pirate ship, her full skirt billowing around her ankles.
I'm at a counter with the little girls tumbling around me, saying to the teenage clerk at the cash register: "Excuse me, do you have any flannel pajamas?"
Flannel? The teenager wrinkles up her forehead as if I'm speaking a foreign language. The kids are a great distraction. They're not in on the act; they're giggling and shrieking. Then somebody's screaming: "She hit me, Mary!"
"She hit me first!"
Meanwhile, Mama's cruising the aisles like a shark, popping stuff inside her exhausted waistband as the teenager twirls a stiff blond curl, saying something like, "Flannel? What do you mean by flannel?"
Then my mother's by the door, calling, "Girls, I'm ready."
"Thanks anyway," I say, and we go outside. My father's in the RV, in the parking lot, reading the business section of that city's newspaper. He follows the tides of the stock market as if he were still a player.
"All set?" he asks as we pile in the door. I herd the kids to the back and buckle their seat belts. My father starts the engine of the Wolfs' Den, and we head into the morning traffic.
My mother is shedding merchandise concealed in the voluminous folds of her clothing: underpants for the girls, men's socks, a lamp, a lamp for God's sake, perfume, earrings. We drive across town to another store. Expertly, invisibly, she harvests the shelves.
We sell the stuff at flea markets, to earn our living.
I say: "How do you expect the kids to know right from wrong when they know you're stealing?"
My father frowns into the rearview mirror. Mama turns around, looking sad.
"I wouldn't call it that, Mary."
"What would you call it?"
She says, "This is a special situation."
"I'll be damned if I'll let my family go hungry." Daddy bites into a stolen doughnut, his breakfast.
"But they see what you're doing —"
"They don't see what I'm doing. They're children, Mary. They're not paying attention."
Although Mama will give birth to her fifth baby soon, she doesn't grasp the nature of children. She thinks they're oblivious blank-eyed dolls. The girls see everything; they're always listening, even the littlest one, Paula, who's three. They're listening right now, even though they look busy eating doughnuts and licking their fingers.
"They're smart," I say. "They know what's going on. But don't listen to me. I'm just a kid."
"Someone sure got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning," Daddy tells Mama. She pats his leg.
We're moving through another big city. After a while they all look the same: gas stations, shopping malls, cars, people. We should've left the campground for the flea market early but Daddy's stomach was bothering him again last night, so he turned off the alarm and we overslept.
The flea market is located on the parking lot of a fairgrounds. Mama goes to the door of a tiny office by the gate and pays a fat woman ten dollars for our space.
Daddy navigates the RV down a row of cars with tables in front of them, covered with junk, old and new. He parks the Wolfs' Den and we set up our tables. I unroll the striped awning over our heads. We'll need it; the sun is blazing.
Quickly, practiced, Mama lays out her wares. People are already crowding around. "We've got lots of bargains today," she tells them.
Clothing and books and housewares here, toys and cassettes and videotapes there. The watches and jewelry are in a locked glass case. Mama wears the key on a chain around her throat.
"How much for that watch?" A man taps the glass.
"Ten," Mama tells him.
"I'll give you six."
"Ten," she insists. He shrugs and walks away. Mama winks at me and says, "He'll be back."
She knows her customers; she reads their faces, divining the depths of their pockets and souls. Soon she is pulling in dollars, making change. I watch the kids while Daddy shops for a new electric razor.
When the kids get bored, I take them inside and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The motor home is like a house on wheels; it has a tiny kitchen with a fridge and stove, beds, chairs, tables, lamps, even a bathroom with a shower. When we can't plug into a hookup, the appliances run off the generator and battery.
I put on the TV. The reception is lousy but the girls don't mind. They watch cartoons.
Outside, Mama argues with a teenage boy who palmed a knife and tried to slip away. Nothing makes Mama angrier than people stealing her stolen goods.
"Put it back or pay for it."
"I didn't take nothing." The boy's sullen face swells. People are staring.
"Put it back!" she says.
He calls her a bitch, throws the knife on the table, and stalks away.
"Kids today," Mama tells one of her customers.
The woman nods. "Ain't it the truth."
I tidy the merchandise that's been tossed around. It makes me cringe to see the antique amber necklace that Mama took from the old lady's house.
She told the woman we were looking for the Walkers. Did she know the Walkers? Old friends of our family. They lived around here someplace.
"I'm sorry, I don't," the woman said. "Used to be I knew all my neighbors. But nowadays, people move around so much."
"I know what you mean," Mama said. "It's a shame."
I stood behind her on the steps, holding Polly in my arms, so she could see we were just a normal family, not maniacs come to rob and kill her.
Not kill her, anyway.
"Oh, I'm so thirsty," Mama said. "Since I got pregnant, it seems like I'm always thirsty. Could I trouble you for a glass of water?"
"No trouble at all. Come in and sit down. You girls can come in too."
"That's okay, we'll wait outside." It's bad enough doing what I do; I can't stand to watch Mama steal.
We move through the neighborhoods. Do you know the Walkers? We're looking for the Walkers. Old friends of our family. Kids trust Mama; she looks like their mothers. But she fools adults too because oh my goodness, suddenly she feels so faint.
"Come in and sit down. When's that baby due? I'll bring you some water." They leave the room. Then Mama scoops up whatever's in range and pops it into her diaper bag purse: a ceramic ashtray, a crystal vase. Little things that won't be missed until later.
Little things, Mama says. That's all it is. Mary, do you want your sisters to starve?
It makes me sick to see that stuff on our tables. The stamp collection. The music box engraved June 16, 1967. A gift for high school graduation? An anniversary present? And the necklace of antique amber beads.
Mama catches me looking at it. "You can have that, Mary. It would be real pretty with your hair."
"I don't want it."
It's lunchtime; Daddy brings hot dogs and sodas. It's hot in the RV. The fan won't work. Mama eats while she sells. "We're doing good," she says. The money belt she wears looks heavy.
My father lies down to take a nap, clutching his stomach. "Too much coffee," he groans. He should see a doctor, but we don't have insurance and they want money up front.
Paula sleeps too, her hair damp with sweat. Erica and Danielle play the Sorry game Daddy picked up at one of the booths.
I tell Mama I'll take over so she can rest, but she says I sell too cheap. She gets top dollar.
A man and a woman look over our stuff. They match, like the chipmunk salt and peppers she's fingering.
"Look here, hon," she says to him. "These are real cute."
"Uh-huh," he says, examining the tape deck. "This thing work?"
"It works fine," Mama says. "I'll plug it in so you can hear it."
"I'll give you fifteen for it."
"Twenty," Mama says.
I'm watching the woman. She's staring at the music box. Her face looks funny.
"Joe," she says. "Look." She points it out. Then she's staring at the digital clock.
"Joseph!" she hisses, and motions him away. They stand at a distance and stare at us and whisper. Their faces change from puzzled to angry.
Mama's selling a package of new socks, telling her customer, "These came in today." But she misses nothing. She sees the couple march off, headed toward the flea market office.
"Mary!" Mama says. We move quickly. Mama sweeps the tables clean, dumping stuff into boxes that we stow in the RV's outside compartments. I roll up and secure the awning.
"Andrew!" Mama calls into the motor home. "We're leaving. Andrew! What's the matter, honey?" She hurries to their bunk. He's lying on his side, clutching his stomach and moaning.
"You're white as a sheet! Your skin feels clammy."
He lurches into the john and throws up. The girls are frozen on their bunks, watching.
"Mary!" Mama's scared. "We've got to go!" She doesn't know how to drive the RV, or even the Jeep chained behind it. Daddy wanted her to learn. "I can't! I just can't!" she'd cried. She's crying now.
I climb behind the steering wheel. "Put on your seat belts," I tell the girls. "Fast."
"I'm thirsty," Polly says.
"Do it now!"
"You're mean, Mary!"
Through the windshield I can see the angry couple talking to the fat woman outside the office, their faces turned in our direction.
"Sit down, Mama." I start the engine. Daddy comes out of the bathroom and lies down, flinging his arms across his face.
I drive slowly through the crowd of people and tables, circling the parking lot, away from the office, looking for an exit. An escape.
"Jesus, there's got to be another way out."
"Mary, don't take the Lord's name in vain," Mama murmurs beside me, her seat belt snug across her massive belly.
I spot another exit. There's a pickup in the way; people are loading a couch into the back.
"We've got to get out of here!" Mama cries. "Go around them!"
The Wolfs' Den is huge and hard to maneuver. I scrape past the pickup truck. The people glare.
"Go!" Mama says. "Go, Mary!"
It really doesn't matter, when you have no destination.
I pull into the traffic, my armpits prickling, my hands shaking on the steering wheel.
"Isn't it a good thing Daddy taught you how to drive," Mama says.
"It's wonderful," I say. "It's great."
"Andrew," she calls, "how you doing, hon?"
In the rearview mirror I see him wave, signaling that he's okay, keep going.
Keep going is the order of the day. Every day.
The traffic is heavy. I move over to the right, looking for a freeway entrance.
Mama dumps the money belt into her lap. "We did pretty good," she says, counting. "I can't believe how cheap people are. They always want something for nothing."
I get onto the freeway. We leave the city behind. Mama slips off her shoes.
"Ooh, that's better. My feet are so swollen." She rubs her belly. "Put your hand here, Mary. You can feel the baby moving."
"I'm busy now, Mama." I drive and drive. My father sleeps. The kids are quiet. I clench my teeth, holding back the angry words. There's no telling what I'd say to my mother.
"Mary," she says timidly, "I'm sorry, honey. In a city that size, who would've thought that would happen?"
"Yeah, what a coincidence. A million people and you manage to steal from your customers."
"It won't happen again. It's never happened before."
"That's not true. Remember Memphis?"
Probably not. She forgets. The cops asked a bunch of questions and Mama made up this story about kids, teenagers, selling her the stuff and she had no idea it was stolen. It wasn't her fault. It was all a mix-up. Do we look like the kind of people who would steal? We're just a normal family on vacation.
A vacation that never ends.
"We can't keep this up," I say. "It's just a matter of time before we get nailed."
"Nailed. Who taught you to talk like that? You certainly didn't learn that from Daddy or me."
"Mama, can you get serious for one minute? We're coming to the end of the line here. I can feel it."
"Are we in trouble?" Danielle sounds worried. She's ten years old and knows about jail.
"No, we're not," Mama says. "Everything's fine."
"But Mary said —"
"Don't worry, Danielle. Mama and I were just talking. Why don't you and the girls take a snooze? We'll be on the road for a while."
We're in the country, driving through rolling green hills. We'll need a place to stay for the night. Where should we head? Where are we now?
"I need the map, Mama."
She hands me Arkansas.
"No," I say. "California."
Mama turns on the radio and sings along. Then she says, "I almost forgot." She pulls something from her pocket and says, "Close your eyes, Mary."
"Mama, I'm driving."
"Then hold out your hand. Come on, sweetie, hold it out."
The girls aren't sleeping; they crowd close to see. Mama places something cool and smooth on my palm. It's the necklace of antique amber beads.
"Oooh!" the girls say. "Look, Mary! It's pretty."
"I knew you liked it," Mama says, "and today is a very special day."
"It's the twenty-fifth of April! Your birthday!"
"Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure! Happy birthday, darling. I'm going to make a cake when we stop for the night."
"With candles?" Erica asks. "And ice cream, too?"
She and Polly sing the birthday song.
I'm surprised it's my birthday. The days roll by, one road leading to another. Flowers bloom beside the freeway. It's springtime again.
I'm sixteen years old today.CHAPTER 2
Things are looking up. My father has a job. Soon we'll be able to rent a house and go to school again.
We've been staying in a trailer park outside Stockton. The sign on the gate welcomes overnighters, but most of these trailers are here to stay. They have dented tin skirts and flat tires. The cars that towed them have gone to the junkyard. The park is crowded. We were lucky to get a space.
Daddy's working at a big discount store downtown. He's the assistant manager of the camera department. Last night he was in a terrific mood. We laughed around the dinner table.
"There'll be medical benefits, too," he promised, "as soon as I pass my three months' probation."
"That's wonderful," Mama said. "The girls could use checkups, and I want to get a doctor for the baby. And you've got to have somebody look at your stomach."
"Here it is!" Daddy lifted his shirt. The girls giggled. He says the pain's just an ulcer, from stress.
"You should see this place; it's huge," he said. "They've been looking for a man with my experience. Today Thrifty, tomorrow the world. I'm telling you, Wendy, I've got the magic again." He and my mother smiled at each other and clinked their water glasses together.
Back home in Nebraska, Daddy sold insurance. He had his own office and twelve guys under him. Under him, that's what he always said. We had a two-story house with a big sloping lawn. I remember playing in a fan of silver water, the sprinkler shimmering back and forth.
We had so much money, Daddy bought the RV brand-new; parked it in the driveway and surprised us. Mama's hand went to her throat.
"Andrew, it's enormous! Are you sure we can afford it?"
He laughed and hugged her. "That's my department."
Our last name is Wolf, so he made a sign that says THE WOLFS' DEN and hung it in back, above the license plate. He bought the red Jeep to tow behind it. The motor home handles like a dinosaur and uses a lot of gas. We went camping every summer and took long trips. The back of the RV sprouted colorful stickers from all the amusement parks we visited.
Then things began to change, very slowly at first, like great puffy clouds moving in from the north. The economy was bad. Business fell off. People had no money for insurance. Daddy had to fire six of his salesmen. One day the head office called. Daddy's branch was closed and he was out of a job for the first time since he was eighteen years old.
"Don't worry," he told Mama. "We have money in the savings, and I'll be working again before you know it."
Every night the TV news showed long lines of people standing outside unemployment offices. Daddy mailed off résumés, filled out hundreds of applications, went on job interviews. Came home raging.
"I'm too old!" he roared. "Overqualified! I've got too much experience, that's what they said. They want kids fresh out of college, so they don't have to pay them. I'm telling you, Wendy, the world's gone crazy."
It wasn't his fault. The recession was the problem, all the newspapers said so. We bundled them and sold them to recyclers, along with the aluminum cans we collected.
Excerpted from Mary Wolf by Cynthia D. Grant. Copyright © 1995 Cynthia D. Grant. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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