Between the two of us, we made my mom’s life pretty hard. The way Smelly Gabe treated her, the way he and I got along… well, when I came home is a good example.
I walked into our little apartment, hoping my mom would be home from work. Instead, Smelly Gabe was in the living room, playing poker with his buddies. The television was blaring. Crisps and beer cans were strewn all over the carpet.
Hardly looking up, he said around his cigar, ‘So, you’re home.’
‘Where’s my mom?’
‘Working,’ he said. ‘You got any cash?’
That was it. No Welcome back. Good to see you. How has your life been the last six months?
Gabe had put on weight. He looked like a tuskless walrus in thrift-store clothes. He had about three hairs on his head, all combed over his bald scalp, as if that made him handsome or something.
He managed the Electronics Mega-Mart in Queens, but he stayed home most of the time. I don’t know why he hadn’t been fired long before. He just kept on collecting pay cheques, spending the money on cigars that made me nauseous, and on beer, of course. Always beer. Whenever I was home, he expected me to provide his gambling funds. He called that our ‘guy secret’. Meaning, if I told my mom, he would punch my lights out.
‘I don’t have any cash,’ I told him.
He raised a greasy eyebrow.
Gabe could sniff out money like a bloodhound, which was surprising, since his own smell should’ve covered up everything else.
‘You took a taxi from the bus station,’ he said. ‘Probably paid with a twenty. Got six, seven bucks in change. Somebody expects to live under this roof, he ought to carry his own weight. Am I right, Eddie?’
Eddie, the superintendant of the apartment building, looked at me with a twinge of sympathy. ‘Come on, Gabe,’ he said. ‘The kid just got here.’
‘Am I right?’ Gabe repeated.
Eddie scowled into his bowl of pretzels. The other two guys passed gas in harmony.
‘Fine,’ I said. I dug a wad of dollars out of my pocket and threw the money on the table. ‘I hope you lose.’
‘Your report card came, brain boy!’ he shouted after me. ‘I wouldn’t act so snooty!’
I slammed the door to my room, which really wasn’t my room. During school months, it was Gabe’s ‘study’. He didn’t study anything in there except old car magazines, but he loved shoving my stuff in the closet, leaving his muddy boots on my windowsill, and doing his best to make the place smell like his nasty cologne and cigars and stale beer.
I dropped my suitcase on the bed. Home sweet home.
Gabe’s smell was almost worse than the nightmares about Mrs Dodds, or the sound of that old fruit lady’s shears snipping the yarn.
But as soon as I thought that, my legs felt weak. I remembered Grover’s look of panic – how he’d made me promise I wouldn’t go home without him. A sudden chill rolled through me. I felt like someone – something – was looking for me right now, maybe pounding its way up the stairs, growing long, horrible talons.
Then I heard my mom’s voice. ‘Percy?’
She opened the bedroom door, and my fears melted.
My mother can make me feel good just by walking into the room. Her eyes sparkle and change colour in the light. Her smile is as warm as a quilt. She’s got a few grey streaks mixed in with her long brown hair, but I never think of her as old. When she looks at me, it’s like she’s seeing all the good things about me, none of the bad. I’ve never heard her raise her voice or say an unkind word to anyone, not even me or Gabe.
‘Oh, Percy.’ She hugged me tight. ‘I can’t believe it. You’ve grown since Christmas!’
Her red-white-and-blue Sweet on America uniform smelled like the best things in the world: chocolate, licorice, and all the other stuff she sold at the candy shop in Grand Central. She’d brought me a huge bag of ‘free samples’, the way she always did when I came home.
We sat together on the edge of the bed. While I attacked the blueberry sour strings, she ran her hand through my hair and demanded to know everything I hadn’t put in my letters. She didn’t mention anything about my getting expelled. She didn’t seem to care about that. But was I okay? Was her little boy doing all right?
I told her she was smothering me, and to lay off and all that, but secretly, I was really, really glad to see her.
From the other room, Gabe yelled, ‘Hey, Sally – how about some bean dip, huh?’
I gritted my teeth.
My mom is the nicest lady in the world. She should’ve been married to a millionaire, not to some jerk like Gabe.
For her sake, I tried to sound upbeat about my last days at Yancy Academy. I told her I wasn’t too down about the expulsion. I’d lasted almost the whole year this time. I’d made some new friends. I’d done pretty well in Latin. And honestly, the fights hadn’t been as bad as the headmaster said. I liked Yancy Academy. I really had. I put such a good spin on the year, I almost convinced myself. I started choking up, thinking about Grover and Mr Brunner. Even Nancy Bobofitt suddenly didn’t seem so bad.