One Good Hustle
Author:Billie Livingston

One Good Hustle - By Billie Livingston


THERE IS PROBABLY at least one good con for a situation like this, one decent, well-executed hustle that would turn the whole scene to my advantage. But I just can’t think straight lately. Feels as if I’ve been beating my brains out forever, just trying to get an edge. Like a total amateur.

Jill’s mom, Ruby, watches me with a closed-mouth smile—almost a smirk from where I’m sitting. We’re in the basement, in Jill’s bedroom, but Jill isn’t here. The second that Ruby pushed through the beaded curtain in the doorway, Jill buggered off upstairs. Obviously a trap.

Ruby is sitting on Jill’s bed now, one hand on either knee, her palms up like Buddha’s mother. She’s probably only forty but her hair is steel grey and she’s built like a chubby bulldog. She’s wearing this long, drapey vest-thing over stretchy black pants, which reminds me of Bea Arthur as Maude, except Ruby’s about half Bea Arthur’s height. Clearly Jill got her gargantuan size from her father’s side of the family.

I tilt up the corners of my mouth but keep it shut. Ruby keeps on smiling, gives me a slow easy blink. This is no staring contest. It’s more like a game of inscrutable chicken.

Finally she exhales through her nose and says, “Well, Sammie, you’ve been sleeping in our basement for two weeks and no one knows why.”

I nod at the floor. She’s got a point. I’ve been hogging half of Jill’s bed now for two weeks exactly. I hadn’t meant to. I kept hoping my dad might show up and I’d get out of here before anyone knew what hit them. Fat chance. Sam’s nowhere to be seen. I’ve got noplace else to go and Ruby’s got me cornered. Sam once said, if you think you got to fight to win then you’re an amateur. “That’s the difference between us and them,” he said. “The professional works out everything that the amateur has to sweat out. If you got to sweat every move, that’s what you call a rough hustle.” He told my mother that shortly before he got arrested and did two years for grand larceny and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. I was the minor. I didn’t have to do any time, though. I was only eight.

“Yup,” I finally say out loud. Ruby keeps gawking at me, waiting for an explanation. What does she expect? I can’t rat out my mother.

If I don’t say something, though, she might turf me.

“It’s my mom.” Fill in the blanks yourself.

That is the heart of it, after all. My mother. Marlene’s been the problem for a while. Seems impossible when I think of how just a couple of years ago Marlene was a fucking force of nature! I suppose she always drank a little, but not like this. She was sharp. I told her everything. We trusted each other like crazy. She drilled it into my head that once you catch a person in a lie, it’s hard to ever trust that person again. By “person,” she meant me. Us. Everyone else was grey area.

Nowadays, living with Marlene—talk about your rough hustles. She doesn’t even try to act decent any more. I am sixteen, though. Only one more year until I graduate. Four months after that, I’ll be legal. At midnight, on November 2, 1985, I will be eighteen years old. Until two weeks ago, I thought I could stick it out.

Ruby watches me. She’s waiting for the rest.

“I couldn’t stay,” I tell her. “She’s … you know.”

Forget it. I’m not saying more. I barely even know Jill, never mind her mother. Jill and I only started hanging out a few months ago. She knows I was named after my father and that he doesn’t pay child support. And that Marlene thinks Sam’s a major prick. That’s about it, really. She doesn’t know what kind of people I come from.

“She’s not feeling well. Flu.” I gaze up at Jill’s framed Foxy Brown movie poster, on the wall behind Ruby—Pam Grier in a long black wig with a little silver gun on her ankle. All around her a dozen little Pams beat the shit out of bad guys. Don’t mess aroun’ with … Foxy Brown. She’s the meanest chick in town. I’d never heard of this movie before I knew Jill.

“Sammie,” Ruby calls me back. “Are you saying something?”

I must’ve been moving my lips as I read. Ruby ducks her head, trying to make eye contact, but I’m not into it. I don’t want to deal with Ruby. I start fidgeting with the beanbag chair—the orange leather is peeling like bad sunburn.

“Tell me about your mom. Has she been hurting you?”

My eyes jerk up. Hurting? Does she mean hitting? “Shit, I could take my mother,” I blurt. Stupid thing to say. I’m stupid. “No. It’s her. She wants to, like”—I look back at Foxy, the silver gun on her ankle—“hurt herself. She wants to kill herself.”

Ruby’s skinny, pencilled eyebrows rise.

I feel like a fink—but really, it’s barely anything, what I told. It’s not like it’s illegal to have suicidal thoughts. Part of me is relieved. The rest is embarrassed like I just coughed up phlegm. Except it’s not my phlegm and I have no right coughing it up.

“I offered to help,” I add. “No, I mean …”

Ruby’s eyes are sympathetic all of a sudden. I have just become a pathetic little splotch on her daughter’s beanbag chair: some poor, sticky welfare kid with a mother who plans to off herself.

Regular Ruby and her regular husband, Lou, in their regular house with their regular pickup truck. What’s a Regular Ruby supposed to think of a situation like this?

I look at her. She has pink blusher on her freckled cheeks and stubby mascaraed eyelashes that I can just make out in the dim light of Jill’s hanging paper lantern. Jill told me once that her parents were real partiers until they became Christians. Then they gave up drinking and settled right down. It is a fact that I have not seen Ruby or Lou drink since I’ve been here, but I haven’t seen anyone go to church either.

It’s probably true, though. I’m a total magnet for Jesus freaks. My best friend Drew is a Jesus freak but we haven’t spoken since I took off. He probably hates me now. Christian or not, you can only turn your other cheek for so damn long.

“She’s depressed,” I explain to Ruby. “She always talks about it. She’s tried it a couple of times. Sort of. So, when she told me she was definitely going to do it, I offered to help her get pills. But I said I wasn’t going to watch.”

Ruby winces and I go back to picking the orange skin on the beanbag chair. “Yeah,” I say, and suddenly I’m goofing with the ditzy hippie-voice that Jill and I like to do. “Like, a totally bad scene, baby. Not cool.”

Ruby just sits, her stubby little hands on her knees. She has three rings on one and two on the other. I can hear Marlene sing the way she did when I was a kid: “With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes, she shall have music wherever she goes!”

I don’t believe that my mother will actually kill herself. But I’m not telling Ruby that. Or the fact that I sort of wish she would. We really are fucked up, Marlene and me. There’s no greeting card for a case like us.

Ruby lifts her hands off her knees, laces her fingers and looks into the empty bowl of her palms. Here is the church, here is the steeple, I think. Open the doors and where are the people?

She lets a slow sigh go. “When’s the last time you saw her?”

“A few days ago. I had to pick up some more clothes. She asked me to get her some stuff at the store.”

Her eyebrows angle up again, then her mouth gets thin and hard and she gives me one of those solid looks of determination that grown-ups sport on kids’ TV. I can see now why little kids might like that sort of thing. It’s confidence building.

“Did you know we used to run a group home here, Sammie?”

I nod. Jill talks about those days sometimes, the harsh chicks and guys who used to stay here, prosti-tots and pickpockets. Jill told me that if one of those girls heard that a new guy was coming to the house, she’d go stand outside on the porch so that her nipples would get hard from the cold. I didn’t get it. Jill explained that it was so the guy would get turned on at the sight of her and then nipple-chick would be first in line for his weed or whatever he was carrying. I found that hard to believe. Jill put her hand on her hip, pushed her fat lips out at me and said, “Look, baby, I know more about sex and drugs than you’ll know in a lifetime.” Jill would kill to be a black chick. Pam Grier.

“Do you want to stay on here for a while?” Ruby says.

I take a breath and look her in the eyes for as long as I can stand it.

“All right,” she says. “We need to set up an appointment with a worker at Social Services. And someone needs to check in on your mother. I’ll get Lou to take me over there when he gets off work tomorrow.”

When she catches my expression, Ruby gives me a tough sort of chuckle. “We just want to notify Social Services of the situation. If Lou and I are on the record as your temporary guardians, they’ll send support cheques so we can afford to feed you.”

Anyone can weasel her way around a social worker. But wait till Ruby gets a load of Marlene. And vice versa. I open my mouth to protest but there’s no point. It’s her own fault—Marlene’s got it coming.