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A Feminine Touch

by: Joseph Lombo

I’d served fifteen minutes of a thirty minute sentence my mother had imposed after I’d finished my lunch.  She never let me go out right after a meal.  I had to spend at least a half hour in the house, digesting my food.  I was only eleven, but even I knew it took way longer than that to digest the salami and cheese sandwich and bowl of Spaghetti O’s with Meatballs I’d just eaten.  I was tempted to tell her how long it really took someone to digest their food, but I was afraid if she found out she’d never let me out of the house.

The phone rang. The old man called every day during his lunch break.  Since Mom wouldn’t listen to my pleas for an early release while she was on the phone, I went into the living room to search for spare change under the seat cushions.  I was desperate for extra money because any day now Topps was coming out with the next series of baseball cards.  I didn’t find any money, but I did uncover gum wrappers, an old Redbook magazine, and a few barbecue potato chips that squeaked when I chewed them.

Before lunch Mom had put the Young and The Restless on the TV.  I kept hoping a girl would come out of the shower wearing just a towel or some couple would roll around in bed.  But somebody had been shot at the beginning of the episode, so everybody was at the hospital crying or telling the cops where they’d been when it happened.

Right after Mom slammed the phone down, I hurried into the kitchen.  She was at the stove bent over a burner, trying to light a cigarette dangling from her lips.  She only smoked when her nerves were shot.  I got a kick out of watching the smoke barely make it into her mouth before she blew it out again.  I knew kids my age who could inhale better than she could.  Mom didn’t know what to do with the ashes, either.  They formed one long strand on the tip of her cigarette until they finally broke apart and fell in her lap.

“Get me an ashtray before I set myself on fire, will you?”

I scampered back to the living room.  There were always ashtrays piled on the table next to the old man’s recliner.  I grabbed the one with the picture of the Leaning Tower of Pisa inside. I could only see the top of the Tower because the rest of it was buried under a stack of tamped out butts.

“I’m going across the street to play stickball.”

“I have an errand for you to run first.”

Mom tore a piece of paper from the tablet she kept near the phone.  She started to write a grocery list.

“Give this to Helch.” She folded the paper and then handed it to me.

 “Why do I have to go to the store?  Mikey’s upstairs doing nothing.”

Mom tried to yell, but she started coughing.  She held the cigarette off to the side, over her head, and under the kitchen table but everywhere she put it the smoke drifted in her face anyway. 

“He’s cleaning under his bed like I told you to do.”

Mike was nine years old and already a neat freak.  That made the mess under my bed look even worse.

Mom dug down deep into a desk drawer in the living room where she kept the money.  Then she reached behind the sofa for a whiskey bottle full of change and poured some of the coins out on the floor.  She wrapped the bills around the change and handed it to me.  

“Can I have my allowance?”

“Your father missed a day of work last week.  Nobody’s getting an allowance.”

“But the new baseball cards are…”

“You’re on my last nerve.  If you keep it up, I’ll throw the cards you do have in the trash.”

I ran up Almond Street as fast as my bony knees and skinny ankles would take me.  I stopped at the corner because there was a commotion outside Ray Bruner’s house.  Ray was a leathery skinned old man who always wore sleeveless tee shirts and bedroom slippers.  He was standing in his back yard, cursing and spraying water from a leaky garden hose at two stray dogs stuck together near his rose bushes.  Everybody was laughing, which made Ray even madder.  The dogs hobbled around the yard, one behind and on top of the other, until Ray ditched the hose for a metal bucket.

A stickball game was about to start in the lot across the street from Ray’s house. It was surrounded by a rusty, barbed wire fence that felt like a brick wall when you crashed into it.  Just beyond the lot was a polluted creek that devoured foul balls and the chemicals that Allied Chemical dumped into it.  The field was a combination of dirt and concrete littered with rocks, weeds and broken glass.

A sun shower forced everyone warming up for the game to scamper for cover under the graffiti covered walls of a bombed out concrete garage that barely stood in the back corner of the lot. 

“Ask him if he’s digested his food yet.” I heard someone in the garage say. 

Everybody giggled. I ran to the store, cursing my mom the whole way.

The wood clapboards outside Kassie’s were smeared with blue and red signs advertising that week’s specials.  Water dripping from the air conditioner cut into the wall above the front door sizzled when it hit the sidewalk. 

I loved to be in air conditioning since it seemed like Mom only ran the one we had in the living room window when the temperature at midnight was at least ninety-five degrees.  I was too shy to look up, but based on the number of shoes I counted when I walked in, the line at the checkout counter was pretty long.  I grabbed a cart and tried to unravel the note Mom had given me without attracting too much attention.

There were three grocery aisles in the middle of the store. I was standing next to the Produce Department, which ran along a side wall and consisted of two hanging scales and fruits and vegetables stacked inside wax boxes. The dairy case occupied the back wall. The hum of its coils and compressors sounded like the equipment in Frankenstein’s laboratory.  The Meat Department took up most of the other side wall.  Through an opening in the wall behind the meat case, I could usually see a butcher’s hand grinding meat, which dropped out of the grinder into a large metal tub and coiled like long, dead snakes.

The first item on the list was potatoes.  I dropped a few into a hanging scale and a couple more by mistake onto the crooked tile floor that had a huge hump that cut right across the middle of the store.  The potatoes I’d dropped rolled all the way back to the front counter.  Charley, who owned the store along with his wife, was working the register.  He was short and fat with a slight twang to his voice that made him sound nicer than he really was.  His apron always had red stains on the front of it that made me wonder if he’d just finished killing something.

“Can I help you with that, Mr. Lombo?”  He knew my name because the Old Man sent me to the store after dinner every night to get him a pack of Winston’s for dessert.

“Nah, I’m okay,” I said as I tried not to rip the paper bag I was jamming the potatoes into. 

“I’ll page Helch to help you, just in case.”

I tried to think of a place I could hide, but the store wasn’t big enough for that. I thought maybe I could avoid her for a little while if I hurried into the next aisle. But I cut the goddamned cart too close rounding the bend, sending cans of pork and beans crashing to the floor.  

“Hey, where’d you get your license, yunch, Pep Boys?” Helch asked in her usual gruff voice.  She slicked her hair straight back.  Band Aids covered the tips of her fingers and thumbs.  The old man said she was a girl, kind of.  My cousin Matt said she had a pecker because he’d caught her peeing standing up in an alley once.

“Need help?”

“No thanks.  I can handle it.”  I could feel her eyes watching me as I struggled to lift a half gallon of milk out of the deep dairy case. 

“Suit yourself, yunch,” she said before putting me in a headlock.  The perfume she wore smelled more like the old man’s cologne than anything Mom wore.  

Mom wanted two cans of tomato soup, a loaf of bread, and a half pound of American cheese, which meant we were probably having grilled cheese and soup for dinner.

The last item on her list was, “F. Napkins.”  If the old man had written it, I’d have known exactly how he felt about those napkins.   I had no idea what Mom wanted, but she’d ground me if I came home without them, so I had to get something.  I went with the cloth dinner napkins because they were Fancy.

I crumpled the note and stuffed it into the pocket of my cut-off jean shorts.   While Charlie rang up the order, I stared at a full box of new red and blue packs of baseball cards next to the register.  I was tempted to tell him to add a few to the bill, but Mom would pull every hair out in my head if she found out.

I went home a different way so I wouldn’t have to go by the stickball field.  The sun shower hadn’t cooled things off any.  I looked for a rainbow, but the sky was hazy with a few dark clouds mixed in.

When I opened the back door, Mom was sitting at the kitchen table, holding a box of tissues.  She went over to the sink when she saw me.  With one hand, she held her glasses under the running water while she wiped her eyes with the back of the other.

“Put the change on the table,” she said.

I had trouble getting all of the money out of my pockets so I dropped it on the table in stages.  When I finished I turned my pockets inside out just to make sure there wasn’t anything still inside them.   

“I’m going out now, okay?”

Mom came over to the table and counted the change. “Where’s the rest of it?”

“That’s all of it.”

“You bought some of those damn cards, didn’t you?  Give me strength,” she pleaded as she started taking things out of the bags. “Don’t you go anywhere until I get to the bottom of this bag, mister.  What the heck are these?”


“I can see that.  What kind of napkins?”

“The note said F. Napkins.  They were the fanciest they had.”

Mom’s cheeks puffed out and her face turned red.

“You son of a basket.” Mom always said son of a basket or son of a bee instead of son of a
. “I wanted feminine napkins.  You didn’t give that note to Helch did you? “

“Yes I did.” 

“Don’t you lie to me,” Mom said, grabbing a handful of my hair. “Don’t you know the difference between these and feminine napkins?”

I tried to look at her, but I was too dizzy from the hair pulling to focus. “The only other napkins they had were sanitary.”

“That’s the same thing, for crying out loud.”

“I know that,” I said even though I didn’t know anything about the stuff women used down there.

“Your father needs to have a talk with you.”

I was trying to fix my hair.  I couldn’t get it to lie back down like it was supposed to.

“You’ll just have to take these back.  Exchange them for feminine napkins and bring me the change. Make sure you give this note to Helch.”

She had to be joking.  “Everybody’ll laugh at me.”

“We need that money.”

“I don’t care.  I’m not going.” 

She paced around the kitchen, muttering to herself.  Then she got right into my face.  Her breath smelled like cigarettes. She grabbed my shoulders so I’d have to look at her.

“Take them back and then you can go out.”  


“Then I’m getting the strap.”

The strap was a present from my sadistic great grandfather after Mom complained that Mike and I wouldn’t listen to her. It was a three foot long stick with a square top. A long leather strap was nailed to each side of the square.  They cracked like a whip when they hit something.  Mom threatened me with it a lot, but she’d never used it---so far.

I thought she was bluffing this time too until she marched into the shed.  The strap sat in the corner next to the push mower.  I ran to the stairs, figuring I’d lock myself in my room and wait her out.  But I was in such a hurry to get up there I tripped over my own feet.  I laid face down on the steps, covering the back of my head with my hands and arms.  She’d whacked me with a soup ladle before, but I always laughed even if it hurt. 

When those straps raked my butt it made the soup ladle feel like a feather. My shorts acted like shock absorbers but it still hurt.  I knew if I yelled or cried she’d probably stop.  When she hit Mike he’d threaten to call the cops.  She’d stop right away or give him one more before sending him to his room. 

“It doesn’t hurt,” I yelled with my face still buried in the carpet.

She whacked the back of my knees instead.  I didn’t have any protection there.  It felt like somebody was pouring hot water on them.
I didn’t realize she was finished until I heard her crying as she sat in the old man’s recliner.

“Don’t cry Mom.  I’ll take them back.”

I went up to my room to put on a pair of long pants because the red marks on the back of my legs were taking too long to go away.  Mike was sitting on his bed.  Usually he laughed when I got hit, just like I cracked up when he got whacked.  This time he wasn’t laughing.  His arms were folded across his chest.  He had a mean, brooding look on his face.

“I’m going to tell Daddy when he gets home.”

“All he’ll hear is the part about his dumb ass son getting the wrong kind of napkins.”

I decided not to walk past the stickball field on my way back to the store.  I didn’t feel like playing anymore or having everybody ask me why I was wearing long pants when it was so hot. Besides, I was looking forward to going through the new baseball cards Mom didn’t know she was buying me yet. It was the least she could do.   

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