We the Underserved

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December 21, 2017 by The Citron Review

by Kathryn Kulpa

 

We the underserved, the undeserving poor, sitting underground, in the street-level window of an Eighth Avenue pizza joint, where we share a large extra cheese and pick garbanzo beans out of our side salad and make fun of passing feet. Rich people’s feet in their duck boots, their yuck boots. Their ridiculous inflatable sneakers that cost more than our mother makes in a week. We would not wear them even if we could afford them, we say. But we lie. We covet those sneakers. If a bus knocked down someone wearing them we would snatch them off that person’s twitching feet and run.

We are underaged and undersupervised. I’m the older sister so I’m in charge of you but that’s ridiculous—even our mother says so—like putting Hitler in charge of Mussolini, she says, and she’s Italian, she should know, but what choice does she have? She can’t afford a babysitter and I’m too old for one anyway, I tell her. We’re latchkey kids, under-parented, joined at the hip in all our travels. It’s my job to teach you what I know, so I teach you rude gestures and we practice them in the restaurant: a middle-finger jab, a punched-up elbow salute. This is how the Italians do it, I tell you, and we salute the passing boots, the pumped-up sneakers, the Wall Street polished shoes, and then we see a gray-haired man’s face bending down to chastise us—or is he? He’s shaking his head but he’s laughing, he’s coming into the pizza place, who is this man? We freeze, caught in an instinctive fear that any adult has the right to chastise any child, and especially any unregulated unsupervised latchkey children of a single mother who gave us taxi money to get our dinner out, which we saved for frozen yogurt later and walked instead, and she made us promise to get a salad, which we did, but we didn’t promise to eat it, and now here is this grandfather-aged man sitting down with us, in our very same orange booth, to explain why we shouldn’t throw rude hand gestures at strangers, calling for wine (they don’t have wine), bread sticks (those they have), getting our sodas refilled by the same quiet waitress who’s ignored us for the last 20 minutes, and of course we want dessert, hubcap-sized chocolate chip cookies, of course he’ll pay, he’s our uncle, didn’t we know that?—actually our mother’s uncle, our Uncle Tony, and we have to help him surprise her—yes, the name of the restaurant is Uncle Tony’s, funny how life works that way, always a coincidence, and how is our mother? And when is she coming to pick us up?

What’s our mother’s name?” I ask him suddenly, and he smiles, has a sip of water and says, Well, I always called her Cookie. She may not like me telling you that, though. There’s a story behind it. Would you like to hear it?”

I have to go to the bathroom, I say. I kick your foot under the table but you don’t get it so I grab your hand and pull you to the bathroom but not really, there’s the back door and we slip out past the pot-smoking busboys and Run, I tell you, run fast, and we run between stores, between KFC that’s not really a KFC because it’s Kansas Fried Chicken and a dusty hobby shop and the underground record store and that one Italian bakery that sells tiny sticky pastries shaped like porcupines. We are princesses of power, we are super girls, we are wonder women eluding our enemy, the Not-Great-Uncle who I am sure never met our mother. We are good at narrow escapes. It was like that time we came down the subway stairs, turned the corner into the almost-empty station, and then, cutting through the cold and damp, the sharp ammonia smell and rainspout noise that made no sense until we saw the man in the corner facing the wall.

“Oh my God—”

Shhh!”

And he turned, penis still in hand, spouting in weak spurts like a hose after the faucet’s turned off—“No offense, lay-deez—” but we were gone, flying down the track.

“It’s no big thing!” I yelled as we stumble-ran back up the stairs, laughter hitting us as we smelled fresh air. We would walk another few blocks, raining or not. We would take another train. We would have a story to tell. As we would tonight. But not to our mother. She would find us at home, safe, as she always did.

“How was the pizza?”

“Good.”

“Anything exciting happen today?”

“Nope.”

We the underestimated, the unbreakable. Only in our beds at night would we giggle and gloat over another narrow escape, another crazy unsuspected adventure in our undercover lives.

This, all this, was in the olden times, long ago. Ronald Reagan was in the White House. Ronald Reagan had always been in the White House. Our streets were dirty and full of mystery, tottering newsstands, grimy corner stores with unlabeled Korean candies, found once and never seen again, cigarettes sold loose from a box on the counter, men sitting on wooden crates offering card games, umbrellas, charcoal caricatures, genuine Coach purse, smoke some weed, smoke some hash, smoke some crack, get your horoscope, tell your fortune. But we knew our fortune. We would always be young and underserved, underground heroes of our own never-ending youth, indivisible, invincible.

 

Kathryn Kulpa is a fiction writer whose stories have been published in Atticus Review, Jellyfish Review, Monkeybicycle and other journals. She received the Mid-List Press First Series Award for her short fiction collection Pleasant Drugs and was a winner of the Vella Chapbook Contest for her flash chapbook, Girls on Film, published by Paper Nautilus. Kathryn leads writing workshops for teens and adults in Rhode Island and is flash fiction editor of Cleaver Magazine. In her spare time, she fosters kittens.

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