The Shine Journal

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Motel Girl


Ann Malaspina


“What’s for breakfast?” Pete asks before he opens his eyes.

I’m already awake. I can see the drool seeping out the corner of my little brother’s mouth. I push away his foot pressed up against my hip. The sheets are all tangled up, too. I’m going to gag if I don’t get loose fast.

Mama is in the bathroom with the shower going. She always turns the water on extra hot and makes it come down hard. Maybe she thinks it will wash away her troubles.

“Waggy needs to go out!” I call out.

The dog is scratching at the door. Waggy is Pete’s dog, but I have a soft spot for him. Besides, walking the dog is a good way to get out of the room.

Mama doesn’t answer, so I tell Pete I’ll be right back. As I’m leaving, Pete yells out, “Bring us back food!”

“I don’t have any money,” I snap.
I actually do have money, saved up from babysitting the McCormick boys every Saturday night. The money, $37.85, is in my Guatemalan purse that I wear around my neck, and I’m not about to take it out for Pete’s breakfast.  The purse, made of gray wool with tiny red flowers, is my most beautiful possession. Augie brought it back from vacation last year.

Anyway, breakfast is Mama’s job.  The last meal we ate was yesterday when Mrs. McCormick brought us a bag of burgers. I couldn’t look at her when she said softly, “We’ll miss you, Mari.” I  took my burger and went to my room that was empty by then, except for the bed frame and my posters on the wall. I don’t know why, but I ripped down all the posters after I ate my hamburger, even my favorite one of the crooked room by Vincent Van Gogh.

Those burgers were a long time ago.

In the lobby, Arthur from last night is gone. A lady with short white hair is at the counter. Maybe she’s his wife and the motel is a family business. If I were going to have a family business, it wouldn’t be the Blue Dolphin Motel, with no view out the windows except for Route 1. I would have a hotel on a beach in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The woman doesn’t even look up.

Outside, the air is full of truck exhaust. A silver dolphin leaps up on the motel roof like it’s Sea World. Except for our car, the parking lot is empty. This time of year, most families aren’t on the road. Not like ours.  

At the edge of the lot,  the patch of grass is crusted with bits of ice. Cans and bottle caps are strewn around. I put Waggy down and he quickly runs to a  tree and does his business. Then he trots back, looking up at me, like he’s wondering where his breakfast is, too.

“Where’s my breakfast, Waggy?”

I pick him up and go back inside. 

“Waggy needs food,” I say, pushing open the door to the room.  

Mama’s drying her hair with a small towel and cussing again.
“How do they expect you to dry off with this bleepity-bleep-bleep dish rag?”

She doesn’t even tell Pete not to bounce the basketball ball inside.

“I need food. I need food. I need food,” says Pete, like a broken record.

For an eight-year-old boy, Pete has a huge appetite, but he’s skinny as a stick. Mama says his best features are his eyes, which are sky blue. Mama says he got them from Uncle Teddy, because the rest of us have brown eyes. All the good family traits come from Uncle Teddy, like my musical ability, which is my best feature, according to Mama. “Some day you’ll play at Carnegie Hall like Uncle Teddy almost did,” she said. She never has said what instrument Uncle Teddy played.

I’m the concert mistress in the school orchestra. That means I sit in the chair right next to the conductor, Mr. Seymour, and get to tune the orchestra with my “A” note. I’m supposed to play a solo at the spring concert, Gavotte by Johann Sebastian Bach. If you don’t know, a gavotte is music for a dance, and Bach is my absolute favorite composer.

Suddenly, my chest tightens. “Mama!” I shout. “They took my violin!”

Mama looks up at me, surprised. Maybe she was hoping to forget about yesterday—and the sight of all our worldly possessions piled out on the lawn.

I try to inhale slowly, like when Dr. Peabody listens to my heart at my check-up, but I start coughing. Mama pulls me next to her, and pats my back until I get my breath back.

“Marigold, I’d drive over there right this minute if I could get it back.”

Mama only says my whole name if she’s mad or feeling sorry, like the time she threw a plate and hit Daddy on the forehead accidentally. She called me Marigold and told me to get the bandages fast.

Mama lights a cigarette, and I don’t try to stop her. A vacuum rumbles down the hall and a truck brakes on the highway. Pete has stopped bouncing the ball. He sits on Mama’s lap and puts his head against her shoulder.

After a minute of silence, Mama lifts Pete onto his feet.  Then she lumbers into the bathroom. Peering in the mirror, she puts on her Russian Red lipstick in two quick strokes.  Someday Mama’s going to let me wear lipstick but not today. 

“Didn’t I see a diner next to the parking lot? Let’s go find me a cup of Java,” Mama says.

Mama’s face is pale. She must have missed her last appointment at Angie’s Salon because her roots are black. Still, I can’t let myself feel sorry for her. She’s the one who got us into this mess—and I have a bad feeling she has no idea how to get us out. 

I'm a children's author living in NJ.  I've written several picture books, including my Yasmin's Hammer (Lee & Low Books, 2010).  I'm currently working on a novel for middle-grade readers.

Motivation: I read an article about a homeless girl who was given a violin to play. It changed her life.  This story is about a girl who lost her house to foreclosure, and lost her treasured violin.

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Editor: Pamela Tyree Griffin

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