Lessons Nadine Learns by Johanna Miklós

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Narrated by Bob Eccles

“You piece o’ shit! That’s my Sunday dress!” Nadine punched the clumsy football thrower on the nose, kicked him in the gut, and raced home to scrub out the offensive stain.

#

Lessons Nadine Learned
Photograph by Eleanor Bennett

Brown eyes riveted on the crucified man above the altar, Nadine’s bare knee hit the cold stone floor. The bruise – blue on Monday, greenish-yellow by Thursday, faded by Saturday and renewed on Sunday – was a constant reminder of God’s love. She made the sign of the cross and took her seat next to her grandmother in the pew under the stained glass window of St. Christopher with the child Jesus on his shoulders. Nadine touched the short lace veil that covered her grandmother’s hair.

“What?” The grandmother stopped fingering her silver rosary.

“It’s real pretty, Gran.”

The grandmother resumed her prayers. Nadine leaned forward until she could see the twins.  Locked between the grandmother and the carved wood end of the pew, Lucas and John fiddled with rusty buckles on each other’s scuffed shoes. These had once been Nadine’s – white ones for Sunday, navy blue for the week. They had been almost new when first passed from Nadine to Fay.

Just then Fay – always last – joined them. Nadine jabbed her finger at a brown smear on the front of her younger sister’s white dress. This too had been Nadine’s and she had taken very good care of the pretty frock with its lace collar. Six-year-old Fay grinned toothlessly, held up sticky, chocolate-covered fingers, and sniffled. Nadine poked her grandmother. “Got a tissue?”

The priest, resplendent in a gold and silver embroidered robe, entered with his cortege of altar boys. The congregation rose to its feet. Nadine admired the priest’s measured walk, the moment of respectful silence before the opening hymn to the glory of God, and forgot the stain on Fay’s dress. She gave herself completely to the celebration of the word of Christ. Every Sunday, as far back as she could remember, Nadine prayed to be delivered from all evil.  Every Sunday and holy day, she left St. Christopher’s as a new person, ready to forgive those who had sinned against her, as Jesus forgave those who had sinned against him.

#

“Why are we movin’ again? I’se got friends here!”

The four children returned from mass to find their mother kneeling on the floor surrounded by boxes.

“I hate this dump.” Joan taped the corners of a beaten-up cardboard box. “I’ve gotta get outta here!”

“They’ve all been dumps!” Nadine kicked a box for emphasis and Joan slapped her daughter’s leg.

“We’d have a nice place, if your sonofabitch father gave us money.”

“Dad’d be with us, if you were nicer.” Nadine jumped out of her mother’s reach. “And we wouldn’t keep movin’ like gypsies!”

Joan gasped and Nadine hid quickly behind her grandmother.

“That’s what he tells the kids.” Joan scrambled to her feet. “It’s my fault he’s not with us! Lyin’ sonofabitch. ”

“She’s too young to understand.” The grandmother put a warning hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “That’s adult stuff Nadine don’t need to know about.”

“I’ll live in an excellent place when I grow up,” Nadine shouted from behind the safety of her grandmother’s back. Excellent — the comment her third grade teacher put at the top of Nadine’s homework. Excellent, like the houses she saw advertised in real estate ads: Four bedroom homes with two bathrooms, a dining room and a living room separated from the eat-in kitchen, a bookcase lined study, a den for the TV, and a two-car garage.

Joan lit a cigarette. Fay sniffled and wiped her nose in the orange wool pig-tails of her Raggedy Anne doll. Lucas and John hid under the folding table and quietly taped each other’s mouth shut.

“I need new shoes.” Nadine’s big toe peeped through a hole at the top of her white canvas sneaker.

“Let’s get lunch,” the practical grandmother said.  She also retrieved the tape from the twins.

#

“I wanna stay with my friends!” Nadine whined again as they arrived in front of Bigg’s Dogz.  Sunday lunch was a choice of three destinations: Hot Dogs at graffiti-covered picnic tables in the parking lot behind Bigg’s; White Castle hamburgers when it rained or snowed; relatives on holidays.

“I can’t afford it!” Joan raked her bright red fingernails through her bleached blonde hair. “I don’t have money for new shoes: not for you, or Fay, or the boys! I got yous four to feed and no help!” Her heels clicked on the cement pavement as she stomped off to order their lunch.

“Who’s got money?” Nadine chewed her thumb as she waited for the answer.

“Rockefeller.” Her grandmother wiped Fay’s dripping nose and looked around for the too quiet twins.

“I bet he doesn’t have to keep movin’.” Nadine switched thumbs. “How did he get it?”

“He worked hard.” The grandmother discovered Lucas and John under a parked truck eating pebbles. “Go and help your mom with the food.”

“You work hard but you don’t have any money neither.”

The grandmother ignored Nadine and dashed to retrieve the twins.

“That’s quite a looker you got there,” said the balding Hot Dog vendor as Nadine joined her mother at the counter.

“Hands off my kid sister!”

Nadine didn’t blink; Joan was never “Mom” when men were around. She smiled at the flustered man behind her mother’s back. The vendor winked and doubled her portion of fries.

“All you gots do is smile,” Nadine then whispered to Fay as they shared the loot. “Gets extra fries.” She smiled at her mother seated on a wooden bench opposite.

“What you makin’ a face for? Hand me a napkin.”

“I promise I’ll be real’ good,” Nadine added to the smile and the paper napkins. “Can we stay now?”

Joan wiped mustard from the toddlers’ chins. “Eat your lunch.”

“Mom don’t like your smile,” toothless Fay understood.

#

“Dumps!” Nadine judged the succession of apartments as their restless mother moved them from one to the next in Hudson County. She watched Joan fight their father in court, mildew with bleach, dreary walls with bright paint, and ever more cramped quarters with bunk beds and saggy fold-out couches. The twins never complained.  Lucas and John had created a secret twin world and took it with them wherever they lived. Fay clung to Raggedy Ann as her sniffle turned to asthma that filled the nights with choking sounds. Joan then clapped Fay’s back to loosen the mucus and cried out at the dampness that followed her everywhere.

Nadine chose to live on the streets. When she was nine, she invented street-hockey with tuna can pucks, courtesy of her grandmother’s stock, and umbrella sticks ‘found’ in bins at shop entrances.  She headed the winning team on Hudson Drive – where she would sometimes run into her father and score his spare change for candy.  A year later, Joan had moved them to Jackson Avenue. There, Nadine created and excelled at ‘kick-tag’ – a game aimed at the back sides of unsuspecting passers-by. Clever players, like Nadine, picked elderly victims and planned an escape route before attacking.

Nadine also discovered her father’s favorite hangout.  Every Friday, she hid in the entrance of Wyzcewisk Storage and waited. If she was lucky, she got to him before he entered the bar and sometimes he took her with him and bought her a meal. If he felt very generous, he took her shopping, or gave her cash. If it had been a bad week, he would be leaving the bar as she arrived. She knew to steer clear when he was drunk.

When they moved to the projects, eleven-year-old Nadine again demanded a leadership position and challenged pretenders to ‘City-Tarzan’ — daring jumps from roof tops and balconies that frequently ended in an emergency room. Nobody beat Nadine’s third floor leap – or her record fifteen stitches in one day.

No matter where Joan housed them, the four children continued to attend mass with their grandmother at her parish church. Nadine always dressed in pristine white for the occasion. Following the theory of trickle down benefits, so did Fay.  The boys wore the best Joan could do.

Nadine loved the smell of incense. She felt safe in the familiar ritual of the religious celebration. They sat in their pew under the stained glass image of St. Christopher and listened to readings and homilies. They stood and sang and observed the miracle of the body and blood of Christ. They knelt and prayed to Our Father. Nadine was also convinced that her sacrificial God appreciated the offering of the bruised knee.

*

“What’s that gold bracelet?” Joan grabbed Nadine’s wrist.

“Mine!” Twelve-year-old Nadine pulled free.

“I didn’t give it to you. That good for nothin’ father of yours — no child support but jewelry! Next time you sneak off to see him, tell him we’re hungry.”

Nadine stared down at her polished school shoes and remained silent. They didn’t talk about school, volleyball practice on Tuesday evenings, play rehearsal on Saturday mornings or finding her father at the bowling alley. She never said where she was going, or what she was doing, and most of the time her mother didn’t ask.

“School,” declared Nadine, as if someone had questioned where a seventh grader was going on a weekday morning. She turned her back on wheezing Fay, Lucas and John fighting at the breakfast table and her mother’s continuing tirade against the absent father.

Nadine hurried to the corner coffee shop and smiled a greeting at the old owner.

“Hi, cutes!” He poured a large glass of coffee flavored milk.

“Your mother not feedin’ you?” The grandmother suddenly stood at the counter behind Nadine.

“I like it here,” Nadine blushed. “It’s quiet.”

“How you doing at school?” The grandmother signaled for coffee and a donut and put a dollar on the counter.

“I like English.”

“Your mother’s got a rough life. You’re the oldest, Nadine. You could help instead of makin’ it harder.”

“Gotta catch the bus,” Nadine gathered up her schoolbooks and headed for the door. “I’ll see you in church, Gran.”

The grandmother quickly wrapped the donut in a napkin. “You’re too skinny,” she thrust the pastry at Nadine. “You gots to eat more.”

She picked up her purse and followed Nadine to the bus stop. “You look just like your mom, but you got your dad’s character. He’s got a wild streak.”

“I’m not like dad at all,” Nadine hugged her grandmother. “I’ll never walk out on kids that need me.” She got on the school bus, waved as the door closed, then took her place in the row behind the bearded driver.

“Hi, Cutesy. That your mom?” asked the driver as he pulled back into traffic.

“My Gran’.”

“All women in your family good lookin’?”

“I’m the cutest!”

“I bet!” He winked at her in the rear view mirror and pulled funny faces until the next stop where Sister Francis, Nadine’s English teacher, got on.

“Good mornin’, Sister,” the driver politely greeted the pudgy woman. Silence replaced the cheerful raucous as soon as the nun boarded the bus and took her seat next to Nadine.

Nadine stifled a giggle at the driver’s grimace behind the nun’s back. Sister Francis glanced from Nadine to the mirror.  “Is there are problem?”

The driver blushed, coughed, and focused on traffic.

“What are your priorities, Nadine?”  Sister Francis leaned forward and blocked Nadine’s view of the driver.

“What do you mean?”

“We make choices based on what matters to us.” The nun held Nadine’s gaze. “You’re very young, but old enough to know about choices. Good choices and bad ones – that’s the difference between a good life and a bad life.”

“Do you have a good life?”

Lessons Nadine Learned
Photograph by Eleanor Bennett

“Absolutely!” the nun nodded. “Listen to your teachers and your parents, Nadine, they will show you the way. You want to live an honest life.  Learn, work hard, and stay away from people who set a bad example. If you do this, you’ll have a good life.”

Nadine ignored the driver as she got off the bus. She wondered about a good life – like Sister Francis’s – and wanted to ask her about an excellent life. Then she noticed the nun’s down trodden heels and fraying cloak and changed her mind.

#

Nadine walked the streets looking for her father. She peered through the windows of his favorite bar and asked for him at the bowling alley. No one had seen him. She had come to the end of Kennedy boulevard and stood in front of the cinema chewing her thumb as she considered her choices: walk to her father’s place, visit Gran, or go home.

“Hi, Cutesy.”  The bus driver blocked her path. “What you up to?”

“Nothin’ much.”

“Goin’ to the movies?” he asked.

“Don’t have any money.”

“My treat.”

Nadine looked up at the marquee and saw that the newest James Bond was playing. “Okay.”

He bought the tickets and popcorn. He picked seats in the back row of the theater. He told her his name was Pat. He groped in the dark and touched her legs.

“Paws off!” Nadine slapped his fingers.

“Okay! Okay! Lookin’ for popcorn!” Pat whispered. “I sure am hungry. Wanna go have somethin’ after the movie?”

Nadine hesitated.

“Never been out with anyone? Have to ask mommy first?”

“I can do what I want,” Nadine insisted, and lied, “I’ve been out lots of times!”

“It’s not like you don’t know me,” Pat continued. “There’s this great Italian place. Best lasagna in Jersey.”

“I’ll think about it,” Nadine said in a tone she thought mature.

Eyes riveted on the screen, Nadine chewed her thumb as the theme song filled the cinema. She held her breath at every hairpin curve James Bond raced through with his gadget riddled sports car; jumped in her seat at fight scenes; and admired Goldfinger’s luxurious surroundings. She laughed at Bond’s clever British lines, and noted the ease with which 007’s good looks seduced beautiful women. She gave herself completely to the action packed story, safe in the knowledge that Bond would deliver the world from this evil. Nadine glowed with excitement as they left the cinema, ready for a world full of adventures.

#

“Where the hell you been?” Joan slammed the door. “School was out at one. It’s after ten!”

Nadine shrugged. Joan slapped. Nadine escaped into the bedroom she shared with Fay and the twins.

“Mom’s really mad at you,” Fay whispered as Nadine quickly undressed in the dark.

“Who cares?” Nadine gave her sister a shove. “Scoot over.”

She settled down on the thin mattress and thought about Sam. Nadine was secretly in love with Sam, the best baseball player in the school. She closed her eyes and pictured Sam’s blonde curls and brand-new blue and white baseball jacket. She wanted Sam to notice her and decided to write Sam a note. He wasn’t any good in English, but she would ask him something about Science. Happy with her plan, Nadine fell into a deep sleep.

#

The next afternoon, Sam walked Nadine home. They said nothing as he dribbled an empty beer can back and forth on the pavement. Nadine kept her head low and prayed to God not to let Fay come running up behind them, or the twins to be playing on the street, or her Mom to shout something horrible from the window.

“There’s a game on Saturday,” Sam said. “Comin’ to watch?”

“So I can see the other team win?” Nadine teased.

“No way!” Sam cried out, “We’re gonna win. We’re the best team in the county!” He kicked the can expertly under a passing car to the other side of the street.

Then they stood awkwardly staring past each other in front of her building.

“So, you comin’ or what?”

“Okay.”  Nadine briefly closed her eyes and imagined a white fence in front of a white house with green shutters. She’d ask Sam in if she lived in a decent place. Then she felt Sam’s lips on her mouth. She opened her eyes but he was already running away, his excellent jacket flying past dirty windows and  obscene graffiti.

“Who’s the pretty boy?” Joan asked as soon as Nadine walked into the apartment. She stepped back from the window through which she had observed the kiss. “There better be nothin’ serious goin’ on. You’re just kids!”

Nadine took a moist cloth from the kitchen sink and wiped dust off her shoes. She had no intention of confiding in her mother. She didn’t say that her smile got her gifts and secret pocket money from Dad, free coffee from the old man at the corner, a movie and dinner in a real restaurant with Pat, and now Sam’s heart.

#

Nadine went to Hoboken Fields, cheered Sam as he hit a home run, and shared a strawberry shake with him at the Soda Fountain. Then she said her mother was waiting for her and took off to meet Pat at the cinema.

“I want you to have this,” Pat took a silver ring from his pocket.

“What’s that stone?”

“Onyx,” Pat said. “Was my Gran’s. A pretty girl like you’s gots to have jewelry.”

“It’s real’ nice.” Nadine slipped the ring on her right middle finger. “Thanks.”

“That’s it?” Pat said. “All I get is ‘Thanks’? How about a kiss?”

Nadine stared down at the ring on her finger. She knew, if she didn’t kiss him, she would have to give the ring back.

“Well?” Pat tugged Nadine’s soft dark hair.

Nadine quickly pressed her lips against Pat’s bearded cheek. It felt like fur and she pulled back in disgust. Pat’s hands gripped her head and his mouth pushed against her lips. Nadine stiffened and clamped her teeth firmly together. She felt his teeth dig into her cheeks as his tongue pushed and slid over her face.

“Guess, you never been kissed before.” Pat released her head.

“I’m not that kinda girl,” Nadine choked. She wiped his saliva from her sore cheeks with the back of her hand and wondered what the other people in the queue thought. She looked around –  nobody met her eyes.

In the theater, Pat again picked seats in the last row, next to young couples more interested in each other than the film. Nadine tried to ignore the giggling girls and groping boys around her as she twisted the shiny ring around on her finger.

“Stop!” Nadine hissed as Pat put his arm around her shoulder and squeezed her arm. “I’ll walk out!”

“Okay.” Pat removed his arm. “You’re not bein’ very nice. I thought you liked jewelry.”

“Sure I like it,” Nadine whispered back. “Doesn’t mean, I’m gonna let you paw me!”

She chewed her thumb as John, Paul, George and Ringo struggled through a mad day in the life of pop musicians. Nadine laughed at dry British humor and felt the excitement of teenage fans pursuing the famous musicians.  She hummed “Can’t buy me Love” all the way from the corner, where Pat dropped her off, to her front door.

“What’s this ring?” Joan grabbed Nadine’s hand.

“Let go of me!”

“Your father’s givin’ you jewelry and not payin’ child support.” Joan headed for the telephone. “I’m gonna give that sonofabitch a piece of my mind!”

Nadine prayed silently to her God: let Dad not be in. I promise, if he’s not in, I’ll be really nice to mom.

Her mother dialed the father’s number.

Dear God, I promise I’ll help Fay with homework.

Joan lit a cigarette, cradled the phone under her chin, and listened.

I promise, I’ll give the ring back to Pat.

“Out!” Joan slammed down the receiver. “Out, as usual!”

Nadine shrugged and escaped to the room she shared with Fay and the twins.

*

The following morning, Nadine crashed her bare knee into the cold stone floor, made the sign of the cross and took her place in the pew beside her grandmother. Lucas and John whispered to each other in twin-talk. Fay, who struggled with the incense fumes, squirted relief from her inhaler.

The priest, daunting in a red and white robe, swept in with his army of innocent boys. Nadine smoothed her white skirt during the congregation’s moment of fearful silence before the opening song of praise. She gave herself completely to the celebration of the word of Christ and clasped her hands in prayer for the poor and sick, for the faint of heart and misguided, for sinners and their redemption. She gave thanks to the Lord as the image of St. Christopher, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, reflected in the shiny surface of her ring.

 

AUTHOR BIO: Johanna Miklós was born in Munich, Germany.  She has a MFA in playwrighting from CUA and has worked in Theatre and other industries in Germany, France and the USA.  Links to and information about her published work can be found on her website   jmiklos.com

ILLUSTRATOR BIO: Eleanor Leonne Bennett is an internationally award winning artist. Her photography has been published in the Telegraph, The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United states and Canada. See more of her photography at www.eleanorleonnebennett.com