Mercy and Halie were indeed siblings. The eldest of five, they were holding their family together living in a van while their parents tried to find both work and another place to live. Unfortunately these searches were interrupted by their competing needs to stay on their meds or to spend their available cash on self-medication. Bibbi was correct in her assessment that they were new to the area: they just pulled the van in off Route 80 and remembered the Wash Whenever from a drive-by. Halie clung to his job as a busboy at a local chain restaurant while Mercy made sure their younger sisters spent the day at school. The elder siblings made it their job to create a sense of stability for their sisters.
Their own childhoods weren’t a distant memory. The slide into a precarious, nomadic existence didn’t take more than five years, but it was helped equally by both the impartial “domestic economic indicators” and their father’s alcohol-induced hyper-sensitivity to criticism. He was both a self-made and self-destructing man. Unfortunately his wife didn’t have the constitution for the ups-and-downs. She also retreated into various bottles, rendering the pair of them no good to each other or the family. But there was free-thought and access to books in each of the progressively shrinking homes: there just wasn’t much room for two drunken egos.
As the adults withdrew the kids clung to each other, and Mercy and Halie became de facto parents of the Blaise, Lily, and Grace. As a classic first-born Mercy was a care-taker by nature and embraced this role early in her life, but her brother was mostly angry. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his sisters, but he hated his father’s weakness and drunken bluster more. He hatred that Mercy would cover for them, forge their signatures on school documents, tell rosy stories of family life to the younger ones. But he couldn’t imagine a life without all of his sisters, and he relied on Mercy to tell him what to do, and to figure out his own way to become a man. Both siblings knew they were compromising their short-term escape in order to improve the odds of the group. Their youth gave them feelings of invincibility, strength, and hope in far larger helpings than any outside observer would grant.
Their poverty took considerable effort. Even though Mercy and Halie had few commitments and belongings to maintain, every activity of daily living became its own full-time job. It took logistical planning to budget a bus ride to and from the grocery store when they needed to save gas for the van. Fortunately that meant not buying anything perishable (read: expensive). The cheapest food choices usually had the longest shelf-life. Doing the laundry right before Halie needed to go to work was carefully orchestrated to get all his clothes ready for the next five-day stretch. But that meant timing the laundry run right between his shifts, and last night’s was late. No wonder the boy was tired and cranky: he had only a few hours of sleep before he needed to start all over again.
But the early morning air felt hopeful to Mercy. An empty laundromat could feel almost luxurious, the air not yet perfumed by wet heat and artificial freshness. This staring woman’s presence made her feel safe; as if she were a guardian of some sort. She felt she could relax a little, focus on the task at hand and not have to be two steps ahead of the next crisis for a change. Mercy could feel her shoulders roll back to neutral from the hunch of their load, her neck rising a bit at the top of her spine. She allowed herself a little bit of anticipatory hunger. The siblings would share a bagel and maybe some hot coffee. If Halie fell asleep quickly she’d get to drink the lion’s share, and that would be wonderful, indeed.
Halie did as his sister instructed. He tucked Bibbi’s five into his jean pocket and headed out the door. He leaned forward as he walked, propelling his effort. His perpetual hunger gave him a kinetic energy that made people nervous. It was easily misinterpreted as looking for trouble, spoiling for a fight. Within the family confines, Mercy would try to soften him, but out in the world she preferred her brother as safety barrier.
He was both tired and hungry, if only for this shared bagel and a nap on a plastic chair. The only meal he was able to enjoy as his own was the plate he took before his shift at the restaurant. Fatty, filling, salted food that he wolfed down fast. He would be sated, but he never felt full. If asked he couldn’t even remember the last time that happened.
(new to the story? catch up on the last installment here, The Laundromat: Where Life Unfolds )