This World That Has Taken So Long
To Become Itself

by Sean Hooks

Mom was always nicer to me. I loved easy, I believed her when she told us lies, and I forgave the lies she told. My sister had already developed instincts about the cruelty of life. She told me the truth. She told me mom was a loser.

But I liked mom’s stories, her fabricated experiences, the “drama” Betsy said she hated so, so much. I liked that mom would be gone for most of the year, having her adventures, she said, or that she “played cards for money” during her stints in Atlantic City. “It’s called turning tricks, moron,” Betsy hissed at me one night when it was the three of us in mom’s yellow tent and mom was asleep. Betsy was fifteen and I was ten.

We never knew when mom was going to show up, her hair some crazy color or length, half shaved off or done up in cornrows. I called her visits surprises. Betsy called them “a milkshake of guilt and neglect.” Dad congratulated her on her phrasing. He said I was a good person, that I had a lot of love in my heart. Then he shook his head and told me not to be a sucker.

Betsy said dad was mostly right, but he married mom once so he couldn’t be all-the-way right. Betsy said she made a distinction between losers and suckers, and that the former was far worse. One year, when we skipped out on the bill at the Queen Diner in the middle of winter and ran out into a snowstorm, I fell on some ice and cut my face open, but I defended mom and said the waitress who went untipped and the diner owners who got bilked should fall under Betsy’s “No losers” banner. Betsy said they were suckers, not losers. “They’re suckers because they get taken once in a while, but most people follow the rules, and it’s better to follow the rules and be a winner who’s a sucker, who gets grifted or robbed once in a while, rather than be the grown-ass woman who fucking steals from them in front of her kids.”

Mom hated cities, hated stores and restaurants that took money for food, hated being inside. She loved riverbeds, loved squatting in abandoned buildings, loved cursing off the cops, loved sleeping on the ground in a tent. The only kind of business I ever heard her say she respected was a laundromat. “Quarters for cleanliness, that’s OK,” she said. She would disappear for months at a time then call dad from a borrowed cell phone and tell him a date and a time she’d meet us, on the outskirts of town, at night, at the Sussex Laundry where it was bright and warm and they had an old soda machine I could stick my arm inside and get free cans of soda, sometimes without even drawing blood. When I was twelve, Betsy said she was done, and she skipped the laundromat meeting. Mom cried, for about ten seconds, cried hard, then she stopped and told me, “Your sister’s a selfish person. You’re not. I like you more because of it, but she’s better prepared for life. I’m not selfish and neither are you. And eventually they’ll eat us alive.” When I told Betsy about it, she said, “Better that than the time she made us eat out of the dumpster behind the Friendly’s on route twenty-three.”

We grew up in Sussex Borough, where the woods are omniscient, where summer heat waves bounce off you like bullets off a robot, off a barrel-chested man in a silent movie, where my uncle Dave is the high school janitor. He’s mom’s older brother. His whole life, he says, he and my mom, they never had an illness, not a cold, not a stomach-ache. He said they were simply more resilient than other people. “Resilient” is my favorite word.

I always wanted mystery and freedom. Betsy wanted to learn things, wanted to go to college. She graduated from Pitt in three years and never came back to New Jersey. I see her less often than my mom. Mom taught me that schools take away the awe and wonder we should have for the world. “This world that has taken so long to become itself,” she told me in the laundromat the last time I saw her.

That was six months ago. We split a stolen Entenmann’s coffee cake and drank lemon-lime soda. We washed her clothes together. We smiled and laughed a lot. She told me stories and I believed them. It was my birthday. I’m twenty now, and I’m one of those waitresses who gets stiffed when people run out on their check.

After the laundromat, we went to the river. It was October and very cold. We made river water coffee and burned an illegal fire and sat in the tent. Mom’s hair was gray, her cheeks pockmarked, her eyes swimmy.

“That dirty homeless smell, doesn’t it sicken you?” Betsy asked me one time, on the phone, when she was in college and I was in high school. “Stinking up that old yellow tent. Stuck in your nose all week at school. Making you ashamed. I fucking hate her, and so does dad, and so should you!”

I can’t hate her. I’m not the ex-husband. I’m not the firstborn. And I can’t change. I’m not a sucker. I’m not a loser. But I forgive, and I believe, and I love easy.

Sean Hooks is originally from New Jersey and now lives in Los Angeles. He holds a BA-Liberal Arts from Drew University, an MFA-Fiction from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and an MA-English from Loyola Marymount University. He couldn’t always afford an automobile but now that he has one he hates speed bumps and thinks people who drive slowly in the left lane are some of the worst people in the world.
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