Free Rideby Elise Glassman
Mom was trying to pour Prosecco into the flutes that Vitti had shoplifted, but his hand kept shaking. He set the bottle down, frustrated. “Damn it. I keep spilling.”
“It’s okay, I got it.” Vitti picked up the bottle and continued pouring. Mom was her and Sophia’s step-uncle on their mother’s side. They’d started calling him Mom thirteen years ago, not long after their parents packed up their belongings in the family’s minivan and departed on a religious mission to New Mexico.
Mom held a glass up to the light. “They’re gorgeous, wherever did you get them?”
“Oh, downtown.” Vitti had glimpsed the flutes in the Macy’s window on her way to work. One look at the graceful glassware with the slender, flawless stems and she’d known that she would get them for Mom.
“They’re fabulous. I just wish you’d gotten a box. I’m afraid I’m going to break one.”
“Well, like I said, they were on sale—“
“It’s okay, honey. They’re gorgeous. Thank you, thank you, sweetbread.”
She forced a smile as Mom planted a wet kiss on her cheek. She’d smuggled the glasses out of the department store in her coat pockets, not daring to breathe until she’d eased past the security guard and out to Fourth Avenue and safety. It was one of her biggest scores so far and it was making Mom happy. It was making Mom love her even more.
Sophia came in from the kitchen with a bowl of pasta and sauce, followed by Rich, her fiancé bearing napkins and silverware. “Vitti, did you pick up a baguette like I asked?”
She had indeed gone to the Safeway down the street, intending to shoplift a nice loaf, but the bread had looked so white and doughy and listless. “I tried. They just didn’t have anything suitable.”
“What do you mean suitable? Now we don’t have bread with dinner.”
“So I didn’t get bread. It’s not a crime.”
Mom said, “You know what’s a crime? We’re letting Sophia’s beautiful pasta puttanesca get cold. Come on, everyone, sit down.”
“What do you civilians know about crime?” Rich removed the sunglasses from their perch on top of his head and buttoned them into his shirt pocket. He took the chair next to Sophia. “I been a Seattle cop for fifteen years. I know about crime.”
Vitti sat down beside Mom. “Oh, I know things.”
“Yeah?” Rich said. “Let me guess. You jaywalk.”
If only he knew, the dumbass. Breaking the law was as natural to her as breathing. She consumed expensive smoothie drinks in grocery store aisles, she lifted new smartphone cases courtesy of the five-finger discount. A daily text alerted her which bus transfer Metro was using. It was nickel-and-dime stuff and she wasn’t particularly proud of any of it. Stealing was a way to survive, to not have to work more than one shitty job, or hit up Mom or Sophia for cash.
Mom tapped his glass with a spoon. The quality crystal made a melodic tinkling sound. “I propose a toast: to Sophia, for cooking this delicious dinner. Thank you, my darling. And to Vittoria, for gifting me these beautiful flutes. To my lovely lovely girls.”
The sisters sat up straighter, chastened, and clinked glasses, playing nice.
At home later, Vitti relaxed on the back porch with a beer and half a joint. Her sister and Rich had given her a ride, which was a kindness, as she lived south of Mom’s and Val’s place was up north, but she’d paid the price, all right, putting up with sisterly scolding (get a better job, don’t be such a stoner), and watching her sister and Rich canoodle as they idled at stoplights.
“Vitti,” a voice said now, behind her.
Vitti turned. Her housemate stood in the open back door, wearing her usual vaguely foreign getup of cropped pants and layered tank tops and a long fringed scarf. “Hey. What’s up?”
Annika said, “The money, Vitti.”
She sighed. “I know.”
“I need it. Twenty-eight dollars.”
“You need it?” From what she could tell, her housemate was loaded, a spoiled rich kid interning for a year at a European bank downtown and careless owner of cashmere cardigans and French high heels and every fancy electronic gadget—phone, music device, laptop, pedometer, watch--altimeter, for Chrissake—known to humanity.
“I need za money.”
“Okay. Fine. Well, you mentioned it this morning on my way to work. You wrote it on the white board in the kitchen. And you yelled at me last night, when I was trying to get some sleep. I, Vittoria owe you, Annika, twenty-eight dollars for last month’s utilities.”
“And the month before that.”
“Alright! I told you, I will get you the money. I’m a little broke right now.“
“But you have money to go out tonight wiss friends?“ Annika’s German accent became sharper when she was annoyed.
“I wasn’t with—you know what? Fuck this.” Vitti got up and pushed past Annika into the house. She got her backpack and began to count out dimes and quarters and some one-dollar bills.
Annika followed her inside. “Vitti, no.“
“Here.“ She thrust the cash at her housemate.Some quarters dropped on the floor, rolling around on the dusty hardwood.
“I can’t pay the utility company with this. I need a check,” Annika said.
“Well, too bad.” Stepping over the coins, Vitti went down the hall to her room. She slammed her door and fell onto her bed. Staring into the dimness, she felt nothing. She closed her eyes. Down the hall, she could hear her housemate’s voice, talking no doubt on the phone her parents had had installed so they could speak to her from Vienna whenever they liked. Hahaha, Annika laughed, two rooms away, her voice blurry and comfortable and insulated and unrushed.
How would it feel, Vitti wondered, for her own phone to ring and to hear her parents’ voices on the line? She could not imagine it. Well, sometimes she did imagine it. She tried to remember what their voices sounded like. Mom. Dad. Mom-n-Dad. She had a box of videos packed away in the back of her closet, footage of birthdays and family vacations and Christmases, but she’d never watched them, not one, not even once. She could barely look at her mother’s slapdash handwriting on the VHS cases without starting to cry.
“I’ll call if I need you,” Mom said, closing the bathroom door.
“Remember what Nurse Ronnie said when she visited? ‘More accidents happen in the bathroom than all other rooms in the house combined,’” Vitti said.
“Then have Nurse Ronnie come over and wipe my hairy ass,” Mom shouted. “I’m on the pot. Now give me some peace and quiet."
Vitti leaned against the bathroom door. Mom’s shakes seemed worse lately. The doctor treating his Parkinson’s had warned them this was likely to happen. Mom’s not-so-secret limoncello stash probably wasn’t helping, either. Vitti went into the kitchen and snooped a bit, leafed through bills stacked on the counter, glanced in the trash, opened the catch-all drawer.Hearing the bathroom door rattle, she hurried back.
Mom was making his way down the hall, leaning heavily on his cane. He wore a Seahawks ballcap with sweats and slippers. “C’mon doll. Let’s have a snack. I’ll show you my new man.”
They sat in the dining nook, munching on toasted banana bread. Vitti scrolled through Mom’s inbox on a bear website. “That one.” Mom pointed a shaking finger. “Zack63.”
The guy in the photo had a sweet smile and a broad, hairy chest. “He’s cute.”
“We’ve been messaging for a few days,” Mom said, flushing. “It’s crazy, isn’t it? Silly old me going on a date with this hottie.”
This was new. Mom had flings all the time, but rarely actual dates. “He’s crazy not to be crazy for you,” Vitti said heartily, over the lurching in her stomach.
Mom gave her a look. “What’s wrong? You need money, honey?”
Vitti got up and started clearing the table. “No, no. I’m fine.” She couldn’t tell Mom she was jealous of Zack63.
“Bull poopy. Are you upset about this date?”
“Of course not.”
“You know my true loves are two bitches called Sophia and Vittoria."
“Well then, I guess true love ain’t enough.” Vitti ran water in the sink, so hard that it splashed up and soaked the front of her shirt.
“Cut the passive aggressive crap,” Mom said. “I get lonely, sweetbread. You know about being alone.“
“Yeah, well it’s not the same,” Vitti said.
“Baby girl, it’s all the same.“ Mom wrapped his arms around her. “I miss them too.”
She hadn’t thought of this. Annoying as Sophia was, Vitti doubted she could survive without her sister for thirteen years. She and Mom continued to hold each other. Vitti bit her lip hard until she tasted salty blood.
Later, boarding a bus home, Vitti pulled a purple transfer from her pocket, then saw the driver’s gloved hand resting on a stack of green transfers. Shit. The day’s text had said purple. As passengers squeezed past her, scanning their passes, she dug in her bag. She’d given Annika all her dollars, so she deposited a five and got no change, for what should have been a free ride.
A few weeks later, Sophia stopped by Vitti’s house after work. The sisters sat on the back porch in t-shirts and shorts. Summer nights in Seattle often required a jacket, but tonight was pleasantly warm. “You’re sure it’s okay if we smoke?” Sophia looked up at Annika’s window.
“Oh, yeah. She’s not even home.”
Sophia drew on the joint, handed it to Vitti. “So Rich asked me to move in with him.”
Her sister shrugged and hugged her knees, her thighs full and firm under short-shorts. “My lease is up in two months. We’re engaged anyway—“
Vitti inhaled the sweet smoke. The thought of having to deal with fuckface Rich every time she wanted to see her sister made her sick. “It shouldn’t be an economic decision, Sophia.”
Sophia said, “You have a housemate and you’re fine.”
“We’re not fine. And we never see each other.”
“Well, Rich and I won’t see each other much either. Work’s super busy. Which reminds me, can you hang out with Mom at the doctor’s office before his appointment Monday? I can’t get out of my meetings.”
“Yeah. Of course.”
“Don’t be late—"
“I won’t be late.” Vitti took one more hit. “So listen. The transfer text has been wrong. The text the other day said purple b but I got on the bus and it was green.”
“Seriously? Dude, that sucks,” her sister said.
“Well, whoever sends those out owes me five bucks.” Nobody knew who the Transfer Texter was. It was safer that way, Sophia had said, back when she’d connected Vitti. Each person only knew the person who’d gotten them added.
“Sorry, Boogie. Maybe you should just pay your fare for awhile.”
“So now that you’re engaged to a cop, you’re all law-abiding?” Vitti said.
“Nobody owes you a free ride, Vitti.”
She studied the moss-covered porch steps, silent. She wasn’t hurting anyone by riding the bus for free. The bus was going where it was going regardless if she was on it or not.
After Sophia went home, Vitti went inside to play Xbox. She was just getting her bearings in Call of Duty when Annika’s landline phone began to ring. Vitti kept playing. After fifteen or twenty rings, the phone quieted. Then, a few minutes later, it rang again. She paused her game, waiting for the ringing to cease. The phone rang some more. She got up, closed Annika’s door and went back to her game. The phone rang. And rang and rang. She paused her game again and got up. She went to Annika’s bedroom door and stared inside.
The room was spotless and everything matched perfectly--from the curtains to the bedspread to the prim little rug in front of the closet, all of it as artful and sterile as an IKEA display. Riiiiing. God damn, she hated that ring. It was so imperious and demanding. Like Annika. And Vitti could hardly bear to think about what was on the other end of that ring. Parents. People who might listen. People who’d catch her if she fell. The phone continued to ring. She entered the bedroom, thinking she’d unplug the jangling phone or something, but instead she found herself picking up. Perhaps to hear a parents’ voice. Mostly to stop the goddamn ringing. “What?”
“Hallo? Annika?” a woman’s voice said.
“Who is this?” Vitti said.
“Ziss is Annika’s mother. May I speak wiss her?”
“Uh--Annika isn’t here.” There was a faint hiss on the line. A man was talking in the background, saying words that weren’t English. Vitti opened one of Annika’s desk drawers, then another. Saw a metal cash box, a stack of bills, some coins. “Not here,” she repeated, and hung up. She was scooping up the wad of bills, the money, her money, when the ringing started up again. Vitti stuffed her pockets. Riiiing. RIIIIING. Kneeling, Vitti reached under the desk, feeling her way along the slender, tenuous telephone cord. She pulled hard, and with one quick snapping yank, the ringing stopped.
“Don’t be late, doll. You know I hate sitting around with the crips.”
“Okay, I’m on the bus. I’ll be there soon.” She ended the call. When Vitti had asked her boss if she could leave an hour early to get Mom to his appointment, he’d said sure, right after she finished reorganizing the supply closet. So now, because of sticky notes and a jumble of binder clips, she was in a hell of a hurry, dangerously close to being late. Usually she thanked her lucky stars for her job; she could show up stoned or hungover and no one noticed. Some days she pocketed a twenty or two from the till and no one seemed to notice or care.
The bus had stopped to pick up passengers. “Good afternoon everyone,” a voice boomed from the front. “Have your passes or transfers ready, please.” A fare enforcement officer, a young guy in a dark gray uniform, worked his way down the aisle, gadgets swinging phallically from his utility belt.
Shit. Vitti dug in her pocket. When the officer arrived, she showed him her pink transfer.
“I’m sorry but that’s not today’s transfer,” the cop said, in a carefully neutral voice.
“Oops. That must be yesterday’s. “ Pink q, the day’s text had said. She felt around in her purse, stalling. She’d deliberately boarded the back of the Rapid Ride bus in order to avoid this exact situation. The cop stood over her, waiting. “Guess I need to do some laundry,” she said with a nervous laugh.
“You know, you’re the third person today who’s shown me a pink q transfer.”
“Weird,” she said. The bus had stopped again. Passengers got up to exit. “You want to take a look at it?” She held out the transfer slip. When the cop reached for it, she let it flutter to the floor, and bolted. Stop, the cop yelled somewhere behind her, but she dug in her toes and ran.
When she had calmed down enough to slow her pace, she saw that she was still a mile or more from the clinic. Shit. Double shit. She kept on running, a stitch opening up under her rib like a dull knife carving out a piece of her insides, but even so she arrived at the doctor’s office late, too late, just in time to see Mom boarding a Dial-a-Ride van to go home.
“Mom—I’m so sorry.“ Vitti bent over, palms on her knees, sweat stinging her eyes.
Mom cast a magnificently disinterested glance over his shoulder. “I managed.”
Vitti climbed onto the bus after him and fell into an empty seat. “How did your appointment go?” she said, still breathing hard. He didn’t answer. The driver drummed on the steering wheel to the beat of the reggae on his stereo. Mom stared silently out the window.
When they got to his place, Vitti helped him off the lift and up to his apartment. “Call Pagliacci’s for pizza,” Mom said, settling into his chair. “Get ice cream too.”
Vitti made the call from the kitchen phone. “Half an hour, Mom. And they’re out of ice cream.”
“Don’t you lie to an old queen,” Mom said.
She stood in the doorway to the living room. Mom was busy clicking through shows on his DVR. “Mom. You’re not supposed to have ice cream.”
“I want Phish Food, Vittoria!”
“Listen, I know you’re mad at me. I’m sorry. I had trouble on the bus—“
Mom shook his head, shoulders quaking, covered his face with his hands. “Just give me a minute,” he said. Mom was crying. Mom was crying? The earth seemed to stop moving.
“Hey. You okay?” No answer. “Listen, I’ll get you some water. You take your time.” She poured him a glass of fizzy water, said she’d go check the mail and wait for the pizza guy.
He said, through the fingers covering his face, “My wallet’s on the table. If it’s the cute delivery boy, tip him real good.”
Vitti took the elevator to the lobby. She opened up Mom’s mailbox and weeded through the bundle of supermarket flyers and credit card offers. A delivery guy in jeans and a Pagliacci’s shirt arrived just as she threw all of it except for an insurance bill into recycling. “Are you here for 4A?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he smiled, unzipping the hot box and sliding out a cardboard shell. The smell of fresh hot bread and cheese was intoxicating. “Sign here, please.”
Mom’s credit card was on file, Vitti realized, signing. She tossed the credit card slip into recycling. Waiting for the elevator, she felt the weight of Mom’s wallet in her pocket. She held the pizza box with one hand and with the other she relieved the wallet of a pair of twenties. Happiness washed over her as she tucked the folded bills into her back pocket. Free money. It gave her space. She could breathe a little.
Upstairs, she sang out, “Pizza’s here.”
“Was it the cute delivery boy?” Mom called.
“Oh my God. Such a hottie.” She set the pizza box on the coffee table and handed Mom his wallet.
Without a glance, he tucked the wallet into the pocket of his recliner. “Gimme a slice and a pack of peppers, sweetbread. And more water in one of those beautiful flutes.”
Vitti delivered his dinner with a little bow. “For you, good sir.”
“Oh, Vitti, you take such good care of me.”
“It’s what I do.” Vitti got her own plate and some water and took her place on the couch.
Mom swallowed a bite of pizza. “Listen, about earlier. That guy Zack—well, I’m all bummed out.”
“He ditched me.” Mom dabbed at his eyes with a paper napkin. “I e-mailed him pictures and then he said he’d met someone and thought we should just be friends.”
“Really?” Vitti felt relieved. It hadn’t worked out. Mom still loved her and Sophia the most. It was a gigantic, tremendous relief. “Well, fuck that guy. He’s an idiot.”
“Getting old ain’t for sissies,” Mom said.
They munched on their pizza and watched a DVR’ed episode of “Law & Order.” Every time Mom raised the fluted glass to sip his water, it glinted at Vitti accusingly.
She bit into her pizza slice. The cooled cheese tasted like greasy cardboard. The twenties were a heavy lump in her pocket. Was she really a person who stole from the person who loved her most in the world? Here sat Mom, trusting and sad, and Vitti didn’t know what to do.
Halfway through the episode, Mom paused his show and got up to pee. He bumped the side table and his glass tipped over, shattering as it hit the corner of the table. “Oh no! I’m such a goddamn klutz.”
“It’s okay, it’s just a glass.”
“I love those glasses,” he said, tearing up again. He stood by, watching as Vitti picked up the shards, mopped up the spilled water, and swept the carpet. “Where’d you get ‘em, sweetbread? I’m going to go get a replacement.”
“I’ll get you another one,” she said. She patted the carpet with one last wad of napkins.
“I insist,” Mom said, “Do you have the receipt?”
Anxiety raked her insides. “I doubt it. I probably threw it away. Listen, I gotta get going. I’m antsy. I think I have to be at work early tomorrow.”
Mom looked at her, listening to her bullshit, his face naked with emotion, not understanding why she was how she was. Still, he said nothing as Vitti settled him in his chair, got him more water and his phone. They hugged. Mom called her sweetbread and said he loved her and she hurried out so the feelings couldn’t consume her.
Out on the street, she deliberated how to get home. She couldn’t call her sister, not tonight. It hadn’t been her fault she was late but Sophia wouldn’t see it that way. Her phone buzzed, and she answered. “Hey Boogie.”
“Hey Boogie, are you still at Mom’s?” Sophia said.
“I just left. Do you think—“
“I’m right around the corner. I’ll give you a ride.”
A minute later, Vitti slipped into her sister’s car. “Well, well, to what do I owe--“
“I figured you’d be leaving about now. How was Mom’s appointment?”
“He didn’t say,” she said, and it was the truth. They rode awhile in silence.
At a stoplight, Sophia reached into her purse and handed Vitti some folded bills. “Mom gave me this the other day. He wants a couple more of those flutes. And a box.”
She shook her head, feeling sick to her stomach. “I don’t want his money.”
Sophia thrust the bills at her. “Take it. Vitti. You take everything else.”
It was a cheap shot. She deserved it, probably. Vitti stared straight ahead. She was done stealing. She had to be. Somehow, she’d have to learn how to get by without being an asshole. A block from her house, she pointed Sophia to the alley. “Drop me in back? I don’t want to run into Annika. She’s been bugging me about money lately.”
“Alright,” Sophia said evenly.
Vitti got out of the car. Blue and red lights were flashing on the street in front of the house. Was it an ambulance? A utility crew? She stood still, listening. She heard a baby cry, a laugh track from a TV show. Continuing toward the back door, she felt in her pocket for keys.
A light beamed into her face. “Hold up, please—Vittoria, is that you?”
“Yes it’s me,” she snapped. “Rich?”
Rich stood indeed on the back steps, wearing his cop uniform, shining a wide-beamed flashlight around the yard. “My precinct got a report of a theft. I was just going off duty so I thought I’d come by real quick.”
“What theft?” Had the house been broken into? Had the transit police found her? Or maybe crazy Annika had lost her shit and called the cops over the money she’d taken.
“Your employer,” Rich was saying.
“My employer? What are you talking about?”
“They don’t want to press charges,” Rich said. “They just want their money returned.”
Sophia came up the back sidewalk, arms folded over her chest. “Maybe they should press charges,” she said.
“This is why you drove me home? So Rich could arrest me?” Vitti sank onto the steps, legs watery. She felt shaky. She thought her heart might pulse out of her chest. “Okay, please. I’ll get them their money back. Don’t arrest me. I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Rich’s walkie talkie crackled. “Stay right here,” he said firmly, and went into the house.
Sophia sat down beside her, far enough away that their shoulders didn’t touch. “What the fuck, Vitti? Who else did you steal from?”
She couldn’t take her gaze off her sneakers. “Nobody that matters.”
“So if I ask Mom—“
“Jesus, you really think I’d steal from Mom?” The lies came so easily still. “And fuck my job. How much can it be, anyway? Selfish jerks. They hardly pay me anything.”
Sophia said, “What about your roommate? Wasn’t she hassling you about money?”
“So? It’s none of your business.”
“It is my business. She’s all alone here and you’re being a jerk.”
Vitti felt tears burn her eyes and throat. “I’m alone too. So are you. What about that?”
“I’m not alone. Maybe you deserve to be,” Sophia said coldly.
Rich returned, his thick-soled cop shoes treading heavy on the back porch. Vitti sat up straighter, wiping her eyes dry, sniffing back her runny nose. He handed Vitti sheets of paper, saying words: this was a summons, an appointment, with a future of court dates and explaining and fees. She could pay the money back. Make restitution. Probably nothing would go on her record. Oh my gatos, she hated owing Rich. Welcome to years of snide comments of how he’d saved her ass.
Then it was quiet and Rich and her sister were leaving. Vitti followed them through the house, out to the front porch. “Sophia—“
Her sister stopped, so abruptly that Vitti ran into her. “What?”
Vitti pulled the wadded up twenties from her pocket. “Could you give this to Mom too?”
Her sister took the bills. “You didn’t buy those stupid flutes. Did you?”
“No,” Vitti whispered, hardly able to speak. “Soph--I just wanted what everybody else has.”
Sophia looked at Vitti, her face heavy. This was how she’d looked the day their parents drove away, when the sisters stood together on the porch, clutching each other and Mom as though they stood on the edge of a cliff. At least then they’d been together. At least then they’d had each other, even as they were being left behind. Now, Vitti didn’t even have that.