Channel Thirty-Eight

by Cody Byers

I’m not a bad person, your honor. You know that, right? You know me. I’ve only lived here my whole life, and everyone has seen me. Channel thirty-eight, eleven at night or so. “For dents and pings, Carlisle’s the thing!” I did that. I’m the perky blonde, in the tank top and Daisy Dukes, dancing while working a . . . buffer? A brush of some sort? I don’t remember. It was twelve years ago, I guess. God, that commercial’s been on forever. I think I’d just had Luke at that point. Or was that before?

Trust me, your honor, he’s a good kid. He was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen when they took me in to see him. Do you know what that’s like? It had been a week since he came into this world, and he hadn’t met his mother in all that time. They had him in this box, your honor, that stupid [obscenity] box with only a hole for someone, a doctor or a nurse—certainly not his mother—to stick their hand in and give him a sliver of attention and care that he could have gotten from me.

I wanted him, more than his stupid father did at least. A high school girl isn’t supposed to have to do that alone, your honor. Look at me. I’m barely even thirty, and who else do they have but me? Nobody. No grandparents; they kicked me out when Luke’s bump first started showing on my stomach. No father: he ran away the second he realized the rubber he’d placed all his faith in had broken within the first few seconds, but he couldn’t have been bothered to notice it before he came, and that’s all he really wanted, right? Some broad to stick his fragile masculinity into and drop beside the road like some Easter duckling nobody wants enough to keep.

But Luke made up for it. The first time I held him, after a week in the NICU, he couldn’t even really open his eyes or smile or do anything babies do in the movies, but I didn’t need any of that [obscenity]. Sorry . . . any of that stuff. He was warm. I don’t know why that surprised me. I figured with all the tubes and glass and whatever they were putting him in and near, he wouldn’t feel like a human. But he did. I could feel his heartbeat, a half-step behind mine, and I almost cried at the little breaths you could barely see through all the blankets, but I could feel his chest going up and down ever so slightly.

The commercials must have come after. You can see the stretch marks in the footage, though how Carlisle’s managed to have good enough cameras to see something stupid like that, you’ll have to ask someone else—I was just the sex appeal.

What, that’s not too obscene? Sure, okay, whatever you say, your honor.

I did what had to, when I could, at least. I’d always had a bit of rhythm to me. That was enough for the half-baked mechanics and the used car salesmen. A bit of rhythm and . . . well-developed assets. I did late-night commercials, infomercials, that sort of thing. There was always enough of that work, and my parents had the car in my name, so I could travel to the shoot. Luke liked those car rides. The car was old enough to be able to play the tapes his father had left behind, so we threw in a Best of Queen tape and sang our hearts out to “Another One Bites the Dust,” or “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Or, at least, I did. Babies, you know. He mostly squealed.

Sarah was another accident. Seems like I’ve had a lot of those, your honor. One of the cameramen got a little grabby, but I didn’t mind. Took him back to the apartment, screwed the cap off a bottle of wine, and what do you know, we got right down to business and were too drunk to care that he never did, in fact, take that rubber out of his wallet, just patted his pocket like a secret we had to keep.

He stayed, at least for a little while. I think he meant well. Made sure I got the cravings I complained about most. You know, with Luke, I didn’t really feel that different. A bit nauseated in the morning, not enough to throw up but enough to notice, but I never really had any weird issues. With Sarah, I swear, it was like six different restaurant critics were living in me. I asked for oysters once—[obscenity] oysters! Sorry, your honor, but I hate seafood. Makes me sick. Surprisingly, the one time he managed to bring home a bag, I ate them all by myself and slept for almost twelve hours. Didn’t feel a thing.

They didn’t keep Sarah in a box. Didn’t need to. She was way fatter than Luke was, and she squirmed like the devil was after her. Her daddy had left by then, but it hadn’t been long enough for us to lose the hope that maybe he wouldn’t be like Luke’s daddy, that maybe he’d be different and give the kids someone else to look up to than the Carlisle’s Cadillacs girl on channel thirty-eight. Instead, he ran off and got killed at the border, looking for a way into the . . . you know, “the business.” The dollar bill and white powder business, if you get my drift.

I never got into that, your honor. No matter what those stuck-up quacks will tell you, I never touched it. Never wanted to. My uncle was an addict, and I hated the way his cheeks looked like they were gonna cave in and leave him just a skull. I didn’t need to get high—I had the kids. The way Luke pointed out every single little thing on the planet and gave it its own name in his own language and spoke like the world hung upon whether he could say it right, or maybe how peacefully Sarah slept just when I thought I’d never be able to close my eyes without hearing her cry.

God, I’m sorry, your honor. I’m a mess. But you have to understand, I wanted these kids. I’m not like those whores you see every day, who’d sell their own left tit to get a fix. I wanted them, and I was willing to work my tail off to make sure they had beds, food, and all the love I could give that hadn’t ever been given to me.

When Luke went to school, I didn’t know how I felt. My kid seemed almost as old as I had been when I first had him, and he was only in kindergarten. What was it gonna be like when he went into first grade, fifth grade, high school? I saw his life flash by in the instant he got onto the bus, insisting he go alone with his Aquaman backpack to keep him company.

The house was quiet, though, on days I didn’t have to work. When Sarah went down for her nap, it was just me, and I could do what I wanted, which mainly meant watching Desperate Housewives with a bowl of Cherry Garcia, or sometimes the whole tub.

We all survived it. We weren’t royalty, but we made ends meet. Sarah started school with Luke’s hand-me-downs, but she didn’t mind. Her friend Lacey was ready to meet her at the bus stop and they chatted almost as much as their mothers as they waited for the “first day of the rest of their lives.” You know Sarah was the one who said that phrase? “I heard it on TV, mom, and I liked it.” Honestly, I was surprised she knew what any of it meant. I have a smart girl on my hands, your honor.

That was when the moms started looking at me funny. We lived in a nice neighborhood, your honor, because I got a steal from the bank on one of their properties. Foreclosed in 2008, just like most of the others in the county, but I hadn’t had any of my money in the market and the banks knew me well enough to know I was good for a loan. One hundred twenty thousand for a four-bed and two-bath townhouse. We didn’t belong there, really. All the other ladies wore actual jewels on special occasions, not just the zircon stuff like I got from Target, and their wine had corks in it. I was the ugly duckling, we all knew it, but I didn’t care. We were out of the alley where we used to live, away from the dads, and I was getting along quite well with the commercials. Everybody loved what I did at Carlisle’s. That’s probably why the damn thing is still showing.

It was flour, your honor. That’s all it was, I swear. I was trying my hand at making bread when I sent Luke over to his friend’s house, and I thought it would be funny to smack his butt with my white, dusty hands. He thought it was funny too, your honor. He laughed and wore it like a merit badge from Boy Scouts. He told me, when he got home, that his friend Robby had enjoyed it, but Robby’s mom seemed concerned. That night, the police came.

Okay . . . yes, I keep alcohol in the house. I’m a [obscenity] singlemom, your honor, how am I supposed to get through the day without a glass of wine or two? And the Jack Daniel’s, that’s just for entertaining. I don’t drink the stuff, never could.

But the powder in the closet? That wasn’t mine, your honor. I hadn’t been paying attention when I had packed up the neglect and old photos in the same box, and a couple of bags of his old merchandise must have made it in there. I had no idea. The kids had no idea. How can you hold that against me? Thirty pounds? They’re lying. He never, ever had that much in the house at once, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to fit that into the box.

Why am I here, your honor? I mean, I know what they’ve been saying I did. It’s disgusting, the lies they’re telling everyone about me. What did they say to the news crews that came pouring in weeks later? “Sexually abusive as well—you saw the mark on his bottom. Can’t imagine the pain the children are going through,” they said. “Can’t believe she was living among us, in our good neighborhood! I bet she was funneling drugs in and decided to try the merchandise. Absolutely dreadful.” That’s [obscenity], your honor, pardon the language. They never said two words to me, never got the chance to know me, never understood what I’ve just spent ten minutes trying to make clear, and they think they can turn their noses up and point their fingers because maybe my clothes weren’t nice enough or I didn’t hemorrhage enough money to try to keep up with some stupid standard set by people with too much money and not enough to do with their lives. Bull.

They need to see me. I need to see them. Luke’s probably bawling his eyes out every night. He’s the most sensitive tween I know, and they’re just going to eat him up in foster care. And Sarah, who’s gonna be there to help her with her first loose tooth? Or the beginnings of boy troubles? Who the hell is going to make them pancakes on a Sunday morning and wake them with the smell of home cooking on the griddle? I can take care of them. I love them. They’re everything to me. I’m a good person, your honor, a good mother.

I’m good enough . . . right?