by Dianna Dorisi Winget
"The cockroach in the margarine was the last straw. Robin felt disgust well up like a tidal wave as the plastic butter dish clattered to the floor.
Behind her, four year old Davy clapped his hands and grinned. "Did you drop the butter on purpose, Robbi?"
Robin shook her head, kicking the flattened cockroach out of her brother's view.
"It's OK, Davy. Get me the dishcloth, would you?" When he handed it over, Robin couldn't help noticing all the red mosquito bites that covered his arms. "Want me to put more lotion on your arms?"
Davy shook his head. "I want Mama to take us back to our old home where there wasn't any 'squitos."
Robin felt an aching resentment in her chest. Less than five months ago the three of them had been living in Boston's better side in a clean and decent three bedroom apartment. Then in quick succession her absent father had decided to stop sending child-support payments, her mother was laid off her job at Steller's Supermarket, and eight weeks later they found themselves evicted with no place to live. So here they were on Bloom Street, trying to scrimp by on the meager salary her mother earned at the Sunday Bakery. That meant no more satellite TV, no Internet, and only one shared cell phone.
By the time her mother walked in that evening, Robin had the leftover bean soup heating, and Davy was making a show of setting the table by placing all the silverware upside down and the glasses on top of the plates. Robin watched as he threw himself into the weary arms of their mother.
"How's my boy?" she said, bending down to kiss him.
"Good," Davy said " Me and Robbi are cooking dinner."
She gave his limp, dark hair a pat and smiled at Robin. "Everything go OK today?"
"Great," Robin said with forced cheer. "How was your day?"
Mrs. Keller shrugged of her sweater. "Not worth talking about. I'll go wash up and be right with you."
Robin noted her mother's dragging footsteps and slumped shoulders. How had her family managed to lose so much in such a short time? For at least the thousandth time since they'd come to Bloom Street, Robin forced herself to think of the $700 she'd managed to save since starting middle school two years earlier. A little more than half the money had come from baby-sitting; the rest from tutoring classmates in math and English.. Short of a full scholarship she could never hope for an actual college education. But she'd jealously guarded every penny she earned. By the time she finished high school there would at least be enough for some businesses courses. And from there she could slowly work her way up until she'd forever left behind this restricted life.
After dinner, while Davey chattered to her mother, Robin slipped into the privacy of the bathroom, the newspaper tucked under her arm. She caught her breath when she saw the ad in the rental section. It was the same ad she'd been watching for three days now:
For rent: two bedroom apartment in Tourman square. Clean and roomy. All utilities paid. Only two blocks from subway, Rosebay Park and Martin Tomas Elementary. $700 a month, plus a $100 deposit.
Robin read over the ad twice, biting her lip. It was only $90 more than they were paying now. On a sudden impulse, she carried the paper out and placed it on the kitchen table in front of her mother." Look, Mama. I think we should check this out."
Mrs. Keller squinted at the newspaper, then turned defeated eyes up to Robin. "Oh, baby, I don't have the money to get us into a place like that. Once we got in we'd be OK, but I'd need the first months rent up front. I just don't have it. But. . . by next year for sure."
Next year. . . Next year. . . the words rang hollow in Robin's ears as she slowly folded the paper. Next year was a whole lifetime away. She couldn't endure another month in this place, much less a whole year.
"Would you put more stuff on my arms, Robbi?" Davy held up both arms, red from his scratching.
She nodded, quickly turning away so he wouldn't see the hot tears that welled up in her eyes. It wasn't fair that a little kid like Davy had to be cooped up with no room to play and no place to escape the mosquitoes. It wasn't fair that her mother had to work so hard to accomplish so little. And most of all, Robin thought, it wasn't fair that she was too ashamed of where they lived even to bring a home from school.
With a sudden surge of resolution, Robin straightened her shoulders and raised her head. Maybe she couldn't change the past, but she could do something about the present.
As soon as her mother left the next morning, Robin quickly dressed Davy. Thirty minutes later they were making their way along the cracked, sloping sidewalk of Bloom Street.
When they reached 2218 East 122nd Street, Robin studied the apartment house before them. It was a four-story building of red brick, with washed-out white trim, and a small patch of soft green lawn in front. Not perfect but it looked wonderful compared to Bloom Street.
She started across the street with Davy in tow. "Now be good," she warned. "We have to act right so the landlord knows we're serious." She ran an anxious hand through her dark hair and knocked firmly on the main door.
There were some shuffling footsteps in the background, then the door opened to reveal a heavyset man with a single strip of gray hair down the middle of his head. He smiled. "What can I do for you kids?"
"Uh, hello," Robin spoke up. "My mother and brother and I have been looking for a new apartment. We read your ad in the paper and I'm checking it out for my mother while she's working."
The man looked only briefly surprised. "And where does she work?"
"The Sunday Bakery," Davy piped up.
"Oh, is that right little fella? Well, they sure do make good apple fritters, don't they?"
Davy nodded, grinning.
"C'mon," the man said with a chuckle. "I'll show you the apartment."
Robin and Davy followed him up a flight of stairs to a door marked 205. Robin hated the way her knees were shaking.
The apartment was small but roomy looking, with a pale-blue rug and thin white curtains. Robin forced herself to wander around, exploring and checking. The windows fit securely, the linoleum wasn't cracked, and the kitchen clock even showed the right time.
"It's very nice," Robin managed. "I'm sure my mother would like it."
The man shrugged. "It's not a palace, but I do my best to keep my tenants happy."
Robin nodded politely and headed toward the bedrooms. Everything looked as if it had been swept and dusted, and the only bug she saw was a tiny brown spider in the corner of the bathroom. The apartment was everything she'd hoped for and more. Still she paced around several minutes longer, trying to gather enough courage to take the final step.
She returned to the kitchen where the man waited patiently. "It's perfect for us." She plunged a hand into her pocket and pulled out two $50 bills. "The ad said you wanted a $100 deposit. This should hold it for us until my mom can get here to sign the paperwork."
The man stared at Robin in surprise. "I don't know. Usually the papers are signed before any money's exchanged.
"Oh, I know," Robin said hurriedly. "It's just a guarantee that you won't rent it out to anyone else. My mother will come over with the rest of the money tonight."
Robin swallowed a huge sigh of relief as the man tentatively accepted the money. "Well, all right," he said. "I'll give you a temporary note that shows you gave me the money. Make sure you come back tonight though."
For the rest of the day Robin rehearsed a speech to present to her mother that night. What if she got angry? But instead of anger, Robin met with only silent astonishment. Mrs. Keller stopped eating and turned pale. "You did what?" she asked, her voice faint.
Robin set her fork down and took her mother's hand. "I had to, Mama. We're all gonna rot if we stay here. You said yourself that you couldn't manage to save a penny. So it was the only thing left to do."
Her mother shook her head, speechless. "But—Robin, what about your education?"
Robin swallowed. "Don't worry. I'll find a way when it's time. Right now the most important thing is for us to have a better place. And the new apartment, you'll just love it! It's all clean and neat. You can catch the bus to work, and it's right by the park, too."
Davey nodded approval as he spooned up his ravioli. "Right by the park," he said.
Sudden tears appeared at the corners of her mother's eyes, but she immediately brushed them away. "I can't believe you did this for us, honey. I just can't believe you did it. All that money you've been saving."
"I wanted to," Robin said. "You've always said we need to help each other out. It's my turn to help."
Her mother scooted back her chair, came around the table and put her arms around Robin. "It's my job to provide for you, not the other way around. But I will find a way to make this up to you. I hope you know that."
"I know," Robin said. But she knew her mother didn't really have anything to make up to her. She'd managed to keep them all together, they'd always had enough food and soon they'd have a safer, nicer place to live. What else did a family need?
© Dianna Dorisi Winget