Throughout my childhood, my mother’s favorite pastime was to make bets concerning other kids in the neighborhood. She would bet on which girl would get pregnant first, or which little horndog would have knocked her up, or which siblings looked too different from each other to have come from the same dad.
She made these bets with our upstairs neighbor, Marlou, for casseroles. She hated to cook. Loathed the dingy, communal basement kitchen with its stink of fried bologna. So she played to win. A casserole could feed our family of two for four days.
“You know that Tristan?” she’d say to Marlou when the two of them were sitting on our couch. “That Tristan, he has the devil in his pupil.”
“He done took over the whole eye, is what I think,” Marlou would reply.
That’s when I knew a bet was coming, and so I would start doodling in the margins of my homework because when a bet was on its way, I couldn’t concentrate on a thing else.
“I bet you,” my mother said, “that Tristan will be locked up before he turns of age.”
Marlou sat there, calculating. Tristan was fourteen, the same age as me, and while I knew that he was mostly a good kid who took joy rides once in a while, I wasn’t sure if Marlou knew the same.
“In fact,” my mother said, “I bet you he joins up with that gang his father was in before he went to jail.”
Marlou bit the bait and they hammered out the final parameters, then shook hard, the tops of their arms jiggling.
What really hooked my interest in the bets was Frannie, who had been one of the first. My mother and Marlou bet that Frannie would die young. Both had agreed on this part; the contention was how. My mother figured it would be from a man, and Marlou figured it would be from Frannie’s own carelessness. Once they’d built the rough frame of this bet, they took hours hashing out the details.
“What if a man beats her to death because of her own carelessness?” Marlou said, tippling her wine. “Then who would win?”
“That would have to go to me,” my mother said. “If she crosses the street and forgets to look, that’s true carelessness, and goes to you.”
The funny thing was, I figured they probably had it about fifty-fifty. Frannie made all her thick-necked boyfriends mad as hell, and she also set herself on fire about once a week by falling asleep with a lit cigarette.
But what happened to Frannie in the end was a source of shock and awe for the whole neighborhood, and it caused months of fighting between my mother and Marlou.
On the afternoon of Frannie’s nineteenth birthday, her boyfriend handed her a hundred dollars and told her to pick any present that she wanted. Apparently, ever since she was a little kid, Frannie had dreamed of skydiving.
Could you imagine? My dreams centered around the new animal doctor Barbie doll or a room of my own so my sleep wouldn’t be interrupted by my mother’s snores, while Frannie fantasized about falling through the sky.
She took her boyfriend’s money over to the touristy place that set up these sorts of daredevil endeavors, and she watched a twelve-minute video that was supposed to prepare her. She practiced the position by laying on her belly and arching up her arms and legs, as if the wind were buffeting back her limbs, just the way it would happen when she was zooming through the air.
Then they drove her out to a field, suited her up, and strapped her tight to the front of some man named Zane—it was the rule that first-time divers had to go with instructors—and they hobbled into the tiny plane.
The plane puttered around a few miles outside of the city, away from the spiky buildings and hard concrete, and from somewhere up there Zane rolled the two of them out of the plane and they fell, and fell, and fell through the air.
It was strange because, when the insurance company investigated, they found out that the problem hadn’t been the parachute at all. Zane hadn’t tried to touch it; if he’d pulled the lever, it would have deployed without issue, and they would have floated gently to earth. But for some reason, Zane had wanted to keep it neat and folded up, right where it was, strapped carefully to his back.
Of course, these circumstances were cause for serious debate.
“It was her own damn carelessness,” Marlou said, “that got her killed!”
My mother shook her head firmly. “It was a man. A man! Zane Hedley, they called him. The”—she wiggled her fingers in the air, making quotes—“instructor. He was suicidal, depressed, all his coworkers said so. Didn’t you watch the news?”
“What kind of person decides to go jumping out of planes in the first place? A careless one!”
“If that man had pulled the lever, Frannie would be safe and sound and with us today.”
“Here’s the thing.” The pocket of skin under Marlou’s chin trembled with excitement. “Frannie herself could have pulled the lever. She was strapped right there onto the front of him! She could have reached up her hot little hand and pulled it. They taught you how, I heard, right there in the training video, in case your instructor passed out or something.”
“No.” My mother folded her arms across her chest, stubborn. “It was the instructor’s fault. Or, if you want to take it another step, her boyfriend’s for giving her the money in the first place.”
Marlou did one of her big, martyr sighs. “That man was crazy, but she made her choice, her own careless choice, to jump.”
“Maybe he held down her hands,” my mother said in a last-ditch effort. “Maybe he was so crazy that he held her tight by the wrists and shoved her hands down against her thighs and she couldn’t move, couldn’t do a thing, couldn’t touch the lever that would save her life, nothing.”
I’d seen my father hold my mother’s hands in just that way, back when I’d been a little kid, before she and I had fled that two-bedroom apartment. He had loved her cooking. Every morning, he told her what to make, and if it wasn’t on his plate by night, he’d hold down her hands and ask what they—her hands—had been up to all day.
“That’s something we’ll never know,” Marlou said. “That would have been between the two of them, and the two of them went splat.”
At the kitchen table, I was doodling. I added a splat to the bottom right corner of my math homework. I hated math. If two bodies weighing X fell from a height of Y, how quickly would they die? Frannie had landed first. She’d been the one to truly go splat, her body a meaty pillow for his. When I’d first heard the news of her death, I’d wondered if my mother and Marlou had somehow willed it, somehow forced the bet true.
In the end, Marlou won. My mother had to bake her a huge casserole with ham and capers, both expensive ingredients. The deciding factor was that Frannie could have deployed the chute on her own. The lawyers went over and over that during their fight in the courts. No one could figure out why she hadn’t reached up and done so.
For months after Frannie’s death, I had dreams about being strapped to the front of a stocky, muscular Zane. The two of us would float like dried leaves on a breeze down, down, down into a warm pool of water. This dream was vaguely erotic and not at all frightening. After it stopped, I wished that it would return. Sometimes I’d bring a fall leaf into my bed to try and encourage it.
Much of the time, it was hard for me to think of the neighborhood kids as kids, and not just the subjects of various bets. There was the chicken and rice casserole kid who broke her little sister’s nose, the shitake and beef cube kid who took PCP and jumped from a rooftop into the river because he thought he was a fish, the lasagna kid who stole cash from the corner store that exploded blue dye into his face and blinded his right eye. Even my first boyfriend, Tristan, was a bet, but because I was fifteen and wanted badly to try kissing, I overlooked this fact for as long as I could.
When my mother caught us necking in the empty lot adjacent to our building that everyone referred to as a park, she shooed him away so that us girls could talk.
“You know the boy is trouble,” she told me. “You remember what me and Marlou bet on for him?”
I shook my head, even though I did remember. I even remembered the type of casserole—a frito pie. Sometimes it rankled me that the bet for my boyfriend was such a simple dish. I still felt Tristan’s spit coating my tongue.
“That boy will join a gang and wind up in jail, and who wins the bet depends on which he does first.”
I said, “But nothing like that has happened.”
“Yet,” my mother said. “This bet here, it’s still outstanding. I’m riding on the gang—remember? It’s going to go one way or the other, you’ll see, and when it does, you’d best be out of its way.”
Some months later, when Tristan had me laid out across the backseat of his mother’s sedan, a bright, white light bore through the black eye of the windshield. I clapped my arms across my chest in fear. The light swung around and up and there were several swift raps against the glass. “Police,” said a man’s voice, “open up.”
“Oh shit, oh shit,” Tristan said as we both struggled to yank on our clothes. He opened the door first and tumbled out. I pressed myself into the corner, hoping they would forget about me, hoping this was not my first step into the long and treacherous slide of becoming the sort of kid my mother would make bets about.
“Is this your car?” the officer said, and when Tristan said no, and that no, he didn’t have permission to be in it, the officer turned him around and pressed his face up against the window across from me. His baby fat cheek flattened on the glass.
Another officer arrived, lights flashing, and took me out of the car for questioning. My whole body felt disgusting and weak and bent on preservation, and I allowed my worst self to take over. “I didn’t want to be with him, doing that,” I said. I would like to think it was the fear and anxiety of the moment, the overreaction of the cops, that made me lie so cruelly, but in reality it was because I knew that Tristan was a lost cause. As soon as someone became a bet, they were doomed, and I wasn’t ready to doom myself along with him.
“He forced you?” asked the officer.
In the end, Tristan was locked up, and I never got to speak with him again. If he disputed my account, the officers never asked me about it. He went to juvenile detention, which, in the world of my mother’s bets, was as good as jail. Tristan had stolen the keys to the car from his mother’s purse—it turned out that the car actually belonged to her boss—and even though we hadn’t gone anywhere, it still, apparently, counted as theft.
About the subject, my mother said, “You ruined the bet; you made me lose. It’s time you start seeing the consequences of your actions, so you bake that frito pie for Marlou.”
As I crushed up the chips for the casserole, I mourned the loss of Tristan, which I had caused, maybe right from the beginning. I hadn’t ever actively participated in the bets, but I was always there, listening in, taking pleasure in the proceedings—I believed in the bets. The onion frying in the pan stung my eyes; I covered it with red, raw hamburger. Even if my mother never made another bet, the neighborhood was already full of lingering wagers. Because once a bet was made, you had to wait for one side or the other to come true. I opened the oven and shoved in the pan, then took it out again and spit into the mound of shredded cheese and hot sauce, then put it back and watched through the tiny glass door as it all devilled together.