Drunk on truth to stupid baby power.

Paper Bags

Illustration also by Cassie J. Sneider

Illustration also by Cassie J. Sneider

By Cassie J. Sneider. Follow her on Twitter @cassiejsneider

After my father’s wake, the concerned phone calls from friends and relatives tapered off until the only time the phone ever rang, we knew it was Nancy. Her husband didn’t let her keep beer in the house anymore, so she had to drink as much as possible while he was at work. Nancy couldn’t drive herself to the liquor store because she wouldn’t get in a car in the state she was usually in, shaky where it took a couple tries on the rotary just to get our number right. So when I got home from Kindergarten every day, the phone rang, and my mother sent me out the door with two cans of Budweiser in a brown paper bag.

There were no sidewalks in our neighborhood, an oversight in suburban planning, or maybe they just didn’t think anyone would care about that sort of thing when they were living down the street from a state mental hospital. In the Reagan years all the hospitals closed down in a funny way because everyone—schizophrenics and old lobotomy patients and people in diapers who had spent their whole lives locked in a psych ward—they were suddenly pronounced cured and then released. All at once, there were outdoor crazies living in the woods, under the overpasses, and walking down our street. Sometimes they would get bold and come up on our lawn, like the lady who picked some flowers off a hyacinth bush while I was outside watching my dad smoke. The point is they were everywhere, but none were quite as strange as our neighbors. There was Suzie who still breastfed her five year old, and then the people next door with their heaps of trash and snarling dogs and the guy who was living in a blue van in their driveway.

It was their patchy lawn that separated our house from Nancy’s. The tan grass crunched underfoot, and although I had never seen their dogs, the ferocity of the noises they made from the other side of the fence led me to believe that they were probably capable of eating a child whole, so I stayed close to the road.

Nancy was the only neighbor who kept a garden, and the outside of her house bloomed with bird feeders and color in spring and summer, and in cold weather, gnomes and ceramic caterpillars wore hats of snow. The screen door was perpetually blown open and their two dogs, Ma and Jack, came and went of their own accord. Nancy’s husband delivered cookies for the Nabisco factory during the day, and I would usually find her alone and hung over in the darkened house, washing the ripe tomatoes or laying down with a hot water bottle, teaching a gray cockatiel to say “Fuck off!” or “Keebler!”

I handed Nancy the bag and took a place at the kitchen table. She cracked open a beer right then, thought for a second, and then dumped cheese doodles onto a plate and slid them over to me. “How’s school going? Kindergarten, right?”

Her face was always red and her words were slow, but I knew she was listening to me. I was usually shy around adults, but Nancy was somehow different. “I don’t like Miss Welch.”

“How come?” Jack, the lab mix, climbed onto a chair at the head of the table. Nancy nudged the plate in his direction.

I took a cheese doodle. “She let Robert throw clay at the window, but she yelled at me once because Betsy talked to me in class but I wasn’t even talking.”

“He threw clay?” she asked, seemingly as disgusted by his behavior as I was.

I licked my orange hands. “Yes, but Kevin said that Robert’s mom makes him eat his cereal for dinner if he doesn’t finish it in the morning and one time he drowned the neighbor’s kitten.”

“I guess you’re pretty lucky that you don’t have Robert’s mommy.”

“I guess.” Jack put his face in the plate, eating the cheese doodles gingerly, as though he didn’t want to lose his spot at the table.

“How’s your mommy doing?”

“She cries a lot, and the other day she threw all of our toys in a big pile and broke the game I got for Christmas.” It felt like I said something I shouldn’t have: ratting out our grief, the dark cloud that still follows all of us around like a curse. I changed the subject quickly to the dog in the seat next to me. “How come Jack eats at the table?” Jack looked up at the mention of his name, his face orange with cheese dust.

Nancy took another sip of Budweiser and gently folded and refolded a napkin that was on the table. “Well, he thinks he’s a person and I don’t have the heart to tell him any different.” The cockatiel sang in the other room, repeating a noise that sounded a door opening and then baby, baby, baby. “Do you have any nicknames?”

I thought about the bird in the sunroom, looking through the wall of glass at the feeders outside. “My dad used to call me Buddy. Sometimes he called me Bubba, too.” I felt an unexpected sting of grief. The sudden embarrassment made me choke on my words and the room got quiet again. Nancy rocked the poptop from the can in front of her until it broke off. Then she asked if she could call me Bubba, too.


There was an unspoken promise that I would be back the next day, the same time, after our number was dialed with shaking hands, a formality that sealed the ritual. Nancy always sent me home with a shopping bag full of cookies that appeared from her husband’s delivery truck. Sometimes she gave me comics clipped from the Sunday paper, tomatoes, pumpkins, feathers from the bird, or souvenir keychains advertising places whose names I couldn’t yet read.

“Here are some earrings, Bubba,” she said. The room was dark. It was cold but the front door was wide open.

I held them up to the light. “Are these diamonds?”

Nancy laughed so hard she sprayed a barley malt into the junk drawer she was holding open and then coughed for what felt like five minutes. “Bubba, if I could afford to give away diamonds, would I be living in this dump?”


It never occurred to me that Nancy was dying. If it had, I might have thrown those brown bags into a trash pile near the blue van idling next door, or walked as far as the woods where the other crazy people lived, the ones whose home you could see over the treeline, all boarded up. If I knew, I could have left the two cans in a paper bag for somebody else who was sick-crazy with the shakes, somebody who didn’t call me Bubba. It sounds funny, I know, but bottle-return rooms in grocery stores smell like Kindergarten for me, unfiltered stories told in a darkened room. This is how I learned to listen.

Cassie J Sneider is the author of Fine, Fine Music. She writes and draws cartoons for the Rumpus. She is a karaoke jockey and a pug mom in Brooklyn. For friendship, fulfillment, and that loving feeling you’ve been longing for, write to the Cassie J Sneider Fanclub International, PO Box 2333, Lake Ronkonkoma, NY 11779

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