Title: Graffiti Grandma
Author: Jo Barney
Page count: 338
Former counselor, now full-time writer with four novels finished, two published, another waiting for my attention. I worked with teenagers similar to the ones in Graffiti Grandma, and researched the transient lives of others, the reasons for choosing to live on the streets, the relationships they seek, the dangers they face every day. Like my character, Ellie, I spent time cleaning off the graffiti from the mailboxes in my neighborhood, and it was on one of those days, graffiti X in my shopping bag, that Graffiti Grandma was born.
Tell us about your book:
When Ellie, a disgruntled old woman whose hobby is removing graffiti from the neighborhood’s mailboxes, meets Sarah, a smiling Goth girl in black who looks like she might have done some of the tagging Ellie is wiping off, neither of them knows that in a few days they each will be running from a serial killer who preys on the homeless folks frequenting the nearby park. Neither can imagine that she will become dependent on the other for safety. And neither will admit that she knows who the killer is, to each other or to the police. One of them finds out she is wrong, the other that she isn’t. But not before both end up at the Killer’s forest camp. Strange as it may seem, Graffiti Grandma is about families, losing them, finding them.
How long did it take to write the book?
Writing, editing, rewriting: two years
What inspired you to write the book?
The stories I discovered as I researched teenage homelessness and the homeless kids lounging on the park benches two blocks away, on the sidewalks downtown.
Talk about the writing process. Did you have a writing routine? Did you do any research, and if so, what did that involve?
Graffiti Grandma sent me to the internet many times. I do hope that my searches have not been monitored for they center on the dark side of life; drugs, prostitution, rape, mental illness, military life including discharge, pedophilia, food banks, and police procedures.
What do you hope your readers come away with after reading your book?
That for many of us, including us serial killers and scroungy kids holding the cardboard signs in our city sidewalks, we seek a family, either the one we have lost or the one yet to be found.
Where can we go to buy your book?
Amazon, both as an ebook and in print. Both are second editions , the glitches cleaned up, the covers changed.
Any other links or info you’d like to share?
The story of getting Graffiti Grandma published as seen through the eyes of a frustrated,determined woman, in her blog: breakoutnovelarace.blogspot.com
Excerpt from book:
I can remember every second of that last graffiti patrol with Ellie. Maybe it’s the meds they’re feeding me, or maybe I’m a little crazy right now. The nurse says I probably should be with all the stuff I’ve gone through in the past couple of weeks, Ellie at the center of it all.
It was chilly that morning, and we shivered a little as we headed toward the first mailbox, me, in my punk clothes, Ellie in her old lady sweatshirt and red sneakers. She had her supplies and towels in an old garbage bag, like usual, and I could tell she was still mad at me, at my knowing how the graffiti got on the boxes. I was thinking about that, too, but she didn’t know the whole story, not then.
“Spray!” Ellie ordered, and I stopped remembering and pointed the bottle at the mailbox in front of me. We scrubbed, Ellie not talking to me yet. After a couple of minutes, the black polish on my nails began to melt like the paint scrawls we were working on. Ellie muttered “Good” when she saw me rubbing at them. As soon as the box was as clean as GRAFFITI X could get it, we headed toward the next one. By the time we got to the street with the big trees, I was getting hot and glad for what little shade was left, the limbs above me almost bare. Leaves crunched under my boots.
The people who lived in these buildings were rich. I could tell by the doors, the polished brass knobs, and the pots of flowers beside them. They must sit on their upstairs terraces and feel like they are living in the arms of the trees. I was imagining eating breakfast four stories up and feeding a squirrel a piece of pancake, when I stumbled and heard the heel of my boot snap. Shit, my only shoes was my first thought. I had to walk like a cripple, one leg short, one long.
“Take ‘em off!” Ellie said, shaking her gray head at me. “Stupid to wear boots like that; you look like a baby hooker.” She took the bag of supplies from me, and I leaned against a tree and pulled them off. The cold from the sidewalk seeped through the leaves and into my toes. The look on Ellie’s face told me not to complain, so I shoved the boots into the bag. Maybe I could get the heel fixed somewhere.
“We’ll finish up with the next box. When we get back you can borrow a pair of my old sneakers.” I watched where I was going, hoping I wouldn’t step on dog poop or something yucky hidden under the leaves.
That’s when I saw the white basketball shoe sticking up from a pile of debris at the curb. Someone must have lost it. Except that the shoe also had a sock in it. And in the sock, a leg.
I grabbed Ellie’s arm and pointed. She looked, made a sound like she was choking. I ran to the gutter and pushed sticks and leaves away from the rest of the leg. I saw familiar worn denim jeans, recognized a plaid patch on a thigh, a hand I knew because of the small ink tattoo of a smiley face at the wrist. I was bawling by the time I uncovered his head, brushed bits of dirt from his eyes, understood that he was dead. Peter.
“Leave him!” Ellie yanked on my arm, her words daggers of icy fear. “Not our business.” She had me up on my feet, and I shoved at her and knocked her into the trunk of a tree. “It’s trouble!” She reached for me again. “Nothing good ever comes from a dead body.” I was crying so hard I couldn’t see. She grabbed my arm and pulled me through the trail of leaves. “I’ll call 911,” she said. “When we get home. Anonymous.”
And she did, and now I’m lying here in this hospital bed hoping she’s still alive.
I’m muttering ancient thoughts when I notice the girl standing on the corner, looking at me. Black boots, net stockings, holes at the knees, a tacky black skirt under a fat jacket, its elbows patched. Her black hair looks plastic, her dark-rimmed eyes shiny blue.
She cocks her head at me like a curious crow. She frowns. “Hey! That was really pretty.”
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” I say. I keep scrubbing.
“So you’re hired by the government or something?”
I wave her out of the way with one hand and spray another swoosh of GRAFFITI X on the silver lines. This time I’ll wait the thirty seconds before I get worked up. “No,” I answer.
“Oh, so you just do it?”
The midnight artists have attacked the mailbox in front of me until their fat pens and sprayers and brushes have created a gruesome mass of internal organs, a handful of spindly fingers, an eyeball or two, and some scary, foreign-looking scribbles.
“Yes.” I pass the steel wool over the metal fingers and the pad etches its way into the black letters I am uncovering. VAGINA. Just when did that become a dirty word? I press harder. The girl has moved behind me, is watching the body parts, the body word, disintegrate.
I make a final swipe at the edges of the box, push against a curve of silver that still shows. I’m woozy from the smell of the damp rag, and my fingers on my right hand are up to the knuckles in black and silver goop, too late for gloves.
“That’s it for this one,” I say in the girl’s direction, meaning good-bye. I turn and head for the next mailbox, a block away. I hear her boots tapping on the sidewalk behind me. High heels, for God’s sake. She’s, like, what? Fifteen?
Most of the time, people don’t even look at me as I scrub. Sometimes someone will ask if I get paid. After a glance at my apron, the grungy red Kmart sneakers swallowing my anklets, the nubs of gray hair escaping from under my Yankees baseball cap, the questioner usually smiles in an embarrassed way and hurries off.
One time a little kid asked me, after I told him to stand back and don’t breathe in what I’m spraying, if I was a grandma. I said no, because I’m not sure. “I think you’re Graffiti Grandma,” he said, pulling down his lip over his teeth so he couldn’t take in my poison. His mother yelled at him and I never saw him again, but the title has stuck in my head. Could be worse.
“Can I help?”
“Why would you want to?” The girl’s finger, or the finger of a midnight buddy, pressing down on a button, has created the blue organ, the yellow eye, the dangerous word, and now she’s watching an old lady clean up after them. She’ll have a good story to tell her gang the next time they come around with their cans of paint and felt pens and whatever they swallow or sniff to get their artistic juices running.
She comes closer to me, takes the shopping bag from me with one hand and my elbow with the other. “I’m Sarah,” she says.
“I don’t care who you are.” I shake her off and grab the bag back. “I can do this myself.” For a second, I could swear I was talking back to my grandmother. I stop walking and consider that thought.
All my life I have lived by that motto and I’m not going to change now, despite the lines of silver paint pen refusing to melt into my wads of paper. Or maybe because of them. Life has presented me with any number of stubborn uglinesses, and early on I learned that they are best faced alone. Especially when the would-be helper looks, with her black eyes, duct-taped black jacket, and ragged skirt, like the spawn of a failed witch and a raccoon.
“And where has it got me?” I didn’t mean the question for her, but she shrugs, a little grin moving her lips. I know the answer: a door punched into an olive green hallway like twenty other doors, behind which old people like me fall apart. What the hell. “I’m Ellie,” I say. I hand her the bag and we head to the next corner.
I choose, for reasons of my own and which I am not too clear about, to go out each week and clean up the U.S. mail receptacles bolted to the sidewalks lining the four blocks around my apartment house. It’s one of the few things I can still choose. Something inside me makes me attack those blue boxes, even though at times I grumble so loud dogs growl as they sniff at my shoes, my stained bag, their owners saying sorry, yanking their animals and themselves away. I don’t know why I get so worked up. And I’ve tried to understand it, the graffiti, the why of it, the need to signal that someone’s been there on walls, signs, and mailboxes, like dogs do on tree trunks.
On this next box, a red heart wraps around a word: MOM. This isn’t the first time I’ve come across this valentine, and it puzzles me almost as much as VAGINA. “What would that person’s mother think if she knew her kid was vandalizing public property in her name?” I ask my helper.
The girl squirts the bottle a couple of times, and the soft red crayon melts fast, drips in bloody splatters onto the cement. “Maybe that kid doesn’t have a mom,” she answers as she bends over and tries to mop up the sidewalk.
I wipe fast while the red’s still melting. The box’s blue enamel comes out almost clean. “So he doesn’t have to worry about what she’ll think?”
Sarah blinks, looks away. “Where to next?” she asks. We turn the corner.
This block is lined with classy apartments and new condos. The only old things the developer left after tearing out a couple of decrepit mansions are the eighty-year-old trees, maples and oaks, lining the street. Their used-up leaves play in the cool fall air, pad our steps. Sarah scuffs her boots through the dry drifts, trying to leave a track, maybe, so she can find her way back. At least that’s what I used to think when my son, Danny, headed off to first grade scuffing the same way, me standing at the door watching.
“Over there.” I point at the backs of a row of shoulder-high parking signs. “Easy targets for anyone wanting to make his mark in the world.”
At some point, in the months I’ve been cleaning up my neighborhood, I came to the conclusion that’s why kids tag. Maybe it’s because I myself once wanted to make a mark in the world.
She’s already got the spray bottle out and she aims it at the scribbles running across a PARKING 10 MINUTES sign. Black ink sags onto the rag in her hand. “I think this is making a mark on the world, not in it.”
“Would you please explain that to the jerks who are doing it?”
The girl steps back, wipes a finger across an eyelid, maybe squinting against the sting of GRAFFITI X. “You think I do this stuff?”
I’ve heard this question before. Danny, about her age: “You think I do this stuff?” Even now, I can feel my hand reaching into his pocket, touching the plastic bag, pulling it out, the white crystals rustling inside. I can still hear myself yell, “Get out.”
“Yes,” I say. She’s slipped out of her fat jacket and has tied it around her waist by the sleeves. She looks like she’s being hugged by an elephant. The arm that brushes mine is tattooed. A flower winds from elbow to shoulder, reds and oranges and greens. I poke a finger at a blossom. “Anybody who could do this to herself is capable of doing the same to a mailbox.”
She gives up the bag when I pull at it. I toss the bottle in and head toward the last box on my route. I don’t look back, but I imagine she’s standing on the curb, glancing around, wondering who else to bother.
That first time, I believed Danny when he said, “Trust me.” I let him stay for another year, until the night he left for good, me bloody, hanging on to a doorjamb and screaming, “You’re not my son anymore.” We both were screwed up, me on cheap bourbon, Danny on who-knows-what. He never did come back home. The one time he called, I told him I couldn’t help him. It was up to him, just like it was up to me, to find our separate ways. So far, I told him, I am not good at saving myself, much less other people.
“Thanks a lot, Mom.” Ugly words, worse than cussing at me, words I kept hearing while I made my way to clean and sober. Last summer one of his high school buddies told me he saw Danny up north in Green River. “Looks good,” he said. “He was hauling around a little kid in a pack on his chest. Gavin, I think his name was.” I should be glad for that news, both of us finding our ways, even if Gavin is one more son to regret not knowing.
I lift my foot to avoid catching the loose sole of my shoe on a root-raised hunk of sidewalk. The city needs to come fix stuff like that, I think, probably out loud. I can see the last box half a block away, Day-Glow green swirls signaling to me. I shut my mouth, walk a little faster, not wanting to think about unfixable upheavals elsewhere.
Then I hear Sarah’s voice floating toward me like the leaves dropping from the trees. “The freesia’s for my mom. She liked to grow them.” I stop, turn around, see her leaning against the clean mailbox, wiping her eyes on a jacket sleeve, her face disappearing into her hands.
I pat my pants pocket, feel a fold of Kleenex, take a step, then another, toward her. I can’t stand watching someone cry.
“I grew freesias once,” I call to her.
The only thing Jeffrey can remember about his mother is that she has red lips. Whenever the five-year-old sees a red-lipped woman on the street, on the bus, or on his father’s arm, he wants to run up and take her hand in his, but he is too big to hold hands, his father told him, giving him a knock on the head the last time he did it. The woman had smiled at him, but he could see that it wasn’t his mother because this lady’s teeth were shiny with gold.
He and his father live on the first floor of an apartment house, and they sleep on the sofa that is opened into a bed most of the time. Sometimes his father has a visitor, and then Jeffrey takes a pillow into the closet and sleeps there among the shoes and wad of clothes that have been tossed inside to make the room neat for the visitor. Sometimes the visitor has red lips, but she is never his mother. Finally his father tells him to stop being so fuckin’ stupid the morning he can’t stop crying after he finds a lady sleeping crosswise on the sofa, her hair touching the floor, her red lipstick smeared like jam across her face.
Jeffrey understands then that his mother is gone, for sure. “Off somewhere, the bitch.” The way his father says it, his hand flinging out and bumping into the bottle that lives on the table, the boy knows two things: his father hates his mother, and his father will hit him if he asks one more time.
Sometimes he wishes he could live at school with his kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Michaels. She smiles and pats his shoulder and teaches him songs like “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” which Jeffrey sings to himself as he walks home and waits for his father to come in. One night he waits until it is dark, and he gets hungry so he spoons peanut butter into his mouth and pours orange juice into a cup, careful not to spill. The bed is open and when he gets tired he crawls in between the lump of covers.
The next morning he wakes up and wonders if he should go to school because it is light outside. He is sure Mrs. Michaels will miss him if he doesn’t come, so he heads down the street and finds the playground empty and the big doors locked. He sings his way home, pulls the key on the string out from under his T-shirt, and puts it in the lock like usual.
At the lock’s click, the door swings open and a hand reaches out, sweeps across his head. He feels himself flying first up and then down and he lands on his nose, his face pressed into the rug.
“Little jerk. Had me worried. Don’t ever disappear like that . . . ” His father’s voice falls apart and his body crumples on top of Jeffrey. It is a long time before he can dig himself out from under the weight of arms and legs and chest and the smell of beer and make his way to the sofa.
Five years later, his father doesn’t come home all night or all day. The first few hours alone, Jeffrey is glad his father isn’t around. He smooths the blanket on the couch and begins to read for the third time his favorite book, The Incredible Journey, the turning of its pages the only sound in the quiet apartment.
He’s not scared to be alone, but he is a little worried because the bread bag is empty. He uses his finger as a bookmark and lays the book on his chest. What would happen to him if his dad didn’t show up for a long time? No way could he be on his own. Ten years old is like being a baby. Not like the teenagers on the street below who push him around and grab his jacket looking for money or candy. Those guys can take care of themselves their dark shades and tattoos protecting them like the combat armor on the soldiers in the news. Nobody messes with them. He wishes he had a pair of sunglasses.
The buzzer startles him. “It’s all right,” a voice says, and he presses the button to let her through the front door. Minutes later, a fat lady with a plastic ID tag around her neck walks in and tells him to pack up his clothes and, glancing at the book in his hand, perhaps a favorite book. “Your father won’t be home for a while,” she says. “We have a very nice foster family who will take care of you in the meantime.”
In the meantime lasts until the trial is over. Mrs. Oscar, a social worker, he has learned, arrives and tells him to pack up again, he is going home. His grandfather is coming to take custody of him. “You are lucky to have a family member willing to take that responsibility. Some kids don’t.”
Jeffrey looks around the small room that has been his for the past three weeks. What grandfather? He can smell dinner cooking, can hear his foster mother Helen tell the two other kids to wash up and be quick about it. Before he piles his clothes into the bag, he makes sure the bed is neat. That is one of Helen’s rules. She has a lot of rules and he likes the way her rules make him feel safe, like streetcar tracks that know the way.
In the car, Jeff learns that his father has been sentenced to ten years in the state penitentiary after pleading guilty to armed robbery and the attempted murder of a Chinese man who ran the corner market. “Your grandfather is coming in an hour on the train from Las Vegas. He’ll be here soon.” “I didn’t know I had a grandfather.”
“Really!” Mrs. Oscar looks at her watch. “I have another appointment in a few minutes. Will you be all right alone for a little while once I get you settled back at your apartment?”
“I guess,” Jeff says, still feeling the hug Helen gave him when she said good-bye. Maybe he could visit her once in a while? Mrs. Oscar shrugs, says maybe, and Jeff knows he probably won’t.
After she leaves, he opens his book but he’s read it too many times. He looks out the window. The mean guys are still there, but he sees someone moving through the tangle of legs and hoodies on the steps. The man, big in an overcoat and hat, takes a piece of paper from his pocket and then climbs up to the apartment house’s entry door. A second later, the buzzer rings and Jeff picks up the intercom earpiece.
“Yeah,” he says, not knowing that word is leading him into the next chapter of his life.
“It is I,” a voice announces. “Your grandfather.”
“Stupid,” the old man says once he’s gotten into the flat and explains himself. “Your father always was stupid. Never went to school unless the principal threatened no lunch if he didn’t come often enough, and that only lasted until he found ways to get free lunch without having to go to school. But first, let’s find somewhere to eat.”
“Dad got free lunch?” Jeffrey asks, his mouth full of hamburger bun. He knows what that is, and he gets it, too, every day. He just didn’t know his father also had to put up with the eye-rolling classmates who paid for their food with weekly checks, not the blue ticket his teacher gives him that makes him less a kid than they are.
“Why?” he asks. His and his grandfather’s fingers touch as they reach for fries on the tray between them.
“We had very little money. I hurt my back on a job and was on workman’s comp. Mildred, your grandmother, was a good woman, but she died early. So it was Bucky and I on our own. We did quite well for a while, but he probably blamed me for the loss of his mother. That’s why, when he grew up, he left.“ His grandfather’s watery eyes look out the window. Then he turns and smiles. “And now I’m here meeting my grandson for the first time.”
Jeffrey asks again, “Why?”
The old man takes Jeffrey’s hand, his touch soft and unfamiliar. “Your father not only found ways to make money outside the usual accepted ways, but he also found ways to spend it.”
Jeffrey’s savior has gray hair combed in neat ridges across his head, and his bright hooded eyes look at Jeffrey in a way he isn’t used to, into him, it seems like. His grandfather talks different, too, quiet, every word coming out like it is being tasted. Jeffrey listens hard, trying to understand what he is hearing. It isn’t that he doesn’t get the words, despite some of them that slip right by him; it is just the opposite. It seems like he understands more than the old man is saying, his voice sounding just the way a person would imagine a grandfather’s voice would be: low, tangled with laughter and sadness, a rope flung to a foundering boy. Foundering. His grandfather uses that word to describe Jeffrey and he knows what it means even without knowing.
“What should I call you?” Jeffrey asks.
“Grandpa Jack, I think. Does that suit you? And, if it’s okay with you, I’d like to call you Jeff. New names for our new life together.”
Over the next couple of days, the two of them clean out the apartment, throw away most of the stuff that fills the drawers and the floor of the closet, and call Goodwill to pick up the furniture they won’t be using in their new place. During the packing and sorting and tossing, Grandpa Jack talks and Jeff listens until he feels okay about asking about some things that are bothering him. “How come I never met you before?” Then, even before Grandpa Jack can answer, “What did my father do that made you not want to be around him?”
By the time their work is finished, Jeff has learned that his father was a thug and a drug dealer early on, and when Grandpa Jack called his son on it, he moved out, lived a dissolute life (his grandfather had paused, explained “lawless, lost” when Jeff frowned) until he met Kathi, Jeff’s mother. Kathi was into drugs, but not bad. She meant well, kept their apartment clean, cooked every once in a while. When she got pregnant, she stopped the drugs and laid down the law with Bucky. She told him, who, proud of his woman, then told Grandpa Jack, “We’re going to have a normal life, you’re going to get a job, I’m going to be a mother and we’re going to have a family.”
Grandpa Jack sighs, wipes his lips with his paper napkin. “They almost made it. You were the glue holding Bucky and Kathi together for a few years. Then Kathi got bored with motherhood, and started using again, and your father, who had taken a job as a school custodian, you were that important to him,” he says, pointing a “remember this” finger at Jeff, “flipped out and beat her up when he found her so high that she had left you alone for a day.”
Jeff remembers a lot of times he came home to an empty house, but never one empty of his mother. In his memory, his red-lipped mother never left him until the day she left forever.
“I was living in Phoenix at the time, glad that Bucky seemed to be shaping up, coming to adulthood in a satisfying way, when I got the letter from Kathi.” His grandfather takes a piece of paper from his pocket, presses out its creases, reads. “I’m leaving this town because I’ve become a bad mother and because your son has beaten me so bad I spent three days in the hospital. If ever Jeffrey needs a family, please take care of him. Of all the things I’ve done, he’s the very, very best.“ Grandpa Jack passes the note to Jeff and he sees that his mother had signed it with a heart over the i in her name.
Jeff holds the paper in his hand and feels a weight lift from his body. His mother did not leave because she didn’t love him. She didn’t love his father. He’d hurt her. Who wouldn’t leave? Then the next thought lands like a bag of rocks across his shoulders. Why didn’t she take him with her? He runs a finger over her name. She loved him. He can feel it, warm as he touches the heart. She was just messed up for a while. She might even be looking for him right now. He glances up, sees Grandpa Jack shaking his head.
“She is dead, Jeff. The drugs.”
It was his fault. If she hadn’t gotten pregnant, his mother and father wouldn’t have gotten married, would just have gone on doing what they were doing, nobody’s business. When he was born, he ruined everything. No wonder his father drank so much. No wonder his mother is dead.
Jeff gives the paper back to Grandpa Jack and tries to pay attention to what the old man is saying.
“I wrote to Bucky, when I got the note, that I couldn’t condone a man beating up a woman, the mother of his child. I told him I was not his father from that moment on. He was on his own. Good riddance.” Grandpa Jack squeezes Jeff’s hand. “But I didn’t take you into account, Jeff. I thought you’d be with your mother and taken care of. Until a week ago, when Children’s Services called and informed me that you needed me.” He wraps an arm around Jeff’s shoulder. “You and I have a second chance at being a family.”
Jeff manages a smile. This time he will not mess up. A second chance.
They move into an apartment a mile away from the old one and Jeff, on his first day outside, on sidewalks that hold only a few old ladies on the porches and a lot of leaves in the gutter, skateboards into a new friend, Danny.
Grandpa Jack frightens Jeff a little the night he pulls up the bedcovers and slips in beside him. A hand passes over his chest and lies warmly on his penis and after a while it doesn’t seem so strange.
In those first months that they’ve lived together, his grandfather has told him that he loves him as he rubbed his back or massaged his legs. He has assured Jeff he will never be unsafe again. He is a special boy, Grandpa Jack has said, a wonderful grandson who brings happiness to an old man.
“Like now,” he says this night, his hand moving a little. “Feels good, doesn’t it?”
Jeff says yes.
A few weeks later, Jeff helps his grandfather feel good, too. And when he cries out in pain, Grandpa Jack tells him it is part of growing up, of being a man and he will be gentle until his body gets used to it. And his body does get used to it, and Jeff begins to sleep on the far edge of his bed and wait for the door to open and the mattress to sink, the covers to be lifted, letting in cold air and his grandfather