The conversation was repeated so frequently that I can't distinguish one instance from the next. I remember it like this: My mother driving down the part of Fieldstown Road just past the Cracker Barrel, before the transition from highway to residential road.
She slowed the white Hyundai Tiburon to a crawl to avoid Gardendale Police's speed trap. She sighed wearily––annoyance at the speed trap and worry over getting another puncture in the sports car's low-to-the-ground tires.
"I'm tired," she says.
"You're always tired," I say, not quietly enough for my words to be silenced under the drawl of 104.7 FM, the country station that asks, "How do you spell country? WZZK!"
"Because I have to work."
She blamed me for this, though at twelve I wasn't sure what I was to do about it. I tried to ask for as little as possible, anticipating the litany of no, no, no, you don't need that, that's such a waste. I tried taking up as little space as possible, staying out of the way.
I didn't reply; feeling guilty for existing.
"I have to get up every morning, sometimes when it's dark, and get ready for work where I have to walk through a freezing warehouse to the office upstairs where it smells like smoke. My boss is always leaning over me, breathing his dog breath in my face, to see what I'm doing. Like I don't know how to do my job. And he's always asking me to pick up lunch for him, even though I'm not his assistant, and the office girls I manage just sit there all day complaining about how uncomfortable their chairs are. And the truck drivers forget to file their driving logs, which delays payroll."
This litany is old grievances. The warehouse full of fresh produce destined for military bases throughout the Southeast yields only one benefit: the only fresh fruit and vegetables our kitchen will ever house. Skimmed off the top of the wooden crates before they're forklifted onto an 18-wheeler.
The Tiburon, a luxury garnered by my mother's devotion to her workplace misery, jostles with every pothole.
"I work so you don't have to live there," she says, gesturing to a squat, off-white house that looks lavender at sunset. "Do you want to live in a place like that?"
I don't tell her that on the other side of the vinyl siding and metal window awnings is my friend Renee. I don't tell her Renee is nice and she'd see that if she met her. I don't want to hear that I'm not allowed to talk to Renee now that my mother knows where she lives. I don't want to hear how Renee's family isn't a good family or how I should be hanging out with the kids who live in the big houses in the new subdivisions, even though they're not always nice. I don't say that I don't see anything wrong with Renee's house because that would insult my mother's sacrifices.
"Well?" she demands. "Would you rather live there or a nice house with a big-screen TV like ours?"
"See there! That's why I bust my ass. So we can have nice things."
I don't know how to tell her that only a handful of kids at school even know where I live because I'm the second stop on the morning school bus and the second to last stop in the afternoon. And how few of my friends know where I live since I'm not allowed to have people over because my mother is afraid they'll case the house and come back to rob us.
"But you hate it," I say because I don't know how to say that a nice house in a subdivision means nothing if your only parent comes home tired and irritable every day, lacking the energy to do much more than watch a Lifetime movie and iron the next day's work clothes.
"I don't hate it!" she barks. "It pays well."
"But you don't like it."
"It wouldn't be called 'work' if you were supposed to like it," she laughs and I know she thinks I'm too young to understand.
"I never want a miserable job."
"Everybody has to work."
"Aaron Carter doesn't work," I say in defiance.
The boombox in my bedroom always has his CDs in rotation. Throwing house parties all the coolest kids attend, beating Shaq at his own game, relaxing on the beach, and having girls falling all over him didn't sound like work. I heard glee in his lyrics, saw that same joy in his music videos––if he had ever known exhaustion or irritability, I couldn't fathom it.
"Aaron Carter works!" my mother cackles. "You don't think singing and concerts is work?"
But Aaron's career didn't fit my mother's definition of work. If work could be fun, why would my mother choose work that wasn't?
"Why don't you quit?"
"And then what?" she scoffs. "You want to live like your father? Living in a rundown apartment, mooching quarters from the laundry machines?"
The connection didn't make sense. Aaron Carter liked his job and didn't mooch, and my father didn't have a job at all.
"You could do something you liked."
She turned into our subdivision.
"I like this," she says, gesturing to houses. Each one is brick and close together. The lawns are chemical green and decorated sparsely––a birdbath too high would garner a $100 fine from the homeowners' association.
If she didn't have me and all the expenses of childrearing, would she stay at a job that stole any bliss that didn't have a price tag?
I wanted to see my mother truly happy. See that she had her dream car but worked such long hours that she mostly drove it on her commute. That she had her dream house but was so exhausted that dust collected in the jacuzzi. That memories we created on a beach vacation would last longer than the five-foot TV she bought after cashing in the vacation time she didn't use. That without the desire for things she didn't have time or energy to enjoy, she might not choose to stay in a job that drained her.
Who would we be in absence of material desire? Without window shopping at the mall, praying for a sale. Without driving around under-construction subdivisions to lust after newer, nicer houses. Without the need to judge people by the possessions that owned them.
Waiting for the garage door to rise, I recalled my favorite Aaron song "Aaron's Party" and its music video. I reimagine it as work, all the No, that's not rights, and Again, from the choruses. The times his throat hurt, the dance moves flubbed, and how he was sick and tired of singing the same song over and over. How he feared never escaping his Backstreet Boy brother's shadow. I thought of the ways he might compare himself and his possessions to others. It's never enough.
As my mother pulled into the garage, I remembered the chorus:
People all around you got to (Come get it)
Everyone together sing it loud (Come get it)
Competing wishes weighed on my brain: My mother's aspiration for and acquisition of material goods, only to fear they'll be stolen. The longing to be admired, but not truly seen. A facade that goes translucent like gauze in the light.
The words "come get it" appear 28 times in "Aaron's Party" and I wondered if he imagines as I do: What if it was all taken away? If people came and took what they wanted and we were free of its burden?
My mother dashed in the house, saying she had to pee, and adding, "Close the garage door on your way in."
I debated not closing the door. Saying I forgot, wasn't paying attention––and invite anyone who wishes to take what they will. The red lawnmower that smells like gas, the leaf blower that takes ages to start, the out-of-tune piano, my Razor scooter, the shovels and rakes. Take the car, too. I could even leave the door from the garage to the house unlocked and let anyone who dared have it all.
People all around, you got to come get it.
I heard the toilet flush. At the last second, I closed the garage door.