Six-year-old Stevie Goldstein looked up from where he sat cross-legged on the worn orange and yellow carpet in the one bedroom apartment he shared with his mother. He was playing with the caboose of a Lionel train set. He saw the wide bottom of her faded denim jeans, then the sewn on patches promoting peace, love and ganja, and finally the leather strings cinched around her small waist. Then he smelled her. A smell like freshly cut apples. It was the reason he refused to eat apples.
She sat on the floor next to him, placing a box in front of them. She juggled two beer cans in one hand, leveraging them against her chest to prevent them from falling. He not only smelled alcohol on her breath but he saw it in the blood vessels that mapped her eyes and in the red splotches that traversed her cheeks.
“I know I haven’t been around a lot lately, Stevie,” his mother slurred, “but I bought you something to make up for it.” She tapped the box.
Even at six years of age, Stevie knew his mother was an alcoholic. He knew about the cycle of abuse—how she was nice to him then mean, and then nice again—and he knew the things she did to him weren’t right. Making him tuck her into bed at night. Having him eat crackers for dinner since she was too whacked out to cook. Of course, he couldn’t verbalize what he knew—and he certainly couldn’t define it—but he realized his relationship with his mother wasn’t like the other kids, even for the tricked out, doped up, free-loving sixties.
“Do you want to see what’s in the box?”
He nodded. Even if she acted more like a kid than a parent when she was drunk, which was most of the time, she did give him good presents. Like Lionel trains, train tracks, a control tower, little people and farm animals to put on the trains and a remote control.
She pushed the box in front of him. He hoped it was the Union Pacific diesel locomotive he’d been craving. The white, square box was about the size of six shoeboxes stacked two on two on two. He rattled it.
“Don’t do that.” She removed his hands from the carton.
He considered snatching his hands from her as he hated the feel of her touch, but he wanted to see what was inside the box.
“What’s inside is very delicate,” she said. “You must promise to take care of them forever. Don’t let anyone hurt them. Do you promise?”
“Go ahead. Open it.”
He lifted the lid and gasped. Inside was a glass carousel with four prancing horses. Stevie didn’t dare touch them. He didn’t want to risk breaking this treasure. He studied each one. A white Arabian. A yellow Palomino. A chocolate Bay. A spotted Appaloosa.
“Aren’t they stunning?” his mother belched and held up a lever. “If you turn it on, it moves like a real carousel. Music plays too.”
Stevie was speechless, taken by the finely painted and jeweled creatures. Each was almost twelve inches high, but to Stevie they were enormous. Big enough to mount and ride away.
His mother grabbed his wrist. “You must protect these horses always. When you are with them, I will be with you too. Understand?”
Stevie didn’t understand but he nodded anyway. One month later, his mother was dead.