Authors: Lynne Ewing
Tags: #Teen & Young Adult, #Literature & Fiction, #Social & Family Issues, #Peer Pressure, #Violence, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Sword & Sorcery
An old bent woman biting a thick cigar gave me a strange look and walked over to the entrance, the hem of her long yellow dress sweeping across the floor.
“Ah, you a bad one, you are,” she said, the cigar wagging at the corner of her mouth as she spoke. “You got no future. No future on your face. None at all.” She smiled and blew smoke into my face.
I breathed in the acrid smoke.
“You need a cure, I think. I could give you what you need. But you got to pay the price, eh?”
She slammed the door.
I stood looking at my reflection, wondering what she had seen in my face. That I was a murderer? Had forced my best friend onto the street and to her death? I felt suddenly hot even with the devil winds spinning down the street.
I waited to see if the woman would come back and say
more. When she didn’t, I held my hand up to the glass to cut the reflection and peered inside the shop. She gathered some herbs and shook them into a pouch, her cigar making a halo of smoke over her head. She set the pouch on the counter, then glanced at me and laughed. She spread her arms and closed her eyes, her fingers stretching. She mumbled something over the pouch, then followed the women in white to a back room. I opened the door quickly, the bells chiming a warning, stole the pouch from the counter, and ran with it down the street.
At the corner I turned to see if the woman had come out. No one was there, and for some reason I didn’t understand, I felt disappointed that she hadn’t chased me down. I wondered if the old woman was only one of my dreams…but the pouch was real I held it to my nose and breathed deeply, licorice and thyme smells filling my lungs. The puppy sniffed and licked the pouch until its nose was covered with a fine gray powder.
I walked two more blocks, then turned down the crooked sidewalk that led to the row of houses where I lived. Our house had belonged to my grandparents, but after they died, it passed to my mother. I know they worried about my beautiful mother, a late-in-life baby, who spoke such a strange mix of Quechua, Spanish, and English that when she went to school no one understood her. Some days I could still smell my grandmother’s cooking inside our home, but mostly
I smelled the salt of sweat and smoke from my mother’s boyfriends.
When I got near the house, Mrs. Mulligan, our next-door neighbor, slammed out the front door of her small stucco house, holding a casserole with ragged blue potholders. Her three oldest sons were stretched under her old rusted Buick, their long legs and cowboy boots sticking out from beneath the chrome. They had come from Oklahoma years ago but still dressed as if they expected to find a rodeo in the Hollywood Hills.
“Kata, wait,” Mrs. Mulligan called, her red hair trying to escape from the scarf tied tight around her wide head. Boxer, her towheaded toddler, peeked around her pink flowered muu-muu and waved two wet fingers at me.
“Don’t speak to her,” one of her sons said from under the car, “We got enough trouble with her without you starting more.”
“I’m just asking how she is,” Mrs. Mulligan said, her voice straining to sound cheerful.
“You just listen to us,” another twangy voice came from under the car’s radiator.
“Okey-dokey,” Mrs. Mulligan said.
She handed me the dish. “It’s a tuna casserole,” she whispered. “I know it’s your favorite. Well, you won’t be able to eat today, but I wanted to do something.”
I stuffed the sweet-smelling pouch into a pocket,
balanced the pup, and took the hot casserole in the soiled potholders, the fishy smell steaming into my face.
“I heard about your Ana,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”
“Mom, are you still talking to her?” a voice said as the dolly’s metal wheels scraped the driveway and one pair of legs grew a body.
Mrs. Mulligan hurried away before her son Judd could stand. He had a dark tan and deep blue eyes. He pushed a greasy hand through his blond hair and looked at me.
“You stay away from us,” he said, pointing his wrench.
I ran around the cinder-block wall up to my house and hurried inside to hide the tears that were becoming stronger than my will to hold them back.
The wind followed me inside and rippled through the layers of cigarette smoke hanging in the living room. I set the casserole down on the coffee table before my fingers blistered, then cradled the puppy slipping from my arms and set it on the floor.
A silent television flickered in the corner, pictures changing rapidly, showing weather across the nation. The light made me think of the fire my grandparents had kept in the hearth. Grandma liked the soft noise of the crackling logs and the light of the licking flames, even though it was too hot most days in Los Angeles to have a fire. Mom must
have missed the fire, too, because I had found her many times with her back to the TV, the sound off, her eyes watching the light change across the wall.
Mom was sleeping on the couch, blankets twisted around her limbs. I pulled the pouch from my pocket and set it near her pillow. I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer for a milagro, then touched her shoulder, her yellowed skin loose on her thin bones.
“Momma,” I whispered, and breathed deeply, taking her exhaled breath into my lungs. I couldn’t smell alcohol, and that made me hopeful that maybe she would keep her promise this time. But hope was a tool the devil used against me, tricking me into believing my mother’s words.
I set the puppy on her lap. It startled her. Her eyes opened, black beads pushed inward by puffy lids. She looked at the little dog, her face blue-green in the jumping TV light. She leaned on an elbow and grabbed the puppy to keep it from falling off the couch. Pink fuzz from the blanket caught on the puppy’s nose.
“I brought you a present,” I said. “Someone to keep you company when I’m at school.”
“I can’t have a dog,” she said. “How can we feed it? We don’t got money for a dog. You take it back.” That was what she said, but already she was letting it lick her ear. I smiled but didn’t let her see my smile.
“What are you going to name it?” I asked.
“I can’t keep it,” she said, picking the fuzz from its nose.
Boxer peeked in the front door, his cheeks powdered with dirt, sucking on two fingers.
“There’s your little crumb-snatcher Boxer, begging at the front door,” Mom said, and kissed the dog’s wet nose. “Better get him out of here before the Mulligans make stew of us.” She laughed at that, but I never got her jokes. Then her voice got nasty-mean. “Go away, Boxer. Go away,” she said like she was chasing flies.
“I’ll take care of it,” I said.
I took Boxer to the kitchen and wet a paper towel to wash his face. I liked the way he held his face up to me, eyes squinched closed, lips pursed. I let my hands linger on his face and gently washed his lips and finally behind his ears—the way I had always wanted my mother to touch me. Sometimes when I was a little girl, I would play with my mother’s hand, pretending her hand was a doll. She’d let me hold the hand, kiss the fingers, cuddle the arm while she drank her beers and smoked with her free hand and talked to dark men. Playing with her hand was the only way I could feel her touch.
When I finished washing Boxer’s face, I kissed his nose and gave him a roll of Life Savers. Boxer smiled. I think he liked my washing his face better than the Life Savers.
“Boxer, you better get out of here before your brothers come looking for you with a switch.”
He sat down on the floor and worked his chubby fingers around the paper covering the candy. He opened it too far, and the Life Savers fell out and danced across the room.
“Boxer, you go on home,” I said, helping him pick up the candy and stuff it into his pockets.
“Come on,” I said. “I’ll help you sneak out.”
I walked him into the backyard. Too late. Judd was standing beneath the avocado tree. When he saw me with his baby brother, he spit fire.
“What are you doing with Boxer?” he said.
“I don’t speak English,” I answered.
“You bitch, you’re speaking it now,” he said.
“Yes, but these are the only words I know,” I said calmly.
He was still calling me names when I locked the back door. I had broken into their home many times when I was younger, stealing milk, cereal, and coins. Mrs. Mulligan understood poverty and never held it against me. Whenever she could, she brought me plates of leftovers and cookies, but fear made Judd and his brothers close their hearts against me, fear that there wasn’t enough to go around.
I took two plates and forks and a serving spoon into the living room. I scooped Mrs. Mulligan’s tuna casserole onto the plates and handed one to Mom. I tried to eat, but my throat closed. How could I eat with Ana gone? I set my plate on the rug for the puppy. It waddled over to the
plate and ate, its front paws slipping on the noodles, its ears gathering the sauce.
Then I remembered the vitamins.
“I bought you some vitamins today,” I said. “I thought they’d make you feel better.” I set the bottles of pills in a line on the coffee table.
“I can’t swallow pills,” Mom said. “So you shouldn’t have wasted your money.” She started to take another bite of casserole but stopped when she saw I wasn’t eating.
“Nobody can eat after a funeral,” she said, and set her plate down. “Three days since Ana … I’m sorry, baby. I just felt too weak to go to the funeral. We’ll visit her grave … lay some pretty flowers there.” Her fork dropped to her plate with a clank that echoed through the cold house. She stared off as if some other funeral played across the gray wall in the living room.
She pulled the blanket over her head, like she was trying to escape the demon memories. When she did, Nando’s book fell to the floor with a dull thud, startling the puppy. Nando was a poet. He had won awards and had three books of poetry published. Four poems were about Mom. She read them again and again. I think she missed Nando. But her love wasn’t strong enough to keep her from drinking.
Nando had put hope in our lives for a while. He wanted to marry Mom and make us his family, but then Pocho joined the gang and Mom started drinking heavy. She spent
her nights walking the streets with Pocho’s picture in her hand, trying to find him and pull him home. Her days she spent in bed with wine and beer, until one day Nando came home and found her sharing her beer and bed with a strange man. Nando left, and Mom didn’t go looking for him. He called me sometimes, but he didn’t visit. His heart was still soft in the center for Mom, and he was afraid to find her with another stranger.
I picked up the mail off the rug by the front door.
“You get your welfare?” I asked. Mom was disabled from the drinking, her liver turning to stone. She received SSI and an AFDC check for me as long as I stayed in school. I hated the welfare. Other kids, like some of the girls in the projects, didn’t seem to mind the poverty the way I did. It felt like an anchor, keeping me down.
“Krandel came by,” Mom said.
I glanced around the room. The smoke was thick. Too much smoke for Mom to have made with her thin, dry lungs. “You let that six-pack of trouble into our house and he took your welfare, didn’t he?” My words were harsh, but my tone was resigned. I knew she had endorsed her welfare over to him. I didn’t need to ask. She had done it too many times before because Krandel kept the drinks flowing when I refused to go to the market for her. Krandel took advantage of her, but he never beat her or tried to sex me like some of the others had.
“Mana yuyanichu,” she said from beneath the blanket. I think that meant “I don’t remember” in Quechua, but I wasn’t sure. She could have been telling me to mind my own business.
I sighed. I didn’t have the energy to battle with her. I had left it in the cemetery.
“Maybe Nando can help us,” I said. How could I blame her anymore? Men and booze were the only way she forgot her sad, broken life. She had me when she was fifteen, and maybe that was the reason I stayed away from boys and didn’t dream about babies the way the other girls did. I knew how bad it felt to have a mother who should have been an older sister.
She told me my dad was dead, shot in a drive-by. But I think she only said that so she could get her welfare and not bother him. I liked to think Nando was my father. Mom said he wouldn’t be a good father because he practiced Santería, an old Afro-Caribbean religion brought to the New World centuries ago by slaves from the West African Yoruba tribe. Mom was Roman Catholic, so anything superstitious was bad to her. Nando was always bringing over a chicken for her to hold for him until he could sacrifice it. He teased her with the flapping bird, chasing her with the clucking chicken until feathers spun around the house and we were all sneezing and dizzy. I never saw him kill anything, though. He was too tender of heart and soft in his eyes.
They argued religion, Mom holding her rosary twisted in her hands, her face yellow in the light from the candles Nando had lit to his gods. Nando saw life as a complex thing of prayer and fate. God was so immense to him that he needed saints and lesser deities to do his bidding, like Mom and I prayed to Holy Mary and Jesucristo.
“They just put in a good word for me,” Nando argued. “I’m not worshipping them.”
I didn’t see how anyone could fight over religion, saying one was right, the other wrong. It was as if people made gangs out of their religions. To me it didn’t matter how a person got to God; getting there, that was the hard part, that was all that mattered. Mom couldn’t think that way. Every time Nando did something that didn’t please her, she blamed his religion.
“You stay away from Nando and that West Indian witch he lives with—Consuela, whatever her name is,” Mom said, suddenly alive again. “She’s put too many curses on me.”
“His bruja is nice to me,” I lied. I’d never seen his other woman, but Mom talked about Consuela all the time.
“Give him back his jewelry,” Mom said.
Mom had an opal ring and earrings Nando had given her. She never wore them. When I asked why she didn’t wear the jewelry, she said she was saving it for good. That made me think she saw a future for us outside the barred windows of my grandparents’ home.
“Tell me about the funeral,” Mom said finally. “No, don’t. I hate funerals.”