Friday, October 12, 2012

Voting Day

It’s voting day and Aunt Lobelia is dragging me to the neighborhood polling place. Set to open at seven, a line already snakes down the sidewalk by six-thirty. People sip coffee from to-go cups, scroll through their messages and wait. Some hug themselves against the cold. They say it’s always hot in Arizona, but this morning I can see my breath.

I wouldn’t be here if it were up to me, but Aunt Lobelia has no choice. She takes me to school for my mom who works nights at the grocery. I wish they’d let me walk to school with the other kids on the block, but Mama thinks that’ll get me into trouble. I'm twelve years old, so tell me - what kind of trouble can she mean? It's only four blocks past the gas station, left at the corner market, and in two more blocks, I'm there. Instead, my aunt drops me off on her way to the seven-twenty bus. If I'm lucky, we'll stop for doughnuts along the way, and if I'm doubly lucky, she'll buy me a cafe con leche.

If I had a father, he'd be the one to take me to school in place of Aunt Lobelia. But my father split the scene, that's how my best friend Iris puts it. Mama sees it differently: she says he left us to fend for ourselves. I hate when she says that because it reminds me of the baby wolves I once saw on TV whose mother got caught in a trap. My father may be gone, it's true, but I'm no helpless pup.

I wouldn’t say all men are no good, but that's what Iris says. I think she should stop listening to her mother, but it does make me wonder. Take this man standing before us in line - he keeps looking over his shoulder as if he is annoyed. Pretty soon, he’s half-turned around, and then he’s staring at us like he has something to say. Go eat a cheeseburger is what I think, and I narrow my eyes. His face reminds me of the grouper my Uncle Felix caught last spring - thin lips and eyes bulging, spotty skin and all. He probably smells like that fish, too, but I'm not close enough to take a whiff.

If my aunt notices him staring at us, she doesn’t let on. She scrounges around in her purse for a hairbrush and begins to brush my hair. It’s torture, this hair brushing ritual. You’d think by the time you reached my age, she’d give up trying to brush my hair, but secretly, I think she considers me the daughter she never had. So I give in and let her brush my hair.

While she’s smoothing out the snarls, I size up Mr. Fish Face. It’s a little game I play, imagining what people do. I picture him at the edge of the sofa, his face turning red as he struggles over his belly and makes loops to tie his shoes. I'm sure he doesn't have a wife because seriously, who’d marry him? I see a nick where his razor caught the flab beneath his chin. It left a trace of dried blood just above his collar. He definitely doesn't have a wife: who’d let him leave the house like that?

For a split second our eyes meet, and just as quick he looks away. Chicken.
“Stand still, Mija!” Aunt Lobelia commands as I squirm from her harsh hand. She says this in Spanish, which is what we speak at home.

“But, you’re hurting me Tia!” I complain. Not to mention, your hands stink of cleanser. Aunt Lobelia cleans houses for a living, scrubbing other people’s tubs six days a week. She may bathe in lavender at the end of each long day, but the bleach sticks to the creases of her hands and it never goes away.

She pauses long enough to pull my breakfast out of her purse: a corn muffin wrapped in plastic. “Here. Eat this while we wait,” she says. Then she gathers my hair into a thick braid, and gives my head a pat.

Now the man in front of us turns all the way around, looking down, a dark shadow hovering like Darth Vader. “You here to vote?” he asks. He's sucking air as if breathing on a ventilator, sounding a little like my Nana before she died of the pneumonia.

Aunt Lobelia drops the hairbrush into her bag and gathers herself tall. “Yes, of course,” she answers, but she doesn't raise her chin. “What else?”

“How can you?” he says. “You don’t speak English.”

My aunt stares straight into the gray light of morning, facing the American flag that flaps by the door, and she doesn’t respond.

Who says we don’t speak English? I want to say. But my aunt presses her lips together, and says not a word. I follow her cue.

The man shakes his head. “You people ought to learn your kids to speak English,” he says, gesturing at me with his flabby chin.

The word is teach. Teach your kids to speak English. Heat rises in my cheeks, not because I’m angry, but because I’m embarrassed. People all around us begin to stare. I watch that flag fluttering in the breeze, and suddenly, I’m thinking about the Pledge of Allegiance which we recite at school. Some kids won't say the pledge, but I do. It says our nation is “indivisible”, which means you can’t divide it. The way I see it, it’s one nation, and it’s under God, and it belongs to all of us, one and the same.

The more I think about it, the angrier I get.

I turn to my aunt because I think she should say something. How can she let him talk to us like this? But she freezes like Lady Liberty. I’ve never seen that statue in New York, but I’ve seen pictures. Her torch welcomed immigrants who crossed oceans for the opportunity to live here. “They came for the chance at a better life,” my teacher explained. And with a show of hands, she asked whose families had come to America in search of a better life.

I raised my hand even though my grandparents didn’t cross an ocean to get here. No, they walked through a desert to get here and they weren’t greeted by a statue upon their arrival, although I can’t say this from experience because I wasn’t there. In fact, Aunt Lobelia wasn’t either, since she and my mother were born in this country. But my abuelos, that's how they came. I’ve heard their story over and over again. How they could have died in the heat. How their mouths dried up like chalk dust and their stomachs shriveled like bean pods. And when they arrived, I bet the giant saguaro cactuses were the closest thing to a statue that greeted them. All that, for the chance at a better life. My mother tells me all the time. She says I never should forget it. But that man in front of us, what does he know? Because if he understood, he’d leave both of us alone.

My aunt still won't answer him. She puts her arm around my shoulder, and the two of us are glued to the sidewalk - we don't make a move.

A lady behind us speaks up in a voice that takes me by surprise. “Why don’t you mind your own business?” she says, leaning past me to tell the man. Her hand is on my shoulder. I sense her anger, or perhaps I confuse it with my own. She comes to our rescue, a white woman with blue eyes and lines that crisscross her forehead like railroad tracks. I’d like to hug her, but of course I don’t. She smiles at me, and her teeth are perfect squares. Thank you. I mouth the words, but I don’t think she saw my lips move. It’s like whispering prayers in church. Sometimes, I sneak this in: I say, “Hey God, can you hear me?” but he hasn’t answered yet.

So the lady tells him off, and Fish Face turns bright red. "Who asked you?” he mumbles. He faces front again and unfolds his ballot paper. He pretends to study it, but I know better. Adults turn their attention elsewhere when they’re stuck for things to say, and this man, I’m pretty sure, has nothing left to say.

The sun rises over the red tile rooftops with a solid ray that blinds me. I'm so tired of waiting that I skip around on my feet. “Just five more minutes,” Aunt Lobelia says. She’s switched to English which surprises me. I try to eat my muffin, but without my usual cup of hot chocolate, it’s powdery dry like all the other day-old baked goods mama brings home from the grocery. So instead of eating, I count the people who walk out the door wearing flag stickers over their hearts. I voted.

Finally, it's Mr. Fish's turn and he waddles to his booth. Then he pulls the curtain as if he’s stepping into the shower. I count the seconds until it’s our turn. One hundred ten, one hundred eleven.

Can I level with you? It’s all right for the adults to be here, but I’m the only kid around. I'm out of place, like the time Aunt Lobelia’s boyfriend took me to the Sharpshooter and made me do my homework in the corner while he drank beers with his friends. In the end it all turned okay, and I know this will too. All the same, my stomach is a mess of jitters and I’d rather be outside. One hundred nineteen, one hundred twenty.

Finally, we enter the sacred space of our booth like a confessional at church. Aunt Lobelia unfolds her wire-rimmed glasses, handling them with the delicacy of Mrs. Brubaker's fine china. Next, she unfolds her practice ballot, which she calls her “cheat sheet”, and she begins to punch away. She’s voting for the representative of our congressional district. The names are all lined up. “Vote for One,” it says. I see four names, maybe five. As far as I can tell, one stands out from all the rest: a lady’s name. She’s a shoe-in for Aunt Lobelia’s vote, with a last name close to ours.

But her choice surprises me.

“Why’d you vote for him?” I ask as we exit.

Aunt Lobelia thinks it over for a second, then she tries to explain. “Well, you have to vote for the person who you think will do the best job.”

I still don’t get it, and I tell her so. How does she know he’ll do the best job?

“Because he spoke at the community center. About a month ago. He promises jobs. And better healthcare. He’ll help our schools. And fight for lower taxes. He promises all kinds of things." She stops to think it over. “He even shook my hand!”

Then it dawns on her, the reason why I’m asking, and she zeros in on my concern. “You can’t just vote for a name, Mija. If you did, then you wouldn’t be any better than that man in line.”

I open my mouth to disagree, how can she even say a thing like that, but then I shut it once again. I didn’t think about it that way. I guess she’s right. Maybe you can’t judge someone by their name, any more than you can judge someone by the language that they speak. I decide I'll explain this to Iris when I see her. She may be my best friend, but she's always quick to judge.

As we’re walking through the parking lot, we pass Mr. Fish Face. He climbs into his red pick-up, groaning as he hoists his weight into the truck like Uncle Felix loading his grouper on the scale. It’s my aunt who sees it first, the Veteran’s symbol on his license plate.

“Afghanistan?” I ask her. Besides Iraq, it’s the only war I’ve ever known. My cousin, Bobby, went there with the Army. He didn’t even last a year, killed by something they call an RPG.

“Most likely Vietnam,” she says. This time she uses Spanish.

I don’t say a word. I just squeeze her hand a little tighter and squint to keep the sun out of my eyes. We’re walking to the exit where the cars are waiting for the light. Just as we begin to cross, the red truck is at the driveway. Fish Face glances at us through his windshield. Aunt Lobelia makes eye contact, to make sure he plans to stop.

I can’t believe what I see. In one simple motion, she smiles, and gives a little wave.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

From: The Journals of . . . .

Taxco ~ February 29, 1988

. . . .As I gaze up at the multi-level balconies and terraces of the many buildings in this town, all piled up one upon the other as if in a maze, I long to occupy one for even a short period of time - to stay, to feel the true rhythm of Taxco, to eat fresh fruits, breads and vegetables from the local vendors each day - to study the people.  I envision my own dressing table with silver mirror above, painted jewelry box upon its smooth wooden surface - open my window out to the sweet mountain breeze, sun streaming in, canary song.  This is Taxco - a city so fine.  Yet, from its heights, as you climb above the center of town, forget not its poor, the people of older days and its children who will continue to struggle.  Beyond all of its many silver shops, beyond all of its finery, its polished cobblestone, its rich atmosphere - exists a basic and simple way of life which is the common thread of Mexico.

Friday, June 1, 2012

From Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927)

"But soon we shall die . . .and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten.  But the love will have been enough;  all those impulses of love return to the love that made them.  Even memory is not necessary for love.  There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Attic - A Short Story

In a brief, lucid moment, my mother reveals the whereabouts of her journals. “When I die,” she says, pausing to sift through what's left of the words filed away in her brain. Her eyes stray to a painting of a sunflower-filled meadow.
Seconds pass. A minute approaches. “Yes, Mother? You were saying?” I scan her once-brilliant eyes for a continuation of the thought. “When you die . . .”

“When I die, you must go into the attic,” she concludes, fiddling with the seashells on the straw purse at her side. It’s the purse she bought on her last cruise to the islands, when she still traveled with friends. She hooks it on her good arm, the one unaffected by the stroke, and hobbles with it to the dining room table at meal time. A roomy straw bag, it’s the perfect receptacle for the sugar packets she insists on taking, the little tubs of orange marmalade and berry jam, or the cloth napkins she adores. (“Such beautiful handkerchiefs,” she declares with a satisfied fold and a pat. “Don’t you just love these?”)

“Tell me Mother. Why do I need to go into the attic?” Patience is tantamount to gasoline these days: in short supply and very expensive.

“For my journals. They're up there. In boxes, you know. When I die, get them down, or you might just forget them." Her tone of voice is reminiscent of how she used to order my sister and I to pick up our rooms or clear the table after eating dinner.

“How about if I bring them the next time I visit?" I offer. "That way, you can enjoy them.”
“Oh.  I hadn’t thought of that,” she says, abandoning the seashells to tug at a loose thread on her embroidered blouse. "Yes.  Bring them to me."

Her journals are boxed in the attic?

Once I'd grown older and moved out of the house, I'd long forgotten about my mother and her journals.  Every night, after the dinner dishes were washed and put away, my mother would snap on the light at her desk.  She preferred a brown fountain pen to any other writing tool and leather bound pages to cloth. When she wrote in her journal we didn’t dare interrupt her, and sometimes, when preoccupied with a particularly long entry, she’d forget to come in and kiss us goodnight or bid us sweet dreams before bed. 

As a kid I’d climbed up into the attic once, at my sister’s insistence, to free a bird trapped in the rafters. She heard the beat of its delicate wings on the attic's plywood floor.  "Can you hear it?" she'd asked.  "Can you?"  Spooked by her own stories of ghosts lurking up there, she'd refused to ascend the steps of the ladder, urging me to climb up instead. 

“What do you see?” she asked.  My flashlight dissected the darkness, illuminating the dust which swirled like a miniature cosmos in the beam of yellowy light.

“It’s a dove,” I called down to her.  It swooped into the rafters, startling me, until it tucked itself into a crevice beneath the eave and that’s where it stayed. I’m sure it feared me more than I feared it, yet I couldn’t bear to approach it - a wild creature trapped in the shadows.

“It’ll die up there if you don’t do something,” she called to me.

“Then, get me a broom,” I replied, my voice swallowed up in the vacuum of darkness.   My eyes adjusted to the light which spilled through the spidery glass of a twenty-inch window. She disappeared, then returned with a broom so I could shoo it out the gap where I presumed it had entered.  I shook the broom, rattling the beam over my head, but the poor thing wouldn't budge.

“It’s no use,” I told her with resignation. “It's going to die up here.”

“They mate for life, you know,” she said, as if I cared about its mate lying in wait on the other side of the wall.

I tug at the cord of that drop down ladder, now a fifty-four year old woman with bones that creak like the steps unfolding before me. I sweep the flashlight beam around the rafters, half expecting to see that dove, waiting for me in the muffled silence. “Why’d you leave me?” I imagine it asking. “You know, I never made it out.” Instead, I am greeted by the boxes that my mother described, the ones containing her journals. My heart pitter-patters like the wings of that dove, once hopelessly lost in the attic.  “They are here!” I whisper in amazement.  There are days when she has no idea who I am, but this, she can remember.

I open the first one with reverence, as if opening a Bible, as if the words of my mother are the words of God transcending space and time. They adhere to the pages like smudges of dark chocolate, the paper fragrant with the passage of time. The phrases describe her deepest fears and detail her opulent joys. Love, friendship, frustration and triumph - the entire spectrum is choreographed on telltale pages, the roadmaps of my mother’s life. Cross-legged, I sit on the floor and read until the light from the window grows pale.

“Bring them to me,” I hear her say.

I select two, tucking them into my purse, then head to Parkview Manor Assisted Living to share them with her.

“Honey, how’s your mother?” she asks as I approach and sink into a plush pink chair by her side. Her hair is freshly washed. Bangs swoop to one side like the feathered wing of a bird.

“Oh, she’s wonderful!” I answer, and I reach for her hand. “Look what I’ve brought you!” I’m hoping she’ll recognize her handwriting and momentarily stir from the fog. I place one of the journals in her lap atop purple velour pants.

“Oh, that’s nice,” she says, rubbing a hand over the cover as if petting a small dog.

“Shall I read to you?” I volunteer.

“Oh yes, certainly. But honey?” she asks again with growing concern. “Why hasn’t your mother come to visit? I haven’t see her in a while.”

I ignore the comment. She’ll ask me twenty times how my mother is.

I read aloud. Her words scatter off the pages like leaves in autumn, twirling and spinning, until they settle, sweet-spiced and insightful, upon the vast fields of my imagination. The passage is about spring: the Lily of the Valley in bloom, a burst of sunlight, raspberries in the yard. May 21, 1956. A day like any other. My sister and I are toddlers, gasping in delight as we dodge back and forth in sprinklers that spray the lawn.

My mother, sitting like a queen with the ever-present straw bag, closes her eyes and listens. Within minutes, her chin rests on her chest and her shoulders slump. I pause in expectation. “Mother?” I say. She doesn’t reply.  In spite of having lost my audience, I continue to read. May 24, 1956. Jack and I celebrated our sixth anniversary today. Six years!  Didn't we just say our vows? My father, gone eighteen years this November, left my mother a widow. God bless her, she never even saw it coming.

“Sweet dreams, Mother,” I say, kissing her forehead. Then I close the journal, and tuck it into the  bag hooked over her arm.

On Writing

"Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don't have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough." ~Stephen King, On Writing