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.