Mrs. Bowers’ garage door vibrated with the diagonal green, yellow, and red of The Congo. The artist, her youngest son, Tyrone, said the white man pulled his ancestral grandfather from an afternoon river swim and no one must ever forget. The neighbors complained to Mrs. Bowers; they wanted the garage door painted an earth tone, something calming to the eye. People owned their homes on Ivy Drive, kept things up. But Tyrone supposed they’d just have to get used to it, and he had the final word.
Mrs. Bowers and I worked side by side in the Martin Luther King Child Development Center in Menlo Park. Although I called her a friend, I can’t say she was my favorite all-time coworker. I needed a fast runner, a hoop shooter, a partner who’d help with the classroom management, do some kindly shaming in the discipline department. Say things like, “What would your mama say if she saw her baby throw orange peel?” No one listened to a redheaded white girl.
But her teaching style was far removed from the ruckus. She saw herself as a nurturing grandma, rocking for hours at a time while little ones curled up in her lap with a picture book. When the school-age children got off the school bus they’d drape over her bony shoulders, gripe about their teachers, or get help with long division. I organized the games, monitored the playground, ordered supplies. I thought I did it all.
She had six children. Her first husband died early on and she raised them herself until she married Benny Bowers, a merchant marine. For fifteen years he left for three months at a time, but when he returned he brought exotic candy for her kids, money and loving for her, and it was party-time until he took off again.
When they moved to the Port of San Francisco, the four oldest stayed behind in Louisiana. Benny sent money for college and they prospered with jobs, families, but during the years I knew Mrs. Bowers, they never once sent a plane ticket or an invitation for a holiday. The youngest daughter, Dolores, a court reporter, lived the San Francisco high-life and had her mother convinced she was too busy to care for her four-year-old, Niki. And Dolores had the last word, too.
I was waiting for real life to start up. I worked in day care all day, drove across the Dumbarton Bridge to the university Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday evenings, and spent twelve hours a week on homework, too. Working one job and caring for one sweet child seemed like easy street to me. It was none of my business and certainly not fitting to tell an elder what to do but I said it anyway. “Your daughter should be raising her own little girl. You’re getting up there in years and take care of other people’s children all day.” Mrs. Bowers was probably only in her early fifties but it was plain to see she was tuckered out.
She was absentminded too, and one hot afternoon left a six-ounce Dixie cup of white industrial cleaner on the kitchen counter. Soon enough, a thirsty kindergartener named Walter Mingus came along and drank it. I smelled his ammonia breath when he came up and pointed to the white foam mustache on his upper lip. His mother got him to the hospital just in time. The doctor said it was enough disinfectant to scrub all of Intensive Care, but there were no threats or lawsuits; Mrs. Mingus forgave Mrs. Bowers right away and she got to keep her job. The next morning she said, “Accidents happen. But I give those children something special. I love them and they love me back.”
That was all well and good, except for her little granddaughter, Niki. There wasn’t much loving attention left for her. Mrs. Bowers did her best to show her no favoritism whatsoever, never chose Niki to be Line Leader, Ball Monitor, or any of the coveted jobs on the “Job Board.” Her narrow lap filled with all the other assorted small bodies.
Niki made do with me when she needed her shoes tied, or jeans snapped. Together, we went to the cafeteria to get the lunch cart. After naptime when her shoulders sank back into the blue beanbag chair, I squeezed in next to her and read “Where the Wild Things Are.” She resembled her grandmother with the same skinny torso, narrow features, the same coffee color. But Mrs. Bowers’ hair molded against her head in a smooth cap of waves while Niki’s three wiry braids threatened to burst from the plastic barrettes holding on for dear life.
One Saturday morning when I should have been reviewing Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development, I decided to sew Niki a dress. In the fabric store I deliberated over the flowered cottons, seersuckers, strips, and solids. What colors would best set off her earthy tones? I finally settled on a white and blue plaid with red rickrack for the trim. I cut it out on the living room carpet before lunch and sewed it nonstop at the kitchen table all afternoon. It was the first child’s garment I’d ever made. I admired the square neck, the flounce of sleeves at the shoulders. I wrapped it in white tissue.
“Well, I’ll be,” said Mrs. Bowers on Monday morning. “I had no idea you sewed. I made every Sunday dress my girls ever wore before Benny came along.” She turned up the hem, peered inside the neckline and armholes. “Niki, try on the dress Ms. Parnell so kindly made up for you.”
Niki didn’t move. She wore purple knit pants, a matching tee shirt, and lavender socks with an edging of white lace. She waited by jars of tempera, brushes, plastic cups and lids, ready to help mix the paint for the easel.
“Go on, Niki. Put on the dress. You can do it right here before the others arrive.”
“She can try it on at home,” I whispered.
But it was if I hadn’t said a thing. Mrs. Bowers walked over to where Niki stood in the Art Center and said, “Put up your arms.” She pulled off her top and Niki gave one quick little shiver in her white-ribbed undershirt as her grandmother lowered the dress over her head. It was too big. She must have been a size three, certainly not a five, and little girls’ patterns tended to run large. There was a good three inches of skin and undershirt showing under each armhole. The skirt came well below her knees. I should have waited to hem it.
“Lovely. She’ll wear it to church. No one has ever made a dress for Niki. Go give Mrs. Parnell a hug and a big thank you.”
I didn’t know if Niki liked the dress or not, but she gave me her thin-armed squeeze.
“She can save it, grow into it. It’ll take only take a year or so, or I can cut it down.”
“It’s fine, just fine as it is. She’ll be happy to wear it won’t you Niki?”
But she already had it off and was wiggling back into her shirt. “Ms. Parnell, we got to mix the paint.”
When I met Dolores the timing was as unexpected as her beauty. She came down to pickup Niki on a Friday afternoon and stood by the door as I stacked the cots and Mrs. Bowers cut fruit for the afternoon snack. Children painted with watercolors or pounded play dough with wooden hammers at the round tables. Niki practiced writing her name on a small green blackboard in the Writing Center.
“Niki, come give your mother some sugar.” Dolores’ words rang out in sing-song talk, but I doubted she knew “Itsy Bitsy Spider” or Niki’s favorite, “This Old Man.” She wobbled in a squat next to the cubbies, held out her arms in her dark suit, patent-leather heels. Niki continued drawing a string of capital “D’s” along a line she’d made with yellow chalk.
I dragged cots two at a time to the storage closet at the back of the room, conscious of every splatter of paint on my jeans and the pungent diaper smell of a naptime accident. I wished for lipstick or even a few strokes of mascara on my wispy eyelashes. Without gawking too hard I could tell Dolores knew how to look good. She outlined her lips, put dark shadow in the creases of her lids. She looked malleable or firm in all the right places. But I needn’t have worried. Dolores didn’t see me any more than the four blue cots still lined up in a row.
She called to her mother across the open counter that divided the two rooms. “We’re going back to the city to see my attorney friend about the child support. He wants to meet Niki. I’ll have her back by bedtime.”
“You can go ahead and keep her overnight. She’d like that. She won’t need much. You can stop and get a toothbrush,” Mrs. Bowers said. She kept her eyes on the apples, pushed slices onto a paper plate with the side of the knife.
“I’d really like to, Mama, but I have to bring her back around eight. I have a load of work to do over the weekend. I’ll give you money for a movie. Maybe you can all go out to eat, too.”
Mrs. Bowers went back to cutting and Dolores pulled out the small backpack and jacket. “Let’s go, Baby, come along now.”
Niki took her time erasing. She straightened her piece of chalk alongside the others in a microwave meal tray.
“I got a prize for you in the car. Something you’ll like.”
“A prize?” Niki looked up. She returned the blackboard to the shelf and went to her mother.
As they walked out the door, I watched to see if Dolores held her child’s hand in the parking lot. She did, but Niki’s legs were no match for her mother’s long-legged strides, and she had to gallop to keep up.
The idea of taking Niki for a weekend scared me. Giving the extra attention at school, sewing the little dress, buying her a toy now and then at a garage sale was well within my comfort range. Mrs. Bowers sprang the idea at the end of the day while she rested and rocked, and I sorted the Legos from Bristle Blocks.
“Benny needs tests at the hospital. He’s tired first thing in the morning.”
Benny was often ill. He might have been a lot of fun when he was young but now big freckles splattered his skin like the dark spots on a banana. “What about Dolores or Tyrone?”
“Oh you know Dolores. Her place is too tiny to keep a bed for Niki; she can barely roll out a sleeping bag. And she’s been seeing that attorney who’s helping her track down Niki’s father. She’s got plans for the weekend, and Tyrone’s running an ad in the paper for his car.”
If Dolores married the attorney, Niki wouldn’t be part of the bargain, and Tyrone always had plenty of time to freshen the flag on the garage door. It wasn’t my business, but if I was going to be asked to take Niki for weekends, maybe it was.
“I’ve never taken care of a child away from work, not since I babysat in high school,” I said.
“Oh, you two are best of friends. You’ll have nothing but fun.”
It was the favorite part of Niki’s day with all the children gone. She straightened the Housekeeping Center, placed the plastic dishes back on shelves, collected all the play food. She stopped sorting fruit into the wooden refrigerator and gave me a look across the room.
“We’ll have a great time, Niki. I promise,” I said.
“What would you like to do this weekend?” I peered through the rearview mirror trying to focus my eyes on her face instead on the competing abstract artwork of the garage door. Niki turned her head towards the window and sucked her thumb with her pointer finger crooked across the bridge of her nose. She looked slight, pale, if that was possible, swimming in the dress I’d sewed, even with a white sweater underneath.
It was strange for her too to be with her teacher from school, to be in a car driving somewhere she’d never been before. I knew little about the care and upkeep of Black children even though there were many at the center. How would I know if she was flushed with fever or had too much sun? After placing a small pink Barbie suitcase, and Care Bear flannel sleeping bag into my trunk, the Bowers had rushed off to the Stanford University Hospital.
“How about a second breakfast at McDonalds?” When in doubt, eat.
She pecked at the crust of a chicken nugget and then asked to go to the glass-enclosed playroom. I sat at a table close by. I couldn’t see her at first, couldn’t make her out from the swarm of children packed in too small a space using too little equipment. When I couldn’t see her, I panicked. Once I’d heard of a child drowning in a packed wading pool with all the parents watching at a birthday party. What if I lost her and never saw her again? How bad would Mrs. Bowers and Dolores feel if Niki were to disappear and it had nothing to do with them? In their hearts they probably wanted Niki gone, not dead or ill, but just gone, as if she’d never been.
It was when she emerged from under the slide that I first imagined keeping her. She was an easy child, eager to please, never cried at the center or argued with other children. She played with the girls but chose solitary activities if they became too rowdy. She showed a respect for order in the classroom, was always eager to help. She’d be a good student when she started school.
Niki came back to the table and took a long French fry from the bag on the tray. She ran her pink tongue along the edge, licked it clean of salt.
“Are we done here?” I asked. “Let’s go to the store and buy special food for lunch and dinner. And maybe cereal for tomorrow’s breakfast too.”
The idea came out with no planning or forethought. It might not be the number one activity of choice for a four-year-old, but I’d make it fun. It was simple, a homey, routine act we’d do together. It sounded good as soon as I said it.
Niki folded the top, creased it, and clenched the French fry bag on the way to the car.
At the Safeway I asked, “Would you like to walk or sit in the cart? What does your grandmother have you do?”
“I stay home with Papa.”
I placed my hands under her arms and lifted her into the cart. She was lighter than I imagined, a skinny picky eater at school and home. She fit with plenty of room to spare and looked around as if the world took on a new dimension three feet off the ground.
“First we’ll see what there is, and you can tell me what you like to eat at home, okay?” I pushed her up and down the aisles. “Bread?” She shook her head “no” as I held up rye, wheat, English muffins, but gave an affirmative shake for a loaf of Wonder Bread. We walked up and down and I held up cottage cheese, milk, yogurt, in the dairy aisle and then on to oranges, apples, pears in the produce department.
She called out “Cantaloupe!” before we even made it down to the melons.
“Do you like it?” I asked.
“No way!” She covered her mouth with her hand and gave a little puppy-snort. We both laughed.
It was the start for both of us, the start of feeling comfortable outside the center, and again I imagined what it would be like to keep her. She’d still visit her grandmother and Dolores when she lived with me. I wouldn’t want to deprive her of her African American culture. I’d move to a two-bedroom apartment. Maybe they’d contribute towards her upkeep; they’d be ever so grateful. We’d take weekly trips to the supermarket and visit the story hour at the Menlo Park Library. There was the Exploratorium in San Francisco, and soon it’d be time for the pumpkin farm in Half Moon Bay.
At home Niki peeled two bananas and sliced them wafer-thin with a plastic knife. She arranged the pieces around the edge of a plate. She told me exactly how much peanut butter to spread on her triangles of toasted bread. I set out the chocolate chips, put butter in a dish to soften for the cookies we planned on making later.
After lunch, all on her own, Niki unzipped her little suitcase and got out her napping blanket. She spread it out on the couch, smoothed it flat.
“Do you want to lay down on my bed?” I asked.
“No. Right here.”
“When you get up we’ll make the cookies.”
“Okay.” She curled up on her side and closed her eyes. Her clasped hands bunched up the dress between her knees.
I watched her sleep from the armchair. I waited just in case she woke and forgot where she was. I planned out the rest of the day and the next day, too. We’d take in an early movie, fix more food together. Read picture books I’d brought home from the center. I’d make a cardboard box house to go with the two Barbie dolls in her suitcase.
The rap-rap-rap of the door-knocker woke us and I was left with the disappointing aura of having dreamt with no recollection of the dream. Niki’s head flew up and wisps of freed hair haloed above her wide, smooth, forehead. “Who is it?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” I didn’t have a clue as I opened the door.
“Ms. Parnell, right? The lady from the day care. Where’s my child?” Dolores’ eyes never lit on my face but searched past my shoulder straight into the apartment as she strode right in. “Tyrone said my mother and Benny went to Stanford and you have my baby. Why they didn’t call me, I don’t know. I had to track them down at the hospital to find out where you lived. Come here now, Niki.”
“Where’s my prize?” She swung around and her two feet dangled a good twelve inches from the floor.
“What are you wearing, Girl?” Is that from the dress-up at school? You’d better give it back to your teacher.”
“It’s my dress. My teacher made it for me.”
“Well, get it off. It doesn’t fit you.” Dolores rummaged through the suitcase. “Look, this is okay for now.” She held up a pair of blue jeans and red shirt. Let Mama put these on.”
Dolores turned to the door where I was still standing, looked straight at me for the first time ever, and asked, “What do I owe you for your services?”
“Nothing. I was doing this as a favor for your mother.”
“Come on now. You’re in the childcare business. How many hours has Niki been here? What do you charge an hour?”
“No, really. You don’t have to pay me. I did it for fun. We had fun. Right, Niki? We were going to make cookies after her nap.”
Niki packed her folded blanket on top of the clothes still in the suitcase. Her mother pulled off the dress and the sweater, while Niki held her arms up or down as directed. She finally stepped into her little jeans.
“Mama, what do you have for me?”
Dolores knelt in front of Niki, pulled the barrette off the top braid. “Your hair. Mama’s got to fix it. We’re going to see Mr. Ted in the city.” She unraveled the clump, parted hair with the end of a rat-tail comb. Then she spread her palms with lotion from her purse and rubbed the lock between her palms as if she was starting a fire. Niki sat still as stone as her mother combed and braided. She was somewhere else now, already gone, picturing her latest prize or maybe she was back at her grandmother’s. And like Cinderella at the midnight chime, I turned back to who I was, The Day Care Lady.
With Niki changed and groomed, any gratitude was expressed by Dolores’ curt one-word “Thanks.” And then they left. But the dress stayed behind, rumpled on the sofa like an empty pillow case waiting to be filled. There was a light smear of peanut butter on the rickrack I’d sewed above the gathered seam. I snatched it up and dashed out the door. “Wait!” I called. I held the dress above my head, waved it back and forth like a plaid flag, but they were already gone.