You stand in my kitchen and pull at my sleeves and dig at my pockets. “I’m hungry,” you cry.
I give you toast and jam but that’s not what you mean. You want me to be your mother.
Me? I have two children and a head that wants out of this kitchen life, this pointless cycle of egg-streaked dishes and armies of hungry ants. I’m tired of all the planning so we can pay our rent — cheese only on weekends, rice, potatoes, and beans every day, eating sandwiches and playing cards by candlelight some nights to cut down on the electric bill.
What do I want of you, Mario? Your dark eyes pleading. The distant eyes of a poet or a future murderer. You’re doomed. You think I don’t know that? And you know too. Not in words. But there is a dark certainty about you. Already you know you’re different. Set apart from my sons, your Gringo friends. Who are you to me? Someone else’s child. A shadow in my doorway.
At night you crawl through my dreams. Your beautiful face all distorted, your eyes squeezed shut, your mouth open. Your over-large body huffing with the fury that rides you and pushes you to shout and shove.
“Kris-ta. Kris-ta,” you call through my dreams. “I’m hungry. Give me something to eat.”
I wake from these dreams and look around my bedroom with its peeling wallpaper. Sometimes I listen to my husband Jake breathe. Sometimes Jake is away at his second job. Nights he’s a janitor. He likes to be out of our house, mopping shiny school floors, cleaning faucets that don’t leak. It’s quiet there. No wife following him around and telling him he doesn’t help her enough.
Some awful nights your real cries wake me. I fly from my bed and pull on my tired coat. I run in mismatched shoes down our dirt alley to your babysitter’s sad, pink, frame shack. You’re sobbing and I pick you up.
Your babysitter, Maria a 55-year-old woman dressed in too tight clothes, is lost in her music. Sometimes your mother is at the shack. Drunk, dressed in white, weeping, and yelling at her boyfriend. She doesn’t see that I’ve carried you away. Away to my shabby living room and worn couch, which means comfort to you.
Mario, how can I give what was not given me? Dignity. Love. I tell you, “You must shape these things, Mario. You can do it.”
What a fraud I am.
Dawn comes. Over your house. Over mine.
“Shall I tell you a story, Mario?”
“Oh yes, Kris-ta. I like stories.”
“Once upon a time there was a little girl.”
“Is this real?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know. Her father was in jail. She thought if only she could go to school . . . ”
“Kris-ta, I’m hungry. I want tortillas.”
“Mario, I only have bread.”
Through the long spring and even longer summer you cry. Your little brother, a small tornado, unaware of his own destruction, tracks through my house. He rolls his sad comic eyes and claps his jammy hands while I yell at you to take him home. Home.
You’re a good brother, Mario, and you take him to the shack where your babysitter plays her music, wraps her hair in lavender rollers and flirts with the men she overcharges to live in her squalid garage.
When you go to the shack you hold your hands to your ears. I worry that the music is deafening you. I yell to the babysitter and then cover my ears to explain that the music is too loud. She pretends she doesn’t understand my Spanglish or my pantomime. Maybe deafness would be a blessing for you. You comprehend the mean things the neighborhood kids say to you in English all too well.
When the summer winds shift and the Santa Anas blow in, I sit in the still, dark night and remember that school is coming.
The next time I spot your mother, Alma, in the alley, I call to her.
“Mario needs to go to school.”
“Oh Krista, I was just thinking the same thing.”
You stand by your mother and hang onto her. Because she works as a live-in cleaning lady it isn’t often that you get to see her. For once, you’re smiling and proud. Your mother is pretty and looking crisp all in white.
“School starts soon. He needs his birth certificate to register.”
Alma grins and coughs. She is happy because she thinks I’m concerned. I am concerned. But if you are in school, you won’t be banging on my front door. I will have long quiet hours without you. Quiet hours when I can read and leave the walls of poverty behind.
I curl my toes inside my shoes. “Mario is seven. Already a year behind.”
Shame moves across her face. The shuffling shame face of the poor. I know how it feels to wear that look.
“Some seven-year-olds are already reading,” I say. I think, quiet. Quiet. Sitting all morning alone.
Alma coughs and wheezes. “I get so nervous,” she says. “Sometimes my asthma comes.”
Asthma, a child’s disease. “I used to have asthma,” I say. I out grew it.
Wheezing, Alma justifies herself. “Last year, you remember, Krista, my car worked. I had two jobs. I could pay rent. Mario, his little brother, Jessie, and I all lived together in the yellow house.”
I remember. Summer nights the three of them sat on their own front steps and ate tomatoes from their garden.
She shades her eyes and looks up the alley past the pink shack toward the butter-colored stucco house and the remnants of the neat vegetable garden she planted two springs ago. Now the garden is overrun with cattails.
She wheezes more. “After the accident my car was no good. I couldn’t drive to the Sanders’s. No busses to their big house in the canyon. I lost that job. Now, I work for the Goldmans full time. The babysitter doesn’t charge much to have the boys with her.” She takes a deep breath. “I’m saving up.”
She opens her purse brings out her worn checkbook. The pages are filled with scribbles of small and frantic calculations. She hands over the book and looks pleadingly at me. It’s as if she’s saying believe in the savings, believe in the yellow house.
“Kris-ta,” you say. “My mom is going to get a car and we’re going to get a new house, just for us.”
Before I turn down the alley and stoop to admire the wild pink and lavender flowers that are, in spite of the heat and dust, still in bloom, I pat your mother on the shoulder.
A few days later, she brings me your soiled birth certificate.
The first day of school, you, my son Roy, and our neighbor, Cherie, walk down the corridor together. You are handsome, Mario, in the beautiful clothes your mother has managed to buy. Your hair is still wet from its recent brushing. I read the fear in your face.
The three first-grade classrooms face each other and the three teachers stand outside their doors. There are two young women with warm, kind faces and an older blue-haired woman who is dead around the eyes.
Instantly, I know your fate.
“Miss Knavely, Mario’s very special,” I say. “He doesn’t get much attention and he’s already a year behind.”
Miss Knavely nods and smiles. The smile of the indifferent. And you, innocent and brave in your new clothes, march in. The room swallows you.
A few afternoons later the school nurse calls and says you’ve fainted on the playground. When I come to pick you up you tell me your teacher didn’t notice you sat frozen in your chair all morning, you were too scared to eat lunch.
A few nights before Halloween there is a fight in the alley. Your mother is drunk and screaming at your babysitter. The men who live in the garage are joining in. I hear you cry and I come to collect you.
Your mother looks very pretty in a long, white dress. Her earrings swing as she shouts. She wears expensive shoes that she had once told me were too tight for Mrs. Goldman.
I shiver under my coat. I’m barefoot and the alley rocks dig into the soles of my feet. I think Alma can dress up. Men pay attention to her. I have a man who when he is home is so tired from work he sleeps through everything.
You’re sniffling, squeezing back tears. You’ve grown too heavy for me to pick up. I take you by the hand and pull. It’s been raining and we weave around the puddles.
You’ve slept in your school clothes and you’re still wearing your good shoes. You sit on my couch.
“Kris-ta, I’m hungry. What have you got to eat?”
“I bought something especially for you.” Once I watched Alma heat a tortilla on the electric rings of the stove. I hand you a warm tortilla that has light brown circles. I wrap you in a blanket. You sleep. I sit in the torn, faded chair and think.
The social worker I reach while you are in school suggests that I call the police. I know something of police. I tell her I want help for your mother. Counseling. Money. The social worker doesn’t understand. She hasn’t lived in a pink frame shack. She hasn’t lived behind tired eyes. She says she’ll investigate.
The afternoon and evening of our family’s special night before Halloween dinner your babysitter doesn’t come home. You and your little brother sit at our table. The paper pumpkin my younger son has made and named Indiana Jones is our grinning centerpiece. Indiana is the only one who is smiling.
I’ve made tacos and put bright pink day lilies our neighbor gave us in a vase. You say you’re afraid of the lilies because they smell funny. Your little brother chews and hums to himself. My husband drinks too much. You and Roy fight.
Earlier I called the Goldmans to let your mother know that you’re without a sitter. Now, just as we’re about to begin our pumpkin pie she appears at the door. Through the glass I see that she is dressed up and looking very pretty.
I open the door and lead her to the far end of the living room away from everyone. Standing next to her, I feel tired. I’ve been cooking and taking care of my children and her children all day.
“You were drunk,” I whisper.
“When?” she asks. Innocent.
“The night before last in the alley.”
“I wasn’t drunk.”
My father used to deny his drinking. I begin again. “You were drunk. You were having a fight with your babysitter.”
She starts to wheeze.
“Mario got upset and I brought him here.”
“I wasn’t drunk.” Her wheezing has become a chorus.
I’m shouting now and you stand up and cover your ears.
My husband, who has been following this circular argument, comes up to us and says to your mother, “You must have been drunk. Why would Krista make it up?”
Your mother looks at him. Caught. “I don’t know. I get so nervous. It’s hard to remember.”
My husband says, “There should be a babysitter here when Mario comes home from school. Otherwise, you should pay Krista.”
He is sticking up for me, but he is also reminding me that I’m not carrying my financial weight.
“I know,” Alma is saying. “The babysitter is no good. But who else here would let the kids live with them? Their grandmother is in Mexico.”
In her voice I hear what I’ve been waiting for — acknowledgement. I fight tears. Alma’s wheezing and my sniffling take over the room. Looking at her I think that we’re both mothers.
“Tomorrow night is Halloween,” I say at last. “I have an old sheet you can cut up and make Mario a costume.”
“No. He likes what he sees in the store.” She says this with pride and smiles at you.
Then, she digs through her purse and takes out the familiar wallet. She hands me eight dollars. “I have to get back to the Goldmans’. You think you could get him and his brother something?”
You can’t quite believe that the fight is over and peace has been restored. The dollars fill my palm. Maybe she is the better mother, the one with more grit. She crossed the border, learned a new language, and gets paid for cleaning other people’s houses so she can give you a better life. She isn’t filled with resentment. She is glad for what she can do for you.
Christmas is coming. The hot California sun beats down. Poinsettias. Chrysanthemums. Oranges ripening in the neighbor’s yard. You hang on the car door.
“Where you going, Kris-ta?”
“Shopping for what?”
“Can I come?”
“Not this time.”
The tree is too tall. My husband is asleep. The children watch while I cut off the tree’s top. There are my sons, Cherie, and the two older girls from down the street. The girls are busy, helpful. They string yarn through popcorn. My boys dance around. They are waiting for lights and cookies.
You peek in the window. Your brother stands behind you. Your eyes are hungry. Your mouth is open so wide, as if you want to swallow the tree whole.
“You can’t come in,” the others shout as you open the door.
“Mario and Cherie always fight,” one of the older girls says.
Already I can envision you and Cherie on the floor while tree and glass crash against your ears.
“We’ll have a truce for Christmas,” I say and lead you in.
“Kris-ta, what are you doing?”
“Decorating the tree.”
“I’ve never seen a tree like this before.”
I show you how to drape Christmas lights around the branches. You do it very well. Better even than the older girls.
I pour eggnog. Cherie passes the drinks around. We play Christmas music, and turn on the lights. The glow of red and yellow and green bulbs makes the shabby room look friendly and warm.
I watch you watching. See you see the warm circle, the Christmas. See you turn dark and inward.
In a moment you and Cherie are on the floor.
The social worker drives down our alley and turns at my street. She takes in the overgrown cattails that I have little time to mow. She sees my pathetic potted plants, my dirty jeans. I’ve left a bad impression. And it’s not good for you, Mario. Not good for me.
How do I know who she is? I can tell by her tightly buttoned blouse and her air of visiting official. She’s a little afraid of the natives, yet anxious and willing to do her duty.
While the social worker is here, you’re in school. For once your babysitter’s music is low. The men who live in the garage are at work. And some of the wildflowers that grow in our alley are beginning to bloom. What can she possibly see of your life, or of mine, on this early spring day?
Your mother is trying harder. On Saturdays I stand close to her so I can smell her breath. Her eyes are bright. She is alert and sober. She walks you and your brother and my sons to the park and to McDonald’s for hamburgers. She’s proud of your progress in school. She doesn’t understand what you know only too well — that you’re a year behind. She only sees what I’m beginning to see. The pride you’re beginning to have. And the drawings.
The drawings, Mario, are beautiful. There’s one of you and your mother and my kids at the park. There’s one of me sitting at my table and reading. And there’s one of all of us by a giant Christmas tree with lights.
I take you to the store and buy you the set of little people you’ve been wanting. I ask why you behave so well in the store while my two sons run around like wild creatures. You say, “Because my mom calls me a man sometimes.”
On those quiet Saturdays, when your mother and you and my sons are at the park, the first quiet Saturdays I’ve had since my children were born, I sit and begin to think about my life. I think about the wildflowers that grow in the dry, dusty alley and I think about how my mind, though tired, still works. And I think girls shouldn’t be mothers until they know who they are. How can children raise children? If I knew who I was, Mario, would I still be so mad at you?
One spring morning before school you stand with a new boy by my car door. “Kris-ta, this is my brother, Manual. He’s five. They didn’t have enough to eat in Juarez so my grandmother sent him here.”
You’re protective. Hopeful that I’ll like him.
“Hi Manual,” I say.
He smiles shyly. I see instantly that he doesn’t have your misery. There’s a kindly light in his eyes and a peace about him. Somehow he has been spared. Somehow things were better for him in Juarez than they ever were for you here. Food isn’t the worst hunger.
We all pile in the car and I drive the few short blocks to the school.
You show Manual the playground. You introduce him to the friends you’ve managed to make. Manual doesn’t speak English and you proudly interpret. I pause outside the schoolyard. I’m pleased to watch you.
With that image of you smiling in the playground still in my mind, I go to the junior college and fill out papers for school. My hand shakes. I’m afraid I’m going to throw up. A Knavely-like lady is quick to show me I’ve printed my home address on the wrong line. I could leave this place and not come back again.
Instead, I walk down the corridor and think, maybe, maybe, maybe. It hurts to think maybe. It’s frightening to think maybe. Hope, when you’ve lived all your life at the edge of an alley, isn’t a happy thing.
Your mother comes to the school’s open house. A gentle spring night. At my suggestion the principal transferred you out of Miss Knavely’s clutches. Young Miss Lynn has a vase of poppies in her room.
Together your mother and I look at your drawings, your printing, your math. She touches me on the shoulder, “Krista, Mario’s done so good.”
You smile with your whole face. Your eyes are not as distant as they once were.
One early summer morning you and Manual and your little brother and my boys play kickball on our newly cut lawn. There’s talk of taking off shirts and playing in the sprinkler that I just bought.
From the window, I see Mrs. Goldman, your mother’s employer, walk up our alley and round the corner. She stands at the edge of your game and watches you kick the ball. She rubs her bare arms as if she’s cold on this hot morning. She is fighting tears. She turns on the spiky heels of her sandals. She marches up my front path. She knocks on the door and before I even open it, she says, “Alma’s dead. You have to tell them what happened. I can’t do it.”
I look at you, Mario, already filled with more grief and fury than any seven-year-old should have to carry. I sit at the table and think of a woman in white smiling in her child’s classroom. I wonder how I’m going to say what I must say.
“How did it happen?” I ask at last.
“Asthma,” Mrs. Goldman says. “She used to cough all night. She just couldn’t breathe. She wheezed and choked to death.”
Mrs. Goldman leaves.
In the kitchen, hunched next to the stove, where no one can see me, I cry for your mother. I think of her girlhood in Juarez; one of 12 and not enough food. I see the scribbled check book. Most of all I remember her face, how happy it was when she shaded her eyes and looked to where the three of you used to live in the yellow house.
You stand in the doorway. “Krist-a, I’m hungry. Kris-ta, how come you’re crying?”
I hug you. Alma must have shampooed your hair yesterday. Your hair smells like strawberries. I was just a little older than you when I overheard one nurse telling another that the patient in room 303, my mother, had died. My throat got dry, my knees bumped together.
I pour water for you. The glass has yellow flowers painted on it. “Your mother died,” I say.
“Why?” you ask.
“She had an asthma attack.”
“Was it bad?”
“Is she going to take me to the park?”
“Your mother loved you very much and she did everything she could to make your life better.”
Under your thin shirt, your shoulders shake. “Is she coming back?”
“I’m so sorry.”
You sip water, lean into me. Your first sob is soft. I bend and kiss your strawberry-scented hair.
I make nachos for all of you for lunch. Mrs. Goldman comes by to give me money to take you out for dinner. You say the restaurant is too dark and you’re not hungry anyway. My sons make a fort out of an old table and a blanket. You sleep outside, curled in my old sleeping bag all night.
It takes another two days for your grandmother to come. She is weary. She is sad. She gathers you and your brothers into her frail arms and billowy skirt.
It is summer now, Mario. The sun has baked the alley mud into pretty patterns. The wildflowers still bloom. In the day I’m going to school. I’m learning Spanish. I’m learning that there’s a world beyond a kitchen, beyond an alley. My last letter to you in Juarez came back. Mrs. Goldman says you and your brothers and grandmother must have moved. At night, I haunt the alley like a deserted lover. I stare at the shack and at the yellow house. At night I cry at the moon.