They sat at the edge of the sprinkler pool, the two of them, a boy who spoke no Spanish and his grandmother just in from Mexico. He reached for his shoes, Daniel. He reached down to take off his shoes and immediately his grandmother moved to help. She untied the left, then the right, then paired them up and placed them between her and her grandson. She patted them as if they were alive.|
Daniel looked at her arms. She wore a flannel, dark, long-sleeve shirt. She'd worn long-sleeves for the past week, ever since she'd arrived in the States. It was mid-August in Chicago, hot, humid. Still, Daniel thought, she was from Mexico, Chicago summers were just too cold for her.
He looked up and noticed his grandmother was staring at his feet. He was wearing dirty socks. His grandmother sighed. She looked up across the park, focusing her beady eyes on something far away. She looked back to him. "Pues," she said. "Andale." She clapped her hands. "Andale, andale." She reached down, grabbed the toe of his left sock and yanked it off. Then she went for the right. She held the socks up in front of her. For a moment Daniel thought she might bring them to her nose for a smell. But she only sighed again then flapped them out. She folded the socks neatly, dirtiest sides in, then tucked them into his shoes. She looked back to him. "Pues, que tienes?" she asked. Her voice was squeaky, witchy, like there was a cackle in there somewhere, waiting to come out.
"Nada," Daniel answered. But the word came out wrong, the "d" sharp and heavy, the way the word sounded in English. He got to his feet and walked slowly towards the sprinkler. Na-tha he told himself. Na-tha.
The trip to pick up his grandmother had only been slightly eventful. It could've been worse. He and his mother had made the long trip to the airport in their silver, 1978, Ford Granada, the one with the thermostat problem. Daniel didn't understand what the thermostat was and he doubted that his mother did, yet every time the car started smoking and wheezing and eventually stalled, his mother mumbled "fucking thermostat" as if she knew exactly why it had stopped the car from moving.
His grandmother's flight was to arrive at 1:25 am. That night the air was cool and damp, the type of heavy night that forecasted the end of summer, the coming school year. It was the type of weather that gave Daniel his aches, or rumas, as his mother called them: the "Mexican pains."
"Good thing it's cool out tonight," his mother said as they pulled onto the expressway. "Fucking thermostat might actually work." Daniel moaned. Above them long rows of streetlamps stretched off into the distance. Shadows from each light pole flickered through the car's interior, strobing what little light there was. Down below, to either side of the expressway, the lamps at street level held wide, orange halos of humidity.
They approached Eighteenth Street, Providence of God church. Just around the corner lived his great-uncle Max, his great-uncle whom he hadn't seen in two years, his great-uncle who'd raised his mother when she first moved to Chicago. When Daniel was younger, his cousins, Max's daughters, had baby-sat him. They were more like aunts back then, more like sisters to his mother, the way she had lived with them. They used to take him on long walks of the neighborhood and he remembered how the expressway sounded from underneath, the high whine of tires, the low drone of truck engines, the shudder of engine breaks. Where he and his mother lived now was in the same neighborhood, just farther away from the expressway. Still, on clear nights, the sound of travel could be heard through Daniel's window and it helped him get to sleep.
They passed the Sears Tower, the city skyline. He looked out to the Morton Salt factory, its blue, corrugated-roof lit up bright, M-O-R-T-O-N'S spelled out in large, white, block letters. A wave of pain shot through his knees. He flinched.
"What, you got your rumas again?" his mother asked. At the steering wheel, between two fingers, his mother held a Newport 100. The embers glowed a bright red, pulsing with the air rushing in through her open window.
"Maybe it's time to take you back to the doctor," she said.
"I don't need to go the doctor," Daniel replied. "It'll go away." He reached down and began massaging his knees.
"It's up to you," his mother said. "I'd go though." She brought the cigarette to her mouth.
When Daniel was a young boy his mother had taken him to four separate doctors, pediatricians. Finally she had taken him to a fifth, a geriatrician, looking for some answers on the arthritic-like pains Daniel was experiencing in his joints. "Just growing pains," they all said. "He'll outgrow them." They all said this with a smile. They all patted him on the head and called him "sport."
Daniel had yet to outgrow his growing pains. He was now ten-years-old. Whenever the weather changed, whenever the air was thick and wet, Daniel felt his joints swell and stiffen. When he was younger the ache was so bad he had to soak in steaming hot baths for hours at a time. He often wasn't able to sleep and instead would sit and cry until his mother came into his room with the Bengay. Now, in his older age, Daniel had come to accept the pains like one does an annoying relative: just put up with them, they'll eventually go away. In his sock drawer he kept his own tubes of Bengay, two of them, just in case one ran out.
Cool air from his mother's open window swirled around Daniel and his pains. The car had no radio and instead his mother sang Smokey Robinson tunes one after another, Baby That's Back At 'Cha, The Love I saw In You Was Just A Mirage. She hummed the words, stopping only for a Newport inhale, or when she suddenly seemed deep in thought.
"Mom, can't you close your window?" Daniel asked. His mother was quiet for the moment, driving, looking straight ahead. Daniel could see the distance his mother's gaze often assumed, like on days-off when she parked herself in front of the tv and watched "The Price is Right" or Friday nights when she watched "Dallas." Daniel hated that look of his mother's. He thought she looked dumb at those times, helpless.
"Mom," he said again.
"What, baby?" his mother asked. She reached across her body and tapped her cigarette on the top edge of her window.
"Your window," Daniel said. "Can't you close it?"
"Oh. Sorry," she said. She took one last inhale then made a motion to throw the cigarette out. Just before releasing it she stopped and brought it back for a quick, final tug. Then she tossed the butt out the window. In the light of the expressway Daniel caught sight of the faded, green tattoo on the web of his mother's right hand. It was small, a six-pointed star with a "T" in the center. The tattoo had been there since before Daniel was born; he'd grown up with it, but it never failed to catch his eye. When he'd asked about it in the past the only answer he got was that it was a club his mother used to belong to. "We did stupid things," his mother said. Daniel knew the truth, that his mother had actually been in a street gang. The Tokers didn't even exist anymore as far as Daniel knew. But some of their graffiti, old and faded, was still scrawled on the factories and warehouses back in their neighborhood. The fact that his mother's gang no longer existed made Daniel wonder how old his mother really was. She was twenty-eight, Daniel knew. But age wasn't what he thought about when he considered her "being old." Instead Daniel felt like his mother had been someone else entirely before he was ever born. Someone he wished he knew more about.
His mother exhaled as she rolled up her window. Daniel coughed and waved a hand in front of his face. His mother stared at the road and began humming.
The pains continued. Gradually, with his massaging, the ache transferred from his knees to his hands and he began kneading his palms. This was how the process usually went. On a bad night he'd go through a massage of nearly every joint in his body, the pain switching location constantly as if his rubbing actually chased the pain away, only to have it settle in the next set of joints. Alongside him his mother fell silent again. Daniel began concentrating on the car, listening for the pangs that announced the engine was about to smoke and stall.
He was happy to be going to the airport. The last time he'd been there was two years earlier, when he and his mother had gone to pick up his mother's childhood friend, Birdy. Birdy and his mother had grown up as neighbors. Birdy had worked for Bell Telephone and was transferred to Sacramento, California. Sacramento. The word had always sounded warm and tropical to Daniel. His mother had had the opportunity to go. At least according to Birdy. "Sunny California," Birdy said that first night of her visit. "You guys could be living there right this very second, blue skies, valley air." Daniel was sitting across from Birdy. He had been listening to her tell stories about his mother's past. "Could've taken you Maggie." That's what Birdy called his mother, that's what most people called her, friends she would see on the street, friends from a long time ago. Magdalena was her real name. "Could be working right next to me," Birdy continued. "Partying like the old days. But nope, never, can't do the easy thing, right?" Birdy reached for her rum and Coke. At the table his mother rattled the ice in her glass. "I offered," Birdy said to Daniel. She leaned over the table and whispered, "I think there was a man involved." Birdy's breath was sharp with liquor. Daniel smiled. He knew she was talking about his father. Birdy leaned back again. Daniel wanted to hear more. "But, hey," Birdy continued. "Don't want no help, don't get no help, right Maggie." Birdy sighed and shook her head. She took a sip of her dark drink.
"I'm doing fine right here," Daniel's mother said. She wasn't mad, Daniel could tell from her voice, but he could tell also that she was about to get mad, like this was a warning shot, the kind she gave him about dirty socks, a messy bedroom. "Clean that room or your ass is grass," she often said.
"Uh, yeah, right," Birdy responded. "I like working for asshole lawyers too, my favorite. File this, copy this, get me coffee. Fuck that," she said. She looked to Daniel as if giving him the opportunity to add to list, Yeah, mom and I love our house too, I mean apartment. Especially how the toilet leaks, those roaches, great. Daniel didn't say a word. Birdy took another sip of her drink.
"You think I need to hear from you how my life is going?" Daniel's mother asked. Her voice started to rise. "I got enough people think they know what's good for me." Daniel wondered who his mother could be talking about. "Fuck California," his mother said sharply. "You think I give shit about California..." Daniel rolled his eyes.
"Maggie, calm down. I was just saying, relax," Birdy said.
"Who do I need to relax for?" his mother asked. "You? You come into my house and tell me how to live. Fuck you. Fuck California."
Daniel put his chin down on his arms.
"Maggie, calmate. I was just talking, girl. It's my opinion. Don't do anything, do whatever you want. I don't care."
"I know I can do what I want. I don't need you to tell me what I can do. Fuck you, fuck all of you think I need guidance. Fuck you." Daniel watched as his mother fumed. Her forehead was wrinkled. She looked ready to smack somebody's head off.
After a moment Birdy leaned into Daniel. "You know, she used to be worse," Birdy said. "You think she's bad now." She raised her eyebrows.
There was a long silence. Eventually Daniel got up and went to his bedroom. Later that night he awoke to music. The Agony and Ecstasy. He could hear his mother singing. Birdy too. He knew his mother was happy. He fell back to sleep.
His mother turned off the expressway. A few more minutes and they were at the airport entrance. A sign over the right-hand lane said what seemed like fifty different things:
Beneath each number, in even smaller print, was a list of the airlines each terminal serviced. Over the left lane another sign read: Parking, Overnight Parking,...Daniel couldn't read the rest. His mother pulled into the left lane and followed it around a curve. "Did you see Mex-a-cana up there," his mother asked.
United Parcel Service
1, 2, 3, 4
1, 2, 3, 4
"No," Daniel replied.
His mother started to ask another question, started to say something, but Daniel caught sight of a large, bright billboard and stopped paying attention. AIR JAMAICA the sign read. In the background were palm trees, sky blue water, a pink flamingo. Daniel thought the billboard was so huge passengers taking off could read it. Then Daniel saw another billboard, this one to the left, across the road. UNITED AIRLINES. In the corner a British flag blew in a breeze. Big Ben stood in the background, bold and bright-Daniel had read about Big Ben once in school. Daniel turned his head to follow the sign. As his mother drove past, the sign's backside showed up pitch-black like missed opportunity. He wondered if people came to the airport with nowhere to go. He wondered if there were some people so rich they could just look at a billboard and say, "Ah, England, that's where I'll go, see Big Ben."
"Mom," he said. "Would you ever go to England?"
"Sure" she said. "You going to take me?"
"Yes," Daniel said.
"Fine," she answered. "I'll pack when we get home." She turned into the parking garage.
They found an empty slot after three floors of searching. Daniel stepped out of the car. Immediately he recognized the smell of airplane exhaust. He took a deep breath. Back home the slightest whiff of truck or car exhaust started him retching, prompted an instantaneous headache. But here, airplane exhaust, he didn't mind. It meant travel. And there was noise. Even at this hour, 1:15 am, people were walking. There was luggage. There was traffic. Not delivery vans grinding through gears, not sixteen ice cream trucks playing Pop Goes the Weasel over and over, but a different kind of traffic, a quiet traffic, things moving, flowing, like air pressure releasing when a bus came to a stop.
The terminal's automatic doors slid open. Daniel's mother walked fast. She was oblivious. Daniel, on the other hand, walked slow, pimped even, strutted, like the gangbangers did out front of his apartment building. At one point his mother stopped and held out her hand for him. She snapped twice rapidly, her bright red fingernails reflecting the sharp, fluorescent light of the airport. Daniel caught sight of his mother's tattoo. He took her hand and followed her for a quick few steps. Then he let go and began strutting again.
His mother walked to one of the monitors hanging high in metal cabinet along the benches.
She was saying it wrong. Daniel knew. Me-he-cana, it should've been pronounced. Daniel said the word over to himself.
"Mom, how come we don't speak Spanish at home?"
His mother sighed. "I don't know Daniel. We're late, if your grandmother has to wait five fucking minutes I'll hear about it for the next two months."
They walked quickly through the terminal. His mother's short heals snapped hard against the tiled floor.
In the week before his grandmother's arrival, Daniel had heard more about his grandmother than ever before. In the past she had always been an unmentioned subject. He knew he had a grandmother; he'd seen pictures. But she was never talked about. The few times his grandmother had ever called, long-distance, Daniel didn't know until after his mother had hung-up. "That was your grandmother," his mother would say, exasperated. Then she would take seat on the couch and stare at the television set, that distant look on her face, never a word about the actual conversation.
But in the last week there'd been a grandmother story for everyday. "She'll say anything to get what she wants," one story went. "She won't even say she's hungry. Instead she says, 'You look hungry.' What is that? Don't trust her. I don't. Why do you think I left?" Daniel had heard that one before. How his mother, when she was eleven, had left Mexico to come live with her uncle in Chicago. He had heard this same story from his cousins. How his mother had left his "crazy" grandmother. How his mother had taken a bus alone all the way from Monterrey, Mexico. During that conversation his cousins had made small, biting comments, "Why do you think his mother's so crazy?" "Like mother like daughter." When Daniel asked his mother about what his cousins said his mother replied, "Yeah well, your cousins are nuts too. Don't forget I left them also." Daniel had heard this story before as well. How his mother's pregnancy had angered her great-uncle. How the family had stopped talking to her for having become pregnant out of wedlock. Eventually Daniel brought up what his cousins had said and soon after his mother stopped dropping him off for babysitting. That was two years ago. Only recently he and his mother were driving to the laundromat when they saw his cousins and uncle stepping out of Providence of God church. "Duck," his mother said, "your cousins." And he and his mother sped by completely unnoticed.
Where they had been before, where Birdy had arrived, was actually upstairs. Daniel's grandmother though, Mexicana Airlines, seemed to arrive in the airport's basement. There were no windows in the terminal, just rows of orange padded seats, and more people it seemed to Daniel than he had seen in the entire airport. The room smelled of perfume and it all reminded Daniel of the supermarkets back in his neighborhood, the crying babies, the cowboy hats.
"Vuelo diez-cuarenta," his mother said to the attendant behind the counter. Daniel was startled. He was always startled when he heard his mother speak Spanish correctly. He knew she could speak the language, but she did it so rarely whenever Daniel heard her, how crisp and sharp she could sound, he was surprised.
The attendant replied something. She said it so fast Daniel couldn't understand.
"Whew, not here yet," his mother said.
Daniel's mother turned. He followed, listening to her heals, watching her part the sea of people the way she'd always been able to do.
She stopped at the end of a row of seats. All were taken.
"Por favor," a man in a cowboy hat said. He rose from his chair at the end of the row. "Please, sit down here."
"Gracias," Daniel's mother said. She walked to the chair and led Daniel into it. She put her purse down in his lap. The man remained standing next to Daniel's mother. Daniel waited for the man to start speaking. In the clinics at home this always happened. Men offered his mother seats and they wanted conversation in return. Daniel knew they probably wanted more, a phone number, a date. His mother flipped her dark hair over her shoulder in the direction of the man next to her.
There was definitely something more disorganized about Mexicana. Every few minutes the attendant behind the counter made an announcement and each time some of the crowd moved to the left, and a new group filled in the open spaces. Along a glass wall people were standing, duffel bags hung from their shoulders. Suitcases lay on their sides on the floor, and on some of these children sat.
Another announcement and Daniel's mother reached out her hand. Daniel got to his feet. The man stepped aside and watched them leave. They walked down a long corridor. Before turning into a separate room Daniel took one last look behind him. The man was still staring. Daniel almost raised a hand to say goodbye.
The room was already packed. Daniel's mother got up on her toes and looked around. "There she is," his mother said. She led him though another maze of people. Daniel had never seen his grandmother in person. In her pictures she had looked nice enough, normal. Still, after all he'd heard, he expected to see an ugly, knurled, brute of woman. He was surprised when he finally saw her.
More than anything she was short. She had her head turned the opposite way but Daniel recognized her, her glasses, how the stems connected high up on her frames then dipped to become the earpieces. Of all the things Daniel had heard, nothing really prepared him for how tiny she was. She was barely taller than him, like it could've been her shoes giving her a boost. His mother said fifteen children had come from this woman. Daniel wondered how that was possible.
Her arms were long. She looked strong, compact, wide. The closer Daniel got the more he figured she could knock down a tree if she wanted. She looked nothing like his mother.
"Hola mamá," his mother said. "Comó estas?"
His grandmother jumped. "Ay, mija, me asustastes. Comó estas mi vida?" His mother leaned in and gave his grandmother a kiss. His grandmother returned the kiss then said something Daniel couldn't understand. He saw an angry look on his mother's face.
"Y tú?" his grandmother said to him. "Éres Daniel, verdad?"
"Sí," Daniel said. And she gave him a kiss and hugged him. He still couldn't believe how short she was. Daniel tried to hug her back but he felt like he couldn't get a grip. He felt like he was hugging a massive boulder, or a building. When his grandmother backed away he wasn't satisfied.
She rubbed the back of his head. "Tan flaquillo, te pareces a tú abuelito."
"Mí papá no era flaco, mamá," his mother said.
"Enflacó antes de morir. Pero tú ya no estavas."
Daniel had no idea what his mother and grandmother were saying to each other but he could tell there was an edge to it. His mother shook her head and without a word picked up his grandmother's suitcase and began walking away. His grandmother looked to Daniel as if she had something to say but all she did was pull him close. Together they walked in his mother's wake.
One week ago, this had all happened one week ago. Since that time they had visited his great-uncle exactly once. There was more tension in the air then ever before. Hardly anything was said during the visit. Voices were hushed. Daniel was the main topic of conversation. "Is he doing good in school?" "Summer break, huh?" "Make sure he drinks a lot, dehydration you know?"
During the visit his great-uncle said a total of two words to his sister, Daniel's grandmother: "hi" and "bye."
Daniel, his grandmother, and mother left after only an hour. When they got back to the car his grandmother and mother went back and forth like schoolgirls. Daniel couldn't understand everything they were saying but he knew they were talking about his great-uncle and cousins, and not in a positive way. His grandmother and mother laughed and waved their hands. Then they said things and laughed and waved their hands again. It was the only time all week that they seemed at all alike. It was the only time all week that they seemed the least bit happy with each other.
Between Daniel and his grandmother though things were different. In the past week there had been cold nights, damp nights, like the night of his grandmother's arrival. Daniel had experienced his rumas often, and while his mother had taken to leaving him to his own remedies, his grandmother went out of her way to make him more comfortable. She drew baths for him, something Daniel hadn't done for himself in years. His grandmother had also cut tube socks for him, cut the toes off of an old pair so that he could use them as warmers once he put his Bengay on. When he went to bed now, with his rumas, tube socks around his elbows and knees, he was in a world of warmth, heaven.
Daniel had also improved upon his Spanish. In the last week he had learned the right way to roll his "r's." His grandmother spoke to him in Spanish so he had to understand, and more than that, he had to respond. If he was unsure of a word, he used those he knew and got as close to the word as possible. Then his grandmother would say, "Ahh, cacahuete," or whatever she guessed the word was. Somehow, Daniel knew instantly if the word his grandmother quoted was the word he meant. If it was, Daniel would nod, say it over to himself, and commit it to memory.
Between his mother and grandmother though things were more tense. Aside from that brief moment after visiting his great-uncle, the two of them argued constantly. Sometimes his grandmother tired of arguing and dealt quietly with whatever his mother said. Sometimes it was the other way around and his mother put up with whatever his grandmother said. But most often neither could stand the other, and they would walk around the kitchen cooking or cleaning and at the same time arguing, his grandmother's voice screeching, his mother's voice sounding amazingly similar. When they got to fighting like that, even sitting in his room with the door closed didn't help, and Daniel would leave the apartment to walk the neighborhood, where it was quieter, where he was at least able to think.
Daniel wondered if he'd eventually get the same way. If he'd get to the point where being in the same room with his mother was almost physically painful. Already he felt himself wanting to say things, "Mom, can't you just shut up for a minute? What the hell is your problem?" It wasn't so much that he suddenly loved his grandmother and would take her side over anyone else's, it was just that he wanted things to go more smoothly, more smoothly than it seemed they ever could.
At the sprinkler pool Daniel could've made things easier by wearing clean socks. His mother would've said something if she'd seen the ones Daniel had on. Especially considering that there were probably clean ones in his dresser drawer. As it was, he knew as soon as he and grandmother returned home from the park, she would take the socks she had pulled off his feet and scrub them the way she did all the white clothes, in the kitchen sink, on the washboard she insisted on buying the first day she was in Chicago. She would use gallons of bleach, Daniel knew. She had used so much already there was a lingering stench of too-cleanliness hanging in the air of the apartment. A smell that hurt the nose, a smell that Daniel was convinced had fumigated all the cockroaches in their apartment building.
As he got up and walked through the wading pool to the sprinkler, Daniel thought about what it must be like in Mexico: if his grandmother had separated herself from her whole family the way his mother had separated herself from everyone here. He wondered about his uncles, his aunts, fifteen of them. He wondered at the cousins he had running around. He wanted to meet them, visit them, stay with them. He wondered if his grandmother even talked to them, or if all her children, like his mother, had distanced themselves entirely.
He soaked himself in the cool shower of water. He felt a cold tingle between his legs as the water flooded his jean shorts. He ran his fingers through his hair. He saw the kids around him, some older, dancing and running, some babies, wading near his grandmother. Through the rain of the sprinkler he looked to his grandmother. She had rolled up her long, flannel, sleeves, and for the first time
Daniel saw her forearms. She had tattoos, two or three of them on each arm. They were dull green, the same color green as the rusting chain-link fence that surrounded the wading pool. Even from his distance he could see how the ink had bled into her dark skin, how time had created large splotches on her arms from what was there before. His grandmother was looking off to the left. He knew she would roll down her sleeves as soon as he returned. He thought about his family and wondered how much else he didn't know.