by Yael Aldana
Just after I turned nine years old, I realized that adults followed a lot of stupid arbitrary rules just because. My regular bus driver taught me this lesson. I thought about this as I walked half a block to my house from the corner where he had just dropped me. An ocean-tinged breeze lifted the loose hairs around my face. On our small island of Barbados, you were never far from the ocean. I had just started to do my own hair. A lopsided bun was the best I could manage, and I couldn’t get my baby hairs to lay flat like Mum could. But I was grown up now and refused to let her touch my hair.
The bus drove right by my house, but the driver refused to drop me in my driveway when I asked him to.
“Your stop is on the corner, Miss,” he said and opened the door at the official bus stop fifty feet from my driveway. I got off and watched him drive past my house, make a U-turn at the hotel up the road, and start his journey back into town. I took the 3:30 bus and always had the same driver, a dark-skinned, thin, innocuous looking man. I had just reached my gate when the bus roared past on its way back to town. It was as tall as a double-decker and painted ocean blue and gold, our flag’s colors. I looked at both the driver and the bus scornfully as they went by. What was the harm in dropping me at my door? I knew he would have dropped my mother at the door if she asked. She had a power I didn’t yet have; no one was keen to listen to me.
I flounced through the garage door past my mother, who was standing at the sink, her back to me. She was scrubbing a roasting pan listening to the 4 o’clock news on Radiofusion, a flat blue box, nineteen inches across, mounted in the corner under the kitchen cabinets that delivered news and stories with a subscription.
“You should listen to dis news, Missy. They are talking about that Margaret Thatcher, the milk snatcher. She is condescending to visit our little island. Going to make you poor school children stand up in the sun all day to wave at her wussless ass.”
Her voice followed me as I walked into the living room. “And it’s Good Afternoon, Mum. We aren’t familiar around here.”
I walked into Granny’s room. She was tucked into her bed as usual, her pigeon gray eyes fixed out the window.
“Come here, Miss, and look at dis blackbird. He’s been hopping up and down in this tree—like his tail is on fire.”
I put my book bag down on the floor and leaned over her lap. I followed her gaze through the window, into the tree, onto the frantic black shape hopping to-and-fro.
“I think he has a nest in there,” Granny said. “A sparrow has been harassing him all morning. They have been fighting all day, entertaining me.”
I watched the hopping bird with Granny for a few moments.
“I have a present for you, Gran.”
“Dat sounds promising.”
I reached into the pocket of my navy school uniform and pulled out a small stack of crisp square bus tickets. Each was one and a half inches square, on thin paper, with large red embossed letters at the top and smaller black writing at the bottom. I handed the stack to Granny, who took them in her bony, age-spotted hands.
“Oh,” she said and rubbed the papers together between her dry fingers. “Aren’t dese nice.”
“Gran, can you feel dat the paper is different dan regular paper?”
She nodded. “It’s like rice paper,” she said.
“I doan know rice paper, Gran.”
“It’s from China or Japan. I forget which.”
“Look, Gran, my favorite part is the red lettering at the top. And the tickets stay so nice. They doan wrinkle. I keep them in my school books.”
Granny continued to turn them over in her hands. “Are they all for me?”
“Yes, I have my own lot. I get a new one every day on the bus. But you better hide them from Mum. You know her. She’ll throw them away if she finds them. They aren’t tidy.”
Granny laughed, “Miss, find me dat Black Beauty book from the bookcase.”
I scanned the light wood bookcase that spanned the wall beside Granny’s bed. For some reason, Mummy had a built-in bookcase installed in Granny’s room. We didn’t have a separate den in this new house like in Ventnor Gardens, and all our books ended up with Granny.
I scanned the titles.
“It’s a red book,” Granny offered.
I spotted it on the third shelf near the door. I pulled it out and handed it to her, and she slipped the tickets between the pages.
“I’ll just keep the book on my bedside table and tell your mother I’m reading it. I’ll look at the tickets when I want to think of you.”
As if drawn by the mention of her name, Mummy loomed in the door.
“You still bothering your grandmother? And you aren’t even changed out of your dirty school uniform?”
“Yes, Mum.” I picked up my bag and walked obediently towards the door.
“And when you are done, come and help me with dis dinner. Give your Granny a break.”
For dinner, we had my favorite—roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, and peas. I brought Granny her dinner on a special red and gold tray and then sat to have mine with Mum.
“I have good news for you,” Mummy said.
“Oh, yes?” I said, uninterested. What she thought was good news was not usually very interesting.
“You are going to spend the summer in New York with your sister, Helen.”
By her tone, I could tell she was excited, but I wasn’t. Helen was thirty, and I last saw her five years before at my other sister Masie’s wedding.
“How is dat good? I doan know Helen,” I said.
“You will love it. And de whole point of going is to spend time with Helen. So dat you get to know her,” Mummy said.
“But I will be away from you and Gran.”
“Doan be stupid. We will be here when you get back.”
“When will dis happen, Mum?”
“A few days after you start summer vacation.”
“Mum, dat’s just in a few weeks.”
Her eyes snapped on me. “You ungrateful thing. You know how many people would give their eye teeth to go to America?” She paused. “You better carry yourself out of my sight and don’t get me started.”
I slunk away and ran to Granny. No one wanted to get her started. I nestled in Granny’s arms, and she tried to comfort me. “You will have so much fun. You can go to the movies all the time. Dat sounds nice.”
“It’s not nice, Granny, and I’ll be away from you.”
Granny said, “Our love will keep us together, even far apart, Little One.”
I believed her. “Keep thinking of me, Granny. Don’t forget me when I’m not here.”
“I could never forget you, you silly thing.” She pulled me close.
“Why is Mum stressing me?”
Granny laughed, “It’s your Mum’s job to stress you. Dat’s what she does. You keep on–Yes, Mummy-ing her. Keep her sweet.”
“What are we going to do, child? Cry? You are alive and healthy. Stop your moping. You might meet Diana Ross.”
“What would I say to her?”
“Hello, Ms. Ross.”
Mummy stuck her head in the door. “You two are like two peas in a pod. Where there is one, there is the other one. Miss, come and stop confusing your grandmother.”
“No, I want her,” Granny said.
“Fine. I doan think I can fit a blade of grass between you two. Bring my plates back to the kitchen soon, please.”
As my school days passed and the America trip loomed, I remained in a black mood. I couldn’t even muster the energy to be angry that the bus driver wouldn’t drop me at my door. Mummy was delighted and cheerful as she packed my clothes in her big yellow suitcase.
She said, “Dese are your best clothes. We want you looking nice in America.”
The week before I left, I spent as much time with Granny as I could, so I could soak her in. “I’ll be back, Granny,” I said firmly.
“I know, Little One.”
The day I left, I hugged her for a long time, and I smelled her smell.
“Bye, Gran. Don’t forget me.”
“Never, Love.” She kissed my head.
I stayed silent in the car as Mummy drove, but I needed to talk to her about Granny. It felt like the scariest thing I had ever done. Gathering my courage, I imagined how the airline seats looked. I thought they would be like the back seat in a big car with an extended seat belt all the way across the passengers. I hoped I wouldn’t be in the middle. The airport was up the hill from our house. I could stand in my yard and see the planes taking off and landing. But there was no direct road up the hill, and we had to drive the long way around to get there. We drove through Oistins and past my Uncle Ralph’s house.
I took in a breath to steady myself.
“Mum,” I started. I paused, unsure.
“Mummy,” I started again. “‘Bout Granny, you have to be sure and go in and talk to her every day.”
As expected, she started fussing. “You think I dunno how to talk to my mother?”
“Mummy–” I interrupted her. “Dis is serious. I need you to listen. Granny needs someone to love her and listen to her and talk to her. I am the only body dat bothers with Granny.”
“You think I doan love my mother? Girl, you must be drunk.”
Normally with her arguing, I would have stopped talking, but I determined to have her listen. “Mummy, everybody knows you love Granny. Dis isn’t about you. Dis is about Granny. You need to listen.”
She was quiet.
“Remember to talk to Granny and tell her what is happening outside. She likes dat and tell her I love her and miss her every day.”
“Miss, I gonna let you tell me about dis ‘cause I know you love your Granny. But I am one minute from boxing your rude ass in de head.”
I smiled because I knew she listened.
Mummy checked me in at the counter and took me to the security area. Because I was traveling by myself to New York City, she handed me off to a waiting stewardess. Before I walked through the door, she held me close and kissed my head.
“I’m gonna miss you, you terrible own-way thing,” she said
“Why you holding me like dat? Somthin’ gonna happen to me?” I was scared; she never held me like that.
“Go along, you little fool. Nuttin’ is happening to you.”
The stewardess pinned silver wings on my shirt and a note to my clothes that said I was traveling alone. The seats on the plane were much different than I had imagined. They all had their own armrests and seat belts. They were upholstered in red, white, and blue with the American Airlines logo embroidered where you rested your head. I was in an aisle seat, so the stewardess could easily check on me. She gave me some gum to chew. She said it would help me if my ears hurt during take-off.
When the plane took off, it rumbled and shook. I gripped the seat rest, frightened. I munched the gum, popping my ears, as the stewardess told me to. I watched the landscape rush by through the window, the trees turning into a blur. When the plane took to the air, it felt as if it dropped into nothing. The other passengers clapped; I wondered if they did that every time.
A different stewardess brought me a meal in a black plastic container, steaming chicken in a sweetish glaze with rice and green beans. It smelled questionable. I tasted it and I decided I liked it, although it was different than anything Mum cooked, and I swore it smelled vaguely of ammonia.
When we landed, the first stewardess came to get me. She stayed with me and helped me get my bags from the baggage claim. When moved, my bags rattled suspiciously. Mum had wrapped bottles of liquor, sweet bread, and illegal cheese in my clothes. But in customs, Mum’s strategy of putting my underwear where she didn’t want the officers to look worked beautifully. They avoided the areas with offending liquor and cheese.
The customs officers pointed me to the exit doors, and I walked out of the terminal alone, pushing my baggage-laden cart. I looked at the thronging crowd behind the metal barriers searching for Helen’s face. There were so many faces pressed forward, eagerly looking for their people. I didn’t see anyone looking for me. I couldn’t quite remember how Helen looked. I recalled the basics from the last picture I saw of her as Masie’s bridesmaid, heavyset, a brown afro, and light brown eyes. Nervously, I scanned the crowd. Suppose I couldn’t find her? Then I would be alone in this big country.
I heard my name called “Missy.” I looked around, and there she was, standing next to a woman I didn’t know. Helen introduced me to her friend Sara. She was heavyset like Helen, also light-skinned but with a black afro. I sniffed the air. It was different, dubious, stale, heavy, and musty. There was no fresh, steady breeze like we had in Barbados.
We drove to their apartment building in Brooklyn, a huge, dowdy concrete behemoth. I didn’t know what to think; it was the biggest building I had ever seen. The outside was filthy, marked up by black and red graffiti, and the elevator and the hallways smelled of old pee. To me, the whole building was a horror. By contrast, their two-bedroom apartment was tidy but tiny. I was surprised that Sara’s eleven-year old-son, Adam, also lived there. No one told me about an eleven-year-old boy. I had a firm dislike of boys so I was annoyed he was there, but I knew better than to open my mouth. Helen and Sara shared a bedroom and Adam was in the other room.
It was seven p.m. when we arrived, and still light outside with no sign of the sun going down. I asked Sara how come the sun was still up.
“We have Daylight Savings Time.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Well,” Sara said. “Every six months our clocks move forward an hour or roll back an hour.”
I kept staring at her, not understanding.
“So, school children aren’t waiting for their morning school bus in the dark.” Sara continued.
I could feel myself frown. “I doan understand that. In Barbados, our time doesn’t change.” I said.
Sara smiled at me. “Never mind about understanding, Missy. But that’s why it’s still light at eight.”
I smiled back still not quite understanding. Helen took me to Adam’s room.
“Put your clothes away in here.” I was surprised that her tone was sharp and unfriendly.
I opened the top drawer of the dresser.
“Not it there. Don’t you know how to ask about something you don’t know?”
“In the closet?” I ventured.
“Yes, in the Goddamned closet. Mummy didn’t tell me you were an idiot.”
She turned and left. I placed my folded clothes on the floor of the closet, not sure of what to do.
From that first tense conversation, I stayed wary of Helen. She continued to be sharp and cold. Sara was nicer and spoke to me like a normal person. Helen was all coiled malice, like a dog that would attack you at any time. She was nasty, the kind you didn’t want to be around. She was different than Mummy. Mummy was sharpish, but she was soft underneath. Granny said that Mummy’s bark was bigger than her bite. I didn’t want to see Helen’s bite. In my mind, she became an ogre. I never stopped to think about what had happened to make her so angry.
That first night I slept in Adam’s room, in his bed near a window that looked over the street. I had trouble sleeping. I heard people laughing and carrying on, cars honking, and sirens blaring. I told Helen that I couldn’t sleep, and she called me stupid and ungrateful. If I were home, I would have put the hose on her. Mercifully, the next night they put me on the couch, far away from the windows, cocooned against the noise, and I slept much better.
The next day we called Mummy. Helen lied on me and told her I was complaining and miserable. She didn’t mention that the street was so noisy and I had trouble sleeping. I wanted to roll my eyes so badly, but I didn’t. I was aching to hear Mummy’s voice and took the phone.
“How are you, Child?”
“I’m good. How’s Granny?”
“She is fine.”
“Can I talk to her?”
“No, Miss, she is sleeping.”
“I want to talk to Granny.”
“I’m not waking her up for you. I’ll call back in a few days. How’s Helen?”
I made a noise like I was groaning.
“Lord, she’s a miserable child, I know.”
“You coulda told me dat.”
“She’s your sister,” Mummy said.
She wasn’t a sister like Masie. Masie and I yelled at each other, and she teased me, but I knew she loved me. Helen wasn’t like that. I made another unhappy noise.
“Well, make the best of it. She’s been through plenty to make her miserable. She should be better, but what can you do? Try to understand.”
I changed the subject. “Mummy, your voice sounds very sweet on the phone.” I knew her voice well, but it had an extra melodic quality through the phone.
She laughed like she was embarrassed. “Child, you are crazy. I miss you too, you terrible thing. The house is so quiet without your foolishness.”
The next day, Sara took me to a church around the corner called Holy Rosary. She said they had a summer camp that would be fun for me. But I thought that summer camp was stupid. It was like you were in school. They had you doing little crafts and playing sports. The adults were in control of you all the time; they didn’t leave you alone.
Adam went to the camp too; he was in a different group because he was older. That first day, I waited on the steps for him so we could walk back to the apartment together. On our way back, I asked him, “Dis is what you do all summer?”
“Yeah, what do you do?”
I looked at him, and I didn’t think I could explain to him how I went exploring in the swamp; how I would cajole Masie to take me to the beach; how I would chase the cows in the field across from our house; how I had picnics in the back garden among Mummy’s vegetables, and how I told Granny about everything.
“Something else,” I said finally.
My days settled into a routine of cutting up the paper like they wanted me to cut it, singing the songs they wanted me to sing, and playing the games they wanted me to play. I did my best. As Helen was happy to tell me, “that camp cost good money.”
Mummy finally called back and put Granny on the phone.
“Hello, Missy,” Granny said. Her voice sounded good and strong.
“Hi, Granny, you good?”
“Yes, I’m good.”
“Is Mummy sitting with you and talking to you?”
“Yes, she is.”
“Tell de truth, Granny. You always say everything is OK. Is she sitting with you every day?”
“Yes, Little One. She is as good as gold. How’s your sister?”
I groaned. She laughed.
“OK, child, your Granny loves you.”
“I have an idea, Gran.”
“I think you can make it to the back porch with your walker. We can have a picnic outside when I get back.”
“Oh, dat sounds nice. I’ll look forward to it.”
“OK, den, Granny. Remember, I love you, and I’m coming home soon.”
I held on to the thought of Granny as I trudged through my weeks in America. I hated all of it, and I couldn’t wait to go home.
On holidays there was no summer camp. Helen ordered I had to go outside on these days. Have you seen outside? I thought. Is that an outside? That grubby, dirty, dangerous mess. She was at work, but I went out with Adam. I didn’t want to leave the only good thing about America: TV. Gameshows would be on until noon. Then I could watch Soap Operas or reruns of old TV.
Adam always wanted to go out during The Price is Right, my favorite game show, which irritated me to no end. I didn’t want to go out, but when she came home, Helen asked Adam if I went out. I didn’t want him to lie. He wasn’t a good liar and would get into trouble, and then I would feel guilty.
When we went outside, he would leave the apartment door unlocked because we didn’t have a key to get back in. We would go down the stairs together and come out into what was supposed to be a courtyard, an open area with a patchwork of grass. It was early in the day, so there was hardly any trash in the yard. Some residents worked to keep this area free of trash. A group of women came down every evening with black trash bags and swept the area clean. Other residents seemed determined to throw their empty potato chips, popsicles, and candy wrappers in the yard as quickly as it was cleaned.
Adam would peel off to find the boys his age. I would wander around aimlessly and, after about an hour, I would go back up the apartment. I couldn’t go back before. I had once, and Adam had caught me. He came back to show his friends one of his albums, and I was sitting there on the couch watching The Price is Right.
“You can’t do this,” he told me. “I’ll get into trouble.”
That’s all he had to say. I was practiced at feeling guilty. Mummy taught me that lesson by being constantly out of her good graces.
After I had wandered around outside for a few days, I ran into some kids my age. It wasn’t the same kids all the time, but one girl, Maria, was always there. Sometimes we would play tag. Sometimes they would talk about movies or TV shows, most of which I had never heard of. They would always make fun of my accent, and I would ignore them.
One day they were talking about how they were first kissed. When it was my turn, I said, “I haven’t been kissed. I’m only nine.”
“You have to be kissed,” Maria said.
“Why?” I asked
“It’s sad that you haven’t been kissed,” Maria said. Today there were four other kids, three girls, and one boy. They nodded in agreement.
Maria grabbed Jose, the one boy in our group, and pushed him towards me. “Jose will kiss you.” Jose was ten and bigger than all of us. People called him big-boned and husky behind his back. Adam just called him fat.
“No,” I said.
She tried to grab my arm to pull me towards Jose, but I pulled my hand away. Then she pushed Jose towards me. “Get her,” she yelled.
I turned my back on them and ran. I looked back to see Jose running heavily after me. He was a good runner and was just a few steps behind me. I ran towards the front fence. There was a divot there just big enough for us smaller kids to get under. I couldn’t be running too fast, or I wouldn’t time it right to get under the divot, and Jose would catch me.
Not too fast. Not too fast. I repeated to myself.
I slid on the ground and slid under the fence like a baseballer stealing a base. I didn’t look back to see Jose on the other side. I kept running to the front of the building, went into the lobby, and hit all of the apartment buttons. That’s what you did to get in when you didn’t have a key. The door buzzed twice, and I went through and ran up the stairs to the safety of the apartment.
On the third Thursday I was there, Helen told me to come into the kitchen and sit down at the table; she had something to tell me. I sat and waited for her to speak.
She said, “Granny has died. I am going back for the funeral. You will stay here and finish your vacation.”
I heard what she said, but she was talking nonsense. My Granny couldn’t die. She was playing a mean, stupid joke. I said nothing and stared at her.
“Did you hear what I said?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Don’t be mean, Helen. Granny is not dead. She can’t die.”
“She’s dead, you stupid girl, and I am going back. . .” I didn’t hear what she said after that. I was confused. How could this have happened? The world betrayed me. I sat silent, tears rolling down my face.
“I have to go home,” I said.
“I told you, you are not going home.”
“I have to go home.”
She started yelling at me. I ignored her, got up, and walked into Adam’s room. I laid on his bed and broke open, crying. She followed me, yelling.
“You are ungrateful, stupid, and selfish.”
I called out, “I want to talk to Mummy,” Helen was nasty, but her meanness could not stand against Mummy. She was an unconquerable force. I would talk to Mummy, get home, and Helen could keep her nastiness. I stayed in that bed and cried myself tearless. I refused to get up until I talked to Mummy.
Helen wouldn’t call Mummy, and I stubbornly stayed in that bed, not eating or drinking. Mummy ended up calling the next day, late in the morning, to see about me.
“Mummy?” I cried.
“Yes, Child, we’ve lost our Granny.”
“She knew she was going. She took her wedding ring off, and she slipped away in her sleep.”
“We’ll be alright.”
“I need to come home, Mum.”
“No, Child. There is too much confusion here. You stay there.”
“No, Mummy, I have to come home.”
Helen took the phone from me. “You see how she is?”
Helen shooed me away and refused to give me the phone. I went back to Adam’s room and cried tearless.
Helen went back to Barbados, and at least it was a relief not to deal with her. Sara and Adam tried their best to be kind. Sara would hug me, and Adam showed me how he could spit water like Gene Simmons from Kiss who could spit blood. But I was miserable. I did what everyone wanted me to do: I went to the summer camp; I cut things up; I ate their terrible food, and I waited to go home. Helen came back, but I didn’t talk to her much. I didn’t talk to anyone much. I was too upset. She harassed me and called me names, but I didn’t care. I was counting the days until I could fly out of this terrible place. I couldn’t believe it when the day finally came when Helen and Sara took me back to the airport.
“I hope you had a nice time,” Helen said cheerfully. That was the first nice thing she had said to me since I arrived. She must have been as excited to get rid of me as I was to go. I remembered that Mummy said Helen had been through a lot. I never found what happened to her to make her so miserable. Sara hugged me.
I couldn’t wait for the stewardess to pin the wings and my traveling-alone note on my shirt. I was free and going home.
In Barbados, the air hit me like a hot wet blanket. Mummy was waiting for me on the tarmac. The airport people let her in to help me go through customs. I was startled to see her looking small and alone, standing by herself, her dress blowing against her. This was the first time I realized she was human and not a force of nature. When I reached her, I hugged her close, breathing in the smell of her ivory soap and royal crown hair grease. We were not big huggers, but she hugged me back tightly. We didn’t say anything until we were in the car.
“How was your trip, Little One? Did you have fun?” she asked.
I erupted. “How are you gonna ask me, dat? My Granny died. How am I gonna have fun? How could you do dat to me and leave me there? I needed to come home for my Granny!”
“You better watch yourself, Little Miss,” she warned me.
“I am not gonna watch myself. You and Helen were nasty. Like Granny didn’t mean anything to me. Dat was terrible. I can’t forgive you.”
I had never talked to Mummy like that, and I expected a slap at any minute, but I was so upset and hurt. I couldn’t stop myself.
Quietly, she said, “We were trying to shield you.”
“You didn’t shield me from nuttin,” I mumbled. We hung in uncomfortable silence for the rest of the ride home.
Once in the house, I strode into Granny’s room. “Where is Granny’s pink dress?” I demanded. Mummy got it out of the closet for me. I took it from her, crawled up into Granny’s bed, and cried. The dress still smelled of her. I cried into the fabric, “Granny!? How could you leave me? Granny.”
I lay there until I fell asleep. I felt Mummy pick me up and deposit me into my own bed. She tried to take the dress from me, but I wouldn’t let it go. I slept with it tucked under my face.
Yael Aldana is a Caribbean Afro-Latinx writer and poet. Yael is a descendant of the indigenous people of modern-day Colombia. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Florida International University (FIU). Her work has appeared or is upcoming in Typehouse, The Florida Book Review, South Florida Poetry Journal, Scapegoat Review, and Antithesis Blog, among others. She teaches creative writing at FIU, and she lives in South Florida with her son and too many pets.
You can find her online at YaelAldana.com, on Instagram @Yaelwrites, and Twitter @Yaelwrites71
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 9 · March 2023
Header Image by Tuukka Rantamäki
Leave a Reply