reading and writing the poetry and stories of our people and places

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Five Foot Three, Long, Orange or Red-tinted Hair, Sunglasses

(I was inspired by an article in The Chronicle about a woman who has robbed two banks in four days.)

She doesn’t say anything about it. Not even when they show her face on the front page of The Chronicle or on channel 7.

She doesn’t say nothing except “Get the rest out of his car, girls.” This is in the arms of an older African American man wearing a hat. I lose track of how many back and forth, up and down trips from his LTD tank, the outside stairs, the inside stairs, and down the hall to our refrigerator we make.

“Is there anything else, ma’am?” he asks, when we are done, towering over her even though she’s wearing her 3-inch heels.

“No, sir. Thank you.” Then she passes him more bills than necessary even if they were all ones.

He pauses then grasps the pile which he tucks inside pocket of his jacket. He tips his hat to her.

“Girls,” he murmurs while he looks at us for the first time.

He turns toward the hall and she follows him.

“I’ll close the door behind me, ma’am.”

“Thank you” she repeats and marches right back to the kitchen. By the time the door clicks shut we are knee deep in empty brown paper bags.

We have never seen so much food. She bought two jars each of jumbo-sized peanut butter. Skippy not generic. With nuts. And jam not jelly. Strawberry. She bought a half-pound of freshly sliced--not pre-packaged--baloney and a pound each of salami and ham. American, Monterey Jack, and cheddar cheese. Two flats of eggs and two gallons of milk.

There is more meat than we’ve ever seen on Easter, Christmas, or Thanksgiving put together. A ham. The kind with a bone in it. A turkey, five chickens, dozens of hot dogs and hamburger patties. Five family-sized packs of pork chops and ten of steaks. Real steaks not cube or minute. A case each of tuna and Underwood deviled ham. Half a dozen boxes of fish sticks and a few packs of real fish.

Me and my sister don’t like fish. Mom used to threaten us that she was going to buy fish, but she never did. We always made faces. We didn’t even try to do it behind her back. Out came the tongues, the rolling eyes. We clutched our throats like those kids on TV she says annoy her. “Why do you watch that garbage?” she asks us. “You’re not like them.”

She takes out three tall bags of tortillas. One for each of us, I think to myself.

“Mom, El Toro, couldn’t go through one of these bags in a night,” my sister says laughing.

“We don’t need to go around the corner. That taquería doesn’t have nothing we don’t got right here.”

“Yeah, okay. I was just saying.”

Mom just looks at her. She takes out two loaves of the brown bread she likes and has been trying to get us to eat and one Kilpatrick’s in the blue and white checked bag.

I feel the bag of bread. It’s still warm. I untwist the tie. Soft, white, goodness just like the commercial says. I tear a piece of bread and mash two sides at a time until they are in the shape of a box. With my nail, I poke holes in each of the six sides. I do the same to another piece. I open the fridge and lift one of the cold Pepsis she has just set inside. Then I get the bottle opener and pull off the cap. I pour a glass. There’s a hiss when the warm, smashed dice plunge into the dark liquid.

“Snake eyes!” I say then swallow it all. My mouth foams and my eyes water.

“Stop playing with your food,” Mom tells me.

“I’m not playing with my food,” I say, “I’m gambling with my food.”

“Whatever the hell you’re doing, stop it!” she scolds.

I tip my glass and feel the last of the Pepsi bubbles tickle my throat. I crave more, but I know not to push her.

Before we can fit the sacks of beans and rice, bags of potatoes, packages of lasagna noodles, cans of marinara sauce, the big daddy mozzarella cheeses. Not only the usual apples, oranges and bananas but the cherries, grapes, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, blueberries, pineapple and mangoes. Before we can put the lifetime supply of Bisquick and Log Cabin syrup away, and all the rest. Before we see the Miss Clairol boxes labeled Midnight. Before we can tell her the fridge and cabinets are running out of room, we hear the doorbell ring.

We all stop.

“Ma’am! I forgot your flowers!” We hear the elderly gentleman shout from the bottom of the inside stairs.

“I’ll leave them right here on the stairs!”

“Okay! Thanks again!”

My sister looks at me; I look at her. Mom looks at both of us. We hear the door shut. She continues to put away the groceries.

“Mom, want me to get the flowers?” I ask finally.

“Duh! Just get them,” my sister moans.

I walk down the hall to the stairs. I look through the sheer curtain to see if the man is still around. He isn’t. I open the door and push the button. I close the door and twist the dead bolt.

Yellow roses. Her favorite. She never buys this many groceries and she never, ever, ever buys flowers. Once, my sister and I thought Mom should have candy and flowers for her birthday. We watch too much TV, she told us later. We couldn’t decide how many so we asked her her favorite number. Seven.

We counted our money. However much seven slices of See’s pecan roll and seven yellow roses cost, we knew two dollars and thirty-six cents wasn’t enough. We went to our aunt’s house.

“Why do you need ten dollars?” she asked back when ten could still buy twenty.

We told her. We promised to pay her back with the money we hoped to get for our next year’s birthdays. She knew about hope and money. She had her own five kids but found her purse and the ten.

That day, we came home after school and didn’t change our clothes like Mom always told us to. We had to go down Mission Street. Nana and Auntie Annie used to make See’s candy so we knew they had the best. We passed Si Tashjian’s buckets of jazzy bouquets on 21st every Saturday and Sunday. We had our chance to go inside the shop that played the too loud Muzak.

When we gave Mom the flowers and candy, she looked more surprised than happy.

“Where’d you get the money?”

We told her.

“And she said we don’t have to pay her back!”

Then Mom looked worried. She smiled but she still didn’t look happy.

I started walking up the stairs then recognized she had the same face right now putting away all those groceries.

A loud knock. What did that old man forget now? I wonder. I look and see him. Them.

“Police. We know she’s there. Open up.”


They see me running up the stairs. They bump into each other to bang on the door.

“Police! Open up!”

“Mommmmm! The police!”

My sister has stopped putting stuff away. She stands there looking at Mom.

Mom walks to the pantry. She comes out with our biggest skillet and puts it on the highest flame on the biggest burner. She pours in some oil then opens a pack of steaks and places the thickest three on the black metal.

“Peel those potatoes,” she says as she throws a knife and the potato peeler onto the table.

Slowly, my sister reaches for the knife and a potato.

We hear glass breaking.

“Mom!” I yell.

Mom grabs at the table, picks up the potato peeler and shakes it in my face.

“Peel. Those. Damn. Potatoes,” she hisses and presses the potato peeler into my hand.

I can’t hear the boots tramping up the stairs. I can’t hear my sister’s whimpering. All I can hear are those steaks searing and those heels clacking down the hall.