This is a story about a cat — and about Baltimore.
In fall 2014, my sister Alice adopted a kitten who sadly died on Christmas Eve. A few days’ later she found herself in the BARCS animal shelter with her son and my son, Doyle, to meet a kitten, who, along with his siblings was rescued from West Baltimore.
Porter was black and white with an uneven smudge of black across his nose and his face, as though someone dabbed paint right there. He was cute, Doyle reported. But even better, he had a brother who hadn’t been adopted yet.
Maybe I had known all along how this was going to play out. Maybe it was because it was Christmas. Or maybe it was because Doyle had wanted a kitten for years, but this wasn’t something we could consider until he began to outgrow his asthma. Regardless of the reason, I emailed the woman caring for the cats.
We heard nothing, and I figured someone else had adopted the little guy. Then on New Year’s Eve, I received an email that invited us to BARCS to meet Porter’s brother. We went to the pet store and bought a carrier, food and water dishes, a litter box, a cat bed and some toys. We weren’t even sure we were going to adopt him. But when Leeannah, Doyle and I got to BARCS, he walked right into our carrier, curled himself into a ball and fell asleep. As the best of pets do, he chose his family.
We named him Valentino and settled into sharing our rowhouse with a five-pound fur ball who bit my toes in the morning so I would get up and feed him. We snapped photo after photo of him sleeping or chasing a toy or rolling on his back and playing cute. When he was particular ham-ish we always said, “West side represent” and Leeannah and Doyle threw a “W” for good measure in honor of our feline guy who was from West Baltimore.
We don’t live in West Baltimore ourselves. But for five years, I worked at Sisters Academy, a middle school that specifically educated girls from Southwest’s under-served neighborhoods, like Harlem Park, Sandtown-Winchester, Pigtown, and Cherry Hill. My two children often came to school with me when they had days off. They knew all of my coworkers, played dodgeball at recess with the girls, and loved to hear my stories from work.
Just a few weeks ago, I saw one of my former students and she talked about the days when my kids were “about that big.” West side represent.
In a happy year with a new pet, I don’t suppose I would have ever thought much more about this had it not been for the protests and rioting that occurred after the death of Freddie Gray. I don’t know how to describe what the attention on our city has felt like for those of us who live here and who love Baltimore. Or who educate its children.
I know this: At Sisters Academy, I worked hard to find educational resources for achieving girls who deserved a chance, and a lot of people rolled their eyes at my work. (“But do you at least make fifty thousand,” an attorney once scoffed at me during a date.) Yet, after the unrest, suddenly everybody was on scene to tell us what Baltimore had done wrong.
And there’s this: Long after residents cleaned up and the National Guard went home, our black and white kitten grew and charmed and grew some more. “West side represent,” I said to Valentino one day out of habit, as I rubbed his belly. And Doyle erupted: “Don’t say that!” he shouted. “Don’t ever say that again!”
Right. Because we all felt it — what happened on the west side on April 27 has come to represent everything about this city. Fair or not.
Valentino is now an adult cat — a little puny for a grown up, but that’s all right. He is sitting at my feet right now as I type this, content and purring. We have stopped throwing “W’s” when he does something cute or funny. But I’ve shared with plenty of people that he’s our West Baltimore cat.
It’s one of the facts about this city I regularly try to work into conversation.
In March, there was a blizzard. It started on a Wednesday night, as the sun was setting, and snowed all the way through until the next night. The roads were impassable and school was cancelled for the rest of the week. Leeta helped shovel a tunnel from the house to the street. In a neighborhood like theirs with no front yards and only cement pavement, it was hard to figure out where to put the snow, of course, except to just pile it on top of itself. It wasn’t until Saturday that a plow came through her block and finally she could hike to Portugal Street. Some the blocks along the way still hadn’t been plowed. Others had been plowed, but the snow on the sidewalk went up to the windows, and Leeta had to walk in the middle of the street. Plastic chairs held parking spots for territorial neighbors who had shoveled them out, and snowmen sprouted from odd little corners and mounds. In Patterson Park, kids sledded down to Eastern Avenue. Leeta figured there were probably some teenagers from her school out sledding, too, but she didn’t have time for that.
Portugal Street was a mess of her block. Baby was outside with broom sweeping off the patch in front of his house.
He shook his head when he saw her. “They’re gone.”
“What?” He was still so weird sometimes, she thought. “Can we go inside? My nose is frozen and my fingers feel like they are going to fall off.” She should have worn two pairs of gloves.
Inside, a scarf and hat dried on the heater, and the stacks of books smelled like snow. The house was musty and quiet and gray. Leeta didn’t see one sliver of green anywhere.
“I woke up on Thursday and they weren’t here.”
“How could one hundred and thirty-seven geckos disappear? They must be here somewhere. They must be afraid of the cold and hiding somewhere.”
“Where would they hide, Leeta?”
“Wherever it was that they came from. That’s probably where they crawled back to. Duh.” She hadn’t meant to be so rude, but her fingers and her toes hurt, and her face was wind burnt. She had come all this way to see them. She hated the cold. If she could have hidden from it, she would have. So, why wouldn’t the lizards have hidden as well? “Did you look in any cracks in the walls?”
“Yeah. I’ve looked everywhere.”
Leeta ignored him, and ran her hands over the bricks in the living room wall. Her eyes still stung from being outside, but she narrowed them in concentration, looking for any glint of green in the brick wall. Forty minutes later, after they had looked over the whole house, there still was no sign of the geckos. Leeta sank to the living room floor and cried.
Baby sat down next to her and patted her shoulder, but she pushed away his hand.
“Don’t be nice to me,” she sniffed. It would only make her cry more. They were geckos after all, leaf green lizards that shouldn’t have even been there in the first place. They were ugly, plastic toy-like creatures with their big heads and slender bodies. What good had they been? And they were weird. Weird, weird lizards, not the Great Gecko Miracle of Portugal Street that everybody thought they were. So, what did it matter if they were gone now anyway? “It’s just so stupid,” she cried.
After a minute, Baby said, “I miss them, too.”
“Do you think they will come back?”
“I hope so,” he said. “But I just don’t know.”
Leeta bundled back up and walked back home and climbed into bed. She told her parents she was sore from shoveling and they didn’t disturb her. She didn’t get back up until school started again two days later, when all of the roads were finally plowed and the sun made the city too bright for Leeta’s eyes. She took the long way home from school every day, hoping to see some trace of the geckos, or maybe even another house they had chosen to inhabit. Then one day when she dug her hands into the pocket of her pink hoodie, she felt the familiar crinkle of something too thin to be paper. She pulled out a gecko skin, a see-through silhouette that almost glowed it was so green. It must have been shed by one of the lizards before they all disappeared.
Baby was in the library, exactly where she thought she would find him, at a table in the back with Marcus and Luis, his dork patrol. “Here.” She took his hand, startling him and the other boys, and then placed the skin inside his.
“Thank you, Thiago” she said and went to her locker.
“Thank you, Thiago” she said and went to her locker.
Even with the thaw, it was too cold to trap crickets in the park. She and Baby would do that in the summer. Now she walked down Boston to the pet store and bought twenty dollars worth of crickets and delivered them to Portugal Street.
Leeta thought the unevenness of the number seemed perfect. Imagine if a Great Gecko Miracle had occurred and forty rain forest green lizards appeared in Baltimore, Maryland. Or twelve. Or twenty-one. One hundred thirty-seven made the unbelievable slightly more believable to her.
Baby kept a notebook, documenting the arrival of each one, its dimensions and any unusual colorings, as well as where he first spotted the gecko in his house. She was so proud of him for doing this and a little envious. At first, Leeta could not tell any of the lizards apart, except for the ones that greatly bigger than the others. But soon enough she could tell them all apart, and she began to name them – Griff, Greta, Glinda, all names that began with “g” for gecko. There were not that many of those names, though, so she began to use “p” for Portugal Street and named some of the Pierce and Polly and Parker. Baby dutifully wrote the names in his notebook.
“Who are your friends?” she asked him one day. She had never seen Baby with anybody but his family.
“They are,” he nodded to the two lizards lying side by side on his right shoulder. He was wearing a faded blue paid shirt with a tiny rip where the sleeve met the shoulder. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought he was trying to grow the slightest of beards for there was a moss of whiskers along his jaw.
“Don’t you talk to anybody at school?”
“Well, sure. Marcus and Luis. A girl in my homeroom.”
Leeta had seen Marcus and Luis before. They were as strange as Baby, boys who were still boys, who had a cafeteria table away from everybody else, who never looked Leeta or any of her friends in the eye. They never spoke in class, but when they were called on their voices came out in loud, uncertain bursts as though they had no idea how to control the volume. Leeta tried to pretend that she didn’t go to school with people like them. But who was the girl in his homeroom?
“Georgia Romanski?” Georgia had long, stringy hair and was known for drawing wild cartoons across her folders.
“Charnice?” Another artist.
He shook his head. Yeah, Leeta didn’t think he’d like a black girl. What would his mother say? Then again, lizards were crawling across this living room, so maybe he was daring in other ways.
“There isn’t a girl in your homeroom, is there? There isn’t any girl that you talk to at all? Admit it, Baby. There is no girl.”
“There is,” he insisted. But as hard as she tried to pry a name from him, he wouldn’t tell her.
She had no right to complain. She had told him so little about herself. It was true that she dominated their conversations. She was bossy and she liked to control the subjects they discussed, but it was mostly about the geckos and their teachers at school and his big Mexican family, which fascinated her.
“Which brother do you get along with the best?”
“Because he’s so laid back.”
“Which one is the biggest pain in the ass?”
“Because he’s not laid back.”
Leeta rolled her eyes. “Show don’t tell, Baby. Your answers are lacking in specifics and do little to support your thesis.”
She had more questions for him. She always had more questions for him – which brothers that were now married or dating, and the names of the girls they dated. Whether Baby had ever been to any of the school dances, and whether he himself had ever been out on a date. The answers to those last questions were, not surprisingly to her, no. Sometimes she found his willingness to be bossed around a little annoying, so sometimes she told him he was annoying in hopes that he would stand up for himself and tell her that she was wrong. But Baby was on to her and would just smile. This irked her, but she always pretended that it didn’t.
One day she told him about her first date with Carlos Smalls, how he took her to the Valentine’s Dance at school freshman year and then they dated after that until he dumped her for Angela Ramirez.
“I didn’t know that was why he broke up with me until I saw them at the movies. She was such a skank, still is. Jodi and Marina told me to fight her. But that’s not me.”
“You don’t fight?”
“I’ve never been in a fight in her entire life.”
“Yeah, really. Don’t look so shocked. What do you think I’m some kind of bruiser queen or something? I don’t fight and that’s why I have a big mouth. I control the conversations and then I never have to fight.”
“Doesn’t your mouth ever get you into a fight?”
“Not in this case. I just went out and got myself another boyfriend. Hah.”
“Yeah, Pratt Jones. How’d you know?”
“I saw you with him. Everybody probably saw you with him. You dated him for a really long time.”
“Yeah, I did.” Leeta stroked the back of the lizard on forearm. “He was best boyfriend. “After him, there was Danny Torres.” She made a face. “And then Jett. Mistake. Nothing more needs to be said about that.”
“We’re like fifteen. How could that have been a mistake? I thought everything was supposed to be a learning experience for us.”
“Says the guy who’s never had a girlfriend.”
“Which may be why I don’t think dating should be considered a mistake.” He nodded his head as if to say, so there, and Leeta cracked a smile.
“Yeah, but Jett’s a jackass. And I knew it. I just thought he would be different with me, because at first he was so … nice.”
Baby watched one of the geckos pounce on a cricket. “He’s an asshole, Leeta. He’s not good enough for you.”
She smiled. “Thanks.” And then because Leeta was Leeta, she said with a little taunt, “Four guys and you haven’t even kissed one girl.” Then she waited to see if her words would make him do anything. If he would say something more to her, or even if he would lean over and kiss her, rub his moss face against hers, let the lizards on his shoulder cross over to her own shoulders. It was the craziest thing really, because if she saw him at school the next day, she still wasn’t sure she would acknowledge him. On the weekends, she didn’t come to Portugal Street to help him with the lizards, because there were so many other people there. But now she wanted to see if she could make him kiss her. She waited, her breath held, a gecko sleeping on the back of her hand, but Baby did nothing except watch the colony of lizards around him. Then Leeta felt stupid and wished she hadn’t pushed it. Baby wasn’t like that. She didn’t know why she was pretending he was. She imagined the sleepy geckos stirring and stomping away her silly girl words until they only thing that hung in the air on Portugal Street was a rain forest humidity.
Portugal Street was really an alley. There was no place for cars to park – it was only a block long and wide enough for one car to drive down. If Baby was on the second floor, he could easily throw a ball across the splinter of the street and into the window of the house that faced his. Laundry could have been strung across. Streets weren’t built like this anymore, because there wasn’t even room for a fire engine if there was an emergency — it would have to park on the next street over.
All of the rowhouses were two stories high. The front of Baby’s house was as wide as two windows. Of course, on the first floor, there was only one window and then a door. Inside, the first floor was one long narrow room, a living room that stretched into a dining room and stretched into a kitchen. Everywhere there were stacks of books — books in English and in Spanish — piled on bookshelves, but also in stacks along the floor. On top of these stacks, two or sometimes three lizards slept piled together. The house smelled of these books, of old oily pages that had absorbed the smells of the fingers that had turned them. But now it had begun to smell like lizards, like something vague and tropical, a green that was winning over the mustiness.
“But how did they get here?” As much as Leeta liked them, the more she visited them, the more she wanted to make sense of this.
“I don’t know.”
“But geckos don’t just show up.”
“These geckos did.” Baby shrugged again.
“Did somebody bring them from Mexico?”
“So, you are not pretending they are a miracle so you can keep the story going long enough to make a nice profit?” She could tell he was getting annoyed, but all he gave her was another, “No.” He didn’t raise his voice like everybody in her family did when they were pissed. Just this morning, her brother had set off the smoke detector as he was making himself a piece of toast, and their mother threw an oven mitt at him and called him a dumbass.
“So, there’s no Lizard … College Fund?” She tried one more time.
She let his answer stand in the air. She wasn’t even sure why she was questioning him so hard. She lay down on the rug and let two more lizards crawl onto her arm. One settled into her hair-sprayed tangle of curls and another climbed through the bracelet-sized gold hoop earrings she always wore. She was a sight, her pink hoodie against the ratty, dirty rug, and the lizards crawling across her. Their green on her pink, like a reverse tulip, a flirty lipstick of a flower as coquette as Leeta herself was known to be.
– – –
She took the bus to the main library so she could look into this matter a little more. She had never been to the big branch – it looked like some kind of museum inside with its hanging lights and high ceilings – but she knew that would be the place to find the information she needed. She might not have paid much attention in school, but enough teachers told her enough times how great the library was. Plus, no one she knew would ever be there.
This was the thing she considered as she fed dollars onto a card that let her use the computer. As much as she wanted to believe in miracles, there had to be a reason why a colony of dozens of geckos could crawl out of the wall of a Fells Point rowhouse and move in with a Mexican family. Had Baltimore harbored geckos at another time in it history and somehow they imprinted their genetic code into a rowhouse, of all things? No, that was ridiculous. Perhaps a previous tenant had preserved a nest of eggs that finally hatched? Also ridiculous, according to Leeta’s research. Baby’s family had lived in that house for almost twenty yeas, and lizard eggs would have dried out and disintegrated in that time. Maybe they were black market lizards that were delivered to the wrong address? Or just a legal shipment of pets that somehow never made it the pet store? A prank that nobody understood? Why were they there? Leeta couldn’t explain why she so badly wanted an answer to this mystery. She turned it over again and again in her mind, examining the situation like she had examined the geckos that ventured into her hands whenever she visited.
Later that night, Jett threw pebble after pebble at her window, but she ignored him. Even to hiss “go away” through the window would have encouraged him. She was wise enough now to know that and to not call out the window to leave her alone. Because those tiny stones of hers would be enough for him to keep going, to keep trying to get her attention. The best thing with guys like Jett was to act that they didn’t exist. Any glance, any words no matter how short, any wave of the hand or nod in his direction would be taken as invitation for him to come back and take over her life, a besiege that once appealed to her because it was the way that other people know that she was loved and valuable. Now that just seemed so stupid to her. And so child-ish.
The geckos appeared in Baltimore during a January thaw when black, bare branches and electric lines wired the city beneath a gray lidded sky. Rain puddled on the sidewalks and in seams along the roadways, making everything perpetually soggy and sad. It was a disappointing imposter of a winter in a city that never snowed much, but certainly slicked up enough now and again for a few days off from school.
At this rate, January would blur into February into March and April, and Leeta began to wonder what the point of all of it was. Then the first of the geckos arrived. Rain forest green, as big as a man’s hand, it crawled between the cracks of two rowhouses on Portugal Street, and made its home with the boy who lived there. His house was in the middle of the block, not an end unit, which didn’t make much difference except to disband some of the theories about how a gecko could have crawled from its brick wall crevice and land as it did in the middle of a well-worn rug. One day later, there was one more gecko, this one slightly smaller than the first, and then were two more, their skin the color of new bamboo shoots, or the leaves that unfurl themselves from tiny daffodils. By the end of the week, lizards besieged the house on Portugal Street and the boy who lived there was famous.
His name was Thiago. But everyone, Leeta included, called him Baby because that’s what he was, the baby in a big family, a boy who didn’t walk until he was four because there were enough hands in that family to tote him from place to place until he was a forty-pound preschooler and too big for even the biggest brothers to heft him around. The older kids got sent home to Mexico for the summer to stay with relatives and to play barefoot and to eat arroz the way it should be made and not the way his mama had to make it – to make do – because Baltimore wasn’t a Mexican town. But his mama couldn’t part with him, so he never knew these summers, and truth be told, never knew much Spanish other than madre and padre and hermano. He started high school skinny and pockmarked with acne. His tongue permanently stuck behind closed lips, he didn’t talk to girls. He did his school work, dreamed about being strong enough to play baseball, and went home to mama.
Until the geckos arrived. All of the other brothers and sisters were out of the house by then. His papa had a good business cleaning gutters and his mother worked at a church, translating for all the Salvadoreños who had newly arrived, so they were never home. The lizards then clearly belonged to Baby.
– – –
The reason Leeta went to see them was because she didn’t have anything better to do. Sure, she had seen the pictures on Instagram, and she kind of wanted her own picture of Portugal Street, too. But there were enough pictures going around that she could have taken one easily and pretended that it was her own, that she had been there, too, and had seen the Great Modern Miracle of the Geckos. Truthfully she had just broken up with Jett, this time for good, and she didn’t want it said that she was sitting home, crying in her pillow about a guy as stupid as him, a no-good she should have known better about. If it had been the summer, she would have gone up to the soccer games at Patterson Park, and then everybody would have seen she wasn’t sitting around and nursing her wounds. But it was a raining, soppy January, so she lined up on Portugal in the queue of the curious who wanted to see the lizards that had no business living where they were living. She waited for forty-five minutes with Marina and Jolie, who thought the geckos were gross when they finally saw them, and fled the little rowhouse, calling for her to meet them at the Burger King on Chester when she was done looking over those ugly things.
Leeta didn’t know what they were talking about. She had never seen a lizard before in real life, not even in a pet store, and to her, they were beautiful. Their backs were so green, she laughed right out loud. Nature had created a color that bright? Damn. She felt like she had been watching one of those black and white movies and the scene suddenly becomes colorized. Was the “Wizard of Oz” the movie where that happened? Leeta couldn’t remember, but that’s what it was like in that rowhouse on Portugal Street in the middle of boring Baltimore. It was almost too much. She gazed a few more minutes at the geckos – she didn’t even snap her own picture – and then darted back onto the street and down the alley to meet her friends.
– – –
When she went back after school two days later, there wasn’t a line.
“People only come on the weekends,” Baby explained. “I got homework and stuff, so the first week Pop put out a sign that said no weekday visits. Somebody stole the sign. But people still follow the rule.” He held his hands close to his shoulders, so that his skinny arms looked like bird wings. Baby bird wings.
Leeta shook her head. Man, he was such a loser. “They probably took the sign so they could sell it online. You know, to make money off the great … gecko miracle.” She shook her head again. Of all people to be visited by reptilian amazement, it would have to be someone who knew so little about the human world.
Baby shrugged. He was wearing a ragged gray sweater that look like it would unravel any moment, disappearing as quickly as lizards could appear. He was skinny as he had always been, but his voice was deeper. Actually, Leeta realized, she had never heard Baby talk before this, so for all she had known, his voice had been this deep all along. A lizard made its way up her own black hoodie, across her shoulder, and under the hood. There it settled on the back of her neck. She should have been creeped out, instead she felt oddly peaceful. Another lizard settled into the crook of her elbow and two more crawled onto leg. There was nothing weird about this at all. Actually, she thought it was pretty cool.
Mondays we went into the computer lab and researched colleges. Filled out our applications. I loved it. I loved looking at all the websites with their pictures of students in front of the prettiest buildings on campus and their fun facts about how many students went to Guatemala over Jan term, or how many intramural sports they had, like Ultimate Frisbee and coed soccer, how every dining hall had a salad bar AND a frozen yogurt machine. All the emails they sent me, and the postcards and the glossy shiny books that I got in the mail, too. I loved every single bit of it.
But I already knew that I wanted to go to Stevenson. It was a forty-five minute bus ride away to the prettiest campus in the city. Everything was new. That’s what I liked best about it. It wasn’t one of those old schools with stone buildings and flowered bushes that spelled out its name. No, it was so new and so nice its running track didn’t even have any scuff marks on it. Mom and Zee could come and visit me and sit on my bean bag chair while I told them about my day. My room would smell like fresh paint, because the tour guide who showed us around when we went for the college tour said they repaint all the dorm rooms every year. When Mom and Zee visited, I would take them to the dining hall for lunch, and they could eat all the salad and frozen yogurt they wanted. We would walk across campus and there wouldn’t be one bit of graffiti anywhere. People didn’t write on buildings that pretty.
– – –
100 days until I graduated. I spent a lot of time with Azeezah. After those fools shook up Destinee, it was hard for Zee to let Mom and me out of her sight. Soon as we got home from school, she put herself in the window and watched for Mom to come home. Even though it would be hours.
“Don’t you wanna watch TV?”
No, she sure didn’t.
Walking to school, she glued herself to my body. That was good actually, because her little eyes were darting everywhere so quickly, looking into this corner and that corner, that half the time she couldn’t see where she was going. If she hadn’t been attached to my leg, she would have tripped off the curb.
At bedtime, Mom lay next to her and talked to her softly so she could fall asleep. It worked ’cause every day she got a little bit better about going to bed and she even stopped having those nightmares. I started to feel a little better, too. Everything was getting better. Spring was here, graduation was coming, we were gonna be all right.
– – –
I heard the thump as her body hit the door. I opened it, and there was Azeezah, one braid undone and the loose hair sticking to the tears on her brown face. On her hip was a footprint from where they had booted her onto the ground and held her in place while they yelled at her. Now her body shook and shook in little trembles and tremors that quaked the ground beneath us.
All this time I had counted, but I hadn’t really added up the numbers. And while they were counting to 100, our time was leaking away. Single tears slipping from our eyes. I thought we could outlast them. Guess I thought I had the strength of 100 women. I grabbed up my baby sister and called the police.
– – –
100: Ever hear about those stray cats that lived in the Roman Colosseum? I read about them in history class and now I couldn’t get them outta my mind. There were two hundred of them that lived in those ruins. Nobody knew how long they had lived there or where the first cat had come from. Think about it – dozens and dozens of cats living in those old buildings. I know it sounds crazy, but would people pay as much attention to those ruins if the cats weren’t there? That’s what I wondered. How many tourists looked for the cats when they went to the Colosseum? How many of them took pictures of the cats or brought them food? How many people have written about them and told their story? Lowly little cats. And man, now they were just as much a monument as the Colosseum was, their green eyes flash lighting history like little laser pointers on the past.
Plain old cats.
I stood in the front window, watching for Mom walking home from work, my eyes scanning the neighborhood. Then I saw her and I went to the door, ready to let her back in, safe and sound.
I walked Azeezah over to Miss Gabrielle’s School of Modern Expressive Dance and walked back home over Wilkens. I wasn’t nervous so much as I was lost in my own thoughts, and I didn’t hear Xavier when he snuck up on me. I let out a scream that echoed a little too long for my liking.
“What are you scared of me for?” Xav smiled. “I mean, I know I command fear and respect outta most people.”
“You sneaking up on me. Don’t do that.”
We went to Lupita’s for empanadas. Same lady behind the counter at Lupita’s with the same two barrettes in her hair, and she said the same thing she said the last time, “Dia? Your name means ‘day’ in Spanish.”
“Yep, I’m loving her, day by day,” Xav said as he got us straws. “You might say it’s all in a day’s work.”
I just ignored him. It wasn’t like my ears had never heard this crap before.
“Su beso hace mi día.” He winked at the Lupita’s lady. Then he whispered to me as we walked out, “Will you give me a day job?” I elbowed him hard right where that empanada was going.
“I’m just trying to … seize the day, Dia.”
We didn’t say anything as we ate and walked. We ended up where we always did, on the piece of grass behind the umbrella factory. That old place had long been closed for more than twenty years. But 100 years back, we were the umbrella capital of the world.
“Too bad we are not the cool clothes capital of the world,” I told Xav.
“I wish we were the gum capital.”
“Or maybe the iPod capital.”
“Nothing cool is made here anymore,” Xav shook his head.
“We’re cool and we were made here.”
When it was time for me to pick up Azeezah, Xavier walked over with me. She let out a big whoop when she saw him and showed him her latest dance moves. Little Miss Twirl-a-Whirl.
She talked non-stop when we walked home, which was fine. I kept an eye out, looking over everything in our path. I guess you could say the houses in our neighborhood were old fashioned. They were definitely old. Rowhouses. That’s what they were called. If they were newer and out in the suburbs and had a wooden deck and a garage out back, people called them townhouses. In Baltimore, they were rowhouses because they were built one row after another for all the people that came here to get work back in the day. That was when this city rained jobs and we needed all the umbrellas we made or we’d get wet from our own wealth.
Row after row of little brick houses that all looked the same. Well, they did once. Now one street of houses might look pretty with pots of flowers by their stoops in the summer, and Halloween wreaths on the door in the fall. But the next block over had two boarded up houses that stood out like busted teeth in a mouth that was otherwise normal. The next block over had more boarded up houses than full ones, and there were balloons and two stuffed bears taped to the bus stop sign as street memorial for someone who had been shot. The street over would have been as boarded up as that one, except all the Mexicans and Salvadorans had moved in. They had filled the empty windows back up with glass and ripped the plywood away from the doors. The empty corner store became a groceria. Sometimes I thought about how little they must’ve had back in their own countries to make this place look so good.
We crossed over Egypt Street and turned the corner. That’s when I saw “100” painted on one of the boarded up houses. Xavier was trying to explain something about the solar system to Zee and she was throwing questions at him like this was some sort of question contest, so I didn’t say anything to them. I took out my phone and quick snapped a picture, and then turned the camera on
Xav and Zee before they could ask me what I was up to.
– – –
100: If I had to protect one hundred women, number one would be Azeezah. In my world, she’s the first and the last and everything in between, because she’s my baby sister. So, I’ll start with her. She’s gotta be number one. She’s my girl.
Blond halo hair. How she got that blond, nobody knows. Our mother may be white, but her hair was as brown as coffee. Without any cream. So, there wasn’t any blond on either side of the family except on Angel Girl’s hair. I used to beg my parents for a baby brother or sister, and Mom used to say she couldn’t have any more kids. So Azeezah was like a little miracle baby, who became an even bigger miracle after Daddy died. She was the last good thing that happened to us before the accident. Big good thing. Other good things happened to us. I passed tests, the sun came out, we had good times together, me, Mom, and Azeezah, But Zee was the last big good thing that made me feel like I was swelled up with life. Now I knew not to take too many things for granted.
Zee colored pictures of sunflowers and put them in our windows, flowers out to catch the sun. Zee helped Mom make sweet potato pie and chicken noodle soup and just about anything that Mom was cooking. Sunshine and sous chef. I looked after every day until Mom got home. My number one company. I guess I should have been upset that I could’ve stayed after school and done something else, like the plays or something like that. It would have been better for my college applications. But I would’ve rather been home doing my homework anyway. Would’ve rather been reading with Zee next to me than much else of anything, to tell the truth.
No. 2 would be Mom. Laura Jean Strevig. Mother. Daughter. Laboratory technician. Salsa dancer. Lady who can make a crap rowhouse look pretty great with a little paint and other stuff. Woman with Baltimore’s longest braid, straight down to her butt. She had to wind it around her head like she’s Heidi or something and cover it with a shower cap when she was at work. Ha, ha, ha.
The one who talked to me after dinner while I washed the dishes. Because I’m no sous chef or real chef. I’m just the help, OK?
Mom was all right. Sometimes I thought if she weren’t a widow, we wouldn’t live here. We would have moved outta here by now, because Daddy made good money. Good enough for a real house and a real place.
“This is a real place,” Mom cut me off one time when I said that.
She was right. We had a real house, next to Miss Peaches and near Aunt Goody and Uncle Charles and the cousins. But two blocks over, two blocks away, it looked like a bomb had gone off ’cause there’d be all these roofless houses with boarded up doors. Atomic ghetto. And that was what me and Azeezah had to walk through to get over to our schools. Weekends sometimes we drove out to Arundel Mills to do some shopping and you just knew, soon as you were there, that people there lived better. Not that we ever talked about this stuff. We didn’t need to. For one, we saw that everybody had real yards. For another, people weren’t standing on corners, unless they were waiting for the bus. There was Starbucks, too, and there weren’t any checks-cashed-here signs.
There were checks cashed here signs over by the university where Mom worked. But there were beautiful buildings and all sorts of people who came from all over the world to work there. “Every day they’re doing important work at the hospital,” Mom said. “You think about it. Every day they’re discovering something big.”
I did think about it. I thought about it all the time, as a matter of fact. But here’s the thing about Mom. She wanted me outta here, too. Maybe she didn’t want to feel bad for raising us here. But she didn’t want me and Zee to stay.
No. 3. That was Aunt Goody sticking her head out the window, looking all up and down the street, checking it all out. Mug of coffee in her hand. Two sugars and her café latte creamer crap. The fake sugar that causes her cander. Mom said there’s a big study about that very thing at the lab. That’s one of the things the doctors are looking into. But we can’t be telling Aunt Goody how to take care of herself. Oh no, ma’am. She can tell anybody what they need to hear. But we can’t tell her nothing.
“Jada, what are you frowning at? Why you looking like that? You gonna worry yourself to a heart attack before you’re twenty?”
I mean, she was sorta right on that one. My cousin worried about everything. No thug or slob would rough her into being their scary message messenger ’cause she’d just whimper herself into nonsense and not get out the facts.
“Jacey, nobody likes to take out the trash. Quit being lazy and take out this trash.”
Good luck getting Jacey not to be lazy. She was gonna get a bachelor’s in doing nothing. At the University of Lazy fools.
“Jaz, you better put a sweater on that baby. I don’t want her to be catching a cold.”
Good old Aunt Goody.
So, this was my family. Numbers one through seven on my list. We were a big bunch of loud mouth women, when it came down to it. Nothing wrong with that. There were men in my family, too. Justin and Uncle Charles and Shawn and Dewayne. Xavier Miguel Martin. OK, that last one was a pretty good boyfriend as boyfriends go and not really family. None of these men were on the list though, ’cause nobody’d be after them.