Sepia Memories – Part I
By Dahlma Llanos Figueroa
Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa is an Afro-Puerto Rican writer and author of the book Daughters of the Stone. Sepia Memories is a short story. Check out Part II of Sepia Memories this Friday, July 14, 2017.
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So many of my sepia memories are captured in the musty box that was our railroad apartment of the South Bronx in the fifties. I remember how the late afternoon sunlight filtered in through the windows and fell on the linoleum floors where I sat for hours, in front of our brand new Motorola television.
I remember my mother’s mermaid party dresses—tight, tight, all the way down, hugging her high breast, her tiny waist, marking her round hips and long thighs below, finally flaring out at the knees. She was a caramel coated Jayne Mansfield, hair brushed smoothly to one side, anchored by rhinestone combs, sending curls cascading over her right shoulder. I remember her dancing intense boleros and sensuous merengues with my father at family parties. Sometimes, when the party was in full swing, my father would let me ride his feet.
I’d face him, planting each of my buckled shoes on each of his cordovans and he’d dance me around the living room furniture. He taught me what to do with my feet and my mother took care of the hips and shoulders. I learned to dance intimately through the bodies of my parents.
Our parties were always the best times for me. The guests came in twos or threes, loaded down with cakes and flans and pans of steaming food. My mother would protest that it was unnecessary, but add the offerings to the laden dining room table nonetheless. And in they came, my aunts and uncles and Don Salvador, the bodeguero and Doña Sara, the seamstress and unwed Margarita and lonely Felipe and all the others. They’d pat my head and pile their moist, snow-dusted, wool coats on my bed and later, when I tired of eating and dancing and playing with my cousins, we children would climb on the bed and snuggle into the mountain of coats. I remember falling asleep amidst the blend of Titi Sico’s Old Spice and Titi Celia’s Chantilly and Titi Coni’s April in Paris.
There were other scents too–the strong smell or roast pork and the faint whiff of Pine Sol in the air. The images float before me now as I look back on the big pitcher of Kool Aid that sat on the kitchen table, painted fruit trapped in the glass. I can see the sweaty surface of the glass and almost feel the cool of those drops on my tongue as I licked the roundness of the jug.
I remember Don Moncho’s bunched up face confronting his wife Elisa for dancing too long and too close to Enrique, the unlicensed dentist. The men pulled him away before the rum in his gut propelled the fist he held over her head. The women pushed Elisa into the back room and gave her advice in hushed voices, brows arched knowingly in silent condemnation. Later, I heard my aunt whisper how disgraceful the woman had behaved and my mother swore she’d never invite them back, but she always did.
I remember leaning out the front window, the only window, to watch life roll by on the streets below. Double Dutch, Skelsies and Stickball out front. Handball in the back courtyard. Teenagers flirting openly on the front stoop and sweating secretly in the darkness under the stairs. I’d tie my mother’s curtains into big knots so I could sit more comfortably for hours. And then Mom would catch me and yell about how hard it was to iron those polyester panels. And I’d have to leave my window, tiny round indentations on my forearms from the pebbles in the cement sill.
I remember in cold, cold winters, nibbling on crunchy home fried chicken wings and maduros in the darkness of the Freeman Theater. We’d lay in wait for my father’s return from work on Friday nights, shivering just beside the El stairway. Then we’d whisk him away, him hanging on to his wool hat as we rushed to make the beginning of the movie. Concealed in the bottom of my mother’s tote lay a dozen aluminum bundles. Unwrapping that foil without drawing the attention of the ushers made us conspirators in the dark. I felt sorry for the others who were reduced to dinners of half cooked hot dogs from the concession stand. I remember how the light lit our faces as we watched Cantiflas lose his pants and Miguel Angel Aguilar fight and win the Mexican Revolution, single-handedly, once again.
In the summer, we spent endless days at Orchard Beach and made countless trips to Johnny’s Reef on City Island. Johnny’s sat out on the water’s edge, an indoor cafeteria style seafood joint with a big outdoor seating area where poor Bronx families would fill up on fried shrimp and fries or calamares fritos. Fathers washed it all down with Ballantine Ale. I made trip after trip to the soda stand spilling Coke on my skinny, sand coated legs, as I raced back to the table.
I remember my father taking us down to the big Chevrolet dealership on Southern Boulevard and showing us his baby. It was a white, 1965 Chevy Impala with red trim. It had rounded fins that grew from the center of the trunk lid out to the sides, a lovely upward swell ending in a graceful downward slope. He had been saving for it all year and would buy it in October when the 66’s came out and he could get a deal on the previous model.
Pop promised us visits to friends and relatives in a far-off place called New Jersey. It was during those trips that we saw lawns and dogs running freely and flowers growing just outside bay windows. Out there, there were no roaches or overflowing garbage cans and no mysterious person urinated behind the staircase near the mailboxes. In those neighborhoods there were no projects or sneakers hanging from electric wires that sagged across the street.
Pop dreamed of having a garage for a car we didn’t yet own. Mom dreamed of moving where you could call your home your own and there would be no nosey landlords or lazy supers or children playing in fire hydrants that produced disease carrying rivers of garbage. As we drove through those neighborhoods she pointed to schools sitting in the middle of inviting sports fields, the building itself, dignified and dressed in carefully tended shrubbery. She’d sit in other women’s kitchens, pouring through the Sears Catalogues, dreaming of fluttering new drapes, self-cleaning ovens and frost-free refrigerators.
All of that would come to us through the purchase of the Chevy. It would be our magic carpet. We knew because we saw it all in our new television, “See the USA in your Chevrolet”. The jingle followed us into our dreams long after Father Knows Best or The Donna Reed Show had gone off the air.
Every payday, Pop would go down to the bank to put their ‘little something’ into his savings account. Late one night, I overheard him and Mom discussing a long ago problem translated to ‘no credit’ being stamped on the financing application he had handed in. So they were saving for the day when he could walk in with a check for the full amount, and drive out with his new car. One day, when we met him near the bank, we watched him walk by the Chevy dealer on Southern Boulevard where he stopped and gazed longingly at the shiny new cars. He must have been doing this for some time because the men who worked in the showroom waved at him and smiled through the window as he stood there. I looked down because it felt like I was watching him standing there naked or something.
Memories of the South Bronx come to me, mostly round and soft and safe. But that was all before the incident with THE MAN. I barely remember the strangely pale face. Nobody in the building had ever seen him before. He was the man who was found dead, in a pool of blood in our lobby. I came home from school and there he was the red congealing around his head. It soaked into the tiny white tile of the floor and making them look like injured teeth at the dentist.
I remember stepping very carefully around him so I could run up to our fifth floor apartment without getting the blood on my new shoes. I was shaking when I turned the top lock and then the police lock that slid over the bar that ran from the door to the hole in the linoleum floor. I fumbled with the keys, dropped them twice and had trouble with the knob. It took forever, it seemed to me. I threw my books down on the kitchen table, ripped off my jacket and ran into the bathroom where I threw up the standard school lunch—French fries, pizza and chocolate milk. When my knees stopped shaking and I had swallowed a tablespoon of sugar to chase away the taste in my mouth, I called my mother at work.
“ Hey Mom, there’s a dead guy by the hallway and I’m scared to death.”
Check out Losafrolatinos.com next Friday, July 14, 2017 for Part II, the conclusion of Sepia Memories.
Dahlma Llanos -Figueroa, Afro-Puerto Rican author (Q&A with author). Her books include Woman of Endurance (Woman of Endurance Chapter 1) and Daughters of the Stone. Again, check out Losafrolatinos.com Friday, July 14, 2017 for Part II, the conclusion of Sepia Memories.