Sepia Memories – Part II
By Dahlma Llanos Figueroa
* * *
That night, I awoke to the sounds of my parents’ voices being thrown back and forth in the darkness.
“Pedro, we can’t wait anymore. The neighborhood is getting worse and worse.”
“You’re overreacting,” Pop tried to calm her down.
“Carisa found him in the hall…”
“It won’t happen again. This is the first time…”
“And it’s going to be the last,” Mom shot back.
“You sound like you’re giving me an order. Who’s the man around here?” Pop was wounded and dangerously close to ending the conversation.
“Pedro, I’m not trying to take your place but…” Mom modulated her voice.
“But nothing. I can see where you’re headed. The answer is no. I’ve been saving for that car for years and…”
“It’s my money too…” she pointed out, beginning to lose her temper.
“Oh, now you’re going to throw that in my face…”
“Pedro, listen to me…” still trying to reason with him.
“If we don’t have the credit to buy a car, how we going to buy a house. Besides, I’ve made plans…commitments. What do I tell my panitas…”
That did it. “Tus panitas! Que se jodan tus panitas! I don’t give a good Goddamn about your guys. Where are they when we need help? My children come first. I’m getting her out of here one way or the other and if that means you can’t buy your car right now, then you can’t buy your car right now.”
“Elena, don’t you take that tone with me…”
“What’s more important, our daughter or el jodío carro.”
SLAM! That did end the conversation on her part.
I remember my mother on the phone yelling at the landlord. The body was removed that first evening but, Harry the Super, had been drunk and useless all week and the blood had turned into a black pond at the foot of the stairs. There were countless, smudged, now-caked, footprints making a trail to the stair. After countless complaints to him and the landlord, Mom called the Health Department. When Harry finally sobered up, he was MAD and then he would spit every time one of us walked by and Mom and Pop’s fight got louder and longer.
The arguments must have gone on for weeks because I remember my mother turning away from Pop mid-sentence and slamming the double doors of the living room so hard that the glass panes rattled. I remember heavy silences and knife-edged glares. I remember Pop’s dinner plate crusty and abandoned on the plastic tablecloth with the roosters on it. There were more fights and more slammed doors and Pop’s favorite shirt hung on the closet door, the black mark of the iron burned onto it. There was Mom walking out of the room when he walked in and me getting up to go to school and finding Pop sleeping on the couch.
I especially remember heavy silences on Sunday mornings, instead of Recuerdos del Ayer, the music of World War II that usually sent my parents down Spanish Memory Lane. Sometimes they would even dance, right there in the living room, all by themselves. But that was before THE MAN.
When I got my report card and I took it to Mom and she said, “Give it to your father to sign.” And then Pop got mad and said, “Take it to your mother.” I felt like a spinning top going back and forth and not wanting to make either one of them mad at me. It was real bad for a while.
Finally, Mom found a way. A special program, a co-signing relative. One night she came home with papers that she put at Pop’s place on the table. I was doing my homework in the living room when he came home. He went to the table and sat down heavily. He read the papers while she stood in the doorway. The lines in her face were chiseled in. It took a long time before he finally looked up.
“You did it without me, didn’t you?” The words came out dangerously red.
“No, Pedro. I want to do it with you. I want us to do this thing together. I want you to sign.”
I could hear the stiffness in her words. She was ready for a fight and ready to win. Pop must have heard it too because the color of his voice changed. The red turned dark, heavy, tired, the danger subsided to pain.
“Don’t you think I want what’s best for her too?” His voice was thick with emotion.
Surprised at his tone, the lines in Mom’s face shifted, smoothed out a little. “Then I don’t understand.”
“Do I have to say it? Can’t you see? I am the man. I should be the one.”
“You are the one. You and me together.” Her voice was rounder, less sharp, warmer than I had heard it in a long time.
“If I can’t get the car, how can I get you a house? How can I watch them stamp my dignity away with their red ink on an application? How can I face you, a failure once again? I thought the car—that, I can do. It would take a long time, years maybe, but I could save the money and buy our dreams. But a house? How can I buy you a house? My mind can’t stretch that far. I don’t want to go, hat in hand asking your family for help. I am the man. It should be me.”
The last words were squeezed out, as though he had run out of breath and could say no more. Mom took his face in her hands and kissed away the tear on his right cheek. She hugged him as she stood before his chair, his face resting on her chest.
“We are a family. It never has to be just you. It should always be us.”
Pop took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“All right.” So tired. “You win.” He swallowed hard. “I’ll sign the papers…for Carisa.”
I left the room. This was not my place to be.
In my memory, it seems only days, but it actually must have been many months later that the moving vans pulled up out front and four men in blue overalls packed up every piece of furniture in our apartment onto the longest trucks I had ever seen. Mom must have packed all our other stuff because I remember clothes and kitchen stuff and curtains and everything in boxes. They put all our belongings in those big trucks and deposited them in our new home–a tiny single family attached house that smelled like a new car.
I remember my father complaining and grumbling the whole time. He told the men how to move the couch, how to drive and swore they’d steal our stuff and we’d never see them again. He complained about the weather and the time it took to get everything over there. He grumbled about how far away it was from ‘everything’. Finally, he disappeared from the apartment before the last piece went into the truck. I jumped into the front seat with the driver and stared out the window as we left our old neighborhood behind. Mrs. Jackson stood on the corner in her Sunday best. Mrs. Goldberg stood by her, cane in hand. They waved until I couldn’t see them anymore. As we turned onto Southern Boulevard, I thought I caught sight of Pop standing in front of the Chevy dealership, shoulders slumped, forehead resting on the glass.
Pop carried on the whole time Mom unpacked boxes and made the beds. When I finally fell asleep, exhausted from the move, the last words I heard after he snapped off the hall light, was Pop complaining about the huge ConEd bills we would now have to pay.
I walked into the kitchen the next morning and caught him running his hands over the sleek counters. When he saw me, he cleared his throat, put on his hat and left for work, closing the door quietly.
The following day was Pop’s day off. Mom and I left early, while he was still in bed. He had been home alone all day. When Mom and I walked in the door that evening, every light in the house was on. The warmth of the kitchen greeted us as we walked in. The utensils, dishes, crockery, everything, had been unpacked, washed and now sat gleaming in the open kitchen cabinets.
We looked at each other in amazement. Mom called out for Pop and got no answer. We walked through the living room and around to the dining room. The china closet stood empty. The table was set with our holiday-only linen and Mom’s good china. In the middle of the table stood a huge vase full of yellow flowers. The smell of pernil and the sounds of old Spanish love songs filled the air.
Next to the laden table stood Pop, struggling to remove Mom’s apron from his waist and finally, ripping it off and stashing it away as we walked in. There he was, his face sweaty, shifting his weight from foot to foot, pride shining on his face as he prepared to serve his family their first fancy meal in his new home.