A story from NYC’s West Side in the 1970s, when I grew up there
Ana had told her son the story of his miracle many times before. When his mother began this evening he leaned his head against her shoulder and closed his eyes, listening to her recite the story in the same measured tones with which she prayed the rosary.
“Yes, Roberto, you were so very tiny…” She lingered over his name, never shortening it the way the teachers did at the Head Start program. At the end of a long day taken up with crafts and fingerprinting and snacks, Roberto longed to hear his mother’s voice calling his full name, trilling the “r” sounds and calling him home to supper and his bath. He liked his teachers and the other children, but sometimes hearing “Rob” startled him, like the sharp, sudden bark of the neighbor’s Doberman Pinscher.
By the point in the story when Ana usually imitated her premature infant son’s raspy breathing, Roberto the five-year-old was asleep, his chest rising and falling evenly. Ana slipped him under the covers with as much care as though she were still handling a delicate baby. At the door to his room she paused to look at him before shutting off the light. That this sturdy, energetic little boy had grown from her tiny infant was a marvelous thing.
The school, with its Victorian wrought iron gates and gargoyles protruding from the corners, reminded Roberto of the Central Park Zoo. They came to the school every Saturday afternoon in the warmer months to pick up their order from the food co-op, usually their staples: Rice, dried beans, spices, brown sugar and fruit.
Roberto loved to get there early and watch them unload the truck. He imagined that during the week it drove to all the places where the food was grown, and returned in time to deliver it on Saturdays. Ana laughed when he reported this to her and added “And maybe one day Roberto will get on the truck and see the world, no?” He drew back, wide-eyed at this suggestion. Getting on the truck and leaving Mama and their neighborhood: This was a serious thing.
“Es posible, es posible,” he murmured, taking on a vague, adult air. They spoke both Spanish and English together, she knew it was important, although Ana’s work as a housekeeper didn’t give her much practice reading and writing English.
Ana turned her attention to gathering their order, putting the large bag of rice at the bottom of the folding cart first, and the other things on top. The last thing to go in was a three-foot piece of sugar cane, its ends oozing sweet sap. Ana cut and peeled a small piece for Roberto with her pearl-handled pocketknife. She shook her head as she did so.
“This cane is really much too expensive, Roberto. It’s all water. I don’t think we will buy it again,” she teased.
“You can’t trick me!” He cried indignantly. “I heard you ask Carlos to bring us more next week.”
Ana smiled her defeat in the argument and handed him the peeled cane. After wiping the blade of the little knife she folded it and tucked it into the pocket of her jeans.
She always carried it when they went shopping, critically slitting open plastic packaging that prevented her from judging the produce. When shopkeepers objected, she made a quick response that was always the same: “Grocers in Puerto Rico aren’t afraid for customers to inspect their goods!” After their first year of living on Amsterdam Avenue the bodega owners would brag to one another about her patronage, saying “Ana brought her tomatoes here last week.”
They walked home in the April sunshine, past their parish church where Roberto also attended Head Start, and where he would be going to day camp during the summer months. Seeing the building, Ana frowned, although not so Roberto noticed. He was five now so he wouldn’t return there in fall, he would start Kindergarten at the elementary school where the co-op gathered. She was troubled by what the teacher at Head Start said, that reading stories to the children in English would help them so much when they entered Kindergarten. Quickly she addressed her son in a cheerful, confident voice.
“Next year you will begin school,” and Roberto’s head came up sharply to look at her instead of the cracks in the sidewalk he had been following. He was pretending they were a secret map. “It’s a good thing,” she continued reflectively, “I am too old for scholar’s tricks.”
Roberto took this in without comment. He was not shy, but neither did he chatter away like some children. Even when he was a baby he had been quiet, so much so that it worried Ana. She turned to her mother, who had had four children and so, Ana thought, would know better than she whether it was cause for worry.
“Roberto senior’s death called his son into the world early,” her mother wrote. “Perhaps it also made him more serious than other babies.”
The first year after her husband’s death, Ana stayed in their home in Puerto Rico, but she felt hollow, as if she were just going through the motions of daily living. The baby helped, the routine of his care giving form to her days. She remembered vividly when the insurance settlement arrived. She had just finished bathing Roberto Junior, when the postman pushed the envelope under her door. Ana eyed it suspiciously before picking it up to verify that it was, indeed, the check that was supposed to compensate to her husband’s death on the loading dock.
After putting Roberto down for a nap, Ana had propped the check up on the dining room table and devoted an hour to chastising it for being such a poor replacement for her husband. She was not hysterical, rather, she listed her complaints quietly and systematically.
“First of all,” she had said, “although you will support us for awhile, you will run out. Roberto never would have let me see the day that I would worry about how to take care of his child.” She ended her critique with a lament for his capable hands, which used to play the guitar as easily as they traced the curve of her hips.
As Roberto Junior gained weight and strength, Ana began to think about leaving. Their house, and every corner and shop in town, reminded her of her husband. Here was where he had played soccer; this shop was where he had bought her a colorful bird. New York City, she gathered from people’s stories, had none of this intimacy. It sounded harsh and busy, but also exciting.
“It’s just as well,” she told her one-year-old son while packing, “I don’t feel like pretty places, or living easy.” Soon after, they arrived in New York. Ana chose their apartment for its proximity to the church and the school, and for its kitchen, spacious by city standards. It was into the kitchen that Ana and Roberto headed as soon as they returned from the co-op.
Roberto settled himself on the counter, letting the heels of his sneakers drum on the white cabinet door below.
“Don’t bang” Ana said automatically.
“Teacher said you have to fill out the papers for the summer camp.”
Ana looked up, forgetting for a moment about trying to make space in the cabinet for the bag of rice.
“Did she say anything else? Anything about school?”
“She said we’re going to get shots in the fall. They’ll pinch my arm. Ouch!” He made a stabbing motion to his arm. “We play we’re getting shots” he added, more quietly, as though the gravity of his future had just struck him.
“Is that all she said about camp and school?”
“Yes. Let’s watch the movie this afternoon, okay?”
They often watched the movies on Saturdays, admiring the exploits of the heroes in black and white. When the plot or dialogue escaped them they laughed at their own made-up explanations. During the slow, romantic scenes that climaxed in the hero taking his lady’s hand, or perhaps in one chaste kiss, Ana would play cat’s cradle with a restless Roberto.
Ana went into the living room and turned on the television. They were just in time to see the opening scenes of a movie about a Spanish champion who rode his magnificent black horse through the manor houses of corrupt noblemen.
“Look, a school!” Roberto exclaimed. The castle, with its tall, finely worked iron gates did indeed resemble the school where they had just been.
“No, that’s a house, a fancy house.”
“Will we live at school when I got there in the fall?”
“You’ll go during the day, when I go to work.”
“But I’ll have books and work to bring home” Roberto predicted firmly. “Angelo does.” Angelo was an eight-year-old boy who lived down the hall. Sometimes he allowed Roberto to see his pet lizard.
“Yes,” Ana said more to herself than to him, “And what will I do then to help you?”
On Monday Ana brought the summer camp forms to the Head Start. The previous evening she had paid bills and then sat up late with the Spanish-English dictionary, looking up the words on the form she didn’t understand. Permission for field trips, consent for emergency medical care, the lines about whether he would bring lunch or eat the one they supplied — she had read them all as well as she could, checked off her responses, and signed the forms.
“Miss Stillman, the papers, for summer” Ana said, holding them out. The teacher perched on the edge of the arts and crafts table. She seemed grateful to have an excuse to stop running after a little boy whose shirt was inside out.
“This looks complete” she nodded, smoothing her curly hair that was escaping a barrette. “Do you have any questions?” She said kindly, after a moment in which Ana neither spoke nor turned away.
Mutely Ana shook her head, and took Roberto’s hand in preparation to leave. He was clutching a sheaf of paint-encrusted pictures, each with his initials printed neatly in the corner by a teacher. The teacher’s eyes fell on one of the bright paintings where Roberto had made a few clumsy letters, and she spoke again.
“If you like, Mrs. Fernandez, there are some books, free books. We collected them so the parents could read different books to their kids to help them get ready for school. Look over here.”
Ana followed her gesture and generous tone of voice. What did Miss Stillman want?
“See, here they are. Pick one or two and you can take them home.”
Ana could see right away that the crate contained books for children and adults. The covers of some interested her and she could read a few words in the jumble of titles: “Facts…Bell…Car.” None was in Spanish, though. One oversized book caught her attention and she picked it up. It was a hardcover, and had a clear plastic wrapping that crackled when she touched it. The gray cover showed only a title and a sketch of a hand.
Roberto shifted impatiently. “Are you going to take it? You can, they’re free.”
Ana realized that he had that he had understood much more of what Miss Stillman had said then she had.
“Yes” she replied, tucking the gray book under her arm.
After supper that evening, while Roberto pushed his plastic boats through sudsy channels in the bath, Ana opened the book. She was astonished as she turned the pages, for there was no text inside the book, only a few words under each image. The images were all of hands: Drawings, photographs and paintings of hands. There were skeletal diagrams and sketches of the muscles. There were dozens of photographs of the hands of ordinary people, and Ana pored over them, imagining the work that they did, the source of their scars.
When Roberto had his pajamas on, Ana sat next to him on the bed and opened the book across their laps. She turned to the page she wanted. “These hands worked all day and held the rosary beads every evening,” she began, “and now in retirement they are restless, and long to care for grandchildren, or to weave something. But you see,” she continued, pointing to the swollen finger joints “the hands are so stiff that they won’t obey. So they must be nourished by younger hands. Like yours!”
Ana playfully snatched Roberto’s hand and acted as if she would take a bite. Roberto giggled and grabbed her hand too, but the smell of ammonia on her chapped skin made him wrinkle his nose and draw back. Ana pretended not to see.
A note to readers: Firstly, thank you for giving my story a chance. I hope you enjoyed it. Secondly, in case you are wondering, this story is part of my new mission to share some writings that (thanks to the dynamics of traditional publishing) have never seen the light of day. I reflected on how I decided to share my “personal slush pile” in this article: