The rain rushes in Georgetown. It’s the May-June rain, the heaviest of the year. When it rains, it sounds like the sun on a chilly day. Bright and bold enough to catch your ear, but low enough to sit under your thoughts. Today, the sky is rowding. If Mummy were here, she’d say, “Is who fighting up there?” The air is wet. It’s the worst thing about days like this. It makes my hair puff up and my skin sticky. It smells sweet, but not like fudge or ice cream. No, it smells stronger than that. I can’t tell what it is.
As I stand outside of the schoolhouse, I can hear the sounds of sandals flapping as people find places to hide. The cake shop across the street is full of people. Some talk, others stand quietly. All waiting for the downpour to stop. Mummy expects me home soon. She has to go to Miss Hamilton’s house. Miss Hamilton is expecting her baby today.
Tisha is standing next to me. Her skin is lighter than mine and clear. Her smile is large despite the crooked teeth that everyone makes fun of her for. Her skinny body looks even tinier underneath her brown canvas bookbag. She was mad with me yesterday. We were talking during class and Miss George only caught her. She got ten licks with the ruler. I reminded her of the time Miss. George beat me in front of the whole class because Tisha passed me a note and I refused to tell Miss George who it was from. We made up.
“Where’s your raincoat, girl?” she says.
“I left it at home. I don’t want to get my hair wet. Mummy pressed my hair just last night.”
“You don’t have a rain cap?”
“No, I left that too.”
“The rain is heavy today. It might take a while for it to stop.” “Y eah.”
“Jump in the car, nuh? There’s two right there,” she says, pointing to the road. The rain looks like someone is pelting water at the cars from up above. An old woman waves a handkerchief at one of the drivers.
“Edgar should be around here somewhere. I got to find him. We’ll go home together.” She giggles, “Your brother is always around here somewhere.”
“Alright, I’m getting into this one. I’ll see you.” She finishes tying the rain cap around her tight bun and flags the man down just like the old woman. Her blue raincoat disappears behind the brown door. She doesn’t have money, but she’ll get in anyway.
“I ain’t got nothing today, driver.” she’ll say.
Sometimes the driver will say, “It’s alright.” and sometimes he will say nothing. Either way, he’ll drop her off and speed away.
It is too bright, she thinks. Why is it so bright? She blinks her eyes and decides to close them. Her body aches. Her knees, her elbows, her head. Last night’s shift was rough. She breathes in deeply. Even her lungs hurt. She feels beneath her body. The sheets are hard, like
Victor forgot to use fabric softener again. Her feet are cold and cracked. I need to pick up more shea butter, she thinks.
She opens her eyes.
Is where the hell I am?
This room is not her bedroom. The red curtains that her mother sent from home are now off-white shades with gray buildings beyond them. Her brown wooden nightstand has turned into a white set of drawers with chipped paint on the corners and a lamp on in the middle of the day. There is a television here, one that she didn’t buy or own. The fluorescent lights make her squint. She blinks, hoping something will change the next time she opens her eyes. It does not. The scratchy sheets seem to wrap themselves around her like a strait jacket. The terror bubbles up in her and rests in her throat.
She takes short, shallow breaths. Hee Hee Hooooo. Hee Hee Hoooooo. Just like when she was pregnant. Maybe she passed out at work? Or while on the subway? The bubbles feel stronger now. Maybe something happened at home? She reaches for the bars keeping her in the bed. Her hand has more wrinkles than she remembers.
Where the hell am I?
It smells like vomit. Like that time when Valerie ate an entire box of chocolate bunnies in school after an easter egg hunt. She remembers cleaning the brown bile with chunks of what looks to be meat off of her young daughter’s uniform shirt. She can’t feel her heart anymore. It picked its legs up and ran away the second she opened her eyes. Breathing is hard. Moving is hard. Her hands shake and her eyes feel like something is blaring. Nothing is staying still. Nothing is staying still. She tries to speak and the words don’t come out. Her eyes begin to roll back. She hears a faint noise in the undercurrents of the room.
What noise is dat? Is where the hell I am?
A blurry figure appears in front of her, “Mrs. Daniels, we’re gonna give you something to make you feel better.”
No, who are you? Show yuh face coward, who are you?
“Mrs. Daniels, we’re just trying to help. You should feel better in just a little bit.”
She began to feel woozy and her eyes close involuntarily. She forces them open. They shut again.
A figure appears above her. This time with darker skin and prettier eyes. This girl’s face is sweet and inviting. Her eyes are brown and big, accented by long eyelashes. Her skin is brown with tones of red and yellow and her cheeks glisten, even under the fluorescent lights. Her eyes shut again.
“I love you Mommy. I’ll be back later.”
She feels something wet and warm on her face. What a nice girl. Nice, pretty girl. I hope
she find her Mommy.
I feel a flick on the back of my neck.
“Oy, Maj.” Edgar sticks his tongue out.
“Stop it!” I yell.
“Go inside, you’re too young to be out here with big people.”
“Your eyes pass me. At least I know how to put a toilet seat down.” I retort.
An unfamiliar voice laughs. I peer past Edgar and see a dark brown face. His eyebrows
are thick and his voice is deep. It is summer and I am a year into Teachers College.
“Who are you?” I say.
“Victor Daniels,” he says with a foreign twang.
“He just moved in down the street. From Linden.” Edgar says.
“Mummy is delivering his auntie’s baby right now.”
“Miss Davis?” I say.
“Mhmm.” he replies.
“Yuh don’ deliver babies like yuh mum?” The accent is thicker than I’m used to. “No, I can’t stand blood and all of that. It’s nasty. I like children much more.”
I once asked Mummy how she does it. She smiled and said,“All children are a gift.
Once you know that- truly know that- the rest is easy.”
Victor shrugs and nods his head like I’ve given him a satisfactory answer.
“What do you do?” I ask.
“Carpentry. In training wit my Uncle over on Waterloo Street.”
“We got a few things that could use some fixing here.”
“It’s only his second week, he can’t fix anything yet.” Edgar laughs.
“Just for dat, I gon charge you extra.”
I laugh before I can decide to laugh. It comes out as a high-pitched giggle. He looks
down at the table.
“Yuh at Teachers College?”
“Yes, first year.”
“Good, yall need good teachers in Georgetown. Teach yall some manners.”
His skin is bright under the light of the sun. The clouds roll in the sky like white puffs of smoke. In the distance, I can see gray clouds moving through the sky.
“Edgar, it’s gonna rain. I got to go to the grocery store for supper. Give me a drop.” “I can’t. I have to bring this basin to Mrs. Davis’s house. Mummy forgot it.”
I turn to Victor. “Do you have a bike?”
“He laughs and points to a blue one leaning against a pole near the road.
“Give me a drop to the store.”
“Leh we go.” he says.
I mount the back of the bike holding the bag for vegetables in one hand with the other
around Victor’s waist. The winds whips past my ears and makes my scalp feel cool under the hot sun. Victor pedals fast. The bag knocks against my thigh in a steady rhythm. His waist requires me to stretch my body. I can feel it in my lower back. His belly feels like a rock with a layer of jelly over it. His blue collared shirt feels soft against my face. I like the warmth of his back on my cheeks. At first, I try not to lean my whole body against his, but give in. He doesn’t seem to mind. He smells ok, like palm oil and cologne. It’s a weird scent – smells like of cocoa and cherries, something only an old man would wear.
The spattering of coins on the pavement stings her ears. “Help me baby, help me. Pick them up.” she says.
She shifts her bag from her shoulder to her wrist and stuffs her wallet back into the moshpit of cards, keys, Nature Valley wrappers and loose sheets of paper that is her purse.
“Here, mommy.” “Thank you, baby.”
She carefully places each coin into the meter.
“25, 50, 75…” she counts to herself.
“Do you have any change?”
He ruffles through his pockets, “I have a quarter.”
He places the piece into her hand, “Thank you.”
She adds the coin and a white paper receipt emerges from the meter. She places it on the
dashboard of the 2001 Toyota Corolla. It was her mother’s before. But Isaiah is six now and they need a way to get around their Queens neighborhood.
The lobby of the building is bustling as they enter. The marble floor reflects her brown braids and black thin-rimmed glasses. White lab coats flap behind balding heads. The sound of running water from a fountain is the only consistent noise connecting snatches of conversations about what to have for lunch and which patient is most likely to require surgery. The conversations twine together in the echoes of the lobby of the Alzheimer’s Research Institution of New York City. Isaiah’s backpack rolls smoothly past doctors, nurses, security guards, and receptionists, all the way to the help desk placed next to rows of electronic gates.
“Hello, how may I help you?” she hears a voice from behind the desk. “Good afternoon, I’m here to see Dr. Chin.”
“Ok, what’s your name?”
The woman behind the desk clicks through the computer. “Did you have an appointment?”
“No, this is a walk-in, it’s an emergency.” Valerie begins fiddling with her necklace. “It involves my mother. Dr. Chin usually works out of the hospital, but she told me to come here.”
“Well, I don’t see your name here, even as a walk-in.”
“Well she is expecting me.”
“I understand ma’am but, from the looks the schedule, she’ll be busy for the next few
hours. You’re welcome to came ba–”
“I can’t come back, my mother is up there. Can you please call her?”
“I’m sorry ma’am but I can’t disrupt her office right now.”
“I already said that this was an emergency, what part of that don’t you understand?” “Ma’am, you’re welcome to sit and wait but–“
“I can’t wait, my mother is upstairs, you don’t understand.”
“Ma’am please don’t raise you voice or I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
“Are you kidding me? I’m telling you that my mother is upstairs and you’re–“ “Mommy, stop.”
Valerie looks down to Isaiah’s hand on her forearm. A security guard twenty feet away is out of his chair and staring.
“It’s ok, we can call her.”
Valerie sighs and turns to the woman, “We’ll call her then.”
“That’s fine ma’am, there are seats near the fountain.”
Valerie sits down and breathes in sharply. Closes her eyes and breathes in again. Her hands shake as she pulls her phone out of her bag. She looks at the screen to find three (212) numbers.
“Shit, I can’t remember which one of these is her number,” she says to herself.
“First, I called the hospital, and then Dr. Chin? Or was that the man that found her? No, he did call the hospital and then they called me and gave me Dr. Chin’s number. It’s the second one, ok.”
She presses the screen and holds the phone to her ear. marjorie “Hello, Dr. Chin’s office.”
“Hello, this is Valerie, Marjorie’s daughter. I’m at 225 5th Ave and I’m trying to get up to see my mother and Dr. Chin and they’re not allowing me to.”
“Oh, my apologies, I’ll let them know that she’s expecting you.”
Valerie hangs up and gathers her things.
“Are we going back over there?” Isaiah says.
“Yes, we have to get passes to go up.”
“Please don’t yell at her mom.”
“Isaiah, sometimes you have to be forceful to get anything, especially with people who are rude and don’t want to help. That’s what I was doing. Your grandmother is upstairs and I have to see her, don’t you see that?”
“But you don’t have to yell.”
“I will decide when and where I have to yell, do you hear me? I don’t want to hear
anything else. Get your bag, let’s go.”
Valerie approaches the desk again.
“My name should be there now.”
“Yes, I just got the call. I need your pictures for your passes.”
Valerie sighs and moves in front of the small black camera that looks more like an avant- garde lamp.
“Him too? He’s thirteen.”
“Yes, we take pictures of anyone eight or older.”
Valerie starts to say something but doesn’t. Instead she steps away and Isaiah’s small frame replaces hers in front of the camera.
“Ok you’re all set. Here you go, 30th floor, first door on the left.” The receptionist places the passes on the table.
Valerie takes the passes from the table and sticks one on her sweater and one on Isaiah’s coat. The electronic gates open for them and they walk towards the elevator.
The inside of Dr. Chin’s office is small and bright. There are watercolor paintings covering each wall and red and white tile on the floor. The lights are fluorescent, but less abrasive than the usual kind.
“Ms. Daniels, Dr. Chin is expecting you, you can step right through those blue doors.”
She turns to Isaiah, “Sit right there, I’ll be out in a few minutes.”
“Yeah, right.” Valerie stares.
“Sorry,” his mouth crinkles as he sits in the white chair.
“Do your homework, I’ll be out soon.”
The blue doors open to an office. The light from the large windows is instantly soothing.
The doctor’s desk is populated by trinkets: russian dolls, bobble heads, even a small replica of the statue of Zeus.
“Hi Valerie, it’s good to see you.”
Dr. Chin hugs her. Valerie begins to pull away but holds on for a few seconds longer. “She’s in one of our exam rooms. Still a little disoriented, but we gave her some
medication to calm her down. Would you like to see her before we talk or after?” “Can I see her now, please?”
“Of course, she’s right back here.”
They walk into a small room with a dresser, a TV, and a bed. Valerie watches the soft red blanket rise and fall with her mother’s breath. Dr. Chin begins to step further in and Valerie touches her arm, “Let’s let her sleep actually.”
They face each other on Dr. Chin’s matching blue couches. Valerie puts her bag besides her and crosses her legs and arms.
“How are things?”
“They’re fine. Isaiah is doing well in school and work is work. I still have a week of vacation time, so I can take some time to handle her.”
“You’re going to need it. I think it’s best that we make a plan.” Valerie nods and looks down at her hands
“Ok great. What do you think is the best option here?”
“I’m in the process of hiring another nurse to help out.” “How’s that going?”
“It’s a bit rough; my insurance isn’t working with me.”
“It’s a hard thing to get insurance to cover, I’ve seen many patients struggle.” “They’re just so difficult.”
“Have you considered a home?”
Valerie sits up a little straighter.
“No, I can’t, she’s my mother.”
“Valerie, your mother needs round the clock care.”
“And soon. This is the third time this has happened and I’m afraid it will happen again.” “She just likes to leave; she feels trapped so she just goes. And she doesn’t know her
limits because most of the time, she doesn’t know who she is or what she’s doing. I mean, you know, you’re her doctor. Isn’t there anything you can give her?”
“The only thing I could do is to prescribe her sedatives, but we’ve already talked about how much she hates taking them. Even giving them to her today was a struggle.”
Valerie’s head feels heavy and she just wants to close her eyes. It is a while before she speaks.
“Well, what can I do?”
“I think you should strongly consider a home.”
“I can’t do that to her, she’d hate me.”
“She’s not herself. It’s what the disease does.”
“I can’t put her in a home.”
“Valerie, this is the third time she’s left. Luckily that man at the gas station called the hospital and they were able to bring her here, but next time, I can’t let this pass.” “What do you mean?”
“I mean, I am required by law to report any suspected neglect.”
“Neglect? I have a kid and a job, I can’t be there all the time.”
“You’ve been her doctor for years, you know how hard I’ve been working and how difficult she gets.”
“I don’t want to do it, which is why–“
“You have so many patients like this, you have to understand what this is like.”
“I know its hard–“
“Clearly not, because you’re threatening me with–”
“I’m not threatening you Valerie, I’m simply bound by certain laws.”
“There are laws that tell you to berate your patients’ families? Is that what you people do here? Because please let me know so I can take my mother somewhere else.”
“Valerie, they wanted to try to charge you.”
“The police officers who picked up your mother knew that this had happened before and
wanted to bring you in for criminal neglect. I talked them out of it, but if this happens again, I can’t do that for you.”
She looks out of the windows at the gray buildings in the distance.
“I think you should consider a home. It’s been five years, Valerie, and to be very very frank, it’s never going to get easier. It’s not a nice thing to hear I know, but it’s a disease and there is no cure.”
“Here are a few that have amazing reputations.” She places three pamphlets on the table. “You don’t have to do anything right now, but take a look.”
Valerie continues to look at the buildings, and the sky and the planes.
“Thank you,” she says, tucking the brochures into her bag. “I have to get Isaiah home.
When can we get her back?”
“I can arrange a transfer for tomorrow afternoon, what time works for you?”
“I can get home by five.”
“Ok, I’ll put it in. Valerie, I’m sorry if I sounded harsh, but it’s my job to tell you.”
“Can I say goodbye to her?”
Valerie enters the small room once again. There is a nurse with long black hair pulled in
a pony in pink scrubs standing over her mother.
“She got a little fussy so we had to give her another dose of the sedative. She should fall
asleep in a few minutes.”
Valerie walks over the side of the bed and watches her mother. Maj’s eyebrows are
slightly furrowed, but the rest of her face remains at rest. Her skin looks old, but her face reminds her of a child’s.
“I love you mommy. I’ll be back later.”
For a few seconds, Valerie’s eyes flutter open, brown pupils visible. She is looking at her mother. They close again and Maj’s body goes back to rest. Valerie kisses her on the forehead and steps away from the bed and into the waiting room.
“Thank you Dr. Chin.”
“Not a problem, my office will call tomorrow with the details of the transfer. Have good night. And Isaiah, you’re almost done with middle school. Hang in there.”
“I’ll try,”he says, rolling his eyes.
Dr. Chin laughs, “We had a nice chat about how annoying eighth graders are.”
A slight smile flashes across Valerie’s face, “Come on Isaiah, let’s go. Good night.”
The air outside is cool and still. The melange of loud noise and loud voices has turned to low hums of gossip and the slender sound of tire meeting pavement.
“What is in your pocket?”
Isaiah looks up mischievously and pulls a wad of sticks with white wrappers and purple lettering.
“What are those?”
“You took all of those from that woman? Isaiah.”
“What? she said I could have them.”
“All of them?”
“Yeah, she wanted me to take em.”
Valerie sighs, “Ok. Give me one.”
She sticks the watermelon flavored sphere into her mouth. “How’s grandma?”
“She’s ok, she was resting when I saw her.”
“Is she coming home?”
“What was that face? Did you want to see her?”
“No, this flavor is sour apple.”
“Oh. Well, why didn’t you want to see her?”
“Because she always calls me Victor. That’s not my name.” “Bu–”
“I know, it’s because of her disease.”
June 4, 1974
Thank you for your letters. Please tell your mother I say hello. I started work last week and it’s nice. The other nurses are all Carib women. A lady from St. Kitts knows Calvin, the boy who lived on Hampton St. Do you remember him? You hated him! He used to pull the ribbons out of your hair everyday on the way to school. Disgusting boy, eh? Anyway, they are all kind. Victor just started working for a man named Ralph. He’s a Jamaican who owns a carpentry shop. Victor fixes pipes and heaters and locks. He’s still learning, but one day he’ll own his own shop, God willing. The apartment is small. Too small. I like the neighborhood, so hopefully we can find something close. We want to move soon but these people are not paying me like they said they would. Our manager says that the pay will increase the longer we work, but I talked to a nurse who’s been there three years and her pay hasn’t gone up at all. I thought Americans were supposed to be big big people; it’s not true. And people here just stare. They don’t say hello and they have horrible manners. It’s hot here, but not like back home. I miss the trees and the fruit. Mangos don’t taste the same here at all. But I can’t complain too much. I have a roof over my head and my husband by my side, thank God. The rest is in His hands.
June 6, 1975 Dear Tisha,
The funeral was a month ago. I didn’t feel it then, but I feel it now. It’s like he’s everywhere. In the bed, in the bathroom, in the shower. Everywhere. I still can’t believe that I have to do this. Raise a child without him? Valerie is one, she doesn’t even know what’s going on. Please pray for me, Tisha. I need it. I can’t even write a damn letter without stopping to cry. I have to go back to work tomorrow and I don’t know how I’m going to do it. I don’t know. Keep strong for me. I need it.
She cannot hear the rain but but she can see it, slashing past the window. It looks like it’s beating the glass, furiously and without restraint. She sees people dash from car to shelter and back again. Someone’s umbrella flips behind them as the speedily head to their destination. The air in the restaurant is so stuffy, she would prefer to be outside. At least the breeze would feel nice.
“Where’s Victor?” Her eyes look weary. “He should be home by now, where is he?”
Maj fidgets in her seat and looks around at the other patrons. The top of her lip curls as she looks at menu.
“What is this? This is not what I want. Where’s the salara. Miss, do they sell salara here?”
“No, they don’t” says Valerie. “They sell pancakes here.”
Pancakes? Her eyebrows furrow at the thought. Victor won’t like that. Where’s the nearest place that sells salara? It can’t be that far, I’ll pay for a cab.”
“We’re not back home, mommy.”
Valerie sits back in her chair and sips her tea. She looks out the window at the cars passing by. Upstate New York reminds her of the one time she drove through the countryside in Pennsylvania They had the same tall green trees, the majestic mountains, the skyline that didn’t seem to end and highways with four lanes and no traffic. She wants to be back there, driving with nowhere to go and plenty of time. Her mother gets especially antsy at this restaurant, but it’s the only one within the hospitals allowed radius that sells bagels with lox. Her mother loves bagels and lox.
“We’re in New York Mommy. At a restaurant near your hospital.”
Maj is silent. She too looks out the window in deep thought. Valerie notices her skin. It gets more folded and dented each time she visits. When she was coming twice a week, she didn’t notice anything. Twice a week became twice a month, and, twice a month became once a month. Today is the first time she’s visited in three months. Her mother’s eyes are tired and her hands are folded in her lap, like a child awaiting instructions.
“Excuse me, but who are you?”
Valerie is silent.
“Who’re you, dammit and where’s Victor?”
Valerie looks out the window.
“Yuh done lost yuh ears, huh?”
“Victor isn’t here” she blurts out, “and he’s not coming. He died thirty-eight years ago.”
“Yuh lie!” her mother picks up the empty plate on the table and smashes it to the ground. Valerie is still surprised that her strength is so intact.
“Yuh lie!” She screams picking up the glass next to her and smashing it to pieces. The waiter comes over.
“Ma’am you have to stop or we’ll have to ask you to leave.” He turns to me, “Control her.”
“Do I look like I am able to do that?” she says matter-of factly.
She sees the man’s face recoil at her words. “Just please. My manager will call the police if she continues.”
Her mother is crying now. Sobbing really, into her hands. Those same hands that used to hold her face between them. Those same hands that brought warmth and softness to Valerie as a child not held her mother’s tears.
“Where’s victor? Please just tell me where Victor is. I’ll do anything, just please tell me where he is. Bring him to me. Or just tell me where he is, I’ll find him. Pleasepleaseplease.”
Tears flow down her arms and off her elbows. She had never seen her mother cry until the symptoms started affecting her. Her whole life, she’d thought her mother too unbothered. Now, she thinks she was too preoccupied.
Valerie moves over to her mother’s side of the booth. She takes her frail shoulders and wraps her arms around them. She thinks of the hugs her mother would give her after a bad dream. She would come in to her and hum as she cradled her small body squeezing out the thoughts of monsters with large mouths and wide eyes. Valerie pulls her mother in tightly.
“It’s ok, Maj. It’s ok.”
“Please, I need Victor, please.”
“He’s on his way. He got caught up at work, but he’s on his way. I was mistaken. He’s coming, it’s just taking him a while.”
“Ok. Is he coming straight here?”
Her mother’s breaths calm themselves. She sighs over and over still in the embrace of her daughter. Valerie rubs her mother’s back.
“Are you sure you don’t want some food? They have bagels here with lox.”
“No, that’s ok, I’ll wait for Victor. He’s always doing this. Coming home late and making me worried. He better come home in time for sunset. He can’t miss supper. Do you think he’ll make it?”
“I’m sure he will.”