Sunday Scribblings--Thief (Stolen Goods), a fiction
"A thief at nine saves time." That’s what Tio Pepe said in his always-groggy voice. I thought he was talking to me...or about me. After all, I was the only nine year old in the room.
"What? I should steal? That saves time?" I asked him quickly, trying to get him to answer before he fell back to sleep. He muttered something and leaned back on the couch, the plastic cover crushing the velvet my mother always tried to protect.
She stood in the kitchen doorway, wiping her hands on a Bounty. "Oh, he means 'A stitch in time saves nine.' He’s always mixing those old sayings up."
But it still had my age mixed in there, and honestly, it made more sense the way Tio Pepe said it. Mami always made fun of me when I tried to puzzle out his half-finished phrases. She said he was sleeping off the effects of too much aquardiente. I used to imagine that fire water rushing down his throat, like the rapids I saw on Channel 13 once. Or sometimes I used to imagine his soul like a little missionary in the jungle of his insides, being boiled by natives drenching him in aquardiente. When I told Mami this, she shook her head until her blonde ponytail whipped her cheek. "Don’t lie, Carmen. It’s like stealing the truth from the other person. It’s like stolen goods."
But I didn’t REALLY believe that stuff, though...I just liked to imagine it. If anything, I had the opposite problem...I HAD to tell the truth. Couldn’t keep a secret to save my life. It was like the time I bit down on a chili pepper and electric sparks flew into my mouth. My Daddy told me to keep it inside, that it was bad manners to spit it out, but I couldn’t help myself. A secret feels just like that.
It didn’t seem strange that Tio Pepe was sleeping on the couch while Mami made breakfast. It didn’t seem strange that Daddy was already out, at the store. This was the way things were in our house then...tios and tias sweeping in and out like dusty leaves, with Mami making café and leche for them and medianoche sandwiches, and them confessing stories to her as they ate. I think they liked to talk to Mami because she was a little outside of them...not Cuban, like them, not even Latina. So she could be trusted to hold onto their secrets until they needed them again. And Mami liked to keep them...she liked to be at the center of things, and belong.
Usually, they didn’t even notice me huddled in the corner of the kitchen, scratching off the fake wood paint off the table leg or using my Barbie’s blonde hair (just like Mami’s) to sweep the floor around me.
Once I got to the playground, I used to tell the other kids the stories I heard in the kitchen. I don’t know why they never believed me, but they always liked to listen. That was lucky for me, because they never really told the grown ups what they heard from me, and I never got in trouble. I told you, I was terrible at keeping my mouth shut.
This morning, Mami was adjusting her transitor radio, jiggling the knob past the whine of the static until she got a clear song. Love will keep us together by Captain and Tennile...my favorite song that summer I turned nine. I sang along with my mother’s back as she stood elbow deep in dishes and water.
Daddy burst in and kissed me, dropped his hat on the table. He stared at Mami for a minute, all quiet like he was wondering something. His white t-shirt was a little too tight, just how he liked it. Mami used to wash them in boiling hot water to make sure they looked just like that...like they could barely contain all of Daddy.
After a minute (might have been shorter, but that's how it felt), he cleared his throat. To my mother’s back he said, "So...you know what I hear at the store today?" "Heard" Mami corrected, automatically. Daddy rolled his eyes at me--he hated when Mami corrected him, hated that her English was native...but he hated it more when she didn’t, and he made a mistake in front of the people who looked up to him.
"So I heard," he said, giving the word a heaviness that was like stamping his foot, "that Marta is coming here for a few weeks to visit her sister in law. Remember her?"
She didn’t react, not right away. Just kept washing and humming Love will keep us together. Then she turned around, bubbles still near her wrist and said, "Yeah?" But it didn't sound curious. It didn't sound like any tone I'd heard from her before.
I knew I should leave them alone, so I slid out of the room before I was asked, so I could linger on the other side of the doorway.
"Why you always tense up when I mention her?" He asked in a way that told me he already knew the answer. I waited for Mami to correct him, but she didn’t.
"Why you always bring her up?" she said, sounding like him.
"What’s the big deal? It’s the past. Past is past."
"Then leave her there. Stop reminding me of it."
"What reminder? I just bring her up now!"
"That’s what you think." She sounded tired. "I know what everyone says...that I stole you from her. That I’m an Americana thief."
"Nah...they know. They know I needed to stay. They know what happened."
I think he was trying to make her feel better, and he reached out to flick her apron, but I could see her flinch away from his hand. "I really wish you hadn’t said that."
And with that, she walked out of the room.
I spent years after that, playing that conversation over and over in my mind. So short, small words, and the meaning always seemed to be off to one side, moving away from me. Everything changed, but nothing changed. It was like the kitchen floor was cracked, and we had to walk around it and around it until we couldn't anymore. We had to pick a side. But it wasn't whole anymore.
That was the summer I became a thief--saving time, just like Tio Pepe prophesied, because just like everyone around me, I would have become one eventually. That was the summer I stopped keeping my time in the kitchen, learned to keep quiet and my stories inside my mouth.
Because that was the summer I learned something about stolen goods. Sometimes you can’t get rid of them. Sometimes you can’t give them back.
To steal more Sunday Scribblings, go here.
Labels: sunday scribblings