Superman! I am Superman! Watch me Ma’! The little boy shouted over the blaring TV as Superman flew across the skies. He ran across the living room in his Superman briefs, wanting to be visible. To be revered the way his favorite super hero was. He had the same dreams that every child is born with – to be of purpose, to find his passion, and to leave a legacy that undeniably states, “I am somebody.” That’s what he saw in Superman.
He grabbed the polyester beige curtains that hung heavy on the window, stained by the neglect of poverty, like the sidewalk and alley that bordered our apartment complex. A cape that would allow him to fly beyond the screeching cars, drunkards, and sirens that kept us in. He twirled and twirled, losing himself in an intoxicating feeling of vertigo; feeling his weightless body floating off the ground.
He flew from the second floor, they said. Ay Dios Mio what a tragedy. It was the mother’s fault – why wasn’t she watching him. Too many kids to look after. No. It was the landlord’s fault. That window sits just a few inches from the floor – he should have put bars on the window, but he is too cheap.
The little boy was lucky the paramedic said. The concrete ledge allowed him to fall in a seated position, avoiding trauma to the head. The little boy never flew again.
I heard a knock on the door. Mamá had left to go to the liquor store, so I opened the door assuming she had come back. She had warned me about opening the door up to strangers, and had always insisted that I ask who was at the door before opening it. But I really thought Mamá was at the door, too young to discern that Mamá had her house keys.
“Hey, your mom sent us for her wallet. A little boy at the store hurt his arm and your mom is over there helping him out . . . she needs money to buy more gauze for his arm.” Three teenage girls stood there – like older sisters keeping guard, protecting. Their faces were soft like caramel chocolate and their hair was adorned with hair bobbles like the bubble gum in the one-cent machine at the liquor store. The machine for which I so eagerly searched for lost pennies on the ground.
“Okay, wait.” I closed the door. Mamá kept a clutch-like brown wallet in a 3-tier wire-hanging basket in the kitchen. I grabbed a chair to reach for it, and just like that the wallet walked away with $205 from the AFDC check she had just cashed.
When Mamá came back, I asked her if the boy’s arm was okay.
She asked me, “What boy?”
I felt a flash of heat consume me from inside. My cheeks throbbing hot and a pounding reproach in my head. Instantaneously we both looked toward the empty wire-hanging basket. The blaring questions, the look of disappointment, the slamming of the door, it’s all a blur now.
The next time I tasted bubble gum, it didn’t taste as sweet. Strangers who looked nice were still strangers. The windows became suspicious. That month Mamá rationed our food more strictly.
I could tell it was morning. The smell of burnt egg lingered like the smell of stale alcohol from the alley. No matter how much oil Tita Carmen poured, the eggs always stuck to the pan. Los pinches sartenes as she called them, were worn like the bottoms of our shoes or the look on my mom’s face after a long day’s work. Besides the smell of the eggs, there was nothing else to distinguish day from night. The traffic outside our window seemed too busy to notice us. Sirens and gunshots warned us of a world we were too little to understand.
Waiting was the only eventful aspect of our lives – waiting for anything to remind us that we were still part of this world. Tio Chiquis, Tita’s son, called her to let her know he was stopping by on his way home to Tijuana. She didn’t get the opportunity to see him often. He was always working or grandma was always busy taking care of us. A few moments later, heard a loud muffled voice coming from outside. There were cop cars everywhere like pieces of paper scattered in no particular direction. There was a woman with a shot-gun holding the apartment complex hostage, and cops, who seemed to be bumping into each other like squirming blue ants.
Tita paced back and forth from the kitchen window to the living room, more concerned about missing her opportunity to see my uncle than the threatening woman standing outside our door with the shot-gun. Pinche vieja, no mas que se vaya’a ir mi hijo sin verlo y no se la va’acabar con migo. The window in our kitchen slid up to open and hung twenty-four inches from the floor. In a moment of desperation, Tita climbed out of the window, and the story goes she grabbed the woman in a nelson hold, slipping both of her arms underneath the woman’s armpits and locking her hands behind the woman’s neck. The cops were able to handcuff the woman before my uncle arrived.
This was the woman who nurtured and protected me for 36 years of my life; who helped me raise my daughter, until the day her (Tita’s) body conceded to cancer.
I could smell the stench from the stale alcohol diluted with dreams pissed away by shattered hopes like the broken malt liquor bottles in the alley that separated our apartment complex from the Green Cat Liquors store, standing on one of the Four Corners of Death. In the background, I could hear the screeching and honking of cars sometimes competing against the noise of booming music. The muddy brown apartments stood there drunken with screams and reproaches of could be’s and could’ve been’s. Mamá and I had just returned from the Laundromat. I was standing next to her as she opened the trunk of her car to grab the basket of clothes. A shadow approached her from behind pointing a gun at her. He demanded she give him her purse. I could see the look of resistance in Mamá’s eyes, the same look I had seen in my grandmother when she was confronted with abuse and injustice. Mamá held her purse tightly like the five-dollar bill that got us through the end of the month. When she refused to let go, he elevated the gun, pointing it right at her forehead, and cocked it making the sound of a ticking clock. I knew that if she didn’t release the purse, he might hurt her. I stepped in between him and mamá and facing him, his eyes, I matter-of-factly said, “Dale la bolsa mamá.” The three of us stood there suspended in time, crossing paths like the cracks on the oil-stained pavement. She had no choice but to let go. As he yanked mamá’s purse and began to run, she gave it one last tug. I grabbed her arm as if to remind her that it was okay to let go. We stood there in silence listening to the rattling nickels and pennies that had escaped from the purse.
At the time of the incident, there was not a black gate surrounding the perimeter of the apartment complex.