(This story first appeared in the Quarterly #FTW02 package.)
When I was seven we moved into an apartment across the street from the fire department. We’d been there about five months, maybe, which meant we were about seven months away from moving to another apartment. We moved every year. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not. But for now our father had moved us here. And in our long line of apartments this one wasn’t bad. Or good.
Like most neighborhoods we lived in, this one was in transition. Which meant the whites were transitioning their way out as more immigrants and blacks transitioned their way in.
The landlord’s office was a few doors down from us on the corner. He doubled as a notary public, not that I knew what a notary public was. In fact I managed to avoid notary publics completely until my first divorce. Both my mother and father referred to him simply as The Ukrainian. And they did their best to avoid him by sending me with the rent check every month. More accurately, the rent money order. Our people did not have checking accounts. We also did not have intricately painted wooden eggs in our houses like those that decorated The Ukrainian’s office. We baked our eggs into cakes.
If you made a right turn past the Ukrainian and a left at the Police Athletic League a block away, where the black kids played basketball, you’d run straight into Little Lisbon, where Portuguese immigrants like my parents did most of their grocery shopping (always on credit, settling up with every paycheck they cashed), congregated at a smoky café, and debated recent events at the travel agency that also served their major news and banking needs.
The rest of the neighborhood belonged to the Irish. Although it seemed like every month an Irish family would move out and a newly arrived Portuguese family would move in.
I was on my way home from the Portuguese grocery store with a loaf of bread for dinner on the evening this all happened. It was hotter than usual and I remember it was in July. I remember because I was thinking about my birthday a few days away.
I waved to The Ukrainian, who was standing outside his office staring towards our apartment. And as I turned the corner I noticed the firemen, who usually stood on the other side of the street smoking cigarettes, standing in front of our apartment. I ran past them and inside to find my mother, wearing a bra and a slip, sitting on the couch with two EMTs hovering over her. Her head was bleeding. They were dressing it. She was speaking to them in Portuguese. They had no idea what she was saying. She looked at me and told me to tell them she’d tripped down the stairs.
“What really happened, Mom?”
She was clutching a broken figurine in her right hand. I reached and took it from her. It was one of the ceramic or porcelain saints that littered the house. My mother rarely went to church herself. God knows I need to clean this house, she would tell us. But she made sure her sons went to Catholic school. All the Portuguese did, if only to avoid what they referred to as “the black school”. I had no idea which particular female saint I was holding in my hand. But if she hadn’t been beheaded in real life, she was beheaded now.
“Tell them I tripped on the stairs.”
A hand grabbed my arm. Tightly. And from behind me my father says, “Tell them she tripped on the stairs.” And I did. The EMTs looked at me, then looked at my father. Then went back to dressing her head. My mother didn’t understand too much English, but she knew how to say, “No hospital.” We didn’t have any insurance.
My father walked to the kitchen and came back holding one of my little brother’s toy cars. A fire engine. He handed it to me. He didn’t look at my mother. “Tell them she tripped on that and went down the stairs.” And I did.
“You kids need to be more careful with your toys.” And with that he pushed me toward the front door.
By now the neighbors had gathered in front of the house, including the other Portuguese nearby. The firemen let a couple of the women inside to comfort my mother. My father came out for a cigarette. He looked at me. And walked over to where a couple of his friends stood.
The Ukrainian, who had been speaking to one of the firemen, walked over to me and put his hand on my shoulder. He asked me what I was holding and I showed him the saint. “Give that to me.”
A week later I was in his office with the rent. And he opened a desk drawer and pulled out the saint. He’d glued it together.
“How did you find all the pieces?”
“Landlords find a way. Let this be our secret, but see that it’s returned to where it belongs.”
Seven months later, as expected, we moved. I never saw the Ukrainian again.
Thirty year later, after cancer claimed him, we buried my father. My mother asked me to give the eulogy. And I did. Afterwards I scooped a handful of dirt from a pile next to the grave onto his casket. And she did the same. And I reached into my pocket and pulled out a glued figurine. And I threw that in too.