We would smear the silver on our arms and faces, down our legs, stinking, running through the yard crying, "I'm a mermaid!" "I'm an angel!" until someone came out with a hose to yell at us.
of My Father's House
Nanny hated my lazy ways. "Sweep," she would say, handing me a broom and pointing to the long driveway rolled flat as a bedsheet from Elizabeth Street to the print shop. I would stand in the sun, my hands gripped around the wood, pushing the thin silt side to side.
"I don't know how to sweep," I'd wail when she'd come out to chide me. It was true. My mother had grown up in Illinois, in a world where the mothers cleaned and the children played: she left me to my devices. But Nanny had quit school in seventh grade to help take care of her little brothers and sisters: idle girls made her nervous.
"Crazy. Crazy like your father, but with the books. Always your face in a book. Mira," she would say, handing me a sponge. "Wipe."
When her one big sister died, she married the widower and kept his house and raised his child and gave him four more. She washed their clothes and gave them baths and woke at five to start cooking the hot lunches for the men who'd come in sweaty from the print shop at noon to sit at the long plank table in the kitchen. Black beans and saffron rice and garlic pork and applesauce, papas rellenos and tamales, and for dessert, key lime pie made with limes from the yard. And gallons and gallons of cold iced tea, sweetened with plenty of sugar to get the men through the afternoon.
My aunts could clean a house and cook a meal by the time they were 10, and even my father, Nanny's only son-and her favorite, my aunts said, for no good reason but that he was a damn boy-even he could clean a bathroom, wash dishes, fry an egg to change your life. My Aunt Linda got so good at cleaning houses that when she grew up she did it for a living in Coral Gables, and the people liked her work so much, fast and quiet and leaving no dust, they gave her things: toys that still worked, kitchen appliances, suits that were old but still very nice, good quality even if not so stylish. My girl cousins, too, knew how to cook and clean early, with their fine long fingers and tightly knotted hair. The boys were useless, the boys were cabrones, idiots, running to the docks to catch sunfish, spending all their money on candy, but what can you do?
I was the only girl from off-island, the only child of the only son-the one who got away, the one who made his parents proud and broke their hearts by leaving. He changed his name from Libano to Lee and said good-bye, and we lived in a place with rain and cold weather in the world he'd needed to see. But every summer we flew eight hours and drove down the linked bridges to stay six weeks, sleeping in rooms painted pale green, pale lilac, my parents in one, the three girl cousins allowed to sleep over with me in the other. Whispering, giggling, we'd fall asleep to the whir of electric fans propped in each window. Each window had its screen, but nothing could stop the red bumps from rising on our legs in the morning. On our backs, we would count them, on our backs with our legs straight up, the sheets kicked aside in a tangle, and the one with the most was the sweetest.
Those rooms were kept darkened all day, their clattery green blinds shut tight. We couldn't play there-even our Barbies had to come outside under the mango trees to play in the rot of damp leaves.
We would run races down the driveway, our rubber sandals spanking the bright cement, screaming, our hands smacking the print shop wall in triumph. Outside, we never had to be quiet. The men working in the shop did not hear us, even with the windows up and the door propped open for the breeze. For a long time, I thought men could not hear as well as women. You had to ask them three, four times before they would look down. Papi, my father, the uncles, all of them.
Inside, Nanny and the aunts heard everything and wanted you to shut up. Or get out of the house.
So we'd sit on the cool tile of the front porch, taking turns three at a time on the swing. Or we'd clean fish in the yard, my fingers clutching at the rough shining flesh until Tisha would take it out of my hands with a little headshake of disbelief and slit it cleanly open, scraping the scales onto the dirt in a silver scatter. When all the little white strips lay neatly on the board, we would smear the silver on our arms and faces, down our legs, stinking, running through the yard crying, "I'm a mermaid!" "I'm an angel!" until someone came out with a hose to yell at us.
We'd sit on the steps that ran up the outside of the house to where the renters lived. The seventh step was the highest we were allowed to go, so we'd sit on the eighth, right on the edge, poised to scoot down the second a grown-up came out. We'd sit by the open window and listen. We could hear the aunts inside gossiping, sliding between languages, switching to English when Nanny walked by, to Spanish when a child came in for something. We braided each other's hair, and listened, and practiced in low voices. "Damn boys," I would start, lulled by Susie's quick fingers against my neck. "Damn," she would say, sounding just like Nanny but with a voice rounder and smoother. "Damn it," she would say, her teeth clenched around a barrette. "Damn those damn boys anyway." "Mierda," Tisha would say, and silence us all with her daring. It was on the steps that Susie showed us how to shave. She was older. "No, in the bathtub you got to do it, stupid. With the water. I am just doing a demonstration here," she said.
The driveway's a swimming pool now. Two interior decorators from Miami bought it when Papi died and Nanny moved to the retirement apartments. I visited her there once on spring break. She kept showing me how easy everything was to take care of, how small the rooms were, how quick to vacuum. She and the old ladies sat around talking about how they wanted their funerals to be.
The print shop is a guest cabana.
When my father was a boy, he was crazy for the movies. He wanted to be in the movies, to make movies, to write movies. Just to be around the movies. Every Saturday he went to The Strand or The San Carlos, sitting through two or three showings in a row. When he was 12, he owned little reels you could buy at the camera store-Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton-and he would show them on the celadon wall of the print shop on Sundays, a nickel an hour to the neighborhood kids. He was going to be directing the movies, he told them, and starring in them, too, when he felt like it.
But there wasn't money for film school, for college, for anything; he started driving a truck instead and eased his way into marketing, climbing his way up the way you could then.
Four minutes of home movie still exist, filmed when he was 17, the year before he left. My father sits me down in his living room, a thousand miles away. It's snowing. "Okay, watch now," he says. The tape starts rolling. "Mira, mira," he says, tapping my arm when the focus clears. Uncle Mario is setting type, screwing the letters into the rectangular frame. He pulls a lever; it slaps into place. Papi slices what looks like a machete through reams of fresh paper. My father the teenager stacks neat dozens of notepads and wraps them in tan parcel wrap. His hair is slicked down, black, shining. His khakis are belted. His eyes are young and brown.
No one looks at the camera, which makes it all seem very serious: a documentary of printing in the 1950s in Key West. "I told them to do that," my father says eagerly. "I kept telling them not to look up at me." No one does.Pulled quotes: Castro 5