On Friday’s my grandma let watch tv, while she ironed my suit. The jacket was small on me and I could hardly move my arms, but Granny said “You must wear a suit and tie when you visit a woman.” Granny taught me to knot the tie. Sometimes it didn’t come out right.
My grandmother tried very hard to teach me how to be a good boy. Granny was always talking how a man has to step it up, be responsible of his actions, a good provider like my Pop-pop was. She said, “The world needs men that are worth it”. Maybe she said this because I never got to know my father. He vanished when my mother got pregnant with me. Sometimes I wondered what he looked like and if he had a favorite baseball team. I wondered how it felt to have a father. I wondered if a dad will treat you the way my Pop-pop did. Pop-pop was a great guy. He knew how to build; he only needed nails and a hammer. He used to take me fishing and while he chewed tobacco he showed me how to hold the fishing rod and sit still. He loved the Yankees and blamed his bad knees which kept him from pursuing a baseball career. Instead he enrolled in the police force.
I asked Baby Jesus if I could be like the kids who play baseball on Saturdays. I wanted a beautiful mom whom everybody envied. My granny says “Baby Jesus is too busy dealing with starving African kids.” Other kids had mothers that played with them. They signed up their kids for baseball leagues and baked brownies for the team. It didn’t feel normal to spend my Saturdays sitting between drug dealers, bitter old women and angry guards. I never experienced a normal family weekend but I knew there was another way of living. I peeked at it when my friends talked about playing in the park with their parents or how they played catch.
At bedtime my granny kissed me on the forehead when she tucked me in. She smelled like muscle ointment but I was used to how old folks smelled. Granny has old friends who visit and always smelled like rancid milk. Granny told me they smelled like that because when each of us was born we began dying. “Some die early and some die late but we are always getting older.”
Since my grandpa died one year ago, Granny is obsessed with death, maybe because the loneliness gives her time to think about her own frailty. She told me to pray that she died after my mother got out of jail. Sometimes she asks “Who is going to take care of you if I die?”. Then she tries to comfort me, telling me she still had a few years to go. There wasn’t any reason to worry. But I worried. It seemed everybody was leaving me. My grandma was my last chance. I prayed to start living like the other kids. I was expecting to wake up one morning with white hair and saggy cheeks if I continued living between old people. I was certainly sick of going to visit my mother in jail. The bars at the doors gave me goose bumps. Often I had nightmares in which I was trapped inside a cell and everybody forgot I just went to visit. My granny and I were paying the sentence my mother gave us. All our plans and decisions revolved around that cement building. My Pop-pop used to tell me, “Once you pass those doors you are dead. You no longer existed. We died on Saturday, over and over again.
I wondered about when I was going to die. I’m almost 8 and lot of time has passed but I don’t see a sign of death yet. Maybe I have cancer and I’m dying little by little, like my grandfather. Pop-pop had cancer. He lost weight until he almost disappeared. He had trouble breathing but never stopped smoking or chewing tobacco. Will I have to wait to get that wrinkled? I think about these things before falling asleep, even when I hear Granny snoring in the other bedroom. She sounds like a broken car.
Early on Saturday morning, Granny woke me up. She gets me out of bed and starts washing behind my ears, telling me she doesn’t want anybody to think her grandson is a slob. Today I was able to knot my tie perfectly, like a gentleman.
Granny packs the things we will give to my mother. We brought her sweets like cookies and mints. My granny doesn’t like to bring her cigarettes but she does anyway because behind bars cigarettes are like money. I miss her. It isn’t that Granny is unkind, but she forgets things and she keeps insisting that I eat vegetables. My mother never made me eat anything green. She gave me hot dogs, french fries and all the ice cream I wanted. Life with her was so much easier. At least it was before the cops arrested her and I started to live with Pop-pop and Granny. The taxi driver comes late. Granny nags him. She bargains until the price is three dollars lower. The driver tells her about the high prices of gas. Soon the trip will be more expensive. She answer that her social security is still the same. The driver ignores her and looks through the window. He picks up another lady who needs to go to the same place. She already knows my granny so they share information about their daughter’s sentences, strict judges and they exchange remedies for ache and pains. They concluded that you can teach your kids values but it’s on them to decide which path to take. They talk about how during their youth things were better.
While they talked I lay my head back and imagined I was going to a baseball game with my mom. We would eat pretzels and a baseball player would talk to us and take me out on the field. I made the first throw of the season. Everything was perfect. My daydreaming stopped when my Granny tapped me on the shoulder and told me we arrived.
The jail was a sad rectangle surrounded by concertina wire. There wasn’t a single tree. Life was not permitted there. The waiting area had posters about rehabilitation and making good choices, like the women who were there had a choice of remaking the events which brought them to that place. Other ladies like Granny arrive too. All of the ladies were carrying bags full of food, cigarettes, and magazines. The guards checked everything. Sometimes they didn’t let certain products pass. They patted down everybody, even the kids, looking for weapons, drugs and other contraband. I didn’t like the searches. They made me uncomfortable, like I was a criminal, my only crime was being the child of an inmate. Maybe that was enough and my sole destiny was to end up in a place like this myself. I think the guards thought the son of a frog is always was a good swimmer. At each search I lost a piece of my innocence. I knew the ones who crossed those doors were living dead. We had a sign in our foreheads. We were the kids who carried the stigma of our mother’s flaws.
The guards always seemed unhappy and they barked orders. They never smiled or say nice things. I made the mental note that I could never be a guard or a police officer, like Pop-pop. Some women made the trip to find their daughter had lost visiting privileges that week. That woman always asked if her daughter was okay. Could they at least talk to them for a few minutes? But the guards refused. The mothers grabbed their bags in silence and left. Some of them cried, others complained to the guards who just shrugged. Granny said some women that visit the jail looked sad because they are new to this. Eventually they will get used to it. She says you get used to things, even the absence of the people you love. She cries when she tells me this.
I feel sad and very uncomfortable in my jacket. I spit on my hand and shine my shoes. Granny bumps on the head and starts talks about bacteria. I want to tell her I wish my mother wasn’t in jail. I didn’t even cry because each time I cried before, Granny told me to save my tears for another moment. I don’t cry even when my eyes burn and my chest wants to explode. However she cries now and then. It must be because she is old and old people can do whatever they want.
There is Mom. She looked older each weekend. Her orange jump suit doesn’t go good with her blonde pony tail. She has tiny wrinkles around her eyes and her mouth is no longer able to show a complete smile. She has tattooed the words love and hate on her knuckles, like her own explanation of her relationship with us. Her nails were chipped and chewed in the corners. She tried to comfort us and be happy but we knew she lost her vitality when the guards body searched her the night she arrived to jail. She talks to my Granny about childhood memories and she sobs when she remembers Pop-pop. She says if she could, she would do things differently. She feels very guilty for bringing shame to our family. My grandfather never forgave her. Pop-pop died without visiting her in jail, not a single time. My granny argued with him and I heard him tell my grandma, “Rose is a disgrace. I’m not going to support her after what she did.” He yelled that for him my mother was dead.
My Pop-pop was right she was dead. I will not talk to her. I was so mad at her. I will not tell her that I grew up one inch and my teacher told me I’m a genius with numbers. I wished I had the strength to tell her I decided she was dead for me too. If she wanted to be my mother she would never have ended up in jail and made us go through the punishment of visiting that ugly place.
The guards say visiting hours are over. They open the bars. My mother cries silently. My mother always cries and wants us to stay a little bit longer. But the guards scold her and write her up in a report.
My mother asks me for a goodbye kiss. I don’t move. I look directly into her eyes so she knew I was mad. My tie is killing me and my eyes burn. I don’t want her to kiss me and then leave again, so I start walking away. She called my name softly. My granny commanded me to say goodbye to my mother in the proper way. I kept walking. Granny offered to spank me. My mother tells her it is okay “It’s normal that he is angry and confused”.
My granny kissed my mom, “See you next Saturday, pumpkin pie?” My mom calls to me, in a louder voice. “Jack I know you are angry with this situation. I have lost my freedom but I will not lose you. I love you son.”
I looked at her while the guards walked her away I felt like the tie was strangling me. I pulled the tie, free of my shirt collar. I throw it in the trash. I got rid of the ugly jacket and used it to wipe my tears. Then I looked at my grandmother,
“Next time I’m wearing a t-shirt because this is no place for suits and ties. ”
A Spanish early version of this story was published in February 14, 2007 in Bocetos de una ciudad silente by Ana Maria Fuster.