“Look, over there!”
“I see her.”
“So, that’s where she’s been hiding.”
“Alicia thinks she’s so smart. Come on; let’s go!”
“Step on a crack, break your mother’s back, Alicia.”
Alicia froze mid-step, closed her eyes and groaned, “Not again.”
“I knew they would figure it out,” Mildred muttered. “I told you so.”
The two girls scrambled back through the school’s side door.
Once inside the building, Mildred shook her finger in front of Alicia’s nose, imitating their teacher’s favorite gesture.
“Alicia, I told you not to tattle,” she said, “but you never listen.”
Alicia pushed Mildred’s hand away. “That’s not funny,” she replied.
“Still, you should have listened when I told you not to tell. No one likes a tattler.”
“Oh, shut up!”
“O.K.” Without another word Mildred turned on her heel and opened the door.
“Wait, Mildred. Where are you going?”
“Home. My mom’s just got here and she’s waiting for me. You know she hates to wait. I have to go now.”
“But the boys—”
“They won’t bother me. I am not the one who told.”
“Hold on, Mildred. Let me walk with you.”
“You know you can’t.”
Alicia sighed. “Yeah, I know.”
The two girls had to keep their friendship secret because Mildred’s mother did not allow her child to play with anyone not Chinese.
Watching her best friend run to the safety of her mother’s side, Alicia gulped.
Her problems with the fourth-grade boys had started on Halloween when Alicia had marched up to the teacher at recess and complained about the trick-or-treaters in the schoolyard. Since then the boys waited for her at dismissal everyday. The minute Alicia left the building they surrounded her, hurling the names and insults they invented just to torment her.
After two weeks of dodging the boys, Alicia was forced to admit she should have listened to her friend’s warning; Mildred had repeated the words often enough. “Nobody likes a tattler, Alicia.”
Always stubborn, Alicia had refused to listen, not even when Mildred had insisted the boys would get even.
“I don’t care,” she had replied and wearing her righteous anger as a shield, Alicia pushed aside Mildred’s objections. At that moment nothing could have stopped Alicia from reciting a list of the infractions the boys had committed that Halloween afternoon.
It was clear now she should have listened to Mildred.
Even with the faculty gathered in the schoolyard after school, the boys continued to call Alicia names; they made fun of her and, sometimes, pulled her hair.
The day before, when Alicia again complained, the teachers standing watch in the schoolyard had rolled their eyes, clucked their tongues and sighed.
Only after tossing her blue-gray curls to and fro, had the kindergarten teacher replied, “Boys will be boys.”
“But Mrs. Presendorpher—”
“They must really like you,” the teacher puckered her heart-shaped mouth and added, “or they would not give you so much attention.”
The other teachers joined Mrs. Presendorpher in a chorus of laughter before getting into a waiting car.
It was the first time anyone had told Alicia that a boy liked her. Biting her lip, she watched the car pull away from the curb and glide into the slowly moving traffic. The child had not dared tell the teacher that she did not want to be the focus of such attention.
The boys’ taunting upset her, but her teachers’ indifference had filled her with anguish. The child could hardly wait for her mother to come home from work.
That night Alicia met her mother at the door with her litany of complaints. Following closely on her heels, Alicia recited each insult, detailed each injury and described her complete despair.
Antonia removed her coat, washed her hands and started to prepare the evening meal. She nodded sympathetically from time to time to let Alicia know that although busy, she still listened. When Alicia’s tirade was over, Antonia told her daughter what she should do.
“We do not want trouble with those people, Alicia,” she had said. “Just pretend you do not hear them. It is that simple.”
“But, Mami, everybody hears them.”
“So what? Words can’t hurt you. Besides, young ladies do not fight with boys.”
Overhearing the child’s complaint, Alicia’s stepfather stepped into the kitchen.
“We must pick up the child at school, Antonia,” he declared. “I tell you there is no respect in this country. No respect for nobody.” Manolo puffed on his cigar.
“We cannot walk her home, Manolo—not with both of us working overtime.”
“Well, I, for one, do not like what I hear. I do not like anything about this. A man’s wife is supposed to stay home and take care of the children, the house and the cooking. You are out all the time, Antonia. It is not right.”
“Manolo, please. You know that if we didn’t need the money, I would stay home.”
“In Puerto Rico—”
“In Puerto Rico I worked, too.”
“It was not like this—”
“Nolo, you remember only what you want to remember.”
“I remember everything just fine, Antonia.”
“But, Mami, Papá Manolo—”
Knowing that her parents were headed toward a familiar argument, Alicia tried to steer their attention back to the problem at hand.
“After school, the boys pick on me. They…” Alicia pulled on her mother’s arm for attention.
Antonia and Manolo continued their discussion undistracted by Alicia’s complaints and with each word their voices grew louder. As usual, Manolo insisted that their problems would end if they returned to Puerto Rico.
“That is where we belong,” he shouted.
In dramatic fashion, Antonia responded by pounding her chest with her fist and declaring she would rather die.
“We belong wherever we want to be,” she added.
“And I want to be there, in Puerto Rico.”
Lately, this was the reason for all their fights. No matter how an argument started, it always ended in the same way: Manolo wanted to return to Puerto Rico; Antonia did not. They never fought about anything else with the same zeal.
Defeated in her attempts to get their attention, Alicia left the living room, but she lingered in the shadow of the hallway hoping they would notice her absence. Her wait was futile. They had forgotten her again.
With her problems still unresolved, Alicia retreated to her room. This time not one tear rolled down her cheek, not one sigh escaped her lips as she had readied for bed, and just before her eyes closed in sleep, Alicia swore to give up complaining to her parents, or her teachers.
The next morning on her way to school Alicia had formulated her latest plan. She would avoid the boys by sneaking out of the school’s side exit and cutting through the playground.
When she told Mildred about her plan, her best friend was decidedly unenthusiastic.
“It will not work,” Mildred had predicted.
“You don’t know everything, Mildred.”
Mildred’s know-it-all attitude had annoyed her, but once again Alicia’s strategy had failed and her friend’s prophecy had come true.
“Hey, little girl! What are you still doing here? School is over for the day.”
Alicia had been so lost in her thoughts she had not heard the custodian’s approach. She jumped when she heard his voice.
Chuckling, the custodian threw open the heavy door.
“Go home, he said. “When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to get home, but my teachers used to keep me in almost everyday. Is that why you’re still here?”
For a moment Alicia considered explaining her problem to the man. Maybe, he would help her.
“Cat got your tongue? Well, no matter. Go, on. Go home, little girl! I have work to do.”
Alicia clutched her school bag and walked through the open door.
They were waiting for her outside.
“Step on a crack, break your mother’s back, Alicia.”
“A-li-cia! Yoo-hoo! We see you.”
“Hey, Alicia. Come here. We want to tell you something.”
“Hey you, stupid. Look at what you did!”
Their shrieks of laughter attracted other children. Some gathered to watch.
“What’s going on?”
“Dumb Alicia just broke her mother’s back.”
Pretending not to hear their shouts, she turned to run, but the boys already surrounded her. Alicia gulped and tightened her grip on her book bag; it was too late to get away.
More than anything, Alicia wanted to hurl insults at the five boys, instead she clenched her jaw and remained silent. Her mother had ordered her to ignore them.
“Alicia is a scary cat.”
“Look! She’s pissing her panties.”
“Boo hoo. Alicia’s so scared.”
The boys stomped their feet and howled with laughter.
“Step on a crack; break your mother’s back.”
“Stupid Alicia. You stepped on a crack and you broke your mother’s back.”
Alicia wished she were a boy. A boy could punch them all in their noses. That would make them stop bothering her.
A wry grin formed on her lips at the thought of her tormentors suffering with broken, bloody noses. The smile survived just until the image of her mother’s disapproving face flashed before her eyes.
Alicia sighed; it was difficult to obey her mother’s rules.
“Oh, leave Alicia alone,” Tony Rossetti shouted. “She’s no fun, just a stupid Spik.”
“Hey, Alicia. Do you speak English, Alicia?”
“Better than you, Howie,” she replied.
Her words were lost in the ensuing free-for-all. The boys whooped, hopped and jumped in a circle.
Recognizing their victory dance Alicia’s face turned red. Now, everyone in the playground knew that the boys had succeeded in getting her attention. There was, she decided, only one thing left to do. She stuck her tongue out at them, but they were too busy with their celebration to care.
Alicia shrugged her shoulders, raised her head high (to show that those stupid boys meant nothing to her) and pushed her way from the center of the circle. Walking as rapidly as she could, Alicia headed home.
The boys followed.
“Hey, stupid, stinky, Alicia. Cat got your tongue?”
Alicia froze mid-step; that was just too much. They had never called her stinky before.
She pivoted on her heel in time to see Tony Rossetti duck behind the “Vote for Truman” posters, yellowing on the schoolyard fence.
“Not me, Tony. You are the one who never takes a bath. Teacher said so. I heard her.”
That was not the truth, of course, but the words tickled her throat as they rushed outward and that felt good. Alicia snickered when the boys turned their attention to Tony, whose face was redder than his shirt.
The boys hooted and held their noses.
“Tony needs a bath!”
Tony Rossetti pushed his friends away.
Alicia grunted with satisfaction.
“Dirty, stinky Tony,” she chanted.
Tony Rossetti waved his fist at her.
“Oh, yeah? Well, you broke your mother’s back, Alicia. If you step on a crack, you break your mother’s back. Everybody, but you knows that.”
His friends echoed the rhyme.
“Step on a crack; break your mother’s back.”
Alicia dropped her book bag and covered her ears with her hands.
She had never heard such a thing, but since her family had moved into this neighborhood, so much was different. If only her parents would stop moving—just for once.
“Stop it!” She stomped her foot hard against the pavement.
“Now she really did it. Look! Alicia broke her mother’s back in a trillion, million pieces.”
“What’s the matter, Alicia? Don’t you love your mommy?”
Alicia could not stop herself from looking down at the pavement. A wide crack snaked out from beneath the sole of her right shoe. Her large brown eyes opened wide and she jumped away onto smooth cement.
“I did not mean it. It was an accident.”
“Alicia broke her mother’s back. Alicia—”
“Stop it! That’s not true.”
“I am not.”
Alicia grabbed her bag and ran from the schoolyard fence as fast as she could, but they followed her like a horde of angry hornets.
When she had reached the corner of her block, however, she knew she had escaped. Her tormentors never followed her past the corner of Prospect Avenue and Kelly Street. Alicia stopped running in front of Charlie’s Candy Store.
She was halfway home.
“I am not a cry baby.”
Alicia stepped into the catty-cornered alcove of the store’s entrance. She wiped her face with her coat sleeve; telltale traces of moisture seeped into the weave of the royal-blue wool. A sudden gust of wind scattered torn election posters down the street and across the avenue.
Even in the alcove, Alicia could feel the twists and curls of the wind as it tugged at her coat. Shivering slightly, she turned up her collar before resuming her walk home.
Alicia hated cold temperatures, but she loved the wind. When the wind was strong she imagined it would lift her from the pavement and she could fly above the city. When it was windy it did not matter that her uncovered nose and cheeks tingled with cold. Her sweater and new winter coat protected her. Alicia rubbed her cheek against the furry collar and smiled. It always felt good to be warm.
Every year for the last seven years, her mother bought her a new winter coat. Last year it was red; this year the coat was royal blue. Alicia loved this one more than any of the others, even the name of its color was magic. Each time she wore the coat, she felt royal—a princess with a shield of blue.
Before boarding the plane at the San Juan airport, Alicia’s parents shared information with the other travelers. Although none had ever been to New York City, all had heard about the brutal cold awaiting them up North. Many had stories to tell about someone, (a friend of a cousin, or a cousin of a friend) dying from pneumonia after being chilled by winter winds. From her fellow travelers, Antonia had heard that if she walked on snow without boots, her feet would turn blue, whither and fall like the seared leaves of autumn.
Every Labor day, Antonia recited those warnings to her family before she left the apartment to go shopping for Alicia’s new winter coat.
Antonia Martínez de Aponte had bought Alicia’s first winter coat the same week they had arrived in New York—even though it was only June. When the weather turned chilly, Antonia had bundled her toddler to protect her against the deadly chill. Neighbors laughed whenever the heavily padded, two-year old went outdoors, waddling and barely able to move.
Seven years later, Antonia still made sure that her daughter was warmly dressed—even if the coats the adults wore were shabby. This year Alicia’s new coat was as beautiful as it was warm.
As soon as Antonia had made the last payment, she rushed home to show off her purchase. Modeling the new winter coat for her mother, Alicia had purred with delight, but Manolo did not look happy when he saw it.
“This looks too expensive for a child, Antonia. How much did it cost?”
“What does it matter what it cost?”
“Would I ask if it did not matter? Everyday you become more and more like an American woman.”
“That is not a bad thing, Manolo. We are Americans, too.”
“You are forgetting what you are.”
“That is not possible,” she replied with a nervous giggle. “I am your wife.”
“Then answer my question. How much did the coat cost?”
“Almost a week’s pay, but is not it worth every penny to keep Alicia warm and healthy?”
Antonia’s voice had quivered. The truth was that she had never bought anything as expensive as that coat without Manolo’s consent.
“Warmth and health can come at a cheaper price.”
Alicia’s mother lowered her eyes. “But not as beautiful,” she whispered.
Manolo repeatedly shook his head and muttered that they were not rich, but in the end he agreed to the purchase. His actions had not surprised Alicia. After complaining loudly—sometimes for hours, Manolo always did what Antonia wanted. People said it was because he loved his wife so much. Everybody loved Alicia’s Mami.
Suddenly, remembering what the playground kids had said, Alicia stopped and looked down at the sidewalk. There was another crack beneath her shoe. What if it were true? Breaking your mother’s back was a bad thing and she did not want to do anything bad.
In Sunday school, Sister Teresa had often told her that bad little girls could not go to heaven. More than anything else, Alicia wanted to go to heaven. She wanted wings, long, blond hair, a halo around her head and a long white dress—like the painting of the angels on the church wall.
Studying the pattern of sidewalk cracks stretched out in front of her, Alicia frowned. There were many, but with care she could get home without stepping on another crack: first the left foot straight ahead, right foot sideways, left foot together, hop and a final big jump over the last group of tiny cracks.
Alicia spread her arms wide; the wind rushed beneath them.
“I am a bird,” she thought. “I can fly over all the cracks in the world.”
Alicia soared through the air as if she could ride the wind, unaware she was on a collision course with a passerby.
The short, heavy woman, wearing a long skirt and a huge hat, screamed as she fell. Tin cans rolled in all directions; the potatoes followed, and one large onion wobbled over the shattered eggs. Alicia’s book bag slid across the pavement.
“Look at what you did!”
The unlucky woman sat on the sidewalk with her legs spread out in front of her. The skirt had bunched up above her knees exposing doubly knotted, elastic garters.
“Where is your mother, brat? She is gonna hafta pay for this.”
“I didn’t mean it. Please don’t be mad. It was an accident. I swear.”
As no passerby offered a helping hand, the woman struggled to stand, turning first in one direction then twisting in another. Just when it seemed that she would spend the reminder of the afternoon on the sidewalk, a sudden wind gust billowed the floral fabric of her skirt. At the same time, the woman rose. She seemed to have straddled a giant balloon, floating upward from the cement.
Once on her feet, she wasted no time. Swinging her purse and yelling at the top of her lungs, the woman lunged at Alicia. Small and light on her feet, the child swerved and ducked. The woman’s purse sliced through the air and she almost lost her balance again.
“I will get you, brat.”
Alicia picked up her book bag, ran and hid between the parked cars on Prospect Avenue.
“What was the name of that kid?” The woman demanded the information from the onlookers. They ignored her.
“I’m gonna tell her parents what she did. They’re gonna hafta pay.” Her voice rose and fell like a fire siren. “Look at the eggs!”
Sheldon, the grocer, who had left his store to see the cause of the commotion, laughed and quickly reentered the grocery. A few seconds later the man reappeared, cradling four brown eggs in the palm of his huge hand.
“Take these. They will make up for the ones that broke,” he said. “Leave the kid alone. We all know it was an accident.” He had a serious look in his eyes, but a persistent smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
“Some accident. What’s the kid’s name?” Suddenly the woman frowned, “Are you her father?”
Still hiding between the two large cars, Alicia watched as Sheldon threw back his head; his belly quivered with laughter. Between chortles, the grocer again offered to replace the eggs she had lost.
“And one more,” he added with a chuckle. “One more for all your trouble.”
“I don’t like brown eggs.”
“Are they fresh?”
“Look, lady, take them or leave them. It’s all the same to me.”
Scowling, the woman took the offering.
“Are you her father?” The woman repeated her question.
All amusement left the grocer’s face. He rubbed his cheek with the back of his hand and looked in Alicia’s direction. Their eyes met briefly.
Alicia mouthed the word, “Please.”
“Lady, you want to keep those eggs, or not?”
The woman nodded her head.
“Then forget about telling the kid’s Papa. It was just an accident. She is a good kid.”
Without another word, the woman retrieved her groceries, all the while eyeing the onlookers who watched without offering help.
“High class neighborhood,” she said with a sneer.
The woman resumed her journey, her long skirt billowing out front like the spinnaker of a racing ship. Passersby resumed their journeys and the grocer returned to his store.
With the coast clear, Alicia ran to the apartment stoop. She scrambled up the steep cement steps, opened the door and slipped into the vestibule. From behind the sheer, ruffled curtains that smelled of tobacco and dust, she eyed the street one more time. Everything seemed quiet and normal. Good.
Alicia pushed open the inside door that led to the dim hallway. A faint aroma of pine disinfectant followed her up the worn steps to the third floor. When at last she stood in front of their apartment, she took a deep breath; it was good to be home. Anticipating the milk and cookies in the icebox, the little girl smiled.
After unbuttoning her coat and sweater, Alicia reached under her blouse for the key she wore on a cord around her neck.
It was not there. Only the cord, knotted at one end and with two frayed pieces at the other, rested in her hand.
Alicia peered into the long shadows of the hallway; the key was not there, either. Tiny beads of sweat formed on her upper lip. Unsuccessfully, she searched each step and corner of the corridors down to the vestibule.
Although her parents had forbidden her to leave the apartment once home from school, Alicia decided to go outside again. She had no choice. Buttoning her sweater and coat, the child’s fingers trembled. Her parents would be angry if they knew she had disobeyed. With luck, however, she would find the key and return before either one arrived from work. Alicia put down her book bag in front of the door and set out to find the lost key.
Outside, the sky already had begun its transformation—fading from bright blue to pale gray tinged with streaks of pink and lavender. Those were Alicia’s favorite colors, but the child had no time to admire the sky.
With eyes glued to the pavement, Alicia retraced her steps back to the school. The street was crowded. Workers, obviously homeward bound, clutched empty lunch pails in one hand and in the other, a loaf of fresh bread—or the evening newspaper.
By the time Alicia had arrived at the schoolyard, she discovered it was too late to search the playground. The huge, chain-link gates had been closed for the night. Repeatedly, Alicia threw her body against the wire mesh, but the thick chain and the padlock held. She looked up at the top rail and for a moment considered climbing, but it was too high. No one could get inside now.
Defeated, Alicia leaned against the schoolyard fence and covered her face with her hands. Just two months ago, her parents had warned her never to lose that key.
“You are a big girl now,” her mother had said, “and Mami has a new job with lots of overtime. So, after school you must come home by yourself. Come home straight after school—no playing in the schoolyard. Do you hear me?”
Alicia had nodded solemnly, “Yes, Mami.”
“If you lose the key, some bad man might find it and rob us of what little we have.”
“I will not lose it, Mami. I promise. Cross my heart.”
“We would be lucky if all the bad man did was to rob us,” her stepfather had added. “We could get our throats cut in our sleep and it would be your fault.”
He had pointed the tip of his glowering cigar at Alicia; ashes drifted to the floor.
“Oh, no, Papá Manolo, I would never lose the key.”
“Just make sure you don’t.”
Antonia placed her hand lightly on his arm.
“Manolo, you will frighten the child,” she said.
“I think she needs a little fear, to make her more responsible. Look at her, Antonia. She’s nine years old already. At her age we were earning a living.”
He shook his arm free of his wife’s hand.
“You baby her too much,” he added. “Listen to me, young lady. This is important. Don’t you lose this key. That’s all. If you do, we’ll have to change the lock and get new keys. God knows we can’t afford that—especially after your mother bought that expensive, new coat for you.”
“For heaven’s sake, Manolo. Forget the coat. Listen, I have an idea.”
Alicia turned to look at her and smiled. Mami’s ideas were always wonderful.
“We will put the key on this string, make a knot and slip it over Alicia’s head. No one will know that she is carrying it. It will be safe there.”
Alicia’s soft brown eyes glowed with pride when Mami slipped the key over her head that evening. She now owned a key to their apartment— just like her parents.
“Never take it off until you are ready to open the door and never show it to anyone,” Manolo said. “No one must know that you have it. Do you understand, Alicia?”
Alicia’s stepfather had jabbed at the air with his cigar as if punctuating his message. With each stab of his hand, more ashes drifted to the linoleum floor.
“I won’t lose the key, Papá. I swear.” Alicia had drawn a huge cross over her heart.
“I will never lose it. Never.”
It was a solemn promise.
How could she tell them now that the key was lost? Papá would be so angry.
With no hope of finding the key in the schoolyard, Alicia went home. She walked slowly, staring at the pavement through the darkness—just in case.
When she rang the doorbell, the door to the apartment flew open. With no happy words of welcome, her stepfather dragged her into the kitchen.
“Where have you been?” Manolo demanded. “What have you been doing all this time? We came home and found your bag outside the door, where any one could see it. It is a miracle no one stole it.”
“Yes, we found the bag, but you were not here,” her mother murmured as she wiped the breakfast dishes in the sudsy basin.
“Look how dark it is, nena,” she added. “We thought something bad had happened to you.”
Alicia looked down at the floor in shame. It was Alicia’s job to wash the breakfast dishes after school.
Her stepfather sat down at the kitchen table and folded the afternoon newspaper. Nested in its ashtray, the smoke from his cigar spiraled to the ceiling.
“And your mother has had to do your chores. Don’t just stand there, Alicia. What is your excuse?”
“I was looking-” Alicia opened her mouth, but the words seemed trapped in her throat.
Suddenly aware that tears streamed down Alicia’s face, Antonia cupped the child’s face in her still wet and soapy hand.
“Alicia are you hurt?” Antonia asked. “Did anyone touch you? Mírame. Look at Mami.”
“Antonia, the child is fine. For God’s sake, it is plain to see she is unhurt. Anyone but you could tell she is crying because she has been a bad girl. Alicia is just afraid of being punished. Let me handle this.”
“Antonia, I said I will handle this.”
Alicia’s stepfather stood, unbuckled his belt and slid it slowly from his waist. He folded it carefully and placed it on the table alongside the newspaper.
“Tell me where you have been, Alicia.”
His voice was a deep growl.
Alicia could not take her eyes off the belt.
Her words could not get past her sobs and they remained trapped in her throat. She watched Manolo take the belt from the table and raise it over his head.
“No, Papá.” Alicia cried. “Please.”
The first blow knocked her to the floor.
“Manolo, ¡por el amor de Dios!”
He ignored his wife.
“Alicia, are you going to answer me now?”
Alicia rubbed her hand where the strap had left its mark.
“I lost the key,” she stammered. “I was looking for my key.”
Her stepfather slammed his belt against the kitchen table.
“The key to this apartment? The key to this door? The one you swore you would never lose?”
“I knew this would happen.” Manolo bellowed. “I knew this would happen, Antonia, because your daughter is an irresponsible brat. You haven’t taught her all the things that a mother should. And she’s bad. Bad just like her father.”
“Manolo. For heaven’s sake—”
“She is his seed; badness runs in her blood. My mother tried to warn me.”
“Manolo, please, be quiet. Alicia, listen to Mami. Where did you lose the key?”
Alicia shook her head helplessly. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” Her stepfather’s face looked almost purple.
Alicia shook her head again and shrugged her shoulders.
“Don’t shrug your shoulders at me, brat.” Manolo yanked her up from the floor by her clothes. “Do you know what this means?”
“It means we will have to change the lock. The money we have been saving has to go to a locksmith now. That’s what it means. And do you know what else it means?”
Alicia shook her head.
“It means that you deserve every bit of what you are going to get.”
“Manolo, no. For God’s sake, control yourself.”
His wife’s soft voice could not penetrate his rage. The strap whistled through the air, striking the outer layer of Alicia’s coat with a thud.
Protected by the heavy coat, Alicia did not feel the blows on her body. Her legs, however, were unprotected and she felt them burn.
“Manolo, that’s enough punishment.” Antonia pulled at his arm, but he ignored her until he heard her voice grow cold.
“Manolo. I said that is enough.”
Startled, Manolo turned to look at his wife. Her face was white and her small dark eyes glittered. Antonia rarely raised her voice and few people had ever heard those icy tones.
Without another word, he threw his belt on the floor.
Alicia crawled into a corner of the kitchen, shrinking even from her mother’s touch when Antonia knelt to comfort her.
“Antonia, cut that out. This is why she is the way she is.”
“She is my daughter.” Antonia glared at him until he looked away. “Mine, not yours, not his. Mine. Do you understand?”
“Toñita, I am sorry,” he whispered.
“Leave us alone, Nolo. Get out!”
Manolo turned as if to leave, instead he rested his forehead against the cracked, plaster wall. He picked at a paint chip with his nail and when he spoke, his voice was subdued.
“Antonia, I want you to barricade the door while I’m gone.”
“Where are you going?” Her voice was thick with controlled rage.
“To the super’s apartment. Maybe, he’s got a spare lock he can install tonight. It could be a lot cheaper that way.”
“What? You are the one who is always afraid someone will break in here. Do you and your daughter want to sleep here when God-knows-who holds the key to this place in his hand?”
“Then do what I say, woman, and I will be back soon.” He slammed the door after him.
Alicia’s mother pushed one of the kitchen chairs in front of the door and sat. She covered her face with her hands; a soft sound seeped through her fingers.
“Mami, are you crying?”
Alicia pulled at her mother’s hands; Antonia pushed her away.
“Alicia, go to bed,” she said. “You have caused enough trouble for one day. When your stepfather gets like that, he is impossible.”
“I am sorry, Mami. Anyhow, it was only a stupid key. No one is going to know where it came from.”
“Is that all you have to say? I’m sorry? Do you think by saying I’m sorry that it makes everything right? Is that what they’re teaching you at that school?”
Alicia shook her head. “But, Mami—”
“And you call it a stupid key? Don’t you understand that it’s more than just a key? You do not know what it means to work as hard as we do. I pray you never know the pain of watching it all you have slip through your fingers because your daughter was careless.”
“But Mami nothing. Don’t you like living in this nice, new apartment? You have your own room, too. I didn’t have my own room until I married.”
“I am sorry.”
“Don’t say that anymore. Being sorry is not enough. Your regrets fix nothing. Do you want to go back to the barrio, where drunks piss in the hallways and where roaches crawl over your face when you sleep?”
“No.” Alicia’s reply was barely audible; the ticking of the kitchen clock grew louder with the passing seconds.
“Your pretty clothes, this apartment and the good food we eat, do you think we get them for free? Let me tell you that no one ever gave us anything. No one will ever give us anything.
“Mami, I know you work hard—”
“And Manolo, too, works hard so that life will be better for you than it was for us. He is a good man; we are lucky to have him with us. Every penny he earns is to make life better for us. He has promised that someday we will own a house in the country, but you don’t appreciate anything. Now, this is how you thank us.”
“Mami, that’s not fair.”
“Fair. I will tell you what is not fair. This life is not fair.”
“We don’t have to buy a house in the country. We can stay here, or go back to Puerto Rico. Papá Manolo wants to go.”
Her mother slammed her fist against her hand.
“Be quiet. Go to bed, Alicia, or I will take the strap to you myself.”
“I don’t want a house in the country.”
“Alicia. Go to bed.”
Alicia crept into her tiny bedroom off the narrow hall, pulled the light cord and closed the door. The click of the pull chain cracked through the silence in her room like the first clap of thunder in a summer storm.
“And turn off the light.” Her mother shouted through the closed door. “Do you think we are rich? Do you think I kill myself working just to support Con Edison?”
Alicia sighed and pulled the cord; the room was dark. She hated the dark, even more than the cold air that seeped into her room through the cracked glass in her window.
No matter how hard she closed her eyes, Alicia could not hold back her tears. When she grew up, Alicia decided, she was going to have a brightly lit, warm house—in the country and maybe, in Puerto Rico—where it was always warm. And she would buy it herself‑alone.
With trembling hands, Alicia pulled open the window blinds. Outside, the street lamp radiated bright cones of light, none of which strayed inside. The full moon, although brilliant, merely created thin strands of shadows inside Alicia’s room.
Slowly, the child’s eyes grew accustomed to the darkness and her tears stopped.
Each time the wind rattled the bedroom window, Alicia shivered. She unbuttoned her coat and sweater and threw them on the bed. Her skirt, blouse, shoes and socks, flew in different directions the minute she removed them. The room was colder than usual—too cold to worry about anything, except getting into her nightgown and wrapping herself in her warm, new robe.
When she pulled back the bedspread, the coat and sweater rolled off the bed and onto the floor. At the same time, she heard the soft ping of something metallic strike the linoleum and bounce across the room.
It was too dark to see what had fallen. Alicia had to crawl about on all fours to find it. In spite of the cold, beads of sweat formed on her upper lip as she searched every inch of the floor in the tiny room. Her hands trembled with excitement when she found it.
Alicia scooped up the shiny, brass key into her warm palm and held it tightly, fearing that if she opened her fingers, it would disappear again. After several long moments, she uncurled her fingers and held the key at arm’s length. Alicia smiled. Even in the darkness of her room, the key glowed—as if it alive with magic.
She had to tell her parents right away. Thinking how happy they would be with the news, Alicia chuckled softly. Now, they would not have to go through with the expense of having the lock changed after all. For sure, Mami would hug and kiss her—perhaps even give her an extra nickel for candy after school. Alicia’s face was radiant when she stepped out into the corridor that led to the kitchen.
Her stepfather had returned with the building superintendent. She heard them haggling over the price of the lock and the new keys.
“Hush, Alicia, don’t interrupt now.”
“Didn’t you hear your mother? Shut up and get back in your room.”
Alicia ignored Manolo and looked at her mother. “Mami?”
“Alicia. Go to bed.”
For a moment Alicia thought she was going to scream. She could feel the shriek forming deep in her abdomen. Although it hurt to do so, she forced the scream to stay inside.
Alicia stepped back into the shadow of the hallway and remained there, silently fighting her pain.
“They will not listen to me,” she thought. “They never listen to me anymore.”
Eavesdropping on the adults in the kitchen, her fingers curled into the tightest fists she had ever made. The key grew almost hot in the palm of her hand.
Alicia wanted to hit her parents, to make them hurt as she hurt—even if it was a sin and even if it meant she could not go to heaven.
She hated them. It was the first time she had ever hated anyone, but she knew that what she felt was true.
The haggling with the superintendent ended. Alicia watched him take out his tools and start to work. If she gave her parents the key, the super would not have to do anything. She would show them. They did not know everything after all. They would learn that she was not careless and irresponsible— that she was not a brat.
“It’s a punishment sent from God,” her stepfather said in Spanish—after the superintendent had started working. “What have we done to deserve a punishment like this?”
Manolo’s words caught her attention immediately. What did he mean— a punishment? Her parents were being punished, too? Alicia’s heart thumped so loudly it was difficult to hear the conversation. The child held her breath to quell her excitement.
“Manolo,” Antonia spoke hesitatingly. “Maybe, if we spoke to Alicia again, she might remember.”
“Antonia, it is hopeless. That child is irresponsible. There is more of her father in her than you want to admit.”
“Do not say that. I have told you never to say that, never to mention him where Alicia could hear. What is the matter with you lately?”
“What could be wrong with me?” Manolo leaned against the wall as if he could no longer stand. “I am tired, more tired than I have ever been.”
“But if she could remember where she lost it, we would not have to spend this money. We could tell the super to go home.”
“It’s useless. Forget it, Antonia. The child won’t ever find that key. It’s like I said before. We’re being punished for something. I’ve tried my best, for both of you.”
Alicia’s mother looked down at the floor. “I know, Manolo.”
“Antonia, I have raised her like my own.”
“Yes, I know,” she repeated.
“But sometimes I can see him in her eyes and it drives me crazy. I’m sorry I hit her. She probably hates me and I don’t blame her.”
“Children forget and forgive easily. You’ll see.”
As if he had lost all his strength, Manolo folded his lean body until he sat on the floor—his legs crossed at the ankles. With elbows resting on his knees, Manolo cradled his head in his hands.
“You have to teach her how hard life is, Antonia. She must learn what it means to work.”
Antonia knelt in front of him. “I will, Manolo. I will teach her.”
“I don’t understand why it is always so hard for us, Antonia. It’s like he’s getting back at us.”
“Now, that is just foolish. He’s been dead for a long time. I don’t know why you fear the dead so much. They cannot hurt you as much as the living. Stop talking about him.”
“Perhaps we are being punished by God Himself. What have we done to offend Him so much?”
“Manolo, do not say such crazy things. God knows that you are a good man, working twelve hours a day to give his family a decent place to live. You put food on the table and clothes on our backs. I’m the only one who has sinned.”
“Hush. It was not your fault. I don’t know,” he sighed. “Maybe, we should go home to the tobacco fields where we belong. This is a hard place full of hard people.”
“How many times do I have to tell you? I will never go back there.” Antonia waved her arms in all directions, as if his words were a foul odor.
Manolo tried to hold her hands still—to calm her.
“I will never go back,” Antonia repeated.
Manolo covered her lips with the tips of his fingers.
“But, Antonia,” he said. “We are not going to make it here.”
Antonia pushed Manolo away. “Don’t say that. We will. We will make it. We must.”
Manolo took her hands in his. “I am only one man, a very tired man.”
“I know it’s hard and I am doing all I can to help. Please, don’t talk about going back. You scare me sometimes.”
Antonia tried to pull her hands away; Manolo held onto to them tightly.
“Antonia, be reasonable.”
“I said I would never go back. If you miss the tobacco fields so much, you go back. I’m staying here.”
Antonia stood and glared down at her husband.
“You know I cannot leave you,” he sighed.
“Good. That’s settled. Tomorrow, I will go to Dona Blanca’s house. She can prepare something to chase out the unclean spirits from our house. Things will change, Manolo. The new year will be wonderful. You will see.”
Manolo leaned his head against the wall. “I do not have your faith, Antonia. Do what you want.” His voice was barely audible. “Maybe she has a spell to help me find a job, too—”
Antonia crossed herself. Alicia had not seen her do that for a long time.
“You lost your job?”
Manolo stood and put his arms around his wife. “Yes, day before yesterday.”
Alicia strained to hear all their words.
“I did not want to tell you like this,” he added. “I was trying to find another job before you found out.”
Antonia clasped her hands as if in prayer.
“I must go first thing in the morning to Doña Blanca,” she said. “Then I will go light a candle in church.”
“We cannot afford any candles, Antonia.”
Antonia took a deep breath. She squared her shoulders and raised her chin. “I will get more overtime work, too,” she said. “There is plenty of work in the factory now. Things will be better, Manolo. You will see.”
“But the shame—”
“There is no shame. God knows and understands. With Him there is no shame.”
“You have so much faith, Antonia. When I listen to you, I almost believe.”
“Yes, almost. This time I don’t think anything will help.” Manolo hit the wall with his fist.
“Hey. Cut that out.” The superintendent looked up from his work and glared. “You crack that plaster and you’re gonna hafta pay. Crazy spiks.”
Manolo and Antonia ignored the superintendent.
“Antonia, each time we get a little ahead, something happens to set us back. My God, it hurts to have to spend what little we have like this.”
“It will be all right, Manolo. You know God might tighten the noose, but He would never strangle us. It’s like He is testing us.”
“I am sick and tired of Him testing us. Let Him test the rich for a change. They can afford it. Let Him test that son-of-a-bitch super, instead.”
“Manolo, do not say such things. Maybe, we are being punished because you have such little faith.”
“Then you will have to summon up enough faith for both of us, Toñita.”
Antonia stroked his brow.
“You will see,” she whispered. “Tomorrow everything will be better. Everything will work out.”
Standing in the shadow of the narrow hall, Alicia watched them embrace. Not wishing to watch them comfort each other, she turned away.
One final teardrop rolled down her face. It cooled the flush on her cheek and suddenly the heat and the rage inside her were gone. With the tips of her fingers, Alicia touched the tear’s moist trail and her fingers, too, grew cold. Never before had she felt cold like this, but for the first time in her life, the cold felt good.
Alicia shivered and savored the feeling.
When the little girl opened her eyes, the pain in her legs had vanished and there were no traces of tears in her eyes.
Alicia smiled; she knew exactly what she had to do.
Clutching the key in her hand, she crept back to her room in silence. Alicia left behind her the sounds of her parents’ whispers and the clatter of the superintendent as he worked.