By: Brett Cassette
“Brown, brown, brown,” Sammi says. “And all wrapped up headtofoot, Gwen-Gwen. How do they do it?” Gum smacks Sammi’s teeth and a suntan snake slithers up her arm, trailing the bottle of 4.
“Melanin,” Gwenyth says, “they’ve got a lot more of it than you do, sissy. So do Gwen-Gwen a favor and use the 15, baby.”
Gwenyth-in-Charge, el cap-i-tan-o, that’s Ms. Gwenyth Scott, may I ask who’s asking?, stands on the sidewalk, finger-pointing towards the house, sister-directing up the stairs, to the bathroom, to the medicine cabinet—to the SPF Mama-would-use, but eye-looking, eye-locking brown eyes nestled behind hijabs: two stroller-pushing jilbabs ambling in late afternoon, so-totally-not-paying-attention to Sammi’s you know too muches and I don’t wannas that Sammi, the small one there, has to jump up on Gwenyth’s back and wrap armslegs around her sister piggily-wiggily just to get her attention back.
“I won’t get tan, Gwen-Gwen!” she shrieks.
“You won’t get burned,” Gwenyth replies.
“Rock stars don’t get burned,” says Sammi, tongue thrust out of her mouth and towel spread out in the grass, a bold You-Can’t-Tell-Me-What-To-Do, right there, smackdab in the middle of the backyard that partially belongs to her family, partially to the neighbors on every side.
“Rock stars play music,” Gwenyth says, “they don’t just tan all day—” and walks away before Sammi’s classic retort, Sammi’s Greatest Hits, as it were, that is: (I sing—In the shower—I’m shy—Rock stars aren’t—well maybe if I were already brown like them I could concentrate on my music—that you don’t play) because, quite frankly, she isn’t quite up to the daily laziness and racism all wrapped with a bow, and besides, Sammi’s only nine and it’s just the television that’s warped her mind and couched her potato.
Pouty-faced Sammi huffs and puffs and lays herself down on the towel, turns up the radio with her foot, and stretches out in that ambiguously-owned backyard, one long grassy alley between rows and rows of allthesame houses—grey paneled boxes that store people, like the rows and rows of allthesame boxes that store cereal and crackerjack at the supermarket, Gwenyth thinks, just less flashy.
But these boxes across the street are filled with different product than they were years ago.
Exciting, Gwenyth thinks, these distant others. Open up your box-of-people and surprise! Something different. Something new. The prize inside.
Horrifying, Mama thinks, and as the neighborhood has filled up, one-by-one, with surprises, such that each surprise surprises less than the last, each For Sale sign a little brown flag, Lawd Have Mercy, planted there in the ground, Mama has gotten scareder and scareder. Mama checks the mailbox more rarely and more quickly—loads up a brown grocery bag and hustles up the drive, heaving and huffing to the door.
She even stopped jogging last night. Swore-it-off. Done with it. Holey Motha. She’d been jogging, see, with those earbuds-you-got-for-Christmas, only she was too terrified, mortified to keep them in—had to keep one in and one out to hear if someone was sneaking up behind her to do Lawdknowswhat. Three brown men had been sitting in their drive, no porchlight or nuthin, and all shouting and laughing their gibberish tongues as she puffed by.
“Kelvah-deeka-laka-laka! Oh how in God’s green earth can they understand each other? Horrified. Mortified. Ran straight home. And to think when we moved here it was such a safe neighborhood,” Mama said. “I didn’t want you girls growing up like this.”
“They aren’t dangerous, mother,” Gwenyth said, placing the dishes in their cupboard-homes. Mama had a penchant for theatrics—usually funny—like her doing Uncle Dave, when she’d blubber and drool and fawn over pantomimed collector’s diningware (that’s an 88 Dale Gordon, Jr!), but at that moment Gwenyth couldn’t stand—simply couldn’t bare her mother’s hamming. She buried her face in the glassware, looked at her reflection, addressed it privately, soliloquy:
“Go ahead,” she said, “ham it up, ham. Pig it up, pig.”
The glasses reflected her distorted scowl, a deranged Picassohead glaring back, one eye up here and one down there.
“Oh, mama who bore me, mama who raised me. That’s not you, mama. That can’t be you.”
“They blow up cars,” Mama shouted. “New York City, yesterday. Glory be. They think they go to Heaven for killing us.”
A deep breath. “The extremists, mother. Not everyone. There are extremists in every religion.”
“Not Christianity,” Mama said, and a glass shattered to the floor. A thousand broken Picassoheads glared up at Gwenyth, threatened her to retort, to become their twisted vision. Sammi looked up from a Seventeen at the table.
“Ah—klutzy.” Gwenyth said, elicited the dustpan’s support: sweep it up, sweep it in. Done with it. Buried. Gone.
“And besides, I know it’s not everyone,” Mama continued. “Stop acting all high and mighty like you’re too smart for your own mother. You remember I sold that Muslim couple the old nightstand. Drove it to their house! They were nice. Talked with them for twenty minutes! It’s just when I can’t understand them, Gwenyth. When they yell and scream in the cubicles behind me at work and I don’t know what. Some of them are planning, Gwenyth. Not all, but who knows which? You wait. These other ones are planting themselves. Biding their time. And one day—oh mercy be!”
And Gwenyth, to herself, brushing up the last shards: “That won’t do, pig. That won’t do.”
Now: Mama’s van drags up the drive. Treadmill in back—those nice boys at Walmart loaded it in and everything—and Gwennie, could you help get it in?
Gwenyth cracks the trunk and stares at the big brown box with a black treadmill silhouetted on the side. She heaves.
“Mama, do you think you could grab the other end?”
Mama grabs and lifts, only the box doesn’t budge, and soon she’s calling for Sammi, who’s justnine and weak and whose fingers are greasy from all that tanning oil, and now what to do, Mama asks.
And then—just as quick as that—Gwenyth calls out to a group of men a few houses down—excuse me, Sirs!
“Gwenyth—why don’t we just ask Mr. Pulcini next door?” and hurriedly—“We could knock.”
“That’s alright mother, these men are right here and Mr. Pulcini’s old—Sirs! I’m not certain we’ve met before, would you mind giving me a hand lifting this inside?”
“Oh, no, gentlemen, we couldn’t bother strangers for help! You go about your day! We can do it!”
“Nonsense,” one man replies, looking to several of his fellows. “Ladies shouldn’t lift all that, baba.”
Gwenyth grins her mother down as two kurtas leap-up-hoist-down the thing 1-2-3, shouting and laughing—Hindi? Urdu? How to tell? Laughing and maneuvering the box into the garage.
Mama stands in the drive, arms stretching towards her home and legs mysteriously glued to pavement, like if only I were Stretch Armstrong.
“Come, mother,” Gwenyth says, and mama follows, reluctantly. At least they’re wearing jeans, she thinks. At least we have jeans in common.
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” she speaks up, determined to know, at least what’s being said. “I’m afraid I don’t understand. Could you speak English?”
“No problem,” says one, and Gwenyth shakes her Picassohead again, slow left, right, left—these men don’t deserve her distrust, they who are helping us.
“You’ll have to excuse my mother,” Gwenyth tells the maybe-thirties. “Terribly xenophobic. News did it to her. Whole ‘War on Terror,’ 9/11-scare. Who in her generation isn’t a little xenophobic, though, right? Can’t really blame her.”
Gwenyth and her mother stare at one man’s tensed back as he and his friend? cousin? brother? walk a few heavy steps into the kitchen, the box, swinging vaguely between them.
“Where do you want it?”
Gwenyth looks at mama, whose eyes search the ground, as if a script will be written there, if only she stares long enough.
“Oh—the basement,” Gwenyth replies, and the men, stationed in one place, weighted by the box, look over right shoulders, then left.
“There,” Gwenyth points.
The men take a few steps and the leader rests the box on his thigh, turns the doorknob with his free hand, and begins to descend.
The second man, back hunched under the weight, moving slowly, feet splayed wide, like a crab, facing away from the women, who stand, silhouettes in the doorframe looking down, speaks:
“Don’t worry, amma,” he says, “it’s scary, yah. We’re scared too.”
Mama choke-laughs. “I ju-just want to understand,” she says, “I’m just a stupid old mother who doesn’t know two languages like all you smart, young folks.”
“Hypocrite,” Gwenyth thinks, and watches the two men get gradually smaller. “Two-faced. Insults them. Makes them feel anxious and awkward in their own neighborhood. Rejects them and then compliments them to their faces. But they know. They’re smarter than all that. They have a right. A right to feel welcome. A right to know I’m on their side! I have a right to be distinct from my mother!”
“Pretty stupid, alright,” Gwenyth says, “Can’t blame her, of course. Have to feel bad for her, really. Doesn’t even know where she’s wrong. Thinks all brown people are Arabs, Muslims, whatever scare-of-the-week. Totally oblivious to history—the Crusades, Saladin, the whole shebang—like Christians have never wronged anyone. Like all white people are God’s little angels. It’s kind of quaint, really.”
The men grunt, descend slowly, reach the bottom of the stair and set the box down. The leader wipes his brow with his sleeve and the other kind of kicks the box with his foot, an attempt to move it a half-inch maybe, though it’s plainly too heavy. The first attempts a graceful exit:
“Everyone’s wronged everyone, baba,” he says. “Every day. Trust me. This little thing? It’s no worries.”
The second man claps the first on the back, laughs a little, at himself, at what? He rolls his hand over and over at Gwenyth, like he’s reeling in an invisible fish, about to say the funniest thing.
“Seriously,” he says. “Yo momma so unimportant, neither of us will even remember her!” He laughs loudly.
“You’ll have to excuse my friend,” the first says, “he’s gotten into American jokes.”