Small Castles

“Americans didn’t wash their daughter’s vaginas.” Betsy say that jus’ jus’ so, as she was interviewing me in she chrome and white kitchen. “Our children are taught to take care of that themselves.”

“I go do that,” I say and shake meh head. I didn’t expect she to be so upfront about something like that, and funny how everything that happen after was ’bout things she shoulda tell me to meh face but didn’t, thoughts and feelings they try to hide but was plain for anybody to see.

“Hugh and I, Hugh’s my husband. He’s a professor. He wanted to be here to meet you in person, but he’s picking Ethan and Taylor up since we didn’t have any help.” She shrug she shoulders. “We hope you can teach the kids about your culture, about the islands. And read with them. I know how important education is to Caribbean people.” She push some hair behind she ears.

I smooth down the front of meh clothes. “I go teach them.” I show some teeth for effect, ’cause I didn’t know teaching was involve. I leave school when I was fourteen as Ma say she couldn’t afford to send me and Deborah. For days, I follow Ma around as she was washing and cooking for she new man, Prince, who was living with we at the time, begging she to send me instead, because I was brighter than Deborah. Mrs. Thomas, meh third-form teacher, even come right by we house with the dirt yard and cardboard-box ears for louvers in places to beg for me. But Ma still send Deborah, and tell me when I become a woman, I go understand. At first, Deborah use to hurry home to teach me what she learn in school. After a while, she stop, and I start to read she books, some she never even open, imagining I was taking a test or reading aloud to a teacher who wasn’t there. With Betsy children so young, I could figure it out the schoolwork.

“And no praying with the children. We’re atheists. For that I’ll fire you right on the spot. If the kids ask you anything about religion, tell them to ask me or Hugh.”

“I wouldn’t do that.” I look in she eyes, potholes fulla water, then at the round silver table. When I was by the kitchen door, it look like a full moon. Now that I close up, the surface was scratch up with swirling patterns that meh eye couldn’t follow.

“Now, you don’t have that much experience, so we won’t pay as much as you probably heard. We’ll do three hundred and fifty a week. Cash. And subway tokens for the month. You can eat whatever you like from the fridge. But keep your personal stuff in your room. Hugh or me will pick you up at the train station if it’s raining or snowing or something. And, you’re doing the whole week? No, you have a day off, right?”

“Yeah. I here Monday to Saturday. Off Sunday.”

“Okay. Six days. So, let’s go over it. As the nanny, you’ll get the kids ready for school in the morning. The school’s not far from here. You and the kids can walk it. Hugh will take you if the weather’s bad. Pick them up in the afternoon and take them to music and dance. After dance and music, see that they do their homework and get them ready for bed.” She hold up five fingers. “We already talked about how you should bathe them.” Six fingers. “Oh, on a Saturday, you’ll do the library or something with them.” She grin a fake grin, just teeth. Didn’t even reach she cheeks. “Don’t like them idling at home. Weekly laundry, grocery shopping, and keep the house tidy like we talked about earlier. You have questions?” Ten fingers.

“Am…” Meh belly get tight. I should ask for more money. The amount a things I had to do. Pay for meh room. Clothes and things for mehself and meh uncle and he family, and save up for meh paperwork. I was ’fraid if I shorten the list, she might shorten the pay. Just agree with everything, the lady in the employment agency did tell me, after I give she meh two hundred U.S. to find a stay-in work, so I say, “Am, not yet. But I go ask if I think ’a anything.”

“Terrific. We’re so happy to have you. We really need the help. The kids, Ethan and Taylor, will be home in a like a half hour. In the meantime, I’ll show you your room.” I follow she out the kitchen and up a metal staircase.

▴ ▴ ▴

I was three months on the job in May, and waiting outside the children school with Jackie, a nanny I meet in meh first week. Jackie show me the ropes, as people say here. Especially what to do to space out and organize the housework so it will look like I doing everything and not get too tired. Jackie was around late twenties and remind me of Deborah. The prettiness mostly, but Jackie was she own person, more than meh sister ever was. It was a Friday, just before 3 p.m., and clouds cover over the line of cars along Sixth Avenue.

“You ask them yet?” Jackie slide she shades down she nose.

“I try to ask plenty times, but something always interrupting. Time never right.” I move Ethan violin case from one shoulder to the next.

“She likely knows you want to ask her. In fact, Euni girl, ask the husband to do it.”

“I go ask the lady husband for a favor? She hire me, not he.” More cars full up the avenue as the school bell was about to call.

“Time’s passing and you need an answer. Didn’t you say she’s locked in a room all day? She doesn’t have a job. Her husband works, so he’s the employer, the one paying your salary and the one who will sign your papers,” Jackie whisper as more people curve around the entrance to the school.

The bell shriek, we signal to stop all the nanny talk. The security guard, a heavy woman in a tight, dark-green uniform, open the door and stand to one side, so the children could flow out the door, their talking and talking, a tide of bees.

Jackie take a knapsack from a girl with a yellow cord attach to she glasses. The girl turn to talk to a next child.

“Lola, let’s go. No time for that. You have gymnastics.” Jackie take Lola hand.

She touch me with she elbow as she was leaving but didn’t look at me. “Ask them, Trini.”

“Can you carry my bag?” Taylor hold on to the knees of meh jeans.

I rake she hair, fine yellowing grass, with meh hand, take she bag and put it on meh empty shoulder. It was bulky, but light just like the child who own it. Taylor was six. She take up space, but didn’t make deep footprints in the dirt of this world. She was the kind a child that other children forget to look for in a hide-and-seek game. In the same game, Ethan was the one doing the seeking, stomping through some house, calling people name, banging cupboards and closet doors, and looking under beds. In looks, he take after he mother. Round face under dark brown hair, with a impatience about things. He was only eight, and to be right he had to point out you was wrong. To he, I wasn’t smart, and he like pointing that out whenever he could. Like most evenings, he run past me and he sister then stand at the edge of the pavement near the street.

“Wait nah, Ethan.” I lengthen meh stride to catch up.

“I have violin today. I don’t wanna be late.” He plant heself, legs wide, one hand interfering with a multicolored, braided, plastic cord on he wrist.

“I know.” I push Taylor forward. “Walk in front of me.”

“I’m hungry, Eunice.” She stop walking.

“We go get snacks and dinner after dance… Ethan wait by the corner!”

“But I’m hungry now. You don’t have anything in your bag?” This is a everyday thing, Taylor being hungry. Is so cause the parents let she eat whatever she want. In the end, that amount to boil hot dog with ketchup and juice. She eat potato chips, if she in the mood, or some sweet nonsense like Snickers.

“Not today. You go get something after lessons, soon as we reach home.” I touch she soft, soft face. “Okay?”

She say okay and we start walking again. Ethan was half a block ahead of we. In truth, he know the way and could do it by heself. He tell me the nanny before me, a Teresa, used to meet him by the music school with the violin. Meh thinking is that they fire Teresa for just that. I ask Jackie, but she only minding Lola for a few months and didn’t know any Teresa. Meh thoughts far away, I nearly didn’t feel Taylor pulling meh hand.

“It scratches,” she say when I look down. She push she hip forward and point at the place between she legs.

“Like I tell you already, chile, tell yuh mother about that.” Just last Saturday, I watch Betsy stand next to she daughter, while she scratch sheself, and pretend not to notice. When I tell Jackie, she say to pretend I don’t see it either, ’cause for a helper to see or hear something is for that something to become part of the helper job. And that go be eleven fingers. “Ethan, wait!” He was by the corner of Union and Sixth Avenue.

“Hurry up!” he shout and stamp one foot. “You’re gonna make me late.”

I was going to ignore him and let him cross, but it had a lady holding a little girl hand right there. The girl could be from Parkslope Prep too, so the mother might know Betsy, so I ask him, “Why you does behave like that?” I wag meh finger for show, when me and the sister reach up to him. “You need to have some manners.”

“’Cause…I don’t wanna be late.”

The woman smile at me, so I bend meh back to meet the boy eye to eye. “You don’t talk to big people like that. How much times I go tell you that? You hear me?”

“Look, the light changed.” He run across the road and look back. “You have to hurry up, Eunice. I’m your boss!”

▴ ▴ ▴

Light coming through the patterns in the curtains in meh room make curly shadows on meh bed. The room didn’t have much, a chest of draws and a side table with a lamp. A white plastic bag of used clothes that Betsy give me a week ago was swell up like a boil under the window. The day she give them to me, we was in the kitchen. Me cooking and she supervising to make sure the food was low calorie. She and the family on a diet, she explain. I was frying up onions when she ask me, “What is your situation in Trinidad?”

“Me?” I ask to get time to think.

“Who else? Where did you grow up? What’s it like? And how come you’re here?”

“Well, is just me and meh sister, Deborah, for meh mother. I had a job as a cleaner in a school. But always want to come to America, so I apply for a visa and get it.”

“That’s pretty lucky. You should add the string beans now. I’ll get them.” She give me the rice strainer a beans from the sink.

“I say I lucky too. But as I get the visa, meh mother dead. So I had to take care of funeral and all that business.” The beans sizzle in the oil, a sound effect to meh story.

Betsy put she hand to she chest. She lips move to form—Oh my God—without making a sound.

“Right after the funeral, meh mother husband put me out of the house and bring in a next woman—”

“That’s a Dickens tale, Eunice. How did you manage after that?”

“I live with meh uncle, Ma brother, Larro. He name Larry, but Larro is a nickname, nah.” This was meh chance.

“What about Deborah?” she ask before I could start the conversation I been practicing over and over in meh head.

“Deborah have a new husband, she own family to mind.” I couldn’t tell she that Deborah new man was Prince, Ma common-law husband, and that she two children was for Prince. This is what kill Mammy in the end. Prince and Deborah let everything out one day, in a cuss-out in the front yard. Ma just grieve after that. I didn’t want Betsy to think that everybody in Trinidad do these sorta things. Ma, as a woman, could see that Prince was marking she daughter, so she keep Deborah out of the house by sending she to school. Send the pretty one and keep the, well, you know. I realize long time that Ma action mean that I wasn’t pretty. At least not like Deborah. At least not enough to make meh mother frighten that I go thief she man.

“I here on a visitor’s visa that good for two more months. I need to file paperwork with the Department of Labor, a labor certification you call it, that prove I am the best person for this job by the last day of the six months or I have to go back.” I dream mehself saying this to Betsy and sometimes to Hugh. But would wake up before they could answer. “Uncle Larro is a old man, and I send money to help with he doctor visits and medicine. Nothing in Trinidad for me.”

“You should file it quickly then. You’re overcooking the beans.”

I turn off the stove, scrape the beans in a bowl on the counter, and turn to face she. “I can’t file it. You or Mr. Arbres, as the employer, as meh boss (This word does raise she cheek a little. If you didn’t know she, you would hardly notice it.) would have to file it. I would get the lawyer, pay, and do all the running around. But you or Mr. Abres would have to apply on meh behalf. Which just really mean signing the paperwork.”

The fatness in she cheek disappear. “Will that get you your green card?”

“Once the paperwork with the labor department approve, I have to make a year in this job, then I could file for the green card.”

“What will we be risking? You would probably leave once you get your green card.”

“This is the only work I know how to do. The green card go take a while, and I want to see the children grow up.”

She left cheek lift a little and she say she would need to think about it, just like Jackie say. “Finish up so dinner could be ready on time,” was all she say and went back to the study.

She bring the bag of clothes before I was done cooking. It was half full that day. After that, every now and then, she would give me clothes or shoes she family didn’t want and say, “Put this in your bag.”

Since then, in between the cooking and cleaning, and the to-ing and fro-ing with the children, I been looking for space to bring it up, to get a answer. I turn on to meh back and look up at the lamp, a white, glass pawpaw hanging from the smooth plaster ceiling. The apartment was waking up. Somebody went to use the bathroom and was coughing. The husband. I had to pee and had the urge to run out into the hall and ask him for a answer. Instead, like a dog with meh tail between meh legs, I wait till he went back to the bedroom and, without a sound, went to the smaller bathroom just outside meh door. In the bathroom, I stop brushing meh teeth because I thought I hear Betsy stomping toward meh room. The stomping went to the bathroom in the middle of the hall and, after a few minutes, back to the bedroom. The door slam. What kinda a life is this for me? Listening and waiting in people house like a thief. I bathe, dress, and went down to start the coffee.

I was emptying the dishwasher when Hugh come down the steps with Taylor in he arms, their foreheads touching. Under he big belly, he skinny, hairy legs had a spidery look to them.

“Morning.” He move Taylor to he other hand. “You don’t have to do that, you know.” He point at the dishwasher. “You’re here really for the kids.”

“I don’t like doing nothing.” It was true ’cause I working since I small. It was also true that tidying the house was part of the agreement I had with Betsy. More and more I realize that he didn’t know much about the running of the house, me included. Anyhow, I want them to say yes so was making sure to be busy all the time.

“You really shouldn’t. It won’t be fair in the end. Financially for you, I mean.”

“I all right to do it.”

The coffee pot let go a breath. “Go let Eunice give you some breakfast.” He kiss the girl cheek and put she down.

“You want cereal? Sit down by the table. You—” I start.

“I want cereal in the playroom.” She look at she father. Funny how children understand who have power and who don’t. Taylor, a living dead of a child, who was under the rule of Ethan, who take up most of he parents time, talk louder than he sister, then loudest to get he way, and choose all the shows on the TV.

“Eat by the table, then watch television after.” I touch she head to try to sway she.

“But I don’t like the table.” She twist she body, soft like a cloth doll, to one side and wrinkle up she forehead. “But, Eunice—”

“Let her eat in the playroom.” The father lean against the counter and put the cup down next to him. “Go ahead, Taylor. We’ll bring your cereal.”

She run along the corridor. The playroom-door hinges make a short horse whinny, then a chi-click as it close.

Betsy legs appear on the stairs. Ethan was behind she, he hands on she waist. Each time he mother make a step, the boy jump down behind she.

Maybe today? I hold meh breath.

“Coffee? You’re a godsend, Eunice.”

Hugh take a cup from the cupboard and pour she coffee.

“Thanks,” she say under she breath. Look like something happen between them, but it was hard to say what. I use to see Prince and Deborah acting like this, she body movements mirroring he own, both of them silent when they should be talking, the real conversation happening when nobody was around. I was too young to understand what I was seeing. Deborah, at seventeen, had she first child and nobody, not even Ma, suspect it was Prince own. She walk around we little house with she big belly, playing at being afraid and not wanting to say who the father was. Mammy ask around we part of Marabella to all she people, to people who wasn’t she people, but nobody could say. We even thought somebody rape she, some tall, broad shadow in a dark car on the track behind she secondary school. Not one name blow we way like sugarcane ash from high places to soil white bedsheets on wire clotheslines below.

“You want cereal, Ethan? Cherrios?” I ask.

“Where’s Taylor?”

“She watching TV.”

“She’ll pick the shows first.” He fold he arms across he chest and run down the corridor to take over all proceedings in the TV room.

“Ethan, what about breakfast?” he mother call after him. “Ethan?”

The door close.

I sneak a glance at the parents. They was looking at each other with the cups near their chests like a painting I see in the museum just the Saturday before.

Hugh break he pose first and take a sip.

Betsy raise a eyebrow and lean she head to one side, brown hair wild on one shoulder.

Slow, slow, I open the cereal box.

“Do you mind taking the cereal to them?” Hugh ask. “He’s really serious about Justice League.”

“No problem.” I mix the milk and cereal in two bowls and carry them for the children.

When I reach back to the kitchen, Betsy was sitting by the table. “How did it go?”

“Good. They eating.”

“Thanks for doing that. We know he can be a handful. The kids really like you, and we appreciate all that you do,” Betsy say like I was doing them a favor they didn’t expect.

“Thanks. I glad to know that.” I decide to ask a favor in return. “I was wondering if allyuh had a chance to think about the labor certification and the green card thing I tell you about?” Meh voice was like a frog.

“Oh.” Hugh unfold he arms.

The wife sit up.

“We have talked about it.” Hugh look from me to he wife.

“We talked about it, but I am not so sure we have all the facts we—” Betsy start.

“We think it’s a great idea. But we need to know all the facts,” Hugh interrupt she.

“Facts like?” Meh head feel light, like I go faint.

“Well. We don’t really understand how this works,” Betsy say. “You said you came on a visitor’s visa that’s still valid. I don’t understand why we need to do anything. Can’t you just have it extended?”

“We just want to know the what and the why. It would really help with our, with our…decision-making process.” He sip he coffee and put down the cup.

I breathe in to pull meh thoughts together, to explain how this thing work, as Jackie and Cynthia, the lawyer that the agency refer me to, explain it. “Is a green card for a domestic worker. It have two parts, a labor certification that I am the best person for the job. Once that approve, and I make a year here, I can file for the green card. This job I doing for allyuh is the reason for the application. It take a long time, and I go continue to work for you while everything in process and even after I get it. Look, I don’t have anything back home, and I have my old uncle to help. It make more sense for me to stay here. To help mehself and he and he family.” Meh mouth was dry.

“I’m really sorry about your situation,” Betsy say, like she was hearing the story for the first time. “I can’t imagine—”

“We’ll do it, Eunice. We’re happy to help you.” He cut she off.

Betsy look at she husband, one eyebrow raise. She mouth start to take a shape to say something, so I say, “I go pay the lawyer and all the fees and things.” I been saving every extra cent for the first down payment, and Cynthia say I could pay for everything in parts.

“We couldn’t ask you to do that, we pay you so little,” Hugh say.

“Nah. I don’t mind. I saving up aw’ready. And thanks, eh. I real glad that you go sponsor me.”

“Don’t forget you’re taking the kids to the museum today.” Betsy click she tongue, a thing she does do when she vex, and swallow the words she really want to say. She belly mus’be full a words.

“Before you go, I need to get some writing done.” She get up from the table.

“Yes, I go make breakfast, eat, get ready, dress the kids, and carry them to the museum.”

“Super. I want to get a lot done today, so you can bring breakfast to me in the study. Just a boiled egg with whole wheat toast. And some juice.” A belly fulla’ gas does make people fart. This is how the vexation Betsy just swallow does come out. Jackie did warn me about the strings, the slights. Today, is to carry she breakfast to she. I bracing for more of this over the next few months, a year, however long this go take.

“Sure, boss lady,” I say but it didn’t make she smile.

“I’ll leave you to it, then.” She turn to go, and look at she husband for the first time since he say he go sponsor me. “Hugh, what are you doing today?” She watch him with a cut eye like a corbeau that spy a dead lizard from above and plan to swoop down and take it in it big, sharp beak.

“I don’t know. I could go to the museum with the kids,” he answer cool, cool, no bruise from the cut eye. “You know what, Eunice, I’ll take the kids to the museum, and you can leave early today to celebrate your good news. It’s beautiful out.”

“No, is okay, is okay. I go still carry them. Is meh job.”

Betsy slippers flap against the tiles then against the wooden floor, as she went to the study, a weather system in the air behind she.

“No. I insist. It’s a rare occasion where I have time like this. Leave early today. Make Betsy’s breakfast, get the kids ready, and I’ll take them. Right?”

“Right, Mr. Hugh. I glad for the time off. Thanks, eh.” Whatever going on, they want to be by theyself.

“Good girl.” Hugh went in the playroom.

The silence in the empty kitchen buzz in meh ears.

▴ ▴ ▴

I was on the phone with Uncle Larro, talking about he pressure medication.

“…and meh nephew put a ting on meh phone that does remind me to take the tablets. So I en go forget.”

“Who? Fuss?”

“Who else but Rufus go bother with me? People say he bad because he went to jail when he was young. But Fuss take up with this farming thing and does sell in the market. He and he wife. When was the last time you see him? He look good, a big man now.”

I search meh mind to find a picture of Fuss and remember him giving me a drop from the Marabella Junction into the trace where we live. I tell that to meh uncle. “He was looking good in truth. He drop me, but what he did really want was to see how Mammy was keeping, with all that was going on. You know, she always favor Rufus. She was the one who help him pay passage to go to the program that teach him to farm and thing.”

“Oh Lord, Nicy, you mention meh sister and tears come to meh eyes.” He stop talking for a little bit.

“Uncle, you there?”

“I dey, girl. Wait nah, with all of that, you ever call yuh sister?”

“Uncle.” All this time, I avoid talking about the palace, meh name for meh sister and she prince.

“I see she the other day, you know? She get a job, a little end, in a doctor’s office. Say she fixing up the house. She talk about yuh niece and nephew, but didn’t mention the man. Like she shame?”

Far away from Marabella, the palace, all the talk and the feelings, I could see things more clear. Not the who and the when of what happen. But the root of things. When I pull up the poison plant of a man seducing a girl while he sleeping in she mother bed, the root show that Mammy shoulda put out Prince when she realize he was marking Deborah. Mammy did love Prince too much to put out the tall, half-Indian, good-looking man that make other women jealous a she. Deborah was a child and Prince was a man. Sometimes, a tail of a thought does start lashing back and forth in meh mind. The vexation I have for Ma, for the school thing and for she choosing Deborah over me, cause me to feel for a long time that I wasn’t cut out for better things, and that my face and body was the problem. From this distance, I see that this isn’t about looks. Never is. This is about Prince being wicked and greedy and wanting the mother and the daughter. About my sister not wanting more for she self than a prince in a small castle. Ma loving Prince more than sheself and she children. I pass by the house just before I leave the country, and it still had cardboard shutters instead of glass in the louver window.

“I will talk to she when I ready.”

The day Deborah come to meh bedroom early in the morning, sit down on meh bed to tell meh it was time to find someplace else to live, she didn’t look at me. She explain that I had to leave because their “family” (they was a family?) was getting bigger and they need more room. Prince was in the drawing room, changing the station on the radio he buy for Ma when he first move in.

“When you ready, Nicy,” Uncle say. “I does pray for she, and you, and the children. Not much of the family leave as people dying out.”

“Hmmm. I know…” There was a knock on meh door. “Hold on, Uncle.”

“Hello?” I went near the door.

“Sorry to bother you, Eunice. But can I see you for a sec?” It was Betsy.

I open the door, and I put the phone to meh chest. “I starting dinner in a hour. The clothes in the dryer.”

“Oh, that’s the thing, we want to have an early night. I was hoping you could have dinner ready at seven instead, if that’s okay.”

Taylor take a step into the room. “Can I come in there?”

“No Taylor, that’s Eunice’s private space.” Betsy pull she back into the corridor.

“I go come down in fifteen. Just now.”

“Thanks, Eunice. I’m in the study if you need me.”

“Okay.” I close the door and put the phone to meh ear. “Uncle?”

“The phone card say three minutes remaining. That is the lady who sponsoring you?”

“Yeah.” Hugh sign the certification, but it was too much to explain.

“Is so it does be all the time?”

“Is so stay-in helper work is. Have to do what she tell meh. Like any work.” I was defending mehself. The real experience of starting out in this country is never as pretty as people back home imagine. They just see the money you send or the pictures of you in new clothes.

“You have a plan to come outta this?”

“She part of the plan.” I lower meh voice. “Is them have to sign, like I tell you.”

“How long it go take?”

The lashing tail in meh mind was moving again, this time because I didn’t know how long it was going to take and only had the lawyer word that we do everything and the certification was moving along. It was a question I avoid asking mehself.

“One minute remaining,” the voice on the phone card say.

“The card go cut off in a minute, Uncle. Keep good. Take your tablets and tell Fuss I say hello.”

“I go tell him. Keep good, yuhself. I go continue to pray for you. When yuh hand in the lion mouth—” The phone cut off.

“You have to ease it out,” I say to the four walls to finish he sentence, retie meh head tie, put on meh slippers, and went down the steps.

I cook dinner, pasta and sauce, with roast chicken. In the middle of the cooking, Betsy emerge from the study to supervise the chicken. With she hand behind she back, she ask to see the amount of salt I was putting, the amount of pepper. She say I always overcook the pasta. Every time, I call it macaroni, she would ask, “You mean pasta?” At one point, she was behind me, and when I straighten meh back after opening the oven, I bump into she, and the broiling chicken in the glass dish almost fall out meh hands. She screech, and Hugh run from the TV room, with Taylor foot, foot behind him.

“What’s the matter? Are you okay?” He touch the elbow of the arms she wrap around sheself.

“Nothing, the chicken just almost fell.”

“What’s wrong, Mom?” Taylor question like a comma between she parents. They was just at the kitchen door, but as I move the chicken to a bowl and pour the sauce in a pan to reduce it, I feel like they was far away, on one of the planets in Deborah science book and I on another planet. We wasn’t even breathing the same air. Hugh invite he wife to the TV room and she ask me to call she when the food ready. Once I finish up, I parcel out a container of food for mehself, just macaroni and chicken, as the sauce was too sour for me, with all the onions and tomatoes they like. I set the table, call Betsy, and was halfway up the steps by the time she was in the kitchen.

“You’re not going to eat with us?” She look up at me.

“Just want to get off meh foot for a little. Leave everything in the sink, and I go be down later to pack the dishwasher.” I turn and went up the stairs before she could say the words shaping at the corners of she mouth.

“Pastaaa,” Ethan shout out somewhere below me, then the talk and chatter of the family echoing against the chrome and tile drown him out.

▴ ▴ ▴

The next morning, meh off-day, I was up before everybody. I make pancakes because it was the quietest and quickest thing I could think of. I was by the door arguing with mehself about if to wake them up to say that I going or if to leave jus’ so. As I put meh hand on the doorknob, I hear somebody coming down the steps. I went back to the kitchen and bounce up with Hugh. He say morning and pick up the coffee pot and look in it like it was a tunnel with something at the end he couldn’t see, put it back, and look around the kitchen.

“Lemme start a pot,” I say.

“It’s okay, I can do it. You go. It’s a Sunday,” he say, but still didn’t reach for the packet of coffee on the counter. I wasn’t sure what the hint was here, but the right answer to the question was that I should do it.

I full the filter, set everything up, and turn on the coffee maker, while he lean against the counter looking at me. “I leave the pancakes warming in the oven, and it have sausages in the microwave. Jam and everything else in the fridge.”

“That’s great. Thanks.” He cross he arms across he belly then like he mind was somewhere else, eyes looking at the tile floor.

“Monday, then,” I say to mehself as I close the door behind me and press the elevator button.

Outside, a warm August wind kick up dust and spin snack papers around in circles. The rubbish scrape the pavement as it dance around me. Old people say that if you dream somebody walking in circles around you, it mean that person making a fool of you. I get on the 41 bus across from the library and sit down thinking about fools and about calling the lawyer on Monday to check in on meh paperwork, so I didn’t see Jackie until she walk right up to me and touch meh shoulder. “How you going, girlfriend?” she say, and I shift meh legs so she could sit by the window.

“I all right.” Mus’be four months since I last see she. She leave Lola family because they was paying she short, a different amount each week, and complaining that she wasn’t doing enough. “How things with you?”

“Looking for working again.” She pause and come near meh ears. “Jerry, the old guy I was taking care of in Long Island, died last week.” Minding sick, old people does pay good, and the work easy, I hear, since some of them unconscious, and all you have to do is bathe them, change up, and clean some tubing, change they nappy when they pee or toto, and turn them, if they could turn.

The bus stop, and the heat of the day come and stand up between we. Jackie take off she denim jacket.

“Getting off. Getting off—” A woman bawl near the back door so the driver would open it.

“He didn’t live long at all. So what Jerry daughter say? She go recommend you to somebody? Or keep you on to clean?”

“He had a stroke. The doctor said he had a year, but he only lasted three months. Carol? She’s taken up with making sure she carries out Jerry’s wishes. He wanted to be burned and told them to plant a tree with his ashes. She invited me to the memorial service but didn’t mention work or anything.”

“It have any agency you could hook up with to help you find something?” She was looking out the window, so I wasn’t sure if she hear me, so I say it again. “You want the number for my agency? They do sick, babysitting, and housekeeping.”

“I can’t afford that fee right now, especially with no guarantee that I will get something. Maybe you could ask your boss if any of her friends want somebody to do housework or to babysit?”

“I could ask she, but they just agree to sponsor meh, and I will have to wait a li’l bit. Space out the favors.”

“They said yes? When?”

“About three months now.”

“That’s good news, Euni girl.” She touch meh arm and lean in closer as this wasn’t really talk-on-the-bus business. In fact, a flat-face woman in a multicolored head tie was staring right at we, eating every word out meh mouth.

“Paperwork file last month, just before meh stay expire.” I cover my mouth with one hand, and Colored Head Tie look out the window.

“Important thing is that it was filed. I’m glad for you, but feeling sorry for myself because the more I check it out, I realize that I can’t take the same route as you, through the employer.”

“You ent born here?”

“I was born in Jamaica,” she whisper. “Came here as a baby. Nothing on file. Didn’t even know I wasn’t a citizen until I was in high school and wanted to go to college. You think I would be doing this kinda work if I had papers?”

I wanted to know what she mean by that. She mus’be see the look on meh face because she say, “I mean, all work is good work. But I would do more for myself if I could. You know? College and a job in an office with vacation and health insurance and Christmas parties.” She look out the window again.

I staying here because I want more for mehself. More than making breakfast before I leave on meh off-day and clearing dishes in the study when Betsy don’t bring them out for days. Handwashing Taylor white toto or tut two, or however you call it, so she could wear it over she clothes to school, to dance, to the zoo, to everywhere, when all the parents had to do the first time she cry and beg was to put they foot down and tell she no. And I want more than a office job with vacation. I want to get a college degree, work, buy a house in America, one in Trinidad too.

“Euni, girl. I was married to an American, but the only American thing about me is my accent.” She put she mouth by meh ears, “And my pussy, my husband used to say.” She laugh with no sound.

“You was married?”

“And divorced. I used to be Mrs. Jacqueline Tourney.” She hit meh on meh hand. “Girl, it looks like the only way to fix my situation is to,” she pause, “marry again,” she say in meh ears. “And to tell you the truth, I’m afraid to do that because it could be a trap, especially when you add the paperwork and all that. My husband, a Black American, refused to file for me. And the things I had to do in Florida.” She hug sheself and stare at the seatback in front of she like there was a picture there.

I wait for she to say more, but she only nod she head and pick at she nails, the red acrylic on one thumb almost gone. She silence tell me that something bad happen. Jackie was a concrete building with water seeping in underneath.

“So how are things going since they agreed to be your lord and savior?” she ask like she just return from somewhere.

“They not like that—”

“You’re right. They are not like that. Everyone is like that. When people have power over you, they use it. I’m sure you have more work to do. Sure, you’re leaving later and later every Saturday. The husband tried to feel you up yet? They ask for a threesome?”

I feel like she was really talking about she husband. “I telling you, is not as bad as that. They—”

“Really? Everything is exactly the same? Like before?”

“Well. You right. Look at the time I leaving on a Sunday. But the husband does try to be more fair than the wife. If he there and she ask meh to bring she coffee or pass she sweater, things like that, he does try to keep she in check. He does offer to do it or interrupt she.”

Jackie laugh again, a low scraping in she throat. “These men can’t keep their wives in check. What do you Trinis like to say? Woman is boss. Betsy is the boss of that house. Hugh has to do what she says. It might look like he’s, as you say, keeping her in check now. But that will backfire. To the wife, her husband is choosing your good over hers. You don’t want her feeling that. That will get you fired, and all this business with your papers will come to an end. Look, I have more experience with these people than you. I worked for a woman, Jill, in Westchester, for nearly a year, and she was real…” Jackie narrow she eyes, “What’s the word? Jill knew how to play one against the other. The husband against the children. The brother against the sister. One friend against the next—”

“Like to manipulate.”

“Yes! She loved to cry, and even when she was in the wrong, everyone thought it was their fault and apologized to her. I studied Jill. Watched Carol operate. And I plan to take pages out of their books. Women like that always win. If I were you, I would make sure Betsy is happy. Do whatever she says.”

“I go think ’bout what you say.” I put meh overnight bag on meh shoulder.

“Anyway. Are sure your paperwork has started?”

“Yes. I waiting for a answer from the labor people, but meh boss lady ent get anything in the mail yet.”

“The papers are going to the apartment?”

I shake meh head.

“Girl, if you had asked me, I would have told you to use the lawyer’s address. You can’t trust people when it comes to these things.”

“How I go change that now?” Meh heart was in meh throat.

“Tell the lawyer. They know how.”

I touch the red tape by the window. “This is meh stop.” I stand. “Jackie, I go pray for everything to work out for you.”

“Thanks. And ask your boss lady about the thing, when the time is right.”

“I go ask she,” I say and get off the bus.

I cross the street, then the rickety, wooden porch with peeling paint of the sprawling seven-bedroom house where I rent meh room. The family sleep late on weekends here so it was quiet. The mother, Novis from Grenada, didn’t work, just rent rooms to people in situations similar to mines. How people could have papers and just do nothing with it? How? It have plenty things I could say about this Novis, meh landlady. The young men she does be entertaining (a old woman like she) and the daughter, who doesn’t go to school every day, and the son, who I meet in meh room one Sunday and had to put a lock on the door, and cuss up Novis to stop him from coming to the third floor. The hiding, the silence, and the painful look in the daughter eyes because she know what the laughter coming from she mother bedroom mean, remind me of the palace. It also tell me that it have palaces everywhere. It was a question of figuring out who was the Ma, who was the Deborah, who was the Prince. And who was me. It was clear who was who in meh landlady house, which, in a way, bring a kinda comfort, because I know how it go end. One day, when the right young man come along, Novis will put she daughter out. I wish I could warn the girl so she could prepare, but is none a meh business. I continue up the creaky steps to meh room on the third floor and throw the overnight bag next to the bed. I have some fat plastic bags of meh own with new clothes and household goods for meh family to send home in a barrel. Since I was leaving Sunday morning instead of Saturday evening, I didn’t have time to shop, just to talk to meh family on the phone, sleep, and prepare to return early the next morning to ready the children for school. Then this thing that Jackie say about letting the documents go the lawyer was like a wallpaper in meh head, as I was seeing it no matter where meh mind turn. Meh favorite book in school was one about Greek gods and heroes. In one story, a fella was rolling a boulder up a hill over and over again. Silas or something like that. I was like Silas, only that I couldn’t afford for meh paperwork to roll back, so I was constantly in the brace position. Telling the lawyer to change the address to she office was one way to keep pushing meh paperwork in the right direction.

▴ ▴ ▴

Meh back was sweating where the violin case was resting against it. I was holding Taylor hand, and she brother was trotting along with we, talking about how scientists does know where finches go during the winter.

“…and the tracker is this small.” He touch he first finger and thumb together. “Look, Eunice.” He stop walking.

“That is really small in truth. You is a very smart boy.” Is true, he was a bright chile. In the two years and two months since I working here, he get taller and change to have a little more manners, easier to be around.

“Thanks, Eunice. I know.” He smile and hold on to the imaginary tracker till we was by the apartment door. As I open it, they rush to the playroom, shoes still on, to start the usual war for the TV. The parents was talking in the kitchen.

“…But you haven’t published anything, Bets. I’m not a fiction writer, and I’m sure it’s hard to do but, nothing?”

“It takes time. I write every day. And I have some pieces that are pretty good that I might be able to submit somewhere.”

I put the violin in the cupboard in the foyer and rest Taylor backpack on the bench against the wall. I had a little bag of groceries, things to go in the fridge, and wasn’t sure if to go in the kitchen or to wait till they finish. They stop talking for a moment, and I thought they hear me and the children, so I walk toward the kitchen, then the husband ask, “How do you know?”

“What? How do I know what?”

“How do you know the writing is pretty good?” He went in on the last two words and I imagine him making open and close quotation marks in the air, like he does when he trying to make a point.

“I know they’re pretty good,” she match he tone, “’cause I have a masters in creative writing, and I taught writing for six years. Remember? I had a life before you and the kids. Or are we back in Connecticut in your parents’ house again? What did your dad say? She’s not a mental match for you.”

He lower he voice, so I couldn’t make out the first part of he answer, then I hear, “…and you know it.” Every day, all the time, there is a invisible thing between these two people. I call it Shhhh, a sucking, hungry thing that does absorb all the words they want to say but don’t say. Shhhh does push one of them out of a room after a few minutes of quiet. I guess this is something they avoid talking about. They not so different from other people trying to make a life.

“Maybe I need to take a class or something, be with other writers.”

“Bets, I don’t think we can afford that. There’s music and dance for the kids. That prep school costs almost as much as the mortgage, and ever since your nanny slash maid slash do-whatever-you-ask-her-to-do got that work permit, her salary plus the employment tax are a real cost.”

My nanny?” She stress the word my.

The hair get stiff on the back of meh neck, and I walk in the kitchen and say good afternoon, ’cause if I hear more of what they really think about me, it might get harder to stay.

They was leaning against the lower cupboards on opposite sides of the room. The man arms was fold over he chest, and he wife had she hands on she hips. Shhhh hanging between them, like a stale food smell from a meal cook hours ago.

“Evening, Eunice,” Hugh say.

“Hey. Where are the kids?” Betsy put she hair behind she ears.

“In the playroom. I come to put away the groceries.” I rest the bag on the table.

“Leave them, I’ll do it.” She voice was hoarse.

“It have ice cream in there,” I say and went upstairs and lock the door behind me, their voices like a television playing in a neighbor house. I sit on the bed and ketch the breath I only just realize I was out of and take the orange plastic envelope out of meh handbag. I open it and lay out meh papers, one by one, in order, so I could see what I was doing, remind mehself that things happening even if I couldn’t see them. The Department of Labor documents was first: the first letter saying they receive everything, the invoice for the newspaper job advertisement (that I still paying back the lawyer for), and the approval notice from Labor. I leave a space for the long month from September to October 2000 that it take to file for the green card. Then the letter saying they receive everything, then a next letter saying it “processing.” I put the work permit papers, just three—we receive it, we processing it, here it is—before the letter from the Department of Justice that say the green card processing, because that is where everything reach. I read the words with the gray and orange swirl in the background, and I read it again to make sure I didn’t miss anything, put everything in the envelope and then in meh handbag that feel like a stone on meh lap. I look around meh room, at the plain white lamp, the two pregnant bags of old clothes. “How much longer?” I ask the four walls. The lawyer answer from earlier today come back to me, “Six months, a year or two, three. There are a lot of applicants in this unskilled category, and it depends on how fast they get through the backlog.” Backlog. I imagine some dark backroom with a pile of manila folders like the one the lawyer had with my name on it, and some person in overalls and glasses, a light on their forehead, going through each folder slow, slow, looking to see what was missing. I sit up to stop the daydream and because I hear the couple bedroom door close, meaning it was time to make sure the children do their homework.

▴ ▴ ▴

The carpet in the study didn’t need cleaning, so I turn on the vacuum and let it run while I tidy the desk. I wipe the laptop with the hem of meh skirt and pick up two cups with a black, thick substance inside. I was straightening up a pile of papers when something ketch meh eye. The page at the top say, Working Title: Archetype. I read the first few lines:


Sylvia’s harsh life showed on her. It showed in the lines and dark swellings under her eyes. It showed in the raised scar, smooth and golden against her dark brown skin that went from the center of her chin, and across her jaw, halfway to the base of her left ear. And in the way she bent her back, slightly, as she walked. She was worn. Too worn to be a servant in another woman’s house. But…


“Hey, I’m glad you’re here.” Betsy.

I turn off the vacuum, stack the cups in one hand, and move meh weight from one leg to the next. For the first time in a long time, meh other hand reach for the scar on meh chin. I was swinging on the iron structure that support the water tank in the back of meh primary school and when the recess bell ring, I jump off too quick and hit meh chin and jaw on one of the iron poles. The principal call Ma at work for she to come and get me ’cause all down the front of meh white shirt and plaid overalls was blood. Ma say she couldn’t come, and they had to give me a blouse that some child leave behind years ago. By the time Ma reach, she vexation was cool, so she didn’t beat me. She say, “Look how you mark yuhself? I make you good, and you make yuhself ugly.” I am the only person in the world who know the day I get ugly. Ma used to warn Deborah about swinging on the said tank support or running too wild, by telling she to not end up ug—like me.

“You okay?” Betsy ask.

“I good.”

“You can put those down for a moment. I was hoping we could talk.”

The sharp clink of the cups slice the silence that the vacuum leave behind.

“I’m going to be working. Starting next month, June, as a substitute teacher. Five days a week.”

“Am…congratulations.” The husband want she to pull she weight, is all.

“Thanks, Eunice. My working is going to change things a bit for you.”

I wait.

“I’m going to have less time to concentrate on my writing and will really need your support. You’ll pick the kids up as usual and take them to music and dance. But when you make dinner, I need you to pack a lunch for me. I’ll get home around four, four thirty at the latest. And I want the study prepared for me to start writing as soon as I get home.”

I hang meh hands at meh sides.

“It’s not a big deal. Just have the computer on and the desk tidied. You’ll have to do this before you leave to pick up the kids, as I’ll definitely be home before you get back.”

“No problem.” I collect the cups and start pushing the vacuum toward the door.

“You know, I meant to ask—”

I stop but didn’t turn around because water was rolling down meh cheeks, and she go see it and ask me, and I will answer she, and when I done, I go have to leave here and never come back.

“Have you noticed Taylor scratching herself?”

“No.” Meh voice was grainy.

“You haven’t? Well, she and I were talking the other day and she just reached down and wouldn’t stop. How does her underwear look when you wash them?”

“Like normal.” I move closer to the door.

“Maybe it’s the detergent?”

“I just use the soap you tell meh to use, Miss Betsy.”

“Okay, I should have our doctor check it out.”

As I open the door to leave, she computer make a ta-dah sound, like if something magical just happen. Look how easy some words on a page cut through meh big woman surface to find the shameface, saddy, saddy girl underneath. Betsy words have magic in them, and the ta-dah is the spell working on me. She might be pretty good after all.

“Oh. And can I have the mailbox key back? I don’t think it’s appropriate for you to be checking our mail. I’m sorry I asked you to do that.”

“I go bring it for you when I done.”

▴ ▴ ▴

On Labor Day, Eastern Parkway was hot, but every now and then, a cool wind squeeze pass me and the children, threatening the fall that was coming. We was in front of a corn-soup vendor, and the rumble of the vendor generator mix up with soca from a truck I couldn’t see, and all the talking, laughing, and singing in different Caribbean twangs give me a headache that pulse through meh whole body. Meh hands was sweaty from holding tight to Ethan and Taylor in this crowd.

“There’s a band coming,” Ethan shout, pull away from me, and disappear between some people in front of we.

“Say excuse me, Ethan.”

“Sorry,” I tell the woman, he bounce as he pass.

“Is all right.” She had on a bright yellow and blue Bajan flag head tie.

The crowd on the pavement was about eight people deep, more in places. Children straddle adult necks, waving bandannas in flag colors in time to a reggae-dub rhythm bleating from a speaker truck that park in front of we on the Parkway. A fella on top the truck was singing along to the reggae song, he microphone screeching like a rooster early in the morning. Every screech scratch someplace deep inside meh skull, and meh heart beat in time to the bass. I tiptoe to look until I see Ethan leaning against the silver police barricade that separate the parade from spectators. Taylor pull meh hand, and I put meh ear near she mouth, “Can we go where he is?”

I really didn’t want to go so near the bacchanal, but the brother was too far way for meh comfort, and the sister just keep tugging meh hand. I touch a woman with green braids pile high on she head. “Give me a excuse, please nah? She want to stand up next to she brother.” I point at Taylor.

The woman shift she body like a door and let we pass.

“The banner says fancy sailors,” Ethan look back and say when I touch he shoulder.

Taylor lean against the barricade next to him, and I stand behind them until the orange, pink, and glitter marabou band pass, and a band a Moko jumbie take their place. Band after band and speaker truck after speaker truck, the children was pointing, asking questions, laughing, and bobbing their heads in time with the music. Around five o’clock or so, with one official hour of the West Indian Day Parade to go, more people fill the pavement, making long shadows on feathers, paper cups, and sequins, fallen stars against dark asphalt. With more people on the Parkway, some drinking alcohol all day from sweet-drink cans, there was a shift in the vibes, and the air feel like a argument was brewing, so I guide the children through the crowd to the train station.

In the silent apartment, the children run to the kitchen and call out to their parents. In answer, the bedroom door open and feet come down the steps.

“Did you guys have fun?” Betsy was in the foyer.

“We saw Moko jumbies.” Taylor stretch she hands high to show how tall the stilt walkers was.

“I ate two snow cones,” Ethan add, and describe all he see, mirroring the movements and sounds to excite he story.

I drift to the empty kitchen, where the tempo was still in meh head from earlier that day. I check the sink. Two wine glasses and some spoons. A white plastic bag with a picture of a red panda hang over the side of the bin. On the table was a big green and white envelope with a plastic window, and I was about to read the writing in the window when Betsy come in.

“Thanks, Eunice. They had so much fun.” She had Taylor in she arms.

“It was no problem. Lemme change and I—”

“That big envelope on the table is for you. It was messengered over from your lawyer today. Must be important.”

I turn, scoop up the envelope, and hold it under meh arm.

“Thanks. I appreciate it. Gimme forty minutes and I go start dinner.” I continue to meh room before she could answer.

Inside, I swallow two Panadol with the room-temperature water on the side table and pull the tab on the cardboard case. The familiar-looking envelope inside was already open, but I put it on the bed and check meh phone to discover that Cynthia did leave a message. Earlier in the week, the post office deliver the letter to the wrong law firm in the building, and she find it when she went in to prepare for a case and messenger it over ’cause it was urgent. I call she to say I get it, like she ask me to do in she message.

“Phew. That was close,” she say. “Don’t miss this appointment ’cause they’re hard to reschedule—”

I listen as she talk, only saying yes and yes, all meh mind could do with the headache and all.

After the call, I read the notice fast then slow to mark the date, the time, and the where I had to be:


9:00 a.m.


266 livingston street, brooklyn

tuesday, september 4, 2001


That was tomorrow. Meh hand was trembling as I put the envelope in meh handbag and imagine the Backlog jumbie closing meh file because it couldn’t find anything wrong with it and pushing it through a slot to a next room where some hand take it and stamp: ready for biometrics. I change into a house dress, sit a little till the shaking stop, wash meh face, and went downstairs, the drum in meh head smaller than it was earlier that day.

▴ ▴ ▴

A week later, I was vacuuming the playroom and thinking about what Betsy say to me in the laundry room yesterday. Jus’ so she come in the room, so I stop taking out the clothes, in case she had some special instruction that pop in she head while she writing. She smile one of the scarce smiles that reach she eyes and say, “Eunice I just want you to know that we think of you as part of our family. We are nothing without you. We don’t say it enough.” After she say it, she squeeze meh hand. It feel funny because in the two years and seven months I working for them, she never touch me. On Labor Day, later in the evening, she ask me about the letter that Cynthia message over, and when I explain that it was for fingerprints and pictures, she remark, “You must be close then.” I feel she only touch meh ’cause she ’fraid I go leave when I get meh papers. Me? I don’t know what I go do yet.

I clean from the playroom to the corridor, then turn off the vacuum, and hear the end of Betsy message on the answering machine, “…as soon as you get this message. My cell is on.”

I suck meh teeth at probably another urgent message to buy yogurt or to avoid putting some too-delicate blouse in the dryer. I was pushing the vacuum toward the broom closet when meh cell rattle against the kitchen table. Boss Lady again.

“Hello. Miss Betsy?”

She was shouting, saying something about a plane crash.

“What you saying?”

“Turn on the TV!”

In the playroom, I press the mute button and try to make sense of the picture and voices coming from the box in front of me.

“Are you seeing it?”

“I seeing.”

“Some teachers here have husbands and wives who work in the towers. Cell calls aren’t going through. People are crying in the hallways. I’m sure the same thing is happening at the kids’ school. And the whole thing might get worse as the day goes on. Ethan and Taylor should be home. Eunice, I need you to pick them up.”

“Okay, I go—”

“No! I mean like right now. Oh my God, someone just started screaming. Take a cab. Call Arizzo. The number’s on the fridge. Tell the driver to wait and take you and the kids home. I’ll reimburse you.”

“I go get them.”

“I already called the school to let them know you’re coming. I tried to reach Hugh, but he’s probably still teaching. He won’t know till he comes out of class.”

I watch the TV screen. Buildings had on dresses made a fire, and fists of dark gray smoke was rising toward the sky.


“I going now, Miss.”

“Call me when you and the kids are back in the house. And please don’t let them watch the news. Me and Hugh should be there to explain it. You understand me?”

“Yes. I going and get them.”

“Thanks.” She hang up.

▴ ▴ ▴

I open meh bedroom window and look out through a haze the color of pale honey that make the apartment buildings and trees across the street look like a old photograph. It was three weeks since the sky in Manhattan fill up with fire, and still every breath of the wind had a smoky, metallic smell that hit me high in meh nostrils. I close the window and spray a fruity air freshener. The two smells mix into something like burn sugar, and I open the room door to chase it out. I couldn’t hear the family but know that they was in the playroom watching the television, sitting close together, their four backs the shape of a tiny city on the couch.

That day last week, after I bring the children home in the middle of the day, I was sitting on one of the beanbags in the playroom, and the family was on the couch. The moment the man on the TV say that some of the people responsible for the plane crashing into the towers was foreign students, immigrants, all sounds leave the playroom except he voice and the whirring of the air conditioning unit. In the days after that, I read the last name under the face of a man the TV was showing over and over again. Atta. He could be anyone from anywhere. Somebody I coulda know in Trinidad. The fella who sell fruit near the train station at Grand Army in the summer. He was the biggest jumbie in what people was calling the terrorist attack on 9/11, the date it happen. With the jumbie face on the screen, I turn to say something to cut the stillness in the used-to-be noisy room that the children fight over, to try to go back to the minutes before Betsy call and ask me to take a cab and pick up the children from school, or to the day before that when I was part of the family and they was nothing without me. But when I turn toward them, Betsy and Hugh was staring at me, as if I was the picture for the news the man on the TV was reading. Once we eyes lock, the couple look away as if I wasn’t there. I was on the other side of a tall fence that spring up from the hardwood floor jus’ so, between me and them. Uncomfortable, I get up and make dinner. Shhhh push me out of the room like it does to everyone in this house. I suppose, in some ways, I was part of them.

When I finish cooking, I take meh plate up to meh room and listen to the family sharing food and talking in the kitchen, cutlery kissing, and words I can’t make out.

Since that day I was a ghost haunting the apartment. I cook, but only the dishes in the sink say that people eat. When I enter to clean a room, the people inside would leave. “Is all right. You not bothering me,” I does say.

“Just giving you some space,” they does answer, or something like that. When I try to talk to the children, the mother or the father does call them from the other room. They was vex with the fellas who set up the attack, but I was closer, somebody they could see and talk to, so they take out their vexation on me.

From the bitter fruit–smelling bedroom, I listen as somebody climb the stairs. I turn the doorknob back and forth, rough, rough, so that it go make a loud noise, and open it so somebody go know I here.

“What’s the matter with it?” Hugh ask. Under he eyes was gray, a new line on he forehead.

“I don’t know.” I put a line in meh brow. “It does give trouble sometimes.”

“I can look at it later.” He turn to go.

“Mr. Abres. Everything all right?”

He narrow he eyes and lean he head to one side, as if he didn’t understand the question.

“I mean with you and yuh wife and the children. Everybody all right, right?”

He straighten up. “No, Eunice. We’re not all right. Thousands of people have been murdered, and more are dying every day. That smell in the air is the smell of burning metal and,” he lower he voice, “burning bodies. How could we be all right? I lost a friend. Children lost parents. People lost wives, husbands…”

“I know. I just—”

“You know? I don’t think you can know. You can’t understand ’cause you’re not from this country. You can’t understand the level of the breach of trust, the terror these people we let into our country have caused. And I don’t expect you to understand. It’s not your fault. It’s not. It’s not. It really isn’t.” He turn away.

“Hugh?” Betsy call from downstairs. Then, the slap of she slippers mounting the stairs. For a moment, I think to leave the door open so that Betsy could see me, talk to me. As the footsteps get closer, I swallow a breath, turn the doorknob, close the door, and release the knob slow so it didn’t make a sound.

On Saturday, when I went down to make breakfast, Betsy was sitting by the kitchen table.

“Morning,” I smile meh best smile.

“Morning, Eunice. I—”

“What you feel like for breakfast today? Eggs? Toast? I could make some salt fish. Ethan like that—”

“Eunice, please. Sit down.”

I lean against the lower cupboard.

“Or you could stand.”

From day one, Betsy have a tension in she, but that morning, the tension was double, and I already know what she going to say. I put meh hands behind meh back so meh nervousness wouldn’t show.

“Hugh and I think you need to take some time off.” She eyes was looking at the white cupboard behind me. “Just for a while. We, me, my husband and my children, need some time to get closer as a family. With all that’s been going on.”

“You don’t like meh work?” I had to say something.

“No, it’s just that the timing’s not right. These are difficult times for everyone. We just need to regroup. Focus on family for a while.”

“Miss Betsy, this is because a—”

“Please. We already decided. Take some time off.” Betsy stand up. “I’ll pay you for this week and for next week. You can keep the tokens and everything. When things get better, we’ll call you.”

“Okay.” Meh voice didn’t sound like mines.

“So sorry that this is happening, but I mean, like, now. You should pack your stuff. Don’t make breakfast or anything. I’ll do it. I’ll have your money when you come back down.”

I nod meh head so she know I hear she. This been brewing since the towers fall, but I thought they woulda give me more notice, more time to plan.

“Listen, Eunice, you’ve been really great. It was such a pleasure having you…and the kids love spending—”

I take meh little overnight bag that was already pack and leave quiet before anybody else reach downstairs. Outside, the burning smell was faint, but still there, and the streets was quieter, like everybody thinking and rethinking about what happen. The only good thing was that I leave the three bags of clothes under the widow and tell Betsy I go come back for them, just like she say she go call me back when, in truth, she fire me. The full bags was a symbol, a meter like in the poetry I used to read when I was in school, of their guilt, for meh wages, for all the extra work they add on, for writing about me without permission. And most of all, the bags was a symbol of all the words they shoulda say and didn’t. I hope she see this symbol whenever she go upstairs to the small room just right a the metal staircase.

▴ ▴ ▴

It was guava season for anybody from someplace else and looking for work. Same day they fire me, I call Jackie, meaning to tell she what happen, but she new employer, some people in Staten Island, cut she time to two days a week, and she was looking for more days somewhere, anywhere, so I didn’t bother to tell she anything. I didn’t tell Uncle either, just tell him things hard with the family and I had to send less money.

Flatbush Avenue itself was dead, dead in early October when I leave the family, with most stores close, and those that open had American flags in they window. Livery cabs was driving around with flags on dashboards and in back windows too. The flags was either a scarlet letter or a sign to tell the Angel of Death to pass over your store or your car. It depend on if the person who put up the flag feel guilty about being a immigrant or afraid.

By the end of the month, things start to open up, and I get a little off-the-books end selling clothes at New You, one of the many small stores on the avenue selling cheap party clothes and shoes. It was the end of meh second week, and I went to the toilet to pee and to count the crumple-up bills in the envelope that was meh pay. It was thirty dollars short. I pee, flush for manners ’cause the toilet wasn’t working, and went toward the entrance. The metal gate was already pull down halfway, and Mr. Olive, meh new boss, was waiting outside with a metal hook in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I put on meh coat, open the glass door, and duck under the gate.

“Mr. Olive?” I button up against November winds.

“Yes, my beauty.” He two front teeth was shorter than he dog teeth, and make a rectangle space, like a mail slot in a door. He say I pretty from day one and he like meh skin.

“You pay meh short. Is six dollars a hour and I work twenty five—”

“I know, my beauty. And I feel very bad for this. But, is no business. No one buy. If I pay you more, I close store.” The streetlight overhead make the shadows on he cheeks deeper. “I am good guy and I want to give you job. This is hard time for store. Since those fucking guys kill those people, no one buy. I put American flag in store. Flag on the fucking awning. I make big sale. People think I am Arab, maybe. Maybe that why they don’t buy.”

“I understand, but what I go do with short pay?”

“Then these Jamaicans in that fucking barber shop.” He point to the shop across the street. The shop window was take over by a big, flat-screen television showing people dancing to dancehall music in a Passa Passa before this dark time. “Those fucking guys. They call me Saddam Hosein. I am Lebanese Christian guy. I cannot be Hosein. If you want, you work less hours.”

“Okay. Mr. Olive,” I breathe out. “Is fine. I know things hard. Good night. I go see you tomorrow. Twenty-five hours next week?”

“Twenty. Twenty-five if people buy. Tell your friends to come to store. I give discount for your friends.”

“Okay. Twenty. Tomorrow. One o’clock?”

“Two. Come for two.” He pull the gate down and suck on he cigarette.

I went meh way.

In meh rented room, the law firm call.

“Hi, Eunice, it’s Radhika, Cynthia’s assistant from Peele and Associates. Cynthia’s in court and asked me to let you know that your I-140 petition for domestic worker was approved. Congratulations.”

“Thanks.” There was no thoughts in meh head.

“You should count yourself lucky. The denials have just been rolling in. I’m also calling to make an appointment for you to pick up the official notice and to talk about the process to change your status as soon as possible.”

“Okay.” Meh lips was numb.

“The change of status is not a big deal. The green card, the most important part, is already done. The COS is kinda routine, nothing to worry about. Are you available next Wednesday, the fourteenth? Nine thirty in the morning?”

“Yes, I available.” I could do that and get to Mr. Olive in time for 2 p.m.

“Okay, so you’re all set for Wednesday the fourteenth of November at 9:30 a.m. Again, congratulations and see you soon. Take care.” She hang up.

I laugh loud, loud then cover meh mouth to stifle the laugh ’cause I was frighten to be so happy when the world was now a harder place for people like me. No, people who are like how I was. Was. I look in the mirror at meh tired face with meh scar to see mehself, meh whole self. I nod meh head yes that I come from far. “And yes, Eunice girl,” I say to the rented room, the house, Empire Boulevard, the quiet avenue outside, all the way to Marabella, “You have far to go.” But I didn’t care if they hear me or not.

A. K. Herman was born in Tobago. A. K. writes fiction and poetry and was shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. A. K.’s writing appears in Doek! Literary Magazine, Small Axe, Lolwe, Water~Stone Review, and others. A. K. lives in New York, and her debut short story collection, The Believers, will be published in Fall 2024.