by Jeffrey Kingman
From across the river the view of Mare Island is dominated by many antique cranes that used to lift the battleships and submarines into the dry dock. The Navy is gone now, the shipyard deserted. Save the cranes, they say, the people of Vallejo. (They don’t mean the birds, they mean the machines.) They want to prevent them from being removed because they’re used to seeing the huge old things poking up along the skyline when they walk along the pathway between the marina green and the Mare Island River. They’ve come to love the cranes’ unnatural beauty. But the cranes sit idle, their cables dangling uselessly, the empty operator compartments (built like small A-frame houses) reflecting sunlight off their little windows, 40 feet above the ground. The Navy pulled off the island many years ago and left it all as it was—equipment, historic industrial buildings, bomb shelters, elegant Victorian homes once inhabited by officers—as if they’d forgotten why they ever needed it.
There are also those who want to save the sandhill cranes. The wetlands by the river provide an excellent flyway for egrets and finches and coots and yellow-rumped warblers. Developers always want to encroach. Across the river from where the old battleship Tripoli is docked is a neighborhood called Burnham Hill. There is a nest of egrets in a large buckeye tree on Baxter Street. Most people don’t notice these egrets because they fly in and out at dusk and at night.
Baxter winds its way up the hill, lined with cute but plain houses built in the early 1940s for the low-ranking officers. A bird’s-eye view reveals old junk in some of the backyards—dead washing machines and old car engines, also some clothes drying on clotheslines. A few nicely manicured gardens can be seen here and there, and even a swimming pool or two, the water gleaming blue. There are crows in the neighborhood now. There never used to be crows; they showed up in the ’80s. There is a crow right now on the roof of 216 Baxter Street pecking at a dusty old one-legged teddy bear. A little girl was throwing the bear up in the air one day to see if she could make it fly. But she threw it up carelessly, and it landed on the roof. She’s forgotten about it now. It can’t be seen from the yard, so her stepfather hasn’t removed it yet. He will notice it in the fall when he cleans the gutters to prepare for the winter rains. He’ll throw it in the trash. But for now the passive teddy bear bakes in the summer sun, allowing the crow to pull out its stuffing there on the rooftop, where the black shingles absorb the midday light.
The house is painted a very practical shade of dull gray-blue and is beginning to peel a little. Two crayon drawings are taped to the front picture window, one of a Ferris wheel ridden by huge-headed people, and the other with bold, jagged, brightly colored strokes, perhaps an abstract. While the front yard is tidy, the lawn has been allowed to brown in the hot, dry weather. Around the side of the house, a small octagonal window looks into the living room, where two brown-skinned girls are lounging around with drooping eyelids. The eleven-year-old is sitting on the couch, reading a book of Snoopy cartoons. Above her head is a painting of a sunset with a flock of Canada geese flying above a lake in a “V” formation. Her younger sister kneels on the carpeted floor, singing soft, steady high notes directly into a portable fan. The fan is set on high speed. She wants to hear her voice flutter off the spinning blades. It makes her giggle. It’s the end of the heat wave, but in the house it’s still 92 degrees. Soon the trusty fog, looking like a blanket of cotton, will roll through the Golden Gate, and the cool air will travel the 32 miles to Vallejo.
“I’m gonna get me a lime Popsicle,” sings the kneeling girl. Her shiny black hair floats behind her in the artificial wind. Teresa is her name, short for Teresita.
“There aren’t any lime Popsicles,” says the older sister, Lindsey. “There aren’t any any kinda Popsicles. Ruben ate them all.”
“Ruben!” Teresa sucks in a deep breath and screeches out a deafening high note. Lindsey puts her hands over her ears and yells, “Stop!”
“Shut up in there, you kids,” their mother calls from the porch. “It’s too hot for all that screaming.” She sits on an aluminum lawn chair and peels a mound of potatoes, plopping them one by one in a huge pot of water. Her hair is parted all the way down the back of her head, the two halves bundled into twin ponytails. With bangs in front, the hairstyle is oddly girlish; she is otherwise tall, sturdy and womanly.
“Screaming doesn’t make a person hotter,” Teresa proclaims as if it were a scientifically proven fact.
“Don’t sass me or I’ll come in there and whoop your butts.”
Lindsey calls out, “I didn’t do anything.”
“Just shut up then and go outside and play or something. Yeah—go play in traffic.”
Lindsey gets up from the couch and goes out on the porch. “What if we really did go out and play in traffic? What if we got hit by a car?”
“Well, you’re not really going to do it, are you? You’re not stupid, right?”
“What about Teresa? She might.”
“Teresa’s smart as a whip and you know it.”
“Still, it could happen. Teresa could go out and get run over, and a tire could roll over her and crush her skull into a big mush and—”
“That’s enough of that kind of talk.”
“What about your kind of talk?”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake—Teresa, come out here.”
She trots out to where her mom is sitting and, for a moment, watches her busy hands, wet from the potatoes and with pieces of potato skin stuck to her fingers. Teresa has the urge to feel those hands around her shoulders. Instead, she settles for cozying up next to her mom and pushes against the side of her, feeling her firm, fleshy warmth. Barbara turns in her chair and stares at her, first looking down her nose and then cocking her head with a little frown, as if trying to get a better sense of her youngest daughter. She wipes her hands on the towel draped over her shoulder and then puts her palm under Teresa’s chin and squeezes her pink, round cheeks until her lips pucker.
“Are you going to run out into traffic on account of what I said?”
Teresa twists her head out of her mother’s grasp with an incredulous laugh. “No!”
Barbara turns to Lindsey. “See? This kid knows the difference between serious and kidding around. Maybe she even has more sense than you.”
“We’re out of Popsicles,” Teresa complains.
Barbara pulls two dollars from her jeans pocket. “Go down the Food Mart and get yourself one.”
Teresa grabs the bills and skips down the walkway to the sidewalk as Lindsey turns to go back in the house.
Barbara calls after Lindsey. “Hold on there, little missy. Where you think you’re going?”
“To read my book.”
“No, you’re not. You’re taking your little sister to the store. What do you think—she’s going by herself?”
Though Baxter Street is straight, it goes up and down like a roller coaster. On one of the crests, the hazy silhouette of Mount Tamalpais is visible far away in Marin County. As the two sisters walk down into one of the little dips in the road, they pass by a rust-stained yellow house with a gutter hanging down. Lindsey looks warily at the front steps to see if a certain man is sitting there. She doesn’t like it when he’s there. He’s a big Mexican with a droopy double chin, and he always watches her, following her movements through slit eyes as she walks by. She knows that he thinks they are Mexicans too, and she’d like to set him straight. Yes, their name is Rosales, but they’re only a quarter Mexican.
One time he called out to her, “Hey you!” but she ran past him. She ran all the way to the top of the next crest before she looked back. But he hadn’t followed her. That night, as she tried to fall asleep, she imagined what might happen the next time she went past him. As she lay there with her eyes closed, she saw herself walking along past that house. It’s very quiet. She’s minding her own business … when all of a sudden, the Mexican lunges for her before she can get past. He grabs her skinny arms so tight she can’t get loose. And then he pushes her down on the ground and sits on her to keep her still. And his awful body is so fat she can’t move and all her breath is gone. Then he gets up and lifts her up like a sack of potatoes and carries her into the house where there’s hardly any light and the walls are dripping with rusty water. And his old grandma sits in the corner with big, blind eyes all milked over and useless, and she wants to know what’s going on, hearing Lindsey screaming and all. Then he puts her down in a kitchen chair, and he ties her up tight and makes her watch him as he squashes cockroaches on the kitchen table and then sprinkles them on a plate of spaghetti. Then he eats the spaghetti, sucking up the long pasta into his mouth with red sauce splattering all around. “What now?” his grandma keeps saying, and he has to explain everything as he goes along: “Now I’m tying her up. Now I’m making her watch me eat roach spaghetti. Now I’m smearing grease on her hair.” And the grandma cackles like a haggy old witch …
But today, as she and her sister walk along the shimmering hot street, the man isn’t there. Lindsey lets herself relax a little. She looks over and watches Teresa goofily swinging her arms as she walks, not a care in the world.
They’re about to head down Hitchborn Street toward the river when they see their stepdad’s car turn the corner toward them. Ruben is propped up in his child seat in the back and has a big white bandage on his forehead. Carl slows to around three miles an hour and rolls down the window. He rests his elbow on the door, leans his head out the window, gives each girl a questioning smile. “What’s up?”
He’s a mostly unruffleable man, his thinning, dark-blond hair combed back and slicked down. On the rare occasion when he does get mad, his ears turn pink.
Both girls are walking backward on tiptoe, trying to get a better look at Ruben’s white bandage. He looks sleepy but perks up at the sight of his sisters.
“Him?” says Carl. “He doesn’t care. I saw the whole thing happen and he barely cried—what a kid!”
Now the girls have turned around and are running to keep up with the car as Carl slowly accelerates.
“But what happened?” asks Lindsey.
Carl glances at the road in front of him, then turns back to his stepdaughters. “Got kicked in the head at soccer practice.” He chuckles at them as he hits the gas. Ruben cranes his neck to see them through the back window.
Lindsey and Teresa stop running and stare at the car until it disappears beyond the ridge.
Kamal Sadiki from Pakistan owns the Food Mart. He only has a few strands of black hair left on top of his head, but his remaining hair is always shaggy because he hates to pay the barber. And his gold-rimmed glasses are very old and always a little crooked. One of his employees is a huge guy named Jessie with a dragon tattooed on the side of his shaved head. He belongs to a Harley motorcycle club called the Moon Riders. They look like Hells Angels, but Kamal heard about how the club sponsors a toy collection drive for needy kids every December at the Harley-Davidson dealership. Kamal thinks Jessie is a tough-looking character. He hired him in hopes that robbers would think twice.
Today, though, Jessie has taken the day off to go to a wedding, so Kamal is behind the counter when the two girls walk in.
“Hi, Mood Fart,” is Teresa’s greeting as they pass the counter.
“It’s Food Mart!” Kamal admonishes, waving his fist at them. “Not Mood Fart!” His scowl is convincing, but the girls know he is playing along with the joke.
As they study the bubble gum selection, Kamal goes to organize some cereal boxes. A man with a ponytail and a thin moustache that looks like eyeliner comes through the door. He immediately walks behind the counter and grabs a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black. Kamal looks up just in time.
“Hey! What are you doing? You can’t go behind there.”
The man comes out as Kamal runs over and says, “That bottle is $9.99.” He returns to his position behind the counter.
“Ten bucks?” says the man. “I ain’t paying ten bucks.”
“Give me the bottle back,” Kamal demands and holds out his hand.
“I’m stealing it.” The man holds it up out of Kamal’s reach.
“Give it back.” The sweat is beginning to drip down his cheek.
The man stuffs the half-pint bottle into his pants and puts his hands on the counter. “What are you gonna to do about it?”
The two girls peer over the top of the candy aisle to see what’s happening. Lindsey is beginning to feel the hair tingle on her scalp.
Kamal tries to stare the man down, but it doesn’t work.
“I know you have a gun behind that counter. You gonna pull it out? Huh? Let’s go, man. I’ll pull mine out too.”
An image of the man shooting her and her little sister flashes in Lindsey’s mind. She desperately wants to run out the door, but that would mean going by the counter. She grabs Teresa by the arm and pulls her behind. Walking backward, they slowly move to the far corner of the store where the beer is lined up in a refrigerator. They crouch down and listen.
“Gonna pull it out?”
Kamal studies him for a moment. Then he suddenly reaches down and pulls out a bat. He waves it around, his eyes popping like a baseball-playing lunatic.
“I smash your head! Give me that bottle or I kill you!” His English grows worse.
The man backs away slightly and laughs. “No gun, huh? Here’s your bottle.” He pulls it out and lets it drop on the floor and shatter. Then he walks out. Kamal goes to the door, still waving the bat.
“You come in my store again, I kill you! I kill you!”
The girls slowly venture back up the aisle and peer around the corner. The man is gone, and Kamal, still holding the bat, is staring down at the broken bottle. When he sees the girls’ frightened faces peering out, he gasps.
“OK! Everything fine, you see?” His eyes, however, are darting around nervously, and his hands are shaking. “Kamal take care of it. No problem. You come to my store, you not be afraid. Everybody safe.”
Unconvinced, they walk past him, stepping around the reeking spilled liquor. At the doorway they see another man standing outside, looking in. Lindsey recognizes the fat Mexican from the rusty house. She and Teresa eye him warily and give him a wide berth as they exit. In turn, he offers them each a menacing grin.
Lindsey wonders if the Mexican is friends with the robber guy. She’s worried they will try to rob her and Teresa on the way home. Does he really have a gun? If he tries to shoot us, will we be able to duck behind a car so the bullets ricochet off it? Will we be able to escape? Do they know where we live?
The girls run out of the parking lot, past a dirty cellophane wrapper on the asphalt that flies up into the air in a circle and then floats slowly back to the ground. A seagull walks over to it and pecks at the leftover sugar. As the wind picks up, it means the cool air from the Golden Gate is finding its way to Vallejo.