For eleven years, Alma scrubbed the Perkins’ granite counters and the two glass showers. She dusted the endless rows of book spines, each still straight even as her own spine began to bow. This kitchen taught her the mysterious English names of ingredients — tapioca, raspberries, fennel; and that Americans asked for their food by nationality — could you make Thai tonight?
Alma knew Chrystal better than she knew her own daughter. Alma crossed the border all those years ago, packed in the dark on a bright desert day, just after her daughter had memorized all six of her cardboard books. I’m going to send you more books from up north, Alma told her. Books with owls and bears and fields of caramels. And you’ll read them with Grandma for now, until you come join me. She fulfilled half of that promise, the half she could control.
But with Chrystal, she had always been there. Alma had changed the rainbow sheets of her toddler bed in those early years of bubble chasing and tantrums. Later, she waited each frozen Chicago afternoon at the grand castle-gates of Chrystal’s school, joined by the other shivering women from places like Eritrea and Ecuador — other women defenseless in the winter. How to warm their bodies with their hearts so far away?
Alma gradually picked up English as Chrystal returned fluent in French from a summer in Marseille. Alma sat four rows behind Chrystal and her friends at the movie theater, warding away the mischief of adolescence. Alma made hot chocolate and listened to the girl weep when her best friend moved to Michigan, leaving her all alone in the world.
There were moments of hot anger and frigid despair. Like when Alma’s favorite aunt fell sick and she could not risk returning, not even for the funeral. More dust appeared in the Perkins’ home. As she swept, the towering walls seemed to lean over Alma on the verge of collapse. But year after year, like the changes in seasons, the torments became predictable, and somehow less severe. And there were victories, too. With half of her paycheck each month, Alma’s parents had moved to a four-bedroom house and her daughter attended a private school. Nothing like Chrystal’s school, of course, but full of books, and English classes, and eager students undistracted by hunger.
Most of all, Alma longed for her children to meet. They would sit at the Perkins’ kitchen island, Chrystal and Mechi, laughing like old friends as Alma squeezed lemonade and spread peanut butter and jelly. Of course they were different, so different. But Alma knew it would work. They would be like streams, she imagined. Some began as waterfalls in the shade of the mountain; others at the dusty hills filled with litter and mice. But eventually, at the end of their journeys, they come together and the overwhelming current of the river makes them one.
I have something to show you, Alma. I think you’re going to love it. Let’s go home and I’ll show you. It’s for my art class.
It was a Monday, the day of surprises at the Perkins’ house, as Alma took Sundays off. Chrystal darted through the usual swarm of her khaki-clad classmates and grabbed Alma’s arm in a strange embrace. She pulled Alma along, her young legs already longer.
Remember how my class went to the Oriental Art museum last week? We’ve been studying the Egyptians, you know, the mummies and the tombs and all that.
Alma remembered the doodled hieroglyphics she had saved from the recycling bin. She loved Chrystal’s mini-obsessions.
Yes, mi vida, I remember.
Well, one of the things we learned is that the Egyptians — the kings and queens and the rich ones — they would have all this art made for their tombs. These little objects so they would have the most important people and things with them after they died.
The pair arrived at the house and Chrystal threw her backpack and jacket to the floor, launching herself up the stairs toward her room.
Just wait here, Alma.
She returned with a papier-mâché doll. Alma immediately identified herself in the painted features of the small face, her café con leche complexion, her plump cheeks, her tightly-pulled ponytail.
Do you like it? It’s for a class project. I really hope you like it. Like I said, the Egyptians would be buried with all these things. And one of the things — they talked about it at the museum — they would be buried with their servants so someone would take care of them in the afterlife. Not that you’re our servant, obviously! But I thought of how much I love your cooking and everything you do for us, and I just was like, how much would the afterlife suck without Alma?
Alma recognized the nervous giggle that followed, Chrystal’s anticipation of praise. It always worked; in that way the notes before the chorus of a popular song almost force the lyrics from your mouth. After every soccer game or aced test, every recited poem or revealed sketch. Beneath such piled praise, how could Chrystal understand the damage she was capable of?
No, mija, this is not good. I would want my own tomb with my own family. I would want to rest too, don’t you see?
Tiny pools collected over the girl’s eyes, reflecting the kitchen’s polished granite and stainless steel.
You don’t get it, Alma. It’s not like that. Sometimes you’re so mean.
Off she ran, up the well-dusted staircase, slamming the door to her room. Alma looked around at the house she knew so well, better than her own. Light poured in the windows, yet she could not help but feel buried underground.
Alma did not know what would follow. She left the Perkins’ key on the counter and closed the door carefully behind her.
Noah Dobin-Bernstein is a union organizer in Chicago. His stories have also appeared in Lunch Ticket Magazine and Akashic Books’ “Mondays are Murder” series.