Police cars are getting closer and closer. The sound of sirens makes my ears hurt and the lights blind my eyes. I even jump, so scared that I am.
“Don’t move, Zettie,” warns my mother. – We can’t get it in sight.
We crawl through the clothes in the back seat of the car.
“Mom, it’s kinda scary sleeping in the car,” I whisper.
My mother agrees:
– I know. Things are always happening and police cars are always chasing.
And hold me tightly while the sirens sound.
When everything is silent, my mother drives down Chandler Avenue and parks in front of the courtyard of an apartment block, whose garden is full of flowers: bougainvillea, roses, hibiscus. In the light of the street lamps, the colors are as bright as the courtyard flowers we left in Port Antonio. We love to park in this place.
For weeks, a sign saying “For Rent” hung on one of the windows. Last week, when we asked about the floor, the owner told us he only rented it to people with a steady job. And I wanted two months in advance, money my mother doesn’t have.
I close my eyes and find myself in the land of my dreams, with my father and grandmother Mullins. We’re in Jamaica having a beach picnic. The waves crash against the rocks and I wake up to the noise. After all, I’m not in Jamaica. I am in America. And it wasn’t the sound of the waves that woke me up, but someone knocking on our car window.
The light of a flashlight dazzles our eyes.
– What are you doing here, ma’am? Asks a policeman in a hard voice.
“My daughter and I are only here for the night, sir.”
– Parking is not allowed here at night – informs the agent. – You have to look elsewhere.
“I seek it, sir, but we are not doing anything wrong,” says my mother.
Then he sits behind the wheel and we get out. Tears stream down her cheeks, like when my father died.
I reach forward and stroke her curls.
“O mother, why don’t we go to Magnolia Avenue?” There, the cops don’t even bother Mr. Williams when he sleeps on the park bench.
– Good idea, daughter! I had forgotten about this place.
My mother parks the car on Magnolia Avenue and we snuggle. Soon I fall asleep in your arms.
Early the next morning my mother wakes me up and says:
“Let’s use the park’s bathroom before it’s crowded.”
It’s very cold inside and I shiver while wearing my school uniform. Then I splash my face with tap water.
– This water is cold as ice, Mom.
– You have to be brave! She mumbles.
We went out and sat on a bench. My mother braids me four, as I like, although she pulls my hair hard to make her look beautiful. I start singing a song I made up, to distract myself from the tugs.
My mother sings with me for a while, but when I sing louder, she puts a finger to her lips and says:
– Sing lower, Zettie. You still wake up Mr. Williams.
Then you open our little glacier and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We drink the rest of an orange soft drink. It’s sweet, but since it’s been three days, it doesn’t know very well.
“I wish I had some hot chocolate,” I say. “Like the one you made with the cocoa beans we picked around the house.”
“I feel sad that you can’t drink one,” my mother says, looking me in the eye.
Then ask me:
– Do you remember the Jamaican sun? How did it shine after a rain?
Of course I remember.
Especially on cold, foggy days like today. Why did my father die? My mom’s temporary jobs and the hard work she goes on make every day dark and humid.
“When you get a steady job, the sun will shine again,” my mother says, as if she can read my thoughts.
I keep quiet. I’ve heard her say this many times, but I know things are more difficult now. On the way to school, I ask:
– Mom, could you…
– Could what, Zettie?
“Let me stand in the corner behind the school?”
– Because? – asks.
“Because of some bad guys who say our car is a piece of old junk.” And they also make fun of the flag on the glass. Can’t we get her out, mom? I ask.
My mom stops the car and gives me a hug.
“I don’t give you any attention, daughter.” Study, as your father did, and walk with your head held high. I take the flag off.
I hasten to leave.
“I’ll wait for you at recess after school,” I tell my mother, turning back.
When she picks me up after school, I poke my head in my coat so I won’t be recognized as I sneak into the car.
“There were no office jobs at the agency today,” he says.
“Does that mean we’re going to eat peanut butter and jam at night again?” I ask.
– No, because I did something else. Guess what it was.
“We’ll never have an apartment again if you don’t have a steady job.”
“I handed out flyers at a Health Fair. I didn’t make much money, but I have enough to buy dinner and put gas in the car.”
My face burns and my chest tightens. Why can’t my mother have another kind of work? Hunger makes me forget my sadness.
– Can we share hot dogs and muffins with Ana Mae and Benjie?
When we get to the park, Benjie runs to meet me. It’s eight years old, like me, but it’s small and slight. My mother makes dinner for everyone. Benjie’s eyes sparkle and I wonder if he had eaten anything today. After the meal, ask me:
“Do you want to come with me for empty cans and bottles to sell?”
“I don’t know…” I hesitate.
My mother is very attentive and doesn’t like me going through things. Benjie is saving the money from the cans and bottles he gets to help his mother. Already have 1 dollar and 50 cents.
“Stay close and be careful,” my mother asks.
Benjie runs through the trees looking for bottles and cans. But when you start looking in the trash, I tell you it’s dangerous and it stops. The heap of cans you have made us happy. It can earn you another dollar.
“You’re my best friend,” he says, waving good-bye.
“You are my best friend too,” I say.
That night my mother and I snuggle into the backseat of the car and she reads me a book we order from the library.
“Sleeping in the car is better than the church hostel,” I say. “I hated that noisy, crowded place!” There was a baby who was constantly crying, remember?
“So I’d rather use our car as a shelter,” my mother replies.
I cuddle against her as she studies for one of her exams.
The next day, after school, I read my book while I wait for my mother at recess. As soon as I turn the page, Alex, who is a thug, puts me behind me and pulls my braids.
– Look at Zettie from the chocolatier! – exchange. “Just look at Zettie from the chocolatier!” – says to friends.
Everyone laughs and shouts “Zettie from the chocolatier!”
– Crap! – I answer.
They get angry and Alex pulls my braids back hard.
I feel scared. I see no teacher. What shall I do? I end up running as fast as I can. I leave the playground, go down the street and stop at a corner where you can no longer see me. I am breathless when I see my mother by the school gate. Get out of the car looking for me.
– Mom, mom! I call and wave.
However, she does not see me. He gets back in the car and turns around. I scream louder and run, but I stumble and see her walk away. My knee was skinned and bleeding. I limp to the corner. Then I sit down and cry. Our lives changed so much after my father’s death…
I wait a little longer, without taking my eyes off the playground, but my mother does not return. Where has it gone? Knowing you’re looking for me still makes me cry more. I open my eyes when I hear the noise of a motorcycle stopping next to me. It’s a cop! Did I get in trouble?
The policeman asks:
– Are you lost?
– No sir. My mother was late to pick me up.
“I can’t leave you alone,” he says in a kind voice.
It is close to me, but not too close. I didn’t know a cop could be so kind. I thought they were all bad.
The wait seems eternal and I realize that in a world full of people, I only have my mother. Where has she gotten? What will become of me if something happens to you? Will the police put me in a host family? Living in a car is not the best, but at least I have my mother to love me and take care of me.
I hear a car honking. It is my mother. Ask me, crying:
– Why did you leave the playground, Zettie?
Between sobs, I tell him what happened.
– I was afraid, mom. That’s why I fled here.
– I thought you went to the park. Benjie and Ana Mae helped me find you. We were so worried. Thank God you are fine.
My mother waves to the policeman to tell her that everything is fine, and I force a smile through my tears. I see you must have cried a lot because of me, because you still have red eyes.
Hold me and say:
“Tonight, we need to relax both.” I worked all day at the Health Fair and they paid me more hours. Let’s party!
We ate spaghetti and ice cream in the cafeteria. After dinner, my mom blinks.
– Today we are going to sleep in a bed seriously!
– In a motel? That super-comfortable where we slept last? I exclaim.
As soon as we enter the room, I rush to the bathroom and open the shower. The water tickles my back.
– O mother, the hot water tastes so good! I wish I had a shower every day!
As I get into bed, I reach over, shake my toes, and pull the clean sheet up to my nose. My mother hugs me, calls me Buttercup and I feel all her love flooding me.
“Would you like to sleep in a bed this summer instead of in the car?” – ask-me. “It’s just that a lady offered me a job at the Health Fair. I’m going to help create a program for people like us who find it hard to find a home. We’ll be able to rent a room, ”says my mother.
“O mother, will you save for that garden apartment while you work there?” And continue to study?
– Hope so! She says, hugging me tighter.
I curl up in your arms and say:
– Sorry if I sometimes misbehave.
Then I cuddle further and fall asleep, knowing that, with or without an apartment, I have my mother and she has me. Monica Gunning A Shelter in Our Car San Francisco, Children’s Book Press, 2004 (Translation and adaptation)