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QUEENS

Sayeeda Copeland

 

 

They told her that it would be a quick meeting and in her words she expected to be “in and out.” My mother’s jaw clenched as they escorted us to the visiting room. There wasn’t much in there. A couple of wooden chairs, a table, a stuffed toy chest, and a television that flickered on the wall. She didn’t say much but her eyes did. She squinted, something she would do only when she was uncomfortable or smiling, but this time she sure wasn’t smiling. They darted from the door to my aunt and back to me. She was nervous. I could tell because she kept scratching at the mole in the middle of her right hand. I tried sitting on her lap, but her legs constantly shook so I just joined my cousins at the wooden play table.

Social workers came in to ask to speak to my aunt alone, then to mother, then the both of them together. Their smiles all seemed frozen on their faces.  The high-pitch greetings and clicking heels made my mother and aunt suck their teeth. It cracked me and my cousins up and we would mimic them for fun. We loved the stickers and snacks they brought us, though.  I tried to focus on the wooden train track in front of me, wondering if it could carry me far away from this room. Auntie told me to stay out of grown folks’ business. I could tell by the low whispers between my aunt and mother that this was for grown folks. A male social worker came in and motioned for them to step outside of the room for a “quick second.” It seemed more like hours.

Eventually, they both returned. My mother kept adjusting the wig we both picked out at the store for her to wear today. All the important wigs had names. She named them or she would ask me to. This one name was Whitney, after her favorite singer. Whitney was special because she only came out when my mother would get fancy for court, church, or coming down to Children’s Aid Society. This was her least favorite place to go. My mother and my aunt sat on the opposite sides of the room, not speaking or looking at one another. The room was so silent, I could hear the music out of my older cousin’s headphones. 

There was another knock at the door. I looked away from the flickering channels to see a slim woman with big green eyes enter. Her stare made me feel like I was the only one in the room. My cousins stopped and watched as she sat down at the wooden table with us.  

 “Hey, sweetheart!” she grinned as if this wasn’t our first meeting. Her hair was in a messy bun, brown like her eye shadow. “Hi, I’m Heather.” She held her hand out for me to shake. 

I looked at my aunt, who was now standing next to my mother. She shook her head.

“I’m your new social worker.” Heather rested her elbows on the table and her face in her hands. “Can I ask you a few questions, Aubrey?” She didn’t wait for me to answer. Heather stood and motioned for me to grab my purple book bag and follow her. 

“Where do you think you’re going with my child?” My mother leaped from her chair. She was now face to face with Heather, her arms crossed across her chest. My aunt grabbed my hand. Heather adjusted the vanilla folders in her arms. Her green eyes seemed to turn dark as she dared to stare my mother down. She motioned for me to come, but I could feel my aunt’s grip tighten. Heather motioned for me to come to her and walked towards the door again. “Where the fuck do you think you’re going with my child?!” my mother’s voice shook the room. My cousins and I covered our ears. 

“Auntie Yolanda…no!” My oldest cousin removed her headphones and stood up. She stood between Heather and my mother. 

“I want to know where she’s taking her!”  my mother yelled, now knocking the folders from Heather’s arms. 

Security came into the room and asked my mother and everyone to have a seat. I sat on my mother’s lap as her leg trembled with anger.  

“Ms. Williams, I didn’t want to do it this way.” Heather bent to pick up her files. “Not in front of the children, but yes we are taking her tonight. She will not be returning home with you … or your sister.” Heather remained stone-faced as the whole room erupted. My aunt screamed so loud me and my cousins covered our ears again.

I laid my head against my mother’s chest and wrapped my arms around her. I could smell the vanilla perfume she sprayed on her neck this morning. I could hear her heartbeat pounding against her ribcage. She didn’t hug me back as Heather’s cold hands tried to pry me off of her. Heather begged me to let go. 

“No! No! Mommy, please! Mommy tell her no!” I kicked and screamed. I slid off my mother’s lap onto the floor, still flaring. I grabbed one of my mother’s ankles. She avoided looking at me. I screamed for her but she just rocked in her chair, digging at the mole on her hand. I searched  the room for my aunt. 

“Auntie don’t let her take me! Please!” My Aunt Sheryl’s tears and cries merged with my cousins. The security guard who came in earlier, now lifted me off of the floor and over his shoulder. I banged my tiny fists against his back, I spit and forced boogers out of my nose. 

“Sheryl, don’t cry. There’s no need to cry,” were the only words I heard my mother say as they carried me away.

I was placed in a different room, that looked like an abandoned office. The walls were painted a light gray. The dim ceiling light made it hard for me to see what was in the corners. There was a computer and fax machine with dust on it next to the only window in the room. I clicked the switch to a lamp on the table. I could now make out chairs stacked in the corner that had just as much dust on them too. Heather came in with a box of tissues and a children’s happy meal from McDonalds. I was hungry but didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of feeding me. I glared at the kid’s meal box and wondered what my cousins were eating for dinner tonight. 

“I need you to breathe and calm down.” Heather placed the food in front of me, and placed her hand on my shoulder. I shrugged her off.

“I know you must hate me right now. I am sorry you had to witness that.” Her sad green eyes pitied me and I hated her for it. She handed me a tissue. I wiped my nose, and stared at the Christmas decorations on the Kleenex box. 

“When?” I asked, looking at her for the first time since she came in the room. I noticed her face was still flushed red. 

“When?” she asked. “I am not too sure, but we are looking to see where we are going to place you for tonight.” She made a weak attempt at a smile.

“No, when did you become a social worker? I can tell you’re new because you’re still nice.” It was true. I have had my fair share of case workers and most never even greeted me, let alone knew my name and not just my case number.

“You’re very intelligent for a nine year- old.” She winked. A male social worker I had seen speak to my mother and aunt earlier knocked on the door and peeped his head in. He gestured for Heather to step into the hallway. I took that opportunity to fish for a fry out of my happy meal. It was cold.

Heather came back in the room after a couple of minutes, and I quickly tried to wipe the salt off my lips. She laughed and pointed to the side of her mouth to let me know I missed a spot. 

“Good news!” she exclaimed, one hand on her hip. “We found your new foster home and we can head there as soon as you finish your food.” I finished my fries while replaying Heather’s words in my head.

“What do you mean new foster home? I never been in a foster home.”

“Oh no darling, I understand that your Aunt Sheryl is family, but she was your foster mom too. Her home with your cousins would be your first foster home, even though she is your biological-real, aunt.” Heather liked to talk with her hands I noticed. She also cleared her throat a lot. 

She told me that I would be placed with a Hispanic couple who lived in the Bronx. She seemed truly excited to let me know I would have my own room with a phone in it. She said that I could call my family as much as I wanted. I was glad that the couple lived in the Bronx. My aunt just moved from Harlem to Simpson Street in the Bronx. I could find my way around, since I’d started taking the train alone for a year now. I planned to run away.

There was a knock at the door again. The same social worker who had come previously peeped his head in again. He mouthed to Heather can he come in. She nodded. 

“Hey, kiddo!” he put on his best rehearsed smile and voice. “Feeling better? I just wanted to drop in to give you this,” he pulled a black and yellow walkman player from behind his back. I immediately recognized it as my older cousin’s. 

“She wanted me to give this to you to take to your new home.” He then snapped his finger as if he suddenly remembered something urgent. “Heather, the Gonzalez family could not come through tonight. So we have a couple in Queens who has given us the ok...whenever you’re ready you can head out.” They both nodded in agreement. I was confused. They didn’t want me either?

Heather didn’t go into detail as to why I couldn’t go to the Gonzalez family. She explained that placing children at the last minute was always a bit difficult but assured me that I would like my new home. There was an African-American couple that offered to take me in. They lived in Queens. Their names were the Alstons. She said that they were a bit older, in their eighties. I imagined having to rub Vicks vapor rub on Mrs. Alston’s feet just like I had to do when I visited my Nana. 

“Well, can you ask her does she know how to braid?” I pulled at the two month old cornrows Auntie Sheryl had put in my hair. Heather assured me Ms. Alston said she knew how to braid very well. For the first time that night, I smiled.  

The yellow taxi approached the building as soon as we stepped outside. Heather held my hand and climbed into the back seat with me. We rode into the night. I watched the lights of the cars speed by, and Heather pointed out the different bridges we had to cross. I pulled my cousin’s headphones over my ears, closed my eyes, and dreamed what Queens would be like.

I woke to the light tapping of Heather’s finger on my head. We had arrived and I couldn’t make out the street signs. It was dark, and only one street light showed the shadow houses that lined the block. I squeezed Heather’s hand and shivered at the cold air kissing my ankles. I should have put on my boots like Mommy had told me to. I started counting all the houses we walked past. I guessed that the next one would be the Alstons. We slowed down and stopped in front of a house painted light blue. It had four buses in the front yard that formed a square. 

“114…114-13. Here we are, sweetie.” She quickly placed the  paper back in her jacket pocket with her gloves and grabbed my hand. 

We climbed the steps up the front door. I peered at the front window. There stood an angel figurine. She was small with a white dress on that went all the way to her feet. Her white wings and a bright white light glowed behind her. Her hands were in a praying position and she looked up to the sky. I looked up to  see what she was looking at and saw a sky full of stars. I felt safe again. 

The door swung open before Heather could ring the bell. A girl who was a little taller than me stood in front of us. She eyed Heather and rolled her eyes at Heather’s rehearsed smile. I giggled. We followed her to the living room.

“Mama!” She belched so loud that I jumped and dropped my cousin’s Walkman. Heather followed her into the living room. 

The living room had two long white couches that were covered in plastic. The oakwood table was low to the floor. A bible sat open in the center of it. There was a staircase with framed pictures lining its wall. The people in the pictures all looked like they were thinking about something real hard. 

“Mama!” she yelled again.

“Girl if you don’t hush with all that yellin’,” I heard Mrs. Alston’s voice before I saw her. Small legs with white slippers start to descend down the stairs. She had pecan-colored skin, and salt-and-pepper hair. She wore a white robe that showed her red and black gown underneath. 

“Goodnight, ladies.” Mrs. Alston nodded her head once she got to the bottom of the staircase. I glanced up at her, amazed at how young she looked. I didn’t see any wrinkles on her face, but lots on her hands. Her skin on her legs looked see-through. I could see veins running like rivers down to her feet. Heather and Mrs. Alston walked into her kitchen to “talk privately.” I sank into the closest couch and looked at the Christmas tree shining across from me. Its lights danced across the mirror. There were two presents sitting underneath, untouched. 

“Those are for Deborah.” The girl who had opened the door was sitting on the bottom step, watching me. She had sad eyes, the kind that always looked like they were waiting for an answer. Her nightgown matched Mrs. Alston’s. Just then Heather and Mrs. Alston emerged from the kitchen. Heather gave me a hug, a wink, and told me to call her if I needed anything. When the door closed, tears filled my eyes. 

“Now, now,” Mrs. Alston stood behind me with her hands on my shoulders. She turned me around and pinched my cheek. “They didn’t tell me you were this cute!” I could now see up close the lines that set deep in her skin, especially in the corner of her eyes as she smiled. “You must be starving, child.” I wasn’t sure if it was a question but I rubbed my stomach in response. She asked the girl on the steps to show me to my room first.

“Which bed is hers?” the girl asked, eyes still sad.

“I laid out her nightgown. The one across from your bed, Juanita, is hers. Give her a toothbrush as well.” She then directed us to head upstairs. I climbed the steps with caution. I felt that my sneakers were making the white carpet dirty. We got to the top, when the girl opened a door and climbed another set of stairs. I stayed at the bottom, sure that she was going to find my toothbrush.

“Hey!” she shouted. “You can come up here…this is our room.”

I sucked my teeth, upset at the fact that I could have had my own room with the Gonzalez family if they hadn’t change their minds. I climbed the steps to be greeted by a huge room with four beds. 

“Isn’t this, like--“ Juanita was now bouncing on her bed, trying to catch her breath.

“Yup, its an attic. What? You never seen one before? They don’t have attics in the Bronx?” her tone wasn’t like before. 

“How did you know I’m from the Bronx?” I asked, placing my bookbag down next to a bed that had a red and black nightgown laid across it.

“I ear hustle. You’ll do the same. I got to know who I’m sharing my shit with, don’t I?” I giggled at her cursing. I never could swear around my mother or aunt, but me and my cousin did when they weren’t around. 

“I’m from Harlem. And I did see ‘em in movies…people get locked or killed in them.” I scanned the attic for monsters. Juanita threw a toothbrush on my bed and picked up my Walkman. She placed the headphones on her ears and pretended to do the Harlem shake dance, moving her shoulders up and down really fast. We both doubled over in laughter. 

“How old are you?” I asked, looking at her posters of B2K on her side of the room.

“How old do I look?” She poked out her chest.

“Eh…12?”

“Just turned few days ago…this past Christmas Eve,” she beamed. She walked over to a wooden door and took out purple sheets. She made my bed and told me to put on my gown for dinner. I did and Mrs. Alston called for us. 

“By the way, the only monsters you would have to worry about are the others that come. You seem alright…for now.” Juanita stuck out her tongue and raced ahead down the attic stairs and cut off the light. I ran my fingers against the wall until my hand found the banister. I found my way to the kitchen. Mrs. Alston was at her dining room table setting bowls down. Juanita placed a napkin and spoons beside each bowl. She smiled and her eyes were bright for the first time. She also didn’t sound like the same person I was talking to up in the attic. Her voice was softer and also had a squeak. I stood at one of the two empty chairs, ready for the signal to sit down. 

Mrs. Alston excused herself and called from the bottom of the steps. 

“Louie!” she called out. Her cracking voice was met by creaking above us. The sound of footsteps led to the creaking of the stairs. Emerged from the living room into the dining room was a short bald man, a bit darker than Mrs. Alston. He wore brown tinted glasses with black frames. The tie he had on matched his beige pants. He cleared his throat and Juanita stood to pull his chair out for him.

“Goodnight young lady.” His voice was raspy and his hand trembled once he held it out to me. I shook it very firmly but avoided eye contact.

“Goodnight… sir,” I mumbled.

“Aubrey will be joining us for supper. Isn’t she the cutest, Louie?!” Mrs. Alston held out her hands to her sides. Juanita and Mr. Alston both grabbed one on either side with bowed heads. I grabbed Juanita’s hand and Mr. Alston’s hand. As Mrs. Alston prayed, I popped one eye open. Juanita and I stared at each other. She started making faces at me and I held in my laugh. Mr. Alston’s shaking palm was now sweaty in mine. The prayer seemed to take forever. We finally sat down and enjoyed the homemade soup Mrs. Alston made. When we finished, I watched Juanita clear the table. She showed me how to organize the dishes in the cabinets like Mr. and Mrs. Alston liked. 

We both gave Mr. and Mrs. Alston kisses goodnight on their cheeks and scurried up the stairs to the bathroom to brush our teeth. I began wondering what my cousins were doing, probably watching reruns of Martin before going to bed. My mother was probably running numbers and my aunt sitting with the neighbors in the living room. I watched Juanita floss, and thought how strange it was.

“What’s that string?” I saw it slip in and out of her crooked bottom teeth. She spat in the sink and looked at me with a raised brow.

“Let me guess, y’all don’t floss in the Bronx either?” she teased. She ripped off a fresh piece of floss and showed me how to place it between my teeth. I must had done it wrong because my gums started bleeding. 

“Hey wanna see something crazy?” Juanita was splashing water around in the sink to wash my blood down the drain. The bright red matched our nightgowns. I nodded, hoping whatever she was about to show me wouldn’t make my gums bleed again. “You have to be as quiet as a mouse. Can you do that?” she asked. I forced my lips together, signing like I zipped them up. She gave me a thumbs-up and motioned for me to follow her back downstairs. We went down to the den of the house. The lights were off but the television was on. 

I could see Alex Trebek on the screen. His mouth was moving but there was no sound. Juanita and I hid behind the huge china cabinet, we had the perfect view of the television. She pointed past the china cabinet and mouthed Mr. Alston’s name. She put her hand up to her lips to tell me to stay quiet. We waited, watching the muted Jeopardy and then the channel flickered. Next think I know we were watching a man and a woman do what me and my cousins called “grown up things.” The woman’s face looked like she was in so much pain. I gasp and put my hand over my mouth. Juanita’s eyes grew with excitement as she looked back at me. She covered her mouth too. Juanita then tapped me and mouthed watch this. She backed up, grabbed the cane leaning against the closet door in the living room then walked calmly into the den. She walked past the china cabinet so Mr. Alston could see her now.

“Papa! I have a trip this week. I need you to sign my permission slip.” She skipped towards him as if not seeing what was on the screen. At the sound of her voice the channel switched back to Jeopardy. He turned up the volume. 

“Of course, baby! I’ll sign it first thing tomorrow morning. Goodnight, darling.” I could hear Mr. Alston stutter. I peeped past the cabinet and saw her laying the cane next to his recliner.  She gave him a peck on the cheek and skipped out of the den. 

 

We both crept up the stairs to the attic. We doubled over in laughter quietly, careful not to wake Mrs. Alston. Juanita made me pinky swear not to tell anyone what I saw. She said that he watched that every night when Mrs. Alston went upstairs. I told her that it was grown people business. I was told to stay out of stuff like that. 

 

[to be continued]