The Queen of Ingland
“The Queen’s coming to Harlem,” Dexter said.
“Shut up.” I slapped his elbow. The joke was aimed at our mother, who had been on her hands and knees since last week, turning the house upside down. Her sister would be visiting, and this aunt of ours happened to be English. We had tried to help our mother clean the house, but she claimed we did our chores “impetuously.” She re-washed and re-swept everything we had washed and swept, muttering under her breath.
Dexter and I didn’t dare enter the house when our mother was in this mean spirit. Summer clipped my mother’s patience. We hid on the stoop, playing chess and squinting at cars that came down our quiet street. The heat made the block stuffy during this part of the summer—no clouds, no shade, just a faint breeze that carried the smell of rancid trash. We became obsidian under the sun. Pools of sweat settled on our foreheads.
I had never met anyone in my mother’s family. I thought they were all still in Jamaica. My mother always spoke of how rough Jamaica was, how she had to walk miles to school on bare feet, and called us spoiled and ungrateful when we begged for shoes we knew she couldn’t afford. She muttered under her breath her wish to visit Jamaica, to send more money to her parents, but we “pickney made a pauper ov her.” Yet, this aunt of ours, who was mentioned so seldom we barely knew her name, had managed to make it all the way to England, and could afford to vacation here.
I could no longer fit in my Sunday dress, so I thought of wearing my uniform skirt, which I would have to get my mother to iron before Auntie Clara arrived.
“Yaddy, gyal,” my mother shouted out my bedroom window. “Come clean up yuh room. Yuh a lady. Yuh should know betta den dat!”
Dexter cackled but kept a careful ear out for his own name.
“She stay callin’ you,” he said, and snickered as I left the stoop.
We lived in the ground floor apartment of a tenement building, which made us susceptible to rodents and break-ins. The bedroom I shared with Dexter was right up against the curb, but I didn’t mind. I could sleep with sirens and horns, strangers arguing in Spanish, but the iron gate blowing in the wind always made me awake immediately. Dexter would bolt up too, draw back the curtain, look through security bars our father had installed in the window, and listen. The orange hue from the streetlamp streamed through the window and turned him copper, and he’d mumble back to sleep.
I found my mother in her usual position, on the floor of my room.
“Yuh muss keep yuh room tidier dan dis,” her bobbing ass said to me. She was reaching for clothes under my bed, her face shoved in the carpet. “Me ain’t birth nuh pig.”
I joined her on the floor although it disturbed me to inhale dust and fibers and loose neat coils which never left the room no matter how hard I swept. I could barely stand to walk barefoot on the carpet, but she could bury her face in it. I held my breath as I filled up the hamper, praying she would not turn to find me with my cheeks poking out.
“Do you want me to wash these?” I asked, pointing to the tottering hamper.
“An hang dem wit guest in di house! Juss leave dem pon di floor!”
She crawled across the carpet in her worn linen bata, whose sole purpose was for such deep-cleaning chores as this and which never met daylight.
She muttered, not quite loud enough for me to hear, save for a few fragments as she snatched jean shorts, socks, and t-shirts from under my bed.
“Dun know why… we muss live in filth…”
Beads of sweat settled under her eyes. She had rich skin, dark and even, like leather. Our Guyanese mailman Mark had the same skin, immune to wrinkles as he aged. He seemed unfazed by the heat as he walked through Harlem dabbing his temples with a damp washcloth.
“Dem pickney dem so wicked….”
Sharp bones jutted out of her jaw as her lips moved rapidly. She was up and searching through my bureau for a place to put the clothes pinched in her elbow.
“Dis clean…dis clean…dis clean,” she muttered, tossing the clothes in an open drawer. “Yuh wear dem once an leave dem pon di floor!”
Dexter poked his head in the door, but my mother didn’t notice him. He mouthed “what are you doing” at me; his wide eyes ricocheted between us. At the time, it had become more common for my mother to summon me inside. She did not like me running around with Dexter and his friends, who were also my friends. She did not like me leaving the house without a training bra or wearing shirts that exposed my training bra when I bothered trying. She told me I was destined for wickedness, that I would end up wandering the streets like my father if I kept on this way. I swatted my hand at Dexter, and he left.
“Lawd ave mursy!” she screamed. “Why yuh nuh tell me yuh ave nuh clean panties? Yuh plan on wearin’ di same durty undawear?”
“I have clean panties.”
“Check yuh draws dem!” She grabbed the hamper and shoved her feet in her slippers. “Yuh gonna grow tuh be nasty.” She glared at me as she marched out.
I lingered in the corridor, unsure of where to go. The walls were burnt orange, the color of muted anger, and always moist. I picked at peeling plaster without meaning to, and grit crumbled to the floor.
“You iight?” Dexter said, marching into the corridor.
“It’s fine.” I stood in the doorframe as if that could contain the echo of our voices. I didn’t want our mother to hear us and come out screaming, idle time creates sinful behavior.
Dexter scuffed the ceramic tiles out of their pattern. He wanted me to return to our chess game.
“Aunt Claudia must be rich,” he remarked.
I rolled my eyes. “Auntie Clara is not that rich. English money goes farther in America.” I didn’t remember where I’d heard that, nor did I know if it were true.
“This bitch ain’t even coming,” he said, trying his best to wear the cuss word. He’d started cussing not too long ago but only practiced around me.
I shrugged. Bleach fumes poured through the corridor and wafted around us, stinging my eyes. Dexter cocked his head back, gesturing outside. I shook my head. “I gotta hang here.”
He turned his lips up, a facial tic inherited from our father when he detected bullshit. “None of this shit matters,” Dexter said as he headed towards the stoop. “Won’t make noooo difference.”
I followed the fumes to the bathroom. My mother kneeled over the side of the tub with soap suds up to her elbows.
“Wut, chile,” she said without turning to look at me. She grabbed a pair of panties soaking in a bin in the tub. She held them by their lining and scrubbed at my discharge stain. My sex ed teacher had told us not to be embarrassed, but a lump formed in my throat.
“Does Dad know she’s coming?”
A few days earlier, James from Schomburg told us he’d seen our parents in the alley, and that she’d given our father money. He only told us because he was losing in Horse. Dexter threw the basketball at his head and told him to shut the fuck up.
My mother stared at the panties in her hands as if she’d forgotten what she was doing.
Sometimes, when the iron gate moved in the night, my father stumbled behind it. Dexter would turn over hard in bed, but we both listened as our father rummaged through different junk drawers. My mother, scuffing her slippers against the floor, yelled in whispers. I held out for the fantasy of the money buying him new clothes and our father greeting Auntie Clara with us.
“Why muss yuh ax dumb question!” she screamed, throwing the panties in the bin. I flinched and immediately felt silly for doing so. “Juss go an get dress.”
I found the chessboard abandoned on the stoop. Dexter was talking to a dark, grinning woman behind the wheel of a silver minivan. I jumped back into the corridor and yelled, “Ma, your sister’s here!”
My mother barged past me, soaps suds still on her hands, and checked for herself. “She come early!” she yelled, and ran back into the house.
I found her in her bedroom stripped down to her bra and panties. She reached in her closet and grabbed a hanger holding both her tan slacks and a canary cotton blouse—the outfit she usually reserved for trips downtown and parent-teacher conferences. My mother shoved her head through the neck of the blouse and knocked some rollers out of her hair. “Hand me dat scarf by yuh.”
I opened and rummaged through every drawer in her bureau.
“Look pon di dresser!” she yelled. She snatched her pants off the hanger. The mattress squeaked as she balanced herself against the frame and lowered herself into each leg. She clenched her belly as she buttoned. “Di top ov di dresser, Yaddy! Di top!”
An emerald headscarf sat on top of her bureau, slumped but still tied in the shape of her head. I held out the greasy, satin cloth.
“An why yuh an yuh bruddah neva get dressed? Yuh muss wait fi me tuh tell yuh tuh do everythin!” she yelled, snatching it out of my hand.
“I need you to iron my uniform skirt.”
She sniggered. “Yuh ave nuthin’ bettah tuh wear?” She gently balanced the headscarf over her rollers, then forgot what she was doing as she looked me up and down. “Go an wash yuh face.”
The bathroom, still heavy with bleach fumes, made me dizzy. I turned on the faucet and dipped my head in the sink, smelling the cool water. I could have hugged the sink all evening, lulled by the coolness and rushing water, but my mother tapped my shoulder.
“Take dat shirt off,” she said, holding my Rugrats tee. I wanted to tell her I didn’t wear shirts like that anymore, but I knew now was not the time. I pulled off my dingy shirt, happy there was a bra underneath, and hoped my mother would be happy too.
“Is Auntie Clara rich?” I asked.
“Dem poor folk in Ingland, too.”
Soot surrounded every tile on the walls. No amount of sterile fumes could make soot seem sanitary, and a sourness crept over me.
“Is Dad stopping by?” I asked for the second time.
“Why yuh love tuh ax di same stupid question.” She billowed the Rugrats tee and forced my head through it. I knocked into the sink and yanked the shirt down my chest.
“It’s a simple question,” I said. “You don’t gotta push me.”
“Dun mash yuh face up at me. Yuh wan follow im?” she yelled, lowering her face into mine. I had nowhere to squirm in the tiny bathroom. But before I could give her a reason to slap me, her back was turned, and she was out the door.
On the curb, my mother spread her arms spread wide, unmindful of the underarm jiggling she hated, as she embraced my auntie.
“Oh, Zipporah,” Auntie Clara exclaimed. Her bright red lipstick, something my mother would never wear, complimented her gapped teeth. I couldn’t but help grin with her. They swayed as they hugged.
“Me knew Dextah right when me see him,” my Auntie Clara said. “Me say my, ‘wut a pickney look strong ov Zip.’” Auntie Clara scooped Dexter into her bosom and lifted him off the ground. I’d never seen my mother expose cleavage. I hadn’t even noticed how big her breasts were until I compared them to Auntie Clara’s. “An is dis Yadira?” The cleavage bounced towards me, and I was scooped into it. The gold bangles on her wrists jingled in my ear. “Both yuh pickney look juss like yuh,” Auntie Clara exclaimed.
My mother smiled, exposing missing molars she usually did her best to hide.
Auntie Clara reached behind her and shoved her children in our faces.
Jeremy didn’t look to be much older than my brother. He was unremarkable and shy—a face full of whiteheads and his hands shoved firmly in his pockets. My mother squeezed him tight, to the point where he couldn’t have used his arms to hug her back if he wanted to.
Sonia, the little girl, appeared like a mound at first—broad shoulders, bulbous forehead, and no neck. She sucked on her thumb and clutched a rainbow stuffed toy. My mother kneeled down and removed Sonia’s thumb from her mouth. “Wut a little gyal so pretty,” my mother sang.
The mound beamed, mouth full of gums and tiny Tic Tac teeth. “Hello, Auntie!” Sonia said in a resounding voice, mature for her size.
They went back and forth, comparing Dexter and my facial features to that of our cousins, and discussed who inherited what from some Jamaican relative I never knew or heard of. Soon after, Auntie Clara and my mother stepped aside and chatted above our heads.
With no adult to hide behind, Jeremy became a clearer individual. Pieces of him came together—his high-top fade, the Air Jordan logo across his oversized blue shirt, and Air Jordan XII on his feet. Dexter caught on too.
“Yo! You got the twelves!” Dexter shouted. He hunched over and reached for them. It seemed like he was going to grab Jeremy’s foot and turn the sneaker over, studying it the same way he handled sneakers on display at Foot Locker. “I’ve been asking my moms for these,” he said.
“Got these as soon as I landed,” Jeremy said, flexing his foot. His whole outfit was coordinated and must have been new too.
“Word,” Dexter said, probably noticing the same thing I noticed.
“And I got this!” the tiny mound said to us. She shoved her stuffed rainbow toy in my face.
“Cool unicorn,” I said.
“She’s an alicorn!” Sonia exclaimed. “Alicorns, unlike unicorns, have wings! Her name is Rockin’ Roxie!”
“That’s nice,” I said, reaching out to pet the toy, then lowering my hand. I looked up at my mother and aunt, who stood with a good distance between them. Auntie Clara, a full head above my mother in platform espadrilles, rocked back and forth on her toes. There was something very playful in her manner, and it occured to me that she must be the younger of the two. My mother crossed her arms above her gut, and laughed and smiled like a good listener. I approached gently.
Auntie Clara talked about sending money to my grandmom so she wouldn’t have to work in town so often. A handyman had scammed Grandmom when he came to fix her roof, and she ended up paying double what was owed. My mother knew nothing of the story but sucked her teeth at the crook.
“Di men dem ave nuh job. Evryone scrapin.’ But di road still mash up. Hire dem tuh fix di road. But we already owe di IMF too many mill-yuns—dem otha crook,” Auntie Clara said.
“Do you go back a lot?” I asked. I glanced at my mother who watched me but didn’t seem to mind my intrusion.
“We go evry summer ‘cept dis one. We come tuh see Americah dis year.”
“One day, we’ll go, Yaddy,” my mother said.
“Totally,” Auntie Clara said. “We should plan ah trip togetha. How Sterling? Wut upon his people?” she asked, turning to my mother.
“Him people good. Him good. Him sorry he can’t be here. He work,” my mother said.
My face fell. I know my mother saw it because she stepped towards me. The money wasn’t for clean clothes, for him to bounce into the house with seafood and CDs as he had done sometimes. Now, all I could picture was him in the alleys like the other cornermen. The cornermen Dexter never acknowledged, perched on stoops, sneering, cackling, sharing a bottle in a brown bag. Collectively they smelled of nicotine and liquor and yesterday’s sweat. I always stared at them, afraid one of them was my father and saddened when he wasn’t.
“Him send his love though,” my mother said.
“Me miss me buddy.”
I beamed, delighted someone was willing to talk about him. “You know my dad?” I asked.
“Yeh, man! Me used tuh live right in dat room,” my auntie said, pointing to our window on the curb. “Before us all had pickney. We use tuh party here tuh di wee hour.”
My mother looked peeved, but she only glared at me. I stepped closer to my auntie, grinning.
“Me see yuh ave yuh lil’ chessboard out,” she said. “Sterl used to whoop me so bad. Evry time.”
“He taught us how to play!”
“Him beat you too?” I shrugged and grinned, giddily. “Don’t let him beat yuh,” Auntie Clara said, flaunting her gapped teeth. “Him real good, dough. Him gamblin wit it in di park.”
My mother’s nostrils flared. Her lips didn’t part, but the thick crease between her eyebrows said, “Chile, move.”
Sonia tugged on the tail of my mother’s blouse, and the grimace faded.
“This is Rockin’ Roxie,” Sonia said, shoving her stuffed toy up to my mother.
“Wut a pretty little unicorn!”
“It’s an alicorn, Auntie! It has wings! See!” Sonia held it by its rainbow flaps.
My mother examined the winged, rainbow pony and kissed it. “Oh my, Rockin’ Roxie is beautee-full! Ah pretty little all-i-corn fuh ah pretty little gyal. Why dun we all go inside an eat?” my mother announced. “Me can cook up saltfish. But may-be yuh want some American food?”
“I love saltfish!” Sonia cheered.
“Then yuh an Roxie get plenty saltfish!” my mother said, flashing her missing molars.
Auntie Clara played with her bangles and sighed. “I don’t think we have time for dinner,” she said.
“Wha g’waan now?” my mother asked.
“We gotta make it Union City, and it’s getting dark now.” I didn’t notice until she said it, but the streetlights had come on and left golden orbs on the hoods of the parked cars.
“Me made up yuh old room fuh yuh an yuh pickney,” my mother said.
Auntie Clara looked at the ground. She slid the bangles up and down her wrist, making them clank and scratch. “We got to see Beverly in Jersey. We’re on a tight schedule. Heading to Atlanta tomorrow,” Auntie Clara said, more English-sounding than before.
“Yuh won’t stay one night? Yuh an yuh pickney dem muss be tired.”
“It’s getting dark now,” she repeated.
“We thought you were staying,” I said. My mother squeezed my shoulder, cutting me off, and my throat filled with sand. I could feel her measured breaths where she gripped my shoulder. If it were anyone else, me or Dexter or my father or a customer service agent, she would have shouted.
“You understand, right, Zip? You’re always so accommodatin.’ Always,” Auntie Clara said.
“Not even for a sec?” I pleaded, in disbelief.
“I’m afraid if I go in I might stay forever.” Auntie Clara chuckled, but no one joined her.
My mother shoved me to the side and hugged her sister. “Union City not far,” she said, patting Auntie Clara’s back briskly. “Maybe we meet stop by Bev’s an say goodbye in di mornin.”
“That would be wonderful!”
“Or maybe one day we visit yuh in Ingland an yuh show us around.”
“Yes. Yes.” They pulled apart and smiled without teeth. Auntie Clara wrapped me and Dexter in her sticky arms and kissed our foreheads. We all faced each other, as if we were getting one more looksee. Similarly aged, same birth order, also without a man of the house. They were like an alternate version of us, well-mannered, well groomed, cleaner, English, and free to go when they pleased. Jordan’s logo guarding his chest, bright lipstick and loud jewelry on the defense. They headed to the minivan, mumbling goodbyes and how pleasant it was to see us. But Sonia stayed, anchored to the curb, clutching Rockin’ Roxie against her chest. Her neck hung so low that she looked hunchbacked.
“Sonia!” Auntie Clara called.
The little girl’s broad shoulders heaved and collapsed as she took heavy breaths. A tantrum twisted her face, making her look mean, then scared, then confused. She wailed. Snot and tears flew from her face.
“Girly!” Auntie Clara grabbed Sonia’s arm and dragged her down the curb. But my mother took her shoulders and kneeled in front of the wailing girl.
“It alright, chile,” my mother said as she hugged her and patted her heaving back. Dexter picked up Rockin’ Roxie, which had fallen in the dragging, and handed it to our aunt. My mother shushed and cooed, and shushed and cooed. The orange light from the streetlamp showered my mother from her headscarf to her toes, and draped her in bronze. Her features softened, smooth as a statue. “It alright, sweet girl,” she sang in a soft voice only the little girl and I could hear. “Yuh so sweet… shhh now… yuh so sweet.”
Sonia’s plaits, I’m sure, weren’t as messy when the day began, but now stuck up frizzy and unruly. I wished I could still cry like her, and my mother could console me the way she did Sonia. How far I’d come from crying, although at times, the tears still tightened my mouth but never fell from the corners of my eyes. That couldn’t happen anymore. I patted Sonia’s plaits, neatly tucked the coils that stuck out, and cooed and shushed with my mother.