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Amna
by Daniel A. Olivas

[first published in The Sidewalkís End, winter 1999]

 

 

My name is Amna. Not Anna. Not Ana. But Amna. Like amnesia. Grandma was named Amna. She was white, from Nevada. Married my Grandpa who was from Jalisco, Mexico. They met when Grandma moved to L.A. just before the Depression. Grandma wanted to get away from her father. Donít know why. She was only sixteen. Saw a picture of her when she was about that age. Beautiful white skin that looked as smooth as my favorite dollís satin dress. Tiny. She weighed no more than ninety. Delicate long fingers that are too long for her little body. Grandma stands leaning against a wooden chair. No smile. Just this stare. Like she sees me even before Iím born and even before she meets Grandpa and they have Momee. Light-colored eyes that look dark and glisten from a shadow and you know that her thoughts and memories are too big for her little body. And her dress is like a flapperís dress but not so daring. White ink on the picture says SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA, SEPTEMBER 4, 1927. On the back in faded blue ink says AMNA HALL. Different writing than whatís on front.

Momee told me a hundred times how Grandma met Grandpa. Grandma got a job washing clothes for the wife of the Mayor of L.A. Just lucky, sort of. She washed along with another woman, a Mexican. Isabel. Isabel spoke good English otherwise she couldnít have gotten the job. And beautiful like my Grandma but dark skin. Thereís a funny picture. Grandma and Isabel. Sitting in a Model T. Theyíre hamming it up. Holding the back of their heads with one hand and the other hand on their hips like theyíre trying to seduce a man. Smiling big smiles. Probably breaking into uncontrolled laughter after the picture is taken. Donít know who took it. And Momee doesnít know whose car it is, either. Maybe the Mayorís. Who knows. Little mysteries. This Isabel has thick eyebrows like caterpillars and full lips and flat nose. High cheekbones and long black hair braided like thick yarn. Very Indian looking. About Grandmaís age. Beautiful. Momee says Isabel was killed the next year. In 1928. Killed in the street at night with a knife. No one was arrested. But in that picture, they show nothing but the pure silly happiness of young women with a good future waiting patiently, like a friendly dog, out there just a few years away.

Anyway, Isabel introduced Grandma to a club that mostly Mexicans went to. It was called Play Time. At Second and Main Streets in downtown. Not there anymore. Now thereís the State Building. The Ronald Reagan State Building. State attorneys work there. And the CHP has an office there, too. Building is modern and new and looks like the Titanic. It has these big porthole-like windows way up top. Built in early 1990s. So, anyway, Grandma goes to this club with Isabel. Theyíre too young but they dress older. And theyíre pretty so they get in. Momee says that everyone stared at Grandma because sheís the only white woman there. But itís okay. No trouble, Momee tells me. Just curiosity about this beautiful young woman with the very white skin. Guys come up and ask Grandma to dance. Most of them canít speak English very well. And Isabel shoos them away. Grandma wants them all to stay. All so handsome. Isabel says, El que todo lo quiere todo lo pierde. The greedy person ends up with nothing. Choose wisely Isabel says. After she says this, a man walks up. He speaks pretty good English. Thin. Black wavy hair combed back. Widowís peak. Handsome in high-waisted pleated pants and gleaming white shirt. Pencil thin mustache. Grandma canít speak. Just stares at this beautiful man. Francisco. A baker. Has his own little pan dulce store at Normandie and Venice Boulevards. Not there anymore. Heís twenty-two years old. And they dance. Romantic ballad. Wish I knew what it was so I could buy it. They move like theyíve been dancing together to the same song all their lives. They married the next year at St. Vibianaís in downtown. Before Isabel was killed. Momee told this story many times. But I like hearing it.

So Grandma and Grandpa get a little apartment near the pan dulce shop. On Normandie. That apartment is still there. A fourplex with two smooth wooden columns and a double cement porch for the two apartments at the bottom. Wooden steps in the back that go straight up and then divide like a river to two different doors of the other apartments. It was newly built back then. It looks majestic in the pictures. But now itís beaten down and sits drooping in the hot L.A. sun. Cracked gray paint. Artificial grass glued to the cement porch and steps. Tacky. But back then, it must have been a mansion to my grandparents. Though other people live there now, I walk by sometimes. And I squint at it trying to make it look like the pictures Momee showed me. What if I could go up and theyíd be there, young and newly married. And Iíd say, Grandma and Grandpa, itís me. Amna. Your grandbaby. Seventeen and almost a woman. But they wouldnít know me. Because they never even knew that I was born. They died in 1979. Within a month of each other. First, Grandma died. Breast cancer. And then, a few weeks after her funeral, Grandpaís heart just stopped. All that happened three years before I was born. So, you see, they wouldnít know me. Iíd just be some skinny little brown kid with blue-green eyes, like my Grandmaís, with short dyed blond hair and a zillion piercings and tattoos. Theyíd say that I had the wrong home. Maybe go down the street and find the right place.

When they died, they left behind four grown children and eleven grandchildren. Thatís before I was born, like I said. But even with me now there are still eleven grandchildren because my older brother, Humberto, died a few years ago. Died isnít exactly it. Took his life. Hung himself with his underwear in jail. Itís funny because they took his shoelaces but he still figured a way to do it. During summer, after Popee left us and moved to Florida, Humberto used to watch me when Momee went to work. The first summer he had to watch me, he used to ignore me a lot. Iíd play by myself in the backyard making Creepy Crawlers. I set it up by myself. Plug the orange plastic Creepy Crawler oven into the big metal socket at the side of the house. And Iíd design these really cool snakes and bugs and monster faces using all kinds of colored goo. And then theyíd cook in exactly nine minutes. I watch the egg timer thatís shaped like a tomato until it rings and wakes me from my trance. Impatient, I pull the metal molds out with little plastic tongs before I really should and I cool them down with the hose with a hissing sound as the cool water hits the hot metal. The hot cooked rubber smell shoots up my nostrils and my heart beats hard. And I pull my critters or monster heads out with my fingernails and put them in a cigar box. The pile of my little creations would glisten in the sun like rubbery jewels. Reds, blues, greens and yellows. And then I snap shut the top of the cigar box and shake it to hear the soft rattle of my scorpions, cobras and Dracula heads bounce and rub up against each other and the sides of the box.

My little Creepy Crawler factory keeps me busy for about a week and Humberto stays out of my way. But then he decides to take care of me. Makes me stay in the house after Momee leaves in the morning. Then he asks me questions with words I donít understand. And he laughs this strange laugh. And then he gets real serious. Starts touching me. And each day he touches more and more and takes my panties off to do that. Then he starts putting things in me. First, his fingers. Then things. Like the leg of my Barbie and then a spoon and later pencil. With the pencil, I start to bleed and I scream. Momee comes home early that day. She sees Humberto doing that to me with the pencil and she screams like me and slaps Humberto hard on the head and he falls over like a cardboard cutout. Momee scoops me up and rushes me off to the hospital. Has to take the bus because we have no car. And Iím crying and sheís crying. People stare. Itís hot in that bus. And crowded. And the emergency nurse at the hospital whispers something to the doctor and the police come. Iím nine and Humberto is thirteen when this happens. They take him away and I never see him again until his funeral. I found out later that after they took him away, he was in and out of jail and lived the queer life when he was out on the streets. He hustled. When he hung himself, he weighed a hundred and twenty-two pounds. Five foot ten. Shaved head. With eyes that look like mine. I went to his funeral but Momee refused. Popee came out from Florida for it. Iím glad I went. Popee hugs me and kisses my cheek. Mi hija, he says. Iíve missed you so much. But I canít stay in L.A. Say hello to your mother. And then he leaves and all I can do is focus on his Old Spice smell that clings to the side of my face where he kissed me.

Momee still works. Cooks at the cafeteria at the Ronald Reagan Building. The Titanic. Iím almost finished with high school. Itís okay. But I wander through classes like Iím under water. Itís in slow motion, kind of, and the sounds of the other kids and the teachers become muffled and hard to understand. Sometimes I sit in class and my name just keeps running around in my head. Amna. Amna. Amna. Until finally it doesnít sound like my name anymore. Sounds like something strange and far away. Something that burns hot and shines like the silver studs that run up and down my left earlobe. And I like it and wonder if my Grandma used to say her name over and over and over in her mind, too. And if she did, did it change and become something else? Something completely different? Something better?

 


 

 

About the Author

Daniel A. Olivas earned a degree in English Literature from Stanford University and law degree from UCLA. The author specializes in land use and environmental enforcement with the California Department of Justice. He makes his home with his wife and son in the San Fernando Valley. ďAmnaĒ first appeared in The Sidewalkís End. Visit the authorís Web site for links to his work.