by Natalie Gerich Brabson
Maite and her daughter Pala arrived home only minutes ago, and already Pala’s settled in. She’s plopped in front of the TV, watching an inane show on the cartoon channel, all done telling Maite how she ate a cupcake at snack, that Lucy wasn’t playing nicely during recess. Maite hasn’t yet had a chance to change her shoes or chug a glass of water. Her feet ache like hell.
It’s quarter to six. Maite’s father should be here by now, should have beaten them home. Maite pulls back the curtains and scans the street once, twice, before acknowledging he has not arrived. She steals a moment to go into the bathroom, pull off her work shoes, and wash her swollen, sweaty feet. Hair strands and dust gather on the tiles; she hasn’t had time to clean for weeks. Sitting on the rim of the tub, she tips her chin up and shuts her eyes as she holds her feet steady under the cold stream. She pretends she is elsewhere, imagines she is smiling, then laughing open-mouthed.
Back in the front room, she peers through the window, and still her father’s car isn’t on the street. Pala has come to expect his visits. Every Friday afternoon, after Maite finishes her shift at the restaurant and picks up Pala from aftercare, he arrives at the house at 5:30 to take Pala to the neighborhood park. But it’s nearly six and he’s still not here. Maite’s throat tightens. She wants to huddle next to the window and press her face against it, watch until his car pulls up, just as she used to.
Word travels fast in their too-small town. When her father returned last fall, after many years gone, he soon learned of Pala and tracked down Maite’s number. He called and left a voicemail. He called again. She promised herself she wouldn’t pick up. She didn’t have to. When she did, he told her, “I’m different now. I wouldn’t have left you, Maite. Or I’d at least have visited. I wish I could do it all over again.”
She said nothing. Eventually he cut through her silence. “Can I meet my grandbaby?”
No, no, Maite thought. Pala. But should she deny any relationship? And if he was, as he averred, in town to stay, and if he really could be in Pala’s life…
Half a year now, every Friday. He has never been this late. Maite stands clutching the curtain—she wants to curl up, and, if his car doesn’t appear soon, hide her face in her knees. But she cannot, not in front of Pala.
Pala tugs at Maite’s pants, and Maite steps back. Pala wants to look out the window too; already she’s resting her chin on the windowsill. Maite places her hand on Pala’s head and guides her toward the kitchen, where she prepares Pala’s snack, apple slices alongside a dollop of peanut butter. Pala eats noisily, looking around the room, squirming in her chair to look at the door.
“Soon,” Maite says. “I’m sorry.”
Pala nods. She puts an apple slice flat on her plate and squishes it until a drop of juice emerges. She licks the drop off the plate, looking at Maite as she does so, but Maite doesn’t correct her behavior.
Maite notices the emptiness in her own stomach. Most days, she doesn’t eat lunch because the restaurant where she waitresses makes her pay for any food she takes, and it’s too expensive. Now, she fixes herself her own apple and peanut butter snack, the two munching in silence. Then Pala asks, “Can I watch my show?”
“I think it’s over by now.” The clock shows a quarter past six. Maite checks the voicemail, but he hasn’t left a message. She thinks, This is the time, this is when it will happen. He’s not coming for her.
“I want to make sure,” Pala says, glancing back at the front room.
“Your show ended.” Maite doesn’t want Pala checking for him again by the window, nor discovering that the cartoon channel plays endless reruns after new episodes air. “You can draw here.”
Pala scowls at Maite, but she finds her markers and paper and returns to the kitchen table without complaint. Soon she’s immersed in her artwork. Pala’s expression is strained, betraying her worry, but Maite doesn’t say anything more to her. Maite chomps into her second apple, this time without cutting it up first. She dips the skinless wound into the peanut butter, then takes another bite, gooey.
Finally, his knock. Maite opens the door, and he stoops right on the porch, stretching his arms wide. Pala leaps from the couch, and runs into his embrace.
“My sweet little bee girl,” he coos. He kisses her head only once, his eyes meeting Maite’s.
“I’m so sorry I’m late. Traffic, you know. Hi, honey.” He rises to hug Maite. She lets him, but she goes stiff, moving away from his body until he releases her.
“How was work?” he asks.
She shakes her head and turns away, toward Pala. “Well, your grandpa is here for you,” she says. “Do you want to show him your drawing?”
Pala crosses her arms behind her back, and softly says, “Later.”
“Let’s get going,” Maite’s father says to her.
“Hold on,” Maite tells him. “It’s 6:30. Maybe the park’s not a good idea anymore.”
“It’s safe. It’ll be light out all evening,” he says.
“Let me finish this apple,” Maite says. I’m almost done.”
“You don’t have to come with us. Rest. I’ve got her.”
The park is down the street. Maite’s feet still hurt, and she drags behind her father and Pala. Her father glances back once to smile at Maite, saying to Pala, “Your mother should be like me. She shouldn’t work so hard.” Maite can’t get herself to smile back.
She speeds up, walks close enough to overhear their conversation when her father turns again toward Pala, who’s chattering away, no longer, apparently, distressed at her grandfather’s lateness. He’s good at talking to Pala. He’s better at responding to her tangential conversation style—new since she turned five—than Maite.
“What did you like about school today?”
“It was Ella’s birthday.”
“Did she bring any treats for the class?”
Pala nods. “The cots in kindergarten are bad.”
“What makes you say they’re bad?”
“We have to nap every day.”
“You’ll be missing that in a few months, when you grow up and go to first grade.”
It’s early June, and near the park, cottonwood seeds float everywhere. The wind gusts and releases more from the trees. There’s a gully alongside the path, filled with a few inches of water. Some seeds have been blown by the wind into the runoff. They form clumps on the surface as they are carried away in the slow-moving water.
A seed catches in Pala’s hair.
“Snow,” Maite calls to her, but Pala doesn’t hear.
They step through the park’s gate. There are already children on the playground, and Pala studies them before reaching for her grandfather’s hand to walk over to the hill. Maite follows them to the top and finds a tree trunk to lean against. From this tree, she’ll be able to see Pala all the way down to the edge of the park, and on the playground too, if Pala leads her grandfather there.
Pala pitches forward, briefly on all fours, then sprawls on the ground.
“Are you going to roll down the hill?” Maite’s father asks.
“You roll, please,” Pala responds.
He shakes his head. “I don’t know how. You have to show me.”
She springs up. “You know! You know!”
“I don’t. Teach me how to roll down the hill.”
Pala lies at the top of the hill again, and tips into motion. Her limbs are loose, and her roll is clumsy and slow. She’s not yet halfway down when she stands and falls again, trying to roll faster. Her white leggings, new, are streaked green and brown.
Maite’s father trails Pala’s path, only a few steps behind her. Maite hopes he’s keeping an eye out for rocks that Pala could bump her head on. She wants to look out herself or take her father’s place behind Pala. If she saw any danger ahead, she’d pick Pala up, run. She could run fast, even on her work-swollen feet. She could run faster than anyone for Pala. She imagines running with Pala all the way down the hill, gaining momentum, and flying her out of the park, across the street and beyond, to the good side of town. They’d go to New York, somewhere big, a place where Pala could do anything, where she’d be unharmed.
If they left now, Pala might forget these early years, the last few months. They would have to leave soon, though—her memory is getting stronger, and she’s beginning to track patterns. She knows when Friday is coming, when Friday’s here, when to expect his car in the driveway.
Maite takes off her shoes and socks, folds the socks into a ball and places them in one shoe. She lets herself feel the soles of her feet on the bristly grass. She pulls the grass up with her toes, then gathers the blades and throws them into the air. They do not hover—they fall before the wind can catch them. The blades of grass don’t have the magic of cottonwood seeds.
Pala is tumbling down the hill again, but the hill isn’t steep enough, and she comes to a halt every few rotations. The late afternoon light, glaring, hits Pala’s hair, makes it glow. Momentarily she lies still, belly-up. Her hair has fallen in front of her face, tangled and wild. Watching, Maite holds her shins and pulls her legs close, huddles, hugs.
Pala jumps up to catch her grandfather’s hand, dragging him to his knees. He calls, “Mind yourself! Log coming through,” and waits until Pala backs away, safe, before he begins to roll. Pala takes another cautious step backward, then springs into motion and runs after him.
Maite won’t admit it to him, but she remembers her father took her to this same park, before the playground equipment had been replaced. It must have been only a few months before he left. She was twelve, and was reluctant to play, believing she was too old to be at the playground with her father. She remembers too well.
Watching Pala chase her grandfather down the hill, Maite feels a tickle on the bridge of her foot: an ant. She is momentarily fascinated by its steady crawl, how it wields its antennae like windmills. Then she reacts, shaking her foot violently to free herself from the ant. It falls to the grass, and soon disappears.
Her father has not yet led Pala back up the hill. If Maite called to Pala now, her voice would not carry. She digs her feet into the earth and pushes her back against the tree trunk. She scrapes her heels furiously, and the dirt loosens and allows her to hollow out depressions. She cannot root herself enough.
The sun has not yet neared the horizon. It’ll be light for another couple of hours, but there are fewer children on the playground. Those remaining are much older than those Maite noticed when they entered the park. She can’t see any adults among them. The teenagers cluster near the swings. Their laughs are loud and movements loose. One boy has his arm hooked around the swing’s pole and hangs back carelessly. He looks toward the hill. Pala might not be visible to him. Maite hopes he won’t lead the teenagers any closer to Pala.
Finally, Pala races her grandfather up the hill.
Maite calls to her. “Let’s go home!”
Pala glances over briefly but pretends she doesn’t hear. She bows her head as she runs, her eyes directed to the ground, serious.
Maite cries, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” She pronounces go like goo, as if she’s joking.
“We just got here. Let’s stay a little longer, Mom,” her father says. “Maite, it might be the best day of the summer. Let her play.”
Maite throws her head back to the sky, too blue, and doesn’t argue. Pala recognizes that she has more time, and she pulls her grandfather toward the teeter-totter, which is thankfully far from the other playground equipment and the teenagers. Maite’s father walks slowly, and Pala hangs on his arm, dragging him, giggling, shouting, “Faster, Papa!”
He slows down, and says, “I can’t! You’ll have to leave me behind.”
Pala’s overtaken by peals of laughter. She’s clutching his arm too tightly, refusing to release her grasp. Maite thinks, Let go, let go. One day you may not have a choice.
Maite will tell him he can’t come late for Pala. No, she will tell him it is best if he doesn’t come at all. She fears that his disappearance will repeat, that it’s inevitable.
She’ll tell him today, she promises herself. She’ll send Pala to her room to clean up her toys when they get home. Pala doesn’t clean yet, but she pretends: she will get caught up with playing and won’t try to overhear. Maite will tell him then. She’ll say it doesn’t matter that he is Pala’s only grandfather—she can’t let Pala get attached to someone who eventually won’t be there for her.
But when they arrive, Maite is slow to take off her shoes. Pala immediately leads her grandfather to the kitchen, hands him her drawing, and beams at him as he studies it. Maite can’t bring herself to interrupt their connection. She lets go of her breath, remains silent for one more moment.
“It’s beautiful,” he tells Pala. “Is it a cheetah?”
Pala shakes her head.
“A lion? An ocelot?”
It’s a housecat, Maite thinks. It’s the only thing Pala ever draws, for years now. But her father is patient with Pala, and he plays her game and keeps guessing until he gets it right. And when he does, he tries to hand the drawing back to her, but she tells him, “You can have it.”
He bends down to hug her, not apologetically as he did when he greeted her, but fully. Pala steps on his toes to hug him back. She looks toward Maite, waits for her grandfather to pick her up.
Natalie Gerich Brabson is a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program, and holds a BA in Hispanic Studies from Vassar College. Her fiction has been published in New World Writing and Eunoia Review. In 2017, she received the Go On Girl Book Club Unpublished Writer Award. She lives in Philadelphia, and is at work on her first novel.