We three sit in the baby blue station wagon on McAllister, right across from City Hall.
It’s 1965 and our mother is out there again, screaming her face red, waving her sign, U.S. ARMS U.S. MONEY U.S. MEN AND U.S. STUPIDITY MAKE THE WAR IN VIETNAM. Her three girls in the car, me, nine years old, my other sister, seven—always in bright pink, even her socks and ratty shoes –and the youngest, four, who sucks her thumb because she says it tastes like cotton candy. We’re pressing our faces close to the window, making small circles of steam. We don’t get out, we know better. Mama’ll beat us if we get out and get in that mess. Tomorrow is Tuesday, and the people at Glide Memorial Church are serving breakfast—free of charge—but you have to get in line by 7:00 am, or there’s no maple syrup. We know the National Guard will show up soon, gripping their clubs and pepper spray and black guns, but right now a big fat man in dirty jeans and a white T-shirt has his big fat face up close to Mama’s and he’s yelling, his fist beating the air, like someone beating on the door, mad the rent check is late. Our Mama doesn’t flinch. She’s short—I’m already up to her shoulder—and skinny like a licorice stick, but tough, like steel, a post, a brick, a slap to your cheek, leaving a big red pulsing mark for hours that even a cold wash cloth won’t cool down.
Once a man showed up at our front door who said he was our Papa and thought he’d pay us a visit, Mama took one look at his smiling face, his shiny white shoes and tilted black hat and slammed the door on him. He, out there pounding on the door, screaming at her, calling her names, and she turned to me and said, “Don’t take it from anyone. Someone beat you down, you stand up, otherwise you’re nothing, you hear?” But when the pounding on the door stopped and she headed to the kitchen, I saw sadness in the curl of Mama’s neck and that tight way about her shoulders.
The youngest, her woolen cap pulled down low, is sucking away on her fingers, as if trying to get something other than candy out of it. My stomach growls. I’m tired of this. Mama is yelling at the fat man so loud I can hear her through the glass. But now he’s digging his finger into her forehead, like a gun, and Mama is backing up and she’s got a look on her face, a look I never saw before, her hazel eyes wide—a look of scared. Before I know what I’m doing, I’ve yanked up the car door lock, flung open the door—my sisters shouting, “No, don’t!”— I’m out, shoving through elbows, arms, legs, chants, shouts, and people are around me, I can’t see Mama!
I slow down and then, through a gap in the crowd, I spot her, on the ground, the big man standing over her. A flash of bright pink streaks by me, heading straight to Mama, so I run faster, darting, ducking, swerving, cutting, because no one’s going to beat me at nothing.
Nina Schuyler’s novel, THE TRANSLATOR, won the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Award and was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Writing Prize. Her first novel, THE PAINTING, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award. She teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco and writes in a small room that looks out at a huge palm tree.