I’m writing to you since God quit listening a long time ago. I want to ask you a question. What are you afraid of? This is what scares me:
1. Cockroaches that fly like small bats
2. First day of school, second day of school, third day of …
3. Fat tornadoes in a yellow sky
4. Losing Ganny
5. The banshee in the woods coming for Ganny
6. The word “illegal” and a new law about being “illegal” in Alabama called HB 56
7. Kids who ask me: “What are you anyhow? White or Mexican? Boy or girl?”
8. Brown recluse spiders
9. Other stuff too
I read 2 books this week. It’s summer and there’s nothing else to do. They were on sale for 25 cents at the library since they are old books.
THE BFG by Roald Dahl & ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET by Judy Blume –
The 2 books gave me two ideas:
IDEA #1. Vulcan, I hope you come down off Red Mountain and visit me the way the BFG (Big Friendly Giant) visited Sophie and took her back to Giant Land.
IDEA #2. Vulcan, I’m going to talk to you in letters the way Margaret talked to God.
A sixth grader in Birmingham, Alabama
P.S. I’m writing to you on an old typewriter I found at MISSION POSSIBLE where we buy our clothes. Poppa got it for me since he said typing is an important skill. He left for Florida a few months ago where he won’t look so illegal. It’s illegal to look illegal in Birmingham now, which means looking Mexican or something else, but I guess you know all about that since you can see everything from up there. PLEASE COME DOWN OFF RED MOUNTAIN AND VISIT ME. I live at 1620 29th Court South next to the fire station.
* * *
Millie-Graciella took a match out of the box and struck it to catch her letter to Vulcan on fire. It took three tries. The sparks danced inside the tiny charcoal grill outside their apartment next to the fire station where you could sometimes hear the 9-1-1 calls coming in over the loudspeaker with callers crying about their emergencies. Soon the yellow flames licked the letter into blue and black smoke, smoldering inside the coals they’d used for last night’s carne-asada.
Vulcan, the world’s biggest cast iron statue, stood atop Red Mountain in Birmingham waiting for Millie-Graciella’s letter to reach him. How did she know that? Don’t ask. She just knew it. She knew the smoke would carry her words up to him on Red Mountain and reach his big, listening ears.
Inside her family’s tiny apartment, Millie-Graciella’s grandmother, whom they called, “Ganny,” was dying slowly in a metal hospital bed to the tune of Good Morning America. But was Ganny truly dying? It was hard to tell. Mrs. Vickie, the hospice lady-with-the-moustache was inside with her giving Ganny a lavender sponge bath. Mrs. Vickie was part church lady/hospice lady. Momma said ladies like her came when folks got sick and families needed extra help and that they should be grateful to her.
But Millie-Graciella wasn’t grateful to her, not a minute.
“Millie-Graciella, are you out there playing with fire again?” called Mrs. Vickie, the hospice-lady-with-the-moustache, her voice like dusty sandpaper.
“Sure smells like smoke to me. It’s 100 degrees today. You trying to make it hotter than it already is setting things on fire, child?”
“No ma’am,” Millie-Graciella lied again. (Sometimes lying felt great.)
“We talked about y’all kids being sweet yesterday. Come in here a minute. I want to talk to you.”
“I’m real busy at the moment. I’ll have to get back to you on that one.”
“Excuse me, lady. There’s no call to be ugly. Your little brother is as sweet as the day is long.”
Ha! What did Mrs. Vickie know? When her annoying little brother, Romero, wasn’t all up in Millie-Graciella’s business, spying on her, looking through her things, he was building Lego kingdoms and collecting things, like odd headlines that he put into a scrapbook such as: “STOLEN PENGUIN RETURNED TO ZOO” and “TEN-YEAR-OLD FINDS BEAR IN KITCHEN EATING OREOS.” Millie-Graciella had to admit they were pretty good headlines, but she would never tell him that. He had a big enough head as it was with everybody loving on him all the time like he was the King of France or England or some place like that.
Ganny’s old cat, Daisy, pawed at the smoke traveling up to Vulcan. Millie-Graciella scratched Daisy’s ears, which made Daisy drool a little. She was the droolingest cat when you scratched her ears just right. Millie-Graciella looked toward the woods behind the apartment complex. All was quiet, which meant the banshee was still sleeping. She thought of how she first heard the piercing wail of a banshee in the loblolly pines just last week. How did she know it was a banshee? Because all Irish families had them, and she was part Irish, and a banshee cried when someone was dying, slow or fast. Millie-Graciella was part Mexican too, and banshees also visited Mexican families, only in Mexico, they called it the “weeping woman” or the official name: La Llorona. Millie-Graciella had read that in a book. So was it La Llorona or a banshee or a mix of both coming for Ganny? Could Vulcan hear it too? Yes, he could. He just pretended like he couldn’t by standing so awful still up there, but he was listening.
Mrs. Vicki poked her head out of the ragged screen-door, “Millie-Graciella, are you going to come in here or am I going to have to come after you? Now I’m going to close this door because I’m letting the air out, but I want you in here, madam. This minute. We need to have words.”
“Yeah, you’d better get in here to have words,” Romero shouted, “Or I’m calling Mom at the Post Office to tell her you’re not listening. Again.”
Words? Hmmm. Millie-Graciella weighed her options studying the old air conditioner stuck in the window that sounded like it was crying in the Alabama sun of August. Why should she listen to a do-gooder lady with a moustache and a nosy little brother? Besides, she hated being inside when she could be outside. She didn’t care how hot it was. Anything was better than an apartment where the doors and windows didn’t fit right and cockroaches with black wings flew over your head to picnic in the kitchen, and where her pretty grandmother, Ganny, was forgetting her face more each day, because everybody said she was dying. Nope, come to think of it, Millie-Graciella did not want to have “words” with anyone.
She pushed her short hair off her forehead into sweaty spikes, her letter to Vulcan burning up into bits of ash. Daisy watched it all and yawned. Would they come outside and get her? Romero had been inside watching television with Ganny all morning. He wore corrective glasses that kept his brown eyes from crossing and looking at each other instead out at the world. Everyday, he built Lego kingdoms near Ganny that nobody could touch or he’d FREAK OUT, but his so-called “masterpieces” crowded up the place, and stray Lego pieces stabbed your bare feet if you weren’t careful. Sometimes, Millie-Graciella forgot to be careful. Sometimes, she was plain mean. Sometimes, it felt great to be mean too, in addition to lying.
“Millie-Graciella, I’m calling you!” Mrs. Vicki knocked on the window.
“Yeah, we’re calling you!” Romero’s face appeared under Mrs. Vicki’s.
Millie-Graciella took that as her cue to run. She hopped over Daisy and took off down the apartment steps and raced across the hot asphalt toward the woods to pick blackberries to put on her Ganny’s Cream of Wheat. It was a good time to pick blackberries. The banshee in the woods was still sleeping, and blackberries sprinkled on Cream of Wheat still tasted good to Ganny. She could hear Mrs. Vicki calling after her.
Millie-Graciella! You get back here!
No thanks. Running toward the woods she thought of the sign on the door to ED’S PET WORLD on 18th Street. The sign said: “BE NICE OR GO AWAY.” Ed sold “exotic and domestic pets.” She wondered sometimes if that sign was meant for her. “BE NICE OR GO AWAY.” She could have said the same thing to the governor of Alabama or to the hospice-lady-with-the moustache, too, but most of all she could have said it to the banshee in the woods: “BE NICE OR GO AWAY.” But it didn’t seem to Millie-Graciella that the governor, Mrs. Vicki, and especially not the banshee had any intention of going anywhere. And for that matter, neither did Vulcan, god of the forge, the giant statue that kept watch over Birmingham, his spear pointed to the sky. In fact, Millie-Graciella saw it this way in terms of everybody wanting something:
1. The governor of Alabama WANTED people like Millie-Graciella’s father to go far away back to places like Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Argentina or wherever it was they came from.
2. Mrs. Vickie, the hospice-lady-with-the-moustache WANTED Millie-Graciella to be “sweet” every single second of the day and not fool with fire.
3. The banshee WANTED to take her beautiful grandmother away, plain and simple, to the underworld. It didn’t care about sweet or nice.
4. The Bug Man, who killed insects in the apartment complex, WANTED the cockroaches and brown recluse spiders to go away, but they kept coming back no matter how many times he aimed his poison at them and fired.
5. And Vulcan WANTED to keep standing up there on Red Mountain, day after day, listening to all the wishes and whispers of Birmingham. But what did he do about all those wishes and whispers? Nothing. That’s what. A big fat nothing. So far.