The yellow light turned red. Emma expected a miracle from her mother. The magic trick.
But maybe there’d never be another day like the time they got off the freeway and
every light on Alameda street turned green with a flick of her mother’s wrist.
Emma loved and hated Alameda street. She loved it when she and her mother drove
away from their South-Central apartment to Griffith Park to see the horses or to
Redondo Beach to ride the ferryboat. She hated the dreariness of the street and only
liked the Farmer John factory with its pictures of happy pigs and Farmer John himself,
wearing blue overalls and a big hat. She listened for the sound of snorting pigs, but
only smelled a nasty odor of raw bacon.
“Can we have McDonald’s tonight?” Emma said.
“We have left-over steak from Sizzler’s. We also have hot dogs,” her mother said.
“Hot dogs. You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Do I look like I’m kidding?” Her mother scrunched her lips to her left cheek and made
the I’m-not-kidding face.
Emma thought her mother’s I’m-not-kidding face was stupid. She wasn’t a baby; she
was ten and a half years old.
The light turned green again, but a slow car in front of them boxed their blue Datsun
next to a beat-up pickup truck the color of rust and swimming pool algae. The driver of
the pickup caught Emma’s attention as he flapped his pink puckered lips, his white shirt
billowed like a pirate ship’s sail. Emma pretended not to see the dark-haired stranger
and the guy next to him blowing kisses at her.
Her mother smiled and drew Emma’s bangs away from her eyes.
“Give them a thrill, baby. You can do it.” Her mother blew a kiss to the pickup as it
slowed passed them.
The men turned. Their eyes widened as they smiled back and gave each other a loud
Emma didn’t say anything.
“Flirt with them a little.” Her mother winked and shimmied her shoulders.
“Mom.” Emma wrinkled her nose and stared hard at her mother.
“I won’t tell grandma.” Her mother persisted.
“I don’t care.” She flung her bangs back over her eyes and plucked at her split ends.
Emma was lost in her thoughts when the men in the rusty truck caught up with them
again. The driver in the white shirt gave Emma a strange look she didn’t understand like
she had taken something from him or like he knew her.
“I like your smile, mamita.” The driver licked his lips as he made goo-goo eyes at Emma.
“Que chula you are linda bebita,” he said.
She frowned at him. Emma wanted to make a gagging gesture, but instead looked
Her mother was no longer flirting with the men. Her smile had faded back to the I’m-
The pickup truck stayed next to them.
“This is my nephew. Do you like him? Do you like me?” The driver gave Emma a gold-
Emma jerked her head and looked away from him.
“Roll up the window and write down their license plate number.” Her mother sped up,
then slowed down and went around the pickup truck.
“Mom. There’s nothing to write with.” She rifled through the glove compartment. But
only found the Pat Benatar bumper sticker she’d been looking for, her charm bracelet,
and a plastic spoon.
No pens, pencils, crayons, or markers.
“It’s okay, sweetheart. They’ll go away,” she said. “Remember the license plate.”
Her mother flipped the men off with her middle finger held high in the rear view mirror.
In return, the driver flicked his skinny tongue up and down. The pickup truck looped
over and passed her mother on her left and then slowed down.
“Your girl’s fine. Like her foxy mama,” the driver yelled. He stuck out his tongue and
pretended to lick a popsicle. He continued to slobber and drool like her uncle Oscar’s
“What creeps!” Her mother rolled up her window and maneuvered the Datsun to the far
Emma knew her mother wasn’t able to change the light fast enough to get away from
She’d lost her magic.
It frightened Emma to see her mother looking so scared and wild-eyed, the way she got
whenever the man, who supposedly was her father, dropped in on them.
They came to another light. The men were not in sight, but Emma pleaded silently for
the light to change.
“One, two, change,” Emma whispered. Only her words sounded loud like a car coming
to a screeching halt on the freeway.
Something did happen. But it wasn’t the signal changing to green. Their car rocked
back and forth like a bumper car ride at Knott’s Berry Farm. The jolt shook their necks
forward. Emma reached for the useless, broken seatbelt at her side and flinched at the
sight of her mother’s arm flashing across her chest. It was those guys in the pickup
The men blew kisses back at them and laughed as they gunned their engine and
honked. As their car sped down Alameda, Emma’s mother seemed equally eager to put
dust between her and the pickup. Without waiting for the red light to change, she hung
an illegal left onto Gage Avenue and the Datsun rattled over the railroad tracks. Her
mother wiped another tear away and looked nervously into the rearview mirror.
“Mom! The light was red.”
“Tranquila, m’hijita.” Her mother kept her eyes on the road. “Tranquila,” she repeated.
She murmured to herself as if reciting a Hail Mary.
Emma was grateful to see the sights of her neighborhood, Magda’s gaudy, pink house,
the McDonald’s golden arches, and their beige appartment building in the distance. She
vowed never to let her mother play that game again. She wanted to say I told you so.
But her mother’s face glistened, trails of sweat and tears rolled past her lips.
“Roll down your window. It’s stuffy in here.” Her mother wiped her face with her fingers.
Emma tried to think of something to say to make her mother feel better. “I memorized
the license number,” was all she managed.
“Don’t worry. They’re gone.” She stroked Emma’s hair.
Once home, her mother drew open the kitchen curtains to let the late summer light into
their dark apartment. She tugged the bathroom’s accordion door open, showered, then
blow-dried her hair. The rickety accordion door snapped ajar.
“Are we going somewhere?” Emma stood high on her tiptoes and clasped her hands
“I’m going out. You’re staying home.” Steam drifted out as her mother pushed in the
“But it’s your day off.” Emma tried to sound like she was having a mature conversation
with her mother.
“And I’m going out,” her mother said.
“But you promised. And those–.”
“We went to the car wash. We went to the park. You rode the ponies. We got ice
cream and you had a pretzel. Don’t I deserve some fun?”
“Who are you going with?” Emma said.
“I don’t know. One of Lucy’s coworkers.”
“A blind date! After what happened to us, you’re going to meet some weirdo?” Emma
rolled her eyes, threw her hands in the air. Emma knew she was acting like a baby, but
she continued to sigh and whine.
Her mother eyed Emma with her serious face. “Basta! No more of this. He works with
Lucy and she’ll be there with her date. Okay!”
Emma went into the bedroom and closed the door. But she soon crept back to the
hallway where she watched her mother put on her make-up. Emma thought her mother
looked like a movie star when she dressed up. Like one of Charlie’s Angels. Her mother
caught her crouching near the door and handed her the black pencil. Emma took the
eyeliner and melted it with the stove’s flame. She ran back to the bathroom so her
mother could make the line under her eyes while the pencil was still hot. Her mother put
red lipstick on Emma and they gave each other air kisses so they wouldn’t smudge their
“See. I can be fun.” Emma made one last attempt to change her mother’s mind.
“I know, baby. But when you start dating, you won’t even remember you have a
Besides you’ll be snoring when I get home.” Her mother slipped on a short black dress
over a bra and pantyhose.
“Not true.” Emma slumped on her vinyl bean bag in front of the television set.
“Will you get to bed on time?” Her mother adjusted the strap on her heels.
“Yes, mommy, dearest. I’ll say my prayers and brush my teeth too.” Emma used the
falsetto voice she knew grated on her mother’s nerves.
“Don’t be smart, young lady.” Her mother said slowly, but loudly through her clenched
“You have Mrs. Garcia’s number from upstairs.” Her voice returned to normal and she
pointed to her knit sweater. Emma dutifully brought it and draped it over her mother’s
bent arm. Her mother kissed Emma on the top of her forehead, the sweet spot–she
Emma went back to sulking.
Before she left, her mother shook a box of macaroni and cheese, left it on the kitchen
counter and then waved goodbye. Emma was not excited about cooking the pasta for
dinner. She pulled a big fake smile as her mother gestured for her to also lock the
Emma brushed her teeth and went to bed. But she couldn’t sleep. A few times during
the night, she thought she heard the rumble of the rusty pickup truck’s engine. She
worried until she heard the locks click open and heels lightly tap across the linoleum.
Emma closed her eyes and relaxed into sleep. She knew her mother was safe tonight.
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