Miss Katie and the vacuum cleaner are engaged in their usual struggle. They are evenly matched in size for Katie is small for her age and the vacuum cleaner is a huge old monster, heavy and own-way. Besides, Katie is only just getting used to electricity and is scared every time she has to plug anything in. When she turns the beast on, it roars and buckles out of control. Sometimes it reduces Katie to tears. But she doesn’t give up, ever. She spends a lot of time washing up and cleaning and scouring and tidying. Every day. She wants her mother to know she has a useful daughter, one who knows how to do things and not one come to suck her blood, as she says every time she is vexed.
• • •
Miss Katie learned usefulness from her grandmother. Gran is the one who stuck the “Miss” on to her name from the time Katie was small-small. If Miss Katie wasn’t there to look after the two little ones, Gran always said, how she could leave them alone in the yard and go to her day’s work, and where would they be then? Whenever Gran said such a thing, Katie’s spirits lifted and she didn’t feel so tired running after the little ones all day or vexed at missing school again.
Her mother doesn’t call her Miss Katie for she doesn’t know that name, she left for Canada before Katie became useful to Gran. She calls her Katherine, which is her rightful name that is in the brand new passport that brought her to Toronto and the name they will use when she goes to school. Now she is getting used to the name, “Katherine” is making her feel big and grown up and she’s glad she isn’t answering to “Miss Katie” anymore and can put that country-bumpkin self behind her. For now that she is here, in the big city of Toronto, what a joke it would be for people to hear her called that. Especially for Kirton who is the only person she knows in Toronto, other than Kirton’s friend, Krishna.
She saw Kirton the very first day she stepped out onto the balcony by herself, saw him right there on his beside-hers balcony, as close as if he could reach over and touch her. What if she had answered “Miss Katie” when he asked her for her name? All now Kirton would be laughing and what is more in his deep, big-man belly laugh, huh-huh-huh. She would never live it down. Especially since she found out that she and Kirton would be going to the same school. Worse, that they would be in the same grade, though how that was possible Katie didn’t know, for Kirton was twice her size whether she looked him up or looked him across. Which was no wonder for he never stopped eating. Food in one hand, the other attached to some gadget which he called Play Station and which he was forever clicking. That was Kirton. Most of the time Kirton was on the balcony playing by himself, but sometimes Krishna was there too. Krishna lived in the apartment across the hall and would be in her class too. She was relieved that he was closer to her in size and quieter. He smiled a lot and let Kirton do the talking.
Well don’t ask if she wasn’t scared of Kirton the first time she saw him. But when he said “What’s your name?” Katie smiled and spoke up in her brightest voice. For Gran had warned her not to go to foreign and act like cunno-moono come from bush, she should always speak up and act bright, even if she folding up inside like shamey-weed. So now she has got used to Kirton, well, he is her best friend.
• • •
When Katie is done tidying and cleaning, she throws all the waste in the plastic bag in the pail in the kitchen and expertly twists the mouth to tie it tight. Then she takes a clean white plastic bag and puts it inside the pail and smoothes it over the edge. Miss Katie is neat and precise in everything she does for that is how Gran is. In her home and at her work. Katie knows because every now and then when her employers were away, she took Katie to work with her in their big house so she would know how to do things properly, Gran said. So Katie is pleased that though they had none of these things at Gran’s house, she had come to Canada knowing how to clean the bath and scour the toilet, use the vacuum and the floor polisher and the washing machine. Katie knows how to light a gas stove too, v-e-r-y c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y or it will go BOOM, Gran warned. But though her mother’s stove is electric, it’s the one thing she is not allowed to touch. Never mind she told her mother she could cook.
Until she came to Toronto Katie only knew food that came out of the ground or off a tree, with a little meat or a bit of chicken or salt fish once a week.
“Cook mi backfoot! You mean boil yam and dumpling and green banana? Well, we don’t eat them things up here. Just don’t touch the stove, you hear me? I don’t want you burn down the place. A-oh.”
So Katie didn’t touch the stove though she didn’t know what made her mother say these things in such a cross voice as if Katie would really do a thing like that. Katie would have preferred to cook something nice rather than eat what her mother brought home in the evenings.
Until she came to Toronto Katie only knew food that came out of the ground or off a tree, with a little meat or a bit of chicken or salt fish once a week. At school she always had a patty and coco bread for lunch and a box chocolate milk. Her schoolmates complained about the canteen fare and always talked about eating FastFoods when they went to town with their parents. Katie was envious of their air of sophistication when they said this though she never let on. When Gran took her to town to get her passport and her papers, she passed several golden arches and the fried chicken places and recognized them instantly. From the bus she looked longingly at how lit up inside these places were, how inviting they seemed, wondering what FastFood really meant, but Gran moved too fast for them to stop and find out. Now she wonders if what her mother brings home is FastFood. She thinks of it as “box food” for even when heated up it tastes like cardboard. Her mother always brings enough food so Katie can have the leftovers for lunch the next day and has shown her how to “zap” the food in the microwave, but Katie is too afraid to try; she just isn’t a zapper. She isn’t used to eating cold food from the fridge either. Gran didn’t have a fridge but she always said eating cold food straight out of the fridge makes you sick. That’s why the lady she worked for couldn’t keep any good health, Gran said, always just opening the fridge door and picking at things.
• • •
Katie puts away the vacuum cleaner and looks around the tiny apartment, pleased with her handiwork. She looks at the television in anticipation. Her mother says she can watch when she finishes all the work. Katie is so obedient she wouldn’t dream of taking a break and watching before she was done. Now there is only one thing left to do. The hardest thing.
She picks up the plastic bag with the garbage and hangs the apartment key around her neck. She opens the door, making sure it is locked behind her, and sets off down six flights to the garbage bins at the back of the building. She hates going down the stairs by herself for the stairwell is dirty and dimly lit and smelly. But she is even more scared of getting into the creaky old elevator by herself.
Of late though, she’s forgotten how she hates the stairwell for the beads in her braids go clickety-clack as she moves and she goes faster and faster down the stairs and flashes her hair to speed up the rhythm. The beaded braids are a signal that her mother loves her after all, that Katie is not a blood-sucking vampire. For despite complaining about how much it would cost, her mother had taken her to her friend Vinnie on Eglinton to have her hair done, claiming that she couldn’t be seen with a child whose hair was so picky-picky and countryish and why Katherine’s grandmother couldn’t have had her hair styled before sending her over. After all the money she send. And how she had let Katherine get so skinny, pure skin and bones. Look nuh, Vinnie. Lifting up Katie’s T-shirt to show her ribs. All this as Vinnie labours over Katie’s hair. And how much money she there sending every month what she doing with it and how much it cost to bring Katherine over, the lawyer alone. Katie has heard this many times before, which is why her mother is holding down two jobs and tired on weekends so no time to take Katie anywhere.
Her mother talking about sending money every month made Katie pause, for she remembers Gran complaining all the while that Lisa had forgotten she left three children behind when she went about her business and must be air she expect me to feed them on. And every month she made Katie write a letter to her mother reminding her to send money. Her mother hardly ever wrote back though Katie had strict instructions to stop at the post office and ask if there were letters for Gran every day on the way home from school. Once in a blue moon she dropped them a few brief lines and sent them something. So if she sent money every month, where did it go?
• • •
Katie wonders how Gran is managing without her, for Gran can’t read and she relied on Katie to handle anything that required reading and writing. From Katie was small-small. Sometimes though if the letter came from Government even if it was typed Katie still couldn’t make out a lot of the words try as she might or they had no meaning—NOT-WIST-ANDING. Although Gran said it was okay she was ashamed that Gran sometimes had to take the letter to Miss Lue at the shop and ask her to tell her what it said. Gran preferred to ask Miss Lue than one of the neighbours because she said Miss Lue knew how to keep her mouth shut which is more than black people knew.
There was this one time after Gran came out of the hospital and her sister Aunt Gwen was packing up to go back home for Gran had to send and call her urgent urgent to come and look after the children. “It is time that worthless daughter of mine take on her responsibility,” Gran told Aunt Gwen, with one hand to her back as if she needed help to straighten up. “A can’t do it any more. A don’t know why she don’t send for the children. Look how long she promise. From Katie just gone four until now look Katie turn big girl almost ready to take Common Entrance. Who is going to pay to keep her in high school? Where all the man them gone to that she said was going to support them? You see any father about? Gwen, I done with it. Finish, finish, finish!” And Gran, standing straight now, slapped her palms together several times to signify how done she was. “A going to write that girl and give her a piece of my mind. If she don’t hear me, is Government going have to take them over! A-oh.”
Katie jerked her head back from the doorway where she was listening. As if Gran had given her a stinging blow. Government to take them over? She meant the three of them? Like those bad children that live in the Home down the road? After she and her little brothers never do anything bad. How Gran could threaten them so. Katie couldn’t ask Gran if she would really do that, for she wasn’t supposed to be listening to big people talk. But the possibility of something so monstrous grew and grew inside her the way a big fat pumpkin grew and grew, until she could barely breathe. It made her tired even to play hopscotch.
But it wasn’t long before she got her feelings ease. For as soon as Gran was up to it she walked slowly down to the shop and asked Miss Lue to write the letter which she came home and gave to Katie to take to the post office, all sealed and stamped. “Now. Directly, Miss Katie,” she ordered. “It can’t wait till tomorrow.” The letter was like a bomb in Katie’s hand and she ran all the way, for she didn’t know what piece of her mind Gran had put inside. Something like the gas that would go BOOM if mishandled, which is probably why she didn’t want Katie to write this letter. Or even keep it in the house till Katie could drop it off on her way to school next day. It was something only big people could handle.
Well, maybe a letter written by a big person was better than one written by a little one in truth, especially when her big square letters barely joined up while Miss Lue’s handwriting on the envelope swooped and swirled as if the ink just danced out of the pen. For, listen here, once that letter danced over to her mother in Toronto and that piece of mind Gran put inside said BOOM, her mother got off her You-Know-What and began to take out Katie’s papers. She promised Gran she would send for Katie first and the boys later, for she couldn’t manage all of them at once. So said Gran, waving around the letter that Katie had just read aloud to her and repeating everything back to Katie as if it was news. Then she folded it up and put it in the old biscuit tin where she kept important matters and pushed the tin back under the bed on which they all slept and muttered, “Well you’d better mean it this time, my girl.”
Katie noticed that Gran’s face was grim. Gran’s face was grim all the time now as if she was always in pain. Sometimes without asking she made Gran lemonade and brought it to her and once she gave her the whole of a chocolate bar Miss Lue had given her, pretending that she had already eaten hers. Gran ate the whole chocolate bar, slowly, all by herself, for such a thing had never happened before in her life, Gran said, having a whole chocolate bar that she didn’t have to share with pikni. Katie got so much enjoyment watching Gran eat that chocolate that she didn’t miss not having any.
• • •
Well, in Toronto not a soul could say that Katie was short of chocolates and sweeties, for her mother liked to eat them herself, and the big jar on the kitchen counter was always full. At first Katie gorged herself, especially when her mother went out and left her alone at night. But she cut back when she thought about getting as big as Kirton for that is what eating did to you they said on television all the time. Plus, whenever she knew she had had enough she would hear Gran’s voice saying, “greedy choke puppy.” Or better yet, “When you go to that big country Miss Katie, it have everything there you know. Everything a person could want in the whole wide world. But don’t get big-eye. Don’t turn wanti-wanti. Promise. You hold strain and think of them poor little ones back here that don’t have nothing. Eat for one, lest you turn into two.”
Yet Gran ate for one and she was big as two or three. And Mama ate sweets and chocolates all the time and huge quantities of food when she came home from work yet she stayed slender as bamboo. Well, maybe Gran’s warning applied to Kirton. Kirton’s parents were just like him, only twice his size. Kirton’s mother was home all day with the television going full blast, and every now and then she would yell from inside for Kirton and Kirton would disappear for a moment or two, or she would come out as far as the doorway to hand him a plate with something. Kirton’s father was big too the one time Katie passed him and Kirton in the corridor. The only time Kirton went out was when his father came on weekends and took him. Katie wondered if having a mother that was home all day was better than a mother who was never at home.
• • •
Not that Katie’s mother wants anyone to know she leaves Katie alone. She made Katie swear she won’t talk to anyone in the building and she won’t answer the door, ever, if anyone knocks. Her mother said the Government would come and take Katie away and put her mother in jail if they found out, for Katie was under age. Katie asked why and Katie’s mother said that’s how Government up here stay. Katie told her mother that Gran said one time she was going to hand Katie and her brothers over to Government and Katie’s mother said, “Cho, that not nothing. Government there is a joke. You think them care bout people pikni? Is here you must come if you want to know how Government can fass in yu business. Childrens Services. Poppyshow! Once them come after you, girl, is dog nyam your supper.”
Katie feels bad that her mother has to work so hard. She works in a hotel in the day but Katie isn’t sure what kind of work she does at night. It is work she has to dress up for though, in her high heels and everything, or dress down, for she doesn’t put much on though she always throws on a jacket before she goes out. Katie likes to watch her mother getting ready, the way she put on her makeup and fiddles with her braids, sometimes putting them up, sometimes leaving them down. Katie is dying to grow tall and beautiful like her mother.
On Sundays her mother doesn’t work. They go to the laundromat and afterwards to a restaurant nearby for lunch. Katie loves to sit at a table or best of all a booth so it’s just the two of them in the whole world and eat real food. Sometimes her mother talks without looking at Katie, like she’s looking at nothing at all.
“It’s not like I don’t love my children you know. I’m really trying. But people down there don’t know how hard life is up here. From I come I never out of debt yet for the first thing I had to pay off was my fare. Clothes for winter. Somewhere to live. You think a person can live on minimum wage? Can’t keep body and soul together.”
Sometimes she talks directly to Katie as if she is a big person. “I was too young to have children. I was just a pikni meself, never know a thing about life. Don’t bother start ya, Katherine. Make sure you get education first.”
She will look fully at Katie then, as if only just realizing who she is, and give a sad smile and reach out her hand to touch Katie’s cheek. “Katherine, I don’t want you to think I don’t love you. I’m glad you come.”
By the time the food arrives, Katie feels as if she has already feasted.
• • •
Katie’s mother said the next weekend she would take Katie to buy everything she needed for school. So now Katie had something to announce on the balcony to put that big-head boy Kirton in his place for he was always boasting about all the places his father had taken him.
But when Katie announced, “My mother is taking me to Honest Ed to buy my school things this Saturday,” Kirton laughed huh-huh-huh.
“Honest Ed! You crazy! Zellers in the only place to buy stuff. You know what my mother gets with her Z-points?”
“My mother buys everything at Costco. That is the best,” Krishna put in. This started the boys on some heated argument about what was the best of everything. Katie didn’t know what they were talking about except that when Kirton said if she turned up at school looking uncool the children would laugh at her, Katie screwed up her face and started crying. It was just too much, she blubbered. She hadn’t even set foot in their school yet and every thing she did was wrong!
Kirton paused with a slice of pizza halfway to his mouth.
“Hush Katherine,” Krishna said, “Kirton is only joking,” and he elbowed Kirton as he said this.
“Ah Katherine,” Kirton said in his lazy voice, “I didn’t know you were a cry-baby.”
“Don’t worry. Nobody will trouble you at school. I’ll look out for you.” Kirton said this in a nicer voice and then, as if that took care of everything, he shoved the food into his mouth.
“Me too,” said Krishna. “If anybody trouble you Katherine, just let them come . . . let them come . . .” Skinny Krishna was balling up his fists and dancing around like a boxer when he said this, which made Katie laugh. She dried her eyes, pleased at this pledge of support though deep down she wasn’t sure if Kirton was the kind of person who would do her much good at school.
• • •
Katie hates the stairs but even more she hates opening the back door and going into the enclosed concrete yard where the big garbage bins are located. Big and smelly and usually overflowing. But what she really hates is The Man. She knows he looks after the place for her mother told her so one time they passed him mopping the entrance way as they were going out and her mother said “Hey Don” and he leaned against the mop and said hello and smiled. He has an apartment in the basement and sometimes it is just Katie’s luck that he comes out as she reaches up on tiptoe to throw her garbage in the bin.
The first time he said “Hello Katherine” she nearly died of fright for she hadn’t seen him there in the shadow of the building smoking a cigarette.
The man is pleasant to her and always smiling so she doesn’t know why he makes her feel shivery like the time a boy at school threw a lizard on her. The lizard landed on her back and she screamed and spun around but the lizard held on tighter and tighter while her blood ran cold. Maybe because the man is what Gran would call frennie-frennie—trying too hard to be a friend. And he is too fass, for he seems to know everything. He knows Katie’s name and that Lisa is Katie’s mother. He knows where she comes from. He knows where she will be going to school and what grade she’ll be in.
And today, he makes Katie’s heart fall clear to her foot-bottom because he knows that her mother leaves Katie alone! What he says is, “Don’t worry, kiddo. If anything happens when you are up there alone, just give ol’ Don a call and I’ll come quicker than Holy Moses. Your Ma has my number posted right by the phone.”
Katie’s heart jumps. How does he know what is by their phone? He speaks Canadian in a funny kind of way and Katie doesn’t understand half of what he says. More than anything, she doesn’t believe his smile. She is too polite to run away while he is speaking and too scared to speak herself though her heart is hammering: tell him no, tell him your mother never leaves you alone. But the words won’t come and Katie is stuck, between the smelly overflowing garbage bins and the man who stands between her and the door. Suddenly he takes a step closer to her and says, “Don’t be so shy, Kiddo, I’m your friend. Here,” and he extends his hand. Katie automatically shuts her eyes and shrinks away. When nothing happens, she opens them to see that the man is holding out a lollipop. She shakes her head No she doesn’t want it but he comes real close and holds the lollipop up to her face and says quiet quiet, “Go on, take it Katherine. I got it specially for you.” And when Katie still doesn’t move, he whispers, still smiling, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell anyone that your Ma leaves you alone up there.”
Katie feels trapped, she doesn’t want the man’s offering but she doesn’t want to offend. In one quick move, she reaches out and grabs the lollipop and dances around him and races for the door. She runs up the stairs so fast she has to stop several times to catch her breath, afraid to look behind her. Once inside the apartment she slams the door and puts on the chain and leans against it and takes great gulps of air. It is only when she comes back to her rightful self sitting on the sofa that Katie realizes that she is still holding the lollipop. She rushes to the kitchen and flings it into the garbage bin the way she flung the lizard away, and it lies on top of the white plastic bag that hasn’t been pushed all the way down.
Katie goes back to the couch and doesn’t even bother to switch on television, or turn on a light. She sits there hugging herself waiting for her mother to come home so she can tell her someone knows, the man knows and besides she never wants to put out the garbage again. Katie jumps at every little sound, not trusting the lock to hold anyone who wants to burst the door down. Or a man with a large bunch of keys.
She must have fallen asleep but as soon as her mother comes through the door she jumps up at once, crying “Mama—”
She wets her lips for she wants to tell her about the man and how he scares her, but nothing comes out.
But her mother doesn’t even pause as she sweeps into the kitchen to leave a bag on the counter and dashes for the bedroom kicking off her shoes as she runs. “Not now Katherine, I’m late,” she calls out. “Damn and blast TTC. And I don’t eat a thing from morning. Share out the food for me, nuh.”
Katie doesn’t move. Her eyes fill with tears. Her mother comes back out barefoot in bra and panty.
“Girl, what’s wrong with you, you deaf?” she cries, and moves like lightning into the kitchen, opening cupboard doors, pulling down plates and rattling the cutlery drawer. Suddenly the activity ceases and Katie hears her mother say, in a different, quiet tone, “Katherine, what is this?”
Katie looks up to see her mother standing in the kitchen door holding up the lollipop that she’d thrown in the garbage. She wets her lips for she wants to tell her about the man and how he scares her, but nothing comes out.
“I ask you a question, Miss. Answer me.”
Katie stays silent even though she can feel her mother working herself into a rage, the air already crackling.
“A-oh, so now you throwing away food, eh? We have so much that we can afford to just throw things in the garbage. Oh yes, for money grows on trees and the streets of Canada are paved with gold.”
This voice is the one Katie dreads the most, for it is high and criss.
“Well, you know what Miss, I am going to confiscate this, no more sweets for a week.” And her mother indicates the jar of sweets.
Katie notices that the lollipop her mother has placed on the counter is identical to the ones in the jar. She wants to explain but no words came and her mother is still talking.
“Here,” she says, holding out the lollipop. “Go on, take it.”
Katie doesn’t move. Her mother grabs her hand and slaps the lollipop into her palm and closes her fingers over it.
“That’s your dinner tonight. You are going to stand right here and eat that lollipop till it finish. You hear me? Stand here.” And she pulls Katie to a spot in the kitchen. “Start now. Waste not want not. I don’t know what your Grannie teach you but I not going to let you bring any bad habit into this house.”
Her mother looks steadily at her until Katie rouses herself and taking hold of the stick, peels the paper off the lollipop as the cellophane crackles loudly.
Katie puts the sweet in her mouth, trying not to gag.
“Right. I am going to get ready so don’t try no foolishness. When I come back I want to see that you suck that lollipop till it finish, finish.” And just as Gran would have done, her mother slaps her palms together several times to signal doneness, before dashing into the bathroom and slamming the door.
Katie stands there, hands straight by her side, with the lollipop in her mouth. She feels herself folding in like a shamey-weed that’s been stepped on. She tries to think of something and all that comes to mind is how Kirton is such a don’t-care boy. How at first he frightened her with his questions. Questions raining down so much Katie was afraid to go out on the balcony. But it was the only place to see a bit of the sky, get some fresh air and, once she got used to it, look right down onto the street full of cars and people. Every time she got tired of staying inside because she was afraid of Kirton, she would tell herself it was her mother’s balcony and she would go out there as she liked and ignore the facety white boy. But Kirton was impossible to ignore. He never noticed if you did or you didn’t. He just had to catch the littlest glimpse of a person standing in the doorway before he started talking. It was like Kirton was hungry for company. Well! Katie is thinking, she could harden her heart like Kirton too and ignore every little thing. Be a don’t-care girl. O yes, and it would serve her right. When the Government come and take me away and send me back to mi’ Gran. What she going to do then?
She throws a cut-eye in her mother’s direction and fiercely struggles with the tears that are threatening. Already the lollipop filling her mouth is tasting like box-food. No sweetness at all.