"Aaaaaaaaah, a rat! Oh my God! Dios mío! There's a rat in the bed!"
I'd just fallen asleep when I heard Mami screaming. I jumped up, grabbed the staple gun and a paint roller, and ran to her.
"Iris, stay back!" Freddy stood in the doorway to the living room with his baseball bat. Mami was hopping around like the floor was on fire. "It's okay, Ma! Calm down! Relax!" He rushed in and poked the
bat into the corners of the pullout sofa. "Which way'd he go?"
"I don't know!" Mami climbed up on a chair. "All I know, he was huge! He was making the whole bed shake, he was so big."
Freddy stuck his bat under the sofa, peered under the desk, moved the bookcase. "He's not here now. I'd have seen him if he ran past. Ma, maybe you were dreaming."
"No!" she said. "That rat was sniffing and snuffing right next to me! Ay, Dios! I'm never going to get back to sleep until I know he's gone."
Mami is one of those people who, if she's awake, she has to be working at something, and if she's working, she thinks everyone else should be working, so we spent the next hour looking in all the closets and all the corners in every room, stuffing steel wool around the heat risers and nailing a board over the hole behind the sink. "And first thing tomorrow," she said, "we're setting traps. I don't care how much painting and fixing up we did this week. That rat goes or we move right back out of here."
"Back to the Bronx?" I said. "To Grandma's?" We'd moved around a lot -- to nice places when Papi was working, not so nice when he wasn't -- but never to one with rats. And, until eight days ago, never without Papi. "It's okay with me if we go back," I said.
"I know, m'ija." A tired look came into Mami's eyes, but only for a second. "But that's not going to happen."
"Yeah." Freddy was still pumped. "I can just see Papi if a rat got in bed with him. He'd probably try to sell him a piece of cheese." He went into a phony chuckle. "Heyyyy there, Chief! How you doin', my friend? Can I interest you in a nice used chunk of cheddar? Have a seat. I'll be with you in a minute. Soon as this show's over."
He was working hard, trying to make Mami laugh. She always said how when Papi was flopped down in front of the TV you could yell, "Fire!" and Papi'd just say, "Oh yeah, what channel?" But she wasn't doing much laughing lately. Freddy'd started calling her The Vacuumator, because of this look she got -- like the old Hoover was a power eraser and she was on an erasing mission from God. We'd been seeing that look a lot. And not just when she was vacuuming.
"Ma, d'you see Iris with that staple gun?" He was still trying. "Back off, sucker, or I'll staple your foot to the floor! You better watch out, or I'll paint you pink!"
"Hey, I was ready to defend us," I said. "I grabbed the first things I saw."
I wasn't feeling much like laughing, either. I didn't like it here even before the rat. It was a big apartment, and we'd gotten it amazingly clean, but the rooms, except for the bathroom, were in a line, so that you couldn't get from the front door to the kitchen without going through the bedrooms. My room was next to the kitchen, which was good if I got hungry in the middle of the night, but bad if someone else did. It was the beginning of August, and way too hot to sleep. I couldn't get used to the trucks roaring down the avenue, the fire engines and car alarms, the people in the street talking and singing, breaking bottles, playing music till all hours. Plus, I missed Papi. Plus, if we went back -- even if it hadn't been too great these past months with all of us living with his mother, everyone screaming and yelling all the time -- I wouldn't have to go through the whole new school, new friends thing again.
But there's only so much feeling bad I can do, and only so much worrying, so when I got back in bed, I started reading The Power of Sexual Surrender. It was this old, musty, serious brown book with gold lettering, so I could tell when Mami came to kiss me good night, she thought it was like Shakespeare or something. But my face must have given me away, because she grabbed it from me.
"Uh-uh! No! Forget it!" she said. "You're not reading that! Where'd you get it from, your brother?"
"No," I said. "It's Grandma Lillian's. She even made stars by some of the things in it. Wanna see?"
Mami may have been laughing, but she was not giving that book to me. "No, I don't wanna see!" she said. "And neither do you. You're twelve years old, Iris. You're a kid. And as long as I've got anything to say about it, that's how you're staying."
The next morning I offered to go down and get the rat traps. Big excitement, right -- a rat trap -- buying expedition. But we'd been here over a week, and Mami still hadn't let me go anywhere without her or Freddy. The bodega was just downstairs, so she couldn't say no. But I didn't even get to enjoy my freedom when these three jerks standing around outside started making kissing noises, saying stuff to me.
"Psst! Mira, linda!"
"'Ey, Preciosa, ven aquí!"
"Good morning, lovely. Want a little sip of my coffee? It's hot and sweet, just like you -- "
Those twenty feet to the bodega felt like twenty miles.
The place was full of people buying milk or Pampers or lottery tickets or standing around drinking café, talking to the owner. He gave me a nice hello. I took as long as I could picking out the traps, hoping the guys would be gone when I came out, but no.
"What's your name, sweetheart?"
"C'mon, baby, don't be like that. Come over here and say hello."
"Yo, you're kinda young to have such an attitude -- "
"And you're kinda old to be acting stupid!" I wish that had been me talking. It was a middle-aged lady wheeling a little boy in a grocery cart. A boy and a girl walked on each side. "Ralphie, does your wife know you're out here bothering people? Y tú`, Flaco, what's your problem?" She scolded them in English, then in Spanish. I caught some of it before I ducked into the building.
She came in after me. "Thank you, honey," she said as I held the door so she could get through with the grocery cart. "Don't worry. They won't be bothering you anymore. I know them since they were my grandkids' age. You're in 2B, right?" I nodded. "Yeah. I seen you moving in. This is Frankie, Jessica, and Joey." They were cute kids. She lifted the little boy out and stood him on the floor. We started up the stairs. I couldn't wait until they fixed the elevator. The hall smelled really bad, and the yellowish light on the pukey tan walls and dark brown banisters made me feel like we were in a dirty fish tank. "And I'm Daisy, 4A. What's your name?"
"Iris," I said.
"Yeah, I seen your name on the mailbox and I said to myself, Pinkowitz? Isn't that a Jewish name? Because you don't look Jewish."
This happened basically every time I met people. Just, some people didn't come out and say it. That was the worst part of starting a new school, telling kids my name. You'd think teachers would be better....
"And isn't your mother that pretty dark-skinned lady I saw on the stairs the other day? Latina, right?"
Even before she'd turned into The Vacuumator, Mami would have told Daisy to mind her business. She says she doesn't know where people get off thinking they can just come up to me and Freddy and ask us what we are. "People aren't happy until they know what box to put you in," she says. And yet Daisy had stuck up for me out on the street, so I said, "Yeah, that's my mother." But then I could feel her getting ready to say, "I haven't seen your father." So I hurried up the last few steps to my floor and took out my keys. "Thanks," I said.
She smiled. "No problem. A word to the wise, honey. Tell your mother to buy you a brassiere. You'll have a lot less trouble with these morons if you've got a bra."
What? Without even saying bye, I ran in, ran to the bathroom, and checked myself from the front, from the side, from the other side: a tall, tan-skinned kid, with long brown hair pulled tightly back, big eyes only a little darker than my skin, glasses, long, skinny legs, and -- oh my God, I really did need a bra!
Why didn't I know this? I mean, I did know this, but I'd been telling myself no one else did.
Mami was in the kitchen ironing the white polo shirts she wears for work. "Mami," I said, "I need a bra!"
She put the iron down and took the traps from me. "Why you bringing that up right now? Iris" -- she looked at me closely -- "did something happen?"
If I told her about those guys, she'd be down the stairs so fast...and if I told her about Daisy..."No." I prayed my face wasn't as red as it felt. "I'm just asking."
"Well, ask me after I'm back at work, okay?" she said. "When things are more settled. When we've got some money. Iris, I've got so much on my mind now..."
Mami worked at Graciela's, a restaurant a few blocks from here. She'd taken two weeks off to get us moved. Her first day back was tomorrow. She wasn't worried about Freddy -- Freddy was a boy and fourteen -- but she was very nervous about leaving me. She'd already given me tomorrow's TO DO and NOT TO DO lists, and there were twice as many NOT TO DOs as DOs.
There was no point asking her anything when she was in that No mode. But the longer I waited, the bigger my -- I didn't know what to call them even to myself. It wasn't them I minded. It was the words for them. "Puberty" was bad enough, with that pyou, like putrid or puke or mucus. I didn't need body parts with names that made boys snicker and whisper and poke each other and point and stare. Not now, when everything else in my life was changing. They looked like they'd grown just since this morning and, going by Mami's, they'd keep on growing. Which meant that by the time school started, in five weeks...
"Ma," I said after Freddy had gone into his room that night, "everyone I know has had bras since the middle of fifth grade."
She stopped dabbing peanut butter on the rat traps. "Yeah, and I bet some of them are having babies, too."
"What does that have to do with getting me a bra?" I said. "I thought this was about money."
"It is," she said. "But also, we're in a new situation. It's going to be much less stressful. The Computer School's supposed to be a really good place, and now that we've got Aunt Myra's computer, and that typing book -- "
Grandma's typing book? "Mami, you keep changing the subject."
"I'm not changing the subject," she said. "It's the same subject. Freddy I've given up expecting A's from. But you're different, Iris. You're like me at your age. You're smart. You could do so well...." She finished setting the traps, put one behind the fridge and another in the corner. "Iris, mi amor, you have the whole rest of your life to be grown up. Take it from me, there's nothin' that great about it. Don't rush it."
"I'm not rushing it," I said. "Ma, look at me."
She came over and kissed me. "I don't have to look at you. You look fine. You look like a beautiful young girl who's going to turn into a beautiful young lady. But for now, do us all a favor. Stay a kid."
Stay in the house was more like it. Put an overshirt over my undershirt and my shirt. And when school started, wear my backpack on my front, like this girl, Marisa, who all of a sudden wore like a 38D and had to keep her coat on, and wear her backpack right under her chin, and walk bent over like a hunchback so the nasty boys wouldn't be grabbing at her. It was hard enough that at every school I'd been to there were the Spanish kids, the black kids, a few Asian kids, a few white kids, and me and Freddy. Except when we were at Grandma's and there were the Italian kids, the Jewish kids, a couple Asian kids, and me and Freddy. I didn't know who'd be at this Computer School. I did know I could not deal with them staring at me, going, "Pinka-who? Pinka-what's that? Excuse me? I beg your pardon? Uh, what are you, anyway?" Plus gawking at my chest.
Mami was always saying how smart I was. So then how come, no matter what school I went to, as soon as I walked through the door my brain jumped ahead, or stayed behind, or froze up totally, so that my teachers were always like, "Iris, would you care to join us?" "Iris, what planet are you on?" "Hello, Iris, anybody home?" Except Ms. Ragusa, in the fourth grade, who loved me because she was so glad somebody wasn't acting up, she could care less if I was listening.
Mami had hidden The Power of Sexual Surrender, so when I got in bed I tried Exodus, which I'd also found on Grandma's shelf.
I'd only been asleep a little while when I felt something walking on my bed. "Mami! The rat!" I shrieked. "Freddy, get the bat!"
"Where? Where is it?" Freddy ran in. "I can't see a thing."
"It's right here!" I was too scared to move. "Why isn't it running away?"
Mami flipped on the light. "Ay, Dios! I don't believe it!"
"Oh my God!" I said. "Thank God it didn't step in the trap!" Because it wasn't a rat. It was a cat, a gigantic, longhaired orange cat with a big head, a puffy tail, and a hunk missing from one ear. He gave us a look like we'd just messed up his plans for a good night's sleep, and jumped down.
"Yo, that's some rat, Ma! No wonder the bed was shaking." Freddy crouched and held out his hand. "Here, kitty, kitty..."
The cat sat down and started cleaning his fur.
"He must have come down the fire escape," I said. The fire escape was outside our kitchen window, on the back of the building.
rd"Yeah, but how'd he fit through the gate?" Mami said. "He's bigger than our Thanksgiving turkey. Look at him! He's not moving. He's acting like he lives here."
"Maybe he used to!" I said. "Maybe he belonged to whoever lived here before. Maybe that's why he keeps coming back."
"Maybe he just likes us," Freddy said.
The cat looked up at me with his round yellow eyes. "He's lonely," I said. I went to pet him.
"Don't touch him!" Mami said. "He's all nasty. He could have fleas."
"Careful, Ma!" Freddy said. "You don't want to insult this cat."
The cat stood up and started toward the kitchen. We followed it. Mami waved her arms at him. "Shoo! Get outta here!"
"Don't put him out," I said. "Please! I like him. He's so cute."
But the cat jumped up on the windowsill and squeezed himself through the security gate and out onto the fire escape.
I'm gonna go up tomorrow and look for him, I almost blurted. But since DON'T GO UP FIRE ESCAPE was on Mami's NOT TO DO list, right after not talking to strangers, and never going farther than the corner except with Freddy, I decided to keep my mouth shut.
Copyright © 2001 by Lucy Frank
Just Ask Iris
According to her mother, Iris is supposed to spend the summer safely indoors, keeping the apartment clean and learning to type. But when Iris follows a cat out onto the fire escape one day, she ends up meeting some of the amazing people who live in her building, including Yolanda, the Cat Lady, and the angry boy with the peashooter. So she comes up with two summer goals of her own: to earn some money, and to spend as much time outside the stuffy apartment as possible.
The money starts trickling in thanks to Iris's many neighbors and her errand-running business. But little does she know her job -- and her typing skills -- will lead her to play a major role not only in the future of her building, but also in the lives of forty-plus cats. And in the end, Iris gets something she didn't even know she was looking for....
- Atheneum Books for Young Readers |
- 224 pages |
- ISBN 9780689844546 |
- May 2003 |
- Grades 5 - 7