ALFILIO

Pasatiempo - - RANDOM ACTS - [ BY NANCY KING]

IN THE MID­DLE

of a bor­ing 5th grade civics les­son the school prin­ci­pal opens the door. A small skinny boy with big black eyes walks be­hind her. The prin­ci­pal says some­thing to the teacher, who looks an­noyed. The prin­ci­pal doesn’t look at the boy as she leaves the room. I can tell he’s scared by the way he stares at the floor, hold­ing him­self like he’s afraid to breathe. The teacher uses her mean voice. “This is Alfilio. He’s from Colom­bia. He only speaks Span­ish.”

I know what it’s like to be scared and can’t bear to see him look­ing so lit­tle and fright­ened. I raise my hand like my teacher keeps telling me to do and of­fer to share my desk. The teacher shrugs. She points to me and says, “Go sit next to Nancy,” but he doesn’t un­der­stand her words. I smile to show him that he’s wel­come and mo­tion him to come over, but he doesn’t move. I’m afraid my teacher will get mad at me again for dis­rupt­ing the class. She says I dis­rupt the class be­cause I ask too many ques­tions. But he looks so lonely I don’t care what she says. I go over to him and take his hand. I smile and point to my desk. I sit down and mo­tion for him to sit in the empty space I’ve made. The boy hes­i­tates, then nods and sits. Tears are wet­ting his face but I don’t have a han­kie. He wipes them with his hand. I wish I could put my arm around him but this might make my teacher even an­grier. I wish I could say, “Wel­come,” but I don’t know the Span­ish word.

Af­ter school I go to the li­brary and take out an English/Span­ish dic­tio­nary. I write down words and phrases for him in English and Span­ish: Wel­come. Bien­venidos. Thank you. Muchas gra­cias. I do not un­der­stand. No en­tiendo. Please speak more slowly. Por fa­vor, habla más despa­cio.

The next day dur­ing re­cess I teach him some words and phrases. Af­ter he re­peats what I tell him, he says, “Thank you,” in English. He smiles shyly. I wish I knew the Span­ish words to tell him that he’s smart. I’m im­pressed at how quickly he learns. While I’m teach­ing him, some class­mates rush over and call him bad names. They make fun of him. I get mad and tell them to leave him alone. “He’s not dumb. He’s learn­ing English. Why don’t you learn Span­ish? Then you could speak to him.”

The boy pulls me away from the chil­dren. Two of the big­ger boys, their faces filled with hate, threaten to punch him back to where he comes from. They yell at me to stop be­ing a goody­goody. Alfilio is shak­ing with fear. At home I’m afraid a lot, but not now. I’m too an­gry. I hate their stupid cru­elty so I stand in front of him. “Leave him alone!” They’re not go­ing to hurt him while I’m around. I don’t know what would have hap­pened if the bell hadn’t rung. The boys run away when a teacher tells us to go in­side.

My teacher sends a note home to my par­ents: Nancy is dis­rupt­ing the class. This must stop or I will send her to the prin­ci­pal’s of­fice. As usual, I sign the note with my dad’s im­pos­si­ble-to-read sig­na­ture.

Ev­ery night I copy phrases from the dic­tio­nary to give to Alfilio. I can see how much he wants it so I let him bor­row it. He prom­ises to bring it to school each day.

A few days later I take the sub­way to the city to go to a book­store. The clerk says the English/Span­ish dic­tio­nary I want costs 50 cents more than I have. “Please, can I give you 50 cents next week af­ter I babysit?” I tell him about Alfilio and how much he needs the dic­tio­nary. I prac­ti­cally jump up and down when the clerk agrees to lend me 50 cents.

I can’t wait to give Alfilio the dic­tio­nary, but I don’t want to get in trou­ble again so I keep it hid­den in my jacket. Af­ter school, when we’re alone, I give the dic­tio­nary to him. He can’t be­lieve it. He keeps hand­ing it back to me. “No,” I keep say­ing, “es un re­galo por tu.” I’m not sure I’m say­ing it right but he gets the mes­sage. He takes the book and cra­dles it to his ch­est. He doesn’t even try to wipe away his tears.

“Muchas gra­cias,” he says. “De nada,” I say, hop­ing it’s the be­gin­ning of a real con­ver­sa­tion. Alfilio isn’t in class the next day or the next or the next. The teacher never says what hap­pened to him. My desk feels too big and too lonely.

BETTY BOOP

was forced to give up mas­cara due to her in­ces­sant cry­ing. When her cre­ator died, all of his note­books and jour­nals were scru­ti­nized, and those con­tain­ing only mi­nor char­ac­ters were dis­carded. Mrs. Mar­garet Boop, Betty’s mother, was among them.

The over­whelm­ing feel­ing of hol­low­ness in Betty’s ch­est and ab­domen made her fear that she might cave in. Noth­ing had pre­pared Betty to nav­i­gate the emo­tional black sea that now en­gulfed her. She tried to talk to the name­less men in dark suits and fe­dora hats who had al­ways filled her world, but all they were in­ter­ested in was Boop-Oop-a-Doop.

Betty had been a big star in the ‘30s, mak­ing over one hun­dred shorts — dra­mas, musicals, and come­dies. She’d done it all but it was long gone. She needed to think. For the first time in her life, she sought anonymity. She traded in her garter belt for khakis and sweat­shirts. No more lip­stick, curl­ing iron, or mas­cara. Swap­ping her chunky high heels for a pair of New Bal­ance, she be­gan tak­ing long walks through the city that had se­duced her 10 years ear­lier with all its cof­fee shops. Seat­tle had of­fered her endless dis­crete op­por­tu­ni­ties to be rec­og­nized and adored.

One day, at Pike Place Mar­ket, where gor­geous flow­ers are sold by beau­ti­ful Ja­panese women and fish­mon­gers throw their wares over the heads of the tourists, she watched a jaunty salmon soar through the air and thought that if she’d gone there as a young car­toon she could have hefted her round boobs onto the scales. The dol­lar-per-pound ra­tio would have been in her fa­vor. It would have been use­ful — in­cred­i­bly use­ful, she thought — if her head­lights had shown the world for what it was, if she had un­der­stood how she was val­ued by the throng.

Betty continued on through the maze of Pike Mar­ket, end­ing up on a bar stool over­look­ing Puget Sound. While watch­ing the busy boats com­ing and go­ing she con­tem­plated all those years since her real ca­reer had ended — never re­ally work­ing, just be­ing a celebrity, year af­ter year of act­ing cute. It had seemed like a nice life. She’d loved the at­ten­tion, de­spite the men leer­ing at her cleav­age or pat­ting her bot­tom. Now it seemed ridicu­lous. What had re­ally been so great? What had she done with the past 64 years of her life?

She thought about her friends and now saw dif­fer­ences, where be­fore she’d only seen sim­i­lar­i­ties. Bar­bie had al­ways been so ac­tive. Betty’s wardrobe was lim­ited by com­par­i­son. So what if the clothes wore well? Any­thing you’ve been wear­ing for over 50 years should go to Good­will. Bar­bie had grown and changed — En­ergy Healer Bar­bie, CEO Bar­bie, and Trans Bar­bie — that woman had re­ally ex­plored her op­tions. Geez, even Min­nie Mouse, a mar­ried ro­dent, lived in a cute, col­or­ful en­vi­ron­ment and had raised hundreds of chil­dren.

While sip­ping her vir­gin Cosmo she thought about her mom, who’d never got­ten out of a man’s note­book. Her eyes misted and her mem­o­ries took her way back. In ‘33 her film, Boi­lesque, had been banned. Those were wild days, but af­ter the war things ta­pered off. Through­out the late ‘50s she’d pounded the pavement try­ing to get new gigs, but even­tu­ally she got used to just be­ing adorable at dif­fer­ent func­tions around the world. And watch­ing a lot of TV. Why had those ap­pear­ances been enough?

Betty hopped off her stool, hav­ing re­al­ized that she’d been brain­washed to think that ad­mi­ra­tion was worth more than engagement. Her mother had been tossed in the trash af­ter a long life spent wait­ing for the next chap­ter that never came. It was time to take a boat ride to the is­lands, feel the cool wind, smell the salt­wa­ter, see the fabulous ink-drawn or­cas that swam their lives to the fullest. Betty strode out, be­gin­ning to imag­ine quite a day. Pos­si­bil­i­ties were ev­ery­where. As she passed a mu­sic store with a dis­play of wood­winds she re­mem­bered her fas­ci­na­tion for the licorice stick; she’d been quite a jazz clar­inetist once, though on stage she’d pre­ferred to sing be­cause it was more in­ti­mate, with noth­ing be­tween her and the au­di­ence but the clothes she wore and the burn of the lights. Singing was more like mak­ing love than mak­ing mu­sic. She could learn to make mu­sic again. It only takes prac­tice, she thought. Prac­tice and a swing­ing band. It could be swell. Or maybe she’d take up draw­ing, start her own note­books. Why not? She wasn’t get­ting any older.

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