by Michael Davidson
I’m not sure why I’m here. I don’t mean to be vague, but I really don’t know what I’m doing in this single mother’s home. I don’t know her name, I’ve no idea where she’s from, but still she let me inside her home, her private space.
Less than twenty minutes ago I was listening to the waters of Biscayne Bay lap against the seawall. The sunlight sparkled gold off the crests of small waves. An iguana eyed me suspiciously from the dark of a heavily leafed tree, its dewlap sagging sagaciously.
On the other side of the bay was a tree decorated with beautiful yellow flowers. This tree stood out. This tree was captivating.
I tried to understand the whereabouts of this tree’s yellow beauty. To do this, I drank from the glass of water in my hand, tilted my chin towards the sunlight, and dug my bare feet into the moist earth.
“If I root myself here,” I thought, “how long would it take for me to flower?”
That was twenty minutes ago, and now I’m here, sitting in this single mother’s home, uprooted long before I could bloom. I am here, far away from Biscayne Bay, far away from the beautiful yellow tree, and I don’t know exactly why.
The single mother doesn’t turn to look at me from the dining room table, nor does her landlord, who sits across from her with a receipt book. They’re discussing rent. She’s behind more than a month, and next month’s payment is due shortly, but she wants to make good.
“Look, I want to be sympathetic,” says her landlord, “I really do. I’m a good person. I know that these are difficult times we’re living through, and you have it hard. I would give you everything if I could, believe me, but right now I can’t afford to give anybody anything. You say you want to make arrangements. What do you have in mind?”
“Ok,” begins the single mother, “I have $260 here.” She pulls a wad of twenties out of her purse and counts them. “$260, and I’ll give you this month’s difference once I get paid. I’ve already earned the money, it’s just that I have to wait for my boss to pay me.”
“When can I expect the difference?” asks her landlord, somewhat impatient. “You still owe me $500 for this month’s rent, and next month’s is almost due.”
“I know, but you’ll get the rest of this month’s at the beginning of next week… at the latest.”
“The beginning of next week?”
“Yes, at the latest. I’ve already earned the money, see? I’m just waiting to get paid.”
“Ok,” says her landlord, sighing, “I’m going to go ahead and make this arrangement, but only because you’ve been honest with me up until now.”
I do not know how to react. Who should I side with? Who should I go against? Who is right among the two human beings sitting at the dining room table: the tenant, the landlord, both, or neither?
To keep myself from becoming judgemental, I observe my immediate surroundings.
In front of me, there is a photo of the single mother’s son taken last Christmas, 2008. Although he is no younger than fourteen in this photo, he is sitting on Santa’s lap, his arms hanging by his side, his shoulder nudging Santa’s faux beard askew, a freshman in high school sitting on Santa’s lap, imagine.
“And were you a nice or naughty boy this year?”
“I was a nice boy, Santa.”
“You treated your mother well?”
“Yes, Santa, very well.”
“That’s what I like to hear. Now tell me, what are you asking Santa for this year?”
“Next month’s rent.”
Four words are printed on the frame: Memories, Support, Laughter, Family. These words dance around the boy and Santa like four little elves. The boy isn’t smiling at their antics; he is straight-faced as he stares into the lens of the camera, not even the hint of a smile. He has grown weary of Christmas, or at least the tradition of visiting Santa’s lap. After all, he is a freshman in high school.
To my right, arranged on a knee-high table, are three elephants: a giant one with two miniatures astride, all three carved from cherry wood. What I find suspicious about these highly intelligent land mammals is that they are facing the wall. In other words, it is not the three heads of majestic elephants that I’m seeing but rather three wimpy tails.
Clearly this is a contrived and superstitious setup that has followed this single mother and her son from home to home as they go about living as best they can. These three elephants watch over them, keep them safe, bring in prosperity and ward off danger, not with their trunks, ivory husks, and beady eyes, but with their stinky asses.
On the wall, their only piece of framed artwork: a generic poster of Lower Manhattan when the Twin Towers were still standing.
“Now tell me if I understand you correctly,” says her landlord. “You’ll pay me the rest of March’s rent next week, and then April’s rent you’ll pay on the 15th instead of the 5th?”
“Yes, sir. Maybe even as early as the 12th.”
“Alright. Consider this your only favor. Like I said, I can’t afford to give anybody anything these days, and, as it is, I’m giving you more than enough. Let me write you a receipt and we’ll be on our way.”
“Ay, thank you, sir, thank you for understanding. May God Bless you and… your son. But that is your son, right?”
The single mother points at me, silent on the sofa, observing her strange home. I pull myself away from the outdated photo of Lower Manhattan and smile stupidly.
“Yes,” says her landlord, tearing the receipt along the perforated line, “that’s my son.”
“What’s your name?” she asks, this time directed at me.
“Ernest,” says my father, answering after several seconds of silence. “He’s mute.”
“No I’m not, Dad!”
The single mother doesn’t know what to make of this joke. I don’t either.
On our exit, her son tumbles out of the home’s innards, a Wiimote in his right hand, the band secured tightly around the baby fat on his wrist.
I consider wishing him a Merry Christmas, but the Twin Towers, three stinky elephants, and picture of him on Santa’s lap keep me from speaking. Instead, like a mute, I wave farewell with my five fingers spread to show that I mean it.