Athena took the grey-painted stairs one at time. She was going to fetch her father, her tata. She would have to venture across the road to the variety store. She was strictly forbidden to leave the sidewalk but her mother had given her very specific instructions: “Go to Fred’s and tell Tata it’s time to go, please.”
Athena stepped down—one foot, two feet. Her pudgy hand guided her along the wall. She had tumbled down the bare flight of stairs not long before and so was careful to pay attention. Upon reaching the bottom step, Athena moved through the small entryway quickly, careful not to look back toward the basement. Her tata’s tool shop was there, with the dungeon door.
It was late summer and the back door was open, leaving the screen. Athena ran her fingers across the mesh where it was warped. She reached up to the flat metal handle and banged the button with her palm.
The air outside was humid, but it wasn’t much different inside; it only smelled sweeter because of the dirt and grass. Having made it out of the house, Athena felt satisfied. She jumped out of the way as the door swung shut. The familiar slam made her fear that her tata would be alerted, and she would miss her opportunity for adventure.
The sidewalk beside the house rocked under her bare feet as she stepped from one concrete slab to the next. She paused to lean over and inspect a line of ants streaming from a sand pile. The ants flowed in and out, climbing over one another. Athena wondered what the inside of their house looked like. A car drove by, and the revving of the engine made her look up. It wasn’t far to the road.
Athena’s house had wide plank siding that was dusty rose. It was the prettiest house on the block. Fred and Freida lived next door in a two-storey, but it had horrible green awnings. A chain-link fence separated their houses. It felt grimy on her sweaty palm. From where she was, Athena saw her tata standing across the street at the corner store, speaking with another man. His black car was parked in front.
Athena stood for a moment to catch her breath. She could hear the faint buzzing of mosquitoes, and she ran her fingers across the back of her neck. Her hair was cropped close, like a boy’s. Her mama wouldn’t let her grow it long; she said it would take too much to comb it. Athena had to cross the street. She puffed out her chest. Her pot belly hung below the tight T-shirt, and her shorts were falling slightly, twisted.
Athena watched for green bits of glass as she stepped off the curb. She peeked around the family car, looking both ways. After crossing, she sidled up to her tata, who was becoming more animated as she approached.
“You don’t know what yer talkin’ about,” he said.
The man who didn’t know what he was talking about didn’t look too happy.
“Drag, look, you gotta consider . . . it’s the seventies now, man.”
“I don’t gotta consider nothin’. The union is tryin’ to muscle in and is only gonna make it harder for regular guys when these companies move to Mexico—’cause it’s cheaper.”
Athena came up to her tata’s knee. She put her hand on his pant leg and tugged, even though she knew not to interrupt.
The man retaliated with a wave of his hand. “Aw, you don’t know what’s good for ya.”
“I don’t know?” Her tata’s voice changed in pitch. Athena became determined to tell him to come home.
“Tata!” She tugged harder on his pants.
Without looking down, he brushed her away. His hand, holding the cigarette, swept her backward. There was a small hiss. He extinguished the butt on her wrist, just below her thumb. Athena gasped and shrank back. The salt of her sweat stung the burn and she cried out.
“Jesus!” Her tata grabbed her arm, and he brushed the ashes roughly away.
Athena started to cry.
“Whaddaya doin’ here anyways, kid? You’re not supposed to cross the street.”
Athena pulled her arm free, the skin puckering around the burn. “You gotta come home now. Mama says.” Her voice was thick with hurt pride.
“Yeah, sure. Get home now and tell your mother I’ll be right there.” He lifted her hand up and inspected it. “Why’d you put your hand there, peanut? Didn’t you see my cigarette? Geez.” He brushed it again and she winced. “Hey, stop cryin’. You’re okay.”
Athena wanted to be okay. She wiped her eyes. She glanced back up at her tata’s face, his black hair falling across his forehead, his nose broad, and his sharp green eyes framed in thick, black-rimmed glasses, squinting down at her.
She turned and ran across the street. A car horn blared and tires screeched, combining to disturb the heavy summer air hanging over the oily street. Athena felt her feet leaving the ground, her arm hoisted above her head, and a strong slap delivered to her backside through the thin shorts. Her tata plunked her down unceremoniously on their side of the street. His hand gripped her shoulder; she dared not move.
“You can’t run into the road, Athena!” He accentuated each syllable with a shake of her small three-year-old body.
She nodded. All of the pain flooded in, and she was grateful he let go of her, even if it was with a shove toward the house as tears spilled over her hot, embarrassed cheeks.
Her tata turned to look at the other man, already disappearing into the air-conditioned variety store, and said, “I gotta go now.” The street was empty.
Athena ran into the house through the side door.
“Hey!” Tata shouted. “Don’t bang on the screen door like that! Yer gonna break it.”
With a frown, Mama looked down at Athena’s hand. She lifted the cold cloth she had placed over the burn and peered closer. “It wasn’t Tata’s cigarette.”
Athena pleaded her case softly. “Yes, it was, Mama.”
“Well, it was an accident.”
Athena said nothing. How could it have been anything else?
She turned at the sound of her tata’s steps coming up the back stairs. He filled the kitchen doorway. He pushed his hair off his forehead and adjusted his glasses.
“She’s all right. Aren’t you, peanut?” His hand fell on top of her head and ruffled her damp, pin-straight hair.
Athena could taste the saltiness of her snot and tears and just nodded and smiled. Of course it was an accident.
“What were you doing?” Mama asked.
“Ahh . . .” A dismissive sound came from her tata’s lips as he went into his room.
Athena took the washcloth from her mama’s hand and moved to the kitchen nook.
“Get ready,” Mama said toward the bedroom door. “We’re going in ten minutes and I’m helping in the kitchen, so I don’t want to be late.”
She sighed as she turned toward the sink. She continued washing the dishes and placing them in the rack. Athena loved the sparkly pattern in the countertop; it looked like silver stars and snowflakes.
Mama turned to Athena, who was sitting quietly dabbing the red-ringed burn. “Hey, don’t play with that. Go tell your sisters to get ready. I laid your dresses out on your beds.” Mama reached out to inspect her hand again. “Let me see.”
Athena admired her mama’s beautiful face. Her soft brown eyes were gazing down at her. She leaned forward and the scent of cold cream and floral perfume floated through the dust-filled late-afternoon air, the sun pouring into the bay window.
Mama kissed her boo-boo without actually kissing it. “Come. Let’s put a Band-Aid on that first.”
Athena smartly followed her mama, who was careful not to let go of her wrist. Athena felt important.
Her sister Danica saw them entering the bathroom. “What happened?”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” their mama answered.
As Danica crawled out from under the dining room table to see, her sister Lejla looked up. Danica was already marching to the bathroom, so Lejla followed. Athena’s sisters crowded the doorway to the narrow room.
Danica asked again, “What happened?”
“Tata’s cigarette—” Athena started to explain.
Mama interrupted. “It was an accident. Athena got a scrape, but it’s going to be all better.”
Lejla leaned closer to watch her mother cover the injury. “But how did it happen?”
Mama acted as though she hadn’t heard the question, and Lejla and Athena exchanged a glance as Danica said, “It’s no problem, right, Mama? It’ll be fine.”
“That’s right.” Their mama smiled down at them. “My three little angels. Now go get ready. We’re going to be late, as usual.” Her easy smile was chased away.
The two older girls skipped through the living room with Athena close behind them. On the beds were three matching outfits: red-and-white smocked dresses their baba had made for them. Athena didn’t like the elastic bands on the arms because they dug in and left marks.
Mama appeared behind them with a wet towel that she moved vigorously over Athena’s face, neck, arms, and hands. Her mama rooted between her fingers. “Your nails!” Athena tried to distract her by showing her the troublesome elastic bands. Mama ran her finger underneath them but dismissed her concern. “Your arms are just a bit too chubby.” Athena looked at the dresses hanging loosely on her sisters. She saw Mama coming toward her with the nail clippers, so she went to run out, but her tata intercepted her, picking her up.
“Noooo,” Athena wailed, struggling to get down.
“Her nails, Drag.”
He inspected her hand, not mentioning the bandage, and nodded. “Look at those nails. Mama’s gonna fix those. We can’t go to the hall with dirty nails like that.”
“What will people think?” her mama asked solemnly. “There’s no excuse for being dirty. We might not have all the money in the world, but we have manners and we’re clean.” This she recited as she deftly trimmed and cleaned Athena’s nails. Her tata was holding her tightly, and she was too hot. The bandage was starting to peel up. Athena held as still as she could so she could go run outside.
“Don’t go outside. You’ll get dirty,” her mama said the instant her feet hit the ground.
Athena believed she could read her mind.
Once assembled, the Brkovichs piled into the car. The girls fought over who got the black leather seat that scorched your backside if you weren’t careful. Inevitably, it was Athena. It was the natural order. She sat down in the wheel well behind her tata’s seat. It felt a tiny bit cooler there.
“Roll down the windows, please,” Danica and Lejla begged.
Their tata did, but not before methodically taking a cigarette out of the familiar packaging. Blue-tinged smoke filled the steamy car. The engine started, and Athena plugged her nose and held her breath, waiting for air. She had to let go and choked on the smog before the car picked up enough speed, creating a breeze. She wasn’t excited to be going to the hall. There were always so many people.
The tires moved slowly over the stretch of gravel from the main road to the Serbian community centre. The hall was a long rectangle, low and lined with windows. Standing at the front door, you could see all the way to the kitchen at the back. This was where Athena’s mama would be. To the right was the bar. This was where her tata would be.
Tightly packed tables, draped in white tablecloths and surrounded by folding chairs, filled both sides of the hall. Woven baskets, two to a table, held fresh bread. The air smelled of cigarette smoke, perfume, and onions. Everyone knew everyone.
Between the two lines of tables, people moved in a snake-like pattern dancing kolos, bouncing on the balls of their feet while holding hands. A man leading the kolo was waving a handkerchief in a circle above his head and letting out sharp whistles that punctuated the loud music. When the tempo ramped up, it infused the line with an infectious energy. Athena skipped to the accordion and bass as she ducked under the singing, smiling revellers and ran toward the kitchen, following her mama. People hugged Mama as they moved along.
Athena grabbed her hand and shouted, “Who are all these people?”
Her mama laughed. “They all know you, Athena. They know us.” This was oddly comforting but confusing at the same time. Athena didn’t know anyone here.
“Tilley!” A large woman wearing a hairnet and a butcher’s apron covered in brown grease waddled out of the kitchen, her arms extended. She had to turn sideways to fit between the counter and the wall. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re here. And who’s dis?” The heavy accent came from lips covered with black hair and small beads of sweat.
Athena recoiled behind her mama’s legs. The woman reminded her of the witches in her big storybook.
Her mama retrieved her and held her firmly by the shoulder while pressing her other hand into her back. “This is Athena. Yes, the little one.”
“So pretty—like you Mama.” She turned to Athena. “I knew her ven she vas your age.”
Athena didn’t smile. Had her mama been afraid of her when she was small? The woman held up one finger, winked at Mama, and disappeared into the kitchen.
Mama took the opportunity to examine Athena, who looked up at her, displeased. Mama frowned, licked her thumb, and cleaned Athena’s face. “Theenie, please. Use your manners.”
“But she has a moustache.”
Mama looked as though she would laugh for a second but recovered. She put her hand to her mouth, and Athena copied her. She wanted to be just like her beautiful mama.
The woman returned with a big pastry for her. The icing sugar was melting. Athena took it and looked back up at the woman. It must be hard to be ugly like that, she thought, but it probably helps to be nice. Her mama was pretty and nice.
Athena ran off with the treat in her hand. Two children chasing one another were fast approaching. Their eyes widened. “Where did you get that?” they shouted.
Athena just pointed at the kitchen a few feet away and they were gone. Outbursts of laughter, swearing, and arguing came from the bar. People were lined up to buy tickets for drinks and plates of food.
Athena was free to do as she pleased. Trying to get past tables without getting her cheeks pinched or kissed was nearly impossible, so she slipped under the table closest to her. No one could see her. No one even knew she was there. Athena studied the people’s legs near her and the red ink impressions stamped on the underside of the table. She hummed to the loud music as she enjoyed the pastry and licked her fingers. She should find her sisters.
Athena lifted the white tablecloth and peeked out. Halos of smoke surrounded the lightbulbs. She tried to look past the tight clusters of people, for her sisters. She saw her tata and remembered she was thirsty. He was talking like he had at Fred’s.
Athena pushed her way up to the bar and tugged at his pants. She needed to be higher up so she could see. “Up, Tata!” she called. “Where’s Dani and Jaja?”
Her tata put his cigarette in his mouth and set his beer on the bar, which stretched out about twenty feet. He hoisted her up on his hip.
“This is Kum Danny.” He pointed to the large man with smiling eyes in front of her.
“Aw. So beautiful, Drag.”
“All my girls are. But even better, they’re smart. This one’s the smartest.”
“Yeah? That’s good. But you know the smart ones can also be trouble, eh? Girls don’t need to be so smart.”
“Listen to this one. Theenie, say the alphabet.”
Athena was listening but wanted to go play. She spotted her sisters by the wooden doors, about to go outside.
“Tata, no. I see them. Hey!” She felt a squeeze.
“It’s okay if she doesn’t want to.”
“No. Say it now.”
Athena looked in her tata’s eyes. She knew by the way he spoke that he wouldn’t listen. She started to sing, softly at first.
“Hey, c’mon. Louder. Sing for Kum Danny like you do at home.”
Both men were looking at her, and now another turned around.
“She’s a baby, Drag. She doesn’t know her ABCs yet.”
“I’m telling you, this one’s a genius. Louder. Now.” He squeezed her to emphasize that he meant what he said.
Athena tried harder to be loud. She saw the approving nods of the people at the bar. “L, M, N, O, P . . .” Tata was smiling proudly, and she was happy for that even though she didn’t like everyone’s eyes on her. “Now I know my ABCs, next time won’t you sing with me?”
A round of applause broke out and her tata ruffled her hair, laughing and acknowledging the men on either side. He put Athena down and she faced a sea of black and brown pants. She pushed her way past them and ran for the front doors.
She soon found her sisters. Danica and Lejla had wandered to the red picnic tables along the front patio. The farmer’s field that stretched to the road in the distance was covered with crumpled yellow cornstalks. There was a slight breeze, but the overhang didn’t afford any great shade. Even the setting sun was hot.
Lejla was swinging around the poles. “This is fun,” she said to her older sister….