Miss Johnson Comes to Dinner

Nobody in my family had ever seen a white person scoop up chile the way Miss Johnson did that evening. Impressed, we grew quiet as we watched her pour it over her pasta.

Noticing, she looked up with eyes the color of blue tortilla chips and asked in an unsure voice, “Have I used too much?”

My mother, who loved to eat jalapeños for dessert, answered, “No I don’t think so.”

Visibly relieved, Miss Johnson twirled strands of spaghetti around her fork and then speared it into her mouth. The freckles on her face became connected as she turned the same shade of red as her hair. Gasping for air, she brushed at the tears running down her face.

“Oh my!” she sputtered.

“Drink your tea,” my mom instructed. Turning towards me with a puzzled look, my mother said, “Her food must of gone down the wrong pipe.”

Embarrassed, I sat wondering if maybe this dinner wasn’t such a good idea after all.

* * *

The administration at Griffith Junior High School in East Los Angeles was searching for ways of bringing the faculty closer to the students. One of their brainstormed ideas was to have teachers eat dinner at the homes of the kids. I was matched up with my gym teacher, Miss Johnson.

She was seriously tall and thin, with flaming red hair that she wore swooped up and off-centered. She was heavily freckled with really thin lips, and she liked to wear two-tone pullover sweaters. She was easily the most exotic person who’d ever been to my home.

She walked up to me one day and said, “Well, Patsy, looks like I’m coming to your house.”

I stared up at her, dazed and bewildered. I hadn’t been caught doing anything so I didn’t understand why she would come.

She smiled slightly. “I’m looking forward to meeting your family.”

After school, I waited anxiously for my mom to get home from work.

“Mama, Mama!” I exclaimed as soon as she walked in. “Guess what?”

“What mija? What are you so excited about?” she asked before plopping onto the crooked green sofa.

“We’re gonna have a teacher over for dinner, qué neat, huh?”

Her eyes suddenly alert, she asked, “Qué? Qué dices, teacher, dinner?”

“Oh Mama, it’s some new program.” I tried to explain what my school counselor had told me earlier that day. “And just a few families are being chosen . . . I hope Daddy won’t be here.”

My parents had separated a few years earlier, but my father still came around, usually to take my brother out to the movies.

“Pues, if he’s here, we can’t ask him to leave. Tu sabes eso,” she said.

“But Mama,” I pleaded. “It’s a big deal having a teacher over, and I just want us to look, you

know . . . ”

My mother nodded. “It’ll be okay, mija.”

I knew she wouldn’t do anything to help, so I turned away to put the TV on. I looked around and wondered if Miss Johnson would laugh at the wire hanger sticking out of the television set. The good thing was that our aquarium, the fanciest thing in our home, was right next to it. It had a classy looking blue foil background and two kissing gourami fish. It used to have more fish, but they died when I changed the water so I put a figurine of a deepwater diver in that I’d got from Bob’s Tropical Fish Store on Atlantic.

* * *

That special Friday my mom came home early from the factory where she worked. I ran home from school to help her get ready.

“What are you making for dinner, Mama?” I asked.

“Tu favorite, mijita, spaghetti.”

I was thankful. I didn’t know if ordinary food, like enchiladas or tostadas, might be hard on Miss Johnson. I knew the teachers often lunched at Del Taco but I didn’t know if she’d ever eaten Mexican food before. I figured spaghetti was a safe bet.

When the doorbell rang my mother said, “Andale, mija. Go answer the door.”

“But she’s not suppose to be here yet,” I said.

“Pues, she must be on gringa time. Now go answer the door.”

“Okay,” I said and ran to the front door. I put my foot over the hole in the once-brown carpet before I threw open the door, a huge smile on my face.

It was my father. Pushing past me, he said, “Where’s your brother?”

I answered quickly, “He’s in his room, Daddy. I’ll go get him.”

Sniffing around, he said, “Hmmm, what smells so good?”

Before I could say anything, my father followed his nose into the kitchen.

“Hi, Licha,” he greeted my mother. “Qué rico huele. I can’t remember the last time I had one of your meals.” I didn’t remember my father ever liking my mom’s cooking. I held my breath, making eyes at my mother.

“Patsy’s teacher is coming for dinner.”

Eyeing the bubbling pot on the stove, he said, “Her teacher? Maybe I should stick around and meet her.”

“But, Daddy—” I stopped when he turned towards me, his dark eyes looking into mine.

The doorbell rang again, and my mother nodded at me. “Go ahead, mija. It must be your teacher.”

This time I didn’t fling the door open but looked out the window first. There on the porch stood Miss Johnson. Unmoving, I stared at her through the glass, like a deer caught in her headlights. Noticing me, she smiled.

“Abre la puerta!” my mother hissed at me.

I opened the door and invited Miss Johnson in.

She thanked me and swept into my home with a flourish, her tall frame held up straight like they tried to make us to do in gym class. Extending a large freckled hand to my mother, she said, “Ah, you must be Mrs. Brassell. Patsy’s told me so much about you.”

Wiping her hands on a limpiador, my mother craned her head up. “Please, call me Alice.”

Alice? Surprised, I looked at my mother. Everybody called her Licha.

My father came sauntering up and grabbed Miss Johnson’s hand with both of his. “I’m the girl’s father. Call me Nico, and this is my son, Nico Jr.”

My brother, who was three and a half years older than me and almost as tall as my dad, looked up at her and grimaced.

My mother smiled and held out her hands. “Let me take your coat, Miss . . . ”

Miss Johnson handed her the coat. “Please, call me Penelope.”

“Qué?” my mother whispered at me before leading Miss Johnson to the dining room table she had bought from May Company on the installment plan. The salesman called it something like French Province, but Nico and I called it ugly ’cause its legs looked like it had rickets. My mom was very proud of it. Smiling, she headed off to the kitchen.

Joining her at the table, my father planted himself in front of Miss Johnson. I prayed he wouldn’t take his shoes off even though I was relieved he wasn’t wearing the thick soled pair he used for delivering milk.

“What do you think about teaching sex education in school?” he asked her.

Glancing around nervously, Miss Johnson hemmed and hawed. “Well, you know there’s lots of—”

“Well let me tell you,” my father interrupted her, “I’m a broad-minded person and I enjoy listening to people and their opinions . . . ”

Worried, I dashed into the kitchen.

“Mama,” I sputtered, “Daddy’s telling Miss Johnson how broad-minded he is.”

“Ay, mija!” my mother said, concerned. “Let’s not waste any more time. Grab the bread out of the oven and let’s get started.”

Gratefully, I obeyed and followed my mother back into the living room.

“ . . . and that’s why I’m right,” my father was saying to Miss Johnson. “Can’t you see that?”

Relieved at seeing my mother and me enter the room, Miss Johnson smiled. “It smells delicious, Alice.”

“Thank you.” My mother blushed. “I just made the chile from scratch.”

“Terrific!” Miss Johnson said and began spooning it over her bowl of steaming spaghetti.

* * *

After Miss Johnson recovered from the chile, helped with a couple glasses of water and several slaps on the back, my mother struggled to converse with her. “You know, Pen-ah-peelie, Patsy says she likes your class best of all.” Surprised by her lie, I stared open-mouthed at my mother.

Looking pleased, Miss Johnson nodded at me. “Well, Patsy is a fine little athlete. Did you know she’s one of the fastest runners at school?”

“My son would be a really great athlete,” my father said. “If only he was interested in sports. He’s a very strong boy.”

My mother added in a worried voice, “I don’t think it’s such a good idea for Patsy to be so involved with sports. I’m afraid it might make her . . . rough.”

Miss Johnson glanced at me, and I had the feeling she wanted me to say something, but I didn’t know what.

She tried again, “Sports are a good thing for girls, helps give them confidence, makes them feel better about their bodies.”

I saw the hair on my mom’s neck stand up and the frown on my dad’s face. “I want my girl sweet,” he said.

Miss Johnson laughed, not realizing he was serious. “Sports won’t change that, Nico.”

My parents would have considered it rude to contradict her, so they didn’t say anything.

Miss Johnson looked at me. “Patsy, you ever been to a baseball game?”

I was confused. “You know I play on the team, Miss.”

She laughed, and I felt stupid. Miss Johnson went on, “No, I mean to a professional baseball game. Like the Dodgers or the Angels.”

I looked down and mumbled, “No.”

“Well, I’ve got a couple of tickets for an Angel’s game next Saturday. How’d you like to go?”

“Wow!” My head snapped up. “Are you kidding? I’d love to!”

Miss Johnson didn’t seem to notice the glum looks on my parents’ faces. She wiped her mouth with one of the paper towels my mom had passed out and then rubbed her stomach. “I have so enjoyed this meal, Alice. I don’t often get to eat home-cooked.”

“Aren’t you married?” My mother blurted and then blushed.

“No, I am not, so all the more reason to appreciate your cooking. Thank you for having me. I’ve had a wonderful time.” Miss Johnson pushed her tall frame from the table and stood up, extending her hand again to my parents.

“See you in school, Patsy.”

As soon as she was out the door I said, “Wasn’t that great? Isn’t she nice? And she’s going to take me to a baseball game! Can you believe it?”

My brother said, “Yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it.”

I felt my face get hot. “Aw you’re just jealous! Of course she’s going to take me.”

My father was watching me intently. “Mija, did I ever tell you about the time I was in the CCCs?” Only a million times, I thought, but didn’t say it. My father opened his arms to me. I hated that I ran to him. His arms around me, his warmth all over me, he said, “You know when I was in the CCCs, up in Yosemite, I use to think I was one of the gang. Sometimes a bunch of guys would go walking, and once I went with them. I was talking and laughing, but then I noticed they were trying to walk a little faster than me. When I sped up they walked a little slower than me. They were all gabachos, and they didn’t want me with them.”

“But Miss Johnson invited me,” I said.

“I know, mija, but she was just being nice. People like that don’t respect people like us. You’ll see. She’ll want to fix you. Tell you Spanish is bad or to stay out of the sun, something. You’ll see.”

I didn’t feel so warm anymore. I looked at my mother. “Mama?”

“Pues, your father knows best, mija.” She looked down.

“Look, mija,” my father said. “Don’t ever make the mistake of believing strangers over your family.”

* * *

Monday morning I was getting ready for school when I heard my best friend, Chata, and her mother, Hilda, yelling from their house next door. Chata’s real name was Bertha but everyone had always called her Chata because of her pug nose.

“Stop yelling at Daddy. He’s sick,” Chata cried.

“He’s not sick. He’s hungover,” her mother’s deep voice growled. A door slammed and I knew Chata would be over before I could count to ten.

I opened the door and stepped out. Chata stood on the porch, her brown hair neatly combed, hoop earrings hanging. One of Chata’s ears didn’t curl back but stuck straight up like Spock’s from Star Trek. She usually teased her hair over it.

Chata looked me over. “How come you don’t brush your hair?”

“I did.”

“When, yesterday?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Chata was always thinking I should do something stupid like roll my hair at night or use makeup, stuff that didn’t interest me at all.

Touching Chata’s back, I asked, “You okay?”

“Yeah, you know how Brutus is.” Chata called her mom Brutus and the name fit. Hilda was a big woman with an even bigger temper. Everybody, except Chata, was scared of her. As I walked down the street, I tripped and almost twisted my ankle.

“I swear to God, you are so goofy, always tripping over your own feet. I’m gonna start calling you Pata.” I just looked at Chata unconcerned. She never remembered half the stuff she said.

“So guess what?” I said. “Miss Johnson came to dinner at my house.”

Chata stopped dead in her tracks. “What? You mean that gym teacher? Are you serious?”

“Yeah, I’m serious. She came over Friday.”

“Wow . . . Was your dad home?”

I turned towards Chata. “Yeah, can you believe it? He showed up just before Miss Johnson did.”

“So what did you do?”

“What could I do? He was there.” We were both quiet. Chata pulled out a crumpled pack of Viceroy cigarettes.

“I took ‘em off the kitchen table after my mom went to sleep last night,” she explained, trying to straighten one out.

“I don’t know if we should do this,” I said, a little nervous.

“Ah, don’t be a spoilsport. A cigarette’s not gonna hurt you.” Chata struck a match and lit it, drawing deeply and then coughing violently. She handed me the cigarette, and I tried to ignore the wetness of the filter. I took a puff, uncomfortable at the scratchy feeling in my throat. Feeling a little giddy from the nicotine, we giggled.

“I can’t believe you had a teacher over at your house,” Chata said.

“Yeah, well, she said she was gonna take me to see the Angels.”

Chata looked impressed, then worried. “Ain’t they in Anaheim?”

“Yeah, so?”

“Well, that’s in Orange County, like Knott’s Berry Farm.”

I stopped smiling. It was in Orange County. We had been to Knott’s Berry Farm before and been upset to find statues of sombrero-wearing, gold-toothed bandidos around the park. It was hard to relax in a place like that.

I took another puff of the cigarette and handed it back to Chata. “So what did you do Friday?”

Chata put the cigarette in her mouth and pulled it out in a hurry, “Damn, you hot-boxed it! I swear I ain’t gonna share my frajos with you!”

“Don’t be a bogart.”

Chata laughed. “Yeah, well, Friday, I was over at the projects.”

The housing projects sounded like a lot more fun than having a teacher over. “Who’d you hang around with?”

“Kika, Boo-Boo and Rosie.”

“Did your parents know?

Chata looked at me like I was stupid. “Of course not! They’d kill me if they knew I was there.”

I knew who Kika, Boo-Boo and Rosie were. I’d seen them around and they were wild-looking, always getting into trouble.

Chata smiled. “But it was fun, we sniffed and drank beer.”

“Ay, Chata!” I said. “That stuff’s bad for you.”

“Aw, don’t be so worried. Next time I’ll take you with me.”

Reaching school, we separated to our own classes. I made my way to the girls’ gym, anxious about Miss Johnson. Would she be mad at me for something? Or think my family too weird? Or upset that the chile was too hot?

“Hi, Patsy!” Miss Johnson’s voice boomed from the teacher’s room. She was at her desk, the other gym teachers at theirs.

“Hi, Miss,” I whispered.

She was smiling. “I was just telling Miss Garcia here that I almost killed myself with your mom’s chile!”

Miss Garcia, a short, dark teacher we usually liked because she was the only instructor who pronounced our names right, tapped Miss Johnson’s shoulders. “I told you it’s not ketchup!”

Miss Johnson laughed. “Well, I’ll remember that next time I come over, okay, Patsy?”

“You mean you’d come over again?” I asked, surprised.

“Why, heck yes! I had a great time. Now don’t forget we got a game coming up this Saturday.” I felt the bricks dropping off my back as I went to go change. Things were looking up.

* * *

After school I met up with Chata so we could walk home together.

“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go through the park.” We didn’t usually walk through Belvedere Park. The last time I had I’d been chased by a psycho goose.

Chata listened to my story and said, “Don’t ever tell anyone you got scared by a goose! That is so weird!”

“But it was a mean-ass goose. Shit, if it’d been you I would have had to save you.”

Chata laughed. “I know, and you would of, too, but still, don’t tell anyone.”

Belvedere Park was big. It used to have two ponds, but the Pomona Freeway had split it in half, and they had to drain one of the ponds. We lived on the side without the pond.

Our side of the park had the swimming pool, called Belvedere Plunge, that bordered Maravilla Projects. The housing projects were one-storied rows that looked over the soccer field on one side. More projects were on the other side of Brooklyn Avenue. Each project row housed four families, four rows of these were arranged in blocks and there were more blocks than I could count. Lots of people lived in the projects. The houses Chata and I lived in bordered the far side of the projects.

Near the plunge was the park’s tiny and stinky restroom. A cloud of smoke was drifting out the door. We walked in and there was Kika, Boo-Boo and Rosie.

Kika was the tallest and, at fourteen and a half, the oldest. She had long black hair parted in the middle that hung like rope over her back. She was light-skinned and always hunched over.

Boo-Boo was our age, thirteen, with shoulder-length, bushy black hair and a face that looked like a sprouting potato. She wore lots of mascara and always looked like she had a couple of black eyes. She didn’t talk too much.

Rosie was the darkest and shortest, her long hair parted down the middle in chola style.

“Ey, this is my friend I was telling you about. This is Pata.” Chata lifted her chin.

I almost looked around to see who she was talking about before I realized Chata meant me. Kika and Boo-Boo barely nodded at me, but Rosie came right up, a huge smile on her face.

“Hey, it’s great to have another loca to hang with. Chata’s told us a lot about you, how you go way back together.”

I smiled back at the friendliest person I’d ever met. “Yeah, our moms were pregnant at almost the same time—”

Chata interrupted me. “She’s trying to tell you she’s older than me.”

“That’s right,” I agreed. “I’m eight months older than you.”

“So you’re the older carnala,” Rosie said and looked at Chata. “That means you have to listen to her.”

I liked Rosie as much as I liked anyone. Kika and Boo-Boo had been quiet until now, but they looked at each other, shrugged and offered me and Chata some of their beer. I took a drink and tried not to make a face. It tasted like muddy water that’d been left in the sun. Chata looked happy. Kika pulled out a fat-tipped marker and carefully wrote the initials, RR MV across the wall.

“We started a new clica,” Rosie explained. “Las Roadrunners.”

I knew the MV stood for Maravilla. “Who else is in?”

Rosie answered: “Us and a few more girls, not too many. Maybe you, if we like you.”

I tried not to look desperate. These girls weren’t nobodies. I could see how excited Chata looked.

I couldn’t help but smile. Rosie smiled back. Kika and Boo-Boo just kept drinking.

Chata nodded. “Well, I gotta get home. My jefita’s expecting me.”

“Awright, esa,” Kika said. “We’ll see you later.” We walked away and I was a little confused. Chata had never liked me speaking much Spanish, said it made me sound like a TJ, but here she was, saying “jefita.”

“Ay, that was good!” Chata said. “You didn’t blow it!”

“Well, thanks!” I said. Chata grabbed my shoulder. Aw, you know what I meant. They’re good people to know, and I want them to like you too. It’s a good thing you didn’t say anything about having a teacher over your house!”

“Ah, I wouldn’t do anything like that,” I said, not at all sure that was true.

“Awright,” Chata said. “I’ll see you later.”

“Okay,” I said, and I watched her go to her home next to mine.

I knew my mother wouldn’t be home from work, and I was hoping my brother wouldn’t be either. No such luck.

“You’re late,” Nico grumbled when he saw me, the light from the television glowing through his curly dark hair.

“Don’t tell, okay?” I said.

“Why shouldn’t I?”

“Just don’t okay?”

He walked closer to me. “You smell. What were you doing?”

“Nothing,” I lied, panicking as I saw my mom drive up in her old, beat up Corvair.

I went into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and grabbed a slice of cheese to stuff into my mouth.

“Hi, Mama,” I said as she walked in.

“Hola, mijita. Hi, mijo,” she said.

“Miss Johnson said she wants to come over again.”

“Ay, qué bueno. That’ll be nice.” My mom flopped on the sofa and kicked her shoes off.

Nico sat by her. “Tired?”

“Si, si,” she answered.

I was watching Nico carefully, not sure what he was going to do.

A horn honked.

“Andale, mijo,” my mother said to Nico. “That must be your father. He probably wants to take you to dinner.”

Nico didn’t look pleased, but he opened the door and waved.

“Maybe I can bring you back something to eat,” he told my mom.

“It’s okay. We’ll make something.”

Nico hesitated and then left. I took his place on the sofa next to my mom. She rubbed my hair.

“Miss Johnson said the game’s this Saturday.”

“Uh-huh, that’s nice,” my mom mumbled. “Turn on the TV, okay?”

I stood, flipped on the television and stepped into the kitchen to open a can of tuna for dinner.

* * *

Saturday morning my mom surprised me. She was in the kitchen, cooking and singing, opening and closing the cabinets she had painted different colors with the cans of leftover paint she had found.

“Hi,” I said. “Whatcha doing?”

“Good morning, mija.” She smiled. “I’m making you lunch for your baseball game.”

“I didn’t think you’d remember.” My mom gave me a play-hurt look.

“Of course I remembered! How many times does my only daughter go to a baseball game?”

“What are you making for my lunch?”

“A burrito.”

“But, Mama, those places sell things like hot dogs and hamburgers. I can’t go in carrying my lunch.”

“Pues, of course you can take your lunch. Te cuesta! Those places charge you a foot and a leg for any little thing.”

“Mama, it’s an arm and a leg,” I corrected her.

“Ah, arm, leg, foot, hand, it’s all the same. Any who, at least I know you’ll eat good.”

“But couldn’t you just make a sandwich or something like that?”

My mother turned to stare at me. “What’s wrong with burritos?”

Looking down, I said, “Nothing, nothing, just, well, I’d rather just have a sandwich instead of a burrito. I mean, how am I gonna heat it?”

My mother smiled. “I’m wrapping it in aluminum, it’ll stay warm, mija, you’ll see.”

Looking over my jeans, T-shirt and tennis shoes, my mother said, “Why don’t you put on a dress?”

“Ay, mama,” I argued, “nobody wears a dress to a baseball game!” I hated dresses with a passion. If our school dress code didn’t forbid pants for girls, I would never wear a dress.

The doorbell groaned.

“I’ve got to get your daddy to fix that, mija. It sounds so sad.”

“Well, good luck. He never fixed anything when he lived here. What makes you think he’d do anything now?”

“Mija, don’t talk about your father like that. And don’t leave your teacher standing outside. Andale. Go let her in.”

Miss Johnson stepped in, wearing a loose fitting blouse and slacks. I stood behind her, pointing this out to my mom.

Miss Johnson seemed very at ease. “Hello, Alice. It smells good in here.”

“Thank you, Pen-ah-peelie. I was just getting Patsy’s lunch ready.”

At a nod from my mother, Miss Johnson sat at the yellow Formica table. “How about me? Did you make me lunch too?”

My mother blushed. “Ay! How thoughtless of me. Give me just a minute and I’ll make you one also.”

Miss Johnson laughed. “Oh, I’m just teasing you Alice. Please don’t bother. There’ll be plenty to eat at the stadium.”

“But I was just telling Patsy that it’s very expensive,” my mother said, ignoring the rolling eyes I made at her.

“You’re right, of course,” Miss Johnson agreed. “But we really need to get going.”

I knew the pan was empty or else my mom would have argued with Miss Johnson. Instead she put my burrito in a brown paper sack and kissed me on the head. “Portate bien, mija.”

Embarrassed, I assured my mother I would act right. Then she shook Miss Johnson’s hand as we left.

Miss Johnson drove a cherry-red GTO, a real beauty, the nicest car I’d ever been in. I was glad my mom had wrapped the burrito in aluminum because I would have died if it spilled on the black leather interior.

Miss Johnson sniffed and looked at me. “That burrito got any chile on it?”

I giggled. “No.”

“Good! What d’ya say I trade you a hotdog for it?”

My head jerked in surprise. “Really?”

“Heck, yeah! Your mom’s a good cook,” she lied. “And I can get hot dogs anytime, but a homemade burrito? Let’s trade!”

Feeling better about the day ahead of us, I said, “You got a deal.”

I tried not to be obvious but I watched Miss Johnson’s every move. She handled the car like a pro, and best of all, she drove fast fast fast. I worried about where to put my hands, if I should cross my legs or not. When I would start to relax, she would say something that worried me all over again.

“What do you want to be when you grow up, Patsy?” Miss Johnson asked.

Nobody asked me things like that, and I didn’t know what to think or how to answer. What did she mean what did I want to be? What could I be?

“Um, I dunno.” I shifted nervously, my palms suddenly wet.

“You know I really meant it when I told your parents what a fine athlete you are.”

My dad liked sports, but I knew he only came to my games because my brother never played. My mom hated that I loved sports. She was always trying to talk me out of it, sometimes claiming to be sick so that I wouldn’t go to a game I was supposed to play in. It was great to hear somebody say something nice about the only thing I felt good at.

“Thanks, Miss, I sure love playing.”

“I know you do, I can tell.”

I looked at her. She smiled. “I always loved playing too.” I sat there feeling good.

After a while, she asked, “Would you like to listen to the radio?”

“Yeah, Humble Harve’s on right now.”

“Well, go ahead and put it on whatever you’d like.” I wiped my hands on my pants and turned the knobs. Sly and the Family Stone were singing “Everyday People,” and I was surprised to see Miss Johnson nodding her head in time. Traffic slowed, and Miss Johnson drove with the pack headed towards Angel Stadium. I saw the giant halo and wondered if it was anything like the huge crosses the Ku Klux Klan lit up. There were lots of pickup trucks around us, and everyone I saw was white. I felt nervous, wondering if people were staring at me. I figured it was good I was with Miss Johnson.

As we entered the ballpark, the people at the gate were handing out baseball bats and I got scared all over again.

Miss Johnson nudged—me. “Great! It’s bat day!” I looked at her but didn’t say anything. A guy took our tickets and handed me a bat, handle first. I wondered if I should run with it, but I forced myself to walk naturally to our seats. I took a closer look at it—a Jim Fregosi model. I was thrilled. He was the Angels’ second baseman, and I liked him.

“You comfortable?” Miss Johnson asked. She had her dark glasses on and looked pretty slick.

“Yeah,” I mumbled.

“Good,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”

I looked at her in a hurry, and she smiled. “I won’t be long.”

The stadium was swirling with people. The sound of thousands talking created a roar of voices that weren’t saying any one thing. I ran my hand over my baseball bat. I felt good that I wouldn’t have to borrow one anymore.

Miss Johnson came back, carrying drinks and a hotdog. She handed me a Coke and a hotdog. “Okay, Patsy, how about that burrito?”

I handed her the bag but almost dropped it when I saw she had a beer. I didn’t know she was going to get drunk.

Miss Johnson peeled back the aluminum and took a big bite of the burrito. “Mm, this is great. Thanks for trading!”

I took a bite of the hotdog. “Sure!”

The organ music swelled before the lineup was announced. Some guy I’d never heard of sang the national anthem, and the game started. I couldn’t believe Miss Johnson only drank one cup of beer during the whole game. I had never seen anyone have just one. Nobody around us was friendly, but once I got into the game, I didn’t notice or care. It was so much fun being at the park that I didn’t care when the Angels lost and lost bad. Walking back to the car, I carried my new bat over my shoulder, proud of it. But I was worried that Miss Johnson would want it since they hadn’t given her one.

Once we were in her car and on the freeway I turned in my seat to look at her. “Are you going to take the bat?”

She did a doubletake. “What? What do you mean?”

“You know, since they didn’t give you one.”

Miss Johnson laughed. “No, Patsy. That bat belongs to you. I’m glad you got it.”

I was a little embarrassed. “I mean, you know, you brought me and everything, and you paid for the game and all.”

“I was happy to do it,” Miss Johnson said. “I know what it’s like to do without.”

I could hardly wait to get home and show off my bat.

Miss Johnson glanced at me. “You know, I grew up in southern Illinois.”

I had no idea where that was, so I said, “My mom’s from Mexico. Is that close?”

Miss Johnson smiled. “Not really. It’s far from here—lots of farms.”

“Oh, wow! did you grow up on a farm?” I’d always thought that would be really cool.

“No, I grew up in a small town. There were a couple of Mexican families that lived there. Spoke mainly Spanish. Never understood that.”

“I could teach you,” I said, happy at the chance to pay her back.

“What I mean is I never understood why they spoke Spanish. If you come to this country you should speak English.”

I could feel the hotdog rolling around in my stomach. “Well, how come?”

Miss Johnson took a deep breath. “You know, you have a fine family, Patsy, but they’re not doing you any favors by speaking Spanish to you or each other. You don’t want to grow up speaking English with an accent, do you?”

My face grew hotter and hotter. “You have an accent, and you don’t talk Spanish.” And it was true. She did have an accent. I wasn’t making it up.

“Now, Patsy, don’t get defensive. I’m trying to help you.”

I didn’t feel helped at all. “I don’t believe you.”

“Listen,” Miss Johnson said. “You’ve got to speak English in this country—”

“I do speak English.”

“But not as well as you would if you spoke only English.”

I was trying hard not to cry and not to scream. I knew my mom would kill me if I screamed at a teacher. It took me a moment to realize the car was stopped and we were in front of my house.

“You’re wrong, Miss. You’re way wrong. Thank you for taking me to the game. Keep the bat.” I got out of the car.

“Now, Patsy,” Miss Johnson called, “take the bat. It’s yours.”

“No, you keep it, and you know where you can put it.” I slammed the door and ran up the sidewalk into my home. My dad and brother were home. “Where’s Mama?” I asked.

“She went to the market,” my brother said.

“Mama told me you went to the game with that teacher,” my dad said.

Not able to hold back any longer, I burst into tears. “She said I shouldn’t talk Spanish.”

“Didn’t I tell you that?” my dad said, turning back to my brother. I went to the room I shared with my mother and laid down on the bed, crying. After a while I heard scratching on the window screen. I knew it was Chata.

“Hey, Pata! Whatcha doing?” she asked.

“Nothing, you?”

“I’m going over to the projects to Kika’s house. Wanna come?”

“Heck yeah!” I said, feeling better already. I walked out without saying goodbye to my father. And I don’t think he noticed.

Download PDF