Detroit was a big city filled with pollution and old men who hated the Japanese, and wheezed about the Vietnam War at lonely old doughnut shops that sat on lonely corners with street names like Franklin and Carmickle.
Maria Sanders lived with her parents in a small white house with a picket fence. She was doing her homework at the table one evening, and the light was slowly dwindling in the sky. Her mother was on the phone, talking to her Aunt Christine, who lived far away in Seattle. She was talking about Uncle Jim, and their family. They lived on a farm in Durand. Maria's third cousin, Isaac, was seven years older than she was. By the time she was fourteen, he was already out of the house and joined the military to feed his wife and baby girl, Layla, who was born seven pounds and just shy of five ounces.
Maria was half-white, half-Hispanic, and had a part time job at the supermarket, shelving food items.
Her boss, Mr. Salez, was a balding man with a beak-like nose and an odd demeanor that made him appear almost menacing. It was Saturday and Saturdays was Farmer's Market and Maria was putting milk in the refrigerators when Willis walked in. Willis was Maria's next door neighbor and he was old and fat and was a trucker from Ohio who divorced twice already and had a new girlfriend.
Maria never met his new girlfriend but she saw that he was happy with the way the relationship was going because he always bought beer on Saturday nights and he only bought beer when he was happy. Maria saw him in a foul mood twice that she could remember. Willis leafed through the magazines on the rack by the front door. A nineteen year old boy walked in, smiling at her. He looked at her with his eyes. "Hello," he said pleasantly. "Do you have any flowers here?" he asked.
She nodded mutely. The flowers must be for his girlfriend. Of course. Maria was Hispanic and never had a boyfriend. She was slightly overweight and had some freckles and wore thick, black glasses that hid her face. She said, "The flowers are back there." She didn't want to look at him, she was so mad. Why was she mad at him? She just met him. She blinked back angry tears.
Mr. Salez looked at her and chuckled. "Maria, my poppet," he said gently, lifting her chin to stare into her eyes. "You must meet my wife."
Maria blinked back tears. "Meet your wife?" she managed. "I didn't know you were married."
Mr. Salez laughed. "That's because she doesn't want anyone to know!" he said jokingly. "My Madeline is very protective of me. You can come over if you want. Forget that boy. You can have some tea cakes and talk about your friends."
"I have two best friends," she whispered.
"Good, good. Come Saturday." He smiled and resumed counting the cash in the cash register. The boy bought the flowers and left the store. She hardly noticed. She was planning what to wear.
After work, Maria went home and took all the clothes out of her closet and put them on the bed. She shook her head. No, no, no. Those wouldn't do at all. They looked old and shabby and Mr. Salez's wife was probably sophisticated. She'd heard from other coworkers that they had two other chain stores in the tri-county area and it meant a lot of money for them. Maria was only sixteen. Her mother said she needed to put away that money until she was an adult.
Maria always did what her parents said. They knew best.
The next afternoon, her mother dropped her off at the mall and Maria wandered up and down the aisles at a clothing store, exclaiming over the tank tops and dresses she couldn't buy for herself. She had thirty dollars in spending money and she could only spend sixteen. The rest was for gas and a snack. She reluctantly bought a one-piece dress that cost 8.99. The cashier, smiling pleasantly, bagged it and took her money and gave her back a penny in return. She was finished for the day and had some money left over.
Maria went outside and sat on a bench and waited for her mother to pick her up to take her home.
The Ford truck pulled to the curb and Maria jumped in and her mother dropped her off at the house before heading off to work. Work, she said, was dull and dreary and long without her daughter around. Maria smiled at the thought. One day, when she was an adult, she would have a daughter just like her mother did. She was going to name her Sarah.
She loved the name Sarah, after she read a book called Sarah, Plain and Tall.
Her best friend's name was Ellie. Ellie had long blonde hair and brown eyes and she liked to sing songs and dreamt of being a famous singer one day. Maria couldn't sing and the only instrument she played was the cello. Ellie said singing was like a language and only special people knew the language. Maria could speak two languages, English and Spanish. They mostly spoke Spanish at home.
"Maria," her father complained later that evening. "¿Qué usted está haciendo?" His face was pinched and angry. That was how he usually looked, especially after work.
Maria was in the bathroom, singing a song in English.
"Apesadumbrado, padre," she apologized, her lip trembling. "Ellie liked singing and I thought-"
"I know what you thought," Mama said. She was brushing her own short, brown hair in the hallway mirror downstairs and had come up to see about all the racket. "You will not be a singer. I don't want that girl putting ideas into your head. You must get grades on your schoolwork!" She scowled and went downstairs to make dinner. They were having pot roast for dinner tonight.
Maria sighed and went back upstairs and cried into her pillow.
The next morning she got ready to go to Mr. Salez's. She got permission from her father the day before and he was off at work already, he worked at a feed supply store called Grumley's and made enough money to pay rent and bills. Maria contributed thirteen dollars every month, to help pay for milk for her little sister, Laura. Laura was getting to be a big baby and would be going to preschool in four years. She did not want that day to come but it must come, and when it did, Maria would be proud.
Maria arrived at Mr. Salez's at four. She repeated Madeline's name in her head to remember it. Madeline, Madeline, Madeline. It had a nice ring to it. Unlike her own name, which was a normal Hispanic name for a girl.
Mr. Salez lived in an apartment building downtown; his wife was the owner. They were rich. Well, almost. She buzzed the doorbell and Mr. Salez answered. He wore brown slacks and a brown shirt that looked fresh and ironed. His hands swallowed her small ones. "Thank you for coming," he said grimly, and she followed him inside.
The apartment was made up nicely, just like a magazine. The living room had a coffee table, a long, brown couch, and a grandfather clock and fireplace. The fireplace would not be lit until winter. It was only spring. Maria saw Mrs. Salez. She was humming in the kitchen. It was a song Maria did not know. "Is that her?" she whispered, low, so he could hear.
"Of course." He pushed her forward. "Go on. No time like the present."
"Hello, Mrs. Salez," she said softly. "How are you this evening?"
"Roger!" she exclaimed. "Maria is beautiful! And so sweet! You need to hire more girls like her."
Roger rolled his eyes. "I'll do my best," he muttered. "I'll see to the cakes." He scurried into the kitchen to check on the tea cakes. A wonderful smell filled the living room.
"Tell me, Maria, do you have a boyfriend?"
Maria blushed. She didn't like being put on the spot. "Well, no," she admitted. "There's this boy, Jake, at school, and-"
She beamed. "Are you in love with him?"
Maria laughed. "I would like to get married when I am old enough. Boys are immature. I plan on getting married when I turn eighteen."
She shrugged. "Many Hispanic women get married at a young age. My father said it isn't a tradition, he says women are getting smarter these days, what with the war and all."
Mrs. Salez became serious all of a sudden. "The war in Vietnam is a terrible thing," she said, shaking her head. "Have you heard of this man, Dr. King? He speaks for all races, not just blacks."
"I have a cousin in the army," she said.
"Is he in the war?"
She looked troubled. "Last time I heard, he was stationed in Mississippi. I don't know why. They never say why."
Mrs. Salez nodded. "I suspected as much. You are too young to know, anyway."
Mr. Salez came in with a plate full of tea cakes and set it on the coffee table, sharply. That was their final discussion on war.
"It was weird," Maria said to her second best friend, Ronald Chandelier, over the phone that evening. "It was like, she didn't want to talk about the war."
"Most people don't want to talk about it," Ronald replied. "My cousin died in it and he's only 18."
"Oh," Maria said. She felt sad, suddenly. Why did nice people have to die?
"What are you doing later?" she said. "We could play baseball in the park, or-"
"I can't," he said sharply. "I have to watch Emma." Emma was his baby sister. She had not turned one yet.
"It's time for me to go, anyway. I have to do the washing." Maria hung up the phone and started singing. She sang until dinner.
After dinner, Maria went to bed, and dreamt about butterflies. The next morning, she got dressed, and went to school. Ellie was standing next to her locker.
"Ellie!" Maria exclaimed. "You're back from Seattle. How was it?"
Ellie made a face. "It was terrible," she answered, shaking her head. "The traffic was so thick, we were waiting at the light forever. Benny arrived before we got there."
"I'm sorry," Maria said. "You have a little brother now."
"I didn't get to see him come out!" Ellie pouted.
"It's okay." Maria grinned. "I am sure she will have one more."
Ellie nodded. "You are right. She loves babies. She said once she will have ten of them one day."
The bell rang. "Race you!" she said, and tore down the hall to geography class.
Maria followed slowly. Her mind was on singing. And her cousin in the war.
The war was not going well, her parents said at dinner. It looked like Vietnam was going to win. Vietnam was a small country in Asia.
"Why?" she said. "Why are they winning? Every side should win." She pushed the green beans around on her plate. The baby screamed, its face red and angry.
"Time for homework!" Maria said. She jumped up and went upstairs to her bedroom. She did not sing that night. That night was for sadness.
The next morning her mother was gone. She left a note on the table, saying she had gone off to a job interview. Maria's father made enough money, but just enough, and they needed more to keep the family together. The family was not doing well financially. Maria could only give them a little money. She wanted to give them more.
That afternoon, a letter came from Isaac's wife, Jenny. Jenny had smallish handwriting and her dotted i's looked like flowers. Isaac had died, killed in war combat. He stepped on a grenade on accident. It took off his leg and he died the next morning. Maria never felt it coming.
Maria opened her mouth. She couldn't stop singing, not even when her father came in, his face angry, twisted, and yelled at her to turn off that damn radio. They were both surprised he spoke in English. Her father rarely spoke in English.
"Looks like the war's over!" her mother laughed, and hummed a Beatles song under her breath. They went out for dinner that night. It was the first night in years. Maria could breathe easily again.