by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993-96)
GINA LEANS into the corner of the tenement kitchen, trying to stay out of the way.
She’s only nine years old and doesn’t take up much space, pushing close up against the walls. She idly stretches out a finger and runs it down the yellowed, chipped paint, and puts her finger into her mouth. Streaks of dirt mark her cheeks; her black hair hangs in tousled strands around her face; her bare toes wiggle on the crusty linoleum floor. She watches dust motes sparkling like tiny diamonds on sun rays filtering through the dirty window.
Gina is small and light, full of frenetic energy, chattering incessantly, moving in perpetual pirouettes. She beams in wide smiles when pleased but, when crossed, her brow creases, and she crashes into thunderous tantrums. Her mercurial energy seems limitless but, when expended, she drops like a felled tree.
Gina’s mother yells at her from the doorway. “Stop pickin’ at that wall! It’s dirty!”
Rosa is twenty-eight years old, statuesque, framed in a window where light plays upon her dark, long hair, and flashes from a dangling earring. Rosa is not her real name, it’s her American name. Among the Rom, or Gypsies, everyone has secret Romani names that godparents whisper into a baby’s ear, a name that only the family and spirits know. Rosa has an ofisa, a store front on the first floor of the building where a picture of an open palm hangs in the window with the caption, “Psychic Readings – $10 special.” Rosa sometimes stands in the doorway and beckons to passersby; occasionally someone, usually a woman, will wander in for a palm or tarot card reading. Rosa adroitly increases the price to $20 or $30 at the end of her reading because, she explains, she had read two palms instead of one, or spent longer on the tarot cards than usual. Sometimes she gets a customer who comes back several times to solve her problems by following Rosa’s occult advice. These are the customers Rosa looks for, charging more for every session, relieving some gullible clients of “evil money.” At the first sign of any altercation that might lead to a police investigation, the family packs up and disappears.
Rosa stands at the stove stirring a pot of spicy stew, in a cigarette in her other hand balanced on her hip. The kitchen is furnished with a formica table and four straight chairs; a window looks out across an alley onto another dingy building.
Gina’s father, Danny, is out canvassing neighborhoods and parking lots in search of gaji, non-Gypsy, car owners, who might hire him to smooth out dents. Since he has no license for such work, he charges $20 or 30 a job, for which a licensed repairman might collect $200. He also goes to used car sales, buys cheap and tries to sell expensive after he does some body work on the cars. He visits other Rom in the city, talking with the men about business and clan gossip, marriages to be arranged, or the health of an elder. Gina’s teen-age brother, Nicky, works with his father, and spends all his time with him. He’s a tall boy with jet black hair that falls around his dark eyes. He shakes it back like a stallion would toss its mane, a gesture that looks haughty, defiant, that appeals to girls. He’s a leader among the other boys, the strongest when it comes to rough-housing, the slickest when it comes to smoking cigarettes and nipping from the grown men’s brandy bottles. But when they’re around gaji, Nicky lets his father do all the talking as he looks at the ground in silence. He wonders a lot about the gajo world, the alien world he sees on TV where people live in big houses or even tenements like his, but whose family life is very different. When Nicky asked his father about those people whose lives included school and careers, Danny told him to pay no attention, it was all make believe. Nicky had gone to different schools until eighth grade, as they traveled around the country, and he knew how to read and write, which was a help to his father, who had never learned. Gina hopes she could go to school some day, but girls were usually kept away from gaji, who were considered to be a dangerous source of marimè . . . defilement. Instead, she would learn how to tell fortunes, “read people,” her mother would say. There was nothing psychic about it, just an intuitive ability that was cultivated early in Romani girls. Rosa laughed at gaji women who thought she had supernatural powers.
Rosa put a bowl on the table, and yelled again at Gina. “Come and eat! You need to eat somethin’. You’re too skinny. Who’s gonna’ look at you when we go see your cousins, and they’re lookin’ for a girl for their sons. Not too soon to be choosin’ someone for you, you know.”
Gina sidled over to the table and sat down in front of a bowl of steaming stew. The savory smell made her stomach rise, and with it a sudden surge of fury. She slammed her spoon onto the table, hunched her shoulders and glared at her mother.
“I don’t wanna’ eat, I don’t wanna’ get promised to any strange boy, I don’t want you to keep telling me what I have to do.” Her voice rose. “I don’t wanna’ live here . . . and I don’t wanna’ go anywhere else.” Her rage crested then flowed away into tears as she bent her head onto the table and sobbed. “I don’t know what I want.”
Rosa stood still in the middle of the kitchen, staring at her daughter. The hand she’d raised to slap her, as she always did at such outbursts, fell to her side. What was wrong with Gina? She’d never behaved like this before; she didn’t have her usual energy; maybe she was sick. Travel would cure her. Travel always cured the Rom, she reminded herself. Even old people who were very sick would be bundled up in a car and driven across the country, and they often arrived well. She touched her daughter’s neck with a light hand. “Never mind. You can eat later.”
Rosa heard footsteps outside the door, then Danny and Nicky walked in. Danny washed his hands and face, the gold chain around his neck swinging over the sink. Rosa watched him, thinking she’d better wash that shirt, a black nylon shirt that stretched across his growing paunch. Wiping his hands on a towel, he raised an eyebrow at her and patted his belly, as she set plates on the table. Moments later, a knock at the door made Danny jump up from his chair. He opened the door a crack and there stood a gajo, a young man wearing a shirt with an insignia on the pocket, a uniform of some kind. Danny raised his chin. “Yessir, what can I do for you?”
The man replied, “I’m from the Department of Public Health. We’re inspecting this building, along with others on the block, for lead poisoning in the paint. We’ve tested downstairs and found that the walls are full of lead paint. I’d like to check your apartment.”
Danny blocked the doorway. “What do you mean, lead poison?”
“It’s a chemical that was used in paint years ago that’s very toxic, especially to children. We’re alerting landlords and tenants. We’re getting them to clean up these places, remove the paint, you know. Before people get sick.”
“So how would somebody get sick?” Danny asked.
“Just by breathing the dust from the walls, or, in the case of kids, putting stuff in their mouths that contains lead.”
Rosa stood a few feet behind Danny listening to the conversation. She interjected behind Danny’s shoulder. “So how would you know if somebody was sick with this, this lead poison thing?”
The gajo replied, “We do blood tests on everyone to see if they have any lead in their systems. If so, there are medicines to eliminate the toxins.” He peered inside the room and glimpsed Gina, who had retreated to her corner. “You should all be tested. Especially your little girl there.”
Rosa spoke close to Danny’s ear in Romanes. “I ain’t gonna’ let those gaji take blood from my baby.”
Danny poked her in the hip. “Shut up, I’ll handle this.”
“So, officer. That is, I guess you’re an officer, being from the Department of Public Health and all. When would you want to do these tests, when do you have to come in here? We’re not ready for you to do that now; we’re on our way out.”
“That’s OK,” replied the gajo. “I can come back tomorrow morning, test the walls, and tell you where to go for blood tests. The Health Department’s not far from here.”
“OK,” said Danny. “We’ll be waiting for you tomorrow morning.”
He closed the door and shot the bolt. He and Rosa stared at each other, an unspoken signal in their dark eyes, an unheard alarm in their ears. They feared gajo officials of any kind; they were all more or less police, authorities who could arrest them, take their kids away, cause them trouble. An unspoken message passed between Rosa and Danny. “We’re out of here.”
As Danny and Nicky ate, Rosa gathered their belongings, rolling up sheets, blankets, clothes and stuffing them into bags and suitcases. “Gina, eat now!,” she commanded, shoving a bowl of food in front of her. Gina picked at the food, ate a slice of bread and butter, and took a sip of Nicky’s coffee. They were moving again. They were always on the move. As soon as Rosa had washed and packed their pots and pans, they hauled everything downstairs and stowed it in their big, old Cadillac.
The sun was already sinking, but they had often set out on the road at dusk, rolling during the night through small towns with flashing lights that beckoned to motels and all-night restaurants. Gina knelt in the back seat, staring out the window at that yellow line that run forever down the middle of the road, disappearing like an arrow in the distance. In the morning, they would stop to eat at a fast food place where everything was plastic and there was no danger of eating off gaji plates. They slept in the car, Danny and Nicky taking turns driving, heading for homes and ofisa of people of their clan. Danny spent a lot of time on his cell phone, calling people all over the country to see who was ready to move on, whose place his family could move into for a while. You were more welcome if you had baxht, luck, a roll of big bills and the power that went with it. Danny kept thinking, as he drove through the night, Nicky sleeping beside him, Rosa and Gina in the back seat, maybe Chicago would be a lucky place. His cousin had a nice set-up there; Rosa was good at fortune-telling and he heard there was a lot of work with cars. They could make it there, way better than Boston. He dreamed his dreams at the wheel, that eternal wheel of Romani wanderers.
NEXT DAY the Health Department Inspector knocked at their door. It swung open. He peered inside to see all the shabby furniture more or less in place, but no sign of people. They were gone. He thought about the mother, father and the young man; they’d all been living in a toxic oven for who knows how long. He thought about that little girl standing in the corner close to the walls. She ran the greatest risk of lead poisoning, because little ones breathe faster, and inhale more. What had frightened them away?
“Surely not me,” said the Health Inspector to himself.