A few days ago, I found out that a piece I submitted to a periodical has been chosen for publication (the $250 will be much appreciated!) It's an article about my experience working with students on modernizing Shakespeare in some of my literature classes. I'll share it when it is officially published next January but for now, I'd like to share a short story that I also submitted that didn't get selected but that I'm pleased with how it turned out.
Shakespeare & Poems in Portuguese
Peering through the screen door at John, I explain, “I’m headed back to campus- I just thought I’d swing by…”
Ushering me into the hallway with a clap on my shoulder, John interrupts, “Come in, come in…”
“…I just thought I’d swing by to see if you needed a ride.”
While rubbing Biscuit vigorously on the top of her head as she bounds in and around my stride, whipping her tail excitedly against my jeans, John responds, “Thanks, mang, but Sylvia has roped me into going to her eighth grade open house tonight so I won’t be heading back to the dorm for a few hours.”
“Huh. I thought those engagements were normally intended for the parents,” I whisper, while casting a glance towards a napping Mr. Fialho reclining supine in his easy chair, a Portuguese community newspaper spread across his chest rising and falling with each breath.
“They only have translators for Spanish,” John explains, whisking me into a chair in the kitchen and offering me a snack.
While trying to decide between the box of donuts, plated pile of chocolate chip cookies, and bowl of oranges, I overhear Mrs. Fialho asking John and Sylvia, who are already putting on their coats, “Because my English is so bad, Sylvia, you are… are shamed of your mama?” She attempts to continue but is interrupted by the answer, “Don’t worry about it, Ma” and the dispute is settled as if the outcome depended not on the words spoken but the way in which they were. Mrs. Fialho’s stammering has no chance against Sylvia’s confidently spoken flow of English.
After zipping up her jacket and flinging a tiny matching purse over her shoulder, Sylvia lightly kisses her mother on the cheek, “Love you, Ma” and Mrs. Fialho replies, “I luff you too, Sylvia” above the din of youngest sibling David and several cousins in a nearby bedroom erupting at the consequence of some event occurring on the Nintendo game being played. She starts to add, “And take careful, John, when you are driving,” but the two have left by the time she manages to finish the sentence. Finally, she hurries to the door and yells something in Portuguese to the two before they get in the car.
Just as I start chomping on a honey-glazed donut, John and Sylvia’s brother, Louie, who’s a year or so younger than John and me, plops down in the adjacent chair, smirking. With the dark shoulder-length curls that defy his father’s idea of a real man’s hairstyle and his smooth flow of slang that defies complete comprehension by his mother, Louie looks like he’s just barely tolerated in the household.
“Whassup, Rock Star?” he asks as he lunges for a donut. But before I get a chance to answer, Mrs. Fialho shuffles back into the kitchen and squeezes in between Louie and me, apparently having no idea how uncomfortably close I find this. She brushes her hands on her apron, and with a disarming smile, grabs my cheeks and rubs them with her slightly damp hands. “Tony, such a doll! How you like de food, yes? Such luffly boy, such beautiful blue ice and blond hair. Going to be star just like my Louie, wit your kitars, oh yes.”
I return her smile, but shove the donut back in my mouth to cover it up, self-conscious about how patronizing it may have appeared, as if somehow I should get some sort of credit for paying attention to Mrs. Fialho, whose own kids don’t pay her much at all. Suddenly, Louie takes this opportunity to sigh heavily, then squeeze a duck squawk sound out of the side of his mouth. It’s bizarre, Mrs. Fialho standing still in front of me with her huge smile and bright eyes magnified by the powerful lenses in her glasses and Louie behind her, his eyes wide open, cocking his head from left to right a la Harpo Marx, silently mocking his mother’s good-natured hospitality.
“Sometimes when I eat my lunch at work, I write de…” Mrs. Fialho begins in English, then asks Louie in Portuguese the translation for a word. Louie looks to me, with his mouthful of donut, and mumbles, “Yeah, yeah, the poems, Ma.” When she doesn’t seem to have picked up the word from his garbled utterance, he impatiently barks, “Poems, Ma!” and adds “What the hell, yo?” all the while smirking as he looks at me.
“You know poems, yes, Tony?”
My silent nod is steamrolled by Louie’s exclamation, “Of course he knows what poetry is, Ma!” He caps this with another squawk, this time a slower, lower-pitched one that runs into Mrs. Fialho’s next painfully delivered sentence.
“Dese poems I am writing at my lunchbreak, dey are all in Portuguese. Maybe I can say into English.” With a snap of her fingers, she exclaims “I get dese poems, to try to read into English for you!” and exits the kitchen.
Louie sighs heavily, loudly, and asks again, “So how’s the band anyway, yo?”
I gaze over to see if Mrs. Fialho has returned from the other room yet before I answer. “Yeah, it’s cool, it’s been going pretty well.”
“Dese poems not so easy to say into English for me but I try.”
Squinting through her glasses at the words written on ripped slices of cardboard, she begins. “Wit your long hair (I try to keep my chuckle inaudible as her accent renders the phrase ‘long hair’ to sound much more like ‘lawn care’) and bright red kitar, you are a star…My Louie, I see you on de TV but you… you… can’t, Louie, you can’t see me, inside, when you are inside de TV and I am outside…I can’t say into English. Maybe I try anudder one.”
Louie groans again, shifting in his chair, then lets his tongue slide out over his bottom lip, as the poetry reading resumes.
“OK, I try dis one now. Louie, you are my star. You sing and play your kitar and de house has all such beautiful music. I make your food while you practice and fill you up when de lunch is ready. Maybe you can be star for everyone if God will help fill you up too. OK, maybe I try another.”
“That’s enough, Ma. He doesn’t want to hear anymore.”
That’s not actually true, however. After hearing the last one translated very well, I begin to understand what the first one was about and I’m curious to hear another. It hardly matters, however. Even if Louie was right in assuming I wasn’t interested, she launches into the next one.
“I work in de factory every day. I have my friends here and I like de…” She peers over the chunk of cardboard. “What is de word for de man who gives you work?”
Discarding ‘employer’, ‘manager’ and ‘foreman’ from the thesaurus residing in my native English-speaking head, I offer “Boss?”
“Yes, yes, my boss, Mister Kozub. OK, I start over. I work in de factory every day. I have my friends here and I like my boss. But my Louie will not work in de factory. He play his kitar. He make his mama proud of him when he sing such beautiful music. Now he can play his kitar for his work. Louie my star make happy everybody like he make happy his mama.”
Without a word of intermission, she shuffles the cardboard pieces and starts another. “I write my poems for Louie. I want him to become star. Maybe someday he can play such beautiful music and sing my poem for him. This would be a dream is now true for his mama.”
Yawning, drowsy from the downswing of the sugar rush brought on by the honey-glazed donuts I ingested an hour ago, I reach over to the coffee table to pick up my keys and notice they’re lying on top of a piece of paper that turns out to be a brief composition Sylvia wrote on Shakespeare.
The paper has all the trappings of an eighth-grader’s homework assignment, with impeccable penmanship in red ink at the bottom that reads, “This is good research, Sylvia, but in writing a biography on an author such as Shakespeare, try to concentrate on some of the more important works he wrote and don’t forget to discuss why readers and playgoers still find his work relevant. For example, What would people today think of two thirteen year-olds such as Romeo & Juliet getting married? etc.”
Curious, I begin to read Sylvia’s composition from the beginning. It consists of Shakespeare’s life story starting with the names of his parents and then Shakespeare’s birth date and early life. It goes on to tell about how he met his wife, when he married her and says a little about their life in Stratford, England. Next, Sylvia lists the names, births and deaths of his children and although the information is scant, Sylvia informs readers of what is known of the lives of his children.
At that moment, Mrs. Fialho sits down in the adjacent chair and exhales heavily while smoothing out her apron. I immediately lurch upwards on the sofa, wondering whether it’s rude of me to be practically prone on her couch reading her daughter’s homework.
“Sylvia is good English writer, yes? She make her mama so proud. Just like John, so de same, good students, get good grades. And Louie play such beautiful music, like you. I love for you to bring your kitar and you and Louie play on de porch. And David, still young boy. Mama always like de youngest specially.” She yawns softly and continues. “Father can’t speak into English good. Maybe better than me…” she adds, although I know this is nowhere near the truth.
“How you like Sylvia’s English…write…into English writing? Is hard to learn English. I know. She speak so fast, I can never hear. She talk on de telephone to her friends when we make dinner. Sylvia good inside de kitchen like her mama.” As she says this, she smiles and I nod and smile myself, silently as always, afraid to intimidate her with my fluent English.
“Yes, Sylvia watch David and Pedro and Josue, her…her…children of my sister…when Maria, my sister is working. So she’s such good girl, I let her go wit her friends sometime and not wash dishes after eat.”
Casting a glance towards the still slumbering Mr. Fialho on the other side of the room, she whispers, “Her father not like I let her go wit friends but he not know. Different here, not like in Portugal.”
I nod again.
“Sometimes maybe I like better here too.”