“The Exchange,” “Mama Can You Clean My Ears,” and “AJ and Me” by Hester Vanderwerf

Posted: June 14, 2016 in Vol. 8: Creative Writing

The Exchange

The day had just started for Emilio Perez, but work had a way of wearing him thin, and he had been wrestling a hangover since he had dropped his wife and son off at her sister’s house in the country. He was hot and uncomfortable, and he knew that even though breaks weren’t permitted on the clock, most of the guys wandered off for a cigarette every so often. Therefore, he figured that going back to his truck for a few swigs of the Black Velvet he had stashed in his glove compartment wouldn’t hurt anyone. After all, he had a lot on his mind. Julie had mouthed off to him again last night, and if his son hadn’t come at him with that frying pan like a bat out of hell he wouldn’t have had to thump him in the chest so hard. It seemed to Emilio that they always had it out for him. Why couldn’t they just let a man relax after a long day at work? And why was his boy such a little bitch? It’s not like I haven’t taught him everything I know. He knows how to take a punch, now he just needs to figure out how to dish them out, he reasoned as he thumbed the controls on the cockpit panel.

Sensing that it was the right moment, he put his CAT dozer in park, saluted his foreman, turned off the engine, and began to hoist himself down when he felt his shirt cuff snag on the gearshift. Shit, he thought. All at once, the dozer lurched into reverse and knocked him off of the machine. He landed with a faint thud on the hard soil, but just as he raised his right arm to straighten his hard hat, he felt a small tug on his wrist. His shirt was pinned under the caterpillar track, and the next wheel in the tank tread inched toward his forearm. His eyes darted from the tank tread to his arm as he let out a small gasp, and time seemed to slow as he felt it press on his arm. At first it was only the slight pull of skin stretching as dough does under a rolling pin, but a moment later the searing pain of flesh pressing into crumbling bones sent flashes of agony through his body. He screamed as the pain surged through his nerves, but all that could be heard was the faint tink tink of metal gently scraping metal, and the dull crunch crunch of bones being ground into dirt.


Thick, wet air hung around the country house like a distant uncle. It was muggy and overcast, but there was very little chance of rain even though heavy white clouds blanketed the blue. Nadina knew this because they weren’t thick enough for rain when they were white; it was only when they were grey that she would have to stay inside. Her mother had told her earlier that morning to go out and play with her brothers and sisters, and although the plastic pool that they had inflated in their backyard seemed a welcome relief from the heat, there was something going on inside that washed her with a sweet, nervous feeling that she couldn’t ignore.
When she was sure that she couldn’t be seen, Nadina folded herself under the large, unvarnished wooden table that her father had built before he left. She looked out past the hems of the white tablecloth and noticed her two aunts, Aunt Georgette and Aunt Georgina, gathered in the parlor of her mother’s brightly-lit country house. Aunt Georgette and Aunt Georgina were twins, but Aunt Georgette was as thin as Aunt Georgina was fat: Nadina often wondered how they ended up that way when they both came from the same place at the same time. Nadina supposed they were there to gossip about the slew of men that had wronged them over the years as they did every weekend, but today was different. It was strikingly hot, but instead of complaining about the humidity levels and how Nay needed to bite the bullet and get an air conditioner already, they seemed to be scurrying about with a mysterious sense of purpose. Nadina watched as they took oddly-shaped wooden bowls and vases out from hidden cabinets and placed them carefully throughout the room, and for the first time she noticed that the chairs in the parlor had been moved and stacked up in a corner. For a moment Nadina wondered if someone had died because despite the heat, her aunts and her mother were dressed in heavy white cotton skirts and thick white blouses. All-white clothing was typically reserved for funerals, but death was not common in her family and she would have been the first to know if someone had indeed passed. Still, she thought, it was a strange sight—her aunts hurrying about, dancing to salsa music at high noon in their funeral clothes. Beneath the table, she wished that she too could wear her swishy, white funeral skirt with the petticoats and her silk button-up blouse. Before long, she found herself carefully inspecting Aunt Georgina’s thick, honey-colored paddles of fat that jiggled from her arms as she unfolded a large white sheet and draped it over her mother’s crumbly leather sofa. In the next room over, she could hear her mother’s collares gently tapping against her chest, the long necklaces of colored glass beads quietly clinking together as she moved in an unpredictable cadence through the room.

Careful to remain unnoticed, Nadina gazed at her mother’s canastillero, her altar, as if in a trance. The altar loomed over the dining room like an Egyptian tomb: its shelves were filled from corner to corner with small glass treasures from across the world, each one a different color and shape and texture and placed next to others of the same color to honor the orishas, the saints. The result was a massive three-tiered shelf sectioned into swaths of vibrant hues and textures: amber glass and peacock feathers for Oshun, the Saint of rivers, lakes, and love; deep cobalt blue vases for Yemonja, the Mother of the sea; and an all-white corner adorned with soft china and silver coins for Obatala, the Saint of purity and consciousness. Near the bottom sat Elegua, the trickster warrior bathed in red and black. When she was sure her mother was sufficiently busy in the next room, Nadina crept out from under the table and stood at eye-level with the very top of the altar. She let her eyes take in the rough glass of the soft-pink glass geckos and the rusted thimbles that had collected a thin layer of dust since Nadina had seen them last. She breathed in the bittersweet scent of incense ash and burnt candlewax and raised her hand to pinch off some of the soft, oily residue.

“Don’t go near my Saints!” Nadina’s mother called to her from down the hall. Nadina turned and saw her mother walking toward her swiftly with her candle box in one arm and a grill lighter in the other. Nadina knew her mother had come to feed the saints, so she scrambled back under the table in order to get a glimpse from afar. Her mother approached the altar and gently set down her box of candles, but instead of taking them out and lighting them, she stood with her eyes closed and whispered softly and slowly to the altar as if to cleanse it of Nadina’s presence. After a minute or two, she turned around and began to walk toward the parlor, but she stopped short in front of the dining room table.

“You’d better get out from under there like I told you,” Nadina’s mother’s voice was hard and soft at the same time, like butterscotch candy that had been left in the sun.

“But I just wanted to—,” Nadina searched for a reason to be inside, but she couldn’t think of one in time. She climbed out from under the table, straightened her shirt, and looked up into her mother’s pupil-less eyes.

“They got the pool set up out there. You got your bathing suit on already. Get going ‘fore they get grass all in the water.”
Nadina turned around and headed for the big screen door that led to the carport, but she was nearly knocked over by a woman coming in at the same time she was going out. Nadina was caught off guard by the strong, unfamiliar scent of citrus and what smelled like expensive shampoo. She looked up at the heavily clothed figure and saw that is was her Aunt Julie. Aunt Julie lived in the city and only ever came to the country house on special occasions. She had coffee-colored skin and the same dark eyes as the rest of her aunts, but something told Nadina to look away quickly when she saw them. Aunt Julie gave Nadina a weak smile as she walked past into the living room, but Nadina knew that crooked smile. Her mother gave the same smile when she had been up late crying.

Aunt Julie’s son, Andreo, was coming in the door when Nadina’s mother said, “We’re gonna be in here talking for a while Andreo, but they got a pool set up out back if you want to swim. One of the boys’ll get you some shorts. Nadina, take him out back and show him around.”

“Hi,” Nadina’s voice was softer than she had anticipated.

Andreo raised his right hand in a military-like wave and dropped it as he looked down at Nadina’s faded acid-washed shorts and the giant pink t-shirt she had tied at the waist with an obscene yellow hairband. Nadina felt a pang of shame as she looked at his crisp, black jeans and his wrinkle-free white button-down shirt. She knew immediately that his clothes were new and hadn’t been washed yet because they still hung from his thin shoulders awkwardly, as though they had not yet molded to his shape. Suddenly, she felt an involuntary twinge of anger as she noticed that he had not removed his shoes before entering the kitchen. It was bad luck, she thought, bad luck and disrespectful. She looked at her mother, who didn’t say anything. Instead, her mother looked at Andreo and nodded in the direction of the front door.

Nadina led him out into the sun, but as they walked through the cramped foyer, she heard her mother’s hushed voice as she talked to her sisters. “You bring a comb with you?” she asked. “Even a shirt will do, don’t worry. We just gettin’ everything set up now. We think Oggun will be the one…” Her mother’s voice trailed off as Nadina sneaked in one last glance through the dining room and saw her mother lug a large cardboard box out from under her sewing table.

Once they were outside, Nadina and Andreo wished they had stayed inside. The clouds had opened up to reveal a searing sun that bore down on them like a drill, and Nadina could tell that Andreo and was not used to the heat. His brow furled under the brightness, and he pulled his shirt at the shoulders to unpeel it from his skin. She’d been told that his family had air conditioning in their apartment, which seemed to be true because Andreo’s dark, buzz-cut curls were already salted with drops of sweat. As they made their way across the yard, Nadina let her mind wander to what her mother had said about Oggun. What could that angry warrior saint have to do with anything? Of all the saints, he was probably her least favorite. The stories all said that he was a hot-headed metal worker with tools that he used to kill people. But she knew that he was also the most powerful in terms of brute strength, and she knew that his protection against the evils of others was something to be revered.

When she got to end of the front yard, she looked back to see Andreo trudging slowly through the over grown grass with hard, deliberate steps. She could tell that he was not accustomed to walking through grass. He should have taken his shoes off, Nadina thought, feeling as though she was superior for having known this. She watched him over her shoulder for a moment only as he sucked in air harshly through his lips. He then stopped short and unbuttoned the top of his shirt before angrily ripping the entire thing off over his head. When he began walking again, Nadina noticed the massive purple bruise in the middle of his chest. She couldn’t see the whole thing as some of it was obscured by his wife-beater tank top, but through the sweat-drenched cotton she could make out that it extended down and around both of his ribs like a fruit punch stain under his skin.

“What happened to your chest?” Nadina asked. “Looks pretty bad. One time my brother threw a firetruck at my little brother and he got this huge bruise on his forehead. It got green after a while and looked pretty gross, but—,”

“It’s nothing.” Andreo pulled his balled-up overshirt from one of his back pockets and began putting it back on.

“Where’d you get it, though?” Nadina tried to get another glance before he covered it up completely. “Did you fall on a rock or something?”

“No. Stop asking about it already. Jeez, I just …”

“You what?” Nadina said, the weight of her curiosity getting the better of her.

“Nothing! My dad was teaching me some boxing moves and his hand slipped. It happens all the time. Now quit asking about it already, Jesus.” Andreo began buttoning his shirt until the bruise couldn’t be seen. Even when he was sure it was covered, he hunched his shoulders inward as if to shield himself from the intensity of Nadina’s gaze. They walked toward the backyard in silence, Nadina looking back every so often to make sure that Andreo was still close behind. All that could be heard was the soft snapping of twigs and leaves underfoot.

“This is stupid,” Andreo muttered under his breath.
“What?” Nadina’s voice was peppered with more anger than she had intended.

“This sucks,” he said, with a hard emphasis on the last word. “It’s hot as hell, my shoes are getting dirty, and your mom won’t let us go inside to play Nintendo. That’s if you even have Nintendo.”

All at once, Nadina felt her face get hot as she said sharply, “We do have Nintendo, but they’re getting ready for something and we just can’t go in right now. There’s stuff to do out here anyway.”

“Like what, play in a kiddie pool with little kids? Besides, that pool’s leaking. It’s not like a real pool, like at my house.” Andreo bent down to retie his shoe as Nadina tried to think of something to say, but shame robbed her of her voice. When Andreo stood back up, Nadina tried to look as though what he said hadn’t bothered her.

“Well I don’t really want to go swi…”
“Can we just go inside?”Andreo angrily slapped the back of his neck.

Nadina waited to answer. She knew that going back inside was out of the question. Once her mother had told them to go outside and play, there was no going back in until sunset. Her mind wandered back to the white sheets and the cardboard box. “It seems like they’re doing something important in there,” she said.

“Well at my house my mom doesn’t force us to stay outside,” Andreo retorted. Nadina felt some searing words on the tip of her tongue, but she swallowed them bitterly instead.

In a final act of protest, Andreo began to walk away from the house toward the pavement that lined the cul de sac. Nadina could tell he was heading toward the overgrown hibiscus bush to sit in the shade.

“Hey, hey, wait.” Nadina ran toward him. “There’s a window in the back. The curtain’s kind of short and we can probably see into the living room. They could be having a ceremony.” Sweat dripped down her temples as she caught up to him, her hot breath leaving her body in sudden bursts. As she bent over to catch her breath, she thought about what she said and felt the budding excitement build in her veins. She had always wanted to watch a ceremony, but besides house blessings and head cleansings, she had never seen a real one.

“Like a Santeria thing?” Andreo stopped walking and turned around. “My dad said that’s all black magic. My mom wouldn’t do that stuff.”

“Well, I heard that they can actually make things happen,” she replied. “Like I don’t know if you could win the lottery with it or anything, but they say that they can make weird things happen.”

“Well if you can’t win the lottery, what’s the point?” Andreo laughed. “But I guess we could check it out if they are doing something cool in there. There’s nothing better to do in this neighborhood anyway.”

Nadina motioned for him to follow her to the other side of the house.

The outside wall of the Eastern side of the country house was a lighter shade of brick red, and the paint had cracked and peeled having been assaulted by the rising sun for years. Nadina and Andreo immediately felt the cool relief of the shade as they disappeared into the shadowy brush. The red dust from decades-old dirt had formed a thick ring around the bottoms of Andreo’s pristine sneakers, and his jeans had become saturated with beggar-lice seeds by the time they reached the window.

“Okay, here it is.” Nadina crouched down until her eyes were parallel with the small strip of visibility through the curtain and the window frame.

“You can’t really see,” Andreo crouched next to Nadina and peered inside the darkened living room. Nadina’s mother had hung black sheets up over the windows, and her aunts had lit dozens of candles throughout the parlor and lined them up around the perimeter of the room. Some were small white floating candles, others were red and thin, and still others were white and thick and nestled in tall glass bottles on the floor. The light from the candles washed the room in a soft orange glow, and if Nadina hadn’t known any better, she would have assumed the sun had already set had she been inside.

Since she had gone outside, Nadina saw that Aunt Georgette and Aunt Georgina had tied strips of white fabric around their heads, and they had draped even more white sheets over the furniture. They were still bustling around, only slower now, and more deliberately. It seemed to Nadina that they were just finishing up whatever it was they had been doing because everyone seemed calmer, but she knew that candles had that effect on people sometimes.

“What’s my mom doing?” Andreo said to himself as he watched the figures move about in the shadowy candlelight. Aunt Julie was sitting on a chair in the middle of the room, her hair wrapped in the same fabric as the others. Nadina’s mother was standing above Aunt Julie, and saying something to her that Nadina and Andreo couldn’t quite hear. She was holding a large brown bowl of what appeared to be water with flower petals inside, and she was repeatedly dipping one of her hands in the water only to splash Aunt Julie on the head with it as she chanted something that Nadina couldn’t quite make out. Besides squinting a little when the water got near her eyes, Aunt Julie sat on the chair as still as a rock, staring intently at the shadows on the wall, her pupils large and dark with orange flecks of firelight swimming in them.

Outside, Andreo backed away from the window suddenly and closed his eyes tightly as the returning sunlight burned his pupils. He felt dizzy, as if he had gotten up too quickly, and bent over and cupped his knees with his palms.

“What is your mom doing to my mom?” Andreo asked Nadina. His breathing was uneven and heavy, and his shirt clung to his bones like wet paper.

“I don’t kn …”

Andreo cut her off in panic. “Your mom is crazy! She’s crazy!”

“Would you shut up?” Nadina said. “They’re gonna hear you!” She pulled him by his shirt and he fell to his knees and peered into the room again, his breathing fast and hard. Nadina’s mother had since placed pieces of raw coconut in Aunt’s Julie’s hands, and was looking up at the ceiling with her eyes closed. As if on cue, Aunt Georgina and Aunt Georgette, who had been sitting quietly in the shadows, stood up and left the room. They then returned a few moments later, each carrying an armful of various objects across the parlor. Aunt Georgette balanced a platter of cooked yams and a small plate of cigars on one hand and held a bottle of clear alcohol in the other. Aunt Georgina, laboring in the shadows, brought in the cardboard box, which looked much heavier than Nadina thought it would.

Her mother glanced around her and nodded to Aunt Georgina and Georgette, and, as though they had done this many times, they placed the objects uniformly around Nadina’s mother and Aunt Julie. Nadina’s mother then cleared her throat and began speaking again, this time in English and in a much lower pitch than before.“If there are any orishas here with us now, we honor your presence, and we ask that you accept our offerings. We humbly ask for your guidance; your love; your unending wisdom. We come to you with our sister, Julia Amaya Perez. Her husband, Emilio Bibiano Perez has inflicted a great evil upon her and her son, Andreo Vicent Perez, and we graciously ask that you remove this burden from her supple shoulders.” She then took the pieces of coconut from Aunt Julie’s palms. “Will this offering of fresh flowers and fruit fill your belly?” She threw the coconut at Aunt Julie’s feet, and shook her head. “Will this offering of yams and honey fill your belly?” Again, she threw the coconut, and shook her head. “Will this offering of cigars and rum fill your belly?” She threw the coconut again, and shook her head a third time. “Will this rooster fill your belly?” She threw the coconut a fourth time, and then nodded her head and the corners of her mouth turned up. All of a sudden, Aunt Julie, who had been silent and still the entire time, leaned far back into her chair, and her chest jumped up, as though an electrical current had run through her body. Then without warning, she snarled a loud, low grunt, and her body jerked up and out of the chair until she stood upright. Andreo noticed from his perch outside the window that she looked like a man: she looked like his father when he had been drinking.

Aunt Julie’s body, which before had been in peaceful repose only a few moments earlier, was now teeming with energy. Her shoulders rose and fell, and her eyes darted around the room wildly, as though she were looking for something. When she saw the plate of cigars, she lunged clumsily for them and took one between her fingers, swiped it through one of the candle’s flames, and brought it to her lips swiftly, as though she had done so every day of her life. Andreo’s eyes grew large as he watched her inhale long and deep, her eyes tightly closed with pleasure. When Aunt Julie opened her eyes, Nadina noticed that the whites had all but disappeared and smoke started to run out of her nose like an upturned waterfall. Then a loud hissing sound filled the air as Aunt Julie tipped her head back. All of a sudden, a booming laugh left her small body along with an enormous plume of black smoke. It was a like metal scraping asphalt, and it frightened Nadina as she and Andreo looked on. Nadina’s mother, who was only mere inches from Aunt Julie, coughed through a gentle smile, and moved back slightly. She looked at her sisters and said, “Oggun is here. And he is hungry.”

“Bring me the tools,” Nadina’s mother said.

One aunt disappeared from the room and brought back a small metal cup full of miniature metallurgy tools: a primitive axe, an anvil. Nadina knew these were Oggun’s tools, but Andreo’s breathing quickened and his thin body began to shake.

“What are they going to do to her?” Andreo shouted. “What are they doing to do! Mom!”

Nadina grabbed his head with her left arm and covered his mouth with her hand. She noticed his breath was hot and wet against the dry skin of her palm.
“Keep quiet!” she said. “They’re not going to hurt her! My mom is not a killer! Didn’t you hear, they’re trying to help her!” Andreo’s breathing slowed and the fear that had settled in his eyes began to fade. Nadina took her hand away from his mouth and rested it on his trembling shoulder. “My mom would never do anything to hurt anyone, okay? She helps people.”

Inside, Aunt Julie’s cigar smoke had filled the room, and Nadina and Andreo could barely see beyond a blur of orange and black. Through the thick smoke, Nadina’s mother signaled to one of her sisters to bring her the cardboard box and Nadina could just barely see her mother open the top flaps of the box. She plunged her arms into the bottom and stiffened her arms as if struggling to grab hold of something. When her arms emerged, attached to her hands by the feet was a large rooster, its black plumage shining with oil in the candlelight. Upon seeing the rooster, Aunt Julie slumped back in her chair and tilted her head as far back as it would go. Then, Nadina’s mother reached into the metal cup where Oggun’s metal tools sat and pulled out a hunting knife. The blade was long and sharp. Then Aunt Georgina grabbed the rooster by the feet as Nadina’s mother moved her left hand up the rooster’s body until it tenderly cupped its small head. Then, with her other hand, she raised the knife to the rooster’s neck, and plunged it in smoothly with one quick motion. The blood came in small drops at first, and then as she removed the knife, a stream of blackened red erupted from the rooster’s wet feathers and spilled out onto Aunt Julie’s face. As it ran down her neck and onto her shoulders, she laughed the loud tinny laugh until she could barely breathe. After a few moments that seemed like an eternity to Nadina and Adreo, the rooster’s body went limp, and the last of Aunt Julie’s laughter left her body.




Mama Can You Clean My Ears
Mama, I’d say, if you were awake,
Mama can you clean my ears?
Get me the bobby pin and the toilet paper,
You’d say, and you’d rake the insides of my ears
Under the white heat of the lamp with no shade
And it felt like a finger full of cool butter
And a rare green apple on a school night.

Mama, I’d say, if you were awake,
Mama can I sleep on the bed in your room?
I swear sometimes I still feel like swimming
In your cigarettes and CK One
And I can still feel the cockroaches creeping
Across my back in the middle of the night.

Mama, I’d say, if you were awake,
Mama can I watch Mildred Pierce with you?
Sometimes when I remember real hard,
I can still see Joan Crawford shining in your eyes
Even when they were closed and you’d
Sunk back in to your opiate cocoon
Deep in the cushions of your regret.

Mama, I’d say, if you were awake,
Mama can you close the curtains?
The kids don’t see because the kids don’t know
That you haven’t fallen asleep sitting up;
You are just bowing to the Gods in the television;
Their Hollywood voices soothing your messy mind.
But they can’t clean the cat piss from the laundry
Or the grease from last night’s dinner from your pans.

And mama, I’d say, even if you were sleeping,
I’d still say Mama, I bathed the twins
And I swept the kitchen floor and the baseboards, too
And Mama, it’s okay
If you spilled your iced-tea again; I know you don’t have any
Feeling in your hands sometimes.
It’s okay, we can do this for years,
But mama, maybe tomorrow
Can you clean my ears?



AJ and Me
The brilliant tangerine sky had fallen into
The deepest grey of the earth that day
But you watched it with me anyway
In the wet crumbly sand.

Together we drank in the bubbling ocean before us
And we swallowed together the salt and the bitterness
And the injustice
Of having our first drink before our throats were ready.

We sat there, we two
While the others stayed inside where it was still warm
And thick and sticky still. Tortuous,
We thought, and our small hearts reasoned
That there was more safety near this treacherous sea
Than in there where you could still feel it,
In there where he was still all around us.

I stole a glance at you
To see if I could see you feeling the sea come up
As it was coming up inside me
And to my pleasure I could see it seeping from your
Own dark pools
Onto the hot stones of your cheeks.
I looked away then to escape the burning glare of my reflection
For the shards of that glass had not been smoothed
By a tumble in the great Pacific yet.

Then I drew my bony knees into my body
And shivered while the ocean blew her whipping salty breath
On my body,
Our bodies there,
Like two black trash bags
Dumped on the shore, together.

Then, as though a tiny spark had been lit inside of us,
We looked out ahead to the still line of the horizon,
To the wet, black absolution beyond the aqueous graveyard
Stretched before us.

And then as moments passed in unison
With the tender curving of the waves at our feet
The clouds smiled a gentle grin
Of electric orange beyond the sea.


Written for Dr. David N. Odhiambo’s ENG 313: Introduction to Creative Writing 


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