by L Vocem
First published in The Paumanok Review
Gray is the color of drizzle, of wet streets and cracked pavement, of traffic and cars as we drive to the glass towers of wealth and exchange our awakened hours for sustenance, so we can live in a gray place, in a gray life, in a gray city. Gray is the color of my mood in this winter day. This is the place where my Ama and I live.
Then the drizzle stops and we see pale yellows and ochres trying to awake, beckoning us out of this winter’s melancholy. Out into other colors, other moods.
My Ama and I feel like bears waking up, hungry for movement and distraction. We venture into a crisp winter blue and drive out of the urban, away from gray concrete, away from drafty glass buildings, car alarms and grunting busses. We get off the wide highway into a two lane black-top. We drive and drive, feeling the winter wind awaken our desire to live, to dream, to touch and care.
Evergreen pines and sleepy oaks stand one after the other, hiding the occasional yellow house, old pickup truck, tractor, barn. A lethargic cow stares at the green grass that grows even in the winter cool. A white steeple defiantly punctures the blue sky.
At the intersections, sign after sign of every color and shape proclaim new developments, with arrows pointing up, down, left, right. From the low hundreds, one-fifty’s, two hundreds, they decree. We first ignore them. We can’t believe the tentacles of the city have reached even this far. It’s not for us. It is too far from work, from clients, from the restaurants and city life, from all that we are fond of even though it’s immersed in liquid gray.
But we follow the arrows, just to daydream. If my Ama gets that promotion, we could save extra money. If I get that other project we could possibly be able to contemplate the idea. Thoughts whirl in my head. To think of the possibilities and out here maybe, just maybe we would be able to afford something. It’s too far, I tell Ama. But she reminds me that all we’ve seen in-town is too expensive, too old, or too sixties and dark, and no different than our gray apartment.
Anything but gray.
A sign says Lakefront Lots, opening soon. I follow the arrow. We pass several pastures, a horse farm, a forest of green. Then we see the land, raw red with aqua green PVC pipes coming out of the earth. We stop at the end of a cul-de-sac. An oak tree towers above the red landscape, alone in the middle, imposing over the pipes, the newly laid asphalt, the orange markers. We cannot help but stop. We cannot help but walk towards the tree, with its branches spreading wide as if wanting to hug us, embrace us. We walk under it, feeling the cool wind sweeping from the lake on our cheeks. Ama holds my hand and presses her body close to mine. Across the lake, horses grace the green and yellow pasture.
Can you imagine living like this, she tells me, looking at my eyes, kissing me. We walk hand in hand to the water but stop short by a large thorn bush. The cold wind picks up so we head back to the car and before entering, we try to remove the red clay from our shoes.
But the red has soiled our souls.
Who could afford to dream that size? Ama says. I feel guilty just imagining. But wouldn’t it be wonderful.
It is too far from the city, she says.
She looks at the tree, at the water reflecting the amber blue, and then at me.
It would be worth the drive, she sighs.
I keep wiping the red clay from my shoes, scraping the memory, the idea and the possibility of a place like this.
We drive away, wanting to forget. But we are infected with the greens and reds and pull over when we see another new subdivision.
Why not daydream? Why not see if we could afford something? Anything to get out of feeling gray, swallowed by the mood of winter. We stop at the model home and go inside. A perky sales lady asks what are we looking for. We don’t know. We’re not even looking. But we play along. The house is spacious and something we could afford, we think. But we’re city folk. This is too far, too green, too blue.
The lady says that this is the last house available in this subdivision, but that they are starting a new one down the street and if we want we could reserve lots.
Ama gives me a look as if saying this lady wants to close a sale. She winks. We play along but we will not fall for it. We’re not ready for this.
I can drive you there if you want, it’s just a few minutes away. She smiles.
My Ama smiles.
She picks up her keys, we follow her into her car. I sit in the back, now feeling overwhelmed by all this green and blue, wishing I was at the apartment, at least knowing what I had, instead of dreaming impossible dreams of living beyond our means.
The lady talks and talks, my Ama smiles and smiles. She knows I am irritated by now. Then we stop and to my surprise we are next to the tree by the lake, surrounded by the red land, by the freshly upturned clay.
The wind picks up as we walk into the dirt. I zip up my jacket. The lady tells us that there’s a premium for the lake lots, that they will go so fast, they could be gone the same day they open the model or even before that.
Ama gives me a strange look, fiendish, calculating, full of conspiracies. I can tell she’s lusting now and even though we do not exchange words, we both know that we want it, that we crave it, and God just maybe, maybe we can have it.
I am sure this will be the first lot to go, the lady says, looking up and along the expanse of the tree and back at us.
Didn’t you say that we could reserve lots? I find myself saying.
There’s a non-refundable advance, which of course, applies to the down payment, she says, going into other technicalities, concluding that we could go back to the model house, she could fill one of those forms that would give us an idea of how much house we could afford.
Maybe there’s hope.
I can not believe we’re doing this, but Ama doesn’t stop me even though she knows that we might already be in over our heads.
We drive back to the city several hours later. We are silent, but wearing pleasant smiles, touching each other’s hands with uncommon lust, still in a high of blue and green, and pungent red land.
I can’t believe we put down the deposit. Where are we going to get the money? Who did we think we were fooling? Are we nuts?
We wanted to make love, to feel each other, to let our joy come out. But all we could do was fall back into the gray, into what we know is real and tangible.
How could we lie about what we had, I tell Ama.
We didn’t lie, she tells me. We just played with our finances, with our potential to achieve. She reminds me that I had months when I brought in double that down payment, so it could be done again.
But it’s hard to predict the ups and downs of my business, I tell her. There have been times when I had spent long hours on the phone practically begging and nothing came in the door, and then there have been times when the work just flowed in, even after turning down projects.
Ama says that just passing her exam should be in our favor. To the towers of power she can now be a professional and in only three more months she will get her license. She tells me to rejoice, that because of that she should get a great raise.
Everything is going to be fine.
Soon gray will brighten into blue and blue into happiness yellow. And the red land will be ours to fill it green with fertility.
I cannot sleep, but I can see the colors. I cannot sleep, so I think about the phone calls I need to make. This can be done. It’s not just a dream, washes of hope on a mental canvas, but a tangible bright reality—if we work hard.
Ama and I embrace, letting our hopes become one, drunk on the dream of red land.
Dreams are nothing but whispers, fleeting memories, washed away colors until a Bank lends you the money. But Banks don’t see colors and shades, they see paper and numbers. To them I am a dreamer who’s gotten away with his illusion too long. When was the last time you had a full time job? So what exactly is your business? Who’s your employer? Free lance is one or two words? You mean to say that you sell words and ideas?
What they don’t understand, they turn down.
My Ama they like and understand. Soon she will have more letters attached to her name, a professional, so they nod in approval. They both understand the language of numbers. Who’s your employer? Ahh, a good firm, quite indeed. They are happy with her, but still because of me, they turn us down.
Why didn’t I have a job like everyone else, Ama says in desperation. Why did I have to quit that great job? It would be more stable, better records.
That job almost ruined my reputation, besides I can now make as much money, I tell her. When my business is good I can make her year’s salary in a month.
But then you can starve for six months, she replies.
We drive away from the city into the red land. The oak tree still hugs the landscape, the horses still graze the land across the lake. The sky is deep blue with crispy clouds trailing by. We walk around immersing our feet in the red. We throw rocks and watch them skip along the surface. We extend our hands around the moss covered trunk of the tree, but it’s so wide we can barely lock hands. We decide not to go see the perky sales lady.
I remind Ama of all the money we have put down.
It’s the price you pay to dream, she says.
We head back into our city of gray.
A mortgage company calls us. We have been pre-approved. There are some conditions, though. We have to pay off a few of our credit cards. No more going out for drinks after work. No more fancy restaurants with the friends. No more clubbing and concerts for a while. But my Ama and I do not care. We nod and nod, iridescent and smiling. We take a picnic basket, candles, wine, brie and crackers under the oak. On the red land we place blankets. It is winter cold under the stars. We want to make love but it’s too cold to even remove our gloves, instead we share our warmth, our breath, our hopes.
A drizzle falls, but we don’t care for the red land will be ours.
We close the contracts and it’s back to the perky sales lady. We pick wall colors and windows and styles. Will it be brick, stucco or siding? Will it be white trim, blue trim with yellow colors? My mind buzzes. So much to pick, so much to dream, so much to choose. Ama wants one style, I want another. Everything imaginable has to be selected, ordered, placed, made real. From the brass knobs of the kitchen cabinets, to the pattern they’ll use in our concrete driveway. They’ll even remove the large oak tree for free since it might be too close to where the house will go and the bulldozers might damage the roots. I get mad at the perky sales lady. Through my teeth I tell her that I want that tree protected. My Ama tells her that she wants the tree in the contract. She puts it in, but she’s not sure. They might say it won’t work. She needs to check with the builders, check out the plans.
You check, I tell her.
In the contract, Ama repeats.
Bright yellow bulldozers begin to rip and level and grade the red land. I have more work that I can handle, and yet I drive up there. A blond-blue eyed superintendent yells under the roar of the engine that they have to get the ground to three thousand PSI. I ask him about the tree. He says it won’t make it. That they might as well take it off.
Did you read the contract, I ask him. He looks at his clipboard, he calls a couple of olive brown guys and screams at them in Spanish to put an orange silt fence around the tree.
I tell him that I like orange.
I immerse myself in late nights of work. I take in more work than I can handle. I can sleep and relax some other time. We pay off some credit cards and begin to save that large amount of green that we are supposed to have by closing. Ama takes a little Tupperware to work and saves her lunch money. Soon she’ll get a review, soon she’ll be certified and at her firm they usually give them bountiful bonuses.
Ama arrives at the apartment early and disappears into our room. I am on the phone securing another project. If I can keep this pace we might make it, we might have all the money for closing. I go into the bedroom to tell my Ama but notice her sitting on the floor next to the night table. Is she sick, I wonder and go close to her. She looks away at the window, she doesn’t want me to see her. She cups her face into her hands and weeps. I embrace her, tell her that it’s going to be all right, that we’re both under a lot of pressure but that we’ll make it. I ask her if it will make her feel better if we went to see the tree. She shakes her head and veers away. I move back. I sit on the floor and look at her. Finally she looks at me, sobs again and forms some words, but only sounds and breath and coughing come out.
They fired me, Ama finally tells me, embracing me tight. I can feel her warm tears falling on my neck. She’s feverish hot, emanating anger and sorrow. I try to absorb it, cradle her. I want to say something but I know it won’t change a thing, so I rock her in my arms.
Ama finally tells me that they laid off forty percent of their staff. Too much competition was their excuse. She went into her manager’s office and told her that she had just passed her exam, that in two months she was going to be fully certified, so why did they fire her? Her manager shook her head, also in shock, and told her, bastards, they know it will cost more money to keep you.
Everything is going to be all right, I tell my Ama, wiping a tear from her eyes.
She shakes her head.
You don’t understand, she says. When the mortgage company finds out, when the builder finds out, we’ll lose everything. On top of that, I have a month to find a new job or I lose all the time I have put into my certification.
Spring does not bring yellow and brightness. The first flowers are washed away by torrential rains. Twisting tornadoes that barely touch the ground cap the tops of trees close to the apartment. When it doesn’t rain, it mists in the milky grayness.
Red land becomes red mud and sticks with impunity to everything it touches. All construction goes to a stand still. But we have to thank God or somebody up there. Postponement means that we won’t close on the house so soon, so that we might be able to have that new job by the time we have to tell the bank or the builder. But I can tell perky sales lady is suspicious, for she asks and asks if everything is all right.
My Ama lives on top of a newspaper, circling jobs with a red marker. Unfortunately three other large firms laid-off employees. The market is now saturated with professionals and all the good offers are beginning to disappear.
I might have to go private, Ama tells me. It will take five years to get certified. My business on the other hand is very busy, I even pick up a project doing brochures for a re-engineering firm. I laugh at the irony, but we need the money.
A crimson and gold truck pours concrete on a mesh of rebar and pipes laying across the top of the red land. Men slosh around moving and shoving the gray mass, shaping it into something. They work it and caress it with paddles until it’s silky smooth and perfectly even. They look at us with suspicion, as if we were crazy for staring at them in our somber complexions. Blond-blue eyed superintendent comes by with his clipboard under his arm. He points at the tree and tells us that he managed to keep the dozers away from the roots. We smile for the first time.
In the grayness of the apartment I hear the sky roar in anger. Rain pours incessantly. My Ama returns from another interview. She’s disappointed. She tells me that people certified, with double her experience, are out there begging for jobs. So what chance would she have? She might not even be able to go private. Some of the people she used to work with are having to leave town, move to other bigger, grayer cities, with more concrete and taller glass buildings or change professions. She saw a colleague working at the supermarket. She points at my computer monitor waving her finger. Some people say that’s what did it. One person can now do the work of seven, she says, frowning.
Jesus, I say, I told that to a client myself; only that it was the reason why I should do the project— better, faster, cheaper.
The smallest firm she had seen asks Ama for a second interview. We’re running out of time and she decides to go, even though she didn’t get a good feeling when she went there and was purposely standoffish and hard to get. I tell her that maybe that is what she needs to do with the other interviews.
My Ama gets the job.
There are no fireworks going off, no bright colors, other than in three more days she would have lost it all: close to two years of work she had put into her certification. We celebrate by buying a large piece of plastic and pitching a tent on top of our concrete slab. Under the drizzling rain, we drink wine and toss soggy crackers at each other.
Ama leaves before the sun comes up to her new job and comes back after the sun goes down. She is dead and exhausted from not just the work, but the extra hour she now has to drive. The job might have been a mistake, but it will do for now.
We invite our friends to picnic on our concrete slab. We show them the kitchen, open and close imaginary doors, tell them where the driveway, the fireplace and my office will be. We hear a roar, and across the lake horses gallop, puffing and pounding to the top of the field.
A friend frowns, holds up his beer and says, better the horses than grunting busses.
Now we see why you have disappeared, another friend says.
Peanut butter sandwiches from here on, Ama says with a smile.
But never cheap wine, a friend replies, lifting his glass toasting. Another friend asks to have his visa stamped for driving out this far. We all laugh.
We are short a lot of money.
That month without work set us back too much. Ama and I sit on the floor of our bedroom, realizing that unless something different happens, we won’t make it. I cannot ask my parents, they live in another country overridden with inflation, so even if they gave us a lot, it will be nothing when turned into green backs. Ama’s parents are putting two more kids through college so they don’t have any money either.
Maybe I could go back to my old job, Ama suggests, freelance for them.
I cringe at the idea. I remind her why I left, how I had it with their deceptive practices, the way they approached the work. No, I could not go back to work for them.
How could you say that in a time like this, Ama says. We need the money, it’s not my fault that they laid me off, it’s not my fault that this new job doesn’t pay as much. She reminds me that she now has to drive an extra hour in traffic for a job she doesn’t even like.
No, no, no. I’ve promised myself never to sink to their level again.
She gets up and walks out of the apartment. I can hear her slam the door of her car, I can hear her engine rev off, I can hear her drive away.
I wait and wait but she does not return. I know where she is but I am not going up there. Would this be the right thing? Compromise my whole career? Work with people who slap it together, who don’t care about quality, who rip off their clients every way they can? Can I do it just for the money? Could I take it for a while? Could I lower my standards, even for a couple of months, only for a couple of months? It could make a big difference. I could raise the money we need. But would they take me back? Could I make that sacrifice? I know my old boss wanted me back, even doing project work. How do I tell him that all he did was pay lip service to all the promises he made?
Only for a couple of months.
I drive up out of the city into the black and reach that place where she has parked. No city lights reflect over here and it takes me a while to adjust to the darkness. She stands on the concrete slab, facing the tree and the water. I walk towards her. She doesn’t say a word and walks away from me.
Why is it that it’s always me the one that has to make the compromises, she says, shaking her head. Wind blows from the water shaking the branches of the tree like a bird flapping its wings.
How much do you want this, she says.
I’ll call Richard tomorrow, I say.
Blue is the color of the crisp clean sky that towers above the late summer green of the oak tree, of the branches that stretch wider than our little house, wider than our dreams and aspirations. Under the tree I feel small, humble to bigger things than myself, part of something that I am yet to understand, as if it was the tree that chose us to be its keepers.
My Ama comes to me with a glass of cold lemonade, dew dripping to the sides. I put down the spade and wipe my forehead. It is hot, but a breeze from the lake keeps it pleasant. I take the glass and kiss her. She smiles and tells me that I am covered in red. I show her the blisters in my hands. I sigh and tell her that it’s going to take more work than I thought. The builder would have landscaped with a bulldozer, and with a lot of bronze labor would have done it in a day or two, then roll the grass out like a carpet. Blue-eyed superintendent was happy when he no longer had to worry about landscaping. City boy is going to do it, he said with a grin.
The refund was not much, but it made the difference.