An excerpt from the novel by Edite Cunhã
“Whose rights…are guaranteed…by the Constitution…and the Bill of Rights?”
That was number seventy. All together there were one hundred. And they got longer as we moved down the list. The sentences got longer. The words got longer.
“Whose rights…are guaranteed…by the Constitution…and The Bill of Rights?” I said the words again, slowly, so my father would hear how to pronounce them and repeat. He sat up on the bed to give it a try but made a terrible mess of it.
“Como é?” How does it go? he asked, when I shook my head, no. I sighed and rolled my eyes when he wasn’t looking. But I didn’t even know if I was pronouncing some of the words right. They were new to me, too.
“Whose rights…are guaranteed…by the Constitution…and the Bill of Rights?” I had already told Pai that he didn’t have to learn how to say the questions, just the answers. But he was stubborn. He wanted to learn all the words.
“What does it mean?” Pai asked, after he’d tried again, and watched me shake my head again. His mouth just didn’t work right with English words.
“I don’t know,” I shrugged.
I wished he would hurry through it so I could go read my own book in my own room. But he wanted to do ten questions. Every night! And we still had three to go.
“Why don’t you know what it means?” Pai asked.
“The words are too long,” I said. “Anyway, I’m to young to learn about this stuff. They won’t teach it until I’m older.
Pai tried again but he sounded like he had a mouthful of rocks. He looked at me. I shook my head. No!
“Well, what’s the answer?” he almost shouted. He must be frustrated too, I thought.
I turned the paper over and looked down the column of answers for number seventy.
“Everyone,” I read, stumbling slowly over the unfamiliar words. “Citizens and non-citizens living in the United States.”
Pai listened carefully.
“What does it mean?”
“It says everyone. Todos,” I said, feeling anxious, because I really didn’t know. “I think it means everyone who lives in America.”
“Us too?” my father asked.
“It says everyone.”
My father leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
“E ber y wan,” he tried the English with his eyes still closed. I sat very still because it looked like he was falling asleep. When he started snoring, I put the question sheet back in his bedside table drawer and tiptoed out of the room.
During the day, I went to Carroll Elementary School. After supper I went to the big yellow high school with my father for Citizenship, a word I had to practice to pronounce correctly. But that was just two nights a week. Pai said he had to go learn English because he wanted to be American. I don’t know why he thought knowing English would do it. I already knew lots of English and I didn’t ever feel American. But after he said that I got excited about going to night school. I thought I might learn something there that would make me American, too.
The first time we went the teacher was surprised to see me. I was the only kid there. All the others were men and women who spoke different languages. But most of them could speak some English already, much better than Pai could.
“I came to help my father,” I explained to the teacher, Mr. Callahan, “because he can’t speak English.”
“I see,” said the teacher. “I guess that will be all right. Will you help him study for the test?”
“Test? I guess so,” I said. But Pai hadn’t said anything about a test. I got stomach aches from tests.
Mr. Callahan, gave us the list of 100 questions. He said that in the test Pai would be asked at least twenty questions. He told Pai that he could not know ahead of time which twenty of the one hundred questions he would be asked in the test. He would have to know them all. He looked at Pai when he spoke and at me when he finished. What he said made me feel scared and worried. I told Pai about the one hundred questions. Pai stood holding his hat and nodding. He didn’t look worried or scared.
A few weeks after we started night school Mr. Callahan said that I could be American too, if my father filled out a paper for me. Something called a petition. I wouldn’t have to take the test. I would be American automatically, Mr. Callahan said, if my father passed the test.
“How will I know that I’m American?” I asked Mr. Callahan
“They will give you an official citizenship certificate,” he said. “From the government.” He showed me a sample that he pulled out of his briefcase. It looked like the good penmanship certificate Miss Leitenan had given me after I tried hard all year to make perfect my Q’s and W’s but this one said United States of America and had important looking seals and stamps on it. Mr. Callahan pointed to a small blank square on the right-hand side.
“This is where they’ll put your photograph,” he explained, smiling.
After Mr. Callahan showed me that citizenship certificate, I tried extra hard to teach Pai his questions.
“Who was the first President of the United States?”
“What is the Capital of the United States.”
Those were easy ones. Pai could always remember them.
“Lógico!” he said. It made sense that the new country would name its capital after the first president. “Lógico!”
But he always pronounced George with the squishy Portuguese J, and this worried me.
One Saturday, after I had started going to night school with my father, I stopped to see my older friend Speedy at the junkyard down by the river. I knew Speedy because my father was always going down to the junkyard to buy old parts to fix things at home with, and I had to go with him to help him with the English. At first, I didn’t like to go because Speedy was hairy and his dog, Yukon, was had a scary bark. But after I got to know Speedy, I started going by myself. Just to visit. He was a war vet, which he explained to me. And once Yukon got to know me, he stopped barking at me. I learned a lot of stuff from Speedy. He was a better teacher than my actual teachers.
It was December when I visited and Speedy had a giant Santa Claus Face with glowing eyes hanging on the side of his shack. Strings of colored lights hung around the door and over the piles of junk nearby. It made me smile.
“Hey, M. E.” Speedy said when he saw me. “Long time no see!”
Speedy had started calling M.E. when I told him my new English name, Mary Edith, the name my first teacher, Mrs. O’Donohughe, had given me on the first day of school, because she said it was easier to pronounce than my actual name. Speedy had said that Mary Edith was not a suitable name. Too old for me, he’d said, like the name of an old lady aunt in Boise. I didn’t know what Boise was, but I’d nodded because I hated my new name. It had not mattered at all to Mrs. O’Donohughe that I couldn’t pronounce it and had to practice for weeks to learn how to say it. And sometimes I still forgot to answer when my teachers called it out in class.
“Where’ve you been?” Speedy said now. “Take a load off,”
Speedy didn’t talk like a teacher. That’s how he invited me to sit for a while on the old truck seats outside his door. He sat in the blue seat that leaned up against the shack. I sat in the red one, which made a kind of L, butted up against the blue one. The Visitor’s Throne, he called the red one.
“So, what you been doin’, M. E.?” That was kind of like asking What’s new? Speedy leaned his feet up on the edge of a metal fire drum he had burning.
“I’ve been going to night school with my father.”
“You don’t say?” Speedy raised an eyebrow. “The old man learnin’ English?”
My father wasn’t a real old man. That’s just what Speedy called fathers. I warmed my hands up near the drum.
“Ya. Well, I guess he’s trying,” I said. “Citi.zen.ship,” I carefully added.
“How’s he doin’?”
“O.K. I guess.” I thought for a while. “But he has a terrible time with his R’s.”
“R’s, huh?” Speedy reached back and pulled his ponytail over his shoulder. I had never seen a man with a pony tail before Speedy. But now I was used to it.
“Pro-nun-cia-tion,” he said.
“Ya,” I nodded. “He stinks.”
“Now, don’t be too rough on ‘em. M.E. You know, his muscles will probably never be able to make some of them sounds.”
“Muscles?” I said.
“Yeah, muscles,” said Speedy. “You use sound muscles to make sounds.”
I tried to imagine sound muscles while Speedy lit a cigar and threw his match into the fire. He blew a ring of smoke and watched it rise up into the cold air, very thoughtfully.
“Ya gotta understand,” he said, after a while. “His sound muscles been makin’ the Portuguese sounds all his life. You know what they say. Hard to teach an old dog new tricks.” Speedy winked at me.
“Really?” I started feeling hopeless. I’d never heard about old dogs and new tricks, but I thought I got the “drift,” as Speedy would say.
“Really,” said Speedy. “Would I kid ya?”
Speedy smiled and dragged on his cigar. But he did kid me. All the time. And I hoped he was kidding me now.
“About the sound muscles, I mean. Are they real? I really need to know.”
“Seriously,” said Speedy. “No joke. I’ll bet he’ll never be able to say R.”
I felt something grow heavy in my heart. Would my father be able to become American without making American sounds? My friend Speedy knew everything about America. I didn’t ask him, though. I was afraid to hear the answer.
I looked carefully at Speedy while he smoked. He didn’t look too American himself. And he sure talked differently from all of my teachers and other Americans I knew. Maybe there was more than one way to be American.
“Are you American,” I asked, when he noticed me staring.
“Sure am. Second generation and proud of it.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Means my grandfather came from Italy. Way back. Before my old man was born.”
I stared up at the cold blue sky to think about that.
“And then your father, your old man, he was born American?”
“You bet. First generation.”
“And then you were born American, too?”
“You got it. Second generation.”
“I see.” I thought about this, trying to figure if there was any hope for me at all.
“And your grandfather?” I said leaning forward. “Did he turn American after a while?”
“Nah! He stayed Italian until the day he died.”
I shivered on the red truck seat. The Visitor’s throne.
“You’re lookin’ kinda sad, M.E. What’s eatin’ ya?”
“Did your grandfather want to be American?” I asked.
“Nah. I don’t think he was interested.”
That made me feel better. At least Pai wanted to do it. He would just have to work harder. We would have to work harder.
We kept on practicing the one hundred questions every night, but now when Pai fell asleep before we had finished I would shake him awake. Every time he got one right without any help, I knew we were closer to being American. But when he got one wrong, I had to gnash my teeth, quietly so he wouldn’t hear. He always got the one about the War of Independence right. He always got the one about the Civil War wrong. After a while I started biting my nails because it was quieter than gnashing my teeth. After we did the branches of government, I had almost no fingernails left.
“House of Representatives,”
I pushed the H out hard because Pai always forgot it. His R’s still sounded like Georgie Almeida running a stick along the pretty neighbor lady’s fence. I showed him how to fold his tongue back properly, the way Mrs. O’Donohughe had taught me, but he just couldn’t do it. And his vowels always came out sounding lazy and stupid.
“Ouse ov RRRRe prrrie zen ta teeves.”
My fingers bled. My teeth ached.
Mr. Callahan said that pronunciation was not as important as knowing the right answer. But I couldn’t take any chances. The test would come too soon.
“House of Representatives.”
“Ouse ov RRRRe prrri zen ta teeves.”
I took a deep breath before raising my voice.
“House of Representatives.”
“Ouse ov RRRRe prrri zen ta teeves.”
I burst into tears and ran to my room. Why was my father so stupid? I cried into the pillow. Why couldn’t he do it right? Surely he would never be American. Surely he would fail the stupid test and I would never be American. Why didn’t they just let me take do the test. I could do it now. I could! I knew all the answers. I could pronounce all the words. But I had already asked Mr. Callahan about this and he said it wouldn’t be permitted.
After a while Pai came in. I lay very still on my bed and held my breath. But he didn’t seem angry.
“Isn’t it the right answer?” he asked.
I wiped my eyes on the pillow and didn’t say anything.
My bed springs screeched in the dark as Pai sat at the end of my bed, waiting.
“You don’t say it right,” I told him. My voice was a sob.
I lifted my head a little to look at him. He looked sad in the light that came in from the street light. He was quiet and still. The bed was quiet.
“Maybe we’ve done enough for tonight,” he said after awhile.
We still had four questions more to go. I didn’t want to skip them. We wouldn’t be ready for the test. But I was tired and didn’t answer, and after a while Pai got up so slowly that the bed did not screech again, just made a long slow sound, like a sad sigh. He went back to his own room without saying Boa noite.
I crawled under the covers with all my clothes on. I was too sad and tired for the comfort of pajamas. But I couldn’t fall asleep for a long time. I lay in the dark staring at the shadows and lights creeping across the walls and ceiling. Just before I fell asleep, or maybe it was just after, I remembered how my first teacher, Mrs. O’Donohughe, had bullied me until I pronounced every English word perfectly, the way she wanted me to. I remembered, or maybe I dreamed, how hard it was. I remembered how my mouth hurt and how my throat felt like it would bleed. I remembered how much I’d hated Mrs. O’Donohughe. And then, I remembered what Speedy had said about sound muscles. And my heart hurt against my ribs.
Before I knew it, I had jumped out of bed and run across the dark kitchen to my father’s bedroom door. The floor was a cold shock under my feet. I could hear my mother and my father sleeping. But I went in slowly and stood by the bed staring at where I thought their lumpy bodies would be in the dark. After a while, I could see enough to poke Pai in the shoulder.
“Hungh?” he said, and lifted his head to look at me.
“What’s the matter?” he whispered, sitting up a bit.
“Mr. Callahan says it’s O.K. if you don’t say the words right,” I whispered in a rush. “He says the important thing is to know the right answer.”
I could see my father better now, but I didn’t want to look at him. He just kept staring at me, though.
“You had the right answer,” I said, a little louder.
My father sat very still. I could feel him thinking in the darkness while I shivered by his bed. After about three years he put his hand on my shoulder.
“Obrigado. Thank you for telling me,” he said. .
I felt my heart swell and glow in my chest like the heart of the Jesus picture my mother had hung in the parlor.
“De nada, I said.
And then I said it in English.
“You’re welcome. Good Night.”
I left Pai still sitting up in bed.
“Goodth Naite” I heard him say, as I ran back across the kitchen.
I undressed in the dark and pulled my pajamas on thinking about how my father’s “Goodth Naite” had sounded perfect even though I knew it wasn’t. I climbed into my nice warm bed, and right away fell asleep.