Through his bedroom window Rolando watched the cascade of shimmery lines sparkle on and off across the horizon as the tiny fires lit up the night sky. He knelt on a wicker laundry hamper his mother rescued from a curbside years before, his arms folded on the window ledge, his head pressed against the screen. He was small for his age and the fraying wicker felt sturdy under his knees. The meteor shower sent a literal shiver of delight up his spine.
“Close your window.” He was startled by his abuela’s sudden presence behind him. She reached over him, slammed the window shut, locked it, and let down the blinds. Rolando’s abuela, his grandmother his mother always corrected him, could barely reach the window over the hamper. She wore a threadbare and stained floral nightgown, her parakeet Prettypretty perched on her shoulder.
“It is not safe when the meteors are falling. Go brush your teeth, it is time for bed.” Without a word Rolando carefully slipped from the hamper, then moved quickly to the small bathroom to brush his teeth with a Mickey Mouse toothbrush he’d used as long as he could remember.
That night Rolando dreamed he was caught in a meteor shower. At first he was terrified, afraid the tiny fires would burn his flesh, but the little fires didn’t scald and burn. They fell gently on his skin and felt warm. It tickled like being surrounded by a swarm of gentle fireflies.
His grandmother woke him from his dream. It was 5am. For a moment the glow of the dream rested in his head and he was happy.
“Andale, mi’jo. Is time for work. Trabajo.” She turned on the light and bustled away. Rolando sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
Rolando’s mother worked two jobs. Her bedroom was across the hall from his, but he rarely saw her. She worked the night shift and in the mornings, when she was home to sleep, Rolando was out working with his grandmother.
The morning was already humid and warm. Rolando like it. It felt like summer. His abuela complained bitterly and used a kerchief she kept in her sleeve to wipe the sweat from her hairline and upper lip. They were the first to the bus stop and took a seat on the uncomfortable aluminum bench. His grandmother pulled a grimy notebook and stubby pencil from the giant bag made of carpet she carried around, and began their morning ritual.
“What did you dream, Rolando?” Every morning his grandmother searched his dreams for symbols she could use for las charadas. Every dream symbol was associated with a number, so his dreams might serve as a way to divine the number drawn for the bolita.
Most mornings Rolando dutifully recited his dreams, but this morning he did not feel like sharing his dream of the meteors. He decided to make something up, but he was not good at making up stories. After a few initial stumbles he hit upon a lie to tell.
“You dreamed about Prettypretty?” Prettypretty was his abuela’s parakeet. She doted on the bird. It was her true boon companion, her one love. “What did you dream about Prettypretty?”
“She got away. She got outside and flew away.” Rolando worried he had gone too far, as his abuela’s face darkened. She pressed the pencil down hard as she wrote.
She looked from her notebook and frowned fiercely at him as if he were telling her his wish instead of his dream. “You must always be careful, nene, every time you open a door or window that Prettypretty does not get outside. She could not live long outside.”
Rolando nodded solemnly in an attempt to avert her lecture on parakeet safety. Before she could continue Mama Josie arrived at the bus stop and sat beside her. She was a large woman with dark skin who took up most of the bench. Rolando liked her because she always carried a treat for him. This morning she brought him a little toast with a sweet strawberry jam inside.
His grandmother smiled as soon as she saw Josie, and they gossiped and laughed while Rolando ate his treat. When the bus arrived the three of them sat together at the front.
Every morning when Josie got off the bus his abuela frowned, made a spitting noise, then cursed the woman under her breath. She repeated this behavior throughout the day of being nice and funny and friendly to people’s face, then cursing them when they were out of sight. Her curses scared Rolando. Her face turned purple and she spit a little as she mumbled her hateful stories to herself. Her hands twisted the straps on her bag until they cut deeply into her flesh. She would then drag Rolando off the bus, yanking fiercely on his arm and hurting him. And, like a storm passing, she would be smiling and laughing at the next hair salon or bodega. If she caught Rolando staring at her while she cursed to herself she would whisper to him all the horrible gossip she knew about that person.
Rolando liked Sunday mornings best. On Sunday morning his abuela attended service at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and his mother stayed home. He would awake early and run to sleep in his mother’s bed. A year before, his mother and grandmother had fought loudly for days. His abuela insisted he attend church with her. His mother insisted he stay home because that was the only time she had with him. His mother finally won that fight, and Rolando loved her even more.
This Sunday morning he lay slipping between sleep and wakefulness. He could hear his mother’s soft snores. Her presence brought him a deep comfortable peace that eluded him the rest of the week. He traced the roses on her sheets with his fingernail and watched the bright morning sun cast its light against the dingy white walls of her bedroom. She felt him snuggle against her back. She rolled over and caressed his hair.
“There was another meteor shower Friday night. Then I dreamed about it.”
“Was it a bad dream, Rollie?” She opened her eyes and looked into his. They lay close, each on their side.
“No. It was nice. The meteors didn’t hurt me. They made me feel happy. It was like being caught in a rain of happy fireflies.” He tried to remember more of the dream, but all that remained was the image and the feeling.
Rolando’s mother kissed him on his forehead and sat up. “It was a dream, Rollie. The meteors are malo. If they are coming you must hide from them.”
Rolando sat up. His mother’s hair stuck up in the back like a banana leaf and she looked as if she could fall asleep in an instant. He could see her blue and white waitress uniform draped on a chair near the bedroom door. “How long will we have meteors? Where there meteors when you were my age?”
She yawned. “C’mon. Let’s fix breakfast.” She stood, stretched, and pulled on a thin pink cotton robe. Rolando climbed out of bed, wearing the pale blue Star Wars pajamas he had outgrown almost as soon as he got them. “They say the meteor showers will probably last another twenty years. You will be un hombre then. And, I might even be an abuela. Pero, there were no meteor showers when I was niñita.”
“Why don’t they stop them?” Rolando followed her to the bathroom. He stood outside the open door and looked at the ground while she peed.
“They just are, nene. They are a force of nature like the sun and the moon, or the wind and the stars. The earth is moving through a cloud in space. No one saw it coming, but some day it will pass.” She brushed her teeth while he peed, then brushed her hair while he brushed his teeth. The mirror was small and permanently cloudy. She had to bend down to see herself, and Rolando stood on his tiptoes to see himself, rising to the bottom of her chin.
That afternoon, after his mother went to work, Rolando sat in his bedroom playing with his Star Wars Legos. He was so absorbed in his play he didn’t hear his grandmother approach until she slammed the door against the wall. The unexpected noise startled Rolando and he could feel himself starting to cry. He knew crying angered his grandmother. He fought against the tears.
“Why was this door closed?” She spoke in a quiet controlled voice. The voice Rolando knew meant she was at her most enraged.
“It wasn’t closed,” he sniffled. “It swung shut on its own. Doors swing shut.” His response fed her wrath. The door, in fact, had not been closed. In the tiny old house they rented the doors did not hang true. Left untouched they inched away from the wall, swinging close to the frame. If a door in the house opened or closed the air motion stirred the others. As Rolando played the door slowly moved to be within an inch or so of the frame.
His grandmother stepped closer, a strap already in her hand. “What have I told you about lying?” Rolando knew better than to run. He began to cry instead.
“I hate her.” Rolando lay in his bed, on his belly, in the dark. His abuela put him to bed without supper to teach him a lesson about lying. He heard her moving around in the rest of the house. She kept the television loud, watching her telenovelas. She muted the television when the phone rang. Rolando listened closely and knew it was his mother telling her mother she would be working a second shift. Rolando would not see his mother tonight.
As he drifted between sleep and pain he heard the newscaster give the meteor shower update and cautioning viewers within the affected areas to stay indoors. Rolando recognized the name of a major street through his neighborhood. Would the showers be above his house tonight? Rolando resolved that tonight he would stay awake to watch the meteor showers. Now, he must stay awake.
He knew better than to get out of bed. His abuela poked her head into his room occasionally to make sure he was sleeping, rather than up playing. He heard her talking loudly to Prettypretty. She let it out of its cage when his mother wasn’t home (who couldn’t stand the bird) and let it fly where it wanted. Often it sat on her shoulder and picked at her hair.
The newscaster said to expect the showers around midnight. Rolando had never stayed awake that late. He watched his Mickey Mouse alarm clock closely, urging it forward.
At 10:30 his abuela turned off the television and ran a bath.
When his grandmother was safely immersed in the bathtub he snuck out of his bedroom and into the kitchen. No window in the house faced the street he heard the newscaster mention, only the back door and the bathroom window looked in that direction. Rolando knew it was dangerous, and he knew he would get in trouble, but he didn’t care. He wanted to see the meteor shower. Summoning his courage he opened the backdoor and stood at the threshold.
Prettypretty dashed past his shoulder and into the dark.
“Prettypretty, no!” He yelled before he realized what he was doing. In a moment his grandmother, dripping and a towel clutched around her gnarled lumpy body stood at his side.
“Rollie! What are you doing? Where is Prettypretty?”
Dumbly, Rolando pointed outside. His grandmother dashed into the backyard, chittering and calling Prettypretty’s name.
Above the treetops Rolando saw the first glowing streak against the night sky. It really did look as if a star fell from the sky. He saw another, then another. He remembered the danger the meteors brought with them.
‘Doors swing shut,’ he thought to himself. Rolando stepped back into the kitchen and shut, and locked, the door. He ran to his bed and pulled the covers over his head.
He had meant to leave her out for only a short time. He had meant to let his grandmother back in the house. But, despite his anxiety and fear, he fell asleep. He fell asleep not long after the persistent knocking at the back door ended.
Rolando felt a gentle hand on his shoulder and opened his eyes to see his mother sitting on the bed. Lines of worry etched her face.
Rolando smiled sleepily at her and gave her a hug.
His mother hugged him briefly and pulled away. “Rollie, can you tell me what happened last night?”
Rolando’s face froze. He knew he couldn’t tell the truth, but he had rehearsed no lie. He sat silently.
“Rollie. What happened?”
“I don’t know, Mama,” he finally managed.
“Rollie, your abuela was caught in a meteor shower last night. Do you know anything about why she was outside?”
Rolando didn’t trust his voice to speak, so he shook his head. Rolando’s mother looked exhausted and sad. Rolando wished he could simply hug her and make her feel better. He wished he could take back everything that happened the night before.
“Do you know how the door got closed?”
“Doors swing shut.”
His mother frowned. “Get up. Get dressed. We have to take your grandmother to the doctor.”
Rolando dressed slowly. He walked down the hall certain he was walking into something much worse than an execution. He knew he would be facing a wrath unlike any he had ever experienced.
When he stepped into the living room he saw his grandmother. She had her back to the hallway. She sat staring out the window, humming softly to herself. Rolando could hear his mother puttering around in the kitchen. As quietly as he could he tip-toed through the living room. Before he could make it to the safety of the kitchen his grandmother called out.
“Mi’jo! Come give your abuela a hug!” Rolando turned around, stunned. His grandmother was smiling. She was beaming. She held her arms out to him. With great trepidation, fearing some sort of horrible trap, Rolando slowly made his way to his grandmother’s arms.
Her arms swallowed him up and she gave him a long hug. She kissed his cheek before she released him. She held him at arm’s length. “Such a good boy. I hope you slept well the whole night through.” She gave him a sly wink.
As Rolando processed the odd behavior his mother appeared in the doorway between the kitchen and living room. “Breakfast is ready.”
At breakfast Rolando ate his cereal silently, listening to his grandmother chatter on about her plans for the day and ask his mother questions about work. His grandmother’s personality change was so thorough and so unexpected, Rolando kept expecting for her to reveal she was playing some horrible game he could not understand. His mother answered only briefly and looked deeply sad.
His abuela continued her bright chatter on the bus. She played a game with Rolando, and occasionally spoke to other passengers, beaming with pride to introduce them to her beautiful grandchild. Bus riders smiled at him and congratulated her on having such a handsome, well-behaved grandchild. His mother stared expressionless out the window, ignoring the remarkable events taking place around her. Rolando had never seen his grandmother so sincerely happy. It was a tremendous improvement over her typical hateful behavior. Even when she feigned her good nature there was something wrong with it, an edge of meanness.
Waiting in the doctor’s office was one of the best times Rolando could remember. His mother was there, and his grandmother spoke gently to him, even sometimes making little jokes, as they put together a puzzle the clinic put out to help entertain children.
Eventually the good time came to an end, and the nurse called his grandmother’s name. She kissed him on the forehead and, still smiling, disappeared behind the door to have her visit with the doctor.
Rolando sat next to his mother. Her hands clutched each other in her lap, and he saw she had wrapped tissues around the ends of her fingers because she worried them so much they bled. She looked as if she was about to cry.
“What’s wrong with abuela?” asked Rolando.
“She was caught in a meteor shower last night.”
“But, she is OK! She is even happy. I have never seen her like this before, mama.”
“Oh, mi’jo. The showers bring with them a gas. The gas makes people happy, but it also makes them sick.” The tears started to fall out of her eyes. “Your abuela is very ill. She will not be with us much longer.”
Rolando reached out and stroked his mother’s arm. It didn’t seem right that such happiness should indicate such sorrow. His grandmother was happier than he had ever seen her. How could that mean she was soon to die?
On the bus ride home, both Rolando and his abuela tried to comfort his mother. Rolando’s grandmother spoke frankly about death and insisted she had had a wonderful life. She consoled her daughter with the thought that not everyone knows about their death in advance, which made her lucky. She was bound to die anyway, but this way she could express her deep love for her daughter and her grandson. These would be days to be cherished, not a time to regret.
Rolando thought everything his grandmother said made clear and obvious sense, but his mother could not be consoled.
“Wake up, mi’jo. It’s a beautiful day!” Rolando’s abuela woke him every morning with the same words. She was up early, earlier even than his mother, and she cooked breakfast for both of them. Not just cereal in a bowl, but eggs and bacon and cuban toast slathered with butter. Since the night of the meteors his abuela shopped regularly for groceries. It turned out that she had been squirreling away money for years. The gas from the meteors removed her miserliness and stinginess.
She still worked every day collecting money for the loteria and bolita, and she still smiled and laughed with her customers, but now it was with sincerity and real pleasure. While on the bus she told Rolando stories of her youth and her life instead of cursing the people they had just visited. Everyone noticed the change and offered their condolences. Rolando’s abuela would only shrug, smile, and tell them she had been blessed with a long full life.
No matter how nice his abuela was to his mother, she continued to look sad, and often, to cry. Rolando wanted to explain to her so she could understand how much better abuela was now. He thought maybe his mother didn’t understand how horrible his grandmother had been. She didn’t ride the bus with them every morning. She didn’t hear her curse Mama Josie. She didn’t know how the anger made Rolando feel sick to his stomach.
But, every time he worked up the courage to tell her he saw the sadness on her face and could not. He knew he should not be happy his grandmother would soon die, but he couldn’t help it. She was a horrible person, like a monster in a fairy tale. He eagerly anticipated the day she’d be gone, but he knew he had to hide those feelings from his mother. How could something that made him so happy make her so sad?
One day, as his grandmother and he sat waiting for a bus, he asked her what it had been like to be in the meteor shower. He knew he could ask his abuela anything and she would answer to the best of her ability without judging.
“At first, mi’jo, I was frightened, as scared as I have ever been in my life. I thought the meteors would burn me up. I thought it would feel like being stoned to death with burning stones. I panicked and ran, but I didn’t know where to run to. I stood under a tree and I cried. And slowly I realized I was not being injured. And, if I stopped for one moment thinking about my fear I saw around me the most beautiful sight. The night was alive. The lights sparked and danced. There was a sound unlike any sound I’ve ever heard. A sound peaceful and calm. One little light seemed to spiral. It was as if it spun simply to amuse me and I laughed a little. I could see the world through the soft glow of the flashing lights. The world looked beautiful. I forgot about my aching joints. I stopped feeling pain.
“Time stood still. I felt a bliss overcome my mind. It was as if it un-kinked. All the fear and worry and anxiety I’d held in my body and mind for so long, evaporated under the lights of the dashing meteors. For a few moments I wondered if I had died and passed into heaven. Since then, the way I feel, this the way I imagine I will feel in heaven.
“I suppose it is a sin, and I should ask for forgiveness, but I look forward to death because I believe I will feel this way always.” She no longer looked at Rolando, but stared up into the sky as if she could see straight through the gates of heaven.
Rolando felt safe sharing his secret. “I want to see the shooting stars, abuela. I want to stand in the meteor shower. I’ve dreamed about it.”
“Ah, nene Rollie, the meteors are good for a tired old woman who has a long life, but they are no good for a little boy with his whole life ahead of him.” Even though her voice was soothing and he knew she sincerely worried about him, Rolando felt frustrated. He wanted to see the shower of fire with his own eyes.
Rolando’s mother was home the night his grandmother died. She had taken time off from work. The end came quickly. One day his abuela said she was too tired to get out of bed, by the next night she was dead.
It was late at night when the paramedics came to the house, but no one told told Rolando it was past his bedtime. He sat on the couch and watched the efficient men and women from the fire truck and ambulance console his mother. The living room pulsed with the flashing lights from the fire truck parked outside. The paramedics left soon after arriving to avoid the shower. Rolando’s mother lost track of him as she grieved for the loss of her mother. Her grief was alien and inexplicable. He had wondered if he’d feel sad when his grandmother died, but all he felt was relief. He had never fully believed his abuela would not return to her old ways.
Rolando was glad his grandmother died happy, but mostly he was glad she was gone. Now, he would have more time with his mother. He knew he must never say these things to his mother. She would never understand. His stomach clenched and he tasted something sour at the back of his throat.
He caught a flash of light out of the corner of his eye and realized the stars were falling tonight. Maybe he could look at them for just a second. Maybe if he was with them for only a short time they could help make him feel better. He slipped quietly out to the back porch and looked up to the sky.
It was just like his dream. The stars fell around him. Rolando smiled. They danced like fireflies. They made the night glow. They covered his mind with warmth. They whispered that these worries were too much for a little boy. He was forgiven. Life was bliss.