Gift for Yvette by Norbert Kovacs

In that neighborhood off New Britain Avenue in Hartford, Connecticut, the paint chipped off the houses and the front yards were very small. On many streets, the houses were all two or three families and crowded close on little plots of land, only six or seven feet of lawn separating them. The houses appeared like a chain of faded green, red, and white boxes. The house where Miguel Cordoba’s family lived stood out for being sky blue, the reason in fact Miguel’s mother had first attached to the place. She boasted of her home, its neat if small rooms, and her good words had made Miguel think the house a wonder.

Miguel was a twelve-year-old only child. He had neat, black hair that gave the idea his mother combed it and large, dark, and curious eyes that loved to look everywhere. His magenta lips blazed against his soft, pale face. He had a short, thin body, more a fourth grader’s than a middle schooler’s, and liked to wear gray or yellow sweaters and blue jeans though some other kids said it was “out”. When he spoke, his voice sounded enthusiastic and eager even when he was angry. More than anything else, Miguel loved to read the old National Geographics stacked by the basement wall of his house and had since he was seven. The magazines went from the 1950’s to the late ’80’s. From an old mail wrapper he discovered among them, Miguel knew an Italian family had the subscription to the magazine. The black family who had lived in the house before his had not touched the magazines it seemed, for Miguel found them under a solid coat of dust. Seated with his back against their pile, he read evenings and weekends about tropical forests, sunken treasure ships, and the space station. He loved encountering photos of Borneo natives, coral reefs, and old castles. He felt he went on the journeys told on the page as the basement vanished in his imagination.

When he was not reading the magazines, Miguel went riding his bike with his friends Marcos and John around the car-lined streets of the neighborhood. On sunny, warm days, Miguel encountered many kids in the neighborhood outside. There were the three Gonzalez brothers discussing sports on the front steps of their house and Jill and Frida Jackson listening to R&B music from the radio on their porch. Steve and Manuel Ortiz would ride by on their bikes for the park to play basketball with friends. Amy Rodriguez passed sometimes on the way to the convenience store on New Britain Avenue for some of her favorite bubble gum. Older kids in high school rode by on motor bikes or in cars with the windows down.

On one of these sunny days, his friends John and Marcos went to the park together but Miguel stayed behind; he had to finish cleaning up his room and could go only much later. When he had done and started on his bike down the street, he stopped a few houses down from his and saw two girls, whom he did not know, seated before a yellow, two-family house a quarter block further up. He had noticed a moving truck by the house previously, so guessed that the girls belonged to the new family who had moved there. The two girls, whom he could tell were Puerto Rican, were reading from a newspaper. The younger girl of about six, dressed in pink and purple, was giggling. The older girl who appeared Miguel’s age had dark, proud eyes. Her hair was glossy brown, going on black, and her face, cream-colored with a dark blemish below the ear. She was thin but not skinny and it made her appear tall as she sat on the step. Miguel studied the older girl for a long time. He saw her turn as if in answer to some call from inside and enter the house without her younger sister. Miguel waited, but when the older girl did not return, he left.

Miguel recalled the older girl at the yellow house over the next few days. He thought he was bound to run across her at school; since they seemed the same age, he figured they would be in the same grade, maybe even the same class. But going to his bus stop, he did not meet her there. On a day after he had given up on seeing her, he went to fetch milk from the corner bodega and spotted the girl with her sister walking the other side of the street. Both were in brown school uniforms with knee-length dresses. He realized they went to Catholic school; this was why he had not seen them at the bus. He was disappointed to learn it and avoided facing the girls’ side of the street again. He had hoped to meet the older one as he had his other friends through school. However, some reflection told Miguel he might still.  He thought he could approach the girl, say when she was seated before her house or on a walk.

As it happened, Miguel found her alone on her porch the next week when he was out riding his bike. She was toying with the volume on a radio, the sounds of dance music rising and falling with each turn of the dial.

“Hello there,” Miguel called from the sidewalk.

 “Hello.”

“What’s your name?”

The girl whipped her long, dark hair to a side. “Why should I tell you?”

“I was interested to talk. I know you just moved here. I live down the street. In the real blue house. My name is Miguel Cordoba.”

The girl considered. “I’m Yvette Garcia.”

“So you like that music?”

 “It’s fun, I guess.”

 “I think I could dance to it. Pretty well too.”

Yvette gave him a haughty, sidelong glance. “I’d like to see you.”

Miguel decided to take up this offer and try to impress her. He set his bike upon the sidewalk and made to dance. His shoulders jiggled. His hips swung.

Yvette laughed. “Oh, please. You might stop before people come by and see you.”

Miguel quit moving and pouted. He did not know what to say after being hurt, so got on his bike and headed home.

Miguel’s failure did not daunt him long: he rode by Yvette’s all the days of the next week, until Wednesday, he discovered her again on the front steps. She was reading from a fat magazine in her lap.

“Hi, it’s me again, Miguel.”

“Hello.” Yvette did not lift her face.

“What is it you’re reading?”

“Story about a movie star.”

“Which one?”

 “Glamorous one. I don’t see why you’re so keen to know. You’re not glamorous.”

“You might be right.” He thought it’d be comical to be a glamorous boy. Yvette, however, was glamorous to him.

“I bet you like to read a lot of magazines,” he went on.

“Interesting ones.”

“I like National Geographic. Their stories are cool. They always have photos of these neat places and people.”

“Really? I’ve never read National Geographic. What sort of people and places get in it?”

Miguel gave her a summary from a dated Geographic article about the Carnival in Rio de Jainiero. He embellished on the parade, the music, and the costumes until the event seemed like the latest Hollywood awards show described on Entertainment Tonight.

“Wow, this Carnival in Rio sounds fantastic,” Yvette said. “I think you’ll have to keep me posted on news from this Geographic of yours.”

Miguel swelled happily at having impressed Yvette.

The afterglow of this success was still with him when he was reading the newspaper that Saturday and encountered this item in the local events calendar.

Next Saturday. 9 AM – 4 PM. St. Stephen’s Church Bazaar, __ Apple Lane, West Hartford.

An enormous event, St. Stephen’s Bazaar will feature 50,000 items including craftwork, jewelry, art, clothing, and books donated by quality local merchants. Prices on our fabulous items range from $10 to $2,000. All proceeds benefit St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. All welcome.

Miguel laid down the paper. He tried to picture the bazaar though he knew nothing about St. Stephen’s or West Hartford. He saw a sprawling scene set on a huge lawn, a hundred tents and tables with diamond necklaces on racks, fine paintings tacked onto tent canvas, and leather bound books in portable cases. A thousand people circled his imagined stalls browsing, chatting idly with friends, haggling with the merchants. The scene may have come from a Geographic story about a Middle Eastern street market, busy, colorful, and fun. He decided the bazaar would be worth his while to visit. He considered then if he might bring Yvette with him. She probably would like going, he figured, if she had loved hearing about Carnival. He could buy her a gift too from the money he had saved from chores.

Miguel rode by Yvette’s that afternoon and found her on the front steps of her house alone. “Hello again,” he said.

“Hello, Miguel.” They were now on a first name basis.

“What are you doing next weekend?”

“I don’t know. Why do you ask?”

He shared his idea about going to the bazaar, holding back only on his idea to buy her a gift, which he meant for a surprise.

“Well, your bazaar does sound interesting,” she said. “I bet I would like it.”

“So you’d go with me there?”

Yvette picked at the step where she sat. “Actually, I can’t. My mother is teaching me to sew because I have to help my family make money. My family needs it since my mother’s hours were cut.”

Miguel lowered his face. “I understand that.” He knew about high school boys of the neighborhood in the same pinch. Esteban Rivera, a catcher on the high school baseball team, worked at a garage because his father made too little at the factory to pay their family’s rent. “But maybe I can get you a gift from the bazaar when I go?”

Yvette considered with a proud face. “Can if you like.”

“If you had a choice, what would it be?”

She considered some more. “Get me some jewelry. Like maybe a bracelet.”

“I’ll get you an excellent bracelet.”

Miguel gave the next six days to anticipating the St. Stephen’s bazaar. He repeatedly imagined getting the bracelet and presenting it to Yvette. He imagined her saying over and again how she loved it. He no longer had patience to read his Geographics, his fantasies about the coming Saturday taking up his whole time. His preoccupation even  interfered with his school work. He drew a dull blank when his social studies teacher, Mr. Kowalski, asked which country the class was studying.

When they were washing dishes on Wednesday, Miguel asked his mother for permission to go to the bazaar that Saturday.

“I don’t see why not,” she said smiling. She was a heavy woman with hair like a large, black sun on her head. “Are you planning to buy something there?”

“Some books.” Miguel claimed it believing his mother would dislike to know he was spending the money on a beautiful girl down the street. “I heard they’re selling a few nice ones. I have money saved I could spend for them.”

“Will these be nice books?”

“I’m searching for something about Australia. Maybe the Great Barrier Reef.”

 “That sounds alright.”

Miguel parted from his mother, happy she had trusted his fib.

Friday night, Miguel hardly slept for thought of the church bazaar the next day. The prospect of getting Yvette’s gift excited him and would not leave his mind. At eight o’clock on Saturday morning, he was up and dressed in a shot. He found his mother in the kitchen making coffee. He wove around her quickly getting milk, cereal, and fruit for his breakfast.

“And what’s your hurry this morning, may I ask?” his mother said as he zipped past her.

“I’d like to be at the church when the bazaar opens at nine.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to hold off going. Your uncle and aunt are visiting this morning and I want you here to see them. Don’t you remember my telling you Sunday they’d be over?”

Miguel did remember. He had shut the fact in the back of his mind, however, in his great excitement over the bazaar. “But I still could go out today?” he asked, tensing.

“Certainly, after your uncle and aunt have gone.”

“How long are they staying?”

“They’ll be here about ten and leave at two.”

Which leaves only two hours to get to the bazaar and shop for Yvette’s gift, he thought. Miguel sat down anxiously at the breakfast table and ate. He pictured the early arrivals at St. Stephen’s, picking off the bracelets for sale, one by one. He was rankled. What hope do I have of getting a bracelet now?, he wondered, studying his soggy cereal. He considered and thought that if he  hurried from home at two, he just might manage it. With luck he might.

 As he finished his cereal, Miguel saw his father trudging up the hall. Mr. Corboda, a worker at one of the older factories in East Hartford, was a pudgy man with dark, wavy hair, black eyebrows and brown eyes. He plodded the hall in the white undershirt and blue sweatpants that were his pajamas, his feet in cracked house shoes. Newly risen from bed, he seemed no more than half alert. Miguel disregarded this as he ran to him and said, “Dad, is it okay if I had a few dollars for the bus to West Hartford?”

His father halted his lumbering steps. “Why are you going to West Hartford?”

“They’re having a church bazaar. It’s like a big sale. I’m buying books there.”

“You’re a twelve-year-old, Puerto Rican boy and you’re going to a church sale? In West Hartford?”

Miguel ignored his father’s suggestion that going out of town might be strange. “In any case, is it okay if I have the money?” He wanted to put all his own money toward Yvette’s gift.

“Bring this up later.” His father went into the kitchen and spoke to Mrs. Cordoba. Left to the open area of the hall, Miguel fell to worrying over the fare money. He continued so after settling on the living room couch with a book. As he read, he watched his father finish breakfast and amble, too slowly it felt, toward the bathroom for his morning shower.

At ten, Miguel’s uncle and aunt arrived, greeted warmly by Mrs. Cordoba, a smiling, now alert Mr. Cordoba, and a polite but reluctant Miguel. The family went into the living room as a group. From the end of the couch, Miguel listened to them chat, knowing he was to pretend interest. He listened to his aunt chew her neighbor and his “bizarre”, new wife. Miguel’s mother mentioned Miguel, and his aunt and uncle started on him with questions: “How are you doing in school?” “What have you been up to lately?” “What are your friends like this year?” He answered with the right, polite — “Just fine”, “I’ve been busy with my science project”–or else had his mother reply. Their inquiry done, the adults fell to topics more suited to their sphere: home repair, then their cars and how they never could afford new ones. Miguel knew his role in the conversation had ended. “Is it ok if I go to my room?” he asked his parents. “I’m behind on homework.” His father excused him with a quick nod, his mother not so much as turning from his aunt.

Alone in his room, Miguel’s anxiety over the church fair returned. He moved about his bedroom, peeking into its corners as if he might find there some exit from the house that lead straight to the bazaar in West Hartford. He stopped moving, sat down, and stood again. For the next hour and a half, he fidgeted, paced, picked up and dropped a newspaper, hoping to kill the time between then and two. By one, Miguel could not wait any longer and considered if his parents might let him leave early since his uncle and aunt were close to going. He pocketed the money for Yvette’s gift and bolted into the living room.

The four adults were still holding forth when Miguel came and stood before his father. “Dad, is it okay I leave now for the bazaar? I know it’s before two, but I really hoped to go.”

His father smiled. “Well, what is this bazaar?”

Miguel realized his father had forgotten from the morning. “The church bazaar in West Hartford where I’ll buy books. I asked if I could have a few dollars for the bus to get there.”

Miguel’s father seemed amused. Miguel knew the rest of the family was watching and it made him self-conscious.

“But why do you want to buy books? Aren’t the ones from school good enough for you?”

Miguel thought this had to be one of his father’s badly timed jokes and not a funny one either. “My school books are fine. I just—”

“Father, I told him already he can go,” his mother said. “Let him have the few dollars for the bus.”

His father dug his wallet from his pocket and gave Miguel the money. Miguel thanked him and bolted for the door. “Come back with the library!” his uncle called from behind. Miguel’s father laughed.

Miguel ran to the avenue and caught the bus that went first to Farmington Avenue then toward West Hartford. From his seat by the window, he saw the sun hitting the shade trees and thought it looked brilliant. He watched the city people walk slowly by along the street. Some had bowed faces, their feet shuffling along the sidewalk. Despite this, he imagined the people happy since he was. The bus passed apartment blocks with blinded windows and rows of homes like worn, colored tins. The bus went through the city and into West Hartford and dropped Miguel at the corner near the church.

Miguel had never been to West Hartford so was surprised to find he was among houses unlike any he had ever seen. There were some that had stone canopies and columns before the door. The bigger types sported tall turrets and bay windows, wide fronts and gravel driveways. As he walked the street toward the church, he saw cars parked along the side of the road; they were bright and expensive, impressive like the houses, and he realized they must belong to the people visiting the bazaar. Just who drove here in them?, he wondered . The idea seemed strange to think when he had come hoping to buy Yvette a simple bracelet.

Miguel discovered St. Stephen’s was a large, white-painted church with a high steeple and tall cross, an impressive place but not the cathedral he had imagined. The church’s large, but not huge, lawn was covered in tables and tents. As he went amid these, he took in the items on sale: handsome print shirts in one spot, copper-framed paintings in another, old coins, garden gnomes. Then oversized books, exotic flowers, hand-painted dolls, designer bathing suits. The items crowded table after table with swarms of people snaking among them. The people caught his attention for they appeared very different than the people in Hartford. There was a man with a blonde-brown crew cut wearing a collared pink casual shirt, khaki slacks and a large gold wristwatch. Passing him went an old woman with very white hair, a smooth peach face, and sharp, blue eyes. Her glasses had circular lenses framed in thin steel; her outfit shared her eyes’ remarkable color. Beside the exotic flowers stood a couple, the man with a clean, light pink face and green eyes, the woman with blonde hair tucked behind her ears. The two appeared to Miguel very polished, almost too neat. Behind them came some high school students, a boy with cream-colored skin and dark curly hair, a girl with naturally red hair, pinched eyes and very red lips, and a girl with dark hair and a freckled face. The students wore T-shirts on which were printed CAPE COD, MARTHA’S VINEYARD, and KINGSWOOD-OXFORD SCHOOL. Miguel guessed the friends had visited the first two places and attended the third. These were not places he nor his friends had gone. As Miguel wandered, it struck him that everyone he saw was white. He looked white, of course; a lot of Puerto Ricans did. However, the people here were white in a different way and it was scary and strange to think that he had not guessed they would be. In fact, he had believed they would be like the people who lived in his neighborhood. But here they were, the white haired woman, the three high school kids, the blonde man. And he was among them hoping to buy Yvette Garcia a bracelet.

Miguel moved slowly to the jewelry table. On it, he discovered rings crusted with diamonds, broaches with emeralds. Beside these shone the bracelets, silver-coated, polished wood, some with real jewels, some fake. While these were the items he sought, they seemed more an image than things to touch. It did not help him feel less strange that he could afford to buy a bracelet at the listed prices.

The table attendants were two high school girls, both blonde. One had sky blue eyes, the other violet. Miguel overheard as the blue-eyed girl told the other:

“So I’m thinking it’ll be fun up in New Hartford. I’ve never been in a cabin.”

“Will it be that many of you?”

“That’s the plan. Stephanie, Courtney, Valerie.”

“It’ll be interesting to figure who sleeps where.”

“Oh, the cabin has room. My dad told me.”

“Well, it sounds like it’ll be interesting.”

“Dave might stop in when we’re there. He’s got his new car.”

The girl with the violet eyes noticed Miguel by the jewelry and pointed him out to her friend. The blue-eyed girl seemed startled. “Can I help you with something?” she asked, half-unsure.

Miguel studied the girl’s face and thought of the fine bracelets on the table. He considered he would have to pay her for his gift. And she seemed more interested in her weekend than any question of his about the jewelry. He hedged. “No, no thank you,” he said.

The girl inspected the table. She adjusted a ring on the tray so it shone a little more and resumed talking with her friend.

Miguel lingered by the jewelry as they spoke but he did not change his mind. He told himself that the bracelet was for the people of the bazaar, not Yvette. He no longer felt he had a right to imagine her wearing it. He asked himself why he should have believed it in the first place and sensed that he had made an error, been under the spell of some wrong idea. He knew it had to do with coming here from the city, the people he saw about the tables. For a first time, he felt his difference with everyone in the church yard ran deeper than he ever might have imagined. He was upset over this as he considered that now he should be going home.

Norbert Kovacs.jpg

Norbert Kovacs lives and writes in Hartford, Connecticut. His stories have appeared in Westview, Gravel, STORGY, Corvus Review, and The Write Launch. Norbert’s website is http://www.norbertkovacs.net.

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