The grandparents’ apartment smelled of spices and lemon furniture polish. Ani took off her shoes in the front hall and put on pink slippers that slid across the Oriental carpets. This was her new home. She wasn’t to touch the blue vase or the china figurine of the girl driving a flock of geese. Baba sat in the wine-colored plush armchair with a tall lamp beside it reading his newspaper. Ani could sit on the couch, on the hassock, or in Grandma’s lap. There was a glass bowl filled with hard candies on the coffee table. A red and white peppermint spun like a pinwheel in her mouth.
Grandma kept candy bars behind the balled-up plastic bags in the breadbox. She read their names to Ani off the bright paper wrappers: Almon Joy, Milky Vay, Tree Musketeers. Ani and Grandma sat on the couch on the back porch spitting watermelon seeds over the railing onto the grass. Then they went to the garden to pick mint and parsley.
Auntie Alice called from the second-floor porch–it was a two-family house–for them to send up some mint. Ani dropped the sprigs into a basket hanging from a long cord and watched as Auntie Alice pulled it up.
When the neighbor’s dog started to bark, Ani looked through the hedge and saw his jerking blond head. He growled and bared his sharp white teeth. Grandma yelled, Hush up, char shoon!
In the bedroom that she shared with her mother, there was a framed photograph of Ani’s father, David Silver. At night, long after bedtime, Ani imagined she heard his footsteps approaching in the hall. It had all been a mistake. He wasn’t dead after all. Ani pretended she was asleep and lay in the dark listening to her mother crying.
In the morning Baba said, Let’s go shopping, anoushig.
At the market a large man with a white apron and hairy arms spoke in Armenian to Baba. The man cut a sliver of halvah, offering it to Ani. It crunched and melted on her tongue. In the bakery Baba bought some rolls and round cracker bread from a woman with a gold tooth. She also spoke Armenian. So did the tailor at the dry cleaners and an old woman whom they met on the sidewalk.
Is this Armenia? Ani asked, slipping her hand into her grandfather’s.
This is Watertown, Massachusetts, Baba said.
Is your last name Silver?
Baba shook his head. Your last name is Silver. Our name is Kersamian.
The old elementary school was being torn down so Baba took Ani to watch the wrecking ball crash into the brick building. Dust rose as the walls fell in jagged sections, leaving empty classrooms exposed and floors sagging into the rooms below. The next day, just yards from the demolition, Ani’s kindergarten class met for the first time in a room with an accordion divider in the modern wing of the junior high school.
During recess Ani hooked her fingers in the chain-link fence separating the schoolyard from the work site, imagining the rooms as they had once looked with desks, chairs, and children. The teacher was at the blackboard writing letters with yellow chalk when the wrecking ball came hurtling through the wall. The children screamed and tumbled through the collapsing floor.
It was Ani’s fifth birthday. She didn’t have any friends, but Grandma invited the grandchildren of her friends. On the morning of the party, Grandma brushed Ani’s hair into a ponytail cinched high with a red velvet ribbon. The red polka-dotted dress was made of fabric stiff as waxed paper and underneath she wore a red tulle petticoat that scratched her legs.
They played a game called Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button with a large black coat button on a circle of green yarn. Then they put on party hats with white elastic that cut into Ani’s neck. They sat at the dining room table with the lights out waiting for the cake. The candles glowed in a semicircle and Ani blew them out with one breath.
She stood in the front hall with a chubby girl named Carol Hagopian who was in Ani’s Sunday school class at Grandma’s church. Carol’s eyebrow was a long black caterpillar across her olive forehead. There was a fine black down on the sides of her face.
Carol said, You don’t have a father, do you?
My father was run over by a car when he crossed the street. He went to heaven, Ani told her.
Your father wasn’t Christian, so he didn’t go to heaven, Carol replied. He’s burning in hell.
Ani knew that her father’s ashes were in a cylindrical tin in the bedroom. Ani believed that his spirit was in heaven, which she understood to be a place near the moon where good people went when they died. She imagined that hell was at the center of the earth where the devil chased bad souls around with a pitchfork while hot lava rained down on them. Her father was not in hell.
Carol’s eyes were almond-shaped like a cat’s and she wore a half smile, curled at the corners.
You want to see something really neat? a boy asked Ani.
Ani hadn’t noticed him come into the hall.
In the middle of his extended palm rested an egg-shaped rock the color of smoke.
He said, It’s gray quartz. I found it at the beach this summer.
What’s your name? Ani asked.
Van Ardavanian, he said. My grandmother and your grandmother are cousins.
His eyes and hair were black and his smile burned like a candle.
Ani told him, Come on. I want to show you something.
Van followed her to the bedroom, where she reached under her bed for a white cigar box. She opened the lid and surveyed her treasures: six acorns, a bottle cap with a rebus inside, a bead bracelet, and a soft brown cloth bag filled with marbles. When she dumped the marbles on the chenille bedspread they clicked against each other, then stared up expectantly.
Those were my father’s, Ani explained.
Van selected a green cat’s-eye shooter and rolled it between his palms. Trade you, he said.
For what? Ani asked.
The rock for the marble.
Okay, Ani said, sealing their friendship.
Ani was in the backyard playing tea party at the picnic table with her Penny Brite doll. Ani poured water from the teapot into Penny’s cup and dropped a pebble in for a lump of sugar.
Her mother called from the back door: Ani, come get a sweater.
Ani reluctantly climbed the steps to the house.
When she returned two minutes later the tea set was still on the table, but Penny Brite was missing. Ani checked under the table, under the bench, and behind the metal lawn chair. Then she peered through the hedges. The neighbor’s big dog had Penny in his mouth.
A loud scream rose up from inside Ani, circling out of her mouth into the air.
By the time Baba pried the doll out of the dog’s jaws, her red dress was nothing but wet scraps and there were deep teeth marks in her belly and dents in her legs.
Ani ran to her bedroom and hid under the bed. It was a small tight world where nothing bad could happen.
Later Ani’s mother knelt down by the bed and poked her head in. She had just returned from Woolworth’s, where she had bought a new Penny Brite that she slid toward her daughter. There was a stupid grin on the doll’s face and it smelled of plastic. Ani turned her face to the wall.
Soon the smell of cooking butter, onions, and peppers drifted out of the kitchen. Ani heard Grandma’s sewing machine in the dining room. Finally Grandma, without saying a word, slid Penny Brite under the bed. Ani recognized her doll by its damaged legs, but Penny was wearing a different dress that was navy with white pleats instead of red with white. Ani lifted the dress and ran her thumb over the teeth marks in the doll’s belly. Then she reached out for the new doll, which was still lying on the floor.
Penny Dark and Penny Bright, Ani whispered.
©2003 by Nancy Kricorian. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.