“Shape-shifters” by Alison Grifa Ismaili


When I opened the curtains and saw the shadow perched on the fire escape, I thought for a second it might be somebody from the IRS. Mami had said that IRS agents were shape-shifting putos, and I imagined them to be like the Mr. Smiths of The Matrix, silly-putty men in black suits, morphing at any moment from one body to the next, thousands of them trying to collect money and ruin people’s lives.It had been exactly five weeks since I’d mailed Mami’s tax return, and every day, I thought they would come to our apartment and demand more money. In my mind, they were just like la Migra, except maybe they could do math.

I’d tried to explain to Mami that I was not getting a good grade in Trig this marking period, but she said to just do the damn return. She said she didn’t have any time, and I knew that my brothers Fernando and Rafi were clueless, neither one of them ever having a real job. So I downloaded the forms at the library on 115th, got out my Texas Instruments calculator, and tried to do the numbers myself. When I’d finished, I figured that Mami owed Uncle Sam a grand total of fifty-three cents.

“Just write the check,” Mami had said on her way out the door. Like usual, she was in a whirlwind.

“Don’t you want to see the math?” I asked, but she was already gone.

I dug her checkbook from out her underwear drawer, wrote down fifty-three cents, and signed it Alba Alvarez. I wrote CENTS in big capital letters so the putos wouldn’t think it was dollars. Mami would have whooped my behind if I’d paid them more than she owed. And ever since then, I’d been on the lookout for the shape-shifters.

That’s why I had to blink a couple times before the hunched silhouette became an owl. A bright flash of sun cut through the smokiness of our bedroom, and I could see her perched on the black-chipped railing like an overseer to our cilantro plants and the soggy guts of Phillie cigars. She had her proud brown feathers all puffed out with two little spikes on top of her head, and she was looking straight at me with massive yellow eyes, her hooked beak more like a single claw piercing the white billowiness around her face.

Right then, I heard heavy glass tumble to pieces on the floor. I turned around to find ’Buela staring past me out the window, water and jagged glass shards from a vase scattered around her pink house slippers.

“Ande diablo lechuza,” she whispered with her eyes wide and wet in the wrinkles of her face. Then she took off running.

I heard her screeching about the lechuza down the hallway, and that’s when Fernando stirred on the mattress below.

“What the fuck?” he grumbled in a sticky-mouth yawn. I could smell the fermented foulness of his breath from where I was standing.

“Mami says to get your lazy ass up,” I told him.

“Shut up, little man.” He rolled over.

“She says to get your ass a job.”

Fernando tried to grab me, but I was too slick for his gargantuan fat ass. I sprinted out of the room that I shared with him, but was careful to sidestep the broken glass and the shallow puddle that ’Buela had left on the floor. Let Fernando clean it up. Not that he would, but for a second I pictured him rolling out of bed and stomping down on the crunchy splinters with his Fred Flintstone feet.

In the living room, ’Buela was already saying Ave Marias above my nieces, Zayinna and Rosie, and she called over her shoulder for me to contact Mami at work and tell her about the lechuza. I told her I would, even though I knew I wouldn’t. Mami was a day-shift supervisor at the Key Food on 187th Street, and she was studying for her Associate’s at Bronx Community at night. We’re not supposed to call Mami for anything unless the house catches on fire or one of us is near death—“near” meaning like a subway ride—forty-five minutes to an hour away. If Fernando gets arrested, Zayinna gets sick, Rafi gets in a fight, the TV or the Bustelo coffee can with all our money in it gets stolen, we aren’t supposed to call. Personally, if the apartment burns down, which it probably will one day because of Fernando and his friends smoking blunts in the stairwell and being stupid all the time, I’m not calling Mami. I’m just leaving, easy as I please. I might take my nieces with me—might—but I’ll be out of here. Let the rest of them deal with it and Mami’s wrath.

When I left the house to head to school, I heard ’Buela telling Zayinna and Rosie to stay away from the windows. Even though my head was fuzzy with numbers, the thing with the IRS poking at me, my homework, timing the C train just right, I heard Fernando yelp in pain and I thought that maybe, for once, the santos were on my side.

* * *

By the time I got home that afternoon I found a small bowl of uncooked rice on the crusty radiator next to the window. In the days to come, the bowls multiplied—sifted rice and spices, sweets and liquor—placed strategically around the house to ward off the lechuza. Glasses of water high up on shelves or under Zayinna’s bed, made holy by ’Buela’s rosary. Fernando, Rafi, and Mami didn’t seem to notice, but I did. ’Buela and all the old school believed that if you saw or heard an owl at night, it would steal the souls of the young children in the house while they’re sleeping. I couldn’t imagine what it meant to see an owl in broad daylight on Manhattan Avenue and 109th Street. The only forms of wildlife we ever saw were the armies of cockroaches stalking the drywall, and the rats and crackheads sifting through the trash in the basement. But any which way, I knew it had to be bad. So I tiptoed around ’Buela’s rice bowls, and kept an eye and an ear out for la lechuza.

* * *

The city was heating up, and I circled June 25th—the last day of school—on the red dragon calendar that we got from the ghetto Chinese food place. I felt a new bounce in my step as I looked forward to broiling days at the pool on 110th or the long rides out to Far Rockaway on the tin-can A train. I almost forgot about the owl, but sometimes I’d run into ’Buela sweeping in the hallway and I’d get tripped up in her broomstick. On those quiet mornings before the bustle and the arguments and the trash talk began, she’d look at me with her dark eyes filled with old-school stuff. Sometimes when the light filtered through the curtains in a certain way, I thought she looked magic, like a sorceress, only shape-shifting behind a cotton house dress and Ms. Clairol’s carrot-colored hair dye.

Weeks passed and no word from the IRS, which made me happy when I had time to think about it. Weeks passed, and no more owls. But still, no one picked up ’Buela’s rice bowls.

* * *

The shit hit the fan when the white girl showed up while Fernando and his baby’s mama were having a fist fight. ’Buela let her in our apartment, I think because ’Buela hated Fernando. Just because he was her grandson didn’t mean that she was blind to the fact that he was no-good scrub.

The girl sat with me, Zayinna, and Rosie on the plastic-covered couch, and we fixated on Sponge Bob with the volume up high so we could pretend not to hear Lettie screaming, “You think I won’t tell her? You think I won’t tell her you fucking me?”

Then the two of them barreled down the hallway, wrestling each other out the front door and into the stairwell. Lettie was screaming and we heard them banging into the sweaty plaster walls and Fernando yelling for her to shut the fuck up, fucking puta. This is how it always was when Lettie came down the street with Rosie to ask for Pampers money.

I looked at Fernando’s girlfriend sitting on the couch, but she didn’t look at me. I studied her lean, clean profile and how her nose kinda tilted up, squished in between her high cheekbones and small eyes. The heavy hot-oil smell of plantains smothered the living room, and I wondered how this girl had gotten mixed up with my brother.

Fernando could hold a job like a basketball net could hold marbles. He always had a few bucks in his pocket, but he didn’t get it from any real job. I figured he stole things. Sometimes North Face jackets would appear in our closet, car radios, iPhones, sneakers. Once I tripped on a desktop computer duct-taped in a broken cardboard box and wedged into the small space between our beds. It disappeared just a few days later. I never said anything. Mami was just ausente, running from one minute to the next. ’Buela had stopped cleaning our room altogether when Fernando lost his shit one day about her dusting some crappy ass speakers.

But Fernando couldn’t do anything. Once, he tried to get in on selling weed to the college kids up on the hill, but he was too dense to know how to do the measurements. I had to help him with the math so he didn’t get his ass kicked by whoever he owed money to. I cheated him twenty dollars that time, and he had no idea.

At first, I couldn’t understand what a nice college girl—or any girl, really—could see in Fernando. But then I remembered this crush I had on Daniella Hutchinson two summers before. She was this Belizean chick in my history class, and I would have sliced up my whole body and jumped into a pool of lemon juice just to make her like me. I’d saved up every single dime I earned working off the books at La Casita and spent it all on her. All the greasy counters I’d wiped, the drains I’d unclogged, prying gum from the undersides of tables with a butter knife, I would have done it for all eternity for Daniella. But she was bad news with a capital B. There was trash talk that she was sleeping around with all of JFK High School—with everyone but me. I still loved her though. I didn’t care about the rumors of her giving head to Malcolm Shaw in the stairwell. It was one of those dangerous kinds of loves I’d read about in books at the library—the kind that leaves men walking around with their spines like Pillsbury dough crescents, mumbling and wearing galoshes without any socks. I didn’t care. With Daniella, I was looking forward to nonsense syllables and cold, wet feet and my heart full of love.

I snapped out of it when she asked me to buy her a gold chain for the West Indian Carnival, and then a few days later she dumped me for some big black dude twice her age and seven times my size. It took me months to get myself together again. So in a way, I kinda understood why Fernando’s girlfriend stuck with him even though he only had three brain cells and was cheating on her with his baby’s mama. Love makes you stupid sometimes. Like Lorena Bobbit, or Tiger Woods, or ninety percent of the people on Judge Judy.

That day the white girl surprised me though. The santos really must have wanted to toy with Fernando because when he came back into the apartment, his eyes small and his face crinkled with red scratches from Lettie’s acrylic tips, the girl didn’t cry like usual. Instead, she bolted off the sofa and kicked him right in the nuts. I burst out laughing, but poor Zayinna and Rosie sat horrified, their eyes like gigantic moons on their munchkin faces. Poor Rosie, just a baby-baby girl, started wailing.

The white girl threw a heap of gold-plated jewelry at Fernando—junk chains he had probably bought for her in Bootleg City. He tried to grab her hands, but she bit him hard on the knuckles and clawed at his eyes. A second later blood burst from his lip when she landed a punch with her girl-fist. It was truly better than a Tekken videogame.

And then, as if the toe-to-toe was not already the best ever, the thing that made me respect her for real was when she kicked Fernando in the balls again and turned on her light heels and took off like she was Marion Jones before coming clean on the UPN 9 News. It was classic, and for a minute I felt like her and I were almost the same person. I thought about all the times I had to run to avoid getting my ass kicked, and how I’d acted like a cabrón.

I couldn’t help myself. I opened up the curtains to see her sprinting down the street in the sticky afternoon heat. Running for her freedom, running to save her ass, running for the sun. Me and the white girl.

“What are you smilin’ at?” Fernando asked, his lungs still pounding.

“You so stupid, Fern,” I said, turning from the window.

He was too winded to swipe at me, and I grabbed my backpack and headed to the library to check out Vampire Lestat. Miss Crowley had called and said that someone had finally returned it.

That marked the beginning of when Fernando went off the deep end. I’d hear him trying to call the white girl late into the night and cursing every time she didn’t pick up her phone. One minute he’d be promising his love for her, and the next minute he’d be telling the voicemail lady how she’d never find another man like him. He even asked me to help him write her a letter. I rolled my eyes, but I helped him anyway, I think because I was bored. We worked the whole corny thing out, and then when it came time to mail the letter, he didn’t even have her address.

“Why don’t you just take it over to her dorm room?” I asked, after we’d tried Googling her.

But he didn’t think he’d make it past security. And so his first and only love letter sat collecting dust next to his knock-off colognes and my spiral notebooks on the broken dresser we shared.

Then he started hanging around the bar where she worked. Would just sit and stare at her until closing time, probably just to scare her. I could imagine him plopping himself on a barstool in the corner and sneering at her while she served the Upper East Side pendejos.

One night Fernando came home around five in the morning, slamming the doors and throwing things around the room. I pulled the covers over my head, my only shield from his caveman grunts and curses. My head was so full of static that I fast-forwarded to the next year when I’d start my college applications. I reminded myself to apply to faraway places like Honolulu and Anchorage and the University of Guam. The University of Port Moresby, the University of Kabul.

I heard another set of footsteps enter the bedroom, and the overhead light switched on. It cast a red glow underneath my bed sheet.

“Slow down, Fern,” Rafi was saying. “Chill.”

Apparently, Fernando and the girl had another fight in the bar. Something about some white boy showing up and Fern shattering one of those new glass partitions at the bus stop. In our neighborhood, nobody would have even looked up except for los viejitos playing dominoes by the corner store. But on the Upper East Side, somebody had called the cops and Fernando had to make a run for it.

I heard him jerk open the closet door and pull out a large crate, scraping against the uneven floorboards, then metal clicking on metal.

“Fern…Fern…” Rafi’s voice was different. “You’re losin’ your shit.”

“What the hell are you doing?” I threw off the sheet.

Both of them looked at me surprised. Fernando was a mess in his big jeans and sweaty wife-beater.

“Shut the fuck up, puto,” he said.

“Calm down, Fern,” Rafi said.

“You shut the fuck up!” I heard myself screaming. “She hates your tired ass, just like everyone else. And how you got a loaded gun up in this place? There are other people who live here, you dumb fuck? What the—”

“David! Calm down.”

Suddenly I smelled kitchen smells like chopped lettuce and Dawn dishwashing soap, and Mami’s calloused hands were on my temple. I felt her boney hip against my cheek.

“It’s all right,” she said, and I realized then that I was crying. I wasn’t sure how long she’d been there and how many times she must have told me to relax.

I looked up and Mami’s face was soft in a way I hadn’t seen in a long, long time. Rafi leaned on the doorjamb with Zayinna in his arms. She had one hand rubbing the sleep in her eye and the other pulling her ear, not exactly sure if she should cry or not. Only Fernando was trying to hold in his laughter till he couldn’t anymore, and he cackled thin and smoky, his big stomach convulsing.

The box of Fernando’s stolen firearms was open on the floor next to the closet.

Mami told me to get up and she led me toward the bathroom, where she turned on the faucet and handed me a washcloth. The water was cool as I rinsed the heat and stupid tears from my face. She hovered over me for a minute and then left. In the next room, Fernando’s laughter suddenly stopped.

I heard Mami’s voice muffled through the wall. Something, something, and then she said, “You get the hell outta my house.”

I sat on the toilet with my face in the washcloth. I pushed my fingers into my closed eyes until weird shapes and colors made their way across the darkness. I thought about this history teacher at school and how he was always saying that reality is what we make it, how we create the world we live in. That’s a stupid thing to say to kids like us. Then, I thought about this girl I had met at Upward Bound last summer. She was from Yonkers someplace, but someplace not ghetto. And you could tell by the way she smiled with her teeth small and even in a perfect row, that she was free.

When Fernando slammed the front door, I finally came out and went back to our room. There was a pile of mismatched clothes on Fernando’s bed. I opened the closet door, and the box of handguns was still there. There was also a sawed-off shotgun wedged into the far corner. I traced my fingers along the hard black metal and then shut the door again. Mami was in the kitchen fixing her lunch for the long day ahead. Apparently she wasn’t going back to sleep. I couldn’t really figure out what it all meant. I wished she had kicked him out a long time ago…before the white girl, before Lettie. I wished she’d saved enough money in that stinking coffee can to send me away from here.

The sun was already up, peeking over the tops of the buildings, and I had about an hour or so to crash if I wanted to get to school on time for my math Regents exam. I dozed off in my room, my thoughts drifting, wondering if those were the hoo’s of dirty city doves on the fire escape. The last thing I remember passing over my eyelids before the blackness was the doves turning into la lechuza, humongous, with her wings spread and her yellow eyes wide.

* * *

We only had a half-day at school, and it was still early when I got out of the train and saw the ambulance pull away down our block. Really, it could have been from any building on the street, but I knew it was from ours, and I took off running. I pushed open the broken entry door and bounded up the two flights, sidestepping wads of gray gum and spit. Mrs. García and the other lady neighbors were in the hallway, their bright housedresses skirting their thick diabetic ankles. They looked at me with their bronze faces turning the color of ashes.

The door to Apartment 2C was already cracked open and I found ’Buela on the living room couch with her head in her hands, a plastic rosary looped around her fingers. The combs she kept in her hair were on the porcelain table, leaving a mess of orange tangles around her shoulders.

“’Buela, qué pasó?” I asked. “Qué pasó?”

One of the rice bowls had been kicked over. Thick red and muddy shoeprints marked the floor tiles that ’Buela had kept spotless since she moved in with us from Santo Domingo when I was just a little boy.

Down the hallway the red footprints turned into splatters of chaos. Small bloody starbursts, crushed on the floor and the walls of my bedroom. The closet door was open like an ugly, vomiting mouth. The box inside was pulled out with its lid half twisted.

I raced back to the living room, shouting, “’Buela, ’Buela! What happened? Where is Zayinna?”

But when I got there, ’Buela was holding the shotgun. The heavy metal was rising up and down slightly and evenly against the pink flowers of her housedress. Her finger was tight on the trigger, and one ancient and faultless eye trained on Fernando. My massive big brother had gone the sick color of mucus. His arms opened at his sides, his hands spread. He stood dumbly right inside the apartment door.

“Do something,” he said to me in English through clenched teeth.

I shook my head. “No way, bro.”

And we all stayed like that until the police arrived a few minutes after.

Alison Grifa Ismaili is currently in the third year of an MFA program at Louisiana State University, where she enjoys experimenting with multiple genres. In her former life, she was an English teacher in faraway places like Managua, Guayaquil, Rabat, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.

To read Alison Grifa Ismaili’s comments on Renée Thompson’s “Twelve Pencils,” click here.

Notes from Chad Peterson, Managing Editor
This story, for me, worked extremely well. It had a strong momentum from the outset that pulled me through the action with a sometimes violent energy. The family is depicted honestly and completely, but without over-sentimentalizing their situation or the strain in their relationships. Overall, I found this piece to be a thoroughly engrossing and very powerful read.

Comments on this story by Rebecca Burns, author of “The Intruder”
This is a persuasive piece, as moving as it is humorous, which conveys a real sense of place and captures the uplifting, occasionally painful idiosyncrasies of family life.

The title is very apt; David the young narrator is painted in a sympathetic but strong light, seeking his own identity set apart from his hideous older brother. He turns to books, the education system, anything to counter the shifting reality that surrounds him; a shifting reality caused by a chaotic family life. Books help to clear adolescent, foggy emotions—the teenage crush he feels is actually “one of those dangerous kinds of loves I’d read about in books at the library.”

A clever and well-pitched use of imagery support the running theme of painful relationships; David admits he “would have sliced up my whole body and jumped into a pool of lemon juice just to make her like me.” This perfectly captures teenage infatuation, and this juxtaposition of physical agony and emotional fulfillment is replayed in a later scene where the narrator watches a fist-fight between his brother, Fernando, and Fernando’s girlfriend, following the revelation that Fernando had been unfaithful— unsurprising to the reader, given the way he had been portrayed in earlier scenes.

The story also contains well-placed cultural references, recognizable even to readers not from the U.S. The line: “the thing that made me respect her for real was when she kicked Fernando in the balls again and turned on her light heels and took off like she was Marion Jones before coming clean on the UPN 9 News,” is just right; we, the readers, know exactly what the narrator means by this comparison—we are drawn into the story by such phrases. And we can see what is inevitable, what the ending will be. When it comes, the lack of clarity over the fate of the young niece, Zayinna, means one thing—that David must come into his own and finally assert himself.

A compelling and convincing story, well-executed.

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