Even if we could go anywhere to eat, anywhere in Miami, anywhere in Florida, even—it could not have been better: Alma and me in the back seat, the trays cantilevered from the window glass rolled up a couple of inches.
My mother, whose name was Mae though everyone called her Maisie, told me that Alma lived in a cardboard house but on Wednesdays she would come to ours to do the ironing. I liked to tease Alma by standing up very straight and tall (all 36 inches of me) and then all stiff, I would fall forward, flat on my face near her ironing board. I don’t recall ever hurting myself like the time I put the hairpin into the electric socket but Alma would shriek and exclaim that I would surely cause the iron to fly from her hands and burn us all to bits.
The TV set was usually tuned to 15-minute shows sponsored by Coca Cola but today there was no singing only men arguing with a man from Minnesota about labels and a judge who said he had no shame.
My father was a traveling salesman. If he was (were) away my mother would take us all out for a special meal after Alma had finished the ironing. We could not go out to a restaurant together so we went to Jimmie’s Hurricane, a drive-in where no one would care about a black woman and a white woman and a little girl eating in a two-toned green Ford Fairlane. I would always have deep fried red snapper fingers and a chocolate milk shake and sit close to Alma who smelled of starch and ate a burger. We both liked lots of ketchup. We three could never go to the tearoom at Burdines’s where I would order a snow princess sundae —a little figure atop a whipped cream skirt decorated with silver ball candies and covering a mound of vanilla ice cream. I could take the princess part home and I would line them all up on a shelf. (One time we went to the tearoom after a hurricane when store mannequins littered Biscayne Boulevard along with the broken glass from the store windows and palm fronds matted the curbs.)
After Jimmie’s we dropped Alma off. My mother never liked me to see where Alma lived: in a pile of corrugated metal and cardboard walls with her babies, 7 or 8 babies. I never went inside.
The next week Alma did not come to do the ironing. My mother cried a lot.
Alma had gone out that night when her babies were asleep. There was a fire and the cardboard houses went up in flames. Her children all died. Where was she going that night? My mother said to meet her boyfriend. They all died; babies burned alone when Alma Johnson wasn’t home. All I knew was that Alma’s babies had no princesses or shelves or lives, even.
The men on the TV were arguing about labels. Alma knew a thing or two about labels. Negligent. Negress. About a year later Alma came to our house again. She had another baby; she showed me her picture saying she named her after my mother, Daisy. Daisy Johnson.