Sudden Handcuffs

A short story about a day at work in Washington.

 

Camila shows up without an appointment. The receptionist calls my desk in the social work office and informs me that she is waiting. Something personal is going on, I intuit. If she came for help with welfare forms or letters, she would not have waited in the lobby through my lunch. She is asking for someone she trusts.

I call her from the lobby into an empty office where we can talk in private. Baby Diego wiggles happily on her lap when I smile at him.

“Necesito que me ayude con mi hermano,” she says.

“Ok?” I ask. “En qué sentido?”

“Necesito que me ayude a escribir una carta.”

Now she drops her eyes and straightens baby Diego’s little hat. At her full adult height she is four feet tall like her mother and grandmother, and wears clothes she buys in the children’s section at Walmart. All of them, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands and a growing band of cousins have come from a remote mountain village in Mexico. They live together as they did before they stole across the border, in a decrepit three bedroom trailer heated by a wood stove in the living room. I have been there. I sat with her every month on the sagging bed in the living room, in that intimate chaos, discussing baby Diego’s growth from the time he was nothing but a little lump.

“Está en la cárcel,” she tells me.

“Qué pasó?” I ask.

He’s a good man, she tells me, and the family is very sad. She wants to write a letter telling the judge that he should be allowed to come home. He is not a bad person. He is a hard worker and he doesn’t drink. Will I help her?

“Sí,” I tell her. But why is he in jail?

“Lo metieron en la cárcel porque su esposa es muy joven. Ella tiene trece años. Y lo metieron en la cárcel.”

“Lo metieron en la cárcel porque la esposa tiene trece años?”

“Sí.”

Ah, I say. Yes. In this country it is illegal for a man to have a thirteen year old wife.

“Ya sé,” she tells me, “Pero para nosotros, es normal.”

“Yo lo sé,” I say, and prop my head on my hand, looking at her.

I hate this.

“Como está la esposa?” I ask, trying to understand. If he is in la cárcel, something happened. Something.

“Ella está muy triste,” Camila says. “Ella quiere que lo dejen ir.”

“Ella lo ama?”

“Oh, sí. Mucho,” she earnestly nods.

“Él la trata bien?”

“Sí, la trata bien. Es un hombre muy bueno. No toma licor, nunca.”

“Cuántos años tiene él?”

“El tiene 21.”

Well, yes. Indeed.

“Tienen niños?” I ask. I realize I don’t need this much information to write the letter she wants, but I can’t help it. Throughout her pregnancy with baby Diego, we developed a sort of lopsided friendship, and I care about things for which I can offer no remedy.

“No, she says, “Pero está embarazada.”

Quietly, a sigh deflates me.

I can see it perfectly: the thirteen year old girl who speaks no English and very little Spanish goes to the doctor with her mother, or mother-in-law, where it is confirmed that she is pregnant. They do not show their delight or any other emotion in front of the large white strangers. Their round faces are stoic, expressionless, and the nurse sends them directly to speak with a social worker. They do not know what a social worker is, but they know to cooperate with large white strangers.

They answer the interpreter’s questions in broken Spanish.

How old are you?

Are you in school?

Where is the father of your baby?

How old is he?

Where does he live?

The large white strangers note his name, his age, that his address is the same. They do not ask her if she is married, if her baby’s father is her husband, betrothed to her when he was fifteen and she was a child of seven. They read flickers of fear on the face of the older woman and they misunderstand.

“El es muy bueno, y queremos que lo dejen ir,” Camila says. The sadness in her is bottomless.

 

I write the letter to the judge, stating that Eduardo is a good man, that his family misses him very much and that they need him. That the pregnant child is his wife and that she needs him. That he is a hard worker who doesn’t drink liquor or consume drugs. That the judge may please consider that he is not a criminal and let him go.
I realize, of course, that by my country’s law, he is.

Camila hugs me gratefully and leaves carrying the letter in one hand, clutching delighted baby Diego to her small hip with the other.

I go back into the little room where we can talk in private and sit there by myself, immobilized by a sorrow that seems to expand in all directions. I say a prayer for rain in the high plains of Mexico, that corn may germinate and grow, that the goats may have milk enough for everyone’s babies, that people may find hope in their homelands far away from large strangers with our clipboards, prying questionnaires and sudden handcuffs.

What I Know in the Ocean / The Good Kind of Zero

There are some things that I think about/feel/know when I’m in the ocean that don’t come to me in the same way any other time.  It’s not about surfing.  I step into the water and stand there with it swirling around my knees, or I lie on my back and float.  And things come to me.

Lo Que Es La Orilla del Mar:

It’s the end of the world and the beginning of what is after/before.   Es donde la vida eterna se toca con la vida mortal.  It is the place where now meets forever.  Right here.  Right where my feet are.  This is the place.  It’s the end.

It’s also the beginning.  It is the amniotic fluid that carries our planet which is constantly being born.

Skin:

I like to float on my back and look up at the sky.  I think about how only a thin layer of skin separates the salt water I am made of from the salt water that holds me up.  It’s those few millimeters that keep me from blending in with Everything.  On land, I am an individual.  In the ocean, I am molecules of salt water among the others.  It’s not a bad feeling.  I tried to write a poem about it but there wasn’t anything else to say.

The Feeling of Zero:

I step into the ocean and what comes to me is the feeling of zero.  Not in a bad way; in a good way.  You might call it “peace” or “balance” or something, but for me that’s those aren’t the right words.  I feel zero.  My Mennonite upbringing would probably say I am feeling “forgiveness”—but there’s no sense of relief associated with it, and no guilt.  It’s quieter.  Like zero is what I owe and zero is what is owed to me.  Like I’ve done, or am doing, what I have to do, and nothing more is required of me than to be what I am.  Zero doesn’t mean that everything is going to be alright, or the way I like it.  It means that the world was here before me, and it will be here after me, and THAT is what is alright.  I don’t need to do or become or accomplish anything in order to make things different than what they are.  Like I do not owe a debt to the Universe and It does not owe me a paycheck.  Zero.  A good zero.

And one more thing.

I walk in to the ocean, past the breakers when the tide is low.  I lie on my back and float, looking up at the clouds.  I think, “This is where I will go when I die.”  Right there.  In the ocean, past the breakers.  It’s not a major item of concern for me what happens to my body after I die—my main concern is that it happens a really long time from now.  But who are we kidding?  I don’t have children or grandchildren who will want to visit my grave.  Got knows I haven’t got a red cent to leave behind, so I don’t imagine anyone will feel possessed to bury me.

I used to think about that in the States.   “Please, when I die, take me and pour me into warm salt water.  Don’t leave me here.  If I can’t live where I belong, at least take my ashes there.”

So I float in the ocean, miro el cielo, and I wonder if this is not in some ways like lying in my grave for a while on a sunny afternoon.  Just floating.  Checking out the scenery.  Watching some hunting birds glide by now and again.   Sometimes you can see the moon. Feeling the good kind of zero.

Does that seem morbid?  I hope not.  If it does, I did a bad job of describing it.  It’s very peaceful.  Then I have to trudge back onto the sand, pedal my bike up the hill, and decide what to make for dinner.

The Story of Maria Pablo in Ten Scenes

This is  a revised story originally posted in May 2013 with the title
“White Buckets”

 I

María Pablo is sitting round on her bed with Carlitos when I enter.  Carlitos is eating a tortilla and cheese with both grubby hands, and María is petting his hair.  It’s another boy, due in May.  I don’t take my coat off because the room is that cold.

“No puedo dormir,” she tells me.  Her back hurts, the baby moves.  Carlitos wants to sleep with her, and Vicente and even Adolfo who is almost 11, when it is cold.  There is another bed in the room piled with clothes and broken toys.

 

 II

 “Cuántos años tienes?”

“No sé.  Como veinticuatro.”

“En qué año naciste?”

“En ochenta y cuatro.”

“En cuál mes?”

“Diciembre.”

“Diciembre?  Entonces tienes veintisiete – casi veintiocho.”

“Veintiocho!  Sí, sí!  Veintiocho!”  She laughs.

 

 III

She brings me the letter typed in little black letters with the green logo of the county courthouse.  She is dusty and her back hurts from bending between the rows of the onion fields.

“Qué dice?” she asks me.

They want the name of baby Alejandro’s daddy if she’s to continue receiving government cash to pay the rent.  I know the answer to the question.  She has told me before.

Now she drops her eyes and isn’t looking at me when she repeats it: “Es que no sé.”

This time I have to press her.  The blanks on the paper are staring at us.  “No sabes su nombre o no sabes cuál es?”  I ask in the politest way I can think of.

“Yo sé quien es,” she says looking up, “Pero no sé donde está.”

“Y no sabes su nombre.”

“No,” she agrees.

 

 IV

She comes to me with another green and black letter.  Baby Alejandro nurses hungrily.  Carlitos stands guard, beside.

“Qué dice?” she asks me, and I tell her.   She has to go to the courthouse on Thursday at 2:00 to answer some questions about baby Alejandro’s daddy.

“Es que no sé,” she insists.

I know, I tell her, but you’re going to have to tell them that in person.

“Es que tengo verguenza,” she pleads.

“María,” I ask her slowly, “Te violaron?  O fue una cosa entre los dos?”

“No,” she says, looking at the floor.  “Fue una cosa entre los dos.”

Did you love him?, I want to ask her.  Cuénteme.  But I don’t.

 

 V

I meet them at the courthouse:  María, baby Alejandro, Carlitos and this time Vicente, too.  School is out for the summer.  The courthouse clerk speaks Spanish so she doesn’t need an interpreter, but I’m already there.  I make myself useful holding baby Alejandro.

“Dónde está el papá de su bebé?” the clerk asks her.

“No sé,” María tells her.

“Cómo se llama?” asks the clerk.

“No sé,” María answers.

Then she does something that I cannot believe.  María Pablo opens her purse.  She pulls out the remains of a mysteriously masculine-looking wallet stuffed with pieces of paper.  And from the wallet, she produces a Washington State ID card with a man’s name and picture.  She hands it to the courthouse clerk.

“Es él?” the clerk asks.

“Sí,” replies María.

I all but drop baby Alejandro on the floor.  I am stupefied.  She doesn’t know his name but she has his ID?  I know she can’t read.  But?  She could have shown me the ID.  María is not laying all her cards on the table.

I am somehow delighted.  I knew she wasn’t stupid.

Did he leave without his ID?  Hardly.  His wallet?  And never come back?  María, did you steal it?!

The clerk writes the name of baby Alejandro’s daddy and gives the ID back to María.  María says she thinks he’s in Oregon.

We walk out the door, baby Alejandro safe in his mother’s arms, Carlitos and Vicente in tow.  Something stops me from pointing out that she hasn’t been exactly straight with me.  For some reason, I have to leave her that little bit of dignity when way say goodbye.

I laugh out loud all the way back to my office–shocked, amazed, imagining a hundred possible scenarios.  I am laughing at myself.

 

 VI

Sandra walks over to my desk and says, “I have bad news for you.

“What?”

“Carmen was here filling out housing applications.  She said that María Pablo got beat up last night by her husband.”

The f-word flies out of my mouth like a startled bird, and then, “María Pablo doesn’t have a husband.”

“I know,” Sandra says. “But Carmen, who lives with her, was just here, and she said she does.  She said last night he was beating her up.  Carmen’s husband got involved and María’s husband threatened him, so now they have to move out.”

“Fucking María Pablo,” I say, while I turn off the computer and get the keys.  I have to go see her.

I drive to her house in dread.  But María doesn’t have a husband.  I know she doesn’t.  A lover maybe, that, out of politeness Carmen called an esposo?

Now I am going to get to the bottom of this.  Seriously.

 

 VII

María is sitting on her bed nursing baby Alejandro.  Carlitos is in a corner playing with empty cereal boxes.  She smiles widely when she sees me.

Where are the bruises?  The eyes swollen from crying?  She has nothing.  Her round brown face and white shining eyes glow humid in the July heat.  Her sleeveless top exposes two plump brown arms, unmarked.  Alejandro feeds from a perfect left breast.

“Siéntate,” she says, and I sit on the bed beside her.

This time I register every object in the room.  Women’s shoes, and shoes for little boys.  Baby clothes.  A few broken toys.  Her purse.  Adolfo’s school books, abandoned.  Winter blankets, piled.  If María has an esposo, in this world he owns nothing but the clothes on his back.  No hat, no shirt, no belt or pair of jeans, no razor, no cologne, no pair of shoes.  Or she hides him so completely I cannot find him, even unannounced.

“Cómo está?” I ask her.  “Todo está bien?” searching questions without saying Carmen came and told us what happened.

“Muy bien,” she says.  “Cansada, porque todo el tiempo este bebé quiere comer.”

“Se siente bien? Necesita algo?”

“No,” María says sweetly.  “Aquí estamos bien.”

I walk out the door more confused than I walked in.  Relieved not to see bruises, perplexed by her peace.  Somebody is selling me bullshit and I am buying it all.

 

 VIII

She comes to see me in the fall, but I am out.  Beside my desk, she leaves two white buckets overflowing with onions.

It isn’t fair.  I don’t deserve a gift.  She is my job, and everything I do for her is paid by the hour.  I would like to give a gift to her, but I may not.  When I took her the clothes that I bought for baby Alejandro that at Goodwill, I told her
they were something someone dropped off at the clinic.

 

 IX

“Nos vamos con mi hermano a California,” she tells me, as the leaves begin to curl yellow.  “Aquí es muy frío y no hay trabajo.”

The last time I see them, somber-eyed Adolfo is bouncing baby Alejandro on his knees, making him cough up bursts of hilarious baby giggles.  María, somewhere, has found the money to color her hair a curious shade of red.  And that’s it.  She’s gone.  Adolfo, Vicente, Carlitos and baby Alejandro.  Just gone.

I look for her everywhere.  Maybe someday she will come back.  Maybe in the summer when California gets too hot.  I hope she finds a clinic, there, that will give her a shot in three months.  If she doesn’t, there will be more babies for Adolfo to play with.

 

 X

María Pablo, with her Nahuatl dialect, her broken Spanish, her sunshine smile and her fearless heart.  We’re even.  We told some truth, told some lies, everything scripted by the state.  Everything but the generous white buckets of onions.

I stand in my kitchen slicing, and giggle at my silly onion tears.  She’s somewhere in the world this morning making quesadillas for her boys, working in the fields, telling nosey social workers with bleeding hearts just enough of the truth to get what she needs: help making a phone call, free second-hand baby clothes, a feeling of friendship.

Awake en el País de los Sueños

Me hacen falta los temblores
how the walls shudder when
the ground beneath takes
a deep breath and mumbles in
restless sleep.

I miss the soprano of mosquitoes
around the net, cantando
en la noche de enfermedades que me
darían in exchange for
my sweet blood.

Extraño hasta los escorpiones,
their wicked tails cocked against surprise
in my shoes, the folds of towels,
esperando entre las sabanas
at my feet.

In the silent safety of America,
my loud breath keeps me
awake at night en el país de los sueños
donde lo que amenaza es la
soledad.

Eating Sandía in Bernabela with Ana la Gorda

Cuidado con Ana La Gorda,
everyone says,
dicen que es tortillera, and
they point with their chins to
the neighbors who are
said to have
said that about her.

She roars up to the
house on her red dirt
bike in a cloud of sunshine and
dust, beeps twice and says
Vamos donde me tío a
comer sandía.

I get on.
No tengo miedo de las
tortillas ni de las tortilleras
ni de las fat girls who
drink beer in the cantinas
like men.

Ana La Gorda parks the moto in
deep mango shade
beside Tío Lencho’s watermelon fields in
Bernabela.
Fat green fruits lie in the sun like
luxurious crocodiles
basking between the rows.
On a makeshift wooden bench, Tío
Lencho lops monstrous melons into chunks
with flicks of his slick machete.
Coma, he says.
Coma, Ana explains.

We sit there slurping
like las locas, sweet sandía juice
dripping from our
elbows and chins, making
mini moon craters in the
dust between our feet.

First Soup

From The Riotous Walls, work in progress

I do not know how to eat the soup.

There is an enormous bowl on the table in front of me with fist-sized potatoes, gristly chunks of meat, yucca, whole carrots, halved ears of corn. And a spoon. My mamá named Hilda smiles at me because she is pleased to have made me something special and “Coma,” she says. “No le gusta la sopa?”

I like soup and I am hungry but I don’t know what to do. The soups I know have small-cut meat and vegetables, not these ingredients boiled whole. I look again but she has not given me a knife. She stands there smiling at me in confused expectation as I look helplessly at my plate.

I must look for words in this language and I have so few.

“No entiendo,” I say. “Como?”

“Ai mamita,” she says through an accidental giggle and asks me if I’ve never eaten soup before. “Asi,” she says, and taking my spoon, she slices off a piece of potato and offers it to me as if I were a giant 20-year-old baby.

“Ah,” I say. “Gracias.” I take the spoon.

Mama Hilda disappears into the kitchen and then joins me with a steaming bowl for herself. The delicious broth is scalding hot and I spill it onto the table as I chop clumsily at the carrot and then at the corn.

“No no,” she interrupts me. “El maiz, no. Ai mamita. No sabe tomar la sopa,” and she giggles again. “Mire,” she commands. She dips her fingers into the boiling broth, fishes out the ear of corn and bites the kernels from it in the way of every summer.

“Ya?” she asks me, meaning do I need more help or do I finally get it.

“Si,” I say. “Ya.”

“Provecho.”

“Gracias. Igual.”

I know nothing, not how to eat, not now to speak. All my life I have heard people talk of being born again and although this is not what they meant I see that this is its truer meaning.

When we are finished our faces shine with sweat and soup.