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.

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.

Reading #3 from “When The Roll is Called a Pyonder: Tales from a Mennonite Childhood”

Birthday month rolls on, and here’s another short reading to celebrate!  In this segment, learn about the danger that geese pose to little girls, discover my brief drumming career and find out how I resolve the dilemma of which is worse:  risking going to hell for having stolen something, or getting spanked for confessing it.

 

The Laundry Experiment

From The Summer of the Riotous Walls, a work in progress

Before we even ran out of clean underwear or decided something had to be done about the bedding, the kitchen towels presented a problem. At least to me they did. How do you clean up a mess with something that’s dirty? Believe me, I tried. But no matter how careful you are, you only make the mess bigger. We started the summer with three towels, but there were only two left since Sheila accidentally set on one fire. They had to double as hot pads for removing boiling pots from the flames of our gas stove—an excellent way to set their little fringes ablaze, burn yourself, nearly set the house on fire, and destroy a perfectly good kitchen towel.

A coffee spill or two, cooking oil that missed the pan and has to be mopped from the stovetop, milk that landed outside the bowl, then a quick rinse in the sink, and soon the dish towels were crusty, molded, greasy rags, unrecognizable as anything intended for use near food. The classic trip through the washer and dryer wasn’t an option. We didn’t have a washer, nor had we received the revelation that we were living practically beside a laundromat. And yet something had to be done.

Finally a thought pecking at the back of my brain hatched itself into daylight and I knew what to do. The obvious is everywhere you look. Laugh all you want. Nothing I could do was going to make it worse.

In Los Rios, where I woke up on sunny mornings a few weeks ago, my mamá Hilda didn’t have a washer. She had soap, water and a cement wash sink against which she scrubbed our clothes to a fierce cleanliness never produced by an agitating tub of suds. I clicked off the list in my head: I didn’t have laundry soap, but I had various other kinds of soaps. I had water. No cement wash sinks anywhere, but there’s a cement slab at the base of our wobbly steps. Why wouldn’t that work? I filled a bucket with water, and grabbed a small plastic bowl to use as a scoop. I never did this in Los Rios. My mamá did it for me. But I watched, and how hard can it be?

“What are you doing, loca?” Beth asked when she saw me heading toward the door with my bucket of water and supplies.

“An experiment.”

“What kind of experiment?”

“A laundry experiment.”

“I hope it works!”

“Me too. These towels are terrible.”

“Can I watch?” Sheila asked.

“Sure. Don’t laugh. I’ve never tried this before.”

“Did you learn it in Costa Rica?”

“Sort of.”

I had to fetch the broom and sweep the dirt from the cement slab before anything had hope of getting clean on it. I dumped a scoop of water on it to wet it, then spread the immoral dish towels out and poured water over them, too. I squirted them with a generous amount of dish soap. Then, I commenced scrubbing them back and forth against the rough cement, which—of course—produced more mud, even though a minute ago, it had appeared clean. I rubbed and scrubbed, slopped and scraped, dumped more water, squirted more soap.

“Cool!” Sheila admired.

Not terribly. Two of my knuckles were bleeding. My mamá’s knuckles never bled, whether because they were so toughened by the constant necessity of repeating this task, or because she had learned to do it without scraping them on the cement, I can’t say. I had to keep washing the blood away so that I wouldn’t make the towels worse, instead of better.

Getting the soap out was the hardest part. I had to send Sheila up to the kitchen for another bucket of water and I was making an enormous mess. I somehow managed to soak my shirt, and a puddle of mud had formed around my bare feet. I wrung and rinsed, twirled and twisted, beating the suffering towels up and down against the cement with one hand while attempting to pour water over them with the other. Mamá made it look a lot easier than this. If I had to wash bath towels and work jeans this way like she did, I think I would cry.

The dish towels looked a heck of a lot better, believe it or not. They weren’t exactly white, but they were a lot less brown. Sheila had to get me another bucket of water to wash my feet, and then I walked up the steps and draped the dripping towels over the banister in the sun.

“There,” I said, when I walked back inside.

Beth looked up at me over top of the book she was reading.

I shrugged my shoulders and went to look in the medicine cabinet to see if, by chance, we had any band-aids.

The Social Worker In The Blue Dress

(A flash of short fact/fiction)

The social worker in the blue dress is not about to be bitten by small dogs today. She came to see you because her boss asked her to, to make sure that you haven’t killed yourself yet, that your baby is getting fat, and that your two-year-old is wearing clothes.

The social worker in the blue dress thinks the evil-spirited pack of chihuahuas is yours. She thinks you have done a particularly terrible job of training them but she doesn’t blame you, having two babies to take care of and a complicated husband. She scurries from the gate into your one-room apartment behind the main house, receiving only one slight sharp-toothed nip to the heel.

You convince her that you’re doing alright. You apologize for the mess in the kitchen. She didn’t exactly call to tell you she was coming, or ask if it was a good time. It’s not a good time. But you don’t exactly have a phone, because your husband takes it to work with him. She’s nice enough and she ignores the mess, points out to you that your baby is really good at following things with his eyes.

As she’s leaving, she asks you to call off the dogs and you tell her that they aren’t your dogs. They are the landlady’s dogs. And the landlady isn’t home.

The social worker in the blue dress walks to the door and the menacing pack of furious chihuahuas is nowhere to be seen, so she steps out into the sunshine of the yard. She is halfway to the gate when they see the intruder, and come snarling at her, needle teeth bared. They take turns lunging at her while she shouts and tries to frighten them.

They aren’t frightened. Each lunge comes closer to her ankles and their camaraderie emboldens them. You scream at them uselessly from the safety of your doorway.

The social worker in the blue dress doesn’t have much time to think, but there is one thing that she is sure of–that she is not about to be bitten by small dogs today. With complete disregard for her dignity, she breaks into a dead run, headed toward the rickrty wooden fence. She won’t have time for the gate. She isn’t even running toward the gate. She hits the top of the wooden fence with both hands and vaults. There is the flash of pink polka dotted panties in the sun.

You stare at the social worker in the blue dress who is suddenly standing on the other side of the fence, panting, safe, looking surprised and a little sheepish. The stunned chihuahuas fall silent for a moment.

“Alright,” she says breathlessly, patting her hair and straightening her blue dress.

The chihuahuas find their voices and leap at the fence.

You don’t quite know what to say to the social worker in the blue dress who just jumped over your fence. She doesn’t seem to know quite what to say to you.

“Sorry about the dogs,” you offer.

“No problem,” she answers, and then giggles a little, accidentally. “Sorry to run away.”

“Oh,” you say, because you can’t think of anything.

“I didn’t want to get bitten,” she says.

“Yeah,” you reply.

She gets into her car and drives away. The dogs look at you disappointedly and begin sniffing her footprints in the yard.

You turn around and go back into the dark, dirty apartment where your two year old is pouring milk on the floor beside a cup. But instead of yelling at her, you sit down on a chair and laugh for the first time since you can remember.