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.
“Cuántos años tienes?”
“No sé. Como veinticuatro.”
“En qué año naciste?”
“En ochenta y cuatro.”
“En cuál mes?”
“Diciembre? Entonces tienes veintisiete – casi veintiocho.”
“Veintiocho! Sí, sí! Veintiocho!” She laughs.
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.
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.
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.
Sandra walks over to my desk and says, “I have bad news for you.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.