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.

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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.

Swashbuckling Through the Daisies

I’ve decided that I’m done with “The Open Book Test.”  For anyone who was enjoying it:  (graceful bow).  If you don’t know what I’m talking about–don’t worry about it.  I was going to continue it for the whole of 2015, but I changed my mind.  That’s the great thing about having a blog.  It’s yours.  You can change your mind if you want to.

In place of that project exploring the past, I’m going to try come up with occasional posts about what’s going on in my mind in the present, and hope that they are reasonably interesting.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a particular kind of annoying person and how I fear I might be turning into one.  The ones I’ve met are usually ex-missionaries of some sort–people who once did something awesome and unusual, but then proceeded to live totally normal boring lives but continue to define themselves by the one interesting unusual thing they did 20 years ago.  I hate that.  It drives me crazy.  The other day I realized that I think I might be turning into one.  I felt like kicking a hole in the wall.

So.

So?

Well it seems like there are only two possible ways to avoid this or change it.

1.  Do something interesting and unusual now (take it out of the past and put it in the present)

2.  Redefine yourself (as in: use the mirror and not old photo albums)

I wish I could think of another option, but I can’t.

I’d like to do the first one.  I am dying to do the first one.  Honestly.  And I’m sure you’re wondering what the hell is stopping me.  It’s not like I have kids in school or anything.  I am married, though, to a wonderful man who is about as different from me as a person can be.  He’s unusual and exciting by nature.  If you know him, you know what I mean.  He’s also older than I am–not a lot, but enough–he’s had a significant number of health problems in the last several years, and he’s an Aries.  All of these things add up to: he’s not in the mood to do exciting, unusual things that don’t involve full health insurance and regular paychecks.  All things considered, I don’t blame him.  And then there’s this:  he IS doing something exciting and unusual.  He’s an Italian living in America.  This, for him, is as awesome as it would be for me if he took me to live in Italy.  So, there you go.  You get it.  We were all amped to join the Peace Corp a few months ago, and for about three precious hours I felt like I came to life again.  Then I discovered that he can never join the Peace Corp because he’s not an American citizen.  So I let that go, too.

The second one is not as fun.  It’s sad–or it makes me sad.  How do you do that?  I mean, how do I do that?  I don’t want to be a middle-aged community health worker living in a redneck town in a cold desert when the world is full of places with oceans and languages and sunshine and open windows.  In my mind, I am ready to take my surfboard and paddle out, but instead I take my scissors and walk around the house snipping off the heads of the roses that have bloomed.  Again and again.  Instead of packing suitcases I switch purses a lot.

It’s not easy.  That’s all I’m saying.  It would be a lot easier to do something hard, than to keep doing easy things over and over.  I’m standing here with my machete, ready to swashbuckle through the jungle, and then I realize I’m in a field of daisies.  It’s disappointing.  Tennessee Williams said something about that.

I can’t tell you how I’ve resolved this, because I haven’t.  I’m just posing the question.  That’s the difference between me posting from the past or posting from the present.  I can’t tell you how it turned out.

 

Gardening with a machete:  Outside my house in Costa Rica, 2010

Gardening with a machete: Outside my house in Costa Rica, 2010

Ice Age

if I were a planet, this
would be my ice age
my interminable winter of
a thousand years
who would believe the
flowers that bloomed here?
who would believe the bees?
the dinosaurs are all dead and
glaciers creep downward toward
my belly
everything has starved for lack of
fruit except the
woolly mammoths hunkered in ice
caves huffing hot breath