Nayma’s abuelo was up before the sun, the dim necessary light of his dressing bleeding through the beach towel hung to partition the room, pin-pricks dotting a seascape of balloon-eyed sharks and smiling flounder. Nayma kept her face in her pillow and waited. She knew her abuela was up, too, out on the stoop with a heating pad on her knees. She would be sitting in her chair, extension cord run under the screen, rubbing the nubs of her rosary and saying her prayers. Through the pasteboard walls of the Walhalla Motel, Nayma could hear the human moaning that filled the gaps of whatever cartoon was playing. But it was their fingernails that got to her.
Bullshit starts early, Nayma thought. Or maybe bullshit never stops.
The sound was like a dog scratching itself bald, trying to scratch out its own guts, but was, in fact, the couple next door—the early twenties man and woman and their ghost-like wisp of a daughter, all three brown-toothed and frail—the daughter haunted by malnutrition, the mother and father ravaged by the meth mites crawling in and out of their bones, an itch that signaled the impossible distance from one government check to another.
By the time Nayma got up and left her “bedroom”—you had to think of it like that when a worn-out Little Mermaid towel formed the limit of your privacy—both her grandparents were off to work for the Greaves family and she was left alone in the kitchen to eat her Cocoa-Pebbles and finish the last of her homework for Dr. Agnew’s English IV. She was seventeen and currently first in her senior class. They were reading The Grapes of Wrath and no, the irony wasn’t lost on her. Very little was—with the exception of eight hours of sleep and little more than a passing engagement with the four food groups.
She showered and ate breakfast in the kitchenette: an alcove with a mini-fridge, microwave, and the hot plate they had to keep hidden from the motel’s owner and her crazy son, an Iraq vet who twitched with the same intensity as the couple next door. She spooned cereal and flipped pages. It was quiet next door—the methheads having fallen into some catatonic stupor—and she was grateful for the silence. A few minutes to collect herself before the walk down to the bus stop where she’d ride with two dozen kids half her age, the lone high schooler in a sea of white faces because what kind of senior doesn’t have a car? What kind of senior isn’t riding with her girlfriends or boyfriend or somebody, right?
This kind, she had thought, in the months past when she used to try to riddle out the why of her days.
One cheek against the cool glass while outside grainy darkness gave way to the gathering daylight, back pressed against the torn pleather seat while they rolled past the Hardee’s and the First Methodist Church, and Nayma just sitting there, books in her lap, trying to hear that small still voice that was all: how do you put up with this shit? I mean seriously.
There were other places she could be. Her parents were at home in Irapuato, but home was a tenuous concept. She was born in Florida, a U.S. citizen—her parents and grandfather were not—and had spent far more of her life in the States than in Mexico. Her parents came and went, blowing on the wind of whatever work visa allowed them entry. But for the last two years they had been working at a garment plant in Guanajuato State. It was good work (relatively speaking), at a fair wage (again, in relative terms), and Nayma had the sense that her parents were finished with their cross-border migrations. No more queuing at the US consulate. The forms in triplicate. The hassles from ICE. The rhetoric of hate—build a wall! build a wall!—spouted by the same folks paying you three dollars an hour to pick their tomatoes or change their babies. When she had lasted visited her parents—last summer it had been, two weeks of mosquitoes and long days watching telenovelas wherein she experienced the sort of cosmic boredom that would later haunt her with the sort guilt you smelled in your hair—when she had last visited, she had detected a certain relief in her parents’ eyes, a sort of bounce that glided them around the edges of Nayma’s life. They were done with el Norte.
That her grandmother was a housekeeper and her grandfather a gardener, that they had ascended to these positions from the indentured servitude of migrant labor, that they were meant to be grateful for the condescension and hand-me-down clothes. That her parents had been rounded up by the federal government, held for a week on Red Cross cots in the city gym after INS raided Piedmont Quilting, and subsequently deported with the rest of the three hundred workers Piedmont Quilting had recruited to come in the first place. That she had said goodbye to her parents through a scattering of holes punched in a plexiglass visitation window at the county detention center, that both her mother and father had contorted their bodies in such a way as to hide the zip-ties binding their wrists. All this, all this, mija, would burn off in the fire of her success.
As a U.S. citizen, as a brilliant minority student—relatively brilliant, Nayma thought again, glancing now from the graying milk of her Cocoa-Puffs to the papered wall behind which slept the methheads—she would receive some sort of generous scholarship to some sort of prestigious university and from there she would go to law school or medical school. She would spend the rest of her life in New York or Washington D.C.—the capital of the universe—and make money in such ridiculous amounts as to assuage the decades of humiliations suffered by her family. That was her parents’ plan at least. Their daughter would become rich, she would become a blanco by the sheer aggregated weight of her bank account, and there would be no better revenge.
But first she had to get to school.
She rinsed her bowl and brushed her teeth, put her phone along with the Joads in her backpack, and stepped into the morning. The night’s thunderstorm seemed to have blown out the last of summer and in the skin-prickling cool it was disturbing to see so many children shivering in short sleeves and shorts. There were ten or so that lived at the Walhalla Motel with their mothers or grandmothers or aunts or some elderly female they may or may not have been related to and they clustered at the edges of body morphology, either fat on Mountain Dew and pixie sticks or emaciated with need, lean as the Hondurans she remembered doing the stoop work in the strawberry fields outside Tampa. That they were cold, that their noses ran, that their hair had been shaved to their skulls (the boys, at least) or matted around forgotten Elsa barrettes or Princess Sophia hair clips (the girls, especially the younger ones) seemed most days like the results of a referendum on human negligence, something to fill her with anger at the world’s injustice. But today it just made her sad.
She stood on the concrete stoop, the motel L-shaped, the rooms opening onto an apron of parking lot. Down by the highway a sign read SOFT BEDS COLOR TV WEEKLY RATES.
“Hey, girl!” she heard a voice call.
The motel office was at her far left, a block building with a pitched roof and a neon vacancy sign, a window A/C and a cupped satellite dish. It was from that direction that the voice came, and she didn’t have to bother looking to see who it was. D.C. was the son of the hateful old woman who owned the motel. He cut the strip of browning grass along the filled-in swimming pool and on two occasions had unclogged their toilet when the septic tank backed up. He was of some indeterminate age—somewhere between thirty and fifty was her best guess—and possibly he was a decent guy trying to do right by his mother and the world and possibly he was an embryonic serial killer running on Zoloft and cognitive behavioral therapy at the V.A. The brim of his Braves ball cap was pulled low and his arms and throat were inked with assault rifles and an unsettlingly precise map of the greater Middle East, complete (she had noted one day as he ran the weed-eater) with a legend denoting capitals, troop movements, and sites of major U.S. battles.
She started across the parking lot toward the bus stop and a moment later the pickup sidled up beside her, rattling and clunking. This was D.C. on his way to work or maybe on his way to get his mamma a gravy biscuit from the Dairy Queen or on his way to any number of the errands and jobs that occupied his days.
“Hey, little girl, you want a ride?”
“Because I’m riding the bus.” She didn’t look at him. She didn’t stop moving. That was her theory: no eye contact and no hesitations. He maintained the grounds at the high school—cut the grass, marked the athletic fields—and his offer of a ride was a near daily occurrence. Without so much as a glance she knew he was hanging from the open window like a happily sloppy dog, meaty arm on the door-panel.
“Well, I’m headed to the same place. You know that don’t you?”
She motioned in the direction of the children gathered ahead of her.
“Why don’t you offer them a ride?” he said.
“Can’t do it. Liability.”
“Maybe,” he conceded. “It’s mamma keeps track of the legal stuff.”
“I said whatever.”
He seemed to consider this for a moment.
“You know I ain’t offering a ride cause I like you,” he said finally.
“Wow. How flattering.”
“I’m asking cause you a human being.”
“I know why you’re asking.”
“Because you a human being and you too old to ride the bus like some ten-year-old.”
“I mean unless you like the bus. Eighteen wheels and a dozen roses, right?”
“You’re a creep.”
He gave the engine a small rev. “You got too much grit in your shit, girl. You know that? Turning your nose up at people trying to be kind.”
She started to tell him a third time to go away, but then looked up and realized that he already had.
She tried to read on the bus, if only to prove she wasn’t lonely. But it was loud and somewhere ahead of her the window was down and a stream of air kept rattling the pages. Finally, she put the book away. She was ahead anyway—there was no rush. What there was, was a bus ride that took seventy-five minutes to cover the four miles to the school. That would be four miles via the direct route, but Nayma guessed they covered a good twenty of back road, stopping at every trailer park or block monolith of Section Eight housing where poor children clustered sleepily by mailboxes and stop signs with their backpacks and dogs. Bullwinkle to Thompson to Tribble—back and forth over the bridges that spanned the wiggle of Cane Creek—East Broad to Sangamo to Torrington Road. The occasional watchful adult, a grandmother behind the screen door, a mother smoking on the stoop. The old men sat in plastic chairs and stared or took great care not to stare, depending, she often thought, on their experiences with the South Carolina Department of Corrections. The bus stopped first at the elementary school where the children bounced off, awake now, and then the middle school where they navigated blindly, faces fixed to the screens of their phones. When the bus pulled out of the middle school parking lot there was no one left but the driver and Nayma. The driver, for his part, seemed to have not the slightest notion she was there. He parked the bus and walked away without a word, earbuds plugged into his head as he lumbered toward his car.