ta
The girl looked up, Lana Rogers. She was cute and brunette and appeared just barely old enough to gain entry to the high school. She sat legs crossed in her tennis skirt, a worried look clouding her face. She had her phone in her lap and her eyes dropped to it: Stinson was texting her. She put the eraser of her pencil in her mouth and slowly lowered one hand to her lap where the phone was hidden. Not that it needed hiding. Dr. Agnew was holding forth at maximum velocity, sweeping hands, grand declarations. The girl texted back. Stinson texted again. The girl looked even more worried.

Then Lana’s phone actually rang.

Dr. Agnew snapped around from the board where he had been busy diagramming the Roman street where Keats had died, but now, but now…

“A cellular call! My, my,” he declared, “who is it that is calling? Who is it that fancies himself or herself so wondrously and spectacularly important to call during a discussion of the world’s unacknowledged legislators?”

Then Nayma realized it wasn’t Lana’s phone, but her phone, the cheap Wal-Mart Asus with its fifteen-dollar SIM card and factory-direct ringtone. She hadn’t bothered silencing it because why should she? No one ever called. But now someone was.

“Nayma?” Dr. Agnew looked as hurt as surprised.

“I’m sorry.”

“Why I don’t—”

She was up out of her desk now, the phone pressed to her stomach as if not so much to mute the sound as to cradle some wound. “Excuse me. Sorry, Dr. Agnew.”

She hurried into the empty hall and flipped open the phone—yes, God, it was a flip-phone—to find her abuelo yammering in a Spanish so frantic Nayma could barely understand her. Then, finally, she did: it was the Greaves woman, the grandmother. She was in the basement. She had fallen. There was blood.

Was she alive?

Yes, she was alive.

“Call the ambulance,” Nayma said. Then she realized she would have to call. She got the address and hung up just as Dr. Agnew lumbered into the hall.

“Nayma,” he was saying, “this is highly peculiar. I think perhaps—”

He stopped when he heard the voice on other end.

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”

“Oh Lord!” said Dr. Agnew and pirouetted on his four-stoppered cane.

It was like an elephant dancing and Nayma might have applauded had she not been reciting the address. The voice of the operator carried up the block hall.

“Is she breathing?”

(“Breathing!” cried Dr. Agnew.)

“Yes.”

“Is she conscious?”

(“Conscious! Oh Lord!”)

“I don’t know.”

“Please stay on the line, ma’am. Ma’am?”

But she had already slapped the phone shut, louder than she had intended.

“Oh Lord!” Dr. Agnew said, “Child—”

But she cut him off with a look.

“Dr. Agnew,” she said, “I need to borrow your car.”

 

Nayma piloted Dr. Agnew’s Oldsmobile into the parking lot of Oconee Memorial Hospital, her body hung over a giant steering wheel the size of a manhole cover, her butt slid forward over the beaded seat-cover as rough as the corrugated motel roof where she would occasionally hide in plain sight. It was a little like driving a boat—not that she’d ever driven a boat, she had never even been on a boat—but that didn’t stop her from imagining the car as a great yacht that rocked lightly as she turned at the traffic signal and eased nimbly around corners. She was going too fast and couldn’t get the cassette of the Statler Brothers to cut off, but then she was going too slow and accelerated until she could feel the car bouncing on its shocks. She had driven before—she could certainly drive—but never in something this big and never over forty-five miles an hour.

She glided into the parking lot, fairly sailing over a speed bump while the dashboard hula dancer bobbed wildly and across the bench leather. Dr. Agnew’s papers and books fluttered and slipped. John Donne. Geoffrey Hill. Some ancient coffee table atlas of Olde England. She shoved them all to the side and made for the main entrance, the glass doors sliding open onto the chilly foyer with its potted palms and new carpet. The walls were lined with Purell dispensers and signs explaining the importance of sanitized hands in English and Spanish. She took the elevator to the fifth floor ICU, more or less bouncing on her heels and wringing her bacteria-free hands.

When the doors opened the smell hit her: not so much the sharp of antiseptic as something heavier and more frightening: it smelled here, she realized, like death. Up until that moment she had worried solely about her abuelos, but at that moment she felt her heart lurch for the Greaves woman, alone here with the tubes and wheeled machines and that smell she was starting to recognize as the aftertaste of human shit. She was in her nineties but somehow lived alone. But not anymore, Nayma thought. Not after today.

She found her grandparents in the waiting room, a couple of aged nervous children who fluttered to their feet when they saw Nayma. Her abuela had virtually no English which made her, a woman who was otherwise a workhorse of devotion and faith, pathetically helpless. Her abeulo was fluent in English, educated, smart and sarcastic. Or had been once. He’d been expelled from the tomato fields of Immokalee, Florida, after attempting to organize what were effectively indentured servants. But the process of kicking him out—she suspected it had been more than simply driving her grandparents to the city limits and telling them to beat it—had cracked something in him, or widened a crack that already existed so that these days he was mostly silent. There were no more jokes, no more laughing. He worked. He smoked. He drank one Budweiser every evening in a plastic chair on the indoor-outdoor carpet of the motel stoop.

He had never told her much about Immokalee, but she knew enough to imagine the circumstances of his life there. The town, to the extent that it was anything beyond an encampment of trailers and processing centers, was the hub of the tomato fields, the place from which migrant workers began the trek north, harvesting tomatoes in South Florida and then strawberries in the irrigated fields along the Gulf and then peaches and apples in the Carolinas. It was an eight-month odyssey of endless indentured work. Slave work, if you got down to it. Coyotes slipped the workers through the Sonora Desert on foot and into Florida in the backs of U-Hauls. When they got out they owed fifteen hundred dollars for the transport and went to work paying it back, earning two or three dollars a day while living ten to a trailer in the windless fog of mosquitos and heat and the powdered residue of insecticides so harsh they burned the skin.

Of course you paid for that too, the privilege of the trailer costing, say, ten dollars a week, and transportation to the fields—that was another two bucks. Then, of course, you might one day decide to eat something and there was yet another cost. In the end, it meant not only could you never pay off your debt, you actually wound up in greater debt. Which meant you could very easily spend the rest of your relatively short life never venturing a half-mile beyond the fields. There were periodic raids by ICE or the Department of Justice but none of it added up to anything like justice. At best, you were deported and what was waiting for you there? Work in a textile mill if you were lucky in the way her parents were lucky: making sixty pesos for ten hours of work, sewing collars and fostering arthritis. More likely you would exist at the whim of the cartel. You might be a runner, a look out, a mule. Until, of course, you weren’t. Until, of course, a bullet placed neatly behind your right ear pierced the growing tumor the insecticides had started years prior.

So he drank his beer.

After that, he lay in bed, hands crossed on his chest as if by arranging himself for death he would save a few dollars on the undertaker. Whether he actually slept or not she never knew. She didn’t think he prayed. It was her abuela who prayed. Her abuela who kneeled on her swollen knees before the candle of the Virgin Nayma had gotten her from the “Ethnic” aisle at Ingles. Her abuela who took Nayma to mass at La Luz del Mundo behind Hardee’s.

But now they were both standing, silent, tragic.

She started to speak but something in their faces stopped her. They weren’t staring at her, but past her, and Nayma turned to see Mrs. Greaves carted past, all wires and tubes, somebody’s idea of an art project, or maybe just a bad joke.

 

It was the end of lunch by the time Nayma had dropped her grandparents off at the Greaves’ house and made her way back to school. Nayma had fairly dragged abuela to the elevator. By the time they got to Dr. Agnew’s car her abuela was in tears and Nayma had only gotten a sidelong glance at the Greaves woman—it was all she would allow herself—but even in passing it looked bad. Her tiny self a tent of bones pitched beneath a tangle of tubes and monitors. It didn’t seem fair that she would die like that. But it surely didn’t seem fair to have to go on living.

She parked the Oldsmobile and headed for the front doors. You could sneak out of the school but you couldn’t sneak in. The building was a well-concealed fortress of alarmed doors and hidden metal detectors and the only way in was through the entrance where, surely, someone would be waiting on her. They would suspend her, they would express their utter bafflement and complete disappointment in her and she could try to explain but, honestly, how? and why? The college applications had all been submitted, the essays written, the recommendations sent. In a few months she would leave Walhalla and never come back. When the time came—when the money came—she would send for her grandparents. She would send for her parents, too, if they would come. The money would make them untouchable. Her U.S. citizenship and a bank account in the high six-digits. That wasn’t wealth—that was protection. That was stability.

It was what she couldn’t explain to the people who would question her in another sixty seconds when she walked through the front doors and confessed to having stolen Dr. Agnew’s car (if she said he had freely handed her the keys he would likely be fired and she wasn’t about to let that happen). Why did you go, Nayma? If there was a family problem, why didn’t you come to us? Why didn’t you let us help you? As if by the mere comingling of their white skin and good intentions they could unravel the tangle of her life. As if skin pigment and evangelical hope would solve her problems. Not a handout, Nayma. (How satisfied they would appear across their shiny desks or behind the ovals of their rimless eyewear.) Not a handout, but a hand up.

Why didn’t you let me help you, Nayma?

Because you can’t, she wanted to say.

Because how could you solve something you couldn’t begin to understand?

Her life was a construction of wildly misaligned but nevertheless moving parts that were labeled individually as money, language, citizenship—or the lack of all three—and to tinker with one, to attempt to explain one, was to risk the others, and at this point, so close to her exit, so close to the end of her sentence at the Walhalla Motel, so near the end of the next door meth mites clawing their open sores, so near the end the creepy D.C. trying to lure her into his pickup, so near the end of so much the last thing she was going to do was take chances.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 | Single Page