Free Story of the Month: The Dependents

2016--The 5 Apparitions

 

BY MICHAEL NOLL | ARTWORK BY ANDY VALDIVIA | THE NEW TERRITORY ISSUE 02 | PDF Version

Only a couple stories I’ve read in the past year have stuck with me for months beyond their conclusion. This, by Michael Noll, is one. The suburban characters are any number of people from my hometown. The stranger-comes-to-town plot comes alive and ugly when well-meaning action and very real immigration laws devastate a fictional family, as the story invokes a microcosm of The Midwest’s cultural reality. I’m excited to share it with you in full for the first time.

Nancy had been cooking all day: a cake and casserole dishes of meatballs and party potatoes with baking directions written in big, black letters on the aluminum foil. “Isn’t this exciting?” she kept asking Adriana and Carlos, the neighbor kids from across the street whose parents were at the hospital having a baby. Nancy hadn’t been sure how to keep the kids busy, so she let them watch TV all day while she worked in the kitchen. Now she couldn’t find them to call them for dinner. She looked out the window at the street, called their names out the door, and crept to the bathroom in case they—well, she didn’t really know what they might be doing. She found them in Beth’s old room, drawers of clothes piled around them, and it made her so angry that she balled the necks of their little shirts in her fists and dragged both kids into the hall.

“There is just one rule,” she said. “One. That is it. Do not go in there. Understand? Comprender?” Adriana was crying. Nancy dropped her pink camisa in disgust. “Oh for god’s sake.” She stood over them and took deep breaths. Then she sat them both down on the couch. “That room is where my daughter used to sleep. She was just as little as that little burrito—that baby your mom and dad are having.”

Adriana picked at her fingernails. Carlos had closed his eyes. They weren’t even paying attention. Snow was falling, hard little flakes that wouldn’t stick, and Nancy’s husband Larry pulled into the driveway and walked into the house with a burst of cold air. “Anyone excited for a snow baby?” he asked, grinning at the kids and moving into the kitchen. “Smells good.”

Nancy told him to settle down. He was eating spaghetti tonight. She dumped the noodles into the colander with more energy than she’d intended, splashing hot water on her hands. Larry rushed to her side, but she hissed at him, “Back off,” and held her hands under the faucet. This was what happened when you got old, she thought. Life went on. Babies were born. Other people’s good fortune trumped your own miserable luck, and what a blessing it was. What a relief.

When Juan and Malena Paredes moved to town five years ago, the Catholics came by every day with their casseroles, and Nancy couldn’t abide it, these pinched ladies hugging their purses to their chests as if they contained the only rosaries left in the world. Having Mexicans in their little Kansas church made them feel good. What they needed to do was teach these people how to speak English and cook American food. Give people what they need, not what it makes you feel good to give.

“That’s why Malena never comes out of the house,” she said. “They scared her off.”

“She talks to me,” Larry said.

“See? That’s what I mean. You’re not selling anything. Not like they’d have the money to buy. Are there that many trees that need to be cut down?”

Juan owned a tree trimming and removal service.

“He doesn’t just cut them down. He shapes them up, too.”

“And that puts a roof over four heads and food into four stomachs?”

This was an argument they’d had before because its true subject was inexhaustible: Did they dare hope for anything good?

Larry shrugged. “They’re still here, aren’t they?”

“It’s a good thing we don’t live next to a terrorist. He could carry bomb parts and machine guns in and out of the house in plain sight, and you’d go—” She imitated his voice: “Well, he must need them to trim branches. I guess that’s how they do it in Mexico.”

“You don’t know where he’s from.”

According to Juan, they’d come from El Paso, but Nancy assumed it was a code word. El Paso was in America. Americans spoke English, and Malena did not. Even Juan said certain words only in Spanish: like but. For months after he arrived, she couldn’t figure out what he was saying. “What’s this pero he keeps going on about?”

“I think it means dog.”

“What dog? He was talking about trees. Do you even know what he’s saying when you’re over there, yakking away?”

He and Juan would stand in the middle of the street, chatting about god knows what until Malena stuck her head out the door and hollered at her husband in Spanish. Were they fighting? It was difficult to know. When Malena waved at Larry, it was the same motion you’d use for swatting a fly. It’d been five years, and Malena had learned just a few words of English. Once she had reached out and touched Nancy’s shirt. “Muy hermoso.”

It was Nancy who’d done the learning. “This old thing?” she asked, and Malena gave a look of surprise.

“It is very old?”

Afterward, Nancy laughed and laughed. “I told her it was an idiom. Doesn’t translate. Like those clothes that she wears.” Malena’s outfits were form-fitting and colorful.

Nancy wanted to be kind, pero it was hard. See, there she was, doing it again. But when push came to shove, no bones about it, she loved those kids. When they first arrived, Adriana was four and Carlos was a two-year-old chunk who stuffed his head into his mother’s armpit whenever someone looked at him. Now they looked so grown up. Whenever they were outside playing, she’d hustle out the door with cookies or candy, and they’d stop what they were doing to run across the street to her. “Tell me a joke,” she said once, holding the cookies high over their heads.

Carlos stood there, grinning.

“A joke,” Nancy said. “You know one?”

When he smiled, his face cracked like dough stretched too thin. “Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Cookie monster.” He growled and jumped at the cookies while his sister waited, arms crossed. Nancy handed her a cookie anyway.

“You’re sure serious for a kid,” she said and the girl scowled. Was she offended? Had Nancy done something wrong? It was impossible to know anymore. Sometimes after seeing them in the street, Nancy would come home—Larry would be on the couch, watching TV—and she’d walk in, her cheeks tear-streaked. He’d look up and find her ready for a fight. “What? You want to say something?”

But he never uttered a word. They both knew how things stood. He had no standing to say anything to her about children, and she wouldn’t let him forget it.

•••

By the time Juan finally returned from the hospital, Nancy had run out of things to cook. It was almost eleven at night, and the kids had fallen asleep on the couch. At a word, though, they popped up like turkeys and ran to the door, but instead of picking them up, Juan went straight into his house. Something about his posture made Nancy uneasy, and she blocked the door and told the kids, “Give your dad a moment. This is a big change.” She remembered something Larry said when Beth was born: “Having a child is like adding an open door to your heart.” She repeated it for the kids, wiping away tears, and Adriana put her hands on her hips.

“Just let us go. He’s our dad.”

That was when they heard a sound, like a far-off cow or train. It had come from Juan’s house, she was sure of it, and so she sent Larry over to investigate. The kids waited rigidly, like dogs, at the window. She switched on the TV, but there there was nothing late night filth, so instead she told the kids stories about Beth.

“Why are you crying?” Adriana asked. “It’s our baby.”

When Larry came back, he rushed past them into the kitchen, bracing himself on the sink. The kids ran out the door, not even pausing to shut it behind them. Larry was shaking. She touched his arm, and he laughed and covered his face with his hand.

“For land’s sake,” she said, laughing in spite of herself. “What is it? Tell me.”

“He had a cooler on his head.”

“A what?”

“A cooler. You know. For water. For lemonade and tea.” Larry was trying to wipe his grin away away, and his failure to do it made him panic. He was breathing hard. “You know what I’m talking about. That sound we heard. He didn’t want—”

“Didn’t want what?” She had to grab his face and force him to look at her.

“Anyone to—” He backed away from her into the dishwasher. The door had been left slightly ajar, and it clanked shut. He jumped at the sound. “Hear him. He didn’t want us to—he was screaming. Malena and the baby.” He inhaled so raggedly that he might have injured his throat. “They’re dead.”

2010--FIRST Mi Paroquia

The funeral was not well attended. No obituary appeared in the paper because no one sent one in, not even the ladies from church. After living in town for five years, Juan and Malena had not made a single friend who would report their deaths. Juan had trimmed a lot of trees, and so when people found out, they’d say, “You mean that guy? Oh god. How’s he doing?”

Back at home, Larry would snap, “How the hell do they think he’s doing? Jesus, some people are dense.” Across the street, no one came outside, not the kids, not Juan. His car hadn’t moved, and the baby seat was still buckled in back. The doors were unlocked, a fact that Nancy discovered on a day when it was warm enough for a walk. She peered through a rear window in disbelief. She tried the door, and it opened. She rushed home and told Larry, “We should take out the car seat. Get rid of it for him.”

Larry was sitting with a magazine. She could tell he wasn’t reading, though, only pretending to avoid talking to her.

“So? What do you think? Should I?” She waited. “I’d appreciate an answer.” When he didn’t say anything, she hung her coat in the closet and slammed the door. That got his attention. He followed her down the hall to their room. “Put yourself in his shoes. Would you like someone to do that for you?”

“Nobody does anything for me,” she said.

Grieving people needed to eat, even if there was no joy in it, and so Nancy prepared more meals. When she knocked on the door, Adriana accepted the food and shut the door again. Same routine, every day until the day that Nancy couldn’t stand it—her conscience wouldn’t allow it—and when Adriana tried to shut the door, Nancy stuck her foot inside. “Please,” she said and the girl pushed her back—“Thank you, good-bye.”

Nancy went home in a state.

“You should have seen her face—the outrage. She was so mad.”

Larry was watching TV.

“Can you please mute that?” she said, and he turned it down. “Those poor kids. Who’s taking care of them? They’re not even going to school. What if the police come? They will, you know. They have to. It’s the law.”

Larry nodded as he watched a commercial for a sedan: a family climbed in and out and in and out and in and out of the car. Nancy said, “I’m trying to talk to you.”

He shut the TV off completely. But without it, neither of them had anywhere to look, so she ended up talking to a small chest full of Afghans.

“What should we do?” she asked.

“They’re not orphans.”

“Might as well be. Where’s Juan? Have you seen him?”

“You’re the one who’s here all day.” This was another argument: she did nothing all day but sit around. “I mean, you have to back off and let him handle this his way.”

“And if his way doesn’t work?”

“Then we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said, which exasperated her.

“We we we. Who’s this we? I’ll cross that bridge.”

She crossed it every day, carrying casseroles and grocery staples across the street. Sometimes, through the cracked door, she caught a peek of the house, which had always been so immaculate when Malena had been alive and now, still, seemed to have been scrubbed from top to bottom. She never saw Juan, only Carlos on the couch, watching TV and getting fatter. It broke her heart. She had to say something.

“This can’t go on,” she told Adriana, holding onto the food so that the girl couldn’t shut the door in her face. “I hate to be blunt, but you and your brother should be in school. Your dad needs to work.”

Adriana nodded, and, sure enough, the next day there was a knock on Nancy’s door, and when she opened it, the girl was standing on the porch, asking, “Do you need someone to mow your yard?”

“You sweet child, what on earth are you talking about? I’m the one who ought to be helping you!”

But Adriana was insistent. She wanted to do it, she said. She knew how to work her dad’s mower. Nancy looked past her at the yard. It was February. The grass hadn’t grown since it was last cut in September. Adriana said, “What about cleaning? I can do a lot of things around the house.”

Nancy wrapped the girl in her arms and wept. Then she sent her home with some cookies.

At dinner, Larry said, “She was trying to earn money.”

“No, she wasn’t. She was thanking me for—Oh god.” Nancy ran for her purse and pulled out thirty-seven dollars, all of the cash inside. She had more hidden in an envelope taped to the wall of the bedroom closet, and she would have given it all—more than two hundred dollars—but she didn’t want to offend anyone. She stuck the money in Larry’s hand and told him to take it over. She couldn’t face Adriana herself, not after what she’d done. “I’m such an idiot.”

Larry patted her arm and told her it was an honest mistake. “Anyone could have made it. Look, give me the cash.”

She watched from the window as he stood on the Parades’ stoop with Adriana. After a while, Juan came out, and the men talked for a few minutes before Larry ambled back across the street like nothing had happened.

“Well?”

“He said thanks for the food.”

“Please don’t tease me. Not right now.”

He took her into his arms. “You know I wouldn’t do that.”

She pushed away and kneaded her cheeks and chin. “They’re going to need a lot more than pocket change.”

“There’s welfare, I guess.”

“So that’s what it’s come to.” Nancy shuddered. “Can he even collect that?”

“I don’t know. It was hard to look at him.”

“Why? Is he drinking?”

Larry looked at her the way you at a child who’d knocked milk off the table. “Drinking what? He never even leaves the house.”

Nancy wanted to punch him in the nose. “That’s my point. What happened was horrible. I feel sick about it every day, but he’s got to move on. If not for him, then for the kids.” She was shaking her fists. Look at me, she thought and unclenched her hands. “What’d he say about the money?”

Larry shrugged.

“And what’s that supposed to mean? We’re supposed to just keeping handing over money and hope for the best?”

“Yes,” Larry said. “That is exactly what we’re supposed to do.”

A few days later, Juan himself came to the door. She thought he might cry.

“It has been,” he looked away, “very hard. And now, the kids, they need to go to school. For me, it’s over. But for them?” He continued to look away. “They will have homework, and I only—” Now he looked down at his feet. The poor man. “In Mexico, school is not so important. I grew up on a ranch. There was—”

“There was work to do?”

He nodded, and Nancy reached out and squeezed his arm. She’d never touched him before.

“You’ve done everything you can. You’re a good father.” She let that hang in the air. He needed to know it. He needed to keep going, not give up. “It takes a village to raise a child. I truly believe that’s what neighbors are for. Okay? Please let me help.”

Whatever Juan told the kids worked because after school they walked over to Nancy’s, dutifully sat down, and took out their homework. Nancy made them hot cocoa, and by the time she was finished, the kids were lying on the couch together like a married couple. It was the cutest thing she’d ever seen, and so she put down the mugs and snuck into her bedroom to get the camera. When she returned, the kids were at the kitchen table fishing out the marshmallows. “Oh, you two. You were so cute. Get back on the couch. Just for a second. It would mean so much to your dad to see how you were lying together.”

“You have anything to eat?” Adriana asked, and Nancy sighed and put down the camera. She had some Graham crackers. Was that fine? Adriana shrugged. “They’re not for me.”

Carlos took the package and started eating. Nancy checked their homework. Adriana’s was perfect. Carlos hadn’t even started. Nancy showed him the worksheet, and he stared at it blankly.

“Do you need help?”

He ate a cracker.

“Do you want help?”

He put another cracker in his mouth, and she gave in. “For god’s sake, fine. Go and play.” But he didn’t move. The crackers were gone, already, and he dropped the wrapper on the table and held out his hot, fat hand for more. She could have made him finish his homework first, but what was the point? Once, when she went to the bathroom, she came back to find that Carlos had written sch and half an o and then stopped. If breathing wasn’t involuntary, he might have stopped that, too. When she read books to him, he laid his head in her lap.

You couldn’t force someone to be studious. When Beth was that age, she’d wad up her homework and shove it into the smallest pocket on the bag. Nancy would dig it out, press and flatten it beneath a heavy book, and grit her teeth as Beth completed the front but not the back, scribble-scrabbling her answers. What wasn’t unreadable was wrong. And those were the easy times. When she was older, she’d throw her bag across the room and drive off in a huff, not returning for hours, and when she did, it was like a gust of wind that knocks the storm windows loose—bam.

Nancy hated those people who thought every kid should go to college. Who did they expect to stock the shelves at Wal-Mart while the rest of the world slept? She sat Carlos down, showed him a cracker, and said, “Let’s just try one problem, okay? Just one, and then you can have this.”

Adriana dusted the baseboards. Other days, she washed dishes or folded laundry. It was her choice. Nancy told her she could watch TV or read a book, but the girl declined. She accepted the money, though, and snuck crackers and cookies when she thought Nancy wasn’t looking.

Nancy asked Carlos, “Is there anything you want to talk about?” He nodded sadly but pressed his lips tight. “You can tell me,” she told him. He sighed. “Please,” she said. “It’s better to get it out. Don’t let it eat you up. Okay?”

He rubbed his eyes and nodded. He waved his hand to ask her to come closer.

In a whisper, he said, “I want more cookies.”

When he walked home that night, Nancy watched his sister dig into her pocket and give him the food she had stolen.

A week later, she found a lunch bill for $18.75 in Carlos’ bag. There was no similar notice in Adriana’s, so Nancy pulled her aside and showed her the piece of paper. “Did you get one of these, too?”

“No, ma’am.”

“What’s this ma’am business.”

“Yes, Nancy.”

“Do you need money or not?”

Adriana shook her head. But the next day, Nancy caught her going through her brother’s bag before walking into the house. Nancy didn’t let on that she’d seen, but later she found two slips in the outside garbage, each containing an extra note: Once the debt reached $30, the kids would be given an alternative meal. Nancy waved the note in Larry’s face.

“Do other kids eat these alternative meals? Or is it just the kids without mothers?”

It was Friday, and so she could do nothing but stew until Monday, when she drove to the school and put $100 in both kids’ accounts. The secretary took the check but did not fill out the pink receipt in front of her.

“Who are you?” the woman asked, and Nancy said, “For god’s sake, do you want the money or not?”

She hadn’t bought a nice dress, hadn’t gone out for a nice meal, hadn’t done anything for herself in ages. And here she was, dropping a small fortune on children who probably qualified for free lunches if someone just did their job.

“I can’t do it all by myself,” she told Larry, and he nodded. “But then who’s going to do it? Juan? He can’t even take care of himself.”

“You don’t know that.” He wanted to sound certain, but grief had worn him down. It was more noticeable with men. Women faded over time so that eventually you forgot how they’d once looked. But men were strong all their lives. Change a tire or build a tricycle, it was all the same to them. Then one day they were dead. The decline happened quickly, and Nancy thought she could see the first signs of it.

2015--Our History

If Carlos came home with a bike in a box, it’d be Nancy who assembled it.

“Maybe I can help,” he said.

“Oh sure.” She geared up for the fight, but he only shrugged. He didn’t have the energy for it, and who could blame him.

After Beth died, Nancy had screamed at him so much that her memory of that time was only a kind of pulsing insanity. Eventually, she’d quit hoping he’d leave or that she’d roll over one morning and find him dead of a heart attack. A divorce had been out of the question. They didn’t deserve one. If Larry hadn’t swerved to miss the deer and hit the telephone pole, Nancy knew that Beth probably would have done it herself—no deer required. Could you even blame the drugs? She’d been impossible for so long. If Nancy really tried, she could remember the girl in a white dress running after Easter eggs or the baby crawling across the floor and stopping suddenly, as if charged with electricity. There’d been a spot of sunlight on the carpet. The only thing as bright as the eyes looking down at it. How many box elder bugs had Nancy pulled out of her mouth? Hundreds? She’d been so beautiful and so—different, increasingly so. At nine, if you asked her to do anything, the smallest task—brush her teeth, get dressed, sit down and eat—it was like asking for blood. People said, “Oh, kids are hard,” but that’s a lot of BS. Kids are easy. That’s why the human race goes on and on. Only Beth was hard.

It was impossible, even after all these years, to remember Beth’s life without also remembering her death. It was the story of their lives. Without it, what was left? Now, here was Malena’s slender, beautiful daughter walking into Nancy’s house in a haltertop.

“I can’t believe your father let you walk out of the house with that on,”

Adriana looked at her straps, her shoulders. “My friend gave it to me. We traded.”

“You took off your shirt at school?”

“In the restroom.”

Nancy went and got a shawl and wrapped it around the girl. “You’re going to get cold.” The shirt looked familiar. It was out of fashion—even Nancy could tell that. She knew that kids these days shopped at thrift stores, dressing like they were performing in some kind of Polaroid detective movie, but this shirt was different. It was Beth’s.

She turned Adriana around and slapped her face.

“How dare you.”

Adriana stepped back in shock and rubbed her cheek. She took off the shawl and let it slide to the floor. Then she sat down to do her homework. The message was clear: Nancy was insignificant. Unless she intended to rip the shirt off the girl’s body, there was nothing to do. Carlos had found a bag of pretzels and was sitting on the couch, stuffing his face. When Larry came home, both kids ran up and gave him a high five. Adriana kept a careful, meant-to-be-noticed eye on Nancy. After the kids left, Nancy said, “Did you see that?”

“What?”

“What she was wearing.”

He hadn’t, of course. But she wouldn’t tell him, and he didn’t ask again. Instead, he said, “So, I’ve come up with a plan.”

It was a Larry kind of idea. A website. A fundraiser. People would donate, and that money could be used for school lunch—“or whatever is needed,” he said.

“So instead of us keeping Juan afloat, the town will do it. You should go into government. They’d love you.”

He sighed in that little, tight way of his, a sign that he was telling himself not to fight with her. “They need money. This gives them money.”

“And how long are we supposed to keep paying for them? At what point do we cut them off?”

“Other people think it’s a great idea.”

“You’ve told other people? So now everyone knows that Juan can’t pay his bills?”

He didn’t say anything, so she did. “You’re an idiot.”

He stood there, taking her abuse. No matter what she said, he never left. It was like that prayer for alcoholics: give me the power to accept the things I cannot change. That was the right attitude, wasn’t it? Adriana wasn’t Nancy’s daughter. She wasn’t Beth. She’d be fine because other people’s kids always turned out okay in the end. They grew up, went to college or didn’t, got jobs, got married, had kids of their own. The human race hadn’t multiplied to cover the earth by watching all of its children crash and burn. Nancy’s misfortune was hers alone. Adriana was going her own direction, and so Nancy began working on Carlos, the chubby little boy who was leaving a deeper impression on the couch cushions every day.

So. No more snacks. Or fewer snacks. Maybe a few carrots first, then a cookie. And only one cookie. She tried to be sly, to sneak the new rules past him.

“Whoa, whoa,” he said. “That’s not our deal.”

“It’s the new deal.”

He crossed his arms. “Then I’m not doing homework.”

“Fine,” she said. “You’ll be dumb and fat.”

“It’ll be your fault,” he said. Seven years old, with a mouth like that.

“Way to show some personal responsibility.”

He stuck his tongue out her, at the exact moment that Larry walked in the door. He looked at them, and you could see him thinking, watch him studying his options. Finally, he cocked his head and stuck out his own tongue. Then he hung up his coat and went to the bedroom.

“We’ll talk about this later,” Nancy told Carlos, but the gravity of the moment was lost when the back of the house erupted in screaming, first a girl and then Larry.

“Hey, ha, well.” The door slammed shut, and Larry said, too brightly, “That’s not something you see every day.”

He was standing in the hall when Nancy rushed up. Nodding at the door, he said, “This is your department, I think.”

She went in and found Adriana naked except for her underwear and one of Nancy’s bras twisted around her head. “Oh my,” Nancy said. The girl even had on a pair of her shoes, the only pair that had any kind of lift to them. She was twisting, trying to free herself from the bra, and Nancy took both of the girl’s hands and pulled them down to her sides. “Now,” she said, “let me help you with that.” The girl relaxed a little, and Nancy said, “I guess your dad must have thrown out your mom’s clothes, huh?”

Immediately she wished she could take it back. But she couldn’t. Adriana pushed her away, threw the bra against the wall, and kicked off the heels. “All your shoes are ugly!” she shouted. “And your clothes are ugly, too!”

She hurriedly dressed and ran out of the room, smack into Larry. She twisted away, but he held her by the shoulders.

“That’s no way for a young lady to talk.”

“You’re not my dad.”

“No, but I can tell your dad what you said.”

“Oh yeah? He’ll never be mean to us again. He said so.”

She ran into the living room and out the front door. Larry wanted to follow, but Nancy stopped him. He was a clenching and unclenching his hands. “I won’t let her talk that way to you. After all you’ve done for them.” His body had stiffened, rigor mortis from anger. “We can’t do this again. We need a plan. We can’t let this slide.”

“It’s already sliding. Her mom is dead. Her dad is—whatever he is. A derelict. He’s not doing his job. As a father.”

Larry looked down at his feet.

“I’m not talking about you,” she said. “I’m just telling you how it is. She’s not our daughter.”

“But if she didn’t have to worry about money. We’ve raised two thousand dollars so far.”

Nancy didn’t respond. What could money possibly fix?

“That’s a lot,” he said. She walked off. “Well,” he called after her, “it is.”

Next, Adriana wore a pair of heels. The girl walked into the kitchen and almost tripped over her own feet.

“You shouldn’t wear those until you learn how,” Nancy said, which was the wrong thing to say. Everything was the wrong thing. There was simply no talking to the girl. So, for her own good, Nancy called the school. “I’m calling about Adriana Paredes,” she said and immediately the secretary transferred her to the assistant principal, who said, “We are aware of this issue, and it is a matter for parents and school staff.”

“You’re aware? Just take the shoes away from her.”

There was a pause. “Shoes?”

“My god, yes. The shoes. And the shirts.”

There was a pause, long enough to sap the anger out of Nancy. The assistant principal said, finally, “I’m sorry, but who I am speaking to again?”

Nancy found Larry in the living room, watching TV, but there must have been something about the way she looked because he grabbed the remote as if something had bitten him.

“What’s wrong?” he said, and she burst into tears.

The entire time they’d known Juan and Malena, deportation had never come up. Why would it? Weren’t they responsible citizens? Didn’t he work? Didn’t she take care of the kids, the same as any other mother? Sure, she seemed to rarely come out of the house. Yes, neither of their families had ever visited. Juan said they were all in Mexico, but how was it possible that Juan and Malena were the only ones of their families who’d immigrated legally? At the funeral, Nancy and Larry had sat in the second row, right behind Juan, looking around at the empty pews. He blamed the language gap, the fact that Juan worked for himself instead of for a company. She blamed Catholicism. But now she understood: no one knew Juan and Malena and that was how they wanted it. If people didn’t know you, they couldn’t turn you in. No wonder he worked for himself. No social security number. The priest probably knew these things—weren’t the Catholics always sticking their nose into politics? That’s why there was no obituary or death announcement. And could you blame him? If he got sent back to Mexico, his dead wife would stay in the ground here. He probably didn’t have a driver’s license.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Larry said, about the school, about the secretary and the issue that was for family and administrators only. “Did she actually say that Adriana was an illegal?”

“It’s not something you just say on the phone. God, Larry.” But she tried to imagine that he was right. Maybe shoes were actually a big deal at schools these days. And even if the family had snuck over, so what? People were good, right? They had given money out of the goodness of their hearts—

She felt sick. The website. That’s how people knew.

“I told you not to make that website.” She stomped her foot, as if it would make her feel better. “I told you and told you, and you said, ‘But people want to help. They want to give fifteen dollars or twenty dollars because it will make them feel better.’ Do you feel better now?”

She got in the car and drove out of town and then back, and when she walked in, Larry called her into the office. He was sitting at the computer. “Look,” he said.

He’d raised more than three thousand dollars. But below the amount, there were comments, and as she read them, she began to shake.

Where was this shit when I lost my job? Where was it when I had to go to the doctor? So some illegal died. Big fucking deal. She was lucky to have lived here as long as she did. The real Americans are fucked from day one. Fucking wetbacks. Send them back. All of them: kids, dogs. Ship them off, and if they try to come back, execute them.

“So that’s what we’re dealing with,” Larry said.

Nancy sat on the floor. She’d been right, and now she couldn’t hold her hands still. Her heart was beating too fast, and she wished that it meant she was dying, but it didn’t. She’d live. Life would go on. There’d be sorrow and despair that felt like it would never lift, but it would. Everything would get marginally better, not a complete recovery, just enough to keep her from parking the car in front of a train.

The family came during the night. When Nancy looked out the window in the morning, two pickup trucks with long, flat metal trailers hitched to them had parked in front of Juan’s house. When Adriana and Carlos walked out the door, an old woman and two men left with them, and they all walked down the street together. A little before it was time for school to let out, Nancy saw the two men and the old woman start down the street toward the school, and pretty soon they returned with the kids. No one came over to say hi to Nancy. No one needed help with homework. They went into Juan’s house and shut the door.

Nancy tried to stay positive. You didn’t go to school if you intended to slip out of town in the dead of night. Things couldn’t be that bad. It was good that they had some uncles or whatever, a grandma, around. When everyone else abandoned you, when everyone else was gone away chasing their own lives or other friends or when they were dead, you still had family. It was the security of obligation. When life got hard, it wasn’t love that put dinner in the oven or wet laundry in the dryer. It was duty. She imagined the Mexicans standing around outside of the school, looking at the trees and grass and the sky and all the white kids in their coats, and she began to feel the way they might feel. How strange it all must seem to them, how unreal, like the loose, floating sensation you get after the dentist turns on the gas. How brave they were to travel this far north, to go to a place where they could not communicate or read, where some people actively hated them. How hard it must be to do something so simple like standing outside of a school.

The uncles wired sheets of plywood to the trailers’ low metal sides, building tall, ugly walls, and when they had finished, they took turns grabbing the walls and shaking them to make sure they’d hold. It was a long trip. The roads in Mexico were probably terrible. The men jumped up and down on the trailer. When Larry came home, he stood outside his truck and watched the men carrying out the Paredes’ furniture, eventually crossing the street and speaking with them a little.

“So?” Nancy asked him when he came inside.

He shrugged. “They seem okay.”

After dark, Nancy snuck out the door to look inside the trailers. It was all there: couch, mattresses, refrigerator, washer and dryer, table and chairs, dressers, the metal and glass shelves where Malena had kept her glass figurines, the heavy wooden desk where she’d kept those weird chalky candies that Malena always gave Larry and that he gave to Nancy and that she threw in the trash. Where was everyone was sleeping? What were they eating? She hadn’t seen anyone go out for food. It was late, but it wasn’t that late. Surely the adults were still awake, and so Nancy went home, made some spaghetti, and took it over. One of the men answered the door. “Ah, the neighbor,” he said. He looked at the pot of food. “We ate. But thank you.”

“For tomorrow then. Keep it.”

The man looked concerned.

2014--Village...with all white border

“We, uh, have no refrigerator. It’s in—” He pointed to the trailers. “Juan is moving tomorrow. Do you know? You’re the neighbor, right? You know about his wife, she died?”

“I know,” she said, and he tried to give her the pot. “It won’t go bad,” she said. “Just keep it. Eat it for breakfast. I don’t care.”

Then, before he could force it into her arms, she hurried across the street and into her house. But a few minutes later, there was a knock on the door. The man was standing on the stoop with the pot. “We have nowhere to put this. Thank you.” When she wouldn’t take it, he set it on the step and walked back across the street.

The next morning inevitability arrived, and Nancy went to say goodbye, taking with her some freezer bags filled with packages of peanut butter crackers and some little bags of M&Ms that she’d bought to entice Carlos to finish his homework but had never given him. “For the trip.”

Adriana said, “What about the money?”

Everyone looked at her. The old woman said something in Spanish, but Adriana kept her eyes on Nancy. “Tell them. The website. I bet it’s more than two thousand by now.”

But Nancy didn’t have the money. She’d forgotten to ask Larry about it before he left.

“It’s ours,” Adriana said, and Nancy just stood there. The girl stomped her foot on the ground. “It is. You’re stealing it.” Juan snapped, “Enough,” and grabbed her arm, twisting just a little, just enough to get her attention. He wasn’t trying to hurt her. Nancy understood. He just wanted her to stop making a scene. But she couldn’t bear to watch the poor girl cry.

“Please stop,” she told him. He didn’t, and Adriana fought back the pain.

“You weren’t going to give it to us.”

“That’s not true.”

Juan twisted Adriana’s arm tighter, and Nancy said, “Please,” and put her hand on his arm. He looked down at it. Adriana, back on her heels, looked at it until Juan let go and Nancy stepped back. She said, “My husband, if he were here—”

Juan cursed in Spanish and glanced at his family before hunching his shoulders and glaring at her. “Larry wrote me a check. Last night. Okay?” Now he crossed his arms over his chest and looking at his family as if to say, “Can we go now?”

No one was looking at her. She was old news, forgotten by Adriana and Carlos and by Juan, who had picked up both kids, one in each arm, straining as if carrying the entire world. He lugged them to his car. Nancy followed helplessly behind them.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

That was how she said her goodbyes, asking the kids to give her a hug. Neither did.

When she finally reached him on the phone, Larry said, “Wait, what happened?” She told him again. “Oh,” he said. His voice was funny. “Yeah, I guess I forgot to tell you.”

“You didn’t.” She got ready for an apology, ready to tear it apart. But none came. It didn’t matter. She wouldn’t have accepted it anyway. “You could have at least been here to say goodbye. Now they’re gone. Juan’s gone. Adriana and Carlos are gone.”

There was a long slow exhalation from his end. “I know.”

“Don’t you even care?”

He covered his face and sighed.

“There’ll be other neighbors,” he said. “Maybe we’ll do better next time.”

“You really think so?” She was serious. Everything depended on the answer. “Do you really think we can?” ψ

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