Did they dare hope for anything good?
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.
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