In this issue, work by
Copyright © 2020 by Clinton Inman.
About the Artist
Clinton Inman is a retired school teacher, Renaissance painter, poet, and piano player, born in England, and a graduate of SDSU in 1977.
D. S. Maolalai
and bent double,
like another 60
years. milk, eggs,
creme de menthe and catfood.
in small steps
which just about move forward,
not striding like royalty
like shopping carts
they don’t eat out
or drink tea and biscuits—just return
to dusty flats
lined with paintings sometimes
or old books
which lets you know
what it was
that they once were.
before the skin went bad
and the legs
the mind slow, before
the women grew mustaches
and the men
at the tv
on old sofas, scabby
as dogs with mange.
They’ve made it
most of the way now—the finish line
is beckoning. whatever way
you look at it
they’re closer to winning
Copyright © 2020 by D. S. Maolalai.
she melts the glass
to glowing granules,
and molds it
and inserts the wax
can start to cool. blue
like colour in rocks
icing on skin.
her fingers are careful—
tense and gentle
like she is holding
a baby mouse. no art here
but 20 dollars on sunday morning
and there's nothing wrong
with that. buying supplies
ten cents a go
and spending time
fixing them. pouring her evenings
Copyright © 2020 by D. S. Maolalai.
About the Author
DS Maolalai has been writing poetry for ten years. He has been nominated four times for Best of the Net and three times for the Pushcart Prize. His poetry has been released in two collections, Love is Breaking Plates in the Garden (Encircle Press, 2016) and Sad Havoc Among the Birds (Turas Press, 2019). He lives in Dublin, Ireland.
Money heals me.
I rub it on my wounds
and they close like anemones.
I rub it on my hollow heart
and it fills with a breeze,
fragrant with hopeful flowers.
Money evades me.
It runs like a spooked hare
down into the deep valley.
I chase after it, wind on my face,
tears stinging, calves aching,
singing a war song.
Money hurts me.
It surrounds me on all sides,
teeth exposed, baying and retching.
Wretch that I am, poverty’s plaything.
The universe yawns.
Money has barely met me.
Copyright © 2020 by Will Stenberg.
About the Author
Will Stenberg is a writer, musician and bartender in Portland, Oregon.
“What do you suppose will happen to them?” Laura stared out from her kitchen window, sipping coffee from a mug. It was late spring, 2014, and the south Texas landscape was chalky with desert dust, the trees and scrub-brush dry from an early heat wave.
“They’ve come so suddenly,” said Judith, a bit nervously. “It’s like a children’s army invading Plento.” Silver-haired and pale, she pushed her glasses up on the bridge of her hawkish nose.
Laura helped herself to another slice of coffee cake. “I sometimes see them in the morning, scrambling down the hill behind the Paterson place. Babies flooding across the border.”
Her green eyes contrasted with the shock of auburn hair that coiled over her forehead. Four years younger than her sister, she wore a bright-colored print blouse and jeans painted in bold strokes of color, one of the “walking paintings” she consigned to the Fashion Forward shop on Herrera Street downtown.
“I understand they’re taking them to St. Ignatius, the old school.” Judith popped a last bite of cake into her mouth.
“So, they’re going to be incarcerated there just like we were.”
“There’s really nowhere else to take them,” Judith replied, and immediately regretted it. She generally found silence the best response to her sister’s barbs, which, when acknowledged, often evolved into diatribes. Laura possessed a cutting way about her, questioning authority and rejecting convention, which was fine within reason, but often led to disputes between them.
“The school’s been closed for years, vandalized,” Laura objected. She pictured dozens of desperate kids crowded together in that dismal place, abandoned by the diocese years ago.
“FEMA is cleaning it up. You must have seen their trucks.”
“They’re warehousing children, is what they’re doing. Can you imagine how terribly hideous life must be for them at home to make such a long, dangerous trip?”
Judith sighed. “Well, at least they’ll be fed and have a place to sleep.”
“Food worse than the garbage they served us at that school? We need to do something.”
Here it comes, thought Judith. When Laura got something into her head, it nearly always ended up as a cause.
“We could prepare lunch and organize a clothing drive.”
Judith eyed her sister cautiously, noting the inclusive ’we.’
As a little girl, Laura searched out strays—cats, wounded birds, homeless mutts, and even a sick raccoon once—and nursed the creatures back to health. Their mother had referred to the family home as “The Pet Hospital.” Judith was frequently embarrassed by her sister, who often brought her recovering “patients” to school for show-and-tell. She was convinced her classmates believed Laura’s soft heart indicated a soft head.
Laura gathered her hair away from her face and held it in a fist behind her head, considering. “Maybe we can read to the kids.”
“You don’t know Spanish, not really.”
“We could sound out the syllables slowly so they would understand, or just read to them in English. They could follow the story from the pictures. They don’t need to \ understand the words. Children are soothed by a reader’s voice.”
Judith sighed. Laura was instructing her about children? Her sister had never had kids of her own. Other than babysitting her niece and nephews, she was seldom around kids, not really. Judith was exhausted by motherhood and though she missed not seeing her daughter and sons more frequently, she was secretly happy they were out of the house. Sandra was married and living in Dallas, Doug was a workaholic banker in Denver, and Bill, the youngest, was doing Lord knows what in San Francisco.
“I know!” Laura declared. “Let’s organize a group of women. We could ask Father Pierrick to mention something at Mass next Sunday.”
“Don’t you think Lupita has already thought of that?” Judith asked. She resolved not to be pushed into another one of her sister’s schemes. A couple months back, Laura convinced her to help circulate a ’Save The Whales’ petition, whales being the last thing on the minds of people in a town surrounded by nothing but desert. Glancing at the kitchen clock, Judith announced: “I need to go. Harry will be home soon.” She rinsed out her mug and put it on the drain board. “He wants dinner early today. There’s an emergency meeting at the Chamber of Commerce.”
“What’s the meeting for?”
“What do you think?”
“Maybe that’s who we should talk with first—the Chamber,” suggested Laura.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea. Harry says they’re demanding the government relocate these kids elsewhere.”
“What does Harry think?”
“What do you think Harry thinks?”
Judith’s husband owned the Super-Mart in Plento. He encouraged the Spanish-speaking community’s business, but yearned for the days when faces in town were mostly white. He was no worse than most whites here, whose attitude was that if the government couldn’t secure the border properly, then citizens needed to protect themselves. Many Chamber members supported the proposed “shoot-first” law which was designed to “protect law-abiding citizens” against criminal prosecution if they shot an illegal immigrant “perceived as an imminent threat.”
“I think it best you don’t get involved with this, Laura. This invasion of children coming across the border has the whole town in an uproar. It’s creating friction between the Latino and white communities.”
Laura nodded absently, thinking of the kids who traveled thousands of miles, all of them hungry, thirsty, exhausted and frightened.
After her sister left, she dialed Lupita Ramirez, who had also attended St. Ignatius, but nine years after Laura, in the very last class before it closed for good. Like Laura, she stood up to people in town. After Mass last Sunday, Laura passed by a group of women, with Lupita at the center, discussing Father Pierrick’s sermon about the children coming across the border and how Christian charity required that compassion be extended toward them.
“It’s our duty as Christians to be compassionate,” Lupita declared. “But compassion alone isn’t going to solve the practical problems faced by these children. We must do something.”
Lupita’s friends Marcella and Victoria nodded agreeably, but Laura noted apprehension on the faces of many others, knowing ties between the white and Latino communities in town were being seriously tested by the avalanche of children pouring across the border.
* * *
They rode together in Laura’s ramshackle station wagon, with its plastic side-panels faded and from years of exposure under the hot Texas sun. The AC died a long time ago. Hot dusty air blew through the open windows and both women sweltered.
“Next time, let’s take my car,” suggested Lupita, gazing through the cracked windshield.
“If there is a next time.” Laura squinted through the dusty window. “What happened at the Chamber meeting last night?” Lupita’s husband Leo was one of two Latino Chamber members.
“They plan to put more pressure on the state government to petition the INS for more protection and patrols. They believe these bambinos pose a threat.”
“Yes, I know—disease, crime and terrorism arriving in their wake.”
Lupita wiped her forehead. “Leo is afraid to alienate them, so he didn’t say too much.”
The Latino community in Pleno was old, pre-dating whites by over a hundred years. But with so many immigrants streaming across the border, long-time Latino citizens found themselves in an uncomfortable position, as if their legal status was somehow questionable as well.
The Wagoneer sped out of town, sending up clouds of brown dust behind it. “I don’t trust those men,” declared Laura. “Who knows what they might do.“
“Most of them only think with their penes.”
They both laughed. Laura turned on the radio. Musica banda erupted from the speakers. The two dipped and swayed to the collision of brass and percussion.
The old school was on the outskirts of town. It stood alone, bordered by a sparse grove of honey mesquite trees that Laura noted needed deep pruning. Not having been out this way for a while, she was struck by how much the building resembled a prison with its thick walls and narrow transom windows. It had been closed now for nearly two decades, a victim of diocese cost-cutting, to pay off all the victims of the priests, she frequently reminded her sister.
“Well, here we are, like it or not.”
Lupita smiled. “It wasn’t so bad. I met Leo there.”
“I met boys here too. But none of them were interested in me, not really.”
“I bet they were afraid of you, of your independencia.”
The grounds were deserted, overgrown with tall weeds nearly obscuring the rusted monkey bars and swing sets on which Laura and her classmates had once flown. The parking lot’s cracked concrete crackled under the tires.
She parked near the front door.
Two men in security uniforms stood outside the plywood-covered front doors, hunched over cigarettes. The older guard grimaced in their direction. The other one, his dark face framed by black hair, appeared flustered at their arrival.
“I know him. That’s Alfredo, Pedro and Marcela Paz’s hijo,” Lupita said. “He works for a security company in San Antonio.”
“Maybe this won’t be as difficult as we suspected,” said Laura
The guards watched the two women emerge from the car. As they approached, the older guard stepped forward to meet them: “Can we help you?”
“Yes. We’ve come to visit the children.”
The men glanced at one another, fingering their ID badges as if consulting them about how to respond: ’Ben’ older and shorter, ’Alfredo’ skinny and smooth-faced like an overgrown boy.
“We don’t allow any visitors,” Ben drily informed.
Laura met his gaze. “Why not?”
“We’ve come to help out.”
“Everything’s under control here,” Alfredo replied. Lupita smiled familiarly, remembering him as an unruly kid, transformed now into a guardian with authority.
“We’d like to talk with someone in charge, please,” Laura said in a mild and slightly needy voice, knowing how men, especially Texan men with badges, didn’t cotton to pushy women.
“Not possible,” uttered Ben with stone-faced finality.
“That’s too bad,” sighed Laura. “It’s a shame to waste all the food we brought for the hard-working staff. Enchiladas, chile rellenos, chicken mole. Lupita made the tortillas only this morning.”
“Well, vamos, then.” Lupita turned to leave. “I don’t know what we’ll do with it all.”
Ben nearly tumbled down the stairs. “Hey, wait there. It was sure thoughtful of you to bring us food.” Alfredo nodded, tongue wetting his lips. “We could take it off your
Laura and Lupita and Laura pretended to ignore him and headed back to the car. Ben and Alfredo followed, perspiration sparkling on their foreheads, both caught between desire and duty.
“I think we could work something out,” Ben declared, taking in the aroma of homemade food.
“On one condition,” responded Laura. “We deliver it inside.”
Ben hesitated only briefly. “This is a secured facility. I need to get clearance first.”
“Maybe it’s best we just go.” Lupita headed toward the passenger door.
“No, wait!” Ben took the walkie-talkie from his belt. “Mr. Hernandez? Sorry to bother you, but we have a situation here — ”
Before long, two staff members appeared, a displaced-looking young man with red hair and freckles and a young Latina with hair pulled back from her severe face. They helped the guards and their visitors remove the pans, boxes and paper bags from the back of the Wagoneer. Alfredo held the door open for Laura and Lupita. Ben smiled for the first time. Most of his front teeth were missing.
“Must have lost them in a bar brawl,” Lupita whispered.
“I bet one of the children punched him in the mouth,” replied Laura.
“Follow me,” ordered Ben, taking the lead. “Mr. Hernandez is in the gym. It’s at the end of the hallway and to the right.”
“I know where it is.” Laura attended Phys Ed in the gymnasium twice a week for years, performing calisthenics, simple stretches and jumping jacks, later practicing with the all-girls’ basketball team, still a novelty in the late 70s. Her mother complained it wasn’t lady-like to bounce around the court in public. Laura pointed out it was the ball that bounced, not the player. Her mother sighed and put up her hands in defeat.
She was stuck by the silence. St. Ignatius had always been filled with noise—slamming locker doors, the boy’s joshing and the girls’ chatter, the boisterous voices at lunchtime, the raucous clamor after the last bell.
The guards sauntered stoutly ahead like stern nuns leading misbehaving students to the principal’s office. As they advanced through the deserted hallway, with its peeling paint and locker doors torn off their hinges, silence gave way to a low murmur that grew into a high-pitched drone, punctuated every so often by the loud cry of a young voice.
“What’s going on in there?” Laura asked, growing nervous now that their idea was a reality. Lupita gave her a look of support. Both realized the sight and smell of homemade food would be torturous to the children, but this was part of their plan. When Ben pulled open a wide gymnasium door they were met by a chorus of voices. The soft Spanish vowels reminded her of the children’s choir that sang in church on Sundays. But there was no harmony here, no choir- master directing the parts, only a chorus of sneezing and coughing and minor eruptions of laughing or crying. The big auditorium, with its old bleachers torn out, had been transformed into a holding cell, its inhabitants all identically dressed in ill-fitting jeans and blue denim shirts and blouses. Many of them appeared to be sleeping, others clustered together in small groups, reticent and sad-faced. A few must have noticed the trays and smelled the food. All were in the age of Laura and Lupita when they attended school here, but these small refugees seemed much older, looking defeated and exhausted like survivors from a disaster.
Laura feeling overcome by their sad state, leaned woozily against the door for support. A man dressed in a short-sleeve white shirt and dark blue pants strode toward her.
“You alright, ma’am?” His dark eyes met hers directly.
She steadied herself against the door and nodded. He was attractive—curly dark hair washed with silver, copper complexion, lively eyes and a strong chin. She smiled, thinking of the times she had embarrassed her sister with indiscreet comments about good-looking men they encountered.
“Security said you wanted to speak with me.”
“Are you the supervisor?” Lupita asked.
He laughed. “You can call me that. More like a glorified baby-sitter, it seems like. I’m Jess Hernandez.” He offered his hand.
“I’m Lupita Ramirez. And this is Laura Bolton. We live in town.”
“What can I do for you?”
“We’ve brought food for you,” declared Laura. She glanced at Lupita, who urged her on. “We heard what a good job you’re doing here to keep these kids in order.”
“Nice of you to think of us, Mrs.—”
Hernandez smiled, not unkindly. “Well, Miss Bolton, we have the basics covered—cots, warm showers, fresh clothes, a secure space. The school kitchen was trashed, so we had to bring in a batch of microwaves. FEMA is supposed to arrive tomorrow with more supplies, but it’s anyone’s guess what they’ll bring us.”
Laura surveyed the room. Many children were sleeping on the floor with nothing but a blanket and a pillow. Others sat on cots, peering sadly at the two strange women. The odors coming from the kitchen were bad, those from the bathrooms in the old locker rooms even worse.
“The kids need better care. They must be hungry for some home-cooked food.”
“Si, estos niños necesitan amor,” Lupita echoed. These kids need love.
Hernandez appeared imperturbable. “I’m sure they do,” he replied, “but,” he swept his hand across the room, “this may be very temporary. Marching orders could come tomorrow.”
Laura imagined the miles these children had already marched, the trucks and trains and buses and who knows where else they stowed-away to reach the border.
As if reading her mind, he declared: “They’re a lot better off than they were out there in the desert, I can tell you that.”
She glanced at the tall gymnasium windows, boarded-up at the bottom and covered with metal screening inside to deflect wayward basketballs, enforcing the feeling of confinement. She thought of the animals she had cared for, how desperately they fought being caged no matter how hurt or hungry.
Laura felt her voice grow strong. “We’ll bring them home-cooked meals and distribute clothing that doesn’t look like prison issue.”
“That’s certainly thoughtful of you, Miss Bolton, but—”
“Please, call me Laura.”
He gazed at her silently for a moment, with something akin to interest. “People here seem to have already made up their minds about the situation.”
“What do you mean?”
“A group from the Chamber of Commerce visited yesterday and pretty much insisted we relocate these kids as soon as possible. The Kiwanis followed them, basically saying the same thing.”
“It’s the old order. Not everyone here feels that way.”
“The ’old order’, as you call it, seems very much in evidence.”
“But these kids are not criminals! They’re harmless. Just look at them!” Her shouting captured the attention of several small prisoners, who stared at her with curiosity.
“Listen, ma’am, I agree with you. It’s a very sad situation. But we can only do so much with the resources available to us.”
Lupita spoke in a calm voice: “These children are separated from their mothers. We have a group of women who want to help. Even some men too.”
Hernandez scratched his head. “I’m afraid we can’t allow it. There are regulations to follow, liability issues.”
“None of these kids look like they could afford to sue the government!” erupted Laura. “Explain why liability issues are more important than relieving a little of their misery?”
Lupita gave her a sharp look. “Te calmes, Laura.”
The supervisor seemed to be taking Laura’s challenges in stride. “You’ve got me there on ethical grounds, Miss Bolton. But we’re concerned about what these kids may have brought with them, diseases and so forth. We’re still waiting for a medical team.”
“What if they’re cleared?”
“Then we don’t have to worry about an epidemic. Listen, I really do appreciate your concern, but I think are wasting your time. The feds are not going to let you help these kids, and most of the leading citizens are using their influence to get them out of here as soon as possible.”
“Well, we’ll have to see about that, won’t we, Mr. Hernandez?” Laura headed toward a group of children sitting together in a tight knot and greeted them in Spanish. Lupita followed.
Hernandez called after them. “Hey, what do you think you’re doing?”
“We’re going to welcome them to the United States,” replied Laura.
“No can do!” Hernandez shouted. They ignored him. In situations like this, Laura thought of her Aunt Helen. She was the one who raised Judith and her after their parents died. She was a strong woman who urged the sisters, racked by loss and stripped of confidence, to “face the fire of your fears.”
Laura approached a group of boys and girls who were playing with a toy truck, its plastic wheels missing. “Hola. Bienvenido. Mucho gusto encanto.”
Before she continued, however, Hernandez grasped her by the elbow. “I’m doing this for your own protection. I could hold you and have you arrested if I wanted to.” He forcibly escorting Laura toward the exit. Lupita and the guards followed.
Two children held hands near the door: a small, dark-eyed boy and a slender older girl, brother and sister by the looks of them.
“Wait.” Laura knelt down in front of them and brought out a packet of gum from her pocket, handing it to the girl and indicating she should share with her little brother.
They both remained silent, staring at the gum.
“Their names are Maricel and Armando,” informed Hernandez. “Brother and sister.”
He knew their names. Maybe he wasn’t just a blank bureaucrat after all, thought Laura.
“I’m sorry to do this. But you need to go. Thank you for the food.”
That evening, Laura called Judith and told her that Jess Hernandez, the man in charge at St. Ignatius, was grateful for their help. “He thanked us for the food. He’d like us to bring more.” Sometimes she needed to tell a white lie to get things moving.
* * *
Laura stood at the edge of a precipice, a deep canyon below. On the other side, a boy and a girl called out to her: “Mother!“ Their cries drove her to jump across the gap. She felt exultant as she flew toward the children, but voices rose up from the canyon, the roar frightening her and sending her into a tailspin. The children’s cries faded as she fell, spinning, swallowed up in the dark crevice below.
Laura woke up in a sweat. Gusts of warm desert air pushed through her open bedroom window, accompanied by the squeaking hinges of her front gate.
Two days later Laura returned to the school with her sister, the back of Judith’s Highlander filled with clothing and containers of food prepared by volunteers at the parish kitchen. Lupita, her car’s trunk and back seat loaded with pots and pans and plastic containers, followed with one of the other women, Marcella.
They drove slowly through a group of people picketing with signs. A man with a bullhorn was leading a chant: “No more illegals! Send the children home!” One of the protesters banged her sign against the side of the car. “There are some people from the church,” pointed out Judith, questioning her decision to come with her sister.
Ben and Randy were smoking out front, apparently on permanent break. They stared at the vehicles.
“They don’t look very friendly,” observed Judith.
“Friendlier than the bunch we just passed,” replied Laura drily.
“How are we going to get all of this inside?” Judith shook her head.
“We’ll manage somehow. The guards can help us.”
As the women emerged from their vehicles, the men two stubbed out their cigarettes, and Ben disappeared through the door. Laura shouted to Randy: “We’ve brought things for the children. Suppose you can help us?”
“We’re getting Mr. Hernandez,” the young guard answered. “Wait right there.” And he too retreated.
The sisters waited in the hot sun with Lupita and Marcella. Just as Laura decided they should storm inside, Hernandez appeared with the guards. He seemed wornout, dark circles under his eyes.
“Can I help you?” He didn’t look happy to see them.
Laura approached him. “Yes, you can, Mr. Hernandez. You’ve met Lupita. This is my sister, Judith, and our friend Marcella.”
Hernandez nodded. “Good to meet you.”
“As promised, we’re delivering food and clothing. Can we get some help?”
“I thought I made it clear—” Hernandez hesitated, studying the faces of the women. “Quite frankly, I didn’t expect you to make good on your offer, not without my go-ahead first.”
Laura smiled. “Well, as you can see, we’re here bearing gifts. Father Peirrick announced a clothing drive at Sunday Mass and a dozen women volunteered to cook.” She pointed to the open car door. “You can see the results for yourself.”
“Your concern is appreciated, but I’ve no authorization to take this stuff.”
“You accept complaints from the Chamber,” retorted Laura. “You can certainly accept our goodwill.” She was determined to not be stonewalled.
“No, I’m not saying that at all, Miss Bolton.”
“Please, call me Laura. I don’t stand on ceremony.”
“You stand your ground though, don’t you?” His dark eyes flashed.
“When there’s ground to stand on.”
Hernandez cleared his throat. “I don’t need to tell you that these undocumented minors are causing a great deal of concern.” He gazed toward the pickets.
“It seems the concern is about fear,” interjected Lupita, who came forward and stood next to Laura. “This is a humanitarian crisis.”
Hernandez shifted, clearly uncomfortable. “The government is sensitive to public opinion on this issue. We do have a crisis on our hands, and, quite frankly, we’re overwhelmed.”
“That’s even more reason to accept our help,” snapped Laura.
Judith joined her. “It’s criminal not to accept it. We’ve all been cooking our hearts out.”
“Please, senor, take it,” urged Lupita. “It will go to waste.”
Hernandez sighed, clearly exhausted. He took a peek through the Highlander’s windows and gave a low whistle. “You have been busy. What have you got there?”
Judith opened the hatch, releasing wonderful aromas.
Lupita ticked off a partial list of the contents: “Chicken enchiladas, pozole, chili beans and rice, macaroni and cheese, flan, cakes and cookies.”
Hernandez sniffed, a smile on his face. “’The universal peacekeeper.’ That’s what my grandmother called food made with love.”
“Prepared by the mothers and grandmothers of Plento,” Laura reminded.
“Okay, you win. Let’s get this inside. Ben, you go fetch a couple staff members.”
The gymnasium doors opened and the visitors and staff carried in trays and pots of food. Inert with boredom and confinement only moments before, the children were suddenly ignited. The chorus of happy voices made tears well in Laura’s eyes. The parish choir had never sounded so beautiful.
Hernandez ordered the guards to keep an eye on the children. “I don’t want a food riot.” Laura smiled, imagining the kids taking over and holding them hostage until more food arrived. Hernandez announced they would all eat soon but they needed to be patient. “Esta mujeres han cocinado para ti,” he declared. “These women have cooked for you. Enchiladas y flan y mucho mas.”
Maricel and Armando sidled up to Laura, staring at the tray of pastries she carried. She nodded encouragingly. They each took one and stuffed them into their mouths. Laura and Judith were quickly surrounded by a mass of children.
After the clothing was carted into a classroom for sorting, Judith whispered to Laura: “I’m sorry but I need to go now. I can’t tell Harry I brought food for all these kids and have nothing for him for dinner.”
“That’s fine,” replied Laura. “I’ll get a ride back from Lupita and Marcella.”
Judith hugged her. “Thank you, Laura. Bringing smiles to these kids faces was truly unforgettable.”
* * *
Victoria Cuevas and Daniela Mendez arrived later, helping to juggle platters of food into and out of the cordon of microwaves. They made sure the children behaved themselves, calling out loudly in Spanish to anyone who shoved or cut in line. “Se bien o yu no conseguira nada de comer.” Be good or you won’t get anything to eat.
Even Hernandez and the staff members were made to wait in line, which amused the children. Everyone wolfed down their food. The children chattered happily. Contented after flan and cookies, the little ones settled into their cots and soon fell asleep. Lupita organized the older ones to help clean up. Victoria and Daniela supervised.
Laura and Hernandez carried mugs of coffee into his office, once used by the school’s gym teacher. He pointed to the couch and settled into his chair.
“I know you all think I’m hard, but I have to answer to a lot of people. I want to thank you for what you’ve done.”
“And what we can continue doing, I hope,” Laura replied. “These children need some comfort.”
“I wished more felt that way.” He eyed her appraisingly. “You’re an interesting woman. But you come on awfully strong.”
“Yes,” she admitted, “I guess I like to stir things up.”
“I don’t imagine you get into much terrible trouble.”
“No—not terrible.” She sat silently for a few moments, sipping the hot coffee. “Tell me more about the kids.”
Hernandez considered. “So many stories, most really tragic. But since Maricel and Armando seem to have formed a special bond with you, I’ll tell you what I know about them.”
“Yes, please.” She tucked her legs under and leaned against the couch’s arm.
“They’re from Honduras. Their father died a couple years ago from some sort of accident at work. Their mother tried supporting them selling tapioca on the streets. They lived outside the capital in a small town.”
He paused and offered Laura more coffee. She shook her head.
“They’re bright kids,” he continued. “Maricel is thirteen. Armando is nine and can already throw a perfect strike. After school and on weekends, he earned a little money as a cartonero picking through garbage. A gang pressured him to sell drugs at his school. He refused, but they wouldn’t leave him alone. They told him they were going to make Maricel their ‘girlfriend’ if he didn’t go along. They threatened to kill the entire family, so their mother took them away to live with an aunt. But their whereabouts were discovered, and—” He sighed. “Their mother and aunt went out together one day. They were shot.“
“My god!” she exclaimed.
The police came to the house and informed Maricel and Armando that their mother was dead, their aunt dying in the hospital.
“So horrible!” Laura buried her head in her hands. “The world—it’s unbearable.”
Hernandez peered at her sympathetically. “Maricel is traumatized. She barely speaks and doesn’t sleep well at night. She has nightmares and wakes up crying.”
“Why did they come here? It’s so far.”
“They had nowhere else to go. Other family members were afraid to take them in. The entire region—Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala—have the same problems. Now they’ve become our problems.”
“Is there anyone here who can take them?’
“Distant cousins in Chicago, possibly. We’ll try to locate them.”
“Will Maricel and Armando be sent back if there’s no relatives?”
“Most likely. Unless the immigration rules change.”
Laura sank into the couch. She and her sister had lost their parents too, an awful loss, but there was Aunt Helen to take care of them, to love them. She glanced through the office window into the darkened gymnasium, the children now sleeping under government-issue blankets.
“There are a hundred more stories here,” said Hernandez. “But I’m going to change the subject for a moment.” He studied her. “Tell me something about yourself.”
“There isn’t a great deal to tell, really.”
“You’ve successfully invaded the land of INS. You must have. ”
She laughed. “I was born here in Plento, and I haven’t been to many other places. I followed Judith to Southwestern University. I studied art but only stayed two years. I got bored and my aunt was ill. I went back to take care of her. We lost our parents when we were a little older than Armando and Maricel.”
“An auto accident. It was a long time ago, but we live with it every day, something we share like a secret badge. It’s probably the most important part of our history. Aunt Helen raised us. We had family and a community that helped us. I can’t imagine—”
“Being with these kids puts things into a different perspective, doesn’t it?” His face softened, the strong chin less assertive. Perhaps she had judged the man too harshly.
“After Judith married, she and Harry bought a house. I stayed in my aunt’s home after she died, and I built an art studio behind it.”
“I imagined you were the artistic type.”
“I’d like to bring a sketchbook when I come the next time. The kids might enjoy having their portraits done. What do you think?”
“I think we can arrange that.” He offered no argument about returning.
“What about you?” she asked. “How did you end up here, in the middle of nowhere?”
He chuckled, telling her about getting his job with Homeland Security after 9/11. He experienced the aftermath of Katrina, supervised a warehouse with emergency supplies and construction materials after Hurricane Sandy. Born in Galveston, where his parents still lived. That’s why he requested a position in south Texas.
“I speak Spanish. That was on my application. It qualified me for this assignment, presiding over this misfortune.” He shook his head sadly.
“Oh, don’t think of this work as a misfortune. You have the opportunity to help these kids, maybe change their lives.”:
“Not much I can do but keep them in this holding tank until—”
They both grew silent until he continued: “Sometimes my parents talk about returning to Mexico, but I know that’s never going to happen. They’ve lived in El Norte most of their lives. They’re Americans. Citizens.”
Laura noted his emphasis. “How did you get the name, Jess? It’s not exactly Mexican.” She realized too late that her mocking comment was inappropriate.
“My name. That’s a long and very old story.”
“I’m not planning on leaving right this minute.”
“My name is actually Jesus.” He pronounced it ‘Ye-sus,’ with a soft Spanish ’J.’
“Imagine the response I’d get in my job from people in desperate need of help with that name. So I’m called Jess.”
“You weren’t offended by my question?”
He raised a hand as if in blessing. “Jesus forgives you.”
They broke into laughter.
“What does your wife think about your travelling, all the different postings?”
“I’m not married.”
* * *
She noticed how Armando and Maricel clung to one another and didn’t interact with the other kids, the boy like a child with his mother. Maricel gazed at her with a reserved curiosity, and o Laura decided to approach them indirectly, moving through the gymnasium and interacting with the children in general, talking with them, helping them locate a lost toy or settle a small dispute.
With some of the children, Laura was reminded of her experience with ferals, traumatized or abandoned beings who gazed at her from a distance with a kind of wanting need but who retreated defensively if she attempted to approach them. So Laura smiled and greeted them with a gentle “Hola,” but then moved on to others more receptive. Feint and parry.
She discovered that nearly all the kids loved having their portraits drawn and were happy to pose for her. With colored pencil, she not only caught their likenesses well, but also seemed to capture something else, the pathos and unique nature of their existence. Even Jess commented on this: “I can see the journey they’ve taken on their faces, in real life, but you’ve put it down on paper.” After Laura printed her subjects’ names and signed her own at the bottom, they eagerly accepted their portraits and proudly showed them to the other children, comparing details like experts. Laura was surprised when she arrived one day with Lupita and saw an impromptu gallery with dozens of her creations hung on a wall near the entrance to the gymnasium.
“It reminds me of when I was in school,” Lupita said. “We were supposed to paint our own portraits but we usually ended up painting ones of our classmates.”
Her friend’s comment gave Laura an idea and she wondered why she hadn’t thought of it earlier. She sat on the floor in front of Maricel and Armando and asked: “Esculpe, penta un pittura de duo.” She illustrated the request to draw them both together by clasping her hands together. Armando appeared willing and whispered something to his sister, who nodded cautiously.
Laura smiled and settled down in front of them, arranging her pencils on the floor and turning to a blank page. Maricel would not look at her directly at first but Armando’s dark brown eyes were riveted on her drawing pad.
Laura glanced from Maricel to the page and then to Armando and back again to the pad, and to both of them together, trying to capture brother and sister as empathetically as possible. When she had finished, signing her name with a theatrical flourish, she handed her masterpiece to them. They examined it closely, consulting one another with private glances, Armando prodding Maricel. Finally, a verdict. Es bueno, Maricel said simply, smiling for what Laura thought must be the first time since she had arrived. She had broken through, and although Maricel remained reserved and pensive, Laura had gained a measure of confidence from the pair. Armando ran up to her when she visited after that, sometimes bringing Maricel with him. It was difficult for Laura to refrain from favoring them. Against Jess’ injunctions not to do so and so as to risk resentment from the other children, she often slipped a special treat into their hands. Armando at least was won over. She brooded over Maricel’s reluctance to grow closer and asked Jess about it one evening.
“This isn’t a game, Laura. These children have serious issues and whether or not they like you isn’t so important.”
She was hurt by his words but recognized the truth behind them. Even if she knew the details of these kids’ lives, she could still not comprehend all the hurt and sadness
* * *
The weather remained unseasonably hot and the protesters had thinned out. Laura worked with Judith and the other women in the broiling kitchen, turning out casseroles of rice and beans and vegetables, chicken tenders and biscuits, cookies chocked full of raisins and chocolate chips. The children incarcerated at old St. Ignatius were well-fed, prompting criticism from some in town, who complained: “If they’re eating so good, they may never leave.” Clothing rescued from attics and closets or donated by the town’s consignment shop were distributed to the children, who traded items and stacked them neatly under their cots along with the books and toys they earned. Lupita’s insistence that the kids keep their things in order provided them with focus and some a sense of control in their lives.
The women’s arrival always caused excitement, a natural response to love, declared Father Pierrick, who frequently came to comfort the children, saying prayers and reading bible stories. Spanish-speaking volunteers set up makeshift classrooms. But after two months of detention, the children were growing restive, as discontented as many townspeople. Fights began to break out and belongings were stolen. Jess Hernandez, who had relaxed regulations, reinstated tough rules.
Judith stood at the stove, stirring a giant pot of chicken stew. “Harry tells me the Chamber has petitioned the governor, demanding that the kids be relocated elsewhere. They’re also requesting that the National Guard be called out to patrol the border.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Laura pulled a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “What? And shoot the kids if they don’t turn back?”
“Don’t be absurd, Laura. To simply enforce the law and secure the border.”
“The border is 2000 miles long.”
“There could be terrorists.”
“We’re talking about children, kids who’ve gone through hell to come here. And for good reasons.”
Judith threw up her hands: “Oh, whatever.”
“No, not ’whatever.’ Why are we—why are you doing this?” She indicated the pots and pans that covered the countertops. “Because they need our help, our love. Father Pierrick calls it our duty.” Laura strategically referred to the priest with her sister whenever she could to make a point. Judith was secretly in love with St. Ignatius’ handsome young Irish priest.
“Jess is grateful for our help,” continued Laura. “He says we’ve made a difference.”
Judith noted that her sister had taken to referring to Hernandez by his first-name. She marveled at how easily Laura incorporated people into her do-good corral. She threw herself into enthusiasms, but if she was disappointed as she often was, she fell very hard. Judith always picked up the pieces.
They took a break, stepping from the hot kitchen into the shade of the covered patio. Laura lit a cigarette, a habit she had taken up again. “I feel so close to the children. I really want things to work out okay for them.”
“It seems you’ve become especially fond of the brother and sister it seems.”
Laura took another puff, blowing the smoke away from Judith. “Maricel and Armando. Yes, I have.” Her pencil portraits had marked the beginning of a bond with them, she thought.
One evening last week, sitting in the office with Jess, she asked how he thought they were doing.
He cleared his throat. “Remember when I told you a gang approached Maricel to become their girlfriend? The same thing happened with many girls here. The medical team discovered that a few of them are pregnant.”
He nodded soberly.
“About nine weeks. She’s well into the first trimester.”
“The counselor believes it probably happened en route, given the timing.”
“What does Maricel say? I want to see her.”
“Tomorrow would be better. She was told today. She’s frightened and—ashamed.”
Laura ignored his advice and rushed from the office. The girl was awake, a blank look in her eyes. Laura held her tightly. She asked no questions.
Later, after Jess saw her to the car and she pulled away, Laura began shaking and had to turn off to the side of the road. She thought her sobbing would never end.
* * *
It had been ten weeks since the first children arrived in Plento. Some were transferred to settlement locations hoping to be claimed by family members living in the U.S. Those remaining at St. Ignatius faced an uncertain future.
Laura and Hernandez sat in her living room, sharing a bottle of cold white wine.
“So what will happen next?” she asked.
“They’ll be granted a hearing. They’re entitled to that. But they may not have attorneys.”
“You mean they’ll have to represent themselves? That’s so completely wrong.”