It started out like one of those dreams that plague college students. Except that this wasn't a nightmare test in a barely attended class, this was a real test, sprung without warning on a CTA bus one weekday morning in 1980, and I couldn't wake up to escape it.
By the time I felt her eyes on me, the woman was turned around, staring over the empty seats between us. She was a veritable icon of Mexican-Indian ancestry, with straight, glossy black hair framing a round, copper-skinned face, the nose small and flat, the cheekbones high, the brows straight over small, dark eyes. I cranked my sleepy smile up a notch in acknowledgment and looked back out the window.
I was exhausted. I'd been up talking and drinking all night. Not that I needed to be alert. I was on vacation, in from Seattle to visit family and friends. All I had to do now was ride to the end of the line and walk two blocks to my mother's house.
Jolted from a doze, I watched two passengers leave and--still she stared--carefully avoided the woman's gaze. Casually, I began to scratch at the itch of worry. Strange and terrible things could happen with no warning at all; was this lady's stare a prelude or the main event? I wandered sleepily among explanations, grim, harmless, amusing. Her stare was steady.
The bus slowed for another stop and, as if to reassure me, the woman rose from her seat and stood behind the other two passengers at the front door. Now I have the bus to myself, I gloated. The next thing I knew she was walking back down the aisle. I covered my eyes, seeking invisibility.
Suddenly, she was next to me, right next to me, her warm, solid thigh and arm pressed against me. The seat squeaked again as I pointedly shifted myself closer to the window. "The space people claim for their personal space varies among cultures," droned a voice within me, while my heart pounded against my ribs.
Her clothes were wrong for this cold, gloomy early-November morning. Her short stout body was packed into pale pink polyester pants and a matching buttonfront vest. Her thick, copper-colored arms were visible through a loosely and unevenly knit blue cardigan. The frayed yarn and bits of brown stuff that speckled it made me picture her knitting the sweater with twigs as needles. Her short, wide feet were jammed into shiny, imitation-leather shoes--new, round-toed, with buckled straps like a little girl's. In her lap, big-knuckled hands held, instead of a purse, a brown paper lunch bag, translucent with grease.
She was appraising me, too, and said something I didn't understand. Her face was unlined but not young; the circles round her plump neck, her broken-nailed fingers, and the thickness of her waist made me think she was five or ten years older than me, late 30s maybe. Her eyes were not friendly: fearful or fierce, I thought, but I might have been projecting. She spoke again.
"Pardon me?" I said, in a tone I hoped was warm enough for a forgotten acquaintance and cold enough to daunt a weirdo.
"Habla usted espanol?"
Oh, Spanish! Right! She looks Mexican, she speaks Spanish. "Un poco," I answered, then groped for something to soften my brevity. "Habla usted ingles?"
"No," she said, and hit me with a torrent of Spanish. Rahpatah, rahpatah, rahpatah.
I gazed at her in dismay. On the down side, I had anticipated ridicule, even robbery, but not torture by foreign tongue. My Spanish wasn't just rusty, it was a piece of orange filigree, and a small piece at that. I hadn't spoken or listened to Spanish since high school, 14 years before.
Rahpatah, rahpatah, rahpatah. The stubborn thing just wouldn't speak English! Where was Rita when I needed her? My sister, a Spanish teacher, had taken me to Spain when I was 16. She did the bailing when the conversational waters lapped over my head. And I'd quickly developed my own escape route: Entiendo, pero no hablo. "I understand," I would lie, "but I do not speak."
Dazed, I watched the lady's lips release their familiar yet nonsensical noises. And soon, some part of my mind was raising and waving its hand like an overeager third grader. "Esposo! I know that one! It's spouse!" "Ciudad means city!" "Equipaje--that's luggage--is dangerous?" I sighed, and decided to take the plunge.
"Please, more slowly. I speak Spanish very little." Um, let's see. "My sister Rita is an instructor of Spanish. She speaks Spanish very well."
This non sequitur gave her pause. She looked at me with narrowed eyes. Exactly whom and what was she dealing with?
"Where is your sister?" she asked after a few seconds. I was pleased to understand every word; but why did she want to know?
"In Oak Park. From where are you?" I asked, hoping for the obvious one-word answer or a familiar street name. But no. The torrent resumed: rahpatah, rahpatah, rahpatah.
I dived in and rode along, straining, straining to catch some familiar sounds and turn them into sense. But I couldn't stay too long on any one word because then I would miss all the others and maybe some of those would be easier and carry more meaning and-- We were staring intently into each other's eyes. If I stared hard enough it would become clear that . . .
"Call me happy, call me happy. In the night I ride buses with the angels. Today I ride the bus with you because you are smiling. My husband is Miguel the angel. He works slowly but surely. At night my children and mother are with the angels. Please help me. My burden is dangerous."
Michael? The angels? Married to Saint Michael the archangel?! If she had said what I thought she said, then she was crazy and I was scared. There were tears in her eyes. Oh, my lord, she wanted to make me an angel, too, so we could ride buses together up in heaven at night with her dead family. This is what I get for smiling on buses. Oh god.
"You speak very rapidly," I said. "I don't understand. Miguel the angel?"
"Yes, yes! The angels send me this night! I must speak to Michael!" she said loudly. The driver and I exchanged looks in his rearview mirror.
She must be a schizophrenic. I was stuck on an empty Chicago bus, one-sixteenth of an inch from a raving, non-English-speaking schizophrenic. I tried to meet her on her own ground: weren't schizophrenics interested in religion?
"Yes, Saint Michael the archangel. I am a Roman Catholic." What was Spanish for pope? "The big father of Catholics is here in Chicago this summer last year. Are you a Catholic, too?"
She looked angrily at me and then toward the front of the bus. "Yes, I am a Catholic," she said. "Look here. The angels sent me Miguel my husband. Come with me now to see him. Look. Look here."
With that, everything went slow motion. She raised her strong, dirty hands from the bag in her lap. Her right hand pulled the neck of her vest down and to the side and I saw the top of her breast, a grayed cotton bra, the strap held to the cup by a piece of blue yarn. She did knit the sweater herself, I thought. Her left hand reached in the cup and felt for--Oh! I was sure it was a knife! I stopped breathing and a wave of heat scorched me head to toe. My eyes sought the driver's in the mirror and I grabbed the back of the seat, about to leap over it when her hand came out of hiding holding a folded, crumpled piece of pink paper. Sweat drenched me as she unfolded it and resumed her rahpatahs.
She pointed at the piece of paper and held it to my face. After a while I focused. Greyhound. The angels. How did one translate Chicago? Oh! Los Angeles. The city! She came from Los Angeles on a Greyhound bus! I could have kissed her.
"Oh, oh, oh," I said, nodding madly and grinning. "Los Angeles! Yes! You come to Chicago to see your husband? His name is Miguel?"
She didn't smile, but her features smoothed out and she sighed as she rearranged her vest and sweater. "Just my luck to have picked a dumb one," I imagined her thinking. Rahpatah, rahpatah, she began again, and suddenly--as my heart slowed to a normal pace--I understood her, a bit better anyway.
She wasn't happy; her name was Felicia Hernandez.* She'd come to Chicago to visit her husband, Miguel. He worked in a store at night. Her mother was with the children in Mexico. Felicia had to find her husband. The piece of paper with his address and phone number was in her suitcase, and something had happened to her suitcase that she couldn't make me understand; but whatever it was, she didn't have it. She didn't know the name of the store her husband worked in and if she knew what type of store it was, I never caught on.
I just didn't have the words to understand her fully or even to ask the right questions. And how much of what I said could she understand? My accent was OK, but I was speaking pidgin Spanish and very rarely ventured outside the present tense. (Oh, those verb endings.) My exhaustion and the foreign language--the sheer difficulty of unraveling her sentences and forming my own--put a thick fog between us.
"Here is my--" but I couldn't think of the word for stop. "Here I am going," I revised. She looked surprised, then imploring, and finally I understood.
She wanted me to help her find her husband. Oh god. Not me. Not this morning. Surely she could find somebody who was in the mood to do the right thing: to walk her to a phone booth, call the police, and let them reunite her and her husband.
I rang the bell, stood up, and smiled shamefacedly down at her. "I hope that you encounter your husband. Good-bye," I said, pushing past her into the aisle.
I could hear her plodding along behind me. And suddenly--it must have been the afterglow of angels and the pope I thought of Linda S., a childhood playmate whose parents still lived down the block. If our neighborhood ever produced a saint, I'd bet it would be Linda. She lived among the poor, had a soup kitchen in her apartment, gave away her paychecks, broke up with men who spent too much on dinner dates. Linda would help Felicia, would help her without marveling at her own goodness or balking and grumbling every step of the way. Take it from Mother Teresa, Laura: if it doesn't hurt, you're not giving. This mostly hurt, so I must be in the midst of a good work, no matter how confused. What was ten more minutes?
"Hey," the driver said as I stepped onto the curb. Oh look, a fellow English speaker. Felicia stepped down next to me. "Lots of luck." The driver laughed and slapped the door shut.
"Yuk, yuk," I rhymed back at him. I'd show him. I'd find Felicia's husband if I had to do it myself.
My belligerence sputtered and died as I looked at her. She was standing as she'd sat, too close to me, and the difference in our heights, approximately one foot, didn't help. What a comic duo we made. I stepped back, she moved closer. I moved again, she closed the gap. Finally I gave up and held my ground. She tilted her face skyward, I tucked my chin almost to my collarbone, and we silently regarded each other.
She must be cold in those summery clothes. But "You have hunger?" is what I asked her, I realized later. She shivered and, said, "No," and I took this as evidence of a stoic character.
Poor thing. She looked with her ancient, copper-colored beauty so out of place in this familiar, yoho, mostly Eastern European neighborhood. As if, polyester pantsuit notwithstanding, she had traveled over centuries as well as miles. Poor thing, to travel such a distance and end up here, with me of all people as her guide. I couldn't let her down.
There was a pay phone in the restaurant across the street. I envisioned the police car's arrival, the competent and sympathetic manner of the bilingual officer as he listened to Felicia's story. He would rahpatah back at her, then turn to me, and with a kindly wink and smile say, "Good work, Ma'am. We've been hearing about this little lady over our radio all morning. Her husband's waiting for her at the station downtown . . ."
"We go," I said.
Good point, Felicia. Please to remember, Laura, that just because your Spanish is rudimentary doesn't mean her mind is.
"We go now to the telephone to call the police to come and help you encounter your husband."
Her eyes widened. "The police?! No police! I will not go," she said, moving a few steps away from me.
How stupid of me. "No police," dully repeated.
She shook her head and stared at me.
Maybe if I ignored this new development, it would go away. "But the police are sympathetic. They speak Spanish very well. They can help you to find your husband."
I considered a variation on the line I'd used in Spain. "I speak but I do not understand." I longed to walk away from Felicia now. Leave her to fend for herself in the midst of Chicagoland. I don't understand, I don't understand. But I did.
Dolefully I asked, "Do you have a visa?"
She shook her head, keeping her fearful eyes on mine.
"Has your husband a visa?"
The street was clear and I started across. She caught up with me on the other side. "Where are we going?"
I like to think I would have done the same thing even if I'd been fully awake and hadn't had my brain scrambled by Spanish. As it was, I didn't consider turning her in. I didn't know, still don't, what they'd do with her if I turned her in; didn't know and still don't what they'd have done to me if we were "caught."
"Now we are going to the house of my mother."
It is an indication of my state of mind that I was more concerned, as we walked past the familiar brick bungalows, about my mother's reaction to this waif than I was about how I would find in this city of millions a man named Miguel Hernandez, of whom I knew nothing more than that he had no visa, had a wife named Felicia, and worked in a store at night.
It's one thing to amuse your mother with strange bus stories, I worried, and quite another to bring one home with you.
My mother is kind of funny about her house, with good reason: she is a pack rat and a messy one. Once, embarrassed about the state of the place, she'd exploited the prospect of a severe snowstorm to terrorize a friend of mine into leaving the city the night before she'd intended--this rather than have my friend see the "guest room." How would she feel about having an absolute stranger in the house? A stranger made even stranger by the language barrier, not to mention her legal status?
And what (another one of my selves piped up) if Felicia was not what she seemed--a lady in distress--but an ill-intentioned criminal type. Maybe Felicia was one of a crack team of con artists who traveled around the city picking out likely chumps, confusing them with a foreign language, softening their hearts with pathetic tales, snerdling into their homes, and then--
I dug for my key. Felicia looked eager to be inside. If she was a con artist, she wasn't a very good one; she'd certainly failed to win my confidence.
The clock on the stove said 9:30. It was hard to believe, but I'd been with Felicia for about 45 minutes, tops. The familiar scene called me to comfort, to rest, and I was hit by a wave of exhaustion. The coffeepot was still hot. A note on a clear corner of the table told me that my mother had gone to the Jewel and Aunt Lorraine's. Maybe Felicia would be gone by the time she got back.
Felicia stood in the doorway of the kitchen. What did she make of this crowded, cozy, crazy room, overburdened with its chaos of objects? I showed her the bathroom, put away my coat, and pulled out an empty chair at the head of the table. "Please seat yourself. Would you like some coffee?"
It was reassuring to touch things and find the Spanish words for them; so immediate, it must be what Robinson Crusoe and Friday had done all day and why they got along so well. Felicia and I could spend weeks naming just the things in my mother's kitchen.
I cleared half the table of the sewing project, the pile of clipped articles, the seashell-filled cookie tins, the steno notebooks of dreams and appointments, and the rubber-banded stack of Maryknoll mission appeals. I dug the current phone book out of the pile and put it alongside the telephone, paper, and a pen.
This arrangement of tools and a few sips of the black, oily, jolting liquid that passes for coffee in my mother's house inspired in me a sense of vast resources and the competence to use them. I sat down at Felicia's right and lit my first cigarette of the day. Ah. We'd have Felicia fixed up in no time.
I eyed the phone and smiled significantly at her. Our friend the telephone. Strange country? City of millions? No visa? Not to worry, little woebegone one. Your pasty-skinned, pidgin-speaking savior will reach out and touch your husband telephonically; the next best thing to his being here!
"Good," I said. "We start. I am going to call my sister.
"Because she speaks Spanish very well and can help us to find your husband."
Unfortunately, Rita was not in the best of moods. My story seemed to disorient her. Eventually I gave the phone to Felicia, expecting great revelations.
She took the receiver as if it were a loaded pistol, brought it warily to a point about five inches from her face, and continued to watch it for signs of danger. I could hear Rita saying hello, hello. Felicia brought the earpiece closer and moved the mouthpiece further from her face as she listened. When she finally said hello in reply, she moved the mouthpiece close and the ear end away.
I looked over the columns of Hernandezes in the phone book. One of them was ours, or knew ours, I was sure. I imagined Felicia's joy when we reached him. I felt a great rush of love for this woman I didn't know: how happy I would make her!
Felicia held the phone out to me. Rita was still talking in Spanish as I brought it to my ear. Felicia was gazing into her coffee cup.
"Hello, Rita. What did she say?"
"Laura, get her out of there. Mama doesn't need that. Call the police, or you'll never get rid of her."
"Rita, I can't. just tell me what she said."
The only new information was that Felicia's suitcase had been stolen. That, anyway, is what Felicia told Rita; but Rita didn't think so, her theory being in part that Felicia hadn't known how to retrieve her luggage from the bus and in sum that Felicia was on the dim side.
"What are you going to do with her, Laura?"
"Find her husband."
"How in the world do you expect to do that?" she sneered. I hadn't expected this. Was I wandering blind in the fog of Felicia's language? Was I still drunk from last night?
"Call the police."
"No! Some jerk steals her suitcase, so she gets turned over to the police?!" Felicia started at the word.
"Laura. You don't know what you're getting into. She's illegal, she--"
"Oh, legal shmegal has nothing to do with it. She's sitting here in the middle of Chicago in a sweater she knit with twigs!"
"She's sitting in Mama's kitchen is where she's sitting. And you're going back to Seattle tomorrow. What in the world will Mama do with her if you can't find her husband?"
"Don't you understand, Rita?" I wanted to cry. This lady appears out of nowhere, talking about angels, talking to me for no good reason. Why did she pick that bus, why did she pick me of all the people on the bus? How come I speak just enough Spanish to understand? She's a gift that gives me the chance to be kind, to do good. How many times do you happen onto such a bundle of trouble? I can't throw her away. But I said, "Don't worry. We'll find him."
"Laura, why don't you call the Spanish-language radio station. They might help. They might know of some Spanish-speaking family that would take her in."
"Yeah, OK," I replied. But I was resolved not to. Felicia was my gift. I scribbled down the call letters she gave me, and tried to say good-bye, but Rita had a punch line to deliver.
"It's almost ten o'clock. I'm calling back at three, Laura. And if you haven't gotten rid of her by then, I'll call the police myself."
An hour later, I'd found that it wasn't so easy to get to Good Deed City from where we sat. In those 60 minutes, we used up the phone book. We called every Miguel Hernandez listed. I would dial the number and Felicia would talk--sort of. She mumbled, she whined, she interrogated without preliminaries, she hung up in the middle of her own sentences. It was a travesty of telephonic communication.
When she hung up on the final Miguel, I felt like a fool: What had made me think that I could help her? I turned to her with a cooler eye: Did she have to be so utterly helpless? Did the good deed require such an extreme case?
"You have no friend in Chicago? No name of a friend of Miguel?" I asked desperately. Surely my faith in the telephone would be rewarded.
"No. No friend."
"The least you could have done was memorize your husband's address. I would have," I thought sarcastically.
My head was pounding by this time, and the Spanish words came slower and slower. Mechanically, we kept exchanging noises.
"Someone knows Miguel. Is there someone who writes to Miguel? Does your mother know his address?" Why hadn't I thought of this before? The pain of giving could be reduced to the cost of an international phone call!
"Yes, my mother. My mother knows the address."
"Well," I beamed, "let us to telephone your mother."
She beamed back at me and with another eternity of excited and halting talk printed two lines in a large, unsteady hand.
We stared at the piece of paper while I dialed and redialed long-distance operators. Four times I was dropped, on my way to Mexico, into an oblivion of endless ringing. I told the fifth operator that I was having trouble. "Why, honey," she drawled (a Texan?) in explanation, "you can't call Mexico. They don't answer there." She would call me back once she got a Mexican operator on the line.
No sooner had I explained the situation to Felicia and, in a flurry of excitement, forced another cup of coffee, a banana, and five Salerno butter cookies on her, than we heard the front door close. "My mother is here," I said. Felicia's reaction was unexpected. When my mother, red-cheeked and smiling, walked into the kitchen, Felicia sprang from her chair and started sobbing. "No care, not dangerous, very sympathetic," I stammered. "It is my mother." I tried to pat her, but she shrank from my hand.
Considering this greeting, my mother's smile took a pretty long time to fade. She looked calmly from me to Felicia.
Felicia's tears were short-lived. She blew her nose and nodded deferentially at Mama, as I made the introductions.
"How do you do? Are you having a nice visit?"
"Mama, she doesn't speak English."
"Oh, Laura," she laughed, rather theatrically I thought, "do you expect me to believe just anything?" She walked to the counter and began to unpack the groceries. "How could she teach chemistry, much less live in Macomb, without speaking English?"
"That's Sue, Mama. I visited Sue. This is a lady I met on the bus this morning coming home from the train station."
My mother wouldn't believe just anything, but she accepted without question my account of the morning's events.
"Well," she said worriedly when I'd finished, "she can't stay here--"
"I know, Mama, I'm--"
"It's too messy. We'll just go into the living room. You keep on calling people."
"I'm waiting for Mexico to call."
"Mexico! Well!" She poured herself some coffee. "Come with me, Felicia. Let's bring your coffee, too. We'll be more comfortable, more, uh, easy, in the living room, yes?" Mama's voice, always clear and well-modulated, had risen several decibels, nearly attaining the heart-piercing level she used to use at the foot of the attic stairs to shock me out of sleep in the morning. My head throbbed.
"Mama, she doesn't speak any English. She doesn't understand any English," I said loudly, both from annoyance and to override Felicia, who now was rahpatahing away at my mother.
"Laura, ask her to speak more slowly. What is she saying?" She took Felicia's coffee and with broad gestures and an intense smile was urging her to rise.
"Speaking slowly won't help, Mama! You don't know Spanish!"
She trained a withering glare upon me. "Laura. I taught four children--now all very intelligent adults--how to speak English, didn't I?" She smiled triumphantly and turned to Felicia. "Come, Felicia. Get up. (See? She understands.) Come. We'll go sit in some nice, soft chairs and watch TV. Tee. Vee. Yes?"
"She's not a child. And she doesn't want TV, she wants her husband!" I boomed, but they were absorbed in each other.
"Quiet!" I screamed, when the phone rang.
It was my Texas operator ("You don't have to yell, honey. I can hear you") with good news and bad.
Mexico was on the line, but Felicia's mother would not be. I looked at Felicia in disbelief as the operator, formal now as if regretting her earlier camaraderie, translated between me and Mexico. "I'm sorry, Ma'am. Mexico says that what you're giving her is not a phone number. It's an address. Don't you have a phone number for your party?"
I insisted that it was a phone number, which didn't move them. I asked if they had a reverse directory, which struck Texas as hilarious. I gave the phone to Felicia, hoping desperately for her instant and miraculous transformation into an articulate and assertive individual capable of wringing a connection out of the Mexican operator.
I knew the hope was ridiculous, yet when she replaced the receiver after only a minute or two of soft mumbling and resumed her seat at the table, I was surprised and befuddled and becoming angry. What happened? I was positive that we had understood each other. She had been excited and confident when we started calling her mother. Why would she give me an address rather than a phone number? Did the mother live in a one-phone town, where you left a message at the grocery or post office? If so, why hadn't she told the operator that? And how could I ask her any of these questions--so dependent on words and tenses I didn't have--and what good would it do to know the answers now? My face must have been expressive enough.
"This is the telephone of my mother." Felicia tapped the paper.
"Aw, shut up," I felt like saying. I would have to call the radio station. As I should have done hours ago. It was after noon. I would never see her and Miguel's reunion.
"What happened?" My mother looked worriedly from me to Felicia.
"God knows," I snapped. "She says it's a phone number, they say it's an address."
I went to the sink, poured myself a glass of water (How could Felicia drink so much coffee and never have to use the toilet? Was there a toilet in her house in Mexico?), and stared at the backyard. My mother's garden plots were filled now with withered stalks. If we didn't find Miguel Hernandez soon, I might look out this window on my next visit and see Felicia's broad back next to my mother's, the two of them kneeling amid the poppies, bending to pick the green beans. But of course not: Rita would be calling the police in a little more than two hours.
My mother was offended. "Well, I have to watch my soap opera soon. And I would prefer, as the hostess here, to have Felicia sit in the living room with me--" she paused and raised her eyebrows for dramatic effect, "since you're not speaking to her."
"She has to stay here. She might have to talk to the radio people," I snarled. Wearily I assessed my sudden transmogrification. My mother's presence allowed me to express all the childish frustration, exhaustion, and disappointment I felt. Let her be the ministering angel, I'd be the short-tempered jerk. We'd see how she felt tomorrow when I flew back to Seattle, if Felicia was still in her house. We'd see how she felt this afternoon, if Felicia was taken away in a police car. Gloomily, I wondered if my ex-neighbor Linda was able to perform her good deeds while speaking a foreign language in the presence of her mother.
My mother sailed out of the kitchen and I tried to reclaim my sense of purpose. She also serves who sits and phones. "Now we call the station of radio of people who speak Spanish. They can help us to find your husband."
Felicia didn't look up. "Ay, ay, ay," she sighed. She put her hand to her forehead and slowly drew it over her hair in a soothing motion. "Ay, ay, ay. Jesus and Mary," she crooned.
"I'm sorry," I said, wishing I knew how to say for what.
My mother welcomed us to the living room by putting her finger to her lips and pointing at the TV. Usually when I watched "her" soap opera during my visits, she delighted in delivering plot exposition and snide commentary. Today she beckoned Felicia to her side on the sofa.
I settled into a chair and relished the chance to be silent and passive. The show wouldn't be over for another half an hour. No way the radio station would call back that soon. If they called back at all. My story had sounded even to me, as I told it the first, second, third time to the first, second, third inquiring voice, increasingly unbelievable, something by Shaggy Dog out of Prince Albert in a Can. Their distrust was obvious. The second person had insisted on calling back and talking to Felicia. Felicia held the phone correctly now, I'd been gratified to see, but her side of the conversation consisted only of five softly uttered yeses and three nos. Were those sufficiently convincing? When she handed the phone back, her eyes were narrowed with distrust. "No police," she said to me. Great: Felicia thought the radio people were the police and the radio people thought I was an Immigration spy. "My sister is going to call the police at three o'clock. Please call me before then."
Did the police need a warrant to take Felicia? Was the parish priest into illegal aliens? Did Linda speak Spanish? My mother's voice interrupted my muddled thoughts.
"Juan. Juan," she was saying. She nudged Felicia and pointed at the screen. Felicia looked confusedly from the TV to my mother and back, before settling her eyes on me.
"Tell her Laura," my mother said. "That is John. Very bad man. Ee-ville." She caught Felicia's eye and made a face, which I have since learned from watching Nova is the universal expression of disgust but which at the time put me in mind of Shirley Temple with a nasty-tasting lollipop. I couldn't believe it: my mother did think As the World Turns was of universal interest.
"Mama," I said, exasperated.
"Go ahead, Laura. Just translate what I say. This way Felicia can watch, too."
"Don't worry. I'll talk slowly, and make signs, too."
I was sure she would. Oh well. I was worn out. It seemed no more absurd than anything else that had happened that day. I couldn't seem to help Felicia; might as well try to distract her.
For the next couple of hours, we tried to do just that. I made exaggerated, silent-film faces of wonder, suspicion, sorrow, or whatever else was called for. I translated dialogue into mangled Spanish. Every Spanish word hurt now, like it hurts to move the day after your first session of weight lifting (except that that supposedly hurts good). I provided key words for the charades my mother enacted for plot background. "Mary. Her sister dead. Of pain in the heart," I might say as my mother clutched at her chest and fell sideways on the sofa, and Mary sobbed to a friend on screen.
But as the day's episode closed with its twirl of organ pipes, Felicia once again had me feeling wounded and foolish. There she sat impassive, inscrutable. Not a flicker of amusement--or impatience or boredom--had crossed those alien features. How dare she sit like a stone while my shy mother made a spectacle of herself in a well-meant effort to while the time? I remembered distracting my little brother from the tears of a scrape or bump: what would happen if I just walked over and started tickling Felicia, just poked my fingers into her solid sides and laughed encouragingly in her face?
The TV droned on, and my mother moved to other communication aids, apparently undaunted by Felicia's lack of congeniality, yelling and smiling as animatedly as if she were having a real conversation. Maybe she truly believed that, underneath that foreign mask, behind all that rahpatahing, besides the trouble she was having today, Felicia was just another normal human being. I thought I knew better.
When the telephone rang around 2:30, my mother had exhausted the plants, the seashell collection, the Bible's color pictures of Vatican City, an album of family pictures 20 years old, a book of wallpaper samples, a boxful of old wrist and pocket watches, and a drawerful of booty from Rita's trips to Mexico including watercolors, postcards, painted bark, painted metal, and bright-colored satin birds with sequin eyes.
Saved by the bell! The call dispersed the mood of punch-drunk futility at a stroke. (For my mother and me anyway.) Felicia was leaving; I could love her again. The long hours past suddenly seemed coherent, purposeful, as if she and I had truly shared them. Her face was hers only and suddenly familiar; her gaze not empty, but steady, strong. My mother bustled away to heat food for Felicia's trip. The pile of things she'd been showing Felicia lay on the rug now looking scattered and gay, as of a party interrupted.
"Felicia! The call of the phone is very good. It is from the office of a neighborhood. Now we go to people of Mexico of the neighborhood on the north. Very sympathetic. On the radio of Mexico they say in Spanish to Miguel, 'Miguel Hernandez, your wife is here. Felicia is here in Chicago. Come here to see her.' They will help you to be with Miguel. We go in car now."
She looked into my eyes. Slowly she smoothed the hair from her forehead. "Ay, ay, ay," she said.
The smell of meat loaf and potatoes filled the car. Felicia ate her lunch, looking at the sights to be seen from the Stevenson Expressway. She must have been amazed by all the buildings, the way they close-marched into the gray horizon, the size and extent of this city compared to the one-phone town she'd come from. "Chicago is a very big city," I tried, but got no answer.
The silence was broken when she grabbed at the steering wheel. The car veered, I shoved her toward the door with the strength of terror, and when we stopped in the emergency lane I heard her saying, "No police. I am not going to the police."
For the second time that day, I was bathed in sweat. Enough was enough. I let her have it. "Very bad! Very dangerous! You can make us to be dead! You have to know that I say the truth. We do not go to the police. We go to friends of Mexico." I mustered as many variations as I could and tried to read trust in her face before regaining the road.
At the time I thought she finally believed me, but now I think she had resigned herself to being taken to the police. Otherwise, she wouldn't have sat so frozen-faced and pale, been so reluctant to leave the car and enter the storefront office with me, nor--upon seeing the Chicano lady who greeted us--would she have thrown herself into her arms, crying and laughing and talking a mile a minute, safe at last, herself again, her words finally and fully understood.
I wanted some ceremony for our parting. I wanted some words--polite and formal, or simple and folksy, I didn't care--some words to round off and sum up, to leave shimmering, the way words can shimmer, superficial yet satisfying, on the surface of a moving event. But I'd wanted for words all day and now had three Spanish ones left: those for happy birthday and good-bye.
I thought about hugging her, but she stood arm in arm with the other lady and I felt too awkward, suddenly the alien, distrusting even the most basic form of communication.
"Well," I said to the lady, "I have to go now. Please tell Felicia that I hope she finds her husband and that she has a nice, uh, visit to Chicago." Not with a bang but a whimper. "Adios," I said, raising my hand at Felicia. "Adios," she said. I walked out, and then back in to ask about my mother's knife and fork. Felicia had left them in the car.
The next day I flew back to Seattle, and the day after that my mother called. The community center lady had called her. Miguel had heard the radio announcement. Felicia and he were together and they both thanked us very much for our help.
I love happy endings. For months afterward, this episode cast a warm glow on my existence. I was amazed and grateful that such a thing had happened to me, and I told the story to my friends and acquaintances in Seattle as an example of the wonderful things that could happen only in Chicago, my hometown.
But I never rode a bus again on my half-yearly visits back; and, while it lasted, my curiosity about Felicia's fate never moved me to pick up the phone and begin the involved and troublesome explanations I thought an inquiry would entail. Within the year that followed, my mother received a few phone calls from people under the impression that her bungalow was haven and way station for illegal aliens. No, she explained, that day was a fluke.
For several years that November day was just a test to me--of memory, of patience, of kindness, of rusty skill in service of unsought duty. What it meant to Felicia I'll never know, and I really only began trying to imagine with the announcement of the amnesty for illegal aliens.
Are she and Miguel still in Chicago, working here or there, watching television, rahpatahing away on the telephone? Did the children ever come up here? Could we speak to each other in English now?
And most important--did they take advantage of the amnesty? Did Miguel have the papers to prove that he worked in a store at night? Did Felicia keep the crumpled pink ticket she showed me--memento and evidence, unofficial passport issued by the angels? I hope so.
Because now I realize what I should have said to Felicia when we parted after our exhausting, confounding, and finally untranslatable time together: Bienvenidos a Estados Unidos, Felicia. Welcome to your new home.
The Immigration Reform and Control Act offers amnesty to illegal aliens who came to the U.S. prior to January 1, 1982, and can prove it. So far, about 78,000 Chicagoans have taken advantage of the act. The remaining thousands have until May 4 to apply.
* This name and some others have been changed.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.