Bethesda Magazine | July-August 2017

One Icy Morning By Pallavi Chandra

Adult Short Story Honorable Mention Winner, Chevy Chase

Another cold morning and just the thought of driving down an icy patch of road in that rickety 1999 Toyota Corolla sent shivers down Rosita’s spine. She fumbled in the dark to switch the alarm off and then took a moment to map her route to work for the day.

With this new government, everything had changed. This was no longer a time when she could cruise the streets, picking either the highway or the local roads to get to work. She even stopped shopping at the Mercado as they seemed to ambush people like her when they were at their most vulnerable, thinking about what to cook for dinner.

She felt a wisp of sadness for herself, but even more so for her children. They could no longer attend their regular public school. Had it not been for the few kind teachers who risked their jobs while teaching her kids on the weekend and maintaining a sense of purpose for them, life would have been completely hopeless.

Pushing these thoughts away, she stumbled around, using last evening’s tortillas, eggs and salsa to make migas, her mind’s eye painting a picture of the corn fields from her childhood. She ate quickly and packed the remainder in the casserole for her children.

Once ready to head out the door, Rosita kissed her children goodbye, sniffing the air around them to catch their scent, then stepped out with a sigh.

She touched the rosary beads that hung in her car, said a silent prayer and started her drive on Georgia Avenue. Snow plows were out and the distance to Maria’s house was short, although the icy road made it seem excessively long. She honked her horn outside Maria’s and Maria came rushing out with two travel mugs of coffee.

As Maria sat down and fastened the seat belt, she excitedly shared a story about how her neighbor had been caught by the immigration police the night before. Seventeen years of blood, sweat and tears in America, three children and an ever-smiling wife, all lost in last night’s raid on New Hampshire Avenue.

As Rosita listened, she thought about her mama, whom she had last hugged 11 years ago, before coming (or arriving?) illegally to America. Those were hard times in Mexico and the school that Rosita taught at had been besieged by violence. She had not been paid for six months and when there was just no hope left, someone suggested that she cross the border in the back of the truck with her children.

Memories of that harrowing journey still sent shivers down her spine. She glanced at the avenue’s cross sections as she drove. Her instinct told her that these were fraught with danger. She had heard stories of police coming out of shadows, asking for papers, and then just arresting people on the spot for eventual deportation.

Just the other day, Rosita spoke to her mama on Skype and learned that her old school had students in it again and that her neighbor’s daughter—that chit of a girl, Sonia—had become one of the teachers. She had thought for a moment about going back, to escape from this constant dark fear of humiliation, sacrifice, arrest and deportation, and from the long hours in a windowless room doing painstaking factory work.

But, and there always was a “but,” her children had grown up in America with only Skype and movie images of Mexico. It was hard to uproot them and take them away from all they had known. And the state elections were around the corner. She had heard on the Spanish news channel that Alec Smith was slated to be the overwhelming choice for governor. His platform was immigration reform. He’d spent large parts of his childhood in Argentina, a child of state department official parents, and was a friend of the Latin community.

Rosita turned on WAMU to divert Maria from the heart wrenching story about her neighbor. Eleven years in America and she still struggled with English but liked listening to WAMU as the reporters on it did not scream out the news but let people slowly absorb it.

Two more miles, a right turn and the lights of the factory drew closer, and with that also the thought of that supervisor, Bobby— “El tirano” as the other women called him. Always pushing them to work more, pinching their cheeks, and slapping their bottoms when he pleased because he knew that none of the women could afford to not work there.

Rosita swerved the steering wheel to the right and hit an icy patch. As she struggled to take control of her car, a sickly feeling rose from her stomach. Just as the car stabilized, she saw two police cars approaching. She knew what would happen next, her instinct was to keep driving, but how, the road was icy, her car was old and the cruisers were coming at her. Maria started praying loudly. Rosita wanted to sit down on her knees on that icy road and call out Jesus’ name. Only he is the savior.

She brought the car to a stop and saw an officer from the first car approach with a look of concern. She saw him mouth, “You doing OK ma’am, I just saw your car skid.”

Rosita rolled down her window and said yes, she was fine although it was becoming increasingly hard to remain calm between Maria’s loud prayers and her own pounding heart. The officer froze for a moment and then his face hardened upon seeing Rosita and Maria’s faces.

“Please show me proof of your citizenship,” he said. Rosita gave him her driver’s license with trembling hands. She had renewed it only four years ago, before this new immigration unfriendly government was in place, and it was still valid.

The officer shined a flashlight on it to read off the numbers and repeated, “I need the proof of your citizenship.”

Before Rosita could speak, Maria waved her hands and shouted, “No papers,” like a wound-up jack-in-the-box.

Rosita could see the officer’s hand go over his gun as “two deportee targets” crackled over his radio. She saw the second officer approach, just as the first officer pulled out his gun and signaled her to come out of the car. Rosita raised her hands above her head and pushed the car door with her trembling legs. An icy chill hit her as she emerged. The officer motioned to bumbling, hysterical Maria to get out as well.

The second officer came up to them and pulled out his handcuffs. “This is the end,” Rosita thought and cursed herself for not listening to her instinct of returning to Mexico earlier. Tears streamed down her face as she visualized police breaking down her front door and pulling her sleeping children into a police cruiser to take them to the deportation shelter. Just as the cold metal handcuffs touched her wrists, she saw a third car approach.

Bobby—the supervisor from the factory stopped near her car and darted out. “What is going on here officers?” said Bobby.

“We are arresting these illegals,” replied one of the officers.

“Illegals! They are not illegals. They work at my factory and I don’t employ any illegals,” Bobby said, shouting over the cold wind.

Rosita looked at him and then at the arresting officer, totally confused, even Maria paused her hysterical crying for a moment. Bobby repeated, they are not illegals, their green cards are in process, I have the proof at my factory if you care to see it.

Rosita could not comprehend what Bobby was saying, “green card” meaning papers for her, how does Bobby have them? Why does he have them?

The officers deliberated for a second and then decided to check on the veracity of Bobby’s story. It was decided that the second officer would drive down to the factory with Bobby while the first officer kept guard over the women. The second officer got into his cruiser just as Bobby got into his pickup.

Maria started a rapid fire one-way conversation with Rosita in Spanish, Rosita tried to block Maria’s voice in her head. It was all surreal, how could Bobby have her green card? When did he apply for her green card? And most importantly, why did he apply for her green card? She wished for Maria to shut up, to shake her nervousness off.

Thirty minutes passed while they stood in the freezing cold, handcuffs on their wrists. Just when she thought that she could not bear the waiting any longer, she saw the officer that had gone with Bobby return. “Let them go,” he shouted. “All clear.”

The first officer bent over to open Rosita and Maria’s handcuffs and with no further explanation drove off, leaving Rosita and Maria on the icy path. “What do you want to do now?” Maria said. “We have papers. We are free. We can do whatever we want, so why bother going to that darned factory?”

“Maria get in the car, NOW!!!” Rosita said and began driving down to the factory.

“Why are we going to the factory?” Maria frowned. “We are free?”

Rosita did not respond. Instead, she double parked and ran, stumbled towards Bobby’s office. Maria followed. “Is this true? Do I have papers? When did you file them?” Rosita asked in one unending stream of questions.

Bobby winked. “It is now 50 minutes past the start of your shift,” he said. “Get down and get productive.”

“What about our papers?”

“What about them?” Bobby said. “You get nothing until you finish this shift and the next several shifts and then some more until the time you let me retire rich. Now go on,” he said nudging her towards the shop floor. “Start your shift,” he threatened in a menacing voice.

Rosita’s shoulders slumped. She had traded one freedom for the other this icy morning.