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Short Story

IN HIS EXCITEMENT over the Monday night football game that brought the Green Bay Packers to Southern California, Rita’s ex-husband, Beto, managed to forget—if he’d ever comprehended this—that she could barely stand the sight of him. Why else would he linger at her threshold, grinning and trying to engage her in discussion of statistics and player injuries, as though she were one of his buddies? Why couldn’t he wait in the car? He usually did when he took their children out for what he called their “visitations,” as if he were on the level of the Virgin Mother, given to manifesting before them in some grotto. Though he lived in the same duplex as Rita, he’d usually climb into his dusty Honda hatchback (the filth-mobile, she privately called it) parked in their shared driveway, honking obnoxiously, in an effort to speed up their departure, or else he waited next door, on his side of the house, his television set booming with explosions and gunfire, rattling the framed school portraits of their children on Rita’s mantle.

“Hurry up, Sammy,” Rita called over her shoulder. “Your father’s here.” She was tempted to close the door on him and return to her laptop at the kitchen table where she was drafting a grant proposal. Though she’d worked on it all day at the office, it still wasn’t complete, so she’d brought it home to finish. Rita had less than twenty-four hours to meet the deadline for electronic submission. She had reason to nudge the door partly closed. But what if he followed her inside? Rita remained rooted at the threshold, her arms folded over her chest.

“That boy needs to hurry.” Beto’s dark eyes shone under thick lashes dewy with excitement. Rita knew her ex-husband’s enthusiasms quite well. There’d been a time when she—though a plain-looking woman who could never be called sexy or alluring except maybe in an ironic way—was the focus of his intense and thrilling attention. But apart from his devotion to the Packers, Beto’s passions never lasted. The ardor that carried Rita away, like a truck without brakes, chugged out of fuel after the first decade of marriage.

“We need to get there before the players’ bus arrives,” Beto said, “so we can get some autographs.”

“I see.” Rita controlled the urge to roll her eyes. She remembered a family trip from Southern California to Tempe, Arizona, years ago for a preseason game between the Green Bay Packers and the Phoenix Whatevers. They had all stood in the bludgeoning heat while Beto pestered arriving players to sign his program. Alongside the towering athletes, Beto resembled a husky child. The few who stopped had to stoop to shake his hand. Many just brushed him away like an insect. How tender and protective she’d felt then, as he pursued his humiliating quest. Now she found this autograph-seeking every bit as contemptible as it seemed to the impatient players.

“I told Keran we’d pick her up in ten minutes.” Beto glanced at his watch, an impatient gesture that suggested Rita was the one detaining him.

Rita gripped the doorknob. “Maybe if you wait in the car and honk a bit, he’ll step up the pace.” She pushed the door and clicked it shut, gently, always gently.

On her way back to the kitchen, she passed Sammy in the living room with her seventeen-year-old daughter, Darla, who was sprawled on the carpet before the television, watching music videos, a grim expression on her face. Sammy slumped on the couch, his jacket wadded in one hand. He punched it like a baseball mitt. “I hate the Green Bay Packers,” he said. “I hate football games.”

The Honda bleated in the drive.

Rita gave him a sympathetic smile. “That’s your father.”

“I hate being nine,” Sammy said.

The horn tooted again.

“You are so lucky you’re a girl,” Sammy told Darla, who glanced at him over her shoulder and nodded.

§

Sunlight poured through the bay windows in the kitchen, where Rita kept her many houseplants. Fern tendrils dripped from terra-cotta pots arrayed on neat shelves, spider plant shoots crawled over the shiny counter tiles, and a row of miniature cacti squatted on the windowsill. Before Rita sat down to work at the drop-leaf table where she and her children took their meals, she remembered she needed the nonprofit identification number for Catholic Social Services from her briefcase.

When she returned to the living room for it, her daughter muted the television, sat up, and yawned. “Keran,” Darla said. “What kind of name is Keran anyway?”

“Armenian, isn’t it?” Rita said.

“I know, but still. I looked it up on the computer, and you know what it means?”

Rita shook her head.

“It means ‘wooden post.’ Who’d name a kid after a wooden post?” Darla said. “Fitting, though, isn’t it?”

Rita shrugged. She often struggled against temptation to criticize Beto and Keran in front of the children. Rita lifted her briefcase onto the coffee table, flipped it open.

“Hey, Mom, do you think I could use the car?” Darla asked.

“Why? Where do you want to go?”

“I kind of want a doughnut. You feel like having one?”

Years ago, they all used to walk over to Foster’s Family Donuts on Reseda Boulevard when it wasn’t too smoggy. Rita liked the “olde fashioned” chocolate buttermilks, Sammy always ordered bear-claws, Darla had a weakness for anything jelly filled, and Beto favored maple crullers, though if these weren’t available, he’d eat any kind of cruller. Rita had the idea he just liked the word, liked saying it—cruller. She’d once watched him eat one that was dipped in frosting the same shade of pink as the bottled antacid in their medicine chest. Rita shook her head. “No, but you go ahead. The keys are in my purse.” She rifled through the files in her case. In the periphery, she glimpsed a dark shape on the couch. “That cat’s not on the furniture again, is she?”

“That’s Sammy’s jacket.” Darla stood, headed for the kitchen.

“He’s going to freeze tonight,” Rita said. Maybe they’d stopped at Beto’s for something or other—he was always forgetting things and having to return for them—and she could catch them. She grabbed the jacket and dashed out. But the filth-mobile was absent from its oil-stained slot in the driveway, and Rita turned to go back inside. As she glanced toward her ex-husband’s half of the house, she noticed his door hadn’t been shut completely. She reached for the faux-crystal doorknob to draw it closed.

Her own front door banged open, and Rita lunged away from the knob, her face hot. Darla appeared on the porch. “You sure you don’t want a doughnut? Last call.”

Rita patted her stomach. After months of body-sculpting classes, it was still wobbly, the skin curdy and loose, even under her control-top pantyhose. “Maybe just one chocolate buttermilk.” She’d eat only half or save the whole thing for Sammy.

“Got it.” Darla leapt down the steps and slipped into Rita’s compact car. The car glided in reverse, knifing through the lace of gnats hovering over the drive and rolling onto the quiet street. It disappeared around the corner, heading for Reseda, while Rita still stood before her ex-husband’s door. The glinting cut-glass knob—refracting amber luminescence from the sun’s last fiery streaks—mesmerized her like a magical gemstone.

It’s never a good idea, she told herself, for ex-spouses to share the same roof. She’d repeated this to herself many times, but especially in the beginning, when Beto failed in his attempt to gain full custody of the children, so as to receive instead of pay child support, and then declared bankruptcy when he couldn’t afford his legal fees, after which he lost his condominium, and, according to the children, began living in his car.

In her work, Rita had often seen this downward spiraling. People, even entire families, who little by little lost everything they owned and had to appeal to charities. At the time, Rita regretted she was not a better person, the kind who would have immediately offered Beto the newly vacated half of the duplex she’d purchased with her share of the property division. But she had hesitated, leaving the space empty after her tenants moved and consigning Beto to live in his car for weeks, while she anguished and even prayed over this decision that no one, not the children, nor even Sister Janet, the kind-hearted director of Catholic Social Services, suggested she consider.

After offering Beto the rental portion of the duplex at a nominal rate, which he nevertheless grumbled about and was usually late in paying, Rita felt blessed by virtue only briefly before being visited by sharp, persistent headaches that reminded her of her namesake, Santa Rita of Cascia. After years of marriage to a brutal lout, the widowed saint was afflicted with agonizing pain when a thorn from Christ’s crucifixion crown mysteriously imbedded itself in her temple, a wound so offensive that she went into seclusion for the remainder of her days. Still, Rita insisted to herself that Beto was family and family should not live in automobiles. That’s what she told her sister Imelda, who had gawked in disbelief when she learned Beto had moved into the duplex. “I’m family too. You could have offered the place to me.” Imelda, a single mother with a four-year-old son, paid inflated rent for an apartment in the worst part of Burbank.

“My children’s father should not be homeless,” Rita had said at the time.

“Ordinarily, no,” Imelda agreed. “But Beto’s such a fuck up. I mean, everything he touches turns to shit. What if he blows the place up?”

Remembering this conversation, and the time Beto accidentally set fire to an apartment they once rented when he left candles burning too close to the drapes, Rita hesitated before pulling the glass knob to shut his door. What if he was doing something dangerous or illegal in there, something that might destroy the entire house? In the same way she’d determined that Beto was family and family should not live in cars, she reminded herself that she was the landlady and entitled to inspect and protect her property, so she elbowed the door wide, covering her hand with her skirt to close it behind her.

The mess! The absolute squalor! Had he no respect for anything? The convertible sofa, a donation from her work, was left open and tumbled with yellowed bedding that smelled as rank as wrappings from spoiled meat. Coffee cups with mold-splotched dregs, beer cans, clouded drinking glasses, fast-food wrappers, sports magazines, and newspapers covered nearly every surface in the front room. As Rita made her way through to the kitchen, she had to watch where she stepped, so as not to entangle herself in the heaps of clothing scattered on the carpet. At one point, she snagged her heel in a pair of silky boxer shorts.

The kitchen was worse than the living room. An opened ketchup bottle, a green fly wandering its neck, stood at the center of the littered dinette table, also contributed by her agency, and beside that sat a saucer with a molten cube of butter. The sink, her sink, was stained with rust streaks, the countertops lucent with grease. She almost couldn’t bear to look at the stove, and when she did, she wished she hadn’t. Flocculent streamers of grimy dust hung from the overhead vent, and the burners were crusted with a creosote crud. Maybe Beto really wasn’t family. He wasn’t a blood relative after all. Maybe he should live in a car, she thought as she stepped out of the kitchen and headed for the bathroom.

Water, at least a quarter-inch of it, covered the linoleum and seeped out, welling on the carpet, when she opened the door. He didn’t have a shower curtain! Beto was just showering and letting the water fly where it may. The flooring curled up in the corners of the bathroom and warped at the center. In the toilet floated a tremendous turd. Rita curled her upper lip in disgust, recalling Beto’s aptitude for prodigious bowel movements and his reluctance to flush away his accomplishments. Unable to control herself, Rita pressed the handle on the tank. The water rushed and whirled, but the fecal torpedo remained intact, unfazed, as stubborn and noxious as Beto himself.

Rita peeked into the storage cabinet under the sink to be sure the drain wasn’t leaking, and she found an opened cardboard box with the letters EPT written on it. What’s this, she wondered, pulling it halfway out before she recognized it—an early pregnancy test. A harsh, hot wave of anger nearly toppled Rita. She dropped the box and stepped back into a rack of mildewed towels to steady herself. The thorn in her head throbbed cruelly, nearly blinding her. How horrible it would be to faint here, she thought, with a glance at the slimy floor. She breathed deeply, forced herself upright, and thought of Sister Janet, her splendid posture, her serene smile. Of course, Sister Janet had never married. She’d never stood in the damaged bathroom of an ex-husband, trying unsuccessfully to flush his shit before discovering his girlfriend’s pregnancy test.

Rita grabbed the box with shaking hands. A plus appears on the stick if the test is positive and a minus if the results are negative. She shoved the box into the cabinet and kicked it closed, then crouched to rummage through the trash. Rita sifted through the wadded tissues, empty toilet paper rolls, and hairballs to find the stick, on which a minus was clearly displayed. Relief whooshed out of her like air from a punctured tire. If Beto was family, then his child would be too. Would he expect her to house him, Keran the Post, and their offspring indefinitely? How could she ever consign a newborn to begin life in the filth-mobile? She washed her hands, dried them on her skirt, and hurried out of the bathroom.

As she rushed through the front room, she caught sight of Beto’s special shelf, the little shrine he’d kept in the home they’d shared, a devotional display of Green Bay Packer paraphernalia: the pennant, the toy helmet, the signed programs in frames, the neatly stacked issues of The Packer Report, the folded jersey, and his beloved bobble-head doll. Rita remembered how he’d raged when she’d taken it down once for her nephew to play with. He’d bloodied her nose that time. Of course, he’d wept with remorse afterward. She glanced about the room—no pictures of Sammy or Darla anywhere to be seen. But the bobble-head grinned insipidly from the center of Beto’s shrine. The wave of heat crashed over her once more, and the thorn twisted into her scalp. Rita snatched the head off the doll and marched into the bathroom where she plopped it into the toilet. Immediately she regretted this, but no way would she pull it out. Maybe he’d assume the Post had done it, she thought, as she bolted out the door before Darla returned.

She would have made a clean getaway, too, if Raúl and Hector, her neighbors, hadn’t been sitting in their car in the driveway next door. They waved her over the moment she emerged from Beto’s place. For the first time, Rita regretted moving into this close-knit cul-de-sac, where health-conscious residents much enjoyed bearing mild gossip to one another on their regular evening walks. In no time, these two would tell Beto they’d seen Rita exiting from his half of the house. She took a deep breath and forced a wide smile as she crossed her small yard, the dense growth of Saint Augustine crunching beneath her shoes, to their drive. “I was just checking the—”

But Hector put a finger to his lips, and Raúl, in the passenger’s seat, held a fluffy coral-colored bundle to his chest. “We got the baby,” Hector whispered. The couple had been working on an adoption for over a year now. Rita had recently put them in contact with an organization that handled surrendered terminal-case infants. Raúl lifted a fuzzy pink flap to reveal a tiny, wizened face, as white and tightly furled as a frosted rosebud.

Rita had never seen a baby this small. “A preemie?”

“Dwarfism,” Raúl said in a low voice.

“And she has a hole in her heart,” Hector added. “We’re going to call her Veronica. Isn’t that pretty?”

“It means true image.” Raúl tucked the blanket under the baby’s chin. “She had a rough time at the doctor’s office this afternoon. We’re trying to figure out how to get out of the car without disturbing her.”

This made Rita want to weep with shame.

“Any ideas?” Hector asked.

“Gently,” she said. “Very, very gently.”

§

The next day, in the doublewide trailer that temporarily housed Catholic Social Services while the permanent office was being renovated, Rita sat in her wood-paneled cubicle proofreading the grant narrative she’d composed. If she could get Sister Janet to approve the final draft by three, they’d easily meet the deadline. Rereading her work, Rita felt a glow of pride: the sentences flowed one into another, and from these the rationale emerged with convincing weight and clarity, as undeniable as a smooth stone at the base of a crystalline pond. Sister Janet would be pleased with the work.

The phone jangled at her elbow, and Rita was tempted to ignore it, but then Carly, the receptionist, would have to pick up and heave herself away from her desk to let Rita know that she had a call, so she lifted the receiver. “Catholic Social Services,” she said, adopting a brisk tone intended to inspire the caller likewise to be brief. “Rita Portillo.”

“Mom, thank God.” Darla’s voice was breathless, strained. “You’ve got to come home. There’s water all over the place.”

“What?”

“The house is flooded, Mom, and I don’t know what to do!”

“Where’s the water coming from?”

“The kitchen, I think,” Darla said. “That’s where most of the water is.”

“Okay, okay, don’t panic. Go over and get Hector or Raúl,” Rita said.

“I already went over there. They’ve got a Do Not Disturb sign on the door.”

Rita rolled her eyes. “I think you can go ahead and disturb them.”

“No, Mom, no way.”

“All right, I’ll be right there. In the meantime, look under the sink, see if a pipe’s leaking, and try to stop it, if you can. Tie some rags around it or something. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes, so just hold on.” Rita hung up, clicked the print icon, and grabbed her purse on the way out. Then she rapped on the door to Sister Janet’s office.

“She’s meeting with Father Gillespie,” Carly called from the reception area.

Rita strode through the hall to Carly’s desk, the trailer vibrating with each footfall. “Did she say when she’d be back?”

“Any time now.” Carly squinted at her screen, biting her lip, so that facing her one would think she was working with profound, even anguished concentration.

Rita stepped around the desk to watch the receptionist drag the queen of spades and click it over a king of diamonds. “Listen, Carly, this is important.”

Carly raised one eyebrow without lifting her gaze from the monitor.

“There’s an emergency at home. The house is flooding.”

“Damn,” Carly said. “This always happens. I get just so close and—”

“Carly, please, listen, this is an emergency. Tell Sister Janet I had to leave and remind her about the grant. It’s due today at four. Have you got that?”

“Today at four,” echoed Carly, who continued clicking on draw cards.

“It’s printing in my office now, so please get it to Janet to read over and have her send it electronically. The file is open on my computer, and it’s also on the disk in the A drive.” Rita wanted to shake Carly’s shoulders. “Maybe I should write this down.”

“I’ve got it. I’ve got it,” Carly said, a glazed look on her heavy face. “What do you think I am? Stupid?”

§

Rita wrung the rope mop out on the porch, the filmy water splashing onto the dark ivy woven through the latticework below. As she twisted the warm sodden strands at the end of the splintery stick, Rita thought of Keran, and wondered what she saw in Beto. True, the girl had flunked out of community college before taking a receptionist job at the RV dealership where Beto worked as a salesman, so she wasn’t exactly think-tank material. And she wasn’t very pretty, but she was young, nearly as young as Darla.

Beto always had an eye for the girlish receptionists. Rita remembered the time he “borrowed” an RV to take a former receptionist for a weekend in Las Vegas after work one Saturday. She and Beto were still married at the time, at the beginning of his so-called midlife crisis. He’d phoned Rita from the Stardust Hotel just after she’d returned from mass on Sunday. He was having an anxiety attack, he’d said, and the upshot was that he couldn’t bring himself to drive the oversized vehicle back to the valley. “It’s too big, too high up. I just can’t handle the thing.”

“I see,” Rita had said. Only thoughts of Sister Janet, and what she would do in her place, kept Rita from slamming down the phone. In the end, she agreed to drive to Vegas to pick up the RV and return it to the lot before it was discovered missing and Beto discharged by the company, maybe even prosecuted for grand theft. Family should not have to live in penitentiaries. Beto and the girl followed in Rita’s car back to the lot. Unlike Beto, Rita had enjoyed riding high above the other travelers on the highway, threading the bulky bus through the narrow lanes with ease and authority. Her initial fury had metastasized into a cool calm. When the bewildered girl dashed for her car in the employee lot, Rita even had the composure to call after her, “You take care now.”

But what had they seen in him, first that earlier receptionist and now Keran? Despite his slovenly habits, he always managed to appear well groomed. He was like the sepulcher that gleams on the outside, yet teems with maggots within. What had drawn Rita to him? They had both been young, when they’d met in college, and he had been handsome then, if squat and thick bodied. True, she’d succumbed to his intense attention to her, his convincing declarations of love and desire, but it had also been sexual attraction for Rita, an inexplicable force she had been helpless to withstand. He had been her first lover, her only lover, and she’d believed they’d be lifelong mates. But after Sammy’s birth, Beto said he no longer enjoyed making love to her. According to him, she was too big down there, too stretchy, and he complained that he couldn’t get aroused at the thought of having intercourse with “the mother of a couple of kids.”

She banged the mop back into the kitchen for another swipe at the floor. Darla squatted near the water heater closet, replacing sodden towels with dry ones. “Who’d have thought that thing could hold so much?”

“Not me,” Rita said, swishing the mop over the linoleum.

Sammy had arranged a box fan and two rotating fans systematically to dry the carpet, section by section. At intervals, he’d test for dampness and rearrange them accordingly. “Don’t electrocute yourself, son,” Rita called to him from time to time.

The plumber she called told her that the water heater was so old and rusted it should have given out long ago. He appeared to consider himself something of an expert on the subject. “See, your soft water—sounds all nice and gentle, huh?—but it contains these caustic substances. This creates corrosion, and that just eats away at the tank from the inside.” Rita nodded, smiling in an appreciative way. She couldn’t stand him one whit. He smelled of sweat and cigarettes, and he acted as though she should be grateful it held out this long, but if the tank had leaked on schedule, then the previous owners would have had to replace it. So that wasn’t lucky. And he treated her like she was paranoid when she asked a second time if he was sure there had been no foul play.

After the kitchen floor was reasonably dry and she’d ordered the new water heater to be delivered by the weekend, Rita’s lower back ached as though she’d been mule-kicked at the base of her spine, and the imaginary thorn seemed to dig its way through her cranial wall. She told Darla to order a pizza and slipped into her bedroom to lie down until it arrived. Just the sight of the pale apricot walls and the spare wooden furniture—mission bed, table, dresser, the bookshelf that she’d lacquered black herself—unclenched her back muscles and loosened the thorn in her head. Rita stretched out on the bed, gratitude constricting her throat, filling her eyes, and sank into a deep sleep from which she didn’t wake until just before dawn.

That night Rita dreamed she was talking to God, but even in her dreams, Rita was rational, so of course God didn’t answer her. She’d just struck up the conversation on her own. “If you exist,” she told God, “you must let me know.” Though she attended mass on holy days of obligation, though she’d received all her sacraments and made sure her children received them too, though she was active on the parish council, and though she never failed to pay her tithe, Rita wasn’t really sure God existed. She lacked faith the way some cannot carry a tune or draw a straight line. It was a skill she’d never developed, and so she’d become what she considered a fairly cunning mimic.

“Here’s what you do,” Rita said to God in the dream. “If you exist, place an eyelash in that glass of drinking water on my bed table, and when I wake up and see it, I will know you are real, and I swear I will believe.”

The simplicity of the plan pleased her. “It’s such a small thing,” she told God.

She then dreamed she woke up and examined the water glass on her bed table. Unmistakably, a curved black eyelash floated at the surface. Rita tumbled back as though shot in the face at point-blank range. The force of this blow paralyzed her as surely as sudden death. But soon, reason reasserted itself. Just a dream, she thought as she roused herself, blinking open her eyes in the predawn bleakness. She flicked on her reading lamp, knowing she’d not be able to fall back to sleep. Of course, there was no eyelash to be found. There was not even a glass of drinking water on the bed table.

§

That day was the anniversary of Rita’s father’s death. She’d scheduled a seven am mass for him, so it was fortunate she was up early. Rita prepared a pancake breakfast for the children to compensate them for their cold showers and the early trip to church. By five minutes of seven, the three of them knelt in a front pew, waiting for the service to begin. At exactly seven, Sister Janet appeared at the side entrance. She dipped her fingers in holy water, genuflected, and joined them, taking her place beside Sammy. Minutes after the priest began mass, Rita’s sister showed up, looking puffy in the face and irritated as she slipped into the pew alongside Rita. Imelda didn’t return Rita’s welcoming smile, and she cut her a hard look when she caught Rita peeking over her shoulder to see if Beto had turned up. Last year, he had surprised Rita by attending her father’s mass and taking Sammy and Darla out for waffles afterward, so Rita could drive directly to work. She’d been pleased to see he was still capable of the spontaneous kindness that had punctuated their early years together. This year, though, he didn’t make it.

Padre Piedra, the youngest priest in the rectory, who’d just arrived from Honduras, said mass, so it was in Spanish, which the children and Sister Janet couldn’t understand. The service was so predictable that it didn’t matter much. His sermon was a variation on one Rita had heard him give before. The gist of it was to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Puh-leeze, thought Rita, does he think this is the first communion class? Padre Piedra was vapid, but in the context of the rectory, he wasn’t half bad. She and Sister Janet tolerated the priests as best they could, and they spent many pleasurable moments discussing their shortcomings. Sister Janet had the habit of clicking her tongue against her teeth when most disgusted by the priests’ behavior and then releasing a sigh of disbelief and resignation that was just tinged with contempt. Rita loved that clicking sound, that sigh. She felt closest to Sister Janet at those times, the real Janet, a woman like herself, who was on her side, equally exasperated by insufferably arrogant priests. The garrulous Father Gillespie was the worst of the lot. Rita shot Sister Janet a sympathetic look, remembering her session with the old bore yesterday. Trim and immaculate in her black business-suit habit, Janet smiled back. Rita looked forward to asking her how she’d liked the grant proposal as soon as the service ended.

But Sister Janet had to rush. She was meeting the architect in his office at eight o’clock and the contractor for coffee at the agency afterward. Darla had the car to take Sammy and then drive herself to school, while Rita would catch a ride to work from Imelda, who yawned, as they left the church, and said, “Can’t you get a later mass for these things?”

“This is the only mass available on a weekday,” Rita told her sister. “It’s not my fault the anniversaries fell on Wednesdays this year.” Their mother and father had died exactly one week apart. “Don’t forget Mom’s mass is next week.”

“Great,” Imelda said. “We get to do this all over again.”

“It’s worth it,” Rita told her, as they trudged through the parking lot. “It’s a good time to remember them, to reflect and pray. I miss them. I miss Dad.” Rita’s father had been good in the way Sister Janet was, in the way Rita could never hope to be. Like Sister Janet, he had a cleansing, even purifying effect on people around him that inspired them to be better than they usually were. He’d spent his weekends working for the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, collecting secondhand furniture from well-off parishioners to haul it to the poorer ones. “Remember he used to say, ‘No one is too poor to give’?”

Imelda shook her head. “No, but I remember Mom telling him that ‘charity begins at home, you know.’ It sure pissed her off that he was gone all the time.”

“He was so good to those boat people.” Rita’s father had more or less adopted a refugee family from Vietnam, finding them an apartment, furnishing it, and collecting donated groceries and cast-off clothing for them. He had even bought toys for the children out of his own pocket. “They named that baby after him, remember? A little girl, but they called her Pablo.” Rita laughed.

“I remember wondering why he liked that family better than ours.”

“He had such inspiring little sayings. I should’ve written them down.” Rita could almost see his face—warm hazel eyes, wiry eyebrows, his generous mouth—but what were those quotes he liked so much? “What else did he use to say about charity?”

Imelda gave her a sharp look. “I would think you’d remember him saying, ‘Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.’ He used to say it a lot.”

“Funny, I don’t remember that.”

“That’s really weird, Rita, because he said it all the time.”

§

Not long after the contractor, scrolled plans tucked under one arm, departed from Sister Janet’s office, Rita tapped at her door. “Have you got a minute, Sister?”

“Sure, Rita, come in.” Sister Janet was writing on her desk calendar, a steaming mug at her elbow. “Would you like some coffee?”

“No, thanks.” Rita sank into the chair facing Janet’s desk. It was still disturbingly warm from the contractor’s bottom. “I was wondering what you thought of the grant application.”

“I haven’t seen it. Did you get it off in time?”

“Didn’t Carly tell you? The house flooded. I had to leave,” Rita said. “I printed it and left it on disk on my computer. I told her—”

“Oh, dear,” Sister Janet said with a frown.

Rita cringed. Sister Janet’s soft-spoken “oh, dear” stung more bitterly than Beto’s curses, shoves, punches, slaps, and spit full in her face—all put together. “I thought you had seen it because it’s not in my printer tray.”

“Oh, dear,” Sister Janet said again.

A scorching lump constricted Rita’s throat, and she thought of what the plumber said about corrosion. She swallowed it back and rose from the chair. “I’ll check again.” Carly was out sick, so there’d be no way of asking her about the draft. Rita hurried into her office. And then she saw it—the blinking red light: the paper drawer was empty.

A sob nearly escaped Rita, but she sensed a cool, shadowy presence in the doorway, and she controlled her voice. “No paper in the printer. It never printed.”

“Please,” Janet said in her gentle way, “please don’t take this so hard, Rita.”

Rita wished Sister Janet would yell at her, kick the desk, or simply ask her how she could be so stupid, but instead, the nun placed a warm palm on Rita’s shoulder. “Maybe we can still send it.”

But Rita knew the agency to which they’d planned to appeal for funds was stricter than the church itself before Vatican II. No way would they accept a late application. She nodded, though, not wanting to disappoint Sister Janet. “I can call and ask.”

§

Rita, as usual, had to perform Carly’s duties when she was out, so she brought her work—another grant application—out to the front desk where she could deal with walk-ins and answer all the phones. Something about sitting in the sullen receptionist’s swivel chair cast a heavy mantle of lethargy over Rita’s shoulders, and just before ten, when Sister Janet departed for yet another meeting, she found herself clicking on to Carly’s solitaire game and electronically shuffling the cards. After half an hour, Rita still hadn’t won a game, though she’d come tantalizingly close a few times, and when the first walk-in appeared, Rita glanced up from the screen with deep annoyance.

She was a woman about Rita’s age, though at first glance she seemed much older because of the dark circles around her eyes and the black scarf binding her hair. “I am not sure I am in the right place,” she said in an accented voice.

“What is it you need?” Rita fought the temptation to draw one more card and minimized the game screen to face the woman fully.

“It is so embarrassing. I need help, I suppose.” The woman went on to explain how her son had fallen in with bad people (criminals, Rita presumed) and gotten himself in trouble (arrested, no doubt), and before doing so had argued with family and friends (then ostracized) who ordinarily would have helped him out, so now she had to turn to the church, and Father Gillespie (of course) suggested she try Catholic Social Services as a resource in finding assistance for her son.

Rita pulled out her list of phone numbers for legal aid and local attorneys willing to provide pro bono services and photocopied these for the woman. “Your accent,” she said, “is so interesting. Where are you from?”

“I am from Armenia,” the woman said.

“Armenia,” Rita repeated, nearly adding conversationally that her ex-husband’s girlfriend was also Armenian. Instead, she said, “I know a man who is dating a nice Armenian girl. Her name is Keran, I think.”

“I know Keran. She works at the RV lot on Sepulveda, no?”

“Yes, yes,” Rita said with a smile. “That’s her.”

“I know her family very well, but I didn’t know she had a boyfriend.”

Even if her family named her for a wooden post, they’d no doubt have an interest in this information, so Rita said, “Well, he’s not exactly Armenian. He works at the lot.”

The woman lifted a dark eyebrow, a hungry look on her face.

“He’s Latino, an older man.” Though they were alone in the office, Rita leaned forward, cupped her hand around her mouth and whispered: “He’s divorced.”

§

The day dragged on. Sister Janet returned around one o’clock bearing a French-dipped sandwich for Rita from Felipe’s, with a little card that exhorted her to cheer up. Because God loves you, she had written in beautiful script on the inside. With Sister Janet back in the office, Rita could return to solitaire only intermittently as she listened for the nun’s soft footfalls. The minutes crawled past, and Rita was relieved when her line rang at half-past four.

“Catholic Social Services—”

“Mom, listen, something terrible happened.” It was Darla again, her voice once more panicky. “It’s Dad.”

“What’s he done this time?” Rita said, bearing up for a cruel twist of the thorn. “Is the house okay?”

“The house?” Darla asked. “It’s Dad. Something happened to him at work. He had like a stroke or heart attack. They don’t know for sure. They had to call an ambulance to take him to the Van Nuys medical center.”

“Are you sure?” Rita wouldn’t put it past Beto to pull some stunt.

“Of course, I’m sure. Mr. Miller called from the show room,” Darla told her. Mr. Miller owned the lot. He was president of the parish council and an officer in the Knights of Columbus. And according to rumors, he was also at the end of his patience with Beto’s weakness for receptionists. He’d have no part of her ex-husband’s shenanigans.

“Oh, my God,” Rita said. “Is he going to be okay?”

“I don’t know. We have to get to the hospital,” she said. “Listen, I’m in the car, on the cell. I’m coming to pick you up, okay? I’m like five minutes away.”

“Where’s Sammy?”

“He’s over at Hector and Raúl’s having a hot shower. I already called over there and told them to keep him until we get back.”

Poor Darla, thought Rita, remembering how hard it had been to lose her own father, though, of course, he had been a decent human being…. “I’ll meet you in the parking lot,” she said. “Drive carefully, and don’t worry. He’s still young and strong. He’ll probably be just fine.”

Rita clicked off the solitaire game, tidied the desk, and rose to make her way to Janet’s office. “Sister, something’s come up.”

Sister Janet looked up from an opened file on her desk, her gray eyes wide with concern. “Oh dear, what is it?”

“It’s Beto. He’s had some kind of collapse at work. Darla’s picking me up in a few minutes. We have to go to him at the hospital.”

Sister Janet nodded. “Of course, you must go. Take tomorrow off if you need it. I’m so sorry.” Sister Janet’s phone rang, and she glanced at the caller identification display. “It’s my mother. I’d better take it.” She lifted the receiver and covered the mouthpiece. “Please call me tonight, Rita. Let me know if you need anything.”

Rita backed out of Janet’s office, wanting to ask her to give her regards to her mother, whom she also admired, but not knowing how under the circumstances. Oh, well. She rushed back through the hall, listening to the lilting music of Sister Janet’s voice as she spoke to her mother. Rita stepped out of the trailer, shutting the door more firmly than she’d intended. She was down the rickety wooden steps before she realized she’d left her purse in Carly’s desk. How absent-minded and dithering. She trod softly back up the steps and opened the door without a sound. As she rounded the corner of Carly’s desk to pull open the drawer, she distinctly heard Janet’s voice from the other room: “You know you’re right, Mother. I’m afraid our Rita is a bit of a masochist.” And then, through the thin partition, Rita heard it: the click of Janet’s tongue against her teeth followed by the sigh, but this time the contempt was as pronounced as an exclamation point. Rita’s eyes burned with thick, hot tears as she tiptoed away from the desk and out of the trailer.

§

At the hospital, Rita and Darla met Mr. Miller in the ER waiting area. The tall, bearded man greeted Rita with a stiff embrace and shook Darla’s hand.

“How is he?” Rita asked him, as though he were a doctor instead of the owner of a recreational vehicle lot.

“Well, we don’t know yet. He’s in observation.”

“What happened?” Darla wrung her hands.

“There was a fracas right in the show room this afternoon. It was Keran’s family, I guess, and their friends, too, because this whole group of Armenians just stormed in, filled the sales area. I heard shouting and came out of my office to see what was going on, and Beto just collapsed. The other salesmen and I cleared away the crowd—they were leaving anyway, taking Keran with them—and one of the mechanics called 911.” Mr. Miller compressed his lips, shook his head.

“Oh, my,” Rita said, thinking of the scarf-wearing woman who’d come to the office that morning. Her cheeks flamed. “But I had no idea—”

“What if it’s a heart attack?” Darla asked. “What if it’s a stroke? He could be in there dying, and we’d never see him alive again.”

Rita doubted this. “Hush, honey, there’s no point in worrying until we hear what the doctor has to say.” She moved to the reception desk, where she gave the nurse her name and asked to see Beto’s doctor. Then they all sat on an orange vinyl couch in the waiting room. An impossibly overweight woman with a howling red-faced infant occupied the seat across from them, and a young cholo with a bloodied rag on his wrist leaned against the wall near the door. Mr. Miller and Darla watched a game show on the wall-mounted television, while Rita thumbed through a back issue of Cat Fancy, looking for pictures of cats that resembled theirs. She nudged her daughter when she thought she found one. “Doesn’t this look like Matilda?” But Darla drew a ragged breath, her shoulders quaked, and she sobbed. Rita dropped the magazine in her lap and drew her daughter close. “Oh, honey,” she said. “He’s going to be fine. I know he is.”

After half an hour, the doctor finally appeared. “Rita, Rita Portillo.”

“Yes,” Rita said, raising her hand as though she were in class. “I’m here.” Rita stood to follow him into a corridor. She gestured at Darla to come with her.

“Your husband is doing well now. He’s resting,” the doctor, who looked no older than Darla, told her. “Physically, he’s fine. His EKG and CAT scan indicate no problems. I think he’s suffered a very severe anxiety attack.”

Darla narrowed her eyes. “Anxiety attack?”

“Stress induced.” The young doctor scribbled on a pad he produced from his pocket. “Here are a few agencies, a few mental health resources that might be—”

“I’m in human services, doctor,” Rita told him. “I have all those numbers.”

“We’re going to keep him overnight, but your husband seems a healthy man.”

Rita shook her head. “He’s not my husband. We’re divorced.”

“Oh.” The doctor paused a moment. “Well, what I was going to say is, with therapy and, possibly, medication, he should be fine.”

“Doctor, can I see him?” she said.

“Sure.” He gave her directions to Beto’s room.

Rita turned to Darla. “Honey, wait with Mr. Miller, would you? I want to talk to your father alone first, and then you can visit with him.”

Darla’s jaw tightened. “Mom, don’t,” she said through clenched teeth. “Don’t ever let him do this to us again.” She wheeled around and headed for the waiting room.

Rita took the elevator up several floors and then made her way through the mazelike hospital corridors to find his room. In it, Beto rested on a narrow bed, wearing an aqua smock. Beside the bed was a plastic wastebasket, similar to the one Rita had fished the pregnancy test stick from, and like it, this receptacle brimmed with wadded tissues. Had he been weeping? Waste, Rita thought, what waste, and her gaze traced the shiny linoleum to the bathroom door, which was open. In it, she saw a spotless vinyl shower curtain the color of vanilla cream. See there, she wanted to say. That’s what you need.

But Beto looked too pathetic to reproach. His face was pale, but his stubble-shadowed jowls and the nests of blackheads outlining his nostrils gave his face a pocked and grimy look. Ashamed by her exhilaration at this sight, Rita wondered if turning from masochism to sadism would in any way be a promotion for her, or just a lateral move, like Sister Janet’s transfer from mother superior at the convent to director of Catholic Social Services, right after she’d taken a busload of nuns to a rally for the Democratic candidate who supported a pro-choice position. Janet had gotten her own apartment out of it, to limit her influence on the other sisters, but otherwise no benefits attached.

“How are you?” Rita asked.

Beto shrugged. “I lived.”

“You gave Darla a scare. She’s worried sick about you.”

Of course, this didn’t interest him. “They took Keran away. They’re sending her back to Armenia to live with her grandmother,” he said. “It was over between us anyway. She desecrated Packy and then lied to me about it.”

Packy? Rita wondered briefly, before remembering the bobble-head doll.

“And Miller fired me,” Beto told her.

Not surprised Mr. Miller had left that out of his version of Beto’s collapse, Rita nevertheless said, “But he’s out there in the waiting room. He’s worried about you.”

“He’s covering his pious ass. He doesn’t want to be the reason I keel over.”

“Well, at least, you’ll be fine. It’s not a heart attack or stroke.” Rita turned away from the bed to look out the midsized window, wondering idly if Beto’s body would fit through it, if she were able to lift it to toss him out. She’d have to raise the blinds first.

“Coming through this made me realize something.” Beto reached for her arm, reeled her close. “You’re the only one who’s always cared for me.” His breath on her face had the rotten stench of his sheets, a stink she remembered from when they were married. Weekends, he worked evenings, and he’d sleep until noon while she kept the children as quiet as possible. When she’d bring him coffee at twelve, the sweetish putrescence of his body would loft her spirits with the surety that she would outlive him.

“My parents turned on me when we got divorced, Miller’s cut me loose, and Keran’s gone.” Beto adopted his familiar drone of complaint. “You’re all I have left.”

Rita remembered that Jesus on the cross had said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and surely he had gazed out upon faces more affixed with ignorance and stamped with greed than Beto’s here before her, as he flicked his tongue over his cracked lips, already tasting Rita’s next act of absolution, of charity. And parting out his garments, they cast lots.

Hector and Raúl, Sister Janet, her father, and even Imelda would never kick a broken man. But they hadn’t lived as she had, as Rita of Cascia had, and now she had to choose: the thorn or the boot. California landlord/tenant law tipped perniciously in favor of the renter, but an owner may evict to provide shelter for a blood relation—say, a sister. Rita wrenched free and moved closer to the window, where she peered out at the insect-sized people scurrying on the sidewalks. She thought of driving the RV back from Vegas, how she’d sat high above the others, stitching the oversized vehicle through traffic with benevolent grace, but that was so long ago; it seemed to have happened to someone else.

Thirty days, she would tell him, you have thirty days to move. Her stomach fluttered as though quickening with new life. She felt nervy, electric with energy, her heart thrashing, as if she’d finally been summoned on stage to recite what she had been rehearsing for almost two decades. She turned from the window to face him. Beto held out his arms to her as if he feared slipping away, falling into an abyss, and he was beseeching her to hold on to him. Rita straightened her back and cleared her throat. She opened her mouth to speak.

 


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