Fiction Friday: Chapter 14
Read previous chapters here.
Leda drives Walt to the physical therapist several times a week. His mobility seems to have improved, although lately he is less agreeable and more uncontrollable. His body is rejecting its treatment, telling him that he is no longer the master of it. This frustrates Walt, a man who once used his body to earn a living, so he acts out, telling the doctor he is tired or lashing out at Leda. She is used to his lashing out when he is actually frustrated with himself, but she still does not like it. She remembers the time he betrayed her and she took him back. This makes her think he should not treat her with such lightness, such ease, such nonchalance. She wants him to remember and continue to act humble, even after all these years.
As she drives, Walt sits in the passenger seat, his legs cushioned by soft grey leather. His back does not hold him up straight, as it once did, but instead lets him lean to the side a little, like the curve of a bow. He once had perfect posture, his head and neck erect, his back ramrod straight, but now this control has been taken from him.
Leda listens to a Spanish tape. She wants to remember the language she once spoke so naturally. The voice tells her to repeat the phrases, and she does, yet her mouth cannot seem to form the words correctly. She sounds old, unskilled, and Texan. She feels as though her attempts are laughable, yet she cannot laugh. She wants to cry. She cannot even pronounce her maiden name, which once rolled off her tongue with fluidity. She punches eject to silence the tape. Walt grunts his approval. He never supported her efforts at relearning her mother tongue. Why would he now?
She gives him a menacing glance, only to notice that some drool has made it under his chin. She is almost to the San Jose exit they need, so she waits until she is at the end of the off ramp and stopped at the light before she grabs for some Kleenex and wipes his face for him. She feels a sense of satisfaction that she must do such simple tasks for her husband. He can grunt and disapprove all he wants, she thinks, but he can’t live without me.
They reach the hospital, and Leda waits for Walt in the waiting room. She once attended each session, hoping to learn more about how to help her invalid husband. She thought maybe she could do some of the exercises with him at home. However, this is not possible. She is not strong enough and Walt is not amenable. So, she waits.
She tries to repeat that Spanish phrase in her head. “Como se llama?” It sounds pretty nice. So, she whispers the words outloud, hoping nobody will notice an old woman talking to herself. The words are now twisted and garbled. She sounds like an alien or a crazy woman talking about her pet llama. She gives up and decides to just remember.
She remembers being able to speak Spanish, but her most prominent memory of that time, the one she always tells her granddaughters, is the time she pretended to be a snake in the grass.
Soledad despises Anne Foster, a chubby girl with nothing-colored hair and a dirty mouth. Anne lives down the road from them, and therefore rides the same bus to the junior high school. Soledad has never found herself the target of Anne’s humiliations, but she hates watching her pick on tiny Consuela.
Consuela is Mexican. Soledad is Spanish. Their skin colors make all the difference. Because Consuela is darker, Anne picks on her readily. Consuela is an easy target for those who are dumb enough to hurt those who are different. Soledad knows she is different too, yet her difference is not visible. She has since given up speaking Spanish at all, even at home, and her light skin does not reveal her culture. Consuela, however, is not so lucky.
Anne’s bullying has gone on for months. Soledad has never been one to stand back and let bad things happen to others, whether she is friendly with them or not. The less fortunates always touch her heart, as they do Pilar’s. Soledad remembers her mama once feeding a hobo for several days until he found the next train. The depression had brought hard times to people, and Pilar did not let her own poverty stop her from sharing what she did have.
So, Soledad, seeing Anne push Consuela down the bus stairs, decides that now is the time to act. Soledad rushes to Consuela’s aid, yells after Anne, then brings Consuela into her confidence. When Anne is out of sight, Maria, Soledad, and Consuela make plans. Well, mostly Soledad and Maria do the planning while Consuela whimpers and stares at them wide-eyed. She does not have the guts that these two white-skinned girls have. But, Consuela finds herself secretly loving their wish to protect her.
The next day, the three give knowing glances to each other on the bus. Their plan is about to be enacted. After the bus has left them on the side of dusty Crossman Road, Soledad runs home, claiming she has loads of homework. Maria waits for her sister to be out of sight, then tells Anne that she wants her to see a big snake.
Anne rolls her eyes and tells Maria that the only big snake in their midst is Consuela, the filthy Mexican. Maria ignores the insult toward the small girl standing beside her and persists. She explains that the snake is dead in Mr. Holbrook’s field. They had found it yesterday. She tells Anne to come and see it. The fat, trashy girl lets her curiosity get the best of her, although she swears and curses Maria the entire time they are trudging through the clinging grasses of the unkempt field. Consuela had not followed, instead deciding to go home so she would not have to endure the humiliation should the plan go wrong.
As Anne begins to lose interest, telling Maria that there’s no snake and that she is going to beat her up for being a lying whore, Soledad pops up from among the tall grasses and hisses at Anne. The large girl did not expect to see her small neighbor waiting for her.
“I am the snake in the grass!” declares Soledad. “Now, you are going to pay.”
Soledad jumps on Anne, taking her down in a single swoop. She sinks her small yet feisty fists into Anne’s stomach, then sits on her to keep her down. She pulls her hair and threatens her with more unless she promises to leave Consuela alone. Anne, tear-stained, dirt-covered, and defeated, promises, so Soledad lets her up. The bully runs home, wailing loudly at her misfortune.
Maria and Soledad walk home slowly, savoring their victory. They feel proud and vindicated. They wish that Consuela had been there to see Anne’s humiliation. However, their gloating turns to terror once they reach their home. Anne’s mother, famous for always being drunk, even at 9 o’clock in the morning, stands between them and their front door waving a large stick. She swears at the girls and wildly waves her homemade club. Just as she begins to lunge toward them with the intent to do harm, Pilar appears in the doorway.
“You keep away from my niños!” she calls calmly. “Put down the club and go home. You are drunk.”
Mrs. Foster gives Pilar a nasty look, then turns her attention back to Maria and Soledad. “These two rats are only getting what they deserve,” she responds loudly, slurring her words. She steps toward the girls again, waving the stick menacingly.
“I’ve already called the police,” Pilar warns.
This turns the drunk woman’s head. She seems to contemplate this for a moment, then decides that Pilar is bluffing. She advances toward the girls again, swinging more fiercely.
It is then that the police car pulls up, proving that Pilar was not bluffing at all. Sure, they did not have a telephone, but she has Manuel, who can run to his Auntie’s house to call. The smugness on Mrs. Foster’s face vanishes. She slowly lowers her weapon and hangs her head.
The officer gives both women a talk, telling them to control their children. He then puts Mrs. Foster in the back of his car to escort her home. She is not arrested or charged.
Soledad and Maria find themselves breathing again as they rush into their mother’s arms. There they find warmth and comfort, but they do not get away with their trick without consequence. Pilar patiently listens to their story of triumph for Consuela but scolds them for putting themselves and their family in harm’s way. Pilar explains that Mrs. Foster is dangerous because of her drinking and asks the girls to stay away from Anne and the Foster home.
Soledad and Maria find themselves worried for school the next day. They tentatively enter the playground for recess, expecting Anne to jump them when they are not looking. The moment they have dreaded arrives when Anne’s older brother, Jeremy, approaches. He is tall and somewhat muscular. He has even begun to grow a mustache. However, he congratulates the girls, smiling at them and telling them that his sister got what she deserved. He thanks them for putting her in his place. Soledad and Maria feel proud again and know that what they did was right, even if they had to use deception and bullying to get it done.
The remembrance of this time is broken when the nurse escorts Walt back to Leda. She stands up quickly, not wanting her husband to know that she was reliving her childhood. She smooths her slacks, pats the back of her head, then takes Walt’s arm. The nurse continues with them to the car, and Leda is grateful for this. Walt seems more shaky today than before and she is not sure if she could have gotten him there on her own. Once he is seated and buckled, the nurse retreats. Leda gets in and drives home, deliberately popping her Spanish tape back in and trying to say the words she has not said in years. Walt is too tired to complain or grunt.