The Land of Opportunity welcomes All

After living in the states for a few years, you can no longer take the New York winters. You move south in search of warmer weather for you and your six-year-old. You find a trailer park with nothing but illegals, just like you, except for one. The day you move in, he comes to your door holding a blackberry pie and says, Hello, I’m required by law, followed by a lot of English you don’t understand.

            Mucho gusto, you say, reaching for the outheld pie you know you won’t eat, because you don’t trust strangers. You try to take up more space in your doorway so that he can’t see inside your trailer, even though it contains only two cardboard boxes filled with the only things you own. You didn’t leave much behind in the one-bedroom apartment you shared with four other women and their children, but you know the less you have in this world, the more it matters. You learned this a year ago, when your husband left. You didn’t want him to go, but the U.S. did.

            Mucho gusto, he repeats, extending his white, cigarette-stained hand. You nod your head towards it, lifting the pie pan a little, pretending it’s the reason you don’t extend yours as well. Your six-year-old runs to the door to see what’s happening. Hello there, the man says, raising his pitch.

            Go, you say to your son a little louder than you’d wanted to, nudging him with your leg before he can shake the man’s hand. He runs off down the hall, and you smile at the man, hoping you haven’t made an enemy on the first day.

            Okay, he says. I’m here if you need anything. He smiles and waves goodbye, walking back to his trailer.

            You close the door and take the pie to the kitchen, scooping it out with a spoon. Your son watches it spill into the trash bag. Don’t even think about it, you say, knowing he’s hungry. You have a job lined up as a maid at the Motel 6 starting tomorrow, but for now, the last of your money went toward the Greyhound tickets and first month’s rent. You look in your purse for the sandwich bag of cold rellenos you and your son have been eating for the past two days. You hold them out to him. He looks away, and you hear his stomach rumble.  

 

            After your nine-hour shift of changing bed sheets, cleaning toilets, and wiping up vomit, the head maid, Clara, tells you that you can leave for the day and hands you $30. You catch the bus away from the bad part of town and head home to your son in a worse part of town, remembering to stop for groceries.

            You see your son waiting for you on the steps that lead up to their trailer and call out to him. He waves back and runs to hug you. Hola, Mamá, he says.

            Hola, mi corazón. You lead him inside to unbag the canned goods and expired cereal. You’re putting up the Kool-Aid powder your son loves, when there’s a knock at the door. You almost expect it to be the man from yesterday, but it isn’t.

            Buenas tardes, says the woman, who introduces herself as your next-door neighbor. She’s holding hands with a little boy about your son’s age. You offer her something to drink, but she turns it down. The neighbor is about to say something else, when you both hear a door open and turn to look. The man from yesterday walks out of his trailer and lights a cigarette. When the woman turns back to look at you, you notice that the woman has lost some of the color in her cheeks. The woman turns away from you, pulling the little boy behind her. You call after her, but she doesn’t turn around. You hear the deadbolt echo through the otherwise silent trailer park after the woman shuts her door behind her.

.           .           .           .           .

            Later that evening, it’s still hot, so you make a mental note to buy a fan. It’s nothing compared to the heat back home—not New York, but home home—and no one had warned you about the humidity. You’re unpacking your second box of belongings when you come across a polaroid of you and your husband standing in front of your apartment building with Queens, NY 1989 scribbled on the back, in his terrible handwriting. That was eight years ago. You look at your son, who’s reading through the same comic book he read and re-read during the entire trip to Tennessee. You tell him you’re stepping outside.

            You sit on the same step your son sat on that afternoon and see your neighbor talking with someone you don’t recognize. The woman notices you and walks over, holding the little boy. After you exchange pleasantries, the woman says, Ese hombre, signaling with her head over at the man’s trailer, was he bothering you yesterday?

            No, you say. Trajo pastel.

            The woman nods her head knowingly. That’s how he tricks them, she says. He’s why mi hijo never leaves my sight again. But don’t worry, she says, he won’t be here much longer. With that, she puts her index finger up to her lips and walks back to her trailer.

 

            You wake up the next morning to the sound of fire truck sirens. You step outside and see firehoses connected to hydrants. The man who introduced himself to you that first day is standing outside of his burning trailer. Your next-door neighbor stands with a few men from other trailers who stare at the flames, relieved, their children at their sides. 

            Cigarette related, a fireman says to a news camera.

            You can tell he’s lying.

            They’re the only people worse than illegals, he says.

            The neighbor woman walks over to you, her little boy in tow. Don’t worry, she says, our children are safe for now.

Jared Lemus is a Latinx writer whose work has appeared in the Kenyon Review Online, PANK, Prime Number Magazine, and elsewhere. He is an MFA candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, where he has been awarded the William S. Dietrich Fellowship. He currently serves as a contributing editor for Barren Magazine.