A few miles off the interstate, along a pot-holed county road heading into the woods, I pass the intersection where Uncle Mitch wrapped his car around a pin oak. I wince, feel the pulse in my neck quicken, then exhale the memory and refocus on the task at hand, the reason I’m on this God-forsaken stretch of road. I guess I’ve trained myself to ignore the impulse to revisit the sequence of events flowing from my choices that day. The day Aunt Bella died.
I recheck the map out of compulsion, knowing there’s no way I’m going to miss a giant prison complex ascending from tousled rows of oak, maple, and pine. I’ve never been to this facility, but I know this part of East Texas well. My family traveled here regularly to visit Mitch and Bella at their lake house when I was a kid. I picture my father opening his car window and tilting his face to catch the hollering, pine-sweetened wind. I see myself in the back seat of our family’s station wagon, thumbing through the pages of Seventeen magazine, my baby sister Emma sprawled next to me under a mountain of stuffed animals.
Diverting from my family’s bygone route, I follow a gravel road ending at the Goodrich Detention Center for Non-Citizens. It’s an imposing building with walls the color of clabbered milk, doors trimmed in a garish bright blue, its façade resembling a big-box retailer. A towering fence surrounds the building, above which looping razor wire stretches out like a Slinky.
I park the car, kill the ignition, and review my notes on the client I’m about to meet: Eladio Vasquez, a thirty-five-year-old lawful permanent resident, and citizen of Nicaragua, admitted to the United States in 1978 at the age of three. His mother, father, and sister have long since become U.S. citizens, but Eladio has not. Instead, he’s amassed convictions for theft, cocaine possession, multiple DUIs, and drunk-and-disorderlies.
“He’s never hurt anybody,” his sister Helen assured me during our consultation. “Just fell in with some bad people. I don’t know why; it’s not how he was raised.” Eladio’s record is hardly inconsequential, but the partners at my firm believe the immigration judge might rule in his favor. I told Helen we’d do the best we could, which is all I can say in these situations. I can’t guarantee anything, can’t make promises.
This is not the type of case our small firm typically handles. We mostly process green cards and temporary work visas, which have a more predictable timeline and generate large fees from the companies who hire us. Eladio’s family owns a technology company and has used our firm in the past, which is why Mr. Mehta, the head partner, agreed to represent Eladio. He’s asked me to take over because, three years ago, I helped a handful of clients in deportation proceedings for my law school’s immigration clinic. I’d told him those cases were different – the clients didn’t have criminal records and were mostly asylees – but he said it was still more immigration court experience than anyone else in the firm had. It’s not the most reassuring logic, but as a second-year associate, I’m in no position to decline the assignment. Once I’d seen that the detention facility is only a few miles from where Mitch lives, I told my father I’d look in on him, another concession I’m beginning to regret.
I look at myself in the rearview mirror and repeat Eladio’s name aloud, hoping it will spark confidence, even as the beads of sweat assemble under my arms, and another wanders the length of my spine. I sweep my rapidly frizzing hair into a small bun at the base of my neck – it’s the middle of July, so I’m expecting the parking lot to be a modest one hundred degrees. I don my blazer and walk across the parking lot, the exposed bolt of my worn left heel clicking against the pavement like a tap shoe. At the overly fortified gate, I push the button located next to what looks like an intercom.
A buzzer blares. The gate slides open, screeching in its tracks, anguished and dissonant. Inside the building, it’s meat-locker cold, and the room reeks of body odor and bleach. A heavy-set woman sits on a stool next to a baggage scanner under smirking headshots of President Bush and Vice President Cheney.
“Hello. I’m Vivian Kleinfeld,” I tell her. “I’m here to see Eladio Vasquez.”
She gives me the once-over and rolls her eyes as if my presence is disrupting her day. I send my things through the scanner, and a lanky, uniformed man with a Marine’s haircut introduces himself as “Gus,” then escorts me down the corridor to an empty waiting room. It’s dimly lit, yellowish, barren of any furniture. The opposite wall is a glass partition that reveals another room where I assume Eladio will be. The door slams behind me, and the clang echoes down the hallway until all that’s left is the sound of my own self-defeating thoughts.
After I engage in a few cycles of pep talks, the door on the other side of the glass opens, and Eladio saunters into the room. He is stout, shorter than I expect, his hair shaved to a dark-brown fade. His navy-blue prison garb, with its capped sleeves and V-neck, strangely resembles medical scrubs. We regard each other through the smeared glass, and I wonder which of us feels more exposed.
“Hi. I’m Vivian. Your sister Helen hired my firm to take your case.”
“Yeah, I know,” he replies, leaning into the glass. “So, look. When can you get me outta here because it’s been, like, six months, and I’m about to go crazy, like, seriously kill someone.”
“Well, unfortunately, with your criminal record, the judge can’t issue…”
“No, seriously. I will kill someone. This is fucked up. I didn’t even get this much time for that twenty-dollar rock they caught me with. And that stop was totally jacked, by the way; my tags weren’t expired. I’m a responsible person, okay? I have a kid, a job – or, at least, I had a job. I pay my child support, my taxes.”
“I know, Mr. Vasquez, it’s just that…”
“Besides, I’ve been in this country since I was a kid, but they’re gonna send me back to Nicaragua? What the hell am I supposed to do there?”
“Eladio, for Chrissakes.”
“Eladio. I know you’re frustrated and worried, but it doesn’t have to come to that. We just need to show the judge all the reasons you should get to stay.”
I explain what I’ll need from him and his family: documents, cooperation, patience. I assure him that, at tomorrow’s hearing, I’ll ask the judge for more time to prepare his application. I can’t tell if he’s listening or preparing his next diatribe. I can never tell if my clients are listening. Sometimes I’m not even listening to myself. Or, it’s like the words materialize in my voice, yet I’m not the one speaking. I’m not the one dispensing advice from the desk in my office or across the conference room table. My words aren’t reverberating through the slotted opening in the glass that separates me from Eladio. I’m sitting knees to chest on the dust-caked floor in the corner, watching someone else try in vain to connect her client to what is happening to him.
Eladio has resumed talking. He’s thrashing his arms about like he could punch the glass, but he’s laughing, saying something about his cellmate. “So, this deportation officer comes ‘round, trying to get people to sign up for voluntary removal or whatever, and Dominique’s all, ‘Sure, I’ll sign it, I’ll go, then I’ll cross back later and bring more guys with me next time.’ And the officer says, ‘oh, yeah, how many guys you think you can bring over – five, six?’ And Dominique’s like, ‘yeah, six, I can bring six.’”
“Eladio, I need you to focus…”
“Can you believe that? Guy comes and goes, comes and goes; a ‘frequent flyer,’ the officer tells me. Like, even he knows it’s all one big fucking joke.”
“Listen, Eladio. Could you please listen? This is important. When the judge or ICE attorney questions you, be honest and answer only the question asked. They’ll ask you about your convictions. They can ask you anything they want. The ICE attorney especially may try to rattle you, make you look bad, but you need to stay calm, not let him get to you. Understand?”
“Uh huh.” He looks to the ceiling and shrugs. As I’m preparing to give him my it’s difficult to predict the outcome but try to stay positive speech, a security officer opens the door to Eladio’s room and says he needs to take Eladio to dinner. It’s 4:30. Eladio gives me a nod as he’s led out by the officer. I open the door to find Gus lurking on the other side. He accompanies me back down the corridor to the exit and out of the building.
My car is now a sauna, so I strip off my blazer before digging into my bag for the directions to my hotel, as well as Mitch’s phone number. Dad has stayed in contact with Mitch over the years since his release from state prison, a decision my mother has tolerated by refusing to acknowledge. Although it’s been thirteen years since the accident, no one questions her resolve. Bella was Mom’s younger sister and best friend. Her death kept Mom confined to her bedroom for months. My father’s grieving process compelled him to forgive Mitch and try to repair their fractured relationship. My mother’s required her to forget him entirely.
I know Mom’s never blamed me for what happened, only Mitch, and she wouldn’t want me visiting him. What I don’t know is what to expect from Mitch when I see him, assuming I can find him. I dial his number, but there’s no answer and no voicemail, so I head to my hotel.
As the road threads in and out of the woods, I think back to everything I learned about the region from Mitch and Bella. An “ecological wonderland,” Bella had called it. They’d chosen their lakeside A-frame because of her love for wildlife. She would take Emma and me on hikes around the lake, describing with encyclopedic precision the various flora and fauna while helping Emma collect bugs in jars. An avid birdwatcher, Bella had journals filled with photographs and notes on her latest discoveries. She could demonstrate bird calls – herons, egrets, raptors – which Emma would attempt to imitate until the buzzing of her lips and the sounds emitted sent her rolling on the ground in a fit of giggles.
Some afternoons, Mitch would take Emma and me out on the lake in his rowboat to fish. We seldom caught anything. I suspect the real purpose of the excursion was to give everyone else a break from Mitch. On the lake, Emma and I were a captive audience, and he’d amuse us with stories of his past, which only got more exaggerated with each retelling and every swig from his ubiquitous Rotary Club thermos.
Vincent Micheletti was born and raised in Manhattan’s lower east side; his family cramped in a tiny apartment stacked amid those of other Italian immigrants. At fourteen, he’d run away from his alcoholic father and gotten a job driving a cab by lying about his age. He migrated to Texas, put himself through college and graduate school (allowing for an unspecified number of draft deferments) by working as a longshoreman, hauling barrels of hazardous chemicals along the Houston ship channel. Later, he taught high school English for exactly two years. “Those kids didn’t want to learn,” he’d recall. “Had no real interest in literature. They refused to look beyond the surface to see the story within the story.” He’d pause, then add, “Plus, the pay was lousy.”
Mitch met my father while the two of them were working for IBM as technical writers, and my parents introduced him to Bella. My dad and Mitch were best friends, though their personalities couldn’t have been more different. Dad was introverted, loyal, forgiving to a fault. Mitch was outspoken and perpetually unsettled. He had opinions about everything: the timber companies, the encroaching prison system, President Reagan’s foreign, environmental, and economic policies. He could go on about Reagan forever, while my father, who’d voted for Reagan both terms, would just shake his head in amusement.
Mitch seemed so smart to me back then – almost otherworldly. And Bella was his queen. Antheia, he called her, for the Greek goddess of gardens and marshland. (He’d made me look it up when I asked.) Like my father, I was shy, awkward, bookish. But in school, those attributes hadn’t earned me many friends. Mitch and Bella freed me from such labels. The piney woods became my refuge, the A-frame an escape from adolescence. For a while, anyway.
I check into my hotel room and try calling Mitch again. Part of me hopes he won’t answer. After a few rings, I hear a click and the faint sound of breathing.
“Hello. Mitch? It’s Vivian.”
“It’s me, your niece, Vivian.”
“Oh, Geez, Vivi. Sorry.”
“That’s okay. I hope you don’t mind my calling. Dad gave me your number.”
“Nope, no, it’s fine. Surprised is all.”
“I understand. The thing is, I’m at a hotel off the freeway in Livingston. I have some business in the area and just thought I’d get in touch, see how you are, catch up.”
“Wow. Yeah, okay, sounds good, anything for you, Vivi. Except, listen, I’m about to head out, meet some folks. Kind of a regular thing, you know?”
“Oh. Well then don’t worry about it,” I say too eagerly.
“No, no. Why don’t you come? It’s just a few minutes’ drive if you take Mill Ridge over to Washington then Pan American. We’re on the right.”
“I’m sorry, Mitch. What am I looking for, exactly?”
“Right. It’s a bar, Vivi. That a problem?”
“No. It’s just – I haven’t had dinner.”
“No worries; they have food. Come on by, my treat. Place is called ‘Bandits.’”
Of course, it is. “Okay, Mitch. See you soon.”
I head to the bar with what little direction Mitch gave me. More than once, I consider bailing. I feel a pit in my stomach open and deepen. I wonder what to say to him, what he does with his time. I know that the A-frame is gone and that the property, along with several adjacent plots of land, was bought by a developer and turned into condominiums while Mitch was serving his sentence. After his release, he’d found some land not far from the old place and bought himself a double-wide, trying to make the best of the worst, as my father had put it. I can’t even recall the last conversation I had with him.
What I do remember is that I was thirteen the summer I discovered what was in Mitch’s thermos. We were out on the boat for our usual afternoon tour. The breeze was gusty, creating enough chop in the water to make me slightly queasy. Emma, who’d turned six that June, was whipping her child-sized fishing rod around like a wand, peppering Mitch with questions about worms. Through a pair of binoculars, I was scouting the shoreline, trying both to settle my stomach and figure out which houses had swimming pools.
As we rounded a cluster of reeds and shrubbery, a horde of bugs swarmed the boat, and more than one flew into my mouth. I gagged, spat over the side, and, without thinking, grabbed the thermos to rinse out the bug taste. The sharp caramel-like liquid burned my throat, and I coughed up what felt like sand. My eyelids buzzed, as my cheeks, ears, and neck absorbed the warmth of the drink. Mitch yanked the thermos from my hand, his eyes ablaze. I didn’t need to ask him what I had consumed, and he didn’t tell me. We stared at each other only a moment; then I returned to my scouting. We didn’t speak of the incident again.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know adults drank. My parents did, weren’t shy about it. Mitch and Bella served them plenty. The fact that Mitch had a private stash, however, was news to me, as it would have been to everyone else. I had discovered his secret and decided to keep it.
Over the next two years, there developed an unspoken contract between us. It began as an experiment on my part during our next visit. It was Thanksgiving, and I was picking at the remaining threads of turkey on my plate, watching my parents and Mitch and Bella polish off bottles of red wine, one luxurious glass after another. Mitch was talking about how he’d supposedly helped create The Big Thicket nature preserve, a national park forty miles east of the A-frame.
“So, I’m having a drink at this hole-in-the-wall in Livingston. And who walks in but none other than ‘Good Time Charlie’ Wilson and another man – some timber tycoon wearing a suit, cowboy boots, and a look of pomposity, no doubt all hat no cattle,” Mitch explained as if we’d all know exactly what he meant.
“Who’s Charlie Wilson?” I asked.
“Our congressman,” Bella said. “Known for his – flamboyance, we’ll call it.”
“Among other things,” Mitch continued. “And I could tell by the way he’d wobbled in that he was already half in the bag at four p.m.; so, I’m thinking, this is my chance, and I start sending over drinks to him and this lobbyist. And, before you know it, the three of us are at a table in the corner, shot glasses lined up, hammering out the details. You see, Vivi, the trick is to get industry on your side if you wanna get anything accomplished these days.”
“Did that really happen?” I asked Bella.
“Vivian, honey, consider the source,” she said, rolling her eyes.
Meals with Mitch and Bella, in general, were exuberant, drawn-out affairs. Mitch would spin his tales, Bella would tell him, Mitch, come off it, and my parents would throw back their heads and laugh with inebriated approval. It was a scene I knew well, one that played out most visits in some version or another as if the A-frame had been constructed solely for these performances.
At fourteen, maybe I just wanted a role, too.
That night after dinner, Dad and Mitch retired to Mitch’s study for their usual scotch and cards, while the rest of us settled into the living room to watch The Sound of Music for the umpteenth time. When Mom and Bella had both nodded off, I snuck back into the dining room and surveyed the collection of glass carafes on the buffet table that stored Mitch and Bella’s liquor supply. I selected one at random, removed the stopper, and gingerly poured the liquid into my plastic cup like it was a magic potion. I was attempting to replace the stopper without it clinking when Mitch appeared in the doorway. I froze and met his gaze. He grinned. “Go ahead and leave it off – I’m in need of replenishment myself,” he said. I nodded and placed the stopper back on the buffet. “Now, you’d better get back in there before they wonder where you are,” he added. I took my drink and left.
During the visits that followed, roughly every three months, I’d find one of the carafes, stopper removed, waiting for me in the evenings after dinner. If it was an offer, I accepted it without hesitation. If it was Mitch attempting, however misguidedly, to facilitate my coming of age, I was all too ready to embark. There’d been a meeting of the minds, multiple overt acts, so maybe it was a conspiracy. Whatever the case, I’d kept his secret, and I knew he’d keep mine.
I locate Bandits in the middle of an isolated strip mall, situated between a nail salon and a paint store, and it’s pretty much what I expect. Dim lighting, two- and four-top tables clustered in the center of the room, red vinyl booths on the perimeter, threadbare green carpet strewn with peanut shells, the crack of pool cues emanating from the back corner. The bar itself is long but sparsely occupied; most patrons are huddled in the booths.
I scan the place for Mitch and spot him sitting alone at a table near the bar. I approach, and, without speaking, he stands and hugs me. He seems smaller, more fragile than I remember, his formerly salt-and-pepper hair now solid white, but I’m surprised by the intensity of his embrace. His arms grasp my back and pull me close enough to feel his lungs expand and contract against my chest. He plants a light kiss on my cheek, then pulls back and gestures for me to take a seat.
“Wow, are you a sight,” he declares, smiling. “You look good. Are you well?”
“Yes, yes, I am. You?”
“Ah, you know, can’t complain.”
“That’s good,” I say, hiking myself onto the barstool.
“So…Your dad tells me you’re a lawyer. He’s kept me apprised of everything – well, some of what you girls have been up to. Emma’s at UT, and you’re an attorney in Houston. You had a dream, and you made it happen.”
I want to tell him dream is probably the wrong word. “Well, that’s why I’m here,” I explain. “Weird, right?” I unbundle my utensils and smooth the thin, brittle napkin onto my lap. There’s nothing on the table to eat or drink, but I need to keep my fidgety hands occupied.
“How’s that?” He looks at me as if I need diagnosing.
“I have a client at the immigration facility in Goodrich who has a hearing tomorrow.”
“Immigration? Whatever possessed you to do that?” he asks, draining the rest of his drink, his initial pride in my chosen profession seemingly overridden by disappointment.
“Oh, you know, either the desire to help people or the need to feel eternally frustrated; take your pick.” I have yet to come up with a satisfying answer for why I do what I do. In this instance, because the questioner is Mitch, I opt for sarcasm.
“So, what’s the deal? Your guy crossed the desert, got caught, and now the feds have
nothing better to do than send him back?”
“No, nothing like that. He’s here lawfully. Just committed too many crimes.”
Our waitress arrives, diverting Mitch’s attention from the intricacies of my job. She’s dressed in mini-skirt and black jersey top with a deep, cleavage-revealing V-neck. Her purplish-red hair is piled high on her head, and silver hoops the size of tennis balls swing from her earlobes. She places her hand on Mitch’s shoulder, then readjusts his collar, suggesting they have a history. Her eyes shift over to me, and I wonder whether she thinks I’m competition.
“Another Dewar’s, Mitch?” she asks, still looking at me.
“Yes, Marilyn, that would be outstanding,” he responds, setting his empty glass on her tray. “And one for my long-lost niece, Vivian.”
“Oh, I’ll just have a light beer,” I say. “Whatever’s on tap is fine.”
“You bet, sweetie,” she chirps, her confidence restored. “Need a menu?”
“Alrighty then. Be right back.” She squeezes Mitch’s arm and turns for the bar.
“She’s lovely,” I tell him. He wags his finger.
“Not what you think,” he insists. “I’m a regular here, is all.”
“Yeah, I can see that.”
“Okay, good. We’re on the same page then.”
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
“I’m fine. Really, Vivian. I know your dad sent you here to check on me, but there’s nothing to worry about. Everything’s under control.”
“I’m not here to check on you,” I lie. “But, well, you did ask me to meet you at a bar, and…I don’t know.” I begin tearing my napkin into strips of ribbon under the table.
“It’s not a problem,” he says. “I know my limit.”
“Mitch, I’m not sure you…”
“Listen, Vivi. I did my time. I sat in that cell for three years thinking about nothing but Bella, everyone I ever hurt, every decision I ever made. I pissed in cups, went to meetings, consulted my higher power, the whole bit for another ten years. I’m done. I’m sixty-eight years old, and I’m living the rest my life on my own terms.”
“Are you allowed to drive?”
“Technically, yes; but I’ve never renewed my license. I have a bicycle.”
“A bicycle?” The image of Mitch on a bike is difficult for me to visualize.
“Yes, a bicycle. It gets me everywhere I need to go, not that the list of potential destinations is all that long. And if I have too much fun here, the only person I’m at risk of killing is me. That’s sound reasoning, don’t you think?”
His insolence unsettles me, even though Mitch has never been known for his tact. “Better for the environment, too,” I mumble. I can’t tell if he’s trying to be funny, but I know he wouldn’t joke about the accident if my parents were here.
Marilyn returns with our drinks and places a laminated one-page menu in front of me. I give it a quick look and order a cheeseburger and fries. Mitch takes a long drink of scotch, and I follow with a sip of my beer. It’s ice cold, the way I like it, and feels oddly cleansing.
“Where is everyone else?” I ask him.
“What do you mean?”
“On the phone, earlier, you said you were meeting folks, so…”
“Ah, right. They canceled at the last minute; they send their regrets.” He lifts his glass as if to toast, then finishes off the scotch. I suspect the only regular engagement he has here is with Marilyn and her supply of Dewar’s, but I refrain from asking whether he’s hit his “limit.”
“You know, you’re the reason I became a lawyer,” I say. He doesn’t immediately respond, just looks up at me, his expression a mix of pity and aggravation.
“I’m serious.” I realize only as I’m saying it that it’s the truth – partially, anyway.
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“After everything you went through? You shouldn’t have had to go to jail for that long,” I explain, not knowing why I’m telling him this, what possible impact my opinion on the issue of his sentencing could have at this point.
“Oh, you think so? Come on, Vivi. You know the law.”
“What about mitigating circumstances? You had no other record. Your attorney could’ve negotiated better terms.”
“So, what? You couldn’t save me, so you need to save everyone else, and that’s why you became a lawyer? That’s touching, Vivi; it is.”
“Please, I’m under no illusions about…”
“Look, all I’m saying is that people make choices. I made the wrong one. I killed my wife, I paid the consequences. And I’ll live with this hole in my gut until I finally die. Your guy, he’s made choices that he’ll have to live with, wherever the feds send him or don’t send him. You’re not responsible for that. You can’t fix broken people.”
I hear something in his voice – an inflection I’d once confused for conviction, self-righteousness disguised as certitude. “Well, then, I suppose I should just quit my job, get a bike, and park myself at a dive bar, where I can bitch about what a mess the world is. That’s a much better use of my time.” He stares into my eyes. There’s more I need to say, more I want to know, and the words jet out of me.
“How was I the only one who knew you spent most of the day drinking?” I ask.
“Now, Vivi, wait a sec…”
“Did you take us out on the boat so that they wouldn’t know, or were they all just as blitzed as you were? What were you thinking letting me have it, too?”
“Vivi, don’t do this…”
“How could you think you were okay to drive that night? No, don’t tell me. You made a bad choice, and we all just have to live with the consequences.”
I realize I don’t care how Mitch is doing. I need more than solemn resignation. Maybe I need reassurance, something elusive that no one can provide.
Marilyn arrives with my food, presumably having heard our exchange.
“We’ll each have the Dewar’s this time,” Mitch tells her. I’ve had only a few sips of beer, but I don’t object. I look down at my plate. “I’m sorry,” I say, gathering up the lettuce, tomato, and pickles, arranging and rearranging them atop my cheeseburger patty as if I’m about to be judged on how neatly the whole thing is assembled.
Mitch rests his hand on my shoulder. “You’re the last person who needs to be sorry.”
I take a couple of bites of the burger, but it’s dry, and I don’t want to eat it. I lift my mug to my lips instead and chug the rest of my beer, relishing the icy carbonation as it flows through me, one cascading gulp after another. I plunk the mug back onto the table harder than I intend and begin picking at my fries.
Marilyn returns with two scotches and two tumblers of water. “This’ll be the last one for you, Micheletti. Understand?”
I want to hug her.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he replies, then consumes the entire glass in one swallow. I alternate taking sips of the scotch and the water, and neither of us speaks for several minutes.
“So, what do you expect will happen with your guy; what are his chances?” Mitch asks.
“Listen…Never mind what I said before. It’s good that he has you standing up for him. Not an easy thing to do, I would think, to let someone lean on you, bear his burden as your own. It’s brave of you, Vivian.”
I nod, reluctant to accept his approval. “Mitch, I should go. I need to rest and prepare for the hearing.” I reach into my wallet for some cash.
“Nope; my treat,” he says, then goes to the bar to settle the tab with Marilyn.
I slide down from my stool and head for the door.
Outside the air has cooled and the sky is bathed in a twilight blue blending to a ribbon of pink over the horizon. The atmosphere carries me back to the A-frame, and I picture the six of us gathered on the back porch, or around the firepit, watching the sun’s measured descent over the lake. Despite everything that’s happened, or maybe because of it, this place – the house, the lake, the piney woods – will always feel to me as though it exists in another realm.
Mitch comes out of the bar, walks to the end of a long row of motorcycles, and rolls his bike over to where I’m standing.
“Let me give you a lift,” I say.
“Nah. I’ll be okay. Go back to your hotel and work on your case. When you’re done tomorrow, give me a call. We can get lunch or something.”
“Sure,” I tell him, although I have no intention of contacting him and suspect he knows this. Even if I could articulate what I need, I see that he has nothing left to offer. He’s done.
He gives me a quick hug, then hops on the bike and takes off. I watch the wheels jerk and bob in the gravel lot until they reach the paved road and propel him into the night.
The next morning, I arrive at the courtroom just before the 10:00 hearing and take a seat at the desk in front. Across the aisle, the government’s ICE attorney is already shuffling through mounds of files, perusing documents, punching holes, and organizing everything in the wire cart next to him. He lifts his head to acknowledge my presence but doesn’t introduce himself.
In the back of the courtroom, Eladio’s sister Helen sits with an older man whom I assume is Eladio’s father. A young boy, maybe six or seven, leans against the man and sleeps the way only a child could in this situation. A side door opens, and Eladio emerges, handcuffed, led by a security officer who guides him to the chair next to me. “How’s it going?” Eladio whispers as the guard removes the cuffs. I’m about to respond when the ICE attorney hands me a sheet of paper.
“Did you know about this?” he asks.
“About what? What is it?” I skim the document – something issued by the State of Arizona that pertains to Eladio.
“Possession with intent to sell; an aggravated felony,” he explains.
“What? No, that’s not right. It’s possession only.”
“You’re thinking of his ‘99 Texas conviction for cocaine possession. This one’s from a couple of years ago, 2003, Arizona. We just discovered it – he didn’t tell you? Possession for sale, two pounds of methamphetamine. That equals drug trafficking which equals aggravated felony which means he’s not eligible for discretionary relief. It’s all over for him.”
I reread the page, try to focus on its contents – the code sections, names, dates – but the lines of text blur and split into incoherent fragments. Neither Helen nor Eladio mentioned this. The partners, despite supposedly running a background check for “due diligence,” had missed it, or maybe they don’t know how the law works. What had Eladio just asked me? How’s it going? I can’t begin to answer.
I hear the gavel come down, watch Judge O’Brien enter the courtroom and everyone rise from their seats, including me. Only it doesn’t feel like me. My heart drums against the lining of my blazer, while my mind attempts to organize thoughts, formulate arguments. But it is no longer me. I am organs and muscle and bone cobbled together for an unknown purpose, a vessel with nothing to convey.
The judge makes introductions and gives advisals. He addresses Eladio, and Eladio addresses him, nods, says he understands the nature of the proceedings. Everyone sits. Eladio looks at me, asks a question. Pages are passed back and forth between the judge and ICE counsel, statutes and case law are discussed, heads nod in agreement over what it all means. I show Eladio the page regarding the Arizona conviction, and he sighs, says yes, it’s his.
The information disables us, yet I have no reaction.
“Excuse me...Ms. Kleinfeld…Counsel, are you okay?” Judge O’Brien is speaking to me.
“I’m sorry, Your Honor. Yes.”
“You agree with us regarding the nature of Mr. Vasquez’s conviction, don’t you? I mean, the case law’s fairly clear on this. I just need you to state whether you have any objection to this evidence or whether there’s an argument you’d like to make.”
“Yes, Your Honor. I mean…Yes, I agree regarding the nature of the conviction and the case law. No…I …I have no arguments to make.”
“Then, what else have we got? At his last hearing, your colleague Mr. Mehta stated that Mr. Vasquez has no fear of being harmed in Nicaragua, so asylum-related relief is off the table, right? Is that correct, counsel?”
“Well, then, I have no choice…”
“Wait, Your Honor, if we could just have more time, I’d like to…”
“Counsel, I don’t see anything here for him. He was given a previous continuance, and at this point, based on the evidence and information provided, I don’t see what more time is going to do for him.”
“I realize that, Your Honor, but if we could just…”
“Thank you, Ms. Kleinfeld, that will be enough. Now, I have no choice but to order his removal based on the allegations and charges, which I find have been sustained. Mr. Vasquez, you can speak with your attorneys about appealing this ruling, but essentially, because of your methamphetamine conviction, you’re not eligible for any relief, so I must order your removal. Good luck to you, Sir.”
The gavel comes down, and everyone rises again. The courtroom is quiet save for the sound of stunned whispers and Helen’s muffled cries. The guard re-cuffs Eladio, escorts us to a room across the hall from the courtroom, and waits outside so the two of us can speak privately.
“What the hell just happened?” Eladio glares at me, eyes bulging. “Why wouldn’t he give us more time?” I search for a right way to talk him through the labyrinthine development of the law (setting aside, for the moment, his own trail of decisions) that led us to this result, but I know it’s not possible. I remember to breathe. Answer only the question asked.
“Because it won’t do you any good,” I explain. “You never told me about Arizona. That paper I showed you – the trafficking conviction from 2003. Ring any bells?”
“No way, that wasn’t trafficking. It was possession with intent; there was no sale. That’s why I only got eight months.”
“It doesn’t matter. That’s not how the law views it. It’s considered trafficking, and it makes you ineligible to stay. I’m so sorry, Eladio.”
“But you can appeal it though, right?”
“Technically, you have that right. But I’m telling you, I don’t think you’ll win.”
“You don’t think? It’s your job to make sure I do win.” He moves closer to me as he speaks, shaking his handcuffed wrists in my face.
The small room could suffocate us both, but his body language rouses something in me. I recognize his fear, his need to control the outcome. But how can I make him understand that not everything can be fixed? That remorse and redemption won’t raise the dead. That I can’t bear his burdens.
“I know what my job is,” I say. “What I mean is that you won’t win. We don’t have grounds for an appeal; there’s case law that we can’t get around.”
“But you still have to try. What the hell kind of attorney are you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m not one anymore.” I turn my back to him to knock for the guard. I feel his cuffs against my left shoulder as he attempts to spin me around, but I shrug him off me, and he takes a step back, lets his hands drop.
“You can’t quit,” he says. “I’m not going back to Nicaragua, no way.”
“Eladio, think about your future, your son’s future. Nicaragua’s not so bad. Hell, people travel there all the time now. I saw an article about it somewhere. There’s lots of land, farms, beaches. You could have a whole new life. Your son could visit, or move with you, for that matter. Haven’t you ever wanted to just start over?” I know it sounds absurd, desperate even, but it’s the only thing that makes sense in my head, the only advice that feels honest.
“What the fuck is wrong with you? Are you high right now? I don’t want to go back to Nicaragua and start over. My son is not moving to Nicaragua to start over. Neither of us even speaks Spanish. Our life is here. Maybe you need to go somewhere and find yourself, but I don’t, so, Fuck You, you’re fired. I’ll find someone else to take my appeal.”
He pushes past me and pounds on the door, yelling for the guard to come and take him to see his family. The guard guides him to the far end of the hallway and around the corner. I return to the courtroom to get my things and find Helen waiting for me.
“You’re going to appeal the decision, aren’t you? You have to,” she pleads, her face blotched with tear stains, her eyes refilling as she speaks. I look down, gather up the piles of paper on the table, and file them into my bag.
“It won’t do any good,” I say without looking up.
“I swear I didn’t know about Arizona. We were estranged for a while. There must be...”
“He just fired me, so there’s nothing to discuss.”
“Forget that; he can’t fire you. I’m the one who’s paying you. I’ll decide…”
“Actually, I quit. I’m sorry, Helen. I wish I could help but I can’t. Call the partners and ask for someone else.”
I leave her standing in the courtroom and race through the labyrinth of corridors until I somehow find my way out of the building. The stifling glare of the sun and the thick humid air tackle me in a blanket of steel wool. I tear away from the lot, roll down the windows, and let the hot wind sting my face. I drive and drive and drive, unconcerned about where I’m going, turning onto roads I don’t know, my only desire to wrestle free of the grip on my shoulders, the weight against my chest.
As the road unfurls into the woods, the air softens, and rays of sunlight slice through the velvet canopy. I glimpse the river that braids through the tangled mass of green towards the lake, and suddenly, I recognize where I am. Years of development have thinned the woodland along the lakeshore, and several of the houses I pass are unfamiliar to me, but I know this road, and I know where it leads.
I slow down and continue down the road until I reach the edge of a three-story townhome complex that stands where Mitch and Bella’s A-frame once did. I slip out of my shoes and sweat-soaked blazer, leave my car, and walk around the side of the complex towards the lake. The grounds behind the building have been manicured into a landscape of redbud trees, Adirondack chairs, and picnic tables. A group of residents plays beach volleyball, and I watch as they take turns punching the ball over the net and diving into the plush sand. I catch my breath, while my mind works to comprehend that this is the same land I traipsed as a child and teenager. How could I not hold myself responsible for this transformation, for Bella’s death and Mitch’s imprisonment, for the loss of so much good in our lives?
I had kept Mitch’s secret, but mine was uncovered. It was October, one week before my sixteenth birthday. We were gathered around the firepit after supper when Bella surprised me with a cake she and my mother had made while Mitch, Emma, and I were out on the lake. Bella’s face beamed in the yellow glow of the fire as she held the cake, and my mother lit the candles. Everyone sang, Bella cut the cake, and the thick frosted slices made their way around the circle.
Then Emma wanted more soda, insisted she couldn’t eat without it. She didn’t want to go back inside, and no one volunteered to get it for her. My mother, seated next to me, offered her some of mine and reached for my cup, which I was holding between my knees as I ate. I had spiked the drink earlier with whatever whiskey Mitch had left open. A look crept over Mom’s face when I grabbed her wrist, saying no, Emma shouldn’t have that. Maybe it was the look on my face. Or the fact that I let my cake fall to the ground to keep Mom from taking my cup. She surprised me. I’d been so careful. No one had ever felt the need to look in my cup or smell its contents. Maybe it was only a matter of time. Maybe Mom didn’t need to lift the cup to her lips to know what was in it. Maybe a mother just knows.
I remember feeling outside of myself the moment I snatched the drink back from her, downed what was left, and threw the cup into the fire. I remember being overcome with rage knowing I’d have to relinquish the alternative self I’d created in this other realm. I remember everyone’s eyes on me as I watched the plastic cup writhe and dissolve into the lapping flames, my mother’s fingers pressing into my arm as she led me from the firepit and into the house, my father close behind, demanding to know what had gotten into me.
Inside there was no dramatic confrontation, only my parents’ silent, deliberate collecting of belongings, Bella’s eyes imploring them to stay and talk, and my mother explaining that she wasn’t mad at her or Mitch, but that Vivian needs to understand that her behavior has consequences. I remember thinking that Mitch had nothing to worry about, that he’d be pleased I’d kept his secret.
We left the lake house for Houston that night under a black sky veiled in a web of gray; the narrow, tree-lined road to the highway lit only by the car’s headlights. We traveled in silence. I tried to sleep but couldn’t. It felt like we’d never get home. I didn’t want us to.
Two days later, Mitch called my father from the hospital with the news. He told Dad that the accident had occurred the night we left. He explained that, soon after our departure, he’d confessed to Bella, told her he’d been my corrupting influence. He’d wanted to follow us, set things right. He couldn’t be dissuaded. Bella had asked him if he was okay to drive, and he’d said “yes.” She insisted on going with him. They’d only gotten a few miles from the house when it happened. Bella was dead just hours after cutting my birthday cake.
Mitch spent ten days in the hospital, then three years in prison for vehicular manslaughter. My mother went to bed, and I went to a therapist who, for six months, sat in a leather chair, holding a legal pad and a cup of tea, and waited for me to speak.
I never could.
Maybe I went to law school and became a lawyer because it involved hours of study, memorization, the application of facts to laws, the development of arguments that led to logical conclusions. Maybe I wanted to believe justice was something that could be calculated using these conventional formulas. And that recovery could be the byproduct.
The grass is warm and prickly through my toes and against my feet. I shuffle towards the lake, ghostlike, and lower myself to the grass. The unrelenting rays of the sun bear down on me, but I lie back, press my body into the grass, and grip the feathery blades. I need the searing warmth on my skin to mirror the heat within. As the fire burns, charring me from the inside, the embers gather, and I feel that urge, once again, to melt away.
But I lie still and listen to the harmonizing leaves in the trees, the punching of a ball, bodies tumbling to the sand. I hear a voice calling to me from the charred space, asking to speak – to the sun, the lake, the piney woods, the rare birds waiting to be discovered. It wants to speak for Bella, our Antheia, and the memories it’s stolen.
I listen as it tells me to bury the embers for good.