Oracle: a short story by Alia Volz
I cannot make you understand how much I love this place. I love our houses the color of sand, so you can look over the town from up on Mt. Lemmon and almost miss it. I love that everyone knows my name. When I walk into the Oracle Market, Will Whitby says “Hey, Maxine, how are the boys?” Our families go to the same church. It seems like we all did when I was a girl.
Well, there’s a new church in town, Santa Maria de Whatever. There are people who do not say hello to me on the street, but watch their feet instead. Who can’t pronounce my name right even when they try. And who don’t care about my kids.
So why should I?
Care, I mean.
Any minute now, a bus will arrive full of children whose parents up and shipped them across the border, special delivery, their problem to our doorstep. Would you believe, 60,000 unaccompanied kids since October. I’m not making that up, that’s CNN. Obama wants us to house a busload of them at the senior center until ICE gets its act together. Wasn’t even going to tell us, tried to slip them in under our noses, but Sheriff Dauphine found out and now we all know.
There’s a bunch of us out today, fifty or so, taking a stand. We made our own signs; mine says, Return to Sender. I’m not the type that’s always protesting this-or-that, but it’s gone too far. Just this morning, I dropped my Ralphie at the YMCA for the summer camping trip, and like half the kids were talking Spanish. Some of the counselors, too.
Look, it’s not like I’m a racist. Our church gardener is a legal Mexican and he’s a really nice guy! His English is so good you almost forget! I adore Miguel! When I had my summer barbeque, guess who was invited! See, I invited Miguel. He didn’t waltz into my home without permission. Big difference.
Marcy and I made sandwiches, but we didn’t plan for this turnout, so we’ve started slicing them in half. Better for everyone to have a little bit of lunch than for some to go without. Ed Potter brought a giant cooler of iced Gatorade, for which we’re all thankful. We’ve got this great community spirit. We’re chanting and singing. We’re talking about the issues, educating each other.
Rep. Taylor arrives in a long black Lincoln, and I’m so excited, I surprise myself by walking right over and shaking his hand. He looks even taller in person than on TV, and he smells like good aftershave. A few reporters and cameramen have followed him from Tuscon. I start to worry about my hair, which has wilted in the 112-degree heat. My makeup feels runny.
The reporters squint at my little town. As if they were expecting something besides houses and a market and an auto-repair and a bus stop and a hair salon and the people who live here. A cameraman unwraps a Snickers and cusses when he finds it melted.
“Cold Gatorade?” I offer. He declines, licking his lips, obviously parched.
Rep. Taylor clears his throat. Cameras and mics close in on him. He gives a short speech about solidarity and law being law, and there being a right way and a wrong way to immigrate. And I’m nodding, we’re all nodding, and I’m watching a bead of sweat slip ever so slowly down the bridge of his nose while he talks. I’d like to reach up and gently wipe it off for him. With my own finger. I know how that sounds. I just realize that everyone needs a little tenderness sometimes, from the meek to the powerful.
After the speech, there’s a lot of standing around in the heat, waiting, and I find myself wishing the bus would show up already. This does take some dedication.
When the bright-yellow bus finally swings around the bend, a breeze washes over our sweaty little crowd. It rumbles toward us, belching filthy smog out its back end. Bob Aiken cracks a joke about the bus having had too many beaners for breakfast and laughter ripples through the group.
Rep. Taylor does not laugh. He begins to chant in a rich baritone, “We don’t want you! We don’t want you!”
I break-out in chicken skin, despite the heat. Part of me wants to spin on my heels and walk away quickly, back to my air-conditioned house, the couch that smells like my husband, my trusty remote control. I’m not used to making a public spectacle.
Rep. Taylor is chanting loudly, punching his clenched fist into his open palm. Not in a violent way, but firm and precise. His gaze locks briefly with mine.
Something in his look calls forth a braver version of me. It suddenly occurs to me that this man could be President someday.
My voice rises alongside his. Others join and the volume swells. Our group doesn’t have the rhythm quite right at first, but then our layered voices meld and we chant as one.
Rep. Taylor strides into the middle of the highway and stands with arms akimbo—a warrior stance. We fan out behind him. It looks like the bus might hit us, but we are unflinching. Illegals shall not pass here. The bumper stops inches from Rep. Taylor’s knees.
“Turn that bus around!” he bellows.
We rush alongside the bus, banging the metal in time with our chanting. “We don’t want you! We don’t want you!” I’ve never been aggressive, so I’m sort of tapping the bus. Then I tell myself, Maxine, if you’re going to do this, do it like you mean it. I make a fist and pound that banana-yellow metal so hard it hurts my wrist. The pain is the brightest, cleanest thing I’ve felt in years.
The bus is rocking, the illegals inside shifting. I move farther back, hoping to get a look at these kids for myself. And I see…a pink cell phone. Stuck out the window. A leopard-print one right above it. Someone takes my picture.
The liberals want us to believe these kids are needy—and they all have cell phones!
A freckled face peers out an open window.
Oh my God. It’s Ralph.
“Mom, what are you doing?” Behind Ralph’s freckles, his skin is dead-pale, his eyes blown wide.
It sinks in slower than it should: this isn’t the immigrant bus; it’s the YMCA camping trip on its way to Mt. Lemmon.
The chanting thrums on—“We don’t want you! We don’t want you!”—as my guts plummet into my Reebocks. Ralph disappears. Other kids elbow to the window and stick their phones out, snapping pics.
“Ralphie?” I call, trying to pick out his shape among the shadow-children jostling behind the Plexiglas. “Honey, I didn’t mean you!”
I glance at Rep. Taylor. He is standing erect as ever, but his face is pink and rigid, jaw tight.
The chanting trickles and dries.
“Look,” Rep. Taylor says, “it was an honest mistake.”
Reporters swarm around him, around us. They seem to have multiplied.
My Return to Sender sign wilts out of my grip. There’s a microphone under my nose. “Someone said mom,” a blond reporter chirps. Her eyebrows are perfect. “Ma’am, is your child on this bus?”
My tongue is nailed to the roof of my mouth.
The news cameras are click-clicking, click-clicking, as the bus grinds down the shimmering highway toward the mountain.
Alia Volz is a Spanish interpreter born in San Francisco and educated in Havana. She has fiction and essays appearing or forthcoming in Tin House, Threepenny Review, New York Times, Utne Reader, Huizache, The Rumpus, Narratively, ZYZZYVA and other fine lit rags.