by Robert Earle
The written portion of the test had been administered. Everyone who passed was led to the new hands-on portion. Forty-two people, some comprising families, gathered in front of a lady who stood on a footstool and spoke louder than necessary. They were in the middle of a mixed urban/suburban street, meaning the houses were sometimes separated by two or three conjoined storefronts and a few houses were free-standing while others shared walls–row houses, in other words. Garage doors were partially or fully open with the typical stuff inside. Kids’ bikes and toys were strewn about the yards and sidewalks. A car was being worked on in a driveway. Some porches had furniture, thermometers beside the front door, even a swing hanging from the ceiling on chains. One porch was screened-in and had a wet bar. There were some shade trees and decorative evergreens here and there. At either end of the block there were orange and white sawhorse barriers behind which stood security personnel and the media.
The lady said they had thirty minutes to get hold of two hundred things and put them somewhere safe. Those who succeeded would be granted citizenship; those who didn’t would be bused away. In the case of families, there needed to be two hundred things per adult and one hundred per child. She held up a stopwatch and yelled, “Go!”
No one moved. Not at first. They all looked into what they’d just heard more than into one another’s eyes or around the closed-off block. What things? Get them from where? What should they do, break into a store? Grab them off lawns and porches? Kick in the front door of one of the nicer free-standing houses? What did putting things “somewhere safe” mean? Would it be best to go for little things and stuff them into your pockets and handbags and backpacks? Keep them safe that way? What if someone called the police while all this was going on?
The lady said, “One minute’s up. Twenty-nine to go.”
A man with very short gray hair broke for a half-closed garage door and crawled inside where he closed the door and turned on the light at the same time. Then he began piling lawn tools, suitcases, a kayak, cans of paints, hammers, screwdrivers, boxes of photographs, all sorts of things, in the middle of the garage. Every time he touched something, he counted out loud, “One…two…three…” He stopped at two hundred but stuck a pair of pliers and a putty knife in his back pocket in case of he’d miscounted, and he needed something more to meet his quota. Then he ran to the garage door and put his foot on the handle so no one could get in before the thirty minutes was up.
A Salvadoran family needed eight hundred things because there were two adults and four children. The mother’s eyes closed to a slit. She said to her man, father of two of the children, “We get into that store. Can of soup is a thing. Can of tuna is a thing. Light bulbs.”
Her man asked, “We bring them out to the sidewalk so the lady can see us working hard and getting it all?”
The mother said, “Yes.” She was no taller than her children, shorter than one. “You grab and carry all you can get. I stand on the sidewalk. Bring things to me! Quick, quick!”
In short order, the woman was half-enveloped by colorful things that made her look like a Virgin Mary, garbed in gifts from the community and ready to be hoisted on some strong shoulders and paraded down the street. These things rose past her knees and hips up to her substantial bosom. But how many were they? No one was keeping track. And someone else was in the store, too. One of the kids saw a little old lady ducking along the back aisles, filling net bags that she eventually had to drag after her like multiple tails.
“Should I throw her out of there? That’s our store!” the Virgin Mary’s husband asked the Virgin Mary.
The Virgin Mary nodded with great solemnity. Her man sent two kids down the wide junk food aisle to block the old lady from escaping that way and the other kids down aisles two and three, while he took aisle four and began working along chilled meat bins in the back.
There she was, grabbing packages of hot dogs.
“What? There’s enough for everyone!” she cried.
He tore her knit bags from her hands and called for his two biggest kids. “Get her out of here. This is our store.” The kids each took an ankle. Away she went.
Igor Grabovski had gotten into the house with the screen porch and wet bar. His wife followed him. She was crying, looking at all the beautiful things. “We can’t take this stuff,” she moaned. “It’s not right. Look, it’s what we wanted, what we dreamed of. The parlor! The dining room! Igor, you can’t pull the stove from the wall. Stop that!”
Igor wasn’t getting anywhere anyway. When he pulled at the stove, its bottom front edge tipped downward and pinched the toes of his right foot (he was wearing sandals). He cried out in pain. That stove hurt. His wife kneeled to wipe away the blood with a moistened paper towel. What were they going to do? The clock was ticking right there on the stove. There was another clock on the coffee maker. A third on the wall radio. A forth built into the stainless steel ice-making refrigerator. She began kissing his foot to make him give up on the idea of dismantling the house for the four hundred things they needed to become Americans. Then Igor had an idea. “Okay, I’ve got it. We declare all this ours. That gives us four hundred things and then some Average house, how many things are in it? Faucets? Stairs? Carpets? Tchotchkes? I watch the front, you watch the back.” He limped to the front door and stood there, arms crossed, defiant, confident.
Two bluish black girls from Haiti were in a beauty salon, pulling shampoo and conditioner and brushes into their arms and running out to the sidewalk where they piled them up. Over and over again. Laughing. Crying, “Nous sommes Américains!”
A man and his son were disassembling the car that someone else had been working on before all this started. They already had counted the tools lying around–forty-six. Now they needed the battery, the contents of the glove compartment, the bolts holding on the tires, the tires themselves, the spare, the air filter, the oil filter, the wiring harness, the radio, the CD player. Hard work, but they’d both been mechanics. Grease and acid and sharp edges didn’t bother them. The man said, “This is the place for us, right? This is it! This is heaven!” They extracted the computer module and the heating fan. They removed the windshield wipers. They pulled out twelve different light bulbs. Then they got into the fuse box. Bonanza. Thirty-six fuses, they were over the top!
One man didn’t move. He sat down in the middle of the street and stared at the woman on the footstool and occasionally at the surrounding madness.
“Clock’s ticking,” the woman on the footstool said to him.
He kept sitting there on the macadam, reflective and disgusted. A big man. In India he obviously had found a way to eat a lot of food, so much that the question would arise, if you liked Indian food, what he was doing in America.
“Pitiful,” he said. “Who thought this up?”
“Our politicians, who do you think? This is a democracy.We want immigrants who are industrious, enterprising, self-reliant.”
“Pitiful,” the man said again. He had a large nose with fat nostrils, a low forehead and gleaming black hair.
“Hands-on. Everyone does his or her part. That’s what makes things go here,” the woman said.
She was a reasonably good-looking woman, a little wider at the hips than matched her torso, but then the trousers of her uniform were cut for a man so who knew until you got her naked?
“How many bones are in your body?” he asked her.
“What? I have no idea.”
“Two-hundred and six,” he said.
“Is each one a thing?”
“Thing-ness is defined as a discrete physical object that can exist independently within its own boundaries. That means a piece of a thing is not a thing. A thing is an object with its own beginning and ending, let’s put it that way.”
“Okay, that means if I have you and one other person, I have four-hundred and twelve things in bones alone, and I become an American.”
When you really looked at him, and the woman on the footstool normally did not really look at citizenship candidates, he was uglier than a casual glance revealed, but there was much of him, a great deal of him–his own two hundred and six bones plus his voluminous composure –and this magnitude, though tainted by a kind of anger or disdain, bespoke as well a kind of humanity, an absence of avarice, a subtle grandeur. You could go that far in describing him.
“We did away with slavery a long time ago, sir, so I don’t know how you could, as you put it, have me and another person. Polygamy isn’t allowed either. This is a civilized country.”
He looked at the ongoing scene of panic over possession. He saw some struggling going on, a few fists thrown, and then here came the old woman dragged out of the grocery store by her ankles and left on the curb near the Virgin Mary who was rapidly being entombed by canned and packaged and raw foodstuffs–lots of bananas, for instance.
And he didn’t move. Not many men in the lady on the footstool’s experience were as adept as this man at not moving. He didn’t move in a way that called attention to itself and drew her in. The frenzy didn’t affect him. He was indifferent to the cameras set up beyond the sawhorse barricades.
“If you agree to marry me,” he said, “would you agree to our taking in that old woman, adopting her if your immigration laws so require?”
The lady on the footstool was in fact single, but being a government official, she was not a spontaneous, impulsive sort of person. She was a person of order and procedure and personal routine. When the new law was promulgated, requiring immigrants to demonstrate their prowess at acquiring things in order to become Americans, she felt a certain degree of satisfaction in that she didn’t have to count her things to know she was an American. She had had more than four hundred things since her teens. She might have, from books to bottles to blouses, four thousand things. That probably was one reason she got this assignment, which entailed a raise.
But one thing she didn’t have was a husband. No one had ever asked, and she’d learned not to suggest it.
“Why would I agree to marry you?” she asked.
“Because I am in desperate need of you,” he answered, not seeming desperate at all but having, with these mere words, a powerful, powerful impact on her.
My God, she thought, almost losing her ability to stand up.
He saw in her eyes what he had done to her and made his next move. “To give you time to think, I will go over there and bring that old woman back. Whoever she is, I’m sure she will appreciate it if you say yes as much as I will. I will be devoted to you for the rest of my life. I will love you and you only, faithfully and truly. Our spirits will dwell in union, and together we will have done a great and good thing for someone who otherwise soon will be on a bus, heading for the airport.”
With that, the man walked over to the bedraggled old lady, said something to her, and then gently picked her up, and walked back to the lady on the footstool, cradling the old crone in his arms.
Every step he took made the lady on the footstool tremble. He was massive and ugly but gentle. Somehow he had the ability to still everything around him. The distraction of two men trying to break into the closed garage door across the way faded out of the picture, at least for the lady on the footstool. The pleasure she’d been taking in looking at the beautiful, lithe Haitian girls hooting with glee as as they ransacked the beauty salon melted away. All she saw and felt was wrapped up, as the old woman was wrapped up, in this big Indian man. As she clicked the stopwatch and softly gasped, “Time’s up!” she fell into his arms as well. It was a swoon, a drift, sufficiently presaged by the way her eyelids fluttered to allow him to adjust his hold on the old woman and pull the lady on the footstool tight against his chest as she tumbled his way.
About the author:
With more than 60 stories in print and online journals in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., Robert Earle is a widely published short fiction writer. He also is the author of two novels, The Way Home and The Man Clothed in Linen, three novellas, and two books of nonfiction, Nights in the Pink Motel (about Iraq) and Identities in North America (about Canadian, U.S. and Mexican interdependence.) Robert Earle served as a diplomat in Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East for twenty-five years. He now lives and writes in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
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