Reluctant Sanctuary


“Damn it! They’re bleeding on the carpet. There goes the renter’s deposit.”

A large group of brown-skinned strangers stood in my living room, bleeding between the straps of homemade sandals of the style I desired but couldn’t afford in college.

 

My frame of mind had made me vulnerable.

Last winter, stuck between the option of staying in the East and supporting ourselves with menial jobs or relocating to the Sunbelt, my husband choose with hesitant optimism to “flee and prosper.” Relocated, I am a cold-water fish, flapping in an evaporated ocean.

I had searched the newspapers for an excuse to be with people and found a tiny ad for a lecture held by South Arizonans for Social Conscience. At the poorly attended gathering, one Ramon Hernandez speaks movingly of his work with families trying to escape from oppression south of the border. During the reception, I’m invited to a desert picnic the next day. In desperate hope of finding those of like mind, I leave my child with a new baby sitter.

The picnic is hopeless. The sun is hot and the food is hotter. The talk is of beer and football. I walk away to look at the tiny, delicate flowers almost hidden in the rocks. A young man follows me. Only when he is near do I recognize last night’s lecturer.

With crude, straightforward conviction, he requests, in a commanding tone, “Tonight we need a sanctuary for an undocumented family. The authorities know our usual hideouts. If you don’t help, they’ll be caught, sent back, and probably killed.”

I felt like a tiny flower plucked from the outlook. Up until that moment, I could be both morally outraged and physically comfortable. I send money to those freer to act on their convictions. I cheer the rubber rafts confronting the whalers. I cry when women protesting the war are carried off to jail. Then I look at my child and am glad to have an excuse not to join them.

“You’re our family’s last hope.”

I hate his hard sell. What right had this new acquaintance to make such a request of me? But then what if his moral indignation is accurate? I think of members of my family who might have been saved from the concentration camp gas chamber, if only someone had helped them escape. I say yes.

 

At home Dave has already picked up Melissa from the sitter. He’s annoyed. When I tell him of my commitment, he reminds me of our long-standing agreement to consult each other before making major decisions. Until now, he’s fulfilled my mother’s prophecy: “He’ll keep you out of trouble.”

I’m surprised when, for the first time without me, Dave takes Melissa out to play. I stay behind to set the table for four, using guest china. Then I steam vegetables to go along with large pots of beans and rice. I know these dishes are probably more Mexican than Central American, but I’m comfortable preparing them and they’re inexpensive. When the phone rings, I’m sure it must be someone selling desert real estate or car insurance. I’m wrong. Making no attempt to mask his anger, Dave tells me he has arranged to spend the night with a colleague. I am just about to ask him what he needs when he hangs up. I tell myself he’ll understand tomorrow. Maybe he just wants to leave more room for the visitors. Maybe he wants to keep Melissa out of the way.

 

My thoughts are cut short by the shuffling of shoes in the hallway. Ramon leads them quickly into my apartment. As he immediately turns to leave, I catch Ramon’s arm,  “What are you trying to pull off? You said a family. There are more than a dozen people here and they’re filthy.”

“This is a family, Anglo, but they haven’t been vacationing in Holiday Inns.” Looking around my sparsely furnished apartment, he adds in a calmer voice, “What you are doing is important.”

Ramon leaves me alone. To conceal my uncertainty, I drop my eyes. That’s when I see their bloody feet on my carpet. I motion them to move to the kitchen. The hands that accept my wet paper towels are filthy and hard with calluses. I take a little girl’s sandal off and start washing the mud and blood off her feet with a wet paper towel. Following my lead, they wash their own feet with the wet paper towels. I tell myself a lot is going to have to be cleaned in the morning.

Their hands also need washing. I would have much preferred them to use the bathroom sink so I don’t have to worry about cross contamination, but that is across another carpeted area. I motion to the little girl to stand on Melissa’s stepstool. I start to wash her hands in the kitchen sink.

Then I stop.

Her hands, tiny hands, certainly not more than four-year-old hands, are covered with calluses. The kind of thick, mud-encrusted calluses I have only seen on adult migrant workers. I move her hands towards the water and watch the mud run down my stainless steel sink, which I always keep operating-room clean. I squeeze out a long ribbon of aloe soap and rub her hands together. The water turns warmer and the child squeals and starts to splash. Here is a child from a totally different world who plays with water just like my Melissa. I’ve always had an impulse to hug joyous children. But I stop myself from embracing this child. I’m afraid I’ll catch something that would not make me happy.

A woman, who I assume is the child’s mother, smiles at me through broken, blackened teeth. Only then do I realize that I have yet to look at their faces. What I see convinces me I’m not ready to look further. Feeding them will make me feel better. I look at my newly purchased four tangerine vinyl covered ice cream chairs arranged around my little round white table. I count the brown feet on my muddied kitchen floor and divide by two. I clear the table of my carefully arranged dinnerware and stretch to reach what Dave thinks is his hidden stash of paper plates and plastic utensils. I figure he uses them for Melissa during my rare job-hunting forays.

With the kitchen sink clogging up with mud and the garbage can overflowing with paper towels, I hand an older woman a ladle and point to the pots. As the family empties the contents of my pots and the bags of chips and peanuts I hastily dump onto their limp generic paper plates, I put out my hands to the young mother. With gentle trust, she hands me her baby and grabs a chip with a now empty hand.

In the bathroom, I lay the baby on a towel. As the sink fills with warm water, I begin to undress the child. At first, I’m relieved to see that at least these tiny feet are free of calluses, but as I remove the dress that must have been lovingly hand woven, I want to close up the garment and hand the baby back to her family. I want to leave until I can hire someone (probably with their skin tone) to clean away any reminder of my visitors. Instead, I look at the tiny body. I see white pustules. I see bowed legs. I see red sores. I see a swollen belly. I see a concave chest, but I also see hands reaching out, and a glorious toothless smile.

After the bath, I wash the pustules with antiseptic and coat the sores with petroleum jelly. I drop a double dose of baby vitamins into the open mouth. I’m not sure if I’m doing the right thing. But I can’t call my pediatrician no matter how much I trust her medical judgment.

 

From the top shelf of the bathroom closet, I take Melissa’s outgrown clothing that I’ve seen saving for the baby I hope I’m carrying now. I search through the clothes for the undershirt already stained, the overalls with missing buttons. If I were purer I would dress the infant in better clothes, but I am not pure. I rationalize my shortcomings by telling myself that before my visitors have left, I will be required to give more. By not forcing myself to give another woman’s child my baby’s hand-knit sweater set, I hope I’ll have enough altruism left to help her family. My stomach churns and bubbles as I close the tiny fist and pull it through a yellowed shirt. I close my eyes so as not to see the lice I suspect are on the downy head. I wrap the child in a slightly tattered blanket.

The other children are too dirty to sit in their own filthy bath water. I start the shower and begin soaping up the youngest. Then I hand the mother a towel. By the time I’ve washed the third child, the scars and sores no longer surprise me. I get the plunger to dislodge the mud from the drain. I dress the children in brightly colored tee shirts with trite sayings. I hand out more towels. I leave the shower running. I search for worn jeans, more tee shirts, and loose summer dresses.

 

The pile of dirty clothes outside the bathroom has mushroomed. I wish I had taken some rubber gloves from Melissa’s pediatrician’s office. I get a plastic bag and, barehanded, stuff the clothing inside. I’d like to deposit the bag discreetly in the basement waste disposal room, but I’m afraid I’ll get caught or the FBI will dust for fingerprints. I long for an old-fashioned incinerator.

I look up to see the family wearing my old clothes. Somehow, they look more real this way. I take out the fruit drawer from the refrigerator and hand it to an older man. He smiles. They all begin to eat again. The children gleefully accept the bruised apples that I was going to turn to sauce. Melissa won’t eat anything brown.

I spread sheets and blankets on my living room floor. The company pillows I leave in the linen closet. There is no way I could possibly disinfect the down pillows. They’re used to sleeping without pillows, I tell myself, but my stomach starts to bubble again. I zip the baby bunting off Melissa’s favorite doll and give the clothing to the baby. My stomach quiets.

I’m not going to take the easy way out and throw out their clothing. How can I destroy their only possessions, their only concrete connection to their homeland? I also know I can’t give them back dirty. I’m going to have to go to the basement laundry room. I’m going to have to leave my apartment.

Having taught in inner-city schools, I’m acutely aware of how good intentions can lead to victim status. I know nothing about these people with whom I am now alone. My usual line of reinforcement, my husband, has chosen to let me sweat it out alone. To ask for my neighbor’s help would probably increase my danger. What could I say to my neighbor anyway, “Look, I have some illegal aliens staying in my apartment. If you hear anything suspicious, would you please call the police?” No, that wouldn’t do at all.

I put all my money in my wallet. My few pieces of good jewelry I wrap in a hanky and stuff it in my bra. I shut the bedroom door tight. Brown, sleeping bodies cover my floors. I’d like to go back in my bedroom, lock the door, and go to sleep. Instead I drag two bags of dirty laundry and a pail with every laundry product I have to the elevator. In my front pocket is a roll of quarters. In my back pocket is a half- read magazine.

Fortunately, the laundry room is empty, but all but one washer is broken and only the slow dryer doesn’t need repairs. When the clothes are finally clean, I can’t decide whether to use the dryer or not. I’ve never placed my fine hand-woven clothing in the dryer, but these clothes, and their inhabitants, must be out in a few hours. I run the dryer until I’m out of quarters. I’ve forgotten a clean bag. I cringe as I throw the neatly folded clothes into the used refuse bag. I can’t risk carrying the suspicious clothing through my building, exposed for all to see.

 

The moment I open the door to my apartment everyone sits bolt upright and looks with fear at the door. Then in the dawn light I see smiles directed toward me.

I turn on the lights in the kitchen and begin filing grocery bags with everything edible in the refrigerator and cabinets.

I motion them to come with me. They’re still wearing my clothing. I hope they’re less suspicious this way. I buckle in the baby into Melissa’s car seat. For an infant, Melissa’s seat should be turned into the rear facing position, but there isn’t time to unlatch, flip around, and re-latch. My apartment building parking lot won’t be empty for long. I begin to buckle up my passengers, and then realize there are at least twice as many people as belts. Surely they have survived greater dangers than driving in my van without seat belts.

We arrive at the meeting place. Our contact has not arrived or has already left. I look around but the glare of sun on sand blinds me. I cannot, I will not stay. Dave will be taking Melissa home soon, so he can go to work. I’ve got to clean our place first. They sit expressionless. My conscience needs more appeasement. I empty the cash in my wallet into a man’s hands. I return to the car, where I see Melissa’s travel bag. I hand the bag to a mother.

 

Distracted, I get lost on the way home. Finally, I stop at a little store I never noticed before to get some food for breakfast. Only as I approach the cashier do I see a sign: “No Credit Cards.” For the first time in my life, I’m hungry, my refrigerator is empty, and I can’t buy any food. I don’t like the feeling.

Four grumpy cops are waiting for me. Someone found my name on a charge slip in a grocery bag left in the desert. I don’t want to unlock my apartment door. The appearance of my apartment would surely rouse their suspicions, but how can I keep them out?

In the full daylight the apartment looks worse than I imagined. I drop my purse on the worst bloodstain. I choose the role of the eastern liberated bitch slob. I walk over the sheets and blankets littering the floor and fling open the window. The cops look at each other. The distraction momentarily works. No one in southern Arizona ever opens the window, especially if the 7 a.m. temperature is 92 degrees and climbing.

The older cop addresses me, “Lady, what happened here last night?”

“Happened? Oh nothing much. Just the usual family things. Want a sherry?”

I have no sherry in the house, but neither do I have much else. So the next best seems to be to offer what will certainly be refused. A maxim I learned from a native New Yorker is, “When in trouble, act crazy and they’ll leave you alone.” So I fill two small bowls with ice cubes (the only substance besides mustard still left in the refrigerator), stand on my head in the corner, and plunge a hand in each ice bowl. Upside down and in pain, I hope the worry I feel for the family I left not an hour ago is not evident.

“How can I help you, officers?”

I soon realize from their questions that they haven’t found the illegal alien family yet. They show me the charge card slip and ask how it could have gotten so far from home. Quickly I calculate the last time I used the card was last Friday. I’m safe in mentioning a picnic on Saturday.

The cops are eyeing my apartment and aggressively ask if they may look around. I flip over and wash my hands with rubbing alcohol for effect, but also to partially disinfect myself before my family returns. Already Melissa is calling me from the hallway – a blessing on several levels.

Dave appears pushing Melissa in a jogging stroller I never saw before. Melissa’s hair is in intricate French braids and her tiny nails are painted robin’s egg blue. Dave’s shirt is ironed. Who is this colleague he visited last night?

Dave sees the cops and instantly his expression changes from anger to disgust.

Before he can close his open mouth to speak, I turn to the police officers, “Would you like to join my family for breakfast?” I ask.

I look Dave straight in the eye as I address him slowly, “Glad you’re back from jogging. Let’s go out for breakfast.”

I hope he has some money.

Melissa shrieks while jumping up and down on sheets. “I’m going to have a polar bear shake and blueberry granola at Taco King.”

The police look at each other with raised eyebrows. I hope they think such a family can live in an apartment that looks like mine. Hesitantly, they prepare to leave after one more visual sweep of the premises.

As Melissa hugs me with unrestrained love, I ache with the knowledge of my limitations.

 

Four months have passed. Dave is staying in Arizona. He doesn’t answer my phone calls or letters.

Moving back East has increased Melissa’s suspicion of strangers. She frequently awakens, screaming in fear that someone will come into her house and “steal my doll clothes, eat all the food, dirty my home, and get us into big trouble.”

I don’t know what happened to Maria and her family. Sometimes I imagine they are living peacefully in a Vermont sanctuary. Are the children playing joyfully in their first snowfall? At other times, especially when I wake in the middle of the night to the kicking of the new life inside me, I see them standing in their sweaty, blood-soaked sandals with no place to go.

Roberta Albom Liebler designs instruction, teaches, and administers higher education learning on a continuum from remedial studies to doctoral dissertations. With three impressive daughters launched in successful adulthood, she is determined to write stories that reflect the insight that wisdom is the courage to proceed while relishing paradox and ambiguity.

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5 thoughts on “Reluctant Sanctuary

  1. Lilith Rogers

    Such a well written and engrossing story. Thank you. And it feels that it is based on a real experience that either the author or someone she knows well lived through.

    The callouses on the tiny hands of a four year old speak volumes.

    Lilith Rogers

  2. Sheila Bartle

    A compelling story. The images of bathing and washing are so vivid! And the narrator’s combined guilt and caution, even as she works hard to be helpful, seems realistic and familiar.

  3. suze

    What a raw and powerful story — and how brave of you to write all the unpleasant details and the woman’s less than generous thoughts. Very realistic, I imagine.

  4. Joanna Bressler

    This story reached in and grabbed me. The descriptions of the children’s bodies were horrifying yet moving at the same time. Everything in the story shows the problems rather than lecturing about them. Just one example: the “reluctant” narrator sets four places at the table for her definition of family, then must shelter a very different definition of family. The writing is exquisite.
    Thank you, Roberta Albom Liebler, for a terrific read.

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