IT TAKES A VILLAGE
At Pandolf High School, Manny Garcia waited for George outside.
A student ran up to him. “Hi, I’m Charlie, George’s house-mate, I know you from your pictures. I’m so happy you’re back.”
Then he saw George. He hugged his son tightly, feeling something had perceptibly changed from the last time they embraced.
Charlie waited. “Bye George,” he then said. “Sorry I can’t join up for dinner. I have a late practice.”
Garcia and George walked back to the apartment building where George was now living.
“George,” Garcia said, “I have bad news; I just found out that I don’t have a job at Pandolf anymore. I’ll have to return to Argentina and then maybe go on to a project in Africa.”
He paused and added, “But don’t worry, I’ve worked it out so that you can stay here and finish out your school year.”
After a stunned silence, George said, “Mom’s watching over us, you always say. But I don’t believe in that anymore.”
Garcia patted his son’s bony shoulder. “In life, we have to sail with the winds, isn’t that what I always tell you? And that the truth in our dreams is more important than our broken reality. It’ll work out.”
George was mostly silent for the remainder of the walk. Once inside the apartment, he told Garcia about the map that the police had taken.
“OK,” Garcia said, “I don’t need it.”
Then their meal at The Palatine was just the two of them. “Shelly’s coming late,” George said, “everyone else had scheduling conflicts.”
“People smell trouble in our family and run the other way,” Garcia muttered under his breath.
“What was that?”
“Never mind,” Garcia said, “maybe you can join me for the summer. If it’s in Africa, maybe Charlie would like to come. We can meet in Athens first and explore that city together.”
George was silent. “Dad, I don’t want to return to Chicago in the fall. Uncle Max doesn’t like me.”
“OK,” Garcia said, “I’ll see what can be done.”
When Shelly arrived at the table, Garcia rose happily, switching to English.
After she sat down, he handed her a gift bag. “This is a little token for helping George out while I was gone.”
“You didn’t have to do anything.” She opened the card. “’Time — may its passage bring much happiness.’
“Thank you,” she said and unwrapped the gift. It was a crystal Swiss clock.
She grew grim as Garcia detailed his plans for his family of two.
“So it’s true that you won’t be returning to the lab,” she said. “What are you going to do next?”
“I’ve a couple of opportunities,” he replied vaguely. “George will stay here until the end of the school year. Then I don’t know.”
“I’ll miss you, Dr. Garcia,” she said.
“Please call me Manny.”
“I still need to talk to you about my new research project.”
“I’m around for a few days, text me a good time.”
She nodded. Her phone lit up. Shelly patted George on the back. “Good night, back to the hospital.”
Garcia walked a downcast George back to his apartment building.
“Dad, I was hoping … well that this time we would be together for a while.”
“George, I’m always there for you,” he said.
Garcia returned to his place, still turned upside down from the ICE search, to start packing, ordering boxes and scheduling storage.
Later that night, Shelly returned to her apartment from the hospital and leafed through mail. After tossing the junk mail into the recycle bin, she went to her bedroom. Above her desk, there was a Dr. Seuss’ world globe with its oceans painted a dark blue, a childhood gift from her South Dakota grandmother. Thick black lines neatly divided countries depicted in bright colors.
“‘Oh the Places You’ll Go,’ George,” she said softly.
She called home and gave her mother the latest news. “Dr. Garcia has to leave. These kids, George, Charlie and Michaela, it’s so sad, they’re growing up with little guidance.”
“They’re fortunate to have good people like you around,” her mother said.
“They’re making A’s in school,” her father said off-screen.
Her mother asked, “Can you take away their phones if that changes— like we did with you?”
“Boys are different.” Her father now popped into the screen.
Her mother put her hand on his mouth.
“Mom, I wanted to hear what he was going to say.”
Then her mother surprised her by announcing a visit in a few days.
“I wish Dadi would also come,” Shelly said.
Dadi, Shelly’s Indian grandmother, did not travel. Instead, she gave long monologues on video-calls. Her targets for blame for the “deficits in parenting” of the three teens downstairs was long: from broken Western families, to selfish parents like Garcia and AnnaMaria’s negligence of her nephew.
“It’s her artist-husband, a self-centered man, leaving his first wife and kid and then getting a poor young Latina to marry him by bringing her to America.”
“Mama means well,” her father would apologize. “Maybe you’ll hear some wisdom in her strange words and ways from another time and another place in a language that’s not her mother tongue.”
Or Dadi sent long e-mails, formal missives with words distinctly British like “humour.”
She had theories about Garcia’s disappearance and the mysterious things that she suspected the American government did in the shadows, warning Shelly to keep her distance from ICE.
“They don’t teach you children history anymore. But let me tell you. This system started with ancient Rome two thousand years ago. If you were a citizen of the state, you were privileged. But the rules were different if you were a slave from the top of Europe all the way down to North Africa, or if you were a Jew or any foreigner who had no protection from the government.
“Because that’s what imperial powers do.
“But we’re citizens now and they have to treat us as citizens.”
Over the years, Dadi’s cheeks had sunk into the bones now jutting against her tissue thin skin, and her hair had faded to thin and white, foreshadowing the day when the colorful energetic woman from her childhood would return as a memory.
At first, Shelly had felt more relaxed about George. He was voracious about his prized “American” education. When Charlie had moved in, he also absorbed that attitude. She happily concluded this was another example of how immigrants fuel America’s engine.
Livingstone would include the boys’ apartment in his nightly rounds on the building’s balconies before heading to the wooded hill. She saw them on the fire-escape at sunset or heard the low bass of their music late at night, now softer after a neighbor complained. At 4 AM when she drove away to the hospital, she saw the faint glow of their computer screens through the windows.
Then Lucky mentioned one day, “Charlie is dating a girl who lives in the building next to us. She’s in their grade. Her mom works at the hospital.
“Michaela. You’ll see her.” Lucky winked at Shelly. “Now, don’t worry, I met Harry at her age.”
“I hope you’ve talked to Charlie,” Shelly said. “We don’t want anyone getting pregnant.”
“They have Health class,” Lucky said, “And Mom bought Charlie a couple of books. You’re right, I’ll make sure. What about George? Who talks to him?”
At the Golden Griddle one evening, Shelly broached “that” subject with George.
“George, how’s Charlie dating Michaela working out for you?”
I think it’s important to treat all human beings, no, all living creatures with kindness and respect.”
Tensing, George dropped his eyes. He picked up his fork to poke at the hill of spaghetti and meatballs in front of him.
Forging ahead, Shelly continued, “There are consequences to our choices in relationships, like pregnancy, diseases, hurt feelings…”
“Shelly, thanks,” George mumbled.
He met her eyes and dabbed tomato sauce from his lips. “Dad talked to me. Also, they have classes in school…so yeah, Biology, Psychology…”
Now soggy with ketchup, his onion rings evaporated next, followed by a stack of syrup-soaked pancakes.
As he showered an omelette with salt, pepper and even more ketchup, he stabbed his fork into the air and explained scientific concepts: dark energy, black matter and the expansion of the universe.
“Is that what you’re going to study someday, George? Astrophysics?”
“Maybe a seminary and search for God?”
After a silence, George explained, “See, I believe our world is an engine. Think about a spider. It’s spinning its web, growing our universe, extending it further and further, faster and faster.”
George opened one large hand to demonstrate. “Accelerating. There could be more spiders, other worlds, alternate dimensions… .”
“In religions,” Shelly mused, “salvation means to escape this physical web of suffering.”
Like romance, religion was another topic he avoided.
The waitress gave Shelly the check. “George, say ‘hi’ to Charlie and his girlfriend for me,” she said. “What’s her name?”
With green eyes and a brown afro, Michaela reminded Shelly of Aphrodite emerging from a golden seashell, this time in an American ocean, born again in another infinite variation on a woman’s beauty through the times and tides of humanity.
With fading vestiges of embarrassment about her changing body, wearing clothes too big for her frame, Michaela’s concession to spring fashion was a lace headband. She did not fit in with the other girls, not tuned into the white, black, Hispanic and other tribes of her school, finding a niche instead with George and Charlie.
Other high school girls were also entering adulthood. George had only mentioned one more by name, Carrie Mather. Her father was a heart surgeon at Pandolf. Often seen in front of the school building talking to her friends, Carrie confidently sported as much naked skin as the school rules allowed, skirt barely at the tips of her fingers on her sides and shirts dipped so low that Shelly wanted to look away. Carrie’s boldness reminded her of another old painting, a French portrait of a king’s teenage mistress.
To take George to a much-needed dentist appointment, Shelly had stopped by his school one day. Carrie huddled outside the doors with her “popular” friends. He emerged and waved to her. She ignored him.
“She wears a lot of makeup,” Shelly said once George was inside the car.
At a school theatre performance that Shelly attended because George was in the tech crew, she stood in the back just in case the hospital called. One row ahead, Michaela sat between Charlie and George.
Why did Michaela have no rules, no curfew or other oversight? She spotted Michaela’s mother in another row, fat, forty-ish, frumpy, the “typical” female patient with gallbladder disease in medical textbooks.
Carrie played the lead. Afterwards, Shelly watched the girl glide to her proud family and friends, slender ankles atop skyscraper stilettos.
Shelly studied Mrs. Mather: a woman of an uncertain age, botoxed with an ever-surprised smiling face, styled, coiffed, manicured, pedicured and gym-figured,a younger version of Dr. Nepski’s well-preserved mother. Had she had her big toes lopped off to fit into those pointed Italian high heels?
“I’m not worried about George,” she told Lucky. “The girl he likes is not interested in him.”
“Michaela is sweet,” Lucky said, “Harry and I have also been together since our teens. My parents were high school sweethearts. Still…
“Shelly,” she continued, “things aren’t good between Mom and Dad right now. She’s talking divorce. You’re the OB/Gyn. Do you think that because she’s going through menopause, this could be hormonal?
“This has been hard on Charlie. That’s why he’s here. Michaela makes him happy. Why should anyone say anything?”
Opening her refrigerator door, Shelly was livid. Bare white shelves except for colorful bags of salad and cut vegetables — and in the freezer, all her organic dinners were gone.
“Those feral teenagers raided our frig,” she exclaimed,” and I just stocked theirs.”
Campbell had given George a credit card before he had left for Saburia. She had the shared app on her phone. At Mather Market (Campbell would rhyme the two words with a comic Boston accent), she also loaded her cart with items another app suggested, for adolescents.
Guiding her through the aisles, that program let her tap her way through picking up organic milk, free-range eggs, protein powders, nutritional yeast, whole wheat bread, cane sugar granola and finally highlighted items in the fruit and vegetable section.
A lone attendant waved her in and out.
“Didn’t you see that our frig is empty?” she asked Lucky.
“Oh, sorry I didn’t notice,” said Lucky. “Being Chief Resident has been so much work that I usually just eat at the hospital now.”
A not well-domesticated Livingstone strolled in so quietly that they did not hear him until he crunched his kibble. Golden eyes took stock of them, then he meowed his orders to open one of his food cans.
They kept a stack of “Lost-Cat” flyers to post every time he disappeared. The rules were irrational, but there were no better ones.
In theory, Livingstone was not allowed outside. Humans were the main danger, malevolent or merely careless with fast cars, pest poisons and traps. But when he howled incessantly at the back doors, both homes put him out and on pleasant nights he just prowled the woods.
No one noticed unless he did not return the next day. Then the blame game began of “who let Livingstone out, who saw him last?” Everyone denied guilt. The teens were blamed first.
George once told her. “I forget how sneaky he is, always waiting for someone to open a door so he can get out. But I don’t blame him for feeling stuck in these apartments. He’d probably never come back … except for food and maybe our company.
“In other countries where I’ve lived, they wouldn’t have fixed him saying spaying and neutering is cruel. Maybe we should get him a girl-cat, good for his psychology even if there’s no biology.”
Charlie agreed. “Lucky’s birthday is coming up. I bet we can find one at the rescue place.”
In Saburia, Campbell joined Sheraton for the road trip to the local airport to pick up Mary. She had not wanted to go alone. “David, Michael should get it fixed so patients can directly helicopter in from Ramses.”
He had brought sunscreen for the short trip, a large tube of the white unscented Chinese brand in the campus store. Their highest SPF block, it stung as he liberally applied it on his burnt forearms over ridges of muscle. He was also wearing a hat, sunglasses and long sleeves.
“I have a new respect for the Saburian sun,” he said. “Glad summer hasn’t fully arrived. Mary will find this a lot hotter than New York.”
In their vehicle, dust rose up along the wheels. In its wake, Elise pointed out a herd of elephants with delight — and a lecture on their endangered status and the cruel ivory industry. A passionate remembrance of the many extinct species of African wildlife followed. She praised the king’s conservation efforts.
Late afternoon at the airport, the air blurring in the heat, their Humvee came to a grinding stop followed by two jeeps that had caravanned behind them. Elise walked briskly to a petite figure waiting next to a stack of luggage in the shelter. He followed. The elderly woman introduced herself as Mary and said no more.
Two other women stood with her. Olive-skinned with dark hair, they spoke British-accented English that Campbell guessed originated in India. A Saburian assistant stood next to them, organizing the sorting and loading of luggage by two airport workers.
Water bottles were passed around, and then the groups went to their vehicles. Elise now traveled with Mary and the other women in an armored limousine. Campbell rode in the lead Humvee with its driver.
Before running to her car, Elise whispered into his ear, “David, those women are doctors too, working for Soria. They said King Mohammed is going to visit the base soon.”
Riding back, Campbell wondered what the women in the tank-like car behind him were saying. Were they discussing their trip? Hopefully, Elise had sensibly muted her lectures on endangered species because Mary looked like she needed some peace, quiet and heavy-duty air-conditioning.
Mary was their first patient, and then would there be Matthew, Luke, John and Mark? Garcia would also be coming soon.
A cryptic note from Kochanski had appeared on his phone this morning with instructions to bring George to Saburia to visit his father over the summer.
Kochanski was also reimbursing Campbell for all his spending on the teenager. Why bring the boy to visit his father in the middle of Saburia’s hottest season? It would be like the Pole to be sentimental.
Campbell slipped Elise a paper note after they returned to the base. “After dinner drinks and honest conversation tonight? Pretend romantic beach rendezvous, two lonely Americans abroad, I’ll get picnic basket and blanket.”
The paper invitation was necessary to begin a dance to connect without minders. He suspected that electronic communication was monitored as were the long hallways with ubiquitous security cameras. She wrote back a time to meet her and a location midway in the complex.
After her dinner with Mary, she met him at the dark end of a carpeted passageway in the Chinese quarters. They exited toward the beach under a doorway camera that blinked and turned to follow their movement. A twin on the outside watched as they made their way toward the dark ocean.
Awkwardly, they held hands and put distance between them and the building until they could talk freely, yelling above the deafening waves which pushed up hills of sand.
“How easy it would be,” he shouted, “to drown someone on this murky knife-edge of the ocean.”
She looked worried. He followed her eyes to the lighted guard towers up and down the beach.
“I’m sure it’s happened already, an inside job,” she said into his ear.
The line between theatre and reality blurred within this alien frame on the Saburian base. Using a flashlight to analyze the waves and the distance from the water, Campbell laid down a thick blanket on the sand on which she simply sat down.
Years ago, there had been another beach picnic. He had kissed his girlfriend at the time, folding back curtains of long dark hair behind dangling drop earrings. His friends came by to cheerily wish him “Happy Birthday, Goodbye and Good Night.”
Later, he took her back to her sorority house. She still sent him Christmas photo cards, showing that she was now married and had birthed the next generation of young dark-haired troublemakers like herself.
Now in a different time and on a different beach, Elise gazed up. “I’ve never seen the Milky Way so clearly, David. Can you imagine our ancestors millennia ago? Unable to read or write, they had star maps, stories about gods and goddesses, battles and mythical beasts.”
“They were nomads,” he said. “When clouds and storms hid the skies, how did they find their way? Did the sun tell them the time? And the winds and the seasons tell the way? So they spread out all over our planet. Where will we go next? Traveling through space, time and other dimensions?”
“Still, here we are,” she said, “back to where it all started thousands of generations ago, no longer even looking or acting like these Saburian folk who stayed behind. I am not just pretending to be a lonely American abroad — I am.”
She opened the picnic basket. “Are you lonely, too?”
Looking inside the hamper, she exclaimed. “Oh David, what a feast! How?”
Campbell smiled proudly. “I tipped our minders well after yours brought me this stocked basket and blanket.”
“Tip, David?” Elise whispered again, close to his ear. “It sounds more like a bribe.”
“Elise, those are our Western values, I like to say that around here it’s more like trick-or-treat. I’d rather be giving out treats than be at the receiving end of their tricks.”
“David,” she said wryly, “I hope that this time it’s not you being condescending to the local people, like you accused me of recently.”
She reached into the hamper, pulling out hard and soft cheeses, from French Brie to American Wisconsin, crackers, nuts and dried fruits. There were also plates, cutlery, a cutting board and a knife.
“Oh my God,” she said. “Almost a second dinner.”
She pulled out a bottle of chilled white Loire as well as a Kentucky whisky for him. “Not Michael’s Dew?” she joked.
“So I got the goblets from the Egyptian,” he said.
“I’ve seen you two flirting. David, there’s nothing Saburian in this basket.”
“I got these shot glasses from a Chinese fighter pilot,” he said.
He rolled the shot glasses between his fingers, admiring the Chinese etched calligraphy and delicate paint patterns.
He had met Yi by wandering into the public section of the military campus karaoke bar. The host was a courteous Chinese man in his 20s, assisted by two slender older women, their heads dyed a matching blonde with pink rose highlights.
The host’s girlfriend had sat on a stool at the corner, a pale sprite, her hair dyed white, with a tiny white matching poodle. Among the group, there was a black-haired child with her pencil and workbooks, sometimes helping the grownups or playing with the dog.
None spoke English. The music was Chinese and the large television had Chinese entertainment, fun to watch even without subtitles.
Shut out of the private karaoke rooms, Campbell was about to leave when the pilot had walked in. Yi spoke fluent English and he wanted to practice it. He invited Campbell to follow him into a private room where alcohol was served.
Was it a stroke of sheer luck that the Chinese soldiers had let him come in, an American? Or was it because Yi had invited him? Or was it only because they did not know what to do with their American visitor and did not wish to offend him by turning him away?
When he mentioned Yi to Elise, she wondered, “Michael said that a Chinese fighter pilot was caught with the wife of a senior officer. Juicy gossip for this base. Is this the same guy?”
She added, “It boiled down to the fact that the pilot’s flying skills were more valued than the pride of her husband. So the wife was booted home. When the king comes tomorrow, we’ll all be back to smiles, harmony and international cooperation.”
“Yeah, I heard,” Campbell said, laughing. “His friends like to tease him about the affair. He wanted me to understand the joke and so he translated their ribbing.
“At their best, Elise, bars are places where different tribes remember their shared humanity, both profound and profane.”
Elise looked at him sharply. “That sounds like male-bonding. Do any women ever come to this military bar?”
A self-help book had once coached him that people enjoyed talking about themselves. Changing the subject, he asked, “But Elise, tell me more about what brings you here?”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
“Yes and no,” Campbell replied, “I mean that yes, they have private karaoke rooms that I see women sometimes go into. But no, honestly, I haven’t seen a woman in the room that Yi and I drink in.”
“OK,” she said, “now to answer your question, AJ and I go back a long way. We first connected at a medical conference about me working for Soria.
“I’m here because the medical research is novel. Manny’s vaccines may cause less collateral damage to the cancer patient. I mean what’s the point of living longer if your life quality is crap?
“Then there’s the money which is good. It’ll pay for my kids’ college education and some left over for my retirement.
“My ex- is unhelpful, and as for his second wife, they deserve each other,” she went on. “But I’m not bitter, David, I don’t love men any less for it. One of my kids is male. So was my dad. He called me Hell-ise when we fought.
“So I end up making excuses for men and absolving them anyway.”
She added thoughtfully,””Still, you seem like one of the decent guys, David.”
“Thanks, Elise. So do you think our scheme is working? Do we make a handsome couple for their cameras?”
She turned around toward the distant building. “Now that camera is looking at us so come closer to me.”
He put up his binoculars. Sure enough, at the Exit door, the odious red light was still moving and blinking.
“Handsome is as handsome does,” she said. She pulled his hand and drew him to her. “No worries. I’m not interested in you that way either but let’s put on a show for the camera.”
Laughing and cuddling close, she said, “Well, the wine helps me with this charade. I was surprised when you said you don’t have anyone in your life.”
“At the bar, they say Michael’s your boyfriend,” Campbell teased her.
Stunned, she pulled back. “There’s really no respect for women around here. This is a medieval place. These Saburian women are little shrouded, subjugated creatures. OK, what do they think of me being out here with you?”
“Elise, you can show them you are a liberated woman,” he said. “Come hang out at the bar with me.”
She made an incredulous face.
“All right, Elise, that was a stupid thing to say.”
“Yeah it was, as if I don’t already hate the sexism here.”
“Elise, I have a question,” he said after she relaxed, “There’s a Drukker data file that’s in a sixth case that I brought here from San Fran. I want to know what that’s about. Because there are only five cancer patients who have been offered the Soria trial so far.”
“What do you mean?”
“I brought six drives on the plane where we met,” he said, “five for cancer patients that had Bible names and a larger purple one. Traditionally, purple is the color for royalty.”
“I don’t know,” Elise wondered. “I’m only here to work with the cancer patients and surprise, I just found out that I’ll also get to meet the Saburian Queen No. 3 during the royal visit. She’s planning to get pregnant and has questions for me as a pediatrician.”
She shrugged. “I’m sorry, David, if I find out more, I’ll tell you. But why don’t you just ask Michael?”
Campbell shook his head. “No, I think that what is in the purple Drukker case is some kind of secret, maybe royal. It may be best, Elise, if you don’t mention what I told you to anyone.”