Bright letters: 1:04 AM glowed on Shelly’s phone screen with a DNA helix twirling the letters, G A R C I A, in the background.
“Hello!” she said sleepily.
“Shelly, sorry to wake you up. I need your help.” Garcia’s voice crackled with static.
“It’s OK, I was just having a lovely dream. How’s George?”
“He’s fine. But Shelly, I have a problem with my visa, going with some people to straighten it out. Can George stay with you for a few hours?”
“You’re a friend, thanks!”
Garcia hung up.
No wonder he had no friends, she thought, just like him to assume she would help — like all the times he mansplained to her about the research establishment.
Weird, she wondered, who addresses visa issues after midnight? Didn’t Pandolf track that, given their international workers and patients.
“Mom,” she said into her phone, instructing it to connect to her parents. The Genie now displayed her parents’ latest pictures: white beaches, topaz ocean and clear skies, a beach rental in Goa, India, with the message: No Connection.
She left a video message, “Hey, need some advice…”
To buzz Garcia in, she would have to go to the living room. Groaning, finger-combing her hair, yawning, cat following, she checked her phone’s call history as she walked, hoping that Garcia’s call had been part of her dream?
No, it was real.
Laying on the common room couch, she pushed the cat’s insistent paw away and set the phone ringer to a particularly obnoxious Indian party jingle for calls from Garcia in the future.
Then she tapped ride requests into her phone for Hunterview Hospital the next day to avoid driving sleep-deprived.
She remembered that one time, returning home post-call one rainy evening. It was her second accident after rear-ending the Pandolf bus. Peering through her windshield, wipers on their fastest setting, she felt a frightening thud and stopped.
Just a shadow, a black shape now rose in front of her bumper. Panicking, she jumped out her car to find a man in a long dark overcoat.
After brushing himself off while listening to her flustered apologies, he said politely in British accent, “Sorry, the black coat also made it hard to see.”
He then added, “Please give me a ride home.”
Remembering crime stories, she hesitated. “Of course.”
Nothing dramatic happened. The stranger’s wife was visibly upset but curtly served Shelly hot milky tea with sugar cubes.
They were Pandolf researchers from England. She sipped tea in their cozy living room, antique furniture tidily arranged on dark Persian rugs, blonde floor to ceiling paneling, neatly stacked bookshelves, all glowing in the light of the wood fireplace.
She mentioned to them that her father had studied in the UK and had fond memories, not mentioning the racism he had also described.
“He loves aphorisms,” she told the couple, “Says getting into America was like winning the lottery and great opportunities are fearsome. Prizes go to those who run the race.”
She thanked them and left. They did not ask her for any contact information, and she did not offer either.
Like her, other Pandolf’s doctors and scientists were also busy in the ethereal life of the mind. They also had unfortunate accidents.
One hot day last summer, rushing to 6AM rounds, a pediatrician forgot his toddler in the car. Fortunately for the child, a passer-by saw the child and broke the window.”
“People should be paying attention when they walk,” announced Pandolf’s CEO, Dean Baluyn, “and not looking at their phones.”
Waiting for Garcia to arrive, now she was dreaming again, nibbling on biscuits with tea in the Britishers’ living room. They invited her to stay and become part of their miniature world — the tiny isle they called home — surrounded by its frigid ocean moat.
She was their cat, resting in front of the fireplace where chestnuts roasted in crackling logs. Foreboding shadows on the walls became a monkey that demanded, “Take the chestnuts out and share with me.”
Catching her stealing them, her hosts became angry and told her to leave.
Burnt hands in pain, hungry, and cold, she found herself alone in front of a dark theater. The drama had moved outside, where the skies roared rain, water loudly gushed into gutters, crowds rushed away, and lost, she walked on a shiny street around puddles to the London Underground stop.
“All this isn’t real,” the couple shouted from their doorway, twins except for their clothes, one dressed as a man and the other as a woman.
Shaken, Shelly awoke and looked with relief at her uninjured surgeon’s hands.
Her phone now displayed 3:14 AM. Feeling cold, she got up and made herself a hot mug of cardamom chai — like her father made — with his favorite British butter biscuits.
Why had Garcia been trying to do his own repairs with the Drukker printer, she wondered?
She shook off her fears. Garcia seemed harmless enough, an eccentric scientist with occasional outbursts like the one he had recently.
“At Pandolf,” he said, “we’re just gears in giant medical machines. To break out, we have to face the fearsome real world…swim or drown.”
“Dr. Garcia,” she objected, “My career plans are going well. As an employer, Pandolf provides generous benefits: insurance, pensions, and even onsite childcare. Our CEO, Dean Baluyn, does a good job and deserves to be paid well.”
Maybe, he was in a hurry to fix a glitch in the printer, she thought, get on with his experiment and then pick his son up from the airport.
After all, he was the campus Drukker expert and had led the team that brought the supercomputer to Pandolf.
He travelled often to the Dock, Drukker headquarters.
“I love it,” he told her. “Young people like you, smart, enthusiastic…. but it’s not conservative like here. There you see tattoos, wild beards, piercings, short skirts, rainbow colors! Back in my day, at university in my country, we didn’t have many women around. My boss thought women were distracting — especially if they were dressed like that. I’m glad things have changed. One of these times, would you like to come with me to see the Dock?”
“I really appreciate it, Dr. Garcia. But I’m too busy here. I’m just trying to catch up on my sleep in my free time.”
Garcia nodded. “I understand. Still, it’s a cool place, always food, even a conveyor belt going 24/7 with hot pizza you can order on a touchscreen. Machines mix you any drink you want. I like the mango kiwi seltzer.”
He smiled dreamily. “Oh, Shelly, the architecture is world-class, international classic in some places, modern and playful in others. You should see the organic gardens you can walk through, fresh-pressed juices from what they grow right there…”
Garcia had rambled on. Fascinated by the pattern of scratches in his glasses, she had stopped listening. Was she watching too many surgery videos, the designs of veins and arteries branching, lymph channels and nerves knitting? Why was there a weave in the cracks of his lenses and only in their lower half?
Sugary biscuits and chai finished, Shelly returned to the living room to lay back down and replay happy memories of Sam Nepski.
At lab meetings which she diligently attended, he sat at the head of the table, slim, tall, impressive in his knowledge and aggressive with his questions. At scientific meetings, he was a lead speaker or organizer. Despite his relatively young age, he was on prestigious committees that determined certification of specialists, approval of research funds, and new medications for pregnant women.
Garcia grumbled to Shelly how men like Nepski were too powerful and could permanently derail someone who crossed them or competed with them. But her mind usually wandered during his rants to some breakthrough surgical technique she was learning.
In her carefully mapped plans for her life, Garcia’s oddness was a distraction. Successes that he could never even dream of awaited her. In a few years, she will have finished her fellowship and be working at a top research institution, curing ovarian cancer.
No, she thought, her future would not be tedious pandering to needy, privileged women in rich suburbs, becoming another Dr. Brickstone at a place like Hunterview or toiling in someone else’s lab like Garcia.
Someday, she would be living in the Operating Room like her medical school professor and doing groundbreaking research in her own lab like Dr. Nepski.
She had last seen Dr. Nepski talking with his father, his back to her, at the Provencale.
“Garcia is smart,” he was saying. “But Dad, he doesn’t catch fire about our work. Oh, like a good soldier, I can always count on him to plod on. I suggested many times that he start his own projects, but …at least, he’s excited about the supercomputer. Who wouldn’t be? Pandolf may soon buy another one.”
Then she heard the senior Dr. Nepski respond. “Garcia is the way he is because he doesn’t belong here or anywhere. People like that spark new beginnings or start a fire that destroys everything … not bad if that’s what we need.”
“I belong here, Dad. I care about Pandolf and what we stand for.”
“Of course,” his father said. “Still, remember I’m here because our family was going to follow the crowd in Poland, and then my crazy uncle killed our Nazi guards. Sadly, those dead young brutes were just followers. But you know, it’s the only admirable thing my uncle ever did.”
The older Nepski continued, “The Puritans left England to put an ocean between themselves and their lunatic king. Yet here we are centuries later, reverting to that old world of rulers and serfs, where a descendant of an original Puritan family, Dean Baluyn is your CEO.”
“You will always be a rebel, Dad.”
“No, I’m an immigrant. I’ve seen other worlds. Sam, you have so much power over someone like Garcia? It’s times like these when I feel a wind blowing, change-a-coming like my father said he felt as a young man in Poland a long time ago…”
Then both Mrs. Nepskis emerged together from the womens’ room to rejoin their husbands. The couples walked away toward the exit.
Shelly dozed off again and awoke this time at around 4:30 AM. Still no Dr. Garcia or George.
“Friendly, chatty, young like you,” Garcia had described his son.
What about Lucky, she wondered? What would she say to finding a teenage boy in their apartment this morning?
“But most of the time, Lucky’s gone, right?”
She scratched the cat’s head and belly and remembered the snub from Dr. Nepski’s mother. “Well, I don’t want to be like your owner, do I? I don’t need all kinds of men buzzing around me all the time. Livingstone, we’re mutts — weeds whose flowers are pretty enough that people keep us around.”
The doorbell jangled inside the quiet apartment. Between sleep and wakefulness, its loud sound broke open a revelation for her.
At the Palatine dinner, Garcia had gazed into the night elsewhere as candlelight had flickered in the cut crystal wine glass, refracting its reflection into the lower half of his spectacles, the trademark Drukker sunburst.
The apartment doorbell rang again. She pressed the yellowed button that unlocked the main building entry.
On the first floor, the massive double wooden doors creaked open, then she heard loud footsteps on the landing, followed by dragging and banging until the racket stopped in front of her apartment— silence and then a tentative knock.
She opened her door. In the dim lighting of the stairway, she looked up to a tall and slender teenager with long hair, almost a unibrow, and glasses with splatter on them.
A heavy suitcase sagged against his right leg. In his left hand, he carried a trademark plastic bag from the luxury brand, Salome. Through a tear in its bulging side, there poked a yellow pencil.
Smiling down at her, he stuck out one bony hand with long fingers. “Hi, Dr. Narayan, I am George Garcia. So sorry to keep ringing your bell.”
“Hi, George! Please call me Shelly.” She ignored his outstretched hand. Who knew where it had been and what germs it carried?
Her voice level, Shelly then asked, “Is your dad on his way up too? Come on in. Here’s a towel to dry yourself. The irrigation around here does get crazy. Here you go, hand sanitizer. Welcome to California!
“Take your shoes off.” She tried to sound welcoming. “And put all your wet stuff, yes, your bag too — there on top of that blue mat. The floors are hardwood. We don’t get them wet.
“Oh no, George. We don’t wear shoes inside this apartment. They go on the mat too. But keep your socks on or your feet will be cold.
“Where’s your dad?”
Next, the cat slipped out into the stairwell, and she scooped him up. Chaos has come knocking, she thought.
“Livingstone was a feral kitten and will still run off outside,” she said. “But don’t let him out. He belongs to my housemate.”
The boy’s face softened. He touched a finger to the animal’s nose.
“So where’s your father?” she asked for the third time.
Wiping his face and glasses carefully with the washcloth, George replied, “Dad says hello, but he had to go with the other men.”
George carefully placed his large shoes next to her small pairs on the floor mat.
“He’ll call you,” he added, resembling his awkward father even in facial expressions and the frames of his glasses.”
“Please sit down, George. Have you eaten?”
“They had crackers on the plane, um-hum, and pop.”
“Oh yes, they call soda “pop” in Chicago.”
“There’s a 24-hour pancake place around the corner,” she offered.
“You don’t have to do anything, Dr. Narayan, I have protein bars and meal replacement powder.”
“Let’s go get real food: ‘brinner,’ breakfast and dinner, that’s what we resident doctors call it. Leave your coat on, get your shoes back on and tie those shoelaces this time, double knots.
“Let me grab my wallet,” she added. She returned to her bedroom, closed the door, and called Garcia again. As before, the call went to voicemail.
They went around the corner to the Golden Griddle, where she sipped lukewarm green tea and picked at a bland house salad: wilted lettuce and non-fat dressing with a chemical aftertaste.
George had stacks of pancakes, followed by liver and onions, then a chocolate shake, all the while downing endless glasses of ice water. He concluded his meal with a mountain of onion rings under a downpour of ketchup.
Putting down one empty ketchup bottle after its final exhalation of splatter, he reached over — long arm — to the next table for another one. She insisted on ordering more food. He surrendered and doubled his meal.
“Do you have a phone, George?”
He then picked up her Genie, eyes widening with admiration.
“Do you mind? You have the latest model with that crack Caller ID nail.”
He set up new features on her device. They discussed the school he had attended in Chicago and his life with his uncle, “a famous artist” and his “beautiful” aunt, the original owner of his Salome bag.
“I left Argentina after my mom passed,” he said, “and moved to Paris with my grandmother, then to Chicago in eighth grade. Now I’ll go to Pandolf High School.”
“Will you miss your friends in Chicago?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I have two friends in Argentina that I stay in touch with online. Hopefully, Dad and I can go back for a visit soon.”
From his travels, George spoke English, Spanish, French, and Italian. “Dad wants me to take Mandarin and genetics at Pandolf High. He says the science curriculum here is amazing because we’re next to a medical center.”
When they returned to the apartment, Shelly set him up on the living room couch. She texted Lucky to let her know.
After all, Charlie, Lucky’s brother, was also in high school and had spent many nights on this very couch.
Charlie was a charmer with gelled blonde hair, silver laptop and musical phone that never left him. Lucky was supposed to supervise her brother, but he just came and went, ear Dots stuck behind his ears except when he peeled one off to talk.
Helping Shelly in the kitchen, he wanted to learn about Indian food and would ask about her day in the hospital while telling her jokes with his flirty, “I know I’m adorable, but don’t trust me for a minute” smile.
In contrast, George now sat solemnly on the couch, sad eyes like one of the stray animals she would rescue for her childhood menagerie.
“Here you go,” she said, “fresh towels, sheets, blanket, change into your pajamas, brush your teeth, and go to bed. Lucky, my housemate, will be walking through this room in the morning. She knows to expect you. I guess we’ll know more about what to do with you when your dad calls…”
She made a mental list for Garcia: kid needed a shave, a haircut and a comb. He needed to fix his bad posture and untied shoelaces.
Her phone rang, her ringtone for unknown callers, Stargod music.
“I don’t usually answer Blocked Caller IDs,” she said, “but maybe this is about you. Hello?”
“Hello, Dr. Shelly Narayan?” It was a man’s voice with an accent she recognized, her home state of Texas.
“Dr. Narayan, this is Dr. David Campbell. I needed to let you know about Dr. Garcia because he can’t talk to you directly right now, I am sorry.”
“ICE, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has detained him. I am sure he’ll clear up this business soon. I’m a friend of his.”
“But I have his son here!”
“I am sure the problem will be temporary, Dr. Narayan. It must be a mistake.”
When she was a child, one night an immigration agent had called and only identified herself to Shelly with a serial number.
Her parents told her not to worry, even as they had hushed conversations about it.
“You blow hot, and they’re ICE cold!” Shelly remembered her father joking recently after watching the news.
Aware that George was listening, she herself was also careful not to say anything that could upset him.
“Can you find out more?” she asked Campbell.
“Call ICE?” Campbell exclaimed. “Like I have their direct local number here, their 1-800 toll-free line or friendly website for an instant chat with my favorite agent.”
He continued, fending off her interruptions, “OK, Dr. Narayan, but in the meantime…, in the meantime, Manny asked me to make sure things are taken care of for George until he can return. There are empty apartments in your building; there’s one on the floor below you, 252, I see it here online. I’ll grab it this morning.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your building is close to the school George is enrolled in. He can walk there and back. If it’s OK, I will swing by later today and make all the arrangements. When is a good time? I know you’ve never met me so we can meet at the place across the street from you, The Ivy Drip.”
Now she was speechless.
“Dr. Narayan.” He was pleading now. “I know you’re busy. I’ll have George out of there today. You need to keep him in your place just for a few hours. Please help. You don’t know me, but George does. Ask him!”
She turned to the boy. “OK. George, do you know a Dr. Campbell? The man on the phone says he is a friend of your father.”
George brightened “Yes, Dr. Campbell is a forever friend of his.”
She worked out details for a tentative meeting after work.
Soon, she could close the door on this strange twist in her carefully planned life.
But her father’s voice teased her otherwise: “The best-laid plans of mice and men.”
Then her mother would say. “Well, Shelly always lands on her feet like a cat.”
“Get some sleep, George,” she said. “Knock on my door if you need something?”