Thursday, November 8, 2007

Not My Child chapter 1

My cell phone rang, startling me, and I nearly tipped the French press full of coffee over reaching for it. I could tell the number was Social Services.

“Hi, this is Jess Fulton,” I answered, squeezing the tiny phone between my shoulder and ear so that I could heat the cream in the microwave. The time I save by multi-tasking gets used at the chiropractor, I though, trying to balance the phone and not hang it up with my cheekbone.

“Hey Jess. It’s Tammy. We’ve got a case this morning, a migrant farm worker needs a translator, and the court’s translator is out sick. Should be real simple, just a clerical error on a death certificate. Can you come down?”

“Sure, tell me what time.” I’d taken Spanish in college, dreaming of the far away places I’d go, the rugged Spanish mountains and Spanish men I’d encounter. So far all it ever got me was out of the house about once a month to the courthouse.

As it was, I was glad for the distraction. While I stood there in my perfect kitchen, the feeling that I wanted out overwhelmed me again. I didn’t know how or when, but I wished for it every day. And Momma always said if you wish for something hard enough, miracles could happen, even if one man’s miracle came on the backside of another’s misfortune.

Another couple of years, I told myself. Chelsea and Danny are already in middle school; they’ll be gone soon, maybe then.

I heard Ben coming down the stairs, and I poured his coffee as I was saying goodbye to Tammy. He grabbed his mug and started out the door, stopping as I hung up the phone. He had his favorite tie, with the wide navy bands, his lucky tie he called it, looped around his neck.

“Honey, I’ll be late tonight,” he said. “I’ve got a new client meeting after work, but I’ll call you.” He blew me a kiss and left before I could tell him where I’d be going.

I got the kids off to school, then dressed and met Tammy and Jose Perez at the courthouse. We were early. I immediately liked Jose; he had that meek expression that honest lower class people have, as if he felt ashamed of the bad reputation that some people gave to being poor. His body looked compact in a useful sort of way, made for the type of fieldwork that he was good at. But his eyes looked sweet, soft, and kind, glowing from an inner fire that had turned to embers.

He handed me his file to start reviewing while we waited. He looked down most of the time, except when he told me how his wife Maria had died working next to him in the fields. He looked at me and motioned to indicate vomiting. He had tears in his eyes. The coroner had written that she died of an allergic reaction to a bee sting.

Now there was a clerical error in the death certificate, and it couldn’t be recorded without being corrected. I thought what was the point? Migrant workers never had records.

“Mrs. Perez was a citizen,” Tammy said, reading my mind. “She had a few benefits.”

“What kind of…” I began, but the gunshots cut me off. People started screaming, and the courtroom doors flew open. A tall brown haired man came running out as fast as I’ve ever seen anyone run, carrying a gun in his right hand, and I imagined it still smoking. I had to stifle a giggle at the thought. Policemen were running up after him, and they disappeared down the hall and around the corner.

Someone came out of the courtroom, a blond haired woman with tears running and her mascara ruined, crying that the Judge was dead.

I’m not too sure what all happened next. Someone eventually ushered us out of the building, since none of us were actual witnesses to the murder. They must have caught the shooter – or suspected shooter - because no one seemed worried about more killing. Ambulances arrived, along with police cars and news trucks. Tammy had me try to explain everything to Jose, how he’d have to be rescheduled. We put him in a taxi, and I paid the driver to take him home. He’d already lost a day of pay over this whole thing.

It wasn’t until I got home that I realized I still had Jose’s file – I had forgotten to hand it back to him in all the commotion. I looked at my watch and saw I was running late to pick up the kids and get Chelsea to the neighbor’s mother-daughter tea, or I would have called Tammy right then, but it would wait.

My neighbor Nelly was one of those moms who believed that the way to heaven and raising kids who stayed out of trouble depended on every minute being scheduled and everyone being punctual. I dropped Danny off at home and got to the tea right on time, despite what I’d been through, to keep from having to hear her lecture about what happens to kids whose moms don’t take punctuality seriously.

“Hi dears. Chelsea, you are becoming quite the young lady. Just amazing how much you’ve grown,” Nelly said, even though she saw her nearly every day.

“Thanks Mrs. Jackson. What a lovely tea party, thank you for inviting us,” said Chelsea. I’d like to think she got those manners from me, but I knew Ben’s mother was the one who had taken the kids under her wing in that area.

I’d never really fit in with these moms from the neighborhood. They were all nice enough, and friendly, but somehow we never clicked. They were all too much super moms, moms by the book, with play dates and activities and quoting experts’ opinions. Not that it was like living in Stepford; I knew who’d had affairs, who drank too much, and who had money problems. I’d have liked them better if they’d have been more honest about it all.

But I have to admit, that Nelly was a great cook. If I’d have been the kind of mom who shared recipes, I’d have asked how she made those scones. Or maybe being in the presence of a shooting makes you extra hungry.

“Why Jess, I think you’re enjoying this party,” she said, looking at my plate. “Or at least the food.”

“Did you make all this yourself? I mean of course you did, everything is great. I really don’t know how you do it all.” I knew better than to talk with my mouth full, but she seemed to enjoy surprising me like that.

She smiled, or at least her lips did. “I like to keep busy.”

That’s another thing Momma always said, that people who keep busy are busy hiding something, usually from themselves. Maybe it was that she looked mysterious, with that silver birthmark running from her eyelashes through her eyebrow and up into her otherwise flaming red hair, right of center, but I always thought she seemed like a marked woman.

We got home and the kids settled in front of the TV, and I started to think about dinner when I remembered that Ben said he’d be late. That’s the first time it hit me wrong, that Ben was having a new client meeting on a Friday night, and I remembered the lucky tie. Women’s intuition was usually right, and mine had my skin prickling.

I’d lost my appetite, so I decided to order pizza for the kids. I picked up Jose’s file where it still sat by the phone, and leafed through as I was dialing. I noticed how complete it was – social security card, birth certificate, driver’s license. Maybe Maria got challenged a lot about her citizenship, living like she did, and kept things organized.

I looked at her driver’s license - my height, my weight, a little younger than me. If I had black hair and brown eyes, I could have been this woman, I thought.

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