Dr. Sheridan Devine swallowed hard and slapped a hand to her mouth to prevent the lovely birthday dinner she’d just enjoyed from reappearing.
She surveyed the writhing mess – left to putrefy in the unseasonable June heat for who knows how long – with a wrinkled nose, pounding heart, and stream of silent curses. It was past ten o’clock. She had a mountain of paperwork to climb before bed tonight and now, this – the latest in a series of events intended to drive her, screaming, from the clinic.
The clinic, or The Cause – as her brother dubbed it – was very likely to put her in a hospital. She swung an uneasy gaze over her shoulder, around the dark cul de sac, and into the shadows that lined her driveway. Providing free medical care to Farmingville’s illegal immigrants wasn’t a popular career choice with her neighbors, who’d slashed the tires on her Prius, left threatening messages on her answering machine, graffiti’d the clinic’s walls and – today – smeared enough rotting Taco Bell food all over the front walk, porch, and door of her home to attract insects of every genus, from ant to worm. But damn it, it was her choice – the clinic was her life’s work and she wasn’t about to let the few ignorant people who believed she was single-handedly smuggling Mexicans over the border to put her off it.
“Fuck ‘em.” She said with a bravado barely skin deep and opened the garage door with the remote. She steered the dealer’s loaner car inside and lowered the door. For a moment, she debated calling Donovan for help and quickly dismissed the idea. She didn’t need help from him or anyone else. She trudged through the kitchen door, dumped her doggie bag and stack of patient files on a counter, and dug out cleaning supplies from beneath her sink.
It took the better part of an hour to hose the walk and porch, scrub the door and douse the swarm with a homemade garlic spray she mixed in batches. Just in case.
She finally settled down in her office, a room off the garage, and thought of the outstanding veal scallopini she’d had for dinner, a birthday treat from her father – its flavor now only a distant memory. She’d turned thirty-one today. By this age, she was supposed to be pregnant with her third child, a girl, to upset the two sons she was supposed to have had in her twenties, just as her parents had done.
She hadn’t done anything she was supposed to do, she thought with a grin, amused at herself.
Amusement faded under the heavy burden of regret and the grin evaporated.
Her mother died from a sudden stroke when she was just fifteen and her father moved to a fifty-five-and-older community, Sullivan was in Atlanta and Donovan…well, even though Donovan lived in the same town, he may as well have been across the country, for the distance between them.
It was her fault. Over her thirty-one years, she’d wished for so many things – some frivolous, some solemn. But for the past fifteen of those years, removing that tension, mending her relationships with both her brothers, headed the list.
When the pang came, she squashed it, as she’d been doing since her teens. Can’t change what was, she reminded herself for the umpteenth time, and turned her focus to work. The clinic wasn’t technically open on the weekends, but she’d put in a full day anyway because many of her patients refused to skip work to see her – even when they needed care. With a heavy sigh, she flipped open the first folder just as the phone rang loudly.
“Devine.” She spoke brusquely, waited.
“Chingate, puta!” A male voice shouted at her in Spanish. “Chupame la verga, almeja!”
Vile words, all of which she understood. Perfectly.
Her heart slammed into her throat, her hands shook, but her voice was steady as she glanced at the caller ID. “I have your number and will have the police knocking on your door in minutes unless you will hang up right now and never call here again.”
The resounding click made Sheri feel marginally better. But still, she took her time making her rounds, checking doors and windows, setting the alarm, before resettling at her desk. She stared at her files, her heart still battering her rib cage and thought about the call.
The Mexicans usually loved her. It was the white residents who were angry with her and they had no problems telling her off in English. So why curse her in Spanish?
Maybe that was the point, she speculated. To make her frightened of the very people she strived to help on a daily basis. Well, it’s not going to work, she decided.
She’d worked on the first file for only five minutes and then hopped up to flick on the stereo. She had the patient treatment reports to do first, a list of everyone treated at the clinic that day. After that, she’d tackle the reconciliations, an account of each piece of medical supplies used to treat the patients on the first list, right down to the smallest Band-Aid.
She glanced up, angled her head to eyeball her front door. It was locked. She was certain she’d locked it. She hadn’t come in that way, so it had to be locked.
She’d locked it, right?
Oh, for God’s sake, she muttered, stalked over to double check.
Since she was up, she checked the patio doors. Re-locked them and stuffed the track with a dowel. She stood in the center of her kitchen, nibbling on her fingernails, still staring at the front door. On impulse, she opened a cabinet and grabbed an armful of canned foods, stacked them by the front door. She tested the chain, found it securely fastened. Disarmed and then re-armed the security system.
The phone rang again and Sheri shrieked.
Her hands trembled as she glanced at the caller ID.
“Oh, for the love of God,” she muttered before answering. “Hi, Dad.”
“Sheri. You got in all right? You were supposed to call me.”
“Daddy, I’m fine.” She lied. She knew if she breathed one word of what had just happened, Drew Devine would be at her door in ten minutes or less, overnight bag in hand. Hell, he’d probably even tuck her in to bed, like he did when she was three.
“Okay, honey. You call me if you need anything, okay?”
Yeah. That’ll happen.
“Sure, Daddy. Good night. And thank you again for dinner.”
“And happy birthday again. Good night, baby girl. Sleep tight.”
Baby girl. Oh, how she despised that nickname! It had started the day she was born, when the nurses scrawled ‘Baby Girl Devine’ on her bassinette. While her parents still argued over the merits of ‘Sheridan’ versus ‘Bryce,’ friends and family had to call her something and so, adopted the nurses’ shorthand.
Unfortunately, it had stuck.
Sheri put the phone down and did one more run through the house while her heart continued its relentless pounding on her chest wall. Satisfied that the house was secure, she settled into her office, ignored her pounding heart, and resolved to finish her work.
Impossible, she soon decided. The whole process needed an overhaul. She’d get to that. Eventually. Between applying for grants, caring for patients, warring with Donovan. With a groan, she remembered she’d planned to email the local nursing school, exchange practical hours for student assistance, but forgot.
The radio station’s weather report interrupted her self-flagellations.
“…tomorrow’s weather, sunny and hot, with temperatures expected to be in the high ‘90’s, and humidity at 99%. Tuesday, a heat advisory is in effect. Thunder storms expected Wednesday.”
Good. Relief against the unbearable humidity would arrive soon, she thought, with a prayer of thanks for the inventor of central air-conditioning, and managed a few minutes of focus.
The clock in the hall chimed midnight and she looked up, surprised. She really should get to bed. One glance up the stairs, where long dark shadows filled the hall had her returning to her work with a little shudder.
It was going to be a long night.
“Gracias, amigo.” Jin Thomas Clarke thanked the young Mexican man for speaking with him with a folded twenty dollar bill, lifted the sleek dark pony tail from the back of his neck and wiped away sweat. In fluent Spanish, he continued. “What you’ve said will help me write a better story than I could have written on my own. I hope I didn’t keep you from earning your wages today.” As this blasted story is keeping me from earning mine, he thought, swigging from a bottle of water nearly as hot as the temperature.
Thomas suppressed a frown and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. The New York Times had sent him here to cover the racial issue that continued to divide the Long Island community of Farmingville – not-so-affectionately dubbed Little Mexico by its residents. Anglos versus Mexicans, legal residents versus the illegal aliens, the clash had been enduring for decades. Oh, he’d protested and complained bitterly to his editors. He was an investigative journalist, a damned fine one who had been about to go to Iraq to cover the war. And yes, he’d expected the bloody Pulitzer he’d earned several years earlier to afford him the luxury of choosing his own assignments, thank you very much. The Times had quickly dashed that hope and, for some unfathomable reason, had seen fit to treat him like some cub and put him on a neighborhood beat.
On Long Island.
In the middle of a bleeding heat wave, no less.
His only consolation? He would be permitted to tell the story his way. That is, of course, if he could ever find his angle.
Oh, he had no doubt the war would still be there when he was done. That wasn’t the issue. It was just that illegal immigration wasn’t news anymore. The war in Iraq was hot, interesting, bitterly debated amongst the presidential hopefuls, and was the kind of story Thomas lived to report – a sexy story with plenty of glory, courage, and compassion for him to observe, to expound upon at length.
At Cambridge, he’d studied anthropology, sociology, and several other -ologies that now served him well in his chosen career, writing the words that illuminated that which was mysterious and frightening. That his words often changed people’s minds, influenced their decisions, and – in some cases – encouraged people to embrace what they’d once feared, never ceased to gratify and astound him.
But there was nothing sexy about illegal border crossings. The blooming subject had been covered halfway to hell and back since the original influx of migrant workers hit Long Island nearly two decades earlier. There was nothing he could write that hadn’t already been reported in extraordinary detail by hundreds of other journalists, not to mention a 2004 film documentary appropriately titled, Farmingville.
And not one blasted thing had changed.
“Gracias. No, no, Tomas, I finished for the day.” Rafael’s voice broke Thomas from his internal whining.
It was said with a shrug, but Thomas detected worry beneath the body language as the young man tucked the money into his pocket. It was barely noon on Monday and if Rafael Cabral, a thirty-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico with a head full of thick curls and an easy smile, was already finished working, he would not have much money to send home to Hidalgo, his home town. He’d just told Thomas all about his elderly parents too ill to work, his disabled brother. Without Rafael’s help, his family would starve to death. In the time he’d patiently answered each of Thomas’s questions, Rafael had nearly convinced Thomas he had as much right to be in America as the Yanks themselves.
There was one question left, a question that Rafael had – so far – evaded. It was a question the Americans asked over and over again.
“Rafael, why not simply follow legal immigration procedures, especially given all the threats against your people lately?”
Rafael flashed another easy smile and said nothing.
“Sheri, I’m sorry about your car but you have to expect vandalism as part of the job you signed on to do. I won’t reimburse you for the slashed tires.” The gold link bracelet on Dr. Bill Monroe’s wrist glinted in the sunlight shining through the clinic’s window as he unwrapped a ham sandwich. There was a box of sandwiches on the counter in front of Reception, courtesy of Sheridan’s father, for the clinic’s medical team – currently only four doctors and a nurse.
“This is bullshit, Bill.” Sheri retorted, viciously hacking her sandwich into two halves with a plastic knife, completely unconcerned that little more than crumbs remained by the time she was finished.
Beside Bill, her father blanched. “Sheridan. Watch your mouth, for God’s sake.” Drew Devine’s handsome face reddened at his daughter’s unfortunate choice of terms. In his early seventies, Drew Devine was still active in local politics, still attractive despite the unfortunate tendency to go a bit thick around the middle, and still able to make his daughter feel about three years old. He brushed stray crumbs from his suit jacket, certain they’d landed there from Sheridan’s tantrum rather than his own sloppiness.
Drew always wore a suit on weekdays. Even days when it was ninety-five degrees. In the shade. He took a step to his right, anything to be closer to that heavenly current of cooled air flowing from the ceiling vent.
“No, Dad, I won’t. I do a good job – a damn good job – and if part of that job means putting up with the graffiti scrawled across the doors to my clinic or dealing with the occasional slashed tire, I don’t think I’m being unreasonable when I ask for the budget to cover those expenses.” She folded her arms across her chest and glared, grateful for the outrage that masked her disappointment.
“Oh, can’t we please just move past this? Give her the money, for Christ’s sake. You know she won’t let this alone until you do.” Her brother’s irritated voice interrupted whatever Bill Monroe had been about to say.
“Donovan, this does not concern you.” Drew swung his head from his daughter to his son, seated behind the counter that curved around the far wall of the waiting room, separating it from Reception.
“The hell it doesn’t. This is supposed to be a business meeting, right? According to the title on my card, I’m the clinic’s medical director. Look, says so right there.” Donovan grabbed his business card from the stack placed in a holder on the counter. “Though I’m thrilled that any of you bothered to even include me in this little meeting, I worked all night and would really rather avoid wasting the time I have to sleep on a meeting where we listen to Sheri whine – again – about how little money you give her to run this damn place. Just move on. Please.” Donovan lifted his face to Jo, a nurse who’d just put a cup of fresh, hot coffee in his hand. “God bless you.” He smiled and sipped, sighing contentedly.
Sheri watched, pissed off as her brother said something she couldn’t hear, damn him. Whatever it was made Jo answer his grin with one of her own. She watched, amused as the woman’s eyes skimmed over her brother’s hospital scrubs with interest, and barely resisted the urge to snort.
With his tall, lean body and honey brown hair worn cropped close to his scalp to hide the gray streak all of the Devine children inherited, her brother was a handsome man, she conceded. Even exhaustion from working night shift at the hospital couldn’t dial down his allure when he smiled. That he seldom did so was more her fault than his, she knew. And so she was treated daily to his sneers and scowls, while Joanna Reese, her best friend since kindergarten, got a few grins here and there.
Sheri couldn’t fault Jo, though. She’d been lusting after Don since middle school. Well, they’d been in middle school. Don was six years older, heading off to college and way too cool to be caught hanging out with seventh-graders.
“Mr. Director, I appreciate you coming to my rescue, such as it was, but I can handle this alone.” She flashed him a saccharine-coated smile and then turned her head to face Bill, missing the pained expression on his face. “Now, Bill, here are the estimates I’ve received – which, as you can see, are from discount tire stores. It’s not a great deal of money – just a few hundred dollars to replace my tires.”
Sheri regarded his expression as Bill chewed the piece of sandwich he’d popped into his mouth while she spoke, a few crumbs trapped in the thick moustache he’d worn as long as she’d known him. The expression was one of indulgence, of condescension. It was clear, Sheri knew. He had already made up his mind. She knew it made no difference how old she was, how many degrees she’d earned or how hard she’d worked. In Bill’s eyes, she’d always be Drew Devine’s screwed up kid. For a minute, she indulged herself in the pointless yearning to be esteemed, well regarded, maybe even appreciated, the way her brothers were.
But the clinic had never been important to Donovan…never been anything more than their father’s latest ‘little project.’ To her, it was a child in need of a parent. To her, it was salvation – arriving at a time in her life when the alternative should have been dark and unthinkable.
She’d become a doctor because both her brothers had done so first. She’d never admit it, not even under penalty of death, but everything she’d ever done was to earn their approval, even more so than her father’s. Over the past four years, she’d devoted herself to operating the clinic and providing the level of medical care her brother established as its Medical Director. She loved the work, loved her patients. It wasn’t their fault that some of the neighbors blamed her for their hardships and slashed all four tires on her beloved hybrid. But damn it, it wasn’t her fault either. She’d just have to work harder to convince Bill Monroe of that fact.
Bill lowered the glasses he’d perched on his forehead, glanced for a moment at the repair estimates Sheridan offered and slipped the glasses back up.
“Sheri, by now, I thought you’d have learned that the clinic’s viability depends entirely on public opinion. How do you think your benefactors are going to react when it becomes known that you bought tires with donated funds?”
“No, Sheridan. This time, I am standing firm. You get not one dime. I’m sorry about your car. And the graffiti. And even the crank calls. If you no longer wish to run the clinic, I’m sure Don won’t mind assuming your clinical director duties in addition to his own.”
Donovan quirked an eyebrow at Bill. “Oh, why not? The pay is so generous.”
“Bad enough when you wanted Donovan to run the clinic. But, both of your kids? How did you let Sheri talk you into that?” Bill asked Drew, thrusting a packet of papers into his hands. “Here, you need to sign these.”
“What are they?” Drew frowned.
“Property taxes, work orders, insurance, the usual cast of characters.”
Though Drew owned the land on which the clinic and the hiring hall stood, he’d entrusted his friend, Bill Monroe, to manage the endeavor, fully expecting to be too busy to do it himself after winning the election for Suffolk County Executive. Sadly, fate had other ideas. Drew lost the election and now contented himself with various new projects – a biography about to be released, a memorial event honoring his late wife, the launch of a new charity to fund stroke research, and of course, the usual round of commencement speeches typical for early June.
Sheri watched her father scrawl his name on sheet after sheet, her frustration escalating. “Never mind about paperwork. Are there issues with the way I am running the clinic?” She inquired, her voice coated with ice.
“Now that you mention it, yes.” Bill pounced. “You are responsible for every single donated dollar that runs this clinic but your reports, when you bother to send them, are woefully incomplete, your accounting is sloppy, and you continue to treat patients you know are ineligible for care.”
Sheri fought the urge to roll her eyes. This was always Bill’s complaint, she thought. “Ineligible? Bill, the only patient ineligible for care is a dead one. I turn no one away who needs treatment.”
“Sheri. Sheri, darling, listen to me.”
Kiss my ass, Sheri seethed silently, wondering how long it would take her teeth to crack at the rate at which she was currently clenching them, but managed to resist the great urge to tell Bill Monroe off. No matter how tempting. Sheri had no doubt that if her parents had had just one more child, they’d have named it “Monroe” – male or female, continuing the surname-as-first-name tradition they’d begun with Sullivan, her oldest brother.
“If you really want to provide care to everyone, why not consider Doctors Without Borders or similar organizations? You must accept the reality that this clinic exists only for the generosity of some very deep pockets who recognized the great drain the immigrant situation was putting on the hospital system. When those pockets dry up, our doors close. You can’t treat patients like the Chennys baby.”
Bill swore he could almost see her dig her heels into the floor. Her determination to treat the child – no matter the cost – had just been strengthened.
“Because —because they’re-” He grappled for the right way to phrase it.
“Come on, say it. Because they’re white. Isn’t that racist?”
“No! Damn it, Sheridan. Because they’re not illegal immigrants.”
“It is not. I promise you, Sheri, when we’re audited, that distinction is going to mean the difference between staying open and closing down. Where will you be then, darling? Back in the labs, applying for grants that study the effects of plastic leeched into the food supply of algae?”
Sheri’s brown eyes narrowed. “Bill, you know that the environment is already toxic and-”
“Oh, my God, somebody kill me. Just kill me right now and when you’re done, go find Tony Raina and kill him, too, for starting her on this in the first place.” Donovan’s brown eyes – an exact replica of Sheri’s – rolled heavenward before he buried his face in his hands, rocking back in the chair provided for the receptionist – if they ever got one.
Her father laughed, as he thumbed through each page Bill handed him, scrawling his name as he went, stacking them into a neat pile on the counter when he was through.
Sheri shot them both a glare and opened her mouth to retort, but the peal of a cell phone interrupted her plans.
“It’s my service,” Bill Monroe offered. “Excuse me a minute.” He pressed a button on his cell and held it to his ear.
“Sheridan.” Drew Devine leaned across the counter toward his daughter. “You didn’t tell me about any crank calls. When was this?”
Sheri sighed. She hadn’t told her father about the harassment because he would no doubt react exactly as he was about to. “Oh, it’s nothing, Dad.” She waved a hand. “Just some guy with nothing better to do than call me names in the middle of the night.”
Her father’s eyes narrowed. “Did he make any threats? Have you told the police? I could have the patrols down your block increased. In fact, maybe you should…”
“Dad, ease up on her, okay?” Donovan, bless his heart, stuck his finger in the parental over-reaction dyke, preventing Sheri from drowning in a deluge of you-shoulds. “She’s a grown woman who can take care of herself. She doesn’t need any help from us – never has.”
Ouch, Sheri thought.
All the nice things she’d just been thinking about her brother scattered with that kick to her ass. She lowered her eyes, hoping desperately he did not see the pain in them. What had she done to piss him off this time? Not that it took much. He’d been pissed at her since she was sixteen years old.
“Did she tell you about the rotten food?”
Oh, you bastard. Sheri glared at her brother again. Bringing that up was certain to push her father over the edge. If he’d had his way, Sheri would be living under twenty-four-hour guard.
“Food? What food? Donovan, what do you mean? What does he mean, Sheri?”
“Oh, for the love of God,” she narrowed her eyes at the spiteful smile her brother shot her, vowing painful and prolonged retribution.
“Dad. Please. Chill. It’s nothing. I can handle it.”
“Handle what? Sheri, I’m your father. I have a right to know what’s going on.”
She sighed loudly. “Fine. Someone left food on my doorstep. It’s really not that big a deal. Probably just some kids from the neighborhood playing a prank. It just…” She broke off when her brother muttered something.
“What was that?”
He gave her a mocking look. “Turn up your hearing aid. I said it creeped you out.”
Sheri regarded her brother intently. “Donnie, why so fixated on the food all over my front door? You uh… wouldn’t have had anything to do with that? ‘Cause if you did, that’s a pretty low thing to do to your sister, even for you.”
Sheri turned her focus to her father, missing the pained look that crossed her brother’s face.
“I’m confused. Why does food on your doorstep scare you?”
“Who said I was scared, Dad?” Sheri spoke quickly, harshly. The only thing Sheri feared was people thinking she was afraid, treating her like she was fragile. She’d worked so hard to overcome her fears. She wasn’t a kid anymore. She was a grown woman who would damn well take care of herself. It was critical that people knew that. “I just don’t like people coming to my house, leaving rotten food at the door. Too weird…too Stephen King, you know?”
“Rotten? What are you talking about?”
“It was food from Taco Bell…old tacos, burritos. It was smeared all over the place.” And had attracted swarms of insects of every genus from ant to slug. It had taken her over an hour to hose off the path, the steps, the front door. Between the bugs and the horrendous smell, she hadn’t been able to eat Mexican food since.
“No, no, no, no.” Drew frowned as he took out his cell phone. “This is going to stop immediately. You think I don’t know what this is? Taco Bell, Jesus. I know they call these people ‘tacos’ and ‘beaners’. Somebody’s sending you a message, Sheri. And they have the balls to come to the house. I’m calling the precinct and having them schedule extra patrols down the block starting right now.”
Donovan’s laugh set Sheri’s teeth on edge. He mumbled something and stood up with a nod to Bill Monroe, who was still retrieving messages.
“What? What did you say? Hey, where are you going? We’re not done here.” Sheri pointed to the seat he’d just vacated.
“I am.” He said as he left the reception area.
“Damn it.” Sheri smacked a hand on top of the reception counter with a vicious motion.
“You know, Sheri, Bill’s right. Your brother should be running the clinic, not you. You’re too-“
Sheri’s nails bit into her palms. “Too what, Dad. Too fragile? Too emotional? Too fucked up? What?”
“Sheridan! You’re too angry, for one thing, to be taking care of anybody and you have been ever since-“
At her sharp intake of air, Drew broke off. Sheri drew herself up to her full height, all five feet three inches of it, tossed her long honey-brown hair behind her shoulders and stepped closer. “Don’t say it. Don’t you dare say it.” She spoke quietly, coldly.
“…since your mother died.” Drew finished, after a moment, but Sheri knew he’d come close – too close – to bringing up the one thing she never talked about. “You’ve never dealt with it and running this clinic is clearly taking too much out of you. Maybe Don should take over for you – particularly since it’s clear you’re being systematically targeted.”
Sheri expelled a loud breath. “Let me get this straight. You really think if Don ran this place, he wouldn’t be dealing with tacos on his door step and slashed tires and crank calls, too?”
Her father shrugged. “Sure, but he’s-“
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Sheri flung her hands up. “He’s a guy. He can take it. I’m just a…a…a fragile little girl, right, Dad?”
“I didn’t say that-“
“You didn’t have to. I’ve seen that look on your face before.”
Sheri stared at Drew for a moment, straightened her shoulders and turned away. “I have work to do.”
Drew frowned at her and finally spoke. “Sheri, wait.”
He waited until Sheri’s sullen eyes met his.
“You’re thirty-one years old. If the current popular opinion is any indication of the future, this clinic will not be here much longer. I thought… well, I thought it was a great idea at the time. You know…the whole project. The clinic and the hall. Now I think I was wrong. The violence keeps escalating. We’ve got illegals running down pregnant women, residents spitting on illegals, throwing garbage at them, attacking them. With that kind of media coverage, it’s getting more and more difficult to convince people to donate the money we need to keep this place running. If it’s all you have in your life, you’d better find something else. Fast.”
It was all she had in her life. He knew it, but tight-roped around the real issue because she would only deny it.
“Is the clinic in trouble?” She saw her father glance at Bill, who was just closing his cell. “Bill? Answer me. Is the clinic in trouble?”
Bill averted his eyes. “Sheri, as of our last audit, we have enough money to exist for a year. Maybe. The last two fundraisers posted dismal results and I’m not all that confident the one we have coming up is going to help much, either. Your father’s right, Sheri. It’s all perception. When Mexicans go around running down pregnant white women, no one perceives them as worthy of a dime.”
Sheri cringed. “Bill, that was one incident. One angry man. And frankly, it’s conjecture that he was Mexican. For all we know, it was some drunk driver who spread that rumor to create exactly the kind of furor we’re seeing out there. I treat dozens of families. Hundreds of good, hard-working people who have nowhere else to go. They can’t even afford to go home now.”
“Perception, Sheri. I don’t know. Maybe it will turn around again. Hey, I almost forgot to tell you. The New York Times is sending a reporter out here to write about us. Be nice to him. Maybe he’ll help generate some donations. His name’s J. Thomas Clarke.”
“J. Thomas Clarke? Are you sure?” Sheri’s ire evaporated beneath a pondering smile. Clarke was world renown. His story on AIDS won a Pulitzer and before that, she was sure he’d won a George Polk Award. Any story he’d write would not only get the local glitterati to open their wallets, it would probably earn him a Congressional Medal of Honor, too. “Got his number, Bill?”
Bill slanted a look at her. “I see the wheels turning and I’m not sure I like it.”
She smiled sweetly. “Did you or did you not just tell me to be nice to him? Give me his number and I’ll be nice.”
Bill merely sighed as he dug a business card from his shirt pocket, glanced at it and then tossed it her way. “You better not piss him off, Sheri. He’s got lots of connections.” He gathered up his signed papers. “Oh! Almost forgot. Happy Birthday.” He pecked her on the cheek and left the clinic, hoping strongly Sheri wouldn’t eat Clarke for breakfast.
“Hang in there, honey. Things could turn around.” Her father offered.
“Yeah, right.” She pressed fingers to her eyes, rubbed. “Hey, thanks for the food. And for the birthday dinner last night.” She added.
“My pleasure, sweetheart. You be careful, okay?” Drew kissed her and hurried to catch up to Bill.
Sheri heard the glass door scrape as it closed, took in a deep breath and looked around her clinic.
When had it become “hers”? She wondered. It had begun as a campaign promise. Despite losing the election, Drew built the promised facilities anyway, with donated funds and one of his own properties. It was staffed entirely of volunteers who each held positions at Stony Brook Hospital, which provided oversight to the clinic under Dr. Bill Monroe’s leadership.
Her eyes took in the handmade art that decorated the waiting area – gifts from thankful patients – the gently used sofa in the corridor outside the trauma room that had been Don’s once upon a time. Everywhere she looked, little touches of personality adorned the place. The place was truly a labor of love.
Inside the clinic, Sheri felt needed. Talented. Confident.
And, if she were to be completely honest with herself, safe. No one knew – not her father, not her brothers, not her colleagues…no one knew how frightened she was, how enormous an effort it took just to leave her house.
She would not lose her clinic. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut. Whatever it takes, she would not lose it.
She blew out air and decided to call J. Thomas Clarke right now. She glanced at the business card Bill gave her, saw a cell number and dialed it.
Thomas had done his homework when he’d been handed this assignment, despite resenting the hell out of it. He knew about the harassment and the attacks that had become banal for the Mexican immigrants. The threats would escalate in both frequency and in cruelty. It was a sociological axiom…nothing binds neighbors more closely together than unity against a common threat.
A local activist, Gabe Lipton, had been urging residents to petition the government to enforce existing immigration laws in a series of protests. He suggested a recent hit and run fatality was retaliation against a spate of raids on the illegally rented homes that forced as many as thirty undocumented workers at a time to camp in the woods. When a fifteen-year-old girl was attacked in those woods, naturally Mexicans were blamed even though the victim admitted she’d never actually seen her attacker.
Thomas believed Lipton had a valid point – existing laws should be enforced – but disagreed with his methods. Lipton’s protests served merely to whip residents into a frenzy that fed their fear. Where there was fear, Thomas knew, there was hatred and violence. Blood had been drawn and whether it was logical to conclude the hit and run had been intentional no longer mattered. Hard evidence was optional. Tension would escalate. Violence was likely. The resulting powder keg stood poised for an explosion and when it came, it would be huge.
When it came, The Times wanted the scoop, which is why Thomas was there. But Thomas had other ideas. It wasn’t enough for him to simply report the news. Thomas preferred to change peoples’ minds. How can you do that when everyone’s right?
That was a question he would need to answer to write this article well. So far, he’d learned it wasn’t merely an issue of American versus Mexican, legal versus illegal. To their neighbors’ great consternation, small business owners struggling to stay afloat amidst crippling taxes and high gasoline prices rushed to hire undocumented workers “off the books” to stay competitive with the large warehouses and super-stores. Private homeowners sneaked around the hiring hall, illegally hiring two or three migrants for cheap yard clean-up, house-painting or lawn-mowing. Despite vociferous arguments against illegal immigration, not all residents of the area actually opposed it.
Mexicans wanting to escape their poverty-stricken villages found dozens of higher-paying jobs in the United States. Their wages were hardly enough to afford typical Long Island housing, so dozens of migrant workers often crowded into slum-like homes – homes cheaply and illegally rented – homes whose antiquated plumbing and cesspool systems often collapsed under the burden. Neighbors paying thousands of dollars annually in property taxes can do nothing but watch the value of their own houses plummet as taxes rise further to pay for education and medical care enjoyed by people who do not contribute to those services.
No, it was a multi-sided, faceted issue, with too many shades of gray to be seen clearly. Thomas could only see the Iraq story slipping further from his grasp. He asked Rafael the burning question one more time.
Rafael shrugged, grinned sheepishly. “Too expensive. And it takes too long. I need money today. I cannot wait.”
“Too expensive, how?” Thomas pressed him.
Another shrug. “This country helps us more if we’re poor. You know, this government pays me if I have babies born here. If I get hurt, hospitals cannot turn me away – it’s against the law.”
Thomas knew all about the laws regarding the so-called ‘anchor babies’ born on U.S. soil to illegal immigrants. “But Rafael, doesn’t it bother you that you are taking money you’re not entitled to?”
Rafael flashed another bright grin. “Hey, man, I don’t make the laws. I figure the United States wouldn’t do it if they couldn’t afford it.”
Thomas suppressed a grin. Rafael had a point. Why should he assimilate when the American government so nicely rewards the very behaviors being criticized? Everything Rafael had told him so far supported the complaints lodged by the area’s legal residents – Mexicans don’t seek citizenship, they won’t learn the language, but they’ll take American money.
“Rafael, everything you’ve just said is exactly why the Americans are so angry with your people. Doesn’t that worry you?”
A small man, Rafael clutched a wrinkled paper sack in one hand, and bent to pick up a discarded soda can. “No, I pay Raoul each week. Raoul protects us.”
Thomas watched him dispose of the can in a trash bin, his lips pursed into a thoughtful curl as he contemplated Rafael’s motivation. Someone named Raoul takes money to protect them? Interesting, he thought, and would have asked further questions had his mobile not chirped at that moment.
“Clarke.” He answered it impatiently in the Queen’s clipped English.
“Mr. Clarke, this is Sheridan Devine. I’m a doctor at the Farmingville Free Clinic and I understand you’re writing a story about us. I’m calling to find out when we can meet for an interview.”
Thomas blinked. A story about ‘us’? Just who the devil was ‘us’ anyway and why in bloody hell should he need to interview them? Oh, hell. He sighed heavily. It was starting already. He’d been in town barely over a week.
“Well, Dr. Devine, that’s not exactly correct. I am writing about immigrants. While the Farmingville Free Clinic plays a role in my story, it is not my central focus.” He was proud of the way he’d contained his irritation.
“But I was hoping-“
And then his patience snapped.
“You hoped wrong. Good day, doctor.”
News groupie, he concluded. Happens all the time. As soon as word gets out who he is and why he’s in town, they flock to him like penniless widows to the aristocracy for the chance to see their names in print.
Thomas closed his mobile, put the irritating call from his mind and made a mental note to check out this Raoul person further. “Does anyone pay you for that?” Thomas spoke in Spanish once again, jerked a head toward the aluminum can Rafael tossed in the bin.
Rafael shook his head. “No. But it needs to be done. They built us this place. I want to take care of it.”
Rafael had already spent a full morning landscaping a row of homes in the neighborhood. That he would volunteer his time to work where there was no money surprised Thomas and he was not a man easily surprised.
According to Thomas’s research, the single-story Farmingville Hiring Hall had been built on several acres of property owned and donated by a local politician, in an attempt to solve safety issues created by the growing immigration problem. Mexicans by the hundreds crowding street corners while they waited for work blocked traffic, disrupted business, urinated in public, littered the area with discarded cigarette butts, food and beverage containers, and harassed any female walking by. The Hiring Hall – contemptuously called the taco stand by neighbors – provided migrants with a place to gather while they waited for work, keeping the streets cleaner and safer for both American and Mexican.
The Free Clinic had been added soon after, subsidized through grants and private sector donations to alleviate the drain uninsured migrant workers placed on the local hospital system, which – as Rafael pointed out – is required by law to treat all patients in need of care, regardless of ability to pay.
Rafael returned to where Thomas sat, at a wooden picnic table that had been dragged under the tall trees lining the impeccably landscaped property and offering blessed shade from the wicked June sun, but little relief from the sticky humidity. From the paper sack, he withdrew a plastic-wrapped sandwich that he carefully opened, tore into two halves.
“Want half?” He invited Thomas.
Thomas smiled and shook his head. “No, thanks.”
Rafael shrugged, tucked in.
“There is something else I need. Maybe you might help me?”
At Rafael’s nod, Thomas continued. “I need to watch some of your friends work – but not just any work, Rafael. I want to watch them work with the white residents – you know, see how they’re treated, things like that.”
“The gabachos hate us, man. I told you that already.”
Hate was a strong word, but Thomas didn’t doubt it. “I know, but I need to see it.”
Rafael rolled his eyes. “Okay. Some friends of mine are having a lot of trouble. They’re working construction. Luis, Juan and Cesar. They been working this job for maybe two weeks now and it’s nothing but problems.”
“Where could I find your friends?”
“I live with them. We rent a house together. I give you address?”
Thomas nodded and watched Rafael jot down the address on a scrap of brown paper he tore from his bag.
“Their names are Juan Guerrera, Luis Nuestro, and Cesar Aranjo. They usually do dry-wall or painting. You want to find them, it is better to come by when it is dark.”
“Tell me about the problems they’re having.”
Rafael shook his head sadly. “They do good work but sometimes, after they finish, they go back and have to do it all over again, because the white men ruin it. Hand prints in the mud, holes in the wall. They pay Raoul extra for his help.”
Thomas’s eyes sharpened. “What does Raoul do to help?”
Rafael lowered his voice, looked cautiously from side to side. “Oh, this and that. Could be the tires on their trucks go flat. Or maybe their big, fancy houses get damaged. And sometimes, even a broken arm or leg. Raoul is not someone you should make angry.”
First, extortion and now, retaliatory attacks? Gang member, Thomas concluded.
“And these men… the ones Raoul targets. Do they know he’s the one damaging their property?”
“No, no, Tomas. Raoul is too smart for that. It’s a message, you know? Whatever you do to me, I do to you, but worse.”
“I get that. I just wonder where it ends.” He stood up, would have walked away, but Rafael suddenly stiffened. The easy grin fell from the man’s face and his eyes shot to something past Thomas’s shoulder.
Instinctively, Thomas dropped his water bottle, braced and moved but it was too late. Strong hands grabbed him from behind, roughly twisted his arm behind his back and slammed him down, pinning him to the table.
“You’re pretty tall for a wetback.” Hot breath fanned over his ear as his face scraped against the rough surface.