Thomas H. McNeely

No Más Blanca Que Usted

The boy was fair-skinned and red-haired, and when he pulled a knife on her, calling her, in Spanish, a white bitch, una puta blanca, telling her to get out of her car, there in broad daylight, in the parking lot of the Kroger’s where she had shopped for forty-odd years, Margot’s first thought, in the slow-motion calm of mortal peril (and she had known, from the bitter set of his mouth and the muddiness in his beautiful almond-shaped eyes, that he was terrified, or high, or both, and therefore truly dangerous)—her first instinct was to reply, “No soy más blanca que usted.” I’m no whiter than you.

“But you no say that, right, mami?” Feliz asked.

“Of course not,” Margot said.

She didn’t have to add, as she might with someone who didn’t live in the neighborhood, like the sincere but rather naïve Quakers her husband, Sam, had known, that saying such a thing would very likely have gotten her stabbed, if for no other reason than it would have pierced the veil of anonymity between the boy and her, the pretense that they did not probably live five blocks from each other, that her son, Buddy, had not at one time probably bought drugs from the boy’s older brother, that the boy’s mother and she had not passed each other dozens of times in that very Kroger’s, week after week, for forty-odd years. If Sam had been alive, she might have risked it. She knew what her mother would have said, the word her mother had used, the summer of 1964, when someone had slit their window screen and snatched her purse, the word that she, Margot, still recalled with shame, that she had spent all her life trying to outpace. But instead, she did as she was told; she got out of the car, and the boy got in.

Y entonces?” Feliz said.

Then, Margot had talked to the boy. But she wasn’t ready to tell Feliz that just yet. She had known Feliz for a quarter of a century, had helped Feliz’s daughter-in-law and son get their green cards when such a thing wouldn’t have bankrupted her, before the days of Trump and ICE—and to be fair, Obama. She knew what Feliz would say about her conversation with the boy. They had long since passed from housekeeper and employer into something more fraught and complex, something like family—though Margot still paid her, of course, to do the housekeeping. She had always been careful to keep what was business, business.

Now, Feliz sat cattycornered across from her at the dining room table, holding her hand. That afternoon, Feliz had gotten the locks changed and Margot cancelled her credit cards. They had met this crisis efficiently, as they had trips to doctors’ offices or repairs to the house—the last years of Sam’s life had been an unceasing round of doctors’ visits before a mercifully short last few days at Memorial Hospital. Margot could see herself headed in the same direction—the slow, humiliating winding down of life. Feliz had been with her through all of it.

Then, she said, the boy backed out the dingy white Prius Sam had insisted upon but which she, Margot, never really liked, and glided silently through the parking lot, stopping to let a young Indian woman pass, one baby in a shopping cart and the other on her hip. Only when the Prius turned onto Telephone Road did Margot, suddenly lightheaded, allow herself to sit on the filthy gum-specked curb. The boy had her wallet, her credit cards, the keys to her house. But Feliz already knew all of this.

“Why you no call police?” Feliz asked.

A light uninsistent pressure from Feliz’s hand, a slight hardening of her voice, let Margot know they had stepped onto shaky ground. She hadn’t called the police because she was afraid, because Feliz had a set of keys, because she wanted to hear Feliz’s voice and know everything would be okay. Because she hadn’t wanted to get the boy in any more trouble than he already was.

“They won’t do anything,” she said. “You know that.”

As soon as she said it, she knew it was a mistake. Feliz loosened her grip, her blunt face, in the dusk gathering inside the house, turning hard and impassive—ugly, Margot thought.

“We have to do it proper,” Feliz said.

“I don’t want to mess with them,” Margot said. “I don’t like them. I don’t want them in my house.”

“Don’t be a baby.” Feliz leaned toward her across the table again, joking in a way that meant, Margot knew, she wasn’t joking at all. “Why you think no one try to help you at the Kroger?” Feliz said. “Why you think no one say call police? They don’t care about you. They just care about the ICE.”

Here it was, Margot thought: the discussion she’d wanted to avoid. The older Feliz had gotten, the further she’d burrowed into a story Margot could almost recite. “I come here the right way,” Feliz said, now, as always. “The honest way. Not like them. Indocumentado. I bet that boy que take your car is one of them.”

Half the neighborhood was, Margot thought. While she’d stood where her car had been, the young mothers and wolfish men at Kroger’s at that time of day watched her warily across the parking lot. A stocky, handsome man with a thick mustache, wearing a spotless Eastwood Country Club golf shirt, approached—the manager at the Kroger’s, she saw, from his nametag—and asked, too loudly, in the way that younger people did, as if she were deaf or mentally slow, whether she wanted to call the police. She had known he didn’t want his parking lot swarming with cops. She’d wanted to tell him she understood, but she’d felt too tired to explain herself.

It was darker inside the house than out—the hour of gloaming. It was the hour Sam had read to her, and before that, the hour she’d anxiously imagined where Buddy would spend the coming night, and before that, the hour when she and Buddy had eaten together after Jimmy, Buddy’s father, decamped. It had been many years since Buddy had come home in the middle of the night, or disappeared for days, or weeks, only to be brought home by the police. Now, he said, he was in recovery, a term that sounded pathetic to Margot, a childlike belief that what had been lost could always be regained. He had some sort of job teaching high school English in Alief. She tried not to be judgmental. She talked to him every few days on the phone, and he sounded sober, but she had learned to never be sure of her son.

Shadows from burglar bars Jimmy had installed cast shadows on the half-blinds, another of Sam’s expensive contraptions. When Sam moved in, he’d wanted to remove the bars, arguing it would show the neighborhood trust and respect. Margot knew it had as much to do with Jimmy’s putting them in. But it was her house, w