This story is by J.P.J. Fox and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
I. They Almost Missed Lunch
This rig was stopped in a westbound lane, after charging through the low overpass. In front of the cab, a man was crouched on the curb, sobbing into his hands. Sitting beside him a boy, about six years old, looked bewildered and scared. Moments ago their lives changed in a flash. Before that moment they were sharing a journey that held a promise of hope as bright as that summer day on Long Island.
The top of the trailer they were pulling was peeled off, opened like the lid on a tin of luncheon meat. The full length of the steel top, ragged and torn, flopped off the rear of the trailer. The curled end that once covered the front rested on the hood of a Volvo station wagon behind, just through the overpass. About twenty feet after the Volvo, two cars were stopped on snaky skid marks; the second car stopped just a few feet before hitting the first. Traffic piled up behind.
Drivers and passengers projected looks of horror, which faded into mere gazes of frustration farther back in the line of stopped traffic. Those who had witnessed the accident were abuzz with adrenaline, dread and compassion; those beyond the bend in the parkway were stagnant with uncertainty or angst. Everyone was delayed, many would be late, some would miss important appointments completely. The degree that this mattered varied from car to car. Tension was just starting to build in the Hendersons’ BMW.
“God damn it,” Philip said. “We don’t need this shit. We might miss the ferry.”
“Then we’d miss lunch,” Cynthia added, “and we’re bringing the main course. When is the next ferry?”
“Not until 3:30,” he replied. “What are we going to do with fifty dollars’ worth of spoiled King Salmon?”
“Sixty,” Cynthia corrected, as she reached for her cell phone. “Relax, the fish is on ice.”
“Don’t call over there yet,” Philip advised. “Maybe this traffic will clear soon. Let’s check the radio.”
In the eastbound lanes traffic was crawling through the accident scene, but only five or six sluggish minutes lapsed to pass the nightmare on the westbound side and proceed through the overpass. Drivers in a rush to make up those precious minutes took turns dodging between lanes to pass. Thoughts refocused on travels, schedules, plans for the day—normal lives that were merely brushed by fate.
“I think we’ll still make the 11:30,” Philip said, and those comforting words made them both feel relaxed, like they were already at their beachfront house. Philip could taste the salmon, and the chilled rosé they had put in the refrigerator last weekend. Cynthia could feel the ocean breeze in her hair, and smell the salt air.
“Forget that stop at the bakery,” she suggested. “We’ll improvise breakfast tomorrow.”
Something with leftover salmon? Philip silently dreaded. Maybe with fresh bagels. We can get those over there. He felt better.
The boy was now stunned, more frightened by his sobbing father than the accident itself. He knew this trip was disrupted, but he didn’t realize this was the end of the journey. They would never haul a load again. They’ve strayed from providence, their life was now, accidentally, stuck in a perpetual jam.
The news reported: Another tractor-trailer had wandered onto the parkway. The driver likely used a non-commercial GPS. Nobody was hurt.
II. They Miss His Mother
Miguel Ortiz was secretly fearful when his new bride boarded the plane for El Salvador. She had entered the US illegally ten years ago. He was smitten when they first met in Sugar Land, Texas. Sugar Land—it sounded like destiny for a sweet life, and indeed their lives were better there.
Their son was born six years ago, but still Miguel and Belinda had not officially married, until she needed to get back to El Salvador pronto. Her parents were missing, their home was swept away in a mudslide. Cousins and neighbors were terrified, desperate, but safe. Mamá and Papá were still not found, and Belinda too was terrified and desperate.
Miguel hugged her tightly before she boarded. It was a hug of compassion, but also a hug of hope that she would return safely.
When he first came to Sugar Land from Nicaragua, a few years before he met Belinda, Miguel was hopeful to start a new life and earnest to become a citizen. The goal was clear, but the path was not. Patience and perseverance, one step at a time, led him through each milestone: asylum, work authorization, green card, citizenship.
In his second year of ESL classes, Miguel assumed an informal role of assistant teacher, to help the class and himself. Tutoring Belinda was not just practicing English, he was enamored with every word she spoke.
“Monday, Tuesday, Wednes—”
“Sunday,” Miguel interrupted her. “Remember Sunday is first here. Sunday primero. But you were good. Try again.”
Belinda looked upward, as if searching for days of the week, and resumed reciting them, while Miguel’s enchanted eyes gazed at her in admiration.
Soon it was hard to separate tutoring lessons from romantic dates.
“Besarte es como ver las estrellas,” she said one tender night together, “Te deseo en mi cama ahora.”
As much as he wanted her, Miguel resisted the lust they had shared before, and pulled away from their embrace. “Say that in English,” he replied.
She looked at him, puzzled, almost insulted.
“English can be sexy too,” he said, then smiled with a wink. “Go ahead, try.”
“Your—mouth—is like—night. I want you—now.”
She tried again. “I love you,” was all she said. Her eyes, her face, her sitting posture—leaned in close—said the rest. Miguel drew closer, and they embraced in another passionate kiss.
Relatives would revolt over their life together, out of wedlock, but their families were a thousand miles away, in places they’ve left behind. Besides, why marry without family present, in a strange church? Life in America was different, but it was all good, and getting better each year they were together.
“Hello Danny,” Miguel said dearly, as he held their newborn son.
“Daniel,” Belinda insisted. “Daniel sounds American.”
Miguel glanced quickly at Belinda, and returned his gaze to the boy. “Hello Daniel,” he said, and beamed a smile that filled the room.
Family dinner was a time to savor. “Pupusas,” Miguel muttered, weary of that staple on their dinner table. Daniel’s sudden laugh broke the monotony, and Miguel smiled with renewed enthusiasm.
“The baby food is—expensive,” Belinda spoke carefully. “Carne asada is Sundays.”
In time Miguel had a green card and a commercial driver license. After fifteen months working for Lone Star Trucking, he landed an opportunity to haul interstate loads for better pay. They could enjoy meat or seafood twice a week. Belinda started looking for a bigger apartment. Daniel was nearly six years old now. His half of the dining room was cramped; he needed his own room.
Then the news came from El Salvador.
Better news followed: Nobody was hurt, Belinda’s parents were found. Their dementia was far worse than when she last saw them, ten years ago, but they were alive and otherwise well. But bad news came after: Belinda did not have the right papers to re-enter the States. She could not return to Sugar Land, no matter how much she believed it was home, or how much Daniel and Miguel needed her at home.
Miguel could not afford to hire immigration counsel. One step at a time, he thought. This haul to New York would earn money to help bring back his boy’s mother, his wife. He would take Daniel with him, and they would traverse America together to the Northeast, to a place called Long Island.