Mexico City outskirts.
Carlos Ramirez felt the insect crawling across his face and brushed it away without opening his eyes. Sleep was a relief and difficult to abandon. The truck in which they rode jostled over the uneven road and he was at last forced fully awake. A cabbage rolled onto his lap. He rubbed his eyes and sat up. He looked at the rest of his family riding in the back of the produce truck. Elena cradled the two youngest children in her arms with the older three nestled beside her. Julia was the only one with her eyes open. They had been open last night when he finally drifted off.
“What do you see, daughter?” he asked.
She raised her chin. “The people. There is no end to them, papa.”
Carlos looked out over the battered tailgate of the truck. He could see shadows cast by the dawn’s light. Shadows from miserable-looking trees, piles of refuse and the streams of moving people like themselves. The stench in the air told him they had reached their destination. The sweetly sick smell of rotting vegetable matter fought unsuccessfully to mask the unmistakable odor of human waste.
He glanced into the cab of the rolling truck. The driver was concentrating on the path before them. Carlos peeled the outer layer from the cabbage still in his lap and passed it to Elena. Wordlessly, his wife ate and gave some to the little ones. Julia’s two brothers followed their parents’ example and ate, trying to fill the constant void that was their appetite. He offered a leaf to Julia but she shook her head. “You need your strength,” he pleaded.
Instead of answering right away, she propped herself to her feet and looked over the truck cab to the steaming city beyond. “I am strong, papa. This has been a small journey for me. You and mama have the burden of the children. Eat what you can.”
“You share that burden willingly, Julia. Eat when you can.”
She sat and took a small bite. “To please you, papa.”
Carlos remembered his own farm as he ate. He had never been able to grow such cabbages as these. The small ones he harvested weren’t enough to even feed his family. Other produce he had tried to grow the last two seasons fared worse, the dead soil providing little nourishment to plants or livestock. One by one, he had witnessed his sickly cows dying painfully until he and Julia slaughtered the remaining few with what mercy he had left. It was easier to not to have to watch them anymore, fearing any day one of his children could die the same way.
He once believed that the city would be a better place for them. The countless immigrants they encountered on their way here had started his misgivings. Carlos’s doubts continued to rise now as he watched the new day’s sun illuminate the hell of the shanty town. Nothing could grow amongst all this humanity, certainly not hope for a future where his children could thrive. But he had no choice. Starvation was inevitable in the country. That inevitability drew his family and thousands like them to Mexico City every day. And to Sao Paulo, and Bogota, and others.
Millions of people lived in Mexico City, Carlos had heard. He did not know how many that was but the driver told him it was more than Carlos could count in a lifetime. He brushed a persistent wasp away and took another mouthful of cabbage.
The truck groaned to a stop. The driver called through the glassless rear window, “You can get off here. This is as close as the army will let you come. Hurry, I cannot stop for long.”
“The army is supposed to protect us, not oppress us,” Carlos said under his breath. He gathered the few makeshift bags containing their belongings and jumped down. He landed in a mire of mud and waste. He shouldered the bags and ferried the two smallest children to a scrap piece of tin to keep their tiny feet out of the muck. Julia was helping her mother navigate beside him while her brothers Ramone and Higuero ran and slid laughing. They all found a dry place to take refuge.
Shanties constructed from pieces of tin and other garbage were in all directions. The smell of humans was overpowering to Carlos. He shut his senses to it. He ran back to the truck to talk to the driver. “Thank you for the ride. We are grateful.”
The driver nodded and called, “Take some cabbages for your family. It may be many days before you eat again.” Carlos heard the transmission growl as the driver prepared to leave.
Carlos took as many as he dared and thanked the driver once more. Julia helped him carry a few more. Carlos hoped they hadn’t taken too many but he feared the truth of the generous man’s words.
The truck droned off and a few children appeared from the nearby shacks. The noise of the truck had woken and attracted them. They jostled Carlos and his daughter and quickly carried off the cabbages which fell to the ground.
Elena shouted after the small thieves. “Why don’t you chase the truck instead of taking ours?”
Carlos answered for them. “They prefer to chance a few regularly, rather than strip a truck that would never use this route again. Come, follow this path. We will find shelter.” He called to the two older boys, “Ramone, Higuero, come here now. Take that piece of tin along. Julia and I will search for more.” He hoisted the smallest boy to his back. “Rafael, you can ride on daddy. Isn’t this a grand adventure?”
The youngster whimpered in reply and spit out the cabbage leaf his mother tried to give him.
“He needs water more than food, Carlos,” said Elena.
Carlos nodded and trudged along the sodden path. Water, food, shelter, work. Were there any basics they did not need?
An hour later they found a small break between two shacks.
Julia had scrounged another piece of corrugated tin. She leaned on it while surveying the spot. “Papa, this is filthy. How can we live here?” She shooed a wasp away. “And there are bugs.”
Before he could answer, Elena took charge. “Julia and Ramone will push the garbage onto the path. This is where we will stay. Memorize the location so you don’t get lost. You will be on your own while papa and I work.”
The children reluctantly began their tasks. To Carlos at that moment, the prospect of finding work was a huge burden threatening to crush him. Millions of workers surrounded him. More than he could count, he no longer doubted that.
Carlos put Rafael down and helped clean the floor of their new home. Carlos sensed the children’s excitement from the journey ebbed with the work’s drudgery. He shut out thoughts of a lifetime of drudgery.
Carlos knew unseen eyes watched them from the other shacks but no one came forward to help. He and his family were alone, despite all the people in this city. Carlos envied the wasps’ cooperative instincts when building a new hive, but people were not insects.
The work finally finished. A low-roofed, shared-wall construct barely separating them from the elements. The floor consisted of mud, some boards and what trash they couldn’t scrape out. Ramone and Higuero returned with more scraps of wood to close in the back. Julia found some rocks and Carlos raised a few of the longer boards off the ground. “This will serve as a bed for you children and mama.”
Luis Parescio gazed from the window of his office on the hospital’s top floor. Smog impeded his sight beyond a few kilometers. He could see the rebuilt blocks nearby and some of the open spaces where years ago, office towers and other hospitals stood, before the last major earthquake. Far from here on the outskirts, Mexico City was surrounded by a halo of poverty and squalor. He was a fortunate one, Director of Hospital Services. He was the boss, in some way, over many doctors, professionals with more education and intelligence than he. But Luis had the will to succeed and with a little talent, it had been enough.
Luis’ door opened and the Senior Medical Supervisor entered.
“Doctor Mendoza, you needn’t have come here,” said Luis. “I could have come to your office.”
The doctor closed the door and leaned on the back of the worn leather chair behind Luis’s desk. He too looked out the window at the brown sky above the city. “My phone hasn’t stopped ringing all morning. It doesn’t work for a week and when it does, everyone needs to call me. Your office is a welcome sanctuary.” He pointed to Luis’s phone. “Does yours work?”
Luis sat in the visitor chair and sheepishly lifted the cord from the floor. He held up the disconnected plug. “I needed a moment’s peace.”
Mendoza sat and faced Luis. “Have you heard from the Board?”
Luis leaned forward, elbows on his thighs, head lowered. After a moment, he raised his eyes. “Yes. I spoke with Chairwoman Greaves this morning. There will be no additional funding this quarter. We have enough operating capital to last the month, but November and December will be a struggle to maintain any level of service.”
Mendoza gently rocked in Luis’s chair. “Suggestions?”
The Board had always provided, until now. Luis reached across the desk and opened a file folder. “I’ve made some preliminary calculations to keep basic medical service operational until the end of the year. They involve cutting back everywhere. Salary reductions, dismissal of temporary staff, and bed closings for non-critical patients.”
Mendoza looked concerned. “It will mean sending them home.”
Luis didn’t speak the obvious. Many had no homes. He maintained the pretense. “Your doctors tell me there are patients who could make do with home care.”
“True. I will have my staff make a list. Will it be sufficient?”
Luis was relieved Mendoza joined the lie. He stood and stared out the window again. He wasn’t a doctor but he knew their moral and ethical obligation to the country’s people. The people who could afford it. Privatize? Up to the Board. “No, it won’t be enough. I will have to eliminate some expenses entirely.”
Mendoza fidgeted with his hands. Hands trained to operate with delicacy and expertise, not to carry economic worry. “I understand. Do what you must. You must understand our mission is to provide medical services to the sick and injured. That is worth any price.”
Luis studied his face, the implication clear behind the desperation. “The price will be great and not without consequences I fear but I will do what I can.”
Mendoza stood. “My phone will be ringing. I’d best return. I must see if I can unplug it like yours. We will have to make some tough decisions, Luis. You will have my support. I hope I have yours?”
“Of course. Your decisions regarding the patients to be discharged are bound to be harder than any I have to make. You have to look at them. I can sit in this office above the decay outside and the suffering inside and make faceless judgment. I would not trade places with you.”
“There is enough of medicine’s caring part in you Luis that I know your decisions won’t be made without emotion.” Mendoza left Luis alone with his thoughts.
Luis returned to his desk and studied the open file once again. He started a second list of monetary murder.
Carlos’ daily burden gradually lifted as his neared his shack. Julia was the first to see him. She waved and proudly displayed her charges. Six children under the age of four surrounded her on the path outside their hut. She at least had found work. The parents of those children had no older siblings left to take care of the little ones during the day. Julia’s resourcefulness provided their family with food and water, given in return for her caring after these small ones.
“Hi, papa.” Julia gave him a hug while holding onto a baby.
He held her free hand. “Where is Rafael? He is always the next to greet me.”
“He is with Ramone and Higuero. They went exploring for useful scrap, I think. Mama and I have a surprise for you tonight. Go inside.”
“A surprise? This I must see.” Carlos gave Julia a squeeze and let her return to her flock. He pushed away the cardboard door and went inside. The smell of boiled meat was a welcome surprise. “Elena, what have you cooked?”
His wife removed a steaming pot from the fire and lifted the led. “A chicken, Carlos. Julia was given it. We are celebrating our first month in our new home.”
Carlos tried to keep up his good humor. The reminder of a month already gone and he still had not found work. Julia provided more food than he and the boys scavenged valued things which could be bartered. Elena had stitched new clothes from rags for many of the neighbors. But Carlos contributed nothing. He said, “Each day I hope I will come back with news of work and each day I fail you, Elena. You prepare a meal the rest of you deserve far more than me.” He lowered his head in shame. “Can you forgive me for bringing you to this city?”
Elena moved the dinner from the pot and onto one of the two plates. “You are our leader, husband and father. Your spirit livens us. We are happy just to be with you, Carlos. I look forward every day to your return, whether or not you have found work, because you always return with hope for the next day. The month has not been so bad. I don’t have to see you watching the farm kill us. We survive together and that is enough. Now eat.”
Carlos knelt beside the bed-table and stripped a piece of the white meat off with his fingers. “This delicacy must still be eaten with our usual implements.” He held a morsel aloft, juice dripping down his wrist. “You will join me, Elena. What about the rest?”
Elena took a small portion. “There is enough for all. Too much of this rich food would spoil us. Julia will finish with her children and have her share. The boys will be home soon so eat what you need before they finish it. This moment is for us.”
Carlos chewed slowly and gratefully. He would take care not to eat too much and get sick. “Remember when we used to have chicken on the ranch when we worked for Senor Huale? Once a month. And we would have wine with our meal. Those were good times.”
“They will return, Carlos. Things can only get better, can they not?”
“You are right. With a full stomach, tomorrow I will find work. If I don’t look like I need it, I will find it. Is that not the way?” He sucked on another juicy piece of the small bounty and was more content than he had been in many months.
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