Héctor Villa was, by nature, a patient, long-suffering man. Even so, he arrived home in a cross mood that evening, at the end of an unusually frustrating day. First, there had been the traffic ticket; next, his unproductive meeting with Mrs. Ahmadinejihad. Finally, he’d been unable to meet with the school principal, after waiting for better than an hour for him to be through with what his secretary described, in an awed voice, as a meeting with the football coach and the head cheerleader. When, at last, the principal emerged from his office, he and the secretary had held a rapid conversation in whispers, ending with the principal striding off without a word to Héctor. He had, the secretary explained, a seminar on educational democracy to attend at the Valencia Branch of UNM.
“Panchito, what is the matter?” AveMaría exclaimed when she saw him. “That creature in demonia’s form agreed to give Contracep a B at least, didn’t she?”
Héctor waved her off impatiently on his way to the fridge for a beer.
“I’ll tell you about all that in a minute,” he said. “I got a fifty-dollar ticket on the Jarales Road this afternoon driving over to the school.”
“A ticket? Driving my car? What for, I’d like to know?”
For the first time in his life, Héctor felt the urge to strike a woman.
“For driving an unregistered vehicle! You forgot to register the damn Subaru last summer!”
“I did not! ¿Quién dice que sí? I mailed the check and registration myself, two days before the two-cent postal increase! I can show you the canceled check right now, if you want to see it!”
Héctor did not know what to think. On the one hand, it was good news to learn he didn’t deserve a ticket, after all. On the other, it disturbed him profoundly that such a mistake—if it was a mistake—could happen in the United States. New Mexico wasn’t México, where you were all the time being gouged with the mordida by one public official or another. He fished the ticket from his shirt pocket and sat down at the kitchen table with a bottle of Corona.
“Either I mail them a check for fifty bucks or show up at Municipal Court a week from Monday for arraignment,” he told his wife gloomily.
“But you are innocent! Did you not show them the registration form—in the pocket in the tablero, with the other papers?”
“Of course, I showed it to him. Am I a tonto? He said it was caducada—no good.”
“Then it is the guardia who is tonto, not you.”
Ever since he’d received the summons from the zoning board, Héctor had avoided city hall the way a man avoids the neighborhood of a hospital where he was once treated for a deadly disease. “I need to phone the department right now and explain it all to them,” he said.
“But first, I want to hear—did Mrs. Abomina-Jihad change Contracep’s grade to an A-, or not?”
To his surprise, the cop himself—an Officer Maldonado—was at the station when he called. “So maybe a mistake was made somewhere,” he said finally, when Héctor had finished his explanation. “You never know with computers. Anyway, once I write a ticket, I’ve wrote it—that’s the law. You got to go to court and tell the judge what you told me. Or just send the fifty bucks—it’s whatever you decide to do, sir.”
When Contracepción returned half an hour later from the minimall where she’d spent most of her week off from school, she was as outraged as her mother had been by Héctor’s account of his interview with Mrs. Ahmadinejihad. “How dare her!” she cried. “She’s not even American! Why don’t they send the raghead back to Iraq where she belongs!”
“And as if that wasn’t enough for one day, one of those Nuevo Méxicano cops gave your father a fifty-dollar ticket for driving an unregistered car I registered myself more than three months ago!” AveMaría put in. “We might as well never have left México in the first place!”
“Don’t talk that way, AveMaría!” her husband corrected her sharply. The truth was, Héctor, in his heart, felt troubled and confused. He was witnessing an arbitrary aspect of his adoptive country he had scarcely known existed before today. The business of the zoning board eighteen months ago had not, it seemed, been the thoroughly anomalous affair he’d assumed it to be. “In America, we have government of the people, by the people, and for the people. You will see, both of you! All this will come right in the end.”
Driving to his first job next morning, Héctor used his cell phone to inform the FBI office in Albuquerque of his suspicions regarding Mrs. Ahmadinejihad and Tomasina Luna. Next, he phoned the principal’s secretary to make a formal appointment for an interview with her boss. The woman’s manner was strange, he thought, and she kept him on hold a long time. When she came back on the line, the secretary explained that, from the principal’s viewpoint, he and Héctor had nothing to discuss: Mrs. Ahmadinejihad had merely been applying a valuable multicultural perspective to his daughter’s essay. Héctor was starting to reply that, for an American school, the only appropriate teaching perspective was an American one when the woman, pleading an important incoming call, broke off the conversation without telling him goodbye. Offended by her lack of manners, Héctor reflected that it would be easier to procure an audience with Vicente Fox at Los Pinos than to make an appointment to see Dr. Virgilio Gallegos, principal of the Belen High School—and was instantly ashamed of his unpatriotic thoughts. The school situation, he decided, must be deferred until after his arraignment, only four days away. It would, Jesús “Eddie” Juarez had advised him, take most, if not all, of his morning.
“The judge, he is Anglo,” Jesús “Eddie” had added. “Red hair, one of them spotted-all-over faces like a flea-bitten horse—name’s McCorkle, the skinny sonofabitch, from Catron County where the Anglos run everything. Ex-Confederate racists, come into New Mexico when the Yankees chased them out of Mississippi and Texas after the Civil War.”
In fact, Héctor was detained half an hour in municipal court. Together with his fellow miscreants, he sat waiting on one of the folding chairs arranged in careful rows as armed policemen led in four shackled men wearing prison garb and stood them before the black-robed judge. The first prisoner pled guilty to cutting a man with a knife in an altercation in the Belen movie theater; the second, to public intoxication; and the other two, to DUI and operating an unregistered vehicle.
When Héctor’s name was called, he rose and approached the bench with alacrity, feeling confident in his innocence and his best business suit. In addressing the previous defendants, the judge had assumed a peremptory, even contemptuous demeanor suggesting that, no matter how Lady Justice might decide, he considered all of them guilty until proven innocent (and perhaps not even then). Héctor found his manner distinctly off-putting. Still, he fully expected Judge McCorkle to recognise him for the innocent man he was and adjust his manner accordingly. To his discomfiture, the judge appeared unable to distinguish between Héctor Villa and some knife-wielding matón in jail pajamas. Nevertheless, Héctor remembered to say, “Yes, Your Honor” and “No, Your Honor,” and answered, “NOT guilty, Your Honor,” in a strong, assertive voice when asked how he pled.
“Are you aware all the prosecution has to do to prove this criminal misdemeanor charge is establish valid tags were not in fact in place on your vehicle at the time of the arrest?” McCorkle demanded. Héctor responded in the affirmative and was starting to add that the tags had been affixed to both the front and rear plates of the Subaru, when the judge interrupted to warn him sharply that an arraignment was not the proper place to offer evidence. To Héctor’s dismay, instead of dismissing the case, Judge McCorkle set a trial date, and then Héctor was free to go.
The mood around the dinner table chez Villa that evening was grim. To the subdued family, Héctor’s arraignment came as an added blow in a week in which AveMaría had been rebuffed in her attempts at going over Dr. Gallegos’ head by securing an appointment with the school superintendent and Mrs. Ahmadinejihad had responded to the open letter of protest posted by Contracepción on the school Information and Coming Events Board by assigning her a two-page paper on the contribution of Islam to the making of Western civilization. America, as a country of laws and free speech, was plainly being replaced by a new, un-free America—a conclusion reinforced for Héctor by a FOX News segment concerning a former Taliban member, now a scholarship student at Yale University, who was demanding (evidently with some success) the construction of a minaret overlooking the quad to allow a muezzin to sound the call to prayer seven times daily across the campus. The upshot of all this, so far as it concerned Héctor Villa, was that he needed now to retain an attorney to defend him in municipal court.
“I’m going to get even with that Jihad woman,” Contracepción boasted. “She’s going to wish she was back in Iraq with all the Swamis and Swahilis before I’m through with her.”
“You will do no such thing,” her father told her sternly. “If I ever hear of you making trouble at school, I’ll send you to live with your grandmother in Namiquipa where you’ll learn what a tough teacher really is like. When I was at school, Señor Arias used to beat us black and blue when we couldn’t remember the words to ‘Méxicanos, Al Grido De Guerra.’”
At the risk of offending Jesús “Eddie,” who’d recommended Miguel Castro, a local attorney specializing in antidiscrimination law, Héctor decided to retain Francisco Madrid, a dreamy man who practiced law only part time while devoting the rest of it to classical guitar and the construction of an environmentally friendly house from chicken wire, crushed aluminum cans, and old tires. At first, Madrid tried to dissuade him from wasting his money on a lawyer. It was an open-and-shut case in Héctor’s favor, he insisted. As soon as the judge learned that Officer Maldonado couldn’t read an auto registration form when it was shown him, he’d be certain to dismiss the charges. Héctor considered this advice carefully and decided to reject it. After nearly fifteen years in the United States, he was learning to proceed more cautiously in respect of the powers that be.
The day of the trial, Héctor, resisting the superstitious temptation to stop by Our Lady of Belen to offer up a Hail Mary, drove with AveMaría and Dubya to court, where Francisco Madrid awaited them. His case was stacked first in the afternoon session, so they didn’t have to wait long. Judge McCorkle entered in his black robes, and everyone stood up. He sat down, and everyone sat after him. The few people in the courtroom seemed to be the miscreants themselves and their guardian angels holding their briefs in their laps.
The proceedings passed for Héctor in a rapid blur. The prosecuting attorney argued that the defendant, having originally neglected to attach current registration tabs to his license plates, had affixed them following his arrest. Cross-examined by Madrid, Officer Maldonado testified that he had not checked all the several expired tabs left on the rear plate, as Dispatch had already confirmed an unregistered vehicle for him. Here, the prosecutor pounced, asserting the reason Maldonado had failed to identify the valid tag at once was that the defendant had placed it in the upper-left, rather than the lower-right, corner of the plate, where it belonged. The legal understanding of “in place” was “in the right place,” the prosecutor urged. Therefore, he concluded, the defendant was indeed guilty as charged. Judge McCorkle found for the City of Belen and fined the defendant fifty dollars. The entire business was over in under ten minutes.
Francisco Madrid was too embarrassed for a postmortem. He left the Villas outside the courthouse and headed directly for his car. Héctor followed him toward the parking area, walking slowly and unconsciously like a somnambulist. The family had just reached the Subaru when the cellphone AveMaría carried in her handbag went off, sounding the refrain of the golden oldie “It’s My Party.” She made a grab for it and stood listening as if transfixed, her eyes widening in horror.
“¡Panchito!” she gasped.
“Who the hell is calling me at a time like this?”
“It’s the school! Contracepción is in trouble! They’ve already called the juvenile officer. Something about a statue of Muhammad in a bottle of tequila found in the Abomina-Jihad woman’s desk!”
Héctor, exercising his Second Amendment rights, kept a loaded pistol under the driver’s seat of his van. Fortunately for everyone concerned, neither truck nor pistol was to hand just now. For the first time since he’d purchased it several years before, he felt an irresistible urge to use the gun on someone (he knew just whom). Worse than anger, though, was the overwhelming sense of disillusionment he was experiencing. Héctor had learned for himself the truth of the hoary American saying: “You can’t fight city hall.”