“I owe you an apology, compadrito,” Héctor Villa was telling his friend, Jesús “Eddie” Juárez.
Jesús “Eddie,” who hadn’t the foggiest idea what his friend was talking about, nodded his head and attempted a forgiving smile anyway, on the off chance it might prompt Héctor to clinch his apology by offering to buy another round.
“I never understood all you had to go through, losing that school-board election and all, until I had to walk a mile in your shoes last fall,” Héctor explained.
The two were seated at their favorite table by the window at the Taberna Aztlán, watching Saturday-afternoon football on the widescreen TV while automobile horns blared and brake drums screeched outside on Highway 47. Since the Villas’ return from Las Vegas some weeks before, Héctor had taken to spending more time away from home on evenings and weekends than had previously been his custom. He’d found it easier by far to make satisfactory explanation to the house police at the MGM Grand Hotel than to AveMaría, and his nights the first week home had been spent on the Castro Convertible in the den.
Jesús “Eddie,” recalling his own humiliation at the polls, scowled and chucked a handful of popcorn toward the players. “The f–king Anglos,” he agreed. “I tell you, hermano: There ain’t been an honest election in the Rio Abajo since the Mexican War!”
Héctor sighed. His friend’s cynicism about the United States upset and depressed him. The fact that he and Jesús “Eddie” had been unlucky in electoral politics hardly proved the overall corruption of the American system. George W. Bush, like George Washington before him, had got himself elected President without ever telling a lie. In the two months since his own loss to Tomasina Luna, Héctor had suffered acutely from intimations of political inadequacy, the knowledge that he’d let his country and his President down in their time of need. Not even recent domestic strife and misunderstanding had been able to eclipse his suffering. God only knew what damage the Luna woman would do when she got to Washington in January. And how happy Hillary Clinton would be to see her there!
“Tomasina isn’t an Anglo,” he objected mildly.
Jesús “Eddie’s” fist struck the table hard enough to make the popcorn jump in the bowl.
“She works for the Anglos, hombre!” he shouted. “She supported my op-po-nent for the school board—the fat bitch!”
Héctor decided to give it up. “Anyway—I’m sorry, amigo. I’m taking the tab tonight, okay?”
A few evenings later, he got home to discover AveMaría and Contracepción tearful and nearly incoherent with rage and indignation. Fortunately (Héctor reflected), female hysteria was among the many things that went better with beer. He took a bottle from the refrigerator and went on to the living room, where the women sat waiting to describe the outrage for him in hideous detail.
The thing was outrageous, he had to agree after he’d heard his wife and daughter out. It had begun when Contracepción submitted a passionate defense of the Iraq war in fulfillment of a one-page writing assignment in English class the week before. The teacher, a Mrs. Ahmadinejihad, having marked up the page with red-penciled underlinings and sp’s beside the offending words, inscribed an emphatic scarlet “D” above the top line beside her name. Since Mrs. Ahmadinejihad, an Iranian lady who’d lived in the United States less than two years, was no great shakes in the spelling department herself, Contracepción had looked up the words in her pocket Webster’s dictionary and discovered that she had spelled all but one of them correctly. Mrs. Ahmadinejihad was guilty of decorrecting her essay! Confident of success, Contracepción had approached the teacher the following day, presented her evidence, and politely requested a mark upgrade to A- or B+. To her horror and astonishment, Mrs. Ahmadinejihad, rather than admit her error, had explained that the low grade reflected not the essay’s relatively unimportant spelling errors but its basically irrational and self-contradictory argument. Stung to retort, Contracepción had countered unthinkingly by calling Mrs. Ahmadinejihad unfair and un-American—for which she’d been sent to the principal’s office and suspended from school for an entire week. By the time she’d finished recounting the story to her father, Contracepción had reconciled herself somewhat to the prospect of missing a week’s worth of classes. Her resentment at the injustice done her, however, burned stronger than ever.
“Panchito, what to do?” AveMaría wailed. “It is not just what this bruja has done to poor Contracep—we have communist foreigners teaching at our schools, right here in Belen!”
Héctor did not answer right away but sat very still and rigid on the overstuffed sofa, too appalled even to finish his beer. “I must call the FBI in Albuquerque,” he said finally, “and let them know about this thing that has happened, the evil situation that exists.”
“Oh, and Papá, I almost forgot!” Contracepción cried. “Mrs. Ahmadinejihad is, like, good friends with Mrs. Luna! I see them together all the time around school, talking with their heads together so you can’t hear a word they’re saying! Do you think they could really be terrorists or something, Papaíto?”
Once the connection had been made for him, Héctor had to wonder why he hadn’t seen it from the beginning. Tomasina had run for the House on an antiwar platform. The Ahmadinejihad woman was an Islamist from Iran, a country President Bush had identified as part of the Axis of Evil. At once, the whole business came together for him. He must, of course, inform the FBI as soon as possible. Not, however, before he’d faced the English teacher down and seen the Enemy for himself.
“Take care that you do not discuss this matter with anyone,” Héctor told his daughter sternly. “I will call tomorrow for an appointment with Mrs. Ahmadinejihad at the school and hear what she has to say for herself. After that—well, we shall see what we shall see! I am not the hombre to beat around the bush in situations such as this one, I promise you.”
Mrs. Ahmadinejihad was, apparently, a very busy woman. Contracepción’s suspension was nearly up by the time Héctor succeeded in getting an appointment with her. He quit work early that afternoon, drove home, and left his van parked in the street in front of the house. Already by 3:15 nowadays, the Belen rush hour was terrible, and he preferred AveMaría’s Subaru when maneuvering in heavy traffic. On the drive between home and the school, Héctor strove to get his temper under control, partly by paying scrupulous attention to the posted speed limits. He was quite aware of his tendency to speed when driving under the influence of justifiable anger.
Héctor was approaching the downtown district on the Jarales Road when he caught sight of bar lights flashing red, blue, and yellow in the Subaru’s rearview mirror. He glanced down at the speedometer: 28 in a 30 mph zone. What in hell were they pulling him over for? He couldn’t believe his bad luck. His appointment with Mrs. Ah-madine-jihad was just fifteen minutes from now, and the school was still a good five minutes away. The police cruiser pulled in behind him on the shoulder. Héctor was about to get out of the car and walk back to it when he recalled that he’d done this the last time and come close, apparently, to getting himself shot when a robotic voice roared “GET BACK IN THAT CAR!” through the bullhorn mounted on the cruiser. So he sat tight on the seat, watching the side mirror as the cop—a fat man with womanish hips and a shaved bullet head—stumped forward carrying a ticket book in his hand. Héctor looked up at him through the open window with what he hoped was the patient, slightly hurt expression of a solid citizen unfairly wronged.
“So what did I do?” he asked the officer. “I wasn’t speeding, was I?”
The look he received in return might have been directed at a child molester caught with three children bound hand and foot in the trunk.
“Operating an unregistered vehicle,” the cop informed him. “I called in to Dispatch. Registration expired over three months ago.”
Héctor felt dismay, humiliation, and anger all together. How like a woman to forget to reregister her car! He usually thought to remind AveMaría to have the oil changed every 3,000 miles, but a man couldn’t think of everything. “Is it?” Héctor asked. “It’s my wife’s car,” he explained lamely.
The cop acted as though he hadn’t heard him. “License, please,” he demanded.
He waddled back to the police cruiser with the license, while Héctor consulted his watch. He had twelve minutes to make it to the school, and he’d never known even a routine stop to take less than ten minutes. How could AveMaría have been so careless? Now his name would go on the ticket, and he’d have a second citation in less than two years on his municipal-court record—in addition, of course, to the ongoing trouble with Homeland Security. Now, he’d never be allowed to run for office again, even if he wanted to. Without really thinking about what he was doing, Héctor reached across the seat, punched the glove-box button, and withdrew the registration and insurance packet. Of course, Dispatch knew what it was doing—you can’t argue with electronics—but it did no harm to check anyway, while he waited. Here were the operator’s manual, proof of insurance, and what must be last year’s registration slip. He pulled this free of the little bundle and looked it over. “EXP 09/23/06” he read in an upper right-hand box. So there had been a mistake, after all! It seemed too good to be true. And, truth be told, Héctor was inclined to give Police Dispatch benefit of doubt ahead of his wife.
All the same, when the officer returned with the written-out summons for a court appearance and a fine amounting to fifty dollars in his hand, he thrust the other document at him through the window.
“What’s this?” he asked politely.
The cop held the slip at the end of his nose, and then nearly at arm’s length.
“See?” he demanded, pointing with a fat finger to another set of numbers in a different box. “Expired. What I said. Dispatch is always reliable. You can’t argue with electronics.”
So Héctor signed the ticket. Well, it had been worth a try, anyway. And there went fifty dollars AveMaría was not going to spend on the new pair of sandals she wanted from Neiman Marcus.
He arrived at the school nearly ten minutes late, and three minutes later knocked on the closed door of Mrs. Ahmadinejihad’s classroom.
“In America is always late, late,” the teacher said, frowning, as he entered. “Is not like in Iran, where the watch hand of the late one is cut off—whack, whack! Allahu Akhbar!” Héctor couldn’t tell whether she intended this to be a joke, or not.
Within her burqa and robes, Mrs. Ahmadinejihad appeared to be a slight, wiry woman with a brown hatchet face. A small oriental carpet Héctor supposed was a prayer rug lay on the linoleum floor beside her desk, and the bulletin board above it was papered with color photographs of golden-domed mosques rising against forbidding desert backgrounds like brown moonscapes. Without asking permission, Héctor seated himself on the chair set close against the desk to face the teacher—the hot seat, obviously, for generations of unruly children.
“I am here,” he explained, “to discuss my daughter, Contracepción, with you.”
“Ah yes. Contra—in Iran, we do not use such words as that one. It is a shame and a crime even to speak of it. But here—”
Héctor felt determined to put this bigoted woman in her place. “In America we are Protestants, not Islamists,” he said firmly. “Americans are not afraid to speak plainly. That is why I must tell you, Mrs. Allah-uh-jihad, that you have treated my daughter very unfairly. First, you marked her down for spelling mistakes that weren’t mistakes at all. Then, you said the low grade wasn’t for spelling in the first place, but because her paper was not good sense. Is that correct?”
“Yes, yes, of course, very—more than correct!”
“What would you say if I told you everything Contracep wrote in that paper was exactly what Vice President Cheney said in his TV address two weeks ago?”
“Cheney? But he is a war criminal! An enemy of Holy Islam! He makes no sense at all!”
Héctor knew he was dealing with a madwoman.
“So you won’t change my daughter’s grade to A-? Or even B+?”
“Me? No! I am not heretic, I am not kaffir! Islam is Truth! Islam does not compromise! Islam conquers by the sword!”
Héctor arose with dignity, holding his cap in hand.
“Then I’m afraid, ma’am,” he said, “my next stop must be the principal’s office. Can you tell me how to find it, please?” €
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