They kept him in a cell, separate from the rest of the detainees. He didn’t speak English, he didn’t speak Spanish, he didn’t speak any language as far as they could tell. He responded to all their attempts at communication with a quiet look of wonder. Perhaps he was mute.
He lay on a low cot adjacent to the wall, staring up at the ceiling, his hands supporting the back of his head, as if relaxing in some hotel room. Eventually, he fell asleep, despite the commotion of officers going about their business at the desks outside his cell.
One male officer said to another, “He doesn’t really look Mexican,” to which the other said, “You can’t go by that.”
A young female officer at a nearby desk said, “I think he’s kinda cute. Just a little beaten down. Who knows how long he’s been wandering out there.”
“Don’t get desperate on us,” the first officer said. They liked to joke with her, and she wasn’t bothered by it much.
Other than that, the officers on duty didn’t concern themselves in any significant way with the man occupying the cell. In the end, he was just one of many detainees rounded up that day who had to be processed and dispatched with. The office had a quota to meet before anyone could go home for the evening.
As the sun began to set, the cell, opposite a window on the other side of the room, slowly brightened. As if in response, the man in the cell sat up, swung his thin legs over the side, and perched upon the edge of the cot. He stared out the window, past the line of wooden desks, past their occupants, as if he were staring directly into the sun.
The female officer, whose desk was closest to the cell, looked over her laptop to examine him more closely. In the softening light his face appeared even more attractive than before and more youthful, despite the streaks of dirt and thick smudges upon it. He reminded her of someone from her past. She almost wished he would look directly at her, so that his eyes might fully trigger the memory’s release (or so she thought), but his wide brown eyes remained fixed on something far in the distance that she presumed only he could see. Who is it, she kept thinking, who is it that he reminds me of? A memory from childhood played at the edge of her thoughts, something about swimming in a creek, or jumping off a rope into a creek. But she had never swum in a creek, let alone jumped off a rope into one. What a funny pseudomemory to have, she thought. And just as she was thinking it, the man shifted his gaze and locked eyes with hers, and she nearly jumped out of her skin, for she remembered now who he resembled. Her father! Or rather her father from an old picture. She had never known him in real life.
The man smiled at her obvious surprise, as if to say, don’t worry, it’ll be all right. But she looked away, too unnerved to engage any further with the man in the cell. She returned to her spreadsheet, to another go over of the day’s processing of detainees.
Later that night, when she and one other officer remained at the detention center, after all the other detainees had been loaded on buses and taken away, this man alone was left because they had no idea where to send him. They decided he would stay until the next day when someone from Homeland Security would arrive to make a determination. And they–the two officers–would spend the night watching over him. He still hadn’t uttered a word. He just lay on the cot, facing the wall, almost immobile, his small frame barely discernible beneath a thin cotton blanket. The cheese sandwich and child-size carton of milk delivered earlier still lay untouched on the floor near the cell door. He hadn’t even gotten up to relieve himself in the portable toilet the whole day.
Strange, the female guard thought.
She and her partner conversed a bit that night, but not about him. They spoke about the toll the job was taking on them and their families, the fact that some of their family members had stopped speaking to them altogether. “Well,” the male officer said, “What do they expect? If you break the law, you pay the consequences. Plain and simple. If my sister-in-law doesn’t get that, then screw her.” The woman nodded, not entirely disagreeing. Later, they decided to take turns sleeping two hours at a time in one of the offices down the hall, while the other kept watch. She was tired, so she took the first round of rest.
When it was her turn to stay awake, she found herself thinking a bit more about the memory she had had of her father. Again, it wasn’t really a memory. It was the recollection of a picture in an old photo album that her grandmother kept stowed away in a closet. She hadn’t looked at that picture since she was a child, when her grandmother would sometimes share the photo with her without her mother knowing because seeing it would often upset her mom. Her father was still in his native country when the picture was taken. It showed him standing near a body of water–perhaps a creek. And now that she thought about it, there was a thick rope visible near the left edge of the photo. Her dad must have been the one who had had all the fun swinging and plunging into that creek. And just as she was thinking this, the man in the cell began to move about on the cot, eventually turning onto his side, away from the wall. In the dusky light coming through the far window the man’s face was now visible to her. And his eyes were open, staring straight at her!
She looked away, down at her desk, at her half-eaten sandwich. She was afraid to meet his gaze. His look had bored into her, if a look can do such a thing. Maybe it was true–he was mute–and he had mastered the art of looking and demanding and thus communicating his need simply through his wondering eyes.
When at length he stood up and approached the bars of the cell, she knew he had done so but she felt as small and defenseless as a child who refused to believe what she knew in her heart to be true. She pretended to be back at work on her laptop, finalizing the lists of detainees, their countries of origin, their expected dates of departure.
He said, “Miss. Sorry to disturb you. But it’s time for me to go.” His voice was emotionless, barely above a whisper.
She looked up then and swiveled in her chair with such force that she nearly knocked her laptop to the floor. She steadied it, steadied herself, and managed to say, “You speak English?”
“I do now. I just needed a little time to learn your language to better express my thoughts. I have learned many languages, actually. I speak Spanish, Icelandic, Swahili, whatever may be needed in a situation. Now I speak English because that is what you understand.”
“Okay,” the woman said. “Let me get this clear. You pick up a language just like that?” and she snapped her fingers, despite her shaking hand.
“Well, not exactly. It takes a certain amount of thought and willingness and the right circumstances. It all came together in this cell, but now that I’m rested up it’s time for me to leave. Would you like to open the door for me?”
The woman, who now felt under some sort of spell, wasn’t sure if she should run from the room, scream at the top of her lungs, or simply go over and open the door. He seemed to sense her dilemma. “All right. I understand. You don’t want to be blamed. I just wanted to give you the opportunity, that’s all. I’ll let myself out.” At that, he placed his small hands on two adjacent steel bars and began to pull as if he could actually separate them. He pulled at them gently, no strain showing in his face, and in less than a minute he had indeed created space enough for his slim body to slip through.
The woman, still seated at the desk, was not sure if she was unwilling or unable to move. The man said, “Don’t worry. You won’t remember any of this in the morning. No one will. You won’t remember finding me in the desert all alone, a little worn out but not nearly as bad off as you might have thought. You might, however, remember your father. You may not understand why you are thinking so much about him, but you may remember that he left his mother and father behind to escape a war in his country, a war that had already caused his city’s ancient cemetery to overflow. When he came here, he met your mother and married her for a green card, only to die soon after in a hit and run accident. A short life, but you were the seed–his seed–that took root and thrived. All this you may remember, and this remembering may lead you to reflect on many other things.”
With that, the man headed for the front door, still dressed in the dirty t-shirt and jeans he was wearing when they found him. Though the woman had locked the front door earlier, it was no surprise to her when he was able to pull it open and continue on. Through the plate-glass window on the other side of the room, she watched as he grew smaller and smaller against the desert landscape, until he finally melted into the moonlight.