In one cosmic instant, the sullen, downtrodden home of Stephanie Domo flipped upside down. Emily shrieked into the receiver, telling Chuck how much she missed him and loved him. Britney grabbed at Emily trying to wrest the device out of her clutch. Stephanie lunged for the kitchen phone and Ashley’s rapid-fire footsteps down the stairs sounded like she would tumble and break her neck on the hard wood landing.
“Are you ok, Daddy?” Emily asked. “Did they hurt you? When are you coming back?”
Britney ran to the living room and put the phone on speaker for her and Ashley to listen together.
“Do you have a place to live? Do you have anything to eat? Do you have any clothes?”
Everyone fired questions at him with barely any space for him to answer.
“Whoa, whoa,” he chuckled. “It’s so great to hear all your voices. I’ve missed you girls so much. I’m fine. I’m staying in a hotel for now and I’ve gotten plenty to eat.”
“Mom and I are talking to the lawyer,” Emily blurted. “We met with Senator Sanchez and we’re trying to help you get home again.”
“Thank you,” said Chuck. “I miss you guys so much. I love you more than anything in the world. It’s killing me to be without you.”
Stephanie remained quiet on the line, giving her daughters space to connect with their father and expel their excessive energy and enthusiasm. As much relief as she enjoyed speaking with her husband, she also felt the distance between them; a span that seemed more than just physical. As he professed his love for his family and his desire to return, Stephanie couldn’t help fixating on the misdeeds that caused him to land in this predicament in the first place.
“Girls,” Chuck’s voice grew more serious and restrained. “I want to apologize to you about this situation. I’m sure it’s confusing to you. I imagine your mother has sat you down and explained it all to you.”
From the other room, Britney caught Stephanie’s eye and they locked briefly as a non-verbal reprimand for Stephanie’s neglect in sharing the details with the broader family.
“Mom talks to the lawyer a lot,” Britney told her father. “But we don’t know that much about what’s going on.”
“I know you all want to spend time catching up with me,” Chuck said. “But I only have ten minutes. And, I really need to speak with your mother – privately.”
Stephanie moved through the kitchen, out the door into the garage to speak more candidly to her husband. She sat on a milk crate and took a deep breath before speaking slowly and deliberately.
“I’ve met with the lawyer and I’m learning all about our options for getting you back here,” she said, clinically.
“Stephie,” Chuck lowered his voice. “How’re you doing?”
“Not great,” she said. “But I’m trying to hold it together. We met with the Senator and she believes we’re going to have a hard time reversing the deportation.”
“I’m sure you’re doing everything you can,” Chuck said.
“You’re damn right I am,” Stephanie tried to hold back her rage, but felt it push against the levy in her mind. “I’m with Rupert every freaking day trying to figure out what the hell you did and how the fuck we can undo it all.”
“Oh, ok,” Chuck said, “Listen, I’m so sorry…”
“Seriously Chuck?” she raised her voice. “Fake Ids? Falsified passports? Shady deals with some crazy black-market uncle who deals identities to illegal immigrants and then blackmails them for their silence? How could you get so caught up in this?”
“I don’t know, ok?” Chuck’s frustration bubbled to the top of his mind. “I’ve been wrapped in this my whole life. I never thought I had any way out. I knew he’d die eventually. I figured this would be my last time with Uncle … with him. I didn’t think he’d be around in ten years. I thought I was free.”
“Well, you’re not, are you?” Stephanie snapped.
“No, I guess I’m not.”
“And what’s worse, you’re such a selfish sonofabith,” she continued. “You’re dragging us all down with you.”
“Listen Steph, honey.”
“Don’t give me that,” Stephanie said. “You got us in this mess. By next week, we’ll have no income. Two weeks after that, the healthcare runs out. We’ve got half the savings I thought we did and we’re paying more in credit card interest than we are for our mortgage. What’ve you been doing all these years?”
“I can’t,” Chuck stammered. “I can’t explain it all. I’ve been so stressed out carrying this secret with me. I’m sorry…”
“Sorry doesn’t help me now, Carlos,” Stephanie yelled.
At the use of his Mexican name, both Chuck and Stephanie stopped themselves. A brief silence set in before Stephanie broke the tension with a softer, more restrained tone.
“What do you need?” she asked. “You probably need money?”
“A little,” Chuck said. “But I plan to work here for my keep. I don’t want to burden you.”
At chuck’s statement, Stephanie scoffed sarcastically.
“I may need a couple hundred bucks until my arm heals,” Chuck said.
“What’s wrong with your arm?”
“I broke it in a fight,” he said. “It’s a long story. Don’t worry about it. I need your cell phone number. I couldn’t remember it, and the log in to my e-mail. I’m going to try and message you through Facebook when I can.”
“Jesus,” Stephanie gasped, imagining the man she fell in love with and married nearly 20 years earlier fighting a gang of Mexicans in the streets.
“I’m staying at a hotel and working by day,” Chuck filled in his wife. “But I’m going to have to go to the shelter soon. I can stay there for about a week before they kick me back out to the streets. A little money will help me get on my feet and buy me time to make a plan. The owner of the hotel can take Western Union. I’ll give you the details.”
Stephanie confirmed all the contact information and passwords they needed to stay in touch. Chuck vowed to contact her when he could and thanked her for agreeing to wire $500 to him through the hotel. He apologized to his wife and told her he loved her. She didn’t say the words back to him.
“You’ve got about a minute left,” she replied, “I’ll give you back to the girls. They love you so much”
It seemed like the call came to an end as quickly as it started. The Domo girls all lay on the couch, huddled together. Stephanie sat at the kitchen table, her head down in exasperation, sick to her stomach at the reality of her husband’s plight and the raw emotions of her daughters. The girls bawled together like they did the day the INS barged into their home.
The moon paled through the window. The clock ticked. The girls, eventually hitting a state of total exhaustion, moved to their bedrooms. Unable to claw herself up the stairs, Stephanie lugged herself to the couch and dropped off to sleep in her sweatpants and sweater with the full complement of orange living room lights blazing through the night into the morning.
Chuck handed the phone to Mr. Castaneda and thanked him for the opportunity to connect with his family. Mr. Casteneda promised to give him the cash when it came through his Western Union account.
“I give you as much work as I can,” he said. “But you work too fast and fix everything so well.”
“I understand,” Chuck said. “You’ve been very gracious. I’ll make my way to the shelter tomorrow.”
“I will give you the money when it comes in,” Mr. Casteneda said. “If I have more broken furniture, I will give you the work.”
As Chuck shook hands with his temporary boss, Mirabella entered the hotel. Her red dress swayed in the late-night breeze. She met Chuck’s eyes and looked away. She brushed past the front desk and unlocked the gift shop.
Chuck, his mind reeling from the call with his wife and three ecstatic daughters, met her at the shop as she flicked the lights.
“Working late?” he asked her. “Trabajo en nocho?”
“Sí,” she replied. “Yo cuento… I count the money.”
“La asistencia?” Chuck asked.
“No, señor,” she replied, turning toward the back room. “Gracias. Buenas noches. Uh, good night, señor Carlos.”
All three Domo girls buzzed throughout the entire ride to Emily’s middle school and then on to their high school. Hearing Chuck’s voice gave them hope, energy and cheer. Britney drove with more pep in the gas pedal. Ashley made no mention of parties or college boys and focused on how great his voice sounded. And Emily’s visions of her father begging in the streets gave way to the image of him sitting in his hotel room eating tacos and burritos delivered by some white glove room service.
The idea that he was safe, sounded healthy and expressed his love for them invigorated them and filled their faces with bright smiles going into the new week.
As Emily entered the doors to her school, Ms. Singer greeted her and asked her to come to the library office with her. Perplexed, Emily quickened her step to keep up with the head librarian as she maneuvered between the students entering the building from the arriving buses.
“What did you say to Senator Sanchez?” she asked Emily as soon as they entered the private office and sat at the little round conference table together.
“Nothing,” Emily tried to shrink in her seat. “I just asked about ALIAS. Why?”
“The Senator called me this morning and left a message on the office phone,” Ms. Singer said, hushing her voice. “She wanted to know what I told you and what I knew about the group. She wanted me to call her right away.”
Emily shivered. Nerves ran through her spine.
“I had no idea I wasn’t supposed to say anything,” she said, turning red and starting to well up with tears. “I’m sorry Ms. Singer.”
“It caught me by surprise, that’s all,” she said, de-stressing her tone. “I called Ed. He told me more about them. Apparently, they’re frequently at odds with our government. Ed would love to interview the Senator about her position on immigration and his editor offered to set up a meeting with her to talk about your father’s situation. He thinks she’d be interested in taking that meeting. From what I’ve read, Senator Sanchez is surprisingly sympathetic to immigrants for a Texas Republican.”
“Let’s call her back,” said Emily, emboldened by the memory of speaking with her father the night before and the thought of contacting a group that might be able to help return him to her.
“We couldn’t,” Ms. Singer hesitated.
“Sure, we can,” Emily said. “I have an open block first period. Let’s call her. Maybe she can put us in touch with them.”
“Ok,” Ms. Singer said, nerves running down her back at the thought of sinking deeper into her student’s private life. “I’ll call her, but I’m not going to tell her you’re here. It’ll just be me and Senator Sanchez.”
The phone rang three times before a rigid-sounding assistant answered.
Emily could only hear one side of the conversation.
“Yes, this is Jennifer Singer,” she said. “I’m the head librarian at Kennedy Middle School in… oh, ok, I’ll hold.”
She gave Emily a positive glance before attending to the voice on the other end.
“Yes, hello, Senator Sanchez,” she said. “I got your call… yes… yes… yes… well, yes. … My boyfriend works for the newspaper. … I don’t know, but I could ask him. … Ok. Thank you, Senator. I’ll let you know later today.”
Emily stared at the librarian as she hung up the phone.
“She wants Ed to set up a meeting with them,” she said. “She believes they might have some creative ideas on how to help your dad. She’s interested in giving Ed a quote. She wants me to get Ed to connect us with ALIAS.”
“Wow, that’s great,” said Emily.
“Have your mother call me about this,” Ms. Singer said. “I’d never set up a meeting without her blessing. Will you fill her in and have her contact me as soon as possible? I just want to find a way to help.”