I am a home health nurse for Williamsburg County. My present occupation has not caused me to be shot at, molested, or otherwise screwed with because I am six feet, four inches tall and weigh two hundred and sixty-five pounds and have an attitude that repels ridicule like the back side of a magnet. The last time someone attempted humor in regard to me being a male nurse, I broke his nose. Then, I set it for him. I am a nurse because it required very little money and effort to get into tech school classes when I took leave of Parris Island, a garden spot where I lost both of my big toenails and sixteen pounds while I learned to be a war machine.
That is all to say that between then and now, I have put many a mile on my Plymouth Valiant, negotiating the swampy two-ruts of this county where people have more concern for the lotto numbers than their health. I have calculated the blood pressure of people who exist two ticks from a heart attack. I have listened to the sloshing lungs of those who smell like the insides of an ashtray. And I have wedged medicine spoons between the brown teeth of children who squirm like eels on hot sand. Through it all, I have come to believe that the human body is nothing more than a private trash heap that some of us fill to capacity faster than others.
Yet I do not come to preach. I come today with a message, and it is this: Folks you wouldn’t normally put together are winding up under the same roof. And they are getting along.
Not only are they getting along, they are growing intimately familiar and consequently having babies, crisscrossing boundaries like smugglers with a bag of dope and a bad sense of direction. It is perhaps a health situation to monitor.
Think about this:
Some months ago, I pulled the Valiant onto a road that paralleled a set of railroad tracks. Behind me, the tracks ran toward a pair of hills, where they disappeared into a curve of green trees growing so close to the tracks, the limbs were shaved and bare on one side from the constant scrape of freight cars. In front of me, the tracks eventually pulled up behind the Victoria Chicken Plant, where the slogan is right there, in big letters across the front of the building: We Are Why The Chickens Cross The Road.
During shift changes, groups of Hispanic men, wearing black hip boots and long white coats, walk between the plant and any number of trailer parks tucked in the trees along the tracks. I have an EMT buddy who gets summoned to the chicken plant once or twice a month when a line worker loses a finger to a bone saw or slips and hits his head and nearly drowns in the chicken goop on the floor. He says walking into the chicken plant is like strolling straight through the gates of hell. He told me once there isn’t enough money in the world to make him spend a shift in the chicken plant, and I told him he hadn’t been poor enough yet. I would work there before I’d starve. I just wouldn’t eat chicken tenders anymore. I would adapt.
I was searching for a trailer park called — swear to God —Camelot. Number sixty-five. My patient notes said that a Chevy Nova would be parked outside the trailer. I never saw an official Camelot sign, just rode through little clusters of mud-stained trailers until I ultimately turned into a gravel driveway and spotted the Nova. It was bright yellow with a back end jacked up in the direction of ten o’clock. It appeared some sort of unwashed animal had expired on the front dash, the clay-colored fur matted against the window. Enough religious icons to save a small town from holy terror dangled from the rearview mirror along with a silvery CD. The car was running, leaking gray smoke, not from where the exhaust pipe should be, but from a hole in the undercarriage. The engine noise reminded me of some hearts I had heard through my stethoscope, those on the near side of complete breakdown. Somebody was warming up the car, getting ready to leave.
I knocked on the door and heard the growl rise from under the steps. I knew there would be a dog. There always has to be a dog. Dogs come as standard equipment on my patients’ homes. Alarm systems on four legs. Cheap and mean and won’t quit when the power goes out. I’m never unprepared. I simply bent and put my head close to the top step. And I growled back. In five years, there hasn’t been a dog that returned my call of the wild.
I felt in my front pocket for the little card of health-related Spanish sayings. I used this cheat sheet to get through visits in the area around the chicken plant. With my little card, I could say things like “Where does it hurt?” and “When was the last time you went to the bathroom?” and “You’d better see a doctor before you drop dead of a heart attack.” Most of the chicken plant people spoke more English than I could Spanish. We always worked out our communication problems one way or the other.
The door opened, and the way the sun hit the screen door, I couldn’t see anything or anyone through the sudden glare. “Hola,” I said to a thin silhouette that appeared in the open space.
“You from the department?” a woman asked back.
When I said yes, the screen door opened and I walked into the most amazing shrine to NASCAR I had ever seen in my life. In a single quick glance, I couldn’t pick out this fan’s particular favorite. They seemed to love anybody who drove. Photos of cars spread across the walls. Trinkets covered the counters: NASCAR keychains, NASCAR money clips, NASCAR fork and spoon sets, NASCAR pocket knives, NASCAR playing cards, NASCAR lip balm. The trailer smelled like the inside of a Waffle House — bacon and coffee and cigarette smoke.
“Sit down anywhere,” she told me. My eyes adjusted to the dimmer light inside. She was far from Hispanic. She was thin and redheaded. She’d probably sunburn at the mere thought of going outside. I suspected she might be a little bit anemic, and I had to remind myself I wasn’t here to see her. I was here about a baby.
“You speak English,” I said and smiled.
“Course I do. I’m English.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was expecting someone Hispanic.”
“And I was expecting a nurse,” she said. “My name is Gonzales. Wanda Gonzales. I need somebody to take a look at Ho-el.”
“He’s in the back bedroom.” Wanda left me standing in the NASCAR museum.
I spent the next dozen seconds or so wondering what the name Ho-el could be short for. Maybe he had an attitude. Holy Hell. Ho-el. It was a nickname I had never heard before. She came back holding a redheaded kid with his face buried in her Earnhardt t-shirt. He finally peeked out, and I could see how brown his eyes were. My notes said he was three years old, and this kid looked about that age.
“Here’s the card about the shots he’s done had,” she said, pushing a piece of paper across the little table at my knees. At the sound of the word shots, Ho-el burrowed his head deeper into the face of Dale Earnhardt. I read the card to myself. Joel Gonzales. J-O-E-L.
“So your husband calls him Ho-el.”
“My husband don’t call him nothing. Hor-hay don’t call, period.”
I tried a communication trick I learned in a seminar the county paid for. I paused and didn’t say a word. Wanda grew uncomfortable with the lack of talking, just like I hoped.
“He’s gone. Been gone. He used to call him Ho-el. That’s the Mexican way to say it, I suppose.”
“So that’s not your husband’s car outside?” I looked around for the boyfriend hiding behind a door.
“That’s mine. ‘75 Nova. Stock.”
“Well, your car is running, ma’am.”
“I can’t turn it off,” she said.
I went silent again. I was having trouble with this conversation.
“Ho-el broke off the key in the ignition a couple weeks ago. I don’t know how to hotwire it, so I just keep putting gas in it. I even changed the oil while it was running once. You try that sometime. I don’t know what the hell I’m gonna do if a belt breaks.” She was proud of herself. I looked at Ho-el. Three years old and he already had grease under his tiny little fingernails. I saw his future. He would know how to change a water pump before he could read.
“What’s wrong with Ho-el?” I leaned forward.
“He’s been punk lately.” She pushed the red hair away from Ho-el’s forehead. He did look pale, but, then again, his momma was almost see through.
“Kinda down in the dumps. He ain’t happy like he usually is. He’s usually all over the place, tearing things up. He’s a little stem winder most of the time. This here ain’t the normal everyday Ho-el.”
I asked her to let me have a look at him, but Ho-el had a death grip on his momma and Dale Earnhardt. She pried him off like a scared kitten and handed him across the table.
Ho-el weighed next to nothing, like he was filled with warm air. His eyes were big and scared, and because they were opened wide, I could see they oozed more than tears. I managed one quick feel of the glands in his throat, which were about the size of hickory nuts. When I touched an ear, he let out a yell.
“Well, Ho-el’s sick,” I said.
“No shit,” she said, rummaging through the papers on the table for a cigarette lighter.
“I’m going to give you some antibiotic samples. They should be enough to get him well. If you need more, call the Health Department.” I pulled a double handful of samples from my bag. “Can he take pills?”
“He’ll swallow anything with chocolate on it. Say thank you, Ho-el,” she said.
“Gracias,” he whispered in a raspy little voice.
Ho-el’s momma stood up. “I’ll give you a ride back into town,” she said.
Wanda was making a habit of confusing me. “But I drove my car.”
“Yeah, but you ain’t got but a couple of wheels left on it.” Outside, the Valiant listed awkwardly to the left like a wounded animal. I hadn’t heard a sound when my wheels were stolen. I’d been so intent on Ho-el and his momma.
For a second, I found it difficult to breathe. I completely forgot about a child being in the room. “Goddamn chicken workers,” I said. It was at that point that Ho-el’s momma clipped my jaw with the quickest right cross I’d ever made contact with. I was too impressed with the way she cut her punch to be angry. I smacked the table to keep my balance.
“You watch that mouth of yours,” she said. “I don’t care if you are from the county, that’s not nice.”
The dog under the step must have heard the commotion. He came running from the back of the trailer, where I suppose he had a doggie door, a tiny doggie door because he was a Chihuahua no bigger than an average-sized ham. He headed toward me, and his growl made him seem exponentially larger. He must have picked up that whole sound-bigger-than-you-really-are routine from having to defend himself against the larger mongrels and curs of the world.
“Surprises me that someone like you would say things about folks like that,” she said. Maybe she thought the fact I was a male nurse automatically put a bull’s eye on my back for abuse, that I was oppressed. Whatever she meant, I didn’t care because I was watching her dog try and make his way toward me. It appeared he couldn’t run in a straight line. To go from point A to B, he spun in little circles, one right after another, like a little shorthaired cyclone.
“Your dog can’t walk a straight line,” I said, feeling fortunate that my jaw still worked. Being a nurse, I knew what a pain in the ass a broken jaw could be.
“Hor-hay hit him in the head with a golf club one afternoon, and he’s been turning circles ever since. It takes him a half-hour to get from one end of the yard to the other. Mostly, he sleeps under the trailer. He’s not a bad watchdog.” She thought about that for a second. “Until he has to chase something,” she added. “Hey, you want to buy anything before you go?” She waved her arm over the room. It was at that moment I noticed each item in this particular NASCAR shrine had a tiny price tag.
“Oh, I see. You sell things.”
She said, “I got to make ends meet somehow. Hor-hay got tired of wading through chicken guts and left us to go back to Juarez. He said he’d send us money. Ain’t that some shit? Going back to Mexico to make money. Let’s just say, I ain’t holding my breath for the mailman to deliver a shoebox full of damn pesos, so I buy all this stuff from a guy in a step-van, double the price, and sell it to the neighbors. Listen bud, Mexicans love car racing. Good god, if there was a Mexican driving at Daytona, they couldn’t sell enough tickets. I make more farting around doing this than Hor-hay ever brought home taking feathers off hens.”
At the mention of Hor-hay, I thought I saw little Ho-el tear up. Then, he sneezed and I knew the watery eyes were because of his cold or his allergies or whatever sort of ailment he had in his head and throat.
“I’ll just walk. It isn’t that far,” I said. “He doesn’t need to be going out. I’ll send somebody to tow the car tomorrow. Just don’t let them take anything else off it, okay?” The dog had finally made his way to me and was trying to figure out if my shoe — size fourteen — was worth humping on. He turned a few circles around my leg, then left me alone, not agreeing with my smell or my attitude. Little Ho-el was already asleep on the couch, whistling through his half-clogged nose.
“I might be able to get your wheels back. I think I know who it is that’s got them,” she offered. I handed her my card just in case.
I checked the Valiant. The spare was still in the trunk, so I was only one wheel short. I started along the railroad tracks in the direction of the Victoria Chicken Plant, checking my watch to make sure a shift change wasn’t about to come marching in my direction. As it turned out, I was the only one walking the rails that hour. The smell from the plant gave me a headache, and I wondered if maybe little Ho-el was allergic to chicken fumes when the wind blew in the wrong direction.
I do not believe in fate. I do not believe in love or faith. I do not believe in any of life’s abstractions. Which is why I do not believe there was any hidden meaning in the fact I happened to return to Ho-el’s trailer the next morning, a Saturday morning, at precisely ten o’clock. I wasn’t attracted to the trailer like a homing pigeon. I was not relishing another encounter with the sidewinder dog. I simply wanted my damn car back. I hated being without transportation and at the mercy of my sore feet.
I took a taxicab back to Camelot. Along with me, I carried a used rim and tire I bought for twenty-five bucks. When I pulled up to the trailer, I immediately knew that things were different. For one, the Nova was sitting quiet. For another, the Valiant was gone. And that little hurricane of a dog was sleeping on the top step, not hiding beneath it. He didn’t twitch a muscle when I climbed the steps. I thought he was dead for a second. He moved slightly when the cab pulled away.
Nobody answered my knock on the door, which opened easily when I pushed on it. The little dog cocked open one eye and sighed, like he already knew it wasn’t worth going in. I hadn’t walked three steps across the room when I heard an entire fleet of cars screeching up in the yard — three sheriff’s department cruisers with the lights flashing and the headlights blinking. No sirens. The ten o’clock sneak attack.
“You in there, come on out, right now,” a man called through a bullhorn, his voice amplified and cracking a little like he was nervous.
I walked onto the top step, forgetting about the dog, which I nudged in the ribs purely by accident. He growled at me, and I don’t blame him. Deputies crouched behind open car doors.
“Sir, you aren’t from around here.” His surprise was amplified by the bullhorn.
“I’m from the Health Department,” I said, reaching into my pocket for my official ID card. I thought it might work like a badge, making us brothers-in-public-service or some such.
“Whoa now, watch that hand there, chief,” he said. The men hiding behind their police cruisers all flinched a bit.
“I’m a nurse with the Health Department. I’m trying to find my car. I saw a sick little boy right here yesterday.” He walked toward me. A good sign. He quit using the bullhorn.
“A nurse? You shitting me. You know anything about counterfeit NASCAR paraphernalia?” he asked me.
“Counterfeit?” I asked back, ignoring his high-pitched reaction to my being a nurse.
“Bet your ass.”
“Counterfeit how? How do you know?” I said.
He raised one eyebrow. “I get paid to know, buddy,” he said, nodding, drawing me into some kind of awkward confidence with him.
It took him and his deputies about half an hour to scrape all the NASCAR things into boxes and load them into the back of a couple of patrol cars. They could have gone faster if they hadn’t stopped to admire all of the different trinkets. I started to tell them I thought my car was stolen, but I wasn’t really sure that was the case. It could have been just borrowed. It struck me that I was protecting Ho-el’s momma for a reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Running a counterfeit NASCAR ring out of a trailer — that was impressive. Her frailness was a disguise, I thought. That was impressive, too.
“Listen, you want to do me a favor? You hear from this guy, you let us know. We can’t have him selling fake NASCAR stuff, even if it is to other Mexicans,” he told me.
So he didn’t know about Ho-el’s momma. They obviously thought it was Hor-hay doing the selling. I let out some breath, realizing that she wasn’t going to be arrested. The relief surprised me.
I told him I’d keep an eye out, and suddenly, it was just me and the dog and the trailer. With the merchandise gone, an echoing emptiness filled the rooms. “I suppose I’m walking again,” I said to the dog, and he must have been bilingual because he followed on my heels, whirling his tiny dervishes between the railroad tracks. I had to go slow, what with the dog and the tire I was rolling along. I was beginning to feel stupid and careless, and those feelings never lead anywhere good.
That night, in my tiny rental house, I evaluated what I had and what I didn’t. I didn’t have a car at the moment. That situation needed a solution immediately. I was intelligent enough to know I should call that sheriff and report it stolen. But there were holes in my intel. And a call to the sheriff might implicate Ho-el and his mother in some way. There you go again, acting like a nurse, I thought, taking care of people you don’t really know. I had a spare tire on my kitchen table. I had a dizzy Chihuahua on my kitchen floor. I had been feeding him boiled peanuts all afternoon, and he’d become exceedingly gassy. I’d shell a handful of the soggy peanuts, he’d eat them, raise himself up, then turn a couple of circles and leave a vapor trail behind him, which, of course, he kept spinning into. You wouldn’t automatically assume something so small could conjure up an odor so foul. I began to feel sorry for a creature that kept revolving in his own biological functions.
We both fell asleep just after dark, me upright in the kitchen chair and the Chihuahua wrapped around as much of my feet as he could cover. The machine gun blasts of a straight-piped exhaust in my driveway woke us both. The dog growled at the noise. I felt him rumble against my leg. For a little dog, he was impressive. Outside, two men ran away in the darkness, their footsteps slapping the pavement. What they left behind was my Valiant, but it wasn’t the same. It had been modified. It was jacked up in the back. Strips of white shag carpet ringed every window. A Virgin Mary dangled from the mirror. A note fluttered under the windshield wiper. It said: I told them to fix up your car or I would turn them in. The meaning of “fix up” must have been lost in translation. But Wanda was looking out for me and my Valiant. It had been a long time since someone had done that.
That night, the dog and I rode out to Camelot in the loud, renovated Valiant. When we got there, the windows in the trailer were dark and someone had removed the front door. The dog refused to get out of the car, as if to say that he wasn’t interested in making a dramatic reentrance. I stuck my head into the darkness and smelled it right off. Somebody had deliberately made the worst kinds of messes inside, bathroom types of things. It wasn’t healthy.
So, I thought, that was that. This trailer was not going to be fit for man or beast for a long time. Life goes on and all that. “Screw them,” I said. No more Wanda, no more Ho-el. I said it, but my heart wasn’t really in it.
Inside the Valiant, the dog raised his head at me. “I’m gonna call you Roundabout,” I said, and I turned the key, blowing smoke and making noise enough to wake the dead.
But it wasn’t the end of things. A couple of months later, I pulled up to the Health Department in the same old Valiant. I had tried to sell it, but nobody wanted to pay my firm asking price. No one seemed to want a car that looked a Disney ride reject. It took me awhile, but I finally realized the reason I wouldn’t budge on the price was, I really wanted to keep the Valiant. I had grown accustomed to the bark of the pipes and the clouds of exhaust that barely disguised the glares from folks at stoplights. I didn’t care. I had a loud car that cranked every time I turned the key and a dog curled on the front seat that liked Motown. Roundabout went on all my calls with me, guarding the Valiant. I didn’t know dogs liked music, much less did I know that a Chihuahua would enjoy, say, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.
I left Roundabout on the front seat and walked in to sort through my schedule of patients for the morning. The receptionist, a sleepy-eyed woman who herded the sick all day long from the protection of her desk, told me a man was waiting in the lobby. “He’s Hispanic,” she whispered like some sort of storm warning.
The man was watching the television blaring in the waiting room, hypnotized, like it was the first time he had ever seen one. When I approached him, he didn’t get up from the chair, just kept glancing at the game show on channel twelve.
“Buenos dias,” he said. “You have my dog.”
“Excuse me?” I said, which is what I usually say when I’m caught off guard.
“I’m Jorge Gonzales and you have my Chihuahua. Someone saw you in your Plymouth near the plant with Diablo. My dog, Diablo. The devil dog.”
“I thought you went back to Mexico,” I answered.
“I have returned.”
“Well, yes,” I said slowly, editing as I spoke. “I have a dog. I’m not sure it’s your dog.”
“This dog, my dog, is a dog of many spirals. I golfed him once.” Hor-hay finally rose. He was small and doughy. His eyes didn’t match the rest of him. They were very confident. But his body didn’t look like it could back up any kind of threat his eyes laid down. “I thank you very much for taking care of Diablo. I will have him back now.”
“I don’t have him here,” I lied.
Hor-hay began tapping his pockets. “Something to write?” he asked. He left me his address and telephone number. “You can bring him by, yes?”
“I suppose,” I answered. “If it’s yours, of course.”
“Ho-el needs a pet,” he said, and, dammit, that ruined it for me. I remembered Ho-el’s runny eyes and wheezy cough. A boy like that could use an animal in his life.
“Yeah, I’ll bring him,” I told him. “This afternoon, after work.” Hor-hay nodded and sat back down to finish watching his game show.
The address Hor-hay gave me was in another trailer park, not far from Camelot. I snatched up Roundabout and carried him under my arm to the door. He passed a little gas when I squeezed him. Good, I thought. I’d fed him about a quarter pound of boiled peanuts that afternoon for his return to Hor-hay. I wanted him to make a memorable entrance.
The Nova was nowhere to be seen. Instead, an old Monte Carlo sat in the short driveway, its quarter panel rusting, the trunk tied shut with a piece of copper wire. The handmade sign on the front of the trailer said: Madame Wanda, Palms and Fortunes. Madame Wanda herself answered my knock.
“Yeah?” she asked through the door.
“Yes, it’s me again, from the Health Department. I’ve got Hor-hay’s dog.”
She swung the door open with one arm and held her belly with the other. “Well, hey there,” she said, glad to see me, it seemed. I couldn’t take my eyes off the belly straining against the stripes on her shirt. It took a little breath out of me to see her pregnant. “I haven’t called the Health Department about this,” she added, patting her stomach. “I will though. I see that in my future.”
“Can’t slip nothing by you Health Department people, can I?” she said and waved me in. The trailer smelled of incense and sausage.
“Ho-el’s doing good,” she said. “Let me show you… Ho-el!”
He came running. Funny, I didn’t remember him even walking the last time I saw him. He looked as though he’d gained some weight. Color was back in his cheeks, a shade that was beginning to match his hair. “Si, mama?” he asked, the syllables rolling off his tongue like candy. I don’t think he remembered me, but he stayed put, staring like I was an interesting painting.
“I’ve got your dog, I think,” I said to both him and his mother. I secretly gave Roundabout a little hug, hoping for the artillery report of peanut farts. “You read fortunes?”
“Ain’t my dog,” she replied. “That dog is some bug Hor-hay’s got up his rear. Sure, I read fortunes. I have the gift.”
“Hor-hay and I spoke this morning.”
“See, I already knew that. Hor-hay!” she yelled.
He came from somewhere in the back, dressed the same as that morning. There they were. The entire family, all in one place, almost posing.
“Hey, Diablo, como esta?” Hor-hay called.
Roundabout squirmed a little under my arm but didn’t attempt to jump down. I decided to put him on the floor. He began turning circles but didn’t move one way or the other. He couldn’t decide which direction to aim his spins.
“Gracias, ummm . . . senor?” Hor-hay said, his voice rising more than it should. I knew that tone. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it, the making-fun-of-the-male-nurse tone. Wanda wouldn’t put up with that sort of thing. I remembered that punch of hers in the trailer. She owed me one. I had helped her out. I had helped Ho-el. But the only thing Wanda did was grin, and I knew, right in that second, I was on my own.
“Whatever,” I said. I started to go, because that’s all I could do, right? I didn’t belong there.
Hor-hay said, “So, you are a nurse, eh?” Even with my back to them, I could sense him stifling a laugh.
When I turned around, he was in the process of mumbling something to Madame Wanda in Spanish, and she put her hand over her mouth. Hor-hay repeated the same thing to his son, who started giggling with his father. I didn’t have my little Spanish card and wasn’t familiar enough with the language to know exactly what he was saying, but I had a pretty good idea. Wanda was having trouble keeping her laughter inside. The stripes over her tight belly danced.
“A very grande nurse, eh?” he said. “A nurse, but one with cojones, eh?”
I must be getting old. I didn’t even get pissed. I didn’t even think about jacking Hor-hay’s jaw about the nurse cracks. I felt tired all of the sudden, tired and lonely. I knew I should just walk toward the door. Let it all go. Just head out.
As I passed Wanda, I said, “Sometime I need to let you tell my fortune, Wanda. Tell me what’s going to happen.”
“Come by anytime,” she said, then sucked down a laugh. “Nurse.”
I shook my head. She probably didn’t know I could have ratted her out to the NASCAR police. Sometimes people don’t know the good things you do for them when they aren’t looking.
“Si,” Hor-hay echoed, “and when you are here, you can take all our temperature.” They laughed together then, like a chorus. Even Ho-el was in on the joke.
I wondered how good Wanda really was at seeing the future. I wondered if she had a sudden, quick vision, if she foresaw me walking by the open window of the Monte Carlo and spotting keys dangling in the ignition. With arms as long as mine, I had no trouble reaching in and starting the engine. Then another quick twist too far the wrong way, and the key snapped off in the ignition. The Monte Carlo skipped and idled, but stayed running. I thought I heard Roundabout bark inside. I slung the half-key and all of its companions as far as I could in the direction of the railroad tracks. I never heard them hit the ground. The key to the Monte Carlo could still be flying for all I know, for all I care.
But of course, I had no clean getaway. When I turned my own key in the Valiant, the engine spun and the straight pipes fired off like an alarm. The fake fur was beginning to sag from the edges of the windows, and I had to fight to shift the gearshift into drive. The tires spun a little in the mud, and I weaved my way through the trailers — no dog on the seat beside me, no fortune teller to predict my future, just me, six feet four inches, two hundred and sixty-five pounds, stuck behind the wheel of a car I had no business driving.