A Path to Citizenship — David Amadio
Edgar squinted in the hard shine of the policeman’s flashlight. He was sitting on the sidewalk with his back against a chain-link fence. His neck felt like someone had twisted it halfway round. He gently touched the back of his head. There was a gash, tender and swollen and sticky. He drew his hand away, looked at the blood on his fingers, and wiped them in the grass.
The policeman was talking to him, and the words—few of which he understood—fell like hammers on his ears. He became aware of people in the yard next door, standing and staring. A black girl with orange lipstick and streaks of blonde hair took a picture of him with her phone, and the officer barked at her to get lost. The girl looked familiar, a face he had seen on the street. The others were strange to Edgar, pale and plain in the moonless night. Careful not to strain his neck, he glanced around for his bike, the red beach cruiser, but saw no sign of it.
The policeman asked him three times in English what his name was. Then, very slowly and very loudly, he asked him if he had any identification. A closed mouth gathers no flies, thought Edgar, as he felt in his pocket for his money.
Thirty minutes before, Edgar Portillo was getting ready to leave his job at Gambol’s Café. He had taken out the last bag of trash and hung his apron by the pantry door. He put on his coat and waited for Norman, the owner, to give him his pay. Norman was a prick, but he was always kind to Edgar. You work hard and you keep to yourself, Norman would say. You’re a model employee. Norman shuffled out of his office and handed Edgar $200 in cash, his earnings for the week. Edgar folded the money and stuffed it into his coat pocket. He got his bike from the utility room where he kept it each night and wheeled it outside. Norman bid him goodnight and closed the back door behind him.
Edgar started down Garret Road on his rusted red beach cruiser. His brother Armando had found the bike abandoned in the playground near their apartment. It was junk: the tires were bald, the chain guard rattled, several spokes were missing, and the seat was held together by strips of fraying duct tape. It was big too, a monster. Edgar’s feet barely reached the pedals, and if he leaned back too far he would lose his grip on the handlebars. He could manage fine on flat land, but rolling over bumps or dropping off curbs it felt as if the bike might skid away, or buck him, or suddenly go to pieces, and his whole body would tense up, girding for a spill.
He didn’t mind the bike so much, but he did mind the cold—how the sharp night air stabbed through his coat and made his eyes water when he rode fast against it. He hadn’t known cold like this in El Salvador. And it was only November. His brother Armando and his primo Wilber had warned him that it gets colder still. He would have to buy a heavier coat then, or start taking the trolley to work. He couldn’t simply wait for spring.
The first part of Garret Road was in a dark neighborhood of old homes, the trees so tall and arching their limbs met in the sky above the street. After a quarter mile the shadows yielded to a small but healthy commercial district. Maybe it was the trees breaking up, or the quick flood of light from the streetlamps, but this section always gave Edgar the feeling of flight. Riding past the bank on the corner, he looked through the windows at the clean black desks and the deep gray armchairs. He had been in the bank with his brother, who had an account. Edgar couldn’t open one until he received his I.D. card, his tarjeta de consular. He had applied for it over a month ago and it still hadn’t arrived. With it he could store his money the right way, the safe way. Unlike some of the other guanacos he knew, Edgar wasn’t afraid of the bank. For too long he had kept his money in a scratched metal box under his bed. He was nineteen-years-old now, with a good job and a room of his own. He wanted to live responsibly, wanted to be sure that the money he made got home to his mother and sisters on time and in full. The transfer service was free, but you never knew if the remesas went through. Now the bank had a system; it cost money, but you didn’t have to worry about the remesas being late or coming up short. Like the account, he couldn’t sign up for the service until he got his I.D. card. Armando had offered to wire Edgar’s money along with his, but the younger brother insisted on waiting. He checked the mail every day for the envelope from the Juntos. It would come soon. He had to be patient.
For a Friday night there weren’t many people out. As he crossed a large intersection, only two cars were stopped at the light. On the other side of the intersection the road pitched downhill for three blocks. To his left a trolley car shunted and sparked. The trolley tracks ran parallel to this part of Garret Road, and Edgar liked to race the cars when he wasn’t too tired from work. He watched the car pull ahead of him, and thought of his younger days in San Miguel, hopping the bus to Lake Olomega. The Lake was a wondrous place, but riding the bus to get there—that was wondrous too. The small, sunken passengers in the trolley car, their heads pressed sleepily against the greasy windows, would never know the joy of that open-air seat atop the yellow-, blue-, and orange-colored bus, jouncing about like a stuffed animal, the boughs of the poui tree close enough to touch, the pichiche birds whistling in Laguna El Jocotal, the campesinos huddled in the back, smelling of coffee beans, sweat, and dirt, and the late-afternoon sun beaming through a hole in the brim of his straw hat. Edgar had left those days behind, but he missed them, and if he wasn’t in the mood to race the trolley car to its next stop, he could use it to remember, to travel back. That, like the bus ride to Lake Olomega, was free.
At the bottom of the hill was a shopping center, Barclay Square. A police cruiser with its lights off was idling at the far end of the parking lot. Edgar tightened his posture. He knew what could happen if he aroused suspicion. Looking straight ahead, he rode on deliberately, stiffly, relaxing only after he came to the middle school a block and a half away.
The great clock tower looming high above the roof of the school shamed Edgar. Back in San Miguel, he had completed five years of primary school, and then dropped out to wash cars with his brother. His mother worked in a maquiladora, but she only made enough to support herself and Edgar’s two younger sisters, Diana and Marleen. Edgar didn’t want to leave school, but he had to work if he was to eat. When Armando started borrowing cars to run a taxi service, Edgar solicited passengers on the street. He was twelve at the time. After three years, Armando had saved enough money to pay the mara to smuggle him into the states. Using some of the remesas Armando sent home, Wilber paid for his passage, and then, on the day after his nineteenth birthday, Edgar crossed over too, and now they all lived in the same apartment in Upper Darby, right outside West Philly. His brother and his primo worked for a company installing drywall; they left early in the morning and came home late at night, their clothes spackle-spattered, their hair dusted white. Since they didn’t have a car, a man picked them up in a van and took them to the job site. The van had tinted windows, and Wilber liked to kid that going to work was like being smuggled all over again.
Edgar was now entering that strand of Upper Darby called Bywood. The neighborhood was stark and run-down; the streets felt as if the devil’s tail had just passed by. A pack of boys on the corner teased him, and one of them leapt out as if to shove him from the bike. Edgar pedaled faster, trying not to show his fear. The wolves howled and cackled, but did not give chase.
If you let them see your fear, his brother had said about the boys on the corner, they will beat you and take your money. It will be so fast you’ll think it’s happening to someone else, but you are the victim, and the pain stays with you for weeks, because not only have they taken your money—they’ve taken your manhood, your dignity, your pride. They’ve bitten you and the venom seeps into your blood and you become angry with yourself, you pity yourself, and you start to regret your decision to come here. That is a poison you must avoid. We don’t have to fear the land anymore. Chaparrastique will not rain ash on us, the earth is not going to swallow us up, the wind and rain will not topple what we’ve built. The land is tame, but there are still wolves, on both sides of the law, and they don’t care who you are, and they don’t care where you’re going. They only want to pounce.
Edgar had considered taking another route, to circumvent Bywood, but that would’ve meant missing his favorite part of the ride home: San Miguelito. He steered the bike down Walnut Street and turned into a back alley that ran along a bank of garages on one side and a cracked cement wall on the other. The garages were old and falling in on themselves—they looked like the houses in the shantytown where each November Edgar would celebrate the Festival Patronales with his friends and family from the tugurio. In the middle of the alley someone had painted a picture on the ground, a prone mural of a black silhouetted figure standing on a mountaintop, its arms raised in victory, lit from behind by the orange and yellow rays of a giant sun. During the Festival, artists decorated the streets with pigmented sawdust, working day and night to carpet Calle Poniente with depictions of Jesus and Archbishop Oscar Romero. Never did Edgar think that he would see anything like them in America, but here was the mural, as grand and as colorful as the carpets of sawdust, and better because it did not perish, it stayed, and each time he rode past it he imagined himself as the black silhouetted figure triumphant before the sun.
The alley, tight and curved and smelling of gasoline, answered onto a lot that bus drivers used as a late-night turn-around. Edgar circled it twice, remembering the blacktop court behind his primary school where he used to play soccer with his classmates, close to this one in size, and with the same gradual incline from south to north. He had told his brother about the lot, and the painting, and the garages, but Armando was not one for nostalgia. He had been in the country much longer than Edgar, and he forgot more than he remembered. Edgar—from whom the residue of El Salvador had not yet washed off—could still see home. But he wasn’t sure if what he was seeing really resembled home, or if he was drawing the similarities himself, out of longing. San Miguelito was real: when he had stumbled upon it by accident he rode up and down the alley three times to make sure of it. Yet he continued to question the honesty of his vision. Sometimes he thought that he painted the mural. On my first night here I came to this place and painted it in my sleep, reasoned Edgar. I was afraid that I would never see such colors again, so I painted the rays of the sun bright yellow and orange, and I was afraid that I would not succeed so I painted myself on the summit of a great mountain. But it couldn’t be so. It just happened to be there, along with the garages and the turn-around. It was a coincidence, and he should enjoy it. He should be happy that his commute ended in a place that felt so much like where his trip had first begun.
Yes, he only had a few blocks to go. He couldn’t wait to shed his clothes and take a long hot shower. Armando and Wilber were probably sitting in the living room, drinking beer and listening to Los Tigres del Norte, getting ready to go out for the night. They liked a club in North Philly, La Luna, where guanacos from all over the city went to drink and dance and fall into the arms of dark-eyed women who were just as homesick as the men. They were the 11 million, making love in the shadows, working in the shadows, learning to live in the shadows. But there was talk, on the TV and in the paper, about a path to citizenship. Edgar didn’t know how long it would take for this to happen, but he knew that when it did his life was going to change—the country was going to change. It would grow bigger and he would grow braver. He wanted to see more and do more, but always they told him to stick to the road, watch your back, don’t talk to the police, come straight home. They treated him like a child, but he wasn’t a child; he was a man, with dreams and desires of his own, and every day he felt himself being pulled in directions he knew he could not go, not yet.
The money was gone. He dug frantically in his coat pocket where he had put it, then he jabbed around in his other coat pocket, then he went through his pants pockets, then he searched for it in the grass, then he started crawling around on the sidewalk with his face close to the ground. When the cop saw Edgar doing this he snatched him by the hood, dragged him back to the spot against the fence, and stood on his feet. Edgar felt a sudden ache in his tailbone. He squirmed to find a more comfortable position, but each time he shifted the cop pressed down harder, until Edgar was certain that he was trying to break his toes.
Waving a black-gloved finger at the crowd of onlookers, the cop asked if anyone had seen what had happened, and the black girl with the orange lipstick came forward. She talked to the policeman while Edgar, with his touchy ears and bad English, tried to make out what they were saying. The girl finished her story and, speaking broken Spanish, asked Edgar where he lived. Instantly he thought of Armando and Wilber and how frightened they would be if he showed up at the apartment with a cop, and how much trouble they would all be in if he started rooting around and stirring up dust. The cop stepped away from Edgar’s feet and hoisted him up by his armpits. Edgar stood eye to eye with the girl and she asked him again for his address. This time she smiled and lay a hand on his shoulder. Yes, he knew her from the neighborhood, she hung out with a boy who lived at the top of his street, she wouldn’t lead him into the wolf’s mouth, he had to trust her.
So he told them his address, and the officer took him by the arm and began walking him home. A man from the yard, one of the pale faces that had gathered to stare at Edgar, ran around the front of a graffiti-scarred van and pulled something from the street. It was the rusted red beach cruiser, in no worse shape than it had been before. The cop allowed Edgar to retrieve it, and he wheeled the bike alongside them as they walked the two blocks to Edgar’s apartment. When they reached the door, instead of having Edgar open it with his key, the policeman banged on it three times with his fist. Edgar grew so nervous waiting for someone to answer that he repeatedly touched the gash on his head, substituting that pain for the pain he knew would be written on his brother’s face the moment he saw who was standing there.
But it was Wilber who opened the door. He wore a black button-down shirt, ripped jeans, and white patent leather shoes. He was holding a comb, which, upon seeing the cop, he lay down on the window sill next to the door. He glanced at Edgar. The look he gave him was strained and serious and sad. Hanging his head, Edgar left the bike outside and followed the policeman into the house.
Armando was sitting at the kitchen table. He too was dressed for the club. The cop introduced himself and Armando stood and slowly walked toward him, stopping at the metal threshold between the kitchen and the living room. Armando had a confused look in his eyes, as if he didn’t know whether to be angry or scared. The cop asked him if he spoke any English. Armando knew more than most. As the cop told him the story he nodded and said Yes and Okay in a small, fragile voice. Twice he looked over at his brother and sighed.
Armando and the officer stepped outside to talk some more. Edgar watched them through the open door until his cousin called him into the bathroom. He helped Edgar out of his coat and sat him down on the toilet as he applied a warm towel to the gash. Edgar felt the pain in his tailbone again, and for the first time since he had awakened on the sidewalk, he tried to piece together what had happened to him. The anguish over losing his money and bringing a cop to the house had left him no room to think. He asked Wilber what he knew but all he said was They got you, they got you good, and hearing this Edgar felt the hard hand of pity take hold of his heart.
They got you with a bat, said Armando when he came into the bathroom, and after they knocked you out they picked you up and threw you in the air, and before you even hit the ground they ran away, back into their hole.
Who was it? asked Wilber.
The girl said two Mexicans did it. She’s never seen them before. The one had on a denim jacket and the other had on a gray sweatshirt.
We’re going out to look for them, said Wilber. I have a bat too.
But Armando didn’t want revenge, not yet. Edgar needed stitches, the blood had not stopped, the towel wasn’t doing any good. So the cousins argued: Wilber wanted to find them and give back the poison, Armando wanted to bring his brother to the hospital. Edgar, still holding the towel to his head, rose and walked into the living room. They were shouting now, but Edgar knew that Armando would prevail. He would call a cab, a cheerful but hesitant doctor would sew up the gash, and they would return home with a bill they might never think about again after that night. Every guanaco they knew had an unpaid medical bill somewhere in his apartment. Some had more than one.
Edgar looked at the pile of mail on the coffee table and saw an envelope addressed to him. He flung the blood-stained towel on the sofa and tore open the envelope, letting it fall to the floor as he unfolded the letter inside. It was in Spanish, but he didn’t need to read it, he already knew what it said, he didn’t have to have it explained to him. Stuck to the bottom of the page by a tab of glue was the card, his tarjeta de consular. He scanned his photo, his name, his date of birth, his country of origin. Everything was correct. Everything was as he had told it to the Juntos all those weeks ago. His hands trembling, he turned the card over and read the fine print on the back, then he looked again at the face in the photo—the mouth set, the chin raised, the eyes wet and smiling, as if he had just come in from the cold after riding hard against it.
David Amadio received his MFA in Fiction from Bowling Green State University in 2001. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Packingtown Review, Nerve Cowboy, and Talking River. He lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two children.