It’s the homeless man in the Santa outfit screaming “Make it straight!” who wakes her up, not cop knocking on the car window.
“Make it straight!” he howls at the cars as they blast down Fourth Avenue, near the place where Brooklyn runs into the sea. “Make it straight! Make it straight! This street got to be straight! Ain’t got time for crooked streets no more! Ain’t got no time for for shoes! Don’t make me take off those shoes, I can’t do that!”
That’s when the cruiser turns into the parking lot of the CVS, a big white Ford with fearsome blue letters on the doors: NYPD: COURTESY. PROFESSIONALISM. RESPECT. The lights are on, but not the siren. She figures he’s here for the wino, who stands bowlegged like a gunslinger from a cowboy movie in front of the car so it can’t drag its butt in off the street.
The cop just hangs out, waiting for the guy to leave, which he does, after a minute: a blueshirt, either Jacob or Bill, comes out of the employee entrance to the store with a sheaf of cardboard boxes and Drunk Santa hustles over to ask him about something. Jacob/Bill is already shaking him off as he approaches and shifts gears to whiny begging. The cop parks the cruiser, leaves the lights on, slams NYPD and starts walking toward the LeSabre.
Oh, shit, she thinks. She has to pee, all of a sudden, and her back hurts. Sleeping in the back seat of this stupid car her stupid father gave her for her 16th stupid birthday has hurt her stupid back, on top of every other stupid thing. She doesn’t pretend to be asleep, although she considers it. She just watches the cop walk over, big blue bomber hat with its silver badge on the forehead covering most of his face. He’s talking into the radio on his shoulder and looking right at her. She doesn’t move. He walks up to the car and looks inside. She still doesn’t move. He knocks on the rear driver’s-side window, a inch or two from her face, and she rolls it down a crack with a very old-fashioned hand-crank.
“Can you step out of the car, please, Miss?”
“I’m a ma’am.”
“Can you step out of the car, please, Ma’am?”
“I don’t want to let the heat out. And my husband has the keys.”
The cop leans down, and he starts to say, “Ma’am, I’m going to need you to step out of the car,” but he only gets to “step” before he sees what’s going on. He pushes the call button on his walkie, then thinks better of it, and lets go. His badge names him DeCesare. He is in his fifties, or his alcoholic forties. He has seen some shit, in his time.
Here is what gives Gus DeCesare pause: half-lying on the back seat of the cetacean 1998 Buick under a Spider-Man comforter and six carefully arranged bath towels, wearing fingerless gloves and a threadbare dull green hoodie that probably used to be black, is a petite woman—barely a woman, 18 at the absolute oldest—who is, even through the comforter, as pregnant as pregnant can be. She has dark hair and very dark brown eyes, almost black, and looks Hispanic to his careful eye although he has offended a number of Asians this way. The car’s interior contains most of the detritus of a cramped studio apartment, with a laundry bag hanging over the back of the driver’s headrest and a number of paperback comic books with library stickers on the spines piled up behind the back bench, dangerously obscuring the rear-view morror. There is a purple plastic rice cooker plugged into a cigarette lighter adapter, and several burnable CDs on the floor with Top 40 names Sharpied on them. The passenger’s bucket seat is reclined, presumably so a second person can sleep here in considerably less comfort. An honest-to-god New York State marriage license is laminated to the backrest of the bench with clear packing tape. He leans close enough to see the name on it: Fakhouri.
Goddamn it, this is the right car.
“Are you Maria?” he asks.
“Am I being detained?”
“Hold on,” he says. Then, into his microphone, “There’s nobody here.”
“I am too here,” she says.
There is a burst of static from the walkie and DeCesare rolls his eyes and hustles away from the car, saying, “Negative, negative, just some kid.” When he comes back he looks at her sternly, as cops practice doing in the mirror. “Ma’am,” he begins.
“If I’m not being detained, I don’t have to talk to you,” Maria says.
“Ma’am, this car has been reported stolen.”
Before she can respond, there is a commotion over near the front of the store and the old wino is pointing at the car, talking to a huge Middle Eastern man in a blue polo shirt and khakis, bearded, very young, should probably be entering his second semester of college and not here at the CVS. The young man is looking daggers at the cop.
“Hey!” he shouts as he walks over. “What do you want, man? That’s my car.”
The cop relaxes into a stance that puts his hand a lot nearer his gun and the girl in the car starts to shake. “Is this your car?” he asks the young man as he gets nearer, as though he hadn’t heard him.
“Yes! That’s my car and that’s my girl and that’s all our shit in there!”
“Show me the keys.”
The young man angrily digs into his pocket and thrusts a keyring into the cop’s hand, as if that proves it. The cop inspects it for a Buick key, finds one, calmly twists the key off the ring, and hands the ring back to the young man. The young man, who is also wearing a badge, which says Yusuf, gets confused, then angry.
“What the fuck, man!” he says. “You can’t just take our car!”
“This car has been reported stolen by the title holder,” the cop repeats.
“I didn’t steal this car!” Yusuf says. “This is my wife’s car!”
“Sir, you need to listen carefully to me: the man who holds the title on this car has reported it stolen. That person called the precinct. He said he thought a Middle Eastern kid who might be a terrorist stole it. He gave us the tag number and the name of the supposed terrorist. He said he thought whoever stole the car might resist arrest, and that we should be prepared to protect ourselves. The complainant, a 40-year-old male here on a work visa, has two priors for domestic disturbance and no fans in this parking lot. One of his kids went missing, nobody’s looking real hard for her. Am I making myself clear?”
Yusuf is looking at his shoes.
“I’m sorry,” says Maria.
“I thought he might stop hating me,” says the boy.
“Are you the father?” asks the cop with a half-laugh, as if that explained everything.
Yusuf raises his head and DeCesare realizes that the younger man has been hunching over, a lot, probably so he doesn’t intimidate the customers or freak out his supervisor. Now that he rolls back his shoulders, he has a surprising height advantage, and DeCesare curses himself for letting him come so close. He might not be able to draw his gun if something stupid happens.
“I will be,” says Yusuf proudly, looking down his nose at the police officer.
“That’s good,” DeCesare says calmly, beaming information at Yusuf with a laid-back gaze. Nobody here wants any trouble, he thinks loudly, especially not with a baby on the way. Everything’s cool. “I found this car here, but there was nobody in it,” he says. “Maybe there wasn’t even any stuff in it. I couldn’t find the keys. I called a tow truck, and they came and took it away.”
The cop turns around slowly and walks back to his cruiser. “Negative,” he can be heard saying into his walkie. “Negative, negative. Send a tow. Yes, there are Muslims here, this is Bay Ridge. Throw a rock and you’ll hit a Muslim. Muslims and firemen, that’s the whole fucking neighborhood. No, not the residence, take it to impound.”
Yusuf leans over to the window. “I’m telling Anthony you’re going to be in the back until I get off,” he says. “I’ll come back out and get the rest of the stuff. Don’t lift anything.”
He looks angry, so Maria gets a grip. She cranks down the window a little more and kisses him.
“That’s my son in there,” he says. “Nobody touches my son or my wife.” He kisses her back, quickly, then walks back toward the store. As he does, she begins gathering everything in sight into the laundry bag, and making split-second decisions. The CDs can’t come except the new D’Angelo record and the KRS-ONE and the Queen. Fuck it, none of the comic books. No more library. She’ll tell Anthony to come out and get them if he wants them. Anthony’s okay. Their latest phone. She pulls on Yusuf’s sweatpants and a pair of gold tennis shoes. She leaves his jeans and his two cool t-shirts, takes his slacks and his black socks and his one shirt with buttons on it, and she throws the Spider-Man comforter around her shoulders. After a moment, she brings the towels, because she keeps having this feeling that they’re not going to make it to the hospital in time. She doesn’t know why she thinks this. She brings no clothes for herself; she is hoping she’ll die tragically in childbirth, leaving poor weeping Yusuf to care for their beautiful son all alone, and her son will grow up to be president, and she’ll look down on them both from heaven because honest to God, life is too hard. It just is.
There is another knock on the window.
She looks up and Drunk Santa is standing there, smiling in what he probably thinks is a friendly way but is actually a totally terrifying way. She shakes her head. He makes the “Oh, come on” face and mimes cranking the window down. She cranks it down a tiny, tiny sliver and says “Fuck off and die.”
“Girl, don’t be like that,” Santa says. “When they gonna make these roads straight, huh? Crooked roads, that’s dangerous. I been homeless a long time, man. I been in the desert. I got a question for you, if it’s not too much trouble.”
Maria does not say anything.
“You got any hot sauce?”
Maria laughs, and Santa laughs back.
“No shit, I need hot sauce! You know those little centipede things with the billion legs that run up and down your walls at night?”
Maria grimaces. Her backache is back.
“Man, I eat those things by the dozen. Protein, you feel me?”
Maria does not feel him.
“I just—they don’t go down right without hot sauce. And I think mmmmaybe that cop mighta kicked you outta your car, so if you’re just gonna leave some hot sauce in there, maybe I can take it with me?”
Maria asks herself what she’d want her son to do in this situation, and she goes through the big pleather pocket in the back of the passenger’s bucket seat until she finds a bottle of Frank’s and three string cheeses. She gives them all to Santa, who says “Thank you ever so kindly” and skips off, literally skips down the sidewalk, yelling, “Make it straight! Make all this motherfucker straight up in here!”
She laughs, and she reminds herself that there’s always somebody that’s got it worse than you do, and sometimes those people are happy, so maybe you should be happy too. She gets out of the car and leaves the door open. Maybe she can at least run down the battery before the tow gets here and he’ll have to jump it when it gets back to him. She takes the bag, because she can hear the truck coming, and it’s really heavy, and oh god her back. She grabs a couple of comics for Anthony, some Silver Surfer stuff. She’s just going to gank some Pepto when she gets inside and anybody who wants to say shit to a pregnant lady about shoplifting antacid can kiss her Puerto Rican ass.
Yusuf comes out and she sees him about to scold her for lifting the bag of their stuff, and then she sees him notice the tow truck pulling into the lot, and he grabs the bag from her and hustles her in through the employee entrance as though the tow truck driver was going to arrest her. Maria can hear Santa, still, a little. Be good for goodness’ sake, she thinks nonsensically, and giggles a little.
Anthony is being a huge dick about them sleeping there that evening, even though they gave him all the comics they had.
“I’ll get fired,” he says. “And you’ll get fired, too man. I’m sorry.”
“I can’t sleep on ‘I’m sorry!’” roars Yusuf. “My baby can’t eat none of your ‘I’m sorry,’ shithead!”
“I’m sorry,” says Anthony, but he doesn’t look sorry anymore. “You need to go. Go to a shelter. There’s a shelter like three blocks from here. I gave her the address like a week ago.”
“She’s pregnant!” says Yusuf. “We don’t want charity!”
“Well, you need some charity!” says Anthony. “Also they love pregnant bitches at shelters! You’ll get the fucking president suite!”
Then Yusuf starts to look really, really angry and Maria grabs his arm and gives Anthony the bird and he keeps trying to apologize but they turn around and start walking toward the shelter, which is down on 90th Street, Maria knows. It’s ten blocks, not two, which still isn’t that far but Maria is fucking waddling. She hates it so much. She wants to hold her baby in her arms, and godDAMN, her back hurts. She is really starting to worry that it’s not just her back hurting, and then they get to the shelter, an uninviting, unlabeled blood-brown metal building on an ugly corner of an ugly street, and it’s locked. But all they have to do is knock, Anthony had said. Knock and they’ll open right up for her.
There is a bullet-headed white guy looking through a tiny little window at them. He takes one look at Yusuf and says, “No more room, man, sorry. There’s a 24-hour diner down the street. Go hang out there until a spot opens up for her.”
“My wife’s cold, man,” Yusuf says. “It’s cold out here, come on.”
“This is a battered women’s shelter. You touch that pregnant girl?”
“Okay, then she’s not a battered woman. No way can you come in here, though, ever. Sorry, man.”
“Son, I’m not even supposed to be talking to you. I don’t know how you found this place but it’s a secret. Wrong people find out we’re here, this building turns into fucking Die Hard.”
And Yusuf does something Maria has never seen him do before: he begs. Can’t you see she’s pregnant, man, please, I’ll do anything, I’ll work here for free, I got the new D’Angelo record, I got clothes, I done all kinds of shit before and I’ll do it all for you, I lied, I hit her just last week, open the door and I’ll show you the bruise, just let her in, please, don’t let me in anyway I’m a shitty husband, but the door is shut and the window is shut, too, and she can hear footsteps receding.
It is really cold.
She tells him it’s time to go somewhere else, and she kisses him on the cheek, and he just looks destroyed.
They don’t even get a seat at the diner. They look homeless. They are homeless.
She sees a pretty white lady walking down the sidewalk past the diner to the subway as they emerge into the cold, and she decides to try something.
I am a white lady, she tells herself. I just paid for a cheeseburger and french fries with half a bottle of ketchup, and I way overtipped. My husband just ate the lamb platter. We are prosperous and unshady.
She kisses Yusuf again, and then she lets go of his hand. He doesn’t move, he just slumps against the window of the diner. She covers him with the Spider-Man comforter and strides over to the white lady. I am wearing high heels, she thinks to her feet.
She walks briskly up to the other white lady and says, “Excuse me, sorry to bother you, we’re trying to find the shelter? Not the one on 90th, we’ve just come from there and they didn’t have what we wanted.”
“Oh my god, there is an AMAZING one over on 68th,” says the white lady.
“68th and what?”
“Uh, fifth ave, I think? They’re so good, seriously. They do great medical, too. They close up in an hour, though, so you’d better walk.”
She gestures at the bumper-to-bumper traffic apparently caused by an accident somewhere down the avenue. “Good luck! Bundle that baby up!” And she vanishes down the subway entrance in a cloud of money like Maria’s fairy godmother.
She walks back to Yusuf. “There’s a shelter on 68th,” she says. “It’s a long way, but we can make it if we hurry.” He doesn’t move. “Baby,” she says gently. “Baby, we’ve got to go. Please. It’s cold.” Yusuf stares into space, sad and ashamed. Maria is really worried now. Her back super hurts. It’s like being on the period that killed the dinosaurs. “Baby, please. There’s a hospital there.”
Yusuf sits like a lump. Maria has seen him do this before; he gets really depressed. He was actually on an antidepressant for a little while when they were both working, but then they stopped being able to afford that, and then he would only buy the best prenatal whatever and so they stopped being able to afford their apartment, and then the doctors’ offices started calling them at work about bills—and this is with Obamacare—and so on and so forth.
The worst part is that she feels like there’s probably someone somewhere who would help them if that person knew where they were and what they’d been through. She just has to find that person.
Please, Maria asks this person, telepathically, like Jean Grey or Emma Frost, Please, if you are that person, do something to make my husband move.
And a miracle happens, and something reaches out to her, and gives her the eleven words to move her adoring husband from his catatonia and to an action that will save them both:
“Help me, you son of a bitch. My water just broke.”
Man, of course it’s an animal shelter. White ladies do not know where the really good homeless shelters are.
It was kind of awesome being carried down the stairs to the subway and propped up against the turnstile in the sopping Spider-Man comforter while Yusuf set off the emergency alarm and then picked her up and carried her majestically over the threshold like the 95th Street Subway Station was their marital dwelling. Romance is where you find it.
But yes it’s an animal shelter. And here is why she loves her husband: Yusuf sees, very clearly, on the sign, “BAY RIDGE ANIMAL HOSPITAL,” and he just charges right in anyway.
It’s clean and quiet in the waiting area, with fluorescent lights in a drop-tile ceiling and several blue, cushioned chairs in a square around two coffee tables with Time magazines and Vanity Fairs from 2011 on them. Nobody is there, but everything is still on.
“Help us,” he announces to the empty waiting room. “My wife is going into labor and we cannot go to the hospital.” He doesn’t say can’t or won’t or doesn’t when he’s being grand; she suspects that when she really goes into labor he’ll start talking in the third person like Doctor Doom.
The vet comes into the waiting area and opens his mouth to deliver a very, very reasonable explanation about why he can’t deliver a baby here, this being a hospital for animals, not people, and as she feels her heart prepare to sink, it just hits her and she screams like she personally developed and invented screaming. Somebody is opening her box like it’s Christmas morning.
The doctor and Yusuf just start taking orders from her like she’s in charge and three male CUNY PhD biology students (she later learns) who are writing a paper on something insufferable come out of the back holding little grey kittens and the doctor shouts “WASH YOUR HANDS” and it takes the brighest of them about three seconds to take stock of the situation and tell the others what to do. She is going to name the child after him, she decides. Dogs start to howl from another part of the shelter, in sympathy. Cats get upset because the dogs are howling.
Yusuf carries her through the normal-looking door from the waiting room and down a hallway, into a sterile operating theater with linoleum tiles and a window in one wall that opens into a neighboring office. There are machines with tubes and digital readouts mounted on poles that stand on wheeled crossbars, and a flat shelf that runs the length of the room with an old CD player on it. There is a huge flat stainless table bolted into the tile right in the middle of the room, where Yusuf puts her down and stands behind her and grips the table on either side of her body with his big hands, as though he is going to rip it out of the floor if anybody does anything to her except deliver her baby. She leans back into him and screams again.
What do you want me to say? It hurts, a lot, more than anything has ever hurt anyone.
It never stops.
When it does stop, though, there are literally babies and kittens together, and it is cutest thing on record. Or the kittens are cute. The baby looks kind of red and scrunched, but he is also the most beautiful person who ever lived, like if God was a baby. The vet makes them swear on the Holy Bible—he actually produces a Bible, from inside a desk somewhere—never to tell anyone—anyone—what he’s done there today. One of the grad students asks how he’s going to write about the experience that way and the vet just says, “Consider it a practicum” in a very dry way, and the other two grad students chortle knowingly and go off to calm down the frightened cats and the enthusiastic dogs.
There is banging. The vet gets up to answer the door, which he has locked, obviously, and it is a man from the Lebanese restaurant and butcher down the street, who has heard the screaming. He literally forces his way into the office with his belly and then charges back to the makeshift maternity ward, where sit every last one of the bath towels in a blood-soaked heap, and Maria, on the table, nursing the baby, at which point one of the grad students comes back in and announces that the ambulance won’t be there for an hour. The doctor curses him with a string of Cantonese that makes everyone in the room flinch, despite no one else understanding what he’s saying, even though Yusuf is swearing up, down and sideways that he will protect the vet from anyone who tries to harm him.
Yusuf turns to face down the intruder and recognizes him. The man starts to talk very fast to Yusuf in Syriac and then runs out the front door. Yusuf grabs Maria’s hand and they whisper to each other for several minutes in their own relational argot (Engrabiol? Spanglamaic?) while the grad students talk about what it all means. The dogs have more or less chilled out. The cats are nursing grudges. There is a moment of peace.
It is a good moment.
Then fourteen, count ‘em, Lebanese men troop into the animal shelter, each bearing a leg of lamb or a lamb chop or ground lamb paste, and they all start talking at once, in Syriac and English, about whose fault this is, and how shameful it is that their baby is born in a place like this, and who is this boy from their country who has no place to take his wife, and what it all means. Then a few minutes later their wives show up and start yelling at all the men.
The baby does not cry.
The grad students try to find presents for it. One has a brand new bottle of Green Irish Tweed; another has an old silver dollar in his wallet; the third has some really nice artisanal patchouli oil. They present them to Maria and Yusuf with great ceremony.
Somebody puts on some Queen.
On old iron stilts on the roof of the building, in flickering neon, is a bright yellow star.
Above that, who knows?