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Authors: Francine Prose

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BOOK: My New American Life
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“Twelve years,” Mister Stanley said glumly.

“How time flies!” said Don. “Bill Clinton's first year in office, Good Guy Stan lets himself be lured down from his ivory tower by these headhunters—don't you love that expression?—who claim they're about to start a new program, a socially conscious Grameen-bank kind of thing, small loans to small businesses. Help the little guy. Good deeds and good money. Who could resist? Except that the good deeds part never happened, as I remember warning you. Remember what I said? I said, Lie down with the big dogs and you get up with the big fleas—in a corner office! So now you get to foreclose on the same little guys you thought you were going to help, and even now, even now some part of you still believes that things will turn around and you'll get to do some—”

“Badgering the witness!” Mister Stanley said.

“Lula,” said Don. “Did Stan ever tell you that the young guys in his office call him the Professor? Did he ever tell you how when we were kids back in Rockaway, the neighborhood bully offered Stan ten bucks, a fortune back then, to steal a beer from the corner store? Stan did it, not so much for the money itself, which trust me his family needed, but because he believed the kid would pay him. Even then Mr. Big Heart thought that people did what they promised. So of course he got caught and his poor dad had to go in and apologize and pay off the owner not to call the cops and—”

“Dad, you stole a beer?” said Zeke. “That is totally cool.”

“I was eight,” Mister Stanley said. “Half your age. A child. I didn't know any better. Tell Lula what
you
did, Don.”

“I tracked down the little bastard bully and beat the crap out of him. From there it was a hop skip and jump to the DA's office, until I got fed up with persecuting the poor and deporting the innocent. My point is, it's never too late to come over, or back, to the side of the angels.”

“You would too, Don,” said Mister Stanley, his pale cheeks pinking with every gulp of wine.

“Would what?” said Don.

“Keep working if it weren't for health insurance. Because you can actually do some good. You're helping people. Like Lula.”


G'zoor
to that,” Lula said. She toasted the air and drained her glass. It was semi-interesting, what Don had said about Mister Stanley, but her attention had been hijacked by Don's client with the broken foot. She hated stories about how if you'd only stopped to pick up that piece of trash or ordered that second cup of coffee, if your Metrocard hadn't failed to swipe, your whole life would have been different. She also hated stories about people being deported and stories about car wrecks. Lula would ask them about Dunia. They would know what to do.

“On second thought,” said Mister Stanley. “I'm not so sure I would keep working without the coverage. Every day I ask myself why I get up in the dark before dawn and drive through the filthy smelly tunnel—for what? To transfer money from one pocket to another? Other people's pockets. And it's all going into the same pocket. Okay, the same five hundred pockets. What if I quit tomorrow? Whose life would it change but mine? Not the guys we turn down for loans, not the families—”

“Hear, hear,” said Don Settebello. “My old friend Stanley discovers the pimply fat face of capitalism.”

“The main thing that will change if you quit,” said Zeke, “is that you won't be able to pay for my college.”

“That won't change,” said Mister Stanley. Then he put his head in his hands.

Don signaled the waiter for another bottle.

Lula said, “Something like that happened when I worked at the restaurant. There was this busboy, Eduardo . . . and I have this friend, Dunia.”

The waiter loomed over Don's shoulder. “Ready to order, sir?”

“If we had menus,” Don said.

The waiter stomped off and returned with a stack of leather-bound tomes. None of the entrees were under forty-five dollars. A hamburger was thirty, but Lula would feel embarrassed ordering a burger here. A plate of home fries—fifteen bucks! Lula knew that the waitstaff had nothing to do with the pricing. Even so, she felt as if they were conspiring to relieve Don of the maximum amount of his hard-earned cash. How odd to find herself on the customers' side of one of those undeclared wars that sometimes broke out between customers and waiters.

Mister Stanley said, “I'll have the rib eye.”

“Me too,” said Zeke.

“Make that three,” said Lula.

“The porterhouse,” Don said. “And I want to hear mine moo.”

A wail went up from Abigail. “What about me? Isn't anyone taking
my
order? Am I not here?”

“What would you like, honey?” Don said. “Order anything you like.”

“You know I'm a vegetarian. Dad, why did we even come here?”

“We have a very fresh swordfish tonight,” the waiter said.

“Is swordfish a vegetable?” Abigail demanded. “Dad, is swordfish a vegetable? Does it have a face or a central nervous system? Because I'd really like to know if it has a face or a central nervous system.”

Lula glanced at Zeke, who seemed delighted by Abigail's courage. Lula sent him a telepathic message. Don't be fooled. You can count on a vegetarian to eat little boys like you for breakfast.

“I'll have the creamed spinach,” Abigail said.

“That's all?” Don gave Mister Stanley a searching look, asking for a ruling on whether Abigail was just messing with his head or if she'd developed a full-blown eating disorder. Mister Stanley shrugged. What did he know about girls?

“Appetizers?” said the waiter. “Sides?”

Defeated by his daughter, Don surrendered to the waiter. He said, “We're in your hands.” Lula wanted to cry out, No!

“We'll bring some appetizers and sides,” said the waiter, ignoring Lula's furious stare.
Ka-ching
, she thought.
Ka-ching
.

Don said, “What's up with that bottle we ordered? Sooner rather than later.”

Mister Stanley put his hand over his glass. “I'm fine. I have to drive the family back to New Jersey.”

The family? Lula was family? Sweet dear Mister Stanley!

“What about you, Lula?” said Don. “I'm not drinking alone, am I?”

Lula raised one eyebrow and nodded. Deal me in.

Don's smile conveyed a loopy familiarity, as if he and Lula had agreed to embark on some joint project. In Lula's experience, the end of that particular project—drinking—was usually sex, but she couldn't tell if that was what was on Don's mind. She'd known it was on Franco's mind, that night when, after La Changita closed, he stood behind her chair and pressed his groin into her back. What a gentleman! How did guys like Don Settebello signal erotic interest? Probably just like other guys, but Lula wasn't sure. Besides which, he was her lawyer. If they had sex, a principled fellow like Don would feel he had to recuse himself from her green card application, which would make having sex with Don a lose-lose situation. Unwelcome thoughts of Alvo crowded into her mind. Or maybe not so unwelcome. Lula picked up her glass and resumed her progress along the road to tipsy well-being.

A convoy of waiters closed in on them, thumping down shrimp cocktails, wooden boards draped with pâté and cured meats, cheeses, pickles, platters of tomatoes ripened in costly winter sunlight, every red slice bundled beneath its own snowy blanket of mozzarella. The plates would not stop coming. There was twice as much as they could eat. Half would go back to the kitchen. The waiters would eat well tonight. As they should, thought Lula.

She helped herself to a shrimp, amazingly firm and fresh and sweet, considering the season. Nauseating, nonetheless. Lula picked up her wine glass and put it down without drinking, glad now that she was sitting so far from Mister Stanley and Don.

Zeke and Abigail stared ahead as if they were at the movies. It was easy to get Abigail's attention, but hard to know what to do with it. Her laundry-bleach blue eyes scared Lula into asking, “How do you like school?”

“My school sucks shit,” said Abigail. “My dad pays thirty grand a year so I can call my teachers by their first names.”

“Every school sucks,” said Lula.

Abigail was having none of it. “You want to know how bad mine sucks? Have you ever read
Macbeth
?”

“I read
Macbeth
,” said Zeke.

Abigail said, “We had to memorize a section of the play and recite it in front of the class, and I did the witches' speech—”

“Obviously,” said Zeke.

“Right? Except that my teacher said I was taking the easy way, because it rhymed, but she'd pass me because I said it with energy and passion. Energy and passion. How gross is that?”

“Extremely gross,” agreed Zeke.

“Scum-sucking bitch.” Abigail screwed up her face and croaked, “Double double toil and trouble.”

Had Don and Mister Stanley heard that? It was not Lula's place to tell her lawyer that his precious little daughter cursed like a Hungarian.

Zeke couldn't stop looking at Abigail. Lula's plate, on which there was one lone shrimp tail, vanished before she had tasted the cheeses and pâtés. Annoyance turned to outrage and then, shockingly, to bereavement. She had missed the cold cuts at her own celebration. Platters of home fries and bowls of creamed spinach signaled the imminent arrival of the meat. It seemed like a mockery to set a bowl of creamed spinach down before Abigail, a separate portion identical to all the other bowls of creamed spinach she could have had, for free. But not for free, not free at all. This was costing Don a fortune.

Deliciousness steamed off Lula's steak, aswim in its pool of blood. Not having fun wouldn't save Don money or bring the cow back to life. It wasn't her fault if Eduardo the busboy and Don's client had been deported. Or if Dunia had disappeared. Lula too could disappear. Enjoy yourself while you can.

The conversation stopped as everyone chewed. Abigail masticated dainty bites of spinach with theatrical distaste. After a while Don Settebello asked everybody how their steak was, and everybody said good. Great.

Don said, “How's the writing going, Lula?”

“Great,” said Lula. The same word she'd used for her steak. The last thing she'd written was, “Does a leaf fall in New Jersey if no one is there to see?” The day the Albanian guys showed up. She hadn't written one sentence since. She hated lying to her journal. It was the one place in her life reserved for unadulterated truth. But if she wrote the truth, she would have to mention how much time she'd wasted lately thinking about Alvo. If she couldn't write about that, best not to write at all. It would spare her the dilemma of how much to say or not, how much to admit to herself about being the kind of person who would hide a stranger's gun in her trusting boss's house.

She said, “I'm writing a short story now. It's about this government bureau that analyzes people's dreams, and everyone has to report their dreams, and they're on the lookout for any dreams that might indicate that someone is plotting against the state.” Lula held her breath. Neither Don nor Mister Stanley showed any sign of recognizing the plot of a novel by Ismail Kadare.

“How does it end?” asked Mister Stanley.

Don said, “What are you thinking, Stan? Never ask a writer a question like that.”

“I don't know yet,” Lula said.

“See?” said Don Settebello. “I hate to imagine what would happen if that story got out. Can you picture FBI agents shaking down therapists?”

“Hell, yeah,” said Zeke. “That shrink Dad sent me to would bend over for anybody with a badge.”

Don said, “I never trusted those prying bastards, all that money changing hands, a whole economy based on helping the comfy middle class deal with their comfy middle-class problems.”

“Not always so comfy,” said Mister Stanley. “Ginger's doctor seemed like he was doing her a lot of good until she decided he wasn't.”

Don said, “After the divorce, when I had that little fling with a younger, not
that
much younger woman, Betsy said it would impact Abigail. But I don't think it has. Do you? Anyway, that's all I need, some nervous-nelly doctor blabbing my secrets to some FBI goons who could then spread the lie that the country's ballsiest immigration lawyer is in treatment for pedophilia. It's sort of like what Lula said. I mean, the plot of her story. I bet Dick Cheney insists on personally vetting the videotapes of sessions with hot young starlets in therapy for sex addiction.”

“Poor Lula,” said Mister Stanley. “We shouldn't joke like this around her until she's got her green card.”

“Who's joking?” said Don.

Mister Stanley said, “Let's leave her with a few illusions about the country where she's trying to stay.”


If
I get my green card,” Lula couldn't help saying.

“You will,” Don said. “Trust me. Meanwhile you can think anything you want. But just to be on the safe side, you should probably watch your mouth. Do I sound paranoid? I
am
paranoid. We'd be insane if we weren't. By the way, how
is
Ginger? Excuse the mental leap.”

“Better, I think,” said Mister Stanley. “She called from Arizona. Only once did she allude to hearing holy messages from the red rocks in some canyon.”

Lula and Zeke exchanged quick looks. Mister Stanley hadn't mentioned that part in the car.

After a silence, Mister Stanley said, “It must be tough for Lula. She sees what's happening to this country. But she comes from a culture where America is God.”

In one corner of Mister Stanley's garage, two John Kerry/John Edwards placards leaned against the wall, and several times Mister Stanley told Lula that he'd donated serious money to get Bush out of office. Lula was impressed by his freedom to say this. She was impressed by the freedom of the American press to tell the world that their vice president accidentally shot his friend in the face. At home, it wouldn't have been accidental. And he would have succeeded. Still, you had to watch out and not criticize, same as anywhere else. You could never predict when Americans, even Mister Stanley and Don, would get all defensive and huffy.

BOOK: My New American Life
5.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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