He awoke, startled. Framed by utter night the figures 2:54 beamed at him. His ancient fan whirred weakly somewhere, vainly churning the stale air of his quarters.
The doorbell rang. Again, Jake supposed.
He put on some clothes, put a hand through his overlong hair and stepped out of his room onto the moonlit courtyard, carefully locking the door behind him. He shuffled barefoot across the rough concrete toward the alley door.
It was a woman, a girl really, and she was very pregnant. She looked at Jake through a veil of black hair and said nothing. He ushered her in, grabbing the clipboard where biographical data of new guests was recorded. She waddled through the door and sat at one of the tilted, wooden tables of the comedor, just beneath a mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Jake shut and locked the door behind her.
Small and dark-skinned, her features would have been frail. Were it not for the pregnancy she would have been slim, too. She said that her name was Maria Teresa Rivas Flores. She was born in El Tesoro, Honduras on July 15th, 1976. That made her nineteen years old, but Jake knew that dates and names changed like the weather among the destitute; whatever suits the occasion. She looked younger than nineteen.
Her pregnancy was the one thing certain about her. Since she was no more than five feet tall it appeared that she was about to give birth to some monstrous thing that would split her in two.
“Have you ever been here before?” Jake asked in slow Spanish.
She remained silent for a moment, looking at the floor, as if in a daze. She had actually failed to ever look him in the eye since he opened the door. He was about to ask her the question again when she responded.
“When were you here?” The questions were standard. Checked against house records, the answers aided in discovering if the person had been thrown out for something like drinking, which resulted in being thrown out for six months, or fighting or using drugs, both of which resulted in banishment.
As Jake noted this on his clipboard, his stomach turned violently with the diarrhea that he couldn’t shake. As he waited out the cramp, a drop of sweat rolled down the slope of his nose and splattered the word ‘diciembre’. Suddenly she was touching him, her hand on his sweaty, trembling fingers that gripped the pen.
“Estas enfermo.” You are ill.
When he looked up, she was staring at him. For a moment Jake stared back. Her face was marvelously unaffected by the pregnancy; thin and brown with a clear complexion. Her eyes were large and indian black. She didn’t smile.
The moment ended when a fly, buzzing fiercely, darted into Jake’s ear. Sandra and his bowels were forgotten as he swatted the fleeing insect. When he looked back at her, she was finally smiling.
“One more question,” he announced, smiling as well, his stomach settling. “Why have you come to Casa Maria?”
Her smile faded. “My patrona fired me because I was too pregnant. I cleaned her house and cared for her children.”
Jake made a notation, nodding. He had heard many excuses for losing the same job. Sometimes they were true, sometimes the girl had stolen or the wife thought her husband had found their servant too attractive.
Jake left her in the comedor and went to fetch her some sheets and a pillow from the laundry room. Once in the volunteers building he became curious and, instead of getting bedclothes for the girl, he trotted down the hall to the office, where the records were kept in an old shoe box on the director’s desk.
He rifled through the index until he found a three-by-five card titled “Rivas Flores, Maria Teresa.” She hadn’t lied about her name, apparently. The front of the card carried basic data. She had been born on the first of August 1978, and so had just turned seventeen. He took her lie in stride and didn’t stop to ponder her motives. The people who came through Casa Maria sometimes seemed to lie for no reason or simply for the sake of lying. Jake was beginning to think that it was a form of protection; concealing your true identity, name or age. These people had virtually no possessions. Possibly this moved them to guard knowledge of themselves, the last thing that could be taken from them. In fact, for all he knew, the name was a lie; a false name that she had memorized for shelters. Or, perhaps, she had lied the first time and was now telling the truth. Or she had lied both times.
Jake flipped her card over to see the entry date. She had come to the house on December 17th, 1994. He read the explanation of her arrival.
It was a brief note. He read it a few times before putting the card back. He grimaced as his stomach churned again. He sat down and absently clutched his abdomen with one hand and wiped sweat from his brow with the other. After a minute he remembered the bedclothes and stood before heading out of the office towards the laundry room.
Scenes relentlessly coalesced in his mind, one after the other. Like a man bleeding to death he could not stop the flow of images caused by the note on her entry card. He saw the menacing faces of the men in a dark alley at night, hovering over her. There was no sound in the fantasy. At the end, men walked out into the intermittent light of a flickering street lamp, the knees of their pants smeared with dirt, their crotches stained with blood.
Jake found her just where he had left her, sitting by the door, as silent and still as something dead. She looked briefly at him, then at the sheets, then away. He explained to her how to go up the stairs and into the women’s dormitory. She said gracias, took the pillow and bed linen and awkwardly ascended the stairs. Walking towards his room down below Jake stopped and turned to watch her reach the top of the stairs. She glanced at him before stepping carefully into the shadows of the dormitory.
Jake retired to his own room and went back to sleep, adding his dreams to the others, good and bad, that welled up out of the rooms and dormitories like water evaporating.