– Story by Mubanga Kalimamukwento –
Honourable Mention in the Dreamers Creative Writing Contest: Stories of Migration, Sense of Place and Home
I’m crammed in with forty-nine other pairs of feet, shackled in steel. It’s kinda like a reverse Oreo of Forest Park, Detroit: all cracker-white walls, ceilings, and floors, brimming with chocolate faces, nothing like home.
We’re all waiting on the judge to waltz in and decide from the looks of us if we’re worth the shiny card. In my mind, I’m scrambling at a prayer, trying to snatch words I haven’t recited for thirty years, but, times erased what was once glued to my mind like peanut butter to bread. Now I have to pry the words out, calm my racing heart, press my droopy lids together before I can pray, Hail Mary, Full of Grace.
I stare down, past the graying beard hugging my face, to my chest of frizzy hairs, where a blue rosary has hung since 1988, and beg the beads to guide the angelic salutation back to me. Nothing.
The AC is blasting winter in the middle of spring, but from the wet patches on our orange jumpsuits and the stench of sweat, it’s kinda like July in here instead of mid-March.
The clock says it’s a quarter to nine, fifteen minutes to go. There are four cops poised up front, three disguised in gray suits and one in a black T-shirt instead of the navy and white.
I dig for the prayer again, recalling my mother’s husky voice saying, the last time she saw me: “Kopaila, mwanangu.” Pray, my child. And for a moment, I’m a kid again, kneeling on the rough floor of our room in Kanyama Compound, saying the Hail Mary. But when I open my eyes, I’m still here, next to the bright flag of a country I’m trying to claim as my own.
I remember the other times I’ve tried to pray.
October 1996, holding my breath outside St. Joseph’s while my wife Mary was in labor with our twins.
Boxing Day 2015, outside the Coat Factory in Harper Woods, when I found myself in a crossfire between rival gangs.
Twenty-seven years old, standing on the porch, stammering as I asked Mary’s father for his only daughter’s hand in marriage.
The last one helps me find my gap-toothed smile, one I thought I had lost somewhere in the two-something years I’ve been caged. It plants a hope that maybe, Mary and the girls are waiting on the other side of the wooden doors, to go home with me and forget the last two years ever happened.
“What are you smiling for?” barks a muscular man in black, dragging me back to reality.
I raise my head to glare at him, a curse kissing my lips with the tip of my tongue, but words will only land me in more trouble, so, I snap my trap closed.
He smirks, brushes his smooth fingers over the gun on his hip, and puffs up, stretching the words etched in white on his black T-shirt: POLICE ICE.
The Lord is with thee.
For six hundred and seventy-seven days I’ve grumbled about the snail-like pace of the proceedings. For twenty-two months, I sneered inwardly each time I was told to repeat my particulars, ‘for the record’: “Cheelo Mainza. Zambian. Born October 27 1964.”
But, now that the day is finally here, all my groanings have dissolved into a deathly silence, my thoughts, a muddled mixture of the half-truths and lies I’ll tell—my life in five
minutes or less.
I have a wife and two children who depend on me emotionally and financially.
I fear prosecution in my home country.
I volunteer at the animal rescue shelter.
The United States has been my home for over thirty years.
In Zambia, I’ll face discrimination due to my tribal background.
Until my arrest for skipping a red light two years ago, I had lived a life free of crime. I almost hear Mary nagging me to drive more carefully.
Paid my bills.
8.50. On any other Friday, I would be at the construction site on Woodward Avenue, dragging on a Slims when my supervisor wasn’t looking. Now, it’s all I can do not to reach up and force the hands of the clock to still.
Instead, I scan the faces around me, as solemn as mourners in a graveyard.
Across from me is the scrunched-up face of a chocolate-skinned woman, coughing and wringing her wrinkled hands, her mane of curls damp with sweat.
Behind her, a man is muttering to himself, bobbing his head back and forth toward his stubby fingers pressed together in prayer. His face is crumpled and red.
To his left is a gaunt man, sweat dripping into his open palms; he catches me looking at him and I dart my eyes downward, suddenly aware of my body, vibrating to the rhythm of my heart.
08.55. A door opens, letting another guard in. He carries with him the rich aroma of freshly ground coffee, jarring me with the memory of walking past the carousels of Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport back in April of ’88. With that, I picture the other things I’ve learned to love: the colors of fall—the leaves transforming from lush green to burnt orange, peppering the tarred roads golden; a deceptive sun, that glowed over the streets of white in winter and chilled the bones instead of warmed.
I’m craving to finger the cross on my rosary.
“Look up, boy!” spits the ICE man.
“Yes, sir,” I say, folding my knuckles into fists.
Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
It’s 09.00 when the judge walks in; even the chains around our ankles shut up. The courtroom is a vacuum to the humming sounds of Michigan, which seep in through a lone window on my left.
An ambulance wailing in the distance.
A dog barking.
The bass from a car stereo.
A police siren.
The ‘ping’ of train doors closing.
Tires screeching to a halt.
A screaming child.
Holy Mary, Mother of God.
She sits and nods at us to do the same. We know the drill.
The first to be called is a babe in the back row. She shuffles to the podium to make her case.
“Raise your right hand,” says one of the suited men.
“Levante a sua mão direita,” follows the interpreter in Portuguese.
So, my language class at Macomb Community College wasn’t for nothing, after all.
From her thin lips emerges a whimper—begging, grinding English and Portuguese into one mushed-up plea. She appears to have aged in the wait. As though her terror is streaking her auburn hair silver where the white light of the room hits the bun on top of her head.
“Obrigado,” she says, kneeling, raising both hands. Please. Almost inaudibly as she moves farther from the microphone.
“Raise your right hand!”
She does so as she stands, without waiting for the interpretation.
Her rap is read out to her, translated, and then, after a forever of Portuguese words, racing the English ones, at 09.45, the judge speaks: “On your own admission, you entered this country illegally and had sought to normalize your status. Your child is an American citizen, but you aren’t, and you cannot ride on the tails of her legality to legitimize your stay.” The judge looks up, something flashing across her eyes—pity, I decide.
“Meu Deus!” wails the woman, collapsing into sobs as she plods out of the courtroom, making all my fears real with each step. My God!
Panic shoots through me, paralyzing everything but my thoughts.
I’ll miss my daughters’ college graduations.
I won’t see them get married.
Mary won’t follow me.
She won’t survive there.
The next person rises from amid the crowd and swaggers to the podium, a gold tooth shining in his mouth. His jumpsuit is too large on his frame, and his right arm won’t stop shaking, in spite of his defiant gait. He stares down the judge, refusing to bend, even as she reads the verdict: “Deportation ordered.”
I guess it’s going down.
A girl rises and glides to the front, kinda like she’s in a ball gown and not jail gear.
No, she shakes her head, she doesn’t need an interpreter. Yes, she understands what that means.
“Very well.” The judge nods, turning to the pages on her desk.
The woman scopes the judge for a moment, her eyes glistening, ready to cry, but when she parts her lips to speak, she says, “It’s okay, let me go!”
A murmur cuts through the hushed courtroom and stirs in me a brittle envy that tears at my throat. I watch in shock as she is led out of the room, gliding on those invisible stilettos, and I wish I could demand the same thing. But, the wish dies before it can land on my tongue.
Pray for us sinners.
The next woman to go up front could be my sister but for the shock of blond hair that frames her ebony face. Even her walk, slow but steady, reminds me of my own before the silver chains. Her accent, saying s as a z, shifts me back home before this shitty dream began.
And when I squeeze my eyes shut, I’m ten again, racing wire cars along a dusty street, against gusts of wind; then I’m twelve, in my mother’s kitchen, inhaling the sweet aroma of boiled fresh maize; the next I’m in a slippery guava tree, biting into the near-rotting whitefleshed guava in March. I’m in Kanyama Market, selling roasted groundnuts after school with my brother; and then, I’m a pimply teenager, standing at the unnamed street corner all day to whistle at girls, and then I’m back here, staring at the blonde shrug off the ICE man when he tries to lead her out.
“Cheelo Mainza,” says the judge, emphasizing the second e in my first name, the way all other Americans have done since I came here. I stand anyway and lumber to the podium.
Now and at the hour of our death.
I bore through my white sneakers, clench and unclench my toes in a dance with my fingers. Bracing myself for the fifteen-hour flight back to Zambia.
Who’ll meet me?
What will my siblings think?
How would I explain my silence?
Why the skype calls had stopped.
Why they no longer received a hundred dollars through Western Union on the 15th of the month.
And will they understand me, now that I swallow the ds and ts in my words and say each sentence like it’s a question.
“Raise your right hand!”
I do, then ramble out the words I’ve waited twenty-two months to say: “My name is Cheelo Mainza.” The second e rolls off easy like I mean it. “I moved to the United States when I was twenty-four, in April 1988, on a visitor’s visa.”
The judge is scribbling furiously—the verdict, not my words, but I continue anyway.
“I didn’t leave because my uncle fell ill and needed my care.” I look up to make eye contact through my lie; she doesn’t look up. “Since then, I’ve married and have two daughters who’re now twenty-two and studying at Wayne State University. I’m…I was a construction worker at…”
“I’ve heard the facts,” she interjects, and a buzzing starts in my head; her lips move, but I hear nothing until: “you’ve satisfied the requirements to be permitted to stay in the United States of America.”
“We’re adjourned for lunch,” announces the judge.
The ICE man glowers at the judge and then at me before he stomps to free me.
I turn to face the exit, letting relief run in tears across my face. Then with each step, the full prayer swims back to mind, spilling out as sobs. “Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
I shiver when I step outside; Mary isn’t there. It’s a weekday, I reason, she must be at work, even though it’s the holidays and public schools are closed. Still, I smile, a real one this time, never happier to feel that deceptive white sun, in the middle of a blue sky, chilling instead of warming my bones.
About the Author – Mubanga Kalimamukwento
Mubanga is a Zambian storyteller, lawyer and mother of two. Her first novel, The Mourning Bird, is shortlisted for the Dinaane Debut Fiction Award, formerly the European Union Award. She’s a Hubert Humphrey (Fulbright) Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Advocates of Human Rights, Two Sisters Writing and Publishing and the Eunia Review. She’s also a Young African Leadership Initiative Fellow whose work can be found on: https://www.facebook.com/UtushimiTwandi/, https://twitter.com/UtushimiTwandi and https://mubangakalimamukwento.com/.
Read all the winning stories and poems from the 2019 Dreamers Writing Contest: Stories of Migration, Sense of Place and Home.
Did you like this story piece by Mubanga Kalimamukwento? Then you might also like: