Gift of God

By Ron Singer

At thirty-four, I’ve hit the jackpot, a five-figure advance for my first book! “Five?” you sneer. Hey, I’m not a serial writer of serial-killer thrillers. Nor am I about to quit my day job as a Special Ed. teacher. And who knows? This job could become the basis for Book #2. But, as my own H.S. Latin teacher would quip, “That’s putting Descartes before Horace.”

Not only was the amount of the advance inadequate – 10K – the terms were sobering. As my agent put it in a text (translated):

 

Hey, Bob.

Good news (fairly), a 10K advance from Carnivore, one of the 27 publishers I pitched your book to. Remember them? The small outfit in Omaha? “No Fat, No Gristle. Just Books!”

Before you run out and spend the money, however, you should read the fine print (contract attached). The gist is that, after Carnivore covers costs, including the 10K, you get 15% of sales. As I said when I took the book on, “This could sell, in which case you could make some real money.” But, if I were you, I wouldn’t count those chickens yet!

 

I took her advice, even to the point of not spending $100 to replace my worn-out shoes. To give you an idea of the kind of person I am, these are the shoes worn by many restaurant and hospital workers, people who, like me, are on their feet all day. I believe the most common epithet for them (the shoes) is “sensible.”

As for the book, the title says it all: GO TO THE HEAD OF THE CLASS, A SLACKER’S PROGRESS. “Oh no, not another memoir!” Let me try to disarm that gibe by quoting from the Preface:

 

This is a story of unmerited redemption. As a sixteen-year-old, to cite one among many mortifying experiences, I was escorted, falling down drunk, from the premises of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My ejection was caused by having glugged the entire contents of a pint bottle of bourbon while simultaneously contemplating the Rembrandt masterpiece, “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer.”…

 

Nowadays, cold sober, I am a Language Arts teacher in a four-person team at a middle school in the south Bronx. In addition to their special learning needs, my thirty-two wards labor under handicaps that include second-language interference, and the psychological burdens inflicted by our current political leader’s relentless attack on the foreign born (which almost all of my students are)…

 

How, you ask, did I get from Point A to Point B? This is not the story of a heartwarming conversion experience. None of my friends died, none emerged from our youthful excesses as hopeless wrecks. Nor did I get religion, or dry out in Alcoholics Anonymous. No, my own reform was triggered by a sequence of events much less predictable and yet, in its own way, at least as dramatic as any of the above…

 

In the weeks after receiving my agent’s text, although I only shared the good news with a few of my closest friends, it seemed as if the whole world knew. For instance, a few days after returning the signed contract (and not buying the shoes), I got a note from the Managing Agent of my building, informing me that they would not be reimbursing me for a leak in my apartment which I had had fixed. To quote his pithy explanation, “To qualify for re-imbursement, you would need to have employed a licensed plumber, which you did not. Therefore…” That’s what I get for trying to save my fellow shareholders a few dollars! Doesn’t the M.A. know what “co-op” means?

Of course, that note may just have been a coincidence, but other communications were more obviously the fruits of my sudden access to fortune. These included offers from sharks who prey on lottery and lawsuit winners; appeals in a newly fawning tone from charities and political orgs; letters from people I could not remember ever having known, calling in favors I could not remember ever having incurred; heartbreaking solicitations from long-lost friends and relatives; threatening notices from collection agencies; offers from banks and credit-card providers that were too good to refuse; and semi-literate solicitations from fictitious entities in the poor world, to the effect that I would be guaranteed a windfall, simply by remitting the sum of …

Worst of all, I received a dire appeal from the brother of one of my own students. This came in the form of a long, handwritten letter, sent by snail mail to my school address. Anticipating that the letter’s many errors might make me sound like a racist, I silently correct them:

 

Dear Mr. “Bob” Shepard,

I believe you are the teacher of my brother, Raimundo Suarez. I am Emiliano, age seventeen. The reason I am writing this letter is that my parents don’t know English, and Ray would be too embarrassed. Yes, this is a letter requesting monetary assistance. Please don’t throw it away, it is very important to us, even a life-and-death matter!

Could you find it in your kind heart (as Raimundo has told us you have) to grant to my family a loan of a certain sum? This sum is $500.00, which I know is a lot of money, but which we will work very hard to re-pay you.

The money will be used to engage the services of a lawyer to fight the deportation proceedings that the government has begun against Raimundo! The notice they sent us says that the reason (as far as I can understand it) is that he was not born not in this country, but in the Dominican Republic (“D.R.”), and that my parents have lived here for a long time without doing what is necessary to make the family’s status legal. I did not really understand the details of this letter, but it also said something about the difference between what they referred to as the “DACA” and something called “The Dream Act.”

The lawyer, whom we met through our cousin, Jaime Sosa, himself a U.S. citizen, said we could beat the deportation, but the cost would be $500, the sum already mentioned. This lawyer also said the money must be delivered in cash to his office, which is 74-11 82nd Street, Jackson Heights, Queens.

If you can find it in your heart to advance this sum to us, we will be forever grateful. Please reply asap, because Ray is due in court in less than one month’s time. If you can bring the $500, I will meet you in front of the lawyer’s office, at a time convenient for you, possibly in the evening. His office is very close to a stop on the #7 subway train.

Bless you, sir, even for reading this lengthy letter! I hope to receive your reply a.s.a.p.

Your faithful student’s brother,

Emiliano Z. Suarez

 

One reason I found the letter touching is that Raimundo is one of my favorite students. A good-natured thirteen year-old, he typically responds to a question by throwing his cowlick back off his eyes, licking his pencil, and producing, in tentative, broken English, what is usually a correct answer. He calls me “Sir.”

The letter also evoked an episode from my own past. Fifteen years ago, when I was a nineteen year-old sophomore at a small, second-tier liberal arts school in New England, I engineered what may have been the most outrageous of the many pranks for which I was notorious. It involved moving the grand piano of a prestigious fraternity – they had not invited me to join – onto the lawn behind their building, via large French doors, and then filling the piano with chicken manure, purchased at a local farm-supply store.

This was obviously not a solo prank. Also involved in lugging the piano and manure bags onto the lawn, at 3 a.m. Friday morning of Homecoming Weekend, were five other students, including a combined Pre-Med/Liberal Arts major from Nigeria named Jeremiah Ogochukwu. “Ogochukwu” means “Gift of God” in Igbo, Jerry’s first language.

Despite our inebriated state, we had to do this job silently, neither stumbling nor laughing. Even so, the long and short of it was that we were caught. A presumably insomniac professor, out walking his pooch, spotted us and called Security. After we had been apprehended and separately interrogated, punishment was meted out.

To quote the Assistant Dean of Students, himself a recent graduate of the College, “Since none of you clowns is smart enough to cough up the name of the joker whose brilliant idea this was, you’re all getting the same punishment.” This was suspension, without a pro-rated tuition refund, for the remaining semester-and-a-half of the school year. Not to mention that we had to pay the costs of having the piano cleaned and fumigated.

That was fine with me and, I imagine, with my four American fellow-slackers. But it was not fine with poor Jerry Ogochukwu, who, soon after the suspensions took effect, lost his student visa and was deported. As he said when we were shamefacedly seeing him off at Logan Airport, in Boston, “At least, now, I get to enjoy my mother’s pounded yam again.”

As it happened, Jerry’s homecoming took place in 2003, six months after Nigeria attempted to resolve its endemic unrest through a Presidential election. As usual, the voting triggered an outbreak of protracted ethnic violence. Whether or not Jerry somehow fell victim, I never learned, because he never replied to my communications, and later, in the Internet era, I was unable to identify anyone on social media who sounded like him.

In other words, by the time I received the plea from Raimundo Suarez’s brother, I had harbored for fifteen years a sharp sense of guilt over the deportation and – who knows, possible death – of another innocent victim. This episode was a turning point in my life (and Chapter Four, in my book).

 

After wasting the weekend pondering Emiliano’s plea, I arranged to have coffee with Sarah Blau, the Social Studies teacher on our team. Sarah is also a volunteer for the National Sanctuary Coalition, an organization that assists immigrants. (Like me, she is in her thirties, but married, with two children. I am still unmarried, and currently without a partner. I explain all this to forestall any idea that the story is about to take a romantic turn.)

After school on Tuesday, when we were settled at a back-corner table of a local café with our coffees at the ready, I thanked Sarah for meeting me and showed her the letter. A furrow crossed her brow.

“Well, Bob,” she said, with a sigh, “this is complicated.” Sarah’s speech is measured, even slow. “First of all, DACA is not the same as The Dream Act. DACA defers deportation of children illegally brought to the U.S. The Dream Act permanently legalizes their status. Both laws are now in limbo, because the current administration is doing its damnedest to thwart them.”

While I fidgeted with my spoon, she scanned the rest of the letter. “Hmm! Very interesting. Assuming you’re willing to pony up, can you really afford the $500?” I told her about my advance, and she congratulated me. “Even so,” she said, her brow furrowing again, “if I were you, I’d be very careful. I mean, I like Raimundo, too. He’s a sweet boy, tries really hard. But, as I’m sure you know, there are lots of clever scams out there.”

I thanked her again and said I would try to follow her advice. When we had finished our coffees, I grabbed the check. As we parted on the sidewalk, she said, “Let me know what you decide to do, Bob. I’m really curious.”

After a restless night and a hard day’s teaching, on Wednesday evening I replied to the letter –in the affirmative. I sent my reply to the return address on the envelope, which I knew was the Suarez residence. In another back-and-forth, also by letter, Emiliano and I agreed to meet at the lawyer’s office, at 8:30 the following Thursday evening. I did not inform Sarah.

 

After climbing down from the subway platform, the first thing I noticed was that the storefront office was shuttered. Then, seemingly out of the shadows, came a tall, slender young man who I assumed was Emiliano. I was surprised by the fact that he wore much flashier and more expensive-looking clothes than any I had ever seen on Ray. A little shamefaced about my act of charity, I did not want to prolong the transaction. So, after we had introduced ourselves, shaken hands, and agreed that the office was obviously closed for the night, at his suggestion I wordlessly handed over an envelope containing five $100 bills. Without counting the money, he thanked me profusely. We shook hands again and walked off in opposite directions.

 

After spending most of the ensuing weekend second-guessing myself, on Monday I ate lunch with Joan Ligori, a mid-level administrator at the school. (Like Sarah, Joan is married. I don’t know whether she has children.)

“Oh, no, Bob!” she said, when I told her what I had done. “Not you, too!” She took a deep breath. “Fasten your seatbelt! Emiliano Suarez is an eighteen year-old serial scam artist who has served time in a juvenile detention facility. I found this out last year after he pulled exactly the same scam on me! Same amount, even! Like you, too, I fell for it because I knew and admired Ray and the rest of his hard-working, law-abiding family. Emiliano turned out to be the glaring exception. (Is ‘black sheep’ still politically correct?)”

“Did you report the scam to the police?”

“Well . . . I decided not to. I mean, I could afford the loss, and I didn’t want to hurt the family. I did try to get Emiliano to meet me again, so I could demand a refund. Ha! I left several vaguely threatening messages on the Suarez’s answering machine, but he never called back.”

 

Lunch with Joan took place the day before yesterday. (The school lunch on Mondays is chicken potpie – not bad.) It was time to decide what to do. Should I go to the police? Tell the parents? Ask Raimundo? I imagined a conversation in the classroom during passing time, when the room is normally empty.

“Uh, Ray, I need to ask you something.”

“Sir?” He would look nervous.

“Has your family received a letter lately from the Immigration authorities?”

He would look alarmed. “No, no one has mentioned such a letter. Why do you ask?”

“Has Emiliano mentioned anything about hiring a lawyer?”

The boy’s puzzled expression would be sufficient response. I did wonder if Emiliano’s lie would hold up. If the parents noticed that he had a lot of extra money, I suppose he could tell them he had won the lottery, or something.

After more handwringing, I decided to follow Joan’s example, for the same reason: fear of hurting the family. Sarah had mentioned a case in which an undocumented immigrant had been stopped for a routine traffic check. Since he was using a friend’s license, the police reported the stop to the Immigration authorities, and the poor guy wound up being deported.

No, I would swallow my loss and hope that, at least, it would repair my karma for the deportation I had caused. Come to think of it, maybe Emiliano had read about that episode in the manuscript of my book, which Ray had borrowed after I boasted to his class about the advance.

A few weeks passed. Then, the other day, I received a text from Adebayo Ashiwaju, another Nigerian from College days. ‘Bayo, who had not been a participant in the piano escapade, now lived with his family outside Harrisburg, PA, and worked as Regional Sales Rep for a big-pharm company. His text was a response to the question I had asked him repeatedly over the years, whether he knew what had become of Jerry. Again, I translate:

 

Dear Shepard,

Greetings to you, my friend! Through the Old Boys’ network, I have finally obtained an answer to your question, “What ever became of our erstwhile fellow-student, Jerry Ogochukwu?” I will summarize this interesting story:

It seems that a family rift during the 2003 troubles led to a name change. “Jeremiah Ogochukwu” became “Jeremiah Olubunmi,” which, in my own Yoruba tongue, has a similar meaning to the original: “Gift of God.”

When conditions were finally normalized, Jerry was able to complete his medical studies at the University of Ibadan, in our home country. He has since risen to become Managing Director of a Catholic teaching hospital in Aba, an important city in his own eastern sector. By now, Dr. Jeremiah Olubunmi is what we Nigerians call “An Important Somebody.”

 

After all those years! What a relief! Even so, I’m not sure the good news means I should try to resume contact with Dr. Ogochukwu/Olubunmi. Maybe, he still resents what happened. Or maybe, by now, he has completely forgotten me.

Never mind! The rush of recent events has produced at least a few good results:

 

1. I just ordered the shoes,

 

2. leaving me with $9,400 of my advance,

 

3. plus the idea for a new book, after all – or, at least, a story,

 

4. for which I may soon have additional material, since midterm reports and parent conferences are coming up,

 

5. and, finally, I am about to text Katie Khokhar, an attractive, unmarried colleague (Math & Science), to ask her out.

___

“Gift of God” is one in a series of poems and stories that Ron Singer (www.ronsinger.net) has recently written in response to the current global wave of xenophobia. Singer also volunteers for the New Sanctuary Coalition, a group that helps immigrants. His fiction has previously appeared, e.g., in The Brooklyn Rail, diagram, Evergreen Review, Home Planet News, and Word Riot. (Four Pushcart nominations.) His 11th & 12th books are due from Unsolicited Press. The Promised End (2019) is a story collection; Gravy (2020), a mixture of genres. An earlier book, Uhuru Revisited: Interviews with Pro-Democracy Leaders (Africa World Press/Red Sea Press, 2015) is available in libraries across the world


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