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Author Bio

imageSpanish translation




Ventana steps off the number 33 bus at 103rd Street and North-west Seventh Avenue in Miami Shores. It's almost 6:00 P.M., and at this time of year the city stays hot and sticky thick till the sun finally sets at 8:00. She walks quickly back along Seventh, nervous about carrying so much cash, thirty-five one-hundred-dollar bills. She doesn't want to pay for the car with a check and then have to wait till the check clears before she can drive it home—no way a used-car dealer who doesn't know her personally will accept a check from a black woman and let her take the goods home before the check clears. She wants the car now, today, so she can drive to work at Aventura tomorrow and for the first time park in the employees' lot and on Sunday after church drive her own damn car, drive her own damn car, to the beach at Virginia Key with Gloria and the grandkids.
      The credit union closed at four so she took the money—one hundred dollars a month secretly saved over nearly three years—out of her account during her lunch break and later in the American Eagle ladies' room stashed the packet of thirty-five bills in her brassiere. She wore a high-necked rayon blouse, even though she knew the day would be hot as Hades and the air-conditioning in the buses would likely be busted or weak. The number 33 at seven o'clock in the morning leaving from her block in Miami Shores to the number 3 in North Miami all the way out to Aventura Mall and then back again over the same route in late afternoon, early in the day or late, air conditioner working or not, it didn't matter, she'd be in a serious sweat just from walking from the bus stop across the long lot to the entrance of the mall and back. And the day was hot from early to late, and she did sweat more than if she wore a sleeveless blouse or T-shirt, but she got through the afternoon with no one at American Eagle Outfitters knowing about the money she was carrying and is relieved now to be walking up Seventh and finally arriving at the gate of Sunshine Cars USA with the money still intact in her bra.
      She's forty-seven years old and for twenty-five of those years has been a legally licensed driver in the state of Florida, but this will be the first car Ventana has ever owned herself. Her ex-husband, Gordon, when she was still married to him leased a new Buick every three years and let her drive it with him riding in the backseat as if she were his chauffeur; her son, Gordon Junior, when he went into the Navy bought a new Camaro with his enlistment bonus and parked it in her driveway and let her drive it while he was at sea until he couldn't afford to insure it anymore and had to sell it; and for a few years her daughter, Gloria, owned an old clunker of a van she let Ventana borrow from time to time to help friends move in or out, but then the finance company repossessed it. In all those years Ventana did not have a car of her own. Until today.
      Well, she really doesn't own it; she hasn't even picked her car out yet. Most of the vehicles for sale by Sunshine Cars USA are out of her price range, but she knows from reading the listings in the Miami Herald that Sunshine Cars USA nonetheless has dozens of what they call pre-owned cars for thirty-five hundred dollars and under: cars with one previous owner, cars with low mileage, cars less than ten years old, cars still shiny and stylish; Tauruses, Avengers, DeVilles, Grand Vitaras, Malibus, Fusions, Cobalts and Monte Carlos. Nearly every day for three years she has stopped on her way to catch the bus in the morning and on her way home at the end of the day and peered through the eight-foot-high iron spiked fence surrounding the lot and checked out the rows of sparkling vehicles for sale. She almost never passed the lot without saying to herself, That Chevrolet wagon looks about right for a woman like me, or, The black Crown Vie is more Gordon's kind of ride, but I could live with it, or, Those SUV type vehicles are ugly, but they safe in an accident. Over the last three years she selected for herself hundreds of pre-owned cars and bought each of them on layaway, and until the car was actually sold off the lot to someone else, in her mind it remained hers. It was a trick she played on herself. It's how she managed to accumulate the thirty-five hundred dollars—pretending each month that she was not saving the money, which is hard to do when you're always short of cash at the end of the month. No, she wasn't saving up to buy a car, she told herself, she was making a one-hundred-dollar layaway monthly payment toward her car, that's what, and if she didn't make her payment on time, she pretended the dealer would sell her car to a customer who had the cash in hand, and all the money she paid on it up to now would be wasted and gone. So she made her payment at the credit union, made it on time. Today, finally, Ventana is going to be the customer who has the cash in hand.
      The Sunshine Cars USA showroom is a peach-colored concrete bunker, windowless on three sides with a large plate glass window facing the street. The exterior walls of the building and the window are decorated with signs that shout, We Work With Any Credit Type! and promise $1,000 DownYou Ride! The spiked fence runs behind the showroom from one corner of the building to the other like a corral for a hundred or more used cars, closing off half the block between Ninety-seventh and Ninety-eighth Streets. Every ten feet droops an American flag the size of a bedsheet waiting for an early evening offshore breeze. 
      Ventana stops in front of the big plate glass window and looks into the dimly lit showroom beyond. A very fat black man in a short-sleeved white guayabera shirt sits behind a desk reading a newspaper. A red-faced white man with a shaved head, wearing a black T-shirt and skinny jeans, talks into his cell phone. Multicolored tattoos swarm up and down his pink arms. Ventana has seen both men many times hanging around the showroom and sometimes strolling through the lot with potential buyers, and though she has never actually spoken with either man, she feels she knows them personally.
      She likes the black man. She believes he's more honest than the white man, who is probably the boss, and decides that she will buy her car from the black salesman, give him the commission, when suddenly a woman is standing beside her on the sidewalk. She's a fawn-colored Hispanic girl half Ventana's size and age. Her lips are puffed up from the injections that skinny white and Latina ladies think make them look sexy, but instead make them look like they got popped in the mouth by their bad boyfriend.
      The girl smiles broadly as if she's known Ventana since their school days together, although Ventana has never seen her before. She says, "Hi, there, missus. You want to drive away with a nice new car today? Or you still just window-shopping? I see you walk by almost every day, you know. Time you took a car out on a test drive, don't you think?"
      "You see me going past?"
      "Sure. Ever since I started here I been seeing you. Time to stop lookin', girl, time to start drivin' your new car."
      "Not a new car. Used car. Pre-owned car."
      "Okay! That's what we got at Sunshine Cars USA, guaranteed pre-owned cars! Certified and warranteed. Not new, okay, but like new! What you got in mind, missus? My name's Tatiana, by the way." The girl sticks out her hand.
      Ventana shakes the hand gently—it's small and cold. "I'm Ventana. Ventana Robertson. I only live two blocks off Seventh on Ninety-fifth, that's why you been seeing me here before. On account of the bus stop at a hundred and third." She doesn't want the girl to think she's already decided to buy herself a car today and is carrying the cash to do it. She doesn't want to look like an easy sale. And she is hoping the fat black
man will come out.
      "Okay, Ventana! That's great. Do you own your place on Ninety-fifth, or rent?"
      "Okay. That's perfect. Married? Live alone?"
      "Divorced. Alone."
      "Okay, that's wonderful, Ventana. And I know you have a steady job that you go to every morning and come home from every night, because I see you coming and going, and that's very good, the steady job. So what's your price range, Ventana? What can I fit you into today?"
      "I'm thinking something like under thirty-five hundred dollars. But I'll look around on my own for a while, thanks. The price tags, they on the cars?"
      "Yes, they sure are! You just go ahead and kick the tires, Ventana. Check over on the far side of the lot, way in the back two rows. We've got a bunch of terrific vehicles right there in your price range. Will you be bringing us a trade?"
      "A car to trade up for the new one."
      "Okay, that's good too. We close at six, Ventana, but I'll be inside if you have any questions or decide you want to take a test drive in one of our excellent vehicles. It's still too hot out here for me. Don't forget, we can work with any kind of credit type. There's all kinds of arrangements for credit readily available through our own financing company. You have a Florida driver's license, right?"
      Ventana nods and walks calmly through the open gate into the lot as if she's already bought and paid for her car, although her legs feel wobbly and she's pretty sure she is trembling, but doesn't want to look at her hands to find out. She knows she's scared, but can't name what she is scared of.
      Tatiana watches her for a few seconds, wondering if she should follow her, the hell with the heat, then decides the woman isn't really serious yet. She strolls back inside the showroom and reports that the woman is a long-term tire kicker, probably a month or more from signing away her first-born, which makes the black man chuckle and the white man snort.
      The black man checks his watch. "Yeah, well, she only got thirty minutes till we outa here."
      Tatiana says, "She'll be back tomorrow. Early, I bet. The girl's decided where she's going to buy, now she just got to figure out what to buy."
      "How much she got to spend?" the black man asks.
      "She's sayin' three-five. I'll start her at five and work up from there."
      "Too low. The '02 DeVille, start her with that. The bronze one. It's listed at nine. Tell her she can drive it home for six. Fifty-nine ninety-nine. Sisters like her, they too old for the Grand Ams but still hot enough to want a Caddy. She got the three-five?"
      "Gonna need financing. Forget the fucking Caddy. Go higher."
      "For sure."
      "Get her into the blue Beemer," the white man says.

VENTANA MAKES HER WAY toward the cars in the far corner of the lot, as instructed. She walks quickly past and deliberately avoids looking at the nearly new cars that she knows she can't afford. She doesn't want her car, when she finds it, to appear shabby and old by comparison, not pre-owned but used. Used up.
      When she gets to the far corner of the lot and walks past the cars that are supposed to be in her price range, most of them look used up. Rusted, scraped, dinged and dented, they seem ready for the junk heap, just this side of the cars sitting on cinder blocks or sinking into the weeds in the front yards of half the houses in her neighborhood, unsolvable mechanical problems waiting to be solved by the miraculous arrival of a pocketful of cash money from a lottery ticket pay-out, which will never come, and the vehicle will be finally sold for junk.
      There is a black 2002 Honda Civic fastback that at first looks good to her, no dents or dings, no rust. The doors are locked, but when she squints against the glare and peers
through the driver's side window she can make out the numbers on the odometer—278,519. End of the line, for sure. The sign in the window says, Retail Price $4950, Special Offer $2950.
      There is a blue 1999 Mercury Grand Marquis with half the teeth in its grille missing, bald tires, torn upholstery, trunk lid dented at the latch so she'll have to tie it closed with wire to keep it from yawning open when she drives it to work. A sign taped to the driver's-side window says, Retail Price $5950, Special Offer $2950.
      Maybe she should go up a notch in price, she thinks. After all, even though they call it a "special offer," it's actually just an asking price, a number where negotiations can begin. That's when she spots a light blue 2002 Dodge Neon with a big yellow sign on the windshield that cheerfully yells, Low Mileage!!! The retail price is $6,950, and the asking price is $3,950. If she offers $3,000, they might settle on $3,500.
      Okay, that's a car to test-drive. But instead of driving just one car, she'll try to find two more, so she can compare three. In very little time she has added a 2002 Hyundai with 87,947 miles, clean body, no dents or rust, good tires, and has found a metallic gray 2002 Ford Taurus that she really prefers over both the Hyundai and the Neon. It's a large four-door sedan with a tan cloth interior, and this car too has a Low Mileage!!! sign, including the actual number of miles, 55,549. It's stodgy and boring, the kind of four-door sedan a high school math teacher or a social worker might own, nowhere near as sleek and borderline glamorous as the Neon and the Hyundai. It'll burn more gas than either, for sure. But the respectability and conventionality of the Taurus suit her. And unlike the Neon and the Hyundai, maybe because of its size, it does not feel used to Ventana; it feels pre-owned. Well cared for. By someone like her.
      She takes another slow walk around the vehicle looking for scratches or dents she might have missed on her first pass, but there aren't any to be seen. When she steps away from the Taurus, intending to take another last look at the Neon and the Hyundai before heading for the showroom, she hears from behind her the low rattling growl of a large animal and, turning, sees a gray dog coming toward her at full speed. It's a thick-bodied pit bull running low to the ground five or more car lengths away and closing fast, eyes yellow with rage, teeth bared, growling, not barking, a dog not interested in merely scaring her and driving her away. It's a guard dog, not a watch-dog, and it wants to attack her, attack and kill her.
      Ventana doesn't like dogs to start with, but this one terrifies her. She scrambles around to the front of the Taurus and climbs up on the hood and on her hands and knees gets up onto the roof of the car. The dog skids to a stop beside the car and circles the vehicle as if looking for a ramp or stairs. Finding none, it tries climbing onto the hood of the Taurus as she has done and falls off, which only increases its rage and determination to get at the woman on the roof of the car, a terrified and confused woman trying desperately not to panic and slip and fall off the car to the ground. "Help!" she cries
out. "Somebody help me! Somebody, come get this dog away from me!"
      She remembers that you aren't supposed to show fear to a dog, that it will only embolden the animal, so she carefully, unsteadily, stands up and folds her arms over her chest and tries to look unafraid of the beast as it circles the car. She wishes she had a gun in her purse. A person is legally entitled to carry a concealed firearm in Florida but she has always said no way she'll own and carry a gun, a mugger will only turn it against her or use it afterward in the commission of some other crime in which a person gets killed. But now, forget all that liberal crap. Now she truly wishes she had a gun to shoot this dog dead.
      She is a long ways from the gate where she came in, but the cars are parked side by side tightly all the way out to the gate so that,jumping from rooftop to rooftop, she might be able to get over to where the Hispanic girl or the black man can hear her cries and call off their vicious dog. She's wearing sneakers, thank the Lord, and has good balance for a woman her age, and it hasn't rained all day and none of the cars appears to have been recently washed, so the metal roofs are not slippery. She slings the strap of her purse over her shoulder and across her chest, tries to calm her pounding heart, counts to ten and jumps from the roof of the Taurus to the roof of the Mercury Grand Marquis next to it.
      The dog sees her land safely on the Mercury and snaps at the air in that direction, forgets about climbing onto the Taurus and races to the front of the Grand Marquis, where he leaps scratching and clawing onto the hood. But once again in his frenzy he fails to gain traction and falls off. She decides to keep moving as fast as she can, before she thinks too much about what will happen if she slips and falls or if somehow the dog manages to get onto the hood of one of the cars and then to the roof so that he too can leap from roof to roof in pursuit of her, surely catching her and ripping into her flesh, pulling her to the ground, where he will kill her. She leaps from the Mercury up and across to a white, high-topped 1999 Jeep Cherokee, from there to a 1997 Ford Expedition, the tallest and widest vehicle in the lot, the safest rooftop, impossible for the dog to get at her up there. She probably should stay there, but she decides to keep
moving, to get to the fence and the gate and somehow attract the attention of one of the people who works for Sunshine Cars USA or somebody walking past on the street who will go inside the showroom and get one of the car people to come out and call off this animal.
      She leaves the safety of the big Ford Expedition and jumps to the slightly lower roof of a dark blue, sporty 2002 Mazda 626 LX, then onto a red 2005 Kia Sportage. Growling and drooling, the dog follows at ground level, not taking his eyes off her for a second. There is no way she can escape him, except by staying up on top of the cars, moving gradually closer to the high fence via the roofs of the fancier, pricier cars, genuinely pre-owned now, not used, Mercedes Benzes, Cadillacs, Lincolns, and cars from more recent years, 2010, 2011, 2012, with lower mileage advertised in the window signs, 22,000 miles, 19,000, 18,000. As the mileage numbers drop, the price tags rise: Retail Price $15999, Special Offer $12999; Retail Price $18950, Special Offer $15950.
      Eventually she arrives at the last row before the fence, and from the roof of a metallic silver 2012 Ford Escape spots the gate three car lengths in front of her, chained shut and padlocked. She looks at her watch; it's six twenty, and she remembers that the Hispanic girl said they close at six. She is trapped in here, caged, imprisoned by a vicious, ugly dog that has nothing in its brain but a burning need to kill her solely because she accidentally entered its territory.
      It occurs to her that she can call Sunshine Cars USA with her cell phone. She can explain her situation to whoever answers and get him to come back to the salesroom and unlock the chain, swing open the gate, put the dog on a leash and lead him away to
wherever his cage is located so she can escape hers. From her perch atop the Ford SUV she can make out the Web site,, and the phone number for
Sunshine Cars USA painted on the big glittering sign atop the cinder block salesroom. She punches in the number and after a half-dozen rings hears the lightly accented voice of the Hispanic girl. "Thank you for calling Sunshine Cars USA. Our hours are nine A.M. till six P.M. Please call back during business hours. Or at the sound of the beep you can leave a message with your number, and we'll call you back as soon as we can. Have a nice day!"
      Ventana hears the beep and says to the phone, "You locked me in with the cars by accident, and now your dog has me trapped, and I can't get out on account of the gate is locked. Please, I need someone to come unlock the gate and get this dog away from me. Please come right away! I'm very scared of this dog. Goodbye," she says and clicks off.
      In less than two hours it will be dark. Maybe by then the dog will have gotten bored and wandered off or fallen asleep somewhere, and Ventana can climb over the fence and set herself free. She checks out the fence. It's nearly three feet taller than she. The spiked bars are too close together for her to squeeze through. She'll have to climb over the fence, which she is not sure she can do even if she has time to spare. She will first have to get from the rooftop of the Ford Escape down to the ground, run across the six- or eight-foot-wide lane between the Escape and the fence and somehow in a matter of seconds pull herself up and over the fence. It looks impossible. There is no way she can do it without the dog hearing her and racing back from his doghouse or wherever the beast hangs out when he isn't terrorizing humans.
      She decides to call 911, but then stops herself. A rescue vehicle from the fire department will have a police escort attached. Things always get complicated when you involve the police. They'll want to know what she's doing inside a locked car lot anyhow. Maybe she hid there after closing time, intending to pop car doors and trunks and steal parts, hubcaps; radios and CD players, planning to throw them over the fence to an accomplice on the street. Didn't expect a guard dog to mess up her plans, did she? Maybe she hid in the lot after closing, intending to break through the back door into the showroom and steal the computers and office machines and any cash they stashed there. Before the police call off the dog and release her from her cage, she'll have to prove her innocence. Which for a black person is never easy in this city. Never easy anywhere.
She decides not to call 911.
      That leaves her daughter, Gloria, and a small number of other people she knows and trusts—her pastor, a few of her neighbors, even her ex-husband, Gordon, whom she sort of trusts. Her son, Gordon Junior, who is more competent than anyone else she is close to, is stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. Not much he can do to help her. Gordon Senior will probably laugh at her for having put herself in this situation, and Gloria will simply panic and, looking for an excuse, start drinking again. She is too embarrassed to call on Reverend Knight or any of her women friends from the church or from the neighborhood, and she will never call on anyone from work. Although, if she can't get free till nine tomorrow when Sunshine Cars USA opens again, she'll be hours late for work and will have to call American Eagle Outfitters anyhow and explain why she's late.
      She thinks of hiding overnight inside one of the cars, sleeping on the backseat, but surely all the cars are locked, and in any case she is not going to climb down there and start checking doors to find out if one has been accidentally left unlocked. The dog will have her by the throat in thirty seconds. Her best option is to stay where she is until morning. It won't be painful or cause her serious suffering to curl up and lie here overnight on the roof of the Ford Escape and try to doze a little, as long as she doesn't fall asleep and accidentally roll over and tumble off the car onto the ground.
      It's almost dark now and the heat of the day has mostly dissipated. She hopes it won't rain. Usually at this time of day clouds come in off the ocean bringing a shower that sometimes turns into a heavy rain that lasts for hours until the clouds get thoroughly wrung out. If that happens she will hate it, but she can endure it.
      It's quieter than usual out there in the world beyond the fence. Traffic is light, and no one is on the street—she can see Seventh Avenue all the way north to the bus stop at 103rd and in the opposite direction down to Ninety-fifth Street, where her pink shotgun bungalow is located three doors off Seventh, the windows dark, no one home. The narrow wooden garage she emptied out a week ago and where she planned to shelter her car tonight is shut and still emptied out, unused, waiting. Along Seventh the streetlights suddenly flare to life. The number 33 bus, nearly empty, rumbles past. A police cruiser speeds by in the opposite direction, lights flashing like the Fourth of July.
      Using her purse as a pillow, she lies down on her side, facing Ninety-seventh Street. She can't hear the dog's growls anymore or his heavy, wet, open-mouthed breathing and figures either he is lying in the dark nearby trying to trick her into coming down from the roof or he is just making his rounds and will soon come back to make sure that in his brief absence she hasn't tried to climb over the fence. She suddenly realizes that she is exhausted and despite her fear can barely keep her eyes open. Then her eyes close.

SHE MAY HAVE SLEPT for a few minutes or it might have been a few hours, but when she opens her eyes again it's dark. On the sidewalk just beyond the fence someone in a gray hoodie is jouncing in place, hands deep in his pockets, looking straight at her. He's half hidden in the shadow of the building, beyond the range of the streetlight on Seventh, a slender young black man or maybe a man-size teenage boy, she can't tell.
      "Yo, lady, what you doin' up there?"
      She says nothing at first. What is she doing up there? Then says, "There's a bad dog won't let me get down. And the gate is locked tight."
      She sits up and sees now that he is a teenage boy, but not a boy she knows from the neighborhood. Mostly older folks live in the area, retired people who own their small homes and single parents of grown-up children and grandchildren like this one living in Overtown and Liberty City or out in Miami Gardens and the suburbs. He is younger than his size indicates, no more than thirteen or fourteen, probably visiting his mother or grandmother. He approaches the fence, when suddenly the dog emerges from darkness and rushes it, snarling and snapping through the bars, sending the boy back into the street.
      "Whoa! That a bad dog all right!"
      Ventana says, "Do me a favor. Go see if there's a watchman or guard in the showroom. They not answering the phone when I try calling, but maybe somebody's on duty there."
      The boy walks around to the front of the building and peers through the window into the showroom. Seconds later he returns. "Anybody there, he be sittin' in the dark. "
      The dog, panting with excitement, has staked out a position between the fence and the Ford Escapehis small yellow eyes, his forehead flat and hard as a shovel and his wide, lipless, tooth-filled mouth controlling both the boy on one side of the fence and Ventana on the other.
      "If you got a phone, lady, whyn't you call 911?''
      "Be hard to explain to the police how I got in here," she says.
      "Yeah, prob'ly would," he says. "How did you get in there?"
      "Don't matter. Looking for a car to buy. What matters is how am I gonna get out of here?"
      They are both silent for a moment. Finally he says, "Maybe somebody with a crane could do it. You know, lower a hook so you could grab onto it and get lifted out?"
      She pictures that and says, "No way. I'd end up on the evening news for sure."
     "I'm gonna call 911 for you, lady. Don't worry, they'll get you out a there."
      "No, don't!" she cries, but it's too late, he already has his cell phone out and is making the call.
      A dispatcher answers, and the boy says he's calling to report that there is a lady trapped by a vicious dog inside a car lot on Northwest Seventh and Ninety-seventh Street. "She needs to be rescued," he says.
      The dispatcher asks for the name of the car lot, and the boy tells her. She asks his name, and he says Reynaldo Rodriquez. Ventana connects his last name to the tag worn by a hugely fat woman she knows slightly who lives on Ninety-sixth and works the early shift at Esther's Diner on l03rd. You can't tell her age because of the fatness, but she's likely the boy's aunt or older sister, and he's been visiting her. Obviously a nice boy. Like her Gordon Junior at the same age.
      She hears Reynaldo tell the dispatcher that he personally doesn't know the lady in the Sunshine Cars USA lot or how she got in there. He says he doesn't think there is a burglar alarm, he doesn't hear one anyhow, all he can see or hear is a lady trapped inside a locked fence by a guard dog. He says she is sitting on the roof of one of the cars to escape the dog. He listens and after a pause asks why should he call the police? The lady isn't doing anything illegal. He listens for a few seconds more, says okay and clicks off.
      "Told me the situation not 911's job to decide on. Told me they just a call center, not the police. She said I was calling about a break-in. Told me to call the cops directly," he says to Ventana. "Even gave me the precinct phone number."
      "Okay, I won't. Too bad you not a cat in a tree. Fire department be over here in a minute, no questions asked." He leans down and looks the dog in its small eyes, and the dog stares back and growls from somewhere deep in his chest.
      She says, "Whyn't you go way over to the other side of the lot on Ninety-eighth? Make a bunch of noise by the fence, like you trying to get in. When the dog runs over to stop you, I'll try to climb over the fence. Let's try that."
      "Okay. But I could get busted, y' know, if it look like I'm trying to rob from these cars or break into the building. Which it would. They prob'ly have surveillance cameras. They everywhere, you know."
      She agrees. She tells him to forget it, she'll just have to spend the night up here on top of this SUV, hope it doesn't rain, and wait till they open the door of the dealership in the morning.
      Reynaldo has his phone out again, has looked up a number and is tapping it in.
      "Who you calling now?"
      "If you see something, say something, yo. That's what they always telling us, right?"
      "The television people. Channel Five News," he says. "I be seeing something, so now I be saying something." And before she has a chance to tell him to stop, he is talking to a producer, telling her there is a lady held prisoner by a vicious mean pit bull inside a locked used-car lot on Northwest Seventh and Ninety-seventh Street. "That's right," he says, "Sunshine Cars USA. And 911, I called them for her myself, and they refused to help her. Re-fused! You should send a camera crew out here right now and put it on the eleven o'clock news, so this lady can get help. Maybe the people who own the used-car dealership will see it on TV and will come unlock the fence and call off
their disgusting dog."
      The producer asks him who he is, and he gives her his name and says he's a passerby. The woman tells him to wait there for the crew to arrive, because they'd like to tape him too. She says they'll be there in a matter of minutes.
      He says he'll wait for them and clicks off. Grinning, he says to Ventana, "We gonna be famous, yo."
      "I don't want to be famous. I just want to get free of this dog and his fence and his cars and go home."
      "Sometimes being famous the only way to get free," the boy says. "What about Muhammad Ali? Famous. Or OJ.? Remember him? Famous. What about Jay-Z? Famous and free. I could name lots of people."
      "Reynaldo, stop," Ventana says. "You're only a child."
      "That's okay," he says and laughs. "I still know stuff."
      For the next fifteen minutes Ventana and Reynaldo chat as if they are sitting across a table at Esther's Diner, and indeed it turns out that the very large waitress at Esther's whose name tag says Esmeralda Rodriquez is his mother. Reynaldo says he visits his moms once a week but lives with his father and his father's new wife over in Miami Gardens, because supposedly the schools are better there, though he is not all that cool about his father's new wife. Ventana asks why not, and he shrugs and says she is real young and disses his mother to him, which is definitely not cool. Ventana asks why he doesn't talk to his father about it, ask him to make her stop talking bad about his mother. He says they don't have that kind of relationship.
      She says, "Oh," Then they go silent for a few moments. She likes the boy, but is not happy that he called the television station. Too late now. And maybe the boy is right, that somehow getting on television will set her free.
      A white van with the CBS eye and a large blue 5 painted on the side turns off Seventh Avenue onto Ninety-seventh Street and parks close to where Reynaldo stands on the sidewalk. The driver, a cameraman, and a sound man get out of the van and start removing lights, sound boom, cables, battery, camera and tripod from the back. Behind the van comes a pale green Ford Taurus, a lot like the one Ventana planned to test-drive, driven by a black woman with straightened hair. The tall young woman gets out of the car. She's wearing a leather miniskirt and lavender silk blouse and looks like an actress or a model. Her face shines. She speaks with the cameraman and his crew for a moment, then walks over to Reynaldo. She asks if he is the person who called "See Something Say Something" at Channel 5.
      He says yes and points up at Ventana atop the silver Ford Escape. "She the one trapped inside the car lot, though. That dog there, he the one won't let her get down off the car and climb over the fence."
      While the reporter touches up her makeup she asks him if it is true that he called 911 and they refused to help, and he says yes. They just told him to call the police in case it was a break-in.
      The reporter says, "Was it a break-in?"
      He laughs. "A little early in the night for robbing. Whyn't you ask her? Get it on camera," Reynaldo suggests. "You can get me on camera too, y' know. I recognize you from the TV," he says. "Forgot your name, though."
      "Autumn Fowler," she says. When the cameraman has his camera set up with the high spiked fence, silver Ford Escape and Ventana clustered in the central background, the reporter steps directly into the central foreground. The soundman swings his boom over her head just out of camera range. The driver, their lighting man, has arranged his lights so he can illuminate Autumn Fowler, Ventana and Reynaldo in turn simply by swinging the reflector disk. By now the dog has moved into the bright circle of light and is bouncing up and down, growling and scowling like a boxer stepping into the ring, demonstrating to the crowd that he will explode with fury against anyone foolish enough to enter the ring with him.
      Several people have been hesitantly approaching along the sidewalk and edging up to the van. Others are emerging from nearby houses, and soon a crowd has gathered, drawn like moths to the lights, the camera, the tall, glamorous woman clipping a mic onto her blouse. One by one they realize why the camera, lights and mic and the famous TV reporter have come to their neighborhood—it is the frightened middle-aged woman atop a silver SUV, one of their neighbors, a friend to some of them, and she's trapped inside a chained and locked used-car lot by a pit bull guard dog. Several of them say her name to one another and wonder how on earth Ventana Robertson got herself into this situation. A couple of them speculate that because Ventana's so smart and resourceful it might be she's doing it for a reality TV program.
      Autumn Fowler says to the cameraman, "Let me do the intro, then when I point to it pan down to the dog and up to the woman when I point to her. After I ask her a couple questions, come back to me, and then I'll talk to the kid for a minute."
      "How long will I be on TV?" Reynaldo asks.
      Autumn Fowler smiles at him. "Long enough for all your friends to recognize you."
      The reporter calls up to Ventana and asks her name.
      Ventana says, "I don't want you to say my name on TV. I just want to get the people who own the dog to come put him on a leash so I can get down from here and go home."
      "I understand. I may have to ask you to sign a release. Can you do that? You, too," she says to Reynaldo.
      "If you can get me out of here, I'll sign anything," Ventana says.
      "Me, too. But you can say my name on TV. It's Reynaldo Rodriquez," he says and spells Reynaldo for her.
      "Thank you, Reynaldo."
      "No problem, Autumn."
      Autumn speaks to the camera for a few seconds, telling the viewers at home who she is and where she's reporting from. She briefly describes Ventana's plight, turns to Ventana and calls out to her, "Can you tell us how you got locked behind the fence, ma'am?"
      "I was looking to buy a car. I guess they forgot I was here, the people who own the cars, and they locked the gate and went home. I tried calling ... "
      "And this dog," Autumn says, interrupting her, "this vicious dog has kept you from climbing over the fence and getting out? Is that correct?" she says and signals for the cameraman to start filming the dog, who on cue promptly lunges snarling against the fence.
      "Yes, that's correct."
      "You have a cell phone, I understand. Did you call 911?"
      From behind her Reynaldo says, "I the one called 911. She didn't want me to."
      Autumn shakes her head with irritation. "I'll get to you in a minute," she says. Then, to Ventana, "Can you tell our viewers what happened when you called 911?"
      "They said it must be a break-in so it wasn't their problem. It was something for the police," Ventana says, adding that she left a message on the used-car dealer's answering machine, but that didn't do any good, either. "They must not be checking their messages. I hope they watch the TV news tonight, so they can come leash up this dog and unlock the gate."
      "Otherwise I'll be staying up here till tomorrow morning when they come in to work."
      Autumn turns to the camera. "There you have it. A woman alone, forced to sleep outside in the cold damp night like a homeless person, terrorized by a vicious guard dog, locked inside a cage like an animal. And when she calls 911 for help, she's turned away." She signals for the cameraman and lighting and soundman to focus on Reynaldo. "You were the one who called 911 for her, is that correct?" she asks him.
      "Yes, ma'am. That is correct. My name is Reynaldo Rodriquez. From Miami Gardens."
      Autumn turns away from him and faces the camera again. "Thank you, Reynaldo. A good Samaritan, a young man who heard something and then said something. Remember, folks, if you hear something, say something. Call us at 305-591-5555 or e-mail us at hearandsay at cbsmiami dot com. This is Autumn Fowler in Miami Shores."
      She plucks the mike off her blouse and tells the cameraman she's done.
      Reynaldo says, "Don't you want to ask me or the lady there some more questions? Maybe you could call 911 yourself, do it with the camera running. That'd be awesome TV!"
      "Sorry, kid. This is sort of a cat stuck in a tree story. Not as big and exciting as you think." She hands him the release to sign. He scrawls his name and gives the form back to her. She calls up to Ventana, "Don't worry about signing the release, hon, since we never used your name." She steps into her car and starts the engine. While the cameraman and his two assistants collect their equipment and cables and stash them in the van, she slowly parts the gathered crowd with her car and drives off. A minute later the crew and their van have departed from the scene.
      With the lights, camera and famous television reporter gone, the crowd of bystanders quickly loses interest. They're not worried about Ventana: now that she's been filmed for TV broadcast she's entered a different and higher level of reality and power than theirs. They drift back to their homes and apartments, where they'll wait to watch the late news on Channel 5, hoping to catch a glimpse of themselves in the background, their neighborhood, the used-car dealership they walk past every day of their lives, all of it made more radiant, color-soaked and multidimensional on high-definition TV than it could ever be in real life. The teenage son of their neighbor Esmeralda Rodriquez will be remembered mainly for standing in the way of a clear view of the reporter. The woman trapped behind the fence by the guard dog, their neighbor Ventana Robertson, her face and plight lost in the bright light of television and the presence right here in the neighborhood of the beautiful, charismatic reporter, will be all but forgotten. It's as if an angel unexpectedly landed on Northwest Seventh Avenue and Ninety-seventh Street, and afterward, when the angel flies back to her kingdom in the sky, no one tries to remember the occasion for her visit. They remember only that an angel was briefly here on earth, proving that a higher order of being truly does exist.
      "You okay?" Reynaldo says.
      "Of course not! I'm still up here, aren't I? That dog's still down there."
      Reynaldo is silent for a moment. "Maybe when they show it on the eleven o'clock news ..."
      "You poor child! Not gonna happen. You heard her, this just a cat up a tree story to her and her TV people. You g'wan home to your daddy's house now. Takes a while to get across town to Miami Gardens by bus, and you prob'ly got a curfew."
      He scrapes the toe of his left sneaker against the pavement. Then the right. "You gonna be all right?"
      "Yes! Now git!" She's not angry at him, and in fact she's grateful for his kindness, but nonetheless is shouting angrily at him, "G'wan, now git!"
      "Okay, okay, chill. I'm going." He takes a few steps toward Seventh, then turns and says, "Hope it don't rain on you."
      "I said git!" she yells, and Reynaldo runs.

VENTANA IS ALONE NOW. Except for the dog. He seems calmer since everyone's left. And he's no longer growling. He's curled up like a thick gray knot of muscle at the front of the Honda van parked beside her SUV and seems to be sleeping. Ventana wishes she knew his name. If she knew his name she could talk to him, maybe reassure him as to her good intentions. He must know already that she means no harm to him and his owner. For over four hours she's been his prisoner and has done nothing to threaten him. In the beginning when she ran from him and climbed up on the roof of the Taurus that she wanted to test-drive and maybe buy and then hopped from roof to roof until ending here on top of the silver Ford Escape, he must have reasoned, assuming guard dogs in some way reason, that she was guilty of a crime or was about to commit one. She probably shouldn't have run like that, should have stood her ground instead, but he terrified her.
      But that was a long while ago, and since then she's been his only companion here behind the fence, while on the other side of the fence, people have come and gone, they've stared at him and been scared of him, and have aimed lights and cameras at him for a TV audience. The whole neighborhood has come by and looked at him and her, too, as if they were animals in a zoo. By now he must be used to Ventana's presence, as if they are cage mates, not enemies.
      Slowly she hitches her way to the edge of the roof and, more open-minded than before, carefully, calmly, almost objectively, examines the dog. She's still frightened, but the sight of him no longer panics her. He's large for a pit bull, maybe fifty or sixty pounds—she's seen many examples of the breed in the neighborhood walking with that characteristic bowlegged, chesty strut, in the company of young men wearing baggy pants halfway down their underwear, tight muscle shirts and baseball caps on backward, boys who are barely men and resemble their dogs the way people say dogs and their owners and husbands and wives come to resemble each other. She knows some of those young men personally, has known them since they were little boys. Inside they're not hard and dangerous; they're soft and scared. That's why they need to walk the streets with a hard, dangerous-looking dog yanking on a chain-link leash. 
      She notices that the dog has been watching her with his yellow eyes half opened. He still hasn't moved, except for the rise and fall of his barrel-hooped chest—he's breathing through his nose, with his lipless mouth closed over his teeth like a giant python. A good sign, she thinks. She lets her legs dangle over the windshield of the vehicle, her feet almost touching the hood. The dog doesn't stir.
      "What's your name, dog?" She almost laughs at the question. She can call him whatever she wants and that'll be his name, at least for tonight. She wonders if he belongs to the black salesman or the skinny white one. She doesn't know what a tattooed white man would name his guard dog, but if he's owned by the black man his name would be something country and southern, like Blue. She remembers a line from an old song, I had a dog and his name was Blue ...
      "Hey, Blue, you gonna let the nice lady come down?"
      At the sound of her voice the dog lifts his massive head, looks up at Ventana for a few seconds, then lowers his head again, watching her with eyes wide open now, his small ears tipped forward, his forehead rippled as if with thought. Ventana remembers some more lines from the song and sings them to him. She has a thin, almost reedy singing voice:

                    You know Blue was a good ol' dog,
                    Treed a possum in a hollow log.
                    You know from that he was a good ol' dog ...
        Ol' Blue's feet was big and round,
                    Never 'lowed a possum to touch the ground ...

      No response from Blue, which she decides is a good sign, so she slides forward, and when her feet touch the hood of the car, she stands up. Feet apart, hands on her hips, shoulders squared, she believes she is the picture of self-confidence and good intentions. "Well, well, Blue," she says, smiling. "What do you make of this? I'm starting to think we're gonna be friends, you and me."
      Blue stands, squares his shoulders similarly and appears to smile back. He whips his tail like a piece of steel cable back and forth in a friendly-seeming way and droops his ears in a manner that suggests submission to Ventana, as if he's decided that for the moment, until his owner shows up, she's the boss. Must be his owner is the black man, she thinks, since he's so relaxed around black people. Maybe the white man's not the boss, like she originally thought. She decided earlier that when she got out of here, whether it happened tonight or tomorrow morning, she would not come back and test-drive and buy a vehicle from Sunshine Cars USA. But now she's thinking maybe she will.
      She sits down on the hood and tells Blue face-to-face that she's going to walk over to the gate in the fence and try to climb over it. "Sorry to leave you, ol' Blue, but I got to get home," she explains. "I got to work tomorrow, and I need my sleep."
      Keeping the silver Ford between them, still not taking her eyes off the dog, she slides her feet from the hood of the car to the ground and takes a short step away from the vehicle. Blue has watched her descent, and except to stand up and flip his tail back and forth has not reacted, has not even blinked. For the first time since she left the roof of the car, she takes her eyes off him—a ten-second trial. When she turns back he has not moved or changed his expression. He's watching her almost as if he's glad she's leaving, as if her departure will relieve him of duty and he'll be free to find a quiet spot in the lot to sleep away the rest of the night.
      "Okay, I'm going now," she says. "Goodbye, Blue."
      Ventana walks slowly along the fence toward the locked gate three car lengths away. She doesn't look back at Blue, and she doesn't walk tentatively; she walks like someone who is not afraid, faking it the same way she entered the lot hours earlier. She was afraid then, too, but only of buying a car, of being outsmarted by the salesman—or saleswoman, if she ended up buying it from the young Latina. She was afraid that the car would turn out to be a lemon, rusting on cinder blocks in her backyard, used up; that depositing one hundred dollars in the credit union at the end of every month for three long years would be wasted. Now she is afraid that she has dangerously misread a guard dog's intentions and desires. Though she walks with seeming confidence, she may be sacrificing herself  to a set of obscure but nonetheless sacred principles of property and commerce. She is afraid of the blinding pain that will come if the guard dog attacks her. And for a second she lets herself imagine the awful relief that will come when only death can take away the pain. Her night has come to that.
      She remembers another verse from that old song, but this time sings it silently to herself:

                    Old Blue died and I dug his grave,
                    I dug his grave with a silver spade.

      The chained and padlocked gate is wide enough to drive a car through if it were open. Just below the top of the eight-foot-tall spikes is a horizontal steel pipe that she believes she is tall enough to reach. She adjusts her purse so the strap crosses her chest and the bag hangs against her back. She reaches up and on tiptoes grabs the pipe. She pulls herself a few inches off  the ground, then a few more, until she's high enough to work her right elbow through the spikes and over the pipe. Holding her weight with her upper right arm, she uses it as a fulcrum to swing her left foot up, above the pipe and through the spikes. With her left foot wedged between them, she is able to grab onto the spikes with both hands and pull herself high enough to see over the gate. She suddenly remembers the last lines of the verse:

                    I let him down with a silver chain,
                    And every link I called his name.

      The empty streets and sidewalks out there, the darkened stores and warehouses and homes, the whole vast dark city itself, all seem to go on endlessly into the night. She is about to free herself from this cage. She is escaping into the city. Her right leg hangs in the air a few feet off the ground behind her. The dog doesn't growl or snarl. He doesn't even breathe loudly. He is silent and strikes like a snake. He clamps onto her leg with his powerful jaws and drags her backward, off the gate.

© 2013 Russell Banks

This electronic version of “Blue” appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of Russell Banks, the Ellen Levine Literary Agency and publisher. It appears in the short-story collection A Permanent Member of the Family, published by ECCO, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2013.   Book ordering available through and translation

The Barcelona Review is a registered non-profit organization

Author Bio
Russell BanksRussell Banks is the critically acclaimed author of twelve novels, including Continental Drift, The Sweet Hereafter, Affliction, Rule of the Bone, Cloudsplitter, The Darling and Lost Memory of Skin; as well as six short-story collections, including The Angel on the Roof, and A Permanent Member of the Family.  He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a past president of the International Parliament of Writers.  His work has been translated into twenty languages and has received numerous prizes and awards, including the 2011 Commonwealth Award for Literature.   He lives in upstate New York and Miami, Florida.