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The Barcelona Review

Author Bio

robert(a) marshall


The girls are playing in the plastic house. Some turbulence has arisen. Two of them—I suspect sisters, maybe cousins; their faces parallel, both wear blue shorts—have commandeered the bright-red plastic structure. Two other girls—also maybe sisters, or cousins, both dressed in pink—are trying to get into the plastic house. But the girls inside—I’ll call them the blue girls—are refusing entrance. The pink girls start to cry. I tell myself I should do something.
            I go abstract easily. I wonder why, with a whole room of toys (and kids), it is so important to all four girls to be inside the plastic house. Which is, I tell myself, a room within the room, this windowless, cinderblock room, the walls of which are covered with crayon drawings. Why do we value so the inner sanctum? What’s the deal with threshold control? I get up from my yellow plastic chair (meant for a preschooler), and, on my knees, crawl across the gray-carpeted floor. Toward the trouble
            An oafish cartoon giant, I put my face in the plastic house’s window. “Necesitamos compartir,” I tell the blue girls. One of them, who appears older, who has a bow in her hair, sends me a furious glare.
            I try in English: “We need to share.”
            In great distress, she sobs back: “No! Es mi casa!
            “No, es la casa de todos,” I reply. I’m trying not to sound angry, not to be angry, but I don’t like the blue girls’ behavior. I feel for the two on the outside. I’m kind of their advocate. I tell myself I should remember that, in all likelihood, all of the children in the playroom, the location of which I won’t mention (I’m not supposed to), crossed Mexico in a caravan; may have ridden on top of a train; could be deported any day. Their parents right now are in the legal clinic.  I and some other possibly well-meaning volunteers are tasked with watching them. Surely they’re all traumatized. They’ve had to leave behind real, not plastic houses. But all that’s abstract to me. What’s real: the blue girls are being selfish. Especially the bigger one, who seems to be in charge, who squats angrily in the dark corner. Who now blurts out: “Es mi cumpleaños!
            Oh. It’s her birthday. My fairness calculator readjusts. She’s holding back sobs. Thing is: I feel this, her desire to have something of her own, something special, on her birthday; this I can relate to, she’s spending her birthday in an overcrowded not-too-well-run daycare center while her parents are at a legal clinic trying, likely in vain, to avoid deportation. If she doesn’t understand this she feels it. I know the miserable disappointment of birthdays, mine is coming up—who will remember if I don’t remind them? I can vaguely remember the bounteous birthdays of my childhood, the chair in the living room piled with presents . . . it was like that for a while . . . I tell the girl whose cumpleaños it is that she and her friend (or sister, or cousin) can have the house for half an hour. I explain to the girls trying to gain entrance that it’s the girl inside’s birthday . . . my Spanish is mediocre, don’t know what they understand. I know nobody seems happy. No soy Solomon.
            I try to get a round of Happy Birthday going; this fails. I distribute string cheese, juice. Play with a boy with a pirate ship. Another boy comes by, snatches one of the wooden pirates. Why, I wonder, is it always so important to have someone else’s toy? I know that in my non-volunteer life, in my “writing career”—and elsewhere—I’m always focused on what others have and I don’t.
            World without end.
            I look often at the clock, eager to get home and watch Netflix. A stirring documentary perhaps. The fluorescent lights flicker, as does a question: do I want to do good or just be thought of as someone who does good? That old conundrum. Do the other volunteers also wonder about this? When I first came here two years ago, after the election, I’d wanted to feel part of something larger; that hasn’t happened, at least not with the other, standoffish volunteers. At first I was able to connect with the kids, I read them stories, had them tell me stories, we made construction paper books with their stories, and that felt rewarding, but now we’re too overrun, and there’s no time for that, and this leaves me, often, feeling dejected. What I feel isn’t so important, I try to tell myself. Larger things are at stake, I try to tell myself. A girl with a wood-handled popcorn popper push toy collides with me, then continues blithely on.  On the walls: princesses, dragons, monsters.
            A half hour has passed. I tell the blue girls they need to let the pink girls in. They howl, hold tight to the plastic door. Not without difficulty, somewhat absurdly, I pry it open. Maybe I’m just making things worse in my bumbling attempt to demonstrate fairness. The pink girls scurry inside. I’m distracted by a scuffle in another corner. I comfort a boy who is sobbing for reasons I don’t understand. I sing to him and give him extra cheese, then hear shouting and sobbing from over by the house. Trying not to step on anyone, I make my way back, the pink girls are now inside, the girls in blue outside. The pink ones are gleefully holding tight to the plastic door, refusing entrance to several newly-gathered kids. I've begun toying with a story in my head, and a possible moral has started to form: a bleak and simple conclusion about human nature. But I resist it, as the pink girls resist those who want in, among whom is a boy who, I notice, has marks on his neck. He looks up in mute appeal.

© 2020 robert(a) marshall

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