A short story by Iric Nathanson, Becketwood Member
When Linda Evenson arrived in Green Valley on that March afternoon in 2018, she never could have imagined that the weeks she would spend in that quiet Arizona town would upend her life.
Linda had jumped at the chance to escape a dismal Milwaukee winter when her long-time friend Claire Bailey phoned with an invitation to come down to Green Valley. Still mourning the loss of her son, who had died from a drug overdose, Linda imagined that Green Valley, a popular snowbird haven near the Mexico border, would be the ideal getaway. She could recover there from the emotional turbulence she had lived with for the past year.
Green Valley was also the home of another long-time friend, Ronnie Lindell. The three of them, Claire, Linda and Roni, had been close confidants—like sisters—ever since they met in third grade at Fergus Falls Elementary School.
After their high school years together, the three friends moved off in different directions. Claire won a scholarship to the University of Chicago and never returned to her hometown. Later she used her analytical skills to build a successful career as a corporate executive. In her fifties, Claire decided that she needed a change. She left the corporate world and embarked on a new career as a children’s librarian. Never married, Claire had always been the emotional rock that her two friends could lean on. That year, in 2018, Roni and Linda both needed Claire’s rock.
Roni, the jokester of the group, with spiky red hair and a personality to match, had married her hometown sweetheart Porter Lindell. Called Porty by his friends, Porter had been a star athlete in high school. But he had not aged well. Now weighing over 250 pounds, Roni called him Porky behind his back.
Roni’s marriage also had not aged well. At their first get-together in Green Valley, Roni told her two friends that she was planning to leave Porter. “Each year, he gets to be more of a slob. And now, since we’ve moved here, he’s become one of those raging right-wingers. I am done.”
That next week, Claire was in the kitchen making breakfast, while Linda was in the living room, absorbed in the latest Stephen King novel. Just then, Fergus, Claire’s five-year-old Bichon Frise, began to yelp and claw at the front door. “See what Fergie is up to,” Claire called out from the kitchen. Linda got up, opened the door and gasped. “You—need—to–come—here, right—now,” Linda said haltingly, her voice shaking. “What’s that dog done now?” Claire answered back. “It’s not the dog. Look!” Linda said in a panic. There, in the corner of Claire’s front courtyard, a grime-encrusted young boy was curled around a ragged backpack. When Fergus jumped on him and began licking his face, the boy, who appeared to be about eight, woke in a start, looking up fearfully at Linda.
“What is he doing here? How did he get here? Linda said in a rush.
“He must have come across the border,” Claire replied calmly.
“You mean he’s one of those….”
“Yes, one of those.” Claire said, cutting Linda off.
“We better call the police right away, so they can come and get him,” Linda responded, as she tried to regain her composure.
“Absolutely not!” Claire replied, raising her voice uncharacteristically.
Now Linda was starting to sob. “ Claire, I didn’t come to Arizona to get caught up in all of this,” she said tearfully.
“Linda, just shut up! And pull yourself together. The last thing the boy needs right now is for an old lady to melt down in front of him. Stop and think, we can’t call the police. You know what they will do. They will take him away and put him in one of those detention camps. We can’t let that happen.”
“What are we going to do with him?” Linda asked, her voice still shaking. “Well, I am going to take him in, feed him some breakfast and give him a bath,” Claire said. “But, first we need to make sure that he is not of afraid us. Who knows what he saw and what happened to him before he got here.”
Claire turned and smiled at the boy. “Nostros somos tus amigas” (We are your friends), she said, using her limited Spanish. “Tia Claire” (Auntie Claire), pointing to herself. “Tia Linda,”(Auntie Linda) pointing to her frazzled houseguest.
“Como te llamas, hombrecito?” (What is your name, little man?)
“Luca,” the boy replied shyly.
“Ah Luca – un buen nombre, un muy buen nombre. Bienvenido a mi casa, Luca.” (a nice name, a very nice name. Welcome to my home, Luca) .
Luca smiled and pointed to the small dog curled up at his feet. “Puppy dog Fergus,” Claire told him in English. “Poopy dog Fer-gas,” Luca repeated, shyly.
Then, Claire turned to Linda. “You can do something useful. Go down to that thrift store, the White Elephant, on La Canada Road. “Tell them that your eight-year-old nephew is visiting and you need some new outfits for him. And bring back a pair of sneakers. The boy’s shoes look like they are worn through.”
By the time Linda returned with the clothes, Luca was fast asleep with Fergus sprawled out on the bed next to him. Over the next few days, Luca made himself at home with his newfound aunties. Soon their unexpected visitor was running around the house laughing with Fergus always at his heels. The third auntie, Roni, always looking for an excuse to get away from Porter, started spending more time with Claire and Linda, helping to look after Luca.
Linda had taken it on herself to start teaching Luca some rudimentary English, posting signs with the English words all over the house—door, window, chair, bed. Luca was a fast learner. By the end of his first week in Green Valley he had picked up enough English so that he could carry on a brief conversation with his aunties. Then Luca started to teach Linda Spanish. He would put up Spanish signs next to her English ones.
Ever the practical one, Roni was worried about this new arrangement that had taken over their lives. “You know, we can’t go on like this,” Roni told her two friends one morning while Luca was playing with Fergus in the kitchen. “Sooner or later they are going to find out that the boy is here, and then what?”
Roni paused for a minute. “You know Porky is always going on about the “do-gooders,” those people with the Humane Borders group. They put the water barrels out on the desert for people coming over the border. I think the new minister at the UU Church on County Line Road is part of that group. She might have some ideas for us.”
Roni called the church, looking relieved when she hung up after a brief conversation. “Her name is Janice,” Roni reported. “She says she understands our predicament and she will get here as soon as she can.”
Later that day, Janice Redman, a large, friendly woman with cascading black hair, was sitting in Claire’s living room chatting away with Luca in Spanish. Luca had shown Janice a photo of his Tio Angel (Uncle Angel) The photo had a note on it saying Oracle, Arizona. “If we can find Angel, and he is willing to take temporary custody of Luca, that can buy some time while Homeland Security processes Luca’s asylum application,” Janice explained to Luca’s two new benefactors,
“Luca told me his story. It is quite harrowing,” Janice continued. “His father, Luis, ran a dry cleaning business in Acapulco. The ‘bad men,’ Luca called them—the narco gangs—kept trying to shake down Luis. When he refused to pay, they threatened to kill him. They probably threatened to kill Luca, as well. That’s why Luis took Luca with him. But I am sure Luis didn’t tell Luca that. He didn’t want to scare his son.”
“Luis must have paid one of the smugglers—they’re called coyotes—to take him and his son over the border. Luca said they got to the place with the big barrels under the mesquite tree, That’s where the coyote and his father got into a fight. A shot was fired. Luis told his son to start running and not to look back. Luca did as he was told. He must have been only about ten miles from Green Valley when the fight occurred. Your town house development would have been the first thing he saw when he got to the outskirts of town. Luca said he picked your house because of the sunburst on the front gate, the ‘sol feliz’ (a happy sun) so he knew it was a ‘casa feliz’; (a happy house).”
After Janice left, Linda made one of those life-altering decisions that happen in just an instance. The bond between her and her young Mexican friend had deepened. She would not go back to Milwaukee. Instead, she would stay in southern Arizona and help young children like Luca who had come to the U.S. seeking a better life. Right then, she called Humane Borders and asked to be added to the group’s volunteer list.
Two days later, Janice called with good news. Her network had located Angel Ruiz in Oracle and he had agreed to take custody of Luca. But first, Janice said they needed to get Luca to Humane Borders’ safe house in Tucson. “He will meet with our immigration lawyers there and they will to start the asylum process for him,” she explained.
The next morning, it happened. Claire’s front gate must have been left open. Fergus ran out into the street and Luca came charging after him. Just then, a black SUV pulled out a garage across the road and swerved to keep from hitting Fergus. Claire called Luca to come back into the house. But it was too late. The boy had been spotted.
Roni was walking home from her exercise class at the community center when her phone beeped. A text message from Claire popped up: “We need to leave now. I am calling ahead to Tucson. Come quick.”
Porter was on the couch in his bathrobe, still recovering from a knee replacement when Roni walked in. With an angry smirk, he told her about the call he had just received. “My buddy Joe phoned to say that he saw a Mexican kid running out of the front door where your pinko friend lives. I am calling the sheriff right now. I am going to tell him to go over there and pick up the kid.”
“No you’re not, you son of a bitch!” Roni screamed, grabbing Porter’s cell phone and his car keys off the dining room table. Then she took his cane and whacked him across his knees. Porter howled in pain as Roni ran past him. Racing out the front door, she turned toward him with one parting shot, “I am leaving, this time for good. You’re on your own.”
Roni was still steaming when she pulled into Claire’s garage. Claire and Linda quietly loaded Luca and Fergus into Roni’s car, telling the boy that he needed to crouch down in the back seat and stay very quiet.
The three women had picked the worst possible day to make their escape from Green Valley with their new small friend. That early spring morning, all the roads in and out of Green Valley were being shut down as part of a Homeland Security exercise. “They are starting at the east end of town over by the golf course,” Linda said, checking her phone. “They won’t get to the west end until about 11. If we take the Duval Mine Road we should be able to get out of town before the shutdown.”
Roni turned off from La Canada on to Duval, her hands shaking as she clutched the steering wheel. When she got to the I95 intersection, barricades were starting to go up. She held her breath, trying to hold back a mounting panic, as the highway patrol waived her through. They were safe—at least for now.
Forty minutes later Roni pulled up to the safe house, a sprawling bungalow in Tucson’s Menlo Park neighborhood. A smiling man with a shaggy mustache was standing on the front steps. “Tio Angel!” Luca cried, as he bolted out of the car and into the arms of his uncle, who smothered the young boy with kisses. Then Luca remembered his three aunties back at the curb. He went up to three women and shook hands with each of them solemnly. “Goodbye Auntie Claire, Goodbye Auntie Linda, Goodbye Auntie Roni,” he said to each of them in English. Then he leaned over and took hold of Fergus’s paw, “Goodbye Puppy Dog Fergus.” The three women burst into tears, squeezing and hugging their young Mexican friend while he squealed in delight.
Now it was time for the aunties to leave. As they were getting back in the car, Linda turned around and ran back for one last hug. “Mi valente Luca ( My brave Luca),” she whispered as she held him tight. “Siempre estaras en mi corazon (You will always be in my heart).”
On April 16, 2019, Attorney General William Barr issued an order voiding the so-called “catch and release” provision in U.S. immigration law. The provision had enabled children in the U.S. illegally, seeking asylum, to be released into the custody of American relatives if the children could show that they would be harmed and persecuted if they were returned to their home country.
Tucson-based Humane Borders (humaneborders.org) continues to assist asylum seekers and immigrants crossing the U.S. border into Arizona. For more information email Info@humaneboders.org.