<- Back to main page

José and Miriam in Bedlam

by Heidi Vornbrock Roosa


José had to go home. He didn’t have a choice. Luis’s body had been found, minus his head. Their mother had buried him without it. But she still had José’s sister-in-law, Teresa, then. That was before her body had been found as well, along with the body of Luis’s youngest boy, Oscar. The oldest boy was still missing. José’s mother had been confused about that too, why they told her it was Teresa and Oscar but would not release the bodies. She finally gave José the number of the human rights organization that had begun identifying the ones found in the mass grave.

During his breaks at the home, José called. He called three times on a borrowed cell phone, too scared to use his own any­more, though it made him feel a coward. The young guy he finally reached apologized, they had been out at the site, he called it. Had found another grave, this one with even more. José didn’t ask questions about that, thought they’d let his mother know in time if Hector, the oldest boy, was among those found there. José only asked about Teresa and her young­est, Oscar, why their bodies couldn’t come home.

The young guy explained they couldn’t issue a conclusive finding, but the DNA his mother had supplied—a mouth swab, he explained quickly, the steps involved in collecting it elided into one long sentence with no discernible punctuation, as if he was forever describing the procedure in his schoolboy Span­ish—the DNA was pretty clear. They couldn’t make the iden­tifications official, he seemed to be telegraphing, or they would be required to inform the local police, and that, he didn’t say, but said, would not be a smart thing to do just yet. So, yes, they were sure it was Teresa and Oscar, but no, they couldn’t release the bodies. José’s mother couldn’t bury her daughter-in-law, her grandson, bring them home to rest with her head­less son. Not yet.

But yesterday, José heard about Ana from Carlos, who worked the third floor, the locked unit, while José worked the first floor, the chronic. They stood out by the dumpsters, Car­los smoking, José not, but breathing the smoke, the humid air, scent of spoiling heaps from the dumpster more real than the cooled, disinfected air of the home. Carlos’s sister was married to José’s cousin back home, and so she wanted Carlos to pass on the message. Tell José his mother can’t reach him on his phone. Tell José, the oldest, that his youngest sister, Ana, is now missing.


The autistic girl, Miriam, usually fol­lowed José on his breaks, had started that soon after her arrival a year before. She was stubborn in her refusal to turn back, and he wasn’t allowed to put hands on her, even to turn her around, steer her in another direc­tion. Usually José brought a piece of fruit on break, something to get him through until his lunch break, or after, until he could get him­self dinner on his two-burner apartment stove. Used to be an apple, a banana, but Mir­iam liked fruit, so he now brought something easily shared, a bunch of grapes, an orange. They didn’t give enough fruit with the meals, only precisely measured half-cup servings in little square trays of thin plastic. All the other food was measured too, but it was food service food, so the residents got doughy and soft, Miriam no exception in the last year. They gave the residents large men’s t-shirts in dark colors to wear. Miriam was forever plucking at the cotton of it, as if she knew the shirt wasn’t hers. One hand plucked, the other held the fruit to her mouth, not by fingers, but cupped in her palm, as if she were scooping water to her thirst. She liked oranges best of all, though she sat at his feet, always at his feet, and ate whatever he handed down to her. When it was gone, head still hanging down over her large breasts, fleshy belly, lap missing, she put her arm up to him, asking for more.

Miriam sat now, a lump at José’s feet out there by the dumpsters, scooted away from Carlos, her hair hiding her face, looking down at her dancing fingers over her knees. She stayed there even after Carlos went back inside, stayed with José. That day, he waited for the smell of rotting to get to be too much, until it forced him back inside the cool of the home. For the first time in five years, he was late back from break.

José had to go home. He knew it a few seconds after Car­los told him about Ana. A few seconds after because his first thoughts, in the first seconds, were how stupid Carlos’s sister was, for telling Carlos everything that was going on at home, how that was the way, José was sure, Teresa had gotten herself and her two boys killed, by telling. But his next thought was that he had to go home, that he was the oldest, that it had been ten years since he’d left, like so many others, almost all the others. That of those left, the missing were more every day. That there had to be hardly anyone left at all. That with Ana gone, his mother was alone.

There had been a time when José had hoped his mother might come to live with him. He had only a one-bedroom apartment, even that a guilty luxury, since it meant an extra seventy-five dollars over a studio. He could even have shared a place, sent more money from his job at the home to his mother. But he didn’t want to sleep on a couch anymore, even a sleeper sofa. His position at the home was a good one now that he had worked on his English, taken classes.

He was always trying to learn more, read when he worked the night shift, romance novels that people donated, checking the words he didn’t know in the thumbed dictionary at the nurses’ station. Sometimes it wouldn’t have a word—it was only a pocket dictionary—and since they locked down the internet except for email, he had started sending emails to Miriam, asking her the meaning, gave her the context, typed in the sentence from the book. She didn’t speak, only communi­cated by email, the fact that she could do that discovered, though quickly forgotten, by one of the interns, and José thought he was the only one who really knew how much she could communicate. How wide her vocabulary was. How much she really understood, though they treated her like a child. If it was still early in the evening of those night shifts, Miriam would be almost beside him, crouched on the floor by the nurses’ station, since she was not allowed behind it with him. She never seemed to watch him, but she must have felt when he stopped reading, when he looked up the word, closed the dictionary, typed the email. Invariably she would hop up, waddle in that weird quick, but circuitous way to one of the resident computers, stand rocking foot to foot behind whoever was using it, and then log in, fingertip by fingertip, and answer.

Reticule is a drawstring purse, here used to mean a kind of exte­rior pocket of the same fabric as a dress or gown. For holding things a woman might find necessary to get through her day.

Sometimes she would give him the word in Spanish, but he asked her to stop, told her he wanted to improve his Eng­lish. Didn’t tell her that sometimes even the Spanish word was one he didn’t know.

José wondered about her. So much inside her and she remained closed. He heard the doctors say it wasn’t a choice, that her brain was set that way. Wiring or inflammation on this spectrum or that, the interns argued, forgot he was there, that she was there, conversation going beyond both of them, into the realm of theory, into the realm of ego.

José knew Miriam got emails from home, or something like it. They came from her father every Monday, first thing, like it was an appointment on his calendar. Miriam forwarded them to him, he didn’t know why. José thought they all read pretty much the same, as if written to a formula, and he won­dered if her father’s secretary wrote them. They were signed with his name—not Dad—and his automatic business signa­ture too.

José never wrote home. His mother only read a little, and his own writing in Spanish wasn’t so great. It was to the point where he was pretty sure his written English was better, better to than his spoken English.  He didn’t have too many people to speak to when he was on night shift, was too busy with the res­idents when on day shift, didn’t speak to many people beyond work, lived alone, liked it that way. So he did not trust himself to speak in English much. And now he was unsure if it was safe to call his mother’s phone. He couldn’t let her know he was coming. Couldn’t prepare her to leave home and everything she knew. But it was the only thing he could think to do. Drive over the border, hope his English and the documents he could get would be enough to get him over it again, back to this side. Bring his mother home with him. She wouldn’t want to go. How could he get her to understand? She was stubborn, like Miriam, round and soft in the same way too, he thought, then wondered why he would think about them like that together.

Miriam had tried to kill herself at her group home, before she had come here. That was why the father had moved her to a more strictly supervised setting. The interns argued about her suicide attempt too. Whether she had agency enough to do that. She sat while they discussed her by the nurses’ station, oblivious to who around them heard. Only later, after they had gone, did Miriam waddle to one of the computers, fingers to keys, sending to José a clarification, though he hadn’t asked for it.

Agency is a government or business group empowered to act for others. Here used to mean the ability to act for oneself.

José had stopped asking Miriam for definitions of words, worried about getting caught, sure he would get in trouble for it somehow, but she still sent him emails like that one, as if he were still sending her the words and the sentences in which they appeared. After the intensive sessions with one of the interns, Miriam would sometimes go into her blank mode, staring, unresponsive and motionless even if José moved to the other side of the room, or left the floor altogether. The inten­sive sessions were too much for her. Too much contact, José thought, but what did he know. Miriam would shut down too when Carlos came onto their floor and José would ignore her, talk to Carlos, watch him schmooze the nurses, the residents, hoping for a transfer, for José’s job. And then, days later, she would come out of it, and he would get a clump of emails, each another word, another definition, but ones he hadn’t asked for.

Committed is being true to something or someone, having made a promise. Here used to say someone is keeping someone else in a place like this, against their will.

On Wednesday, José paid his next month’s rent five days early, slipping the money order under the office door since it was just after five in the morning. He had asked for day shift, went on at seven, and he’d leave at three, cross the border with the farmers and artisans who came over for the weekly market. It would be no problem crossing the border that direction. He’d worry about how it might be difficult getting back later. He had no choice, had to go home.

When he left the apartment that morning, he locked the keys inside. It was a mistake. He kept them on a separate ring so it was easier to loan out his truck to Carlos or one of the others, a politic thing to do. He didn’t want them to have access to where he lived. They might seed themselves, claim he had given them the key, welcomed them, and then they would stay. It had happened when José had first arrived and was stay­ing with his cousin who worked at the university. José had been given the couch, but one day, he’d come back from the mow­ing crew he’d been working, and two guys had been on the couch, planted, and never left. José got a different mowing job, at the home, moved away to a rented room. When he got a promotion to inside the home and could afford his own apart­ment, he chose a complex two towns farther away, where he knew no one. And he never invited anyone over.

José hadn’t meant to lock his keys in. It would be a prob­lem, though not a huge one. When he returned, he would have to ask the manager to let him in. He would have to find a place to leave his mother when he did that, leave her until the office closed, someplace she wouldn’t be scared. Until he could bring her into the apartment unseen. But he would worry about it all later.

He drove out of town to the highway, past the last house before the on-ramp, that crazy pink adobe with the mural of mesas, of a sunset, on the one long side. It reminded him of home, the mudbrick house.  José always got confused with that word now—adobe—ever since he had asked Miriam about the word abode. He knew the d and the b were switched, but it still seemed in his mind to mean the same thing.

The pink adobe house had wind chimes of bits of glass and wire in all the citrus trees in the yard, reflecting the white fra­grant blossoms when they bloomed. They weren’t in bloom yet this year. But later, there would be oranges, mostly fallen, neglected on the patchy sand lawn. The waste made him think of Miriam. She would have gathered all the oranges to her, hid­den them under the large t-shirts she wore, would have held one up to José from where she sat, would maybe be unable to coordinate her hands, unable to still them long enough to peel.

José pulled off the highway, midway between his apart­ment and the home, stopped at a gas station he didn’t know. He paid inside in cash, handed over five twenties, said “One hundred on six,” answered the man’s glance at the small truck, his raised eyebrows with, “Need to fill up my truck and some containers too.”

“Legal?” The man barked the query.

José took a step back a beat, came forward again. “The containers? Yes, legal. Red plastic, yellow spouts. Okay?”

José knew the extra containers were a risk, suspicious for some reason he couldn’t name, some purpose others might imagine. But being without them, having to stop on the other side before he reached home, that would be a risk too. And he would need all of them to get there. He wasn’t sure if it would be enough to get back. But he would think about that later.

José was not very good at looking sick, not a good actor. He sat at the nurses’ station, which was not where he was sup­posed to be when he was on day shift. But he needed the nurses to notice, to be able to say to his supervisor, José looks sick, send him home. He couldn’t just call in. He never did that, but others did, and they never believed you were sick. So he had to be sick here, so they would be glad to send him home, could see it looked like something bad coming on, something it would take a few days, a week, to recover from.

He tried to mimic the symptoms of the bad virus that a few of the residents had contracted half a year before. They’d thought it was food poisoning, but it had lasted for days, no fever, but stomach stuff, diarrhea, vomiting. They’d groaned a lot, all of them except Miriam, who hadn’t made a sound, only stayed in bed, threw up in a bowl José cleaned out for her.

“Oh,” he began moaning when the nurses returned from med check to write up their notes. He felt right away that it came out like he was reading from a script. He tried again, making it less a word than a sound, “Ohh…”

The nurse closest scooted the chart down the desktop, turned the computer screen so it acted as a shield. “Don’t you get me sick now. Go on out of here.”

José stood up, made himself walk slowly, haltingly. Like some of the residents, he thought. And as if to make his point, there was Miriam beside him, looking at him sideways through her hair, matching her pace to his. Outside the dayroom, José stopped.

“I don’t have any fruit today,” he said to Miriam.

She didn’t look at him. Just stopped beside him. Waited to go where he went when he started again. It was clear she would follow him no matter where that was.

“I’ll bring you some oranges tomorrow. Okay? I promise. Go on back.”

But Miriam still didn’t move. She waited until he walked again, went with him. He ducked into the staff bathroom, stayed there a while, which worked with him playing sick any­way. When he came out, he was thankful she was gone.

No one was at the nurses’ station. The day room was empty too, most of the residents at one activity or another, at therapy. He didn’t see Miriam, found instead a new email on the computer when he logged in to check for news from the human rights group, though he didn’t know if he should hope for that or not.

Confinement is the act of being made to stay in a particular space, suggests an outside actor, someone is confining someone else. Here used as an early euphemism for the last months of a woman’s pregnancy, in expectation of giving birth.

He deleted it. When his supervisor came in, leading a group back from lunch, she looked at him with a sour face, wouldn’t even let him come close, the nurses having filled her in on his sickness. She told him to go home, to spray down the computer keyboard with disinfectant before he left. He went to do that, saw before he logged off a new email from Miriam, though she wasn’t with the group, wasn’t at one of the resident computers, had sent it just minutes before from somewhere off the floor.

Accommodation is a flexibility or compromise between two things, one of which you give up to allow the other. Here used to mean a place to stay, a hotel or motel. An inn.

José looked over again at the resident computers. He didn’t know what it meant, what any of her emails meant. If they meant anything. The interns would argue if she had the ability to make them mean anything, if they were just words, or were really thoughts, messages. José didn’t know. He felt guilty as he deleted this one too. Felt guilty he had lied to her about oranges for tomorrow. But there was nothing he could do. He had to go home. He would worry about dealing with Miriam when he got back.

José headed out to his truck, parked on the north of the building, almost to the dumpsters, so the gas containers would get some shade. It was earlier than he had thought, but he would leave now, just park by the market, leave with the farm­ers when it was time.

He saw Miriam lying in the shadow under his truck before he got halfway across the gravel.

She would not come out. José crouched down, talked to her. In English. In Spanish. He almost told her he had oranges, but he stopped himself. He didn’t know what more to say. Didn’t have the words.

What could he do? He had to get home.

He bent down further in his crouch and peered into the dim. Her hair lay spilled over her cheek, and he could not see her eyes, though he knew they would be closed or blank, which was the same thing. The fabric of her large t-shirt draped over her side down her hip and forward to wrap her large belly to the gravel ground. When the sun came through the haze of clouds, light haloed around her from the truck’s other side, no longer in shade. In the hot afternoon, the sud­den sunlight glared, blinding him when he looked away from it to try to see her there. In its glow, she looked like one of the Our Lady’s, draped in deep, dark color, outlined in gold, in rays of it.

When the clouds moved back, in the resulting dim, he couldn’t see if she was asleep or awake, couldn’t make out the rise and fall of her heavy breasts. But he thought she was awake, and so could hear him, in whatever way it was she ever heard him. But she wouldn’t speak to him, couldn’t. And now, run out of words, neither could he.

He cocked his head and ducked it into the dark under the truck’s body. He saw movement. He wasn’t sure if it was her hand, or her elbow, shoulder, but it seemed to him a beckon­ing. The sun came out again, beat down on his back, so strong and insistent. He couldn’t help but notice it and think how much cooler it must be down there in the shade with Miriam.

He saw movement again. This time he could tell it wasn’t Miriam’s hand, wasn’t her arm beckoning. The movement came though she was perfectly still, came from her belly, send­ing the t-shirt that draped her fluttering. Movement rippling across her belly.

“Miriam,” José let out, all he could think now to say.

She did not respond, could not tell him with her body all that she might have said. All that had happened. All that would happen. He knew this. And so he moved as gently into the dark as he could. He crawled under the truck carefully, trying not to startle, as the movement that had come from her belly had startled him.

She was still beside him, allowed him to come close, though he could not see her eyes. He didn’t know what he was doing. He didn’t know if she knew. And neither of them would have been able to say what that was even if they had known. Words she had never said, but had sent to him, came to his mind as his hand reached out, as he touched her for the first time.

Confinement. Committed. Agency. Accommodation. Abode.

And still the word, abode, when he saw it in his mind, was adobe.