It’s a Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood (Literary fiction)

This short story is based on several experiences I had while teaching overseas. All of them happened, though not on the same day. And I did spend a whole weekend sick with worry about my little girl who had been picked up by a stranger. The pick up procedure was changed very shortly after. And I am pretty sure the nurse meant I looked healthy, not overweight. The names have been changed etc, etc… (though Cling On was known as Cling On.)

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“Miss Miriam?”

Lindsey turned from her tray where she had been inventorying the day’s supplies against her lesson plans. Surely the woman didn’t really expect the Arabic teacher to be in the room. She wouldn’t show up until the first strains of the Good Morning song that kicked off assembly. Cling On had his arms wrapped around his tiny Indonesian housekeeper’s waist. Damn, she’d thought he was past that by now. Lindsey brushed her hands on her white flowered abaya. She hated this abaya. No matter how often she washed it, it stayed starched, but it had been the only one clean this morning. “I’m sorry. Miss Miriam isn’t here yet. Can I help?”

The housekeeper’s face screwed up. “No Arabic?”

Lindsey shook her head. “No. I don’t speak Arabic. We can ask Miss Klaithem to translate.” She crossed the carpet toward the door. Klaithem would be in her room by now. She’d be happy to translate.

The housekeeper’s eyes went wide and she shook her head. “No, no. Only Miss Miriam and you.” She chewed her lip and put her hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Mansour.”

Cling On, otherwise known as Mansour, stuck his thumb in his mouth. Poor kid was regressing before her eyes.

“Yes.” Lindsey nodded encouragement.

“Mansour go home only me.” The housekeeper patted herself on the chest. “Only me!”

Lindsey could translate that into any language without help. Something happened at home and the child was at risk of being kidnapped by a parent. That explained Mansour’s regression, too. “Mansour only goes home with you.”

“Yes, yes.” The housekeeper bobbled her head up and down so hard Lindsey thought her headscarf would fly off.

“No problem. I will see you after school. Mansour, come on, babe.” Lindsey held out her hand.

Mansour transferred from his housekeeper to Lindsey without breaking suction on his thumb.

“Say bye bye.”

Mansour waved to the housekeeper who gave him one last terrified look and left.

After divesting him of his backpack and a failed attempt to set him up with the iPad, Lindsey let Mansour wrap one arm around her leg while she finished checking her supplies for the day. She needed to be sure she had enough to both classrooms. More kids arrived so Lindsey went out to the play area. She sat down on the giant foam bricks with her iPad and Mansour suctioned to her hip.

“What’s the matter with Cling On?” Harriet scanned the play area for trouble.

“His nanny said he wasn’t to go home with anybody but her.”

“Uh oh.” Harriet spoke the same universal child in danger dialect.

Abdulla ran in and threw his arms around Lindsey’s neck.

“Hi sweetie. Go put your bag away.” Lindsey nudged him on the direction of the classroom and Abdulla never needed much more than a nudge. He sprinted away, swinging his backpack over his head.

“Something wrong with Mansour?” Klaithem knelt behind Lindsey’s shoulder. Hessa draped herself over Klaithem’s shoulders, pouting.

“His nanny told me he’s not allowed to go home with anyone but her.”

Klaithem nodded. “I was afraid.”

Lindsey made a note to check on this later. The bell rang for assembly. Still no Miriam. Surprise. Lindsey allowed Mansour to remain attached to her as she put away her iPad and got the other kids lined up. Miriam sailed across the play area from the main doors to their classroom, still in her black abaya. She handed her purse to Laith and stood at the head of the class. Lindsey took her place between the two classes as the Good Morning song started. Hessa slouched like she wanted to melt into the floor and Ahmed kept twisting around to check on her. Lindsey side stepped closer and put her hand on Hessa’s shoulder.

Hessa turned and threw up on Lindsey’s shoes. Lindsey had been bending down and the relentless starch of her abaya had pulled it against her legs so nothing got on the fabric.

“Sweetie.” Lindsey took Hessa’s hand and led her back to the classroom. Hessa had also neatly missed getting any vomit on her purple school uniform. Lindsey handed the girl a paper towel and wiped off her shoes. “The other teachers laugh at me for wearing Crocs, but who’s laughing now, right Hessa?”

“Not nice to laugh.”

“No, it’s not. Do you want to go to the nurse?” Lindsey touched the girl’s forehead. Not especially warm.

“Yes.”

“Okay.” Lindsey took her hand. Outside the classroom she gestured to Klaithem and Miriam where she was going and took Hessa the back way around to the nurse’s office. By the time she got back to the classroom, without Hessa, assembly was over. Miriam, halfway through her Arabic lesson, scowled at Lindsey.

 

Lindsey was elbow deep in the parachute man craft when Miriam burst into Klaithem’s room with Abdulla in tow. Miriam barked something at Klaithem and Klaithem responded with something that sounded a lot like an Arabic “whatever.” Lindsey frowned at Abdulla and pointed at the carpet. He was a handful. Miriam said his family were slavers, but that could have been decades ago or centuries ago. Long memories in this part of the world. Abdulla sat curled over his folded legs in a position that made Lindsey’s back spasm in sympathy.

“What’s up with the visitor?” Lindsey asked Klaithem. One nice thing about Klaithem being a fluent English speaker, when they talked the conversation could go right over the kids’ heads.

Klaithem shrugged. “Miriam is not fond.”

No, Miriam was not fond of Abdulla. He had a rock star’s personality jammed into a four-year-old’s body and less of an inclination to control himself. Which made it all the stranger that he was huddled on the carpet in that half lotus, half fetal position.

Finishing the parachute men took entirely too long. After the kids decorated their men, Lindsey had to help then glue the plastic gem that served as ballast on one side and the yarn straps on the other side, and lastly, write each kid’s name on the leg. Then they were placed on the drying trays, cookies sheets because Lindsey didn’t plan to bake cookies this weekend, which were placed high on a shelf so nothing would happen to them before they dried. She handed the kids in her group P coloring pages and went to check on Abdulla.

“Abdulla? What happened?” She sat in front of him and patted his shoulder. For the half of each day she spent in Miriam’s room, she could contain Abdulla’s outrageous personality with pointed looks and make sure Mansour went to the bathroom before he wet himself and keep track of Osha so she didn’t disappear into the bathroom to play in the water and whatever else it took to keep chaos at bay. She took no responsibility for what happened the other half of the day.

Abdulla lifted his little head. Snot and tears streaked down his cheeks and the front of his uniform.

“Shamsa, get me the tissues,” Lindsey said over her shoulder. She slid around beside Abdulla and put her arm around him. Poor kid. Forced out of his class by one teacher. Ignored by the other. Left to wallow in his misery for what must have been an eternity to his young mind. This was exactly why she tried not to think about what happened in her other class when she wasn’t there. Shamsa arrived with the box of tissues. Lindsey handed one to Abdulla and used a second to clean off his shirt. “You can just stay with us and do math again. Would you like that?”

Abdulla nodded and wiped his nose.

“Right before time to go home we’ll go to Miss Miriam and you can tell her sorry. Okay?”

Abdulla nodded again.

Lindsey held him until it was time to clean up from literacy and do math. “Go on and wash your face.” She lifted Abdulla to his feet and shooed him in the direction of the bathroom. Before she could stand, Surour plopped into her lap, staring up at her with big pleading eyes.

“P,” he said. “Parachute. Puppy dog. Pomegranate. Purse.”

“Good boy, now up, up.” Lindsey tried to lift him, but he turned into granite. She didn’t have to be telepathic to know what was going on between his ears. He’d seen her cuddling Abdulla and now he wanted his share. “Surour, honey, you have to get up.”

“Please?”

Stinker. “You can sit in my lap during math play, okay? We can read the counting book.”

Surour pouted, but stood up.

Lindsey climbed to her feet and shook out her abaya. “I was going to do the patterning game with small groups, but let’s skip that today,” she told Klaithem.

“I will do it. Abdulla can sit in Hessa’s chair.”

“Thanks.” Lindsey reached into her tray for the math mats and the clay.

Amna tugged Klaithem’s abaya and asked her something in Arabic. Klaithem answered before pointing Amna to the carpet. “The children want to know if you will do it.”

Lindsey rolled her eyes. They had spotted the shaving cream. Why this little demonstration enthralled them so much, she had no idea, but they sat with bated breath every time.

“Abdulla. He has a genie.”

Lindsey paused with the laminated number mats clutched in her hands. “What?”

“He has a genie. It bothers him and makes him bad.” She spoke as if this was scientifically proven. Abdulla had a genie that made him misbehave.

Lindsey set the mats on the table. Blinking to rid herself of the image of the genie from Aladdin following Abdulla around pestering him and whispering in his ear. Maybe it was just Robin Williams. Maybe the ghost of Robin Williams. “So, I’ll do the lesson and you can do the patterning activity? Simple ABC pattern.” Lindsey held out the box she kept the strips of stickers and the papers the kids were to stick them on.

“Of course.”

Lindsey carried her tray to the front of the room. The kids had been sitting patiently waiting because Klaithem kept them under a tight reign. After Miriam’s class, it was almost a vacation coming here. Lindsey put a finger to her lips and the kids giggled. Then she made a big show of shaking out her hands and peering down her sleeves before quirting mounds of shaving cream into two bowls she’d brought.

“White! White! White!” the kids shouted.

She tapped her finger on her lips again and they quieted down. She dripped red food coloring into one bowl and stirred it, and then held it up.

“Red! Red! Red!”

She tapped her lips again and repeated the process with blue.

“Blue! Blue! Blue!”

Standing, she went around the circle spooning red onto each child’s left hand. Then she went around spooning blue onto each child’s right hand. This part of the lesson always made her think of a dog her family had had when she was growing up. That dog would leave a biscuit balancing on his nose for fifteen minutes, waiting for the command to take it. The kids were the same way. They would sit there with the shaving cream on their hands until it melted away if she never let them mix it together. Both classes. They were all good kids.

She clapped her hands together and the kids did too screaming, “Purple! Purple! Purple!”

Surour tired of the purple soap first and ran to the bathroom to wash, coming right back with the counting book in his wet hands. Klaithem called the first group to the table and put them to work patterning red, blue and purple dots. The others chose an activity they wanted to do.

Genies. Good grief.

 

Lindsey pulled the elastic out of her hair and ran her fingers through it. Her skull ached. Hopefully, she wasn’t catching whatever Hessa had. She looked at her feet. Damn, she hadn’t rinsed off her feet. Laughter and ruckus came from the teacher’s lounge down the hall.

“Lindsey!” Valerie trotted up the hall behind her. “Hey, how’s it going?”

“It’s a wonderful day in the neighborhood.”

Valerie laughed. “I wanted to talk to you about next week’s lesson plans.”

Lindsey stopped. The nurse’s office was right behind her. She should stop and check on Hessa, but this was her only break all day. “Mine?”

“No, Angela’s. And Patti’s.”

Lindsey rubbed her face with both hands. Volunteering for lead teacher was turning out to be more fun that anticipated. “No plans yet?”

“I have plans, but for the love of –“ Valerie looked up and down the hall. “For the love of Pete, it looks like they are doing the same activities again next week as they did this week and last week.”

“Every time I ask them if they need help, they tell me they don’t. We sat down as a grade level Wednesday and discussed ideas. Harriett and I sent a list of teaching ideas to all the teachers.”

“I know. I saw it. That was a great list. I was just hoping to avoid doing anything…official.”

“Unofficial is too subtle.”

Valerie shrugged. “Official it is. What’s going on in the lounge?”

“No idea. But I have twenty-five minutes before I have to go to Miriam’s class and I am already toast.”

Saba stepped out of the nurse’s office. “Ah, Miss Lindsey, you are looking very fat today.”

Lindsey opened her mouth, but nothing came out. There just was no response to that.

“Hessa go home.” Saba smiled. “Come eat.” She waved them toward the lounge.

“Did she just say you were looking very fat?” Valerie asked.

“I am never wearing this abaya again,” Lindsey whispered back.

“I’m sure she just meant you looked healthy.”

Saba opened the lounge door and ushered them in. The center of the room was dominated by a huge coffee table ringed on three sides by a low red and black striped Arabic couch. The table was currently crammed with a buffet and most of the couch crowded with Arabic teachers, which begged the question, where were their students? Even Miriam was there. God, she’d probably left the kids alone in the room again. The women all had plates of food and were chattering at high speed.

“What’s all this?” Valerie asked. Her smile was pained and Lindsey assumed it was because the faculty head was also wondering where the students were.

The principal, Dr. Fatima, turned the office chair she’d pulled away from one of the desks to be closer to the party. “Ah, there you are. I was going to send Aysha for you. Miss Azza brought lunch.”

Azza beamed, rearranging the crowded map of wrinkles on her face into a sunburst pattern.

Brought lunch? Lindsey had seen more meager spreads at fancy receptions. Aluminum trays of pasta, salad, cabbage rolls, umm ali, that sweet yellow spaghetti, the pancake things, a couple of things Lindsey couldn’t identify. In the middle of the table, on a silver tray large enough to be its own table, a mountain of biryani with a goat skull balanced on top, which put an identity to the tray of meat on the outside.

Azza grabbed Lindsey’s arm before she could plead vegetarianism or upset stomach or the urgent need to wash off her shoes after being thrown up on this morning. Azza started loading a plate with a little bit of everything, but she paused at the tray of goat with a pleading look on her face.

Lindsey tried to drown her grimace under a smile and indicated a little bit with her fingers. How bad could it be? The goat was probably frolicking in the desert yesterday. Azza loaded at least eight ounces of goat onto the plate and handed it to Lindsey.

“What’s the occasion?” Valerie asked. She was smart enough to grab and plate for herself before Azza fixed one for her.

“Miss Azza husband divorce his new wife,” Afra said. “Only married three months.”

A yalla rose from the group and pretty soon they were all doing it. Lindsey looked at Valerie for confirmation and found Valerie looking at her.

“I thought you had to give permission for your husbands to take a second wife,” Valerie asked.

“We do, but it is better to just let him have his way or he will be annoying.” Dr. Fatima flicked her fingers like she was splashing water. “Better to let him learn on his own.”

A couple of the teachers laughed.

“I’m going to take this and go check on the kids.” Lindsey cradled her plate in both arms. Maybe she could get the kids to eat the goat. “Congratulations Miss Azza!”

 

Lindsey sat against the wall with one arm around Mansour watching Amna play with the three remaining pick up kids.

“You do not have to stay.”

Lindsey smiled at the music teacher with a look she hoped didn’t reveal the depth of her mistrust. “No, I need to talk to Mansour’s nanny.”

“Mansour, a bad boy?” the music teacher leaned down, holding her headscarf back with one manicured hand. How did she play keyboard with those talons?

Mansour pressed closer to Lindsey.

“No, I just need to talk to his nanny.” By now the music teacher should know Lindsey wasn’t leaving her students with her. Every day she brought the kids from both her classes who were picked up by their parents and every day she waited until they were all gone. Other teachers, Western and Arabic, might be okay with trusting the irresponsible music teacher to make sure their students went to the right homes, but Lindsey had seen her in action, or rather seen her not in action. This woman shouldn’t be given responsibility for a houseplant.

“Miss Lindsey?”

Lindsey turned to the voice. Mansour’s mother stood in the doorway, willowy and confident in her Air Force uniform. Mansour ran to her. “Hi, we’ve been waiting for you. Mansour, backpack.”

Mansour ran back and grabbed his backpack off the floor beside her.

“Can I speak with you?” Mansour’s mother asked.

“Of course.” Lindsey climbed to her feet, shaking the wrinkles out of her abaya. “What can I help you with?”

“Mansour’s father is not in the house anymore,” Mansour’s mother said when Lindsey joined her in the hall. “He cannot pick up Mansour at school.”

Lindsey nodded, dying to know why Mansour’s father wasn’t in the house anymore for purely nosey reasons. Mansour’s father was a scrawny manchild with a weedy adolescent mustache who picked up Mansour two or three days a week. Had to be an arranged marriage that had just unarranged itself. “Who is Mansour allowed to go home with?”

“Myself, my housekeeper and the nanny. Only us.”

Lindsey nodded. Mansour’s grandfather wasn’t on the list. He showed up fairly often to pick the kid up too. Maybe she should keep the kids in the room for pick up. Have the security guard come for them. Was that a bruise on Mansour’s mother’s throat or a shadow cast by the collar of her uniform? “No problem. I always wait with the kids anyway.”

“How was he today?”

Lindsey stroked Mansour’s head. “He was fine. Stuck very close to me and didn’t say much, but he was fine. No bathroom problems. No tummy trouble. He’s always a good boy.” Lindsey saw Miriam sail across the lobby to the doors. Technically, they weren’t supposed to leave until all the kids were gone and Amna was one of her kids.

Mansour’s mother clasped Lindsey’s wrist, drawing her attention back. “Thank you for taking such good care of him.”

“Happy to do it.”

Mansour’s mother said something to him in Arabic and took his backpack. Lindsey watched them walk out the door before turning back to the theater. One kid to go.

Amna was running in circles with the last remaining pick up kid and the music teacher was on the stage playing Hot Butter’s “Popcorn” with her talons. A driver came to the door and beckoned the other kid. Amna continued running in circles.

“If you will stay, I am going,” the music teacher said. She gathered her purse and walked out.

“Here you are.” Harriett had her bookbag draped over her arm and was followed by Jennifer. “Amna again?”

“Unbroken record. Last kid picked up three months running.”

Amna grinned at Harriett and Jennifer.

“If you want to go get my bag, we can leave as soon as her ride gets here.”

“I’ll get it.” Harriett left her bag on the stage.

Jennifer sat down beside Lindsey. “We should go out to lunch after this.”

“We could.”

A man came to the door of the theater. “Amna.”

Amna stopped running, but made no effort to go toward him.

“Have you ever seen this guy before?” Jennifer asked.

“No.” Lindsey crossed the theater to the doors. Amna didn’t move from the middle of the room. “Hi, I don’t know you.”

“I am come for Amna. Her father sent. Amna, come!”

Amna trotted to the wall to grab her backpack.

“Did her father call and let the school know you would be picking her up?” Typical if they hadn’t relayed the message.

“I am come for Amna,” the man repeated.

Amna came to the door, but Lindsey put her hand down to keep her inside the theater. “I’m sorry, I can’t let her go until I know she’s supposed to go with you.”

“I am come for Amna.”

“Jennifer, get Val for me and see if there’s an Arabic speaker left in the building.” Lindsey looked over her shoulder. Jennifer was already gone. She took Amna’s hand. “We’ll get someone to straighten this out.”

The man frowned. He didn’t look local to Lindsey. More like a Pakistani driver. Amna didn’t act like she knew him. No way was she letting some random person off the street walk in and take one of her kids away.

Klaithem came out of the hallway on the other side of the lobby still wrapping her headscarf. She began speaking in rapid Arabic to the man. Amna sidled closer to Lindsey, hiding in the folds of her abaya. “He says Amna’s father told him to come pick her up from school,” Klaithem finally translated. “He says there was a family emergency. He is very firm.”

“So am I. I don’t know him. Amna doesn’t know him.”

Val stepped in the doorway in front of Amna. “We should call her parents to check.”

Klaithem translated and the man pulled out a phone. After he dialed and spoke to someone he handed the phone to Klaithem who spoke to the person on the other end.

Dr. Fatima strode out from the admin offices in her black abaya and the permanent scowl that made her look so much more imposing than her five foot nothing height would imply.

Klaithem hung up the phone and handed it back to the man. “I spoke to Amna’s father. He said there is a family emergency and Mohammed is to take her home.”

“What is going on?” Dr. Fatima asked.

“This man is here to pick up Amna, but I’ve never seen him before and Amna doesn’t know him,” Lindsey said.

Dr. Fatima spoke to the man in Arabic. While they talked, Lindsey noticed the school security guard step inside the front doors and stand blocking them. Harriett and Jennifer stood in the lobby watching the confrontation. Val would support Lindsey to the end of the Earth, but Dr. Fatima’s word was law. The vice principal came out with a student file in her hand as the quarrel continued. Lindsey whished she’d picked up more Arabic in her time here just so she would know what was going on. Dr. Fatima pulled out her phone and consulted the file before dialing. She held a short conversation with someone on the other end. When she hung up, she slid the phone into her pocket. “Amna’s mother says she is to go with this man. He is the driver of her sister-in-law.”

Lindsey studied the man’s face. If Amna didn’t show up for school on Sunday, she was going to have to describe him to the police. Pakistani guy, about five six, moustache, said he name was Mohammed. That had to describe ten percent of the population. She released Anma’s hand. “Okay scooter. See you on Sunday.” She glared at the driver as she said that last, but by the blank expression on his face, he had no idea there had been a threat implied.

All of them watched the driver walk across the lobby with Amna trailing behind him. The security guard opened the door for them and then followed them out.

“We must do something about our pick up routine,” Dr. Fatima said as the door closed. “This should not happen. Have a good weekend, Miss Lindsey.”

That was as close as Dr. Fatima was going to get to an attaboy. “You too.”

Val clapped her on the shoulder. “Better to err on the side of caution. Good catch.” Then she followed Dr. Fatima and the vice principal to the offices.

Lindsey went to where Harriett and Jennifer waited. “That was a little nuts.”

“I knew you needed help as soon as that guy showed up at the door. I keep saying that we need to do something about pick ups.” Jennifer launched into her tired rant about how she knew all along and one day a kid was going to get snatched and blah blah blah.

Lindsey grabbed her bookbag. “Did I understand the thing in the lounge right? We had a party because Azza’s husband divorced his second wife after three months and she was twenty-nine?”

“That’s what I heard,” Harriett said.

“Azza has to be seventy. How old is her husband?”

“Too old to keep up with a twenty-nine year old.” Harriett pulled the door open and the February wind blew a dust devil across the lobby. “You had a big day.”

“Oh my God, Hessa puked on my shoes this morning and I never washed them off.” Lindsey dropped her bag and ran for the bathroom.

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