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Son of the Maya
By John H. McKoy
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2016 John H. McKoy
All rights reserved.
"IS THIS MR. Prettyman?"
"Yes, it is."
"Mr. Bob Prettyman?"
"Yes. Who is this, please?"
"My name is Sergeant Murphy, Metropolitan Police Second District. There's been an incident involving Raúl Gonzales. He's in GW Hospital and says you're his closest relative."
"I'll be right over," I said.
"I'll wait for you here, sir. Room 5010," said the officer.
That phone call would not only change my nephew's life in ways we could never have predicted, but it would also accelerate a major life change for me. I'll never forget the year 2005. Most Americans remember it as a time of turmoil: the horror of Katrina, the deadly escalations in Iraq, and the killings in Darfur or Chechnya. They might recall the passing of civil rights icon Rosa Parks, presidential peace candidate Eugene McCarthy, or Tonight Show legend Johnny Carson. For me, it was a time of immense internal dissatisfaction, debate, and indecision. It was the year I turned fifty-two. It was also the year in which I had been recently divorced, had drifted away from my daughter, and was struggling to identify a professional direction that could reenergize my life. In short, I was experiencing an intense midlife crisis not unlike that endured by many "successful" Americans.
The emotional jolt of receiving the officer's frightening call and Raúl's subsequent close call with death helped me decide which way to go.
I threw on some sweats, grabbed my wallet and keys, and took the elevator down to the condo garage. It took only about twenty minutes to drive from Chevy Chase, Maryland, down Wisconsin Avenue to the West End neighborhood in the District. Sergeant Murphy was talking to the attending nurse on the fifth floor when I arrived at my nephew's room. He extended a calloused dark-brown-skinned hand and firmly shook mine. Not too much desk work for this hardened police veteran.
"Thank you for coming so quickly, Mr. Prettyman. Let me explain the situation. Please — sit here a minute before you go in."
My heart beat so hard against my chest that I thought the nurse would insist on admitting me too. I willed an exterior calm and sat facing the officer.
"There was some gang activity up on Adams Mill Road earlier tonight; your nephew was shot near his spine. He'll live, but doctors aren't sure whether he'll regain use of his legs. They'll operate tomorrow, after he's stabilized. The medical staff can fill you in. Unfortunately, I need to check some things with you before the medical proceedings get rolling, if you don't mind answering a couple of questions."
"I'd like to see Raúl, but sure. What can I help you with?"
"He's sedated now. I'll only take a minute. I realize what an imposition it is."
"Thank you. Okay."
"The incident was called in by neighbors, but by the time our people arrived, there were just two bodies and your injured nephew. We have identified the other two as illegals from rival gangs but have little else to go on. Do you know where your nephew was living?"
My mind didn't work. I was stuck on the image of Raúl, my cousin's boy, lying paralyzed and alone in a pool of blood on some District street while I slept in my sky-view, secure condo. Raúl had only stayed with me for a year while he finished his senior year at George Washington University in DC. He'd then gotten a clerk job at an association on M Street downtown and rented an apartment on the fringe of Mt. Pleasant, a funky transition neighborhood. That had been two years, one promotion, and several girlfriends ago.
I had never actually met any of his friends. Raúl had been to my condo a couple of times, but normally when we met, it was at one or another restaurant in Adams-Morgan. We talked about his mother back in Guatemala, discrimination against Latinos in the region, local politics, and his desire to go to graduate school. I never paid enough attention to fully understand the crowd with whom he spent his time.
"He lives at 1745 Hobart Street and works at the Association of Home Builders in the administrative department. The rest of the family, other than me, is in Guatemala, but Raúl has a valid green card. As far as I know, he lives alone in a basement apartment."
"Great. Do you happen to know any of his friends?"
"Unfortunately, Sergeant, I don't. I now wish I did, but no, I really don't."
"Well, that's enough for now, sir. Where can we reach you during the day?"
"I have a real estate company in downtown DC. Here's my card."
"Thank you, Mr. Prettyman. Sorry to have to bother you, and sorry for your trouble. I hope the boy recovers. I'll be in touch after his medical procedures. Nurse Marcos will need to get insurance information."
I barely heard the final words, because I was inside Raúl's room, staring at his prone, tube-filled body. I pulled up a chair and placed my right hand on Raúl's arm.
"I'm here, Raúl. I'm here," I whispered.
I don't know how much time lapsed while I sat by his bed, praying that he would recover.
"Mr. Prettyman, my name is Dr. Ronald Jones, and I'll be operating on Raúl in the next day or so. If you don't mind, I'd like to explain the procedure to you. Maybe we could sit outside while Nurse Marcos changes your nephew's fluids." I must have nodded and mumbled assent, because I only snapped out of my trance outside the room as the doctor began to explain.
"In many ways, Raúl is fortunate. The bullet entered his side and managed not to sever any organs before it lodged against his spine. So if we can remove to bullet without affecting the critical nerves in his back, he should recover fully. I say if because there are risks, but if we leave the bullet in, there's a risk that he will never walk again."
"Well, Doctor, do I have time to get a second opinion? No offense, but I have no way of knowing how good your diagnosis is or your track record as a surgeon. I owe him that much —"
"No need to explain, Mr. Prettyman. You should absolutely check, but we can't wait longer than a day. I would appreciate it if you give me a call by tomorrow night, because we don't want to keep him sedated longer than necessary."
"I will try."
"Thank you. Here is my card. I know this is happening extremely fast, but I'm sure you can understand that to keep the chances for a successful operation high, we have to keep Raúl from moving about too much. On the other hand, we can't keep him sedated too long."
I stayed with Raúl for about an hour, watching him breathe peacefully. I studied his face more intently than I ever had when he first arrived in the United States. He had very straight, jet-black hair and prominent Mayan cheekbones, his mother's light-brown skin, and his father's hazel eyes, but he was taller and more muscular than either of them. While at his side, I decided not to tell his mother until after the operation. I hoped to save María Elena from worrying about any more serious a situation than necessary. Luckily, we'd arranged for me to have Power of Attorney when Raul first arrived from Guatemala.
I drove back, stopped the car, and parked on one of the numerical streets just off M Street in Georgetown. I walked down to the river, past the closed shops and restaurants. Occasionally, some chef's tangy tomato sauce pulled my head in the direction of a late-night café, or some loud, young suburban kids drew my attention as they struggled onto the sidewalk from their expensive watering hole. It was mostly dark and quiet, with a faint smell of honeysuckle under the Whitehurst Freeway along the Potomac River.
Back up near the car, I wondered when Georgetown had changed. The architecture was the same Federalist-period two- and three-story buildings, but the occupants had changed. Now they were Middle Eastern or Asian, as well as white American. All very young, young like Raúl.
I felt old.
On the drive back through Georgetown and Chevy Chase, I made mental notes of the doctors with whom I could check that were likely to have GW Hospital privileges. I thought of nursing services to call for Raúl's care after dismissal, in case he needed the most intensive care. I also made plans to have my COO, Marshall Robinson, run my business for the near term. I decided that regardless of the outcome of Raúl's operation, I would take responsibility for his care. I fought back the guilt attempting to overwhelm me, and I resolved to get his life back on track while he was on my watch.
It only took a few calls to check out Dr. Jones, and he proved to have a stellar reputation. Getting a second opinion was taking more time than Raúl had. After asking a medical colleague from the chamber of commerce to handle that research, I had to grit my teeth and wait as long as I could. The wait almost drove me back to the Catholic Church in search of relief. The next night, I called Dr. Jones and authorized Raúl's surgery. Each night after work, I drove by the hospital and then home to a glass of scotch. I cut out any unnecessary nighttime business meetings.
After my divorce a couple of years back, I moved into a spacious three-bedroom penthouse condo off of Wisconsin Avenue in Chevy Chase, Maryland, just across the DC border. It provided a breathtaking view of forest-like vegetation, with an occasional rooftop and a scattering of glass and steel office towers thrown in. It was close to a subway station, shopping, and restaurants. I was getting used to leaving the car in the garage and building much of my nonwork life around the neighborhood.
The second bedroom gave me a study, and the third was for guests. It was mostly used by our twenty-two-year-old daughter on her brief and increasingly more infrequent visits during her senior year at Berkeley. Scrapbooks and photo albums of my early childhood in Guatemala City lay about the condo. Relatives had really filled in much of what I remembered from those days since we immigrated to the United States when I was five. The loneliness, the awful, helpless churning in my stomach that I felt as I paced about the condo or stared out of the living room window approximated what I had experienced when my wife, Mónica, moved out. Only this time, I felt more responsible and more guilty.
Five days after the shooting, my secretary buzzed to tell me that Dr. Jones was on the line. My hand did not move quickly to the receiver, but it eventually got the instrument to my ear.
I'm sure that I only whispered, "Hello," in a very sheepish voice.
"Raúl will walk," were the only words I really heard on the other end of the line.CHAPTER 2
FIVE YEARS AGO, Raúl Gonzales was pegged as a typical well-off, upper-crust teen preparing for post-high school education at some elite US college or university. He was not super smart, but bright enough and academically accomplished enough, and from a "good enough" family to be accepted in any number of schools used to full-paying Latin scions. If tradition and projections held, Raúl would learn the foundations of a profession; return home to study law, medicine, or finance in a Guatemalan graduate program; marry an attractive, college-educated, upper-class socialite; and live a life of privilege forever after.
He was permitted to be rambunctious or mischievous but was not to go too far off script for the rewards of class to be thrown his way. He could come in contact with, but not be affected by, youngsters from less privileged backgrounds. But Raúl never stuck to his lines. He was at the top of his grade academically and hung with the rich crowd of boys, yet he also starred in soccer and was known for the egalitarian way he treated all boys on the pitch, whether they were rich or poor, Indian, mixed-blood (Ladino), or pure Hispanic. This unusual sense of justice clearly came from his mother and often made his school colleagues scratch their heads about his behavior.
In one non-school league game, played in a rich neighborhood, Raúl's teammates thought it would be appropriate to rough up the star of the opposing "working class" team. When referees weren't looking, they tripped and shoved the youngster from all angles until he'd retaliate and invariably get penalized by the refs. Late in the game, one of Raúl's mates shoved the opposing player so hard and so obviously that the refs called him for a flagrant foul. The other player shoved back and a fight almost broke out, and Raúl stepped in, pushing his own mates away.
"That's enough. You've been trying to get them to fight all game. Let's just play," he said.
All players, on both sides, were stunned.
"Whose side are you on, Gonzales? You soft on this gutter trash?" The instigating — and muscular — teammate stepped into Raúl's face.
Not backing off, Raúl calmly said, "I hope you know what's right on the field, Marco."
As a circle formed, Marco, emboldened by an audience, took a swing at Raúl. A mistake.
Raúl easily ducked the swing and caught the bully in his belly with a right jab and in the jaw with a left hook. Marco's knees buckled, and he went down like a large elk whose legs had been shot from underneath it. The refs broke up any further scuffle and, after several minutes, allowed play to continue without incident.
Marco left the field before his teammates, and though they rarely spoke to each other, he never bothered Raúl again.
Back at school the next week, Raúl was approached after a history class by the other top male senior student, Oscar del Gato. Much more studious and less athletic in appearance and in ability than Raúl, del Gato generally kept to himself around school.
"I heard about the soccer fracas. Unusual for someone from here to stand up for an ordinary Ladino. That took guts you don't expect," he said.
"You might not expect it, but my mother would. And, she's the boss in our house." Raúl smiled.
"I don't know if you're interested, but I'm involved in a study group on modern politics. You might enjoy sitting in sometime."
Raúl knew that Oscar had the reputation as a grind and a leftist sympathizer — not someone with whom his social set normally partied. In fact, he'd never seen Oscar at a party. He was intrigued, however.
"Thank you, Oscar. I'd like to sit in. Let me know when the next meeting is."
"Will do, Raúl. Will do." They shook hands and walked off.
Several weeks later, Oscar invited Raúl to a meeting held in a little-used neighborhood recreation center in a poor section of Zone 5. On the agenda was a debate on appropriate and effective revolutionary tactics with a student from Guatemala's Landivar University espousing gradual, but pervasive community-building and social change among the poor and a dynamic "participant" from Nicaragua championing radical violent action similar to Castro's Cuba triumph or the "Sandinistas" in Nicaragua. The audience was older than high school age, and many seemed to be university students. Some, however, appeared to be working professionals, because of their more formal, buttoned-down dress.
Raúl found the debate and ensuing discussion stimulating, but he was uncomfortable with how real and intense the discussion was. Judging by the questions, proclamations, and enthusiasm of their engagement, Raúl gauged that most of the fifty or so young men and five women in the hall were more committed to the radical approach than that of "social change." While everyone was friendly to him afterward, he realized that the mission of the most dedicated was to displace his social class.
"Well, what did you think?" asked Oscar as they walked the dark, crumbling streets back to the patch of dirt where he had parked his car.
Raúl was tense, walked with uncharacteristic caution, and didn't answer until they were driving back down toward his neighborhood.
"Fascinating. But, to be honest, it's the first time I've begun to realize that the change in wealth and power distribution that I believe is necessary would mean a radical change in the way you and I and our classmates live our lives. I have never really processed those possibilities. It's all been distant, intellectual, unrelated to my daily life. I suppose I need time to absorb and analyze the ideas and my reaction."
"Fair enough," said Oscar.
"I'm glad you invited me, Oscar. Thank you," said Raúl as he stepped from Oscar's car in front of his house.
The debate experience was sobering, but by no means did it immediately alter Raúl's life. He soon forgot the meeting, was conveniently otherwise occupied when Oscar advised him of future meetings, and had very few sidebar political discussions with Oscar during the remaining months of school. Late in the spring, prior to graduation, Raúl and some of his adventurous schoolmates, fellow soccer players, found themselves in a rundown part of Zone 5 to score marijuana. This sort of interaction with lower-class Ladinos, this "business transaction," felt natural to the preppy group and generated no apparent resentment from the sellers. After paying the agreed-upon price to the two sellers, Raúl and his six classmates walked nonchalantly toward Chico Bravo's, the group's vocal leader's, van. Before Chico could open the driver's door, they were surrounded by a rough-looking group of about fifteen youths.
Excerpted from Son of the Maya by John H. McKoy. Copyright © 2016 John H. McKoy. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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