Yolanda, the security guard, sat in a tiny chair behind a school desk at the entrance of the rundown building on West 181st Street that served as headquarters for The District offices. An enormous woman with breasts the size of throw pillows straining the coarse blue fabric of her uniform, she wore her hair pulled up on top of her head in a tight bun; the style fit the determined expression carved into the cool black marble of her face. She hated her job, and probably was surly to everyone, but Mimi took it personally, because Mimi took everything personally.
Searching through the various compartments of her backpack, Mimi finally found her driver’s license. “Sorry. I’m very disorganized,” she said with a nervous laugh.
The security guard’s face was a mask of disapproval. After inspecting Mimi’s ID, Yolanda told her to sign her name in the log, a child’s composition book from which dangled a pencil attached to a frayed piece of dirty twine. Mimi’s large, unwieldy signature, made clumsier by her irritation at the unnecessary delay, lapped over the signature of the person above hers and over the empty spaces reserved for the people who would arrive after her.
“You’re messing up my book,” Yolanda said.
“I’m sorry,” Mimi said, “but that’s how I sign my name.”
“You should sign it different,” Yolanda said.
Upstairs on the sixth floor, Mimi found herself in a large room. It was painted hospital green. On the walls were posters, most of them in Spanish, warning pregnant women not to drink alcohol and listing phone numbers for victims of domestic abuse. Lining the walls were a dozen mothers, sitting on plastic chairs of assorted colors, shapes and sizes and stages of disrepair. The women sat staring into space while their children sat in the corner, playing with a broken-down dollhouse and a scattered assortment of similarly disabled toys laid out for their amusement.
Whenever Mimi brought Danny here, he never showed any interest in the toys. It was only the bathroom with its boarded-up bathtub that captured his attention. Explaining how such a fantastic thing could come to be, Mimi told her son that the office used to be an apartment. This fascinated Danny, who declared his determination to get a sledgehammer and restore the apartment back to its original stated every time he came here.
After signing her name in another notebook, Mimi rushed to the bathroom to adjust her pantyhose, which having begun their descent down her thighs shortly after she left her apartment, had migrated a few inches above her knees. Returning to her seat, she stared at the children and wondered what was wrong with each and every one of them.
An hour later a sad woman with a stooped back and frizzy hair came to deliver her to the conference room, where a group of people sat around a large metal table. Like so many of the children they were supposed to serve, there was something odd-looking about the people who worked in The District office. The head hit man, Dr. Daisy Hench, had large veiny hands and a gigantic jaw, and when she spoke, only her lips moved, reminding Mimi of a character in a cheap animated cartoon. The learning specialist, Fredda Doverspike, had the strangely elongated look of stretched-out Silly Putty. Dr. Hench’s ally, backing her every play, was Van Stone. He had some kind of chronic migratory rash on his neck, psoriasis, Mimi supposed, and a bad case of dandruff, which kept him busy brushing white flakes of dead skin off his shoulders.
Today was four weeks before the start of summer and four weeks away from the end of Chaim Akiva’s school year. Mimi had come to ask The District to pay for a summer camp for Danny, who was now nine. Dr. Hench, after spending a few seconds flipping through the papers Mimi had given her, said with her dead face, “The documentation does not support your son’s need for a summer program.”
Mimi felt the familiar pain in her throat, the burning behind her eyes. Before Danny’s diagnosis she had never cried in front of strangers; she had never cried in front of friends; she had never cried in front of anyone except her parents and her husband. Now she cried in front of everyone. The District people hated it when she cried. Displays of emotion disgusted them. Still, Mimi had managed to win more battles than she had lost. Lately, however, she seemed to have reached an impasse.
“I don’t understand. Please read the documentation,” she said.
Why after years of meetings like this, did the cruelty and indifference of these people still hurt so much? Speechless, Mimi pointed to the pile of research studies and journal articles she had assembled; the letters she had carefully crafted for doctors to sign.
Dr. Hench spent another second flipping through the papers and then she said again with her hateful smile, “The documentation does not support your son’s need for a summer program.”
“What?” Mimi asked in a voice so soft she seemed to be talking to herself.
Addressing the wall above Mimi’s head, Dr. Hench said in the slow, even tones of a person gifted with endless patience, “If you disagree with our conclusion, you have the right to a fair hearing.” Then she smiled again. They always smiled. They smiled but they hardly ever looked Mimi in the eye. This was something she and Jake had worked so hard to teach their son. For months following Danny’s diagnosis, they had sat him down at his baby table and said to him, simply, “Look at me.”
Visions of Danny at home for the summer piled up in Mimi’s mind: there she was keeping frantic watch over him on the playground, making sure he didn’t dive off the top of the monkey bars like a bird; and later, at home, she stood in the doorway of his room, yelling at him for pulling the tassels off the throw cushions on his bed, or carving Jewish stars into the soft pine of his desk with a knife he had taken out of the kitchen drawer.
“But how will my son spend the summer?” Mimi asked.
“He can do the same things that other children do over the summer,” the psychologist replied.
“But my son isn’t like other children,” Mimi said.
Dr. Hench, still with that vile grin, again informed her of her right to bring the matter before a judge. By which time, of course, the summer would be over.
Every time Mimi came to this building, there would always be Yolanda sitting behind the little school desk in the lobby, insisting that she produce her ID. Being forced to prove her identity to the same person over and over again was a source of increasing irritation to Mimi, and the more irritated she became, the more time Yolanda would spend examining her driver’s license, copying down each number in her round, childlike handwriting with painstaking precision and care.
As the years passed, Mimi’s resentment grew and eventually she was pouring all her frustration out onto the security guard; she hated her and Yolanda hated her in return. Mimi liked hating Yolanda, and Yolanda seemed to like hating Mimi. There was an intimacy to their hatred, a kind of freedom. They scowled and gestured angrily at each other. Muttering under their breath, they called each other names.
Then on a day that happened to be Danny’s tenth birthday, Mimi was signing her name at the front desk and she noticed that Yolanda had changed her hairdo. It was done in a short pixie cut, instead of the severe-looking bun that usually sat on top of her head.
Without thinking about it, Mimi said to the security guard, “You changed your hair! It looks great!”
Mimi was by nature an amiable person. Whenever she noticed that a woman had a new hairdo or that she was wearing a new dress or hat or shoes—she always complimented her, whether she liked the alteration the woman had made in her appearance or not. In fact, the more hideous the change, the more effusive Mimi would be, in an effort hide her embarrassment over what the woman had done to herself.
Although the pixie cut was completely wrong for a woman as mountainous as Yolanda, Mimi liked it because it made the security guard seem less forbidding, maybe even a little vulnerable, innocent even, since Yolanda could not have known how silly she looked in this ridiculous new hairdo.
Yolanda appeared to be confused by Mimi’s compliment, but she seemed to be pleased by it as well.
After going through the usual routine of signing the log, Mimi went to the elevator. As she stood in front of it, keeping careful watch over its suspenseful descent from the eighth floor, she found herself getting lost in a long meditation about hair and the power it had to affect a woman’s looks, more than makeup, clothes, jewelry or facials. Mimi’s last haircut, five years ago, had left her in such a state of despair she had vowed to never let a hairdresser near her again as long as she lived.
When Mimi and Yolanda met again on opposite sides of the tiny desk in the lobby a few weeks later, the security guard was almost friendly, although she continued to insist that Mimi produce her ID before signing the book.
In February, Mimi brought Danny with her to The District office. He was scheduled to undergo the same useless battery of tests every year. When Mimi arrived at the entrance with him, she greeted Yolanda, and searching his eyes as she put her hands on Danny’s shoulders, she told her son, “This is Mommy’s friend Yolanda. Say hello to Yolanda.”
“Hello to Yolanda,” Danny said.
“Hello to Danny,” Yolanda responded and asked him if he would like to write his name in the ledger. When he did, she complimented him on his handwriting.
“It’s a lot neater than your mother’s,” she added. To which Danny responded by asking, “A phalange is what?”
“A phalange,” Yolanda said. “That’s a big word. I don’t know such big words.”
“A phalange is what?”
“Danny,” Mimi said. “What did we say about asking rhetorical questions?”
“A phalange is what?” he repeated.
“Why don’t you tell me what it is, Danny?” Yolanda said.
“Honey,” Mimi said, putting her hands on Danny’s shoulders again. “What is a phalange?”
“A phalange is a finger bone or a toe bone,” he said. “There are fifty-six phalanges in the human body, fourteen phalanges on each hand and foot. Three phalanges on each finger and toe, except for the thumb and large toe.”
“What a smart boy you are,” Yolanda said.
“A phalange is what?” Danny asked.
“Danny!” Mimi said.
“It’s a finger bone or toe bone,” Yolanda said with a wink.
One day Mimi rushed past the security desk, hoping that she would be able to make it to the elevator before Yolanda could catch up with her. She was late; she usually didn’t care whether or not she was late; they always kept her waiting forever anyway, but today she was going to be arguing her case before a judge. Mimi had come to ask The District to approve the school on Long Island.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Yolanda asked, grabbing Mimi’s arm just as she was about to run into the elevator. Now it would be at least another four minutes before she would be able to catch another one up to the eighth floor.
Mimi ran back to the desk and scribbled her name in the register, tearing the paper in the process.
“I can’t believe this,” Mimi said.
“Rules is rules,” Yolanda said.
Mimi searched her wallet. “I can’t find the fucking thing,” she said, dumping the entire contents of her backpack onto the little school desk, sending loose coins, hairpins, rubber bands, crumpled-up bits of paper and disconnected Tampax holders flying all over the place.
“Please, give me a break, Yolanda. I was supposed to be here fifteen minutes ago! I have a hearing today. It’s important. I finally found a school for Danny.”
“Go, just go,” Yolanda said, rushing to hold the elevator door open as Mimi scrambled to dump everything back into her bag.
Everyone she’d consulted about this hearing had assured Mimi that The District would approve the school, but she could tell as soon as she entered the room that she didn’t have a chance. She could tell by the look on the face of the hearing officer, who was engaged in a spirited conversation with Van Stone and Daisy Hench when she entered the room.
“You’re late,” she said, the previously lively expression on her face turning blank, with undertones of hostility and displeasure.
“Yes, I know, I’m sorry,” Mimi said, and she left it at that. There didn’t seem to be any point in conjuring up an excuse.
The hearing officer looked at her watch. After dealing with the usual formalities, she asked The District to present its case, which consisted of them stating that Danny was in a perfectly appropriate placement now.
“No,” Mimi said. “It is not appropriate.”
When it came time for her to present her case for the school she had found for Danny, Mimi called the principal. The line was busy. She had phoned his secretary five times yesterday, to make sure he would be available to take her call. Without his testimony, she had no case for at all. She redialed his number. The hearing officer exchanged exasperated glances with Daisy Hench as Mimi continued to dial and redial the principal’s phone number.
Impatiently, the officer announced: “You have one more chance and that’s it.”
Mimi dialed again. The line was still busy.
“We have other hearings on the schedule,” Dr. Hench said with her frozen smile. “You’re not the only mother in the world, Mrs. Slavitt, who thinks she has found the perfect school for her child.”
When Mimi started dialing again, Daisy Hench, Van Stone and the hearing officer looked at one another, and all at once, the three of them reached to grab the receiver away from her.
“Please,” Mimi said. She held the phone clenched in her fist. “Just one more time.”
“We have other hearings on the schedule,” Dr. Hench repeated.
Ignoring them, Mimi went back to dialing the phone.
“I told you. That’s it,” the hearing officer said.
Mimi knew that if she stayed here a second longer, she would either end up begging them to wait until the principal answered his phone or humiliate herself in some other way, like telling them to go fuck themselves. Her eyes cast downward, she gathered up her documents and stuffed them into her backpack. Getting up out of her chair, she left the room without saying a word.
“Where does she think she’s going?” the hearing officer asked Dr. Hench, who responded a frown and a shrug.
Van Stone, brushing the dandruff off his shoulders so vigorously that a few white flakes went flying onto the lapel of Dr. Hench’s chocolate brown blazer, responded with a shrug of his own.
Mimi felt like a zombie as she walked down the hall and down the stairs, past Yolanda, who was sitting at her desk in the lobby.
“Mimi! Are you okay?” the security guard called out after her.
Looking back at Yolanda for a second, Mimi started to run down the street. The security guard, leaving her post, ran after her. When she caught up with Mimi, Yolanda pulled her to her breast.
“You’re tired, mami,” she said. “You need to go home and sleep. You’re a good mother. But now you have to go home and sleep. Go home, mami. Go home and sleep. Go to sleep. You need to take care of yourself. For your baby. You need to sleep.”
Mimi decided she would allow herself to stand in the middle of the sidewalk on 181st Street with her cheek pressed against her old enemy’s big, soft bosom for another second or two. Then she would go home and get on the phone. There was a woman in a high-level position at The District with whom she had recently established a kind of rapport; maybe she would be able to do something to help, and if she couldn’t, perhaps she would know someone who could.