Ignacio was a repeat customer. Although this fact was no good at all for him, Karina didn’t mind writing his name in her planner, as she rather liked him from the beginning. He was handsome, but not unapproachably so. Tall and thin, with dark skin that promised to turn leathery in two or three more years under the sun, Ignacio had a sweet face that would erupt into a sly smile whenever he made a pun or play on words. His short black hair was flecked with grey, and he had crinkly lines around his eyes and mouth that she found pleasing. She guessed him to be in his late thirties or early forties.
Ignacio’s tendency to talk fast and mumble made Karina’s job as medical interpreter more challenging with him than with her other patients. When she was tired or in the throes of a migraine, she would have to ask him to repeat the lightning-quick anecdotes and regionalisms he favored so that she could accurately interpret them for the provider. These slip-ups didn’t seem to bother him, though; he always maintained a magnanimous outlook despite his torn knee ligament and separated shoulder. He was affable, charming and slightly high-strung; silence didn’t wear well on him. Sometimes Karina had to remind herself that the forty-five minutes they spent in each other’s company was not a pleasant social affair, but rather one in a series of medical appointments meant to put Ignacio’s body back together after an on-the-job injury. A hospital physical therapy clinic isn’t where anyone wants to be, after all.
Like several other men she had interpreted for over the years, Ignacio worked as a gardener for a medium-sized landscaping company in Boise. He fit her patient profile in five key ways: he was an undocumented Mexican male who performed manual labor and maneuvered English well enough to make her wonder how necessary her services really were. Although much of her clientele fell into this category, Ignacio’s grasp of English was better than most. But even though he understood everything the physical therapist said to him and was able to respond – albeit imperfectly – he never resented Karina or took offense at her presence as some patients did. She was glad of this.
A confrontation between Ignacio’s skinny frame and a three hundred pound rock sent him to the outpatient clinic the first time. Karina wasn’t sure how much he knew about proper body mechanics, but even if he had tried to use good technique, she doubted that he would have had much time to reflect on bending at the knees, recruiting his quads, keeping the object close and turning not twisting. She’d worked with a farmworker years ago whose foreman had told him to climb into a tree and cut some branches. Surely he had climbed trees in his life, yet in trying to complete the task, he fell and broke his neck. She recalled the man saying he was scared and hadn’t wanted to do it, but he also didn’t want to say no to the mayordomo. Over the years, Karina saw that in these jobs, people did what they were told and hoped for the best; consequently, she held no romantic ideas about revolt or opposition. She was all for OSHA and stiff government oversight, but in reality too many men were willing to wrestle boulders for a living. In the meantime, the Treasure Valley’s hospitals kept getting busier and busier, and Spanish interpreters were in higher demand than ever. Karina didn’t complain about that.
She got to know Ignacio in bits and pieces. Although any personal interaction with clients was frowned upon not only by her superiors but by the whole professional code, interpreters could not help but be privy to sweet little intimacies during physical therapy sessions. Unlike doctors’ appointments, which were strictly business and tightly controlled time-wise, PTs took longer and tended to veer into the anecdotal. They would chitchat while massaging their patients or showing them exercises, often asking where they grew up and offering glimpses into their own lives. While this small talk could be exhausting on a professional level, it usually relieved the boredom of watching someone do pelvic lifts and core stabilization movements for thirty minutes.
Over time, this idle talk provided Karina with an added benefit: she was able to cull together a vague and romantic notion of what life must have been like in the ranchos of Mexico forty years ago. She could see the dusty streets and smell the acrid air when the wind kicked up the fumes from trucks hiccupping along. She saw oxen and horses being led by wiry children clad in threadbare shorts and huaraches; she heard accordions being played in the plaza on a Saturday night while couples held hands and danced. Karina had never been to Nayarit, the state where Ignacio had grown up, but had she woken up there one morning, she was certain that she would have recognized everything.
The camaraderie she felt with Ignacio was pleasant, but he was only one of many people she worked with on a daily basis. The lightness of spirit that passed between them during his sessions was forgotten as soon as she left the clinic and moved on to the next ill or injured customer. At the end of his last appointment, when the PT looked through her notes and asked Ignacio if he had any final questions or comments, Karina didn’t dwell on the inevitable sting of farewell. “Buena suerte,” she said as they got off the elevator and went in separate directions, already orienting herself to the next clinic in her planner.
One year elapsed before Ignacio attained his status as repeat customer. He’d broken a finger this time, and although he’d managed to avoid surgery, his injury was complicated enough to require weeks if not months of hand therapy. The first time Karina saw him for his second injury, she walked into the hand clinic and greeted him with a wide smile, as though they were old friends. He sat in the chair opposite the therapist, his elbow propped up on the table and fingers outstretched under the man’s close gaze. Although he was still full of puns and corny jokes, he seemed less jaunty, and he lacked his former enthusiasm and verve.
She watched him hunched over while the hand therapist palpated his top two joints, and wondered if this setback would push him onto the wheel of misery generated by the farming, construction and landscaping industries in her state. It was hard to imagine how a broken finger could send someone into a downward spiral, but if they had so little in the first place, one small misfortune might suffice. She had seen some gruesome on-the-job injuries in her years at the hospital, and it was tempting to compare Ignacio with those who set the bar truly high: roofers falling headfirst onto concrete, ranch hands being crushed by tractors, irrigation workers getting electrocuted. Nothing of comparable wretchedness had happened to Ignacio, yet from a practical standpoint, he might as well have broken his back: that one mishap prevented him from using his hand, which meant that once again he couldn’t work and couldn’t draw a salary. Even if he was getting a disability check, the amount would barely be enough for groceries for a single person. Perhaps he was lucky not to have suffered a more devastating injury, but no one would want their options narrowed down to the point his were. Given his circumstances, it amazed Karina that Ignacio was cheerful at all.
The next time she interpreted for him, the regular hand therapist was out sick. The substitute who replaced him was a strong, muscular woman, and she silently sat pressing her fingers into Ignacio with what appeared to be the full weight of her body. Although his expression belied no pain, Karina could see the corners of his mouth turn down slightly and his breathing quicken. He lifted his head and, with no warning, looked at her and said very quietly and without expression, “When I was a boy, I used to make my stepfather mad. He would beat me until I was bloody. I trained myself not to cry. I didn’t want to give in.”
Karina had been thinking about the intransigent nurse on the neuro floor earlier that week, and how best to deal with her. Startled, she refocused.
“Do you know what a comal is?” he asked.
“For making tortillas? Yes.” She feared what was coming.
“He used to put my hand in a comal and close it. Even then I didn’t scream. So yes, this hurts, but…it doesn’t affect me.”
Protocol dictated that she repeat the words in English to the therapist exactly as she heard them, but Karina felt suddenly proprietary about this exchange. Ignacio had clearly addressed her and not the therapist: he turned his head in her direction, looked at her and spoke the words in Spanish. At her own peril, she ignored professional etiquette and threw herself into a forbidden side conversation.
“Was he drunk when he did this?”
The image was already etched in her mind. An enraged man, a cowering boy, a room in a shack in Nayarit littered with empty tequila bottles: something worthy of an Elia Kazan film.
Ignacio shook his head. “He didn’t drink.”
This unexpected response forced Karina to reimagine her Hollywood scenario. She wondered what eight year-old could possibly send a sober man into such a fury that he would regularly press the defenseless boy’s hand into an iron and close the iron flat. She thought about her own mild-mannered, trusting son, and quickly flipped the switch. Were he to be born into similar circumstances, he wouldn’t survive childhood.
Pulled into the sudden intimacy of the situation, Karina weighed possible responses and decided that none was satisfactory. Unsure how confidential this information was, she asked Ignacio if she could tell the therapist what he had just told her. With his permission, she interpreted the words for the therapist who, fortunately for Karina, didn’t seem to mind their tête-a-tête. She looked dismayed upon hearing the gruesome story, and murmured something perfunctory about how terrible it was before getting up to retrieve a container full of dried rice that she had patients use to practice their fine motor skills.
Karina felt like she’d been hit by a semi. Thirty-five years had probably elapsed since those dark times, but obviously they were still fresh in Ignacio’s mind, and now he had brought them to her. She watched him as he slid his hand into the container, searching for the tiny metal screws coyly hidden among the rice granules. Even now, he needs to defy this man, she thought. Karina imagined him looking at the therapist manipulating his swollen finger and seeing only his stepfather. No words pass between them, but as the stepfather torments the boy, the look on the man’s face settles into an unmovable mask. No me duele, he says. No me dolía, no me duele y no me dolerá.
Karina didn’t see Ignacio again after that. There were more sessions with the hand therapist, but she never requested them, and they were given to other interpreters. She had long ago stopped trying to get appointments with patients whose company she enjoyed, as the practice was frowned upon and ultimately it didn’t matter who she did or didn’t work with. Relationships with clients weren’t going anywhere, literally and figuratively. They were all site-specific, staying within the confines of a doctor’s office or a PT clinic or a hospital suite. The satisfaction they offered was limited: a briefly shared laugh, a proud moment, a bad memory. Soon enough, others would take Ignacio’s place, and Karina’s mind would fill with their stories.
Carla Stern is a fiction writer based in Boise, Idaho. Her short stories have been published in Sinister Wisdom, The New Guard and the University of Wisconsin Parkside literary journal. Her story ‘Hero Day’ was selected as a finalist in the fall 2017 fiction contest of Razor Lit Magazine, and can currently be read online. She is a two-time recipient of an Idaho Commission on the Arts grant. Originally from Chicago, Carla is a state certified court interpreter and a nationally certified medical interpreter for the Spanish language. Connect with her on Twitter: @interpreter1961