In the morning, in slippers, Asail steps down the hall, stops to check that he’s still sleeping, and opens the front door. A grey towel is draped over her shoulder. She changes to flip flops she found for 99 cents at the Walgreens across the street. She loves that Walgreens, loves its miraculous selection of drugs; that she is able to do most of her shopping there. She descends the rough stone stairs, out towards the golf course where the Mexican workers are already mowing, swerving their machinery up the sloping greens past the arcs of early morning sprinklers. The morning is brightly hot, a shock to the eyes. Three years here, but she hasn’t caught on yet to Fahrenheit. Over one hundred is very hot. It might not yet be over one hundred, but it will be in another hour, she knows.
She makes her way down the landscaped garden paths. The community, she’s been told, was built fifteen years ago, though it seems newer than that. An adult condominium development. That’s the term they use. In her mind she still calls these homes flats, the word for apartments she studied in grade school, in the village’s torn Soviet English textbooks. Lifts, flats, crisps. Everything was different once she got to America; everything unforeseen.
The orange flowers of the Tecoma shrubs are straining open. They look natural enough as she passes, but she’s no longer fooled. Now she knows that underground pipes are hidden beneath these landscaped rocks, that in the early dawn they dribble water so the plants remain in bloom. In the mountains of Central Asia she had once loved to garden their small, fenced-in plot. Beets and potatoes and carrots for shorpo. How she misses that digging, that stubborn resistance, that pulling at the roots, dirt in her fingernails, until – opa! – the carrots come free. Here, in its place, she has only the mysterious names of these desert plants. Ocotillo. Aloe Vera. Cholla. She was disappointed to learn from Marge that none of them are native, not even the palms or cacti. Marge had told her everything has been brought in to make Las Vegas beautiful: nothing grows here naturally. Asail is certain something must grow here, but she never challenges her employer, resists even the urge to do so in her mind.
The pool is two buildings over, beyond the garage, beyond the beaten up Toyota with the Alaska license plates. That car has been parked in the same exact spot since Asail first moved here from Chicago with her employer. Why had its owner never changed to a Nevada license plate? Her days are structured by the repetition of small unanswerable questions: The Silver State. Why only silver?
She glances once in each direction, then twists Mr. Reginald’s key left in the lock on the heavy gate, and lets herself into the pool area. The gate is on such a tight spring, it’s impossible to hold open; and this morning, when she forgets to ease it shut, it flings itself closed behind her with a whining clang. She freezes. Ten or fifteen two-story units look out at the pool’s courtyard. Of course, any of the residents might have already spotted her swimming here at this early hour. All of them watching, watching, through darkened windows. Have they told Marge?
She’s been risking this 6:30 swim for three months now. Something to look forward to when she goes to bed, when she wakes up at night missing her family so fiercely her head throbs, feeling lost and alone in this desert, abandoned by God. On the other side of the wall Mr. Reginald snores on, dying slowly in her care, his eyes withdrawn, his breathing erratic. 93 years old, he sleeps most of the day. Late nights, he hiccups so violently the sound frightens her awake. When he dies she will be on her own again, jobless and illegal in this vast, swarming country. She sometimes thinks that would be the time to go back. If God takes Mr. Reginald then He would be telling Asail it is time. He would be saying three and a half years has been long enough this far from home. He would be saying go back to Kyrgyzstan and see the two grandsons you have never seen, meet your youngest son’s new bride, forgive Nur, your own husband, his women. God would tell her when. By keeping Mr. Reginald alive these three years He has been telling her to wait it out, to earn the money, to wire it home. She supports fifteen people in the village: two sons, three daughters, and an ever-growing extended family. She makes her monthly Western Union wires from the EZPawn store across from Walgreens. The sole purpose of her existence. God has chosen her for this. He granted her the tourist visa in the lottery. You had to read what He was writing for you, accept both His blessings and His challenges with a smile, never doubt His plans.
For now, Mr. Reginald is merely sick, not dead, and he still needs Asail to care for him, administer his antibiotics, change his diapers, wipe him like an infant. He used to bellow at her in his stronger days, curse her, call her you stupid Russian chink, but there was always this: Two-thousand five hundred dollars, every month, for nearly forty months now. In Central Asia, she would never have access to sums like this again.
The pool she now has to herself, as she’s had it every morning. There are three pools in the condominium development, but in the mornings this one is shaded, so the real residents don’t come. Also they work, and have cars and people to visit. Only Asail is alone. Except for Mr. Reginald of course, and his daughter Marge, who comes to check up most afternoons, on her lunch hour at the Wells Fargo Bank. People in America have busy lives. Gambling. Highways. Shopping malls. Few have time for early morning swims. The pools go unused.
She folds her towel on a lounge chair, removes her slippers with her toes. This swim, her sweet secret pleasure– she hopes God forgives her it. Mr. Reginald is still sleeping, he never wakes before 9:00. It is wrong, Asail knows, to leave the sick man in her charge alone in the condominium. What if he calls? What if something happens to him? She’s heard about a break-in across the complex. What if someone breaks in and steals the television? Marge would then ask where she had been, and Asail would have to tell her, I stepped out. Yes, she could leave it at that. She wouldn’t have to say, I went swimming, as I have every morning for the last three months. Forgive me! No, she could simply say, I stepped out, and Marge would understand she meant that she had gone to Walgreens. She wouldn’t have to lie and say she had specifically gone to Walgreens. But what if Marge asked, You stepped out where? What could Asail say then? For a walk, she could say. That would not in fact be a lie. She did walk to the pool. And if Marge asked, Walked where?… It was too much of a headache to think about. She prayed nobody broke into the apartment and stole the television. God grant her that.
But what if they broke into the apartment and murdered Mr. Reginald? Marge is always telling her about crime in Las Vegas. Asail has watched the murders play out nightly on Nancy Grace, on CSI Miami. Things like this happen in America. Well, better she is out swimming if a murderer breaks into the house, isn’t it? Better Mr. Reginald than her.
No, these are horrible morning thoughts. She has to stop them. Nobody is breaking in to steal the television, or to murder a 93 year-old man. It is light outside, 6:30 in the morning, and there are so many windows, the neighbors always watching, watching.
Only now, flip flops off, turning toward the pool, does she notice a small plastic sign in front of the shallow end’s steps. Taped over the CAUTION is a piece of notebook paper reading, in black marker, No swimming! Filter Out of Order! She approaches the sign carefully. What does that even mean? The water looks clean enough, a translucent blue that had once seemed unnatural. There is a second sign, the same words, the same imposing exclamation marks, masking-taped across the ladder at the deep end. Yet, the pool looks perfectly swimmable. Nobody’s around.
A choice. The complex has three pools in total, hidden across the parking lots in perfumed courtyards. She can risk for the first time a different pool. Or she can go back to the apartment, back to Mr. Reginald, get his Fiber One and Dylantin and blood-pressure pills all ready, wake him, pushing him over against his abuse, through his grunts and groans, onto his side.
Slowly she starts back, resigned, easing the gate behind her, but at the beaten up Toyota she changes course and steps more quickly. She makes her determined way around the rows of garages, white with tiled roofs. She ventures across the parking lot, ducks beneath a Palo Verde onto a path that leads beyond a row of single-story units – nicely decorated with hanging Christmas cacti – to the other pool. She uses her key in the gate, and it swings open so easily it shocks her. Glancing around, she quickly removes her sweatshirt and pushes off her loose pants. Each morning she swims in a long dark wool shirt pulled over exercise shorts. She has only two such outfits, and rotates them day by day, drying wet clothes in the afternoon’s laundry with Mr. Reginald’s pillow cases and undergarments.
Here in this new pool, in the sun, the water is strikingly warmer, warmer than she had expected. Asail strides across the shallow end, the wetness rising along her shirt, wetting her stomach, her shoulders, and when it reaches her neck she lifts herself up on tiptoes, spreads her arms, and flies face-first into an improvised stroke. She never learned to swim back in Kyrgyzstan. She had bathed only once in Lake Issykul, on a family holiday; otherwise, her only recreational contact with water was dipping her feet into the icy alpine streams near their mountain village. Access to a heated pool like this was not something she ever could have imagined. The reckless idea had hit her three months ago, early on a sleepless morning, waiting for Mr. Reginald to wake and bellow her name. Go take a swim, she’d thought. Who’s stopping you? Who will know?
Now she won’t push her luck. She’ll keep it short– two laps and that will be it. She pulls herself through the water back to the shallow end, marked with a wide black 3 – feet, not meters – and the second time across she tells herself again, only one more lap. But coming out of the pool, dripping onto the concrete, she’s shivering, and the temptation of the sauna – hot tub, was that its name? – is too great. There is no hot tub back at her usual pool. A minute. Surely a minute will not be too long. Surely Mr. Reginald is still sleeping, mouth open, lips curled upward in a scowl.
She is just descending into the steam, the water biting hot, scraping down along her skin, when she hears the gate behind her open. She turns with a gasp; but it is only Manuel, the groundskeeper. She sees him every morning at the other pool, where he takes the garbage out of the Men’s room first, then the Lady’s room. That is the only place he has, until now, existed for her. Usually he averts his eyes, but he is always smirking. He’s never said a word to her. She only knows his name because she had once heard his boss yelling for him from a white van in the parking lot, “Manuel! Manuel! Get the hell over here. Now!” At the sound of his boss’s voice that smirk had collapsed, and he had hustled out of the pool area towards the van.
Now Manuel looks equally startled to find her here. “Good morning,” she murmurs to him and raises a hand. He forces his usual smile, makes no eye contact, heads right over to the cabana. Before he enters she sees him hesitate. He pushes a big red button on a panel and without turning to her disappears through the door of the Men’s room. Suddenly, from somewhere inside that building, a motor churns, and the water around Asail begins to bubble. She gasps, but she’s smiling to herself. Manuel! She sinks into the luxuriance of the swirling heat.
Heaven! Another minute, then two. She is about to force herself out when, behind her, the gate swings open once again, and an elderly woman she’s never seen enters the pool area. She has on a white plastic sombrero that shades her face completely, and large goggles around her neck, and loose sandals that scrape against the concrete. “Too cold?” she says by way of greeting, seeing Asail starting to stand. “They keep that damn thing too cold!”
Blushing, Asail replies, “Not at all, not at all, it’s fine. Good morning.” Now she doesn’t want it to seem like she’s rushing out only because this other woman has arrived. Another minute, she thinks. No choice.
By the pool, the woman bends slowly, straining down to test the shallow end with her fingers. “I only ask because it was cold yesterday. So was the pool.”
Asail says, “It is perfect.”
“Perfect?” The woman stands and sticks a toe into the pool water and makes a show of shivering. “It’s freezing again! We’ve been e-mailing the association. How many times do we have to complain? We pay our HOA fees.”
“You’d think this was nuclear physics or something. Is this nuclear physics?”
“No, no, no.”
“Well how is the hot tub, at least? Is that at least warm?”
“Yes, it’s perfect.”
“Everything’s perfect this morning.”
She pulls off a cardigan sweater, comes in and steps down into the bubbling water on the other side of the metal railing from Asail. She sits in the tub and faces the sun, looking up at the sky with closed eyes. Manuel lugs a black plastic trash bag out of the Men’s room, then begins sweeping the pine needles out from under the shower faucets. The steady rush rush rush of the broom matches the thrumming of guilt in Asail’s head.
“There are too many Mexicans,” the old woman says, eyes closed, indicating Manuel with her nose. “You aren’t Mexican, are ya?”
“No, I’m from Asia.”
“Kyrgyzstan. It was a part of the Soviet Union. Now we have our own nation.”
“Perfect. One of those wacko countries. Ha!” The woman opens one eye. “That’s on a different continent?”
“Yes it is.”
“They steal our jobs, the Mexicans. Too many of them. Have you stolen any of our jobs?”
“I hope I have not.”
She looks at Asail suspiciously, both eyes open. “Why haven’t I seen you?”
“I swim in the other pool. It’s out of order.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“It says no swimming. Out of order. Filter.”
“Ah!” The woman swings up her arms, splashing Asail. “It’s all going to hell. This whole place. Is this nuclear physics? You’d think it was.”
“I don’t know.”
She leans through the railing towards Asail, and asks with her scratchy voice, “Do you gamble?” Her skin is leathery, wizened, an orangish tan.
“I don’t play cards.”
To this the woman snorts. “Of course you don’t. But what about slots? Video poker? You play video poker, at least.”
“I have never been to a casino.”
“What about CVS? Have you been to CVS? Or the grocery store, Smiths?” She thrusts a thumb up over her shoulder. “There are slot machines in there, ya know.”
“I have never played them.”
“This is my theory.” She leans close to Asail and speaks at her with dried, cracked, old woman lips. Asail has a reflexive urge to smooth Vaseline over those lips, as she does when Mr. Reginald’s dry out. “My theory is that the Mexicans come here to make money for their family, but they wind up gambling it all away. All away. They steal our jobs, and then they lose the money. And then we have pay when they go to our Emergency Rooms. Whattaya think of that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Of course not. Of course you don’t. Never been to a casino. Everything’s perfect. Why haven’t I seen you?”
“I work in the home most of the day.”
“Which home’s that?”
“Mr. Reginald Martin. Fourteen-zero-seven.”
“The Martins? I know them. They’ve owned here as long as I have, since this dump opened. I thought he still spent the summer in Chicago?”
“No. Not for three years now. He’s very ill.”
“Well he’s very old, so of course. He was old when I first moved here. You don’t live forever. Everyone’s dying. This place is going to shit. Worst decision I ever made, buying here. How long have you been working for them?”
“More than three years.”
“And all this time I haven’t met you?”
“I’m sorry, no.”
“People in your wacko country speak English?”
“No. I studied in university. But when I came to America, I could not speak at all.”
“How has it gotten so good then? I can mostly understand. I can’t understand any of them.” She waves somewhere, at the hordes of Mexicans, hiding in the garages and bathrooms and clubhouse of the complex, ready to steal jobs and storm the hospitals.
“Raymond,” Asail explains.
“Everybody Loves Raymond. I can see it two times on channel 3: 7:00 and 7:30. And two more times on TBS: 10:00 and 10:30. This is how I learned English. Better than the university.”
“That man! He’s such a dope.”
“No. He’s funny.”
“I’m sorry to say, he’s a dope. I hate that show. Everybody’s supposed to love Raymond. I certainly don’t! Do you think this water’s too warm? It’s only supposed to be 105. I think it’s warmer than that. I’m sweating.” Asail can’t answer before the woman says, “Listen to what happened to me. Someone parked in my parking space. Number 279. My parking space. I come home yesterday, and someone’s parked there. Can you believe that?”
“Yes.” She squints beneath her sombrero. “It wasn’t you, was it?”
“You didn’t park in my parking space?”
“I would never use your space. And also, I don’t own a car.”
“It’s probably a foreigner who can’t read the numbers. If they do it again, I’m going to key that car. My son’s a policeman, you know. Here in Henderson. I’ll take a key to that car, and have him tow it.”
At the sudden violence in the woman’s voice, Asail grows worried. She is talking to the mother of a policeman. She rises to make her way out of the hot tub, grasping her shorts so that they won’t slide down, her shirt dripping onto the concrete. Manuel passes by her with his broom – his face full of smile – to pick up an empty paper cup by one of the lounge chairs. Without looking at her he touches the tip of his baseball cap. A signal. She senses something in the gesture: sympathy, connection, conspiracy. She grasps her towel, wraps it around her chest, pats that dry, then around her waist. She crouches on a lounge chair to slide her flip-flops on. Behind her the woman asks, “Hey, you, what’s your name?”
Asail says, “Alice.”
“Well it’s nice to meet you Alice. I’m Heddie.”
“Very pleased to meet you.”
“You come swimming again tomorrow, you hear me. I enjoyed our little talk.”
“I will try.”
“No. No trying. You just come.”
She hustles back to the condominium. Luckily, all is quiet. After the warmth of the early sun, the indoor air-conditioning chills her through the wet clothes. She goes first to her own room to change, and only after she’s prepared his Ensure shake, after she’s opened up his new box of diapers and broken down the old box, after she’s counted out his pills and placed them into the container marked for the days of the week, only after that, in the stale air of his bedroom, carrying in his morning’s medicine, does she find Mr. Reginald dead.
It feels like murder to her. His daughter Marge has just called from the hospital. Doctors are guessing the urinary tract infection he’d been battling on and off for a month has taken its toll; his body too weak to fight anymore. They’d wondered if there’d been seizures this morning. Had Asail seen any seizures?
She’d assured Marge she had not.
Asail found her eyes wet when she hung up the phone. The tears are for Marge, her thoughts initially all in that direction, directed outwards. Mr. Reginald, Asail likes to think, might have been kinder in his healthier days, might have once been a decent father. She remembers losing her own parents, who had lived in Pekrovka, the next village over. They had died the year of independence, three months apart, as if neither could fathom beginning life in a new country. Asail at least had her rituals to see her through the suffering – the pamyat, the wailing village women, the horse sacrificed for the feast, the outdoor samovar steaming away. What will Marge have? Mr. Reginald’s family is all up in Wisconsin. If there is a funeral back home, Asail knows she won’t be invited to make the trip.
There had been a strained quality in Marge’s voice in response to Asail’s last question, “What should I do now?” There would be an investigation into the cause of death, Marge said, though doctors believed it was simply simultaneous illnesses. Natural causes. Marge didn’t know how much she could tell the coroner’s office, if they asked about his caregiver arrangement. She’d left it at that before hanging up the phone, and Asail couldn’t push her employer’s grief with another question.
Panic at the word: investigation. What felt like murder was the swimming. The fifteen minutes that she’d stepped out for her own brief pleasure. How many eyes had seen her through those windows? And who else knew? Manuel, touching his hat, not meeting her gaze. Heddie, chatting at her in the hot tub. Asail imagined the investigation, the kind she’d seen on CSI Miami. An illegal foreigner, the obvious suspect. All fingers pointing to her.
By noon she has made up her mind. Back in her bedroom she folds up the pull-out couch where she’s slept for three years now. Her printed suitcase, bought by Nur in the Djambul bazaar, she finds smushed beneath the legs of a bedside table, which she had disassembled and kept in the closet, trying to create a drop more room in the cramped space. She pulls the bag out from under the mirrored glass table top, tries to open it, but the zipper sticks hard.
Upstairs she can hear the stomping of children’s feet, the young boy screaming, “Dance! Dance! Dance!” and the weary mumbles of the father. She knows that family from passing them in the courtyard on her trips to take out the garbage. She’d always been afraid to introduce herself. The father wears a tuxedo every day, a man of standing. In the grass at the edge of the golf course the boy and his older sister hunt for rocks and pick flowers. Last winter it had snowed, the largest desert snowfall in seventeen years, and the children had made a snowman outside Asail’s window. It was like a painful dream, watching the kids build that snowman, with its rock eyes and stick arms. Her own grandchildren must be much the same age. That night, Asail herself had trudged out and given the snowman the carrot nose it had been missing. The next morning the children stood in wonder, staring up at the miracle of the carrot. Asail had watched from her window.
Snow in the desert. Anything had once seemed possible in this country. By the afternoon it had all melted.
She is still wrestling that zipper open, her throat dry, when the doorbell rings. A choice. What kind of trouble is she inviting if she opens it? The word investigation clangs through her mind. Who might be asking questions, and where might they lead? On the other hand, isn’t it riskier if someone expects her home, and she isn’t? That might arouse an entirely different suspicion.
She goes to the door. “Yes?”
“Alice,” she hears. The sandpaper voice. “Alice, it’s Heddie. Open it, will ya.”
“I’m very busy,” she calls through the door. “Please excuse me.”
“Just want to give you a few things, for Reggie.” Asail unlatches the lock. The old woman, shriveled up beneath her sombrero, is holding two bottles of grape juice, stacked on one thin arm. Does she know? Is it possible she’s heard so soon? Is this some kind of American ritual Asail doesn’t yet understand? Grape juice, in lieu of chai and horse meat?
Asail will later remember that Heddie’s T-shirt had been unusually stained with black splotches of what looked like ash, or dust, that her hair was gray with an admirable sheen. Slung over her shoulder was a fabric bag, labeled Whole Foods: sturdy, not plastic like the ones that always broke at Walgreens. Heddie’s face registered no grave concern. She lived on the other side of the complex; she would not have seen the rush of the ambulance, the men wheeling out the stretcher.
“Heddie, come in.”
“Oh, I can’t. Do you or Reggie drink grape juice? I stocked up, and now I’m sick of this stuff.”
“Let me help you. Please.” Asail takes one of the juice containers, still cold from the refrigerator. She reaches for the second.
“I stock up,” Heddie is explaining. “I’m always a month ahead on juice, and I didn’t get through it this month; but my son’s taking me shopping again tomorrow. My son makes me buy the organic crap. He won’t let me drink concentrate anymore. He says it will kill me. Reggie drinks grape juice, doesn’t he?”
Only now, with this woman standing before her, does Asail realize what a threat Heddie poses. She will tell Marge everything. Marge or her policeman son. Asail hesitates. “Yes, he does.” She takes the juice and puts it on the counter.
At the door the old woman takes her hand, pats it. “I’m in unit twelve-oh-one. You come and see me, if there’s anything you need. Or even if you’d like to just shoot the breeze some more. Have a little chat.”
“I would like to.”
She lowers her voice. “Is Reggie still sleeping?”
“He sleeps,” Asail says, “most of the day.”
“Useless men!” Heddie says, and elbows Asail with a wink. “Who needs them?”
“Well, you give him that grape juice for me, and tell him Heddie said hello.”
“I certainly will.”
Asail places her hand on the door. Heddie seems about to leave, but turns around once again. “Something’s wrong.” she asks, stepping closer to Asail. “I can always tell.”
“From that wacko country of yours? Stan-i-stan? Someone sick?”
“It’s nothing. I miss them.”
“You have no family here?”
“Only a cousin. In Chicago.”
“That’s hard. Well. It’s gonna be OK. Look! A sunny day in Vegas. Flowers everywhere. You’ve had your swim. What more do you want?” She lowers her voice again. “Do ya drink? I can bring you a nip. Something stiff, to take the edge off?”
Asail wonders what Heddie would say if she told her everything. If she anxiously admitted that for three months now she’d abandoned a sick man, a man who might have needed her at any moment, and had stolen a few minutes of time for herself.
“I don’t drink alcohol. Thank you, no.”
She’ll pack her bags. She’ll take a flight to her cousin in Chicago. If security stops her at the airport, then God has made His decision, and she’ll finally be sent home, to family. Or, if she makes it to Chicago, she’ll stay with her cousin. He’ll find her another agency that will place her. The wires home will continue. She’ll start over, as easily as the first time, adjusting again to a home that isn’t hers.
Heddie is saying, “If you have time for a swim again this evening, I go to the big pool, by the Clubhouse. I go after dinner. Come.”
“I have to watch Mr. Reginald.”
“Yes, of course. OK. You say hi to him for me, once he wakes up. Or bring him round the pool.”
“If he’s up for it.”
“If he’s up for it.” The woman finally moves from the doorway. A click, Asail bolts it, and she’s alone.
What she fears is the price of the airline ticket to Chicago. She doesn’t know if she’s stashed enough away. Marge still owes her last month’s wages. How could she possibly ask for it?
With her bag hastily packed, she finds herself in Mr. Reginald’s bedroom. A gold watch, which she’d put on him in the mornings when he had more strength. Cufflinks, in his top drawer. A silver chain, a present from his deceased second wife. A platinum wedding band, engraved RM. One by one, she stashes the jewelry in the pocket of her duffle.
She unbolts the front door, slips on those flip-flops. Beyond the pools, across the street, past the Walgreens, lies the EZPawn, where after a quick transaction, she’ll ask the owner to call her a taxi to the airport. She steps through the door. Let them deport her, should He allow it. Grant her that. If not, this morning was a lesson. God had decided Mr. Reginald’s time had come, and He’d done it on this day as a warning to Asail, to stop thinking only of herself, to stop thinking of little things, like happiness.