Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Love and Punishment at the Clerk of the County Courts Office

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The first weirdness is that there is a touch screen kiosk, which really isn’t a kiosk but more like a mini ATM.  Customers, like me, have to “state their business with the court” before they get a number. The options are: Tickets, Taxes, Passports, Permits—and maybe one other thing like that. It just so happens I go to the Clerk of the County Courts branch office on Valentine’s Day—a weird day for civic business but I need to pay our house taxes before the late penalty charge, which would be a big chunk and not something we can afford. I’m not late, though would be if I hadn’t reminded my husband Josue about it. He tends to wait until the last minute for everything and the other reason is he’s a cheap bastard and he doesn’t “want to give them even one day more with his money.”

Whatever, so, it’s not a stressful thing and actually I’m grinning like a stupid because when I went down the hall to drink water, I see people are getting married in a balloon-filled room with a white and red decorated four tier make-believe cake in one corner. One woman, waiting for her groom to get the car probably, wore a long lace dress with puffy sleeves like from the 1970s or a thrift store. There’s a couple holding hands, dressed in jeans and matching black tees, with their sun-weathered faces repeated in an imprint across the front of their shirts; they stand in front of an official who’s dressed better than them. Along one side of the narrow room, I see a folding table with real white cake, white frosting starting to slide off the top. There are fake flowers and little palm trees too but a nice arch with white lights in the shape of bells and I can’t stop smiling. I wonder if my husband will marry me again. Could I make Josue leave his job and come down here to this suburban satellite office, not even the super-busy downtown one, to get married again, renew vows we took when were we so much younger? Just for the hell of it? It doesn’t take but a couple of seconds to know. Of course, he wouldn’t. He’d say I already married you or why bother, or something like that. Not an ounce of romance in the five-foot-7 inch 200 lb. hunk-a-man. Even though now I’m thinking, he’s the one shoulda come pay this bill and not me but I did have the day off so of course that settles that. Besides I expect he’ll bring flowers and maybe my favorite dark chocolate mints. He’d better if he plans on getting lucky.

So, I’m sitting in the main waiting area, number 27 and the display says 14; God knows how long I’ll be here. I’m squirming to adjust my tailbone to the blasted hard plastic chairs. Looking around I can tell some people, dozing or heads bent over their phones, have been here a while. One guy steps outside just after I sit and returns five minutes later reeking, his last drag trailing. At the window furthest from me, there’s a woman with a baby on her hip and another woman standing with her. The one with the baby listens hard to the clerk while the other woman translates whatever she says. Back and forth, English to Spanish, Spanish to English, and all the while that baby is quiet as can be. Almost like she understands everything, so calm, her face a Buddha. Amazing.

There’s a young woman with choppy Mercurochrome-red hair and a bunch of piercings; she’s so close to the window it looks like one of the rings could get caught in the mesh. Her voice is gravelly, straining but it’s futile because we all can hear. Everyone’s business here is public. The clerk says, “That’s $75. How will you be paying?”

At the counter closest to me there’s an old man, in his 70s or 80s—hard to tell with white folks. This viejo might not even be that old. Mima’s gonna be 64 this year and looks damn good. I’m hoping those genes kick in soon because I have little lines around my eyes already and I’m just 35. Josue’s four years older than me and likes to say he robbed the cradle. He stopped saying that when I miscarried the third time. It’s been a while.

El viejito is so frail, you can see the veins all through his face. It kinda hurts to look at him.  The clerk speaks loudly into the mic because every time he has to keep repeating his business, he talks at the glass and not into the metal mesh talk-hole in the window.

“Sir, please,” the woman on the other side takes her pen to point to the hole but obviously el viejito can’t see too good because he keeps missing. Finally, the punk girl at the counter next to him, leans over and directs him to the right place where he says, “I have a ticket I need to pay.”

The clerk takes the slip he slides under the window and right away she says, “One minute, please.” I bet he’s wishing there was some privacy about now.

“Sir, that’ll be $65 for this one. Would you like to pay for your other tickets and did you know that your license is suspended, sir?”

The viejito is confused. The black lady next to me stifles a chuckle and I just widen my eyes and bite my lip when I look her way. She is number 20 and I think I’d better not look at her again because I’ll snort-laugh loud and obnoxious like and I don’t want to disrespect.  But she seems like she’d like that.

“Sir, you have other outstanding tickets.”

Nothing. The viejo just stares.

“Will you be paying for the tickets, sir?”

Now I wonder if he even heard her about the license but then she asks him a question he answers right away.

“Sir, how did you get here today?”

“I drove myself,” and he takes out his wallet, his hand shaking a little but his long thin fingers are steady when he pulls out his license.

Now me and the black lady are leaning a little his way. Poor viejito, no one to help him.

“Sir, you shouldn’t be driving. Your license is suspended.”

“It’s right here.”

“Your license is suspended because you have outstanding tickets and never paid.”

Wow, says the lady next to me; I can’t tell how old she is but she’s older than me and thick and I’m shaking my head, looking down then suddenly up at the family coming in with such a ruckus, they grab my attention. They look Central American, probably Guatemaltecos. Parents, two little girls with pink and white ribbons threaded through their shiny black braids and a blank-faced teenager, pants sagging and moves like any other American teen. Passport customers. I turn back to the old guy after checking out that beautiful Buddha baby, still serenely watching the translation show.

“I just want to pay this ticket.”

“Yes, sir.  But do you know that if a police officer stops you on your way home, you can be arrested.”

I bet he thinks no cop will arrest a viejito like him who looks like he’s made of porcelain and if you breathed on him too hard he’d shatter. Josue’s as dark as this lady next to me; I’m sure he’s gonna look better than me before too long.

“How much?”

She punches an oversize calculator I can see from here and says, “$273.”

“How much for my license?”

“You have to pay the $273 and then take your receipt,” she pulls a paper from a bin behind her, “and fill this and this out,” she says pointing, “and then with these forms and your receipt from today you go to the Division of Motor Vehicles and take a written test to have your license reinstated.”

The Guatemalan family is number 30. I missed two other customers. My friend next to me is tsking and I think, there’s no way this old man is gonna do all that. He probably just drives to the grocery store and back once a week, maybe church and doctors’ appointments. But then he pulls out some bills, a little pile of them, and pushes them under the window. Even the clerk looks surprised. She counts, starts typing in his information and prints out a receipt and returns his change. She holds up the forms again.

“You have to fill them all out, front and back and take them with your receipt to the Division of Motor Vehicles.”

“Yes, yes.”

El viejo is shuffling past. The lady next to me says, “Well, all right then.” He doesn’t notice but I have to put my hand over my mouth to stop from laughing.

“Bless his heart,” she says smiling and nodding.

The electronic tone goes off and the numbers advance by one then two. The woman with the perfectly behaved baby is gone; I missed seeing that sweetness once more. The punky chick is wrapping up. The passport girls are sharing a DS; kinda young for that but oh well, how’d I know. My neighbor’s phone goes off and I remember I didn’t turn down the ringer on mine. I pull it out and start playing the bird game. She’s telling Betty she’ll call her back, leans my way, “those are so addicting, aren’t they?”

I agree and we compare notes when I get a text from Josue.

My husband has sent me a photo of one of those little heart-shaped candies with the message “I fucking love you, bitch,” and I bust out laughing so hard the black lady next to me wants in and I just pass her the phone. She shrieks while tears are streaming down my face, I can’t even speak.

I text him, “that’s just wrong,” and I keep laughing and crying.

Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés’ work appears in various journals and anthologies, including The Bilingual Review/La revista bilingüe, Letras Femeninas, Pearl, The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature and Guernica. Her short story collection, Marielitos, Balseros, and Other Exiles (Ig Publishing 2009), was followed by Everyday Chica, winner of the 2010 Longleaf Press Poetry Prize and Everyday Chica, Music and More, a spoken word CD set to Caribbean folk music was released in 2011.  She lives and works in Orlando with her family and three dogs.

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