Peace Corps Writers
The Non-Matrixed Wife (page 4)
The Non-Matrixed Wife
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page 5

     She later showed me a little white pill that, when dropped into the box, would render its contents sterile. The pill was indeed a solid form of a chemical we used back home in a special gas device to sterilize delicate instruments that couldn’t stand the more corrosive steam under pressure. But dropped in a box, it had about as much power to sterilize as an aspirin. She needed the machine to make it work.
     I said nothing, but my stomach dropped into my feet. This was my dilemma: If I were to try to requisition the sterilizer and teach the staff how to use it, I would be insulting them — because they were the trained professionals, and I was a gadfly from a foreign country who by law was not even allowed to work in the field for pay.
     Whatever plan I might’ve made, I had already sabotaged it. I had reacted, however involuntarily, to the dropping of that instrument. The insult was there already, lurking in my raised eyebrows.
     I humbly went back to my notes, to the SOP book they would surely find useful. But the atmosphere grew frosty. Within a week, I didn’t have to ask anybody’s cousin’s buddy’s cleaning lady’s daughter where my self-assigned project stood.

The Five Year Plan
By this time, Paul had regained access to the engineering department, thanks to a hospital board member, who had leaned politely but pointedly on the head engineer. Our cousin’s-buddy’s-cleaning-lady’s-daughter source informed us that the head engineer had despised Paul’s erstwhile counterpart, and was simply showing his disdain for Manuel by locking Paul out. I had free time now, so I joined Paul in Phase One of his project.
     The hospital was a victim of Venezuela’s peculiar five-year election syndrome. It had been planned eight years earlier, on a promise from a newly-elected president. But after an election, it was an informal custom that nothing momentous happened for three years — so it had been left to languish. Then, two years before the next election — again, according to informal custom — the ruling party demonstrated its intent to improve life in Venezuela with a building frenzy. The hospital was hastily and partially slapped together. But the ruling party lost, so for the first three years of the new leadership, the hospital again lay not-quite-finished. Then came the frenzied preparations for the current election, and it was completed — with little regard for the original architect’s plans — and opened as proof of this government’s good will.
     Paul’s fire and emergency system would require those using it to know where all the exits and equipment closets and traffic paths were, and they were not where they’d been on the original blueprints. So Phase One meant redrawing the plans. For this, Paul carefully measured the hospital’s corridors, doors, stairwells and so forth. It was a good job for two people, because he needed someone to hold the end of the measuring tape. He then took the day’s notes to Town Hall, where he could use a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer’s architectural table and tools to redraw the blueprints on big rolls of tracing paper.
     I had been helping for a week or so when our former landlord showed up. His manner was surly, offended; he refused to look Paul in the eye as he demanded his rent.
     Morelli had rejected our payments not just once, but three times — Irma the babysitter told us this was intended to be a great insult. Paul told him that he had tried in good faith to pay, and that was sufficient; he was not going to pay now.
     Another week passed, and we received a letter from Morelli’s lawyer that informed us we were being sued for three times the amount we owed.
     Once we deciphered the arcane Spanish legalese, we were terrified. A lawsuit! Could we be imprisoned? Deported? We hurried the letter to a Venezuelan friend who tsk-tsked over it and gave us a lawyer’s name.
     The lawyer looked us over solemnly, then called Morelli’s lawyer. They chatted for a half-hour, enquired after each others’ families, laughed, traded jokes. He hung up and informed us he’d managed to winnow the price down to the original rent.
     We paid.
     Paul and I continued to work on the hospital plans. Lawsuits aside, things seemed to be looking up; perhaps, after all, we were going to be of use.
     And then one day, Irma didn’t show up to babysit. We had no phone and didn’t know where she lived; we were worried sick that something might have happened to her. Kym had grown to love her and she, too, was frantic.
     That evening, Irma’s 12-year-old son knocked on our door. His mother, he told me, was taking part in a barrio invasion and might be gone for many, many days.
     In Venezuela, land or property left unoccupied may be claimed by “invasion” — people simply squat on it and refuse to leave; eventually, it becomes theirs. There was a housing project that had remained not-quite-finished due to the vagaries of the election syndrome, and Irma and some of her neighbors, who lived in a very poor part of town, decided to claim it. In an election year, someone would surely promise them running water and electricity, if they remained long enough. “Long enough” could mean months.
     And so we lost her. I took Kym to the office when I could to help with the few remaining touches of Phase One. Soon, the new true-to-the-building plans were finished.
     They looked wonderful. Professional. We were both proud of them. Paul presented them to the hospital CEO for his inspection. The CEO received them with great ceremony, and Paul left the office feeling that he had done something positive and meaningful, energized to move on to the Fire and Emergency logistics of his project.
     The next day, the janitor who worked the offices — a man Paul joked with whenever they crossed paths — brought him the rolled-up floor plans. He had found them, he said, in the hospital CEO’s waste basket. He knew Paul had put a lot of work into them, so he thought perhaps he might want them back.

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