by Roger McKnight

“Valencia isn’t Ivy League, but better,” Sylvia Glasgow remarked, then wondered if she meant it. As an alum, she loved her college, but she’d been on the road for a year recruiting students for it, and struggling. Today a delayed flight from Logan had prevented her reaching MSP early, so she was quickly pulling up facts about a Miss Larson, this morning’s first interviewee, while giving her the standard introduction. “We’re seeking serious students for a college with conscience.”     

Sylvia gathered her thoughts and studied the young woman, who had emerged from Starbuck’s noontime throng and introduced herself as “Victoria—Tori, for short.” She was thin-lipped and looked self-effacingly sly. Yes, that was Sylvia’s first impression or, on second thought, maybe more like calm and self-contained. Like me, too, as an incoming freshman, way back when, she thought. I stayed quiet at Valencia in those days and let others label me as they wished.

“Sorry for the crowded setting,” Sylvia continued after filing her reactions away and wishing desperately for the coffee she’d ordered. “My schedule’s mad. Snowing in Boston.  Snarled traffic in Minneapolis. But I so wanted to see you.” 

Tori nodded. “You just flew in?”

Sylvia said yes. “You?  Any trouble getting here?”

“I drove. From home.”

“Which is where? Let’s see.” 

Sylvia searched her info for Tori’s hometown, but she was left wondering where Minneapolis ended and St. Paul began. The Mississippi wound in and out between both communities and local maps seemed created to obscure the boundaries.

“It’s the burbs,” Tori replied, as if reading Sylvia’s mind and trying to simplify the answer.

“Yes,” Sylvia agreed. “You’re from Golden Valley.”

“No, Apple Valley.”

“Right. To the southwest.”

Tori’s slight smile failed to show whether Sylvia was right or wrong. “Close enough,” she said, which Sylvia took to mean ‘no matter.’   

“And you’re at Central High?” Sylvia asked. “Don’t get many apps from there.”

“No secret why not,” Tori explained. “Inner city hood, rubbing elbows with Latinos.  Blacks. Boat people. I had a boyfriend, one of them. My folks said no.” 

“No to what? Him or Central?”

Tori nodded without saying which, so Sylvia assumed she meant both. At last a barista appeared and put down a cappuccino for Sylvia, who nodded to Tori. “Your turn. My treat,” Sylvia said, relieved to skip the intricacies of Metro geography.

“Light brew, tall,” Tori ordered while looking steadily at Sylvia. “My dad’s company, Villospor, is close. I used that to argue for Central, going to classes near where he works.”

“So your father’s employed at Villospor?”  

“Kinda owns it.”

While Tori added cream to her light brew, Sylvia talked community service. “Valencia’s moving from theory to awareness to engagement, all for the common good.” She stirred her cappuccino, then chose a napkin and delicately wiped a smudge from her cup, which she saw Tori observing with a slight twist of her mouth but a neutral expression.

“Sorry,” Sylvia said. “My germ phobia.”

“Lots have ‘em, I’m immune,” Tori replied. She described her volunteer job at the Humane Society, where weird microbes flourished. Caring for abandoned or feral cats was her task. “I found four scrawny kittens dumped under some football bleachers. Lots of fleas and claws. They scratched me. See?”

“Heavens,” Sylvia exclaimed. She applauded Tori for the rescue but was taken aback by the length of the bandage covering her arm.

Tori lifted the gauze, so some still-moist blood ended up on her hand. “Dear creatures,” she said while wiping off the stain. “What you see in their eyes is what they have in their hearts.  Sorry that sounds so dramatic, heard it in a movie the other day.”

Sylvia jotted notes while glancing at the girl’s injured arm and rechecking her high

school transcript. Encouraging her to talk on, Sylvia said “yes, yes,” and wondered what to expect next. 

“My ex is a like a kitten. He woulda been in college now.”

“He was your boyfriend?”

“Name’s Pancho. Long gone.”

Sylvia wondered about ‘gone’ but avoided prying. “You’ve got good grades,” she observed. “Any exciting classes?”    

“Spanish. Our teacher’s TexMex.  Señor Gonzalez. Gonzo. Speech is great, too.  Learning to get ideas across.” 

“Fantastic. Valencia’s new curriculum emphasizes communicating across boundaries.  Demographics are shifting,” Sylvia explained. She resisted delving into the anomaly of Valencia reaching out to the poor while recruiting the rich.

“I took a mini-course on digital literacy and fake news,” Tori replied, as she nodded okay to a refill from the barista, who spilled a tiny portion. Tori swiped at the excess and licked it from her finger with a flourish. Sylvia wondered if the gesture showed the young woman’s ease in her presence or boredom with her questions.

“Sorry, me and my boyfriend had that habit,” Tori explained. “Licking.”

“At Valencia we’re taking theory and practice to the community,” Sylvia continued while filing away the girl’s words. “Explaining complex ideas in everyday language.”

“Speaking well’s a must,” Tori agreed.

“We’re located back East. Lotsa nor’easters. Some want palm trees.”

“Cool and breezy here, too.” 

“Other schools on your agenda?”

“Hanford.  In San Fran. Went there with my dad. He bought a cottage at Nob Hill. Least ‘cottage’ is what he calls it. We stayed there, Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

“Yes, great campus,” Sylvia responded enthusiastically.

“Cal State’s better.”

“Two very different places.”

“My ex, he was going to go there.”

“Cal State?”

Victoria nodded yes.

Sylvia considered their differing sentiments about the California universities and wondered again about Tori’s boyfriend being gone. She guessed at a disagreement between daughter and father. Did Tori prefer state universities because of her boyfriend or their counter-culture reputation?

“Dad says Nob Hill to impress people,” Tori continued. “The cottage is on a hill, all right, but no nob. He makes tons buying warehouses and storing stuff for companies. Dreams of buying his way into uppity places.”

“Valencia features study abroad. Interested?” Sylvia asked, seizing her chance to move on.

“My family was in Biarritz. And a month in Tahiti. Mom even went along. French is lovely.”

“I spent a year in Grenoble, as an exchange student,” Sylvia said, happy to pick up the ball.  “The Alps and trips to Paris. Changed my life. My French prof always said the French are the most intelligent people on our planet.”

“I liked their language better than the guys who spoke it. Way too grabby.” 

Sylvia said, “Yes, gladly,” when the barista offered her yet another refill. The coffee simmered as she jotted not your usual scholar in her notes and wondered where they were heading. Sylvia’s eager attempts at promoting the great wide world plus the chance to study at a prestigious school had given Tori no impetus to explain her goals. Maybe, Sylvia pondered, she’s already been there, done that. At eighteen? And what would I know about such privilege?  Me, an ex-scholarship girl Valencia’s sending out to hustle in big bucks, hopefully with brains to match?    

“Let’s be frank,” Sylvia decided to say. “Generations of bookers have kept Valencia steeped in tradition. We’re searching.” Whoa, wrong word, she caught herself thinking.  “Actively seeking.”   

“I know, something new,” Tori interrupted. “I’m an intuitive learner.” She paused as though intuitive learner was something she’d said before, or heard somebody else say, without ever finding a concrete theme to match it with. “Like your college, I’m looking for an answer.”  Tori waved her half-empty cup back and forth as if to put her wording in perspective. Nothing spilled.

Unable to locate any nugget in Tori’s words that Valencia’s tuition-driven staff would find promising, Sylvia blurted out, much like a schoolgirl, “Study habits? Any nook or cranny, where you go to get school work done? Vent, in silence? To cool it?”

A bemused smile flitted across Tori’s face. Probably at my word choice, Sylvia thought.  Chill is what youngsters say nowadays, she remembered. Tori’s reaction made Sylvia think of her husband Michael’s patient reaction when fielding their children’s innocent questions at home. 

“Not really. Like the testers say, I’m a creative learner,” Tori answered.    

Intuitive learners don’t look for places to study, Sylvia realized, because they never study, at least not systematically like the goal-oriented brains Valencia’s reputation rests on. 

“Creative, meaning what?” she asked Tori, determined to carry on. 

“I hear the questions and put my label on them after they’re all in.”

“So you wait for people to present their ideas and then decide if there is a question?”

“Kinda,” Tori agreed. She ran a finger around the rim of her coffee-stained saucer and licked it once more. “Or if the question’s worthy of attention.”

“So if there is a serious question, you decide to start studying?”

“That’s when I decide to look for better answers.”

What was left of Sylvia’s cappuccino cooled, so she sipped at it distractedly while Tori watched the noon-hour crowd filtering off to their workplaces. In her notes, Sylvia wrote well-placed family, has traveled, but she was only scribbling. Mostly she wondered why Tori had reminded her of herself at that age. Maybe Tori’s way of smiling from a distance at the busy downtowners was an expression of sympathy, as if she imagined the office workers scurrying back to a demanding boss, not unlike her own father. Sylvia remembered herself as a booker, though not the kind who buried herself in the stacks at Valencia’s hallowed library. She did her lessons in cozy cafés and studied passersby, in Tori’s style, she guessed.

“Sorry, not your usual interview, I know,” Tori said in a soft tone, half question and half apology, which interrupted Sylvia’s wandering thoughts.  

Interviewer and interviewee scrutinized each other, gradually rendering transparent the hazy filter separating them. Sylvia asked in confidence, “Central High.  Why?”

“I told you. Pancho.”

“And his real name? C’mon.”

Being detected for concealing her boyfriend’s name caused Tori to quiver, slightly.  Sylvia felt equally uncertain for having asked about it. Calling out an applicant for a white lie isn’t a sin, she reflected, but not part of my job either. Nevertheless, Mr. Larson’s social climbing, measured against his daughter’s caring kitten rescue, suggested some discord in their family, however trivial it might seem. Sylvia guessed the relationship was based on strong love between father and daughter, which nurtured Tori in the frequent absence of her mother, whose maladies Tori had alluded to in her application essay. 

Sylvia guessed Mr. Larson’s strength of will showed up in Tori after she started school, but in ways the father least expected. Tori had written of taking change from her little brother’s piggy bank as a ten-year-old and treating her friends to candy and pop because the poor kids got no allowance. Yes, even in suburbs the permanent underclass and unregistered immigrants were present and eked out their living as maids and day laborers, Sylvia knew. In high school Tori joined diversity groups, as her essay proudly detailed. If those extra-curriculars took the father by surprise, he could tolerate them as a youthful whim. Sylvia imagined the falling-out over Tori’s social preferences reaching a head when she brought Pancho home to meet her parents.

“His real name’s Chino,” Tori admitted. “His family’s from Guatemala. They’ve lived here since he was a baby. He taught me Spanish.”

Images flitted through Sylvia’s mind of Tori and Chino dallying at school in Spanish.  Such scenes may have troubled her father. That vision gave Sylvia pause as well, but not because she judged Tori for it. 

Before Sylvia could carry the thought further, the baristas began clearing tables. She and Tori were the only customers left. “My next applicants are in Park Center, wherever that is,” she announced.

“We were doing okay, me and my dad,” Tori continued, seeming not to hear Sylvia’s words. “He wasn’t happy about Pancho, but I handled it. Least till Dad voted for Trumpkopf.  Now he’s in the White House kicking Latinos out in the street.”

Sylvia hesitated. She wondered whether to break her Admissions Office rules and discuss politics or say ‘Sorry’ and move on with her trusty GPS.

“You’re looking for Oro Park plus Oro Center. That’s Park Center for short. North from here,” Tori explained, again appearing to read her interviewer’s thoughts.

“So why call your boyfriend Pancho?” Sylvia asked.   

“We met in Phy Ed tennis. He was so good, always hit the sweet spot,” Tori replied, unable to hide a blush. “The teacher said some Latino named Pancho was this tennis star, so Chino became Pancho.”

“They didn’t get along, he and your father?”

“Yes, no, nothing like that. Pancho was polite to his elders,” Tori said intently. “Dad’s a push-over, long as you toe his line. He looks the other way hiring at Villospor. The feds are always checking on him. There were considerations.”

“Meaning?” Sylvia wondered.

“Meaning don’t tread on Dad’s space. He takes it personal.”   

A guy with Nob Hill in his dreams found it unbearable, Sylvia guessed, having the government interfere with his business or a Latino call the shots with his daughter. Mr. Larson could live with Pancho’s family in the work place, but nowhere else. That issue weighed on Tori’s mind, but the more she discussed her seemingly vague college plans the better Sylvia understood Tori was bending their conversation in a direction more pressing than her father’s ideas about social standing.

“Dad didn’t worry about Pancho,” Tori continued. “Only the gangs. Knifings, drugs.  Mexicans were meaner than Central-Americans. He thought they’d go after Pancho.”

“So what did he propose?”

“I insisted I could date who I wanted. Not under my roof, he said. Mom was already holed up in her sick-room, and Dad wasn’t about to lose me, too. That’s when the travel bug hit.  For him, the lifelong workaholic, seeing the world was a dream, like another Nob Hill, as long as he could keep me close. France and Tahiti were cakewalks. We went to other places you wouldn’t believe. Kangaroo Island, Kamchatka, Kiev. He took my brother shooting polar bears in Spitsbergen so I’d tag along. You think Boston’s rugged, try Goodyearbyen. Or Nuuk.”

Tori’s voice rose, so she stopped in a hrmpph. “All this to make me forget a boy, which I wasn’t going to do?” 

Sylvia wondered the same, only the other way around. She recalled her own departure for France a decade-and-half earlier. Fearing her year abroad would cause Michael, then her college sweetheart, to forget her, she cried for days before parting. That memory gave her a twinge of conscience. Unlike Tori, she never encountered any grabby French guys, but fell for Youssef, from Bahrain, who said he was a political refugee in France. They met at a foreign-student reception in Grenoble and made love in student digs, Alpine resorts, and leafy parks by gurgling streams. While Michael waited at home, Sylvia freed herself from what Youssef called middle-class convention. In the long run, it was Sylvia who almost forgot Michael. Indeed, she would have done so, she was certain, if Youssef hadn’t left his studies and returned to Bahrain, under the threat of prison at home. She and Michael got married after graduating from Valencia. 

“So what do you want from Valencia?” Sylvia asked. Normally she used an interview’s final minutes to discuss what the college and prospective student could give each other, but Tori remained so vague Sylvia narrowed the topic.  

“Getting things right,” Tori responded. “I picked Valencia when I read about your school’s financial problems. Dad gave in to me. I said I’d never forgive him unless.”

“And so, you reconciled?”

“You have no clue,” Tori continued.  “Pancho took a year off after Central, so Dad took him on at Villospor.  Stock boy, to see what he’s made of. That’s when Pancho applied to Cal State. He knew what he wanted.”

Sylvia peered out across the empty café.  The quiet liberated her from worries of flight delays and scheduling. About Guatemala she knew only this and that. She once attended a lecture on Mayan weaving and dyeing. Otherwise she remembered disturbing reports of brutal attacks on Indian villages. Sylvia wondered if Pancho’s relatives were among the casualties? Or were they the poor boys drafted into the Guatemalan police and taught to murder?     

“But Pancho never made it to California?” Sylvia guessed.

“This country’s hell. Latinos cower waiting for ICE to knock at the door and jerk them away, like Guatemala used to be.”

“Trump says Latinos are ‘bad hombres’,” Sylvia replied and realized she had nearly crossed over into partisan politics.

“Pancho’s little brother went around crying out ‘Trump es malo. Why does he want to take my parents away?’ His folks had to stop him from saying that at school, where you didn’t know who was listening.”

Noting Tori’s switch to the past tense, Sylvia patched together a sequence: First Pancho applied to college in California and later on Tori began looking, too. That’s when talk started about building a wall on the border and word spread. If ICE pounds at your door, don’t open it.  If ICE appears without a warrant, don’t answer them. If ICE asks your name, don’t give it.

“Even my dad’s aghast at the madness,” Tori continued. “Pancho’s folks went for their annual immigration review, but ICE put them in detention. Pancho had to sit down with his uncle and figure how to manage the household while his mom and dad were held. He got a second job to keep up payments on their mortgage, and an aunt agreed to care for his little brother and sister.

“The authorities claimed the family had Indian blood. They’re from a town called Verapaz. They’re descended from German immigrants, and Pancho’s got blue eyes. But even if they were Indians, why build a wall to exclude the continent’s original inhabitants?”

Sylvia felt uncomfortable fielding questions containing their own answer. So she found herself searching for a sensible response and worrying again about her next interviews. 

“There’s yet more?” she asked, perfectly aware her own question answered itself.

“They deported them, all three,” Tori replied, her emotions showing clearly for the first time. “Him and his parents. Gone. Pancho skyped me last night from Verapaz, he said the hardest part was that they took his parents ‘away from their heart, their little children. It was the worst pain. Like they were dead.’ ”

Sylvia thought about Youssef. Immigration authorities in France had treated him fairly, but common people often looked askance at him. When Youssef returned to Bahrain, Sylvia said she’d go with him and naively imagined herself aiding his cause, which in truth she never understood.

“Your dad? What does he say?” Sylvia asked, fishing to plug the temporary lull between her and Tori.

“He did research that said getting rid of immigrants would set the U. S. economy back 15%. That tipped the scales for him. One hope was having Pancho brought back on a foreign student visa, but Cal State hadn’t even read his application yet. Plus, Immigration insists he’s an indio, and they won’t allow him back as a foreign student because he’s not a foreigner. Next’ll be his brother and sister. Born here.”

“So what’s the question you’ve sorted out?” Sylvia asked. “Cal State, Hanford?” she asked cautiously. 

“No way, it’s Valencia or Verapaz,” Tori said with a determined shake of her head. 

Her composure made it unclear if she had arrived at Starbuck’s determined to present that very ultimatum or if she’d just invented it.  

“Me below the border? Dad’d never dream of it,” Tori went on. “But if Pancho can’t come back here, I’ll go there, hell or….” 

Tori paused. “I’m begging you.”

“To step in where others failed? Who am I?” Sylvia protested. 

“Remember, a college with conscience?”

Sylvia thought how that phrase had drifted toward cliché as the drive for money took precedence at the college, and here was a co-ed with cash. If Tori chose Valencia, was it possible, getting the college to approach Immigration for Pancho? And if they’d do it for him, then others, too? Maybe, she allowed. A warehouse man’s money spoke as loud as anybody else’s, but how would the college use it? Actions spoke louder than words.

The two women looked each other in the eye. Sylvia wondered how things would have gone if she’d been as determined as Tori and followed Youssef back to Bahrain. Or did Youssef cunningly plan their relationship to end exactly when he was to leave France? 

“Using me till the time was right?” she asked, only to realize she was talking aloud to herself. Anyway, she thought, life has turned out good, for me.

“C’mon, time to go,” Tori said impatiently. “How’ll you make Park Center alone?  GPS?”

“You have a better answer?” Sylvia replied.

“I’ll drive. I made you late to start with.”

“My rental car.”

“Follow me in it.”

“The answer to my prayers,” Sylvia said. Getting to Park Center on time made catching her flight home a cinch; Michael fared better with the kids any time she was on her way.   

Sylvia paid the cashier. Approaching the car, she said, “Sorry, but I need to find my own way.”

Tori halted.  “They didn’t name me Victoria for nothing,” she said in determination.

“You have an interesting application,” Sylvia explained guardedly. “Don’t know what more I can say.” 

“I won’t be stopped.”

Sylvia held her car door open, one foot in the driver’s side and the other planted outside it. When Tori stubbornly leaned against the front bumper, Sylvia sighed and got out. Thus

deadlocked with the younger woman as the bleak winter sun gradually began sinking, Sylvia compared the two of them, privileged in different ways yet equally involved in others’ woes.  Slowly she let her guard down and smiled, first in dismay at the world, then sympathetically toward Tori, who returned the gesture.

They shared those smiles, until Sylvia checked the time again. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s give it a try. Talk to your dad. I’ll do my best back East. No promises. We’re not Ivy League, you know.”

“No, but maybe better,” Tori answered.    

Sylvia got in the car, zapped her window down, and shook hands with Tori out through it.  Driving off in a rush, she neglected the GPS. Soon she even lost track of which city she was in, Minneapolis or St. Paul, or where this Park Center could possibly be, but no matter, she consoled herself, as she oftentimes had done at confusing sites, every road eventually comes out some place good, for somebody. Continuing on with only common sense to guide her, she wondered if good was always the same as right.

About the Author:

Roger McKnight

Roger McKnight is a native of downstate Illinois. He now lives in Minnesota. Previously Roger has studied and worked in Chicago, Sweden, and Puerto Rico. In Sweden he experienced a nation dedicated to gender and ethnic equality. In Puerto Rico he saw the dignity of Puerto Rican life before the destruction and neglect of the island during Hurricane Maria. Roger has worked as a teacher of English and Swedish. He has published one book of creative non-fiction, a novel, and pieces of short fiction in literary journals. His stories tend to drift toward the Midwest, though he’s traveled a bit through the years.