“Mu….m! Mu…m!” a little voice cries out from the backyard. But apparently mum is busy on the phone, in the living room. It’s her husband calling again to remind her about Marla’s visitation this coming weekend. He lives about a forty minute drive away, in a rented condo.

Carla, a Puerto Rican immigrant, and Justin, her African-American husband, have a mutual understanding on alternate weekend visitation of Marla, their eight-year old. They’ve been separated for ten months now, reason mostly having to do with misplaced priorities over holding down their respective jobs and commitment to one another. Carla is a sales representative of a beauty company, Sheene. She used to work in the welfare department of J.B. Cochran and Co., a brokerage firm in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where she had met Justin. This was about nine years ago, when Justin then was newly employed as an Assistant System Analyst for the company. They had hit it off barely two months after they met, and had married four months later. Due to the company’s policy against having spouses working together in the company, Carla had quit and taken on another job at a local realty located close to their home, while Justin had stayed on.

“Look, Mum!” Marla calls out again as she enters the house, holding out something covered in dirt to her mother, grinning. Carla, who was just getting out the soup she had cooked earlier from the fridge to put in the microwave, nearly drops the plastic container she’s holding. “Ww…here did you get that?” she asks with a squeaky note in her voice. Hastily putting the container on the counter and grabbing a dish napkin close by, she gingerly takes the item her daughter is holding out to her, like some trophy: a dead bird. She drops it in the bin with a mind to take out the trash immediately. Meanwhile, someone needs to have her hands thoroughly washed and disinfected.

Sitting in front of her computer two hours later after lunch and with Marla busy on the floor arranging some blocks, Carla gets caught up with scheduling some meetings with potential customers who had flooded her email with messages. Satisfied with dealing with all of them, twenty minutes later, she stands up to get some orange juice from the fridge. Her cell phone beeps as she returns to her computer with a full glass. Marla is still concentrating on her task. It is a text message from Lisa Fernandez, the clerk at McGee Realty, which is about three blocks from her home and where she had worked briefly before she quit. She had left the job mostly because of Brenda Bell, an ogre of a lady and her supervisor, who was also racist (giving a few snide remarks she had made about her place of birth). Lisa, also a Puerto Rican, had stuck it out and is still working there. Now she has written her a text asking that they meet for lunch tomorrow. Frowning slightly on reading it, she quickly makes a call to her.

She hears a faint “Hello,” from the other end as Lisa picks up. Carla answers with, “Hey, Lisa. It’s me, Carla. What’s up?” Giving a relieved sigh, Lisa says haltingly, “I don’t want to talk over the phone, Carla. I’m still at the office….” She leaves the sentence unfinished, and Carla, understanding that perhaps Lisa couldn’t continue with what she was about to say, replies with, “Alright, I understand, Lisa. Talk to you, later.”

Carla’s phone beeps again some minutes later. She frowns slightly as she views the second message from Lisa. “What in…” she begins to say, but stops abruptly as she looks at the bent figure of her daughter, still working intently on building a perfect stack of blocks. Flipping a loose braid from her face, she looks again at the message, which reads… “I think someone is trying to take over your house. The related documents are missing. You should inform your husband about this.” Throat suddenly gone dry, she quickly grabs her glass and takes a deep gulp of the juice. Shaking her head to clear it, she grabs her phone again and glances once more at the message. Who could be doing this? she asks silently. Trying not to give in to panic, she moves out of the room with her phone and calls Justin immediately.

Justin answers at first ring, and Carla sounding almost incoherent, breaks the news to him. “You have the copies, right?” he asks calmly. “Yes, of course,” Carla says almost impatiently. “But I don’t somehow think it matters. Someone is out to ruin us, Justin,” she wails. “Not if I have anything to say about it. We have to meet with McGee himself asap, hon.” Heaving a heartfelt sigh, Carla says resignedly, “It’s his nephew running the business now, Justin. What are we going to do?” At this, Justin tries to calm his wife. “We got this, Carla. You and I. They just picked the wrong family to mess with.”

Handing a duffel bag to Justin the next day as he comes to pick Marla up for the weekend, she advises Justin to remember to give her the multivitamins she had packed in the bag, then walks them to the door, giving Marla’s hair a quick ruffle, which sends the little girl into explosive giggles. They are careful not to give much away in Marla’s presence. They have decided to contact their lawyer, Mr. Hollister, about this.

Watching and waving, as Justin pulls away from the driveway in his Toyota Corolla, with Marla securely tied to her seat, Carla walks back into the house. She shuts the door and leans on it with a sigh. The house seems too quiet with Marla’s absence. Glancing up at the wall clock, she realizes that she has just less than thirty minutes to get ready to meet Lisa at the Mexican restaurant six blocks away. They had talked again last evening and had arranged to meet at the restaurant. She decides to drive instead as she walks quickly to her bedroom, dabs some cologne, and ties up her hair, checking her clothes for signs of lint. By force of habit, she takes a quick look around before leaving, giving a rueful smile as she spots Marla’s pink stuffed bunny, Bugs, named after her favorite cartoon character from Looney Tunes, lying face-down on the carpet. She had obviously forgotten to take it with her. Picking it up with a smile, she places it on the sofa.

Carla arrives some minutes later at the restaurant. There are a few people present, she notices, as she moves to an empty table close to a window and sits down, glancing at her wristwatch self-consciously. She feels uncomfortable going to restaurants since her separation. Not that she’s averse to eating in public places or something close to it. It’s just that they remind her of the happier times with Justin, when they mostly ate out, before the arguments had started and they had gone out less, then stopped altogether. Feeling sad all of a sudden, she looks up with a start as she hears a slight cough above her. It is Lisa and she’s giving her a concerned look as she puts her purse on the table, sitting down quietly. Carla tries to assure her former co-worker with a careless wave of the hand that everything was fine.

Lisa knows of the separation, though she had tactfully never mentioned it. And for this, Carla is both thankful and grateful. They had never really lost touch since she quit her job at McGee.

They discuss some lame topics over some drinks, then Carla asks, “So Lisa, I’m shitting bricks now with what you told me about the house, whereas Justin is unbelievably calm about it. What the heck happened?” Lisa gives a gentle sigh, saying, “I wish it were that simple, Carla. But Brenda had been acting really bossy and mean since Mr. McGee’s last coronary. She’s totally insufferable.” Carla rolls her eyes with a what else is newlike expression on her face. She had learnt about his coronary from the gossip column of the local newspaper, two months ago. The same paper had mentioned that McGee’s nephew, Philip McGee had taken over the running of the company while his uncle rehabilitates at his home. Carla mentions this as she takes a sip from her drink. Clearing her throat, voice dropping to a whisper, Lisa replies with, “Oh, you mean Philip? He’s a dear and wouldn’t hurt a fly. But he has left the bulk of the job for Brenda to handle.”

Turning around as if checking for any eavesdropper, her voice dropping once more, Lisa says, almost in fear, “I noticed a week ago that a file I personally put away in one of the shelves was missing when Philip asked for it. He had just come in from his trip to Atlanta, where he lives with his family.” Encouraging her with a nod to continue, Lisa says, “I had thought initially that I had perhaps passed over it without noticing. So I went back to check the whole shelf just to make sure, and the file was nowhere to be seen. I told Philip that the file was not in the shelf. I was afraid that he would be totally pissed off and fire me, but he made the oddest remark, like, “Hey, wherever could Uncle Rod have kept the copies to the deed on the Schofield property?” I feel a sort of tingle on my nape at this. Our home originally belonged to the Schofields. Lisa, obviously reading correctly my facial expressions, nods her head gravely as she rounds up with, “Yes, it’s that bad. With the file missing, it’s only a matter of time before the records are altered; that is if they haven’t been already. I smell a fraud, Carla.”

Carla brushes her hair back in irritation, as she thinks of the implications of all this. Something has to be done as soon as possible, or they’re sunk. They’re about to lose their home which is already mortgaged.

Leaning forward, Lisa says quietly, concern in her voice, “You and Justin need to take this seriously, or you stand to lose your property to some unscrupulous person or persons. I wouldn’t be surprised if Brenda had something to do with the missing file.” Pursing her lips in obvious displeasure, Lisa continues with, “Philip was ready to write this off as carelessness and oversight on his uncle’s part, which I doubt.” Giving a half-smile, Carla replies with, “Thanks, Lisa, for your time and everything. Justin and I will get our lawyer on this.”

The two ladies make for the exit about 15 minutes later after paying for their unfinished drinks. It wasn’t a fun outing for either of them. A man in a dark brown hat, matching sweater, and dark slacks, sitting close two tables away from them, downs the remaining drink in his glass in one swallow. Closing the pages of the newspaper he was reading, he goes out of the restaurant seconds later.


“Mr. McGee, you have a call from Mr. Hollister,” Brenda announces breathlessly on the intercom as she pauses in her typing. Heaving a sigh, Philip McGee replies with, “Oh, sure. Put him on.” Philip has both been expecting and dreading this call. He couldn’t figure out why his uncle hadn’t kept careful records of the deeds to the Schofield property. Now they’re probably going to be sued for this breach of conduct. Perhaps his illness had been more serious than he thought. Now he’s left with the mess to deal with—only that he still doesn’t have the foggiest idea how to.

Hanging up the phone sullenly after talking to an overanxious Mr. Hollister for nearly twenty minutes, Philip pushes his chair back noisily, standing up wearily. “Now, where is the clerk?” he asks no one in particular as he presses the buzzer. He has not seen her since he came into the office today, he realizes, his irritation building. He walks to the outer office and sees that Brenda is on the phone. Giving a tired shrug, he goes back into his office, leaving the door open as a hint for Brenda to come inside when she’s done talking on the phone. She enters his office some minutes later. Philip, who’s seated at his desk feeling a little bit swamped by Brenda’s impressive height, offers her a seat with a small hand gesture. She’s really got an attitude, like she is some hot shot, Philip thinks with a small sneer.

Brenda sits down, crossing her legs and looking coldly elegant in a grey skirt and matching jacket with grey high-heeled pumps. “I notice that Ms. Fernandez is not in today, Ms. Bell. She quit?” Philip asks as he picks up a file from the table, opening it. “Ah, Mr. McGee, I guess the poor girl was probably getting lethargic over the ever-increasing number of tasks, which is why she probably quit. Who knows?” Brenda says tonelessly. Giving a slight snort, Philip says calmly, pushing a few files towards her, “Maybe you could see that these files are carefully arranged and put away neatly. Please make sure we maintain accurate records of them in our computer system as well. Thank you.” Feeling miffed at his condescending tone, Brenda picks up the files snappily and walks out, closing the door a bit louder than usual. Philip lowers his head once more to study some faxes of recent property deals.


The two adults sitting on their respective sofas, nearly a meter apart, say nothing for the next eight minutes. She’s in Justin’s apartment with Marla and Mr. Hollister has just left after explaining everything to them, and it looked like there was nothing more to add. Carla feels a storm of emotions running through her at the unfortunate turn of events. She angrily swipes a tear slowly trickling down her left cheek. Marla is curled up next to her husband, asleep. She almost resents her for this, then nearly laughs at such petty thoughts running through her mind, while faced with a possibility of losing their home. She asks herself the question plaguing her mind since her outing with Lisa. Could Brenda be behind all this? There is not enough evidence to connect her with this, though. But there’s no telling what that woman could be capable of. She voices her suspicions to Justin. But Justin shrugs his shoulders in reply, saying, “We’ve got no proof of her involvement, Carla. Best to look at this objectively and work with given facts.”

Rising from his seat, Justin goes to the cabinet to pour himself a sherry. “Care for some?” he asks. Carla gives a shake of her head, rising from her seat and saying, “My mind is just too muddled up now for a drink, Justin. I think I should just go home.” She’s almost infuriated at Justin for his display of calmness in the face what is happening. “Doesn’t he give a damn about what happens to their home?” she queries silently. Marla is still asleep, oblivious to the storm brewing up around them. Glancing about in curiosity, Carla wonders briefly if he brought his girlfriends over, feeling both hot and cold at the same time, resenting their separation. Justin watches her surreptitiously from under his hooded brows, hiding a smile. He could tell that she still has some feelings for him, regardless of her display of attitude to the contrary.

Emptying the rest of his drink in a gulp, Justin insists on following them in his car as Carla gets the still-sleepy Marla settled in her car seat, then sits behind the wheel of her old Ford, gripping the wheel, as she fights off feelings of despair threatening to overtake her. But she resolutely holds the wheel, concentrating on her driving until twenty minutes later, as she eventually stops in her driveway. Taking a few deep breaths to calm her raw nerves, she unties Marla from her seat and hands her over to Justin, who had just come out of his car. Justin follows her to the front door carrying Marla on his shoulder.

Switching on the living room lights, they open their mouths simultaneously, as they observe the chaos in front of them. The settees had been turned over. Bugs, Marla’s toy Bunny had been ripped open and the stuffing spilled out. Glancing anxiously at the still-sleeping Marla, she makes a gesture for Justin to hand her over to him, which he does quickly. Following him, they check other rooms to find more chaos. Drawers had been pulled out carelessly and carpets had been torn. The whole destruction smacks of desperation. Looking at each other helplessly, alarm building up in them, they move back to the living room, intent on calling the police. Grabbing the phone nestled on its stand on the counter and taking care not to wake Marla, who is still asleep, she hands her again over to Justin. As she begins to dial, however, Justin quickly grabs the phone from her, pointing at a crude writing on the opposite wall. Carla draws in a startled breath, her fear mounting. The crooked writing in black ink reads, “DO NOT INFORM THE POLICE ABOUT THIS, OR YOU WILL BE SORRY! THINK ABOUT MARLA.”

The embattled family leaves the building in less than fifteen minutes, taking some essentials with them and packing them in two bags.

Carla leaves in her car, with Marla nestled in her seat once more and thankfully still asleep. Justin follows close behind. They are watched intently by two men, who give loud guffaws from a white van, parked across the street, under the shadow of trees and the falling darkness. The two men, resembling the two characters in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, exchange the thumbs-up sign. “See how they scampered off like scared rabbits,” one of them says, trilling. The other admonishes him with a sharp jab on the abdomen. “Don’t be a sissy, pal. It gets you kilth,” he says, lisping the word for killed. Seeing nothing more of interest, the guy that spoke with a lisp makes a call, giving a grunt in reply as he hangs up. “Let’s beat it, pal,” he says.


For all installments of “A Hair’s Breadth,” click here.