Six months later, she is still underage. Her driver's license says she is seventeen, that she won't be turning eighteen until May, and therefore he must act cautiously with her in public, avoid at all costs doing anything that might arouse the suspicions of the prurient, for a single telephone call to the police from some riled-up busybody could easily land him in jail. Every morning that is not a weekend morning or a holiday morning, he drives her to John F. Kennedy High School, where she is in her senior year and doing well, with aspirations for college and a future life as a registered nurse, but he does not drop her off in front of the building. That would be too dangerous. Some teacher or school official could catch sight of them in the car together and raise the alarm, and so he glides to a halt some three or four blocks before they reach Kennedy and lets her off there. He does not kiss her good-bye. He does not touch her. She is saddened by his restraint, since in her own mind she is already a full-grown woman, but she accepts this sham indifference because he has told her she must accept it.
Pilar's parents were killed in a car wreck two years ago, and until she moved into his apartment after the school year ended last June, she lived with her three older sisters in the family house. Twenty-year-old Maria, twenty-three-year-old Teresa, and twenty-five-year-old Angela. Maria is enrolled in a community college, studying to become a beautician. Teresa works as a teller at a local bank. Angela, the prettiest of the bunch, is a hostess in a cocktail lounge. According to Pilar, she sometimes sleeps with the customers for money. Pilar hastens to add that she loves Angela, that she loves all her sisters, but she's glad to have left the house now, which is filled with too many memories of her mother and father, and besides, she can't stop herself, but she's angry at Angela for doing what she does, she considers it a sin for a woman to sell her body, and it's a relief not to be arguing with her about it anymore. Yes, she says to him, his apartment is a shabby little nothing of a place, the house is much bigger and more comfortable, but the apartment doesn't have eighteen-month-old Carlos Junior in it, and that too is an immense relief. Teresa's son isn't a bad child as far as children go, of course, and what can Teresa do with her husband stationed in Iraq and her long hours at the bank, but that doesn't give her the right to pawn off babysitting duties on her kid sister every other day of the week. Pilar wanted to be a good sport, but she couldn't help resenting it. She needs time to be alone and to study, she wants to make something of herself, and how can she do that if she's busy changing dirty diapers? Babies are fine for other people, but she wants no part of them. Thanks, she says, but no thanks.
He marvels at her spirit and intelligence. Even on the first day, when they sat in the park talking about The Great Gatsby, he was impressed that she was reading the book for herself and not because a teacher had assigned it at school, and then, as the conversation continued, doubly impressed when she began to argue that the most important character in the book was not Daisy or Tom or even Gatsby himself but Nick Carraway. He asked her to explain. Because he's the one who tells the story, she said. He's the only character with his feet on the ground, the only one who can look outside of himself. The others are all lost and shallow people, and without Nick's compassion and understanding, we wouldn't be able to feel anything for them. The book depends on Nick. If the story had been told by an omniscient narrator, it wouldn't work half as well as it does.
Omniscient narrator. She knows what the term means, just as she understands what it is to talk about suspension of disbelief, biogenesis, antilogarithms, and Brown v. Board of Education. How is it possible, he wonders, for a young girl like Pilar Sanchez, whose Cuban-born father worked as a letter carrier all his life, whose three older sisters dwell contentedly in a bog of humdrum daily routines, to have turned out so differently from the rest of her family? Pilar wants to know things, she has plans, she works hard, and he is more than happy to encourage her, to do whatever he can to help advance her education. From the day she left home and moved in with him, he has been drilling her on the finer points of how to score well on the SATs, has vetted every one of her homework assignments, has taught her the rudiments of calculus (which is not offered by her high school), and has read dozens of novels, short stories, and poems out loud to her. He, the young man without ambitions, the college dropout who spurned the trappings of his once privileged life, has taken it upon himself to become ambitious for her, to push her as far as she is willing to go. The first priority is college, a good college with a full scholarship, and once she is in, he feels the rest will take care of itself. At the moment, she is dreaming of becoming a registered nurse, but things will eventually change, he is certain of that, and he is fully confident that she has it in her to go on to medical school one day and become a doctor.
Excerpted from Sunset Park by Paul Auster. Copyright © 2010 by Paul Auster. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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