Nagaraj Mbaya nibbled on his lunch salad, remembering yesterday's swearing- in ceremony. While awaiting the oath, he glanced around the room and saw Orientals, Middle-Easterners, miscellaneous Europeans, Hispanics and other Africans. This is America, he thought. In my heart, I'm a resident of the world, but citizenship here is precious. Those fools of September 11th didn't understand they would be welcome, too, if their minds were free instead of weakened by lies. The United States, with all its imperfections, prejudices and random acts of violence, holds hope for all. No other nation I know of comes close. Nagaraj wept when he spoke his allegiance and observed others sobbing. With the crowd, he passed through the doorway into the bright sunlight and rich soil of his adoptive home.
Fred Bowles, the medical clinic's other Physician's Assistant, entered the small break room. "Well, if it isn't America's latest citizen. Congrats, Naga." He put his Stouffer's lasagna into the microwave oven while exchanging smiles with Nagaraj. "I'm happy for you."
"Thank you. I've wanted this for a long time."
Fred leaned on the micro. "I'm happy for us, too."
"Do you mean the clinic?"
"Of course. You're more than the best worker here; you're also the nicest. Except for my favorite Jamaican."
From the doorway, Lorelei Bishop said, "I'll take that compliment, mister Boston. You must have seen me coming, or you wouldn't have said that." She sat with Nagaraj, placing her Tupperwared salad on the table.
Fred sauntered to them. "I'm serious. If not for you two, I'd go elsewhere for a job. I'd even consider leaving New Haven and going back to Beantown."
Surprised, Nagaraj said, "I'm content here."
Fred grinned. "You, my man, would be content to hand out water in Hell. You're the most tolerant person I know. At least Lorelei tells it like it is; and she's nice."
"Should I not be tolerant?"
Fred put his hand on Nagaraj's shoulder. "I wouldn't change you for the world. You accept things you can't change -- without a twelve-step program. You're so even-tempered. I envy you. You've seen me lose it with the doctors and nurses. Especially the nurses. They're a bunch of harpies."
Nagaraj said, "There is nothing to be gained by letting people upset you."
"Maybe not, but we need to draw the line somewhere. You have to watch your back or somebody will stick a knife in it." Fred glanced at the microwave time. "I let the harpies get to me. I know it's a waste of energy, but sometimes they go over the line. Like last week; one of them -- I won't say which witch -- gave me an outdated injectable. It wasn't a mistake, either. She knew it was expired and wanted to use it up, so I called her on it."
"I would have, too."
"Yeah, you would, but I'm talking about how. I raised my voice, got all authoritative with her. You wouldn't have."
Nagaraj smiled. "You know the saying, 'You get more flies with honey than with vinegar'."
Fred shrugged. "But nobody told me what to do with all those flies. The bottom line is, you have nothing to hide, Naga. No Naga hide here."
Lorelei groaned. "I let things bother me, too. Then I take Maalox. But I'm just the receptionist. I don't have to deal with the harpies like you do."
Nagaraj said, "I don't know why I don't react like you."
Lorelei touched his wrist. "I do."
Both men looked at her with a question mark eyebrow. Fred said, "Well?"
"Nagaraj; your father. The dirt thing."
Fred said, "Say, what?"
"I've told Lorelei about my favorite of the many lessons my father taught me. She thinks it explains my tolerance."
"Lay it on me."
"Are you familiar with 'The Law of Conservation of Filth'?"
Nagaraj took a mouthful of salad and chewed slowly, making Fred wait. "For anything to be cleaned, something else must be made dirty." He watched the concept register; Fred's lips lifted and his eyes darted left, right, left, right.
"Sounds right. Your dad told you that?"
"It came from a man named Imbesi. When I was eleven years old, my father sat me on the ground in Ethiopia to show me the idea. He grabbed a handful of dirt and asked me what it was. Of course, I said, 'Dirt'. He distinguished the two main meanings of the word, earth: our planet's name and soil. He dropped the dirt, brushed his hands together and rubbed them on my shirt. 'Now your mother must launder your shirt and soil the water.' He told me to look for ways to separate dirt and soil, metaphorically. That's why American soil is the best to me; and why yesterday was so important."
Fred nodded. "Wow. Just so you know, I appreciate the melting pot, too."
Nagaraj smiled while a tear graced his cheek. "I think dirty thoughts often."
Lorelei said, "That doesn't sound right. It sounds like you consider doing rotten things. I think you mean you think about others' filthy actions. American English is difficult." She brushed his tear away with her thumb. "You're thinking about your parents, aren't you?"
Nagaraj nodded. "My mother left Lebanon for political reasons. My parents were ... activists; and so happy together. I miss them. I've carried them in my heart for four years. No one expected them to be murdered."
Fred said, "Murdered? That's horrible."
"Yes. Political dirt is everywhere. Perhaps my father should have kept his ideas to himself." Nagaraj sighed and smiled. "But, if he did, he wouldn't have been my father."
Fred asked, "Who killed them?"
"I'm not sure. Someone in government, I suspect. Father was politically active and opinionated. He kept telling me that we never really clean; we merely move dirt from one place to another. He was referring to affairs of state."
Fred snickered. "Like that'd never happen here."
Lorelei said, "I would have loved to meet your father."
Nagaraj closed his eyes for a second, opened them and said, "He's in a better place now."
Fred hesitated before asking, "Why did they kill your mother?"
A brief darkness clouded Nagaraj's eyes. "The assassin shot them in their sleep. Father may have been the target, but mother couldn't be left as a witness. I'll never know for sure who moved his dirt."
"It's dirty, all right," said Fred. "Care to elaborate on the politics?"
Nagaraj took in a deep breath and exhaled it. "No; politics don't matter. They change with the wind. I left home to become an American, but not due to any delusions about the political climate here. I chose to live here to be free inside."
"I hear you." Fred added, "But, there's as much dirt here as anywhere else. Trust me. Inner freedom is cool, but watch out for the outside stuff." The microwave beeped. He turned toward it. "This is getting heavy. I need lasagna."
Two nurses entered the break room and sat two tables away. Lorelei, Nagaraj and Fred ate in relative silence, thinking about dirt.
In room six, Nagaraj asked the obese man seated on the examination table how he felt. The middle-aged white man didn't answer.
"Sir? What can I do for you?"
"You can leave and get me a doctor."
"I'm the only one available right now."
The man stood and put his shirt on. "I'll go to the E.R."
Nagaraj feigned ignorance. "What's wrong?"
Nagaraj persisted, "If you're not feeling well, you should be examined. I'm here to help."
The man's face reddened while he buckled his belt. "I ain't havin' no nigger touch me."
Nagaraj nodded and stepped away from his position between patient and exit. While the man left, Nagaraj thought, Old knowledge dies hard. It's the 21st century, yet there is still so much to unlearn. He waited a moment before going to the reception desk. Lorelei was checking in a patient, so he stood at the inner counter until the client sat in the waiting room. "Lorelei, did the large man who just left say anything to you?"
"No, he never talks to me."
"He's been here before? He wouldn't let me examine him."
Lorelei looked away from her computer monitor. "He's prejudiced."
Nagaraj shook his head. "America is too wonderful to be so flawed."
"I wonder if he has children."
"Yes, he does. That's why it never ends. Ready for your next patient?"
At noon the next day, Nagaraj entered the break room with a container of fruit salad in his hand. Fred Bowles was chewing sausage pizza at their usual table. Nagaraj sat across from him. "Hi, Fred."
Fred grunted a greeting and swallowed. "I was online last night. I Googled 'The Law of Conservation of Filth.' Did you know there's more?"
Nagaraj removed the cover from his Gladware and took a plastic spoonful of fruit. "No, I didn't. What is it?"
"It's called 'Freeman's Extension.' Freeman -- whoever he was -- completed Imbesi's sentence, '...but you can get everything dirty without getting anything clean'."
Nagaraj pondered a moment. "It seems to imply intentional effort. If I drop this fruit on the floor, I'd pick it up, because I did it by accident and it would be hazardous to leave it. If I intentionally drop it and leave it, I anticipate the result. Correct?"
Fred nodded. "Last night, I thought about political implications."
Nagaraj's eyes glazed. "Lunch isn't long enough to pursue this. Perhaps another time? Sometimes the mind needs to relax."
Fred hesitated. He took another bite of pizza.
Two nurses came in. Fred asked Nagaraj about soccer.
While driving home from work, Nagaraj pondered dirty politics. The whole Mideast is poised on the brink of destruction, senselessly. North Korea might ignite a fuse it doesn't understand the ramifications of. Terrorism has infected the entire planet. Dear God, how can this mess be cleaned?
Still thinking, he parked in front of his apartment, got out of his car and locked it. He stepped onto the sidewalk. A car screeched to a halt behind him. He turned toward the noise by instinct and saw part of a stranger's face glaring at him from behind an automatic pistol. Nagaraj strained his facial muscles and said, "Why?"
The man looked at the driver, laughed and said, "Why not"? He fired.
At the cemetery, Fred vacillated between rage, confusion and numbness. Lorelei wept. When the few attendees left, she squatted and grabbed a handful of the dirt piled next to Nagaraj's grave. "With this soil, I bury the Earth." She threw the dirt onto the coffin and reached out to Fred.
He repeated her motions and then took Lorelei's hand. "Sometimes I'm ashamed to be an American." They walked away together.