Oscar was found in the driver’s seat, head slumped back, eyes closed, and shards of his American dream—bills, work schedules and payslips—stashed in the glove compartment. He had taken his fifteen-minute break at midnight and was going to shut his eyes for six, a practice he had perfected over the last year, working nights at the supercentre in Kissimmee, taking three college classes mornings to noon, and working weekends at the dollar store. Lunchtime, which didn’t feel like an hour because it zipped by like a whirlwind, Oscar reserved for schoolwork and a snack.
Before this, before his eyes closed and blackness blanketed his mind, before he succumbed to nothingness, Oscar saw, in high definition, in 3-D, his life in Zambia. He saw himself at Evelyn Hone College, where he had studied pharmacy. Three years of eight-hour days apportioned between theory and lab, save for the last three months, when he went on industrial attachment at Nkana Mine Hospital, where at first he merely observed practicing pharmacists decode doctors’ inscriptions then calculate dosages, prepare and dispense treatments, and later, doing so himself. He saw how painlessly The University Teaching Hospital had hired him upon graduation, and how natural it had been for him to move into a government flat in Longacres where he didn’t have to pay for water, electricity or rent.
Until he came to America, clocking in and out, accounting for every minute, vying for overtime, otherwise, milking the clock, all because he was paid by the hour, was as alien as snow to Oscar. At UTH, his work schedule was eight A.M. to five P.M., with an hour for lunch, Monday to Friday, never weekends. Ever. Whether he missed work or didn’t report on time had no effect on his pay. And on the side, he made extra money, sometimes in excess of his salary, selling painkillers or antibiotics to people who, for whatever reason, chose to bypass the doctor. It was a rotten thing to do, unethical, even, Oscar knew, but it came with the job, like a title. Selling meds on the side was a practice those before him had done, those who worked with him did, and those to follow, he was sure, would continue to do.
Painless, too, was how he had managed to furnish his flat with only the most luxurious fittings without the need to borrow or negotiate a payment plan. Kenwood was his preferred brand, and he made sure all his household appliances, the kind with a metallic finish, bore it. And naturally, as most Zambians did, Oscar bought a plot of land in Chilanga, which he could develop bit by bit, perhaps put up for rent or start a chicken farm and have some of his relatives run it. Naturally.
But there had to be a better life abroad, Oscar had reckoned. Most of his friends had left the country right after graduation and landed jobs in hospitals and private pharmacies in South Africa, Botswana, or Namibia. Oscar saw staying at UTH as a show of failure. There were always vacancies in the department from people emigrating or dying. One didn’t need ambition to fill these positions, to rise through the ranks.
That the American embassy had issued him a holiday visa without a fuss came less as a surprise and more as a present, as on one’s birthday. And why not? Oscar had a stable job, an above-average income and land: everything to root him in Zambia. Everything, he would later learn, people chased after in America, everything that translated into the trappings of the American dream. What could compel him to add his name to the tally of illegal immigrants in America?
In Kissimmee, Florida, lived a distant cousin, Itwi, whom Oscar had met once when he was younger. Oscar remembered that Itwi had studied accountancy at Copperbelt University and his wife, Inonge, architecture at the University of Zambia. Only Itwi’s immediate family kept in touch with him, and although they divulged Itwi’s contact details with guardedness that bordered on paranoia, Oscar didn’t mind because he wasn’t planning to encroach on Itwi’s life. No. Oscar only intended to stay with the cousin whom he knew little about long enough to establish himself.
And this was precisely what he had explained to Itwi and Inonge on the evening of his arrival, sitting on the edge of one of two cracked leather sofas in the tiny sitting room, made bland by the beige carpet and walls the colour of eggshells, devoid of decorations, save for a wall clock. From where he sat, Oscar could see the kitchen in its entirety and the mouth of a narrow corridor, which he guessed led to one other bedroom (the other bordered the sitting room. Oscar knew because Itwi’s two young children had come out of there chasing each other). Outside the apartment, voices and footsteps rose and fell to no end, impelling Oscar to blurt, “If you can just help me get papers, I will be out of your way as soon as possible.”
“Nonsense,” was Itwi’s response. “You’re family, and you’ll stay with us for as long as it takes you to establish yourself.”
By the end of the evening, Oscar had learned that Itwi had never worked as an accountant in America. Instead, he had ended up being a truck driver. “But don’t be fooled, cousin. I used to make serious money,” Itwi said. Until he lost that job when, exhausted from skimping on sleep so he could maximise the number of trips he made, Itwi rammed the eighteen-wheeler he had been driving into an immobile road construction vehicle, and his Commercial Driver’s License was suspended.
Even with Inonge working overtime as a nurse at an old age home, it quickly became obvious that with two young children to fend for, money was not flowing freely in Itwi’s home, and Oscar could not, in good conscience, stay with them without making a financial contribution. Itwi had just lost another of his intermittent jobs when Oscar arrived. Now, it seemed his mission became to help Oscar get papers, which entailed Oscar paying for gas to put in Itwi’s vehicle to take the two of them to some rendezvous or other, where they met every manner of immigrant, their discussions always culminating in what was wrong with their countries of birth.
This had gone on for a month. Then Oscar came right out one morning and told Itwi that he had been considering other avenues. He had come too far to end up going nowhere.
Itwi, who had been staring out the window with a toothbrush in his mouth, turned to look at Oscar, but said nothing. He disappeared into his bedroom, and minutes later, when he came out, said, “You spoke too soon, cousin. I’ve made a breakthrough. This time it’s for sure. I would have taken you to Raoul, my most reliable contact a long time ago, but he was out of the country. Now he’s back. He says he can get you papers within a few months. He’s expecting us. Let’s go.”
How was Oscar to respond to this? Could anyone blame him for feeling like a child before a doctor with syringe who says, “This won’t hurt”? He decided that if Raoul turned out to be another dead-end, he would out and out ask Itwi to stop trying. He was going to find a way on his own.
Raoul’s place of business was in Pine Hills. The sign outside advertised his enterprise as an immigration law office slash tax-consulting firm slash adult literacy nonprofit organisation. Pine Hills had to be an immigrant-heavy part of town because Raoul’s competition was everywhere Oscar had looked, some with their names and contact details splashed on billboards. Pine Hills, too, had evoked memories of home. Since he came to America, this was the first time Oscar was seeing so many black people in one place. And when he recognised the suggestion of subsistent living in the inattention to aesthetics, the no-frills manner in which businesses ordered themselves—a barbershop next to a pre-school next to a restaurant, and so forth—it became hard to imagine he was 8, 000 miles away from Chilenje or some other township in Zambia. Coupled with Itwi’s lowly lifestyle, what Oscar saw of Pine Hills left him with a sense of foreboding.
In an accent Oscar had never heard before, Raoul said that Zambians were the most difficult to arrange papers for because their country had never been to war. With no record of political strife, there was no ground for asylum. “The only option is to squeeze you in with the H-2 visa,” he said, explaining that the H-2 visa was a temporary work permit, but because Zambia was not on the list of countries whose nationals were eligible to apply for it, Oscar would have to apply as a Haitian.
“But I don’t know a thing about Haiti,” Oscar had said. “Moreover, this means changing my name, which I don’t see myself doing because then I won’t be able to use my qualifications.”
“How old are you,” Raoul asked.
“You are still very young, my friend. You can go to school here and get an American degree, which is what you need, anyway. The important thing is to get into the system.”
“Not like this,” Oscar argued. He had worked too hard for his pharmacy diploma and couldn’t imagine just throwing it away, especially because Raoul went on to explain that in order to qualify for the H-2 visa, Oscar had to prove that he was unskilled. This meant that even if he got the visa, Oscar couldn’t work as a pharmacist, and as far as obtaining an American education went, he would have to start by getting a GED, which was way beneath his GCE ‘O’ level certificate, considering he had even taken and passed Additional Mathematics.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Itwi said. “I know you think Inonge and I are stupid.”
“Let me finish. I had the same attitude when Inonge and I first got here. We were young, just like you, and excited, confident that we were marketable anywhere in the world. Look at us now.”
“I don’t understand.”
Itwi sighed. “We didn’t have a plan. This is a great country with endless opportunities, but you need to have a strategy. Like you, we came on holiday visas, yet our intention was to live and work here. As you can see, we’re still paying for that decision. Cousin, you’re lucky to have me, and even luckier because I know Raoul.”
Oscar’s eyes fell on Raoul’s worn carpet. He didn’t feel lucky. Not if it meant assuming the identity of an unskilled Haitian.
“There’s always another way,” Raoul said. “But it’ll cost you more.”
Of course, Oscar thought. Back home, “it’ll cost you more” had become a mantra among government officials. You heard it at the passport office, at a police roadblock, or at the driver’s license office. Oscar himself had used it many times when he sold meds on the side. Yet, hearing it from Raoul unsettled him.
“Another way” turned out to be a social security card and a permanent residence stamp in his passport. With these, Oscar started searching for work. Much as he had enjoyed the cloistered isolation of the lab or the dispensary, recalling the sense of significance he used to get out of going on rounds with doctors and nurses, being part of a team of healthcare specialists at the largest hospital in Zambia, buoyed Oscar to start by applying to conglomerate hospitals.
Month spilled into new month— to no avail. Until then, Oscar never imagined that one could literally “hunt for a job.” The one he had at UTH had come to him like a birthright. It only followed that large American hospitals would call him for an interview. Yet, none did, and Oscar began to apply to smaller, independent pharmacies. Even then, he heard nothing back, except for one or two places that sent him a “thank-you-for-your-interest,-but-the-position-has-been-filled” letter.
That was when he’d applied to the supercentre. And when he didn’t hear back from them either, he took it as a personal affront. He decided to walk in and speak to the person in charge. The concept of a pharmacy right in the bustle of a supermarket was new to Oscar, much like spelling ‘cheque’ with ‘ck.’ Back home, a pharmacy either was in a hospital, or operated as a stand-alone dispensary. Also new was the idea of asking about a job amid wheeling shopping carts and announcements blaring for a manager to report to register so and so.
Over the counter, with customers in line closely behind Oscar, the manager in the pharmacy department, whose nametag read Sanjay Patel, said, “I have looked at your resume, Mr. Liwena. Unfortunately, you are not qualified to work as a pharmacist because you are a paraprofessional.”
Paraprofessional. Oscar pondered the word. Para-, a prefix that relegated him to assistantship, a sidekick. He knew then that America was not for him. What did he not know about pharmaceutical care? For two years at UTH, he had carried out every function on the gamut of drug therapy. Not once had he erred. And since he arrived in America, he had started going to the library, reading everything he could on medication management, both academic and industrial. The fundamentals were the same: Amoxicillin had the same antibiotic properties whether in America or in Zambia.
“Paraprofessional, my wits,” Oscar fumed as he left the supercentre. “That’s it. I’m going back home.” Even if UTH refused to take him back, with the continued exodus of medical staff from Zambia to other countries, Oscar knew that there was always a hospital in need of a pharmacist. At that point, he had even resolved to work in a rural area, in the remotest of villages. At least he would get the recognition he deserved, if not more. After all, to villagers, any healthcare professional in a white coat was a doctor.
His mind meandered to his colleagues who had settled outside Zambia. He thought about what his former classmates would say upon hearing that he had failed to make it in America. Oscar could already see his story, embellished each time it was retweeted, shared on Facebook or blogged about on evelynhonegrads.com. The humiliation! He had never failed in his life and was not going to fail then. Even the fact that he had studied at Evelyn Hone College instead of UNZA was not because of his poor grades, but because he had failed to secure a full bursary. “Scratch the trip back home,” Oscar decided. He was going to stay. He was going to fight. He was going to obtain an American education and work as a pharmacist.
From Itwi’s apartment, the closest university that offered pharmacy was ninety minutes away. He had called, and once an admissions counsellor came on the phone and Oscar explained that he had a pharmacy diploma from Evelyn Hone College, the counsellor told him that before he could be admitted into the school, he had to have his Zambian qualifications validated.
“Is that through the Ministry of Education?”
“The Min— what? Oh! No. No, sir,” the admissions counsellor replied, audibly bemused, as though Oscar’s question was most outlandish. “The Department of Education has nothing to do with evaluating foreign credentials.” She stressed the word Department the way one would when speaking to someone hard of hearing, if not to a retard. Coming from Zambia, where until recent years private education had been an exception to the rule, and the government oversaw education credentialing, Oscar’s assumption was natural, and he was tempted to mention this to the counsellor, but given what he had already endured, decided to quash the impulse.
Later, when Oscar looked up the companies that the counsellor had recommended, companies whose sole purpose was to translate foreign credentials, he found that they charged anywhere between $150 and $500 per transcript. Because he had ample time before the next semester began, and because by then express service had become a luxury Oscar could not afford, he settled for the company that offered to translate his transcript at the lowest fee.
An entire fortnight ambled by. It felt as though a child could have easily been conceived and gone on to be born all while he waited. And when the report finally arrived, it contained a glaring error. The translated transcript stated that the pharmacy diploma course at Evelyn Hone College took two years to complete, when it was, in fact, a three-year curriculum.
“It’s right there on the college website,” Oscar had screamed, thumping the paper with the back of his hand. With seismic waves in his chest, Oscar called the foreign credentialing company and demanded that they rectify the mistake.
“We’ll investigate the matter and get back to you,” was their response.
Three days later, he received the revised transcript— no apology offered. Whereas the one before, albeit the error, appeared authentic with its original narrative and watermarks, now the transcript read as though the preparer had slapped it together under duress: “Revised following Mr. Oscar Liwena’s petition.”
He called them again. Could they prepare another report with the correct information without stating that it was a corrected version?
Very well, then, if they absolutely had to mention the correction, could they at least indicate that the correction was due to their mistake?
Oscar’s wits hit the wall.
The transcript from Evelyn Hone College showed that Oscar had spent in excess of one thousand hours in class, not counting his industrial attachment, far exceeding the one hundred and twenty semester hours he would need to complete in order to obtain a Bachelor of Science in pharmacy in America. Still, the foreign credentialing company concluded that Oscar’s pharmacy diploma was only equivalent to an Associate in Science at a community college.
This made no sense to Oscar, but what was there to do? Petition? To whom? The same way he had resolved not to crawl back to Zambia, Oscar decided to swallow his helplessness, to murk it from his psyche.
He called the university and made an appointment to see an admissions counsellor the following morning.
In her office stuffed with books, files, figurines and framed photographs, the counsellor, peering from behind her computer, said, “Since your transcript shows that you’ve already completed your core courses, what’s left now is for you to take general education classes.”
Bewildered. That’s what Oscar was. Tangibly so. A jab in the ribs. He could understand taking a law and ethics class, perhaps even a computer or technology class, but general education? That was what one did in secondary school. In Zambia, you could only make it into university after you had passed, with distinction, mathematics, English, chemistry, physics, biology, geography, plus two electives. Surely, his GCE ‘O’ Level Certificate spoke to this? Surely, it was clear that Evelyn Hone College had admitted him purely because he had demonstrated that he was ready to specialise? And the fact that he had two years of work experience, didn’t that at all count?
Yet, he had no choice. He had to spend a year and a half studying algebra, English 101 and introductory science. And because he couldn’t produce any income or tax records, Oscar didn’t qualify for financial aid. He had to pay for college out of pocket. His choice was settled: A job. Two, actually. The money he had brought with him from Zambia was long gone, guzzled up by Raoul, his transcript and contributing to expenses in Itwi’s household— Itwi, who at first had been reluctant to accept Oscar’s money, but as months went by, expected Oscar to contribute as a matter of course.
He couldn’t pinpoint what had triggered the headaches, the heaviness in his forehead, feeling as though an extra head had been appended to his frame. What he knew was that he had first felt the jabbing in his chest and had started coughing shortly after he started stocking frozen foods at the dollar store. There wasn’t much he could have done to keep warm while he worked other than wear a sweater and woolen gloves inside rubber ones. The backache was understandable as his job at the supercentre was to unload merchandise from trucks every night. Some nights, the truck was so massive that Oscar and his crewmates wound up unloading up to four hundred boxes each. Without medical insurance, seeing a doctor had been out of the question. He was looking at thousands of dollars out of pocket in medical expenses. Even though he had known better, Oscar opted for over-the-counter cough medicine and painkillers, which only delivered a sliver of relief after taking much more than the recommended dose.
Unlike the relief in this moment, so full, relief that welled through him as images from Zambia and those from America blurred and melded into one. Relief as this image dissolved, and light and color washed off, gave way to grey, and then— nothingness.
To Carlos, Oscar’s supervisor, it seemed unlikely that Oscar would simply walk out on his job, and not even at the end of his shift at that, but during his fifteen-minute break. Like Oscar, Carlos was juggling two jobs and school. He knew how important this job was to Oscar, so he decided to look into Oscar’s no-show. Outside, seeing Oscar’s muddy-coloured sedan, a car so nondescript that it might as well be a no-name brand, parked in the same spot that Oscar had parked it when he got to work, Carlos’ first thought was that the poor African had finally cracked, that he had overslept. A dash to and a peek inside Oscar’s car confirmed Carlos’ guess. He tapped and tapped the window on the driver’s side, but Oscar didn’t stir. Then Carlos’ knuckles began to complain, and he knew that it was time to call security. And 911.
Perpetual Murray was born and raised in Zambia. Her short stories have been published by Jungle Jim Magazine, The Kalahari Review and Lawino Magazine, and upcoming in Springhouse, St. Petersburg Review’s online journal.
She holds an MFA in creative writing from The University of Tampa, and teaches English and creative writing at The Art Institute of Tampa. She has written for media and corporations in Zambia, Swaziland, South Africa and the USA. For more, visit www.perpetualmurray.com
Related country: Zambia