West Side Story

Language Barrier

By Lucky_Ladybug

Notes: The characters from the production are not mine. Maria's aunt and cousin, and the story itself, are mine. This was inspired by, of all things, an episode of the old version of The Outer Limits. A child played a large part and I ended up wondering what would happen if a scenario like what you will see in the below pages was introduced to uproot Lieutenant Schrank's world. Due to Arthur Laurent's desire to not expressly set West Side Story in the fifties, and due to my own preferences, there are a couple of brief, but natural, references to a present-day setting.

Lieutenant Schrank was tired, exasperated, and disgusted. For the last several hours he had been chasing random leads around his beat, searching for any information on a new round of gang violence. Although he doubted that the Jets or the Sharks had stirred it up, it was still a possibility. And in any case, there was always the chance that they had information on what had happened. So among other things, he and Sergeant Krupke were trying to chase down all members and their girlfriends to question them. They had split up to try to make it go faster.

And, as luck would have it, Schrank eventually ended up at the apartment buildings where a lot of the Puerto Ricans had settled. He sighed, pushing back his hat as he craned his neck to look up at the old complex. "Probably nobody's home who even speaks English," he grumbled to himself. And he did not speak a word of Spanish. Grudgingly deciding he had best get it over with, he opened the door and went inside.

Several kids were playing some version of cops and robbers in the lobby. One squirted a water gun, likely a prize belonging, at another. The second kid shrieked in delight and ran under the stairs.

Schrank groaned, trying to slip past them and to the stairs without them deciding to involve him in their game. But it was to no avail; the trigger-happy kid determined that a grown-up would be a much more interesting target than his own contemporaries. He was either very brave or very stupid.

The water hit Schrank in the face. He whirled, his eyes flashing in aggravation. "Stop that!" he reprimanded. "You know you could hit somebody in the eye and blind them?"

The kid backed up, fear evident all over his young visage. He gripped the water gun tightly, his dark knuckles going white.

"I oughtta take that thing away from you," Schrank growled as he started up the stairs.

"Emilio!" a heavily accented voice called from the first landing of the winding steps. "I've told you and told you not to play with that toy indoors!" A Puerto Rican woman stepped out of the first apartment, her eyes narrowed. When she noticed the Lieutenant, she quickly wiped her hands on her apron.

"I'm sorry," she said. "Please excuse my son. He often gets . . . how do you say it? Carried away."

Schrank bit back the retort that was itching to leap from his lips. He was here to do a job. He had to focus on that and not let himself get "carried away" by the mounting frustrations of the day.

"Yeah, that's what kids do," he grunted at last. No matter from which ethnic group they hailed, all the kids he had ever met liked to either be rambunctious Cain-raisers or ask a plethora of annoying questions.

"Well, Lieutenant, can I help you?" The woman looked wary now. When the police showed up at any of their apartment buildings, something was wrong somewhere. From her expression, she wanted to believe it was just a simple complaint about her children. But somehow she was sure that was not it.

Schrank peered at her in surprise. "Have we met before?"

"Not really, no," she told him. "But I've seen you around the building sometimes. I am Maria's aunt."

A glimmer of recognition went through Schrank's eyes. "Oh yeah." He sighed, weary. "I don't want to take up too much of your time. I'm trying to find out if anyone knows about that gang-related stabbing that took place yesterday."

She threw up her hands. "Every time some of today's teenagers decide to fight, we are always blamed!" she exclaimed.

"No one's being blamed," Schrank said, his patience getting closer to its breaking point. "We've been checking out all the gangs in the area."

She turned back to the apartment door in a huff. "Well, I know nothing about it," she said. "Everyone else here will tell you the same."

"Yeah, you always band together," Schrank grumbled, unable to stop himself.

She glanced over her shoulder. "You know, Maria has spoken well of you since you helped her during that terrible storm. But I cannot see why."

"Me either," Schrank retorted as he headed past her.

Neither of them noticed the second child, bored with the water game and anxious to discover something new and different. She crept out the door, stopping to stare at the squad car in awe. Pulling open the back door, she scrambled inside.

xxxx

Maria's aunt was right—no one else in the building knew any more than she did. Or at least, that was what they claimed. By the time Schrank clomped down the stairs and out to the car, he was more weary and frustrated than ever. He fumbled in his pocket for his phone and then drew it out, staring at the screen. Krupke had not called. If he had learned something, he surely would have done so.

Schrank sank into the seat and shut the door, placing his hands on the steering wheel. Where should he go from here? Should he attempt another apartment complex? As much as he did not want to, it had to be done. He got back out, never noticing the kid who was watching in fascination from the backseat.

Another half-hour of fruitless questioning sent him back to the squad car in utter exasperation. And Krupke had still not checked in. This time Schrank dialed his partner's cell number and waited, impatient as the device rang.

"Hello?"

"Krupke, where are you?" Schrank barked.

"At the waterfront, Lieutenant," Krupke answered. "I was trying to chase down a lead I got, but it looks like it was a dead end. Are you having any luck?"

"No," Schrank said through gritted teeth. "Either the PRs don't know anything or they're just clamming up because they don't wanna see their kids go to the clink." He sighed, running a hand over his eyes. "After you've finished checking things out down there, start coming back. I'll see if I can meet you halfway."

"Okay. See you, Lieutenant!"

Schrank closed his phone and dropped it back in his pocket. He was all too grateful to pull away from the curb and drive off. This had definitely been a day from Hell. And it was still not over yet. It could always get worse.

Several miles away, it did.

"Policia!"

Schrank slammed on the brakes out of complete and utter shock at the voice. "What the . . . ?" He whirled around and found himself face-to-face with a child not more than four, kneeling up on the seat. "Oh great. Where did you come from?" he half-yelled, half-groaned. This was almost more than he could take right now.

She stared at him with wide brown eyes, blinking as though she were just waking up from a nap. "Policia," she repeated.

Schrank threw up his hands. "I knew I'd run into somebody who didn't speak English," he said. "I just never thought they'd be stowing away in my squad car."

He leaned on the steering wheel with one arm while reaching to adjust his hat with his free hand. "Too bad you can't tell me what building you came out of," he grumbled. "But at least I know the general area. Maybe if I drive you back you can find your building yourself."

She tilted her head as if trying to sort out what he was saying. "Señor Schrank," she proclaimed at last. "Policia!"

"Oh, so my reputation precedes me, eh?" Schrank remarked. "I dunno if that's good or bad. Around here, it's usually bad." Though he did not speak Spanish, he knew enough to know that she was not calling him "Lieutenant," and he was too tired to bother trying to communicate his rank.

He gave her a hard look. "Most people try to do everything they can to stay out of my car, even if they should be in it," he said. "And yet you go out of your way to hitch a ride in it. Why?"

But she just blinked still wide, innocent eyes at him.

"Nevermind," Schrank grumbled. "I'll . . . get you fixed up with a seatbelt and then you're going back."

But the kid had ideas of her own. To Schrank's utter disbelief, she jumped off the seat and began curiously attempting to come into the front of the car by way of the opening between the seats.

"Hey!" Schrank cried. "You can't come up here. It's reserved for the police."

The kid plunked herself down in the passenger seat and curiously reached for the seatbelt, running her small hands up and down its smooth material.

Schrank shook his head. Even though he had been put into a highly awkward situation, he had to admit that it was nice to see someone who was not afraid and did not hate the police. She must have had some positive experience with a policeman in the past, he decided. In her neighborhood, rife with gangs, most people tended to speak ill of law enforcement. And, he supposed with a bit of shame, he himself probably contributed to whatever negative reputation the police had. He had never been good at holding his tongue when he got to a certain point of frustration.

His radio squawking to life, blaring the car's call signal, brought him cringing to attention. He grabbed the handset. "This is Schrank; go ahead."

"Lieutenant, where are you?" the dispatcher asked.

"I'm on my way to the waterfront to meet Sergeant Krupke," Schrank said. He glanced to the kid, who was watching in fascination. He cleared his throat, uncomfortable. "But I uh . . . I havta make an unplanned stop first."

"State the nature of your unplanned stop," the dispatcher said.

"I've gotta take a kid back," Schrank mumbled. "She stowed away in the car."

"Check in once you've accomplished that, Lieutenant." There was obvious mirth in the dispatcher's voice now.

Schrank muttered to himself as he hung up the handset. As soon as his hand was away, the kid promptly grabbed the thing and lifted it once more, turning it over in her hands and pressing the button. Before Schrank could stop her she was gleefully exclaiming something in Spanish into it. A couple of officers promptly responded with various exclamations of shock and confusion.

"You're not supposed to touch that!" Schrank cried. He grabbed the handset away from her.

"Lieutenant Schrank, unofficial transmission," the dispatcher said, more amused than ever.

"Oh shut up," Schrank muttered, making sure he was not pushing the button.

The sound of the wail nearly made him jump out of his seat. The kid was crying now, turning away and pulling her knees up to her chest.

Schrank stared in horror. "You've gotta be kidding me," he moaned. He had no idea how to deal with this. And with the language barrier, he could not even explain the reason why her usage of the police equipment upset him.

He reached for her, as awkward in movement as he was in words. "Look, kid . . ." He touched her shoulder lightly with the tips of his fingers. She flinched and jerked away. "Kid, I'm sorry." He looked at the ceiling of the patrol car in despair and then back to her. Oh, what the heck. "No one's supposed to use that thing unless there's police business. It's not a toy to play with."

The kid continued to cry. Schrank facepalmed. "Why me?" he groaned. "I've never had kids. I don't know how this works." He was half-tempted to radio headquarters and demand that the dispatcher give him some advice. But he would never live it down. He could imagine the stories that were probably already going around the squad room and among the officers out on patrol.

"Come on, kid," he pleaded. "Don't do this to me. Yelling . . . that's just how I am."

In desperation he ran through other ideas in his head. Krupke had nieces or nephews or something, didn't he? Maybe he would know what to do. And with Krupke, he could be trusted to keep it quiet. He respected Schrank too much to do otherwise.

Quickly determining that was the best idea, Schrank took out his phone and redialed Krupke's number.

"Hello?" the Sergeant greeted moments later. He sounded occupied, but at the moment Schrank was not paying attention.

"Krupke, I need some advice. Now," Schrank growled. "How do you get a kid to quit crying?"

"Huh?" Krupke was absolutely baffled. "Why do you need to know that?"

"Because she stowed away in the car!" Schrank exclaimed. "She doesn't speak English and she started using the police radio and I had to grab the handset away from her. Now she won't stop bawling."

There was silence as Krupke considered the problem. "You could hold her in your arms and talk soft to her or sing or something," he said slowly.

If they were in the same location, Schrank would be looking at Krupke like he had stepped out of a spaceship from Mars. And Krupke knew it.

"I don't even know the kid!" Schrank burst out. "In this messed-up world I could get sued for just picking her up. Not that anybody in this joint would have the money to sue," he muttered as an aside. Louder he added, "And I don't sing and I don't talk soft."

"Well, yelling probably just makes it worse," Krupke said, hesitant but truthful.

"You talk to her," Schrank retorted.

"I can't, Lieutenant," Krupke exclaimed. "I was just leaving the waterfront when one of our suspects ran out. Now I'm chasing him in the car!"

"Of all the . . ." Schrank trailed off. "Okay, I'll let you go."

"Good luck, sir," Krupke said as they hung up.

"Good luck," Schrank muttered. "Sure, sure." He closed his phone, again replacing it in his pocket.

The radio crackled to life. "Gang violence reported at waterfront," the dispatcher announced. "All units converge at Dock 31. Repeat, all units converge at Dock 31."

Schrank stared at the device, for a moment unable to process what he had just heard. Then, almost without his conscious awareness, a groan escaped his lips. He slumped against the inside of the door, passing a hand over his eyes. This day just kept getting better and better. And he could not keep messing around here; he had to get the kid back, crying or not.

A small hand on his shoulder made him start in surprise. He looked over. The kid had scooted over and was looking at him with those big eyes. She was not crying now. Instead she looked concerned about him. Slowly, shyly, she moved closer, hugging him as best as she could.

Schrank's mind had gone blank. It had been a long time since any kid had shown him kindness. He had started to forget that there really were kids who were not trying to be mischievous or annoying.

Hesitant at first, he finally brought an arm around the girl's shoulders. She smiled, snuggling at his side.

"No one would believe this," he muttered. "I don't think I do, either."

xxxx

By the time Schrank drove up to the apartment complex again, it looked like the entire neighborhood had come outside. He sighed, gesturing out the window. "See, look at that," he said to the kid. "They're probably all looking for you."

She peered out the window. As if suddenly realizing what her little jaunt had done, she hastened to open the door and scurry out, calling for her mother.

Instead it was Maria who hurried over. "Andrea!" she exclaimed. She bent down, speaking to the child in Spanish. Andrea responded, pointing behind her at the squad car. Schrank, getting out, watched the exchange.

"I'm sorry about this," he said. "She got in the car when I wasn't looking and must've taken a nap or something. I didn't know she was in there until we were several miles away."

Maria took Andrea into her arms and straightened, glancing up at him. "Yes, that's what Andrea was just telling me," she said. "She said you were very nice."

Schrank raised an eyebrow in disbelief. "That's not what most people say," he said. "Look, what made her get in the car anyway? Does she like cops? She was acting pretty excited about being in a police car."

Maria nodded. "She was lost one day and an Officer Keaton found her and brought her home," she said. "Ever since then she loves the police."

"Then she's different from the several million in this crummy town who don't," Schrank said.

Maria balanced Andrea in her arms. "There are others who appreciate you as well," she said, and smiled. "Perhaps more of them than you know. Thank you, Lieutenant Schrank, for bringing Andrea home safe. My aunt, and the entire family, was worried sick!"

Lieutenant Schrank grunted, adjusting his hat to keep the shadows over his eyes as he turned to walk back to the car. "In ten years she'll probably be giving me a headache like the teenage punks are now," he said.

"Señor Schrank!" Andrea called now. "Adios!" She waved enthusiastically. "Adios!"

Schrank glanced in her direction. As he got into the car, he raised one hand in a half-wave.

Andrea looked up at Maria, talking animatedly in Spanish. Maria listened, a smile touched with amusement tugging on her lips. Lieutenant Schrank would never admit it, and would likely try to deny it or make up a flippant excuse if it were pointed out, but underneath that gruff, cynical exterior there was still a soft heart.