A short story.
I’d called Ben López about dumping my old water heater for a new one. Since he couldn’t do it, and his uncle Manny Aceves didn’t have time either, Ben gave me the number for Luke’s Construction. I don’t know why it was surprising to me that Ben was buddies with a big white guy like Luke, but that was based only on my dating Ben’s sister, the activist Chicana, years earlier. Ben did air-conditioning, sold weed, and did a little plumbing on the side. He was right about Luke—he offered to do the job for what could only be called better than fair. He had to resheet the rotted floor, replace old valves, some copper tubing and fittings, and make three back-and-forths to Home Depot. He cussed to himself a couple of times—I heard that—but not much else. He got that new tank in right, dragged away the old one, and left the water heater closet in better shape than it’d been in since long before I owned the house. And he didn’t ask for a dime extra. I considered offering more or tipping him. I didn’t. It helped that I led him to believe I might want him for more work. A few days later, he brought me formal, printed-out contract bids on a new deck, on painting the outside of my house, and on installing the new toilets and sinks I was thinking about. Truth was I only wanted to know what he would charge so I could compare that to what some Mexicanos would charge me.
Over a year later, I wanted more. I still taught guitar. My students kept getting more talented, though, more mature, as my musical career rose. I’d won an obscure award, I had CDs that very few listened to, let alone bought. Good news was, I no longer supported a poet girlfriend who didn’t have a job, smoked dope and watched TV until three a.m., and insisted on every meal out because she didn’t like my cooking. So I had more money. The bad news was that I was starting to go blind. I could drive, but I couldn’t see up close. As in read. I couldn’t paint the interior walls of my house. It wouldn’t seem like that should have anything to do with sight.
I called two Mexicans who left business cards at my door (I could use a magnifying glass), but both numbers were out of service. I called friends to see if anyone knew anyone, and I searched the Internet. All I got were expensive estimates. I decided to check with Luke’s Construction and didn’t remember why not first.
“I saw you in the paper,” Luke said, excited. “I didn’t even know you were a musician.”
“You read that article.”
“That’s the one.”
I was never good about talking celebrity with anyone, even my far-from-it version. But Luke was nothing but impressed.
“Most everybody here in Austin plays guitar. You play a twelve-string, right?”
“But don’t you play Spanish?”
“It’s a common misunderstanding.”
“I thought it said that you learned from a Spanish gentleman.”
“Okay, yes, the newspaper said the music descended from Andrés Segovia.”
“He’s just a famous name they pull out, everyone always says—”
“And that night you were playing some new Spanish music.”
“Not exactly new. It’s cool you read the article.” The newspaper story wove in a couple of the usual clichés but wrote it better than he read it. “I did pieces by Isaac Albéniz and Heitor Villa-Lobos, who isn’t—”
“Spanish guitar music!” he said, cutting me off fast like it was a game show.
I’d learned it was easier to surrender rather than explain even a little—say, by mentioning not just Bach but John Williams. Why, and why go on? “Anyway, not a twelve-string,” I told him.
“I would’ve swore,” he said. “I thought for sure it was special twelve-string music.”
He wanted to go on. I didn’t. “Let me show you the rooms,” I said.
Not really old, maybe in his mid-forties at most, his legs moved stiffly, and the boots that propped them up clacked loud against the wood floor of the hallway. In my bedroom he measured the floors roughly, then he taped the hall and my office studio and the other bedroom as we talked about the colors and trim. He tossed out a number for the work that was very low. I grabbed it, and we set it for the next week.
“I got a couple men that can knock this out fast,” he said. “They won’t bother you none either.”
“So that’s with the paint too?” I asked, not believing this really low bid was possible.
“Yes, sir. Take ’em a day.”
“You won’t mind they’re Mexican?”
His idea of Mexican ran as deep as his idea about music.“You’re asking a Mexican if he minds if you hire Mexicans?”
“Just making sure. There’s members of my church who do. They think they’re making things worse in this country.”
I was born and raised in El Paso. My grandfather was from Juárez, my grandmother from Parral. My father was a pachuco back in the day, and my mother had barely stopped using a tortilla as her only eating utensil. I was the only one in the family of two brothers and two sisters and ten thousand cousins who journeyed away. The rest were within a ten-mile radius. Worse, I never took strangers, conversationally or otherwise, back there for a visit. Not even myself, for that matter.
“Sounds like that church needs some church lessons,” I said.
“It saved me,” Luke said, not noticing any criticism. “Been hard days, especially this last year. It’s when I started going again.”
“Bad out there for working people.”
“Least I’m feeling a little better now, and it’s because of the church. My wife up and left me and my daughter.” He spoke to me like we were good friends, like I already knew these details of his life, if vaguely. He was settling in. “I got lost there for years drinking and being irresponsible. Then I just started praying for goodness.”
I didn’t expect others to tell me about their lives, either. “So you found your religion.” I was simply polite.
“Came home,” he corrected me. He could have been choking up some, his voice cracking, but I realized that it was his teeth, some dental issue. “I was raised up so much in it I never paid no mind. Even my name’s proof. Didn’t have no fourth brother John because there was only Matthew, Mark, and me, Luke.”
I never talked to the Bible people who came to my door either.
He waited to see if I knew the answer. “That’s the first books of the New Testament.”
I knew, I told him I did, and he was encouraged.
“You ever want to come, you’d be welcome.”
“I’ll keep on as a lapsed Catholic.”
Either he didn’t know what that meant, or he really did just ignore it. “Church is good for healing. You’d see.”
“Kind of you to suggest. Thanks for the offer,” I said, glad he was leaving.
A week later he was back at eight in the morning, bringing along tarps, rollers and pans, brushes, cans of paint, and the two men, a father and son, Carlos and Uriel. Carlos didn’t speak any English, so all the instructions from Luke went to Uriel. They were told to start in my bedroom, told how to move and cover the furniture, how not to spill the paint, where to use rollers and where brushes. They were talked to not only as though they might not know any of this but as though they’d better remember once their boss left. When he finished his instructions, Luke met me by the front door. I wanted to be sure everything would be all right.
“I’ve fired Uriel five times now,” he said. It didn’t even occur to him to lower his voice any. “He’s a good worker when he listens and ain’t being lazy. Since Carlos is here too, I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
“Sounds great,” I said.
“I’ll check in on them in a while,” he told me, missing any sarcasm from me and adding on to what I’d overheard. “I can bring a contract then if you want.”
“Not necessary. I’ll do it cash. Better for you, right? For taxes.”
He smiled. His teeth looked worse than they sounded. “Who wants to help this federal government, right?”
He used the words “federal government” with the same added inflection he did when he said “Mexican” before. And there was that familiarity with it he offered me, like I was a member of his church. I did not care for it.
“I’m real glad Bush is gone too,” I said to mess with him.
He didn’t blink. “We’re working our asses off, and just look at where they got us at now.”
In lots of ways, Luke was what I liked about Austin when I first came here. Texas as I knew it growing up was what we just called Mexican, what the college-educated called Chicano. That was El Paso, where nobody had anything or learned much because nobody knew beyond what was visible, within an eye’s reach, which I learned young wasn’t enough. I didn’t know what happened to me or when it did or why, but I heard music that couldn’t be seen and wasn’t heard anywhere near home. And so I went until I was in Texas again: now I had this gig in Austin, where even people like Luke liked people like me. And therefore I liked them back, these bigger-than-me country white boys, who drank beer as they smoked mota in their trucks and listened to Willie Nelson and got out to hear Dale Watson. When people visited, I’d take them to dinner at Threadgill’s and dancing at the Broken Spoke. A city where someone like me could come from El Paso and someone like Luke would nod his head wistfully and tell me, like no one from there ever did, how beautiful it was. That, at least, was Luke back when he didn’t have a paunch and rotting teeth and bad knees and not enough work.
Here was my dilemma: I was very happy about how little this job was going to cost me. I wasn’t rich, but I wanted to live like a classy musician. I wanted these walls in my house to get painted for the best price, inexpensive being my favorite. I didn’t want the paid work to involve talk of current events.
Once Luke was out the door, I went to see the men in my bedroom.
“¿Se fue? He leff?” Uriel asked. His father was covering the dresser, bed, and end table that had been pushed to the center of the room.
“Yeah, he took off,” I told him in Spanish.
“Good,” he said in Spanish too, looking over to Carlos, who also stopped to acknowledge the change. “It’s much better when he’s not around.”
I really didn’t want to get into it. Uriel, more relaxed, looked at me now. “It looks beautiful, your house.”
“Thank you. I like it too.”
“We’ll do it good,” said Carlos. “You don’t worry.”
Uriel had been taking down the art and photos I had on my bedroom walls. Like I’d never seen it, he showed me the portrait of Benito Juárez I had up, as well-known in Mexico as the classic one of Abraham Lincoln is here. I bought it framed, rustic, completely coated by fiberglass. It seemed particularly strange held in the air by this young Mexicano in his faded, torn Dallas Cowboys T-shirt.
“A souvenir,” I explained. It was a knickknack, not more.
Both stared at me, wanting more. Uriel asked where I was born. I told him. “He said you were from Spain.”
I probably rolled my eyes, maybe shook my head. “No. Hardly,” I told them. “You?” I asked.
“Nuevo León,” said Carlos.
“Tamaulipas,” said Uriel.
“Reynosa,” said Carlos. He shook his head at his son. “We didn’t live there much.”
“How long you been in the States?” I asked.
“In Austin?” said Uriel. “Three years.”
“Me, almost one year,” said Carlos.
“Not too good here, more worse there,” said Carlos.
“Hard everywhere now,” I said.
“I had a good job for a while,” said Uriel. “Now I have to work for this idiot.”
Carlos shook his head at his son again.
I didn’t want to go there. “Well, you need something, let me know.”
I went into my studio, which, before I’d lived there, was just a bedroom. I didn’t want to stay in the house, but I didn’t feel I should leave either. They didn’t have transportation—Luke had dropped them off—so it wasn’t even possible for them to grab goodies and run. I shut the door to be more private. Besides being where I practiced my music, the studio also served as my office. I went to my computer first, tried to read email as well as I could, paid a couple bills online, called about an appointment, then finally gave in to some practicing that they would hear. I was perfecting “Fandango” by Joaquín Rodrigo for a recital in Chicago. I played for about an hour before I came out for air.
They weren’t finished, but I liked what I saw. Uriel was doing the rolling, and Carlos was way ahead with a brush, getting corners.
“Your playing was very cool,” Uriel told me.
“I have to practice,” I said. I buried my discomfort. It was the same response I had with my own family, probably because my job was so arty, so unlike ordinary life—their life. I was no different in front of overly dressed people at performances.
“You’re good,” Uriel said. “Is that what you do? For your living?”
Carlos stopped to hear this.
I said yes.
“Not at clubs,” he guessed, not knowing what else.
They both stared at me. “Like concerts, but me alone. With the guitar.”
“Muy padre,” said Uriel. “Where can we see you here?”
“Not much here.” They both had stopped and were listening intently. They wanted me to tell them. “Easier would be when I’m in Mexico. I’ve been to Xalapa, Monterrey, Guadalajara. Bellas Artes, the palace—you know that?” I waited. Neither said anything. “Mexico City. That was the best of all, you wouldn’t believe it.”
“La capital,” said Carlos. “Imagine it.”
“No words,” I said.
“Que padre,” said Uriel. “Wow.”
I didn’t want there to be too long a pause. “Is that other color all right, you think? For the finish?”
They agreed it would look good. I suggested water and brought them each a bottle, cold from the refrigerator. Both chugged. “I’ve got more,” I told Carlos as he finished. He shook his head. I went for another anyway, and Uriel followed.
“I’ve been thirsty since we got here,” he said.
“You should have said.”
We were at the refri’s door. “The boss doesn’t want us to bother nobody. A law.”
I gave him a new bottle and took another for Carlos.
“Lots of rules,” he said.
I didn’t respond. He’d stopped at the threshold of the living room. “Can I go in?”
How could I say no?
“I love your art,” he said. “I wanted to be an artist when I was young.”
“You did it, no? A musician?”
“With luck.” I wanted to say random luck—my being born on this side, not over there. I was as much aware of that fortune of nature as I was of my rarity in my own family.
“I don’t believe it.” He didn’t either. You could tell.
I told him about a few of the pieces. He’s from Los Angeles. He’s from Mexico City. She’s from L.A. too. She’s from Chicago. He’s from Oaxaca. I didn’t tell him they were artists I now knew. I didn’t think about it much either, but around someone like Uriel, it was hard for me to believe myself.
“Francisco Toledo, who lives in Oaxaca,” Uriel said.
“You’ve heard of him?”
“One of the most famous in Mexico. One time I saw an exhibit of his art.” He was proud of his information, as if he owned it.
“Incredible, how cool.”
Uriel browsed my living room, staring at and even touching my collection of trinkets, respectfully, like a first time in a museum. When he’d done a full circle, we walked back to where Carlos was still rolling away before I gave him a fresh bottle of cold water.
By about one in the afternoon, I was done practicing and hungry. I opened the door and Carlos was right in the hallway with a roller and Uriel was brushing the last, farthest corner. He didn’t stop as I stood there.
“This room’s next, right?” Carlos said of my studio office.
“Yes, yes. I’m done. I’ll get out of your way.”
He took the long view of it, and I saw what he did—a ton of work to prep alone.
“Lots,” I said. “Sorry.”
He nodded tiredly. “Ni modo. We got it.” They both seemed in a stern work mood. I decided I would go pick up something for lunch and eat in the living room. I could make a couple of phone calls while they finished. I got my wallet and grabbed my keys. I went out the front door without explanation.
I drove to ¡Burrito Burrito! not because it was so cheap but because of the food. It was as good as any restaurant charging at least twice as much for the same item. And I liked that it was a drive-through—a former burger joint misnamed Hotdog’s (one of the signs was still there)—and that the owner was aware of healthier food options. At least he told me he didn’t use lard anymore. I drove past the menu sign with the decade-ago-broken intercom mike and stopped next to the window.
The owner bent to show his face and greet me with the side of his hand. “Hola, boss. ¿Un bean an’ cheese sin mucho queso como siempre?”
It is what I almost always ordered. Never almost. “Porfa, sí,” I replied. It was the least expensive burrito they had, that was true, but it was what I liked. There was so much bean inside, it was like getting two anyway.
He told his cook the order a step away from the window, standing straight. On my side, I already had three dollars folded between my finger and thumb. I hadn’t been there much for a few years because my girlfriend didn’t do drive-up. Once on my own again, I became as regular at the drive-up as he was. An older man, gray, even distinguished if not for the apron, I’d say he looked Hungarian, but only because he was stocky and balding, seemed ethnic and European. Friendly always, we sometimes talked a little, sometimes not at all. At the beginning, a year ago or even two by now, we’d talked more. But about him, never me, which was another plus for the place. He was from Tampico, and as I drove up on stifling-hot South Austin days, he cooled me with nostalgic stories of the ocean and beach and wind. He looked like a cook, but he told me he was a retired pilot for an Iranian airline. He only worked here for his son, he said, to fill in. Over time I found he was never not there, and I never saw a son, and I wondered what the story really was. I sensed too much pride, and disappointment, involved—he didn’t dress for a fast-food occupation. And the more I’d come, the quieter he’d gotten.
“Yes, leave a little bit for the poor,” I said as he put the dollars into his register. He’d taken my ones, and the final bill left three pennies. I never took them, but he always politely offered. I put leftover pennies in that tray by any restaurant’s cash register, not just here.
There was a car behind waiting, so when I got my burrito, I left quickly and was back at my house after a few turns. It was after one-thirty, and Carlos and Uriel were still working. Only then did it occur to me that they hadn’t stopped for lunch. The hall was done. They were in my studio, getting it ready to paint. When I asked, Uriel shook his head in irritation and looked away.
Carlos shrugged. “Soon.”
“But it’s almost two.” I still had the brown bag with a bean-and-cheese in my hand. “You’re not hungry?”
“Of course we’re hungry,” snapped Uriel. He wasn’t exactly answering me.
“You can’t stop? Take a break?”
“The boss brings us lunch,” Carlos said. “Then we eat lunch.”
“We have to do what the man says,” said Uriel.
Carlos turned his head away from that comment, as if grains of dirt would scratch his eyes.
I didn’t feel I could eat if they didn’t. I was sure they hadn’t taken a break earlier either, that they’d been working straight since the morning. This wasn’t the most exhausting work, no doubt, but still, at least lunch. I decided I had to drive back to ¡Burrito Burrito!
While I waited behind two cars ahead of me, I ate most of the bean burrito.
“Buenas, boss. You forget the pennies?”
That threw me off a second or two, as though something whizzed by the back of my head, just missing. “Well, you know, maybe give me two of carne asada.”
Bent into the window, he stared at me curiously. “Tacos?”
I stared back at him, with curiosity. Of course, he might have thought that I’d returned still hungry, but it didn’t seem only that.
“Or burritos?” He waited. I was about to say, then he went on. “It’s that the burritos are much bigger.”
Like I wouldn’t know the difference? I couldn’t locate the tone yet either.
“And,” he finally said, attaching a smirk, “they cost much more than the tacos.”
“Burritos,” I said. I was about to explain, too, like I had to.
“Two? Really? You’re throwing it around today, aren’t you?”
He stood up and told his cook my order. Even that was with equal parts amusement and scorn that was too easy for me to hear.
“No drinks, right?” he asked.
“No—” I was about to tell him that I had bottled water.
“No, of course,” he interrupted, sneering.
My body didn’t seem willing to believe what it was hearing.
He came back with the price. It was about eleven dollars. Fact? It was the most I’d ever spent there in about two years. Still, that was no excuse, was it?
The change was a quarter. He handed me that, then the bag with the two burritos. “Salsita roja inside, napkins, all there.” Then he offered me his gracias muchas, aquí para servirle with a bow, as always, gracefully, with a regal wave of the back of his hand.
I got back to my house with the burritos faster than I think I should have unless I was speeding. I had processed what I actually did see and hear and moved over to what I should have said or done, other than sit there in my car, mute and limp.
“Here is food,” I said to Carlos and Uriel. “You need to eat lunch.” I was churning about myself. “I got carne asada for you,” I mumbled, meaning not chicken or vegetarian—an Austin-only concern. I brought them both bottles of water, cold out of the refri. I still had some of my own burrito to eat, but I no longer wanted it. I wanted to go back there—to say and do what? I wanted to never go back there. I wanted, I didn’t want.
They both sat, one against my studio door, the other the jamb, peaceful, eating. They liked the food from there, like I did. I was full of rage and hurried to my living room couch to brood. I wanted to play guitar, but I couldn’t with them here. I couldn’t listen to a book on tape. I dug around for CDs and chose a Bach, the calming, faraway German. I didn’t want to get earphones from my studio. I tried not to play it loud, definitely not as loud as I wanted.
Fifteen minutes later, Uriel was at the edge of my living room, as though it were darker there. He was keeping a respectful distance, unsure when or if he should speak. I told him to come and then I turned it down and said again to come. Pase, pase. When it seemed he couldn’t hear me, I turned the music way down.
“Thank you,” he said. “For the food.”
Carlos shadowed him, saying thank you too, but without the words. I’d probably made them uncomfortable. They might have thought I was mad at them. I turned off the CD with the remote.
“You had to eat. I can’t believe you don’t stop for lunch.”
“He doesn’t want us to until he comes here,” said Uriel.
“You’re supposed to take lunch.”
Uriel looked over at his dad. “What I say.”
“So it’s going all right?”
“Good, very good,” said Uriel.
“You’ll be done? Today?”
Carlos nodded his head emphatically.
“We have the two rooms is all,” said Uriel, “and the trim.”
“That goes fast,” Carlos told his son, “if we go.” He meant back to work instead of talking.
Which Uriel didn’t want yet. “I love this room. Everything you have in it.”
“I told Luke I wanted to paint it too. This one, and that dining room, and that one little room over there.”
Uriel stepped more into the living room and walked to the others. So did Carlos.
“We could do it,” Uriel said. Carlos nodded.
“You mean,” I said, “without Luke?”
“Yes, without the asshole,” said Uriel. Carlos grimaced.
The middle man cut out. He probably took as much as them combined.
“We could come Saturday, right?” said Uriel. Carlos nodded his head. “We need the work.”
“He doesn’t give you that much?” I asked.
“After this one, I have something else, but not my dad. He pays me weekly, but my dad is only by the day, for this job.”
“I need to work,” said Carlos.
“He doesn’t pay you by the hour?”
Uriel squeezed his teeth and shook his head. “It’s why I am always trying to get another.” He turned bitter. “Es muy pinche, el pendejo.”
This time Carlos didn’t disapprove of his son’s disrespect, calling Luke a pinche—“fucking cheap.” “Muy mezquino,” he corrected. His a more refined version, more “tightwad” in meaning.
“Un pinche mezquino,” Uriel said. Carlos didn’t smile, but he didn’t frown either.
“I can’t believe he doesn’t pay you by the hour,” I repeated. “I sort of told him already I’d give him the job if this other came out well.”
“We get here Saturday morning,” said Uriel, “and paint it for you.” Less forcefully, he suggested a figure to his dad. Carlos nodded. “We divide the money.”
It was a lot less than what anyone else bid, including Luke.
“You have all the things you need? The drop cloths, brushes, rollers?”
He stared at me. I bet that meant he had Luke’s things, but I decided not to ask. “So you don’t say we talked.”
He nodded his head, agreeing.
“What about the paint?” I asked.
That was a little problem, since I wanted three different colors, but then Uriel dropped their price even more—my guess was by more than the cost of four gallons of paint—but now I would have to run to Home Depot and buy it.
“So, I’m going to tell him I want to wait on these rooms when he asks. That I have to do it later.”
They both nodded, happy for the work and for the opportunity to screw Luke. I took Carlos’s phone number, and they disappeared into my studio. I’d half forgotten about the incident at the burrito place. I turned on the stereo again but listened to a radio station’s music, and not very loud. The phone rang. I answered and talked.
Not an hour later, Luke rang the doorbell but walked right in. “Hey!” he yelled. “I made it.” His boots seemed wet. Or maybe it was grease, smeared. They weren’t work boots, they were cowboy boots he worked in. He had on a ragged Western shirt with snap buttons. Big, he seemed even bigger than he was right then. He was carrying a Whataburger bag. He didn’t stop to say anything to me, clomping the hardwood floor, and turned and clomped and turned again into the studio.
“This is where you’re at?” he said. He wasn’t trying to be loud, his voice just was. Uriel said something. “Well, after you eat I need you to pick it up.” Uriel said something. “I don’t mean that, no! I mean go faster, vámonos faster, get the work done.”
I was standing away from this, stopped where I did when I’d gotten up to answer the front door. First Luke reappeared, irritated. Behind him was Carlos, then Uriel, both of them eyeing me privately as they passed and went outside.
“They’re gonna get done today, don’t worry,” Luke told me.
It hadn’t occurred to me.
“I have to stay after them. Uriel, anyway. Fired him five times now.” He shook his head.
Luke followed me into the kitchen. Through the window I could see them seated outside the front door eating the burgers and fries, a cold drink there too.
“You’ve hired him back five or six times? He can’t be all bad.”
“If I watch him,” he said. “Carlos being with him seems better at least.”
“Maybe put Carlos on full-time too. I’m sure he’d take it.”
“Don’t got that much work. I get it both ways. Either I don’t got enough, or when I do, you got the federal government nosing in.”
Irritated, I took the bait. “You mean the FBI or IRS investigates your violations?” “Immigration” was the word I was really saying. Called ICE now, before it was just la migra.
He wasn’t sure what I meant, but again, he assumed we thought alike. “You know, all this goddamn federal government intervention . . .”
“And Mexicans, right?”
“. . . and socialist takeover.” He was so deep inside his own head, he didn’t let any outside thoughts interfere. His mouth was even slurring worse than usual because the words were coming so fast. “He won’t stay in office. Who’s he think he is? Who’s he think we are?”
“You mean that nigger?” I snapped.
There was no missing what I said this time. I was mad and I made him mad back, and he wanted to yell at me or lecture or preach, but he shut up. I hadn’t paid him yet.
I sat down at my kitchen table, where I could see out the window Uriel and Carlos finishing their burgers. “Look,” I said. “I want the work done in my house.”
“It’s what I do.”
“I’m a musician, and it’s all I ever do. I’ve been real lucky.” I didn’t make speeches, but I had to say more. “You and me are lucky to be born on the rich side of a border.”
Luke was standing high over me. What I’d said didn’t throw him off a beat. “You’re not so lucky,” he told me.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“What you’re going through.”
“What?” I stood up like we were about to throw blows—or I was. He seemed unaffected. “What’re you talking about?”
“You know,” he said. “I read about it.” He used that familiar voice again, like he knew me, I knew him.
“Read about what?” I was certain he was about to bring up a couple of the stories about me and a crazy stalker who drove me out of L.A., a personal mess so many years ago. I still hated when anyone mentioned any of it, anytime, but with the Internet, it was timeless public domain.
“The blindness,” he said.
Stunned. My breath wasn’t interacting with the room’s air.
“It’s what I read.”
I sat down.
“It must be hard. Can you play your guitar without seeing?”
I didn’t look up.
“I don’t mean not seeing nothing. You must. You know what I mean. I don’t really know how bad you got it. Seems like you’re okay to me.”
I mostly didn’t think about any of this. I mostly went on not letting it matter so much to me or alter almost anything I did. Mostly I tried to ignore it. I dwelled on how far I’d made it, my good fortune.
“Right?” Luke asked. “That you do pretty okay with it? You see good enough, seems.”
“You read about this?” I asked him.
“Yeah,” he told me. “It’s gotta be tough.”
I wanted to ask him where he read it, but I didn’t want to know. I stood up again. I didn’t want any more conversation.
“Hey, listen,” Luke said. “There’s a woman at my church. She could help you out. She cleans houses too. She could do lots of things for you, whatever you need. She’s a very religious lady.”
“Not necessary,” I said.
“I don’t mean you’re a handicapped or nothing.”
“So she’s not Mexican, right?”
“No. Nothing but English.” It was as though he hadn’t heard me before, or what had happened was so far in the past that he’d already forgotten. “She gets going and she talks your ears off, I warn you. But she needs work.”
“You worry about her.”
“We try to take care of each other. Church has been good for me, like I told you.”
The front door opened—Carlos and Uriel coming back to work—and Luke shifted his attention, clomping toward them. One of them flushed the toilet in the bathroom.
“Now listen, you both,” he said, loud again. “You gotta get a move on.” Uriel muttered something. “Well, you ate your lonche now, Uriel, so you can’t bitch that that’s holding you back.” He went into the other bedroom and talked from there, raising his voice a little so Uriel could hear him. “You get done in there, this one should go fast.” More boot steps down to my bedroom, then on to the studio, until finally where I was waiting, by the kitchen window.
“They’re on schedule if they keep at it. I thought those trim colors you picked you’d be sorry about, but you saw good on ’em.” He caught himself using the “see” verb.
“You got nothing to worry about. They’ll have it done today.”
“I appreciate it,” I said.
“I’ll be back in a bit. You think you might be interested in that housecleaning, let me know.”
I didn’t offer one more word.
I drove to the bank to get cash and to kill time out of the house. It did not cross my mind that Luz would be working the drive-up window. Luz was young, not as much in years, and I was old, not only in years. I’d gone out with her because she was really cute and sexy and she flirted with me—and I was a guy. But then it seemed she liked me too much. Not in that stalker way, but a lot more than a dinner out and fooling around in way. She called a lot, was always wanting to come by or for us to go out or stay in but at least talk on the phone (where am I, what am I doing, don’t I want her, don’t I miss her?), and I just had to stop it. It’d become too much for me. I didn’t like that she could see my bank accounts. That seemed wrong. I considered changing banks, but time passed, and it didn’t matter. I thought the inside tellers were never near this car lot full of tubes.
Miss Garza had to say good afternoon twice to me, the second time with some exaggeration so I’d catch on. “Oh, it’s the lucky window,” I said to the intercom when I figured it out. Truth was, I was too far away from the glass booth and I couldn’t see her face. I didn’t know if she could see mine.
“Yes, it is.”
“How are you, Lucita?”
“Still working here,” she kind of whispered. She always wanted a much better job.
“I thought they kept all the hot women inside.”
“At least you still think I’m hot.”
“Like I or anybody could stop.”
“Would you like hundreds, sir?” she said more loudly.
Back to more a whisper. “So you do still remember me, then.”
“Let me think.”
“I’m never like what I was with you,” she said quietly. “I don’t know if I should be embarrassed or pissed at you.”
“Is it all right to be talking like this here?”
“Only one of the girls next to me listens, and she’s inside checking on something.”
I heard the cylinder shooting down the vacuum tube. I opened the bank container. My check card was there, my license, a pen. “Uhh, I think you forgot my money, Miss Garza.”
“Oh shit!” she said. Then she was laughing and trying to make herself stop. “I said ‘oh shit’!” she finally got out. Funny, more fun was to hear her laugh breaking up through the intercom. “You’re gonna get me fired!”
“You should’ve gotten more hundreds out of me first.”
“I’m still your cheap date,” she said. “I am sure you remember that, mister!”
That got me laughing.
The cylinder shot back again, this time with the cash. “All here this time. I’m painting the house . . . paying somebody else to.”
Louder. “Will that be all I can help you with today?” Meaning the other teller next to her was back.
“Thank you very much, Miss Garza,” I said.
I expected her to say more, and I waited for it. I pushed the talk button. “Hello?”
“Very nice to see you again, sir. I hope you have a good afternoon.”
“Oh,” I said. “It was—”
“I can’t talk,” she said fast, close to her mike.
So I took it out of park and drove toward a different day. The laughing? Missing her naked? Her? I grinned, I breathed in, I turned up the car radio. Though no doubt she had a boyfriend, I wanted to take Luz to this Ozomatli concert being promoted. I turned left instead of right. I wasn’t going fast or slow, it wasn’t busy or not, and then a postcard invite: surrounded by blue, the sun was centered above a thick mist of white cloud.
I pulled over and I got out and started on a caliche horse trail to the creek. At its edges, river-smoothed rocks were beside limestone boulders, their rusty geologic holes making them seem decorative. Next to them were nopal, barrel, yucca, and agave cacti, thorny weeds and cedar shrub, mesquite and oak trees, bushes that I knew bloomed pollen-heavy flowers that were yellow and red and cream. Ants were swarming the carcass of an armadillo—and near that I found a fossil, curled into itself, as big as my hand! My broken eyes wouldn’t stop panning for more when I reached the creek, green as moss. I took off my shoes and rolled up my jeans, made a seat a few feet in on a boulder the river gave room. So many wild birds singing patterns, the wind and water currents humming backup. I tapped small rocks together to imitate the frogs, and I swore they replied. Hawks coasted above. Not far, over there, turkey vultures circled tighter. The whole cycle.
They still had half of the last bedroom to do. They both looked tired, but Carlos seemed especially squeezed dry, his chest hair poking through his thin undershirt. He was in the bathroom, at the tub, washing out the rollers, pans, brushes. The radio that was in the bedroom was on loud. A ranchera station.
“We’ll get this tomorrow,” Uriel said. “And Saturday? Did he say anything?”
“I didn’t tell him anything yet, and he didn’t ask.”
“That’s good. We can use the money.”
I wished they’d finished and weren’t coming back tomorrow. I was having second thoughts about Saturday now, not because I didn’t want the rooms painted, but because I was confused.
“Listen, what if it wasn’t this Saturday? Maybe a week or two.”
He looked at me with such disappointment. “Better right now,” he said.
“What the fuck?” It was Luke turning the corner of the hall. None of us heard him come in the front door. “Uriel, turn off that fuckin’ music, you hear me?” Hard to imagine that we didn’t hear him because his boots now seemed the only sound other than his voice. Noticing Carlos in the bathroom without missing a step, he went by me like I wasn’t there at all. “You’re not done in here? How is it you’re not done in here, Uriel?” Uriel might have answered, but Luke wasn’t interested in an explanation. “Goddamn if you won’t finish this right now! What the hell you doing? You think you should leave when you only got another half hour of shit to do? Not if you wanna work for me!”
Carlos had come out of the bathroom. Uriel was moving his head, stepping sideways and back, his hands at each side, not making fists, not not making them either. He told Carlos and Carlos didn’t hesitate to want to jump back in. He got a roller and a paintbrush from the bathroom.
“Not that, goddamn it,” Luke said, taking the pan but not roller. “Open that new one right there! Can’t use one that’s wet.” He bent, opening paint cans like he was stabbing one of them. “Amount of time you two wasted cleaning up you’d been finished.” Then he stood up, staring at Carlos, who was frozen. “What the fuck you waitin’ for? Get a move on it!”
Uriel took the brush from his father and explained in Spanish. Luke stood over them, silent, like he was watching from a high mountain, as the two grown men scurried.
Front row to the drama, I thought one of them would attack Luke any minute, or should, though it was also true I was relieved that they were going to finish. Then my phone rang. I ran into my office, hoping it was Luz. Of course it wasn’t. It was business, which I didn’t want to talk, but no stopping it once I answered. When I finally got off, I started to dig around for Luz’s phone number, the one not on my new cell phone. Should I give her the fossil I found? Tell her how I was, what was happening? Tell her: such beauty in the world, and I miss it until the ants catch my attention. I laughed at myself. She would have no idea what I was talking about, if it made sense! But she would love the fossil—who wouldn’t?—and, really, that was the gift.
Right then I noticed what a good job Uriel and Carlos had done in the studio, not just painting but putting everything back where it was. It was like they’d copied a photograph—didn’t misplace a book, a sheet of music, or an envelope that I’d aimed at the trash can and missed. It was the same in my bedroom, which I hadn’t looked at since the morning. I’d almost believe they changed the sheets before they made the bed.
“I want to apologize,” Luke told me in the kitchen.
“Hey,” I said, drinking some water, “it’s one of those days.” It was close to six in the evening.
“I feel bad for using the Lord’s name in vain. Trying to stop that.”
“And I thought you were apologizing about how you were around those men.”
“I do. But they should be finished in a minute, I can promise you that. I was plenty mad. I am about to be making this the last time with Uriel. No more.”
He misunderstood, like someone who was still learning a new language. “They’ve done a great job,” I told him.
“I don’t know what we gonna do, I don’t.”
It was his big “we” again. I wanted him to go.
“What I gotta live in, what’s breathing down my neck, is where there’s nothing for people like me, that’s what I’m telling you.”
“You need some water?” I said.
“Don’t mind if I do,” he said.
I got a glass out of a cabinet and filled it from the tap, and he drank it steadily. I completely forgot about the cold water I had in the refrigerator.
“We finish, Luke.” Uriel was at the kitchen’s threshold.
Luke shook his head. He put down the glass, shook his head.
Uriel angled to let Luke pass by. When he had, Uriel looked at me, made eyes, shook his head. Then he turned and followed, as brave as he was humiliated. I could hear Luke in there, and he was not yelling. The boots clomped back toward me.
“It’s all I got now,” he said, coming back into the kitchen, leaning onto the counter, tired. Uriel and Carlos were already behind him, moving tarps and things out.
I’d gotten my wallet out.
“Did you want a receipt?”
“Won’t be necessary, no.”
“Way I like it too. Keep them monkeys in suits out of it.”
I forgot my count. He saw, held my gaze for a few seconds, then his eyes aimed down. I had to count the bills again.
“Still interested in those other rooms? So much trouble I’ll give you a deal.”
“I think I’m fine for now.”
Luke walked to the arch between the kitchen and living room. Then he gave a price even lower than the one that Uriel and Carlos gave. “Can get it first thing next week.”
“I thought you were firing them.”
“I’d probably keep Carlos. If he wants.”
I didn’t say.
“Well, think on it. I appreciate the business.” He reached out his hand, and we shook. Walking away, he stopped. “Don’t forget that I got that housekeeper from the church. Help you out cheap.”