It bothered Nina that Rumalda looked her same age, like they might have been classmates in grade school and now had come to be reunited every Friday morning when Rumalda walked across the bridge from Matamoros to Brownsville to clean the house. The truth was, Rumalda was sixteen years younger, and yet the woman hobbled like an old mule with a bad leg that never healed. Bunions. A bone spur. A bad hip. Only God knew. Nina wondered who actually looked her true age, she or her maid. If she had been spared only by being born on this side of the river. If she shouldn’t go back to coloring her hair, like she did when she had more time, before she moved back home to take care of her mother.
When the gray showed up she convinced herself she looked more her age, but then the gray began turning white and she didn’t know what age she was anymore and if it mattered, as little as she left the house these days. But how much older would the Matamoros Nina look? Would her feet be as calloused and scaly, as misshapen with bunions from walking six days a week for however long to the bridge to wait in line with the rest of the men and women coming to this side to work? How many shades darker? How much more haggard and spent from walking home on the other side of the river, where you never know when Los Mañosos, as Rumalda calls the cartels, might decide today is a good day to start killing one another in the streets?
Two months earlier, Rumalda had asked her for a favor. She had arrived like every other Friday and set down her purse, removed her flats, and put the first load of laundry to wash. She came back to the kitchen when she was called over a few minutes later. Maybe this was the only house she cleaned where she was invited to sit and have coffee. Maybe she had coffee everywhere she went and never mentioned it out of modesty. It was a small gesture to pass the time, to treat her like a person and not some criada, as Nina’s mother sometimes called her.
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When she did finally sit, it was close to the edge of the seat cushion and avoiding much eye contact, instead staring into the black, unsweetened coffee before her. Other than Nina’s brother Beto occasionally coming to visit and the doctors and nurses they saw when she took her mother to her appointments, Rumalda was one of the few contacts Nina had with the outside world. Adelita Morales from down the street had died two years earlier and left her husband behind, who by that point was already going blind from the diabetes and now stayed indoors, afraid to venture even to his front gate. Most of her friends from work had moved on with their lives. Nina had tried to meet them for coffee or lunch, but this only happened on Fridays, the one day a week she could stray from the house knowing that Rumalda was there to keep an eye on her mother.
Rumalda wasn’t much of a talker. And perhaps this is how it would’ve continued if Nina hadn’t been asking Rumalda so many questions, inquiring about her husband and the younger daughter and then the older one and her husband and their baby, instead of letting the woman sit and enjoy her coffee.
At first, Rumalda had claimed no, everything was perfectly fine with her family, as always. Gracias a Dios. Then a moment later the story changed. She confessed that in truth she had a small favor to ask.
The favor was for the older daughter, Noemí, the one married and with a four-year-old. The husband had crossed and found work with a plumbing company in Fort Worth, and now, after more than three years of being separated, he was sending for them. The plan was for next Friday morning Noemí and her little girl to walk over the bridge, pretending like they were only coming over to shop, and then wait on this side for a time when they could be taken from the border up north to Fort Worth. To do this, they needed a place to wait until someone came for them.
If la señora would concede her this one favor and allow these guests at her house, Rumalda promised they would be picked up as soon as possible. Waiting on this side would be safer than paying a coyote to pass them in the middle of the night, with the risk of getting across the river and then over or around the wall without being seen by the authorities. And imagine, with a four-year-old. Even on this side of the river, they would still have to worry about how to get past the interior checkpoints that the Border Patrol had set up some eighty miles from the border, forcing many of the immigrants to walk through an untamed and merciless land where hundreds had died. But for that Rumalda’s son-in-law already knew who to call, someone who could drive her and the child hidden in a trailer to get past the checkpoints. She was asking Nina because of all the houses she cleaned this was the only one where she could ask in confidence. La señora wouldn’t have to do anything other than allow her daughter and granddaughter to stay until the ride came for them. Before Nina could consider the question and how this would work, what type of people would be coming to her front door, Rumalda suggested they could stay in the little pink house, out back, the one her mother used to rent. Only for a night. Two nights at the very most. “Por favor, señora.”
Nina felt like she did when she used to drive across to shop or eat in Matamoros, back when it didn’t feel like she was risking her life, and as she approached the bridge, the blind and maimed beggars would come to her with their cupped hands, pleading just outside the car window. Only now it was happening at her kitchen table.
This was the favor the woman wanted. For her to hide people behind her house? And not even her house but her mother’s. Her mother who she had to remind practically every Friday to stop talking about los mojados when she knew the word was offensive and more so because to her they were all mojados, rich or poor, legal or illegal, whether they floated across the river in an inner tube or drove over the bridge to bring their kids to the private school. And then for her maid to plan out the entire mess before she even asked her. To have visitors, papers or no papers, was one thing. To hide them so they could be taken—smuggled, to say it more clearly—was something different.
To Rumalda it was just a little favor, but who would land in trouble if someone reported them? The young woman and her little girl would be taken away, processed, transported back across to Matamoros, where they had started. Nothing gained, nothing lost. And meanwhile Nina locked up. Nina calling a lawyer. Nina with nobody to take care of her mother. Nina on the front page of the Brownsville Herald. But that’s how they were, these people from across. For them everything had a simple solution. If there was a problem that could be fixed, by whatever means, then there was nothing to worry about. They were geniuses of the world when it came to finding another way. And if it turned out the problem had no solution, no way of it being mended or substituted with something else, no way of being glued or duct-taped, then there was nothing to worry about either. Ni modo, they said and moved on. They never stopped to consider what happened next, after the solved or unsolved problem brought a whole new set of problems. Then what? For that they had no solutions. They came with so little it was only ever about today, and tomorrow was tomorrow, another day to worry about when it arrived, if it arrived. Life, when one lived on this side of the river, was almost never that easy. But try explaining that to your cleaning woman.
Nina didn’t answer her question one way or another, not even to say maybe or that she needed more time to consider it. All she told Rumalda was she had errands to run, the same as she told her every Friday.
Like most things in Brownsville, the pharmacy was a ten-minute drive from the house. She lost no time in picking up a couple of six-packs of Ensure at the Walgreens and from there headed to the bank to get money to pay Ru-malda. It wasn’t until Nina was pulling up to the house that she slowed down enough to consider what the woman had asked her for.
With the left side of the carport blocked from view by the neighbor’s wooden fence, the little pink house was hidden from anyone not standing in front of the driveway. She had to pull in all the way before she could see into the backyard. Sometimes she forgot the little house was there. Tried to, anyway, because Beto was always bringing it up, telling her how they were letting good money go to waste when they could be renting it and making something extra to cover expenses. What he really meant was to cover the expenses so he wouldn’t have to pitch in. He had already taken advantage of her kindness by having her be the only one taking care of their mother since Raul had passed and Luis had moved thousands of miles away. Beto reminded her that she was the only girl in the family and had to do it. So when it came time, yes, she had left her teaching job to come care for her mother, but not to be a landlord to strangers living behind her, hearing their problems about what needed to be repaired or replaced, collecting their late money. She didn’t need more headaches every month. The headaches she already had inside the main house.
She was setting down the shopping bag in the kitchen when she heard her mother banging her drinking cup on the overbed tray.
“Until finally she came back. The one who likes to be in the streets.”
“Less than an hour. You say it like I was gone for a week.” The room was brighter now than when she left.
“As soon as you left I needed to go sit down.”
“I asked you.”
“Bah!” She flicked her hand. “You think my body is only waiting for you to say when? And with these bars on the bed, when I told you to leave them down.”
“You could have called Rumalda to come help you.”
“Esa mojada, you think she is going to know more than me about how to lower the bars?”
“Let me help you now.” She lowered the railing.
“Then to clean you.”
“Clean yourself,” she said. “It passed. I had to go then and not now. But it almost happened, and with me just thrown in the bed like a sack of flour.” She turned away.
“Maybe I should call Dr. Robles.”
“Yes, your answer for everything. ‘Call Robles, call Robles.’ The man’s going to think you want something more than pills from him.”
She turned from her mother and took a deep breath and released it. This was a technique she had learned to do when she first started teaching second grade. After more than thirty years of working at Canales Elementary, she had had her share of misbehaving kids who spent a couple of days at the principal’s office every week just so she could focus on the other twenty or so students she had to teach.
“If you’re mad we should talk later, when you feel better.”
When she turned to walk out, her mother threw the plastic cup at her, missing altogether but stopping her all the same.
“You don’t tell me when I can open my mouth to talk,” she yelled at her. “You forget who is the mother and who’s living here for free.”
“Only to take care of you.”
“That’s what daughters do, and more the ones that stayed alone and have no one else to take care of.” She looked away again. “And now she wants to go after the doctor, offer herself to him.”
Nina turned to leave and bumped into Rumalda standing in the doorway. She wasn’t done with the cleaning, but right then Nina wanted to pay her so she would go away and Nina wouldn’t have to see her face or anyone else’s for another seven days. The woman must have overheard at least some of their exchange, and Rumalda looked at her now as if Nina was the one in need of a favor, the one to be hidden and smuggled off to some more forgiving place.
She had saved for her old house since she started teaching. It was a tiny place, but then again it was just for her. She had a small yard and a driveway, and wasn’t sharing a wall with strangers who seemed to change out every few months. It was a yellow clapboard house with an off-white trim, close enough to work but also not so far from her mother.
She had been in the house six years when Beto asked her the question that eventually led her back to the house she had grown up in: “Will you do me a favor and check on Mom on your way home from work? Just stop by for five or ten minutes, make sure she’s eating and taking her medicines.” Nina was tired after work, but it seemed like a small sacrifice to make for the family. But then later it was also her summers and school holidays, when she wasn’t doing much but running errands, and why not take their mother to the cardiologist’s office or the urologist or to get her hair fixed if her birthday was coming up. Until one afternoon she walked in the back door and found her mother lying on her side in the kitchen, unable to get up and the burner on the stove still on, the kettle screeching above her cries for help. She hadn’t broken anything, but the scare was enough to tell them that from now on, their mother shouldn’t be living alone. And right then Nina knew there’d be no question who should be living with her mother and no question that Beto had had this in mind when he asked her for a little favor.
And now another favor, this one for Rumalda. Nina didn’t know when it was that she became the person everyone thought they could come ask to do this and that, as if she didn’t have her own life, as if her life only came after theirs. Can you do me a favor and check on Mom on your way home from work? Can you do me a favor and take her so they can check her feet, make sure they’re not swollen again? Can you do me a favor and just retire a couple of years earlier than you were planning? Can you do me a favor and just sell the house you saved up for years to buy and go live with Mom? Can you do me a favor and give up your life for her life? Can you do me a favor and never sleep the whole night because she’s always calling you to bring her water or calling you to go to the bathroom because thirty minutes earlier you got up to give her water? Can you try to help Mom and then let her say ugly things and throw a cup at you? Can you? Can you? Can you?
The following Friday, Rumalda arrived with her daughter and granddaughter in tow. Noemí helped her mother where she could with the cleaning, mainly in the kitchen and hanging the laundry to dry, but made sure she and Briana stayed away from the front of the house, where la señora’s mother might see them. Then later that afternoon, after bringing in the last of the towels from the clothesline, Rumalda, Noemí, and Briana walked out the back door, carrying clean sheets and the small backpacks they had arrived with in the morning. Less than twenty minutes later, Rumalda walked back to the main house alone.
Five hundred and forty miles to the north, Juan Pablo, the husband of Noemí, was helping load the jackhammer and pickax into the bed of the work truck. He had received a text from her at noon letting him know she and Briana had crossed the bridge that morning with her mother and would be waiting for their ride. Juan Pablo barely had time to reply with one of those heart emojis Noemí liked to send him, the ones he never knew how to respond to, but in the moment, it was easier than trying to tap out a message.
He and the four other men in his crew had spent the day digging out a 75-foot-long trench to replace a corroded sewer pipe, continuing to work while the owner of the house came outside to observe their progress. The man claimed his mother’s side of the family was from Mexico—he couldn’t remember from where exactly—and he knew just enough Spanish to try to start a conversation each time he came outside in his short pants and T-shirt and then make at least one of the men feel like he had to put down his shovel to respond, when in reality it was their boss he should be asking his questions to. They were already behind schedule. Horacio, one of the other workers, hadn’t shown up for work again that morning. They had hired a day laborer to take his place, but the man seemed to spend more time drinking water than he did working.
Horacio had gone back to Michoacán to see his family for the first time since leaving seven years earlier. After all the equipment was loaded and they were inside the truck, one of the workers wondered out loud if he had been turned back or if something worse may have happened. Horacio had left his car keys with Juan Pablo to hold until he returned, which he had said would be a week earlier. Horacio was supposed to have contacted the same coyote who had brought him across the first time. Though no one was asking him, the day laborer mentioned that he was from Honduras and last year his cousin had it bad because first one of the gangs had killed her husband and she had escaped with her fourteen-year-old girl, but then the coyote got them to this side and wanted more money before he would release them to the next one, who was supposed to get them to Houston.
The day laborer hadn’t said as much, but Juan Pablo wondered if the cousin and her daughter might have been violated. Most of the women and girls crossing alone were. People knew it but preferred not to mention it, as if this omission might somehow prevent the memory itself from crossing to this side of the border. Juan Pablo hadn’t come out and told Noemí this was the other reason she and Briana had to wait as long as they had, that it was so he could save more money to pay the extra cost for them to be brought up north by people who had come recommended to him, and so later he could worry just a little less about what might or might not happen to them on their way here.
If she didn’t already know better, Nina wouldn’t have guessed anyone was staying in the other house. She had promised herself not to step into the backyard, much less go up to the little pink house and check on her visitors. On the news, she had seen what happened when the immigration authorities found people hiding in a house or apartment or trailer home. Twenty or thirty of them, sometimes over fifty of them, all sitting on the floor with their backs against the wall. And these were just the poor ones who had paid to be taken. The other ones who took their money and sometimes were also smuggling drugs, those ones covered their faces when they got arrested, like they didn’t want their families to see what they had been doing all along for their money and cars. Those were the people who would be coming to her mother’s house.
The next night the phone rang close to eleven o’clock. At first she thought it might be Beto. Her brother liked to call at the most random hours, like she was operating a 24-hour phone line for whenever it occurred to him to check on his mother. She sat up in bed without answering, letting it ring a second time to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. Nothing good came from calls at this hour. This was the time of night when people called to inform you of car accidents and people who had died long before their time. She let it ring a third time. She wished she had a phone that showed her who was calling. She grabbed the receiver just before the fourth ring.
The line was silent.
And then the line went dead.
Rumalda must have given them the address. This made sense, but Nina hadn’t thought to ask if she would be sharing her phone number with these people. Somehow sharing her number seemed worse, as if these arrangements were premeditated and not something that simply occurred in the moment.
Half an hour passed before she spotted a car with its lights dimmed and parked across the street, idling just beyond the glow of the streetlight. She left the house lights off so she could watch the driver without his knowing. A blue flame flared close to the driver’s face until it bit the end of a waiting cigarette. Barely audible over the sound of the engine, La Bronca grunted from her place in the dirt. The dog looked old and slow, but that only made her more irritable. She was part chow, with patches of rust-colored fur missing from her dark haunches, and part something else that made her head look like a block of wood with ears and a wide jaw.
Nina wished Rumalda had told her what to do: When the phone rings but the caller doesn’t say anything, do X. When he parks his car across the street and is waiting, like he has nothing else to do, then do Y. She hadn’t said anything other than thank Nina repeatedly, as if her appreciation made the rest of the details clear enough. La Bronca was sitting on her rump, her front legs kneading the dirt until she could engage the back ones. All Nina needed was for the dog to start barking and wake people. She stepped outside, and just as swiftly, the car drifted away, its lights still dimmed.
The next night the same car. Instead of opening the front door and scaring the driver off, this time Nina walked out the back and down to the carport, passing into and out of the shadows in her housecoat and chanclas. That afternoon, to keep the dog from barking and calling attention to anyone pulling up to the house, she’d moved her to the backyard and chained her to a foundation block under the little house.
By the time she opened the driveway gate, the driver had lowered the passenger window and angled the front tires toward the driveway.
“Maybe you can help me,” the driver said, leaning against the armrest. “I’m looking for a friend.”
Three weeks from now, this is the moment Nina will remember and wonder why she ever got involved with these people, why she didn’t just say no, that she didn’t know anything about any friend, and leave it at that. Why she couldn’t figure out another way of helping Rumalda’s family, a way that didn’t involve her own family. But right then Nina was trying to make sense of the driver being female. Her dark hair was tucked into a hooded sweatshirt. She had on French nails and was scratching at the leather on the steering wheel. There had been no Buenas tardes. No I’m so-and-so, even if so-and-so was probably a made-up name. Maybe it was best this way, as strangers.
“This friend is expecting you?”
The girl looked at her like it might be a trick question. She seemed barely old enough to be out of high school. Young enough to be Nina’s granddaughter.
“Two friends,” she corrected herself. “And if not, then maybe I’m in the wrong place. They just told me it was the blue one at the dead end of the street. But then the light isn’t so good.”
“It looks more blue in the day,” she said. “And this is the only one with people at the very end.”
She stepped aside for the girl to pull into the driveway, then the carport.
“Wait here,” she said when the girl was getting out of the car. In the halo of the light from the back porch they could see the shape of the little house in the distance.
“First I have to see them. To know if these are the right friends.”
“How many friends could there be waiting for you, already at this hour?”
The girl stood to one side, looking over her shoulder at the street and then back at the gate for Nina to open it. She was shorter and heavier than it had seemed she might be when she was slouched inside the car.
As soon as the gate creaked open, La Bronca came tearing out from under the pink house, snarling like she had been waiting all day only for this, saving up all the energy and swiftness she possessed in her dreams when her paws and hind legs twitched her younger self back to life.
“Kind of a mean one, no?”
“She’s not there to make friends.” Nina blocked the dog’s passage so the girl could climb the steps.
La Bronca strained against the chain, struggling to move forward as if she might dislodge the little house from its foundation blocks and drag it with her. Nina shushed her, but this only seemed to infuriate the dog more, and she finally had to threaten to fling one of her chanclas at the animal before it relented.
“Looks like a dollhouse.”
Nina stared at her, unsure what she meant, if it mattered.
“I say because of the color.” She tapped on the door with her nails, like she was dropping by a neighbor’s apartment to borrow a cup of sugar.
“My mother used to rent it,” Nina said, wondering why it mattered, the history of the little house or that her mother owned it? What did it matter now that this wouldn’t be happening if she’d listened to Beto and just rented the house? She needed to be done with the girl already.
When there was no answer, she rapped on the door. This time the little girl, Briana, cried somewhere inside the house, from the bedroom or the living room, wherever they had decided to bed down. A few seconds later the blinds crinkled and Noemí peeked out. She and Briana had been inside for two days and it took a while for her to figure out how to release the dead bolt. Finally, the door unsealed itself from the frame like an abandoned refrigerator taking its first gasp of fresh air.
Nina waited outside, as if she were the one visiting and the driver and Noemí and Briana were the ones who lived here. A couple of minutes later the three of them exited the house, the mother carrying the daughter and both their backpacks, and walked out to the car. Briana was wearing jeans and a pajama top and her head was tucked into the crook of her mother’s neck. The driver opened the passenger door and told Noemí to strap her daughter in the backseat and for her to take the front. They weren’t going very far and she wasn’t running a taxi service. Before they left, the driver put her hand out to shake Nina’s and pressed a folded fifty-dollar bill into her palm.
“For your help.”
Nina held the bill for the girl to take back. If she didn’t accept the money, they couldn’t say she had done anything wrong. “It was just a favor, to help a friend.”
She felt the need to explain how this had come about, that it was nothing she planned or expected anything for in return. Until the words came out of her mouth, she hadn’t considered Rumalda her friend; the woman worked for her and they were friendly but not friends. There was a difference. They both knew it without anyone ever having said it. Still, if she hadn’t done it for the money and they weren’t friends, then why was she doing it?
The girl backed away, her hands held open in front of her chest.
“Keep it,” she said. “There might be more friends who need favors, now that we know where you live.”
Adapted from Where We Come From (May 21, Knopf) by Oscar Cásares. Copyright © 2019 by Oscar Cásares. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Un Favor.” Subscribe today.