Fiction — From the September 2008 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
I needed the favor because I wasn’t doing well and I’d ran out of places to stay and mostly money. I didn’t really like it that my Aunt Maggy would know about my life, unless it was how great I was doing. I’m not sure where my embarrassment comes from, or if it’s only a man thing. Could also be my mom and the years of gossip, and since my mom was my favorite, I always want to side with her no matter what. So Maggy was an all spoiled this and did all bad that but got away with everything because of her looks—men lined up to do whatever she whined for. Even now, she was supposed to be close to fifty, and she did not look fifty. I don’t think many women looked much better than her after thirty. Could be my mom didn’t want to tell the truth about Maggy’s age because, well, if my mom wasn’t as pretty she probably was the better cook. Maybe Maggy was a lot younger. It was possible, if you ask me. I was here looking at her.
I wouldn’t have recognized her if I weren’t at her kitchen table. Last time I saw her I was at most fifteen. She’d visited our house in El Paso a few times but you know how that is. I didn’t stick around for the family things once I was older, and even when I kissed her hello and goodbye, I didn’t see or hear her. I was a teenager then. Now I was a man, with a wife and a baby and another one coming too. I was a man, and I realized my aunt was a woman who, well, was hard to not look at.
“I’m trying for everything,” I told her. “I only want a job that I can count on.” I’d told her about the three I’d already had. Two were in construction, which I didn’t really want and didn’t last more than a week, and the last, in a restaurant, I only took it to have anything, but it went from early morning to early evening, and I couldn’t look for one better.
“You listen to Jim’s advice when he gets back, Guillermo. He won’t be away that long.” Jim was her husband. He was in Chicago and on his way to Brazil, and he’d be gone for a couple or even a few weeks. I didn’t ask her what he did. He had a last name that I couldn’t pronounce. My mom would get mad at my dad for saying this, but he would call him a rich gabacho son of a Zabludovsky—that chilango newscaster—living it up inside Mexico. My mom didn’t like him making sexual remarks about Maggy, even if everybody did. I think Maggy’d had at least two other last names too, since she’d been married at least two other times. Her family name was Santamaria, which also made my father wink sarcastically.
“Billy,” I told her. “Everybody always calls me Billy.”
“Guillermo is much better,” she insisted. “It’s more mature, and it’s a manly name.” The jewelry on her arms and ears jingled like in a breeze that also swayed her long black hair.
I preferred Billy. I didn’t like to be formal. I didn’t want to sound like I just crossed. I liked people to know I was American, born and raised. I had an uncle, who was more tattooed cholo, who called himself Memo, and I didn’t want that. Besides, wasn’t she a Maggy? A grateful guest, I didn’t say more.
She was drinking wine. It was from a big jug, not that there weren’t plenty of those others you usually saw in a restaurant—a rack of them and others sitting on the table and counter. I’d already said no thank you. I didn’t really know how to drink wine. It wasn’t just the wine, but the entire kitchen was loaded up like a mall gourmet store. She had the complete set of copper pots and pans, and a lot not copper, hanging from above the stove, she had another rack of wine glasses, she had so many utensils it was more like a tool shop to me. There were appliances too. Not one blender but two. A food processor and an industrial toaster. A bread maker. A pasta machine. New, new, new. She had knives in several wooden blocks, towels, and the counters were weighted with so many plastic and glass bottles of this and that you wondered what could be in the cabinets. On the space above them, Mexican pottery, Mexican dishware. On the table where I was sitting, a floral bouquet, a setting. It was beautiful and it looked real but it wasn’t—I smelled them and she told me. On the table and on the floor near it a pile of unread beauty magazines, half in Spanish, a couple that were the same but one was American the other from Mexico—or Spain, or wherever, I didn’t know.
“A beer then?”
She opened a side of the silver refrigerator. It seemed like things would fall out it was so stuffed. She dug around—I felt like I should get up and help her take stuff and hold things—until she found a green bottle and somehow seemed to know right where an opener was. She gave it to me and I probably shouldn’t have stared at it first and then so long. It had foil around its top and I don’t think I could read the language it was in.
“Jim loves it, thinks it’s the best.”
I stopped what I was doing and drank. It had a strange taste to me. “Wow, yeah, really good. Thank you.”
“I have to tell you about Lorena.”
I nodded and sipped the strange beer.
“She’s been staying here too. Downstairs. It’s where I’d have you stay if she wasn’t here already. She’s been having trouble. We’re very good friends.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’m really thankful for your help.”
“We’re family. You’re my sister’s son, so you’re my son too.”
I had a room up the carpeted stairs. It was a girl’s room, teenager, or like that. It was confusing looking. She said it was her playroom, and she was sorry it was a mess. I told her to not be sorry, that I didn’t care. I didn’t either. Though it was a girl’s room, and there were two big boxes of little boxes of dolls—not all in their store boxes—and a few face-down and sideways on shelves, and knitting boxes and an antique sewing machine and makeup jars and compacts and brushes and lipsticks, all in shoeboxes piled and stacked, and photos everywhere, in more shoeboxes but also in piles on the floor. It was hard to know where to put my suitcase except in the middle of the room. And the walls were wallpapered. That was more old-ladyish to me, a pink, with red velvet roses. The kind of bed had a name that meant it wasn’t just the bed. It was also considered a couch, she told me. To me it was a bed and only a bed and it had lots of pillows, girl pillows, and a frilly cover. It was fine. I was happy. I needed a place to sleep. And the TV on the floor, like it didn’t work and wasn’t really supposed to be in there, it worked. I think there was another bedroom next to this one, but that door was closed and I didn’t look. There was a bathroom and then there were double doors, right across from where I was, that opened to the master bedroom. One of those doors was open. It was a huge room, as beautiful as any hotel, a king-size bed that didn’t even take up too much space. There was still plenty between it and all the dressers and mirrors. It was a lot better than a hotel.
I was up in the morning early. I decided to dress as nice as I could. I wore a white shirt and put on a tie. I didn’t have a sports coat. Besides, though it wasn’t hot, it wasn’t cold enough. And I didn’t own one. Aunt Maggy’s was in a tract development and it was called Willows Village. I don’t know why I thought about it so much even before I drove in, when it was only part of the directions. I did. And then the actual image of the sign on the block-wall entrance to the village like burned my eyes. It was trapped in my head, and when I would think of Aunt Maggy I’d see a droopy green tree and those words. Her house was right next to the freeway. Which was a good thing if you were driving to work and had to get on the freeway, which maybe most everybody else did. We had highways in El Paso, nothing like this one right next to the village. Even in the morning, or maybe especially, it was loud. I couldn’t really believe how loud it was. It almost made me stop. But there was nothing to look at, to see. The freeway was just above and on the other side of the houses across the street. You couldn’t see the cars or trucks or motorcycles. Their sounds, though, they made like shadows which my eyes wanted to see but couldn’t. So I got in and rolled down the windows and joined the noise too, the looking for the job driving noise, and I drove past the Willows Village sign and into the job world.
There were lots of jobs in Santa Ana and around it when you looked in the paper. There were lots of construction sites, but I saw so many car dealerships I finally decided, I really made up my mind. I wanted to be a car salesman. I had a high school friend from El Paso, up a couple of streets and right near Fort Boulevard, who told me that when he moved out here he started at car sales, and the next he knew he was making a really great living and he loved it. I tried to find his new address before I left El Paso. He’d grown up with his grandma, and when I went over, she didn’t live there. The people who did said they bought the house after she died, and they had no idea where he was. I just thought what he did was original and smart. Not that it was. Everybody had heard of car salesmen. What was original was to be one. And after the other jobs, it was even more original. So I started stopping at dealers on Harbor Boulevard, and I went right in, shaking hands, saying I was looking for a job as a car salesman. I filled out applications, and I talked to a couple managers too. I think that I spoke Spanish was a definite asset. Definitely at two places. One used, one new. The new car dealer manager asked if I had a coat even, a couple even. I said I did. I think he didn’t like my white shirt or my tie, something in his eyes—so I decided that if he called back, I’d get something. I’d borrow the money. I thought I had a really good shot.
I wasn’t sure if I should get back to Aunt Maggy’s so early in the afternoon or not. I wasn’t sure if she would like it if I didn’t, say, look for a job until the evening. I also didn’t know where else to go besides there. When I stayed with an old friend and his wife for a couple of weeks, those days I didn’t work, they did. I could watch TV. I didn’t know if Maggy had a routine or not. I had a key but the door was a little open. I mean, it wasn’t closed. Still, I rang the doorbell.
“Hello!” Aunt Maggy yelled.
I went ahead and pushed the door open.
“What are you doing ringing the bell? Just come in! You live here!”
I kind of nodded and muttered a thanks, okay. They were at the table and it was that jug of wine. Maybe even another one just like it. It was hard to see them, though. There was a big glass window behind them, and the sun was out. I was afraid I would be looking funny at them as I got to the table.
“How’d it go?” Aunt Maggy asked. She was wearing a one-piece bathing suit. She was a chichona woman, and it was hard not to know that, especially when she was wearing a bathing suit. I still saw the Willows Village sign, which I’d just passed again, in my head too. It didn’t feel right.
“Pretty good, “ I said. “I really think I’m gonna get one.”
“¡Qué bueno!” said Aunt Maggy.
“One doing what?” the other woman said. I knew it was Lorena.
“Oh,” my Aunt Maggy said, “this
I shook her hand. “I’m Billy,” I said.
“Guillermo,” Aunt Maggy said.
“Doing what?” Lorena said.
Aunt Maggy started laughing. “I didn’t even ask what.” She laughed and so did Lorena. They thought it was funny, and they each took another drink and giggled.
“Do you want some wine?” Lorena asked. Besides on a rack, there were a few clean wine glasses on the counter near the kitchen table, and she reached over and got one and poured me a glass.
“He doesn’t drink wine,” Aunt Maggy told her.
“I’m sorry,” Lorena said.
“I can.” That made her feel better. I sipped some. I didn’t really like wine, I guess.
“So tell us,” Lorena said. “What kind of job?”
I think they wanted to laugh. Maybe. Except they didn’t.
“Is that what you want?” Lorena asked.
“I think you can make good money at it.” I almost was going to tell her about my friend in El Paso. I didn’t really like the wine, but I drank some more.
“Good for you,” Aunt Maggy said. “I think they’ll be lucky to get you.”
We clinked the wine glasses. We all took drinks for a toast and Maggy refilled Lorena’s, then hers.
“I bet you’re hungry,” Maggy said to me.
“I’m hungry,” said Lorena. “What can we make?”
“There’s so much,” she said.
There was, too. The kitchen was so full of everything.
“Let’s just get takeout. Chinese? Italian? How about subs?”
“Yum,” said Lorena.
We were all supposed to pick, until Aunt Maggy said she’d get three kinds and we’d share. She got on the phone and she was ordering.
“What about you?” I asked Lorena. “What do you do?”
She didn’t answer quickly. “I fight for a woman’s rights. I fight against dirty husbands.”
Maggy, still on the phone, made eyes at her and shook her head.
I decided not to ask.
Lorena was in a bathing suit too, but she had a towel bathrobe over her. Hers was a two-piece, a bikini, because once in a while it opened. It was a good bet that all of her figure was good too. She had an accent. I couldn’t figure it out. It might have been Mexican, but if she spoke Spanish, then they would be speaking Spanish. Her eyes were hazel but also green. Maybe her hair was dyed. It was brown with yellow in it. I thought her hair should be dark brown. She was my age, give or take a few years.
Off the phone, Aunt Maggy took another gulp of wine and got up and then so did Lorena. Too much to look at, so I looked down and out the window to the big backyard. I listened as Maggy took out plates from a cabinet and brought them to the table. Lorena went to the sink and came back with a dishrag and wiped the table. Both of them brushed up against me when they came back. It was that I was in a chair that was in the way, the one I sat in without thinking when I walked in. I considered moving.
“Would you rather have beer with your sandwich?” Lorena asked me. “If you really don’t like wine.”
I decided I had to look up when I answered, and she was very close to me, her robe loosely closed, and she was standing, and I was sitting. It was hard to keep my eyes steady. “Well,” I said, “no, I think I should stay with the wine.” I finished my first glass, and then she leaned across me and got the bottle and filled it back up. The jug was almost empty, so then she put the last of the wine in hers. She was warm.
“Open another if you want,” Maggy said. “Open this one.” She handed Lorena a smaller bottle and she looked around for the wine opener. Lorena handed it and the bottle to me.
The truth is, I wasn’t sure how it worked. It had the curled screw, but also something else. I don’t know if they watched me, but I pulled the cork out the only way I knew. “So you guys went to, like, the beach?” I asked. I left the bottle on the table because all of the glasses were full.
“My neighbor Paula has a pool,” said Maggy. “You want to go swimming? I’m watching it for her while they’re away.”
“It’s delicious!” said Lorena. “It’s
so nice over there. You have
Ready for the food to arrive, Aunt Maggy started cleaning the kitchen. “I don’t know how I get such a mess all the time,” she said.
Lorena sat down again, looked over at me, drank wine, and sighed. “Are you as hungry as I am?” she asked me.
I was trying to be quick
“Don’t be so shy,” she said. “Just say yes.”
“Okay,” I mumbled.
“Yes yes yes,” said Maggy near the sink. “We say yes!”
“Yes!” said Lorena more loud. They laughed. Then Lorena got up from her chair and put her arms around me and hugged me. “Please don’t mind us drunk women.”
“What did she say?” Aunt Maggy asked over there.
“I told him not to mind us drunk girls.”
“Mind us? What man is going to mind drinking with us? Right, Guillermo? You better say yes!”
They laughed, staring at me. I made myself laugh along with them, but I wasn’t sure what else to do. I was doing more than sitting there, but it couldn’t look like much. I drank more wine and was feeling it, not noticing the taste so much. I was thinking of how warm Lorena was when she hugged me, and I still felt her breasts pressing on me too, stuck to me like that sign was.
The doorbell rang. As I turned back to look, Aunt Maggy yelled “Hello!” It was a young delivery guy and he was holding a white bag. The door was wide open but not because he opened it but because it was wide open. I guess I forgot to shut it.
Maggy came around the corner from the kitchen. “Come on in!” she told him. She was in the kitchen, then went through another door. “I can’t find my purse!” she yelled.
He stopped near the table. Lorena took the bag from him and was pulling submarine sandwiches out. Lorena’s robe wasn’t even tied anymore. I was standing for a minute and then I sat, but I moved my chair, making more room to pass. The guy didn’t talk. He was staring blank. I wondered what he was thinking about them in their bathing suits. Maybe he was more used to it than me.
Suddenly Lorena yelled. “It’s over here, Maggy!” She held the purse, which had been in the corner.
“I am so dingy,” Aunt Maggy said when she came back in the kitchen. When she opened the purse, it exploded money like a jack-in-the-box. Bills popped out everywhere, a fountain of crumpled greenbacks. Maggy made a loud sigh and an “¡Ay, Dios!” and rolled her eyes, like it was the fault of the purse. Lorena picked up the cash and I helped too, and when Aunt Maggy started counting out a few—“How much?” she asked the delivery guy—I was already making a neat stack of mine. I was going to do the same thing with what Lorena piled on the table, but I didn’t. They were of all kinds of denominations and I thought they could be sorted too and I didn’t do that either. When the guy left, Aunt Maggy stuffed them right back without a second thought and clicked the purse closed.
More from Dagoberto Gilb: