Fiction — From the September 2008 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
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.
I knew I was going to get one of those jobs. I mean, I applied at more dealers too, but my gut feeling told me that it was going to happen with those first ones interested in me. I was trying to figure out which would be better money, used cars or new car sales. I didn’t have enough information about either, so I just thought about it. One strong guess was that the new car job would require better clothes. Maybe a suit, but at least a couple of good coats and pants, but for both some dress shirts. Ties too. I felt it even more when I dropped in on them again telling them I was still looking, still hungry for this work. I think both of them liked me, but I also felt like they might have been seeing that I was wearing the same white shirt and tie. I could not go there again in the same shirt and tie, and if they did call, I had to have something else, no matter what. So I stopped at a store afterward and bought another of both. They weren’t the most expensive, but I was almost out of money, and that wasn’t good. I needed to buy a few shirts. And the rest. I could get some money from home, from my parents. My wife, Suzie, was living with my suegros, her parents, so we wouldn’t have to be spending on rent.
This time I got in late. I took a long drive once it got to be afternoon, got stuck in a lot of freeway traffic I didn’t know how to get out of, and I had to go to a few stores to find the shirt and tie once I found a mall. I had to put gas in my car too. I went to a drive-through and got a large soda and stayed parked in the lot awhile. It was that it made me feel bad that I would have to borrow from my parents again. My mom anyway. She wouldn’t even tell my dad. It was nice sitting. I needed it. I even turned off the radio. I think I was there a long time. I thought of going to a bar, but that didn’t seem right to buy beer too. And there was plenty of beer and wine at Aunt Maggy’s. I missed home and wished this would stop. It was getting dark. The automatic lights were already on the Willows Village sign when I drove in.
“Did you get a job?” Aunt Maggy asked.
“No, not yet.”
“You’re so late. I thought maybe you found one.”
Lorena came to the kitchen from her room. She looked concerned too.
“Are you hungry?” Maggy asked.
“What’d you buy?” asked Lorena, interrupting. I had the shopping bag in my hand. “Let me see,” she said, reaching for it.
“It’s just a shirt and tie.”
She already knew it because she took them out before I answered. I don’t think she thought much of them.
“You have to be hungry. Sit with me.” Aunt Maggy sat down at the kitchen table. It was full of all kinds of stuff, not only the wine bottles and glasses but a stack of folded towels and women’s colorful underwear, top and bottom. Even a full grocery bag not unloaded. “Lorena, can you serve him that Chinese food? I think there’s a lot.”
“I can do that,” Lorena said. “Of course.” She kind of stepped into the kitchen like it was too dark to see, even though the bright panels of ceiling lights were on. “Where is it?” There was so much everywhere.
“It’s there. Somewhere. Maybe I put it in the fridge. I don’t remember now.”
Lorena opened the refrigerator door and stared, then she stuck her hand in like touching any one thing wrong might tip over something else. “Way in the back somehow,” she announced. “But it is here.”
“Are you okay? _¿Todo está bien, _Guillermo?”
I guess I was grouchy. For one, I felt like being called Billy. “I think I’m a little tired is all. I’m fine.”
Lorena was trying to get to the microwave. She had to move lots of things.
“You have to put it on a plate,” said Maggy. “Those takeout boxes have wire.”
“I already know. I already have it on a plate.”
Maggy stared at the mess on the table like it was someone’s fault. “Do you need your clothes washed?”
“I was going to ask. I sure do.”
She picked up the tie I just bought. It was on the table too. “Do you need some ties? Jim has so many ties. I think he has some shirts that would fit you too.”
I couldn’t believe it! “That would be so great, tía,” I told her.
To make room on the table, Aunt Maggy had Lorena take the towels and underwear and my two things upstairs. I really liked the Chinese food too. It was the best I’d ever eaten.
When I woke up I couldn’t think of what else to do really. I had gone to every new and used car dealer in Santa Ana and north, south, east, and west. All those streets and neighborhoods that looked exactly like each other, passing so many tract developments that weren’t named Willows Village but could be. So many restaurants to stop at or drive through and eat so much food, so many stores to shop in, so many gas stations to get gas. I wore my new shirt and a tie Aunt Maggy gave me, even a sports coat I told her I would only borrow, and I’d gone back twice to those dealers and one more that I thought maybe about too, but nobody called back. My good mom sent me money by Western Union fast, no questions. I didn’t need it that way but it was what she wanted. I felt bad about it. I didn’t like it. She didn’t want me to have to borrow or take anything from her sister. I think she felt jealous and she didn’t want Aunt Maggy to think she didn’t have plenty too. I felt bad asking for help but what could I do? I did really believe that, especially that one used car place, especially, that guy wanted to hire me. It was about me speaking Spanish. He didn’t, none of his salesmen did. He said they really needed that because they got so many Spanish Mexican people. That’s how he said it. He called me Guillermo, and I thought that was fine if I got the job. Then again I wasn’t sure of anything since he hadn’t called or the other place either when I felt like it was such a sure thing.
Yeah, it was strange to be in the pink girl’s room. At first, to be polite, I didn’t want to make any moves, any changes in it. The cute little pink and red and white pillows stayed in the bed with me when I slept. Then I stacked them in a corner of the bed, and then I left them in a pile off the bed. Though I kept a couple, sort of extra cushions for my feet, my head. I finally picked the TV up off the floor and put it on the sewing machine cabinet. Once I started opening makeup compacts—she had so many in this one box. I was looking in the little mirrors when I started laughing at myself. What if someone saw me? Very very funny! I wondered what it’d be like to have to stare at my lips putting on gloss. I looked at the lines in my own lips. Funny! I pushed boxes around and made room for my suitcase, but I was neat, tried to be. My own clothes looked heavy and dark in the room on the floor. Even my socks. I’d spilled a perfume, or something like it, and the room really stank of it. At first I was embarrassed that I’d gotten it on the rug. But it didn’t stain. Aunt Maggy didn’t say anything about it. At first I kind of didn’t like the smell, but then I did. By now I was sick of it, tired of it being in my nose when I slept. I thought it would go away fast, and it never seemed to. I even worried that I might have the smell on me or in my clothes, so one day, before I took off, I went into Aunt Maggy’s bedroom when she wasn’t there and I borrowed some of Jim’s men’s spray. I saw a couple of bottles on his dresser there when she took me up for ties and shirts. I was sick of that perfume smell in my room, but what could I do?
I woke up and I didn’t feel like going out there, so I fell back asleep and it was later in the morning. It was the first time this late in the morning I was still here. When I woke up this second time, a couple hours later, I needed to pee. I opened my door and, across, Aunt Maggy’s doors were both open and she was standing near the king-size bed completely naked, drying her hair, looking toward the long mirror I couldn’t see across the set of sinks on the wall over there. She didn’t hear me open the door—she had a radio on—and so I closed it. Not all the way. I left it open enough to see. Oh my God, my aunt was a Playmate of the Year! It was shocking to me, and I couldn’t believe it. She was too much. I couldn’t stop myself from looking, even though I knew it was sick, or something kind of bad, but I didn’t want to not watch. She finally rolled her hair into the towel and then she sat to put panties on. Then she stood and put on a bra, kept playing with this or that around her breasts, but she didnlike it so she took it off and dug in a drawer and then she found another. She kept this bra on and when she went toward the sinks and mirrors I closed the door and breathed and shook my head quietly for at least a minute. I didn’t know what it would mean that I just watched my own aunt so much and so naked. No way she was an older woman! Though I felt like I’d done something wrong and gotten away with it, or maybe because I’d gotten away with it, I felt kind of good. Better than I did before, a lot. I made noise this time when I opened the door. The cabinet near the bathroom, where there were bath towels and linen, was open, so I took one out and closed it hard, and then I closed the bathroom door and I even took a shower. When I was out, she had closed one of the two doors, though the other was open like normal. I heard her downstairs, a TV set on, and talking to Lorena.
I saw this guy painting a house a few houses from the Willows Village entrance and he said yeah it would be great if I worked with him, so it was me and this Gabe. It was his mom’s house and it was for sale and he wasn’t really a house painter either, but while we were working, first one, then another woman in this village stopped and asked if we wanted more work. We both looked at each other and said sure. He bidded what seemed to be a ton, and we agreed to split it. We were knocking out his mom’s job so fast it was amazing. It’s because the house was a single story and there wasn’t that much brush or roller work, it was 95 percent compressor. Three days is all it took, and when we would do the next one we both knew it would only take two because now we knew how to do it and we had the drop cloths and all of it. The two-story we said yes to too, even that, well, we’d have to rent an extension ladder or maybe a scaffold but after that, nothing to it either. It wasn’t like I was going to be rich, but it felt good to have some money and more coming. I even told Suzie, and she felt better about me being out here too. I didn’t usually tell her anything that wasn’t good because I didn’t want her to worry or to worry her parents either—they didn’t want her and their grandchildren to leave El Paso. I told her I was sure we’d get another couple before we finished and that soon I’d get a real job. I wasn’t ready to give up. I just wanted the opportunity to make more money than I knew I ever could there.
On Saturday, Gabe and I drank a few beers, and I got back to Maggy’s tired and I fell right asleep. I woke up at around three in the morning and I was hungry. I didn’t want to treat her house like it was mine so I never went into the refrigerator unless she said to. But I was hungry. I went downstairs and I turned those bright lights on until I opened the refrigerator. There was light in it so I could turn off that big one. Then I looked inside. Impossible to know what was there because there was so much. Who ate so many pickles? I had never seen my aunt or Lorena eat one. And mustard jars. Who knew there were so many brands of mustard? Salsas in jars, so many, and I knew they would all be bad and I wondered if my aunt could eat that too. I had to put things on the floor. I tried to be organized and quiet too. So many things in foil that didn’t look like food. One thing could have been beef once upon a time, and there was maybe a chicken, though it was too small and it smelled wrong. There was some ham and I thought that would be it. I started looking inside plastic cartons and I found some chile that tasted real next to some tamales that were rock hard. And then I found a plastic container with wide noodles. They had a white sauce on them and they were really good too, and so then I was putting things away when Lorena, in a huge T-shirt, scared me.
“I wondered what that light was so I had to wake up,” she said.
“I was trying to be real quiet.”
“You were, you were,” she said. “It was one of the reasons I decided to get up and look, because it was just a light.”
“Don’t say that. Did you find anything in there? She has so much.”
“It’s that she never eats. She takes a bite, and that’s it, in the fridge. But she wants everything anyway. What’d you find?”
“Oh, those are the ones she made. She bought that pasta machine. She said Jim likes pasta.” She shook her head and made a face. “And so she bought it and we made pasta one day. Like she’ll ever do it again. It’s really good. We ate some right after she made it, or I did. I forgot it was there. I’m the one who saved it. I’m also the one she told to.”
I was standing, not sure how to eat it since now eating seemed to involve Lorena, but she read my mind.
“With a fork, eat, stop thinking. She doesn’t remember it’s there, and she wouldn’t care if she did.”
“It is good,” I said.
“Fresh. Fresh cheeses too. Always the best at Maggy’s.”
I poured a little chile on it.
“That’s right, make it Mexican.” She leaned against me as though she always did.
“What’re you anyway?”
“My dad’s Greek. He barely speaks English. My mom’s from Mexico, but she’s half Greek too. She grew up in a restaurant in Mexico City but came here for college and never left.”
“Greek. I would’ve never thought of it.”
“Let’s go sit. Bring your food.”
She didn’t mean the table, she meant the den where there was a couch. I sat. She lit a candle and then sat more close to me than I would’ve expected. I really loved the chile, as much as the noodles, and I decided I’d eat all these noodles, so I poured it all over it. Lorena laughed at that.
“How come you never come down and talk to me or watch television with me?”
“I don’t know. It’s my aunt’s house.” She’d scooted closer, and it was impossible to not like it. “I’m married. My wife’s pregnant and we already have a daughter.”
“I’m married too,” she said. “I still love my asshole husband.”
I ate. She got closer to me and then she was leaning against me. The candlelight jumped from wall to wall. I finished and put the container on the table in front of me. Lorena cuddled against me after that. I could feel her so warm and then I put my arm around her on her shoulder and she kissed my neck. It made me have goosebumps. Then she started kissing me more and moving into me and we were kissing and her T-shirt was so warm and I started feeling her under it too and it didn’t stop.
Gabe started getting moody with me. He wanted to get to this other job the next weekend. I’d proudly sent money to both my mom and Suzie from the one we just finished because I was expecting more. We had another house come up too, and a few more people had asked about our prices and availability. He was being something and he wouldn’t say. I was starting to think. I didn’t even know where he lived, and he never once asked me about where I lived, where my aunt was, on which street. I only knew where his mom used to live. I told him more than he told me. I was a little worried too because I told him about Lorena right after that night and I wished I hadn’t. I don’t think he was shocked or disapproving, or anything. But he had that on me. It was then that I noticed it was more than a bad day. Not me, but him being selfish, and I didn’t matter enough to get an explanation. He even left me alone for a long time and came back and no explanation for that either. I was having to think what I had to do if I didn’t have this work. He had the phone numbers. He had a truck. I was hoping that man who wanted the next house would drop by, and I could get the job on my own.
“We’ve been kind of fighting too,” Lorena said when I got back. Aunt Maggy wasn’t even there. “She drinks too much and she gets all bitchy.”
“You drink a lot too.”
“Probably. But I don’t get all bossy at her like she does me. It’s not like her to go out alone. Usually she sends me on errands she doesn’t want to do. When she takes me with her shopping, she always buys me something pretty. Lately she acts like that makes her mad, like I’m asking her to. I’m not. I don’t care.”
I was upset when I came in but Aunt Maggy was worse, like she was drinking the wine straight out of the bottle. It was like she was waiting for me to get here, even though I was so early.
“I had to ask Lorena to leave,” she told me. “It is so disturbing.”
“She said horrible and mean things to me. I am still so upset.” She drank from her wine glass.
“Were you guys drinking when this happened?”
“What do you mean by that?” She stood up. “I am not going to be criticized by you too.” She had her wine glass in her hand, but she put it down in the kitchen and paced around.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “That’s not what I meant.”
She didn’t want to listen. I went up the stairs, into the pink bedroom. I sure didn’t want this. I didn’t even ask about dinner, even though I was starving. It was the first time she didn’t bring it up. I guess I was being punished. I would just go get something. I wanted to apologize, but I heard her go into her bedroom. She got on the phone too. I was getting mad. Everything was making me mad. All these people had things, good jobs, everything. I was in the pink bedroom. I was thinking I should just go out. I was glad that Lorena was gone. That was a relief. I wanted to call Suzie. I wanted her to tell me she missed me and our baby was good. I wanted to talk to her about this work, about Gabe burning me. I couldn’t tell her, though. I didn’t want to tell anybody really because I was embarrassed by how much trouble I was having. I didn’t imagine this. I could go back to El Paso. I could say I didn’t like it here. I didn’t really. All of it made me mad, and I was tired of the driving and the gas money. I was going to tell Maggy what happened, and I would have.
I went to a chain fast-food place and I ate a chicken burger with jalapeños and fries and some bad ice tea. I called and I called that Gabe, but he didn’t pick up and he was not going to pick up. I couldn’t do anything, not one thing I could think of. I was thinking I would just go back to El Paso. I went back to the Willows Village. Aunt Maggy was around the corner from the kitchen and watching TV—I peeked around the corner and she never looked up, like she didn’t even hear me come back in, though I knew she did. I went up to the pink room and thought of watching TV too and packing up my clothes, but instead I started looking at those photos she had everywhere, that I’d shoved under the bed and put in an empty doll box. Pictures of so many people I had never seen and not one of my family, of my mom or dad but especially my mom. My mom who talked about Maggy all the time. Even if she was jealous of her, she admired her like a hero and envied her life. I wondered if I should tell my mom when I got back. So many photos of so many people and so many families and not one of our own family. Where did she get them all?
Then I heard Maggy’s car go out of the garage, the automatic garage door opening and closing. Since her room looked over that driveway, I hurried to look out the window to make sure and it was her. It was nighttime, it was dark, but she left a light on by the bed and that’s where I saw what I am sure nobody would ever see ever. It was a pile of bills, of money. Not one that was stacked, in any way organized, but a crumpled pile. Each one crumpled in its own way even, individually. And it was a big pile, big as birthday cake—no, for a wedding. It was tall and it was wide. At first I just stared, even as I got closer to it. I didn’t want to disturb anything. Since it was close to the edge of the bed, I went to my knees like I was going to pray but only to get my eyes closer. It was dark. I wasn’t believing my eyes. They were hundred-dollar bills. I couldn’t imagine how many hundred-dollar bills there were. It was uncountable to me, and maybe because I was so nervous about being there and awed both. I kept looking to see if there were other bills, and it did not seem like it, not one wasn’t. She could not know how many there were, it couldn’t be possible. Hundreds of hundreds. It was more like she’d had these in a grocery bag and she dumped them all out onto the bed. I went ahead and picked one off, carefully, from the top. I couldn’t believe it was real, that anyone would have so many, and then like this. Then I was thinking. And I did it. I took five of them. Because she wouldn’t even know! And it didn’t look even a little different after I did. It would be like taking five pennies from a jar of them. Then I went to the pink room. At first I was throwing my stuff around and bumping things. I wanted to pack my suitcase. I already wanted to leave before but I needed the money, and if she had so much, well, come on! I don’t know how long I was more confused. I thought I shouldn’t run out, like I did this. That I should wait a day or two but tell her as soon as I could that I decided I had to go back home, it just wasn’t working out. Maybe the day after tomorrow. I don’t know how much time passed, but I was afraid she would be back any minute. I couldn’t do it. I had uncrumpled them but I crumpled three of them and rushed back in and . . . it looked no different with or without those. I hoped it would make me feel better and it did a little. Now I had gas money, I told myself. Enough to drive back and so I wouldn’t have to borrow. The better feeling was for a few minutes is all. So much I never done before Willows Village. I was trying to think smart. Because she wouldn’t know. She would never know.
Then the automatic garage door was opening. It was done, there was no turning back. I closed the pink bedroom’s door and I turned on the TV and I sat on the bed like it was a couch. I wasn’t watching or listening to it, only for her, to hear her. I think I heard her in the kitchen. I think I heard her coming up the stairs. And then she knocked on the door. I got up and said come in at the same time.
She didn’t say anything at first. “I know I have so many of those. Probably drives you crazy, doesn’t it?”
I was holding one of her dolls. I didn’t even realize. “It accidentally fell onto the bed from above and I guess I didn’t put it right back.” I tossed it back on the bed.
“Well, it seems like you,” she joked.
I nodded, more ashamed than embarrassed. I looked over at the doll like I shouldn’t have tossed it like I did.
“I want to apologize to you,” Aunt Maggy said.
“Today. I was upset about Lorena.”
“I understand. It makes sense. I’m sorry too.”
“Should I close this?” She was talking about the bedroom door.
“I guess, yeah.”
It was just about closed. “Oh,” she said, reopening it. “I think you have good news. A phone message. It was a man asking for Guillermo.”
“That car dealer,” I said. “One of them.”
“I think so. Do you know how to listen to the messages on the machine?”
“I can figure it out.”
“Good night then,” she said, and she closed the door.
More from Dagoberto Gilb: