I didn’t want to be treated like a maid. But these ladies, they treat me like a person.
Miguel moved fast, but the boxes kept coming.
How many? Dos.
He pulled the tape across the box top, slapped on the sticker, and heaved it into the cart.
How many? Cuatro.
Pull, slap, heave.
How many? Tres.
Pull, slap, heave.
The sweat dripped down Miguel’s black curls, and he swiped an arm across his forehead. His cotton T-shirt was still a clean white, but it was getting damp.
Miguel was used to physical labor, the aching back and trembling biceps were all part of the job. It was a long day, seven in the morning until nine at night, and some nights until eleven. Miguel knew that the American land of dreams still meant you had to work to achieve them. And that the long hike across the blazing desert was for the opportunity to work, to be a man.
He was a man even at age 14, when Papa had passed out on the white sand of Arizona, somewhere in the middle of their 60-mile trek.
Miguel shook his head; he would not think about it now. He wouldn’t think about the agonizing stillness, the heat pressing down like a blanket and the slow supply of water drip, dripping out of his canteen. Or gazing into Papa’s sunken eyes and begging, with a swollen tongue, “Uno mas, Papa,” just one more step, one more sip. Begging, until Miguel himself could no longer continue and he passed out on the hot sand. He woke up in the dark and closed space of the back of a truck, crowded with men, but he was on his own.
That was the easier half of the trip — just dark spaces and close, stuffy air. And then finally, arriving at the land of hope and dreams, all alone. Miguel smiled to himself, if Alyssia ever heard him say that! “Tu como de la familia,” she’d announced when he first arrived at his cousin’s home. And he was part of the family, sleeping on a dusty mattress in the corner of the bedroom all six of them shared and contributing his share of his salary to the weekly grocery bill and trip to the Laundromat. Louis found him this job at the grocery store, and Miguel was happy to be working in a cool, air-conditioned store, shelving and boxing groceries, not like back home where he spent the day in the hot sun picking pitaya for pennies.
Miguel swallowed. His mouth was dry and his tongue papery. “Uno momento,” he said to Ben, handing the cashier the roll of packing tape.
Miguel hurried to the back room and took a long draught of his water bottle, filling and emptying it twice until he felt quenched. He squatted on the dusty cement floor, resting his elbows on his knees and letting his head hang between his elbows. It was only 3 p.m., a few more hours to go. He breathed deeply, stood, and stretched. Every hour was another four dollars sent back home.
He was saving up for a phone so he could call Mama and speak to his brothers and sisters. He borrowed Alyssia’s phone once a week, but he wanted to be able to speak to his family on his own time; he wanted the comfort of that connection in his pocket, always. He had heard about a sale on prepaid cell phones and had taken the bus to the electronics superstore to purchase one, only to be told by the saleswoman that they were going on sale the next day, after 12 p.m.
The clerk spoke slowly to him, as if he were a child, or dull-witted. “Tomorrow,” she said, clearly enunciating the word, “you need to come back tomorrow after 12. Do … you … understand?” Miguel understood the language, he knew that tomorrow was mañana, but somehow the gulf between his idea of mañana and the clerk’s crisp timeline of 12 p.m. tomorrow were miles and miles apart.
Everything was different here in the United States; the language, the culture, the cold weather … and the time. In Mexico, mañana could mean tomorrow at 12 p.m. or at 5 p.m., or even the following day. Time was a languid, ever-changing entity, not like here when the clerk said tomorrow she meant 12 p.m. exactly and if you arrived before or after the appointed time, she absolutely could not help you. The salesclerk peered through her spectacles in a way that made Miguel feel like he should have known better.
There were many things Miguel should have known that he quickly learned upon arrival.
He should have known there was no standing on street corners for easy gossiping, as they did back home, that to stand and chat with friends would count as loitering and he would be moved along by an official.
He should have known that it was going to be cold, so much colder, that it froze his limbs to the bones and his cotton jacket was not enough to keep him warm.
He should have known that greasy takeout food would replace the beans and tortillas of his daily diet.
At least Miguel had Alyssia, and then Louis, to ease him into the life and explain when things were moving too fast. This morning he saw Alyssia getting ready for work, buttoning a flowered housedress over her jeans. None of the women worked back home; his Mama was always busy taking care of the children, but here it seemed that everybody worked.
“Why are you putting that on?” he asked his cousin.
“When I work in the Jewish houses, I wear this,“ she answered. “It is respectful.”
Miguel stared. Where was the respect in being a maid?
“You know,” Alyssia continued, “I never thought I was going to do this, I didn’t want to be treated like a maid. But these ladies, they treat me like a person. They always talk nicely, say please and thank you. They offer me food and drink. They respect me and I can show some respect for them, too. They are G-d’s people.”
Miguel shrugged. In his experience, his dark brown skin and shiny black curls brought only lips curled in disgust and narrowed eyelids. People walking by in the street, their eyes sliding past him and through him. The man in the store, saying, “Can I help you?” and meaning the opposite.
Here, he felt no respect, he had no respect.
He put on the act. When his cousin found him this job at the grocery store, he took it and made sure to say thank you, but it was still an act. Inside, he counted the dollar bills to steel himself against the comments, the stares.
Back at the register, Louis waved him off. ”Go shelve the fruit, there’s boxes on the wagon,” he called over his shoulder, arms bulging as he heaved a case of juice onto a cart. Miguel shrugged and headed to the produce section and the large stack of boxes waiting to be unpacked.
He ripped open the top case of peaches and poured them on the artificial grass, pushing the ripe, juicy ones to the front, their red orange tinge and soft fuzz enough to tempt any shopper.
“Excuse me,” said the woman behind him and Miguel shifted the box to make room for her cart. She was tall, about six inches taller than Miguel, her long, blond hair pushed back with a large pair of dark sunglasses. Her white espadrilles stepped carefully around the green tissue paper scattering the floor. Miguel bent quickly to pick up the packaging and make room in the aisle. As he gathered the purple cardboard trays and stray papers, Miguel came eye level with the woman’s shopping cart.
Her cart was not full of the usual assortment of toddlers. The other workers would sometimes complained about the crying, or the mess the kids made pulling items off the shelf. Miguel didn’t mind. Sometimes the dark eyes or curly hair of a child would remind him of his own sisters back home and he would smile. But this woman in white had no kids in her cart. Just a woven bag, with the long straps hanging over the handle of the cart, and an envelope tucked into the side pocket.
A plain white envelope, stuffed with dollar bills, peeking out the side pocket. It wasn’t even sealed. Miguel could make out the letters TD on the side and the thick wad of bills.
He didn’t even think. The woman was on the other side of the display, reaching for a bunch of bananas. His brown arm moved fast, reaching into the envelope and sliding out some bills with his thumb and forefinger. Quickly, he stuffed the money into his jeans pocket and then, picking up the empty crate, he headed to the back to throw it in the dumpster.
“Miguel, ven aqui!” Julius called, and Miguel hurried to the register to help with the bagging and boxing and move along the line of customers. He had only enough time to count the zeros on the bills before he went back to work. As he did the sums in his head, he felt the money hanging heavy in his pocket. One hundred extra dollars for Mama, the rest for a phone of his own.
A flash of white awoke Miguel from his daydream. The blond woman was here, at his register, checking out. Had she noticed her envelope was thinner? Did she know the money was gone?
Miguel kept his head down and his hands moving, to just pack up her order and get her out of the store as quickly as he could. His heart raced and he felt his forehead grow damp. Miguel reached for the bottle of pasta sauce and it slipped out of his sweaty palms and fell to the floor, shattering on impact.
The cap bounced off the counter wall and Miguel saw it roll a few feet and then twirl to a stop, leaving a streak of red on the waxy grey floor. And the jar itself a heap of shattered glass, red juice, green peppers, and tomatoes streaking the floor and splattered across the white shoes of the customer.
Miguel knelt on the floor, reaching.
He was in a fog, a nightmare, moving in slow motion.
The blond woman stood, gazing at the glass at her feet, and her white shoes streaked with red. Then she smiled and said, “It’s okay.”
Miguel crouched, shaking, “I’m sorry, lo siento.”
Julio came up behind Miguel, a roll of paper towels in one hand and Windex in the other.
The woman reached for a piece of paper towel and began mopping up her shoes, her skirt and the floor around them.
“I’m sorry … I’m so, so sorry,” Miguel stammered.
“It’s fine,” she nodded, her smile sympathetic. “Hey, we all drop things.”
“No, no,” Miguel’s face was heated, sauce streaked across the front of his white shirt. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
He grabbed a paper towel and began wiping the handle of her cart. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the wad of dollar bills and tucked it back into her TD envelope.
(Originally featured in Calligraphy, Succos 5773)
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