by Andrei Guruianu [USA]
He was thinking about home, so didn’t notice the girl standing next to him.
Leaning in toward him, she said close enough to his ear that he could smell the wintergreen of her chewing gum.
“You’re not from around here.”
“Not really.” He smiled, embarrassed now at not having noticed her.
“You’re quiet, too. You don’t look as though you’re having any fun.”
“I am.” He assured her, although not at all sure of why he might feel as though he were defending himself.
“Then why aren’t you smiling?” She asked devilishly.
A small grin began to change his look of home-sickness into a satisfied, playful, slightly bored one. He mostly wanted her to stop asking him about being happy or not.
“Motioning to the seat next to him, she asked, “May I sit down?”
“Sure.” Replied Raul.
“My shoes begin to really hurt after a while.”
“I kind of know what you mean.” He replied, slipping his muddy boot further underneath the chrome cross bar of the cheap bar stool on which he sat. It had a red plastic cover, which was ripped and hastily repaired, giving it the look of a knife wound at an aide station back there.
She sat down on the stool to his right, picked up her right leg and rubbed her ankle, showing off a four-inch, black patent leather heel.
The stage in front of them was empty save for a few revolving neon lights that sliced the floor in repeating yellow, green, and red patterns. The patterns exhausted themselves and started up again every thirty seconds or so, giving the appearance of something new and fresh. A touch-up of make-up or a hit of something worked for the dancers, except that they, like the lights, never were truly new or fresh.
The throbbing music shifted tempo to something slower and the volume had been turned down a notch. It was as if the music was working its way to a climax, came, and now was relaxing and getting ready to come again. It was a sign that the next dancer was getting ready backstage, and would be out shortly.
Raul was one of only two men sitting around the stage, the other an old man probably bored, but too tired to get up and go home; an old, wizened face that went along with a useless penis.
“My name’s Heaven,” the girl said, extending her hand. She had long fingers, which wrapped around his fingers. They were warm and sreong.
Raul turned slightly, smiled, then turned back to the lights cutting each other into colorful fragments that soon formed back into a larger light circle.
“What’s your name?” she asked, realizing that Raul wasn’t going to volunteer the information without being prompted.
“Tony,” he answered, even though he could’ve used the name everyone knew him by at work, which was also not his real name. The foreman knew him as Miguel. The other men who went to the bar together after leaving the fields also knew him as Miguel. It was the name he’d chosen this particular season. In every city he went to find work he used a different name. There were no papers that said otherwise, no one to contradict him.
“Hi, Tony. Nice to meet you. This your first time here?”
“Yes.” Raul hesitated for a moment, not sure if he should go on, but knew names were important, and asked. “How did you get the name Heaven?”
“It wasn’t always Heaven. My roommates gave this one to me. We were sitting around getting high one night after someone stole the bag, all my stuff, my clothes, money, phone, everything. I had nothing. I’d been keeping all my money in that bag, saving it up, you know, so I could make a big deposit. And then, just like that, some jerk asshole brought me back to zero. Nada. That was my name then—nada, not Heaven.
“That doesn’t sound like Heaven at all,” Raul said, sensing she had paused to allow him to say something, preferably a sympathetic word.
“Damn right it doesn’t. I was so pissed off that night, that when the joint came my way, I kept sucking on it like I didn’t want to let go, just wanted to fill my lungs; keep it all to myself. Someone said ‘Damn girl, if you got any higher, you’d be in heaven.’, everyone laughed, so from then, my nickname was Heaven; I guess it stuck.”
“What’s your real name?”
“I can’t tell you that; you know the rules,” Heaven said, giving Raul a friendly poke in the arm.
“I don’t know the rules.” He said innocently.
“It’s supposedly for safety reasons, so we all have stage names. You know, just in case of stalkers. Vanilla, Champagne, Star, Mercedes, Lexus. Thank God I didn’t end up with one of those car-sound names. I think they’re stupid.”
Raul didn’t know what the big deal was if she’d told him her real name. People he knew had many real names. He had several, and didn’t think he’d ever run out. Ever since the coyote dropped them off in the desert ten years ago and vanished, leaving them stranded to fend for themselves in the freezing night and sweltering heat of mid afternoon, Raul knew that to survive, he’d have to become someone else.
Not all of them made it out of the desert and across the border. The first name he adopted in America was Alexandro, the name of the dead man, whose shirt he now wore. He still had it since he took it off the body to keep warm. Survival.
The real Alexandro wouldn’t need the shirt or the name anymore. Then, once he had really reached the U.S., when he jumped in the back of the first pickup truck along with ten other men to drive out to the fields, no one asked for his name– names were for those who were more than ghosts.
A dancer had come on stage and the lights were cutting up her body, falling first on her skin that glowed yellow, then scattering onto the floor like bits of colored glass.
“You want to sit at the bar?” Heaven asked.
“No thanks. I don’t want a drink.”
“I wasn’t asking if you wanted a drink.”
“Then what did you ask?”
“I was asking if you’d buy me a drink.”
“Why didn’t you just say that?”
Raul wondered why people never say what they really want. He followed the lights on the dancer’s body moving to keep up with the music, which had a tempo much faster than the lights, so that the whole spectacle was out of sync, making him dizzy.
“I don’t know why I didn’t say it. I shouldn’t have to say it. How come you
won’t say it?”
“Say what you want. You know, why you’re here.”
“I don’t know what I want.”
“Yes, you do. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Everyone here knows exactly what they want. The girls want money to buy nice clothes to get that nice husband who’s going to take them away from this place. The men want a wife who won’t nag, a car that will start up every morning, a blowjob they don’t have to ask for, but nobody ever says that, of course.”
That’s not what Raul wanted, not tonight. But he couldn’t figure out exactly what else it was besides a nagging, unsettled feeling in the pit of his stomach.
The old man slipped a dollar bill under a garter belt that cut into the dancer’s thigh. Raul left his own dollar bill on the ledge, and watched the woman pick it up the way one would pick up a dirty piece of tissue paper off the floor. Just something that needed to be done.
“All right. What would you like to drink?” Raul said, getting up and for the first time noticing all the women that stood around behind the stage, leaning on walls, waiting, just waiting, proof that it was indeed a slow night.
At the bar he ordered a Corona for himself and sat down next to Heaven.
Ice clinked in her glass. She stirred red straws in a red drink out of habit.
“So what do you do, Tony?” Heaven asked.
“I’m in construction,” Raul told her, hoping she couldn’t smell the strawberry juice that stained his fingernails a light pink. Back home he’d always wanted to make things, to build things that would last long after he was gone. He was good with his hands. But his parents said he should go, there was no future there. They said, ‘Look at all the people that went to America. Look at all the money they sent home. Look at all the things they brought back.’
Raul knew the decision wasn’t really his to make, because his father was too weak to work after his heart attack, and his mother could only take on so many extra jobs; his brother and sister needed clothes, school supplies, food on the table.
“Where do you work?” Heaven asked, turning on her stool. Raul thought that she was pretty. He’d come to like white girls because they didn’t smell always of the fields or carried dirt and dust in their hair when they came to bed.
“Wherever I’m needed,” he said.
Raul had come young enough that he picked up the language quickly, not like some of the older men who rode in the backs of trucks with him that would never be able to wipe the hard syllables from their mouths, their past always betraying them.
“Do you like it?”
“Sometimes, but it’s not what I thought it would be.” He thought of the fields, of the dirt, of all he hated about the routine of his days.
“How about you; you like this?” He motioned around.
“It’s a job,” Heaven said, and he knew exactly what she meant. “I always wanted to teach, but I don’t think I’d make a very good teacher. I read a lot though. I should get paid for that. That’d be great. I’m reading this book right now about people who live in the subways below New York City.”
“Yeah. I carry it with me so I have something to read on the bus home. Wait here a sec.”
Heaven got off the bar stool and disappeared behind a wine-colored velvet curtain. Raul swirled the lime in his beer.
When she returned she handed him a book with a black and white cover: The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City.
“The cops won’t even go after them anymore. They’ve stockpiled weapons.”
“Heaven” came through the cheap P.A. system. She said she had to go; it was her turn, she stood up on her spikes, but left the book on the bar. Raul continued flipping through it. There were more black and white pictures of a man and his dog, a couple, entire rooms decorated to resemble someone’s version of civilization as much as possible. He read some of their stories– how some swore they would never go back up, no matter what.
Raul didn’t go to the stage, but felt better that some other people had walked in; it was a slow night, and he felt as if he stood out.
When Heaven returned to sit next to him, her breathing was heavier and her skin was coated with a light sweat.
“Crazy, isn’t it?” she asked.
Yes, it was crazy, Raul thought. He also thought of what he would never ask: If so many souls lived in shadows below ground, how many more existed in the shadows above ground? How many like him in California’s fields or New York’s factories? How many in other countries too small for anyone to care?
Instead he said, “Wouldn’t their skin turn pale from being in the dark all that time?” He thought of his own skin, a dark gold that got a bit darker at times, but never any lighter.
“I don’t know, but I’m telling you, you don’t want to be caught down there with these people. They’re crazy. Angry at what the world has done to them, as if everyone else if responsible for them choosing to live down there with the rats.”
“Some never choose,” Raul said is a soft voice, looking down at his hands. He closed the book and handed it to her.
“Do you want a dance?” Heaven asked after a long enough pause.
“A dance. Do you want one?”
“No thanks. It’s getting late.”
It was a lie. It wasn’t even midnight yet. But Raul didn’t want to admit that he didn’t have enough money. Starting with his first day’s pay, Raul sent money back home. When he called for the first couple of years, his parents were thankful, happy to hear his voice. Then his father’s health got worse. His sister needed an outfit for her quinceanera. Could he send a bit more? He sent a bit more. Could he possibly send money for this or this, it’d be so nice if he could. Raul could. He sent what he had. Kept enough to get by.
One day on the phone he said, “Mom, I think I’m going to come home.” The long distance voice crackled on the other end, “Why would you do that? What’s here Raul? Nothing. There’s nothing for you here. There you can work, make money.”
Raul understood. He’d been sent to America so he could have a future, possibilities, so those left behind at home could have the same. So he became really good at picking strawberries and peaches, anything that meant being out in the hot sun, that allowed him to become someone new anytime he wished. If he stayed out of trouble, out of sight, he could continue to work and send money through Western Union. He could eat their food, wear their clothes, learn their language and laugh at their jokes–he could be in worlds, body in one, memories of his life in the other.
Heaven had gotten up from her stool and tried to find someone else to take her up on the offer of a dance. He knew she would take on a different persona with every person she met, would change to better fit the moment. He understood what needed to be done. Raul watched her in her black heels, making her way among the tables and chairs and lights. When one man shook his head, she moved on. He wondered who was she sending her money to? What was she working for? She’d said that everyone there came for a reason. What was her reason? What family, what hungry mouth was waiting at home expecting a meal on the table, never asking how or where it came from?
Raul tipped his bottle back and swallowed warm beer. He wouldn’t go and wait on the same corner in the morning he decided. There were always other corners. As he walked out of one darkness into another, Raul noticed the light of a lamppost casting a queasy yellow glow down to the pavement. Hundreds of tiny flies beat themselves against the bulb.
They looked like snowflakes picked up and carried by a gust of wind, floating for a while longer, delaying the inevitable.