JOSHUA ALAN DICK
My brother-in-law had some pull at the American consulate in Guadalajara. When they let us through at the border with the papers he had put together, my husband and I had little money and little idea of where we were going. My brother-in-law gave us one piece of advice: Go to Los Angeles. What’s there? my husband, Ubaldo, asked him. Jobs, my brother-in-law said. We stayed with some friends from Ameca in a small apartment in East L.A. where we heard gunshots at night. My husband got a job washing dishes at a restaurant in Santa Monica, and soon after we moved into a studio apartment in South Central. That neighborhood was even more unfriendly than East L.A., and at night we heard even more gunshots. California, which my husband and I had pictured as the Land of Dreams, was really the Land of Many Sides: the poor sides, the rich sides, the in between sides.
I found work in Pacific Palisades. When Mrs. Low asked me during my interview if I had experience housekeeping, if I had ever taken care of children, I said yes but did not mention the home and son Ubaldo and I had left behind in Ameca.
A few months after starting work for the Lows, I was sitting in the living room one afternoon while Sean watched his favorite cartoon on the big-screen TV. Their house stood at the edge of a cliff. From the living room window I could see surfers down in the ocean, small figures that glided across the water like birds. The house was the biggest house I had ever been in. There were high ceilings, crystal chandeliers in the living and dining rooms, two wide staircases that led to the second floor, and many large family portraits on the walls. In the photos Mr. Low looked big and serious with his suits, his square glasses, his combed hair. Mrs. Low smiled without opening her mouth. Sean’s hair was always in his eyes, just like now, as he ate his cereal and watched his Tom and Jerry. He insisted on watching this cartoon every day after school. He liked how this cat and mouse always chased each other. I asked him to turn the volume down. Sean turned it up with the remote, grinning at me and asking if that was better. In Ameca, with my Enrique, I would have spanked him, but not with Sean—Oh, Dios no. His parents made it clear that I could never punish him.
“Silvia,” Sean said from his recliner, not taking his eyes off the screen. “When we go to the park today, can I ride my skateboard?”
“Definitely not,” I said. “You know that you are not allowed to ride it for one month.”
A week before, Sean had been riding in the street—which was off limits—when his skateboard crashed into the side of Mr. Low’s Lexus, putting a dent in the door that ended up costing the Lows two thousand dollars.
“But I won’t ride in the street anymore,” Sean said. “I promise.”
For Sean, his skateboard was the most important thing—more important than Tom and Jerry, or even his Gameboy. It was like what marbles were for my Enrique back home, or what cooking was for my mother and me: el pozole, las enchiladas, el pollo empanizado.
“It is not my decision,” I said.
“They won’t even know, Silvia. I can keep a secret if you can.”
I couldn’t help thinking about the secrets I was already keeping in that house: The Vicodins Mrs. Low swallowed in the bathroom. The bottles of wine in the back of her closet. The phone messages for Mr. Low from a young woman who was always very friendly but never left her name. One afternoon when Mrs. Low was out of town on business, I recognized this woman’s voice while walking past Mr. and Mrs. Lows’ bedroom. She must have snuck in before I came to work that day, and snuck out after I left.
I went to check the laundry, and when I came back, Sean’s big recliner was empty. Riding his skateboard, was my first thought. Then I saw him in the kitchen, warming something in the microwave. I cleaned up his mess in the living room, wiping the milk and Frosted Flakes from the tray, turning off the TV.
“Silvia, I’m not done with Tom and Jerry!” he shouted, taking a quesadilla from the microwave. “Why did you turn it off?”
I turned the TV back on, folded the tray, brought Sean’s dishes to the sink. He started dancing around the kitchen to the Tom and Jerry theme song as the show ended. He sang along and grabbed my free arm. I smiled, holding his dishes in my other hand. “Let me put these in the sink,” I said to him.
“No!” he said. “Dance with me, Silvia!”
So I danced with him. Sean turned me, then I turned him. We waltzed around the island. Long after the cartoon was over and the commercials started, we were still dancing. Times like that, I think Sean forgot about his skateboard, his mom’s bad moods, the soccer games his father never made it to. Sean was not happy much of the time, but I think he could be someone with me that he could not be with his parents.
When I heard the front door open, I realized it was close to six. Sean and I stopped dancing. Mrs. Low walked into the living room dressed in one of her suits: a dark blouse and long black skirt and high heels. Her hair was up and she looked like she always looked: tired. She dropped her purse onto the couch, half-smiled, and said, “Hi Silvia.” Then she lost the smile, sighed, and told Sean she didn’t want him eating junk food every afternoon. Sean rolled his eyes, chomping on his quesadilla.
“Did you start your homework?” Mrs. Low said, walking into the kitchen and grabbing a sandwich from the refrigerator. Sean got his math book from the coffee table, held it over his head, and began running around the living room making airplane noises. Then he ran back into the kitchen, brushing against my jeans as I finished rinsing his dishes. Mrs. Low stood by the counter eating her sandwich. “What a long day,” she said. “Honey—” She stopped Sean in the middle of his running. He looked up at her. They both had blond hair—hers up in a bun, his bushy and wild. They were both pale, with freckles on their arms and faces. I was the opposite: dark-haired, dark-skinned, chubby and short. Mrs. Low ripped a paper towel from the holder and wiped some grease off his chin. Then she kissed him on the cheek, patted him on the bottom, and winked at me. I always felt privileged when she did this. She never winked at Sean or Mr. Low. Much of the time I felt as distant from Mrs. Low as I imagine she felt from her husband. But there were other reasons I felt very close to her, such as the difficult task we shared taking care of Sean, or the secrets I kept from Mr. Low, such as the fact that she didn’t actually go to her AA meetings. Her husband must have thought she was a lot happier than she was.
Sean ran to the couch with the math book over his head and did a crash landing. Paging through her People, Mrs. Low told him it was almost time for his karate lesson, that she didn’t want him to be late again.
Sean punched the couch. “I don’t want to go. I want to ride my skateboard.” Looking up from her magazine, she told Sean they were paying a lot of money for the lessons. Sean walked into the kitchen and grabbed the magazine.
“Sean Michael Low. Hand that to me, right now.”
He sauntered back into the living room and sat down in the recliner, pretending to read, whistling the Tom and Jerry song.
Mrs. Low stood with her hands on her hips. “All right, Sean,” she said, in a quiet, cold voice. “You won’t ride your skateboard for two more months.”
Sean returned to the kitchen and tried to give her the magazine. She picked up her sandwich, ignoring him. He kept trying to hand her the magazine. “Here it is!” he cried. “I’m giving it to you! Can I ride my skateboard in a month still? Please? Mom!”
Dios mío, I thought. No manches. I wanted to tell Mrs. Low to take control, to raise her voice. I wanted to spank Sean, to shout at him and pull him out the front door and into the car.
A few nights later, Ubaldo came limping into the apartment with a hurt foot.
“Corazón,” I said to him. “What happen?”
He sat down on our secondhand couch and put his foot up on our secondhand coffee table. A framed picture of the Virgin Guadalupe that we found at a garage sale stared down at him from the wall. He turned the TV on and switched channels until he found the telenovela we always watched. For all the foreign things we experienced in Los Angeles, we still had our telenovelas.
“Corazón,” I said, sitting down next to him.
He just stared at the TV.
I took his face in my hands and asked him again what happened. Finally he told me he fell down in the kitchen at work. I asked if his work was going to help. He said he didn’t tell anyone. He lowered my hands from his face and narrowed his eyes. “Do you want them to send us back? Before we have enough money for a house?”
I asked him if his foot was broken.
“It hurts,” he said. “I cannot walk well.”
He stood and limped around, testing it, wincing with pain now and then. He sat on the couch again. “Is all right,” he said.
I told him that we should go to the emergency room—that we wouldn’t have to pay there. I stood and grabbed my coat, my purse, turned off the TV.
He just sat there. He said he was fine.
“You are not fine,” I said, standing at the door. “And what happens if it gets worse? If it does not heal?”
“I’m fine,” he said, turning the TV back on.
“I hate this place,” I said. “Everyday I go to work—to a child who is not my child, a family that is not my family, a home that is not my home. And it is unfriendly there. It is big and empty. And now I can’t even take my husband to the hospital? And what next? What next?”
“We are saving money,” he said, staring at the TV.
“Is it worth it?”
“Just another year,” he said. “Maybe two.”
“How are you going to work with that foot?”
“I will keep working.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t like this. I want you to go to the emergency room.”
“If it’s something serious, they won’t do an x-ray or give me a cast. We need money for these things.”
Ubaldo stood and limped over to me. Taking me around the waist, he kissed me on the forehead and whispered into my ear, “No te preocupes.”
The next day, Ubaldo went back to work. After three days, his foot hurt so bad he had to stay home for a week. Of course we had no health insurance. And because we were afraid of being deported, we never asked Ubaldo’s manager at the restaurant about workers’ comp. Another worker had tried that once and ended up back in Mexico City.
During the week Ubaldo stayed home, I took Sean to the park in the afternoons. He played football or basketball with his friends. When his friends weren’t there he sat in a swing and made fun of my accent, or asked me over and over again if he could ride his skateboard.
“I’ll give you a hundred bucks,” he said to me from the swing.
I shook my head.
“Two hundred bucks.”
“Sean, your parents tell you one month. One month is one month.”
“But they’ll never know,” he said, kicking his legs and swinging higher.
“No,” I said. “I could get fire.”
“They won’t fire you. They love you. You are their sweet Silvia.”
Sean flew out of the swing and landed in the sand. He stood, wiping off his jeans. I sat on a bench on the grass. Sean came over, sat down at my feet with his legs crossed, squinted at the sun. “Silvia, what are your parents like in Mexico?”
“Well,” I said, with my hands in my lap. “My father work on the farm. He work very hard. My mother cook and clean, and take care of me and my sisters. When I was five, I start helping her cook.”
“Yes,” I said. “And my father work on the farm. We have a pig, chickens, a small field of corn.”
“What did you do with the corn?”
“Eat it. And sell it in the town.”
“In Mexico people sell things in the street. Not like here. Or at least here in Pacific Palisades.”
“I want to sell corn. Do you get a lot of money?”
“Oh, is hard work. First is the planting and the harvesting. Then you go to the street with a cart, with crema and chile and limón, and you sell the elote on the stick, or in small cups. Some days you sell nothing. Other days you do very well.”
Sean was ripping up blades of grass. Patches of sunlight touched his freckled arms. He had long hair in the style of his favorite rock musicians. His teeth were small, like a shark’s teeth.
“Is Mexico dangerous?” he asked me.
“Is Los Angeles dangerous?” I said.
“Well, there’s places that are dangerous. And people that are dangerous.”
“Mexico is the same. There are places and people who are dangerous. There are drugs and narcotraficos. But many places are safe.”
“My mom says Mexico is dangerous. She says it’s not safe for us to vacation there. She says there’s drug cartels, and they shoot innocent people.”
“Well, this is true, sometimes. In some places.”
“Do you want to go back?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Why don’t you?”
“I am working here.”
“That’s not a good excuse.”
I laughed. Sometimes Sean made more sense than he knew.
“You are young,” I said. “One day you will know why people stay where they need to stay, and go where they need to go.”
I could tell Sean’s attention was drifting because he was tearing up bigger chunks of grass, throwing them farther, aiming for a nearby tree.
“Well,” he said, “when I grow up, if I want to go somewhere, I’ll go somewhere, and if I want to stay somewhere, I’ll stay somewhere.”
I hoped it would be that simple for Sean.
Later that afternoon, I was taking out the garbage when I noticed something shiny in the bag. It was a necklace. A very expensive-looking necklace with what appeared to be diamonds. I remembered Mrs. Low wearing this necklace a week ago. She’d had a fight with Mr. Low. He told her he would return the necklace. She threatened to throw it away. I’d forgotten about the fight until now. The necklace was probably worth more than I earned in two or three months. I couldn’t imagine throwing away something so valuable.
Thinking about Ubaldo with his hurt foot, lying on the couch at home, I slipped the necklace into my jeans pocket. When I looked up, Sean was standing in the kitchen, in front of the garage door.
He said to me, “I won’t tell.”
I patted the necklace in my pocket. “I will give this to your mother,” I told him. “I find it in the trash.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve taken things, too.”
And so it went. In the afternoons, before the Lows got home, I let Sean ride his skateboard. At first I told him just on the sidewalk and the driveways. But, Dios mío, you know Sean. Eventually he started doing tricks on the curb, jumping off the sidewalk. No matter how many times I asked him to stop, he wouldn’t stay out of the street.
Ubaldo’s foot wasn’t getting any better. He kept limping around the apartment. His pain was my pain. A couple of days after I found the necklace, I showed it to him and told him about the Lows’ fight.
“You stole it?” he asked me, his foot resting on the small coffee table, a bag of frozen peas slumped over it.
“She threw it away.”
“He will wonder where it is. Then Mrs. Low will wonder why it isn’t in the garbage. Híjole.”
I told him that the garbage truck had stopped by early the next morning. He examined the necklace. I told him we could use the money. He admitted I was right. We went to a pawn shop the next day. It turned out the necklace was worth four thousand dollars. Real silver and diamonds. I had never held something so expensive in my life.
That afternoon, Ubaldo and I went to a doctor at Olympic Medical Center. The doctor did an X-ray on his foot. The bone was cracked in two places. Since we didn’t have the full amount for the operation and the cast, the doctor told us we could make monthly payments to cover the rest.
A few days later, Sean took off on his skateboard. I had to chase him around the neighborhood. I caught up with him at the top of a steep hill lined with two-story palaces. It was about four in the afternoon, and most people were at work. The street was quiet, the air still, the sun hard and bright. A few crows glared down from the palm trees and jacarandas that lined the sidewalk. When Sean saw me coming, he dropped the board onto the pavement. To him it was just a game, cat and mouse. Then I saw a car behind him, a hybrid, one of those cars you cannot hear. I pointed and yelled but he was already on his way down the hill. The driver didn’t see him until it was almost too late. He honked and slammed on his brakes. Sean looked back, his board wobbling, then fell down hard onto the street.
By the time I got to him, Sean was already standing, looking himself over. His arms were scraped, and one of his hands was bleeding.
A man got out of the car and ran over. “Are you all right?”
Wiping his hand on his T-shirt, Sean said, “I’m fine.”
“Sean?” the man said. “Sean Low. I didn’t recognize you.”
“I tell him not to ride in the street,” I said.
“He’s my Spanish teacher at school,” Sean said to me.
“Mr. Sanchez, Alberto Sanchez,” the man said.
“Mucho gusto,” I said. “Silvia.”
Sean flipped his board up and continued down the hill. “See you at home,” he called over his shoulder.
Mr. Sanchez watched him go, shaking his head. He told me how Sean acted up in his class. How smart Sean was. How he used his smarts not to learn Spanish, but to impress girls, to make the other students laugh, to embarrass Mr. Sanchez. I told him I’d better get going. “Nice to meet you, Silvia,” he said. “And good luck with that one.”
That afternoon Mrs. Low came home from work, tired as usual. She threw her purse onto the couch, grabbed some grapes from the refrigerator, organic purple grapes from Whole Foods. Sean was sitting at the island in a tall chair, playing on his Gameboy, scrapes up and down his arms. Mrs. Low told him he was on the Gameboy too much, that he was going to hurt his eyes. I hoped she wouldn’t think anything of the scrapes. It would all depend on her mood: she could be attentive and focused on Sean one moment, then in her own little world the next.
“Silvia,” she said. “You all right?”
“Yes,” I said, smiling. “Everything is fine.”
“Would you like some grapes?”
I told her no thank you.
Popping one into her mouth, she turned to Sean. “I mean it, baby. You’re going to hurt your eyes.”
“Well,” Sean said, not looking up, “maybe if you let me ride my skateboard, I wouldn’t be playing video games so much. And I’d be getting exercise.”
She started to say something about him having to face consequences for breaking rules, but then she stopped. “What happened to your arms, baby?”
Sean glanced at me, then at his mother.
Mrs. Low turned to me. “What happened?”
I knew Sean wouldn’t betray me, but it was no use—Mrs. Low would get to the bottom of this. Even if she believed whatever Sean told her, she would eventually hear the truth from Mr. Sanchez. Instead of feeling scared, I felt relieved. This was just the tip of the iceberg of all the secrets Sean and I shared. There was the time I caught him drawing on the bathroom walls at the park, the time he saw me sweeping dust out the back door instead of into the dustpan, the time I caught him drinking vodka by the pool with a friend. And of course the necklace.
“I let Sean ride his skateboard,” I said.
“Why on earth did you do that?” said Mrs. Low.
“Because Sean always does what he wants. I cannot stop him.”
“It’s your job, Sylvia.”
“And you know this,” I said, surprising myself.
“Know what?” she said, shocked that I would talk back to her.
There were things I’d always wanted to say to Mrs. Low. Now that she was surely going to fire me, I wasn’t afraid.
“You know that Sean is like this,” I said, “and you never do a thing.”
“Are you standing here—in my house—telling me how to raise my child?”
“You hardly ever spend time with him. And when you do spend time with him, you never discipline him. You never spank him.”
She crossed her arms and glared at the refrigerator door where there were pictures of Sean in his soccer uniform, pictures of her with Mr. Low. I was very close to telling her about his affair, but why bother? In my mind I was already gone.
Mrs. Low pointed toward the front door. “Go.”
I walked to the bus stop, just like I did every afternoon. Waiting there on the corner, I thought about how I would have to start all over again, from scratch, without a letter of reference—unless, of course, I talked to Mr. Low.
The sun was setting over the ocean as the bus carried me down the Pacific Coast Highway. The surfers I had watched from a distance every afternoon skimmed across the waves, very close now. Farther out, a few of them were floating on their boards, waiting for the next ride.
JOSHUA ALAN DICK is a student in the MFA creative writing program at Columbia University. His fiction will also appear in the next issue of Red Rock Review. He grew up in Salinas, California, and lived in Guadalajara, Mexico for many years. He resides in New York City, where (besides studying writing) he teaches English and Spanish at the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls.