The desert horizon was pink, but the sky offered a cloudless blue promise as I drove down South 6th in a borrowed truck. It was my brother-in-law’s. Terry had also loaned me his experience and was the inspiration for my cruising the south side at six am on a Saturday. This was not my side of town.
Terry had told me to take 6th Ave. past La Cholla Blvd., and I’d find what I needed. He’d been down that way a few weeks back because his swimming pool was ready but he still needed some yard clean-up and landscaping. He told me I wanted an auto body shop called Bobby Gabriel’s on the west side of the street, 3200 block. I slowed as I approached a promising-looking sign, but all I could see was the big B above a big G. I looked at the people waiting at the bus stop. I smiled at the Mexican or Indian woman on the bench surrounded by her four wriggling kids. She didn’t return it. A dirty, disheveled white man was next to her, but far enough away for me to dismiss any connection. I heard no sound from the dark path within the forest of his beard though he appeared to be talking. The man saw me look his way and raised his voice.
The airtight seal around the windows of the truck muffled the sound, but I still turned up the radio and tried to focus on the NPR news reports: border violence, presidential woes, the economy was still in the toilet, a missing child from Connecticut. I wondered if Mr. Awbargwan thought the world was a mess too.
My instincts were correct, and I pulled slowly into the drive just past the hand painted plywood sign that read: Bobby Gabriel’s Auto Body. What now? I wasn’t sure. Terry hadn’t been clear on that. Before I could turn around and retreat a young kid came out of the garage. He had a shaved head and long white socks pulled up to his long shorts. He looked like a Chollo boy I taught biology to last year, tried to anyway. That kid never did homework and went to jail during finals week for his part in a pretty serious assault, but then that was neither here nor there because this was a different kid. I muted the radio and cracked my window, but before I could speak:
“Around back, Mister.”
“I’m looking for some people to—”
“Yeah, around back, Mister.” He hissed, putting a finger to his lips. He turned back to the garage, and I wondered how he knew what I wanted as I navigated the shining, oversized pick-up into the narrow alley and around the back of the building. The loose blacktop crackled under the tires like popcorn. I cranked the wheel and turned sharply to negotiate the slightly wider alley behind the shop.
There were about fifteen or twenty Mexican men of all shapes and sizes sitting on old living room furniture, plastic patio chairs and salvaged automobile seats. They stood up together and grouped against the wall covering the gang tags. The shorter of the men scrambled to the front of the pack. I gently fingered the window control, and the electric motor whined. I looked at the men thinking one of them would instigate the communication. They were completely silent.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hola,” someone said after a long gap. A few men chuckled, and that set off a couple more. I looked up into my skull for the set of communication instructions I was given. I didn’t speak Spanish so good.
“I need,” I said, looking around, “I need two guys,” I put up a peace sign. “Ten dollars an hour,” I put up all my fingers, “and food,” I gestured to my mouth with a crane-beaked hand. As the last bit of info spilled from my mouth and limbs the docile crowd became an active volcano, spewing Mexican-brand Spanish. Two men stepped up, a big man from the back and a little man from the front. They climbed the rear bumper of the truck, and the little one slapped the outside of the bed. I felt relieved as I drove north.
I stopped the truck in my gravel driveway, and the men jumped out of the bed. I stood in front of the men as they waited for direction. I began to fret a bit. I’d had two years of high school Español, but I’d quickly learned that the “American tourist in Spain” flavor I vaguely remembered was quite different than the dirty Mexican I’d heard behind the body shop. Not to mention it had been fifteen years since I’d asked Señora Johannsen “Can you direct me to the butcher’s? I want to buy some chickens.”
I pointed to the large gravel pile and wheelbarrow on the side of the house.
“Move rocks,” I said loudly and slowly as if to a deaf child or mental defective. The small one said something in Spanish to the bigger one. The bigger one responded with more Spanish peppered with the slang of his dialect.
“Understand?” I asked in the wrong Spanish tense.
“I speak English, Mister,” The little guy said in accented and cracked, but not broken English.
“Yes, Mister,” he thumbed at his buddy, “No him, though.”
“Okay, great, this will be easier. I don’t speak Spanish so good.” I gave a short laugh, and the men just looked at me. “Okay, well, I want you to spread that pile of rocks around the backyard. There’s a wheelbarrow and a couple shovels and rakes. Some of it’s done, not much, but I want the whole back yard covered.” The little guy translated, and the big one nodded to me that he understood. I wanted to laugh and tell them about how my wife had been after me to finish the job for a month, how the work would do my growing belly some good, but they were already dumping shovel loads of rock that made a sound like heavy rain on a tin roof. I looked at the sky. Its blue promise had been fulfilled, and now it vowed to be another hot one.
I spent the morning indoors, mostly. I had exams to grade, which was disappointing on a Saturday, but I powered through them, and it only took me about an hour. Recording them in my grade book could wait. I suddenly remembered that people working in the sun need water. I went out the French doors, out onto the patio to show the guys the garden hose, but it was already unreeled. A small puddle had formed on the shaded concrete next to several home-rolled cigarette butts. I picked up a butt and smelled it to see if it was pot, but it was regular burnt tobacco. My eyes went from the butt under my nose to the men who were now watching me. I waved, and they waved, and the big guy dumped a load of rocks. He joined the little guy in raking the pile into a uniform layer. I returned the butt to the pile and went back inside to surf the web. I quickly became frustrated with the slow connection and thought about calling my DSL provider, but I just didn’t have the energy to wait on hold for who knew how long. I’d do it during my free period on Monday.
I decided I’d watch a movie, but I found Sarah in the living room. Her yoga mat was laid out on the orange Spanish tile, and she was putting a disc into the DVD player. The inconvenience reinforced how desperately we needed a DVD player for the bedroom television. I couldn’t believe we’d waited this long.
“You’re back already?”
“I just did water aerobics today.”
“And now some yogurt?” I asked with a smile. She hated it when I called yoga “yogurt”. It was just a silly joke, but I was pretty dismissive of Eastern philosophies and practices like acupuncture, Feng shui, herbal remedies. I didn’t mean anything by the comment, but she knew my bias, and I believe she thought I was belittling her. Maybe I was, passive-aggressively. Maybe she was too uptight. It was debatable.
“Yup,” she said after a deep breath. I watched her put her palms together, standing straight on the center of her mat in a posture that seemed to extend her stature by a couple of inches.
I went back to our spare bedroom/office and stared at the bookshelf. None of my books looked appealing, not even the stuff I’d bought and had yet to read. There was a Hemingway book I was interested in, and I thought about running out to Barnes and Noble, but didn’t want to leave my help completely unsupervised. I went back to the computer to suffer the slow connection.
Around eleven I called the pizza place and ordered a couple larges and some breadsticks for delivery. The guy told me it would be about a half hour, but I figured it would be sooner since the place was only a quarter mile away from the house. I pulled some Heineken beers from the case in the refrigerator.
“Beer?” I called to Sarah.
“Later,” she grunted through abdominal crunches. I took the beers out back and found the guys at the hose.
“Cervezas?” I smiled.
I grabbed two folded camp chairs that were leaning against the wall next to my dusty grill and set them on the shaded patio.
“Please, have a seat,” I said. They did, and used their cigarette lighters to pry and pop the tops from their beers.
“Oh, no opener. Can you get mine?” I handed my beer to the big guy and he popped the top.
“Thanks,” I said.
“De nada,” he answered through a long draw from the bottle.
We sipped our beers in silence and listened to the sounds of a summer Saturday. There was an ice cream truck somewhere close. A couple was arguing again at the apartment complex across the back alley. The cicadas buzzed, creating a wild ambience within the urban sprawl. I wandered into the yard to check the progress and saw the job was essentially finished. The gravel pile was greatly diminished, and I had clearly overestimated my needs.
I heard the rumbling of a broken muffler and went up front to meet the pizza guy. He was older than I expected a pizza guy to be, and I felt sorry for him, but was envious of his big gray sideburns at the same time. Students were prohibited from having any kind of facial hair where I taught and, though not an official rule, it was frowned upon for the faculty as well.
“Howdy!” he smiled.
“Two pies, a veggie and a meat, an order of sticks comes to,” he looked at the receipt, “seventeen dollars and thirty-eight parts of a dollar.”
“Keep the change.”
“Thank you sir, have a great day.” He moved swiftly back to the car and seemed a lot younger from the back. He had a ponytail, and I was again covetous. He cranked his Credence Clearwater Revival and spun gravel as he reversed down the drive. I took the food to the backyard and hummed “Out my Backdoor”.
The guys and I shared pizza and a couple more beers on the patio. It was noon and well over one hundred degrees, but the air was dry, and the shade made it the heat tolerable, nearly pleasant.
“I think we can call it good,” I said. “I can finish the little bit that’s left tomorrow.”
“Okay,” the little guy said. The big guy asked what I’d said, and the little guy told him. The big guy nodded and stuffed a large crust into him mouth. He reached for another slice. The beers had me feeling a little bold.
“You guys in that alley every day?”
“Lots of work?”
“Some days yes, some days no.”
“How do you decide who goes on what job?”
“Depends on who went last. We take turns.”
“That sounds fair.”
“Yes, it’s fair.”
“Is ten dollars an hour fair?”
“It’s no bad.” He thumbed at the big guy, “He’d probably do it just for the lunch.” He laughed lightly, and the big guy asked what he’d said. The little guy shook his head and waved the comment away as unimportant. He killed his beer in a few long gulps. “Where’s the bus stop, Mister?”
“It’s just on the other side of the apartments there,” I pointed, “but I’ll bring you home.”
“No, we go back to the alley.”
“I can take you back there.”
“No thanks, Mister.”
“Well I’m going to pay you for the full day. You can knock off early. Have a siesta.”
“It’s early. If anyone comes to the alley we will work. And we pay Bobby.”
“Who’s Bobby? The shop guy? What do you pay him for?”
“He let’s us use his alley.”
“What’s his cut?”
“How much does he get?”
“Ten dollars from every man.”
“Not too bad.”
“It’s fair. But if you don’t work you still owe him.”
“Oh.” I suspected the beer was loosening him up and that he was sharing information he otherwise wouldn’t. He struck me as shrewd and talking about the nature of an illegal activity seemed less than astute. “What if there’s no work today? What will you do?”
“We’ll wait for work and split the money.”
“Who’ll split it?”
“We will. The men in the alley.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Sometimes not all can work. Sometimes there is no work. So we decided to share, and we don’t fight for fifteen-dollar jobs or twenty-dollar jobs. We share, and when I don’t get to work I have money. We can share and not fight. We take turns.” He reminded me of a child describing a day of kindergarten. “And no one will owe.” Then he said something in Spanish, and the big guy stood up. I grabbed four twenties for each of them from my wallet.
“Welcome,” I said. “Thank you for the help.”
“That’s ‘you're welcome’, right? Like I said, I don’t speak your language very good.”
“Very well. You don’t speak it very well,” the little guy corrected. Then he added, “but I think you do okay.”
“Gracias,” the big guy said again, taking a slice of pizza for the road. The men walked over the gravel they’d spread, to the edge of my yard. They hopped the chain link fence like a couple of kids, crossed the dirt alley and slipped through a gap of missing boards in the fence surrounding the apartment complex. I went inside to check if the Internet was any better so I wouldn’t have to waste my free period Monday morning.