Eduardo didn’t know much English before he came to live with his aunt and uncle in Long Beach. Back home in the small border town of Tecate, his mother, su madre and grandmother, la abuela worked hard to keep the old traditions alive. One of those was to speak Spanish always. Another was never to make rice in anything new-fangled and automatic. They didn’t even have a telephone. They wrote letters.
Eduardo left school early to help with money for his family. He never wanted the women to worry. They’d had enough worry over the years, especially after his father died. Kicked in the head by a horse that refused to be broken, he died quickly. As the 12-year-old man of the house it was his job to look after the women, even though it had always been his father’s wish for Eduardo to go make a better life for himself in America. Plans had been made, they just had to be put on hold for a while. Once he got to his uncle’s he could send money home, but for now he did what he could, washing dishes in the only “fancy” restaurant in town.
This was the place all the rich ladies escaped to after a day at their “spa” down the road. The waiters called it el spa de grasa, the Fat Farm. All day long the ladies would wear spandex. They would hike up the mountains, run down the mountains, do yoga, ride stupid bicycles that didn’t go anywhere, and eat odd and tiny food – kale and quinoa, fruit from over the border, more water than his family had in the trough for their pigs, then meditation. Eduardo thought meditation meant “plan what you’re going to eat tonight when you escape”.
It’s not like the gates were locked, but the ladies did feel like they’d escaped when night after night, they would drive their expensive cars down the dusty road 5k into town, watching for potholes and rabbits, and talking about whatever ladies like that talk about, Eduardo had no idea. But from them, he learned the words “more”, and “extra”. He could hear them back in the kitchen, and never had he washed cleaner plates than those from the ladies. Lipstick on the margarita glasses was more of a problem, but why order plain mezcal when you could have a margarita, and why put salt on the rim when it would make you retain water? Eduardo scrubbed and scrubbed those glasses. He did a good job. He knew some of their tip money would find its way into the kitchen and he had to make the servers proud. Not everyone wore the same color lipstick and they would send back a drink if the glass wasn’t clean.
The servers said they never saw the ladies in town during the day, so the stores selling souvenirs had to rely on tourists. Too bad, because the calendars had beautiful pictures of the very mountains on which they hiked. Eduardo was always busy around his house so he wouldn’t know. After a good home-cooked breakfast, his animal chores kept him as busy during the day as washing dishes did at night. And finally, finally the day came when there was enough money to hire someone, so Eduardo could go to America.
Long Beach was not a Mexican village on the other side of the border. It was a thriving community by a huge port. Parts of it were a little old and rusty, but it was trying to work its way out of that. There were huge cranes lined up like storks to unload cargo containers, trains to take those containers all over the country, cruise ships, fishing boats, even a Naval yard for housing young families. Restaurants of every type, from breakfast diners to little Vietnamese places smaller than a shoebox. Eduardo, in his one good plaid shirt and pants, and his huaraches, because thankfully the weather was warm and he could wear them, could stand on any street and turn around and see something different. It was amazing. He couldn’t understand why all those ladies had come to his little town when they could have come here.
Eduardo’s tio Arturo owned an auto repair shop on Anaheim Street, with his house right behind. Arturo and tia Nelly kept the old ways in the house, but Arturo spoke English to his customers. They went to Spanish church on Wednesday nights so Arturo could stay open on Sundays. The first new word Eduardo learned was “1958”. The second was “wrench”. He was going to learn to fix and restore cars. Arturo was going to pay him a fair wage, and eventually turn the shop over to him, Arturo and Nelly having no children. This would allow Eduardo to learn a new trade, and send money home. His heart was swollen with pride.
Gradually Eduardo lost that feeling of hearing with two different ears, and he could follow a conversation. He began to share words with Sharma at the 7-11, whose only English was “hot dogs”, “cigarettes” and “lottery tickets”. The hardest word for her was “carburetor” and they laughed and laughed until she could finally pronounce it by saying it over and over, even just in her mind, her mouth moving silently. Sharma was like no one Eduardo had ever met. Just a few years older, she still had smooth skin and a voice like honey, not hardened into vinegar by hard work and age. And she wore makeup. Eduardo had never seen that before. He noticed a pink shine on her lips as she said her new words but he didn’t know what to feel about that. It was not like the lipstick he’d washed off the glasses back home.
Eventually Eduardo asked if he could bring business cards for the body shop to the 7-11. Sharma asked her boss, who said sure, then brought his car over for an oil change, at a discount. Arturo was very proud of Eduardo’s forward thinking, and invited Sharma and her boss over for lunch.
These were days of simple blessings. Eduardo wrote home each week with money and stories of everything he saw. He’d include a word or two so his mother and la abuela could learn a little English too. His mother would write back, with news of their house, la abuela, who was getting older and creakier but could still smash a wasp with a broom in one swipe, the pigs and chickens, and the man who was helping them. She would always use one of Eduardo’s words and that made him laugh – “fan belt” in a letter from home was strange but very sweet.
At Christmas-time, Eduardo sent his mother a calendar with pictures of cars, a picture of himself in a Mopar t-shirt and new jeans, but still the huaraches, a picture of him with Arturo and Nelly, and one of him with his best friend Sharma in front of the 7-11. She was about six inches taller than he was, but still they leaned faintly toward each other, their hands barely touching. He sent a bag of chocolate dollars wrapped in gold foil, of course some money for the church and some for them, a bag of rice he had never had at home but that tasted like stars and faint perfume, and more paper. As long as they lived they wrote letters, a tradition Eduardo carried on even once he grew older and had his own family. Wherever a relative was to be found there were stamps to reach them.
TOBI ALFIER is a multiple Pushcart nominee and a Best of the Net nominee. Her most current chapbooks are “The Coincidence of Castles” from Glass Lyre Press, and “Romance and Rust” from Blue Horse Press. Her collaborative full-length collection, “The Color of Forgiveness”, is available from Mojave River Press. She is the co-editor of San Pedro River Review (www.bluehorsepress.com).