Wednesday, February 6, 2008

There But For The Grace

(Blogger's note: This is a work-in-progress piece for a weekly writing challenge in Gather. There are two parts to the challenge. First, the "hook" to the reader must be captured in 25 words or less. Second, the theme should be about interruption. I was humming along on my keyboard when writer's block hit me. I stopped here and will pick up again later. Here goes...)

“There’s a cop…A cop!” She muttered under her breath. “Keep driving. Turn right on the corner then go around again. I don’t want trouble…”

My heart started racing. I pressed harder on the gas pedal and the truck picked up speed. I looked at the rear view mirror and saw the cop car parked furtively behind a gray dumpster on the side of the building on my left. My heart skipped a beat. I took a deep breath to steady my nerves and drove to the corner.

“Here. Turn right then go around the block. Maybe we’ll find them on the other side.”

Even though there was concern and urgency in her voice, Alexie was cool. She knew what she was doing. Alexie had done this dozens of times before but the times… they are a-changing.

I steered her monster steel gray Ford F-150 and rounded the corner. There they were, scattered along San Pablo Avenue, in front of Home Depot, leathery-skinned Latinos in groups of three or more, talking together or sitting on the sidewalk, day laborers all, waiting to be picked up like cheap whores in the night. But it was only 7 AM. Contractor’s hour.

“There, that one -- he looks big and strong. Slow down but don’t stop,” Alexie ordered. “If you stop, they’ll mob us. Keep the truck moving.”

I slowed the truck down to a crawl. Alexie pushed a button and the window slid down noiselessly.

“Cuanto?” Alexie asked in Spanish, directing her question to the hombre with the aggressive stance.

“Quince!” Day Laborer #1 said. He was big and strong and could command fifteen dollars an hour. Good for lifting heavy stuff all by himself.

“No, demasiado!” Too much! Alexie said to him, dismissing him with a flick of her wrist. She turned to me and waved her left wrist forward, motioning for me to keep driving.

The big and strong day laborer walked alongside the truck. “Cuanto quiere pagar?” He asked. How much do you want to pay?


“No, es barato!” Senor Big bargained. No, that’s too cheap!

“Diez.” Alexie offered.

“No, doce,” countered the big hombre.

“Quiere trabajar o no?” Alexie asked with a tone clearly communicating the upper hand. Do you want to work or not?

“Okay, ten. Okay,” Senor Big agreed, conceding defeat in price and in language.

No way Senor Big was gonna win the bidding. Are you kidding me? These guys need the money to send home. Alexie held up two fingers in the air and asked, “Amigo?”

Senor Big turned to his amigos and said something fast in Spanish but the only thing I picked up was, “Vamos!” Let’s go.

The two men climbed into the back passenger seats and strapped themselves in. I felt like I should say something to them, give them my HR spiel when I onboard a new employee. I half-turned around and said, “Hola. Me llamo es Maya.”

Alexie rolled her eyes and blew air out of her mouth, flapping her lips, making a farting sound. We all laughed.

“You don’t have to introduce yourself. Just drive!” She could’ve added, “silly” as in, ‘Just drive, silly,” but caught herself.

“I was just trying to be polite and make conversation.” I said, smacking her sisterly on her armrest. I started heading towards the freeway. It was a twenty minute drive to our work site that day. After driving a couple of miles along I-80 East, I felt compelled to make small talk.

“Esta usted de Mexico?” I asked.

Aside from my natural curiousity about people, I was beginning to feel uncomfortable sitting in a truck in total silence with strangers sitting in the back of me. What if we had picked up a couple of escaped serial killers from Tijuana?

“Si. Mehico.” Said Senor Big.

“No. Guatemala.” Said the smaller, stockier man in stained white painter’s overalls and a white baseball cap.

I glanced quickly up at the rearview mirror at the two of them sitting at the back. Their eyes were staring straight at the back of my head. Mexican, Guatemalan, I couldn’t really tell the difference. They all look the same to me.

“Cheena?” The small one asked.

I shifted my eyes quickly at Alexie who laughed at the question. She half-turned to Senor Small and asked, “Does she look Chinese to you?”

“Si. Cheena?”

“No, yo soy Filipina.” I corrected him. “Nosotros somos Filipinas.” We’re Filipinas.

“Cheena. Filipina. Los mismos.” Chinese, Filipinos. You’re all the same.

We fell silent again.

With a simple dismissive declaration, the lowly, uneducated illegal alien cut it down to the core. Mexicans, Guatemalans, Chinese, Filipinos. We’re all the same.

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

In the silence I searched my heart and mind to understand the hearts and minds of others. The situation was full of irony, although I’m sure only God could grasp the extent of it. Something was being made clear to me, but there was a fog over the vision, and it came in puzzle pieces. If only I knew where my life was going. The concrete road ahead with its bright yellow line seemed clearer. It meant there are lines you don’t cross.

I had crossed them and fallen from grace.

(To be continued...)

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