Chapter 47

After many miles of walking up and down the beach, pretending to be looking for shells, and a few hours of planning useless border crossing schemes, I find myself, once again, standing in front of El Burrito Crazy.

I’m dryer but my hair has a natural wet-sand mousse in it. I try to comb it over my forehead with my fingers, but it wont budge. The white guyabera is no longer wet, and no longer white, and It has the added benefit of looking like I slept in it. The Levis are okay, aside from glittering with sand. I see my reflection in the glass door of the restaurant. Not only do I look homeless—but crazy too.

I kept the boots and socks off so I didn’t get any blisters on my feet, but I’m getting a nasty rash from the sand’s gritty chaffing in every other joint in my body. My crotch is sore and tender from where my sandy underwear cut into my groin. I adopted a cowboy-style walk a few hours ago to keep from breaking down and crying in pain. At least I think I looked like a cowboy. I did get a lot of funny looks on the way here . . .

I straighten up my clothes a bit, check my look one more time, then push my way into the restaurant. Of course Cheech is standing there, waiting.

I think he’s just figured out it’s me. I know I look a little different than this morning. He looks surprised, like he may have actually thought I would make it. How could anybody make it? He had to know it wouldn’t work. He probably even knew about the shark. Everybody down here probably knows about the shark. That’s why nobody else was trying to swim into the US. It’s probably a trained shark, like our military trains dolphins. Great . . . Wait a minute . . . That’s ridiculous. A border shark? I must be going a little crazy down here. This border business is really getting to me. That’s almost funny—Mexico having a border shark. We would be the ones with the border shark.

Cheech finally breaks the silence. “What happened to you?”

Not once on the whole walk over here, did I think about how I was going to explain myself to someone.

“You look like the beach ate you and then threw up.”

Look at him. He knew I was bound to get caught. What should I do—state the obvious?

“Hey, don’t blame this on me, what made you think you could swim to America?”

“It’s not that far, and besides, I had a raft.”

“You did? Where’d you get it?”

“There was one on the beach.”

“So you used a boat, and you still didn’t make it?”

“It wasn’t a boat; it was a raft.” Retaining even a little dignity right now seems pretty hopeless.

“Oh. I see.”

“And there was a twenty foot shark out there that kept bumping me to see if I was tender enough.”

“A shark?”

“A twenty foot one.”

“You’re kidding me, right?”

“Do I look like I’m even capable of kidding right now?” That shut him up. “Can I use your phone? I have to call my Mom and let her know I won’t be on the bus.”

“The bus? You have a bus ticket?”

“I was supposed to . . . it doesn’t matter. She probably doesn’t even know I’m gone.”

“You two don’t get along?”

“No, she works two jobs, and I work, and go to school.“

“Okay, I didn’t mean to pry or nothing. I’ll get some change, but you gotta make it short. It ain’t cheap to call the United States.”

“The United States is just a block from here.”

“It’s still another country.”

I pull out a plastic bag from my front pocket, the one the border guards put my papers in when they sent me back to Mexico, and check to see if they are still okay. He gives me some change and a look that says, what’s that? “These are names and phone numbers of some family.”

“Oh.”

       With all that walking and swimming and sun, my stomach screams to be fed. “Tell you what, when I finish talking with my mom, I’ll help you with your restaurant.”

“Great! I always wanted an American dishwasher.”

“Yeah. Don’t look so surprised; I’m a shift leader of a Mexican restaurant back home. I can help you cook, clean, take orders, bus tables . . .”

“Really? What’s this place called?”

“I’m sure you’ve heard of it: Taco Bell!”

He freezes. “You can’t cook Mexican.”

“Hello! Taco Bell?” I look at his menu again. “I can at least make taco’s and burritos.”

He gives me a, you gotta be kidding, look. What’s wrong with Taco Bell? Maybe he thinks El Burrito Crazy is Mexican Cuisine. He waves at me to follow him inside his restaurant and he disappears behind the counter.

I really need to call my mom. Should I have her come down here and get me, and bring some ID?  I don’t know how else to get home.

Cheech reappears and tosses me a dark green apron just like his.

“Put that on, and take off your clothes.”

I feel a shock of panic.

“Relax, I’m a Mexican—not a pervert. I’ll show you how to wash your clothes in the dish machine.”

A large, rather rough looking Mexican guy, with dark wavy hair and a tattoo on his forearm walks in and shouts some Spanish through the order window. He sees us and stops mid-sentence.

“Hola, Juan. He tried to swim to San Diego.”

“Oh . . . kay. “

“He got stopped by the border shark.”

“Border Shark! I knew it.” They both stand there, staring at me. The surprise remains on their faces for just a moment, then come those sympathetic smiles I’ve been getting a lot of lately.

I take the apron and walk into the bathroom to change. I lock the door and take off my crusty clothes. Sand pours out onto the floor. It’s probably going to look like the beach in here before I’m done.

The relief of not having tight clothes sanding my skin off, is immediate. I’m still sandy and parched, but I feel a lot better already.

The Apron looks new and hangs six inches below my chin. I tie the long green string ends around my waist. The top part is very narrow; it almost covers my chest, but my nipples stick out each side. I feel a distinct draft on my naked butt. Two more inches in the back and this apron would have covered me completely.

Man, do I feel weird. I look in the mirror and there is someone who looks like a homeless Chippendales busboy staring back at me.  My skin is dark pink. Ouch! Okay—red. There’s no way anyone can see me like this.

I stash my phone numbers and money in my boots, gather up my sandy clothes and cautiously open the door.

A group of middle-aged Mexican ladies dressed in Levis and brightly colored shirts stands in front of the menu board deciding what to eat. As long as they keep looking up at the menu, they might not see me.

I open the bathroom door and casually walk towards the dining room and the door that leads to the kitchen area. I hug the right side of the hallway to reduce the chance of me being seen.

Oh-no! One of the ladies notices me. She stares at the clothes in my hand, then gets a good long look at me. I walk a little faster to make it inside the kitchen before the others notice, but they turn to see what she’s looking at. I can tell they’re whispering, but trying very hard not to move their lips.

I grab the door to the back of the restaurant and make a hasty exit when they start laughing. Oh, shit!  One of them comes over and grabs the bottom of my apron and tries to raise it. My hands are full with my sandy clothes and a door knob.  I instinctively raise a knee and push the wad of clothes down on the front of the apron to keep it from going too high. A cold flush of embarrassment runs through my body. One of them has come around behind me and she shouts and grabs the back of the apron. I scoot inside the door and back away from them as quickly as possible, my teeth clenched tightly shut.

Cheech sees me come in with an entourage of chatty ladies. He rushes over and tells the ladies to leave, or stop, in Spanish. They don’t listen, and keep trying to get a look under my apron. It’s weird, but I don’t feel like their curiosity is sexual. It’s more like a mom looking to see what her son has been up to. Well, at least two of them are like that. The darker, chubbier, blonde one—I’m not so sure. She’s the grabbiest of all, and her eyes never leave my apron.

Cheech pushes them outside and closes the door behind him. I back up into the dish area and hear some muffled Spanish in the hallway. Soon, he reappears behind the counter and gets them something to drink. He turns and comes back and meets me in the dish area. “Man, I can’t leave you alone for a minute.”

I don’t know why but that makes me laugh, and he struggles to act indignant. He takes a grey plastic dish rack, the kind you put dirty dishes in before putting them in the dish machine, and lays out my pants on it, but the legs hang way over the side. He stops and sniffs the air, and then smells his fingers. He quickly wipes his hands on his pants to dry them off. “Hey, you really did see a shark today,” he says as if he’s just now beginning to believe my story.

Cheech places another grey plastic rack on top of my pants and folds my pantlegs over it, but they still hang over the edge of the rack still, so he grabs a pair of metal tongs and folds the legs over the top of the second dish rack, and grabs a third grey plastic rack and places it on top of that. The whole thing looks like a pants-filled, dish-rack, triple-layer cake. He looks at me watching his every move and smiles, “I figure when the first side is done, you can take this whole thing out, turn it over, and run the machine again a couple of times. That should work. I mean, lets face it, this isn’t exactly in the owners manual.” Sliding the racks into the machine, he closes the door, which automatically turns it on and begins washing the pants as if they were cloth dishes.

“There, see that? That’s all you have to do. You’ll just need two racks for your shirt—a rack on the bottom, your shirt, and a rack on top. The dishracks are just used to hold the clothes flat and in place so the machine can wash them. Then do your socks and—hey, are you naked under that apron?” I look down and see my underwear sticking out of the pile of remaining clothes. “You going commando in my apron, Pancho?” I bury my underwear in the center of the bundle. I thought I was supposed to take my clothes off. “No wonder they got so excited. I thought you would at least keep your underwear on. Man, you sure got some balls kid—I mean . . .  not that I seen anything—“

“No of course not!”

“I just mean, you know . . .”  He closes his mouth and walks back over to the counter and takes the ladies’ order. They are quite animated, and Cheech tries patiently to return their talk to menu items.  He makes their food and the dish machine stops. I open the doors and flip the racks over, put them back into the machine and close the doors again, automatically starting the washing process all over again.

I take all the papers with the names, addresses and phone numbers of my family out of the plastic bag in my boots, which are in good shape, considering what they’ve been through. They are pretty damp, so I lay them all out on a plastic tray, and then place the tray under the heat lamps to dry.  I wonder how I’m going to dry the clothes. There’s got to be something around here I can use. I put my parent’s wedding picture on the cutting board to let it dry naturally.

When Cheech is done making the ladies their food, he comes back to check on me as I’m putting my socks and underwear onto the racks. He looks away and his whole body shivers. I close the door and start the washing cycle. Cheech grabs the metal tongs and picks my pants up with it, grabs my shirt, and walks off toward the back door.

I peek out the door to see if there are any stray middle-aged women lurking around. He takes my pants and lays them over the fence behind the restaurant, and then he does the same with my shirt. “When everything is dry, put them back on, and please,” he says, looking down at my waist, “wash the apron too, okay?” He shivers again. Great, I’m giving my host the willies. I guess that’s better than giving him a woody. Especially in this apron, with the back . . . Awwww Shut up! What am I thinking about? I gotta get home soon, I’m going nuts down here.

We head back into the restaurant. When the dishwasher has finished, he opens it, takes the top rack off, and gives me a funny look.

He searches for something, then grabs a shallow brown plastic tray. After picking up my socks and underwear with the metal tongs and putting them on the tray, he places them under the heat lamps, right next to the paper addresses, like so many french fries.

“You owe me big-time, kid.”

He’s got that right. How many people would clean a stranger’s underwear in their dish machine?

“Okay, for starters I need you to clean under the counters and prep areas. Do you know how to clean a grease trap?”

I look over at the grill. It’s made of grooved steel and has a two-inch deep trough in the front of it, with the flat metal grill slanting down, spilling into it. The grease from the food slides down the grooves in the grill and into the trough, which empties through a hole at the bottom, into a metal tray about the size of a few packages of cigarettes. The tray slides out for easy emptying and cleaning. “Yeah, I can do that”

“Great. When you’re finished, you can mop the floors.”

I’d clean toilets if that would get me home.

After cleaning the grease trap, I look over at my underwear and socks. They are steaming like fresh-cooked vegetables.

Now it’s time to clean underneath the fryers and grill. It’s a dirty, gunky job. I can’t imagine the last time this has ever been done. I try to do it sitting down so my naked butt isn’t exposed to the whole kitchen. The floor tiles are very cold, and there’s nothing to keep my family jewels off of it.

Cheech hands me the metal tongs, “Turn your . . .” he nods towards the underwear and socks, “with these.”

I don’t know why I’m using tongs; they’re my underwear, and I put them through the wash cycle—twice.

After cleaning the greasy mess under the machines, I look for the mop and bucket. Cheech runs the dishwasher with just the racks in it a couple of times before he puts any dishes in it. I can’t blame him really. He then puts a load of potatoes in it and has the machine clean them too. I had no idea the dish machine has so many uses.

“Is your underwear done yet? You’re creeping me out, walking around my restaurant, with just that apron on.”

My underwear and socks are still steaming, so I go outside to check on the state of the rest of my clothes. They’re drying slowly in the warm, Mexican night air, and will probably be dry enough to wear in a couple of hours. I can’t believe I’m standing in a stranger’s restaurant, dressed in only a little green apron. I feel like a flasher-elf. I can’t imagine my life getting any stranger than it is right now.

Back inside, I’m met with the smell of something burning. I look around, and see Cheech smells it too. Oh shit!  We both recognize the smell at the same time, and run to the heat lamps. He pulls the plastic tray out from under the lights, and we stare at the smoldering underwear and socks. I pull the underwear off the tray and my first reaction is to throw them in the sink and turn on the water, but then I realize that would defeat the whole purpose of drying them. Instead, I shake them vigorously to cool them down. I wave them up and down in large, sweeping movements. Cheech is frantically backing away, trying to dodge the breeze I’m making with my indecent fan. “Hey, watch it.”

When we stop laughing, I see there is a dark brown spot on the crotch of the underwear, but otherwise they’re okay. The socks are a little brown at the feet. If I were going to serve them, I think they’d be done.

No one is watching, so I slide my underwear on quickly. Big mistake! I forgot about the spot where my sandy underwear tried to saw through my crotch, it’s still pretty sensitive, but that barely even registers, compared to the still hot underwear hugging my very sensitive private parts. The burning brings tears to my eyes.

I panic. To cool off, I start making fanning motions with my underwear again, only this time, I’m wearing them while I do it. This doesn’t work fast enough so I pull the waist band away from my waist as far as I can, and continue humping the air while running in a circle, trying to scoop a cooling breeze into my underwear. It’s still not cooling off fast enough, so I stop running in circles, and start blowing into my open underwear while swaying my hips in a slow hula motion to spread the air around and cool things off faster.

“Is that some kind of new dance you kids are doing nowadays?” Cheech asks from the other side of the kitchen. His voice startles me. I seem to be developing a talent at making an ass out of myself lately.

“Yep!” I resume humping the air, and I throw in some hand action to make it look better. I don’t think he’s buying it.

 

 

The restaurant finally closes and I have just about cleaned the entire place. I feel pretty good about the job I‘ve done.

“Grab a chair and sit down, Pancho, I made us some dinner.”

After getting a soda on my way to the dining room, I sit down at a booth and stretch out. I’m really tired.

The menu board has a lot of strange things on it. There are a lot of meat choices and fillings for the tacos and burritos, but everything’s in Spanish. I know carne is meat, and pollo is chicken, but that’s about it. Cheech sits down carrying two trays, like the ones we used to dry my underwear on.

He hands me a tray with a white oval ceramic plate and three small, round, corn tortillas, lying open on it. In the center of each tortilla is a pile of reddish-brown meat, topped with diced onions and tomatoes, and tiny pieces of cilantro. Beside the tortillas are two small paper cups, one with pico de gallo and the other filled with green salsa. “Looks good,” I say, trying to be nice. At least I’m going to try something I’ve never had before. I look at the menu again to try to figure out what is on my plate. I can’t make a guess; it’s all so foreign.

“What is this?”

He rolls his eyes. “Tacos.”

He seems to be waiting for me to try one, but I don’t know where to start. I’ve never eaten tacos like this before. He reaches down and exaggeratingly rolls one up, presents it for me to see, then takes an exaggerated bite. I feel like he’s trying to show a baby how to eat. I thought if you roll it, it’s a burrito—if you fold it, it’s a taco. Now how do you tell the difference?

I follow his lead and with the first bite, my mouth explodes with a richness of flavors I’ve never experienced before! I can taste so many things separately, and in combination: tomato; onion; cinnamon; cilantro . . . This is really good. He dips his taco into a small paper cup of dark red salsa, and takes a bite. I have green salsa in my cup.

“Don’t worry, gringo, it’s not hot.” He smiles and takes another bite.

This is coming from a guy whose salsa is so hot, he’s actually sweating. Not hot to him could mean not melt-your-braces hot, like he obviously has.

I dip my rolled up taco into the cup and give it a try, and to show him I’m not afraid. Hey, this is good, and it’s not that hot either. I can’t tell if the colors of the foods are influencing my taste buds, but the green salsa tastes green, the tortillas taste kinda tan-ish, and the meat has a deep reddish-brown, cinnamon-like flavor. Put them together and the colors go as well together as the flavors do. This is very cool!

“After you eat, you should take a shower,” he says, in-between bites.

A disturbing mental picture forms in my head. “You think that dish machine is big enough?”

“No, no, ha! Man, you are one strange dude. There’s a hose out back. You can shower with it and use that apron as your towel.”

A shower sounds great. I’ve been feeling salt and sand in every uncomfortable crack in my body for most of the day, and my skin feels so dry—thirsty even.

“Hey, Pancho, I told a friend about you, and he says he can help, but there’s just one catch.”

“Catch?”

“Yeah, you gotta do something for him.”

“Like what?”

“Well, he usually charges fifteen hundred dollars to take somebody across the border, but he says you can work it off. “

“Work off fifteen hundred dollars?”

“Yeah. He helps you, you help him.”

This feels like the walk around the border thing all over again.

“Oh, I forgot, you have so many other options.”

I don’t.

After I eat, I put my dishes in a dish rack, then go out back to look for the hose. It’s coiled neatly next to the spigot that sticks out of the back of the building. I peek over the six-foot fence to make sure there are no little old ladies lurking in the dark.

It’s pretty warm outside, and the water coming from the hose is warm too. I feel the salt, and sand, and grime, all flow off of me, like a stream onto the hard concrete. My skin feels like a giant, parched tongue, lapping up the moisture. I want to stand here forever.

After turning off the faucet and coiling up the hose, I dry off with the apron and put my mildly damp clothes on. They smell like a restaurant dish room, but I feel a lot better.

Cheech comes out and gives me some quarters. Oh Shit! I forgot to call my mom. “Thanks.”  I take them and run out to the pay-phone out front and make the call. The phone rings and I let the answering machine pick up this time. I have to at least let her know I’m okay. As I leave a message I’m reminded I forgot to get a phone number for the El Burrito Crazy, so she can call me back. I let her know I’m okay and hang up quickly, trying to save enough money to make another call tomorrow.

 

“You can sleep here, on that bench outside,” Cheech says, when I return.  “It won’t be getting cold here for another month or two, so you should be okay.” He looks me straight in the eyes, “my wife would kill me if I brought another stranger home.”

He doesn’t have to be doing any of this, and if he didn’t, I would be stuck in cold and sandy clothes, looking like a bum, and scaring away any chance of having someone take me seriously enough to help me get home. “Hey, no problem Cheech. Thanks for everything you’ve done for me. I really don’t know what I would’ve done without your help—I mean it.”

“Yeah, I know you do.” He has an understanding face. He probably didn’t know about the border shark. How could he know?

He locks the doors and leaves. I lay down on the bench, using my apron as a pillow. I look up at the stars staring down on me, observing my difficulties. The sounds of the city are complimentary and form a kind of—urban choir. Cars and trucks drive by, singing bass and tenor, in-between the alto sirens, wailing, and when they fade into the distance crickets chirp like little sopranos until the crescendos of the louder instruments chase them off the stage. This is a busy town—were those gun shots? I’m glad to be behind this tall wooden fence, although, I’d feel much safer if it were made out of bricks or cement.

Mike J Quinn About Mike J Quinn
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