Chapter 67

The moment I step inside I feel a chill from the cold stares. I try to roll up the sombrero and make it disappear, but it doesn’t work.

We walk straight to the counter. He sits down and I scan the area for glasses of ice water. Oh yeah, it’s Arizona. You have to ask for water, they don’t bring it automatically. Right. Like I look like I’d turn down a glass of water right now?  I sit down and try to arrange my shirt and tuck in my legs to hide as much of my clothes as possible.

Roberto reaches over the counter and grabs a glass and a pitcher of ice water. He fills the glass and slides it down to me. I’m so excited I almost choke on the ice. “Slow down, son.” Roberto reaches into his pocket and hands me some change. “Keep your pesos, John, they don’t work around here.”

I nod. The bathroom sign points down a hallway in the back of the restaurant. I put in a quarter and dial home, this time without the international code. It feels good—feels American.

“Hello?” She answers on the first ring. It startles me.

“Hi Mom, it’s me.” I feel myself getting emotional for some reason. I don’t know why, it’s just a phone call.

“Thank God! It’s you. I didn’t know you were gone until I noticed you weren’t eating your meals. Then I got your message. You should have told me earlier. I would have come and got you.”

“I didn’t have a phone number, and I didn’t know it was going to be this hard to get home.”

“Where are you? I’ll come to get you.”

“I’m at a Denny’s in . . .  I forgot the name . . .  oh, yeah, Puerto Centro.

“Okay, don’t move, I’m coming.”

“Thanks, Mom, and hey, could you bring me some clothes?”

“Are you naked?”

“No, I’m just wearing . . . I’m just dirty, that’s all.”

“Okay, I’ll be right there, don’t go anywhere okay?”

 

“Yeah Mom. Just get here before immigration stops in for coffee.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“So what happened? Why did you go to Mexico? How did you get there?”

“I’ll wait ‘til you get here. There’s too much to tell you and I want to take a bath and go to bed.”

“Okay honey, I’ll be there as quick as I can.”

“Okay. Goodbye.”

“‘Bye honey.”

The weight of the past few days finally hits me, and my emotions go on a roller coaster ride from hell: I’m finally home. I feel twisted inside. On the one hand I feel guilty I made it, when others didn’t; and on the other hand I feel grateful I did, when, for a while there, it looked like I wouldn’t. I think I’ll get a little cleaned up, wash my face and hands.  I feel dry and crusty with dirt.

I step inside the bathrooms and I’m immediately assaulted by the huge mirrors. Always with the mirrors. This time they’re laughing at me—making fun of me. It looks like I cooked a little out there in the desert. I’m about twelve shades darker, with a little bit of pink mixed in. I’ve never seen that color before on a human being. My once white clothes are now off white, and wrinkly. It looks like I slept in them again—which I guess I did. I’d love to take them off and hide them.

I turn on the sink and the water feels cool on my hands and face. Tastes really good too.  My skin feels like a sponge, soaking up the water. I put my whole head under the faucet and wash my hair. Brown water swirls down the sink. I force myself to stop before taking off my shirt and jumping onto the sink counter. Best not get too carried away. This does feel great though.

I turn off the water and look over at the hand dryer. The last thing I want is hot air.

Scanning the bathroom I notice there are no paper towels. It would be too much to hope for a clean spot on my shirt to wipe my face. Maybe I can get a napkin off an empty table on my way back to the counter. I rinse off the sink and notice there’s dirt and mud everywhere else around me. I splash some water around to clean it up before leaving.

 

One final look in the mirror and I almost don’t recognize myself. I try parting my hair on the left side, and that looks a bit more natural, although not normally my style. I do look more Mexican now too.  Mexican. I’m a Mexican-American.

Time to get back to reality. I leave the bathroom, walk down the hallway, past the pay phone, and back into Arizona. Home.

“Did you get through okay John?”

“Yeah, thanks Roberto, you’re a life saver. My mom is coming to get me.”

“Great. John Wayne, I’d like you to meet Raul, Pete, and Digger. Boys, this is John Wayne.”

It’s obvious they don’t believe my name. They’re just looking at me to see if I deny it or not.  Finally, the dam breaks and a chorus of laughter and comments spill out of them. This must be the coffee club: a small group of people that come in to a restaurant, for hours at a time, and just drink coffee. They hang out for the gossip and the free refills of coffee. The one at Mom’s diner is middle-aged. This one looks like senior citizens. I guess every restaurant gets them.

“Ha, ha, ha Roberto, you’ve outdone yourself this time.” says the skinny and goofy looking guy one of them called Digger, breaking through the one-liners bouncing around the counter.

“Yeah, where’d you find this guy? “ asks Raul, the fat, bald guy in the corner.

“I told you, in the desert, on the way here.” Roberto looks over at me, hoping I will add credibility to his statement.

The laughing slows down a bit. They look confused, and amused, but then again, I don’t really know what they looked like before.

“John, what’s with the getup?” Pete asks.

This, evidently, is the big controversy they’ve been holding in since Roberto and I showed up. Roberto just sits by my side, sipping his coffee, with a confident look on his face. I put down my ice-water, “What getup?”

Pete sprays his coffee all over the counter, and that makes everyone laugh really hard. He coughs and tries to recover some dignity.

I look for the waitress. I need a bigger glass, or maybe that pitcher behind the counter. There is a small hiccup in the laughter, and Roberto is congratulated on his contribution to the night’s entertainment.

 

“Oh, he’s good Roberto,” Digger says.

Pete wipes off his shirt and the counter area around him with a paper napkin. “Damn, I just got that coffee the way I like it.”

I notice the dishwasher coming out from the kitchen area. He’s a thirty year old Mexican man, almost as wide as he is tall. His dark brown pleather apron protects him from the wet chaos of the dish room. He puts an empty bus tub into the bus station in the middle of the dining room, and then struggles a bit, trying to get the full one out. It’s overflowing with plates and coffee cups and silverware. He gets it out okay, but struggles with the weight of it. A couple of plates fall to the floor. The carpet absorbs their fall, so nothing breaks, and without really thinking about it, I rush over to help him. I pick up the plates and put them more securely in the bus tub. He smiles at me. The sweat in his shiny black hair looks almost like gel. This guy looks like the only one here; I don’t see a busboy. He walks back to the dish room and I return to my seat. I feel a little guilty sitting here relaxing and enjoying myself while he works so hard.

“I’m gonna get something to eat.” Roberto hands me a menu. “You want something John?”

“Sure, I’m going to be here for an hour or so anyway.” I grab the water he slides over for me. It doesn’t last long. I’m beginning to acquire quite a collection of empty glasses in front of me. I chew on the small frozen chunks of ice at the bottom of the glass like it’s ice-water gum.

The smell of the diner makes my stomach growl, drowning out the sounds of silverware clinking on plates and machines grinding away in the background. It all sounds so . . . American. I’m home. I’m giddy with happiness. I made it.

“Hi Roberto, who’s your friend?” I look up and see a large red-head with big thick red lips and a brown Denny’s uniform staring down at me.

“Hi Julia, this here’s John Wayne.”

“Yeah, right, and I’m Lucille Ball.  You got a job kid? Our busboy didn’t show up for work tonight,” she says, looking me over.

“Yeah, it’s because of the crackdown,” says Pete. “I told you there’d be repercussions.”

 

“Will you be quiet over there? I’m trying to get you better service. This kid’s obviously not afraid.” She turns her attention back to me. “Seriously, do you cook or bus tables, wash dishes, what?”

I can’t believe she’s asking me this.

“I never heard of no Mexican named John Wayne,” Pete says.

Raul pulls out a couple of packets from the sugar caddie,” He’s not Mexican.”

“He is too” says Pete.

“I bet you think just because he’s dressed like that he’s got to be a Mexican.” Roberto says, winking at me.

Julia pours Roberto a cup of coffee and refills the other cups along the counter.

“Can I get you something, sugar?” She’s not buying the John Wayne thing.

“Water please, and no more ice.”

“Sure thing, you need a bigger glass? ” She looks down her nose at the three empty ones in front of me.

“Do you have a hose?” The guys around the counter laugh.

She takes the empty glasses and returns with a pitcher of ice-water and a large empty glass.

“Julia, could you get John here a burger and some fries? He looks hungry,” Roberto looks at me to make sure I’m okay with that.

“Yeah, please. My mom’ll pay for it when she gets here.”

“Awww, don’t worry about it. We’re going to be talking about this night for weeks.”

“You got that right,” says Pete.

“Speak for yourself ‘berto,” Raul says. “My life’s plenty interesting.”

“More interesting than this?” adds Digger. “What—you live in a circus?”

Laughter all around—me included.

 

 

 

When I’m done eating, Roberto asks, “you want another? I don’t think you tasted that one.”

“No thanks.” I did eat that pretty quick.

Julia arrives to pick up my plate. “What are you dressed up for anyway, really?”

 

I can feel everyone’s eyes on me.

“A contest—I mean a bet.” I’m definitely showing some signs of fatigue.

“Did you win?” asks Pete.

I nod and smile.

“I bet you did too, sugar.” Julia winks and puts the plate in a plastic bus tub, then makes her rounds refilling everyone’s coffee.

“If he’s the winner,” Digger adds, “I’d hate to see what the losers are wearing.”

Everyone falls about the place, Julia too, and even some people in booths near the counter.

Mike J Quinn About Mike J Quinn
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