Chapter 71

I open the back door of the restaurant with my keys and I’m greeted by the usual, accordion music, people singing along with the songs. “Aaahh haaaaa ha ha haaa!”  That came out of me! A few quieter shouts respond that I translate as either shock, or appreciation. Maybe both. Hey, this is now my music too. My story.

A round of congratulations, or welcome back, or whatever it is you say to someone who went away for a short time and has now come back. Wow, I’ve never been anywhere before. Rodrigo is the first to shake my hand, and Jesus just stands there with his mouth open.

“Hey it’s Frank, Frank Veeeelaaah.”  Rodrigo says. Okay, that now sounds ridiculous. I guess the only person I was fooling with that whole Frank Veela thing was me. God! I feel stupid—again. This is getting to be a regular thing with me these days—on both sides of the border. I wonder if there’s an alternate universe where I’m a total stud.

Greetings come from all around the kitchen.

“It’s Frank.”

“Hey Frank, que te pasa?”

“Ay, Frank!”

Everyone seems so happy. This feels oddly different.  I don’t feel like they’re as happy to see me as much as . . .  winking at me, sharing an inside joke, or maybe the shared experience of what it really takes to get here.

Spanish comes at me from every direction. “Ay yay yay!” This is so ridiculous. “I still don’t speak much Spanish you guys.” They look a little confused for about a second, and then they keep talking Spanish to me like I was only kidding.

This is still the best part of the day, just before the restaurant opens and it gets busy.

Robb sticks his head out the office door,  “Hi Francisco, I’ll be right with you, just hang out for a minute, okay buddy?”

Francisco? That was different. And when did Robb ever call me buddy? Before the door closes, I see Darren is in the little office too. Probably got the news he’s going to be the next assistant manager position—whenever that happens. I don’t seem to feel as disappointed as I thought I would.

Roselyn pushes her way through the small crowd that’s gathered around me. She smiles that big warm smile. “Frank, you look different.”

“Yeah, I know. In a good way I hope.” Did I just say that? She just looks at me and smiles. Is there something on my face? Everyone is staring at me.

Louisa and Rodrigo are giving me odd looks. Maybe it wasn’t the clothes after all.  Of course, Luisa always gives me strange looks. I don’t think I could ever win her approval.

The employees here look so much healthier than the kids their age in Mexico. Fatter. The kids in Mexico were scrawny. These guys are thicker, and older too, at least in the eyes. I know the innocence they’ve lost. I don’t think you can make that journey and not be changed by it. I’m now one of them. How does that make me feel?

Roselyn smiles and lights up the whole kitchen.  For the first time I notice, really notice, how white and perfect her smile is—and mine is, not-so-great, right now. I gotta remember not to smile too big.

“Hi Roselyn.” My words seem to bounce off the walls in a distinctly Mexican pronunciation of “Rosa-leen” as opposed to my usual American, “Rozlin.”

“Ay Frank! Qué tal sus vacaciones en México?”

“Roselyn, I know I may seem a little different, but I promise you I didn’t learn Spanish in the few days I was gone, but my vacation in Mexico was okay. Long story. And by the way, I think we all know my name’s not Frank.”

“I know, Francisco, but you do look and sound different. The sun in Mexico is strong, no?”

“Yeah, I did get a little darker.” I want to say, nobody told me when you spend a week in Mexico you come back a Mexican, but I catch myself in time.

“I’ll bring you some Aloe—“

“Francisco?” Robb’s voice cuts through the celebration.

He motions that he’s ready for me to come to the office, just as Darren is leaving it.

I turn back to Roselyn, “I’ll talk to you later” I say, pausing for a second to swim in her deep brown eyes. For some reason, her smile affects me differently. I feel very happy to see her, and highly aware of how I feel about it.

 

“Pancho, hey, how’s it going there, sport?” Darren glows as he walks by. His greetings are so irritatingly condescending.

“Great, how are you sport?” Right back at you!

“Hey, I know you’ll bounce back there—big guy!” That sealed it; now for sure I know what this meeting is going to be about.

“Come in Pancho, and close the door.”

Oh God! Here it comes. “Robb, I’m really sorry it took me so long to get here.”

“Darren and I took care of it.”

I nod. I notice the floor needs sweeping.

“Listen, I wanted to talk to you about your little problem. As I understand things, you had a difficult time crossing the border this week.”

“Yeah, can you believe it?”

“Yeah, I do, actually. Now you know what our policy is on hiring people who are not in this country legally.”

“Yeah, sure, but–“

“When corporate heard you were having trouble getting across the border, it threw up a few red flags, especially with your name and all . . . ”

“Robb! ”

“It’s really pretty simple. If the border police don’t think you should be here, then maybe we could get into trouble for having you, not only as an employee, but a manager.  Management is supposed to be an example of how things are done around here. And, frankly, now we’re all asking ourselves if you’ve allowed some of your primos, to work here when they should have been terminated.”

“Primos?” This is getting weirdly personal.

“In the business world it’s called a conflict of interest, and makes it difficult—no—impossible to know where your loyalties lie.”

I can’t believe it. My nightmare still isn’t over!

”So we’re going to have to let you go until this all gets straightened out.” He reaches for the clipboard.

“You got to be kidding.”

“I wish I was. We really like working with you Francisco—“

“Robb—“

You are a good worker and everyone here likes you. I don’t want to let you go, but the law states that we may only employ people with valid ID authorizing them to work here in the United States. The government has told us that the documentation you gave us does not match up with the information you provided, so we have to let you go. Should you fix this problem any time in the future, we would love to have you back.”

“I don’t believe this.” I see my termination form and an envelope on the clipboard.

Here is your last paycheck. Please sign right here acknowledging you received it. Thank you and Good luck.

There’s the Counseling Review form that says I am being terminated, for being unable to present legal documentation when entering this country.

Well, they always know how to word it so they can keep their hands clean. I’m not being fired for having insufficient or illegal documentation. I am being terminated for being suspected of having invalid documents, due to someone else’s actions. Other than that, it is all standard stuff. It feels so unreal to see my name on that paper.

“And now if you don’t mind, I’ve got to get ready for the orientation this afternoon.”

“Listen, there’s no problem with my ID, heck, I’ve worked here for over two years—“

“Look, I really don’t have time for this. You know that if it were up to me, I’d have bought you another week or two, you know, to train your replacement.” His grin is a sly reminder of an inside joke. Now he’s making fun of me.

“Robb, you have to believe me—“

He stands up, “No Frank, or should I say, Francisco, I don’t. You lied to us all along, and have been conspiring against us to employ illegal aliens, which can set us up for fines and other legal problems. It’s people like you that are making it tough for hard-working Americans to get jobs—“

“Americans? You seen many American applications lately, Robb?”

“Look, I’m sorry, but I’m out of time, now if you’ll excuse me.” He walks out of the office, and me, being in the way, I get pushed out first.

That’s it. I’m now unemployed. I probably can’t use these last two years as a reference either. Any prospective employer will assume that if I was let go due to the “suspicion” of having invalid ID, that would be enough for them to not even bother trying to check it themselves. This so sucks!

 

Robb slams the door and walks past the cooks to go out into the front lobby and open up. Everyone is standing there staring at me. This is so awkward. The terminator—getting terminated.  I think I’ll forgo the, “I’ll be back,” line. I probably won’t.

“Adios muchachos y muchachas”

A chorus of “Adios Frank” and “Via Con Dios” from my former crew. Something is almost familiar about this. I turn around and see all the smiling, sad faces, just like when I fired someone for not having legal ID documents. I can’t go out like this. This is bullshit!

“Nooooooo!” My voice echoes around the silent stainless steel kitchen and all stunned eyes are on me.

“Look Pancho—“

“No you look Robb. I’m not going out like this. My name is Francisco Carlos Villa, and only my friends can call me Pancho.

“My whole life I’ve tried to be just an American, while everyone around me made fun of my Mexican name. This whole past week I’ve been branded a Mexican, or an American, and even some other less than nice labels. Well, I’ve had enough.

“I was born in California and that makes me an American, AND I have the blood of Mexico running through my veins. I am a Mexican-American and it’s okay to be both. I am who I am and nobody, not even myself, is going to tell me I’m just one or the other any more and if you can’t deal with that, then you can kiss my Mexican American Ass!”

A small celebration of “Viva Mexico” and “Viva Pancho Villa,” breaks out, then Robb walks back through and everyone gets back to work. He gives me the evil eye. “I’m going.”

As I open the back door to leave, a young Mexican kid walks up and smiles. “Hola, señor. Tienes trabajo?” I can tell by how skinny he is that he has not been in the country very long and I’m not surprised he’s already trying to find work. He looks fifteen. Too young to be missing his youth. I want to help him, but I’m in no position to . . . or am I?

“No muchacho. Tu no quiero trabajo aquis.” His expression changes from polite to shocked, in the blink of an eye-yay-yay. “Busca trabajo . . . mas . . .” I wave my hand outward, hoping I’m not just insulting the young man by saying: you don’t want to work here, go somewhere else.

 

I follow the kid out onto the street. I at least have it better than him. I have a real ID. In fact, at this exact moment I think I have two. I know we both will eventually find a job through perseverance and an eager smile. I’ll at least be able to keep my job after they check my ID, unless I decide to take another trip to Mexico. I bet we’ll run into each other again some day.

Mike J Quinn About Mike J Quinn
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