Chapter 1

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One quick jab and the blade slides in all the way to the handle. A spray of warm liquid soaks my hand and the front of my shirt and the faint afternoon breeze cools it to perfection, releasing a flood of emotions, pent up frustration from years of unloved anger at the hands of my father, a dishwasher father, no less, that valued us so little he ran off to Mexico leaving my mother and me to fend for ourselves, treating us like garbage, to be disposed of when no longer useful, filling me with a thirst for vengeance, cool and refreshing, sharp as this knife, and I’m just getting started.

I thrust again, and again, and again, and I am now soaked in wet relief against the dry Arizona desert heat. I move to the other side and this time I shove the knife in halfway, then pull, slicing a ten-inch gash along the side, releasing a torrent of liquid and I watch as the greedy desert drinks up every drop, leaving behind a dark puddle shaped stain. Willie cheers me on. This is my first one. “Consider yourself baptized kid.” Willie says, filling up his canteen with one of the last of the uncut water jugs. When the canteen is full, he screws the top back on and pours what’s left in the jug over his chubby, hairless face and extra-large olive drab shirt. We will be dry again in less than five minutes, but for now, we are like kids playing in the sprinklers on a lazy summer’s day.

This is the kind of thing I signed up for. Finally I’m able to help protect my country from the invading hordes of freeloaders that threaten to ruin it. I’m gonna catch some of those cockroaches before they get in and do their damage.

I hand the knife back to Willie, and he puts it in the brown leather sheath that hangs a little cockeyed from his belt. Shane quietly slices open another water jug, making the ground around this water station look dark and bloated. Note to self; next time bring a knife.

“This really gets me,” Willie shouts. “Some stark-raving liberal not only put all these containers of water underneath this table, but then he covered it all up with this tarp so it wouldn’t get too hot.” He pulls out his knife again and slices up the offending tarp. “What, did they run out of ice or something?”

Someone paid good money for this water. There must be fifty gallons of it here, and that idiot not only bought the water, but he had to drive all the way out here in the middle of nowhere to leave it for people who shouldn’t even be out here in the first place. So what if those rats die of thirst. Serves them right. Maybe they should stay in Mexico where they belong. “Damn Communists.” I say. “Why don’t they buy them bus tickets while they’re at it?”

“Yeah, it makes no sense. It’s like going on vacation and leaving your safe open so a thief won’t have to go through the trouble of picking the lock.”

“And don’t forget to leave a light on in the room so they don’t trip on anything on their way to the safe,” Shane says, staring into his iPhone.

“Yeah, ha ha! And tape a note over the safe that says, the car is in the garage,” Willie grins, “the keys are in the ignition.”

“And there’s a credit card in the glove box,” I add, “in case you run out of gas.”

“You got that right. Haaaaa.” Willie lets loose with one of his trademark laughs that make this long, hot, dusty hike somewhat bearable. “What good is using a desert as a natural fence if you’re going to leave all this water out here?” He picks up his binoculars and scans the desert for signs of our prey.

I move closer to Shane to try and see what he’s looking at on his iPhone. His cold blue eyes, thin face and two-day beard make him look at home in this inhospitable environment. “What is that?” I ask.

“It’s called an iPhone kid, where you been—haaa!” Willie says, walking up to us, his constant grin leading the way.

“You need all the tools you can get out here.” Shane adds, his thumbs working furiously on the small screen in his hands.

“Want to track down illegal aliens in the desert?” Willie grins, “There’s an app for that.”

“Really?” Hmmm. There are hundreds of thousands of apps for those things. I wouldn’t be surprised. . .

“Triple I” Willie says, as if anticipating my question.

“That’s the name of the app?”

“Yep! We call it triple I, but the Mexicans call it, ‘eye, eye, eye’, haaaa.” Willie says, laughing at his own joke.

Even Shane smiles at that one, and he hardly ever smiles. “Lets get moving,” he says, picking up his Winchester lever-action 30-30, his eyes constantly scanning the low rolling hills and miles of flat, sage and cactus filled desert, moving from side to side, rarely staying on one thing for very long. You can almost see his mind working, calculating, asking questions and drawing conclusions, years of military training, now put to good use at home. Even his clothes are military issue: floppy camouflage hat; camouflage long sleeved shirt with all those pockets; camouflaged pants with more pockets; and those light brown desert storm army boots.

I stand back for a second to get a better look at my two new friends, and get the strangest feeling, like I’m in the desert, tracking desperadoes with Clint Eastwood and John Candy. Shane is the highest ranking person out here, so we do what he says—when he says anything at all.

I make sure my canteen is full, while Willie carves up the last water jug and sets it on top the table, like an evil plastic Jack-O-Lantern. It definitely sends a message—Go Home!

“Hey Frank, why are you out here in the middle of this god forsaken desert instead of in your nice air-conditioned bedroom chugging Red Bull and playing video games?” Willie asks.

Shane glances back at me to get my reaction. I’d better make this good. This whole excursion is like one long introduction and my performance will determine whether I’m asked back or not. “Because I want to help my country.”

“You’re just a kid.” Shane growls. “What do you know about helping your country?” He doesn’t wait for an answer, he just shifts his attention back to the seemingly lifeless desert.

What a doofus! Why would I say that to an Iraq war veteran? “I’m doing for our country what our government doesn’t have the balls to do.”

“Hey, if he were a Miss America contestant, I’d vote for him—haaa!”

Shane looks over at Willie, “I bet you would.”

“Shut up.” Willie laughs and kicks a rock toward his friend.

Great, I’m coming off as a contestant in some game show. “I work with lots of these rats every day and what irritates me the most is having to fire them for using fake ID’s, then having to hire and train someone else to take their place, and they’re probably going to have fake ID’s too, so I’ll have to fire them and do the whole process all over again—forever. It never stops.”

“Purgatory,” Shane says, nodding his disapproval and squinting in his binoculars.

“Well, it feels like hell out here,” Willie laughs, “I think you’re moving in the wrong direction kid.”

“Yeah, I’d rather be stranded on a deserted island and have to take a volleyball to the senior prom, than have to keep doing this all the time. I swear I’m about to crack up.”

Willie’s forehead scrunches up, “Volleyball?”

“Contact!” Shane says. We all freeze.

Chapter 2

Willie picks up his binoculars and looks in the direction Shane is pointing. Another note to self; get some binoculars. “Yep, good eye Shane. I see about six of ‘em.”

“That’s what I counted. I’ll call it in.” Shane takes out his iPhone again. Wow! There’s cell coverage out here? Man, I gotta get a cell phone too. Why did that Minuteman recruiter-guy say all I needed was a hat, good boots, a bag lunch, and a big canteen? I guess I shoulda known he wasn’t very detail oriented when he didn’t question me about not having a driver’s license. Thank God Shane showed me the bandana under the baseball cap trick, or my neck would have been toast by now, even with my sweat-proof sunscreen. They shoulda been more specific about hats too. I’m lucky I even brought a bandana. I was going to just bring some Kleenex, but I didn’t think there would be any place to throw away the used ones. Thank God, my hay fever hasn’t acted up.

“Willie, they want to know if you see any guns?”

Guns?

“Nope. Hard to tell from this distance though.”

I look around for cover. If shooting starts, I’m gonna need some place to hide. The scrub around here is waist high at best, and loosely scattered. The ground is cracked and dry and it’s gotta be over a hundred and five degrees out here. How these small trees and bushes stay alive, I can’t even imagine. One thing is for sure: none of this stuff is going to stop a bullet.

“You see any packs, Willie?”

“Nope. Looks like a family.”

“They’re probably not armed. . . Roger that.” Shane slides his iPhone into one of the many pockets in his desert cammo shirt. “ETA twenty minutes.”

“Here we go kid, your first capture.” Willie looks like he’s having the time of his life, but all I can think about is: am I safe out here?

“You think they’ll send out a chopper?” I ask.

“They only send out the big guns for drugs,” Willie says,

“Why is that?”

“Smugglers carry AR-15’s and AK-47’s.”

“Keep chatter to a minimum,” Shane says, taking a brief moment to scowl at us.

I’ve heard of AK-47’s before, but I don’t know what an AR-15 is. I bet Shane knows how to take them both apart and put them back together again—blindfolded.

Maybe I should join the Army after I finish high school.

“Keep an eye out for Immigration, kid,” Shane whispers.

Willie holds out his arm and points. “You’ll see a cloud of dust coming from the west.”

I look where he’s pointing and notice the afternoon sun is finally falling. It should be cooling off soon.

Shane starts running, and Willie and I follow after him.

“Shouldn’t we wait for Immigration?”

“If we don’t get on the other side of these guys before they see the dust from the

Immigration truck, we may lose them,” Willie says.

After a few minutes I see a small dust cloud coming from the west. “I see them.”

Shane looks back to see for himself. “That’s Immigration all right.” He drops to one knee and looks through his binocular to monitor the illegals. Willie does the same. I drop to one knee and stay focused on the ever growing dust cloud. “If they were a patrol in Iraq, the enemy would be the last thing they’d ever see.” Shane looks at his watch. “He’ll be here in five. Spread out.” He gets to his feet and runs even faster.

“Keep me in sight, but stay fifty or so yards behind me,” Willie says. “We want to make a wide net so they don’t escape around us.” With that he’s off on a sprint too.

For a big guy, he can sure move. I have no problem letting him get ahead of me. This heat is draining me of energy. The only thing that really keeps me moving, is the thought of possibly getting separated and stuck out here all by myself.

Finally, Willie stops. He holds his hand out, telling me to stop too. The moment I stand still, I hear voices. They see the dust. Willie pulls out a pistol from his backpack. More guns. Great. I look around for a stick.

The sound of footsteps racing toward me makes me wonder what I do next. I heard on the news, about a week ago, a border patrol agent got shot out here. I have the overwhelming feeling I shouldn’t be here right now. My legs are shaking. What if I can’t do this?

To my right, the dust cloud grows larger, closer. I’m suddenly hit with a question that turns my stomach: what if it’s not a family? Lots of Mexicans are short. It could be a bunch of short Mexican drug runners. They could all have guns!

I hear some yelling and some guns cocking. A Mexican kid suddenly pops up, running full speed, right at me, fear in his eyes, desperation on his face. He’s a couple of years younger than me, and doesn’t appear to have a gun. This is it: the moment I’ve been waiting for. The chance to stop these freeloaders before they get into my country, drain our economy, make us take care of them, educate their children and not pay a dime in taxes, not to mention get our women pregnant before running out on them and leaving them to fend for themselves while they go back to Mexico, and come back with new names and identities, ready to do it all over again. I can stop them right now before they have a chance to turn my country into the crappy one they’re trying to escape.

I leap at him with all the hate and fury I possess, from years worth of anger, disappointment, and rejection; all the materials that a life without possibility of satisfaction can accumulate. We fall to the ground, but he pulls himself free. If I lose him, I’ll lose the respect of Shane and Willie. I’ll have blown my chance to help keep these free-loaders out of my country. A thousand possible failures flood my brain, none of which I can possibly live with. I get to my knees and hit him hard on the chin. He rolls over a bit and before he can get away, I crawl over to him and hit him again, and again, and again. He’s stopped resisting, but my adrenaline is pumping wildly, and my breathing is quick and deep, like I just finished the hundred yard dash. I hit him in the stomach a few times to stop him from struggling, just like the jocks do to me at school when they have an audience, or when just making fun of my name has lost it’s magic for them.

I keep hitting him again and again, then I hear someone shout my name. I look up—it’s Shane. I stand up and pull my prisoner to his feet. He is crying and saying something in Spanish, but my breathing is too loud for me to understand what he’s saying. I grab ahold of his arm and lead him in the direction Shane is pointing. Everyone is gathered in an open area, just on the other side of some short, bushy trees. This is a family. Looks like I got the older son. There is also a teenage girl, elementary school age boy, a thirty-something mother, and a thirty-something father. My prisoner runs to his mom, while Dad tries to give me a dirty look without Shane or Willie seeing it too.

Thank God! This could have turned out much worse. What if it had been drug runners? I don’t have a gun. Do I need a gun? Did the recruiter even know what goes on out here?

Shane and Willie look over my prisoner, and then look at me with big, proud smiles. I’m one of them now.

A modified tan pickup truck with a white camper shell with the words U.S. Border Patrol stenciled on the sides pulls up next to us. “How did the border patrol know right where to find us?” I ask, trying to keep my voice from cracking with excitement.

“He’s got an app for that too.” Willie says, recovering his comic nature.

“You all call for a taxi?” the Border Patrol agent asks.

Willie laughs, but he’s the only one. Shane and I spend a moment taking in our handiwork.

Defeat rises out of the group in a sad, angry surrender. The mother hides her sadness from us behind her husbands back, the father’s eyes go from his son to me and back again, stopping briefly in between to calculate the wasted expense and effort.

“No Coyote?” The Border Patrol agent asks, sizing up the group in front of us.

“He tore out of here like he had jalapenos in his pants,” Willie says.

The officer says something to them in Spanish, and they all put their hands on

their heads. He starts with the father and works his way down, tying their hands behind their backs with plastic zip-tie handcuff things. The older son and I stare at each other for a minute. We are almost the same age.

After they’re all handcuffed and frisked, the border patrol agent makes them all get in the back of the truck. They sit on metal benches and have to watch their heads so as not to bump them against the low ceiling. The despair in their eyes is priceless. Soon they’ll be on their way back to where they came from. This is so much better than watching the news.

“I’d give you guys a lift, but . . .” The immigration officer nods towards the collection of backpacks, jackets, hats, bags, water bottles, and other miscellaneous belongings on the front seat of his truck.

“That’s okay,” Shane says, “We walked here, we can walk back,”

“Thanks for making this one so easy.”

“Just doing what our country doesn’t have the balls to do,” replies Willie, winking at me.

We watch the truck bounce off towards the highway, getting up to about twenty-five or thirty miles per hour, seemingly unaware there isn’t a road out here. Willie laughs, “That right there’s called ‘making margaritas.’”

I watch the truck take a few good bounces, imagine the family in the back, bouncing off the hard benches, metal truck bed and hard plastic camper shell and get what he means.

“There was a Coyote with these guys?” I ask.

“They’re always the first to run.” Shane says.

“They get hit hard when they get caught.” Willie shakes the dust from his hat.

“Prison time, fines, and I hear they get banned from the country for life.”

“He started running the same time you saw the dust,” Shane takes a few swigs from his canteen. “That’s why we had to run to get on the other side of them before this turned into an all-day chase.”

“You mean he just left his customers there all by themselves?”

Willie looks at me with an expression of disbelief. “You think Coyotes care about these people?”

“Hell, most of them rape the women they bring here, and the guys just let ‘em do it,” Shane adds.

“They don’t do anything to stop them?” I ask.

“Can’t. Without ‘em, they’d be dead.” Willie takes a long drink from his canteen and reminds me I’m pretty thirsty myself.

“They’re predators—animals.” Shane’s face hardens as he talks. His voice loses all emotion, and a gravelly monotone carries the words over the hot, dry Arizona desert air. “They get paid thousands of dollars whether their customers make it or not, and they take whatever pleasure they want from whoever they want.” His pale blue eyes stare out into the desert, like he can almost see where the Coyote is going, what he looks like, how he’s dressed, where he may be hiding.

“You wanna go after him?” I ask.

“Nah, those guys are like rabbits. By the time we’d catch up to him, the border patrol would be back at the station, and we’d be out of cell phone range.” He takes a swig of his canteen and wipes his chin with the back of his arm, then screws the top back on. “The sooner we bring the military out here and pick off the Coyotes before moving in to capture the others, the quicker this whole thing will be over. Nobody will want to be a Coyote if they’re paid with silver on that side of the border, and lead on this side.”

“Time to start heading back,” Willie says.

Shane takes one last look out over the desert, while I take a long cool drink from my canteen.

“Looks like they’re taking the bumpy way home.” Shane says with just the slightest hint of a grin. We watch the truck bob, and toss and turn and claw it’s way out of the desert. At times, rooster tails of dirt, and scrub shoot fifteen feet in the air. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think a couple of teenagers were out here four-wheeling and having fun. The truck suddenly leaps into the air, and lands, throwing up a huge wake of dust and scrub high above it. “Wa-hooo. Did you see that?” I ask.

“Yeah, that would be one of the perks of working out here,” says Willie. “Four wheelin’ on the job.”

As we walk back to Willie’s truck I notice my clothes are heavily stained with mud from sweat and dust. I’m going to look pretty strange walking home from Denny’s where we all piled into Willies truck before coming here.

“Hey, Frank, do they make you learn Spanish in school?” Willie asks.

“Nah. I heard that too, but they must have just started doing that, because I never had to. I do have to learn to speak it at work though.”

“Work? Damn, you just can’t escape it nowadays.”

“Yeah, not only do they come here to get a free education, free medical services, and free lunches, they don’t have the decency to learn the language of the land that’s giving everything to them.”

“We should just make them,” Shane says.

“How?”

“Just have everything in English. Period.” Shane shifts his rifle from his left hand to his right, and rests it against his shoulder. “I bet if they had to order food in English, they’d be pretty fluent in a month.”

“Or starve to death,” I add.

“Either way it, it’s fine with me.”

“This is the USA, and it needs to stay that way,” says Willie. “At the rate we’re going now, instead of this being North and South America, it’s going to be called North and South Latin America.”

We all stop and notice the dust storm appears again in the west. “Hey, what you think they’re coming back for?” asks Willie.

Shane shrugs and pulls up his binoculars with his free hand. “That’s not immigration—it’s them.”

“Who are them?”

“Cowboys.”

Chapter 3

A black Ford F-250 four-wheel drive pickup with two spotlights atop a beefy black padded roll bar pulls up next to us.  Inside the truck are a couple of rednecks, a few years older than me, wearing sleeveless t-shirts we call “wife-beaters,” which give their muscular tattoos some room to breathe. Both have tattoos of eagles, clutching things like arrows or spears and an American flag.  Each of them has a movable spotlight with big black handles right outside their windows. In the bed of the truck, holding onto their rifles with one hand and the roll bar with the other, are two thinner rednecks. They are about my age and it looks like they all shop at the same clothing store. There’s also a whole lot less of them sticking out of their shirts than the two in the cab, and from here their tattoos look more like crows than eagles.

“Seen your work over at the water station,” the driver says.

“Yeah, nice.” Agrees one of the guys in the back.

Silence.

“Thanks,” I say. Shane locks eyes with the driver, and Willie looks the whole bunch over.

“What are you boys up to tonight?” asks Willie.

“Same as usual,” the driver says.

“Rabbit huntin.” The guy riding shotgun grins, and spits a black stream of tobacco out the window and the dusty desert floor balls it up, making it look like a fuzzy black caterpillar. It seems even the desert has its standards regarding what liquids it will soak up, and what it won’t.

Each of the skinny guys in the back picks up a dead jackrabbit by the ears so we can see them. They must be five feet long from ears to feet. I never knew rabbits could get so big.  Leaning up against the back of the cab and tied to the roll bar, I see a pick and two shovels. One of the skinny guys sees me looking. “In case we get stuck out here,” he says.

“Yeah,” his buddy agrees. “We just dig ourselves out.”

“You got all your bases covered as usual,” Shane says, his eyes never leaving the drivers’.

“Got to,” replies the driver. He leans over and sticks his head part way out the window, “Those damn wetbacks don’t play by the rules—who says we have to?”

“Only two?” Willie asks, nodding toward the guys with the rabbits.

“We got a coyote yesterday,” replies the guy riding shotgun.

“Was it alone?” Shane asks.

“Nope- I got his friend,” says the driver, grinning from ear to ear. “Where you guys lining up these days?”

“We got teams of threes and fours every 5 miles or so for the next twenty miles,” Shane says.

“I saw Immigration making it’s way back to town.” The driver cracks an evil smile. “Makin’ Margaritas were they?”

“Yeah, we got five of ‘em,” Willie says.

“I told you Bobby, I told you,” says one of the skinny guys in the back.

“Any get away?” The driver asks.

”A coyote,” Willie says.

“Oh well, one thing about wetbacks is: there’s plenty more where they came from,” says Bobby, as he secures the dead rabbits in the bed of the truck.

“We’re just heading in. I imagine the night crew will be half our numbers,” Willie says.

“Thanks. Okay boys, lets go huntin’ coyotes.” The driver hits the gas and the two guys in the back snatch their guns with one hand and leap for the roll bar with the other.

They bounce eastward over the ruts and weeds and mesquite, leaving a dust cloud behind them. It’s a wonder we catch anybody with vehicles. That coyote’s probably long gone by now, but then again, that truck can cover a lot more ground in an hour than a person on foot.

We follow tire tracks until we are back at Willie’s truck, parked by a gate on the side of the highway.

We all pile into the old, blue, GMC pickup that brought us here, and when Willie turns the ignition we’re immediately assaulted by his air conditioning, pumping out hot air like a blow dryer. He quickly turns it down, and then turns up the country music. From here on out, we’re left to our own thoughts with a mournful soundtrack playing in the background.

When we get to the Denny’s we all met at earlier in the day, Shane and I pile out of the truck and stretch our legs. “Thanks for the training guys, I appreciate it.”

“Any time kid,” Willie says. “Ask for us next time you go out, we’d love to have you.”

“I’m sure you’ll be better prepared,” Shane adds before getting into his car.

“Yeah, I got it, believe me.”

“Good boy, see ya later.” Willie waves and drives off.

Shane just drives away. No wave, no goodbye. Pleasantries are a waste of energy for him. I want to be that cool.

I have about seven blocks to walk home. My mind is awash with all the new things I learned today as well as a hundred new questions I never knew to ask before, such as, where do these rats go after we capture them? What happens to them next? Do they get deported, or do we pay for them to have an attorney?

When I get home, I shower and heat up one of the meals my mother has pre-made and wrapped up for me. We hardly ever see each other. She works two, sometimes three jobs, and I either go to school full time or work. It’s always been like this.

Before I fall asleep, I wonder what everyone at Taco Bell would think if tomorrow I told them I’m a Minuteman.

 

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Chapter 4

I get out of the shower, and there it is. My nemesis. That hateful thing. It holds court over the entire bathroom and watches my every move.

Hazel eyes, dark brown hair, thick and short, like a bear’s hide. Pale and speckless cheeks stretched over sad, thin bones. Clean-shaven, smooth skin, not yet dried and hammered by the sun. The once powerful rage of acne has retreated to a few blackheads and scattered pimples stubbornly resisting the dryness of age, on spotted, ghostly shoulders. Progress? Do I look older and wiser? Too soon to tell. Part man, yet still part boy. When will I ever grow up?

He stares back at me. Silent. Resentful.  The mirror is a politician; a lying stranger hired to serve a need—but never does. The mirror has an agenda, hidden behind its silvery curtain, lurking just below the surface, smiling, barely controlling its own laughter. But all I see is what it wants me to see. What it thinks I want to see. What I think I really see.

It serves a secret twisted purpose—the mirror. I’ve learned to hate it, resent its fake smile, it’s mocking eyes. I vow one day to get a new one, but I never do. They are all false confessors anyway, and they weave lies with the truth so cleverly, so artistically, it can be impossible to separate one from the other. Such is the tapestry of life. Believe it all or nothing; what choice is there?

In school they teach that life is binary. Black & white, on and off, good or bad. But in the real world there are many shades of grey, yet somewhere inside the depth of shaded space is an invisible line that once crossed–changes everything. Truth can be bent until it becomes a lie.  Good things can be used for bad ends, and the good gets beaten out of it. Somewhere from good to bad, a line is crossed and binary seems to be the law. Hot to cold, up to down, black to white, hero to criminal. The mirror is where binary meets the infinite palate of life.  Like or don’t like, hot or not, friend or un-friend. Polite society is in perpetual contradiction with it’s Law and Order court systems where guilt is always obvious, set against it’s Siskel and Ebert movie reviews, where everyone gets to choose one side, or the other, and be right no matter which side you’re on.

When I was a kid, the lies didn’t seem so obvious. Of course when I was young, the mirrors didn’t lie either. They revealed the youth I wished were older, the ugly I wished were cute, the skinny I wished were strong, the pitted I wished were smooth, the spotted I wished were not.

Mirrors tell the truth too much and earn a hard reputation. You begin to trust its brutal honesty, agree with its unfair accusations, and then one day you look different. The thing that stares back at you pretends to be you, but you know it’s not. The man you wanted to be is not there, just some impostor pretending to be you—the person you always knew deep down inside you would become.

He is neither rich, nor easy to look at. His body is not swathed in iron and dipped in bronze. There is no crown upon his head, or vengeful sword by his side. His eyes do not shine with the courage of a thousand vanquished fears.

I remember the ugly scrawny little kid I used to be, but the mirror won’t indulge me. My youth is almost gone except for the last fading spots on my nose, or maybe those are lies too, and in its place is this. . .  loveless thing. Don’t look too long and get trapped in its lies. Hypnotized. Changed. Look away. Never stare into the Hydra. Never admit the link. The secret. The truth.

Mirrors are at least kinder than photographs. Pictures suck the fantasy right out of life.

Oh, crap, what time is it?

Dark brown pants, dark brown vest, dull yellow “Shift Leader” name tag. A gold “1” year pin, dark brown tie, dark brown socks; I’m a pauper, not a knight.

The promises made long ago, the ones where they say you can be anything you want are like a rainbows; you see one, you know it’s there, but the more you walk towards it, the more it laughs and says, I am here, come closer, you are not far. But you never arrive, and the rainbow bids you come, like a beautiful dream. I am neither young nor old. I am in the valley in-between. The pit. Purgatory, just like Shane said.

Time to brush my teeth. Careful, don’t get any white specks on the mirror; break it’s spell, provoke it’s wrath. Put the toothbrush down and comb my hair forward. Time to go, can’t be late. Dark peppermint for breakfast again.

God I hate working mornings.  What is it about mirrors these days? The more I begin to look like a man, the less I like it. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? I seem to be stuck right in the middle of a morph, the part where you change from one thing into another, but right smack dab in the middle. I wonder if there’s a word for that. I should look it up. Maybe use it in my next poem or story.

I take a peek out the window and get more bad news. An early rain is misting down. Summer is ending so soon? Didn’t they used to be longer?

I gotta get going.

In the closet by the door I see an umbrella and a clear plastic poncho. First rain—a sprinkle really, but it could get worse; grab them both. The large white box on the floor, the one that holds all the shameful things; it always. . . it’s like every time I see it. . . I hate that we keep it. I hate she hangs on to something so bitter, so humiliating. She needs to move on.  I wonder if she’d miss it, if it were just gone one day.

Chapter 5

A large Taco Bell truck is parked by the back door and the short, stout Mexican driver is fussing with the lift. I open the door and prop it open, flooding the drive-thru with happy accordion music. The smell of spiced taco meat and simmering beans tells me I’m not in Germany.

I put my umbrella and poncho in a corner to dry. The little delivery guy is right behind me with the invoice. Perfect timing. Nobody likes to check in the food and I always seem to be the guy that does it. I hope Robb notices.

I go over and remove the food order clipboard from the wall, take the invoice from the cheerful little rat, and go outside to begin comparing the delivery we’re receiving today, to the order we placed a few days ago. I’m in and out of the building just long enough to get the stink of the back of the house in my nose, and an overdose of “Ayeee yayeeee yayeeee,” in my ears.

I’m officially in a war zone that is dressed up to look like a friendly version of the enemy: menus in English, English speaking counter people. It’s pretty shrewd really; being able to look like an American impersonation of Mexico, when in fact, it’s really a piece of America reclaimed by Mexico—just look inside.

I begin highlighting the items on the shipping invoice that I see on the pallet. The driver is the same cockroach that normally delivers the food. He’s almost finished cutting the long band of twelve-inch wide plastic wrap that keeps the pallet and all its cardboard boxes together. He is a little older than me, but you would hardly know it. His lighter brown uniform, already stained from his earlier deliveries, strains at his movements. His jet black hair is short like mine, but his smile and constant calmness are what tells me this guy doesn’t have to deal with people very much.

When you deal with people—lots of people—things go to hell in a heartbeat, and often for no reason at all. That’s what people do; they look for any reason they can think of to complain so they can save a buck or two. It doesn’t matter to them if you get into trouble, or your reputation is tarnished, or if it costs someone else some money. All that matters is that their commands be obeyed, their egos get stroked, and they get to live the life of an emperor for an hour. Then it’s time to go back to work and be Doris Doodlemeyer—file clerk once again.

Waiting on the public is the hardest thing anyone could have to endure. Every day there’s always a complainer, trying to get something for nothing by making up bullshit stories of poor service or food. Many a person’s honor is cheaply bought, or traded for a taco and a soda.

This driver sees none of it.

I shout out items that are on the list, but I don’t see, and he moves things around and points to the items on the pallet. It looks like he’s being helpful, but he just wants to get this over with too.

Looks like we’re missing a couple of bags of shredded carrots.

“Hey, donday esta la carrotas?” God I hate speaking Spanish, but this guy’s English is almost non-existent, and his extremely heavy accent makes everything he says sound like Spanish anyway.  Why do they hire people to do jobs they aren’t suited for? I bet some American is in the unemployment line because this guy works cheaper. Look at him, just standing there, smiling at me with a deer in the headlights look so familiar with these non-English speaking people. Okay, I’ll try it again, this time a little louder and slower,            “Dooondaaay eeeestaaa laaa caaarroootaaaas?”

He had to have heard me that time. This is stupid, really—it’s his fricking language. Now he looks even more confused, like I’m speaking a foreign language or something, which I am, but it’s foreign for me, not him.

“Hola Frank, What’s up?”

“Oh, Roselyn, thank God! This guy doesn’t speak Spanish or what?”

“Frank, calm down. What is it you tried to say to him?”

“Were missing two five pound bags of shredded carrots.” Thank God for the ones who care enough to learn English.

“What was it you asked for?”

“I just told you, I asked him for the carrots, you know, the carrotas.” Why is she laughing? She is trying not to, but. . .  and look, the driver is smiling and pretending to be in on the joke too. What the heck is wrong with these people?

“Zanahorias, Frank. Carrots are called zanahorias in Spanish, not carrotas.” Now they’re both busting up.

Oh, really? Like I’m supposed to know that? She keeps laughing, getting the rest of it out of her system, and the driver follows along. Great, now I’m the stupid one? I start to reply, when a young Mexican kid walks up. He’s smiling and looking at us, like he’s in on the joke too, but he couldn’t have heard anything. “Can I help you?” I ask.

He says something in Spanish, but he speaks so fast I can’t understand a word of it. It’s like those people who leave a nice and slow message on your answering machine, and then blurt out their phone number right before they hang up. What is up with that? Can’t anybody speak clearly and with the intent of being understood?

“Let me take this for you,” Roselyn says, grabbing the clipboard from my hands. “Looks like you have a new employee.”

”But you don’t know where I left–“

“I got it Frank, don’t worry, you are busy.”

The delivery guy suddenly loses his smile. “Momentito, momentito,” he says as he scrambles back into the truck, probably to find the missing carrot- zana. . . whatever.

“Ok, come with me kid.”

The smell of beans and beef is like a dirty fragrant welcome-mat. In a minute or two I won’t even notice it.  In ten minutes this will be what I’ll smell like.

I walk to the wall with the row of clipboards hanging on it, and the “new hire” clipboard has an application on it, let me see. . .  “Francisco?”

“Si, Francisco, si” he smiles, his dark and dry face cracks and folds at his eyes. Even his lips are cracked, but his hair is neat. New haircut. His eyes hold an eagerness for this job I can’t understand. His new brown pants, black belt, and black shoes have obviously been bought for this job. What a dufus. He will barely make back the money he paid for those clothes before we have to fire him for not having legal ID. I wonder why we even go through this charade. Half our crew is on a revolving door and we are constantly training and hiring new people just to keep up. This guy is obviously fresh off the boat. Look how skinny he is. Why do we let these people abuse us like this? Oh well, he’ll do for now, I guess. We lost Manuel last week because his ID was no good and we’ll be running short until we get this guy up to speed.

I look through the window into the office and see Robb Haley, the General Manager. I knock and wave, just to let him know I’m here.

He opens the door.  “Frank, good, you met the new guy. Get him I-9’d and have him watch the videos.  We’re term’ing Jose M today, his ID is no good. I’m getting his last paycheck ready now.”

Robb winks as he closes the door to the office. He knows I like the poetic justice of having people train their own replacement. I’ve done it many times before. Heck, if it were up to me, I’d make it standard procedure. After all, you were being replaced for something you did so you might as well help out in the process. We’ll term him at the end of the day and get one last shift out of him. We trained him and now just when he’s getting good, we have to train somebody else. We have to let him go: company policy. We could face huge fines if we’re caught hiring illegals.

“Okay Francisco, let’s get a soda before we sit down and fill out this paperwork.”  I hand him a cup and we each grab a coke and sit at a booth that lets me see the employees working. They goof off less when they know I’m watching—lazy cockroaches.

I spread the papers around and start filling them out. That damn boom box gets on my nerves.  It constantly plays that stupid Mexican music and this song appears to be everyone’s favorite. Never trust a country whose national instrument is an accordion. I can’t wait ‘till we open and I can turn on the Muzak. Anything’s better than this.

“Tienes papeles?”  I ask. He has to have two forms of ID for us to hire him.

He hands me a green card, and a social security card.  They both look okay—I guess. How am I supposed to know what a counterfeit looks like? I’m not an expert; I’m a restaurant manager for Christ’s sake. If we really wanted to keep illegal workers from coming here we would ship them back to Mexico once we found out they were here illegally, but oh no, let’s not actually do something about this problem. Instead, we let them work for two to three months, give them a paycheck, and let them get a job somewhere else. Yeah, big disincentive.

I write down the information on the form and sign to the fact that I actually looked at these documents, but I am under no obligation to actually make a copy; I wonder if anyone does.

Here’s this kid sitting across form me: young, able, eager for work. Why doesn’t he just get the legal papers? It just sounds so much easier and a lot less hassle to do this legally, than this illegal routine, with having to sneak into the country too. By the time you calculate in all the time it takes to get here, the expense of getting here, and the expense of acquiring all the necessary fake IDs. These guys probably spend about half of what they make just to get the job. They also probably pay ten times what real documents would cost to the counterfeiters. What a waste. And with the rent and food, how much money could they possibly send home? That’s probably just an excuse, so they can look more noble than they really are. Probably helps them get women too. Hell, you get a new name when you come back to the US, why not get a new wife and family? And when you get deported, your family won’t know who to look for, because you used a fake name.

Okay, focus Frank. Let’s get on with the next form: The W-4. “Tiene casada?”

“Si,” he smiles.

Of course. I mark down married on his W-4 form, and I put a one in that column. I put a one in the head of household and one for himself. Three exemptions so far. I love the answers I get for this one:  “Tiene e-hose?”

“Si”

Yeah? You’ve got kids eh? You’re still a kid. “Cuantos?”. . . wait for it. . .

“Siete”

“Seven?” He smiles and says nothing. This guy isn’t even eighteen—twenty tops, and he has seven kids. Did he start raising a family at twelve or thirteen, or did they all come at once last year? Oh well, it’s not for me to tell him how many children he can claim. That’s between him and the IRS—like they’re ever going to get ahold of him. That’s… let me see… ten exemptions. He won’t pay hardly any federal or state taxes. He will use the roads, buses, have access to EDD for employment discrimination suits, the HUD for housing discrimination. He probably doesn’t really have kids so they won’t go to school on our dime, or have free lunches for low income families, or be eligible for food stamps and clothes from local charities, churches, etc. . . at least we don’t have to worry about that. Plus he may go to jail when he gets caught, but when you add the meals and court costs, and transportation back to Mexico—that will cost us taxpayers, so all in all, he is putting back a whole lot less than he is taking out. Nice. Oh, and he’ll use our roads and bridges, without even getting a drivers license or having any of that pesky and expensive insurance stuff.

Oh God, don’t get me started about driving. Stop signs? Just a suggestion, really, just like back home. Four-way stops? Just stop and then go. Easy right? Honk if anyone gets in your way, that’s all there is to it. Park on the side of the street? Open your door any time you want. The moving vehicle coming up behind you will swerve and go around you. Get in an accident? It’s a fake name anyway. Hit someone walking across the street? Just keep going. Who is going to know you did it? You don’t really exist. Thank God we have some legal immigrants. At least you can identify them. It’s harder to get away with stuff when people can find out who you really are.

I take an angry sip from my soda and wake from my little rant. This place gets me so riled up sometimes—all the time really.

Roselyn comes up to the front counter and inspects the progress of the opening workers. She seems to be moving to the rhythm of the music. . .  actually, so does everyone else. Everyone is smiling, and wiping, and sweeping, and stocking, and bobbing, and swaying to the music. It’s like watching a Mexican version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory.

Ok, I’m done writing down all the information on these new hire forms. I need to introduce this guy to Jose Martinez, otherwise known as Hosem.  We had one guy, Jose Rodriguez. We called him Hoser. That was the great. We had a Jose Diego before, and we called him Hosed. Not much else to do around here for fun really.

Oh, there he is, putting on his apron. “Hosem, this is Francisco; a new-evo employee-ado.” They say hi to each other. “Por favor, el trabajo con tu, oy.” I see the two of them are slightly pleased, but with blank looks staring back at me. Great, I’m not getting through to them. This really sucks when I am speaking their language and they can’t even understand me. “Tu es la instructor-a-doro. “

“Maestro” A familiar voice from behind me says.  Roselyn is just working away, not thinking twice about helping me out with my Spanish, which after all, is her native language. She is sporting that smile of hers, I can never tell if she is laughing at me or just happy. I look back and see the two I just introduced talking rapidly in Spanish and Hosem looking very pleased, as if he has just been promoted. So clueless.

Chapter 6

Beans are simmering on the stove and I see Aracelli stirring them, judging their consistency with an experienced and confident eye; perfect as usual, the result of doing this five days a week, and for longer than anyone else has been here, just ask her.

I reach up and gently pull the grease trap down from it’s perch in the overhead vent above the stove she is working at. We haven’t even opened yet and it’s almost overflowing. This obviously didn’t get checked last night. Great job Darren. Now I will have to clean up after you, as always, and make you look good. Too bad you never do the same for me, you little toad. Instead, you just stand around, yacking on your cell phone or with a customer or employee, and looking for any little thing out of place to run to Robb with, making me look bad so you can look good by comparison. Frickin Darren, even when he’s not here he can get on my nerves. I empty the little metal container and now I need her to clean it before putting it back up where it came from. “Aracelli, lavas this. . . chingaso por favor?” I don’t even know what that thing is called in English. I think chingaso is Spanish for thingamajig. All the managers say it when they don’t know what to call something.

“Okay Frank.” Her smile reveals the familiar gap between her two front teeth. Nice girl, a little homely and quiet, but she’s very reliable.

The stainless steel in the kitchen area shines, and except for that dent near the prep table, it looks brand new. How can you tell old stainless from new stainless, anyway? It doesn’t stain, or tarnish. . . I guess that’s why we use so much of it.

The walk-in refrigerator is at 37 degrees, everything looks organized and dates are on everything.

Back by the office I see that Hosem is setting up the video player for. . . that new guy, so he can watch: the “Welcome to Taco Bell” video, the “Sanitation” video, the “Sexual Harassment” video, and the “Food Handling” video—all in Spanish, of course. I hope no one’s planning on taking a break any time soon. Actually, it couldn’t hurt for these idiots to watch those videos again. They all seem to forget about this stuff about a week after they see it.

The floor out front seems to always need sweeping, and now is no exception. Luisa has just joined us, late, as usual, and not completely dressed and ready for work, like she’s supposed to. I hate paying these people to get dressed. “Luisa, la piso por favor. . . Don’t look at me like that.” She thinks her seniority makes her off limits to do the more menial jobs around here. Roselyn and Aracelli have been here longer than her and neither one of them acts like that. None of the other employees like her because of her attitude either. She’s their “Darren” I guess.

Looks like Juan has just finished the windows. He does good work. The air-conditioning vents in the ceiling are looking a little fuzzy. “Juan, por favor. . . “ I point to the ceiling vents. I hope he sees the problem too because I have no idea how to say fuzz or ceiling vents in Spanish.

“OK, Frank, I got it,” he says with a heavy Mexican accent. “How you say in English Frank?”

“That is how you say it in Spanish and English—Frank. . . ” He doesn’t seem to get the joke; they never do. I wonder if they have comedy in Mexico. None of these guys laugh at any of my jokes.

I kinda like Juan. At least he tries to learn the language of the country he’s living and working in, and he is here legally—his ID is okay. Hmmmm what should I tell him? What would Willie. . . “bosoms,” I tell him. I gotta keep a straight face or he won’t buy it.

“Bosoms,” He’s smiling really big, like he got a gold star on his English exam.

“Yes, bosoms.” I turn towards the front counter. Just wait till he asks Darren or Robb to inspect his bosoms—that should be fun. I hope I’m around when he does.

Juan walks to the back of the house to return the window cleaning supplies, and I hear him muttering, “bosoms, bosoms, bosoms” to himself as he disappears behind the kitchen.

After inspecting the bathrooms, and circling the restaurant from the outside to make sure we look good to the public, I enter through the front doors like a customer, and see what they are going to see when they first step inside.

The bright orange and purple colors of the tables, chairs and even in the overhead menu attacks my eyes, and the Spanish music on the boom box assaults my ears. It’s a good thing we don’t have both of these going on at the same time when we’re open, or nobody would want to come here . . . except maybe blind Mexicans.

Robb bought the radio to keep the workers happy while they work. They can play it before we open in the morning, and after we close at night. It seems to work; everyone is singing. They all seem to know the words, and they always inject an “ay-yay-yay,” or a shrill, “whee-whee-whee,” like a pig. They seem to think those things are needed, but I really have to wonder; if they are so important, why didn’t the musicians put them in the songs themselves? The musicians are Mexican and they should know their audience is going to be doing this to their songs.

The menu board looks fine, and all the menus are clean; everything looks good. The customers will be thrilled. I wonder who’s coming in next?

Ah, there is Jesus punching in and getting ready for his shift that starts in about ten minutes. No one will ever accuse Jesus of being lazy. When ever I ask him to clean the bathrooms, I never get any grief. “Lava los banos, por favor.” He nods and smiles and walks off towards the mop station. Hmmmm, I wonder if it’s proper to have Jesus clean the bathrooms. I hope I won’t be damned to hell by some religion. Come to think of it, I think Jesus has cleaned our bathrooms every day since we hired him two weeks ago. No wonder they look heavenly. . . Yeah, that wasn’t funny. I think I’ll keep that little joke to myself. I’d hate to get excommunicated before lunch.

I pass through the prep area, and a slow and mournful melody begins playing on the radio. I know what I’m going to see before I even turn around, but I look anyway. All the boys are serenading the equipment as they clean and stock. They are wiping and sweeping tenderly to the music, like they are cleaning someone’s grave or casket or some other terribly important, but tragic thing.

The girls listen intently while gently swaying to the music.

Juan is on one knee, polishing the stainless legs of the prep table with one hand, while his free hand is in the air, emphasizing the drama of the moment as he croons the words to the song.

Oh-my-God! The new kid is hugging the cash register. This is so fricking funny! They seem to be having a contest to see who is the most sincere in being so sad. Now the new kid has dropped to both knees and he is pleading with the cash register. I’m glad they were not cleaning the bathrooms when this song came on. The women look on knowingly and approvingly. I wonder what they are singing about.

The whooping during these songs is the same as in all the others, only a little sadder and a lot slower. Instead of ayayay, Its more like, aaaaayaaaaaaayAAAEEEEYYYyyy, and instead of the whee-whee pig noise, it sounds more like a couple of pigs are falling off a cliff, WHEEEeee, WHEEEeee. It’s like they took the last song and slowed it way down—and that’s it. Same song, same added sound effects—just way slower. Us Americans couldn’t pull that off. We can’t go, Yeehaw or , “Wahoo” and slow it down and make it sad. It just wouldn’t work.

Hmmm. Let’s try. I’ll add my American version to this song. . . Wait for it. . . “YiiiiiiPeeeeKaaaaaYaaaaaaaaay.”

Why is everyone staring at me? Well I proved my point. Americans can’t do this, it’s purely a Mexican thing. Slow equals sad, fast equals happy. You can’t make it any simpler than that.

There they go again—undaunted, emoting their hearts out, as if remembering their homes so far away and the places they used to play as kids, the trees they used to climb, the girls they used to chase, or maybe they are thinking about their families and friends, birthday parties and holidays, and the good times they left in order to come here to work and live like kings compared to back home, where many homes don’t even have floors or air conditioning, where most of the roads aren’t paved, and beds and mattresses are piled on floors, or a few blankets thrown in the corner of a room, where bathrooms are a shack over a large hole a few feet from the house. This is kinda making me sick—it is so phony. If it was so good back home, why didn’t they stay there? Because it is so much better here—that’s why.

I open the door to the office, and quickly close it, effectively turning down the hypocrisy.

Hey, what happened to Robb?

It’s time to get the drawers out. We open in just a few minutes, and there’s no telling what disaster awaits: equipment failure; employees not showing up; someone gets burned or cut; a customer complains. . . I gotta be ready for anything.

I turn the tumblers and open the safe, and then there’s a knock on the door.

I look up and see Rodrigo smiling through the window. “Hey Frank, whazzup?”

I lean over and open the door. “You’re late!” Either he didn’t hear me or he is ignoring me. Whatever.

He thinks he’s so cool; God’s gift to Taco Bell. Great, welcome to it. He punches in and begins to get dressed, taking his time and talking loudly to everyone in Spanish. I see by my watch he has punched in late, and he’s not fully dressed either. I gotta stay on top of these guys or this place will go to hell in a matter of days.

My turn to knock on the window. He turns around. I point to my watch.

“Sorry, Frank, sorry,” but he keeps on walking and talking and putting on his name tag and hat on his way to the cashier’s station. Rodrigo speaks good English and because of that, he is a cashier like Roselyn and Luisa. Bi-lingual front-of-house help is really valuable in a restaurant. So many of these guys don’t even bother to learn the language, so they get stuck with the back-of-house jobs, washing dishes, prepping food, cooking, it pays less, and it’s more work, but that’s the price you pay for not learning the language.

I look over the cash register and compare it to the calculator tape with Robb’s signature on it. Everything looks to be in order. It’s time to walk this up to the cash register.

Luisa is standing around, as usual. This is what happens when you give someone a chance to earn some money—more money than they could have made in Mexico in several years, and all you ask in return is for them do a little work. Poor morals. These people are obviously not brought up well. Blame it on poverty, but I think it’s poor parenting. Their parents probably weren’t good role models either, or their parent’s parents, or their parent’s parent’s parents. I wonder how far back you have to go to find the lazy ass who started this whole laziness thing and slap them for ruining all these future generations of people, or maybe it’s in their genes.

I slide the drawer in Rodrigo’s cash register and leave it open so he can count it.

I go back and get another cash drawer, and when I bring it up front to the to-go window, I hear Roselyn say, “abierto.” She walks to the front door with the screwdriver in her hand to unlock the deadbolt. I turn back to look at the radio blaring away on the prep table and watch Aracelli turn it off, pick it up, and walk it back to the employee break area where it will sleep until after the last customer leaves tonight.

After slipping the drawer into the register, I hurry back to the office, open the door and hit the Muzak machine switch. “—Gypsies, tramps and thieves. . .” This is my favorite task of the day. Such Relief. We’re in America again—kinda.

Nine-fifty on the dot. The five customers who were waiting outside for us to open, follow Roselyn to the order counter and Rodrigo begins to help them. We are open. Everything is clean, stocked, and we’re ready for anything, and as every day begins with the sun rising, something difficult will definitely happen today.

The early customers, the ones that were waiting out front for us to open, crowd the cash registers. I feel a tap on my shoulder. “Okay Frank, all the bosoms are clean!” Juan is standing proudly beside me. All noise in the restaurant has stopped. The customers, employees, Cher ended her song, even the traffic outside—all silent.

“I cleaned all the bosoms in the restaurant Frank,” he says again, taking full advantage of all the attention he is getting by doing such an obviously terrific job, not only on cleaning the aforementioned bosoms, but also displaying his mastery of a new word, A word he has probably figured elevates him into the upper echelons of the native speaking society, as he, no doubt, has never heard any of his friends or co-workers utter it. He is a Mexican genius.

The customers appear confused as they look first from Juan then to me, then back to Juan again.

How could this happen? I feel a warm flush begin in my chest and rush up through the top of my head. Roselyn’s mouth and eyes are both wide open. What should I do? Smile? Pretend like nothing happened?

“Okay, Okay, Thanks Juan.” I push him away from the counter and towards the back of the restaurant. There is some laughter and chuckling, and then the conversations resume, but now much louder and more animated than before. The back of my neck is sweating. It’s obvious Juan knows something is up, but he’s not sure exactly what. I’m just going to try to forget that whole thing ever happened. Soon we will be busy and nobody will remember this little incident anyway.

I hear Roselyn taking orders and being very polite. She would be a good manager, but that will never happen. She is a Mexican, and that means one day she will leave for Mexico to visit her family right before Christmas, with only a few days notice so you can’t terminate her, or dock her hours, or punish her in any way whatsoever. This is why we are always short-handed though the holidays and scramble to fill every shift—they all do this.

You can tell them that if they want a holiday off that they should ask for it and we will give the workers with that most seniority the preferred dates, hopefully keeping the older employees and giving the newer ones an incentive to stay longer, but that never works. They all say, NO, NO, we don’t need any time off. We’re going to stay here this year. Then a week before Christmas—BAM! Oh Frank, I am going back to Mexico day after tomorrow. I need my last paycheck.

Almost half the staff did this the first year I worked here, which is how I got promoted from cashier to shift-leader so quickly, but they don’t care, they made their money—more than most people in Mexico make in a year, then they go home and live the good life for several months before coming back and putting this job down as a reference so they can get hired someplace else, and like every other entry level position, if you have experience, you go to the front of the line.

There are no consequences for the truly selfish. Even though Roselyn has never done this in the almost two years I’ve worked here, it’s still possible. It could even happen this year. Too bad, she is very good and we don’t get very many non-Mexican applicants to save us from this travesty.

I have some time to count another drawer in case I am needed to help with the rush. Before I get to the office I see Jesus is in the back emptying the mop bucket and putting everything away, which reminds me, “Necesi tas agua and soap por favor” I tell him we need to have a clean mop bucket ready in case we need one quickly or “on the fly” as we say in the restaurant business. In Spanish it is, “on la mosca.” Working in a restaurant you learn all kinds of Spanish. I bet I could get by just fine in Mexico if I had to.

Robb has magically reappeared in the office with a briefcase in his hand. He opens the door, “I’m on my way to corporate for an emergency meeting. This shift is yours Frank, from this moment on.”

He said that like he had gotten the store ready to open himself and he’s now handing over the rest of what’s left of the shift to me. Yep, he’ll make a great District Manager.

“So are you ready to be a manager?” he asks. I start to reply, but he continues. This is going to be another one of those one sided conversations. “This meeting is probably to officially announce I’m the next District Manager. Reggie will take my place here as GM, so I need to find another assistant manager soon to take his place. . .”

Really? It’s not like we haven’t been talking about this almost every day for over six months.

“. . . I haven’t made up my mind which one of you is going to get the spot yet so I need you to really impress me, Frank. Darren is a hot shot and rising quickly. I would hate to see you not get this because you didn’t try. . .”

I strain to keep a calm expression on my face, but what the hell? All my hard work up until now has just been relegated to the, “stuff that didn’t count” category. What I do from now on is all that matters.

“ . . . Cream rises to the top, Frank, and I’ll know it when I see it. . .”

Yep, that wasn’t condescending.

“Oh, by the way, you need to term Jose M. His last check is on the clipboard in the office along with the paperwork.” He opens the back door, “get him to sign for it before you give it to him. Well, gotta go, have a good day.”

“You, too, Robb. Nobody deserves this more than you.”

 

 

Jesus has just finished getting the mop bucket ready and he’s now inspecting the paper goods shelves. He looks over at me with a puzzled look on his face. “Cual es?” he asks, pulling out a thin white cardboard container.

I open up one of the boxes of toilet seat covers and take one out and show it to him. He doesn’t seem to recognize it. I place it over his head and push down so his head goes through pre-cut center, and the rest settles around his shoulders like a thin, white bib. He smiles. Okay, enough goofing around.

I return to the office, open up the safe and begin counting out the last drawer.

Robb is such an asshole. I don’t know why he just doesn’t make a decision and begin training the new assistant manager now. The transition will be smoother for the entire store when it’s time for him to leave. Waiting until the last minute is stupid.

If I get the Assistant Manager’s job, my pay will more than double, plus I’ll get medical and dental. That would really help Mom out at home, plus I’d be able to pay for college, and I’ll be able to get a car when I get my license later this year. I don’t want to be one of those guys in his twenties, trying to look cool as he’s pedaling around town on a bike with slicked back hair and wearing a thin faux leather jacket, dress shirt, dark levis and shiney black dress shoes and white socks.

A loud banging on the door interrupts my counting. I try to see who it is, but they are banging on the door, not the window, so I can’t see them. They bang again and this time I sense urgency in the pounding. What could be so important?

I barely get the door opened before she begins yelling, “Frank, hurry, quick, it’s Jesus.” Roselyn’s eyes are bugging out of her head, and that worries me; she never loses it.

“What’s wrong with Jesus?”

“Come quick, quick, quick!”

She grabs my arm and practically drags me to the counter. I look out into the restaurant and instead of seeing a melted employee burned beyond recognition, or a choking employee hanging by his neck from a ceiling fan, doing spastic circles in the dining room—I see something much worse.

 

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Chapter 7

A giant bucket of ice water soaks me to the bone as I stand staring in disbelief. Right there in the middle of the dining room, for all the world to see, and to make denying this ever happened completely impossible, is a family struggling desperately with Jesus, trying to tell him that they do not want the ass gaskets placed over their heads while they eat.

Jesus looks very confused and obviously doesn’t understand why they don’t appreciate his kind gesture of concern for their own protection. He is sure he’s helping the family out and keeps insisting on putting what he believes is a paper bib, over a little boy’s head. The boy is not happy either.

“Hi everyone.” I say, suddenly standing in front of the table. How I got here I’ll figure out later. What the hell am I going to do? I need to look in charge—but not responsible. “Could you excuse me for a second please?” I ask the Father, who is on his feet and about to take action himself. I grab the box of ass gaskets out of Jesus’s hand and toss it on an empty chair, then push him away from the table in much the same way I nudged Juan away from the customer counter just moments ago. This is not my day.

The father’s face begins to relax a bit and he slowly sits back down.

No other words crawl out of my brain, or my mouth. The mother looks like she just witnessed her son being sexually molested. I will have to come back later and talk to these people to make sure everything is all right.

How am I going to show Jesus what he was doing without traumatizing him too much. I mean, my God, what-the-hell? How could he really not know what those were?  I look over at the bathrooms down the hall.

I motion for him to follow me, to the bathrooms, but I have to nudge him firmly because dragging him inside could be taken the wrong way, and there is already enough of a communication problem going on today.

I check to see if anyone else is in the bathroom. It’s empty—thank God!

Jesus is standing in the hallway in front of the bathroom and looking very confused. I wave him in while I put on a “come on, it’s okay, I’m not a pervert” expression on my face.  He pauses for a minute, assessing his situation, but with some emphatic international hand gestures, he slowly comes into the bathroom, and so no one will walk in here while I’m giving Jesus this little demonstration, I lock the door as nonchalantly as this situation permits. Jesus’s eyes widen. Obviously I didn’t make this last maneuver as smoothly as I could have, his eyebrows have ratcheted up a couple of notches.  I really can’t blame him, I’d be nervous too if some guy walked me into a men’s room and locked the door. I gotta work fast before he panics. The last thing I need right now is a freaked-out employee, screaming and banging on the bathroom door to be let out.

I go over to the toilet stall, and wave for him to join me. He doesn’t budge, obviously reaching his limit of trust with this little excursion.

I point to the silver toilet seat cover dispenser above the toilet. “Look, look,” I say as I put on a big smile and display the large, silver toilet seat cover dispenser, like a spokesmodel showing a prize he could win on some game show. Very slowly he peeks around the stall to see what it is I am gesturing at. No reaction.

I pull out a thin paper ass gasket from the dispenser and show it to him. I can tell he recognizes it, but he still isn’t getting it. I punch the center out. Now I can see he is wondering why—of all places—are paper bibs in here? It looks like I’m gonna have to spell it out for him.

I bend over and place the paper cover on the toilet seat and let the center fall into the toilet.

I look to see if he gets it now. . . His eyes turn to huge white balls with small black dots in the center, and his mouth opens so wide I can see all of his bottom teeth and the back of this throat. I hope this isn’t what it looks like when people go into shock. “Look Jesus, it’s okay.”

“No.”

“Yes, It’s okay.”

“Nooo!”

“Everyone makes mistakes, it’s okay, no big deal.”

“Nooooo!”

I think he’s up to speed about the true function of the ass gaskets, but I don’t think he’s buying the, “It’s no big deal, people put toilet seat covers on other people’s heads every day” ploy.

I notice he is shaking a little. “Okay, look Jesus, I was only kidding. I didn’t expect you to go out and put these on people. I never said to do that.”

Jesus’s eyes glaze over like he is in some kind of trance. It looks like he is replaying the whole scene in his mind, over and over again, but this time knowing full well what he was doing. His face changes from surprised to disbelief, and then anger, and then back to surprised. . . It’s like watching him experience an intense embarrassment—retroactively—over and over again.

“Okay Jesus, just come on out and let’s get back to work. Let’s just pretend this never happened okay?”

“No, NO señor.”

Uh-oh! He called me señor and not Frank. I’m gonna need a better plan than, “Hey, fugget-about-it.”  “Okay, look, stay in here a while and when you are ready, come back out and work okay?”

I can’t stay here locked in the men’s room with Jesus all day. People will talk.

I unlock the door and walk out, leaving him to contemplate this fiasco in solitude, to play it out, step by step, lose all sense of dignity and jump off the cliff of despair, only to begin the journey all over again, like he’s some Groundhog’s Day shame-lemming.

 

As I walk down the hallway toward the dining room, I hear the distinct click of the bathroom door locking behind me. I feel awful. Jesus is completely demoralized and I am partially to blame.

I go back to the office quickly, trying to avoid anyone’s attention, and get the cash drawer I was counting when this whole nightmare started.

Rushing back into the busy restaurant, I put the drawer into the register, and notice my hands are shaking and I’m sweating all over.

Looking to my right I see Roselyn doing her best not to look back at me. She is forcing huge smiles for the customers benefit, but I can tell I won’t be receiving one this afternoon.

I try to calm down and act normal, while everyone around me is either pretending to smile or trying hard not to laugh.

From where I’m standing, I can see the poor family’s table perfectly. Everyone is eating, but instead of having a nice meal together, they look like a family of deer grazing in a field, while keeping an eye out for the crazy-assed hunter. After a few minutes I’ll get up the nerve to go over there and see if everyone is okay. I should offer to buy them all a meal the next time they come in. There’s little chance I’ll forget them, but even less of a chance they’ll be back.

They finish quickly and gather their stuff to leave. The father looks at me sternly as they all rush out the door. You would think I fondled his wife or something. My God, it’s not like they were used toilet seat covers or anything. They’re just paper.  I know I should run out after them and try to make up for this fiasco, bit I can’t. I just stand here, frozen in place, with an apology stuck in my throat. Oh well, the sooner this gets put in the past, the sooner I can begin the denial process.

Chapter 8

All through lunch, I keep my eye out for any sign of Jesus coming back from the head.  Nobody says a word about the incident. There seems to be an unspoken rule about not acknowledging the situation.

When the lunch crowd has quieted down, a shy and slightly calmer Jesus emerges, slowly and cautiously. It looks like he is waiting for the all-clear.  All I can think of is, Finally, He has risen, but I don’t dare say it.

Everyone tries to act like nothing happened so Jesus can pretend that nobody saw anything. People give denial a bad rap. It’s times like these that make me think they should actually teach it in school, but then again, these types of things are probably better learned at home—or at work.

I pull out a cash drawer from a register and walk to the office just ahead of him and I can feel his eyes burning into my back. I hope he doesn’t have anything sharp in his hands. Wow. Think about it; getting pierced by Jesus.

After counting the cash, slipping it into the safe and filling out the Daily Sales Report, I put the freshly counted drawer in the first register and tell the still-getting-dressed-and-talking-to-her-friends-Estrella, to count it, relieving Roselyn of her duties.

This is going to be fun. Roselyn is not somebody you want to be on the wrong side of, not that she’s violent or anything, but because she is always on the right side of every argument and she knows it. She’s like a Mexican version of Oprah and Dr Phil combined. You can’t argue with her. The more you argue, the more you both know you are wrong and she is right.

As Roselyn counts the drawer in the office, I pick up the clipboard with Hosem’s last paycheck on it and ask him to follow me to the table in the corner of the dining room.

Francisco comes over to the table, too, but three is definitely going to be a crowd at this party. “Ah, Francisco, Trabajo bien?” I ask, trying to see if he likes his job. He nods, and blurts out some Spanish. “Mañana. Same horas.”

“OK, Gracias. Adios, Jose.”

“Adios,” Jose replies.

Francisco stands there, smiling and staring at us. What? He doesn’t understand Adios? Is it me, or isn’t Adios his language. I stare back at him.

He finally gets the hint and leaves.

I remove the envelope with Jose’s name on it, containing his last two weeks pay, and place it nonchalantly to the side where I know he can see it. Hosem doesn’t have much of a poker face.  This must come as a bit of a surprise after that brief promotion he just received.

Now comes the fun part.

“Jose, we tango a rejection notice-eus from the government-o. They say the nombre tu gave us does no tango la number-os correct-o.” I always skip the “Although this does not necessarily mean termination,” part. It’s so stupid. I mean, that’s what we’re doing. I guess there is the possibility that there was a screw up somewhere, but I’ve never seen it happen. These guys know they’re illegal and just take their last paycheck and go to the next unsuspecting employer without much argument.

I guess for them, they just need to get new jobs every couple of months; inconvenient but not impossible, with all the places that take in cheap foreign workers, driving down the working wage. A naturalized citizen would require much more: more pay; more hours; more benefits. I guess it’s cheaper to do it this way. It means more profits, and that is the name of this game, right? Profit above honor?

He looks down at the envelope, and then down to his lap. He’s young. He’ll go through this many more times in the next twenty or thirty years—might as well get used to it.

I pull out the company speech we give all employees upon their termination. It is written in English and Spanish. I give it to him to read; there’s way more Spanish in there than I should have to learn.

“We really like working with you, Jose. 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 work with you again. Here is your final paycheck. Please sign right here acknowledging you received it. Thank you and Good luck.”

This was either designed by corporate lawyers trying to avoid any unlawful termination suits, or by a corporate big-wig trying to avoid creating a disgruntled former employee, who may return later with automatic weapons.

He nods and signs the form. I hand him the envelope. He gets up and moves slowly towards the door.

I’m sure he won’t waste too much time before applying to another restaurant and getting them to train him, only to have to fire him too. Must be some kind of game for them.

Hosem walks out through the back, shaking solemn hands along the way. This is one re-run I enjoy watching to the end.

When he disappears behind the kitchen, I get up and go to the cash register, but first I must pass Jesus, who is vigorously mopping the dining area after the lunch rush. I can’t tell if he’s still mad or not, his eyes are fixed on the mop and the floor in front of him.

I take my cash drawer out of the register and walk back to the office.  Roselyn has just finished counting her drawer, and she is leaving the office as I walk in. Perfect timing. Too perfect. “Frank, it’s all done.”

“Thanks, Roselyn.” She hesitates for a second.

“And Frank. . .”  Here it comes. She shakes her long black hair out of her way and looks me square in the eyes, just inches from my face.  “That was mean what you did to Jesus.”

“Roselyn, it was all just a misunderstanding, I swear. I never told him to go out to the dining room and put those things on customers. That would have been stupid, it would have made us all. . . me, look stupid.” Mission accomplished anyway. “He did that all on his own, I was just as surprised as everyone else.”

“Oh si? Try telling that to Jesus.”

“I did. It’s not my fault he’s as dumb a brick.”

“Jesus is only seventeen years old—“

“I knew what ass gaskets were when I was five.”

“You never grew up in the country, far away from a big city, and being poor does not make you stupid.”

Oh, so this is about being rich?

“You have many benefits over him. He may seem stupid to you, but he knows very much what happened today, and his feelings hurt like anybody else, even you.”

I can’t believe I am taking this crap from a fricking Mexican. “Look Roselyn, this wouldn’t have happened if he would have learned a little English like you.” Oh shit. What did I say? She takes a step back and slowly sizes me up, from the floor to the top of my head.   I brace myself for impact. . .

“Okay, Frank, I believe you did not try to hurt his feelings, but you be careful next time. And. . . “ she takes another step closer and we are now almost nose to nose. This may hurt. “I know that we are in America and here people speak English, but a guy who hires and works with many Spanish speaking workers, a manager who wants to be a leader, would learn to communicate with his workers—like Darren.”

“Darren’s a kiss ass.”

“I know who Darren is. He’s the one who tries to communicate with his staff like a real leader should.”

That did it.  I slam the door behind Roselyn, and wait for the outside door to close so I know she has left for the day. It would really suck if she was outside waiting for me to leave so she could kick my ass with another one of her “Darren is better than you” sucker-punches.

I look out the window. Rodrigo and Luisa must have watched the whole thing. Great, now what is the crew going to be saying about me? I’ll just organize this office a bit. I don’t think I can handle condescension from those two slackers right now.

What the hell happened today? Miscommunication, the cream rises to the top, bosoms, ass gaskets as bibs. Being told the situation was my fault because I don’t speak Spanish and that doesn’t make me as good a leader. If some French kids started working here, would I be required to learn French, too?

“Hey Pancho, start any rebellions today?” Oh God! Now I have to deal with Darren. I can’t tell whether he has heard anything or whether this is just his sarcastic way of starting the day. “The name is Frank, remember?”

”Oh hey, and I’m Bond, James Bond. Ha.” I hate the way he always laughs at his own jokes. “The place looks good my man, nice job, nice job, so how was it? Busy? Slow? What are the numbers?”  He picks up the clipboard with the Daily Sales Report on it.

Darren is trying to be every bit the Robb Haley that Robb himself wishes he were. Obsessed with numbers, procedures, but constantly smoking cigarettes outside and talking on his cell phone to God knows who. Cream aint the only thing that rises to the top: shit floats too. The office phone rings and I answer it. “Hello, Taco Bell.”

“Frank, good, I caught you. I just got out of a meeting here at the district office and I have some bad news.” Great, more bad news.  “Is Darren there yet?”

“Yep, he just got here.”

“Good, put me on speaker.”

I hit the speaker-phone switch and hang up the receiver. “Darren, Robb has some bad news.”

“What?!”

“How do I know? He hasn’t told me yet.”

“Okay you two chill out. Corporate has just gone over the numbers and apparently, with the economy as it is, and sales down by over twenty percent during the last three quarters, it doesn’t make sense to open up another store in this district.”

“What?” Darren asks, but we both know what that means.

“Yeah, I know how you feel. I’m not getting a district. As a matter of fact one of the DM’s just got canned and his district is being divied up among the remaining DM’s to cut costs.”

“So when do they predict we’ll be back on track to expand again?” Darren asks.

“Ever the optimist. I like that Darren. Unfortunately there is no plan to start construction on the next unit. We may even sell the property we were going to build it on, but here’s where this affects you two. . . ”

I look up at the ceiling. Just dump it all right here Lord—I can take it.

“As of immediately I am taking over the scheduling of the staff, and I am faxing over a new management schedule right now. You will see it any second.”

Sure enough, the fax machine begins to whine. “New schedule?” I ask.

“Yeah, you guys luck out. As you are still paid hourly, you will each give up a day a week, and I am going to be pulling six day weeks.”

“And Reggie?” Darren asks.

“Since I’m not leaving, Reggie, of course, is not getting promoted to GM. He and I are going to do all the heavy lifting. You two are going to fill the gaps. Look at the schedule coming over the fax and I’ll be in tomorrow morning if you have any questions. I gotta run. I have to cut some hours on this week’s schedule for the employees and have it ready by tomorrow morning.”

“Don’t worry Robb, we got your back.” Darren says, burying his nose in Robb’s ass and planting a big wet kiss.

“Thanks guys. We’ll need it.”

We exchange some fake pleasantries and the call is over. When the fax is finished we both look at it together. Both Darren and I are down to four shifts per week, and it looks like we’re cooks and cashiers again for half of them. We have only two shift leader positions each. “Brutal,” Darren says. Reggie’s schedule covers most of what Robb can’t. Being an Assistant Manager on salary means you get all the hours you want, and then a few you don’t want too, but you get paid a lot more. I could’ve really used that money for a car.

“Darren, come look at this,” a voice calls from out front.

He leaves and I put the last of the invoices in the file cabinet and get ready to leave.

I close the office door behind me and slip my now dry poncho over my head, and pick up my umbrella. Juan and Llorena are on their way out too. “Pinche Pancho” they say under their breaths, shaking their heads, smiling.

“It’s Frank” I shout. They flinch and quickly walk to the door. Fricking Darren. He keeps calling me Pancho and now everyone else does, too.  I would love to stick his head in the microwave and push the “soup” button. Oh well, this day is finally over. Time to go home and relax—maybe even take a shower and get some of this rotten day’s stink off me.

Juan opens the back door just ahead of me and about a dozen cops come rushing in, flashing badges and talking Spanish.

“Atención, atención, todos empleados aquis por favor.”

As the agents flood in I see the letters ICE on the backs of their jackets in bright white letters. Immigration—yes! There is a silver lining to this dark cloud of a day.

Chapter 9

Judging from the sad and fearful expressions on everybody’s faces, there is no escape. Finally something good happens today. I helped catch five illegals yesterday, and I don’t know how many today. Nobody can say I’m not doing my part in making this country safe.

The agents are shoving everyone into the back of the break room. It looks like we’re getting shut down. I probably shouldn’t bring up the fact that it was me who made the call.

Darren is already talking to one of the officers. I should probably at least let these guys know I’m a supervisor, and find out what’s going to happen to the store. “Excuse me, I’m a shift leader.”

“Good for you. Now shut up and stay against the wall with your Primos. Hands on top of your head. Now! Manos encima de su cabeza! Manos encima de su cabeza!

I put my hands on top of my head with everyone else and we all get pushed up against the back wall and get frisked. “Excuse me, I’m not an illegal. I’m a US citizen.” I look around for confirmation from the other employees, but everyone seems to be preoccupied with what is happening to them.

“You got any ID?” A female ICE agent asks.

“Yeah, I have my student body card.” I go to pull out my wallet.

“Hands back on your head, and I mean now!”

I feel the air rush out of my lungs when she hits me in the gut with her baton. I wave my arms wildly at her to stop.

“Calma te,” a male voice says as I get slammed up against the wall, his forearm pushing hard against my neck. I can barely breathe.

Why isn’t Darren . . .  I can’t believe it. He told them I was a Mexican? That son-of-a. . . Look at him. All fake distress and concern. Well, it’s his shift now. How you going to explain this to Robb? Asshole.

I get frisked by one of the male ICE agents, while Forearm-guy keeps me pinned against the wall. “What’s in your pocket?” he asks.

“My wallet,” I squeak out above the pressing forearm on my neck. “It has my Student Body card in it.”

“Student body cards are not legal forms of identification. Do you have a drivers license, social security card, state issued ID card, greencard, non-resident alien card, passport, anything like that?”

“I have a social security card at home.”

“At home?” Forearm guy spins me around. He holds my hands behind my back with one hand, while emptying my back pockets with the other. The right side of my face is smashed against the wall and I can’t see much of anything in this position.

Suddenly I remember the picture of my parent’s wedding that fell out of the umbrella this morning. The one I forgot to throw away because this whole shit-storm of a day got me sidetracked. This is not going to look good.

He pulls the wallet and photo out of my back pocket. “Student body card huh? This your graduating class?”

“Oh, I forgot about that, ” I reply. Why do I feel like I’m lying?

“Sure you did. This your family?”

What do I tell him? They kinda are, but I’ve never met any of them.

He lets me go and I turn around, keeping my hands where they are. Forearm guy points to someone in the picture, “Hey, looks like we got a Mexican John Travolta here.” A couple of other ICE agents come over and have a laugh. I look over at Darren. He is purposely trying to not look at me. What an asshole!

Forearm guy opens the wallet and reads the name off my Student ID card and writes it on a plastic baggie with a Magic Marker. I thought that isn’t a legal form of ID. Looks like it worked for him, but I’m not going to say anything. This guy’s a little slap-happy for my taste. This is so degrading. It’s not me they should be making fun of. I’m on their side!

When they are through making fun of me, Forearm guy slips the picture into the plastic bag with my name on it, along with my watch, wallet, and my Taco Bell ‘1’ year anniversary pin.

After about half an hour of ID checks, they let some of the other workers go.

They put plastic zip lock-like handcuffs on the rest of us, and then we are led out out, one by one, to a tan truck-like wagon that is parked out back where the Taco Bell supply truck had been earlier today.

A small crowd has gathered behind the building. They stare at us like we’re convicts and whisper amongst themselves.

There is a slight drizzle coming down, and I see a news truck pull into the driveway. Great. Now we’re going to be on the news. Just when I thought this day just couldn’t get any worse, it gets way worse.

After the last of us gets put into the truck, I look out the back window at the news crew talking with an ICE agent. Darren is nowhere in sight. I hope I’m not going to be on the news. What if Willie and Shane see this? They may never let me patrol again.

When the last of us are in the truck, the doors close and we begin to move. We turn the corner, and out the back window I see Roselyn, standing at a bus stop. She’s a good six inches taller than most of the others, and has a jean jacket on over her Taco Bell uniform. She was obviously far enough down the street to not know what just happened. I bet she’ll know all about it in an hour when she gets called back to pull a double shift.

This is humiliating; being treated like a rat. I look at the other workers. There are ten of us in here. Eleven if I count myself too. I was sure some of these guys had valid ID. Maybe they are waiting until we get to the station before checking us out more thoroughly. Maybe they need to access a database or something.

Oh well, I’m sure this’ll all get ironed out when we get to wherever it is you take illegal immigrants. I just hope it isn’t far. The way my day’s been going, I’ll probably have to walk home when they let me out.

 

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Chapter 10

We’re separated from the girls and taken to a large room where a couple of immigration agents photograph and fingerprint us, then lead us to one of several large holding cells—cages really.  The one we’re put in has two cement walls with benches in front of them, and two walls made out of steel bars, just like in the movies. There are several white wooden benches in the middle of the cell, but all the benches are full of illegals. The only seat not taken is the stainless steel one in the corner, and I’m pretty thankful that one is not occupied. There are no partitions or doors for privacy, aside from a waist-high cement wall that makes up the third side of a stainless steel box the toilet sits in. There is nothing closing up the forth side.  I don’t particularly want to watch anyone take a dump. God knows I won’t have to go no matter long I’m in here.

Rodrigo, Gerardo, Juan and Josel walk over to some of the guys who were here before us and Rodrigo immediately starts talking and making friends. I pick out the emptiest space inside this cell and stand in the middle of it. Making friends here is not something I’m interested in. I look around and notice I’m the only white guy in here. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d end up in here. It’s a strange sensation, being in the cage. It’s like I’m in some parallel universe and any moment now we’re going to be visited by a parade of animals, staring, making faces. . .

After a while, I begin to notice that everyone Rodrigo has been talking to is staring at me. They must be talking about the shift today. Could this day get any worse? Oh wait, here comes a couple of swell looking guys. Tattoos all up their arms and neck, squinty eyes, and strutting like badasses. Gang-bangers. I’ve got to stop asking if this day could get any worse, every time I do, it does.

The tall one has a face like a cactus and the two smaller ones are younger, but look like they’ve been fighting someone or something all their lives. Stone faces all of them. “There’s a guy says you work for Immigration,” the taller one says. Everyone stops what they’re doing and looks over at me. I can’t move.

“No. Who told you that?”

“He says you beat up his son.”

Son? Oh shit! Are they here? I look around for some vaguely familiar faces. “That’s crazy. If I worked for immigration, what would I be doing in here?”

“You tell me, home-boy,” the tall one takes a step closer. His three-day beard is an inch away from my face. His breath smells like he brushed his teeth with beer, and it’s making my stomach turn. The other two look up at me with their heads tilted way back, like they are peeking underneath an invisible bandana that covers the top part of their eyes. I have nowhere to go. I can see people are spreading out and giving us room. I don’t need any more room. I don’t want to fight these guys.

Angry Spanish flies over the crowd from the neighboring cell. Everyone from this cell looks in the direction of the voice, and then turns back to look at me again. They expect an answer, but I have no idea what was said. If I don’t know Spanish, will that prove to them I’m an immigration officer?

The big tough guy in front of me says something in Spanish, but I don’t understand that either. The two guys with him smile and look at each other, but when they return their attention back to me, their faces lose all traces of happiness. What the hell did that mean? This would be a really good time to know some jail-house Spanish. The only Spanish I can think of is, quiero la soda grande? Or, would you like a large soda with that?

They all move in closer. “I think this is a bad day for you to get locked up white-boy.”  Beer breath grabs my Taco Bell vest and pushes me against the cement wall to my right. I feel like I got hit by a car. He presses his face close to mine, like he’s about to tell me a secret. Everyone but me is smiles and good times. I try not to vomit while I brace for impact. . .  “What are you dressed up for white boy. You gonna make us some tacos?” I try to smile and show him I’m no tough guy. “What are you laughing at? You think I’m funny?”

“No!”

“You think I’m playing a game?”

“No—“

“Okay, you ugly sons-a-bitches. . . “ a guard yells from outside the cell. He says some other stuff, but in some other kind of Spanish I’ve never heard before. He starts calling out names and guys leave the cell to stand in a line by the door. My name gets called and everybody laughs. Typical, but I’ve never been so happy to hear my name called.  I wave my hand, acknowledging my name has been called and slide past my would-be attackers. As I make my way to the open door, I feel a hundred pair of eyes burning their way into my back as I leave.

“Hey, white-boy! I’d sleep with one eye open if I were you,” the big ugly guy says, and his two friends smile slightly and stand there beside him, looking down their noses at me. I hope these guys go to jail for a long time; keep them off the streets.

Everyone whose name was called is standing on a yellow line that’s painted on the floor and runs the length of the hallway, disappearing around the corner. I stand on the line like everyone else. I have a good view of the cell next to the one I came out of.  I lock eyes with the father of a son whose face is swollen and discolored. A chill runs down my back. They begin talking to themselves, and some of the guys around them turn and look at me. I’ve been be taken to the same place as the guys we captured yesterday. Of course! I should have thought about the possibility of this on the way over here.

The whole group of guys surrounding the Mexicans I helped capture rush to the bars and several begin yelling and saying things in Spanish. I feel a sharp jab in my back. I don’t dare turn around to see who did it or with what.

“Calla te,” one of the guards yells, but that does little good.  At the head of the line a guard yells a command and we all walk single file down the hallway on the yellow line painted on the floor.

“Seems we have a celebrity,” a female guard says.

As we walk the guy behind me kicks the bottom of my right foot as I am picking it up to take my next step. I stumble and trip a bit, but keep my balance.

“Back in line,” yells a guard, and I jump back in line. A few steps later, I get a knee in the butt and I stumble forward, slightly bumping into the guy in front of me, who turns around and shoves me back. I stumble into place and continue walking. We turn the corner and again the bottom of my foot gets kicked and I go flying into the guy in front of me, who pushes me even harder into the guy who kicked me, who then pushes me with his shoulder.

I’m grabbed by my elbow, thankfully, before I fall, but then I’m flung into a wall, my arms pinned behind me and my face smashed hard into the fresh white paint.

“Knock it off, asshole,” a male voice says. “We got a special way we deal with your kind around here.”

I don’t know who my kind is at the moment, but I don’t want to argue with. I can’t wait to explain I don’t belong here. Maybe we’re going to talk to a judge or lawyer or something, or maybe I’ll get to make my phone call.

We walk a short distance, and we’re ordered to stop and stand up against the wall. I think we’re not supposed to touch a shorter red line on the floor, or stay behind it or don’t go outside it. I’ll just do like everybody else. That should keep me out of trouble, unless someone decides to start a riot. What should I do then? Does that even happen here?  I feel so helpless.

One by one a door opens and a guard takes one of us into the room, and at the same time, a guard leaves with the person who went in before. The exiting Mexican is taken around the corner. Whatever they’re doing in that room doesn’t take very long. I wonder where we go after this? I hope they let me go. I need to get out of here fast. What if they put me in the cell with the kid I beat up yesterday? Do people ever die in here?

When it’s my turn, I get the officer who shoved me into the wall. He smiles, like he just won the lottery. I don’t think I’m going to like what happens next.

He pushes me inside a small, pea green room with a guy in a cheap suit, sitting in a chair on the other side of a large metal table.

“Nombre”

“My name is Frank Veela, look there has been some kind of mistake-”

“Shut Up!” he yells. “Frank is some kind of nick-name is it?  Well I’m glad you speak English. I’m going to skip the Spanish version. Here’s the deal: If you agree to a ‘Expedited Removal,’ this will not go on your record, you will probably get released today, and you’ll get dropped off at the border.”

“I’m trying to tell you, I’m not a Mexican, I’m an—“

“Your second option is to request a hearing. You will be held in this facility until you go before a judge, but that could take months, and if you aren’t deemed eligible for bail, you are held for several more months awaiting trial. Lose the trial, and you are banned from re-entry into the United States for three years and you are dropped off at the border. Which sounds better to you?”

“But I’m not a Mexican. I’m a manager—“

“Don’t tell me that! That will automatically make you stay here until a bail hearing, which could be weeks from now. Then, when bail is met, you could be awarded a fine of up to $2000 per illegal hire. It says here that seven people were brought in with you. That could be fourteen thousand dollars. In case you haven’t heard, we are getting tough on illegal workers here in the US.”

I can’t believe I’m hearing this.

“Then there’s the trial process. You could be here a very long time. My advice, accept Expedited Removal and get out of here today. No fine, no penalty. Otherwise, be prepared to stay here a while.”

“Don’t I get a lawyer?”

“Right now, I’m him.”

“Wait-“

“No waiting. This is the deal, take it and go home, refuse it and stay here. Here are the forms—you choose, and make it quick. I have thirty more people to talk to before I submit these to the judge for his signature in half an hour.”

“But I’m not a Mexican, I have a student ID card in a plastic baggie with my wallet.”

“Very funny. Last time I checked, a student ID card is not a recognized form of legal identification.”

“But I’m an American, I swear to God.”

“Look, I’ll level with you. I’ve heard people try that before and it hasn’t worked the whole time I’ve been doing this, so I’d give it up right now. Especially since, with your real name and all, that will only piss the judge off, and he’s the last guy you want to mess with right now.”

He’s worse than those guys in the other cell? Oh my God! When did I enter the twilight zone? Is this really happening?

“Okay, I’ll say you request a hearing and you’ll go back to the cell.”

I can’t go back to that cell. “Hey, wait, I’ve never done this before.”

“Well you better get good at it quick, or you’re in a heap a shit. Sign the paper saying you voluntarily want to go back to Mexico and get out today. It’s really a no-brainer if you ask me.”

“Are you sure?”

“Hey, I’m on your side. This is the easiest, quickest way out of here.”

I pick up the pen. It feels funny in my hand, like I’ve never held one before. I start to sign it, but I temporarily forget how to sign my name. When I’m finished he snaps up the paper.

“Okay, next!”

The door opens and it’s my turn to get escorted down the hallway and around the corner.

I’m flung into a cell, about half the size of the one I almost got beat up in and all the benches are bolted to the floor. I slam into a wall and all the Mexicans already in the cell slide over so as not to get hit. I sit against the wall I slam into, not even trying to grab an empty space on a bench. Everything else looks the same. All the light in here comes from dirty, florescent overhead lighting, giving everything an oddly fake tint, like this is some bad dream that I’ll eventually wake up from, but the pain in my shoulder and growing lump on my head remind me this is really happening.

There are already ten guys in here, and more come all the time. What if that big ugly guy comes in here? Or what if one of the guys I helped arrest come in here? Or their friends? Why is this happening to me? I’m an American.

Each and every minute I’m here ticks away slowly, especially since I don’t have my watch. Every time I hear footsteps coming down the hallway, I brace for bad news.

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