Air drawn in through her nostrils fought its way to her lungs. She couldn’t breathe. Her chest felt constricted, compressed as though cinder blocks sat on top of it. The breath tried to wend its way through the small holes, shuddering and inept. Respira, she commanded. Apenas respira. It was just a job.
Luz relaxed her grip on the steering wheel, aware in that instant that she had dug half-moons into the vinyl and had broken the nail on her fourth finger in the process. She glanced over at Franny, short for Francesca Maria, who was playing with her Barbie, oblivious to the world around her. She pulled the perfect platinum hair into a ponytail and then smoothed it out again. Luz could hear her whisper-singing, “Little bunny Foo-Foo hopping through the forest, scooping up the field mice and thumping them on the head.” Luz particularly despised the song, but she couldn’t resist Franny’s gales of laughter at the bad pun, “Hare today, goon tomorrow,” even though she couldn’t possibly understand why it was funny. Her next door neighbor had explained to Luz why it was funny; while the words might translate into Spanish, the pun, and therefore the humor, didn’t.
“Did you have a good time at kindergarten?”
Franny nodded and kept singing.
“Would you like it if we spent more time together?”
“We can’t,” she said in her most adult voice, repeating what she had heard said many times before. “We can’t because Mommy has to work.”
But Mommy doesn’t have a job anymore, she wanted to say. The words, though, remained lodged in her throat, choking her as surely as if they were a piece of meat.
Her boss had been very nice about it. And no one had ever really accused Bargaining Bill of being nice. He had taken her into his office, the large corner one on the second floor where the customers were never allowed. The windows overlooked the entire car lot, and from this vantage point, the concrete dotted with shiny colorful Matchbox-looking cars seemed to go on forever. Salesmen in their laid-back “we’re just like everybody else” sports shirts and khaki pants weaved in and out of the car aisles, video-game predators in search of prey. Did Bargaining Bill control them from this window?
She sat down in the seat he motioned to. Behind her were all the television promotional pictures of Bargaining Bill, and she could feel their eyes boring into her back. They were all there: Superman, the Cowboy, the Apollo 13 astronaut, the Fireman, the Indiana Jones adventurer, all of them saying that there wasn’t a bargain that he wouldn’t make in order to “get you into a new car — a Bargaining Bill car.”
“Luz,” he started, and she cringed. He always pronounced her name so that it rhymed with “buzz” instead of “bruce.” She heard someone once say that her name rhymed with “loose,” and everyone laughed. She didn’t understand why until much later.
“Luz, I’m sure you’ve noticed that business has gone down.”
She glanced out the window. She had heard that, but it didn’t look like it from up here.
“We’re making lay-offs in every department, and I’m sorry, but you’re the most recent receptionist. We’re going to have to let you go.”
She sat silently for a moment, unsure if she had heard correctly. Sometimes she still had trouble with English. “You are firing me?”
“No, no!” he said, his hands patting the air in front of him as though it were a dog he was commanding to stay. “Laying employees off is different.”
He had kept talking, using the same tone of voice she had heard him use to sell cars, but to Luz’s mind, getting fired and getting laid-off meant the same thing: no job. She wondered if his customers felt the same way she did, echar un polvo. Screwed.
The car behind her blew his horn, startling her out of her daze. She waved and started forward. The tears, which she had kept from Bargaining Bill, were threatening now, as though the car’s impatient blast had summoned them.
What would Manuel say? She took a deep breath and let it out. He would be glad, she had no doubt. He had come across the border six years ago and had gotten work in two different restaurants bussing tables. The money was good, almost as good as his false papers were. He had taken care of her and Franny, his mother and grandmother and two aunts. Un hombre in the midst of las muchachas. Women, she could almost hear him say, a smirk lifting his lips. It had made him more of an hombre to take care of all the women, the celebrated Mexican machismo. Strange, but in her eyes it had made him more a man as well. And even when he came home after working two jobs, sweaty and exhausted, smelling of left-over grease and dish soap, he wasn’t too tired to bed his wife.
Then she had gotten the job at Bargaining Bill’s New and Used Cars as a receptionist. She had secretly been looking for a job to help out, afraid that he wouldn’t understand her desperate need to get away from his relatives for a time. She had convinced them that the time away would be good, as would be the time they had to themselves when Franny went to school in the morning and daycare in the afternoon. She had it all planned.
And for a time, it had been good. They made more money than they knew what to do with, and it seemed the American Dream was theirs for the taking. They had moved from the cramped one-bedroom apartment to a two-bedroom. They still hung up a sheet to separate their bed space from Franny’s, but it felt more open; the breathing room felt more plentiful, as wide open as the mountain state they lived in.
Manuel, though, struggled with the fact that his wife made more money than he did, and for a while, the sex between them wasn’t as good, even with his mother finally in a different room. Luz didn’t want to admit it, because her taking a job had been her idea, but her respect of him had diminished when his salary did. Because she was on the phone all day, transferring calls to different departments, answering customer complaints when she could, she learned English must faster than Manuel had done. She had even begun listening to the car salespeople, convinced that eventually she could move up in the company. Not that she would ever leave Manuel, as some of her co-workers had done. Buenos Dios, no! He was still her esposo, the man, the head of her family.
Then Manuel had slipped in a puddle of water he hadn’t had a chance to mop up. He said he had felt his back pop when he hit the floor. And just like that, as fast as a back popping, Manuel had lost two jobs and incurred several medical bills. Worker’s comp was out of the question. Everyone knew he was an illegal, and he had no desire to risk the INS. She became the head of the family, but she cried when he called her la jefa de la familia.
And now this. What were they going to do? She saw them sometimes, the homeless who waited and asked for handouts on the corner. Even in summer, they wore layers of clothing, as old and worn out as their faces, as crumpled as the dollar bills that some pressed into their hands. They held signs, some that she couldn’t read, bemoaning whatever fate had befallen them. “Lost Job, Need Cash.” “Single Mother.” “Vietnam Vet, Please Help.” “God Blesses Generosity.” What would her sign say? She had seen them spit on, yelled at, chased by cars, seen soda cans thrown at them. “Get a job!” was always followed with a name that she wouldn’t call the street dogs in Mexico. What if they couldn’t get jobs? What if they were like Manuel and could no longer walk without much pain?
What if they were like her?
Where did they live, she wondered. When the day was done, when the number of cars passing any intersection had dwindled to almost nothing, where did they go? Did they sleep in the park or in abandoned houses? Did they stay in shelters where they had to listen to sermons before they would be fed?
Would she be one of them?
Would they sleep under bridges, she and her beautiful daughter who could sing “Little Bunny Foo-Foo” and who thought that Barbie was the ideal woman?
A tear rolled down her cheek, and she swiped it away before Franny could see.
At the next stoplight, she saw the smoke. She passed by the Henry and Green Mortuary and Crematorium every day on her way home from work, its cream-colored brick and burgundy sign somehow comforting in its very presence. It had always been and it always would be. Across the street from it, the restaurant had changed from a Pepe’s to a McDonald’s then to a Popeye’s Fried Chicken. On the other side, the gas station had closed months ago and had never been replaced with anything except weeds in the cracks of the concrete.
The crematorium, though, had remained, solidness in a shifting world.
But now smoke was coming out of the smoke stack, billowing blackness into the clear and crisp late afternoon air. Of course, she knew that they burned the bodies. Of course. It was a crematorium. But she had never seen the smoke. She assumed they did it at night for the sake of taste, for the sake of the families. For the sheer sake of humanity.
It reminded her of stories she had heard of the Holocaust where smoke stacks had belched forth human remains every day for years. Some said it had blackened the sky so much that the stain of the Great Sin committed against God’s people could never be erased. A friend who had visited Germany confirmed this. Even years after the war, the air remained bleak, dreary, awful. She now understood why in a way that she couldn’t have before.
The tears flowed freely now. Who had the people been? Had they been loved? Would they be missed?
She turned and looked at Franny, the Barbie doll forgotten for the moment. “¿Que?”
“What’s that?” Her stubby finger pointed at the sky, even now dissipating into twilight.
“Nada,” she said quietly. “Nothing, sweetie. It’s just a wisp of smoke.”