A short story by John Mears
The day Alma Zuleima first went to clean Mr. Parker’s condominium, the sun was burning over Palm Springs as it had when her group crossed the Arizona desert with the coyote. Waves of heat poured down from the mountains over the rooftops and shimmered up from the street like some mysterious water.
The bus had dropped her off at the corner of South Palm Canyon Drive and Calle La Verne. She walked in the smothering heat, past green lawns in front of stucco walls hiding condominiums, to the address on a little street called Puebla, the name of a city where two Mexican Federales had raped her cousin Estela. She wondered if that was bad luck, the street being named Puebla. She remembered a warning from a bruja in Los Angeles, to be careful in August. Maybe Mr. Parker was a bad man who would rape her, too; but fresh in her mind also were the words of her favorite housekeeping customer, Mrs. Nelson, who owned the restaurant where this Mr. Parker had his fish dinner, alone, every Friday night. Mrs. Nelson had said that Mr. Parker was a good man, a kind man, a generous man, who was patient with the servers and left big tips. Mr. Parker always ate dinner alone, Mrs. Nelson had said. He was probably single and lonely. Mr. Parker had fish every Friday night. He was probably Catholic. Alma Zuleima was a born-again Christian; her brother, a storefront minister at a storefront Pentecostal church in Los Angeles, said Catholics could not be saved until they renounced their religion, but Alma Zuleima didn’t think they were necessarily bad people.
The iron gate to Mr. Parker’s condominium walkway screeched as Eva Zuleima opened the latch and let herself in. Old rust bubbled up from underneath the flaking black paint on the gate. On the phone, Mr. Parker had said something about a gate, but with her poor English she wasn’t sure. Not wanting to embarrass herself, she had said, “Yes, okay” to everything he had said.
She walked the final steps to the door and checked her watch. She was one minute early. She said a few Hail Mary’s in Spanish, even though she had herself renounced Catholicism when her brother made her a born-again Christian. She reminded herself that her father was dying of bone cancer in San Salvador and her mother would need every dollar she could get for the funeral and coyote fees to bring the rest of the family to California.
She pushed the plastic button of the doorbell, which was surrounded by corroded brass. She heard no sound, but immediately the door opened and a white-haired man with a thin, gentle face opened the door. Seeing Alma Zuleima, he smiled and said, “You must be Alma Zuleima.”
She noticed that half his chin was missing.
She pushed her cheeks up in her best smile and said, “Yes,” trying to ignore the right side of his jaw, which looked like melted plastic.
Mr. Parker extended his hand. “I’m Bob Parker. Please come in.” He spoke with twisted lips, but his smile seemed real.
She shook his hand and walked in. Cold air blasted her neck from an air-conditioning vent over her head. She continued past a dining room table into a living room with bright flower paintings on the wall and big silk flowers on the white sofa and love seat. It smelled of dried eucalyptus and cigarette smoke. Thankfully, there was no smell of alcohol. Growing up with a father who loved his bottle more than his family, she had learned to smell whisky a mile away.
Mr. Parker was saying something about the weather being hot. Alma Zuleima nodded and said, “Very hot.” He asked something she didn’t understand. When she hesitated, he signaled with his hand, lifting an imaginary drink, and said, “Water?”
She said, “Si… yes, please.”
He opened a plastic gallon bottle of water and got some ice from the freezer and handed her a pink plastic glass filled to the top. She sipped it while he showed her around. There was a common pool in the back where two white families were sunbathing. The parents and children were all sunburned bright pink. Roses and other flowers bloomed all around the pool and the grass was green and thick.
Alma Zuleima remembered the big old brick apartment building where she had lived in Los Angeles, with its dirt lawn; the only flowers had been tired, thirsty geraniums crammed against the wall like a cholo being arrested by the police.
She looked at the kids playing and wondered if she would ever have children herself. In one job two years before, when she was living in Los Angeles, she had been a nanny for a divorced lady in Beverly Hills, and she’d taken care of two kids, one boy who was three and one girl who was six. The girl was a monster but the boy stole her heart and when the mother was drinking and talking bad, Alma Zuleima had thought of running back to El Salvador with the boy.
Mr. Parker’s laundry area was in the garage, just off the kitchen. He was telling her that he wanted her to wash his clothes. It was very hot in the garage, and there was an old silver Mercedes.
The condo had two bedrooms. The guest bedroom had two small beds and a computer on a desk where Mr. Parker seemed to be writing something; handwritten papers lay about and there were some paragraphs on the computer screen.
The master bedroom had a giant bed and a half-cathedral ceiling and mirrors on one side. She wondered if Mr. Parker slept alone.
Now she started thinking about this man. Probably his chin had been half-eaten by cancer. He was very thin, not handsome, with a long beak nose and a sharp Adam’s apple, but his mouth and what was left of his chin were soft and kind. As he told her about the condo, she couldn’t understand most of the words, but she could tell he was being nice with her. Sometimes he would make some joke in English that she didn’t understand; he would half-chuckle at his own joke, and she would manage a smile.
She looked at her own reflection in the large bedroom mirror. She stood short and fat next to Mr. Parker, but she thought she wasn’t bad-looking for a woman of thirty-nine. Not having children had helped, no doubt. Her skin was dark next to his, like café con leche in a white china cup.
Mr. Parker was looking at her in the mirror, and she thought from his face that he liked her, but she kept a straight face and said, “Ok, I think seventy dollars a day.”
He said, “That’s fine. Can you come on Mondays?”
* * *
For the next three Mondays, Alma Zuleima came to Mr. Parker’s condo at nine o’clock sharp and left at three. She always arrived early, because of the bus schedule, and waited outside in the heat until her little Samsung cell phone said it was nine on the dot. She dusted, vacuumed, washed his clothes and sheets and towels, mopped his kitchen floor, took out the trash, scrubbed the black-green fungus off the shower tiles, and cleaned inside his refrigerator. She wiped the kitchen counters, which had light brown tile with white grout, and she scrubbed the grout with an old toothbrush. She got up on a chair and scrubbed the top of the refrigerator. From the dust and grit, she guessed that it hadn’t been cleaned in years, but at least it wasn’t covered with congealed grease and oil, like in some kitchens where the ladies did a lot of frying.
Mr. Parker fixed her lunch every Monday: first a turkey sandwich with bacon, lettuce and tomato; then a ham sandwich with mustard and pickle; and finally a roast beef sandwich with avocado.
While she worked, Mr. Parker sat at his computer and typed, shuffling papers. She never asked what he was doing. Sometimes he would go out for a jog or a swim.
The fourth Monday he made grilled cheese sandwiches, then sat and ate lunch with her, smiling fiercely, which made her nervous. He asked if she wanted jalapenos with her sandwich, and showed her a jar of jalapenos. She shook her head and smiled. He said, “You don’t like jalapenos?”
She said, “No, thank you.”
He said, “I bought them just for you.”
“Thank you. Muy picante.”
He made a face of surprise. “Too spicy? I thought people from Mexico liked muy picante.”
She felt her face turning red. “My from no is Mexico.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Guatemala?”
“No,” she smiled. “My from is El Salvador.”
He said, “You’re from El Salvador.”
His face changed. “I used to be an English teacher. Can you do something for me?”
“Yes, can you say this: ‘I’m from El Salvador.'”
“You from is El Salvador?”
“No.” He slowed down his words and gestured with his hands. “I…” (pointing to himself) “…want you…” (pointing to her) “…to say…” (pointing to his mouth) “…I’m from El Salvador.”
She repeated it. He made a little diagram showing subject and verb. It was an English lesson. It was time for her to clean his bedroom, but he was teaching her “I am a woman” and “You are a man” and “I am hungry” and “It is two o’clock.”
She felt nervous that it really was two already and she hadn’t even started cleaning his bedroom. Then the doorbell rang. He checked through the curtains and said, “It’s my son.” For a moment she had a funny feeling as if they’d been doing something bad. She got up and took her plastic bucket with rags and spray bottles towards the bedroom. He was opening the door. She didn’t want to see the son.
From the bedroom, she heard the two men talking at the doorway. The son’s voice was loud and sharp, as if he was trying to dominate the conversation. The son used the word “Mom” several times. Maybe there was a fight between the parents and the son was in the middle.
The son left a few minutes later, slamming the door without saying goodbye. Alma came out of the bedroom and saw Mr. Parker standing there at the closed door. His head looked heavy on his thin neck.
She said, “Is okay, your son?”
He said, “He’s always like that.”
* * *
For the next few weeks Mr. Parker was quieter than before, and he didn’t sit with her at lunch, but he seemed to be looking at her in a different way that made her more and more uncomfortable. Then on the eighth Monday, at lunchtime Mr. Parker said, “Are you hungry?”
She wasn’t sure until he made a hand signal for “eat.” She felt confused because he hadn’t made her the customary sandwich. He opened the door to the garage and motioned. She followed him.
He was pushing the garage door, which opened for the first time that she had seen. The old Mercedes looked newer in the sunlight. He opened the car’s door for her. It smelled like old leather and cigarettes.
He drove them to Mrs. Nelson’s restaurant, “The Ancient Mariner,” where she had never been. The restaurant had a big painted wood carving of an old English sailor holding up the sign in front, with a sea bird over his head.
The restaurant was cool and dark inside. It smelled like whisky and beef and French fries. Mrs. Nelson wasn’t there. Alma Zuleima was glad. A blonde girl showed them to a corner table. A Mexican boy brought them ice water. Nobody seemed to be noticing this old man with a weird jaw who was taking his housekeeper out to a nice restaurant for lunch.
When the waiter came, Mr. Parker said something to him quietly. The waiter, a dark Latino, brought a big bouquet of flowers and set them on the table in front of Alma Zuleima.
Alma looked at the flowers and all the air went out of her body. They were beautiful: red roses, yellow chrysanthemums, white calla lilies, blue irises. Mr. Parker said, “They’re for you.”
She said, “Thank you.”
He smiled. “You’re welcome.”
He moved his hand towards hers, but stopped himself and pulled his hand back.
The waiter gave them both menus. Everything on the menu was in English. She looked at the menu with a blank stare. The waiter said, in Spanish, “You like steak?”
The waiter took Mr. Parker’s order – sole fillet – and left.
He looked at her again. “Alma, you know I live alone.”
She wasn’t sure what that meant, so she nodded.
He said, “I’ve been alone for… almost five years.”
She said, “You alone five years.”
“Yes.” He smiled. “You’re a good student.”
He thought for a moment and said, “I’m tired of being alone. I want you to marry me.”
She thought she understood the word, so she said it. “Marry.”
“Yes.” He pulled from his pocket a little box of black felt. He gave it to her. “Open it.”
She opened it. Inside was a small diamond ring. Her throat hurt and she couldn’t say anything. Instead she started crying. She remembered her sister’s wedding in the Pentecostal church in Los Angeles. She remembered her own wedding in a small Catholic church in Chalatenango, El Salvador. She remembered the way her husband had changed, the drunken beatings and the shame of the divorce and why she’d had to come to California. It all poured out and she couldn’t think or even feel anything except sorry that her life had turned out so badly. Accepting Jesus had felt like this, too, but she wasn’t accepting Mr. Parker. He was an old man who smoked cigarettes and probably had cancer and his son was horrible and she wasn’t going through another divorce.
She felt his hand on hers and opened her eyes. His touch wasn’t cold or warm… it was just a touch. He looked worried. “You okay?”
She said, “Si, yes, okay.”
“Good. You don’t have to answer now. You can think about it.”
“Think about it.”
“Good. You think about it.”
She gave him back the ring.
He smiled. She was surprised that he wasn’t angry. He seemed happy, which she didn’t understand.
He drove her back to the condo, and she finished cleaning his bedroom and the master bath, and she rode the bus back home, holding the flowers close to her chest. A few bus passengers saw the flowers and smiled. Embarrassed, she watched the bare-rock mountains slide past with the sun baking their sides, thinking that if he had really wanted to marry her, and if he really loved her, he would have given her a ride. But maybe he was busy, or maybe he thought she needed time alone to think. Anyway, she was glad she had time to think about it.
The more she thought about it, the gladder she was that he hadn’t offered her a ride. A weird joy rose inside her stomach. Mr. Parker had given her something better than a ride home, better than the flowers, better than the diamond ring. He had given her freedom.