A short story by John Mears
The day Alma Zuleima first went to clean Mr. Parker’s condominium, the sun burned over Palm Springs as it had when her group crossed the Arizona desert with the coyote. Waves of heat poured down from the mountains and shimmered up from the street like some mysterious water, and she wished she’d brought a bottle of water, but she’d forgotten.
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 the Pope and accepted Jesus into their hearts without the Holy Sacraments, but Alma Zuleima didn’t think that Catholics 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 top of the gate’s grill. 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.
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 held her hand and prayed with her and 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 balding, white-haired man with a gentle face opened the door. Seeing Alma Zuleima, he smiled and said, “You must be Alma Zuleima.”
She noticed that the left half of his chin was missing a big chunk, as if somebody had taken a bite out of his jaw, so his smile was lopsided. Cancer, she thought.
She pushed her cheeks up in her best smile and said, “Yes,” trying not to look at the left side of his face, where some of the skin looked like melted plastic.
Mr. Parker extended his hand. “I’m Bob Parker. Please come in.” He hissed a little when he spoke, because of the way the left side of his mouth twisted down where the part of his chin was missing.
She shook his hand and walked in. Cold air blasted her neck from an air-conditioning vent over her head. The cold air made the hair on her neck stand up. She stepped past a dining room table into a living room with bright-colored flower paintings on the wall, lots of yellow and orange colors, and big silk flowers – pink and purple – 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 the Devil’s poison 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. It sounded like, “What do you like to think?” When she hesitated, he signaled with his hand, lifting an imaginary drink, and said, “You want a drink? Ice tea? Ice water?”
She said, “Si… yes, please.”
“Ice tea, or ice water?”
“Ice, or no ice?”
He opened a plastic gallon bottle of water and filled a pink plastic glass to the top. She sipped it while he showed her around. There was a common pool in the back where two shockingly white families were sunbathing on white lounge chairs. One of the mothers, very fat, was white as a Kleenex on her stomach while her back was bright pink. She was scolding one of her children in the pool. 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 ground-down dirt lawn; the only flowers were tired red geraniums crammed against the wall like a cholo being arrested by the police.
She watched the kids playing and wondered if she would ever have children herself. Two years earlier, 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. He called Alma Zuleima “Amma Zooma.” When the mother was drinking and talking bad, Alma Zuleima often thought of running back to El Salvador with the boy. Even now, she thought about him when she couldn’t sleep in her little bedroom in her aunt’s house trailer, and dreamed of holding him close to her as she drifted off.
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 with dust on the hood. He said something she couldn’t understand, motioning to the car and chuckling.
There were two bedrooms. The guest bedroom had two small beds and a computer on a desk. Handwritten papers lay about and there were lines of black letters on the white computer screen.
The master bedroom had a giant bed and a high ceiling and mirrors on one side. She wondered if Mr. Parker slept alone, this man with his half-eaten chin. He was very thin, not handsome, with a long beak nose and a sharp Adam’s apple, but his twisted 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 their reflections 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. Her skin was dark next to his, like café con leche in a white ceramic 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 eighty dollars a day.”
He said, “That’s fine. Can you come every Monday?”
* * *
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, 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 they fried a lot.
Mr. Parker fixed her lunch every Monday. The first Monday it was a turkey sandwich with bacon, lettuce and tomato. The second Monday it was a ham sandwich with mustard and pickle. On the third Monday, it was a roast beef sandwich with avocado. All of them were delicious.
While she worked, Mr. Parker sat at his computer and worked, typing or shuffling papers. She never asked what he was doing. Sometimes he would go out the back door to the patio and smoke a cigarette. Other times he would go for a swim with a towel draped over his arm, his skinny legs and torso sharply white in the dark condo.
The fourth Monday he made grilled cheese sandwiches, then sat and ate lunch with her, smiling a lot, which made her nervous. He asked if she wanted jalapenos with her sandwich, and showed her a jar of jalapenos. She shook her head. “No, thank you.”
He said, “You don’t like jalapenos?”
She said, “No, thank you.”
He said, “I bought them just for you.”
“Thank you. Too hot.”
He made a face of surprise. “Too hot? I thought people from Mexico liked hot food.”
She felt her face turning red. “My from no is Mexico.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Guatemala?” He said it with a hard “G.”
“No,” she smiled. “My from is El Salvador.”
He said, “You’re from El Salvador.”
His face and manner 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 grabbed a pencil and a note pad from a kitchen drawer and 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.
Mr. Parker peeked – warily, she thought – through the Venetian blinds 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, or the son to see her.
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.
A few minutes later, the door slammed shut and there was silence. 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?”
“No. 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 – it was now early October – 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 button to open garage door, which raised slowly, creaking and whining, finally settling overhead with a thump and a groan. The old Mercedes looked newer in the sunlight; the dust was gone from the hood. He had washed it. For her? Was this a date?
He opened the Mercedes’s passenger door for her. The smell of old leather and cigarettes filled her nose as she settled in the passenger’s seat.
He drove them to Mrs. Nelson’s restaurant, “The Ancient Mariner,” where she had worked as a dishwasher and chopped vegetables for seventeen months. It was where Mrs. Nelson had told her about Mr. Parker, whom Alma Zuleima had never met because she was always in the kitchen washing dishes or chopping vegetables.
In front, the restaurant had a big, faded painted wood carving of an old English sailor holding up the sign, with a white seagull on his shoulder. It was cool and dark inside. She had only walked in the front door like this one time — when she was first applying for the job; normally she’d come in through the back door to the kitchen, past the trash dumpsters.
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, “Te gustan las hamburguesas?” (You like hamburgers?)
The waiter explained in Spanish that, even though this was a seafood restaurant, the seafood wasn’t very fresh, so he couldn’t recommend it. She ordered a hamburger.
The waiter took Mr. Parker’s order – “The sole fillet, please” – 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 know I look funny…” He motioned to his strange jaw. “I know I’m old, and you’re young, but – I want you to marry me.”
She said, “Marry?”
“Yes.” He pulled from his pocket a little black box. 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 blood rushed to her face and she almost 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 brutal sex, the humiliation 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 looked like he’d 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 thought for a moment, then gave him back the ring.
He smiled sadly, and put the ring back in his pocket. “That’s OK,” he said. “You can think about it some more. I realize this whole thing must seem kind of weird to you.”
She didn’t understand what he was saying. She was just surprised that he wasn’t angry. He almost seemed happy, which she didn’t understand.
He drove her back to the condo, and she finished cleaning his bedroom and the master bath. At three o’clock she was headed to the door with her purse when he came to the door and said, “Can I give you a ride home?”
“A right home?”
“A ride. In my car. So you don’t have to go on the bus.”
“No, I like walk. Is OK.”
He smiled his strange-mouth smile. “Correction. You should say, ‘No, I like to walk.’ Or, ‘I like walking.’ Anyway you don’t say ‘Is OK.’ You say, ‘It’s OK.’” He gave the lesson as if he was the happiest man in the world doing his favorite thing ever, teaching her English.
She smiled. “It’s OK.”
“Good,” he said. “Remember, in English you need the subject and the verb. Remember that. Subject and verb.”
“Thank you, teacher,” she said, and smiled. “Thank you very much.”
His face exploded in the biggest smile she had ever seen him make. “Bye, now. See you next Monday.”
“See you next Monday.”
As she rode the bus back to her room in her aunt’s house trailer at the Horizon Mobile Village, she watched the bare-rock mountains above Palm Springs slide past with the afternoon sun baking their sides, thinking. If she married him, she could live in that nice condominium. But the smell of cigarettes? And the cold hands of an old man on her naked body? On the other hand, she would get a green card, and could presumably help her family much more than she was currently doing, with small checks every two months. She could also think more realistically about going back to finish high school and maybe study nursing, which was her dream — to be a nurse in a white uniform, helping people get better. With Mr. Parker getting older, she could practice on him. A lot of nursing jobs were for taking care of old people, her cousin had told her.
Then she started to wonder about Mr. Parker. If he had really wanted to marry her, and if he really loved her, he would have insisted on giving her a ride, like a real man, with at least a little machismo. He had no machismo. And he was old, and he looked so strange.
But she hated machismo. She hated pushy men. Her husband had been pushy, and rough. Mr. Parker was the opposite.
Anyway, maybe he hadn’t insisted on giving her a ride because he was busy, or maybe just too shy, or maybe he thought she needed time alone to think. Anyway, she was glad she had time to think about it now. And 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 the ring, or a ride to her rented room in a trailer park. He had let her make up her own mind. He had set her free.