Editor’s Note – Recently a new novel, set in Stockton, CA and written by a local author, landed on my desk with such an impact that I found it necessary to share with our readers. Chapter 1: Alicia, from A Child Left Behind, by Phil Hutcheon, follows.
I see the porky gringa with the badass tats on her neck and the filthy overcoat stagger in and slump into a seat in the far corner of the café. No tip from that one, I tell myself right away. I hope Clara will take that table herself. I know that sounds mean, but if you’ve never worked in a restaurant, you have no idea how much it sucks to be stiffed after you’ve put yourself out there, done your best to be bright and shiny polite, forgetting whatever mierda you’ve been through so far that day to give the customer a big smile and show some interest in lives that led them to our little hole-in-the-wall café in, let us just say, not the finest part of town.
I should be fair. Clara’s a good cook, and her food is always tasty. It’s just that the kind of customers who come in here tend to bring you down. I’m sure you have seen them: the couples who come in and sit down and their cell phones are out before their bottom even hits the chair. They spend their whole meal texting and checking messages and surfing the Net instead of talking to each other or even looking at each other. Or if their phones aren’t right in their faces, the older couples, then one of them, usually the woman, is talking her head off about some stupid show she saw on TV. Her husband is sitting there with this dazed look in his eyes, Just kill me now, and when you bring him his plate he practically grabs it out of your hands and starts stuffing in enchiladas like he’s spent the last two months marching in a caravan from Caracas. His wife just keeps right on yakking, or maybe she interrupts her fascinating narrative long enough to complain about the food before she’s even tasted it, as if instead of the tamale she ordered I served her a turd. The husband finally looks at her and you can tell he’s ready to kill her now. Just shut up and eat, you can see him thinking, and he’s probably thinking also about snatching the food off her plate and shoveling that in, too, because his own is gone by now.
You can’t help wondering what a stimulating conversation these two must have in the car afterward. He’ll be burping up Clara’s extra spicy salsa all the way home, while she’s giving him a pop quiz on the plot of the TV show to find out how much attention he wasn’t paying. Usually the guy is losing his hair or bald already, and his wife is carrying many pounds she really doesn’t need. You wonder what either one of them could possibly have seen in the other that caused them to get together in the first place and how they ever had relations and whether they produced any children. If they did, you just hope the kids aren’t as hopeless as their parents.
When you see a couple like that, which I’m looking at right now, as a matter of fact, and which I see every time I come to work here, it really makes you question the whole idea of marriage and family. If I’m going to wind up in a marriage like that, I’d rather go back to Mexico and join a convent. I’ll spend my days praying like Saint Martha, for pigs to fall out of the sky to feed the people in my village. Those are the kinds of thoughts you have when you work at a café like Clara’s.
“Then why are you still working there?” Tori is always asking. She works uptown at The Roadhouse and makes a couple hundred bucks in tips on a decent night. All you have to do, she says, is put on a scoop-neck top and make sure to bend down a lot in front of the guys who think they are players. Usually, she says, they are there with their wife and kids, but they still like to take a look, and they are willing to pay for it. I’m lucky to come away with forty or fifty dollars here, on top of the barely more than minimum wage that Clara can pay. But the answer to Tori’s question is easy: it’s Clara.
To me, Clara Birdsong is America. If you tried to trace her roots on ancestry.com, your computer would probably blow a fuse. She was born on a reservation, and she’s part Cherokee. Even she is not sure how much—but it’s a lot more than that rubia who is running for President, that’s for sure. She’s also part black, part white, and part Mexican, and she thinks she has a Chinese ancestor somewhere along the line as well. It looks to me as if there is some Egyptian, like Cleopatra, in her, too. Lucky for her, she got the best features of each race. I have seen pictures of her when she was my age or a little more, and she looked just amazing then. She still looks good even though she’s really old now, almost sixty. She’s the one who hired me, gave me my first job five years ago when her I was just fourteen, fresh across the border, and barely spoke enough English to take orders from the customers. She was patient with me, forgave all my screw-ups, even a couple of complete melt-downs when my pendejo customers got totally out of control. She never fired me or even threatened to, no matter how much I messed up. She even gives me a little raise each year, nothing Tori wouldn’t sneer at, but all Clara can afford from what she squeezes out of the café.
She made her own way in the world. She never even knew her father. He was murdered a month before she was born, and her mother died when she was eight years old. Her father’s family tracked her down, moved her off the reservation, and put her to work in the fields when she was ten. She has been taking care of herself and others ever since. She has owned several businesses, and she built the one she has now from the ground up and even rescued it from one of her alcoholic exes, who tried to turn it into a piano bar, if you can imagine that in this part of town, with himself at the keyboard, before he got shot and killed in a liquor store parking lot. “If that old borracho had tried to play ‘Dimé’ one more time before we got rid of that piano, I’d have shot him myself,” she says. All this was long before I came along, but I don’t doubt it could have happened that way. Clara keeps a gun behind the counter, and I’m sure she’s a good shot. She is good at everything really, except men, of course, which makes everything else she’s good at sort of irrelevant. If you have to pick one thing to be bad at, men are a really terrible choice. Her first husband gave her two kids and then moved in down the street with her best friend. Her second husband gave her two more and then died in a DUI collision that he caused. Piano man was number three.
The good thing about Clara is she can laugh at her own mistakes, as well as mine. Tori’s always talking about asshole bosses who can’t wait to chew you out for the slightest slip-up, but Clara has seen enough crazy days go by that she can shake her head and smile when you do something careless or dumb, which I admit I used to do a lot when I was just learning, although now I pride myself on doing a good job and keeping mistakes to a minimum. “Even if you don’t make a lot of money, even if no one else notices what you do, do a good job because you are the one doing it. You will know,” Papi always used to say—how many times? A million?—when we were together in Mexico. Whenever he laid bricks or put stucco on a new house, the work had to be perfecto. I carry his words in my heart even though now we are far apart.
I give up on Clara’s taking the table—she’s not moving too well any more, and she usually waits for me to make the rounds—and go over to bring the gringa a glass of water and a menu. Along the way I have to twist out of reach when Maximo grabs at me. He’s an old-timer with no front teeth who always wants a pinch of flesh with his coffee. Basically he’s harmless, but I don’t let him touch me. “Ugh,” I can hear Tori, “how do you put up with that shit? And for a grimy quarter tip?”
I look at the gringa over the top of the menu. Up close I almost can’t believe how terrible she looks. Her hair is wild and greasy, and her make-up is a mess. Hard to tell what is under that awful overcoat, but I’m sure whatever it is isn’t color-coordinated. How does any woman let herself leave the house looking like that? Mami drilled into my sisters and me, from the time we were little, the importance of always looking our best when we go out in public. Even when we had next to nothing, she made sure every day to brush our hair and put a ribbon in and to dress us in clean clothes before sending us off to school. You did not leave Mami’s house without a thorough self-inspection in the mirror, and I still do that every day, before I come to work or school. Between paying for my classes and books and other bills, there’s not much left in my budget for clothes or make-up, and I’m always in a rush to get to one place or the other, but at least I take a moment to make sure that I don’t look como algo que el gato trajo de los pelos, as Mami used to say. Not a Tori moment, of course, which can last an hour and lead to open warfare over whose turn it is in the bathroom.
I know I have some advantages in the looks department, with my complexion (Tori calls it creamy caramel: she says I have the best skin she’s ever seen) and my thick, healthy hair. Guys are always telling me how attractive I am, even beautiful many have said, especially, of course, the ones trying to get me into their bed, which is basically all of them. Good luck with that to those marginados who dropped out of high school to spend their lives playing video games or working in chop shops. I am going to be a doctor, and I don’t need a guy like that holding me back. “Why not be a nurse and marry a doctor instead, honey?” Tori always wants to know. “Let him deal with the stress and the bills for medical school, and you can help him spend his money when he gets out.” That’s a good plan for her, I guess, but I want my life to be about who I am and not just who I’m married to. I’ve seen what happens to women who depend on men. My sisters back in Mexico have to ask their husbands for money all the time, for every purchase, even to buy groceries or pay a small bill, and they hate it. They always tell me do not put myself in this position.
“Can you get me a straw for this ice water?”
The gringa speaks very softly. I can barely hear her, but I nod and lean forward, and I notice again what a mess her hair is. I feel really sorry for girls who have thin hair or greasy hair like this one, although I can’t help thinking that shampooing once in a while might help.
“Anything else? You ready to order?”
“Just the straw.”
Great. A new low: a trip back to the kitchen just to fetch a pinche straw. That’s what you get for bringing water to a customer before she orders. Maybe that law against this makes more sense that I gave it credit for. Now they’re talking about getting rid of the straws, too. I spin and head for the kitchen, sidestepping Maximo again along the way, then grab a straw and hurry back, only to find the table empty.
Mierda! I wasn’t fast enough or what? I practically sprinted to the kitchen and back. I look around and shake my head in disbelief. Maybe Tori is right. Maybe it’s time to give up on this job and get a better one. From behind the counter Clara catches my eye and motions toward the restroom. Oh, great. I can only hope the gringa isn’t spilling her guts in there. With no budget for a janitor, the restroom clean-up tasks fall to me as well. I don’t have any time to waste now if I’m going to get to school on time for my class. I head in to see if I can prevent disaster, at least get her to relieve herself in the toilet instead of the sink.
The door is ajar, but I find no gringa inside. Instead, I see her discarded overcoat on the floor. I can’t believe my eyes.
Swaddled inside it is a tiny new caramel-colored baby.
Phil Hutcheon graduated from University of the Pacific and has taught at Delta College since 1990. He is the author of four novels, A Child Left Behind (Tokay Press), Rooting for Goliath (Tokay Press), Desperation Passes (Tuleburg Press), and Where Triples Go To Die (Inkwater Press).