A Short Story by Germán Mora
With her forced, sweet voice, Marisol tells Jesus he’s a great lover. Lying on a second-hand bed with a hospital blue sheet draping her naked body, she says that this has been the best fuck she’s had in years. He turns toward her, gives her a little smile, and nods. He silently prays not to have caught anything from her but turns ashen at the realization of just having broken his oath – the one thing he promised his wife he would never do when he left her with his baby daughter fifteen months ago. The plan was simple: He’d go to Phoenix, where he’d get a good job working with his cousin and save some money to bring her and the baby over to Arizona. Instead, he now sits at the edge on a filthy bed next to a prostitute who has absorbed the summer smell of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor – salty, oily, and putrid.
Jesus throws on a canary yellow shirt and slips on his underwear with its inner pouches, one on each side, sewn in by his wife so he can hide in each of them five twenty-dollar bills folded into squares. He peers inside his gray socks, where he’s storing the rest of his savings – eighty dollars in all, split equally between them. They’re there, so he slides his feet into the socks, finishes getting dressed, and says thank you in Spanish to Marisol. On his way downstairs, deflated and somber, Jesus wonders whether he should offer his regret to Rafa for not having being proper with his wife, but when his friends turn their heads toward him, Jesus rewards them with a thumbs-up and a strong smile.
“I hope you had fun upstairs,” Rafa says with derision, and his words make Jesus feel small.
“Nothing like a good lay to end a week of hard work,” Antonio says in his fake Sonoran accent, lifting his beer in celebration.
His words pounced on Jesus, who has wanted to slam Antonio for wondering aloud about him this evening. Antonio whines that Jesus is too skinny and too young for construction work. When taking a piss earlier in the evening, Jesus heard him saying that he, Jesus, kisses himself in the mirror after seeing his pretty reflection. Yes, pretty was the word he used. All of them laughed, and Jesus imagined him enacting his words by hugging his compact, barrel-chested torso and kissing the air with his serpentine tongue. I’m not one of those, Jesus thought, and to prove it, he strayed upstairs to screw with Marisol. Jesus wishes he could whisper this to Rafa so he could understand. Jesus suspects Rafa would. Whenever Jesus has fucked something up at work – letting the cement go dry, nailing the wrong beam, or protesting like a jerk – Rafa would place his hand on Jesus’ neck and ask him to do another task. “You’ll learn. Just take it easy,” Rafa would say.
“She almost gave me my money back once she saw this,” Jesus says, grabbing his crotch. He then winks and forces a laugh.
“Who would have guessed that Hondurans are such stallions?” Antonio asks. He claims to be from Mexico, but Jesus recognizes his real accent – southern Honduran, like his own. Antonio has said Mexicans get better chances than everybody else, and Jesus suspects he’s right and surmises that’s the reason behind his shamming.
“I’ve been in this business for a while, and let me tell you something: Hondurans ain’t what they say,” Doña Juana declares in her Nicaraguan accent, slamming an empty shot glass on the table, a wooden box that used to contain something useful. “This skinny boy is talking bullshit.”
Jesus sits next to her and feigns being serious by studying her squinty brown eyes, framed by unruly black eyebrows that match the color of her unkempt hair. Jesus throws his arm over her broad shoulders, and with a grin, he says, “We’re not all like your husband, and by the way, you just stole forty bucks from me.”
“What you’re talking about, boy? I’m no thief!” Doña Juana says, shaking her head. “I barely break-even with those deadbeat girls.”
Doña Juana looks like someone in her late forties and not thirty-four as she says. She’s fond of wrapping her short, burly body with tight shirts and short mini-skirts that make her broad legs look like an upside-down, thick stump poorly cleaved with an ax. She refers to her middle-aged prostitutes as girls, and Antonio contends that by some conservative accounts, Doña Juana has more experience than the other three girls combined.
“You break even?” Rafa asks in his Sinaloan accent as he sets his warm beer can on the wooden table. “That’s bullshit!”
Jesus noticed that Rafa’s mood had changed earlier in the day. Rafa was atop a ladder when he let loose of a bucket full of copper rods. The rods almost hit Antonio, who was below him caulking a window sill. Antonio yelled that Rafa was getting weak in his old age, a complaint Jesus had heard from others in the squad. Rafa calls himself a veteran of his trade, and his weather-beaten skin proves it. Doña Juana, who knows him best, insists his working days started when he was old enough to carry a shovel. Now that he’s turned fifty, Jesus thinks, he might just be tired of carrying it around.
“The girls bring only drunks like you to my bar,” Doña Juana replies.
Jesus looks around, realizing that the bar used to be the combined living and dining room of some past family – with its seating areas, each consisting of four wooden boxes, surrounded by four to five plastic, dingy white, outdoor patio chairs, probably passed along by so many owners to be beyond the point of calling themselves second-hand.
“They bring customers only? That must be why they have to clean your filth,” Rafa says, putting his hand on his forehead. “Don’t they pay you rent too?”
“The girls would have to pay for that no matter where they live,” Doña Juana counters. “I’m doing them a favor, if you ask me.”
Jesus beams a forced smile, having heard this before. Soon after deciding to go to Phoenix, he and his extended family borrowed the five thousand dollars needed to pay a coyote for help with crossing the border, money he’s still repaying in $300 monthly installments. After trekking through the desert and making his way to Phoenix, Jesus griped to the coyote about having been left with a sip of water and a bite of food for the ten-mile hike across the desert. “You’re here now, aren’t you?” the coyote said to him. “I did you a favor, so stop bitching about it.”
Jesus’s tongue is now sharpening itself against his canines at the prospect of lashing out at Doña Juana’s false tales of doing any favors for anyone, but he reins in his tongue and says nothing. He feels it’s unbecoming to test his fate.
“I bet you say the same thing to your husband, perhaps when he’s on all fours cleaning up puke,” Antonio says with a grin, lifting his finger in the air, as if he were piercing a vapid idea floating above him. “I’m doing you a favor, honey,” he adds, mimicking Doña Juana’s raspy voice, damaged from years of smoking. “It’s all for your health.”
“What can I say? I’m a sucker,” Doña Juana says, lifting both hands in the air as if she were a priest in the midst of a sermon. “Sadly, useless fuckers like you take advantage of good Samaritans like me,” she adds with a thick grin.
“A good Samaritan?” Rafa asks in disbelieve. “What’s next? Comparing yourself to Mary Magdalene?”
“Since you mention it, my friend,” Doña Juana says while nodding, “I should be sanctified by the Pope himself for the hard work I’ve done for this community.”
Doña Juana has seduced city workers into coming to her brothel to dispense advice to her customers. A few weeks ago, a young gringo suggested in his thick accent that grasping some English words eases the burden of landing work. Doña Juana elbowed Jesus and pushed him toward the gringo, who passed Jesus a colorful pamphlet with pictures of brown kids with crooked smiles crouching over a book. Above them, it said in Spanish, “Free English Classes in Your Neighborhood.” Jesus held the pamphlet with hesitation. Doña Juana snatched it, flipped through it, and pointed at a bolded entry: “Saint Brigid Catholic Church. Saturdays. 4 to 6 pm.” Jesus decided to start attending without telling Rafa after Doña Juana insisted on it. “Rafa has nothing to show for it, so why are you following him like a puppy dog?” she said.
Now in the bar, Jesus stands up, thrusting his warm beer can into the air and loudly proclaiming, “A toast for Doña Juana, the patron saint of the whores and all their useless fuckers.”
The men sitting at the other tables cheer, and Jesus smiles in delight. He scans the room, looking for more approving faces, but his gaze stops at Rafa, who glares at him while shaking his head in slow motion. Although Jesus feels secured within the cocoon created by Doña Juana’s brothel and Rafa’s protection in this part of town, he wonders whether he would be better off somewhere else, in a calm place far from the commotion of this part of town, a place where Jesus could make more money than is needed to pay his loan. Jesus even told Rafa two weeks ago he had heard from other construction workers that there were others like them in the suburbs getting better jobs. Rafa discouraged him, saying that he would be paying more rent in the suburbs so it would be a wash.
Now Jesus wants to say he’s sorry to Rafa for dismissing his thoughts. “Life’s too short, Rafa,” Jesus says instead. “Just lighten up.”
“Well said, Jesus,” Antonio chimes in. “We’re here to have fun, not to think.”
“One more beer, Rafa?” Jesus pleads. “I’ll pay for it.”
“You’ve already thrown enough money away for one evening,” Rafa responds, and then directs his gaze to Doña Juana. “She should be the one buying us beer with her cut of what you just paid upstairs.”
“What else does the Mister want?” Doña Juana asks, bowing her head as if she were having a royal audience. “Would your Eminence want me, perhaps, to let you and your loser friends stay here for free?” She then leans forward toward Rafa, placing her elbows on the wooden box. “Or maybe your Eminence could give me the honor of allowing me to wipe his holy ass?” She leans back and gives him the finger.
“You’ve never picked up our tab, even though we’ve been entertaining you with our conversation for all these weeks,” Jesus says to her with the sincerity that only a newcomer could possess. “It’s only fair. We’re providing a service too, you know.”
She laughs so violently that the buttons of her tight, plaid shirt almost burst. She places her sweaty palm on Jesus’s cheek. “I like people like you,” she says. “Cute and dumb.” She resumes her laugh, sliding her hand from Jesus’s face to grab her drink. “You should work here.”
“I knew it!” Antonio shouts.
Jesus feels a tsunami of heat rising toward his head. He realizes his smile has disappeared, so he wills his facial muscles to contract, only to discover that they do it with hesitation, the same hesitation his entire body is offering, as if it were about to go on strike.
“Leave the kid alone,” Doña Juana orders. “He has a lot to learn from me.” She glances at Jesus and says, “Maybe we can make some money together, perhaps using those pretty lips of yours.”
Antonio nods and says, “I sure can see you working upstairs.”
His words leave Jesus speechless.
Earlier in the evening, Jesus had suspected it was stupid to go out tonight, particularly with Antonio, whom Rafa used to recommend when contractors – or White Knights, as Rafa called them both for their skin tone and the color of their aging vans – needed another set of hands. Rafa now recommends Jesus when the White Knights descend on their neighborhood, Highlandtown. He started doing that ever since Jesus told him about getting married at age seventeen once his girlfriend got pregnant with his baby girl. “It was what was expected of me,” Jesus explained after Antonio quizzed him about marrying someone he barely knew.
“That’s all that you can think of,” Rafa barks at Doña Juana. “How to prostitute others so you can make money. It’s disgusting.”
“Your babbling stopped being cute just about half an hour ago,” Doña Juana says with a tight smile. “You need to calm down, or I’ll throw your sorry ass out!”
Rafa mutters something back at her, but stops mid-sentence.
Jesus interjects, “We’re just tired of busting our asses for nothing.”
“Well said, Jesus,” Antonio slurs. “We should demand more money.”
Jesus smirks at those words. A few weeks back, after seeing a sign pinned on a bodega’s board asking him and others not to accept less than ten dollars from the White Knights, Rafa implored Antonio and Jesus to band together. Antonio blenched, his body bulky and clumsy, and mumbled under his breath, “I can’t.”
“Yes, you should,” Doña Juana coos at Antonio, mocking his fake accent. She then lets out a hearty laugh that practically shakes the table. “These good-for-nothing drunks won’t do it.”
Antonio’s face becomes ablaze with anger at being found out. Jesus has never seen him like this, even after Rafa stopped giving him praise. Every morning, Antonio goes out with them, and when the White Knights don’t pick him, as if he were yesterday’s news, he displays no emotion. He just stays there, waves at Rafa and Jesus, wishing them good luck, and strays away, searching for other opportunities.
“We’re not like your whores!” Rafa barks.
“Really?” says Doña Juana. “Didn’t you beg me for work when you arrived in Baltimore?” She then leans forward, adding, “I remember you saying ‘willing to do whatever around here,’ or was that bullshit?”
Rafa turns his gaze to Jesus, who tries to appear normal but nonetheless feels bad for Rafa. Jesus thinks he should have known better than to cross Doña Juana. The first time Jesus met him at the bus station in downtown Baltimore, Rafa told Jesus not to trust anyone, particularly White Knights, who may stiff him once the work is done. He said it was pointless to argue with them or to go to the police – just learn from it. It’s just fate.
Tonight, it seems Rafa hasn’t learned much because he stands up, staring at Doña Juana with a murdering look, shoves his chair out of the way, and marches toward the bathroom.
“Oh! How delicate,” Doña Juana derides. “The mister’s mad.”
Antonio seems to ignore her, gazing at his beer instead.Doña Juana places her rough hand on Jesus’s and waves him in with the other. Jesus leans in, and she whispers, “Don’t let them drag you into their shit.”
Jesus leans back and turns his gaze toward Antonio, who’s still brewing silently. Jesus grabs his now empty beer can and clinks it against Antonio’s. “One more?”
Antonio’s red face has faded away to unveil its typical caramel color. He clinks his beer back against Jesus’s. “Sure.”
“I’ll get them,” Doña Juana offers, waddling her way to the bar. She says something to her husband, who then rushes to the kitchen. Rafa emerges from the bathroom, and Doña Juana calls for him. She goes to the kitchen, and Rafa disappears behind her.
Antonio tilts his head toward Jesus and narrows his eyes. “Was she good?”
“Who?” asks Jesus.
“Oh.” Jesus considers the question for a moment. “Yeah. Of course.”
“Of course,” Antonio repeats with a smirk. “Did you like it?”
“Never mind.” Antonio runs his fingers through his hair and leans back against his chair. “Where are our beers?”
Jesus stares at Antonio. “You’ve slept with her?”
Jesus throws his arm over Antonio’s shoulder and asks him with a smirk, “Was she good?”
Antonio turns his head toward Jesus, who catches a blast of Antonio’s leathery scent. Jesus smiles at him but then feels Antonio’s gaze sweeping over his face. “Why? Do you want me to show you how to do it?”
The words jar Jesus, who removes his arm from Antonio’s shoulder. Jesus then creeps away from Antonio, who looks into Jesus’s eyes as if he were telling him that he found Jesus’s question, if not Jesus himself, disgusting.
Rafa charges out of the kitchen, marred and stomping hard, heads directly for the door, and storms out of the house. Jesus and Antonio follow him outside. It’s only four blocks to their house, heading east along Pratt Street, but the frigid air of this February evening tightens Jesus’s muscles and slows his pace. He’s a few steps behind Antonio, keeping a measurable distance from him. Rafa is still seething, and Antonio keeps telling him to let it go.
“What happened?” Jesus asks, the cold air stabbing his lungs.
“We need to do it tomorrow,” Rafa announces. “When they come and offer us work, we all have to ask for ten dollars an hour.”
“But they could go elsewhere,” Jesus counters.
Jesus wants to tell them it’s idiotic to expect that the White Knights would pay that much. He had to leave Phoenix because there were so many people asking for work that contractors could offer six dollars an hour and get enough hands in the air. Jesus asked his cousin where there might be less competition, and he told Jesus to go east, where he had a trusted acquaintance – Rafa. On this cold evening, Jesus also wants to ask Rafa why, of all months, he had to pick February, when there’s the least amount of work. Instead, Jesus says nothing.
“Once they drive all the way into the city,” Rafa responds, “they won’t waste their time going to another place, and there won’t be many people looking for a job on a Sunday.”
“I’m with you, brother,” Antonio says as he gently elbows him.
Both of them slow down and turn to see Jesus, their faces beaming with anticipation and intoxication. Jesus gives them a little smile and nods. Antonio and Rafa smile back and bob their heads simultaneously. Antonio steps forward, rests his hand on Jesus’s shoulder, squeezing it slightly, and bellows out, “United will never be defeated!”
Jesus grins, puts his hand on Antonio’s shoulder, both looking as though they were about to start dancing at a quinciañera, and repeats, “United will never be defeated!”
Both laugh. Antonio throws his arm on Jesus’s shoulder, nudging his body toward Antonio’s and making his head bow under the pressure of his arm. Antonio playfully grinds Jesus’s head with his knuckles. “This kid will be all right,” Antonio yells to Rafa, who is almost a block away, staggering to their home.
Jesus feels a warm fluttering in his heart. He hugs Antonio and says, “You’re drunk.”
“Yep,” responds Antonio, who then releases Jesus and starts ambling up the empty street. Jesus follows him a step behind, grinning all the way to their home.
The row-house that Jesus now calls home, one that he detests, is similar to Doña Juana’s, at least in size and layout. It differs in that every room is cluttered with foam mattresses, each covered with second-hand sweaters and winter coats that serve as both blankets and outfits for the nine people who live in the house. After opening the door, Jesus slinks upstairs to the room he shares with Rafa and Antonio, passing through the stink of tobacco and alcohol that comes from the dormant bodies lying on the mattresses. In their room, Jesus leans forward to grab a toothbrush from his backpack, only to come across a small, blonde Barbie doll, handed down to him last month by a tall woman living outside the city in a beautiful brick house with a faulty chimney that needed urgent repair before the arrival of winter. He pulls the doll out of the backpack and places it gently against his heart, knowing that he left Honduras to look for better opportunities as much as to escape the responsibilities of being a father and living with a wife for whom he has no feelings.
“Is that for your girl?” asks Rafa.
Jesus glances over his shoulder and sees Antonio plop onto his mattress. “Yes,” Jesus whispers soft enough for Rafa to hear but not loud enough for Antonio to ridicule.
“And for your wife?”
Jesus looks away. He feels small telling Rafa he’s better off without her.
“What happened in the kitchen?” Jesus asks Rafa, glancing at Antonio, who snores with the roar of a great critter.
Rafa sits on the floor, his back leaning against one of the walls. “She thinks I’m fucking up your future.”
Jesus crawls toward Rafa and sits next to him. “Why?”
Rafa sighs and rubs his eyes with his hand. “She has plans for you. She said working for the White Knights is not the way to go.” He folds his arms, hugging his body. “She also said my days as a construction worker are almost over. Getting old.”
Jesus nudges Rafa’s leg with his. “She was pissed off, so she was trying to get into your head. What does she know about anything?”
Rafa stares at the doll that Jesus left lying on his mattress. “I suppose,” he responds with a brooding tone. “Time to sleep now. We have work to do tomorrow.”
The next day, Jesus and his comrades head north along Highland Avenue, carrying their backpacks, full of gloves, candy bars, and a plastic bottle filled with tap water. They are still a bit inebriated and had only instant coffee and a stale piece of bread for breakfast. Not many people are walking or driving on this February morning, and the alcohol has not worn off enough for his body to register how cold it actually is. As soon as they turn on Fayette, Rafa reminds everyone about the plan, which Jesus believed earlier today was just the result of last night’s intoxication and scorn. He thinks Rafa will reconsider, once he sees others at the corner waiting for work, but it is only the three of them today. They stand motionless at the street corner, dropping their backpacks next to a stop sign. The cold air gradually invades their bodies, draining any desire to talk and lifting the fog that cloaks Jesus’s memories of the money spent last night: almost a full day’s pay.
“For what?” he thinks. “A headache and a regret?” He understands he needs to recoup the money for his wife, but just for a moment, Jesus thinks of not sending any. He then pictures his daughter. Unlike the image of his wife, foggy and foreign, that of his child is always alive in his mind. However, he suspects he may not be a good father because once his daughter was born, he realized he would rather spend time playing soccer than changing her diaper.
A muddy van finally pulls in, and two bearded men step onto the street, wearing overalls and equally dirty jean jackets that cover their over-sized bellies. Jesus wonders about the thinness of their outfits, particularly in this weather.
One of them says in broken Spanish, “You three. Seven dollars. Six hours.” He motions his index finger in the air to create an imaginary circle, adding, “Back… afternoon.”
Rafa shakes his head and counters in English, “Ten dollars an hour.”
The men from the van look at each other for a second, confused. Then, they both respond in both English and Spanish, “No, no…. seven dollars.”
Rafa puts his hands in front of himself with his palms facing the men, spreading his fingers as wide as possible while repeating in English, “Ten, ten, no less.”
The two men from the van exchange some words between them that Jesus can’t understand, but their expressions have turned from confused to tense. The one who speaks broken Spanish turns and says, “Seven dollars hour. Only two.” He then points to Antonio and Jesus, while the other man points to Rafa and waves him off.
Antonio stares at Rafa with an emotionless expression for a second. He turns to the two men and asks for eight dollars. The White Knights exchange looks with each other and then nod. Antonio grabs his backpack and marches toward the van. Rafa turns his gaze toward Jesus, who then looks away. Antonio, who now is near the van, yells to Jesus in Spanish, “Let’s go. It’s cold.”
Jesus considers his request, feeling a lump trapped in his belly. He sighs, hoists his bag up onto his back, and strides by Rafa, not wanting to exchange any words or looks with him. Antonio squeezes by the front seat and sits in the back, and so does Jesus, who can’t help looking through the window and seeing Rafa, who is on the sidewalk, staring at them with a surprised look.
“He’ll be alright,” Antonio says. “His turn to wait for us.”
Jesus wants to shut him up but chooses to remain quiet. For a brief moment, Jesus wonders if he could jump out of the van and join Rafa, but he tells himself that he can’t because Antonio and the White Knights will be very mad.
“You speak English?” Jesus asks Antonio in Spanish.
The White Knights climb into the van, and Antonio asks him in English if they’re having a good morning. They mumble something Jesus takes as a yes.
“Learning,” Antonio whispers to Jesus in Spanish. “Doña Juana helped me.” He looks out as the van chugs along, passing by boarded-up houses. “We can’t depend on Rafa forever.”
The van heads west, rolling through a maze of dilapidated buildings. Antonio elbows Jesus and then discretely points at the White Knights, as if telling him to pay attention to his next move. With a syrupy voice, Antonio tells them this is a great van, the best ride he’s ever had. The driver nods and lets out a little smile. Jesus turns to look back, hoping to see Highlandtown, but now it’s more of a memory than a distant object. He looks through the other windows. Everything is unfamiliar. He fidgets on his seat. The image of Rafa’s somber face weighs on him, and even though it’s stifling, Jesus suspects he’ll eventually defeat this familiar feeling, if nothing else, by the firmness of his faith in fate.
Germán Mora is a native of Bogotá, Colombia. He is the author of over thirty scientific articles and has a PhD in biogeochemistry. He lives in Baltimore, where he serves on the faculty of Goucher College, teaching students to be better stewards of the natural environment and takes creative writing classes with some of his own students.