Monday, September 04, 2006

LABOR DAY CUENTO

In honor of Labor Day, I offer a little story about work. It's from my collection, Assumption and Other Stories (Bilingual Press). Enjoy. -- Daniel Olivas

"Eight"

Hour One.

Here. Wear this at all times.

Espiritu Chijulla looks down at the laminated tag, her own face staring back at her. She doesn’t like the way she looks: confused, guilty, too dark, head blocky like a Diego Rivera painting. At all times? she asks not daring to touch the tag.

Mr. Leonis lifts his moist, brown eyes towards Espiritu without otherwise moving a muscle. At all times while you’re here, he answers making a little whistling sound through his narrow nostrils.

Espiritu is frightened by the neatness of this man, her new supervisor. Starched, from head to toe. Crewcut. Mustache clipped short and tight against a stern upper lip. His desk is a perfect terrain of neat piles: manila folders, various containers for paper clips, Post-Its, scratch paper. She has an urge to push her lips against Mr. Leonis’ and force her tongue into his tight crevice of a mouth just to see what he would do. But instead of kissing him, Espiritu picks up the tag and clips it to the pocket of her blouse.

Mr. Leonis lowers his eyes. Good, he says. Good.

Espiritu stands in front of Mr. Leonis’ desk in silence.

Good, I said.

She nods and turns. As she walks from him, Espiritu holds her right hand against her chest and gives Mr. Leonis the finger. Have a nice day, she says as she leaves his office.

Have a nice day, Mr. Leonis answers as he swivels in his chair and reaches for his mouse. Bitch, he mouths. Bitch.

Hour Two.

After receiving her assignment files from Ms. Edwards, a woman who resembles Abraham Lincoln, but without the beard, Espiritu finds her cubicle. Gray and blue everywhere. Her nameplate says ESPIRITA CHIJULA. Doubly wrong. She dumps her files on the gray expanse of clean desktop.

Hey, she hears. She jumps. A man’s face peeks over the cubicle wall. Hey, the man says. I’m Simon.

Hi Simon, Espiritu says.
Can I visit? asks Simon.

Sure, she says.

Simon walks around his cubicle and enters hers. Simon Redneb, he says. He sticks his hand out. Espiritu shakes it. It is very moist so she pulls back quickly.

Redneb? she asks. Unusual name.

It was Rednebsky, at one point. Someone, my grandfather, I guess, wanted to be more American.

Redneb is more American? Espiritu asks as she dries her hand on her skirt. She notices that Simon could be handsome if he tried a little bit.

Simon looks down towards Espiritu’s knees. You know, they were caught fucking right where your legs are right now, he says. Simon smiles exposing too-perfect glistening teeth. Right there, he says pointing, almost touching Espiritu’s right knee.
Out of disgust, Espiritu pushes away and her chair glides back a few feet. No way, she says. No way.

Way, Simon laughs. Totally way. Right there. They thought everyone had gone for the day. But Mr. Leonis and that woman from accounting came back to get some files for a big meeting that got scheduled at the last minute. They caught them doing it doggy style.

Espiritu laughs. There isn’t enough room down there to do it doggy style.

Simon stops smiling. A line of red spills upward from his brow towards his hairline. His eyes narrow. Oh? he says. How would you know?

Go, says Espiritu. I’ve got to work.

Simon stays put. He shoves his hands into his pants pockets. Espiritu sees that he’s trying to hide a budding erection.

Go, she says again.

Simon leaves, slowly, making squeaking sounds on the industrial linoleum.

Espiritu peers under her desk. Hmmm, she says. Hmmm.

Hour Three.

Espiritu completes inputting another file. She closes it, sets it to her left, reaches for a new file, and flicks it open. He fingers glide over the keyboard. The computer hums happily and she feels like this could be a good job. Simon tries to visit but Espiritu quickly learns that if she doesn’t look up or say a word, he eventually slinks away. She smirks as she thinks about the one time she did it doggy style. Overrated, she thinks. Not worth the pain.

Hour Four.

Simon tries to convince Espiritu to join him at Coco’s. Great BLTs, he tempts. And the pies. Forget-about-it! The best!

But she says, No. I brought my lunch.

You old stick-in-the-mud, says Simon as if this taunt could change her mind.

Bye, says Espiritu.

Simon starts to walk away and then stops. Don’t forget the staff meeting after lunch, he says. Attendance is mandatory.

Thanks, says Espiritu. Have a nice one.

Thanks, says Simon. You too. He disappears with a squeak.

Espiritu reaches into her large, black bag and pulls out her lunch. Tuna on wheat, a beautifully dappled banana, Diet 7-Up, sharp little carrot sticks. She spreads it all out on her desktop, an unfolded paper napkin as her place mat. As she starts to eat the sandwich, she thinks of her sister, Mona, who died three years earlier. Mona was the cute one. The one everyone liked. The baby of the family. Espiritu wonders what Mona would be doing right now if she hadn’t taken those pills two days before her senior prom. College? Right to work where she could wow everyone with her energy and perky good looks? The tuna feels pasty and odd in her mouth. Espiritu takes a long drink of 7-Up. The bubbles tickle her lips and then her tongue and finally her throat. As she puts the can down, she thinks, this is going to work. I like this place. This is good.

Hour Five.

The entire “input team” sits around the blonde wood conference table that is so shiny the overhead lighting makes it glow like a huge, oblong klieg light. The gray-blue room hums with co-workers’ laughter and snide asides. Espiritu sits with eyes fixed on the lone object that rests at the far end of the table: a pink rectangular cake box. An elastic silver-colored string runs along all six sides of the box and a red phoenix is emblazoned on the top. In black marker, the number 89 191355 is scrawled across the phoenix’s angry face. A phone number? No. One digit too many. Wrong spacing.

Hi, someone says.

Espiritu turns to her right and faces a beautiful, brown face.

I’m Bebel, the beautiful, brown face says.

I’m Espiritu, says Espiritu. She likes this new face. Crinkly eyes. Short, black hair as shiny as a new Mercedes. Young. This new face makes Espiritu think of a Mayan princess.

You remind me of a Mayan princess, says Espiritu.

Bebel looks down, blushes a deeper brown, and flashes solid, white teeth. Thank you, she says. Espiritu breathes in deeply trying to see if Bebel is wearing perfume. She can’t smell anything but fruit-scented shampoo.

The room suddenly becomes quiet. Bebel and Espiritu look up and see Mr. Leonis already standing at the end of the conference table near the cake box. He sits with a little grunt and interlaces his fingers like a corner of a log cabin. How old is he? thinks Espiritu. Fifty? Sixty? She looks at the pink cake box again. Must be someone’s birthday, she figures. But where are the paper plates, forks, little napkins, cutting knife?

Mr. Leonis clears his throat making a sound like a Siamese cat trying to dislodge a persistent hairball. Welcome, he says moving his head around the table and nodding mechanically. There isn’t much business today other than to note that I will be sending out a new memo which supersedes the one I sent out yesterday. Please shred the old memo and read the new one after our meeting.

What was yesterday’s memo about? whispers Espiritu to Babel.

Recycling, Bebel whispers back making the little hairs on Espiritu’s forearms dance.

Now on to our little celebration, continues Mr. Leonis. We have a new employee in our midst. She just started today.

Espiritu’s eyes jump and she feels her cheeks grow warm. Simon grins stupidly at her from across the table.

Espiritu Chijulla, says Mr. Leonis mispronouncing Chijulla making it sound like CHI-JOO-LAH. Please stand so we can say hello, Espiritu.

Espiritu slowly rises. She thinks, CHEE-WHO-YAH, you dick. It’s easy to pronounce if you goddamned tried. She can feel tears well up. Bebel smiles up at her. Simon’s grin becomes a leer. The dozen employees of the input team offer a weak applause.

Say a little about yourself, says Mr. Leonis. He is not smiling.

Like what?

Where are you from? Mr. Leonis suggests.

Espiritu coughs. New Mexico. Taos.

Ah! says Mr. Leonis. Beautiful state. Beautiful city.

Espiritu looks at him. Been there? she asks.

Mr. Leonis looks down. No. Seen pictures. In a book. When I was a kid.

Espiritu appreciates Mr. Leonis’ attempt at civility so she thinks about what else she can say about herself like why she moved to Los Angeles, how she hasn’t been married yet, her degree in art from the University of New Mexico, how her parents split up when she was twelve and how her mother basically raised the two girls by herself, how there’s only one girl now. But before she can do this, Mr. Leonis says, You may sit now, Espiritu. Thank you.

Espiritu sighs and sits.

I brought this lovely cake to welcome our New Mexican friend to the company, says Mr. Leonis, still not smiling. He reaches for the pink box, snaps off the elastic, shiny string, and flips the lid open. Coconut-lemon, announces Mr. Leonis. My favorite, he adds, now trying to smile.

Espiritu feels a wave of nausea come over her when she spies the mound of shredded coconut piled high on the white frosting. It reminds her of when she was ten and her parents stopped talking to each other. Worse than that, her father started coming home from work later and later, and her mother stopped doing his laundry and let the house go to pot. Toilets, showers, sinks, everything stank. One day, Espiritu noticed a God-awful stench emanating from the oven. She opened it slowly and peered in. At first, all she could see was the vague outline of an aluminum cooking pan. Espiritu put her face closer while holding her nose. And then she saw them: hundreds of squirming maggots making a happy home in the moist, rotting chicken carcass. She threw up on the oven door.

This coconut cake is too much for Espiritu to take. She stands up and rushes towards the door hoping that she could make it to the bathroom in time. Mr. Leonis says, Good, Espiritu. I forgot the utensils. They’re on my desk. Do you mind grabbing them?

Hour Six.

A migraine, Espiritu lies to Mr. Leonis. They just come over me, just like that. Sorry.

Several co-workers observe as Mr. Leonis tries to sound compassionate. Maybe you should go lie down, put a cold compress on your forehead, he says, feeling watched. You can have your cake later, he says.

The very thought of the coconut-lemon cake makes Espiritu’s stomach convulse. No, I’m allergic to coconut, she lies. And lemon, too.

Mr. Leonis scratches his chin. Odd allergies, he says.

I’ll be fine, Espiritu says. Inputting will make me feel better.

Mr. Leonis appreciates this to no end. Okay, he says. But if you need to rest, just let me know. He turns and gives a look of triumph to the gathered co-workers. Show’s over, he says.

Espiritu tries to sit straight. She swivels slowly to face her computer. The screen saver has kicked in: an aquarium scene. She lets her eyes follow a smiling angel fish. She does this for almost an hour.

Hour Seven.

The Mayan princess walks by. ¡Hola! she chirps.

Espiritu turns and lets her eyes rest on Bebel’s face. She wishes Bebel would lean down and kiss her softly on her forehead, and then nose, and finally lips.

You doing okay? asks Bebel. You look pale.

Peachy, she answers.

Bebel reaches over and presses her palm on Espiritu’s forehead. Espiritu smells hand cream, almond scented. She fills her lungs with the smell and closes her eyes. She feels safe under the pressure of this little, smooth hand.

No fever, Bebel announces. Must have been a migraine, just as you thought, she adds. She lets her hand linger on Espiritu’s forehead.

Yes, it was a typical migraine, Espiritu lies. Lying is easy here, she realizes. Bebel suddenly moves her hand away and Espiritu feels abandoned.

Don’t go, she says to Bebel.

Have to. I’m behind in my inputting.

Espiritu deflates.

But let’s have drinks after work. Okay? Like margaritas?

Espiritu inflates. Yes!
In an hour, then. Bebel floats away.

Can I come? asks Simon, eyes visible from above the cubicle wall.

Espiritu ignores him and turns to her computer. She smiles and touches her forehead, the scent of almonds still lingering. Simon’s eyes eventually sink below the gray-blue horizon until he disappears altogether.

Hour Eight.

Here, Espiritu says. I finished everything but the Garcia account.

Great, says Mr. Leonis. Great. Especially considering your migraine, and all. I think this is going to work out well. He tries to smile but all he can manage is a slightly curved gash.

Yes, she answers. Yes. He doesn’t respond. Espiritu stands in silence waiting for more.

Mr. Leonis looks down at his desk. Goodnight, he mumbles. The curved gash dissolves into a straight line.

Goodnight. Espiritu turns and gives Mr. Leonis a hidden finger.

Bitch, mouths Mr. Leonis. Bitch.

Bebel waits by the exit. A grin breaks out on her face when Espiritu comes into sight. Margarita time! she smiles.

Yes, says Espiritu. Margarita time.

Espiritu puts her arm around Bebel’s shoulders and leads her out of the building. Margarita time, she repeats to the Mayan princess who grins wildly, like a little girl blowing bubbles for the first time. Espiritu pulls Bebel closer. Margarita time, she says one more time.

2 comments:

Gina MarySol Ruiz said...

Great story Daniel! I love your writing. Hope everything gets better for you. Take care and La Virgencita on my little altarcito has a new candle with your family's name on it and one of my friends who does a amazing novena is doing one for you.

Sol

Manuel Ramos said...

What a fine story. Very nice, Daniel. Thank you for this Labor Day gift.