Stephanie felt sleepy under the covers with the pillows fluffed behind her back and neck. But, at 11:50pm with Ashley still out, she needed a way to stay awake. Rupert had sent his last message only eight minutes earlier.
She hesitated. Then she clicked her text icon and typed a four-word message.
Stephanie: Are you still up?
The three dots appeared immediately, followed by a ding and a one-word response.
Stephanie felt a nervous jolt as if texting someone late at night was some sort of taboo act, but she reasoned that it was just her lawyer and the interchange was in the interest of helping Chuck, her husband.
Stephanie: Me too
Rupert: I didn’t wake you?
Stephanie: No. Can’t sleep
Rupert: Me neither
Stephanie: Sorry to hear it
Rupert: Long story
Stephanie shifted in the bed and slid down the pillow pile she had made for herself before typing her response.
Stephanie: Got nothing but time
Rupert appeared to start formulating a response. The three dots disappeared as if he had deleted his initial message and instead, a shorter text appeared.
Rupert: Doing ok?
Stephanie: Hanging in
She paused for a second before entering a second message
Rupert again took a long moment to reply.
Rupert: Tough week for me… Not as tough as yours
Stephanie: Enough about me. Everything Ok w/u?
Rupert: Arbitration with my wife broke down late tonight. Headed to court Monday or Tuesday. That’s why might have to cancel with Sen. Sanchez
Stephanie: So sorry to hear it
Rupert went on to explain through numerous texts exchanged with Stephanie that he and his wife had tried for many years to work out their differences. They attended counseling, consulted spiritual leaders from both of their religions and even tried living apart for the past few months to see if it would make them long for each other.
Stephanie prompted and encouraged him to open up to her, enjoying the adult interaction after all the nonsense with her daughters. She felt her heart tug for Rupert’s sad plight and his distress at the turn of events in his personal life.
She suddenly realized the time, 12:25am. She had not received any notice from Ashley nor had she yet returned. Her delightful nervous energy from texting with Rupert gave way to anger as she checked the app to confirm her daughter’s whereabout. The map indicated that she was in the driveway and Stephanie shuttered to think what she might be doing.
She peered out her window, pushing aside the shade just a crack. She could see a sleek black car behind hers, the dark windows hiding the contents of the vehicle.
“Shit,” she muttered to herself, throwing the phone on the bed and bolting down the stairs. She reached the front door and stopped. She hadn’t formed a plan and wondered what to do next. In the past, Chuck always stayed up to wait for Britney to return from her dates, the few that she had.
She couldn’t just march out there in her pajamas with an umbrella and pound on the windshield. And, whatever was going on, she certainly didn’t want to see it. She tried to imagine what Chuck would do in the situation and the idea came to her.
She flicked off the front porch lights and then back on again. She could see movement in the car. She flicked them on and off repeatedly until the car door opened and Ashley emerged. The car backed out and sped off as Stephanie’s 16-year-old high school sophomore crossed the lawn and entered the house.
Stephanie started right in on her.
“What the hell were you doing?” she yelled. “How long were you out there?”
“We were just talking, Mom,”
“Just talking, my ass,” Stephanie snapped. “Honey, we’ve discussed this.”
“Nothing happened, ok?”
“Ash, he’s a college boy,” Stephanie allowed some sadness to enter her otherwise rage-filled voice. “We both know how that works and what they want.”
“He not like that,” Ashley said as she turned past her mother and started up the stairs.
“You were supposed to be home by midnight,” Stephanie said.
“Technically, I was.”
“Jesus,” Stephanie gasped, her disappointment in her daughter matching her own anger at herself for the distraction she experienced chatting with Rupert like a lonely teenaged girl. “You were out there for a half hour?”
“It’s no big deal,” Ashley shouted back and worked her way up the stairs.
Stephanie grabbed her by the elbow, a bit more forcefully than she expected.
“You swear nothing happened?”
“Oh my God, ‘nothing really’?” Stephanie let go of Ashley’s arm and held her hand over her mouth in shock, anger and disgust. “Did you… Did he…?”
“God no, Mom. I’m only 16. Jesus, Mom.”
Stephanie looked up at her middle baby and failed to find any further words.
“We just made out a little bit,” Ashley revealed. “And, a little bit of other stuff. But nothing disgusting. And, nothing I didn’t want to do. Certainly nothing I want to talk about.”
Stephanie’s mind raced across the myriad of boys and physical contact she had with them at Ashley’s age and a wave of horror washed over her.
“I’m still good,” Ashley said as she reached the top of the stairs. “I haven’t… I’m still … you know… I still have my card, ok?”
At that, she disappeared around the corner and Stephanie could hear the water running in the girls’ bathroom. Stephanie wandered into the kitchen. She had neglected to clean the dishes. The bottle of wine sat opened on the counter. She poured herself another glass, ran the hot water in the sink and spent the next half hour until close to one-in-the-morning, finishing off the work she should have completed four hours earlier.
Upon returning to the comfort of her bed, she retrieved her phone and noticed Rupert’s last message, which took her by surprise
Rupert: Can I call you?
The text was only 20 minutes old. She replied with a single word to check and make sure he hadn’t gone to bed; “now?”. Stephanie looked out the bedroom door at Britney’s room where she and Emily slept huddled together. Her conversation with Ashley rattled around her brain and she needed another adult - another parent - to weigh in and give her feedback about her performance.
Rupert replied a single word back to her; “sure”
Stephanie took a deep breath. She listened for Ashley’s heavy breathing in the room down the hall before responding; “ok.”
Chuck returned to the lobby of the Casa del Sol hotel looking to confirm his sighting of the local woman who had saved him from the ditch where the police left him. But, by the time he made it back to the lobby only the Spanish-speaking boy remained, shrugging at Chuck’s warbled attempt to ask in Spanish if he had seen the woman in red.
“Senorita?” Chuck had asked. “Fuego? Rojo? Rojito?”
After unsuccessfully determining if he was right or not about the woman he had seen, he returned to his room and laid down in the bed. He spent half the evening staring at the ceiling, his body physically unable to shut down again after so many hours of either sleeping or lying unconscious in a ditch. Counting the ten hours he had just spent awake, out of the 84 hours that he had resided in Reynosa, he estimated that he had slept through at least 60 of the hours.
As he lay wide awake in the plush queen-sized bed, he reconstructed the images of each of his three daughters in his mind. He traced them through their lives starting as tiny infants and running through their first steps, their first missing teeth, their first communions and their first days of middle school and high school.
He pictured Britney’s long, wavy brown hair and her light, brownish eyes. He visualized her thin frame lounged across the couch with her headphones covering each side of her head. He could hear her soft, beautiful choir voice fill the house, singing and humming along to her favorite music.
He moved over to Ashley with her fashion and her two-toned, straightened hair. Her sarcastic sense of humor and fierce competitiveness kept him on his toes as a respected adversary and foil to her devilish schemes and playful rebelliousness. A little shorter and curvier in stature than her sister, he recalled filming her soccer and softball games on his phone and posting clips of her best plays to his Facebook page; the one he couldn’t remember how to access.
Lastly, he pictured his youngest, Emily, with her light mahogany wispy hair and her dark brown eyes, tucked shyly behind her oversized reading glasses. He constructed an image of her at the kitchen table with her laptop open and math book spread across the keyboard, a pen in her hand with her notebooks and calculator nearby. In his vision, her perfect half-circle smile lit the kitchen around her and warmed the house from attic to basement.
Chuck finally dozed close to three am. The jarring call of a rooster, around five am, seemingly just outside his window, scattered the dreamy images in his mind and forced him to open his eyes. He lay sleepless, but resting in the bed as the sun crept through the window and brightened the room.
He could hear the carts of the cleaning staff working their way up the hall and knew he would lose his shelter soon. The reality that he needed a plan for survival in this foreign land overtook any of his other thoughts.
He gathered his clothes from the balcony, rinsed his mouth with water, dressed and wandered back to the lobby. His stomach still ached and rumbled from his spartan meal the night before and he set his first objective to earn money for food.
“Buenas dias, señor,” said the same boy from the night before.
“Buenas dias,” he replied in relatively correct Spanish, stopping to try and recall the word for ‘breakfast’ or ‘food’. “Comisar?”
“Si, señor,” he replied, pointing to the restaurant across the lobby on the other side of the fire pit.
“No dinero.” Chuck said, holding his hands up in front of his chest.
The older manager emerged from the back room.
“Sir,” he said with the same cheer from the night before, but with a slightly tightened tone. “I have a granola bar that you can have to eat, but the restaurant is across that lobby, over there. You will need to pay for a breakfast if you want more.”
“Is there any chance I could do some work around the hotel?” Chuck asked. “I’d work for food and a place to stay.”
“I don’t know, señor,” the man replied. “We have a small staff and we do not have other work for you.”
Chuck nodded and wandered across the lobby to sit in one of the chairs by the fire pit to formulate his survival plan for the day. He fingered the few pesos in his pocket. He eyed the stacks of cookies, chips, crackers and other snacks through the window of the gift shop. They lay naked for the taking next to a display of coloring books and crayons, a few shelves that contained keepsake glassware, candles and porcelain items and a barrel full of sodas, water bottles and locally crafted beers floating in a watery ice mixture.
He couldn’t see the gift shop check-out counter, which fell just out of his sight-line, behind a rack of magazines, but he estimated that he could quickly walk by the entry, swipe several packages of junk food and make a quick run out the front door into the streets of the city.
Images of the locals chasing him through the neighborhoods and the Policía roughing him up in the drab jail cell flashed across his mind. He saw the hotel owner quietly minding his business by the scratched and gouged check-in desk.
The flames from the fire pit had long since diminished from the evening, but still burned the remnant wood and emitted a perceptible warmth on his face. He could smell the distinctive pine and teak of the smoldered embers.
Chuck slumped back in the chair, wrestling with the moral conflict of breaking his value system in the name of personal survival. He rose from the chair and walked slowly, nervously past the check-in desk toward the gift shop. He could partially see the back side of a female clerk hunched behind the counter busily unpacking a box of little wooden trinkets. He recognized her moment of distraction and decided to strike.
As he walked past the check-in desk, the hotel owner looked up and smiled at him.
“Buenas dias again, sir,” he said.
Chuck stopped. He looked at the man past the distressed surface of the desk and returned the smile.
“I’m sorry we have only so much food to give to you for free,” he continued. “I can get you a coffee if that helps. I can see you are in a bad way.”
The innocent comment sparked an idea. Chuck looked at the damaged check-in desk and pointed it out to the manager.
“Your front desk surface is very worn,” he said. “I can fix it – for free.”
“You fix it for free?” the manager asked. “We need the carpenter in the town, but he don’t want to come until we have lots of work for him. And, he don’t even do good work when he comes. It’s very expensive to buy the materials in Reynosa. The wood is cheap, but the finishes are very costly and hard to find. We need the very special stain to match the color.”
Chuck glanced into the gift shop.
“I can use those crayons and the candles from the gift shop,” Chuck said. “And if you get me that cup of coffee, I can match the color of the wood. Do you have any balsamic vinegar, maybe some soy sauce or some red pepper sauce in the restaurant? I could also use a frying pan and some cooking oil. And, I’ll need a butter knife an old rag and a credit card.”
“Mijito,” the older man called to his son, followed by a rat-a-tat of Spanish instructions that sent him scurrying into the gift shop and restaurant to gather the requested materials. “I am very intrigued to see how you can fix my desk with these items.”
Once accumulated, chuck took the frying pan and placed it on top of the burning embers in the fire pit. He unwrapped two white candles and dropped them into the heating cast iron pan. Looking at the color and grain of the wood on the desk, he selected brown, burnt sienna and orange crayons and added them to the mixture, which started to melt and merge together.
He poured a few tablespoons of coffee into the pan followed by a few drops of balsamic vinegar and hot pepper sauce. Glancing at the desk repeatedly, he added drops of the different ingredients, until the wax fully melted into a rich brownish ooze.
With the dish towel, he withdrew the pan from the fire pit, grabbed a small butter knife and moved to the desk to fill the cracks in the surface with the mixture he had created.
The manager removed a stack of papers and some plastic signage from the surface to clear the way for Chuck to work.
Chuck used the flat edge of the knife to mesh the homemade remedy into the grooves and chips. He lightly pressed and dragged the sharper edge across to imitate the existing patterns of the wood grain. Using the palm of his uninjured hand and his thumb, he rubbed a thin film of waxy substance across the entire surface and then used the cloth to vigorously buff it, like waxing a surf board, washing a car or polishing shoes. This effectively caused the imperfections to disappear and gave the surface a deep, rich and consistent natural wood color. He then rubbed a healthy amount of cooking oil across the desk giving it a sheen that reflected the overhead light fixture.
“Amazing,” the manager beamed at reviewing the workmanship that took Chuck less than an hour to complete. “You are very good at this. We have other wood furniture that could use your touch. Maybe we could have a job for you to do.”
“I’d love to work for you if I could just get something to eat and maybe a place to stay for the night,” said Chuck.
“I am Mr. Alejandro Casteneda,” he said, extending his hand. “This is my son Miguel. I own this hotel and he is my assistant manager. Let’s get you something to eat and discuss how you can help fix the wood around here.”
With another set of Spanish commands, Mr. Casteneda sent Miguel into the kitchen to fetch muffins, tortillas, some scrambled eggs with mango salsa as well as a tall glass of orange juice. Chuck sat by the fire pit struggling to pace himself as he downed the food and filled his stomach. Mr. Casteneda ran through a list of repairs that he’d like Chuck to make and showed him to a closet room where he had a tool belt hanging on a hook consisting of the basics; a hammer, a screw driver, a tiny cordless drill and a pair of rugged work gloves.
“Thank you so much for your kindness,” Chuck shook hands with his new boss, “And thank you for the food.”
“You were deported?” he asked.
“Pretty obvious huh?”
“Si,” Mr. Castenedas laughed. “You are the biggest gringo American Mexican who doesn’t speak any Spanish I ever seen.”
Chuck laughed and then asked for another favor.
“Mr. Casteneda,” he said. “You’ve been so kind. I wonder if I could trouble you for a toothbrush and some toothpaste. I’m embarrassed to say how many days it’s been.”
“Ah yes, sí,” he replied. “We have this in our gift shop. Come with me and we will get the toothpaste and the toothbrush. And, then I will get you a room. It’s the small one in the corner, but you can have it so long as you work here to fix up our hotel. We have about a one week of work for you to do.”
They moved from the closet, back across the lobby and around to the gift shop. Mr. Casteneda sparkled when he introduced Chuck to the shop clerk.
“This is Mr. Chuck, our newest employee for the next couple of days,” he said to her as Chuck’s eyes met hers. “Chuck, this is our gift shop girl, Mirabella Lopez.”