After the early evening meeting with Senator Sanchez, Rupert, Stephanie and Emily stopped at a park along the river in San Antonio. Several street taco trucks congregated around a grouping of picnic tables pressed against the riverbank. The savory smells and distinctive crackle of the grills attracted sizable crowds. Sitting on a bench, under a bright umbrella, watching the tour boats float by, they downed their second dinner and digested what they heard from the Senator.
“Chuck hasn’t said anything about this Chico character?” Rupert asked.
“Like I texted you last night,” Stephanie said. “I never heard the name until you mentioned it to me.”
“The FBI seems to believe he received his identification from Chico, so the signs indicate that he at least interacted with him.”
“To be honest,” Stephanie sighed, casting a sideways look at her daughter. “I don’t know what to believe anymore.”
Emily, wiping taco sauce from the side of her mouth, leaned forward.
“Mrs. Sanchez didn’t seem to think there was such a group as ALIAS,” she said. “But Ms. Singer’s boyfriend said he had a contact that could help us get Daddy back from Mexico. How come she was so abrupt about that?”
“Honey,” Stephanie said. “I don’t know what Ms. Singer said to you. I don’t think she should be getting involved in our family matters. We don’t know anything about this group you’re talking about. It could be a big scam for all we know.”
“I’m looking into every possibility,” Rupert added. “In the meantime, our best strategy is to work on contacting your father and finding Chico. If he can provide evidence that helps lead to his arrest, the courts will be more sympathetic. That’s our best bet for reducing his ban. That’s where I’m focusing my time this week.”
Stephanie looked at her phone. Her daughters had agreed to order take out and watch a movie until she and Emily returned from their trip to the city. But Ashley’s text raised her anxiety and caused her to withdraw from the conversation, leaving Rupert to assume her quietness a symptom of her frustration at the outcome of the meeting.
Ashley’s text, while sounding innocent, set off Stephanie’s inner alarm bells, especially when she didn’t answer Stephanie’s call.
“Goin 2 Ursula’s,” the text read. “Gonna stay overnight.”
Chuck resided in Mexico for nearly a week, during which time, he regained his strength and put on most of the 15 pounds he lost over his first grueling three days.
He spent the week fixing creaky beds, ratty desks, chipped television consoles, wobbly chairs and the scraped and gouged wood trim along the main hallways. He tightened bannisters running along the curved stairways and spackled ceilings. He even unclogged drains and toilets using baking soda and white wine vinegar to create little cleansing explosions.
In exchange, Mr. Casteneda fed him and provided him both a bed as well as access to the laundry room to wash the only pair of clothes he had brought with him from the United States.
The gift shop remained closed most of his first full day on the job. According to Miguel, señora Lopez came and went sporadically often closing the shop for an hour here and there with barely any set schedule on some days. On other days, she closed it for the entire day. And yet, on other occasions she worked virtually through the night, even though customers rarely bought from her after the dinner hour.
Upon descending into the lobby to glue some loose carpeting into place, he spied her across the way unlocking the shop and flicking on the lights.
“Señora Lopez,” he said to her, crossing past the firepit to catch her attention. “¿Cómo estás?”
“Hola, señor,” she replied with a thin, weary smile. “Estoy bien.”
“Bien,” he replied. “Gracias por la, uh, la assistance.”
“La asistencia?” she asked, translating his broken Spanish to herself. “De nada, señor.”
Thanking her for a fourth time, while redundant, finally gave Chuck closure that he had communicated his gratitude sufficiently. Having thanked her in Spanish seemed like an appropriate gesture.
Like an awkward middle school boy, Chuck attempted to converse further with the thin, curvy, mocha-skinned beauty. But his lack of language skills and her anxiety to unlock the store put a damper on their ability to connect. She made hand motions to convey to him that she needed to open the boxes that had arrived and stock the shelves.
Chuck tried to signal to her that he would help, but she failed to understand his charades. He almost gave up and returned to his handy-man tasks before thinking of a phrase that might bridge the language gap between them.
“La asistencia,” he said, taking the box cutter from her hand and commencing to open her shipments for her.
With minimal verbal interaction, they unwrapped several decorative shot glasses together, removing the tissue and littering the bubble wrap across the floor around the empty cardboard boxes. Mirabella lined a shelf behind the register and gently rotated each design to face forward. Chuck took the extras and carefully created a pyramid with the glasses piled on top of each other in a triangular pattern.
They barely spoke, mostly communicating with hand gestures. He could make out “cuidado” as he stacked the glasses and of course “gracias” as he completed the task.
Mr. Casteneda came around the corner and greeted the two as they playfully stomped on the bubble wrap across the floor to make it snap and pop under their feet.
“Hola,” he said. “I am glad you are getting along. There is a shelf in the back of the closet that needs to be fixed. You can fix that this morning? Yes?”
“Of course,” Chuck replied, picking up his tool belt from the floor next to the bubble wrap. “I was wondering if I could use the phone and make that call to my family today?”
“It’s very expensive,” Mr. Casteneda said. “Fix the shelf and a few of the – uh what do you call them - the shutters on the outside next to the windows. You can use the house phone in the evening when you are finished. I give you like 10 minutes. It costs me a lot of the money, but you are working very hard and I will give you the chance to speak to your family tonight.”
Chuck heard a commotion by the front door of the hotel and spun around to see Mirabella’s son, Pedro amble in carrying a cardboard box through the double doors.
“Ah, señor,” he said with a beaming smile. “You are ok now?”
“Yes,” Chuck replied. “Thank you and your mother for helping me.”
Pedro gave a quick “de nada” before lugging his box into the shop and opening the top to reveal several dozen bright orange and brown hand-carved wooden animal figurines packed to the top flap.
Chuck stopped to look at the fine handiwork. He ran his finger along the smooth finish observing the rich, distinctive streaks of orange, red and brown in the stain. He picked one out of the top of the box and held it to the light, inspecting the unique coloring more closely.
“These are beautiful,” he said.
“Precioso,” Mirabella agreed in Spanish.
“Where do you get these?” he asked Pedro.
“I make them myself, señor,” Pedro replied.
“This color,” Chuck asked. “How do you get these amazing streaks so deep into the grain of the wood?”
“It is from the mud behind our house,” Pedro said. “We have the, oh what do you call it, uh, the swap?”
“Si, señor,” Pedro continued. “I take the wood and I use the carving knives to make the sculpture. Then I sand it down to be nice and smooth like that. And then I dip it in the mud at the swamp for one or two overnights. The teka wood is good and resistant to the water, so it stays strong. And in the morning, I dig it up and I bake it in the oven for one hour. And then I let it sit in the sun for one day to get a little bit, uh blanco, or uh, bleached and that brings out the red and the orange colors like that one you see in your hand.”
“Pedro and his mother sell them here in the shop,” Mr. Casteneda said. “They sell very well. These two make a lot of money on them.”
“Where do you get the lacquer for this nice smooth finish?” Chuck asked as Mirabella grew weary of the conversation and retreated behind the cash register to open the shop.
“I go to the hardware store,” Pedro said. “Señor, Riko Grande give me it free.”
“The hardware store?” Chuck asked.
“Yes, yes, si. The hardware store,” Mr. Castenda interjected. “I have someone take you there after the lunch. We need the nails and screws and some wood glue so you can finish your work here. The kitchen staff complains they are running out of the foods that they need for the recipes of the meals.”
Pedro filled two shelves in the shop with his animal carvings while Chuck left with Mr. Casteneda to work on tightening the shelves in a storage unit in the basement of the hotel.
“I can make my call later tonight?” he confirmed with Mr. Casteneda.
“Si, señor,” he replied. “You call your family tonight.”
Emily took a spot on the couch next to Britney and watched a movie, while Stephanie sat, stewing at the computer. She accessed Chuck’s finance spreadsheets and struggled to figure out which bills she needed to pay right away and which expenses could wait until his final paycheck arrived.
With the grim reality of the storm looming over their finances, Stephanie’s mind swirled, between their overbearing expenses and the prospect of losing their income in a matter of a few weeks. The maddeningly difficult discussion with the Senator and the rat’s nest of federal laws pertaining to Chuck’s situation created a piercing headache that lodged between her eyes and pricked her from just inside the bridge of her nose.
Mostly, her mind twisted around a simple recurring thought. How could Chuck have deceived her so blatantly and recklessly? And, how could she have been so blind? How could he have done it to her so carelessly and easily? She felt foolish and stupid, violated like a victim of abuse. At the least, she felt disrespected by her husband and questioned her trust in him beyond the issues surrounding his identity and actions to cover his tracks.
“What other lies?” she thought, reflecting on the past few difficult years in which she felt less engaged, less fulfilled and more frustrated with their relationship. Had they just slowed with age? Had they faded apart? She didn’t know. But she set aside her doubts and dedicated herself to resolving his banishment, if not just for the sake of his devastated daughters, each responding in disparate ways with Emily dedicated to the cause, Britney wallowing in her depression and Ashley acting out in fits of insolence.
As much as she tried to sympathize with her husband, he had broken serious federal laws in securing illegal identification. And, as if that weren’t incomprehensible enough, he siphoned off their hard-earned money to make clandestine blackmail payments to his mysterious uncle of whom she had no shred of knowledge.
Mired in frustration, bordering on rage, she clutched her phone to her ear and called Ashley to tell her she had to come home. As the device rang through her own phone into her right ear, she could hear it also ring from the kitchen counter in her left ear. Mistakenly - or more likely, Stephanie thought, purposely - Ashley left it behind to avoid the tracking of her whereabouts.
With her other two daughters preoccupied with their movie, Stephanie climbed the stairs and buried her head in her pillow case to stifle her lung-clearing scream.
Earlier in the day, Chuck saw Mirabella sitting at the small table in the kitchen of the Casa del Sol restaurant, conversing with one of the dishwashers named Octavio. The boy, not much older than her son, served her a small grilled tortilla filled with cheese. He slid a glass of water across the table to her.
Chuck sat next to her and offered what little Spanish he could in an attempt to communicate. They exchanged “Hola’s” and managed through “Como va” and “Bien” before finding little other common ground between their disparate languages. The smallness of the table forced them more unnaturally close to each other than Chuck expected when he pulled the chair out and set himself down on it.
Mirabella slid her plate in his direction and offered him half her quesadilla.
“Yo, uh, me, uh, I, estoody the Inglish,” she said to him in what he presumed to be a hybrid between her native language and his.
“You’re studying English?” he interpreted.
“Sí, yes,” she said. “Pedro es mi teach.”
“Yo,” Chuck said, pointing to himself as if not totally sure he had used the proper article. “estoody Español.”
Mirabella laughed, her face brightening at Chuck’s obvious imitation of her hybrid English.
“Yo,” he continued, pointing to himself again. “La asistencia.”
“Ah sí, yes,” Mirabella laughed again, even more heartily. “Tu, you, is mi, uh teach too?”
“Sí, yes,” Chuck found himself chuckling with her.
They spent the next twenty minutes, until they both had to return to their paying jobs, pointing at items and relating the Spanish and English words, practicing and correcting each other’s pronunciations.
Octavio cleared their plates. Chuck said “adios” to Mirabella and she replied with a near flawless “Good Bye Mr. Carlos.”
Chuck didn’t know why he allowed everyone else to call him by his American name, but offered his Mexican identity to Mirabella. He had done it on an impulse and even though everyone else called him “Chuck” or “señor Chuck”, “Carlos” seemed to stick with Mirabella. In a weird way, Chuck found himself liking the fact that he had a sort of secret alter ego with the woman who had saved him from spending the night unconscious in a ditch in the middle of nowhere.
The day moved quickly and Chuck finished his last task at the Casa del Sol for the evening. He estimated that he had just one day’s-worth of work left to complete before he would likely need to find a new living arrangement. As kind as Mr. Casteneda had been to him, he also made it clear that he could not afford to keep a full-time handy-man on board.
Aside from his casual moment with Mirabella, his mind gravitated to a singular focus as day approached evening.
“I can call my family now?” Chuck said to Miguel, leaning wearily against the front desk
“Que?” Miguel asked, either clearly unable to understand, or playacting slightly.
“Teléfono,” Chuck said, pointing to the side of his face with his thumb and pinky extended.
“No puedes usar el teléfono,” Miguel said. “Tienes que esperar a mi padre.”
Chuck waved at Octavio from the kitchen who spoke decent English.
“Tell him that Mr. Casteneda said I could use the phone tonight,” Chuck asked Octavio, who relayed several exchanges of dialog with the junior hotel manager before explaining to Chuck.
“Miguel say you no use the teléfono until señor Casteneda come back,” Octavio explained, slinging a dish rag over his shoulder. “He be back in a couple hours.”
Chuck rolled his eyes and ambled to the gift shop. Pedro stood, bored at the cash register, reading a superhero comic book.
“Where’s your mother?” he asked.
“She went out to run the errand. She’s always doing something.”
“Do you know where she went?” Chuck asked.
“She has work for señor Riko Grande at the hardware store. I don’t know where she goes. I watch the gift shop for her when she needs to do something other. Sometimes she closes it when I cannot be here. She has been gone two hours. She should be back soon. I have to go. I got work to do too.”
“Too bad, I was hoping you could take me to this hardware store so I could check it out and pick up some supplies,” said Chuck. “Mr. Casteneda gave me 1,000 pesos.”
“I take you there,” said Octavio. “I done working for the night. We go to the hardware store of señor Riko. I take you to the festival.”
They exited the hotel into the streets, which glistened in the twilight of the late afternoon sunset. People crowded the block carrying groceries and boxes of food. Sprightly mopeds zipped in and out, across the dusty, bumpy cobblestone streets. They whisked around the small cars that slowly inched through the narrow channels between the buildings of claustrophobic downtown Reynosa.
After striding through a residential neighborhood, Chuck and Octavio rounded a corner and entered a wider square. Wooden huts lined the streets, selling watermelons, tomatoes, onions, avocados and peppers. Several kiosks sold varieties of long, skinny peppers, short round ones, red, green and yellow ones. There were baskets of tiny red-hot peppers and long, twisted green ones that hung down from the ceiling of one booth.
Another booth offered a colorful array of colorful fruit including passion fruit, melons, oranges, limes and bananas.
“Best mangoes in all Mexico,” Octavio said, flipping a ten-year old boy a few coins and taking the biggest one from the top of the pile. “Try this señor Chuck.”
Indeed, the sweet, plump fruit tasted like no other food he had enjoyed in a long time, filling his mouth with a soft pungent mush of natural sugars and juices.
A mariachi band played on the corner near an outdoor cantina and the area filled with the festive sound of laughter, singing and the clank of plates and beer bottles. A string of lights surrounded the square affixed to the many buildings around the perimeter and intensified in brightness by contrast to the darkening purple and charcoal sky.
“It’s the feast of Our Lady Guadalupe,” said Octavio, his face brightened by the light fixture over their heads. “Everybody in Reynosa happy on this night. It’s big party.”
Several men staggered through the streets with their arms around smiling women in cute, short sundresses. Families dined on tables beneath umbrellas, cheerfully passing the tortilla chips and dipping their churros into rich, gooey chocolate and caramel that made Chuck’s mouth water.
“It’s time to eat good food, drink sweet wine or just get drunk on the cheap beer,” Octavio said, pointing out a pair of beautiful women; one in a black, silky two-piece camisole top with tight black skirt and the other in a flowing red dress. “And take the beautiful woman back to the home with you – sí, mi amigo?”
The women stood outside the massive hulking building with a giant sign across the top written in bold red Spanish words. Chuck couldn’t read the sign, but surmised that it translated roughly to “Riko’s Goods”, or something along those lines.
The hardware store stood like a square monument in contrast to the smaller lighter, more delicate buildings surrounding it. The sliding glass doors and neon signage seemed unnatural and out of place; almost too modern or too American, compared to the rustic architecture, lighting and decorum of the surrounding neighborhood.
As he approached the store from across the buzz of the square, the woman in the red dress caught his eye. He recognized her long, brown hair and slender physique. As her identity registered, a large bulky man approached her, took her hand and led her down an alley out of the square with his hand floating from the small of her back to the gentle, but pronounced curve of her perfect ass.
Chuck slowed his stride and checked to see if Octavio noticed. As the blush of red disappeared around the corner at the end of the alley, he looked at Octavio, who obliviously stood in line for another mango. Chuck shook his head and muttered to himself.