Chuck’s mind raced to process Pedro’s proposition. Stephanie grim picture of his chances at a legal return to the United States splashed across his mind like wet graffiti. And, the outpouring of love from his daughters pulled on his heart, giving him what he thought could lead to a heart attack. The thought of scrambling to make due in Reynosa for the next five years depressed him. He needed to return home at any cost, even if he had to do it illegally.
His inner sensibility screamed at him to avoid becoming an illegal alien for a second time, but his heart moved him to see his daughters again. If it took him five years to return legally, he’d miss their high school graduations, moving them into college, helping them with their homework and their college applications, talking through their troubles with boys and life. He couldn’t bear to miss these parts of their lives, when he knew they needed him.
About an hour after Pedro left, a compact car stopped in front of the hotel. Chuck squinted through the hotel doors into the mid-day sun. He spied Mirabella emerging from the cab, returning through the hotel doors across the lobby.
Her hair drooped and tangled unusually down her back. Her dress revealed a rip in the side along her smooth, tight thigh that he was sure had not been there previously.
As she approached him, she turned away and made herself busy, bending to lift a box of cookies and stock them onto the shelves.
“Hola,” Chuck said, strolling casually into the store.
As he approached, Mirabella jumped and then turned her back.
“Estas bien?” Chuck asked maintaining his cheer despite her standoffishness.
“Sí, bien,” she said sparsely. “Gracias. Muey bien.”
“Estas bien?” Chuck repeated, pointing at two purple welts on Mirabella’s left shoulder and bicep.
“You go,” she replied in her broken English. “You go now. Por favor, go away.”
Chuck cocked his head in surprise at her curt, abrupt manner. He tried to formulate words in Spanish to converse with her and dig into what happened. Suspicions of her relationship with Riko Grande and the information he gathered from Pedro painted a sad picture in his mind. But his inability to speak Spanish only gave him “estas bien?” over and over as a phrase to suit the moment.
He wanted to tell her to leave the hotel, leave Reynosa and find a better life somewhere else. He struggled to find words to explain to her that Pedro’s talents could make them all the income they needed. They could create their own store and sell wood carved souvenirs to tourists. They didn’t need to travail under the thumb of Riko Grande, or Mr. Casteneda or anyone else. They could create their own opportunity for a better life.
The thought of Mirabella and Pedro skulking under the tunnel and finding that new life in the U.S. crossed his mind. He could see their logic; take their chances as illegal immigrants in a country full of opportunity rather than stay in a dead-end city that offered little but degrading service to the pimps and drug lords. He wondered about Mirabella’s husband. How had he escaped to the United States? How long ago had he left? Where was he now? Why hadn’t he taken his family with them?
As Chuck stood in the store, lost in thought, Mirabella looked at him with widening eyes and shouted at him.
The harshness of her tone snapped Chuck’s thoughts. He blinked. Mirabella looked right past him. A bellowing voice spewed a nasty tirade of what could only be described as Spanish expletives.
Winging around, Chuck’s gaze immediately met Riko Grande’s large frame, storming angrily across the lobby into the gift shop.
As he entered the store, he shoved Chuck sideways and raised his hands as if to strike Mirabella. Chuck intervened and shoved the big Mexican from behind to divert his attention. Octavio peeked from behind the wall of the kitchen. Some hotel patrons, sitting in the cantina lifted their plates and left. Miguel peeked around the corner from the front desk and took a step backward.
“Que mierde?” Riko sneered, looking at the 5’10, 165-pound gringo who interfered with his business.
Without warning, and too fast for Chuck to anticipate, Riko’s left hand struck his eye socket. The blow staggered him backward, followed by a right hook that seemed to displace his jaw and knock him off his feet through a metal display of comic books, which crashed to the floor and took him with it.
Mirabella shrieked. Octavio and Miguel rushed to Chuck’s side. Standing over Chuck’s limp body as he half-consciously tried to extricate himself from the fixture, Riko laughed, spit on his fallen opponent and then turned back to Mirabella with blood-red rage in his eyes.
Chuck could see him approach her, menacingly, but he couldn’t find the strength to push himself upright and didn’t seem to have any sense of balance in trying to rise from the floor. He watched in horror as Riko grabbed Mirabella by the straps of her dress and ripped her from behind the counter. He flung her into the main aisle of the store and pushed her backward against a rack of canned goods. A shelf snapped off its hinge and several cans of soup and vegetables slid to the ground, denting and clanking together around Mirabella’s crumpled body.
Riko moved in for more, but stopped at the sharp sound of Mr. Casteneda’s voice.
“Alto,” he yelled, followed by another string of angry Spanish that Chuck couldn’t make out.
Riko turned and grinned at the hotel manager, retorting an equally snappy line of snide, loopy Spanish.
Chuck couldn’t understand much of Mr. Castaneda’s reply, but he could make out the word “Policía”.
Riko laughed again, heartily, and pointed to Mirabella as she rolled over to her stomach and tried to rise to her hands and knees.
After pointing at Mirabella and shouting something that ended in a word Chuck knew well; “puta”, Riko exited the store, being sure to brush past both Octavio and Miguel with forceful shoulder nudges.
Leaving the hotel, he pointed at Mr. Casteneda and made some sharp remark in Spanish before disappearing through the double doors into the street.
Octavio and Miguel helped Chuck to his feet while Mr. Casteneda took Mirabella gently into his arms and stroked her hair. He whispered to her in Spanish and held her face close to his chest.
As he did so, he peered at Octavio and Miguel, snapping at them in Spanish. Miguel helped Chuck to a chair as Octavio retrieved a bag of frozen vegetables to hold against the swelling in Chuck’s face.
Miguel held his arms out and pleaded something in Spanish as Mr. Casteneda helped Mirabella to her feet and walked her out of the store to a couch in the lobby. Miguel ran to the kitchen to fetch her a glass of water while Octavio held the frozen plastic bag against Chuck’s eye.
“What happened?” Chuck asked Octavio.
“Long story, señor Chuck,” Octavio replied. “Riko Grande punched you out.”
“I know that part,” Chuck said. “But what was everyone saying?”
“Señor Casteneda is upset that señora Lopez is caught up with Riko Grande again,” Octavio explained. “When he let her run her store here, he expected she don’t work for him no more. And for a long time, it was good.”
“What does she do for him?” Chuck asked, not really wanting to hear the answer.
“Her husband owes him money he borrowed to pay off her house,” Octavio said, surprised at Chuck’s insight. “But he left many years ago and she owes him still. Sometimes he leave her alone. But when he wants more of his money, he comes after her and makes her work for him again. Mr. Casteneda thought she don’t work for him no more. But, now he’s mad. He says we should have told him.”
Chuck moved his jaw back and forth and rolled his wrist, still encased in its cast. While sore, he noted that his jaw didn’t seem broken. He could feel swelling in his eye under the frozen vegetables.
“I was just started to look healthy again,” he said to Octavio with a half-smile that pained him to form.
Mirabella stood from the couch and waved off Miguel’s and his father’s help. Saying something in Spanish, she looked at Chuck with sympathetic eyes. Mr. Casteneda stuck a finger in her face and lectured her in lightning fast Spanish. Defiantly, she pushed his finger away and argued back with him. Looking like an old married couple, she tried to turn her back to him and he maneuvered around into her space.
Mirabella tried to approach Chuck, but Mr. Casteneda continued to yell at her.
Mirabella looked straight into Mr. Casteneda’s eyes and snapped at him before darting out of the hotel into the street in tears.
Turning to his employees, he shouted something that involved the word “trabajo”, which Chuck recognized as “work” and both boys scrambled in different directions, leaving Chuck alone.
“Lo siento, señor Chuck,” Mr. Casteneda said, more softly, touching his swollen eye socket to check it out. “Gracias for your brave actions.”
Chuck tried to smile and felt the pull of the swelling across his brow.
“Very brave,” the hotel owner said with a devilish smile. “Stupido, but valiente.”
Chuck nodded, wordlessly. He felt his senses return to lucidity and placed his hand on Mr. Casteneda’s shoulder.
“Thank you for your kindness,” he said. “If you ever have more work for me, I’d be happy to come back.”
They shook hands and Chuck exited the Casa del Sol into the low afternoon sun.
Mirabella had only exited the hotel a few minutes earlier and he searched the square for her short slinky dress and knotty, tangled hair. He could see her across and down the street at a bus stop, sitting despondently on a bench. Overhead, a dark cloud gathered and snuffed out the sun.
“Hola,” he said to her as he approached.
“Santa mierda,” she said, noticing the big red swollen blotch above his eye. “Estas bien?”
“¿Sí y tú?”
“Bien,” she smiled as he sat next to her.
“Lo siento,” Chuck started, looking to sympathize with her.
“No, no, lo siento, no,” she shook her head, touching his swollen eye with her soft, warm finger. “Gracias por la asistencia.”
They sat in silence, each thinking of words to say that might bridge their language gap.
“You go?” she said, seeming to ask where he would go next.
“The shelter,” Chuck said. “Donde esta?”
Mirabella stood and looked across the roads adjacent to the hotel. She pointed in one direction and then another. She spouted a series of roads in Spanish that all mushed together in Chuck’s mind. Recognizing his confusion, Mirabella tucked her hand under Chuck’s arm, like a newlywed.
“Ven conmigo,” she said as she led him down the street away from the bus stop and in the opposite direction of the hotel. “Al refugio.”
They wandered through alleys and down long, sloping hills. They walked past several bus stops and through the park where the bench by the fountain remained broken in half. Mirabella’s thin, waifish hand, rested gently under his elbow, took his mind off the throbbing headache that pounded just above his eyes.
Overhead, the clouds enveloped the sky and the air thickened with moisture.
“Lluvia,” Mirabella said, pointing at the sky.
“Rain,” Chuck translated.
“Sí, the rain,” she agreed.
They arrived at the shelter, a non-descript warehouse with a small foyer topped with a steeple, as if to create the illusion of some grand holy place. By then, the rain sprinkled on their heads. Mirabella’s tangled hair dripped across her face. Chuck beckoned her to seek shelter with him, using hand motions to communicate. Mirabella smiled and pointed to a small, covered bus stop across the street.
They paused, looking into each other’s eyes. Chuck wondered if he would see her again.
“Gracias,” Chuck said, almost leaning in to hug her. “Por la asistencia.”
“Yes,” she answered in her adorable broken English. “Thank you, for the helping.”
A clap of thunder caused her to shiver and she gave him a quick hug and kiss on the cheek before turning and running across the street to the bus stop. Chuck watched her cross, rain spattering down on his head, the dark sky nearly obscuring his view of her thin, graceful figure.
“Adiós,” he muttered to himself as he turned to enter the building. “Mirabella.”
The inside of the shelter smelled of must, stale food and human waste. The drab walls absorbed the greenish light from the fluorescent fixtures hanging down from exposed metal beams.
A pleasant young man at a desk greeted him in both Spanish and English. Chuck responded in English explaining that he had been deported and could not speak the language.
“We can help you,” the man said. “We have no beds free right now with so many deportations lately, but we can give you space on the floor until one opens.”
They walked into the warehouse. A large, crowded space opened before them with rows of bunks. Many of the beds contained people either napping, reading, or just laying restlessly doing almost nothing. The sound of the rain rattled the metal roof of the building, echoing through the open air above their heads. In the corner, a small kitchen served soup from a giant black kettle. A plate of rolls and butter sat on a table next to the soup station. There were no seats. A line of people stood along the back wall sipping their soup from little white porcelain mugs.
“We have showers behind those doors and a room with a television on the other side,” the attendant explained. “We only get Spanish-speaking channels, but many of the residents prefer to watch sports, like football, or well, soccer, which does not matter about the language.”
In the far corner, opposite the kitchen, dozens of sleeping bags lay on the floor, literally shoulder to shoulder.
“We can give you space over here,” the attendant said. “Just pick out a sleeping bag that is not in use and we’ll get you a bed as soon as tomorrow when several of our guests run out of their time and have to leave to find places of their own.”
Chuck regarded his new living quarters. He contemplated lying side-by-side in the coffin-like accommodations. He smelled the stale, watery soup and took a deep breath. Thanking the attendant, he crossed the warehouse and exited the building back into the dark evening rainstorm.
He searched the bus stop for Mirabella, but did not see her. She had crossed the road and stood only a few feet away. Her dress clung to her hips, completely soaked through. Her dark, straight hair had de-tangled in the wetness and lay straight down either side of her face. The lightning briefly illuminated her figure. Her brown eyes sparkled like fireworks in the midnight sky.
“You trabajas en mi casa, my house” she said. “You work. La asistencia. You teach the English”