[Note: This story first appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Liberty University's literary magazine, LAMP.]
The June sun shone bright through the sliding glass door of his in-laws’ kitchen in Albany, New York. The golden glow the light created around the room hindered Samuél’s ability to read internet ads. He, his wife, and his daughter arrived the night before from Buenos Aires, Argentina — his father’s hometown. Samuél had been the graphic designer for an alternative culture and arts magazine. When it folded, two months before, they felt their years spent abroad had ended.
He planned to get a job, any job, to save up enough money to pay off the plane tickets they bought on credit, so they could move into their own place. He was as certain of finding a job now as he had been while riding a bus from a futból game several weeks before in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, discussing with his porteño cousin Federico his need to leave. He thought they’d looked like twins, sitting in the same seat, both of them wearing glasses and the same powder blue and white striped Racing Club de Avellaneda jerseys.
Samuél había dicho:
—Che, tengo que irme, Fede, pero no quiero.
—¿Por el trabajo?
A dark-skinned boy with a Nike T-shirt yelled in a hoarse monotone for loose change.
—Claro, estoy secisimo.
Samuél looked out the window to read a street sign.
—¿Pero, creés que vas a encontrar?
—Sí. Hay un montón de oportunidades allá.
—¿Te quedarías si estuvieran las mismas acá?
Federico rubbed his eyes and then reached into his pocket for loose change.
—Obvio, boludo — Samuél había dicho, and pushed the buzzer to stop the bus.
* * *
Eleanor sat Indian-style on a kitchen chair to feed Graciela.
“There’s a ton of sales jobs,” said Samuél.
Eleanor cut up fried egg with the side of a fork. “You’d do that?”
“Not a chance. It’s not in my blood.”
“I’m glad you’re looking, but there’s no rush. Take a few days off.” Her lips winked open to blow on the steaming egg. “Open wide, nena.”
“I know. But I can’t just sit and relax if we’re broke.”
“I know — Good girl! ¡Muy bien, Graciela!”
His father-in-law was a surgeon, and had the weekend Mercedes outside to prove it. Samuél grew up in a poor neighborhood in New Jersey. Even though he’d been visiting his in-laws for years, he always felt out of place as the only (albeit light-skinned) Latino in sight, and all the more so as a jobless one.
Samuél responded to as many posts as he could, and almost all of his callbacks went the same: Do you have transportation? A Bicycle. Just a minute, I’m getting another call. OK … Hey, I just got a call from a guy with a car. OK. Good luck. OK.
Around midday, Eleanor brought a sandwich, cheddar Sun Chips, and a Diet Coke to Samuél, who had fallen asleep in the backyard. His drawing pad lay next to him, open to a sketch of the Obelisco. It showed the structure on Avenida 9 de Julio, but instead of standing straight and taught and pearly, he drew it short, hunched over and filthy. Cars and people zipped and swarmed past, ignoring its decay. In script lettering above the monument, it said “Mi Buenos Aires Querido.”
Eleanor lowered her head down to kiss his upturned lips. She sat down next to him.
“You’ve been out for a while.”
He sat up and tried to find his pencil by running his fingers through the grass. Her father had spent a great deal of time maintaining that yard. The rectangular, green expanse was an organic shag carpet. A croquet course and badminton net stood ready for an after-dinner competition. “Some guy called for you. I guess for yard work? He wants to know if you can start today.” She crossed her legs. They were still tan from Argentina’s beaches.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” she said. “I’d be okay with you taking a week off before you start working. Maybe by then you can find something better.”
“No. I’m going. I’ll ride your dad’s bike.”
“My mom can drop you off.”
Samuél found her father’s bicycle, a Trek road bike that weighed in ounces and still had the rubber nubs on the tires. It glided. He stopped after every couple turns to check the directions he’d scribbled onto an envelope. The creases where he folded and unfolded it over and over again were splitting from overuse and sweat. He was used to weekend rides without a helmet on an old beach cruiser in downtown Buenos Aires, slipping between taxis and brushing by squealing city buses. Those streets were laid out like a grid. With a pocket-sized street map, it was easy to get anywhere.
He found the house. A Lexus SUV sat quiet. Tree limbs and plant debris lay on the lawn. A wheelbarrow had left wobbly, orange dirt tracks on the driveway.
Draught of bottled water. Breathe. OK.
A potato-shaped man in his mid-30s sauntered toward him. “Samuel?” he said. He looked vaguely Armenian or Turkish.
“Samuél,” he corrected. “ … No big deal.”
The man stuck his hand out. “I’m Nick.”
Maybe he was Greek.
“I have another guy on the way, so let me show you around.” His speech was unlabored, borderline disinterested, or tired or drunk. “Do you know what time it is?”
Nick pulled out a large touchscreen phone. “It’s just after four. Let me show you what I need done.”
Nick had just bought the house from an old lady. Her husband had died about six years ago, and her children lived elsewhere. From the outside, the house looked even bigger than Samuél’s in-laws’, but it was girdled by a moat of wet, fallen leaves — the Accumulation of each fall since the husband had died. Samuél filled large black bags high with damp roughage. His back muscles turned to cement with each trip to the curb.
After an hour of work, a pickup truck arrived and backed up onto the yard. It was hauling a tractor-sized machine that looked like an orange robot with a buzz saw at the end of its one arm.
The driver stuck his head out the window. “Nick?”
“In the house,” Samuél said, and continued raking. He wanted to appear as diligent as possible. It was the only thing he could do to dull his frustration. He was a bilingual college graduate who had worked in the Paris of South America, but now toiled as an immigrant to his own country — anonymous and sweaty.
The sound of oiled machinery stopped Samuél’s rake. He noticed that the machine had no seat or steering wheel. The man who brought it stood by the truck and fiddled with a remote.
The machine rolled onto the lower portion of the yard, near the street, where the stump of what was once a stout tree sat rooted into the ground. The machine’s blade was several inches thick and had fist-sized teeth. It began to spin. Samuél watched without speaking, his gloved hands hung at his sides. Only the robot mattered.
The blade spun vertically, but moved side to side as if conducting a symphony of destruction.
Nick tapped Samuél on the arm and gestured toward the machine. “Pretty cool, huh?”
“I never knew such a thing existed. Was the tree about to fall?”
“No. It just wasn’t our taste.”
By 8 p.m., the sun began to set. Samuél had been having trouble walking; carrying another bag of leaves seemed impossible. He knocked on Nick’s front door and Nick stepped out with the same sleepy look as before, munching an apple. He pulled out a wallet made from cream-colored suede. Samuél looked away from the green bills, feigning disinterest. Nick handed him a few dollars extra and said, “Call it a first-day bonus.”
Samuél found his way out of the development and onto a road with two lanes in each direction and traffic lights at every hundred meters or so. The sun faded to a burnt orange as it descended toward the horizon. Samuél tried to imagine wide streets, headlights busy like fireflies, tall concrete houses, the whip-whistling of city buses.
Several minutes went by and he realized that he’d missed a turn. He cursed to himself in Castellano. Before long, he recognized the name of an intersecting street and turned left before the traffic light. He coasted over the opposite lanes and into the curved merging lane designated for vehicles coming from the opposite direction.
He figured he’d made a clever move in avoiding a busy intersection. A Ford F-150 came around the corner and sounded its horn. Samuél squeezed the breaks and the bike’s new mechanics let him stop with ease. The sun had descended, and he couldn’t see the face behind the middle finger. No cars came now. He put all his weight on one leg and propelled the thin bicycle forward.
A restaurant on the left illuminated the word “Ravenswood” atop its awning in bright red. A car leaving the restaurant pulled onto the road at the same time Samuél rode by. He thought he heard the frame crack when he spun counterclockwise above the road. He landed in a heap of limbs and carbon fiber.
A bushy-haired kid wearing a Kings of Leon T-shirt stepped out of the car. Samuél looked up at him from the middle of the road and disliked him.“Dude. I guess I wasn’t … You OK?”
Samuél stood up. The bicycle’s back wheel had been bent into an impossible shape. “This isn’t my bike.”
A car pulled into the parking lot and stopped between Samuél and Leon’s car. The woman inside spoke: “I saw the whole thing. Don’t worry, I called the cops.” Her voice was almost reassuring. She turned to Leon, “I called the cops.”
When the policeman came, he asked for their identification. Samuél could only give his name and social security number. He no longer had an American driver’s license.
From the cop Samuél heard: “ … press charges?”
Leon’s engine started. He looked both directions several times before pulling out.
“Here’s my card. If he doesn’t pay you for the bike, then give me a call, OK?”
The policeman drove off. Red tail lights in the night. Samuél looked around for a payphone, but then remembered what country he was in. His back throbbed. He wasn’t sure if it was from the wreck or the work. How could he tell Nick he had to quit without sounding like a liar, or worse?
He dragged the bike over to a patch of grass alongside the road. He crouched down to sit next to it, but his legs gave. His shoulders and head hit the ground, sweaty.
Samuél’s lower back muscles felt like pavement on the grass. The sun finally set and the cold crept in. Samuél waited for a Buenos Aires city bus to come and carry him home.
# # #
My name is Marcelo Asher Quarantotto.I WRITE WITH WORDS, PHOTOS, VIDEOS, WEBSITES AND MUSIC.
I am a father of three beautiful daughters and husband to the most gracious, saintly creature I've ever met. (You'll find pictures of them here from time to time.) I am also a multidisciplinary storyteller.