Excerpt from The Extinction of Rhinos in Mexico: 9 Tales of Life and Death
"PAGAR POR SUSTOS" Continued from Facebook https://www.facebook.com/clifford.s.blackburn
Okay, she would keep busy. She was hired only as a nanny, but she wound up cooking and cleaning and doing laundry just because she liked this family and couldn’t stand it if things needed doing and didn’t get done because that Tom Harrigan worked all the time and never did a damn thing around the house anyway and Chuck’s mother Sarah was gone at her business until seven every night.
Still, Amparo felt very fortunate as she sorted whites from colors and started another load of laundry. Chuck’s father Tom produced a top rated sitcom for ABC and his mother Sarah had her own movie prop shop that she had started eight years before with a partner. Sarah was almost like a friend. She would always trade information with Amparo about various actors. Her company had provided props for several of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movies. He was another good one. Sarah was making him a special prop one time and when she had to stretch the measuring tape all the way around his big chest his muscles were so big that she just had to tease him, so she stopped and said I have a problem with that. Arnold took a puff of his cigar and smiled. Deal with it, he said back to her, and shared a laugh with Sarah. That’s the way she was. Sarah could have had all these autographed photographs of stars, but she didn’t care about that type of thing. She came from a farm outside of Lawrence, Kansas. Amparo liked working for Sarah because she was generous, down to earth and liked to hear all the dirt from the nanny network. Of course the nanny network was not a true organization. It was just that the nannies who worked for movie people knew each other, and many of these women were from El Salvador, many of them illegals, like Alba. They worked for some of the most famous actors in the world and a lot of more powerful people who nobody outside of Hollywood ever heard of.
The most important thing Sarah Harrigan ever did for Amparo was to sponsor her green card petition. But the nicest thing Sarah ever did was when she cosigned on the papers so that Amparo could buy a completely new Toyota Celica by paying each month “an installment.” This way Amparo was also establishing credit. To be in Los Angeles without credit was something many people did, yet Amparo was sharp, she listened and watched the way yanquis did things and realized that no credit meant you would probably not rise very far here. The stupid thing was that you had to have money to get credit. But if you had money you didn’t need the credit! Still, she worked hard and was careful with her money, so to her it was okay if she had credit or no.
Amparo made a mental note to buy more detergent as she crammed the very last dish possible into the dishwasher and emptied the squeeze bottle into the door compartment and then shut the machine and started it. At first she meant to just pay cash for a cheap dependable used car, but Chuck’s mother convinced her that she deserved something nice, and that it would be safer for when she drove Chuck around. This car was nothing compared to the Mazarattis or Jaguars or huge Lincoln Navigators racing along San Vicente or Century Park East, but it was nice, very nice for Amparo. She liked to be inside her shiny metallic green Toyota Celica, to smell the new smell of her tan vinyl upholstery. Even when Chuck spilled something or couldn’t wait and peed, it wiped right off. You could wash it and it didn’t smell bad, but it had stopped smelling new and lately smelled like soap and crackers. But that was all right. The Toyota made her feel like things were good. With this car it was just like one of the tv commercials said: she had freedom. She could take Chuck to any park or store. She could decide to go anywhere and get in and just go there. And when people saw her car, they had respect for her because they saw she had a new, nice car. Credit was one thing, but to be in this city without a car was to be a cripple. Sure there were the buses, but not enough, so that often you had wait a long time and sometimes the buses were full and would pass you by, and even when you did get on one you had to crowd in and stand the whole way. When did any Anglos ever take a bus? Only the ones who had to, the poor ones. Except for that one tv star who was a fanatic about the environment, and even he quit riding once an electric car came on the market that he could lease for $500 a month. Puchica! No, unless you had a car, and a decent one, you were nobody. She had learned that lesson quickly in the United States.
The season Amparo turned fifteen years old a flood swept through her village. People who had survived years of war died in the flood. It made you wonder. The river washed through her family’s house. Her father had been at the newspaper working so her mother rescued Amparo’s grandmother, who wouldn’t let go of the television. Fortunately their house was built of cinderblocks and was sturdy.
One morning soon after, when the mud was still a foot thick in the house and a dirty water mark chest high on the walls and the muck had begun to smell like rotten eggs, which was better than the ripe corpses that still sped by in the river, Amparo and her sisters and brother had been almost ready to walk to school. All the schoolchildren had to wear uniforms, even though it was a state sponsored and not a Catholic school. She hated that uniform and had been arguing with her mother about having to wear it. They were ugly and scratchy and now smelled of mildew even though her mother had washed them. Mami was scolding her when the soldiers came into the house with their guns and smashed the tv and pulled Tata and Mami and her sister Graciela and brothers Tito and Nando and her and even Abuelita out of the house and shoved them all down to the swollen river. Her mother was crying. Her grandmother didn’t understand what was happening. The soldiers yelled at her father and slapped him. They hated his small newspaper. Amparo watched a dead cow floating past on its side in the rapid current, seeming to dribble a flat football that had become trapped in the eddies of its stiff front legs. Tata was scared but brave and proud when they pointed their guns at him. Even when they pointed guns at Amparo and the rest of her family. Amparo was shivering because she didn’t yet understand this was just a warning, and believing she was about to have her brains blown out, she prayed for Carlos to be well and to remember her sometimes. But a part of her inside was laughing to recall the look on the soldiers’ faces when floodwater gushed out of the tv they smashed.
Amparo remembered something else she needed to do. Once a year, Sarah would decide to clean out her and Tom’s closets and get rid of a lot of clothes, and she would let Amparo have her pick and then phone Goodwill take the rest. Amparo now picked through the stacks Sarah had made in the master bedroom. Perfectly good clothes. But these people always bought more, even when they already had plenty. It was just something to do. Amparo chose what she wanted and put them in boxes. Tomorrow she would ship the clothes to her brothers and sister or other family members to wear, give away or sell.
For now, Amparo lay down again and tried to sleep.
The monthly cost of the Toyota was a lot of money for her, and it was hard to have the money every month for when the note was due since she was always wiring part of her paycheck back to El Salvador to help her sister go to the university and for her family to bribe the guards so her father would not be maltreated. Because of the money Amparo sent, he at least had all the bare necessities in the prison and sometimes a comfort or two, and Amparo had never ever missed a car payment until this month but now she was late because the guards had demanded more money. Already she had to buy gasoline and some groceries with her Texaco credit card. She needed to talk to Chuck’s mother about the car payment before the bank did.
Gradually Amparo started to drift off in the warmth of the California afternoon with the cool Pacific breeze caressing her and in her ears the pleasant whirrings of the washing machine, the dryer and the dishwasher and the slightly distant sounds of traffic and helicopters. Then, just as she fell asleep there was a screech of tires outside and though there was no thump at the end, she dreamed a thump and she saw again the two old ladies fly strangely through the air and tumble on the hard street.
Amparo awoke with a start.
When Alba answered the phone from the house where she was working that day, Amparo told her about how she had taken Chuck to the zoo for the first time and he was crazy about the rhinoceros he saw, such a strange creature, and couldn’t stop talking about it even later at the pony ride in Los Feliz down near I-5. Amparo now pronounced it “Fee-less.” Nobody in L.A. would know where you were talking about it you said it right. She meant to come right out and tell Alba about the accident first thing, but instead she told Alba how Chuck had been riding the pony, nearly slipping off the saddle, and she saw a man there wearing sunglasses and watching his own son riding a pony. He seemed like a man who really liked seeing his little boy have fun. Later when Amparo was getting Chuck down off his pony, the man was doing the same with his boy. Amparo had to say something.
“You know, you look a lot like John Travolta.”
“That’s because I am John Travolta.”
“No!” she shook her head and hid her grin with her hand.
“Really, I am.”
“You are just kidding me.”
“No, I promise.” He took off his sunglasses and smiled so she could see it really truly was John Travolta. He was so normal and without attitude that she had not believed it at first. Alba was gratifyingly impressed and she and Amparo began discussing the merits of various celebrities. Jessica Lange was another one who was regular. Once Amparo was helping a friend at a house where Jessica was a guest, and Jessica rolled up her sleeves and washed dishes right there with them. Oh, but there were some bitches Amparo could tell about. Like that one today. But Amparo also told about the good ones. That’s why she had to tell her friend Alba about John Travolta. Though Amparo didn’t believe in gossiping, she did believe in letting her other friends who were nannies know what potential employers were like. It was necessary. You never knew who you might end up working for. Over the years Amparo had avoided several bad employers who when they interviewed her treated her so nice, but afterwards she asked her friends and the others and they would tell her how those people really were. Chuck’s mother called Amparo’s friends the “Nanny Network.” Amparo liked where she was now, five days a week with Chuck, babysitting other kids some nights and on weekends.
John Travolta. What a gentleman. And then to have Chuck see such a thing. She thought he had been too short in his car seat to be able to catch sight of the broken figures. How much had he seen? Hardly anything, she prayed. Well, she had seen plenty when she was growing up hadn’t she and it didn’t ruin her. This was nothing. Yet Amparo realized she wasn’t ready to tell Alba about the dead women. Later, not quite yet. It still made her shake to think about it. As Amparo had been driving Chuck home from the pony ride, back to the Miracle Mile district, she went along Los Feliz to where it bends around past Griffith Park and turns down into Western Avenue and she drove down the hill there with Chuck chattering about the rhinoceros and pretending like a plastic train he had was a rhino and was smashing it into Buzz Lightyear and Amparo turned right on Hollywood Boulevard, the older, rundown stretch with vacant buildings, a porn shop, an Armenian boxing club and on down a row of Thai restaurants. At the crosswalk in front of this dilapidated hotel there was no stoplight so you had to watch out. And sure enough, Amparo had to brake for two elderly women who stepped out into the street strolling without even looking, their arms linked. In her rearview mirror, Amparo glimpsed the Mercedes SUV impatiently swerve, the woman driver on her cell phone. Before Amparo could think, the Mercedes accelerated past her and plowed into the two old women.
Afterwards, the beautiful blonde woman in the big Mercedes kept talking on her cell phone. Her face never changed. Or maybe she looked a little more anxious? ¿Que quiere decir — “Put out”? It was hard to tell; the sunglasses hid the woman’s eyes. But her attitude was what made Amparo shake more than anything else.
Neighborhood people came running out and a man began screaming. Vagrants and other lost ones watched as some good samaritans knelt beside the women lying twisted and broken on the potholed street.
“What happened, Amparo?” Chuck had asked. He was straining, trying to see. Fortunately, he was too short to see much. But enough. “Was that noise the ladies?”
“An accident, Baby. That’s all.”
When the police arrived, they couldn’t get the woman to come out of the big Mercedes. In fact, she tried to drive off and the angry police had to run their car in front of her to stop her. Both cars were on the wrong side of the street then, in front of a place strangely named St. Andrew’s Liquor. It caused a big traffic jam.
They let Amparo stay next to the Toyota with Chuck inside while she told them exactly what she had seen, but quietly so Chuck couldn’t hear. The police thanked her and took her phone number and let her take Chuck home. A tv news van had arrived and a couple of helicopters hovered loud overhead. A pretty lady ran over with a cameraman and they wanted to ask Amparo questions. She could have been on tv, but she didn’t want Chuck to see any more, so she drove away and the lady interviewed one of the derelicts. Amparo guessed it would be on the Channel 5 news that night.
All the way home Amparo had thought about the women and scarcely heard Chuck prattling. They looked foreign to her. Perhaps Russian. Maybe Armenian. What a thing to come to a new country and die like that.
He worked hard for years and saved his money and grew to a tall, handsome youth. Shy as he was, one day Carlos stole a kiss from Amparo. She didn’t mind. They secretly kissed many times after that, his tongue intertwining with hers until her knees couldn’t hold her up. She couldn’t even confess this to the priest. Even though she was five years older, Carlito solemnly vowed that he was going to marry her when he was a man.
Yet before he could do anything else, he told Amparo, he had to find his mother if she was alive. He journeyed by himself to the United States, to San Diego. He was gone so long, but Amparo waited.
Before Amparo became Chuck’s nanny, one very famous couple had invited Amparo to interview about being their nanny — one of several. This couple had adopted five children and were going to get a nanny for each one. The young actor and his wife were both very beautiful and Amparo liked them and listened to all they had to say, but in the end she had to tell them No because they were forthright and explained to her that the marriage was simply for the public appearance. The actor was a maricón, and here in Hollywood that was nothing, but as a matter of business, it had to be kept secret from the outside world. Some of the nannies felt that the secret was so that the women who adored him would not be disappointed, but Sarah and Amparo talked it over and decided that the secret was really for fans who were men. The secret was so important that when one of those trashy tabloids that everybody likes to look at in the grocery found out and wrote about it, the couple took them to court. It didn’t matter that in this case the tabloid had mostly told the truth. The couple had the most expensive lawyers, so in the end the court made the periodical print a retraction saying No it wasn’t true what they printed about the actor being a maricón. Amparo believed that the young actor truly cared for his wife. No one knew for sure, but it was said the actress got paid a certain amount and probably got a movie role and for two years she was not allowed to see any other men, but after that, her contract allowed her, but only if no one found out about it. Amparo had a good reputation, that’s why the couple asked for her, but she had to tell them No, because what they were doing was a sin. In reality, she liked them both, and personally, she didn’t care, but the Church said it was an abomination in the eyes of God.
After the war she was still in school when a friend of her father escorted her on a trip to market, a man from the neighborhood who wore a thick gold chain, although the water didn’t always run through the pipes of his house. This Señor _____ was very pious, always in church or at home reading the Bible. She didn’t ask him to escort her, but there he was, walking respectfully a little ways behind her. When she stopped to see the new dress in the window of Fashions Mimi, he also stopped. Sometimes she stopped for no reason at all, just for the fun of making him stop as well. At the market she paused in the entrance by the pupusería, and looked back. Señor _____ paused, just as if he and she were linked and she smiled at him, he always seemed like a gentleman just tongue tied and she had decided to go talk with him when out of nowhere a guy rushed at him, snatched the gold chain and raced down the street. Very quickly Señor _____ pulled out a 9mm pistol and fired five or six times. The thief fell. It happened like an ordinary event so that it was over before she knew it.
Señor _____ went and stood over the guy and crossed himself. When he came back over to her he said
We’ll have to split up. This type are often in the hire of the police.
With that he left her. Amparo decided the crowded market would be just as good a place as any, but before she even had time to mix into the crowd, she heard tires squeal. Turning, she saw Señor _____ at the wheel of a car, speeding away up the street. Where did the car come from? Did he have it parked there all along, ready for a lightning getaway? Or did he steal it? Curious now, she wandered over to where the thief lay twitching on a spreading pool of viscous crimson and urine. In his hand Amparo could see the gold chain, clutched tightly as if he meant to take it with him to wherever he was going now. She never found out why Señor _____ did not take back his chain, but the next time she saw him, he had a gold chain around his neck. She often wondered if it was the same one.
The phone was ringing when Sarah got home and Amparo had her arms full of laundry. Sarah came grinning to Amparo with the portable. She smiled a lot and that was another reason Amparo liked working for her.
“It’s for you.”
“Who is it?” Amparo whispered, dropping the hot clean clothes on the couch to fold. She was suspicious of the mischief in Sarah’s eyes.
“They didn’t say, but I think it’s your fan club.”
Amparo took the phone and as Sarah left Amparo recalled she needed to ask her for an advance so she could pay the car payment. On the phone it was the Warner children. Often at night after Sarah got home, Amparo would go babysit the Warner children for an hour or so and sometimes all day on Saturday. Each child was on a different phone.
“Why did you quit?”
“I didn’t quit,” Amparo answered.
“Mommy says you’re not coming anymore.”
“That you quit.”
“I didn’t quit.”
“Then you’ll come over tomorrow?”
“No. How is your arm Shawna?”
“It has a grody scab,” said Jimmy.
“It does not,” Erin said.
“At least she was brave enough to climb the tree,” said Amparo.
There was this little scrape on the inside of Shawna’s upper arm where she tried to hug the tree when she slipped and fell. Scarcely any bleeding. No broken bones. Just a lot of crying. You would have thought it was the end of the world to hear Mrs. Warner tell it. But what was the use of a beautiful, manicured yard if you never used it?
“When are you coming over, ’Paro?”
“Baby, I’m not no more. Allí no mas. Maybe I’ll still see you sometime at the park.”
“Por favor, ’Paro.”
“Por favor! Por favor!”
“We’ll be good and not let Shawna climb any trees.”
“And maybe Jimmy won’t wet his pants anymore.”
“Shut up! I’ll make Erin and Shawna clean up the whole every bit of the house for you, ’Paro.”
“I don’t think so, pee pee boy.” Erin and Shawna giggled.
“’Paro!” He started crying.
“Hush you brats.”
“It’s your fault Shawna. You don’t ever mind.”
“Zip it. Chico, I don’t care if your sister climbs. Or if any of you does. You’re kids, that’s what it’s about. You just got to be a little careful.”
“Then how come you’re leaving?"
“Don’t worry about it. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be around.”
“No, Baby.” She was going to miss these devils after all.
“Mommy says you quit because you don’t like us.”
“She said that?” Puchica, that lady. “Look, I still love you Erin. And Jimmy and Shawna too, understand? You want to know why I’m not coming anymore? Because your mother is full of shit.”
There was silence on the other end of the line. Then three little giggles.
After a year and a half in the United States, Carlos found his mother his mother. By then she had remarried and had new babies. His mother told Carlos that she had been too young when she got married. That she never had any feeling for him.
By the time Carlos returned to El Salvador, the war had ended and work was hard to find. Anyway he was different by then. He began taking things from people and would beat them if they protested. From the United States he brought back dirty Mexican words, like cholo. He called himself a cholo, he had seen how gangs operated in the United States and began gathering his own mara of cholos around him. Before long he and his gang were regularly plundering in five towns and villages. People hated him, but they were also afraid. Amparo waited, but he never called on her.
Amparo drank a lot when she first got to the United States of America. She drank because she was happy and scared and lonely and it helped her to speak English. She gained weight, she knew she was getting too heavy. All right, she would admit to herself, fat. But not soft fat. Still, in Los Angeles every billboard and every magazine ad, even in the Spanish periodicals showed only flacas, bony women who would be lucky if they could carry one kid, let alone two. When she finally got the chance to visit El Salvador again, people looked at her extra weight and nodded Ah, you’re doing well.
Amparo knew Conchita and Alba from the church she went to. They were Salvadoran, but they spent disgusting amounts of their earnings on liposuction and plastic surgery. Conchita used the same doctor as the lady in Brentwood who lived two blocks from the O.J. house before they tore it down, who hired Conchita to clean her mansion and six toilets.
“You get what you pay for.” Conchita whispered to Amparo in English one Sunday, placing twenty dollars in the offering plate. Amparo dropped five. If that wasn’t good enough for God, so be it. One time some repair men even came by the house where Alba was cleaning and mistook her for the owner because she looked so perfect. Amparo had to admit that Alba did look like a movie star now, but she didn’t even have a car. Amparo had taken to calling Conchita Concha
now that the shameless niña finally went so far as to have a plastic surgeon make her privates tight again like a virgin. Alba laughed and it made Conchita angry when Amparo called her the dirty slang and they both reminded Amparo that rich, respectable yanqui women did it all the time and showed her the large brazen advertisements in the L.A. Weekly
. All Amparo could say was that she didn’t have to pay a doctor.
“Yes,” smiled that bitch Concha, “but no man can appreciate it.”
Amparo’s cheeks burned and her eyes stung. She knew she was shaped like her Mayan ancestors — a wide head and a flat nose with high cheekbones and plain black hair. Her teeth were strong and white and she had breasts like large papayas, with reddish brown nipples above a broad round stomach. Her complexion was naturally and perfectly tanned even with no sun and she was tall, if wide, and her legs were slim and well toned from all the walking she did with Chuck. She mostly dressed comfortable in running shoes, shorts and a big t-shirt with Warner Bros. or Disney or Universal on it. Whenever Chuck jumped into her arms and laid his head on her shoulder, her heart ached and her insides contracted with yearning.
Her father had agreed with her that he should bring along some men. A few months earlier a woman they knew had been on the verge of leaving El Salvador with several members of her family. They had everything packed up, every last possession. On the road to the airport they were stopped and robbed of everything and an uncle and son were killed. Things did not stay calm for long after the war.
The heat and the sun when she stepped off the plane weighed on Amparo like a wet wool blanket from an oven. She had gotten spoiled by the coolness of Los Angeles. When Amparo paid the mordida in yanqui dollars to the customs inspectors, she knew that would not be not all. They would alert others.
Amparo saw Tata. With her father came two short, small young indios she had never seen. Bowlegged, with broad faces the color of mahogany. Puchica, she thought. So this is Tata’s understanding of our danger?
Out front a beige 1970s Buick was waiting. Señor _____ got out to open the trunk. The two scrawny fellows struggled with the luggage and the microwave and the new television for her grandmother. Amparo was certain she could kick both their asses.
Tata drove and Amparo sat in the middle between him and Señor _____. Nobody said much. The little guys in back didn’t say anything. Sure enough, a carload of young men drove out of the airport parking lot behind them. The Buick had good air conditioning and Amparo set it all the way on five. There was a rattle in the fan.
As Amparo’s father drove them out of town, the sedan with the young men stayed behind them. The sedan was so full it made Amparo think of the clown car she had seen at Ringling Brothers with Chuck. He had been so little at the time that the noise and commotion made him cry in fear.
Amparo kept looking back. She looked at Señor _____ beside her. He had his gold chain on, but she did not see any 9mm. The two turkeys in the back seat sat like lumps, never giving the car behind them so much as a glance. No one said anything. Amparo noticed that her tata was older, more gray hair than ever, and smaller. It saddened her because it seemed sudden; she had held a picture of him in her mind that was four years behind, like an old magazine. But he had aged three times that.
She knew the lush selva with the afternoon sun cutting through the leaves should be beautiful, the piercing sunlight and dark shadow tattooing over them as the car went winding up the mountain beneath the canopy. She loved the damp leafy musk of the forest and she needed to relish the songs of all the bright colored birds and the lushness after the constant traffic and concrete and smog of Los Angeles, but the cold noisy air conditioner was delightful and anyhow the thick green of the trees and undergrowth had become accomplices of the maras in the other car, hiding their sins. There was no one else on the road but the two vehicles.
Even over the air conditioner she heard the engine of the other car as it surged. She looked and saw the carload of men speed up alongside Tata, windows rolled down. Tata drove steadily and the young men in the car beside him pulled up bandanas over their faces and she could not hear the metal click as they inserted clips into their automatics, only the air conditioner.
In the seat beside Amparo, Señor _____ twisted around and exchanged a glance with the two little men behind her. If there was a signal she did not detect it, but the shrimp on the side closest to the other car rolled down the window. The equatorial air gushed in and all smells of the country and exhaust from the two straining cars. Shrimp Number 2 brought out his rocket launcher from under the Amparo’s seat and aimed it out at the other car. The eyes of the masked men widened in fear and their hands waved No No. Their car braked and swerved, skidding off into the barranca and rolling over. Never even had to shoot the rocket. Amparo and the shrimps watched it all out the back window. She felt a burst of joy and she laughed with the shrimps while Tata drove and Señor _____ read his bible and never looked at the countryside.
One day Sarah asked Amparo if she had a sweetheart. That’s all it took. Amparo broke down crying, it couldn’t be helped, and Sarah stroked her head and listened while Amparo told how much it had cost her to ship a $1200 used Ford Ranger to El Salvador for her sister Graciela. Just a few years ago it would have been much cheaper, but now all the tariffs had gone up. Still, it was cheaper than buying a truck in El Salvador. Graciela was a doctor in the city hospital, but sometimes she had to drive to the rural villages to help people. Amparo was so proud of her younger sister. For eight years Amparo had been also sending money putting Graciela through university and then medical school. Now Graciela was a doctor and also married to a doctor. But in El Salvador that didn’t make you rich. Amparo had wanted to go to college too, but her sister was the smarter one.
“I’ll make a deal with you,” said Chuck’s mother. “You promise to enroll and study hard and get good grades, I’ll promise to make it home by six on the nights you have classes. Who knows, you might meet some nice guy in class and kill two birds with one stone. Y’ever think of that?”
I’m already twenty nine
, was what Amparo was thinking. Almost thirty, and there’s no one for me.
For a while after the war the police tried to become civilized and go by the rules on the model of the United States. Yes, for a time, everything was more or less peaceful. But the war had ruined many things and there were not nearly enough jobs. The mara youths would taunt the police, who hated these gangs but were no longer allowed to respond with force like before. And there was a lot of crime. It didn’t have to be a gold chain. If you were wearing a baseball cap that somebody liked, they would shoot you for it. Anything. The police began to return to the ways they were used to from the war.
The last time she visited she walked down the street where the maras hung out and whistled and called at women and hassled men and boys. Most people didn’t like when they had to go that way. They became scared and hurried along. But Amparo had plenty to eat always and her arms had grown strong from carrying so many children. She stopped and faced their leader, looking him right in the eyes.
“Do I know you?” she asked.
“No, but maybe you’d like to.”
“Look, I know Carlito.”
“Sure you do.”
“He’s my novio. Tell him I said 'Hi.’”
She talked to them. She did not mind the give and take. She asked them who they were. They spoke in English, proud that they could. At first they only told her their dirty gang names. She did not accept that and made them tell her their true names and they did. Tauro, Jorge, Faustino, like that. These young men spoke English well. They had been to the United States but had either gotten deported or they came back when they couldn’t get work and grew homesick. Now they all wanted to go back north.
“Why don’t you get a job here and save money?” she told the one called Slayer but whose real name was Jesús Maria.
“What job do we get? Where? Tell us.”
A police car drove by. The police men called to her. “Are you okay, Señora?”
“It’s Señorita and yes, I’m fine, thank you.”
“Those aren’t the type you should talk with.”
“We’re just having a conversation,” one of the maras said.
“I’m talking to the lady, faggot,” said the policeman.
“It’s okay,” Amparo said. The police car did not leave, but slowly cruised down and around the block and came back by several times. Amparo was in reality on her way to visit a friend of her mother’s who wanted advice about the United States. Amparo asked directions from Guillermo, the leader of the gang, who went by the handle “Jackie Chan” because he had once taken some tae kwon-do lessons in Los Angeles near Sunset and Western next to that Mexican Pentecostal church. He told her some directions.
“Now is this really the way?” she asked. “Or are you sending me down a blind alley where you’ll be lying in wait?”
The youths all laughed because they knew that she understood how they were.
“We would never do that to the novia of Carlito.”
It all happened at once, the way things sometimes do in Hollywood when you’re already successful. Chuck’s father Tom got a two-year long “first look” feature film development deal with some French investors, and the sale of Sarah’s prop company went through, meaning that the whole Harrigan family would be living in Provence, which Sarah explained to Amparo was in the south of France. And of course they wanted to take Amparo with them for the two years.
But difficulties cropped up almost immediately. The French authorities balked at the idea of a Central American nanny taking work away from their au pairs. And then there was the whole issue of her being a resident alien of the United States. Once you had your green card you couldn’t leave the U.S. for three hundred and sixty five consecutive days without special permission. That was the law.
Applications were made, but later for some reason the people at Laguna Niguel couldn’t seem to find the application papers of one Amparo Maria Del Pilar, OTM El Sal. OTM meant “Other Than Mexican.” They told her she could either wait and hope for the best, or begin the process over again. Even then there were no guarantees she would get permission. And on the far side of the ocean the French immigration office was digging in its heels.
Amparo told Sarah Harrigan she didn’t think she would like France anyway, and besides, it was too far away from her own family. Disappointed, Sarah wrote for Amparo a glowing letter of recommendation. Chuck was really too young to understand what was happening, but Amparo thought her heart was going to break like they always talked about in the telenovelas.
At first she wasn’t worried at all about getting another position, but the weeks passed and then the Harrigans were ready to fly off to France and Amparo still hadn’t found any fulltime work. Mrs. Warner left messages on her machine, but Amparo never returned the calls. Amparo’s friends in the nanny network told her of openings, and Amparo would phone, but it was always too late somehow. Nobody was even calling her in to interview.
The day the Harrigans left for France, Amparo drove them to LAX in her Toyota. They offered to take a shuttle, but Amparo insisted. She’d been preparing herself and Chuck for this time, but he still didn’t listen very well. He delighted in seeing all the airplanes, and after they found parking he took her hand and his mommy’s hand as they walked across to the terminal.
“Are we going on one those?” he asked disingenuously with big smiling eyes as a jumbo jet lumbered in overhead with a terrific roar.
“Yes, we’re going on one of those,” said Tom Harrigan sternly. “For a long time. And you’re going to sit in your seat and be a good boy, aren’t you Chuck?”
Chuck put on his dejected look and appealed to his mother and Amparo.
“Aren’t you, Chuck?”
Chuck nodded and looked up at his father. “You’re coming too, Daddy?”
“That’s right,” chuckled Sarah, exchanging a glance with Amparo. “We’re all going together.”
Tom Harrigan smiled then and grabbed up his son and lugged him under his arm. “Maybe we’ll just throw you in with the luggage. Would you like that?”
The little boy giggled. “No! You’re squishing me!”
The flight was delayed and then delayed again. Tom Harrigan started fuming and Chuck was whiney. Tom went to the service desk to demand satisfaction.
“I think now would be a good time,” said Amparo.
“So do I,” said Sarah. She gave Amparo a big hug. “You take care and let us know where you’re working.”
Amparo nodded. “Send me photos.”
Chuck was at the big glass wall, transfixed, gazing out at the jumbo jets. Amparo came over and knelt beside him. He glanced over at her and smiled.
“We’re going on that one?”
“Not that one. But one like it. You are.”
He scrutinized her. “’Paro, you’re crying.”
She quickly brought out the small stuffed rhinoceros. Her credit card was refused at Toys R Us, but fortunately she had had enough grocery cash on her. And, well, God was going to have to make do without his five bucks for a couple of weeks.
“Thank you, ’Paro!”
Chuck was delighted with the toy. After a total of about ten seconds he handed it back to Amparo.
“You hold it.”
“No, you’ve got to hang on to it yourself. I’m staying here.”
The boy looked at her, worried. “You’re leaving?”
“No, you and your mom and dad are going. You’re going to live in a new place for a while.”
He grabbed her hand and began to pull her over to his mother. “And you’re coming too.”
“No, Baby. You’re going to have to be a big boy, now, okay Chuck?” She said his name carefully and the C H came out correctly. The little boy nodded tearfully.
In the end she had to walk away and as she went back along the terminal corridor she could hear behind her Chuck in his mother’s arms bawling “I want Amparo! I want Amparo!”
* * *
About six weeks after Amparo had seen the old women run over, Mrs. Warner called her on a Saturday. Mrs. Warner was going to ask Amparo to come watch the kids the next evening during a big party they were going to have at their house. Amparo already knew this. She had been talking with Arcelia, the regular nanny for the Warners, who had recently quit after ten years. She just got fed up with those people being so cheap and treating her like she was stupid. She knew from the other nannies that no one would take the job because the kids were such devils for most people.
“I’m so glad I caught you, Amparo. I’m in a pickle. I need someone to watch the children during the party tomorrow night.”
“Sunday? That’s my day off.”
“Oh? From what I hear, you have every day off now.”
Amparo didn’t know what to say. She said nothing.
“If it’s church you’re worried about, I wouldn’t need you until six p.m. Look, the kids know you, Amparo, so I thought that perhaps I could convince you to come back and do this for me.”
Over the receiver Amparo could hear car horns honking and knew that Mrs. Warner was calling from her cell phone while driving.
“Aren’t you afraid I might drop them from the third floor window or something?”
“Don’t be snippy. It isn’t attractive. I was very concerned that day. What kind of mother would I be if I weren’t? Still, perhaps I spoke hastily. The party will be from six until one a.m. Fifty dollars. And if all goes well, then who knows? Oh, and please be here by five forty five.”
“Sorry, but I can’t do it for less than a hundred and fifty.”
Now Mrs. Warner was silent. For a moment.
“That’s highway robbery. I never expected you to be so greedy.”
“It’s what I always ask for last minute jobs.” It wasn’t, but Amparo did not want to go. It was true she needed the work. Since the Harrigans left she had found a little babysitting and some housekeeping, though not enough. But this woman! One hundred and fifty dollars wouldn’t even buy one blouse at Mrs. Warner’s Rodeo Drive dress shop. Her kids weren’t even worth one blouse to her? And those designer clothes she had there were sewn by ladies scarcely able to afford food for their children.
“It’s ugly to take advantage,” said Mrs. Warner.
“Yes it is.”
“You think you’ve got me over a barrel, don’t you?”
“Well, it’s up to you.”
Mrs. Warner hung up. Pretty soon Mr. Warner called back and she liked Mr. Warner all right and reminded him that she had been fired and why would they want her back?
“Amparo, don’t let her get to you. You know you do a good job. I know you do. Think of the children. You know that nothing Alexis says about you will be taken seriously by anyone. Be above this.”
Amparo couldn’t help but laugh. Mr. Warner knew how his wife was.
“I don’t think I want to.”
“I probably shouldn’t say anything,” he said carefully. “But you know her circle does stick together. And there are really only about a dozen agencies in Los Angeles. If you catch my drift.”
She did not know what for sure he meant by “drift,” but a chill raked up Amparo’s spine as if somebody had walked on her grave.
“Now you know our kids adore you. Nobody else will deal with them.”
“They’re good if you know how to handle them,” stammered Amparo. She swallowed. She couldn’t breathe right or think clearly, could feel rising panic and desperation. “Anyway, like I told Mrs. Warner, tomorrow’s my day off.”
“She was only going to pay fifty.”
“How much do you want?”
“I asked her for a hundred and fifty and she hung up on me.”
“Why don’t we make it a hundred and sixty for the evening, and later we’ll talk longer term.”
The next morning Conchita arrived at church mad as a wet hen because she had to take the bus. She waved her cell phone at Amparo. She had tried and tried to call Amparo. Amparo shrugged; she never answered her phone on her day off and turned the volume down on her answering machine.
“What happened to your Mazda?” asked Alba, who had neither a phone nor a car. She used the pay phone at the pulpería or borrowed Amparo’s.
“It got repossessed.”
“Well, you don’t pay your bills.” Amparo had no sympathy even though her Texaco card was maxed out and yesterday she had received from the bank a nasty letter threatening to take away her own car if she didn’t pay the payment and the penalty by the end of next week. They had not been able to get in touch with the cosigner, Mrs. Harrigan. They warned Amparo that her credit would be ruined.
“I have to borrow some money,” Conchita pleaded.
“Don’t look at me.”
“Please. You have it, I know you do.”
“But I don’t have it.”
“I need it.”
“So do I.”
Alba said, “Conchita, it’s not like before. Pretty soon she’s going to be borrowing from you.”
“You need to learn to what to spend your money on,” Amparo said.
“That’s the way you’re going to treat me?”
“You had the money, you threw it away. You’re not a movie star.”
“You know who comes into that house where I work? I’ve got to look good. I’ve got to look great.”
“Well, one good thing, since you’ll be walking more, you won’t have to pay for no more liposuction.” Mass started and Amparo began repeating over and over to herself Mr. Warner is nice enough, the kids are not too bad, Mrs. Warner spends most of her day at the dress shop so she won’t be around. Amen.
The priest was saying what he always said.
Amparo thought that maybe next week she might try going to the pentecostal church that another nanny had been bugging her to go to. But she didn’t have much faith left. All the churches she had been to just talked about meekness.
That afternoon Amparo bathed a second time and dressed in her best lavender pantsuit and took her time putting on her makeup and she was already outside going to her car when she heard the phone ring inside.
“Son of a —” She caught herself. Better if she didn’t succumb to the habit of cursing in English. Still, she had a sense that she should answer the phone this time, so she broke her own rule and unlocked the door and went back inside and her answering machine clicked on. She turned up the volume and then after her own voice she heard her mother.
“Mami, I’m here. Why are you calling? What’s wrong?”
“Can’t I call my daughter without her thinking something terrible has happened?”
“Sure, Mami.” But she knew her mother’s voice when she was trying to be brave.
“Well, Carlito is dead.”
It was amazing how clear the line connection from El Salvador was.
“I’m afraid it is so,” her mother was saying. “Already the police and army don’t like us, and now people say that the maras are blaming our family for Carlito’s execution.”
“They think your father had something to do with it.”
“But he’s in jail!”
“Nevertheless. We need to come up there.”
“To the United States. With you.”
Complications mushroomed in her head. “I don’t know if it’s possible. And what about Tata?”
“What good will we do him if we ourselves are arrested or murdered? Who knows even if someone might be listening in on this telephone right this very second?”
“Mami, it will take money.” So much money.
One day while Amparo was visiting, Señor _____ was disappeared, Tata was elected head of a neighborhood delegation that sought an audience with Carlos and Amparo went with them fearfully. Tata told Carlos to his face that he had to quit treating people so cruelly.
Carlos swore at her father and made the delegation leave. Amparo cried and told Carlos she hated him. The next day it was heard all around the village that Carlos had vowed to kill Tata.
Amparo’s mother cried and her father made plans to slip away to another town during the night. But it proved unnecessary. Someone got word to the father of Carlos and the old drunkard sought out his son. They had not spoken for nearly six years.
“Carlito, you cannot do this,” the father said. “You cannot kill this man.”
“Tell me why not, Borracho.”
“I will.” He then told Carlos the story about the time the father was off drunk and left the kids by themselves for days, and how Amparo’s father and mother took Carlos and his siblings in and fed them. Of course, Carlos knew everything that the old man told him, but it had been long ago and he not remembered it so clearly or with such passion. He heard his father and began to listen and the vague recollection of his childhood became refreshed and clear. There were tears dripping into the old man’s dirty beard by the time he finished. Carlos withdrew the death sentence against Tata and never bothered him or let any of the other maras. But then Tata got arrested by the authorities and his printing press smashed. Even Carlos couldn’t stop that from happening.
Nobody wanted to know who gave up Carlos. Everyone was just glad they didn’t have to be afraid of him any more. The death squad tortured Carlos for some time and when they finally strangled him with an electrical cord his tongue, they say, stretched out like a fat purple snake down to his chest.
Amparo arrived at five thirty. The Warner house was in Bel Air. It wasn’t even a house, it was like a village. They had a large tract of land and a dozen servants and groundskeepers. They never bought vegetables because they had the gardener grow whatever they wanted. Mr. Warner was not related to the movie studio. Mrs. Warner grew up in Orange County, but Mr. Warner had moved from Cleveland. He had a big plumbing store in Pomona, but Mrs. Warner always liked to let people think that her husband was a relative of the movie studio family. He bought her the dress shop on Rodeo so she would have something to do.
It was going to be a huge party. Guests were already arriving in big shiny new cars that cost more than a house in the valley. There were the usual stretch limousines.
The Warner children caught sight of Amparo and all ran and hugged and pulled on her. “’Paro! ’Paro!”
Mrs. Warner came in. “There you are. I was wondering what happened to you.” Behind her came a Guatemalan woman Amparo had met a few times named Delia. Delia wore a white maid uniform Amparo had never seen her in. It had a little hat and all the white material made Delia’s brown skin look even darker. The Guatemalan woman stood back and to one side of Mrs. Warner, and greeted Amparo with her eyes. Delia was holding a sack.
“There is one thing I need you to do before I leave you to the children,” said Mrs. Warner.
Amparo looked at Delia. Mrs. Warner took the sack and handed it to Amparo.
“Your check’s in there as well. One hundred and sixty U.S. dollars.”
Amparo looked inside, then crumpled the bag shut and shoved it back at Mrs. Warner. “I’m not no maid.”
The doorbell rang. In the distance Amparo could see more guests in tuxedos and furs being greeted at the door by the butler.
“But, dear, you must wear the uniform. It’s brand new and makes everything more festive.”
Then you wear it
, thought Amparo, but she held her tongue.
“This is a special occasion. We’re celebrating freedom. The freedom of my dearest friend in the world.”
Amparo saw the blonde lady, then, the beautiful driver who had been on her cell phone when she ran down the two Armenian ladies. She came in the big front door with her husband. The butler took her mink stole. She was elegantly slender and without her sunglasses quite lovely. Everyone was congratulating her. She smiled graciously and looked as if she felt a little sheepish.
“I just want to put this behind me,” Amparo heard her say. The husband said something that ended with “proves the system does work.”
Someone handed the woman a drink.
Amparo let the sack drop on the floor.
Little Jimmy picked it up. “Here, ’Paro. You dropped this.”
The children were tugging now on Amparo, “Play with us! Tell us a story!”
Mrs. Warner smiled that smile. “Yes, put on your uniform and tell the children a story. Por favor.”
Amparo stood paralyzed. Tears of poison rage stung her eyes. The bank was waiting for their money. Tata’s guards were waiting for their money. Her family was waiting for their money. And Mrs. Warner was demanding the steepest payment of all. Amparo thought of Carlos. Mi Carlito
. If only she had him with her, Carlito and his machete, she could make everything right. She could pay them all. But they had gotten her sweetheart and they got the Armenian ladies and now they got her.
Amparo took the sack from the child and opened it.
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Praise for THE EXTINCTION OF RHINOS IN MEXICO
Stephen Blackburn, the author, brings great sensitivity to his portraits of Los Angeles nannies, Louisana cooks, lonely loners, Vietnam veterans, ambitious Boy Scouts, and Mexican women. People misperceive, take chances, make poor choices, find the courage to try something new, and fail again. The litany of personal tales of woe afflicting these fine folks ranges from betrayal, crime, and poverty to indecision, drug abuse, and abusive employers in this Steinbeckian collection.
...This collection of short stories certainly deserves a wider audience of readers - especially in community college classrooms and adult education centers. The costs of ignorance - emotional, physical, and financial - become extraordinarily clear in this compelling work."
—Eric H. Roth, Amazon.com