It was summer and the father and son were riding the Via to work. He was a janitor, and the boy, who was called Rodrigo, needed straightening out. A week prior, past two a.m., he had slipped away from the family’s apartment and gathered before Southside Junior High with two classmates —malos with welfare mothers and fathers on Bexar County lockdown. The boys had just finished the eighth grade and thought it slick to play a prank. One toted a dozen eggs; another a can of red spray-paint. They chucked the eggs at the windows and onto the roof, and passed the paint back and forth, tagging the school’s front doors with words like fuck and bitch and cunt. The police knocked early the next morning. Security cameras proved Rodrigo’s guilt, and he was expelled. After the school board phoned to deliver the news, the father locked his bedroom door and wept.
Now, as the VIA bus chugged north on 281, past the Rivercenter and the Tower of the Americas, memories of the boy’s mistakes bolted shut a curtain of shame between the father and son. The father took in his fellow passengers: maids and paint-spackled obreros, line-chefs and baggers at the H-E-B. The boy sported loose-fitting jeans and an undershirt stamped with a crown of airbrushed gold. His hair was gelled into porcupine spikes; a fleck of Zirconium studded his left ear. He slumped in his seat, gaze trained on a handheld videogame, thumbs bent ninety-degrees as they punched the small, red buttons.
“Enjoy your games now, hijo,” the father said. “Porque cuando llegamos, playtime’s over.”
Rodrigo’s eyes widened, but he did not look up.
The boy dropped the game. “You think I’m stupid?”
“The way you act these days, no estoy seguro”
The father rubbed his forehead and gazed out at the bloom of sunrise. A dozen hues of red and pink and orange splashed the cloud-dappled sky. He thought back to when his son was young, when he still looked at his father the way the tourists view the Alamo. Rodrigo used to beg to come with him to work. This was when the father still managed the floor at the Big Red plant on Lasoya. The mother would stop by in their old Chevette and drop off a lunch of tortas or, when the temperature dipped, a thermos of menudo. Rodrigo would come too, and when the father wasn’t swamped with invoices, he took his son’s hand and gave him the tour. The plant was cavernous and echoed with the pops and whirrs of pneumatic machines, bustling as they topped-off bottles with fizzy red soda. The father pointed out the assembly line’s working parts—the filling powders, cappers and flame-sealed lids—teaching the boy to appreciate its order, its output. The father had for nine years worked there steady and without complaint. He was never sick and never late. On the afternoon when his wife went into labor, he stayed on shift until a supervisor heard the news and ordered him to leave early.
But those were las dais mas facil, before he learned that, in America, devotion to your job guarenteed nothing. At first whiff of a recession, the plant’s owners had shut down and reopened south of the border, in Reynosa, an hour’s drive from the father and mother’s hometown. After the layoff, life became a constant scramble. For less than five dollars an hour, the hard-up wage of an illegal, the father tarred roofs; while the mother drove the Chevette to faraway neighborhoods like Olmos Park and Terrill Hills, babysitting the children of lawyers and bankers, bleaching their toilets and scrubbing their floors. They ate canned pintos and tortillas de maiz, and when the summer sun made an oven of their apartment, they could not afford a/c. Mosquitoes buzzed through their unscreened windows. They slept unclothed and uncovered. They survived this way until the father tumbled from a rooftop and twisted his back. Stuck in bed and on a Tylenol diet, he could not work, and they could not make rent. A return to Mexico seemed inescapable. On the phone with the landlord, the father, humiliated, promised to one day make good on his debts. But the landlord, a fellow Tamaulipeco, cut him off and said he had an idea. His tio would soon reture as a janitor at Alamo Heights High School. He offered to make a call, see what he could do. The father and the mother waited and prayed until the phone rang the next afternoon. “Puedo ayudarte,” the landlord said. “I can help you.”
The Via exited at Hildebrand, miles south of the school. “Todo el mundo necesita un trabajo,” the father told Rodrigo. “You should feel lucky to have one.”
Rodrigo was lost in the pixels of his video game and did not answer.
The father wheezed out a sigh like air leaking from a busted tire. “Don’t you see that hard work makes a man, hijo? Isn’t that what we’ve taught you? Isn’t that what you want? To be a good man and a hard worker?”
At last the boy looked up from his game. A crop of newborn stubble sprouted about his chin and lips. “No me importa, papa,” he said. “I don’t care.”
When they de-bussed at Broadway and Brees, the temperature was already in the 90s. The air was damp, and the fifty-yard march to the school left both of them greased in sweat. Inside was cool and clean. Wall-sized windows set the building aglow and gave view to a grove of oaks and picnic tables.
“It’s nice, no?” the father asked. “¿Y sabes por que?”
“Why?” Rodrigo shrugged.
“Porque I work hard to keep it that way.”
Rodrigo followed his father into a closet marked ‘Custodian.’ The room was cramped and the Lysol-air stung his eyes, itched his skin. The father surveyed the shelves, humming as he inventoried the Mop-‘n’-Glo and the trash bags, the Windex and the urinal cakes. He told Rodrigo to think of this room as home base and tossed him a light blue work shirt that matched his own. As the boy changed, the father nodded, but then tugged on his ear. “Tambien el pendiente.” Rodrigo huffed and removed the zirconium stud. “Que guapo,” the father said. “Now I can give you the tour.”
He ushered the boy into the auditorium, showed him the two thousand seats he had reupholstered the summer before, and the multicolored bramble of overhead stage lights, whose every bulb cost nine hundred dollars and required a small crane to replace. Rodrigo shook his head, dumbfounded. All this, he thought, so some rich kids could goof around and pretend to act. They peeked next into the art and language wing, whose multimedia rooms the father called “Interactivo.” Rodrigo counted and saw that there were more gleaming flat-screens in one classroom here than in all of Southside ISD. He felt as if he had spent years in a dungeon and had been suddenly transported into a future age. Outside, upon seeing the football field’s forty-eight thousand square feet of Astroturf, Rodrigo’s mouth dropped as if unhinged. He squatted on his haunches, stroked the synthetic grass.
“This is nice enough for the Cowboys,” he said.
“Claro,” the father said. “They had a training camp here once.”
Rodrigo shook his head.
On their walk back to home base, they visited the main offices and met a man the father introduced as Mr. Sweeney. He was the vice-principal and wore a plaid button-up and a tie. His hair was a curly, graying brown. Dirt-colored splotches pocked his thin arms and made him seem older than he was. After greeting the father, he looked to Rodrigo and said, “And you must be our little troublemaker.”
Rodrigo’s cheeks burned red. That his father’s boss knew about the eggs and the spray paint made his stomach thump and turn like a pair of sneakers in the dryer. He wished to disappear.
To read the rest of Trabajar, purchase Zone 3 issue number 26.1, Spring 2011.