Unemployed, unable to send money to her children in Honduras, Lourdes takes the one job available: work as a fichera at a Long Beach bar called El Mar Azul Bar #1. It has two pool tables, a long bar with vinyl stools, and a red-and-blue neon façade.
Lourdes's job is to sit at the bar, chat with patrons, and encourage them to keep buying grossly overpriced drinks for her. Her first day is filled with shame. She imagines that her brothers are sitting at the bar, judging her. What if someone she knows walks into the bar, recognizes her, and word somehow gets back to
Lourdes's mother in Honduras? Lourdes sits in the darkest corner of the bar and begins to cry.
"What am I doing here?" she asks herself. "Is this going to be my life?" For nine months, she spends night after night patiently listening to drunken men talk about their problems, how they miss their wives and children left behind in Mexico.
A friend helps Lourdes get work cleaning oil refinery offices and houses by day and ringing up gasoline and cigarette sales at a gas station at night. Lourdes drops her daughter off at school at 7 A.M., cleans all day, picks Diana up at 5 P.M., drops her at a babysitter, then goes back to work until 2 A.M. She fetches Diana and collapses into bed. She has four hours to sleep.
Some of the people whose houses she cleans are kind. One woman in Redondo Beach always cooks Lourdes lunch and leaves it on the stove for her. Another woman offers,
"Anything you want to eat, there is the fridge." Lourdes tells both, "God bless you."
Others seem to revel in her humiliation. One woman in posh Palos Verdes demands that she scrub her living room and kitchen floors on her knees instead of with a mop. It
exacerbates her arthritis. She walks like an old lady some days. The cleaning liquids cause her skin to slough off her knees, which sometimes bleed. The woman never offers Lourdes a glass of water.
There are good months, though, when she can earn $1,000 to $1,200 cleaning offices and homes. She takes extra jobs, one at a candy factory for $2.25 an hour. Besides the cash for
Enrique, every month she sends $50 each to her mother and Belky.
Those are her happiest moments, when she can wire money. Her greatest dread is when there is no work and she
can't. That and random gang shootings. "La muerte nunca te avisa cuando viene," Lourdes says.
"Death never announces when it is going to come." A small park near her apartment is a gang hangout. When Lourdes returns home in the middle of the night, gangsters come up and ask for money. She always hands over three dollars, sometimes five. What would happen to her children if she died?
The money Lourdes sends is no substitute for her presence. Belky, now nine, is furious about the new baby. Their mother might lose interest in her and Enrique, and the baby will make it harder to wire money and save so she can bring them north.
"How can she have more children now?" Belky asks.
For Enrique, each telephone call grows more strained. Because he lives across town, he is not often lucky enough to be at
Mar'a Edelmira's house when his mother phones. When he is, their talk is clipped and anxious. Quietly, however, one of these conversations plants the seed of an idea. Unwittingly, Lourdes sows it herself.
"When are you coming home?" Enrique asks. She avoids an answer. Instead, she promises to send for him very soon.
It had never occurred to him: If she will not come home, then maybe he can go to her. Neither he nor his mother realizes it, but this kernel of an idea will take root. From now on, whenever Enrique speaks to her, he ends by saying,
"I want to be with you."
"Come home," Lourdes's own mother begs her on the telephone. "It may only be beans, but you always have food here." Pride forbids it. How can she justify leaving her children if she returns empty-handed? Four blocks from her
mother's place is a white house with purple trim. It takes up half a block behind black iron gates. The house belongs to a woman whose children went to Washington, D.C., and sent her the money to build it. Lourdes cannot afford such a house for her mother, much less herself.
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