іQue lindo! - A Short Story
She rode the crowded escalator up to the movie theater, talking to herself in Spanish, giggling. Her nose and mouth were covered by a surgical mask. Dark brown sunglasses covered her eyes. Latex gloves, yellowed and pock marked by countless uses, were the second skin of her hands. She looked as if she were headed to an operating table where she’d sew a duck to cat.
In tow were her massive purse and two canvas grocery bags, all filled to overflowing with cleaning supplies, envelopes full of cash, and stolen pictures of her clients’ children.
I rode three or four steps behind her. “іQue lindo!” she exclaimed at a mother with child, passing us on the escalator going down. “So cute,” she said to me.
At the top, I put my hand on the small of her back and led her to the bowtied ticket taker. We were seeing a sneak preview of a new film that opened the following day, so instead of tickets, we had a promotional pass printed on glossy cardstock, admitting two. “How’s it going, man?” I asked the bowtied kid. He wasn’t one for eye contact or small talk. He ripped the pass in half and gave the ass end back to me.
“Ah, I see,” she said to no one in particular. “I see.”
This was a rare movie night for my wife and I. The movie was about southern black women working as maids for rich white folks in the early sixties, and because she was a minority and a maid, it seemed to me that she might empathize with the characters, and it might open conversation for us. I missed talking to her.
I led her to the concessions line. “¿Como se dice ‘popcorn’ en espanol?” I asked her.
She groaned. “Speak English.”
“Can’t learn unless I ask, right?”
“іQue lindo!” she exclaimed, distracted this time by a couple of toddlers. Some kids’ movie must have been letting out.
I stroked her hair, vying for her attention. “Popcorn?”
“Hrmph,” she guffawed. “We don’t have money.”
“Sure we do. I get paid tomorrow. Come on, popcorn completes the cinema experience.”
“Ah, I see.”
“You don’t want popcorn?”
“I want to pay rent.”
I sighed. I was exhausted.
In line for the movie with a hundred strangers, I said to her, “You know, before this mall was here on the levee, you could see the city skyline from that big house on the hill across the street. It’s a bar, you should know. I used to have drinks on the porch and enjoy the view with my friends.” I motioned at the art deco halls around me. “This monstrosity blocks that view now. I watched all the construction happen while I got drunk on the porch over there. Cool to have a movie theater and a bookstore in town now, though.”
She looked around like it was her first time indoors with artificial lighting. Every movie poster was worth a giggle or an admonishment in strict Catholic Spanish. “Que zorra,” she said, watching a laughing couple enter another movie.
I touched her elbow. “I’m talking to you, honey.”
“Ah, I see,” she said. “Tell me a story. Me debe pagar. Págame,” she giggled.
“Anyways,” I continued, “You know, Newport was Sin City before Las Vegas.”
“You lost all your money?” Security had begun letting folks into the theater, and the line inched forward. Other people in the line were noticing her and whispering. She was particularly bad that night.
“No, no, this was like, in the fifties.”
“Ah, I see.”
The line inched forward. “Yeah, because before the Civil War, this wasn’t an easy piece of land to get to, here in the valley, so it was a good place to hide from the law.”
She pretended that her pointer fingers were a couple of six shooters and made gun blast sounds, giggling, her bags swinging into the people in line next to her. The line inched forward. In her surgeon’s mask and sunglasses, she looked like a deranged villain from some zombie western. The line inched.
“Take it easy,” I said. “Sorry,” I said to the teenager behind her. She just looked at me.
To her, I said, “So, yeah, all these bad guys came here to hide. There was no bridge across the Ohio until the war, and by then, there was an outlaw civilization here. Vice, prostitution, gambling…” Inch. “This was the place to be.”
“Mirra!” she said, grabbing my arm. She pulled her mask down and pointed out a kid’s movie poster to me, something with colorful cartoon animals on it. “Aw, que lindo,” she said and then kissed me, soft, with love. “Te quiero. Te amo, mi amor.”
We were at the security table now. Three teenagers in ill-fitting navy blue suits were working security, taking cell phones from all of the potential pirates in line, tagging them, and putting them into a plastic bin. One of the teens, a blonde girl with acne, politely asked for her phone. “No, no. Tienes que pagar. It’s my phone.”
“Ma’am,” said the girl, “I… We’ll give it back to you after the movie.”
“It’s fine, it’s no big deal,” I said, handing over my own phone. The kid in line behind us, the one she had swung her bag into, sighed.
“¿Lo perra, no?” she asked me. To the blonde kid, she said, “You have to,” handing over her flip phone. “I’ll sue you for a million dollars.” She giggled and went through the theater doors ahead of me.
Inside, we climbed the stairs amidst the crowd, taking our seats by the aisle, about halfway up to the top. I started to sit, but she stopped me. “My love!” she exclaimed, digging in one of her bags. Her hand came out clutching a can of bugspray. “Bedbugs. Infestada.”
“For Christ's sake,” I said, my hand going to my eyes.
She sprayed my seat down and then moved on to hers, an over-compensating crop-duster taking flight. Behind us, an old lady coughed. Some young guy shouted, “What the fuck, man!”
I took her elbow. “Stop it.”
“You want bedbugs?”
“Stop it, honey. Sit down.” I sat.
She pulled up her surgeon’s mask over her mouth and nose again, giggling. “Ah, I see.” Looking around, noticing the crowd for the first time, she exclaimed, “My love, there are so many niggers here!”
My heart dropped.
An older man in front of us stopped in the process of sitting down and stared.
I said, “I’m so sorry.” He looked me over then turned around, whispered something to his wife. I reached out for my own wife’s hand, took it firmly, and said, “If you don’t sit down and shut up, I’m walking out, with or without you.”
She giggled and sat. The old man gave me a stern and knowing look and took his own seat.
At home, we climbed into our mattress on the floor of our bedroom as a storm sieged the city outside our apartment. She began to cry softly. I pulled the covers up over my shoulders and put my arm around her.
“Don’t touch me!” she cried, throwing my arm away.
It was the last straw. I couldn’t take it anymore. All of the measured restraint I had been practicing collapsed. “Fuck it!” I threw the blankets aside and said, “Fine then! Fuck it! Fuck you too!” and clambered up to my feet to go sleep on the couch.
“No!” she called after me. “Don’t leave me, Wayne!”
I stood between the mattress and the bedroom door, seething. Outside, the storm raged.
“I don’t know what to do for you.”
“Come back to bed, mi amore,” she whined.
I did. I left some space between us as I made myself comfortable. She cried softly to herself. I said, “Everything’s okay. It’s alright. What’s wrong? What’s got you so worked up?”
“The construction workers.”
“What construction workers?”
“You don’t hear them trying to get in the window?”
“Honey, we’re on the second floor, and it’s storming outside. No one is trying to get in our window.”
“You don’t see the ghosts?”
I tried to put my arm around her again.
“No,” she said, but she didn’t fight it.
“Honey,” I pleaded, “Take your medicine. Just swallow your pill and this will all go away.”
“No, it won’t,” she said. “Mirra!” she wailed, pointing at the ceiling. “Mirra, Wayne!”
Now I was crying. “There’s nothing there, my love.”
“La fantasmas,” she insisted. “Están en nuestra habitación.”
I held her close to me. “Take the medicine, my love.”
It went on like that for the better part of another year, if you can believe it. There was to be no bridge built to cross that River. I had to escape the valley on foot.