There Is Always More Work to be Done
Myra Ailing knows it's him even before she sees his worn leather boots pointing up from behind the dumpster: the pint-sized Mexican the other bums refer to as Jose. It's eleven in the a.m.-minutes before the Friday lunch hour rush. Myra's husband, Ben, is on the phone arguing with their accountant. Her three full-grown boys-Will, Jerry and Ben, Jr.-are gallivanting about town, late for work. Once again the task of clearing the riff-raff from the El Sombrero's alley has fallen upon her shoulders.
"What is it with these men today?" Myra thinks as she gazes upon this spectacle of a man asleep on a bed of wilted lettuce and crushed cardboard boxes.
An irate Pasquale Produce Supply delivery driver had told her he'd "nearly crushed the crazy little Mexican bastard!" while backing up his vehicle. El bufon del loco! Jose, the crazy clown. He is deaf and mute, new to the downtown Republic hobo scene. But already he has achieved talk of the town status for his improvisational displays of magic and theatre: climbing precariously atop an upturned garbage can like a circus elephant, releasing a flock of pigeons from the inside of his coat, lying spread-eagled on his back puffing up his neck and body in imitation of a frog in distress.
Myra thinks he does not appear much in distress now: eyeballs softly fluttering behind closed eyelids, an impish grin on his oddly handsome face. She has seen him from a distance-crouching with a bagged bottle in the brick doorway of the boarded-up American Legion building next door-but never this close up. He is not much larger than an overgrown boy. But, unlike a boy, his body seems made of all muscle and sinew. The strong brown hands laced across his chest are criss-crossed with scars. His clothes are filthy with identifiable and unidentifiable stains, the soles of his boots reinforced with cardboard, held together with duct tape and electrical wire. Yet in spite of his unseemly appearance there is something disarming about him: something which causes Myra to put down the 5-gallon bucket of hot water and soap suds she has lugged with her to rouse this Lazarus from his slumber.
"My own three bums-and husband, too!"
Myra is furious over how much of the work and trouble of running a restaurant has fallen into her hands. She rubs the small of her back to ease the ache of carrying the heavy bucket, checks to see if any of the soapy water-with a healthy splash of bleach-has slopped over onto her shoes and slacks.
She shakes her head at the irony that her and Ben had moved to his mid-sized eastern Washington city to shelter their then teenage sons from the evils of San Francisco-only to wind up opening a restaurant in the red light district of this new town, next door to a porn theatre and a tavern known to sell more beer and cheap wine than any joint in Republic! From this rear lot her sons have witnessed bags of cocaine being trafficked from one car to another while Republic Police Department cruisers idle across the alley: shielding the transactions. They've come to the aide of prostitutes left broken-jawed and bleeding against the back bricks of her building. One of her sons, Will, has gone to the emergency room for stitches on a cut received while attempting to break up a fight amongst hobos-in which a large metal pipe was brought down on the head of one man by a gang of six assailants. They've been exposed to more vice and crime and corruption in this "All-American" city of Republic than they ever would have back in their working family neighborhood in San Francisco.
All because of one act of improvidence: her husband, Ben, insisting on this site for their family-run business because of the cheap price.
"A steal!" he had called it.
Myra's jaw tightens; her eyes narrow. She hoists the bucket once more: knowing that everything in this life comes with a price.
Some of the bleached suds have slopped over onto her pant leg. How distracted she feels today! How utterly exhausted: and her day has hardly begun. She steadies herself, then the bucket, holding its bottom with her other hand. She is on the verge of dousing the sleeping man when, with a start, she sees that he is already awake.
"For heaven's sake!"
Again she sloshes suds onto herself, this time upon her shoes.
The Mexican is still flat on his back, but his eyes are open and staring into the blue abyss overhead. He has kaleidoscopic eyes: sky blue, with flecks of yellow and green circling the pupils. They are beautiful eyes. They seem wildly out of place amidst the filth of the alley: the avocado rinds and broken glass and leaves of lettuce that form a wreath around his head. They have a wholly unnerving effect on Myra. Where has she seen these eyes before? First she thinks of her own blue-eyed sons. Then, with a chill, she recognizes the eyes of her long dead father. Her father: an Austrian immigrant who'd left the Old Country and his middle-class life there after World War I to eventually raise a family of seven children on the wild Saskatchewan plains of Canada. Her father: a small man of the same build as this Mexican, a few inches taller, and a few pounds heavier. Even the same impish grin.
Myra puts down her bucket of hot water. Her hands, her arms, her whole body is shaking as she helps Jose to his feet.
"Get up, Jose! Go now!" she says, out of habit-forgetting, for a moment, that he is deaf.
Jose staggers to his feet, stomping his boots beneath him as though attempting to rid them of snow. He trips and stumbles hard into the dumpster, then rights himself-standing bolt upright like a soldier at attention. He smiles at Myra: his teeth nearly as bright as his eyes. He tips an imaginary cap towards her, bows, and then shuffles on his way.
Myra sighs. She feels the sting of hot tears on her face, and wipes at them with the back of her wrist. She is overwhelmed with a strange sadness as she watches Jose maneuver past the parked cars and pot-holes of the Sombrero's rear lot like a small boat cut free of its mooring. Her sadness brings a kind of joy when, for a moment, she is no longer in this downtown Republic alley, but is with her father and brothers again in a Saskatchewan hayfield:
They have taken a break from working the fields. Her father is seated on a square bale of hay, and has unbuttoned the black vest he wears over his work shirt-even in this August heat. The tall poplar trees, which grow along the southern boundary of their property, offer shade. With pleasure Myra watches her father remove his deerhorn pipe from an inside pocket of his vest. He lights up. A second time he commands his hardest working child, Myra, to stop stacking bales and "Sit!" She does, resting beside her father while her brothers wrestle and poke at each other on hay bales across from them. Her father puffs a time or two more on his pipe. Then he turns to her-with those dazzling eyes-and kindly scolds:
"Myra! Be still, little daughter! There is always more work to be done!"
Dave Barrett teaches writing at the University of Montana's College of Technology in Missoula. His fiction has appeared in the South Dakota Review, Chariton Review, Weave, Prism Review and other print journals. He is currently at work on a novel set in Republic.