No Tengo a Nadie (Pushcart Prize Nominated Fiction)

alone-764926_1920“No Tengo a Nadie” was first featured in the Castaway issue in November.

He runs.

He’s made the mistake of walking alone near the junkyard, after sunset, and come upon the dogs. Usually, a deftly thrown rock or self-assured shout will discourage them, but this time the lateness of the day lends desperation to their enterprise. Or, perhaps, like the bigger boys who tormented him, these predators sense that he is weaker, and easier game. Two things, he knows, will save him: his speed, and his awareness that they tended to tire—and lose interest—almost immediately. The solidarity of the pack was not sufficient; they were, he knew, at heart craven and without will.

 

(Always, he has been running. He ran with pleasure as a child, faster than the others, his speed compensating for the brawn he lacked. He ran in his bare feet through the sharp, sun-scorched grass and the dusty red dirt, always familiar and warm, pulsating and alive on his skin.

Later, he ran to avoid pain. As he grew older, peligro presented itself in so many semblances, it was impossible to confront head on. It was wiser, and safer, to learn quickly the necessity of running from things instead of toward them. Sometimes he ran from the other boys, who knew he had no older brother to protect him; other times he ran from his father who, he knew, was simply transferring the aggression and frustrations that were siphoned onto him out in the coffee fields, where fists ended disputes and settled grievances.

He ran and would fancy himself running, over the hills of his countryside, away from the shacks and the unhappy adults tending their land—away from everything.)

 

He runs, but the dogs are able to keep pace, drawing close enough that he can feel the dampness of their muzzles. As he glances over his shoulder, the dogs seem to smile, their bared teeth dropping saliva on the sand. And for the first time, his fear is supplanted by a different, not unpleasant ambivalence: the resigned compulsion to lie down. To stop running equals death, but does it not also mean being free? Too late, he thinks as he is dragged down among and between them, lost in the repugnant pleasure of their famished mouths.

 

***

He wakes up with the pulsating pain: the sharp stabbing at the soles of his feet, the sluggish pressure on his back, the cumbersome burden of his body. Sometimes, when he is unable to will himself to sleep, he utilizes the bottle which waits beside his bed, like a well-read bible. This uneasy elixir eventually induces a fitful slumber, which he will pay for the following morning. That is his routine when, even after fourteen hours standing in one spot, his body screams for sleep but his mind is alive and insatiable, twisting around itself with thoughts and worries. He is afraid of everyone because he is unable to entirely trust anybody. He has always found it best to go his own way, and he is content to trust silence as his strength. But sometimes this is not enough, not in los Estados Unidos.

 

The first fear, of course, involves the papers: an ID, a social security number. These things can be arranged, must be arranged. All taken care of, by other people whom you do not need to know. You do need to know someone who can help negotiate with these people, all of whom operate underground. No promises are given, all you can cling to is the knowledge that others have come before you, gotten what they needed. Then, one day a green card appears. Like magic: to the untrained or unsuspecting eye, it all looks autentico, a license to work anywhere they are willing to hire you. Many of these wizards make their livings exclusively from this practice, which results in a product that is efficient and effective. And expensive. The money a successful transaction costs is unimaginable, utterly out of the realm of reasonable possibility. Nevertheless, you find a way to secure the resources, aware that it means the difference between a decent job and picking strawberries in a sweltering field for $2.50 an hour, or whatever the hijo de puta can get away with paying. (Washing dishes, for instance, is a good job, particularly in light of the alternative options, such as the uncertainties involved with construction work, or moving furniture, or washing windows two hundred feet above the ground, all outdoors, all day, in summer and winter).

With your papeles you have no voice and you are no one. Without them you are less than that.

 

Two jobs, the same job. The same work at two workplaces. A necessary and normal routine, because none of the employers are interested in paying overtime. The better jobs, in the better restaurants (where they will provide you with plastic gloves, apron and a free meal each shift) do not come easily. Even if you are fortunate enough to find one, or make the connections necessary to get considered for one, there is always the fear of being replaced: you are easily expendable since the supply considerably outweighs the demand. So you work.

The day he became dizzy after sweating through two shirts, and began coughing up the thick phlegm which had congealed in his chest (one was constantly battling head colds and flu-bugs, among the variety of ailments so easily exchanged in a restaurant, particularly when handling soiled utensils and dishes, effectively becoming human fly-paper for any of the germs that clung to you) he kept swallowing aspirin until he was able to convince himself that the fever had subsided. Or the time he cut his fingers while attempting to unclog the drain, (an incident that might have resulted in legitimate compensation if he had the interest or inclination to pursue it, which he did not) he was obliged to wrap both hands with tape, like a boxer, before putting on his industrial strength gloves to ensure that the highly concentrated cleaning solutions did not seep into his sores.

 

He even washes dishes while he sleeps.

Of all the dreams, this one is most persistent: as he struggles to keep pace, he hears the clatter of plates being stacked, one pile atop another, and the harsh, muffled voices of the pendejo waiters, who relentlessly bring armful after armful, cursing him for moving too slowly. The faster he works, the more there is, impossibly, each time he turns around. Mas. Always, mas.

Or else he is vexed by recurring memories of the random brutalities he’d grown too accustomed to witnessing in his country. Frequently, it is the singular image of a face disappearing in an explosion of gunfire. Sometimes this face is his wife’s, or his son’s. Mostly it is no one in particular. Just another face.

 

***

He runs.

This time it’s los negros. When the weather turns warm and the nights longer, there are usually clusters of them huddled under the streetlights of his apartment complex. But sometimes they lurk, under cover of the summer evening, and appear, shouting scornful threats—words he may not know, but always understands.

Give me some money spic-ass motherfucker.

Usually, the older ones just laugh, and are content to insult him. He is much more wary—and afraid—of the young ones, the delinquentes, because like the wild dogs, they came at you in packs, brazen when they outnumbered you. Then it could be dangerous. So he runs.

Despite standing for so long in the same spot all day, every day, he is still quick. And this saves him. But with his sodden boots and greasy pants he seems to move at half-speed. It is nothing more than the genuine, familiar fear of being caught—just as it was when he was a boy—that saves him.

***

From his cramped corner in the sweltering kitchen, he grabs another steel pan—the same one might get scrubbed clean thirty times in a single evening—and gently places it in the sanitizing solution, always a numbing, not unpleasant sensation after the steaming mess of filthy water. It does not take long for the feeling to leave your hands if you left them too long in the cold, deceptively soothing water, as he discovered once while emptying a drain clogged with broken glass. He didn’t feel a thing until he pulled his shredded hands out into the warm air and saw the blood bubbling through the holes in his rubber gloves.

The waiters come and go, dropping off stacks of plates and then disappearing again, never showing a drop of sweat or a stain on their stiffly-starched shirts. He catches himself gazing enviously at their stylish black shoes, then down at his own ragged boots, which are soaked, as usual, from standing all evening in the same stagnant puddle that collects overflowing water from the oil-slicked sink. He feels it coming and shuts his eyes, resisting the vision that rolls familiarly, inexorably into his mind:

Someday he is a different man. He is jefe, not empleado, and he smokes an expensive cigar at the end of each evening. He no longer wears work boots, only soft leather shoes without laces. He communicates freely and easily, no longer an extranjero illegal, a scared stranger forever on the outside: outside time, outside himself. He asks for nothing because finally, for once, he needs no one.

            Then, as quickly as it came, the reverie is over. He opens his eyes and watches it slip into the steam that rises from the scalding sink, up and out of reach.

 

He does not understand, or exert any effort attempting to make sense of, the money which is removed from his paychecks every other week. Taxes, he knows, are neither fair nor unfair—they simply are. He is oblivious, or indifferent to the fact that the waiters, who make more than twice his salary, manage to pay less than half the taxes.

He does understand, and is grateful for, the air conditioning that comes without question, like a door or a toilet, in each workplace. This is one of the miracles of the new country that one needed to experience in order to appreciate, and believe. Of course, there is little comfort felt in the oppressive air of the kitchen; but simply knowing that this frigid relief exists makes it easy—and imperative—to remember a world without such wonders.

He does not understand how the towering wooden poles, which seemingly stand guard over every street, are capable of harnessing, and generating such impossible energy. This invisible mystery, which provides light and power, and can transport peoples’ voices from one place to the next, represents a crucible of communication that is impenetrable and, for him, inaccessible. He does not question this.

He understands that in America, for him, Monday equals Tuesday equals Wednesday equals Thursday equals Friday equals Saturday.

He understands—and it didn’t take long for him to realize—that here, appearance counts for so much. It is everything. And like money and muscle, it is power, serving to separate those that have it from those who do not. The waiters are a constant reminder of this: all thin, clean, with perfect white teeth. If there is occasion for interaction, none of them—even the usually affable ones—are able to completely conceal their mostly vague, sometimes palpable, discomfort. When they shake his hand, they do so lightly, rarely looking him in the eye. They never stand close to him, as they do amongst each other. The gringas especially, always smiling and talking loud and slow, the way one would speak with a small child. Also, the way they seem aware of their bodies and proceed cautiously around the kitchen staff, the back of the house, as they are all called. At these times he is conscious of himself, and the knowledge that he is not an attractive man. Ill-luck, circumstance, and the strains of life have conspired to make him appear significantly older than he actually is, and his invisible burdens have pressed long enough on his back to bestow a permanent slouch. The choices he has forced himself to make have given him the chance for a real life, but in return have robbed him of his youth.

And, above all, he understands this: No tengo a nadie—I have no one.

***

He sees himself, in the darkness, high above the ground, alone on a decaying ladder, looking unsteadily beneath him at the splintered rungs which spiral away and out of sight. He is afraid to look up, but as time passes his eyes grow accustomed to a feeble light that illuminates the sudden commotion below: he can discern distant shapes climbing toward him—a cacophony of discordant voices. As he stares, the shapes slowly become solid figures and he can eventually identify their shaded faces, and mouths, which open and shut in an urgent, synchronous signal. They quickly cut the distance, moving with renewed vigor as they spot him—thousands upon thousands of them, filling the space and creating a bulwark between him and the nothingness below. Unnerved, he begins to scale the ladder, but in the shuffle he slips as a hand reaches up and grabs at his foot. He looks down at the face, a face he recognizes and a face he suddenly fears: he fears it will speak even though he knows what it will say. Impulsively, he secures his grip and brings his boot down forcefully, watching as the body drops away, disappearing into the darkness.

***

He has never seen blood like that, not even the time the chef was chopping veal shanks and cut clean through the bone of his finger. It was all but inevitable—when your environment consisted of water, soap, grease, wet food and a soaked floor—that at some point an accident would occur. It didn’t have to be anything as dramatic as an errant knife, or a scalding pot touched with bare hands. It could be as random and unexciting as what just happened to him: a broken beer bottle slicing through the trash bag being carried to the dumpster, following gravity and bad luck to a vein in the palm of your blistered hand. A chef, of course, can still work in a limited role while his bandaged finger heals. Or, if need be, he can take the time off—with pay—until he is able to resume control of his kitchen. This is a luxury not available to the dishwasher, who necessarily has his hands almost ceaselessly submerged in soiled water. The dishwasher is expendable for all the reasons the chef is not. This is why he had actually cried; not because of the pain, but because he feared this mishap would result in the loss of his job, just as it has been another’s misfortune that had expedited his current position. He insisted that if they wrapped a plastic bag around his wrist with electrical tape he’d be able to continue. But even before arriving at the emergency room he was lightheaded from the blood he’d already lost. As the shock began to wear off, the real pain started to settle in, like heavy clouds following a flash of lightning.

***

He is scared.

He opens his eyes and looks down at the same blood-stained clothes he’d left the hospital wearing. He’s remained motionless on the bed, drifting in and out of a torpid slumber, alternately sweating and shivering. It might only have been a few moments since he’d put his head down. Or it could have been hours, or days. He reaches over for his bottle and sees that it is empty, although he does not recall touching it. This is bad. The large white tablets, which are supposed to get him through the week, are already half-gone. His body feels heavy and warm, detached from him. But the pain, temporarily subdued by the medicine, is hovering around his hand, waiting, like a thief on the other side of the door. Suddenly cold, he pulls the damp blanket around himself and remembers the first time he saw the snow.

 

It was nothing at all like he’d expected.

He’d heard how parts of los Estados Unidos got frigid enough to make the rain turn soft and white, so he greatly anticipated this minor miracle the day the clouds finally hovered heavy and close. He’d sat at his window for over an hour, enraptured by the trees and ground slowly becoming smaller, gradually disappearing. After a while he had ventured outside, half-expecting the glistening powder to support his weight.

Almost immediately, his feet were soaked and freezing, while the snow, which had appeared so integrated and peaceful, now swirled around his face in broken sheets of blankness. He ran blindly, eventually stopping beneath the looming utility line, its wires humming in the darkness above. Whether on account of the crowded air, or the abrupt and disorienting effects of the storm, this edifice, which had inspired such awe, seemed somehow less spectacular to him now. With its mighty, metallic arms stretched to their limits on either side, stoically bearing the accumulation of snowfall, it more than slightly resembled a lethargic man, not the impervious instrument of his design. The enigmatic power of this machine, with all its churning electricity, was something he feared; and yet, it was nothing he wanted any greater intimacy with. Neither the burden of its pain, nor the profits of its oppression were his. Calmed by this cognizance, he was able to look away, and retrace his steps back toward the shelter he’d never until now considered his home.

***

Once again running.

But this time there are no dogs, no strangers, nothing. There is no one following him, somehow. As he runs, he begins to sense a certain, strange weightlessness he has never known. He realizes he is wearing no boots: his feet are bare, like they always used to be, feeling the warm soil between his toes.

He runs, not afraid, not in danger; there is, for once, no peligro. Neither toward nor away from anything. He runs because he is warm and weightless and this moment won’t end as long as he does not stop running. He doesn’t want to stop so he continues on, weightless and warm.

He runs.

 

SEAN MURPHY has been publishing fiction, reviews (of music, movie, book, food), and essays on the technology industry for almost twenty years. He has appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and been quoted in USA Today, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Forbes and AdAge. In addition, he is an associate editor at The Weeklings, where he contributes a monthly column. He writes regularly for PopMatters, and his work has also appeared in Punchnel’s, The Village Voice, The Good Men Project, All About Jazz, AlterNet, Web Del Sol, Elephant Journal and Northern Virginia Magazine. He is the recipient of a Noepe Center for Literary Arts Writer Residency. Murphy‘s best-selling memoir PLEASE TALK ABOUT ME WHEN I’M GONE was released in 2013. His novel NOT TO MENTION A NICE LIFE was published in June 2015.