My non-fiction piece “Hacker” appears in bioStories.
Last day at the house. Their job’s done. Gustavo knows this even though the man didn’t say it when he met them at the door at eight with styrofoam cups of coffee and buttered Kaiser rolls wrapped in waxpaper.
On all the floors the paneling’s been torn down, appliances moved, ceiling’s scraped, walls demolished. The backyard cleaned up too. All that’s left is to clear out the remaining sheet rock and boards, bag and tie everything and carry it downstairs.
Tomorrow it’s back to the labor pool. The pool part of this always makes Gustavo think of a resort for workers even though the reality is quite the opposite. They’ll wait to get picked for a job. It’ll be for less money, Gustavo knows. Back to sixty-four a day instead of Manhattan wages with lunch included. How long will they have to wait to get on a crew that lasts a while? Gustavo’s blood rushes to his head and warms his cheeks. And if his work was worth a hundred a day to this man, who maybe doesn’t have a lot of it by the way New Yorkers judge each other, but sees its value and pays them what they asked for, then how much could it be worth to people who have a lot of it? The big people who hire ten or more men at a time to work a month or two or longer. Why do they pay less?
“It’s the same everywhere,” he told Uriel. This was a conversation they had on another job. “The more you have the more you take out of everyone.”
The problem’s been dogging them since they crossed the Rio Grande and when they failed to hitch rides took Greyhound to their cousins’ places, Gustavo to Mariella’s in Queens, Uriel to Emilio’s in Brooklyn; they need to make and save more money. Two thousand each. That’s what they’re expected to go back to San Vicente with and hand over to N.A.L.A. What they’ve been assigned to do while the war’s in limbo. A lot of cold, hard cash. Gustavo likes that phrase. Making money’s hard and cold. A lot of work at sixty-four a day. You have to depend on so many things to get enough of it, no days off and lots of extra hours. Saturdays and Sundays too. A hundred a day and they’d be heading back to San Vicente in two-thirds the time, like heroes returning from a victorious campaign. Or with even more cold cash if they stay longer.
“Deseo volar detrás,” Gustavo told Uriel. They were sitting in Mariella’s living room. He’d spread his arms and flapped them. “Seis horas y nosotros hay. Directo de Nuevo York.”
Mariella had kept Gustavo in her Midwood apartment for four months. She’d expected him to be there at least that much longer. She knew what he’d come to New York for, needed the three-hundred-fifty a month he gave her. With two children and two jobs that didn’t pay enough she’d miss it when he left, she told him every time he counted out the bills and handed them over. Three-hundred-fifty would be enough to rent an entire home in San Vicente. But everything in New York was so expensive, it made Gustavo wonder why so many wanted to come here when you needed to have so much? It wasn’t the land of gold as everyone said. Dollars didn’t come easy. Hard and cold was the way you got them.
They sweep up the second floor and shovel the piles into contractor bags. It’s all they have to do for the morning; like nothing to them, capable of much more.
At ten the man comes by with coffees. He’d yelled for them when he came in the downstairs door, like a parent does to tell the kids he or she’s around now.
When they heard him they sat up, assumed the appearance of being busy. Uriel pulled his headphones off. The man knew what had been going on. Saw what they’d done so far. They want to finish out the day so they’ll get the full hundred. Gustavo sees the twenties in his hands, crisp new bills out of the machine that stick together so he has to be careful he doesn’t pass off two at the store when he intends to give only one.
In the afternoon they fill more contractor bags so each weighs about thirty pounds as the man had asked.
“They won’t pick up anything too heavy,” he said about the men who were coming by the next day to take them.
They carry them down the flights of stairs to the front of the house and set them behind the bushes. They line them in rows, a checkerboard of black bags six across, six wide and two deep. That takes up the hours after lunch to break time.
The man brings them colas, more large plastic bottles he knows they like, twenty ounces of cold sweet liquid Gustavo drinks with gusto; construction dust has built a deep thirst he can’t satisfy with tap water.
They’re on the first floor, in the front where the three windows frame a row of connected brick homes across the street. Heavy gray clouds keep out the sun. He and Uriel sit on five gallon tubs of spackle.
The man leans against the door frame that opens to the hallway. He drinks coffee. Gustavo’s only seen him with a cola once and he hadn’t finished that. He wonders if it’s a drink that would please him if he’d marched for days in the jungle with N.A.L.A.? When it’s broiling hot and there’s nothing to drink. Humping all the equipment on his back, he’d want to kick himself. Would feel sweet bubbles wetting his dry tongue.
“This is it, all the work I have for you,” the man says.
“How many more days, mister?” Gustavo says. “Tres?”
“None, no more,” the man says. “I need the plumber and the electrician now. Sheet rockers. Sorry I have to let you go.”
Gustavo bends down. Old carpeting covers the floor, stained and dirty, the smell of dog and other things in it. He’s seen the man pull up corners of it here and there, ripping into the layers to expose the wide wood slats underneath.
“Senor, we take up,” he says. “Tomorrow we come to do this. Rest of week?”
“No, no, my floor guy will take care of it before he sands.”
“Last day?” Uriel says.
“Lo siento,” the man says. “Wish I could keep you for another month. You do nice work.” His voice surges. “I’ll pay your money when you’re done up here. It’s all that’s left.”