THE BARBARIAN NURSERIESA Novel
By Héctor Tobar
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLCCopyright © 2011 Héctor Tobar
All right reserved.
Chapter OneScott Torres was upset because the lawn mower wouldn't start, because no matter how hard he pulled at the cord, it didn't begin to roar. His exertions produced only a brief flutter of the engine, like the cough of a sick child, and then an extended silence filled by the buzzing of two dragonflies doing figure eights over the uncut St. Augustine grass. The lawn was precocious, ambitious, eight inches tall, and for the moment it could entertain jungle dreams of one day shading the house from the sun. The blades would rise as long as he pulled at the cord and the lawn mower coughed. He gripped the cord's plastic handle, paused and leaned forward to gather breath and momentum, and tried again. The lawn mower roared for an instant, spit a clump of grass from its jutting black mouth, and stopped. Scott stepped back from the machine and gave it the angry everyman stare of fatherliness frustrated, of a handyman being unhandy.
Araceli, his Mexican maid, watched him from the kitchen window, her hands covered with a white bubble-skin of dishwater. She wondered if she should tell el señor Scott the secret that made the lawn mower roar. When you turned a knob on the side of the engine, it made starting the machine as easy as pulling a loose thread from a sweater. She had seen Pepe play with this knob several times. But no, she decided to let el señor Scott figure it out himself. Scott Torres had let Pepe and his chunky gardener's muscles go: she would allow this struggle with the machine to be her boss's punishment.
El señor Scott opened the little cap on the mower where the gas goes in, just to check. Yes, it has gas. Araceli had seen Pepe fill it up that last time he was here, on that Thursday two weeks ago when she almost wanted to cry because she knew she would never see him again.
Pepe never had any problems getting the lawn mower started. When he reached down to pull the cord it caused his bicep to escape his sleeve, revealing a mass of taut copper skin that hinted at other patches of skin and muscle beneath the old cotton shirts he wore. Araceli thought there was art in the stains on Pepe's shirts; they were an abstract expressionist whirlwind of greens, clayish ocher, and blacks made by grass, soil, and sweat. A handful of times she had rather boldly brought her lonely fingertips to these canvases. When Pepe arrived on Thursdays, Araceli would open the curtains in the living room and spray and wipe the squeaky clean windows just so she could watch him sweat over the lawn and imagine herself nestled in the protective cinnamon cradle of his skin: and then she would laugh at herself for doing so. I am still a girl with silly daydreams. Pepe's disorderly masculinity broke the spell of working and living in the house and when she saw him in the frame of the kitchen window she could imagine living in the world outside, in a home with dishes of her own to wash, a desk of her own to polish and fret over, in a room that wasn't borrowed from someone else.
Araceli enjoyed her solitude, her apartness from the world, and she liked to think of working for the Torres-Thompson family as a kind of self-imposed exile from her previous, directionless life in Mexico City. But every now and then she wanted to share the pleasures of this solitude with someone and step outside her silent California existence, into one of her alternate daydream lives: she might be a midlevel Mexican government functionary, one of those tough, big women with a mean sense of humor and a leonine, rust-tinted coiffure, ruling a little fiefdom in a Mexico City neighborhood; or she might be a successful artist or maybe an art critic. Pepe figured in many of her fantasies as the quiet and patient father of their children, who had chic Aztec names such as Cuitlahuac and Xbchitl. In these extended daydreams Pepe was a landscape architect, a sculptor, and Araceli herself was ten kilos thinner, about the weight she had been before coming to the United States, because her years in California had not been kind to her waistline.
All of her Pepe reveries were over now. They were preposterous but they were hers, and their sudden absence felt like a kind of theft. Instead of Pepe she had el señor Scott to look at, wrestling with the lawn mower and the cord that made it start. At last, Scott discovered the little knob. He began to make adjustments and he pulled at it again. His arms were thin and oatmeal-colored; he was what they called here "half Mexican," and after twenty minutes in the June sun his forearms, forehead, and cheeks were the glowing crimson of McIntosh apples. Once, twice, and a third time el señor Scott pulled at the cord, turning the knob a little more each time, until the engine began to kick, sputter, and roar. Soon the air was green with flying grass, and Araceli watched the corner of her boss's lips rise in quiet satisfaction. Then the engine stopped, the sound muffled in an instant, because the blade choked on too much lawn.
Neither of her bosses informed Araceli beforehand of the momentous news that she would be the last Mexican working in this house. Araceli had two bosses, whose surnames were hyphenated into an odd, bilingual concoction: Torres-Thompson. Oddly, la señora Maureen never called herself "Mrs. Torres," though she and el señor Scott were indeed married, as Araceli had discerned on her first day on the job from the wedding pictures in the living room and the identical gold bands on their fingers. Araceli was not one to ask questions, or to allow herself to be pulled into conversation or small talk, and her dialogues with her jefes were often austere affairs dominated by the monosyllabic "Yes," "Sí," and, occasionally, "No." She lived in their home twelve days out of every fourteen, but was often in the dark when new chapters opened in the Torres-Thompson family saga: for example, Maureen's pregnancy with the couple's third child, which Araceli found out about only because of her jefa's repeated vomiting one afternoon.
"Senora, you are sick. I think my enchiladas verdes are too strong for you. ¿Que no?"
"No, Araceli. It's not the green sauce. I'm going to have a baby. Didn't you know?"
Money was supposedly the reason why Pepe and Guadalupe departed. Araceli found out late one Wednesday morning two weeks earlier, following an animated conversation in the backyard between la señora Maureen and Guadalupe that Araceli witnessed through the sliding glass doors of the living room. When their conversation ended, Guadalupe walked into the living room to announce to Araceli curtly, "I'm going to look for some chinos to work for. They can afford to pay me something decent, not the centavos these gringos want to give me." Guadalupe was a fey mexicana with long braids and a taste for embroidered Oaxacan blouses and overwrought indigenous jewelry, and also a former university student like Araceli. Now her eyes were reddened from crying, and her small mouth twisted with a sense of betrayal. "After five years, they should be giving me a raise. But instead they want to cut my pay; that's how they reward my loyalty." Araceli looked out the living room windows to see la señora Maureen also wiping tears from her eyes. "La señora knows I was like a mother to her boys," Guadalupe said, and it was one of the last things Araceli heard from her.
So now there was only Araceli, alone with el señor Scott, la señora Maureen, and their three children, in this house on a hill high above the ocean, on a cul-de-sac absent of pedestrians or playing children, absent of traffic, absent of the banter of vendors and policemen. It was a street of long silences. When the Torres Thompsons and their children left on their daily excursions, Araceli would commune alone with the home and its sounds, with the kick and purr of the refrigerator motor, and the faint whistle of the fans hidden in the ceiling. It was a home of steel washbasins and exotic bathroom perfumes, and a kitchen that Araceli had come to think of as her office, her command center, where she prepared several meals each day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and assorted snacks and baby "feedings." A single row of Talavera tiles ran along the peach-colored walls, daisies with blue petals and bronze centers. After she'd dried the last copper-tinged saucepan and placed it on a hook next to its brothers and sisters, Araceli performed the daily ritual of running her hand over the tiles. Her fingertips transported her, fleetingly, to Mexico City, where these porcelain squares would be weatherbeaten and cracked, decorating gazebos and doorways. She remembered her long walks through the old seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century streets, a city built of ancient lava stone and mirrored glass, a colonial city and an Art Deco city and a Modernist city all at once. In her solitude her thoughts would wander from Mexico City to the various other stops on her life journey, a string of encounters and misfortunes that would eventually and inevitably circle back to the present. Now she lived in an American neighborhood where everything was new, a landscape vacant of the meanings and shadings of time, each home painted eggshell-white by association rule, like featureless architect models plopped down by human hands on a stretch of empty savanna. Araceli could see the yellow clumps of vanquished meadows hiding in the unseen spaces around the Torres-Thompson home, blades sprouting up by the trash cans and the massive air-conditioning plant, and in the rectangles cut into the sidewalk where young, man-sized trees grew.
When Araceli stood before the living room picture window and stared out at the expanse of the ocean a mile or two in the distance, she could imagine herself on that unspoiled hillside of wild grasses. Several times each day, she walked out of the kitchen and into the living room to study the horizon, a hazy line where the gray-blue of the sea seeped into a cloudless sky. Then the shouts and screams of the two Torres-Thompson boys and the intermittent crying of their baby sister returned her to the here and now.
When there were three mexicanos working in this house they could fill the workday hours with banter and gossip. They made fun of el señor Scott and his very bad pocho accent when he tried to speak Spanish and tried to guess how it was that such an awkward and poorly groomed man had found himself paired with an ambitious North American wife. Guadalupe, the nanny, cooed over the baby, Samantha, and played with Keenan and the older boy, Brandon. It was Guadalupe who taught the boys to say things like buenas tardes and muchas gracias. Araceli, the housekeeper and cook, was in charge of the bathrooms and kitchen, the vacuum cleaners and dishrags, the laundry and the living room. And Pepe, with the hands that kept the huge leaves of the elephant plant erect, that made the cream-colored ears of the calla lilies bloom, and the muscles that kept the lawn respectably short. They filled the house with Spanish repartee, Guadalupe teasing Araceli about how handsome Pepe was, Araceli responding with double entendres that always seemed to go right over Pepe's head.
"Your machine is so powerful, it can cut anything!"
"Es que time mucho horsepower."
"Yes, I can see how much power there is in all those horses of yours.
Pepe was a magician, a da Vinci of gardeners, worth twice what they paid him. How long would the orange beaks of the heliconias in the backyard open to the sky without Pepe's thick, smart fingers to bring them to life? The money situation must be very bad. Why else would el señor Scott be outside in this white sun, burning his fair skin? The idea that these people would be short of money made little sense to her. But why else would Maureen be changing the baby's diapers herself, and looking exasperated at the boys because they were playing on their electronic toys too long? Guadalupe, the aspiring schoolteacher, was no longer there to distract them with those games they played, outside on the grass with soap bubbles, or inside the house with Mexican lottery cards, the boys calling out "El corazón," "El catrín," and "¡Loteria!" in Spanish. Through the picture window in the living room, Araceli studied el señor Scott as he struggled to push the mower over the far edge of the lawn where it dropped off into a steep slope. Toro said the bag on the side of the lawn mower. No wonder el señor Scott was having so much trouble: the lawn mower was a bull! Only Pepe, in a gleaming bullfighter's uniform, with golden epaulets, could tease the Toro forward.
Araceli made el señor Scott a lemonade and walked out into the searing light to give it to him, as much to inspect his work as anything else.
"¿Limonada?" she asked.
"Thanks," he said, taking the wet glass. Beads of water dripped down the glass, like the beads of sweat on el señor Scott's face. He looked away from her, inspecting the blades of grass, how they were sprayed across the concrete path that ran through the middle of the lawn.
"The work. It is very hard," Araceli offered. "El césped. The grass. It is very thick."
"Yeah," he said, looking at her warily, because this was more conversation than he was used to hearing from his surly but dependable maid. "This mower is too old."
But it was good enough for Pepe! Araceli glanced at the grass, saw the brown crescents el señor Scott had inadvertently carved into the green carpet, and tried not to look displeased. Pepe used to stop there to adjust the height of the mower, and Araceli would come out and give him lemonade just like she was giving el señor Scott now. Pepe would say "Gracias" and give her a raffish smile in that instant when his eyes met hers before quickly turning away.
El señor Scott swallowed the lemonade and returned the glass to Araceli without another word.
As she walked back to the house, the lingering smell of the cut grass sent her into a depression. Exactly how bad was the money situation? she wondered. How much longer would el señor Scott mow the lawn himself and wrestle with the Toro? What was going on in the lives of these people? They had let Guadalupe go, and from Guadalupe's anger she imagined that it was without the two months' severance pay that was standard practice in the good houses of Mexico City, unless they caught you stealing the jewelry or abusing the children. Araceli was beginning to see that it was necessary to take a greater interest in the lives of her employers. She sensed developments that might soon impact the life of an unknowing and otherwise trusting mexicana. Back in the kitchen, she looked at el señor Scott through the window again. He tugged at the cut grass with a rake and made green mounds, and then embraced each mound with his arms and dumped it into a trash bag, blades sticking to his sweaty arms and hands. She watched him brush the grass off his arms and suddenly there was an unexpected pathos about him: el señor Scott, the unlikely lord of this tidy and affluent mansion, reduced to a tiller's role, harvesting the undisciplined product of the soil, when he should be inside, in the shade, away from the sun.
A moment after Araceli stepped away from the picture window, Maureen Thompson took her place, taking a good, long minute to inspect her husband's work. The mistress of the house was a petite, el egant woman of thirty-eight, with creamy skin and a perpetually serious air. This summer morning she was wearing Audrey Hepburn capri pants, and she strode about the house with a confident, relaxed, but purposeful gait. She ran this household like the disciplined midlevel corporate executive she had once been, with an eye on the clock and on the frayed edges of her daily household life, vigilant for scattered toys and half-full trash cans and unfinished homework. The sight of her husband struggling with the lawn mower caused her to briefly chew at the ends of her ginger-brown hair. Could la señora see the yellow crescents at the beginning of the slope, Araceli wondered, or was she just put off to see her husband dripping sweat onto the concrete? Araceli examined la señora Maureen examining el señor Scott and thought it was interesting that when you worked or lived with someone long enough you could allow your eyes to linger on that person for a while without being noticed: Pepe, a stranger, always caught Araceli when she stared at him.
"Excerpted from THE BARBARIAN NURSERIES: A Novel by Héctor Tobar, to be published in October 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. 2011 by Héctor Tobar. All rights reserved."
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