Mrs. Linares' Daughter

First place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2011.    This story was also published in our 2011 Summer Newsletter.   Mrs. Linares’ Daughterby Jeff Burt        I hang out at Home Depot trying to get picked for a day job by a cash-paying landscaper or contractor or septic cleaner or a do-it-yourselfer.  How miniscule has a job become?  All of us will take a half-a-day job, a two hour job, an hour job, smaller and smaller segments of a day.  We count time in dollar bills.  We look for the twenty and a paid lunch.  No complexities:  hard currency, fast food.  Health benefits are working hard on a sunny day, staying warm, talking to someone else so as not to go insane.  That’s what did me in.  I needed someone to talk to.  I could deal with the blue sleeping bag in the garage, the handouts of food, the absence of medical care and transport.  I could deal with the foreshortened future, the past only the previous hour.  But I had no one to talk with.  That’s what did me in.  That and hope.        So this is what I am reduced to—small letters on small pages with very small things to say, downsized, not annihilated, which would have been, in a way, more acceptable.  At least I would have been worth total destruction.  But reduced from poster-sized to postage stamp?  How do you dance the dance of life, even spiritually, if you can’t turn around in the tiny box?  How can you exhibit prison cell faith when spiritually you don’t have the room to kneel down?       So here I am, minimally waged, minimally housed, minimally cared for, minimally loved, and minimally clothed over a bony body minimally fed.  I only wish my heart had been so reduced.       I found that details were no longer in my language because I had no details in my life.  If one could be impoverished of details, it was I.  It’s been noted that some surfers have only about a 600 word vocabulary, about 100 words more or less than a smart Golden Retriever recognizes.  So despite the lost gaze the surfers have, they are detail impoverished.  And I had become like them, except that I had no such gaze, no high wave to compensate for the numbing trough.  I saw nothing but gray on the horizon and gray close at hand, heard only background noise.        But you see, without annihilation, there is hope.  And where there is hope, there is love.  And where there is a hope for love, there is always a woman.        So when Mrs. Linares selected me from the fifteen men in front of Home Depot and said when I got in, “I had hoped you would be available today,” I thought about hope, and when I looked at her graying hair pinned back and the shy smile on her face, hope is what I got.  Ridiculous hope, the kind that rises like a wind in your body and overwhelms the branches of safety you have spread in front of your heart to have exactly the opposite—no hope.  Riding in a truck with a smiling, do-it-yourselfer because she had wanted me for one whole day of a week, I had hope.       What I had envisioned was a physical job of shoveling, weeding, digging, placing plants in soil, more shoveling, watering, raking the muck, tilling--the enjoyable part of putting your fingers to the work of soil.  But when we pulled into the driveway I saw an enormous pile of stones, rounded river stones.  And with a voice that sounded trance-like, Mrs. Linares whispered, “There is today’s work.”       There is today’s work--to move stone after stone, to move stone from the pile to the lowered aisle by the side of the house where an elaborate fountain stood next to an old rusted pump and watering trough.  A bucket of stones at a time carried about sixty feet and placed one by one.  So much for value-added labor.          You will need to work with thought to the texture and beauty of each stone,” Mrs. Linares instructed me.  “All the stones are quite unique and how they fit in a pattern is important to the beauty.”  She took several stones and placed them, then rearranged them to her sense of accord.       I loaded the first bucket and set them, and after a few buckets had learned what she desired, the variety of pattern so to speak of the slightly various stones, and had picked up the pace.  But I had estimated that it would take 120 buckets to fill the landscape, and she had about 240 buckets of stone in the pile, so there was about one and a half days of work for the landscaping, and possibly three days if all 240 buckets needed placing.        A day laborer chats, but not about anything personal.  Just do the work, here, over there, just right, how’s the weather.  A working unit, not a person, neutered, de-humanized, mechanized, without soul.  Even the graying splendid Mrs. Linares was no different until lunch.       When a day laborer is hungry, he eats in one of two ways out in public—quickly and almost always with a lack of courtesy, just to get it over with; or slowly, not savoring it, but as if to pretend it is not that important, that despite your poverty and hunger you still eat well enough.  You never ask for seconds.  It is especially difficult when the work has been demanding and the work has been cold.  It is a restraint born out of unworthiness, a deep insignificance.        But where there is hope, there is love.  And where there is a hope for love, there is a woman.  So when Mrs. Linares daughter came out with lunch on a tray set for three, her face bursting with a genuine smile, the dimples in her cheeks seemed more parentheses of happiness.  She encouraged me to stop placing the stones and to wash up in the house.  When I came out she asked my name and shook my wet hand.  She set me at the wrought-iron table as if a guest and poured strawberry lemonade, and the pinkish color seemed to bring color back to the world.  I had lost color and had not known it, and now I saw it everywhere, the pickles green, the tablecloth sky-blue, the clouds so white they hurt to stare at, the dahlias orange and red and a purple so deep I wanted to hold them, and the eyes of Mrs. Linares’ daughter the brown of a rubbed mahogany horse.  Who needed to eat?  I could have consumed colors and been filled.  I sat at a table for three with two women conversing back and forth, and words were no longer instructions but communion, they had shape, consonants came clicking off teeth and sliding off tongues, sentences were like touching soft skin.  And all the while blues and yellow and reds were exploding like fireworks everywhere I looked, my eyes were bleary.  And I could not bear to look at Mrs. Linares’ daughter.


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