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Leticia del Toro

Piropo

They say that change in your life happens quickly, and maybe it’s true, because my life with Vicente and Joaquín changed in just days. I guess I’d had enough of watching over Joaquín like a child. You just can’t baby-sit a grown man. Sometimes at night he’d go out for a walk. I always wanted to go with him, but he told me he needed to be alone. Who knows what he was doing. Sometimes he’d be gone for hours. I never once followed him, but I could have. Maybe I was afraid of what I’d find. I felt him stray from me in every way. He wanted to blame it on my hair, on our not having relations.

All my life, I’ve fought like an animal to take care of my own—my child, my parents, my brothers, and now Joaquín. I’m tired. I think I lost that urge to fight. My father sometimes used to call me una fiera, una loba, words you shouldn’t use for your daughter. Yet I could tell he was proud of my fury. Other men think it’s bad. No one wants a wolf in his home. Only in the forest do men dare shape-shift and let their nahuales battle it out. Attacked beneath the trees, a man either roars or whimpers as he feels his life leaving him, his blood let. Does he love life enough?

But we are not in the wilds where a man might have to bare his teeth and give his life over to a nahual. We’re at the corner of Haste and Tehama.

 

So this one day, a green Expedition pulls up in front of us. Vicente was so tired of waiting for work he said we should take whatever the driver was offering. The man in the Expedition was playing the Carlos Santana CD all the teenagers liked, the one with a song from Maná. He lowered the volume.

“Buenos días. Necesito unos albañiles. Tengo un patio de ladrillo que necesito terminar.”

He wore a denim shirt that looked freshly ironed. Whatever patio he wanted fixing wasn’t one he’d started. His face didn’t show any wrinkles from outdoors work. He looked like an abogado or a professor with his round rim glasses, like the kind of man who takes hours to read his newspaper.

Vicente appreciated the man’s attempt in Spanish and took over where I usually ask some more questions. How many days of work? The man said, Two or three, max.

 

Vicente went to the driver’s window, got a figure for payment, and then motioned for us to get in. With three of us the job would be quick. I hoped it would be clean. I usually like laying brick.

In the car the man’s voice relaxed as we headed toward north Berkeley.

“Me llamo Connor Dougherty y aquí vivo cerca.”

“We understand English pretty good,” I told him, sitting between Joaquin and Vicente. “It’s just sometimes when reading contracts or signing for deliveries, I’m the one who takes care of it.” We were driving to a house on Santa Fe Street, off of Marin Avenue. “If there’s something complicated you can tell me, but we pretty much follow instructions, not a problem.”

“Oh, I see,” he said. “It’s a pleasure for me to speak Spanish, though. I worked at the Universidad Autónoma for two years. I’ve tried to keep it up since then.” They all try to keep it up. I let him talk about his work in Mexico.

As soon as we park in front of the cream-colored house with brown tejas, I know he’s one of those Hispano lovers. The entryway had blue and white Talavera tiles on the front part of the stairs. Big clay planters lined the walkway through the yard, and the bougainvillea climbed the pillars of the front porch. I was maybe even expecting his wife was a pocha, but no, his wrinkly thin señora came running out to meet us.

“Buenos días a todos. Bienvenidos.”

I moved behind Vicente and pulled my cap down. Sometimes other women could pick me out.

They led us around the side of the house and pointed out the half-finished patio job. I wasn’t sure about the two or three days. The patio seemed to connect to some forms where a foundation was waiting to be poured.

“And that?”

“That’d be great if you could handle the foundation work, too.”

“That depends. Are you working with an engineer?” This was a job to be inspected by the city.

“The design and calculations are already set. I just need to order a large quantity of concrete.”

That was my cue to not ask any more questions.

“I was really hoping to get it done soon, since we’re planning a party. My daughter graduates in a few weeks.”

“Well, it will take us a bit longer, even though you have already done the hardest part.”

Vicente picked up a level that was tossed with some of the other tools in a wheelbarrow. He placed it on the three meters or so of patio they’d already started. Vicente checked how they’d handled the first part. The remaining ground had been leveled off and prepared, so we just had to follow the pattern and set the brick. Mr. Dougherty spread out the plans and explained the design to Vicente. They had purchased some nice Moro and White Antique flats to make a pretty contrast. He wanted some sort of Mayan border to show in a pattern through the darker brick. It surprised me they would build that into their backyard. Some people with money have crazy ideas, but at least this was pretty nice.

Joaquín got started mixing cement in a corner of the yard, and I gathered the tools we’d need to get started. At around eleven, Mr. Dougherty left, but said his wife would bring us lunch. He was going out to order the cement delivery for the foundation.

 

What I love about laying brick is the balance of shapes, like a dance. I even dream of dancing and hear music in my head, no matter if the guys are loud and playing el Cucuy, who is so obnoxious, on their radio. I think of Manzanillo and working on my grandparents’ home when I was so young I could barely lift a brick. Even then my father let me drag the trowel across the bricks sandwiching wet concrete. The fonda across the street played danzones from morning until night. The old people sat and fanned themselves, drinking glasses of jamaica. Father would place the bricks, and I’d flatten and scrape. We’d trace over the lines with a little metal strip and shape any messy edges. The ends of the bricks always met exactly in the middle of the brick placed below them. The lines of gray cement stood out like squatting guerreros—a short body in the middle with arms stretched out, forearms raised at the elbow skyward. The perfect balance reminded me, too, of lovers dancing. The sharp lines were their arms in the hold of a danzon, stilled in a frame separate from their bodies, recto pero dulce. The trowel scrapes across the brick in just the time it takes for a woman to be spun and dipped.

“¿Te gusta un pan dulce o un café?” Mrs. Dougherty held out a tray of pastries.

“No thank you, señora.” I didn’t want to slow down to eat.

Joaquín took off his gloves and sat in a white, big-cushioned patio chair. He accepted some pastries and even had the nerve to ask for coffee. The lady came out with a second tray, one with coffee, cream, and a large glass of orange juice. Maybe I should’ve taken a break, after all.

Joaquín smacked his lips over the juice. Hey, I think this is fresh-squeezed. This juice tastes like honey.

Vicente shot me a look like Joaquín was crazy. Only he could spend fifteen minutes savoring orange juice and pan dulce while we worked like dogs to finish the damn patio. We were nowhere near done and still had to negociar details on that foundation. Vicente whistled at Joaquín. Joaquín got the hint and put the lady’s little cup and plates on the tray, then walked it over to the house. I watched him stare into the patio screen for a little minute, then slide it open without even knocking. He entered that lady’s kitchen like a thief.

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