September 2012

License

You get it all at my DMV, man. I call it “my DMV” because I got the keys to the double-doors that open up at seven o’clock on the dot, letting in the flood of sleepy-eyed men and women with kids, most of them here to get or renew their driver’s licenses. They stumble in and snake up against the length of the white wall with their own strings of keys or lidded Stripes’ coffees or flaky Pop Tarts in their kids’ hands, each of them ogling my Texas State Trooper uniform and Beretta and Stetson as they pass me in silence, even though I know they got questions. I never say a word, just hawk them as they come in, and none of them ever asks me a thing. When they come in they slouch against the counters by the wall instead and pretend to read the flyers on the walls with the instructions in English, even though the Spanish ones hang just beneath. I chuckle seeing that. Shit, one look from me and any kid straying from his or her parent against that wall knows I mean business. I brush two fingers over my State Trooper badge above my left-breast pocket right after that, proud, then flick dust off my name tag on the other side, making sure “GARCIA” is shining bright. I walk over to my spot by Rita’s booth and wait for her to get set up and call the first client of the day.

Like me, Rita doesn’t let these locals give her any shit. Like me, she likes things to run smooth. She’s got the toughest job at my DMV, I think, tougher than me even, in charge of giving all peoples the correct information, both in English and Spanish, on all the forms that need to be filled out, as well as any fees. But what Rita hates most is having to answer the same stupid questions twice, and that happens a lot where we work. She yells at anyone who doesn’t understand her when she knows she’s right, even sends people to the back of the line if they get to arguing with her too much. She winks at me whenever one more victim makes his or her way to the end of the line and does that thing with her fake-blonde hair where she curls it behind both of her pretty little ears. Mmm.

The first time I fucked Rita was on top of the desk in my back office that one night after everyone had gone home. She grabbed me by my badge and threw off my Stetson and straight out told me that she’d had a hard day and to go and lock the front doors and hurry back. I rushed back and pumped while she puffed, and after two sets of that and the sight of her wobbly thighs, I figured we were all but done.

I pulled up my pants, tucked my shirt back in. Rita stayed naked, though, spread out on my chair, put her feet up on my desk, and I liked that she felt comfortable. I liked it so much I reached into the bottom drawer and pulled out a well-rattled pint of bourbon and unscrewed the top. She took the first swig, tossed me the bottle, and began to tell me about what had happened during my lunch break that got her so riled up.

“These people, Johnny. I get so irritated.”

“Yeah,” I said, the bourbon burning nice and slow.

“I mean, I’m Mexican, too. My parents crossed over from Reynosa and worked in the fields when I was a kid. But I took the time to learn to speak proper English. These people, they switch the English and the Spanish every other word, butcher the language. Drives me crazy.”

I stole another swig, nodded with my eyes glued to her thick, dark nipples, then imagined both of her parents as sweated clumps under the hot south Texas sun, pulling out onions by their long green hairs on someone’s orders, Rita sitting in the Plymouth with all the windows rolled down, her feet hanging out, reciting her vowels and consonants. I thought of my own father, too, for some reason, Saturnino García, as my mother referred to him on those rare occasions she even mentioned him, somewhere up north in Illinois or Michigan or Ohio, thinking incessantly about me, working, she’d say, and so anxious to get back home to us.

“That one kid, Johnny,” Rita went on, “he just got on my last nerve. I mean, with the sign right in front of him, he asks if he has to stand in line to renew his license. And worse, he asks me flip-flopping the English and the Spanish—Do I have to stand in the linea to renew my licencia?—like that, sounding as dumb as he looked.”

“But that’s every day here, Rita,” I said, swapping her the bourbon. “It’s where we live and work; it’s McAllen. Thought you’d gotten used to the Tex-Mex by now.”

“I thought so, too.”

“So you sent the dumb fuck to the back of the line, right?”

“No.”

“No?”

“I answered his question, Johnny.”

“But didn’t you say he irritated you?”

“He did. Right down to my core.” She sat up, curled her hair behind her right ear in a rush. “But I answered him anyways, before I realized what I was doing. And in Tex-Mex, too, of all things.”

I half-chuckled, stopped. Rita took her longest swig yet, leaned back with tears cutting a path down the mascara on both her temples, and I wondered if the liquor had gotten the best of her already. I stood there in uniform, in charge of nothing, though, my confusion as thick as the smell of our sex still hanging in the air.

Rita slammed the bottle on the desk finally, wiped her eyes and cheeks, slapped her feet back down to the ground, stood up.

“Hey, Rita. Listen. Maybe we should—”

“Get your ass over here, now,” she said commandingly.

She grabbed me by my tie this time, pushed me down on my chair, undid my pants, and there we went again. Rita clawed into my corduroy all through it and yanked on my badge so much I thought my shirt would tear. I let her do it anyways.

When she’d had enough she got up off me and dressed and finished the rest of the bottle all by herself. “I feel like some Low Mein,” she said, tossing the empty bottle in the trash, so we headed for the House of China on Tenth and I paid for two dinner buffets. While I munched on some fried tilapia and shrimp, Rita slurped up her mound of steamed noodles. “I’m so hungry right now, Johnny. I don’t know why. So hungry. We going to your place or mine?” I smiled. I told her we’d go wherever she wanted once she was done. She winked at me while twirling her fork into the web of her low mein, flicking her wrist, spooning it delicately into her mouth.

 

The front and the around the two oak trees for $200, the tubby Mexican said. For that I’d get the toughest weed fabric around, good quality red mulch, and some Texas lantanas and red-orange and yellow ixoras to make it all look real nice. I happened to mention the sprinkler system that had come with the repo originally, and after crawling over my lawn and messing with all eight of the heads, he said he’d replace the four defective ones for an extra hundred. Everything, he said in Spanish, for three-hundred dollars. You can not beat that price, señor. Anyone with a license will charge you double. Not me. Not me, señor. Never. Never.

The Mexican hunched before me, waiting for my answer with his veiny, yellow eyes stuck on my State Trooper badge, tugging on the oval of sweat between his man boobs on his faded grey t-shirt.

I thought about his offer, hard. I looked down at the hard dirt and rocks and dry stumps that currently made up my “sorry excuse for a garden.” Those had made up some of Rita’s exact words on Friday night right after telling me “Go fuck yourself, you selfish asshole” just for poking her in the back with my stiff, six-inch license when she didn’t want to, right as she peeled the pavement from my driveway, so that the Mexican’s Monday morning arrival seemed the luckiest coincidence in the world. What better surprise for Rita than to come back home to bright Texas lantanas and ixoras on top of mulch on top of fabric that crushed weeds? She’d love it. She’d love me. Again. Even if I was an asshole (which I wasn’t; just horny). For three-hundred bucks, this Mexican was gonna patch things up for me without even knowing it.

Esta bien, I said.

I held out my hand to seal the deal. Still stuck on my uniform, the Mexican straightened up, wiped his right palm on his jeans, and shook my hand.

My name is Carlos Pérez, he said in Spanish.

And I’m Juan-I mean, Johnny, García. Call me Johnny.

Yonny, I will do a good job for you, just like I did for your neighbor last year. Ask him about me. I did his front garden. See, señor?

He pointed over my mailbox and across the street at a two-story brick home with a wide front garden filled with roses and shrubs and other brilliant plants that I couldn’t name. Being new to the neighborhood, I couldn’t name my neighbor either.

So, Yonny, I will need a hundred to get started. The rest when I am finished. Is that okay?

I nodded and forked over five twenties from my wallet.

Gracias, Yonny. I will go buy all things now. Come right back to get started. Adios, señor.

He climbed into his beat-up Ford Ranger, waved at me as he drove off. I imagined Rita coming up the walkway in awe later that day, my arms wrapped around her from behind, both of us made up, the lantanas and ixoras bowing out to meet their new masters, the red mulch on the fabric just heavy enough to keep down all those stubborn weeds.

 

That day, that day everyone suffocated all along that postered wall at my DMV, me included. With the a/c down, with Rita still pissed at me, I took up shop closer to the everyday clientele near the trash bin, a good distance from my regular place next to the booth of the woman who would love me again. From where I stood in sweat (I’d helped put up the cheap fans on all four corners of the office, but they only served to toss around the same hot air), I looked over at Rita every now and then. She ignored me like she’d planned it, pretending to give the next guy or gal her full attention, answering every stupid question like she cared, not sending anyone to the back of the line even, and not caring if any of them pocketed the pens she lent them to fill out their forms. So I let the pens go, too. I took off my Stetson for an instant to wipe the sweat from my brow with my handkerchief. I fit my hat back on as a kid’s voice sounded “Wow!” and I knew it was all because he’d gotten a sight of me.

Those kids, man. A sight to see that day, especially since the heat had stolen their eagerness to tussle beneath the counters or run up and down the length of the cordoned area where they usually yanked on the thick rope and rattled the poles on their bases up until I stared them down. They sat droopy-eyed and Indian style on the cool tiles at the foot of their mothers and fathers instead, tugging on pant legs and flip-flop straps and asking why my DMV wasn’t cold like Wal-Mart or Best Buy. Whenever Rita was ready for the next person and the time came to move up the kids seemed to roll over where they were, reminding me of that legless Vietnam vet by the train tracks on the corner of Inspiration and Frontage whenever he spotted a dollar bill hanging out of a car window. The kids dragged their asses over the lines of dirt-colored grout and onto the next set of off-white tiles, waiting for the fans to cool them down some.

That day, that day I spotted the two white women just as they came in through my doors. To say they were up there in age would be an understatement. One helped the other by the elbow as they both ambled in in short steps, and their foreheads quickly imploded as they surveyed the long line of sweaty, brown bodies. Their popcorn hairdos trembled as the hot air from the fans wisped by. With the heat, at the end of that line, to me, the two women could be nothing else than the whip cream frothing on top of one of Rita’s white chocolate mocha frappuccinos from Starbucks. I looked over at Rita again. At her loose hair falling down over her left temple, wishing I could curl it around the back of her ear for her one more time.

And I swear that’s when the plan came to me, honest. I made my way down the line, getting my fair share of stares, shooting my own back, up to the end of the row where the white women clung to each other by the first pole in its base.

“Morning, ladies,” I said. “Can I help you?”

“Not unless you can cut this line in half, sonny,” the one holding the other’s elbow joked. She had a twang in her speech that reminded me of my old academy instructor, spitting out his orders.

“I can’t even fix the air in this joint,” I said playfully, which set them both into tired chuckles.

“It’s seething in here,” the elbow supporter commented.

“I’m here to renew my license,” said the other one and with the same twang. “I lost the paper. The one to do it in the mail. On the phone, they told my sister Jolene I had to come down here to do it. I have trouble standing for long periods of time because of my ar-thur-itis, I told them. But no, they said, no. You got to come down if you want your license. So here I am.”

The sisters looked away from me for a moment, and I had to turn to see what had stolen them from my charm. Down the length of the line all eyes were on the sisters, at least until they caught me noticing them noticing us. Then all eyes fell down in an instant to study cell phone screens or renewal applications or their slumping kids on the tiles. All eyes stumbled on anything else but us.

“Maybe I can help you ladies out,” I said to the sisters. “Come with me.”

I grabbed the free elbow and slowly led the sisters past the front of the line to Rita’s counter. I flashed a clear palm at the next woman in line and waited for Rita to finish with a zit-faced teenager wearing Jesus hair, a Danzig t-shirt, tight jeans. The woman who would love me again finally looked up at me, so I took my chance.

“Rita,” I said calmly, “this woman has problems with her legs. Can’t stand in line for long periods of time. We should help her out.”

Rita listened and curled her hair behind her ears as beautifully as ever. She looked over at the tired, brown woman and her two kids at the front of the line, then back at the sisters, then finally set her eyes on me.

“Sonny,” broke in Jolene, “you know, we don’t want to cause any trouble. Shawna and I can wait in line, that’s all right. You’re very kind to try and help us, both of you, but that’s all right. Help the lady there who’s next, sweetie. Really. That’s all right. Come on, Shawna. We need to go back to the end of the line.”

Jolene began to turn Shawna carefully. My head shrunk slightly in my Stetson, and I could feel the sweat running down the back of my neck. I kept my eyes on Rita. The woman who would love me again didn’t buckle from my stare, the sweat building in soft beads on her upper lip, tapping her pen on her desk over and over.

“Wait,” Rita finally said. “It’s okay, ma’am. You can be next.”

Jolene stopped with her sister, turned back around. “But, sweetie, are you sure? We don’t want special treatment. Don’t want to cause any problems. Will no one mind?”

“No,” Rita answered. “No one.”

“Well, all right. If you say so. Look, Shawna. These nice young people are going to help us out after all.”

“Booth Number One. Jesus’ll fix you up right over there.” Rita pointed out the booth closest to the front of the line. “Make sure to have your old license and social security card available.”

“All right, sweetie. And thank you too, sonny. You’ve both been extremely kind.”

The sisters slowly melted past Rita’s counter and into the designated booth.

“Rita,” I said on impulse, “I’m sorry. Let’s bury it, no? This ain’t the time or the place, I know it, but I don’t like us fighting. Wait. Listen first. I got a surprise for you if you come home tonight. You’re gonna love it, I’m sure. What do you say? Will you come home tonight?”

The woman who would love me again half-smiled, shook her head, and for a moment it felt as though she would send me to the end of the line.

She said “Next!” and I had to move out of the way as the woman with her two kids approached Rita’s counter. I stayed in my regular spot and could hear old Jolene and Shawna chatting it away with Jesus as he readied to take the photograph for the new license. I’d done a good deed, I thought, so why was Rita still mad? I was trying to figure that one out when a Tex-Mex cowboy in a wreck of a black western felt walked in with a sideways glance, sucking on his teeth at the sight of the line at my DMV.

 

Them planes make o’s like there’s no tomorrow, man. That old bat Sellers from across the street sits in the middle of that soccer field behind my house with a Marlboro between his lips, flicking on his remote control and chuckling to the sky each time one of his model barons—he’s got two; a blue one and a red one, the rich fuck—goes into a set of loops that please him. He’s usually sprinkling ash like that when I’m getting home from my DMV, surrounded by lines of wide-mouthed neighborhood kids all hanging their arms over the chain link fence and taking in the show. When Rita was here, it’s what we did too. We used to stroll out there before opening our front door and she would surprise even me by climbing up and over the fence and casting off her flip-flops and sitting herself comfortable on the cool Saint Augustine grass. “Come on, Johnny,” she’d say each time, leaning back and putting one ankle on top of the other. But I’d always picture a Texas State Trooper getting his pants caught on a stray wire and falling over in his Stetson as the whole of the audience brought their eyes down from the sky to watch and laugh. “I’m good, baby,” I’d say, just as one of old Sellers’ barons flew down low enough for everyone on our side of the fence to hear its engine roar, or pulled up fast into a wide, fantastic set of loops, or just edged the tips of one of the tall, sagging palms along the length of the avenue. Rita would partake in the collective “o-o-o-o-h!” when one of the barons came down on the field with a thud and forced old man Sellers to hobble out of his lawn chair to make sure his plane was all right. We’d leave the kids and the planes with the sunlight falling back off the western rooftops, Rita’s arm hooked in mine, the short snaps of her flip-flops losing to our laughter at old man Seller’s horrible toupee.

But I don’t get out there much no more. I come straight home instead and hang up the belt, badge and Stetson for the night and usually cook me up a can of Bush’s baked beans, settle it into my gut with a cool Weiser out on the front porch before getting to work on my garden. And that’s what I was doing that evening when the Mexican finally showed up after two weeks and explained he was really sorry and that his wife had been in the hospital and his Ranger had broken down and that he had plans to travel up north to catch up with his kid working construction in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Your money, Yonny, he said in Spanish, offering me a set of sweaty, rolled-up bills.

Keep it, I told him, surprising even myself, as if I was sure he’d meet my father up there, an old fart by now, still planning to come meet his kid someday.

Keep it, Carlos. Y buena suerte.

Gracias, Yonny, he said, getting teary-eyed.

I waved at him as he drove off.

I wish Rita could see it. Yesterday I pinned the weed fabric down, and today, today I’ll take a pencil and pad and make sure of all of my measurements first, just like the Home Depot guy said, and poke holes with my pencil where each of the plants will go. I’ll do the ixoras, no, the lantanas first, five in total, all spaced out around the outer edge where the sun splashes best in the mornings. By the time old Sellers limps home with his planes tonight I’ll have cut crosses into the fabric, spooned out some dirt, and packed in the young lantanas good. Tomorrow I’ll do the orange-bulbed ixoras (seven total) and the red mulch, $2.67 for each ten-pound bag (I bought ten). Including the hundred to Carlos, I spent around two-hundred bucks overall. Not bad. Not bad. Maybe I’ll do the backyard next. Fit in some guajillos, torchwoods here and there. I need to. It’s a real mess.