Drift Excerpt: Ojos

Díana's father owns this barbacoa joint called Los Reyes Molino.  And she tells me that he always needs part time workers there, especially on the weekends, but I'm not interested even though I want to help her out.  "It'd be just for a few weeks," she says.  "What do I have to do?"  We’re in my bedroom and she's rubbing my belly and it's making it hard for me to concentrate but I don't just want to agree.  "It's not hard, not at all.  All you do is take the money from people and hand them their food."

"How much do I get paid?"

"Well, my father doesn't like to pay social security and all that stuff, so he pays in cash.  He'll pay you sixty dollars for coming in on Saturday and Sunday."  That sounds pretty good to me and I start to think about it.

"Do you work there too?  How am I supposed to get any work done with you there?"  She's trying to get cute with me now and she's playing a game with my pingo.

"Oh, I won't be there. I do other stuff on the weekend."  I don't like the sound of that but I'm already thinking of the shit I can do with sixty bucks.

I show up at five in the morning on the west side feeling hungover.  I didn't want to go after all, but Díana called to wake me up.  I guess her dad had too many workers who'd blown it off when they felt that morning hammer come down at four a.m. when they tried to drag themselves out of bed.

The building is a squat beige deal with an ugly tin roof and a tacky white sign that says Los Reyes Molino: Barbacoa, Tamales, y Tortillas.  I can't imagine any king wanting to eat that shit, but I don't have much time to consider the irony.  Once inside, Díana's mom, this fat, short woman who seems to constantly be moving and talking at the same time, throws an apron in my direction.  "You Robert?"  She doesn't seem to know who I am.  Díana's been sneaking around behind their backs.  She's only sixteen and not supposed to be going out, let alone fucking cholitos like me. That's why her parents send her to Sunnybrook Christian Academy.  They think that if they keep her around the bible and the pastor, that she'll be good.

"Yeah, I'm Robert" I say, already getting a vibe that this isn't gonna work out.  She makes me nervous flapping her jaws like she is, not bothering to look at me while she busies herself looking around for something to put the new boy to do.

"Yeah, well m'ija told me you're a hard worker, that right?"

"Ah, huh," I say tying the white apron around my waist. 

"Well, we'll see."  She gives me a suspicious look, like she's already sizing me up.  "You know I take care of my boys so long as they work, but you gotta be busy all the time.  You won't believe how busy we're gonna get today.  You just wait."

I don't know whether to wait or get busy, but she doesn't give me much time to think about it.  "Okay you take one of those wash cloths, dunk it in that water with the bleach in it and start cleaning." 

I take one of the cloths and started shining up the stainless steel counters which are streaked with congealed grease.  The bleach reeks so strong that it almost covers up the smell of corn that hangs in the air.  "Smells good in here," I tell her, but she doesn't say anything and I decide that that’ll be the end of making chitchat.  After a while, maybe about fifteen minutes, this other kid comes in the door.  He's thin, but wiry and he has big teeth that make him look kind of goofy except for the fact that he doesn't look too fucking happy about anything.

"Who are you?" he says none too friendly.

"Who're you?" I say without even looking up at him.

"I'm Reynaldo, vato.  Somebody should’ve told you.  I've been here a long time."  He keeps staring at me while he ties on his apron.  "Yeah, that's right.  Been here for two years.”  He pauses like I’m supposed to be impressed.  “So, who are you?  Some goddam relative?"

"I'm a friend of Díana's."

"That lazy puta?" he says with contempt.  "I hate that little bitch."

"Watch your mouth," I say, "it don't sound like you know her well at all."  He gets this look on his face, like he just discovered biology. 

"Oh, you're that kind of friend.  You bangin' that nalga?"

"Hey, vato, I told you to watch your mouth." I'm getting ready to clock this dude.

"I'll tell you, you’re the one who don't know her," he turns back towards the bucket with the washcloths, "but you will."  I decide to ignore him cuz I can see that he's a punk.

After a few more minutes this other guy comes in.  I like him better than Reynaldo right from the beginning.  He's a body-builder type, but you can tell he's alright.  He comes in humming and he says hello to everyone with a smile.  He comes up to me and offers me his hand right away.  "I'm Jorge.  You new?"

"Yeah, I'm Robert."  I give him my hand and he shakes it Chicano style, but not all clammy and clumsy like some of the older types, the veteranos, that try and do it, but they're so fucking drunk they get it all wrong.

"I gotta do my stuff in the back," he says, "I'll talk to you later."  As soon as he splits, Reynaldo comes up to me.  He hates Jorge. 

"That sonuvabitch thinks he's strong," he says to me.  "He ain't so fucking strong.  He's always taking off on those body-building contests, trying to win, coming in here bragging about how he placed."  He watches him walking across the store.  "He don't got shit.  I got more muscles than him.  Look at this."  He lifts his shirt up and shows me his stomach, which I have to admit has no fat, just a defined six pack.  "And this," he says flexing his shoulders and biceps at the same time.  This is getting weird, but I nod.  "You see, I just don't go showing off like he does, that fucker."  He really hates his brother worker.

I find out that Reynaldo lives in the Alizondo Courts, a housing project close to the stockyards, la matanza.  That place stinks so bad, that coming in from town, when you have to pass the yards when you get off the highway to get to the westside, you have to roll up the windows and hold your nose so as not to smell that sick-sweet stench.  Fucking slaughterhouse makes you want to throw-up.  People usually drive fast to get past the yards.  But they drive even faster through Alizondo.  Around here they call it Tripa Courts.  Motherfuckers get dropped there.  It's known as the most violent spot in San Antonio.  Me and grams live on the westside and shit, but I don't go near that place.  The Courts are surrounded on one side by the stockyards, on the other a huge length of drainage canals to keep the area from flooding in the rainy season.  Reynaldo has to walk to work on the weekends, maybe an hour walk in the dark, cold morning.  He tells me he doesn't care; in fact, he prides himself on it.  "I'm no fucking punk-ass, man.  Lots of pussies in the courts dude, but I'll walk around by myself and shit.  I don't need a fucking gang to watch my back like some punk bitch."  He flashes a set of knuckles that's got a phillips screwdriver head attached between the middle two knuckles.  "I'll fuck anyone up with this.  I always got my hand in my pocket, too.  Once, this fucker tried to jump me on my way home.  I punched him in his eye.  Motherfucker's walking around like a cyclops now."

Jorge lives in the neighborhood too, but in a house.  He goes to Kennedy High, the best in the westside district, which is to say, it’s the least fucked-up school of the bunch (I go there too, when I go).  That's part of the reason that Reynaldo hates him I think.  Reynaldo dropped out of La Techla, the worst highschool in the city.  But more than that, it's like some sort of westside "East of Eden" set-up, the two of 'em competing for Díana's mom's attention and approval, only Jorge knows he has it, and that skinny, shifty Reynaldo knows he doesn't.  I don’t have a mother either, but I’m lucky I don't have to consider that crazy-assed manic midget my moms.  My Grams takes care of me ever since my moms died in Mexico from pneumonia and my pops decided he’d stay on the road and not come back.  The way I feel about it, he’s better off staying out there, cuz he doesn’t want to hear what Grams has got to say to him.  I don’t give a shit either way.  I tell people they’re both dead.  Cuts down on stupid questions.

Jorge, Reynaldo and me make sure everything is ready for opening, sweeping and mopping the cement floor, wiping the stainless steel counters one more time, counting the register money.  Finally, Díana's mom opens the doors for the people lined up outside in the pale blue dawn.  The crowd never lets up on Saturdays or Sundays.  People come in holding their four or five dollars, buying the barbacoa meat and a couple of dozen tortillas, ready to take the food home for their families to eat together on what is the only day they can spend together since the old man probably works like a dog during the week and the mom too.  The thing about this barbacoa thing is that for a while in the morning the family can just hang together, eating some tacos, making that goddamned hard week bearable.  This is no South American, magical realism, where everything is suffused in a golden light, and happy miracles happen.  Around here, you take a bit of good time when you can get it, that’s all.

Hardly anyone drives to the Molino.  Most people walk since they live in the neighborhood and most of them don't have their own ride.  This is the westside and if you can afford the bus, you're a lucky motherfucker.  If you've got a car, it's probably a big-assed rumbling beat-up pick up or station wagon.  Usually it's some poor tired-looking migrant type, wearing a sweat-stained cowboy hat.  Those guys all got thick black mustaches cuz it's just how you look when all you've got going for you is how strong your poor fucking back is.  They come in, sometimes in twos, compadres, talking in Spanish, laughing every once in a while while they talk shit about the new pendejo foreman or some white fuck who took a fall or stepped through a ceiling.  They order a pound of this and a pound of that in between telling their stories.

Women come in too.  They come in wearing rollers and chanclas, the cheapy terry-cloth ones you buy at the grocery store for two dollars.  Those shits come in three colors: baby blue, pretty pink, and vanilla white.  These women don't care what they look like at this time in the morning.  They're there to pick up some food for their kids and husbands, and anyway, they only live down the block, and who the hell is there to impress—but damn, I wish they’d try.

Long hours.  We work fifteen, sixteen hours straight.  No lunch and maybe a few breaks in the back where you can eat anything you want for free.  I try everything.  Hot pork carnitas wrapped in a corn tortilla.  Tamales from huge tin cans which hold twelve dozens.  Barbacoa, always the "all-meat" for me, which I comb through back there, making sure it is the leanest I can get.  I stay away from the menudo.  That shit smells good, like warm corn, but its full of tripa and I'm not into eating intestines.  There's pan dulce too, and Mexican candy, and sodas and juices.  Eating is not going to be a problem; we do have to do it fast, cuz always there's a pinche customer waiting.

Díana lied to my ass.  She said it was an easy job, just take the money and give the customers the food.  But she didn't tell me all of them would be ordering in Spanish and fast Spanish, too.  Dame dos libras de barbacoa, toda carne.  Dos dozenas de tortillas de maiz.  Un quarto de menudo, doz regalitos, y dame un ojo.  They say it quick and I'm trying to process that info, write it down on a little slip of paper and weigh that shit out, and they're holding on to their rolled up wad of ones looking impatient.  There's this mojado type who's looking like he wants to fuck with me cuz he can tell I'm a pocho.  Andale muchacho, chingado, que tienes?  I don't like his face so I give him my “I’ll tear your ass up" look and slow down.  Everybody's impatient and I got all this barbacoa grease on my face and hands and leaking all over my clothes.  They keep the barbacoa in two huge metal tins and when someone orders it, I go scoop it out onto some butcher paper, weigh it, wrap it.  The "all meat" isn't as popular as the "regular" cuz it's more expensive, but I wouldn't want to eat the regular.  We're always pulling chunks of cow lips up out of that shit.  I find big-assed cow teeth in there too.  I put them in my pocket so I can freak out my friend Hilario when we’re stoned.

The thing of it is, I don't mind the barbacoa.  It's the other stuff that the Mexican cooks in the back scrape off of the cow head that makes me want to throw up.  Those guys get to the store Friday night and start cooking up the heads.  They load them into this huge metal pressure cooker that looks like an atomic bomb or something.  It takes a while to load those heavy heads in there and arrange them just right.  They take hours to cook and then those dudes go to work, scraping all the meat off. They take everything that's edible off, too.  First, there's the lengua, a six-pound cow tongue that looks like it's ready to take a big lick even though it's been cooked.  It grosses me out to have to serve that shit, but these westsiders love it.  Dame una libra de lengua.  I hate to hear that.  It means cutting into the big tongue and it gives me the willies.  I don't even bother doing it.  It doesn't matter to me how much a customer orders, I always give him the whole damned thing, being careful not to let it slide off the big fork as I plop it into a cardboard basket and wrap it up before it leaks all over the fucking place.  What makes me really sick is cesos.  A big pile of cold, gray brains sitting in a metal tub.  I'm like, “what the hell is that shit?”  Jorge laughs and says, that's cesos, you know, brains.  "People eat that?"  I'm amazed at the idea.

"It's good for your thinking, man."

"Fuck that," I say.  "I mean, if I was some sort of Aztec or starving or something, I might eat that, but right now, I wouldn't give it to my Grams, and I've seen her suck a chicken bone dry."

But the people order it.  I've seen a big meat-eatin' Mexican order a pound of it and say "hey, don't wrap it up just yet."  And he'll pull out a corn tortilla and spread some of that gray gook on it and munch the brain taco down in three bites flat.  I guess my face contorts into a look of disgust, cuz the guy smiles at me with brain goo on his teeth and he say, "Ummm, that's damn good."

But ojos are the worst.  They pop those eyeballs loose from the cowheads and toss 'em in a pan, cow pupils all which a way, staring at nothing and everything at the same time.  This dude, Pedro, his job is to sit in front of that pan on a stool with a filet knife and cut the brown pupil away.  He takes a fork and pulls out the ocular nerve, also gray and looking like a big mushroom.  He's about thirty years old and he's got a fat wife that comes in at about nine in the morning.  She goes through the backdoor and takes home this garbage bag full of the shit that was rejected from the morning's cowheads.  "For the dogs," Pedro says when he sees me checking out his hefty wife struggling with about thirty pounds of the most gruesome meat I've ever seen.  It looks like somebody just dismembered a couple of murder victims, or like an autopsy. "Dogs love it.  It's good for them," he says smiling at me.

"Yeah," I say wondering how long it'll be before his dogs jump his ass for making them eat that sort of slop. 

After a few trips back to the cook room, I notice the guys are talking shit about me.  They're looking me over cracking a joke or two, but I try and be cool and join in the conversation during break, but they want to put me to the test.  Finally, Pedro looks at me like he’s trying to figure something out.

"Ay, Beto," he says shortening my name, "ay, Ay, we got a question for you."

I stand there with a fifteen pound tin of tamales in my arms.  "What's up?"

"We wanna know one thing, vato."  He looks at his pals to show me that they all really want to know.  "Are you a man?" 

"What?"  I know that he's up to something, but I'm kind of unclear.  It's a weird question.  I think maybe I'm gonna have to fight someone.

"Are you a man, that's all we want to know.  Do you have juevos or do you have juevitos?"  It's a provocative question but I don't think about it too long. 

"My balls are big enough," I say trying to sound sure of it.

"Come here then," he says.  I put the tin down and walk closer to them.  They're all smiling at each other.  Pedro reaches into the aluminum bin and pulls out a big round eyeball, bigger than a golf ball.  He holds it out looking into my eyes.  "Let's see you eat it."

Everyone is looking at me.  Brown eyes everywhere, even the eyeball in Pedro's hand is staring up at me, all dull and wrinkly.  Bet it would wink if it still had an eyelid.  I take it out of his hand.  It's heavier than I thought and it feels like a peeled boiled egg.  "You gotta cut it first, mijito," Pedro says goading me.  He hands me his dirty filet knife.  So I take it and slice the pupil clear off.  Then, with my thumb, I dig out the mushroomy nerve, pluck it free and plop it in my mouth.  I chew it a few times and just about the time I think I'm gonna puke, I swallow the whole damned thing.  Those fuckers are all laughing.  "Damn, dude, I wouldn't have done that.  You're gonna choke on that ojo.  That was gross, man.  Me dio azco."  They've had their fun, but fuck 'em, I figure, they'll chill now.

The day passes quick after that and I'm bone tired by five pm.  Now it's time to clean up and it's nasty work, but I'm so anxious to wash the grease off my body and hair that I rush through it.  Díana's mom is impressed, mistaking my speed for initiative.  We're done by seven and she gives us a big smile as we leave.  "You come tomorrow.  Tomorrow's the big day.  Pay tomorrow," she says all loud.  Outside, my Grams is waiting for me and I watch Reynaldo take off into the dark.  It doesn't occur to me to give him a ride.  "You look tired," Grams says.  "Apestas de pura graza," she says wrinkling her nose at my greasy smelling self.  I smile cuz I know I do, and close my eyes so tired.  “I’m gonna give you some money tomorrow, Grams.”  She doesn’t say anything, but I know she’s proud that I’m bringing in cash now.

“You like it there?  Did you work hard?”  Grams always wants to make sure I’m working hard like she does cleaning houses up on the northeast side.

“Yeah, I worked hard,” I say trying to act like it wasn’t a thing, but I close my eyes and don’t even know I’ve fallen asleep till she wakes me up when we get home.  “Are you going out with your friends?” she asks me.  I had plans, Diana or maybe Hilario, but I don’t feel like it anymore.  “I gotta work tomorrow, Grams,” I tell her and I walk inside the house like a man looking for some rest.