A Contemporary Novel

            Jesús followed Arturo and Paco up onto the wooden porch. A single bare light bulb burned in a socket over the scarred and battered door. Jesús walked around a hole where one of the porch boards had broken. Arturo tried the doorbell, but it didn't ring. He knocked on the doorframe, then stepped back, turning toward Jesús and Paco.
            "He won't come right away. First, he'll look out the window to see who it is."
            Several minutes later, the curtain moved in one of the windows facing the porch. The person looking out stood in the shadow of the dark interior. The curtain moved back to its former position. In a few seconds, the knob of the door turned and the door opened.
            "Arturo, you bastard," a deep voice said, "why do you waken honest men from their sleep?"
            Arturo stepped toward the door. "Because my business can't be done in the daytime, Ernesto, as you know well."
            A tall man in jeans and a T-shirt with a dark, pockmarked face walked out onto the porch, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He shook Sándoval's hand.
            Sándoval motioned Jesús and Paco forward. "Ernesto, this is Paco Águilar and Jesús Camacho. They have been working on a ranch near where I work, and I have brought them here."
            Ernesto stepped forward, extending his hand. "I am Ernesto Caballero. It is good to meet you."
            He shook first Paco's hand, then Jesús's.
            Sándoval took Ernesto by the arm. "Jesús is looking for his brother, Miguel, who I brought to you last month. Is he here?"
            Ernesto looked at Jesús sympathetically. "I am very sorry. Miguel was here until last week, but he got caught in a raid at the plant, and he has been deported back to Mexico."
            Tears started in Jesús's eyes. He tried to speak, to give voice to his chagrin, but his words stuck in his throat. He felt like sinking into the ground. What had he done to deserve this luck? Would he never find Miguel?
            Paco spoke for Jesús. "This is a great disappointment for Jesús. He just missed Miguel down at Bandera. We thought we would find him here."
            Ernesto nodded. "I know how you must feel, but don't worry. I think Miguel will be back in several days. He knows he will still have a job here, and the pay is pretty good. I will get both of you jobs at the same place he worked. They are shorthanded now, since the raid. This way, you can be working until Miguel shows up again."
            "We will be grateful for anything you can do," Paco said.
            Ernesto looked at Paco and Jesús, sizing them up with his eyes like a trader sizes up livestock.
            "Let's all go inside," he said. "I'm freezing out here."
            Jesús swallowed his disappointment and followed the others into the house. Once again, he would have to make the best of things. Miguel would turn up sooner or later.
            Inside, Ernesto closed the door and snapped on a light, then waved his hand toward some decrepit overstuffed chairs. "Sit down, sit down."
            A few roaches scurried out of the way as the men crossed the floor and sat down.
            Ernesto looked solemnly at Paco. "What type of work do you want?"
            Paco leaned forward in his chair. "Anything, so long as the pay is better than ranch work."
            "Do you have any skills?"
            "I have done carpenter work in Mexico. I worked in a cabinet factory for several years. Before that, I worked in a tannery."
            Ernesto turned toward Jesús. "What about you?"
            "I have worked on farms and ranches in Mexico, and now at Bandera." Jesús spoke in a low, disheartened voice, ashamed that he could not claim more experience.
            Ernesto nodded wisely. "I will see what I can do tomorrow. Come, I'll show you where you can sleep. I'll put you in the same room Miguel stayed in. Some of his things are still there."
            Arturo Sándoval pushed himself up from his chair, gaping and stretching. "I've got to be getting back to San Antonio."
            Paco took out his wallet and pulled out some bills. "Here's the money for the trip."
            "You mean you didn't get paid in advance this time, Arturo?" Ernesto asked.
            Sándoval laughed, taking the money. "I know Paco well enough I can trust him."
            Jesús reached toward his hip pocket. "Let me pay what I can, Paco."
            "You can repay me tomorrow. First, let's sleep."
            Arturo gave his regards and left, closing the front door behind him. Jesús and Paco followed Ernesto down a dingy, dimly lighted hall and up a wobbly staircase to the second floor of the house, where several doors opened off a central hall.
            Ernesto opened one of them, walked in, and turned on an overhead light. A black-haired young man lay in one of several beds in the room. He raised himself on his elbows, blinking sleepily at the sudden light.
            "Get up, Domingo!" Ernesto commanded with malicious humor. "Meet your new roomates. Paco, Jesús, meet Domingo Galván."
            Galván raised himself to a sitting position. "Ernesto, you bastard, you don't waste any time filling the beds."
            "Go to hell, Domingo."
            Galván smiled at Paco and Jesús. "It's nice to know you, but let's get acquainted better tomorrow."
            He rolled back into the bed and covered his head with the pillow to shut out the light.
            Ernesto turned toward the door. "Make yourselves at home, men. I won't try to take you to the job tomorrow, so you can sleep late. I've got to check and see what's available." He left the room, closing the door behind him.
            Jesús threw his little pack down at the foot of a bed against the wall and lay down, fully clothed. Paco put his things under the remaining bed and turned out the light. In minutes, Jesús slept.
            When he woke up, the sun shone through the dirty windows, and Paco snored across the room. Domingo Galván was gone. Jesús's disappointment at missing Miguel for the second time returned. His visions of the Virgin seemed to promise good fortune. Couldn't the Mother of God prevent these cruel disappointments?
            As Jesús pondered his bad luck, Paco opened his eyes and sat up. "What time is it?" he asked.
            Jesús looked at his watch. "10:15."
            Paco got out of bed and groped under it for his clothes. "Let's see if we can find something to eat."
            They dressed and went downstairs. They were alone in the silent house. On a table in the living room, they found a note from Ernesto telling them to get food from the kitchen.
            Paco fried some bacon and eggs from the refrigerator. They sat across from each other at the kitchen table and ate the food. When they had finished, they went into the front part of the house, where Jesús pulled aside the blind and looked out across the porch.
            The bright sunlight outside shone on cracked pavement under rows of old, diseased-looking hackberry and elm trees. Along either side of the street stood old, one- and two-story frame houses like the one they were in.
            At the far end of the block, busy traffic moved through an intersection. A gas station and several other small businesses stood on the corners. Across the street, an old Anglo woman slowly swept her board porch.
            Jesús let the blind slide back into place. "Let's take a walk."
            Paco shook his head. "We'd better wait. Someone might think we broke in here."
            Paco turned on an old television in the living room. He turned through the channels until he found the only one transmitting in Spanish. They sat in the seedy overstuffed chairs and watched an old movie made in Mexico City.
            After the movie, they watched a Spanish version of the news. In one clip, President Reagan stood at a podium speaking, a self-satisfied smile on his crinkled, paper-bag face.
            He introduced a Texas senator who carried his head thrust forward on his neck, like a belligerant turtle. The senator told the crowd that the flood of workers from Mexico was driving the American economy to ruin. He promised to back new laws to stem the tide.
            Toward the end of the long day, men started straggling back into the old house. Nodding to Jesús and Paco, they went upstairs. They didn't seemed surprised to find newcomers among them.
            Just before dark, Domingo Galván came through the front door, followed by Ernesto Caballero. Domingo had a short, muscular build and wore denim jeans and jacket. He carried his mouth with an amused twist to the ends. Jesús thought Domingo was probably about Jesús's own age.
            "How did you sleep, roommates?" Domingo asked.
            "Very well, thanks," Paco answered.
            "It's not a bad hotel, if you can avoid the cockroaches."
            Ernesto slapped Domingo familiarly on the back. "Quit bitching about my cockroaches, Domingo. They won't hurt you."
            "I don't like it when they run across my face in the night."
            Caballero turned toward Jesús and Paco. "I hope you won't be sons of bitches like Domingo. He doesn't appreciate my cockroaches."
            "I appreciate them," Paco said. "They are like brothers to me."
            "There are not so many as Domingo would have you believe."
            Paco put on an ingratiating smile. "Did you have any luck in finding jobs for us?"
            "It was just as I thought, they are so short of workers since the raid that they will be able to employ both of you, starting tomorrow. Paco will make a little more money, since he has more experience."
            "What kind of place will we be working?" Jesús asked.
            "It is a plant that makes mobile homes, which can be pulled behind a truck when the owner is ready to move. I will take you there tomorrow."
            "Everything is all set then," Paco said. "It's sure nice of you to do all this for us."
            Ernesto tilted his dark face with its pockmarks to one side in self-deprecation. "I don't mind at all. Besides, it's part of my business."
            "What do you mean?"
            "Just that I am usually paid the first two weeks pay in return for getting people these jobs, plus the rent on the room and the transportation expense."
            "See what a nice guy he is?" Domingo Galván said bitterly.             "How much will it all come to?" Paco asked.
            Ernesto got an old envelope off a table and figured on it with a stubby pencil. He went over the figures with Paco and Jesús. He explained that the first two weeks pay did not come out all at once, but would be spread over the first month.
            For the first month, Jesús and Paco would have little left over after paying Ernesto, but after that, there would be enough to live on and to send some home.
            What a ripoff, Jesús thought. No wonder Miguel couldn't send much money home with his first letter from Fort Worth.
            Ernesto looked up from his figuring. "After about two months, you'll get a raise at the plant. You'll have lots of money then."
            Paco looked at Ernesto with angry resignation. "The charges seem high, but we know you are entitled to be paid for your efforts. We will take the jobs."
            "I'll take you out first thing in the morning."
            Jesús and Paco followed Domingo Galván up the stairs to the room they had slept in.
            "Did you know my brother, Miguel Camacho?" Jesús asked.
            Domingo nodded. "He stayed in this room. That was his bed over there by the window."
            "Ernesto said he left some things here."
            Domingo walked to the closet and pulled out an old duffel bag. Jesús emptied it on the bed, and Miguel's familiar clothing spilled out, along with several men's magazines with pictures of half-clothed and nude women.
            Paco picked up one of the magazines and started thumbing through it. "I remember when he bought this one, at the drugstore in Bandera."
            Jesús shifted through the clothes, and found a letter from Santos, sent to Bandera just before Jesús had left home, thanking Miguel for money he had sent, and giving family news. A group picture of the family, made before Miguel had left home, had fallen face up on the bed.
            Heavy, good-hearted Santos stood in the rear with big Juana, his wife, behind the frail-looking mother, Mercedes. She sat in a chair with a lace shawl over her shoulders, smiling a wan smile. Jesús and Miguel stood next to Mercedes. Jesús studied Miguel's face.
            It seemed as though if he concentrated hard enough, he could bring Miguel here just by looking at the picture. Almost as tall as Jesús, Miguel had the same halo of curly black hair that made him look like an overaged choir boy, but he had a leaner face, more bitter and intense than Jesús's.
            Plump, pretty Concepción sat before her mother, and the two little boys, José and Daniél, with their precocious children's faces, knelt on the floor next to her. Jesús's older sisters, Gabriela and Blanca, were not in the picture. They were married, and lived in distant places.
            Jesús remembered when the photograph had been made, several months after Luis's death. They had all dressed up and gone to a photography studio in a village between their village and the capital city of Durango. The photographer had had a hard time getting Mercedes to smile enough to make a picture.
            Tears formed in Jesús's eyes as he remembered these things. He slipped the picture into one of the magazines and put it back in the duffel bag.
            He turned toward Domingo. "I guess he didn't get to take much with him."
            Domingo nodded. "No, he didn't. When you get picked up in a raid, they don't let you go back home even for your toothbrush."
            "Do you think he'll be back?"
            "Probably. It's not hard to get back, and Miguel was just starting to make good money."
            "Will he have to pay Ernesto to get him the job again?"
            Galván laughed. "I don't think so. Ernesto's pretty greedy, but he's not that bad. Besides, Miguel doesn't need him, now. He can go directly to his old leadman at the plant and get back on."
            Paco thrust his broad face forward. "What's Ernesto's game, anyhow? Does he work somewhere, or just make money off the labors of others?"
            The cynical curls at the ends of Domingo's mouth tightened.       "Oh, Ernesto works, sometimes, at the same plant where I work and where you will work tomorrow. He has been here for three or four years, and this house is rented to him. Because he knows the boss at the plant, he can get people jobs. Between what he gets for renting the rooms, what the people from Mexico pay him for the jobs, and what the boss pays him for bringing in the workers, he does all right."
            Jesús straightened in a gorge of rising indignation. "You mean we pay him for the jobs, and the boss at the plant pays him as well?"
            Domingo nodded. "I can't prove it, but after he brings workers in, the boss always calls him in the office, and he always comes out with a big smile on his face."
            Paco shrugged his shoulders. "It's no more than what we see in Mexico. At least, he can get us the jobs."
            "That's true, but somehow, it seems that someone from Mexico should not profit so much at his own countrymen's expense."
            "The world is not a perfect place, Jesús." Paco turned to Domingo. "What do we do for supper?"
            "You can fix something for yourself in the kitchen, or you can go to a restaurant with me."
            "How about it, Jesús?" Paco asked.
            "Let's go with Domingo."
            They put on their jackets and followed Galván down to the ground floor and out onto the street. Several blocks from the house, over on a commercial street of small shops and shabby businesses, Domingo entered a small cafe under a sign identifying the establishment as Vargas's Place. Inside, the smell of tamales and beans hung strongly in the air.
            Many men and a few women sat along the lunch counter and at plastic-upholstered booths. Jesús and Paco followed Domingo to an empty booth and sat down. A corrido blared from a juke box in the corner. A short, dark, middle-aged woman came over to the booth, smiling fondly at Domingo.
            "Who are your new friends?" she asked in Texas Spanish.
            "Paco, Jesús, I want you to meet Dorita. She will take good care of you."
            Dorita's smile widened. "Nice to meet you. Domingo's brought you to the right place."
            They ordered food and beer and Domingo got up and put some money in the jukebox. After they had eaten they ordered more beer.       The alcoholic power spread through Jesús's body, and he began to feel mellow.             "I feel at home here already. I think I am going to like Fort Worth."
            Domingo smiled tolerantly. "That is brave talk from the beer. You don't know this place yet."
            That night, Jesús slept well for several hours, but when the alcoholic euphoria wore off, he woke up. Across the room, Paco and Domingo Galván snored, turning occasionally in their beds.
            The light from an outside street lamp filtered through the dirty window, casting bare tree branch patterns on the wall. Jesús's head hurt slightly from the beer. A feeling of desolate loneliness crept into his gut.
            He had been a fool to brag that he liked Fort Worth. What did he know about it? How could this new job in this strange place be anything more than one more cruel delusion, one more false hope?
            He thought again of the family faces in the picture from Miguel's duffel bag. He wanted to be with them, but Mexico held no chance for him. There, he would never be anything but a poor farm hand without his own land. Here, at least he could make a living. Finally, his troubled thoughts faded and he fell into a restless sleep.