The morning after the big snowstorm, Hector Chavez watched the street from his window, waiting for his chance. When a decent parking space opened up, he pounced. The tread on his boots was worn, but he practiced walking on the treacherous ice, head down, shoulders hunched, until he grew used to the slick surface and his own mincing steps. Along the gutter he started, hefting snow over the curb, well onto the verge, so it wouldn’t drift back into his spot. He cleared a square the size of his boots, then expanded slowly into a space large enough for the family car. When he’d finished, he sprinkled salt and planted two beat-up chairs, which faced each other expectantly, like open lips waiting for choice words.
He trudged to his old Chevy. It turned over endlessly, sputtered, finally started. Hector smiled, then recoiled as norteño blasted from the radio. He scrambled to turn it off, the sudden silence so deep he thought for a second he could hear his heart thudding through coat, wool sweater, and flannel—the many protective layers a Chicago winter demanded. His wife’s station—always the same ghetto music, always booming—made her think of home. It made him feel like a cholo in a low-rider every time he turned the key of their rusted Cavalier. Andrea insisted they couldn’t afford a newer model, which made Hector want one all the more.
He’d repaired their ancient car piecemeal, practically living at the junkyard to beat others to fresh parts. A former boss had tossed him the keys one Friday after missing a month of checks, both of them knowing the beater didn’t cover his lost wages. Hector was famous for fighting as a young man back in Guadalajara and considered taking what he was owed. As he imagined the options open to him, though, standing close enough to see strands of meat in the man’s yellowed teeth, he decided that on this side, that wasn’t the way to get what he needed. He scooped the keys from the pavement and proud of his patience, drove away in the junker, over streets smooth and pocked, that were starting to feel like home.
Hector’s feet argued over the right mix of brake and accelerator as he coaxed the Cavalier back and forth, finally bumping out of a spot buried in snow. He removed his chairs from the space he’d cleared and backed in. All along his block, kitchen chairs, card tables, and broken drawers saved spots people had shoveled—occasionally, recliners, coffee tables, and mattresses, too, the bigger pieces marked for garbage and maybe halfway there, sitting in backyards when drafted as placeholders. They were a winter tradition in Chicago, but something about the barricades made Hector self-conscious, as if he was peeking into actual kitchens and basements, his neighbors’ homes exposed to the road as they claimed a piece of it.
Avoiding those trashy placeholders as he headed inside, he almost didn’t notice his new neighbor’s attempt to charge out of a parking spot. The door of the Escalade gaped, its driver swearing as he looked down at the street. If the spinning wheels caught and he didn’t amputate a door, he would roll over anything in front of him.
“Need some help?” Hector called. “Hey, hold up, guy.”
The driver laughed, showing teeth that seemed too large for his mouth. His hair was blonde, tight on the sides and taller on top, like a helmet with a plume that waved when he nodded. “Appreciate it,” he said.
Hector shoveled in front of the tires. The driver, who wore a thick red sweater and khakis but no coat, joined him. Uselessly he swept at snow with boots Hector recognized as snakeskin. He’d always wanted a pair. They’d be ruined in the salt and snow. His neighbor didn’t seem to care. He was smiling. Then the sweeping turned to kicking, which led to an odd fit of pared swearing: Goddamn. Mother. Son of a. He seemed to forget Hector was there.
The driver got back in the car, and Hector hitched himself to the rear bumper to push. Too late, he realized he was standing directly behind a tire. His neighbor hit the accelerator, hard despite Hector’s advice, spraying his front with icy sludge as the car gained traction and bumped out of the spot.
“Thomas Polk.” The driver pumped Hector’s hand. “Quick snort? Warm up?”
Hector was explaining that he couldn’t—it was ten a.m. and he had to work later—but Thomas had jogged up the walk and into his house, leaving his neighbor speaking, car running, front door bouncing. His house, the first in Colonial Mews, sat opposite Hector’s, separated by an alley that became a river each spring as snow melted and sewers clogged. The Ricans who ran the neighborhood were up in arms over the new townhouses. Gentrification, they screamed, displacement—big words hiding something basic: jealousy. Hector saw the development as a gift, boosting everyone’s value. Now that the homes were completed, he hated to admit that they did have a hollow look, with fake columns wide as trees, showy eaves painted cherry-red or plum. The end walls were windowless, and spiked wrought-iron fencing seemed designed to keep the neighborhood out. But you couldn’t blame the owners on a bad design, and already, people were paying higher prices on the street. His wife would die for a peek behind that façade, which had appeared overnight, as if the house were built elsewhere and hauled whole to the block. Hector supposed he wouldn’t mind a look inside himself.
The home felt like a builder’s model, pricey but sparse, its surfaces—oak floors, marble tiles, granite counters—so smooth, Hector couldn’t see how anyone lived on them.
“Bitch to heat evenly. Feast or famine,” Thomas said, as Hector gazed at a vaulted ceiling, ribbed and crazy high. “More comfortable in the kitchen.” He guided Hector, moving in the same clipped way that he spoke, as if words were a waste of his time.
The kitchen was empty except for some boxes stacked in a corner and the dishes that filled the sink. A smell of burnt toast hung in the air. They stood on opposite sides of a granite slab—no stools—a bowl of fruit so perfect it might have been wax between them. Thomas poured scotch into mugs.
Two empty bedrooms and a useless family room, he said, but try fitting his SUV in the two-car garage—so-called—if Linda parked her little Saturn there. Musical chairs: someone always had to be on the street. Why he was dicking around on the ice today.
Hector shifted from side to side over some of that ice, becoming a puddle beneath his boots.
“No worries: Corazon,” Thomas said cryptically.
Hector took a taste. It went straight to his head. He enjoyed the morning drink because it was something he would never do. Still, he felt guilty. And cold. Wet. He really should get home, he said, tugging on his splattered pants. Thomas didn’t seem to hear but disappeared and returned a moment later with a pair of khakis. He tossed them to Hector with a friendly nod. No, thanks, Hector said, but his neighbor insisted. Embarrassed, Hector finally agreed. In a heavily mirrored bathroom, unflattering images wavering on both sides, he tried not to watch the chubby man changing.
Thomas was on the phone when he returned. He tore into the boxes in the corner while he spoke, pulling out pans, glasses, and utensils, assessing each item as if pricing it for a yard sale.
“No. Granting any easement,” he said, not quite shouting. “Weak. Leaves me exposed… Look, who occupies most of the site? Who controls the option?” He held his cell like a microphone to finish. “Right. So, sorry, let him know.”
He looked surprised to see Hector, then gave a high-pitched laugh, that blond plume rustling as he remembered the neighbor he’d sent to the john. Hector laughed with him. Thomas was high-strung, strange if not crazy, but he had carisma for sure.
He’d moved in six weeks ago, Thomas said, he and Linda, his girlfriend. No, definitely no kids, he laughed. Hector and his wife, Andrea, had five, he said. They’d bought four years ago, just in time. They wouldn’t be able to afford their own house today.
“Going to be a good block,” Thomas said.
Hector nodded, though he thought it was already pretty good, much better than when he’d moved in.
“I wait,” Hector said when Thomas asked what he did, gesturing toward the window, or the world it opened on, with his mug.
“I mean, I wait tables, in a restaurant.”
“Got that.” Thomas smiled. “Which?”
After stints collecting scrap metal in alleys, salvaging bricks for a builder, sorting clothes at a Salvation Army—countless terrible jobs—Hector had started as a dishwasher at Les Contraires, a middle-of-the-road French place downtown. Another crummy job, yes, but after three years bouncing back and forth—valet, busser, expediter, whatever they threw his way—he caught a break. Mercier, a Parisian manager who lived up to his nickname, Merciless, fired a server mid-shift on a slow night. When the slow night turned busy, Hector volunteered to take her slot. That was six years ago. The guys in the kitchen still complained at his luck. Never mind how long he’d spent building his skills and waiting for that window of opportunity to open, expanding it gradually into something permanent. Why should it matter that he’d practiced English until he dreamed in his second language or that he’d waited years to come here properly, while the illegals in the kitchen could be kicked out any day? Sure, luck.
A horn blared like a bugle on the street.
“Your car.” Hector remembered the Escalade double-parked outside.
“Les Contraires. No kidding?” Thomas said. His mother knew the owners. Owned restaurants herself in the ’burbs. She was helping Thomas break into the city market. The Coach House, his first foray, sat in an actual coach house, one of those places built behind the mansions when Humboldt Park was wealthy. Next door, Wicker Park had plenty of nice restaurants, but until The Coach House, none had crossed Western Avenue into Humboldt.
A woman bustled into the room, stopping halfway to the sink when she saw them. “Terminé todo lo demás. Puedo limpiar la cocina ahora?” she asked, gesturing at the kitchen she wanted permission to clean. She was old and dark, Indian blood for sure.
“Thanks, Corazon,” Thomas said.
She looked at the sink full of dishes, confused, and then, warily, at Hector. He turned to the window. Outside a horn sounded in short blasts. Angry shouts rang like shots.
“Still openings,” Thomas said. “Could use you at The Coach House.” He drained his mug and poured two more before Hector could refuse. “Come work for the other side?”
The old woman stared at Hector a moment, shrugged, then left.
“I’m pretty comfortable where I am,” he said. A voice rose above the noise on the street, but he couldn’t catch what it said. “They probably can’t get by out there.”
“Come check the place out. You and the wife. Dinner. On the house.”
Thomas held up a hand. “Hold those words. Just chew on the possibility.”
He nodded while Thomas described the menu. Hector felt as if he were waiting on the street, stuck behind the SUV outside, at the same time that he was drinking scotch in his neighbor’s kitchen, amazed, even giddy at the way Thomas talked over the clatter, so easily Hector wondered if he imagined it.
Warmed by whiskey, Hector laughed as he walked home, thinking how Thomas had ignored or maybe hadn’t heard, those voices on the street. His neighbor seemed insulated from the petty problems of the outside world, a choice, no doubt, to focus on holding his own in a competitive business. They looked like opposites, he and Thomas, but beneath the surface, Hector thought, they had the same drive, compadres already. Why else would Thomas have offered him a job on the spot? It would take a lot for Hector to leave Les Contraires, but he found himself, maybe because of the whiskey, considering The Coach House. The chance to get in on the ground floor, a new place in a changing neighborhood—his neighborhood, no less, barely a mile from his house—was tempting. He imagined himself helping with ordering, as he did at Les Contraires, and eventually, scheduling. With Thomas behind him, Hector might be assistant manager in a year. He had done nearly every job you could do in a restaurant. He would make a great manager. And if manager, why not, someday, the owner of his own place? It was a familiar dream, but one he’d never spoken aloud, afraid how the words might sound, even to his wife. At least there was room for them here. In Mexico, someone like him, growing up as he had, would look a fool even mentioning such possibilities.
Growing up in Guadalajara, he’d lived in a procession of ever-smaller shacks, more than one illegal and in danger of being bulldozed. The worst sat opposite the dump, separated by a fence that couldn’t stop the stench or an army of pepenadores who would steal your eyes if you slept with them open. The scavengers on the other side of the chain-link lived on the garbage people tossed, in it too, tacking up sheets of plastic and cardboard, hammering bits of tin and discarded wood into homes as vulnerable to fellow pepenadores as to the rain and cold. Ragged animals—birds, rats, packs of dogs—competed for scraps, living off the dump like it was their natural habitat. On some days, the human scavengers got ahead: decent clothes and fixable appliances came their way, small jobs, half-meals hardly touched. On others, they had nothing to digest but a mumbled mañana and the hope that something better would appear then.
Chicago was paradise by comparison. Hector struggled here, too, but to enlarge his life, going from bad jobs to better, from a shared basement in Bridgeport to a bigger garden apartment in Armour Square to, finally, the comfortable wood frame he owned in Humboldt Park—or would in twenty-six years. It was the investment of his life, that house. He barely made the mortgage and if he hadn’t waited a year to get the right foreclosure, it would have been too much even then, back when the block scared buyers away. Now, because of the improvements, his house was worth more. And the Ricans thought he should fight that? Should he feel bad that his block was safer and cleaner, too, that his kids no longer had to avoid the frightening house on the corner where he himself had been offered a narcotic and then robbed, an eyesore cleared with the others to make way for clean new housing? True, property taxes were rising. He felt for families who might get forced out—he had a heart—but he hadn’t heard of any and couldn’t see sacrificing progress to obsess over the possibility.
The Ricans didn’t want progress, or anything in the usual order. They got welfare before unpacking their bags. They came to el otro lado with no wait, got Food Stamps and Medicaid right away, could vote the day they arrived. They were born with the keys to the country and still they complained, marching in the streets over jobs, housing, crime. Their right to this and to that. Everything was political, and in case you forgot it, their flags waved all over, in tattoos and shop windows and endless murals. Their addresses said Chicago, but they never left the slums of San Juan. Colonial Mews wasn’t an inspiration for the Ricans—someday I’ll own one—but a threat to their neighborhood, theirs, as if it hadn’t belonged to the Poles and the Swedes and the Jews before them, and to the Indians, Hector supposed, long before that. Maybe they thought the biggest PR flags of all, the steel ones arching over Division Street like gates in a town wall—one at Western Avenue, its twin at California, to mark Paseo Boricua—gave them the final claim. Hector lived “between the flags,” a nickname spoken with pride, as if those blocks were home to heroes holding off an army of Anglos. But that area was changing faster than any. As Hector teased his neighbors, even steel markers could be tossed aside, flags painted new colors in a flash.
At work that day, he took his time settling in, learning the specials while waiting for his shift to begin. Hector loved the hopeful feel of the restaurant in late afternoon, bartenders cutting fruit into tiny wedges, servers sipping coffee as they claimed their sections, the kitchen crew prepping in a frenzy that would not turn violent for a while yet. In winter, an hour of weak sun threw softly shifting light onto the two murals, Versailles and Les Enragés, in a way that made one and then the other look more like a window than a painting.
He thought he knew everything on tonight’s menu and then noticed a new entrée, an old one, actually, returning after years off the list: steak in a reduction with asparagus spears and pommes de terre Lyonnaise. He practiced the chef’s language—half-singing ingredients and preparations, the obvious pairings and the unlikely ones that were the restaurant’s specialty—until he could repeat it without thinking, accent and all. Some servers read everything in flat Chicago drones. Hector liked to recite the dishes slowly, rolling the words on his tongue as if they were the meal. “Tonight I also have a steak special, a petit filet in a vin rouge reduction made with garlic and shallots…” As a busboy, he’d been shocked to hear certain waiters list specials in this way—tonight I have, as if they planned the menu. It took him years to repeat, but he now loved the way that I have felt in his mouth.
He delivered salads to his first tables of the night, a couple on an early date, too in love to see even the obvious flaws. She kept overfilling his glass, nudging him to get drunk, though he didn’t seem to like the wine. A four-top of French tourists were afraid they could not afford the meals they wanted and maybe not even the ones they’d ordered. The exchange rate was a problem, a fear that they’d miscalculated the dishes in their range and a bigger fear of showing it. They were all smiles and nods and pointing fingers, but Hector had done the math: foreigners plus ice water minus dessert equals bad tip. Why, he wondered in frustration, did they come all this way to eat the same stuff they had at home?
Standing at the kitchen door, Mercier raised an index finger, as if hailing a cab. Hector walked over.
“José called in.”
“You can finish those tables.”
Again he nodded silently, but Mercier saw something. “I will make sure everyone tips you out well.”
An hour later, Hector was up to his elbows in back, loading the dishwasher and stacking plates. He lugged a rack of clean glasses to the bar, refilled the ice, returned to the kitchen with a tub of dirty dishes.
“Where’s José?” Luis asked.
“What’s wrong with Hose B?” said Adder, the sous chef.
Hector’s fists clenched automatically, but he smiled. Luis gave him a look.
It happened less than it used to, but Mercier still gave Hector’s section away if he needed a quick replacement in one of the slots Hector used to fill. He hated going back to those jobs, and it wasn’t just the money. Getting pulled off the floor made him seem temporary in the dining room, always low-man, and he no longer fit in the kitchen. That side of the restaurant had its own order, language, even weather—unbearably hot and muggy. Luis was okay, but the others were cold, pretending not to understand his Spanish, calling him jefe, teasing him about slumming it. They were jealous of the money he made, and some blamed him for Vicky, a sweet girl with enormous doe eyes, though she’d moved less like a deer than a snail, one carrying an especially heavy home on its back. Was it Hector’s fault Mercier had noticed him picking up her slack, or that he was ready to take her place when she got canned?
Hector carried two pans to the sink and blasted them with scalding water. Measuring his steps in steam so thick he couldn’t see the floor, his hands rough and dry as hooves, his section split between two other servers, he thought about The Coach House. He thought about it again while unlocking the compactor in the alley. A dark ooze had frozen in front of the machine, and hefting a trash bag, he slipped on the ice. He grasped at air trying to stop the fall. The keys disappeared in the garbage. He got a flashlight but couldn’t see them. He climbed in. Waist-deep in the freezing compactor, he sifted through boxes and putrid food for fifteen minutes before spotting the silver ring.
“Who mugged you?” Adder pointed to Hector’s pants, smeared red with tomatoes, or maybe wine, at the knees, as he came through the kitchen door. His neighbor’s pants. He’d meant to change earlier, but dozing, had run out of time.
“Ah, caray. You empty the garbage, jefe, or roll in it?” Carlos pinched his nose.
Hector checked the storage room. There was nothing decent for him to change into, so he did his best to clean up at the slop sink and went back to his station.
“Look at this!” Hector said to his wife before he’d taken off his coat. He’d walked with fifty less than he needed, waited a lifetime for a bus in bitter cold on Division, then arrived home to find Thomas’s Escalade occupying his spot.
“Shh, you’ll wake the kids,” she hissed.
He pulled her to the window. That was their neighbor’s truck in the space Hector had cleared, he explained, the guy from Colonial Mews who he’d dug out earlier that day. He was angry, but more than that, disappointed. In what, he couldn’t exactly say. Hector had been on edge since his fight with Andrea that morning when he had come home buzzing after his drink at Thomas’s. The front hall of his house was poorly insulated but felt almost cozy as he closed his door on the harsh weather outside. The big-mouth DJ they called El Pistolero was up in arms about something, his fuzzy rant, emerging from the music on Que Buena FM, behind the kitchen door, more comical than annoying this morning. Hector felt as if he was floating as he went upstairs. Unseen on the landing, he watched his daughters play in the bedroom they shared. Carmen, the oldest, had pulled empty toilet paper rolls from the wastebasket to make dolls with popsicle-stick arms and hair of old yarn. She wore jeans. Giselle and Elodia still had on nightgowns, which were worn and too small, both originally bought at a thrift store for Carmen. The Magic Kingdom pictured on Elodia’s was flaking, and the cartoon words on Giselle’s had faded to shadows. Hector’s mouth was dry. His mood shifted as his head began to throb a little from the whiskey.
A bucket Andrea must have set out before yesterday’s rain became snow caught drips under a section of roof he’d replaced. He’d saved money using scrap lumber from one of the houses torn down to make way for Colonial Mews, and he wondered if the old wood had warped. Fifteen feet away, he could feel the icy draft penetrating the room’s ancient window frames. Last week he’d seen black spots in the basement, the return of mold he’d thought was gone forever (the previous owners had let pipes coming in from the street burst as the bank foreclosed). The first night Hector turned the key to open the door to this house was his proudest. Only then did it hit him, this was his, but the home he’d waited so long for seemed like a dump now. Andrea had argued that it cost too much, the same thing she said about a new car, groceries, decent nightgowns for the girls—reining him in at every turn. Was she right? He thought of how little equity he’d built after four years, of the balance that took everything he had each month, and the walls seemed to close in.
“Dios mio, what are you doing in those boots?” His wife shouted behind him, sending his back, sore from shoveling, into a spasm. “Look what you dragged in here!” She pointed to the icy trail that ended where he wobbled slightly. Next she smelled the liquor on his breath, and then she was screaming and the kids were crying, and he had the thought he always regretted later: he would be living like a king by now if he’d never known her, had them, bought this. Even as the idea formed he knew it was a lie, but a small part of him believed it.
“How do you know it was the neighbor who moved the chairs?” Andrea asked that night, the morning’s fight already forgotten. She guided him from the window and coaxed him out of his winter coat.
“That’s his truck. I know it.”
That might be his truck, she pointed out, but she had gotten groceries that afternoon. While the car was gone, anyone could have moved those chairs, parked, and then driven off. To their neighbor, it would have looked like just another space. Would anyone with a vehicle that nice risk taking someone else’s spot?
“I guess you’re right,” Hector said, relieved. He pulled her close, kissing her neck, ear, cheek. She was heavier than when he’d met her, with lately a touch of gray in her thick black hair, but more beautiful than ever, his love, the foundation he needed just to stand. He’d begun gently sucking her lip when she pulled away.
“Pappi, you stink,” she said.
He hurried in the shower, but by the time he finished she was asleep.
The hostess said the wait would be just a little longer, and Andrea groaned.
“Fine.” Hector smiled. “Is Thomas around?” He’d called the day before to let his neighbor know they were coming. No, no reservations, the girl who took the message said, but he’d seen two couples brought to tables obviously held for them.
“Mr. Polk?” the hostess asked.
“Can you tell him Hector is here? Hector Chavez.”
From a distance The Coach House looked like a smaller version of the mansion it sat opposite. Up close, it had vinyl siding, not cedar like the big house, and the façade was only painted face-brick red. A typical Humboldt Park home, which had been gutted for a restaurant that sat forty and a small bar, packed with people greedily eyeing tables. Candles cast expansive shadows on a low ceiling, flickering over rich wood and brass fixtures. Spurs and riding crops were mounted on the walls. A bridle dangled near the door as if waiting for a horse.
“Don’t you want something?” Hector asked his wife. “Have a drink.”
“Hector, it’s too much,” she whispered. “You sure this won’t cost nothing?”
He shouldered his way to the bar, practiced at edging around people without seeming pushy.
“Baby, you know your problem?” he said, returning with a beer for himself, a rum and Coke for her. “You need to stop thinking like a mojado. Think like an outsider, you end up outside, squinting in through other people’s windows.”
She sucked a piece of ice. “So what, I should think like a gringa?”
“I’m serious. At least try to look comfortable. You see how long it took that bartender to get my order? The longer he made me wait, the wider I planted my elbows on his bar. You got to act like you own the place.”
“Tough when you’re waiting a hour for a table, no?”
“Laugh, but if you’re patient and look for them, opportunities start dropping in front of you, right in the street here. You got to chew on the possibilities at least, or someone else will. Like with this job.”
“I wish I had something to chew on besides ice. I’m starving, Hector.” She bit loudly into an ice cube. Hector was hungry, too, though he refused to show it. He looked around. The hostess had disappeared. A short man in a dark suit waited at the window where food came out. He pounced on plates and shoved them at runners, mixing up where meals went, ignoring anyone who questioned an order he’d confused. Managers like this were their own worst enemies: pendejos with the people on their side, then surprised they couldn’t get ahead when the house was slammed.
“What makes this such a great opportunity anyway, moving from a place where you know how you stand to one where you don’t know nothing?” Andrea asked.
He knew plenty, Hector said. He didn’t mean to snap at her, but having Andrea here made him nervous. He was a different person at home and liked to keep it separate from the world outside, where he did what he had to in order to get by. She’d never seen him at any of his jobs. He didn’t work at The Coach House yet, but since he’d marched out of Les Contraires last week, a job here was his best option. Mercier pulled him off the floor early that night to fill in as host for a few hours, and Hector heard himself refuse. If he didn’t want to wait for half a shift, Mercier said, he could stay home for a whole one. That sounds real good, Hector said. He felt his heart begin to drum as he turned and left. He’d been cut early on all four shifts since then, the last time after just an hour. The manager would fire him as soon as it was convenient.
He knew, for instance, that this was a better place for waiters than Les Contraires, Hector said, taking a gentler tone with Andrea. (He hadn’t told her about his trouble at work or that they’d missed a mortgage payment.) From the crowd, he knew the money would be better, and already he had ideas. For instance, the room was too small for runners. Thomas could save money and give better service without them.
“So now you’re telling him how to run his restaurant?”
Sure, he’d make suggestions, Hector said, since Thomas had hinted that if he started out as a server, he’d be a manager before long. Hector had imagined this possibility enough that the lie seemed true, and Andrea had goaded him into it in a way, nagging about the risks of a job he had to take. She opened her mouth, so surprised and impressed that once he felt the words on his lips—hanging there as sweet as ripe mangos, just waiting to be said—he couldn’t stop what followed. After a few years as manager, he said, with money and connections, he would be in a good spot to open his own restaurant. She stared, doubtful but amazed, and Hector felt suddenly naked.
Thomas was staring at him, too, from across the restaurant, that plume of blonde hair bobbing as he spoke with the hostess. He saluted when Hector waved, but his expression looked as vacant as it had on the morning Hector met him. Sweat collected on Hector’s back and rolled down his sides.
“How’s it going? Gotten stuck in any spots lately?” Hector laughed as his neighbor approached. He hadn’t seen Thomas since clearing a path for his Escalade two weeks earlier. That night his truck had appeared in Hector’s space, but it was gone the next morning. The day after that, a temporary thaw had melted the snow.
“Can’t say.” Thomas sounded confused.
“Thanks again for the scotch that morning. That was a nasty storm, huh?”
“Oh, yeah.” Thomas smiled warmly. “Stunk.”
Hector introduced his wife.
Thomas ordered drinks without asking what they wanted. If they were going to eat here, they had to have a sloe gin fizz, he said, the house special. The Coach House was about going back to basics, he explained, classic cocktails, old recipes, seasonal produce. He insisted his kitchen work with whatever the market dumped on them. “Keeps the staff on their toes. Could eat here years and never guess the menu.”
Their drinks came. Thomas stopped the manager as he passed. The man spoke to him quietly.
“Come on, Pat, need some turnover. Make it happen,” Thomas said, loud enough that the nearest diners looked up. “You folks, how long you been waiting?”
An hour, Hector said, and Thomas made the manager seat them right away. Hector smiled at Andrea. Maybe he hadn’t lied after all. This guy wouldn’t last as manager. He sat them at a cramped two-top on the windowless far wall, between a bussers’ station and thumping kitchen doors, but they didn’t care, happy to sit anywhere by then. Hector had never seen a nice restaurant from the other side, a guilty, god-like pleasure. Neither of them liked the drinks Thomas had bought (a hint of some fruit—apricots, plums?—and a bitter aftertaste), but the gesture reminded them of home. Their server was friendly until he heard their accents. He sighed when they ordered entrées only, no drinks or appetizers because Hector didn’t want to take advantage. If he did become manager someday, he’d put this guy in his place, though he would do the classy thing tonight and drop a big tip.
The food arrived. The presentation was dazzling but the portions were small, and they finished their meals still hungry. Hector flagged Thomas down to thank him.
Thomas nodded, distracted. The restaurant was slammed.
“I been checking the place out like you asked,” Hector said. “I was thinking—”
“Hey,” Thomas said, his attention snapping back. “Someone left Monday. You still need a job?”
“I’m pretty comfortable where I am, but I guess I’d be open to offers.” Beneath the table, he squeezed Andrea’s knee.
“Under the gun,” Thomas said, glancing at his watch. “Wait here? Show you back of the house in ten?” He gestured to a bartender and before Hector could stop him had produced two more cocktails made with sloe gin.
Twenty minutes later, a rangy Puerto Rican showed Hector the kitchen and back bar. The busboy took small, shuffling steps, stooped, as if embarrassed by his height under the low ceiling. In tortured English, he explained his job, but he knew little about the setup for servers. Frustrated as the kid foraged for words, Hector spoke to him in Spanish. The busboy looked away as if he didn’t understand. The painful exchange reminded Hector of the neighborhood meetings he attended to keep an eye on the Ricans. Few Mexicans went to them. Once an old woman had come in late, looking confused.
“Que ocupa?” he’d asked, to see what she needed, instead of “Que necesita?” The Ricans knew what he meant but pretended not to, laughing at the colloquial expression, greeting him with “Que ocupas?” in a sing-song accent after that. He gave it right back, insisting the Ricans never brought food to meetings because they were full from swallowing their Rs, but the joking rested on a base of icy suspicion.
“So?” Andrea said when Hector returned.
“Nice place. What’s this?” Les Contraires printed receipts for comped meals, too, so customers knew how much to tip, but Hector was surprised to see the pricey drinks Thomas had ordered included on theirs. The mistake wouldn’t change the amount Hector paid by much but still seemed odd. He figured twenty-five percent and stuffed cash in the billfold. The waiter returned it a few minutes later. He apologized when Hector explained, but no one had told him to comp the meal. He would talk to the manager.
“Hector, you said this was free,” his wife hissed. “We can’t even afford that tip.”
“Of course it’s free. He just has a lot going on, Thomas. You should have seen him the morning I pushed his truck—off in his own world.”
Mr. Polk had stepped out, the waiter said, and hadn’t left instructions. They’d tried his cell, but he wasn’t answering. No one knew when he might return.
“No problem,” Hector said and the waiter looked relieved. “You know, I think we will take a look at that dessert menu.”
They took their time finishing the awful cocktails while deciding on a dessert to share. Dessert came, a glazed fruit tart with fresh cream, the cheapest thing on the menu, and they took their time eating it. They took their time over a second cup of coffee and then a third. One dinner rush ended and another, late-night rush began. The manager circled their table like a vulture, waiting for sick prey to fall. Finally, he offered to buy them drinks at the bar. Returning to the spot where he’d started his evening, Hector’s dislike of the man hardened into hatred. It was rude, forcing them to move, and the bribe of free drinks only added to the insult. Hector wanted to pay and leave, but he barely had enough for the tip and Andrea had cut up their only credit card two years ago after he hit its surprisingly low limit.
“These are on Pat,” the bartender said, setting down two sloe gin fizzes.
Andrea glared. “Can we please leave?”
“You want to pay for all this?” Hector said through clenched teeth, which turned into a smile when their server looked over. “We have to wait for Thomas.”
“I got to give you credit.” She pushed her drink forward. “You sure look like you own the place. Who but the owner sits in a restaurant all night?”
She was the one who finally went to get cash. She couldn’t sit there another second, she said, grabbing her purse.
Half an hour later, Hector held up his drink as the bartender wiped the bar. He wished he was on the other side of it, helping to close instead of sitting here, taking up space. He hated those last lingering customers who made it tough to get ahead at the end of the night. Now he was one of them.
What was taking Andrea so long? The lights grew brighter, and the room seemed to shrink. The ceiling was lower than he’d realized, and the tall busboy who had given him the tour crouched on the other side of the bar, stocking beer. A wedge of light, blue and harsh, as if chilled by the cooler, leaked from the machine, illuminating his face. He was not a boy at all, Hector realized, closer to thirty than eighteen.
Hector asked how much he walked with on weeknights, in English this time, but the boy, the man—had he ever said his name?—was already gone.
“You get the lay of the land?” the manager asked ten minutes later. “Is it a good fit?”
He was interested, Hector said, not wanting to seem too eager with this guy. He and Thomas would settle things later.
“You’d be three to eleven most days. Everyone fights for weekends, but I can give you every other Friday to start. The longer you’re here, the more you’ll pick up. Waiters tip out ten percent, fifteen if you hustle. Villalobos, the one who showed you around, always makes fifteen. He’s hungry for shifts, works his ass off—a good model.”
“I’m a waiter,” Hector said, “not a busboy.”
“Oh.” The manager squinted. “Thomas told me you were.”
“You sure?” Hector smiled. “Maybe he just mentioned a job, and you thought—”
“No, he definitely said busboy. Twice. He reminded me again before he left.” The manager’s eyes flashed down to Hector’s shoes and back to his face. “The thing is, we don’t have an opening for a waiter now. Maybe down the road…”
“I could lose my home.” The sentence, spoken aloud, seemed to come from someone else, but rang true. Hector would be lucky to last the week at Les Contraires, and he couldn’t pay his mortgage as busboy at The Coach House. Finding another job could take months. His family needed more space. How would they manage with less, in an apartment half the size of their house, if it came to that? He couldn’t even afford a rental on his block. What kind of landlord in what kind of neighborhood would lease to a family with five children? He pictured a man from the bank changing the locks on his house as it was foreclosed, his furniture tossed onto the frozen street, kitchen chairs tipped, couch perched at the curb as if for a parade, the Ricans from his block passing by and pretending not to notice. An old rage rose in his chest. His muscles, much smaller now, tensed. He thought of fights he’d had growing up and imagined a similar one here, saw himself knocking Thomas down on their street, his fist grazing those big white teeth. It wasn’t a fight he could win—no matter how fast he ran or where, of course he would be caught. He was too drunk, too tired anyway. And he couldn’t leave his place at the bar now that the wheels were in motion. He had to wait for Andrea.
Thomas had not done it out of meanness, Hector knew, screwing him on the bill and charging him for those drinks, offering him a job as a server, then telling the manager he was a busboy. At first, he hadn’t even recognized Hector, whose home sat opposite his, separated by an alley that became a river each spring as snow melted and sewers clogged. There was nothing personal in his treatment, which only made it worse.
Something moved in the mirror behind the bar, and Hector realized that the flushed face was his, flushed though the restaurant was freezing. They’d turned the heat down to push out the last customers, a trick Mercier had taught him years ago. He felt exposed and uncomfortable, alone at the bar. He’d drained Andrea’s drink as well as his own and a “mistake” the bartender had tossed him rather than dumping it. Hector had been swallowing Thomas’s alcohol for hours, not noticing his own intoxication until he tried to stand and fell back on his stool. The problem was that dinner. He’d gone without lunch on the promise of a big meal, but dinner had been surprisingly small.
Hands grasped his shoulders from behind and shook him roughly.
“Hector! Hector! Dios mio, are you a bum off the street, to fall asleep in public?”
“Qué? Estoy bien. Yo, yo—I was just resting my eyes.”
Beneath Andrea’s voice—maybe he’d been dreaming it—a corrido played in his head, a song full of longing and pride, something about Villa seizing haciendas while Carranza unlocked the border for the Americans hunting him.
“Resting? You’re drunk on that…stuff—estás completamente borracho!”
“Where are the keys? Wait, I need…”
“Sure, you need the keys. Like you need a tombstone. You wait. I have to pay.” Andrea clucked her tongue as she counted money from her purse.
“Do you hear that song?” Hector asked.
“Song? Ay, que está loco,” she whispered fiercely. “All I hear is money draining out of our bank account. Do you know what this cost?”
He strained to hear the words in his head, buried under the endless back and forth, an accordion’s stuttering rhythm. Something about Carranza, Pershing’s mule. Hector laughed at that, Pershing’s mule, and the bartender looked at him.
“I’m glad you think it’s funny,” Andrea said. “We’ll go without for a month because of this.”
“I’ll find something tomorrow,” he said. “Tomorrow.” He didn’t know what, but just saying the word felt satisfying somehow.
“Sure, the big hero. I wish your kids could see you now. Come here.” Softening a little, she straightened his collar and smoothed his hair.
They were there, on his lips, those other words, but he couldn’t grasp the lyrics. No, he couldn’t quite, but his heart beat louder, stirred by the music in his head, thin and distant, as if the band stood on the icy street outside. Villalobos, the busboy, spun chairs, expertly upending them, making room to sweep up napkins and stray food dropped from tables. Hector closed his eyes again. In the bright, rich room, eyes shut, a corrido in his head, he imagined for a moment that he was home. But the swinging doors in back gaped wide, then closed, voices rose then fell, bouncing in the hollow room, and he realized the music came from whoever was cleaning the kitchen.