T.S. Bender

It was some point early in August, a Thursday or Friday, some point at the end of the week that Miguel didn’t show up to work. And that morning, as the sun streamed into the garage of the grounds shop and mowers rumbled in place, the guys said that Miguel would be in. 

“He don’t miss work,” Victor said, and someone else said to check the kitchen, that maybe he was in there with Mary, and Victor smirked and said it was too early for that. But later, long after starting at six, long after finishing the first jobs and then the second ones, Victor came by the golden willow beside the fourteenth green that me, Fin, and Gilberto had gathered under after push mowing around trees and benches and wherever else the rough mower couldn’t get to. Victor slipped through the dangling branches that swayed just above the ground, adjusting his pants as he told us that he’d heard from Miguel, in Alabama somewhere after driving all night, on his way to Michoacán. It was Miguel’s sancho, Victor said. The guy living in his house, spending time with his kids, and, of course, fucking his wife. He’d known this all along, ever since he came to the States back in September, but he was saving up to bring his family here, sending them money every month, waiting till his wife and kids were with him again. He knew that soon there’d be enough and they’d leave Michoacán and any sancho behind. But when he called the night before, he heard him in the house, heard him in his bed with his wife. So he left and was on his way home. I asked Victor when he’d be back, but Victor said you don’t come back from that shit. No way, he said. 

“Does she know about Mary?” I said. “Or Yolanda?” 

Victor glared at me. His usually round eyes narrowed as his pudgy cheeks and boyish face turned menacing. “Pinche gringo. What does that matter?” 

“He’s been with them, right? I saw him with Mary down there last week,” I said, pointing to the clearing beyond the green where guys on the grounds crew and sometimes building maintenance brought Mary or Yolanda or some other woman from the kitchen or housekeeping staff. This whole area—holes thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen, split in half by the creek that flowed from the water hazard on seven and trickled into the woods—we called the valley, the lowest section of the course, and where we were then under the willow and the clearing behind us was the lowest of all. We could sit and rest, shielded by the steep hill past the thirteenth green and the other hill that rose beside the fourteenth green and also by the line of maples and the willow, and see or hear any approaching carts long before we’d be seen. Far from the clubhouse, from the eyes of members who reported any idleness to the general manager who then came down on our boss, and hidden even from the members’ beautiful stone homes that bordered much of the course, we found refuge in the valley. We felt freer there, under the cool shade of the trees, listening to the gentle flow of the creek. 

Back in June, up on the fifteenth tee, as me and Miguel filled divots, he’d showed me pictures from his daughter Lola’s first birthday party. He hadn’t spoken to me much before then, but he’d nearly cried that day, scrolling through his phone and zooming in on his little girl. And there was one picture, as Miguel’s wife opened presents, of Lola on a man’s lap, his hands holding hers, helping her to grab helplessly at the wrapping paper. If that was the man, did Miguel know it at the time, aware of this man who had come into his wife and children’s lives but unable to acknowledge it?

Victor had said Miguel knew all along, and maybe he’d turned to Mary and Yolanda only then, only after he knew, unable to last without the touch of another woman, unable to work day after day for his family that was no longer completely his.

I said it again, that Miguel had been with Mary the week before, but Victor didn’t respond. I leaned against the cart and kicked at a rock embedded deep in the grass and I said, “I just thought that was what you all do.”

I looked to Gilberto and then to Fin, but neither said anything. Gilberto pounded on his knee with his closed fist as if angry or nervous or both. He had a wife back in Mexico, too, and he’d been here longer than Miguel. I’d seen her picture taped on the inside of his locker, her with his three kids, and had caught him staring at it those mornings when we first got in. But he never spoke of her, not like Miguel had. And Fin, everyone knew his story, how his wife had left him the year before, took his son and moved out west. The way he talked about her, even as he cursed her, you could tell he missed her every day. Fin lifted his cap and brushed his graying hair off his forehead, smoothing it before he fit his hat back on and adjusted it. He turned from me, facing Gilberto and Victor. “He could kill that bitch and be back by mid-week,” he said. 

“Shit, man, you can’t do that,” Victor said, his eyes back to their boyish softness. He tightened the belt around his protruding stomach. “He loves her. That’s why he’s going back. He ain’t killing her.” 

“You can’t trust a woman.” Fin picked up a valve key from the cart and smacked it against the side. “Nope, can’t do it. They just fuck you up.” He dropped the key and it bounced softly on the coiled-up hose. He always had that hose in his cart, ready to hop out and hit a dry spot on the rough or a fairway or green. It kept him busy and off on his own, but whenever he worked with the rest of the crew, he slid in with them all as if he’d known them forever. Fin had been on the crew for over twenty-five years, long before they arrived, before many of them were even born, and he would stay long after they went off to another job or back home to Mexico. He’d lost a woman, like Miguel had, and I had, too. I’d loved and been let down, and if I hadn’t been like these men had, what did that matter? The year before, the girl I’d been with left me for a guy in law school, saying she needed someone who had direction, and the next day, I saw them together at the park by her apartment and watched as they lounged on a blanket just as we had. Mothers and fathers with their children and dogs surrounded them, yelling and barking, but I focused on them—her, leaning on one elbow and picking blades of grass as she spoke, and him, sitting crossed-legged and stiff, his hands folded in his lap and moving them only to brush the rolled up grass from the blanket. I circled the park, sweat gathering on my back from the humid July air, but if she saw me she never made it obvious, and soon after I left, knowing that if she had seen me, or if I’d gone up to them, what would I have done then but scowl at him. 

“You don’t think she was lonely back home?” I said, but Gilberto told me that it was different. She had the kids, she had her family. Miguel, Gilberto said, had no one. Just the job and the crew and his family so far away. 

“She don’t even know,” Fin said. “None of them do. This job ain’t easy, and we ain’t doing it for us.” 

The way they spoke reminded me of the sad, slow songs you’ve heard so often but don’t understand until you’ve suffered. All of us there had in some way, and that day we’d lost one of us. Another would come along, but he wouldn’t be Miguel. 

“This not a good week for us,” Victor said. “Now we need two guys.” 

“It’s never a good week,” Fin said. “Tell me one good week.” 

Victor shrugged. He knew Fin was right, and he was. Long before that day, Victor had known what that meant, and he knew it then and would know it for years after. Miguel knew it, too, and maybe he’d had enough that one night. He’d had enough and there wasn’t anything he could do but get in his car and go home to Michoacán. No one knew when he’d get there, wondering the time that he’d left, the time it would take to drive down. But a few weeks later, Gilberto, who had a friend who had a cousin from Miguel’s town, said that Miguel arrived at some point on Sunday afternoon and, after breaking down his front door, beat his sancho to death with what Gilberto’s friend’s cousin described as some curved metal pipe with handles that, Gilberto figured, was a valve key for the irrigation. He’d taken his family and disappeared into the mountains, and Gilberto, slapping the table in front of him, said we’d never hear from him again. 

Fin leaned back in his chair and, pulling his hat off and resting it on his knee, raised his eyebrows at me. In the weeks since Miguel left, he’d said that we’d hear that Miguel had killed his sancho. “I know these guys,” he’d said as we trimmed hedges and swept the clay courts, as he taught me how to change the cups. “These guys are just like me. One day you’ll see. It’ll happen to you, too.” 

And I knew it would. I’d been at the club for only five months, but already I felt how Fin and Victor and Gilberto did, the desperation in their lives, the pain they so often had. Fin said it would happen to me, and I knew it would, but not in any way it had before. Because when that girl, whether it’s in a week or month or year, tells me that I’m going nowhere and she won’t go nowhere with me, I’ll know that she’s right. I’ll still be at the club, waiting for something more in my life and, tired and fed up, she’ll leave for another man, another life. I’ll know when it’s coming, as Fin and Miguel and all the others on the crew knew that eventually their lives would come down around them. And when that happened, how I’d dream of seeing them on the train or along the avenue, confronting them, grabbing him by the neck and choking him until she begged me to stop, until she realized how much I’d loved her. 

None of us said Miguel shouldn’t have done it, and whenever anyone sneezed, we didn’t utter sancho, but instead worked in a solemn silence with an understanding nod, a flash of sympathy. We talked about how straight Miguel’s cut lines had been, how he could lay a pallet of sod quicker than anyone, how the brick paths he’d laid were even and strong. How he had covered for Fin when he backed the cart up too far and it went over the edge of the valley, crashing along the fifty-foot drop to the creek below. How he had stayed late that one day, long after he was done his job, to finish the weeds. How he had cigarettes that we passed around during the afternoon jobs. Because we knew what he was really like, and we knew that one day that could be any one of us, driving home frantically, hate surging through us, turning us into that violent man he had become. 

T.S. Bender is a writer and teacher who grew up outside of Philadelphia and now lives in Maryland with his wife, son, and beagle. In summer 2023 he took part in the Kenyon Review Writing Workshop for Teachers, and in 2024 he is a member of the One Story Writing Circle. His fiction has previously appeared in Shenandoah, and he is working on a novel, which includes “Miguel’s Sancho.”

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