by Jared Lemus
My mother became a maid for a rich, white lady a few months after my father bounced. She worked cleaning the lady’s house—vacuuming, sanitizing toilets in a bathroom with heated tiles, dusting—two days a week for over a month, while my brother and I went to school. The bills, however, didn’t seem to be getting any smaller; but as luck would have it, the lady had also invested in other properties, including a one-story office building that housed a local paper company amongst others. It turned out that the contractor the lady hired to do after-hours janitorial work was under investigation and had closed their offices and laid off their employees. Unsure of what to do, the woman had asked my mother if she knew anyone who owned a janitorial service. Needing the money, my mother lied and said that she did, but that it was a very small company that consisted of only three people. What she didn’t mention was that the people were me, her, and my brother.
I was all of thirteen years old, reading peacefully on one of the twin-sized mattresses—which had been moved into the living room after my mother’s sister moved in to help pay the bills—meant for me and Elias, when my mother burst through the front door, tripping over me.
“Move tu mierda out of the way,” she said, barely catching herself.
“Where am I supposed to put it?” I asked, pretending to set my book down next to me but failing because the mattress was pressed flush against the wall on that side.
“Or here?” I asked, placing the book between the three feet of floor space that divided mine and Elias’ makeshift beds.
“Keep it up, you hijo de puta, and I’ll put you in charge of the toilets,” she said, wagging her finger at me.
“You’re my m—wait, what toilets?”
Over dinner that night, eating the same thing we’d been eating all week—black beans and queso fresco—our mother told me and Elias that she had quit her second job at the Mexican restaurant down the street where her sister worked and had gotten us all a night job at an office. I thought she meant coding or trading stock, which I don’t know how to do but was willing to learn—my first real look at corporate America where I would make bank.
“When do we start?” I asked, naively.
“Get some rest,” our mother said. “I’ll get you when it’s time.”
At 10:30 that night, the reality of the job set in as I stood over the sink of the paper company office, Lysol in one hand, scrubber in the other. I could see my brother across the hall wiping down the desks at a cubicle. Twelve years old and already cleaning up after other people to help keep the lights on.
The office building had four offices—a dentistry, the paper company, a call center, and one unused. The jobs were divided like this: I was in charge of cleaning the kitchen area in all three suites—counters, leftover dishes, trashcans, sweeping and vacuuming the carpet. Elias covered the desks in the call center and paper company—wiping them down with Pledge and bringing me mugs and plates people left at their stations, and our mother would do what was left—most of the dentistry because she didn’t trust us near the tools, bathrooms, etc.
“I miss being bored,” I called out to Elias, hands still in yellow rubber gloves. He was taking a trash bag out of its bin and replacing it with another, the way our mother taught him.
“Me, too,” he said, sighing. He sat down at the desk in front of him and kicked it, causing one of the loose drawers to slide partly open. He pulled it the rest of the way, and I could see his eyes light up because of whatever he saw inside.
“Come here,” he said, waving me over.
“What is it?” I asked, crossing the hall to him.
“Look,” he said, pointing at a family-size bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. He reached in slowly, cautiously, as if the person who sat at the station had booby-trapped the candy. He grabbed the bag and held it up to the light.
“How many are there?” I asked, taking off the gloves. The bag looked almost full.
“I don’t know,” he said.
I took the bag out of his hand and weighed it the way I’d seen in movies when someone weighs a brick of cocaine or envelope full of money and says, “It’s light.”
“Okay, let’s take one and split it,” I said, “that way they won’t notice.” I pulled one out, undid the wrapping, then used a knife from the kitchen area to cut it in half. It was delicious. We never had anything like that at our house, our mother not wanting to spend money on anything that wasn’t necessary. Even when our father was around, the only time we got candy was during Halloween, when we’d dig our hands into bowls with signs that read “Please take one,” knowing whatever we got that night would have to last us all year.
“Tomorrow,” I said, “we’ll take another one.”
Elias and I weren’t getting paid to do this work—considering that the money the woman was paying our mom and her two “employees” was the equivalent, I would later understand as an adult, to be the same as what she would pay one white person in her employment—and we didn’t get allowances, so this was our only compensation. We threw the wrapper in the trash bag, where it blended in with everything else.
The next night, after taking the recycling to the dumpster out back and making sure our mother was in the dentistry, we went back to the desk with the chocolate and took one each instead of splitting one. And once we got a taste of that sweetness, we wanted more. We reasoned that taking from only one desk would eventually get us caught, but if we took from a different one each night, no one would know. So began our search for treasure.
There were 61 stations between the two offices, and it took us only one night to look through all of them, taking a mental inventory. There were people with power bars, Oreos, mini-bags of chips, stress balls with their company logo, coupons and menus for restaurants. One person had, inexplicably, a pair of pliers, and someone else had a quarter collection that instructed the collector to place a quarter in the states’ slot only if they’d visited—it had only Arkansas, Texas, and Missouri filled in.
We spent the next two weeks doing this—picking up picture frames with family photos, pictures of dogs and cats; two people, for reasons I, to this day, do not understand, had pictures of the plants they had on their desks on their desks. There were funny calendars—my favorite had a different picture of Garfield for each day of the year saying something like, “I hate Mondays” or “Thursdays mean I eat lasagna.”
At the start of that third week of cleaning, Elias’ math teacher called our mother after speaking with his other teachers because Elias kept falling asleep at school, and I looked like the brown version of a Tim Burton character with 15-gallon bags under my eyes. They sat us all down in Mrs. Holloway’s class to ask our mom some questions, but she barely spoke English, so it was up to me to translate my own interrogation.
“Mrs. Castillo,” they began, “we’re concerned about your children’s health. They look tired. Is something going on in the house?”
“They want to know how you’d like to accept the award they’re giving us for being the best students at this school,” I said to my mother, in Spanish.
She didn’t believe me. The teacher’s faces were telling a different story.
“Tell me what they said right now,” she said.
“Well,” I said, sighing, “they want to know why Elias and I,” I said, signaling at my brother, “aren’t getting paid for working late at night.”
The look she gave me said, “If I didn’t think they’d take you away from me for beating your ass in public…” Mrs. Holloway must have noticed, because she said she was going to get our Spanish teacher.
“Why don’t you wait outside,” she told me and Elias.
I took one last glance at my mother and could tell that she was scared. She couldn’t very well let them know that we were tired because she was keeping us past midnight with a night-time job or we’d be put in foster care. She couldn’t tell them we needed the money so she made up a cleaning service, and she definitely couldn’t say she was being paid under the table; of course, at the time, I didn’t know any of this; to me, it simply looked how I imagined my mother looked when she was a child in school back home in Guatemala.
In the courtyard, my friend Guillermo sat reading an old book series he was obsessed with, titled The Keys to the Kingdom.
“I saw your mom walk into the school,” he said to me and Elias as we approached.
“Yeah. Elias here,” I said, slapping my brother in the back of the head, “couldn’t stay awake in class, and now we’re all getting deported.”
“Ow,” Elias said.
“Don’t joke about that,” Guillermo said. “They did that to my cousin, and no one has seen him since then.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “He isn’t back home?”
“My parents said they heard on the news something about concentration camps. They think he’s there.”
Kids. We got our information from our parents who got their information from the people on TV, who got their information from someone else, and so on. It’s a miracle any of the truth actually made it to us, but sometimes, like in that instant, we were talking about something important—something we didn’t truly understand—more than the adults around us.
“What are you virgins doing?” It was Fernando, Guillermo’s brother. “Y’all never gonna get any panocha reading this shit,” he said, slapping his brother’s book out of his hands. He was barely sixteen but acted like he’d been sixteen for years. He sat on the table in his faded jeans—holes at the knees—and Timberlands.
“Hola, Fernando,” my brother said, dumb as a rock.
“He’s going to lose his v-card before you two losers,” Fernando said, pointing at Elias.
Fernando did shit like that to us all of the time before he graduated to the high school across the street two years before. It had been even worse when he had an audience—the wedgies, the swirlies, the occasional dead arm just to impress some girl who would never notice him otherwise. What he didn’t understand was that sometimes it was better to go unnoticed, the way animals use camouflage to keep from getting eaten; I didn’t understand that then either.
“I already lost mine,” I said.
“Bro,” Fernando said, laughing, “You? You’ve seen a girl naked?”
“Yeah. Me and—” I blanked for a name, saying the first one that came to mind—a girl from science class. “Amy.”
“That a white girl?” Fernando asked.
“You better hope you lyin’ or that her parents don’t find out.”
“Her parents love me,” I said.
“Now I know you lyin’. Come on,” he said to Guillermo, “Mom’s waiting in the car.”
Guillermo put his book in his backpack and zipped it up, then waved and said goodbye. I watched him and Fernando—at least five inches taller than us—walk to the parking lot.
“Her parents love me,” Fernando shouted up to the sky, not looking back at us. “Ha!” he said and laughed the rest of the way to the car, his voice echoing in the courtyard.
At home that afternoon, I wished my father was still around so I could ask him to tell me about sex, what it was, how it worked, everything. The only information I’d gotten was from TV, because sex-ed had been taken out of my lesser-privileged neighborhood’s school district for being too risqué, opting for teaching abstinence instead, leaving it up to parents to give their children “the talk,” but my mother, who cursed and drank in front of us, found that talking about sex was inappropriate. She waved me off if I ever asked, saying I’d find out one day, but then got angry with me for not knowing more. That was the real double-edged sword we’d learned about at Sunday school—simultaneously wanting, like the tree of knowledge of good and evil, children to have both information and ignorance.
I turned to Camila, her sister, for help before she went to work, and she told me to do what every other kid my age was doing—look it up on the computer. I reminded her that we couldn’t afford a computer.
“Do it at school,” she’d said, but I was too embarrassed.
Then it hit me—there were computers at our night job, and we would be going there that night, even though my mother promised to make sure we got more sleep. She told us that when she was a girl in Guatemala, she and her sister got only three hours of sleep a night between the two of them, holding down school and a job, and that we would be fine. Elias and I didn’t dare argue with her, and as much as I missed getting a full night’s sleep, eating like a king—and now gaining knowledge I’d lied about having—was sort of worth it.
That night, after our mother was in the dentistry, I started wiggling the mice at people’s desks, checking if any of the computers were on.
“What are you doing?” Elias asked.
“Help me. See if any of the screens turn on,” I said.
“This one came on,” Elias said a few seconds later.
I walked over, but it asked for a password.
“Look for another one,” I said.
I moved the mouse on the computer next to that desk and the home screen came on. I sat down on the chair and opened Google. Not sure where to begin, I typed in the first thing that came to mind: boobs.
“Boobs?” Elias said.
“Shut up. It’s my first time doing this.” I clicked search and got a ton of pictures of men with hairy chests. I tried something else: naked boobs.
“Try girl boobs,” Elias said.
I typed it in to no avail, but after several more searches, it finally happened—we found a website where women posed topless. All of the models were white, and their chests looked like two ceiling lights, nothing like what I imagined Amy’s looked like. I clicked on one of the pictures to enlarge it, but then we heard our mother coming down the hallway. Elias ran to the desk where he’d left the duster and pretended to use it, while I exited out of the window and all of the pop-ups as quickly as possible.
“Almost done?” our mother called out, still walking down the hallway. “Where are you?”
“In here,” I shouted back, closing the last pop-up ad and grabbing the bag of trash by my feet. We must have looked guilty because she wanted to know what we were doing in there. I told her I was done with everything but the vacuuming and thought I’d help Elias so that we could finish quicker. She looked convinced, but more than that, she looked proud, thinking Elias and I had a good work ethic.
“We’ll get some Waffle House on the way home,” she said.
“Really?!” Elias wanted to know. We could have taken a snapshot of his face and used it as their new ad campaign he looked so happy. I understood why though—we never got to eat out, and our mother never rewarded us for doing chores, so this was unprecedented.
“Finish up,” she said.
That night, she let us eat in the car; and with yolk running down my chin, I smiled a smile that comes only from those who’ve tasted the good life, or from those who’ve had the opportunity to taste it before the plate is taken away, the food only half-eaten.
I spent the next week cleaning and vacuuming as fast as I could, then running back to that computer to do more research, this time asking about my own body. I discovered that stuff other than pee came out of my penis and that’s why my boxers were wet when I woke up, it was nothing to be ashamed of, it was natural. Of course, I also learned some misguided things—that I had more pubic hair than grownups, not knowing the people in the pictures had shaved, and that I was the only person in America with foreskin—because I was a child with no one willing to teach me otherwise.
Then, one night, I went back to the computer to find out about pregnancy and found the desk empty and the computer password-protected. I didn’t mention this to anyone but worried that I might have had something to do with it. A few weeks later, the desk was occupied again, but this time there were new family pictures, a new calendar, new plants.
It wasn’t until I had my first office job that I found out that employers can, and often do, monitor activity on employee computers. I understood then that I had gotten that person fired. I had looked up things like “penises,” “boobs,” “people get paid to have sex?”—that one was another gem from Fernando, whom I later found out heard about all of this stuff from his older sister who went to a community college and had to learn how to put on a condom and what birth control is as quickly as possible so that her peers didn’t laugh at her for not knowing. Did I end someone’s career or marriage trying to find out something that could have easily been told to me by my parents or health professionals at my school? I always hoped to write that person a letter one day apologizing, and I guess this is sort of it, even if I don’t know their name or where they live, and I don’t think they’ll ever read it.
The Waffle House night, our mother ran a stop sign in our neighborhood.
“You didn’t stop,” Elias said. “You’ll get in trouble with the police.”
Our mother smiled at us through the rearview mirror of our minivan.
“What they don’t know won’t hurt them,” she said in Spanish, none of us knowing how wrong she was, my brother and I looking ahead, watching the next stop sign get closer, wondering if our mother would stop to look both ways.
Jared Lemus is a Latinx writer whose work has appeared in The Kenyon Review Online, PANK, Prime Number Magazine, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in Kweli and Joyland. He is an MFA candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, where he was awarded the William S. Dietrich Fellowship and is working on his first novel and short story collection.