by Emilia Rodriguez
They rode the bus at dawn and again before bed. Some of them talked, but Luz never did. It was easier to rest her head against the trembling glass and listen: Someone’s husband came home drunk, Someone won at bingo, and Gloria’s daughter finally had the baby. Gloria reminded Luz of her mother: rotund, vivacious, and demanding. It was so unnerving to be around her; Luz wished there were an earlier route, or an alternate route she could take to keep from hearing Gloria’s voice. Luz was unable to conceive, and she dreaded the mornings when Gloria bragged about her daughter’s pregnancy, recounting every ailment from the swollen feet to the constipation. Gloria was so proud of the pregnancy you’d think she was responsible for it herself. And though Luz felt some jealousy at the news, the thought that Gloria might have to quit to help her daughter care for the infant made her smile.
Luz looked out at the houses that lined the drowsy streets. They rushed past her in a blur, awash in the pale pink of sunrise. Some were so similar, with changes so subtle, they appeared flashing at the window like a flipbook of cartoon sketches: a house growing bigger, taller, rising like a monster from the ocean.
Mulberry Avenue was the last stop before the hill. No one who rode the bus needed to be at the bottom of the hill, but the route ended there. The driver stopped and the doors opened to a city bench and a yellowed poster of the bus routes encased in plexiglass. On one side, the rainbow of routes like veins in the stratum of beige shore; on the other, the women with their tangled hair and faces easily forgotten or remembered as someone else’s.
Luz was the last to exit the bus and the slowest to climb the hill. When she reached the iron gates, she pressed a small red button inside a brass lion’s mouth and spoke her name into the intercom.
“Lucy?” begged a man’s raspy voice.
“Yes…Luz!” She took the opportunity to correct Mr. Greenwood whenever possible. He and his wife seemed determined to call her Lucy.
A loud buzz unlocked the wrought iron scrolls and they swung back dreamily like a plastic ballerina pirouetting in a music box. Luz walked through the gates and past the fountain, past the roses, past the tall limestone urns of creeping ivy and up the winding driveway. She climbed the steps leading to the front door, and paused to catch her breath.
Inside, Luz was greeted only by the faint pine scent of yesterday’s job well done. But already the staircase was littered with green plastic soldiers and crayons. It was Luz’s job to be silent, invisible, and thorough. Though there were times when returning to work and finding a house she’d left clean an unlivable mess drove her to tears, as with all things Luz had found ways to cope.
She and her younger sister had been raised by their mother, who worked as a washerwoman in their neighborhood. As a child, sometimes Luz tagged along to the laundromat, helping her mother fold clothing until the sun set. She was always saddened to see classmates’ clothing sudsing in the window of the washing machine. Luz knew she didn’t have nice things like the rest of the girls in her class, but she coped with that by begging their mother to request a catalogue to Penney’s department store. When it arrived, she and her sister lay on the bed for hours flipping through the glossy pictures. They dreamed of the day when they could wear beautiful clothing like those girls. It was then that her sister proposed a deal.
“Everything on that side is yours,” she said indicating the page on the right, “Everything on the page on my side belongs to me. If you want something from my side, you’ll have to trade me something from your side, okay?”
When they’d grown tired of trading purses for shoes and pillows and scarves, they cut out the watches and taped them around their wrists. Luz cut out a pearl necklace on the cover so meticulously around each bead that when she was done, her sister argued that the cover was her side, so Luz had stolen it. After Luz refused to hand it over, her sister demanded Luz to tell her where she would even wear the pearls. When Luz replied that she’d wear them to the laundromat, her sister scoffed and said, “You don’t wear pearls to a laundromat.”
Now Luz coped by imagining she was the lady of the manor, and everything in the house belonged to her. That was why it was so important to keep everything clean and in the right place. At first it was innocent enough. Blouses were ironed and the mail was stacked neatly into piles by size. She’d been prompted by Mrs. Greenwood to throw out the leaflets and junk mail. One day as Luz was getting ready to leave, she slipped the trash stack into the front pocket of her apron, meaning to throw it away later. When she got home, Luz realized she’d brought it with her.
It was then that she noticed the poinsettia embossed on the back of a red envelope from the orthodontist. And though she wasn’t sure why, she could not throw it away. Luz slid her finger under the seal and tore it open. Inside was a Christmas card with the image of the three wise men crossing the desert. Two were holding jeweled boxes, and the third held a vial and pointed to a golden star. Beneath the star, there was a small silhouette in the distance: Mary, in a manger, holding the baby Jesus in her arms. Inside was a printed message: A silent night, a star above, a blessed gift of hope and love. Merry Christmas! Then handwritten next to Merry Christmas was Mrs. Greenwood’s name. Luz closed the card and took it to her room where she stood it on the bedside table.
Mr. Greenwood was on his way out the door as he passed Luz hunched over the stairs and gathering crayons. Suddenly remembering something he turned to face the wall.
“Mrs. Greenwood isn’t here. She took the boys to their grandmother’s.”
Then he turned from the wall without waiting for a reply. Luz heard the front door click shut. A few seconds later, the car’s engine faded into the silence.
At around four o’clock that day, Luz ascended the stairs with a basket of laundry to Mrs. Greenwood’s dressing room. She ironed, folded, stacked, and when she was done made her way into the bedroom. She knelt at the foot of the bed and pulled Mrs. Greenwood’s high heels out from under it. She carried them into the dressing room where she dusted, polished, and lined up the stilettos and pumps by color and height on the lucite shelving. On the vanity in the dressing room, Mrs. Greenwood had a picture of herself taken at the hospital after giving birth. In the picture, Mrs. Greenwood stood by a window in her baby blue gown, the light from the sun haloed around her as she cradled the newborn in her arms. And though her hair was smooth, and her mouth pouted like a perfect pink valentine, she looked somber. Distant.
Luz reached up to where her hair was tangled into a bun and let it down so that it fell over her shoulders like Mrs. Greenwood’s. Seeing the photograph, Luz was almost happy she couldn’t have a baby and had no desire for her husband. It was hard to desire the empty fridge and the leaky pipes. So after a while, spending all day cleaning the Greenwood home wasn’t a problem; there were few other options. Luz had stopped going to middle school when her mother needed help with the bills. She started washing clothes to help, then at sixteen became a washer woman herself while her sister continued school. But that was over fifteen years ago. These days, as her mother recalled it, she had never asked Luz to be anything more than a child.
Luz gathered her hair off her shoulders and back into a bun. She looked around the dressing room one last time to make sure everything was in its right place. Having worked with the Greenwoods for over a year, Luz knew the dressing room and its contents well. New shoes were always taken out of their boxes and proudly displayed on the shelves. So when she spotted a new shoebox peeking out behind a suitcase, Luz felt curious. But as she went to pull the box from its hiding place, she heard high heels clicking across the marble floors.
Sometimes, it was difficult to stop playing lady of the manor because it was hard not to believe the Greenwood home was hers. After all, she cleaned, cooked, took out the garbage, and brought in the mail. She knew where the dustpan and vacuum bags were. She knew when the air filter was due to be replaced.
On the bus ride home, Gloria talked and talked. Listening to Gloria was like having a constant reminder of how she felt when her mother called with the news that her sister was pregnant. Luz had immediately called her sister to congratulate her, but as always there was no answer, and her call was never returned. Luz leaned back in the bus seat and saw herself in the window’s reflection: her shirt was stained where she’d dripped bleach down the front of it, her hair was plastered to the cold sweat on her forehead, and wrinkles were finding their way into the corners of her eyes. She knew it was the reason her sister never spoke to her anymore, and she hated being a source of embarrassment for her upper-middle class sibling. Luz closed her eyes and thought of the shoebox hidden in the corner of Mrs. Greenwood’s closet. She thought of what it would feel like to wear those secret shoes. Allowing herself to fantasize about that moment, Luz kept her eyes closed until the bus made its last stop two blocks from her apartment.
Luz unlocked the door and walked into the one-bedroom apartment. The rooms were dimly lit, and they smelled of rust and the dank mildew of an unfinished basement—no matter how often she cleaned. She saw her husband’s clothing was scattered in a trail leading to the bathroom. Miguel usually left his clothing this way, never bothering to consider how many hours Luz spent bent over the Greenwoods’ laundry. She dropped her keys on the kitchen counter.
“Luz?” he yelled through the bathroom door.
“Your mother called,” he said.
Luz heard the toilet flush. Her husband walked out of the bathroom drying his hands on his boxers.
“She said they’re having Christmas dinner tonight.”
Luz was collecting his clothing off the floor and putting it into a pile by the couch.
“Two days early?” she asked.
She rounded the corner into their bedroom. She looked through her closet for a clean shirt.
“Yeah, she said your sister was gonna be out of town, something about the in-laws and the kids wanting to spend it there…”
He followed her into the bedroom. Luz was taking a shirt off its hanger. She was about to ask him if he would go with her until she saw that he had picked up the Christmas card and was about to open it.
“Put that down!” she ordered. “Maybe you should pick up your own things! Every day, I walk through that door, and every day I find your filthy rags scattered all over the house!”
He put down the card and quietly walked out the room. Luz buttoned up her shirt and washed her face. She walked to the pile of laundry by the couch, stuck her hand into the pocket of her husband’s jeans, and fished out his keys. Then without saying a word, she closed the apartment door behind her.
Her mother’s house was the same house Luz grew up in, but it had changed. Her sister had had the cabinets redone, all the mismatched dishes had been replaced with fine china, and their old bedroom had been converted into an office space. Abstract paintings hung on the walls next to photos of her sister’s children. Luz hated it. She hated how her sister had stripped the house of all its memories and turned it into a picture from a home décor catalogue.
When Luz walked through the door, they were already eating.
“Luz!” her mother shouted. “Come in, come in.”
They sat in the candlelight—black-burgundy orbs on crystal stems. On one side of the table, cinnamon poached pears and figs surrounded an apricot-glazed ham. On the other, a stuffed turkey anchored by cranberries and a Dutch-chocolate trifle. Luz pulled a chair out from the table and sat next to her sister. She watched as her mother dug her fingernail into the heart of a fig. The hands once graceful with a calloused tenacity now twisted in front of her like a tree uprooted in a storm. She broke the skin and scraped out its fleshy seeds.
“I’m tired,” Luz said.
“Where’s Miguel?” her mother asked. Her glassy eyes focused on the fruit.
“It’s Christmas,” her sister argued.
“No it’s not!” the children yelled.
Luz’s nephews were surrounded by piles of crumpled wrapping paper and playing by the Christmas tree with toy cars. They rammed them into the wall and made loud crashing noises.
“It’s not Christmas,” Luz assured them, “It’s a workday, and I’m tired.”
“We haven’t opened our real presents!” Julio shouted.
“Santa took them to Grandma Laurie’s,” Tony explained to his brother.
Luz sank her head into her hands and laughed.
“I can’t believe you,” she began.
“Wait!” her sister yelped, jumping out of her seat, “I almost forgot Luz!”
Her sister pulled out a gold wrapped box from under the tree and presented it to Luz.
“I’ll open it later,” Luz said.
“Open it now,” she protested, “You might want to use it.”
“I didn’t buy you anything.”
Luz looked to her mother who was fixed on her reflection in one of the spoons by her plate.
Luz undid the bow and peeled back the golden wrapping paper. Inside was a heavy, glass-domed coffret. She lifted the lid to reveal the velvet interior containing a set of perfumed oils and soaps. Luz set it down next to her plate and stood to pour herself a glass of wine. Then walking past her sister, Luz sat on the floor next to her nephews where they’d been racing cars down the hallway.
“I’ll be the red car,” she said to Julio. “But don’t let me win.”
Luz knew her sister was making their mother happy. So when she walked into the living room and found her sister draping a pearl necklace around their mother’s neck, she ran to hug her in gratitude.
“Do you remember the Penney’s catalogue?” Luz asked.
“No,” her sister replied.
That night when Luz got home after dinner, she pulled the extra blankets out of the closet and slept on the couch.
The next morning the Greenwoods’ gate was open, and when Luz reached the front steps she saw a note on the door:
Please ask Mr. and Mrs. Humphrey to let you in.
Mr. and Mrs. Humphrey owned the property that faced the Greenwood home. It was where Gloria worked. Luz was thinking about whether or not she should leave and pretend she never saw the note when she heard Gloria calling to her from the roses.
Luz walked to meet Gloria halfway down the driveway. Gloria started talking before Luz could thank her.
“Mrs. Humphrey says she wants the keys brought back immediately,” she said, doing her best impression of a nasal American accent. Then retreating into her own thick accent she said,“Ay, you’re so lucky mija. I love it when la doña isn’t home.”
Gloria removed the key from the unlocked door and hurried down the driveway back to the other side of the street, waddling as large women sometimes do.
Luz shut the door behind her and walked up the stairs, checking to see that every room was empty. Then she walked into Mrs. Greenwood’s dressing room. Once again, Luz eyed the shoebox. She kneeled reverently and paused only a moment before lifting the lid.
Inside was a pair of black leather, pointed-toe heels with red soles. As the light grazed the surface of the leather, Luz traced it with her fingertips. She pulled the shoes carefully out of the box and set them on the floor. She removed her sneakers and peeled off her socks. Then, after dusting the lint off her feet, she slid one foot into the binding leather and then the other.
She walked proudly from room to room picking things up and putting them down as if they were her own. And when the phone rang, Luz ran into the bedroom and reached for the phone as if she expected to hear her sister’s voice on the other line calling to ask for cooking advice.
“Mrs. Greenwood, this is Patrice calling from Newhart Orthodontics.”
Luz smiled into the receiver.
“We’re calling you to confirm Leo’s appointment on Tuesday.”
“Yes, we’ll be there.” She replied coolly, catching her reflection in the large freestanding mirror by the bed.
“We’ll see you then,” the receptionist said before hanging up.
Luz walked over to the mirror and turned sideways. She looked tall, beautiful, like the type of woman you might see in a movie: walking into an elevator, smiling at men, hailing a taxi. Luz had always been admired for her figure, and never having been pregnant, she had no trouble maintaining it. She remembered how Miguel worshiped her when they’d first met. Spending his meager earnings on elaborate bouquets he would have delivered to her mother’s house. The card always read the same: Para mi Luz Divina. The card had upset Luz’s mother. She called it sacrilegious. Luz loved it. To be referred to as his divine light, as a goddess.
Luz walked back into the dressing room. She looked through all of the dresses she always dreamed of owning, but what Luz fantasized about most went underneath the dresses. She walked to the back of the dressing room and opened Mrs. Greenwood’s lingerie drawer. She ran her hands down the front of her shirt and unbuttoned it down to her navel. Luz looked at her abdomen’s skin, it was tan and taut. She remembered how one day she had walked in on Mrs. Greenwood undressing and had seen the way her stomach looked. Tiny stretch marks ran up the sides of her belly and a Cesarean scar was embedded in the crease of her pelvis.
Luz unhooked the clasp of her bra, and chose one of Mrs. Greenwood’s from the drawer. It was made of ivory Chantilly lace. She hung it from the drawer’s edge by its strap and found the matching panty. She quickly removed her clothing and slid into the lingerie. Then she walked back into the bedroom and observed herself.
She stood there a long time. Not moving, only seeing herself differently from what she’d known herself to look like. Her body smooth and glowing, her hair loose and wild. She no longer hated the way her mouth turned down at the corners when she wasn’t forcing a smile. She loved the way she looked. Her eyes brightened, her legs looked longer, and her back straightened. The bra’s cups were molded to Mrs. Greenwood’s modest chest, and the top of Luz’s breasts spilled out over the lace. She brought her hands up to where the fabric pressed into her skin. Slipping her hands under the lace, Luz pulled her breasts out by their erect nipples. She watched her reflection. She slid her hands over her waist and then down over her hips. She was breathing more heavily. She sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed her hands up and down her thighs, finally finding the heat of her body. She worked her hands between her legs. Her skin throbbed with heat. It felt like it was tightening around her. Then the bedroom door swung open.
Luz pulled her hands out of the panties and opened her mouth to speak, but no sound followed. Her heart raced as she frantically searched for any possible excuse that would justify what Mrs. Greenwood had just witnessed, but every word in Luz’s vocabulary seemed to have evaporated. Mrs. Greenwood looked confused, but then she turned to close the door behind her and locked it. She looked back at Luz who was standing and holding her arms in front of her breasts. Her eyes fell to Luz’s feet. Her face contorted as she held her hand in front of her face to shield her eyes.
“Go change,” she said, avoiding eye contact.
Luz said nothing, only walked slowly into the dressing room. She removed the shoes and pulled them to her chest. Shutting her eyes tightly, she fell to her knees and clutched the heels. Hurriedly, she began rubbing the shoes together like she was trying to start a fire with two twigs. She rubbed until the sides of the shoes scuffed and revealed the tan-animal hide stretched over the shoe’s frame. Then she carefully placed them back into the shoebox and lowered it into its hiding place. After some hesitation Luz picked the box back up and placed it on the dresser over the picture of Mrs. Greenwood and the infant.
She pulled down the panties. A dense, clear liquid connected them to her. It looked like a long silk thread. She pinched the slippery strand and tried to pull it away from the cloth, but it seemed to have woven itself into the web of the fabric. When they were off, she dressed in her own clothes, tied her hair back, and stuffed the panties into the back pocket of her jeans.
Luz walked down the winding driveway, and through the iron gates. She walked past the Humphreys’ happy that she would never see Gloria again. But when Luz arrived at the bus stop, Gloria was standing by the bench. She twirled a thin gold wedding band around her finger again and again. Luz stuck her hands into the back pockets of her jeans and felt the lace. She pulled her hands back out and crossed them in front of her.
“What are you doing here Gloria?”
“I quit,” she said. The first time for Luz, and then she cleared her throat and said it again, “I quit.” She looked down at her ring.
“I quit too,” Luz said.
Gloria turned to Luz whose hands had made their way back into her pockets.
“I’m not sure,” Luz replied, “Why did you quit?”
“Because she fired me—Mrs. Humphrey. I wanted a week to help Linda with the baby, but she said I wasn’t cleaning behind the toilets anymore. They needed someone else. Probably someone younger.”
“I quit because I hate my husband,” Luz said.
The bus tires screeched. The doors folded open. Gloria waddled up the steps. Luz followed. The women sat, for the first time, side by side.
“Doesn’t he let you work?”
“He does,” Luz assured her, “It’s not that.”
Gloria’s eyes widened and she leaned in very close, “and?” She rolled her eyes and laughed.
Luz forced a smile.
“You don’t understand. He prays for me to…” Luz heard her voice crack and took a deep breath to assure herself Gloria would not see her cry, “He prays for me to get pregnant.”
Luz looked over to Gloria who had begun cleaning the dirt out from under her fingernails.
“Maybe that’s too much to hope for,” she continued, “to be loved for more than just keeping a clean home and getting pregnant.”
“I’ll pray too,” Gloria assured her.
That night Luz wept silently in her bedroom, her back turned to her husband. She wept for the pearls. She wept for the shoes and what she’d done in Mrs. Greenwood’s home. She wept for hating Gloria. She wept when she felt her husband’s hand on her trembling shoulder, and because he never asked what was wrong, and because she never cared if he knew. But most of all she wept for the card with the golden star in the desert sky.
Luz stood. She walked through the dark, and took the card into the kitchen. She set it on the counter next to the phone. A silent night, a star above, a blessed gift of hope and love. She mouthed the words to herself, then reached for the phone and dialed her sister’s number. After a few rings, she heard her sister’s sleepy voice on the line.
“Do you remember the Penney’s catalogue?” Luz asked.
There was a short pause, “I already told you I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“Well, I remember,” Luz said. “I remember, and I need you to remember.” The words like sand in her mouth. “I need you to remember because we made a deal.”
Luz waited. She hoped her sister would apologize. She hoped that at the very least, her sister would admit that she remembered. And maybe she would agree that in life, if someone you love needs help, you help. You trade. There was a long silence until Luz heard the echo of a click like the sound of a shutting door.
Emilia Rodriguez is a Chicano-Feminist writer, and a native Texan. She was raised in the Mexico-bordering city of Roma, Texas, and is a graduate of Texas State University where she is currently pursuing an MFA degree in Fiction. She lives in San Marcos, Texas with her husband, jazz bassist Lewis McMahon, and is working on a collection of short stories.
Image credit: Ley on Flickr