Tesoro / Susan Straight

Even the crickets were not the same, here in California. Their heads were too large, their antennae long like an old man’s stray eyebrow hairs. The crickets wandered around the hotel grounds as if they knew no one would eat them.
    Until a few months ago, Araceli had collected small crickets for her grandmother, who dusted them with red chile and heaped them in a palm basket for the market. Araceli wished for the taste of pepper and chile now. Her teeth felt loose in her gums from all the oranges she and her friend Elpidia ate at night in the groves surrounding the trailer park.
    The crickets were silent now, in the late hot morning when the women cleaned the hotel rooms. But from #14, the rasping sounds of something small had been etched into Araceli’s forehead. Five days, a large cricket had been caught inside the room, and the sign saying Do Not had been hung on the door like a scapular. Now it was quiet along the red-tiled path that ran along the white adobe walls. The hotel looked like a huge church, surrounded by twenty tiny chapels. Inside the rooms, women with white robes, white bandages, and white teeth waited for their scars to heal. Araceli wondered if they prayed.

    She used her key to open #13. The room was empty, the towels wet and tangled on the floor like someone had just washed them in the river.
    Outside, in the corridor, she heard the supervisor, Luz, speaking in Spanish to one of the gardeners. Luz was a norteno, from Sinaloa. She was bossy, cheeks pale as boiled corn, and she didn’t speak Mixtec. «Oaxaca?» she’d sighed when Araceli and Elpidia came to work at the hotel, brought by Elpidia’s cousin Rodolfo, who worked in the laundry. «Todos Indios.»
    Wash. Limpia. Sandoo. Each word spoken by Luz landed in Araceli’s forehead, where she put them away as if various chiles in different wooden bins at the market, pointed to by her grandmother’s bony finger. «Say the words,» her grandmother used to say, when Araceli was a tiny girl. «Different chiles have different flavors. You need to know them all to cook properly.» Her grandmother would add the only word she spoke in Spanish — tesoro. «For me, everything I eat is a treasure. No one knows what is another’s tesoro.»
    Araceli dumped the sopping towels into her laundry cart. Wash. She took the dead carnations from the small vase on the bureau.     Flowers. Flores. Ita. Dropping the shrivelled blooms in her trash bag, she plucked three new ones from the bucket on her cart.     The women who stayed here looked like ghosts. White carnations. White towels, sheets, robes, washclothes, bandages. The carnations smelled like cloves. Araceli closed her eyes for a moment. At night, in the groves, she and Elpidia cooked dark mole, like the one her grandmother ladled out in the market for women too lazy to make their own, a black sludge of reduced sauce that they could resurrect at home. Chocolate, cloves, peanuts, and chiles rojo — bought at the Oaxacan market in the mexican neighborhood in the nearby city.
    At night, with the radio playing La Mexicana, with the smells of mole and chicken pieces, with the men from her home village of     San Cristobal laughing outside, she was home. Here, in California, she was. Home.
    She vacuumed the beige carpet, lifting the bedspread. Her grandmother was dead. Last year, wrapped in a shroud, a tall candle in her stiff fingers, candles and food all around her coffin while Araceli sat through the nine days of mourning until the raising of the cross.
    She vacuumed the blue tile floor in the bathroom. When she turned the machine off, she heard Luz in the doorway, calling to her.     «Hair.» Then her heavy steps went down the path.
    Araceli knelt by the bathtub. Luz talked constantly of people checking for stray strands. Before Araceli began to scrub the porcelain, she took away the fine net of blond hair over the drain. Like a small animal. Hair. Pelo. Ixi.
    Checking the vacuum, she saw more blond hairs collected like intricate lace on the brush of the vacuum attachment. The only other signs of the woman who had spent three days were smudges of pink lipstick, beige makeup, and black mascara like oil on tissue in the wastebasket.
    She sprayed and wiped the counters, the mirror, the faucets. She changed the bedsheets and plumped the pillows. She closed the blinds. Luz had warned her about the women not liking heat, or light, when they came from the doctor’s. «No sun,» she had said. Sun. Sol. Nicandyi.
    Elpidia could say a few of the Spanish words, but she would not try the English yet. Araceli could do them if they stayed in order, if they didn’t change places in the baskets of her brain.
    The wall she leaned against was church-cool. Adobe, plaster and white paint. Like home. She took a last look around the room.     Magazines were stacked on the wrought-iron coffee table, the flowers nodded on the dresser, and on the floor, not a single hair glinted. For two months now, she had gotten used to this idea — that another woman slept here, ate meals at the glass-covered table, bathed and watched television, and Araceli would probably never see her, and then, would erase all traces of her being.

    In the corridor, under the thick wood-beamed roof, she glanced at Elpidia’s cart, outside #3. The sun was hot and gold now, streaming into the garden planted with roses and marigolds. The California marigolds were smaller than the blossoms people took to church in San Cristobal.
    A woman was walking blindly, eyes covered with bandages, leaning on the arm of a nurse. The nurse warned Araceli away with her lifted chin, her narrowed eyes. Araceli used her key to duck back into the room she’d just cleaned. She saw a wedge of thick blond hair like a broom’s edge peeking out from the turban over the woman’s head, and then a door closed .
    So many of the women she had glimpsed had blond hair — dark yellow as the marigolds, or silvery with streaks like ashes had been painted near the skull. That was why she’d noticed the woman from #14, when she ducked into the room last week. Her hair had been red, but not like anything from a box. Pale red, thin and straight as silk fringe against her neck. The woman’s cheek, turned away, had been splashed with freckles like a gathering of tiny ants.
    In the silence, she stood at the door to #14, listening. The cricket was gone. The woman had killed it, or let it out. But the sign hadn’t moved.
    «Do Not,» Araceli told Elpidia, who came to peer at the carnations in their bucket, flicking off a torn petal. Araceli looked at the thick wooden door, the new blue paint, the dangling sign. She couldn’t ever remember the third word, but it didn’t matter, because all you had to know were the first two.
    When a woman kept that sign on her door, Luz had told them the first week, it meant she didn’t want anyone to see her, not even the maids. Dirty sheets, dirty dishes — these women didn’t care. They didn’t want anyone to see their black eyes, their skin etched raw as butchered meat, their noses swollen like gourds.
    Now Luz came stalking down the corridor, her wide legs in stockings tight as sausage casings, her low heels striking the tiles like a stone mano grinding peppercorns. She had sold Araceli and Elpidia the shoes she said they had to wear — rubber-soled black workshoes. Twenty dollars. She always knew, always came when Araceli and Elpidia stopped working and started talking, as if a fly winged directly to her cubicle near the laundry room to tell her.
    «Go,» she said to Araceli, pointing to #14.
    «Do Not,» Araceli said, pointing to the sign.
    Luz put one hand on her hip and held up three fingers with the other hand. In Spanish, she said loudly, slowly, «The woman left.     Three days ago. Clean it.»
    When Luz had continued down the corridor, peering in at Elpidia’s work through the open door to #3, Elpidia rolled her eyes and put her hand in her uniform pocket. She pushed a saladito into Araceli’s palm, and Araceli sucked on the salted dried plum for a moment, feeling the wrinkles with her tongue, before she pushed her key into the lock.
    The baby lay on the center of the big bed, the spread flat and perfect. The baby hadn’t disturbed anything. She couldn’t have.     She was not old enough to turn over. She was not a newborn, Araceli saw, moving closer. She was about two months old. Her hair was fine and sparse and red as the spines on chihlo cactus.
    She was dead. Her eyes were closed, sunken like dimples in her skull. From her pale pink dress, with lace at the collar and puffy sleeves, her thin legs were gray as cement. Pink booties on her feet. Her face was tight and pinched, her nose like a small white knuckle poking through her skin.
    The salted plum leapt and wriggled in Araceli’s mouth, and she spit it into her hand, where it lay wet and now-swollen from her saliva. She swallowed again and again, hunching her shoulders around her chest, until she could breathe and straighten. She had seen dead babies before, just this size, in San Cristobal. They had wasted away from diarrhea. They had this same shrunken face, like old women showing through their skin.
    Araceli tried not to throw up. She put her finger to the disposable diaper, not swollen as it should have been. Dry and small as a white fist under the dress. This baby hadn’t had diarrhea. She had starved to death.
She threw the plum into the trash bag on her cart, glancing up and down the corridor, and then took a towel from her clean stack and hesitated, remembing how she’d heard muffled raspy cricket noises coming from behind the thick wooden door. She put her hand on the wrought-iron handle. Not a cricket. She leaned on the door, feeling faint for a moment, and then she pushed inside and clicked the lock.
    Luz might come. Luz would scream and shout and run to the front office, where the men who owned the hotel and clinic would frown. They would stalk down the corridor, pick up the baby or merely poke her with their ringed fingers. They would call the police, who would take the baby to their building. They would try to find the mother, the red-haired woman who had only two wrinkles at     the corner of each eye, like two stray eyelashes embedded in her skin.
    Araceli stood beside the baby. Her body was angled on the bed, like she had worked her way maybe five inches to the left during the three or four days she had been here. Why would they try to find the mother? Araceli thought, her tongue prickling from salt, her throat thick. The mother was gone. The mother had left this baby to cry and cry and throw her small arms back and forth on the white bedspread in rage, in anger, in desperation. The baby’s legs were still bowed, raised in an oval, not straightened yet like older babies when they’d grown.
    She slid her hand across the quilted cotton. The baby’s fingers were dry as cinnamon sticks; the fingernails were like translucent husks from washed corn.
    Araceli was shaking, and her spine ached. She gripped the towel. Not a bag. She wouldn’t put the baby girl into a plastic bag. Do Not.
    Sliding her palms under the baby, she bit her lips until the plum’s salt entered her own blood. She lifted the backbone, the shoulders, the heavy head, and lay the body on the bath towel. Then she folded the sides over and wrapped the bundle as tight as if the towel were a rebozo slung over someone’s back, the baby napping against her own mother’s shoulderblades.
    She put the towel into the laundry bag, gently, and lay the wet towels from the previous room around it. Elpidia came outside to hold another salted plum aloft, purple and sparkling in the sun, and Araceli made herself smile. She shook her head no and went back into #14.
    On the dresser, next to the brown carnations, was a note. Araceli saw the neat handwriting, three sentences on the hotel pad. She slid it into her pocket, and looked around at the room. Nothing else was left, in the bathroom or closet. Not even a trace of makeup or a newspaper. In the wastebasket, no tissues damp with tears. Only two empty cans of soda, and the styrofoam container from one dinner that would have been left at the door, if the woman had said Do Not.

    They knew the maids lived in trailers, and they watched the towels. Araceli wiped down the dressers, pulled hair from the tubs and cleaned the gleaming mirrors. She put towels in the laundry bag, carefully adjusting the baby each time so that she was just below the top. Elpidia whispered between each room: Rodolfo was bringing friends who worked at another hotel, they would buy pork and make a green sauce with fresh yerba santa she was growing in a coffee can. One friend’s name was Amadeo; maybe he was more handsome than old Amadeo back home.
    Araceli couldn’t smell the baby. She moved her cart along toward the laundry room when the rooms were done. The cart bumped on the red-tile corridor, then on the flagstone path to the main part of the hotel. Araceli began to panic. She didn’t even want to tell Elpidia. Elpidia would scream and say give the baby to Luz or we’ll get in trouble, they’ll call the police, they’ll send us back to Mexico. Back home. I’m never going back home, she always said, as if singing a verse in church. I’m never going back home.
    Araceli stopped at the huge blue dumpster near the parking lot. She lifted her black plastic trash bag, full of hair, and let it fall into the cavernous metal bin. What could she take? They could take nothing from the hotel. Nothing. She felt the single piece of paper in her uniform pocket. What did the note say? She wheeled her cart slowly toward the housecleaning station. Her uniform was baggy.     She had worn a jacket this morning, for the fog that settled on this desert at night. Not like the mist of home, beading drops onto the cornstalks and coffee plants. There was no moisture in this fog, just a dry veil like steam over the dunes and hills and stucco buildings, a scarf of gray that disappeared by lunchtime. Now it was six, and the sky was dark blue at the edges of the hotel silhouette.
    She lifted the towel-shrouded baby as quickly as she could and stepped into the staff bathroom, hearing Elpidia’s cart rustling along, coming closer.

    In Rodolfo’s station wagon, the men smelled like cut grass and gasoline. In the back seat, Elpidia laughed at everything they said. Araceli felt the baby, lying across her chest like a stolen bag of rice. The baby’s head was cushioned against the soft part of Araceli’s underarm. Her bra straps had been loosened, and her big coat covered her front. When the car jostled over the curb and onto the dirt road leading into the orange groves, one of the men pointed at the crows rising over their camp, but Araceli was feeling the baby push against her chest. Her grandmother said her breasts would grow into their real size when she had a baby. When you are married, her grandmother had said. Maybe next year. You’re only seventeen.
    Araceli’s mother had died shortly after she was born. Her father had left for America two years later. After a few letters with money, from Washington, they never heard from him again.
    The station wagon stopped at the gathering of trailers, and Araceli got out awkwardly, holding her coat around her. «It’s not that cold now,» Rodolfo said, and Elpidia laughed.
    The men began to wash up at the faucet outside, and Elpidia disappeared inside the small trailer she shared with Araceli. Araceli fingered the note in her pocket, and walked down the dirt road between trailers to the manager’s office.
    Emiliano spoke Mixtec and Spanish and English. He had been here for ten years, in the desert outside Indio. When she handed him the note, asking him what it said, he glanced at her chest, and she clutched her coat. «Where did you find this?»
«In a room. I was curious.» She was sweating inside the coat, and she felt the baby’s left arm like a stone mano tucked against her skin.
    He read, «I want my —» He frowned and cupped his hands over his shirt — «back. I just got them last year. They were mine.»
Breasts. Araceli watched his hands drop. He wouldn’t say the word. Then he frowned harder and said, «What kind of note is that?» He handed her the paper and stepped back up to his trailer door, closing the quilted metal.
    Breasts. She wanted her breasts back. She got new breasts at the hotel. She didn’t want the baby to have them. The baby is dry inside, her skin like parchment and her heart like a plum. Araceli walked faster, into the groves where the fruit hung like hundreds of angry desert suns and the flowers already bloomed alongside, waxy and white and perfumed. The baby rocked with her hurried steps, and when Araceli came to the abrupt edge of the trees, she paused in the sandy clearing. She unbuttoned her coat and the baby rolled, head lolling now, into her arms. Araceli felt tears behind her eyes, and she imagined the deep sockets in her own skull.
The cement irrigation tower, squat as a child’s castle, could be a marker. She could come back later, in October, with an offering for Dia de los Muertos. The souls of babies and children came back first, to visit, and she could leave steaming atole here, the milk thickened with ground corn and cinnamon and sugar. The baby’s fingers like cinnamon sticks, the baby’s eyes sealed shut, the baby’s hair red and sparse as the spines on chihlo cactus when Araceli scraped the fine needles off with a knife.
    She scrabbled in the light soil, digging with her hands, smelling the the night already in the dirt. A few crickets began rasping in the grove, and she winced. She wouldn’t think of the sound, of the throat. The dirt was so dry. There wasn’t the right kind of mist here. She might never come back to this place, with a cup of atole for the baby; she might have to run tonight, if la migra came, or next week, if they showed up at the hotel. Elpidia might marry the handsome Amadeo, and leave for a better place. Or Araceli might live here forever, in the metal trailer, helping Elpidia send money to her mother and younger sisters.
    Araceli took off her t-shirt, the first thing she’d bought here in California, at the El Rey swapmeet in Indio. It was pale blue. Wrapping the baby in the shirt, the short sleeves folded over the baby’s tiny chest like paws, she thought she would cry. But she couldn’t, not when she lay the baby in the hole, not when she realized the t-shirt wasn’t enough. She took the baby out and wrapped her coat all around, until a cocoon of brown nylon covered everything. Then she pushed the dirt quickly over the coat, hearing the rustle of fabric. She moved pieces of broken cement over the fresh dirt, then stones and pebbles. But the mound only looked like a random pile of scrap. She knelt in her bra and skirt, trying to think of the prayer women said back home, when a baby had died.     They prayed to La Virgen de Soledad. Araceli heard no words in her head, only the faraway clink of metal from the trailers, distant shouting of men, and the hum of traffic from the road. She lifted her head, her lips still closed. She walked back into the orange groves with her wrists crossed over her bra so tightly she could feel the little metal wires against her ribs, her bare skin.


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