There’s a pencil drawing of exaggerated labia on the portable potty wall. I edit it with my permanent marker, happy the shit truck came early and there is no stalagmite of feces in the hole beneath me. I make an orchid, the beckoning lips perfect, then a bee with a trail of dots swirling out from the stinger. Everyone will know I did it. I’m the only woman on the the remodel, save for when the interior designers show up and start with their fabulous, fabulous. Back inside, I don headphones, Galeano on audiobook, and open another packet of leaf. I got kicked out of the Society of Gilders for throat punching a perv at the last conference, but my card lies and says I’m still a member.
Juan-Feo comes in, leans against the frame. He watches whenever he has a break. Sometimes he invents a break. He’s fascinated by the thinner-than-paper sheets, their fragility, how I use tweezers and a small brush to smooth the leaf on primed surface. I’m on my ladder gilding the crown molding of a meditation room. The plaster shells and fleur de lis come alive beneath my mastery. Juan-Feo once told me about the altars in the Guate church of his childhood. He swore they were made of solid gold. He has been failed and failed. I can tell by his posture there’s an ask in him, that he needs saving later and I’m his only option.
Juan-Feo wears his name with no explanations, his face is enough. He assists the foreman. We’ve worked a few jobs together, all in the same gated community for the mega-rich. Our friendship was birthed when I found him wiping his eyes, hiding behind the façade of a custom waterfall. I didn’t say anything, I handed him my ever-present pack of tissue (sometimes the shit truck doesn’t resupply the TP) and sat on an imported rock. He told me the saga. I was disgusted. I offered my help, but he didn’t believe me until I showed up.
I keep a change of clothes in my truck, in my earthquake kit. After work, I change and go to his place. He stays in a backyard guesthouse in exchange for property maintenance for this racehorse-owning motherfucker who is the definition of turgid. Sir has these ideas, this self-hate he dresses up as grit. He gets off on humiliation, which is nobody’s business, except when he makes it theirs. His wife is a stunner by one percent standards: golden, her face tightened, her body kneaded into the mold of rich man’s wife.
Juan-Feo told me he heard them screaming at each other all night, and we know what comes next. If I’m present, the wife escapes her punishment. I speak English, I can’t be deported, I can tell tales. The rich are vicious at scandal, and as much as Sir loves humiliation, he only wants to be on one side of it. If his neighbors heard, he’d move.
I pull up and let myself into the backyard. I’ve chatted up Sir and his wife before, dropping enough language to let them know I’m more than eloquent, I’m self-educated. Not much scarier to a white man than an independent brown woman making direct eye contact, quoting Sun Tsu.
The wife is in the backyard, blushing in a g-string, raspberry areolas puckered under a transparent kimono. She’s directing Juan-Feo, telling him exactly what she wants him to do. Sir is at the window, hard at the window. He doesn’t notice me until I walk past and wave.
“Karen!” Sir is at the French doors, calling Karen back.
Her eyes are red. Relief floods her everything when she sees my approach and she runs into the house. Juan-Feo keeps clipping the bougainvillea. He doesn’t turn but his grip on the clippers lightens.
We split a six, watch the sunset, hear the canyon coyotes start up. The main house is dark, silent. We don’t say much. Juan-Feo won’t move. Living rent-free means his kids go to a better school in Guate, his sons won’t have to join him. He’s going back one day, he promises. He doesn’t want them to come to this place. Never. There is shame, and then there is shame. Juan-Feo shakes his head before every swig, he sighs.
I leave. I’m exhausted, there is work and then there is work. I drive away. The lantern streetlights of the private community illuminate the gold flakes clinging to the wheel, to my knuckles. I pass through the gates. They close hard behind me.
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Header Image: Creative Commons, Public Domain photo.