The Disappearance of Rafael Arroyo

Rafael’s job in Philadelphia was simple: keep water glasses filled, put bread on tables, bring forks, clean messes, clear plates. [img_assist|nid=6830|title=Purple Bunny by Nicole FitzGibbon© 2010|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=225|height=159]But his unstated job, the one that no one spoke of but everyone understood, was the most important: be invisible. He kept his mouth shut and his body moving, swift and silent in black, pedaling his bike through the narrow South Philly streets, weaving amongst the tightly packed tables at La Strada, slipping between conversations and bottles of Chianti. He was good at it now. He had been practicing from the moment he stepped through a hole in a razor-wire fence and into a hostile desert where helicopters scraped the night sky with searchlights, rifles waiting.

Tonight was busy. Thursday is the new Friday. That was what Carlo said before the shift. We’re going to be packed, so keep things rolling. It’s hot out. Make sure nobody runs out of water. And Rafael did. The woman at table fifteen was getting down to a few centimeters above her ice cubes. Rafael moved in with his pitcher. She thanked him between bites of broiled fish. In the desert there had been no ice cubes. No pitchers. No thankyous. Just the heat, that unbelievable ceiling of heat pressing them down as if to crush them into the sand and be rid of them. The crinkle of an empty water bottle, the last warm drop on his parched tongue. Table eleven had ordered. Time for bread. Rafael walked back to the kitchen, scooping the empty plates off of table eight on his way. Thank you, thank you. In the kitchen there was a clatter of stainless steel.

Ant’ny, what’s this mod on table nine?

She don’t want basil.

Yeah, I can read. But the pesto’s the focal point. Without that it’s shit. You know better!

Javier caught his eye at the bread warmer. Fourteen needs a new napkin. Rafael nodded. The water, the water. His pitcher was empty, and the lady at twelve needed water. He filled his pitcher while he waited for eleven’s bread to warm. You want more water, eh? I’ll give you water. Rafael breathed in, breathed out, opened the oven, pulled out the bread with tongs and popped it in a basket. Out on the floor voices rose, ebbed, and collided, their tones warm like the candles that glowed on the tables. Wine glasses clinked. The lady at twelve’s glass was perilously close to empty. Rafael dropped the bread at eleven and a napkin at fourteen, and just as twelve finished her last sip, he appeared by her side with the pitcher, an angel bearing water. And into this image tore the rough voice, teeth stained with tobacco, eyes red from the sand and casually vicious. I’ll give you something to drink.  Rafael flinched as he turned away from the table. Javier caught his eye. Rafael lifted the corner of his mouth up and gave a slight nod. Bien bien. Everything bien.

Last Wednesday he’d been sent home early with nothing to do. Apparently Wednesday was not the new Thursday. When he’d [img_assist|nid=6829|title=Up The Bridge by Robb McCall © 2010|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=151|height=200]stepped into the apartment he’d heard Inocencia sobbing through the bathroom door. Everything bien bien here in el Norte. He’d slipped out without a sound to the bar down the street. When he came home hours later, drunk, she pretended to be asleep and he pretended to believe her.

Seventeen had finished their appetizers. Appetizer—he had taken this word apart, and it meant something you ate to get hungry. In the Arizona desert, heat and thirst stretched hunger into a thin, secondary concern. In the dusty plaza in the Sonora border town where the bus had finally left them, the coyote had told Rafael and his friend, A few kilometers through the desert to your ride. A day or two at the most. My guys, my polleros, will take care of you. Rafael cleared the plates from seventeen and replenished their water, the ice cubes tinkling in their glasses as he poured. Thank you, Rafael had told the coyote. Thank you for your help. But really, it was thousands of dollars that did the thanking, thousands of hours in the Puebla fields, thousands of maize cobs piled in Rafael’s baskets. By the second day across the desert trails the blisters on his feet had begun to bleed. They rationed their water: no one got more than two bottles a day. It was around noon on the third day when the woman from Guadalajara asked for more.

Rafael watched Anthony describe the specials to table five. Anthony’s grandparents had come from Naples. Rafael had searched for Naples on his cousin’s computer and it looked like a nice place to live, with palm trees and beaches and plentiful pizza, and Rafael could hardly imagine that it had once been so poor that people had fled it, as Anthony told him, in the rat-infested bellies of ships that took three weeks to cross the Atlantic. Rafael imagined, sometimes, when he heard Anthony speaking his few phrases of Italian to Carlo, that his own grandchildren would grow up speaking only snatches of Spanish, forgetting Mixtec entirely, and have nothing of their homeland but a headful of stories selected by their elders and retold so many times they had crystallized into fables. They would scoff at the thought of going back to the small town of San Mateo Ozolco, would probably never even make it south of Mexico City, would know nothing of Mexico but hat dances and mariachis and tequila. No. He and Inocencia were only twenty. They had time. As soon as they had saved enough money they would return to San Mateo and build a house with a real roof and a refrigerator with food in it, there between the two volcanoes, the silent snow-covered Aztec emperor’s daughter, Iztacchihuatl, and her forever fuming lover, the warrior Popocatepetl. Everyone knew the story. The emperor had sent the lover to battle in Oaxaca to get rid of him for good. But the emperor’s daughter died of grief, and when her lover returned, he carried her out and buried her, and the gods blanketed her grave with snow.

The four people at twelve were on dessert now. They were finishing their second bottle of wine, and the joke must have been good because the woman with the curly dark hair threw her head back when she laughed. Inocencia had laughed like that. Rafael had known her family, of course, but had met her when he got work unloading the truck at her uncle’s store. Rafael was a wisecracking skateboarder, his hair spiked, always blaring punk rock CDs his cousins brought back from Mexico City on his headphones.Inocencia was a reserved sort of girl, even, her words gently witty, her face calm as she weighed tomatoes and counted bulbs of garlic. It had taken him three weeks to get her to laugh like that, three weeks of her left eyebrow raising and the corner of her lip turning up, each time making him want it more, until finally he got it, her smooth throat stretched back, and that warm strong laugh let loose for him., and he knew he wanted to hear that laugh forever. Inocencia didn’t laugh these days.

The woman at table twenty was on her third glass of water, and she shook her head to her friend as Rafael refilled it. God, I’m just so thirsty! On the third day they had hunkered down in a dry creek bed for a bit of shade, and that was when the woman from Guadalajara asked for more water. She was in her twenties, maybe, a city girl with a missing tooth and a husband waiting in Los Angeles. She had been panting all along the trail that morning, falling behind, and the polleros were getting impatient. Rafael had lingered toward the back of the group, trying to urge her along, and was the only one who saw her slip on a rock as they climbed a hill. He gave her a hand up. Está bien? She nodded, bien, and Rafael saw blood on the knees of her jeans and fear in her eyes. And now she had finished one of her two bottles for the day already and was begging for more. You want something to drink, eh? Ha ha! She shook her head, but they took her behind the mesquite trees, and Rafael watched the last drop of water roll around in the bottom of his plastic bottle. In the kitchen water flowed into his pitcher, cold, clear. Everything clear. When he had told Inocencia on the phone that he didn’t want her to come across, there was just silence for a few seconds on the line, the quiet volcano. She said that she was coming. That they would be together. And he knew there was nothing he could say to stop her. Or maybe there was, but he’d wanted that raised eyebrow, that laugh, the strong smooth bones of her hands wrapped around the back of his neck as she kissed him, so bad that he could imagine it was only birds shrieking behind the mesquite trees. That the woman from Guadalajara had wandered off and found work on a ranch somewhere out there. Anthony gestured to him. The bar needed ice. Rafael started to fill a bucket, the scoop grating against the ice. The ice was in his stomach now, the way it was when he’d come home to hear sobbing on the other side of the bathroom door. That sobbing was a new sound, in the same voice as the laugh, his laugh. But this terrifying sobbing was not his, and never could be. And as Rafael remembered how he’d crept away from the door, out of the apartment without a sound, invisible, his face burned with shame and he threw his shoulder into the scoop, grinding it into the ice harder, louder. He felt the power in his shoulders, bigger now from the weeks of pressing the dumbbell he kept at the foot of their bed. Every Monday he added more weight. Javier appeared by the ice machine, his face concerned. Qué haces, wey? Tables thirteen and eighteen needed water. Fifteen and sixteen needed to be cleared. The bar didn’t need that much ice. Rafael hauled the bucket to the bar and poured it into the bin, the sound like stones clattering down a mountain. In the late afternoon of the third day on the upside of a slope, the woman from Guadalajara vomited and collapsed to the ground, her eyes rolling up like white balls on a pool table, her breath quick and ragged. When Rafael and another migrant tried to pull her to her feet, she just moaned. Rafael wanted to try to carry her, but the pollero would have none of it. Get up, he said, or we leave you here.

Leave me alone, then, you bastard, she said. Déjame en paz. In peace. And so they did. Don’t worry, La Migra will find her, the pollero said as they scrambled on over the mountain. And so they did. They found her two months later. Rafael had checked the Phoenix Spanish-language news websites every few days, that chill clawing in his stomach, until one day, there it was. Badly decomposed, wearing a blue t-shirt, missing one tooth. In peace.

And that was what Inocencia said, in the first week after she’d arrived in Philadelphia, her face closed and her eyes somewhere[img_assist|nid=6831|title=Self Portrait, Chemo by Janice Hayes-Cha © 2010|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=200|height=259] else, in the desert maybe, searching for water in the scorching sand. Or maybe it was that he’d gotten so good at being invisible. He’d tried to kiss her for the third night in a row, slipped his hand around her waist under her nightshirt, trying to reach to wherever she was, and she sucked breath in fast through her nose and looked at him and asked him to please, Rafael, for now, just déjame en paz. In peace. Rafael imagined that if peace was anywhere, it was at the top of Iztaccihuatl, sleeping forever under her blanket of snow. But not here. Table fourteen needed more water, and Rafael poured the glasses nearly to the brim. The graceful middle-aged couple dressed mostly in black thanked him. They were going to the theater, had to be out by eight-thirty, Anthony said. By the time Rafael got home it would be past midnight, and Inocencia would be home from her job at the taquería, sleeping, or not sleeping, her hair spread on the pillow like black silk in the light from the bathroom, her long lashes resting in the dark hollows under her eyes, and instead of asking her the question he could not shape into words, Rafael would grab the case from where he’d stashed it in the back of the hall closet, sling it over his back, and walk a few blocks to an alley where he would enter a dank basement littered with electronic equipment and empty beer bottles and take out the used Stratocaster inside, holding its cool smooth body in his hands. You know how to play this thing? the guitar’s original owner, a guy everybody called Joey Z, had asked. Rafael shrugged. I played an acoustic back in Mexico. But I can’t make noise in our place. Joey Z laughed. Don’t worry, I’ve got a soundproofed basement. We usually finish up band practice around midnight. Come by tomorrow after work and I’ll show you how to use the amp. Rafael did come by, and he came by the next day too, and hit the riffs he knew again and again and again, and although it might not have been good, it was loud, just for an hour it was louder than the screeching behind the mesquite trees, louder than sobbing, louder than the echoes of that full-throated laughter, louder than anything he’d heard this side of peace.

Marleen Hustead is a 2008 graduate of Rosemont College’s MFA program. She teaches English at Philadelphia University and Temple University. She lives
in Philadelphia with her Chihuahua, Pepita, and is hard at work on a novel. (Marleen, not Pepita, that is.)

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