Was Mickey the only one who noticed how it’d been left there unvacuumed, not to mention unwashed, for so many years that a gooey, infertile mix of desert sand and cigarette ashes and whiskey and beer and blood and God knew what else had formed a topsoil? And Mickey was being stalked constantly by those winking and much too expensive bitches, of questionable sex, swishing and waddling in and out of the conjoining rooms to copulate with men so sad that he couldn’t calm his mind imagining what acts those groans and cries corresponded to. Mickey puffed up images of the future when that money came–even a portion would be good enough. It was going to come because it had to and was supposed to. He knew it. He believed. He had to believe because how could he not? Mickey entertained a whole range of potential fantasies. Faraway travels in jungles, on mountains, near oceans, knockout women who knew how to love. The most realistic was a car. At this loop in time even an old car and its backseat where he might sleep to save a few dollars. It didn’t even need to be that particularly clean–anything that ran would do because this place, the hotel, was not an answer, definitely not what he was looking for. Not what was necessary for this business of his. He had to have an address so he could be reached, and this hotel was not reliable. He couldn’t live on the streets, out in the open where he might have to explain himself, what he was waiting for. And why should he have to? He was no bum or wino. He needed a place to hole up proper. He needed to concentrate and be careful.
The YMCA advertised rooms in the newspaper. He called the phone number, asked if there were any available. The answer back was yes. He didn’t jump at the idea, but it grew on him. Exercise. He’d work out with weights. He’d push himself into major shape. He’d be ready and at the same time he’d keep his mind off the unpleasantries and fears and doubts. It was philosophically sound: He’d be prepared for the better or the worse, mind and body.
Mickey loaded up his army duffel bag from the Grand and left without saying so long, and it was hanging off his shoulder when he pulled on one of the Y’s double glass doors. Cool, blue, the sun yellow and bright, Mickey was wearing his mirror shades as he stepped in and tripped over the cane with a tip as white as the hair of the old man sitting there in the path.
Mr. Crockett was shoved up too close to the doors. Even though he could make out shapes dimly, he felt light well and he stretched his neck like a cat so sunlight would hit on his worn-out eyes–it was the last sensuous pleasure remaining in this life of his. Every day from about ten in the morning until two in the afternoon, and sometimes even longer and sometimes earlier and sometimes when there was nothing else better to do during other hours, he’d tap tap over to those chairs by the door, scooting up as close to them as he could for the best and most gratifying angle. And that was where he was when Mickey got there. Mr. Crockett’s eyelids were closed but his transcendent expression made clear how he was lusting with the heavens. The rest of him slumped forward, the cane between his knees and stretched out in front of him.
Even with his dark glasses on, Mickey’s pupils hadn’t dilated fast enough from the glare of outdoors to in front of him, and so he stumbled hard.
Yet it was Mr. Crockett, startled upright, who screamed like he’d been the one damaged, even as Mickey slid across the waxed and polished floor. Mickey did regroup more quickly, leaping up to help Mr. Crockett back into his chair, saying how sorry he was, how he didn’t see him. Mickey said the same thing to Oscar, the maintenance man, who’d run over–how he was real sorry, how he didn’t see the old guy there–to settle Mr. Crockett down.
“Get him away from that door!” Fred, the desk clerk, yelled. Fred’s eyes weren’t nearly as fired up as his voice, and beyond that, nothing else gave away any overly sensitive worry about the incident.
“I didn’t see that cane,” Mickey apologized to Fred when he finally reached the desk. “Honest.” He even twitched remorsefully on setting down his duffel bag, like maybe it was too soon to lighten the burden from his shoulder, that he might pay greater penance by holding it longer.
“Goddamn old man should know better, whether he sees or don’t,” Fred said with equal parts authority and disinterest.
This should have taken some pressure off Mickey but it didn’t because a few people from inside the coffee shop–a few paces away from the front desk–had rushed out to observe while Oscar steered Mr. Crockett over to the elevator. Mr. Crockett was whimpering loud and clear about wanting only to be left alone to enjoy his sunlight in peace. It was noisy enough to make Mickey reconsider. Mickey wanted anonymity, not publicity, privacy, not spectacle.
“You guys got rooms?” Mickey asked, turning his back, trying to ignore the stir behind him. He already knew because he’d called.
“We do,” said Fred, shifting his eyes up toward Mickey for the first time. He stood up from his desk, prepared to peck at cash register keys. “With or without a bathroom?”
“What’s the difference?”
Fred eased back down into his tall desk stool and drew in calmness like a smoker a cigarette. ‘shitting or showering in the room by yourself, or shitting or showering down the hall with everybody else.”
Mickey sighed. ‘money. That’s what I’m talking about.”
“Without the bathroom, four dollars a day, or twenty-four by the week,” Fred said like it was well known and as boring to everyone else as it was to him. “With, add one-fifty a day or nine a week.”
Mickey debated it seriously. If he didn’t believe he should have to live in this YMCA, he also didn’t want the streets unless that was all that was left. This place was practical.
“Can my mail be sent here?” he asked.
“Comes with the room.” Fred pointed over to a case of glass-windowed mailboxes. “Room key is the mail key.”
Oscar had returned to stand nearby, to size up this young man: hair a little long like a marijuano or, worse, a criminal. Dressed to be on the run, in an overused white dress shirt and worn-down jeans, both of which needed washing. Boots that had to have been resoled more than once.
“What about the gym?” Mickey asked. “Can I work out? Use the weight room and pool and handball courts?”
Oscar kept his attention on Mickey as though he were trying to remember something else he knew about him.
“Your room key is good for all the athletic membership privileges,” Fred said unenthusiastically, in a manner–Mickey would learn–that expressed his ordinary thoughts on the quality of people who stayed here at the YMCA. Fred had made himself comfortable for the long transaction, his new blue jeans perched on the metal stool in front of the cash register, one cowboy boot on the floor, the heel of the other hooked on the low cross member.
Oscar creased his ironed and starched gray uniform into the formica counter, waiting on Mickey’s answer.
“The cheaper one,” Mickey decided. He’d say he didn’t have much choice. Images of sleeping under sooty bridges or out in the cold desert or even back in that nasty hotel–well, they forced the experiment here. And he still had some money. “For a day. I might stay two.” Besides, he had to be where he could be reached. It was important that he be able to get mail, and that it get him, easily.
“You decide to stay the week, you can pay for it up to the fourth day,” Fred said. “Get the seventh day free that way.”
Mickey, offended at how Fred seemed to assume he couldn’t find some better location to stay, nonetheless didn’t speak out in his own defense. Fred dropped a registration card in front of him, and Mickey went ahead and filled it out as a person named M. Acu”a, from New Mexico, with a previous address he made up, and then unwadded some cash withdrawn from the front of his jeans. He paid for two days.
Oscar, fulfilled, slapped the formica and began the turn away from the counter.
“Back to it,” Fred said, not looking up.
Oscar walked down the hall toward his duties.
Fred’s glasses rested off his ears and close to the tip of his nose. He poked, deliberately, simplemindedly, the keys of the cash register, then watched the machine print out each line of its receipt. Finally he lifted off his stool and reached toward a wall of hooks and keys and chose a room. “You leave at night and come back late,” he told Mickey, “you gotta show the man here at the desk this key and he’ll let you in. Elevator’s right behind you. Room 412. Fourth floor.” Fred collapsed and fit the glasses back into a fur-lined case clipped on a pocket of his checkered western shirt and readjusted himself to the metal stool, gazing off at nothing at all.
Mickey shouldered the duffel bag from the glossy linoleum and humped it over to the sliding elevator doors and waited patiently for them to open, trying to make it appear that he had no more on his mind than this.
Which, of course, was hard to do within all the clutter and confusion. Once upon a time, he’d tell you, he used to pride himself on his confidence and clarity–he knew what he was doing, he knew where he was going. He’d done shit. He’d been brave in battles and he’d been mean. He’d been smart when he was right, he’d gotten smarter when he was wrong, he’d been good when he knew it was good, bad when he knew it was bad. Modesty aside, he was convinced he’d once had admirers. Important dudes who demanded respect and respected him. Women liked him. Females so incredible that he himself could hardly believe it now. So what happened? Where and when did he lose it? Or had he become so convincing that he’d even deceived himself?
No. It wasn’t like that. He wasn’t. And this, this was for now, until things worked out like they were going to, whether he liked it or not. He was, in lots of ways, still heroic and brave. Sure he thought he could have it all, but he’d take only what he needed. Sure he was down temporarily to a room. Number 412. A nice-enough room in his humble estimation. A bed with sheets top and bottom, stiff and tucked tight, a small yet still useful pillow. A desk, a padded chair with metal legs to go with it, a matched-decor chest of drawers. Protestant stark, it wasted nothing on gaudy, baroque trimmings or knobs. Bare white plaster walls waiting there for the imagination. A window, a fourth floor view of the border, of the West in El Paso. A thick, weighted curtain that could be closed, and a heavier, solid door that could be locked–both these activities Mickey made his first YMCA exercises.
In the shade of the curtains, Mickey found it easy to sink back into the bed for meditation on the challenges of life. He was tired, very tired. Mickey slept without taking his boots off.
* * *
He woke up on an unpaid-for third day after he’d checked in, and he rode the elevator down, gave up money for two full weeks, then made, he would say, a long-distance phone call about the big coin that was supposed to come to him, which, he would say, was already long overdue. He passed on the address of the YMCA so it could be sent here. Back upstairs, an elevator ride up, he slurped the cold fountain water in the hall and filled a toilet, then back in room 412, after eating candy bars, he slept again. More days passed. He paid another week in advance, checked his mail at least once every day, making sure he didn’t miss anything, searching the deep long sides and top of the tiny slot that was his personal Y resident mailbox; his room key always opened the permanently oiled lock smoothly. One day he snuck outdoors and brought back loaves of bread, and little wheels of soft, cheap Laughing Cow cheese, and some fresh jalape”os. He drank a quart of water, then slept more. He was still real tired, and though safe and snug in this room 412, he remembered he was worried. He’d get over this, he told himself. As soon as that money made it here. He’d be out of this bullshit phase so fast, these weeks would seem like one bad night.
Then another day, when he’d been closed up for long enough and he was wide awake, he decided to let in some light and color, opening the curtains to the spectrum of an El Paso morning. Such a simple town of simple landscape and coloring: a brown like the earth, a blue like the sky, a white like the clouds, a little gray like the pollution. Mickey knew this Wild West town was a perfect hideout. He’d pulled off his boots by then, and he was running his dirty socks against the slippery linoleum. The city out there was so still, it seemed there were only these feet of his. It was the ideal town for an outlaw on the run.
Then someone knocked on his door.
“Yeah?” he asked nervously.
‘maid,” she posed in a strong accent. “I wish to clean your room now.”
The prospect frightened Mickey and caught him off guard. What did she really want? Once he’d told her to skip him, that he was fine, he’d let her know. He’d been clear about it and was sure she’d understood.
“They told me I have to,” she explained. “I’m sorry.”
“Un momentito,” he told her. He realized that this time might have to come.
Mickey’s eyes speeded around to make sure there wasn’t some evidence. Two slices of bread on the desk, wax candy and foil cheese wrappers not in the clean trash can, an empty orange juice carton he kept water in. A rent receipt. Some loose change. A dirty white shirt, a couple of faded colored T-shirts, which he gathered up and draped on the seat of the desk chair neatly. Only then did he open the door.
“I’m sorry, pero they tole me que no matter.” She smiled apologetically at him. She pushed one of those carts.
Mickey tried to smile back. He didn’t care to stir up anything. Privacy, not publicity. Also, he didn’t want to sit there like it was all he had to do with his life, like he wasn’t busy. He picked up the clean white bath towel she’d placed on the chest of drawers. “Bueno, entonces I’ll go take a shower,” he told her.
She smiled cooperatively.
The shower wasn’t a bad idea either–truth is he might’ve forgotten without the nudge. He closed his eyes in appreciation under the showerhead, opening them only to be certain that an upset voice he was hearing was not sharing this group stall with him. Afterward, as he was returning his dirty clothes to their previous locations, after he’d dried himself off with the maid’s clean towel, Mickey identified the voice with the old dude in slippers and pajama bottoms, no top, standing in front of the line of sinks. He was cussing. At first Mickey thought it was on account of the shaving, the man there having a real rough go of it. But now he saw that the old-timer’s old-time brush hadn’t yet met any lather. The man’s arms gripped the porcelain basin, his face was locked into a stare-down with the mirror, until curses burst loose from the interaction. ‘shit!” or “Fucking shit!” or “Goddamn fucking shit!” –each exiting his mouth like an articulated belch. They came up involuntarily unto a life of their own, without respect or disrespect to any other person’s presence–in this case, Mickey’s–on the same tiled floor. The man didn’t seem to know or care that Mickey was nearby.
Mickey slipped back to room 412 in the same hardened socks; he didn’t have another clean pair. The maid had just finished up the room and was standing beside the gray cart in the hall, right next to his door. He couldn’t stop his own disease: why had it taken her so long? He gave her his wet towel first, and she gave him a clean, dry one. He asked her, as an opener, if she knew where a laundromat might be.
‘downstairs,” she told him cordially. She was stuffing the used sheets into a cloth bag on her cart.
That pissed-off man, who couldn’t have shaved, exited the group toilet room, and, sanding the linoleum with his slippers, echoed more bad words into the hall. Linked in observation, Mickey and the maid stood ogling in his direction. She turned her smile toward Mickey first.
“What’s your name?” Mickey asked her. She was much more attractive than he’d first allowed.
‘downstairs?” he asked.
“They have a washer machine and a dryer, las dos, abajo, en el primer piso, at the first floor.”
She grinned even larger. This time Mickey caught on–she smiled at him just like she did at that old cussing man.
Mickey refused to be specific about why he was in El Paso, what or who he was waiting for, what the deal was, why he had to hide out, what he was afraid of if it didn’t work out. He’d snap that he didn’t have to be specific. But at the same time he’d drop unsubtle hints: something that he wasn’t exactly happy about having done, that he was ashamed of one minute and proud of the next. While some people would think what he’d done was good, took guts and hair, was even required under the circumstances, others might pronounce it as bad or even, according to those with stronger views and no uncertainty, as criminal.
Mickey would explain to you how he was American, a U.S. citizen of Mexican parents, one from this side of the r”o, one from the other, both with families that were on this land only after the indios, many years before his people taught those cowboys to ride horses and be cowboys. Mickey’d tell you he was from the New Mexico Territory and the desert, from the badlands, a canyon just like the ones you saw in cowboy movies for outlaws when they rode away, an encampment known only through the inside. He’d tell you he was a wanderer, a womanizer. Mickey’d tell you various stories about what he did in Califas, or on the West Coast, or in the big city–names he used interchangeably for where he’d been. He’d say he went there to soak up the city lights, to shake out some meaning and purpose to his life where money was fat, to score high numbers, to make sloppy love lots of times. He’d insist he did it, and he’d leave the length and width to your imagination.
And so who would have thought that an open door at the Y would become a memorable event for him? But after sleeping it off for all those days, so comfortable in his room 412 with those curtains closed, opening a door was a little like crossing a border. Stimulating and surprising and curious and risky. Not that there was too much to see in the halls of the YMCA. Waxed linoleum floor, one door across closed, another open. Every once in a while, though, someone would pass by. An old person mostly, a bandage around something, or blotchy skin, thin white hair. And mostly someone who didn’t look back over. Mickey made sandwiches with the last slices of bread and wedges of cheese. He clicked on a radio and dialed around and left it on a ball game. Ball games could always be counted on. He made calculations with his remaining funds. He was good at poverty. He was proud of his ability to survive. Every day he proved his ability. Eating had its costs, eating had its obligations, and Mickey had his principles. He’d say the need was like the one for a woman. Sure he needed a woman, and he needed food too, but if he had to go hungry, had to sacrifice, he wouldn’t get in a panic–it never worked well that way. Well, maybe he would splurge and go out to dinner that night. And maybe he’d meet a pretty woman too.
He’d found a cowboy novel stashed in a desk drawer. Mickey was no reader, and he’d never have sought it out on his own. Somehow it was more appropriate than a Gideon Bible, and the story was even set right in this city where he was, El Paso. Thus he approached his reading respectfully, with care and deliberation. He’d dragged his desk chair around for more legroom, which offered up a cleaner angle from his open door, widening the view of the room across from his. If he rocked on the back legs a little, he could observe much of his neighbor in there, sitting on the bed in his limp boxer shorts and threadbare T-shirt, both only slightly less aged than him. Those days Mickey had whipped in and out of his room for mailbox checks downstairs, or for water in the hall, he’d seen the man lots of times dressed the same, and one time at the urinal emptying not his bladder but a juice bottle full of its contents. It was the very juice bottle on the old guy’s chest of drawers, a twin of Mickey’s own, and it was right next to a black-and-white TV and right between an assortment of box crackers and cookies, soft white bread, and amber medicine jars. The bottle was a quarter full when the old man’s hand reached over for it, rested it between his legs, then returned it, more full of liquid than before. Not to say it wasn’t practical to have such a bottle in your room when you didn’t have a personal toilet. It was just added detail–like when Mickey first settled into the room he heard what he figured out to be this same old guy farting. Not once in a while, but all the time, day and night. That time he was dumping his juice in the urinal, he farted a couple times then. Walking down the hall he farted. Sitting in the room, door open, he farted. Door shut, TV on, which it mostly was, he was in there farting. Asleep he snored and farted. All of which could be heard whether Mickey’s door was open or closed. At the beginning Mickey’s sentiments ranged between disgust and humor, but seeing that half-filled piss bottle next to food, Mickey realized that this old guy, who he couldn’t remember seeing in a different wardrobe any of the other days, also hadn’t gone out of that room for anything but his water, or to pour it, or to relieve himself in the other direction.
Mickey had his reactions and opinions, and–based, of course, on the fact that he’d been around–he’d say that farting at will, pissing in a bottle, sitting in your underwear nosing the tube, these, with no other cares in the world, might not be so bad in the proper light. And, unlike the Grand, there were no assholes to bother you, since they were, he’d tell you knowledgeably, the greatest source of all human suffering. Though at the Y there wasn’t a woman in sight either, which didn’t seem such a good thing, even for old age. So, even allowing that this might be some late stage of development, a life reduced to such simplicity, it didn’t really make Mickey feel a whole lot happier.
Maybe it was because of that western novel he’d been reading, where rock-hard Jake spurred his sorrel around chasing the Apaches who’d stolen off with his unflawed vision of love in body and spirit, a rich and beautiful Mexican woman named Consuela–not spelled Consuelo like people in Mexico commonly and on this side too named their daughters, beautiful or not–whose father wasn’t as stolid in his manliness as Jake was. Anyway, the effect of the book, as Mickey broke out of the double doors of the Y, as he chanced coming out of hiding for a walk in the air, was that his eyes were on the Old West: Those Pase”os in the cowboy hats looked like the real thing to him, and the paved streets and poured sidewalks took on a much more recent occupation, like an affectation, a clean shirt for Sunday, a sprucing-up despite all the dirt stain under the nails, when the boots had been shined many times instead of being replaced. The mountains on either side of the river, like certain kinds of haircuts, gave a lot of it away–raw brown, bare of civilization, their vegetation thorny and hard. Beer bottles shattered at the edges of the sidewalks and in the gutters, glittering the dirt alleys, colored an attitude that held the territory. Mickey didn’t hear any hooves but felt they’d come beating up any minute. Nothing attached to the soil seemed bolted on. Not this old asphalt with all its cracks that these modern cars used, even less so the squat buildings thrown up without any attempt to be more than what they were–four walls, brick mortar, glass, enclosures for the necessities of a trader’s commerce. They could not cover all that loose dust underneath, which above ground blew into the eyes to brand its reality. Mickey’s mind saw lots of animals–horses, mules, donkeys–and not the automobiles or trucks or buses. As honest as bleached blond hair on a dark Mexican woman, El Paso’s truth was not beauty-parlored well enough, couldn’t even be ignored completely by driving on the concrete overpasses or the many-laned highway at its center, though maybe enough for those whose foot pressed hard into their Americanized dreams.
Mickey stopped at the San Jacinto Plaza, which was a peaceful place to rest despite the whiny blow of buses and hollow thud of jackhammers surrounding it, despite the harsh voice of God communing through the inspired, head-shaking man in a white guayabera on stage who pounded out Old Testament fear and wrath. Mickey ignored these warnings and brushed off a spot on the iron bench, the relief on it of cherubic English farmers sowing, then reaping, under a pleasant sun–cotton and chile grew by the river, and the wind now had soured even more. Near Mickey a wino, clods of dust clinging to his matted hair, his beard streaked gray and tangled, stretched out on his linen of cardboard and newspaper, teddy-bearing a very old and wrinkled brown paper sack, and battled to tuck himself in. He muttered to himself and everyone else about the difficulty of that until the bulls showed up to spare him his complaints, one of them ending a striped blue-gray pant leg on the bench and leaning both forearms onto his knee, shoulders still square, directing him to a bedroom somewhere else. The wino landed on the floppy soles of his shoes and scraped them across one of the cement paths slicing through the plaza. God’s voice had stilled while his brown-skinned angels, these young, sweet-eyed girls in white matching chiffon dresses, passed Mickey the literature about eternal damnation and hell.
Merciful angels. What Mickey needed were more mature angels to cheer him up. He looked around. A group of gray-haired locals with straw western hats made in Mexico like themselves sat over there peacefully, wordless, in dull though neat and cared-for clothes, not too far from a bench where their Anglo counterparts–theirs were new beige Stetsons–found the time to share words with a black tramp about Jim Crow laws and those times past. Where chopping through were the hurried secretaries in their high heels and sticky hairdos, and businessmen in sports coats and pressed slacks and those snappy briefcases. And beyond them, where women with black hair and brown hair and even red hair, those women who cleaned the rich people’s houses, waited at a wooden bus-stop bench. Where Mickey saw one woman, one young woman whose hair wasn’t red, it was dark copper, and it was so pretty, mercilessly pretty, devilishly beautiful.
The way Mickey told this one was that he first had to slip in closer to her, close enough to see how exactly she suited the picture of the woman just for him, close enough to make certain she was no apparition. Among the maids, she didn’t wear a uniform. She was simply there for him, a message of hope from the gentle God Mickey remembered to love whenever his heart beat so excitedly.
Mickey walked right up to her, in front of all of them, two benches lined and loaded with chubby middle-aged ladies–except her, of course–waiting on the red bus home to Ju’rez.
“Con su permiso,” Mickey said with his best manners, “but may I have a few moments with you to introduce myself?” His announcement startled all the women on the benches. Mickey, too, as a matter of fact, even though once upon a time he was sure he was good at these things. The less-mature ladies wanted to check him out real well before they giggled into their hands, while the two more elderly women next to Mickey’s Consuela tried to be more discreet, holding their chins and eyes down as though they weren’t so actively curious.
‘maybe I could walk you home,” he said, suddenly self-conscious and self-critical. Was he too direct, acting like he was in a bar? Or maybe too sappy, like he was in a church? At some moments he did feel he was a bum, and she was laughing at him. “If you don’t mind the long walk across?”
One of the ladies beside her gave some eye and head movement and a few words Mickey could hear–”Talk to him.”
And then she got up. And Mickey was confirmed in his belief in the goodness of this world. He felt true and honest, so satisfied he was sure this was an example of how everything else might fall into place too.
Together they strolled away from the bus benches. Mickey, nervous, struggled to work past first lines. Lately he’d been feeling unskilled in some things; he was also reminded, fumbling in a pants pocket, that he was on the starvation plan and possessed only a few dollars and assorted bits of change. He was virtually broke.
‘mickey Acu”a,” he said, reaching out his hand. She said her name was Ema Quintero. They shook hands tenderly, like kids. Or maybe just like Cowboy Jake did at the beginning with his lovely Consuela. The way Mickey would tell it, it was love for both of them.
Copyright ” 1994 by Dagoberto Gilb. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.