The Immigrant

By James Stark

I don’t need a relationship,” Gladis declared, as she leaned into the damp mop she was passing over the honey-colored oak floors of the house on Seattle’s Perkins Lane. Nobody heard her as she spoke into an empty room, while blowing a stray strand of hair from her face.  Two more hours of work in a big house like this meant a big paycheck. At thirty six, how much longer could she work like this, she wondered. This was no life for a woman with two small children.

“I sure won’t go through what I did with that Al guy from church. What that man put me through … huh uh, no way. He thinks I am that desperate–he even finally said he was going to divorce his wife.  I didn’t even know he had one.”

She had decided to try her luck flying in on a tourist visa to visit her cousin, Isabel in New York, on Long Island. She had overstayed her three month visa by a year; one whole year away from her babies and her man.  She was worth more to them when she sent them money every week.  It wasn’t the same, talking to them with the cheap telephone cards. Especially because of the time difference, her schedule, their school, not to mention the bad connections. How much longer, she asked herself.

Cousin Isabel was a teenager when the Dawsons brought her back with them from their vacation to Trinidad. Only Isabel realized that her meeting with this American couple was not an accident. And Isabel was still paying off the “match-maker” fee back home. She had stayed on as Ralph and Martha Dawson’s live- in maid for all these years. Immigrants moved around easier back then.

“Gladis, you can stay a few days, a week maybe.  But that’s all.” Isabel didn’t like risks.

“Isabel, honey, family is still important even over here.”

“You know what’s important, Gladis, is my steady paycheck and this nice room I have. And the money I send back to mama.”

Everything turned upside down for Gladis when she, the smart pretty one of the family got pregnant the first time. She had lost her school scholarship, and then Darius lost his job and couldn’t support her and the baby. But then brother Nigel called from the West Coast and told her how things were booming in Seattle. People were making big money at Microsoft and Boeing. Nigel hadn’t been so good-for-nothing then. He had been doing gardening for a lot of those important people and told her she could get housecleaning jobs. It would be easy, he assured her.

Isabel lent Gladis enough for a one-way ticket to Seattle and some extra money to try her luck out there. “Try it for a month”, she had said. That was a year ago. And now she had her own apartment, a driver’s license, a small car, and a social security card one of her ladies had helped her get.  Her ready smile and hard work had got her passed around among the rich dames. One thing she had refused was to watch their spoiled kids.  She had kids of her own back home with mama.  Her man, Darius, they weren’t officially married, worked at what he could get. He wanted to join Gladis. But everyone looked harder at a man like Darius who was big and strong and dark. Other illegals she met told of meeting and marrying Americans to get papers. Those who helped were idealistic young students. It was a lark. “Putting it to the man” they called it talking through the dope and booze. The INS was overworked and understaffed. Everyone knew that. Why shouldn’t she try it? But she didn’t want a relationship.

Gladis leaned on her mop, and looked around the super elegant house. Uh, uh, so many rooms, each decorated to a theme, like seascape or forest. And that huge kitchen with its cooking island, full of pots and pans hanging from the ceiling rack! And these people didn’t even cook.  Red and white take-out boxes filled the garbage bins. There was a dish of matchbooks from all the local upscale restaurants. Often they catered their parties. Their kids were gone to college or married. Two Trini families would fit here, with room to spare, she thought to herself. Focus, girl, there’s still four rooms and a bathroom upstairs.

The bathroom had piped in music and a Jacuzzi that looked out over the Sound. Down the hall there were computer rooms and exercise areas. Sure, she chuckled. Each exercise machine was draped with clothes she had to remove to dust the machines. She didn’t resent these rich people. They paid on time and didn’t ask any questions. They were professional people and hated housework

As she lugged the vacuum cleaner up the stairs, she thought of big Al at the church who had seemed so generous. Mama Rachel had introduced her to him after services at the Christian church one Sunday a month ago; Rachel knew all about her situation. She wanted to help and maybe reap some benefit herself. There were match makers everywhere. Just like in the islands. Gladis was still handsome, even with the extra lines on her forehead. Although she was petite, her figure filled out where it was supposed to. The heavy housework hadn’t made her coarse yet.

“Listen, little mama, why don’t you and me step out and get to know each other?” Al had actually smacked his lips as if he were about to bite into some barbecued ribs. He had big appetites. And not just for barbecued ribs. They had stepped out all right, and she had gotten to know more about him than she really wanted to without undressing. He had recently migrated from Mississippi, where he had an insurance business. A cousin in Seattle invited him up for a Seahawks football game in the new stadium. Imagine his joy when he discovered their community was underserved by insurance. Al, in his overpriced suits and special sized imported shoes, had been generous and said he could help her to become legal. They could go to a Justice of the Peace. But no way did he want to be just a ’silent partner’ as he called it. Somehow she’d avoided his insistent embraces and said good night, her clothes rumpled but still intact.

“You got to play the role, little mama. No telling when those INS agents come snoopin’ around. That’s where the big risk is. For you and me. We got to put on a show. Make it look like we together, in, you know, wedded bliss. So what do you say?”

Gladis lost count of the times she insisted she didn’t want a relationship; that she would make it worth his while–financially and only financially. All she wanted was to start the process toward her green card. Then bring her kids over. It was very simple in her mind. She would make the next date with Al the last one just to show there were no hard feelings.

She rubbed her aching back. One more house today. Whenever she thought she could slow down to just one house a day, something came up. Like her car that was making funny noises and her spooky landlord showed up, usually when she wasn’t fully dressed. He was selling her apartment.  ‘Going condo’ he said. Get rich quick was the Seattle way. She had no argument with that, except she had to look for a new place at a higher price. Brother Nigel had asked for another loan. She couldn’t keep fronting him. When would it all end? At a traffic stop? Or with brother Nigel’s INS hearing? She had bailed him out so many times after he regularly drank away his labor job money, so now his problems had become hers.

Her hard-earned money went to his booze and gambling at the local reservation casino. And he needed bail money after too much drink. “Oh, and by the way,” he told her, “I have an INS hearing in a month, you know, the immigration people, ‘to show why I shouldn’t be deported.’ And I had to give them your name and number because you were on record for bailing me out, two, three times. I forget. Anyway, don’t be surprised by a letter in the mail. Or a phone call. See you in Trini in the fall, sis.”

The last room on the second floor of the Spencer house loomed large. She didn’t knock in the house she assumed was empty. “Afternoon.” came the voice out of the room lighted by a single bed lamp. “I heard you vacuuming and wondered when my turn would come up. I‘m Morgan.”

“Oh, you gave me a start. Have you been here the whole time? I am Gladis. I haven’t seen you here before. Are you on vacation from school?”

“No. Yes. You might say so. Shall I move?”

“No, no, I can work around you. What are you reading?”

“American Studies. That’s my major. At least this week.”

Lying there with a book in his hand and a half empty glass of liquor on the night stand, she guessed the blond, Morgan to be in his mid-twenties. He was taking her measure through light green eyes. Gladis felt uneasy.  There were stories of maids raped by their employers.  They had no recourse.  Who could they turn to?  They lost their jobs and were sent home, ending their dream of making it in America. Morgan seemed to sense her anxiety. He put his book down and a softness came into his face.

“Gladis, you are the true American. My American Studies professor says people like you are the ones who continue the American experience.”

Gladis was caught between her tiredness, the prospect of the next house looming, and her curiosity about what this young rich kid was saying. Was he drunk or high on something?  Was he coming on to her now in this big empty house?  His parents weren’t expected home for a while yet.

“One day I would like to be an American citizen. But it is very difficult.”

“Why? My grandparents came from Sweden. They worked hard and became citizens.”

Gladis started dusting instead of vacuuming which would cut off the conversation that intrigued her.

“Let’s open some windows here so that I can see better what needs cleaning. You know, it‘s different for me than for your grandparents.  And as you see, I‘m a different shade.  This country needs me, but officially doesn‘t welcome me, like they did your people.”

In the distance a ferry horn announced its departure for Bainbridge Island. The July sun back-lighted Morgan’s face. She started the vacuum to neutralize her anxiety about being alone with this man-child, and she had to get some work done. The vacuum stopped abruptly when Morgan pulled the plug from the socket. He stood there with his baggy pants barely covering his thin hips and his shirt opened to expose a multi-colored tattoo.

“Listen, let’s talk.  I don’t get much chance at conversation here. My parents aren’t used to people around and so they avoid me.  I’m taking time out from school.  But I need to get my head together and get direction. You know, ’life experience’.

“What kind of ‘life experience’ are you looking for?”

“I don’t know.  What do you suggest?”

“Well, Morgan, you could always help me do a house or two.  I would share my life experience until you find one of your own.” Gladis’s humor relieved her tension.

“That’s cool.  But I’ve never done that kind of work.”

“I don’t suppose.  But you’re smart and strong and could learn fast enough.  This is a vacuum cleaner.  Pass it over the floor in your room while I get the bathroom.”

“Whoa. You want me to do your work and then have my parents pay you for it? What’s in it for me?”

“Morgan, that’s what we call life experience. You only get your wages later. You know, here in your head. Me, I’m working my way up. With no life experience, you got to work your way down, then start up. It’s really quite simple.”

Gladis was enjoying this exchange.  She would never risk her job having him learn at her ‘school’.

“I don’t know.  What else do you have?  I don’t want to take your money. Besides, I don’t need it.”

“Hey, who said anything about money?  Life experience has more value than money. Here‘s my phone number.  Just call if you want to try this, or just talk.  Ok?”

She pulled a business card with her picture from the pocket of her apron.  One of Mama Rachel’s ideas. Just then, the clattering heels on the marble entry way signaled the arrival of Morgan’s mother and Gladis‘s employer.

“Hello, Gladis. Have you seen Morgan?  Tell him I want to talk to him, please.”

“Yes, Mrs. Spencer,” Gladis called down the circular stairway. “I just met Morgan.  He’s coming down and I am almost finished.  I hope your day was pleasant.”

 

A few days later, Gladis waited at the appointed cafe, but Al didn’t show. From Rachel she learned that Al was in the hospital with a heart attack.  His wife had appeared unexpectedly from Mississippi and caught him helping another ’downtrodden’ immigrant.  She advised him that charity begins at home, and then served him divorce papers.

So now how was she going to find a “sponsor”?  Nigel’s INS hearing loomed large in her mind.  What if they came for her?   Can’t that man stay out of trouble?  Even as a kid he was trouble.  At least all her worries focused on one thing: deportation. Nigel’s bail or car repairs paled in comparison.  Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up jingled from the phone in her pocket brought her back to reality.  “Hello, this is Gladis”

“Gladis, hi, this is, uh, Morgan.  Remember, from the other day at my parents’ house?”

“Of course, Morgan.  Hello.  Are you ready for some life experience until you see that school would be much better?”

“Well, uh, yes and no.  I mean, I would like to see you again, but I’m afraid not under those conditions.”

Oh, Lord, Gladis thought to herself.  What have we here?  A puppy with a mating instinct?  And when it goes sour, I lose a very lucrative job. Or, she thought, just maybe we can help each other.

“What did you have in mind, Morgan?  Don’t forget, your parents are my employers.  Things could get sticky for all of us.”

“I know, I know.  It’s just, like, I, uh, know what your situation is.  And, like, maybe I could help.”

“What are you thinking, Morgan?”

“Could we discuss it over a meal or at least coffee.  How about Starbucks in Belltown?”

“Ok, Morgan.  At seven o’clock.”

Gladis silently repeated her mantra.  “I don’t want a relationship.”

But, she thought, he is cute, and lord knows, it’s been a very long time.  Maybe it’s time for a little dessert after all this bitter fruit and humble pie I have been eating. Who knows?  After all, life experiences come in different forms.

Gladis spent more time preparing for this ‘date’ than those with Big Al.  Her bright summer dress and strapless low heels accentuated her shapely legs and rounded hips.  Deep red lipstick and eye shadow set off the dark nutmeg of her skin.  Her voluminous hair cascaded down onto her shoulders and bounced with every step.

The Belltown Starbucks was crowded with the after-work crowd and the cafeistas spilled out onto sidewalk tables.  Gladis smiled as heads turned when she made her way toward Morgan who rose to greet her.

“Hi, Morgan.”  She gave him a peck on the cheek and his stock rose immediately among the 20 and 30 somethings pretending not to notice the skinny youth and the striking woman in the busy cafe.  “You really clean up nicely.  What a great jacket and slacks.  Is that a new shirt?”

“I, uh, well, yes, uh thank you.  Man, you look different, Gladis.  I mean, really nice.  You wouldn’t even know–I mean, uh, have a seat, please.  What can I get you?”

“A latte would be nice.  And a biscotti, please.”

Gladis had to think fast how to manage this young sprig to help him to blossom and her to avoid dying on the vine. Oh Lord, don’t let him be hurt, she prayed. When he returned with the coffees, she just laid it out in all its grimy detail.  Mother of two, plus unofficial man in the islands; she was their main source of income, and now the looming problem of deportation because of her brother’s indiscretions.

“Hell yeah, let me help you.  We get married and you stay, no matter what happens to your brother. And I bet I’d be a hero to my American Studies friends.”

“And your parents, I mean we’re different –certainly in age.”

“I guess I wouldn’t tell them right away.”

“I guess you shouldn’t tell your school friends at all, Morgan.”

Mrs. Spencer had always been very kind to her. Gladis didn’t really know Mr. Spencer, who was on business trips when Gladis came. But she could only imagine what a tigress Mrs. Spencer could become when she discovered her son was married to an older, dark-skinned, illegal cleaning woman.  But after all, children disappoint; why should Mrs. Spencer be spared this life experience. Besides, Mrs. Spencer’s righteous anger would cause her own son to face huge consequences.  Yes, she mused, being a mother is terribly difficult.  Gladis knew that.  Now Mrs. Spencer would learn it, too. But if they worked it right, they could all survive. And learn.

“Listen, Morgan, seriously, this will take work and concentration.  Plus a lot of time out of your life.  I am willing to pay you for your time.  There are serious consequences for us if we fail.  If we succeed, you will have done your part to help a ‘true American‘, like your professor said.

Morgan took a long drink of his coffee and smiled. “This would be the biggest life experience decision I would have made to date.  And you know, the funny thing is, I’m sober.”

 

——————–

James Stark is a retired academic who lives and writes with his characters in the Pacific Northwest which often serves as setting and backdrop for his and their conflicts and adventures. He enjoys sending them out to inhabit various cyber and print locales such as: Riverlit, Ishaanlitreview, Forge magazine, Lowestoft Chronicle, pavilion magazine and Bridgehouse Publishing. He hopes to reunite them in one place as a collection in the near future.


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