“Mañana?” Raúl said.
“Tomorrow,” Larissa said. She could practically smell Tecate through the phone line. “I wait for you,” she heard as she shoved the receiver into its wall mount and returned to the living room where her roommate Bev sprawled in front of the television.
“Refugee?” Bev asked. “Again? Don’t know why you put up with that.”
“He’s lonely,” Larissa said.
“Get one of those Spanish boys at the restaurant to tell you how to say ‘fuck off,’” Bev said. “That’s what I’d do.”
Weak, Bev meant, and Larissa understood, but even if she had known those words in Spanish, she wouldn’t have used them.
Bev raised the volume on the television making fake tinny laughter fill the room.
Larissa sat down. She didn’t know what to do about Raúl. He was different, more sensitive than the others had been. And he always called twice, the second time, drunker than the first, as if he’d sat in that barren apartment agonizing over what he meant to say instead of realizing she’d hardly been listening at all.
Until that morning, Larissa had been looking forward to the two-hour drive west to Ellsworth County where she planned to take pictures of the petroglyphs on Inscription Rock for a Kansas state history course she was taking at the Mennonite college. Larissa had only taken the summer class to placate her parents whose determined optimism about her future always made her feel worse about the fact that all she’d been doing in the two years since high school graduation was wait tables at Hank’s, not even the best truck stop in their nowhere town.
But when she stopped by her parents’ house to ask if she could borrow their truck to better manage the off-road terrain, Raúl had been standing there, his face still sweating from whatever day job the church had found for him.
“You should take Raúl along,” her father said.
Raul nodded, uncertainly.
Her father knew nothing about Raúl’s late night calls. Larissa wasn’t even certain how much of them Raúl remembered. “Tomorrow,” he said, the matter settled.
Larissa’s father was a minister at one of the local Mennonite churches participating in the Overground Railroad, a church-based action group that gave emergency transport to men fleeing state and guerrilla armies in Guatemala and El Salvador, men with enough violence in their lives to be given church-sponsored asylum in Canada. By the time the men–she learned early not to call them refugees, that faceless sweep of a word–got to their nowhere town, they’d already endured some harrowing escape through Mexico and over the US border only to find themselves stalled in Newton, waiting for documentation to continue north.
Her father found the men housing and odd jobs and, more than once, gave the single men Larissa’s number if they asked for it after meeting her. She never told him they called at night, sometimes drunk, the town’s dull nights leaving empty hours for memories of their recent traumas to erupt. Stories tumbled into her ear. Towns massacred. A child’s naked body abandoned beside a road. A colony of monkeys senselessly shot dead in a jungle clearing.
So sorry, Larissa would respond. Or, can’t imagine. She knew they called her because she was one of the few people they met even close to their own age. And, she was the minister’s daughter. They trusted her.
“Don’t tell your father” was how Raúl ended their few conversations. Larissa was never certain if he meant his late night calls or his drinking, but this didn’t matter. For whatever reason, respect she supposed, she never told her father about any of those calls.
The phone started ringing again.
Bev smirked over her beer bottle. “Want me to handle it?”
Weak? Bev’s disgust wasn’t right, but as Larissa went for the extension in her bedroom, she knew something in her own actions wasn’t honest either.
The next day, Larissa picked up her father’s truck and drove down Main to the apartment, a donated unit, where most of the men ended up. She passed the railroad station and stopped in front the row of dilapidated buildings just south of the tracks. After she rang the doorbell, she returned to the air-conditioned truck cab to wait.
Through the windshield, the day seemed bored even with itself. A swarm of starlings pecked mercilessly at an Asian pear tree. A man spit chew tobacco into a beer bottle as he leaned against the wall of the Legal Tender Saloon, the lone holdout from Newton’s past as a rowdy 19th century cow town situated on the southernmost curve of the Santa Fe railroad. Cowboys once drove herds from Texas and Oklahoma, loaded them onto cattle cars waiting at the station, and blew the money they’d just made in Main Street’s bordellos, dance halls, and saloons.
Larissa tried to imagine the wide, empty road crowded with stagecoaches and wagons, the bittersweet smell of horse shit steaming up from dirt and sludge, the adrenaline rush of money-making, gun fights, and brawls. Jesse James himself had shoved a knife into the wall of the Legal Tender and inscribed “JJ,” initials never verified but dutifully preserved. Larissa had seen them, two simple lines surrounded by letters carved out by decades of drunks.
Now, one hundred years on, late night drinkers staggering out of the Legal Tender squared off only with sober, fresh-faced workers arriving for early morning shifts at the popular Mennonite bakery across the street, a nightly show down between the two halves of the town.
Finally, Raúl emerged. Larissa could see he thought it was a date. He’d slicked back his hair with gel and put on a T-shirt so fresh from its packaging, a grid of creases showed across his chest. He wore oversized dress pants and large shiny shoes. Cast-offs, Larissa guessed, donated by a well-meaning church member’s wife. He didn’t get they would be driving through dusty fields, squinting at rocks. The worst part though was that he thought it was a date.
Raúl opened the door. “Larissa,” he said.
The solemn expression the men on the Overground Railroad wore always made Larissa realize how much people smiled in her town, regardless of genuine feelings.
She decided she’d return the greeting his way. “Raúl,” she said grimly.
Raúl looked startled.
Larissa liked how not smiling felt. “Get in, Raúl,” she said.
When she’d picked up the truck, her father had given her money for gas and a little extra to take Raúl out for a meal on the drive home. “Right, Dad,” she’d said, accepting the money instead as a peace offering.
At the gas station, Raúl leapt out and went for the nozzle, his eagerness to do what little he could only exaggerating his vulnerability. This irritated Larissa as did her instinct to make him feel better. You don’t have to do that, Raúl! she would have said before that day. Or, smiling, Thank you, Raúl. So kind!
Instead, she stepped out of the truck without even looking at him. The smell of gas irritated her. The starlings flocked in a nearby tree irritated her. The birds had invaded the town in murmuring, squawking swarms drawn by some innate and inexplicable passion to destroy the pear trees the Lions Club had planted down Main, one more attempt at local “beautification” that had obviously failed.
As she walked toward the cashier’s station, she saw Peggy, another waitress from Hank’s, at a pump. This too would have irritated Larissa, except that if anyone had to see her with Raúl, it might as well be Peggy.
When Larissa was close enough to hear, Peggy gestured with her chin. “What’s that?”
“Nice way of asking,” Larissa said.
“So? Tell me.”
“My father’s friend.”
“Don’t see Daddy.”
Larissa shrugged. Though her father never asked her to keep his activities quiet, the Overground Railroad wasn’t the kind of thing she told non-Mennonites like her roommate Bev or Peggy, and certainly not the traditionally-minded customers and drivers who ate at Hank’s.
Peggy yanked the nozzle out of her tank. “What do you think he tastes like? Hot sauce?”
“Tecate more like it.”
Peggy laughed, surprised by Larissa’s sting. You’re so nice, Peggy often teased during their work shifts, mocking Larissa’s soft voice and gentle presence.
“You have a good time now,” Peggy said, opening her car door. Sealed inside the roar of the air-conditioner, Peggy’s thirteen-year-old son waved. Her husband—newly returned from military service in Kuwait sick, silent, addicted to computer games, and impotent, as all at Hank’s knew due to Peggy’s careless complaints—stared dully through the front window.
Peggy honked as she drove off, taunting Larissa with a thumbs-up.
Larissa looked back. Raúl had returned the nozzle to the tank and was washing the front windows, taking care not to ruin his new clothes.
Weak. Nice. Doing God’s work. That’s what Mennonite girls were good for. Larissa went into the station to pay.