It’s Friday, and on the radio, Ronald Reagan is wheezing his way through a speech. I hear him often, he’s always on the news, on TV, on the radio. This is his decade, and from his sibylline delivery I learn that his economic policies will one day make me rich. I cannot understand how, and he does not explain it either; so, for now, I just hope that my mates and I can keep our jobs.
It’s five breaths past three in the afternoon. At three-thirty we punch in at the factory. I like to arrive early and secure a shaded spot in the parking lot before it fills up with the rust buckets driven by the people that I work with.
I sit here in the shade and listen to Ronald Reagan while I watch everyone else arrive, pop out of their cars in a loud bustle, and then become quieter and quieter as punch-in time nears.
That is the time when our enthusiasm deflates, when we cross the narrow, grey door of the factory, line up, punch in, and scatter to our stations. During the following nine hours we drill, silk-screen, plate, and otherwise shape countless printed circuit boards. We take two fifteen-minute breaks and pause for half an hour for dinner. Our work earns us about a minimum wage. We’re mostly immigrants, some with papers, others with no notion of what papers to get.
But today is payday, and I just want to sit back, listen to Ronnie expound on his platitudes while I admire the excitement that bubbles in the crowd at the prospect of a paycheck.
The Persians are the first to arrive. They carpool in old but well-maintained Japanese cars. They are older than the rest of us, and have children in college, mortgages, real life problems. They came to California as the Shah fell from grace and Iran spun into a theocracy and were never able to shake off their sense of bewilderment. They gather by the parking lot planter, wave at the ripening loquats that only them and the Portuguese eat, check their lunch bags with vacant expressions, and then sneer at the other groups that arrive within minutes of each other. They talk little to each other and say nothing to the other groups except perhaps to the Portuguese.
A mixed crowd trickles in after the Persians. Nicaraguans, Salvadorians, the assorted Guatemalan, in a flesh and blood comment about Ronnie’s Central America policy. They all drive a decrepit fleet, pocked with rust, and belching out the stench from improperly burnt gasoline. They are affable, even giddy on this Friday afternoon, as they move closer to the entrance to the factory. One of them reads the notice that management has posted on the door, the one announcing a mandatory overtime for tomorrow. He translates it into Spanish, and the crowd comes alive with comments.
A full contingent of Mexicans trickles in. Most of them drive old American models that seem to follow a binomial law, according to which some cars have artistic, immaculate paint jobs, while the others are actively disintegrating from an aggressive form of metallic leprosy. I guess at their relationships as they coalesce into the same groups day after day.
Leticia raps on my passenger-side window, sticks out her tongue at me, I did not see her get out of the car. She’s from somewhere in Mexico, petite, and struggles to contain her pectoral excess in undersized clothes. No matter that her hips are narrow, and that she has a pigeon-toed gait, her walk to the factory door quiets the murmur of the crowd, and then blooms a collective whisper of yearning. Some mouths gape as she passes, eyebrows rise, some men stare, some others avert their eyes, the women glance at her sidewise, their bodies swaying against one another like reeds in a capricious wind, as they mutter to each other in hushed tones.
Leticia is always in the company of a tall, imperious character that sometimes passes for her aunt, and at others for her sister, but Leticia assures me that they share no genetic material, and had never met before their arrival in the States. There is some implied mystery in their relationship that I don’t care to explore. The aunt-sister bows to peek inside my car and smiles, her epicene features display a sparkling white set of teeth that is marred only by a single bluing tooth encased in a facetious gold frame.
“Leticia transferred to the final quality control team,“ she tells me.
“She no longer works in the old QC group. Her fiancé helped her. Now she will not lose her job,” the aunt-sister tells me with a smile. They already know. The whole company knows that most of us will be laid off next week.
She catches up with Leticia, they walk to the door and begin chatting with Leticia’s fiancé. He’s the tall, blond, and gangly daytime manager of the quality inspection crew. Leticia’s aunt-sister leaves them alone and walks towards the mass of the other Spanish-speaking workers. She joins them and nods at whatever is being said in their conversation.
It is perplexing to watch Leticia communicate with her fiancé with such ease, since she seems afflicted with some form of verbal mange. What reaches our ears when she talks is a non-grammatical form of English, always underscored by a syntax that is off enough to further trouble our understanding. We tried to communicate in Spanish to no better effect, Leticia’s native language is an obscure native dialect, and Spanish is as much a linguistic crutch to her as English.
Leticia and I communicate in writing, and that seems to work best. She takes the pen from my breast pocket with an overwrought flourish, and quickly jots down her messages in a pad that she carries to tally her quality control work. I answer back verbally, she nods, says something unintelligible, writes her reply, and we repeat the process to create a form of triangulated conversation. This approach to dialog forces a great deal of economy into our communication, we have to be concise, direct, we shed most flourishes, and make ample room for misinterpretation. I like to think that there is more meaning in our intentions than in our words, that most of our words don’t really need to be spoken, that our feigned conversations don’t change a thing in our lives, or in the world, and I go on hoping that all my conversations with others should be like this.
The fiancé nods, nods, and nods again. He does not speak much, letting Leticia fill the space between them with her unintelligible blabber. They stand very close to each other, but without touching, he stands erect, intense, eyes fixed on her, while she shifts from one leg to the other, shakes her head, shakes her long raven-black mane, gesticulates, and casts sparks of energy around them.
Three long bell rings announce the beginning or shift. The door opens, and the crowd begins filing in.
Ronald Reagan ends his litany, and the newscaster begins interpreting the words of the great sage for the edification of the listeners. I turn off the radio, reach for my lunch bag and head towards the factory door.
A persistent murmur infects the crowd as we enter the building, punch in and scatter off. Leticia’s aunt-sister grins and flashes her blue tooth at the sample of Central America around her. Leticia kisses her fiancé, and heads into the bowels of the building. Ten yards on she looks back and sticks her tongue out at me again.
As it always does on Fridays, dinner break unleashes a torrent of mishaps, and poorly managed catastrophe. The crowd sparkles with excitement as we are handed our paychecks at the cafeteria.
Then the Persians and the Portuguese sit at their usual tables, and chew through their warmed up leftover food while exchanging rote pleasantries with one another.
Most in the Spanish-speaking crowd rush out to cash their checks, buy dinner from the food truck parked two blocks away, and procure illegal drugs from their purveyors of choice.
They return glassy-eyed and incoherent to become the main actors in a comedic act that always ensues on payday. One slips in the edge of a plating tank, and falls in, to loud laughter and applause from the rest of his crew. Another mangles a finger while drilling a circuit board, bringing the production line to a stop. Leticia’s aunt-sister sits by the entrance to the cafeteria staring longingly at the baseboard.
Leticia does not go out, she remains cool and aloof in face of all the bustle in the cafeteria, walks by my table, pulls the pen from my pocket, writes me something, hands me the piece of paper, sucks on the end of the pen before handing it back, and ambles off towards the soda machine. I look down at the note in which a place and a time are punctuated with an exclamation mark.
As I return to my station and consult again the instructions that Sandy left me. I don’t have much to do for the rest of my shift. The note is written in a cursive so deformed that each letter looks like a small, elaborate balloon, and from two feet away it seems written in Burmese. Sandy works the day shift at my station. She’s a pale blond American that seems surprised at every bit of information that comes her way. She’s chronically unable to spell, possibly afflicted with an advanced case of dyslexia that she addresses with spoonfuls of cocaine procured from her dealer boyfriend.
This boyfriend is a bony, lanky figure that works as the warehouse’s night guard. He’s normally high, constantly experimenting with new forms of incoherence under the influence of too much cocaine. I like to think that their relationship works because they spend so much time apart, working different shifts, mostly alone under the glaring lights of the factory, and without much chance to latch onto each other’s little irritants, those insignificant little traits that mean nothing, yet mean enough to derail a relationship.
I get back to work, and pace myself to make it last for the rest of the night.
It is time for our last break of the shift, and I head out to the warehouse. It is still balmy outside. The loquat trees reflect the din of the highway at the other side of the plant. The sky has turned dark, cloudless, starless, tainted by the glow from the myriad lights of the Bay Area. A helicopter flies overhead spraying fruit fly insecticide. Swarms of bugs make lazy attempts at suicide in the parking lot lights.
I wave at Sandy’s boyfriend as I cross the threshold of the main storage room, and, as if it were a sign, he stands up and wobbles out towards the bathrooms to fine-tune the level of stimulants in his blood. I take another look at Leticia’s note to make sure that I have the correct time and venue.
She is already waiting at the back of the warehouse, sitting on the crumbling old sofa as she always does on Fridays this late at night. I appreciate that there is regularity to our transgressions, it creates a sense of order that balances the sheer chaos that engulfs us every Friday.
We skip the preliminaries since there isn’t much time between now and the guard coming back from coking himself up in the bathroom. Leticia’s shirt comes undone, freeing her oversized breasts with a near-pop. We pause for effect, and then go on to a frenzied unzipping and unbuttoning of only the clothes that need to be shed. Efficiency is always critical in our intercourse.
A scent of air freshener and creosote wafts up from her skin as we come closer together. The smoothness of her skin slithers under my fingers, and her smile has a distant sparkle as we engage with each other. For the next seven minutes we apply ourselves to random thrusts, hesitant contortions and unintelligible grunts. It all feels confused but necessary, a ritual needed to keep the world in order, or otherwise to dispel our ennui.
I wrestle my muted grunting into silence while Leticia begins an orison to the occasion which she recites in her usual gibberish, only now peppered with proper Spanish. “Papi,” she exhales, “Papi”. Her breathing becomes labored, and then morphs into a metronomic wheezing, deep and loud. I try to force us out of rhythm, but there is a hypnotic quality to her breathing that goads us back into sync. And then something in her raspy outbreath reminds me of Ronald Reagan, and his asthmatic attempts at wisdom. Leticia sounds just like the Gipper. A Spanish speaking version of the man, to be sure, a version that replaces his plastic bonhomie with a persistent venereal passion. But what reaches my ears is Ronnie’s speech, coming to me in ever shorter waves as Leticia lets out a muffled scream, and convulses for two seconds before our encounter expires.
The fresh air of the night sobers me to the realization that there will be no next Friday, that on Monday I will be laid off along with a good number of my comrades, and that the event will reinstall some peace in our lives, then there will be a brief period troubled by anger and longing, and then our aimlessness will take us to other bodies, in other warehouses, likely on other Fridays.
It’s Saturday, and today I arrive only a minute before the Persians. They hop off their cars, and scatter through the parking lot planters carrying supermarket plastic bags. I see them half-screaming at each other, picking loquats, eating them, and filling their plastic bags with the pale orange fruits. The only time that I truly see them happy is when they are scampered in the bushes, picking loquats under the mild warmth of the California sun.
Leticia was exempted from the overtime shift today since Quality Control will not resume until Monday. The Spanish-speaking crowd looks haggard, and disoriented, grinning at each other, and avoiding all social interaction. On Monday most of us will be laid off, but for now, they just nurse their hangovers before the bell rings us in.
It has become cooler as the week wore off, and I keep my car windows up. Ronald Reagan comes back on the radio exhaling another torrent of soporific platitudes about the evils of the Soviet Union. His voice becomes raspy as he goes on, but I can hear him clearly over the faint crackle of the radio static. Minutes into his talk he’s back to his overly paused and wheezing delivery. And then I hear him call me “Papi.”
I am sure that Ronnie called me “Papi!”