Ruben Ruiz pulled into the driveway of his single-story house a little after 7. It was Friday and he was tired. All day at the Laundromat, he turned wrenches on broken-down machines, sank nails into lifted panels and busted flooring, and spent the later part of the afternoon applying a coat of white paint over fresh graffiti on the wall in the shop’s back alley.
On his way in, he did not pick up the mail or notice the handwritten note posted on the front door. In the kitchen, his wife was using the big knife on an onion. Ruben went to the refrigerator and grabbed a beer.
“What are you doing?” Claudia scolded. “We’ve got company coming.”
“I forgot,” Ruben said.
“It’s the couple that moved in next door.”
“The ones with the dog?”
She nodded to the onion.
“I better take a shower.”
Ruben walked around the kitchen table. He leaned into her and breathed deeply. He put his hand on her waist, scratched the cotton fabric with his nails.
“What time are they coming?”
She held the big knife still.
“I wish they’d forget about the whole thing,” Ruben said.
He kissed her on the neck. His denim shirt was dirty. His boots had paint on them, but his face and hands were clean. He put his other hand on her waist and left it there.
“C’mon,” he urged. “What time are they coming?”
“I guess I don’t have time for a shower.”
She took the cutting board and tipped it so that the diced onion fell into a pot she had going on the stove. “No. You need to shower.”
Ruben lifted an arm. “Maybe you’re right.”
He opened the can of High Life, his favorite, took a long drink and put the beer down hard on the counter.
“Do you want to finish the rest?”
She watched the can sweat onto the counter like there was something ugly in its contours. “I don’t want it. Will you get going?”
“Okay, okay.” Ruben grabbed the can and drank the rest. “I’m going. Look at me, mom, I’m going.”
In the bedroom, Ruben unbuttoned his denim shirt, folded it and laid it down in a drawer next to his other shirts and the little bit of money they kept in a box. He sat on the edge of the bed and unlaced his boots. He rotated his neck in wide circles, anticipating a knock on the door. His wife’s perfume bottles were lined from short to tall on the bureau. Ruben stood and reopened the drawer with the money box and his shirts. He lifted the denim shirt up to his face and smelled the oily odor of real work, of all things painted over or left half finished, machines taken apart and rebuilt, or coldly abandoned after being cannibalized for spare parts in the fucked-up way an entire machine could suddenly be reduced to one usable screw.
Ruben owned two denim shirts. He wore one on Mondays and Tuesdays. The second on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays he had to decide: go with the clean denim shirt in his drawer or spend a third day in the first one? The denim shirt he held to his face had two days’ worth of sweat in its threads. What would the neighbors think if he wore it to dinner? What would they think if he rubbed a little of his wife’s perfume into the sleeves? Something like that might really get them talking, he thought as he got into the shower and stood under the pounding water.
Ruben shook a towel over his head, letting his hair go loose and damp. He used Q-tips on his ears. Took a comb and pulled his hair back along his ears. He shaved and patted down his cheeks. There was a little grime caught underneath his fingernails, but he let it slide. Moving barefoot across the hall, he went into the bedroom.
“No sign of them yet?” Ruben said.
She was checking herself in the mirror.
“They could be running late.” She had her hair done up in pins. There was a little makeup on her face. “I left the front door cracked just in case. You think they’ll know to let themselves in?”
Ruben redid the knot on his towel. He walked over behind her and put his hand up and down her arm.
“I was thinking,” she said, “that maybe you should run to the store before they get here and pick up some wine.”
“What kind of wine?”
“I don’t know. Just any kind.”
She was putting her earrings in, the fancy dangling ones, not the studs. She stepped out of range of his hand. “Well, what do you think?”
“We never drink wine.”
She used the perfume farthest to the left, the smallest one, and rubbed the insides of her wrists in circles.
“We have lots of beer,” Ruben said. “I just bought some.”
“Ruben. Just walk across the street and buy a bottle of wine. Can you do that, please?”
She was looking at him through the mirror with her head cocked sideways. Making pissed-off eyes for him. She only did that sometimes. Still, the frequency had been rising.
“Of course, dear,” Ruben said. “Let me get my goddamn pants.”
Ruben dropped his towel and stood naked, looking out the window toward the street that swung southward down the hill of their Central El Paso neighborhood and intersected the I-10 about a mile away. The cars lining the curb in all different colors gleamed like turquoise and obsidian and sapphire in the sun. The border was just three miles south and Ruben could see the massive Mexican flag rolling in the sky alongside pink and orange clouds. It was spring and still light out. The couple across the street sat in their front yard drinking iced tea and running the sprinklers. If they happened to see him in the window, Ruben figured they would think he was missing a shirt and nothing else. Only a sickie would stare naked from his window. And here he was, married, gainfully employed, home to his wife on a Friday night. Of course he wasn’t naked.
“Claudia,” Ruben said. “Look at this.”
She turned. Her eyes widened, then narrowed into slits. “What are you doing?”
“Come look at this.”
“At the window. Come look.”
“The neighbors are going to be here any minute, we don’t have wine, and you’re looking out the window, naked?”
She was wearing a black skirt, with a hem inches above the knee, and her good shoes, the black ones with the toes showing. Ruben couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her all sexed up in a cloud of perfume, long earrings like water dripping from her ears. He didn’t know she still had skirts like that in her closet.
“What is it?” she said.
“You see that?”
Ruben pointed toward the border. “Right over there. You think that flag is really the length and width of a football field like they say? I mean, if someone was to lay it all out on the grass and measure it.”
He took her by the waist with one hand and used the other to touch her neck. “Let’s get out of here. Go on a day trip. To New Mexico or Arizona.” He put his lips on her neck. She tipped backward onto the bed and he kissed her some more. “Let’s leave late tonight, after dinner, and drive all night. In the morning we’ll eat breakfast at the Grand Canyon.”
“Ruben,” she said. “The neighbors. The front door is open.”
He put his hands on her breasts. “What if they’re in the house already? Sitting down waiting for us?”
“No,” she said. “You’re naked.”
He reached under her skirt. Ice water shot through her.
“Okay.” Ruben rolled off. “I get it, I get it. What kind of wine then?”
“I think I heard something,” she said. “In the living room.” She stood up, smoothed out her blouse. “Get dressed. I think that was the front door.” She made faces at the mirror, checking her teeth.
“Big date tonight, huh? What’s for dinner?”
“And you don’t drink beer with salmon,” she said.
“Since when do we eat fish? How do you even know how to cook fish?”
“Will you please get dressed?”
“Fine. Okay, I’m sorry.” Ruben lifted one leg, then the other, into a clean pair of shorts. “I’ll get the wine.”
“Buy a nice white.” She stepped into her heels. “I don’t care if you drink it or not.”
May 8, 04:31 PMPurchase or Subscribe to Slake: Los Angeles
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