Elsa & Segundo By Dini Duran Karasik
Adult Short Story Second Place Winner, Kensington
It was the start of baseball season. Elsa knew this not because she loved baseball but because every year for the past decade, Segundo’s cleaning company won the contract to clean the stadium after the Orioles’ games. From April to October, he worked long hours, usually overnight, supervising the work himself, not trusting anyone else to get it done.
Segundo was a light sleeper, not like Elsa. She always slept soundly, rarely rousing when he got into bed in the early morning hours. On this dark morning, Elsa felt the heat of Segundo’s body next to her but she didn’t move closer to touch or hold him. She slipped out of bed and into the closet. So as not to disturb him, she’d trained herself to wake to an internal clock at 6:30 a.m. and quickly dress by the light of the closet bulb. As she clasped her bra and ran the straps over each arm, she watched him through the open door, his breath slow and steady, his face slack, mouth slightly open. She put on a pink acrylic sweater and black leggings, tugged the string on the closet light and closed the bedroom door behind her.
Down the hall in the bathroom, she looked at herself in the mirror as she brushed her teeth. How she’d changed since the wedding two decades ago. Her face was now round as a tortilla, for starters. At the corners of her eyes, deep grooves appeared when she smiled. The fat in her dumpling cheeks added to the effect. She was fair-skinned like her mother, with wide-set eyes the color of toasted almonds and thick hair she dyed a brassy brown or dirty blonde depending on what she had on the shelves. She hadn’t had any children, yet her waist was gone, giving her a soft rounded shape, as though her body had decided to play the role of “Mother” without her. In spite of this, she dressed in bright colors and tight-fitting fabrics, her hair pulled back in a high ponytail or worn loose with long, shiny extensions she bought in bulk at a Korean wig store on Rockville Pike.
Ten years ago, she started saving the money she earned styling and dying hair in her basement salon, telling herself that it was to buy nicer clothes. A silk scarf or red satin blouse. Or perhaps a pair of those skinny jeans that had become muy de moda. Then she thought she’d surprise Segundo by buying roundtrip tickets to the Caribbean. Or she would buy him a new truck. Maybe they could use the money as a down payment on a house, stop renting in Riverdale, so far from the nice malls and restaurants, and buy something bigger in Gaithersburg or Wheaton. She could expand her shop and save even more money, and then wouldn’t they be happy?
Fifty thousand dollars. That’s how much Elsa had saved, hiding the money in the door panels of her car when no one was looking. When Segundo wasn’t looking. Little by little, the money came to feel like an extension of her, something she didn’t want to spend, and each trip to the car to add to the cache was an exercise in self-care. It was as if the bills, some worn, some crisp, were themselves organic, taking root in the empty spaces of the old Honda as they multiplied. Other times, she imagined she’d spent a decade collecting scraps of worthless paper and encasing them in rusty metal like hair and nail clippings saved in an old glass jar.
It drove her crazy when Segundo left the toilet seat up. She reached with her foot and moved the seat so that it came down with a thud. She sat down to relieve herself and thought about how lately things hadn’t been good between them. It wasn’t because he’d changed. He was the same as ever, reserved, quiet, happy in his work-eat-sleep routine. She tried arguing with him. Picking fights about how he left his socks by the bed or that he hadn’t blown the leaves or mowed the lawn or emptied the gutters. But he simply apologized and completed whatever task she complained about. When she suggested they go out for dinner, he said he was too tired. Church was out of the question because he worked most Saturday nights.
She pulled on the roll of toilet paper and wiped herself. Maybe she was the one who had changed. She no longer sprayed the pillows and sheets with White Diamonds or Viva La Juicy before he came to bed. And when was the last time she woke before dawn to dress in a negligee she’d found on sale at Sears? She flushed the toilet with her toes, washed her hands with soap, and flipped off the light switch with an elbow.
Elsa went to the kitchen to make herself a cup of Nescafé. She put the water on to boil and then washed Segundo’s dirty dishes in hot, soapy water. Each night she made scrambled eggs with potatoes and bits of chorizo, wrapped them in flour tortillas, and sealed them in foil so he’d have something to eat when he got home in the morning.
Years earlier, when he first got the baseball contract, she would wake up at 4 a.m. to cook him a fresh breakfast. She couldn’t remember when she switched to making his breakfast the night before. It must have been the same time she stopped wearing perfume and pretty panties.
he heaped two spoonfuls of instant coffee in a cup and stirred in some sugar. She sat down to drink her coffee at a small table in the bay window. Outside, the sun was beginning to rise over the bare branches of the trees and the small brick houses that lined the east side of the street. She was anxious for late spring and the pink blossoms that colored the trees and then fell like confetti a few weeks later. Cherry blossoms. Soft and delicate, unlike the bright, bold flowers of Mexico.
They were distant cousins, she and Segundo. Their union wasn’t arranged but it was as if the two of them had always expected it, even as children, chasing each other down cobblestone streets, jugando a las escondidas in the portals and courtyards of old colonial buildings, swimming together in the mystical waters of nearby mountain lakes. Elsa hadn’t known any other kind of love for a man not her father. They’d gone to school together each day. He carried her books, she tutored him in mathematics. On Sundays, they took communion and prayed in the old cathedral, kneeling side by side, the hem of her dress grazing the fabric of his trousers.
The marriage proposal hadn’t been romantic, simply a brief mention after church one day as they sat across from the fountain in the central plaza, listening to the cooing of pigeon doves and the shrieking laughter of street children splashing each other with water. Elsa had said yes with a nod of her head and a smile, searching her mind for a way to say no, a way to tell him that she didn’t want to leave Patzcuaro and its ancient streets. Marry him, yes. That’s what she had expected all of her life. They would marry and make a home near her parents. They would have a house full of children, work in his family’s bodega or perhaps at her father’s flower business, arranging roses for weddings, calla lillies for funerals, cempasúchil for the annual Day of the Dead celebrations. That was the future she had envisioned for them, but it never came.
Elsa took a sip of her coffee and felt the warm liquid travel down her insides. Her parents, now both in their 70s, were anxious for a reunion but she hadn’t mentioned the money or her plan to return for fear that something might go wrong. Leaving Segundo would be complicated; their families would not understand and, while she imagined herself back home, living in the small house she grew up in, taking care of her aging parents, she had not figured out the mechanics of leaving this life behind. Would she steal away in the night while Segundo was at work, leaving him a note? It might say that she was sorry and couldn’t live this way anymore, so far from family and friends. Or maybe that she would be waiting for him in Mexico and would he please come soon? When she tried to talk to him about going home, he would say, “Now is not the time, Elsa. I have too much work.”
“Por favor, Segundo. There is nothing here for me. I want to be close to our parents. They are getting older. They need us.”
“¿Pero como? How will we live? How will I make a living? There are no jobs there. Here is where there is opportunity.”
“We can work with our parents.”
“Elsa, things are not what they were when we were young. Mexico is a different country.”
“We have nothing here. No children. Not even a dog, Segundo.”
“Te compro un perro.”
“No, I don’t want a dog. I want to go home.”
Elsa took the last swig of coffee, got up from the table, and rinsed the cup in the sink. She reached into a top cabinet and dug at the bottom of an old cereal box where she temporarily stashed money, retrieving a roll of bills secured with a rubber band and tucking it into the front of her bra. Segundo’s windbreaker lay over the back of the kitchen chair. She slipped into it as she grabbed the car keys and opened the kitchen door that led to the driveway and garage. She noticed Segundo’s work truck when she stepped out, parked directly behind the Honda, and she stopped in her tracks, slapping one of her thighs. “Chihuahua, Segundo. ¿Otra vez?” If she wanted to go anywhere, she would have to wake him or wait until late afternoon when he got up to start his next shift.
The garage was full of tools and broken appliances and old furniture, so there was no room to park inside, which Elsa would have preferred. The next door neighbor was a recluse but sometimes Elsa could feel him watching her from a window when she sat in the parked car. The rumor was that he’d inherited the house from his mother after her body was found beneath a pile of rubbish she’d hoarded over the years. Elsa thought the home would finally be cleaned. The bent gutters, held in place by ivy sprouting from a nearby tree, would be cleared of dirt and debris. The roof—missing several shingles and covered in blue tarp in places—repaired, and the yard landscaped, but the son was worse than the mother. His hoard spilled out onto the front porch. Items from the neighborhood mysteriously appeared in his yard. Toys from another neighbor’s backyard, a child’s stroller, dog bowls and a cat carrier—though he had neither children nor pets, as far as anyone knew. Elsa had tried to say hello once, but the man scurried indoors without so much as a wave.
Every Monday morning, Elsa added the tips she’d made over the weekend to her savings and counted the money. She kept a tiny notebook tucked beneath the passenger’s seat, and each time she added more bills, she calculated the amount of money she’d saved. It was thrilling to see how far she had come. She’d thought about opening a bank account. Segundo had one and her name was on it. But she’d kept the money a secret from him, afraid he might spend the cash on new tools or otherwise invest in his business.
She’d found a tool in the garage, similar to a screwdriver, that made it easy to pry open the plastic door paneling and click it back into place. The car doors were hollow inside and she thought it no wonder narcos smuggled drugs across the border this way. That’s how she came up with the idea in the first place, after watching the evening news: somewhere in Texas, the border patrol stopped a woman at a checkpoint when one of their dogs alerted to the passenger-side door of the car. Upon inspection, they discovered several kilos of cocaine valued at over a million dollars wrapped in plastic bundles and tucked in the door panels.
Of course Elsa’s door panels were worth much less, but at least she was no criminal. She got in the car, sat in the front seat and closed the door, watching her breath fog the space in front of her. She put the key in the ignition and turned on the radio. Two hosts—one Dominican and the other probably from Venezuela, if she was right about the accents—were discussing the protest and massacre in Dallas and el movimiento de “Black Lives Matter.” Mexico had its problems, yes, but America was fractured, full of hate. This was not her country and she wanted out before it was too late. Before Donald Trump became president. Before he built that wall. What if she couldn’t leave after that? What if he rounded up all the Mexicans and put them into camps like they did with the Japanese all those years ago? Segundo told her she worried too much. But in her opinion, he worried too little. He was calm. She, prone to panic. And why not? The world was a dangerous place with much to fear: kidnappings and car accidents, demonic possession and other supernatural phenomena, aliens from outer space (in a separate category from supernatural phenomena). She worried about ganglion cysts that might become cancer, about planes falling out of the sky, and if not the planes then the blocks of blue sanitized waste that can fall from a plane mid-flight. She read once about a woman who was killed in an instant when a plane lost one, a block of blue hurling from the sky, straight through her roof and into her kitchen where seconds earlier she’d stood stirring a pot of soup on the stove. That could happen to her, too. She worried about virus-spreading mosquitos and amoebas in pond water. She wondered how people could pour water into their nostrils—like the Hindu pharmacist at the CVS recommended when she had a cold once—and not drown standing up, and how sometimes bacteria crossed the blood-brain barrier and killed the host. That seemed an unjust death for someone who merely wanted clean sinuses. She worried about terrorists and terrorism and bad cops and spies. She lived outside of Washington, D.C., after all, and assumed the area was crawling with them in equal measure. It could be anyone, even the hoarder next door.
A cumbia came on the radio and stopped her mind from racing. She felt for the notebook underneath the seat and retrieved the wad of bills from the inside of her bra. She counted the money, $500 in all, noted it accordingly, and reached for the tool to pop open the plastic door panel on the driver’s side. It came off easily but she found the compartment empty. The money was gone. She leaned over and pried open the panel on the passenger’s side. Nothing. She searched her mind for an explanation, looking beneath the seats and getting out to look under the carriage of the car. Had the money fallen out somehow? She looked up at the hoarder’s window. Had the curtain moved? Was he watching her? Blood rushed to her face and neck. She felt sick. This is what it felt like to have a heart attack, no doubt. She always suspected she would die this way, suddenly and alone. She fled from the car and ran into the house to tell Segundo to call 911. The storm door slammed shut behind her.
“¡Segundo, levántate!” she cried. She ran through the house and flipped on the bedroom lights but Segundo did not stir beneath the covers. “Te estoy hablando, wake up. El vecino—he’s been watching me. He took my money.”
Segundo covered his head with a pillow. “Elsa, cálmate.” His voice was muffled and tired.
“¿Como que cálmate? Call the police. I think I’m having a heart attack. Call for an ambulance, también.”
“You’re not having a heart attack.”
Elsa stood at the foot of the bed, her hand over her heart. A touch of morning sun filtered through the privacy curtains and Elsa could make out the outline of Segundo’s body under the blankets. She took a deep breath. “Segundo, I have to tell you something.”
“I know about the money, Elsa.”
Elsa felt lightheaded anew. How could Segundo know? “¿Pero como? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Segundo removed the pillow from his head and sat up against the headboard. He rubbed his eyes and took a sip of water from a glass on the bedside table. “You are right about the neighbor. He’s been watching you.”
“I knew it.”
“When I got home last Tuesday, I found him there, going through the car. I told him to get out of there before I called the police and when he left I looked to see if he’d taken anything—”
“He took everything.” Elsa’s heart began to race again. “Segundo, call the police.”
“No, he didn’t. I caught him in time.”
“What? Where is my money?”
“Look in the top drawer.”
Elsa moved quickly toward the dresser and turned on a light. She opened the drawer and found an envelope on top of a mound of Segundo’s socks. “¿Qué es esto?” she asked.
Elsa opened the flap of paper and inside she found two airplane tickets to Mexico. She looked at Segundo, sitting in a sleeveless T-shirt, his graying hair tousled, and a smile spreading across his face.