"Austin" by Désirée Zamorano
After two weeks of a dull rage, the rage turned into despair, then confusion, then transformed gloriously into a plan.
Things made no sense, they made no sense, and sometimes it was up to the individual to turn the inside out all right side out again. That’s what Austin would do.
Make it all right.
He timed his ride and drove by Marty’s at regular speed, like there was nothing at all he cared about here on Commonwealth Avenue, a long strip of fast food restaurants, gas stations and strip malls. He glanced at the dashboard. 15 minutes from home. He drove past Marty’s, looking straight ahead, but could see, out of the corner of his eye, that Cesar’s faded Santa Fe was there and Raquel’s Ford Escort, both parked in a far corner of the lot.
Cesar was a pompous ass, a plump hot-air balloon, filled with self-importance, power-mad with the tiny role life had handed him — Marty’s manager, with his oiled-down hair and that face that tried to be welcoming, but anyone with any sense at all would see it was smarmy and unctuous. Cesar had used all the oily, sticky voice in him the first time he had taken Austin into his tiny office, and the sickly-sweet voice had landed in the pit of Austin’s stomach, making him nauseous.
While Cesar had talked, the words trickling in and out of Austin’s ears, he, Austin, looked down at the linoleum tile, then quickly around this broom closet of an office. Cesar had photos of his family there, two little brown girls in fancy frilly dresses. Twins? He forgot. He didn’t care. He never listened anyway when Cesar pulled out his phone to show off something his daughters had done, or were doing, or would do. He didn’t give a rat’s ass about Cesar, or his daughters, so why should he pay any attention at all to the snaps?
Raquel, that was different. Raquel had come to him and shown Austin photos of her and her sister. Austin could barely recall the pictures, his emotions bursting because Raquel had chosen him to admire the photographs.
Cesar had gone on. “Austin, try to work with me here.”
Austin examined the linoleum. There were little smears of different shades of green.
Cesar continued, “Girls are different from us, you know . . . “
Well, that was from the department of obvious.
“. . . they’re more sensitive to their surroundings. In a way, they’ve got to be, it’s evolution, you know?”
Austin had pegged the man as a Catholic, like most of those people, and wondered where he was going with this Darwin business.
“Predator and prey, you know? Smaller animals are more high-strung, nervous, and skittish when they’re around things that spook them. Do you understand?”
Austin sat up and blinked at Cesar. Was that oily fat man calling him a predator? Is that how they saw him? Well. Well, then. Nicely done, Austin. Nicely done, bro.
Cesar said, “We run a tight ship here, Austin.”
Oh my god, the bullshit business metaphors!
“And when one of my crew is facing difficulties, I’ve got to take care of it.”
Cesar looked at him pointedly now, and Austin realized it was here that he was supposed to draw a conclusion. But he drew a blank.
Cesar waited, exhaled, then said, “I’m talking about Raquel.”
Austin blinked like he knew nothing. Tried to make a face of confusion.
Cesar said, “Girls are more sensitive to their surroundings because they have to be. Now I’m not saying you’re doing anything wrong intentionally. I’m not saying you’re doing anything wrong. What I am saying is that I want you to give the girls their space, you know?”
Space? Did he know how tight the space was behind the grill and behind the counter? Did he know anything at all?
He scowled. It had to be that bitch, Charlaine. With her hair flying in all those twisty braids, with that shrill laughter, she must have said something. Raquel never would have. Raquel, he felt, knew that he just loved her. Just wholehearted flat footed brain dead heart alive loved her.
She would never make him squirm in front of Cesar.
The light changed, and Austin pushed ahead into the present, made a U-turn, and this time drove slowly by Marty’s. It was still an hour before opening, and he knew what routines Cesar and Raquel and whatever poor dope they had replaced him with would be up to. He could almost smell the grease heating up in the fryers from here, inside his car. Cesar would be checking inventory for the day, while Raquel would be tucking in those loose strands of hair that wriggled out from under her cap.
He drove on.
The first couple of weeks, okay, he could admit it, he was devastated. He didn’t know if Cesar would give him a decent reference, so he hadn’t even tried to find another job. His mother kept asking him, what was he doing, where was he going, what was he going to do. She blamed him. He knew she blamed him, and two weeks of blame and misery and then he figured things out.
He knew it wasn’t right, at all, that Raquel and Cesar should go on as if nothing had happened. That the Marty’s stood there, looking the same as it had the day Cesar had let him go. “I’m not firing you,” Cesar had said, in his slick, oiled voice. Did he think the euphemism was a kindness? How did he live with himself? “I’m letting you go. You can get unemployment, you know. You should think about that, if, you know, this is a financial hardship.”
Austin shook his head at the memory. Those people knew how to game the system. He had too much dignity, self-regard to do that.
He pulled into his drive, parked the car, walked into the house. His mother sat in the kitchen, drinking coffee and doing a wordsearch at the table.
“Where you been?”
See? That’s exactly what he meant. She couldn’t let a man breathe.
“Figuring things out.”
“Any joy?” she asked.
“Working on it,” he said, brushing past her and to his room.
Her silence was a wall of judgment.
But he was settled now. He had a plan. He would remake the world the way it should be.
He glanced at his watch and lay back on his bed. Forty minutes. In forty minutes, Cesar would be unlocking the front door and the restrooms. There would be three or four people bunched up at the entrance, waiting to order their breakfast burger or shakshuka scramble or whatever it was they just had to have right then.
Had he thought of everything? He mentally walked through his plans and nodded. Yes, he had.
He sprang up from his bed and over to his closet. Clean and pristine, hanging exactly where it should be. Yes, everything was in its place.
He stood and began pacing around his room. Was he going to change his mind? What about his mother? These questions kept flitting in and out of his brain, and he kept batting them aside. But he’d seen what reporters do, feeding off of tears and hysteria, padding their news with intense emotion.
He’d save her from all that. Save her from self-doubt, self-recriminations, guilt.
He looked at his watch again. It was as if the second hand wasn’t even moving. He sat on the edge of his bed to wait.
He cleared his mind of everything, except the way Raquel moved in her uniform. How the way she moved controlled him, and how, he was certain, she knew that.
He looked at his watch. At last it was time. He pulled the Armalite out of his closet. The heft of the sporting rifle always did something to him. Now was the right moment.
His mother called out to him.
Cesar was right. He was a predator.
“On my way,” he said.
Désirée Zamorano's novel, The Amado Women, is about four Latinas linked by birth, separated by secrets. This family drama was named a "must read" by Remezcla and labeled by Bustle as one of 11 "moving beach reads that'll having you weeping into your piña colada." She delights in the exploration of contemporary issues of injustice and inequity via her mystery series featuring private investigator, Inez Leon. Human Cargo was Latinidad's mystery pick of the year. A Pushcart Prize nominee and award-winning short story writer, her stories and essays have appeared online and in print, including in the Los Angeles Times, Huizache Magazine, Kenyon Review, as well as alongside Walter Mosley in the current anthology, The Obama Inheritance. She lives and thrives in southern California. www.desireezamorano.com
Photo Credit: Marta Huo