The Chevy Citation pulled into Sullivan’s gravely driveway with its headlights off. Cici could hear Talia breathing heavily as she got out of the car. Her black T-shirt was wet with perspiration and her face looked as if she was about to plunge underwater.
“Mom, are you sure you want to do this?”
Cici wanted to assure herself that her mother could handle robbing the liquor store.
“I used to do it all the time. Except in this case your father will definitely notice.”
Cici and her sister Isa were locked into position. They were ready to follow there mother’s lead. Talia saw two young girls trying to hide their fear.
“Look on the bright side girls; at least we’re leaving the candy bars!”
As she walked away from the car, Talia lamented that her daughters were accomplices to the mess she had created.
They didn’t know what they were doing earlier that night. It was the first time they used a Versateller machine. The only thing they did know was that it was accessible after bank hours on a summer night that was forcing all the cockroaches and the rest of the town’s inhabitants to scurry indoors. A month prior, there was a ribbon cutting ceremony in its honor. The Mayor made a formal speech and the Border Bulletin wrote of the “technological leap” the city of Calexico was taking. The newspaper article included a picture of the automated teller and its fellow Desert Bank co-workers. They all seemed to be getting along.
“This thing is slow. ” Talia said.
The Versateller took its time to slide open its deposit slot. Once its voice began to beep indicating it was ready, Talia watched her confident daughter slip the deposit envelope in at an upward slant. What Isa did not realize was that the poorly designed slot had an open slit, a space above its mini conveyer belt. Her aim caused the envelope to take a detour into the flawed opening. The unseasoned automated employee was oblivious, continuing to squawk as it waited.
Cici watched them through the open window of their compact car. It was taking too long. The fifteen year-old held captive by a mouth full of braces and pubescent funhouse facial features worried that her mother and older sister were incapable of managing any sort of technology. She always found the cable channels they were looking for and hooked up the VCR to Talia’s bedroom television set so they could watch a movie in bed. She didn’t even trust they could set the alarm clock correctly.
After several minutes of listening to a beep that yielded no money, they cancelled the transaction. Talia opened the creaky car door and threw herself against the drivers seat, drawing a ploof of dust from the faded scarlet upholstery. Isa entered on the other side, sinking into the backseat, laying her head against the cushioned headrest. She wished they had waited till morning, when the sun was still in a mild mood and the bank would be open for business and a human could have helped them. She and Cici had nothing to do all day but stay indoors, protected by manufactured coolness while Talia worked. It was summer break and most of their friends were vacationing by the ocean not marooned in the desert as they were.
“Isa, the hell am I going to do? I can’t go in there tomorrow and have him treat me like I’m some vieja estupida! After what happened last time, I know he’ll call your father just so they can both laugh at me!”
“Mom, it did go inside a slot so it probably needs time; Its got to show up on your balance eventually.”
Isa’s heavily mascaraed eyes blinked in Morse code.
“The money wasn’t showing up on my balance after fifteen minutes of standing there. I just know that damn envelope is stuck inside!”
Talia’s hands clenched the steering wheel.
“Oh God, I just can’t do anything on my own!”
The deposit was a check for a hundred dollars. Talia’s mother loaned it to her so she could buy groceries. They were almost out of gas and tomorrow she had to drive twelve miles to the next town over for work.
Isa held her forehead in the palm of her hand; her hair sprayed peacock bangs were wilting. From the rearview mirror, her mother slumped over the steering wheel. She was about to apologize but was spared by her sister who was annoyed and hungry.
“Mom, this isn’t a big deal. Who cares what the bank manager thinks? You said he was a totally gross pig, remember?”
“You’re not the one that has to deal with him. And you are definitely not the one that has to make money in this family. So please be quiet while I think.”
Talia wouldn’t lift up her head. Cici stifled a chuckle. It looked as if she was being reprimanded by the back of a hairy head maintained with surgical gloves and black and blue dye.
“I just can’t be overdrawn again. I’m so tired of this.”
Ever since the last incident at the bank, Gilberto had stopped giving Talia and his daughter’s anything except angry phone calls that ended with him slamming the receiver down.
In two separate car rides, Talia and her daughters knew the marriage was over. Gilberto drove his wife outside the city limits. Once he passed the AM Musica Cristiana radio station with its bright orange call letters and scruffy palm trees lining the front yard, he parked by a field of sugar beets swaying in the Santa Ana winds. It was there that he admitted that the stereo they once had in den was not at the repair shop. It was fully operational, sitting in a rented house he was sharing with his girlfriend across the border in Mexicali. Talia would not look at him, using all her discipline to stare straight ahead, undeterred by a bug splattered windshield, thinking of when they were sleep deprived young parents trying to abandon a puppy in the fields that they assumed they could potty train with their toddler. It never ran off into the sunset as they hoped.
Isa and Cici saw their father’s girlfriend for the first time on Christmas Eve while crossing the border to their aunt’s house for dinner and a gift exchange. Gilberto still lived at home but was at his liquor store that night, selling last minute bottles of cognac and wine.Cici was in the backseat with Isa. Talia and her mother were in the front discussing what time they should return. Talia wanted to attend Misa de Gallo at midnight while her mother preferred to watch the TV version the next morning. As the car waited at the last U.S intersection, Cici saw her father’s truck on the opposite side of the road stopped. It was distinct with its earth tone decals on both sides and a personalized license plate that read “elchngon” which a California DMV worker, not fluent in Spanish ignorantly found acceptable. There was a young woman in his driver’s seat. Cici swatted Isa’s arm, pointing and mouthing the word “look” over and over again. They craned their necks as far as they could until the truck was gone and all that was ahead of them was Mexicali’s twinkling lights illuminating the New River. The wet border separated the two countries, its fluid blackness ran parallel to the lines of motorists entering Baja California’s capital.
The girls were sweating in the backseat. The night had not cooled. To Cici it felt like the time she was under a salon dryer at the beauty shop her grandmother frequented. With the dryer covering most of her face, she counted all the gray haired old ladies getting their hair set while the white haired ones got blue rinse so the yellow would go away. In her hallucinatory state, she mused that this is where you find a spare Mexican old lady in case you lost one.
Isa reached for her imitation Louis Vuitton doctor bag and pulled out a lighter and pack of Virginia Slims. She got out of the car. After a few puffs, she handed the cigarette to Cici through the open window.
“Mom, let’s go back to Abuela’s house and get another check. I’ll tell her I screwed up. She won’t get mad at me.”
Isa looked at the sky as if she was talking to it.
“Yeah Mom, listen to Isa, she’s Abuela’s consentida! She could like shoot somebody, throw their dead body into a canal outside out town and even if she got caught, Abuela would still find a way to blame me. The old lady totally hates me!”
“That’s cause you talk so much shit, Cici.”
“And you lie about all you’re shit, Isa like the time you told her the peanut butter on your neck was a science experiment.”
“Give me back my cigarette, mocosa!”
“Enough you two! I am not going back to your grandmother.”
Isa grabbed the cigarette from Cici’s mouth. Cici didn’t put up a fight.
“Seriously Mom, why not? I’ll tell her I took the check from your purse and cashed it because I have a party to go to and need a dress. It’ll buy us some time.”
“Ya, I bet she’ll even offer to buy you shoes.” Cici mumbled.
“You’re right Isa, she wont blame you. And Cici, your Abuela doesn’t hate you, she just thinks someone should wire your jaw shut. But what she will do is bring up the tuition and all the credit cards she’s paying off because your father is spending our money on his girlfriend and his …”
Talia was about to say habit but stopped herself. In almost a whisper she let an admission escape, sounding as if she had been caught doing something she didn’t know was wrong.
“I pretended not to know what he was doing. I just hoped it was all in my head. But everyone knew and no one said anything.”
Why should her mother feel any shame? Isa thought. Why do the Churchgoers who stare too long at them during the peace be with you feel so self- righteous? And why does that silly overweight man who eavesdrops on conversations at the San Juan coffee shop, think he’s entertaining people with his Border Bulletin gossip page?
“…Having my afternoon coffee at the San Juan. Mismo Mismo por moi! I ran into sooooooo many people today! Must be the muy sabroso buffet that’s bringing all the crowds in! One the guest stars at the coffee shop? Well none other than Gil Corrales, Sullivan Liquor Store’s proud owner and my go to place for all the best Chardonnay! Seems as if the newly slimmed down Gil was in deep conversation with his waitress. Was he profoundly contemplating what to order? No my dear readers, not so! He was singing the praises of a special someone! Did I hear something about a marriage proposal? I think I did! We shall see!”
“Forget it Mom, it was a stupid idea.” Isa flicked her cigarette onto the asphalt.
The Desert Bank parking lot lights lit the liquor store’s rear wall. Sullivan’s Liquor Store was painted in Celtic calligraphy. Across the lot, San Juan Hotel guests could look out from their room window and see it with the words “Cold Beer” and “Ice” written below.
The sign on the roof had a jovial green Mexican Leprechaun smoking a pipe on a mushroom designed by the former owner, a good-natured Irishman who loved the community.
“I need to go fix this, I can’t let this happen.” Talia said.
Cici got out of the car behind her mother. Her face was flushed.
“I want to get out of here Isa, we can’t even turn on the car AC cause we’re low on gas.”
“You heard her, she doesn’t want to ask for help. And she doesn’t want anything getting back to Dad.”
“Do you think this is any better, melting and watching her lose it? Dad’s so far gone anyway. He doesn’t care what she does.”
“Its not that easy for her.”
“If she doesn’t make a decision soon, I vote we go sit in the lobby of the San Juan. At least it’s cool inside.”
The girls lay against the side of the car taking heated breaths and smelling the flavored smoke from the hotel’s steakhouse. Their faces turned away from the stench of dehydrated urine and broken beer bottles lining Sullivan’s long alley of uneven packed dirt.
“Do you think she knows he’s an addict? My friends say he uses a dealer they know.”
Isa could see her mother banging at the deposit slot with the heel of her hand.
“Yeah. That’s probably why she really wants to get the divorce done with. There wont be anything left.” Cici said.
The last time Talia saw her husband was on Halloween Day. Despite living in a small town, it was easy to avoid him, she wrote checks wherever she could, staying away from the bank and the liquor store. He spent most of his time in Mexicali.
Isa and Cici were standing by the bank’s table of Halloween treats, stuffing candy corn into their mouths. Talia filled out a withdrawal slip at the customer service desk. She kept looking over her shoulder at the entrance It was hard to see outside as they were covered in faded construction paper spiders crawling on top of cotton cobwebs.
She walked over to the business service area, an enclosed cubicle of faux wood paneling and a locked door with entry allowed by the teller pressing a buzzer. Talia was buzzed in. The teller was Cecy. She had done business with her in the past. She was wearing
a sexy witch costume that made her look more like cocktail waitress in fishnets. Talia handed her the slip and the teller asked her to wait. As the teller’s black patent leather shoes reverberated through the acoustically hollow building, all Talia could think of was having to pay a one thousand dollar lawyer retainer fee by next week. When she returned she had a demure look on her face.
“Mr. Barajas needs to talk to you in his office.”
The teller handed the slip back to Talia. Her hand was limp.
“Is my name still on this account?” Talia asked.
“Well, eh, I hadn’t looked but Mr. Barajas needs to talk to you anyway.”
Talia leaned in and could smell the toxic fume of the tight ringlet perm the teller must have had done a couple days prior. She handed the slip back to her.
“Cecy, I think you need to check who’s on the account before you go running to your boss. If I am on the account then that legally entitles me to withdraw funds.”
Cecy looked surprised because Talia knew her name. Talia had no issue with the young woman. She was a harmless employee crossing the border each day on foot to earn dollars instead of devaluing pesos. Cecy hypnotically took the slip and walked to the file area to check.
Rudy Barajas, the bank manger had come out from his back office to where the teller had stood. Talia couldn’t stand him. He laid his hand on the counter and began his formal address.
“Talia, Gil is on his way. This is the Liquor Store account so you know he needs to be aware if there’s a withdrawal taking place.”
“I don’t care Rudy. I know he likes to shoot his mouth off like he’s not married anymore but legally we still are. I’m still on that account until a judge says differently so there’s not much he can do.”
Isa and Cici saw a familiar face. Their father was coming from the other side of the parking lot where Sullivan’s alley ended and the bank took over. Upon entering, he ignored them, rushing directly to the business transaction area.
Gil slammed his hand on the counter. Fortunately, the buzzer prepared Talia.
“What the hell are you doing?” He asked.
Talia turned to face her husband. He looked skinnier but haggard, a curse the middle-aged suffer from when they drop several pounds.
“Taking money out of our business account.”
“This is not your money, this is the store’s money! I earned it and you have no right…”
“Oh, no Gil,” Talia cut him off. “I do have a right, the lawyer told me so. What you need to understand is that if you want a divorce, it’s going to cost you!”
The regular bank customers that were in line stood on their tippy toes trying to look into the enclosed business service area.
“Maybe we should go into my office and discuss this.” Mr. Barajas said.
“What are you trying to do? Ruin my business?
Talia saw that Gil was in shock that they were fighting in public; it was always over the phone.
“Talia, I think you need to reconsider what you’re doing. This is a business account and I think it’s in everyone’s best interest to go into my office so we can calmly…”
“ Rudy, “ Talia interrupted him “You are as much of a sin verguenza as my husband so really why would I take your advice?”
Talia did not pay attention to what his reaction was, she saw Cecy return.
“Is my money ready?”
“Yes it is.”
Looking down and making eye contact with no one, Cecy counted ten one hundred dollar bills and handed them to Talia.
“Gil, you are now aware that Talia is withdrawing funds, she is legally able to so there isn’t much I can do for you.” Rudy said.
Talia saw that Rudy was trying to contain his anger. He stiffly patted Gil on the shoulder and retreated to his office.
Isa and Cici watched their father storm out of the enclosed area. He ignored the banking line of rubberneckers and made a direct b-line toward them.
“Why didn’t you two warn me?” Gil asked. He was trying not to raise his voice.
“Dad, you haven’t called us in a month. Isa glared at him. He was drenched in perspiration on a mild desert day that barely broke 70 degrees. Wonder what he’s been doing she thought.
“Yeah Dad, like calm down it’s just money. Here, have some punch.” Cici offered him some punch. She knew he wouldn’t yell at her in front of all these people.
“The only time you two call is when you want money. You’re both useless.”
Gil took the punch, nodding his head. Isa saw that Cici looked wounded.
“Your mother is making an idiot out of herself. I don’t need this drama. None of you get that I am running a business.”
“Vamonos!” Talia barked as she walked past them.
Cici and Isa listened to their mother and left Gil to drink his orange flavored punch.
That night Isa and Cici were getting ready to visit a haunted house organized by the church’s youth group. Talia was asleep on the couch in the den. The phone rang. Isa picked up the phone in the kitchen.
“Your mother is a real vindictive bitch, you know that?”
Isa, wildly swinging her left arm, motioned to Cici to pick up the other phone. Cici giggled and ran over to their mother’s bedroom thinking it was a prank call her sister wanted her listen in on.
They could hear his girlfriend yelling in Spanish. She was upset he was calling his old home. His voice aimed in another direction.
“Shut up! Don’t make me hit you!”
Isa hoped she’d shut up for her own sake.
“You don’t scare me! Fuck you!!
The girlfriend went into English. The receiver hit a hard surface. They closed their eyes. They could hear her screams. After some rumbling, thuds and what sounded like a heavy object falling to the floor, their father got back on the phone.
“Tell your mother she better not do anything like that again.”
They could hear his girlfriend sobbing. He hung up on them. The girls were left listening to each other’s short rapid breaths.
Talia looked relieved as she returned to the car. Isa thought perhaps the deposit envelope miraculously made its way into her mother’s account balance after all.
“Ok, so we’re driving to the liquor store and I‘m going to take the money your father should be giving us from the cash register.”
“Mom, is that legal, can we really do that? Isa asked.
“Why not? Nothing has been divided, we’re not divorced yet.”
“Mom, what if he’s there, then what?” Cici was more worried about what her father would do if he caught her.
“One of you will go to the San Juan and call to check if he’s at the store.”
Isa wiped the sweat off her face and reached through the open car window for her purse. She ran across the street to the hotel.
She pushed through the revolving door. There was chatter down the hall in the steakhouse but the chilly lobby was empty. The clerk behind the reception desk looked like a caged animal half asleep. There was a row of wooden stalls with pay phones inside them. It occurred to Isa that they looked like confessionals. She ducked into the booth and stuck twenty cents into the payphone’s slot. She began to panic. What if he answered?
“I’ll just hang up on him.” She said to herself.
Her heart hit a staccato beat when she heard, “No, no esta.” from his employee. He didn’t know when he’d be back. She pushed the accordion stall door open and rushed outside. The feeling of being cold quickly evaporated and the heat wrapped around her again. It was welcoming. Crossing the empty street, she ran toward the car.
“Mom, he’s not there, do you wanna chance it?”
“Isa, you drive, I’m going to go in. Cici stay in the backseat of the car and watch to see if your father comes back.”
From left to right, Talia nervously panned the inside of Sullivan’s Liquor Store. The shelves seemed emptier but just as dusty. She could hear the till close. The night cashier was finishing with the store’s only customer. The cash register was on the other side of the tall cigar case and newspaper stand.
When the customer left, she circled behind the counter as she had so many times before usually with a diet soda and magazine in her hand. The cashier, a thin man she barely knew, hired around the time they split remained still as he watched her.
“Que necesitas?” He asked.
“Muevate.” She snapped.
He took a few steps back. Talia opened the register and took all two hundred and seventy three dollars out.
Cici, poking her head outside the car window watched the doors spread open like wings of steel and glass. Her mother had a defiant smirk.
“Start the car Isa, let’s go.”
Talia slid into the passenger seat. Cici could see the lights of an oversized car coming down the street.
“I think Dad’s coming!”
“Isa, Move! Let’s go!”
Talia was yelling into the depths of her purse as she impatiently shoved a wad of bills into it.
“Oh shit!” Isa shifted in reverse and pressed abruptly on the gas. The car nearly collided with a parked motorcycle in the bumpy parking lot but she maneuvered out just in time, missing the car that was coming toward them; a customer who was in the mood to buy ice cold wine coolers.
The vacant streets of Calexico transformed into a streak of blurred lights as they rolled up their windows and blasted the cars air conditioner.
“Hey Mom after we gas up, lets grab some burgers! No more Abuela food, ok? I looked down at yesterdays bowl of stew and I swear to god the chicken looked up at me and said “Buenos Dias cluck-cluck!”
Isa rolled her eyes at her sister’s goofy comment but couldn’t help laughing. They went to a fast food restaurant furthest away from Sullivan’s and the border crossing in order to forget about their run in with Calexico’s technological leap.
It was getting late and Cici wanted to get ready for bed. Talia and Isa dropped her home while they went to Abuela’s to pay back the hundred dollars loaned. The phone ringing made Cici feel foolish. How could she not know this was coming?
Her father used to lounge around the house in a beat up velour robe that no longer had its belt. He liked to watch games on TV. Cici always climbed into bed with him, sticking her cold feet against his fat warm back. The worst thing he’d ever say was to go put some socks on.
She picked up the phone.
“Cici, this is your father.”
“What’s up Dad, what’s new?”
“Tell your mother that if she doesn’t return the money she stole tonight, I’ll file at theft report in the morning.”
“You left us no choice. I have to go.” Cici hung up.
The burger Cici wolfed down was gurgling in her stomach. It was too stuffy inside. She turned on the central air and T.V set to create some company. Plopping herself onto the sofa she smiled. She always enjoyed watching Carson’s opening monologue especially when he made fun of President Reagan’s senility.