When the Chilanga head housekeeper with the red hair and eyebrows like Maria Felix came around to inspect the floors, Merced didn’t blink. Did the Chilanga think this was Merced’s first time training a new hotel worker? She’d done this many times before. The only difference was that this time she was training her daughter Alma.
Under the Chilanga’s watch, Merced showed Alma the best way to swipe down the toilet with the rags La Plaza had given her as part of her cleaning equipment. She polished the heavy imported furniture in a circular motion, slowly vacuumed the thick wool carpet maneuvering the brush-topped hose into the dark corners and dusted the silk lampshades by hand.
“Cuidado,” Merced warned. “Supuestamente this furniture is from Italy so you have to treat all these cochinadas like a baby.” Alma’s rag slowly wiped the top of the deeply carved desk then the porcelain base of the lamp. Her hands shook so hard she nearly pushed it off.
One by one, Merced shared all of the standard rules for La Plaza’s housekeeping staff plus a few of her own. All the while, Alma nodded and blinked with the black eyes she got from her father Donaciano. The Chilanga watched her with ojos de vidirio, as if Merced would give her daughter special treatment. As soon as the Chilanga left, Merced got down to the truth—puteando.
“You think I got these nice tips for just making the beds?” Merced snorted. “You think these desgraciados ask for me because I’m so good at cleaning toilets?”
Alma’s black eyes grew wide, but she did not blush. The full blush would come some weeks later when Merced would lay down the rules of hustling along with a glass of Presidente brandy and the room number of a waiting john.
For now, Merced kept it simple. Fold the top sheet underneath the mattress tight and smooth. No wrinkles, no creases. Those will come later when the couple who rents the room has sex. Or maybe when one of those Fort Bliss soldiers with a weekend pass comes through with one of the cabareteras. Merced didn’t mention how her eldest daughter Norma helped support the family with her job at the Tivoli cabaret in downtown Juarez. Merced spoke only of the soldiers and their whores, groping and whispering in the halls of La Plaza before slipping inside the rooms. It didn’t matter now that the war was over, had been over for 5 years; these Bliss men had more money than ever and they spent it all here at La Plaza.
Alma blinked as her mother talked and took it all in.
After the training period ended, Alma worked on her own and one day simply rolled into the next for Merced. Beds, beds all the day long. So what if the hotel was installing these new mugreroros, televisions or whatever these chingaderas were called, in the penthouse suites. So what if people like the mayor of Juarez or the Governor of Texas stayed here, supuestamente the finest hotel in El Paso. They were all the same.
"Pigs," Merced whispered to herself as her wet hair dripped onto her pinche rag of a uniform. She stripped the soft cotton sheets from the bed and a used condom fell on her rubber soled shoe.
"Pinche john," she whispered. "Whore," she said as wiped the mirror above the dressing table and finger combed her wet hair. She barely had three minutes to wash her crotch and culo, but that was time enough to fog up all the mirrors in the penthouse suite.
Merced emptied the wastepaper basket quickly and rushed into the marble-floored bathroom. It was bigger than her rasquache presidio apartment in Segundo Barrio. She inspected the room quickly. Water puddled near the clawfoot tub and the canvas shower curtain was a little ripped at the brass rings, but that wasn’t her doing. Mold and God knows what else grew in the deep scratches. Merced sucked her teeth in disgust remembering she had put her feet down on that piece of porcelain just minutes before. She would have to scrub her body raw when she got home, then powder her toes with the athlete’s foot remedy Victor had left behind three years ago. Merced quickly wiped down the bathroom mirror and her plump arm flapped like a little wing.
She looked at the clock. In four minutes she had to meet Alma at the service elevator. She rushed to powder the tub with Comet, swiping it down with the set of rags La Plaza Hotel had given her when she started. High class hotel her nalgas. The green speckled powder ate away at her hands, making them itchy and stink of chlorine. After all these years as a chambermaid at the hotel, all she had to show for it were cracked, bloody hands and a heart as empty as the money jar Victor had left in the middle of the wooden floor of their tiny apartment before he vanished down Highway 80 towards California. All the neatly rolled American bills in the mason jar had disappeared into his pocket. All the hard earnings from her paychecks and tips at La Plaza gone, and with it her dreams for a home of her own in the Sunset neighborhood.
With just a half-day to make-up six floors of rooms, Merced and Alma were in joda pushing their loaded carts down the narrow hallways and in and out of the service elevators. Sometimes, to get her mind off of her blistering feet, Merced would pretend she was one of the high-priced whores she’d seen sitting on those high class stools, stretching out their silk stockinged legs in the windows of the cabaret she passed by on the way to the Mercado Cuahtemoc, their tight shiny high-heels and peroxide blonde hair glowing in the sunlight. Juarez women had a name for that color—Juareña Gold. It was a harsh, yellow-orange color, but Merced wanted it for her own hair even if it meant being called a whore herself. Why not? she thought smoothing out her thick black hair. These days she practically was one. Already she’d made $10 fucking one old man, a regular at the hotel who’d been waiting for her to knock. Room 303.
“There’s my little spitfire,” the old sin verguenza had told her, pulling her into the room. “My little María. Que bonita.”
Merced rolled her eyes at his reference to María Félix. She’d heard it before, mainly from the gabachos and once from Victor when they first met at the Mercado Cuahtémoc. She had been selling her chiles and sweet potatoes along with the other vendors against the shaded wall of the giant Mercado when she first saw him in his white linen suit and matching fedora hat. He walked towards her, eyeing her like she was one of the ancho chiles laid out for his inspection.
“Mira, la mera María Bonita right here in Juarez,” he told her reaching for her hand.
She had seen María Félix on a movie poster at the Tivoli theater across the street from the Mercado when she had come with her husband Donaciano. Her fair-skinned face set off her black hair and eyes. From then on, Merced closely read the movie star magazines, looking to see how La María wore her hair, clothes and make-up.
Carefully, Merced stripped off her uniform and hung it over the chair. The Chilanga would kill her if she saw her working in a wrinkled or ripped dress. Worse, she would probably dock her pay just to have it pressed. Javi the bellhop was docked one time after his mother forgot to iron his fancy suit covered with brass buttons and satin trim.
“Ama has to get up a half hour early just to finish ironing this chinagdera,” Javi told her once after one of the Chilanga’s lectures. “Pobrecita.”
Luckily for her and Alma, they wore the same brown-gold potato sack with plastic buttons every day. Merced looked over at her flat uniform as the old man split her legs open and entered her. Of course fucking the old man was nothing like when she was with Victor. For him, she took her time caressing his face, kissing him. How she loved to look into his eyes, and trace the outline of his lips, stopping at the mole dancing above his upper lip. Afterwards, if there was time, she would refry some beans with the left over bacon grease and make him some fresh flour tortillas with lard.
“Just like my grandmother’s” he would say, sopping up the last of the beans with the fluffy, warm tortilla. And then Victor would laugh and talk about Los Angeles. “Everybody from El Paso is going there,” he told her. “There’s work in the shipyards. I’ll go ahead and as soon as I find a place in El Este, I’ll send for you and the girls.” But Victor sent no word and no money. Merced had to come up with a way to support her daughters. She considered herself lucky to have met a young soldier when she did about five years ago, a Bliss man hungry for love. And then it came to her one day as she worked her rags and cursed under her breath. If she could make ten dollars in a morning off of these rich gabachos, then her daughters should be making $50 a night.
“No se rajen,” she told them one morning while they each ate the last of the beans and corn tortillas in the cold kitchen. “You’re big girls now, grandetotas.”
“Ay Mama,” Norma started. “It’s too early for this.” But when Merced narrowed her eyes and stepped toward her, Norma stopped.
“You’re not even pulling in half of what you’re worth in the cabaret,” whispered Merced as she scraped the last handful of beans out of the olla into Alma’s bowl. “With the war over, lots of those soldados have a lot of money saved up. You should sleep so you can look fresh for them tonight.”
Norma blinked her mascara smeared eyes. “I’m too hungry to sleep.” Before she could dip her spoon into her bowl, Merced had emptied part of her beans into Alma’s bowl.
“Cometelas,” Merced told Alma. “You’re going to need your energy today.”
Norma nodded. The smell of cigarettes and beer danced around her as she shook her thick gold hair, trying to wake up a little. “Today you’ll need the brandy too.”
“Sí,” Merced sighed as she opened the kitchen sink cupboard and pulled out a half-filled pint bottle. “El Presidente has to come too.”
“¿Por qué?” Alma asked as she looked at Norma, but her sister had covered her eyes with her hands. Merced cursed Victor again under her breath and motioned for Alma to eat.
With the rebozo tightly wrapped around her shoulders, Merced walked to the hotel with Alma. The shawl was a gift from Victor during their first year in El Paso. She pulled it tighter across her shoulders and thought about the ones she had left back home in Chihuahua pueblito with her husband Donaciano. In the distance, the Franklin Mountains glowed in the pink dawn. It wouldn’t be long before snow covered them in thick blankets. She needed a coat. And so did the girls. They needed so many things. And now there was a way to get them.
Merced had experience with selling love. She was thankful to the first Bliss soldier she met. After the tenth john, it wasn’t so bad anymore. And today Alma would learn. Today would be her first day earning real money just like Merced and Norma. As soon as they reached the Plaza Hotel’s supply room, Merced and Alma began loading their carts. La Chilanga stood by, eyeing them while mentally counting the cleaning supplies. They headed to the elevator and saw Javi carrying heavy leather-bound suitcases behind a pair of men dressed in thick long coats. They nodded a greeting to each other before Javi went through the revolving doors. As the elevator pulled Merced and Alma up to the fifth floor, Merced shut her eyes and remembered what she had learned during the last five years.
First, you ask for the money right up front or the cabrón could take off on you. Second, make sure he takes off all of his clothes first, just to check he isn’t armed. Third, don’t eat or drink anything he offers you. You never know when these men will try to poison or drug you. You had to be safe.
Fourth, the moment he’s done, you put your clothes on right away and shower in the next room you had to clean. That’s the only time you can do this because later on as you cleaned more hotel rooms and maybe fucked more men, you want to be a little fresh but didn’t want your skin to get all dried out with rashes. For the past five years, Merced had repeated these rules every day like a prayer. She shared this prayer with her daughter as they walked down the carpeted hallway to their next rooms and she watched as Alma just nodded her head and stared at her feet.
“And ask them for 20 mija,” Merced said. “You’re young enough you can ask for more. How old are you telling them?”
“Tell them sixteen. These descarados want to feel like they’re young studs again.”
Merced could tell her daughter was biting the inside of her cheeks.
“And you better not cry,” Merced told Alma, pulling out the little brown bottle of brandy. “That’ll scare them away. Here.”
Merced took the brandy and twisted the cap open. Even after a week, it was still strong. “Take two long gulps,” she told her. On such a skinny girl, Merced knew the alcohol worked much quicker.
Alma didn’t spit it out like Norma did the first time she gave her some of the Presidente. Maybe Alma already drank on the side, sneaking after hours into the hotel’s fancy Dome Bar like Merced did sometimes. Maybe Norma had already warned Alma. Whatever it was, Merced was glad. It made her life easier having at least one experienced daughter who liked to drink.
“Y no te rajes,” Merced warned her. “If I hear any screams and he’s not killing you, me la vas a pagar.”
Merced looked into her daughter’s nodding face and saw her ex-husband Donaciano’s black eyes. Ese cabrón. He would pay for sticking her with his escquincles. He was the one who wanted the children, not her. But what did she know? Merced had only been fifteen when she married old man Donaciano. They had lived in a proper house in El Sauz, right across from the town plaza, and he had wanted a family of sons to fill it. But the son wouldn’t come no matter how early she rose to make tortillas, to boil the beans, and to wash the clothes against the rocks of the tajo. God just continued to curse her and her old husband with two daughters. Ni modo. The only time she rested was when she rode in her comadre Rufina’s old Chevy truck the 30 miles between El Sauz and Juarez to sell Donaciano’s chile and sweet potato harvest. Finally, when she met Victor, rest would come when she slept with him.
But Victor was gone now and the Mason jar that once lay under the wooden floorboards of their brick presidio apartment was cleaned out. With the money gone, she had to fend for her daughters and herself while Victor, that drag-ass good-for-nothing, was in Los Angeles doing who knows what except sending for her and the girls.
“One day we’ll leave El Paso too,” Merced told Alma. “As soon as we get enough money to buy a house.”
Alma pulled the Presidente brandy from behind the linens and drank a long drink. As she leaned her head back, Merced saw herself tilting back her first brandy at the Plaza Hotel’s Dome Bar on a date with Victor. Her eyes watered when she remembered her burning throat and the way Victor gently stroked her face as she coughed.
“Not so quickly,” he said. “You’re not a man.”
“But it burns.”
“Pobrecita,” he said holding her hands. “Your hands are so cold but the brandy will warm you up.”
He cupped her hands then blew on her fingers. Then he kissed her throat, tipping her head back again. Up above, she saw a glass dome made by some famous New York company. Pieces of stained glass fitted in iron whirled above her.
“Tifanis” the bartender had told them. He had meant Tiffany’s but they didn’t know.
Against the night sky, purple and blue glass glowed with moonlight. A jungle of green leaves reached toward the center of the dome making Merced feel like she could almost fly through the center into the stars. That night she had thought Victor would take her to his little brick apartment in Segundo Barrio. But instead, he drove her back over the bridge, back to Chihuahua. Back to Donaciano.
“Don’t get drunk,” Merced told Alma. “Men want you awake and doing something.”
Merced did the sign of the cross over her head before Alma walked into the room.
“Think of me,” Merced told her. “Y apurate. We don’t have much time.”
Merced watched the door close behind her daughter then pressed her body up close, waiting until she heard Alma’s muffled cries blend in with the john’s murmurs.
“Okay…okay…okay?” the john kept asking.
Con una jodida, Merced thought, pounding her fist into her thigh. Just fuck her and get it over with. Didn’t the john know the rules? Why was this gabacho so soft on her daughter? He should just break her into submission and be done with it. Just like her first time with one of those traveling salesmen, a viejo who’d just come out of the shower. He was quick. No questions. No answers, just money.
Merced walked over to her cleaning cart and pulled out the bottle of brandy, drinking until she heard the elevator announce its arrival on the fifth floor. Before Javi the bellboy and the gabacho couple could reach her, Merced slipped the bottle back into the front pocket of her cleaning cart where she kept the rags and industrial cleaners. Wrapping her fingers around the cold wooden handle, Merced leaned into the heavy cart and pushed. The cart rolled slowly down the carpeted hallway, passing doors with little wooden “Do Not Disturb” signs hanging on chains. Their doorknobs gleamed like giant diamonds under the hallway lights.
“Cabrones,” Merced whispered. “Cabrones.”
The couple, a man in a long wool coat and a woman in fur and silk, passed by Merced, leaving behind a trail of perfume and cologne. The man winked at her as he passed. The perfume lingered then faded as Merced kept pushing her cart back and forth over the same 100 yards of carpet.
“Ese gabacho,” Javi said when he caught up with Merced. “The wife’s a bitch. But he’s a good tipper.”
Merced stopped pushing her cart and stared at the bill in his hand.
Javi’s face fell. “¿Como que no?”
“You’re only 20,” laughed Merced. “What do you know about tipping?”
“I know a dollar is better than fifty cents,” Javi said snapping his bill. “Que bueno his wife came with him this time.”
Then he started batting his eyes, putting his hand on his hips in imitation of the woman with the fur stole.
“I don’t want these Mexicans stealing from me so you better tip him good,” Javi screeched. Merced and Javi’s laughter could be heard down the hallway, making one guest poke his head out of the room.
“We better leave,” Javi giggled. “Before they catch us.”
“You’re such a payaso,” Merced sighed as she went back to pushing her cart.
Merced took the brandy bottle from her cleaning cart once more, and tilted her head back. Even before she unscrewed the cap, she felt her blood warming up, rushing like love. She’d have to get more bottles now that Alma also drank, she thought. The bottle’s heat throbbed through the cotton of her dress with every step down the carpeted hallway. When Alma came out of the john’s room she looked ghostly, her black eyes now a gun metal gray.
“How much?” Merced asked holding out her hand.
Alma put a tightly folded paper money square into Merced’s palm.
“What is this?”
Alma reached over and unfolded the tight little square until three ten-dollar bills fanned out, almost covering her outstretched hand. Merced nodded at the money. She had never earned this much in her life. She carefully rolled the bills up and slipped them into her front pocket where the roll hung heavy like a gun.
“Let’s finish up the last room together,” Merced told Alma who barely nodded and floated down the hallway in front of her.
The brandy banged against Merced’s thigh, reminding her to finish it up before they left the hotel for the night. She hoped the guests in their last room had left behind a pack of cigarettes. They would go well with her drink. Once inside, she went straight to the nightstand and found a pack of Pall Malls next to two tumblers half filled with golden water and nearly melted ice. One whiff and Merced knew. Tequila. Expensive tequila. She gulped both glasses down and pulled the bottle from her apron.
“Go shower while I finish the room,” she told Alma.
The brandy burned her throat. Merced reached for the pack of cigarettes and the book of matches, but before she could light up Alma called from the bathroom with a voice that was low and desperate.
“Ama. Come here.”
“Que?” Merced was ready to pour the brandy.”
“I can’t do it,” Alma sobbed.
Merced rolled her eyes. Now what? She entered the bathroom and looked down into the toilet water.
“Just flush it mensa,” Merced told Alma who tried to squirm away from the blood.
Merced grabbed Alma’s hand and pushed it toward the handle. But Alma pushed back, knocking Merced into the sink. Her quick footsteps brought her only as far as the door and no further. Warm liquid covered Merced’s eye, dripped into her mouth and mixed with the tequila’s bitterness.
Merced made her way to the edge of the bed. She grabbed the pack of Pall Malls and unwrapped it like a belated gift.
“My tip,” she laughed out loud, feeling the brandy. The match made a nice, sharp cracking sound as it ignited into a tiny flame and she took a deep breath. The cigarette smoke burned deep and long in Merced’s lungs. Alma slid down the wall and sat on the carpet with her back against the patterned wallpaper.
Before she knew it, Merced felt herself falling back on the bed, the sheets’ musky smell rising and mixing with the cigarette smoke. A deep wet sob shook her body until a wail broke out of her. Choking and coughing with smoke and spit, she pushed herself up on one arm. A small string of smoke rose from the bed and spread toward the ceiling. Alma’s dark eyes spread wide like a child’s.
“Chingado,” Merced yelled as she jumped up. She yanked the bedspread, threw it to the floor and stomped on it until the smoke stopped. The hole with its burned edges looked like a burnt out eye socket. Merced knew the hotel wouldn’t care, especially if she told the Chilanga it was the hotel guest who had burned the hole. But she also knew that she couldn’t keep this life up. Sooner or later the hotel would figure out her little side job. Quickly, she rolled up the bedspread and tucked it under her arm like a baby.
Then she turned to look at Alma. She looked pale, her eyes dull black. Merced took the cigarette from her mouth and slowly began burning holes in the white cotton sheet, one-by-one until the sheet looked like it had a dozen bruised eye sockets and the room smelled of burning cotton and tobacco. The smell followed Merced into the hallway where she kept burning holes until the perfumed couple’s door opened. Merced didn’t look down. Her eyes followed the couple walking towards her, their perfumed smell mixing with the smoke.
Before they could reach her, Merced threw her cigarette on the floor and rubbed it down into the thick carpet with her rubber-soled shoe. She kept staring at the couple, especially at the woman, who looked back at her with raised eyebrows and a red mouth frozen into an “O.” Then Merced snapped open the sheet with its many eyes and laid it on the carpet in front of the couple who looked down at her and then the sheet and then at her again.
“Mama,” Alma said as she looked down at the sheet. Merced followed her gaze. The burned out eyes stared back at Merced, bruised and empty.
“A la chingada con este hotel,” Merced told the couple. The man stepped out in front of the woman her blonde head would peeking over the man’s shoulder every third or fourth step.
“We’re leaving,” Merced told Alma as she grabbed the bottle of Presidente out of the cart and headed away from the service elevators. “Today.”
By the time she and Alma reached the lobby, the couple had already called housekeeping. Merced wished she had taken the pack of cigarettes from her last room because at that moment she felt every eye in the world looking at her. From behind a stack of suitcases, Javi’s gaze winked a good-bye. The Chilanga yelled out to her, but Merced never looked back. Instead she drank the last of the Presidente and dropped it with a crash in front of all the gabacho and Mexicano guests and workers.
Outside the sun glared down on her, on Alma, and everybody walking toward and away from La Plaza. A car honked and the smell of taquitos from the restaurant next door filled Merced. Somewhere out in Los Angeles, Victor was waiting for her and she had to get to him soon or she would kill somebody. Merced looked at her daughter still and silent under the white hot sunshine. For a moment she saw Donaciano and then herself, still 15 and stupid.
“Let’s go get Norma,” she told Alma. “We have to start packing for tomorrow.”
“Pero…” Alma started, but Merced just kept walking away, her eyes on the horizon of brick and white stone buildings, the Franklin Mountains between her and the pulsing sky.
Estella Gonzalez was born and raised in East Los Angeles, which inspires most of her writing. Her work has been anthologized in Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature published by Bilingual Press and Kaleidoscope published by Pima Press. Her writing has also appeared in Puerto del Sol, Sandscript and Huizache. She received her BA in English from Northwestern University and her MFA from Cornell University. Currently, she teaches writing at the University of La Verne.