Scott Torres was upset because the lawn mower wouldn't start, because no matter how hard he pulled at the cord, it didn't begin to roar. His exertions produced only a brief flutter of the engine, like the cough of a sick child, and then an extended silence filled by the buzzing of two dragonflies doing figure eights over the uncut St. Augustine grass. The lawn was precocious, ambitious, eight inches tall, and for the moment it could entertain jungle dreams of one day shading the house from the sun. The blades would rise as long as he pulled at the cord and the lawn mower coughed. He gripped the cord's plastic handle, paused and leaned forward to gather breath and momentum, and tried again. The lawn mower roared for an instant, spit a clump of grass from its jutting black mouth, and stopped. Scott stepped back from the machine and gave it the angry everyman stare of fatherliness frustrated, of a handyman being unhandy.
Araceli, his Mexican maid, watched him from the kitchen window, her hands covered with a white bubble-skin of dishwater. She wondered if she should tell el senor Scott the secret that made the lawn mower roar. When you turned a knob on the side of the engine, it made starting the machine as easy as pulling a loose thread from a sweater. She had seen Pepe play with this knob several times. But no, she decided to let el senor Scott figure it out himself. Scott Torres had let Pepe and his chunky gardener's muscles go: she would allow this struggle with the machine to be her boss's punishment.
El senor Scott opened the little cap on the mower where the gas goes in, just to check. Yes, it has gas. Araceli had seen Pepe fill it up that last time he was here, on that Thursday two weeks ago when she almost wanted to cry because she knew she would never see him again.
Pepe never had any problems getting the lawn mower started. When he reached down to pull the cord it caused his bicep to escape his sleeve, revealing a mass of taut copper skin that hinted at other patches of skin and muscle beneath the old cotton shirts he wore. Araceli thought there was art in the stains on Pepe's shirts; they were an abstract expressionist whirlwind of greens, clayish ocher, and blacks made by grass, soil, and sweat. A handful of times she had rather boldly brought her lonely fingertips to these canvases. When Pepe arrived on Thursdays, Araceli would open the curtains in the living room and spray and wipe the squeaky clean windows just so she could watch him sweat over the lawn and imagine herself nestled in the protective cinnamon cradle of his skin: and then she would laugh at herself for doing so. I am still a girl with silly daydreams. Pepe's disorderly masculinity broke the spell of working and living in the house and when she saw him in the frame of the kitchen window she could imagine living in the world outside, in a home with dishes of her own to wash, a desk of her own to polish and fret over, in a room that wasn't borrowed from someone else.
Araceli enjoyed her solitude, her apartness from the world, and she liked to think of working for the Torres-Thompson family as a kind of self-imposed exile from her previous, directionless life in Mexico City. But every now and then she wanted to share the pleasures of this solitude with someone and step outside her silent California existence, into one of her alternate daydream lives: she might be a midlevel Mexican government functionary, one of those tough, big women with a mean sense of humor and a leonine, rust-tinted coiffure, ruling a little fiefdom in a Mexico City neighborhood; or she might be a successful artist — or maybe an art critic. Pepe figured in many of her fantasies as the quiet and patient father of their children, who had chic Aztec names such as Cuitláhuac and Xóchitl. In these extended daydreams Pepe was a landscape architect, a sculptor, and Araceli herself was ten kilos thinner, about the weight she had been before coming to the United States, because her years in California had not been kind to her waistline.
All of her Pepe reveries were over now. They were preposterous but they were hers, and their sudden absence felt like a kind of theft. Instead of Pepe she had el senor Scott to look at, wrestling with the lawn mower and the cord that made it start. At last, Scott discovered the little knob. He began to make adjustments and he pulled at it again. His arms were thin and oatmeal-colored; he was what they called here "half Mexican," and after twenty minutes in the June sun his forearms, forehead, and cheeks were the glowing crimson of McIntosh apples. Once, twice, and a third time el senor Scott pulled at the cord, turning the knob a little more each time, until the engine began to kick, sputter, and roar. Soon the air was green with flying grass, and Araceli watched the corner of her boss's lips rise in quiet satisfaction. Then the engine stopped, the sound muffled in an instant, because the blade choked on too much lawn.
Neither of her bosses informed Araceli beforehand of the momentous news that she would be the last Mexican working in this house. Araceli had two bosses, whose surnames were hyphenated into an odd, bilingual concoction: Torres-Thompson. Oddly, la senora Maureen never called herself "Mrs. Torres," though she and el senor Scott were indeed married, as Araceli had discerned on her first day on the job from the wedding pictures in the living room and the identical gold bands on their fingers. Araceli was not one to ask questions, or to allow herself to be pulled into conversation or small talk, and her dialogues with her jefes were often austere affairs dominated by the monosyllabic "Yes," "Sí," and, occasionally, "No." She lived in their home twelve days out of every fourteen, but was often in the dark when new chapters opened in the Torres-Thompson family saga: for example, Maureen's pregnancy with the couple's third child, which Araceli found out about only because of her jefa's repeated vomiting one afternoon.
"Senora, you are sick. I think my enchiladas verdes are too strong for you. Que no?"
"No, Araceli. It's not the green sauce. I'm going to have a baby. Didn't you know?"
Money was supposedly the reason why Pepe and Guadalupe departed. Araceli found out late one Wednesday morning two weeks earlier, following an animated conversation in the backyard between la senora Maureen and Guadalupe that Araceli witnessed through the sliding glass doors of the living room. When their conversation ended, Guadalupe walked into the living room to announce to Araceli curtly, "I'm going to look for some chinos to work for. They can afford to pay me something decent, not the centavos these gringos want to give me." Guadalupe was a fey mexicana with long braids and a taste for embroidered Oaxacan blouses and overwrought indigenous jewelry, and also a former university student like Araceli. Now her eyes were reddened from crying, and her small mouth twisted with a sense of betrayal. "After five years, they should be giving me a raise. But instead they want to cut my pay; that's how they reward my loyalty." Araceli looked out the living room windows to see la senora Maureen also wiping tears from her eyes. "La senora knows I was like a mother to her boys," Guadalupe said, and it was one of the last things Araceli heard from her.
So now there was only Araceli, alone with el senor Scott, la senora Maureen, and their three children, in this house on a hill high above the ocean, on a cul-de-sac absent of pedestrians or playing children, absent of traffic, absent of the banter of vendors and policemen. It was a street of long silences. When the Torres-Thompsons and their children left on their daily excursions, Araceli would commune alone with the home and its sounds, with the kick and purr of the refrigerator motor, and the faint whistle of the fans hidden in the ceiling. It was a home of steel washbasins and exotic bathroom perfumes, and a kitchen that Araceli had come to think of as her office, her command center, where she prepared several meals each day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and assorted snacks and baby "feedings." A single row of Talavera tiles ran along the peach-colored walls, daisies with blue petals and bronze centers. After she'd dried the last copper-tinged saucepan and placed it on a hook next to its brothers and sisters, Araceli performed the daily ritual of running her hand over the tiles. Her fingertips transported her, fleetingly, to Mexico City, where these porcelain squares would be weather-beaten and cracked, decorating gazebos and doorways. She remembered her long walks through the old seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century streets, a city built of ancient lava stone and mirrored glass, a colonial city and an Art Deco city and a Modernist city all at once. In her solitude her thoughts would wander from Mexico City to the various other stops on her life journey, a string of encounters and misfortunes that would eventually and inevitably circle back to the present. Now she lived in an American neighborhood where everything was new, a landscape vacant of the meanings and shadings of time, each home painted eggshell-white by association rule, like featureless architect models plopped down by human hands on a stretch of empty savanna. Araceli could see the yellow clumps of vanquished meadows hiding in the unseen spaces around the Torres-Thompson home, blades sprouting up by the trash cans and the massive air-conditioning plant, and in the rectangles cut into the sidewalk where young, man-sized trees grew.
When Araceli stood before the living room picture window and stared out at the expanse of the ocean a mile or two in the distance, she could imagine herself on that unspoiled hillside of wild grasses. Several times each day, she walked out of the kitchen and into the living room to study the horizon, a hazy line where the gray-blue of the sea seeped into a cloudless sky. Then the shouts and screams of the two Torres-Thompson boys and the intermittent crying of their baby sister returned her to the here and now.
When there were three mexicanos working in this house they could fill the workday hours with banter and gossip. They made fun of el senor Scott and his very bad pocho accent when he tried to speak Spanish and tried to guess how it was that such an awkward and poorly groomed man had found himself paired with an ambitious North American wife. Guadalupe, the nanny, cooed over the baby, Samantha, and played with Keenan and the older boy, Brandon. It was Guadalupe who taught the boys to say things like buenas tardes and muchas gracias. Araceli, the housekeeper and cook, was in charge of the bathrooms and kitchen, the vacuum cleaners and dishrags, the laundry and the living room. And Pepe, with the hands that kept the huge leaves of the elephant plant erect, that made the cream-colored ears of the calla lilies bloom, and the muscles that kept the lawn respectably short. They filled the house with Spanish repartee, Guadalupe teasing Araceli about how handsome Pepe was, Araceli responding with double entendres that always seemed to go right over Pepe's head.
"Your machine is so powerful, it can cut anything!"
"Es que tiene mucho horsepower."
"Yes, I can see how much power there is in all those horses of yours."
Pepe was a magician, a da Vinci of gardeners, worth twice what they paid him. How long would the orange beaks of the heliconias in the backyard open to the sky without Pepe's thick, smart fingers to bring them to life? The money situation must be very bad. Why else would el senor Scott be outside in this white sun, burning his fair skin? The idea that these people would be short of money made little sense to her. But why else would Maureen be changing the baby's diapers herself, and looking exasperated at the boys because they were playing on their electronic toys too long? Guadalupe, the aspiring schoolteacher, was no longer there to distract them with those games they played, outside on the grass with soap bubbles, or inside the house with Mexican lottery cards, the boys calling out "El corazón," "El catrín," and "¡Lotería!" in Spanish. Through the picture window in the living room, Araceli studied el senor Scott as he struggled to push the mower over the far edge of the lawn where it dropped off into a steep slope. TORO said the bag on the side of the lawn mower. No wonder el senor Scott was having so much trouble: the lawn mower was a bull! Only Pepe, in a gleaming bullfighter's uniform, with golden epaulets, could tease the Toro forward.
Araceli made el senor Scott a lemonade and walked out into the searing light to give it to him, as much to inspect his work as anything else.
"Limonada?" she asked.
"Thanks," he said, taking the wet glass. Beads of water dripped down the glass, like the beads of sweat on el senor Scott's face. He looked away from her, inspecting the blades of grass, how they were sprayed across the concrete path that ran through the middle of the lawn.
"The work. It is very hard," Araceli offered. "El cesped. The grass. It is very thick."
"Yeah," he said, looking at her warily, because this was more conversation than he was used to hearing from his surly but dependable maid. "This mower is too old."
But it was good enough for Pepe! Araceli glanced at the grass, saw the brown crescents el senor Scott had inadvertently carved into the green carpet, and tried not to look displeased. Pepe used to stop there to adjust the height of the mower, and Araceli would come out and give him lemonade just like she was giving el senor Scott now. Pepe would say "Gracias" and give her a raffish smile in that instant when his eyes met hers before quickly turning away.
El senor Scott swallowed the lemonade and returned the glass to Araceli without another word.
As she walked back to the house, the lingering smell of the cut grass sent her into a depression. Exactly how bad was the money situation? she wondered. How much longer would el senor Scott mow the lawn himself and wrestle with the Toro? What was going on in the lives of these people? They had let Guadalupe go, and from Guadalupe's anger she imagined that it was without the two months' severance pay that was standard practice in the good houses of Mexico City, unless they caught you stealing the jewelry or abusing the children. Araceli was beginning to see that it was necessary to take a greater interest in the lives of her employers. She sensed developments that might soon impact the life of an unknowing and otherwise trusting mexicana. Back in the kitchen, she looked at el senor Scott through the window again. He tugged at the cut grass with a rake and made green mounds, and then embraced each mound with his arms and dumped it into a trash bag, blades sticking to his sweaty arms and hands. She watched him brush the grass off his arms and suddenly there was an unexpected pathos about him: el senor Scott, the unlikely lord of this tidy and affluent mansion, reduced to a tiller's role, harvesting the undisciplined product of the soil, when he should be inside, in the shade, away from the sun.
A moment after Araceli stepped away from the picture window, Maureen Thompson took her place, taking a good, long minute to inspect her husband's work. The mistress of the house was a petite, elegant woman of thirty-eight, with creamy skin and a perpetually serious air. This summer morning she was wearing Audrey Hepburn capri pants, and she strode about the house with a confident, relaxed, but purposeful gait. She ran this household like the disciplined midlevel corporate executive she had once been, with an eye on the clock and on the frayed edges of her daily household life, vigilant for scattered toys and half-full trash cans and unfinished homework. The sight of her husband struggling with the lawn mower caused her to briefly chew at the ends of her ginger-brown hair. Could la senora see the yellow crescents at the beginning of the slope, Araceli wondered, or was she just put off to see her husband dripping sweat onto the concrete? Araceli examined la senora Maureen examining el senor Scott and thought it was interesting that when you worked or lived with someone long enough you could allow your eyes to linger on that person for a while without being noticed: Pepe, a stranger, always caught Araceli when she stared at him.
Much like her Mexican maid, Maureen Thompson had also sensed the disturbing non sequitur playing itself out on the other side of the glass: her theoretician, her distracted man of big ideas, the man she had once proclaimed, in a postcoital whisper, "the King of the Twenty-first Century," frustrated this Saturday afternoon by a technological relic from the previous millennium. They had been married for twelve years of professional triumphs and corporate humiliations, of cash windfalls and nights of infant illnesses, but nothing quite like this particular comedy. He's having trouble just keeping the thing running. It uses gasoline: how complicated can it be? Her eyes shifted to the drawn curtains of the neighbors' houses, the blank windows that reflected the blank California sky, and she wondered who else might be watching. She had not agreed with the calculus her husband had made, the scratched-out set of figures whose bottom line was the departure of the more-than-competent and reliable gardener, a man of silent nobility who, she sensed, had tended the soil in a distant tropical village. Scott was a software kind of guy — both in the literal sense of being a writer of computer programs, and also in the more figurative sense of being someone for whom the physical world was a confusing array of unpredictable biological and mechanical phenomena, like the miraculous process of photosynthesis and the arcane varieties of Southern California weed species, or the subtle, practiced gestures that were required, apparently, to maneuver a lawn mower over an uneven surface. Later on he'll look back at this and laugh. Her husband was a witty man, with a sharp eye for irony, though that quality had deserted him now, judging from the sweaty scowl on his face. Hard labor will cleanse you of irony: it was a lesson from her own childhood and young womanhood that returned to her now, unexpectedly.
It was a short walk across the living room to a second picture window, this one looking out to the backyard tropical garden, which was suffering a subtle degradation that was, in its own way, more advanced than the overgrowth of the front lawn had been. They had planted this garden not long after moving in five years earlier, to fill up the empty quarter acre at the rear of their property, and until now it glistened and shimmered like a single dark and moist organism, cooling the air that rushed through it. With the flip of a switch, a foot-wide creek ran through the garden, its waters collecting in a small pond behind the banana tree. Now the leaves of that banana tree were cracking and the nearby ferns were turning golden. Not long after Scott dropped the little bomb about Pepe, Maureen had made a halfhearted attempt at weeding "la petite rain forest," as she and Scott called it, making an initial foray into the section of the garage where she had seen Pepe store some chemicals. She had no green thumb but guessed that keeping a tropical garden alive in this dry climate took some sort of petrochemical intervention: pest and weed control, fertilizers. Unfortunately, she had been frightened off by the bottles and their warning labels: Maureen had stopped breast-feeding only a few weeks earlier and was not yet ready to surrender the purity of body and mind that breast-feeding engendered. If she hadn't yet given in to the temptation of a shot of tequila — though she suspected she soon would — why was she going to open a bottle marked with a skull and crossbones and the even more ominous corporate logo of a major oil company?
A downpour of dust and dirt was killing their patch of rain forest; she would have to step in and care for it or it would wither up in the dry air, and as she thought this she felt a pang of anxiousness, a very brief shortness of breath. It isn't just the garden and the lawn, is it? Maureen Thompson had spent her teens and her twenties shedding herself of certain memories forged in a very ordinary Missouri street lined with shady sugar maple trees, where the leaves turned in October and it snowed a few days every winter, and the weather aged the things people left on their porches and no one seemed to care. Those days seemed distant now: they fit into two boxes at the bottom of one of her closets, outnumbered by many other boxes filled with the mementos of her arrival in California and life with Scott. Here on their hillside, on this street called Paseo Linda Bonita, one day followed the next with a comfortable and predictable rhythm: meals were cooked, children were dressed in the morning and put to bed at night, and in between the flaming sun set over the Pacific in a daily and almost ridiculously overwrought display of nature's grandeur. All was well in her universe and then suddenly, and often without any discernible reason, she felt this vague but penetrating sense of impending darkness and loss. Most often it happened when her two boys were away at school, when she stood in their bedroom and sensed an absence that could, from one moment to the next, grow permanent; or when she stood naked in the bathroom, her wet hair in a towel, and she caught a glimpse of her body in the mirror, and sensed its vulnerability, her mortality, and wondered if she had asked too much of it by bringing three children into the world.
But no, now it passed. She returned to the living room and the picture window, where the drama on the front lawn had reached a kind of conclusion and the King of the Twenty-first Century was sweeping up the grass on the walkway.
When Scott Torres was a kid living in South Whittier he cut the lawn himself, and as he pushed the machine over the slope of his bloated home in the Laguna Rancho Estates, he tried to draw on those lessons his father had passed down two decades earlier, on a cul-de-sac called Safari Drive, where all the lawns were about a quarter the size of the one he was cutting right now. Try to get the thing moving smoothly, check the height of the wheels, watch out for any foreign object on the grass because the blades will catch it, send it flying like a bullet. His father paid him five dollars a week, the first money Scott ever earned. Like the other two adults in this home, Scott had been put in a reflective mood by the unusual events of the past few days, by the departure of two members of their team of hired help, and by the June shift in domestic seasons. Summer vacation was upon them and yesterday had been filled with the summing-up celebration of their two boys' return from the final day of third and fifth grade with large folders filled with a semester's worth of completed homework and oversized art projects that their mother oohed and aahed over. Now he brought the mower over the last patch of uncut grass and gave it a haircut too.
Scott stopped the engine and breathed in the scent of freshly cut grass and lawn mower exhaust, the pungent bouquet a powerful memory-trigger of his days of teenage chores. He remembered the olive tree in front of the Torres family home in South Whittier, and many other things that had nothing to do with lawns or lawn mowers, like working on his Volkswagen — his first car — in the driveway, and the feathered chestnut hair and the Ditto jeans of the somewhat chunky girl who lived across the street. What was her name? Nadine. The olive tree dropped black fruit onto the sidewalk and one of Scott's jobs back then was to take a hose and wash away the stains. The neighborhood of his youth was a collection of flimsy boxes held together by wallpaper and epoxy, plopped down on a cow pasture. The Laguna Rancho Estates were something altogether different. When Scott had first come to this house the lawn had not yet been planted, there was a patch of raw dirt with stakes and string pounded into it, and he had watched the Mexican work crews arrive with trays of St. Augustine grass to plant. In five years, the roots created a dense living weave in the soil, and he had struggled to make his haircut of it look even; in fact, he failed. After he raked up the grass he noticed the blades that stuck to his sweaty arms, and as he wiped them off he thought that each was like a penny when you added up how much you saved by cutting the lawn yourself.
Two weeks earlier, he had quickly calculated what he paid the gardener over the course of a year and had come to a surprisingly large four-figure number. The problem with these Mexican gardeners was that you had to pay them in cash; you had to slap actual greenbacks into their callused hands at the end of the day. The only way around it was to go out there in the sun and do it yourself, because bringing these hardworking Mexicans into your home was expensive, and in the end all those hours the Mexicans worked without complaint added up. That was also the problem with Guadalupe: too many hours.
Scott's parents were frugal people, much like Pepe the gardener: Scott could see this in his methodical, cautious count of the bills Scott gave him. Pepe scratched out the amount with a stubby golf course pencil he kept in his wallet along with a piece of invariably soiled paper. Scott's father was Mexican, which in the California of Scott's youth was synonymous with poverty, and his mother was a square-jawed rebel from Maine, a place where good discipline in the use of funds was standard Protestant practice. Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. Scott remembered his late mother standing in the doorway of that South Whittier home under the canopy of the olive tree, watching him earn his five dollars with her frugal eyes, and felt like a man waking up from a long drinking binge as he looked back at the white house with the ocher-tile roof that rose before him. His home had become a sun-drenched vault filled with an astonishing variety of purchased objects: the coffee table handmade by a Pasadena artist from distressed Mexican pine and several thick, bubbling panes of hand-blown glass; the wrought-iron wall grilles shipped in from Provence and the Chesterfield sofa of moss-green leather; a handcrafted crib from the Czech Republic.
We have behaved and spent very badly. Scott held on to this idea as he rolled the creaking, cooling mower into the garage, feeling a meek, half-defeated self-satisfaction. I cut the goddamn grass myself. It wasn't rocket science. He reentered the house and his Mexican maid gave him an odd smile with some sort of secondary meaning he could not discern. This woman was more likely to ignore you when you said hello in the morning, or to turn down her lips in disapproval if you made a suggestion. Still, they were lucky to have her as their last domestic employee. Araceli was the only person in this house besides Scott who understood frugality: she never failed to save the leftovers in Tupperware; she reused the plastic bags from the supermarket and spent the day turning off lights Maureen and the children left on. Scott had never been to the deeper reaches of Mexico where Araceli hailed from, and he had only once been to his maternal homeland in the upper reaches of Maine, but he sensed they were both places that produced sober people with tiny abacuses in their heads.
A few moments later Scott had slipped out of the kitchen and looked through the sliding glass doors that led out to the backyard and felt like an idiot. He had forgotten about the garden, the so-called, misnamed "tropical" garden, which was actually a "subtropical" garden, according to the good people at the nursery who had planted the thing. For the first time Scott contemplated its verdant hollows and shadows with the eye of a workingman, a blister or two having formed on his palms thanks to his efforts on the front lawn. He remembered Pepe wading into this semi-jungle with a machete, and the crude noise of his blade striking fleshy plants, emerging with old palm fronds or withering flowers. Scott wasn't ready to enter into that jungle today, although he would soon have to. It seemed to him it would take a village of Mexicans to keep that thing alive, a platoon of men in straw hats, wading with bare feet into the faux stream that ran through the middle of it. Pepe did it all on his own. He was a village unto himself, apparently. Scott wasn't a village and he decided to forget about the tropical garden for the time being because it was in the backyard, after all, and who was going to notice?
Excerpted from The Barbarian Nurseries: A Novel by Hector Tobar, published in October 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2011 by Hector Tobar. All rights reserved.