Earthgrazer by Sacha Siskonen

When I first saw it I thought, of course, of war. Drone strikes. Long range missiles. Gravity’s rainbow. But the flash of bright, green squiggly light was too irrational to be man made. I was driving back to Tucson from Nogales where I was waitressing a few days a week at a tourist trap that wanted a wait staff fluent in English. They paid me under the table. It was the only job I could get. The irony of the situation did not escape me, but I had student loans and credit card debt and a car payment to make.

It was early evening. I’d worked a lunch shift and was headed home. The desert was muted and dangerous looking, all spikes and hard edges. Some people found it beautiful, but I had always been frightened by it. It was a place I respected, but not one I could love. I was almost at the border, when I saw the shooting star. It was brighter and lasted longer than any I had ever seen before. As is custom, I made a wish. It felt childish and silly to do so, but many of my recent circumstances felt childish and silly so it wasn’t a shocking or new feeling to have. The star, or meteorite, or whatever it really was, was so unreal, a little fireball in the waning light, that I thought perhaps my wish would actually come true in spite of what all the data that years of unfulfilled wishes, dating back to the first birthday candle I can remember, made clear. But unemployment had drained me of my reserves of hope and was looking for it anywhere, anywhere.

Randy was on duty when I pulled up to the border. They all knew me there. I rolled down my window and Randy said, “How’s your friend?” Which was what they all always asked when I crossed the border.

“Not great today,” I told him and shook my head sadly and sighed. Some days my friend was “improving,” some days “the doctors were optimistic,” but more frequently she was “in bad shape” or “having a rough one.” When I really wanted to garner some sympathy, I didn’t say anything at all. Just shook my head and let my eyes well up with tears. Those were the days they gave me things.

I didn’t have a sick friend in Mexico. I didn’t have any friends in Mexico, really. Just a boss and some coworkers who mostly eyed me suspiciously, knowing I was working illegally in their country. A couple of weeks after I started waitressing, the border agents began to get suspicious too. What was a 30-something white woman doing crossing the border several days a week? Drug mule? Human trafficker? I didn’t fit the profile, which made me all the more suspicious. I was getting stopped and searched every day, so I explained to one of them, Bill, that I was helping to care for a sick friend, careful to be detailed enough to be believable, but vague enough to keep my story straight.

Word traveled quickly at the border and soon all the agents knew my name and asked after my friend whenever I drove through. On bad days, when my friend was weak and pale, they gave me gifts they had confiscated from tourists, mostly fruit, sometimes vegetables, flowers, bottles of alcohol, occasionally a carton of cigarettes and once a can of mace. I brought these things to my coworkers at the cantina. They became more suspicious of me, but also more friendly.

The border agent passed me a pineapple through the open window of my car and said, “Please tell your friend she’s in my prayers.” Lying caused me to feel both guilty and euphoric.

“Thank you so much,” I said. “She really appreciates any good thoughts she can get, Randy.”

Maybe these lies were karmically keeping me from finding a job? I wanted very much to believe that the universe was just and simple and that evil was punished and all of that. It would actually have been comforting to find out that I had caused my unemployment and could bank some good deeds to get myself back on my feet. But I had been out of work for nearly two years, and had been good for one year and eight months and nothing was different. In fact, my lies were getting me more than telling the truth ever had.

When I got home, I gave the pineapple to my grandmother who cradled it in her arms like a prickly baby.

“How was work, Lucy?” my mother asked, stirring a pot on the stove. The kitchen was the same as it had been my whole life. The paint had dulled and the appliances were in need of an update, but the remodel my parents had been planning was on hold.

“The same,” I said. My family knew I was waiting tables while I looked for a more permanent position, but I had left out the fact that the restaurant was located in Mexico. Why worry them? They all had enough to worry about. My maternal grandmother and Aunt Irene were also living at my parents’ house, having lost their own house when my aunt lost her job.

A cousin from my father’s side, Mick, had just moved in too. He and I shared my old room, sleeping in bunk beds as we had as children. He had wanted the top bunk and I let him have it, but wondered as I fell asleep each night if this would be the day the beds collapsed and crushed me. With my luck I wouldn’t die. I’d just rack up a slew of medical bills I had no way to pay. When I was younger, an only child, my parent’s three-bedroom house in Tucson had felt enormous. Now, with six adults and one full bath, things were unpleasantly intimate. Mick sometimes peed in the yard to avoid the line for the bathroom, a secret he and I kept from everyone else in the house.

I had been a financial analyst at a mortgage company in L.A. with a savings account and a retirement plan before the bubble burst. I was downsized and spent a year living off my savings looking for a new job. But everyone else was looking for a new job too.

“I saw a crazy shooting star,” I told them. “It was huge, really bright.”

“You have an interview tomorrow?” my grandma asked. She sat at the kitchen table watching my mother stir a pot on the stove.

“Yup.”

“It’s a sign, your star. Good luck. You’re going to get this one, Lu,” she said. “I have a feeling about this one.” She had had a feeling about the last sixteen interviews I’d gone on.

“Hope so,” I said.

The next day, I got up early and put on my business suit and pantyhose. I pulled back my hair in a bun. I drove Mick to his construction job.

“Good luck, Lu,” he said. “This one sounds right for you.” He got out of the car and I watched him walk slowly, almost painfully toward the construction site. He hated it, but would never, ever say so. Mick had studied piano at Julliard. He had played in concert halls all over the world. Now he worked construction for a childhood friend’s brother when they needed extra help. Pianists were a luxury item. He was trying to offer lessons to kids in town, but piano lessons were also a luxury item. On the weekends he played for tips at the mall.

I was three hours early for my interview, but there was no point in driving home and back again so I sat at a coffee shop around the corner and did math on a napkin. If I got this job and saved this much and paid down my credit cards at this rate, I could be out on my own in two years, saving this much, paying this much, out in three years. The numbers weren’t exceptional, but even small amounts of money sounded life changing to me after not working for a year and a half.

The interview was at a small company in downtown Tucson, a tiny metropolis made up of a handful of mini skyscrapers surrounded by low desert sprawl. I checked in with the receptionist and waited in an incredibly comfortable leather chair. I silently debated whether or not to compliment the interviewer on the lobby’s furniture. It was gauche. It was clever. It was dumb. It would make me seem relaxed. It would make me seem uptight. It would make me seem odd or endearing.

Since I began interviewing regularly, I had become hyperaware of things I used to pay no attention to at all. The slightest misstep could rule you out of these large applicant pools. I read an article that said people often hire people who look like them. When I got to an interview to find the interviewer and I shared no commonalities, my heart sank. If I found a run in my pantyhose after an interview, I felt nauseous. If I accidentally said something stupid, I thought about it for weeks, long after the job had been given to someone else. I analyzed and reanalyzed my diction, my posture, my every swivel in a chair compulsively. It was unhealthy. It was unhelpful. But I could not stop.

The receptionist pointed me to a conference room. I opened the door and found seven people sitting around the table. For a second, I thought I had stumbled into a meeting by mistake. But then one woman said, “Lucy Brown?”

I sat at the head of the table. Over the past two years, interviews had been getting larger and larger. When I graduated college and interviewed for jobs there were never more than two people conducting the interview. Lately four was average. Seven seemed excessive. I almost expected them to call in the receptionist too, maybe a janitor or random passerby for additional perspective.

Like anything, I imagined that these large interview panels lead to the least offensive candidate being chosen, whoever everyone could stand, so I tried to be appropriately bland while still standing out, but not for the wrong reasons.

“Welcome, Lucy, let’s begin,” one woman said. They all introduced themselves, but there was no way I could learn all their names. Brian, Brie, Nell, Frito, Carl or Clark, Missy or Ms. Something, and Jam were the names I heard or thought I had heard as they all mumbled something quickly.

“Nice to meet you all,” I said.

“Tell us about yourself.” They each asked a question, going around in a circle until they had asked them all. I had a notebook and a pen in my purse, but had forgotten to take them out when I walked into the room. Would I look unprepared without them? Would I look forgetful or rude if I pulled them out as I was answering the question? Would they judge me more for needing the paper and pen or for not having them?

“Why do you want to work here?” Money. The answer was always only money now. Of course, I couldn’t say that and never did. But any youthful fantasies about improving lives or enriching the community through the work I did had left me years before. Now I only wanted an income. Desperation didn’t allow for ideals.

“What are your strengths and weaknesses?” I couldn’t hear myself at interviews. No matter how many I went to I never felt comfortable. I never got used to them. In fact, the more I interviewed and interviewed and never got a job, the more terrified I became of the next interview. The more I couldn’t hear myself. I was underwater, far away from these eyes on me, far away from these questions I had answered so many times, so many unsuccessful times.

“Where do you see yourself in five years?” The panel was not responding to any of my answers. The most they did was nod politely and say, “Thank you” when I stopped speaking. They must have agreed beforehand to not engage the interviewees. It made it impossible to tell if they were interested in me or not. It was quite possible they had already chosen the candidate they wanted, and for whatever reason had felt they shouldn’t cancel on me, but had no intention of hiring me. Nepotism, inside hires, these things happened all the time. The panel’s blank, generically interested expressions could mean anything. There was no way to read them.

“We’ve reviewed your resume and you seem overqualified for the position. Could you speak to that?” This was the question I dreaded the most. There was no good answer to it. I had tried them all. Family. Location. Changing fields. Quoting specifics from their company’s mission. Any counter made you look weak.

“Do you have an questions for us?” Just the one.

“Well, we have a few other people to see. But we’re looking to make a quick decision, so you should hear from us by the end of the week.”

“How’d it go?” my dad asked when I got home. He was half under the kitchen sink trying to fix a leak.

“Good.” The truth was I had stopped making declarations about how it went. When it felt like it went well, I didn’t get the job. When it felt like it went terribly, I didn’t get the job. When it felt somewhere in the middle, I didn’t get the job. I never got the job so it had stopped mattering to me how it went. I kept applying to jobs, kept going to interviews, but deep down I didn’t believe I would ever get one of them.

I was working the dinner shift that day. When I got to the border, I flashed my passport at Cheryl. She smiled and said, “I know you, Lu. How’s your friend doing?”

“She sounded bad on the phone today. That’s why I’m headed down.”

“Oh no. Wait.” She pulled a large fruit basket wrapped in colorful cellophane from behind her. “Here, give her this.”

“Thanks, Cheryl, this will make her so happy!” I had tried to refuse their gifts early on, but it seemed to hurt them and make them distrust me, so I just started graciously taking anything they handed me. The more they gave me, the more they seemed to like me.

At the cantina, I put the fruit basket in the back for my coworkers.

“Lu,” one of the other waiters, Juan, said. “I need your help.”

“Sure.”

“Can you get my sister over the border? Her husband is in L.A. and she needs to get to him. She has some money. She can pay you.” Juan was young, maybe not even eighteen. He was charming, quick to smile and got big tips from the tourists by using a thicker accent when speaking English than he actually had.

“I don’t know, Juan, how? Like in my trunk or something?”

“You’re friends with those border people, yeah? Maybe they’ll just let you?”

“We’re not that close, Juan.” I said, and stepped away to seat a couple, that had just walked in. But then I thought about it. I kept thinking about it all day as I brought people their tacos and burritos. I laid a plate of enchiladas in front of a woman and thought, maybe. I put down chips and salsa and said, “It might work.” The customer looked up at me and asked, “What might?”

I had told my coworkers that the border agents liked to give me gifts, but I hadn’t told them why. I took Juan aside and explained my imaginary friend to him.

“They like her,” I said. “They want to help her. If your sister could look sick enough. I don’t know. Maybe. If there was an imaginary specialist in Tucson. I don’t know if it will work. They might just turn us away. Or arrest us.”

“But you’ll try?”

“Yeah, I’ll try.” I needed the money, but more I needed the purpose. It was a weird purpose, an illegal one, but it was more than I had waiting tables and searching for jobs. It was a good deed and a fuck you to the government who had cut off my unemployment benefits, who caused the recession that led to my downsizing in the first place. I was taking someone’s job in Mexico, so Juan’s sister could have a chance at the job I wasn’t using, the job no one would hire me for, and probably a job I wouldn’t ever want in the U.S. Give me your tired, your poor and all that. Your filthy, gyrating masses. Give them to me.

So I started buttering up my border patrol agents with stories of how close to death my friend was getting, of our search for a specialist who could save her. And Juan worked on making his sister, Luna, look as sickly as he could. He kept her up late until dark circles formed under her eyes. He instructed her to eat as little as she could and drink less water. She didn’t wash her hair for three days before we were to make our attempt. He bought makeup a shade too light for her complexion and together they powered her face pale, hid the healthy color in her cheeks. She practiced sitting limp and listless in the passenger seat of Juan’s car. Before we left she cried until her eyes were bloodshot.

We left the restaurant after the dinner shift. Luna hugged Juan for a long time and I stood awkwardly by, unable to fathom having to leave my family behind like that. As we drove to the border, Luna explained why she had to get to L.A.

“You don’t have to explain. It’s none of my business,” I told her. Who was I to judge, working in Mexico, lying to border patrol agents for sport? I was no moral compass. My house was glass.

“No, I want to tell you. You are helping me so much. I don’t want you to think you are doing this dangerous thing for someone who is just impatient. Someone who just wants to break the laws, or skip the line. I’m desperate. I’ve tried everything else. This is my last hope.”

She told me her husband, Carlos, was in the U.S. legally, working as a janitor. He had been trying to get her a work visa for years, but it was always denied. They were high school sweethearts, inseparable until he left the country. They had thought it would only be a year or so until they were together again. Seven years later, they were still apart.

“A month ago, Carlos had a stroke,” Luna explained. “Doctors don’t know why. He’s young. He’s strong. It makes no sense. He can’t talk, can’t walk. He’s all-alone in the hospital. I applied for an emergency visa, but it was denied like they all are. He can’t come back to Mexico. He cannot travel. It would kill him, they say. The hospitals are not good enough anyhow. He must stay in L.A. And I must get to him.”

It was twilight by the time we got to the border. I pulled into the lane I thought Randy would be working. He was our best shot. He had told me all about his wife’s cancer treatments and would be sympathetic. Luna assumed her position in the passenger seat, slumped and taking shallow, labored breaths.

“Hi Lu,” Randy said leaning into the window. “Who’s this?”

“This is my friend, Randy. Luna.” Luna turned to him and gave a weak smile.

“Nice to meet you,” she whispered. She looked terrible. I was impressed. Randy’s eyes widened. His hand went instinctively to his heart.

“Luna? It’s a pleasure to meet you. We’ve all been praying for you. How are you doing?”

“Not well.” Randy looked more concerned than I had thought he would.

“They can’t help her in Mexico. They gave her maybe weeks,” I explained. “Our only hope, our only chance is a specialist in Tucson, otherwise…” Randy’s eyes began to well. He wasn’t thinking of Luna at all, I knew. He was thinking of his wife whose cancer had recently returned.

“I see,” he said. “I see.” He stood hunched over, leaning in my window for a long time. In those moments I felt as old as starlight in the sky. Like it had taken me light-years to get where I was. Like I might have been dead for centuries already, but no one would know it for years. There wasn’t a single thought in my head. I tried hard not to breathe, not to do anything that might make up his mind for him. It was the same feeling I had in interviews. One wrong sneeze, one misplaced sigh, one inappropriate blink could lose you everything.

Randy straightened up, wiped a stray tear from his cheek. “You all better get going then,” he said. “It was an honor to meet you, Luna,” he said. “I hope things work out with that specialist. You’re in my prayers.”

“And you’re in mine,” Luna whispered almost inaudibly, a tremble in her small voice. He tapped the roof of my car and raised the arm of the gate. We drove through.

The human capacity for empathy was astounding to me. That this stranger could care so much for an imaginary person that he would risk his job, his life even, filled me with wonder. Luna and I didn’t breathe for a mile and then we both burst into tears.

I read an article once about how astronomers discovered that there were other galaxies in the universe. They pointed a telescope at an empty patch of space. A little square that seemed to hold no stars, but when they were able to look closer they saw not single stars, but clusters of them, dozens of swirling galaxies where they had thought there was nothing. I had made a wish on that shooting star weeks before without really understanding what I was asking for. Let me see, I had asked. A vague, amorphous wish, naively unspecific—breaking the first rule of wishing, but, I thought, as we drove from the border to my parents’ house that night, the sky thick with unfallen stars, that I was finally beginning to.

______________

Sacha Siskonen’s work is forthcoming or has recently appeared in Quarter After Eight, Hobart, Juked, Midwestern Gothic, Crab Orchard Review, Alice Blue Review, Word Riot and Spork. Her poetry chapbook, Turbulence, is available from Dancing Girl Press. The search term that most frequently leads readers to her weblog, The Saskatchewan Review, is: “I’ve made a huge mistake.”