Papá could break into any house in the neighborhood.
He would squirt grease and work on the lock, twisting the pins and springs. Although I heard the click indicating that he was in, he fiddled a few minutes longer, so the customers would think they were getting their money’s worth. If it were too easy, they looked annoyed and wondered aloud how much the short visit was really worth. Sixty dollars—for less than an hour’s work? Or they went into a spasm of fear about how easily burglars could get in.
“Don’t worry,” Papá would reply, looking at their dusty televisions, black velvet couches, and gilded portraits of La Virgencita. “I think the thieves have other places to go.”
The year I turned thirteen, I was learning the trade. I accompanied Papá on weekend house calls in the Mission District, learned the names of the tools, and in a few instances, gave him the right one before he asked for it. He taught me how to file key blanks—but not yet how to pick a lock. That happened only after my mother began to disappear. Up until then, I had been her son. Not my father’s.
After one of our house calls that autumn, I dreamed of a magic key that could open all doors. To our neighbor’s apartment, to every car parked on the block, and to the doors of a bank vault. No one would be safe before me. Papá laughed when I told him. “Lalo, there’s no need for such a key.” He could open any lock with his skills, force his way into anywhere. He kissed my mother on the cheek. She put down her wooden spoon and he embraced her, his hand reaching to cop a feel. The leftover refried beans smoked on the stove. My parents broke apart, and Mamá laughed, swatting at him and pulling the pan off the stove. Neither of them looked at me. His grin was smug, possessive, that of a man polishing his gleaming car just to run his hands over the curves. He cupped her butt once more and she leaned into him.
I wanted such powers for myself someday, to win someone like Mamá, but I could not imagine talking to women with such confidence. Even girls my age seemed years ahead of me, with their thick eyeliner, dark red lips, and curves packed into their jeans.
A week later, Mamá and I were walking back from a market when she showed me the flyer for classes in English, math, and computers at a community center, La Gloria Abierta. An unexpected reminder of home, and a phrase my abuelita, my mother’s mother, used to say when the money from my parents was long gone, when she conjured another meal from an almost empty sack of beans. La Gloria Abierta, or “what we have is what we need.” Not the usual meaning of the words, but something deep and old and mysterious.
I should have crumpled the flyer and tossed it into the trash, told my mother that she had no time, that she worked hard enough already and that I needed her more. Mamá cleaned rooms at a big hotel in downtown San Francisco. Before I arrived, she had worked at restaurants and sewing factories, whatever she could find, but the jobs all paid the same: enough for food and rent, and not much to send home, or to save for an immigration lawyer.
The training at the community center might help her get an office job and higher pay, she said. Maybe at an insurance or accounting agency along Mission Street. The plan, like all her plans, was to earn enough money to bring my two younger brothers from Morelia. Jose, dark and compact, with high cheekbones like me and my father, a daredevil who could walk on his hands. Ernesto, the youngest, with a mop of fat curls like my mother’s, quiet and shy, my abuelita’s favorite. I missed them, but I didn’t want them to come here. Not yet. In America, I was an only child, and I liked having all the attention.
Used with permission of Willow Books. Copyright @2016 Vanessa Hua.