In the Hills the sun is rising and the droplets of newborn dew still cling in slumber to the freshly mowed blades of verdant grass. Twin sable palms silently step forward out of the fading darkness as the sky shifts hues like the facets of a fickle gemstone turning in an unseen hand, from onyx to sapphire from royal to turquoise.
The house is all straight lines and vast unbroken planes of dark mirrored glass, pristine and smooth, and burnt sienna baked by the golden California sun day after day yet never yielding or blanching. And below the house, angling down along the gently sloping side of the hill a flat poured concrete patio descends to the shimmering pool, cool still from the night chill, and deep blue like the indigo Mexican tile that lines its walls and floors, a mustard diving board jutting boldly over the water like a child’s taunting tongue. It is picture-perfect Los Angeles, straight out of a David Hockney painting.
Inside the family sleeps. Outside, casting faint shadows that yearn to rest, two sets of movement animate the otherwise static scene. In the foreground at the pool’s edge, a stalwart man dips a long blue pole into the water. Faded grey jeans, tarnished white sneakers, a blinding white T-shirt, and a cap that shields his sun-blasted clay mask, inscrutable molded earth. He gently guides the pole like a Venetian gondolier placidly rowing. At first glance, there is no debris evident in the pool. Yet his dark somber eyes focus transfixed on a fleeting and distant point beneath the smoothly churning ripples that part on either side of his instrument as he patiently chases a twisting and turning particle only he can spy beneath the surface.
Behind him, in the background, a woman with a young girl’s body stands with her back to the pool. She doesn’t notice that as she sweeps the dust from the patio her broom handle glides at the same angle as the pole that holds the net now folding around a drowned Jerusalem beetle. She faces the window, not even acknowledging her own gaunt reflection in its smoky mirror. Her black hair is pulled back in a thick long ponytail. She wears her uniform, the one La Señora Highsmith gave her neatly pressed and folded in a box with four others stacked beneath it years ago. Dark blue pants, wrinkle free, polyester. A white short-sleeved cotton shirt, clunky and square like a guayabera without the embroidery. It reminds her of the school uniforms the boys wore back in her village in Mexico, the ones lucky enough to attend school.
The pool man murmurs something in Spanish as he holds up a beetle’s exoskeleton gleaming in his hands like a precious broche recovered from a shipwreck coffer deep beneath the sea.
She bends to lift the dustpan.
Their mouths move in an alien way, muted beyond the pane, as Piedad tells Paco it’s a good thing he removed the beetle because it would have frightened the little girl.
He smiles and nods, wipes the beads of early morning sweat off his brow.
The Windex is next. Paco vanishes to the repetitive puffing of the spray as Piedad pumps its effervescent mist onto the sleek sheets of glass.
At 7 a.m. Piedad lets herself in through the kitchen door, her fingers skipping a smooth hopscotch over the alarm keypad with the practiced precision of a marionette’s appendages manipulated by unseen strings.
By the time the Highsmiths straggle into the kitchen bleary eyed, she has rendered it catalog quality. The white Silestone counters gleam in the morning light that filters down in defined beams from the skylights overhead. A pitcher of orange juice graces the round table by the window overlooking the pool. Coffee percolates, it’s robust aroma wafting through the house, and freshly chopped and chilled fruit awaits at the center of the table, heaped with chunks of succulent mango and ruby strawberries.
“Buenos dias, Pea-dod,” moans Gwyneth in her gringo accent as she shuffles across the smooth stained concrete floor in her grey sweats and white socks, her lean lower back and midriff exposed. “I am so sorry about the mess we left here last night. It was late when our guests left.
“Oh, no prrroblem, Señora,” Piedad smiles, waving her arms across the clean sink and spotless counters. Even the stainless steel six-burner oven sparkles like the day years ago that the deliverymen first freed it from its plastic wrappings and shoved it into place grunting obscenities in Spanish as Piedad rolled her eyes and made the sign of the cross. The white noise humming from the dishwasher the only evidence that work has been or is being done. Gwyneth has long harbored a theory that her maid possesses magical powers and can clean and arrange entire rooms with the simple twitch of her nose like Samantha in the old TV show Bewitched.
“You make it look so easy.” She recites ruefully for the thousandth time. “It’s like you’re not even here and suddenly everything looks perfect again.”
When Mr. Highsmith appears in a pressed suit and starched pinstriped shirt, Piedad serves them breakfast, a bowl of parfait of non-fat plain Greek yogurt, berries, and organic gluten free Granola. Later when the girls materialize, she will make them pancakes or soyrizo breakfast tacos. Somehow the laundry will be washed and folded and stored, the floors meticulously swept, vacuumed, mopped. The beds made. The toilets and showers cleaned. There is a system. Only Piedad knows it or can follow it. Gwyneth gave up long ago, retreating after breakfast to her studio where she pores over her computer and designs things Piedad does not fully comprehend. All she knows is La Señora is very talented. La Señora is very smart. La Señora is important and is very generous and is infinitely kind.
The kids flow in and out. The smart one. The cute one. La grande. La chica. Smartphones and tablets illuminating their smooth white skin, lending it a ghostly glow. Earbuds pumping individualized Spotify streams into their respective ears. Immersed in their custom-made worlds. And Piedad—her coffee bean face blurred in the background like a paper maché likeness swinging in a forgotten childhood’s summer breeze as their eyes squint and seize onto their screens—incessantly, relentlessly serves and wipes and brushes, dusts and sprays and irons, arranges and cleans and vanishes.
Piedad can hear Zoe crying behind the closed door to her bedroom. She weighs her options staring at the knob. Comfort her like when she was a little girl? Turn on the vacuum in the hallway, knock and walk in without glancing up from the white carpet, pretending to not notice her streaked mascara as she sits on her bed amidst piles of books, papers, wires and electronic devices. Laptop. iPhone. Scientific calculator. Like the one she bought at CVS for her son Daniel. She’s good at pretending to not notice. You have to be in this line of work. Most of all, you have to be good at knowing when the bosses want you to notice and when they want you to not notice whatever they are feeling and doing and thinking. A misstep makes you a metiche, a meddler, a nuisance not long for your job. The right move at the right time makes you a bendición, a blessing, an indispensable member of the extended family. She decides to leave the girl’s room for later and treks down the hall, the power cord trailing behind her like the long tail of a rare feline species.
Ferrying dirty plates and glasses from the rooms into the kitchen, Piedad smiles at La Señora, who stands in her sweats at the windows holding her third mug of coffee and gazing wistfully out over the panorama of rooftops and palm crowns that falls away towards the ocean in the distance. Storm clouds are gathering and advancing. The first droplets kiss the glass like freshly fallen tears, reminding her of the girl in her self-imposed exile upstairs.
“Señora, everything is okay with Miss Zoe?” She asks tentatively, as if her own voice sounds more frail and vulnerable than the girl’s cries then she will be less likely to offend her superiors through her impertinence.
“Is she crying again?” La Señora squints into the greying light.
“Problems at school, Pea-dod. Problems with this test she needs to take again.” La Señora waves a hand semi-dismissively as if these are matters way above Pea-dod’s menial knowledge base.
“Yes, you know. An exam. For college.”
“Oh, like the SAT?”
“Yes!” La Señora seems surprised. “You know this test?”
“Sí,” without much thought she admits, “Daniel took that test.”
“Yes, yes,” La Señora half-heartedly waves her hand again as if shooing away the notion that the housekeeper’s son having taken the SAT is of any consequence. “Everybody does.”
Running the water at the sink and scrubbing the plates absentmindedly, Piedad adds, “1550.”
“What’s that?” La Señora arches an eyebrow and finally turns to look at her.
“1550 was his score. He kept chanting it over and over like it was the winning score in the World Cup final.”
La Señora opens her mouth but nothing comes out. Then she takes a gulp of her coffee. “1550?”
“Sí. He says that it is good?”
“Good?” La Señora sits down on one of the counter stools opposite the sink as if to steady herself. “Pea-dod, that is a phenomenal score.”
“Yes, he is what do you call it? Tutoring. Tutoring some of his classmates.”
“Really? Yes, they have classes taught by the regular teachers but he says the kids learn better from each other. So he tutors them after school.”
La Señora swings on the rotating seat and stares back outside. Piedad’s eyes follow her gaze.
The rain falls now in broad white planes fluctuating in the wind like vast fluttering sheets hanging from a celestial clothesline.
Piedad fears she has said too much. One should never make the bosses feel like one thinks one is better in any way. She wonders if she should offer Daniel as a tutor for Zoe but she knows she should let La Señora suggest it.
La Señora simply stares sullenly at the rain, defeated. Piedad dries the dishes, stacks them and ferries them to their spot behind the glass doors of the smooth Scandinavian cabinets.
“I remember when you used to bring Daniel over as a kid when your babysitter was on vacation or sick. He and Zoe got along quite well.”
Piedad’s face brightens as she recalls them swimming in the pool on a summer day. She looks out the rain-streaked windows and can envision the sun suddenly breaking through the clouds and the children, maybe 8 or 9 years old, splashing in the water with their floatie toys.
“I don’t think I’ve seen him in at least five years.”
“Hace mucho.” It was longer but who was counting, mused Piedad. Never correct La Señora.
“You should bring him over to tutor Zoe,” La Señora decides.
“Only if you so wish,” Piedad assents.
“Yes, yes, we can pay him for his time.”
“Oh, no that wouldn’t be necessary.”
Piedad cleans the sink now, even though it is made of stainless steel and would seem spotless to any onlooker.
La Señora always marvels at how clean it sparkles after Piedad goes home, like it did the day it was installed. Once she even found herself staring into it, forgetting herself until a beeping timer from the oven shook her from her trance.
La Señora sinks deep into her thoughts again, her eyes glazed over as she stares out the window at the flickering rings caused by the raindrops as they strike the surface of the swimming pool.
Piedad knows what she is thinking.
“I love the rain.” La Señora dutifully recites.
All Piedad can think of though is the long walk back to the bus stop in the dark downpour, how dirty the windows will be tomorrow morning, and whether her son will be upset about being dragged back to the Highsmith’s house after all these years.
When I was a boy I didn’t realize what my mom was or what she did for a living. She was simply my Mamá. I had no Papá so she was everything and everyone that mattered. In my eyes she was all-powerful and she could do no wrong.
When I went to work with her, I imagined she was like an astronaut or space explorer and she went on missions to entirely different planets populated by alien species. It wasn’t that hard, because when she took me with her from our tiny house in the Valley to her job in the Hills it was like a whole other world.
From the moment we stepped off the bus, we traded dirty littered streets lined by weeds and chainlink fences and mangy mutts and chewed-up cats searching for scraps for broad boulevards so spic and span you could probably eat off the pavement, manicured lawns, towering palm trees, exotic flowers, topiaries trimmed like dancing bears and elephants. We left behind run-down cookie-cutter wooden houses in favor of soaring mansions lurking behind high walls and carefully designed urban forests. Backyards bigger and better equipped than any park I’d ever played in. Swimming pools larger and cleaner than the public one in which I’d learned to swim. As we reached escape velocity, beat-up compacts from decades past with rusty metal roofs and plastic bags filling in for broken windows gave way to gleaming Bentleys and Porsches. Rolls Royces. Mom and pop taquerías sporting hand-scrawled signs propped up askew behind iron bars in dingy windows were replaced by chrome and gold-plated boutique and hotel signs brandishing glamorous brand names. When she felt like talking, my mom would observe and report on these alien surroundings, providing me a mission briefing. That red dress behind the window at Valentino was worth more than she made in a year. That house on the corner belonged to the star of a movie we’d just seen on TV. And this one was where her friend Cesar did the landscaping. And that one was where Tía Ermina took care of the children. And this hotel was where my Papá was working when he’d been picked up by La Migra in a raid and deported back to Mexico never to be seen again. On this other planet, where she had once been a sort of trespasser breaking laws to make a living she had eventually become an official worker. She was proud of that. She had carried her green card with pride and flashed it like a badge if ever asked for her documentation.
“Why don’t I have one of those?” I asked.
“Because you were born here. You don’t need this.”
It made sense but it also meant “here” included both the Valley and the Hills. These were perhaps not two different planets after all. They were all part of one place: America. Except where we lived we spoke Spanish and we were poor. We went to huge public schools with tattered textbooks and desks that were falling apart. And where we went to work they spoke English and were rich. Their children went to private schools or public schools that looked like more like the colleges I’d seen on posters in the counselor’s office.
All from here but different. One nation but two worlds. I could still easily pretend as I roamed the long clean halls of the houses my mother cleaned. Ran my fingers across the shiny sparkling appliances. Marveled at the vast TV screens and surround sound systems. Gawked at the infinity edge pools with the views of the Valley and the Pacific beyond. Played with the bosses’ kids like we were no different. Just a pair of American pals on a playdate. All from here. The same. Not different. Not destined for different lives and fates, educations and incomes.
At some point, maybe I was between 10 and 12, I couldn’t pretend any more. I did not find myself impressed or in awe or marveling at the surreal nature of the opulent surroundings in the Hills anymore. Suddenly, I felt uncomfortable. I felt dirty surrounded by so much clean. I felt less-than surrounded by so much more. My clothes hung ill fitting and baggy and murky and grey, not sharp, not crisp, not blindingly bright, not fitted and laundered and ironed to perfection, not discarded the moment they didn’t fit just right. The girl that had once been my buddy was now a wispy, long-limbed creature that seemed delicate and untouchable. Her mother, the boss that had once patted me on the head and smiled, now scrutinized my growing body wrapped in a grey hoodie with hesitation and suspicion. And my mom was no longer an explorer or an adventurer or an indispensable worker mining precious minerals to power our home planet. She was no longer an omnipotent hero. She was what they called her: Pea-dod. Suddenly I could see what had been invisible to me before. She was their servant.
She did what they told her to do, what to clean, what to brush, what to wipe, what to sweep, what to wash, what to throw away, what to iron, what to take home or give to charity or someone in need. Surely she knew someone in need. Wink, wink, as the hand-me-downs filtered my way.
The girl was surprised when she saw me wearing a certain very tightly fitting sweatshirt and she innocently blurted out, “Hey I used to have one just like that…”
The girl, she didn’t realize what her comment meant. She didn’t understand it was her shirt. She didn’t perceive how it made me feel. She didn’t even notice my mom standing right next to her and how humiliated she might be, how belittled. And that was how it was. We were there but we were not and for the first time it was plain for me to see. We were physically present but emotionally invisible. We were as alien to them as they were to us.
And then just like that I wasn’t eager to travel to this world of wealth and privilege any more. Not in my current state. I was resentful. I was embarrassed. I was even ashamed though I knew I shouldn’t be because honest work is honest work. So then I felt guilty for being ashamed. And it all just made me feel sick and it was easier to stay home alone. And escape into books. Where no one could make feel less, or feel judged. Where the world created on those pages could be brought to life and interpreted in ways that worked for my benefit.
That was when I stopped going with my mom. It was the point she became not my everything but my past still hovering in my presence until I could escape, not just the Valley, and not just the Hills but all of this. And go somewhere none of this mattered. Somewhere all that mattered was my brain, and my effort, and what I could do.
My mom and I brushed past each other at the beginnings and the endings of days – middle school blurring into high school – in the dark, like sleepwalkers caught in a repetitive dream. Without realizing it, we had also become invisible to each other. Just like she was an invisible component of the background scenery within the world she worked to clean and arrange to perfection every day.
Until this day at the start of senior year, when she comes in and hesitates with a look of panic in her eyes like she broke the boss’s favorite Ming vase or something. And she tells me what she needs me to do. She needs me to go back, to tutor that same girl. She promised.
I yell, “What? You did what?”
Suddenly I can see her again. Cowering before me in the shadowy hallway of our cramped dusty home that always smells like refried beans, this woman who once was my master and my hero. She appears small and frail and afraid as my shadow swings across her, propelled by the headlights of a car passing outside the window. I like her more when she’s invisible. Maybe that’s what she’s meant to be. And I can’t help but wonder: when I finally make it out of this place will I ever see her again? Or will I only remember the indelible lines and colors of the house in the Hills where she took me to work and fed my dreams solely for my past to disappear beneath the pool’s surface with nothing but a kiss goodbye and a splash.
The son and grandson of Mexican immigrants, Rudy Ruiz earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Harvard University. His collection of short stories, Seven for the Revolution (Milagros Press, 2014), won four International Latino Book Awards, including Best Popular Fiction and Best First Book-Fiction. He is currently working on a novel inspired by Latino immigrant experiences. The short story, “No Splash,” is an excerpt from that novel and was inspired by the art of Ramiro Gomez, whose work celebrates the contributions of Latino immigrants to American life. Rudy Ruiz lives in San Antonio, Texas with his wife and children.
Artwork: Ramiro Gomez, No Splash (After David Hockney’s “A Bigger Splash,” 1967), 2013. Acrylic on canvas, 96 x 96in. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Museum purchase, International and Contemporary Collectors Fund, 2014.8. Photographer: Pablo Mason. Copyright © Ramiro Gomez.