English as a Third Language

I ride the bus three-quarters empty with housekeepers and maids and a few teenagers no longer in school, and by the middle of the route almost all will drop off except the teenagers. When the bus turns back and heads toward the city, many will ride, the bus will fill.

I travel next to a housekeeper who speaks as much English as I do Spanish, so we pantomime what we do for work. She has a calendar in her hands, a bright blue calendar with anchors and starfish and lanterns and lobster traps and flags and lifesaver rings with a single word written on it—HOPE. She tells me that’s what it’s like to fish, mimicking dropping a line from a pole into water. She spreads her hands about six inches apart, then smiles, and spreads her hands as wide as they go. “Hope,” she says.

I nod my head and place my hands together as if in prayer, then spread them six inches apart. “Hope,” I say.

She points to her cleaning supplies and backpack and questions by a puzzled face if I have such. I nod my head and try to show none is needed, but she does not comprehend my gestures. A teenage boy sitting ahead of me turns at her request and translates for me, at first annoyed he would be asked, but then seemingly happy to be in the middle.

She asks if I clean houses, and I tell her I am placing stones.

She asks if I am the gardener, but I tell her I am only placing stones.

She asks if I am a landscaper, but I tell her I am only placing stones.

I am a placer of stones. There, I have my profession. It sounds a part of masonry, of craft, as if it should be unionized.

I ask her if she cleans one house or many. She cleans three twice a week.

I ask her if she makes good money. She says cash, only cash.

I ask her if she likes the work. She does, she likes to make things organized and so clean they shine.

I ask her if she likes the people she works for. She says she likes the ones that are away when she works, but not the ones who stay at home. We laugh. The teenage boy gives a smirk like we are lame.

She asks if I work all the time. I say I try to, but not too often.

She gestures if it has been long since I had a job. Yes, I say, a long time.

Boom! Her hand hits the seat hard. Bottom, she says. I say yes.

But now you ride with us, she says, as if the camaraderie means I have risen from the bottom. Now you see how wide the bottom is, she gestures, again spreading her hands far apart. Her children, she pantomimes, will rise to a smaller spread, and her hands form a pyramid going up and up. The boy laughs when he tells me she means that one day her grandchildren will be at the top.

You? She asks. I look at the boy and he looks straight into me and laughs. I say it is a good thing the bottom is wide, spreading my hands as far apart as they go. With this the boy laughs and returns to his cell phone.

When she rises to leave at her stop near a row of modest homes in a cul de sac, she says hope several times, and points to the calendar, and points to the lobster trap and says hope, and says adios. I gesture the fishing pole and the line and spread my hands as far apart as they go, and she says sí, sí.

Now it is only the teenagers and I for the next ten minutes. The boy turns to me again and asks if I know about the rodeo, and how it is the one thing from the old school he likes, the one thing from Mexico, the quarter horse racing, the bull riding, the clowns in the ring risking their bodies for a laugh, and every guy with a cowboy hat and sharp white or blue shirt tucked into their jeans and their boots all pointed and glossy. He likes how the older men dress up in hat and shirt and boots and put on their finest for rodeos and mass on Saturday night or Sunday morning or sometimes just to go shopping and eat at a tacqueria on a holiday. Even the gringos, he says, dress up for the rodeo.

The boy is so quick at translation, going back and forth between languages, lives in one unified field of understanding combining two languages, two people. If I had a calendar, I would show him the page with two separate lands and girders and footings and cables and trestles and a bridge which connects them, and thank him.

Jeff Burt lives in Santa Cruz County, California, and works in manufacturing. He has work in or forthcoming in Rhino, Sixfold, Dandelion Farm Review, and Thrice Fiction. He won the 2011 SuRaa short fiction award.