My House Painter

My house painter, a dark-haired man from Guatemala with a soft, easy smile, had another story for me. The two of us sat at the counter in the kitchen having lunch, leftovers from the night before, a turkey burger for him and salad for me.

“Michelle, you know my son back in Guatemala, who lives with his mother?”

Yes, I did. When we first met, Jorge showed me a picture of a very handsome, slender young man in a bright red uniform with shiny buttons, looking either Guatemalan ROTC or marching band. Then he was seventeen, now he is a nineteen-year-old high school senior who lives with his mother. Jorge has not been back to Guatemala in sixteen years.

He goes on to tell me the story. His son’s mother owns a business selling propane. One day a man came into the shop, slammed a cellphone on the counter, saying, when this phone rings, you will answer it. We will call every week and tell you how much you have to pay. If you don’t pay, we kill your son. She did not want to pay. Weeks later, her son was about to leave for a delivery and another employee offered to go in his place and was killed.

I met Jorge two years ago. We bought a house that needed painting and repairs before we could move in, so we hired a contractor with a large crew. On our move-in day, we all had lunch: my ninety-three-year-old father-in-law, husband, twenty-two-year-old son, an electrician, two painters, a carpenter and his helper. Plus, the movers. Knowing I would beat the movers to the house, I stopped and plundered the grocery store’s prepared sandwiches and cut-up fruit section. I put the leaf into the kitchen table and dragged as many extra chairs into the kitchen as I could find. It took some effort to get everyone to stop and sit but after the movers, who had another job to get to, readily sat down, everyone else picked a seat. After the eating started, the stories started.

The carpenter, Dimas from El Salvador, the movers from Cuba and the painter Jorge from Guatemala, all laughed about not understanding Mexicans when they arrived in Chicago because of their heavy accents. Tina, Dimas’ assistant, who showed me how to make red pozole one afternoon, and Louis, the electrician, were both from Mexico, also laughed. My father-in-law, who probably heard almost nothing, smiled and asked Tina to pass the sliced watermelon. The movers were a middle-aged man and his father-in-law, a slight man in his mid-sixties, once a soap opera star in Cuba. We heard some stories about his fame.

Louis told a story. He and his wife live in a northern suburb. They signed up for a community garden plot and in mid-summer, a neighboring gardener confronted him and said he was doing everything wrong. He answered, but it’s my first vegetable garden. The other gardener said, you’re a Mexican, you should know how to do this. Everyone laughed again. This was before Trump was elected. You could laugh at ignorance then.

Two years later, anti-immigrant sentiment turned into action and policy. After our lunch, Jorge went to Home Depot for supplies. He seemed to be gone a long time. I imagined ICE officers at Home Depot stores arresting Hispanic looking people with accents. I kept looking out of the kitchen window at the driveway, watching for his white Dodge van, when finally, Jorge pulled in. I held the door for him as he carried in a ladder and paint, relieved.

In addition to his son in Guatemala, Jorge has a wife, two young children and a nineteen-year-old stepdaughter who he says listens to music too loud while driving. Jorge tells me it means she is not paying enough attention. I wondered if he means she needs to take care not to get pulled over, considering she is old enough to be deported, alone, to a strange place filled with strangers. Or if she is a legal resident, she may be taken somewhere until she can prove it.

During that first winter in our new house, I often sat at the window in the bedroom and watched unfamiliar gray and black birds, hopping forward and back under the feeders. I identified the juncos using the internet, which informed me that juncos migrate south but not too far south, being cold climate lovers. Every day I watched a the territorial juncos chase off other juncos, protecting the seed on the snowy ground under the feeder. Their seed. Find your own seed.

Michelle Geoga is a writer and visual artist from Illinois with an MFA in Writing from The School of the Art Institute (2017). She writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction, began a second novel during a residency at Yaddo in July, 2018 and is currently seeking representation for her first novel. Michelle has work in Ekphrastic Review, New American Paintings, Five on the Fifth and forthcoming in Cleaver. Michelle has lived in ten different Chicago area suburbs, two of them twice, which could explain a lot.