Hot Water

Julia Alvarez

The electrician Paredes was fixing my hot water switch while I was washing dishes at the sink, and we were talking-politics, the price of things. Actually, I was washing dishes in the kitchen, and Paredes's asistente, a quiet little guy with nervous eyes, was fixing the switch in the bathroom. Paredes was reclining on a chair at the kitchen table, watching me rinse bowls and sizing up the economical situation of the country. He had a forceful style--a big black guy like him can't help but punctuate a room with his presence--and on top of that or really at his very feet, he had on some expensive American jogging shoes, the kind I still feel too guilty to buy on account of I can't help feeling I'm wearing someone's monthly salary on my feet, someone from this part of the world I come from. I know Paredes hadn't bought them himself; some tourist he had befriended left them for him before going back to the States. You see a lot of that around here. A maid in a raggedy skirt with patched-up shoes and a Harvard T-shirt. A Liz Claiborne shoulder-padded jacket over a faded, homemade dress. Once, way up in the interior, in a tiny village near a mountain resort hotel, I was served a lukewarm refresco by a wrinkled old woman wearing a gold chain around her neck with the standard crucifix and a tiny Playboy bunny. I asked her what it was, and she shrugged, una tonteria Americana, a little American vanity.

"Things are so bad--" Paredes pulls at his measuring tape and then presses a button that sucks the tape back inside-"so bad that for the first time in this country, people are buying plantains by the halves. Half a plantain!"

I shake my head, feeling suddenly as if my refrigerator door is transparent, and Paredes will be able to see through it the half dozen platanos I bought at the market this morning. "What do the people do?" I ask him.

"They buy half a plantain. I don't have any problem," he says, a proud man with Nikes on his feet and a black wristwatch on his arm . "My father has a conuco, platanos, yucca, batata. I get all my viveres there. Don't have to pay a cent."

"Lucky," I say to him, hearing the asistente in the other room, clipping off wires it sounds like. No murmurs of assent from him. He must not be one of the lucky ones. He's much skinnier, I'd say much older than Paredes, but maybe they're the same age, just the asistente looks more worn out. People here surprise you that way, most being about ten years younger than they look. Nutrition, I suppose. Paredes is actually the odd-ball: he's American size, big tall bulky football player guy. Looks like Baby Huey, but he's really twenty-five. Or so he says, unless maybe, he's added some extra years to impress me. You know, a single woman from the States not exactly hot stuff--in that lukewarm holding group of early middle age, There's a whole subculture in these resort towns of men who cater to the single, older woman tourist, the "Hanky Panky boys," they're called. You see them on the beach, bronzed lovely bodies with short afros bleached blonde.

The asistente is clipping away in the other room like a rabbit nibbling at carrots while Paredes and I analyze the country's predicament. No food, no money. "What's the problem?" I ask. Of course, I have my own ideas about what the problem is. Take one look around this resort complex, and you can even point. Multi-nationals milking the underdeveloped countries. I'm biting my tongue, though, so as not to start in on my rant because I want to find out what Paredes thinks.

"The problem? The problem is too many people in government filling their pockets with what should go to the poor, that's the problem." Paredes props one of his Nikes up on the table for leverage to push his chair back up against the wall.

I nod vigorously, let my hands hang under the faucet and feel the water warming.

"You go to the National Palace and the crowds of beggars at the gate are a national shame." He leans his chair back so far, I'm a little worried about him toppling over. "Permit me a glass of water, if you would," he asks, his throat getting parched with all our talking. I hand him a glass; he takes a long noisy draft, and goes on. "The gates open, Presidential motorcade! Looks like a Mercedes Benz factoria. Something's muy, muy wrong."

"Yes sir," I tell him. "Rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Well, you see it all around here, don't you? Tourists come, and they probably spend in a day what you earn in a month."

Paredes's face goes funny, His vanity just won't allow for the remark. "I'm not one of those," he says, turning the glass round and round so he's making chain links on the wooden table. "--To tell you the truth, I wish we more like the Americans."

"Really, Paredes?" It always surprises me how much in awe of the Americans everyone is here. Even in the smallest village, last year's picture calendar of a white, gold-haired woman standing next to her latest appliance hangs next to the row of miracle-working Santos. Santa Americana, intercede for us. We want jeans. We want walkmans. We want washing machines. We want hot water. "It's complicated," I conclude, since I don't want to argue Paredes' ideas down, but I really don't agree. "The whole world needs a little re-shuffling."

The asistente has been by twice with pieces of wire, a screw he needs. He's now back in the bathroom, putting the cover back on the switch. I call: does he want a glass of water? No answer. He must not think I'm speaking to him. So, I go out to the bathroom through the bedroom, and I ask him again. He gives a little jump as if I startled him, and I apologize and this time offer him a beer. Maybe, on account of my conversation with Paredes, I'm being super-conscious about how hard these guys work.

This guy, though, is not the social type like Paredes. He won't look me in the face, out of respect. "No, no, thank you, Senorita. I can't drink on the job." Ah, come on, I tease him. Saturday afternoon, and he won't have a Presidente? Water, will he have water? A policeman's refresco, I joke him, the euphemism for a cold glass of water when that's all you've got to offer. But no, no, not to bother myself, he's not thirsty in the least.

As I'm going out the bathroom, I see he's pulled the big bedroom chair over and laid his tools on top so they're handy from where he's standing. Only thing is, my purse is hanging by the strap on the chair back. The mouth is yawning wide, and I don't have to peek far to see the wallet's real handy.

I look up from the chair, and the man has stopped working a moment and is looking straight at me. I feel as if I'm the one caught red-handed, suspecting the worse of him. "You sure you don't want something now?" I try to disguise the suspicion in my eyes with concern in my voice.

He shakes his head, slowly, then goes back to his work. I shuffle back into the kitchen. Paredes is scanning the table and counter. Casing the joint, I think, suddenly suspicious of both workmen.

"Will I have hot water soon?" I ask him, wanting to conclude the visit. I turn the hot water on, but it's still lukewarm.

Paredes eyes the stream coming down, thrusts a couple of thick fingers under it. "Soon," he says. "Let it run." He heads back to the bathroom, and I let the two men have their moment before following. The job is done, they are picking up little pieces of wires from the floor and putting them in the trash bin. Paredes flips the lightswitch and the little bulb beams an angry red.

"You're all set," he says as his workman picks up the tools from the chair. I reach over for my purse, not really to pay them since these repairs are covered by my residency here, but to give them something for their trouble, late Saturday afternoon, after all, and they didn't even have a beer. Surprisingly, the men refuse. "Our pleasure, Senorita. We want to see you comfortable during your stay here." Do they teach them that line over at personnel, I wonder? Never known anyone in the third world to refuse a tip. Strange.

But then, standing at the door, letting them out, it hits me. If they stole money from my wallet, then they might not want me discovering the theft while they're still on the premises. I know, "on the premises" sounds like I've convicted them already, and I want them so much to be innocent of taking advantage of me.

I let them out, close the door after them. I savor a long moment of their footsteps withdrawing, unhurried, down the hall. I do not want the moment of opening my wallet and counting my money, either for what it says about them, if the money is missing, or about me if it isn't. I stand waiting for some resolve inside myself, and then I hear it, running full thrust in the kitchen. Hot water, hot hot water--so that I can barely turn off the jet without burning my hands.

 

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