E Hyderabaadusby Megan Chaudhuri (Fall 2016)
It's barely dawn and already I've sweated through my cotton dress, but Conchi doesn't say anything as she helps me sit at my workbench. Hazy gray light slants through my shop's front window, reflecting off the diagnostic laptop and the gutted phone I was repairing yesterday. The light diffracts like a prism through vials of antiseptic ethanol and freeze-dried virus kept nearby–just in case. I never forget los Días de Silencio.
Behind me, I hear Conchi fiddling with the air conditioner. Blessed, costly coolness flows over my bare legs.
“Not today,” I say, lifting up my wig to mop my neck. At least my makeup's not running. “It's cloudy. Power's going to cost too much.”
“Elena.” Conchi’s Mayan accent is stronger than usual. “It will be thirty-eight degrees today. Your heart–”
“–will be fine,” I interrupt, climbing down from the stool,“until I see what your fiancé charges me for draining his reserve batteries dry.” Holding onto the workbench, I slap the power button. The air conditioner whines down.
Conchi says nothing, her back still to me. In the silence between us, Ticulito flows in through the open door: the hum of the weekly Ticul bus charging at the depot; the gobble of turkeys from nearby Mayan neighborhoods; the flat bass of a phone's speakers–probably a 2052 Pharaoh–blasting BBC Spanish from the laundry next door.
“You can afford it,” Conchi whispers.
I halt on my way back to the stool.
“You can afford it.” Conchi whirls around, eyes wide. “And you can afford to pay me more after seven goddamn years–”
The words cut off as her hand flies to her mouth.
I sit stiffly and fiddle with the diagnostic probe, conscious of Conchi watching me with wide eyes. Sweat trickles down my back, as itching and uncomfortable as my thoughts: by Californian standards, I'm working poor. By Yucatan standards, I should be napping on a Cozumel beach, instead of working as a smartphone mecánica in the not-quite-slum of provincial Ticulito.
By either standard, I'm getting a helluva good deal paying local wages for Conchi to bathe, care for, and translate for me–on top of the repair work she does for my shop.
“Concepción.” My weak mouth muscles garble her full name. “You know I must save money for when I–”
“Pa'atiki'?” interrupts a young man's voice in Mayan.
He's barely in his teens, dressed in jeans and a faded fútbol jersey, helping an elderly woman into my shop. They're probably waiting for the bus to charge; I don't recognize either of them.
But I recognize the familiar look of someone choosing which of us to address: tall young Conchi, brown-skinned and bright-eyed, her face radiating intelligence, competence, and good genetic health.
Or me. One and a half meters, thickset, my fingers stubby and my face a flat moon that neither plastic surgery, makeup, nor a wig can quite hide. I'm a genetic mosaic–after the treatment in utero, only half my cells express the extra twenty-first chromosome–but I still look, move, and sound like someone with Síndrome de Down.
And, despite most of my brain's neurons, astrocytes, and microglia being genetically sound, I still have the same clinical fate.
The teen turns to the flustered Conchi. “Ma'lob ja'atskab...”
With some prompting, the elderly woman produces a smartphone. But she won't let her grandson hand it to Conchi; her expression is confused.
Demented. I wipe non-existent dirt off the virus vials, grasping for how to explain to Conchi that I can't pay her more without losing her entirely.
The conversation stops when Conchi coaxes the phone from the woman. Plastic crinkles as she puts it into a Ziploc bag. There's the click-rasp of a phone chassis being opened, then Conchi inhales sharply.
I look up. “What is it?”
The teen looks surprised that I talk.
“He says”–Conchi hands me the bagged phone–” his grandmother bought it months ago from the new reseller, but it doesn't work now even though they bought a replacement battery from a bodega. The reseller won't take it back after so long.”
The new reseller. A Honduran refugee; his shop's a kilometer down the street. Nothing to Conchi, but practically back in Sacramento to me.
I turn over the phone. The chassis is new, but the insides are old Bionanite, the chips and wiring tangled into an organic-like mass from years of enzymatic self-repair.
In the morning light, the phone’s guts look oddly shadowed. I shift the bag and a faint sulfurous scent puffs out in the split-second before I block the hole. The scent's as horribly familiar as the black specks of bacterial colonies now visible on the carbon nanotube scaffolding for the repair enzymes.
My eyes almost meet Conchi's.
The most brilliant organism designed for degrading electronic waste. Until it bred with wildtype E. coli strains.
E. hyderabaadus. I remember the heavy quiet of the streets, the silence of Sacramento's skies, the sensation of a civilization holding its breath in los Días de Silencio after the bacteria reached America's phones–our ultralightweight, self-repairing phones.
“E. hyderabaadus,” Conchi whispers. I nod, mind racing: for an infection this bad, I should dry-autoclave the phone and coat its guts with fresh enzyme-functionalized nanotubes. But older phones aren’t built for autoclaving–and the new, heat-tolerant ones are clearly too expensive for this woman.
I look at my vials of bacteriophage virus. I’ll have to kill E. hyderabaadus the biological way before I can re-coat it with fresh enzyme.
But I only have so many vials–and too many clients with old, vulnerable phones, out here in isolated Ticulito.
“Oh, shit,” I say in English.
The reseller's shop is wedged between a private home and a stucco building, hidden behind a concrete wall with one of Ticulito's ubiquitous, hand-lettered signs. I lean against the concrete to catch my breath, feeling its heat radiate through my hand. My heart's doing one-fifty beats a minute but I resist the urge to call Conchi. Silence had coagulated between us, hard as a scab, after the teen and grandmother left with promises to recover the phone during Friday’s market.
I pay Conchi the local wages for both an apprentice mecánica and health aide, I think, breathing hard. She'll have a bright, long future when I'm gone.
When my heart slows some, I stand up but my dress catches on the splintered edge of the sign. When I turn towards it the words “Pirvate Nursing Home: Dementia patients welcome!” leap at me. My fingers fumble and the cotton rips on the splinters.
“Shit.” I shove the hole under my belt and check my pockets to make sure the sample wipes didn't fall out. Averting my face from the sign and the nursing home, I march into the reseller's.
It’s so cold–so unexpected–that I gasp. Halogen bulbs radiate a silver-blue light that reflects off sterilizable phones– better than what most of Ticulito can afford–displayed on shelves. A nicely-dressed couple browse, their conversation melding with the whine of air conditioning and thump of Honduran techno.
My mouth falls open as a handsome man comes around the counter. My hands, grasping the sample wipes hidden in my pockets, go slack.
“Good morning, ma'am,” he says in a deep voice with a pleasant accent. “I'm Domingo; welcome to my shop.”
“Uh.” Where is the hut crammed with ancient electronics? Where is the scrawny Honduran war refugee, the one who knows nothing about the risk of E. hyderabaadus bacteria contaminating old devices full of carbon nanotubes?
I realize he's looking at me, a little puzzled. I shut my mouth and mentally practice my speech exercises.
“Thank you, Domingo,” I say. “Good morning to you, too.” Standing up straight, I look about with what I hope is an expression of keen intelligence. It's so much worse when attractive men conclude that I'm retarded.
To my relief, he smiles. “Looking for anything specific?”
I shake my head. “Are you, um, the only Honduran reseller in this neighborhood?” My accent's really strong because I'm paying too much attention to how I speak; but I would prefer he thinks me a clueless rich gringo than anything else.
He nods. “So far as I know, ma'am. Where are you from?”
“Um,” I say, approaching the shelves, feeling hyper-conscious of my loose-jointed walk. Guess he's it.
“California, originally,” I say, brushing my forefinger over the square edges of a business model Caballo, my middle finger along the solid curves of an iPhone, my pinkie across the cold bulk of a customizable Pharaoh. “But I've lived here for twelve years now.” Far, far away from my mother. You'd think a neuroscience professor who paid out of pocket for Down's genetic ablation–who paid for my Bachelor’s at UCSF–would know better than to treat her middle-aged daughter like an idiot child.
“Really,” he says, all politeness. The couple continue browsing, indifferent to just another foreigner.
When Domingo takes my shoulder I jerk with surprise. “Perhaps you'd be interested in Caballo's consumer release from last fall?”
His hand is warm as he leads me towards a shelf by the counter. Glass protects these high-end phones, and I look at his reflection instead of the display. He's well-built, muscular like a fútbol player. Even taller than Conchi.
If Conchi was here, he'd only be paying attention to her.
And who could blame him, I think as I catch my own reflection; at best, I hope to look like a profoundly unattractive woman with a heavy hand for makeup. Plus, the warm hand on my shoulder has a wedding band.
I pull my shoulder free. “Actually,” I say,“I'm here about your bargain phones.”
One black eyebrow arches. “Why? I'm certain, ma'am, that you can afford–”
“Well, actually,” I interrupt, his words uncomfortably echoing what Conchi blurted earlier. My eyes settle on a framed printout behind him, showing an attractive woman with two children who resemble Domingo, posed in front of the iconic Cathedral of Comayagua.
Comayagua was fire-bombed last spring.
“I'm a mecánica, and I had two Mayan clients, um, bring in an old, non-autoclavable phone that was infected with E. hyderabaadus. They said they'd bought it from you several months ago.”
The couple are staring at us now. Sweat breaks out beneath my wig. His expression grows stony.
“These are my wares,” he says, gesturing at the phones glinting under the halogen lights. “And these are my customers.” His hand sweeps towards the well-dressed couple with pale, almost gringo skin. “Perhaps there was a... misunderstanding.”
I shift uncomfortably, understanding his implication. Most of the Honduran refugees fled north after the civil war started, but those who came to the Yucatan have clashed with locals competing for work. Locals like Mayan nativos.
“Um,” I say, conscious of how the couple stare at me, how my wig needs to be adjusted and my dress sewn where I tore it and that I’m starting to slouch and drop my chin and speak weird. “Perhaps. But–just remembered the outbreak there is to you, okay?” I finish, stumbling over my Spanish conjugations for the first time in years.
I bite my lip, hard. Language breakdown is one of the symptoms. Has it started?
He nods and moves past me. Humid air laps against my legs; he is holding the door open.
“Thank you,” I mutter, walking past him with my loose-hipped, hitching stride. The warmth swallows me and I keep my face averted from his, my eyes averted from the sign waiting for me: “Private Nursing Home: Dementia patients welcome!”
Money. I wrap the thought around me like my mother's overprotective hug. Thank God for my money; when it comes for me (is it coming already?), I'll be able to afford a high-end nursing home in Ticul, instead of one of these rundown places dotting Ticulito.
I'm halfway back before I remember. Pulling the sample wipes out of my pocket, I rub a different one over each of my short fingers and then my shoulder, where Domingo touched me. Then, my fists tight, I shuffle back to my store.
The next morning I'm at my workbench, processing the sample wipes from Domingo’s store and the other bodegas selling old phones, when my second-least-favorite person walks in like he owns the place.
“Felipe!” Conchi says. Setting down the screwdriver, she embraces the tall young Mayan man in too-fashionable clothes.
I wrinkle my nose as cologne and the faint ozone of warm solar panels waft towards me, followed by Felipe and Conchi.
“Hello, Felipe,” I say, my words stiffer than usual. Keeping my eyes on my work, I stopper the small glass vials full of sample wipes and bright pink phenol-chloroform.
“Ba'ax ka wa'alik, Miss Elena,” he says.
“'Hello,”' Conchi translates.
“I gleaned that, thank you,” I snap. Felipe’s grin fades; he knows Spanish. “Conchi?”
She drops Felipe's arm. The glass vials clink as she snaps them into a plastic rack. When she shakes it, the phenol-chloroform turns opaque and bubbly, leaching out the DNA and junk proteins from the wipes.
Felipe watches her. I watch him, impatient for him to stop flirting and leave.
In lightly-accented Spanish, he says, “What are you doing, Conchi?”
“She's isolating DNA from the samples we took,” I say quickly,“so we can test for traces of E. hyderabaadus.” Holding the workbench for balance, I lean across and slap the smeared touch screen of the boxy little nanoarray reader I got secondhand from a retired professor. The screen lights up. “There's been an outbreak, and we need to locate the source.”
Felipe looks at me, then fires questions in Mayan at Conchi while she loads the vials into our small centrifuge.
My teeth are gritting. I focus on parameterizing the screening protocol on the nanoarray. Normally, I tolerate Felipe well enough; he makes Conchi happy, even though I always have to negotiate down my electricity bill with him. But right now he’s making me extra jumpy and irritable.
No–I've been jumpy and irritable since Domingo's store yesterday. Since I walked past the dementia home.
“Is that why my new phone isn't working?” Felipe suddenly says in Spanish. He sounds worried–and should be, because out here in Ticulito, some older solar panels still have nanotubes.
Conchi and I both turn towards Felipe, neither of us looking at each other.
“My new phone.” Felipe takes out last fall's Caballo Pro, all chrome and gold. “I bought it from that new Honduran place yesterday and it stopped working this morning.”
“But the bacteria take months to grow–” Conchi snatches it from him.
“He could’ve put a new chassis over old electronics,” I say.
Conchi nods. Picking up a plastic bag, she wraps it around the phone. I hear the click-rasp of the phone coming apart.
And then Conchi's snort.
“What is it?” I say.
She brings it over, tossing aside the bag. “The solder's loose on a battery connection.” She solicitously tilts it so I can see the tiny battery, so new there’s no signs of self-repair. I just as solicitously look; we're still doing this awkward dance around the elephant in the room, the elephant Conchi pointed at yesterday.
“No bacteria?” Felipe says.
“Of course there are bacteria.” I set the phone down. “Just not the ones we're concerned about.”
Conchi unloads the samples. Centrifugation has squished each wipe to the tube's bottom, separated the phenol-chloroform by density into layers: pink on bottom, thick with proteins, and translucent phenol above, full of DNA.
“You fix the phone,” I say, trading the phone for the samples.
As I pipet the DNA into the nanoarray, Felipe starts drumming his fingers and talking in rapid Mayan.
Conchi replies in Spanish. The solder gun clicks on and I smell hot metal as she cements the wire back in place. They go back and forth, Conchi slipping into Mayan, getting louder and louder, Felipe drumming his fingers more and more quickly–
Felipe jerks when I slap his hand.
“Stop that, goddammit,” I say, tasting the bile of long-simmered irritation.
“You,” he says. Surprised, I look up into his finger in my face. “Find out who's selling contaminated phones. They're putting my solar panels at risk.”
“You're not the only one at risk,” I snap. I don't like having a finger in my face; it's too much like pointing. Pointing at the weird girl. I had enough of that back on Sacramento playgrounds.
The solder gun clicks off.
Felipe takes the phone from her. “Dios bo'otik...” he says, continuing in a long, angry burst. I hear my name several times and, in Spanish, the words 'rich gringo.g
“Jesus Christ.” I deliberately look down at my samples. My hands shake a little as I finish loading them. Felipe finally shuts up and turns away, but I don't speak until I hear his dress shoes hit the pavement outside. “What was all that about, Conchi?”
She's quiet so long that I turn towards her, one hand holding the workbench, the other hovering above the touch screen. Her back is to me.
She turns, her symmetrical face–every feature proportional and healthy–expressionless. “He says, figure out who it is, and he'll cut their power off and drive them out.”
“Why’d he keep saying my name?”
Next door, someone changes the station; there's a burst of muffled Honduran techno.
“He thinks you...” she hesitates, shoulders hunched. “He thinks you are fine with someone selling infected phones, because it brings you more business.”
I turn sharply back to the nanoarray reader. “That's nonsense,” I say. Even though it’s bringing me business now, there’s no way I could keep on top of an outbreak–and no way my clientele could buy new phones.
“I know,” Conchi says. “But he thinks you're...mm, selfish?” She tries out several words in Spanish.
“Greedy,” I say.
She doesn't deny it. “He doesn't understand that you must save your money. For when...”
For once, I'm glad my features help mask my expression. “For when I develop Enfermedad de Alzheimer.”
She nods, looking uncomfortable.
My knuckles are bone-white from tension. Most people with Síndrome de Down develop dementia in middle age, because they have a triple-dose of the gene encoding amyloid precursor protein. Even though most of my brain cells don't have trisomy 21, I'm still at risk.
It only takes one cell–one misfolded protein–and then the decay spirals outward, following the curves of the hippocampus to the delicate cerebral folds, rotting away my dearly-bought memory and personality and intellect.
The muffled techno switches off. I hear Conchi turn back to the phone with the shorted-out jack.
Glaring at the nanoarray, I stab the Start icon.
It's dusk when the nanoarray enters its last cycle of analysis. Conchi's off tonight and I'm alone in the shop, buffing the repaired phone. My breath wheezes as I scour it, listening to the distant sounds of families talking over their meals, smelling the distant dinners of French fries and corn pozole soup through the open door.
I jump when the nanoarray beeps. Setting down the phone, I start to climb down from my stool.
“Excuse me, are you still open?”
A woman's voice startles me and I misstep. I barely catch against the workbench, tools rattling as they slide across its top. The stool clatters to the ground.
Stupid girl! Cheeks burning, I struggle upright to shout that we're closed, to shout in my stupid angry voice that comes when I can't focus on making my weak mouth and tongue cooperate.
But the shout dies when I face the woman. The women.
A middle-aged woman holds hands with a teenage girl. Her daughter, I think. But while the mother looks concerned, the daughter looks confused.
Not Down's, I realize. Something else.
“Are you all right?” says the mother. Her voice is gentle, and I realize she thinks I'm like her daughter.
I grip the workbench like a shield.
“Yes, thank you,” I say. “You simply startled me.”
Before the mother replies, her daughter tugs her hand. “Mamá,” she says in a thick voice,“my phone needs fixing.”
“I know, sweetie,” her mother says. Weary impatience shows, mixed with a concern I saw too often on my mother's face, as she turns back to me. “Are you, ah, the mecánica?”
I hesitate. A faint, sulfur-scented premonition tingles through me. “Yes.”
“Give the lady your phone, please, Teresa,” the mother says. With some persuasion, the girl hands me a refurbished, lightweight Caballo, its chassis body-warm from her hand. Her mother continues,“She saved up her money to buy this back in March.”
“Ah,” I say, conscious that Teresa is watching me. The scent of sulfur is stronger now and I pick up the bag Conchi tossed aside earlier. “Did she”–I catch myself–”did you buy this by yourself, Teresa?”
Goddamn. Even I'm using that special sing-song voice.
Teresa nods, looking less wary. “By myself.”
The plastic rustles as I unlock the chassis.
A black film of E. hyderabaadus coats the self-repaired tangle of nanotube guts in Teresa's phone.
The mother exclaims. Teresa simply looks at it.
And we just sprayed all the bacteriophage I had into the Mayan woman's phone, I think, stunned by the infection's size. I'll have to order more from Hyderabad.
I realize my teeth are clenched. Closing the phone, I look up. “Did you buy this from the shop of a Honduran named Domingo?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Did you try taking it back for an exchange?”
“Yes, of course. But, you see, he said Teresa may have mishandled the phone, causing a malfunction, and, well...”
They disappear soon after into a street gone dark and quiet, Teresa clutching the repair receipt. I close the door on the chirps and buzzes of night insects.
My loose-hipped walk carries me back to the nanoarray. I watch my fingers tap the screen, pulling up the analysis.
The samples from every other bodega are negative.
Tap, tap. I sag.
The samples from the displayed phones in Domingo's store are negative.
Tap. But the sample from my shoulder, where he touched me...that sample bounces around the machine's limit of detection.
I skim through the raw data. It could just be noise, ambient contamination of dead or sessile E. hyderabaadus.
Or it could be a nearby, active infestation.
My fingers drum on the nanoarray, keeping the staccato tempo of my thoughts.
The phone that the Mayan woman with early dementia bought was contaminated.
The sample wipes I took when I handled Domingo's merchandise were clean.
The phone that Felipe bought was clean.
The phone that Teresa bought ("By myself") was contaminated.
My fingers freeze, my thoughts jigsawing together as smoothly as a Caballo's chassis.
I take out my phone. But my thumb hesitates over Conchi's icon.
It's her night off, I think.
Is this really important enough for me to call her–for Felipe, who called me selfish and greedy, to know I called her?
Or for me to know that I am selfish and greedy, because I called her?
“Goddammit,” I say in my silent shop, alone with my angry, whirling thoughts. My thumb moves of its own accord.
Conchi’s voice is polite but terse.
“I'm sorry to interrupt you,” I say, staring at the data. “But I really need to confirm something. Tomorrow morning, could you please go to the Honduran reseller and buy three different phones?”
The phones that beautiful, healthy Conchi buys are clean, of course.
I reimburse her and save the phones for their parts. We spend the day working quietly–stiffly, to be honest–cleaning the Mayan woman’s phone of dead E. hyderabaadus bacteria killed by the bacteriophage. My mind is too full for too-polite talk.
When Conchi is helping me dress the next morning, I wave away my makeup and wig. I take deep breaths, looking at myself in the mirror, feeling my heart thrum with nervousness, with embarrassment, with shame.
With anger. I re-button my dress so it's off by one.
Stepping outside, I start towards the Honduran reseller, careful to not correct my stride.
Domingo is just opening the store. I inhale humid air, feeling my heartbeat accelerate. I’ve never let myself look like this in public–until now.
His eyes jitter across my broad face bare of makeup, my flat head bare of my wig, my not-quite-proportionate body.
I resist the urge to run through my speech exercises, and force my mouth and too-large tongue to relax into their natural state. Hopefully, my natural voice overpowers the traces of my gringo accent.
“Hi!” I say. “Teresa bought a phone here and I want one like hers.”
He stares longer than necessary, then says, “In here.”
I follow, hitching up my dress. The store is the same–the shelves of sterilizable phones, the counter for ringing up sales, the printouts of Domingo's handsome family–except the halogen lights are off. Instead, natural light slants in, casting my shadow long and distorted across the floor.
My shadow extends as I reach towards his shiny, carefully refurbished phones.
He winces. “Those are expensive.”
I pull back my hand and fish awkwardly in my pocket. “I have money,” I say. A single bill flutters free and I step on it as if I don't notice, shuffling towards him with money clutched in my fist.
He looks at the money, at the bill on the ground, then squats down behind the counter. He sets a basket on the countertop. Plastic and metal clatter inside.
“These are cheaper.”
Leaning over the basket, I turn my sudden hiss into a cough.
It's a jumble of old phones, sleek and narrow-bodied in a way only possible with self-repair abilities. The exteriors vary from shattered screens to worn buttons to practically new.
But there's no mistaking–to my nose–the faint scent of sulfur.
I stare. These phones once could’ve bought all of Domingo’s merchandise three times over. And now...
Must've gotten them really cheap, I think. From a dump–or a bribable recycler in Merida.
And now he's selling them to people who don't know any better.
People like who he thinks I am.
People like Teresa. Like an elderly Mayan woman with dementia.
Like I will be.
I breathe in sulfur-scented air. Focus.
I fish out phones at random, holding them close to my face as if I can't see well, smelling each. When I've picked out the three with the strongest scent, I set them on the counter next to my money.
“How much are these?” But I know–and I'm certain he knows–that they are worthless. Contaminated. Fit for nothing but the autoclave and recycler.
But he smiles–the first time since I came into his store this morning–and counts my money. “This is just enough for all three.”
I grin big and wide and awkward. “They're mine?”
He grasps the money and turns around to the safe. “Yes.”
“I can do what I want with them?”
The combination lock clicks. “Yes,” he says to the safe, magnanimity gone. “You bought them.”
You idiota, his tone says. I clench my teeth. No–focus.
Carefully, my short fingers moving with practiced ease, I open the first phone’s chassis. Black, sulfurous E. hyderabaadus coats its insides.
I leave the phone open and pick up the next one.
He turns around. His eyes skitter over the phones. “What are you doing?”
“I would consider it quite obvious,” I say coolly. “I am doing what I wish with my newly-purchased goods.”
The chassis clicks apart. It’s even worse: the bacteria have devoured all of the nanotubes and, without food, gone dormant. A small cloud of black, sessile bacteria puffs up as I set down the phone, then settles like fine cigarette ash.
I pick up the last phone and look at Domingo. His brows suddenly furrow.
“You,” he hisses. “You're that weird-looking mecánica.”
Behind me, I hear two people enter. Domingo's eyes flicker between me and the people as I take out a plastic bag and wrap it around the phones.
The people are talking about the displayed phones, not the weird-looking idiota talking with the shopkeeper.
“And you,” I say, clutching the bagged evidence,“are a greedy sonuvabitch selling infected phones to people who don't know any damn better.”
His hand snakes out and I yank the bag away but he snags my dress front in a fist.
“Even a Mexican idiota here has more than my family in Honduras,” Domingo snarls, his words hot on my face. “Nobody dies if their phone stops working. What do I owe them when my children will starve?”
My free hand freezes at half-mast before I strike his handsome face. His words have the well-worn feel of my own justifications for coming to Mexico, where I can be afford ten times better care than back in California. What do I owe Conchi–what do I owe anyone here–when they will live long, healthy lives, and I will die demented and alone before my sixtieth birthday?
I pull back but his fist tightens.
“Let go, dammit!” I shout in English.
The couple fall silent behind us.
I see Domingo's face and realize what's going to happen and then he lets go. My momentum sends me sprawling onto the floor and my teeth slam together–click–through my over-large tongue. Through the haze of tears, I glare at Domingo.
To my surprise, the couple helps me stand, the man passing me Kleenex for my bleeding tongue. I thank them but ignore their questions, ignore the looks they're shooting at the red-faced Domingo.
I lift the Kleenex away from my mouth, staring straight at him through glasses knocked askew. Behind him, the picture of his children and wife smiles at me. Do they know about this? I wonder.
And would they care–would I care–if I was starving?
“I'll give you twenty-four hours to get the hell out,” I snarl, my eyes on his family,“before I show the others what you brought to our town.”
Shrugging off the couple, I leave.
But I'm barely outside when I hear him racing towards the door.
I hesitate for one heartbeat. Then, I shuffle through the gate of the building next door–the sign still announcing “Private Nursing Home: Dementia patients welcome!”–and lean against the wall, my heart thrumming one-seventy, until I hear Domingo's footsteps clatter outside. In pursuit of me.
I wait until his footsteps fade down the street. Then, winded and sweaty and smelling of sulfur, I call Conchi.
Sweat beads on my lip as Conchi settles me at the workbench the next morning. I catch Conchi noticing but before she says anything, I shrug. With a lingering glance, she sits across the workbench from me, and takes up the phone with the fixed jack. The scrape of her knife at solder and the soft whisk of the painter's brush join with the distant sounds of the Friday market.
I open up the Mayan woman's phone and check it one more time. The fresh coat of enzyme-functionalized nanotubes has settled evenly over its guts.
I lean over the phone and inhale. It smells light and metallic and clean.
“Ba'ax ka wa'alik?”
The young man helps his grandmother inside. Immediately, the woman points to her phone in my hands.
I snap the chassis shut. “Please give this to them, Conchi,” I say, not quite meeting her eyes.
Conchi hands it to the woman. The soft sh sounds of Mayan in three voices fill my shop, paired with the sweet clink of pesos being counted. I start to smile, but my face freezes at the memory of Domingo's lips curling as he counts my money. Does he feel now any doubt–any guilt? Or do I feel it all for him?
I pick up Conchi's paintbrush and clean off the gritty dead bacteria.
Conchi says,“Ka manseché ma'lob kiin.”
They repeat it and then, the old woman clutching her phone as tightly as her grandson's arm, they leave our shop.
I coax the brush hairs into a fine point as Conchi approaches. She stacks the coins in front of me, ordered by denomination.
Which makes it easy to divide the total into thirds.
I hear Conchi's intake of breath as I push two-thirds towards her. “Elena–”
“Your raise,” I interrupt, fiddling with the brush. “I've owed you one for a while. I’m sorry.” I look up into her surprised face. “I can't pay it all now...but I'll pay.”
She is silent, and then her slender fingers take the money. I hear her calculating under her breath and then she places back a small pile–enough so that she only holds half.
“Thank you, Elena, but...” For the first time in many days we look straight in the other's eyes. “Felipe doesn't understand why you are so careful. But I do. And please never think that I'd...take advantage of you. Now or–later.”
Or later. Something knotted tight in me loosens a notch. I look down at the money, blinking quickly.
The stiff quiet between us relaxes some, but not all the way. There's still some tension there, buried deep, as innate and unfair as that extra chromosome nestled at the heart of so many of my cells.
Conchi sits down. The brush whisks soft as a sigh as she cleans the shaved solder from the phone. I pick up the E. hyderabaadus probe and start calibrating it, my short fingers moving easily, as Conchi and I sit wrapped in the growing warmth of a Yucatan morning.
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