Antonio Ruiz-Camacho


When I got to work that morning there was a bunch of police cars and fire trucks and vans from TV outside the McDonald’s, and my shift mates were there too, behind a yellow tape that read AUSTIN POLICE DEPARTMENT DO NOT TRESPASS, trying to get a peek of what was going on inside, including Conchita, she was on her toes because she was short like me, and she was trying to get a better view of the scene, and when I saw her I tapped on her shoulder and she turned and shrieked, “Susy girl!” and we hugged real tight, and she said, “Susy girl, you’re not gonna believe what’s happening inside,” and I said, “Conchita, what’s going on?” really worried because, you know, when I saw those police cars, those cops around, I thought, “This can’t be good, this might mean trouble for me,” I started thinking, “I probably should go home and start looking for another job,” but Conchita already knew how to read me, she already knew about my fears, so she looked into my eyes, grabbed me by the arm, and whispered, “Relax, Susy gir, it’s not what you’re thinking,” and I just smiled, still nervous though, because I’d get nervous every time cops were around, but also relieved because I trusted Conchita and I knew that if she said, “Relax,” I could, things would be okay, she’d earned my trust a few months before, the day there was a raid at my apartment complex and Conchita heard about it on the radio on her way to work, and when she saw me walk into the restaurant the next day she ran to me and hugged me tight and stroked my hair like she was my mother or something, and whispered in my ear, “I was so worried for you, Susy girl,” and I told her I stayed in my apartment when I heard the whole thing going on outside, so I got a pass, the cops couldn’t put their hands on me, but Conchita looked so relieved when I told her that that it got me thinking, “One of these days I’ll run out of luck and perhaps Conchita won’t see me come to work the next day,” I thought, and then I thought of my little ones, my Pedro and my Santiago and my Adrián, I wondered who’d call them back in Cuévano to let them know their mother had been arrested, perhaps Conchita would but I didn’t know how she could because she wouldn’t know what number to call, it was such a dread thinking about it that I just said to myself, “Don’t think about it anymore, Susana,” and the next time I saw Conchita I gave her the number of my mother’s house and asked her to call that number if something ever happened to me, but she said, “Don’t be silly, Susy girl, you’ve got more lives than a cat!” and hugged me tight, and it felt good, not only that we hugged but that I had someone to trust, so this time around outside the restaurant I whispered in her ear, “If it’s nothing bad, then what’s with all these cops and all these fire trucks and the whole thing?” and Conchita giggled hard, she got this funny face, I didn’t know if she was going to cry or laugh or what, you know that face, imagine if Virgin Mary showed up like, Bam! out of the blue in front of you, and you were like, Whoa! but also like, Wow! and like, Yikes!, all that at the same time, that was the face Conchita got, and then she said, “They say there’s a bear inside the place, Susy girl!” and she got real funny now, she stopped talking but her eyes kept shining and this reminded me of my Pedro and my Santiago and my Adrián, I remembered their faces when they were younger, before the family I worked for in Mexico City left and I wound up in Austin, when they were three and five and seven and I’d visit them on the free weekends the family gave me, and I’d bring them cotton candy or chocolate bars that I’d buy at the bus terminal in Mexico City, they’d be waiting for me by the road because they missed me, I hope, but also because they knew I always had something sweet for them, and so I’d step out of the bus with three cotton candies like a bouquet of hortensias in my hand, and there they’d be, all groomed and recently bathed by my mother, smelling fresh and clean like they were babies again, shining from head to toe, beaming like waterfalls, ready to kiss me and get their mouths sticky and full of sugar, but anyway, Conchita stood there, looking deep into my eyes with this funny and serious and silly and shiny face, explaining that a bear had taken over the McDonald’s where we worked, she said it like it was for real and I thought she wasn’t kidding me but I couldn’t help feeling she was, so I waited a couple seconds for her to say something else but she didn’t, meanwhile the noises grew louder and louder around us, sirens of fire trucks and police cars coming in and out howling and police talking on walkie-talkies and mobs of onlookers gossiping about this bear everybody insisted was inside, they were trying to guess where he’d come from, one of them said he heard a circus was in town, “What if he’s a runaway circus slave who has decided to stop putting on the same show every night,” he said, somebody else said the bear could have come from one of the big houses around there, “Yeah, one of those huge mansions up in the hills, rich people are just getting richer,” somebody else said, “and you know what happens when people lose track of how much they have, they just lose it, they start doing crazy things like keeping bears as pets,” he said, which made me imagine the bear inside a cage in a big house, I imagined him alone, forced to live in a strange place only surrounded by humans, I wondered if this was a young or an old bear, if he missed the company of other bears or if bears didn’t have such feelings, if they were lucky in that way, “What if he’s not a bear but a coyote or a mountain lion,” somebody else said, “people are so ignorant about animals these days, especially if they went to public schools,” he said, “Hey, what’s wrong with public education?” someone else replied, “If you think like that then you’re part of the problem,” the onlookers were telling all these things about the bear and schools and stuff like that that I didn’t understand, but they remained outside the restaurant and wouldn’t leave, they stayed there like the rest of us but, unlike them, we did have a reason to be there because we worked there, they did not, they were just out there waiting to see if they had a chance to see the bear like the bear was Brad Pitt or Enrique Iglesias and they were waiting to see him walk out the door so they could start screaming at him, go crazy all over him, ask for an autograph, take a picture of him with their phones, they wouldn’t stop speculating about the bear, arguing about him, but Conchita’s lips stayed sealed, she didn’t speak for so long I started to feel something was going on with her, because when everything around us was loud and unbearable silence would bring us peace, that we knew from experience, because a few months back, weeks after that raid at my complex, Conchita didn’t come to work for a few days and when she finally showed up she looked like a tractor had run her over, and when she arrived we only had time to hug but not to talk, so I looked for her at lunch break and asked her, “Conchita, what happened? Are you all right?” and she stayed there, leaning against the storage door like her mind was somewhere else, her silence longer than Lent, and I thought she didn’t want to talk so I turned to leave but then she mumbled, “Don’t go, Susy girl, please,” and when I turned back she told me what had happened to Jonathan, her youngest, the one she called Jon, how she and her family had gone out on a picnic by the Colorado River on Saturday noon and she’d told the kids, “Don’t go into the river because the water is traicionera,” but they wouldn’t listen, “They never listen to me,” Conchita said, and the family was alone when Jon went under and they didn’t want to call 911 even though they could, because that was always a problem, “Police see you moreno and dressed like my kids do, and they only think ganga, they only think mojados, they start asking silly questions instead of moving up their asses to help you out,” Conchita said, and when they finally called 911 they couldn’t find him, they looked for Jon the whole Saturday evening and also the whole night, they kept on looking for him the next day, Sunday, and on Monday and Tuesday too, but nothing they found, Conchita’s last words to him were, “Don’t go in the water! Jon! Jon! Are you sordo o qué? Güerco malcriado, come back here!” but she didn’t have the chance to say goodbye, she didn’t give him a hug or bury him because Jon’s body wasn’t ever found, and she told me all this really fast, like she had to tell it ra-ta-ta-ta-ta or else she couldn’t, and after she said all that she stayed there, quietly by the storage door, and I did too, our mouths shut, I opened my arms and she let herself go like Jesus falling off the cross, when I caught her up Conchita’s body felt heavy in my arms, I wrapped her in the tightest hug, we remained like that for a while until lunch break was up and the manager came by and nagged us to go back to work, and so this time around outside the restaurant I thought something similar was going on with Conchita and that that was the reason she wasn’t talking, but curiosity was killing me already, I wanted to know more about this bear, so I said, “What do you mean there’s a bear inside the place, Conchita?” and she replied, “I swear to God they say it’s a bear, Susy girl! A real bear, like Yogi Bear, you know?” and I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Conchita,” and she said, “You must’ve seen that show, Susy girl! Yogi Bear, remember? A bear that lives in a national park in California and he’s a real bear, and he’s real nice and goofy, and he wears a hat and a tie, and he goes nuts craving picnic meals all the time? Don’t tell me you didn’t see that show, Susy girl!” and I got dizzy because I didn’t have an idea of what she was talking about, I felt she was going crazy over the bear like everybody else, I didn’t know that bear she was talking about and I didn’t know what craving meant exactly either, I’d just arrived the year before and English was a nightmare to learn, every time people would say something I didn’t get, I’d feel dizzy and embarrassed to admit I had no clue, I felt like my head was gonna explode, but Conchita had helped me a lot already, she’d been real sweet to me, she had the number of my mother’s back in Cuévano, one day she’d call home saying I’d been arrested or God knows what, so I let go, “Sorry, Conchita, but it’s the first time in my life I hear about that bear,” I said, and she looked at me like I was kidding her, “C’mon, Susy girl, everybody, everybody, knows Yogi!” and I said, “Well, I guess that’s here, but back in Cuévano we didn’t have that show, you know, the TV we had at home had only one channel and we just watched soap operas and La Carabina de Ambrosio and Chabelo and Siempre en Domingo but no shows with bears, ask me anything about actresses and singers, Gina Montes? Anything you want, Verónica Castro, Victoria Ruffo, or Carmen Montejo if you like, but don’t ask me about goofy bears that wear hats,” I said and Conchita cracked up like what I’d just said was a good joke, I felt that every time I said something really dumb I moved her instead of embarrassing her, I felt that that was the reason she liked to call me Susy girl, like she knew I found shelter in the tone of her voice, especially if she called me Susy girl or had to explain something the manager had said in a meeting that I was clueless about, because the manager, oh God, he’d speak so fast, he’d barely open his mouth when he did and I wouldn’t get what he said most of the time, so Conchita quickly learned to read my faces and she knew, we’d finish a meeting with the guy and Conchita would only need to look at my face, she’d crack up and whisper in my ear, “Don’t worry, Susy girl, I’ll explain it to you later,” so this time around Conchita did the same, “Okay, let’s start again from scratch, Susy girl, forget what I said about Yogi, okay? They say there’s a real bear inside the place, a real grizzly bear, apparently he’s big and hungry as hell, because I heard that when the cops got here they spotted him in the back, by the storage, you know, eating all the buns we left on the trays ready for the morning rush, apparently this big fella was eating them all with the wrapping and everything, they said that he also tried to break into the freezer and also tried to drink from the soda fountain machines, I mean, the guy’s a real bear and is all over our place! Isn’t that like, a miracle?” and she started laughing like she was losing it, making no sense at all, and I didn’t know what to make of what she’d just said, meanwhile the number of people around us was growing, everybody kept on pushing and pushing against the metallic fence installed by the police to keep us at bay, trying to get a better view of the restaurant, but the lights inside were out and no cops or firemen were doing anything to try to enter the place, they just stayed outside talking in groups, talking on their walkie-talkies without making a move, which made me think that maybe all of it was bullshit, or that they didn’t know how to deal with him, they were maybe waiting for him to be done with all the food and then leave at his own will, or maybe they were afraid of him, or maybe there simply was no bear at all, maybe it was just a rumor somebody had made up and everybody wanted it to be real, I didn’t know, but I’d never seen so many cops together in my life and I was starting to feel scared, the whole thing was loud and messy like a Holy Week procession and was just getting bigger and bigger and bigger, a group of young people with signs that read DON’T SHOOT THE BEAR, GIVE BEARS A CHANCE, DO I LOOK ILLEGAL?, SAY YES TO LIFE NO TO JUNK FOOD, PUT YOUR PAWS UP, showed up and started chanting slogans and then there we were, Conchita and the rest of my shift mates and me, the only ones who should really have been there in the first place, by that time we should have already been working inside, serving breakfast, handing bags of muffins with omelet and sausage or whatever people would order through the drive-through, and I should’ve already cleaned up the bathrooms because the first thing I had to do every morning was go there and make sure they were all beaming because the manager would always find time to go in there and check if I’d cleaned them up, even if it was rush hour and the business at the front would keep him busy, he’d still find the time to keep an eye on me, it didn’t matter if the night shift guy had cleaned up the bathrooms hours before, I had to clean them up all over again, and every morning Conchita would also find the time to stop by and say hello and give me a hug, “Ay, Susy girl!” she’d say and explain that that was one of the downsides of working on the west side of town, because the McDonald’s on the east side she’d worked at, she’d say, “Those joints by Riverside or way south down Airport Boulevard, managers there don’t give a damn if bathrooms are filthy as a cockroach butt,” she’d say, “but here customers make a fuss if they spot a dust bunny by the sink, they make a fuss out of everything, like this is freaking Whole Foods,” she’d say, and I thought about all that while looking at her outside the restaurant, I remembered how funny and strong and confident Conchita was before, how much she’d changed since Jon died, now she was just staring at me like she didn’t have anything else to say, “Conchita, you’re kidding me, there are no bears in Austin, I’ve seen vultures and deers but no bears,” I said but she cut me off, “Deer,” she said, “What?” I said, “Deer, Susy girl, you don’t say deers, you say deer,” and I said, “No, Conchita, deers, many, there are lots of them around here, especially at dusk, haven’t you seen them at the end of the day, while we’re waiting for the bus? I see them all the time, they come by the avenue in packs, like little families, deers of all sizes, some are really big and kind of menacing, with antlers and everything, but some are small, they look tender and vulnerable like newborns, covered with white spots, like freckles,” I said but Conchita insisted, “I know, Susy girl, there are lots of them around here but you always call them deer, either if it’s one or a bunch,” and I said, “Why?”, and she said, “What do I know, Susy girl? I didn’t invent the language, I’m not freaking Shakespeare, you know? For all I know, you say deer,” Conchita said and I just couldn’t get my head around it, “You’re making me dizzy, Conchita, if I tell you I saw deer on my way here, how do you know if I saw only one or four?” I said, Conchita looked at me like I was in first grade, “I don’t know, Susy girl, I think that’s a good question,” she said and looked down with a frown, like she’d never thought about it before, “That’s the kind of questions Jon asked all the time, you know, he’d just come up with these questions that were hard,” she said after a while, still looking down, “Anyway, Conchita,” I said because I didn’t want her to get depressed again, especially not after some stupid question that I’d asked, “There are no bears around here, so how come there’s a bear inside the restaurant eating our buns? That’s just off,” I said, “Exactly, Susy girl! That’s my point, doesn’t it sound like something out of a blessing? Of all the McDonald’s in the world, why would he choose ours? There has to be a reason for that, Susy girl, and a higher one, to that!” she said cheerfully again, like she’d already forgotten what we were talking about a minute ago and I felt relieved, “So, it’s like a miracle then?” I said, pretending to follow her, “Right! It’s like an apparition!” she cheered, “Why not?” I went on, “It only has to be a miracle!” she said, “Right!” I said, “Right!” she said and we finally giggled together, “We need to find a way to see him! We can’t miss this chance, Susy girl!” Conchita said, her eyes the eyes of a little girl, so we were talking about miracles and apparitions and stuff like that when the manager showed up and started calling us out, he ordered that we go to the back of the restaurant because he needed to talk with us, so the police let us slip through under the yellow tape and when one of them pulled up the tape so I could pass I felt a shiver, a cold sweat running down my spine and from the tip of my nose to my pinkies and my fingernails, but nothing happened, the cop ignored me flat, he didn’t notice anything different on my face or my smell or anything, so as we walked around the restaurant to reach the back we all peeked inside but nothing was to be seen because the lights were still out, and  when we reached the back I noticed that that part of the parking lot had been cordoned too and it was empty and less noisy than the front, it even felt calm, there were no police cars, no fire trucks, no TV cameras, no onlookers, no protesters, it was only the fifteen of us, so we gathered around the manager like when we’d meet at the beginning of shift by the frying machines, he didn’t say hello or good morning or, “Boy, what a crazy day,” nothing, curt and distant as he always was, “So, a goddamn bear that came out of nowhere invaded our workplace under circumstances that remain unclear at this point,” he barked, like he hadn’t seen the bear himself yet but he already hated him bad, like he’d made up his mind and knew it, he’d already seen himself being transferred to another branch on East Austin for having let this happen, “Police are still trying to find those who might be responsible for this, and clarify the whole event, how the beast managed to enter our restaurant without damaging the facilities, which at least is a relief, but that’s not the point, the point is, they don’t know what the hell to do with it yet, because simply shooting the damn thing and get it over with, as much as I’d very much like to do myself should the solution to this crisis were in my hands, is not an option for various reasons, the most important being it would be a PR disaster both for them and for the company,” he said while tapping on the asphalt with his left foot, he was a short, stocky, red-haired man that would always wear these super shiny ugly brown moccasins, he’d wear the same pair to work every day, I imagined him waking up really early every morning just to polish those hideous shoes like nothing else mattered, “So, since I don’t have a timeline for this goddamn mess to be solved,” he was saying when Conchita cut him off, “I have a question, are they gonna let us see him?” she said, and the manager glared at her and barked, “What did you say?” and I thought, “Oh boy, not again,” I felt the guy was finally gonna snap because in the weeks that followed after Jon died he and Conchita would fight every day, Conchita would ask him questions that put him on edge during the morning meetings or she’d yell back at him if he gave her an order she didn’t like or pointed out she was performing her duties “in a careless manner,” the other guys in the shift started saying that Conchita’s days were numbered and that the only reason she hadn’t got the boot yet was because the manager didn’t have the balls to fire a middle-aged woman who’d recently lost a child, which made me feel anxious and frail, I imagined myself alone at the meetings without Conchita, struggling to understand a thing, “The bear!” she yelled at him, “What’s with it?” he barked back, “Are they gonna let us see the bear?” Conchita said and her voice broke in the middle of the sentence and I realized she was crying, my guts turned into a knot because I’d have wanted to do something for her, help her in some way but I couldn’t, I just wished that she’d stop because I didn’t want the manager to get really pissed off and fire her right there, but Conchita wouldn’t back down, “You have to do something about it! You’re the boss here, don’t you see this is a chance we’ll never get again? Ask them to let us see him!” she yelled like it was an order, the tension felt like a piece of meat, heavy in the air, I could see everybody thinking, “This is it, Conchita will never fry another french potato here anymore,” I just closed my eyes wanting for the whole thing to stop, the noises coming from the front of the restaurant reached my ears again, growing louder inside my head, I heard the walkie-talkies and the sirens and the live reports and the chants, GIVE BEARS A CHANCE! GIVE BEARS A CHANCE!, again and again, but I also heard Conchita’s lungs, her hard breathing and her sobbing, very loud and close to me like my ears were pressed against her chest, “So?” she howled, “Are you gonna do something about it?” I opened my eyes and looked at the manager, but he wouldn’t say anything, I looked at his ugly moccasins first and then at his khaki pants and then at his white crisp shirt and then at his red face, his mouth was now shut and his eyes unbelievably watery, like it had just hit him, like he’d just realized why Conchita had gone bananas, meanwhile she was still out there, not shutting up, “Can you please ask them to let us see him at least once?” she now implored, and everybody’s eyes were now on him, he seemed small and flimsy this time around, it was the first and only time I felt sorry for him, and when I did I surprised myself because I never imagined myself feeling sorry for someone I was so afraid of, I imagined him alone at home, in a small house inhabited only by him, polishing his ugly shoes by the bed, wondering why no one loved him yet, “I’m sorry, Concepción, I don’t think that would be possible at all,” he replied in a sorrowful voice, like revealing he was human for the first time, a horrible one at that, but human nonetheless, “Okay,” was all she said and covered her face with her small hands, with her chubby fingers full of silver rings, her sobbing sounded muffled and unstoppable, “Anyway,” the manager said after clearing his throat, “you’re all off the hook for the day, you have to go, Corporate called to say it’s better for everybody to be dismissed and stay out of the picture, it will count as a comp day,” he said and rolled his eyes, like he was the same old asshole again, “Just one more thing before you all leave, talking to the media is strictly prohibited, or else you’ll be let go,” he said menacingly, and then he let us leave, the rest of my shift mates aimed to rush back to the front of the place but the manager called us out again, “What part of you have to go you didn’t understand? You’re not allowed to stay and watch! This is not a goddamn show! Is that clear?” he yelled and then he himself walked back to the front of the restaurant, but I stayed at the back by Conchita’s side, I looked in my purse and handed her a Kleenex, and as she blew her nose and I saw our shift mates heading to the bus stop I stroked her hair, “So, what do we do now?” I asked her to see if that cheered her up, “What are we supposed to do now, Conchita? I didn’t get what he said,” I lied, “You know what?” she said after she stopped sobbing and cleaned up the mess that washed out mascara had left around her eyes, “Let’s have some fun today, Susy girl, the day is ours, ours nomás, when was the last time you or me had the entire day only for us? Let’s go to the mall or the movies or whatever, how about that?” she said, making an effort to smile, and I thought that that would do her good and that would do me good too because she was right, but I also thought I’d never gone to the movies in Austin, I didn’t know how much it cost, I worried it would be expensive, I was in no position to spend money on silly things, I needed to send all I could back home, and that’s when I thought of my Pedro and my Santiago and my Adrián again, I tried to remember the last time we watched a movie together, and I couldn’t, I tried to imagine how much they’d have changed since I left them behind in Cuévano with my mother, and I couldn’t, “I’d love to, Conchita, but I’m not sure if I can, you know my budget’s tight and I probably should—” I was saying when Conchita cut me off, “Shhh! Do you hear that?” she said, “What?” I said, “That noise,” she said, “Don’t you hear it?” We stayed in silence for a while and then I did, the noise seemed to come from inside the restaurant, slipping through the bottom of the backdoor, just a few yards away from where we were, it was a soft thrashing sound, like the sound you’d make when tearing apart a plastic bag, “I do!” I whispered excitedly, “It’s him!” Conchita cheered quietly, her eyes shone and filled with life again, like she was announcing Jesus had arrived, “You think so?” I whispered again, “C’mon, Susy girl, we can’t miss this chance!” Conchita said, and she pulled me to inch along with her to the restaurant but I refused at first because I was afraid, what if the bear came out and attacked us, what if the cops found us peeking through the backdoor, but Conchita whispered, “Please, please!” imploringly, with her hands tied together like she was praying, I just hoped for the best and let myself be dragged along, it took us so long to get there I felt like moving in slow motion, when we reached the door we put our backs against it and crept down very slowly until our bottoms reached the ground, we waited there without making a sound until we heard it again, the noise grew real and clear this time around, and when we heard it Conchita and I started giggling like little girls, giggling so hard we had to cover our mouths, the desire to kick on the ground in excitement so powerful I felt like I was gonna pee in my pants, “What do we do, what do we do?” I mouthed to Conchita, and she just made the sign of “Shhh!” with a finger on her lips, then we heard the sound of claws thrashing through plastic, reaching at the food again, I imagined the bear sitting on the floor, mountains of paper and plastic trash and a mess of metallic trays all around him, his furry brown chest sprinkled with bread crumbs and threads of transparent plastic dangling from his snout, “He smells funny,” Conchita whispered after a while, “I know,” I whispered back because he did, a narcotic smell of wet lamb fur reached my nose shortly after we got there, from time to time the thrashing sound would stop and we’d hear brief grunts or movement around the door, that was when I felt his heavy and lonely presence closer to us, I felt him grand and alive and lost, “Your kids won’t believe their ears when you tell them this, Susy girl,” Conchita whispered in my ear, I looked at her, and she looked back, I would have wanted to tell her something, but I didn’t, I just reached out for her hands and grabbed them, I closed my eyes and saw myself back in Cuévano, stepping down the bus with my hands full of gifts for my little ones, I saw them waiting for me by the road again, my Pedro and my Santiago and my Adrián taller than the last time I saw them, much taller now but happy to see me come home at last, Conchita and I stayed like that for a while until the thrashing sound resumed, “He’s got to stop eating those buns,” she whispered in my ear, and I had to nod, “I just hope he knows where the bathrooms are already,” I said and we couldn’t contain a laugh, and then we felt it, his big nose sniffing at our butts through the bottom, the charged, wild stuffy air that came out of his nostrils warming the ground and tickling through my polyester pants, he seemed to lean against the door because we felt a quick and strong push, and I just froze, I felt goose bumps all over my arms, the laugh was gone, I eyed Conchita to check if she was scared, and she had this big, peaceful beam on her face, I made a sign to her that meant we needed to leave and she made a sign back that meant, “Not yet, let’s stay a little longer, please!” but then we felt it, another push on the door, stronger and violent this time around, and I shrieked, and Conchita shrieked too, nothing else needed to be said after that, we just jumped out of the ground and started running away, we crossed the empty parking lot in seconds, I hadn’t run so fast since I was a kid back in Cuévano, and as we ran we laughed, we laughed and laughed until we reached the bus stop, completely out of breath.