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Hey Zeus

Debby Mountjoy

 

Their faces were brown, coffee, chocolate, and cream-colored. Their eyes were a mixture of sorrow, mischief, and suspicion. My grandmother called them wetbacks and my mother told me they were illegal immigrants. To me, they were just my customers. I was a hard-working twelve-year old in my Grandmother’s grocery store, The Double J. The grocery store was in the middle of a barrio in Fort Worth, Texas. The boulevard in front of the store was a conduit to other parts of the city. Busy enough to have four lanes, but slow enough to call out makes of cars if it got slow.
I had a variety of duties. My hamburgers, piled high with onions and jalapenos, were a favorite among the lunch crowd on Saturdays. The intense beat of my heart would match the whirl of the meat slicer as I watched the ribbons of salami fall on the wax paper. Yet, my favorite time was sitting on the high stool, deliberately punching the sticky numbers on the green monster of a cash register, sacking the groceries and making change, smiling and asking this heap of humanity to come back and see us.
Some of my customers lived right across the street from the store. Their home away from home was a worn down motel. The rooms were rented by the week. I don’t remember the name, but at night the neo sign flashed “ACANCY’ to the throb of the cars rolling by. These customers were all men, and my grandmother gave them credit. My grandmother, Claster Mabelle, was a hooked-nosed, big-breasted, meaner than nails woman that didn’t take shit from anyone. As I write this today, I am amazed she gave credit to her “Wetbacks.” A trusting soul she was not. She did however, have a thin, blue book that contained all of the daily transactions: Journey Farms Milk – 50 cents, Mrs. Braid’s bread – 39 cents, Marlboro cigarettes – 42 cents, Lone Star Beer - $1.20.
Dusty, worn out as the rooms they slept in, they came in after work in groups. Every day they would come in to gather a few supplies and then proceed to spell their names very slowly to my Grandmother as she recorded every detail. They had holes in their workpants, black tar under their fingernails, and sweat drenched hair. Some would be laughing while others concentrated on their choices for the evening meal. One by one they would shuffle out the door, dodge the cars getting out of the neighborhood, and return to their neon paradise.
However, Friday night was different. Most of my customers got paid on Fridays. They would come in, always in groups, to pay their tabs. The collective smell of Aqua Velva would announce their presence before I ever saw a smiling face. Their western shirts blazed with embroidered flowers and their hats were place in just the right position as to showcase the Brylcream hair. I thought something must’ve gotten lost in the translation from “A little Dab will do ya.”
I could never remember their names, too different for me I guess. Except for one. His name was Jesus, but every time he came in the store, my mother would call him by name, but I thought she was saying Hey Zeus. So Zeus became my favorite customer. His smile was brilliant. He talked to me every day he came in, not just on Friday nights. Zeus tried to teach me a little Spanish; I tried to teach him a little English.
“Que Paso, DeeBee.” :Que Pasa, Zeus” Zeus would giggle and correct me, “No Dee Bee, Que PasO”. Never daunted, I would reply, “Como estas, Zeus” and I would be rewarded with, “Very well, DeeBee.”
We didn’t get much further than that, but I do remember telling him about escuela and him telling me about his hija. I never had to look up to see his eyes. Eyes that were kind to me. Then suddenly a new set of men from across the street staring coming in the store. No more Zeus. That’s when I learned what illegal immigrants meant. I was shocked but not sad. Zeus had gone back to his daughter.
Five years later, much wiser not that I was in high school, my resume at the Double J had expanded. I sat in the office, Led Zeppelin filling my ears, adding up the transactions, thinking about my new boyfriend. Hoping no one would call me to deal with the customers, the numbers come into focus: Journey Farms Milk – 90 cents, Mrs. Braid’s bread – 62 cents, Marlboro cigarettes – 75 cents, Lone Star beer $1.65. I understood their names now, even though my Spanish was still terrible. I never had another customer name Zeus.