I am returning four rented tuxedos in San Diego the day after my older brother’s wedding. It’s late morning, Sunday, bright and green October. I take the 163 out of the city and down, dense with traffic, between verdant tree-topped hills to the broader and browner 8. I get off the highway at the Mission Valley mall with its mass of strip shopping centers, one of which holds the Men’s Wearhouse where I am returning the tuxes. In the strip’s parking lot a young security guard on a Segway is patrolling. He seems focused on the lot, the parked cars themselves, though I am not sure why.
I am met nearly at the door of the Men’s Wearhouse by a round woman in a blazer, who quickly hangs the tuxes on a metal rack for inspection. She takes brisk inventory and says since everything’s in the bags, and “No? Don’t need a receipt?,” that I’m all set. I ask her what the security guard is doing, so fixated on the cars. She tells me his job when the Chargers are at home is to make sure people don’t park in the mall lot and then take the trolley out to see the game, avoiding paying for parking at the stadium. She says the stadium, which she calls only “Qualcomm,” is a ten-minute trolley ride away. “Do you know him?” I ask, meaning the security guard.
“Luis? Sure. He comes in and drinks the coffee we set out for customers. Friendly guy.” The coffee spread is impressive. A stainless steel dual thermal setup. Regular and decaf. Half and half, soy creamer, raw sugar, stevia extract, a few pink Sweet’n Lows, thin red plastic stirrers. And, strangely, Anthora paper cups, the familiar New York Greek diner blue and white. I ask the woman which of the employees is from New York, trying to understand the presence of the cups and she misunderstands me, says, “No, I’m from here.”
On the curb, I put my hand over my eyes and watch Luis going through the rows, leaning his Segway in various directions. His job seems difficult to me. Not everyone who is wearing a jersey is going to the game, and not everyone who walks away from the stores is either. Luis appears to be in his early twenties, Latino, over six-feet tall and soft looking.
When I approach Luis I ask how he determines when someone is headed to Qualcomm. He points towards the highway, “On the other side of that Best Buy? The one that’s blocking our view of the 8 there? That’s a Green Line trolley stop. That’s south. If I see an individual park in our lot here, and head due south, they are getting towed. It’s that simple.”
“You’re not looking for a jersey or a cap or anything like that?”
“Not concerned with caps or jerseys, no, not even concerned if they are going to the game. Because I’ve been duped on that front. I started with that approach being a key component as to whether or not I actually made the call for the tow. And I missed a lot people that way. By being too selective. Now I go by the letter of our posted sign. That this parking lot is for patrons of the stores in this section of the mall, period. If you are headed south out of this parking lot on foot, away from these stores, you are not a patron of these stores¬– for my purposes. And you get towed. I deal solely in cardinal directions. North, east, west, ok. And another look to see if the person or persons actually enters a store. You were west, with tuxes.”
“Right,” I say.
“Who got married?” Luis asks.
“You were best man,” Luis says. His eyes follow the path of a short bald man departing from his car. Luis drifts on the Segway angling for a better view.
“Not the best man. But, in the wedding,” I say to him.
Luis nods, “One of those kind of deals.”
I ask if he would want to eat, say that I don’t have anyone to eat lunch with. Luis says he could always eat, and that his workday was over in a half hour once the game starts. I walk back inside the Men’s Wearhouse, nod at the woman who again meets me at the door, and quietly help myself to the coffee. Another employee in a bowtie is earnestly vacuuming in a corner, holding the looped power cord like a lariat. I sit near the changing rooms watching young men being helped into jackets, and when I am asked, say only that I’m already being helped.
After fifteen minutes or so I walk back outside. Luis is standing next to a late model, white, single-cab Toyota Tacoma. The truck is very clean. The driver side door is open and Luis is changing out of his boots into a pair of sneakers. He pulls on fresh white socks and then tugs the shoes on without undoing the laces. He is taller than the truck. I ask where the Segway went, and he jerks his thumb over his shoulder, meaning back behind the strip, “We have a shed behind a barbwire fence near the generators.”
Luis says he’d like to go somewhere he’s never been before, and says he’d prefer going somewhere we’d “really have to drive to.” He says he wants a hamburger, but wants to pay at least ten dollars. “I need it to be thick enough where they ask how I want it cooked.” He begins unbuttoning his white short sleeve shirt, replete with patches and generic groupings of badging, epaulettes. The company he works for is named Cali-Secure. Where it should say “Luis” on his nametag, it says “Cali-Secure.” Once he’s down to his undershirt and has it untucked he says that we also have the option to just go back to his apartment, and his mom will cook.
“Are you in a rush?” Luis asks. Out of his uniform he seems to have new interest in the day.
“Not at all, not until tomorrow,” I say, “I have a dinner later and a plane tomorrow.” The parking lot seems to have grown suddenly packed, people darting from their vehicles, but off the clock, Luis seems not to notice.
“Where’s your date from the wedding?” Luis asks.
“I didn’t get a plus-one. It’s a little complicated.”
Luis reaches out and lazily knocks on the roof of his truck as he speaks, “You weren’t supposed to come. Or they didn’t know if it would be appropriate for you to come, or if you would come.”
“Yeah. I guess it’s not that complicated,” I say.
“Sure it is. Just also common. Complicated and common are not mutually exclusive.”
Luis’s mom is not Latino, but a short black woman with hair that reminds me of Allen Iverson. She is wearing a white collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up, jeans and rainbow colored striped socks. Based on the way she is dressed, it is very difficult for me to know anything about her. I don’t say this, but, my understanding of her would be altered greatly if I knew whether or not Luis is adopted. She is making us gin martinis in the kitchen, out of sight. The martinis, she says, are all the cooking she’ll be doing today. “You boys can walk to McDonald’s and get a sack of hamburgers for all of us after this first drink, if you’re still hungry.” She pronounces McDonald’s “Mac-Donald’s,” which endears me to her immediately. Also, her belief that we might cease to be hungry is charming somehow.
The apartment is ideal and fairly representative of the older construction in the Bankers Hill neighborhood, north of downtown San Diego. There is a small ruddy courtyard behind a red wrought iron fence. The apartment sits on top of a garage belonging to the owner of the unit, and to reach the front door you must first climb ornate Spanish tiled stairs. The front door faces south and the afternoon light is intense through the broad front window. The ceiling is vaulted and high. In the four upper corners of the bright living room, Oaxacan masks are perched. Other Oaxacan animal carvings: a wide-eyed jaguar and a crow adorn the top of a squat black bookcase full of unfamiliar novels, painting monographs, and biographies of relatively obscure successes. The one that catches my eye is of Gyorgy Ligeti, the composer. Gyorgy Ligeti: Of Foreign Lands and Strange Sounds. I ask, “Whose apartment is this?” then quickly correct myself when Luis looks at me skeptically, and I ask the question I really want answered, “Whose books are these?”
Luis’s mom comes in with the drinks and says, “Our apartment. Our books. You have to be more specific with your questions.” I ask about the Ligeti and both say they’d read it. The unified areas of interest between Luis and his mother surprise me. I think of my own mother. Our reading habits are not related. But, I remember her taking me to all the movies I couldn’t get into without an adult when I was younger, and a strong emotional reaction from her in the theater always increased my own feelings for the movie. Adaptation being the example I can think of most readily. We wept.
“Did you wear that shirt to match your son’s uniform?” I ask Luis’s mother.
She smiles with her whole face and says, “No, but I like that. Now I might.” Her particular flourish with the martinis, she tells me, is a dab of Worcestershire sauce at the bottom of the chilled glass. She says the recipe comes from a New York pilot. She asks what I think of Luis’s job. I tell her I like seeing someone who takes his job seriously, and that was what made me interested in Luis at all. His full attention to his job made me want to talk to him.
“Because it was a job that you wouldn’t expect the person to be giving their full attention to?” she says.
I start to qualify my original answer and then stop, “Yes,” I say, “That must be part of it. And because it seemed difficult.”
Both Luis and his mom laugh. Luis says, “Not even– 1:30 in the afternoon? And we’re drinking? Not hard.”
“But it’s Sunday,” I say, though this goes unnoticed. A cloud gets in front of the sun and I think of the plane I will take the next day back to the part of the country with weather and my own rote way of paying rent. I drink deeply, but only to catch up. I feel embarrassed for having spoken so freely about Luis’s job. Especially since he had the unique decency to welcome me into his home without asking anything of my own work.
Luis’s mom is on her feet again, putting on music. There are speakers on either side of the room, but I don’t know what the delivery system for the music is. She puts on what I recognize to be Solo Monk and this seems to signal that Luis is adopted. Seems to signal a certain openness and largeness of heart in this woman.
I try to clarify what I was saying earlier after the music becomes a part of the room, “The other thing was that he had a plan. A whole way of thinking surrounding his job. It seemed so disciplined and logical for what essentially was determining to tow or not tow cars–”
Luis interrupts, “That’s for a game day. Or a concert, same thing. Otherwise I am mall security, as you know it—”
His mother interrupts, “Stop. The towing logic is his own. He’s undermining his invention. He’s undermining his own clarity of approach. We found this phrase, ‘To orient oneself, it is enough to find a single cardinal direction,’ and went from there. Right?”
Luis stands and gives the facial equivalent of a shrug. He calls out from the kitchen, asks if I want another drink. I tell him I can’t, that I need my wits about me for tonight. His mother asks when I am expected for dinner. And I tell her that I did everyone a favor this morning by returning the tuxes in hopes that I would be able to arrive late, unquestioned, or not show up at all.
“So, the favor becomes what? Not an alibi. And not an excuse, and it doesn’t exactly buy you time in any real way does it? The favor becomes what?”
“Confusing,” I tell her, “It becomes confusing.”
“It becomes a gesture,” she says. “You are gesturing towards caring about these people, about wanting to do right by them, but maybe you aren’t actually doing the work of caring about them or doing right by them. You love them, I’m guessing, and do enough to artificially remind them this is the case, and because you let them know this in a small way, deep down you feel they know your love for them in a more permanent way, and this gives you permission to do what you would actually like to do, which is, not keep plans, and drink with strangers and walk around surprised.”
Some of what she says is right. I am surprised, flaky. I want to ask her, “What do you do?” but am afraid of, and sense I will, hear of readings, chakras, essences, and end up having her profession inflicted on me even more than it already has been. Instead I ask her about Monk. About other albums of his she admires. But she gives me a blank look.
“This is Luis’s music. I just put something on.”
Luis comes back into the room holding a new drink. It looks like he’s put water in his hair and combed it. I’m thinking of what type of the common California witches Luis’s mom might be, a psychic, a healer, and realize I haven’t been hungry since being in the apartment. I put a hand on my stomach, and maybe Luis takes this as a sign, because he asks if I would like to go get the hamburgers we’d talked about. I decline and say I should probably be leaving. I thank Luis’s mom, who looks annoyed and walks into the other room. Luis walks with me to my car parked on the street.
I want to tell him that moving out might be good for him, but I don’t really know if that’s true. I don’t know what kind of debt he’s in, or not, don’t know about his health, his strength, anything. We shake hands and laugh, and it’s a little awkward, because clearly there is an unreasonable amount of affection between us for how little we know each other. Maybe it is mostly on my end. I get in the car and Luis knocks on the passenger window, which I put down so he can speak to me. “Take me with you,” he says, laughing. I laugh too and wave goodbye. I want him to know that he wouldn’t have said that had he known the quiet I was headed for, the avoidance and low light and fork scraping. I wish he had said, “Let’s leave together.”