A Fistful of Dirt

by Sujatha Fernandes

Manuel relayed buckets of moist earth to the concrete stairwell. It was Héctor’s job to hoist the buckets up and ferry them over to the dumpster. They had to work quickly to keep the buckets moving or the Bangladeshi contractor, a slight man with a beard, would start yelling at them, “Taratari koro.”
     The workers down below had broken up the existing basement floor of the six-story building with jackhammers and then used pickaxes to pry out the concrete. Now they were excavating eight to ten feet of earth to increase the height of the basement.
     Héctor was grateful to work in the open air instead of underground like a mole with the thick damp air and the artificial light from lamps. It was also safer up here. The men in the basement would dig themselves into three-foot-square holes up to eight-feet deep and there weren’t even any planks of wood to brace the sides. Suddenly someone would look up to see the sides crumbling in on him. He suspected that the contractors didn’t know what they were doing. It was only a matter of time before a worker was buried alive.
     Still, it was regular work, something Héctor hadn’t had in a while. He had spent several months going to the parada on Roosevelt Avenue, getting picked up occasionally for one- or two-day stints in demolition or renovation. He found this job through Jesús, a slim Oaxaqueño, always clean shaven with dimples and a broad smile. Jesús used to talk big on the corner about his influence in the construction world. The men would rib him. “So why are you here at the parada, dumbass?” It didn’t bother Jesús.

“I’m going to see Cassandra Scott,” announced Jesús, as they rode the downtown B-train after work.
     “Is that your woman?” said Manuel with a smirk, certain that Jesús wouldn’t be going out with a güera.
     Jesús pulled out his wallet and showed them a ticket. “She’s giving a talk tonight in Woodside. You should come.”
     Héctor mumbled an excuse. Manuel inspected the ticket. “Cass-an-dra Scott. Who is she?”
     “She’s just like you and me, güey, but she’s figured this shit out. She quit her job to start a company and now, while the company makes money, she gets to be with her kids.”
     Héctor sighed. It was the pipe dream they all chased. When Héctor left to come north in search of work, his son was only a few months old and his daughter was five. His plan was to build a three-story house on his father’s ejido land for the whole family and then he would move back with a nice pot of savings. For two and a half years, Héctor wired money to his brother Ricardo. Every time they spoke, Héctor asked whether construction had started. Yes, yes, said his brother. No, his wife told him. He has not built anything.
     Finally, Héctor got his brother to tell him the truth. Some businessmen had set up an office in town, and they offered to invest and double people’s remittances. Ricardo gave them the cash, as did many others. But the businessmen turned out to be narcos who stole the people’s money. Anyone who tried to reclaim it was killed. When Ricardo confessed, Héctor was furious. They had no idea how hard he worked to send every penny. Héctor had missed the most precious years of his son’s life, all for nothing. Now he was starting again from scratch. He had no faith in shady schemes, and Jesús’s new woman sounded like yet another scammer.
     Jesús pulled out a red beverage and offered it around.
     They both shook their heads.
     “You should try it. It cleans your blood, I swear. I never get sick.” The men averted their eyes and squirmed as Jesús drank the concoction.
     Two norteño singers boarded the train and stamped their feet to jumpstart a ballad. Héctor sat back, transported to village fiestas where men got drunk on mezcal and children danced in their parents’ arms. He hummed along. La vida pronto se acaba . . . Ya muerto voy a llevarme, nomás un puño de tierra. “Life is soon over . . . When I die all I’ll take is a fistful of dirt.”
     Although Héctor was only ten years older than Jesús and Manuel, he felt ancient compared to them. He was stocky and somewhat stooped, with a thin mustache and pouches under his eyes. He wore the same worn jeans and boots every day, with no money or desire to invest in fashionable clothing like the two younger men. Jesús once told Héctor that he used to be a goth. He used to go around in long black clothes, with dark eyeliner and pierced ears. Héctor supposed that Jesús must have come from a well-off family. No one in Héctor’s pueblo dressed “goth.” When he was growing up, children went barefoot, and for lighting they had only old rags that burned slowly through the night in cans filled with oil.
     Héctor and Manuel left the subway at Jackson Heights. Buses and trucks rumbled past on Roosevelt, competing with the clanging of the elevated 7 train. The men walked past taco carts and beauty parlors. They saw Indian women with scarves covering their heads—not indios like the Mixtecos from Metlatónoc but indianos from India. The heavy steel tracks formed an echo chamber that resounded with different tongues.
     They picked up tinned beans, tortillas, fresh cheese, and onions at the grocery store to cook dinner. When Héctor first moved into the basement apartment that he shared with Manuel and four other men from Guerrero, he was put on cooking duty twice a week. He had never cooked in his life. He called up his wife for some recipes and, once she figured out he wasn’t joking, she gave him instructions to make a simple chicken rice dish. At the local C-Town, he had bought two small hens, only $1.99 a pound. At dinner that night, the meat was like rubber. Héctor cleared away plates of uneaten food. When he told his wife about it later, she laughed. He had mistakenly bought the soup hens, the wizened old fowl in the villages that ran around on brawny legs until they were killed and then boiled for hours to soften up. Nobody used those old hens for making chicken rice.
     On their way home, Héctor and Manuel passed tidy rows of suburban brown brick homes with wrought-iron railings, white awnings, and picket fences. The only detail that gave away the scores of migrants living below were the clumps of tangled wires pinned to the awnings that fed into the phantom apartments. It’s like we don’t exist, Héctor used to think. We’re hidden away in basements. We don’t have our names on leases, or work contracts, or mailboxes. If we vanished, no one would even know.
     After dinner, Héctor lay on his bunk bed in the windowless room, feeling the ache in his upper arms and torso. On the dresser, there was a small statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and a framed photo of a girl with two pigtails, her head tilted playfully toward a little boy with round red cheeks. Héctor took a folded piece of paper from under his pillow, its creases well-worn. He read his child’s Spanish handwriting:

          dear papá
     i miss you a lot since the day you left us and every day i pray to god that you get work so you can buy us a House and come back home. it rains a lot here.
     Cisco wakes up crying at night and mamá hugs him and tells him papá gonna come back soon and bring him candy.

          i love you
          pleez send me new shoes.

The letter was a talisman. It reminded him why he endured the long days, the grueling work, the loneliness. Some men turned to drink. Héctor had his letters to keep him sober.

    The next day at lunchtime, the men turned over a few buckets in the basement for makeshift seats and shared bleached-out tortillas from a packet, nothing like home-cooked corn ones.
     “Today the fucking boss yelled at me for digging in a new spot, and I was just doing what he told me,” said one of the men.
     “No point complaining,” said Jesús. “Learn their secret. As long as you vatos keep busting your asses making money for them, they’ll keep getting rich.”
     “Why are you still working for them then?” asked Héctor.
     “Everyone has to start somewhere. You need to build up your skills. Learn how to operate in the business world. It’s not hard to get a contract, you don’t even need much English. Find some guys on the parada, start up your own operation.”
     “Us Latinos are always going to be on the bottom,” countered Félix, an Ecuadorian worker. He was freckled with a broad forehead and had a habit of posing elaborate questions that he answered himself in a deadpan voice. “Why will we Latinos always be at the bottom? Because of racism. Why do you think they get away with not giving us hard hats or gloves or masks? Why do they get away with paying us ten dollars an hour and no overtime? Because we’re Latino, and they think that because we’re undocumented we have no rights.”
     “You gotta lose the attitude, güey,” said Jesús. “Look at Napoleon Hill. Dude was poor but he knew the secret of becoming rich. He wrote books about how to make lots of money.”
     “He’s making all that money from pendejos like you who buy his books,” said one of the men, and the others laughed.
     Jesús finished his tortilla. “You can make fun of me,” he said. “But I already have my own online mall and I’m on my way out of this shithole.” He produced a small bottle of pills and swallowed a few. “Supertronix digestion tablets.”
     “You have gut problems?” said Manuel.
     “No, but six pills a day give me the stomach of a goat.”
     “Let’s get back to work.” Héctor stood up and righted his bucket, aware that the contractors would soon be back out issuing orders.
     On his way home, Héctor stopped in at UNO Money Transfers on Roosevelt. The store sign was buried in a jumble of signage for tattoo parlors, employment agencies, a Botánica, and at least three dentists. Power cords and adaptors dangled between the signs and cheap T-shirts hung on flimsy racks out the front. The transfer agency was one counter in a small shared office building. They took a fee to cash his paychecks, another fee to wire his money to Mexico, and another for the prepaid card to safeguard his meager emergency fund. How many of his hard-earned dollars evaporated in fees.
     Later in the evening, Héctor called his wife.
     “How’s the house building going?”
     “Listen, viejo, we had to stop the construction for a few weeks because I have a lot of expenses. I had to buy some medication for my mother, her blood pressure has been high. And Cisco’s birthday party is coming up. I have to buy decorations and food, and the children need new outfits. By the way, don’t forget to send him a present.”
     “Your mother always needs some new medicine or other. Why can’t your brother send her the money?”
     “We haven’t heard from him in a long time.” She paused. “Mamá is worried he might have been caught up in a raid.”
     “Ya, pues . . . just make sure you start putting aside money again next month.”
     They were both quiet. “What kind of cake will you have for Cisco’s birthday?”
     “He wants a Spiderman cake.” She laughed. “Where am I going to get a Spiderman cake?”
     As he lay in bed that night, Héctor pictured his son blowing out three candles on the Spiderman birthday cake he knew his wife would find or make somehow. He thought of all the small moments of life with his kids that he was missing out on. Clammy cuddles after bathtime. A restless toddler crawling into his bed in the early morning hours and falling asleep on his chest. The time when his son said his first word or took his first jubilant steps.

After work the next day, Héctor walked over to a toy store on Broadway. He picked up a train set, a Big Bird, and a baseball mitt. He had no idea what his boy would like.
     For Angela’s birthday last year, he had sent her a baby doll with smooth blonde pigtails and her very own tiny feeding bowl and spoon. He remembered how Angela played mother after Cisco was born, changing her dolls’ diapers and pretending to breastfeed them. But when Héctor spoke to his daughter on the phone, she didn’t seem so excited about the gift. Was she too old for dolls? Even though his wife sent regular photos of their growing children, in his mind Angela was still a plump little girl with a lisp who loved dolls. He had even less idea about his boy. Did he like football and dogs, as Héctor did when he was a child? Or did he prefer to play with Angela’s old cooking sets?
     Héctor decided to buy all three gifts. He watched as the store assistant boxed and wrapped the items in shiny silver paper and attached puffy bows on top. He imagined his ecstatic son tearing off the paper and his wife struggling to preserve it for another use.

Every two weeks, the men received envelopes with checks. Then one day there were no checks.
     “We pay you Monday,” said the contractors. Monday came and there were still no checks.
     “No money from the big bosses,” said the contractors. “Wait. Next week.”
     Every day the men inquired after their checks and every day the contractors told them to wait. The checks were coming soon.
     Another payday went by and still there were no checks.
     Héctor started paying for his rent and food out of his emergency fund. He didn’t send money to his wife for a month. That meant no school supplies or clothes for his kids. No money put down for the house.
     At the site, the men grumbled. Some were angry. Others were hopeful that they would soon be paid. But no one dared stand up to the contractors.
     Then one day, as the workers were finishing up their lunch, Félix approached the older Bangladeshi contractor, a serious, potbellied man, and demanded to be paid right away.
     “Shut up,” said the contractor. “You leave now. You finished here.”
     Félix stared at the man in disbelief. He looked around at his fellow workers, at Héctor. Héctor joined the others as they walked away from the scene, took up their positions at the worksite, and went on as if nothing had happened. Nobody wanted to end up back at the parada. At least if you stayed at the job, reasoned Héctor, you could continue to ask for your wages, and hope that you’d be paid what they owed you. If they kicked you out with Félix, you’d never see a cent. Félix yelled back at the contractor, saying that he would get a lawyer and report them to the government.
     Before leaving, Félix looked around at the men. “You stupid donkeys are all free labor for them.”
     Jesús was waiting for Héctor and Manuel after work that day. “Félix is right,” Jesús said, as they walked to the subway. “We’re all being duped.”
     “So you think that if we come to your Internet business talks and swig that pinche red stuff, we’ll become rich like you?” said Manuel.
     “Just listen.” Jesús ignored Manuel. He looked over at Héctor. “Imagine you’re not a pendejo who gets screwed by everyone. Picture yourself as a franchise owner, selling products to people over the Internet. Sounds good, doesn’t it?”
     Héctor shook his head and held out his hands to the men, rotating them. The crisscrossing lines on his thick palms were black, as if etched with ink. His coarse, square nails were outlined in dirt. “Look at these hands,” he said. “They’ve only ever done one thing and that is to build. I don’t know how to do anything else. I can’t type on a laptop and sell vitamins and laundry detergents to people on the phone. As long as my body can take this work, it’s the only way I know to feed and clothe my children.”
     “How does a company that makes such foul-tasting potions ever make any money?” said Manuel. “I’ll stick to my shitty job, thanks.”
     Jesús pulled out two bottles of the red drink from his bag and handed them to the men. “To become rich you have to change how you think. Change the products you buy and your tastes. Remember, your first customer is you.”

Héctor felt out of place in the grand conference room of the hotel in Flushing, wearing his plain white T-shirt and work boots. Jesús greeted him with a warm cheek-to-cheek hug. He was dressed up in a tailored gray wool suit with a spotted tie. Héctor could smell his friend’s cologne. He wouldn’t think of spending a penny on something so unnecessary.
     “Something to drink?”
     As Héctor had guessed, there was only one drink available on the table at the back of the room. Jesús brought him some of the tart red beverage in a Styrofoam cup, and he sipped it politely.
     They maneuvered their way through the crowded room to their seats. Jesús shook hands with acquaintances; others slapped him on the back and called out his name across the room. Héctor recognized a few men from various sites where he had worked, although they too were dressed in suits and ties.
     A small Asian woman in a powder-blue suit named Jenny took the microphone at the podium to introduce the speaker for the evening, Big Al from Kentucky.
     “Give your warmest Flushing welcome to Big Al,” said Jenny. Big Al lumbered onto the stage, his proportions gigantic compared to hers. He swept her up in a hug, like an elephant picking up a small deer. When Jenny’s feet reached the ground again, she giggled and smoothed down her suit, then pranced off the stage.
     “Before I became a multi-millionaire,” said Big Al, “I was a corrections officer. I loved my job. Anyone else here love their job?”
     The room was silent.
     “Why are you here today?” He answered his own question. “Because you wanna be like me. You wanna learn how to make some money. Am I right?”
     There was scattered cheering in the room.
     “C’mon now. You wanna learn how to make gangsta money, right?” “Yeah.” People cheered more loudly.
     “Okay, that’s more like it. So we’re not out there sellin’ lotions and potions. The big secret to this system is people power. Yeah, you heard me right. I said people power.”
     The audience clapped on cue.
     “It’s all about relationships. In the business world it’s called word-of-mouth referral marketing. Take James. James can have his own mall. He can have his own franchise for just one hundred and thirty-nine dollars. Then James doesn’t need to go to the store anymore. We have over sixty million products, so everything that James needs, he buys from himself. Then James goes to his family, his friends, his co-workers. He shows them that they can buy everything from his mall way cheaper than anyplace else. That’s people power.”
     The room erupted in applause.
     Big Al turned to the screen behind him where there were pictures of those in the company who had earned over one million dollars in commissions. Héctor scanned the pictures for the bronzed faces of the construction workers, bicycle delivery guys, waiters, and nail salon workers who made up the audience, but only white faces were to be found, along with one Asian couple and their Yorkshire terrier.
     “I can see you’re all enjoying my beverage of choice,” said Big Al. Héctor had slid his own cup far under his seat.
     “You gotta read up on the website to find out what it is. Remember, we’re not sellin’ lotions and potions. We’re at the cutting edge of the nutritional supplements industry. We have to convince people that they need this.”
     Big Al placed his palms together. “And now, I have a surprise for you. We have a special guest with us today, our very own Cassandra Scott.”
     Héctor craned his neck to see the revered founder as she approached the podium. She had blonde hair that fell to her shoulders in perfectly groomed layers, and she wore a fitted red satin dress adorned with a thick African bead necklace. She pecked Big Al on the cheek and tucked back a stray lock of hair that fell over her eyes.
     On the screen was an image of Cassandra on a white sand beach with her children and husband. He balanced the laughing girl on his broad shoulders, while she skipped hand in hand with her boy.
     “I chose that life,” she said, pointing to the scene. “And you can too. I used to waste my time working for other people, paying other people to look after my children. Then I realized that by starting my own online mall I could focus on what’s most important to me.” She paused, cocked her head and gazed at the screen. Héctor felt a small twinge of longing, despite the contrived nature of her act.
     “Now I’m going to ask all of those franchise owners from mymallonline.com who are making any money from this business to please stand,” she said.
     People around the room began to rise until more than half the audience was standing. Jesús stood up too, tentatively at first, scratching the back of his neck, and then he lifted his chest proudly when people began to cheer.
     Héctor was a little surprised to see Jesús claim his success. Jesús always seemed broke like the other guys. Yet half a room of people making money didn’t seem like a scam. Héctor considered the one hundred and thirty-nine dollar fee to register. He didn’t have much more than that left in his emergency fund.
     As he was leaving the room, Héctor saw Edgar, a construction worker he knew from a site a few years back. Edgar wore a crisp striped shirt and dress pants. Héctor shook his friend’s hand and inquired after his children, back home in Oaxaca.
     “My daughter is in a good private school in the city now,” he said. “I’m a franchise owner with mymallonline.com and I’m making enough money to send home.”
     “So this thing really works then, eh?”
     “Yes, hermano, it’s changed my life.”
     On the way home, Héctor told Jesús that he would give him the money at work the next day. He was ready to sign up.

All of the men were working down below, building the walls of the new basement. The floor was a patchwork of eight-foot-deep craters. The men drilled holes into the jagged edges of the upper walls to anchor the rebar with epoxy. Once the rebar was secured into place, they installed formwork, fortified with two-by-fours, to hold the new concrete walls. In contrast to the scrapes of shovels and muffled thuds of dirt being removed over many months, now there were piercing noises and bursts of light. Drills rent the air with their staccato hum, mewling saws let out cascades of yellow sparks, and hammers tapped in a steady rhythm as workers nailed two-by-fours into place. The fresh concrete was poured, wet and slushy, into the space behind the formwork. After it dried, the formwork was removed to reveal blocks of smooth wall.
     During the lunch break, Héctor went to find Jesús to give him the money. Jesús tucked the cash into his pants.
     When the other men complained about the contractors not paying them, Héctor felt a secret sense of relief that he might soon be out of there. If he could become a franchise owner like Jesús and Edgar then none of this would matter. Héctor was eager to catch the subway home with Jesús that afternoon so that they could talk about the plans for his mall. Maybe Jesús could take him to the library and show him how to use the computer. He had a lot to learn. But when work was over, Jesús was nowhere to be found.
     The next day, Héctor made sure to sit near Jesús at lunchtime. “Did you sign me up for my own mall yet?”
     “So what do I do now, güey?”
     Jesús tore his tortilla into pieces and then piled the pieces one on top of the other and ate them all together.
     “Let’s talk tomorrow,” he said, his mouth full. “I have something I need to take care of now.” He put on his cap and was gone for the rest of the lunch break.
     Héctor waited for Jesús after work. Jesús came out of the site alone and when he saw Héctor, he walked in the other direction. Héctor ran ahead and caught up with him.
     “Tell me what’s going on.”
     “When am I going to get my mall?”
     “Soon. Just be patient.”
     Héctor stood in front of his friend and looked him in the eye. “What did you do with my money?”
     “I told you already, I signed you up for a mall, okay? Now get out of my goddamn way.”
     Héctor crossed his arms. “Why are you avoiding me?”
     “I’m not avoiding you. Why did you even give me your pinche money if you don’t trust me? Just get off my back.” He pushed past Héctor and walked on briskly.
     Héctor followed Jesús all the way down 93rd Street until he reached Riverside Drive. Jesús sat on a park bench and put his head into his hands. He shook his head as if trying to clear his voice to speak. “I never meant to . . . ”
     “Never meant to what?” The truth was dawning on Héctor. “Never meant to cheat your own friend?”
     “Don’t blame me.” Jesús’s eyes narrowed. “I didn’t hold a fucking gun to your head.”
     Héctor felt the blood rushing to his cheeks and he punched Jesús in the face. “You knew, cabrón! You knew all along it was a scam.”
     Jesús buckled over, cupping his nose in his hands.
     “It’s not like that, okay? I really thought I could turn things around.”
     “Turn things around for yourself by signing up more donkeys like me.”
     “Listen, I’ll pay you back the money.”
     “You better pay me, you bastard. I will be on your tail every day.”
     Héctor trudged back down 93rd toward the subway. Today was his son’s birthday. He wondered how many more would pass before he saw the boy again.

The next day after lunch, two white men with hard hats arrived at the site. Héctor was walking over to his work area with a two-by-four. He recognized the men as the big bosses. As soon as they entered the basement, the noise wound down. Drilling tapered off, sawing slowly ceased, and the hammers beat a few slow strokes more and then fell silent. The Bangladeshi contractors stood to the side. The big bosses, Croatians, walked around the site. One boss with thick eyebrows and droopy jowls peered into a few of the holes and patted the earthen sides with his hands. He motioned to the older Bangladeshi to come and look at something. A few times he reached over and yanked the man by the hair to show him another area. The boss was going red in the face, shouting. Eventually, the other boss came and addressed the Bangladeshis in a low voice. The Bangladeshis looked at their feet and nodded, their hands folded behind their backs. The two white bosses walked out.
     There was quiet in the basement. The men stood still, tools in hand.
     “Trabaja,” the slight Bangladeshi told the men in Spanish. They didn’t obey and he swore at them in Bangla. “Shuorer baccha! Kuthar baccha!”
     Jesús swaggered over to the older contractor. He gripped his solid steel hammer in one hand, hitting it into his other palm.
     “I want my fucking money.”
     The man patted his pockets. “I got no money. Nobody pay me nothing.”
     Jesús beat the hammer with more force. “Give me the money now or I smash your fucking skull.”
     The contractor cowered before him, stuttering. “Tomorrow I pay you, I pay everyone.” He turned to the workers and tried to muster his authority. “Go back to work.”
     Still the workers didn’t move. They waited, frozen as if in a tableau. Then, Héctor put down his two-by-four. He picked up a fistful of dirt. It felt soft and cool in his fingers. He threw it down into one of the eight-foot holes. Then he picked up more handfuls and hurled them down. Manuel stood up next to Héctor and joined him in throwing dirt into the holes. The contractors stared at the two men with a combination of fear and confusion. Across the basement, the men put down their tools and began throwing or kicking large mounds of earth back into the holes. The contractors looked at each other, then to the exultant faces of the men flinging dirt, and finally to the tools that laid in arm’s reach of the workers, and they walked up and out of the place.

Sujatha Fernandes is the author of several books, including a memoir on a global hip hop life, Close to the Edge, and Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, and The Maine Review, among others. She teaches sociology at the University of Sydney and the City University of New York. Find her work at sujathafernandes.com.

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