Carlos & Sylvia
Kelly Ann Jacobson
The printed photo of his mother was under a pile of shoes in the back of his grandmother’s closet. The paper was worn at the edges, crimped like his wife’s apple pie crusts, and he spent a few minutes rubbing it smooth over his pant leg before he could read his grandmother’s handwriting: “Janine Juarez, 2009.”
Carlos sat down on his grandmother’s bed, which smelled of her brandy nightcaps and the Bengay she used to rub on her neck before they realized the pain was actually cancer lumping its way through her body, and collapsed into its quilted comfort. He couldn’t decide which was more of a shock: that his mother, Janine, had aged into a sixty year old woman with dyed brown hair and a muffin top, or that she had aged at all, considering she was supposed to be dead. He surveyed the photo over and over again, looking for some clue that this might not be his mother, but it was irrefutable; side by side, they could have been twins.
“Sylvia,” Carlos called, then listened for his wife’s heavy steps. She had been kind enough to take the day off, to scrub the bathroom and donate the outdated kitchen utensils and box up his grandmother’s unmentionables, and now that they were nearing the end of their unfortunate project, she was probably exhausted. “Come here.”
“Why?” Sylvia volleyed back from the living room, and all of the gratitude Carlos had been feeling a minute before shrunk and then disappeared altogether.
“Just come here, goddamn it!” Finally, the familiar tread.
“What happened?” Sylvia appeared in the doorway, all two hundred and fifty pounds of her, and leaned against the frame. This was what three kids and fifteen years as a fast food cashier had done to his stunning bride, the short, dark-haired woman who took his first hamburger order and scribbled her phone number on the cardboard fry holder… not that Carlos was much better, with his beer gut and propensity for too-tight jeans, but at least he used the expensive exercise bike Sylvia had begged him for and then never touched. At least he tried.
“Look at this.” Carlos handed over the photo. His wife plopped down next to him, and the whole bed sunk to his left.
“She looks just like you. Who is it?”
“Apparently it’s my mother.”
On second glance, his mother looked pretty good for sixty. Her hair was styled in a chopped, chin-length cut, and she wore a tailored suit with matching blue pumps. Some kind of career woman, it seemed, like the ladies who worked in the office above his store and occasionally wandered in to ask questions about this or that floor project, always hardwood. They never bought much, but he liked watching them bend down to examine the wood samples.
“I thought your mother was dead,” Sylvia said, interrupting his thoughts. “What’s she doing in this photo?”
“Beats me.” Carlos took it back, then stuck it in his breast pocket for safekeeping, “But I’m sure as hell going to find out.”
“Just give me the map, dammit.” Carlos ripped the map out of Sylvia’s hands, and his wife stopped talking just long enough for him to find their location on the map. Then she started in again, expounding on her many theories about where his mother, Janine, had been for the past forty years, including prostitution, amnesia, and a sex change.
“I just don’t understand how a mother could abandon her only son,” Sylvia said for the millionth time that week as she munched on Sour Patch Kids, shoving the candies into her mouth in pairs. Sylvia liked to suck the sour crystals off the outside of them before chewing through the center, and the sound of her tongue smacking against the roof of her mouth made Carlos gag.
He rubbed his temples with the pads of his thick fingers, but the mini massage did nothing to ease his headache. He had intended to make the journey across the state alone, just he and his trusty Volvo, but at the last minute Sylvia had asked off from work and forced her way into the passenger seat. “Don’t you want me to meet your mother?” she had asked him as she threw her suitcase into the trunk next to his backpack, and then her makeup bag, and then an extra bag of shoes. He didn’t have an answer, considering he had yet to meet his mother himself.
Janine apparently lived outside of Hillsboro, according to 411.com, which was at least a five hour drive. His maximum tolerable alone time with his wife was normally three hours, and that was with the help of a few Bud Lights. Plus, they now had to pay a sitter to watch their two children, which meant the trip would cost him an additional hundred bucks. Sylvia flipped through the radio channels—soft rock, country, Christian, country, Christian—for at least five minutes before Carlos angrily turned the whole thing off. In retribution, Sylvia popped in an Enrique Iglesias CD from the 90’s and began singing along. And he had thought it couldn’t get any worse.
Half an hour from Hillsboro, he pulled the Volvo into a nearby gas station to get away from her for a few precious moments and made up an excuse about buying window cleaner. The place looked pretty rundown, the greyish red paint on the shack-like siding weathered and peeling, and both the bathroom and the air pump had big yellow signs that said OUT OF ORDER. Carlos tried not to think about what that meant for the employee working inside, and avoided stepping near any of the trees. Only one other car sat in the lot, a blue BMW of all things, and he fought the urge to stare.
Upon his entrance, a bell made a halfhearted tink and then went silent. No one waited at the register, so Carlos grabbed a spray bottle of window cleaner and walked toward the back to make his presence known.
“Hello?” Carlos called uncertainly.
“Be out in a minute,” a man’s voice said, and then he appeared in blue overalls with a blue flannel shirt underneath. He walked strangely, with his chest thrust out in front of him. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said, giving Carlos a half-hearted smile, “this happens once a month.” Then he jerked a thumb back; it was only after the man was two feet away that Carlos could see the gun pressed into his back and the robber behind him.
“You might as well give him all your money,” the tall man told Carlos as the robber led him to the register. “Make it easy on yourself. I know this guy, at least his voice, and he won’t hurt us if we do what he asks.”
“Now wait just a minute,” Carlos started to argue, but the thief aimed the gun at him instead and he immediately added his cash to the growing pile the cashier had pulled out of the register and safe below it. “That’s all I have,” he told them apologetically when both men on the other side of the counter looked down at his measly $40. “The missus cleaned me out.”
The thief stuck all of the cash into a sack hanging from his belt, then backed out of the station and disappeared in his BMW.
“Close call,” the man said, whistling. They both breathed a simultaneous sigh of relief, and then Carlos put the window cleaner on the counter and offered the man his credit card.
“Sorry, we have a $10 minimum.” The cashier pointed to a creased sign attached to the register. “Do you have any cash?”
The minute Carlos turned the Volvo onto the street lined with cookie cutter homes, he became self-conscious of the way his car sputtered down the road with a display of empty French fry cartons on the dashboard. Then he told Sylvia to hide them in the glove compartment.
“Who’re you trying to impress?” Sylvia asked, but he saw her sneak her greasy hair back in a ponytail and wipe crumbs from the corners of her mouth.
He had imagined his mother’s house as some kind of mansion, complete with lion statues at the gate and old fashioned paintings on the walls, but 147 Hillsboro Drive was just another box with vinyl siding and a two foot grass perimeter. Carlos parked the car on the street and turned off the engine, and then he and Sylvia sat looking at the red door, waiting for the other person to make a move. Finally, the ever-impatient Sylvia stepped out of the Volvo and stretched her stubby legs. Carlos followed close behind, and then approached the door quietly, like a hunter, until he pressed the doorbell; da-da-da-da, it sang loudly.
When no one answered, Carlos happened to look to the right and notice the car parked in the small lot: a blue BMW. A coincidence, he told himself, but a tiny pinch at the back of his neck was trying to tell him otherwise. He slapped at the skin like one might slap at a mosquito and the pinch disappeared, but he couldn’t help cringing a little when whoever was on the other side of the door started fooling with the deadbolt.
The door swung inward and there she was: Janine Juarez, wearing a sensible white collared shirt, a tan sweater, shapely slacks, and a holster with a familiar black handle sticking out the top. “How did you find me?” she asked Carlos, and Sylvia innocently looked back and forth between mother and son before her eyes settled on the gun.
“Wait a minute,” Sylvia started to argue, but in just a few seconds Janine had un-holstered the gun, grabbed his wife, and pressed the weapon into her back.
“If you want your wife to live, you won’t make a fuss,” Janine said in a cold voice that lacked all of the motherly charm Carlos had imagined during their long drive. He probably wouldn’t be tasting any home baked cookies, either. “We don’t want the neighbors to suspect anything.”
Carlos and Sylvia stepped into the house, and Janine closed the door, then led them into the living room and sat them on a plush, pink love seat that creaked dangerously when Sylvia sat down. “Carlos, explain yourself,” Sylvia hissed, and Janine waved the gun in her face to shut her up.
“I didn’t want to worry you,” he whispered back, which sounded better than saying he didn’t want to listen to her talk about it for thirty minutes. “Besides, how was I supposed to know my mother was the gas station robber?”
“What?” both women said at the same time.
“Sylvia, meet the woman who took my cash at that rundown gas station and who is also apparently my mother. Janine, meet my wife, Sylvia.”
They stared at each other, and Janine relaxed her hold on the gun. “I did abandon a baby once, and as far as I know, you could be him. Well, I suppose I can’t kill you now,” she said, her voice disappointed, “after all, you’re kin, and I’m not ready to go back in the slammer anyway.”
“Very generous of you,” Sylvia said with a heavy exhale, and she tried to climb out of the plushy trap.
“Now wait just a minute,” Janine said, and Sylvia dropped back down next to Carlos. “I said I wasn’t going to kill you, but I didn’t say you were free to go. I know he’s dry…how about you?”
“You want my money?” Sylvia asked in her who-stole-my-puppy voice. “But I thought when you found out—”
“You thought wrong. This house doesn’t pay for itself,” Janine said, waving her French manicured finger nails toward the well-furnished room, “and that gas station heist was a bust.”
Sylvia rummaged in her pockets and pulled out three twenties, which Janine eagerly bent to pick up. Before Carlos could even think to act, his wife threw her whole two hundred and fifty pounds at Janine and both women fell onto the glass table behind them. Considering they had to change their intimate moment positions after the last child (Sylvia weighed so much that she squeezed the air out of Carlos’s lungs), he could only imagine what she would do to his mother’s middle-aged bones. Sylvia reached a hand up so Carlos could help her stand, and they both scurried for the door while Janine moaned on the carpet, surrounded by shattered glass.
“This might not be the best time to mention this,” Sylvia said breathlessly as they ran for the car, “but we’re almost out of gas.”
“You’ve got to believe me.” Carlos looked up at Officer Lee, who wore black Maui Jims and a crew cut, and waited for the man to scribble what Carlos had said. “We tried to make it to my Aunt Lydia’s house in Carrolton, but only got as far as this highway before the car up and died on us. We were afraid for our lives, which is why we called you.”
Carlos had just finished explaining the less-than-believable story of his cross-state trip to find his mother, previously thought dead: the gas station robbery; the visit to his mother’s house, the realization that Janine was actually the robber from the station; and his wife’s creative escape.
“You say she sat on her?” Officer Lee repeated, peering into the car to get a better look at Sylvia, who was eating the last of the Sour Patch Kids and licking her sour fingers.
“Yes, Sir. Well, knocked her over and landed on her is more like it, but either way, she squished her. We’re not sure if Janine was injured or dead, but we didn’t stick around long enough to find out.”
Officer Lee got a call on his radio and walked back to the police car, still shaking his head.
“I’m hungry,” Sylvia complained, reclining her seat. “How long is this going to take?”
“As long as it takes to find her, arrest her, and put her in jail,” Carlos said for the millionth time. “If we go home, she might follow us and hurt the kids.”
“They could at least give us a ride to the station,” Sylvia said as she closed her eyes. “I’m sure there’s a spare doughnut lying around somewhere.”
“How can you possibly think of food right now?” Carlos asked, ignoring his own rumbling stomach. “You could stand to lose a few pounds, anyway.”
Sylvia started to cry, and he instantly regretted snapping at her. Before he could apologize, however, Officer Lee was back.
“We found her,” Officer Lee said like a cop in an action movie. “She was chasing you in that blue BMW you mentioned. I’ll take you to the station so you can identify her, and we’ll have someone get gas for your vehicle and give you a ride back.”
Sylvia didn’t say a word the whole time, not even to ask for a snack or can of soda. When they asked her to identify Janine as the thief, she simply nodded her head and went back to staring somewhere above Carlos’s left ear. They signed a few forms, initialed here and there, and were almost out the door before Sylvia pointed to a piece of paper on the wall of missing persons and wanted posters.
“Isn’t that Janine?” Sylvia asked.
Carlos walked over to the sign, and sure enough, his mother’s photo was dead center on a wanted poster: WANTED: JANINE JUAREZ, MAIDEN NAME CRUZ.
“That’s her, alright—” Carlos affirmed, but stopped in the middle of his sentence once the maiden name had sunk in. “Wait a minute…there must be some mistake. If her real name is Janine Cruz, then she’s not my mother after all.”
Carlos struggled to sort through his emotions. Even though his mother had turned out to be a gas station robber and the type of woman who stole her own son’s money, at least she’d been a real person Carlos could claim as his own kin. If Janine wasn’t his mother, then Carlos would be back to square one.
“But if we’re not related, why would my grandmother have a picture of her in the bottom of her closet?” Carlos asked out loud.
“We might never know.” Sylvia took his hand, and they walked out of the station.
For the first time in the fifteen years they had been married, Sylvia didn’t demand they stop for fast food on the whole ride home. For dinner she fixed a nice chicken salad, and for breakfast the next morning, egg whites. Carlos did not comment on the change and neither of them mentioned their near-death experience to their children, but between them, something was different.
The next afternoon, Carlos returned to his grandmother’s closet. As he’d dozed off the night before, his wife already snoring, a sudden revelation about his grandmother’s motives had occurred to him, but in order to be sure, he would need to look at photographs of some of the relatives he had actually met. Carlos found the box of keepsakes, emptied it out on the bed, and gathered the photos he had suspected he would find, all printed with names of different aunts and uncles who had died over the years. Specifically, Carlos found a photograph of his favorite uncle, the man who had been like Carlos’s father, but the man staring back at him, though he shared the same kind smile and leather rancher’s hat, was decidedly not his Uncle Joe.
His grandmother had lived a hard life, not the least of which involved the early death of her eldest daughter. Carlos couldn’t blame her for finding photos that looked and sounded like they could have been her relatives and holding onto them, the way she couldn’t hold on to those people in real life.
How lucky I am to have my real family, Carlos thought. Then he boxed up the photos, turned off the lights, and walked off to find the dumpster.
Prompt: Run With It, March 2014