The Language of Payday: Flash Fiction

Becky can’t speak much Spanish, but she knows the language of payday. She knows when it’s five o’clock on Thursday, at least during the growing season. That’s when the men in the red T-shirts pile in to cash their checks and buy groceries. Some of her coworkers complain that they’re loud and stink of sweat and the fields, but Becky smiles just seeing them in the parking lot, tumbling out of a series of yellow buses. She thinks they’re cute—well, some of them—and they’re always friendly to her and very polite.

She has her eye on the last worker in line at the check-cashing counter. The other men call him Pablo. It’s only his third week. Even though the rest of the men are laughing and joking around, Pablo doesn’t speak. Last Thursday, he came to her register, unloaded his items as if they were treasure, counting on his fingers and pursing his lips when he realized he was one bottle of Pepsi over the express line limit.

“No problema,” she said, and checked him through. His smile so gentle, his eyes so sweet, his relief like a word balloon over his head before he plucked up his bags, mouthing “gracias, gracias” as he hightailed it for the bus.

“Hey, is this the express line or what?”

A flush runs up Becky’s cheeks when she realizes she’s been ignoring her customer.

“Sorry.” She hustles items over the scanner.

“Can’t you do something about that?”

“I’m sorry, what?”

The woman, bone thin with a bad dye job and overplucked eyebrows, waves a hand toward the men at the counter. “I don’t know, like not letting them in all at once, or something?”

“They’re just cashing their checks,” Becky says.

“And I wanted to buy my Camels. Now I have to wait. Since I can’t buy them at the register anymore.”

“I can get them for you, if you like.”

The woman sniffs. “Hello? Express lane? Then you’ll be making everybody else wait and they’ll be looking at me like I’m the bad guy.” She turns to the six customers behind her. “All of you mind waiting while Becky here gets my cigs?”

Nobody makes a peep. The third customer turns to the fourth, and they share an eyeroll.

“It’s no trouble, ma’am, and it won’t take very long. Or I can ask someone else to—”

“Forget it,” the woman says. “I’m running late. Just ring me up.”

Becky catches Dave the supervisor out of the corner of her eye, already warming up his unhappy-customer smile. “Is there a problem here?”

“You should open more registers.” The woman stares pointedly at the line of men.

“I’m sorry you had to wait. I can offer you a coupon for twenty percent off your next—”

She’s still watching the men. Becky wonders if she’s aware that her hand has tightened around her pocketbook. “Are they even legal?”

Becky’s neck muscles stiffen. She can’t even get the first word, the first thought out before the woman, eyes narrowed, marches over to the check-cashing line.

“You don’t belong here,” she shouts. “Lemme see some ID.”

Pablo bolts for the door.

“Watch my register,” Becky says to Dave. “Please?” She runs after him. Finds him huddled in the last seat in the last bus.

His Spanish is rapid and she thinks she hears the words for “family” and “work” and he looks like he’s trying not to cry.

“I don’t understand.” She eases toward him. “No hablo…that fast. Pablo… How can I help you? Is there someone I can call?” She wracks her brain for the words. Teléfono, she knows. Then she remembers from some long-ago high school Spanish class: “¿Puedo ayudar?”

He stops talking and looks up. His eyes. So sweet. He pulls a worn wallet from his dirty jeans. Shows an identification card, next to a picture of two small girls. She’s seen ID like that before. It’s an H2-A visa. All the migrant workers have them.

She looks at him, puzzled. “You’re legal, you’re here to work on the farms. Why didn’t you just—?” Of course. He must have heard the threats. “Here.” She pulls a pad and pen from her apron. “What do you want?”

“¿Que?”

“Food. Groceries. ComidaTú quieres…? Tell me. Yo quiero pagar…” Damn, what was that word? Not to pay, but to buy. “I want to buy it for you. And I’ll get you”—she pointed to his paycheck—“dinero. Until next week. You can pay me next week. Or whenever.”

When she had him all squared away with the few items he needed, plus a bottle of Pepsi and an extra twenty bucks, Becky returned to her register. “Thank you,” she told Dave. “Did that customer get her cigarettes?”

“No,” he said. “And she won’t be a customer anymore. At least not here.”

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