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  • Writer's pictureMara Cao

viii. washing dishes with perfect hair

Updated: Apr 18, 2021

A group of four men come into our camp as the evening takes over. They are quiet, worn out. They sit around and we start cooking dinner. After a little rest and some campbell chicken soup with tortillas, they start telling chistes. The one they call Manuel knows a lot of chistes and makes his friends laugh the hardest. He has a round boyish face and black hair slicked back with brillantine. Even though his clothes are dusty and ragged, his sneakers worn down to holes, he has managed to keep his hair slick. There is not a single hair out of place.

After dinner, Manuel helps me wash the mountain of dishes. My headlamp is the only source of light in the dark. We scrape the food into the compost bucket, sponge down the utensils and plates in the soap bucket, rinse them in the clean water bucket, and then dip it all in the bleach bucket. We balance the dishes on the drying rack. The soap bucket gets slimy with food scraps very quickly and the clean water and bleach buckets get gray after only a few minutes. I prefer to wash the dishes with as little light as possible. Manuel asks me where I’m from and how I know how to speak Spanish. I tell him I am from California and that I learned to speak Spanish in school. I ask him where he is going. He says he is going to Arkansas because he lived there for seven years before and had a job fixing houses for a Chinese man before he got deported. His girlfriend and little boy are still in Arkansas and he needs to get back to them. He tells me that he could not find work in Mexico and most days he did not have enough money to even buy tortillas. A few weeks ago, his three friends from childhood were shot dead on their way to the market to buy some beers. It happened in the middle of the day and witnesses saw a teenager shoot them and run away. Manuel gets quiet and we finish the dishes.


I sweep the trailer out. It feels claustrophobic with the still heat trapped. Manuel calls out to me. He says he and his friends are leaving. They’ve arranged their ride. They need to start now to get to their meeting spot in time. I come out and I wish them health and luck. They walk out and disappear into the brushes. I hope they make it.





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