She hangs her purse and pink bolero on the wall-mounted silver coat rack shaped like ivy leaves on a vine. The automatic facelifter next to the coat rack—a blue, plastic egg the size of your head on a frame with caster wheels—growls, then falls back asleep like a coyote or a chupacabra maybe. Ms. Van Buren plops into the old dentist chair I got cheap, polished up real good, and took all the dentist-y things off of. She groans like she’s happy to be fed up with running from hair salon to investment banker to nail salon to country club luncheon to skin salon to charitable gala and finally, maybe, to “get away from it all” you know, giving in to her guilty pleasure of staying in one of those posh hotels she owns and stealing the monogrammed towels in the morning.
Overhead, stuck-up skincare models on looping TV ads stare down at her like, yeah, they see her, but all that’s her problem and they don’t want to know about it.
I start by massaging her face and neck, because once I told her good circulation expands the blood vessels in the skin, which smooths out the wrinkles. I can sell anybody anything, so I pocket another twenty bucks to listen to her talk while she settles into her chair and I settle into my endless waiting game. I been waiting half my life for something—news from my sister, money from my sister, news about my sister, my abuela to recognize me one last time, my green card, a business loan—so I’m good at it, but it’s still frustrating.
“Now, Victoria, dear, pull out all the stops, because I have bigger fish to fry than usual.” Her eyes light up, which means she’s been to the eye salon for an expressionistic iris layering. She’s never done that before.
I perk up. If she’s doing things she’s never done before, if she’s going all-out, you know, maybe she’s ready to buy what I’ve been waiting to sell her for three years now.
She keeps talking like I’m her bestie—you know: the one she pays and can fire if she wants. “I told you I’ve been seeing Mr. Clifford, the pharmaceutical mogul, didn’t I? Well, he’s finally invited me to a public event. I think he’s getting serious. He could be my gateway to forging international connections.”
“That would sure come in handy finding cheap labor for your hotels.” I wring out the sponge for the skin prepping. “Or your mansion.” The sponge tears as I twist much harder than I mean to. Don’t let it show, I remind myself.
“Heavens, no!” Ms. Van Buren laughs in a jittery kind of way, like wine glasses clinking. She’s got a lot of rings on her bony fingers, and she twists one of them around and around. “I’m not in the business of trafficking or employing illegal immigrants. Where did you get that idea? Is there…is there slander around town?”
My face like “oh no!” comes naturally. I use it a bunch with my old ladies—that’s what I call my clients when they’re not listening—because they always think they got something coming to them, and they love to tell me about when they don’t get it. “Of course not, Ms. Van Buren! I just assumed. It’s a business and you’ve got to cut costs, right?”
“Yes, you know how that is. You’re a business owner.” She pats her thin white blouse like she spilled crumbs on it or something. “I may not check every employee’s documents as assiduously as the government would prefer, but that’s only because I don’t believe in second-guessing other people’s life decisions. Besides, if those poor people immigrate illegally from destitute conditions, they’re happy for any work. Better than dying in the muck back home.”
Yeah, my sister liked dying in American muck so much better. I change the topic fast before I get too angry again. “So, there going to be cameras tonight?”
“Tons of them! Mr. Clifford is announcing a new, inexpensive medication for…a disease I know I’ve heard of, but I can’t remember where. And he’s raising money to provide free treatment for the poor wretches who can’t afford it. Anyway, it’s being thrown by one of the richest men in the country, so…” she giggles and fans herself with both hands, “…all eyes on me.”
“Oh, Ms. Van Buren, you’re finally getting what you deserve!” I clap my hands together and smile real wide like a schoolgirl. “Wait, is that the T-cell lymphoma gala?”
Her irises go all slate gray like thick fog, and she pinches her eyebrows together even though I told her that gives her wrinkles. “You’ve heard of it?”
I shrug like it’s nothing and mix up a facial mask. “My older sister died of lymphoma ten years ago, so I kind of follow related news.”
She touches my arm as I apply the mask to her skin. “Oh, my dear, I’m dreadfully sorry for you. Mr. Clifford tells me the cost of treatment used to be insurmountable. For someone of your means. Her healthcare didn’t cover it?”
“She…had a head start on her green card, and it never caught up to her.”
“O-Oh. I see. Well, I wish I had known her. I certainly would have helped. You know that, don’t you?” Her eyes close, and she leans back while I smear the homemade moisturizing paste into the deep lines of her forehead and down her baggy cheeks. The paste looks and smells like gutter sludge from my old village. I wonder how my old ladies can like this, but right now it doesn’t matter because it’s time to reel Ms. Van Buren in.
I gasp like I just thought of something, and her eyes peel open. “You know, ma’am, if you really want to go the extra mile tonight, I think…”
I’m pretty sure she’s holding her breath in anticipation. She loves trying every stupid thing I suggest, and I bet she’s hoping I have some new trick to turn the clock back forty years on her thinning hair and drooping earlobes.
Before she busts, I say, “…you should go blue.”
“Oh, no, no, no, I couldn’t do that.” She waves her hands around her head like she’s got hornets nesting in her hair. “It’s too dangerous.”
I get that same sinking in the gut like those two times I got back a thin envelope from the green card lottery. But I’m a born saleswoman. I know what buttons to push. “Oh. I didn’t think you believed alarmist liberal media,” I say and smooth the lumpy mask.
“No, no! Heavens, no, I don’t! I suppose…I suppose it would be quite the eye-catcher for my debut in the upper echelons.” She twists the same ring as before and pinches her lips together. “Have you performed the procedure often?”
“Plenty!” I give the hand with the merry-go-round ring a friendly pat. “What’s all this hesitation, Ms. Van B.? Haven’t I always done good by you? Remember that time your nutritionist had you fasting and you got jaundice right before that Met fundraiser? I fixed you up, didn’t I? Trust me.”
She’s spun her ring a dozen times by now, but she straightens it and drops her hands in her lap. “Oh, what the hay. Let’s do it!” Her irises light up again, and a swirl dances around them like on some cheap Las Vegas billboard.
I squeal and rub the facial mask off with a towel, then pull the blinds down like a magician dropping the curtain in front of the lady he’s going to saw in half. My facelifter’s wheels whisper across the waxed floor like Papa’s straight razor over a strop. After I set it to drumhead tight, I hand Ms. Van Buren a tablet with a waiver to turn off the machine’s safeties. The facelifter swallows her thumbprint with a sound like a tummy rumble, and the egg-shaped hood snaps open.
“We’re not too early or too late?” She’s twisting that ring again, but I’ve almost got her.
“Perfect timing, really. The lowered circulation to your face takes effect slowly, with just a little blue after about an hour. It peaks at twelve hours and disappears by twenty-four. Close your eyes.” I shut the hood around her head, and the lasers map every tiny wrinkle on her face.
From inside the machine, her voice is like somebody stuffed a rag in her mouth. “It doesn’t…?”
“You won’t feel a thing, Ms. Van Buren.” I hit the button.
Three minutes later, the facelifter does some crazy biological thing and welds her shut Ziploc-baggie-style, then dings like an egg timer. I take the hood off to show Ms. Van Buren her ultra-tight face. Her irises pulse red, like a tiny heartbeat, like she’s in love with what’s in the mirror.
“It’s astonishing. I haven’t looked this way since I was twenty. Dear, you’ve earned your keep again!”
Actually, she’s never looked that way. Her skin’s all hard and glossy, like a Barbie doll, and soon she’s going to turn blue, which is her body telling her it don’t like this, but rich people think crazy expensive stuff makes them sexy. It’s how I earn a living.
She collects her things, pays, and walks to the door. She’s hunched over her purse and hobbling on stiletto heels, but what I see from behind is an old lady with a crooked back walking a little unsteady-like, and I think of my abuela. “Ms. Van Buren!”
When she looks at me again, I don’t see my abuela no more, but I think, you know, maybe Ms. Van Buren is a person too. Maybe she could have been somebody else’s abuela. It’s not too late to fix what I did—if I see the human under all that Louis Vuitton, Estée Lauder, and the Benjamin Franklins she wears like armor against me and everybody else who got to work for money. It’s not too late if she recognizes me the way I hoped she never would when I finally got my green card and came here with a plan to get justice.
“Hey, could I maybe come with you sometime? People say when I’m all dolled up, I look like a celebrity. Can you guess which one?” I don’t look like no celebrity, but I put my hands next to my cheeks like my smile’s a flower between two leaves. She’ll have to look hard at my face now.
Her eyes go dark, and her face twists confused-like as far as her skin will let it. But when she looks me over, her lips flap open like maybe she’s got to breathe extra hard while she’s thinking, because maybe she does kind of remember. “I…can’t place it.”
Come on, put it together, puta. It’s not like you’re really my abuela, who couldn’t even remember our names in the end.
“Seriously? I don’t look like anybody you’ve ever known?” I do. I always looked like a younger copy of my sister, except that she got Mama’s chin and I got Papa’s. I can even see her now in my own half-reflection in the shaded store window. I cup my hands more to cover my chin a little so maybe Ms. Van Buren finally sees it, but also so she doesn’t see my chin quiver.
“M-Maybe…” And it’s like suddenly she knows, and the shock pulls her features tighter like spandex leggings two sizes too small. I try to think of an excuse to get her back under the facelifter. But then she says, “That Lopez girl! Actress, I think.”
Yeah, I didn’t think so. She had me going for a second, but rich people don’t look at beggars, even if that beggar is on her hands and knees, begging for the first time in her life and crying for the last. Even if that beggar works illegally in that rich person’s mansion so the greedy old bitch don’t got to pay benefits. Even if that beggar’s dying because she can’t afford treatment for T-cell lymphoma but her employer could shake the money for it out of the interest on her smallest investment and have cash left over. Ms. Van Buren wasn’t human enough to look my sister in the face and save her life back then, and she’s not human enough for me to save her now.
I don’t know any Lopez actress, but I say, “Bingo! Anytime you need a celebrity double, you give me a ring, okay?” I give her a little “toodles” wave, and she hurries away.
At closing time, I lock the door and pull the shades down. Sitting in the dentist chair with a box of Chinese takeout on my lap, I find CNN on the TV. Galas are too fluffy for them, but even their cameras show up when somebody rich dies at one.
Between bites of lo mein and glances at the TV, I cry in the mirror. In the past months, I learned to cry when I need to. All I got to do is think about my sister. After my dinner, I’ll go to the police station and tell them I saw the news of Ms. Van B.’s death. I’ll put on a good show, crying and tearing my hair out and stuff, and I’ll confess. They’ll revoke my license, but thanks to the blueing waiver, that’s all they can do. I just made an honest mistake with the settings, which cut off the blood to her brain a little too much.
Murder is so easy when the victim has no rights, you know?
Copyright © 2022 Andrew Rucker Jones