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Authors: José Orduña

The Weight of Shadows

BOOK: The Weight of Shadows
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“José Orduña's book violates—in a most exciting way—a number of literary borders: the political essay is enclosed within a novel; tough political observation is enlivened suddenly by a rush of metaphor or lush detail from the poet's eye; finally, humor and pathos meet on the page ‘without papers.' Here is an exuberant, outlaw literary style that is the mix of several and that exactly matches the many ironies of being—and not quite ever being—a North American.”

—R
ICHARD
R
ODRIGUEZ, AUTHOR OF
Brown: The Last Discovery of America

“José Orduña's wonderfully wry, insightful, and beautiful debut is as deft as they come in nonfiction.
The Weight of Shadows
teeters on that dangerous nexus of race, class, and identity in American culture, charging through its subject matter with exhilarating confidence in order to bring us a mix of reportage, history, and autobiography that ultimately coalesces into a meditation on the physical, psychic, and aesthetic boundaries that taunt, challenge, and sometimes even inspire us all.”

—J
OHN
D'A
GATA, AUTHOR OF
Halls of Fame: Essays

“A beautifully written, insightful memoir that examines questions of citizenship and immigration with compassion, integrity, and fearlessness.
The Weight of Shadows
is an outstanding debut that instantly places Orduña among the ranks of literature's best new talent.”

—J
ERALD
W
ALKER, AUTHOR OF
Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption

“In this timely and remarkably crafted work, José Orduña skillfully weaves personal memoir with deeply researched facts to reveal the disquieting truths no citizen of conscience can afford to ignore. A powerful meditation on the fraught road to naturalization,
The Weight of Shadows
awakens us to the privileges and burdens of Americanness and the troubling and often-dehumanizing abuses suffered by those in the ‘shadows.'”

—S
HULEM
D
EEN, AUTHOR OF
All Who Go Do Not Return

“José Orduña has written a provocative and insightful work that is destined to introduce a new form to the world of creative nonfiction. We have faith in his facts and Orduña essays us into a position of activism, documentation, and nuanced storytelling.
The Weight of Shadows
opens new pathways toward understanding the repercussions of our immigration policies, a counter-narrative to our media-skewed perceptions of a human rights issue that has no border. Orduña's hybrid approach to narrative employs the urgency of fiction, an investigative, reportorial eye, and a sublime, bilingual lyricism. This memoir will no doubt be required reading for years to come.”

—W
ILLIE
P
ERDOMO, AUTHOR OF
The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon

THE WEIGHT OF SHADOWS

A Memoir of Immigration & Displacement

José Orduña

BEACON PRESS

BOSTON

For Yolanda and Martín,
and for all those who refuse to live as shadows

CONTENTS

CHAPTER 1

Imaginary Lines

CHAPTER 2

Martín y Yoli

CHAPTER 3

Biometrics

CHAPTER 4

La Soledad de Octavio

CHAPTER 5

A Civilized Man

CHAPTER 6

Good Moral Character

CHAPTER 7

Ceremony

CHAPTER 8

Friendship Park, USA

CHAPTER 9

Passport to the New West

CHAPTER 10

Disappearing Act

CHAPTER 11

Streamline

Acknowledgments

Notes

CHAPTER 1
Imaginary Lines

Toward the tail end of the evening rush where Octavio and I work, three large men with sharp faces come through the back door. They move tactically, tracing a straight line through the dim dining room, their movements almost graceful as they glide past the museum-quality Morales and de Jesus paintings on the walls—fine art for the diners' consumption, to accompany tweezer-plated morsels prepared with color composition, textural variety, and playful temperature variances in mind. No one seems to notice these bulky men who never break stride. But I see that one man looks at people's hands, the second focuses on faces, and the third scans torsos. Smoothly turning their heads to survey the room, they look like feeding herons.

Returning to the host stand, I catch the gleam of an earpiece snaking down the third one's thick neck.

God
, I think to myself,
to hear the voice on the other end
.

The gait of the man in the middle seems somewhat stunted, not so fluid as the others. Just before he turns a corner I think I notice a large geometric bulge under his jacket. I imagine it's some kind of submachine gun with switchable burst settings, designed for use in close quarters—like a dining room. I picture one of the customers being cut down by a short
fusíllade
, penetrated by three rounds diagonally across
the chest, or perhaps two individual rounds from two separate trigger squeezes.

The Swiss-made SIG Sauer P229 pistol chambered with .357 SIG rounds is an agency preference, its platform and round combination merging the accuracy of a nine-millimeter with the stopping power of the .357.
Stopping power
: the ability to transform a human into a corpse right where one stands, a hot metal projectile boring its way nine to fifteen inches into a human chest. This kind of power is given a rating based not only on the depth of the hole but by the size of the temporary stretch cavity it creates. The SIG's is forty-five cubic inches. Picture a hole in a chest the size of a Christmas ornament displacing connective tissue and organs, splintering bone. Stopping.

Catching a glimpse of Octavio clearing a table across the dining room, I smile and he returns a quick nod. I turn back toward the men, but they're gone. Octavio approaches the host stand and draws his face in just a few inches from mine.

“Qué pasa, cabrón?” he whispers.

“Obama.” I motion toward the back table with my head.

The president has a standing reservation here. He gets the quiet table in the back corner near both rear exits. When he decides to come for dinner, a Secret Service agent sends the general manager a text message from a Type One device—Blackberry, probably—that's been certified by the NSA for transmitting classified government information. The text, perhaps just the word
Renegade
, will have run through several of the world's most complex algorithms before landing in the general manager's inbox. It might read
RRRR
, if Renaissance, Radiance, and Rosebud plan to join him for a family dinner.

Octavio walks to the wall that divides the two restaurants into discrete dining rooms, takes a look into the fine dining side, but doesn't go in. Busboys on that side wear ties and silk vests for the politicians, celebrities, and hedge fund
managers. Seating is done by reservation only, filling at least three months in advance. You can order à la carte, but people usually opt for one of the three five-course tasting menus paired with whatever the sommelier recommends. The average diner drops around five hundred dollars for a meal.

Octavio dips back, clearing three tables before he's at the end of the regular dining room. Busboys from this side wear black guayaberas and never enter the other side. This rule doesn't even need to be stated because it is so concretely understood. For example, the dishwasher, El Conejo, is never seen outside his dish pit. He eats his shift meal standing above the industrial sink if he has time, or chugs the black coffee—two Splendas—I sneak him. When he's had too much caffeine he emerges, having frantically powered through a mountain of dishes only to hit a lull, which in turn makes him pop his head aggressively through the swinging doors of the pit, grab the first busboy who walks by, and growl, “Tráeme más platos, puto.”

I go wherever I want because I speak English as if it were my mother tongue. Instead of a uniform, I wear Hermès ties with H's woven into their double-ply silk. When the maître d' for the fine-dining side is swamped, I'm allowed to give him a hand. I ask people, most white, if I may take their coats, handing them off immediately to a young Mexican woman who manages to remain out of sight until the very moment she's needed. I pull chairs out for women, wait until the men have taken their seats, then place open menus directly into everyone's hands.

When payroll makes an error on my check, I don't hesitate to take the elevator up to the corporate offices, knock on the head accountant's door, and kindly ask him for a moment of his time. Once, two pay cycles went by without me getting a paycheck, and the floor manager kept forgetting to do anything, telling me the problem would be sorted out by next payday. In his office, the accountant carefully looked at
his screen and let out a forceful
hah
, as if trying to dislodge something in his airway. Seemed I'd been deleted from the digital clock-in system so that none of my hours had been logged.

“Well, how many hours did you work last month?” he asked, not especially perturbed.

There was no way for me to remember, I told him. I tried to picture the beginning of the month when I'd first gotten the job, thinking I'd be able to save enough money to move to Iowa for graduate school, put a deposit down on an apartment, and buy a $680 money order to send to the Department of Homeland Security with an N-400 form in order to initiate naturalization.

“Come on, come on,” he said, flopping his big hands at me. “Just gimme a number.”

I did some quick math. “A hundred forty?”

It was only slightly above what the real number must have been. Perfectly fair, though, I reasoned, considering the two pay cycles I'd had to wait. Without hesitation, the accountant took a fat wad of folded bills out of his slacks and counted out fourteen crisp hundreds, placing each one directly onto my open palm.

“You let me know if this happens again, kiddo.”

Slowly placing the bills in my hand, the bookkeeper was perfectly genial, but I wondered if he didn't realize that this kind of error—missing hours, inaccuracies in pay rate, payroll system glitches—happens regularly, inevitably in the restaurant's favor. I wondered too if he failed to understand that the reason El Conejo in the dish pit and Octavio on the floor didn't come up to his office was because they'd been obliged, since their first jobs in the States, to grin and bear whatever, without saying a word. Men like Octavio and El Conejo might get their money eventually, after bills had moved into collection and accrued late fees; after they'd received calls from debt collectors making threats of repossession; after
their gas was shut off, teaching them what a bitterly cold shower feels like at five in the morning, the same lesson their children would learn at six thirty when it was time to get ready for school.

In 2008 we would have been happy to see Obama walk quietly to his table—all that hope so neatly wrapped up in a black package. Now, however, three years later, when the three men reappear, posting themselves at three separate points in the dining room—two near the entrances and one sitting at the next table—it's different. We joke about him dropping dead after choking on his deconstructed taco.

There are two men at table fifty-six who I think might be on the job. They have the same thick bodies as the other three, and they have the same square hands, with fat thenar eminences that bulge after years of gripping things. They don't seem to be enjoying their luminous squares of perfectly cooked halibut, topped with cilantro foam, placed delicately on a disk of micro greens and edible flowers grown on the restaurant's rooftop garden. They don't seem to notice the hammered copper chargers underneath their plates. Neither one has touched the wine the sommelier poured.

My phone buzzes against my thigh, and as I take it out to check the blue voicemail symbol, I miss the presidential entrance.

He's sitting now, surrounded by a bunch of old white men. No Renaissance, no Radiance, no Rosebud. One of the men fingers the slightly angled silverware placed in front of him, nudging it back from the brink of chaos. Most of that cutlery was polished this morning by Octavio, an “illegal alien.”

“Pinche Obama,” he says, back at the host stand, shaking his head before he goes back to work.

Pinche Obama
because Octavio had let himself believe that, being not white, the new president would necessarily be sympathetic to the plight of undocumented immigrants. Because he had let himself believe he and the US-born fiancée
he's been engaged to for four years now would finally be able to get married.

BOOK: The Weight of Shadows
11.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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