Truth Like Oil

March 2005

Sak vid pa kanpe.

An empty sack can’t stand up.

Nadine hesitated and pressed a hand against her lower back, the stairs to her second floor apartment looming steep after her long day, the entryway as cold as the late winter air outside. Samba music and the smell of peanuts, garlic, and ginger drifted from behind her downstairs neighbor’s door. Then Yara, in a velvety red bathrobe, peeked out, glamorous as always, even at midnight in her own kitchen. The music swelled, and the spices announced themselves as her friend flung the door wide open.

“So late?” Yara said. “When are you going to quit that job and start cleaning houses with me? Changing sheets with no one in the bed is so easy, the money so much better. But you don’t listen.” She grabbed Nadine’s arm, tucked it under her own, and steered her into the warm apartment. “Eat. Have a glass of wine. You’ll sleep better. And I have something to show you.” Yara patted the pocket of her bathrobe where a corner of white envelope peeked over the edge. Nadine let herself be shepherded into a kitchen chair.

How good it felt to settle her exhausted bones after a double shift. She shouldn’t feel so tired—she was thirty-six not fifty. But her back complained as much as the old people she lifted on and off the commode all day long. Underneath it all Chance’s recent refusal to do well in school, to come home on time, to listen to anything she had to say, sapped her energy as surely as a terminal disease.

“Sak vid pa kanpe,” she said. “This day has emptied me.” A bowl of chicken stew, a plate of pão de queijo, and a glass filled to the top with pink wine appeared in front of her. She dropped her heavy purse onto the floor.

Yara sat down across from her and refilled her own glass. Nadine, still in her black winter coat, popped a warm roll into her mouth. She loved that cheese bread, crispy on the outside and warm and gooey in the middle, and Yara’s stew was one of the best she’d ever eaten, but she would have enjoyed soup from a can if someone heated it up for her.

“Sister, you’re a mess.” Yara sipped her wine, little finger in the air, then slid the envelope from her pocket, laid it on the table next to her glass, and covered it with the flat of her palm. Her long fingernails shone gold this week with tiny rhinestones glued to them, little stars that sparkled when she gestured. How did she clean houses with nails like that? No doubt her crew of recently arrived family members did the heaviest, nail-threatening work.

“I don’t look so bad.” Nadine knew her short hair always looked neat. She could stand to lose a few pounds, but her body had a nice shape. Families of patients said she had a “dazzling” smile and the cheekbones of a fashion model. “I’m tired. You remember what it’s like to work a double.”

“That’s what I’m saying!” Yara leaned forward. “You—”

“You don’t need to tell me again to quit Riverview,” Nadine said. “I know what you think.” In the eight years since Yara had left the nursing home and started her own business, she’d made enough money to buy this two-family house from the landlord, hire her cousins to fix it up, and help her two daughters through UMass Boston. In fact, sometimes Nadine had to wonder if her cleaning business was all she had going on.