NB: Written as a response to Jay Stringer’s “recession” flash fiction challenge at the crime fiction blog Do Some Damage. I live near a day labor center, and I have had a number of family members and close friends (of various races) go there or to other centers just like it. Some of them were born here, some weren’t. Some had work permits, some didn’t. Racial tensions in Dallas haven’t really gotten much better across the city, and hard economic times seem to make them worse. In real life, this makes for terrible problems. In fiction, it can make for rich and interesting conflicts. And to paraphrase Harry Turtledove, only a fool believes you can always infer a writer’s politics from his work.
Beto stepped inside the little gas station across from the day labor center. He had saved a few dollars from the lawns he’d mowed yesterday and decided to buy breakfast for himself and his brother Paco. They liked the migas, scrambled eggs and tortilla strips. Maybe a few words of friendly conversation with the young muchacha at the cash register, too.
They waited at the center with twenty or thirty other men nearly every morning since they arrived in Dallas. Almost all of the men came from Mexico or Central America, but lately more local black men had started showing up, too. Everybody needed a job these days, and more than a few had trouble finding one during the recession. So they all waited together in the hope that somebody would need an extra pair of hands or a strong back.
Not really together. They mostly stood apart, drawn together by need but separated by language and distrust.
Last night, he’d talked to the family back in Durango. They wanted him and Paco to come back home, since it didn’t seem like they’d found much work in El Norte. One of their sisters had a baby on the way. The new priest seemed very nice, even La Uelita (Granny) thought so. So the phone call ended like always, with a promise to send money as soon as they could and to try to attend Mass this Sunday. He didn’t tell them about the beer and carne asada with a few of the paisanos in the apartment last week, since it made him feel a little guilty. They should have sent the money back. But everybody had to let go once in a while, right?
So, with the migas on a styrofoam plate he and Paco could share, Beto glanced out through the glass in the early morning light back towards the center and stepped outside to take a deep breath. The fumes from the early morning traffic somehow mixed with the dew in the cool spring morning air. It smelled like a city at work, or at least ready to get to work. Beto stepped around the pools of motor oil, old cigarette butts, and bird droppings as he walked through the gas station parking lot.
He could hear shouts from across the street. Sometimes fights started when the white men showed up in their pickup trucks. Some of them didn’t like to hire the black men. The gueritos called them lazy and complained that they wouldn’t work, so the Mexicans would start pushing to get into the back of the trucks instead. It usually didn’t go much further than that. Anyway, Beto and Paco generally stayed out of the fights, since the norteamericanos would still rather pick somebody else rather than take troublemakers, no matter the skin color or language.
Maybe a truck was backfiring, he thought.
Now all the men had started yelling. Tires screeched. A truck pulled out of the loading lane in the day labor center, skidding as it tried to align with the main road. Cars swerved all around to avoid each other. Beto looked back at the parking lot. From this distance, he couldn’t make out much detail in the two shapes on the ground.
Some of the men started punching others, blacks and Mexicans. The white men ran back to their trucks. He couldn’t tell who started what, but it looked like bad news for everybody.
He squinted to peer at the motionless workers laying on the ground and saw blood starting to seep out onto the cold asphalt. The bottom fell out of his stomach when he realized one of them had the same color of clothes as Paco.
Beto ran into the street, shouting for his brother.
For only a second, he heard the screeching tires of a truck trying desperately to stop. Then everything went dark.