George sits across from me, leaning forward, his plate on the wrought iron table outside Cantina Burgues still holding two untouched burritos. Behind him, a welded trio of steel mariachi players struggles to play their instruments. They want to play a popular ranchera song for us, but they cannot. One’s rusty lips reach with infinite effort towards a cast iron trumpet. Another fights without end to pull a metallic bow across a warped violin. The singer has cried out the same note since we sat down, his mouth shaped like an aluminum ‘O’, his hammered eyes looking as if he can’t hold it much longer. Somebody with a sense of humor has dressed them in striped ponchos and luchadore wrestling masks, except for the singer. He has no costume due to a large rounded guitar fused to his chest. He cannot play because he is not real, but in my head I hear the voice of Vicente Fernández belting out Volver, Volver.
It’s our third date, the first one during lunch hour. He’s telling me about something that happened at work yesterday. An email. It was missing a “not.” An important “not.” Like, “do NOT approve.” So, something got approved that shouldn’t have been approved. He didn’t make this mistake. This is his first real job out of college, but he didn’t make this mistake. Someone else did. Someone older. Someone with more experience. He can’t understand how this can happen in a company like his. It took him three interviews to get hired there. It’s a total quality company. A real Fortune 500.
He waves his hands around enough to make his glasses fall off. He returns them to his face without interrupting his story. His fifties-style black rims match his fifties-style black hair. I smile. I nod. I make the mariachi band play louder in my head.
There’s a basket of fried yucca between us. I look at it. It makes me think of boiling hot grease.
Boiling hot grease.
I remember our second date he told me his great grandfather’s brother died in a giant vat of boiling hot grease. It happened in the early 1900s, over in Poland, when there were no safety laws for children. The boy was still a kid when it happened, maybe eight years old. He worked in a factory. He slipped. He fell. He was boiled alive. It happened just that way. That’s what George had said.
George is telling me now that the missing “not” set off a chain reaction. Legal got involved. Billing practically shut down. Accounting ended up eating the cost. The Finance V.P. was pissed. All because of a manager who couldn’t type.
Mój Boże! Mój Boże! I hear the Poles screaming. There’s a little boy in the fryer! Quick! Get him out! Get him out! The mariachi band stops playing in my head. Their metal faces look up at an invisible trestle above George then shift down, peering into the seething vat that is our table. I hear the panic in the factory. George does not notice. He does not stop talking.
The manager didn’t get fired, George is saying. Managers never do. Not even a slap on the wrist. He takes a drink of water and presses his mouth into a line. He looks off behind me to contemplate the errant email.
The band and I watch vaporous ancient men run up behind George and look into the vat. They have sweat stains down the armpits of their shirts, and they smell like cigarettes and hunger. One man pulls out a broom with a head made of stiff dry hay. He knows it will burn up in the oil, but it is all he has. He is frantic. The boy is his son.
George stares hard at the brick wall behind me and chews a bite with grinding jaw. He is thinking he would never make a mistake like that. He is thinking he will be a manager soon.
The man with the broom is shouting something in Polish. I can barely hear him, and what I do hear I don’t understand. He scoops the broom under his son, but all it does is push him around in circles while the bristles boil off. The band yells something in Spanish, but the man can’t understand them.
I am sitting at the table, but I am also standing at the vat now. Grease has spilled over the table making the floor by my feet hot and slippery. The factory has gotten louder in my ears. The sweaty man is talking to me like I am his wife. Yelling at me. Thrusting at me. Wanting me to find something else to help get our son out of the boiling oil. Our boy’s body has gone rigid. I can’t see his face. It’s only been a few seconds. I can smell searing skin.
George is talking again. More about the email. It has gone viral in the office. People have added “not” everywhere except where it needs to be. George even added a “not” in the fourth round. He says the manager has been hiding in his office all day. They make sure to copy the manager on every new version of the email.
My boy’s body rolls over in the scalding vat in front of us. I see his face now. It is melted. Ears and eyelids fused. I don’t know if he is still alive. I cannot allow him to be pulled out now. I hit my husband’s arms to make him stop. I cannot speak, I just hit. I have to let my son die in there. It will be quicker. Exposed nerves. Disfigured face. No hands. The world cannot help him now. There is less pain in the hot grease than in the cold air. He will die either way. This is better.
Stop hitting me! Why don’t you do something to help, my husband yells at me. He keeps jabbing the broomstick at our son.
He doesn’t think. He doesn’t ever think. Our boy is lost. My husband cannot be a hero. He will not be able to tell the village how he saved his son. This is not the same as losing a finger in a machine. Get him out now? Cruel. Cruel to our son and cruel to me. Our boy won’t even be able to open his mouth to cry out, to breathe, to kiss my cheek one last time. My husband doesn’t think. He just reacts.
My husband says I am betraying them—him and my son. I can’t explain this to him. I will never be able to. I just close my eyes and hit him again.
The yelling finally stops, and I know my husband has given up. I open my eyes and see him sink to his knees. I stay standing. The singer stares at me with his mouth still in a silent ‘O’, his eyes more pained now.
George is saying something but I can’t hear him. The ghost of my Polish husband is sobbing next to me. The sobs are from somewhere deep and old. He retches. Silence. Silence in the factory. All I can do is stare at my broken husband.
A whole vat of grease lost, a shadowy man says behind me. At this, I cry.
He spits on the floor. He knows I am the boy’s mother. He cannot dock a dead child’s pay, but he will dock mine.
I stare at the yucca. I blink back the tears so George will not see. The band wants to put their instruments down, but they cannot. They want to reach out and comfort me, but they are welded in place. George is still talking. He wasn’t there. He was never there. He was never the father. He was never the mother. He was never his own great grandfather’s brother, the boy that fell. Not ever.
My skin hurts. I have been all of them since he told me this story two weeks ago. I have mourned my child, and I have mourned my wife’s pragmatism. I have mourned my husband’s hatred of me. But, most of all, I have mourned my life, lost in a vat of grease.
Susan Dickerson is currently working on a low-residency MFA from the University of Tampa. Her writing career is just getting started, with this being her first publication. She lives in Denver, Colorado, where she works in IT and spends her free time writing, hiking and sampling all the wonderful locally brewed craft beer. She hopes to publish a collection of short stories someday.