Thirsty for Our Future

Nothing distracted Gloria more than evidence of a baby in the room. The cold white crib delivered by the guest runner. The scatter of plastic objects that emit their soft whistles and rattles as she gathers them. Sometimes a tablet, its screen’s luster buried beneath layers of tiny fingerprints. She always took the extra minute to arrange these treasures on the glass table next to the room service menu.

Gloria’s baby will not have a tablet, but he will be happy. He will have some toys, and the most beautiful lullabies. Once, when she scooped up a guest’s stuffed octopus, her baby unleashed a frenzy of eight joyous kicks—one for each floppy arm. A clear communication from the womb. With her next paycheck she bought paint. She asked the artist who lived upstairs to sketch a mural above the baby’s corner and wrote the word “PULPO” in box lettering beneath the smiling sea creature.

*     *     *

Room 2708 had all the signs of a toddler—starting with the diaper odor and the sheer diameter of the mess. For another housekeeper, these might stir a panic in her eighteen-room-a-day rush. And for Gloria, perhaps they should raise alarms—she had already received two warnings since her belly began to grow. But those came during the morning sickness, when she needed the extra water to clean her own vomit. Now, as the second trimester came to a close, she felt a second wind at work. And baby rooms became her favorite, practice for el chiquitito on the way.

2708 was her ninth room, the last before lunch. She began as always, with the bed. She removed a circular toy with a screen. She recognized it from the toy store site she browsed each night, a Magic Mirror®. It filmed you and replaced your background with exotic, brightly colored scenes. She placed it on the table by the window, taking a moment to notice how the dark, low clouds beheaded Chicago’s tallest buildings. It would snow soon, the first of the winter.

She needed to concentrate or she’d fall behind. She spotted a pale-green crust spread across a pillowcase and the top sheet. Baby vomit. La chingada. She would have to order an inspection and replace the sheets. She hoped the guest had called down to request a sheet change. Then, she could skip the wasted time of waiting for a supervisor to confirm the mess. But the card on the nightstand sat unmoved. The card read:

Bold Hospitality© means taking the lead. Our company has decided that we will be the first to fully comply with the new Water Conservation Act. Together with our guests, we will be part of saving the planet. With our Thirsty For Our Future© program, our housekeepers have been trained to maintain a strict water quota, which includes laundry. Please dial #77 if you require a change of sheets or towels or to report an unusual cleaning challenge.

Gloria left the sheets for inspection and moved on to the bathroom. A delta of narrow yellow streams forked along tile grout lines. The source was a small pool next to the toilet. By the sink, tiny broken handprints formed impressions into a cake of blue toothpaste. The meter showed the family had paid for two extra showers.

She looked up and rediscovered herself in the bathroom mirror, round-bellied and trembling.

Gloria sprang into action, passing her rag over the wet shower floor to absorb the water. That took care of most of the urine. She typed her code into the meter and filled her pail to the half-liter mark—half her allowance for each room. She added a few drops of blue soap and rung out the urine-soaked rag. The rest of the urine came up quickly and Gloria finished the floor. She scraped away the toothpaste into her waste bag. The white marble sink required clean water, so she poured out the now green liquid and refilled her other half-liter.

She placed the bucket on the vanity top and returned to her cart for the Orange Bullet®. Sonia had told her that the orange stuff was bad for the baby, que te lo envenena. So Gloria always handled it carefully, making sure never to let the thick undiluted chemical onto her skin. And it happened in less than a second:

  1. Gloria noticed the orange goo that had dripped from the loose bottle cap.
  2. Gloria thought of her baby and lunged to rinse her poisoned hand in the pail of water.
  3. Her hand hit the side of the pail, tipping its contents into the sink.

The water pooled for a long moment, and Gloria watched her disfigured reflection disappear with the water down the open drain. She looked up and rediscovered herself in the bathroom mirror, round-bellied and trembling.

*     *     *

The ladies must have seen it as soon as she sat down to lunch. All their brows bent in concern.

“Que te pasa, Glori?” Marlena asked. “You’re so pale, pareces guera. Is it the baby? You better start shoveling that food in there quick o te vas a desmayar, gordita.”

The four friends squeezed, as always, into a creaky wooden booth in the corner of the Team Dining Room, beneath a pair of buzzing fluorescent lights. The air hung thick with grease and spilled syrup from the soda machine.

“I’m fired. I’m done. I ain’t gonna have nothing when mi’jo comes out. Nothing. No toys, no diapers. Nada. I’m so stupid. Everything my mom did to try to give me a better life and look at me. Knocked up, unemployed. Nothing to give mi’jo. I swore he wasn’t gonna have to pedal. I swore.”

“Ain’t no shame in a kid having to pedal.” It was Sonia who cut in, thinking of course of her Antonio. He had entered one of those schools this year—spending phys ed generating electricity on stationary bikes. But she hushed when she saw the rage in Gloria’s eyes.

“Shut up Sonia. It’s over. I wanted to get him so many toys! I’d been keeping track, all the good ones. The ones them guest kids have. Los que le muestran que lo quieres de verdad.”

“Slow down, hija, slow down.” It was Mari, the mother of the group. She was the only one actually born outside of Chicago, in Honduras, where she taught literature. At work, even in the cafeteria, she spoke in a refined, borrowed English. “Stop rambling and tell us what happened. They did not fire you. If they fired you, you would be walking out with that Korean security guard woman. You would not be eating this dry chicken. So, please, calm yourself and tell us.”

“I spilled the water in 2708. The last of it. And there is this giant stain of toothpaste right next to the sink y no tengo nada para limpiarla. And the sheets are stained too and I have to call the supervisor and…”

“And you can’t open another room until it’s done.” Sonia interrupted again, citing the rule they all knew. Each room had to be finished and sealed before the next door opened. “So you can’t go use some other water.”

“And I’ve already been like forty-five minutes in that room so if I don’t call Heather when I get back right away there’s no way I get done.”

“How many left?”

“Nine.” The ladies all swallowed at once. Gloria had come down late to lunch. She would return to her room at one p.m. That meant three and a half hours for nine rooms. Possible, they’d all done it. But she needed to get out of 2708 right away.

“Did you try to spit?” Sonia asked.

“Don’t be disgusting.” Mari answered before Gloria. “I think you should explain to Heather. When they fired Doña Rosa, they said it was because she tried to cheat. They caught her bringing an extra water bottle from home. Maybe Heather will understand.”

“You know she won’t, Mari. She won’t. She’s the one who wrote me up when I got sick cause of my baby.”

“And she’s the one that fired Doña Rosa. And Rosa had been cleaning them rooms cada dia for how many, twenty-five years? More? Gloria been here like three.”

It was true. Gloria arrived a little more than three years earlier after cleaning houses on day-gigs right after high school. Most of the students who graduated with her were stuck in gigs for years, many depending on pedaling or BodyGig to make ends meet. Gloria had tried BodyGig a few times, disabling it after taking thirty sweaty dollars from an older spray-tanned man who filmed himself circling her naked body. So when Marlena recommended her at the hotel, she jumped at the opportunity for stable work and a real paycheck. Enough to finally move out on her own.

At school, Gloria had sung, won contests, and studied enough to pass the tests. She dreamed of where her voice might take her. And like any sensible artist with a poor single mother, she depended on day jobs and sang for tips at night, in cheap-beer bars and coffee shops lit by the glow of laptop screens.

It was her last guitar player, a little older with long hair and the ability to improvise any song, who left her pregnant. By the time the pink plus sign appeared, he was in Los Angeles, where he said everything was coming back after the earthquake—a rebirth, that’s what renaissance meant, did she know? La nueva Mecca Mexicana. She sent him a video message about this other imminent birth. In it she sang a verse from A la Roro Nino, a lullaby he’d surely know. He removed her as a contact.

Gloria didn’t realize she had begun to cry.

“Basta, Gloria,” Marlena said as she pulled her chair closer. “Don’t cry for these bastards. All this ‘Thirsty for our Future’ bullshit. You know the company just gets to pay less taxes. I bet you Heather and Murray and all of them go home and laugh and take some long showers.”

“Yeah,” Sonia added. “And you’ve wasted too much water today already, Glori, verdad?”

Mari hit her on the shoulder and they all let a thin laughter spill out like steam from four covered pots.

“Well, ladies. I’m going to miss you three. Ustedes son mi familia, you know that.”

“Basta!” Marlena lit up. “We ain’t gonna let you lose this job. Not with my ahijado on the way. Right, ladies? Who else is on your floor today? Maybe she’ll bring you some of her water if she has an easy room. Then you call Heather for the sheets and you fly through those other rooms. You can make it, Glori. Who’s the other lady up there?”

“Rasha, the big Arabian lady.”

“Syrian,” Mari corrected. She took pride in identifying the origin of her immigrant sisters.

“Fine, Syrian. She never says anything except to those other Syrian ladies. She looks always amarga.”

“Your country goes through twelve years of war, you would look bitter too.” Mari never made eye contact with the younger ladies when she lectured. “Marlena is right. Talk to her. She has two grandchildren, so stick out that bump of yours.”

“That won’t be hard.” Sonia said as she picked the last of her chicken from the bone. “If I were you I’d get up there. They don’t give a shit if you don’t take your whole lunch.”

“Okay, I’ll try. I’ll talk to her. Por favor, Rasha. Wish me luck, ladies. I need it.”

“Both of you need it.” Marlena rubbed the thin nylon uniform over Gloria’s belly as they all stood up.

*     *     *

The elevator had never flown so quickly to twenty-seven. Gloria tried to sing to calm her speeding pulse, but the first verse of her tune ended in the off-key ping announcing her floor. She emerged from the linen closet and eyed an over-stocked cart halfway down the hall. Arab language talk radio emanated faintly from the open door by the cart. Gloria knocked twice with a pair of swollen knuckles.

“Yes? Hello.” Rasha appeared from the bathroom with drops of sweat collecting along the lines of her forehead. She wore a light green hijab that matched her eyes and she stood at least eight inches taller than Gloria.

“Hi. Rasha, right? I’m Gloria.” She pointed to her nametag, already feeling pathetic.

“Yes, I know. We take elevator together every day. What do you want?” She wiped her forehead on her sleeve and looked at her watch. All housekeepers’ enemy was time.

“I have a problem. In 2708. I spilled my water.”

“You have no more water for that room?”

“Right.”

As Rasha’s eyebrows raised, Gloria felt herself shrink further.

“How old are you?”

“I’m twenty-three.”

“You young girls, American-born girls, you make your own problem. You work stupid, you know? I’m sixty-three year old! How an old lady like me finish my job and not use too much water and you girls always getting in trouble?”

“I, I didn’t…” Gloria did not expect this.

“My back always in pain! In my country they beat me as young woman and now every day for nine years I lift these big mattress, so many mattress. And yet I do my job and I finish and I not use too much water. And then I go home and I lie down and I pray tomorrow I can work again. So why you young girls born here always have problem?”

Now Gloria’s mind tipped and the hope spilled out. Everything turned to liquid: her son’s toys, the health insurance that promised a safe birth, her cozy basement apartment. All of it dissolved into a watery mix that hurried down an invisible drain. She turned to walk away.

“Turn around, girl!” Rasha’s voice snapped. “You have a big problem. You have a boy or a girl?”

“I have to finish my room,” Gloria responded, though she stopped and turned her head.

“A boy or a girl?”

‘Your country goes through twelve years of war, you would look bitter too.’

“A boy. A little boy in less than three months. Now he’s gonna be born with no home and a big bill I ain’t never gonna be able to pay. And I don’t have nobody to move in with, not even my mom, because rent got so high she moved back to Ecuador after I moved out. I’m so stupid, I never should have moved out. And I should have looked at the orange bottle before I touched it and I never should have knocked over that shitty water and yes, okay, I’m a young stupid girl and I got myself in trouble. Okay? Happy? You’re right.” Gloria wondered if her poor baby’s heart beat as violently as her own.

“I have two boys.” Rasha’s voice was soft now, but still firm. “Both all grown up now. Older than you. Not easy, boys.”

Rasha turned and vanished into the bathroom again. Gloria’s last drops of hope stirred in her as she heard the brief whirr of the faucet. She held back tears as the towering Syrian woman reappeared with a guest’s glass half-filled with water.

“You got nothing from me. They ask, you got nothing.”

“Thank you. Thank you so much.”

“All my life I drink water, I use water for bath. Nobody think about it. When I was in refugee camp, sometimes we don’t have water and we share and we do all right. Little ones always get the water first.” Rasha nodded to Gloria’s belly.

“Thank you.”

“Enough of the thanking. This hotel make me sick. Go clean your room.”

Gloria turned and took her first steps towards 2708, holding the few ounces in her glass with as much care as she would soon cradle her newborn. She let her future rebuild in her imagination—the safe birth, the playful days and lullaby nights in her warm home, the infinite kisses on his round cheeks, the continued guidance from her comrades in the cafeteria, the box of colorful blocks and talking books and even a Magic Mirror®. It all came together, one of those brightly lit childhoods from the toy store websites. She found herself singing again, under her breath, hitting all the notes.

Each floor had an H-shaped hall, and as Gloria turned the corner to 2708, she immediately knew something had happened. A long shadow leaked from the open door, folded at a right angle by her cart. She had closed and locked the door when she left. Two opposite possibilities hovered at the door:

  1. The guests had returned and she would apologize for the delay, working quickly around them to finish the room. She could even ask them to call down about the sheets, avoiding the wait for the supervisor’s approval before remaking the bed.
  2. Heather, her supervisor, had come to check her rooms and stood blocking her narrow path to salvation.

No use in delaying. Gloria’s fate was already sealed. Sure enough, as she approached, the shadow climbed the piled linen of her cart and behind it came a cross-armed Heather in her pinstriped suit jacket. Heather had always struck Gloria as a teen movie cheerleader, now tripled in age and hiding some dark secret behind her permanent freckled smile. But she did not smile now.

“What are you doing with that glass of water, Gloria? And what were you thinking going down to lunch with this room still a mess?”

Gloria knew these were not actual questions. Her baby began to kick wildly. How brave, she thought, not yet ready for this world and already trying to defend his mother.

“I expected more from you,” Heather went on. “Your water quota is up for this room. I thought you understood ‘Thirsty for our Future,’ Gloria. Especially with your baby on the way. It’s her future our company is protecting. We…”

“His. He. It’s a boy.” Gloria couldn’t tell why she needed to correct this. She only knew she needed to open her mouth, let out a little of the venom collecting at her throat.

“Well I am sorry, Gloria. But that hardly makes a difference in my point. Our company made a bold move, a responsible move to put the environment first. Our guests feel very strongly about it. They believe in us. And you ladies just won’t take it seriously. Now where did that water you’re holding come from?”

“I brought it from the cafeteria.” Gloria thought quickly, knowing Rasha too was in danger. “It’s from my drinking quota. I knew I only needed a tiny bit…”

“Okay, Gloria, let’s go on down to my office to talk about this. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to take a look at your file.”

“No, no. Listen, Heather. Listen. You know I have my two other warnings. But you don’t have to do this. You’re a mother. You understand. You know I do a good job here, my rooms are spotless, Heather.”

“Let’s just go down to my office, Gloria.”

Gloria knew what this meant. With its repetition, all hope was absorbed in the building venom. She put her hands on her stomach. Her baby had given up his kicking. Poor thing. She understood how he felt, trapped in a space where he had no control.

“You going to fire me? You gonna get security there waiting with her taser? You gonna have her tase me cause I’m angry about getting fired like you did to Linda? You gonna tase a pregnant girl? Huh, Heather? Why don’t you just fire me right here.”

“All right Gloria, I don’t need to listen to your street talk. Let’s be professional about this. If I need security, you’re damn right I’ll call them.” Heather’s left eye blinked uncontrollably. “It’s my job on the line, too. Don’t you understand that? Now, can we both be professional? Or do I need to call?”

Gloria realized something about Heather. There was a fear that always lay stitched in a well-hidden seam of Heather’s conversations with the housekeepers. But now the seam tore, exposing the bright thread. Her sudden vulnerability turned a switch in Gloria, transforming her from prey to predator.

“I hope you drown in all this goddamn water you’re saving.”

Gloria threw the water she was holding in Heather’s face, dropped the glass and walked to the elevator. She didn’t look back, but she heard Heather stammer on the radio as she called for security.

*     *     *

So many better lives rushed by.

Two guards waited as Gloria emptied her locker and discarded her uniform one last time into the laundry chute. The locker room was empty, silent except for her own body’s small sounds. Her friends would know nothing for another couple of hours, when her absence would confirm the inevitable rumors. Perhaps Rasha would fill in the details.

She walked out into a cold wind tunnel of downtown Chicago. The first snowflakes of the year swirled and stung. A line of teenage boys and young men, mostly black and brown, in sweatpants and torn coats, bent around the corner a block down State Street. Gloria knew they were waiting at the entrance of the Radius® pedaling station. She turned down Lake just as a train’s brakes screamed on the tracks above her. The projections on the light stone building beside her ran an ad she recognized. It showed hundreds of people walking in the sunshine with green uniforms and name badges. Above them, in an impossible blue sky, it read “GigCentral: Proud to present five years of Zero Unemployment in America.” Gloria wanted to punch the wall.

As she packed in with the other puffy-coated bodies on the Blue Line, Gloria thought maybe her mother had been right to leave, to seek out the memory of a slower life. The news projections on the train ceiling showed the face of a famous tattoo artist who had disappeared. But the passengers all stared down at their own tiny screens. Gloria turned on her phone and ignored the messages from Marlena and Sonia. She deleted her favorite toy store app, its shopping cart emptied into the glowing grid of pixels.

She looked up again as the train emerged from underground after Division. The snow had increased, hanging a translucent sheet between her and the expensive restaurants and coffee clubs of Wicker Park. So many better lives rushed by. Gloria had seen these spacious homes. She had dusted the art on their walls and polished their hardwood floors for pocket change. She had even sung in some of these clubs, earning the occasional eye contact and a tip from the mustached boys in form-fitting plaid. Beyond the snow, so many well-dressed young people sat around tables that overflowed with exotic plates and full glasses of sparkling water. At many of the tables, seats remained open, perhaps for a late-arriving friend. This was the Chicago that still seduced her.

But what a cold place to raise a child.

 

Noah Dobin-BurnsteinNoah Dobin-Bernstein is a union organizer living in Chicago. He is currently at work on a collection of intersecting stories about diverse Chicago characters in the near future.