Mauricio Rosales


Born in El Salvador, but raised in the US, Mauricio Rosales is a retired English teacher. He received an M.A. with Concentration in Writing from William Paterson University in 2005. His work has appeared in The Bilingual Review/La Revista Bilingüe, The Irreal Reader: Fiction & Essays from The Cafe Irreal, Exit 13, Lyric  Better Than Starbucks. andHis translations have appeared in Mundus Artium and Borges and I (U. of Arkansas Press, 1985).

Jersey Devil

Señor Katorosz always spoke his lesson plans aloud while trimming his thin, gray mustache before the bathroom mirror, under the watchful presence of Sancho, his cat. “Today, Sancho, I will give my students a pop quiz on the subjunctive tense and a reading check on Chapter X of El QuijoteQuijote rhymes with bigote, no?… mustache… el bigote. Do you know the secret to the subjunctive tense, Sancho? It expresses a condition that does not exist. Es lamentable que todos no esten aquí hoy. It is lamentable that all…that all…How you say it in your condenado English, Sancho…not be here today? What a tongue!”

Señor Katorosz leaned closer to the mirror and looked into his hazel eyes, his father’s, Polish-Argentinean eyes. No one knows where the next gray hair will appear, he thought, or the next wrinkle. He ran his hands over his face, covering its Caucasian caste that made people assume he was an Americano, pulling flat the few creases on his pale skin. Sancho yawned and followed him, as usual, into the living room, rubbing up against his leg when Señor Katorosz stopped to put on his coat, purring when Señor Katorosz slung his shoulder bag with his lesson plans, but meowing like crazy when Señor Katorosz picked up El Quijote and his cell phone, reaching for the door. “There now, Sancho,” he said. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

*                          *                          *                          *                          *

Ten minutes later, while he waited at the corner bus stop for the northbound  local167, he looked up from his copy of Don Quixote and caught sight of a rat scurrying down the block near the intersection. He watched it running in and out of the shadows beneath some parked cars, until the gray thing scudded across the street and vanished into a sewer, making him almost think the animal knew exactly where it was going. The size of the rat reminded him of Sancho, and he thought it funny that the only difference between cat and rat—complete oppositesis one letter. He shook his head, wondered what his neighborhood in Union City was coming to, before closing Don Quixote and tucking his hands in his coat pocket. He was absentmindedly fingering the cell phone, when he noted a number of men he hadn’t seen before among the usual commuter crowd beginning to line up behind him. He pulled out his left hand to look at his watch. The bus was late, a rare thing, hadn’t been late for God knows how long. “No esperaba que vinieras,” he muttered in subjunctive. “I didn’t expect that you…come?…will come?…would come? Damned English!”

When the bus finally pulled up, the door flew open sucking in the outside air. He rushed in first, but he tripped on the last step. The driver, and one of the strangers on line, helped him catch his balance. Señor Katorosz gathered himself, tucked his shoulder bag tightly under his arm and handed over the bus ticket. Then he made his way down the aisle, craning his neck to see if his favorite seat, the one midway down the bus, the one he’d sat in for the past ten years, was empty. It was. And then that feeling of sitting close to an emergency window and the warmth that went up his coat—his warmth, smelling of Sancho, and mate—that warmth trickling up through his collar onto his neck as he settled on the seat was his cue to let the slight bumps of the road, the loll of the passengers’ heads, the tugging of the bus like a tide, help him to relax for the time being, to look out the window, to let someone else take over, maybe sleep. The lesson plan could wait until he got to school fifty minutes later.

*                          *                          *                          *                          *

“All these damn spics.”

Señor Katorosz woke up thinking he’d heard a man’s voice, speaking as if in a kind of mumble. Outside, the gray marsh along the JerseyTurnpike reflected an overcast sky through the fog his breathing made on the window, and he noted that he was not yet halfway to school. His head leaned on the window and his eyes began to close again.

“All these god-damn spics.”

This time Señor Katorosz knew he’d heard a man’s voice. He’d only dozed off again for a minute. He just wasn’t sure where the voice had come from. He looked up front, between the heads of two passengers sitting ahead of him, an old man and a woman with a red scarf wrapped around her ears, both beginning to nod off. Nothing. Only the windshield wipers swinging across the glass, out of sync with each other, the left one hesitating every second stroke. On the seat next to him, a young man with straight, jet-black hair, was sleeping, his head nodding forward, like a day lily before it falls off. A newspaper, El Diario, lay folded on the young man’s lap, and Señor Katorosz made a face when he read a headline about a scandal, the only kind of garbage, he thought, the Spanish-language rags in this country ever cover. Then he looked across the aisle at a petite woman, a Peruvian with those features, a maid no doubt going to work, a lady he’d seen on the bus before. A man sat next to her, obviously one of the strangers from the bus stop, who was looking out the window, an Americano by the looks, gaunt faced, maybe forty, scraggly hair dropping onto the collar of a red windbreaker, looking somewhat like a homeless person. Señor Katorosz wondered how cold the man must be wearing only a windbreaker on a day like—

“Bunch of drug dealers,” the man grumbled at the window. Señor Katorosz was not sure if he had said anything at all, so he edged up to get a look and saw the man’s face inches from the glass. He couldn’t have been talking, he thought, because there was no fog on the glass. Then the man turned and faced him, his eyes wide, his voice louder, “Damned spics! Bunch of criminals!”

Señor Katorosz didn’t know how to react but with a kind of embarrassment, a looking away, something coiling in his stomach. The young man sleeping next to him was roused somewhat, and the man in the red windbreaker turned and faced out the window again. Only one other person had heard. She had turned around from where she sat, two seats up, opposite aisle. She looked at Señor Katorosz making him feel as if he were the one who’d said it, but he couldn’t convince her that she was mistaken, that the voice had not come from him. She settled back around, but gave him one last glance. Only then did Señor Katorosz recognize her as a lady who gets on the bus three stops after he does. By now, the man in the red windbreaker had turned toward the aisle, knocking his knee into the lady in the next seat who looked over with a worried face at Señor Katorosz. The man raised his voice.

“Goddamned spics! Take all our jobs! Just pay’em below minimum wage!”

By now the young man next to Señor Katorosz had woken up and was staring at the shouting man. Then he looked at Señor Katorosz as if to say he did not understand why the man was shouting, but that it couldn’t be any good, and he made a sign that the man was crazy. The petite woman edged sideways, closer to the aisle, clutching her purse and bag like children.

“Gotta watch these spics. Watch'em illegals! We got aliens in America!”

The woman made a gesture with her finger as if to ask Señor Katorosz if the man was drunk, and Señor Katorosz nodded, yes, that the man was drunk.

“Listen, sir,” Señor Katorosz whispered in his soft, lilting accent. “You should be more quiet. You are waking up passengers napping before they go to work.” But the man, who was looking right at him, with blank grey eyes, did not seem to hear him.

“I can’t go back to my old neighborhood, not since they moved in!”

By now a few voices up front began to shush him and he shoved the lady at his side, who got up and rushed to the back. Then he slid over onto the empty seat, and lifted himself a little.

“Damned spics! Just look at this bus! It’s full of ‘em! I had a good job, but they gave it to a spic for half the pay! I called immigration! Yes, I did! That’s right!”

“Keep it down back there!” someone yelled. “Keep it down!”

“Who’s gonna make me? Not you! Not one of you spics on this bus!”

At this, the young man next to Senor Katorosz got up, smacked the newspaper against the seat and asked him if he spoke Spanish. Señor Katorosz nodded, and the young man said, “Ese hombre está loco,” and headed to the back. Yes, thought Señor Katorosz, the man is crazy, and the best thing is to ignore him. He remembered what his father used to say, “Cada cabeza es un mundo. Every mind is a universe. If a nut says the sky is green with purple spots, then the sky is green with purple spots. There is no arguing, he thought; better let him go on; besides, he’s toned down; if you concentrate, his voice can actually be drowned out by the whine of the Turnpike, lost in the swoosh of passing trucks and buses, muffled by all those who were wearing headphones, forgotten in the pages of El Quijote which Señor Katorosz had removed from his pocket and was beginning to read.

*                          *                          *                          *                          *

Señor Katorosz managed to ignore the man’s mumbled venting past Exits 16 and 17, but not without a coiling in his gut that made him wish they’d gotten off the Turnpike already and onto the town streets where he vowed to get off at the first opportunity, two stops before he regularly got off. He would walk the rest of the way to his school. The coiling in his gut lessened a little when the bus rode past the sign saying that Exit 18 was a mile away, but grew tighter than before when the bus slowed down behind a line of cars with police lights up ahead. The man began again, puffing himself up, showing Señor Katorosz, who pretended he was reading, how big a man he was, sitting straight against the seat, tapping his fingers on the arm rest.

“I’ll kick all their asses back to the spic islands they come from!”

That was as much as Señor Katorosz could stand.

 “Sir!” Señor Katorosz said sternly, raising his voice a notch, as if he were teaching before one of his classes and a student had acted out, a student he’d always been able to calm, no matter how disruptive, no matter in what extremes of rage. “Maybe you are not aware that we, Hispanics”—and he said this pointing El Quijote into his chest—“do not all come from islands…and that we contribute more to this country than this country says!”

“You fucking spic!”

Señor Katorosz almost threw El Quijote at him, but he put the book down when the bus was pulling up to the flashing police lights. The passengers leaned toward the windows. Even Señor Katorosz was momentarily taken up with the sight—a BMW ripped apart, a woman’s mangled leg and ambulance personnel working desperately on someone half conscious in a Camry. The police waved the bus on and it picked up speed.

“I’m calling immigration! Come and clean out this god damn bus!” The man took out a cell phone and began dialing.

“¡Lo mato! ¡Dame el cuchillo que lo mato! ¡Dámelo!”

Señor Katorosz heard it, yelled in a Mexican accent, and turned toward a group of landscape workers sitting in the back.

 Then he turned to the man in the red windbreaker, “Mister, you really should not talk that way. You going to get trouble.”

But before the man had a chance to say anything else, one of the workers grabbed him by the hair, yanked his head back against the seat and put a knife to his neck.

“A-po-lo-gize! A-po-lo-gize! To eve-ry-bo-dy on the bus! To eve-ry-bo-dy!” the worker shouted and dug the point under the skin.

“OK! OK! OK! I apologize! I apologize! Don’t kill me! Don’t kill me!”

The passengers screamed. The worker rammed the man’s head into the aisle and began kicking him. Then he motioned for others to help him. Three workers joined in, squeezing through the narrow aisle, kicking the man, who now crawled screaming toward the driver. “Call 911! They’re going to kill me! Call 911!”

Señor Katorosz noticed the knife slide under his seat as the bus swerved onto the exit ramp.

*                          *                          *                          *                          *

The lone police car blocked the right lane at the intersection where the bus had come to a stop. One officer had taken away the man in the red windbreaker who screamed that he was innocent, that he’d been assaulted with a knife. The second officer led many of the passengers around the bus onto the sidewalk, away from the man in the red windbreaker. Señor Katorosz followed, looking to see what the officers were going to do with the crazy man. He saw the first officer pressing him against the hood of the police car, while the bus driver stood watching for the second bus he had called to come and pick up the rest of the passengers. The second officer, meanwhile, had culled the group of workers from the rest of the passengers, and herded them around to the other side of the bus, away from traffic. The men moved submissively, carrying lunch bags and backpacks.

The officer spoke to them. “One of you attacked the gentleman on the other side with a knife. Which one of you was it?” The men were silent. “I said which one of you attacked the man we have in custody on the other side?” Again, the men remained silent. The officer grew red in the face.

“No one’s going anywhere until I find out!”

After a long pause, Señor Katorosz stepped forward.

“Maybe I can translate?”

He repeated the officer’s question to the workers. The second bus pulled up near the intersection. One of the men raised his hand.

Yo fuí.”

“I am,” Señor Katorosz said to the officer.

The officer looked at the man who was a foot shorter than he was.

 “Come with me.”

He splayed his arms against the NJ Transit logo on the bus, and kicked his legs wide. Then he searched the man but found nothing, only a wallet and some loose bills. This angered the officer, and he leaned his forearm into the back of the man’s neck.

“Where’s the knife!”

He motioned for Señor Katorosz to translate.

¿Donde está el cuchillo?

¡No hay un cuchillo!” the man shouted, his face pressed against a billboard ad selling real estate.

“He says there was no knife, officer.”

“Bullshit!” He slammed the man’s face against the bus once, and a second time. He was going to keep doing it until he got the man to confess but some of the workers rushed him. Passengers screamed and many of them ran to the second bus when it pulled up just short of the intersection. The first officer smelled trouble, heard the yelling and rushed to help his partner. Señor Katorosz had to move to the side and wait until the officers regained order. They searched the four workers who’d assaulted the officer, one by one, each time coming up empty. Then they began frisking the rest. Only when the last worker had been searched and still no knife, did they realize that the man in the red windbreaker was missing. Some passengers said he went right, some said left. The officers took the worker who’d confessed and his three friends into the back of the police car. Then they motioned for the rest of the passengers to board the second bus. Señor Katorosz looked at his watch. If he got on the second bus, he’d just make it to school on time.

He sat next to the window and looked out. He saw a guy wearing red entering a car, then saw a teen also wearing red going into a building. He looked at the bus stop on the corner diagonally across. For a second, he thought he saw someone looking just like the man in the red windbreaker stepping onto the 169 westbound bus, which closed its doors and pulled out through a yellow light.

*                          *                          *                          *                          *

The first thing Señor Katorosz noticed when he walked up to the school was the absence of students congregating by the front steps. He walked on and let his shoulder bag drop to the pavement as he scanned the faculty parking lot, empty but for two cars in the custodian’s reserved spaces. He looked at his watch. He looked at his watch again. He walked to the back and pushed the buzzer.

A custodian kicked opened the faculty entrance door.

“Well-well, seeñor, did someone forget to call you this morning?” he asked, pushing a mop and pail.

Señor Katorosz did not quite hear him. But for a moment, he remembered when he was in fifth grade, his first year in the United States. He’d woken up late, skipped breakfast and run all the way to school only to realize it was a non-school day, Veteran’s Day. 

“Water main break,” the custodian went on. “Four o’clock this morning. No water in the whole building. Can’t let the students and teachers inside. Nobody called you?”

Señor Katorosz pulled out his cell phone and tried to turn it on. The custodian asked to see it, pressed the buttons and shook it. “Battery's dead,” he said, handing it back to him. “You don’t have a regular LAN line?”

“No—I mean yes.  It has not worked since last week. I have been meaning to fix it. I have used this instead.”

“Well, sorry you had to come all this way.”

“It is OK,” Señor Katorosz said pulling the shoulder bag on tight. “It has been a very interesting morning, I have to say. At least, I have the day off, no?”

“Lucky you,” the custodian said pushing the mop and pail down the hall.

“Listen, do you know what buses are running at this time? I am going to Union City.”

The custodian thought for a moment.

“Go down two blocks over to Cranford and Cedar. Take the 172, southbound. That goes to the Lincoln Tunnel. But it’s the local, not the express.”

“Thank you,” Señor Katorosz said.

*                          *                          *                          *                          *

What a day for the subjunctive, he thought, as he saw the 172 local approaching. He would give his students the surprise quiz the next day, but he would assign new pages in El Quijote for a reading check the day after. He wouldn’t make them take the one he’d planned for today. They deserved a break. The school closing was a lucky thing for them and for him. There was a Velázquez exhibit at the Metropolitan he’d been meaning to see for weeks, and the day off was just the right thing.

The 172 pulled up and the door opened sucking in the outside air. Señor Katorosz paid the fare, eyed the few passengers on board and walked half way down the bus holding onto the seats. He would not stop off at home, he thought, as he settled into the seat by the emergency window. He would go directly into the city, have lunch and get to the Metropolitan by noon. The warmth trickled up through his collar onto his neck. The motion of the 172 local soon lulled him and he put down El Quijote to look out the window until his eyes grew heavy again, and his head started to nod. Qué loco, that man was the worst thing that had ever happened to him in ten years of riding the bus. But he was glad it was over. Gringo loco. The exhibition was featuring Las Meninas. You can lose yourself in that painting, and los estados unidos is still a great country, sin contar con locos, despite the nuts, and the gentle motion, qué rico el sueño, delicious sleep, tugging at him como su mamá, like his mother, and his head leaning slowly toward the window, slowly, tipping forward like a day lily, como un lirio, before it falls off at the end of the day, lulling him more, when it gets dark, and his head coming to a gentle rest against the window, el subjuntivo, the subjunctive, the window, the napping, everything so peaceful, and then a voice, only this time raspier, deeper—a fat, red-faced man in a red parka turned toward him across the aisle.

“Damn faggots! World’s full of ‘em!  queers! They ain’t teachin’ my kid! No homo is ever gettin’ near my kid!”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        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