Miguel sat in the driver’s seat of the Windst-r off the Interstate in Sacramento, California, searching through his stack of pre-paid cards while the snow fell in the parking lot outside. There was a gas card, empty since Arizona. There was a card for a grocery store, used up outside Las Vegas. There were two $50 Visa cards, used up for both gas and groceries before they ever left Texas. The Mexican phone cards still had balances, but they could not provide food, gasoline, or heat to the family in the minivan. There was a little cash. Miguel counted it again, forty-two US dollars in crumpled ones and dog-eared fives. He had calculated the mileage to Reno from Sacramento. Taking into account the higher price of gas in California, the gas mileage of the Windst-r, and the quarter tank they had left right now, they might have just enough to reach their destination.
They were all exhausted. Miguel had been driving for twelve hours straight, since before they crossed the border into California, and he couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer. He couldn’t ask Cristina to drive; she was every bit as tired as he was. They needed to stop and rest, but it was too cold outside to turn off the Windst-r’s engine, and if they kept it running while they slept they would use up their precious gasoline. Also, Miguel knew that sleeping in the minivan would expose them to the danger of a policeman knocking on the window. He looked at the map spread out on his lap, the big Rand-McNally road atlas, measuring the grid key with his thumb and index finger, then walking the crude calipers across the page, marking out the distance. Sacramento was not quite one hundred miles from the Pacific Ocean, an international border. They were within Customs and Border Protection territory, subject to being stopped and searched without a warrant.
Miguel looked at the last of the pre-paid cards in his hand. It was for one hundred dollars, a large amount. It was one of the gift cards that Cristina’s brother Gregorio had sent, one for the restaurant where Gregorio worked, and where Miguel hoped to take a job as a cook. They had not used any part of the card. Miguel compared the picture on the plastic card with the signage on the building in front of the Windst-r. They were the same. It was like a gift from heaven, that he had recognized the logo from the freeway, and turned around to go back to the exit, and found the restaurant. It was still open, even though it was after nine o’clock at night: Miguel had just seen a couple walk through the snow to the front door and go inside. The problem was, he didn’t entirely trust the gift card. They didn’t have any other money. One hundred dollars should be enough for all five of them to go inside, sit down in the warmth, have a good meal, and rest for a while, but if the card didn’t work for some reason, they would have no way to pay, and the police would be called.
Miguel sighed. The snowflakes splatted down on the windshield, coming harder now, swirling in front of the headlights, so thick that they almost blocked out the red neon lights on the face of the building. They could continue on down the road in the storm, risking an accident from slippery roads and low visibility, combined with exhaustion. Or they could turn off the minivan and try to sleep theough the night with only the towels to cover them, and hope they didn’t freeze to death. Or they could turn off the Windst-r and go inside, where it was warm and protected from the weather, and they could rest and get something to eat.
“Cristina, Laura,” Miguel said. “Wake up. Wake up Raul. Get the baby. We’re going inside.”
They moved in a line for the doors, Miguel gritting his teeth against the snow, Raul and Laura laughing with momentary delight as they kicked through the drifts with their feet. “Stop it now,” Cristina ordered with a mother’s instinct, correct to equate wet and cold with danger. “You’ll get your pants all wet.” Miguel opened the door to the restaurant and they passed through one at a time, the children wide-eyed, looking around them at the dim light, feeling the warmth, hearing the quiet blend of music and conversation, smelling the good smells of hot food from the kitchen. At the front of the restaurant a hostess in a black dress asked Miguel how many in his party, and he told her five. She led them to a booth. All of them sat down, the children fussing in the soft darkness, Miguel sighing as the soft seat cradled his behind, Christina occupied with the baby in the car seat. It felt so good to be sitting somewhere other than the Windst-r.
“I don’t know what to do,” a waitress complained in the side station. “They’ve already been sitting there for an hour. They haven’t even ordered anything!”
“They look really tired.” The other waitress made a stack of dirty plates to take back to the kitchen. “Even the kids look exhausted.”
“I have to study tonight,” the first waitress wailed. The second waitress shrugged. They both knew she wasn’t going to go home, or do any schoolwork. She wanted to go to the bar after work. Tony, the new waiter who was responsible for most of that week’s gossip on Facebook, had asked her for a drink.
“Sometimes people just need a place to sit down and rest and get warm,” the second waitress decided. “I guess you’ll just have to wait them out. Isn’t that baby cute?”
“I don’t care if it’s cute or not,” the first waitress complained, and looked out of the side station. “Oh my God.” She rolled her eyes. “They’re seating me another table. I told them to give all the tables to you.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, honey,” the second waitress shrugged. “I just got two more myself.”
The first waitress moaned, “Don’t they know it’s Friday night? Do they even care?” There was no way to tell if she was talking about the guests or the hostesses.
At their table, Miguel sat in a pleasant daze with a cup of hot coffee in his hands. Cristina drank water. Raul had apple juice, and so did the baby. Laura was drinking a Coke. They sat staring at the menu. Miguel was still afraid that the gift card might not work. If worst came to worst, he could still pay for the drinks with cash, but once they ordered food he would have to depend on the gift card. He couldn’t hold out much longer. The menu was full of glorious photos of giant burgers and French fries. There were salads with salmon, and loaves of sourdough bread filled with steaming soup. The children hadn’t had anything but convenience store food since they crossed the border, and they were growing more demanding. The waitress continued to walk by and stare at them with furious eyes. Miguel didn’t care. He was happy to sit and sip his coffee, and delay for as long as he could the moment when he would have to turn the key in the Windst-r again, and continue draining the minivan of their most precious resource, gasoline.
The waitress had another booth now, right beside theirs, and Miguel could hear her taking the order of the two women who sat there. He could see the back of the one, with close cropped and dyed hair that he thought was an awful look for a woman. She had large stones dangling from her ears. They looked like real pink topaz, mounted in white gold. Her partner across the table had immaculate nails the same color as her lipstick. Miguel caught Cristina admiring the woman’s blouse and gazing wistfully at her leather purse. These were rich American women.
“Give me a Cosmopolitan,” he heard the woman with her back to him say. “Do you have light cranberry juice? No? Ask the bartender to put just the smallest splash in then. Just a little pink. And only fresh lime juice. Ask him to squeeze the limes. Do you have skinny drinks?” Miguel couldn’t hear the mumbled reply the waitress made. “Never mind,” the woman told her. “What would you like, Sara? She’ll have the same thing. And bring us an order of the egg rolls, but without the onions. I’m allergic to onions. And a side of ranch.” The waitress left. The woman told her friend, “Let’s hope she gets the drinks right.”
The waitress delivered the two martinis to the women and then returned to Miguel’s table. He could see that she was determined to get the order this time, and he decided that he would have to give in. Cristina ordered salmon on a bed of greens. Laura ordered chicken tenders and fries. Miguel took a deep breath and ordered the T-bone steak, well done. He would share it with Raul. Adding up the prices in his head he knew that they were within the limit on the prepaid gift card.
The waitress went to put in their order. Miguel heard her in the side station, complaining to someone else. “He ordered a well done steak.” MIguel didn’t care. He knew that it was the job of the waitress to take care of them. As long as he possessed the gift card, she had no choice. Soon Miguel would be doing the same thing. He longed for the opportunity to join the waitress in the agonies of her profession. She should be grateful that she had a job, inside where it was warm, and a place to go when it was over. Someone should tell her that. Miguel smiled. Soon it would be him complaining about the same inconsequential things.
The waitress returned to the table beside theirs. The two women were unhappy. “Where’s our ranch?” The one with her back to them demanded.
“We don’t have any more,” the waitress replied. “I’m sorry.”
The other woman scoffed, “What do you mean, you don’t have any?” Miguel could see the expression on her face. It did not make her prettier. “What sort of restaurant runs out of ranch?”
The waitress stood her ground. “Someone forgot to order extra. There’s nothing I can do.”
The woman with her back to them demanded, “Can’t you make some?” The waitress shook her head. “Never mind. Just never mind,” the woman said, dismissing the waitress with a wave of her hand. The waitress walked away. “She’s the worst waitress I’ve ever had,” the woman opined. “Who runs out of ranch?”
“Seriously,” the other woman said. Miguel decided that he would make them ranch. Once he was working in the kitchen of a place like this, he would make them anything they wanted. He didn’t care about their manners. He just wanted the chance to work.
When Miguel’s steak came they were all amazed by the giant baked potato. Looking at the picture in the menu he hadn’t even wanted the baked potato. He had thought about ordering something else. He didn’t understand the American fascination with the tuber. It was a tasteless root, dug up from the ground. In the center of their table, though, it became something else. The waitress split it apart for Miguel, and they all saw the crispy, salted skin, and the steam boiling out from the soft flesh inside. THe waitress had a whole caddy of things for the potato. She asked Miguel what he wanted. He let her pile it all on there, soft butter to melt in the hot potato, sour cream, cheese, bacon, and sliced green onions. While Laura, Cristina, and Raul watched, Miguel motioned for the waitress to keep spooning out the condiments until her caddy was empty and the potato was piled high like a meal in itself. He had the gift card. He might as well pretend he was the American he wanted to be. When he had a job cooking in Gregorio’s restaurant he wouldn’t care, he would bake potatoes for people all day long.
In the side station the waitess complained, “Did you see that? He made me use the whole caddy on his potato. The whole thing! There wasn’t so much as a slice of onion left. They’ve been here for over three hours. And now he wants to pay with a gift card.”
The other waitress shook her head. “So what? It’s still part of the system, right? Some folks, that’s all they have.”
“Their tab is almost ninety bucks,” the waitress groaned. “There won’t even be enough left for a decent tip. I should’ve been gone three hours ago. Tony won’t wait for me.”
“I thought you had homework to do,” the second waitress reminded her.
“Grrrr,” the first waitress replied. She ran the gift card through the reader with a vicious swipe and waited, watching the screen. “There. It went through. Now I can get out of here.”
“Which one would you rather wait on,” the second waitress wondered, “them, or the women with the ranch?”
“Good grief,” the first waitress answered. She tucked her last check into the payment book for Miguel to sign. As she left the side station, she snarled, “I hate them all. I can’t wait to graduate and get a real job.”