Years later, when Esmeralda was buffering floors at the elementary school, she would recall the night she lost her name. At night, Durango became little more than a slab of pavement, a place where even metal has been known to crumble in the gusts of the desert. Near the end of twilight was when Esmeralda parked at the farthest edge of the parking lot across the street from the Kash 4 Gold. While the two-seater jalopy hummed down to its rest, the cleaning lady stared at the glowing neon sign with her hands still gripping the steering wheel. The landlord had changed the locks and threatened not to give her a key unless she paid rent by the time the sun cast light through his window tomorrow morning. Redeeming every owed favor she could think of, Esmeralda had spent three days knocking on neighbors’ doors. La Señora Madre Buena Josefina from 2B dug up twelve dollars and eighty-three cents in change after inviting Esmeralda for tea, and Esmeralda spent most of the afternoon in the gray apartment. Six of the old woman’s daughters were due in the next four months, and all would give birth in the same gray apartment where they were born themselves. Esmeralda helped tidy the great bedroom where all the infants would sleep. She had visited both dentists on the eighth floor in their penthouse apartments with jacuzzis on the verandahs, but all the cleaning lady could scrounge from them were a packet of children’s stickers and a one-use toothbrush. She had no better luck with the veteran in 3C, who had not answered the door since returning from the war, and the mailman later said he had withered into a blackened rope because of his solitude.
Popping the trunk and looking skyward in a silent prayer, Esmeralda climbed out of the jalopy and hefted the black duffel bag onto the pavement of the empty parking lot. She knew from the way it dug into her shoulder, causing a pain exactly like that of carrying oversized twins in a baby sling, that all of the trinkets and jewelry were still in the bag. She began her trek to the Kash 4 Gold, and as she walked across the parking lot, her name started to peel off in flakes lost to the gusts of the desert. At a point somewhere near the sole street lamp illuminating the parking lot, a vagabond shuffled up to the cleaning lady and grabbed the duffle bag with his hand, wielding his other handless limb like a
“I have pepper spray and a knife,” Esmeralda warned him. She lied about the knife, but the vagabond released the bag and shuffled back to the street lamp under which he had slept in a pile of tattered duffel bags every night for a decade.
“Okay, lady, okay,” he mumbled with a smirk. “You see if she’ll take your bag. She doesn’t like to be tricked.” When she finally reached the edge of the street, blisters blanketing her shoulder, Esmeralda noticed the tall trading clerk watching her from the window and faltered in her steps. What really startled her was not that the trading clerk was watching her, but that she had green eyes that glimmered like gems. The trading clerk had not blinked since the cleaning lady emerged from the jalopy, never letting her out of sight. This would be a good transaction.
The trading clerk, who at birth was given the name María Isabel la Traviesa but now was called Valencia, gave the vagabond the duffel bags that customers left behind in return for his service as a security guard. He would attempt to take the bags of gold that customers brought, and if they protected their gold with enough resilience, the trading clerk knew their goods were truly valuable. She had won enough money from the last prize transaction to upgrade to a riverside apartment with a stucco exterior painted white like the pueblos blancos of her home country, but two years had passed since anyone had come to her with precious metals, and patience was draining out of her into green puddles on the floor.
“I have gold to sell,” Esmeralda announced. She avoided the trading clerk’s burning gaze. Dumping the contents of the black duffel bag onto the counter, she demanded, “How much can you give me?”
Silent, Valencia did not move for minutes except to lower her gaze to scrutinize the gold. Esmeralda noticed the trading clerk’s skin was as smooth as metal, and the sleek flaxen hair that slid down her back accentuated her extreme height of more than seven feet. The trading clerk’s head seemed to brush the ceiling when, after contemplating the array of two teacups bought in Bordeaux, a set of white gold hoop earrings engraved with words celebrating a twentieth anniversary, twin picture frames with snakes coiling around the edges, and a fountain pen crafted in 1886 from a solid block of gold, she bent down and selected an iguana brooch embedded with emeralds.
The story of the brooch flooded Valencia: that it was given to Venezuelan woman by her grandmother on her wedding day, that it had lay encrusted with dirt under a bureau in an attic for the better part of a century, that a loyal mutt discovered it and delivered it to his master, that that master displayed it proudly in a prominent case in his foyer, that he had no idea it was worth millions, that his cleaning lady had eyed it every Friday for three months when she scrubbed his sinks and polished his mirrors, that she had slipped it into her pocket as she left the mansion yesterday. Valencia knew where objects had been, their histories and owners. This cleaning lady had never owned gold in her life. Rage bubbled from her stomach and poured out of her eyes. She knew she could never accept the trophy brooch in a store with an ironclad policy of legitimacy, a policy that meant stolen gold was as good as dust at the Kash 4 Gold.
Valencia flung the brooch back at the cleaning lady, forming a dent in her forehead that marked her falseness and years later would still cause her headaches when she slept. The trading clerk shrieked, “An iguana baking in the sun does not like to be disturbed!” The teacups, earrings, frames, and pen vibrated on the counter, amplifying Valencia’s anguished scream before disintegrating into dunes of dust. “Leave,” she uttered, ice hanging on the word. The golden and emerald dust lifted itself into the air, taking the cleaning lady’s name with it as it floated through the crack beneath the door and joined the desert wind. Choking on a solitary sob, the cleaning lady fled the Kash 4 Gold, leaving behind the black duffel bag, another for the vagabond’s collection.