The Woman at the Pemex

Jet at beach before meeting woman at the pemex – Best Places In The World To Retire – International LivingMy husband pulled our high-top white van with the dogs in the backseat into the Pemex, the ubiquitous gas stations of Baja California, Mexico. We were returning to the outskirts of La Paz, a busy little town that fronts a bay and is held in by the mountains.  He spoke in Spanglish to the attendant about the price of gas as the van was serviced. I sat inside, drowsy from a day of walking along soft surf. From my side of the van, I watched a woman approach the car to the right of me. She moved towards it slowly, choosing it from all the other cars in line at the busy bays. The car was not a new model, the paint discolored from too much intense sun.  When the older male passenger in the back seat got out to get something from the bright and modern looking convenience store, I could see that the upholstery had gone shabby. But the woman who approached the car seemed not to notice or make judgements on whether or not they were the sort of family that would want their car pampered. She was carrying a large yellow wash cloth made of microfiber and began to rub down the exterior of the vehicle with somber care.

This woman, unlike the Pemex attendant who was filled our tank, was not wearing a uniform, but she was dressed neatly, as if she were appearing for work. Her buttoned up blouse was white and had yellow flowers. I noted that she looked very fresh in her knock-off designer jeans and thick rubber athletic shoes; unlike me. I wore rumpled clothes and my hair was salt- sprayed by the beach. My complexion was damp with sweat, eyes smudged black by eye liner pencil applied and melted hours ago, a sloven, a mess. But there was no denying who was poor and who was simply poorly dressed. Her clothes were well washed, but not current. And her face, though clean, was not the kind that was used to being indulged with gentle cleansers or restful and carefree days playing at the shore.
She moved with minimal exertions, as if any energy she expended was subtracted from a finite source. She moved trancelike; not being aware of what she was doing, yet performing systematically. No one inside the car made eye contact with her. They all seemed to understand that to notice her would embarrass her or them. She was made invisible by her poverty, part of the environment like the trash that stuck to the wild bougainvillea thorns that surrounded the unkempt lots in the barrios. She was past being ashamed of her condition, an indigent in public where everyone at the station could see her vague labor.

Meanwhile, I kept cover in the car, knowing I was not presentable; pointing out the spots the attendant had left on the windshield for my husband to clean again. She and I were the same; women of middle age, but while I looked like a woman whose husband often grabbed and massaged her instep, she looked as if her feet always hurt and there was no one to rub the pain away.chuck at pemex santa rosalia – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living

She took the seemingly new yellow micro fiber rag and rubbed the other car along the driver side of the front window, making circles that the passengers turned their heads not to see. When the passengers did not object, she continued on the other side, rubbing it without liquid solution or even much arm strength. I saw her rub the rear view mirrors, buffing them gently, not checking her reflection to see if they were clean or to look at herself. She moved on to the side panels and stroked lightly where the trim moldings were and in the open spaces where they had come off. She did this with the dignity of a professional, but in a daze, sleepwalking through her work. Unlike the people in the car, I was immensely interested in what she was doing, as fascinated as I would be watching a hummingbird take sips of nectar from blossom to blossom. The last I saw of her at that car, she was using her yellow cloth on the hubcaps, treating them gently like they only needed the lightest of dusting. I do not know if they paid her or even gave her thanks.
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My husband got back in the car and we consulted our map. We looked up. The woman was now standing by my husband’s side of the car. We could not see her face; only the top of her head. I saw her thin wrist come up to the high windows of our tall van. The yellow towel barely reached the corner of the front window. She did not look at us or her task at hand. I saw the underside of the cloth through the window moving in mystic circles; it was still clean, and where she had lightly buffed, made no difference in the clarity of the glass that she had attended. She did this wordlessly. Her glance never lifted to where we sat high in our car in quiet shock. We let her apply to her task only for a moment.

In alarm, I told my husband, “She does not have to do that.”

My husband took some money from his coin cache and gave it to her. I don’t recall if he said a word to her. I do know no word came from her. She did not look up to us to acknowledge us or give us thanks. But suddenly, as she was passing by my husband’s door to leave, we saw her hand come up. Her wrist was bent and her palm was up, and in her hand, floating along my husband’s open window, was a solitary cookie.  It was dreamily presented, a gift that was unexpected. I can’t even say that she was attached to that hand. All we saw was the cookie nestled in her bare palm. My husband did not hesitate and took the cookie, which he showed to me. When we looked back, the woman was gone.

My husband immediately took a bite of the cookie. It had a square base and on top were four sections of what looked like pink tinged marshmallow in the shape of an abstract blossom.pemex la paz – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living

“It’s good. Here, take some.”

I was curious but could not take a bite; even after my husband said several times that it was surprisingly good. Probably, the germ-wary in me did not want to take a bite of something given by hand from a stranger, especially one who was amateurishly washing cars. Also, it was such a surreal occurrence; I needed time to process it. One does not bite into a miraculous vision.

We did not speak of her during the long drive through the dark mountains. But we did the next day and recalled the incident the way people speak of falling stars that move unexpectedly slowly through the sky. We even discussed where she kept that cookie; her pants were not baggy and she carried no bag. The cookie was uncrushed; it carried no lint nor was there a sign of packaging from where it had been kept pristine.

I can still see that cookie being proffered so elegantly; her hand a beautiful platter conveying her own sweetness.  Unlike the young kids at the entrance of Soriana Supermarket later that evening who were trying to talk my husband into giving them money for nothing, this woman wanted to work for her money. And, as if to ensure her pride, she would do the work first without an agreement of payment. We did not want her work, but because of the job she soundlessly offered and that she gave first, we wanted to help her. She could easily have pocketed her pesos, and then gone on to another car to clean. But she disappeared mysteriously, leaving that cookie and a memory that could not be smudged away. It could be said that is was a trade; that she was The woman at the Pemex – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Livingrepaying us for a pittance.  But to us it was beyond the realm of commerce. Instead, she was the gentle giver and we were the startled receivers. She had produced a pretty present, solely out of the goodness of her heart, a cookie to mark that moment of sharing.

She was so extraordinary, this woman at the Pemex station, doing us a good turn and making us glad that we had encountered her generosity. My husband and I were struck by her act of grace and that is how we both described her act: in spiritual terms.  We bless her and wish her well, this woman tending to cars and lovingly dispensing good food shaped like a flower, a cookie presented as solemnly as a sanctified wafer at mass.

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