Friday, January 27, 2017

Writing on the Wall


Immigration and borders are dominating the news this week.  Rather than share my outright opinions on the matter, I'd rather share a story.  It's one of the stories in my collection Buddhist Catnaps & Broken-Down Hymns.  

I wrote this piece after being inspired by T.C. Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain, being completely captivated by Luis Alberto Urrea's The Devil's Highway, and repeated listenings of Bruce Springsteen's "Across the Border", "Matamoros Banks", and "The Line".  Sam Shepard found his way in here too, I'm pretty sure.  


Dry Lightning

I should tell you how she came to be in my bed, because it’s not like you think. Probably not even like I think.  

She’d crossed the line somewhere around Brownsville, came through the Rio Grande with her husband.  She made it, he didn’t. Shot in the back.  Never saw it coming, which is the best way out there. 

She let the river bury him. It was the only way.  She sobbed as she hid in an irrigation ditch along a canal in the dark.   Sand hornets swarming her ankles, la migra at her heels.  She had to keep moving, see it through.  He’d been over already, stored away $800 that he’d saved up in over three months, put it in a leather bag and buried it for them.  Told her where it was  - and where I was - in case this happened.  And it did. 

When she dug it up, first thing she did was come find me.  She showed up at my door, empty eyes and bloody feet.  I opened the door and just took her in my arms and brought her inside.  She spoke so little English, and my Spanish was broken and backwards.  So, we didn’t speak.  I drew her a bath. She closed the door, sobbed in the steaming water, sobbed some more while the water drained out.  I could hear her. Deep, mournful cries of a woman who had lost more than I could ever know or understand.

I made her bacon and frijoles with huevos.  Black coffee.  While she ate, I drew her feet into my lap and put swabbed iodine on her cuts.  I put on an old tape I had of some Tejano band he’d given me as a gift.  La Mafia or something like that.  I thought it would make things better, if only for a moment, but I could see her eyes welling up and turned it off.

But selfishly, the music made me feel like I belonged in her world.   When he worked here, he’d come inside at night. We’d drink Blue Agave and he’d talk about her, show me pictures he kept in his rucksack.  His English was good, and the tequila was strong, and he’d spill out over the sides talking about her gentle nature, her devotion to Jesus, her devotion to him.  The way her dress brushed against her caramel thighs and her shoulders melted with the touch of his callused hands.  It was enough to split your heart wide open, a love like that. A woman like that.  

And now, she was here.  Here because she had nowhere else to go and I was one of those gringos who was willing to pay shit wages to an illegal who made it over the line and help him scrounge what he could so he could bring his family over.  His wife and his son.  “El corazon”, he’d say.  There is no son anymore.  He told me one day.  He said, “Barrio Azteca. masacre ” and I understood.  Knew the kid, not even a teen yet, met with something barbaric, the kind of savage thing TV won’t show you because you’d want to open the gates and invite every decent person south of Ciudad Juarez into your back door and hide them.  I don’t care what you believe, who you voted for.  What he told me goes on down there, it’s not right.  If you were them, you’d leave too.  You’d risk being scammed by the polleros, shot by la migras, dying in the daze-inducing heat.  Believe what you want, you’ve never had it like they have, I swear to God Almighty you haven’t.  So when another worker told him about his son, well, he only had one thing to live for after that.  He had to go get her and bring her over, even though he didn’t have much set aside.  Not enough to make a real go at it anyway.  

I paid him the best I could.  I fed him, gave him a bunk.  Let him drink my liquor and smoke my Faro’s.  We were amigos.  Not hermanos, but solid amigos.  He always got a fair shake. He never took advantage.  I hope I didn’t either.

When he went to get her, he said he’d tell her how to find me, that he hoped they would both return, but if only one of them came back, it would be her.  It would be her because if she didn’t make it across he would have nothing left and that would be that.

When her bony knuckles tapped on my door, I knew what had happened before I’d even opened it.  The timid knock a mournful death knell.  Her body fell into mine, wounded and spent. Even through the layers of riverbed caked on her skin, the matted knots of raven hair.  She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.  The eighth wonder.   Sunlight on the Sangre de Cristo.  

But she was confused.  Confused and lost, everything foreign.  Foreign to being a widow, foreign to being childless, foreign to being here.  Foreign to me.  At least in her mind, but not in mine.  I felt I knew her, or could know her.  I wanted to help her find salvation again, to gather up all the shards and bloodied strands and make something whole of them, something she could live with, if not make sense of.  None of it would ever make sense.  

That evening, she locked herself in the room he had once slept in, but I didn’t hear her sobbing.  I’d made a meal for her.  Puerco al horno with chile ancho and cilantro.  I slow roasted the pork all afternoon in a pan with some olive oil and lime juice.  I baked bread that was warm and soft and filled the room with a smell I hoped would take her somewhere back in her memory, somewhere safe.  I found a bottle of Alamosa Graciano I forgot I had.  It was as perfect as I could make it for her, but she never came out.  I knocked, but she only mumbled “No, gracias” a couple of times.  

I lit a candle that I took out of a drawer where I kept flares, matchbooks, and my flashlight.  I melted the bottom of it and stuck it on top of an ashtray I got at some five and dime not far from Fort Brown.  It said “Dia de Los Muertos”, Day of the Dead.  Grinning red skull with flaming marigolds for eyes.  The candle took to the ashtray and I lit the wick.  I asked God to bless the food and her, to bless her husband’s spirit, and her boy’s.  I sat and I ate.  I drank.  More than I should’ve. The silence, silence I always appreciated, was smothering.   That Tejano tape and a stack of old Townes Van Zandt records were all I had to fight off the emptiness of the plains, but I didn’t mind the quiet usually.   It was one of the reasons I lived here.  But tonight, it was almost more than I could take.  The ominous hush.  God’s silence.  The indifference of heaven.  Dry lightning crackling in a thunderless sky barren of rain, rain that was always needed but never gave in to gravity.  Somewhere faintly, the cold shoulder of the river rushed, mocking those who try to find passage where the Matamoros chalon once ferried daily.  

I wondered if she heard it too, the vast stillness, the hollowed out, windless night.  I stepped outside and stood on the porch.  I’d swapped the Alamosa for El Gran Jubileo, a bottle he and I never finished.  I finished it.  Finished it with gusto and gratitude that he’d been here, that he sent her to me.  That she was here, lost but not alone.  And that I was the one who would make sure she didn’t have to ever be alone.  She just had to let me in.  

I walked to her door.  She must’ve unlocked it while I was on the front porch.  That was all I needed.  She was on the bed, barelegged, a rebozo draped across her breasts and belly.  I lay down beside her with my boots still on.  

 “Bueno,” she whispered, in a voice broken by disillusion for where she was and who she was to become.  She put my hand on her naked thigh and held it there, then slipped the rebozo off her shoulders.  It was all she thought she had to offer to say “thank you” for refuge.  

I drank her in and thought about the possibilities.  Thought about the choices she had and the one she was making. The one I would make.

I took my hand from her leg, covered her with the rebozo, and let my arm drape around her weary shoulders.  I closed my eyes.  “No bueno,” I said.  “Buenas noches.  Buenas noches nos de’ Dios.”  

May God give us good nights.

No comments: