¡Es con voz de la Biblia, o verso de Walt Whitmann,
que habría que llegar a ti, Cazador!
¡Primitivo y moderno, sencillo y complicado,
con un algo de Washington y cuatro de Nemrod!
-A Roosevelt by Rubén Darío (1867-1916)
IN MEXICO, OLD MAN MO HAD A SON, WHOM HE NAMED Moses, after himself. Old Man Mo then had three more children. When Moses was of age, he married and had a son, whom he also named Moses, or Junior. Moses then had two more sons. He then walked across the border to stay with Old Man Mo, who now lived in Southern California.
In Mexico, Old Man Mo had been married. His wife played the accordion on Sundays. During the nine days of Las Posadas she made tamales by hand and delivered them to her neighbors. Her favorite time of the year was the heat of summer, when her family would visit the sparkling waters of Lake Chapala. Soon after crossing the border she became ill, and passed away within a year of their leaving Mexico. This was shortly before her son’s family would come to the United States.
In Mexico, Old Man Mo had been the pastor of a small church. Service began with music and ended with a banquet. Alongside his bible, he required a glass of water to moisten his lips during his sermons. His cuff links were silver, and they would show when he dabbed perspiration off his forehead. In the later years of his life he walked with a stick, and he was known to make gifts of stalks of Birds of Paradise. They grew in the common lot behind the adobe house Old Man Mo shared with his family.
The common lot was a large expanse of dirt and crabgrass. A rectangular building on the adjacent side of this lot had been made into a duplex. Three or four people usually occupied one of these units. The son of the owner of the property lived in the other unit. He collected rent and only drank on Sunday.
After moving in with his father, Moses found a job washing cars. His children enrolled in the local school. His wife had small hands which she used to dip linen in scalding water and scrub stains. Her eyes were wide and she kept her chin low to her chest. By the time his son Junior graduated high school, Moses had been detailing cars for seven years. In addition to his normal duties, Moses was responsible for washing all of the cars on the lot three times every week. This job he gave to his sons, who came and worked at night.
One Friday afternoon, the manager of the dealership held a meeting. For reasons unknown to the manager, the owner had requested a change in the schedule. They would now be required to work on Sundays. In the manager’s office, the sun setting outside the window made Moses tighten his eyes. He had been detailing cars for ten years now. Moses was polite. He smiled.
CLOSE TO SIX ON SATURDAY, THE SUN HAD ALREADY SET. The days were short but the air remained warm. Festive lights decorated the car lot. Junior prepared the equipment, taking care with his father’s soap. Besides buckets and rags, Moses Junior and his brothers used a high powered hose that snaked through the lot while they worked. The youngest of the brothers was wary of this thing. The velocity of the water it projected was powerful, capable of severing one’s finger. But his fears were assuaged by the fact that he never had to operate the creature and Junior was efficient in his work. So as Junior wet the cars, his brothers began to wash.
Junior watched the water envelope the smooth curves of the cars. He knew the subtle body style changes from year to year. Like a mother with her children, they had committed to memory every contour of these cars, part routine and part affection. Suds from the soap crawled down glowing hoods and streaked the pavement toward the drain. Moses Junior’s mind wandered to his friends, home for Christmas. He thought of parts he planned to buy for his Lincoln. He thought of college girls, what they must smell like.
-So ya, it’s really the same engine as the mustang.
-You buy the intake yet?
-Still won’t be faster than an import, Mo. It’s too heavy. I’m gonna get something way light, like a CRX or something.
-It’ll be fast enough. Check it- I was pulled up next to an Eclipse he looked over and I was like let’s go then – I had him for the first two gears!
-Watchit, Moses. We’re not even supposed to be driving a lot and you’re racing! What would you do if you got caught? Adios hermano.
-Get a Honda, Momo, you won’t get caught…Hey, what’s going down Monday?
-What about Monday? We’re working. Don’t worry about it. Just worry about soaping the rest of these cars.
-Hey…you guys ever think about Mexico at all? I mean, it’d be cool to visit if we could.
-What are you talking about, stupid? It’s way harder down there. If I have a choice I’m staying here for sure. Tell him how bad they pay you in Mexico, Mo.
-We’re not going to Mexico you guys. Have a little faith. We just have to wait and see. Are these ready to be rinsed?
-It’s like we were born waiting.
-It’s like you were born stupid-Hey! Mo! Don’t spray that thing at me! That’s not funny!
-Ha!… Ya but it’s really the same engine though. Crazy, huh?
MOSES, HIS WIFE, AND THEIR THREE SONS HELD CHURCH in the common lot behind their adobe house. They erected a tent each week that was once used to shelter cars on display. Under this canopy, folding chairs were spaced among the yellowed crabgrass. The people in the adjacent building occasionally joined in the service. Sometimes Old Man Mo would come and sit for part of the service. Sometimes he would just edge the lot as if looking for something, and then slowly retire back to a room. Moses wore a suit when he spoke before the church. This Sunday the air was cool, sharp. The clouds were heavy, the sky cross hatched with grays. The wind carried the smell of rain and the noise of the nearby highway. Moses stood in front of his family and friends, his bible in his hand, and noted the absence of his father in the chairs.
-I thank the Lord for my life, health, and strength. I thank the lord for rising this morning, clothed in my right mind.
-I thank God for being able to praise Him today. Hermanos, I’d like to ask for you to pray for me. My work has made me choose, and I have chosen God.
Moses paused to steady his voice.
-After ten years of work, they change the schedule. They ask us to work Sundays. But I am not at work today. I am here with you, by the grace of God, to glorify his name. God is good!
-Praise the Lord!
-Thank you Jesus!
Moses’ wife sat next to her children, hands on her bible. She thought of how quickly life could change almost without reason. She thought of the small adobe house they rented with the leaking roof and bad pipes. Her mind took inventory of the still unpaid entertainment system and new furniture. She saw the faces of her parents, faces she had not seen for ten years. As her husband spoke he raised his bible, silver on his wrists. She looked over to her children, strong young men. Her eyes filled as she noticed their attentiveness, their anticipation. She considered not only her boys but herself and her own lack of prescience. They lived in between two worlds, between the start and the end of a journey. And in this middle ground she wept quietly.
-Praise the Lord.
“A WIFE, A HORSE, AND A WATCH.” HE HELD UP A wrinkled finger. “Find a good one or don’t even bother.”
Moses smiled, bag in one arm, wife in the other. The smells of breakfast, home and family greeted him in the doorway. “So how did I do, is she a good one?” His grandfather leaned toward the new bride with mock seriousness. She met his gaze. It helped that she stood at his eye level.
“I wasn’t always this short” he said with a low, tremulous voice, as if parting with a secret. He looked her up and down, then walked around the newlyweds with his hands behind his back. “It’s a known fact that the people of Guadalajara aren’t pre-washed. And with all of this rain…” He stopped in front of her, now apologetic. “We Tapatios can’t help but shrink over time.” Levi and Maria giggled through the second floor banister, feeding the charade.
“I suppose now you just have the horse and watch to worry about” he said to Moses. And he hugged the new wife with wide arms and kissed her on the cheek smiling. “It’s good to see you again, Delia. Thank you for making my grandson so happy.”
“Thank you for making him move out” Naomi shot from the kitchen.
“I didn’t expect Naomi here on a Sunday morning” Moses replied teasingly. Levi bounded down the stairs while Maria took shorter, more concentrated steps, both with questions and hopes of gifts. “So you’re married now? Did you have to kiss him on the mouth?” They turned their attention first to Delia, who gave each of them a hug.
“Yes, now we are married. So that makes us brother and sister” she told Levi. Then, kneeling for Maria, “and now we’re sisters. And yes, but only once. And I closed my eyes.”
“Ewww” Maria sympathized, nose scrunched.
“Hope you didn’t have any problems with those Poblanos at the wedding, Moses.” His grandfather closed the door and led Moses and Delia to the sitting room couch a professional, if somewhat stooped, concierge.
“Dad said that you were going to have the wedding here in Guadalajara, that we were all going to have to dress up and help” Levi said, sounding more relieved than betrayed. He let himself glance at the bag Moses had resting in his lap. “Mo, are you going back to Puebla?”
“Don’t worry, we’re back for good” Moses said. “You won’t see me strung up with a rosary anytime soon. Those Poblanos only have two things going for them; their beautiful women,” he said, looking over at Delia, “and their guns.” He reached into the bag and withdrew a wooden six-shooter and a handful of rubber bands. “What of the Battle of Puebla?” he asked Levi, holding the gun aloft.
Levi gaped, a ten year old boy turned catfish. Maria looked on from between Delia’s knees. “That’s Cinco de Mayo” Levi said.
“And who did we fight?” Moses started hooking rubber bands onto the gun.
“The French, we fought the French.” Levi dared not ask for the present. There were certain rules for these things. Moses pointed towards the horizon, checking the sights. Then, solemnly, he handed the arm over with both hands.
“And those French weren’t defenseless” Moses added and pulled from his bag another gun for Maria. “Just let me load this and you can go rewrite history, show those dirty Poblanos what happens when you resist invasion.” Maria took the loaded weapon, colonization brewing in her small dark eyes, and ran after Levi.
Naomi leaned through the kitchen curtain. “You know that Dad isn’t going to let them keep those” she said as she wiped her hands on her apron. “Breakfast is almost done anyways. They should be coming down soon.”
Moses looked towards the stairs. “Old Man Mo still in bed at this hour?”
“He just stepped out of the shower.” And Theresa was bustling down the stairs. “First Naomi offers to make us breakfast and now you surprise us- Moses! You should have called to tell us you were coming.” Her damp hair clung to her neck. She paused in the mirror at the base of the stairs, briefly touched her head, and then stepped down into the sitting room. She kissed Delia and embraced her son.
“Gifts, I have wedding gifts. Glad I didn’t send them, they probably would have missed you.” Theresa was awash in sunlight streaming through the window. “We did want to make it out there, Delia, we really did. I wish I could have met your family.”
Delia offered a forgiving smile. Moses held her hand.
“We’re so busy constantly, with the church” Theresa went on humming. “But look at you, Delia, an ever blossoming flower. Every time I see you, more beautiful than the last.” She sat opposite the couple and leaned forward, legs crossed in her Sunday dress. “Married, Moses, married. Look at you, you’re married” Theresa glowed, her hands around one knee. Her bracelet sparkled like a rainbow cuff, her gaze resting on her son like a bird with clipped wings.
“THEY NEEDED MORE MEAT, I WENT TO THE MAQUILAS. They needed more money, I walked the desert. They needed a husband, a father, a man; these things I took.” Jacob lowered his eyes to the empty glass.
Moses touched his shoulder. “Thank you for waiting for me.” He motioned to a waitress walking past. Moses imagined Jacob’s wife and son making the long trip south back to Guadalajara. He thought of his own three sons. Sol and Dan were five and six years old; they were on a vacation, a desert adventure. But Junior recently turned eleven and was big enough to ride a bicycle, pick onions, and worry about things he couldn’t change. Moses thought of Delia. He pondered the properties of love, whether mercurial, able to break apart and regroup, or unbearably elastic, stretching immeasurably thin. He would make it back to the shack by nightfall.
A girl set two fresh beers beside their empty glasses. Jacob reached for a bottle and turned to Moses. “El Jonkeado will come soon. You tell him that you met with Tony in Guadalajara, tell him that you paid Tony directly, tell him your story. He should know what’s going on.” He stood up. “Stay with my cousins as long as you need. I’m sorry, I feel responsible. But you know that I only cross the dessert, I can’t help with papers. And my family…” Then as an afterthought, “Good luck Moses. I shouldn’t be here.” He staggered past the stage, bottle in hand, into the white heat of the summer afternoon.
Moses angled his glass and poured. The beer had an acrid sulfur wash that stayed in his mouth. His slight inebriation made him feel young or at least remember being younger. He wished Jacob had stayed, wished even more that he could find Tony. They were inside, Moses just a customer. How long could he survive in these border towns? Moses tapped his foot along with the deep bass of the music as he waited, sipping his beer. He tried to picture what an American hospital must look like.
A woman, perhaps younger, approached his table. White doll shoes, one in front of the other, from which rose two slender, bare legs. She wore a small slip of a white dress with a red cross pressed slightly against her chest. It caught light and matched a nurse’s hat, crimson lips. The nurse who was not a nurse sat in the empty chair. She pressed her knees together and leaned forward with her elbows on the table. “I’m thirsty” she remarked.
“I’m waiting for someone” Moses replied. Then, to emphasize his position, he added “I have a wife, three sons.” She almost appeared to blush. The girl looked even younger sitting across from him.
“And all of these Americans, lonely bachelors? Nobody’s married here,” she pressed. “Want some company while you wait?” Her voice carried a lilting playfulness, hopscotch over the syllables.
“I’m really sorry, you seem like a sweet girl, but I can’t.” She sat back and tilted her head to one side, mahogany strands falling across her cheek. Moses noticed that her shoulders were no wider than the back of the slender chair. “Do you have any family?” Moses asked.
“Outside Acapulco, I send them money.” She tucked her hair behind one ear and leaned forward again. “Do you like my outfit? Thirty dollars and you can take it off.” She was whispering now, touching his arm. Her skin was a shade lighter than the coffee wood of the table. “It’s better when I like you.” Her hand gave off heat.
Moses saw a group of shacks, cinderblocks and wooden pallets. The roofs were corrugated cardboard slathered in tar to protect from the rain, the floors exposed dirt. A cable, siphoning electricity from a power line 100 meters away, stretched into the encampment. In one of those shacks, on a mattress placed on the floor, with his sons sat his wife. Maybe this young girl could not burn. But the warmth of her hand felt as if it could lift a weight from his mind, a weight that bore down not only on him but on Delia, on Junior, straining at their world. Mo let his hand cover hers. He avoided the dull coals of her eyes, focusing instead on the fiery cross. He wondered what they looked like from across the room; a coquettish nurse and reluctant patient, girl and her john, lovers.
A dark man wheeled through the entrance, followed by four dark brutes. The man was in a wheelchair; he had no legs. Moses rose quickly. “I’m sorry, I have a family” he said and hurried after the group of men disappearing into a backroom. The nurse who was not a nurse finished his beer.
MOSES SAT AT A TABLE WITH FOUR LARGE, PECULIAR men. To the left, sleeve pinned to his shirt, sat a man with one arm. To the right, wearing a patch, sat a man with one eye. Across from Moses sat the other two. One had lowered himself into the chair with a stiff delicacy, keeping one leg straight. The other man had no obvious affliction, which made him appear somehow more peculiar than the others. They all had drinks in front of them. The scene carried the ambivalence of loafing contractors, more time than work. Across the room El Jonkeado was talking to a large woman sitting at a table. Sheets lay in disheveled piles on the floor like grayish white dunes, illuminated by the soft light. There was a familiar pungency in the air, almost sweet.
“In two weeks. And if this goes well you can expect more. But I need a better price; they know how far the dollar goes in today’s Mexico. You’re not the only house servicing across the border.”
The woman wore a flowing verdant gown and when she began to speak she moved her massive arms on the table, billowing cloth about her as a parrot would its feathers. “That’s the rate for the entire night honey, I can’t change it. I know that you aren’t charging your American friends my prices.” She took a softer tone. “You know I like you, like the business you bring.” They whispered inaudibly. Moses could hear the muffled spray of showers beyond the walls. The woman giggled, “Yes, but I prefer it face to face. And at my prices.”
El Jonkeado rolled back from the table shaking his head. “I’ll have a runner come the night before, he’ll have the preferences, transportation details.” Turning his wheelchair towards Moses ́ table, he spoke over his shoulder. “I only come back for you, love.” She offered a somewhat coy grin, gathered her green plumes and left the room. El Jonkeado rolled towards Moses.
“Thank you for waiting. Moses, Jacob’s friend, right?” He held out a hand.
“I paid Tony directly.” Moses turned in his chair to face the man and was surprised by his grip. “I just want to make sure we’re ok.”
El Jonkeado folded his hands under his chin, thin elbows on his armrests. His fingers were adorned with silver, his hair obsidian. His shirt was also black and he appeared to melt into the dark leather of the wheelchair. Moses wondered if wheelchairs came in specific sizes or whether people like El Jonkeado had to scavenge for a good fit like a hermit crab.
“Jacob bring you here?” Moses nodded. “He’s still under contract you know. He didn’t tell you that, did he? In fact, we have a group that was supposed to leave tonight. But I understand the guy is upset; returns from a run to find his wife and kid have moved back to Guadalajara.” He shrugged. “I don’t have a family, but I understand other people’s family.” He held one hand out towards Moses. “The point is… there are always unknowns in this type of business. But we try to be professional, we don’t ship meat like some of these cowboys who would just as soon ditch your children in a shipping container. You paid for five, correct?”
“My wife, our three sons, myself.”
“But you weren’t going container and you weren’t going through the desert. What did Tony work up for you; paperwork and a ride, something medical?”
“It was supposed to be real paperwork, we could walk right through. I paid him personally before I left Guadalajara.” Moses took a breath. “I have to be in California. My family, my mother is dying.”
El Jonkeado turned his head to the side and ran a hand through his hair. The jewelry on his fingers swam like spiders through the oily black. “Tony is in jail” he said, looking finally at Moses. “Don’t worry, he’s fine. It’s another cost of doing business here. But I wouldn’t know where the paperwork stands, I don’t deal with the same people. And I don’t know when we can get him out. We’re partners, yes, but in a lot of ways we run our own projects.” El Jonkeado held out his hand. “What I can do is offer you my services, at a discount of course.”
Moses stood up, causing the men around him to shuffle to their feet. “I paid fifteen, I don’t have anything else to offer. I paid Tony directly.” He held out his hands, palms upward. “Mr. Jonkeado, we have no more savings, my mother is sick, please, help us across the border.”
The man in the wheel chair smiled. He waived at his men and reached for Moses ́ hand. “Moses, boy, sit down.” He wheeled back a few feet. “They call me El Jonkeado because I surround myself with these types.” He gestured past the linen sandbars, towards an unseen border. “Over one million people work in these maquiladoras. Manufacturing, piece work, they have factories as diverse as the hazards. NAFTA, 1994, Mexico entering the first world,” he pointed towards Moses, smirking. “Don’t tell me you didn’t celebrate along with everyone else. And here we are, a year later, paying people in food coupons because you can’t even feed yourself with a full day’s work.” He turned towards the men around the table. “Jesse took a drill bit in the eye. Alex fell from a welding scaffold. He worked with a broken arm for two weeks, while it festered. Raul was actually attacked for organizing, run over on his way home.” He leaned forward. “Now it appears I am in need of someone to run the border.”
Moses looked around at the expressionless men. They wore copper skin and strong, carved features, indigenous blood. “I don’t mean to insult you or your business, I just…” Moses trailed off. “I just need to get my family across the border. We can’t stay here.” Moses glanced at the man without an affliction sitting across from him.
“Ah, yes, Javier, worked in a factory of solvents, glues. He is not a Jonkeado by strict definition. No, on his shoulders fell the plague, poisoned blood; children born with the empty heads.” He held up his hands as if holding a cabbage. “Moses, you do not belong here. You are from the city, your hands aren’t rough and your skin not dark enough. Why would you take up in a factory, a field?”
“I am not a coyote.” Moses took deliberation with his words. “And I won’t separate my family, even for a short period.” He looked down at his hands. “I did not come to ask for a job. We’ll find a way.”
El Jonkeado drummed his fingers on the sides of his chair, his rings like silver spiders now dancing on the wheels. “So you will, what, take your children across the desert? The border has become an upwelling where whales feast upon the desperate. Koreans, Japanese, our American friends.” He turned his chair slightly. “On one hand, they say that my kind is part of the problem. I’m a coyote in more ways than one, you see, the middle man, the extra hand in the pie. But again,” he straightened the wheel chair, “I’m the reality. These men sitting with you, I pay them well. They are not shamed when I use them as examples. A person, a country, does not sell itself with reservations of pride.” He was grinning again. “Your friend that you were talking to, the nurse’s outfit, was she looking for respect, redemption? Or was she looking to do her job?”
Moses looked up. The image of the petite girl, her scarlet cross, flashed in his mind.
“Once you cross that line,” El Jonkeado began, “the worst thing someone can do is remind you of the dignity you’ve left behind, a phantom of an ideal. It’s not the reality we live in. Our elected officials, labor leaders formal and, like myself and the madam of this house, informal, on down to Indian children selling gum on the street; necessity has a way of simplifying difficult choices.” He placed a hand on Moses ́ knee. “Jacob always spoke well of you. All I ask is six months. Right now I am afflicted with too many pies, not enough hands. Perhaps you don’t see the choices clearly now. Perhaps you need more time,” he lowered his voice, “perhaps more necessity.”
“But I’ve already paid.”
El Jonkeado signaled to his men. He looked at the floor as he turned his wheel chair, moving his hands stiffly, the spiders on his fingers no longer animated. Moses noticed for the first time that he was old, appeared much older when he wasn’t speaking. With his eyes still on the floor, he said “And we keep paying, Moses, often many times over.” He rolled himself after his men slowly, a crab dragging an oversized shell. “I’m sorry for your mother” he said as he exited the room. Moses listened to the hushing showers, alone among the dim bundles of stained sheets.
“HE DISAPEARED AFTER THE FUNERAL. HE ́S NOT THE same, Moses. Hasn’t been the same since she first went into the hospital.” Naomi spoke as she lowered plates into a box.
“You don’t have to do this. Let us take the room, until we find something bigger.” The kitchen was almost empty, like the house, and smelled of bleach. Moses stepped out of the doorway and reached into the box to grab the dishes. Naomi placed a hand on his arm.
“This was already planned, before you came. Before they came even.” Chimes hanging over the sink swayed, as if rocked by the sunlight dancing across their surface. Moses let go. “Ruth and I can’t afford this place by ourselves. It makes sense. And we’re only moving, what, fifty feet?” Naomi opened a drawer, pulling out silverware. “I’m going to leave you guys a full set for five, ok? And I have extra cutting knives, spatulas-”
“Old Man Mo?”
Naomi paused and placed a fork, a knife, and a spoon back into the drawer. “I honestly don’t even consider him. I know that sounds terrible.” She dropped the silverware into the box and leaned back against the refrigerator. She was wearing a man’s shirt, her thick hair back in a ponytail. Moses recognized the shirt from pictures, on it’s original owner with his arms around Naomi’s waist. “And I don’t think that it’s the time apart. He was still Old Man Mo when they first got here, for the first couple of months…”
“Did she suffer?”
Naomi bit her lip. “They came because of his church. You know more than I do, you’ve been living with them, I’ve been here. But I’d like to think that they also came for me and Ruth, because Mike left us.” She touched her eyes. “It was quick, Moses. Nobody expected it. But the whole time he couldn’t even admit that she was sick.”
Moses put his hands on his sister’s shoulders. “I’ve known the guy longer than you have.” She looked up at him and allowed herself a slight grin. “There’s a wall none of us will ever get past. He even kept Grandpa outside. Mom, she had a place inside.” Moses looked out the window at the field of dirt and yellowed crabgrass. “He’s alone now, at least in his head.”
Naomi pushed off from the refrigerator. “How did you come across, anyway? I don’t know if I ever told you but it was a nightmare for us.” She started loading pots and pans.
“Ruth was only one year old?”
“Year and a half. At one point they wanted to place more people on top of us, I thought I would suffocate there were already so many people in there. Mike made me give Ruth something to make her sleep.” Naomi stared past Moses, holding a pot against her stomach with both hands. “We spent five hours in the dark, like sweaty animals, my baby dead still in my arms.”
Moses looked at this familiar and yet unknown person, someone else’s memory. “I’m sorry about Mike.”
“It was good for the first couple of years. I always wanted my adventure, you know. Just the two of us, and little Ruth, against the world. But I knew he was gone long before he left.” She pushed the box towards Moses. “So how did you come over? Sol is only, what, five? I was surprised that you guys made it all in one group.”
Moses picked up the box and backed out of the kitchen, into the cool morning. “We walked.” He turned towards the small duplex. Naomi followed him.
“What, the desert? With the kids, Delia?”
“No, through the checkpoints. We walked over a bridge, across the border, into Del Rio.” Moses rested the box between the wall of the small apartment and his knee, reaching for the doorknob. Naomi opened the door for him.
“All of these Mexicans, swimming and crawling across the border, rats abandoning a sinking ship. But Moses, he’s the rat walking on water.” She followed him into a closet sized kitchen, watched him place the box on a counter.
“Naomi, you really think that you and Ruth can fit in here?” Moses walked from the kitchen into the small living room. “Where’s the bedroom?”
“Through the curtains.”
Moses walked through the curtains at the back of the living room, into what appeared to be a closed off hallway. “There’s barely room for two beds here Naomi.”
“This didn’t use to be a duplex. The owner partitioned it himself, double the rent. That back room is shared with the tenants next door.” She walked up behind Moses. “But really, Moses, how did you guys come across? And don’t give me dad’s ́the power of faith ́ line.”
Moses turned to face his younger sister. His mother had stood approximately the same height. “Ten years” he said as he hugged her. Moses felt a ray of grief unsettle him, like wind through a chime, and for a brief moment he let himself worry about his father. “I just wish we had come sooner.”
“THIS IS HOW THEY LOVE IN JALISCO” SHE SAID WITH A grin, letting herself fall back. Her dark hair spread over the pillow, framing her face under a cross carved into the headboard of the small bed.
Moses leaned over. He managed “Naomi said” and “breakfast soon” between kisses. He pulled himself away, still looking down at her. She kept her eyes closed. Her slightly parted lips, like watercolor, bled into her cheeks, pooled in small freckles. The bed had already begun to heat.
“You don’t want to burn this little cement box down, one last time?” she pouted, opening her eyes. She pushed him off of her. They both sat up. The room was a small, sparse rectangle with a naked concrete floor, the bed against the long wall. At the foot was a desk covered with a blanketed mound. A poster across from them proclaimed ́Pedro Infante is TIZOC! ́ with edges singed brown and black. The lower portion which had once listed a cast of characters was completely burned through, exposing the gray concrete wall.
Moses looked over at Delia. “How about fixing this place up?” He placed his hand on her stomach. “Maybe build additional boxes, as needed. There’s plenty of roof.”
Delia placed her hand on top of his. “I see a colonia of cement boxes; mango yellow, mango green, mango orange…”
“You working in your father’s church.”
“Whoa.” Moses pulled his hand back. “Below the belt.”
She leaned her head on his shoulder.
“Where do you want your mango house?” Moses asked her. “Tell me and I’ll go plant the seed.”
He turned to face her. “Mangos don’t grow in California, amor.”
“Then you don’t love me.” She draped her arms around his shoulders.
“I guess we’ll have to get by without love.” Moses kissed her.
“Is this what happens when you skip the honeymoon?” Naomi stood in the doorway, still wearing her apron. Strands of hair clung to sweat on her forehead.
“I thought you were working on the food?” Moses said, turning. Delia leaned into his back, cheeks flushed.
Naomi wiped her hands. “You know mom, couldn’t take a break if she tried. Says we need more food since you guys came, making her special chilaquiles.” Naomi looked around the room. “Pretty much as you left it.”
Moses pointed to the pile on the desk. “Using this place for storage now?” He got up and removed the sheet, uncovering cases for an accordion and a guitar. “Wow. So this is his new hiding place then?” He picked up the guitar case and placed it on his old bed. He ran his palm over the granular top and then lowered his hands to the smooth latches on the side.
“Mo, you know he’ll get mad if he sees it out.” Naomi still stood in the doorway, now striking a motherly pose with one hand on her hip.
“I just want to say hi, let him breathe a little.” He unhinged the clasps and opened the case slowly. Delia looked over his shoulder. Reposed inside, on a cushion of green felt, was a guitar of soft mahogany brown. Mother of pearl inlays adorned his neck and the word Pachaco was proudly inscribed in his hull. The guitar vibrated his strings up at Moses, a warm hello.
A frantic Poblano ran past Naomi’s leg into the small room with a rubber band in one hand, six-shooter in the other. He dove to his left, under the desk, and loaded his weapon. Outside could be heard a diminutive voice taunting, “Dirty Poblano.” Moses closed the guitar case and pushed it against the wall.
“She rewriting history then, Levi?” Delia asked over Moses’ shoulder.
“She cheats. She’s picking up all of my bullets.” Delia and Moses looked towards the door. Naomi didn’t move. They all waited for the Mexican showdown to commence. The menacing scrape of five year old feet on concrete drew closer. Levi aimed his gun past Naomi’s leg, covering the entrance to the room, his one hope stretched precariously between the tip of the gun and the spool at the other end.
Maria walked into the room gun first. She held it outstretched with both hands like a divining rod, wavering it back and forth along her path. Her gait was slow and bowlegged, a cowboy in a heavily starched Sunday dress. She stopped just beyond Naomi, looking over to Moses and Delia on the bed, and smiled. A Poblano missile sailed past her nose. Maria bent over, picked it up with a purposeful motion, and placed it on her wrist to join five others. She then turned to the unarmed boy under the desk about to be subject to French colonization, both fingers over her trigger.
“See, she’s just taking my rubber bands!” Levi pleaded his case to the room. A rubber band thwacked off of his chest.
“It looks like she’s willing to give them back” Naomi laughed. And while Levi tucked his head in his arms, Maria gave him a couple more rounds with some Dirty Poblanos thrown in for good measure. By now Moses and Delia were laughing as well. Levi grabbed his returned ammo and with a “Long live Mexico!” was past Maria, out the door, straight into the large figure standing outside.
“Oh, sorry” Levi stammered, tucking his hands behind his back.
“Levi! What are you running on the roof for? What is this you have behind your back?”
Levi handed over the gun and the rubber bands without a word, his head down.
“Don’t tell me you’re shooting these at people. Levi” he sighed. “Go downstairs and wash for breakfast. And change into clean pants for church, those are covered in dust.”
“I should go help Mom” Naomi said as she squeezed out of the small room. Old Man Mo filled the doorway dressed in his full Sunday suit, blocking the morning light. He looked over at his son and his new daughter-in-law and noticed the guitar on the bed.
“Moses” he said and walked over to his son. He reached for the guitar case, silver showing on his wrists as he secured the clasps, and placed it back on the desk. “These instruments are anointed, they are meant to be played for worship. You know that. Please.”
Moses watched as his father replaced the sheet over the instruments as a mortician would a cadaver. Moses kept a hand on his wife’s thigh as Old Man Mo turned to face him. Seconds died slowly in between them.
A French projectile bounced off of Old Man Mo’s jacket.
Old Man Mo turned. “Your mother has breakfast prepared downstairs” he said as he walked out of the room.
“YOU CAN WORK A FULL DAY OR YOU CAN WALK FIFTEEN miles,” he pointed north, “and earn the same thing in an hour.” She brushed freckles of dirt off her cheek and looked up, her hand blocking the October sun. He was framed against a backdrop of colored sheets struggling to free themselves from rebar posts. A camera hung from his neck, the glass of the lens glinting in the sunlight. “But then, some say it’s better to feel hungry than nothing at all.” He handed her a card.
She extended him back the card but he waved it away. Pulling off her handkerchief she shook loose her long black hair and wiped the sweat off of her face. “I’m sorry, I’m not really an onion picker. You probably want to talk to some of the other girls here.”
Rafael squatted down in the row beside her. “I’m not here looking for a story.” He lined up a group of onions, roots and tails, and knocked them against the side of her box to shake the dirt. “Some of these onions can make it all the way to Britain,” he slid a rubber band around the bunch, “arranged comfortably in discrete containers.” He dropped the bunch inside the box and wiped his hands off on his cargo pants.
“I care more about picking them and less about where they’re going.” She went back to gathering her onions into piles.
Rafael pushed back his wide brimmed straw hat and placed his hands on his knees. “Despite your attempts,” he motioned to the half filled box, “I know that you’re not an onion picker. Your complexion is too light for this type of work. No, I’d say that you recently moved to this area.”
She pauses with a bundle in her hand and looked up at him.
“Not that it matters” he continued, “free trade doubles the price of milk in one year, we’re all Indians, right? Not with whom you’re bred, but with whom you’re fed…” Squatting there in the dirt with a childish grin, he reminded her of a boy searching fields to fill glass jars.
“It’s a shame that the green onion harvest parallels the school year, at least a fourth of these workers should be in a classroom right now. So I would assume you don’t have children or they would probably be helping you.” He glanced towards the water truck, where toddlers chewed onion bulbs or napped in furrows under canopies of sheets. “And yet,” he said, turning his attention back to her, “you’re too beautiful to be single.”
She allowed herself to smile as she dropped her group of onions into the box and wiped her hands on her jeans. “Well, Rafael Guillen, you’re half right.”
He still wore his childish grin. “You haven’t told me your name.” She gave him her hand. “Delia.”
“I ́M NOT LEAVING UNTIL I SEE YOU SHOWER, PIG.”
“Hey, I just got home, I’m tired. Barely have strength to eat.”
“Well it’s better than coming home to a wet mattress.”
“Don’t blame me, blame the heat. I never used to wet when I slept nights.”
“I’d trade a dry bed for that night shift you got, you get paid twice what I do.”
“You get addicted to the fumes is what you get, shakes-”
“-withdrawals, guys begging to work a double.”
“Lose three days pay for each sick day, guys starving to work a double.”
Jacob’s cousins spoke amongst themselves as they ate their soup, sitting on a pair of makeshift bunk beds that lined a wall of the small shack. Four mattresses between eight working Nicaraguans, four with day shifts and four with night shifts. Similar in height and build, they functioned as a carnival troupe with individuals less recognizable than the group as a whole.
The shack was cobbled together with cinderblocks and wooden pallets. The smell of earth and concrete hung in the air like dust. Overhead a light bulb extended itself from a trapeze of wiring tracing back to a thin black cable that escaped out a small hole in the wall. The naked bulb spoltlighted an old stove mounted on bricks in the center of the room. Beyond a curtain divider Moses and his wife lay on a mattress placed on the floor. A sheet covered their three sons sleeping on a bed against the far wall. Moses stared at his children as the circus of cousins chattered over their dinner/breakfast. The sheet rose and fell in three movements, a small mountain range.
Delia placed a hand on her husband’s back. “A woman from the fields took me to a market today. They had two prices for tomatoes; one price for clean tomatoes, a cheaper price for tomatoes grown with black waters.”
Moses rolled over and faced his wife. “You shouldn’t be working out there.”
“You want us to wait here, while you’re at the maquila all day?” Delia rested her head on her arm. “Sol and Dan love it, kindergarten but with onions. And with Junior’s help we cover food.”
Moses thought of Jacob, probably in Guadalajara by now. The dates he had given Naomi had come and gone.
“We shouldn’t still be here.”
Delia walked her fingers through her husband’s hair. “We’re close.” Her hand slowed it’s crawl. She looked into his eyes. “Call Levi, ask him for help.”
“You know that I can’t.”
Delia withdrew her hand and rolled onto her back, pulling the sheet under her chin. She stared at English words printed on the exposed cardboard that composed the ceiling. “How much more time, Moses? How long do you think you have, she has? We can survive this together, the boys, you and I. But why make it harder?” She turned to look at him again. “I love you, Moses, and I can make sacrifices. But if it’s not necessary…”
Moses searched for the love; in the soft white, the rich brown striated with black, captured somewhere in her eyes as sure as his reflection. “What is necessary?” He rolled onto his side. Delia caressed his shoulder, kissed the back of his neck.
“They fire us for striking Monday, I’m walking the dessert.”
“They got meat plants in Texas that will give you papers to work.”
“Ya, the kind of papers where you’re hiding with the stock come inspection.”
“Freezers for chicken, beef, and beeners…”
Moses traced the small mountain range with his eyes, gently rising and falling in three movements.
“SHE STAYS UP THERE MOST OF THE DAY, I DON ̈T KNOW what to say to her. I think she feels guilty for staying behind.” He paused briefly. “Is he coming back?” “He’s been gone a couple of weeks now. For all we know he could be on his way to Mexico as we speak.”
“Have you checked with the police? By himself, with the little English he knows…”
“Whether here with us, on the streets, in Mexico; right now he’s on his own, Levi. That’s his nature.”
Levi stood at the base of the stairs looking at his reflection hanging on the wall. He listened to the patter of the rain. “Moses, I’m sorry. I should have helped you across. He told me not to, but I should have regardless.” Levi ran a hand through his hair. “They were only supposed to be visiting, for the church.”
Through the window Moses could see his wife and Naomi on the couch in the living room. The kids lay on the floor among colored pieces of paper scattered like autumn leaves. Sol and Dan gathered scraps while Junior and Ruth worked scissors on fresh sheets. Moses shifted the phone to his other hand. “How’s Sara?”
Levi glanced up the stairs. “She’s sleeping.” He walked into the kitchen. “When we first heard, she was the one crying instead of me. I guess that happens when it’s someone else’s family. I still feel like they’re coming back, keep expecting it to set in.” He opened the door to the back porch. Water draped the awning like a beaded shroud. “She should have had the family with her.”
Moses turned from the house. “She was with Naomi. After so much time apart, that was good.”
“God works in mysterious ways.”
Moses let his hand and the phone fall to his side. He turned his head to the sky and looked for the moon. It strained behind a thin veil of clouds, threatening to disappear like a lantern tossed into the ocean. He looked down at the grass washed in silver. He lifted the phone to his ear.
“- if you change your mind, or he comes back and you want to bring him home. I’m not dad, everything isn’t divine punishment. But sometimes you have to humble yourself.”
“My little big brother.”
“You have a chance to bring them home, bring the family together.” Levi watched water collect on the steps of the spiral staircase bordering the house. His eyes followed it’s serpentine path up to the roof.
Moses knelt down and picked at blades of grass. “Working in the church was always temporary. After I lost my business I made a decision for Delia, the kids. It took us a while but we’re finally across the border.” He rolled the grass between his fingers. “When I found out, I wanted to be here for mom. But I knew I couldn’t save her, same way I can’t save Old Man Mo.” He let the blades of grass fall from his hand. “To be honest, now that Mom’s buried here, I don’t see him going back to Mexico.”
Levi extended his hand through the curtain of water. “How did you guys get across?”
Moses stood up. “The power of faith.” He started back towards the house. “Maria will be fine, that cement box isn’t a bad place to clear your head. She’s smarter than the rest of us combined; she knows that it’s not her fault. Just be there for her and let her know that we love her.”
Levi smiled and pushed back his hair with his wet hand. “So tell me, how are the boys holding up? And is Ruth really as beautiful as the pictures?”
Looking into the house again, Moses could see that Dan and Sol had been transformed into Indian chiefs with paper feathers in auburn shades banded around their foreheads. Ruth had her hand around Junior’s wrist and was tracing his outstretched palm with a crayon. “It’s amazing how much Ruth looks like Naomi at ten. The kids act like they’ve known each other all their lives.” Moses walked around to the kitchen door. “So you’ll check on Jacob for me?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll give him your message. Hey, say hi to everyone for me. Who knows, maybe the church dad was working with will extend me the same courtesy and I’ll come visit you guys.” Levi was wiping his hand on a kitchen towel. “And Moses-” Levi stopped, feeling his wedding ring through the cloth of the towel. “Moses, I’ll be praying for you, for Delia, the boys, our family.”
“Thank you Levi.” The warm smell of fresh coffee enveloped Moses as he closed the door gently behind him. “Now go make me a nephew. That’s your problem, worrying about everyone else while your wife sleeps in a cold bed.”
Levi shook his head. “Goodnight Moses.”
“Goodnight, little brother. I love you.” Moses hung up the phone. He reached for the pot and poured into three mugs sitting on a tray. Next to the mugs he placed a small carton of milk and a cup filled with sugar. He stood for moment in the kitchen with the tray in his hands. Steam escaped the coffee in small directionless wisps. “Please God help my father” he said quietly and walked into the living room.
Levi stood with his head tilted back and his arms extended, water falling into his palms and running in streams down his cheeks. Above him, the rain sizzled on the flat roof like hot oil. A charred poster exclaimed ‘Pedro Infante is Tizoc!’ through a hazy web mixed with sandalwood. Maria lay on her back, her head under a cross carved into the headboard.
She wore a tank top and boy’s boxer shorts. She tried to enforce meaning on the patterns of smoke fleeing the incense. She followed individual strands as they rose and spread themselves until they were meaningless. She lifted the pipe with her left hand and lit it with her right.
“ASK THE ENGINEERS SELLING TACOS, OR THE DOCTORS driving taxis.” Moses scooped sugar into his mug and stirred. He pulled the spoon from his mouth and pointed it across the kitchen table. “They’ll tell you how valuable a degree is in Mexico. Wait until we get our business set up, I’ll make a place for you.”
Naomi held her head low, still wearing an apron. She cradled both hands around the small white teacup. “You really think that you and Jacob can make money on your own?” Moses spread his arms wide. “We found a great place near downtown, a shop with living space above. Arms like theses, how can we go hungry?” Coffee crested the edge of his mug. He grabbed a napkin, smiling, and wiped his hand. “You can come stay with us, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
Naomi sat holding the cup as if heating it with her eyes, her hands drawing the warmth. The thin white string of the tea bag crawled over her ring finger.
“I haven’t been in Puebla long enough to forget what it’s like living with Old Man Mo. Couldn’t even show up to my wedding.” Moses crumpled the damp napkin in his fist.
“You know how he feels about the Catholic Church.” She kept her head down as she spoke. The napkin glanced off of the top of her head.
“Who’s Catholic? He knows that we only had a Catholic wedding for Delia’s parents. Old Man couldn’t swallow his scripture just one time, for his son.” Moses leaned into the table. “What’s going on, Naomi? It’s not like you to defend the old man.” He was pointing his spoon again. “It’s not like you to be here on a Sunday morning either. You didn’t go out dancing last night? You and Marco having problems?”
“You know his name.”
Moses shot her a grin. “Right, Miguel or whatever. He treating you bad? I never trusted that guy, always talking about the United States.” Moses shifted one arm over the back of his chair. “You can’t make it in the country you were born you’re not going to make it anywhere else. The United States, from a walk on part in a war to a lead role in a cage.” He took a drink of his coffee.
Naomi looked up at her brother. “That’s from a song.”
Moses motioned his cup at her. “Well I like their music, when I can understand it. But I’m not jumping their border any time soon.” Now Naomi was smiling at him. “What, don’t think that Delia’s going to change me. She’ll forget about California when the business gets going. Mexico is a different country with money in your pocket.”
“If you left now you could make it in time for the Olympics in Los Angeles.” Naomi turned back to her tea. The swollen bag sat heavy at the bottom. “When I see them on TV I think of that verse we would sing in church. They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles.” She stuck a finger in her tea and motioned the bag into a small eddy. “They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.”
“Maybe instead of testing for steroids they should check for bibles.” Moses stared at her. “What’s up, Naomi? You seem different, there’s something you’re not telling me. Cooking breakfast for the family, thinking about your future…” He finished his coffee. “Quoting the bible. It’s like something’s matured you-“
“You really didn’t have to Theresa” Delia was saying over her shoulder as she walked into the kitchen. She handed Moses a bag full of knitting. “Your mother went over the top, she’s so adorable. Here, put these in the car, there’s more upstairs. Clothes for an army of grandchildren.” Naomi kept her eyes on the tea bag in her fingers, shaking it gently over her cup.
Moses stood up and walked out of the kitchen with the bag full of clothes, his wife disappearing back up the stairs. His grandfather sat motionless on the couch in the living room, asleep. In the shadows his face looked ashen compared to the soft light of the morning as if he was sunken in on himself, deflated. He awoke as Moses returned from the car. “New bride leave you enough strength in your legs for the canyon?” he asked as Moses passed the couch. Moses stopped and looked over at him.
“I don’t know if I have the strength to carry you on my shoulders on the way back up.”
His grandfather pointed at him. “You carry me up that canyon you might as well carry me straight to the cemetery.” His thin lips spread into a grin. “Don’t worry, I’ll go slow for you.”
Moses pushed back the curtains to the kitchen and glimpsed through the window his father coming down the spiral staircase carrying the guitar case. Levi followed him straining under the accordion. Maria appeared last, her small hand holding onto the center post as she descended. Old Man Mo stopped at the back door to the kitchen and leaned in. “If you’re coming with us you had better hurry and get dressed Naomi, we’re leaving soon.” He glanced at Moses and then continued on past the kitchen and out the carport.
“Going back to church now too?” Moses shook his head in disbelief. He took stock of his sister sitting by herself in the kitchen. The apron was still stretched across her front, creased under her breasts as she sat at the table, strings in a bow behind her like a gift. Her naked fingers plunged into the cup. She turned to look at him and raised her eyebrows. Using her tongue, she pressed the pregnant tea bag against the roof of her mouth.
“THE LAND BELONGS TO THOSE WHO WORK IT. THEY CARE more about the health of corporations than the health of the Mexicans who work the fields.” Her jewelry shook on her leathery wrist like plastic shackles, or a tambourine. Junior listened to her as he bunched onions into groups. She sat on a blanket shared with his brothers who slept in the long afternoon shadow cast by the canopy.
“Old lady stop trying to organize the children” Rafael said as he filled his canteen from the water truck. “Besides, you’re not even Mexican.”
“Well they’re not making me want to be one” she replied defiantly.
He walked toward her as he poured water over his head, one hand using his hat to cover the camera that hung around his neck. “If you want to better your situation, and you can afford it,” he screwed the lid back on his canteen, “I can give you a ticket to the promise land.”
She looked up at him. “I don’t need your coyotes, Rafael Guillen, I’m too old to start in a new country. No, soon I’ll be going home.” She turned her attention back to Junior. “Have you ever been to Guatemala?” He shook his head. “Water warm as day, fish wrapped in leaves and coals under the sand. When the sun buries itself in the ocean,” she lowered her hands flat to the earth, “you unbury the fish.” She lifted up palms of dirt, smiling. She was missing teeth, or had managed to save some.
“We’re going to California” said Junior as he put rubber bands around his bunches. “That’s where my grandmother lives.” The lady still wore her checkered smile.
Rafael looked towards the field and spotted a figure breaking from the group. He tossed his canteen towards Junior. “Here, kid, stop and have a drink. Get too good at this work you’ll start to like it.” Rafael picked up his hat and smoothed back his hair as Delia walked up to Junior and his bunches.
“Wow, you’re all finished! I don’t know what I’d do without you, Moses.” He handed her the canteen. “Why thank you, what a gentleman.” Delia looked over at Rafael as she raised it to her lips.
“Thought I’d come over and check on the family” Rafael began as he walked over to her. “I feel kind of responsible, since I found out your situation.”
Delia dropped the canteen at his feet. “If you felt anything at all you would help us.”
She leaned down and placed a hand on Junior’s shoulder. “Go wake up your brothers, sweetie, it’s time to go.”
Rafael knelt to pick up his canteen. He wiped the cap. “You have my card. If you really wanted to help your family you wouldn’t make this so difficult.” He took a long swallow.
Delia kicked soil at him, increasing the pungency in the air.
“Do you know how he got in that wheel chair?” Rafael was brushing dirt off of the mouth of the canteen again. “He tried to jump a northbound train when he was younger. Poor village kid reaches for his chance out of poverty and loses his legs.” He capped the canteen. “El Jonkeado stopped giving people chances a long time ago. He wants a new coyote, not cash. You really think he’ll help you, even if your husband comes up with the money?”
Delia looked over at her sons. Junior knelt between Sol and Dan, one hand rubbing each of them gently as if he were giving them a massage instead of trying to awaken them. Rafael followed her gaze.
“There are kids in the maquilas not much older than Junior.” He touched the leg of her jeans. Delia knelt down, took the canteen from his hands and opened it. The covering was striped felt, soft to her fingers, but did not yield as she applied pressure to the sides.
Junior walked up with his two brothers stumbling behind him. He reached for a drink. He felt the tiny bits of dirt with his tongue and ground them audibly in his teeth.
“ALL DAY IT ́S ́WORK FASTER, BIG ORDER ́.”
“They must not have Sundays in Korea.”
“I’m surprised they still have women in Korea, the way they hit some of the line.”
“Did you know that they can’t start working until they have their period?”
“Well, I’m surprised our factory still has welders, water up to my ankles.”
“You try working with our machines, guy before my shift lost a finger today.”
“They’re going to have to shut them all down tomorrow. Then things will change.”
“You hear about the blacklist? Think that they really won’t let the strikers back?”
Moses was drunk long before his wife came home. He lay on the mattress behind the curtain and faced the cardboard roof, closing his eyes and opening them. To his right slept his sons. From the left, the carnival of cousins talking passed transparently through the curtain. He motioned the empty bottle of tequila over his mouth forgetfully.
“I’m sorry it was just tomato soup and rice again” Delia was saying to the cousins. “If we could afford meat this would have been stew.”
“You already spoil us Delia” a faceless cousin replied, glancing across the room.
A hand pulled back the curtain. “Moses, you should have some soup.”
“Only liquids” he replied, waving the bottle at her.
She sat beside him on the mattress. He had not gotten up since she came home with the boys. “I’m sorry” she said, placing his head in her lap. His eyes were a glassy red but she could not tell if it was from crying or the alcohol, or both. Delia sat silently for a while, stroking his hair away from his forehead. “I’m sorry.”
Moses lifted the bottle to his mouth. “I need a drink, Delia” he said, staring past her. She took the bottle from his hand. “I need a drink” he continued. An anonymous cousin shut off the solitary light bulb. “This is what she did, Delia, she closed her eyes. She closed her eyes on California, she closed her eyes on him. It was his life, not hers, it didn’t need her eyes. She could afford to rest her eyes.”
Delia looked down at her husband, his face gaining detail as she adjusted to the dark. She wiped his cheeks. She bent over and laid a soft kiss on his forehead. “We’re so close” she whispered.
“It’s over Delia, it’s done.” His eyes reflected faint light filtering in through the window. “I’m sorry” he said, exhaling a deep breath, his chest falling under the weight. “I can’t cross, I can’t go.”
“You just need to sleep.” Delia knew that he wasn’t looking up at her. Moses saw a small shop in Guadalajara, gasoline fumes and explosions; the sparkling waters of Lake Chapala; a sleeping woman and a smoking warrior, clouds that changed currency; motorcycles galloping under water, a cement box on fire. His eyes asked for an audience with God. “Tomorrow you’ll go back to the factory” she said, more to herself than to him. “We’re so close. Tomorrow you’ll work, and soon we’ll go across the border.”
“I need a drink.”
Delia placed his head on the pillow and pulled the sheet over him. His eyes were closed. She moved her palm slowly from his forehead down to his cheek, down to his chin. She rested her fingers on his lips and waited, feeling both the moist heat of his breath and the cold suction of his taking, each amplifying the other. “I love you.”
Delia stood up slowly and walked past the curtain, past the four indistinguishable Nicaraguans sleeping in bunk beds, into the night.
MOSES ROLLED ONTO HIS SIDE. HE STARED AT THE DIM SHAPE OF HIS small mountain range. “Junior.” The boy stirred in his sleep. “Junior.”
Moses Junior heard someone calling his name. It sounded like a dream, or a memory. He opened his eyes. His father was calling to him with a hand outstretched.
“Junior, son, come here boy.”
Junior rolled out of bed slowly, careful not to wake his brothers. He noticed that his mother was not hidden behind the mass of his father’s shoulders. He knelt in front of the mattress.
“My boy, my heroic child, I need you to do something for me. Can you do something for me Junior?”
In the darkness, lying on his side, his father looked exhausted and smelled of medicine. Junior felt that his recognition of his father was not reciprocated, that his father had imagined himself a different son, perhaps larger. Junior nodded his head and reached for the bills crumpled like trash, or rose petals.
“Use the road, you know how to get there, follow the road.” His father rolled his shoulders back to the mattress and spoke to the ceiling as Junior put on his pants. “If you ever jump off of a castle, be sure to wrap yourself in a woman and not a flag, my heroic child.” Junior planted the money deep inside a pocket and led the bicycle out the door of the small shack, cinderblocks and wooden pallets. “Rest our eyes; we all need to rest our eyes.”
Junior was familiar with how to ride but the bicycle was not familiar with him. It jumped and kicked, it turned it’s own way. It was large and powerful and too much aware that it was both large and powerful. Junior fought through the dirt to follow the thick black cord that snaked out of the encampment. On the road he gained speed and was rewarded with wind against his bare chest. The bicycle protested but Junior dug his fingers into the mane of it’s grips, kicked the pedals downward with his bare heels. He opened his mouth wide and let the warm desert night inflate his chest.
The store was illuminated under a single streetlight like a mirage, or an oasis. Junior chained the still stubborn bicycle and walked inside.
“They think that they can do anything they want with us because we’re Mexicans. Well it’s our country, even if we’re poor. Not theirs.” Junior stood behind a man with a large hat and a small circle imprinting his back pocket. The attendant leaned to one side to look at Junior. The man with the large hat stepped back. Junior pointed at the shelf behind the attendant and then dug into his pocket for the dried petals. He flattened them out carefully against the surface of the counter.
By the time Junior arrived back at the shack the horizon had yielded to shades of rose. He set the bottle next to his father, sleeping alone on the mattress. He folded his pants and set them on the dirt floor, on top of which he placed a handful of coins and a broken chain. The arches of his dusty feet ached as he climbed into bed. He shut his eyes to the approaching dawn and pictured a wild bicycle roaming the desert, too large and powerful to be tamed. A small figure smelling of burnt paper crept back into the shack like a secret, or the morning sun.
“AND YOU THOUGHT THAT YOU LEFT MEXICO BEHIND YOU. There are places here you where you can live your whole life without knowing English.” Naomi turned her attention to the butcher. Behind the counter hocks of meat were on display in scalding reds marbled with white fat. They hung from thick hooks, peppered with occasional flies.
“Once they get in school they ́re like fish to water, I almost have to force Ruth to speak Spanish in the house.” Naomi grabbed the rough package. Delia did some math in her head. The prices were about the same for a liter of milk, a kilo of beef, at least the same as the prices after the eruption.
“They say that there are almost as many Mexicans in Los Angeles as Guadalajara. I’d say more.” Naomi placed a carton of eggs into the cart. The grocery store looked familiar; the advertisements were even in Spanish, only the prices and labels were different. As they walked down an aisle Delia picked up a couple of Ganzitos for the boys.
“So you’re going to work at Lupita’s? Mike would take me dancing near there, El Palacio.” Naomi was loading up on vegetables now. Delia picked up a bunch of green onions and smelled them, wondering how far they had traveled to end up in her hand. She imagined planting the handful under a mound of wet dirt and watching it grow, she imagined never eating green onions again.
Delia never actually met with Lupita. When Delia arrived at the house she was handed a thick rubber apron and pair of gloves by a young girl who led her to the basement. Sinks lined three walls where women worked quietly in habits of black rubber. Against a fourth wall an altar of linen reached for the ceiling. There was a cleansing smell to the room. No one seemed to notice when Delia placed her hands into the water, gloves beside her on the counter. It was peaceful work, she thought on the bus ride back to the house; the gentle sounds of rippling water, the heat radiating up from the sink, working to make white delicate pieces of cloth.
Delia followed Naomi to the front of the store. She listened as Naomi chatted with the young girl scanning the groceries. In the adjacent line a woman lifted items from her cart with one hand while rhythmically bouncing a baby in her arm. Delia wondered if the child had been born in the United States, if the family was illegal. The mother rocked the bundle in her arm, hushing gently at Delia.
The walk back to the house was short. When they arrived, Delia noticed a familiar looking old truck in the driveway, sagging low under a mountain of flattened cardboard that rose above the roof of the cab. “Is that Mike’s truck?” she asked Naomi as they entered the kitchen.
“Delia, guess which crazy Nicaraguan tracked us down!” Moses was sitting on a plastic crate facing the couch. Delia and Naomi placed their groceries on the kitchen counter and entered the living room.
“Naomi, ten years and still gorgeous.” He stood up from the couch.
“Jacob, ten years and still lying” Naomi replied as he hugged her.
“Let me guess, the cousins are under the cardboard?” Delia asked as Jacob lifted her off of the ground.
“Why, did one of them cough?” Jacob sat back down laughing and made room on the couch for the women. “No, I took them across one of the desert routes. I offered to take you guys when Moses first came to town,” Jacob glanced across at Moses, “but Mo was worried about the kids.”
“And your family?” Delia regretted the question as soon as she saw the change in Jacob’s face.
“The wife and kid are still in Guadalajara, but things are better. We can stay hungry in Mexico, or be well fed and separated.” He slapped his knees. “I think it’s going to work though. This is just temporary to send some money back home. We must have crossed not too long after you guys Mo.”
“I still can’t believe you were able to bring the truck. And the soap?”
“I brought everything we need brother.”
Delia looked at them, smiling like a pair of kids on the threshold of summer. The same plans, the same ambitions, only the scenery changed, now in a place where their dreams might finally gain traction. Delia reached out and placed a hand on her husband’s knee.
He was halfway across the living room before they noticed him. Jacob and Delia sat frozen, while Naomi let out a gasp and covered her mouth with a hand. Moses turned, smelling him before he came into view. His feet protruded black and blistered, the toes cracked, out from under tattered slacks. He wore what once might have been a dress shirt under a jacket that hung from his shoulders like a flayed cape. His face, where it was visible between the hair and the grime, flaked with skin as if he’d recently been released from a kiln. He raised his hands to his head, silver on his wrists.
“Old Man Mo.”
“DON ́T VALUE A MAN BY HIS STRENGTH, BUT FROM HERE to here.” He touched his temple and then pointed a wrinkled finger towards the sky. “His mind, his spirit. God does not favor the rich, or the strong. Listen to me, God does not favor religion. He favors a pure heart. Not the largest church but the most sincere.” His lips trembled as he spoke, with one side of his mouth slightly more passive.
Moses wiped the sweat from his face and then draped the shirt over his bare shoulders like a cape. He watched as the light filtered through the swaying trees and chased shadows across his grandfather’s face. His silver hair looked painted on his head, thin and matted down with sweat. They stood resting at the half way point with still another kilometer of climbing ahead of them. Down below the river rolled through the canyon like brown velvet. “You ready for me to carry you now?”
“That’s the only time you’ll ever be carrying me, Moses.” His grandfather pointed to a small white memorial cross surrounded by flowers beside the path. He touched Moses on the arm as he passed to sit on a stone wall overlooking the river.
“You know Old Man Mo calls it irresponsible, a 71 year old man walking the canyon.” Moses balanced a leg on the wall and stretched. The river could still be heard behind the Morse code of bird calls. With his leg still on the wall, Moses picked a hitchhiking caterpillar from his hair. They extended on glistening threads from the trees overhanging the trail. Moses noticed the butterfly of sweat spreading across his grandfather’s shirt and smiled.
“Your father has strong views on how people should behave, even his own father. Especially people he loves.” Moses ́ grandfather looked out across to the far side. Green clouds of trees grew to the cliff edges, where the land cut without warning downwards. The exposed earth of the canyon wall was a rich brown with thick black tears. As he rested he thought of this, and how the dirt in between the bluish black stones of the path was a shade lighter than the baked red soil down at the river’s bank.
“Things will be better when we get our business going. Once he sees that I’m successful he’ll be happy.” Moses spoke and thought of fish. Farther upstream, before joining the city waters, the river was smaller and cleaner. He reminded himself to make plans to come out there with Jacob. Maybe make it a family affair, bring his new wife and Jacob’s girl. Moses switched legs on the wall. “Although you know he wants me in the church.”
“Moses,” his grandfather turned from the view to look at him, “No one teaches you. Being a parent is hard; no one shows you the right way. You learn from your first day as a father.” There was a slight drizzle in the air, which along with the palpable humidity kept a gossamer film of water over his grandson’s tanned skin. He looked young and strong and happy, like a river near its fountainhead, with the knowledge that it will only grow more powerful as it rushes out to the sea.
Moses took his legs off of the wall and jumped up and down briskly. “I can’t live with him. Sooner or later he’ll have to learn that I’m my own man, not his mold. And not a pastor.” He looked towards the trail. “We should get going again before we cool down too much.”
His grandfather stood up from the wall. Somewhere behind him the brown river whispered impatiently as it ran, headlong and reckless. “I thank God for the strong woman he gave me, God rest her soul, and for the beautiful wife he gave your father, and for Delia.” He touched Moses ́ chest with a knotted finger. “You’ve been blessed. Whether the tree grows or not, you have the seed.” His grandfather rejoined the trail.
Moses looked down at his chest and noticed a centipede crawling across the smooth stones at his feet. He thought of his sore legs, like blocks of wood, and imagined the feeling multiplied by fifty. He imagined the feeling with an additional fifty years on his back. Moses looked to the trail and watched as his grandfather steadily passing scattered crosses, watched as his grandfather climbed higher into the clusters of green trees.
Moses woke up to the sound of snoring Nicaraguans, smells of burnt paper and a pain in his shoulder. He rolled to his side and pulled an unopened bottle of tequila out from under him. He looked from the bottle to his wife, asleep beside him on the mattress. She lay face down in her clothes, her lips parted and pressed against the sheets. Moses looked towards the wall and saw Junior alone and fast asleep in the bed. The faint sound of giggling drifted through an open window. He touched his head and noticed the absence of his bicycle. Moses stumbled out the door of the small shack still in his shorts.
The desert horizon wavered with uncertainty under the glare of a midday sun. Moses wondered if the strikers had succeeded in shutting down the maquiladoras. He wondered if the factory would reprimand him for showing up late on a day like this, if maybe he could pick up a double shift. He stuck his head back inside the shack and noted for the second time the absence of the bicycle. With a sigh, Moses sat in the sun and leaned back against the shack, the unopened bottle still in his hand. In his mind he tried to calculate how long it would take him to walk to the factory.
“Sol! Dan!” They came hopping around the corner from the back of the shack, grinning and kicking up dust with their bare feet. “You boys getting into trouble?”
Dan gave his younger brother a sharp look. Sol twitched his nose. “We were only in the back” Dan replied, pointing to verify his statement. They both waited for objections. Their father stared past them into the heat of the afternoon. The boys considered themselves free and scurried into the house. Seconds later they jumped back out, tomatoes in hand, and ran past their father. From his sitting position Moses watched them disappear around the shack.
The afternoon temperature rose like a child angling a magnifying glass. As memories of the day before floated through his mind Moses was washed in emotions; guilt, embarrassment, grief, but most of all a weary sense of completion; like a piece of driftwood, bleached and battered and tossed to the shore. Like finally being allowed to lose a race. How long had it taken Jacob’s family to make it back to Guadalajara? Moses imagined what his brother would say to him. He tried to picture what expression Levi wore yesterday.
Moses turned to look at the door of the shack. His son walked over to him with two gifts: a handful of coins and a broken chain. “I’m sorry” Junior said after Moses accepted the second item. Moses opened his arms and gave his son a hug while still sitting, the bottle of tequila rubbing against Junior’s back. Sol and Dan rushed past them into the shack and then back out, disappearing again around the corner this time with green onions in their small fists.
Moses looked up at his son. “I might go to the fields, help you guys with the onions. How does that sound?” Junior smiled and rubbed his eyes in the bright sunlight. Moses patted him on the side of the leg, keeping his other hand on the bottle as if anchored to the desert floor. A hand reached down and squeezed his shoulder.
“You on strike?” Delia looked down at Moses sitting in his underwear with one hand on his son and one hand on his tequila. She yawned and sat down next to him, rested her head on his shoulder. Moses lifted his hand from his son’s leg and wrapped it around his wife. She closed her eyes and imagined that they were on a beach, that the rumble of the distant highway was the ocean, and that California stretched behind them like a Hollywood backdrop. Delia tried to feel the grains of the sand with her hand. She nuzzled her cheek into her husband’s shoulder and let the sunlight evaporate her doubts. “I wish we had a guitar” she mumbled into his arm.
Sol and Dan chased each other into the house and came back out with a jagged piece of cardboard. Junior glanced at them curiously through sleepy eyes. Moses extended the tequila bottle, blocking them from running past. “Alright, what’s going on with you two?” The boys looked down guiltily.
“Moses!” A man limped towards the shack carrying a package. Moses lowered the bottle and turned his attention from his sons to the advancing figure. The man was like an apparition coming out of the stark heat of the desert, a familiar looking apparition. “Moses! I have something for you, Moses!”
The man approached the shack holding a manila envelope. With his wife on his shoulder and his son at his side, Moses reached for the package. He read the papers inside. He dropped his bottle. Moses looked up at the man and, for lack of a better gesture, picked back up the unopened bottle of tequila and handed it to him. The injured worker smiled, thanked Moses, then turned around and limped back out into the desert.
“Real paperwork, you, me, and the kids, with contact information on a van that will take us out of Texas once we’re across” Moses said and he handed his wife the envelope.
Moses stood up and walked into the shack. Junior saw his mother wiping her eyes and went to hug her.
Sol and Dan had disappeared again. Moses crept past the sleeping Nicaraguans, to the open window at the far wall. He peered over the sill. Underneath him, his two sons stood huddled over broken cinderblocks. The cardboard was torn into bits and lay at their feet. Moses leaned farther out the window. Inside the cinderblocks, among chunks of tomatoes and green onions poorly shredded by stubby hands, huddled three small grey rabbits. Sol watched as Dan carefully placed brown shreds of cardboard among the shaky tufts of fur, as if building an island to anchor a delicate storm.
“AND SHE STILL ISN ́T PREGNANT, IN CASE YOU WERE wondering. Poor guy finds time to worry about everyone but his new wife. He was concerned, you know. We all were. I don’t think he can handle Maria on his own but it’s only for a few more years, right? I told him that you would probably stay here, that’s just my guess. You know what he told me? Levi told me ́prayer changes things. ́ Just thought I’d let you know what you’re up against, a congregation full of Mexicans asking God to bring you home.”
He twisted the faucet and reached for the hose. A clear silver stream slapped the dry dirt and mirrored the predawn sky. The hose was still running when he set it down, allowing a puddle to form. He positioned his foot slowly and heaved his large frame onto the shovel. The hard ground broke and gained color under the weight of the water.
“Naomi offered the duplex but there’s barely enough room for her and Ruth. Did Mike ever come by when you were here? I can’t believe that guy, I knew he was bad news but I never thought he’d abandon her. But Ruth is gorgeous, looks so much like a little Naomi, she’s been great for the boys. At least they have someone here to play with.”
With both his hands on the shovel, he lifted it high and brought it down with a concentrated motion. He moved slightly to the right and lifted the shovel again. The plot became a mass of rolling clumps. He turned the faucet off and lowered himself to his knees. Wet earth filled the cool morning air. Removing his black beanie, he used it to wipe his face before laying it next to him.
“So Delia should be able to get the boys in school before the end of the year. She also found some work. I think that our time in the border town started to wear on her, on all of us. Did you hear that Sol and Dan found some baby rabbits abandoned behind the shack? They decided to adopt these rabbits, feed them and, I actually caught Dan doing this, he was building them a nest. I couldn’t tell them that the little bunnies probably didn’t have a chance. We left the next day and I doubt Jacob’s cousins would be so kind. You know, the Nicaraguans? I think I can count on one hand the number of times we ate meat while living there.”
His fingers wrapped firmly around the sun bleached wood of the spade. Cracks ran down it’s handle as if from the pressure of his grip. He turned the wet dirt over slowly, the blade giving short resentful scrapes as it entered. The work was done methodically, like a chef afraid of burning a delicate meal.
“You know Jacob found us the same day you came back, right now we’re looking for equipment. And we’re going to meet with dealerships later on this week, maybe pick up some contracts. I can take care of us, the family. Do you plan on going back to the church? I mean the one you came here to visit, not Levi’s church in Mexico. I’m guessing that you’re staying, right?” He paused. “Levi had the crazy notion that Maria would feel guilty, because she didn’t come with you guys. What I’m trying to say is, it’s not your fault. We don’t blame you, I don’t blame you, now that we are all across the border.”
Moses looked down at him, a child playing in wet earth. Moses recalled his youth and, more recently, the last couple of years. Moses had always been the one looking up, from dinner tables and church pews. He considered his father to have an ageless characteristic, not aesthetic but unmoving, unable to change even in the face of time. But now Moses saw that his hair was thinning towards the back of his head, in one spot he was almost bald. This was a small thing, proof of his mortality, wearing his age like a hidden diadem.
He set the spade to the side. His face was no longer peeled and blistered. The wild beard was gone and he was even starting to gain back the small amount of weight he had lost. He brushed the beanie off before securing it on his head. First he raised himself up on one knee, and then to his feet. At his full height Moses came to his shoulder. “You don’t have the authority to absolve me” he said in an even voice.
Old Man Mo walked past his son to face a sky heavy with color as morning broke across the horizon.