Y GRANDFATHER LITIO MALDONADO, the last living speaker of a forgotten Indian tongue, died recently at the hands of a grieving peacock.
The peacock had no hands, being a lowly bird not native to our village or the nearby lake. The hands belonged to a German tourist, a man named Meyer who having consumed the hallucinogenic mushroom Teonanácatl was in the lake thrashing around, trying to rescue a woman he believed drowning in a whirlpool of gelatinous colors. It was not a drowning woman the German heard that morning but rather the call of a lovesick peacock. Litio, who in the morning half-light heard the commotion, hurried to the lake and tripped over the body of a dead peahen, the object of the male bird‘s public grief. A stone to the head broke Litio’s fall and he suffered an unnatural death.
Sniffing as if he had caught scent of these mad spirits mixing with the evening light, Grandpa lifts his fingers to his lips and combs through his mustache, grooming out particles of malevolence that he says frequently settle near his mouth.
Just before my grandfather’s death, another accident, a nonfatal one, occurred. Litio and I were returning from Cholula after delivering fireworks to the village. Nearing the final turn into Tequestitlan, Litio learned through the truck’s radio that Chivas, his beloved football team had lost a championship match (1-0) against arch rival Club America. My grandfather, an emotional man when sober, dropped bitter tears thereafter, blinding him to the goat herd crossing the road. The truck stopped to avoid the goats, throwing me from its bed where I slept. I flew headfirst into the animals.
Losing consciousness, I awoke to monstrous visions: multi-headed creatures dressed in thick metal armor and blackened by calamitous fires. The creatures raged with fang-tipped growls--- threatening me at all angles and stretching in dimension: in height, in width, in everything measurable by fear and terror.
After my accident there were surgeries, expensive ones, with many trips to the hospital in the capital. To earn money for the visits my mother began selling dried fish in the local market, bought wholesale from a cousin in Amantitlan. Although bandaged and bruised, I helped unload the fish and haul the produce to market.
It was there I saw my grandfather.
He first appeared sitting in the shade of the plaza’s trees, hunched over, gazing at his hands and occasionally shooing away the flies circling the fruit rinds littering his feet. I instantly recognized him and thought that death had restored some youth. His neatly trimmed mustache was still pure white and his eyes had the damaged look of excessive sunlight but his chest and arms were thick like a aged Mexican Popeye.
I sat next to him. Neither of us spoke. The market crowds moved before us, buzzing and chattering, exchanging gossip for gossip. Before I could speak, I was distracted by an ache coming from the root portion of my skull. I turned to look where my grandfather had been and saw him walking toward the market stalls, his elbows flexed in odd angles as his arms pushed him forward. Soon he was lost in sea of women haggling over the price of chilies and children looking hungrily at the candies and toys their Indio parents had no money to buy.
Over the next few months I saw my grandfather occasionally. Seeing him once in the trees outside our house, climbing from branch to branch like a small restless monkey. I saw him a few times on television as a news reporter talking of the latest war or drug bust or political scandal. He even appeared as a child’s tornado---a dust devil, a small twisting wind that many said contained the souls of lost children spinning their way through eternity.
But mostly he appeared in my fitful, dissolving dreams. In those dreams I was a child, continually moving in a shadowy world made from the unfulfilled desires of others. I hovered as ether does, eventually floating into a crowd of men, starving and desperate they attacked me. I fought their battering. My grandfather, Litio, who took the form of a raven, watched the mayhem. “Help me,” I called out. “Help me fly away.” The raven, perched on column of broken cemetery stones, lifts his wings to reveal the brittle skeleton of a starving bird. I wake sweat-stained, feeling as though a demon-heated darkness breeched my soul.
One morning, after a round of disturbing dreams, I awoke to see four gypsy women sitting in a row, staring at me. Each had in their laps dark purple grapes, eating and then spitting out the grape seeds through my open window. One woman was not a woman at all, but my grandfather dressed as a hungara.
“Benny, Benny” my grandfather spoke in an old shaky voice. “You must leave.” The other gypsies nodded in agreement. “You are filled with maharime up here.” He tapped his forehead as did each woman. “Who are you?” I asked, although I knew she was my grandfather in gypsy dress. Another gypsy with skin the color of burnt charcoal answered, “Chavo, she is your Baba, we are all your Baba. It is with God we found you and it is with God that we will leave you. Give us some bread, give us some herbs, we are your finger casters.” She drew her hands out to me and on each tattooed finger were the devilish symbols of owls, snakes, ravens and goats.
Another woman, very heavy, whose silver teeth sparkled in the early light said, “Give us your paper, so that that we may bless you, Chavo. We will remove the Prikaza that darkens your spirit. Give us your paper.” I looked around and saw a football card with the picture of Rafael Marquez, the Mexican soccer star, on the table beside my bed. It still smelled like the loaf of Bimbo bread I had taken it from yesterday at breakfast. I gave it to my gypsy grandfather.
All the gypsies seemed pleased, except for the one whom the others called Chivani. The oldest looking, she wore many beaded necklaces around her neck and thin brown leather straps around her wrists. The Chivani was silent until given the card. She looked at it in disgust, with the wrinkles in her nose bunching together and her brow tightening in concentration. She spoke two words ‘kocsis sándor’ before handing the card to another. Shortly thereafter, I heard the braying of horses and the ringing of many small bells. This was their cue to leave and so they left.
After the gypsies left, I lay in bed watching my world unwind. Shadows lengthened and shrank outside my room. A crab spider spun a web across my tiny window frame. In our small courtyard, my mother worked making tortillas. Her hands making the pat-pat-pat sound that was as familiar to me as her long mournful sighs. My tiny world was taking shape as it always does, moving slowly, going to those same places that end in my mother‘s reproachful, faraway looks, in my numerous headaches that clamor and roar, in a feeling that makes me less solid, less durable each day.
I hear a voice telling me, “Go to the other side.” It’s not my voice I hear, and it’s not a gypsy, or my mother‘s. It’s my grandfather’s voice, sounding like thunder tearing down a mountainside.
I hear a voice insist I leave. I comply. I must.
The day of my decision, the earth shook violently, knocking me out of bed to the floor where I found a 20 peso note. A good omen, I thought. But more importantly a reminder about money needed for the journey. Later that day, after the earth rumblings had quieted, I went to Timoteo Mendoza’s grocery store to borrow cash. The debt business is a good one for the Mendoza clan, since most migrants lack resources for the trip. After some nonsense about Jesus as my master and savior, Timoteo handed over an envelope, saying, “God wants you to take care of your debts, for if you don’t He will find you. He always finds what belongs to him.”
Returning home, I tell my mother of my plans. She objects. She grabs my elbow with her hand, disturbing my already strange moods. She then asks if I’m well. I’m unsure how to respond. It angers me, her question. So I let it go and step away. I’m leaving I say again. This time my voices trembles like a frightened child endlessly seeking adult approval My mother demands I stay and care of her but makes no move to stop me. How could she? I am a man.
Although the oldest, I’m also the last of her five children to go. We, my brothers and sisters, have all left, crossing to the other side. My father went first, long ago, leaving behind only a dusty wedding picture in a gilded frame, hanging crookedly on a cracked bedroom wall, to be taken down at my mother’s death, according to her wishes. I tell her I’ll send money. She begins to weep the saltiest of tears, saying over again, “May God go with you.”
“I’ll come back with money. I’ll take care of you.” I plead, just wanting her to stop her mournful expressions of not quite pity, not quite guilt.
But I do mean this. I feel guilty about it all and yet I will come back to her. And I do try to reach her like so many times before, with promises of money and care.
“Rich or poor, may God be at your side,” she replies before retreating into the smallness of the world I’m desperate to leave behind.
I go looking for Litio. I find him in front of the municipal building sitting on a small wooden bench with other men his age. The men talk quietly amongst themselves, shaking their heads in disbelief at the stories they exaggerate. I catch the end of Don Ferdinand’s story about his grandson‘s drug overdose. The boy, just 17 was found by his junky companions in an alleyway of a Guadalajara slum:
“And poor Octavio’s soul, never at rest, picked apart and scavenged by the animal spirits of the unclean otherworld or sold to the cave phantoms who butcher then hang souls like cuts of meat on the branches of sterile trees. These wretched things always calling out, haunting those who step into their place of death, creating misery, envy, and jealously; seeking sanctuary forever from the horrors of their violent death.”
Listen, Benny, listen. My grandfather says:
In the plaza of our village sits an enormous tree. According to the elders, the tree was large during their childhood, having been planted by the sons and daughters of indentured Indian slaves. The tree is like no other in Jalisco or all of Mexico. After each storm, it seems ready to topple. A bulbous trunk growing like a series of tumors at its base keeps the tree firm. The tree, because of it age, its girth, its center-point in the plaza or perhaps because of its flowers which bloom in early spring and are shaped like diamonds, rust-ochre in color, is the final stopping place for men headed to the United States. Before leaving migrants pin notes, photos, milagros and promises on the tree and its branches. Pink and yellowish sap drips from these small wounds and when the winds blow from the south, the tree, deep with leaves, flowers and offerings, seems to howl. A monstrous sound, many say, like an animal’s final cry before it’s set upon by vicious predators.
Litio turns silent, staying so until we meet the main road.
“There are monsters out there,” my grandfather tells me with a gravely inflection, “more frightening and real than the Chupacabra and La Llorna combined.” Sniffing as if he had caught scent of these mad spirits mixing with the evening light, Grandpa lifts his fingers to his lips and combs through his mustache, grooming out particles of malevolence that he says frequently settle near his mouth.
“Like a cat, I have had many lives, but since I detest cats, they are dirty animals with fruity names like Peaches and Cinnamon, I have had many lives not like a cat but like a dog or dolphin or the mighty mammoth, an animal never given its due although it survived millions of years of ass freezing cold.”
Litio wears a sky blue hospital tag around his wrist, forgetting or more likely not caring to remove it. The smell of cane alcohol rises from the man. Shaking his head, Litio rattles off a string of deep phlegm-clearing coughs. The last cough is more of wheeze and the humid odor of ripening plantains is released. Removing a bottle from his jacket pocket, Litio looks at it with severe pity and before taking a swig says, “This temptress commits me to misery.”
We wait for the bus. A late arrival means that the driver, Melchior, has stopped to buy chayotes from Angel Beltran’s small market stand. Melchior insists the fruits automatically slow his well developed appetite for both food and drink. And indirectly they do, as Angel’s chayote’s, sour and squalid, trigger nightmarish diarrhea and numerous shit stops.
Or maybe a passenger, the driver’s no-good cousin Victorio, for instance, has convinced Melchior to bypass Teques, heading instead to Chimitlan, where it’s said the women are uncommonly easy and have the power to pleasure men into temporary blindness. In that case, the bus will arrive whenever Melchior regains his vision.
Apparently Victorio and Angel go sightless in Chimitlan without Melchior’s companionship for I can see smoke from the red and white bus blacken the stony twilight. Melchior is behind the wheel. One eye larger than the other and teeth cut from the mouth of aging beast, Melchior has charms and amulets hanging throughout his heft. As the bus moves forward, Melchior jangles and jingles with it. We should feel safe with him, according to Litio. But in truth, Melchior is a terrible driver, involved in the infamous Zapote bus line crashes of 91, 92 and 94 (much of 93 was spent recovering from his previous injuries). As many will tell you, Melchior’s charms come exclusively from passengers, who insist he wear them while lighting a candle to an accident battered picture of a tense St. Christopher.
Once in the bus Litio tells me this: “I have caught sight of many things, been imprisoned by gringo mercenaries under the influence of clergy thugs, turned into a fire salamander by your grandmother’s worthless relatives, survived two floods, one the result of a spoiled child’s excessive tears, and been forced to eat the overvalued paper currency of Honduran magistrates.” Litio pauses to wipe cigarette ash off his grey pants. A young girl sitting in front of us, opens a window, greatly irritating Litio. He shows his annoyance by blowing plumes of smoke toward the girl. The smoke turns into biting gnats which attack the girl, forcing her to run crying to her mother who is in the process of losing her virginity for only the second time in her life.
We travel out of Teques on the new road, the one made possible by the powerful but portly Senator Luguzo Sanchez. The road provided the late senator better access to his mistress Carmen Salazar. According to local gossip, Carmen was two-timing the senator with Abel Sanchez, a schoolteacher. A scandal erupted when the senator, his ears burning with the news of his cheating mistress, traveled to our village to confront Abel. Being part intellectual and all coward, Abel quickly disappeared. Senator Sanchez, carrying a rusty revolver and a barber’s sharpened razor, walked the streets of Tequestitlan soaked in a vapor of unfulfilled vengeance. Seeking consolation he went to a heartbroken and suicidal Carmen, who accidentally killed the senator with the toxic yellow residue from the skin of a marsh toad---a poison meant for her. It was said that his last words were for all the Carmen‘s of the world, “I have no hope in death as mercy and justice deny me a name.”
Within several hours of a long bus ride, Litio reveals an old revolver he keeps tucked in his waistband. A broken relic, as vicious as a child’s toy, Litio waves the piece around like a revolutionary in search of a revolution.
“Zapata’s brother was a drunkard and a scoundrel. Yet, still he kissed his brother’s hand upon entering the room. When really he should have spat on it.”
I find little reason behind much of what Litio says. Instead, my mind is on the road. The miles ahead and the miles behind seem undistinguishable. Understanding neither, I sit and watch the day pass. Looking at the other passengers, I notice most are bound to cross to the other side. Crossing---it’s inescapable, I think, like getting married or your first fuck, both terrifying but very necessary parts of life.
“Benny, in my day you grew corn and sugar cane and every last cent was taken by the patron. 50 centavos a day was our wage.” he throws back his head so dramatically he almost loses his hat. Focusing on his hat for a moment, Litio looks inside, seems disappointed to find nothing and continues,
“When we grew sick from overwork, we went to hacienda’s doctor, who infected us with an endless sickness: debt to the owner for 100, 200, sometimes even 300 pesos. We were his slaves, Benny.” Litio then lets out a puff a smoke, a yellow fog mixed with sooty browns. The smoke has spent years in his lungs and a small deposit of the gassy slag rises and hangs oppressively over us. Litio considers the smoke for a moment or two.
“And for those lucky to have a bit a land, the patron would find a way to take it, and little by little, it vanished. To see a man and his family starve for lack of land is a crime against nature and a violent blow to the face of God.” Litio waves his hands over his head, looking crazed, although few passengers notice. They instead stare straight into their own browns and yellows, the slaggy gases of their own making.
After many hours, some spent listening to a retired hippie argue that marijuana should be legalized so that we could tax the space flights of aliens who supply Mayan Indians with candied blow pipes, we arrive at the border. It’s just past noon and my head already feels knotted, uptight, stuck on a level somewhere between compliance and aggravation. Noise from past turmoil finds its way in there too, crowding out any useful thoughts. “Lack of sleep,” says my grandfather, who sits next to me awake the entire trip, never needing rest.
I spent the days on the bus thinking over and over about my mother and my encounter with the gypsy women. And somehow I’ve become unhappy. In fact, I’m overcome with unhappiness. I tell Litio that an animal tethered by rusty chain, fuming in a junk yard has more joy. He responds in the only way he can by telling a story of a peasant farmer who walked 30 miles barefoot on broken stones to see images of the Virgin Mother rise from a field littered with celestial flowers of absolution.
As we enter the bus station, something tells me there is unkind work taking shape just beyond. All that should go well, will not.
An orphan girl, ragged with a fearless energy, rises from the streets and offers to sell us marigolds. Instead of haggling, Litio gives her a newly minted coin. On one side is an impression of the sun with a monstrous being---sunken-eyed and a bony-framed. His howling mouth opens in the sun’s direction. Inscribed on the coin’s flip side is one word: LIMUS.
I say quietly what‘s on my mind, “Nothing good can come of this” unaware that Litio listening. His 80-something ears are canine sharp, and sharper still is his blackened tongue, “Shut your mouth. You call forth so much bad luck. It will find us and once we are found, we are lost.”
Litio walks out of the bus station into the streets. I follow, ignoring all the men heaving the forbidden our way, offering to lavish us with the cheap and the vulgar, all for the bargain price of an exhausted woman forced to sell what is left of her body to inexhaustible strangers. One flesh peddler is dressed like a wayward missionary in a clean white shirt, a bolo tie the size of a monkey’s paw and dark red pants. He repeats the phrases “true sexy,” and “good times with bad hot women” so often I picture the words as a malignancy streaming from the fleshy pads of over-excitable mouth.
Litio walks, I follow. With great determination we move past the poor and those blue with the fatigue of hunger, all born from the ruins of some wondrous disaster.
After a time I suspect we’re lost. We travel in circles, assaulted by the same undernourished, gum-selling children, tripping over the same broken gutters, meeting the same gentle-eyed, failing people. Before I reach my end, Litio stops in the glow of a bright pink building. The sign outside reads: Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, Tuesday‘s. We enter, walk up a dark stair case and come to a room where a group of grim faced men sit semi-circle, recalling, or as I later realize, trying to forget their hard luck stories.
It must be Tuesday.
I ask Litio why we’re here. He shrugs, mumbling something about rain.
One man, rabbit-faced, with thick stubble and pants too large for his short legs gestures for us to sit. A moment later this same man wobbles to the room’s center and begins to speak:
“My name is Reuben Martinez. I come from a good and proper family, from Vera Cruz. My father was a good and proper man who had lots of land, lots of cattle. I was driven to school everyday in a Gran Marquis. Every year we had a new Gran Marquis.”
Litio sits passively, cleaning the lenses of glasses he refuses to wear (“They make me look like an old unmarried school teacher.”). Rueben pauses to sip coffee. His hands shake and his eyes, already red and weary, liquefy.
“I began my life of…my evil ways…I could not stop. I was young. My father, a good man, a loving man, always wanted the best, he gave me the best. On my 15th birthday I was awakened early in the morning by my father’s bodyguards. He is very important man in Vera Cruz. We have a large house there. Beautiful gardens…many hired people to care for them. They woke me, carrying me on their shoulders to a small room on the other side of our big house. They were laughing and singing birthday songs until they pushed me into the room.”
He pauses again, sounding as if his voice will soon abandon his body. I can hear rain hitting the windows. Everything appears less threatening in the rain, everything softens My head is calmed by this thought. Litio disappears.
“They said to me, laughing, ‘Rueben, it’s your day to be a man, don’t be afraid, she is willing, don’t worry, we paid her. Remind that old bitch she is a woman. Show her what you can do, don’t shoot too soon, make it last.”
“I was in a dark room with a bed, and on the bed was a woman. I knew her. She worked for us. It was Marta, an Indian woman who worked for us. Marta stared at me with fear in her eyes. I was trying. . . not to cry. I tried as a man should…It was Marta who carried me as a child, fed me, sang songs to me, gave me caresses when I was hurt. My mother had died . . . when I was born… she died. And Marta raised me . . .gave me a mother’s love, a mother’s kind touch she had for me.
He stops speaking. Again he stops and several of the men look disappointed. They are rankled by his too-many pauses. Their arched eyebrows fall and their boners slacken. And they don’t like it. And they don’t like Rueben for it. He is teasing them with a good story. He builds suspense, with much drama and the twisted thoughts of a fucked-upped man. Then---wham, he stops. Like a woman he teases. They mumble words of support, “Go on, go on,” they say. But Reuben’s heart, bigger and weaker than all of ours combined, overflows, straining itself beyond repair. It takes all he has not to brake down and weep. If it goes any longer, a lifetime of stupid, savage tears will flood us all.
Litio returns, foul odors trail him. But the alcohol on his breath is clean. He whispers it tastes of rain. “There are three bars on this side of the street alone,” he laughs. His laughter staggers the air, waking even the hardiest of sleepers.
Meanwhile, everyone sits and waits, most staring at their worn shoes, wondering about the awful things they’ve done and how it’s led them here.
Outside, the rain slows. It leaving the city for the countryside. Though it’s soft and cradling and does its best to soothe the slum’s concrete and rusty tin fevers, they burn anyway. They burn through us all. The city burns, everyone’s going down in a blur of dirty flame. And the hottest fires erupt here; fueled by a pack of cursed men, condemned to unravel as one.
Reuben swallows large gulps of air. He is like a punctured balloon attempting to inflate itself, with too many holes to fill. Still he tries, so very hard does he try to give himself form, believing some kind of shape is better than none. But we don’t give a fuck for shape here. We only want the spicy details behind his wound. It gives the men insight on how to best feed their individual atrocities.
“I threw myself on her yelling, ‘You want it, don’t you, don’t you.’ I could hear the men outside the door laughing and cheering me on. I took off my pants and rubbed himself against Marta who lay on the bed while I pushed myself against her. I kept thrusting myself against Marta’s body, pushing wildly with my thing. Marta looked at me as if I were an animal. By then, her tears had dried, leaving salty white lines against her face. I pushed and pushed until I wet on her legs.”
Reuben stops, not to start again. He can’t start and we can’t finish. For this reason, the men, both beaten and aroused, are in need of hard drink. Or something to stop them from consorting with the demon spirits set loose by Reuben’s story. Or something just to stop them, to hold them, to sleep through the night with them without demanding payment at sunrise.
After Reuben’s story the meeting breaks. The group’s leader, a man with many chains around his neck, many rings on his fingers, an abiding love for cheap-plated metals, rises. With nothing better to do, we rise too.
“Brothers,” he starts, “we struggle everyday in the presence of weakness. We must control our urges. They are wicked and bring wicked things to us.” He closes his eyes and I sense trouble. “Brothers, the holy spirit has entered me since I have stopped drinking. Let it enter you, brothers, let it enter you.” He barks a command to hold hands. We obey. Many mumble a prayer. But I haven’t stopped praying since I entered this building.
And Litio cries. A sick column of his tears hit’s the floor. My grandfather begins to look foolish and weak. The old man in him is pitiful to see: groaning and shuffling and full of a lifetime of stunting grief.
“Why are we here,” I whisper again. “Why are we anywhere?” comes his small- voiced reply.
After the mess is done, Reuben greets us by talking of Vera Cruz. The beauty of his home and garden, the richness of his life before drink, are set out in detail. Reuben concludes by telling us that his father is waiting to send a Gran Marquis, gleaming white and sleek, with the smell of gorgeous women lingering on its brown leather seats, to get him. First, Reuben must dry out. To emphasize this, the strange little man does a stranger little dance he calls the jarocho. He spins and gyrates, twisting and mortifying the air with his movements. He offers us a place to stay and we agree, for some reason we say yes.
Rueben lives in a abandoned building. It’s have-built and half-destroyed but free and we must save money to pay the coyotes who will take us across. The space, even as it is near ruin, is clean and well-looked after. Small plaster and shiny metal figures of demons and saints of all sizes are scattered throughout the room. Since arriving at Reuben’s, Litio’s been quiet. Seeing a cop shake down a street vendor sets him off however, and gripping the butt of his gun he aims to test his manhood. I hold him back. Reuben watches, drinking large doses of cane liquor from a plastic Snoopy bottle. He flops on a baby’s mattress and soon he’s snoring. In his sleep, his legs twitch, he swears something about ‘mama’. But most of all, he sweats, turning a bad body odor into something worse.
Litio has stopped his foolishness and stares out between the cracks of the boarded window. “Listen, Benny, listen. Let me tell you a story‘:
Sometime in the 1800’s a villager was caught stealing a pig from Raymundo Ortiz. Raymundo demanded justice. But the village authorities felt pity for the man who pleaded he was desperate to feed his family. His tattered clothes and the near starved bellies of his children were evidence of the man’s desperation. Raymundo still in need of justice, decided to take the matter into his own hands and one night went to the poor man’s jacal and cut the tongue from the man’s mouth, whispering violently in his ear, “You will never tell lies again.” The next morning Raymundo found he could no longer speak Nauhuatl. His Indian tongue had been removed by indigo-winged phantoms and replaced with a Spanish one, the idiom of overseers, landlords and judicial figures. Since then Indian sounds continue to stir the local air as commonly as colorful birds move through the grey skies.
“Have you listened? Have you heard me?” Litio says in all seriousness. But it’s just noise toiling in a thinning blue/black atmosphere. I’m too tired to make sense of anything. As my eyes seek rest and turn to sleep, I lose sight of Litio. But in my dreams he returns; lying just north of the other side, he waits for me to enter and let him go.
“Make sure you run out of life before you run out of money.” Litio says this to me the next morning after we left Reuben asleep on the floor. To show our appreciation we leave him a gift: a bottle of Presidente, nearly half-full. He cradles it like a baby holding a favored doll.
Today, the streets have been taken over by children, running in and out of traffic like a pack of wild dogs, a game that marks the best and worst of their childhood. A few women, red clay-colored with babies permanently sucking at their breast gather in front of a small church. Under the shadow of a cross they avoid the looks of local men who seem to be alive only because they had nothing better to do that day.
One man, his clothes a collection of rags linked together by many knots, walks toward us, his hand outstretched. I give him pocket change. Litio offers an over-ripe yellow mango. It’s still edible but Litio says yellow mangos make his balls ache and call forth images of tropical women wearing strategically placed animals pelts and macaw feathers.
Litio recognizes him, shouting, “Alejandro, is that you?”
“Compa,” Litio calls out, “Compa, it’s me, the man you buried a lifetime ago.” The beggar has walked across the street opposite from us. He sits on a piece of cardboard near a photo shop and seems unable to hear Litio. His attention is focused on an empty bottle which he shakes furiously. It is the soul of his disgraced wife’s former lover, he shouts.
Litio, calls to him once more, this time straining his voice:
“Compa, we are from Teques. You have fallen on hard times.”
The beggar looks in the direction of Litio, with eyes squinting as if he is staring into orange bolts of strong sunlight.. “He is going blind, Benny. That is what happens when you lose faith. Never lose faith, Benny, never.” After one final attempt, Lito abandons calling after Alejandro. For his part, Alejandro angrily adjusts a dirty military cap he wears, covering his eyes. He takes a mango from his pocket and begins pounding it into submission.
Sitting in front of a building where two soldiers hold rifles and guard its gates, I get sleepy and decide to lie at the base of large palm tree. A guard wakes me by kicking pebbles toward my face. He’s got the hardened face of his job although it seems like yesterday he was just a boy running in the streets with his friends. The rifle in his hand gives him control of all the lives within shooting range. He tells me I can’t sleep there. I respond still partially asleep, thinking I’m talking to Litio, “Where can I sleep?”
“That’s your mother’s fucking problem, not mine.” The gold in his front tooth shines as bright as a new bullet. We are told to move on. We move on.
Walking by a taco stand, I realize I haven’t eaten anything in days. Litio again disappears as I approach the stand and see a woman cutting food and moving her hips to music only she can hear. The cook has dark circles around a pair of big eyes. She looks like an owl, one that can smile and weep at the same time. Which, for some reason, makes me edgy.
“Joven, what would you like.” I find a crumbled 20 peso note in my pocket. Litio has the rest. I must look for him soon.
“Two carne asada tacos,” I say while digging into my pocket. The woman’s hands go chopping, stirring, always moving, and then like some kind magician, out of nowhere, come two tacos stuffed with onions, cilantro and spicy pork.
“Jovencito, where are you from?” She lets out a loud whistle and a small black Chihuahua appears on her shoulder.
“Tequestitlan, Jalisco.” The words roll out of me lifeless and afraid.
“Ah, I have family in Anesco. Two cousins. They own a stand, too. Good people, good food. She looks like she is digging in her mind for a memory. It comes to her but she says nothing. She makes a face very similar to that of the Chihuahua’s: empty, but happily so.
“You hungry, ah. Young men are always hungry for something, mostly food, ah. She winks. Or maybe onions have irritated her eyes. She serves another taco.
“Eat, joven, eat. Don’t be shy. This one comes from the angels, ah.” The free taco is good although my stomach is in pain from eating too fast. She begins to talk about her son in the United States.
“My son went mojado. But got his work permit. He is a citizen of the United States. I have been there once. He lives in a city--Gresham…I forget the state. It’s cold, there. I could never live there. Too cold for me and Chancho.” She moves her head to the dog, who has not stopped shaking since making his appearance on her shoulder. “We are content here, ah. This is my home, good or bad.”
A red and yellow truck appears from the road, stopping in the dirt lot next to us. On the truck’s windshield in gold letters is the name ROSALINDA. From its cab steps a tall man wearing grey snakeskin boots and a worn cowboy hat. He slaps his hand together and makes a noise that sounds like‘woohoo.’
“It’s a bastard out there, a real bastard. Tell me Blanca, please, you went to the market this morning and bought cesos?”
“Since when have I not had your favorite, ah Nestor?”
“I can now leave my wife and live in sin with you, my love, as long as I enter damnation with a full stomach.”
“You don’t need my help for that. But you are safe, Nestorcito, since the Devil himself wouldn’t take you.”
Both laugh, and I laugh at their laughter.
Nestor turns to me and says, “Looks like you need a beer and another taco. Blanca, get my young friend a beer and some more food. Fix him one of those delicious Chihuahua tacos.”
Blanca covers Chancho‘s trembling ears, holding him close to her saying, “Don’t worry Chanchito, Nestor is envious of your beauty and brains.” She kisses the dogs head and Chancho bares his teeth, looking more demon than dog. I begin to talk soccer with Nestor.
“I swear, it’s true the Toltecas will win. I will bet my grandmother’s grave on it, God rest her soul.” Nestor had thick curly hair which he constantly brushed back. His mustache seemed to have thick curls as well. It’s not wispy like a hairy girl’s or too thick like a monster. It’s good, strong and honest. Like I imagine the man to be.
“The Chivas, man, the Chiva’s,” is all I say. Nestor and I are having a beer and tacos piled high with cilantro and cesos. “You are wrong. Their pantywaist of a coach panics. He allows his star players too many freedoms. They are never ready for the big games. He is more interested in dating movie stars than coaching a real soccer team.” Nestor takes a large swig from the bottle and I copy the swig, too quickly as the beer overflows into my nose.
“So what are you doing here at Blanca’s truck?”
“I am traveling to the border, going to the other side.”
“Ok, Ok. I know the score, my friend. So many go. Well it’s the only way now, isn‘t it? There are no jobs, no money here. Politicians sign their treaties. They come on TV and say life is improving. For them, no, Blanca.?” Nestor winks at Blanca, who sets another plate of tacos and begins humming a familiar tune. “No, you’re right to leave. Save your money, make your small fortune. Return, buy a truck like my Rosalinda. Find a good woman, a real good one, a woman that tolerates the failings of a man with love”
Nestor speaks quickly. Each time I open my mouth to respond, he fires something back. The beer‘s fumes work on my thoughts, bringing out a boldness not normally available. I raise my voice, pushing against Nestor‘s. “I want to work to get the good things in life.”
Nestor ignores me, continuing to say, “Going as wetback, very dangerous. But who has papers? Who is legal anymore? We are all criminals in a land where starving is a crime. Be very careful. You are traveling alone?”
I think it a bad idea to mention Litio. The old man is gone anyway, returning to a life of whores and drink.
“Yes, I’m going it alone.”
“Not a good idea. What do you think Blanca, huh?”
“No, young man. Nestor is right. There are many people who take advantage… people have many vices there.” Blanca’s Chihuahua growls in approval. A large blood- filled tick, the size of a pea makes its way from under the dog’s belly. The animal bites at the insect, catching it between it teeth and a small pop is heard as the tick’s body explodes. Nestor sips his beer, and taps his fingers on the metal table. In the distance, an accordion plays, the same few wheezy notes turn over and over, sounding like a old man struggling to catch the last of his measly breath.
Nestor stops tapping his finger, finding the right rhythm to his thoughts, “But you can make it. Guard yourself, your money. Never take it out in front of anyone. I had a friend who was robbed twice, once by gangs, of course. And then by the police. In fact, when he told the cops about the robbery. They asked if the gang got it all. He made the mistake of showing them the money sewn into shoes.”
“Guess what the police did?”
“They robbed him?” said Blanca, a little slow on the uptake.
“Of course they robbed him. Left him naked on the roadside. No, the police are the most experienced thieves in Mexico. The only difference between bandits and police is that bandits will leave you a little to get home. The cops take it all.”
Blanca nods in agreement, as does the little Chihuahua, who licks at Blanca’s ear as though he is whispering something dark and secretive to her.
I’m reminded how much I hate secrets coming from the squinty mouth of small annoying animal.
That night, Nestor allows me to stay in Rosalinda. He spends the night someplace else, inside a different Rosalinda, perhaps. In the morning he drops me to the city’s main plaza. “Remember to watch your back at all times,” is his final advice. He honks his horn and a neon sign flashes across his bumper: Jesus is Lord … Death or Glory.
In the plaza I ask a woman selling candles where the border is. She lifts a small finger toward a cluster of objects in the distance. She calls it “a great scar of land, where towers rise like angry mastiffs and walls shield the eyes of the frightened rich from the sight of the desperately poor.”
I say nothing in reply. I’m shy with strangers, a shyness often mistaken for a frail heart. I finally blurt out my name, “Benny, Benny Maldonado.” She tells me her name is Cathy and that she is a Marxist teacher of Spanish Literature who sells flowers and candles on her days off.
“And this your day off,” I ask.
“I have none,” she admits. I tell her I’m going to the other side and ask if she knows anyone who can get me across. She says to wait with the group of people sitting on the other side of the plaza.
“They are going tonight. Pay whoever they pay and they will take you across.”
I thank her and she gives me a candle with a slip of paper that reads, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”
I wait with others for night to fall. Some ugly girl with beautiful hands gives me flyer announcing that Jon’s Karaoke Bar has 2 for1 Strippers, nipple-flavored Tequila shots and a special midnight appearance by the luchador, Mysteri Infiniti.
The rest of the day is filled with boredom and heat. I have dog shit on my shoes which I’ve been trying to scrape off for hours. Litio, returns, looking deprived. His vital energies depleted, Lito’s breathing is like that of baby’s and the dusty afternoon has eaten into his skin, exposing bone and a network of elderly veins and arteries.
“Benny, lust has finally left my heart. The women of Calle Nino’s have grown fatter and darker. They hear their babies cry from behind curtains. All their pimps have died of heartache, cirrhosis and their own unlimited greed. It is impossible to get a fair price under such conditions. And what insults me most is that the prettiest women on the street turn out to be men who dare to laugh at my con…condition.” I notice for the first time that Litio is wearing a brand new Charro shirt, with expensive looking jeans, bad-ass boots and a hand stitched brown leather belt that says---Viejo Pendejo.
“You like my boots, pure horned lizard. Did you know they shoot blood from their eyes when threatened.”
“Not the boots, since when do boots have eyes? The lizards.”
Litio continues to smile but I can sense distance growing. After the rain, the sky becomes just a scribble of clouds made from the drawing of some disturbed child. We walk toward a store to buy supplies. On the way several people including a heavy-set woman with moles scattered all over her face offer to sell us identity documents. As we get closer I realize that her moles are really dark scabs and that there are bruises patterned throughout her chest and arms.
“They got this all wrong, the pendejos.” My grandfather furiously gums at the three good teeth left inside his head. He is reading a torn piece of newspaper with the word ‘Assassins’ prominent. Pictures of men, as forgotten as the villages they abandoned, are beneath the headline. “These men had nothing to do with the death of Luis Colosio. It goes to the very top. Those stingy oligarchs Carlos Slim and the Suras didn’t want this man elected. They want to continue to bleed us dry. Hah, but we have fooled them, haven’t we, Benny? There is no more blood left to take. And what do you take then, when there is no more blood?” After completing his tirade, Litio uses the newspaper to squeeze a tremendous amount of snot from his nose.
Returning from the store with water and food, I join the migrants. They have moved past the plaza and huddle together in a nearby lot filled with the remains of a fallen building. People sit on large concrete pieces and try to avoid being cut by the sharp wire fencing sticking from the ground. Feeling homesick my stomach turns. In the past, a joint would be smoked. Near the tall trees between the school and the soccer field I would go and think about life, ways to enter and escape it, trying to find my place among the scattered bits of life that seem impossible to piece together.
Walking around nervously I come across Litio. He is still as a stone and I leave him that way. Alone, I grow anxious. Waiting for whatever will take us across, I pace, I stand and sit. I move in circles, kicking at the dirt and staring at the others. Unlike me they hardly budge, blending into the landscape so well that one could easily mistake them for a tree or cactus. I turn west, toward the rim of sunlight that slides away exposing the youthful face of early darkness. I’m looking, searching. Not knowing what I’ll find.
A woman stands above the rest. She looks like my mother: dark hair falling to grey, a face that resists with hostility all pleasure. She waits, like my mother waits. For what I’m not sure. Although in my mother’s case it could be any number of things. Some harmony, maybe, to quiet her love for isolation and a stubborn reliance on the supernatural. “Go with God” she says, as if God understands the fires lit inside us.
The woman I watch is with a muscular guy. He wears a small silver crucifix earring and drags one leg, zombie-like, across the ground when he walks. He does good by her, clowning it up, farting loudly several times, without too much provocation, it seems. She covers her mouth and nose with her hand. And she closes her eyes and it’s here where the lines throughout her face appear, growing solid, deepening. They are lines like my mother’s, the ones that surface when she strains to hide herself from me.
It’s now dark. Few stars dare appear in tonight’s sky. The air is cool, not yet cold. A van pulls up with two guys inside, one looking like he hasn’t slept in days while the other has yet to wake from a long sleep. The baggy-eyed one with slippery hair, a beard and a dirty mouth yells at us to move our asses. Our asses, our whole bodies enter the van.
There are maybe fifteen of us, all shapes and sizes, packed inside the van. Crushed beer cans, torn papers and oily sand litter the floor. We are again told to hurry and are shoved tightly, one against another. Everyone grows frantic. You can hear many hearts beat sounding like savage war drums, smell the individual odors of people grow muggy and soft, like food turning to garbage. A child cries and someone up front yells, “Get that kid a pacifier or your tit, something to shut him up.” Another voice says something about tits and wanting to be a baby again. The joke teller laughs loudly and the sound of the van’s wheels spinning groan against the ugly gash of his laughter.
Faster and faster we go. Stacked like logs, we see nothing. The bruising progression of active fears surrounds us. We leave the road and go over rough land. With every bump we knock violently against one another. It’s like being digested in the gut of some mechanical monster. I feel diseased and my head pounds. I instinctively shut my eyes, but it’s the same, open or closed there’s no way of getting around how deeply the contamination alters my mind.
The two guys driving the van get loud. I can’t make out what they’re saying but I can tell anger, its brutal heat is being unleashed. The van begins to weave hard and someone’s sickness, their vomit hits the back of my neck. Hijo de madre are the last words I hear before there is a BOOM, like an over-inflated tire exploding.
Suddenly we’ve stopped, and a voice that would frighten the devil from hell cries out, “What have I done? …Polo, my little brother, … Oh, Christ,… Oh, Mother of God… What have I done?”
As the van stops, people scream, kicking open the back doors, struggling to escape. And then another BOOM. This time we hear the sound for what it is: a gunshot. We all hit the ground at once, like we had rehearsed the motion many times before. After a few minutes, when all is quiet, we rise. Walking slowly to the front of the van we see that one of the men, the driver, the impatient one, the yeller has shot himself through the mouth. He lies on the driver’s seat, his body slumped against the wheel. His sleepy passenger, the jokester, the little brother is next to him with a chest wound. He is drowning in a free-flowing mess of blood, groping at the last shreds of life. His mouth moves mechanically and his eyes harden, sinking into the colors of a desert sand and stone.
Two men lie dead in the wilderness, for love or pride or money, no one knows which.
Everyone scatters, running into the darkness in all directions. Litio whispers to me, “The disturbed spirits of the two men begin their haunting. Be careful for inside our souls they will go.”
After the shootings, Litio and I follow the only star in the sky. The horizon is inching itself toward sunlight. Morning will come soon.
By late evening after walking all day we have come to a series of small rocky hills bordered by a shallow ravine. We climb one hill to get a better look at our surroundings. In each direction there is just layers of heat. Trees stunted by lack of water grow here and there. Thorny bushes offer some shade but many are home to stinging ants that swarm over any moving thing.
Despite the heat, my grandfather walks steadily with the stride of a man in his prime. I tire. We’ve walked for miles, for two, three days? Blindly stepping, moving in one direction, falling and retracing my footprints. Trying to understand where I have been and where I go.
I feel deception, a great big one takes place. My body and mind lie to one another. They lie to me.
I collapse. I plead to stop. Please stop… My Litio, my grandfather, who tells me stories I don’t understand, who disappears only to return and lead me here, says “Benny, Benny, there is water, but we must dig deep into the earth to retrieve it. There are clouds but we must search our minds to see them. There is refuge for us, mijito, but we have to shut…”
I cut him off. “What is going on? Where are we? Why have you led me here?” I yell these questions so close to Litio that I can see my face through his eyes. He covers his mouth with my hands, preparing to wipe the blood from his words. He says, “We are here to cross to the other side. This is it. There is no more.”
The nights are progressively colder, the days hotter. Since our talk, I notice Litio getting visibly weak. He drifts in and out of my sight and when I see him he’s stripped down to a minimum. Confused and ill, his skin is papery like that of a mummy. He mutters and talks of curses, of powerful new ones that replace the old. Fragments of a dying world swirl around us. I clearly see how there is no turning back and there is no going forward. We are trapped in bodies that need water and there is none.
Tonight, a pattern forms out of the darkness. I call out, “Stay and don’t leave.” thinking it’s my grandfather. But it’s a young man, strong and powerful. He speaks to me in his forgotten Indian language, kisses my forehead and lips, anoints me with a voice that sounds like birds singing songs in the early morning light. He cradles my head and lets me sleep in his lap. I sleep.
The next morning, my grandfather wakes me by saying,
“Benny, we are like spiders spinning the world into many different shapes. But Benny, my web and yours are the same. We are both men made of tremendous strength given to us by our Christian and Indian gods. Benny, do not give up.”
Litio then takes a deep breath as though he is filling his lungs with the harsh air of inconsolable truth. He says,” Benny, listen to my story:
Tequestitlan sits atop an ancient enigma, a Pre-Hispanic ruin called Xochichalco. According to tradition, the early fires destined to light the sun originated at the temple dedicated to Tilixhuantsi. It was at this temple‘s summit, during the summer solstice as the sun reached its zenith, that the lives of hundreds of captured slaves were ended, sacrificed to ensure the continued preservation of the sun’s vitality. It’s believed that the sun’s stamina, its core, is expiring and seeks restoration. Only Tilixhuantsi, the fire spirit, can summon the needed heat, but many believe he abandoned humans when the Spanish conquered the ancestors. It is said the fire spirit now lives in the greyest surroundings, amid piles of wind-blown ash and broken funerary stone and suffers from the wretched costs that only overwork and undernourishment can bring. It is said he will return someday to relight the fires, although no one knows when.
I close my eyes. Litio vanishes. Opening them, I see a landscape of scrub brush, plastic water bottles, empty sardine cans, and the torn stained panties of a girl nobody wants to know anymore. My arms around my body I try to hold the whole world steady. I wait. In the shadows of a morning sun, darkness waits too.
The sky dissolves. A bloody, dizzy, fierce howl of light appears in its place. Massive yellows from clouds of rough sunlight begin to twist and spike and break inside me. A thousand tiny flames burn away the distance between myself and those I love. I hear the pat-pat-pat of my mother making tortillas. I hear her whisper. I hear her sigh.
I begin to shimmer and float away, like the gentle winds of a cool beautiful morning. I dream without sleep. In my dreams my favorite soccer team has won the world championship. They celebrate with a victory song and then a prayer, so that God will know they are a humble people:
Santa Maria, blessed mother, voice of my prayers,
Hear me, Santa Maria, create the world anew
Suffer me not to be separated
Create the world I love from the fragments of the world I have lost.
Santa Maria, blessed mother, voice of my prayers, I come to you
to evoke the people I have lost
from the blessed souls of those I have loved
Under the shade of a barren tree I lie down. Touching the many scars on my shaved head, pulling at the blue tag at my wrist, brushing off the many ants biting my skin, I see Litio in the distance. He is crossing over to the other side, to the land of the dead, to the place for those who die so far from home.
The cave phantoms, their children blue with the fatigue of hunger, are near. I await their arrival.