Looking back, the words had slipped from his mouth without conscious thought. He was used to buying a ticket for his abuela every Sunday when he went into town for fresh coffee beans, their one extravagance. That Sunday, with fewer than 48 hours across the border, he hadn’t been able to find fresh coffee beans like back home and even if he had, he hadn’t a grinder nor the ancient cast iron coffee pot abuela had used to brew their weekly treat. But the store did sell tickets, as he must have noticed when he walked through the door into the artificial chill of air conditioning.
Thus the words had tumbled from his mouth, as if it were a bag of freshly roasted beans on the counter rather than a Styrofoam cup of oily, steaming liquid.
As if his abuela were still alive.
As if he were still living in the home he’d grown up in.
As if he were still in Mexico.
“Una lotería, por favor,” he said, and everything changed.
Manuel had discovered who he was only a week before that fateful morning.
His abuela had been old, very old, so old that he couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t small and wrinkled. Even when he’d been a boy and sat on her lap while she ground the maize for the tortillas for the family’s evening meal, she’d seemed smaller than he and crinkled like a fruit that had sat too long on the windowsill. When she’d passed, his logical side had not been surprised, but he found he was still shocked that someone who’d been so tough and so feisty and so there for him his entire life was suddenly gone.
He’d been the only one at her funeral aside from Father Sanchez. The lack of mourners might have struck him as sad had he and his abuela not been alone together for the past seven years, when his hermano Miguel had departed to seek his fortune in el norte. Since then, they hadn’t heard from Miguel and had had only each other for companionship. During the day, Manuel worked hard on the farm, planting chiles in the heat of the spring, tending the plants during the scorching burn of the summer, and then harvesting the bright red peppers in the still blazing autumn. Up until last year, he’d returned from the field each night to find his abuela waiting for him.
Now, he’d thought as he watched Father Sanchez’s burro retreat down the trail with the portly priest on its back, he was truly alone.
It was later that evening while going through his abuela’s meager possessions that he’d found his true identity. It was in a shoebox pushed far under the straw mattress she’d slept on every night for uncounted years and every minute since she’d taken abed just twelve months ago. Under a photo of a beautiful raven-haired woman that Manuel knew to be his madre, arm in arm with a mustachioed man he didn’t recognize, he found it--his birth certificate.
A Whiter Shade Of Pale:
by Mark James Andrews