Fiction, Vol. 7.2, June 2013
There is a magic in being Mexican; the same magic that makes poverty just bearable. When I was a child my magic was especially powerful. With it I could make trees disappear and cats howl like coyotes. I could change day into night with even the slightest effort. I kept these powers to myself, of course. No one wants such forces in their home. But one power I used throughout my life: the ability to make my mother weep.
My father says I was born without faith in God. The oils rubbed on my body at birth indicated this much. They turned frothy, yellowing, and festering in the moonlight. My mother wept knowing spells and curses would follow me. She vowed to keep my soul in a blue bottle; hanging from a mesquite growing at the edge of Paradise Hill—the garbage dump we live next to.
With no powers at all, my father was the weakest and saddest man in Paradise. “Why did you leave them to your first wife?” my mother would complain. In response, he would put his hands in the air, almost singing, “I don’t know. I don’t know why I gave away my fortunes.”
“If you breed crows they will gouge your eyes,” my mother said sharply, a favorite saying of hers.
Such talk made my father sadder, weaker. It seemed his only joy was to sit by the radio and listen to a preacher from Nogales. The end of the world is near, the preacher growled. My father, his eyes blazing, as if he were watching the world bathed in great flames through them, would point at the broken radio dial, muttering, “Yes, yes, it is, it is. Listen.”
But back to my mother’s tears, which were not always tears. Sometimes while weeping she made mooing noises, like a cow being led away from its pasture. Over the years her crying evolved. It’s said that as a young woman, my mother would wail; an awful sound causing birds to fall dead from the sky. At one point her cries were powerful enough to attract storms, ones that raged for days, flooding the streets and driving people from their homes.
I’d make my mother weep. It’s true. And I’ll go to my grave bitter-hearted for this. Adela—it was for Adela, a girl from the North. My mother was furious when she heard I’d loved Adela. Not since I gambled away her slightly-used false teeth had she been so upset. I met a beautiful woman, I remember saying. She has deep red lips, olive eyes, and a smile sadder than fire.
We were in our home the day I told my parents about Adela. My mother sat on the ground shucking corn and my father fixed the leg of a table made from wood scraps. The roar of garbage trucks going to the dump were in my ears and dust floated through the windows, lit by rays of dirty sunlight. I’ll never forget waiting for their reaction to my news and watching a strange silence develop between them. In a voice that grew louder with each syllable my mother finally said, “Who is she and what does she want of you? You have nothing to give to her.”
She kept her face down while speaking, choosing to concentrate on stripping the ears of corn. My father lifted his head but said nothing, sharing only his ghostly stare. Before I could respond, my mother snapped, “She’s no good. She’s got bad intentions. I’ve seen this before. Believe me, Northerners promise everything but give little.
From then on the room, already small, shrank and at its center was my mother groaning. How I hated that sound, so inhuman it was, like the pained screech of a captured animal.
Later that day I saw my mother walking through Paradise in the direction of Don Faustino’s store. Her grey hair was a mess, unbraided and wild. With clenched hands and the scent of sour milk trailing her, she quickly walked by me, her eyes drained of color, looking like empty sockets.
When my mother returned home she was oddly calm.
“Where is your father—gorging on his sighs again?”
“Why insult him? He’s just a helpless old man.”
“Helpless? He’s as helpless as I am. Don’t worry about what I say, he’s tougher than both of us; nothing bothers him. When he was young everyone called him the Armadillo. Abuse just rolled off his back.”
“I don’t know where he’s gone.”
“No matter, he’s around somewhere. And you? You’ve talked to that woman?”
I scanned the floor, saw it littered with all sorts of potential responses; all sorts of possibilities were living there, most unclean and none usable. A voice ordered me to face her. Now is the time, it said.
“What should I say to Adela? That you don’t like her and want her to leave?”
“Yes, and why not? If the sun rises, the rooster must crow.”
The old woman stood firm. The wattle of her neck tightened and her lips thinned. I even thought I saw her face ridding itself of skin. Just then, my father surfaced from outside. He sat next to the radio and began to work the dials. She sat beside him, helping him find the religious broadcast from Nogales. He gets easily confused, my father does, especially when he returns from work empty-handed. There is always a bit of shame on his face, moving within his grey, shuffling form.
“Mother, please, see Adela as I do. Meet with her. Get to know her. You’ll see she’s a good woman.”
“Hah! Meet and get to know her? I’ve seen all I need to see at the markets. She dresses shamelessly. Remember, one does not have to eat an entire egg to know it’s rotten. How long have you known her—a month, two? Listen to me, don’t be bullheaded. I’ve seen it before. She’ll leave you. Her kind plays men for her own amusement. When she tires of you, she’ll move to the next one. That’s why she’s here at Don Faustino’s.”
“Lies. I love Adela and I know she feels the same way.”
But in truth, I didn’t know how Adela felt. I assumed she loved me because I loved her.
And yet we made love or tried our best to. In an abandoned 1953 Chevy we groped and kissed. So deeply that we didn’t initially see the family of possums: mother, father, and their many children, staring at us from the car’s rear window. When one coughed, Adela screamed, which made the small possums shriek and the larger possums hiss. In all the excitement my penis jumped to attention and I ejaculated on Adela’s new red dress, making her angry. She demanded I drive her home. I had to remind her that the Chevy hadn’t moved since the big earthquake of ‘85.
But the fact is that when you’re in love, the word “love” lives everywhere, usually in overstuffed letters, selfishly crowding out anything else. That’s its magic. Adela may have said I love you. I may have dreamed it. Either way, it lived, disturbing the atmosphere by waking sleeping flesh.
Experiences my mother was ignorant of.
“Ah, you know so much, but understand nothing. If you understood anything, you would know to look for someone else. She’s no good. I’ve seen her kind before: beautiful on the surface and made of lies underneath.”
Talking was useless, so I approached her directly, trying to brush away her resistance by placing my hand on her check. But she’d have none of that nonsense, turning instead toward a man’s voice on the radio who sang “La Llorona”:
You were coming out of the church one day, Weeping Woman,
Beautiful you were, The Virgin I saw,
You say I have no pain, because you never see me cry,
But there are the dead who never cry,
and my sorrow is greater than theirs,
Walk with me, Weeping Woman, take me to the river,
Cover me in your arms, because I’m dying of cold
Because I love you but you want more love than I can give
I have already given you my life, Weeping Woman,
What more do I have?
I’m going to marry her and there is nothing you can do or say to stop me.
I awake with these words groggy in my skull, pounding against their bony walls. I wonder if this was said to my mother or just a false memory. Maybe both, as I’m often accused of mixing facts with fantasy. Still, my father recently saw my mother cry while working in our garden—cries that only I could have set off. He described her cries simply as the sobs of an unpleasant mule.
“A magpie entered our house and robbed us of human tears.”
That’s the story my mother told a neighbor; the reason why her cries were so much like a donkey’s. It was a misfortune my mother blamed on picking guayabas from the magpie’s nesting tree. Just for the hell of it I made the call of a magpie. To see if, through chicanery, I could change our fortunes. Nothing happened, outside of a rabble of hummingbirds shitting near our front door.
The night before I asked Adela to marry me I’d slept poorly. It had grown hot and the heat kept me awake. Once it cooled, a neighbor began bellowing. Crying over their rotten tooth or rotten marriage and not having enough alcohol to deaden the pain. I lay in bed and counted the stars through a hole in the roof. The hole was small and so I ended up counting the same star till dawn removed it from the sky.
The next morning as we walked beyond the gates of Paradise, I asked Adela to marry me. She said no immediately and not much else. It turned out she didn’t love me. That’s all I can say about Adela. No love, nothing for me. I loved her. That’s all.
When I returned home my mother gave me a note. It read: Love does not survive a woman. Love will leave you ill and in rags, written neatly three times on a scrap of butcher paper. I laughed it off, of course, believing such magic useless. Still, I responded, writing: What do you know of love, you unloved worm? Take your warnings to hell and feed the other demons with them.
Soon after Adela refused my proposal, she left Paradise on the evening bus. The day I discovered she had gone was the day I made myself crazy with thoughts about her: she could have said goodbye; she could have stayed and continued to smile my way; she could have even refused me with gestures that hinted love was still possible. But instead she disappeared. I don’t know why. As much as I tried, I couldn’t make her happy. I didn’t have enough magic for happiness.
I’ve begun to think that maybe magic offers only its crumbs.
Early one morning I visited Don Faustino to find where Adela had gone. Don Faustino had a long-standing reputation as a flashy dresser, like a military man, and insisted on being called the Colonel. Until recently he was fat like a pig, but now is thin as a rake. It was said that surgery reduced his large belly and appetite, leaving him room for only two daily meals. Everyone joked the doctors missed removing the pig from Don Faustino. So we called him Colonel Pig. Only it was said quietly, behind closed doors, for who knew when, as my mother had whispered, the Colonel’s hunger would grow again.
“Where is Adela?”
“This is how you talk to me, compadre? No greetings? Have we become animals in this day and age?”
“Forgive me for my lack of manners, Colonel. I meant to ask you about Adela. She is returning, no?”
“As you may know, I’m her padrino—a great responsibility, one I take seriously. But wait, you’re here to ask permission of me and honestly, there is nothing to say about it. Adela is gone completely, compadre. She’s left for good, returned to her mother. I drove her to the bus station last week. I remembered the soldiers on the road blocked our way—searching for narcos, they said. Can you believe two severed heads were found by the roadside? Such times we live in, such bad times, compadre. Why even the rats are looking thin and scared. Keep an eye on your back is my advice.”
“Why…why did she go?”
“Who knows why women do anything, especially the young ones. Their heads are in the clouds. But try to tell them that and you’ll get some lip.”
“But, why did she leave?”
“Have you not heard me, compa? Look around you. Drink it in. Your eyes work, don’t they? There is your answer.”
The Colonel took a deep breath, filled his lungs with air that tasted of sulfur and continued to stare at me, his face deeply furrowed.
“Ah, come on, joven. Don’t look so forlorn. It’s bad for you, compadre. It threatens the movement of your blood. You’ll get sick and your friends will call you queer for crying over a woman.”
“I’m fine, Colonel, I’m okay.”
“Good. Before you leave, remind your mother she needs to see me. Don’t forget. On your way now, compadre.”
“Yes, thank you, Colonel.”
Days after I learned Adela had left, I hid among the trees above the town plaza. Many begged me to come down, saying, “We have the sweetest tamales here for you, spiced with cinnamon and filled with walnuts and wild raisins.” They’d uncover a pot filled with steamed tamales, releasing the aroma. But I didn’t care; I didn’t care one bit for their food. Later, the police arrived, looking grim and unkempt in khaki. They shouted, “Get the hell down before we send a monkey with a club after you.”
I shouted back, “I see plenty of fat-assed apes with sticks but none who can climb a tree.”
They grumbled, went away, and returned with a cage. Inside was a monkey about the size of a cat. One policeman, a chunky guy we called Bullfrog, opened the cage and gave the monkey a large stick. Pointing to me, Bullfrog instructed the monkey, “Get that stupid boy. Give him the thrashing that his parents should have given him long ago.” The animal, apparently more intellectual than brute, took the club, and after examining its size and heft, threw it down, choosing instead to study the newspapers lining its cage.
After the police had given up, I continued to sit in the tree, showing my contempt for love by throwing large palm seeds at the heads of lovers taking their evening walks and eating only the food brought to me by owls after their nightly hunts.
My father, smelling as old as the earth, eventually climbed the tree and sat beside me. For a while he was quiet, sharing a meal of mice and lizards and appearing truly at peace. Late in the afternoon, he revealed his thoughts.
“The radio preacher has died and his daughter took over his sermons. She is not very good.” He said this unhappily while making little whistling noises through his nostrils. “She refuses to say the world will end; she says it will go on and on, and it is only through embracing God that we will live forever.”
My father paused, so long that I thought he had fallen asleep. “I don’t want to live forever,” he finally said.
I replied, the only way I could, “You know, God does not exist.”
My father, tugging at the bright orange cap he wore, the one he’d recently fished from the dump said, “Yes, of course, I know.”
It seemed natural for such ideas to own my father’s head. Without magic he was parted and those portions split further. It took all his earthly strength not to fade into random particles or wandering cells or waves of phantom light.
“Your mother is an unguarded spirit. I once saw her become a fire salamander.”
Sweat ran down my father’s face as he spoke and as the last rays of sunlight flashed around his head like a crown. At that moment, he seemed like a great king overseeing a ruined empire, one made of childish blue visions.
By now most people had forgotten about us. Snot-nosed kids sometimes pointed their fingers in the air, saying, “Look at the crazy men, they think they’re birds.” The boys playing soccer in the plaza once threw rocks at us, angering my father, who threatened to take their ball. But the boys just laughed and made wild flapping gestures.
“Are you sure? You saw her change into a fire salamander?”
“Well, it may have been a dream. But dreams, too, are phantoms. Anyway, I smell rain.”
“There are no clouds for miles.”
“Yes, but my nose has an eye for rain.”
Afterwards, we sat and let silence direct us, responsible only for watching the evening world rise, moving to great heights. From the tops of the trees, everything slept in undisturbed dream: the children playing below, the new sky exhaling stars, the city lights returning after dusk. It appeared as a magic so common it’s rarely seen.
“It’s time to get down,” my father said. He tapped at his watch, the one with Mickey Mouse on its face. Mickey’s hands are forever locked at 8 o’clock. Even so, my father prizes the watch and would show it to all if he didn’t obsessively fear its theft. Like almost everything else we own, it’s from the hill, found still attached to the wrist of a dead man, shot in the head. A handwritten note pinned to his chest read, This is what happens when you take too much from the cookie jar.
We climbed down. I went first and then my father. He stumbled and his arm whipped against the tree, breaking the watch. The body of the cartoon mouse fell to bits on the ground. “Shit,” my father said. I felt bad and tried to make my father feel better by saying,
“Maybe you’ll find another. There are plenty of dead men left at the hill.”
“Yes, but how many have the good sense to die with a talking rodent in red underpants on their wrist?”
The next few weeks were foggy. I couldn’t decide if the mist was real, cut from my disagreeable thoughts, or from recent events. A month ago, for instance, someone’s house caught fire the day they refused to pay the Colonel. The house bled smoke for days. The children mourned their dead parents. The police came and lit their cigarettes with the smoldering embers.
And the people of Paradise? We covered our eyes and walked on.
Outside the gates of the city dump, a man without legs appeared. He sat in the sun, relaxing, doing very little begging. Next to him was a small dog, unusually white with a streak of brown near its chin curling toward its nose. Every day since his arrival, he shouted at the dog,
“Pepito come, come here, you lazy son-of-a-bitch. You have four legs, moving only to bite at horseflies. Look at me, Pepito, zero legs and yet who would win at a race?”
As I passed him on my way to town, he called out, “You’re in my heart, Memo, right here.” He then pounded at the center of his chest twice, like a flea-ridden gorilla.
“Memo? That’s not my name.” I said to the shabby man.
“What is your name then?” he laughed and there was a strange feeling to his laughter, as if it came from a spiteful child.
“I’m not telling you my name.”
“Then you are called Memo and I knew your mother. So I know you.”
“How do you know her?” I asked with some caution. I sensed a danger to this man, as if something awful once strayed into his soul, gave it a beating, and never left.
“We loved once.” He paused to swat at a fly and scratch at his bearded neck. “She was responsible for my legs being taken.”
“Liar,” I said, as I doubted my mother was loved by any man. Although she may have been responsible for this man’s missing legs.
“You don’t know anything,” I replied.
“Salt. She avoids salt. True, yes?”
I didn’t answer. Not because he was right or because I had no interest in my mother’s choice of seasonings. Clearly, this man was crazy, and yet I was curious to hear the story of his missing legs.
“Salt? I don’t know. She eats so little.”
“It’s guilt, Memo. Guilt over what she did to me. That’s why she eats so little. Years ago, she poured salt on my legs while I slept, but first gathered hundreds of caracoles and all over my legs they went. When I awoke, the snails had mixed with the salt and melted my legs away.”
The science behind his claims seemed shaky. And yet I remembered a story of how an entire village disappeared, sucked into the heat of the desert when a child uttered a forbidden word. Luckily, the word vanished along with the village.
“Where are my legs? Is this not proof enough?” He gestured with his head and hands to the empty space where his legs should have been. Pepito sat up and jumped in the lap of the legless man, nestled in his crotch and dozed off.
“So you see, Memo. You’re in my heart twice. Your mother took both my legs.”
“I still don’t believe you. How did you get here? How did you find us?”
“There was a boy. He owed me a great debt and paid it through being my legs. He repaid his debt and I asked him to leave me at the gates.”
“And how did you know to come here?”
“Where else would your mother live but near a garbage dump named Paradise?”
The next day I returned to see the legless man. I brought him some tortillas and a hardboiled egg, since it seemed he had no food. On seeing me he called out twice:
“Memo, be my legs and carry me to your mother.”
“Memo, I’ve asked twice. I won’t ask again. But if you refuse, I vow to die right here and haunt you after death—Pepito, too, although I have no say when he dies. But a dog haunting is worse than a human one, let me tell you.” The dog whimpered at the news.
And so I carried him past the tiny shacks and bare concrete houses toward home. Without legs he weighed almost nothing. Pepito slept on his master’s crotch during the journey with the legless man dozing, too.
Reaching our shack, I heard my mother shout, I want a papaya. It was much too late to find one, of course, since the market’s discarded fruits were scavenged long ago. My mother claimed the fruit preserved youth and rubbed its juice across her lined forehead, on her ancient cheeks and into the ashy parts of her elbows and knees. This was how, she would say, she had gathered so much beauty from the fly-born dust of Paradise. Father and I saw little, if any, change in her: a skinny old hag she appeared to us, blind in one eye and too much vision in the other.
I entered the house with the legless man in my arms. My mother stood over the small, newly fixed table where dried red peppers were set in a line next to a heavy round bowl cut from volcanic rock. She acknowledged us by saying,
“That’s a sorry-looking papaya.”
I shook my head as if to agree with her. The legless man woke.
“It’s you. Legs haven’t grown back yet I see?”
“Vile woman…snake-hearted…my legs…you took.”
“Such foolishness, such senselessness from what was once a bright and handsome man. I have little time and even less patience for you. So what is your business here after so many years?”
“I want my legs back and…justice.”
“Only God can give either. But what is this foolishness to do with me?”
“I wanted, I wanted to see you, to tell you…”
“I’ve been seen and told. What more is there?”
“No, listen to me. I wanted to see you; so did Pepito. I have struggled in life, yes. Who hasn’t? Your son seems kind. He seems like a good man.”
“Don’t drag him into this.”
“We were in love once; you and I were bound by love.”
The muscles on my mother’s face softened. For a moment she appeared youthful, as did all she looked upon: me, Pepito, the legless man, even my father, who sat in the corner cursing the radio. We had entered her past, when she was a young joyful girl, before tears had made such an enemy of her eyes.
“Bound by love, bound by love. Such childish talk coming from the cracked lips of an old man. What things you say, after so many years, such things. This love, whatever it was, is as solid as yesterday’s breeze.”
Her voice trailed off, softening to whisper as she continued to grind dried pepper seeds and skin with a rough stone pestle into peppery dust, never changing the pace of her movements: pressing and turning, pressing and turning.
“And let me remind you of what is clear: you falling off the train, trying to cross north. That is what took your legs, not me. And from the looks of it, too many nights with the bottle got the rest. Go plead your case before the railroad tracks. Tell your stories of love to God. May He have mercy and prevent the Devil from taking what’s left of you.”
“What lies, what lies. It was the snails, the salt, your evil…plans, leaving me for another.”
“You’re still telling that fairy tale about the caracoles? You’ve lost your mind. Get him out of here. Feed him to the jaws of the dump.”
This last part was said to me. I had been sitting at the table, petting the dog, eating pumpkin seeds, attempting to calculate the costs of finding Adela. The old man was balanced on my legs as I had neglected to set him down, which was okay until he urinated. It may have been Pepito but I don’t think so, since the piss smelled of despair.
“Memo, please take me home.”
The legless man, listless and defeated, had me carry him through the door. Once outside he pointed in the direction of the largest spire in the city.
I carted them for several miles toward that spire, him and Pepito, who never moved a muscle. Every once in a while the legless man mumbled, “Your mother,” never finishing the thought. Or maybe what he felt was too deep for words, too deep even for tears, for he never, not once, cried. What he felt, I thought as I walked with my burden, was inexpressible within the span of one man’s dusty and bitter life.
“Here, leave me here.”
We stopped at a small, tree-less plaza. Several weather-beaten park benches surrounded the bronze bust of a 16th century Dominican friar, Antonio de Montesino. Setting him on a bench, the legless man sighed one final request.
“Memo, before you go, read what’s written below the statue.”
“West-side Changos have the longest—”
“Not the graffiti. That, cut into the stone.”
“I am the voice of one crying in the desert. I have ascended here to cause you to know your sins, I am the voice of Christ in the desert…”
“Here, Memo, is where I belong.” He tapped at his chest feebly, just once. A drowsy Pepito raised an eyelid, giving me a one-eyed stare.
I left the legless man in the park and returned to Paradise, wondering if magic was implicated in any way. Smelling of the cripple’s urine, I went to bathe but found it impossible to remove him entirely from my skin. Strangely, it rained that night and for six nights after. I couldn’t help but think that my mother’s cries, their ferocity, had returned.
For, that week, the rain fell without end, flooding the streets and burying six people in an avalanche of city garbage. The flood also toppled the tree where my soul was supposedly kept. Before the storms, I’d searched my mother’s room for the blue bottle containing my soul, just in case it had been moved from the tree. Instead of the bottle, I found loads of papers. Hand-written love notes I assumed my father had given my mother. In them were detailed descriptions of their lovemaking.
Reading them made my eyes burn. Had my parents no shame? Fornicating like toads, hoping to create children who have a love for a God that never was.
I asked my father about the notes. He denied writing them.
“Although the priests taught me to read they said I was too stupid to write,” he confessed.
I believed him and on my walk home from work that night I noticed how dirty my tears had turned. It’s true they’ve not been clean for a while. I performed the absolutions of a non-believer but the filth remained.
I made my mother weep most recently when I announced I was heartbroken. Still dirty from my work on the hill, I said to her, “I’m sick, I’m sick every day. I cough and am pained, my hands shake and my head burns. My eyes water and I can’t make it stop.”
“You’ve been cursed, my son. My poor son was born a cursed man.”
She immediately took to her bed while I tried to nurse us back to life. She instructed me to tear pages from the Bible and boil them, doused in vanilla and the skin of roots with names only animals could pronounce. My father, who still believed the end was near, went from house to house like a beggar pleading for bits of magic. People turned him away as they were poor and had no use for such talk. Each night my mother and I drank a tea made from the word of God. Each night we played chess, the only game my mother could play without getting neck pains. We both cheated, but her deceptions bested mine. After a week, my mother, burning with fevers stronger than my father’s visions of the apocalypse, insisted I dig through the city dump, along with the rest of the rag-pickers.
“Amongst the filth are the bones of angels. Use them to make yourself well.”
That next morning the sun glowed orange. My father called it a star that’s burning away and when it does the world will truly end. We walked up the hill in search of magic. My father talked of the magic of food and money needed to scrape together another day. I evoked the magic of love, which is to say I remembered holding Adela. We both avoided discussing the magic of tears, in fear of its power and authority over our lives.
Picking through the garbage, I hoped to find a jewel, a rare stone, a blue piece of glass to shelter my soul. I found the bottle that contained my soul and gave it to my mother. She smiled. Something had touched her. She called it God.
I replied, “There is no God. Don’t you see through the lies, mother?”
“Lies? What are those? How much of life is lies; ones we spend our days dressing up to look true. Go. Let me sleep.”
As I sat beside her, I shut my eyes. Because to see as my mother does, I must close them and weep with her in the darkness.