The Same Boots

The headline says, “Nicaraguense Muere Atropellado” but they don’t give a name or show a face. There are policemen in the photo, a dented car, a man’s legs on the ground, cut off by the photo frame. There must be a thousand Nicaraguan men in this city and one of them failed to look both ways.  I start to turn the page and then I see the boots.

I feel my heart seize and the shock wave goes through me to my fingers and toes.

Those are his boots.
No, they’re not.
We bought them in the market in Rivas.
No, they’re not.

I look as hard as I can at the photograph. I hold it closer. I hold it farther away.

The buckles are different.
No, they’re not.
The strap is different.

The truth is I can’t really see the buckle or the strap.

“No identificado,” it says, “en Bajada Grande.”

Why would he have been in Bajada Grande?
It’s a free country.
He doesn’t even know anyone in Bajada Grande.
Those are his boots.

I would know. I didn’t want to buy them for him. They were so expensive; so much more than what he really needed. But he wanted them. He tried them on and said they were perfect. And they were really gorgeous black boots. They made him look sexier than ever. I wanted to say, “It’s too much, amor. This money is all I have and it seems like so much to you but it is nothing. Nothing. I have to get on a plane and fly away. I have to go places and do things and I’m not really your wife or even your girlfriend. I’m using you.” I bought him the boots.

I didn’t buy him those boots to die in them.
They’re not the same boots. They’re different.
You can’t prove they are.
You can’t prove they aren’t.

My God I never wanted to see him again. He stalked me, pursued me, terrified me. But I didn’t want him to die in the street atropellado with his boots on. I wanted him to wear the soles through dancing with girls young and beautiful as he.

Is he dead?
Is the city safe, now, for me?
Can I stop walking with my head down between bus stops?
Glancing over my shoulder to see I’m not being followed?

I am dizzy.

Say what you want, I know those boots.
They’re not the same boots.
Is he really gone? Am I safe now?
You’re paranoid.

I don’t know which voice I want to be right and which I want to be wrong.

All I know is that I know those boots.
They’re not the same boots.

Daniel

Daniel hates to work. Every day he throws back his head and laughs, says he’s celebrating El Día de San Pepino. El santo de los perezosos, he says.

A woman will kill him someday. His first wife didn’t succeed but sooner or later a less frightened one will; his first wife was a child. Daniel awakened to find 14-year-old Susana holding a butcher knife to his throat, but she was too afraid to push it in. He laughs about the wild times he had while she waited for him at home. That was back when he’d won the lottery and for two years he had it all—money, a motorcycle, a young wife.

Daniel always laughs. He lives with his mamá and he shrugs. Things didn’t work out.

Daniel, él que dice que se casa el treinta de febrero. Daniel, who can win and lose and never notice the game.

Furniture (from “The Riotous Walls”)

(From The Riotous Walls, unpublished short novel)

Furniture, it turns out, is a luxury. You don’t need it to survive. Of course rooms look better with things in them, but our economic problems out-shouted the aesthetic ones. Between the four of us, we owned a mountain of cardboard boxes, one fan, four lamps, two clocks and a total of six single mattresses, all stolen from the college dorm. I don’t know how we got too many. Beth and I took two, threw them on our floor and pushed them together to make one big bed. Nina and Sheila too two, threw them on their floor and pushed them to opposite sides of the room. They were friends, but not best friends like Beth and me. The two leftovers went into the Passion Pit. We would have had to wear our clothes of out of the cardboard boxes if the rooms hadn’t included closets with shelves.

The only piece of furniture that came with the apartment was The Desk. The living room boasted a Desk so immense and so Heavy that it could only have been assembled in that very room. No human being could have gotten it up the precarious stairs and even God couldn’t have gotten it through the door. We could have used it as a table had we owned a chair. As it were, we put Sheila’s ancient stereo on it and stashed things in its drawers. I guess we could have painted furniture on the walls. In the end, it’s probably the only thing we didn’t paint on them.

. . .

Beth rode the couch, lounging like Queen Bathsheba, the day Mark and Curtis carried it to us. Tony Royal, or friend the cafeteria thief, said we could have it when he graduated he left town forever. It’s not the kind of thing you would take with you. You would, in fact, feel fortunate if you were able to give it away. It was a furry stained nursing-home pink and had offensive sprung springs but you could lay, sit or stand on it. You could lose things in it or under it. But it was our only piece of furniture which made it as hard to hate as it was to love.

I can’t believe Beth had the nerve to lie on it all the way home. I would never do that. But then again, I weigh a lot more than she does. That’s the effect Beth has on men; they happily carry her a mile in the summer sun while she lies on a couch. Me; not exactly.

When the day finally came to remove it, we didn’t carry it down the precarious stairway to the street as carefully as we carried it up. We hauled it to the door and threw it off the porch. It crashed to the ground and then we set it on fire. The neighbor man who hates us called the police so we had to say it was an accident.

That was a great idea. It was much easier to throw away after it was all burned up.

Ana

I know Ana too well. We are like sisters, now. We each know when the other is lying.

Sometimes I can’t digest my lunch I the same room with her because in her silence, she is saying to me, you don’t think I know what you did and in my silence she knows I am lying. I have to go lie on the bed in front of the fan.

We’re all we have, as if we were born with the same last names, but I sometimes sit outside at night so I won’t hear her screaming at me as she quietly watches tv.

-Estás enojada conmigo?- I ask her.
-Ni quiera Dios,- she says to me. -No.-

Suitcases

You are sitting there in the living room with your shoes on and your hat.
And the tv is off which is impossible.
And there are suitcases beside you.

You say you are leaving. That much I can see for myself.

You say you shouldn’t have come here in the first place.
You say I don’t love you.
You say you read that in my diary.

I don’t say anything.
Clearly, you have helped yourself to my words.

You say the driver will be here for you any minute and he is.
I say goodbye.

The first time you left me you snuck away like coward and I nearly died of grief and rage.
But you begged to come back.
Maybe I wanted to see you walk away like a man; watch you walk out the door with your shoes on and your hat.
Maybe I wanted to remember you as the back of a hat and two sets of white knuckles clutching your suitcases.

Bad Monkey Woman

“Get down from there,” he says to me on my perch in the tamarindo tree, “or you’ll turn into a bad monkey woman.”

I think he is joking, so I throw my head back and laugh my best carefree laugh.
He is teasing me as if I were his little girl.  In my country they tell children they’ll break their necks.  Monkey woman!  Ha ha.

“Get down from there.”   He says it again.  “It’s bad to climb trees in Semana Santa.  You’ll grow a tail like a monkey.”

“Me?” I ask.
Is he serious?  This man honestly thinks climbing a tree this week could turn me into a monkey?  Oh my.
I smile my most reassuring smile.

“Yes.  Get down from there.  Now.”

Suddenly I can’t move.
He is serious.  Holy God.

“Come on,” he says.

His eyes are shifting and they won’t look at me.  His voice has gone cold and his face is turning dark as night.  Everyone has grown quiet.  Everyone is looking away.  Only the radio continues to blurt out tinny salsa music.

Suddenly I sense the fear.

I try to swallow my disgust as I swing down out of the tamarindo, embarrassed.
How in God’s name was I supposed to know that climbing a tree in Semana Santa puts you in danger of becoming a monkey?  How?

And don’t tell me they really think that.

“Let’s go back to the house,” he says and it isn’t a suggestion, it is a command.   We start back to the house.  His face dark and fearful.

Tears of humiliation begin to prick my eyes and nose like pins.  I am being taken home like a disobedient child.

I didn’t know.  Geez.  I’m sorry.

“You can’t climb trees in Semana Santa,” he explains.  “It’s bad.  You can turn into a bad monkey woman.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, my lip quivering uncontrollably like the child I feel I am being treated as.  “I didn’t know that.”

“I know,” he says.  “Don’t cry.”  He pats me on the arm and laughs nervously.  “Don’t cry.”

“Ok,” I say, wiping my nose with the back of my hand and feeling the start of a flood.  I want to turn into a bug and crawl away.

When we get to the house, I go into my room and quietly cry out my humiliation and frustration.  I don’t want to be a bad monkey woman.  I want to be happy and good.  On one hand, his believing I could turn into a monkey and my crying about it are equally ridiculous.  But he can’t help it and neither can I.

Thinking about how funny it is makes me cry harder.

The Chicken or The Eggs

Maria Lucía points to the hen, then to Fernanda and laughs.
I don’t understand.

Fernanda is eyeing my hen.
She wants to eat her.

No, no!  Fernanda says, pressing her hands to her heart.
Maria Lucía is eyeing her own hen.
She wants to eat her.

Now we are all giggling and I confess to myself that I also want eat her.
We laugh at each other’s hunger for meat, weighing one pot of stew against all those eggs.

lo único que importa ahora

Caminamos desde Santa Bárbara
hacía las estrellas con pasos torpes y risa
que marea, tomados
de la mano en frente de
dios y todo el mundo.
La noche suave nos envuelve
como agua profundo;
en la neblina flotan
estrellas. El amor no es lo
único que importa, pero es
lo único que importa ahora.
Me disuelvo hasta quedar en la
neblina con las
estrellas.

White Buckets

 I

María Pablo is sitting round on her bed with Carlitos when I enter.  Carlitos is eating a tortilla and cheese with both grubby hands, and María is petting his hair.  It’s another boy, due in May.  I don’t take my coat off because the room is that cold.

“No puedo dormir,” she tells me.  Her back hurts, the baby moves.  Carlitos wants to sleep with her, and Vicente and even Adolfo who is almost 11, when it is cold.  There is another bed in the room piled with clothes and broken toys.

 

 II

 “Cuántos años tienes?”

“No sé.  Como veinticuatro.”

“En qué año naciste?”

“En ochenta y cuatro.”

“En cuál mes?”

“Diciembre.”

“Diciembre?  Entonces tienes veintisiete – casi veintiocho.”

“Veintiocho!  Sí, sí!  Veintiocho!”  She laughs.

 

 III

She brings me the letter typed in little black letters with the green logo of the county courthouse.  She is dusty and her back hurts from bending between the rows of the onion fields.

“Qué dice?” she asks me.

They want the name of baby Alejandro’s daddy if she’s to continue receiving government cash to pay the rent.  I know the answer to the question.  She has told me before.

Now she drops her eyes and isn’t looking at me when she repeats it: “Es que no sé.”

This time I have to press her.  The blanks on the paper are staring at us.  “No sabes su nombre o no sabes cuál es?”  I ask in the politest way I can think of.

“Yo sé quien es,” she says looking up, “Pero no sé donde está.”

“Y no sabes su nombre.”

“No,” she agrees.

 

 IV

She comes to me with another green and black letter.  Baby Alejandro nurses hungrily.  Carlitos stands guard, beside.

“Qué dice?” she asks me, and I tell her.   She has to go to the courthouse on Thursday at 2:00 to answer some questions about baby Alejandro’s daddy.

“Es que no sé,” she insists.

I know, I tell her, but you’re going to have to tell them that in person.

“Es que tengo verguenza,” she pleads.

“María,” I ask her slowly, “Te violaron?  O fue una cosa entre los dos?”

“No,” she says, looking at the floor.  “Fue una cosa entre los dos.”

Did you love him?, I want to ask her.  Cuénteme.  But I don’t.

 

 V

I meet them at the courthouse:  María, baby Alejandro, Carlitos and this time Vicente, too.  School is out for the summer.  The courthouse clerk speaks Spanish so she doesn’t need an interpreter, but I’m already there.  I make myself useful holding baby Alejandro.

“Dónde está el papá de su bebé?” the clerk asks her.

“No sé,” María tells her.

“Cómo se llama?” asks the clerk.

“No sé,” María answers.

Then she does something that I cannot believe.  María Pablo opens her purse.  She pulls out the remains of a mysteriously masculine-looking wallet stuffed with pieces of paper.  And from the wallet, she produces a Washington State ID card with a man’s name and picture.  She hands it to the courthouse clerk.

“Es él?” the clerk asks.

“Sí,” replies María.

I all but drop baby Alejandro on the floor.  I am stupefied.  She doesn’t know his name but she has his ID?  I know she can’t read.  But?  She could have shown me the ID.  María is not laying all her cards on the table.

I am somehow delighted.  I knew she wasn’t stupid.

Did he leave without his ID?  Hardly.  His wallet?  And never come back?  María, did you steal it?!

The clerk writes the name of baby Alejandro’s daddy and gives the ID back to María.  María says she thinks he’s in Oregon.

We walk out the door, baby Alejandro safe in his mother’s arms, Carlitos and Vicente in tow.  Something stops me from pointing out that she hasn’t been exactly straight with me.  For some reason, I have to leave her that little bit of dignity when way say goodbye.

I laugh out loud all the way back to my office–shocked, amazed, imagining a hundred possible scenarios.  I am laughing at myself.

 

 VI

Sandra walks over to my desk and says, “I have bad news for you.

“What?”

“Carmen was here filling out housing applications.  She said that María Pablo got beat up last night by her husband.”

The f-word flies out of my mouth like a startled bird, and then, “María Pablo doesn’t have a husband.”

“I know,” Sandra says. “But Carmen, who lives with her, was just here, and she said she does.  She said last night he was beating her up.  Carmen’s husband got involved and María’s husband threatened him, so now they have to move out.”

“Fucking María Pablo,” I say, while I turn off the computer and get the keys.  I have to go see her.

I drive to her house in dread.  But María doesn’t have a husband.  I know she doesn’t.  A lover maybe, that, out of politeness Carmen called an esposo?

Now I am going to get to the bottom of this.  Seriously.

 

 VII

María is sitting on her bed nursing baby Alejandro.  Carlitos is in a corner playing with empty cereal boxes.  She smiles widely when she sees me.

Where are the bruises?  The eyes swollen from crying?  She has nothing.  Her round brown face and white shining eyes glow humid in the July heat.  Her sleeveless top exposes two plump brown arms, unmarked.  Alejandro feeds from a perfect left breast.

“Siéntate,” she says, and I sit on the bed beside her.

This time I register every object in the room.  Women’s shoes, and shoes for little boys.  Baby clothes.  A few broken toys.  Her purse.  Adolfo’s school books, abandoned.  Winter blankets, piled.  If María has an esposo, in this world he owns nothing but the clothes on his back.  No hat, no shirt, no belt or pair of jeans, no razor, no cologne, no pair of shoes.  Or she hides him so completely I cannot find him, even unannounced.

“Cómo está?” I ask her.  “Todo está bien?” searching questions without saying Carmen came and told us what happened.

“Muy bien,” she says.  “Cansada, porque todo el tiempo este bebé quiere comer.”

“Se siente bien? Necesita algo?”

“No,” María says sweetly.  “Aquí estamos bien.”

I walk out the door more confused than I walked in.  Relieved not to see bruises, perplexed by her peace.  Somebody is selling me bullshit and I am buying it all.

 

 VIII

She comes to see me in the fall, but I am out.  Beside my desk, she leaves two white buckets overflowing with onions.

It isn’t fair.  I don’t deserve a gift.  She is my job, and everything I do for her is paid by the hour.  I would like to give a gift to her, but I may not.  When I took her the clothes that I bought for baby Alejandro that at Goodwill, I told her
they were something someone dropped off at the clinic.

 

 IX

“Nos vamos con mi hermano a California,” she tells me, as the leaves begin to curl yellow.  “Aquí es muy frío y no hay trabajo.”

The last time I see them, somber-eyed Adolfo is bouncing baby Alejandro on his knees, making him cough up bursts of hilarious baby giggles.  María, somewhere, has found the money to color her hair a curious shade of red.  And that’s it.  She’s gone.  Adolfo, Vicente, Carlitos and baby Alejandro.  Just gone.

I look for her everywhere.  Maybe someday she will come back.  Maybe in the summer when California gets too hot.  I hope she finds a clinic, there, that will give her a shot in three months.  If she doesn’t, there will be more babies for Adolfo to play with.

 

 X

María Pablo, with her Nahuatl dialect, her broken Spanish, her sunshine smile and her fearless heart.  We’re even.  We told some truth, told some lies, everything scripted by the state.  Everything but the generous white buckets of onions.

I stand in my kitchen slicing, and giggle at my silly onion tears.  She’s somewhere in the world this morning making quesadillas for her boys, working in the fields, telling nosey social workers with bleeding hearts just enough of the truth to get what she needs: help making a phone call, free second-hand baby clothes, a feeling of friendship.

Cascabel

I am picturing the baby, fat and brown like a potato, on the floor crawling toward the snake. It has a rattle he wants to play with. The snake shakes it tail and the baby comes closer.

I am picturing Elena, la mamá, young like I have never seen her. I feel the freezing of her blood, the seizing of her heart when she sees her baby reach for the giant snake. Her stomach wretches and from her throat bursts his name.

The baby stops and turns his head. She starts across the long floor to catch him.

I see the grandma see the mother see the baby. I see her grab the mother’s arm.

No she says.
No lo agarre.
Si lo agarra, le pica seguro.

This is Indian wisdom, older than the afternoon’s distant thunder. And they call him.

Papi. Papi venga.

The snakes rattles. The baby looks.

Venga mi niño.

They cannot touch him. He sits on the floor like a fat brown potato.

The mama is afraid. The grandma is afraid. The rattlesnake is afraid.

Papi, véngase.
Venga mi amor.