I was reading on the front porch when I heard Ernest and his father on the sidewalk, their shoes clinking and scraping under the mulberry trees, and as I looked up from the page they ducked under the drooping branches, their shoulders brushing against each other. Ernest slipped off his suit coat, folded it over his arm. He waved. His father, Changó, stopped, lifted a plastic bag, shook it and smiled a broad grin, his face red in the sun, bits of tissue soaking cuts, the spot under his bottom lip still dark and in need of a shave.
On my lap, wrapped in soft and crinkling green paper, were half a dozen pink and white carnations I gathered with baby’s breath for Ernest’s mother. My best friend, Ernest, I had drew together the flowers to show him I felt how much he missed her. I closed my book, lifted the flowers, and waved them in a hello.
Stepping up onto the porch, Changó came to my side, his thigh firm against my shoulder, and I looked up as he squatted next to me. He opened the bag over my lap; inside was the pink and blue carcass of a rabbit.
Tonight, Magda, Ernest’s cooking soncocho, he said.
I turned from the bag, my nose crinkling, shaded my eyes and tried to smile. Turning to Ernest, I stuck out my tongue, and found myself shivering at the thought of the rabbit cut up in pieces and floating in a red stew, chunks of potatoes, diced green pepper, onion.
Changó leaned back, laughed, his teeth shiny in the sun. He looked at me and rubbed his stomach, licked his lips, a quiet hum lifting from his throat. He raised the rabbit from the bag, the carcass a bright pink, the muscles along its little legs blue, the white bones showing from where it had been cut just above its feet. Changó suddenly broke out in a small two-step, waving the rabbit in the air. Ernest folded his coat over the porch rail. Changó slipped the rabbit back into the bag.
Magdalene, your mother inside? Changó pulled a pint of rum from his coat pocket.
I take the rabbit inside, then?
Go ahead, Changó. No worries——she’s at work. He touched my shoulder as he passed, pulled open the screen door. Hey, Ernest. I stood, smoothed down the front of my new yellow dress. I picked up my book, pressed it against my side, folds of gingham gathering on my hip.
Ernest smiled, stepped forward, his hand stretched and shaking. We greeted each other with our fingertips.
Rabbit stew tonight? I asked.
Ernest began to shake his head but then we both laughed. He raised his hand, his fingers gently rubbing the little curve inside my elbow. He must have ironed his shirt; the white flat and crisp, and his black tie patterned by a tight weave that looked elegant. His brown hair was feathered back, and his face seemed fresh, awake, and even happy for change.
My stepfather pulled into the driveway, stones crunching under the truck’s wheels. He stepped out, his blue shirt drenched with sweat, his green paisley tie wrinkled and loose around his neck.
I jumped down off the steps, my Mary Janes scrunching when I hit the driveway’s stones. I opened my arms, threw myself against him and held him tight, the smell of whiskey and cigarettes strong, his wet shirt clinging to my palms.
How did it go, I whispered.
He separated from me, both of his hands on my shoulders.
Not much to expect, Magdalene. I think it’s over with, even for me. He ran both his hands through his hair, closed his eyes, let out a deep sigh, his teeth gritted together, grinding.
Many had already lost their jobs that year. A company from Toronto had bought the cannery, and their main concern was the growing of mushrooms. They planned to bring in an East Indian foreman from Toronto, and his task was to make the new changes; no more canned mushrooms, only the round, fresh white ones, my stepfather had said, packed, and shipped out——all from the squat concrete buildings where the mushrooms were grown. My stepfather had been out there for three days trying to save the cannery, arguing with the new management, fighting to keep the corn or pea line, making the case for all the jobs that would be lost.
He pulled out a cigarette, tapped it against his thumb knuckle quickly and hard. It bounced with a leap from his thumb and he caught it in his lips, lit it, and dragged deeply, the graying hair around his ears wet with sweat.
Thanks for taking us to the hospital, Ernest said.
My stepfather pulled his shirttails from his pants, nodded. No problem, pal, it’s the least I can do. He took another drag, exhaled. Looked down at the back of his hands, he rubbed the long scar along the knuckles of his right hand, seemed to separate from us in an instant, thinking, arguing, remembering.
A few days before, Ernest and Changó had helped bring him home. The sun had just dropped past the trees on the other side of the river, and I started to shiver, my shoulders and nose burnt from the day’s warm May sun. Changó’s laughter startled me, and I turned to the street, and then I was shocked by my stepfather’s harsh words. Fuck ‘um all, he said, and the horses they rode in on. The tips of his boots scuffed up the steps as Ernest and Changó helped him make it to the porch. I heard my mother open the screen door behind us. Changó caught the edge of the door with his shoulder, and then it was as if he and Ernest paused, gathered some strength, and pushed my stepfather over the threshold. Inside, they laid him down on the couch. He swung his fists wildly, striking his own shoulders, his ribs. His arms suddenly fell quietly to his sides, his eyes closed, and I heard him whisper something like he was sorry, so sorry Changó, for he had never wanted to let him go. We all looked at him——his unshaven face, his lips slightly parted, the bits of yellow rice stuck to the left side of his chin. Changó lowered his eyes, and my mother turned to him. I couldn’t look at the anger in her face, and when my eyes met Ernest’s, I waited for her to start yelling. Surprisingly, she never did, even though she never had a kind word to say about Changó or Ernest.
The silence of the room seemed to deepen with such a heavy weight as we listened to the dam in the distance, the sound of the river pounding the rocks below.
And then the quietness drifted away, changed into the thick rays of golden red light from the setting sun filling the living room, and for the first time——out of all the years of my mother’s bitter rage——I saw her hands shaking at her sides.
Ernest turned to the door, and my eyes burned with the awareness that at thirteen years old I had nothing to do or say. All I could do was cry as quietly as possible as I ran to the back of the house and my room.
My stepfather now smiled, his thumb raising up and his hand bouncing in a greeting. Changó stood on the porch; his face flushed, his jacket off, his black tie tight around his neck, the knot a little crooked. He stepped forward and his feet seemed to bump against each other, and then he swiftly caught his stride from the stumble. From his shirt pocket he slipped out a pair of sunglass and, with a slow, graceful flourish, slid them on his face. He took a long drink from the pint of rum. He passed it to my stepfather.
Ernest held my hand, briefly, gave it a squeeze. I wiped the sweat from my forehead, the porch beginning to become too warm. I picked up my book and the flowers, and we walked to the truck, my stepfather and Changó following behind. They sat up front. Ernest got up into the truck bed and spread out an old wool blanket for us. My stepfather backed out of the driveway, headed down Third Street, and then turned west on Niles-Buchanan Road. The air filling the bed was warm, but I felt a cold pocket deep inside, something left over from the beginning of spring, or following the winds from far off on Lake Michigan. I thought of how an ice-cold pop burned going down my throat, how on a warm evening after a bike ride with Ernest along the river, I welcomed the burning pain, how thrilling and new it felt each time I raised the bottle to my lips, the bottle slick and cold in my hand, and when I looked at the gurgling pop I felt that chilled burn catching in my throat.
For a moment my eyes fluttered with that sensation, and when I opened them wide Ernest had his hand in his hair, his head tipped back against the bed of the truck, his eyes closed, the sun catching bits of gold and red in his hair. His mother’s pain had to be different, even more intimate and yet strange, every waking moment shaped by her bleeding throat.
We crossed the river, and in a brief space of sunlight I caught a glimpse of Island Park. There, in the twilight, Ernest had told me that when his mother came home from the hospital, after her tonsillectomy, she and his father had fought. Changó was pacing around the living room, wearing a circle into the rug. His friend, Boogaloo, had called about factory work in Flint, and since Changó hadn’t found a new job, he wanted to go. Ernest’s mother——her voice hoarse, her face pale——had said they couldn’t talk about it now, that he needed to wait, see what happened with the cannery. He sat down at the kitchen table and opened another beer, took a shot of rum. He opened his suitcase in the middle of the floor, unpacked it, and walked around some more. Then he pulled Ernest’s ear, told him to repack the suitcase.
Ernest was silent for a moment, and we watched a Mallard duck wobble up on the island with her brood of eight ducklings, their yellow and black down looking soft as it ruffled in the breeze. He said that Changó had all the lights in the house blazing, the stereo on. Evelyn couldn’t sleep and asked him to let her rest. To just wait for another day. Changó started to yell, screamed about a new start, how he had to go. Ernest didn’t listen to it all, and he said he just wanted to tell Changó to be quiet, to go out for the night. When he moved to separate them, he didn’t make it in time. Changó turned, smacked his open hand against Ernest’s forehead, his palm driving his head back, stopping him. Changó picked up the suitcase, swung it behind his legs, and threw it. For the first time he saw his father striking out at his mother, and he couldn’t do anything as the suitcase flew through the air, his mother raising her arms slowly, the suitcase hitting her chest and spilling open. Her head struck the door jam, and Ernest ran and caught her before she fell to the floor.
Now she was in the hospital again.
The next day his mother awoke like nothing had happened. She walked gingerly to the car but said she wanted to take Ernest to school, even though he wanted to walk. As she drove she shielded her eyes, her other hand gripping the wheel tightly, her knuckles as white as her face. They were almost to school when she started swaying in her seat, humming and moaning. She slowed, pulled to the side of the road, and threw up. Ernest got out and brought some paper napkins from the glove compartment. There were thick splotches of blood on the road. He said they were like tomato sauce, and he thought he saw bits of her throat. She chocked and coughed, and the napkins he gave her quickly soaked with blood. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t lose the image of her bulging eyes, her white and purple face, the edges of her lips streaked with blood. She fell against the door, and then into the road.
Niles-Buchanan road dipped and curved, and my book slipped from my lap. I picked it up, held tighter to the flowers. I motioned to Ernest, patted the space of blanket at my side. The truck straightened, and he crawled over and sat next to me.
Up front, I watched my stepfather and Changó in some deep conversation; they laughed, pointed at a fresh plowed field, the earth black with tiny flecks of silver. Changó took a drink, and then passed the bottle to my stepfather. The dogwood trees and lilac bushes were in bloom along the road, purple and white blurring with the thickening green woods. White blossoms fluttered in the breeze, and I followed their patterns as they landed in my hair, on my lap, the truck bed suddenly filled with the scent of lilacs, the wet river, fresh cut grass.
I saw her red hair first; will always remember how the henna strands curled against the bright pillow, how they tinted the white hospital room. Her face thin, her lips drained of color, and her bony, dry hands above the sheets, her fingers pressed into the cloth as if she were clutching two apples. She smiled at Ernest. He walked to the side of her bed, bent over, kissed her on the cheek, and then with his left palm he brushed her bangs off her forehead and kissed her again, her wrinkled brow smoothing when Ernest lifted away.
Good to see you, Ernest——here, she whispered, help me up.
Ernest slid his left arm behind her shoulders, slowly lifted, taking his mother’s weight against his chest, and with his free hand placed two pillows behind her head and shoulders, and then lay her back gently. Her face bloomed with color, the tip of her nose a rosy red, petals of purple rising on her cheeks, and she seemed happy we were there.
I walked forward from the door and handed her the bouquet of flowers.
Oh, thank you, Magdalene. She cradled the flowers and took a deep breath, her eyes closing for a moment.
My god, these smell like heaven. She opened her eyes, looked at me, her eyes first meeting mine, holding them for a moment, and then taking in my hair, my shoulders, the cut of my yellow dress and how it shaped my hips.
Come here. Come closer, Maggie. My heart rose against my clavicles, hard with its shaky beating. She asked me to turn around, and I did, the hem of my dress rising slowly. She motioned me closer, held me, the scent of rubbing alcohol rising from her gown. She took a white carnation, snapped off the end, and tucked the flower into my hair, just above my left ear.
Changó stepped forward. His eyes were pooled with tears, and he bent over as if he wanted to hug or lift her from the bed——but he stopped, his hands behind his back. He turned to the window, stepped closer, and looked outside. He lifted the empty beaker on the windowsill, brought it back to her bed, unwrapped the green paper around the flowers, and slid them inside. He filled the beaker with the water at her bedside.
Thank you, Changó. They’ll live longer now, Evelyn said, her hands raised to her neck, her fingers gently massaging the skin.
Please put them in the window, she whispered.
My stepfather sat down in one of the chairs in the corner of the room. His hands were on his thighs, then he raised his left hand, waved. I stepped next to Ernest, and gently gripped his shoulder. We leaned against the wall. Changó sat down in the other chair, next to Evelyn’s bed, and crossed his right leg over his left.
heard birds outside, imagined them chasing each other in the thick pines throwing shadows against the window.
Evelyn looked up, but Changó didn’t say anything, only looked down at his hands, which slowly trembled before he clasped them together and dropped them on his lap. He couldn’t seem to sit straight, shifting from side to side. Finally he looked up and asked, You doing better? Evelyn shrugged, leaned her head to right, and she whispered, Better.
The door opened, and the doctor walked in, scanning a clipboard and then writing something very quickly. He stopped, turned the pages of the clipboard flat, looked around the room, before focusing on my stepfather and Changó.
Changó sat up straight, unclasped his hand, and his left index finger slowly rose in the air.
The doctor stepped forward, the clipboard behind his back, looked down on Changó.
Evelyn is not ready to go home today. She’s lost a lot of blood, and what she needs is rest. No talking, no work, nor any stress. The doctor’s face flushed with the word stress, his jaw set hard.
Changó held the edge of chair between his open legs, his fingers tightening. He shook his head.
You understand, then? The doctor’s eyebrows raised with the question, and he didn’t seem to wait for an answer but turned to Evelyn, asked her to open wide, and started to look down her throat. There’s good improvement here, he said. But we want to see much more. He wrote something on his clipboard. He nodded, and then began to make his way from the room. He stopped, turned to my stepfather.
think it would be best, and I hope you agree, that she doesn’t have any visitors for the next few days.
My stepfather lowered his head for a moment, raised up and stared at the doctor, a frown on his lips.
The doctor stepped through the door, and I turned to the small whimper coming from Changó. His shoulders shook, and he crossed his arms in front of himself and tucked them under his armpits. Evelyn turned to the window, the flowers bright in a stream of sun and shadow.
Changó bent forward, began to cry softly.
followed the puffy shape of sunlight clouding the water underneath the flowers; bits from the stems circling near the bottom of the beaker. My mother wouldn’t come with us today, although she always said Evelyn was an old friend. She needed to go to work. She enjoyed her rides to and from Berrien Center, she often told me, found a great sense of comfort driving down the long country roads lined with apple and peach orchards, fields of asparagus and celery, and the bright blue patches of blueberries she’d see in late June. Depending on the season there were different colors, changing scents she’d gradually learn, and she could choose various routes, never having to drive into the same cannery parking lot. Even though she worked for County Family Services in a green trailer on the edge of some potato fields, dealing day in and day out with the paperwork or presence of migrant families, she said it made her world brand new to get away. I wondered what she had seen on that morning, if she had a glimpse of the same kind of light that fell on Evelyn’s hair.
Ernest moved to his mother’s side. She raised her right arm and held his waist as he bent over and gave her a kiss, a brief hug.
Changó rubbed his hands flatly on his knees. He stopped, raised the backs of his hands to wipe his eyes.
What was it that brought his anger and love to these tears? What was all the fighting about——work? A job? Not living in Puerto Rico? Why couldn’t he stand up and look at Evelyn, maybe even tell her he was sorry. I couldn’t see my stepfather throwing a suitcase at my mother once he was let go from the cannery. There wouldn’t be anger or violence in our house——silence, more silence, would touch our lives. They’d sit out in my mother’s garden, drinking coffee, listening to the twilight rise until their silence became the dark of night.
In my room I’d hear their chairs creak, maybe my mother blowing on her coffee, my father tapping a cigarette against his thumb. The click of his lighter. The river falling over the dam in the distance, the hollow sound of logs knocking against each other on the edge of the paper mill. The silence would fill my room, and when the mill’s whistle blew for the start of the night shift, I’d have no choice but to remember how my life was shaped by work. My father, like my mother, came to work at the cannery, migrated from the east coast to take a chance in answering a call for workers. I never met my father, never knew if he had been one of those recently let go by my stepfather, or if he had left to work and live somewhere else long ago. If he had forgotten me. His migration never failed to take me to a region beyond the silence, some place I still needed to discover.
I touched the flower Evelyn tucked in my hair. Stepping to the right side of her bed, I touched her forearm, squeezed her wrist. She smiled. Whispered, Take care of him Maggie. Just like always, be his friend.
turned away because I knew that the silence of that room was much better for Evelyn than seeing me cry. I thought I heard . . . remember that for always. I followed Ernest out into the hallway, and we walked down the shiny pattern of white tiles towards the exit. A group of nurses stood at their station, the doctor talking to them. They were in middle of some anecdote, some joke, giggling. They turned silent when we passed, and I wiped my eyes, stared at the floor, and clasped Ernest’s hand.
It’ll be okay, Ernestito. Two, three days——what do they matter? They’ll go by fast, and then it’ll be like she was never gone. He squeezed my hand, and then rubbed the back of my thumb with his own.
There was a loud scream. We turned. Inside a room, lying face down on a bed, a little boy screamed while a woman held his hand. A nurse looked up, moved to pull the curtain——yet we were already staring at a doctor sticking a long needle into his spine.
Ernest let go of my hand, moved ahead of me shaking his head, and then quickly sprinted off down the hallway. I called him, chased after him, and when he slammed through the exit door and it flew back at me, I had to stop, my arms not strong enough to push through. I calmed myself, let him run, and as I smoothed down the sides of my dress I told myself everything was going to be all right, that Evelyn had to get better, and soon she’d be home.
Ernest stood behind the truck, his fists clenched at his sides, pacing back and forth in a small square, his face wet. I stood in front of him, blocked his pacing. He looked at me, angry. I licked the tip of my index finger, held it in the air for a moment, and just as he started to smile I ran it down his nose, the only gesture I knew to assure him everything would work out okay.
We walked down the frozen aisle, our arms clasped together as if we were marching in a parade, Ernest’s left hand guiding the grocery cart. We had gathered for the soncocho a green and red pepper, a bunch of cilantro, a garlic clove, a sweet onion, a half pound of potatoes, two cans of tomato sauce, and a bottle of red wine vinegar. We had also picked up a bunch of bananas, and a pound of rice. I let go of Ernest’s arm and bent over the freezer case.
Why don’t you fix a pizza one night while your mom’s gone?
Sounds good, Magdalene. Tonight soncocho, but maybe the next night you can come over for pizza, he said.
I put the pizza in the cart. Ernest grabbed a half-gallon of milk from the dairy case, a quart of orange juice. He held up a package of shredded cheese.
For our pizza, he said and shook the cheese.
At the end of the frozen aisle, just before we turned for the registers, there was a three-tier shelf of day-old baked goods marked down fifty percent. There were boxes of powdered donuts, cellophane wrapped brownies, a bag of chocolate chip cookies, some whole, some crumbling. My eyes became full with the wide and flat birthday cake; it had curvy yellow flowers all over the top, daffodils in a field of thick white cream frosting, and then circled in black, on the edge of the daffodils, a baseball, its threads a bright red. Happy 9th Birthday, John! was written in green cursive, and on each side of the salutation was a blue fish and an orange bird. I don’t know for how long I stood at that never-picked-up cake, and why my mouth seemed to fill with the soft and sweet frosting. Ernest touched my elbow.
I looked at him, felt myself blushing.
He raised his hand, and tucked his mother’s flower back into my hair, his fingers grazing my ear.
That cake will go good with vanilla ice cream, don’t you think? he asked. I said yes, turned back to get the ice cream. Ernest placed the cake in the bottom of the cart, and for some reason I didn’t worry that he might be spending some of his father’s last money on a cake they didn’t need. It felt right, I felt a small moment of richness and perfection as I placed the ice cream next to the cake.
We both took a side of the cart’s handle and pushed it to the open cashier. Next to the register, Ernest grabbed a package of hard butterscotch candies and placed them on the belt.
Outside, we found our fathers sitting on milk crates, drinking quarts of beer vaguely disguised in paper bags. They both had their ties off, my stepfather wearing Changó’s sunglasses. He laughed listening to Changó’s story. Ernest stepped forward and gave Changó his change. We walked back to the truck, lifted the sacks into the bed, and then Ernest helped me up.
We got milk, ice cream, frozen pizza, I said. Let’s go dad.
He lifted his right foot off the ground, shifted his weight on the crate. He lifted his beer and shook it in the air.
Almost done, Magdalene. The milk’ll keep.
Ernest had the butterscotch candies on his lap. He motioned for me to sit down. I moved some of the dogwood blossoms away with my foot, before I sat down. He began to open the candies. He stopped, touched my thigh, squeezed it. He handed me the half-gallon of milk, and I held it as he twisted off the cap. He pulled the edge of the cake box from the sack, lifted the top. He held three fingers up, and then dug them down into the edge of the cake. The inside of the cake was yellow, and the frosting looked so soft, as if it was melting on his fingers. He took a bite, pointed his head towards the cake. I dipped three fingers into the box, the cake and frosting smooth and cool, sticky and light and sweet when I took a bite. I let the cake melt in my mouth for a moment, closed my eyes, a fish jumping from a flat lake. I took a long drink of the milk, my teeth tingling, the coldness in my throat making the cake fall sweeter down into the deep pocket of my stomach. Ernest moved closer and drank from the milk. We leaned back against the truck, our fathers behind us, and we waited. Ernest started laughing, pointed. He wiped his hands off on the blanket. Then he reached up and wiped the frosting from my chin, licking it off his fingertips. I wiped my hands on the blanket, looking at the curlicues of frosting on the tip of his nose, on both of his cheeks; and then without any sense of pause kissed the tip of his nose, his cheeks. We laid back, our hands in the folds of my dress, looking up into early evening sky.
My mother was standing on the front porch when we pulled into the driveway, her arms folded across her chest. She waved, her face without expression. My stepfather stopped the truck, stones flying up and tapping against the front steps. My mother turned and went inside. Ernest and I stepped down, and my stepfather leaned in the back and handed Changó and Ernest the bags of groceries.
You going to be all right tonight? My stepfather asked.
Sure. Ernest shifted the groceries in his arms. Thanks again for taking us.
The screen door slammed, and my mother stood on the porch.
Did you forget this? she asked, lifting the bag up with the rabbit. She stepped down off the porch, walked to Changó, and then placed it inside the grocery bag he held.
Cuidado, she said. Please, take it easy, Changó. Evelyn’ll be back home soon, and she reached out and touched Changó's bicep, the closest I’d ever seen her near him. She said: We will all lose something soon, and she was no longer looking at Changó but my stepfather. She paused, her eyes steady, her hands poised in the space between her and my stepfather. You can’t drink away whatever you are missing, what feels so important. She crossed her arms. Then she said, I went to see Evelyn this afternoon, after work. My mother turned to me, touched my cheek with backs of her fingers. The flowers are beautiful, Magda. Looking at Ernest she said, And she’s anxious to come home, I think. I told her not to worry. My mother fluffed the curls along the back of her neck. Can you come over for dinner tomorrow, Ernest?
My mother put her arm around me, and my arms found its way around her waist. My stepfather made a quick salute to everyone and headed inside. Ernest and his father turned away, and walked into the mulberry trees, the branches heavy with the sound of birds.
Five years passed, and I would’ve never remembered my mother’s words, or that rabbit, had it not been for Ernest’s memory. We were sitting on the Bond Street Hill in the dusk, across the street from the Ring Lardner Home. We were counting how many salmon rose before the dam, each fish like a silver sickle cutting through the falling water. I was leaving for the university in two days, and I had expressed that I wasn’t sure about leaving, had all these questions, wondered the most if I was only going to fulfill my mother’s long dream. Ernest listened and didn’t say, at first, anything one way or the other. Then he told me about cooking the soncocho that night. He remembered the two plates of white rice on the table, two glasses of water, and his father’s bottle of rum. He spooned from the pot two pieces of rabbit——a thigh and piece of breast——onto his father’s plate, a few potatoes, and two spoonfuls of the red sauce. His father didn’t speak, the house quiet with the rumble of the refrigerator, the birds chirping in the backyard. His father ate steadily and greedily, draining his water, and then filling his glass with rum. Ernest raised a piece of meat to his mouth, took a bite, started chewing, and he was about to say something when he felt his throat close up tight, his mouth half open. He lifted his glass and tried to take a big swallow of water. He hit his fist against his chest, coughed, went over to the sink; he coughed again, turned back to Changó, who was taking a long drink.
The room must have become blurry on the edges yet distinctly clear to Ernest——the bare beige walls, the pieces of linoleum peeling back off the floor in places, the rusty ends of each chair, Changó’s elbows up on the table, his chin in his hands, as he looked at Ernest perhaps in the happiness of his meal, or perhaps in a state of disbelief. He must have gotten up and walked over and struck Ernest over and over again on the back. Then all he could do was wrap his arms around Ernest’s stomach and jerk, Ernest belching, coughing, and a small bone falling into the bottom of the sink. With school beginning the fall would soon arrive. Yet that evening the air was hot, muggy.
I was wearing a bikini top and pair of shorts, my back slick with sweat, my breasts hot. A trio of mallards rose over the birch trees.
remember Ernest telling me that later Changó had come to his room with a small bowl of ice cream. Ernest had said, no, he only wanted to sleep. You need to eat it, Changó told him, and Ernest ate the ice cream quickly. Changó placed the bowl on the dresser and laid down in bed with him. It was warm in the room, every once and awhile a quick shot of breeze lifted the curtains and struck the bed. Ernest said he couldn’t sleep the whole night, only floated between Changó’s memories and dreams, his crying out . . . No—no—no——
He’d seem to fall asleep, then suddenly shudder, hear Changó cry out, hold Ernest tighter, each of them wet with sweat.
I could see that blue-black room, feel the weak breeze stirring the curtains, and I imagined some dark harmony of resolve surrounding them.
Ernest dug a small hole in the ground with the end of a stick. He looked towards the dam——fifteen, he said, now sixteen, seventeen——and then we listened to the water falling and watched for more salmon to rise. Finally he said, It’s not a big deal but you know my father, somewhat, Magdalene. He’s quiet. Maybe selfish. He doesn’t seem to want to talk in Spanish or English. I can’t seem to remember a time when he ever talked to me for more than five minutes. What happened to him that night——my choking, realizing that my mother almost died? Ernest broke the stick in half, flung the pieces away from the hill.
For some reason, Magdalene, I know he was trying to express something. Ernest leaned back, his hands clasped behind his head.
I leaned over, kissed the top of his clavicle, the inside of his neck, and then rested my head on his chest.
The shade started to brighten with sun, Magdalene, and I slipped from Changó’s arms, and walked out to the kitchen.
Ernest told me how there was such an immense, bright emptiness. He stood behind his mother’s chair, held it, and cried because he had this strange feeling there was something pushing him towards the moment when he’d walk out of that kitchen for the last time.
When he said that my stomach dropped, and my arm raised from his chest, hovered for a moment, until I consciously wrapped it around his torso again, held him tightly. Without the memory of my father, I wondered when I’d ever have a night when I felt that strange harmony, my father’s love.
There’s nothing wrong, Magdalene, in wondering what’s brought you here, he said, running his index finger along my arm. Or knowing it’s time to go.
The day after Ernest had cooked the soncocho, when I stood on the sidewalk outside their house, I did not know of Ernest’s choking. I had a book bag leaning against my leg, two towels tucked under my arms, and when Ernest stepped onto the porch I waved a hello with my head, my hair tied back in a yellow ribbon. All I wanted——all I thought of——was reading together down by the river, taking a swim once the afternoon turned hot. Ernest hopped down the stairs.
Wait——Ernestito, wait. Changó stepped through the screen door, his pants half zipped, the buckle of his belt striking his right thigh, his belly and chest glinting in the morning sun.
Ernest took my hand, said, We’re going down to the river. I’ll see you later.
Changó lowered his head, then looked at me, the towels.
Come, Ernestito. Just for a minute.
I let go of his hand, nudged his hip, and he then walked up on the porch. Changó said something, and Ernest stood behind him and stuck his hand in Changó’s pockets, pulling out some dollars bills. He slipped a few into his shirt pocket, and then slipped the rest back into Changó’s pants. I heard him say, Here, Changó. He stepped closer, grabbed the front of his father’s pants and brought both sides together, catching the clasps to each other. He pulled the zipper up. Holding the buckle, Ernest brought the leather end through, buckled his father’s belt, tucking the extra piece of leather through a belt loop.
He stepped down from the porch. I waved goodbye. Ernest lifted the book bag, swung it up and slid his arms through the straps. We walked down the sidewalk and cut through a vacant lot, the tall grass itchy on my ankles, on our way to Bond Street. I could hear the dam, and followed the sound of a boat heading upstream. Through the trees I looked down on the river, the water rippling gold in the sun, and the smell of lilacs came to me strong and clear.
Ten years have passed since Ernest’s mother came home from the hospital. The cannery closed. Mushrooms were grown. Evelyn and Changó separated for at least three years, and then they returned to each other with a love I can’t easily understand. My mother was right——we all must’ve lost something. We made do, ate from her garden more often, made it bigger. My yellow dress became a summer top, and the extra fabric helped to cover a hole in the seat of my stepfather’s truck. The company from Toronto closed down their operations. My mother and stepfather grew closer, sometimes spending long afternoons driving down county roads my mother remembered. Ernest left for South Bend, then I heard Chicago, yet I have a strong feeling I’d recognize him anywhere, even with the knowledge he’ll never be——remember that for always——my same friend.
The Royal Café sign finally flickers off below my apartment. The smell and taste of coffee still thick and warm, the edges of my windows wet with the heat of the roasters. I sit in this sudden and new darkness wondering what it feels like to be held so closely you feel your breath tighten, disappear as your eyes sparkle, and how blue the air seems as you choke, your throat hard and thin, your hands alive and trembling in the colored air you gasp for.
Once, under the blinking marquee lights of the Ready Theatre, I saw Evelyn and Changó embrace with such force, Changó lifting her from the ground, Evelyn’s shoes hanging off her heels, and my shoulders suddenly burned with such fire I thought I’d lose control of my stepfather’s truck.
Here, in this university town, I discover moments that help me remember what Ernest felt that night; he made it sound so frightening, Changó so smothering and forlorn, a feeling so strange and foreign, a place existing at such a far distance I knew that a voyage towards its shore was filled with risk. Thrilling, almost magical loneliness in that room changing into something else. Here, I have a futon mattress on the floor, a desk with a lamp, a typewriter, a chair, and piles of books arranged on the floor, against the walls. I look at the three by five cards I need to fill, the sheets typed on the desk——it feels too crowded, and I search for a way across the distance.
Remember Ernest standing on the edge of the mulberry trees: His shirt clean and pressed, and his hand rising with a thumbs up as my stepfather drove down Third Street, my mother sitting next to him, and I in the truck bed with a suitcase by my side on my way to Ann Arbor.
I wipe away the moisture from the windows with the bottom of my shirt, the cloth cool against my belly, my thighs chilled with goose bumps. I raise the middle window higher and look out on the empty street. If it is true that only a handful of men migrated to Niles for work, the women who also came may have been a few fingers on a hand. Sometimes I think about going back, I think that after five years I can apologize for my absence, my silence. Mamí, let’s go for a drive, I’d say. I’d drive her to the cannery, and together we’d look out on the green fields, and then take in the crumbling buildings where the mushrooms were grown, the fallen roofs, the sagging fences. I wouldn’t point but simply stand still in the blaze of insects swarming in the tall grasses, flying figures filled with shadow and light in the truck’s headlights, the dam falling in a fine steady crash to the west, a bevy of bats arising with the darkness and erratically shaping the last bands of dusk. We would look at the front window of the main office, shattered with a gaping hole, and follow the bluing outline of the fallen jolly green giant lying face down on the weed-choked parking lot, his garland head cracked, splintered, white from years of weather, only a few specks of green remaining. I wouldn’t ask once again about my father——who is he? Did you and my father come together or separately? Can’t you at least give me a name, a memory? I’d bite my tongue, aware of the circle of forgetting and anger my mother stood within, and so I could never ask her to tell me about her first love.
Mamí, I know it’s hard but tell me your secrets. Can’t you tell me at least one? Can’t you tell me what you are so scared of? And how, on a night like this, when I’ve traveled farther away from where you are, I can salve the fright here in this room, here along the edges of my heart?
I move closer to the glass, feel the rusty screen against my palm. Down and away from my room is a line of orange detour signs; they blink on and off, an arrow pointing and then disappearing, the black street suddenly bright, then dark and slick. New curbs. New sidewalks. The curving, changing roads. The rumbling of the compressor running the lights fills the windowsill, and as the glass vibrates a jerking start and stop rhythm fills my shoulders and I sway back and forth. My hands raise to my neck, clasp my throat, and help me to stand steady and wonder about the different ways to go, the detours we follow, when what is needed is the strength to drive straight through.