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Posts Tagged ‘short fiction’

First, let me tell you I am a cautious person. The boy stood at a corner, where a side street cut into the main road. Kitty-corner from the Iglesia de La Santa Muerte, the Church of Saint Death. He had been standing there since 1997, long before the church appeared. He was six or seven then. He stood facing the road. He did not register the passing cars. He was dirty, dressed in rags, and barefoot. He was a ghost, and still is. Time went by in five- or six-month intervals. I never thought about him until I was about a half mile from the corner. Then I would start to think about him, and I’d say, “I wonder if the kid is standing there.” Near an unfinished structure, cement blocks, maybe a little house or store. With never enough funds to finish it. Sprayed with a faded graffiti, in black paint that said, “Vale verga mal gobierno.” Roughly, the government isn’t worth shit.

It was November, when I passed. He was wearing a plaid jacket, buttoned askew – Good Will stuff, trucked down from the border, by the ton, illegally. He wore oversized black sneakers, without laces. No socks. For the first time in thirteen years, someone had begun to take care of him. I suspected the Iglesia de la Santa Muerte, right there in front of him.

I was returning from a trip to the big town, where the houses are adobe and whitewashed, except for the first four feet, which are painted a dark cold red. I had walked the square, eaten watery over-sugared ice cream under the portales, the arched covered walkways, and had even had a drink. Whisky. I never drink whisky. I never drink anything hard. But with all the cold red paint and the whitewash, and it being November, one small shot warmed my chest and raised my sense of brotherhood. And that is why I stopped the car and got out. And walked over to the boy. For the first time in thirteen years.

He took a step back. I respected his fear and veered away. I looked for someone I could talk to. I walked up the side street. A man approached. He was a shorter than me, trim and white-haired. His face was a little red. I suspected his chest is warmer than mine. I greeted him. He was curious about me. A gringo out of his car. What could it mean?

“Para servirle,” he said, as if I were a customer. May I help you?

I said I’d been driving past the boy for thirteen years, and I’d stopped for the first time. “He has a new coat and shoes,” I said, waving behind me, at the ghost. It was a question, poorly disguised as a statement.

“Sí, eso sí es,” he said – but that was it. A non-committal agreement.

I wanted to ask things. But a follow-up question would have crossed a boundary. Like, who bought the jacket and shoes for him, why now, why hadn’t he been taken care of before? Who did he belong to? He could have been the man’s child. The man could have been connected to the church across the road. Similar churches were springing up all over Mexico. There was a word associated with them. My wife had told me not to throw it around. You never knew who you were talking to.

He asked where I was from, and was I visiting? I said I was from the capital of the next state north. I was visiting friends, I said. And that was all I said. I didn’t want him to know who my friends were or where they lived. He didn’t pursue it.

“I’ve worried about him over the years,” I said, realizing immediately what I was saying. I was a man who worried, but not enough to stop in thirteen years. A man who recognized a metaphor – the boy as the vast neglected population of Mexico – and left it at that.

The whisky was losing its heating power. I decided it had placed myself in a weak position. The man sighed. He looked at the boy. He looked back at me. Both of us looked for clues. The man’s shoes were modest, the soles good. Mine were fancy nylon sandals, with thick treads for wading in clean rivers and getting in out of first world kayaks.

“His name is Jorge,” the man said. “He’s always been that way.”

“I’m glad someone’s helping him,” I said. “I’ve never tried to help him.”

“Yo tampoco,” says the man. Me either. He raised his considerable eye brows, as if he were telling me something of great significance I probably couldn’t understand. “Even God has not helped him.”

This was a mouthful. I looked kitty-corner to the church.

“Someone over there helped him,” he said. And then he put his palms over his eyes, spread his fingers, and peeked through. As if to say, let’s not go any farther in that direction. He was also grinning, and the humor seemed like it could be at my expense.

“Ven,” he said, using the intimate imperative. Come! And we walked back toward Jorge. The man brought out a paper-wrapped shape, folded back the paper, and lifted out a taco. Chunks of meat in a red sauce. Jorge took it, at about solar plexus level, and dropped his face to it, like a dog. His hands were more than dirty. He farted as took the first bite.

The man wrapped the empty paper together so the juices were on the inside. He took a few steps and threw it against the wall of the unfinished structure, where it dropped among other similar wrappings, just below the graffiti “Vale verga mal gobierno”. He walked back to me.

“I can show you the church,” he said. He saw my doubt. “It’s alright, no one is going to shoot you,” he caught my eye, “if you come in peace.” He had raised his eyebrows again, to emphasize seriousness. If you come in peace sounded like some kind of authority. I was also not sure how we had made the jump: Jorge, then going in the church.

I considered saying I had to get along. I took out my car keys. He glanced at them. “You care about Jorge. We are not always ready to help those we don’t know.” I decided we meant him and me. And that he was building brotherhood.

“No one is going to kidnap you,” he said, with I thought a priest-like smile. “I know you’re curious. They hide nothing. Over half of this village has left the Catholic Church to worship there.” He pointed across the street. I took in the preferred church’s double door, the gothic half-arch windows, the bumpy frosted bronzed plastic panes. The oversized brass door handles – low-end Southern California crematorium style, without the smokestack.

“People are beginning to help Jorge. You’re not the only one.” He opened one side of the double doors. He switched on the lights.

“It’s just us,” he said, turning back.

I pointed my keys at my car, to make sure it was locked. Its parking lights winked.

“Do you have a key for yourself?” he snorted. He was very agreeable. But his joke showed too much intelligence. His Spanish was too clear. I remained standing in the doorway.

“What’s your connection to the church?” I asked, needing reassurance. I used su, the formal possessive adjective. I wanted to keep my distance.

“It’s complicated,” he said. I backed up a few steps, beckoning to him to come back out and discuss it with me.

“What do you want to know?” he asked.

“Well, I’m not sure what I can ask,” I said, thinking of my wife’s warning.

“Where are you staying?” he asked. And then: “Never mind, that just feeds your suspicion. I assure you, we help more people than we kill,” he said, lifting his considerable eyebrows – straight-faced. Pulling my leg, I thought, to show me I was being paranoid.

“My name is Luís,” he said. I shook his hand. It was cold. I did not say my name.

Inside, there were ten or more rows of simple benches. There was space in front for kneeling before the Santa Muerte. She was a plastic Katrina, a skeleton, with three-dimensional bones, wrapped in see through pastel chiffon. She rose up life-size out of a sea of devotional candle that flickered red, white, Virgin Mary blue, and ecclesiastical purple. She was missing one arm. A few shriveled and forgotten Purépecha women knelt before her, fingering their rosaries and praying for what? Food? That someone would touch them? See the nineteen-year old inside?

A car crunched to a stop. The door opened. A Policía Federal stepped through, his jacket too tight for more than one button. He held a small package wrapped in white paper. He glanced at the Indian women. He looked me up and down. He said something to my host. Something quick. A question, ending with ternero. Something like: Is this the missing calf?

Luís’s answer was also quick, and equally coded. “Aún no ha pastado.” Too young to graze, still at the mother’s tit.

“This is Nacho,” said Luis, with his palm out. No one was interested in my name. Luís brought three folding chairs over from the wall, and set them up facing each other. He placed a fourth one in the middle. Nacho unfolded his package on the fourth chair. “Chivo,” he said. Goat meat. I could smell it. So could the Purépecha women. Their rebozos shadowed their faces. Their head had turned, and they were staring. They did not look away.

With a little homophobic posturing – hip cocked, hand on his elbow, finger on his lips – Luís chose a bottle, from the feet of the Saint. Jim Beam.

Nacho gestured toward the goat meat. “Tómale, güero!” He handed me a napkin. I plucked out a hunk of mutton. The meat was still warm, not too fatty. He handed me an envelope of salt. We drank out of votive glasses. Mine was Virgin blue. Nacho wore gold chain under his gun-blue shirt. He needed a shave. His eyes were brighter than I liked. My hand trembled as I lifted my glass. I steadied it with my other hand.

“Qué tal los ataques contra el gobierno?” he asked. How do you like those attacks against the government?

His eyes were bloodshot. I was expected to give an answer. My chest was warm. My heart fluttered. I saw burning buses, trailer truck infernos, their drivers lying in the street. Tiro de gracia. A bullet in the back of the head. Someone like Nacho, shaved, two buttons buttoned, dark suit, standing in front of a huge Mexican flag, the presidential sash across his chest. Three years down the line.

I started to speak.

“Thirty-three municipalities,” he smacked, his mouth full of goat “They got money for sewage treatment plants, not a single one built, casas muy chillón instead, glitzy houses, built by the mayors. Feeder springs covered over. The silted lake. The water level drops. No fish. Horses and oxen for plowing. This is the pinche twenty-first century.” Nacho licked a thumb and hairy forefinger. He glared at me as if I were the cause of it all.

I felt safe. The chatty circle. Three chairs. The Jim Beam. The Indian women had turned away, too hungry to keep their bodies twisted. Like street dogs that knew they weren’t going to be fed.

“I could make a call on my radio, and 40 armed men would be here in three-quarters of an hour. Cut off the roads in ten different places. Lanzagranadas, RPG’s, granade launchers. It takes three hours for the army to get anywhere. A hundred years lost. No jobs. Shit for education. Aguacate or mariguana? How hard a choice is that? The North pretends it’s not involved. Maybe we’ll build the goddamn treatment plants. The fish will come back. Fuck the mal gobierno. We’ll kill the people who stand in the way. Send down the drones and we’ll kill your children.” I looked at Luís. Luís raised his eyebrows. At me.

I had stopped eating. I looked back at Nacho. His eyes were bulging, as if he had come to the surface too quickly. I looked at my Virgin blue votive glass. It was empty.

Nacho said pués, he had to go. He stuck out his gun leg and pulled out his black automatic, some kind of Glock. He cocked it and pointed it at my right foot. I pulled my foot back a bit. The Glock was stuck in midair, and didn’t follow. Nacho wiped goat grease off his mouth. He re-holstered the gun. He filled my votive glass with Jim Beam. He said maybe I could write a letter of recommendation for his daughter, so she could study in Chicago. He showed me a photo. A charming young woman. I imagined myself married to her, visiting Nacho on the weekends. Her name was Maricruz. The old question floated in the air. You know, like how do you get her across?

“Tunnels,” he winked. “And friends.”

I nodded. We stood and shook hands. I bowed slightly, the way my mother taught me. To show I respected him. “Mucho gusto,” I said.

“I know where to find you,” he said. I looked at Luis. He raised his eyebrows – another warning. Or jest. I couldn’t tell which. There were a few chunks of meat left. Nacho wrapped them. He glanced over at the Indian women, decided against it, and put the meat in his pocket, for later.

He stopped at the door. “I also know how to tell others where you live.” A comment I didn’t think went well with the recommendation for Maricruz. And then he was out the door. We heard the car pull away, heading back to the town.

It was very likely he had seen my license plate. He had a radio, probably a black thing, with blinking lights. The curse of Mexico is that there’s a sophisticated microwave repeater tower on every mountain top. I calculated the ease of cross checking information. It was still late afternoon. Transito could still be open. Maybe he already knew my name and address.

Luís led me out the back door, into the sweet smell of cow. A farmyard, carpeted with shredded dried manure from various animals. In a small corral of their own, two fine oxen, for plowing. A large corral, partly covered, with a dozen grey, flop-eared, hump-backed Brahman, happy to back from their lakeside grazing. A clutch of gleaming brown hens scattered before us, heads down, making lateral escapes. Slim Ameraucanas – my favorites. Pigs I could smell and hear, but not see. Probably the same for them.

“Where are we going?” I asked. He looked at me but did not answer. A bent campesino approached us from a path that led in from the marsh. A substantial haystack walked along behind him. A burro loaded with rastrojo de maíz, dried corn stalks, to the extent that the animal was completely hidden. Even its legs. We arrived at a shed at the same time.

“This is Don Venus,” said Luis.

I nodded. Don Venus looked just past me, at one of my ears. He moved his lips. No sound came out. Luis asked him to wait a moment before unloading the rastrojo. The shed was a lean-to, open on three sides. There were still some stalks leaning up against the rear wall. Luís pulled these aside and revealed an old green plastic tarp. And out from under this, he pulled what most of us recognize as the global insurgent weapon, the Kalashnikov assault rifle, or AK-47. It was painted a marine gray, chipped and dinged. God knows how old, or from what military. He fumbled around some more and brought a cuerno de chivo, the curved thirty-round magazine, and clicked it into place, thus completing the icon. In some parts of Asia and Africa, the whole thing for twenty dollars.

“How many have you got?” I asked, before I could stop myself.

He ignored me and told Don Venus – who had seen everything – to go ahead and unload his corn stalks. “Ven,” he said, and we started off on the path into the marsh. Right away, he pulled a pint bottle out of his back pocket. More Jim Beam. I took a swig. Then he took one. Then he dropped the bottle on a tuft of soft dry grass that the Brahmans appeared to be saving for later. “We´ll pick it up on the way back,” he said. He gave me a challenging smirk, in anticipation of a discovered deficiency – in me. “Have you ever shot one of these things?” he asked. I hadn´t. And the little warrior in me thrilled.

The path was a raised dike, formed by the dredged channel to our left. We passed a drawn up dugout – a canoa, the modern version, plywood and fiberglass – that waited for its fisherman to return. The dike widened a little. We stopped where a square – maybe six feet by six feet – had been cut out of the bog.

“Do you see it?” he asked.

I saw something in the brown water, a foot down. I stepped closer. A body splayed out, with small fish, too ravenous to flee, eating away at a vague white mass. Then I realized I was looking at a hoof, and that the victim was a calf that had been split open and staked down at each hoof. And then I thought I saw a human hand floating deeper down, below it all.

I caught a movement in the corner of my eye. I turned and saw that Luís had the Kalashnikov pointed at me.

“You could donate your arm to the Saint,” he said. And then, with his brows raised, “For Jorge’s sake.” A smile formed. He thought it was funny.

He swung the gun away. “Let’s shoot it,” he said, and I jumped when he fired a single round at some grebes that were dunking and squeaking, in open water a hundred feet away. The birds fluttered across the water, turning this way and that. Some went airborne, others submerged. I felt pee cooling on my inner thigh.

“You try it,” he said. He moved a lever. “Automatic,” he said. He presented the gun with both hands, like an award. I held it at waist level and fired off a burst. At the grebes, farther away now. They panicked. One fluttered, then floated limp. My ears rang. I fired another burst. This one longer, and cut a path back back into the junco, a not too distant line of reeds. And then I fired until the cuerno de chivo was empty. On purpose. He understood what I’d done. His eyebrows were raised.

“Pasto para los chivos, cuernos para los cuervos.” He smirked, again as if he had discovered a small hypocrisy. Grass for the goats, horns for the crows. Or was the last phrase bullets for the cuernos de chivo -for the corpses the crows will pick at?

I didn’t understand. My mind was on the shredded calf, picked at by fish. I wondered it they were the same white fish that the tourists ate deep fried and cold. Plus, there was something else I couldn’t quite focus on.

On the way back, we stopped for the bottle. The whisky helped. I looked to see if you could see pee wetting through on my pants. You couldn’t. Don Venus sat on a three-legged stool. His burro dozed tied to the shed. Don Venus held a machete across his thighs. Luís handed him the Kalashnikov. Don Venus walked into the shed, to put it away. He carried the machete in his left hand, by its plastic black handle, and the AK-47 balanced in the right so the muzzle wouldn’t drag on the ground – as if it too were a campesino’s everyday tool.

We went back into the church. There were more women inside. One of them very pretty, with expensive shoes, an alligator handbag, and a thin-striped blue and black rebozo, to make her look Indian. I heard her smooth voice address the Santa Muerte: “Preciosa” –precious. Then she looked at me, curious, lingering. I recognized a woman of open complexity. At another time I might have joined the church, to be near her. Outside, I said she was muy guapa, very attractive. Luís raised his eyebrows and tickled the air with his forefinger – Mexican for yes. He said her husband was killed in a shoot out with Federal Police. I suspected Nacho immediately, but didn’t say anything. She had parked her new VW Jetta so close to the front door that we were barely able to squeeze out.

“A stunning woman,” he said. I thought I could hear suggestion in his voice. Like, you could have her, if you were with us. I wondered why her husband was in a shoot out. That brought up the word my wife didn’t want me to use. So I didn’t say it.

We shook hands. I wanted to ask things. The hand under the calf, for instance. Was he supposed to build a sewage treatment plant? Did he offer crystal meth to teenagers, then fuck them? And what’s the stuff with the calves?

Luís raised his eyebrows. “We’ll find her an arm from some other carbrón.” Perhaps because of the whisky and brotherhood, I shook his hand again. Maybe just to celebrate the arm I appeared to be getting away with. Maybe all they had was the hand and not the whole arm. I ignored the word cabrón as a license permitted between warm-chested friends.

“Don’t come back,” he said. “And don’t use the word narco. It just brings trouble.

“I understand,” I said. Although I didn’t.

“Don’t stop again,” he said. I wasn’t sure why he was emphasizing the point. As he squeezed past the Jetta to go back in, he looked at me and wagged his forefinger, Mexican for no.

Under the windshield wiper, on the driver’s side, I found the wrapping from Jorge’s taco. I was pretty sure he had put it there. Some of its juice had dripped down out of sight below the wiper. I took the paper out from under the wiper. I didn’t know where to put it. Jorge was standing across the road still. He was holding his hand out. I walk across the road. He stood firm. His hand moved a little toward me. He didn’t look at me. I put the wrapper in his hand. His head bobbed a little. He lowered his arm, still holding the paper. He continued looking at the road, and beyond to the Iglesia de la Santa Muerte. With the barest trip in my voice, I said, “Que te vaya bien, Jorge,” take care, and I returned to my car. I held my arm up and pointed with the key. The parking lights winked. And then I got in and locked the doors.

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When my Uncle Joe ate, he bent over his food, looking at a point a foot or so in front of him, and chewed in slow mortification. He also whispered when he wrote, in a high register, not too different from whistling. I have always thought, as many words were lost to the air in front of him, as were ever written down. Between fits of scribbling, he rustled pages in his small notebook, back and forth, as if it were important never to let the words hop forward, from one page to the next, but rather to hide them in different spots, like a squirrel.

Part of the problem, it seemed, was that Uncle Joe had a tumor that was pressed against certain nerves and affected his activities, including one not so easily discussed by people like me who grew up in New England and were taught to avoid the topics that fascinate us most.

He was lonely during this part of his life, and so he would suggest trips to his nieces and nephews. And since he really only had one of each, and since his niece Eleanor, my sister, was only eight, he tended to take her to the zoo and me, who was a good ten years older, to the African Niger delta or the upper reaches of the Amazon.

He preferred the Amazon, especially the area west of that river’s confluence with the Rio Negro. There, the water was clearer, deeper, the air less fetid and heavy, the mood, in short, more optimistic than among the swamplands of the Niger. In that place the mosquitoes, the billowing thunderheads, and the presence of poisonous snakes filled the air with danger to the point that there was no air left to breathe, and my Uncle Joe and I had to hyperventilate just to stay even. Exhausted by these conditions, and to counter the thirst that fear induces, I learned to drink quantities of African beer, and to glide over the muddy Niger either bent over my own food or slumped down in our leaky boat in an alcoholic stupor.

In Brazil we traveled in dugouts only, propelled by long-shafted outboards that slanted back into the water at such an angle that we were able to navigate through extremely shallow waters if we needed to find a sand bar for sleeping, or approach a village for food. My Uncle Joe chose outboards in general, because the sound of the motor drowned out the ringing in his ear from the tumor that was always the other companion on these jaunts – this two centimeter egg that nested in his brain, just inland from his left ear.

The tumor, which was to be measured and simply observed for the time being, had a profound effect on my uncle’s artistic proclivities. A fairly shy man for most of his years, he began to make up arias and ballads and sing them in a surprisingly beautiful baritone, which attracted the attention of people and some animals wherever we went.

Late one afternoon, a river steamer came up behind us, hissing an arc of water ahead of its copper bow, billowing black smoke, giving short asthmatic blasts on its whistle to say they were overtaking, but also that the passengers should assemble, there was something worth seeing. In the midst of a sudden Brazilian downpour, which came and went, and over the drum of the slowing pistons, with women in white dresses hovering just back from the dripping canopy, you heard my Uncle Joe, saw him standing in the dugout, forward toward the bow, his right arm out, palm up, addressing the steamer, singing his own version of Puccini’s O mio Babbino Caro. He could not reach the highest notes. Plus, it was Lauretta’s aria, not Rinuccio’s. But it was his favorite, and inspired by moisture, he sang in his strange spine-tingling baritone which, because of the egg, had now been bumped up to a notch or two below tenor.

And I could see them, those straining faces, unable to speak, before this apparition, a full-bellied middle-aged man standing in his drenched white linen suit, with his arms outstretched, an unshaven Lauretta, in a soggy mouse-eaten Panama, pleading for permission to marry her love, which each woman on the steamer must have secretly believed was female, and very much like herself.

The captain of the steamer, which was called the Aberdeen, drew back on the throttle and the pistons lay still. The hull, black and rusted, glided noiselessly forward. Water dripped from the faded steamer canopy. This was when I think my uncle noticed people among his audience. Their presence seemed to make his voice swell, he doffed the limp Panama – a Cubano – and held it out in salute, up and down, so as not to suggest donations, while his voice trembled out the last few lines Lauretta’s longing.

On this particular occasion, the captain of the steamer, a gallant bearded officer in blue coat and white trousers and with gold on his hat, motioned that I should stop the engine and come along side. And when we had drawn close and our motor was still, I could see the captain’s white shirt was frayed at the collar, his eyes bloodshot beneath the brim of his splendid hat, and his nose red probably from something like what my uncle and I had drunk on the Niger and continued to drink on the Amazon.

We were invited to dine with a lady, he barked, an announcement that caused a murmur among the passengers, and when we were still closer, and he had come down a ladder and placed one scuffed leather boot on our gunnel, he added – in confidence – that she was an Austrian countess, from a very old and much respected European family.

But I was the only one who seemed moved by this information. With the motor off, the ringing had begun again in my uncle’s head and he sat now in the bottom of the dugout bent forward with his hands pressed to his ears, and appeared to experience something like the same sort of distress that he displayed while eating.

I felt sorry for him, the object of so many stares from the railing of the steamer above us. The throb of insects and frogs coming from the river’s banks made me feel as if I was under water. And I imagined the sound my uncle was hearing inside his head was simply the exaggeration of that, and a much more serious thrall.

Later, at dinner, the countess, who had placed my uncle at her side and me at her other side, whispered a question to me. Was my uncle’s affliction an old one and had he received treatment, and was he, in that very moment when he appeared to be eating, in fact crying? Because, she had noticed, his shoulders rose and fell and twisted, as he tore flakes of meat away from the chicken leg and drew them into his mouth.

I told her, because of the egg, he had a very great ringing in his head that caused him various vexations, not the least of which – and I am not sure it was because of the wine or out of pity for my uncle’s loneliness – and I asked her pardon for my directness – not the least of which was a distressing over-activity of his manhood which kept him restless at night and by day subject to bouts of unpredictable shyness.

The countess, a very dignified and, I must say, strikingly beautiful woman, looked straight ahead of her and nodded slowly, with the expression of someone who is contemplating a deeply moving human truth and, in her mind, searching for what steps should be undertaken in response.

From that moment on she grew even more gentle and solicitous with my Uncle Joe. She poured him wine, lay new chicken legs on his plate for him to bend over. She praised his singing, in comparative references, to our Scottish captain and other nodding heads at the table, and to me spoke of a great surgeon in Vienna whom she knew personally and who she was sure could help my Uncle Joseph, the name I now used when I referred to him.

We continued upriver for four days, the little steamer pulling our dugout behind like a colt on a lead to its mother, and I did not see much of my uncle and the countess, except at suppers, when my uncle bent over his food, and the countess, looking tired but happy, fussed lovingly over him and said endless kind things to me about the need for continuing my education and living in a stable healthy climate and avoiding the evils of smoking and alcohol.

After breakfast, on the fifth day, we cast off from the Aberdeen. Something had changed between the countess and my Uncle Joe. The sparkle had gone out of her eyes, she looked alternately angry and hurt, stared darkly at me, then looked away. My uncle was gallant but unreachable at the end. When the moment came, he bent to kiss her hand. She restrained herself, drew in a deep breath, and overcame, I think, an urge to hit him, then held the caressed hand strangely, with her other one, like someone covering a wound. He bowed once more, in his old linen suit and turned away, straight-backed and buoyant. A bell rang, the pistons stopped, steamer hushed to a crawl. We descended a hemp ladder to our tottering places in the dugout, and then fell behind, pushed away by the thrashing of the steamer’s great brass screw. While the distance increased, and the pistons beat out their rhythm of our separation, my uncle and I sat there among the empty beer bottles and stared a little like orphans, I thought, out over the steamer’s wake, the only connection now between us. The passengers waved, at first, then gradually found reasons to move away, so that the countess could be alone at the stern. And when she was very far away, she raised her arm, held it aloft for a long moment, then let it drop, and the steamer turned a distant green curve in the river, and was gone.

The water around us, the stirred mud, the unfamiliar floating leaves, other flotsam, gradually stopped roiling. Spilled gasoline, beer, and old bilge replaced the smell of the Aberdeen’s coal smoke. And we lay that way for some time, drifting and listening to the voices of the rainforest. My uncle seemed unexpectedly content. I had thought he would stay with countess and go to Vienna and be married and never be lonely again. But I said nothing. I primed the motor, adjusted the throttle, and before pulling the starter rope turned once more to look at him.

“The ringing is gone,” he said, and beamed the long warm, lingering smile of someone who is imparting very happy news. The ringing was gone, and it had been gone for more than a day.

I was going to ask the question that occurred to me in that moment, regarding causes, but my uncle seemed to have remembered something. He leaned over the side of the dugout and pulled on the string that hung down into the water, and brought up a bottle of beer. He got out his jackknife, cut it free, popped the lid off into the stinking bilge, and handed me the bottle. It was cool to the touch. How it had survived four days of dragging along behind the steamer, I had no idea. Then, from a second line, he snaked up another bottle, and cut it free for himself. And so we drifted, and drank our beers, as the day warmed, and talked about the countess – how kind and generous she had been. And how concerned she had been about my upbringing.

I must have had the questioning look again, because he winked, took a long swig and said, respectfully enough, I thought, “Very generous!” And with a whoop, more a croak that broke midway through, and no longer with any trace of the old mio babbino caro, threw his brown empty bottle – an act of littering – with an underhand sweep, high up over our heads, into the bright Brazilian morning – while we sat grinning, first checking to see it wasn’t going to land on our heads, then holding each other’s gaze, scamps who had escaped once more, far from the Niger and Vienna, and almost everything else, holding our breath, the sun warm on our backs, waiting for the bottle to fall. Waiting for the splash.

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Sometimes a Christmas story is about a reverence for snow, cold cheeks almost burning, wet socks, the smell of guava punch with apples and cinnamon, the heat of a wood stove with gingerbread baking in its oven, half burnt potholders with crows to protect the fingers, an Aunt that plays French songs on the phonograph and, half swooning, lays her hands splayed across her chest, just above her dove-like bosom that smells ever so slightly of mothballs and talcum powder.

She was a Catholic—me a diluted Protestant—and it was the Church, she said, that had kept her single because the men of Ireland had never learned to love women, only the Virgin, and tended to abuse them—not to mention themselves—because of the nuns’ warning not to touch. Not even with the heart.

I had no idea what she was talking about, except that I wondered now and then what it would be like to touch her, perhaps when she was asleep and not so sad. I was almost fifteen and curious about bodies, not the least about my own. In a moment of questionable trust, I told my father I found myself wondering about women’s bodies. He took his pipe out of his mouth and told me that was all right and natural enough, and then said with a humpf that I shouldn’t get anyone pregnant.

That remark caused me embarrassment, and I think I blushed—which made it harder for me to see myself as the man my father was. He had seen straight into my deepest secret, which, when I look back on it, overwhelmingly had to do with Nature’s plot to make babies.

My Aunt’s name was Georgina, and I suppose she wasn’t much older than twenty-five at the time. She already had a reputation in our family for not being responsible, for herself or anything else. She forgot to take things off the stove and didn’t tighten the tops of jars, so you had to be careful that the contents—oatmeal, for example, or popcorn—gripped  by their lids, didn’t slip away and crash on the straight-grained fir floor of our kitchen, creating two messes, not just one.

Georgina loved my mother’s guava punch—a fruit that was shipped from Florida each winter by her brother Antonio, and that arrived only half rotten. Georgina would carry her cup into the unheated front parlor and add sherry to it. She let me try it, and I thought it was awful, except that it made her a little less concerned about the young men in Ireland that still, at age forty, lived with their mothers and spent too much time in the pubs drinking Guinness and listening to fiddlers rattle their strings with angry jigs and reels, all the while complaining that Ireland should be fighting on the side of the Germans.

One evening near Christmas, my parents drove away in their 1943 Ford station wagon through falling snow to a cocktail party at the end of a dark New England road, to the house of two German bachelors, Herbie and Hans Wanders, who never spoke German, because of the war. That left me and Georgina alone in the house. A pot of guava punch sat thinking at the edge of the stove top. Georgina pushed it with one of the burnt crows to where it would heat up—with me watching her. Then she poured herself a cup and headed for the front parlor. I followed since, in many regards, she was my leader. She clicked on the phonograph, its orange eye lit up and, with another click, the plastic arm came alive and dropped the needle onto Edith Piaf’s “C’est lui que mon Coeur a choisi”—He’s the One My Heart Has Chosen.

I didn’t understand a word of it, and I’m pretty sure she didn’t either. We sat next to each other, with just the light of a distant street light, on the small settee upholstered in pale flowers, with our hips practically touching, and passed the cup—now fortified with my mother’s cheap sherry—back and forth, and I tried not to stare at my Aunt’s knees, which had somehow glided forward from the edge of her corduroy skirt and, at least to my memory, gleamed as if touched by moonlight.

The more I drank of the awful brew, the more I thought about things. How I too was still living with my mother—as well as my father—and how it was somehow wrong to be drawn to my aunt’s exposed knees. The punch made me warm all over, at the same time that I felt perched on the edge of nausea. The song was a walz and very emotional, and right then Georgina took hold of my jaw, brought my head up and around toward hers, and gave me what I think must have been a very un-Catholic kiss square on my lips.

I stared shocked into her eyes, at that moment lit up by the headlights of my parent’s Ford which, returning early, crunched to a halt the front of the house. The bridge over Prospect Creek, on the way to the Wanders, had collapsed, and my parents had seen the gaping black hole just in time and had stayed only long enough to drag brush across the road to warn motorists coming from the same direction. Back in the kitchen, while my mother studied us with a curious expression—possibly suspecting loose lids, my father marched to the phone on the wall, told all the listening busybodies to get off the goddam line and called the police about the fallen bridge.

Georgina, as it turned out, left for New York on the morning train and returned by ship to Ireland, which zigzagged all the way, she wrote, to avoid the torpedoes of German U-Boats. And I went on to lead a life only occasionally drawn to sherry, and more often to guava in any form—for its intoxicating smell. I no longer live with my mother, and I often thought of Georgina and her knees, until I met my first love—and then, like the men of Ireland, I forgot her.

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She sat down in front of me, in one of the hundred or so metal chairs that the municipality had put out in the Veracuz’s Zócalo, facing the Porfirio band stand and, behind that, invisible because of night and the curve of the earth, one of the highest volcanoes in Central Mexico. I did not notice her particularly until she leaned forward and began putting on a pair of strapped dancing shoes. The heels were high but also broad enough to provide stable contact with the black and white tiles of the plaza. I suppose it’s the kind of thing I notice, a woman crossing one bare leg over the other, slipping on one shoe, then the other, in public, for dancing. For that was what the crowd had gathered for – for danzón – but mostly just to watch.

I realized I had seen her before, in fact on that very morning, in an old established restaurant, with high ceilings, slowly turning fans. She had been dressed in waitress black, with a lacy white apron in front, her urraca-black hair pulled back in a bun, low shoes, un-shined, a woman of forty, maybe a little bit more, with white teeth, dark eyebrows, full lips, and a chin that fell away toward her long neck – a beauty who was a mixture of an ancient New World people, and Spanish or Portuguese blood, at least in my imagination. She reminded me also of a friend, who is Otomi from the State of Veracruz – which would very likely make her the recent descendent of a people who had been resisting the genocidal policies of government for the last four or five hundred years.

I had ordered tea, “con la bolsa al lado,” the bag to one side. I intended to use my own bag of green tea instead. She also brought me muffins, cupcakes really, sweet yellow things – which I had not ordered. I assumed it was an establishment obligation. That one couldn’t just order tea without having something else.

I had watched her clear tables, then serve a table of important businessmen next to me, who had skin much lighter than hers. I watched for signs of condescension. I did not see any. I watched for interest they might have in her pleasing figure, her striking face, and darker skin. The only person who showed any real interest was myself. I do not know why particularly. But in retrospect, I suspect it was because of her dignity, also because of my ignorance about her city, her culture, the complexities of her life.

Because she had brought them to me, and because I break my rules at the slightest provocation, I ate all three cupcakes. I read my La Jornada, Mexico’s national opposition newspaper. I watched her when she passed by.

When I had to go, I asked for the bill. She brought it in a little basket. I pointed to the three empty crumb-covered red cupcake papers. “Qué mala tentación fue eso!” I said, in my Spanish. “What an wicked temptation that was!” For a moment, I wasn’t sure she had understood either my Spanish or my way of conversing with people in general, or both.

Then her faced changed and she said, in good humor, “Ah, but now they’re gone, and it’s all over.”

I’m not even sure she met my eyes as she said this, gathering up my dishes – and not the moment later, when she took my fifty-peso note, nor the moment after that, when she returned my change.

Now, in the Zócalo, she was wearing a below-the-knee black dress with small red flowers, perhaps hibiscus. Her urraca-black hair fell shoulder length. I watched the dancers, then her, while she sat in her metal folding chair, in front of me. It seemed evident she had come to dance danzón, but she was not dancing. She watched dancers. I watched, too, trying to understand their steps, the way couples seemed to know to pause, now and then, for a whole beat. At times, I suppose signaled by the music, the dancers concluded a series of steps, then separated, still holding hands, and faced the band stand.

A man had approached. His skin was lighter than hers. She stood up to greet him. He had not dressed up to quite the same extent. In fact, he had not changed from his work clothes, which were lightly covered with stone dust. He had passed something over his black work shoes, but that was all.

I tried to measure his relationship with her. There was something reserved about it. But that is also the nature of danzón. Formal movements from French contra dance, later passing through Haiti, then Cuba, arriving at this port city of fine coffee, high ceiling fans, coral walls, grand buildings in black and white stone, and handsome women.

They danced, formally, but with no more than two hand widths between them. They looked each other in the eye. They floated through a variety of steps, sliding rather than stepping into the next position. One, one-two. One, one-two. That is, one long step, followed by two quick steps – here and there, the infinitesimal hesitations.

I could not tell how well they knew each other. That was, I decided, the key to danzón. Public, formal, the hint of sensuality, understated, completely proper. He seemed handsome, not because he was, but because of how he held himself, and what he knew. He directed her firmly. She followed. He looked into her eyes, she into his, both with a respect and appreciation, and both smiling. Not broadly, rather from muted pleasure. She was elegant in her high heels and her hibiscus dress. Of those who danced or watched, they were not from the highest social class. But, of the fifteen or so couples that danced, it was clear the audience found them the most striking.

At the end of a song – how many had they danced? Two, three? He escorted her back to her metal chair. She did not sit. She watched him pick up his dusty backpack and put it on. He put on his baseball cap, faded olive, with a frayed visor. He held out his hand. She held out hers. He leaned forward, slowly, and kissed her on the cheek. She held his elbow. There was a moment, when she seemed to resist his leaning away again. He said something, without smiling, and she said something back, still holding his hand. And then their hands drew apart, and he turned away. I saw him retrieve an old black bicycle from one of the great palm trees at the south edge of the Zócalo and, pushing it, move out of sight behind the wall of onlookers.

She had sat down again. I watched her. I watched the dancers. The band, up in the bandstand, played more Cuban-Mexican tunes. I stood no more than ten feet from her. At one point, I glanced over and saw her looking at me. I held her gaze longer than I usually do with a woman I don’t know. Perhaps because I felt I knew her, even though I didn’t know her. I looked back at the dancers. She got up. I saw her moving, in the corner of my eye. She was going to pass close by. She stopped in front of me. She pointed at a spot on my chest, then toward the other dancers.

“No puedo,” I said. “I don’t know how.”

She reached out for my hand. She led me out away from the spectators. She showed me the simple box step, and eventually, when she said “Pausa!” – with the accent on the last syllable – I learned to pause at the end of the series of one, one-two’s.

We danced two dances. She looked in my eyes. I looked into hers. I saw friendliness, generosity, pleasure, and a suggestion of intimacy that was not intimacy at all. Something I did not understand. When the music stopped, she walked us back to her chair. I stood along side, awkwardly, as she changed her shoes, crossing first one leg, then the other. She carefully put the shoes in a cheap plastic bag with handles. She put on her scuffed black low heel shoes. She stood up, a little shorter now, and held out her hand. Several older women, on both sides of us, were taking it in – watching, but not intrusively. She said, “Gracias!” I said “Gracias!” and bowed slightly at the waste, the way my mother taught me. She held my hand an instant longer. “Qué mala tentación fue, pero ya se terminó,” she said. A strong temptation, but now it’s over – with a look in her eye, a little bit of mischief, a trace of sadness.

I nodded.

“Not the muffins,” I said.

“No,” she said, and gave my hand a little squeeze.

“And not me,” I grinned.

“No, not you, either.” That made her smile. She dropped my hand, but leaned forward, and kissed me on the cheek. Then she picked up the thin plastic sack with her dancing shoes, and walked in the opposite direction to the one her dance partner had taken, with his old black bicycle.

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Before becoming a finalist (not the winner) in the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award, I tried to pitch my collection of short stories to some five university presses and publishers. Only Cinco Puntos Books, I think, took the effort to read my book proposal.

The exercise was very worthwhile in any case, since I was forced to think about my own writing and describe it.

For those of you who might be interested in this process, or in a context for reading my stories, or in Mexico generally, I include portions of the book proposal, in a kind of question–answer format, for ease of reading.

What is the collection about, in a nutshell?

Along the lines of Quinones’ True Tales of Another Mexico, my manuscript called Foreground – a collection of twenty-seven short stories – focuses on a Mexico where cataclysmic events erupt, where war, mob hysteria, sudden dark preoccupations, collapsing structures, and anarchy lie just below generosity, intelligence, humor, and stubborn patience.

My stories reflect two Mexicos. In the first, modern freeways connect major cities, with their Costcos and Radio Shacks. But beside the highways, beyond the shopping centers, advanced health centers, tourist hotels and beaches, across the mountains, covering the entire country, there is a parallel world of human, horse and burro paths, still used, which connect villages, milpas (corn patches), memory, hunger, love, loss, and war. This is the deep indigenous landscape of the Mexican psyche from which comes the vocabulary of poetry, song, food, folk medicine, and art – a landscape as essential to Mexicans as the forests of New England were to the Transcendentalists. This landscape is vulnerable to extinction by modern institutions, both legal and illegal. Big media, government, business monopolies, and the church point away from deep landscape, while using its customs and images for their own narratives. The state does not invest in its human capital. Farmers give up and move to urban poverty. Rural and urban youth turn to the drug cartels, or cross the border to the North, in both case at great risk.

These two Mexicos – deep culture and modernizing culture, and the tensions that build between them – form the background tectonic rumble, as I write my stories about the good, intelligent, generous, and hard working people I live among.

What about research?

Since this is not a non-fiction book, I choose to re-define the word research, as it applies to my work. Non-fiction, it seems, acquires a body of knowledge, through research, in order to explore an area of interest. A fiction work begins with the storyteller’s story, which may be triggered by something experienced or read. After the story has been told, then the research commences, in order to strengthen the credibility of the tale.

As for the first step in my process, as in Boccaccio’s Decameron, I tell my stories to someone. I write them at a wobbly coffeehouse table, surrounded by university students (not the plague), in the presence of my Mexican writing partner – each week. I read them to him immediately, then often embed them in a framework story later. That is the second step, layering time, place, and narrator.

A third step is listening to my Mexican writing partner. I have suffered his wisdom at all points, for a long time. If a there is a unique flavor to my stories, it is because of what I have learned from him, from his confirmations and re-directions. It also helps to have studied Spanish for twenty-five years, with very special people, reading the local and national Mexican press, and opening myself to the knowledge of Mexican friends, especially those in Michoacán.

What have reviewers said about the stories?

Fred Hills, a former Editor-in-Chief of McGraw-Hill and subsequently Vice President and Senior Editor at Simon and Schuster, who had edited Raymond Carver and William Saroyan, worked with Vladimir Nabokov, and published the Nobel Laureate Heinrich Böll, read five of my stories and wrote these ringing words:

“Sterling Bennett is a beguiling and gifted writer, a virtuoso who intrigues and fascinates, like a poet whose work suggests more than can be fully grasped or absorbed in a single sitting, or a single reading. The world he evokes is a strange and sometimes enchanting place, but also dark, bewildering, even unfathomable. Where one cannot easily walk away from this writer, where he is clearly a considerable talent.”

On the other hand, the person that advanced me to a finalist position in the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award wrote the following less ringing note to his/her fellow judges,

“Historical search stories triggered mostly by old parchments, manuscripts, letters, records in libraries or family drawers when someone dies. Most shorts, in a 19th Century style of writing. German, Mexican, French stories about the diaspora in Mexico after WWII. Much flashback about WWII, structured as straight narrative about past events, little embellishment. Layering of metaphysical on these events feels unearned to me, definitely sentimental, but the events themselves are mesmerizing.”

I have to give this critic credit for having found me out as moonlighting in the 19th Century. Except that my style itself is a little more modern. It is true, though, that my approach was partially formed by a career of teaching 19th and 20th century German short story writers: Tieck, Kleist, Keller (Swiss), Droste-Hülshoff, Goethe, and Mann. From Goethe’s “Novelle,” 1828, I take the idea of the Wendepunkt, the turning point, and the concept of eine sich ereignete unerhörte Begebenheit, a unexpected unheard of event – often also the moment of transition between predictable order and chaos.

What about your voice and style?

Being my own graduate student, in this case, I would define my voice and style as the following: the unique choice of image, cadence, sound, sentence structure, juxtaposition, speed of flow; and plot – where I see the storyteller (inside me) moving like a snake through a field, choosing his path with a kind of revealed inner logic. Then there is the dimensionality of words – as in the story “The Hair and the Heart,” when Miguel Angel and Claudia make love on floating vegetation, hidden by rushes from the entire Purépecha town, with “… warm dark water seeping up through the reed bed…” touching their bodies. With the background question, from the very beginning of time: How many young lovers have done that along the shores of lakes? The formation of character; and, finally, the right painterly strokes in description, so that the reader can complete an image and see it fully with less information. Luis Alberto Urrea does this with great skill in The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

I add humor, irony, a sense of plot and action. I populate various stories with family names (as does Luis Alberto Urrea in The Hummingbird’s Daughter), usually uncles and grandfathers, partly in efforts to re-invent family, partly, – I suppose – to fill the yawning silence on the male side. I like to think that my stories contain universal themes, and that the events I describe – often discordant with habits of reason, order, and predictability – are events that happen everywhere, and to all peoples, with local variation. And that a good yarn can deepen and humanize a view of another people, and thus inform as well as entertain.

What would you say to the timeliness and appeal of your stories?

I have always thought the U.S. served as the spiritual backyard of the German imagination. Mexico may serve the same purpose, though a darker one, for the U.S. imagination. Most Americans know something about Mexican language, beer and beaches. Far fewer have a grasp of Mexico profundo – the foundation of generosity, intelligence, humor, and patience. Many equate Mexico with danger, a perception that repels, but also attracts. Americans need to know about their neighbor to the south: about its cultures, histories, languages, and what’s going on right now, and how Americans are involved: the drug wars are fueled, for example, by U.S. consumption of drugs and the U.S. sale of weapons to the drug cartels. They need to know, for example, that at the end of the Mexican-American War 1846-48, Mexico was forced to concede (the U.S. occupied Mexico City) 55% of its prewar territory to the U.S., including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and parts of Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. Many Mexicans remember this historical fact, while few Americans do. The overflow of Mexico into the U.S. is an old and continuing process (see John Ross’s book The Annexation of Mexico, 1998). Poverty and the leadership’s lack of interest in providing jobs and education drive the courageous and hopeful toward the U.S. border or into the hands of the narco-cartels, who will supply jobs.

Who would you say you are writing for?

I have always written with the idea of sharing my stories with an audience. I have read to live audiences for something like the last thirty years. It is very hard to answer whom the storyteller is writing for, in the moment of writing. The only analogy that comes to mind is the compulsive liar, who fabricates seamlessly, for almost anyone. The storyteller’s audience, then, is anyone who is listening.

Who will buy this book?

Well, clearly the paper book publishers decided no one would buy it, at least to the extent that they the publishers would make any money. In a sense, this may have been a good thing for me, in a time of changing fortunes for paper book publishing. It would appear that eBooks are the future or, one could argue, the present. E-publishing removes the skeptical or uninterested gatekeepers. The potential for audience – the whole point of writing, in my opinion – greatly increases, if the writing is good and readers recommend it to other readers; and if the proper links are placed, which direct new readers to the site. The stories, I have decided, should be free. In the meantime, the only English language publisher in Mexico has picked up and published my novel Playing for Pancho Villa, a novel expanded out of my short story “Mr. Leibniz and the Avocado.” Playing for Pancho Villa was available for purchase in Mexico as of February 2, 2013 (www.editorialmazatlan.com) and will be available in the U.S. market in April, 2013, wherever books are sold, Amazon, Kindle etc.

Who would read the stories as a eCollection?

People who like a short, complete, well-written, yarn; retirees sniffing out Mexico; travelers; expatriates in Mexico, who are beginning to look more closely at where they are living; readers with limited time (most of us); readers beginning to focus on Mexico because of the Bicentennial (Independence 1810) and because of the hundred-year anniversary of the Mexican Revolution (1910); and because of growing fiercely politicized immigration issues; students, at all levels, of Mexican social and political affairs. Anyone with a Kindle, lying on their side, reading for a few minutes before sleep pulls down their lids.

Who else writes stories (novels) about Mexico that you would recommend?

Well, I would include Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Hummingbird’s Daughter, for its wonderful voice and writing; its compelling images of end of the 19th century Mexico. Every writer runs across another writer who he or she thinks is threateningly good. Urrea is that for me. I recommend him highly.

Then there’s Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, but especially the collection of short stories El Llano en Llamas (The Burning Plain), which takes us down into México profundo as unerringly as an hungry burro going home; I know of no one – Mexican or otherwise – who can match his vision and language, when it comes to very deep Mexico. Nellie Campobello’s Cartucho comes close to it. Not to be missed is Cate Kennedy’s Sing, And Don’t Cry: A Mexican Journal – a passionate and loving observation of life and lives in rural Mexico.

Who are other expatriates writing from Mexico?

This is the specific group for comparison and includes: John Reed, Mexico Insurgent, 1914, a work that is Homeric, accurate, and beautifully written. This is a wonderful book. Not recent, but timeless.

Then there’s B. Traven, especially his story “Macario.” His writing answers the question: Can an expatriate write about the deep culture of the country he or she is living in? I think the answer is yes.

Daniel Reveles with his Tequila, Lemon, and Salt honors the Mexican village and its characters, with great generosity.

I highly recommend C.M. Mayo’s (the 1995 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award winner) collection of short stories Sky over El Nido, especially the remarkable stories there: “The Wedding” and “Rainbow’s End,” which show the collision between Mexico profundo and Mexico imaginario. And, of course, her novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, with lines like: “… in the night the crows flew to Mexico, to feed on dead soldiers. In the day, they digested the flesh.” Writers and historians should make regular visits to her blog at madammayo.blogspot.com.

Last, I would include Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, stories, from Mexico, edited by C.M. Mayo, 2006, especially the story “The Green Bottle,” by Ricardo Elizondo Elizondo, which echoes the grinding hopelessness (and beauty) of Juan Rulfo’s El Llano en Llamas “The Burning Plain.”

Thank you! This has been a wonderful fake interview.

You’re welcome!

[To read the stories, go to the sidebar on this blog and pull down “2011 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award finalist collection “Foreground.”] Two sample chapters out of Playing for Pancho Villa are also near to top of the list on this blog.

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I woke up more than once last night to consider who was speaking inside me. Three men had been walking out along a point of land, toward a drop-off. It is rainy and cold. The men wear jackets. Two of them hold a woman between them. She is dressed in a long T-shirt—nothing more. Her hair falls across her face. She stumbles, barefoot, over things that hurt.

It is a garbage dump, at night, perhaps an hour before dawn . Depending on your understanding of the world, at some point you realize they are going to execute her. She is slender and young and at a time in her life when she could, if she wanted to, start a family. She has already suffered. I am wondering how long it will be before a she realizes what they are going to do. Her two escorts release her arms and drop back away from her. She picks her way forward, unsteady, docile. She reaches the edge of the place where trucks, by daylight, puffing diesel, stop backing up and dump the city’s waste.

I want her to jump, dive over the edge, take her chances, roll, fall, plunge this way and that, down, down, head over heels, too far down, behind too much debris, maybe buried by a wall of rot, old beer and diaper shit, and out of sight.

And she lies still, and the three men—with skin brown like hers and speaking the same language—decide, “Fuck it, we’re not going to ruin our clothes going down there.” And so they fire a few bursts with their AK 47s at the spot they figure she is, then walk back to their pickup, vowing to do it differently next time.

“Arrodíllate,” says the one man coming along behind her—almost gently. Kneel. But she turns around instead and faces him. The T-shirt clings to her body, to her private breasts and a her private belly. She pushes the hair out of her face. She is already half destroyed. “Okay,” says the man, “it’s alright”—and stands sideways, as if it’s Saturday morning and he’s at the shooting range. Except that he’s standing six feet away from her and lifts a .45, .38, .32, .22 or 9mm, pointing over her head, then brings it down, starting to pull the trigger just as the Sig Sauer, Smith & Wesson, Beretta, Colt, Glock, Springfield, Remington, Mauser, Browning, Walter, Ruger, or Luger is almost level with the top of her head.

Nothing happens. Perhaps he is reconsidering, reading her blood- and snot-smeared, non-reacting face. She reaches up to wipe her mouth. Her hand trembles too much. She brings it down. Maybe he tells her to jump backward over the edge of the garbage drop-off. Save yourself, girl.

The gun jumps instead, there is a black hole in her forehead like blackberry crushed flat, without juice. She leans backward, a gymnast starting a backward flip. The man lowers the .45, .38, .32, .22, or 9mm. She arches—a summer girl letting herself fall backward off a warm rock into a clear river pool.

She lies on her back, floating on garbage. The shirt no longer covers the dark hair where her legs meet. I know if I walk closer, after the men leave, I will see they have destroyed her twice-over.

I roll over and rest my leg on the woman I live with and love. She sleeps deeply, floating on her back. The weight of my leg does not interrupt her sleep. She is warm, and smooth, and as troubled as the rest of us. If I try to switch positions and move my leg away, she reaches up out of her sleep and holds my knee where it is—above the dark hair where her legs meet.

I try again—having the young woman awaken from her stupor and leap over the edge. She tumbles down through the shredded plastic and soggy cardboard and pig shit, down through the fleeing rats and styrofoam and rotten vegetables, that have not yet been found and eaten. The bullet sends her reeling backward, and I turn, carefully, so that I don’t pull the covers, and lay my leg over my love. The pigs listen. There may be more to eat.

The horror is deep, my love is warm. I almost fall asleep. He still hasn’t reached her. I urge her to save herself, but when they have you, there is seldom any escape. “Wake up,” she mumbles, as if she has rocks in her mouth, weeping. “See the moment of my extinction, see the dark stump of the tongue they have cut from me…and the mouth below—made for love of my choosing—ripped by their anger and triumph. Watch how they raise the gun, bring it down, and take my summers away from me forever.”

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Those before me came first from New England and then later from Arizona, where my great-grandfather Edwin and his wife Sarah went broke during the depression of 1890. That was when the Apaches of San Carlos, on the Fort Apache Reservation, east of Globe, began to starve and came and stood in silent lines at Sarah’s back door, where–day after day–in sunlight and drizzle and drifting powder snow she gave away all the food they had, over and over, cooked and served each time in the same few blue enameled dishes until they, she and Edwin, had no money and also began to starve.

The winter of 1890-91 saw the price of silver fall and the winter hard and cold, endless in its duration, with coughs and fever stalking them, finally driving them to their bed, where they huddled and shivered and clung to each other, too weak to go for help. The lines of starving Apaches thinned and disappeared, until there was only the sound of the wind at the back door.

A day passed, then two, and on the third a young Chiricahua sat astride a horse, leaned to look through the window of the bedroom and rapped twice–each time, a rap rap–then silence. The horse stomped and stepped forward, then backward. My great-grandparents heard something hit the ground–a man in moccasins. They heard the door push open, movement in the front room, and then they saw a young face looking through the bedroom door.

Soon a fire was burning in the kitchen stove, and heat–at first just the sound of it–stole cat-like through the door into their bedroom. They heard plates banging, the sounds of cooking, and then the young Indian appeared with two bowls of beef soup with pieces of fried bread floating on top.

The boy helped them sit up, spooned from one bowl into two mouths, then spooned from the second bowl till that too was gone. He lay them back to sleep, covered them with a hide blanket he had brought, put a pitcher of water near the bed–then faded away. They heard the sound of horse’s hooves on frozen ground, and then there was silence again.

On the following day, they heard the sound of more horses. Over the next several days, some say as many as twenty Chiricahua entered the house. They were warmly dressed and snow-dusted. A few of them had come all the way from of Agua Prieta and the mountains to the south–and deeper into Mexico. It was a place where the dangers of the coming hunger had been anticipated and food had been set aside for those in need.

Three grown women–one quite old–stayed with my great-grandparents for a week, nursing them and cooking. They stuffed the open chinks in walls with bits of old blankets to keep out the cold. The young man, whose name was Walks With Snow, also came and went, bringing food–once a calf, which the women rendered and cooked and shared with Sarah and Edwin–and with other Chiricahua.

When Sarah and Edwin could walk again, without the Indians’ help, the women rolled up their sleeping robes and rode away with Walks With Snow. But first there was hugging all around and tears and thanks–from both sides because the Chiricahuas were the relatives of the starving San Carlos Apaches whom Sarah and Edwin had helped survive.

The Chiricahua had not been gone more than a day, two at the most, when the sheriff from Globe arrived, with six heavily armed men, looking for an Indian who had been taking calves from the vast 40,000-section Madison holding on the south bank of the Salt River, twelve miles to the northwest.
Edwin, who had been a brevet colonel in the Civil War, on the Union side, and who was at home on horses, accepted one from the sheriff, and agreed it was wrong to steal. He said he would lead them where he was sure they’d find the thief and took them–even in his weakened state–some fifty miles due north, in the opposite direction from the route the Chiricahua had taken toward the Mexican border.

At some point, my great-grandfather said he was too faint to continue and they would have to go on without him. He told the sheriff he would return the horse as soon as he could. He was sure, he said, they would find their man camped beside a certain stream which meandered vaguely northwest through a land he made sound real and distinct and so plausible that the party rode some twenty miles more before they gave up and took a short cut back to Globe and to the warm fires of their snug and–because they were really mostly shopkeepers and merchants–still fairly prosperous homes.

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