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The power struggle in the Mexico City dump has driven them north to Tijuana

Work is a vow heaven never ignores

"He isn’t going to stay in the trash. He has that new house to build." - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
"He isn’t going to stay in the trash. He has that new house to build."

Five a.m., and the sounds of sleeping fill the house. Dona Juana rises first, climbing from the slumping bed as Don Manuel snores lightly, the swollen knuckles on his left hand glistening in the dull light as blood seeps from the cracks in his leathery skin.

He, like everyone else, calls her Juanita, Little Juana, which has nothing to do with size and everything to do with affection. You could say it means My Little Juana.

"They blend with the garbage, become invisible for a moment against the camouflage."

Dona Juana sleeps in her clothes. This morning, she wears baggy Levi’s provided by a gringo missionary group, new underpants only worn for two days, and a Metallica T-shirt. Although she can smell Don Manuel and the mists rising from the children and the other sleepers, she can no longer smell herself. Her breasts swing loosely under the T-shirt, long now, and nursed to the point of collapse. Her hair is turning white; lightning bolts seem to cut through her dense rope of hair, swirling down the double-braid in pale corkscrews. She is missing seven teeth, and the sight of her own naked flesh alarms her. She is covered in stretch marks, scars, bites, varicose veins, and pouches of collapsed skin. She is four feet nine inches tall. She is 42 years old.

"And above, in swirling disks, rise the thousands of gulls."

She pulls on a battered pair of Keds dock shoes and pads out of the bedroom on her new cement floor. Manuel saved up and bought two sacks of cement. He and the neighbors made a party out of it, mixing and pouring the floor. One corner sags, but the rest of it is pretty flat. She must have one of the girls sweep; orange peels, paper, dirt collect in the corners. She shakes her head. It’s impossible to keep house. She has two rooms and a kitchen to care for. It’s too much.

"The dump itself is a vast scatter of bright specks."

She pulls aside the blanket that serves as a door as she passes into the front room. The bedroom wall wobbles when she walks through the doorway. Manuel and the boys hammered it together out of scrap wood, paper, cardboard boxes, and some water-warped rocanrol posters. Small pictures of Jesus, saints, and the Virgen de Guadalupe adorn the wall and cover holes. The only other decoration, in a cheap wooden frame bought in the Woolworth’s downtown (they pronounce it “Goolgoort’s”), is Manuel’s certificate of military service. He left the Army a full private, and the paper’s multicolored filigree looks important to the family. It is important, an accomplishment recognized by the government. Written on the wall in felt-tipped pen, three inches to the right, is Viva Colosio, Salvador de la Gente. This was written by Lalo, the neighbor, because neither Manuel nor Juanita knows how to write.

Behind her, in a stacked bunk bed and a mattress on the floor, separated from Manuel by a hanging sheet, 13 people sleep in a room 12 feet by 10 feet. Of these 13, 7 are her own children; one daughter among them, little Perla, is seven months pregnant. Another, Don Manuel, is her husband. Two are grandchildren. One is the boyfriend of her eldest daughter, and the last two are cousins recently arrived from the garbage dumps in Mexico City.

The power struggle in the Mexico City dump has driven them north to Tijuana. The warring mafias that control the trash are locked in a subterranean godfather scenario. The ancient Don who ruled the trash and the trash pickers has died, and his progeny have divided into factions, each of them battling to be King of the Trash.

Gunmen and goon squads are recruiting supporters, and in its own small way, the Mexico City dump has become as complex and dangerous as the old revolution. Trash pickers have had to become political analysts to survive. Like many tiny Latin American nations, the Mexico City dump has become too harsh for its citizens. They’re heading north.

The young couple sleeping together in a bottom bunk move together under the blankets and slyly make love, rocking gently so as not to wake the others. One of the cousins, however, lies quietly in his bed and watches her face as the blanket pulls away, watches her eyes roll up, close. Then a smile crosses her lips. She opens her eyes and looks right at him. He blushes, ducks his head.

He hears her gasp. He thinks of home.

His name is Braulio.

The missionaries have given Dona Juana a small Coleman two-burner stove. Manuel has converted the white-gas tank into a small propane system. Every week Manuel has the tank recharged downtown at the propane tank yards. Tijuana does not have a gas system like San Diego’s. Each house has a silver or white tank outside, and anyone who has grown up in Tijuana is used to the hollow ring of the tanks being loaded on and off trucks. Gas, like potable water, is delivered by ugly trucks from the 1950s and early 1960s. On delivery day, the rusty clanging can be heard up and down the street. It’s a homey sound, as sentimental as a gringo’s memory of tinkling milk bottles on the porch — Mexican sounds, like the sound of the ice-cream man’s bell as he pushes his little two-wheel cart along the street, the mailman’s harsh whistle that sounds almost like a toy train. Dona Juana, of course, knows none of these sounds.

She turns the stove’s key and is amazed, afraid a little, as if this were some sorcery, and it probably is, because who has ever heard of such a thing. She ponders the ice that forms along the gas-feed line. Wads of frost make a snowball where the line joins the burners. “Leave it to gringos,” she will say, “to make ice from fire.”

They have no sink. Manuel built her a counter out of a plywood plank. Later he cut a hole in it and put a plastic tub down the hole to hold the plates. Manuel, she thinks, is a genius. He can build anything. The counter is covered with filthy plates, caked and clotted with grease and old food. Flies already work the corners of the kitchen; her one frying pan still has a fistful of fried rice and tomato in it. It has dried a sickly orange, and the flies walk over it, prod their suckers into it, and settle their rear ends deep among the hard kernels. She waves at them abstractedly, takes the pan to the front door, and dumps the rice on the dusty ground. There, her piglet and a small dog fight for a bite.

No water. She hasn’t bathed in a week, and there has been no water to wash things since... she can’t remember. Their one water bottle, a five-gallon glass jug mounted on a metal frame, is half empty. She grabs the neck of the jug, tips it, and pours cloudy water into the coffee pot.

The smell of coffee, she knows, will awaken Manuel.

And their day can begin.


5:30 a.m.

Don Manuel rises slowly, puts his feet on the paper-thin green carpet beside the bed, and rests his head in his hands. He has a hangover, but it’s not from drinking. He doesn’t know what has gotten into his head, but in the mornings there is a nauseating ache behind his forehead. It feels green to him somehow. His ears hum and his joints ache. But he won’t say anything. They can’t afford the doctor, and it embarrasses him to go to the missionaries. And besides, doctors are for children and women.

He sits and thinks over his list of chores for the day. Is there anything he missed yesterday? For a moment, he feels a bolt of panic — did he remember to get new rags for Juanita? It is her month again, and he promised to get her some clean cloths to make the pad. He feels a surge of adrenaline inside his body; this too is new, this sense of panic. Juanita and her blood spilling out of her like life itself. Most couples don’t talk of these things, but he and his old woman like to talk. Maybe that’s what gives him the hangovers — staying up too late, whispering.

There was a time, sure, when he went astray. He had sex with six women in the neighborhood, and he knows that black Cuquis bore him a son.

But suddenly, and he can’t explain it, Juanita became dear to him again. She was cutting the head off a chicken, and he immediately realized he loved her. She seemed so small to him then, so brave in the morning sun. The blood flew all over her arms, glistening like jewels. Though he has no word for glisten, he can imagine what jewels in the sun would look like. Like sparkling red water.

His compadre Lalo, two shacks down, says Juanita put a love hex on Manuel. “Nobody falls back in love with their wives,” he tells Manuel. “Not after all the women we have had. She gave you the agua de coco. ” Manuel shudders. Agua de coco (coconut water), a brew of menses mixed with the coffee. Which brings him back to Juana’s period, and he remembers that he collected several lengths of white terry cloth at the recycling center, and she carefully folded them into pads right here on the bed. “I will be dry soon,” she told him.

“No more blood. No more rags. I’m an old woman.”

“No more sons?” he said.

She shook her head.

Thank God, she was thinking, but she didn’t tell him that.

When they had them, paper towels and napkins were the best lining to put inside the cloth pads. They could be thrown away, and the pads could last twice as long. But this month there are no napkins.

Some gringa missionaries brought down things the women stick inside themselves, but who ever heard of such a thing? They must have been Protestants. It was an insult and probably some kind of sin. Manuel didn’t know about these Cristianos sometimes. The women had shamefully burned the terrible little objects after the missionaries were gone. They wouldn’t even let the children use the plastic parts for toys.

Oh, well.

Manuel stretches, winces, and gets out of bed.


Braulio, the cousin from Mexico City, silently rises behind Manuel. He loves the morning, when he can think for a minute. He says his prayers, not only to Jesus and la Virgen, but to the saint of his almost forgotten village in Michoacan. He can’t remember the saint’s name, but he can remember her face, carved in wood, her slight smile, her flaking, blue-painted eyes.

Braulio sits in the dull light and watches the faces of the children as they start to stir. Like the morning, he loves the children. He dreams of a family of his own. His fantasies include detailed plans for a new tarpaper shack. Something beautiful, something sophisticated, with a covered walkway to the outhouse and actual glass in the windows. He has figured that a central open space can be used for fires, and those fires can not only light the main room but warm the house. He can’t quite figure out how to get the smoke out without leaving an opening in the roof for rain to come in. He sees the fire in his mind. The dirt floor. The small pen in the kitchen for the ducks and chickens. It is a perfect house. When he has paper, he sketches it, placing the imaginary furniture and children in the paper rooms.

Braulio touches the face of the little girl awakening beside him. She snuffles and grimaces and slaps at his hand, rolls over. He smiles. He turns and looks across the room. He is in love with little pregnant Perla. The Pearl. The father of the baby went across the border. Perla has been waiting for him to come back, but it’s obvious to everyone, even her, that he won’t return. Braulio doesn’t mind that she’s pregnant. It’s that much more work already done. She already contains his family, if she’ll have him. One day he’s going to have to tell her. But he gets nervous. Love does that to a man. Besides, the thought of tasting her milk arouses him, and he’s sure she can sense his deviant thoughts, and it makes him feel shame. He prays to the saint to remove these desires from his heart. And he looks at Perla’s smoky face and her stiff explosion of black hair on the coat she uses for a pillow, and he sighs.

Was there ever a more beautiful girl?


6:00 a.m.

“Do we have anything to eat, vieja?” Manuel asks.

“No, viejo.”

She pours him a cup of black coffee.

“Doughnuts?”

She pulls back her hair.

“Manuel,” she says, “you know those were for the children.”

“And who has to work like a mule all day?” he snaps. “The children or me?” He sips his coffee. “Besides,” he says, “today is bath day. They’ll get more donas. ”

She sucks at her teeth for a moment, then says, “You’re right.” Today the missionaries are coming. She has a crush on the pastor, elfamoso hermano, but he doesn’t even know she exists. Still, she’d like to be home just to see him. A little flirting never hurt anybody. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t love her Manuelito. She looks at him, his skinny neck and his huge black mustache. He has gold trim on his teeth. My man, she thinks. But she doesn’t forget her pastor either.

She puts two stiff glazed doughnuts on the table. The missionaries collected them from a Winchell’s in San Diego, and they have laid frozen in a gringo garage for a month.

“I’ll get some beans, too,” she says. “Maybe some potatoes.” He offers her a piece of doughnut. She shakes her head. “It’s all right, viejo. I’m on a diet.”

“Hm,” he grunts. He goes to the door with his cup. “Another hot day,” he says, then steps outside. He sticks his head back in the door and says, “See if the missionaries have any applesauce.”

Ay, Dios,” she replies. “We all know you can’t live without your applesauce.”

“Every parrot to his perch,” he says.

They laugh.

It makes him cough.

He turns back out the door and spits — the tiny dog at his feet barely skips away before he’s hit.


6:15 a.m.

He sees his compadre Lalo standing in the street.

Oye, tu, pinche buey, ” he says.

Vete a la chingada, pinche puto cabron,” Lalo says.

Insults taken care of, they wave and grin.

“What time are you going to work?” Manuel says.

“Now, brother.”

“Well, fuck.”

“No other way,” Lalo shrugs.

“That’s life,” Manuel agrees.

“That’s life.”

“Life.”

“Fucking life.”

“There,” Manuel says, taking one last gulp of coffee, “you have said it all, compa. You don’t have to say another word, because you have said it all right there.”

He steps back inside to pull on his work shoes and collect his tools.


Manuel says to Juanita, “Lalo said pinche life.”

“Ay, Lalo,” she says.

These are Manuel’s work tools:

One pair of battered leather gloves, which he carries tucked into the back pocket of his pants; the way these gloves hang out and dangle is part of garbage-dump fashion. A snappy dresser will have the gloves so worn down that they’re soft, and the fingers should fall flat against the man’s buttocks. Although canvas gloves drape better, leather gloves are preferred.

A baseball cap to keep the sun out of his eyes.

A second pair of pants — loose and dirty dress slacks one size too big. These go on over Manuel’s Levi’s, as a kind of protective skin. They will catch the majority of the dump’s filth and can be peeled off at the end of the day. When there’s water, Juanita can boil them in a tin tub over a fire. If they get too contaminated, Manuel might drop them right there in the trash. Often someone else will come along and pick them up; there are distinct classes among the trash pickers, and some trash pickers pick the castoffs of others.

Along with the second pair of pants, a shirt put on over a relatively clean T-shirt. The same rules apply. The shirt is his second skin.

A bandanna for the sweat and to be worn over the face as an occasional gas mask.

Work shoes.

Bags. Bags are very valuable. Bags are Manuel’s briefcase and his wheelbarrow. He will often tie a rope around his waist and tuck several plastic bags into the rope. The bags, too, can be a fashion statement.

A pole. This pole can be used to stir through the trash, fish items out of a deep pile, or form a flagpole to warn away the drivers of the huge tractors from any spot where Manuel has tucked himself into a rich vein of trash. They’ll see the flag (one of his bags) even if they don’t see him, and he will be spared from a hideous death under the vast iron treads of the machines.

If times are good, he might take a little lunch with him, or he might buy a festering torta or taco from a garbage-dump lunch wagon that brings in its smoky wares. Sneaking in behind the long parade of dump trucks, the lunch wagon pulls off to the side and opens for business. Although relatively far away from the actual garbage, the food is touched by flies and smoke and dust clouds coming out of the trash.

And these are Juanita’s work tools, for she works alongside her man, everyone equal in the garbage:

One clear-plastic produce bag tucked into her underwear and placed between the pads and her clothes.

Otherwise, she is dressed almost exactly like her husband. Except she tucks her canvas gloves into the front of her pants. And she’s worried about her shoes.

“I like these shoes, viejo,” she says. “I hate to ruin them.”

“Put bags on them,” he says.

Estas loco. I’ll look like a fool with my feet in bags.”

“That’s true,” he says, buttoning his pants. “You always like to look nice.” He combs his hair. “I have an idea.”

“What.”

“Put white bags over your shoes. That will look really good.” She smiles.

“Yes,” she says. “That’s good. Es muy sexy.”

“Wow!” he says, his favorite word in English.


6:30 a.m.

Braulio steps into the kitchen and says, “Buenos dias.

Buenos dias,” they say in unison.

Braulio dips his head at them, almost a bow. He still feels like an interloper, though they have made him feel at home.

“I know where I can get some eggs,” he says.

“Eggs?” cries Manuel. “Who can afford eggs?”

“No money, mijo, ” she says.

Braulio shows him some coins that he has been storing in his pocket. They lean in and look. Manuel’s eyebrows rise.

“Three gringo quarters,” Braulio says, using the Spanglish word quatahs. “I was going to buy a beer,” he says. “But let’s have eggs.”

“Wow,” Manuel repeats. “Wow. Yeah-yeah.” He’s a hipster. Braulio can’t imagine being as cool as Manuel. “Shit!”

“Shat,” Braulio says.

“No, shit. ”

“Shet.”

No seas pendejo, socio. Shit.”

“Chit!”

Braulio rushes out to buy a few eggs from one of the neighbors.

“He’s a good boy,” Juanita says.

“He’s bit of a pendejo,” says Manuel, putting on his cap. “But he’s all right.”

Juanita sticks her head into the bedroom and shrieks, “Get up!”


6:45 a.m.

One of the little sisters sits on the floor in a stupor. She can never quite wake up with everyone else. She is still possessed by her dreams and is sometimes so lost in the fog that she urinates in her pants before she manages to get up and go to the hole. She often smells of pee. Manuel calls her huevona, which, loosely translated, means girl with big balls, which somehow means lazy. Braulio picks her up and says, “Let’s have huevos, huevona,” which makes her giggle. Huevos being eggs, as well as balls. So maybe Manuel is saying she’s a brood-hen, sitting on eggs instead of working.

The lovers have already risen from their bunk beds and made their way out the door. They won’t be seen again till evening. Off sniffing glue and smoking mota with the other potheads. Braulio doesn’t know where they get money for the marijuana, though rumor has it that she lets the junkies touch her breasts for trade. Juanita and Manuel have spoken often of throwing the couple out, but they don’t want to betray family.

Braulio and Perla are left in charge of the children.

Everyone else, aside from the potheads, is outside, getting ready for work.


7:15 a.m.

Lalo is parked outside in his pickup, angry again. He’s mad every morning. “Hurry up, cabrones!” he shouts. Every day he wants to leave for work by seven, and every day, everyone meanders around and makes him late. He would go without them, but they each pay him a few cents for rides to and from work. “The worst part about us Mexicans,” he turns and tells Manuel, who is always on time, “is that we’re always late.”

“With any luck,” Manuel replies, “we’ll be late for our graves.”

Lalo lights a cigarette and says, “You call that luck?” Juanita doesn’t want to ride in the cab. She prefers the bed, jammed in comfortably with eight other trash pickers, where she can feel the wind, smell the clean scent of the ocean as they drive, see the bright colors of the segunda, the big outdoor flea market she usually can’t afford to visit. Juanita loves to see the Pacific, sparkling and so blue, just beyond the hills. And the islands right off the coast, looking so close she dreams she can swim to them. Little paradises right by the dompe. And the white flecks of San Diego shine on good days too, like small frozen waves on the beach.

Marilu is having trouble getting on. Juanita reaches down to her and says, “We’re getting old, Mari.”

“Speak for yourself,” Mari says. “I’m just fat.”

They all laugh.

Lalo puts it in gear and does his best to ease over the big rocks in the road.


7:25 a.m.

Lalo is stopped again, cursing and shaking the wheel. He has hit a rock and thrown Hermanita Consuelo face-first against the back window. She is easily 70 years old, though some say she is 80. She wears girlish makeup and low-cut dresses. Her necklines reveal a chest that looks like parchment stretched over chicken bones. Her shiny bodice often reveals the acorn-like stubs of her bosoms. Her lips are always bright crimson, and her cheeks are powdered pale white, and her eyes always bear heavy black pencil lines around them. She has one long orange fang in the front of her mouth.

All of her children are dead, and some of the men in the barrio reportedly sneak in to visit her at night when her husband is asleep. Consuelo still loves la Marilyn Monroe.

She has a bloody nose, and the others in the back have forced Lalo to stop. Hermanita Consuelo is spread out in the bed of the pickup, holding her nose, and all the biddies hover over her and cluck.

Ay,” Consuelo moans. “Ay-ay.”

“Poor little thing,” Mari says. “That mule Lalo broke her nose.”

Another pickup pulls over, and the driver calls out, “Lalo! Who did you kill this time?”

Lalo waves him off.

“A man,” he says, “just can’t get ahead in this world.” Manuel cranes his head around and stares at the tableau behind them.

“Poor old woman,” he says.

“If she doesn’t like the service,” Lalo grumbles, “let her buy her own truck.”

Juanita jumps down.

“I’m going to take the Hermanita back home, all right?” Manuel gets out of the cab and looks in at Hermanita Consuelo.

There is a dark-red cut across the bridge of her nose. Her eyes are loose in her head. Blood everywhere.

“Is she all right?”

Juanita shrugs.

“She will be, if God wills it. But I’m going to take her home. She can’t work like this.”

“All right,” he says. “Maybe the missionaries can fix her.” He puts his hand on Juanita’s arm. “You probably should go home anyway. You know.” He glances at her belly.

“Will you be all right, viejo?”

“Sure. I’ll be able to visit all my girlfriends without you there spying on me all day,” he jokes.

She cocks an eyebrow at him and pulls away.

“Work hard,” she says.

“Like a burro,” he replies.

Manuel watches his woman lead the old hag down the road, and it’s hard to tell what he’s feeling. He’s holding up the commute, but he just stands there. Lalo has given up at this point. All the best spots will be populated by now, and he’s going to have to either sneak around till he finds a gap in the work crews, or he’ll have to shame himself by asking somebody if he can move in beside them. Oh, well. He was planning to make an extra couple of dollars this week for beer. He watches Manuel watching his fat little Juanita. Lalo shakes his head. It’s starting to seem like Manuel thinks they have all day. Like he wants to go home with his wife.

Lalo, watching this scene in his rear-view mirror, says, “Agua de coco. ”


8:30 a.m.

Juanita comes home and finds Perla in the kitchen, talking to Cuquis. Juanita suspects Cuquis of messing around with Manuel, but she can’t prove it. Cuquis has a certain glamour in the neighborhood; she’s from the east coast somewhere and has a weird accent as well as African blood. The only way she could be more exotic is if she had blue eyes and red hair. They stir as Juanita enters, and she says, “Don’t get up.”

She tips herself a glass of water.

“The Hermanita broke her nose.”

They all tsk-tsk over the old woman’s misfortune.

“No work today,” says Cuquis.

Perla is rubbing her belly, She says, “Do you know the weirdest thing about being pregnant?” Cuquis and Juanita, who know all too much about being pregnant, smile.

“The weirdest thing about being pregnant is, well, there’s two things. No, wait — there’s three weirdest things about being pregnant.”

Cuquis snaps, “All right! So what are they?”

Perla sticks her tongue out at Cuquis.

Con esa letigua, ” Cuquis says, “mi perro se lamea el culo. ” It is so obscene that all three women burst out laughing. “Ay, Dios, ” and “Ay, Cuca — no te aguantas!

Perla still wants to talk about her pregnancy. “First,” she says, “it’s my bellybutton. It popped out, like the baby pushed it out.”

Juanita says, “He did push it out, mija. I remember mine poking out. Cuca?”

Cuquis shakes her head.

“I always have a perfect body, even when I’m pregnant.”

Uy-uy,” says Juanita. “You think you’re so hot.”

“I am hot.”

Perla cuts them off. “Now it sticks out like a big thumb. My nephew saw me the other day, and it was sticking out of my shirt and he said, ‘Look at Aunt Perla. She has a pipi!” The women chuckle. Juanita pours them each a cup of coffee. “And?” she says.

“The second weirdest thing is when it moves.”

Juanita says, “Oh, yes.”

“It kicks my liver like a futbol!

“They do that.”

“He wants room service,” Cuquis says. “He’s calling for a big supper, like the actors do on television.”

Oye, Cuca,” Juanita says, “where did you ever see television?”

Perla says, “And the third thing....” Worried, she looks into her own shirt “It’s my...nipples. They got so big.”

Juanita and Cuca are smiling. “Is it normal?” Perla asks in a small voice.

Ay, muchacha,” Cuquis says. “Wait until the milk comes.”

“It’s all right, Perla,” Juanita says. “They get big.”

Cuquis, “Brown like chocolate.”

“Mine are already brown, Cuca,” Perla cries.

“Then they’ll get black as old atole. They’ll look like licorice.”

Perla makes a face. “Really?”

“These things happen, mija, ” Juanita says. “God has His little surprises for women.”

“I wish He’d asked me what I thought about it,” Perla says.

“Don’t blaspheme,” Cuquis replies.


10:00 a.m.

The dump itself is a vast scatter of bright specks. The trash spreads across the land in layers of dull colors enlivened by exclamation points of white plastic and paper. From a hillside, it looks like a Pollock canvas in full frenzy. And above, in swirling disks, rise the thousands of gulls. It looks like the white flecks on the ground have become animated and have begun to spiral out of the frame. So many gulls fill the bright sky that the ocean beyond is pale, as if seen through a thin bank of fog.

Moving back and forth, slowly, hunched, looking like strange little birds picking insects out of the soil, the humans work. They stay silent because the noise drowns out their words. They blend with the garbage, become invisible for a moment against the camouflage. Then they move back into the sunlight — cranes, ibis, storks — but it takes effort to see them as people.

And roving hugely among them, fat and wicked, exploding noxious black clouds of smoke, and looking like dragons, dinosaurs, carnivorous giants, come the tractors. Big bulldozers with iron spikes on their treads and earth movers pulling their pregnant-looking sleds behind them. Even from a mile away, they can be heard growling, belching, coughing. At times, when the wind is right, their engines sound just like animals. Some meat-eater ripping at a corpse, the gear shifting making them sound like they’re growling. And every few bites, they pause to roar.

11:00 a.m.

The children have been playing in the dirt. Perla is napping. Juanita listlessly sweeps the rooms, thinking of home. She can remember poking ripe mangoes out of the trees with a long stick. Once, as a special treat, her grandmother had fried cow brains and eggs. Once she saw her mother and father making love. Once there was a flood, and they saw a shack go by, complete, as if they’d built it on the water itself, and there were people on the roof, crying out as they were swept into the night. These memories pass slowly through her mind. She never thinks about sex.

Braulio is outside, and he strains against a large, broken wood frame, one of the many bits of scrap and trash littering the yard, and he is thinking about sex. He overheard the women talking about breasts, and it has made him feel frantic. Perla is on his mind. He would like to sneak in the room and lie beside her. He wants to feel the roundness of her belly. He turns his back on the kids shrieking in the dirt and heaves once more against the wood.

He has been wondering if he should go to school. He will have to earn money to care for Perla and his — the baby. He isn’t going to stay in the trash. He has that new house to build. He wants to buy a television. And a book. He wants to read. He wipes his brow. He wishes he had a tape recorder or a radio. Music is like reading a book with your ears. He heard a word he liked, and he feels it is true about him. Lalo said it about him, and he thinks it is the highest compliment he has ever received. The word is filosofico.

Noon.

Huevona sits on the summit of the hill that separates the neighborhood from the rest of the world. She still smells like pee. She wears her crusty underpants, a green pair of pants under a one-piece dress, a sleeveless undershirt under the dress. Her socks are unmatched, and she wears shoes that were once white. She’s watching for the missionary vans. Her smell comforts her, though she is just vaguely aware that it bothers others. They complain about it all the time. She doesn’t understand why.

Clouds of dust appear below, moving steadily up the road. “Los Americanos!" she yells, jumping to her feet and running through the neighborhood. “Los Americanos!” People hustle toward the community basketball court, where the vans will park in a semicircle. The women are already carrying their mesh and plastic bags. There are only ten men in the throng, and they are all old, sick, or drunk. All the other men are either in the trash or in San Diego.

Juanita and Perla hurry along, trying to beat the sharks. These sharks are outsiders, women who come from miles away, walking hours, to get some of the American goods. There are often fistfights between locals and sharks, the women rolling around on the ground in deadly clutches, choking and punching as they roll, while their friends and neighbors laugh and taunt them and occasionally kick them.

The bathing rooms are already waiting. The gringos pay a small rent to two families for the use of their buildings. One of them, Hermana Josefina, is a Mixtec Indian who has managed to eke out a good living from the generosity of the gringos. When they are visiting, she is the humblest and saddest Christian woman, cooing things like “I am God’s poorest little child” to the translators. When they’re gone, she likes her mezcal and her cigars, becomes a tyrant, and uses her imagined position of power to coerce and threaten the neighbors into doing her bidding.

Her latest ploy is to convert her small barn into a church, which various evangelical groups use for services and Bible studies. Each group pays Josefina, if not in money, in clothes and food and soda cans and prestige. The current gossip about her is that she is a satanist and that she works black magic on her enemies. Cuquis whispers to Juanita that Josefina has sacrificed a baby. Someone or other saw it; it’s true.

“I heard,” Juanita says, “that she has sex with the devil.”

Cuquis and Perla look at each other and nod. There is no doubt about it.

Perla makes the sign of the cross, lest Josefina give her the evil eye — el trial de ojo — and somehow harm the baby within her. Babies have been born with horns, tails. Everyone knows it’s true. She shudders, even though the sun has already burned the hilltop into the high 80s.

“Old witch,” she mutters.


Josefina has a different take on the situation. She can remember when she gave birth in that same little barn they use for church. She was alone, no one there to even hold her hand. And she remembers cutting the umbilical cord herself, with a kitchen knife. And she remembers almost losing that same baby to a terrible pox that the missionaries cured with an injection and cans of fluid that she threw away because the color looked evil to her.

She remembers her mother being kicked in the stomach by Mexicans just like these women. Why shouldn’t Josefina have something extra? Nobody else takes in abandoned Indian children. She even feeds orphaned mestizo kids, though she doesn’t love anyone outside her tribe. Except the missionaries. She loves them quite a bit. Her favorites are the Baptists, though she is Catholic. The Baptists have the best doughnuts.

Josefina has her own family to feed, plus three new orphan boys. Let them talk all they want. None of them had the strength of will to force their husbands to build a barn. You keep a man too busy to do mischief, and you have to be stronger than him. Take control and keep them scrambling — anybody knew that much.

And as long as the gringos don’t know that she has the biggest pigpens in the area, hidden down the backside of the hill, they will take pity on her. For the situation in Mexico has reduced urban Mixtec women to one thing: begging. They stand in traffic in every big Mexican city, and if they are lucky, they’ll have a baby at their breast. Their greatest art, now that their pyramids are gone and forgotten and their cities laid to waste and overgrown with weeds and jungles, their one great art is pity. Everything depends on how abject they can look, how piping and pitiable their voices, how huge their eyes. How much of their breast is revealed as the baby suckles. The tribal women, called Marias by the Mexicans, have learned to massage the appalling sentimentality of gringos and mestizos. While the modern world grinds them like corn, its operators occasionally feel saddened by the big black eyes and toss out a few cents. Josefina is only doing what Mexico has told her she must do. She begs. But she will not grovel. Let the missionaries fill her gut and cover her back. Let the women of the barrio fear her.

She says to her friends, “Why shouldn’t I have power over these damned Mexicans?”

When no one is listening, she sings songs in her own tongue.

1:00 p.m.

Boys shuffle off to Josefina’s barn. There, men have set up curtained shower stalls made from galvanized tubs and PVC piping. The girls wander down the road to a small house with a real floor. Astonishingly robust Baptist women stomp around making loud noises and wide gestures. The Mexican and Indian women surreptitiously gawk at these golden beings, wondering how they get so shiny, how they manage to stay clean and get so tall. Their eyes are often blue, their skin peachy and smooth. You can smell them from a meter away: perfume, deodorant, mint chewing gum, shampoos and conditioners, and whatever other lotions they have smeared on themselves. None of them smell like pee, sweat, or bad teeth. Their breasts are pointy and hard as fruit, it’s obvious. They have big solid asses, and they all seem to love Jesus, even when they don’t always give evidence of loving the poor. The neighbors think the gringo men are often cute, if a little soft. But these gringas. It’s like a television set has broken open and these bellowing female giants have stormed out among real people. Every woman in line is happy that their men are away, at work. And Juanita is keeping her eye open for her favorite, the pastor.

Fifty-one other women watch for him, too.


1:30 p.m.

The children are shampooed first. They line up and dip their heads into tubs as more Americanos splash water and soap on them. Many of the kids have lice, so there is a lot of Kwell lice-killing shampoo in the water. Many mothers don’t want their children to be washed here, because it doesn’t take long for the tub to look like it’s full of Nestle’s Quik, brown and thick, and floating with dying lice. Babies scream and kick. And the young Bible student volunteers laugh and sparkle and curse in the weirdly gutted fashion of Evangelicals: Gosh! Dang! Darn you! Oh, good gosh!

After the shampoo, it’s off to the baths. And after the baths, the children receive their treats. Each gets a bag with two doughnuts, two or three pieces of fruit, and a carton of cold chocolate milk the color of their bath water. They have each earned a few points, paid in poker chips and rubber stamps on the backs of their hands. With these points, they can purchase candy or popcorn or even small toys and toothbrushes at the bodega set up in one of the vans.

For most of the mothers, these afternoons are the only times they have freedom. Their men are gone, and someone else is caring for their children. They gather and gossip, flirt, show off, fight. They line up at various vans to receive their goods. After they have gone through the line, they run to the end and hope there is enough left for seconds. Sly women send their children into other lines, and they switch places, sometimes sending family members through three or four times. These are the neighborhood’s venture capitalists.

Hermana Josefina outrages them all by refusing to enter any line. She stands near the door of her barn and smiles at them, like some benign queen, vaguely amused by their antics. She makes a great show of hugging the pastor as he tries to enter the barn. Her skin is almost black against his grizzled white arms. Her eyes, peeking around him and flashing at the other women in the lines, are as impenetrable as obsidian.

Cuquis nudges Juanita.

“That old witch is stealing your man.” The other women laugh.

Juana ignores them and turns to Perla. “Little Mother,” she says. “What about Braulio?”

“What about him?”

“Well? What about him?”

“Braulio?”

“Yes.”

“Our Braulio?”

“He’s the only Braulio I know.”

“Oh,” Perla says, looking off. “He’s not horrible.”

“Do you like him?”

“I don’t like being alone.”

“But do you like him?”

“Maybe.”

“Think about him,” Juanita says. “I like him for you.”

“Braulio,” Perla repeats.

Cuquis looks at her and grins.

“What’s your problem?” Perla snaps.


The van doors swing open. The women surge, almost break out of line and rush ahead in a little riot; but they already know that at the first sign of pandemonium, the doors will close and the food will drive away. Two weeks without provisions. So they shove each other and jostle a bit and hiss and tsk and mutter, but they hold formation.

They each receive:

One kilo of pinto beans, weighed and poured into a brown paper lunch bag.

Six potatoes.

Three onions.

One kilo of long-grain rice, also poured into a brown paper bag.

A few apples or oranges or bananas. They are in luck today. The next van has canned food. It’s a strange mixture, and some of it will have to go to the pigs because nobody knows what to do with it.

Veg-All. Creamed corn. Pear halves. Pumpkin pie filling. Pickled beets. Spam. Corned beef hash. Beefaroni. Tuna. Sauerkraut. Carnation condensed milk. Smoked oysters. Something without a label, flecked with rust. Alpo.

“What’s this?” says Perla, holding up a small can. It says “Escargot.”

“Look at the picture,” says Juanita.

Perla makes a face.

“The picture has snails on it.”

Juanita grabs the can and stares at it. “My God,” she says. “Gringos eat bugs.” “I’m going to barf,” Perla says.

They throw the can away.


3:30 p.m.

The pastor has felt guilty for years, watching the women stand in these ragged lines, waiting. He wants to make them happy, not just to feed them or preach to them. It has recently occurred to him to give them a carnival. He has invested some money and a lot of time in creating a series of midway games for the mothers to enjoy, competencias they call them. There is a balance beam and a beanbag toss. Pitching games and even a game with ray guns and bleeping, flashing targets. The women compete for candy bars and Cokes. They have grown to love the games, and they hurry from the food lines to line up and take aim with their three beanbags.

Juanita waits for the pastor to come out of the bathing room. When he finally does step out, in a hurry as always, she feels a thrill. He is the tallest man she has ever hugged, and she throws her arms around him before he can get away. He can’t speak a lick of Spanish, and he does his best, patting her on the back and saying, “Ah! Si, si! Hola! Muy bien!” as he tries to escape her grip. He has two more orphanages to get to today, and they’re running a half-hour late as it is.

Hermano,” she says as he pulls away. “Hermana Consuelo is hurt.”

The pastor waits for the translator to repeat it, then he asks, “How hurt?”

Cabeza,” says Juanita, indicating the head. “Mucha sangre.”

The pastor understands this perfectly well. He has seen a swimming pool’s worth of sangre these last 30 years.

Muy mal, ” Juanita says. “Esta en su cama. ” “She’s in bed,” the translator says, sounding like a monkey to Juanita. “Real bad.”

The pastor looks at his watch, sighs, says, “Let’s go take a look.”

Juanita is thrilled when he puts an arm lightly on her shoulders as they pass the lines of neighbors and sharks. She looks back at Cuquis and Perla and scrunches her nose at them, wiggles her hips. The pastor is oblivious. He’s wondering when the hell he’ll get a chance to eat something.

In the doorway behind them, Josefina is fuming.


4:00 p.m.

They collect Braulio as they walk. The pastor likes Braulio. He can see a good heart in him. “Broolio,” he says, the translator behind him like an echo, “you’re a winner. You’re a special boy.” Braulio blushes. It’s like God sticking a gold star on your homework.

Homework.

“Pastor,” he blurts, “I want to go back to school.”

The pastor smiles.

“Well, let me see what I can do about that.”

Braulio can’t believe his ears.

Gracias, ” he says.

Ah! Si! Bueno, bueno!” the pastor enthuses.

They knock at Hermana Consuelo’s doorway. They can hear her old husband, Pepe, blind and muy loco, shuffling around inside.

“Mama, Mama, ” he is saying. “Donde esta Mama?

They step in, and Braulio’s mouth drops open. He moves behind the pastor and hides.

Juanita touches the pastor’s arm and then crosses herself. It takes them a second to figure out what they see, but in the cramped gloom of the shack the terrible scene reveals itself. Blind Pepe, immensely fat and shirtless, is tied by the wrist to the center pole that holds up the roof. The rope has cut into his skin, and he has walked around and around the pole, like a tied dog, until he has come up tight against the pole and can’t move.

“Where’s Mama?” he asks. “Where’s Mama?”

Hermana Consuelo is lying on her back on their nearly black mattress, dead. Her mouth is open, full of congealed blood. Blood has run from her nostrils, forming a black mustache. Her eyes stare. Flies hurry along her lips, pausing occasionally to scrub their hands. Braulio doesn’t want to cry, but he bursts into tears anyway, and Juanita takes him against her breast, where he sobs.

The pastor covers Consuelo’s face with her blanket and takes out his knife and cuts Don Pepe loose.

He lightly embraces Juanita and Braulio and says, “Let’s step outside now and leave her alone.”

The translator forgets to say anything.


5:00 p.m.

The gringos are gone.

The pastor has given Braulio a ride over to the dump to collect Don Manuel. Nobody knows what to do, and Manuel and Lalo will think of something. The pastor has left $100 with Josefina to help pay for the burial. “Final” Juanita snaps. “She’ll steal the money!”

As the gringos drive away, and as Perla, against all orders, steps inside to look at Consuelo’s body, and Juanita and Cuquis lead poor, crazy Don Pepe to Juanita’s house, one of Fina’s nieces breaks away from the crowd to tell her what Juanita has been saying about her.


Braulio wades through the trash, looking for Manuel. He finally spots him by a stack of bulging bags. Manuel has pulled off his gloves, and he’s drinking water from a plastic jug, waiting for Lalo to come collect him and take him home.

“Uncle!” Braulio calls.

Manuel looks over at him and waves for him to come closer. “What brings you to the dompe?” Manuel asks.

“Dona Consuelo!” Braulio cries. “She died!”

“What do you mean, she died?”

“She’s dead. All full of blood. Her mouth and nose.” Manuel whistles.

Braulio says, “She drowned in her own blood, it looks like. I thought I was going to be sick.”

Manuel hands him the water jug, and Braulio takes a drink. He puts his hand on Braulio’s shoulder and says, “Now listen. When Lalo comes, you don’t say anything. I’ll tell him. You keep quiet. All right?”

Braulio nods.

“Not a word,” Manuel says.

“No.”

They wait.

Presently, Lalo comes banging along the dirt track that runs alongside the dump. He waves out the window at them. He parks and gets out.

“Another no-good long goddamned day,” he says, smiling his wild pirate’s smile.

“Lalo,” Manuel says. “Come here for a minute.”

He leads Lalo off to the side, puts his arm around his shoulders, and puts his face near his compadre’s. Lalo pulls away. “What?” Braulio hears his shout. Then Manuel speaks to him some more. Lalo puts his hand over his eyes. He lowers himself to the ground and sits with his head hanging and his eyes covered. When Manuel says something else to him, he swings his arm blindly, throwing a wild punch that rakes in only air. Silently, Manuel sits beside his friend and looks out at the tractors making their way out of the clouds of sea gulls.


7:00 p.m.

All Lalo could say when he got home was, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” They all told him it wasn’t his fault, but he feels the guilt crushing him. And he has begun to wrestle with the debt he now owes. Must he now care for Don Pepe? Can he care for the old madman? He knows the least he can do is build Consuelo a coffin. He is afraid to see her, afraid to face what his carelessness has done, for he is a man of conscience, and he knows his impatience killed her. “Don’t make me look at her,” he begged Manuel. “I can’t. I can’t.”

Later, he knows, he will be drunk. Very, very drunk. But not yet. He has work to do. Manuel has taken him off to buy wood. It’s the least he can do.


Consuelo’s house is dark. Lit candles sputter before her door, and several women, led by Cuquis, say a rosary outside. Their quiet voices sound like muffled music. Juanita’s house is bright. Lit up, with the door open. Everyone in the barrio has been coming around to leave money with her. Most of them give Don Pepe a hug. He chuckles, he thinks it’s his birthday or Christmas. “Oh!” he cries with each hug. “Hello! Hello!”

Juanita collects the sums in a coffee can, and Perla carefully scratches each person’s name on a piece of notebook paper. Braulio sits across from her and watches. “What are you looking at?” she says.

“You,” he replies.

“Why?”

“You’re beautiful.”

She puts down her pencil and looks at him for a long while.

Juanita has tied Don Pepe to a chair. She spoon-feeds him warm creamed corn. He smacks his lips. The children are terrified of him. Huevona peers out from behind the cloth bedroom door, wide-eyed. She smells like Ivory soap and baby shampoo. She hates smelling so sweet.

Don Pepe smells like wet cigars.

Juanita calls to her.

“You, Huevona! Come here.”

“Money,” Fina says and turns her deadly red eyes toward Juana. “Money. I hear you think I’m a thief.”

Juana casts her eyes down.

“I hear,” Fina says, rolling the cigar in her mouth, smelling of ferment and fire, “you think I’m a hacking witch.”

Braulio steps toward her and makes the mistake of touching her arm.

“Fina — ” he manages to say before she shocks him with a right-handed roundhouse slap that knocks him off his feet.

Inside Juanita’s house, it looks like there has been an explosion.

Braulio falls.

Huevona screams and runs.

The other children scream and scatter.

The little dog bursts out from under the table, barking.

The table tips over.

Piglets fly like shrapnel.

Juanita flies out of her seat and strikes Fina.

Perla, shrieking like a cat, throws herself over Braulio, who is crawling across the floor, and tackles both women.

They hit the floor in an avalanche of chairs and plates and forks and billowing skirts.

Pepe wakes up with a start and cries out, “Mama! Where is Mama?”

Screams, grunts, smacks, curses, crashes, shatterings, thuds, snarls.

Pepe tries to get up, still tied to the chair, yelling for Mama to come get him, and the women roll into him and knock him over backwards.

Braulio staggers to his feet, turns the wrong way, and plunges through one of the paper walls.

Manuel’s framed military diploma falls, and the glass breaks.

Juanita has Fina by the hair, and she is punching her in the face. Punching, punching, hammering.

Fina throws a kick that catches Perla in her huge, pregnant stomach, and Perla staggers back, clutching herself, almost retching. She hits the Coleman stove, and the boiling pot of rice flies to the floor, scalding everyone, and the gas feed-line breaks, and a terrible hissing escapes, and flames billow high, scrabbling up the wall.

They all pause for the slightest moment, listening to this strange sound, before they try to run out the door.

Yelling for the children.

Perla screaming, “Braulio!”

And Braulio steps back into the room as the gas bottle explodes and blows him backwards, right out through the wall of the bedroom.


9:30 p.m.

Everyone stands and watches Juana’s house burn. One of the piglets is trapped inside and screeches as it burns. Perla holds her hands over her ears. Braulio tries to hug her and all the children at once. Everyone is weeping. Fina, blood on her face, sheepishly comforts Juanita.

“I’m sorry,” she says, made sober by the fire. “Want a cigar?”

Juana counts heads. Everyone is accounted for except for Manuel and the pothead couple. Well, they’re all off drunk somewhere, and thank God for that.

The firemen don’t get there until 10:30, and by then, the fire has almost burned itself out. It gutters and smolders, but it’s down to the ground. They hardly have to spray any water on it at all.

“Perla,” Juana says. “Did you save the money?”

Perla holds up the coffee can.

Gracias a Dios, ” Juana says.

Don Pepe sits in the dirt, sucking his Tootsie-Roll Pop.

Everything is gone.


Midnight.

The neighbors return now, each carrying a small item to give to Juanita: an undershirt for Manuel when he gets home, a bag of sugared doughnuts, a blanket, a pillow, three eggs, a battered old pot, a cigarette, a bottle of rum, a coat, a potato, wet panties just washed and wrung out. “They’re almost new,” the woman says to Juana. “They have flowers on them.” Juana hugs her. Juana hugs many people, for some of them only have hugs to offer.

Cuquis and the funeral prayer circle have moved nearer to Juana’s clan, and they now pray for them.

Juanita is too tired to cry.

Braulio and Fina have gone to Fina’s barn and collected a heavy sheet of plastic. Braulio has an idea. Fina’s sons help him haul the sheet back to Juana’s yard. Everything stinks of smoke. Everything and everybody is black.

“Glory to God,” Juana repeats often. “We are all safe. Everybody’s all right.”

“At least we’re together, Mama,” Perla says.

“Glory to God. Glory to God.”

Braulio has seen that the wooden frame he moved away from the house is safe, unburned in the far corner. He drags it forward, around the glowing embers of the house, and he says, “I can build us a tent.”

Amazed, Juanita and Perla watch Braulio take charge of all the men who stand around gawking.

“All right, you lazy bastards,” he says, sounding exactly like Manuel, “we have work to do.”

And they get to work.


2:00 a.m.

The children are asleep in an unruly pile on the clothes that the neighbors have brought. Cuquis has taken poor old Don Pepe home with her. He will escape while she sleeps, however, and will be discovered without his pants in the morning, wandering around the basketball court.

The moon can be seen through the clear-plastic lean-to Braulio has constructed. He looks over at Juanita. She sleeps in the dirt, her head on the one pillow. In her hand is the charred corner of Manuel’s diploma.

Carefully, trying to make no sound, he scoots over closer to Perla. She sleeps on her side, with her knees drawn up, and one hand covers her mouth. He stares at her in the gloom. He cries, looking at her. He longs to put his mouth on her mouth and to feel her hot breath inside his mouth. He imagines it tastes sweet.

He wants to take her heavy hair in his hands and squeeze it.

He thinks, as he often thinks, if she will just marry him, he will show her what kind of a man he is. Or can be, anyway. He is only 14. Perla is 13.

He’ll build her the dream house.

He’ll work every day.

He’ll get her a television.

And a pig.

He’ll make new babies inside her.

He’ll plant flowers in their yard.

He’ll die for her.

He moves close to her, carefully, carefully — his jaws ache with the tension. And he maneuvers himself under her tattered blanket, wanting to feel her heat as she sleeps. Wanting to be near her. He can’t stop crying. He stretches himself out on the ground beside her and closes his eyes. He can smell her sweat. He leans close and lightly lets his lips touch her hair.

He is startled when her hand reaches out and clasps his.

Silently, she pulls his fingers toward her belly, moves them up and down on the taut softness of it. Then she moves his hand up to her breast and cups herself with his hand and snuggles in against him and goes to sleep.

Braulio lies awake, stiff, afraid to move, afraid to breathe.

All he can think to do is pray: Hail Mary full of Grace....


5:00 a.m., and snuffling and snoring fills the tent.

Dona Juana wakes first, and for a brief moment, she can’t remember what happened. She sits up and is startled to see the ruins, the tent, the children tucked in around her. She is also startled to see Perla caught up in Braulio’s arms and their legs tangled together. She looks up and sees a burly shadow through the plastic. She crawls out and looks into Manuel’s eyes.

“Are you all right?” he asks.

“We’re all safe,” she says.

Manuel hangs his head.

She goes to him.

“There is nothing you could have done, viejo.”

“I’m sorry, is all,” he replies, taking her in his arms. “I’m sorry.”

Lalo is keeping his distance.

He is ready to help, but he is not sure what is to be done.

“I saved this for you,” Juana says, handing Manuel the corner of the diploma. “Everything else is gone.”

“Everything.”

“Everything.”

Manuel turns to Lalo and says, “Everything is gone.”

“Everything?”

“Everything.”

Chingue a su madre,” Lalo says.

Juana says, “Braulio has some good ideas.”

“Braulio!”

“He was the hero. He took charge. And he has ideas for a new house.”

“Braulio,” Manuel says. “Imagine that.”

“He’s a philosopher,” Lalo calls. “Smart.”

Juana says, “He’s going to be your son-in-law, I think.” Manuel throws his hands in the air.

“Did anything not happen while I was gone?” he cries.

“Jesus Christ didn’t return, looks like,” Lalo says.

Manuel glares at him.

“Come,” Juanita says to her man. “Rest with me.”

“I can’t rest.” Manuel says. “Look at this! Our lives are gone.”

“No, viejo, our lives are here.” She puts her hand on his chest. “Our lives are here, No? Our things are gone, that’s all.”

“Yeah,” says Lalo. “You didn’t have anything anyway. Screw it.”

Manuel just looks at him.

Lalo shrugs.

“You know. Another pinche day of life, compadre,” he offers. Then he walks to his own house.

Manuel nudges Juana. She looks up at him.

“I brought you a flower,” he says.

He pulls a battered rose out of his pocket.

“Oh, you,” she says, taking it and holding it to her chest. “My little old man.”

They hold each other and weep softly, looking over the gray and black charcoal pit that was their house. Juana pulls him tight and rocks him back and forth. She speaks into his chest, so he doesn’t hear her at first. She has to repeat herself. She says, “Next time we build a house, let’s plant a garden. Let’s plant roses.” She’s thinking of Braulio, of his dreams and his ideas. She smiles into Manuel’s ribs. “Roses,” she says. “They’re like music for your eyes.”

And Manuel closes his eyes for a moment and listens. Small birds are singing all over the hill. Where do they hide, all the little birds? Why don’t they fly across the border, where the gringos probably throw food all over the streets? So many songs in the cool air — so many tiny, insistent, hopeful voices.

“These birds, I think,” he says, “all speak Spanish.”

“What are they saying?” she murmurs.

“They’re saying, ‘Hey—at least it’s not raining.’ ”

Tijuana-born Luis Urrea was raised in Logan Heights and graduated from UCSD in 1977. He is the author of Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border (Anchor Books, 1993), parts of which first appeared in the Reader. His most recent book is The Fever of Being (HarperCollins, 1994).

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"He isn’t going to stay in the trash. He has that new house to build." - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
"He isn’t going to stay in the trash. He has that new house to build."

Five a.m., and the sounds of sleeping fill the house. Dona Juana rises first, climbing from the slumping bed as Don Manuel snores lightly, the swollen knuckles on his left hand glistening in the dull light as blood seeps from the cracks in his leathery skin.

He, like everyone else, calls her Juanita, Little Juana, which has nothing to do with size and everything to do with affection. You could say it means My Little Juana.

"They blend with the garbage, become invisible for a moment against the camouflage."

Dona Juana sleeps in her clothes. This morning, she wears baggy Levi’s provided by a gringo missionary group, new underpants only worn for two days, and a Metallica T-shirt. Although she can smell Don Manuel and the mists rising from the children and the other sleepers, she can no longer smell herself. Her breasts swing loosely under the T-shirt, long now, and nursed to the point of collapse. Her hair is turning white; lightning bolts seem to cut through her dense rope of hair, swirling down the double-braid in pale corkscrews. She is missing seven teeth, and the sight of her own naked flesh alarms her. She is covered in stretch marks, scars, bites, varicose veins, and pouches of collapsed skin. She is four feet nine inches tall. She is 42 years old.

"And above, in swirling disks, rise the thousands of gulls."

She pulls on a battered pair of Keds dock shoes and pads out of the bedroom on her new cement floor. Manuel saved up and bought two sacks of cement. He and the neighbors made a party out of it, mixing and pouring the floor. One corner sags, but the rest of it is pretty flat. She must have one of the girls sweep; orange peels, paper, dirt collect in the corners. She shakes her head. It’s impossible to keep house. She has two rooms and a kitchen to care for. It’s too much.

"The dump itself is a vast scatter of bright specks."

She pulls aside the blanket that serves as a door as she passes into the front room. The bedroom wall wobbles when she walks through the doorway. Manuel and the boys hammered it together out of scrap wood, paper, cardboard boxes, and some water-warped rocanrol posters. Small pictures of Jesus, saints, and the Virgen de Guadalupe adorn the wall and cover holes. The only other decoration, in a cheap wooden frame bought in the Woolworth’s downtown (they pronounce it “Goolgoort’s”), is Manuel’s certificate of military service. He left the Army a full private, and the paper’s multicolored filigree looks important to the family. It is important, an accomplishment recognized by the government. Written on the wall in felt-tipped pen, three inches to the right, is Viva Colosio, Salvador de la Gente. This was written by Lalo, the neighbor, because neither Manuel nor Juanita knows how to write.

Behind her, in a stacked bunk bed and a mattress on the floor, separated from Manuel by a hanging sheet, 13 people sleep in a room 12 feet by 10 feet. Of these 13, 7 are her own children; one daughter among them, little Perla, is seven months pregnant. Another, Don Manuel, is her husband. Two are grandchildren. One is the boyfriend of her eldest daughter, and the last two are cousins recently arrived from the garbage dumps in Mexico City.

The power struggle in the Mexico City dump has driven them north to Tijuana. The warring mafias that control the trash are locked in a subterranean godfather scenario. The ancient Don who ruled the trash and the trash pickers has died, and his progeny have divided into factions, each of them battling to be King of the Trash.

Gunmen and goon squads are recruiting supporters, and in its own small way, the Mexico City dump has become as complex and dangerous as the old revolution. Trash pickers have had to become political analysts to survive. Like many tiny Latin American nations, the Mexico City dump has become too harsh for its citizens. They’re heading north.

The young couple sleeping together in a bottom bunk move together under the blankets and slyly make love, rocking gently so as not to wake the others. One of the cousins, however, lies quietly in his bed and watches her face as the blanket pulls away, watches her eyes roll up, close. Then a smile crosses her lips. She opens her eyes and looks right at him. He blushes, ducks his head.

He hears her gasp. He thinks of home.

His name is Braulio.

The missionaries have given Dona Juana a small Coleman two-burner stove. Manuel has converted the white-gas tank into a small propane system. Every week Manuel has the tank recharged downtown at the propane tank yards. Tijuana does not have a gas system like San Diego’s. Each house has a silver or white tank outside, and anyone who has grown up in Tijuana is used to the hollow ring of the tanks being loaded on and off trucks. Gas, like potable water, is delivered by ugly trucks from the 1950s and early 1960s. On delivery day, the rusty clanging can be heard up and down the street. It’s a homey sound, as sentimental as a gringo’s memory of tinkling milk bottles on the porch — Mexican sounds, like the sound of the ice-cream man’s bell as he pushes his little two-wheel cart along the street, the mailman’s harsh whistle that sounds almost like a toy train. Dona Juana, of course, knows none of these sounds.

She turns the stove’s key and is amazed, afraid a little, as if this were some sorcery, and it probably is, because who has ever heard of such a thing. She ponders the ice that forms along the gas-feed line. Wads of frost make a snowball where the line joins the burners. “Leave it to gringos,” she will say, “to make ice from fire.”

They have no sink. Manuel built her a counter out of a plywood plank. Later he cut a hole in it and put a plastic tub down the hole to hold the plates. Manuel, she thinks, is a genius. He can build anything. The counter is covered with filthy plates, caked and clotted with grease and old food. Flies already work the corners of the kitchen; her one frying pan still has a fistful of fried rice and tomato in it. It has dried a sickly orange, and the flies walk over it, prod their suckers into it, and settle their rear ends deep among the hard kernels. She waves at them abstractedly, takes the pan to the front door, and dumps the rice on the dusty ground. There, her piglet and a small dog fight for a bite.

No water. She hasn’t bathed in a week, and there has been no water to wash things since... she can’t remember. Their one water bottle, a five-gallon glass jug mounted on a metal frame, is half empty. She grabs the neck of the jug, tips it, and pours cloudy water into the coffee pot.

The smell of coffee, she knows, will awaken Manuel.

And their day can begin.


5:30 a.m.

Don Manuel rises slowly, puts his feet on the paper-thin green carpet beside the bed, and rests his head in his hands. He has a hangover, but it’s not from drinking. He doesn’t know what has gotten into his head, but in the mornings there is a nauseating ache behind his forehead. It feels green to him somehow. His ears hum and his joints ache. But he won’t say anything. They can’t afford the doctor, and it embarrasses him to go to the missionaries. And besides, doctors are for children and women.

He sits and thinks over his list of chores for the day. Is there anything he missed yesterday? For a moment, he feels a bolt of panic — did he remember to get new rags for Juanita? It is her month again, and he promised to get her some clean cloths to make the pad. He feels a surge of adrenaline inside his body; this too is new, this sense of panic. Juanita and her blood spilling out of her like life itself. Most couples don’t talk of these things, but he and his old woman like to talk. Maybe that’s what gives him the hangovers — staying up too late, whispering.

There was a time, sure, when he went astray. He had sex with six women in the neighborhood, and he knows that black Cuquis bore him a son.

But suddenly, and he can’t explain it, Juanita became dear to him again. She was cutting the head off a chicken, and he immediately realized he loved her. She seemed so small to him then, so brave in the morning sun. The blood flew all over her arms, glistening like jewels. Though he has no word for glisten, he can imagine what jewels in the sun would look like. Like sparkling red water.

His compadre Lalo, two shacks down, says Juanita put a love hex on Manuel. “Nobody falls back in love with their wives,” he tells Manuel. “Not after all the women we have had. She gave you the agua de coco. ” Manuel shudders. Agua de coco (coconut water), a brew of menses mixed with the coffee. Which brings him back to Juana’s period, and he remembers that he collected several lengths of white terry cloth at the recycling center, and she carefully folded them into pads right here on the bed. “I will be dry soon,” she told him.

“No more blood. No more rags. I’m an old woman.”

“No more sons?” he said.

She shook her head.

Thank God, she was thinking, but she didn’t tell him that.

When they had them, paper towels and napkins were the best lining to put inside the cloth pads. They could be thrown away, and the pads could last twice as long. But this month there are no napkins.

Some gringa missionaries brought down things the women stick inside themselves, but who ever heard of such a thing? They must have been Protestants. It was an insult and probably some kind of sin. Manuel didn’t know about these Cristianos sometimes. The women had shamefully burned the terrible little objects after the missionaries were gone. They wouldn’t even let the children use the plastic parts for toys.

Oh, well.

Manuel stretches, winces, and gets out of bed.


Braulio, the cousin from Mexico City, silently rises behind Manuel. He loves the morning, when he can think for a minute. He says his prayers, not only to Jesus and la Virgen, but to the saint of his almost forgotten village in Michoacan. He can’t remember the saint’s name, but he can remember her face, carved in wood, her slight smile, her flaking, blue-painted eyes.

Braulio sits in the dull light and watches the faces of the children as they start to stir. Like the morning, he loves the children. He dreams of a family of his own. His fantasies include detailed plans for a new tarpaper shack. Something beautiful, something sophisticated, with a covered walkway to the outhouse and actual glass in the windows. He has figured that a central open space can be used for fires, and those fires can not only light the main room but warm the house. He can’t quite figure out how to get the smoke out without leaving an opening in the roof for rain to come in. He sees the fire in his mind. The dirt floor. The small pen in the kitchen for the ducks and chickens. It is a perfect house. When he has paper, he sketches it, placing the imaginary furniture and children in the paper rooms.

Braulio touches the face of the little girl awakening beside him. She snuffles and grimaces and slaps at his hand, rolls over. He smiles. He turns and looks across the room. He is in love with little pregnant Perla. The Pearl. The father of the baby went across the border. Perla has been waiting for him to come back, but it’s obvious to everyone, even her, that he won’t return. Braulio doesn’t mind that she’s pregnant. It’s that much more work already done. She already contains his family, if she’ll have him. One day he’s going to have to tell her. But he gets nervous. Love does that to a man. Besides, the thought of tasting her milk arouses him, and he’s sure she can sense his deviant thoughts, and it makes him feel shame. He prays to the saint to remove these desires from his heart. And he looks at Perla’s smoky face and her stiff explosion of black hair on the coat she uses for a pillow, and he sighs.

Was there ever a more beautiful girl?


6:00 a.m.

“Do we have anything to eat, vieja?” Manuel asks.

“No, viejo.”

She pours him a cup of black coffee.

“Doughnuts?”

She pulls back her hair.

“Manuel,” she says, “you know those were for the children.”

“And who has to work like a mule all day?” he snaps. “The children or me?” He sips his coffee. “Besides,” he says, “today is bath day. They’ll get more donas. ”

She sucks at her teeth for a moment, then says, “You’re right.” Today the missionaries are coming. She has a crush on the pastor, elfamoso hermano, but he doesn’t even know she exists. Still, she’d like to be home just to see him. A little flirting never hurt anybody. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t love her Manuelito. She looks at him, his skinny neck and his huge black mustache. He has gold trim on his teeth. My man, she thinks. But she doesn’t forget her pastor either.

She puts two stiff glazed doughnuts on the table. The missionaries collected them from a Winchell’s in San Diego, and they have laid frozen in a gringo garage for a month.

“I’ll get some beans, too,” she says. “Maybe some potatoes.” He offers her a piece of doughnut. She shakes her head. “It’s all right, viejo. I’m on a diet.”

“Hm,” he grunts. He goes to the door with his cup. “Another hot day,” he says, then steps outside. He sticks his head back in the door and says, “See if the missionaries have any applesauce.”

Ay, Dios,” she replies. “We all know you can’t live without your applesauce.”

“Every parrot to his perch,” he says.

They laugh.

It makes him cough.

He turns back out the door and spits — the tiny dog at his feet barely skips away before he’s hit.


6:15 a.m.

He sees his compadre Lalo standing in the street.

Oye, tu, pinche buey, ” he says.

Vete a la chingada, pinche puto cabron,” Lalo says.

Insults taken care of, they wave and grin.

“What time are you going to work?” Manuel says.

“Now, brother.”

“Well, fuck.”

“No other way,” Lalo shrugs.

“That’s life,” Manuel agrees.

“That’s life.”

“Life.”

“Fucking life.”

“There,” Manuel says, taking one last gulp of coffee, “you have said it all, compa. You don’t have to say another word, because you have said it all right there.”

He steps back inside to pull on his work shoes and collect his tools.


Manuel says to Juanita, “Lalo said pinche life.”

“Ay, Lalo,” she says.

These are Manuel’s work tools:

One pair of battered leather gloves, which he carries tucked into the back pocket of his pants; the way these gloves hang out and dangle is part of garbage-dump fashion. A snappy dresser will have the gloves so worn down that they’re soft, and the fingers should fall flat against the man’s buttocks. Although canvas gloves drape better, leather gloves are preferred.

A baseball cap to keep the sun out of his eyes.

A second pair of pants — loose and dirty dress slacks one size too big. These go on over Manuel’s Levi’s, as a kind of protective skin. They will catch the majority of the dump’s filth and can be peeled off at the end of the day. When there’s water, Juanita can boil them in a tin tub over a fire. If they get too contaminated, Manuel might drop them right there in the trash. Often someone else will come along and pick them up; there are distinct classes among the trash pickers, and some trash pickers pick the castoffs of others.

Along with the second pair of pants, a shirt put on over a relatively clean T-shirt. The same rules apply. The shirt is his second skin.

A bandanna for the sweat and to be worn over the face as an occasional gas mask.

Work shoes.

Bags. Bags are very valuable. Bags are Manuel’s briefcase and his wheelbarrow. He will often tie a rope around his waist and tuck several plastic bags into the rope. The bags, too, can be a fashion statement.

A pole. This pole can be used to stir through the trash, fish items out of a deep pile, or form a flagpole to warn away the drivers of the huge tractors from any spot where Manuel has tucked himself into a rich vein of trash. They’ll see the flag (one of his bags) even if they don’t see him, and he will be spared from a hideous death under the vast iron treads of the machines.

If times are good, he might take a little lunch with him, or he might buy a festering torta or taco from a garbage-dump lunch wagon that brings in its smoky wares. Sneaking in behind the long parade of dump trucks, the lunch wagon pulls off to the side and opens for business. Although relatively far away from the actual garbage, the food is touched by flies and smoke and dust clouds coming out of the trash.

And these are Juanita’s work tools, for she works alongside her man, everyone equal in the garbage:

One clear-plastic produce bag tucked into her underwear and placed between the pads and her clothes.

Otherwise, she is dressed almost exactly like her husband. Except she tucks her canvas gloves into the front of her pants. And she’s worried about her shoes.

“I like these shoes, viejo,” she says. “I hate to ruin them.”

“Put bags on them,” he says.

Estas loco. I’ll look like a fool with my feet in bags.”

“That’s true,” he says, buttoning his pants. “You always like to look nice.” He combs his hair. “I have an idea.”

“What.”

“Put white bags over your shoes. That will look really good.” She smiles.

“Yes,” she says. “That’s good. Es muy sexy.”

“Wow!” he says, his favorite word in English.


6:30 a.m.

Braulio steps into the kitchen and says, “Buenos dias.

Buenos dias,” they say in unison.

Braulio dips his head at them, almost a bow. He still feels like an interloper, though they have made him feel at home.

“I know where I can get some eggs,” he says.

“Eggs?” cries Manuel. “Who can afford eggs?”

“No money, mijo, ” she says.

Braulio shows him some coins that he has been storing in his pocket. They lean in and look. Manuel’s eyebrows rise.

“Three gringo quarters,” Braulio says, using the Spanglish word quatahs. “I was going to buy a beer,” he says. “But let’s have eggs.”

“Wow,” Manuel repeats. “Wow. Yeah-yeah.” He’s a hipster. Braulio can’t imagine being as cool as Manuel. “Shit!”

“Shat,” Braulio says.

“No, shit. ”

“Shet.”

No seas pendejo, socio. Shit.”

“Chit!”

Braulio rushes out to buy a few eggs from one of the neighbors.

“He’s a good boy,” Juanita says.

“He’s bit of a pendejo,” says Manuel, putting on his cap. “But he’s all right.”

Juanita sticks her head into the bedroom and shrieks, “Get up!”


6:45 a.m.

One of the little sisters sits on the floor in a stupor. She can never quite wake up with everyone else. She is still possessed by her dreams and is sometimes so lost in the fog that she urinates in her pants before she manages to get up and go to the hole. She often smells of pee. Manuel calls her huevona, which, loosely translated, means girl with big balls, which somehow means lazy. Braulio picks her up and says, “Let’s have huevos, huevona,” which makes her giggle. Huevos being eggs, as well as balls. So maybe Manuel is saying she’s a brood-hen, sitting on eggs instead of working.

The lovers have already risen from their bunk beds and made their way out the door. They won’t be seen again till evening. Off sniffing glue and smoking mota with the other potheads. Braulio doesn’t know where they get money for the marijuana, though rumor has it that she lets the junkies touch her breasts for trade. Juanita and Manuel have spoken often of throwing the couple out, but they don’t want to betray family.

Braulio and Perla are left in charge of the children.

Everyone else, aside from the potheads, is outside, getting ready for work.


7:15 a.m.

Lalo is parked outside in his pickup, angry again. He’s mad every morning. “Hurry up, cabrones!” he shouts. Every day he wants to leave for work by seven, and every day, everyone meanders around and makes him late. He would go without them, but they each pay him a few cents for rides to and from work. “The worst part about us Mexicans,” he turns and tells Manuel, who is always on time, “is that we’re always late.”

“With any luck,” Manuel replies, “we’ll be late for our graves.”

Lalo lights a cigarette and says, “You call that luck?” Juanita doesn’t want to ride in the cab. She prefers the bed, jammed in comfortably with eight other trash pickers, where she can feel the wind, smell the clean scent of the ocean as they drive, see the bright colors of the segunda, the big outdoor flea market she usually can’t afford to visit. Juanita loves to see the Pacific, sparkling and so blue, just beyond the hills. And the islands right off the coast, looking so close she dreams she can swim to them. Little paradises right by the dompe. And the white flecks of San Diego shine on good days too, like small frozen waves on the beach.

Marilu is having trouble getting on. Juanita reaches down to her and says, “We’re getting old, Mari.”

“Speak for yourself,” Mari says. “I’m just fat.”

They all laugh.

Lalo puts it in gear and does his best to ease over the big rocks in the road.


7:25 a.m.

Lalo is stopped again, cursing and shaking the wheel. He has hit a rock and thrown Hermanita Consuelo face-first against the back window. She is easily 70 years old, though some say she is 80. She wears girlish makeup and low-cut dresses. Her necklines reveal a chest that looks like parchment stretched over chicken bones. Her shiny bodice often reveals the acorn-like stubs of her bosoms. Her lips are always bright crimson, and her cheeks are powdered pale white, and her eyes always bear heavy black pencil lines around them. She has one long orange fang in the front of her mouth.

All of her children are dead, and some of the men in the barrio reportedly sneak in to visit her at night when her husband is asleep. Consuelo still loves la Marilyn Monroe.

She has a bloody nose, and the others in the back have forced Lalo to stop. Hermanita Consuelo is spread out in the bed of the pickup, holding her nose, and all the biddies hover over her and cluck.

Ay,” Consuelo moans. “Ay-ay.”

“Poor little thing,” Mari says. “That mule Lalo broke her nose.”

Another pickup pulls over, and the driver calls out, “Lalo! Who did you kill this time?”

Lalo waves him off.

“A man,” he says, “just can’t get ahead in this world.” Manuel cranes his head around and stares at the tableau behind them.

“Poor old woman,” he says.

“If she doesn’t like the service,” Lalo grumbles, “let her buy her own truck.”

Juanita jumps down.

“I’m going to take the Hermanita back home, all right?” Manuel gets out of the cab and looks in at Hermanita Consuelo.

There is a dark-red cut across the bridge of her nose. Her eyes are loose in her head. Blood everywhere.

“Is she all right?”

Juanita shrugs.

“She will be, if God wills it. But I’m going to take her home. She can’t work like this.”

“All right,” he says. “Maybe the missionaries can fix her.” He puts his hand on Juanita’s arm. “You probably should go home anyway. You know.” He glances at her belly.

“Will you be all right, viejo?”

“Sure. I’ll be able to visit all my girlfriends without you there spying on me all day,” he jokes.

She cocks an eyebrow at him and pulls away.

“Work hard,” she says.

“Like a burro,” he replies.

Manuel watches his woman lead the old hag down the road, and it’s hard to tell what he’s feeling. He’s holding up the commute, but he just stands there. Lalo has given up at this point. All the best spots will be populated by now, and he’s going to have to either sneak around till he finds a gap in the work crews, or he’ll have to shame himself by asking somebody if he can move in beside them. Oh, well. He was planning to make an extra couple of dollars this week for beer. He watches Manuel watching his fat little Juanita. Lalo shakes his head. It’s starting to seem like Manuel thinks they have all day. Like he wants to go home with his wife.

Lalo, watching this scene in his rear-view mirror, says, “Agua de coco. ”


8:30 a.m.

Juanita comes home and finds Perla in the kitchen, talking to Cuquis. Juanita suspects Cuquis of messing around with Manuel, but she can’t prove it. Cuquis has a certain glamour in the neighborhood; she’s from the east coast somewhere and has a weird accent as well as African blood. The only way she could be more exotic is if she had blue eyes and red hair. They stir as Juanita enters, and she says, “Don’t get up.”

She tips herself a glass of water.

“The Hermanita broke her nose.”

They all tsk-tsk over the old woman’s misfortune.

“No work today,” says Cuquis.

Perla is rubbing her belly, She says, “Do you know the weirdest thing about being pregnant?” Cuquis and Juanita, who know all too much about being pregnant, smile.

“The weirdest thing about being pregnant is, well, there’s two things. No, wait — there’s three weirdest things about being pregnant.”

Cuquis snaps, “All right! So what are they?”

Perla sticks her tongue out at Cuquis.

Con esa letigua, ” Cuquis says, “mi perro se lamea el culo. ” It is so obscene that all three women burst out laughing. “Ay, Dios, ” and “Ay, Cuca — no te aguantas!

Perla still wants to talk about her pregnancy. “First,” she says, “it’s my bellybutton. It popped out, like the baby pushed it out.”

Juanita says, “He did push it out, mija. I remember mine poking out. Cuca?”

Cuquis shakes her head.

“I always have a perfect body, even when I’m pregnant.”

Uy-uy,” says Juanita. “You think you’re so hot.”

“I am hot.”

Perla cuts them off. “Now it sticks out like a big thumb. My nephew saw me the other day, and it was sticking out of my shirt and he said, ‘Look at Aunt Perla. She has a pipi!” The women chuckle. Juanita pours them each a cup of coffee. “And?” she says.

“The second weirdest thing is when it moves.”

Juanita says, “Oh, yes.”

“It kicks my liver like a futbol!

“They do that.”

“He wants room service,” Cuquis says. “He’s calling for a big supper, like the actors do on television.”

Oye, Cuca,” Juanita says, “where did you ever see television?”

Perla says, “And the third thing....” Worried, she looks into her own shirt “It’s my...nipples. They got so big.”

Juanita and Cuca are smiling. “Is it normal?” Perla asks in a small voice.

Ay, muchacha,” Cuquis says. “Wait until the milk comes.”

“It’s all right, Perla,” Juanita says. “They get big.”

Cuquis, “Brown like chocolate.”

“Mine are already brown, Cuca,” Perla cries.

“Then they’ll get black as old atole. They’ll look like licorice.”

Perla makes a face. “Really?”

“These things happen, mija, ” Juanita says. “God has His little surprises for women.”

“I wish He’d asked me what I thought about it,” Perla says.

“Don’t blaspheme,” Cuquis replies.


10:00 a.m.

The dump itself is a vast scatter of bright specks. The trash spreads across the land in layers of dull colors enlivened by exclamation points of white plastic and paper. From a hillside, it looks like a Pollock canvas in full frenzy. And above, in swirling disks, rise the thousands of gulls. It looks like the white flecks on the ground have become animated and have begun to spiral out of the frame. So many gulls fill the bright sky that the ocean beyond is pale, as if seen through a thin bank of fog.

Moving back and forth, slowly, hunched, looking like strange little birds picking insects out of the soil, the humans work. They stay silent because the noise drowns out their words. They blend with the garbage, become invisible for a moment against the camouflage. Then they move back into the sunlight — cranes, ibis, storks — but it takes effort to see them as people.

And roving hugely among them, fat and wicked, exploding noxious black clouds of smoke, and looking like dragons, dinosaurs, carnivorous giants, come the tractors. Big bulldozers with iron spikes on their treads and earth movers pulling their pregnant-looking sleds behind them. Even from a mile away, they can be heard growling, belching, coughing. At times, when the wind is right, their engines sound just like animals. Some meat-eater ripping at a corpse, the gear shifting making them sound like they’re growling. And every few bites, they pause to roar.

11:00 a.m.

The children have been playing in the dirt. Perla is napping. Juanita listlessly sweeps the rooms, thinking of home. She can remember poking ripe mangoes out of the trees with a long stick. Once, as a special treat, her grandmother had fried cow brains and eggs. Once she saw her mother and father making love. Once there was a flood, and they saw a shack go by, complete, as if they’d built it on the water itself, and there were people on the roof, crying out as they were swept into the night. These memories pass slowly through her mind. She never thinks about sex.

Braulio is outside, and he strains against a large, broken wood frame, one of the many bits of scrap and trash littering the yard, and he is thinking about sex. He overheard the women talking about breasts, and it has made him feel frantic. Perla is on his mind. He would like to sneak in the room and lie beside her. He wants to feel the roundness of her belly. He turns his back on the kids shrieking in the dirt and heaves once more against the wood.

He has been wondering if he should go to school. He will have to earn money to care for Perla and his — the baby. He isn’t going to stay in the trash. He has that new house to build. He wants to buy a television. And a book. He wants to read. He wipes his brow. He wishes he had a tape recorder or a radio. Music is like reading a book with your ears. He heard a word he liked, and he feels it is true about him. Lalo said it about him, and he thinks it is the highest compliment he has ever received. The word is filosofico.

Noon.

Huevona sits on the summit of the hill that separates the neighborhood from the rest of the world. She still smells like pee. She wears her crusty underpants, a green pair of pants under a one-piece dress, a sleeveless undershirt under the dress. Her socks are unmatched, and she wears shoes that were once white. She’s watching for the missionary vans. Her smell comforts her, though she is just vaguely aware that it bothers others. They complain about it all the time. She doesn’t understand why.

Clouds of dust appear below, moving steadily up the road. “Los Americanos!" she yells, jumping to her feet and running through the neighborhood. “Los Americanos!” People hustle toward the community basketball court, where the vans will park in a semicircle. The women are already carrying their mesh and plastic bags. There are only ten men in the throng, and they are all old, sick, or drunk. All the other men are either in the trash or in San Diego.

Juanita and Perla hurry along, trying to beat the sharks. These sharks are outsiders, women who come from miles away, walking hours, to get some of the American goods. There are often fistfights between locals and sharks, the women rolling around on the ground in deadly clutches, choking and punching as they roll, while their friends and neighbors laugh and taunt them and occasionally kick them.

The bathing rooms are already waiting. The gringos pay a small rent to two families for the use of their buildings. One of them, Hermana Josefina, is a Mixtec Indian who has managed to eke out a good living from the generosity of the gringos. When they are visiting, she is the humblest and saddest Christian woman, cooing things like “I am God’s poorest little child” to the translators. When they’re gone, she likes her mezcal and her cigars, becomes a tyrant, and uses her imagined position of power to coerce and threaten the neighbors into doing her bidding.

Her latest ploy is to convert her small barn into a church, which various evangelical groups use for services and Bible studies. Each group pays Josefina, if not in money, in clothes and food and soda cans and prestige. The current gossip about her is that she is a satanist and that she works black magic on her enemies. Cuquis whispers to Juanita that Josefina has sacrificed a baby. Someone or other saw it; it’s true.

“I heard,” Juanita says, “that she has sex with the devil.”

Cuquis and Perla look at each other and nod. There is no doubt about it.

Perla makes the sign of the cross, lest Josefina give her the evil eye — el trial de ojo — and somehow harm the baby within her. Babies have been born with horns, tails. Everyone knows it’s true. She shudders, even though the sun has already burned the hilltop into the high 80s.

“Old witch,” she mutters.


Josefina has a different take on the situation. She can remember when she gave birth in that same little barn they use for church. She was alone, no one there to even hold her hand. And she remembers cutting the umbilical cord herself, with a kitchen knife. And she remembers almost losing that same baby to a terrible pox that the missionaries cured with an injection and cans of fluid that she threw away because the color looked evil to her.

She remembers her mother being kicked in the stomach by Mexicans just like these women. Why shouldn’t Josefina have something extra? Nobody else takes in abandoned Indian children. She even feeds orphaned mestizo kids, though she doesn’t love anyone outside her tribe. Except the missionaries. She loves them quite a bit. Her favorites are the Baptists, though she is Catholic. The Baptists have the best doughnuts.

Josefina has her own family to feed, plus three new orphan boys. Let them talk all they want. None of them had the strength of will to force their husbands to build a barn. You keep a man too busy to do mischief, and you have to be stronger than him. Take control and keep them scrambling — anybody knew that much.

And as long as the gringos don’t know that she has the biggest pigpens in the area, hidden down the backside of the hill, they will take pity on her. For the situation in Mexico has reduced urban Mixtec women to one thing: begging. They stand in traffic in every big Mexican city, and if they are lucky, they’ll have a baby at their breast. Their greatest art, now that their pyramids are gone and forgotten and their cities laid to waste and overgrown with weeds and jungles, their one great art is pity. Everything depends on how abject they can look, how piping and pitiable their voices, how huge their eyes. How much of their breast is revealed as the baby suckles. The tribal women, called Marias by the Mexicans, have learned to massage the appalling sentimentality of gringos and mestizos. While the modern world grinds them like corn, its operators occasionally feel saddened by the big black eyes and toss out a few cents. Josefina is only doing what Mexico has told her she must do. She begs. But she will not grovel. Let the missionaries fill her gut and cover her back. Let the women of the barrio fear her.

She says to her friends, “Why shouldn’t I have power over these damned Mexicans?”

When no one is listening, she sings songs in her own tongue.

1:00 p.m.

Boys shuffle off to Josefina’s barn. There, men have set up curtained shower stalls made from galvanized tubs and PVC piping. The girls wander down the road to a small house with a real floor. Astonishingly robust Baptist women stomp around making loud noises and wide gestures. The Mexican and Indian women surreptitiously gawk at these golden beings, wondering how they get so shiny, how they manage to stay clean and get so tall. Their eyes are often blue, their skin peachy and smooth. You can smell them from a meter away: perfume, deodorant, mint chewing gum, shampoos and conditioners, and whatever other lotions they have smeared on themselves. None of them smell like pee, sweat, or bad teeth. Their breasts are pointy and hard as fruit, it’s obvious. They have big solid asses, and they all seem to love Jesus, even when they don’t always give evidence of loving the poor. The neighbors think the gringo men are often cute, if a little soft. But these gringas. It’s like a television set has broken open and these bellowing female giants have stormed out among real people. Every woman in line is happy that their men are away, at work. And Juanita is keeping her eye open for her favorite, the pastor.

Fifty-one other women watch for him, too.


1:30 p.m.

The children are shampooed first. They line up and dip their heads into tubs as more Americanos splash water and soap on them. Many of the kids have lice, so there is a lot of Kwell lice-killing shampoo in the water. Many mothers don’t want their children to be washed here, because it doesn’t take long for the tub to look like it’s full of Nestle’s Quik, brown and thick, and floating with dying lice. Babies scream and kick. And the young Bible student volunteers laugh and sparkle and curse in the weirdly gutted fashion of Evangelicals: Gosh! Dang! Darn you! Oh, good gosh!

After the shampoo, it’s off to the baths. And after the baths, the children receive their treats. Each gets a bag with two doughnuts, two or three pieces of fruit, and a carton of cold chocolate milk the color of their bath water. They have each earned a few points, paid in poker chips and rubber stamps on the backs of their hands. With these points, they can purchase candy or popcorn or even small toys and toothbrushes at the bodega set up in one of the vans.

For most of the mothers, these afternoons are the only times they have freedom. Their men are gone, and someone else is caring for their children. They gather and gossip, flirt, show off, fight. They line up at various vans to receive their goods. After they have gone through the line, they run to the end and hope there is enough left for seconds. Sly women send their children into other lines, and they switch places, sometimes sending family members through three or four times. These are the neighborhood’s venture capitalists.

Hermana Josefina outrages them all by refusing to enter any line. She stands near the door of her barn and smiles at them, like some benign queen, vaguely amused by their antics. She makes a great show of hugging the pastor as he tries to enter the barn. Her skin is almost black against his grizzled white arms. Her eyes, peeking around him and flashing at the other women in the lines, are as impenetrable as obsidian.

Cuquis nudges Juanita.

“That old witch is stealing your man.” The other women laugh.

Juana ignores them and turns to Perla. “Little Mother,” she says. “What about Braulio?”

“What about him?”

“Well? What about him?”

“Braulio?”

“Yes.”

“Our Braulio?”

“He’s the only Braulio I know.”

“Oh,” Perla says, looking off. “He’s not horrible.”

“Do you like him?”

“I don’t like being alone.”

“But do you like him?”

“Maybe.”

“Think about him,” Juanita says. “I like him for you.”

“Braulio,” Perla repeats.

Cuquis looks at her and grins.

“What’s your problem?” Perla snaps.


The van doors swing open. The women surge, almost break out of line and rush ahead in a little riot; but they already know that at the first sign of pandemonium, the doors will close and the food will drive away. Two weeks without provisions. So they shove each other and jostle a bit and hiss and tsk and mutter, but they hold formation.

They each receive:

One kilo of pinto beans, weighed and poured into a brown paper lunch bag.

Six potatoes.

Three onions.

One kilo of long-grain rice, also poured into a brown paper bag.

A few apples or oranges or bananas. They are in luck today. The next van has canned food. It’s a strange mixture, and some of it will have to go to the pigs because nobody knows what to do with it.

Veg-All. Creamed corn. Pear halves. Pumpkin pie filling. Pickled beets. Spam. Corned beef hash. Beefaroni. Tuna. Sauerkraut. Carnation condensed milk. Smoked oysters. Something without a label, flecked with rust. Alpo.

“What’s this?” says Perla, holding up a small can. It says “Escargot.”

“Look at the picture,” says Juanita.

Perla makes a face.

“The picture has snails on it.”

Juanita grabs the can and stares at it. “My God,” she says. “Gringos eat bugs.” “I’m going to barf,” Perla says.

They throw the can away.


3:30 p.m.

The pastor has felt guilty for years, watching the women stand in these ragged lines, waiting. He wants to make them happy, not just to feed them or preach to them. It has recently occurred to him to give them a carnival. He has invested some money and a lot of time in creating a series of midway games for the mothers to enjoy, competencias they call them. There is a balance beam and a beanbag toss. Pitching games and even a game with ray guns and bleeping, flashing targets. The women compete for candy bars and Cokes. They have grown to love the games, and they hurry from the food lines to line up and take aim with their three beanbags.

Juanita waits for the pastor to come out of the bathing room. When he finally does step out, in a hurry as always, she feels a thrill. He is the tallest man she has ever hugged, and she throws her arms around him before he can get away. He can’t speak a lick of Spanish, and he does his best, patting her on the back and saying, “Ah! Si, si! Hola! Muy bien!” as he tries to escape her grip. He has two more orphanages to get to today, and they’re running a half-hour late as it is.

Hermano,” she says as he pulls away. “Hermana Consuelo is hurt.”

The pastor waits for the translator to repeat it, then he asks, “How hurt?”

Cabeza,” says Juanita, indicating the head. “Mucha sangre.”

The pastor understands this perfectly well. He has seen a swimming pool’s worth of sangre these last 30 years.

Muy mal, ” Juanita says. “Esta en su cama. ” “She’s in bed,” the translator says, sounding like a monkey to Juanita. “Real bad.”

The pastor looks at his watch, sighs, says, “Let’s go take a look.”

Juanita is thrilled when he puts an arm lightly on her shoulders as they pass the lines of neighbors and sharks. She looks back at Cuquis and Perla and scrunches her nose at them, wiggles her hips. The pastor is oblivious. He’s wondering when the hell he’ll get a chance to eat something.

In the doorway behind them, Josefina is fuming.


4:00 p.m.

They collect Braulio as they walk. The pastor likes Braulio. He can see a good heart in him. “Broolio,” he says, the translator behind him like an echo, “you’re a winner. You’re a special boy.” Braulio blushes. It’s like God sticking a gold star on your homework.

Homework.

“Pastor,” he blurts, “I want to go back to school.”

The pastor smiles.

“Well, let me see what I can do about that.”

Braulio can’t believe his ears.

Gracias, ” he says.

Ah! Si! Bueno, bueno!” the pastor enthuses.

They knock at Hermana Consuelo’s doorway. They can hear her old husband, Pepe, blind and muy loco, shuffling around inside.

“Mama, Mama, ” he is saying. “Donde esta Mama?

They step in, and Braulio’s mouth drops open. He moves behind the pastor and hides.

Juanita touches the pastor’s arm and then crosses herself. It takes them a second to figure out what they see, but in the cramped gloom of the shack the terrible scene reveals itself. Blind Pepe, immensely fat and shirtless, is tied by the wrist to the center pole that holds up the roof. The rope has cut into his skin, and he has walked around and around the pole, like a tied dog, until he has come up tight against the pole and can’t move.

“Where’s Mama?” he asks. “Where’s Mama?”

Hermana Consuelo is lying on her back on their nearly black mattress, dead. Her mouth is open, full of congealed blood. Blood has run from her nostrils, forming a black mustache. Her eyes stare. Flies hurry along her lips, pausing occasionally to scrub their hands. Braulio doesn’t want to cry, but he bursts into tears anyway, and Juanita takes him against her breast, where he sobs.

The pastor covers Consuelo’s face with her blanket and takes out his knife and cuts Don Pepe loose.

He lightly embraces Juanita and Braulio and says, “Let’s step outside now and leave her alone.”

The translator forgets to say anything.


5:00 p.m.

The gringos are gone.

The pastor has given Braulio a ride over to the dump to collect Don Manuel. Nobody knows what to do, and Manuel and Lalo will think of something. The pastor has left $100 with Josefina to help pay for the burial. “Final” Juanita snaps. “She’ll steal the money!”

As the gringos drive away, and as Perla, against all orders, steps inside to look at Consuelo’s body, and Juanita and Cuquis lead poor, crazy Don Pepe to Juanita’s house, one of Fina’s nieces breaks away from the crowd to tell her what Juanita has been saying about her.


Braulio wades through the trash, looking for Manuel. He finally spots him by a stack of bulging bags. Manuel has pulled off his gloves, and he’s drinking water from a plastic jug, waiting for Lalo to come collect him and take him home.

“Uncle!” Braulio calls.

Manuel looks over at him and waves for him to come closer. “What brings you to the dompe?” Manuel asks.

“Dona Consuelo!” Braulio cries. “She died!”

“What do you mean, she died?”

“She’s dead. All full of blood. Her mouth and nose.” Manuel whistles.

Braulio says, “She drowned in her own blood, it looks like. I thought I was going to be sick.”

Manuel hands him the water jug, and Braulio takes a drink. He puts his hand on Braulio’s shoulder and says, “Now listen. When Lalo comes, you don’t say anything. I’ll tell him. You keep quiet. All right?”

Braulio nods.

“Not a word,” Manuel says.

“No.”

They wait.

Presently, Lalo comes banging along the dirt track that runs alongside the dump. He waves out the window at them. He parks and gets out.

“Another no-good long goddamned day,” he says, smiling his wild pirate’s smile.

“Lalo,” Manuel says. “Come here for a minute.”

He leads Lalo off to the side, puts his arm around his shoulders, and puts his face near his compadre’s. Lalo pulls away. “What?” Braulio hears his shout. Then Manuel speaks to him some more. Lalo puts his hand over his eyes. He lowers himself to the ground and sits with his head hanging and his eyes covered. When Manuel says something else to him, he swings his arm blindly, throwing a wild punch that rakes in only air. Silently, Manuel sits beside his friend and looks out at the tractors making their way out of the clouds of sea gulls.


7:00 p.m.

All Lalo could say when he got home was, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” They all told him it wasn’t his fault, but he feels the guilt crushing him. And he has begun to wrestle with the debt he now owes. Must he now care for Don Pepe? Can he care for the old madman? He knows the least he can do is build Consuelo a coffin. He is afraid to see her, afraid to face what his carelessness has done, for he is a man of conscience, and he knows his impatience killed her. “Don’t make me look at her,” he begged Manuel. “I can’t. I can’t.”

Later, he knows, he will be drunk. Very, very drunk. But not yet. He has work to do. Manuel has taken him off to buy wood. It’s the least he can do.


Consuelo’s house is dark. Lit candles sputter before her door, and several women, led by Cuquis, say a rosary outside. Their quiet voices sound like muffled music. Juanita’s house is bright. Lit up, with the door open. Everyone in the barrio has been coming around to leave money with her. Most of them give Don Pepe a hug. He chuckles, he thinks it’s his birthday or Christmas. “Oh!” he cries with each hug. “Hello! Hello!”

Juanita collects the sums in a coffee can, and Perla carefully scratches each person’s name on a piece of notebook paper. Braulio sits across from her and watches. “What are you looking at?” she says.

“You,” he replies.

“Why?”

“You’re beautiful.”

She puts down her pencil and looks at him for a long while.

Juanita has tied Don Pepe to a chair. She spoon-feeds him warm creamed corn. He smacks his lips. The children are terrified of him. Huevona peers out from behind the cloth bedroom door, wide-eyed. She smells like Ivory soap and baby shampoo. She hates smelling so sweet.

Don Pepe smells like wet cigars.

Juanita calls to her.

“You, Huevona! Come here.”

“Money,” Fina says and turns her deadly red eyes toward Juana. “Money. I hear you think I’m a thief.”

Juana casts her eyes down.

“I hear,” Fina says, rolling the cigar in her mouth, smelling of ferment and fire, “you think I’m a hacking witch.”

Braulio steps toward her and makes the mistake of touching her arm.

“Fina — ” he manages to say before she shocks him with a right-handed roundhouse slap that knocks him off his feet.

Inside Juanita’s house, it looks like there has been an explosion.

Braulio falls.

Huevona screams and runs.

The other children scream and scatter.

The little dog bursts out from under the table, barking.

The table tips over.

Piglets fly like shrapnel.

Juanita flies out of her seat and strikes Fina.

Perla, shrieking like a cat, throws herself over Braulio, who is crawling across the floor, and tackles both women.

They hit the floor in an avalanche of chairs and plates and forks and billowing skirts.

Pepe wakes up with a start and cries out, “Mama! Where is Mama?”

Screams, grunts, smacks, curses, crashes, shatterings, thuds, snarls.

Pepe tries to get up, still tied to the chair, yelling for Mama to come get him, and the women roll into him and knock him over backwards.

Braulio staggers to his feet, turns the wrong way, and plunges through one of the paper walls.

Manuel’s framed military diploma falls, and the glass breaks.

Juanita has Fina by the hair, and she is punching her in the face. Punching, punching, hammering.

Fina throws a kick that catches Perla in her huge, pregnant stomach, and Perla staggers back, clutching herself, almost retching. She hits the Coleman stove, and the boiling pot of rice flies to the floor, scalding everyone, and the gas feed-line breaks, and a terrible hissing escapes, and flames billow high, scrabbling up the wall.

They all pause for the slightest moment, listening to this strange sound, before they try to run out the door.

Yelling for the children.

Perla screaming, “Braulio!”

And Braulio steps back into the room as the gas bottle explodes and blows him backwards, right out through the wall of the bedroom.


9:30 p.m.

Everyone stands and watches Juana’s house burn. One of the piglets is trapped inside and screeches as it burns. Perla holds her hands over her ears. Braulio tries to hug her and all the children at once. Everyone is weeping. Fina, blood on her face, sheepishly comforts Juanita.

“I’m sorry,” she says, made sober by the fire. “Want a cigar?”

Juana counts heads. Everyone is accounted for except for Manuel and the pothead couple. Well, they’re all off drunk somewhere, and thank God for that.

The firemen don’t get there until 10:30, and by then, the fire has almost burned itself out. It gutters and smolders, but it’s down to the ground. They hardly have to spray any water on it at all.

“Perla,” Juana says. “Did you save the money?”

Perla holds up the coffee can.

Gracias a Dios, ” Juana says.

Don Pepe sits in the dirt, sucking his Tootsie-Roll Pop.

Everything is gone.


Midnight.

The neighbors return now, each carrying a small item to give to Juanita: an undershirt for Manuel when he gets home, a bag of sugared doughnuts, a blanket, a pillow, three eggs, a battered old pot, a cigarette, a bottle of rum, a coat, a potato, wet panties just washed and wrung out. “They’re almost new,” the woman says to Juana. “They have flowers on them.” Juana hugs her. Juana hugs many people, for some of them only have hugs to offer.

Cuquis and the funeral prayer circle have moved nearer to Juana’s clan, and they now pray for them.

Juanita is too tired to cry.

Braulio and Fina have gone to Fina’s barn and collected a heavy sheet of plastic. Braulio has an idea. Fina’s sons help him haul the sheet back to Juana’s yard. Everything stinks of smoke. Everything and everybody is black.

“Glory to God,” Juana repeats often. “We are all safe. Everybody’s all right.”

“At least we’re together, Mama,” Perla says.

“Glory to God. Glory to God.”

Braulio has seen that the wooden frame he moved away from the house is safe, unburned in the far corner. He drags it forward, around the glowing embers of the house, and he says, “I can build us a tent.”

Amazed, Juanita and Perla watch Braulio take charge of all the men who stand around gawking.

“All right, you lazy bastards,” he says, sounding exactly like Manuel, “we have work to do.”

And they get to work.


2:00 a.m.

The children are asleep in an unruly pile on the clothes that the neighbors have brought. Cuquis has taken poor old Don Pepe home with her. He will escape while she sleeps, however, and will be discovered without his pants in the morning, wandering around the basketball court.

The moon can be seen through the clear-plastic lean-to Braulio has constructed. He looks over at Juanita. She sleeps in the dirt, her head on the one pillow. In her hand is the charred corner of Manuel’s diploma.

Carefully, trying to make no sound, he scoots over closer to Perla. She sleeps on her side, with her knees drawn up, and one hand covers her mouth. He stares at her in the gloom. He cries, looking at her. He longs to put his mouth on her mouth and to feel her hot breath inside his mouth. He imagines it tastes sweet.

He wants to take her heavy hair in his hands and squeeze it.

He thinks, as he often thinks, if she will just marry him, he will show her what kind of a man he is. Or can be, anyway. He is only 14. Perla is 13.

He’ll build her the dream house.

He’ll work every day.

He’ll get her a television.

And a pig.

He’ll make new babies inside her.

He’ll plant flowers in their yard.

He’ll die for her.

He moves close to her, carefully, carefully — his jaws ache with the tension. And he maneuvers himself under her tattered blanket, wanting to feel her heat as she sleeps. Wanting to be near her. He can’t stop crying. He stretches himself out on the ground beside her and closes his eyes. He can smell her sweat. He leans close and lightly lets his lips touch her hair.

He is startled when her hand reaches out and clasps his.

Silently, she pulls his fingers toward her belly, moves them up and down on the taut softness of it. Then she moves his hand up to her breast and cups herself with his hand and snuggles in against him and goes to sleep.

Braulio lies awake, stiff, afraid to move, afraid to breathe.

All he can think to do is pray: Hail Mary full of Grace....


5:00 a.m., and snuffling and snoring fills the tent.

Dona Juana wakes first, and for a brief moment, she can’t remember what happened. She sits up and is startled to see the ruins, the tent, the children tucked in around her. She is also startled to see Perla caught up in Braulio’s arms and their legs tangled together. She looks up and sees a burly shadow through the plastic. She crawls out and looks into Manuel’s eyes.

“Are you all right?” he asks.

“We’re all safe,” she says.

Manuel hangs his head.

She goes to him.

“There is nothing you could have done, viejo.”

“I’m sorry, is all,” he replies, taking her in his arms. “I’m sorry.”

Lalo is keeping his distance.

He is ready to help, but he is not sure what is to be done.

“I saved this for you,” Juana says, handing Manuel the corner of the diploma. “Everything else is gone.”

“Everything.”

“Everything.”

Manuel turns to Lalo and says, “Everything is gone.”

“Everything?”

“Everything.”

Chingue a su madre,” Lalo says.

Juana says, “Braulio has some good ideas.”

“Braulio!”

“He was the hero. He took charge. And he has ideas for a new house.”

“Braulio,” Manuel says. “Imagine that.”

“He’s a philosopher,” Lalo calls. “Smart.”

Juana says, “He’s going to be your son-in-law, I think.” Manuel throws his hands in the air.

“Did anything not happen while I was gone?” he cries.

“Jesus Christ didn’t return, looks like,” Lalo says.

Manuel glares at him.

“Come,” Juanita says to her man. “Rest with me.”

“I can’t rest.” Manuel says. “Look at this! Our lives are gone.”

“No, viejo, our lives are here.” She puts her hand on his chest. “Our lives are here, No? Our things are gone, that’s all.”

“Yeah,” says Lalo. “You didn’t have anything anyway. Screw it.”

Manuel just looks at him.

Lalo shrugs.

“You know. Another pinche day of life, compadre,” he offers. Then he walks to his own house.

Manuel nudges Juana. She looks up at him.

“I brought you a flower,” he says.

He pulls a battered rose out of his pocket.

“Oh, you,” she says, taking it and holding it to her chest. “My little old man.”

They hold each other and weep softly, looking over the gray and black charcoal pit that was their house. Juana pulls him tight and rocks him back and forth. She speaks into his chest, so he doesn’t hear her at first. She has to repeat herself. She says, “Next time we build a house, let’s plant a garden. Let’s plant roses.” She’s thinking of Braulio, of his dreams and his ideas. She smiles into Manuel’s ribs. “Roses,” she says. “They’re like music for your eyes.”

And Manuel closes his eyes for a moment and listens. Small birds are singing all over the hill. Where do they hide, all the little birds? Why don’t they fly across the border, where the gringos probably throw food all over the streets? So many songs in the cool air — so many tiny, insistent, hopeful voices.

“These birds, I think,” he says, “all speak Spanish.”

“What are they saying?” she murmurs.

“They’re saying, ‘Hey—at least it’s not raining.’ ”

Tijuana-born Luis Urrea was raised in Logan Heights and graduated from UCSD in 1977. He is the author of Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border (Anchor Books, 1993), parts of which first appeared in the Reader. His most recent book is The Fever of Being (HarperCollins, 1994).

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