In Between Days
Before I’m sent away, let me tell you how I’ve disappeared and returned many times.
Once as a child, I was given a wooden toy horse and became so excited that I vanished.
Once I heard soldiers knock at my parent’s door and quickly turned into a pattern of shadows thrown against a wall.
Once I saw fire burn a man from head to toe and became his smoke.
And once my favorite schoolteacher called my name. My original one, the one I owned before becoming nameless. His voice was filled with so much love that its fire-blue flame turned me into a root. I expanded, branching out from house to house, field to field. Each space containing me, pushing worms aside, splitting stones, cutting through ancient layers of rock and hardened soil. Carefully avoiding the dead, I grasped for water hidden in great underground oceans. Going far, so far that my veins bled into the earth’s core, leaving me frightened and alone.
On those lonely days, when I tried unlocking hope from despair and found life’s brutalities, I’d become an apparition, made from the first puff of a cigarette or the first taste of a cold beer on a warm summer night. Sometimes, I reappeared as blurred images moving at the speed of darkness avoiding light and its costs. All this matters I know, because given enough time and enough space, we, and I mean everyone, will fade into nothing. Or at least someone’s tearful memory.
My earliest memory is watching a boy open a door.
“Come inside, he said. “Don’t be afraid.” He was white as milk and sat very still. A red line of scars crossed his flat nose and his voice sounded like the shallow end of a wide-open sea. When I asked why, he said one word, “Disappear.”
I have, even now in this mess, hauled away with cheap glasses slipping off a face that was never much to look at. Green with snot and greener still with a choked-up sweat wetting my skin to a shine. I clench and unclench my fists to prove a tightness lives inside. Dig my chin into my chest and blink many times as though I’m making escape plans; as though I’m on the rise when really, I’ve tumbled, jammed-up against a length of coal-tinted gravel, detained for wanting to earn a little pisto in the land of the free.
It’s not just that the damn bindings are too tight, the plastic cutting through my wrist, making me want to complain bitterly. A spiteful man would’ve spit out the tangle of words working their way like a poison infecting his head, but not me. Meanwhile, ICE can make jokes at my expense. One uniformed ogre with puckered eyes and a belly that outsizes my best friend Gonzalo’s takes pleasure in calling me out as a mojado.
“Sure, go ahead, brother,” I say. I know when you’re tired, when the life is wrung out of you, there’s little value beyond the hours it takes to break your back for the hundredth time.
I’ve learned too that when caught, stay calm. I’ll relax while clearing the dust from the lining of my throat. While inside the ICE van, I’ll think about how easily I bounced from solid to nothing and back again. My breath will move freely, wishing off any desire to mix with the warm, sweet air. On the trip to wherever the hell I’m sent, I’ll vow once again to exist beyond the ways of a walking phantom. Sleep without rest is a terrible habit: one eye open, one eye closed. Cancelling each other out so that vision is something to be forgotten. Like a memory of wasting away hidden behind thick concrete walls.
And who’s to say what it means to be here when you’re completely someplace else. Sure, it makes no sense but that’s how it goes. It’s not just me either. My entire village, from the viejito Andres Bacaal to the Yanez sisters, evaporated just like that. Needless to say, it was the fault of a spoiled boy who uttered a forbidden word.
It takes just one, I’ve learned.
When day-dreaming, when my mind goes from work to boredom and back to work, I’ll try guessing what the word might have been. Maybe, ‘money’, ‘help,’ ‘thief,’ ‘soldier,’ ‘stop’? Or maybe it was just a look, a thought, a movement of the hand, a mindless shift of the wind that makes true silence so rare.
Whatever it was, there’s no doubt that the wolf-pack came rattling through my village one hot spring morning, creeping in just after Easter. Their leader acted like a villain from a bad TV movie, complete with raspy voice and a uniform stitched to fit a corpse. He called himself Col. Figueroa and counted among his friends the biggest thieving bastards the country has ever pissed out. He announced this proudly while he scratched at the sun-dried creases pressing into his face.
“Remember,” he said, as men lined-up on our small plaza at his command, “all you Indians are born liars. Don’t deny it. It’s written in great books beginning and ending in the Bible. It’s a simple fact of your biology. It’s not your fault that lies stick to your tongue like shit on a bull’s tail.”
“On your knees,” he finally said, adding as he spit out the bile allowing him to stand straight and stiff. “God is deaf to liar’s prayers.”
And just like that, his mob went to work. When done, not one rug or old man’s labored breath or dried bit of corn or muddy shawl remained. No evidence that campesinos walked with bent spines from home to field on dirt paths cleared of stubborn weeds and drunken spirits.
As for me, I shut my eyes to watch the world as it blew away. Seeing everything about the Chama’s volcanic slopes eroding into hills, which of course fell like dead men into the river valleys of San Jacinto and Santa Maria.
Santa Maria Talmulco, I think it still stands. I think whatever spells old crones and young barbarians made cursing the place have almost run their course. When my family hid at the wooden feet of Santa Maria inside her small humble church, my father Ulises said to me, “Don’t speak.” But tell me this, what chance does silence have with fear lurking nearby? Have you ever thought about that? How fear is like a thousand voices talking at once? No, a thousand and one, and that extra voice hustles words, breaks down doors, orders its thugs to use two bullets for every one person declaring their innocence.
Col. Figueroa haunts Santa Maria, that much is sure. And I’ll bet that an afternoon’s worth of spent shell casings can still be found buried at the bent end of Santa Maria’s twisted backroads. The very roads I used to escape. Never mind how, but according to the gospel found in many comic books I’ve read, I was like Superman, whose parents rescued him from a dying planet, sending him to Earth where he was found and raised by an old American couple. The sun’s strange rays or its heavy gravity; something darkly powerful and beautifully unknown, made Superman truly super.
I’ve got none of that, of course, except becoming invisible.
Often, I’ll ask myself in a non-dreaming way: Is this the superpower of the unfortunate?
Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow
I’m standing on my heels in a place called Kingston, waiting by the side of the road for day-work along with a pack of other phantasms. Enrique from Chihuahua jokes that rolling around inside us are broken engines clanking away. His primo Emiliano drinks papaya juice from a Jumex can. Throwing it on the ground, Emiliano stares at his phone for the hundredth time while me and Enrique begin to play soccer with the tin. I fast cut inside, then out, but Enrique is a dirty player and kicks my legs from under me while scoring a goal.
“Tramposo,” I yell. Enrique is too busy celebrating to notice my barking. I pick up the can and rub my hands against it, trying to get at the genie inside while planning my next move. I’m wishing small: some hot coffee, a soft bed without sugar ants marching on the pillow beside me, and just maybe a little Johnny Ventura full volume so that later I could watch the Fresno tree do the meringue from the small window in my shrunken room.
A big and stretched Pocho-looking guy with a rose tattoo growing like a weed along his neck approaches me, asking for a “roll-up”. I pretend not to speak English, but he asks again in perfect Spanish.
“You know, no one listens anymore to anything. Look here, I heard about this disease, brand new. Never seen before. Like Ebola but not Ebola. This one happens in the north. Get this, you fall asleep. Could be anywhere: in bed, in front of the TV, outside, inside, day, night. It doesn’t matter. You fall asleep and they find you frozen, your body, your blood, your heart and guts everything full of frost. Even your tongue icicle stiff.”
“Is that so? I never knew that.”
I’m feeling sick. Maybe it was getting outplayed by the Mexicano but the Pocho’s big tooth smile slices a broad canal into the quiet of my skull. Or maybe it’s just that times are tough and getting tougher. Plenty of short-tempered bosses, hard to please ones, say this and I’m in the mood to repeat what’s in the mouths of the powerful. Adding to my sickness is the fact above me are scores of mosquitoes patrolling the muddy flats built by last week’s rains. In the thick of it all is Palo, the lazy owner of the thin-walled squats we rent weekly. On most nights for the past month he’s argued loudly with his wife about their son’s sexual leanings:
“He is a maricón.”
“Yes he is, look what I found in his room.”
“Anyone can have that.”
“Not my son.”
“Why do you persecute him?”
“You held him too tightly as a baby.”
“I didn’t hold him tightly enough.”
This is how it plays for hours until doors slam, and snoring begins. But my current headache comes from this Pocho. He’s obviously playing with the truth. Then again, why should I care, since truth and lies eat from the same table, as my good friend Gonzalo was fond of saying.
If this were any other day, I’d be buying a round for Gonzalo as a way of marking all the hours, all the hardships we endured taking steps toward El Norte. The panzón is dead now, although that shouldn’t matter. Neither should the fact he died while losing his footing re-crossing the Rio Suchiate. What’s important is that he’s disappeared and can’t be found, just like my village, just like me. He was there and now gone. And for all I know he lives as a dream or inside the spaces where dreams are often discarded.
Yet strangely enough, something tells me Gonzalo is close by, seeing all clear as water. No doubt he’s watching as I swipe a bandanna across my thick-headed brow or when I comb the part on my hair from left to right and back again. And I’m sure he spies me making goat faces at all those with their noses permanently stuck in the air.
Stubborn as Gonzalo was, it’s safe to say that he found a way to squeeze more juice out of life. Still, the act of disappearing and returning, going off and on, flickering as if he were a heartbeat made to last a few moments must take its toll. I’ve noticed the dangers whenever I vanish and return, each time being a little bit less than I was before. My jawbone slopes. My eyes narrow and droop. The bones supporting my face cave. It’s like my image reflects what’s most easily forgotten. In contrast to the Pocho, who shines brightly and won’t shut-up.
“Look here, and I swear to Christ almighty, you have to learn to survive. Once I was stuck in an elevator for 30 minutes, felt like forever. The red phone inside was busted, broke. The lights broke, too. How do you survive that? What if you’re claustrophobic? Couldn’t even stand to hear your voice in a tight space. Nobody teaches you how to survive. In school, no way? They don’t teach you nothing about surviving Ebola or a broke elevator. You got to know things and only God can show you the way.” He finally quits rambling and a low buzzing sound like a hummingbird circling the red fringes of a bottlebrush tree spreads.
I can’t help but hang my pained head low, so low that I can hear my father, “Don’t look there, down there is only hell,” he says. “That and the Devil pulling a cartful of his crimes.” The Pocho gets distracted and the dirt beneath us shifts. That’s when the green and white vans and trucks appear and that’s also when the small broken machines inside us decide to turn, forcing wheels to spin and pistons to steam back and forth. We run, first across a parking lot, then through a field of onions. In the distance is a yellow house. Men shout, “Stop,” in different languages but I keep running, the house drawing me forward. For a second everything vanishes and then reappears as a fiesta: mayordomos lighting fireworks, church bells ringing behind the procession for Santa Maria, drunk and loud men cursing the spill of grain alcohol on worm-eaten floors, children laughing as they chase each other in the streets, hunting down the smells of mole cooking and giant pots of atole simmering.
I reach the porch. There it is, the door from my first memory. From its small window, I look in and see my childhood. There’s my father counting his debts one by one and my mother Beatrice, her eyes shy with years, threshing out wild dreams from the surrounding fields of grass the color of rust.
There’s the boy too, smiling as orphans do.
Going inside, I try disappearing. I feel invisibility coming on. Ash collects on the walls and the floors turn to ocean foam. But I’m tired and need rest.
“Can I have some water?” I ask the boy, who sits quietly watching me. He leaves the room and returns with a glass. I take a small drink, no more than a sip, since my lips are cracked. The boy stops smiling, and immediately I feel myself slipping again into the quiet world of invisibility. He touches the red scars on his nose in such a way that says, “Be very still, very careful, my friend, because Col. Figueroa is just around the corner.” That’s when ICE arrives. They grab at my bruises, disconnect me from the silence I’ve worked so hard to recover. They shove me out the door.
Left sitting on the ground, I shield my face with what’s left of the wind. I hear a nearby train roll past and coyotes whine as evening breaks. The sky strays. I know it does because I can see it shiver and float, carried on the backs of hundreds of songless blackbirds released from a grove of cottonwoods whose roots I once followed.
Today the air tastes of wet alfalfa and cows move across great open fields. And though the grasses they chew are green, soon snow will erase all that. I’ve gone mojado here long enough to see the days change and in between them watch Christmas lights glow: blue, red and orange. These northern towns and cities sag under colorful lights and time passes slowly in the cold unlike in Guate where we captured it and held it like seeds between our long bony fingers. Sometimes we threw time into the air. Its patterns we’d read as books and they told us that when the dead speak their voices blister like acid, announcing how deeply they long for another shot at life.
In my childhood at Christmas we had the Magi. We placed great stones blocking caves where demons rested and grumbled for their meals. We had the black body of Esquipulas in our church and the crowing of roosters at dawn. Since my mother loved roses, I watered them just so. To be cut and dressed in linen, given to the blessed Virgen who would greet the Three Kings on their journey home.
I remember all this sitting alone and worn in the van. The uniformed ogre continues to take pleasure in witnessing the worthlessness of me and counts each man caught like pebbles on the ground. But before I’m sent away, before I can lift my head to get to nowhere, I’ll try to see myself with the freedom to yawn and stretch, whisper and kick a ball through a goal without getting cheated. Because I’ve learned that when you disappear, everything after can be a miracle. One where each broken thing inside speaks with its own unfailing voice. Few people know this, but if you listen carefully tiny little lives born in misery begin to chatter. They talk about becoming something greater than the date of their birth, something more than the overworked muscles straining to avoid an early grave.
This is as true as the world is large and grows larger each day. I’ve found too that going from its start to finish is never ending. It goes on and on while you’re forced to stop.
I’ve stopped and will ask the saints preparing the down payment on my soul to rest for a minute, to take what I’d lost in that humble church after having kissed the cracked wooden feet of Santa Maria and set me free.
And when I’m released, when I’m well on my way to disappearing again, I’ll go from somewhere greater than the distance between here and the next place I’m found.
We’re near the end of our journey. I can see the barbed-wire fences ahead and hear the great loads of men and women walk with heavy steps behind them. The Pocho sitting in front of me yells out, asking the ogre when we should expect to eat.
“Don’t worry,” he says, “you’ll get your tortillas soon enough.” The Pocho laughs, shakes his head and turns to me. With a wide smile, showing all his fine teeth, he scratches at his neck until the rose bleeds while asking, “Look here, if they find your bones in the desert and no one claims them, were you ever really alive?”