Autumn. That and the dry leaves drifting aimlessly through the streets. On the corner there’s a McDonald’s that looks like an island, its yellow light shining in the distance, in the middle of the rainy night.
Key watches the half-hearted fluttering of the American flag that hangs from a pole. Now she doesn’t like the rain. It seems insidious to her, brutal; it rots everything.
Friday. The Mexicans go out. In spite of the rain. She sees them go by. The same guys every time. Always at night. They drive fast. Hip-hop blasts from the stereo, making the car windows vibrate. Them, her, those who go out to explore the world.
She turns on the television. After so much diarrhea, vomiting and crying Suny is finally asleep. With a plastic Simbad in her hands.
She wanted to know something beyond the end of her nose and then she came to this end of the world. It was one night. Not long after Valente stepped down from the boxcar at the Davenport train station to work in the bar where they met; later to work in the meat packing plant.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
Valente made fun of her: “It’s easy to imagine Mexico here, everyone has drunk a tequila and seen mariachis, but Honduras?”
Honduras is a distant country, foreign. Nothing more. Key knows this.
They were lucky. Valente immediately took the job at the meat packing plant. With two salaries, by the middle of the year they had bought a living room suite, a stove, then the used Silverado. He is happy when they drive down the only avenue to the rhythm of the Mexican band that reminds him of home.
As for her, Key had to travel through Valente’s country to get where she was.
And she had screwed up, she knows it. Before that damned drunken night Key had wanted to go to another city: this country was too large a paradise to stay in one place.
The escape. The filthy city. A river. Inner tubes floating in a the filth water. She still sees herself crossing the bridge on a tricycle. The whorehouse that she was about to enter, desperate. The fear of being attacked by a gang. And the line of trucks. The bitter sweat of the truck drivers. The gouge she got when someone lifted her up into the truck and fucked her who knows where. She will never forgive him for that. That. To have been fucked by a Mexican. She never understood how a Mexican like her husband could have done that.
The line of trucks. The way he gouged her. The trailer full of bags of sugar. Just darkness and sugar when they closed the doors. She was almost asphyxiated. She was going to die and become one more fatality in the news. Three illegals died. Her death would be sweet and hot. The sweet world penetrated her pores, overpowering her. Until the doors opened and she saw shadows again. Then, after taking her money, before letting her go, the driver. There was no half moon. No barking of dogs. No crickets. Just the vast silence, of the desert, of the lonely road. The driver stunk of booze. She wanted to get away. He knocked her down with one slap. Then she opened her eyes. She saw the clean blue of the night. Whoever said that in situations like that the best thing to do is to go limp and give in can eat shit and die. Above her leg the hot air of the engine and a thick trickle. The man said she should be grateful that he had charged her very little for crossing more than half the country. If she made it to the other side she would wash herself for an entire day. If she managed to get there she would never have anything to do with a Mexican.
It had been an excruciating week. Then there would be seven months in Lerhners, the grocery store where she worked. It wasn’t like it was an easy journey but at least she was there, at the very beginning of a better life. She had barely travelled the edges of it. So she entered the bar after the ten hours she worked every day. She wanted to have fun, have a beer. When Valente asked her to dance she was drunk. Then the unexpected lump arrived. Suny. The unwanted prize in the Happy Meal. She cursed. Should she have gotten rid of it? So far from home? She wasn’t going to destroy just her own life. She wanted her Mexican husband’s life to be ruined too.
Not that he wasn’t a good man. Valente. The one who was now Her Husband. In fact, for a while she thought that everything was going well. Once she heard someone say that Mexicans are magnificent at work and in bed, that they are the only ones who love to work extra hours in the slaughterhouses. She chose to reserve her opinion. Valente was generous, honorable but he had the same face as that truck driver. And to top it off he smelled of cattle and blood.
“It’s more money, baby. Do you think that with that little salary we were going to pay to paint the house and buy furniture?”
She had liked it better when he smelled of booze instead of slaughtered cows.
It was all right: the house with a new coat of coral paint, a tire hanging from a branch of the tree where Suny could swing, a new TV from which Key saved the bubble wrap (she likes to pop bubbles when she’s nervous). But not the pork tacos or the Virgin of Guadalupe hanging on the wall or the damned old people’s dance that Valente taught the children on the block, a dance that seemed grotesque for the naive and evil children, who moved in time to guitars and violins while wearing wrinkled old people’s masks with hooked noses, missing teeth and mouths frozen in fake smiles.
“It’s a good life, it’s the life I want,” Valente tells her.
The vats full of boiling antibacterial liquid. The enormous cooling engines. The supervisor’s yelling. The speakers overriding the ferocious noise of the bone-crushing machines. And in some corner Valente, her dark-skinned Mexican prince wearing a helmet, rubber boots and a white jacket soiled with blood. She feels disgust. Any faint odor while they have sex makes her think of spleens, hearts, livers, tongues and udders. That is what has ruined everything. And the world outside goes on and on. It’s terrible to fall so low and see that the world continues with its foulness and its beauty. And it’s wrong that it soils her. Her. And Suny, who she doesn’t love, who she hates a little, not so deep down.
Her friends are still going out dancing, maybe they are drinking Budweiser. In her village she would have immediately looked for the old lady with the herbs to make her lose the baby. But she was alone. And almost all the places are invaded by them, the Mexicans, who practically run things here on the other side.
Now Valente is gone. His mother has died. He took the Silverado so that he could show off in the middle of the funeral. Mexicans only go back to bury their dead. To be buried. Key won’t go back, her town is too far. She wanted to know the world. And the world came to her on that drunken night. The small world reduced to a man. And a baby girl.
This is the main street of Norwailk. The land of God. She doesn’t want Suny to go to church. She doesn’t want her to be like those young girls with their long skirts and innocent smiles that come to Lehrner’s to buy sweets and then go back to pray. Key has told them that the candy rots your teeth and brings back bad memories.
Suny has a summer name. And she is the color of her mother and father together. A detestable, disastrous result.
Now she sleeps.
In the middle of the day she had to take her to La Crosse, to the only free clinic. “Is clean peoples,” Key told the nurse. The nurse gave her pills, envelopes of oral saline solution. She didn’t do it on purpose. Or maybe she did. Key shrugs. She would laugh but the situation is too grotesque. By now she has become infected by her husband’s sentimentality and scruples. She can’t stand his pampering, his dramatic temperament, his way of snuffling around like a timid ox who sniffs the straw and chews it. She doesn’t like Valente and, surprisingly, she doesn’t like Norwailk either, not in her situation. The avenue, the gas station, a stop for those continuing on their journey, and Lerhners with its air conditioning suffocate her.
Whenever she starts thinking about that night -anyone would say that she should get over it- Key makes a stupid mistake. At noon it had been with Suny. She started to boil milk. She thought about Valente’s mother’s funeral, she didn’t want to see him again. She poured milk in the glass. She mistakenly put a spoonful of salt in the glass, a big spoonful. She was thinking about how Suny would grow up in Norwailk, its church full of children with rotten teeth; of the ease with which children learned languages, how they grow up without prejudices, how her daughter would speak English and Spanish and would never have the desire to go anywhere else. But she also thought of her daughter’s color. Norwailk was a small city, barely a dot on the map, the first place she came to but not the last, or so she had thought in the beginning.
Hours later the girl had intense diarrhea and vomiting. She had put in too many spoonfuls. She had put salt and not sugar in the milk. She hadn’t done it on purpose. Or maybe she did. Key shrugs. The house, still painted coral, has cracks in the corners. When she goes to the bathroom and sees the mineral deposits in the toilet she feels like she is the toilet bowl. She doesn’t know who is filthier. Hondurans or Mexicans. She pours in Clorox, flushes and goes to her room to put on a little make-up. She looks at Suny sleeping with Sinbad in her arms. “Is clean peoples” she said to the nurse.
Autumn. Her husband isn’t there. That and the dry leaves drifting aimlessly through the streets. They go out, in spite of the rain. Now she doesn’t like it. The rain. She thinks it makes everything rot. Key goes to the window. She sees them pass by. It’s typical of Mexicans. They drive in their second-hand fast cars: the music full-blast shaking the windows. Them, her, the ones who leave to explore the world.
If it weren’t for all that Norwailk could have been just the beginning. That’s what Key’s friends who drink Budweiser in bars say, they look for other cities and they go. That’s what the huge laugh that escapes from her tells her, leaving her with an inexplicable loneliness. The half-hearted flapping of the flag hanging on the pole tells her, the “Life is easy” logo on the clock tells her. And the McDonald’s like an island with its yellow light shining from a distance in the middle of the rainy night.
Translated from the Spanish by Pennell Somsen