Authors: Stella Pope Duarte
DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF
SGT. TONY CRUZ AND ALL LA RAZA
WHO DIED IN VIETNAM
We hear you
CAME FROM THE SEVEN CAVES
THE FIRST PLACE, WHERE MAGIC RULED
MY FOOTPRINTS LEAD FROM THERE
WHERE THE TRIBES BEGAN
Song of the Mimixcoa
Poems of the Aztec Peoples
he passion vine bloomed until late November the year Jesse died. Amazing. Every morning I walked out on the rough slab of concrete that led to the wooden trellis leaning against the side of the house to check for blossoms. Warm September days in Arizona fueled the vine's growth, and the cool days of October should have signaled it to stop. Still, in 1968, truth was suspended in midair, and the passion vine forced blooms into the cold, gray days of November. Each blossom lived one day. All that beauty for just one day.
Early missionaries saw the mystery of Christ's passion in the flower's intricate design. The petals symbolize the ten apostles at the Crucifixion, the rays of the corona are the crown of thorns, the five anthers the wounds, the three stigmas the nails, the coiling tendrils the cords and whips, and the five-lobed leaves the cruel hands of the persecutors. The flower was fully open, a purple-white disc, translucent in the gray dawn. Dewdrops shone on the petals. I felt around the flower's delicate stamen, feeling pollen under my fingertips; the petals felt thick, rubbery. The smell of dead leaves, wet earth, and moist wood hung in the air.
I shivered in my flannel nightgown and bare feet. My face felt numb. I knew my nose was turning red. The evergreen tree in the front yard and the skinny chinaberry tree growing by the woodshed glowed in the early morning light. Across the street, Fireball, the Williamses' rooster,
crowed. El Cielito, my old barrio, was coming aliveâawkwardly, like a dinosaur rising to its feet.
I spotted Duke, our old German shepherd, walking toward me from the backyard. Jesse had named our dog Duke for the song “Duke of Earl” that we practiced dancing to in the living room. We made the old 45 go round so many times the needle cracked. It was worth it, because all our dips and spins matched perfectly, and Jesse felt so good about his dancing he even asked Mary Ann to dance with him at his eighth-grade graduation party.
Jesse said Duke was seventy-seven years old in dog years. That was two years ago. Poor Duke, no wonder he was walking so slow, dragging around over seventy years of chasing cats and cars. He padded toward me in silence, yawning once. Seeing me there was no surprise. Duke picked a path parallel to the water hose that ran along the hard-packed earth to a row of hedges that grew against the chicken-wire fence, separating our property from our neighbors, the Navarros.
Duke came up to me, brushing along the side of my leg. He nuzzled the hem of my nightgown with his wet nose. I saw patches of bald spots on Duke's brown back, and his tail wagged like a melancholy pendulum between his back legs. “Good dog,” I said patting him. “Sit, Duke. Sit here.” I pointed to the spot next to me. Jesse had taught Duke how to sit, jump on lawn chairs, retrieve a baseball, and scare the mailman.
With Duke at my side, I stared at the tangled passion vine and through its spidery web of stems and leaves at my mother's bedroom window, blocked off from the outside world by curtains that had faded in the sun. I knew my mother was in her room crying. Crying was all my mother did after Jesse was killed in Vietnam.
I hardly recognized her anymore. I had grown used to every expression of her face, all the ups and downs of her eyebrows, and the way the tiny wrinkles on her chin smoothed out when she smiled. I couldn't describe her face anymore. I didn't want to. I had to make myself stop wanting to hear her sing in the mornings while she made breakfast for me, Priscilla, and Paul, got coffee ready for my dad, and clattered the dishes around until we all got up. I couldn't even talk to Jesse about it, this whole worry about my mom, unless I went out to the passion vine.
I knew my father wasn't in the bedroom with my mother. How could he be? He could only take so much of her tears, then he pulled back, retreating into his own thoughts, into the circle of smoke made by cigarettes he forgot to finish smoking. He let his coffee, cafÃ© con leche, get cold. Cigarette ashes got all over the kitchen table. When he felt the
cigarette burn his fingers, he put it out in one hard motion in the ashtray, then he gulped down more coffee, but he wouldn't go back into the bedroom with Mom. My parents lived in the same house as strangers long before Jesse died.
There was more between my parents than Jesse's death. There was Consuelo. Since I could remember, Consuelo's name was whispered, shouted, and swept out of our house over and over again, and it reappeared, a spider's web stubbornly clinging to a dark corner of the living room. The spider's web stood up to blasts of air spewing from the swamp cooler that made wheezing sounds when the humidity was up. It was a reminder to me that Consuelo was there, entangling us in a web of lies and shame, holding us captive, hexing my father, TÃa Katia said, with his own photograph and a pin pushed right into his heart.
Anger was a balled fist between my breasts. It made me want to rip the passion vine apart, reach for my mother right through the glass, and make her stop crying. No one was around except Duke, keeping guard. It was too early for El Cielito's winos to begin their morning trek down the alley to the liquor store. It was two hours before I had to catch the bus to Palo Verde High School to finish my senior year. It was an hour before neighbors who worked in construction had to get up. I wanted to tear the vine apart, destroy the blooms that told the story of suffering and death with Duke my only witness.
Yet, the passion flower I held in my hand fascinated me. How could anything so beautiful be filled with the memory of so much suffering? Thorns, nails, blood, so long ago, Christ, ripped from his human existence. Why? Why all the suffering? The question grew inside me, pressing in me, forcing my hand to close over the flower, over the evidence of a murder. My body was wound tight with sobs that made my throat ache and my stomach jerk. I cried into the back of my hand, letting go of the flower. It was the first morning I chose not to crush it. The bloom lived on in the cold November morning, firm evidence that suffering was alive and well. Later, I was glad I hadn't crushed the flower, because it was the last bloom the passion vine gave that year. After that, the vine wilted away and slept through the winter as it should have done in the first place. I turned around and got on my knees, encircling Duke in my arms. “Good dog, Duke. Yes, taking care of me, like Jesse did.” Duke stood perfectly still, and let me cry into his furry neck.
he dream about my left ear was what started the whole thing. It came just before Christmas 1996, two nights before my mother heard the voices and I had a showdown with Sandra. The dream revealed a spot in the middle of my head I had never seen before. The spot was a microscopic reservoir of clear, watery liquid that ran out my left ear. It reminded me of the water from the Salt River, El RÃo Salado. I almost drowned in El RÃo Salado when I was seven, and I thought maybe I still had water in my earsâimagine after all these years! Dreams are that way. They show you a time in your life you forgot existed, a time you got stuck inside yourself and never came up for air. It was good, the dream; it wiped my ear clean so I could listen, listen hard to what I couldn't see. It cleared my head thirty years after Jesse's death and unplugged the thoughts I had hidden away, so secretly, so painfully. The dream made me brave and reckless, but I didn't know it then. I had been so used to stagnant pools inside myself, I didn't know how to live in water that was full and wild, teeming with life, so the dream set out to teach me.
HE STREET IS DARK
, a cavern I could lose myself in if it weren't for strings of Christmas lights on neighbors' front porches and the star of
Bethlehem blinking over Blanche Williams's house to show me the way. Mist hangs in the cold air, thick enough to make street lights on opposite ends of the road look as if they're miles away. I have no idea why there's moisture in the airâEl Cielito is nowhere near water.
The hazy air makes it hard for me to see, or maybe it's tears starting. I reach for the Kleenex on my lap as I drive up to the front of my mother's house. I press the Kleenex up to my bruised lip, cursing Sandra and Ray. Blood oozes from inside my lip, saturating the wad of Kleenex. Pain shoots into my jaw.
So clearly, I see Ray in my mind on stage at the Riverside. His shirt is open at the collar, unbuttoned midway down his chest. At close range, the hairs on his chest stick out, sexy, unruly. He cradles the guitar in his arms, a loaded weapon he soothes and urges on, strums soft, strums hard, until the instrument explodes in his hands, making the speakers over the stage vibrate with the salsa sounds of Latin Blast. Ray's face changes colors. The blue stage light is one color, then his face turns to red, purple, and amber, colors reflected from openings in an aluminum globe suspended from the ceiling, spinning over the dance floor.
I wasn't there that night to see him perform with Latin Blast. I was there to see herâSandra, the woman I was tired of hearing about. The woman Ray swears is only another groupie, an ugly, no-name woman who pays to see him play. I found out Sandra isn't ugly, and besides that, she's showy and defiant about Ray. I watched Ray thrust his guitar in the air, Elvis-style, a flourish, as the band took a break between songs. I noticed Sandra at a table nearby take a drink of her margarita. A woman shouted, “Hey Sandra, Ray wants you on stage!” Both women laughed and Sandra said, “Tell him I'll be there in a minute!” She took another drink of her margarita and was laughing so hard she spit it out. I suddenly saw only one color before my eyesâRED. A flash of red illuminated Sandra, and I jumped at her, tackling her to the wooden surface of the bar, punching her in the face as she fought back. I grabbed her by the hair and got her cheap hairspray all over my hands. It was as bad-smelling as her perfume, and sticky, too. People were screaming. I heard glasses breaking. We fell between bar stools. Sandra hit me in the mouth, then took her fingernails and carved three gashes on each side of my face. By this time, I was whaling on her, pounding away all the hurt and pain of my husband's betrayal, and the years of Consuelo owning my father. I heard my dress rip, then straddled my legs over Sandra's middle and ripped off her dress, neatly, like it was coming off a hanger. Her breasts were exposed and I wanted to laugh at Sandra's small breasts sticking up
in the air, her nipples nothing more than two brown nodes, small discshaped circles on her chest. I couldn't imagine Ray, Mr. Breast-Man himself, interested in her! My mouth burned with pain, and I couldn't make my lips form a smile. The smile would be fake anyway, obscene even, considering how humiliated I felt. A security guard stopped us, pulled us apart. The manager of the place ran out and shouted at Ray, “Get your women under control, or I'll cancel your contract!”
“No need for that,” I told him. “You'll never see me in here again!” It made me mad, the manager's wordsâ“your women”âas if there was an audience full of women who wanted Ray. I turned my back on all of them and didn't even stop in the bathroom to take care of my face. Somebody handed me Kleenex. As I walked out. I heard a man's voice yell, “Don't drive like that, you'll be stopped by the cops!”
“Let them try!” I yelled back. I gunned the motor and made it out of the parking lot, oblivious to people milling at the entrance, watching me tear away. Looking into my car's rearview mirror in front of Mom's house, I make out the scratches Sandra's fingernails left on my face, three red gashes on each side that angle down my cheeks. The set on the left almost touches my lip. Will I need plastic surgery? I'm certain my blood crusted under Sandra's fingernails, because her blood crusted under mine. I shake off strands of her hair from the front of my dress as I stop the car and turn off the ignition. My hands are shaking so hard I have to hold them together to make them stop. I smooth my hair down and remember I left my sweater at the Riverside. I'm glad for the darkness and haze.
There's a light on in the house next to Mom's. The house used to belong to Ricky Navarro's family but has now been taken over by a bunch of shiftless renters who barely manage to pay the rent. For once, I'm glad Ricky and his mother, Sofia, aren't living there anymore. Ricky was my boy-prince, the kid I planned tea parties with behind gnarled bougainvillea and miguelito vines. It was hard to imagine Ricky belonged to the rough world of El Cielito when I watched him balance a teacup delicately between his thumb and forefinger.
Ricky came back from Vietnam in '66, crazy Ricky everybody called him. He brought back ten Zippo lighters he had collected from dead U.S. soldiers. There were burns on his hands and up his arms, and it didn't seem to matter to him. He picked at the scabs, opening up fresh wounds. Ricky was a twisted, distorted figure, rough and unshaven when he got back from Vietnam. No one could convince me it was the same Ricky I knew. He didn't look at me anymore when we talked. His green eyes stared over my head or around my shoulder as if he was waiting for
something to happen. “Los Chicanos are like ducks in a row in Nam, waiting for the next bullet, Teresa,” he said to me. “We're so glad to serve, and for what? To come back here and be treated like scum. Nothing's changed!”
Eventually, Ricky moved to California, to get away from the cops who stopped him from fighting when he was stoned on pot or high on pills. They hauled him back and forth to jail so many times, his fatigue jacket got to be two sizes too big from all the weight he lost. There were rumors that Ricky had joined a hippie commune in California. Ricky's mother was a barmaid who worked over at La Casita Restaurant, and she didn't put up with his shit. Still, she loved him so much, her green-eyed, baby Ricky. One day she disappeared and everyone said she had followed him to California.
Cholo, the family mutt, is barking in the front yard, running in circles, crouching low, barking again. He's the opposite of slow-moving Duke, who barked like he was coughing up phlegm.
“It's me, you dumb dog, stop barking!” Cholo snarls, crouches, barks again. I drop the wad of Kleenex as I struggle to open the padlock on the gate. For a minute, I wonder if I have the right key. Is this the right house? Why is the dog barking at me, he should know better. My hands are trembling as I wiggle the key into the lock again. Maybe my mother changed the lock and didn't tell me. Finally, it gives way, and I walk into Mom's front yard with Cholo jumping all over me, making it harder for me to hang on to my dress. I look down, searching for the wad of Kleenex and can't find it.
The light is on in my mother's room, but the rest of the house is dark. What happened to the porch light? There's no Christmas tree at the window. Mom hasn't put up a tree since Paul left home. The house looks as dark as the cave in Bethlehem. I see the edge of the curtain move, a simple flutter, but I know Mom is peeking out. It's more than she did years ago when I stood outside her window, staring at the faded curtains through the tangled web of the passion vine. I look at the barren spot where the passion vine once grew, and where Duke joined me on mornings I held a private vigil for Jesse. The passion vine was blown away years ago, how many, I can't remember exactly. A fluke blew it away, a storm that resembled a hurricane swept through the Valley, unearthing anything not rooted deep enough or held down by concrete. I look at the spot, and it sends a shock wave through my body. Jesse is there, watching me come home, remembering how I crushed out suffering for him,
one blossom at a time, until I gave up and the passion vine went to sleep on its own, making suffering stop in its tracks for the winter at least.
I rush to the kitchen door with Cholo at my heels. I have the key in the lock and open the door before my mother walks into the kitchen. I used to sneak in so quietly as a teenager. Sometimes Priscilla would leave the door unlocked when she wasn't mad at me. And now all this fanfare. All I need is a drumroll.
“Mija!” My mother gasps and strains to balance herself on her cane. Her hair is a maze of white, wispy tangles all around her face. Her nightgown dangles to her heels, exposing the white socks on her feet. Her hand is on her mouth, staring in horror.
“It's nothing Momâ¦nothing at all.” I feel my swollen lip shaping each word. Syllables catch like tangled threads in places where my lip feels numb.
“Howâ¦mijaâ¦what happened? Dios mio!”
I kick off my heels and let my dress slip off my body. I'm standing in front of Mom in my bra and slip.
“You'll freeze,” Mom says. “Go get my robe in the bathroom.” I walk down the hall into the bathroom, talking to Mom over my shoulder as I reach for an old bathrobe hanging on a nail. The robe is quilted, pink rayon with a frayed ribbon at the collar.
“It's OK, Mom, just some trouble over where Ray playsâ¦at the club.”
“With Ray? Did he do this? Call the police!”
“No, Ray didn't do this.” I walk back to the kitchen sink and soak paper towels, pressing them up to my face.
“I thought you were here because you saw Jesse!”
“Jesse!” The paper towels freeze in midair over my face. Saying my brother's name raises the hair at the back of my neck. His name comes out of me like a shout. I look at Mom, half expecting to see Jesse standing behind her. She's smiling. The wrinkles on her chin have disappeared and her eyes look as if she's staring at a newborn babyâsoft, tender.
“I heard his voiceâtonight! Ay, it's as beautiful as ever. You remember, don't you, Teresa?”
Mom has her hand on my shoulder, shaking it, trying to make me believe what she just said. She doesn't know I've never forgotten Jesse's voice. I recorded it in my mind when it was still a boy's voice and not a man's.
“OuchâMom, my shoulder hurts.”
“Ay mija! How could this happen to you, and tonight, why tonight?”
“I don't know, maybe it's part of a big plan. It doesn't matter; she got the worst of it.”
“Who? Sandra? Don't tell me you were fighting in a bar with that woman!”
“Not a bar, Mom, the clubâthe Riverside.”
“But fightingâ¦mijaâ¦she's bigger than you. Did you hit her a few good ones at least? May God forgive me!”
“She'll remember me the rest of her life! I ripped off her dress too, the bitch, she had it coming.”
“Don't cuss, mija! Ray's like your dad, another woman at his side. Sandra's your Consuelo.”
“Don't even say that woman's name, Mom! I don't want to hear it.” Mom pulls me by the arm. “Look, let me show youâ¦your brother is visiting us tonight!” I walk with her as she balances herself easily on her cane. I haven't seen her walk this fast in years.
“Be careful Mom, you'll fall.” She ignores me and walks into her bedroom with me trailing at her side. The room is lit by veladoras flickering before the image of El Santo NiÃ±o de Atocha, a fancy name for the Christ Child. The Christ Child is dressed in a simple blue robe with a brown mantle over His shoulders. In one hand he holds a stalk of wheat, in the other a scepter topped with a globe of the world. His dark, wavy hair is down to his shoulders and frames His small, somber face. The picture is propped on top of a white-draped oak dresser. My mother decorates an altar in honor of El Santo NiÃ±o every Christmas and prays a nine-day novena. The candlelight is white, friendly. It hushes me, yet I feel the need to dispel its shadows and reach for the light switch.
“No, mija! Spirits don't like bright light.”
“Look.” She leads me to the window and lifts a corner of the drapes.
“What do you see?”
“Nothing but Cholo acting like he's got the rabies.”
“Look carefully.” My mother's voice is urgent.
I look intently. I'm glad there's nobody around to see me next to Mom. My face is red and raw. The pink rayon bathrobe is tight around my shoulders, its frayed ribbon sags at my collarbone. I can't imagine what my fellow teachers at Jimenez Elementary would say if they saw me now. It's so ironic after the whole school worked on a unit on nonviolence. I'm already worried my face won't heal in time to make it back to my second-grade class after Christmas break.
Trees are still, not a leaf blowing. Through the misty air, I see the star of Bethlehem blinking over Blanche's house across the street. Its light is multicolored, red, blue, yellow. I make out the white fence posts of the wooden pen in Blanche's backyard that used to belong to her proud rooster, Fireball. After El Cielito was zoned “industrial” by the city, Blanche had to get rid of all her animals, including Chiva, the black and white goat that gave up her milk for Blanche's kids. Fireball was gone long before that, captured and made into chicken soup by a local who got tired of being woken up at four in the morning.