Joyland

Los Angeles |

Claudia

by Veronica Gonzalez

It was 1960 and we hitchhiked through the middle of the United States. We slept wherever we could, on floors mostly, in the backs of bars or stores, barns or garages, wherever people would put us up. Just like that, like people without a home, with nothing to show of where we came from. Like hobos or ramblers or de-centered beings, beings without pasts and no notion of futures because it’s not like we thought about those things and no one asked us questions, no one cared about our pasts or about our coming plans. He’d just pull out his guitar and start to sing his Mexican songs of love and yearning and eyes would turn dewy and soft and we would sing and sway and sip at beers and then after awhile they would show us our room or barn or storeroom, a blanket to lay out on the floor. We got picked up in Dodge City, late at night. He came upon us in his car, the sheriff, though he didn’t turn on the flashing red lights and then he stepped out his door, his gun at his side, and he cocked his head while he asked us questions in the beam of his headlight. Like someone very curious, like not a sheriff at all, a cat eyeing a bird, his head cocking from side to side. And then that look of his made me think that he liked us, and I guess he really did because he let us sleep in the jail, not together of course. He could get into trouble for that he said. So he put M in the men’s jail and me in the women’s jail, though we were the only ones there. The sheriff said it wasn’t good us wandering the streets in the middle of the night, and so we slept there, the doors locked though we weren’t locked up. And I remember as I lay on my cot, a musty blanket the sheriff had brought for me from who knows where, I remember thinking then that the sheriff hadn’t been making eyes at me. It wasn’t me that he had liked, cocked his head at. My blanket smelled of dampness, of long wet nights, though it was dry and I turned my face from that smell and up high toward the tiny window in that cell and it was as if I could see M in his cell, see them, see him talking, whispering secrets, late into the night. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep though my mind ran circles and my heart raced, the door locked, damp smelling blanket, the sounds of the night, life rising and falling all around me, crickets and cicadas and all those other deep dark insects and hot breezes running through the weeping willows, or dusty ash trees, or sycamores, or whichever those trees of Dodge City are, the wind whispering mournfully through them, their leaves, outside the jailhouse, whispering leafy secrets, nature’s susurrations, deep into the night. In the morning the sheriff woke me with a shake and then he took me to where M was but M didn’t even reach out toward me when he saw me walk in, barely lifted his eyes, so I turned away from him for a long hurt moment, and then I sat, trying to swallow my anger, though all I ever really swallowed with him was my pride, my legs crossed under me yogi style, close to M but not touching, and for a while we all three sipped our coffee together, like friends or neighbors, without asking too many questions, without talking too much about the previous night. Then the sheriff cleared his throat and he did begin to inquire, about us, what we were doing, what we had planned. But we didn’t tell him too much. We’d just gotten married. Weren’t we awful young? he asked. Yes, we were awful young, should have waited, M said, should have thought before acting. What were we doing in Dodge City? he asked. Well, we had gone to Kansas City where M had a friend and we’d stayed there on this friend’s couch until our money had run out, and then for a little while longer while I worked a job cleaning a bar that this friend’s landlady ran. I didn’t like the cleaning part, but that bar was a place to go, a place to be and I liked that, the clear direction it gave. And then we stopped talking. I didn’t tell the sheriff that one night a woman came up to M while we sat sipping at drinks and she bent down into him, her breasts near his face, and thanked him for the beautiful necklace, completely ignoring my presence, her hand playing at her own neck which was bare at the time; and later when we were alone and I showed my anger and then cried at M he said, What do you think you’re the only one I ever had? And then cruel and with a smirk he began to name each one. I threw myself at him then, my nails bared, and when he laughed I broke a bottle and threatened him with it and when he laughed louder I lunged at him but he just grabbed my wrists and held me hard and then he was not laughing anymore; the next day I quit my job at the bar, though the landlady had been kind, had stroked my hair as she talked softly to me. And though at that time I mostly didn’t understand her, her English, she had said things to me in that soft warm voice whenever I cried. Still, I was glad to be leaving; that friend of M’s had beaten his wife. Not every night, you understand, but enough to terrify. And the wife, that girl was so quiet and mouse-like there was nothing I could ever say to her; I was afraid of being her, becoming her, though with pity I would smile at her from time to time. Once or twice, while she cried, I stroked her hair, like the landlady at the bar had stroked mine. So with no job and no money we left Kansas City and began to hitchhike our way back to Mexico City. And it had been good again; I even told myself it’d been the place, that city, that Kansas City had been the badness I told myself; and I was hopeful once more, for it had been good again, so far, our voyage home, no one bothering us and people taking us in like they had. Still, I have to tell you now, make it clear right now, that it wasn’t me, not my idea. I just followed him, for I’d never done anything like that. I followed him because M knew what he was doing. He said he knew what he was doing, eighteen and he’d been hitchhiking for years, had moved all over two countries for years like that, since he was ten, he said, or maybe it was even nine. The Sheriff told us to be careful on our voyage, not everyone was like him; he wasn’t talking to me. And anyway, we already knew that. He hadn’t had to say it. He hadn’t had to say anything; I knew it all, the way he looked at M. You have to understand. It wasn’t my doing, wasn’t my fault. I’d never done anything like that, wandered around like a stray dog, like a person with no home, with no past. He was so gorgeous. He played the guitar and sang his songs so sad or loud and joyous and everyone came close when he sang though his voice was not a beautiful one; he was alive and had eyes like an angel, blue and clear as water, the Irish eyes of his mother, her wry smile on his lips at all times. It was like he had borrowed his mother’s mouth, her eyes, and though I hated her, and always would, I followed him with no reason, like a girl who had lost her mind. I’d started following him in Mexico City almost two years before; he lived three blocks away and had ended up befriending my brother and when I first saw M my middle melted and I didn’t know how I could ever take my eyes off of his eyes. He stood in a group, laughing and teasing with a bunch of other guys, but they all disappeared, seemed to fall away, so that it was as if it was only M standing there in front of me, floating before me, the others having vanished from right in front of my eyes. My middle melted and then forever my head remained not right. Still, it was all his fault. It wasn’t me. I wasn’t like that. I’d grown up in a very strict household though no one could say I was innocent for I was always the wild one, the one who took risks, the one that ran and climbed trees and fell and injured myself. I was always the one with the outrageous friends and the loud laugh and the anger at my sister for being so quiet and perfect and well loved by my father. My father who was now gone. My father was serious, was a businessman, and was directed and clear, not like M’s father who was himself a sort of vagabond, who skulked and hid and lived in secrets and half lies. It was his father who first took M to Kansas City, when he was eight or nine. But when I met him I didn’t really know anything about his father, his family, the stories, of which I became a scandalous part at a later time. My own father worked in a bank and was so straight and right and proper in his dealings that when a German lumber giant needed someone to run his business in Oaxaca he went to my father. I will put up the capital, the German said to my father, and you will man the enterprise. It was more of a statement than a request and my father said yes. A German had helped him before at least once. I was about to tell you about my mother, she is (she’s very old but still alive) the granddaughter of French immigrants, but now I feel I should first tell you about the German who so long ago helped my father. Before he was even born. This is how it was, in Zacatecas, near the silver mines: My paternal grandmother was a tiny woman, and my father was big in the womb. Everyone said she would lose him, at five months it was already clear. This was a long time ago, 1909, you understand. She could have stayed in bed, but somehow it was believed she might lose him even then. There were two daughters at home, my aunts, and so they did most of the managing of the house, though they were still young girls, twelve and eleven at the time, for they knew their mother would lose the baby if they didn’t learn how to stay on top of it all. Even worse, their mother herself might be lost. So they told the cook what to prepare at every meal, and made sure the housekeeper kept things orderly and they tended their mother themselves. The German doctor made a sling for the baby. It sounds very simple, is simple nowadays, I suppose, but they all acted like he was a god, this doctor. He made an elastic sling, and maybe it was the elastic that made it fantastic in those days, elastic in 1909 only recently invented for clothing, fantastic, the fact that it gave. He adjusted it to her groin and every week or so he would come see her and he’d adjust it again, and so she was able to keep the baby inside. And then when it did come out it was a boy. A boy with those two older sisters who’d had to grow up when he was still in the womb so that by the time he came out they were miniature adults, had been caring for him already for nine months; and then there was also his mother and a grandma and that cook and the maid, all right there in that one house, all those women. Babying him. Well, he’d never had to do anything, you see, my father. The beautiful boy. The golden one. So, many years later, when this lumber man, the German lumber man, offered to move my father from Mexico City to Oaxaca, to make him the partner in this great enterprise, my father said yes right away and left his job at the bank. This was a sign, he believed. For a German had given him life. My mother was a granddaughter of a French engineer who had come to Mexico to help set up the Mexican railroad. My mother’s young life had been incredibly cloistered. She’d still get excited by candies and balloons at fifteen. 1931 and a balloon was all it took. And she was moral, had principals, when she found my father cheating on her with the maid she threw him out. He had always been cold and when she found out why this was she threw him out. In Mexico, 1950. Nobody ever threw them out for cheating with the maid. Every man cheated with the maid; it was a pre-ordained fact. But she threw him out and then she raised all of us on her own. Her own parents had long since died, tragically both of them. Charles Courcelle had been bitten by some kind of infectious horsefly and died a month later, his daughter only five. Her mother died nine years after that and then my mother was raised by her aunt. And this part gets very confusing, because her mother had already asked her sister, If I ever die, she had said, you must take my daughter, and her sister said, Yes, of course I would take her, but please do not talk like that. And then just a week or so later she contracted a fever and she did die. How had she known? And her sister, my mother’s aunt, did take my mother in. But we all know that a mother and an aunt are not the same thing. Especially when a girl is fourteen. They just are not, a mother and aunt. My sister and I – I don’t like her, you know, so probably will not be saying much about her - my sister and I went to visit my father in Oaxaca, two or three times, my brothers refusing to come along for they hated my father’s new wife. When we did go to visit, this is how it was: He was a silent man, spoke very little unless it was to command, even at dinner during which he merely gestured and grunted as his new wife held forth on some inane topic while absently passing him the various dishes and sauces he pointed at. He merely gestured at what he wanted and she stupidly placed things in his hand. I watched him as he ate, chewing hard like him. After a short nap my father would set off to work again and in the afternoons we were allowed to follow. When we set into the woods there was dark and there was moist. My father trudged, trudged, ahead of us and we always kept him in sight - for he might disappear we both feared - even when we seemed fully involved in something else. So that we were this: a serious man who walked with the heavy monster steps of slightly arthritic knees - moving forward through his toil, in what he professed to be the straightest of possible lines - and two small girls, circling about him, stopping to chase and catch and dig, to look and observe and wonder and fall back, and then run forward to catch up and even get a little ahead of the insistent plodding steps of that man, our father. I guess what I’m saying, what I’m trying to explain, is that this wasn’t what I’d been brought up for. Sleeping in jails in Kansas. It was thrilling, yes, the wandering. M was beautiful, drew people to him. People wanted to help us. They looked at him like that. But it was his fault. Everything to come was his fault. All of it. Don’t ever forget that. Though things had started out well, the trip to Kansas City exciting, almost immediately it had all begun to get confusing, what he would get involved in on those dark nights, skulking like his father, his friends and the gambling, the long list of women. Those long dark nights. Still, on our trip back it seemed good again; we had left the confusion behind and again it seemed like he was mine. But only for a short while. A tiny little while. Because again things started feeling not right. We would get into a new town and he would disappear for long stretches of time. And then my mind started slipping in ways I didn’t remember it doing before, in ways I didn’t understand, and in these different towns I panicked; my mind would slip and my heart would race and I would panic. In these many different towns the dust tasted the same, the thick hot air, the sun beating, that sun beating down hard; and I cried and I cried. My thoughts started running in circles; these towns were all the same place. We would stay in a town for a day or two and then we would move on, but were we really moving? Were we really going anywhere at all? Getting any closer? My judgment grew confused, my mind slipping, my heart racing for no reason, palms sweating, breath coming in heaves. He had a bit of a streak, then, and so we stopped in Amarillo for a while and on the third day there he gave me money to buy some groceries, things for the little hotel room we were staying in. He was lying in bed, propped up like a sultan, completely worn out from another late night, and when I approached him on that third Amarillo day he didn’t want me to touch him. I walked to the store instead, the dusty hot streets, and I came back thirsty from eating that dust and empty-handed except for a pretty little dog collar I’d found. I’d seen it in a shop window on the way to the groceries, so pretty and bright. And when I brought it home he was mad. It was red leather, studded with diamonds, fake of course but so pretty. Luminous like his eyes, I told him. Bright and clear like the water which was his eyes, I told him; I was so thirsty and still he yelled at me while he held it in his hand. What the hell was I doing spending his money on a leash and a collar for a dog we didn’t have? I blinked three times to make sense and then I tried to look into his eyes, those liquid blue eyes, and he grabbed the bag from me and stormed out with it so he could get his money back. And, confused, I sat there and I cried. It was at that time that I started not sleeping; I paced and paced all night. I tried crying, but my eyes would not cooperate, so that there was no relief, now, a blank, nothing to let out. I tried screaming, my voice stifled. He would be gone sometimes for days at a time and so I had no one to run to. No one to find and to whisper to, no one to warn that there was somebody after us; I didn’t know who, don’t ask me who I would have said if he had asked; I had no idea, had not seen their faces, could not see their faces, but I heard them sometimes, whispering, and I knew that they were there, knew they were going to come out when I wasn’t looking; and so I looked and I looked. I had to keep looking. I searched and I searched. I tried screaming. Sometimes I would stand in the middle of the room and it would finally come to me, my voice, and so I would scream at them to come out, to just come now. I could not take it any longer. And sometimes, with my voice, this same voice, I yelled for them to go away. Get the fuck out of here! In Galveston he took me to a hospital. It was not really a hospital, I don’t think; no one there was there to help out. He slapped my face when I scratched at him and he pulled me into the car and when he got me there he spilled me out and they picked me up off the floor and they tied me down. They tied me up and held me down and shoved something in my mouth and then they gave me those shocks in my head. They held me down and tied me up and gave me electricity in my head and he watched them while they did it. I was seven months pregnant with our first baby, you understand; I don’t think I’ve mentioned that. Did I already tell you that? I was pregnant. And I held on to Rocio with my legs gripping tight. I’d been sporty, the wild one, remember? and I was strong and I gripped my legs tight. And he, he let them do that. He watched while they did it. It was his fault, I tell you. It was all his fault. Everything. All of it. I was not cut out for that life, that skulky wandering life. Then, still drooling, he drove me back in another one of his borrowed cars, where did all of those cars come from?, to my mother in Mexico City. He dropped me on her doorstep and then it was months before he came back. Rocio already squirming about in my mother’s arms when he came back.