That was the most busted-up car he'd ever seen. A wood-paneled station wagon like he hadn't seen since he was twelve and dared Pigeon Nelson (whose scapulae as a skinny boy had made him look like he had wings) to ride in the carbon monoxide seat with him on the way back from church. Pigeon accepted his dare, but got carsick riding backwards. His parents had been fake-nice to Pidgie (as they were to all "strangers"), his father had been the jolly fixit-man, like a TV dad (which is where he'd learned how to be a dad), even heartily telling Pigeon this would be a great opportunity to try out the new upholstery cleaner that came in a spray can, and—see?—with a brush built right in!
After they dropped Pidgie off, he made noises of disgust— aieeesh—and said things in Korean that Cabin didn't understand but didn't need to. At home, Cabin's father went straight into the house to catch up on his drinking, slamming the door behind him, leaving Cabin and his mother sealed in the stinking car in their church clothes. It took a long time before either of them moved.
"Everyone is more important than you," his mom always said. Not in those
words, exactly, but in her actions. Cabin was always being hurried, shooed,
quieted, deodorized as to never disturb all those people who were quality
people by virtue of them being not him. Once, in line at the supermarket, a
family of dubious hygiene, buying 2-liter bottles of generic Coke, one of
the freckle-faced snot-plugged kids called them chinks: "Cabin! You're in
their way!" His mother said, pushing him roughly so they could nose their
pop-laden cart in front of them, his mother encouraging them with a coolie
smile. Please! (Prease!) walk all over us. It will make us happy!
"Rutgers?" his father said, clutching his head and letting out a howl. The only way to avenge all the things white people did to you was to get your kid into Harvard. You bided your time. You worked your ass off, day after day, year after year. Cabin failed the first time. His making the waitlist (and for Yale) had made the loss all the greater. Now, grad school. The last chance for Ivy League glory. His father couldn't understand why Cabin didn't even apply. Harvard had a world-renowned Korean studies center (run by a white man, natch)! How to explain to his father the PhD dry cleaner that East Asian Studies and Asian American studies were worlds apart, separated by the words diaspora and state bio-power?
But barely into his twenties, Cabin was finished, his father declared. His father did not know he was in Mexico.
Cabin slitted his eyes against the relentless glare of the sun. Some old white guy driving. Sunglasses, aviators that gave him a bit of a dashing air. White-guy straw fedora. Stubble sprouting like weeds in an overgrown lot. At once reputable and disreputable.
"We call him El Borracho—Drunk," said José, with a glee that also encompassed kindness. Cabin didn't like to simpletonize the local Mexicans as good-souls. But he really hadn't met anyone yet, who wasn't one. Unfailingly generous, kind to the gringos, even if the gringos weren't kind to them. Maybe that's where the red-faced rage, the occasional pistol or knife, came from when they were drunk. Take it out on each other, not on their precious livelihoods.
When Cabin first got here, he assumed they'd all be angling for a passage north with help from their patrones. Cabin had been studying the history of Asian American diaspora in border towns. He'd gotten a tantalizing leads on a Korean community in Nogales where they ran general stores and spoke perfect Spanish. Using language and radical assimilation as Foucaulian biopower! It sounded exciting, a meaty topic for his dissertation. In reality, there were few storekeepers, he wasn't even sure who was ethnic Korean or not. No one wanted to talk to him in English, Korean, or Spanish.
Cabin still clung to the residue of an idea that was something to be written about Asians in Mexico, maybe a fresh take on the racist "sojourner" myth. Skin color as border versus country borders (state biopower!). Maybe he could do a shortish article on it for the Journal of Asian American Labor Studies, test out the water.
He had two more months to go on his research fellowship. He had planned to be writing now—a last, glorious time of solitude and intellectual ferment before returning to the grind of grading undergraduate papers. On his visit to the actual border, a wall composed of cliff-sized prehistoric slabs of metal (recommissioned military plane parts), Cabin found himself in Mexico. He had walked unopposed through an old turnstile, the sun-warmed metal putting up no resistance whatsoever, not even a sound, a reassuring click to acknowledge he'd been there. The line—of cars and people—going north, was gridlocked, heavily armed Border Patrol agents with dogs leaping on their leashes, the people standing stoic and expressionless under the hot sun.
Cabin hopped on a bus whose destination was El WALMART, thinking maybe he could magically end up back on the American Nogales. A rickety hour going through both hills and valleys, he ended up in this enclave, which was not unlike the one he had mistakenly envisioned, only it was all gringos, not Koreans.
Cabin learned later that the bus' purpose was to shuttle Mexicans to the Walmart that sat a few hundred yards north of the border and somehow bypassed the checkpoint. Why didn't anyone break out the back of the store and run for it? But they shopped, then returned, seemed perfectly contented to be here. And for this, he also admired them.
José pointed to the station wagon, dented practically evenly over all its surfaces. "La Piñata," he smiled. And a little crescent of gold smiled with him.
"Was he the one who took out that flower pot at City Hall?" A large, cement flower pot that must have weighed 300 pounds (decorative riot barrier) had been tipped over, and Cabin had always wondered how that happened.
"Ye-e-s." José was wearing a gringo hand-me-down, a T-shirt: THEY CAN'T LICK OUR DICK! He liked saying yes because he could make it last much longer than saying sí, fill in the conversational gaps that existed between them, like the new, expanding grout he'd discovered at the Walmart. José was a master tiler. From working for the gringos for years, he had acquired a delightful Spanglish. Cabin's Spanish was actually serviceable—he'd had to take a test in Spanish in grad school—but he was more curious why no Americans down here spoke any Spanish.
On the bus, Cabin had tried out some of his Spanish (perfect past participle use) and found his conversational partners unimpressed.
The station wagon circumnavigated the zócalo, once, then twice. What was the man looking for? On the third go-round, he pulled up expertly in front of them—Cabin was impressed. The tires scraped the curb, cut high and sharp for drainage during the rainy season, which slashed them like a switchblade.
José didn't bat an eyelash. Cabin, of more sensitive stuff, dove to the ground at the sound of the bursting tire. The car listed slightly to the side. The man struggled out of the car, himself listing, first one side, then the other. He stumbled into El Tesoro, La Alma's only restaurant, not a glance back at the car. He was wearing boat shoes, like the kind you'd see on yachts. Who wears boat shoes in the desert?
"Next time," said José, looking at the station wagon. "Candy's gonna spill out."
Cabin decided that another proof of the angel souls of the Mexicans was how
they collectively took care of "El Borracho," as he was called (all the
gringos had nicknames, Cabin's eavesdropping discovered. His was El Chino)
even though he was by La Alma standards rich enough to hire the entire
hospital's worth of nurses and housekeepers. Labor was so cheap Mrs. Stekel
had her "girls" scrubbing her tile floors with old toothbrushes eight hours
But for this man with the busted-up car, the villagers were doing it for his late wife, Judy.
La Judy was specifically not a lady of leisure, like some of the heiresses here. Nor did she seem terribly wealthy. Her clothes were classic (Brooks Brothers) but clearly years old. She was universally beloved in La Alma and had the distinction of not having a secret nickname, besides La Judy.
Her father had wanted to see more of the world than the Bronx of his industrial perfume business. He drove his young family to territorial Alaska, Newfoundland. When Judy was five, his ambitious plan had been to get to the Panama Canal. A blown tire and two wonky spares got them as far as La Alma. Skies scented with orange blossoms, where the bougainvillea went up like flames. Where a house and fifty acres could be purchased with an American's pocket change. Her father donated the blown tires to the cobbler, who traced their feet on a piece of old paper and turned them into woven-leather huaraches for the whole family.
They still made them the same way. Cabin had bought himself a pair from a stall in the market. When he crossed his legs, he could see STEEL BELTED RADIAL on the sole of one. GOODYEAR on the other.
Judy spent much of her childhood here, a blond child (though her hair darkened later) so ethereal she looked transparent. She enrolled in the local school, her Spanish indistinguishable from a native's. In the meantime, her mother had had several miscarriages (one, a stillborn—terrible), so when she finally passed a pregnancy beyond the sixth month, she assumed she'd have the baby in her hospital in Connecticut. But for Judy's father, having for a son (hopefully a son) born on Mexican soil with a Mexican name (he planned to call him Saturnino, after their trusted gardener), he could inherit the ranch. His double citizenship (legal and cultural) would ensure the legacy of Rancho Allegre.
A good idea in theory. Mexico had basic healthcare, and it was free, which was why many of the rich gringos were here now, waiting to die, should it happen here, in a simple manner, no needle-sticking, feeding tubes, antibiotics, horrific chemos. Same as the Almamenses did and do—a simple death with someone always by your side, even if a paid, Mexican nurse, plenty of painkillers, which you could buy in quantity at the farmacia, birds singing, the wet, grainy scent of the day's tortillas wafting in the morning air. This was something you couldn't buy in America. Señor Thompson, one of the current Almamenses, in fact was a doctor, a retired surgeon from La Jolla.
And: Mexican women had babies by the dozen. They squatted over a clean blanket, attended to by a midwife. How tough could it be? Mr. Ross chuckled.
Judy's mother had a long and hard labor. The baby's shoulder wedged sidewise, like an egg. José had shown Cabin how when that happens, you had to reach in (holding the squawking chicken down by the neck) and yank the egg out. For Judy's mother, the Mexican doctors wanted to do a C-section, but her father worried (perhaps all the voices of the naysayers suddenly in his head) about infection, their surgical tools being unclean, the hospital being too small (the doctors not as good), who knows what kind of blood was in that blood bank. Back then, too, for neonates who came out sluggish, Mexicans (and American doctors, too, to be fair) blasted them with oxygen on the assumption that if a little oxygen was good, a lot was better. That often blasted out their retinas. Mr. Ross panicked. What could a blind boy do with the ranch? Right now, no one knew what to do. The baby, inside Judy's mother, needed to get out. And so he began to kick—while still inside her belly.
Yes, a boy. A living boy. For an hour. An entire hour longer than his mother.
Judy was sent by her father (her heart-shaped face exactly like her mother's at that age) from Mexico to Miss Porters. Summers were spent, instead of watching the tropical storms sprinkle humidity on the barren desert, at the deliberately rustic bunks of Camp We-naw-chee in New Hampshire. Then Bryn Mawr, where she met El Borracho at a ski lodge, even though she didn't ski, and hated the cold.
Years after her father died, she finally returned to La Alma to see what had become of the property. Seeing the brittle skeletons of the fruit trees in the orchard he had had planted, the gorgeous tiles of the house shrouded in cobwebs, she cried. Black widow spiders merrily skittered across the kitchen's countertops. She found a scorpion in her shoe.
La Judy (Yooody) left again. For good, the villagers thought. But she came back and rebuilt Rancho Allegre with the aid of Saturnino and his sons. The house even appeared in a coffee table book, The Most Beautiful Gardens of the World, she standing next to a blooming bougainvillea, clad in a brightly embroidered dress common to the Indian women who lived in the nearby hills of Mina Nuevas. In a perfect contrast to the flaming colors: a snow-white infant burro cradled in her arms.
Soon, rich gringos wanted to have their garden in La Alma, too. A small airstrip was built, Cessna-appropriate. They enjoyed a gringo winter here, left in the spring, their houses left in the capable hands of the Mexicans.
But for La Judy, the rancho was much too large, complicated to run from afar. The other gringos suggested she should open a hotel. Celebrities might even come, if they could expand airstrip just big enough for a private 747 to scoot in from LA, only an hour and a half away; they could be free from the paparazzi, all the acres to roam. Or, make it into a fancy yoga retreat, with the adobe being naturally hypoallergenic, the food organic—mainly because the Almamenses who still farmed in the ruins of NAFTA couldn't afford nitrogenous fertilizer or pesticides, instead relying on their numerous children to pull weeds, flick off bugs, add manure to the soil, plant by plant.
But La Judy was getting old. She had a husband who stayed in the U.S. A son who had his own adventures to tend to. What was she going to do? The local real estate agent approached her gently.
La Judy ignored everyone. She donated a shoulder-shaped parcel of land for soccer field for La Alma's children. The baby burro she had held in the photo grew up and had its own baby (a burrito?).
The orchard trees, she set loose, as Saturnino was of course now very old, but even his son and right hand man, Arturo, was rounding 50. She didn't want him climbing ladders. Some of the desiccated trees came back to life when she watered them with old dishwater. Local women approached La Judy to ask permission to bury their children's placentas at the roots—these trees were the ones that flowered again. The random flush of fruit—avocadoes, bitter oranges, nectarines—La Judy gave away to the market. She never went to the market without coming away with an ice-cold agua fresca or a licuado thick with mango to sip, a jar of bitter orange marmalade tucked into her bag.
When the husband retired from his job (marine insurance), he joined her. Reluctantly. For a week. Too hot. The dust. Where was the ocean? No air-conditioning? But La Judy stayed. So the next time he came, it was for two weeks. The damn roosters, that walk and squawk everywhere. He was uncomfortable about "brown people." He presumed the wandering dogs of unknown provenance all had rabies. But by then there were a dozen Americans in the winter. He liked the doctor from La Jolla, who lived in simple sumptuousness in Casa Ladrillo, the former brick factory. During the day, the excellent clay tennis courts, shaded by palms, post-tennis iced (distilled water) drinks under a palapa. At night , the veranda lit up by candles inside tins with nail-punched holes. Pub Quiz Mondays and Thank God It's Fridays, various birthdays. The good doctor kept Mexican beer on tap.
When La Judy died, the husband came down with the son so that, per her instructions, they could spread her ashes on the Walmart-fertilizer-fed roses in her garden (a bloom erupted, now and then). The son vamoosed back north. The husband (Cabin couldn't bring himself to call him El Borracho, even in his head) had nothing to go back to. And so he stayed.
Normally, the crime of damaging a piece of City Hall would result in a hefty fine for a gringo; a night in jail for a local. But for E.B., the largest men in La Alma had banded together, like the famous flag raisers at Iwo Jima, to re-verticalize the enormous concrete pot, they used their hands as scoops to replace the soil, patting it down, like one might to a baby's diapered bum. A merchant with a stick broom swept away the errant debris. And then they were done.
E.B. took a month of Spanish lessons with La maestra Carmelita, who ran them out of her house on weekends. But when asked how his course of instruction had gone, he made the hand gesture of an oscillating set of scales and said, "Mas or minus." Cabin would learn, later, that "mas or minus" was his answer to just about any query, sort of the way José said "Ye-es" to everything, whether he understood it or not. But E.B. did have one assimilative quality: he could eat Camarones de Diablo better than a Mexican (the sauce a mortared mixture of serrano, poblano, jalapeno, and chipotle peppers that stained the shrimp red). E.B. perpetually wore an expression of perplexed grumpiness, as if he couldn't believe the strange hand this world had dealt him.
Cabin didn't feel at home here, either. But he felt at home with being alone. Different climate, different language. The word for lonesome in Korean was wearoh-ohn, which sounded just like the wind blowing through the trees. He missed Maxie, his grad school girlfriend having left him for the tenure track, but less urgently each day. Maybe without ads on TV constantly berating him for a life that was somehow less-than. He was okay with just existing, here. Just getting up and seeing what the day brought. Mexicans seemed to have their own sense of time, where nothing was a rush (here he was, doing that romanticization thing again).
His major currency was that he was young; he made the old people feel young in a place where were no other young Americans around to make fun of old people for acting young. To these people, the young Asian man reminded them of nothing.
Cabin got up. El Tesoro was where he normally got his dinner—the cantina on the ground floor of where he lived was deemed a place, José had warned, that no gringo should go, unless he wanted to have his throat slit. So El Tesoro it was. He motioned to José. "I owe you a dinner, for helping me carry that desk to my room," Cabin said. Which worked better than "I'll pay." It would set him back barely five dollars.
"Nah," said José.
While El Tesoro had an al fresco dining area, ringed by traditional tiles on the adobe wall, inside was dark, half bar, half womb. Gabby, the proprietor, smiled at Cabin, "How are you today?" She was picking jalapenos out of a lentil soup, fishing them out of the steaming broth by fingers so callused she had no need for potholders. She wiped her hands and brought the bowl outside, where one could hear the dopplering beat of hip-hop from about eighteen young men packed into a scabrous pickup circumnavigating the zócalo—it was Saturday night.
In a dark, cool corner, El Borracho was demolishing a plate of shrimp, the red pepper sauce beginning to bleed into his beard.
"What're you staring at?" He looked like an angry fruit bat. Cabin, stung (always the problem!), backed away.
"Can I get a quesadilla, but without any cheese?" called one of the biddies. Gabby nodded. Cabin wolfed down his carnitas, garnished with some kind of crunchy de-spined cactus. Mrs. Stekel arrived.
The next day, the rooster's crow dispersed the delicate membrane that was holding his hungover cranium together. He drank from his warmish water bottle, opened yesterday. There was a faint, unpleasant cheesy odor. Can water go bad? Apparently, in Mexico, it could. But he had terrible dry mouth and no more bottles. The gringos claimed that even just dipping your toothbrush into the tap water would have you doubled over in cramps in an hour. Montezuma's revenge! Already tipping on the precipice of nausea, he decided not to risk it.
He pulled on his jeans, one of the three t-shirts he owned (blue, red, white). At the bottom of his duffel he noted his travel-creased Barthes as well as Many Shades of Grey, an unfortunately titled book for which he would feel forced to explain, was a seminal text about judging people by their skins color, i.e., "colorism," and not the soft-porn book.
Some toast made of white Bimbo bread (cooked over the open flame of the two-burner stove), and a palmful of prescription strength generic Mexican Advil swallowed dry set him right enough to wander over to see José. Today, he was working on a decorative tile inset for a wall in the ranch's guest house, the casita. Cabin followed his directions to the outskirts of town, past the half-done museum to some Mexican film star, María Felix. He crossed a cattle guard (no cattle) that served as a little bridge over a dry riverbed.
WELCOME TO RANCHO ALLEGRE.
There, wood-grain shining in the sun, cratered like a moonscape, La Piñata at rest. One of the windows was open. Cabin learned later, a desert thing so the car wouldn't get so overheated and explode.
The casita was at the end of a path that wended through the avocado orchard. It was the guest house La Judy's father had built, traditional whitewashed adobe. Before she'd died, she'd commissioned a rendering of La Virgen de Guadalupe, bright blues and reds, yellow rays shooting out around her head. Typically pagan Mexican Christianity, the gringos would have said.
But the cancer had come on quickly, abdominal pains written off to spicy Mexican food—which the biddies seemed to forget she'd been eating all her life. Local doctors thought it might be cirrhosis. La Judy did like her nightly Dubonnet. A trip to a bigger hospital, then the Mexican doctor bade them return home. La Judy thought he meant back to La Alma. El Borracho had retired. It was supposed to be time for El Borracho and La Judy to relax. La Judy had restored the place, down to the last rosebush, bringing in fertilizer from the Walmart in Phoenix, as a shrine to her parents but had never really been able to settle down and enjoy herself. Now they would have languorous months to themselves. Until they didn't.
Three weeks back in the states, and La Judy was gone.
The casita was a clay-baked oven—the summer season was approaching. José pushed the last, glossy mosaic tile in, motioned for Cabin to follow. They went to Arturo's truck (which he was inordinately proud of, as few in La Alma were wealthy enough to own a vehicle), parked in the orchard. José drove them to the Mexican equivalent of the package store, José returning with a bulging garbage bag. Inside were a dozen Pacifico beers swaddled in crushed ice. As he heaved the bag into back, Cabin could see José's sweat rewetting the sweat stain edging his dingy t-shirt, like the sea returning to the high-tide line. Purple clouds edged the horizon, offering threat but little promise of relief. Across the dusty street, children listlessly kicked a half-deflated soccer ball.
José cracked open two beers with his teeth, handed Cabin one, took a few swigs before he started the truck, placed the bottle in the V of his crotch. He slurped happily as he drove, sometimes turning the steering wheel with his elbows. Cabin loved when a system created its own logic and followed it. Open container? How else are you going to imbibe a beer at peak frostiness? A chicken ran for its life.
"José, how did you learn how to drive?"
La Piñata was gone when they returned; they took the beers to the main house, where they sat on its covered portal. The bowling ball-colored clouds loosed their contents, as if they had intended to haul their burden to Minas Nuevas, but then dropped it in exhaustion. Cabin sat back on the cool tiles as the rain came down in sheets. He couldn't think of anyplace else in the world he'd rather be.
Arturo's son Gabriel nodded at them as he passed, wheeling a wheelbarrow at the same leisurely pace he would if it weren't pouring. Rain sluiced off his cowboy hat. His muscles sheened. This one instance of actual, liquid rain not withstanding, for the past couple of years, La Alma had been drying to desert. The rancho needed a new well, which Gabriel had been assigned to dug. First, his dusty boot, unlaced at the ankles, pushing the shovel into the clayey earth. He made an outline of the hole, putting himself in the middle. Shoveling. Shoveling. Then you only saw his top half, arms in constant motion, shirt tied around his waist. Then only the top of his cowboy hat was visible. Then clouds of powdery earth flying up the only sign of activity. The village girls on their way home from school stopped daily, the tartan skirts of their uniforms tugging over their thighs as they peered over the lip and giggled, as every day, Gabriel dug himself a little bit deeper.
Before she died, La Judy had apportioned a parcel of land for Saturnino to retire on, the job of manager had passed down to Arturo, who would eventually pass it to Gabriel.
"Is not a good idea," said José.
"Arturo or Gabriel?"
"Both. They steal from La Judy," he said.
"You mean from her husband." E.B.
"No, from La Judy." He pointed to a painted pot, the deep brown color of the bad nylons, from the dollar store, that Cabin's mother used to wear. The pot was placed in the fork in the exposed timbers of the portal. It didn't look too stable.
"She kept her money in there?" said Cabin, before he realized, it was her ashes.
Arturo, like most men in La Alma, had quit school at sixth grade. José's family even poorer, he hadn't made it past first grade. Back then they had maize farming, the market, the brick factory.
Now, the gringo economy washed over everything, Arturo was the one who ended up riding atop this wave.
La Judy had already left the family a large parcel of land, in Saturnino's name. But despite that, even while La Judy was still alive, he had started running a B&B for tourists right on the ranch. La Judy spent three weeks a year there, if that. Arturo reasoned he should keep up the place for someone, better than no one. First, he stealthily rented out the casita to a few European backpackers. Then he installed a gate in the barbed wire fence at the back of the rancho, so the steady stream of clients weren't coming and going via the main road. He had the donkeys replaced with horses for Gabriel to take tourists on rides up into the hills.
Cabin could see it bugged José so much, what Arturo had done to La Judy. On her final visit, in the casita's clothes drawer, she found a pair of soiled Vasque hiking boots, large as green coconuts, much larger than El Borracho's dainty shoe size. La Judy had paid for Arturo's daughters to go to college in Mexico City, where they both remained, as a teacher an a nurse. Arturo grumbled and called them chilangas.
La Judy had been gaunt and sad. Gaunter still when she left. But she'd said nothing to Arturo. Perhaps her common decency wouldn't allow her to believe he could doing anything to harm her. Maybe she thought all Mexicans tried to lie, cheat or demand bribes (no, not La Judy, José said). Maybe she was just unknowing of it all (also unlikely, the lady had eagle eyes, even in the throes of stomach cancer). It was a mystery. As was who was to inherit the ranch when El Borracho was gone.
Cabin had nothing else to do the next day, so he went to hang out with José again. But José wasn't there, Arturo informed him. He was up at the Walmart procuring more expandable grout.
"Hey, El Chino—you can do me a favor," said Arturo. To Cabin. In Spanish.
Cabin looked at him in surprise.
" I made a promise to La Judy that I would keep an eye on El Borracho. But you see, I've got stuff to do . Arturo no Ingles! You sabby? You okay??"
He hustled back into the orchard, leaving Cabin standing under the hardy avocado tree. Despite the waterless ground, it had knobbly skinned orbs on almost every branch, like scrotal Christmas ornaments. On the ground, there was a half of one, clearly an animal had taken a bite and spit it out. In its heyday (and before the decade of drought), he'd heard, famously, that a single avocado from one of La Judy's trees could make a bowl of guacamole for four.
Cabin didn't think he needed to be roped into Arturo's web.
But he was trapped, like a bug in hardening amber, in the lassitude of the day. He'd gotten up today—as on other days—with a weight in his gut. In that vertiginous space between half sleep and half wake, he was gripped by the unmistakable knowledge that, like La Judy, he had stomach cancer—he was so young! So common amongst Koreans! But this sensation had an underlying familiarity. In grad school, he'd once awakened with his lungs burning and paralyzed. He forced in teaspoonfuls of air, struggling to stay alive as Maxie frantically called 911. It was the worst feeling to hear the ER doctor (an intern) intone, "You've just had a panic attack."
Cabin liked to think the "just" meant, "You recently had a panic attack." But the word, hypochondriac in its implications, hung over him. It was people of his father's generation who got the stomach cancer. The ones running the Korean groceries, skating on the precipice of financial ruin while dealing with the squinchy-eyed customer who'd complain about a spot on an apple. The drycleaners like his dad soaking his hands in perchlorate until his fingerprints were eaten away. Those were the ones eating the cheap rice that was mixed with talc to make it look whiter, the bags fuller. The burning hot soups, still boiling, washed down with a nasty soju—the only combo that could quell the pain of being a sad immigrant man in America, pieces of your dream lying broken at your feet. Maxie broke up with him not long after that. She was a with a burly guy who did Military History and already had tenure.
The other night he'd gone to bed at eight, because he was bored, yet aware of the feeling of his life reeling away from him. Like when he and Pigeon O'Brien took the old napkins in the back (his parents lifted them by the stack, whenever some restaurant was dumb enough to leave them out (Hello, A & W), tore them into strips, like WWII bandages, and dropped them out the window. They seemed to grow wings and fly away behind him. That was a day in his life. Gone. Irrecoverable. Being young and vital wasn't an occupation or an accomplishment. It was an excuse.
Also, Arturo had shoved the car keys (attached to a LOU GRUBB MOTORS NOGALES ARIZONA fob) and a small pile of pesos in his hand. Cabin was essentially being paid to drink with El Borracho and drive him around—thereby protecting all the decorative public flower pots on the Reforma. Cabin thought very favorably about El Tesoro's small bites, antojitos, like the miniature tamales the gringos were so fond of. They were great with smoky poblano salsa.
"Who the hell are you?" the man said. Cabin was surprised to find him still in his pajamas, sitting atop a bare mattress. The house's door had been wide open—Cabin therefore walked in, thinking it had been done for him. It was too late to embarrassedly back out. So he stayed. Tried to look around, neutrally. What he thought was the mans' shadow was actually a human-shaped outline on the mattress. Later, José would inform him how El Borracho was the captain of his bedroom and wouldn't allow the housekeeper in it.
"I'm um—" Cabin didn't know how to describe his role. "Well, Arturo..."
"Arturo...suggested I spend the day with you. He though we'd get along."
" Sort of like, if there's any way I can help—"
"How'm I going to get changed with you standing there like a ninny?" He was audibly breathing now, Darth Vaderish blasts as he glared at Cabin. Over the man's shoulder, Cabin had a clear view out the window, outside of which came the muffled rumbling of a wheelie bag being dragged awkwardly up the packed dirt. A blond tourist shaded his eyes, brow furrowed, consulted the Baedeker stuck in his jeans pocket. Gabriel appeared, quick as a cat, motioning shh! and pointed him to the path that cut through the orchard.
La Judy's husband's clothes were wrinkled, but seemingly clean. Cabin tried to think what they should do together. His first thought was the barber. Hygiene! The old gringos especially like the hot towel, the thrillingly wielded straight razor. This beard was a Tolstoyan mess. His eyebrows, also, looked like weeds.
Cabin had also learned the man's name: "So, Jack, what do you say we make a little stop at the barber's?" When Jack opened his mouth to reply, saliva poured from both corners. Cabin grabbed his bandana (Mexican, patterned, strangely stiff as if it had been waxed) out of his pocket and daubed at his face. Jack drew away violently. "Is that thing clean?"
Cabin paused. The beard had absorbed much of it (at least the liquid had been clear, not stringy). Maybe in that, his quickness to help, he was treating Jack like a nursing-home a patient. That probably wasn't quite what Arturo had in mind.
The walked on the dusty path leading to town, parts of it baked so long it was seashell pale. The gringos complained about the dust, the kind that whitened the heels of the local men's cowboy boots.
A saguaro cactus looked like a tall man tipping over.
"My wife, Judy, she donated the land for this." Jack wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. The soccer field. A bench, a few scraggly trees that could muster no shade. The most notable feature was the jungle gym made out of a plane's fuselage. The mid-size prop plane was leaning nose down, Plane Henge style. It was painted crudely with bad Disney characters: a skinny, slightly sinister Mickey Mouse, a pouty Cinderella.
"How did you drag this old plane out here?" Cabin loved how the Mexicans recycled absolutely everything, like Koreans. His father told him that during the war, when they'd fled from Seoul all the way to the country's southern tip, they'd taken old Spam and c-ration cans from the U.S. Army's dump, flattened them, and made houses out of it. The kids of Korean immigrants found their elders' reverence for Spam to be pretty comical. But Cabin understood it, a little, now.
"Are you stupid or something?" he bellowed. "The goddam plane crashed here. Drug run. Cocaine in bales."
Obviously, marijuana. But Jack didn't seem the type who enjoyed being corrected.
"That's why Judy gave the town the land. She didn't want that juju on the ranch."
"She sounds like a wonderful woman," Cabin said, fully aware he sounded patronizing, but he couldn't himself—he was too good at saying things that were expected of him. He prepared himself for more yelling.
Jack's eyes watered (the hydraulics on the man!). "When I came down here to scatter her ashes, the whole damn village showed up. And I mean the Mexicans."
Entering the casa's bedroom, the first thing Cabin had noted was a wedding picture, the typical bride with her attendants pose. La Judy was a dark-haired Audrey Hepburn. In the picture she was staring, almost as if posed (well, maybe she was) as if thinking about the potency of her beauty and her youth (22). The bridesmaids attending her were comically ugly. Thick bodies, faces with lumpy noses that could be models for children drawing witches.
"Childhood friends?" he asked.
"Edna and Edith."
"Did she stay in touch with them, like after you were married?"
"After she went to Bryn Mawr, and married me?" There was a glint in his eye that Cabin hadn't seen before—he had been too distracted by the saliva. "Oh, she was a lady and a smart one. She knew how to put herself in a frame. She also shed more skins than a snake. I thought she was a rich society lady when I met her, with her talk about the Waldorf and all that."
"Bronx is not society. But the joke was on her. I was hardly a baron, but I was charming and carried myself well. My father did flooring. The joke was on both of us."
"Kind of a reverse Gift of the Magi."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"O. Henry? The candy bar?"
Jack had studied engineering at MIT. Where the buildings had numbers, not names. Cabin recalled a grad student telling him that in the Korean War, the hundreds of mountains, mostly north of the 38th parallel—Diamond, Horsehead, Buddha's Nose—were known on US military maps only by numbers. The shelling destroyed the trees, without which there was nothing to hold the water from the rain, which washed away the topsoil. A mountain particularly prized by the Koreans of both the north and south was #661, called Old Baldy as the war dragged on—indeed just a massive piece of dead rock, once densely forested, on which nothing ever grew on it again. The US used napalm, too. It wasn't accidental. "Starvation is one tactic to get compliance."
They drove in La Piñata to lunch. Jack did that weird three-times-around orbiting and pulled up, at least this time didn't bust his tires.
"What the hell kind of name is Cabin?" Jack growled, three beers in. "Your parents didn't know how to spell 'Kevin'?"
"Actually, Kevin is one of the names they considered and discarded," Cabin said. For the first time, he thought he saw a crack of a smile forming under Jack's unspeakable beard, which was now a confluence of salsa, bits of shrimp, tortilla chip crumbs, and saliva. Glass-stomached, he had to look away.
Cabin piloted the giant station wagon back. The metal had grown hot in the sun, Jack drowsed in the passenger seat. The station wagon felt like driving a boat. As Cabin drove, a bit of the polyester lining the car's interior gave way, coming to rest gently on his shoulder.
During the "season," life was measured out in increments of the Gringo Schedule.
Monday - Sports quizzes, Bingo (beer, wine tasting)
Tuesday - Pub night !!
Wednesday - Trivial Pursuit and Wine
Thursday - Canasta & Cocktails
Friday - TGIF!
Saturday - Fiesta!
Sunday - Sherry hour at 4 pm
The last party of the season was always Cinco de Mayo. The gringos wore sombreros and drank frozen margaritas then ta-taed each other as they flew north. Even Mrs. Stekel, the one with the Asian fetish, the one that kept Cabin's local bank account on the liquid side, went away. The newsletter said a fond farewell, "Until next season!" The parties stopped. Cabin didn't know where else to go. He still had his fellowship money, which went a lot further down here. He stayed.
"It's your turn," Cabin was told. "To take care of El Borracho." All he did know was that he didn't want to go back to grad school. Or face his parents.
That first night, as they sat in the subdued lamplight, where the dark seemed to constantly be assuming its superiority, Cabin helped El Borracho (whom he now thought of, like the mountain, as Old Baldy) , off with his boat shoes. Squeamish of stomach, especially with putrid smells, he'd been holding his breath, but Old Baldy's feet were rather clean and dry, almost like desert-bleached wood. His toenails, however, were pushing outward, like those tree roots that can break up sidewalks. They curved in mysterious directions, thickened and yellowed as if to emphasize the human's affinity to the horned, herbivorous animals on the Rancho, the goats, the scrawny cattle. Or maybe all the shells of the shrimp in the Camarones de Diablo. Who was supposed to cut these things?
Cabin brought some of Jack's clothes to the local Abuela to be washed. There was a certain smell he associated with Mexico. Like clothes soaked in clean sweat and then dried. And also bleach. The Abuela scrubbed clothes on an old fashioned washboard with some kind of foamy alkali soap, the washboard shredded things to pieces. His Levis came out shredded and whiskery, soon to turn a ghostly white, looking like those expensive jeans from Tokyo, where they were pelted with rocks, then carefully slitted with scalpels.
One time, when he picked up his laundry, she had packed it in one of those plasticized woven Mexican bags (this one with a radiant image of the Virgen de Guadalupe) instead of his mother's old red Crate and Barrel nylon bag with the wonky zipper. This switcheroo offended his sense of propriety. He often felt if people were going to pull a fast one, they'd do it to the Asian, thinking they wouldn't talk back. Back in America, the one person he'd ever yelled at for littering—the guy actually blew his nose on a piece of toilet paper that he tore off a roll and let fall—was Asian. Ergo, he racially profiled, too.
Through this tortured logic, he asked for his bag back. The Abuela glared covetously as he huffily transferred the clothes. Cabin wondered, why was he so stuck on this busted-zipper bag? Still, he was too deep into the transaction. He took his clothes, so bone-dry they smelled dusty, and left.
Cabin took Jack to dinner. They were the only ones there. Outside, a few of the dogs were skulking around, looking hopefully at the kitchen door, where they sometimes threw out old tortillas. Jack drank a Pacifico, which began to foam back out. He looked like he was in distress. Was he choking?
Cabin leapt into action, his bandana balled in his fist.
"Get away from me!" Old Baldy spat, blocking Cabin's hand with a surprising ninja move. Meanwhile, the foam started dripping onto the bar.
Cabin looked to Gabby to guidance. She seemed oblivious, but said in clear Spanish, "You heard his words. Now do them."
Cabin moved back more quickly than he meant to, his stool, a ridiculous leather covered thing meant to look like a saddle, rocking. He wished he hadn't put his feet in the stirrups. Cabin had sat them at the bar, thinking this way he wouldn't have to watch Old Baldy eat. Top heavy, the stool tipped. Grabbing the lip of the bar as he fell kept his cranium from being smashed open.
Old Baldy's voice came from far above his head:
"One never really considers all the delicate mechanical processes by which a body keeps its saliva in. Your tongue is always moving, the tension in your lips just so—not too much, not too little. The brain controls it through the reticular activating system. It's true what they say: you don't know how good you have it until it's gone. I used to be able to smoke two cigarettes at a time. I used to kiss girls without making a puddle. But it's all too too late now."
Cabin, still astraddle his stool, his sleeve sticking to the dirty floor by the bar, realized no one was there to help him. And there was no good graceful way to get up. He used his elbows.
"Kid, you think I want to look this way, that I've let myself go."
"It's the opposite of that. Through superhuman strength, I'm still holding on. Mas or minus."
In no hurry, Old Baldy picked up what he called a "napkin" from the bar. Cabin would have classified it as a rag—recently used. It was made of the same thick woven fabric that they used to make mops, and as a joke, some enterprising Mexican in the Baja area had made it into a kind of poncho with a hood that now was popular with the gringos who go to Acapulco and Cabo. The gringos were paying to wear mops!
Old Baldy ordered another beer before "dismounting" and heading to the bathroom: MUCHACHOS. Gabby murmured to Cabin that the tab for Rancho Allegre had grown into the thousands in just the last few months and did Arturo know?
"How could he drink and eat that much?" Cabin said, hoping his Spanish was correct.
"He doesn't always eat alone," Gabby said. He asked if he meant Old Baldy had a girlfriend, or was Arturo and Gabriel living it up on his tab? She shrugged.
Earlier, when Cabin had surveyed the mess in Old Baldy's bedroom, he'd blurted, "You need someone to take care of you!" The brush on the bureau was snarled with long gray hair, a dried lipstick stood at attention, waiting for its owner, who would never show up.
Old Baldy had snorted. "Don't treat me like you know better."
But I do! was all he could think. It wasn't Cabin's fault that the guy was old, everything gone to shit. Even his lower eyelids were stretched out, making rheumy pouches. Cabin decided, right then, he was never going to grow old.
Cabin pushed back from the bar. He needed to be gone by the time Old Baldy returned to the table.
As the sun set, there was a hint of the desert chill that would slam the valley around eight. Cabin sat in his tiny room, opened Camera Lucida, then gave up and paced. Noise from the cantina below was just beginning. He'd written such a great grant application: "Should I be so honored to win The Houghton Dissertation fellowship, I would plan to spend the latter segment of my time writing up my research...." He'd never felt so restless before, his room a four-walled cell. He had an urge to climb to roof of his building, crude adobe, the bar downstairs had TECATE painted on the diagonal, in lurid colors, no windows. By leaning out the window—just a little bit more!—he could grab the lip of the roof, hoist himself up, scissoring his legs like he was swimming. A faint smell, like baking clay, woodfires. Another sharper scent, like hair that's just been cut.
"Past meets present, right here," he said, suddenly. He'd never talked to himself like that before. "I'm young!" Right now, he was the youngest he'd ever be in his life.
The cry of a javelina. A manic howl of one coyote setting off the others. He thought of his father, no longer in need a son. Did you always find out too late that having children didn't save you, the way you were told—the whole time—it would? He unfocused his eyes and stared far into the black. There was no light pollution here. More than once, he'd glanced up and seen a shooting star—a straight line of light being drawn on the black easel of the sky, like the connect-the-dots of his kindergarten. Mrs. McDougal, he remembered, so kind. Where everything was orderly and grownups had thought of everything.
More animal howls. It was too dark to see them. It was too dark to delineate what was land and what was sky. Until he saw, moving along the ridge, glowing, as it inched into the future, the car that he knew was dented all around its body, like craters on the moon.