A Kind of Going Home
Los primeros que salon comprenden con sus huesos
que no hobro paroiso ni amores desajados
(Those who go out early know in their bones
there will be no paradise or loves that bloom and die)
Federico Garcia Lorca
Often when Pedro couldn’t sleep he thought of the village where he grew up, and the dust the donkeys kicked up and the small square white houses and the day the bull ran all the way down the hill. That night, as he sometimes did when the baby was awake, he had taken Maria and the children with him to pick up people from the airport. Manuel had stood up in the seat, just a head taller than the van’s dashboard, looking out with big night eyes at the many lit towers outside.
He had turned and said to the traveling students (no one who stayed at Happy Days Motel ever had much money), “There is the mall.” He had said it with the kind of reverence he expected them to feel, and they did feel it. They had all looked across at the mall ringed with light, bigger than any other in America.
“It has everything,” the boy had told them.
“Wow,” one of the eighteen-year-olds said.
“You never see it?” Manuel had continued, voluble and ready to talk, but his mother tugged at him as she cradled the cold feet of the baby in her hands, thinking that she should have put socks on the baby but had forgotten that the AC would be running in the shuttle.
There were fewer cars now than during midday pick-ups. The students laughed and talked about what they would do: swim in the pool, buy food from the mall.
Pedro had driven swiftly and safely down the highway, talking in a low voice to his wife. Then, after dropping the students off, he had four hours before the next pick-up. Now he tried to sleep in the small mobile home they lived in behind Happy Days Motel, a motel blessed by its proximity to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. But he didn’t sleep. He just waited for 4:15 AM, when he would get up to take the shuttle out again for the 4:30 AM pickup.
The mobile home had an aura of bleach about it, because that was the smell of the motel, and it always seemed to follow Maria around. But beyond this smell was the smell of animal dung she had picked up once under a hot sun, and the seemingly nearer sound of rain on a flat roof – sounds that were distant from Minnesota and the motel.
He watched her sleeping. She was small and delicate and fifteen years younger than he, twenty-five now. He had been away, working as a city taxi driver in Mexico, when he had come back to the village for Dona Rosa’s party. He had ridden a donkey up and down the valleys that no car could traverse, just as he had ridden a donkey the other way. At the party he stood in the doorway, older than the men that were with her, and he watched Maria and saw something that his son now had, a fierce darting intelligence.
She had always lived in his own small village, and she grew up tending the donkeys and planting corn. She couldn’t read because the teachers were always leaving. Maria was the type to catch his eyes. Even in the smallest and most ignorant places, the gleam of intelligence takes a lot to be smothered. And intelligence could not be smothered here, except by the silence and the dilapidated schoolhouse where the books had potato bug bites in them. There was no television, no pervading rot; nothing except sometimes a party like this one, or a christening in the Catholic church, that tiny outpost on the hill.
People had joked that with that pock-marked face, Pedro would never marry, and he was also rather old to marry. But Maria turned and saw that he was kinder and wiser than the younger men, and she knew that with him she could leave this place and that he would teach her to read and write. Ten years before, her stepbrothers had left for America, for a cold place called Minneapolis, and she knew that with Pedro she could get there as well.
She latched on to him and he, seeing her difference, knew that she was the one. Soon after, they were married, and then he taught her to read and saw that she learned fast. First she learned to read in Spanish, and then to write, and then she learned to read and write in English. Then she started to talk about America and how she wanted her son to know more than the village and this outpost of a city in the desert. And so they went to join her stepbrothers in the Twin Cities area.
Manuel, their son, now knew so much more than the smell of donkey turd in the sun, Pedro thought. He knew the shuttle bus his father drove to the Mall of America and the airport, and he knew the mobile home, and for years he had known Happy Days Motel and the room where Maria left him and the baby while she worked. He ate many of his meals there, and so he also knew the smell of micro-waved food and leftover packages of stale muffins and bagels from breakfast.
Alan, a gringo, had taken over the motel from his parents, but Alan loved Pedro and Maria because he could be sick for a few days and let them do everything. Sometimes Alan would take a few days off, just for a break, and let them take turns working the desk; someone else would drive the shuttle then. Alan had also given them a television for their home, and five twenty-dollar tickets for rides at the mall. So Manuel now knew much more than the village, knew the vast cacophony of light and sound contained in the mall. The noise there reverberated under a ceiling, not long and far-off like the echoes in the valley.
Pedro hoped sometimes, though he knew it was wrong, that Alan would get sick for a long time. Alan had bad health insurance, partial insurance for the self-employed, so the hospital would never do anything for him unless he was really sick. Consequently, he “rested up” a lot, especially during the winter. Pedro had no insurance at all, because the motel couldn’t afford insurance for its employees. He also had been a little old when he started there, and kept having fights with the other Mexicans that worked there and winked at Maria because, after all, she was so pretty. For these reasons it was unlikely that he would ever get hired at the Hilton or Comfort Inn or the Ramada.
He worked two jobs, doing a little taxi service sometimes in his old battered car. Perhaps one day Alan would be sick for a long time, and somehow they could become motel owners; Pedro would think this often on the nights he couldn’t sleep. And yet there was a pain in his chest that told him this would never be so. The pain kept getting worse, but every time he thought of seeing a doctor he was afraid that the bills would take away everything he had. And he loved his family so much. Anyway, perhaps they could both work the desk sometime, and he would not need to lie awake at night and drive the shuttle.
Maria spoke and wrote very good English, and next year Manuel would go to school. Pedro hoped to buy Maria a clothes dryer and some of those heavy flat-bottomed pans for making tortillas. Now he tried to sleep, but heard only a non-existent rain on a low flat roof and saw the flat pan his mother used to make tortillas in. Here it was called a cast-iron frying pan and cost $49.99. He felt the heat of the fire again, and saw the big pot with the beans that cooked slowly. America had a different taste, a metallic salt-sweet taste.
He got up and swung his legs around to sit on the side of the bed. Maria, his little flower. Still she had to clean, even clean up vomit from time to time. His ambition was that they work at the desk all the time. His breathing was labored today, as it often was. She had asked him why and he had told her it was from smoking.
Then he dressed, taking his clothes off the top of the television where he had put them. Manuel watched hour after hour of television at the motel, and now even at home. Sometimes Pedro called the television “bastard” under his breath. It made Manuel slower, he knew, and perhaps the little figures that moved all day on the television screen did not carry a view that had everything.
When one stood in the village, the view was of the valley and then of another mountain with white houses. This, too, was not a view that had everything. But Pedro suspected, as he became more familiar with television, that this machine’s view was of less, and was more dangerous, than the white rock of a steep mountainside. Even Maria often asked Manuel to turn the television off and gave him cartoon books instead; but he always turned it back on again.
Pedro walked across the parking lot to Happy Days Motel. It was hot now, even in the early morning. The village had always been cool at night and empty. He had despised that emptiness and left at eighteen, for the town that was a six-hour donkey ride and then, after one got to the garage, a two-hour car ride away. He walked through the clammy outdoor air toward the too-cool air of the lobby. Many stars were out, and he looked up briefly and nodded at them, because they seemed the same stars he had watched around the fire in Mexico.
Inside, he turned on the television and watched a little CNN. The clerk at the desk, from another province in Mexico, twirled around on his chair and smoked. Sometimes, Pedro knew, between midnight and six in the morning there would be a call about noise in one of the rooms, and the clerk would call the room and tell them to be quiet. Twice a year, maybe, they called the police over something.
At 4:00 AM someone did call, but it was about a lost Visa card; and of course, the clerk told them to wait until Alan came in the morning.
“No cigarettes today, Pedro. You want?” the clerk asked Pedro in English.
Pedro nodded. “Gracias.”
He took the cigarette, lit it with his lighter, and walked outside to the chair where he had wanted to sit before, despite the whine of mosquitoes. The coffee felt acid and unpleasant in his stomach. Ah, it was lousy coffee, always had been, he thought. He looked up at the stars again, because it was all right to look at stars while sitting on a chair smoking. That was a manly thing to do. His breathing was still tight and his chest hurt, and now he felt a little dizzy and sweaty – even outside, away from the bleach-reeking glass-walled swimming pool the lobby looked onto.
Not only did he know he was ill, but he knew that the condition was worsening and might finally kill him. But to see a doctor and have some expensive treatment would wreck everything: the mortgage on the mobile home, the clothes dryer, even the tortilla pan. Such expense would harm the ones he loved. Maria was still so pretty; she would be better off with him dead, and so would the children. She could get some education and get ahead the way she deserved.
How could he leave them in debt? For five years he had worked for dollars that would be squandered every night he stayed in a hospital. So he didn’t think that he was killing himself, but just as if he had come up against the steep white barrier of a mountain and that there was no way out.
“Sweet kind Jesus,” he muttered. “This thing in my chest hurts so much.” Soon he would return to the village, for his mother, Dona Rosa, was dying. In a week he could be in the village, if he slept in the car while traveling. And in the village he would find some way not to come back. It would be better that way than to take everything his family had to treat his illness.
America is a fine place, he thought as his swing creaked gently in the hot July night, silent except for the few cars that could be heard on the highway. America is a fine place with all these highways and tall buildings, hotels, Visa cards, computers, air conditioning, and the Mall of America; but it is no good getting sick here. For that it is better to go home and die. And they all played the same game, all the maids and clerks, people from very small provinces, even the illegals who filed no tax returns.
He went inside wearily. The clerk tossed him the keys to the shuttle, and he drove the same route to the airport, now as familiar as the face of the mountain that looked onto his village. The travelers looked the same too, mostly white, mostly young, red-eyed, tired and as confusedly buffeted as Manuel had been on Saturday when they put him on the big wheel at the mall. But Pedro forced himself to stop disliking the mall and the television, and to remember that Manuel would soon be in a class with thirty-five other children, learning to read. Manuel might go to college, and might even become a doctor, yes, a doctor.
Teachers did come to the village sometimes, and yet they always left. Perhaps it was too difficult for them there without electricity and television. Growing up in the village, the most Manuel could ever have learned was how to plant a row of corn straight. Growing up in the small city nearby, he may have learned to read and write, but would never have done more than drive a taxi.
Poor tired travelers, Pedro thought when he saw them. He had done right to come here. Anyway, Manuel would in the end have come to America. What boy would not wish to ride the donkey down the dusty valley, and then up the next steep hill and up and down until they came to the place with the garage and the few cars to rent? And then, what boy, having lived in the small city for a few years, would not dream of America? It was too bad that Manuel and Alicia’s grandmother was not here to watch them, but that they must instead be left in the hotel room. But next year Manuel would be at school.
So Manuel had never tasted fresh tortillas! So he had never slept by the fire under the stars! He could swim, because as well as having the television, he had the motel pool to swim in with his mother on her break, and every weekend the great Mall of America was his. There were train rides that ricocheted high up to the ceiling, the train twisting and turning in loops, as unpredictable as an angry bull. There were Ferris wheel rides and boxes Manuel could sit in that also twirled and leaped in unpredictable ways.
Last Saturday, there had even been a fiesta at the mall, and all the people from Mexico had worn dresses of bright colors. Manuel had stood with Pedro and his wife and the baby, and they had watched the dancers who came from their country, promoting Tour-Mex. They had all spun and twirled in a quick anxious vortex of sound and color, and kept running behind the stage and changing their costumes before the next bright dance started.
“What wonderful dresses,” Manuel had said, and Maria had also smiled with childish delight. And the girls with the wonderful dresses, which were harder to throw off and on than the men’s costumes, had emerged grimacing from each costume change, but then their expressions had changed and they had held a steady delighted smile throughout the five minutes of the dance. The music from the speakers was too loud, though, even for Manuel. Yet his father remembered how he had loved the show.
He thought about all of this as the passengers got into the van. He drove back thinking about how Maria had laughed when someone asked for their e-mail address to send more information about Tour-Mex to.
“Can I fly to Mexico for a tour and see the dancers?” Manuel had asked. The child did not understand why they had laughed so loud, and then, because he looked upset, they had taken him upstairs. He drank five free Slushie samples and they all had food from Taco John’s. And then, because Alan had given them so many tickets, Manuel went on another ride, the big one he’d always wanted. He had looked small and uncertain when he came off, the same way the travelers looked at four-thirty in the morning. Manuel had spent too long on the rides and eaten too much junk food and endured the turbulence of a life lived too fast and too artificially, here in America.
Some of the people Pedro picked up had even flown to Mexico, perhaps with Tour-Mex. But of course they hadn’t seen his village. They had flown to an enclosed compound where people danced in bright clothes, the women in lace and polyester dresses and the men, calling “olé,” wearing big hats. Customers always gave good tips in such places, Pedro had heard. That might have been a life, maybe.
Pedro drew in at the motel and let the passengers out. It was five o’clock in the morning. As he handed their luggage to the passengers, he noticed that a car had stopped behind him. Later the driver drove around to the back of the motel, as if she were looking for someone there.