“If anything, these dry landscapes grow more powerful with time and increased acquaintance. The answers to things get shorter, with more room for the unknown built into them, and the unknowable.”
Diane Keppel-Smith, SALT (Orion)
Around nine A.M. the three of them stowed their gear in the back of Felix’s ancient Suburban parked in the lot of the Swing Low Motel in Las Cruces, and climbed into the front seat, Stella squeezing herself in between the two men, her husband Felix, and Ray. The fit was moderately tight but they found the arrangement preferable to any one of them sitting in back, apart from the others. The empty rear seat belonged, for the moment at least, to Olivia’s ghost.
“Olivia’s run?” asked Felix. Ray watched Felix’s tanned slender wrist, as he slipped the key into the ignition with a kind of unconscious ease that made Ray think of sex. He suddenly felt that the front seat was much too tight for the three of them. Maybe he should sit in the back with Olivia’s ghost, on a trip the four of them had taken many times together—but he’s been on intimate terms with her ghost ever since she died of cancer, almost two years ago. She’s with him more than she was when she was alive. He’s made no effort to leave Olivia behind and “make a new life,” or all sorts of versions of that thought, as his therapist says. His therapist is right, Ray doesn’t want to make a new life. He thinks his therapist is somewhat of a New Age idiot. “I’m respecting my mourning speed,” he’s told Dr. Blankfein. “I’ll make an effort to meet new women when it feels right.” But as Dr. Blankfein’s pointed out, then why is Ray spending a lot of money and time seeing a therapist if everything feels right? The thought of trying to meet a new woman is terrifying and sickening. He’d never liked meeting new people, and dating horrified him. He’d just fallen in with Olivia somehow, as you do when you are young and don’t think about things.
“It’s a way to continue talking about Olivia,” said Dr. Blankfein finally, ending their therapy. Ray’s therapy.
He’s making an effort now—that’s what this trip to visit Stella and Felix is—so he’d thought. He’s known the two of them since they were rookie teachers at University of Texas at El Paso, Ray also getting his PhD in geology, and they managed to convince him that a huge change of scene from his current teaching at MIT would be great for him. But seeing Felix and Stella again has only kept Olivia alive for him, as she shared his life during those years in El Paso. Ray feels nauseous, a symptom of claustrophobia from the proximity of their bodies, and fear of this visit. He shifts on the already hot brown fake leather seat.
“Got enough room?” asks Stella, moving over as far as she can. Instead of saying he needs space, or telling them it was all a mistake and he’s got to go home, he shifts again and puts his finger in a cut in the plastic seat, near his knee. “I’m fine,” he says.
Olivia’s run this time was to be just a trip up the interstate to Santa Fe where they would have lunch before heading southward, down the great wide trench of the river valley.
Santa Fe wasn’t far, about an hour’s drive north of Albuquerque—an hour, that is, if they didn’t stop to try their luck at any of the new casinos run by the pueblos’ Indians that had sprung up since Ray’s last visit, their lights and gaudy signs dropped on the desert looking like the huge ocean liners visible at night in Boston Harbor, or seek out the dusty jewelry shops on the pueblos as Olivia and Stella had been fond of doing, while he and Felix waited outside watching the usual little boys playing basketball with some crumpled newspaper and a bottomless fruit basket nailed to a wall, their feet kicking up the same brown dust that covered their sneakers and their legs.
They would slip past Santa Fe and abandon the valley road north for a slower one that wound toward Taos through dry, mesquite-dotted hills, taking them through Chimayo, where they would visit the Santuario. Ray always marveled at those with great faith who left photos of themselves and loved ones, with notes to the saints with their prayers and their wishes. Olivia saw these shrines as art installations, but all of them felt strange among those of much greater faith. Still, unbelievers, atheists, they each scooped a handful of the holy earth into small plastic bags they’d brought, before leaving the mission church. In one of the dark rooms about thirty crutches and canes stood in a corner. Ray watched Olivia as she stood there for what seemed a very long time. When they were here four years ago, did Olivia already suspect that something was wrong with her?
Then they’d head on to Truchas, perched on its spiny ridge with its little clutch of art galleries, its peculiar small cemetery, and the sharp peaks of the Sangre de Cristos off to the east. Usually they would make it to Taos just after dark—too late to see more than looming adobe structures at the pueblo on the outskirts. They would turn back to town, find a place to eat, then bed down somewhere in some shabby motel. Next day they’d head back to Santa Fe, spend a few hours wandering around the neighborhoods and peering over huge vine-covered gates into peoples’ courtyards and gardens. And in the evening they would run back down the valley, the river a silver ribbon that flashed off the right of the highway. On longer runs they would drive to the mountains north and east of Taos, making a loop of what in winter were the area’s ski resorts, or wandering further afield—to Las Vegas, or Raton, or even up into Colorado. These northern runs began to be known as Olivia’s runs. Ray could hardly recall why—maybe because the higher the mountains, the colder and crisper the air, the better she liked it.
To the three of them, the Rio Grande was a glittering narrow ribbon in the wide, shallow trench of the valley. It began, they knew, high in the Colorado Rockies, and lowed—just a trickle at many seasons of the year—southward through New Mexico, dammed only once or twice in the course of its travels, but frequently shunted into intricate systems if irrigation canals and ditches, the rights to the water in them matters of serious contention, and continual negotiation and renegotiation. The politics of these water rights appeared to be bugging Felix too.
The Rio Grande dropped gradually down through New Mexico until it met up with Texas on the one hand and Mexico on the other. At El Paso and Juarez, taking on its legal role as US-Mexican frontier, it slipped through a passage in the great range of mountains, the Rockies to the north and the Sierra Occidental to the south, together forming a great cordillera running all the way from Canada to the Isthmus of Panama and connecting up with that other great range to the south. El Paso-Juarez seemed a permanent celebration, greeting the still-young river, newly arrived from the north.
“There’s not much to say about that.”
Ray was startled at the sound of Felix’s voice, suddenly breaking what had been, except for the whir of the air conditioner, the hum of the motor, and the hiss of tires on pavement, a long silence. Absorbed in some inner landscape while registering the brown canyons with sudden pockets of tall saguaros and ocotillos, Ray had lost the thread of their conversation, but was struck by Felix’s gesture—a short arc of his bony hand and wrist, palm downward—that went with his words, and that seemed so typical of him. The remark, too, was typically Felix, Ray thought. Felix never made small talk. For him there was never much to be said about anything. It took a long time to find out what was going on with him. During periods when years went by without seeing each other, this had the effect of compressing time. It always seemed that they’d just seen each other yesterday. This time it had been years. Strangely enough, though it was Felix who Ray thought of as his friend, Stella was the one he talked to most. Maybe all Felix’s news was gotten from Stella—Ray couldn’t tell anymore. He and Olivia had always thought of Felix and Stella as a yin and yang couple—two people who were completely different in personality and appearance, Felix, rail-thin, but fit, muscular, always simply dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, Stella somewhat voluptuous, favoring lots of silver jewelry and other adornment. And now most of Felix’s hair is gone, as if he’s finally gotten rid of every nonessential, giving him an even starker, bonier appearance. Of the two, Stella was the communicator. Ray had never thought about it before but he realized that Stella’s talk was her way of connecting, it generated warmth and intimacy no matter what was said. In the past he’d often grown impatient with her chatter, but right now he welcomes her voice. Ever since Ray had arrived at their house yesterday, Stella had been pretty much silent, except for the usual polite greetings and hugs. Felix, with a bottle of tequila and some Sol beers on their glass-topped table, had talked on and on about what seemed his new passion, the plight of migrants crossing from Mexico into Arizona and Texas. Ray had wanted to ask Stella about this before going to sleep in their small guest room with its single bed, but didn’t get a chance to grab her alone, and he’d been so tired after his trip he couldn’t move. He had to admit that his boredom about the subject didn’t help keep him awake.
Now Stella is telling the story of La Llorona, which Ray already knew. Possibly she’d told this story before—Ray didn’t care. Stella had been studying folktales of the Southwest when they all first met, and she had a treasure trove of them. She liked telling them, and changing them around slightly in weird ways. He studied her slender tan hands resting on her beige linen shorts, which came almost to her round knees. Her wavy cinnamon hair is longer than Ray remembered, and he can smell some lemony shampoo.
If Stella leans away from Felix a bit, it is because there are three of them crowded into the front seat, and she doesn’t want to get in the way of his driving.
Felix drives leaning forward a bit, both hands on the wheel. His eyes, except for occasional glances at Stella or Ray, remain on the road ahead, ranging over both near and far stretches of pavement, taking in both shoulders of the road, frequently checking the mirrors, both inside and out. Felix, always high strung, seems uncomfortably tense.
“La Llorona killed her three kids because she was too young to have children, to be tied down,” said Stella. “So she put them in a sack like a litter of cats, and, hidden by the cottonwoods at the banks of the Rio Bravo, threw them in. Their terrified screams didn’t bother her. I’m free, she exulted. But when she died, God said to her, you’ve committed the greatest sin in the world when you killed your children, so now and into eternity you’ll roam the rivers of the world, weeping, always searching for them.”
“I like the story better the way you told it last time,” said Ray. Felix turns up the air-conditioning and puts a hand near the vents. “First of all, there was no God in your earlier version. If you bring up God, then there are a lot of questions to be answered for someone like me who has no faith.”
“You may not believe in God,” said Felix, “but you have faith.”
Ray studied his own chinoed knees maybe closer together than they’d be if Stella weren’t right next to him, and thought for a moment.
“Right now I don’t think I do have any faith. Though we’d have to define the term before I could really say. I mean there might be a religious faith, or a general kind of faith.”
Felix laughed. He didn’t laugh out loud often but when he did the volume was always surprising. “You sound like Stella the way you’re picking everything apart.”
Stella pouted. “I communicate, Felix, and I think about things.”
Were they always like this? Ray couldn’t recall. Without Olivia here he was paying much more attention to them. He’d let Olivia do most of that. And now he’s become half a person. He pushed the sun visor to the side. His sunglasses were in the trunk.
“Here’s how I remember the story,” said Ray. This is what Stella enjoyed. “La Llorona was happily married, and had three gorgeous kids. Her husband died from a work-related accident, and La Llorona, along with caring for her kids, had to get a job. This was getting to her—and it wasn’t doing the kids any good. She fell in love with a dashing man with thick black hair and a black mustache, who had a job in a maquiladora, was great in bed, and was delightful with the children, who, after a spell of jealous acting out, grew to love him. However, after they married he responded to the added stress of family life by drinking more and more and staying out later and later. La Llorona, desperately in love, begged him to tell her what she could do to help their relationship. I’m not sure whether he actually told her she needed to get rid of the kids, or whether she just got the idea that the kids were ruining things between them, but one day she fixed a picnic with tortillas and soda, and brought them to the banks of the Rio Bravo. The oldest boy, who was about seven, tried to run away, but with a huge effort Llorona managed to drown them all. When she tried to recapture her romantic feelings she couldn’t—she was too distraught. It was too late. Her husband still drank, and now she hated him. She missed her kids terribly, and felt only guilt. It was clear that what her husband had wanted, and what she’d done, was evil. The only thing she now feels is longing for her children. So she hangs out by the edge of the river crying and moaning for them.”
“That’s definitely a more interesting version,” says Stella, pulling a bottle of Poland Springs from a straw bag near Ray’s long, running shoes. “The story disgusts me now—what women will do for men . . . “
“Shades of Grimm,” said Felix. “Only in this case it’s an evil stepfather.”
“No God involved,” says Ray. “Are you still gathering folk stories? Ray asks Stella.
“I’m still interested . . . “
“Stella’s trying to write something of her own,” says Felix, swigging some water from Stella’s bottle that she’s handed to him, as if reading his mind. Something about this interchange silences Ray, though he’s interested in hearing more.
He looks out at the mountains. The first time he came out west from the verdant northeast he couldn’t get over how brown and bald everything looked. The mountains were so bare, so mocha and burnt straw color, their sharp crags exposed. Patches of cactus or scraggy bush here and there looked like mange on a dog. The only real green to be seen lay near the water, the salt cedars and pepper trees along the banks of the Rio Grande. Though in the process of getting a terminal degree (he loves that way of saying PhD) in geology, the mountains of the Southwest were a revelation. So dark and sharp there was no way to avoid thinking about the earth in its days of heaving, shoving, bursting, pushing and folding. He’d look at them and find he couldn’t breathe.
Later he began to notice the different types of vegetation, great varieties of cacti and grasses that often matched the dusty earth. He grew to love their weird shapes, and subtle colors. He loves the sharp mountains, the canyons, the bizarre reddish plateaus.
In his years in the east Ray’d almost forgotten how fast traffic moved on the open highways here in the west. The legal speed was back up to seventy-five and the faster cars and trucks were moving at fifteen or twenty miles above that limit. Traffic moved forward, but his thoughts kept moving backward. There was a danger in doing Olivia’s run. Ray would force himself not to brood on the past. One of Stella’s and Felix’s stated purposes in inviting him to do the trip was to start him off on a new path. Though not often, Ray had kept them posted on events in his life after Olivia, and laughed at his feeble attempts at dating. He’d grieved long enough, they, like everyone else, said, and even if he didn’t agree, Ray thought he’d give it a try. When they were young professors in El Paso, Ray used to knock on Ray and Stella’s door and ask if they could come out to plat. Stella’s first words to him when they called and told him to come visit were, “Ray, it’s time to come out and play.”
So is this a trip into the past or into the future? wonders Ray.
"The adaptations of the Southwest desert animals are equally ingenious. Each came to terms with the dryness in its own way." Legends of the American Desert, Alex Schoumatoff
Felix looked the same always. Still red-faced from overexposure to the hot southwestern sun, he still looked underfed. Bones showed everywhere—just beneath the tight, ruddy skin of his face and neck, in his shoulders and ribcage, at his elbows and the knees that stuck out of his long shorts, and the unsocked ankles that stuck out over the tops of his running shoes. He looked like someone who worked out. Ray studied his friend and smiled. Did he, Ray, look the same, in spite of feeling completely different? He checked out his own long legs scissored into the tight space up front. No matter how thin he got he was still so soft he felt fat. He hated any form of exercise. His arms, squeezed between Stella and the door, were so white that even though he’d only been out in the sun for about five minutes altogether, he could see his reddish hair looking bright blonde against his sunburned pink skin. But some things do change. Ray had been pushing these thoughts away ever since he’d arrived. So young when they met, they had an uncritical relationship. But now they were each solidifying into who they each were, whatever that was.
“Do you remember Placitas?” Stella asked. They had just passed Bernalillo, the valley town, and the turn-off to Placitas, high on the slopes of the Sandia Mountains just north of Albuquerque.
“Of course,” said Ray. “Do those friends of yours still live there?” He couldn’t recall their names, but Felix and Stella had once taken him, and Olivia, there to visit friends who lived in a small, whitewashed adobe house with timbered ceilings and a garden courtyard, that Olivia had fallen in love with.
“Bill and Pill.” Pill was Stella’s name for Bill’s wife Naomi, whom she’d never liked. “They’re still there, though talking about moving,” said Felix. “God knows where. You can’t move unless you’re rich. They claim the Californians are ruining everything, that Bernalillo has crept up the mountain all the way to Placitas. They refer to much of Placitas nowadays as Upper Bernalillo, Nouveau Trash they call the new ugly huge houses. Californicators is what they call the migrating Californians, gentrifying everything and ruining things for poor poets.”
Ray isn’t sure whether Felix is making fun of his friend Bill, the poet? He can’t tell which side Felix is on.
Stella put her warm dry hand on Ray’s knee. Ray looked out the window at a garden of agave. “You remember that day?”
“Yes, of course. Why shouldn’t I?”
“It was a long time ago—seven, maybe eight years—just a few years after you and Olivia got married.
What might have been an ordinary silence became a silence Ray moved about in awkwardly, like a new, unfurnished house. He sensed Stella was wondering whether she should have mentioned Olivia again.
“That’s about right,” said Felix.
Ray recalled Bill in the front room showing them some unusual species of cacti that he was growing to sell. Ray studied the bizarre shapes, some so tall and slender they required props, while Bill complained about not being able to get teaching jobs in his field, which was poetry. Felix and Stella walked around the garden looking at some enormous pale purple irises planted by Naomi (Pill’s real name), while Bill awkwardly served Ray and Olivia some green tea in tiny, thin bone china cups on a coffee table that was a thick polished plank of mahogany. The filigreed cups seemed oddly and incongruously delicate in the rustic setting. Olivia and Bill laughed a lot and talked about authors’ photos, and how much trouble it was to get a good one, one that a publisher liked. “If the goddam photo is so important, why not just publish an entire book of photos of the author and forget about the poetry,” Bill had said. Olivia had laughed. Ray realized how rarely Olivia laughed out loud. She had a large lovely mouth. That day she wore bright red lipstick, which made her dark straight hair seem really black, and her skin pale. Her eyes were not large, and were set fairly close together. Under her high bangs, cut straight across at least two inches above her dark eyebrows like a child’s haircut, her expression often seemed puzzled, or naïve. Ray remembered the photo on the back of Bill’s latest published book, the book Bill wrote his name in and gave them, and which Ray probably still had somewhere, Bill’s slender willowy body with the top few buttons of his t-shirt open in a V, his wide smile, and his arms out as if getting ready to hug you, his hands too large, larger than his head, the fingers apart. Welcoming you to his poetry. Too welcoming.
He wished he could recall what Olivia had said—he wished he’d paid more attention—it seemed more important now. He tended to recall sensations or a generalized aura of events, rather than exact details, or things people said. If he were a writer he’d be bad with dialogue.
Stella inched her hand above Ray’s knee and pressed. “We’re really glad you decided to come.” She looked straight into his eyes with her own, almost orange in the sun, and black- lashed. Her hair was dark and wavy, but much shorter than it used to be, and she was still slightly plump, curvy. Maybe not the fashion, to Ray her looks were lush. Generous, he’d call her body, though he might not be able to separate looks from qualities. He feels her lush warmth, and studies her smooth tan hand resting on his slender chino-ed thigh, spread out like a starfish, a bright ring on every finger. Her hand radiates heat.
That morning—when the day was new, when the sun slowly touched the sky almost afraid to break it—that morning I looked out my window and stared at the Juarez mountains. Mexican purples—burning.
“Exile,” Benjamin Alire Saenz, The Late Great Mexican Border, eds. Bobby Byrd & Susannah Mississippi Byrd
Stella’s head has fallen back against the seat, and she’s lightly snoring. Ray’s enjoying the amazing New Mexico near mid-day sky, a bright flat blue, with small, white cumulus clouds, sharp-edged and very three-dimensional, seemingly pasted on.
He hopes Stella’s head a few inches from his shoulder, doesn’t fall limply over. Felix is unusually silent and the car seems to be veering a bit, making Ray feel slightly sick. When he looks over he sees Felix trying to read a map he has folded in the center of the steering wheel, his eyes moving from road to map and back. Ray can’t bear to watch—he pictures the car going out of control. And for one moment it does, veering toward a narrow shoulder of rocks and dry grass, the right front wheel bumping on the stones. Felix pulls it back immediately. “Hey,” says Ray, feeling as if he’s strangling. His fingertips tingle, and sweat tickles near his hairline.
Stella jars awake. “Hmmm?” she asks.
“This is a mistake,” says Ray, his voice a croak. I’ve got to get out of here, he thinks.
“Pull over this minute,” Stella says.
“There’s nowhere to pull over to—the shoulder’s too narrow,” says Felix, calm, as if he’s used to Stella in panic or anger mode. Only the muscle near his jaw twitches.
“I’m getting out,” says Stella, pushing into Ray, who is between her and the car door as if she can just march through him and exit while the car’s still moving. “I should be driving,” says Stella. “He’s always doing something while he drives—phone, reading, reaching for things . . .” Ray says nothing. He is stiff, squeezed against the door, as far as he can get from this confrontation.
“We’re in Mendoza now,” says Felix in a voice that cancels out Ray’s panic and Stella’s anger. “There is a gas station here, so we’ll fill up.”
Along the one short street that makes up Mendoza, Ray sees, along with the gas station, a restaurant, two bars, both closed, and a bodega with a large For Sale/Se Vende sign across a broken window. He can also see, without turning his head, that Stella, arms crossed over her breasts, is still sulking. Ray recalls them all, when there were four of them, surprisingly good travel companions. Is Olivia the missing catalyst? Or is something going on between Felix and Stella?
Ray, Stella, and Olivia, when she was with them, liked a jazz-like improvisational sort of travel, enjoying wherever they landed, taking an interesting road at a moment’s notice, and ignoring any time constraints. Felix was always the schedule-keeper, as well as the navigator. He was the map-reader, and probably needed specific destinations. Once a destination was decided on, Felix was in a hurry to get there. Ray is simply happy to be moving. He goes into a trance, watches the flow of landscape, studies the geology, sometimes so naked here in the Southwest—each layer of the earth a different color, on down the mesa, hill or butte, revealed in stripes ranging from pink through yellows, oranges and all the shades into the deep siennas and umbers. In spite of knowing the names of many of the earth’s layers, Ray cannot read maps. For him the lines of various colors, and the tiny names have no relation to real space, to the roads and places and spaces of what he calls “real life.” “Something definitely missing there,” Olivia had said more than once. Olivia had called Ray “passive,” because he let Felix take over so much.
He’d felt a bit hurt, but it had worked for them then. Maybe, he thinks now, Stella was right. He is passive.
They decide to have lunch in Mendoza, in one of the two open cantinas—the most appetizing of the two. All the tables are empty, as empty as the dusty streets in this tiny town in Texas, not a good recommendation for the food. They choose a table on the patio under a corrugated tin awning cantilevered out from the kitchen wall, well out of the sun. Reading his mind, Stella says, hopeful, “Probably there will be more customers here later, during comida. As if beaten by the molten noon sun in the short walk from the car to their table, Stella slides limply onto the same bench as Ray, while Felix, alone on the opposite bench, unfurls his map and smoothes it flat on the table with long fingers, the tips of which, rounding over his bitten nails, appear bald like his head. Felix seems full of his usual energy, and stands up to better study the map in its entirety, fiddling with his new frameless reading glasses.
The other tables, all covered with bright flowered oilcloth, sit baking on the concrete patio, partially enclosed by a pink painted adobe wall curving around them like a protective arm around a shoulder. At one end of the wall sits, like punctuation, a clay planter, large enough for a tree, with nothing in it but sun baked earth and dead weeds.
It has taken a while for Ray to get used to seeing houses spring from arid ochre dirt without the moats of trees, bushes or huge green lawns he is used to. He watches Felix stroke the map gently with two fingers along possible itineraries, as if he’s blind.
“I’m trying not to get a splinter here,” says Stella, pulling down the hems of her loose shorts as far as they’ll reach under her thighs. Ray can feel, even through his chinos, the rough wood of the bench, and its heat.
“Okay. How about this . . .?” says Felix.
Ray’s having a hard time concentrating. Truth is, he doesn’t much care about the details of the trip. When he feels cool drops of condensation dripping over his fingers, he realizes that he’s holding his cold bottle of Pacifica as tightly as a child grips a comforting toy. He swigs his beer and tries to relax. He’s terribly thirsty in spite of the good supply of water Stella has stashed in the car, some at Ray’s feet. All three
gulp from the bottles, ignoring the pale blue plastic glasses provided.
“We’re really glad you’re here, Ray,” says Stella.
“I’m not here,” says Ray. Stella looks into his grey-green eyes. Hers seem almost black now, and piercing, as if she’s searching for something that Ray doesn’t want her to find.
Felix looks up from his map. “I’d like to get back to Juarez in time for the bullfight tomorrow. They usually begin at around three, as I recall.”
“What?” Ray says. “Who said anything about going to a bullfight? And you want to go all the way back the way we came in one day?”
“Oh, come on,” says Stella. “Last time we went to one was with you . . .”
“And Olivia,” Ray finishes, dipping a greasy totopo in some dark red salsa. He coughs. “Let’s just make a pact to talk about Olivia freely if she comes up. Otherwise this is going to be a pretty tense trip. Let’s face it. She was here. Now she’s not.”
“You’re sure?” asks Stella?
They are all silent, making room on the table for the three huge dishes the waiter, his pale blue shirt glorious against his honey skin, is carrying, two along an arm, and one in the other hand. “Mas Pacificas?”
“That’s the only way this is going to work. And maybe by the time I get home I’ll be so deadly sick of thinking about her, remembering her . . .” He can’t bear to finish his thought out loud—that he’ll be purged. He’d fooled himself thinking coming here on this trip was doing something new and fresh. Once again he’d been seduced by the past.
“Hey, these are unbelievably great,” says Felix, wiping a bit of the deep brown sauce his enchiladas are covered in, from the corner of his mouth with a forefinger.
“You always were a slob,” says Ray. “But you’re right. These are great.”
Stella wipes her fork with her napkin. “Mexican food looks kind of disgusting,” she says.
“This is good,” says Ray. “I feel better. I feel great.”
“Hopefully you can find closure,” says Stella.
“I hate that word, ‘closure,’” says Ray. In fact I hate the whole idea of closure. Everyone is seeking closure. As if somehow you can avoid grief by doing something, or from someone else’s pain. If someone gets the death penalty it will give the family of the victim ‘closure.’ If no buildings are ever built again in lower Manhattan, it will give the families of those lost in the 9/11 terrorist attacks ‘closure.” What a bunch of bull. There’s no such thing as closure. Yeah, revenge can give you the illusion that you feel better. When you’re dead is when you have closure.” Ray’s embarrassed. He hates to be angry,
and he hates anyone to see him that way. Stella and Felix continue eating in silence. Then Felix nods and laughs. Stella laughs too. “You will find closure,” she says.
“We can find a motel tonight, either in Juarez or El Paso,” says Felix.
“Still the same, I guess, Felix? Haven’t you ever read Laurence Sterne—the digression is the thing?”
“Are you referring to Felix’s anal micro-planning?” asks Stella. She deeply exhales, “God, this sauce is hot. The green always looks so benign. Doesn’t the waiter look like Benicio del Toro? Only taller?”
Felix smiles, but grimly, thinks Ray. When he looks at Stella to see how she’s reacting, she seems mile’s away, staring into space, running a finger around the mouth of her beer bottle.
They’ve already scrapped Olivia’s run for this new trip. They will now drive back to El Paso, and then continue southeast across broad Texas ranchland to Presidio. And from there, downstream to Big Bend, making brief side trips into Mexico when they can and when they feel like it. The first side trip is into Juarez, for the bullfight.
“Okay, what do you guys suggest?” asks Felix. Ray wonders whether Felix always pushed his food on to the back of his fork with his knife, as the British do. “It’s
two hundred and fifty miles from Albuquerque to El Paso, and it’s taken us nearly all day to do it. You have to look at Elephant Butte Dam even though we’ve seen it umpteen times, and you have to drive through Chloride just because you like the name . . .”
It seems as if Felix is making some benign fun of Stella, and Ray smiles. But Felix’s smile turns into a grimace.
“My suggestion,” says Stella, pushing away her plate, “is that we order some flan.”
The gas station, a squat, whitewashed cinderblock, has a small square window on either side of its door, with two peeling red gas pumps in front, and looks like a child’s drawing.
It appears to be closed, though they’d noted that it was open when they stopped at the cantina. A dingy brown and white goat munches on the one clump of grass next to the only pump.
“What the hell,” says Felix, “it’s not siesta time. Guess I’ll have to wake someone up.”
Ray’s impressed watching Felix move, as he swings himself up and out of the Suburban in one lithe movement.
“I’m going to take my chances with the un-sanitario,” says Stella, climbing over Ray before he can get out. Ray has to piss but decides he can wait, the same decision he made at the cantina. He feels unable to cope with the possible pile of shit, the overflowing pail of used toilet paper, no toilet seat if he’s thinking of defecating, no toilet tissue left on the role, and a sink that has no faucets. And of course, no soap. This describes many of the public toilets in Mexico, if you are lucky enough to find one, and sometimes Texas border towns too. He watches Felix stroll back to the pump near the car, shading his eyes with a large hand. He towers over the dark-haired owner or manager of the station, who looks older the closer he gets. Felix uncaps the tank, and the small man drags the hose around toward the back, out of Ray’s view.
Ray dozes, perhaps for only a minute, and wakes to find Felix next to him, back in the driver’s seat, turning the key and pressing the gas. He hears the dry sound of the starter cough again and again, like someone trying unsuccessfully to bring up some phlegm. A younger, taller version of the man who gave them the gas stands on Felix’s side. Ray can only see his yellow shirt now as he moves closer to Felix, who rolls down his window.
‘What’s wrong?” asks Ray. “Where’s Stella?”
The younger, taller gas station man raises their hood and peers inside. He fiddles with something, then indicates that Felix should try again. Felix does, again and again, the smell of gas an indication that he’s flooded the carburetor.
Stella, her face flushed and her hair damp, as if she’d dipped her head in a sink full of water, gets in next to Ray, who is now in the middle, crushed, knees nearly face level.
The taller dark-haired man helping with the car, whose skin is like bronze leather close up, adjusts something under the hood with a tiny wrench. No one can see what he’s doing nor does anyone care to. While it’s stifling in the car they know that it’s worse outside.
“Try it, the garage man shouts from near the motor.
“Yeah, right,” says Felix. But he turns the ignition, presses the gas, and the motor hums. Felix and Ray look at each other, surprised.
“I knew it—Mexicans can fix anything,” says Stella. “Thank god. I’ll be glad to get out of here.”
“Amen,” says Ray.
Felix opens his door, “Muchas gracias. How much do we owe you?” He fiddles in his shorts pocket for some change.
“What did he do?” asks Stella. “Felix is so goddam saintly, always ready to tip everyone.” She shoves her straw tote back on Ray’s hot feet.
“A hundred bucks,” says the garage man after a moment’s thought.
Felix laughs, but the man doesn’t. “What did you do? Move a wire? It only took you about four minutes.”
“It’s not the time,” says the man, “you’re paying for my expertise.” He speaks perfect and careful English with just a hint of a Spanish accent. He hitches up his brownish pants with his elbows even though he’s wearing bright red, slightly dirty suspenders. “I could have made you wait four or five hours over on that bench in the sun while I pretended to wait for some special part for your car.”
With difficulty Ray leans over as much as he can, which isn’t much, and pulls his wallet from his pocket. He removes a sheaf of what looks like twenties.
“Uh, uh,” says Stella, pulling Ray’s hand down. The worn brown leather wallet flies to the floor of the car. “You’re not paying anyone a hundred bucks—that’s extortion.”
Felix gets out of the car and raises his hand to the garage owner—or maybe to Stella—as if he’s surrendering, and points to the office.
“What do you think he’s doing?” Ray asks. “Haven’t we made extortion payments many times? What about all those fake speeding tickets we’ve paid directly to the Mexican cops watching for cars with US plates?” She doesn’t answer.
“Roll your window up, will you?” says Ray. He turns on the a/c.
“I have no bloody idea what he’s doing,” says Stella. “Maybe paying the hundred bucks, but in there so we don’t see.” She wipes her forehead with the back of one hand.
Before long Felix is back, smiling. “Shove over,” he tells Ray.
“Well?” asks Stella.
“I gave him twenty, which I think is fair,” says Felix, raising and lowering his cramping shoulders and neck.
“He’s right, he’s an expert at extortion,” says Stella.
“Well he did exploit our stupidity about car engines,” says Felix.
“How did you get him to take only twenty?” Ray asks.
Felix slams his door and searches for his seat belt. “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” he says.
Ray waits, hoping Stella will pry more information from Felix, but she seems to be done with the whole situation. Mostly Ray’s heard that kind of thing in gangster movies, usually referring to some kind of violence, or even murder. But his friends aren’t that type. Are they? He wants to see Stella’s expression, so he turns, but she’s so close he can hardly see her. She’s leaning her head against the back of the seat, which is pre-headrest era, and her eyes are closed. Her eyelids seem swollen. Ray leans back a bit to study the long graceful line of her jaw and neck, the damp hair that curls around her ear. A tiny gold hoop glints among the dark tendrils. Ray is so close to Stella he can make out three other tiny holes along the edges of her rosy earlobe.
“Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have.”
---Mary Oliver, Thirst
By the time they reach the motel it is dusk. The cottony cumulus have dissolved into a sky that is now rich royal blue, with just a thick line of peach along the horizon, blending into a thinner line of lavender. Thin trees are black silhouettes, like cut paper. Waiting his turn to register for a room, Ray has time to notice that the motel desk is just a narrow shelf of wood nailed under a thick plastic window separating the reservations clerk from a visitor, with six bullet-hole sized holes to speak through, and a mouse-hole to shove a credit card through. Behind the plastic is a woman with a large head and long blonde hair with three inches of black roots, which is either stylish or slovenly—Ray can’t tell. She’s wearing a bright red shirt, and nothing below her breasts is visible so it appears that her breasts are resting atop the desk. She uses an out of date credit card machine so Ray’s receipt is mangled before the woman gets it right.
“Be thankful we didn’t have to pay cash,” says Stella, nudging him.
Ray is so tired he can’t think of the most elemental Spanish, and stands tongue tied when the woman asks what room he’d like.
Ray hugs Felix briefly, and kisses Stella on her smooth cool cheek. She turns a little and kisses him quickly on his mouth. He can taste her lip gloss—cherry, plus some chemical. She takes his hand and squeezes it so hard his wedding ring presses painfully into his other fingers.
Alone in his room, Ray lies on the bed fully clothed and holds his breath. His large dark blue duffel lies beside him on the worn quilted magenta bedspread printed with red and pale pink roses. Though the desk clerk reassured him it was a non-smoking room, and there’s a little plaque on the door with a cigarette behind a red slashed circle, the place stinks of old smoke and ammonia, and there are two black plastic ashtrays on the dresser. There are cigarette burns on the bedspread, which Ray had immediately pulled down on one side so he doesn’t have to picture all those who’ve been lying there before him. He hasn’t been on a bed with springs in ages, and every time he makes the slightest move, the bed whines and makes a grand gesture, as if it might throw him off. He doesn’t look too closely at the sheets, or the thin olive green pilled blanket that matches the leaves of the roses on the bedspread. He misses his computer, which Stella had convinced him to leave at home so he could really experience this trip and not be tempted to do any work, or look at messages. This place probably doesn’t have wifi anyway. However he no longer wishes to experience this funky hotel, or look too closely at the moldy plastic tile in the bathroom alcove, the ratty maroon carpet, or the cruddy sink with the grout that looks like marshmallow. Stella is in a room with Felix and he’s all alone. It’s amazing how much more fun it is to be with someone to share the motel horrors with. Ray is even too tired to read or even look through the magazines he’s brought. Or maybe Ray has changed. He’s making a lot more money than he did when he was a TA in El Paso and it’s been a long time since he’s been in a motel like this. The one thing he does like about this tiny cabin of this pink motel with its office in the center and two rows of attached cabins like outstretched arms is that there are no neighbors, nothing around them at all, so he can pull aside the ratty red curtain and see the sky, rapidly turning black, so that now all Ray can see is his own image reflected in the window, on the bed, the lamplight brightening one side of his face. He reminds himself of John Turturro in the Coen brothers’ movie, Barton Fink, who plays a young indigent screenwriter, put up in a ratty hotel in L. A. so he can work on a script with a strict deadline. Unable to write despite spending all his time in the room, he lies in the saggy bed watching the wallpaper slowly melt off the humid walls, and listening to bizarre sounds emanating from other rooms.
To get to this seedy misnamed Agua Motel that Felix appeared to know of, they’d sped through those grimy Texas towns between the New Mexico border and El Paso, and then through El Paso itself where they rushed past all the landmarks of Ray’s and Olivia’s life. And suddenly he found he wanted to wallow in memories of Olivia. Olivia and himself. Olivia and Felix and Stella and himself. Stella was willing to slow down and change the itinerary again, but Felix was adamant, so they crossed the border into Juarez, speeding past the huge line of cars, trucks, and SUVs headed north, lined up to cross the border into the US.
“Thank god we’re not on that line,” said Stella, gazing at Mexican women and their children, or men, some in wheelchairs, sitting, wheeling themselves, or walking amongst the cars, and along the highway in the blazing sun, selling soft drinks, matches, chicklets, newspapers, candied apples and other hideous looking sweets. The children were tiny and adorable and had lots of black hair. The littlest were carried in slings on their mothers’ backs or over their shoulders, often with blankets covering their entire heads and bodies. The slightly older ones slept on, heads drooping, sweat beading on their wide foreheads and upper lips.
Here the Rio Grande--Rio Bravo on the Mexican side was only about forty feet wide.
Once in Juarez, beyond the dirty aqua, turquoise, green and lavender concrete buildings, with iron grills covering windows and protecting small patios, with a multitude of signs advertising medicos, farmacias, abogados, and dentistas galore, and past the paved streets of the city proper, were larger houses, some on hills along the highway, higgledy-piggledy, no order. The vacant lots with their dry yellow grasses were covered in plastic bags of every color, soda bottles, and a variety of paper, looking like small garbage dumps or recycling centers that hadn’t been organized yet.
When Ray, standing on a hill near the Rio Grande in El Paso, got his first glimpse of Mexico across the river, what struck him was the disorder. No bulldozed hills to create level areas for building housing, no roads neatly running, squared-off, or curving, through planned developments. No neat landscaping. Just a chaotic jumble, made more so by distance and perspective.
Ray imagines he hears a radio or TV playing Mexican music. He considers going back to the front “office” to see if there’s any coffee or a snack machine, but he’s too tired and afraid he might have to use his rusty Spanish. He tries to recall the books he’s brought, but still doesn’t feel like reading. About to turn on the TV he recalls an article he read that said that the moment you arrive at a motel you should wipe the remote and the telephone with antibiotic wipes. He has no antibiotic wipes, and soon he realizes that there’s no remote either. He can hear voices—maybe a television in another room, or people arguing. The voices get louder, especially the female voice. Then he hears bed springs that aren’t his, in no particular rhythm, just an occasional twang. By the time Ray finds the remote on the sink, the bedspring sounds have acquired a tempo. There are squeaks followed by bangs (maybe a headboard?) followed by bangs and squeaks, in a regular rhythm. He hopes these sounds aren’t coming from Felix and Stella’s room—but no, they aren’t next door--they are at least four rooms away. Ray doesn’t want to think about Stella and Felix fucking. But he can’t help it. He switches off the hideous lamp with the broken shade that’s above his bed but not in the right place for reading anyway, and buries his head in his pillow. Squeak squeak bang. He gets up to brush his teeth. No room for his Dopp bag, so he hangs it on the bathroom doorknob. He remembers to use only the bottled water provided by the motel—though it does occur to him that they could have filled it with tap water so that they could reuse them. He looks for a place to put his toothbrush. The white towel looks gray. When he runs his hands through his dry hair and looks in the mirror above the sink he notices that he’s already sunburned. Squeak, bang, bang. He goes to the window and looks out, and sees his own reflection. Bang bang-squeak. He opens the door a crack, and the only car parked anywhere near their Felix’s Suburban are the two Toyotas in front of the ”office,” that had been there when they arrived. Ray lies down again, then gets up to take his t-shirt off. Squeak, bang. He pictures Felix’s firm body, taut as a bow, over Stella. She is naked and very white and Ray can picture her entirety because Felix is balanced over her like a bridge over a river.
Stella’s hair is a dark reddish splash on the pillow and her freckled face is flushed. She’s not looking at Felix—her head is back—and each time Felix pumps into her, her head hits the wall. No, not the wall, the fake wood headboard (bang) which bumps into the wall (bang).
Ray imagines Olivia under him. She is thin, with narrow hips, and her butt almost fits into his huge hand. When she lies on her back her stomach slopes in like a bowl. He pushes aside her dark bangs with his lips and kisses her forehead. Once in a while when traveling they’d stop at fancy motels for a good shower, a firm bed and great meal. But mostly Olivia loved funky motels that weren’t catering to rich turistas. She’s damp from a shower and smiling--happy to be here. She takes his penis and holds it. He feels the heat of her hand on him as if it’s the center of his body, with a pulse, a heartbeat of its own. He runs his cock along her belly, her navel, then her underarm, and her ear, pretending he doesn’t know where to put it. He hasn’t thought of her giggle, her raucous laugh in a long time. Someone in another room is laughing. Ray’s room is now completely silent. Hadn’t it occurred to him that Stella and Felix would be sharing a room every night? And if he didn’t, and why would he--so what—something like that wouldn’t bother him because he loves being alone. But here he is, lonelier than he’s been in a very long time.