By Vanessa Hua
She should have known he would break his promise, like always.
They moved to Mexico from Florida about six months ago to escape their piling debts and bad fortunes. They would live like kings, Ray told Dory. Like reyes, he said, showing off the Spanish he'd picked up as a child in a Texas border town. Ray, rey, he repeated, pleased by the parallel sounds. In Spanish, maybe his name would have more luck than in English.
He read about a resort area the Mexican government was developing south of Cancun, and he wanted to offer up his services. Who better than he to tell the Mexicans what the gringos want, he said. Pools with slides and waterfalls. A breakfast buffet with tropical fruit and bacon and eggs. A strolling mariachi band in the evening; satellite broadcasts of football, basketball, and baseball.
Never mind that Ray had no connections or experience. Never mind that Mexicans were streaming into the very place that they had left. That people with any sense were migrating north.
Ray sank a small inheritance from his aunt into a run-down hacienda outside of Merida. Yellow, crumbling plaster exterior. Cracked red and white tile floors, smoothed over with patches of concrete. Bare bulbs hanging on wires strung across the ceiling. A teeming, tropical dampness. Tangled vines. A deserted garden. Orange trees, fruit rotted to a pulp. Sunshine in the morning, clouds around noon, rain at mid-afternoon and clear by evening.
Dory tried to imagine life in the hacienda in its heyday, bustling with servants, grand meals, and balls. Gone With The Wind, south of the border. She preferred the quiet now as she stood on the wide terrace, under millions of stars and the smile of the honey-colored crescent moon.
Each morning, they rode ponies through the grassy fields and past spiky agave plants. Both of them had learned how to ride as children, she on her grandparent's farm in Louisiana, he on a friend's ranch.
Ray had thick eyebrows, a crooked nose, and perpetual stubble. Tall, skinny, and freckled, Dory towered over the Maya, who were short and dark.
They worked on the hacienda with the help of local workers. The plan was to attract tourists visiting the colonial capital and the squat pyramids poking through the jungle. Ray told Dory they would lure visitors to the hacienda, promising solitude that was cheap and in abundance in the countryside. She could play gracious lady of the hacienda, and he could be the general. They could even wear costumes, he said. Put their guests into the mood to spend more money.
He bowed at the waist, and held out his arm. She curtsied. Together they glided across the floor, and he spun and dipped her. They were dirty and sweaty, clad in paint-spattered jeans and faded work-shirts, but she felt as silky and free as the warm evening breeze.
"Can you be a cowboy, too, sometimes?"
"Whatever you want."
It was as if they had started over together, from a point in the past before they both started to stumble. Before he started writing bad checks. Before she started drinking. Before she lost custody of her son. Before they moved from city to city every few months. Here, she had no taste for liquor. No desire to float through the days unmoored. She wanted to experience Mexico head on. Dory had begun to think that maybe she wasn't such a loser for loving him. For picking up with him in that smoky bar, in the days after her last boyfriend split and left her with nothing.
Now he was dead.
She had refused to go on their usual morning ride, after they argued. He was restless and wanted to leave Mexico by the end of the year. They could make a profit if they sold now, he said. Let someone else run the inn. Why worry about guests and their whining needs? And he was sick of Yucatecan soupy black beans, and turkey in mole sauce. He wanted Tex-Mex food, nachos and fajitas.
Pacing the cavernous hall of the hacienda, Ray said he wanted to try Las Vegas or Los Angeles. He was like this, she knew. Impatient. Letting go of an opportunity too soon, only to spend more time brooding over what he never had. She could see the inevitable, far off, but was swept up each time by the force of his dreams. He would never be resigned, not like her.
If they went back to the States, she knew, they would go back to the old way, where she was responsible for the both of them. Getting him out of bed before the afternoon. Thinning the pasta sauce, stretching it for another meal. Packing the car when they moved on, yet again. Forced to hold together their disintegrating life.
Go then , she told him, without me. Let's see if you like that. He stormed out and he and Sonny Boy bolted toward the horizon.
When the horse came back without him, she fled into town in their old Jeep, and hauled back a few of the men in the plaza. She pointed them in the direction from where the horse had come. A couple of hours later, they brought Ray, draped over the back of the horse. She had been standing on the second floor balcony, waiting. She could see them coming for miles, but could not admit that the slumped form was not a bag of concrete or sack of tiles until they were upon the hacienda.
Now his body was off in Merida, undergoing a routine autopsy, though anyone could see Ray's neck was broken. Over the crackling phone line, the woman at the consulate told her that she had to wait for the death certificate to bury him in Mexico. Or, the consul could assist her in bringing the body back to the States.
Dory wanted to stay but could not do so without him. She did not know how to speak Spanish, how to get around or even where they were, really. She had been forced to rely on him all this time, and he had not failed her. Until now.
She brought in the laundry before the afternoon's storm rolled in. She began to fold a pair of Ray's jeans. First she held the jeans up by the waistband, and folded it lengthwise, smoothing her hands over the butt. Then she folded the jeans in half, then again into a square, like an American flag in a military burial. She shook out the denim each time to start over, never satisfied.
She did not know what drove her to pack. If she was going to take what little he had, or give the clothing away. Dory knew she could not stay, but it was just as impossible to go back. She had nowhere to go.
The locals called her bruja—witch—because she had red hair, Ray had said. She luxuriated in this feeling of dark magic, even if she possessed no spells. The Maya had their own magic, powers she feared and coveted. She had seen it. Chanting in the church. The scent of crushed pine needles underfoot, candles, and incense. Asking the saints in colorful robes for health, wealth, and love. A shaman rubbing a fresh egg on the body of a coughing, hunched, old woman. Breaking open the egg to reveal the illness transferred, the yolk turned red as blood, red as an October moon, red as suffering.
Through the bedroom window, she could see one of the village men digging the grave at the crest of the hill. His name was Fermin. He had a hawk nose, sharp cheekbones, and a ready smile. He could have been twenty, thirty, or forty year old; it was impossible to guess the age of Mayans, with their smooth skin and thick black hair. The men could walk endless miles in their rubber sandals. The women wore baggy dresses trimmed in lace and colorful embroidery. They had their own language of sharp sounds.
He was a favorite of Ray, who learned a little bit of Maya from him. Aanteni. Help me. Dios Biotic. Thank you. And even, Hach kíichpan, maasima ? Isn't she beautiful? Fermin also practiced English with Dory. He was careful to include her in their conversations. How are you? What do you think? Now she could weep at his kindness.
Dory sized him up, and the jeans. She would cut down the pants to fit him, and this life.
Vanessa Hua is a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covers Asian American issues. Her short stories won the Cream City Review fiction contest, and received an honorable mention in the Stanford magazine fiction contest. She also has been published in Fiction Attic. Born and raised in the Bay Area, she graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor's degree in creative writing and a master's in media studies.
Photo "When A Cowboy Dies," courtesy of V. Fouche, U.S.
About | Contact | Privacy
Copyright © 2005, 2006 VerbSap. All Rights Reserved.