When my father-in-law walks in the front door, my mother-in-law starts sharpening knives. They haven't spoken for almost three years. Victor slaps down El Opinión
; Dolores slides the steel through the slit in the back of the can opener.
"¿Como estas?" he says to me. "How are you?" he adds in case I haven't understood.
"Muy bien. Gracias," I reply with my seventh grade Spanish. The only other phrase I can think of at this moment is the dialogue in the reader about a woman trying to buy a tie for her husband from a confused salesman. She finally exclaims "¡No, no, no Senor! ¡Mi esposo no le gusta esos!"
There is silence and chile in the kitchen. A huge ceramic pot of salsa verde sits lukewarm on the gas range. Just under the tang of the chile, I smell Pinesol and Dolores' sweat. I can feel the heat of just fried bacon, the fat collected in an aluminum bowl under the range. The air is dusty with grease, and my father-in-law pulls the chain that starts the wood ceiling fan. Dolores ignores him and slices onions and peppers, tossing the vegetables into a pan of bubbling oil.
I can still taste the boiled skins of tomatillos and the silver hot of jalapeños against steel. Earlier, Dolores and I shredded chicken, my fingers deep in the grease of skin and fat; next to me, a plate of steaming gray bones.
Dolores looked at me, working a piece of chicken between her teeth. "I wish for my daughters to never feel what I felt for Victor." She shook her head. "Always I was waiting for him. I would sit, children asleep, and he would come in at eleven or twelve at night." She looked at me proudly, her left eye hazy with cataract. "I never asked him where he was. He never knew how I waited."
I said nothing because I had heard these stories before. For twelve years, I had been visiting Dolores' house with my husband Andreas, her fourth son, sitting at the cracked tile counter during our visits, first with babies on my lap, and then alone, listening to her words, peeling tomatillos, pulling black veins from the backs of shrimp, the heat and grease on my face, chile pricking my skin.
I listened and already knew how three-year-old Victor Jr. walked to the store by himself the morning after Dolores labored and bore baby Mario, her third son. Just minutes after Mario's birth and seconds after naming him, Victor Senior put on his work clothes and left. It was not like in Tacuba with Tía Sofia the midwife, la partera, who stayed through both Dolores' labors, sometimes reading the Tarot while Dolores moaned, who brewed brown teas from leaves she bought at market and ministered to Dolores from a wooden spoon. Sofia had been there to catch Victor Jr. and Rigo, but Dolores was in Tijuana alone without her Tía or Mamá. She had not wanted to leave Tacuba, but Victor was certain things would be better in Tijuana. Sore from the big baby boy, exhausted from labor and worrying, Dolores lay on her bed, certain only that she would die.
But she did not die and Victor Jr. went to buy milk and bread with a peso and a note pinned to his collar, and he finally came home with the groceries after an anxious half-hour.
Later, Dolores thanked God and la Virgen for the three miscarriages between Mario and Andreas, one tiny twin girls with feet the size of daisies. I knew how she let Andreas' hair grow into long seal black curls, keeping a ribbon in his hair until he was old enough to know it was wrong. Once Dolores showed me a picture of Andreas sitting on a burro, a pink ribbon on the top of his head. "Mi borragito," she still says when we come to visit, rubbing her hand over his curls, indeed tight as lamb's wool, strands of gray now running through the black.
And when Catalina and Francisca finally were born (both with hair straight and black as piano keys), Dolores was too tired to put anything in their hair. Then, at forty-four, she learned she was pregnant with Francisca, she took to her bed, scaring the boys who made pancakes for themselves in the morning. "Come here," she called to each of them. "Let me tell you. I love you. Be good. Listen to your father. These are the things I can tell you."
She did not die, thanks to God. And just when Dolores stopped throwing up and could stand, the doctor told her that there was a possibility that the baby could have Down's Syndrome. "I cried for three months and prayed for six," she once told me. "And after she was born, I had my tubes tied. Rigo drove me to the hospital, and I didn't care what Victor said. Never, never, would this happen to me again."
I knew all of this and more: That Dolores still kept the battered wood and steel scrub board she had used in a concrete sink in Tijuana, clothes scrubbed so white her hands bled at night. How she knew no English when Victor moved her from Tijuana to America, El Monte, and left her all day as he worked at three auto body shops, kneeling so long at the sides of twisted cars that now his knees are as stiff as rusty door locks; how she walked down the hill two miles to buy groceries, and how she pulled everything, children and groceries, back up; how she whipped Andreas with a brush because he lost the ten dollars that was to last the family two more weeks; how she finally learned to drive the 1945 DeSoto when Catalina was a toddler, and how Victor would not talk to her for a month after he found Dolores' license.
"When I met him, I was twelve . . . almost thirteen. He was so handsome. He could have had any of the girls. But he wanted me. For three years, every Sunday afternoon, I would wait for him in my father's living room, my breath here." She patted her chest, her brown hand between her flat breasts. "My father finally said to me, 'Do you want this man?' And all I could say was 'Yes'."
There is a picture hidden in an empty back bedroom. Victor stands above Dolores, and his young dark curls rest on the side of her head. His left eyebrow, the one closest to her, is slightly arched, almost as if to let her into him completely. The space between them is dark--I cannot see where her hair and his collar begins--but the darkness thins to light on her face. She wears a look I have never seen. Content, her face is smooth, and she smiles, but does not show her teeth. She seems to have just caught something in her dark lips. She's caught what he has brought in. Her eyes are slim almonds. I can almost hear her sigh.
Dolores stopped for a moment and looked at me. I wondered if she saw how different we were; if she knew I could never understand Mexico in the 40's, satined girls and suited boys twirling to Glenn Miller in carefully chaperoned nightclubs. I wondered if she knew I was afraid of her single-minded devotion to one man and of her faith in a God whose teachings led her to bear nine children. I didn't know if she understood she never was a child or that her love for her husband was the same love I felt for many boys in my youth: the anticipation, the disbelief that anyone could possibly love you, that you could be so close to anyone and survive the fire.
As I watched her, I thought about Andreas, wondered if he could have told her I sometimes wanted to leave, mostly at night, when Andreas could not tell me what I wanted to hear, when I remembered our drive down from South Lake Tahoe after our marriage in the Chapel of Love performed by the drunken minister who held my hand and whispered, "You're so attractive." I barely heard our vows, focusing on the semis blaring by on the Interstate. One day later, after our overnight honeymoon at the Swiss Chalet Motel, we fought in the car on the way home after I told Andreas to slow down. What I know now that I didn't know then was that we would always have the same fight. It might start differently--perhaps over disciplining a child or a late bill--but it always wormed its way back to that hot August afternoon. "You're still the same," he cried then and cries now. "You haven't changed at all!"
Twelve years ago, he pulled over on the side of the highway and opened my door so I could drive, blink back tears, think of what to say. When I opened my mouth, Andreas ignored me, watched the road, turned on the Oldies station. I wondered if he thought something would open up in himself on our honeymoon bed where I lay exhausted from the drive and the anxiety of planning a wedding and being married in one day. He had wanted to hold me, to come to some different level of love, but I fell asleep, almost as if it had been me and not the minister who had been drunk. Later, days later, he told me he left the motel room and went to the casinos to gamble.
And on that drive home, Andreas shook his head and sat silent and stayed silent for four days until I started crying because it was so much easier than talking, even though I felt like taking him by the shoulders and shaking him, asking, "What did you want? Who did you want? What are you expecting?"
I did not know if I was lying to Dolores by staying silent myself, watching her marriage unfold before me, unable and unwilling to say, me, too. When I met Andreas, no voice told me yes, yes, but he was the one I wanted, the one I waited for late at night, my hand on my breast. He was the one I opened up for, let him in farther than any one else, let him plant my two sons in my womb like diamonds. How could I tell her that sometimes laying by a warm body was not enough? How could I tell her that I needed him to speak words he could not even whisper to himself? How could I tell her that fires die out or never even start?
Dolores nodded and dropped her eyes again. "A puppy opens his eyes after nine days. I opened mine after forty years," she said. "I asked myself, What have you been doing all these years? For him. Always for him. The children. He named them all. Nothing left for me but middle names." Then she said no more, leaving me to watch her swift hands shred chicken meat. As I followed the movement of her brown fingers, I remembered when she taught me to make tamales, the rhythm of masa, chile, and meat. She held my cupped palm just so to hold the wet husk, helped me plaster the thick corn mixture so the tamale rolled tight and did not drip.
"Ah, tamalera!" she exclaimed as I held up the history of meat and corn, a recipe of mother and daughter that she passed on to me. Her own daughters did not know this story, both first in colleges far from home (educations paid for during the good years, the years when Victor pressed twenties and fifties into our palms as we left for home) then in offices where they wore tailored suits and silk underwear, speaking English at meetings without adding e's to their s's, living their lives far from the grease and heat of their mother's kitchen.
Now I watch Victor sit at the table, listlessly turning the pages of the paper. I remember how he left El Monte two years ago at four in the morning. For months before he finally left, he had been trying to save the auto body shop he managed to open by himself twenty years before. He mortgaged and re-mortgaged the loans, until nothing was left but his empty pockets and his angry sons--all (except Andreas) who worked for him. When he could do nothing more, Victor said goodbye to Dolores as she lay in semi-sleep (when she woke up in the morning she thought his departure was a dream) and drove until he reached the artichoke capitol of California. He rented a room behind a gas station and changed oil for tourists heading to Big Sur. Eventually, he wrote to Andreas and me, telling us where he was but begging us to keep his location a secret from the brothers. He spoke in Spanish to Andreas for many hours, Andreas nodding into the receiver.
"Pa. . . Pero, Pa . . ." Andreas would say, but Victor could not hear anything, especially that since he had left the brothers were fighting, Rigo and Tomas actually beating each other on the greasy shop floor, trying to answer the questions with their fists that they could not answer with their mouths. Who is to pay the bills? How can we do this if our father is not here to show us? Who takes care of Dolores?
When Victor finally left Castroville after two years, tired of tourists and listless in the dull stretch of summer fog, he came to us in Oakland, brought us a juicer, chocolate covered raisins, towels, plastic spatulas, and a second-hand camera. He slept on our couch for two nights--rising at five-thirty each morning as he had for forty-five years--before I told him he had to leave. I watched his grief and knew it was not mine, that it was his and Dolores', that this was our house, and we had enough.
"I have to say this so I won't go crazy," I began, feeling the old man's tears as I sat with him at our table, listening to the smooth silver of my cold words as they entered my mouth like dead fish, knowing he would have taken me in, anytime. "But you cannot stay here. . . You have a house, four bedrooms. Here . . ." I gestured, my arm falling to my lap.
What I could not say was that he had left too many times before, expecting Dolores to accept, to tolerate, to pull herself and the children together like broken pieces of a terra-cotta bowl. I thought of her on her slim bed in Tijuana, alone save for the neighbor woman who went home to wash the bloody sheets; of her aloneness during Mexican summer nights, the sounds of crickets her only company while Victor played cards or slept with another woman; of Dolores stranded on the hill in El Monte with children who needed her attention when she had none to give. How could he stay here and expect us to pick up where she left off? I wanted to talk to him like a parent, to tell him to go home and be a big boy. But I did not know how to do that, so I lied in a way he could believe.
Andreas and I took him to the Greyhound station in San Francisco that afternoon, taking pictures while we waited with the camera we later learned was empty. I remember Victor's thin smiling face, the Bay behind him. I felt his rough hand, black with grease, as he took the camera from me to catch Andreas as he stood away from us and watched the water.
When the bus came, Victor picked up his small bag, no bigger than when he left El Monte, even smaller perhaps, emptied of plans to bring Dolores to Castroville as he had brought her to Tijuana and then to El Monte with life always moving, always coming at them faster than they could breathe in.
Andreas let Victor leave and never hated me for what I said. I don't know why. I don't know what words I was expecting.
I watch Victor now sitting at the dining room table. He looks up abruptly as grease billows from the pan of onions and peppers. Dolores sharpens the knife again, ready to cut tomatoes. I wonder what they say to each other at night, sleeping side by side in the double bed they brought from Mexico. Even though all the other bedrooms are empty, full of pictures and class yearbooks, they hold each other at night, never talking, I suppose, about why Victor left or how he could leave Dolores alone. When he was with Andreas and me in Oakland, he emptied his wallet on the kitchen table and showed me a small picture of Dolores, folded and black on the edges. She is alone in this picture, and Victor rubbed his thumb over her face, finally saying, "My bride. Mi esposa." I did not look at his eyes.
Victor turns the paper, and I see his hands are as worn as Dolores'. Their faces are lined from the same sorrows. They do not speak, and I am caught, like wind in a line hung sheet, in the wonder of their life, of all our lives, of how we stay together and love all those things we cannot say; of how I hold on to the brown skin of my husband, a man who will not talk to me, but who is there in some deeper way, who lives in a language I do not speak.
Victor's paper crackles as she sharpens the knives that will cut the tripe, carnitas, longonisa, and chorizo. I think back to the hidden photograph in the bedroom, and I wonder if Dolores is wrong, if I am wrong. The kitchen now moves to a silence that is both of theirs. It is dark, known, and full like the stillness in their young faces. The strength and the sorrow have always been there. All this feeling, even now, as it simmers and changes and grows thick like the black swirl in the center of chile roja. And I know, even as I watch them now, the paper and knives sharp edges between them, that as Dolores and Victor posed head to cheek, shoulder to stomach, their eyes were open.
I get up from the counter because I am done listening; I have heard enough stories and too much silence, and I want to find my husband. They do not notice as I leave; Dolores faces the range, Victor the wall, and I know I have nothing to do with their story. I leave the heat and chile behind, and as I walk down the hallway of deserted bedrooms, I imagine that when I find Andreas, I will hold his shoulders in my palms and say in a language we both understand "Talk to me. Talk to me now."
Winner of the El Andar prize for literary excellence 2000. First prize for fiction. Judged by Sandra Cisneros.