by Joanna Brooks
At ten A.M., Abuelita has my chin in her hand. She spoonfeeds me menudo, that steaming tasteless brown Mexican tripe soup. Sunday morning soup. Hangover cure. Sure do need a cure, since everything out here in the Mojave desert is revolt and unhealthy.
What do you make of it all? There are brush fires on San Gorgonio, already it is 100 degrees, but my toes wither cold, like purple callalillies dead on the tile. Yes, things are unwell. The hairs on my neck stick up. And the August sky stinks hot, grey and red like a skin turned inside out.
“Rojo, see, red sky. A day for Changó,” she says. Changó is another one of her voodoo gods. The god of passion, fire, and enemies. The red god. “See,” she says, “a red sky.”
“Grey,” I say. I am a bad patient, and I resist the next spoonful of soup. My lips curl like cigarette papers. And things are stirring outside—winds from San Jacinto send dust devils to my door. Abuelita has brought her nephews along today. And while she makes the menudo and mops my floors, they sit outside on the hood of my car and play Mexican folk music. Today’s selection, from Veracruz, “El Canelo.”
“Was there lightning at the time of your birth?” she asks.
“Probably, Abuelita,” I mock.
“Pues, naciste debajo del Changó,” she says.
Now I choke. I was born beneath Changó. Changó—this red man—my patron saint? This passion-fire-enemies my life? Abuelita sees enemies everywhere. She sniffs for them beneath the ferns and the Navajo rugs. Abuelita drums enemies out from under my splintering floorboards with her walking. All night long, knees turned out, like a soccer player some decades past prime.
“¿Jugaba fútbol, Abuelita?” I ask, turning her attention from the tripe in my bowl.
No, she says. She never played soccer. But right now, jamming this menudo in my mouth, her elbows soft and brown as firm as pork hinds, I can imagine her slide tackling a Spaniard.
From outside the window, two nephews, Jefe and Paco: “Pobrecita quacamaya ¡ay! qué lástima me das . . . ¡Se acabron las pithayas ahora si que comeras!” Brown battered desert birds scratch time at the roots of the oak tree outside and peck at the tires of my Chevy, gone half flat under the weight of three guitars and singer.
I do not buy this. First folklore. Then soul remedies from cow entrails. And now she wants to tell me the color of this sky? No. This is a battle of wills. “Abuelita, already there are fires in the mountains. The sky is grey.”
Abuelita becomes serious and holds out another spoonful of menudo. “Red,” she says, like a seller of Mexican blankets hitting bottom price. My neck is in the crook of her arm.
“Sí, hay rojo, rojo, rojo.” Paco and Jefe and the fat cousin who bends my bumper to the dust under the weight of his bass roll their r’s in three-part harmony and smash José Cuervo bottles against the ground for finale. In the silence, even the morning birds stop and wait for my reply.
“Bueno.” Fine, it is red. Will wilts. I am tired. Everything is strange. Coyotes are circling at the highway crossroads. Things are on fire. And the sky is nosebleed red. A hemorrhage red, broke wide open.
Like Tijuana fireworks, the cousins ayyayyaya into the sky and are off, back down my backstreets. Soon Abuelita leaves too, for afternoon mass, and the gate bangs behind her.
In the long dry afternoon everything is wet about because the neighbors in the flat pink house have left their sprinklers running. Watering more earthen sidewalk than lawn, more crabgrass than lawn. Sure, you plant lawn first and guard it with your trowel and your teeth. But the crabgrass gathers on the hills at sunset and sneaks in at night and soon there is no more lawn, just crabgrass. Whatever works. This is the desert and what grows, grows. Chainlink grows waist high and shiny. Aluminum windmills grow like wildflowers tall along I-10 between Indio and Indian Wells. There is always wind. The neighbor’s laundry hung out is all spotted red. What do you expect?
Monday, I take Abuelita shopping.
“For supplies. Cosas importantes,” she tells me.
Yes, of course. More aerosol cans. El Espray de San Lázaro for sickness. El Espray de Caridad del Cobre for love. El Espray de Amor, which smells like patchouli, like urine and cowry shells. El Espray de los Siete potencias Africanas for difficult moments, when some supposed enemy sniffs at the window sills and rattles the blinds. No solvents or solutions or cleaners good enough. We need prayer juice.
I hire a cleaning lady, hoping for laundry and clean windows once a week. I get a high priestess, a santera. A healer. Someone who always returns, uninvited, yet expected, in comfortable shoes, carrying shopping bags. Silver teeth that I can hear clicking like mariachi castanets late into the night. Prayers chanted during the folding of the laundry and the sweeping of the floor. The prayer for the lottery. The prayer to Santa Lucia. The prayer to Changó.
I have found her spells, scattered around the house like lottery ticket stubs. A week ago, under my bed, a pictures of Nuestra Señora de Caridad del Cobre and a pumpkin hollowed out. Inside, an egg, five claws of a chicken, pepper, flower water, one of my turquoise earrings, and a piece of paper, upon which was written “hombre” in black pencil. What can I say? At least the wood floor is swept clean under my bed.
Where do we go for these cosas importantes? Candles and powders and incense, such posters of La Virgen de Guadalupe and Santa Bárbara, oils, small talismans in gold? The botánica de San Miguel, downtown. Your exclusive Inland Empire dealer of objetos religiosos.
Abuelita gives me directions. “Right here. No, no, a la izquierda. ¿Dónde queda? Forgive me, Cariña. The last time I came with my sister Rosa and we talked the whole way and she knew which bus stop, but I do not know.”
“Do you remember which street, Abuelita?”
“No, but it was big.”
To make things simple, I drive downtown, down the long street that runs through the heart of our barrio.
“Look for it, Abuelita.”
We drive down one side, back up the other. And there it is. San Miguel’s. In the back half of Miguel’s brother’s bridal shop. And, there, under the glass of the counter, is the medal of San Lázaro and the Cross with the Eye of God. And gold charms carved with promises: “¡Viaje! ¡Protección! ¡Romance! ¡Nuevo Hogar! ¡Cadilac!” A gold charm that can get you a Cadillac. Books on herbal healing and card reading and crystal balls. Women come to visit Miguel, to pray at the shrine in the corner, behind the sewing machines, among the candles and the pink flowers and the garlands and the burning sticks of incense. To discuss what should be done about my Chela, about my Jose. So sick. So in love. El diablo lo hizo. The devil again and again. There are no doctors we can afford and the priest speaks a different language but the saints, they listen. This the priests and the papers call santería. This we call faith. This Miguel knows—he speaks their language; he drove the devils from Aña Viramontes’s son Rudi; his father was one of the last naguales, the rural Mexican men who sat with el diablo and became animals under the moon. Because we believe in Miguel and Aña Viramontes and we fear Miguel’s father, we do not quarrel over the price of these cans of religious aerosols. El Aerosol de Incensio de Congo. Five dollars for a spray can of prayer juice. On the can, a prayer. And in Spanish, Mark 9:23: “Todas las cosas son posibles para el creyente.” All things are possible to those who believe. Just believe. Oh Abuelita believes, and pretends not to understand the English part of the label which reads, “Not a religious product. An air freshener only.” Abuelita has faith because “Sin fé, no hay nada.” Abuelita sets five cans on the counter and glares at me like a small brown hawk. Miguel’s help figures the total on the back of a napkin. I sign the check.
On the way home, Abuelita the conquistadora tells me she wants to go to a different grocery store. First a trade roach killer for prayer spray and now my long well-lighted aisles for the maze that is Los Morales Mercado? No way. Leaving the shopping to her, I will be eating the strawberries her nephews didn’t peddle that day on some suburban street corner. Someone should tell them. No one’s going to buy your fruit if you wear your shirt open to the navel and look at the housewives with toro eyes, friend. English Leather, gold chains, the strawberries taste like rubbing alcohol. Leave the machismo at the border.
Hola machismo, meet la hembra. When I ran with my posse of women, in the city a few years back, wild like wolves, we’d think nothing of tossing back a Tecate and howling dusk-time at the Mexican men, stationed under street lights, down the long L.A. boulevard. We never feared them then, we women in our own land. We left the windows down and flicked wicked cigarette ashes like viper tongues. “Ayyayyayyaa”—with our necks back and throats exposed. Mariachi cry upside down. The nighttime like a convertible top torn. In the daytime, they hang out on the sidewalk corners. Day labor. Sitting ducks for la migra.
So it goes these days. In the desert, there is room to lay out shadows on the sidewalk like Tijuana silver of cotton blankets and haggle for a fair price. These days, I am always shamed at bargaining. Abuelita? She could shame a cholo out of his Chevy. Not me. The shadows grow to great lengths against the cracked ground. The wooden gate waist high in my yard—when its door swings, the shadows brush the San Jacinto mountains on one side and the San Gorgonio mountains on the other. So it is with all the doors I’ve closed. So I moved out to the desert.
Maybe it was los coyotes that drove me. I hit a coyote about two weeks ago near L.A., driving a new road in a canyon just developed, where the orange street lights trace the borders of city and wilderness in dotted lines. I stopped to look for it amidst the sage. Couldn’t find it. Yes, the driving is better here. Coyotes don’t use the major desert highways because there is room for them to sun on the sandstone and run down ravines.
Today, before Abuelita notices, I go one hundred twenty miles more into the desert, to Rice, where there is nothing and no one even pretends to water their lawn because there is no one. Past Beaumont and Banning and Joshua Tree. Narrow hills grow from flatness suddenly like braile, buckthorn torn and bare. They are small raised dots that tell you where to drive and where not to drive. Everything is burnt past brown into beige, and the wind blows the long grass like sandfish spawning uphill. I bear down on a curve and there is now the flashing of red lights and a silver pickup launched like aluminum bullet into the hillside. And crumpled. Now the weeds are red like the endangered Indian Paintbrush. The sky reels and slows down, then speeds back up. The sky is still grey, unraveled like yarn.
When I arrive in Rice, the dust town, it is I alone and the gas station that was and the house that was and the shadows out of nowhere. A large sign says “Town for Sale.” It is not kidding. I sit—knees wide, kickers on my feet—contemplating such an investment. Someday, they’ll want to build a suburb here and I’ll own the whole damn desert. They’ll want to plant lawn in the sand and build condos beneath the dark brown mountains that collect heat in the midday. I scratch out figures in the hard dirt.
Suddenly, a shadow is large over me.
“Cariña. Can we go home now?” Abuelita, as round as buffalo, that roundest endangered specie native to the American plain. ¿Qué? The woman has no car. Perhaps she is nagual too, and changed herself into some small brown hawk. And flew. A flat tin can with lid ripped rolls about Abuelita’s ankles like an open eye. The wind blows my hear to corn husks. So it is time to leave.
On the drive home, she asks, “Cariña, ¿dónde está el río?”
The river? Abuelita, perhaps you didn’t notice, but we are in the desert. Half the lake beds dried up. The rivers? Freeways now. Full of rocks and lizards. “Ain’t no río round here, I’m afraid.”
Abuelita is silent for several miles, sitting quietly with her large white purse on her lap, back through Joshua Tree, through Yucca Valley. And suddenly, in red pepper Spanish, “El río, Cariña, el río, debajo del freeway.” Abuelita will fall out of the car if I do not stop. She is clucking fast, spitting silver. The Colorado River Aqueduct. A concrete river, but a river nonetheless.
“¿Y porqué?” I turn to ask her why, but she is gone, clambering under the overpass, like a plump hen with sharp claws navigating the rocky hillside in secondhand heels, down to the aqueduct. In her hands, from her purse, the small pumpkin I found under my bed. Abuelita grimaces as her feet slide on the eroded hillside, only rubber rooted weeds catching her steps. She reaches sure footing and tosses the pumpkin into the aqueduct, then turns and squints into the sun, to me, smiling.
“¡Vá a regresar en cinco días!” She yells, her hand shading her eyes.
“Five days. He will be back.”
She is pleased with herself and climbs back to the car and sleeps for the rest of the trip, her head brown and buried into her chest, bobbing with the miles. I listen to the static of the radio, watch the thunder clouds gather behind us. Who will be back? Where did she find this he? Reading my palms when I am asleep? Stuck between my life line and my heart line. Ayayai, I laugh.
Yes, when I look at this it is a story about travelling, which I classify as a hallucinogen. You get numb. Yup, when I feel choked up by the chapparal and the shadows, I reason that I could be to the Olancha and back up 395, to Trona even, to the salt flats, to the ends of utter desolation in a matter of hours. Abuelita is my newest navigator, sitting sticky with heat in the passenger seat. Right now we are on our way to Lone Pine. If we make good time, I’ll have coffee—two creams, two sugars—at Jack and Kitty’s Egg Chalet before the sun sets. The map lays out our path in green dashed lines which mean “scenic roadway.”
Abuelita reads the map intently. “This is not so scenic, Cariña.”
Oh, Abuelita. The woman lacks nothing in observation. Nope, not scenic at all. The map makers have doubtless never been to Mojave, to Inyokern, to Little Lake. Scenic. You don’t go to the desert to see. You go to not see. To take the thin lines back into the mining country where quite possibly no one could find your car or carcass if the engine overheats. You don’t drive the China Beach missile testing range for aesthetic purposes.
But I don’t tell Abuelita such things. Such darker purposes. She’d try to cast my mood out with some spray or spell. And now she is a little disoriented anyway. And now she is asleep, her purse falling off her lap a bit.
So the wheels just wind up desert and my stomach flops inside me like a fish on the cement of some dirty wet pier. Breaking its own back. Desert afternoons dry things like a sheet, a white sheet with red dust drop stains. Stiff in the wind. Dry like the long crimson chiles and raw cinnamon sticks—canelas—that stiffen like bones and hides in the produce section. Abuelita tells me that canela is herb of seduction, that when he returns I should keep a bit upon my tongue at all times. A bit of dried cinnamon.
She stirs for a moment as we pass Dry Lake. All dried up, high desert, but you can see it still. See the salt lines and the ground is different where the lake has been. You see, I tell you, what is gone always remains.
Abuelita says, half-sleeping, “You need a hombre, Cariña.”
“¿Se murió,” she says and her eyes close again, slow like a lizard’s.
She is like the girl in Tijuana who asked me for a dollar, two children about her knees. “Where is your husband?” I asked. “Se murió.” Dead, she said with a stony suddenness that made her eyes large. We both knew it was a lie. But I gave her five dollars for her choice of words. Yes, “dead” is a good word to describe the gone. To give them a daytime Christian burial. But they are never dead; they return at night riding horses, in the sound of cars sputtering exhaust down the dirt road, in the howl of the coyotes, wanting to dance.
By the time we get there and back it is definitely night. Night-times here spin in speckled midnight like the walls of the old cockroach dance clubs in downtown L.A. Abuelita takes her skirt about her knees and clicks the heels of her shoes—white patent leather, sensible heels. Some flirt she is, a dollar a dance, and the tips. You can tell who will tip well by the newness of their shave and the brand of their smokes. Abuelita, she’s a charmer. She gets all the men in this dance club, not just the old Mexican ones. Coyotes take the bandstand and howl like low sax, and the small houses lean.
Four and a half days have passed since she threw the pumpkin in the aqueduct, and Abuelita has left my house for the day. Some confidence, I think. When the day dissipates and ten p.m. comes, the rain begins and there is a knock on my back door. I open it and “¡Hola!” shout the nephews, strumming the biggest guitars I have ever seen. Yes, Abuelita returns, though I have told her—begged her—to take the night off. She carries shopping bags—corn husks, beef, chilis, fresh salsa, sangria.
“Abuelita . . . ¿porqué?”
“Sí. Porqué.” Yes, because none of us can sleep. The thunder clouds gather outside and shake my house, the storm soaks my bones. Lightning. Abuelita looks up from her frying pan and watches the lightning strike. I count the seconds between thunder and lightning.
Ten. Now it is over San Jacinto. My blinds knock at the window frames.
Seven. Now Joshua Tree. The storm eats the sky up whole, gobbles it and swells like a snake. Outside, the nephews start up their songs under the shelter of that oak. Veracruz music.
Four. The lights flicker, then go out. Abuelita lights more candles. Lightning crackles like a forked tongue. Red puddles form in my driveway. My street—a river reclaimed.
And then the knock at the door.
Yes, there is a man at my door, Abuelita, stop craning your neck. She turns back to the tamales. And sets the table. With red dishes and white candles, sangria and salsa. She does not look at him, as though he is not right for her eyes. I watch her reaction, watch her carefully, that she does not go the cabinet for el Aerosol de Amor. Or cast him out with blood spells.
Yes, come in out of the storm. Yes, we have a phone. Are you hungry?
Abuelita calls for me from the kitchen. “Cariña, when he sleeps,” Abuelita tells me, “take his hairs, and we will burn them with honey and the threads from the sheets of your bed.” Santería. More magic.
“I know what you’re thinking, Abuelita. He is here because of your spell-making. No, he is not. He is just here. Flash floods took out highway 247 at Old Woman Springs. So, no.” My words fade shamed like smoke skywriting into the black. Without saying more, Abuelita saint-like blows out the kitchen candles and leaves into the storm. Thank God—or Changó, or Santa Bárbara, or any one of the fifty saints for whom Abuelita has lit a candle in the corner of my house—thank God, she is taking her nephews with her.
So we are alone now. Hello. And hello. Dinner is fine, yes. I ask him questions that fall on the floor like coins: So where have you been and where are you going and what do you know?
His language feels familiar to me, like road signs I have seen before and before. Like I know the way there and back already. Eyes are blue and tight like stars. His face, windburned. His fingers tie knots in this and that. The edge of the tablecloth. The wick of an unlit candle.
I play with matches in idleness, putting the flame close to my skin to bring me back out of this. Why the storm and the man and the wholeness now? Why the wholeness now? I drive hundreds of miles of highways through this great Mojave. I hunt hard like a coyote bitch, making bad tracks all through this desert. And it comes to me on the back of a thunderhead, a copperhead diamondback sidewinder making slow trails across wet dirt. Striking by surprise. Some spell Abuelita has cast on me.
So susceptible. So the sun is down and night runs down the sky like blue paint and it covers up the pinks and the oranges and him and I, it coats us too—dripping down our backs. “Blue moon,” croons the woman in the orange house next door, accompanied by the fading sound of those nephews’ guitarrones, tambores, violines. Her television speaks in tongues, in lights that flash like gunfire against the bare walls and back. Blue moon. “Ayyayyayyay”—those nephews cry from far away, head back, like coyotes. The woman yells at god into the blackness, and the coyotes and mariachis yip yip along the frontage road, where the cut glass in the asphalt sparkles like madness. Red rivers flood my front yard.
We sit on the floor, watch the sky crack into aspects. Time moves kind of cubist. And he looks marvelous and his face shines like fire through it, but the candles are too low to justify that.
Have you ever been to Spain? El Prado? I ask him.
No, he says. Have you been to the Chihuahan desert? he says. You like deserts, yes? Beautiful bajadas flowering creosote yellow and fruiting black crucifixion thorns. Russian thistle tumbleweeds burning at sunset.
We talk desert flowers into the night. The storm passes over us, and in phases the sky blooms and unblooms different varieties of color—red desert buckwheat and magenta Indian blanket and purple milkvetch and pink palefaces. It becomes very late and I lie down, my head on one elbow. His voice is low, like a burr in the throat of a coyote. They are quite still tonight, no howling from the hills. Eventually the candles burn down and night falls like sediment into the room. Things blur.
Of course, when I awake in the morning, the sky is blue. No strange car parked out in front. Even the mustard weed has lost its strong smell. The sun is tall and casts short shadows. Abuelita sprays the air fiercely with her Aerosol de los Siete Potencias Africanas.
For a few days, I am quite well.
“You see,” she says.