Pulling up to the house, it was still the pine green of Agustin’s childhood. The zaguán, a large set of doors leading to the driveway, remained steel blue with chips in the paint on the door handles. The courtyard still had bird cages up against one of the windows. In addition to parakeets, María and Carlos, his parents, had adopted a stray mutt and two black cats. The stray dog had gray fur that had once been white. Around her eyes, dried tears had matted the fur.
Carved in the concrete, near newly planted flowers, were the names of María’s grandchildren: Mónica, Jesús, and Montserrat. The latter were his nephew and niece. Mónica was Agustin’s only daughter.
Car parked, Agustin took down the luggage from the trunk with the help of his father.
Stowing away the luggage in the guest room, María ushered Agustin into the kitchen.
“¿Tienes hambre?” María asked. Without waiting for a response she ordered him to sit down as she unpacked a plastic bag. Wrapped in brown butcher paper were fresh corn tortillas. In separate small plastic containers there was green and red salsa, diced onion, and cilantro.
Lastly, a larger container contained spit-grilled meat. Together they made Agustin’s favorite dish: tacos al pastor. His mouth watered. His mother never used paper plates so she set three porcelain white dinner plates on the placemats. Paper plates were as nonsensical to her as instant noodles. Carlos joined them at the table and the three of them made themselves tacos. Agustin quickly lost track of how many tacos he had eaten. Stuffed, he still ate one more. His glass of Coca-Cola was largely untouched.
Leaned back in her chair, María took the opportunity to ask Agustin if he thought the divorce was final.
“Mamá,” he said.
Ciudad Juarez was not Agustin’s first stop when he had left the warm embrace of Tlaxcala. It was a border town near El Paso, Texas. A transgendered woman nicknamed “La Guera” had become his landlord when he moved from Tijuana. The roof leaked and on one occasion, he swore he spotted a big bellied rat. His bed sheets were supposed to be the stark white of hospital walls but instead the washing machine had made them the gray of his father’s hair.
Growing up in Tlaxcala, Agustin was no stranger to rain. In the summer, rainstorms happened at least once a week. The neighbors had laminate roofing over the pen where they kept their sheep and goats. The heavy raindrops slapped the laminate roof and could be heard from the small kitchen. When it rained in Juarez, it brought no memories of his childhood. It brought no relief from the sun and instead made the city feel like a kiln.
He had luck in finding a job as a parking attendant. On the street Avenida Juarez, there was an estacionamiento. The building was painted a sunflower yellow. Corners of the building had begun to crumble like a marriage under financial strain. At most the lot had eighty spaces. As vehicles entered, they were given a ticket stamped with the time of arrival. Upon departure, the driver paid a small fee to the attendant. When Agustin was hired, the owner, Anastacio, proudly proclaimed, “You would make a great husband for my daughter, Blanca.”
On that same street there was the Noa Noa Bar and a little farther was a casa de cambio where the gringos exchanged their dollars for pesos. On Friday nights, he frequented a nightclub called Sarawak where the bartender, Alfredo, offered him his favorite brand of whisky, Johnnie Walker, at no charge.
It was at Sarawak where he met his future bride, Refugia. Alfredo had offered the information that she was from el otro lado, El Paso. She had insisted that she too could handle whiskey. While Agustin had seen her frequent the nightclub almost as often as he and also had witnessed her drink far more beers than her companions, he was not entirely convinced. Regardless, he challenged her. Refugia had managed to drink as much as him, but her walk was reminiscent of a newborn goat getting a feel for its legs.
They laughed and laughed and Agustin joked, “I need someone to get me a green card.” They exchanged phone numbers.
With their plates clean, his father said a quick goodnight before heading to bed. It was past eleven at night yet his mother stood up and scrubbed the dishes with an escobeta. Agustin sat idly like a parishioner waiting in a confessional. It wasn’t as if he was incompetent when it came to household duties. María had taught her sons at a young age how to thread a needle, use a broom, and cook meals like chiles en nogada.
“In case you marry una floja who does nothing,” she had reasoned.
When Agustin had dropped out of university, he had picked up a job working at a taco truck in downtown Tijuana as phone calls home became as infrequent as a snowstorm in the Chihuahuan desert. He worked side by side with Ramon who was at least a decade older.
Drunk patrons frequented the truck and the two men often overcharged, keeping the extra money for themselves. Other tricks they used were buying a pack of tortillas on their own. Agustin learned there was a way the spit of meat could be sliced a certain way to make it last even more. At the end of each night, Agustin and Ramon ate two orders of tacos without spending a peso from their own pockets.
The novelty of being in Tijuana and working his first official job had worn thin like the soles of rubber shoes. Agustin packed a duffel bag with what little clothes he had and did not pay that month’s rent.
His mother took her usual seat on the recliner to read the newspaper. Agustin knew she would soon doze off before waking up again and resuming to read as if nothing had happened.
Her reading glasses slipped down the bridge of her nose.
“¿Que pasó con el libro que le compre?” Agustin asked as his eyes scanned the book shelf. There were books about Nostradamus, mathematics, Galileo, and Gabriel García Márquez.
None had Ramón López Velarde, a poet, written on the spine.
Briefly alert, María looked up from her newspaper and said, “Rico se lo robó.” Rico was María’s brother. At wedding parties, birthday parties, and quinceañeras Rico’s wife, Bertha carried a large, empty tote to fill with stolen tequila and wine bottles from the host’s home.
María shut off the television that had been showing her latest telenovela. Folding up the newspaper and taking off her glasses, she set them on the coffee table before saying goodnight to Agustin.
A poster-size photo of his daughter at two years old hung on the wall by the guest bedroom. The room was set up the way it always had been with a freshly made bed, a wardrobe with empty hangers and clean towels, and on the dresser sat a framed family photo of Agustin, his daughter, and Refugia. From his suitcase, Agustin pulled a pair of old gym shorts and a t-shirt. The t-shirt had once been as black as obsidian at a time when Mötley Crüe still dominated the airwaves. Shutting off the light, Agustin pulled back the covers and laid on his back. He had forgotten that the mattress was as stiff as an ironing board. The next day would surely include a parade through town greeting aunts and uncles. He would exchange tired jokes with cousins that he hadn’t seen since they were learning to count on an abacus. Despite the mausoleum he slept on, sleep enveloped him.
It was almost impossible to sleep in. At seven every morning a sweet-bread seller rode on his bicycle shouting “¡El pan!“ The zaguán creaked open and María bought a basketful of bread for thirty pesos. Other times she would haggle for twenty. Carlos, as usual, was up when the sun rose, tending to his borregos and the donkey that Agustin’s daughter had named Bonita. While there were no roosters, the sheep would bah most of the day. The house was small enough to hear dishes clink in the kitchen. Facing defeat, Agustin crawled out of bed. Swinging the kitchen door open, he said buenos días to his mother. From a glass cabinet, he grabbed a freshly washed mug. On the counter sat an open box of milk. After he had filled the mug, he took two tablespoons of ground coffee and mixed it in.
Just as he took his seat, his mother set the basket in the center of the table. She pulled back the white cloth revealing the soft and warm breads. Without even offering him one, she set a small breakfast plate in front of him and a piece of bread. Carlos came back inside. Washing his hands, he then grabbed a bowl from the dish drainer and served himself beans which he had every morning.
Agustin ate slowly. María peeled pomegranates as she questioned what his plans were for the day and if he would go to church with her.
“There are some rosary beads in your room. Did you already forget the Lord’s Prayer?”
“Mamá, can I borrow the car?” he asked.
After breakfast, María agreed he could take their car to go to downtown Tlaxcala. The drive was short. He drove past La Casa del Mojito and La Rola; these were places he remembered going to when he was young. Sometimes he had gone there instead of attending class.
When his mother had questioned his failing grades, he had brushed her off. She had outlined a plan for him after his high school graduation. He had dreamt of being a writer.
Growing up, he had watched his mother wear pages thin as she immersed herself in the town of Macondo. Later, she introduced him to Jorge Luis Borges while most of Tlaxcala worked in the fields harvesting maize and beans or raising livestock. His father, Carlos, raised sheep and occasionally rabbits. As a young boy, he had a helped his father kill a few rabbits to make mixiotes, a pit-barbecued dish. While he had never complained about working with his hands in the field, the pen was his machete. However, his mother argued that writing was not the profession of a husband. Teaching was a safe and professional career. A career with which he could comfortably support a family. “Me voy a tener que disfrazar de maestro?” He quipped as he held up a paisley tie like a theater prop.
Agustin had been set to start school the following September. At the time, many teachers could reserve their positions for their family members and retire as soon as their child graduated. She wanted her son to move to the city and live in an apartment located in downtown; an apartment financed via his mother’s teaching pension. All the apartments lined up along that street looked identical with bright white facades and two concrete steps that led to the front door.
Each apartment had a patch of fern green grass to claim as its own. Every Saturday morning at 7am, hefty trucks drove by. From the roof of the trucks, a microphone blared a song that announced the weekend arrival of gas. But Agustin made summer plans that did not involve the blares of gas trucks nor the yells of the local panadero on his bicycle. He made the thirty hour bus ride with his cousins to Tijuana with a promise to return in a month’s time.
Past the streetlight and the large bronze bull statue was the park and Los Portales. Los Portales resembled a strip mall with restaurants, coffee shops, a bookstore, and shops with souvenirs or what the locals called chácharas. Surrounding the park were parking spaces with meters. El Paso’s meters were adorned with stickers with the Visa logo. Tlaxcala expected Agustin to dig through the ashtray for change. A space was vacated and he pulled in. He only had bills and the meter flashed “¡Violacion!” A traffic ticket could be easily avoided by offering fifty pesos to a police officer.
Whenever he visited Mexico whether it be in the mercados or out on the street, passerby stared at him as if knowing he was now American. If questioned they would say it was the way he dressed and the way he spoke Spanish. While Agustin’s Spanish was good, he no longer carried the Tlaxcala accent.
“Pásale, güero,” shop owners would say. Güero was a word used for light skinned
Mexicans or gabachos—foreigners.
Agustin only walked the path of the park once before finding shade at Los Portales. A bookstore only had the word librería painted on the front in bubbly schoolgirl font. Pushing the door open, a bell chimed. A woman sat at the register, she smiled and told him to let her know if he needed anything. The bookstore seemed to be a puzzle with missing pieces as he could not find rhyme or reason to the order in which the books were placed. Large books sat nestled between miniature books giving the whole place a disjointed look.
After a few moments of scanning the shelves for the name Ramón López Velarde, he asked the woman at the front if they had a collection of his poems. She said she’d take a look and disappeared behind a black curtain. As Agustin waited, he walked further within the bookstore and eyed a mustard yellow journal, small enough to fit in his pant pocket.
“No lo tenemos, señor,” the woman lamented with a small shake of her head.
It began to rain as he exited.
It had rained the whole week before he had married.
Driving home, he had the radio turned off. In the glove compartment, his father only kept tapes of ranchera artists and show tunes. Dilapidated buildings advertised bicycle repairs or snacks and candies or pulque. The rain had slowed and the sun hid behind the clouds as he pulled up to the zaguán.
Outside there was no one to greet him but the adopted mutt. The only sounds after he shut the engine off were that of the sheep and chirping birds. The kitchen sink was empty of dirty dishes and María was not there. It was mid-afternoon and Agustin presumed his mother had gone down the street to the church to help set up flowers for the upcoming celebration of a saint whose name he had already forgotten.
The bookshelf in the living room still showed the emptiness reserved for a mouth without molars. On the top shelf, his father had lined up figurines of Cantinflas, a popular Mexican actor of black and white films. His mother interrupted as she burst past the kitchen door with bagful of pomegranates and she solicited his help in peeling walnuts. Sitting at the dining room table, they both had an aluminum lemon squeezer in hand that they used to crack the hard shell. They littered the garbage can first with the shells then with the thin skin.
“Hijo, the city hasn’t changed has it?”
“I’m leaving tonight, mamá.”
Saying goodbye to both his parents, he gave them a final embrace with a promise to return for the last posada. He made the walk alone to the bus station located on the street Revolución.
The station offered a one-way ticket for the price of a college textbook. Duffel bag in hand, he donned an unshaven face as he took a seat at the back of the autobús. The bus whistled and whooshed, signaling its departure.
Agustin flipped to the first page of the mustard yellow journal.
Adrianna Sampedro is a writer who presently resides in New Mexico. In the Spring of 2014, she received her Bachelor’s in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing. She draws inspiration from her Mexican heritage. This is her first publication.