Claudia Cadavid

Porcelain

She, who nev­er asks for any­thing, point­ed to the dis­play case and said, “I want this.”  It was a porce­lain Christmas fig­urine, noth­ing short of a glazed mon­u­ment.  As a cen­ter­piece, it would over­take most of a din­ner table.  Santa Claus was sculpt­ed into a Mexican cow­boy, with spurred boots, som­brero, and a black mus­tache.  Mexican Santa sat high on a blan­ket sad­dle and held the reins of a red-nosed bur­ro, lift­ed onto its hind legs, tri­umphant­ly car­ry­ing them to the North Pole.  Like all Santas, his cheeks were rud­dy and his smile jovial.  Cargo hung off the burro’s flank, bulging with dolls and oth­er children’s toys.   My father bought it for my moth­er imme­di­ate­ly, because she had asked.

It had been a mis­take for my father to pack it in the plas­tic rooftop car­ri­er that he’d bought sec­ond­hand.  When he first mount­ed the car­ri­er, before our annu­al dri­ve from Chicago to Guadalajara, he foist­ed it on by him­self, heav­ing it like a decath­lete onto our baby blue Chevy Impala.  He was con­fi­dent, over­ly so, about these types of things.  Packing it the first time, he stood on a kitchen chair in our alley, arrang­ing things inside.  My moth­er hand­ed him items from a pile at her feet while we played stick­ball in the alley around them.  We had dropped off duf­fel bags, sleep­ing bags, pil­lows and a heap of loose books and mag­a­zines in English.  We didn’t read them much when we were home in Chicago, but knew we would want them once we got to Mexico.  As soon as I saw the car­ri­er slid­ing around up there, I became wor­ried.  “Papi,” I asked, “where are the mount­ing brack­ets?”  “In el garage,” he answered.  He said American man­u­fac­tur­ers added unnec­es­sary parts because of the lawyers and made things over­ly com­pli­ca­do, for show.  But his way, I thought, of get­ting them back by leav­ing things out, was also a kind of show.  My father didn’t like advice from any­one, least of all his twelve-year-old daugh­ter, so I let it go.  When no more of our things could pos­si­bly fit, he said, “no mas,” and closed the thing like a giant clamshell.  He tied ropes around it every which way he could, cross­wise, then length­wise, as if he were sewing it to the top of the car.  When he was done, he went around to close the trunk.  He had to slam it a few times but it final­ly took.

The weight of our things on the roof only added to my claus­tro­pho­bia on the thir­ty-three hour three-day dri­ve there and the four-day dri­ve back.  There were too many of us in the car.  In the front seat my younger sis­ter Veronica sat between my par­ents, lord­ing con­trol of the stereo, mak­ing us call her Vero the Hero if we want­ed a dif­fer­ent sta­tion.  In the back, my lit­tle broth­ers Luisito and Carlitos fold­ed them­selves togeth­er into one per­son, like a Siamese twin, next to me.  We rest­ed like pup­pies into the soft lap rolls of our half-aunts, Sagrario and Constancia.  Out on the open high­way, we cruised low­er to the ground than the cars next to us, ropes flap­ping against the met­al frame of our Chevy.

As we got fur­ther south, the air turned warm.  Sweat began to cov­er our legs and backs, past­ing us to the shiny pile of the ivory velour.  Halfway into the dri­ve, I knew it would be point­less to ask, but I did it any­way.  With no bod­ies of water for miles, and too many arms and legs touch­ing me, the arid brown land­scape of Texas was start­ing to feel like a test.  I shout­ed into the dri­vers seat, fight­ing the wall of air com­ing through the win­dows, as if into an air­plane pro­peller.  My father rolled up his win­dow to hear me while I gripped his head­rest to lift myself up.  “Papi, why didn’t we take two cars and why doesn’t the air con­di­tion­ing work?”  When I saw the back of his neck get­ting red, I knew the mis­take.  “For shame, why don’t you like your fam­i­ly” is all he said, and that was the end of it.  He opened his win­dow, all the way down this time, to make sure it hit me good and hard, in the face.

Deeper into Texas, we passed time by read­ing city names as they whizzed by.  The names start­ed turn­ing Spanish the clos­er we got to San Antonio, then Laredo.  Even I found it to be a relief.  Even I, who took to English the most melo­dra­mat­i­cal­ly of all of us, who liked to imi­tate the excite­ment of infomer­cials and game show hosts with the pow­er to give away wash­ing machines, thought English could sound hol­low once the excite­ment wore off.  Though none of us born in Chicago learned Spanish the right way, and though our par­ents and tios nev­er learned English the whole way, our family’s bones and ears were made exact­ly the same.  They want­ed both.  They want­ed to hear both at the same time.  When we heard English we want­ed Spanish near­by, the radio or tele­vi­sion would do.  When we heard Spanish, we want­ed to mix in English.  We always want­ed what we couldn’t have.

Our annu­al Christmas dri­ve to Guadalajara affect­ed us all, but it always affect­ed my moth­er the most.  The cir­cum­stance by which she was con­ceived was treat­ed in our fam­i­ly, on both sides of the bor­der, like the apple bite in our own sad lit­tle Garden of Eden.  We col­lec­tive­ly want­ed to erase it, but we couldn’t.  The deed was long done.  In its telling, or refusal to tell com­plete­ly, it became even more apoc­a­lyp­tic.  But just like those fables in the bible, it nev­er went away, instead we made it gospel.  The very fact of my moth­er liv­ing and breath­ing crys­tal­lized our belief that They with a cap­i­tal T, Ellos with a cap­i­tal E, didn’t want us.

My moth­er told me the entire sto­ry pre­cise­ly once, when I turned sev­en, and I still remem­ber the details.  She said there had been a fif­teen-year-old from a promi­nent fam­i­ly that lived in a house in Guadalajara on the Plaza Mayor.  He wore oiled back hair and but­tery hand sewn Italian shoesMy grand­moth­er as a girl sup­pos­ed­ly loved the boy (my words, not my mother’s, she said with cer­tain­ty that she loved the boy), and to this day my grand­moth­er wants to be buried with a pic­ture of him in her cof­fin.  The boy had heart sur­geons and fac­to­ry own­ers for uncles.  Whereas our uncles pulled up pota­toes in Utah and plucked cher­ries in Michigan.  What I remem­ber most from that con­ver­sa­tion with my moth­er was her deep­est belief.  She said there was nev­er an iota of a chance, not then, not even in the more mod­ern now, not even a remote one, not even by the seem­ing hope of a part­ly-indige­nous pres­i­den­tial can­di­date named Cuauhtémoc who would come along even­tu­al­ly, of this fif­teen-year-old boy mar­ry­ing my grand­moth­er after she got preg­nant.  And not because she had only been four­teen.  My grand­moth­er was an indige­nous beau­ty with eyes like torch­es that could guide vil­lages through the night when the elec­tric­i­ty went out.  And they were from a place where the elec­tric­i­ty was going out con­stant­ly.  And four­teen was per­fect­ly accept­able back then, I was told.  “No,” my moth­er said, with that same voice of lit­er­al gospel.  “All of us are unwant­ed, back then and now, except maybe to do los tra­ba­jos nobody else wants.  He didn’t vis­it, didn’t send mon­ey, didn’t want me.”

She wasn’t done with the fable yet, though I had heard enough.  Once she left the Garden of Guadalajaran Eden (my words), “what was a four­teen-year-old girl to do?” my moth­er asked.  According to my moth­er, there was only one answer.  There was only ever one real pos­si­bil­i­ty.  Where was the eas­i­est place for a girl like her with an obvi­ous bump to run when she couldn’t hide?  “North of the bor­der,” she said.  So that’s where my Grandma Torch Eyes went.  First she went to Utah and then she went to Michigan, like the men before her.  Grandma Torch Eyes gave birth to my moth­er in a hos­pi­tal in Utah, near the pota­to fields.  The baby, my moth­er, got cit­i­zen­ship, because that’s how it worked back then.  She was tak­en back to Mexico a few weeks lat­er.  My moth­er got qui­et at that point in the sto­ry.  She was tak­en to a Mexican ranch on the out­skirts of Guadalajara in a kind of hid­ing, and left there, to be tend­ed to by her grand­par­ents.  Apparently, Grandma Torch Eyes said she did it because the American camps were no place for infants.  But in real­i­ty there were plen­ty of babies born and liv­ing in the camps.  Years passed like that, my grand­moth­er between Utah and Michigan, my moth­er on the ranch.  And then when my Grandma got tired of being around so many men in the camps crav­ing her as a torch, she decid­ed to go to Chicago.  Going back to Guadalajara was out of the ques­tion, her cheeks prob­a­bly flushed with shame just think­ing about it, my moth­er said.  Chicago was a per­fect­ly fine place.  A place with brick hous­es neat­ly lined up in rows wher­ev­er you looked, a place with enough Mexicans that she couldn’t reject it com­plete­ly, a place with the right kind of Mexicans.  Quiet work­ing ones from all over Mexico, most of whom had nev­er even been to Guadalajara.  Mexicans that under­stood the weight of a secret and wouldn’t ask her any­thing.

Then my mother’s voice changed.  She said that one day on the ranch, her grand­par­ents, with­out warn­ing, “on the day of,” she said, “told me to pack all my things.”  She said it was a day of full sun on an ordi­nary July after­noon.  She was told that she would be going to Chicago to live from then on.  In Chicago, she would meet her new half–her­manas, Sagrario and Constancia, who she’d nev­er heard of before.  In August, she would go to the Cooper Elementary School in Pilsen, in un bar­rio Mexicano in Chicago.  My great grand­moth­er on the ranch didn’t call it a ghet­to, I’m call­ing it one.  And she didn’t call it Pilsen, because she told my moth­er all this in Spanish.  She called it “La Dieciocho,” mean­ing Calle Dieciocho, mean­ing 18th Street, the way she’d heard it called so many times over the sta­t­ic of tele­phone calls.  My moth­er packed up all her things as she was told.  My great grand­moth­er told her to put on her only dress, a soft pink one with match­ing vinyl Mary Jane shoes that she only ever wore to church and bap­tisms.  Then they wait­ed in the front par­lor, qui­et­ly, for my grand­moth­er to arrive from Chicago by car to retrieve her.

Grandma Torch Eyes final­ly showed up.  My moth­er said that when she stepped out of the car, she was wear­ing a pressed sun­dress with minia­ture cher­ries all over it and match­ing red shoes.  She had a strange hair­cut, bobbed even­ly at her shoul­ders.  My moth­er said, “I didn’t rec­og­nize this woman, this was not my moth­er.”  I couldn’t tell if it was because of the American get­up straight out of a deter­gent ad or because of how my Grandma talked that my moth­er felt this way.  My moth­er said that Grandma Torch Eyes imme­di­ate­ly start­ed show­ing off by pre­tend­ing to have for­got­ten words in Spanish and using English instead, words like “snow and Christmas.”  She kept telling my moth­er that she would love Chicago because it had snow and Christmas which didn’t hap­pen the same way in Mexico.  “Christmas es her­mosa en Chicago,” she kept say­ing.  This was long before annu­al dri­ves down to Guadalajara began.  “You will love the United States, miji­ta.”  My moth­er said she didn’t care about snow or Christmas in Chicago or the United States.  She want­ed to stay on the ranch, so she could keep sit­ting on the bur­ros out back that walked her in gen­tle cir­cles.  She want­ed to stay and keep feed­ing the ane­mic dogs that roamed free.  She want­ed to stay in Mexico.

Standing right next to Grandma Torch Eyes, as my moth­er lis­tened to sto­ries of white Christmases and La Calle Dieciocho and La Escuela Cooper, was a new minia­ture brown hus­band, three inch­es short­er than her, that she had met in the cher­ry orchards of Michigan.  He was from Michoacan and had mar­ried her will­ing­ly, despite knowl­edge of the apple bite.  She had told him about it the night before a priest was com­ing to mar­ry them under a cher­ry tree.  Grandma Torch Eyes gave him the night to think it over.  My moth­er thinks my Grandma wouldn’t have mar­ried him if it weren’t for the poi­son because she had real­ly want­ed to mar­ry the boy with the slicked back hair in Guadalajara.  I couldn’t believe my moth­er called her­self that, the poi­son.  It broke my heart in two.  And then my moth­er final­ly fin­ished telling the fable that she would nev­er speak of, and I would nev­er ask about, again.  She said that with her things packed up, in one suit­case, she was led into the back seat of a sedan as com­fort­able as a liv­ing room with license plates that said “Land of Lincoln.”  On the way to this Chicago, this sup­posed moth­er in a cher­ry dress and a bobbed hair­do and her minia­ture brown hus­band spoke in forced English to each oth­er when they want­ed to talk between them­selves.  My moth­er didn’t under­stand a word of English yet, but she said even then she knew theirs was bro­ken.  My moth­er fin­ished by say­ing she nev­er got a chance to say a prop­er good­bye.  On that long first dri­ve to Chicago, she wished she could go back, alone, to be with the bur­ros and the dogs.

Our Christmas that year in Guadalajara was spent just like it was in Chicago, but with­out the snow.  We took turns remov­ing tamales from a steam­ing tow­er, play­ing a game to get the hot ones in the mid­dle with­out caus­ing all of them to tum­ble, our own ver­sion of Jenga.  We sucked on hairy man­gos doused in lime and chili pow­der.  Veronica and I played Loteria back to back, ad infini­tum, with water­mel­on and calav­era cards strewn on the lace table­cloth, for­get­ting to write down the score after awhile.  The screen­less doors and win­dows were open, and Carlitos and Luisito ran in and out, in and out.  My half-aunts Sagrario and Constancia talked a lot more and my moth­er talked a lot less.  Neighborhood men dropped by after din­ner with ter­ra­cot­ta ceram­ic shot cups and their best mez­cal for my father.  We shopped for stain­less steel tor­tilla press­es and bas­ket warm­ers in the shape of som­breros.  The only thing I missed, besides the snow (Grandma Torch Eyes was right, the snow in Chicago at Christmas was mag­i­cal) were the Motown Christmas records from Detroit that my fam­i­ly loved, by the Jackson Five.  But we could lis­ten to them once we got home.  This year, my father bought the giant porce­lain Santa for my moth­er, which the store own­er wrapped in green bub­ble wrap with tiny red hol­ly.  On January 6, the hol­i­day was offi­cial­ly declared over and we piled back into the Impala to head back.  My father loaded the car­ri­er again, same as last time, tuck­ing the bub­ble wrapped stat­ue in between sleep­ing bags.

Somewhere in the end­less state of Texas, my father stopped at a gas sta­tion, where he took a torn squeegee out of a buck­et and splashed blue deter­gent onto the wind­shield to scare us.  Then he reached down to clean the grime off the Illinois license plates, per­haps to remind him­self where we were going.  Pulling out of the gas sta­tion and onto the high­way ramp, our Impala sagged, despite my father accel­er­at­ing as fast as it would go.  The sun bore down through the clean win­dows, blind­ing my father’s view.  Only at the last sec­ond did he see the dog run­ning across the inter­state, fer­al and lost.  It was cop­per and skin­ny, rem­i­nis­cent of a coy­ote.  Striking it dead, my father braked with such force that his care­ful knots secur­ing the car­ri­er snapped off.  The car­go car­ri­er flung open, send­ing Santa and the red-nosed bur­ro onto the road, shat­ter­ing paint­ed clay into dust.  Tiny air pock­ets of futile green and red bub­bles crack­led flat under tires.  Clothing soaked with mez­cal and dog’s blood flew into wind­shields and caught onto bush­es.  My moth­er who doesn’t cry, yelped.  While my father pulled over, the dog went through a round of seizures, then stiff­ened for good.

We stayed in the car on the side of the high­way, wait­ing for La Policia to arrive.  Cars slowed down to gape.  A white police car with brown and yel­low let­ter­ing pulled up behind us in a haze of flash­ing sirens.  The offi­cers sat in that car for what felt like a long time, with their sirens at full blare.  I won­dered why they didn’t get out of their car faster to help us, like on the tele­vi­sion shows where offi­cers run to the res­cue.  The two offi­cers got out on their own time, wear­ing brown short-sleeved shirts and square toed boots.  They walked over, prac­ti­cal­ly bow legged, and looked into our car, but not our eyes.  They were scan­ning to see if we had the mark­ings of ille­gals.  Then they told us to get out of the car, all of us.  They pulled us aside, one by one, includ­ing me, to ask us ques­tions.  I couldn’t believe it.  Our stuff was all over the high­way and they were try­ing to deport us.  One of the offi­cers was Mexican-American, his name was Officer Guerrero, I saw his badge.  Officer Guerrero asked more ques­tions than the White one, with a Texas drawl that was mys­te­ri­ous and thick as molasses.  As if a ven­tril­o­quist were oper­at­ing it from a for­eign throat.  Did his part­ner, Officer McFadden, hold invis­i­ble strings?

I would like to believe it was my Midwestern English, that I loved to prac­tice to make sound like I was a young Austrian nun, run­ning through fields of flow­ers yodel­ing, blonde orphans run­ning behind me, that saved us from get­ting tak­en in for who knows what.  That because of me, Officer Guerrero final­ly left us alone.  I had a rep­u­ta­tion in my fam­i­ly for talk­ing too much, imi­tat­ing dif­fer­ent voic­es, and I couldn’t con­trol it, even when I tried.  I told the Officers all about our Christmas in Guadalajara, using the voice of a vir­tu­ous woman in the Swiss Alps, think­ing they might enjoy know­ing how much clean fun we all had.  After talk­ing to me, maybe they felt sor­ry for us, maybe they still had the spir­it of Christmas, or maybe they just want­ed lunch.  They stopped with the ques­tion­ing and final­ly set up flares so we could col­lect our things.  We sal­vaged what we could.  Officers McFadden and Guerrero want­ed us to leave the car­ri­er behind, but they under­es­ti­mat­ed my father’s will.  He re-attached it and filled it with our unus­able things.  Then he pulled back onto the road.  After the police were out of view, he pulled off at the next ramp, to check us into a motel next to a waf­fle house.  After book­ing a room, one not two, my father walked out from the lob­by with a fam­i­ly-sized bag of lime Fritos and hand­ed it through the win­dow direct­ly to me.  I shared it with every­one, our hands div­ing in such a fren­zy that the tin foil ripped.  Then we all swam togeth­er in the pool, for hours, as the shade of the after­noon turned into evening.

The worst part of the trip for me was not when we acci­den­tal­ly killed the dog and lost our things.  Or even talk­ing to that Frankenstein Officer Guerrero.  It was the next morn­ing, day three of the four-day dri­ve home, when my moth­er start­ed set­tling back into her stony ways.  She was becom­ing mute again, like a hard­ened cast, no less lumi­nous to me, but still.  Even from deep in the cav­ern of the back seat, cov­ered in ever rest­less arms and legs, I could see the stiff­en­ing com­plet­ing itself.  I could see her face going slack, the light in her eyes fad­ing out, the sun through the wind­shield glaz­ing her like a kiln.  I prayed that she might actu­al­ly be alive in there some­where, tried to imag­ine her in a ruf­fled bolero dress and lip­stick, hair pulled into a shiny top knot, danc­ing the tan­go with my father under a mov­ing spot­light in a Hollywood com­pe­ti­tion.  I want­ed her to come back alive for me, like Santa and the red-nosed bur­ro did for her.  But it wasn’t going to hap­pen.  This road, so ver­ti­cal, so north­ward, always did this to her.  I knew she was up there in the front seat mak­ing her­self deaf and dumb again, car­ry­ing her­self off to some­place else, a place with­out city name or geog­ra­phy, to tell her­self those famil­iar lies.  The stu­pid lessons of the stu­pid fable.  The one about it being bet­ter not to want.  Then the ones about being born poi­son and unwant­ed.  And then the worst one of all, the one about it being her place on earth nev­er to ask for any­thing.

~

Claudia Cadavid is a writer liv­ing in Chicago. Her work has been pub­lished in Hobart and Monkeybicycle.