14 Day of the Dead
On the last Monday of October Rita Cardenal made three announcements to the class: she was quitting school, this was her last day, and if anybody wanted her fetal pig they could have it, it was good as new.
We’d plowed right through the animal kingdom in record time, having had nothing to look at in the way of protozoans. We’d made a couple of trips back to the river and had given due attention to the amphibians and Mr. Bad Fish, whose glass home grew more elaborate with each field trip and was now called the Frog Club Med. There were fern palm trees and a mossy golf green, and the frogs obligingly did high-impact aerobics all over everything. Now we were up to exploring the inner mysteries of an unborn mammal, which had to be purchased mail order.
But Rita hadn’t had the stomach to cut into hers, and I couldn’t blame her, all things considered. She was expecting twins. She said she was dropping out because she felt too tired to get her homework done; I feared for these children’s future.
Rita wore about half a dozen earrings in one ear and had a tough-cookie attitude, and I liked her. She’d been a good student. She seemed sorry to go but also resigned to her fate, in that uniquely teenage way of looking at life, as if the whole production were a thing inflicted on young people by some humorless committee of grownups with bad fashion sense. I was disappointed but unsurprised to lose Rita. I’d been watching her jeans get tight. The pregnancy dropout rate in Grace was way ahead of motor-vehicle accidents, as a teenage hazard. Rita was a statistic. On Tuesday I made my own announcement: we were doing an unscheduled unit on birth control.
The reaction in the ranks was equal parts embarrassment and amazement. You’d think I’d suggested orgies in study hall. There was some hysteria when I got to the visual aids. “Look, there’s nothing funny about a condom,” I said, pretending to be puzzled by their laughter. “It’s a piece of equipment with a practical purpose, like a…” Only the most unfortunate analogies came to mind. Shower cap. Tea cozy. “Like a glove,” I said, settling for the clich'e. I turned from the blackboard and narrowed my eyes. “If you think this thing is funny, you should see the ridiculous-looking piece of equipment it fits over.” The guys widened their eyes at each other but shut up. I was getting the hang of this.
“Miss,” said Raymo. They’d never learned to call me Codi.
“What is it?”
“You’re gonna get busted for this.”
I finished my diagram, which looked somewhat more obscene than I would have liked. I brushed my chalk-dusty hands on my jeans and hopped up to sit on the tall lab bench that served as my desk. “I know some of your parents might not be too thrilled about this field of study,” I said, thinking it over. “I didn’t get permission from the school board. But I think we’d better take a chance. It’s important.”
“Okay then, tell us something we don’t know,” said Connie Mu~noz, who had even more holes punched in her left ear than Rita. I wondered if this was some kind of secret promiscuity index.
“Shut up, Connie!” said Marta. (Pearl studs, one per earlobe.) “My dad would kill me if he thought I knew this stuff.”
“What you do is between you and your dad,” I said. “Or not. Whatever. But what you know is my business. Obviously you don’t need to put everything you know into practice, just like you don’t have to go spraying the fire extinguisher around because you know how to use it. But if your house is already on fire, kiddos, I don’t want you burning down with it just because nobody ever taught you what was what.”
Raymo shook his head slowly and said again, “Busted.” He drew the laugh he wanted.
“You know what, Raymo?” I asked, tapping a pencil thoughtfully against my teeth.
“It doesn’t matter a whole lot what the school board thinks.” This dawned on me forcefully as I said it. I understood this power: telling off my boss at the 7-Eleven, for example, two days before I left Tucson. The invulnerability of the transient. “There’s nobody else to teach this course,” I said. “And I only have a one-year contract, which I wasn’t planning on renewing anyway. I’m not even a real teacher. I’ve just got this provisional certification deal. So that’s the way it is. We’re studying the reproductive system of higher mammals. If I’m offending anybody’s religion or moral turpitude here, I apologize, but please take notes anyway because you never know.”
They were completely quiet, but toward the end of the day you really can’t tell what that means. It could be awe or brain death, the symptoms are identical.
“Miss?” It was Barbara, a tall, thin, shy student (ears unpierced), whose posture tried always to atone for her height. She’d latched onto me early in the semester, as if she’d immediately sniffed out my own high-school persona. “You aren’t coming back next year?”
“Nope,” I said. “I’m outta here, just like a senior. Only difference between you and me is I don’t get a diploma.” I gave them an apologetic smile, meant for Barbara especially. “It’s nothing personal. That’s just my modus operandi.”
The kids blinked at this, no doubt wondering if it was a Latin name they needed to write down.
“Your modus operandi is the way you work,” I said. “It’s what you leave behind when you split the scene of a crime.”
At Grace High I taught Biology I, Biology II, two study halls, and I also pinch-hit an algebra class for a fellow teacher who was frequently absent on account of a tricky pregnancy. My favorite class was Biology II, my seniors-Raymo and Marta and Connie Mu~noz and Barbara-but on that day I had a mission and didn’t discriminate among souls. I gave everybody the lecture on baby prevention. Barbara, who was in my study hall and also in the algebra class, got to hear it three times, poor child, and I imagine she was the least in need.
It surprised me as much as the kids, this crusade, and I suspected my motives; what did I care if the whole class had twins? More likely I wanted to be sure of a terminal contract. After the last bell rang I erased the blackboard and stood for a minute sharing the quiet with the bones of my Illinois compatriot, Mrs. Josephine Nash. Our day was over. She gave me her silent, wide-jawed smile. Here was a resident of Grace who had never hurt me in childhood, didn’t make me rack my memory for her name (she wore it on her pelvis), had thrown no spitballs at me nor asked for extra credit, and didn’t suggest that I belonged in Paris, France, or a rock ’n’ roll band.
From the back of the room I could hear the frogs clicking against the sides of their terrarium, constant as a clock: up and down, up and down, exposing soft white bellies. This time next year there would not even be fish or frogs in the river; these particular representatives of the animal kingdom were headed for extinction. Whoever taught this class would have to write Carolina Biological Supply and order those stiff preserved frogs that smell of formaldehyde, their little feet splayed like hands and their hearts exposed.
I stood over the terrarium and peered down into it from above, like a god. The fish hung motionless in its small lake. Droplets of condensation were forming on the underside of the glass top. Getting ready to rain in there. I’d grown fond of this miniature world, along with the kids, and had added my own touches: a clump of bright red toadstools that popped up in Emelina’s courtyard, and a resurrection fern from the cliff behind my house. The terrarium was like a time capsule. I think everybody was trying to save little bits of Grace.
I slid the glass to one side, hating to disrupt the ecosystem but needing to feed the fish. The humid smells of mud and moss came up to meet my nose, and I thought of Hallie in the tropics. What would she do about these troubles if she were here? Well, stay, for one thing, whereas I wouldn’t. I had come here with some sense of its being the end of the line, maybe in a positive way, but I found I had no claim on Grace. Seeing it as “home” was a hopeful construction, fake, like the terrarium. I’d deal with Doc Homer insofar as that was possible in one year, and then I’d rejoin Carlo, or think about another research job; I had no specifics in mind. My future was mapped in negatives. Next year I could be anywhere but here.
I’d told Hallie about my bold, ridiculous little deposition on the pH of the river, and a few days later I’d had to follow up with the news of the river’s getting dammed-questions of pH being entirely academic. I felt humiliated. Eventually she wrote back to say: “Think of how we grew up. You can’t live through something like that, and not take risks now. There’s no getting around it.” She was admonishing me, I guess. I should have more loyalty to my hometown. I wasn’t brave; I was still trying to get around it. A good citizen of the nation in love with forgetting. I pelleted the surface of the water with goldfish flakes. In nature there are animals that fight and those that flee; I was a flighty beast. Hallie seemed to think I’d crossed over-she claimed I was the one who’d once wanted to dig in and fight to save the coyote pups. Emelina thought I’d been ringleader in campaigns to save stewing hens. In my years of clear recall there was no such picture. When Hallie and I lived in Tucson, in the time of the refugees, she would stay up all night rubbing the backs of people’s hands and holding their shell-shocked babies. I couldn’t.I would cross my arms over my chest and go to bed. Later, after my second year of med school, I’d been able to address their external wounds but no more than that.
The people of Grace would soon be refugees too, turned out from here like pennies from a pocket. Their history would dissolve as families made their separate ways to Tucson or Phoenix, where there were jobs. I tried to imagine Emelina’s bunch in a tract house, her neighbors all keeping a nervous eye on the color coordination of her flowerbeds. And my wonderfully overconfident high-school kids being swallowed alive by city schools where they’d all learn to walk like Barbara, suffering for their small-town accents and inadequate toughness. It was easy to be tough enough in Grace.
Well, at least they’d know how to use condoms. I could give them that to carry through life. I settled the glass lid back over the terrarium and turned out the lights. I would be long gone before the ruination of Grace; I had a one-year contract. Now I’d made sure of it.
Rita Cardenal called me up on the phone. She hesitated for a second before speaking. “I don’t think your old man has all his tires on the road.”
“It’s possible.” I sat down in my living-room chair and waited for her to go on.
“Did you tell him about me? About dropping out?”
“Rita, no. I wouldn’t do that.”
Silence. She didn’t believe me. To Rita we were both authority figures-but at least she’d called. “My father and I aren’t real close,” I said. “I go up to see him every week, but we don’t exactly talk.” A pregnant teen could surely buy that.
“Well, then, he’s got a slightly major problem.”
“What did he do?”
“He just sorta went imbalanced. I went in for my five-mouth checkup? And he said the babies were too little, but he was all kind of normal and everything?” She paused. “And then all of a sudden he just loses it and gets all creeped and makes this major scenario. Yelling at me.”
“What did he say?”
“Stuff. Like, that I had to eat better and he was going to make sure I did. He said he wasn’t going to let me go out of the house till I shaped up. It was like he just totally went mental. He was using that tape measure thing to measure my stomach and then he just puts it down and there’s tears in his eyes and he puts his hands on my shoulders and kind of pulls me against his chest. He goes, ‘We have to talk about this. Do you have any idea what’s inside of you?’ I got creeped out.”
I felt dizzy. There was a long pause.
“Rita, I’m really sorry. What can I tell you? He’s losing his mind. He’s got a disease that makes him confused. I think he was really just trying to do his job, but he got mixed up about what was the appropriate way to talk to you.”
“I heard that. That he had that disease where you go cuckoo and turn back into a baby.”
“Well, that’s not quite the way I’d put it, but it’s true. Occasionally rumors are true.”
“Is it true you’re really a doctor?”
I looked out my east window at the wall of red rock that rose steeply behind the house. “No,” I said. “That isn’t true. Did he tell you that?”
“No.” She paused. “Well, yeah. He said something a real long time ago, that you were in medical school or something. But not this last time. I heard it from somebody else, that you’re a doctor and Doc Homer’s dying and you’re going to take over.”
“Take over being the doctor for Grace. They said you already saved that baby down at Do~na Althea’s restaurant.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ.”
“Look, people say stuff, okay?” Rita said. “This town is full of major mouths. It’s just what I heard.”
“I’m only here till the end of the school year, so you can tell whoever’s spreading that gossip they’re full of shit.”
I regretted snapping at Rita. “It’s okay,” I said. “It’s not your fault. I’m not used to living in a place where everybody’s into everybody else’s business.”
“It’s the bottom level, isn’t it? My mom found out I was pregnant from a lady that works at the bank. Mom goes, ‘What is the date today?’ and the lady goes, ‘The fourteenth. Your daughter will be due around Valentine’s Day, won’t she? I had a baby on Valentine’s Day.’” Rita paused for my opinion.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s the bottom level.”
“Uh-huh. Mom told me after that she had to tear up three checks in a row before she could make one out right. Like that was my fault.”
I set out to find Doc Homer the minute I hung up the phone, but it took me a long time to track him down, and my energy for drama kind of petered out. First I went to his office in the basement of the old hospital, up on the plateau-it was four o’clock on a Wednesday and he should have been there. But Mrs. Quintana said he’d gone downtown to check on old Mr. Moreno’s oxygen machine because it was making a noise, and then he was going to stop at the grocery to pick up some pork chops. It had been half an hour so I figured I’d catch him if I skipped Mr. Moreno and went straight to the grocery, but I got there too late. The grocer, Mrs. Campbell, said he had come there first, having forgotten he needed to go to Mr. Moreno’s. He’d stood for six or eight minutes in canned goods, as if lost, and then it came to him. Mrs. Campbell told me this with a sort of indulgent wink, as if he were Einstein or something and you could forgive it. He’d left for the Moreno’ house, but first was going next door to the pharmacy to pick up Mr. Moreno’s emphysema medication. I skipped the pharmacy and headed for the bright pink Moreno house, thinking I’d catch him as he came out and we could walk together back up the long hill, past the hospital, to his house. So the war on germs in Grace was being waged by a man who got lost in fruit cocktail. There was a clinic in Morse, just across the state line, and according to Mrs. Quintana a lot of people now drove over there. Disloyally, she had implied; she adored my father. She noted primly that they’d have problems with their state insurance forms.
On my way to the Morenos’ I stopped at the P.O. There was a letter from Hallie, which I would save for later. I liked reading them alone, with time for filling in whatever she might leave out.
It turned out the Moreno visit had been unexpectedly brief, and he’d left already. The oxygen machine had stopped making noises all on its own. I walked back up the hill alone. By the time I finally did get to Doc Homer’s kitchen his pork chops were cooked and he was just sitting down.
He looked surprised, almost pleased, his face turning up from the table, and he offered to put something on the stove for me but I told him I wasn’t hungry. I sat down at my old place at the table where I’d passively refused food a thousand times before. But tonight it made me sad to watch him eat his solitary supper-he’d cooked one serving of an entire balanced meal, vegetables and everything. This amazed me. When Carlo went on his work binges at the hospital, I skipped meals notoriously; I was lucky if I hit all the food groups in four consecutive days. But I supposed Doc Homer had gotten the knack of solitude. For him it wasn’t a waiting period, it was life.
“I hear you were kind of hard on Rita Cardenal,” I said.
He flushed slightly. “Do you know her? She’s expecting twins. She needs to take better care of herself.”
“I know. She was one of my students till day before yesterday. She’s a good kid.”
“I’m sure she is,” he said. “But she is rather hard to talk to. I wrote down a prescribed diet for her, which she wadded up and threw in the wastepaper basket before she left my office. She said she would eat what she pleased, since her life was already a totally creeped scenario. That is a quote.”
I smiled. “Kids here have their own minds, I’m finding out. I hadn’t really expected that.”
“My students talk like a cross between Huck Finn and a television set.”
He seemed slightly amused. I knew I was avoiding the issue. I took a deep breath. “I think I’ve let things go too long. I should have talked to you a long time before now. I don’t think you’re doing too well, and I feel like I should be taking care of you, but I don’t know how. We’re the blind leading the blind here. All I know is it’s up to me to do it.”
“There is no problem, Codi. I’m taking an acridine derivative. Tacrine. It keeps the decline of mental functions in check.”
“Tacrine slows the decline of mental functions, if you’re lucky. And it’s experimental. I’m not stupid, I did a lot of reading in the medical library after you told me about this.”
“No, you are not stupid. And I am fine.”
“You always say you’re fine.”
“Because I always am.”
“Look, I’m only here till next summer. We need to get things squared away. What are you going to do when you can’t keep up your practice anymore? Do you think you’re being fair?”
He cut up his cauliflower, running the knife between the tines of his fork. He dissected it into neat, identical-sized cubes, and did not answer me until he was completely finished. “I’ll do what I’ve always planned to do, I’ll retire.”
“You’re sixty-six,” I said. “When do you plan to retire?”
“When I can no longer work carefully and capably.”
“And who’s going to be the judge of that?”
I stared at him. “Well, I think there’s some evidence that you’re slipping in the careful and capable department.” My heart was beating hard-I’d never come even close to saying something like that to him. I didn’t wait for an answer. I got up and walked into the living room. It was the same, piles of junk everywhere. I was startled by something new: a dozen women’s shoes from somewhere, arranged in a neat circle, toes pointed in. Superficial order imposed on chaos. It’s exactly how I would have expected Doc Homer to lose his marbles. I felt dizzy and unsupported by my legs or Doc Homer’s floor, and I sat down. I couldn’t even tell Hallie this. She would come home.
The old red-and-black wool afghan, Hallie’s and my comfort blanket in old times, was still folded tidily on the sofa. In the months I’d been here it hadn’t been unfolded once, I was sure. I took the thick bundle of it into my arms and walked back into the kitchen and sat down, this time in Hallie’s chair, the afghan pressed against my chest like a shield.
“I’m taking this, if you don’t mind. I’ll need it when it gets cooler.”
“That’s fine,” he said.
I stared at him for another minute. “Do you know what people in Grace are saying?”
“That the moon is made of green cheese, I imagine.” He got up and began to wash the dishes from his small meal. A large and a small skillet, a vegetable steamer, a saucepan, plate and glass, spoons and knives of various sizes, and the Piper forceps. Including the pot lids, around twenty separate utensils to cook and consume maybe eight ounces of food. I felt obsessive myself for counting it all up, but it seemed to be a symbol of something. The way he’d lived his life, doing everything in the manner he thought proper, whether it made sense or not.
“They’re saying I’m a doctor,” I said to his back. “That I’ve come here to save Grace.” Hallie and I had already used up all the possible jokes on our town and Doc Homer: Saving Grace, Amazing Grace. Every one left a bitter taste in the mouth.
“And how do they propose that you’re going to do that?”
“I don’t know. However doctors usually perform their miracles.”
“You know very well what doctors do. You finished four years of medical school and you nearly finished your internship. You were only two or three months away from being licensed to practice.”
I touched my fingertip to some vagrant bread crumbs scattered across the table. Because his back was turned I had the courage to ask the question point blank. “How severely do you hold that against me? That I didn’t make doctor?”
“Who is saying you didn’t make it?”
“I’m saying it, right now. I don’t have it in me, now or ever. Just the idea of me being a doctor is ridiculous. People depending on me in a life-or-death situation? Remember when I took Red Cross swimming lessons? I tried out the elbow-hold rescue on Ginny Galvez and we had a near-death experience.”
He spoke without turning around. “How did you arrive at the conclusion that you could not be a doctor?”
For a minute I buried my face in the afghan, which smelled like a familiar animal. When I looked up again he was facing me, drying his hands on a dish towel, one finger at a time. “I would just like to know,” he said.
“I couldn’t make it through my rotation on OB-GYN. I was delivering a premature baby, which turned out also to be breach, and there was fetal distress, and the mother’s pressure started to shoot up. I just walked away from it. I don’t even remember exactly what I did, but I know I left her there. She could have died.” I corrected myself. “They both could have died.”
“You were only a first-year resident and it was a high-risk delivery. I’m sure there was someone on hand to back you up. Malpractice laws being what they are.”
“That’s not the point.”
“You don’t have to deliver babies to be a physician. I no longer deliver babies myself. There are a hundred specialties you could choose that have nothing to do with obstetrics.”
“That isn’t the point. People were looking to me for a decision, and I lost my nerve. You can’t lose your nerve. You’re the one that taught me that.”
He looked me straight in the eye and said, “I lose my nerve a dozen times a day.”
It was the last thing on earth I expected to hear. I felt as if I’d been robbed. I put my face back in the afghan and suddenly I started to cry. I have no idea where the tears came from, they just came from my eyes. I didn’t want either one of us to admit helplessness here. I kept my face down for a long time, soaking the wool. When I finally glanced up he was putting something away in the refrigerator. In the dark kitchen, the brightly lit interior of the refrigerator was a whole, bright little foreign land of cheerful white boxes, stacked like condominiums. There must have been fifty tupperware containers in there: pies, cakes, casseroles. I thought of Uda’s squash pie, and understood with surprise that all the women of Grace were taking care of Doc Homer. As a caretaker, I was superfluous.
He saw me looking at him. He stood with the refrigerator door half open, illuminating his face. “Codi, you could be a doctor if you wanted to do that. You learned the skills. Don’t try to put the blame on something abstract like your nerve-you have to take responsibility. Is it something you want, or not?”
“I don’t know.”
He didn’t move. I kept thinking he ought to close the refrigerator door. He’d always had a million rules about everything. Wasting electricity, for example.
“It’s not,” I finally said, for the first time.
“No. I thought it would be an impressive thing to do. But I don’t think it was a plan that really grew out of my life. I can’t remember ever thinking it would be all that delightful to look down people’s throats and into their nasty infected ears and their gall bladders.”
“You’re entitled to that opinion,” he said. “That the human body is a temple of nastiness.”
I held him steady in the eye and he smiled, ever so slightly. “You bet,” I said. “People are a totally creeped scenario.”
The news from Hallie was brief and moderately alarming. There had been contra activity in her district, nobody hurt but four John Deere tractors burnt down to scorched metal hulls. She sounded sick about that. “A Deere is like a hunk of gold here. Because of the U.S. embargo we can’t get parts, and the ones still running are Nicaragua’s patron saints.” She sounded completely, happily settled in, though, much more so than I was in Grace. She talked about waking up in the mornings: Roosters hopping up onto the windowsill. An army of little girls in polyester dresses out in the street with huge baskets on their heads, forging out on a hundred urgent missions. She was making good progress with some new cultivation methods; wished she knew more about diesel mechanics. A man named Julio, a literacy teacher from Matagalpa, had asked her out on a date. (She drew stars all around the word “date,” making fun of herself.) They had busy schedules, so finally they met after work and rode together to a meeting in a church where Hallie delivered a lecture on pesticide safety. The church was full of gnats and kerosene smoke and little kids crawling around on a big piece of plastic, crying, impatient for their parents to take them home to bed. She and Julio had ridden over together on her horse, Sopa del Dia, and had a nice time going home.
Sunday night was Halloween and Emelina’s children took to the streets. Grace was at an interesting sociological moment: the teenagers inhaled MTV and all wanted to look like convicted felons, but at the same time, nobody here was worried yet about razor blades in apples.
Emelina volunteered me to go trick-or-treating with the four older boys while she stayed home to dispense bribes to the rest of the town’s marauders; she felt a pagan holiday would do me good. I was only chaperone and crossing guard, not expected to go in costume. There was a state law against anyone over twelve wearing a mask or making direct requests at people’s doors. The city fathers of Grace were independent to an extent: they ignored state law when they closed school on November 2 for the town’s biggest holiday, the Day of All Souls. But to be on the safe side they were going along with the Halloween mask law. John Tucker was disappointed but tried not to show it. Emelina encouraged him to go with us anyway, more or less as a second chaperone. She was wonderful to watch. I guess I’d never really seen good mothering up close.
He agreed to go, dressed in J.T.’s black raincoat, with a quarter-inch of talcum powder on his face. Emelina ran deep eyeliner shadows under his eyes. It was convincing-he looked either sick or dead, depending on his position. Mason went as a bug, with grocerybag wings and radio antennae strapped to his head with a yellow sweatband. He instructed Emelina to draw on bug fangs with her eyebrow pencil. I don’t think Emelina ever actually wore makeup, she just kept it on hand for emergencies. The twins both were going as teenagers (i.e., convicted felons), but decided they needed fangs also.
We made a pretty good haul; in this fruit basket of a valley, I’d never seen such an orgy of sucrose. Jawbreakers and Gummi Bears multiplied in the kids’ bags like the loaves and fishes. The twins pulled me along by both hands, and Mason gripped my leg when we crossed the street. We hit every house on the road that circled the canyon to the south-the longest possible route to the courthouse. John Tucker hung back in the shadows at the edges of yards, but I escorted the boys right up to the doorsteps, secretly enjoying these little peeks into people’s bright living rooms. Our last stop was at the lemon-yellow home of Mrs. Nu~nez, whom I knew to be an important figure in the Stitch and Bitch Club. I was beginning to learn my way around the matriarchy of Grace, a force unknown to me in childhood.
Old Mrs. Nu~nez recognized the kids immediately, but for some reason mistook me for Emelina. I think she just didn’t really look. She chattered at the boys as she dropped Hershey’s kisses and bubble gum into their heavy grocery bags: “Oh, what an awful-looking bug you are. You get away from my house, you old cucaracha. And you ugly old twins, too. You’re too scary.” She kissed them all on the tops of their heads.
She stopped suddenly, holding her glasses and peering out at the pale apparition of John Tucker, who was hanging back around her shrubs as required by law. “Cielo santo!” she said, with real concern. “What’s the matter with your brother?”
“He’s thirteen,” said Glen.
All Souls’ Day dawned cool, and the people of Grace put on their sweatshirts and gave thanks. The heat wave was broken. By half past eight the sun was well up and sweatshirts peeled off again, but it was still a perfect day. Every able-bodied person in Grace climbed the canyon roads to converge on the cemetery.
It was the bittersweet Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead, democratic follow-up to the Catholic celebration of All Hallows. Some people had business with the saints on November 1, and so went to mass, but on November 2 everybody had business at the graveyard. The families traipsing slowly uphill resembled harvester ants, carrying every imaginable species of real and artificial flower: bulging grocery sacks of chrysanthemums and gladioli; tulips made from blue and pink Styrofoam egg cartons; long-stemmed silk roses bouncing in children’s hands like magic wands; and unclassifiable creations out of fabric and colored paper and even the plastic rings from six-packs. The Stitch and Bitch Club had had four special meetings in a row.
When Hallie and I were very small we used to be allowed to participate in this celebration, with J.T.’s family. I wondered if Viola remembered having us in tow. In my own mind it was all vague; what I remembered best was the marigolds. Cempazuchiles, the flowers of the dead. I asked Viola about them.
“They come on the truck,” she answered cryptically.
“Do you remember when Hallie and I used to come up here with you?”
“Sure I do. You always ran all over the graves and messed up everything.” Viola didn’t pull her punches.
“Well, we were little,” I said defensively. “Doc Homer made us quit coming after a while. I remember that. I remember him saying, ‘Those great-grandmothers aren’t any of your business.’”
“Well, he was the boss.”
“Right. He was the boss.”
Emelina and the four older boys were marching ahead, but I was pushing the stroller over gravel and Viola was over sixty, so we both had an excuse to lag. We were a harvester-ant clan ourselves, burdened not only with flowers but with food and beer and soft drinks and sundry paraphernalia. John Tucker was carrying a new, largish St. Joseph for Viola’s husband’s grave. J.T. was still in El Paso, and Loyd was on a switch engine in Yuma, but we didn’t seem to need them all that much. It looked like a female holiday, what with the egg-carton flowers. A festival of women and children and old people and dead ancestors.
Viola stopped for breath, holding the bosom of her shiny black dress and looking down at the canyon. I waited with her, adjusting the red handkerchief Emelina had tied over Nicholas’s bald head to shield it from sun. As he vibrated over the corduroy road the kerchief kept slipping down over his eyes, and he looked like a drunken pirate. I bent over and looked into his face, upside-down. He enlightened me with a wicked pirate smile.
It was a spectacular day. The roadside was lined with bright yellow plumes of rabbitbrush, apparently too common a flower for anyone to take to a grave, but I liked them. I would try to remember to pick some on my way back down, to stick into the clay ollas around my house; I was determined to prove to Emelina that I wasn’t completely bereft of domestic instincts.
From where we stood we could look down on the whole of Grace plus the many small settlements that lay a little apart from the town, strung out along the length of Gracela Canyon and its tributaries, often inhabited by just a few families, some with their own tiny graveyards. These settlements were mostly abandoned now. A lot of them had been torn right up when Black Mountain chased a vein of copper under their floors; others had been buried; the company had an old habit of digging and dumping where it pleased. Grace’s huge main cemetery was located on the opposite side of the canyon, as far as possible from the mine, for exactly that reason. Not even the graveyards were sacred.
At the upstream end of the canyon we could also see the beginnings of the dam that would divert the river out Tortoise Canyon. There had been a ridiculous photo in the local paper: the company president and a couple of managers at a ground-breaking ceremony, wearing ties, stepping delicately on shovels with their wing-tip shoes. These men had driven down from Phoenix for the morning, and would drive right back. They all had broad salesmen’s smiles. They pretended the dam was some kind of community-improvement project, but from where Viola and I stood it looked like exactly what it was-a huge grave. Marigold-orange earth movers hunched guiltily on one corner of the scarred plot of ground.
“So what’s going to happen?” I asked Viola.
“The Lord in heaven knows,” she said.
I prodded. “Well, there was a meeting last night. Have you talked to anybody?”
“Oh, sure. The men on the council had another one of their big meetings about it and decided to have a lawsuit. A lawyer came up from Tucson to meet with Jimmy Soltovedas.”
Jimmy was the mayor. The town council had nothing to do with Black Mountain anymore; Grace wasn’t a company town in the classical sense, except for the fact that the company owned everything we walked on.
“What did the lawyer say?” In a moment of vanity I wondered if anyone had mentioned my affidavit. My line about “the approximate pH of battery acid” seemed like something a lawyer could gleefully quote.
“The lawyer said we might have grandfather rights to the water, and so we could have a class-action lawsuit to make the company give us back our river.”
“How long will that take?”
She shrugged. “Maybe ten years.”
“Right. In ten years we can all come back and water our dead trees.”
“Did anybody go to the newspapers to get some publicity about this? It’s ridiculous.”
“Jimmy called the newspapers half a dozen times. I talked to Jimmy’s wife. Nobody’s interested in a dipshit little town like Grace. They could drop an atom bomb down on us here and it wouldn’t make no news in the city. Unless it stirred up the weather over there and rained out a ball game or something.”
“So it’s a ten-year lawsuit.” I didn’t want to believe she was right, though her sources were always irreproachable. “Is that the only thing those guys can come up with against the Mountain?”
“Don’t call that company the Mountain,” she said curtly. “It makes it sound like something natural you can’t ever move.”
“I’ve heard the men call it that,” I said.
Viola snorted like an old horse and started up the hill.
When we arrived, half a dozen elderly men were putting a fresh coat of white paint on the wrought-iron fence around the huge cemetery. Wrought iron was a theme here; there were iron crosses and wreaths, and over some of the graves there were actual little iron houses, with roofs. Through the ups and downs of Black Mountain’s smelting plant, Grace had been home to a lot of out-of-work metalworkers.
Most families divided their time between the maternal and paternal lines, spending mornings on one set of graves and afternoons on the other. Emelina and the boys staked out the Domingos plot and set to work sweeping and straightening. One of the graves, a great-uncle of J.T.’s named Vigilancio Domingos, was completely bordered with ancient-looking tequila bottles, buried nose down. Mason and I spent half the morning gathering up the strays and resetting them all in the dirt, as straight as teeth. It was a remarkable aesthetic-I don’t mean just Uncle Vigilancio, but the whole. Some graves had shrines with niches peopled by saints; some looked like botanical gardens of paper and silk; others had the initials of loved ones spelled out on the mound in white stones. The unifying principle was that the simplest thing was done with the greatest care. It was a comfort to see this attention lavished on the dead. In these families you would never stop being loved.
The marigold truck arrived at ten o’clock. Women swarmed down on it like bees, coming away with armloads of floral gold. There were many theories on the best way to put them to use, or to make them go farthest. Viola, who directed the Domingos family operations, was of the deconstructionist school. She had the boys tear the flowers up and lay the petals down over a grave, blanketing it like a monochrome mosaic.
John Tucker stayed at his work but the twins wandered and Mason disappeared altogether. Emelina, wasn’t worried. “He’s refining his begging skills he learned on Halloween,” she said, and was probably right. Grandmothers everywhere, who at lunch had set out extra plates for the dead, were now indiscriminately passing out the sweet remains of their picnics.
By mid-afternoon Emelina felt we should send out a search party, “before he eats so many cookies he busts.” Viola volunteered, and I went with her, more or less as a tourist. I wanted to see what else there was in the line of beautified graves. We skirted Gonzalez and Castiliano and Jones, each family with its own style. Some were devotees of color or form, while others went for bulk. One grave, a boy who’d died young, was decorated with the better part of a Chevrolet. There were hundreds of holes drilled into the fishtail fenders, to hold flowers. It was beautiful, like a float in a parade.
The cemetery covered acres. To the west of us were collections of small neglected mounds whose stones bore the names of families that had died out. “Trubee,” I read aloud, wandering toward the desert of the forgotten. “Alice, Anna, Marcus. Lomas: Hector, Esperanza, Jos'e, Angel, Carmela.”
“Honey, we better get back to where people are,” Viola cautioned, but I wandered on, as distracted in my way as Mason must have been, wherever he was.
“Nolina,” I shouted. “Look, here’s my long-lost relatives.”
Viola looked at me oddly from her distance across the graves.
“I’m kidding,” I said. We came from Illinois, as she well knew. “Here’s my Aunt Raquel, my aunt…something Maria.” Most of the graves were illegible, or so crudely marked there was nothing to read. Then I found one that stopped me dead.
“Viola. Here’s a Homero Nolina.”
“So it is,” she said, not really looking. “Son of a gun.”
I eyed her. “Do you know something about this?”
“What do you want me to tell you?”
“Who were the Nolinas?”
“Come on back away from there and I’ll tell you.”
I stood my ground.
“Honey, come on, let’s leave these dead folks alone. Nobody put any plates of food out for them for a long, long time. They’re not feeling so happy today.”
“Okay, but you have to tell me.”
She told me the Nolinas used to live up around Tortoise River, in the northern end of Gracela Canyon. There was a little settlement there that dispersed when the area was covered by mine tailings. The Nolinas had dug up what they could of the family graveyard and carried the bones a few miles to bury them up here. It wasn’t all that long ago, she said. Around 1950.
“I don’t know any Nolinas in Grace now,” I said.
“No, they’re about gone. They never did settle too good into Grace. The most of them went to Texas or somewhere, after their houses got tore up. They weren’t…” She stopped and took off her shoe, cocking her stockinged foot against her plump ankle while she examined the inside of it, then put it back on. “The Nolinas weren’t real accepted. They were kind of different all the way back. There was one of the Gracela sisters had auburn hair and a bad temper, and she married Conrado Nolina. They say that family went downhill.”
“They were trash, is what you’re telling me.”
“No. Just different.”
I followed behind her as she plodded along, dodging headstones. She was as intransigent, in her way, as Doc Homer. “So how come one of them has practically the same name as my father?”
“You better ask him that,” she said. “It’s his name.”
At that moment something hit me from behind like a torpedo, tackling me around the knees. It was Mason.
“Where have you been, pachuco? Your mama was worried to death about you,” Viola said. Mason had an enormous sucker ballooning under one cheek. He laughed, recognizing Viola’s scoldings as a bald-faced lie.
“I was at a birthday party,” he lied back.
It took a while to coax him back to the fold. There were an infinity of distractions: Calaveras, little skull-shaped candies for children to crack between their teeth. The promise of a chicken leg for a kiss. Little girls and boys played “makeup,” standing on tiptoe with their eyes closed and their arms at their sides, fingers splayed in anticipation, while a grownup used a marigold as a powder puff, patting cheeks and eyelids with gold pollen. Golden children ran wild over a field of dead great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers, and the bones must have wanted to rise up and knock together and rattle with joy. I have never seen a town that gave so much-so much of what counts-to its children.
More than anything else I wished I belonged to one of these living, celebrated families, lush as plants, with bones in the ground for roots. I wanted pollen on my cheeks and one of those calcium ancestors to decorate as my own. Before we left at sunset I borrowed a marigold from Emelina’s great-aunt Pocha, who wouldn’t miss it. I ran back to lay it on Homero Nolina, just in case.