February 2001

Rigoberto González


Rigoberto González is the author of So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water Until It Breaks, a selection of the National Poetry Series. He has been featured in a number of anthologies, most recently American Poetry: Next Generation, and Mama's Boy: Gay Men Write About Their Mothers. He has work forthcoming in The Colorado Review, Chelsea, and The Iowa Review. A recipient of a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, he works as a bilingual literacy teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Cactus Flower

It's a sweaty forty-minute walk through the desert from the main road to the wooden shack. Though the desert is flat and Rolando thinks he can see for miles into the faded blue horizon, the shack remains invisible until it suddenly shoots up from the ground, becoming distinguishable from the clumps of golden tumbleweeds and the sand hill leading up the ravine, everything blanketed by the brightness of the sun. The leaves of the fresh head of lettuce he brings from the fields wilt inside his oily fingers. He thinks about his toes shrinking back from the steel-tipped boots, his scrotum pulling away from his sticky underwear. The smell of dirt rises pure off the ground. His hand trembles at the thought of an empty shack, of nobody inside to open the door for him and take the lettuce from his hands, of no one to gasp in gratitude to assure him that despite the journey through the sweltering heat the leaves at the center are cool and crisp. His fears dissipate with the presence of his wife standing at the doorway, still as a cactus flower in her diaphanous white blouse, which she wears not so he can peek at her small white bra or at the pudgy abdomen he likes to grab while she's washing her hair bent over a bucket of water. She wears it, she tells him, to let the faintest breeze blow on her blouse, so she can spread her arms and cool her sweaty undersides. She's posing that way now, arms outstretched, but this far back it's hard to tell if it's the desert breeze come her way or if she's greeting him. He looks forward to tonight when they will feed each other lettuce leaves and chew them slowly as caterpillars devouring the moisture. Suddenly his eyes go blank, victims to the beads of sweat mixed into the dust he picked up from the fields, giving the sweat a more powerful sting. He rubs his eyes with the sleeve of the blue flannel shirt, taking in the sharp contrast of the smooth cloth to the coarse skin of his brown hand. Out of focus, he tries to reclaim the image of his wife in her white blouse, and then saddens, thinking Mirinda may not have seen him coming at all because she no longer stands at the entrance to the shack and the door is shut, the padlock hanging heavy like a heart gone solid and cold.

The candle flame twitches violently, threatening to leave him blind. The weather changed during his nap, and he woke up surprised in the dark. The wind hurls small stones against the wooden walls and bumps the window shutters repeatedly. Only when the wind blows is Rolando painfully aware of the imperfections in the small one-room home he built for himself in the middle of the desert, what the residents of the nearby town call "el dompe" because they drop off their useless vinyl couches and urine-stained mattresses into the nearby ravine though this area is no longer a county landfill and no longer uninhabited. The whistling and hissing of the dust storm outside disrupt his concentration so he sits without a word in his throat, slurping the Campbell's soup as loud as possible to convince himself that the silence the wind has forced on him has not upset his late-evening meal. Mirinda remains expressionless, staring across the table at the way his large hand holds the tin spoon too delicately, as if she knows he's scooping properly to please her. Even with the dim light she's beautiful, her features sharply defined and smooth as mariposa lily petals. The shadows make her face grow thin, distant as a portrait; but the flickering flame dancing gracefully in the deep ebony of her eyes keeps her within reach. She is tangible and touchable like before. She is here again to disregard the shadows as they flutter wildly like moths above her head. If they flee they will take her with them. But until then they soothe him, giving him this gift, this light, this woman, who said she was going to leave him and who didn't leave him completely. Forgotten are the elbow cramp, the stiff neck and aching shoulder blades. He has the urge to find the pretty marigolds he promised her when she agreed to follow him here to this desolate place, far from the run-down trailer camps and low-income housing projects where beauty like hers withers and dies. No, instead they are closer to the ground they left behind in the deserts of Chihuahua, a space so large it is like living inside breath itself. The peaceful evenings are long and familiar. The peaceful evenings bloom with stars. Stars love Mirinda so much they confuse her for the moon and crown her head. Suddenly the wind breaks in and snuffs the candle out. Mirinda disappears. He wants to stand and ask her to forgive him for those pretty marigolds. The wind roars. He keeps quiet, knowing that with such a wind his plea is weak and will remain unheard.

The wind grows stronger when he rises at four in the morning to pack his lunch and set off on his forty-minute trek back to the road where the bus picks him up to deliver him to the lettuce fields. When he opens the door the moonlight bursts in, lighting up the wooden table, the tiny unmade bed with the yellow faded sheets, the gas-tank stove, and Mirinda's white dresser. The looking glass Rolando gave her stares out the door, confronting the moon with its own light. He squints at the glare, grabs his denim jacket and tries to find the stone silhouette of his wife standing near the darkest corner. He shuffles out swiftly and doesn't catch a glimpse of her. At dawn the desert is cold. He shivers at the thought of the weary march getting back after work. Red flashlight in hand, he walks behind the shack, bends over the broken-down Pinto to check for damage on the windshield. The green paint looks clean, smooth as skin, so he rubs his hand across it then draws back quickly when a nettle on the surface stings his thumb. Suddenly he's alarmed to be outside. The landscape of desert rocks and manzanita patches appears shrunken, pulled in toward the shack, which becomes its dead center. He feels trapped, like the snowman in the glass bubble Mirinda enjoys shaking up at the swap meet to watch the tiny white particles drop. For him the particles strike sideways, strike hard. He moves quickly back around inside, exchanges the jacket for a thicker coat and grabs the brown paper sack, tightening the grip to remind himself how many of yesterday's burritos he will have for lunch. He steps out and shuts the door. The padlock snaps. He wishes to retreat, crawl beneath the yellow faded sheets, which will always smell of Mirinda's nape, of a strong sunlight filtered in through the dampness of her long black hair. He walks a few paces forward, hesitating because there's something he forgot. He's afraid to turn around, afraid that when he looks the shack will have vanished and he will find himself alone and vulnerable as the snowman or the palo verde that looks twice as solitary at night. He keeps on walking, sensing his distance from his home, a length that doubles when he thinks Mirinda's not inside stirring like the delicate perfume she rubs into her earlobes so that any sound she hears is savory and sweet. Mirinda, savory and sweet, desires no earring over this, the lip clamp of his mouth that nibbles nibbles nibbles on the flower-scented skin above her jaw. He dares to grin; he's compelled to whistle. He remembers he didn't eat the lettuce.

Rolando doesn't wait long for the bus. It's an old school bus painted over in white with the agricultural company's name on both sides. He doesn't have to see it to know it's coming because it's backfiring all the way down the road. In the early mornings the sloppy paint job looks clean until it stops in front of him and the old yellow coat shows through the wild strokes of white. The doors squeak open and the fat driver in a red plaid shirt greets him with a nod of the head, shifting into gear before Rolando finds a seat. Rolando paces reluctantly toward the space next to Sarita Mendoza, who wears a sweatshirt with words in English neither of them can read. She likes to save a place for him near the front. Before he takes a seat, Rolando nods at the other lettuce pickers. Don Carlos calls him by the wrong name. He wants to relax for the next twenty minutes until he arrives at the fields. He wants to tilt his head back and listen to the small transistor radio don Carlos behind him is holding. But Sarita Mendoza wants to talk.

She likes asking questions. She asks about his wife because she suspects Mirinda doesn't exist. She accuses him of lying to keep her from making a match of him with one of her daughters. Today she invites Rolando and his wife to a family bautismo. He politely refuses. She asks why. The glassy look of her eye makes him nervous. The bus hits a bump on the road and he hears the blades of the short-handle hoes rattle in the back. He wants to look down at the oval blister beginning to callus on his right palm. He wants to pick at it but doesn't, imagining a more intense pain against his hand as he thrusts the hoe into the ground. Instead he traces Sarita Mendoza's chapped lips, smiles and tells her he'll be celebrating his third-year anniversary this weekend. She jokingly says he's a liar. Rolando laughs with her, trying to think up an answer in case she asks where he's taking his wife to celebrate. She asks. He still hasn't thought of anything, so he simply says it's up to Mirinda. Can Mirinda travel to México? Sarita Mendoza leaves her mouth open, the dry lips are cracked at the corners; one corner is clotted with blood. He answers no, though he should have said yes because now Sarita Mendoza says he should have married a woman with papers. All of her daughters have their documents in order and they can all work in the fields, cook in the kitchen and perform both chores in bed. Rolando shakes his head. He should try to stop by the bautismo anyway, she suggests, since she's never met this mysterious woman he keeps hidden away in "el dompe." She's heard so much about Mirinda she's willing to wear out her old huaraches on a trip to the middle of the desert just to meet her. And if there isn't anyone there it won't matter because she will bring one of her daughters along just in case. Rolando looks away, embarrassed. He watches his cut lip grin on the dirty window. He didn't comb his hair. He forgot his baseball cap. The red bandanna in his back pocket has been used on his nose all week.

He wants to correct Sarita Mendoza and tell her she's heard very little about Mirinda, that woman, that goddess, that light. Mirinda, passion and appetite, can eat a whole coconut by herself, using up an entire afternoon with a dozen limes and a bowl of rock salt by her side while his heartbeat races to compete with that fervor she has for breaking the shell with her hands—a fever that finally peaks with him taking her fingers in his mouth and pressing his tongue beneath her nails to suck the salty juice. Mirinda, fury and fire, becomes as silky as her sleeping gown when he braids his limbs into hers, sweating off the humidity from their skins, surrendering themselves like cactus owls on that tiny bed that prompts them toward one another no matter what direction they stretch. Mirinda can touch every place on him at once and make each place jump twice. Mirinda is more than a woman, more than a wife—she took his body in her fleshy arms exactly three years ago and she still holds him there. And when she said she was going to leave him, she said she was going to dissolve his soul, so he didn't let her leave, not entirely, taking her neck in his hands and widening her mouth and forcing his power on her love until it burst into the air like a puff of dandelion seeds, an explosion of stars in the sky, an outbreak of marigolds. Such beautiful flowers. He's dizzy. Sarita Mendoza gazes at him and he blushes.

When the bus finally stops she leaps up and hurries to the back, her gray sweatshirt coming up on her stomach. She wants to get a good hoe, one with a clean sharp blade that won't give her trouble when she's digging into the ground. The rest of the workers scurry right behind her. Everyone hops off through the emergency exit door. Rolando looks past the window and at the lettuce fields, the heads looking cool and bright. Beyond the lettuce fields grow the grape fields and next to them sit the onion fields and rise the orchards, all of them blossoming so majesticly in the desert. He works this land year after year, intimate with its furrows and soils, yet he despises it for breaking his body down, for keeping him alive and sucking back all that strength. He imagines returning the following season, the fields lush and ripe again, displaying no evidence that he ever touched them. He imagines Mirinda, buried beneath the broken-down Pinto, unable to comb her long black hair or unable to darken her plucked eyebrows slim as marigold stems or unable to redden those fleshy points in the middle of her upper lip. She left her reflection behind in the looking glass. She returns to the desert to reclaim it and be whole again, then she thins out into air to become that void he sees when he holds up her mirror. When the white-haired foreman taps on the window, Rolando slowly rises from the seat, unashamed to be the last off the bus. The air is chilly and smells of soil freshly watered, the scent of cool lettuce lifts off the ground. On the other side of the road lies the barren desert. At the other end of the desert Mirinda's ghost waits patiently inside the tiny shack for him to step inside and breathe her scent of dusty wood. When he arrives each afternoon, the shack listens carefully, detects his slightest movements, excites its joints and rusty hinges and entreats Mirinda to respond.



Rigoberto González: Fiction
Copyright © 2000 The Cortland Review Issue 15The Cortland Review