The following is an excerpt from Julia Alvarez's novel, Afterlife, her first novel in 15 years. Alvarez is the bestselling author of In the Time of the Butterflies and How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. In 2013 President Obama awarded Alvarez the National Medal of Arts in recognition of her extraordinary storytelling.
Today, the magnet on her fridge proves prophetic: EVEN CREATURES OF HABIT CAN SOMETIMES BE FORGETFUL.
You said it, Antonia agrees. She has just poured orange juice into the coffee in the mug she brought back from one of the fancier hotels. Must have been a special occasion for Sam to have chosen to stay there and for her to have allowed the expense.
You’d think you were born with money in your family, she liked to tease him.
I never had it to begin with, so I’m not afraid to spend it, Sam responded. He was always quick with a comeback. Used to get him in trouble with his dad growing up. Being fresh, it was called back then. Oh, the stories he told her.
Sam spoiled her, or tried to, and got scolded as his thanks—but it was the kind of scolding that must’ve made him suspect she liked being made something of.
There’ll be no more of that now.
She is keeping to her routines, walking a narrow path through the loss—not allowing her thoughts to stray. Occasionally, she takes sips of sorrow, afraid the big wave might wash her away. Widows leaping into a husband’s pyre, mothers jumping into a child’s grave. She has taught those stories.
Today, like every other day, you wake up empty and frightened, she quotes to herself as she looks at her reflection in the mirror in the morning. Her beloved Rumi no longer able to plug the holes.
Late afternoons as the day wanes, in bed in the middle of the night, in spite of her efforts, she finds herself at the outer edge where, in the old maps, the world drops off, and beyond is terra incognita, sea serpents, the Leviathan—HERE THERE BE DRAGONS.
Countless times a day, and night, she pulls herself back from this edge. If not for herself, then for the others: her three sisters, a few old aunties, nieces and nephews. Her circle used to be wider. But she has had to pull in, contain the damage, keep breathing.
As she often tells her sister Izzy, always in crisis, arriving for visits with shopping bags full of gifts and a broken heart: the best thing you can give the people who love you is to take care of yourself so you don’t become a burden on them. No wonder Izzy’s ringtone for Antonia is church bells.
Actually, all the sisters have followed Izzy’s lead and assigned that ringtone to Antonia. The secret got out. The secret always gets out in the sisterhood. Our Lady of Pronouncements, Mona said by way of explanation. Good old Mo-mo, no hairs on her tongue—one of their mother’s Dominican sayings. Tilly was kinder. Sort of. It’s because you started going to Sam’s church. It’s how Tilly used to describe their denomination, to avoid using the word Christian. Now she avoids Sam’s name. Your church. As if Antonia would forget that Sam is gone unless someone reminds her.
Countless times a day, and night, she pulls herself back from this edge. She has to pull in, contain the damage, keep breathing.
They’re just jealous, was Sam’s theory about the ringtone profiling. All your years of teaching. You’ve picked up a lot of wisdom. A head full of chestnuts.
Full of B.S. That’s what the sisterhood would say.
Who now to champion her way of being in the world?
She empties out the ruined coffee and starts over.
The little phone she is carrying in her pocket begins ringing. She hasn’t set special ringtones for anyone, except Mona, who insisted on dogs barking. Not just any dogs, but Mona’s five rescues, which she set up on Antonia’s phone.
Today it’s Tilly calling. A few days ago, Mona. Izzy weaves in and out. The sisterhood checking in on her. You take her this morning. I’ll call her this weekend. The frequency has dropped off the last few months, but it has been sweet.
How are you? they ask. How are you doing?
Come visit, they all say. Knowing she won’t take them up on it. She is the sister who hates traveling even during the best of times.
It’s beautiful here, Tilly brags. Why do you think it’s called the Heartland? They have an ongoing rivalry. Vermont or Illinois. Who gets spring first, who has the worst snowfalls?
As she chats with her sister, Antonia hears plates clattering in the background. Tilly cannot abide being still. What are you doing? Antonia confronts her sister.
What do you mean what am I doing? Those sounds.
How easily they slip into bickering. It’s almost a relief when Tilly brings up Izzy. I’m worried, Tilly says. Izzy has been increasingly erratic. She is selling her house just outside of Boston, or not—they can’t be sure. She is sleeping in friends’ spare rooms or on their couches while she remodels her house.
But you’re selling it, aren’t you? the sisters try to reason with her.
It’ll bring in more money if it’s perfect.
Perfection takes time, not to mention money, which Izzy is always saying she doesn’t have. Didn’t she stop seeing her shrink because she said it was too much money? But you have insurance, don’t you? The sisters again, the Dominican Greek chorus they become when some sister, usually Izzy, is headed for a downfall.
I don’t want some insurance company knowing I’m going to a shrink. A shrink seeing a shrink! It would ruin my professional standing.
That bridge was burned a while back, according to Mona. Izzy is no longer at the mental health practice she helped start. Even master sleuth Mona isn’t sure what all came down.
And she’s also stopped the meds she was on, Tilly adds. Mona says you can’t do that with those kind of meds. Tilly sighs, eerily still for a change, and then says, They had a huge fight. Those two, I tell you.
Antonia imagines Tilly shaking her head. It is odd that Izzy and Mona, the two therapists in the family, can’t apply their professional skills to getting along. You said it, Antonia agrees, so as not to append something negative and quotable that will get back to the others, bring on more bickering.
Somewhere she read that okay and Coca-Cola are the two most universally understood words. It depresses her to think the ties that bind are so flimsy. Even silence would be better.
Anyhow, sister, screw them. How are you doing?
I’m okay. Antonia’s mantra of the last year. Somewhere she read that okay and Coca-Cola are the two most universally understood words. It depresses her to think the ties that bind are so flimsy. Even silence would be better.
But silence is all she gets when she addresses Sam these days. What she wouldn’t give for his voice coming from the afterlife, assuring her that he’s okay.
Her neighbor Roger is at the door. If I can be of any help? he offers. Kind of late for that, she thinks. Sam’s death was last June. Maybe the news just now reached him, like the light from stars?
I’m good, she tells Roger. A turn of phrase borrowed from her students. She always feels slightly bogus parroting them, as in her first years speaking English, tossing out an idiom, pretending she’d been born to it. Dream on. A phrase from her own student days.
Been hauling over to Ferrisburgh. Got to take what
comes. Pays the bills anyhow. Roger is partial to sentence fragments; Antonia has to supply the rest. Every encounter, homework, a fill-in-the-blank test.
Broken English. The phrase once leveled at her and
her sisters. She mended her broken pieces and ended up teaching Americans their own language, four decades total, three at the nearby college. What now, now that she has retired?
We shall see, her mother used to say. Que será, será. Been meaning to stop. Them gutters—Roger nods at the pipe running the length of the house, right under the roof, full of twigs, leaves. Runoff from the roof, stuff collects.
I thought those were nests, Antonia says, laughing. Of course, she didn’t really think so, but Roger gets such a kick out of knowing more than the smarty-pants professors over at the college. One of her ways of being neighborly. Letting him have the last word—it worked most times with Sam.
In fact, Antonia doesn’t know how half the things in the house work. All state-of-the-art net-zero conservation systems Sam was so proud of. It’s like flying a 747, she’d complain every time he tried to guide her through all the levers and dials in the furnace room.
And you call yourself a feminist! her sister Mona is quick to point out. Mona’s default ringtone is sci-fi. The world is crazy, baby sister insists.
It’s The world is ugly, / And the people are sad, Antonia
is tempted to tell Mona, from a Stevens poem I used to teach. But it has never worked to treat her sisters like her students. I don’t give a fuck who said so, Tilly has told her more than once.
I’ll get them cleared up for you, Roger offers. A complete sentence, his way of being neighborly, instead of a sympathy card.
Later that morning, there’s a knock at the door. Antonia checks the peephole, a new habit she’s not likely to break since she is alone. She can just make out a head of glossy black hair. Mario, one of the Mexican workers next door. She opens to the boy-size man, his soft brown skin unusual in pale-faced Vermont. Rare also for Antonia to feel tall in this country. For a moment she understands the self-assurance of those who can look down at another’s face. What comes with health care and good nutrition.
Mario doesn’t look old enough to be doing the milking next door. Roger might be breaking the child-labor laws. But then, he’s got bigger problems, like the immigration status of his farmhands.
Hola, doñita. They’ve met before. Soon after his arrival early this year, Mario cut his hand on a saw he didn’t know how to use. Lots of blood and Roger afraid to take him to the hospital, where the ER might call the ICE office. Instead, Roger called her. Didn’t he know about Sam’s death? I’m no doctor, she reminded her neighbor.
Not for the cut. To talk to him, calm him down, Roger explained. Small town. Everyone knows Dr. Sawyer’s wife is Spanish.
Not really Spanish Spanish, she used to correct them.
But she’s given up trying to explain the colonial intricacies of her ethnicity. Soon after she and Sam married, one of his elderly patients stopped her at the grocery store to ask if he’d brought her back from one of his volunteer surgery trips, always written up in the local paper. Dr. Sawyer saving the world in Mexico, Panama, India, the Dominican, annoyingly shortening the name of her country. That, too, she’s given up trying to correct.
Hola, Mario. ¿Qué pasa?
El patrón, Mario says, jerking his head toward the hardscrabble dairy farm next door. He says you need some help.
Sí, por favor. She comes out to stand in the driveway. The ladder is already leaning against the side of the house. No car or pickup in sight. She didn’t hear a motor. Did he carry it across the pasture? It must be three times his height. Gutters, she says, pointing to the roof. She uses the English word, not out of any instructional motive, but because she doesn’t know the word for rain gutter in Spanish.
They have to be cleaned out, she explains. My husband, he used to do it. She can’t bring herself to pronounce Sam dead.
Mario takes off his cap, holds it to his heart. Mis sentimientos, doñita.
Antonia’s eyes well up. Somehow it gets to her more when the condolences are in Spanish. The roots go deeper. Small sips, she reminds herself, and nods up at the gutter. Thank you for your help. Call me when you are done, okay? She means to pay him for his trouble.
Okay, he says, that universal word. But instead of turning to the job at hand, he keeps standing before her, perhaps searching for another universal word.
Anything else you need, Mario?
Bueno, doñita, Mario hesitates, flashing her a mega-watt smile—too bad about the teeth. Same back home in the DR, the poor with missing molars, rotted stubs. All that processed sugar. Everyone drinking Coca-Cola instead of the natural juices from the tropical fruits that abound. Yes, Mona, The world is ugly, / And the people are sad. Her mind is full of quotations, the slate never wiped clean, always the feeling that she is plagiarizing someone else’s wisdom.
Somehow it gets to her more when the condolences are in Spanish. The roots go deeper.
Mario does have a favor to ask. Maybe when he has finished, la doñita can help him call his girlfriend?
Antonia feels the flicker of irritation. Isn’t she entitled to a grace period after a loss? She has no energy for extras. Duelo, they call it in Spanish: bruised and hurting all over. Mario, of all people, should know. In their cultures, a person in duelo is left alone.
In need there is no season, Sam would say. Reluctantly, she tells the young man okay.
Mario has one more question. Where will the birds lay their eggs now, doñita?
It takes her a moment to understand. It’s not a nest, she explains. Basura, trash. A nest requires intention. The difference between a home and a shelter. What is her house with Sam gone? A home, a shelter? She wishes she still had her students to ask. She is alone now with her intense need to get the words right.
She watches him all morning from one window, then another. Maybe he’s taking his time to avoid getting back to his farm work. Or maybe he’s calculating, so as to finish just when it’ll be the right time to call his girlfriend in Mexico. Mi novia, he had said. More than a girlfriend. A bride, a fiancée. What time is it in Mexico now?
She is not policing him so much as making sure that he doesn’t fall. And if he does, then what? Does she call 911 for help? Take him to the hospital? Better the Open Door Clinic, if they are open, where the staff, mostly volunteers, are poor-friendly, undocumented-friendly, friendly period. Before Sam’s death, she used to volunteer there, translating for the migrant workers. Of course, anything serious, the clinic would send him over to the hospital, where they’re more fearful of liabilities. They might notify the sheriff, who’d come racing over to the ER, sirens going, lights flashing. Or they’d ask if he has insurance, as he lies on a gurney, bleeding to death. Who is allowed to have access to care? Universal health care, Sam argued. He could ruin a dinner party with his fierce advocacy. How can we call ourselves civilized and withhold care from those who can’t afford it? He was invited on several local talk shows and college panels. Some of his colleagues at the hospital began shunning him. But the younger doctors, especially the young women, regarded him as their mentor.
Of course, Antonia agreed with Sam, though she let him do the arguing. Even now, long after immigrating as a child, she still thinks of it as “their” country. Not for her to meddle in their affairs. Besides, Sam was better at arguing, sticking to the topic, not getting teary and tongue-tied when someone disputed her facts. Over the years, there was so much overlap in their opinions. She could tell what he thought from a glance at his face, the tone of his voice as he spoke on the phone in another room. Nice to get to that place with someone where you don’t have to ask. A different kind of silence now. She has the radio going constantly. She makes a mental note to up her contribution to VPR during the next membership drive.
Who is allowed to have access to care? Universal health care, Sam argued. How can we call ourselves civilized and withhold care from those who can’t afford it?
She’s out collecting the mail when she spots the sheriff’s car coming slowly down the road toward her house. Instantly, she is alert, some instinctive reaction, like seeing a hornet in her vicinity. She runs down a checklist. What could she be doing wrong? On the top of the list would be the small brown undocumented man cleaning her gutters. But Mario has finally made it to the back of the house. Antonia lifts a hand casually in greeting, a per- formed rather than an innocent gesture. One may smile, and smile, and be a villain. Would the sheriff recognize Hamlet? Most of the law enforcement in town are local boys whose family farms have gone under. Many didn’t even finish high school, thinking they’d end up farming. Besides, as Sam often reminded her with a bemused chuckle: not everyone in the world walks around with a whole bunch of famous people talking to them in their heads.
Once she’s inside, she hurries toward the back of the house, sliding open the glass door off the living room. Ven, ven, she calls out. Rápido, rápido! La migra! she adds to hurry him. It works. Mario scrambles down from the ladder, missing a rung, and bounds toward her, still clutching a fistful of leaves.
She hurries him inside, points to a chair in the corner, out of view of any windows. Harboring a fugitive, the phrase runs through her head. What Sam would have done, unquestioningly. He was the bold one. She, the reluctant activist, though everyone assumed it was she who was the political one by virtue of her ethnicity, as if being Latina automatically conferred a certain radical stance.
Mario glances around the room wildly. Does he think Antonia has laid a trap for him? There’s a knocking at the door. Who could it be? Stay here, tranquilo, away from the windows. In the driveway, the UPS truck is already pulling away. The book she ordered that’s supposed to help with grief lies on the welcome mat. Antonia checks the road again: the sheriff’s car has stopped at Roger’s. Good thing Mario’s here. But then there’s José, Mario’s coworker, perhaps cleaning stalls or mixing the feed, or if he’s on break, napping or listening to his tapes of Mexican music in the trailer behind the farmhouse.
As Antonia watches, the sheriff gets back in his cruiser and heads down the road, turning right at the corner, toward the rumbly bridge, where there’s a pull-off. Time for his lunch, riding beside him in a cooler, or maybe he’s meeting someone he can’t invite home. Antonia has heard he’s divorced, living with his mother. Years ago, Mona talked her and Sam into making an annual donation to their local sheriff’s fund. They send you a sticker, Mona explained. You put it on your car window. You’ll never get a ticket again, I swear.
Smart cookie, baby sister Mo-mo. But Sam was doubtful. Another one of your sister’s theories. Let’s try it for a year, Antonia persuaded him. Against his better judgment, he had affixed the sticker to their Subaru.
That was over five years ago. They haven’t gotten a ticket since.
Other people are sometimes right, she reminded him.
Other people, meaning her sisters, herself.
I never said they weren’t. He was too damn quick with his comebacks, right even about not always being right.
Roger comes to collect Mario. What’s he doing? Putting on a new roof or what?
She takes the blame. She had him come inside. Sheriff was on the prowl.
Came by my place, too, asking how things were going. Somebody’s talking. Roger looks at her pointedly, so she feels she has to deny that she has spoken to anyone. Why would she endanger one of her own?
Roger shrugs. A shrug that implicates her whole gender. Women. Always talking. They talk when they’re having their hair done; they talk waiting on line at the grocery store; they talk when they stop by to pick up their Thanksgiving turkeys from Roger’s honor store.
He’s in the living room, Antonia says, stepping to one side for Roger to come in, casting a look at his dirty boots. She considers asking him to remove them, as he seems to have missed the hint of shoes lined up below the mudroom pegs. But she might as well ask him to take off his clothes. No way this old Vermonter’s going to walk around in stocking feet indoors.
Mario is not in the living room where she left him, but there’s a fistful of leaves piled on the seat of the chair in the corner.
Mario! she calls. Es el patrón. To Roger, she says, he probably got scared. I told him it was la migra.
Roger lets out an audible sigh. Women overreacting. Mario! he calls in a commanding voice. They hear footsteps coming down the hall. Someone else who didn’t remove his shoes. But what unsettles her is that Mario took the liberty of hiding in the bedroom wing, a private part of the house.
Took the liberty? Sam would have challenged her. What does that even mean, when you are facing deportation?
Me agarró el temor, Mario says. Grabbed by fear. Personification is not merely a literary term, she used to tell her classes. Literature has to pull its weight in the real world or else it’s of no use to us. It’s not just Sam at dinner parties who could get in high dudgeon. Mario is holding himself, presumably to stop shaking. The red string bracelet he wears as a talisman on his left hand dangles its two loose ends. Suerte y protección, he had explained, wincing as she bandaged his hand. A lot of good it did you, she thought but didn’t say, concentrating on administering the first aid she’d picked up from Sam over the years. She had felt such tenderness then, and now again, at this boy-man who believes he can tame the dragons with a piece of braided string. No different from her literary cache of salutary lines. Tranquilo, tranquilo, she calms him. Estamos en Vermont. Here there be no torture of prisoners. He stares back, unconvinced. The world is crazy. Who knows what angry people will do.
Maybe you should wait a while before you take him back, Antonia advises. If you can spare him a little longer, I could use his help with a few things. Windows to wash. Lawn furniture to haul out of the shed. She makes up a list of improvised chores to delay his return. Best not to mention the promised phone call.
Roger scowls, looking them both over, probably suspecting they’re up to something. Okay, but I need the ladder back. Roger heads out the front door, and moments later his pickup pulls into the backyard, where she and Mario are waiting. After the two men load the ladder, Roger points to his left wrist, where he’d wear a watch if he wore such things. Be back by the afternoon milking.
Sí, patrón, sí, Mario answers, in a voice so submissive it pains Antonia to hear it.
Roger drives away, the ladder poking out the back of the lowered flatbed. Antonia notes the red plastic ribbon tied to one end to alert cars to keep their distance.
Mario pulls out a wallet from his back pocket. Monogrammed RL, Ralph Lauren? A fancy brand for a poor man, but then most of these brands are now pirated, cheap imitations sold on city streets by migrants in stocking caps, calling her over in accents from Haiti, Mexico, Ethiopia, countries she isn’t sure where they are on the map. Burkina Faso was the last one that took her by surprise. Remind me where it is, she had asked Sam, as if she had only momentarily forgotten. She didn’t want him teasing her about one more deficiency of her Dominican primary school education, adding her poor sense of geography to her deplorable math skills. He wouldn’t let her reconcile their checkbook.
Tucked inside the sleeve of Mario’s wallet is a worn piece of paper. Soon it will disintegrate with all the unfolding, refolding. Mario holds it out to her. Estela, written in a rough hand, then an area code and phone number. That’s all? she asks, and he nods. I thought for Mexico you needed more? Yes, you do, but she is not in Mexico. She is in Colorado. The way he pronounces the name, it sounds like a state in Mexico. But no, his novia has already crossed over. Estela has encountered some problem with being released. The coyotes have refused to put her on a bus to Burlington.
A bus cross-country by herself? Antonia questions. Does she speak English? Does she have her passport? What if she’s apprehended? Furthermore, does la novia have her parents’ consent? Does el patrón know?
Tucked inside the sleeve of Mario’s wallet is a worn piece of paper. Soon it will disintegrate with all the unfolding, refolding.
La novia does not speak English. She has no pasaporte. She has only her mother and little sisters, the father died, no brothers to protect her. The coyotes would bring her door-to-door for more money than Mario has. Many have made the journey safely by bus. Mario answers every one of la doñita’s questions readily. But then he comes to a full stop. Here be his dragon: el patrón. Señor Roger is a hard man, Mario offers, watching to see if Antonia will agree before he goes on to admit that el patrón does not know Mario’s girlfriend will be arriving at his doorstep to live with him.
Antonia looks back at the young face, the high cheekbones, the carved features. Eighteen, he’s told her, no older than her first-years at the college. But although he has the slender body of a boy, Mario’s eyes are those of an old soul, the brown iris almost filling the socket, only a thin white rim showing, like the sun right before a full eclipse. If she continues to stare at them, will she go blind? And small as he is, Mario could kill her, cut her throat. The disquieting thought surprises her. More and more in her post-Sam life, things previously not dangerous now seem potentially so. No wonder all religions urge followers to care for the widow. Widow. What a name. Girlfriend, novia, esposa, viuda.
And when are you planning to tell el patrón?
Mario bows his head like a penitent boy. Maybe la doñita can help him with this?
Why would el patrón listen to me? I don’t know him. We’re just neighbors. Antonia can hear her mother’s scolding voice coming out of her mouth. She doesn’t want to berate him. He’s worried enough. But she can’t seem to help herself, some bully impulse to keep swinging even when your victim is down. And if I ask el patrón, and he says no, what are you going to do then, eh?
Mario doesn’t have to reply; what he is thinking is written all over his face. He now has seen the wing with its three bedrooms: her study, the master bedroom, and a guest room. Perhaps that’s what he was doing by taking the liberty? Checking out the accommodations for the girlfriend.
Anything else you need? she made the mistake of asking. In a similar situation, wouldn’t anyone ask as much? A Sam question. If there were any dinner parties coming up—not the obligation suppers friends and acquaintances have been inviting her to, but a freewheeling dinner party with sparkling conversation—she would bring up the question. Who do we ask for help when we’ve run out of options?
She hands the phone to Mario, then exits the room, not only out of respect for their privacy. She cannot bear to hear the happy voices of lovers reconnecting.
Doñita, Mario calls, toward the bedroom wing where she has disappeared. Mi novia quiere darle las gracias.
Thank her for what? Antonia hasn’t agreed to anything. But how can she refuse just talking to the girl? What is the minimum one owes another? Another dinner-party question.
Doñita, muchísimas gracias. The girl sounds timid, scared, her voice just above a whisper. And yet she has been gutsy enough to make the perilous journey north from the southern tip of Mexico—where Mario has told her he is from—the whole length of the country, over the border, through the desert, braving la migra, dubious smugglers, fellow travelers. All the dragons.
Gracias, gracias, the girl keeps saying. Her gratitude is hard to bear. De nada, Antonia replies, a more accurate rejoinder than you’re welcome: she has done nothing to be thanked for.
Excerpted from Afterlife by Julia Alvarez. Copyright © 2020 by Julia Alvarez. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Algonquin Books.