The following is story by Michael Jaime-Becerra from ZYZZYVA, a San Francisco journal of arts and letters. Every issue is a mix of established talents and new voices. Michael Jaime-Becerra's short-story collection, Every Night Is Ladies’ Night, was named one of the best of the year by The Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Hanging among SpongeBobs and Poké Balls and Princess Elsas, between a giant Snoopy and a mermaid, you find the piñata of Trump. You want a picture of it, to send in a text to your wife and confirm that you are actually spending money on this, but you cannot take one because the piñatas are selling fast and the vendor, a woman whose family has been in this business for three generations, considers herself an artist and does not want her design stolen. With a hook at the end of a broomstick, she reaches up into the hanging herd to bring yours down, and on the ground, up close, it stands as tall as a child. Papier-mâché postured to appear defiant—black tissue-paper suit, red tissue-paper necktie, peach tissue-paper face. Its lips are made of the same thin peach paper, strips rolled to the thickness of an earthworm and rendered into a mouth, the edges angled and creating the illusion of speech. When you pay, it wobbles against the counter.
This year your son will turn twelve, an age that makes time’s swiftness seem impossible. Aldo turning twelve means that you have been here, on this side and away from the rest of your family, for thirteen years. Twelve is also an age that seems too old for a birthday party. Last year you took him to Raging Waters and he spent most of the time on his own with the primos, the ones on your wife’s side, and made you feel as if you had wasted the sick day. This year you had expected him to want an iPhone, or maybe a skateboard, because that is what his older primos are doing this summer. (You had negotiated with Marilu that you two would give him the skateboard because it was affordable, even if it was not very safe. The agreement had been that it must come with a helmet and kneepads—extras that would make the gift more expensive, but not as expensive as a trip to urgent care. And it could not be decorated with skulls or demons or zombies. About that she was very specific.)
But Aldo wants a party as his gift, wants as much of the family together as possible, primos and tíos and tías crammed in the backyard on a Saturday afternoon, wants elotes—real ones—which means getting corn from El Super instead of Stater Brothers, Mexican corn because people here seem to think that corn should be candy. He also wants enchiladas de mole the way Marilu’s tía, the one who organized the quermés fundraisers, used to make them, and he wants her lemonade with mint and chia seeds because he likes the way the seeds slip around in his mouth before they crunch between his teeth. And he has asked, specifically, for this piñata.
The piñata idea stayed with you through the weekend. On Monday, at lunch, when you mentioned it to the other men on your crew, it got laughs. Gonzalez, whose arms are covered with tattoos of lucha libre masks, and who claims to be related to Cien Caras, declared: “El más rudo de los rudos.” But Leyva waved the idea away. “¡El más pendejo de los pendejos!” he said.
At that everyone nodded.
And on Tuesday, on the ride back from the barber, just you and Aldo at the red light on Ramona, Aldo checking in the side mirror that the hard part along his head had been cut straight, you turned down the radio and asked him why.
He said he saw one on the news.
And again you asked him why. Why do you want one?
“Because, you know, the wall.”
The wall. A honk came from the car behind you because the stupidity of a wall built from dirty looks and hypocritical pendejadas kept you from seeing that the signal had turned green. You know that no matter how much this country wants a wall made, they will forget their clapping and red baseball caps when there is a job they will not do themselves. For hundreds of years you have known this. For hundreds of years they have paid you less than what they would pay themselves to do the same work. They have pressed on your desperation, on your fear, on the memory of trudging through the desert night with evaporating weight on your back, on your scabbed elbows from fumbling between shaky, flashlight-lit tunnel walls, on the feeling of your head pressed against another man’s shoelaces in car-trunk darkness, hands clasped tight, dizzying breaths of sweat and exhaust, the rubber odor of spare-tire ghosts. The wall can be as high as they want, but the reality of work will still be here just as it always has been. And because half of a dollar is more than none of it, you will always go toward work in the way that water will flow around any stone in its path.
When you think of your parents in the pueblo, you first want to picture your father sweeping the courtyard in the evening, as he has done every evening, without fail, longer than you have been alive. And you want to see your mother putting away the box of See’s chocolates you sent for her fiftieth birthday, the box going in the bedroom cabinet, atop the collection of wedding photos preserved in a plastic dry-cleaning bag. But the truth is that your parents’voices now sound paper-thin over the phone—your mother asking you to send her a better knee brace after a recent fall, your father reporting that the alfalfa crop is less than last year, which is less than the year prior and the year before that—and now you cannot help but imagine them as a pair of lemons left on the counter too long. Shriveled and losing their shape. Fruit flies starting to appear.
You are the oldest of their four children, were supposed to have been the smart one, but your ambition has brought you here, where you operate a backhoe on a crew that goes from job to job digging up ancient water pipes so another crew can put in new ones, while your brothers are over there, the dentist and the nurse and psychology student, the trio of mocosos that you left behind.
Your family will not be at Aldo’s party. They have not been to any celebrations on this side. Not your wedding. Not the baptisms. Before traveling outside the country, they would have to supply the visa office with property deeds and bank statements, proof that the accounts are active and flush with funds, proof and two forms of identification to show that they are really who they claim to be, that their life is firmly rooted, because the government fears they will leave and never come back. And there are stories of people being robbed as they leave the visa office, documents lost, bank accounts emptied, deeds unfairly challenged in court.
“¿Cuando vienen?” you still ask your father each time you talk. Each time he sighs, and you know that even if he wants to see you, the trip is not worth the risk.
You lay the piñata flat across the pickup’s extra cab, secure it with the seatbelt to stop it from rolling. You sense that it should be smuggled into your house, that the neighbors should not see it. You are now thinking of the couple that lives across the street from you, the ones with equally long blond hair, a pair that looks so similar they seem more like ugly twin sisters than husband and wife. In the five years since you bought your home, they have never spoken to you, to Marilu, or your children. Every year, on the morning after the día de gracias, they put out their one decoration for Navidad, an inflatable Santa Claus dressed in camouflage, stakes hammered into their lawn to keep it fixed and stiff.
And you are thinking of the neighbor to your right, the widower, who told you he is the second owner of his home, bought in 1960, two years after it was built, the silvery yellow roses in his front yard a gift from the city when the construction was finished. The week that you moved in, he came over, shook your hand, and introduced himself, adding that his name was Italian. When you mentioned that you were from Mexico, he said: “That’s okay.”
That’s okay—flint in his voice, the resignation of someone asked to once again retrieve a baseball knocked into his backyard.
In March 2003, your second life began with the name and telephone number of the pueblo’s person in Nogales; began with thirty thousand pesos rubber-banded and wrapped in plastic; with the same “Cuidate” whisper in each goodbye embrace; with six of your mother’s chile-verde burritos, one for each of the northward buses you were to take. The burritos were gone before you were out of Jalisco, the next penitent days spent with a neatly pressed cube of tin foil, a box of Saladitas, and water from a bottle refilled in bathroom sinks along the way.
Nogales at dawn: the central bus station, three phone calls until he answers, instructions to walk south to the Burger King. There you waited, papitas and a Sprite, chewing slowly to keep the claim on the table facing the door to the parking lot, hope rising with every person that entered. You were eighteen and aware that your life could head in any direction. Instead of turning back, you smoothed the cube of aluminum foil against the tabletop until all its edges were crisp.
He arrived in a little silver hatchback, a huevito with limousine-tinted windows, two men already pressed into the backseat, blindfolds on, the money demanded, a gray bandana presented to you. You studied his eyes, remembering your father’s advice whenever large sums of money were involved, black irises contracting when the brick of pesos was removed from the Saladita box, the bandana somehow smelling of perfume, something with roses, as you tied it over your face.
The huevito began to move, its air conditioning working hard, and in the slim opening between the handkerchief and your nose, you glimpsed the last slashes of sunlight. You had the sense, from the frequent rightward and bumpy turns, that you were being driven in circles, until the road flattened, the tires hummed, and you knew you were on a highway.
In the garage, you show Aldo the piñata and he smiles faintly before nodding with the cool affectation you have seen his older primos adopt when they try to talk to girls. He presses the flap cut in the piñata’s back, centered between the shoulders, where the candy will go. Hormigas and Locochas, Duvalin, and extra flavors of Pulparindo, sandia and mango and picante, the packages in the trunk of Marilu’s car because you would eat it all if they let you, each bite a memory of your first life in the pueblo. Bags and bags of candy, plus two more of Hershey’s in the freezer, where they will remain until the last possible moment, a piñata trick of Marilu’s to keep the chocolate from melting in the summer heat.
The piñata stays in the garage the rest of the week. Each night your daughter makes sure that it faces the corner between the wall and the washing machine, time in a corner being how Marilu punishes her when she behaves badly, your daughter wagging her finger at the piñata the way she has seen the cartoon doctor scolding the monkeys for jumping on the bed. It’s too perfect, Marilu will say, and she will feel compelled to put a video of it on the internet. All three of them will delight when it attracts hearts from everyone they know.
Your children know you as someone who can operate a bulldozer (when your crew was in Baldwin Park, Marilu took them to watch). You want them to love you, but you do not want them to feel attached by guilt or obligation. For them, that should be one of the gifts of being born on this side, the freedom to go where they want and not feel compromised about coming back. And your children do not know much about your life in the pueblo. You have the answer ready for the day they ask why you left: I came to Los Angeles to visit and I decided to stay. As if making a life here was only a matter of getting to the park early to claim the tree with the most shade.
You will not tell them how long it took to fix your papers. They will not know about the first person you went to, three payments to someone named Francisco Rivera who advertised in the church bulletin and claimed to know your pueblo when he asked where you had come from, Francisco Rivera, who claimed that he still had family in Zapopan, who offered you a paper cup of water each time you made a payment, and who stopped answering the phone not long after the balance was paid. A series of piercing tones followed by a repeating, robotic message, that message again and again until the jefe overheard and told you it was saying the line had been disconnected.
That money had taken you two years to save, the rolled bills between payments in an empty lime yogurt container, the foil lid perfectly in place, the container kept at the back of the refrigerator, you thinking that if the apartment caught fire, the refrigerator would not burn and the contents inside would be safe.
The understanding that your money was gone, that you had drastically misinterpreted the glint in Francisco Rivera’s eyes, came as a physical blow, your breath stuttered and then momentarily lost. The empty storefront was so shocking under florescent parking-lot lights that you checked the other stores in the shopping plaza as if you somehow were not between the wateria and the place that served Chinese food instead of Louisiana Fried Chicken like the sign said; as if the desk with two stray pieces of green copy paper atop it was not where you had sat nine, ten days ago, thanking him for staying open late; as if, when you made the last payment, your file had not been in the topmost drawer nearest you, the file found and quickly plucked from the others, the total coming to $4,027.00, the twenty-seven dollars added on at the end, necessary, he had claimed, for overnight delivery to Citizen and Immigration Services.
From Kilometer 40, you and the two other men from the huevito followed the path as you were told, seeking out plastic bags knotted to mesquite branches, not the shreds cast about by the wind. The trip was supposed to take eight hours, but even in March the sun was too much, and it took you the entire day and much of the night to reach the house with the life-size red rooster painted on the white stucco wall. The candles burning in front of it beckoned you from an hour away.
The doña gave you coffee and hot water and a plate of quesadillas, and a rough blue blanket with fringed edges and one of four candlelit cots in the garage. Lying there, face chapped, back sore, legs swollen, half asleep and half bursting because you had made it, you realized that the fringe on your blanket had been tied and untied and tied back into knots by so many passing-the-time fingers before yours that the material there had a comforting, satin-like smoothness.
No light after the candles were out. And at night there was a darkness unlike any other, the garage so black that your opened eyes were like closed ones, the room seeming soundproof, the sound of the other men breathing making it claustrophobic. Time passed strangely in the space, the garage’s darkness beginning to seem so encompassing, so infinite, that you could sense the fate of the other two men:
V—, who spent most of his time weeping, because it had been three years and he had yet to meet his daughter, Eva Maria. V—, who would be deported within a month after being arrested for assault, charges pressed by Eva Maria’s mother, blue-uniformed police giving him to green-uniformed ones. Out of desperation to return to Eva Maria, he would agree to drive a tan, four-door Toyota Camry through the Agua Prieta border crossing, six blocks of marijuana packed behind each of its door panels—not knowing that the Camry is a ruse to distract the dogs from a second car, a black Honda Civic, timed to arrive within three minutes of the Camry, the Honda’s front and rear bumpers filled with heroin, the bumpers worth fifteen times the total value of the Camry and its contents and the amount V— paid for the promise of safe passage. V— arrested, deported again, and then disappeared from the streets of Agua Prieta. V— as if he had never existed, his name to then be unsaid by blood relatives, even by the American ones who returned to Tepache for the October fiestas with school pictures of Eva Maria and paintings for her abuelita, red and black splotched on cream-colored kindergarten paper, the Americans going by “Gomez” when asked their names by acquaintances in the plaza, the Americans afraid of “V—” being overheard by someone who would want to make them disappear, too.
And in the other man, Seañez, you sensed success. Seañez, who never seemed to sleep the entire time you were with him; some mix of vigilance and fear kept him awake, folding and refolding the doña’s laundry, loads of sheets and pillowcases and towels, enough of them that you suspected she had been contracted by a small motel and was making free money from your boredom.
Seañez, who was from Parral in Chihuahua, will want to be near the ocean, never having seen it in person. He will eventually make it to California, to Long Beach because of its name, which seems promising and limitless when he says it in Spanish. Seañez will find work in the kitchen of a Chinese dumpling house, his fingers used to repetitive, delicate assemblage after years of fashioning artesanias from scrap nuts and bolts, figurines on bicycles, in cars, aboard locomotives. He will figure out the recipe for the pork and shrimp dumpling filling, and will save enough to return to Parral to buy a lonchera with his brother, a business to be called “Dumplings Los Tíos” that will eventually sprout trucks in Camargo, and Cuauhtémoc, and Juárez, and that will be mentioned as a curiosity in Gourmet magazine seven years later.
After aweek in the doña’s garage, the silver huevito was back. Blindfolds again, yours this time smelling of sovaco, the musk in your nose after the gray-green bandana was removed in the parking lot of a bus depot. Out in the night, squinting. Eyes adjusting to streetlight brightness.
The party happens on awarm July evening, the sort where the afternoon stretches on and on, the lasting orange twilight making it seem earlier than it really is. You havecome to associate summer, California’s dry, hot version of it, with Aldo’s birth, with life and possibility for the generations that will follow after you (and yet you can also feel alone among all the tíos and sobrinos and primos that crowd your backyard. To invite one Pacheco is to invite sixteen, and to invite sixteen is really to invite almost a hundred, and while they all shake your hand and bring beer and joke about las Chivas, they are doing so because of Marilu, because of the children you share. They are not your father or your mother. They are not your brothers or the sobrinos that you see in emailed pictures once or twice a year).
And so Aldo is the best part of your day. Heisthe sort of boy que saluda a todos, a boy that shakes his tíos’ hands with a proper grip and accepts kisses from his tías without squirming away from them, that indulges the little babies in peek-a-boo as they sit on their mothers’ laps, that thanks everyone who gives him a gift, no matter if you can tell that an unwrapped Minions watch, adorned with a turquoise, slightly crumpled, clearly reused bow, will end up at the back of a dresser drawer, untouched for years.
At one point, after grilling twenty pounds of carne asada, after filling and refilling the coolers with beer, after setting up your cuñado’s karaoke box with the longest extension cord in the house, Marilu pulls you aside and says it’s time for the piñata.
The garage door open to the driveway, you can see Aldo with his primos. They are taking turns making their skateboards pop over lines of soda cans. You are first struck by Aldo’s ability on their borrowed boards, a talent you had not seen before, reassurance that you made the right decision in getting him one of his own, the skateboard and helmet and knee pads still with the receipt from the skateboard shop, everything in your pickup, under your work jacket on the passenger seat.
Aldo clears a line of five or six cans, and when he coasts back to the primos, they cheer, punch fists, clap him on the shoulders, and you feel it in your heart, that no matter what happens, whatever loneliness he might feel, it will not be yours.
And you have not told your children about your first job here: the phone number from a flyer on the side of a phone booth, a short ride with six other jovenes in a white panel van, six buckets of pink and white carnations, one at each of your feet. A windy March afternoon on a traffic island, day turning to night, the water cold, the flower stems cold, the bones in your hand cold from waving the dripping carnations at cars waiting to make the left turn. Your other hand in your pocket, both pockets soon so wet that whenever headlights passed, it appeared that you had pissed yourself. By the time the bucket was empty, all the bills had been counted and recounted and put into order, biggest to smallest, opposite of what your father had taught you, as if the thin stack of tens and fives and ones amounted to your worth.
The van driver was named Baxter, the name to be remembered because it will always sound like “bastard” to you, Baxter coming back around that night, reaching down from the driver’s window for the bills and the bucket, the bucket tossed behind him and clattering in the empty van. He refused to pay you because it was always his money in your hand, never yours. You were too new to know that, had too few English words to argue, even if you knew that night which specific bills you wanted to take home. And you will always remember what he said: “Call me tomorrow and I’ll pay you double.” And then a laugh and his hand thumping against the door as if the van was a horse about to giddyup.
When you take the piñata to the backyard, everyone starts laughing and booing and whistling. ¿Y cómo no? You are dragging the villain out into the light, Marilu gathering Aldo and all the primos around. You set up the ladder and climb atop your roof, positioning yourself at the edge, one foot secure in the rain gutter, your cuñado atop a second ladder on the other side of the yard, the piñata on a rope between the two of you. Marilu’s tía—the one who at the end of the night will collect the party’s empty soda cans, all the empty water and beer bottles, along with all the cardboard packaging they came in—she decides that the piñata’s hair is not right. She flutters her hand over her forehead, and spurred by further laughter, she goes in the house and returns with a clump of corn silk taken from the elote husks. The corn silk is finger-combed into a wig, is fixed to the piñata with a piece of gum. It next seems as if even nature wants to be part of the joke, Santa Anas gusting early and out of season, making the corn silk flap in the breeze to more laughter and more applause from everyone. Or nearly everyone: Aldo’s focus is on the piñata.
Marilu lines up the children the way they have been told at every birthday party they have ever been to, shortest to tallest, first the new mothers with infants who will graze piñatas with bare hands and giggle at the feel of fringed paper against their fingertips, and then the toddlers who will squeal when the piñata’s tugged so it wobbles slightly, some that will understand the challenge and swing the palo hard, some that will be frightened by the unexpected movement and will drop the half broomstick to clutch their father’s pants so that they can be carried. And there will be the older primos, the ones that get blindfolded and spun to make their swings dizzy, your sobrino Freddy at the end. Aye, ese Freddy, who calls himself the piñata killer, who told you today that so far this summer he has broken open a Chewbacca and a Minnie Mouse and a monster truck. Your cuñado pulls his end of the rope, the piñata rising off the ground, and you call “¡Listo!” And then Aldo skips the line of primos and takes the palo from Marilu, ignoring that it is not his turn, that no one has covered his eyes or spun him twelve times or started the “Dale, dale, dale” song that is supposed to be chanted at this point.
He lunges at the piñata with a fury you have never seen before. Swings with intent and purpose.
Strikes the piñata in the neck.
And disappointingly (predictably?), that is enough to knock the head from the body. Your hands are yanked hard and the head launches into the sky with enough force that it would be gone, over into the Italian neighbor’s yard, if it were not wired to the rope.
The piñata’s body falls to the ground and your cuñado hops down to pour the candy from its opened neck, but in the preceding seconds, you will spot a single Duvalín, its yellow label distinct in the grass, the candy plucked by Freddy before anyone else can get to it.
The next morning, after a breakfast of refried mole enchiladas, Marilu asks if you’ve gotten the corn silk from the roof. No, you say.
Pues agarrelo, she insists. She is spraying ants along the sink with Windex and is saying if you leave the corn silk up there, it will attract rats.
The rest of your morning of party cleanup, you try not to think about the shadows that dart along the fence top at night, the black droppings around the trash cans, the lemons this past winter, the ones still attached to the tree with their peels neatly nibbled away and the bitter inside fruit untouched. And then you are getting the ladder back out. And now you are on the roof again.
You find your balance on the slope and step carefully, aware that you should not be on the roof in rubber chanclas, July heat radiating around you, the sun making you squint even though it is not yet noon. You scan the gray asphalt shingles for the corn silk, toss away bits of bursted cardboard tubing and spent skyrocket tails from all your neighbors’ Cuatro de Julio cuetes. You happen upon a palm frond, the butt end once attached to a tree, light as foam, held together by its bare fibrousness, seeming odd since there are no palm trees in your yard or in your neighbors’ yards, either. Finally, where the roof meets the garage, in the slim angle of shade under the eave, you find the blond bunch of corn silk, the clump tucked against the house as if it is recoiling from your reach.
It is still fresh, and the thin, stringy feel of it in your hand recalls corn silk from your childhood (your mother once made you tea from it, te de elote, because it was supposed to help with bedwetting. “Te de elote” next mentioned by your father: an afternoon walking back from the ferretería, where you two had gone for a roll of chicken wire, and he pulled you into the alley behind Abarrotes Fermín because he had to piss, and you, old enough to know better, stood beside him, leaned the roll of chicken wire against the building, and pissed too, aiming at a Y-shaped crack in the plaster, legs wide like his so that the stream would not hit your boots.
“¡Te de elote!” he barked, his hand at your shoulder, and you laughed, this never to be mentioned to your mother or your brothers, you and your father gleeful about it all the way home).
Now there is laughter below you, on the lawn, Aldo’s laughter, joyous and free. You step to the roof crest, and there you see him on his skateboard. No helmet. No kneepads. Aldo atop the skateboard and furiously kicking- kicking-kicking along the sidewalk toward the house. Aldo launching himself and tumbling onto the grass, the board rolling under your truck in the driveway and into the rosemary hedge. Aldo laughing when he pops up, unhurt.
Stunt Man. You recognize the game he once played with his bicycle, “stunt” one of the many words of English he will continue to teach you, and now the skateboard, a green one decorated with an angry, bloodshot eyeball, has made this childish payasada easier for him. You should be worried that he will hurt himself, you should be upset that the helmet and kneepads are in the house, you should tell him to stop—but his laughter undoes any of these impulses, Aldo flying onto the grass and laughing as the Stunt Man.
One more time.
One more time.
One more time….
You watch him, unseen, for many minutes. His helmet (glossy blue plastic, more expensive than the skateboard, Marilu satisfied) is probably still in his room, still atop the detached piñata head, which he carried around all night as a trophy. (The tía who coordinates the fish fry during Lent said Aldo had the dramatic majesty of an archangel. And a primo, one who had probably snuck his first beers, compared Aldo to Yasiel Puig. And Aldo’s nino, the cuñado who presented you to the construction company jefe, corrected him, said that Aldo swung with his left, mentioned Corey Seager instead, and this made all the tíos, two generations of them, raise their Modelos in agreement).
You are used to being in the sun, but exposed on the roof, you can feel your face starting to pink up, your forearms too. You pick at the strands of corn silk, separating them, and are revisited by the ultimate vulnerability of being a parent, the vulnerability that set upon you while holding him in your arms for the first time, the nurse in the delivery room asking his name, “Aldo” coming with tears because he is named after your father and that was the first time you let yourself say it aloud.
When Aldo notices you, it is with a curious look. To explain yourself on the roof, you show him the corn silk, which he seems to interpret as a wave. He waves back with a quiet, embarrassed smile that hurts. You have caught him being a child when he wants you to see a man. In the smile, you understand that to ask for a party is to ask to be surrounded. To feel secure. And you see that you cannot be enough. That Marilu’s family cannot be enough. And you are taken by a worry that will grow and grow in the months to come, the feeling that the future is even more uncertain for Aldo, for both your children, than it was for you.
You want to hold Aldo close, but you are here, the corn silk sticking to your fingers and the rooftop scalding your feet, and he is there, his posture stiffening, Stunt Man over. He begins riding the skateboard with more care, kicking and balancing with purpose. He glides past the Italian neighbor’s house, and then the second house, and then the third, and you step toward the edge of the roof, as far as you can go without tumbling into the rosemary hedge, to watch until he is at the corner. There the street bends east toward the park, and there is where he slips from your sight.
From ZYZZYVA No. 110 Fall 2017. Used with permission of ZYZZYVA. Copyright © 2017 by Michael Jaime-Becerra.