I push my fingers into the dark green fabric, smooth the starched jacket out over the back of the kitchen chair. Through the front windows the wind kicks red sand up into the paloverde bushes. My fingers trace the stitched letters on the front of the jacket: John McCarty U.S. Border Patrol. Outside the sunlight is a pale milky version of its angry summer self, but it grows hotter every day. John’s footsteps pound in the hall. I press my nails deeper into the gold letters of his name. “Layna,” he booms in his preacher voice, “what are you doing, honey?” My shoulders stiffen before his hands even reach me. John lets out a mouthful of air. “Give me my jacket, Layna.” I don’t lift my hands. “What are you doing?” he asks again. “Laying hands on it? Trying to curse me?” “Laying on hands is for healing,” I say, lifting my fingers and sticking them into my apron pocket. He rests his right hand heavy on the base of my neck and grabs the jacket. He smells of mint toothpaste, Old Spice, and hair gel. I breathe deep, smell for something more. I found a bottle in his truck the other day, an almost empty liter of mezcal with a pale worm bobbing at the bottom. In the glove box, beside the mezcal, lay a silver bracelet and pink hair clip. I didn’t ask him about them. He would have told me some illegal alien left them, told me he forgot to throw them away. John lifts his hand, guiding his arms into the stiff sleeves of his jacket. “Layna honey,” he says, “you worry yourself too much.” The linoleum under my bare feet is gritty with sand. It’s time to mop again, fourth time in one week. That devil sand won’t stay outside. At night it opens the door, slips in, and settles itself into the seams of my furniture, the eyes of my child. From the cabinet I pull out a bag of yesterday’s biscuits, take two, and place them inside the mouth of the microwave. Behind me, John fixes his belt. I wrap the warmed biscuits in tinfoil, set them beside John’s thermos, and busy myself with the few dishes left from last night’s dinner. John grabs the thermos.
“Thanks,” he says and walks toward the front door, leaving the biscuits sitting on the counter. He turns his pickup around in the dirt yard and maneuvers out between the prickly amargosa, driving past the rusting Oldsmobile parked under the cottonwood tree. He brought it out here a few months ago and fixed it up pretty good. Taught me how to drive stick shift in the evenings after work, bouncing the old boat over the sand hills until the sun got too low and the coyotes came out. I set the last dish in the rack and open the tinfoil package of biscuits. They are dry and I’m not hungry. If only we had a dog to give scraps to. One of our dogs got killed by javelinas three months back and John shot the other one to save him from the same fate. He said a gun is better protection than a dog any day. He took me out into the dry creek bed and taught me to shoot the .22 he keeps in the hall closet. For a moment things felt like they did when we first got together, before His Beautiful Blood Holiness Church told us they didn’t want John to be their preacher anymore, before we moved halfway across the United States. He held his hand over mine and gripped the gun just like he’d traced my fingers along the pages of Job and Exodus back in Tennessee. But when I tried to kiss him he ducked his head away. On the front stoop, transplanted prickly pear clippings and nightblooming cereus sit in cut-open milk jugs. I grab my watering can from behind the rocking chair and fill it at the side of the house. The first few months out here my transplanted pansies and mums shriveled to a crisp. I took to looking at a desert plant book from a shop in Arivaca. I grew what I could. The perimeter of the yard is outlined in amargosa, creosote, and ocotillo. Fat red buds nest among the crucifixion thorns of the amargosa at the end of the driveway. Just past the bush, a chaos of footprints spill across the shifting dust of the road. The footprints run all together, one over another like a cattle trail. Illegals. We live out here for just this reason. John’s boss owns the house but never comes out.
He used it for a hunting cabin of sorts but then he started finding evidence of the aliens staying here. Aliens were sleeping in it, coming across the border in droves and holing up before making the last trek to Arivaca. He lets us stay for practically no rent, just to keep the illegals off his land. Only they don’t stay off. At night their shadow footsteps surround the house. Most of the time they’re out in fields beyond the mesquites but sometimes they come right up in the yard. They’ve got babies with them and old folks sometimes. John sleeps with his 9 mm on the bedside table. My eyes search the clumps of buckbrush for movement. They mostly go by at night, but it worries me some. One time, an illegal came up out of the bushes once and grabbed my leg as I unloaded groceries from the truck. He was old, his skin like the leather of a baseball glove, his small eyes sunken into his skull. He spoke words like the devil whispering in the trees, and saliva dripped from the corner of his mouth. John said he probably hadn’t had water in two or three days, said the rest of his group probably left him. John took him on into Arivaca to the border patrol office. The sun sears the skin along the back of my neck. I pick up my watering can and head back inside to check on my baby. Nathan’s six years old, but he’s special. Advanced Muscular Dystrophy is the medical term, but John told me when he was born that it meant we were blessed, for the meek shall inherit the earth. Nathan lies in his crib and stares at the ceiling where a water leak made a tree pattern. I flip the switch, toggle it up and down a few times, but the light won’t come on. “Hey buddy,” I call to him, “hang on a second.” 40_Stories_Final.indd 97 6/18/12 5:38 PM 98 Mesha Maren In the kitchen the clock on the coffeemaker does not glow and the overhead light will not turn on. John must have forgot to pay the bill. We don’t get mail out here so he pays the bills when he goes through town. I cross the kitchen and pick up the phone, listen to the steady rhythm of the dial tone for a minute before deciding not to call. John hates for me to phone him at work, says it’s embarrassing, says everybody else’s wife seems to get along fine without calling in grocery lists every day. Our stove runs off propane and we’ve got a bunch of candles and one of those old-timey lamps in the closet somewhere. John can pay up tomorrow. Nathan lies on his side, face pushed up against the wooden rails of his crib. I lift him up, kiss his cheek, and carry him to the changing table. His body is so small and immobile, like the delicate shells the cicadas leave behind.
“The amargosa’s gonna bloom real soon,” I whisper, “today maybe.” He blinks. My finger traces his lips. Nathan rarely smiles. We spend the morning at the kitchen table. Nathan sits strapped into his high chair with a plastic bib around his neck while I guide tiny spoons of applesauce into his mouth. With the electricity out and all, I plan to go for an easy dinner. Cornbread and beans and wieners, maybe. I wonder if our money’s run low. John never talks about money but he works long hours and we hardly spend anything living out here. I wipe Nathan’s face, pull a small baseball cap down onto his silky head, and carry him out front to the amargosa bush. The blood petals are packed in tiny fists among the thorns. Nathan coos. Among the roots of the bush two big ants struggle to carry the body of a third. We sit and watch the funeral procession play out across the miniature sand dunes. The sun is too strong, so I carry Nathan inside. Lay him down in his crib and lay myself on the couch. I should sweep and mop the floor, should go look for that oil lamp. But I don’t like the sound of all the quiet, the way the wind rakes the branches across the tin roof and taps at the windows, so I plug my ears, close my eyes. The sun has passed the tops of the cottonwoods and mesquites. With 40_Stories_Final.indd 98 6/18/12 5:38 PM Confluence 99 the electricity out there’s no way to tell time, but it seems like it must be past five. John will be home in an hour. I visualize the ingredients for dinner mixing and preparing themselves. Nathan sits in his chair with his teddy bears and watches me cook. By the time the sun sets out the western windows, John is still not home. By May the sun never sets before seven-thirty. John’s usually home by six. I light candles in the windows and call the office in Arivaca, but Agent Malone says John left work early, took off sometime around four. I hang up the phone and press my forehead against the wall.
My mind goes to the mezcal, the silver bracelet and pretty
hair clip in John’s truck, the dark shadow images of the woman who
might have worn them. My belly moves like it did during my pregnancy
with Nathan. I push the vague thread of thoughts away and
tell myself he left early to go get groceries and pay the overdue bill,
then the truck broke down and he’s out there working on it, on his
way home soon.
After Nathan goes to sleep, I get the .22 out of the hall closet and
lay on the couch, the gun beside me and my eyes trained on the front
door. The sand slips inside and coyotes bark from the bluff out back.
Our house is a small vessel in a shuddering sea of darkness and wind
and voices I can’t quite make out.
Nathan’s whimpers wake me. My muscles ache and my fingers struggle
to unclench their grip on the .22. I stumble into the kitchen,
wiping my eyes, and lift the phone to my ear. No dial tone. Only
empty air. My gut twists. Nathan burbles from the other room but
I can’t go to him. Panic questions fill my mind and Nathan doesn’t
have any answers. I look out the window toward the Oldsmobile.
The day is hot already. The sky is blinding blue and the metal car
door burning to the touch. I duck into the seat, push the key into
the ignition, and turn it. The car coughs and whines, trying faintly
to turn over. I pull the key out and take a deep breath, fit it back
into the ignition and turn again. This time there is no noise at all.
A wave of fear leaps up in me, swells my tongue, and wets my eyes.
My mind skips to John and I don’t even know what lies to tell myself
about him now. I lean back in the seat, push the sweaty hair off my
forehead, close my eyes and picture the cool green of the creek at my Grandpapa’s house back in Tennessee, the creek that ran down to
the well-house where you could lift the cedar bucket, bring the cold
metal ladle to your lips and drink long swallows with your toes spread
out across the slippery rocks of the well house floor. White hot light
sears my skin through the glass. I get out of the car, leave the door
hanging open and the key in the ignition.
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