by Rudy Ruiz
“I don’t see why you can’t take him today,” she protested.
“It’s cold outside. He might get sick,” my father replied, pulling on his boots in the dark. “Carlitos died of the flu when he was nine.”
“It was cold last week and you took him. Besides, that’s not why Carlitos died.”
“Today’s not a good day.”
“Are you seeing someone?” She pressed.
“What are you talking about?”
I listened quietly outside their bedroom, my boots in my hands, bare feet shivering on the cold cement floor. I thought of my cousin Carlitos. We had learned to swim together. We had slept in the same bed at our grandmother’s house, giggling under the sheets. Then, I’d been told I’d never see him again.
“Another woman? Are you going to start with that again?” His voice turned dark and tense.
“Why won’t you take him then?”
I imagined him glowering at her in the darkness, his thick eyebrows knitting together, a disapproving awning over menacing windows. “Fine. But if something goes wrong, you’re to blame.”
“What do you mean?” Sheets rustled as she sat up, clutching her pregnant belly.
“Never mind.” The rocking chair creaked as he rose, spurring me towards the kitchen.
“Buenos días, Ramón,” his voice softened as he discerned my silhouette in the blue glow of dawn. “Ponte tus botas. Grab a blanket. Vámonos.”
In his pick up, I wrapped the sarape around my shoulders, its bright colors magically radiating heat as we cruised the abandoned streets. The only signs of life percolated at Señor Donut near the bridge. Side by side, a portly woman served glazed donuts and pan dulce, coffee and café, Gringos and Mexicanos.
“Everybody loves something sweet now and then,” my dad patted my head, ordering a dozen donuts.
Behind the counter – stuffed into a pink polyester dress, an expansive white apron stretched across her torso – the woman pillaged the display case with long metal tongs, pouring steaming coffee and hot chocolate simultaneously, a cross between a cursed sea monster with dexterous tentacles and a landlubber blessed with unfettered access to baked goods.
“¿Que cuentas, Perla?” My dad slid a twenty across the counter.
“Working, Señor Lopez. Siempre working.”
The row of men hunched over the counter nodded their heads in agreement, their Brownsville Heralds rustling like the wings of restless crows.
“You still have room at the boarding house?” My dad asked as she handed him his change.
“Sí,” she answered slowly, her eyes falling on me. Why was she looking at me? I didn’t need a room at a boarding house. I already had a room.
“Bueno. I’ll see you there.”
Was this the “otra mujer” my mother worried about?
Hesitantly, she held a steaming pot of swirling brown liquid in each hand. “¿Y el niño?”
Ignoring her question, he touched the tip of his hat and retreated into the parking lot.
As we shed the warmth of Señor Donut, the cold air stung my cheeks. Glancing back, I glimpsed Perla making the sign of the cross.
* * *
The rising sun illuminated the river as we crossed into Mexico. The streets were eerily empty as we traversed Matamoros, the inhabitants of its colorful houses – a blur of hibiscus, aqua, lime, mango – slumbering still.
Soon we were on the open road, hurtling towards the ranch as the wind buffeted the truck. When the weather was good, my dad rolled down the windows and sang Mexican songs, ushering an instinctive smile onto my face. But today he remained silent, crouched over the steering wheel in his tan overcoat, his eyes burrowing holes through the windshield, his Stetson casting a shadow over his face.
Instead of his usual barrage of stories and advice, he pensively stroked his moustache. “You haven’t touched the donuts. When we get to the ranch they’ll be gone instantly.”
“I’m not hungry,” I confessed, staring at the glossy orange box filled with pristine wheels of air-puffed flour and sugar. The donuts reminded me of the tires my dad baked in his retread shop. Except these weren’t dirty and stinky. They were fragrant and perfect. Instead of dirtying your hands, they melted in your mouth. “Carlitos liked donuts.”
My dad stared at the road, his eyes glazing over.
When we spotted the row of elms, we knew we had reached our destination. Five trees lined the road from the highway to the humble ranch house. In their teens, my dad and his brothers had planted the trees amidst bouts of nausea and vomiting as a punishment for stumbling home drunk from the 4th of July fireworks.
The pickup rattled along the bumpy road, kicking up a cloud of dust. When we reached the rgate bearing the Dos de Copas emblem, the number two and a cup, I pushed the creaky behemoth open. This was my weekly job, and I was proud to do it well. Rolling beneath the sprawling branches, we reached a clearing. There, stood an obstinate cinderblock house. Two crumbling but defiant rooms. An explosion of children streaming towards the truck, laughing giddily at the prospect of donuts. Their faces were streaked with mud and soot, their hair matted and disheveled, their feet caked in dirt, but their smiles radiant. As my dad handed Fernandez the box, I was glad I hadn’t eaten any.
While the children feasted, my dad spoke to Fernandez beneath the nearest elm. “¿Y el bebé, Primo?”
He shook his head, frowning. “No better, Primo. The clinic won’t help us. Hijos de puta. They sent us home. For her to die.”
“I talked to a doctor on The Other Side. She says she’ll help, but we need to bring the baby across,” my dad explained. “Did you look into the permiso?”
“Yes, but they won’t give it to us. Chinga su madre. They think I want to go work over there. Pendejos.”
My dad shook his head and spat on the ground. “Chingados. Pues a la mala then. Is your wife ready?”
“Sí.” Fernandez summoned up a guttural wad of phlegm from his emaciated torso and spat too. I wasn’t sure if it was a macho competition or a country tradition, but the men always did this. They loaded their phrases with curses, spitting from their foul mouths as if their salivary glands were determined to cleanse them.
Their troubled eyes settled on the house. The children had scurried back inside because the breeze was too frigid for their scantily clad bodies, even with the extra sugar to burn.
I was accustomed to shadowing my dad. Usually, his conversations revolved around selling tires and amassing enough money for the house payments. At the ranch, his ramblings entailed mending fences, breeding cattle, and planting sorghum to feed the livestock subsisting on the anemic pastures. This was different.
I followed as they sauntered towards the rustic wooden door. My grandparents had once lived in that insignificant home. Before that, on the same foundation, my great-grandfather had burned down a wooden house by falling asleep with a hand-rolled cigarillo in one hand and a bottle of tequila spilt all over the sheets. The family had survived, but all their possessions had been destroyed. Hence, the cinderblocks.
Inside, the children huddled around a rough-hewn table, the empty donut box dismantled at its center. We paused as Fernandez ducked behind a sheet separating the rooms.
Murmuring. Tattered, musty cotton. Fernandez’s weathered hand waving us through. Fernandez’s wife – her skin leathery and gaunt, her hair frazzled – cradled a frail infant in her arms.
They spoke in hushed tones as my dad leaned over the baby. The woman whimpered softly. She did not want her baby to die.
“Bueno,” my dad concluded somberly. “We will wait outside.”
Moments later, Fernandez escorted his wife to the truck. Requiring his support to remain upright, she shuffled barefoot across clearing, the mass of children trailing behind her.
“No, Mamá,” a girl cried. “Don’t go.”
My father opened the passenger door and gestured for me to slide into the middle. As Fernandez helped his wife up, she shivered, the baby’s eyes remaining tightly shut. I marveled at its smooth skin. It looked as perfect as a doll. How could it face imminent death?
Fernandez closed the door, gazing through the window like a man trapped behind bars. The children swirled about him like a churning dust devil.
Setting his jaw, my dad nodded at him, something unsaid transmitted between their eyes.
As we rumbled into town, the cabin was awkwardly silent, the air tensed with anticipation. I had seen the silent woman many times. She and her husband tended to the ranch in exchange for living quarters. When I had asked my dad why he called Fernandez “primo,” he told me they shared the same ancestors that originally settled those lands. I knew we were poor, but we seemed far more fortunate than our distant cousins south of the border.
In town, we stopped at a trucking compound. Every Sunday after visiting the ranch, we swung by here to load tires. Two men them into the back, the vehicle shaking as their weight dropped into the bed. As the truck rocked, the baby’s eyes fluttered open and she began to cry, the woman fruitlessly shushing her. The men asked no questions and my father offered no explanations. When the loading was finished, we creaked towards the bridge, the baby protesting loudly. A few blocks from the tollbooth, my dad veered off course, parking in an abandoned lot. There, he and the woman got down. Grunting, he wrestled with the tractor-trailer casings, creating a nook between four towers. He motioned for the woman to crawl into the hiding space, but she struggled to board the truck with the baby in her arms.
As she balked, my father instructed, “Give the baby to Ramón.”
The moment she placed her in my arms, the boisterous bundle fell strangely silent, staring quizzically at me through outsized black eyes, her body weightless even to me.
My father helped the woman scale the tailgate, where she backed into the crevice. When she reached out, I gently transferred the baby into her arms. As they retreated into their rubber refuge, we pushed the tires together and shut the tailgate.
Circling the truck, my dad examined our work. “Can you see anything, Ramón?”
I hopped up and down, peeking past the tires, but all I detected were smooth casings eager for a new lease on life.
My dad dusted his hands off, which was pointless because the soot wouldn’t come off until we washed them with Lava soap back at the house. This was the life of a tire man, he often declared. Dirty but honest. Humble yet proud.
We clattered towards the bridge, the tollbooth sliding into view as a light rain drizzled across the windshield. The wipers squeaked, sweeping back and forth across the glass. Beggars lined the street, shambling in grimy rags, shaking rusted cups jingling with loose change. Cars snaked towards the crossing.
As we joined the line, a sudden cry pierced the cabin. I glanced nervously at my dad as the line inched along. Surely the baby would stop. Wouldn’t it? On the other hand, what did the innocent know about the immigration officials and German Shepherds salivating beyond the crest of the bridge? What did the baby comprehend about being discreet while breaking the law? My heart pounded as I wondered what might happen if my father was caught smuggling humans beneath his tires. And what of the baby and its mother?
“What’s wrong with the baby?” I asked.
“Not its lungs, apparently.”
“It’s her heart. In Brownsville the doctors can fix these problems sometimes.”
“Do you think she’ll stop crying?”
“Hopefully her mother can make her stop. Maybe she’ll feed her.”
But the crying grew increasingly shrill as we neared the tollbooth. My father winced. “We can’t do this with the baby crying.”
“Maybe it’s wet and cold,” I wondered, feeling guilty as I basked in the warm cocoon of the sarape.
My dad glanced back at the tires. The rain came down harder. The baby screamed. We rolled another car length forward. Only two cars remained between us and the point of no return. He looked at me again, then down at the blanket that enveloped me.
My eyes followed his gaze down to the excess fabric spilling onto the floor.
“What if…” I mustered. “I hold the baby beneath the blanket?”
Wipers squeaked. Tires rolled. Baby screamed.
At the last moment, my dad jerked the steering wheel to the right and made a U-turn. Backtracking by the levee, he parked on a side street and left the truck running as we got down and split the tires.
The woman crawled forth, the baby clasped to her chest, sneezing and coughing, wriggling as if she yearned to free herself and escape this unwelcoming world.
“Maybe she doesn’t like the fumes,” I coughed in a cloud of putrid exhaust from the rusty muffler.
“The nurse told me not to let her get upset. It strains her heart.” The mother began to weep.
My dad extended his arms. “Give us the baby.”
She did as he said, but the baby continued to struggle and cry. He looked at me and I held out my hands. As he deposited the feather-like bundle into my arms, she opened her eyes again and fell silent, her limbs relaxing.
The woman smiled feebly, wiping away her tears. “He has a gentle soul.”
“We will hide her up front. Don’t move or make a sound.”
She nodded, disappearing behind the tires.
My dad opened the door for me and the baby, carefully spreading the sarape over us.
“Scoot down,” he said. “Suck in your stomach.”
I followed his instructions.
“Hmm,” he studied me. “Put your feet on the edge of the seat so the baby can lie between your knees and chest.”
I contorted into the position.
“Pretend you’re sick.”
I closed my eyes and let my head rest on my shoulder.
“Act like you’re trying to get permission to stay home from school.”
“That’s more like it.”
I peeked at the baby beneath the blanket only to find it sound asleep.
When we returned to the bridge, the queue had doubled in length. Shaking his head, my dad muttered obscenities in Spanish as he followed the levee back to the front of the line.
My parents always said it was not proper to skip the line. They said it was unfair and that everybody should wait their turn. But clearly this situation was urgent. My dad gestured for a chance to cut. Minutes later we ascended the bridge’s slope. At the summit, I gazed through the rain-streaked window at the river winding towards the horizon.
“Too bad we couldn’t bring them across the river near the ranch,” I whispered.
And this wasn’t?
What if the baby woke up? What if she got hungry? What if she suffocated beneath the blanket? Delicately, I raised the sarape and softly blew air over the baby’s face. She looked pale and weak now, even in the pink light filtering through the sarape’s fibers. Maybe the crying had drained her. What if she died in my arms?
The brakes squealed as we crawled towards the inspector. Sometimes, my dad knew the agent. He’d been crossing his whole life, ferrying tires for years. He’d attended school with some of them. Other times, there might be an inspector transferred from up north. Occasionally, those agents routed him to the secondary inspection area, where more officers and dogs searched vehicles for drugs and undocumented passengers. If that happened, we’d be finished. They’d order us out of the truck and the baby would be revealed. They’d probe the tires and discover its mother cowering in fear.
My dad strained to discern the agents on duty, but the rain made it impossible. As we advanced blindly, he said, “Ramón, remember. The law is made for man, not the other way around.”
As we reached the checkpoint and my dad rolled down his window, I moaned and let my head slump over my left shoulder. Listening intently, I pulled the blanket around my chin, my arms wrapped tightly around the baby beneath the colorful fabric.
“Lopez!” I nearly jumped out of my seat.
“Treviño!” My dad replied as they shook hands vigorously.
“¿What’s new?” The agent asked.
“Lo mismo, bringing tires for recapping. But this time my boy got sick. I’ve got to get him home.”
The man peeked in. At that instant the baby rustled. Instinctively, I coughed and feigned a sneeze. Then I moaned for extra effect. Just don’t cry, baby. Don’t cry.
“It’s this weather. Muy frio. You should’ve left him home with his mother.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Bueno,” his eyes hovered over the tires. “See you next week.”
“Andale, Treviño. Say hi to your familia for me.”
The agent patted the truck bed and flashed the green light.
As we rolled down the slick ramp, we sat in silence, our hearts slowing in relief.
* * *
Perla stood on the porch of her boarding house, a dilapidated wooden structure, once painted pink, now faded and peeling. A grill rusted in the front yard, a mangy dog lay chained to a scraggly tree. As we parked in the driveway, she descended the rickety steps. I couldn’t help but wonder if she had donuts stashed in her apron pockets.
After my dad parted the tires, I handed the sleeping baby back to her mother.
“Que Dios te bendiga siempre,” she whispered to me.
“You’re a hero,” Perla remarked, shaking her head in disbelief. “A free donut for you next time you come to the shop. Cherry-filled.”
I beamed. “I’m just glad we made it.”
“Wait here, son,” my dad patted me on the head.
I watched them walk through the light drizzle, up the stairs and into the house.
On the way home, I asked him, “What will happen to the baby?”
“The doctor is going to come this afternoon to examine the baby. Maybe they’ll take her to the hospital.”
“You think she’ll be okay?”
“I don’t know, son. Remember, todo lo que nace muere. Everything that is born dies. It is not for us to decide when, where or why.”
“But she’s just a baby.” I felt a surge of anguish rising in my chest.
“Tonight, include her in your prayers.”
“I don’t even know her name.”
“Okay,” I said, wiping away the droplet of moisture that had condensed like morning dew at the corner of my left eye.
As we approached our house in Southmost, a collapsing heap of wood on a narrow lot behind a sagging chainlink fence, my dad cautioned me. “Not a word to your mother. She’ll never let you go with me to the ranch again.”
* * *
Their arguing had been worse than usual, rousing me several nights in a row. Then one morning I heard her talking on the phone with my grandmother. Between sobs, she cried, “They say he has another family.”
Another family? Impossible. He worked all day and came straight home from the tire shop every night. When would he have time for a whole other family?
“They say he keeps them in a boarding house. But he denies it. Can you imagine? We have a baby on the way. And we can barely pay our bills. What am I to do, mamá?”
She had it wrong. Why wouldn’t Dad explain? I couldn’t bear to hear her crying and badmouthing him to Abuelita Carmela. He was just trying to help a family in need, greater need than us.
When he came home that night, I intercepted him outside.
“Dad, why don’t you tell Mom about the woman and the baby?”
“It’s none of her business.”
“But she has the wrong idea.”
“Son, you let me take care of things. Go play.”
As he entered the house, the yelling began. I sat on the front steps, staring at the weeds choking out the grass, listening to the buzzing of the cicadas in the trees. As I sulked, neighbors popped their heads out of windows to eavesdrop on the racket.
The next day, when I walked home from school, I found her standing by the door with a collection of tattered suitcases at her feet. Her belly loomed over them menacingly as she dabbed her eyes with tissue.
“I’m going to my mother’s house. You can come if you like.”
“No. To stay.”
“When you’re old enough, you’ll understand these things.”
I stared at the faded blue Samsonites, my heart sinking. I didn’t want her to leave. I wanted her to understand that my dad wasn’t as bad as she thought. But he had forbidden me to say anything. What was I to do? I thought of the baby, Emilia, wondered how she was doing, thought of crossing the bridge with the stowaways. Didn’t you have to break the rules sometimes simply to do what you knew in your heart was right? What would be worse, betraying my father’s trust, or allowing my parents’ marriage to fall apart when I could do something to help save it?
“Is someone coming to pick you up?” I asked.
“A taxi is on its way.”
I took her hand, gazing up at her. “Mom, there’s something you should know.”
“What is it?”
“I know the woman and the baby at the boarding house.”
“What?” She clutched at her heaving abdomen.
“Dad is just helping them. The baby is sick. The woman’s husband and kids are on The Other Side at the ranch.”
“I…but…people said…” She seemed to lose her balance, but I steadied her until she placed her hand on the doorframe.
Outside, the sound of an engine approaching. Through the window, a yellow car pulling up to the curb, brakes squeaking. On the wall in our meager front room, a clock ticking loudly.
She grunted as fluid splashed at her feet. A frightened expression gripped her eyes. “Help me to the taxi,” she gasped, reaching for the doorknob.
“What’s happening? Are you still going to Abuelita’s house? Didn’t you hear me?”
“I heard you. The baby is coming. I’m going to the hospital.”
I glanced back at the suitcases as I chased after her. “Do you want to bring something?”
“Just lock the door. Hurry,” she huffed, waddling to the cab.
* * *
It was a long night at the hospital. The waiting room overflowed with family chattering over the din of crackling intercom announcements. Uniformed nurses drifted in and out like restless moths, white shoes squeaking across shiny linoleum. At first it was a festive gathering, an enthusiastic welcome party for the newest addition to the Lopez clan. But as the hours dragged on, worry lines etched across their tired faces, their dark features drooping like shadows at sunset.
My dad had been summoned behind the ominous swinging doors that held visitors at bay. I heard murmurs about a breech birth. What was that? Feet first. Pain. Blood loss. Then there were the screams. Shrill. Piercing. Savage. Everybody could hear them emanating from the long gleaming hallway. How many sets of those heavy doors stood between us and whatever table my mother’s life balanced upon? How could her tormented shrieks still reach us all the way out here in the waiting area?
My uncles darted outside, anxiously igniting cigarettes, blowing clouds of smoke at the full moon. My Abuelita Carmela wrung her hands around her rosary, pleading for her daughter as my paternal grandmother, Fina, comforted her. My stomach growling despite the unfolding drama, I gravitated towards the vending machines, marveling at how the press of a button could mechanically transport shiny packages and tasty morsels into eager hands. Over the hum of the soda machine, I discerned a familiar voice, turning to catch a glimpse of a pink puffball floating down the corridor.
“Miss Perla,” I hustled after her.
She stopped. “Ramón. What are you doing here?”
“My mom’s having the baby.”
“Good God,” she made the sign of the cross just as she had that morning at Señor Donut. “May everything go well for them.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m checking on Emilia.”
“Yes. She had her surgery earlier today. Hasn’t your father told you?”
“No. I’ve barely seen him. It’s been a crazy day.”
“Yes, I can imagine. Well, come with me.”
I followed her through a maze of corridors, arriving at a panoramic window. Beyond the glass, rows of babies rested in plastic cradles, swaddled in pink- and blue-striped blankets. Cards hung from the baskets with names written in black marker. Rodriguez. Gomez. Cross.
“Are those plastic cribs?” I peered curiously at the tiny, helpless beings.
“Those are incubators. They keep the babies warm.”
My eyes opened in awe. “I’d like one of those for myself. Our house gets cold in the winter.”
Perla chuckled. “Yes. I wouldn’t mind starting over in an incubator. I’d do a lot of things differently, that’s for sure.”
I gazed up at Perla. Her life didn’t seem half bad. She owned a boarding house and worked at a donut shop. She’d never go homeless or hungry. What could she regret?
She looked at me placidly, as if she could read my thoughts. “Look over there in the corner, that’s where the really sick babies are. They call it the NICU.”
At the far end of the room sat a lonely incubator labeled “Fernandez.” A fleet of machines surrounded it, tubes and wires swarming Emilia.
“Will she be okay?”
“There was a hole in her heart. They closed it. All we can do is pray.”
As we stared at the lone crib in the NICU, a nurse backed into the room through a set of white doors. She wheeled an incubator into the corner next to Emilia.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
I strained to read the card hanging from the fresh arrival’s incubator. It remained blank as the nurse connected hoses and tubes. We watched the nurse methodically conduct her work. When she finished, she extracted a black marker from her pocket and leaned over the name card. As she stepped out of the way, I gawked at the card hanging from the incubator.
“Lopez,” I whispered.
Perla gasped, covering her mouth in dismay.
“It’s your brother.” My dad put his arm around me. “René.”
He looked like he’d aged ten years since that morning.
* * *
After the family left, my dad and I stayed as late as we could. Around 1 a.m. we drove home. It was the only night we had ever spent alone in the house. The place seemed strangely alien without my mother. He tucked me into my bed and dragged the rocking chair from his room. He swayed gently in the corner, the creaking lulling us hypnotically.
“Dad,” I asked. “What’s wrong with Mom and René?”
“Your mother lost a lot of blood. It was a difficult delivery, but she will be okay.”
“And my brother?”
He rocked some more, shutting his eyes, and then finally answering, “René came out feet first. He might not have gotten enough oxygen to his brain. He also needs surgery for his neck.”
I stared at the ceiling. This was all unexpected. Babies were supposed to be born healthy and happy. And here the only two babies I knew were fighting for their lives in the NICU.
“Her surgery went well. The doctor says she could be out of the hospital in a couple of weeks. But she is still in critical condition, which means nothing is certain.”
“Did I have problems as a baby?”
“I guess I was lucky.”
“You are blessed. Now you have to work hard to make more luck and earn more blessings. Life is like the river. It has many twists and turns. You never know what is coming around the bend,” he said, slipping into sleep, the creaking of the rocking chair slowing until it stopped.
I thought of the Rio Grande carving its groove beyond the levee we passed each day. Climbing that levee, I could see the river, the banks on the other side. I knew the river flowed east and emptied into the Gulf near our ranch, winding through the lands our ancestors had once settled. The river was dangerous and unpredictable. Sometimes it ran dry and people and livestock went thirsty. Other times it flooded and swept away entire neighborhoods like an angry god wreaking havoc on his inadequate followers. Was that what life was like, filled with uncertainty and rules meant to be broken?
When I fell asleep, I dreamt of being at the ranch. I saw Emilia and René, but they weren’t babies any more. They were my age. They ran through the fields, vanishing into the tall grass. I was surprised to find myself not chasing them, but waking within the confines of a giant incubator. Tubes and wires ensnared me as I banged my fists against the plastic walls. Tugging at my restraints, I lurched out of bed to find my father dressed and ready to go. We stopped briefly at Señor Donut. The shop was silent except for the beeps that issued from the coffee machines. They reminded me of the NICU. A distant look in his eyes, my dad stirred his coffee as Perla handed me the free donut. She pulled it from the bin marked “cherry,” but when I bit into it during the ride to the hospital, it turned out to be lemon. It was sweet and powdered on the outside, sour and bitter on the inside. It wasn’t what I’d hoped for, but I ate it anyway.