Keep Your Eye on the Grand Old Flag

by Michael McGuire

In places, the river is deep, deeply obscured, nearly choked with undergrowth.  Others where it runs swift, shallow, dangerous in a different way.  But, except when and where it creeps, spotted with white rock and stale pool, there is current.  The current, slow, dark and deadly, or swift and foaming, is not with those who want to cross it south to north, but athwart their route, roughly northwest to southeast, except where it wanders almost aimlessly, as if it has forgotten what it is all about.

Migration is a method of survival, has been for tens of, if not hundreds of, thousands of years.  Many species rely upon it, migrating, generally, from disaster: before, during and after.

Migration was not what José had in mind the day of the family cookout on the banks of the river.  All he had in mind was good food—it tasted better out-of-doors, as if smoke and fresh air both made their way into the roasting meat—and maybe a bottle of tequila, along with countless bottles of Squirt, to share with the extended family.

Socorro, José’s wife, was precariously thin.  Gaunt.  Sometimes, when everyone was well sloshed, they would call her juesos.  Bones.  Beyond doubt, the pelvis was there and she had borne the requisite number of little ones.  In terms of body mass, José was her opposite, though he had the frame to carry it, and it didn’t hurt, when leaning into the truck that wouldn’t start, that you had considerable volume yourself.

The children, obstinately, had chosen different shapes to model themselves upon.  The daughters would be as big as their father, but without his unbreakable bones; the sons, choosing their genetic material from leaner times—times, their bodies knew, would return—would be more like their mother, not made for their father’s work; more, perhaps, if they made it through school, for endless formalities, in administración, the tiered bureaucracies before which their countrymen would stand motionless, lined up on one side of the window while, on the other, the sinecured, the bureaucrats, with five hundred years of tradición behind them, would shuffle papers and rest their fingers on the keyboard.

Heedless of the future, as of the past, José was raising a cup of the good stuff, toasting a moment of the good life, when it hit.

At first, he didn’t know what it was—a fly, a mosquito, a bee—but when he leaned, as with a great wind that had just begun to blow, when he fell over onto the rocky bank, he knew it was something else.  He heard Socorro call his name.  Somehow he heard the silence of the children, felt their wide-eyed stares, though his eyes were closed and he decided to keep them closed.  No point in jumping up, running around like the proverbial chicken.  Whatever else, it was time for the fatalism of all who know that facts are that which you cannot, no matter how determined, how focused, the effort, change.

Pase lo que pase, thought José.  Come what may.  Then it was blackness, puzzlingly absolute at three or four in the afternoon, the hour of la comida or, on this afternoon, el picnic.

Then the dreams came.

In the first he was wearing a flashy traje de luces, which he could hardly close in front, for he was the biggest, the fattest, matador that ever was.  Never mind that.  The bull, many times his size, was bearing down on him.  A bold swish of the cape and it thundered past, horns grazing his thigh.

Olé!” screamed the crowd and José nearly opened his eyes, but he couldn’t, no more than could the captured warrior on top of the great pyramid, tied hand and foot into the nearest the human body can be bound to mimic a ball, one about to be bounced down the enormous steps of time.  José was the ball, the twisted captive, miserably constrained, temples pulsing at the thought of the skull-crashing descent.

But no, he was lying on the hard sand of the bullring, while his banderilleros…though it was too late and the multitude, not only the aficionados, knew it…did everything to distract the bull who was larger than life, and José lay stiller than still, as if stillness alone might slow the dark river running from him.

But dreams, he knew, don’t lie, and really, he was lying in his mother’s arms, looking up at her, something he knew must have occurred, though, given the number of children in the family, he had no memory of ever having been the one she held.  That had always been another.  Now, not only was he the baby, but his mother was singing, singing to him alone, and in English, which neither he nor she understood…

Rock-a-bye baby in the treetop

When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,

When the bow breaks, the cradle will fall

And down will come baby, cradle and all

But José was cradled in the immense depression of the Río Bravo and, though his eyes were still closed and he hadn’t seen anybody or anything, somehow he could see la migra, the dreaded Border Patrol, speeding off in their high-speed boat, one man with an AK-47, or its yankee equivalent, cradled in his arms.  He and his buddies were laughing, even singing a song José must have heard on his television, which was always playing the oldest movies it could find.

“You’re a grand old flag,

You’re a high-flyin’ flag

And forever in peace may you wave…

You’re the emblem of the land I love,

The home of the free and the brave.”

But, though their voices hung on the air, they were gone, the great river empty, of them, as of those who might have crossed it last night, or today, south to north; fleeing the gangs, the corruption, of Central America; the gangs, the corruption, of the border.  Once more it was slow, thin and bright, but wide; even navigable, if only by the smallest, the lightest, the most innocent, of boats; flowing silently with a life of its own as José remembered a teacher of his, rolling her eyes as she contemplated the class, for some reason singling him out for her words of wisdom…

“You can’t step in the same river twice…José...”

Maybe, thought José, in a moment thankfully clearer than the others, he would not step in it even once for, he didn’t believe he ever had.  He had work his side of the river, had, somehow, never been threatened by the lowlife who preyed upon los migrantes, shaking them down for the little they had and—what’s more—he had never learned to swim.

In months, years, to come, Socorro, as if one wild shot, fired in anger…or in fun…had been her fault, would eat even less.  Her cheeks would shrink, her eyes bulge.  There would be times when she would not eat at all in order to give all—now that José’s job was gone along with José—to the children.  Those times would pass.  And return.  But no one would notice she was not eating, for she had never eaten much.  She would pile her own plate last and then, sitting, watching her children grow, transfer her portion, bite by bite, to the plate of one or another deserving child, the one eating more quickly, or more slowly, than the others.

But José was not dead yet.  He was dreaming and in his dream he was seeing Socorro for the first time.  He didn’t know her name, he’d just spotted her, a girl in her school uniform waiting for one of those buses that kill someone every week, usually a determined old lady whose determination, this time anyway, failed to serve her.  Why did Socorro catch his eye?  Her friends were already laying on the kilos, swollen with innards, their own, and those gulped in sizzling tacos at the stand at the school gate.  But Socorro…

Socorro was the female form incarnate: wasp waste, determined pelvis, flared thighs.

José was already driving a delivery truck for Bimbo, the airiest bread known to man, and he varied or timed his passing of the school Monday to Friday just to see Socorro, those white socks pulled high over shapely calves that filled and suddenly narrowed, a girl already the mockery of her friends for, obviously, she didn’t know how to eat, how to, gracias a la comida chatarra, outdo her mother; girls who might as well, thanks to the junk food, be floating in the air at the ends of little strings.

But things had worked out and José had led Socorro to the altar, paid the photographers, the músicos, had even come close to paying her father, for the old guy didn’t approve of the truck driver who must be eating his own air bread; who dwarfed the bride, his daughter, at the altar, as if he, and not he, were her father.

Yet Socorro was big with her first child when she revealed that she had always nurtured a secret ambition to proceed from high school to the university, to be an antropóloga; to study those who, within Mexico, looked different, who spoke a different language.

“How will you get up those big steps?” asked José, who couldn’t tell an anthropologist from an archeologist.  “Bony or not, you will be the most pregnant arqueóloga who ever climbed a pyramid.”

Socorro had to admit that was true and, postponing her dream, didn’t realize how often she would have to postpone it into time that stretched, it seemed, as far in front of her as the time of the Aztecs and the Maya stretched behind until only José knew that she, too, had dreamed a dream.  But, at the moment, that was only his dream, or his memory of a dream, and he was in the process of being jostled out of it.

Wherever the bullet had gone, it had taken its time, finding its way through the still-living body that was José, José who had lain where he had fallen, immobile, apparently lifeless, until he was lifted by four strong men into the ambulance that had finally arrived, José who, even in the ambulance, knew better than to open his eyes, for it was time for that dream of dreams, the one every man knows is his last.

“José?”

.”

“What are you thinking, José?”

“Nothing.”

“Did anything happen to you today?”

“No, nothing.”

There was nothing unusual about the characters his dream had summoned: José and Socorro, husband and wife.  The oddity was that José couldn’t be more than twelve, maybe only ten, while Socorro was clearly at least in her late twenties, a reversal that could only occur in, and was, therefore, proof that this, quite possibly, was that dream of drems, the last dream of all.

“You’re not eating, José.  Is anything wrong?”

José knew he could hardly say to the wife who was not his mother ‘if you’d think about it, you’d know there was.  For one, I’m about thirty years older than I seem to be and, for two, I’m dying.’

As Socorro could hardly say to the husband who was not her son ‘why are you dying, José?  You’re too young to die.’

And José could hardly respond ‘I’m dying because I’ve taken a bullet.  I don’t know where, but I know it’s killing me.’

Instead of saying that which could not be said, even in a dream, Socorro pushed most of her beans, squash and corn onto José’s plate.

“Here, try some of this.”

“Why should I try some of that?” asked José.  “It’s the same damned holy trinity I have on my plate most every day.”

“Mine is hot,” said Socorro, “hot off the stove.”

And with those words she shoved the rest of her steaming mess onto his plate and José tucked in, for this, as he well knew, was but the last of death’s dreams and what could be more natural than that a man’s wife in his last days, even if twenty years younger than he, is transformed, if she loves him, into some semblance of his mother…she who, understandably, had really had no time for him…as she helps him down the darkest hall, the only one in their humble home without a naked bulb hanging overhead.

José shoveled his corn, beans and squash into his child’s mouth and thought the thoughts of a man in his late forties as he forced down the dreams one dreams at death’s door until, reclaiming life, he was once more cradled in the great valley of the Río Bravo and la Patrulla Fronteriza was roaring the other way up the river in their earsplitting air boat, happy as hoot owls and doing their best to harmonize the last verse of their unofficial anthem.

“Every heart beats true

‘Neath the Red, White and Blue

Where there’s never a boast or brag

But should auld acquaintance be forgot,

Keep your eye on the grand old flag.”

Here as, apparently quite pleased with their synchronization, la migra finished the song, they seemed to cast an eye on José, perhaps wondering if he’d learned his lesson, if he’d know better next time than to picnic with his extended family on the banks of a barely navigable river whose sole purpose was to keep people like him…brothers, sisters, sons and daughters…down where they belong.

Once upon a time, José himself had had a dream, not to cross the river and water gringo gardens the rest of his life, and nothing so fine as Socorro’s more ambitious vision.  It had simply been to drive a truck, a fairly big one, for he was tiring of the life of a kid who would never grow up; in fact, he was getting afraid of it, for no one, who snatched purses from the back of a motorbike and defended a territory much like any other territory defended by any other lot of lost souls, could hope to live long.

And, one day, the chance had come.  He had an opportunity to accompany an uncle of his, as a kind of an apprentice, riding shotgun so to speak, in the truck he, the uncle, was hired to drive every day of the week.  It was with him that José learned the importance of taking his time, of not racing like the self-employed bus drivers, to be the first to kill the next old lady determined to get from one side of the street to the other.  And, more mundanely, if as importantly, he learned the importance of checking your oil, your air, your water, not just once in a while in your rapidly aging wreck, but daily.  And so, one day, his dream came true.  The uncle grew too old to handle the great Bimbo truck and managed, claiming seniority, a flawless record, to pass the job onto the nephew.

But José was back where the end had begun, lying in the valley of the shadow, the one the multitude crossed, fleeing disaster, south to north.  Only in his dream all those who had not made it, who had died trying, had gathered right there between José and the other bank.  Thanks to irresistable current, or treacherous backwater, the river was filled with corpses; some fresh, forever young; some old, dismembered, half-eaten; all together, circling as the unmarried had once circled the plaza, boys one way, girls the other; or just staring goggle-eyed at the sky, a sky looking down upon the present scene with the same deep concern it had watched the dead die in the first place, with their attendant gasps, their screams for assistance.

Now came the silence of silences—José had been waiting for it—except for one familiar sound.  What was it?  A child’s voice?

MmmQué rico!”

Ah, yes.  José could see it in the mind’s eye, though he was sure his children had seen it with their own wide eyes, were already turning the same look of innocence and demand upon José, waiting for him to reach for the change they were sure he had, waiting without a word, waiting with the patience of those who would now, obviously, outlive their father by a couple of generations, live till he himself was dim memory and they themselves would be older than Socorro’s father who, himself, had outlived the son-in-law he had never much liked anyway.

MmmQué rico!”

There it was again.  The eternal ice cream truck, blasting the recording it shared with all its miserable franchise, even far slicker outfits, for the one that had the route along the section of river nearest to the stretch José and Socorro called home, was a battered old half-dead VW bus, its side door long gone, beat-up coolers bouncing as it took the ruts and potholes, even as José’s children, fearing it would pass before the dead man—who was really only waiting to be thrown in the river with the others—got his change out, were already breaking the silence their mother had imposed upon them with a single raised finger.

PapiPapi!”

And José hardly had time to wonder why, when he had raised his cup of Squirt and tequila…well, tequila and Squirt…to the good life, of which he and Socorro had undeniably had their share, someone—perhaps the so-and-so with the AK-47, or its official equivalent—had chosen to put a single bullet in José.  Had someone, for a lark, lobbed a friendly stone at the beloved Border Patrol?  Or did the man with the gun think José and Socorro, their extended family gathered around what passed for a picnic table, just looked too damned happy?

MmmQué rico!”

José found what comfort he could in the thought…in between the screams, recorded and live, of those screaming for ice cream…that he would never know.

Michael McGuire was born and raised and has lived in or near much of his life; he divides his time; his horse is nondescript, his dog is dead.  He is rumored to have bent an elbow once or twice in D.F. with B. Traven; but the facts in this case, as with so many in the writer’s journey, are uncertain. 

"McGuire's writing is hauntingly thoughtful, inexorably true."

--Publisher's Weekly

A book of his stories (The Ice Forest, Marlboro Press, distributed by Northwestern University Press) was named one of the “Best Books of the Year” by Publisher’s Weekly.

McGuire’s stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review (x2), Hudson Review, New Directions in Prose & Poetry (x2), etc. His plays have been produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Mark Taper Forum of Los Angeles, and many other theatres here and abroad, and are published by Broadway Play Publishing. The Scott Fitzgerald Play, University of Missouri Press, a Breakthrough Book chosen by Joy Williams, has been published as an Author’s Guild Backinprint edition. Both books are available on Kindle.

A Day in Which Something Might be Done

Winner: Lamar York Prize for Fiction, 2018, Chattahoochee Review

 “A beautiful story reminiscent of the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Laura Esquival.  What captured me from the start was the confidence of the narrative voice and the lushness of the dream-sentences, which then give way to a story about love and healing, the inequities of indigenous life, and the prophecy of dreams.  Gorgeous writing and masterful storytelling.”

--Alexander Weinstein, judge