by Jerry McGahan
“You can’t go ’til you clean up your stuff in the bathroom,” Rosa says, tailing her.
“You don’t have to tell me that every day,” Missy grouses. She rinses the compost bucket and puts it back under the sink. She’s just come in from feeding and watering the chickens.
“If I don’t, you leave it,” Rosa persists. Now she’s scraping under the stove burners with a wood chisel. “And I’m not driving you to the bus.”
“Or that.” Every day, every day, Missy despairs.
Out the window, Missy sees flashes reflecting off the chicken house behind the backhoe. Her father keeps his distance whenever Missy and her stepmother spar. At the moment, he’s working, hiding behind his welder’s hood.
She stacks her schoolbooks. Glancing at Rosa’s Washington Post, spread open on the table, she catches the president’s phrase ‘axis of evil’ in a headline. “I suppose you wouldn’t even call Nazi Germany an axis of evil?” Missy says to her stepmother.
Rosa whirls, her face flaring in her second incarnation, Rosa Two. Spit gathers at the corners of her mouth in Rosa Three. And Rosa Four throws things. “Yes, the Nazis were evil, but did that mean everybody else should be evil, too? America dropped bombs of fire on that Dresden city and killed thousands of people. Just people, not armies. Same as Nine-Eleven. Your side said there was nothing army at Dresden. Same as atomic bombs in Japan. Pure terrorism. Nothing different.”
“That was war, Rosa. Both of those.” Missy props her rinsed bowl in the drying rack and circles her stepmother.
Rosa pivots on one heel. “You’re saying those nineteen dead hijackers didn’t think they were at war?”
“There’s a difference,” Missy calls from the bathroom. She hangs up a brush, pushes two towels under the claw foot bathtub with the side of her foot. “They didn’t have a reason.”
“That’s what you say when you don’t want to know the reason. People don’t kill themselves for no reason. Go before you miss the bus. When you come home tonight, let’s talk about all the bad things Americans don’t do to other people.”
Missy stops. “The other day you said that the CIA overthrew the only good government Guatemala ever had.”
“Show me a country south of the border that Americans haven’t done bad things to. They call it counterintel…counter-in-something, but it’s only to keep poor people in their place.”
“No, you said it just like that. That the CIA, all by themselves, overthrew the only good government Guatemala ever had.”
“Yes,” Rosa says.
Missy detects too much certainty. “You’re not so sure now?”
“I know they did it, that’s all. You better get fast.”
“Give me a ride.”
“No. I’m not here to pull in your looseness.”
Rosa ignores her, turns to sponge off the table.
“You’re an anarchist, Rosa. That’s what you are.”
“You don’t know what an anarchist is.”
Missy grabs her books and shoulders her way through the back door.
“Do you?” Rosa calls after.
“Bye, Dad,” Missy cries out toward the backhoe, cupping her mouth with one hand, but he’s wreathed in the diamond crackle of fusing metal. She lopes off up the lane.
* * *
Pete met Rosa in Ajo, Arizona where she was a checkout at the supermarket. It was mid-winter five years before, and Missy—then eleven—sat on a plaza bench in the sun where she waited for her father, who was taking far too long. When he finally came out, he went right back in, taking Missy with him. The first thing Rosa said to her was, “What a good compañera.”
Missy and Pete were driving through the southwest, their annual winter flight when there wasn’t any backhoe work back home. Two weeks of Christmas vacation plus a week off from school; she did homework in the car. After Rosa, the three of them went all the way into Mexico on their trips.
Before Rosa, Missy and Pete shopped together, cooked and cleaned up, went to the movies, and made each other listen to favorite songs. There’s one-person fun and there’s two-people fun, but not so much for three. It’s a chemical law, like valence. Missy and Pete once confided in each other, gave each other riddles, told each other jokes, clowned with gestures of their own. But after Rosa, most of that vanished. If Pete lost what she—Missy—lost, he must have more than made up for it with what Rosa brought to fore. Whatever that meant.
Fore, three, two, one. In another year, Missy Hanley would be a senior, and after that, tempered by two bigger-than-average losses, she ought to be ready to take on America, solo.
* * *
Lenny is waiting for her at the door of Mr. Claire’s class. He regards her with his usual raptness, keen to every move and word. He’s a head taller, and in her company, folded with attentiveness, he’s like an owl watching someone circle his tree.
“What’s he going to throw at you today?” Lenny refers to the math teacher, who has an ongoing duel of sorts with Missy. Mr. Claire, an American patriot, threw down the glove at the beginning of the year when he declared that, after math, he wanted to teach them about becoming better Americans.
“Why not just better people?” Missy had asked, and that was the bell for round one. Most of the other students lined up behind the teacher, particularly those with a parent who had served in Vietnam. Other defections from Missy’s side followed at once after Nine/Eleven and then again in November when local elections went Republican.
Lenny Ennis remains loyal to her, even though she’s required their friendship detour around anything physical. He’s a laconic, raw-boned senior whose doodles of horses and bison Missy much admires. If he wasn’t that political or idealistic before her, he’s more than an interested observer now. He calls her often with reports on prisoners at Guantanamo; on what Israel’s Sharon allows in Lebanon refugee camps; about box stores and child labor in sweat shops overseas; and other accounts, plots, and convolutions where the privileged manage to tapeworm ever more wealth and strength from the hamlets and fields, mines, and maquiladoras.
Lenny and Missy are both in track, and he gives her a ride home every evening after practice. Although she doesn’t like being beholden to anybody, the debt to Lenny is better than calling Rosa to come get her. Besides, Lenny entertains her. He has a gift for mimicry, his face unexpectedly plastic to another’s inhabiting, the gestures and intonations perfect. “An Amercun ideal,” he clowns, an idiot drawl overlaying Mr. Claire’s evangelism and phrasing, “you have the material, Missy, and the heart to be a great Amercun. All we need is commitment.”
The bell rings, and they drift to their desks. Mr. Claire, who looks like an elderly Charley Chaplin without the moustache, goes to the blackboard and writes an equation. Missy feels a collective dimming of expectation. The teacher saves his salvos for the end of this class. After a pop quiz, he gathers the papers then writes on the board the names Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Haiti, Kuwait. “What would these countries have done without America?” he asks. He doesn’t look at Missy. “What do have they in common?”
It’s pride, Missy thinks, that’s the worm at the core. We need to think we are exceptional, that we are beautiful.
“They’re all countries we went in and saved,” Carla Hansen says.
“That’s right.” He returns to the board. “Grenada, I forgot Grenada.” Mr. Claire’s only son is a Marine. The teacher said that his loyalty to country was not idle, that his beliefs left him with plenty to lose. Missy considered asking if that made it any easier to understand a Palestinian. Once, Mr. Claire had said that the Palestinians were only jealous of what Israelis had. By dint of hard work.
Mr. Claire turns from the board and, this time, fixes on Missy. Maybe she rolled her eyes. “Look, it isn’t as if America has never made a mistake,” he says. “I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is that all those countries were down the tubes without us. That our freedom, our justice is stronger than the evil that gripped these countries, stronger than the evil of the terrorists.” He opens his hands.
“Do you think,” Missy asks, “the terrorists would’ve done what they did if they had a military like ours?”
“What?” His face crowds round his nose. The bell rings. Lunch time.
She stands with the other students. “That they would’ve killed innocent”—but innocent is not quite the right word—“innocent people if they could’ve fought the army or Marines instead, if they had as big a military as we’ve got?” she speaks louder over the din.
He dismisses her with the smallest motion, turning the back of his hand. How could anybody not want to be a good American? He goes out with the other students.
After lunch, Missy surfs the Internet for “Guatemala CIA overthrow,” and in moments finds herself in what feels like a very small boat on a wide sea. She prints some of the text, skims other parts. In an hour, she learns that Jacobo Arbenz, elected president in 1951, headed the second democratic administration of Guatemala, the first six-year term served by another, who Arbenz helped install by way of a coup that overthrew the sitting dictator. Missy reads that Jacobo’s lovely wife, María Vilanova, was even more progressive than her husband, that her influence favored the destitute, the large native majority of the population. Many compared her to Eva Perón and Eleanor Roosevelt.
The country of Guatemala itself was mostly owned by a few rich families and a group of U.S. Corporations with United Fruit as the most significant. When Arbenz’s agrarian reform bought corporate land for leasing to the Indian poor, United Fruit asked the Eisenhower administration to intercede.
Missy studies the accompanying photographs. She returns to them several times, the force of the story there keener and more poignant than that buried in the linear plod of words. Her favorite picture is of Jacobo and María Vilanova sitting together. They smile at their photographer, who had to have been kneeling, eye level with them. Their hands are in similar positions, one atop the other, resting in their laps. She’s wearing a dark dress suit, he a light suit with a wide lapel and a paisley tie. His smile is wide and eye squeezing, a show of genuine pleasure, as if he’s about to giggle, whereas hers, equally authentic, is not quite so wide, with her eyes yet round, mildly amused. She had a certain vitality firm in her cheeks. Even though she’s wearing lipstick, nail polish, and two strands of pearls around her long neck, there’s a scrappy mischief beneath. It’s clear somehow that she would be just as comfortable playing volleyball in cutoffs and a sweatshirt. She and Jacobo’s bodies are touching, their arms shoulder to elbow. The photo was taken during his presidency.
In another photo, Chilean students protest the overthrow by burning an American flag. It’s an old flag with forty-eight stars, the flames leaping up like a second banner above. Behind, the students show their fists. One waves a sign saying Pueblo Chileno con Guatemala. Their mouths are open, dark blotches.
The head of the United Fruit Company looks like a typical well-fed, elderly American. In a pinstripe suit and a heavy black overcoat, he stands before piles of bananas. The bunches resemble stacks of fat-fingered hands. Sam the Banana Man has heavy uneven brows and a strong nose. Oddly, this older man has an almost kindly look, the face and expression and suggested manner of one who would make a good department store Santa.
The image Missy gazes at longest is one of Jacobo being searched at the airport after being deposed. He’s unbuttoned his shirt, his fists gripping the seams, spreading the shirt wide. In this profile, he stands with head held high, mouth set, his brow hard. He has a solid belly and a strong looking chest dense with black hair. It would be a stance of proud defiance and fetching manliness, but an unmistakable sadness shows in his eye, where or in what manner it’s shown, Missy can’t make out, only that it’s there like an unheard cry. This is the picture of a man who has been wronged but is taking it straight on, one whose sole error had been to expect that honor would prevail.
* * *
At dinnertime, Pete eyes his burrito and waits for Rosa to sit. Missy lifts a flap and crumbles on a lump of cotija cheese. Rosa’s filled the burritos with long-simmered pinto beans, fried egg, sautéed ribbons of venison, thin slices of deep fried ancho peppers, bits of purple Greek olives, and green sauce made from roasted tomatillos. Rosa can be too much of a bad thing, Missy muses, except at dinnertime.
Pete has his fork poised. “Rosa!” he trumpets. “Sit with us.”
“Yes, yes, yes.” She places a bowl of rice mixed with chopped green onions on the table and then takes her place.
Pete dives in.
Rosa draws in a long breath, surveys the table with a satisfied look then turns on Missy. “So the hijackers didn’t think they were at war?”
“Don’ ’alk about war,” Pete says through a mouthful.
“We can’t just go on walking our talk while our country kills innocent people,” Rosa tells him.
“Walking our talk?” Pete says. “Look, let’s eat dinner.”
“We’re not killing innocent people,” Missy says.
“Yes, we are. They say it with words dressed up, hiding them behind. Here, they bomb a wedding, over there a caravan. Now they’re trying to get the world to go for killing Iraqians.”
“Iraqis,” Missy says.
“How many do they kill by mistake before it’s not a good idea to be at war? A hundred, a thousand? War makes everybody think we’re doing something, but all we do is what they do, when we say they are bad.”
“Dad? Do you agree?”
“This is the best burrito I’ve ever had.”
Rosa looks at Missy as if she’s trying to read her mind.
* * *
Rosa’s Mexican family lived in a wide, cliff-walled canyon with pines at the top, oaks on the way down, and in the bottom many kinds of trees with large leaves opening out like fireworks displays and other gaunt naked trees with smooth limbs like long, crooked arms and white trumpet-like flowers, blossoms bigger than Missy’s fist, gathering points for hummingbirds and large beetles. Rosa’s father and her brother and his family occupied a stone-and-adobe house with a shake roof. A rock wall surrounded the small house and courtyard and a garden plot with orange trees. Where the scaffold limbs of the orange trees had spread, braced apart with long stones, the bark had grown lips around the ends of the rock.
Rosa, Pete, and Missy stayed in the main house while their hosts took over the smaller storehouse alongside. Sparrows flew in and out the open windows, the floors were earthen, the ceilings open rafters and pole vigas where light flickered through the shakes like starlight.
Rosa’s father, Santiago, was blind, crabbed, and hardly ever spoke. Usually, he sat alone on a bench in the courtyard. That first year when Pete, Missy, and Rosa had driven to Rosa’s birthplace, Santiago’s wife, Rosa’s mother, had been dead a decade. The old man was a mystery for Missy not simply because he was remote, but because he and his wife had chosen to name their only son Hitler.
“Eat-lair,” Rosa told them in Ajo, Arizona when they first met, when Pete went into the supermarket on the plaza for one last chore, and they ended up staying a week. They were out driving on their first ride in the desert when the subject of family came up.
“You don’t mean Hitler?” Pete said.
“Yes, that German who was bad.”
“Why would anybody name their child Hitler?”
“All the time Mexicans name boys to strong men.”
“But Hitler was so much more than strong. He was evil. He was what evil means.”
“Did they know?” Missy asked her. “Did they know he was evil?”
“They know he was bad, I think.”
“Just bad?” Pete says.
“What’s he like, your brother?” Pete asks.
“He’s like a brother. You have a brother?”
“He’s like a sister.”
“Hitler is like my sister?” Pete’s eyes bugged a little.
But Hitler was not singular in the way his name would have it. He looked like any other nameless Mexican they saw working the fields or on the streets of small rural towns. He was slender, dark-skinned with black hair that grew straight up and then toppled to one side. He didn’t strut or seem particularly strong in any way the name’s purpose may have intended. He was fascinated with things and craved possessions. He inspected their car from the tailpipe to the parking lights, their binoculars and camera, even Missy’s journal, its binding, his large eyes lost, his lips moving soundlessly. He pestered Rosa about something, futilely. Neither Pete nor Missy could understand the murmured Spanish, and Rosa wouldn’t tell them what it was her younger brother wanted.
But the puzzle for Missy remained not in the one named, but in the one who did the naming. One morning after Missy saw Rosa talking with her father, Santiago, on the bench, she asked Rosa what he’d said.
“He wanted me to tell him colors.”
“The colors of the dresses. Of Hitler’s girls. Of the colors of the trees now, the different ones, the tescalama, the mauto and papache, walama, palo zorillo. And the chickens, he wanted me to tell him how the roosters looked, their neck feathers and spurs, you know.”
“You know the names of all the trees? Is that what the Gringo taught you?”
“No, everybody here knows the name of trees. The names of yours, you know? Yes?”
The Gringo was a botanist who left the States to live in that Mexican canyon. He hired Rosa to cook and clean for him. He taught her English and how to read. He lent her books. Not long before he died, he got her a passport and visa, took her to Ajo, and got her the job and set her up to get a green card. He wanted her to get a G.E.D. then go to college. “Maybe after ten more years saving money,” she told Missy, “but then you and Pete came.” When the botanist died, he left Rosa the books she’d read. She had them on a small shelf in the bedroom, among them The Plague, All Quiet on the Western Front, Grapes of Wrath, poetry by Pablo Neruda, The Conquest of Mexico, Goodbye to a River. Missy had read nearly half of them herself. Presently, she was with the Joads on their way to California. What kept sticking in her mind was Rose of Sharon’s dream of happiness, of going to a picture show. If that’s all it took to be happy, why wasn’t America the technicolor paradise for all?
“Seems to me,” Pete slides his chair back, his plate clean but for a few brush strokes of salsa, “there’s no sense working yourself skinny if there’s no joy in what you earn.”
Rosa already has her finger aloft, her mouth as oval as a soprano’s. “My grandmother—she saw the revolution, remember?—she said that war is so terrible that forever we must all pay something like a tax to stop it, that we must fight it without missing a day.”
“But we’re not doing anything here in this house that makes war,” Missy says.
“Yes, always we are falling down the hill to war. Because war is always the easiest. People when they are angry want to see something happening. They can’t believe in waiting. In South Africa, Mandela’s people waited while the rest of the world showed the whites there what they looked like in a mirror, that they couldn’t join with the all the rest until they made themselves right. So that country made a way around war. But what about this president of ours? Now he’s talking Iraq. Iraq wants war, so let’s make it on them first. No, we need Department of Peace that works everyday against all war making. We must study peace. We must do this. At this table.”
Missy waits for her father to trim this mini-Sermon on the Mount, but he’s all puddled up for Rosa. He listens to her the way a boy watches his grandpa teach him a card trick.
“What about nuclear weapons with boosted plutonium?” Missy retorts. “Or anthrax or smallpox. We just wait around till we get hit?”
“There is work to be done, maybe sad things to happen, but if we kill Iraqians, does that stop them? And their friends? Who and how many do we kill or lock up before we say, ‘Okay, it’s safe now. Everybody can go play.’”
“Iraqis,” Missy says. “What about when you sailed that dish into the stove last week? Is that what you do for your grandmother?”
“That’s what the president should do. Sail some plates when somebody makes him mad.”
“The president wants to get re-elected,” Pete says. “Busting plates won’t do him any good. He has to show some muscle.”
“Show who?” Rosa snaps. “You? Me?”
“The proud Americans,” Missy breaks in, “the ones who need to think we’re kicking butt to save the world.” I promise, she vows, that I will never be proud again of anything that makes me belong and sets someone else apart. I refuse to see any beauty that wants my allegiance to a tribe that is not the tribe of everyone.
“Don’t talk like that.” Rosa’s brow crumples.
“Why not? You bust plates, America busts ass. Same thing.”
“Not the same thing,” Rosa flares. “Keel? I don’t keel.” Somewhere between Rosa Two and Three, her English slips. Occasionally, she resorts to Yaqui words Missy knows must be obscene.
Pete makes a low sound, stands, stretches, and then, ambling, makes for a departure. “You’ve got to have an opinion on this, Dad,” Missy shouts at his backside. “You can’t duck out forever.”
“I won’t live forever.”
* * *
Missy is in the school library making out her note cards for her speech. She’s hassling titles. “When the Bay of Pigs Did Not Fail.” “A Government For, Of, and By United Fruit.” “Why the Rest of the World Hates Us.” “Guatemala Under the American Volcano.” When the light shifts slightly, she looks over her shoulder. Mr. Claire stands behind, regarding her. She leans back, exposes her work. Let him look. She’d love to tell him how The Land of the Free and The Home of the Brave shot a small democracy out of the sky, created a beast that eats its own, and has not found its way back since.
About to say something, he strokes his chin, assembling his phrases, it seems. “I want you to know, Missy, that one fair measure of a person is the size of their opponent.”
“You’re a good opponent, Missy, and I respect you for the strength of your feelings.”
“What good are strong feelings if they’re wrong?”
“Yes, well, there we are then.”
She waits, wishes again he would ask about what she’s doing.
“You know there are forces out there that would have you believe as you do, that there are powers of manipulation always at work…”
“Yeah, well, ‘what’s sauce for the goose.’ Right?” One of her father’s favorite sayings.
He purses his lips and seems for a moment lost. Then he pulls out the chair next to her, sits, and leans toward her, hands clasped, elbows propped on his knees. “I had both your folks in my History class, Missy.”
“I know that.”
“You remember your mother?”
He sits back. “Your mother was a good American, you know that?”
Missy opens her mouth but doesn’t say anything. She closes her mouth.
“You didn’t know that?”
She turns away, makes to gather her cards, but they resist being gathered.
“She was a lot like you, you know, your mother?”
“I’ve been told that.” Missy feels strange, her bones softened, her lungs and heart dangerously enlarged.
“In that strength-of-feeling thing, I mean.”
“She was committed and loyal to this country when it wasn’t in fashion, when we’d just lost the war in Viet Nam, when—”
“I don’t…I’m not…excuse me.” She plasters her cards against her chest with one hand, grabs her pen and folder with the other, and escapes from the library. At her locker, she leans with the top of her head against the door.
At lunch, she’s able to avoid Lenny, but he intercepts her at the door to math class.
“How’s the speech coming?” he asks.
“I’m doing mine on Chile, I’m thinking. Either that or on homosexuals.”
“Good.” She props up a smile. “I’m going in,” she tells Lenny. Inside the door, she turns. “Those are good ideas.”
Mr. Claire seems no different from any other day, except that after forty-five minutes of binomials, he picks on Lenny instead of her. First he talks about the glories of majority rule, then the court system and how it protects the minority from getting flattened by the majority. No one has any questions. “All right,” Mr. Claire says, “so let me ask you this. Who are your heroes? Do you have any heroes? Lenny?”
“I don’t mean athletes or movie stars or fictional characters. I mean real people, historical, who you’d like to think of as guiding examples.”
Lenny juts his jaw, wags his head, ponders. “Gandhi, I guess. Martin Luther King.”
“Yes,” Mr. Claire says, as if he just got the hand of cards he wanted. He paces to the window and gazes out. “Two good men. With vision and courage. And they’ve changed history, there’s no doubt about it.” He surveys the class. “I wouldn’t subtract a thing from what they accomplished, but I’d like to know what either of them would do with somebody like Hitler.”
The class is silent.
“Anybody?” Mr. Claire asks. Nobody says anything. “Lenny?”
Lenny glances at Missy.
“Tell me, Lenny,” he presses, “tell me what two non-violent peacemakers can do when they’re staring down Hitler and the armies of the Third Reich.”
“I don’t know.”
“What about Hitler?”
“Hitler’s my uncle,” she says.
Mr. Claire thrusts his head slightly forward.
“If you’ve got a broken flashlight, Hitler can fix it.” Overhead the fluorescent lights make an insect-like whine. “Actually, he’s my step-uncle.”
* * *
At track, she can’t get it together on the pole vault. Her mark is off, and she has to stutter-step or stop and try again, or she tangles herself on her way up and plows into the bar. Alongside, Carla and Laurie wait to move the bar up from seven-and-a-half feet. Missy cannot isolate any uncluttered memory of the launch. She watches Carla and Laurie retrieve the bar. “Go ahead and move it up. I got to do something else.” But she just stands there.
It wasn’t that big of a surprise, her mother’s patriotism. There were the stories of how she sang the national anthem at the games and the pictures in the album: pancakes with red, white, and blue frosting on the Fourth of July; the float of flags she and her Songbird friends—the choral group—built for the parade; other photos with flags overhead. She imagines her mother with her hand on her heart while singing the anthem or pledging allegiance. Missy refuses to put her hand on her heart. If she ever did, it would be for the people of the world, for all families.
She watches Laurie prepare to vault. At her mark, the girl raises and lowers the pole, lifts her knee high and sets her foot, then again, as a horse impatient to be let go.
Missy cannot abide the notion that the spirit of her mother, the one Missy always invokes in the zenith of any major effort, could ever be construed as an ally for Mr. Claire. The dilemma is as simple as it is inescapable, for Missy cannot resist, renounce, refute her mother with the same ardor she counters the math teacher. And yet the danger they represent is no different. A patriot, revering the beauty at home, has to foresee danger, has to conjure the alien. There on the high wire, the lives of other people, other families, teeter.
Knees high, Laurie lopes ahead, armed like a jouster. Missy turns away, walks across the field.
Just as troublesome is this turmoil of inheritance, what mothers pass on to daughters. Was it only the heat of commitment that came with the egg, that made it through when two cells glommed together and Missy’s life and trajectory began? Was that the only thing that mattered to the universe? Strength of feeling? Take your marks, get set, go. But to where? Are we missiles without any eyes, capable of whatever, because compassion got lost or never figured in God’s or Nature’s blueprint? Bullies of the world, rejoice, for there is no seed of decency sprouting, growing, no inside mercy, not in our bones anyway, nothing final out there other than time and random collisions. Remember pride is the enemy, a force of nature that flows like a river, carves valleys and canyons, isolates itself in its own beauty.
She spots Lenny across at the track, kneeling in cinders, absorbed with adjusting his blocks. She stops so he won’t notice her. He stomps, steps in, squats, and then situates his hands, spreading and propping his fingers, two little tents. He tests his weight on them, then lifting, straightens his legs, and remains still for a time, suspended in tension.
Missy remembers the happy picture of Jacobo and María sitting side by side. The condemned unaware. What becomes of the president who would stand in the way of the American locomotive? After fifteen years’ exile from his country, Jacobo Arbenz drowns in his own bathtub. That’s what happened to the leader who messed with United Fruit. Before that, he and María drifted from country to country: Mexico, Switzerland, France, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Uruguay, Cuba, and then back to Mexico again. He drank heavily. His daughter, Arabella, killed herself after a lovers’ quarrel. “I have failed as a politician, as a husband, and as a father,” Arbenz confessed. “Hasta pronto, mi hijita,” he whispered over his daughter’s casket.
Lenny bursts forward, his lank body opening out, transforming at each hurdle into the shape of a gliding bird. He’s become a crane, Missy sees, a crane spread out in flight. Like the ones in the Mexican sky at dawn.
* * *
They were just outside of Buenaventura—she, Pete, and Rosa, on their way home—and the dawn sky, metal blue to the west, pink and watery to the east, rippled suddenly with carpet-like flocks of birds, thirty, fifty, eighty in each of the roving patches spangled out over the plain. It was a surprise symphony after the serenity the three of them had experienced only minutes before. They’d gotten out of the car to stretch their muscles and wander about the lovely Buenaventura plaza. There, the street-lamps were glass bubbles blown white and round from the mouths of cast-iron dragons. The backrests of heavy iron benches all figured rural scenes in central ovals: couples hoeing, scything grain, or gathering the sheaths. Around them, the town slept as the wrought-iron figures went on with their silent harvest.
The three of them got back in the car, and then not many miles later, tumbled back out again in pink light, heads up under that everywhere flicker and dapple of crane motion, crane noise, all those rollicking, gollicking calls falling down upon them as if it were the first day of the earth.
* * *
Out beyond the green, Missy watches Lenny folding and unfolding his long-necked crane flight along the horizon. He’s so beautiful, and she couldn’t be prouder.
Jerry McGahan, 73, is a retired beekeeper and lives with his wife in Arlee, Montana, where he writes short fiction, essays, and novels; gardens; and paints. North American Review, Ploughshares, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, and The Gettysburg Review, among other literary journals, have published his stories and essays. He had a novel with Sierra Club Books and a collection of short fiction, The Deer Walking Upside Down, just came out last fall from Schaffner Press. His paintings can be seen on jerrymcgahan.com.