NEW FICTION : WOMAN HOLLERING CREEK
The day Don Serafin gave Juan Pedro Martinez Sanchez permission to take Cleofilas Enriqueta DeLeon Hernandez as his bride, across her father’s threshold, over several miles of dirt road and several miles of paved, over one border and beyond to a town en el otro lado --on the other side--already did he divine the morning his daughter would raise her hand over her eyes, look south, and dream of returning to the chores that never ended, six good-for-nothing brothers, and one old man’s complaints.
He had said, after all, in the hubbub of parting: I am your father, I will never abandon you. He had said that, hadn’t he, when he hugged and then let her go. But at that moment Cleofilas was busy looking for Chela, her maid of honor, to fulfill their bouquet conspiracy. She would not remember her father’s parting words until later. I am your father, I will never abandon you.
Only now as a mother did she remember, now, when she and Juan Pedrito sat by the creek’s edge. How when a man and a woman love each other, sometimes that love sours. But a parent’s love for a child, a child’s for its parents, is another thing entirely.
This is what Cleofilas thought evenings when Juan Pedro did not come home, and she lay on her side of the bed listening to the hollow roar of the interstate, a distant dog barking, the pecan trees rustling like ladies in stiff petticoats--shh-shh-shh, shh-shh-shh--soothing her to sleep.
In the town where she grew up, there wasn’t very much to do except accompany the aunts and godmothers to the house of one or the other to play cards. Or walk to the cinema to see this week’s film again, speckled and with one hair quivering annoyingly on the screen. Or to the center of town to order a milkshake that would appear in a day and a half as a pimple on her backside. Or to the girlfriend’s house to watch the latest telenovela episode and try to copy the way the women comb their hair, wear their makeup.
But what Cleofilas had been waiting for, had been whispering and sighing and giggling for, had been anticipating since she was old enough to lean against the window displays of gauze and butterflies and lace, was passion. Not the kind on the cover of the Alarma ! magazines, mind you, where the lover is photographed with the bloody fork she used to salvage her good name. But passion in its purest crystalline essence. The kind the books and songs and telenovelas describe when one finds, finally, the great love of one’s life, and does whatever one can, must do, at whatever the cost.
“ Tu o Nadie. " “You or No One.” The title of the current favorite telenovela. The beautiful Lucia Mendez having to put up with all kinds of hardships of the heart, separation and betrayal, and loving, always loving no matter what, because that is the most important thing, and did you see Lucia Mendez on the Bayer aspirin commercials, wasn’t she lovely? Does she dye her hair, do you think? Cleofilas is going to go to the farmacia and buy a hair rinse; her girlfriend Chela will apply it; it’s not that difficult at all.
Because you didn’t watch last night’s episode when Lucia confessed she loved him more than anyone in her life. In her life! And she sings the song “You or No One” in the beginning and at the end of the show. “ Tu o Nadie. " Somehow one ought to live one’s life like that, don’t you think? You or no one. Because to suffer for love is good. The pain all sweet somehow. In the end.
Seguin. She had liked the sound of it. Far away and lovely. Not like Monclova, Coahuila. Ugly.
Seguin, Tejas . A nice sterling ring to it. The tinkle of money. She would get to wear outfits like the women on the tele , like Lucia Mendez. And have a lovely house, and wouldn’t Chela be jealous.
And yes, they will drive all the way to Laredo to get her wedding dress. That’s what they say. Because Juan Pedro wants to get married right away, without a long engagement since he can’t take off too much time from work. He has a very important position in Seguin with, with . . . a beer company, I think. Or is it tires? Yes, he has to be back. So they will get married in the spring when he can take off work, and then they will drive off in his new pickup--did you see it?--to their new home in Seguin. Well, not exactly new, but they’re going to repaint the house. You know newlyweds. New paint and new furniture. Why not? He can afford it. And later on add maybe a room or two for the children. May they be blessed with many. Well, you’ll see. Cleofilas has always been so good with her sewing machine. A little rrrr , rrrr , rrrr of the machine and zas ! Miracles. She’s always been so clever, that girl. Poor thing. And without even a mama to advise her on things like her wedding night. Well, may God help her. What with a father with a head like a burro, and those six clumsy brothers. Well, what do you think! Yes, I’m going to the wedding. Of course! The dress I want to wear just needs to be altered a teensy bit to bring it up to date. See, I saw a new style last night that I thought would suit me. Did you watch last night’s episode of “The Rich Also Cry”? Well, did you notice the dress the mother was wearing?
La Gritona . Such a funny name for such a lovely arroyo. But that’s what they called the creek that ran behind the house. Though no one could say whether the woman had hollered from anger or pain. The natives only knew the arroyo you crossed on the way to San Antonio, and then once again on the way back, was called Woman Hollering, a name no one from these parts questioned, much less understood. Pues, alla de los indios, quien sabe-- who knows, the townspeople shrugged, because it was of no concern to their lives how this trickle of water received its curious name.
What do you want to know for? Trini the laundramat attendant asked in the same gruff Spanish she always used whenever she gave Cleofilas change or yelled at her for something. First, for putting too much soap in the machines. Later, for sitting on a washer. And still later, after Juan Pedrito was born, for not understanding that in this country you cannot let your baby walk around with no diaper and his pee-pee hanging out, it wasn’t nice, entiendes ? Pues.
How could Cleofilas explain to a woman like this why the name Woman Hollering fascinated her. Well, there was no sense talking to Trini.
On the other hand, there were the neighbor ladies, one on either side of the house she and Juan Pedro rented near the arroyo. The woman Soledad on the left, the woman Dolores on the right.
The neighbor lady Soledad liked to call herself a widow, though how she came to be one was a mystery. Her husband had either died, or run away with an ice-house floozie, or simply had gone out for cigarettes one afternoon and never come back. It was hard to say which since Soledad, as a rule, didn’t mention him.
In the other house lived la senora Dolores, kind and very sweet, but her house smelled too much of incense and candles from the altars that burned continuously in memory of two sons who had died in the last war and one husband who had died shortly after from grief. The neighbor lady Dolores divided her time between the memory of these men and her garden, famous for its sunflowers--so tall they had to be supported with broom handles and old boards; red-red cockscombs, fringed and bleeding a thick menstrual color, and, especially, roses whose sad scent reminded Cleofilas of the dead. Each Sunday la senora Dolores clipped the most beautiful of these flowers and arranged them on three modest headstones at the Seguin cemetery.
The neighbor ladies, Soledad, Dolores, they might’ve known once the name of the arroyo before it turned English but they did not know now. They were too busy remembering the men who had left either through choice or circumstance and would never come back.
Pain or rage, Cleofilas wondered when she drove over the bridge the first time as a newlywed and Juan Pedro had pointed it out. La Gritona , he had said, and she had laughed. Such a funny name for a creek so pretty and full of happily ever after.
The first time, she had been so surprised she didn’t cry out or try to defend herself. She had always said she would fight back if a man, any man, were to strike her.
But when the moment came, and he slapped her once, and then again, and again, until the lip split and bled an orchid of blood, she didn’t fight back, she didn’t break into tears, she didn’t run away as she imagined she might when she saw such things in the telenovelas.
In her own home her parents had never raised a hand to each other nor to their children. Although she admitted she might have been brought up a little leniently as an only daughter-- la consentida , the princess--there were some things she would never tolerate. Ever.
Instead, when it happened the first time, when they were barely man and wife, she had been so stunned it left her speechless, motionless, numb. She had done nothing but reach up to the heat on her mouth and stare at the blood on her hand as if even then she didn’t understand.
She could think of nothing to say, said nothing. Just stroked the dark curls of the man who wept and would weep like a child, his tears of repentance and shame, this time and each.
The men at the ice house. From what she can tell, from the times during her first year when, still a newlywed, she is invited and accompanies her husband, sits mute beside their conversation, waits and sips a beer until it grows warm, twists a paper napkin into a knot, then another into a fan, one into a rose, nods her head, smiles, yawns, politely grins, laughs at the appropriate moments, leans against her husband’s sleeve, tugs at his elbow, and finally becomes good at predicting where the talk will lead; from this Cleofilas concludes each is nightly trying to find the truth lying at the bottom of the glass like a gold doubloon on the sea bottom. They want to tell each other what they want to tell themselves. But what is bumping like a helium balloon at the ceiling of the brain never finds its way out. It bubbles and rises, it gurgles in the throat, it rolls across the surface of the tongue, and erupts from the lips--a belch.
If they are lucky, there are tears at the end of the long night. At any given moment, the fists try to speak. They are dogs chasing their own tails before lying down to sleep, trying to find a way, a route, an out, and--finally--get some peace.
In the morning sometimes before he opens his eyes, or after they have finished loving, or at times when he is simply across from her at the table putting pieces of food into his mouth and chewing, Cleofilas thinks: This is the man I have waited my whole life for.
Not that he isn’t a good man. She has to remind herself why she loves him when she changes the baby’s Pampers, or when she mops the bathroom floor, or tries to make the curtains for the doorways without doors, or whiten the linen. Or wonder a little when he kicks the refrigerator and says he hates this shitty house and is going out where he won’t be bothered with the baby’s howling and her suspicious questions, and her requests to fix this and this and this because if she had any brains in her head she’d realize he’d been up before the rooster earning his living to pay for the food in her belly and the roof over her head and would have to wake up again early the next day so why can’t you just leave me in peace, woman.
He is not very tall, no, and he doesn’t look like the men on the telenovelas. His face still scarred from acne. And he has a bit of a belly from all the beer he drinks. Well, he’s always been husky.
This man who farts and belches and snores also laughs and kisses and holds her. Somehow this husband whose whiskers she finds each morning in the sink, whose shoes she must air each evening on the porch, this husband who cuts his fingernails in public, laughs loudly, curses like a man and demands each course of his dinner be served on a separate plate like at his mother’s, as soon as he gets home, on time or late, and who doesn’t care at all for music or telenovelas or romance or roses or the moon floating pearly over the arroyo, or through the bedroom window for that matter, shut the blinds and go back to sleep, this man, this father, this rival, this keeper, this lord, this master, this husband till kingdom come.
A doubt. Slender as a hair. A washed cup set back on the shelf wrong-side up. Her lipstick, and body talc, and hairbrush all arranged in the bathroom a different way.
No. Her imagination. The house the same as always. Nothing.
Coming home from the hospital with her new son, her husband. Something comforting in discovering her house slippers beneath the bed, the faded housecoat where she left it on the bathroom hook. Her pillow. Their bed.
Sweet sweet homecoming. Sweet as the scent of face powder in the air, jasmine, sticky liquor.
Smudged fingerprint on the door. Crushed cigarette in a glass. Wrinkle in the brain crumpling to a crease.
Sometimes she thinks of her father’s house. But how could she go back there? What a disgrace. What would the neighbors say? Coming home like that with one baby on her hip and one in the oven. Where’s your husband?
The town of gossips. The town of dust and despair. Which she has traded for this town of gossips. This town of dust, despair. Houses farther apart perhaps, though no more privacy because of it. No leafy zocalo in the center of the town, though the murmur of talk is clear enough all the same. No huddled whispering on the church steps each Sunday. Because here the whispering begins at sunset at the ice house instead.
This town with its silly pride for a bronze pecan the size of a baby carriage in front of the city hall. TV repair shop, drugstore, hardware, dry cleaners, chiropractor’s, liquor store, bail bonds, empty storefront and nothing, nothing, nothing of interest. Nothing one could walk to at any rate. Because the towns here are built so that you have to depend on husbands. Or you stay home. Or you drive. If you’re rich enough to own, allowed to drive, your own car.
There is no place to go. Unless you count the neighbor ladies. Soledad on one side, Dolores on the other. Or the creek.
Don’t go out there after dark, mi’ jita. Stay near the house. No es bueno para la salud. Mala suerte. Bad luck. Mal aire. You’ll get sick, and the baby too. You’ll catch a fright wandering about in the dark, and then you’ll see how right we were.
The stream, sometimes only a muddy puddle in the summer, though now in the springtime, because of the rains, a good-size alive thing, a thing with a voice all its own, all day and all night calling in its high, silver voice. Is it La Llorona, the weeping woman? La Llorona who drowned her own children. Perhaps La Llorona is the one they named the creek after, she thinks, remembering all the stories she learned as a child.
La Llorona calling to her. She is sure of it. Cleofilas spreads the baby’s Donald Duck blanket on the grass. Listens. The day sky turning to night. The baby pulling up fistfuls of grass and laughing. La Llorona. Wonders if something as quiet as this drives a woman to the darkness under the trees.
What she needs is . . . and made a gesture as if to yank a woman’s buttocks to his groin. Maximiliano, the foul-smelling fool from across the road, said this and set the men laughing, but Cleofilas just muttered grosero and went on washing dishes.
She knew he said it not because it was true, but more because it was he who needed to sleep with a woman, instead of drinking each night at the ice house and stumbling home alone.
Maximiliano was said to have killed his wife in an ice-house brawl when she came at him with a mop. I had to shoot, he had said, she was armed.
Their laughter outside the kitchen window. Her husband’s, his friends'--Manolo, Beto, Efrain, el Perico, Maximiliano.
Was Cleofilas just exaggerating as her husband always said? It seemed the newspapers were full of such stories. This woman found on the side of the interstate. This one pushed from a moving car. This one’s cadaver, this one unconscious, this one beaten blue. Her ex-husband, her husband, her lover, her father, her brother, her uncle, her friend, her co-worker. Always. The same grisly news in the pages of the dailies. She dunked a glass under the soapy water for a moment--shivered.
He had thrown a book. Hers. From across the room. A hot welt across the cheek. She could forgive that. But what stung more was the fact that it was her book, a love story by Corin Tellado, what she loved most now that she lived in the U.S., without a television set, without the telenovelas.
Except now and again when her husband was away and she could manage it, the few episodes glimpsed at the neighbor lady Soledad’s house because Dolores didn’t care for that sort of thing, though Soledad was often kind enough to retell what had happened on what episode of “ Maria de Nadie ,” the poor Argentine country girl who had the ill fortune of falling in love with the beautiful son of the Arrocha family, the very family she worked for, whose roof she slept under and whose floors she vacuumed, while in that same house, with the dust brooms and floor cleaners as witnesses, the square-jawed Juan Carlos Arrocha had uttered words of love, I love you, Maria, listen to me, mi querida , but it was she who had to say no, no, we are not of the same class, and remind him it was not his place nor hers to fall in love, while all the while her heart was breaking. Can you imagine.
Cleofilas thought her life would have to be like that, like a telenovela , only now the episodes got sadder and sadder. And there were no commercials in between for comic relief. And no happy ending in sight. She thought this when she sat with the baby out by the creek behind the house. Cleofilas de . . . ? But somehow she would have to change her name to Topazio, or Yesenia, Cristal, Adriana, Stefania, Andrea, something more poetic than Cleofilas. Everything happened to women with names like jewels. But what happened to a Cleofilas? Nothing. But a crack in the face.
Because the doctor has said so. She has to go. To make sure the new baby is all right, so there won’t be any problems when he’s born, and the appointment card says next Tuesday. Could he please take her? And that’s all.
No, she won’t mention it. She promises. If the doctor asks she can say she fell down the front steps or slipped when she was out in the back yard, slipped out back, she could tell him that. She has to go back next Tuesday, Juan Pedro, please, for the new baby. For their child.
She could write to her father and ask maybe for money, just a loan, for the new baby’s medical expenses. Well then, if he’d rather she didn’t. All right, she won’t. Please don’t anymore. Please don’t. She knows it’s difficult saving money with all the bills they have, but how else are they going to get out of debt with the truck payments. And after the rent and the food and the electricity and the gas and the water and the who-knows-what, well, there’s hardly anything left. But please, at least for the doctor visit. She won’t ask for anything else. She has to. Why is she so anxious? Because.
Because she is going to make sure the baby is not turned around backwards this time to split her down the center. Yes. Next Tuesday at 5:30. I’ll have Juan Pedrito dressed and ready. But those are the only shoes he has. I’ll polish them, and we’ll be ready. As soon as you come from work. We won’t make you ashamed.
Feliz? It’s me, Graciela.
No, I can’t talk louder. I’m at work.
Look, I need kind of a favor. There’s a patient, a lady here who’s got a problem.
Well, wait a minute. Are you listening to me or what?
I can’t talk real loud ‘cause her husband’s in the next room.
Well, would you just listen.
I was going to do this sonogram on her--she’s pregnant, right?--and she just starts crying on me. Hijole , Feliz! This poor lady’s got black and blue marks all over. I’m not kidding.
From her husband. Who else? Another one of those brides from across the border. And her family’s all in Mexico.
Shit. You think they’re going to help her? Give me a break. This lady doesn’t even speak English. She hasn’t been allowed to call home or write or nothing. That’s why I’m calling you.
She needs a ride.
Not to Mexico, you goof. Just to the Greyhound. In San Anto.
No, just a ride. She’s got her own money. All you’d have to do is drop her off in San Antonio on your way home. Come on, Feliz. Please? If we don’t help her, who will? I’d drive her myself, but she needs to be on that bus before her husband gets home from work. What do you say?
I don’t know. Wait.
Right away she says, tomorrow even.
Well, if tomorrow’s no good for you. . . .
It’s a date, Feliz. Thursday. At the Cash N Carry off I-10. Noon. She’ll be ready.
Oh, and her name’s Cleofilas.
I don’t know. One of those Mexican saints I guess. A martyr or something.
Cleofilas. C-L-E-O-F-I-L-A-S. Cle. O. Fi. Las. Write it down.
Thanks, Feliz. When her kid’s born she’ll have to name her after us, right?
Yeah, you got it. A regular soap opera sometimes. Que vida, comadre. Bueno- bye.
All morning that flutter of half-fear, half-doubt. At any moment Juan Pedro might appear in the doorway. On the street. At the Cash N Carry. Like in the dreams she dreamed.
There was that to think about, yes, until the woman in the pickup drove up. Then there wasn’t time to think about anything but the pickup pointed toward San Antonio. Put your bags in the back and get in.
When they drove across the arroyo, the driver opened her mouth and let out a yell as loud as any mariachi. Which startled not only Cleofilas, but Juan Pedrito as well.
Pues , look how cute. I scared you two, right? Sorry. Should’ve warned you. Every time I cross that bridge I do that. Because of the name, you know. Woman Hollering. Pues , I holler. She said this in a Spanish poked with English and laughed. Did you ever notice, Feliz continued, how nothing around here is named after a woman? Really. Unless she’s the Virgin. I guess you’re only famous if you’re a virgin. She was laughing again.
That’s why I like the name of that arroyo. Makes you want to holler like Tarzan, right?
Everything about this woman, this Feliz, amazed Cleofilas. The fact that she drove a pickup. A pickup, mind you, but when Cleofilas asked if it was her husband’s, she said she didn’t have a husband. The pickup was hers. She herself had chosen it. She herself was paying for it.
I used to have Pontiac Sunbird. But those cars are for viejas. Pussy cars. Now this here is a real car.
What kind of talk was that coming from a woman, Cleofilas thought. But then again, Feliz was like no woman she’d ever met. Can you imagine. When we crossed the arroyo she just started yelling like a crazy, she would say later to her father and brothers. Just like that. Who would’ve thought.
Who would’ve? Pain or rage perhaps but not a hoot like the one Feliz had just let go. Makes you want to holler like Tarzan, Feliz had said.
Then Feliz began laughing again, but it wasn’t Feliz laughing. It was gurgling out of her own throat, a long ribbon of laughter, like water.