Adelaida should begin preparing supper but instead she lingers at her kitchen window watching vultures. She thinks they are terrifying beautiful, their sinewy wings forming silhouettes against a rust-colored sky. But it isn’t simply their form she admires. It is also the way they pick bones clean; their nourishment means another’s death. Thoughts of death startle her and she thinks of Rafa. Somewhere below the hovering scavengers, Rafa is ending his shift in the Zona 4. Rafa. Dear Rafa. How could a garbage collector get into so much trouble? It all started with the sindicato and the man with burnt skin.
When her father laid him off from the car shop, Rafa quickly found work at the municipal garbage dump. Each day, he’d come home reeking of spoiled fish and putrid rot and he’d dash into the shower before greeting anyone. But the sickly sweet odor of fermenting waste always remained.
A few months after Rafa started, Adelaida heard the clickety-clack of his bicycle followed by the opening and closing of the front door. Instead of washing, Rafa came directly to the kitchen. Adelaida looked up from the potatoes she was quartering and saw Rafa still wearing his plastic sheeting on his feet. She glanced at Panchito, snug in an infant carrier on the Formica table. His eyes drooped like half moons, sinking into sleep after an exhausting, nap-less day.
“What is it?” she asked.
Rafa’s voice was somber. “There was a flash fire at the dump today, next to some children. I told you about the children, que no?”
“One of our guys tried to save them and charred his face and arms. Adelaida,” he said, sounding as though a swarm of moths had gotten stuck in his throat, “he was covered in ashes. What skin he had left was black and peeling. He looked like a leper.”
Adelaida gasped loudly and the fright in her voice startled Panchito. A moment later, his cries filled the tiny kitchen. She sighed, wiped her hands on a towel and picked up her son. “What will happen to him?”
“He’ll lose his job.”
“We’re supposed to pretend the children aren’t there. As if that’ll make them disappear. It’s against policy to work with them. He violated policy.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.” His eyes focused on a corner of the floor where the linoleum had begun to curl.
“There must be something.”
“Some of the guys think we should talk to the sindicato, see if they’ll help.”
Adelaida remembered the university students marching alongside union members, their hand-painted denuncias, denouncing this, urging that. Her father had warned her about mixing with them. “Is there no other way?” she asked.
Rafa looked steadily into his wife’s eyes. “We’ll talk to the managers tomorrow and see.” He brushed a hand over his face, rose and headed for the bathroom.
The image of the man with peeling skin stayed with Adelaida, and several nights later, she thought she heard him shriek in pain. When she awoke, she realized the cries belonged to Panchito. Rafa held him and was trying to rouse her for a feeding.
Over breakfast the next morning, she asked Rafa about the man. With eyes cast down Rafa told her the municipality had washed its hands of him.
“Maybe,” Adelaida said after a long pause, “you should talk to the union.”
Rafa sipped the last of his coffee, pressed his lips together and nodded slowly. It was as though her assent was all he had been waiting for.
A few evenings later, Rafa recounted the meeting. At first, all the sindicato offered was sympathy. But he and another worker persisted. Finally, a wiry young man of about twenty looked him in the eye. “You make demands but you aren’t even members,” he said. “We dance together or not at all.” At this, Rafa and his compañero signed membership cards.
Adelaida did not wince when she heard Rafa’s news. Nor did she urge him to tear up his union card. She accepted Rafa’s retelling, all the while shuddering inside the way a non-swimmer might wade into a sea of roiling waves.
“Give me back my whistle or else.”
Adelaida hears Luisa’s high-pitched squeal. Over the years as her children grew and fussed, her mother likened their squabbles to Volcán Pacaya; “a little steam and ash are nothing to worry about,” she’d said. Unsure about her mother’s advice, Adelaida listens closely but hears only the drone of television cartoons.
How different her children are from each other. At four, Luisa holds her own against her six-year-old brother. She is social and energetic; Panchito cautious and languid. Her mother dates his diffidence to childbirth. Adelaida remembers the week her body wracked with violent contractions that lasted hours then dissipated, tormenting her with the unfulfilled promise of a child. Her mother said the baby was reluctant to enter the world.
Adelaida thinks Panchito is shy because he is small. Weighing only 5 ½ pounds at birth, he has yet to catch up to his peers. It isn’t just his smallness that worries her. It is also his seriousness. And the fact that he’s clingy. Other children giggle more, toss him balls and urge him to play. He runs back to her, tugs at her sleeves, and digs his little fingers down her blouse. Adelaida grew up with brothers and knows he must learn to be among boys. But he is content only when she is near. He makes her feel sticky.
Yet sometimes solitude suits him. One day, while tending to her infant daughter, Adelaida leaves Panchito in the living room with what looks like a miniature parking lot of plastic cars. Moments later, she finds him amidst tiny wheels and silvery metal innards. She is about to scold him but stops when she sees a beam of joy light his face. “Can you put it back together?” she asks him. He shrugs and returns to his project with extra concentration. He never reassembles it but after that day she begins calling him “Ingenierito.”
“What’s my little engineer doing?” she asks. He smiles. It is as though the two share a secret.
When Rafa began working at the shop, Adelaida had no idea he was interested in her. She thought he wanted to look under cars, not at her. Before the watchful eyes of the crew — consisting mostly of her brothers — she politely returned the new guy’s soft-spoken greetings, never giving him a second thought.
One day, while the workers stretched out their lunch periods, Adelaida sat in her small cubicle calculating figures. As she sipped her black coffee and bit into a homemade cinnamon cookie, her mind returned to the university. She would have continued if the bookkeeper hadn’t quit and her father hadn’t demanded her to, “Stop idling in that air castle and work like everybody else.”
Though she performed her work accurately, she lived in a world of important numbers – of science and commerce. She still carried the spiral notebook she had used at school. It reminded her that a whole world existed beyond the smell of gas, oil, and the tedium of accounts payable and receivable. That day, in what remained of lunchtime, she intended to plot out a return to her studies. She hoped to cost it out, down to the last quetzal she’d need for bus fare.
She mused, dunked her cookie into her mug, and didn’t hear her eldest brother creep up behind her. He grabbed the notebook, ran to the center of the garage, and flipping to a random page, read aloud in a mocking falsetto.
“I’d wear a pharmaceutical coat and give out medicines. Or, I’d walk across the marble floors of the Banco Central to the office with a nameplate. I’d drink café with someone like . . .” His eyes widened as he read, “EULALIO!” Mention of the bookish neighborhood boy led him to choke with laughter. “Que hermanita mas ambiciosa. Her ambitions have gone to heaven.”
The tips of Adelaida’s ears burned as she attempted to snatch the notebook. But the flimsy spiral pad became a slippery ball tossed between brothers.
No one noticed Rafa scoot from beneath a car. The small, nimble man tackled one of the brothers and scooped up the notebook. “Hay que respetar,” he said in the firm voice adults often reserve for children. Like a pack of dogs that mind their leader, the brothers quickly retreated. Adelaida was surprised by how little it took.
But afterwards, what surprised her most were Rafa’s gifts — coconut candy wrapped in wax paper, handpicked mums bound in twine. In defiance of her brothers, she accepted his invitation to the cine.
Walking to the theater, Rafa told her stories of his life. Though a mere four years older, he’d already lived many lives. Only 16 when his mother died, he’d zigzagged across Guatemala working as a ranch hand, a miner, and a brick layer. Adelaida, who’d never traveled further north than Coban, was intrigued.
Yet, if someone had asked her how she felt about Rafa, she wouldn’t have replied honestly at first. The shy, skinny 24-year-old, who looked more like 17, never had a novio and barely allowed herself to imagine one. She might have bit her bottom lip and stared at her sensible, nurse-like shoes. She might have said that Rafa wasn’t much to look at, that he had crooked teeth and was short. But later, a smile might have eased over her lips.
The truth was that, at first, the soft-spoken man’s sweet attentions were awkward for Adelaida. They were part of an equation she hadn’t yet calculated. It was only much later, when she felt his mouth hungrily take her breast and heard the sound of his breath as he swelled inside her, that she delighted in the sensations she never thought would be hers.
What Adelaida loved most about Rafa was his self-assurance and sense of fairness. It came from the depths of his marrow. He knew instantly when he smelled a rat or a rose and acted accordingly, never wavering. She could rely on his steadiness.
Yet there was also softness to him. He wasn’t a consentido, a spoiled ninny of a man who’d been overly pampered by a single mother. It was in the way he spoke of her and later, the way he let his children tenderly curl on his chest that Adelaida could feel the gentle touch his mother had laid on her son.
Adelaida pulls an onion out of a basket, peels off its papery layer, and begins to chop. Its juices sting her eyes and she moves away from them, stopping to turn on the radio. A deep baritone interrupts marimbas and announces the six o’clock news. Rafa should be home now. Where is he? The sindicato must have held him up again. Damn union!
Its demands were minimal until Rafa joined the leadership. After that, it wasn’t just meetings but conferences, pickets, and demonstrations. And, almost every night, five or six men, and sometimes a few women, held meetings in their kitchen. Sometimes, Adelaida joined them, crunching numbers and editing their communiqués. She felt appreciated for her contributions and took pride in their accomplishments. But most of all, she basked in the possibilities she thought were within their grasp: modest salary increases, benefits, healthier working conditions. Change was in the air. Even the basurero children at the dump smelled it.
But the government wasn’t interested in reforms and soon began retreating. Rafa and his cohorts organized and called a general strike.
The Minister of Labor called it illegal.
“Illegal,” cried Rafa, pounding the newspaper with his fist. “They’re the ones who should be thrown in jail. Those pigs, sitting in their plush offices, going to state dinners.” He repeated it several times to rousing union applause.
That was the quote El Diario printed.
The morning the article ran, Adelaida answered the door and found her mother with the newspaper still in her hands. She lived a few blocks away and often joined her for cafecito and motherly counsel.
“That marido of yours is going to end up in jail or worse,” she said, crumpling her forehead so that her thick eyebrows formed one continuous line. “Tell him to watch his mouth. But not directly. You have your ways.”
All day long, Adelaida brooded. How could she ask Rafa to stop being who he was? It would be like subtracting him. But over the course of the day, a trickle of fear grew and expanded until its heaviness sank her spirits. Late that night when Rafa slipped into bed, Adelaida tiptoed over her mother’s warnings, then blurted, “Don’t you think you’re hitting them too hard. I’m scared for you, for all of us.”
“I am, too,” he said and searched for her hand. And in the remaining bit of night, Adelaida nestled close to him, rested her head over his chest, and held him until they both fell asleep.
But like a tropical storm that casts sudden darkness on a once balmy day, the union struggle turned into a torrent of fear. It began with the sound of the telephone ringing.
Adelaida would answer and hear a click. Rafa would pick up the phone and pound it on the cradle when it went dead. The calls were relentless. Adelaida heard the ringing constantly, even in her sleep.
Not long afterward, someone threw a large rock through their living room window. A message taped to it said, “Rafael Gonzalez fallecio hoy. Era pura mierda. Nadie llora. Raphael Gonzalez died today. He was pure shit. No one cries.”
Two days later, three union leaders were stabbed, felled like trees in the forest. Saddest was the fate of little Eric, the committee chair’s son. A bullet punctured the little boy’s spine, paralyzing him from the waist down.
After that, Adelaida imagined the enemy everywhere. He revved up his motorcycle when she walked Panchito to school; stared too long at her when she squeezed mangoes at the mercado. He was in the closet, under her bed, even in her coffee. A sharp edginess permeated the house. The children fretted and clung to her more than usual. Even their cat fled.
Most of Rafa’s compañeros had already escaped. Those who remained planned to leave and urged him to join them. They’d even loaned him money. But Rafa stoically continued working.
At night, Adelaida listened to his options. If he traveled to the countryside, the government’s multiple tentacles could still reach him there. Then there was el norte.
“Can’t we all go?” Adelaida asked.
“There’s no visa for people like us,” he said. “Going north means crossing the desert. We can’t do it with the children.”
That night, Adelaida descended into a recurring dream: she sits at her old cubicle, calculating figures, listening to the hum of a beat-up engine. Rafa has disappeared and her loneliness crushes her.
Breathing hard with sweat pouring down his face, Rafa staggers into the house an hour late. His unshorn hair is wild and stringy and he smells not only of waste but of fear.
“Adelaida,” he cries, “Adelaida.” When he reaches the kitchen, he leans on a cabinet and slides down to the floor.
“Rafa?” Adelaida examines his sides to see if he’s hurt. But all that comes from him are large, thick tears.
“Papi, que pasó,” asks Luisa as she and Panchito run into the kitchen. Luisa links her arms around her father’s neck. Just a week ago they had watched him spewing fiery rhetoric on television.
“Go back,” Adelaida tells them, unlocking Luisa’s arms, “Andale to your room.”
The children freeze.
“Go!” she repeats, in a stronger tone. They finally heed her.
“By the kiosk . . . they tried with guns,” Rafa sputters through tears, “I ran through the parque . . . lost my bicicleta.”
Adelaida wipes Rafa’s tears with her apron and holds him close, ignoring the smell that permeates his clothes.
“Two men,” he says, “shot at me.”
Adelaida’s heart batters her chest as she imagines her husband dodging bullets. The fear tastes like rusted metal in her mouth.
“Everything we worked for, Adelaida, it’s all gone. I can’t stay here anymore.”
Expecting this, Adelaida closes her eyes. “North?” she asks.
“Mañana,” he whispers, as though saying the word quietly will keep time at a standstill.
Whimpers waft from the next room. Adelaida begins to rise.
“Don’t,” Rafa says, “I need you. I can’t . . . go . . . alone.”
“And Panchito and Luisa?
“Your mother,” he says, “They love her. She can watch them.”
Adelaida remains silent.
“Please,” he says with urgency.
When Adelaida can no longer ignore her child’s escalating wails, she lifts herself off the floor and walks to the children’s room. Panchito sits on the edge of his twin bed. Drool spills on his chin.
“Que pasa, ingenierito?” she asks softly.
“You’re . . . so . . . mean,” he rages through hiccups.
“I’m sorry. I needed to talk to Papi.”
“You didn’t have to be so mean.”
She looks at the moist tears that cling to his lashes and reads the hurt shouting from his eyes. They are smoke-colored and impenetrable just like his father’s. If only the son could be brave like his father. She sighs. “I’m sorry,” she says again and hugs him. And it is the salve that calms him. She looks at Luisa chewing the end of the thick braid Adelaida had plaited that morning. She knows her daughter nurses her own wounds.
“Why is Papi crying?” Luisa asks.
Adelaida tries to keep her voice steady. “Problems,” she says, “problems at work.”
The children accept her cryptic answer.
Adelaida extends one free arm to her daughter and the girl slides off her bed to join her mother. Embracing the two together, Adelaida feels the satiny smooth skin of their bare, thin arms. She wonders what kind of mother leaves her children.
Adelaida cooks, eats, and washes dishes, but everything blurs into a series of routines. As she turns the tap to bathe the children, she imagines the sinister men who tried to kill Rafa. He must go, but should she? She sits on the closed toilet, far removed from the shampoo, soap, and towels in her hands. Later, while kneeling on the floor of the children’s room, she stretches a pair of pajamas over Panchito’s head.
A knock at the front door sends her mind reeling. Where could they hide? The usual places — the bed, the closet — offer little protection. Maybe they could run outside, climb the trees, or jump across the roof to the neighbor’s house. Adelaida leaps off the floor and sees Rafa standing motionless near their room. In the pale light reflecting the ochre walls, she sees him as she has never seen him before. His back is hunched and he is cowering. He reminds her of a frightened little boy.
She hears a stronger knock. An intruder could easily come in. After the rock crashed through the window, Rafa taped up plastic. Adelaida hears muffled voices through it and listens.
She lets out a breath when she identifies her father’s gravelly voice, made raspier by a lifetime of tobacco. “It’s my parents,” she says. Rafa sighs and reaches for the door.
“I wanted to bring you some of my banana bread,” Adelaida’s mother says, barely pausing to say hello to Rafa. “Are the children still awake?” She walks into their room.
The normalcy of her mother’s voice sounds odd to Adelaida. How could she be oblivious to their terror?
“Abuelita,” cries Panchito. The older woman bends down to kiss him and a strand of her salt and pepper hair spills onto his forehead, tickling him. “Buenas noches, Abuelita,” he whispers. The older woman smiles then moves to kiss Luisa on the forehead. The little girl closes her eyes.
When Adelaida and her mother return to the kitchen, they see Rafa huddled over a stack of papers and maps.
“It feels like a wake in here,” her mother says as she hands her daughter the bread. “Algo pasó?” Her eyes, always alert for gossip and bad news, dart from Rafa to Adelaida.
“Some men attacked me today,” says Rafa. “I need to leave tomorrow and I want Adelaida to accompany me. We need you take the children.” Adelaida hears renewed confidence in her husband’s voice.
“What? How did it happen?” Adelaida’s father asks.
As Rafa explains, new details emerge. There were two men, one he thought he recognized. He was a panzón, too heavyset to be of much use, but a real goon with connections to the mafia and the national police. Rafa had been bicycling home when he felt the bullets swish by, ricocheting off the metal kiosk, the one that sells foreign newspapers. He pedaled faster but when he came to the avenue, traffic thickened. He abandoned his bicycle and began to run. “My tongue hung out like a wild dog.” Saying this, he seems to deflate again.
“Que barbaridad,” says her father.
Adelaida’s mother shakes her head. “This is no good. I told you,” she says looking at Adelaida, “You should have warned him.”
Adelaida’s father raises his hand to silence his wife. “It’s too late for that now, Marta.”
“I know. I know,” says her mother, “It’s just that . . . ah, what’s the use. Bring the children over tomorrow. But it better not be for long. I’m too old to be a nanny.”
“Just until we get settled,” Rafa says.
Adelaida fights the wave of sadness as she watches her parents leave the house.
A trickle of moonlight sneaks in through a chink in the shutters, stealing Adelaida’s sleep. She tosses about, unable to settle into a comfortable position. Everything she holds dear is spilling like water through her fingers. She turns to Rafa who he is finally asleep. Maybe what he said is true. Maybe a separation from Panchito might strengthen the boy, make him more independent. But as soon as she thinks this, she recalls his wails from the afternoon. How can she leave him? Just when she thinks she can’t possibly be apart from Panchito and Luisa, she cries. She finds comfort only when she burrows her face into Rafa’s armpit and breathes the pungent scent that is his alone.
The next morning she walks her children to her mother’s house. “It will be a vacation,” she tells them. But they aren’t fooled and both cry with abandon. Rafa must wrest her away.
When she arrives in the new country she calls home every few days. But calls are expensive. Even her mother urges her to call less often.
“They’re sad every time you call,” she says. Later, she relents. “How can I tell you not to call?”
Adelaida compromises and calls once every week. For the next two years, she calls each Sunday evening with the precision of a Swiss watch. At first, she hears the longing and desperation in their voices. Months later, their voices, especially Panchito’s, sound flat and resigned.
At times she tries to explain to Panchito why they’d left, how they are fixing legal papers so they can be together. She reminds him of the day Papi cried. But he either doesn’t remember or won’t admit it. She persists in explaining anyway but always mangles the facts.
It is the most ordinary of days. Adelaida arrives early at the Darby household to babysit Caitlin, whose mother holds a high-level position at a bank. By now, the pudgy two-year is accustomed to her mother’s departures and that morning, nonchalantly waves her goodbye. Nothing is amiss. But every time Adelaida combs the child’s light brown hair, she thinks of the thick black locks of her own two children. She watches her and sees their faces, the color of mahogany; their features and gestures are so painfully visible in this child who isn’t hers. Perhaps it is the way Caitlin carries herself, so confidently, as Luisa might have, or the way she studies her toys, that brings her own ingenierito to mind.
She rushes home that evening hoping they have written, sent a card, snapshots, anything. But when she reaches the steel mail slots of her ground floor apartment, she finds nothing but windowed envelopes embedded in coupons for lawn mowers and patio furniture — things she wouldn’t buy stuck next to things that worry her.
She enters her empty apartment and even though it isn’t a Sunday, picks up the phone.
“Why are you calling now?” her mother asks.
“I needed to hear them. Can I talk to Panchito?”
Seconds pass before she hears a meek hello.
“What are you doing?”
“What were you doing just now?”
“What were you watching?”
Only when she mentions the soccer match between Brazil and Italy does his voice become animated.
“I miss you,” she says, hoping his passion for the sport might bleed into warm thoughts for her. But all she hears is prickly static.
“You know,” she says, “We’ll be able to come get you soon.”
“We’ll take you places. Even Disneyland.”
“I don’t want to go anywhere with you. I hate you. I’m staying here with Abuela.”
His words burn a hole inside her.
“Why are you sitting in the dark?” Rafa asks when he sees Adelaida sitting on their worn, flesh-colored chair.
“He doesn’t want us anymore.”
“I talked to Panchito. I told him what the lawyer said, that soon we’ll be together. But he doesn’t want us. He hates us now.”
A familiar look of sorrow and guilt expands over Rafa’s face; he wears it the way some men douse themselves with cologne. “I’m sorry, Adelaida,” he says. “He’ll change. Give it time.”
“Time. It’s gotten worse with time.”
“What can we do, Adelaida? We’re stuck here until our papers get fixed.”
He tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and leans into her.
She feels him pulling her in another direction.
“No,” she says and jerks away from him.
With pain in his eyes, Rafa steps backward.
Not meaning to act so harshly, Adelaida pulls him back, all the while searching her husband’s black irises for answers. It is there in those black impenetrable orbs that she sees it. “He hurts,” she tells him. “He’s lashing out because he hurts.”
“I’m going home to talk to him,” she says.
Rafa looks at her with alarm. “We’ve been through this hundreds of times.” His voice rises, “You can’t go back now. Not after everything we’ve been through. Our papers will get messed up. How will you get back? Cross the desert? No, no. We need to wait.”
“Wait? Two months you said.” She raises two fingers.
Rafa lowers his eyes. “I didn’t know how long it would be. But you can’t go back now. It’s not safe.”
Adelaida remembers their house, the incessant ringing of the phone, the dozens of eyes she imagined watched her, and the limp way little Eric’s legs hung when his father carried him to one of the funerals. But foremost in her mind is the little boy who tugged at her skirts.
“I’m more frightened of losing my son,” she says finally.
“What would you do when you got there?”
Adelaida doesn’t speak for a long while and when she does it is barely a whisper. “I’d stick to him like glue. I’d go to school with him, come home, do homework, build cars, destroy them, and watch cartoons. Then I’d beg his forgiveness.”
“You had no choice, Adelaida,” Rafa says.
She wants to tell him that she did. It’s just that sometimes choices feel like prison cells rather than open skies.
“You didn’t have a choice,” he insists, almost as if reading her mind.
He draws her close and strokes her hair. She feels the heat radiating from his body and is grateful for his touch. It temporarily suspends her from the bleakness she feels inside. Who but this man could comfort her? And then a swelling feels thick inside her throat. Who in the world but she can offer solace to her son?