Beside the Golden Door
...a mighty woman strides, the lights of her city pale behind her, the graves of the unidentified, the working children...she might raise her hand to her head in any of a dozen places, stop right here if she isn’t careful, but there’s no time for tears, no space for that imprisoned lightning...
As usual Pedro holds his hat before his eyes. He has never been able to bear the glare of an open fire. Now that he’s old, it’s worse. Last week his son, Juan, had shared this job of guiding los antropólogos to the ruins of their dreams, of tending horses and equipment along the ledges, down into canyons. Like this one. But not showing up on Easter Sunday, el Domingo de Resurrección, after the group had witnessed the nightlong ceremony, had ended Juan’s employment and now the job was his alone.
Keeping his eyes on a half dozen strung out horses, getting down to adjust one saddle after another was difficult, replacing a thrown shoe on a ridge or overhang was tough.
It was not a job for one man.
But the ceremony the week before was still vivid. Pedro could see the handheld candles in the flames that shot above the rim of his hat; he could see the diablos in the leaping sparks.
That night men, women, and children had walked the night away, carrying an efigie de Judas Iscariot from the last house on one end of the pueblo to the last house on the other, with a stop in the church in the middle, its depths as dark as the night outside, a floor covered with fresh boughs and guttering candles.
From dusk well into the next day, eight or ten painted diablos threatened all at will, including the priest, including Pedro. Pointing their wooden machine guns, they looked like escaped prisoners, still marked with the horizontal black-and-white stripes of their calling. Though the stripes were painted on their bodies and all they really wore were Jockey shorts.
Pedro had penned the horses in a low spot where their chances of disappearing in the night were minimal, even if it bordered the plot behind the buildings where the diablos tanked up between intimidations. He’d told his son not to cut his horse out of the scrub corral they’d built together, not to ride back into the pueblo downstream. But there were girls there who went to school, girls destined for something other than patting tortillas, girls you could talk to. And girls who weren’t going anywhere, girls who had to make a living somehow.
And Juan had not listened.
And why listen to a man who was seventy-five, even one sound enough to be a vaquero, talented enough to tend antropólogos and arqueólogos instead of cows? Yet Pedro had not been destined to spend the rest of his life bracing a horse’s hoof against his knee, hammering on a horseshoe. It had just worked out that way.
That’s the way it is.
Pedro was a little old to dream. His buddy Melitón had been a dreamer. Melitón had worked beside him in the fields. He’d made the ill-fated trip with Pedro, north to the blessed border, and at night he’d dreamed. Always it was the same.
A woman with muscles in her legs, a woman who could not possibly be the blessed Virgin of Guadalupe, strides, as the gringos say, from sea to sea. An impossible dream, if you think about it, but Melitón had never been much of a thinker and probably wasn’t now.
Sometimes, these days, and it seemed proof enough to Pedro that he himself had been a little long on the trail, even he dreamed that dream.
In the morning Juan had not come back and Pedro had carried on as before, but he no longer felt his son behind him at the end of the line of horses. He was no longer, of a night, urging Juan, who could drink even a father with three quarters of a century in his hands under the table, to raise his sights beyond that of youthful alcohólico.
Saddling up without his son, he’d exchanged looks with la antropóloga, the only woman on this trip, a big woman who walked like a man and challenged her horse’s endurance. Yet she carried a woman’s gentle spirit in her bulk, and the look she had given Pedro that morning had reversed their roles for half a second, for half a second he was tended rather than tending.
There had been welcome in her eyes, but to what? This life we share?
Pedro had held soft women in his time, but not one with purpose, with a couple of languages, if not more, in her head. Quiet, intelligent, alone every night—was the mighty woman of Melitón’s dream, of, nowadays, even Pedro’s, like her?
Pedro held the rim of his hat to protect his eyes from the fire and he became aware of his hands like two twisted claws against the light. He remembered months and years riding el altiplano after cattle. He remembered days funneling the gathered herd through a slot. Sometimes he was the man shoving them through, sometimes he was the one filling the syringe, pinching up the hide, shoving in the inoculation. Sometimes, when the man jamming the calf against the bars called out “becerro,” he was the one who cut the balls out, dropped them pink and slippery in the filling bucket.
There was less gore than you’d think and now his hands were black, not with blood, but time, time on the trail, his skin thick and tough as el toro’s, the deep cuts long dried, opening and closing like little mouths as he worked the saddles and cinches or hammered on a shoe. Little mouths like little children laughing. Or crying. Pedro had never been able to decide which.
Now, with the work not quite as hard as it had been, sometimes he rubbed his hands with fat or grease and sat, his hands hung out before him glistening, dripping, as he looked at them or asked himself “for what, for what...?”
And sometimes he just prayed la flexibilidad back into his fingers until they would uncurl and he could open them as if he was telling someone where to go. No more. Leave me alone. “¡Vete al diablo!”
I’ve had enough of this.
But he’d learned a lot tending antropólogos y arqueólogos, listening to their talk around the fire or just sitting out a rain in the ruins on a cliff where men had sat out the rain a thousand years ago.
He’d learned the row of crosses painted on the back of one smoke-dark cave during a time of plague not eighty years ago were painted with the same substance the dancing diablos used to paint their bodies today. Littler ones for the children, he remembered, lost children; bigger for people like himself, the old.
Crosses for all who went first.
And he’d learned the strip of green down the eastern edge of la Sierra Madre Occidental was the ancient trading route between el valle de México and the desert cultures to the north. He saw now that he’d made one such migration himself, but that was not the route he’d taken. He’d ridden the hopeful bus up through Hermosillo, nearly to la frontera…
…before he’d learned that sunny California was no place for a cowboy, especially a small, dark one, that Hollywood horses galloped onto one side of the screen and off the other, that Hollywood horses were always clean…
…that cowboys were of another time, one he might as well take the bus back into, a time in which a vaquero might still have a few years left…
…and, in time, he’d ridden the hopeless bus back.
The only trip he was likely to make now was de sentido único, and not to the border either. Not that one anyhow. One-way, thought Pedro, who could speak English when he had to.
But it was the latest round trip he was remembering now, the night before Easter Sunday, el Domingo de Resurrección, the trek from one far-flung house to another and back.
And back again.
Perhaps it was the endless walking under the watchful eye of los antropólogos when he’d walked with the mothers and children from one end of the village to the other, or the muttering of the old women or their candlelit faces, infinitely older than his, or the ageless prancing diablos, some of them no more than boys, which had put Pedro in mind of his own worthless son, by that hour of the night having dropped the bottle of tequila along with his pants and gotten down in the dirt himself.
But after Pedro had given up on walking, when only the tireless antropóloga was left to watch and he’d settled into his blanket with his head against his saddle, he’d dreamed the dream that was no dream at all.
Just the way it was.
He was just another vaquero riding a bus, or one who’d just got off one, walking from the last bus stop to the border of his dreams…Southern California…then this way and that along it, just looking for a little imperfección, un defecto in the fence just his size, as his father had before him.
Yes he’d dreamed of a time long before he’d conceived the young drunk who was his son; when he, Pedro, was a relatively young man himself and had just borrowed all he could on la mala tierra his family had worked since before he could remember, every powder-dry handful of which he could still feel between his fingers, in order to head north, to drag himself to the very edge of the promised land, like any wetback, and hope he was not numbered among the unfortunates…those who didn’t have the luck of the angels, whose lives might fly from hardened hands like the dust they were made of and for.
He’d had a little daughter then, just a baby but already laughing. She would laugh as if she fully understood whatever amused her, an intelligent laugh, not a child’s chuckle, but a real hard laugh, if not very loud, mouth open, head back. Everyone, seeing, laughed with her. You couldn’t resist. That was thirty years ago. More. Being the child of middle age, not the folly of old age, he’d loved her especially well.
He’d called her “niña,” which was nicer than “girl,” and sometimes “hija,” her father’s daughter, an acknowledgement he hoped had not been wasted on her.
Pedro hoped nothing had taken that laugh from her. When he returned from his doomed crossing, he’d returned with a back drier than a wetback’s—if you didn’t count a shirt soaked from the inside out—with two arms and a couple of legs. With his breath. Couldn’t complain, but…
But the powder-dry land, la mala tierra, that had swallowed his father and his father before him, the land he’d borrowed on, was gone. Like the money.
His wife, his first, once herself just a girl from another village, was gone too, taking his niña, his hija, with her, the child who somehow knew what no one else knew: that it didn’t all have to be heartbreak, it might be something else too.
The second wife, a generation later, had yet to leave at the time, to leave the son, the survivor who, after his own slippery birth, could never quite see anything through. Maybe she’d been right not to drag the ne’er-do-well after her when she left. Maybe she’d been able to see the future. Maybe she could still see him, bending his elbow, unbuttoning his pants. Pedro had done his best to raise the boy, to make him like himself, a man who was never satisfied with a thing until the thing was done. Done right.
But it hadn’t worked out that way.
And the night of endless walking, of the resurrection, a grown-up Juan, yet unmarried—every woman knew what he was like—had been off making another like himself, or, as destiny might have it, like his father, the worker, el perfeccionista. Why? Because that’s the way it goes: one way, then the other. Not like your body, down, downhill, steeply downhill, a trail of loose rock and then: the drop-off...
No, it swings one way, then the other, like a man in a dream, a man running hopelessly along una frontera interminable, back and forth, back and forth, like his father before him. Like a man at the end of one crumbling row starting back along another.
Laugh niña, laugh.
Is that what you were laughing at? What your half brother and I will amount to without you? Wherever you are, I am right there at your side. Ready to laugh with you. Believe me. I’m trying.
But that night a week ago, while los pueblerinos walked their everlasting walk…and only la antropóloga had seen it through…Pedro, in the dream that was no dream, was back staring at the blessed border—at pineapples and palm trees and Pasadena and…and…he shouldn’t forget that: the prisons—before it had ever occurred to him to ask if the last time he had seen his daughter was, in reality, the last.
¿De veras? The last?
¡De verdad! The last. You’ll never see her again.
“My father crossed right here, somewhere in here, if I understand what he said. Look.”
Pedro again unfolded the soft paper of his father’s penciled map and showed it to Melitón. But Melitón seemed to be able to make no sense of it, so Pedro spread it on the ground and turned it until he could scratch lines out from it in the direction of the towers they could both see in the distance.
"See. Those towers must be what these crosses are for. We are right between them. We are in exactly the right place.”
Melitón looked along the lines scratched by Pedro in the dirt, but his eyes were full of doubt. Maybe there was something about the little crosses he didn’t like.
Melitón was long gone, but Pedro could still see him squinting into the distance at towers that must be gone now too, replaced by high-tech cameras or little sensors that could tell when a man smelled of stale tortillas and hard times, when his footfalls were the sound of failure and little else.
The Border Patrol vehicle had remained parked between the double walls until well after sunset. Each place they’d looked the border had had a similar vehicle, probably parked in view of the other. Pedro and Melitón could see it all just by peeking over the gray concrete of the first wall, peering into the no-man’s land that stretched to the second, a land not that different from the one Pedro had left behind, a land just waiting to show up any man’s path, however hopeful.
Could this be it? What he had come all this way for? Well, maybe. If sunny California was a detention center stretching left and right as far as you could see.
Together they stared at the vehicle. Where were la migra or whoever had parked it? Were the keys in there? Maybe a pair of spare uniforms? Uniforms that would fit a couple of walked out and hungry mexicanos, one tall and thin, Melitón; one short and thin, Pedro. Both dark. Both without even a touch of family in Tijuana, and certainly not in San Diego; both getting colder as the sun lowered itself into a sea neither of them had ever seen.
What about the beach?
There would be footprints there too, of course. Or did something come up from the deep to wipe them out? What would happen in a substance they could only imagine as black, black and white, cold as any absolute? Would Pedro and Melitón, never having been in water, go straight down, lost souls flailing their arms in a hell colder than hell?
What about Ciudad Júarez?
They’d heard about Ciudad Júarez. At least the water was shallow. There were no tides or undertows. There were walls, concrete walls, and drains. But they were not deterrents to a couple of determined men, one young and willing to risk everything, Melitón;one twentyyears older and in the same boat, Pedro. But you had to get to Júarez, you had to use the last of your borrowed pesos, even some you didn’t have.
Better to take a better look at Tijuana. It wasn’t that far from the pineapples and palm trees, from the fast food and motels. Better to take a walk along the wall, a long walk west until they came to a place where the Border Patrol vehicle disappeared into the sand or the sea or, if such things happened in heaven, in Gringolandia, had just failed to show.
And they folded the map, Pedro’s father’s map, and went on. Toward the glow in the distance, an illumination more profound, more full of promise than any they had ever set eyes on. Not quite the lamp they had never seen perhaps, but great vertical rays, heralding not war but glittering gowns, beautiful women, the heartfelt hugs of Hollywood…
El abrazo, the embrace, the welcome any Mexican can understand.
It was on the high ground above Tijuana that they encountered the crosses, painted crosses, a name on each, some with numbers. They’d been walking along the wall for hours and it took them a while to understand what the names, and then the numbers, meant.
Not gunned down by los americanos, but dead of thirst, sun, the cold of the night or the night wind: dead at the stated age, if known. Pedro and Melitón could see them out there, walking, walking... Even when they couldn’t quite see themselves joining the procession, they could see their own route to nowhere. And Pedro spoke again.
“You can only carry so many Cokes across the desert,” he said, and Melitón agreed.
And they took turns reading names out loud, standing before one or another and running their fingers along the sounds and syllables, some they weren’t even sure of...
... José Gonzales Beltrán (19); Andrés Valerde Hernandez (48); Jesus Zavala Lerma (29) …no identificadó…Fernando Mejía A. (16); Antonío Calván Carillo (18); Celia Flora Gonzales Reyes (43)…no identificadó…Oscar Cardoso Varión (19); Margarita Melchor Rangel (27); Guillermo Cedillo Balderas (45); Irma Estrada Gutierrez (17)…no identificadó… Guadalupe Ramirez (20); Margarita Campos Romero (43); Raul Gonzales Cruz (29)…no identificadó....
But even the names of those who had no names, whose remains were past naming, were taking it out of them. Taking that which had carried them this far. And they went on, leaving the kind of footprints it is never wise to leave, as if each cross marked “no identificadó” had hinted at a crack in the earth, a hole, a last resting place.
Night leaned over them, gray as concrete, as much powdered earth in the air they breathed as under their feet. They felt they looked suspicious just dragging themselves along and they found a spot where the dust was deep enough to be soft and they were out of sight from both sides, where a simple rapid tree climb might reveal a future that had to be infinite…or the next Border Patrol vehicle.
The air was taking their warmth but the ground, at first, held some. They ate the burritos they’d stuffed in their bags, drank the frescas they’d bought, and when darkness was as complete as it was going to get, they climbed the tree behind the warehouse. This was no dream tree full of dreaming boys but a real tree dead of thirst, a tree ringed with rusted staples, with tattered posters high as a man could reach.
Shreds of La Banda this and La Banda that, the latest group banging out the latest narcocorridos, singing the exploits of border heroes who might have sung a different song had they sat in this particular tree.
And a Border Patrol vehicle was sitting right there, lifeless, yet as determined as the other. They climbed every twenty minutes till, at last, they decided to sleep. Maybe when the cold woke them la migra would be off staring down another length of wall, revving their engines, growling into their radios like Pedro and Melitón had always thought gringos growled: “shit, man, look at those dumb sons of bitches in that tree, look at those assholes...”
And maybe they didn’t talk like that at all.
Pedro had heard it was spanglish you heard in the Mira Loma Detention Center and the Santa Ana City Jail where they kept los migrantes for as many weeks and years as they could…prior to deportation…jailers and jailed mixing up the same languages behind the same walls, walls no language could climb. Where they separated parents and children according to an ancient rule and kept them apart as long as possible.
And now, in el cañón, this night a week after Juan had lost his job simply by not showing up the morning after the night before, Pedro looked over the fire and recalled the dream Melitón had related to him that morning long ago at first light, a dream that couldn’t have been his entirely, but told as if it had certainly meant something to someone, and it had been enough to keep them trying.
They’d tried and tried again, already survivors without realizing it, and the dream itself must have been a tall tale told to Melitón by some gringo in some dive, but then Melitón, who was no thinker, couldn’t think of who might have told it.
That night by the wall had to be the nearest Pedro ever got to paradise without being taken into custody. He couldn’t speak for Melitón. Melitón was long gone, perhaps having achieved his inmortalitad on a painted cross one had yet to read. But that night a week ago Melitón was back, still in his early twenties and just having woken from a dream of a woman who surely had strength enough for two men down in the dirt.
It isn’t the first time she’s got her feet wet. It’s night, the lights of her city glaring behind her. She’s left the graves of the unidentified there too, the sweatshops of the lower east side, the tenements. She almost pauses in Newark, but she has too far to go. In Bethlehem, on the Lehigh, she sees, or smells, the steel, the mills, the hell blaze, but keeps on. Cumberland, the Appalachians, West Virginia. Hardscrabble farms, mines, the miners, the dirt poor. She might raise her hand to her head and stop right here if she isn’t careful. Kentucky. Tennessee. The River. East St. Louis to the north. The darkest of all, the blacks. Cotton to the south, the bones of slaves.
She almost heads south at the River. The Delta is still a place she can gather her own, lift them, a little. No, she can’t do that. They have to do that. Theirs is the old, old story. One she doesn’t have time for now. A new one is being writ, unless it’s the old one yet once more. Her feet wet again. Little Rock. Black as the night around her.
And now the Choctaw. The Chickasaw. The Kiowa. The Comanche. The old story still being told. But there is no time. No time. On as the first gray lightens the horizon far behind her. It’s one more dirty dawn in Brooklyn. Time to get down in the subway and go where you have to, or where your mother drags you; she can’t forget that, for she’s a New Yorker still. She knows the cold and the heat underground, the dirt and the danger.
Has she any right walking out this way? What can these mild eyes command facing west? Southwest? No one ever thinks of her as here, out here.
One foot before the other. Now we’re getting warm, she thinks. The Val Verde and the Sierra Vieja. Keep to the north here, there’s a way to go. El Paso in the distance. The Guadalupes crossed and behind her. The Otero Mesa and the lights of Las Cruces to the north not yet overcome with sunlight. And now the Chiricahuas, the Cabeza Prietas--the dark headed mountains, de piel oscura, the swarthy--and the Lechuguilla Desert. The last state now, the sun hot on her back. Mexicali. Tecate. A shining sea in the distance. Here now. Tijuana.
And beyond that, the ultimate illumination, the San Diego of a million reveries, the worldwide welcome…
And the lady kneels, her knees in a stinking rivulet, her hands, palms upwards, held towards a few stragglers, running, running...
Yet somehow they never arrive, for the dream ends here or starts over. Melitón and Pedro are on a bus using up the pesos that might have carried them to Ciudad Juárez, for now they know there is no mighty woman keeping watch across the Rio Grande, none at the airport staring across San Diego Bay.
South is not a direction in which the lady looks.
It is south to the land of drought; his young wife, his laughing daughter, gone, all gone, gone in a handful of weeks, a month; gone with his forty-sixth year and what remained of his youth in the same handful of days.
And that was it, Melitón’s dream, the one he’d related to Pedro when they woke beside the wall, not that far from the crosses, long ago.
No, the bodies weren’t underneath, no more than the bodies are under the roadside crosses where family renews the plastic flowers each and every aniversario. They mark a place, for a while, the way your finger does when you run it slowly along the line or down the page.
Or down the wall.
“...no identificadó, no identificadó...”
Gone like the cliff dwellers and the Chichimecs.
Where was Melitón? Had he kept on trying? Was he still dreaming someone else’s dream? Or maybe, if his name was writ years ago, nothing at all? And Pedro’s young wife who was gone when he got back? Had she, no longer young now, found whatever it was? Was a laughing daughter laughing still?
Laugh, niña, laugh!
I would rather have you laughing than not.
And the mighty woman of Melitón’s dream kneels, her knees in dust now, her arms held open to a few shapes on the horizon, a few so distant you can hardly be sure which way they’re running—or even that they’re there—a handful leaving footprints as they go...
Pedro lowers his hat to look into the flames.
He can see them. The men, the women, himself, the horses. The children. Why not just throw ourselves in at the beginning, he thinks. Into the sun that leaves the land ready to lift when the wind comes to take the footprints, then the earth itself. Or should we climb a little higher, throw ourselves from the crumbling trail? Or the wall.
What does it matter?
Maybe they had it right before the armored Spanish ever swaggered here, naming their names left and right. And the people north to Chihuahua and Sonora, from el cañyón over el altiplano to la frontera, the people who resisted to the end, gone, gone so completely even the names they gave to things are gone. What did they call the earth that crumbles in your fingers, the wind that blows it away? What did they call the rains when the rains came to wash off what was left? What did they call their wives, their daughters?
How did they tell their daughters to stop laughing? Or to go ahead and laugh?
Laugh, niña, laugh!
No, his guiding days are over. Done as well as they could have been and laughable still. How can a man who cannot even cross a border guide los antropólogos y arqueólogos to a civilization that must have been lost here, if anywhere?
What will be found in future years on a dig in Southern California? A box of buttered popcorn? A handful of spangles, and not from any banner? Whatever it is that keeps us alive flows both ways along the strip of green, down the eastern edge of la Sierra Madre Occidental, and up.
When we close the golden door, we die.
Pedro vows when he gets back, he’ll find his good-for-nothing son and do with these hands what he should have done years ago. Not take his breath, no, something short of that. Then he’s leaving. Off to find someone worth finding.
He remembers something he must have heard, or overheard, that his first wife, the one from another village, not to mention niña and who knows how many half hijos, had headed north. When was that?
Ten years ago? Twenty?
A niña in her thirties now, her last name changed and changed again, but…
Pedro will make his way to the border. This time he’ll cross it. The laughable guide will track his laughing daughter down.
Pedro can hardly think of a reason. He wants to put his forehead against hers. Even if they don’t quite recognize each other. To put his forehead against hers, period. But then…
It might occur to her to come looking for him. They’ll pass each other on buses near enough to touch and very nearly on the ancient migration route; then they’ll pass each other again, going the other way.
And Pedro looks across the fire and knows la antropóloga sees something going back and forth inside her aging vaquero, if she doesn’t know quite what…just as he knows that her hopes for him, whatever they are, are of the best.
And la antropóloga nods at Pedro and Pedro nods back and neither of them laughs or even smiles.
Michael McGuire lives in and writes of Mexico, border and interior. A book of his stories (The Ice Forest, distributed by Northwestern University Press) was named one of the “Best Books of the Year” by Publisher’s Weekly. His plays are published by Broadway Play Publishing. The Scott Fitzgerald Play is available as an Author’s Guild Backinprint edition. Both playbooks are also available on Kindle.