In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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It had all been very proper. There had been letters between Luz’s home in Guadalajara, and Los Angeles, where Diego’s family had lived for some years. Diego’s parents wanted him to marry a decent mexicana, not a wild American girl with no morals, and Luz was the daughter of old family friends. Diego traveled to Guadalajara to marry her, and she came to live with him in Los Angeles.
The new couple found a narrow apartment for rent downtown on West Eighteenth Street. The landlord, Mr. Mulzit, lived in the enormous house across the courtyard. After showing them the apartment, he asked both Luz and Diego for their naturalization papers.
“I don’t keep house for no wetbacks,” Mr. Mulzit said, his black eyes fierce under heavy, graying brows.
Luz nodded. Agreeing with English-speakers, she had found, bought her more time to figure out their clipped words. Wetbacks: mojados.
“I find out there are wetbacks around, and I throw everyone right out into the street and call the Immigration,” Mr. Mulzit continued.
Luz nodded, and when she understood — Immigration: migra — she nodded harder.
The landlady, Mrs. Mulzit, was standing beside her husband, holding a white cat. Luz smiled at the cat, wanting to touch it but afraid to.
“We will cooperate with you complete,” said Diego. His English was better than Luz’s, and he had a princely calm.
“Well, all right then,” Mr. Mulzit said. He handed Diego the lease, which Diego bent down to sign on the smooth concrete in the sun. Luz did not like for Diego to be kneeling in the courtyard, signing important papers on the ground. But she said nothing.
“You sign, too,” Mr. Mulzit said to Luz when Diego was finished.
“I sign?” The only thing Luz had ever signed before was her marriage license, and she wasn’t even sure that counted. Signing things was what men did. But she pressed the paper against Diego’s back and signed anyway. Her name on that form belonged to the Mulzits now, to Los Angeles, to America. She could never go back and leave no trace.
Luz’s new life was pleasant enough. While Diego worked as a gardener’s assistant, Luz cleaned the apartment, beat the rugs with a broom the way her mother had, and cooked as best she could, though all the familiar Mexican foods here came in cans and were expensive. She braided her long hair every day to keep it neat — something she hadn’t always bothered with as an unmarried girl in Mexico. She bought sturdy, cheap shoes.
Luz even liked the Mulzits. She liked watching them from her kitchen window across the courtyard. Mr. Mulzit had a garage full of standing power saws, and when he went into it horrible grinding shrieks came out. Mrs. Mulzit wore an apron over her dress, fed the cat scraps from a battered foil pan, and pulled weeds from the flower beds. When Luz’s favorite sister-in-law presented Luz with a small rosebush and helped her plant it in the tiny back-yard garden plot, Mrs. Mulzit came over and offered suggestions. After that, every time Luz met Mrs. Mulzit outside, they spoke of the roses.
“If they are free of the bugs, roses will grow,” said Mrs. Mulzit.
“I pick them off,” Luz said. Her mouth was careful around the English words.
“That is much work,” said Mrs. Mulzit. “Why do you not use the spray?”
Spray? Luz nodded, but did not understand. “Yes, OK,” she said. “Spray.” She resolved to ask Diego about it later. “You are very right.”
Luz began wearing an apron like Mrs. Mulzit’s. She saw Mrs. Mulzit bring in a newspaper each afternoon, so she asked Diego to order a newspaper, too. But the paper Diego got came in the morning. Luz looked at it every day, though it had more English words than she could figure out in a week. She took pleasure even in the words she did not know. Someday she would learn them.
One day, Diego came home at his usual hour of four in the afternoon, but did not kiss her. He would not meet her eyes. For all his solid manliness, Diego was such a boy, Luz thought. Something was wrong that he did not know how to tell her. Sometimes Luz thought that, without women, there would be no speech, just as there would be no children — men had in themselves only part of what was necessary to produce these things.
Luz was sitting in the chair from which she often watched the Mulzits. “How was your work today, Diego?” she sang out in Spanish, as if they were playing and he were trying to hide somewhere she could see.
Instead of avoiding conversation as he usually did — by rummaging around in the refrigerator for a beer and a snack, or washing his hands long and hard as though they had something poisonous on them — Diego sat right down across from her at the kitchen table. “Mi amada,” he said, folding his hands and working them together, “I have agreed to shelter someone.” He ducked his head, as if expecting her to hurl something at him, but she sat motionless. “For a fee, of course,” he continued. “We’ll get twenty-five dollars for just one night.”
“Husband, what are you talking about?” Luz said, though she knew exactly what he meant, and a cold shock thrilled her. He had offered to help some ilegales by giving them a place to stay their first night across the border. Even Americans who sheltered ilegales could find themselves in jail, she knew. And immigrants like her might even be sent back to Mexico with only what they could carry. All Mexicans, ilegales or not, knew the stories of the unlucky as well as they knew their own memories.
“It’s because we are so trustworthy,” Diego said. “The usual safe house can’t possibly shelter anyone for a while, and a father needing money for his family is coming all the way from Torreon. His job in Bakersfield starts in a few days, and if he misses the crew leaving —”
But Luz had stopped listening, for she knew she would consent. Partly because Diego wanted it, and partly for the money — half a day’s wages. And because a very small part of her said in a clear voice, May one not have guests in a free country?
“Here is the money,” Diego said, pulling from his pockets wads of one- and five-dollar bills. “My crew-mate Cesar has given it to us in advance as a display of good faith.” Diego spoke quickly, as though relieving great pressure. “It is his tío Reynaldo who comes. We can tell Mr. and Mrs. Mulzit an uncle is coming for a visit. We can say that, yes? It is not lying — he is someone’s uncle. We can just say, ‘This is Uncle Reynaldo.’ We do not have to say whose uncle.” The cramp of fear in Luz’s chest must have been visible on her face, for Diego touched her cheek. “Sweet Luzita, it will be all right. It is just this once, and Cesar and the work crew will honor us, and here is this money!”
Luz looked at the clumps on the white tablecloth. Why was all American money that same queasy green? “Está bien,” she said finally. “When does he come?”
The next morning, Luz went to work scrubbing the walls, polishing the bathroom fixtures, washing all their clothes — even some clean things hanging in the closet. Then she washed herself, rubbing the coarse washcloth over every inch of her skin, and refilling the tub to wash her long hair. When it was nearly dry, she braided it tightly and put on a white dress. Worried that there was something she had missed, she searched the kitchen for grime or dust or crumbs, but found none. She sat at the kitchen table and smoothed her already slick black hair. Down in the courtyard, Mrs. Mulzit was working on a grapevine, trying to train it onto a trellis. Luz put her apron on over her white dress and went downstairs.
The sun was bright and harsh and seemed to be everywhere. Luz went to her rosebush, which no longer harbored any insects, since Diego had sprayed it for her. She had weeded it a few days earlier, so it was starkly pink and perfect in its small square of ground. But Luz folded her dress around herself anyway, sat down on the fabric-covered crate that served as her garden stool, and began working her hands in the dirt to loosen it. Normally she used a small spade, but today she wanted to feel the dirt, not caring that her clean fingernails would have to be rescrubbed and refiled. It was the way she had dug in the earth as a child, back in Guadalajara, playing in the street-side garden plots. There had been flowers everywhere, and medlar trees dangling their golden clusters of fruit over walls into the streets, where vendors cooked seasoned pork and tacos. There had been catedrales as old as God, as tall and as silent, and bright huapango music coloring the air of the city market. In her memory, everyone seemed unworried and unafraid.
Mrs. Mulzit appeared next to Luz. “The rose is doing good,” she said. “You must have a way.”
“My uncle visits us,” Luz said, standing quickly and wiping her hands together. “Tonight, he comes for a visit on the way to San Luis Obispo, where cousins are. One of them who has lost two babies before birth has now finally birthed a baby.”
“Oh,” Mrs. Mulzit said. “A baby.”
“Sí, my uncle lives in Chula Vista and works in a gasoline service station,” said Luz. “He is all right. He is good.”
How easy it was to tell stories! Luz knew no one in Chula Vista, nor in San Luis Obispo, but she knew they were California cities. And Latinos worked everywhere, all over southern California. Luz amazed herself with her lies. They sounded true. They could be true, for someone, somewhere.
“Is this all right for you?” Luz asked.
Mrs. Mulzit seemed to look past Luz, at something that did not include her or the blaring sunlight around them or the cars roaring by on the freeway.
“It is all right,” Mrs. Mulzit said finally. Her wide blue eyes caught Luz in a shrewd focus. “This cousin of yours with a new baby, is she a small woman? Small hips?” Mrs. Mulzit pressed her hands on her own narrow hips and flat belly.
“Sí,” said Luz, her story swirling away, no longer just hers. “She is not even so big as you,” she said to Mrs. Mulzit, who was shorter than Luz by several inches. “She is like a boy, she is so slim.”
“Yah, now I see,” Mrs. Mulzit said. “This happens to us small women. You tell her to not work so hard when she wants the next baby. I finally got my Willie, my boy in college now, when I rested.” She began to laugh, hard. “Though Johanni, my husband, he thinks —” she paused for breath — “he thinks I’m bad luck now. Is that not something?”
“Yes, you are right,” she said to Mrs. Mulzit, though it didn’t seem like the correct response. Luz fluttered her hands, wishing the grit would disappear from under her fingernails. “Forgive me, I must wash and begin the supper,” she said, backing away. “This uncle, he comes soon.”
“Yah, sure, you better get busy, then,” Mrs. Mulzit said. She walked down the driveway to get their afternoon paper.
Had Mrs. Mulzit once lost a baby of her own? Luz hadn’t thought that people with as much as the Mulzits, with their fine big house and all the things anyone might want, would ever suffer loss, but of course that was silly. Everyone suffered. But they were the first white Americans Luz had gotten to know, and they, like her adopted country, seemed invincible. Yet Mrs. Mulzit’s old shoes clacked on the driveway, and when she bent down to retrieve the paper, Luz could see the stiffness of her advancing age.
Luz wiped her hands on her apron; she had been wearing it with such foolish care. As Mrs. Mulzit came back up the driveway, Luz walked over and met her at her back door. “Can you say to me, please,” she said to Mrs. Mulzit, “why is it that your paper comes now, late in the day? Our paper comes in the morning.”
“Yah, sure, ours is the California German-language paper. We come from Germany, you know.” She held the paper out for Luz’s inspection. “It has more of the news in it than the big one,” she said. “That big one has nothing but pictures and selling pages.”
Luz stared at the German words on the banner: Kalifornische Staatszeitung. She had read about Germany while in school: a place where the people were blond, the weather cold. There were also Spanish-language newspapers in Los Angeles. Luz had peeked at them in the grocery store. But she made herself read the English paper. Americans read English — did they not? Yet here were the Mulzits, reading a German-language newspaper! Luz felt unsteady, as though she had just discovered that teachers broke rules, or that priests who spoke of morality were themselves immoral. But such things could happen, and did. Don’t be such a child, Luz thought to herself. She tried to quiet her thoughts by focusing on Mrs. Mulzit’s face, though she suddenly found the pretty, wide-set blue eyes and pale forehead dull-witted, almost bovine.
At that moment, both their husbands arrived home. Mr. Mulzit drove his El Camino into the driveway, and Diego climbed out of his boss’s station wagon at the curb. Mr. Mulzit strode toward them in his characteristic hurry, while Diego walked slowly to Luz’s side.
“Poppa, they will have visitors,” Mrs. Mulzit said. “They have an uncle coming to visit. Is that not in the lease they have, that they can have visitors?”
Mr. Mulzit had the darkest eyes of anyone Luz had ever seen — even darker than those of the natives in Mexico. He could have been a wiry Mayan warrior, the kind described in legends — he was so tanned and compact and alert. But he was a white American; he was from Germany, even though he was not blond and never had been.
“Sure, now, sure,“ he said. “So long as he got papers, just like you guys. Right? When he come, you bring him by and show me his papers, and he can stay a couple of days. OK?”
Diego shifted from one foot to the other, but he did not speak or look up. They all waited for him to say, “Sí, of course, we will comply with you complete,” the way he always graciously deferred to the Mulzits, to their rules, to all things difficult and strange that he and Luz encountered. But he said nothing, though the pulsating muscles in his jaw told Luz that some strong feeling trembled there. Perhaps he found he could not lie after all. Or maybe it was just that in Mexico a man would not have had to ask permission to have guests in his own household.
“Well?” Mr. Mulzit said. “Not OK?”
Still Diego did not reply.
“You know, I hear about these uncles,” Mr. Mulzit said. He stepped back from Diego, folded his arms, and set his feet farther apart. “I seen this before. I’ll bet he’s some wetback on his way somewhere, and you put him up for the night.” He gestured at Diego, as if inviting him nearer. “They pay you?” Mr. Mulzit went on. “They pay you good? I hear it’s pretty good pay. I hope it’s real good, because you’ll need it when you’re out in the street again looking for some other place to live.”
Diego simply stood there, as if waiting for a fearsome wind to stop flinging its angry dust in his face.
Mr. Mulzit waited, too, then shook his head, turning toward the stairs. “You Mexicans think you can come and go whenever you feel like it,” he said. “Look now, you two are OK — don’t make trouble for yourself.”
Luz touched Mr. Mulzit’s arm as he mounted the first stair. “Please,” she said, looking up at him, “can you say to me, please?” She swallowed. She did not look at her hand where it touched him, but her fingers seemed to blister there. “You are a visitor from Germany, yes?”
“Ah, hell, little girl, don’t bother me,” he said, though he did not shake off her hand. “I came here and got to be American. I took those tests. I worked hard. That’s the way.”
“This uncle, his name is Reynaldo. He works hard.” Luz’s voice sounded strange in her ears. “He has the big family, in California, in the cities with Spanish names, you see? He comes here, like you, and he turns American, like you. Claro, he is with papers, but he has been here so long he is not traveling with them, you see?” Luz’s hand on Mr. Mulzit began to sweat, and he slipped his arm away. “Do you have the papers when you go about? It would be pesty to keep them by, yes?”
Diego went into motion, coming up behind Luz, putting his hands on her shoulders. “My wife, she speaks too freely — please forgive her.” He rubbed Luz’s neck as he spoke. “We wish your permission to have a visitor, an uncle, for one night only, someone who will not trouble. I myself will certainty his goodness. It is a small thing only.”
Mr. Mulzit laughed without smiling. “You are some kind of fresh girl,” he said to Luz. “I didn’t think your English had got so good already.” He jerked his gaze toward Diego. “But how I know he’s not some wetback? I run a clean house here, I don’t fool with no —”
“We tell to you,” Luz interrupted. “It is how you know things. One person telling to another.”
“Luz means that you have our word,” Diego said, though that wasn’t what Luz meant at all. She was looking at Mrs. Mulzit and her small hips, and thinking about the lies — the slim, boyish cousin Luz did not have, the babies who were never lost because there was no cousin to lose them.
Mr. Mulzit folded his arms. “I don’t mean no disrespect, but a Mexican’s word never meant much. I mean, listen here!” He raised his voice. “Mexican language goes fast, and the words run together and don’t mean as much. I know this, for Chrissakes! There were some Mexicans next door one time, and they couldn’t speak English, but they could say, ‘Yah, sure, yah, yah, we legal,’ and all that. It turned out they were illegal, and the Immigration guys took them away. And I think it’s the Mexican language — if they get the English, it’s not so bad —”
“We give you English word,” Luz said. She cupped one hand as if an invisible word hovered there. She did not quite understand this practice of giving word, but she knew that the only words that would ever matter would be the ones of America, the click and bite of English, sometimes flickering with meaning and sometimes not.
“Listen, little wetback, up until a couple of months ago you didn’t know nothing but Mexican! You barely got enough words yourself to blow your nose. How you going to give any away?”
“We give you English word!”
“Hell, you don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
“You — you read the German paper!”
“That’s none of your damn business.” His voice sounded tight, cramped into some smaller space. “You leave our paper alone.”
Mrs. Mulzit fanned him with the Kalifornische Staatszeitung. “Poppa, I show it to her. She ask why we get such paper in the afternoon and I say —”
“Ah, you shut up!” Mr. Mulzit flung a sharp wave at his wife. “And you guys,” he said to Diego and Luz, “you guys give me trouble, smart-alecking around, looking through my newspapers, bringing wetbacks through here like it’s some kind of way station, maybe I forget to renew your lease. Huh? You like that?” His wide eyes and red face reminded Luz of her old abuela, furious at everything, especially her own oldness.
“We do pray that nothing such as that comes necessary,” said Diego.
Mr. Mulzit snapped open his back door. “You do well to pray a little,” he said. “Pray that this wife of yours learns to shut up sometimes.” The door banged behind him.
Mrs. Mulzit started to follow her husband inside, then stopped. “A man . . .” she said to Luz. “A husband . . .” But her mouth collapsed on the rest of the sentence. “Be careful to keep things in the rooms clean,” Mrs. Mulzit said at last, opening the door for herself and disappearing inside.
“Sí, thank you, Mrs. Mulzit,” said Diego, nodding. “Thank you very much.” He put his arm around Luz and turned her toward their apartment, holding her to him tightly. It seemed a long way back, across the broad driveway, beneath the glittering sunshine. Luz felt the strength of Diego’s arm around her and wondered if he was angry with her. She wondered if she was angry with him. There would be times, she knew now, when she would have to speak out for her husband in the world. It was one thing for a wife to make her husband talk to her, but it was another to be his voice with others. Her hands still glowed with sweat. Her heart beat all around her chest as if it had gotten loose. Still, she had spoken, and God had not struck her dead.
When they reached their door, Diego took her hands and bent to kiss them, but stopped. “Your hands, amada,” he said, cradling them, wiping at the dirt on her knuckles. “Look at your hands.”
She pulled her hands away and, once inside, washed them in the kitchen sink. It seemed it was the soil of Guadalajara, not that of a Los Angeles back yard, that flowed down the drain, as well as something of herself, who had never before this day talked so to a man, or told such a lie. Now the day was full of lies, and sharp words. She felt a thin nausea as she remembered her words to Mr. Mulzit. You are a visitor . . . cities with Spanish names . . . do you have the papers when you go about? How saucy she had been — how insolent! But somehow it had become true that this tío Reynaldo, whom she did not know, was nonetheless hers to defend, worth telling lies about.
Cesar’s uncle came after dark and left before dawn. He was a thin man in his forties, very brown-skinned, with Indian features. He wore two sets of clothes — two pairs of trousers, two shirts, two pairs of socks — all the clothing he would have with him for the summer working in the San Joaquin Valley. He shook his head to offers of food, though he drank glass after glass of water, looking around the room as if gauging its sincerity. Then he smiled at Luz, reached into his pocket, and drew out a little packaged Mexican sweetcake, the expensive kind she had often clamored for as a small girl. “Something of Mexico, for a pretty americana,” he said in thick Spanish, handing it to her.
Luz took it and smiled back, though she did not open it. Americana.
The next day, instead of putting it with the other sweet snacks in the cupboard for her and Diego to share, Luz laid the packaged cake in the wooden jewelry chest given her by her mother. It was full of old things: a baby photo of Luz, a child’s necklace with four tiny real pearls, a photo of her mother at first Communion, attractive stones gathered from open places around Guadalajara. She wanted the cake to stay sweet and whole inside its plastic, to last as long as baby jewelry and pieces of pink quartz. But after she closed the lid, she thought the chest odd — how like a coffin it looked.