The Desert’s Finest Canales

 

Women from Sonora, Mexico were never good with whispers. Catalina could still hear her mother’s measured voice sharing this secret in her tender ear as La Lupe spoke. Her grandmother’s volume level always startled her into knee jerk assumptions. Something terrible must have happened. Had she said something wrong? Gritonas, her mother would brand them, singling out other loudmouth native Sonoran females who had migrated into town, from the woman who piled chili on hot dogs at the Oasis stand on Main Street to the new teacher at Catalina’s Catholic school, a nun from Navajoa who used a call bell at church to keep students quiet, her voice deemed too distracting by the parish priest. Her mother made La Lupe’s vocal quirk a lesson in the power of observation. Catalina began to imagine her grandmother as a grey haired Mexican Revolutionary, squeezing her stumpy legs, thrusting a saddle with a bandolier crisscrossing her chest and firing a gun into midair with nothing to lose.

She wasn’t an orphan but she felt like one tucked into the same pastel daisy sheets she used to sleep in when she was eight years old. She lay in bed listening to her grandmother shuffle around the cluttered living room of cast off camelback sofas and painted gold lame lamps with oversized lampshades. Morning and night were the only acceptable times to get out of bed in August but she wanted to avoid her grandmother’s rise and shine ritual. La Lupe’s Tokyo Rose propaganda dump was about to begin for all her ancient siblings and friends, up early and triumphantly breathing. Catalina’s mother was dead and her father was alive somewhere unknown. Would La Lupe address it today? Ever since Catalina moved home, her grandmother hadn’t mentioned her second daughter.

The Imperial Valley, an agricultural oasis surrounded by sand dunes and barren mountains, was to reach a high of 120 degrees today. The heat had begun to penetrate through the lacy French curtains Catalina’s mother had installed in her sister’s old bedroom. She missed sleeping in what was once her bedroom, now a junk room, where the sun never rises, sets or pays it any attention. Her grandmother was wrestling with that voice of hers, thinking she was still asleep. It was of no use to hope that the shut door would mute the sound; it was made of hollowed wood. La Lupe’s R’s rolled wildly as her conversational shrieking forced its way into the bedroom. Her granddaughter had no choice but to piece together the state of her family through the octogenarian’s twisted of prism reality.

         Tu no sabes que tan orrrgullosa estoy de mis hijos. Mi Panchito calls me everrry morning to see if I slept guud. He’s a big shot lawyer in Los Angeles that’s why he’s too bizy to visit me. Joanna is fine and dandy, thank you very much. Pues tu ya sabes, chi’s rrriche. No chi never stays here for da summer. Chi always gets da maid’s papers fixed so chi can cross them and enjoy her vacation at the beach. Oh you saw Dani at church? Yes, chi calls me Mama Nina now. Isa is sush a guud mother and teacher at her school. Esas reverendas, they really love her. And you know dose nuns, todo en el nombre de dios, even when dey screw you!

La Lupe cackled as the pale yellow walls in the bedroom turned florescent from the sun’s radiance. The particles in the atmosphere felt like tiny specks of white fire as Catalina began to sweat. Her mother used to keep the air on all day, as the Imperial Valley’s weather pattern mirrored Tindouf, a province in Algeria that borders the Western Sahara and Morocco. Like the nomads, the Valley’s inhabitants welcomed monsoons only to lament the crippling humidity that came after. The closest bodies of water were the irrigation canals that crisscrossed the farmland keeping its tillage fertile but much too fast to float or cool in. La Lupe, immune to geography, possessed an internal senior citizen thermostat. The unit was off and the front door was wide open. The corroding metal screen door let hot air in but kept horseflies and Jehovah’s witnesses out.

Her grandmother’s original home burnt down years ago. The desert sun wasn’t the guilty party, it was the pouring rain and thunder hemorrhaging over the valley on a late November night. The smell of wet smoke became more pungent than the cigarettes a couple of lechugero migrant workers were smoking as they huddled under a grocery store’s concrete canopy. It forced their attention to a small house across the street, innards crackling pieces disintegrating into soot. The smoldering odor trailed La Lupe to her new home, Catalina’s childhood home. The junk room was an acrid reminder , every item salvaged in the fire and of no daily use was abandoned there. Dolls with wilted smiles, bags of dresses with shoulder pads bemoaning the days of an Alexis Colby-Crystal Carrington rivalry, dried fountain pens and stacks of photographs spanning the fragmented Canales family universe was immobilized in a room that was once Catalina’s refuge from her parent’s cold war.

Catalina called her grandmother La Lupe behind her back. It started as a habit, a child parroting adults. Ever since she could remember, anyone who referred to her grandmother began by saying “Aye La Lupe”. They had their reasons, reasons Catalina sidestepped and reasons her mother tried to justify even as her husband walked out of their lives in protest. But was that really the reason? Catalina didn’t know anymore.

 

Catalina had to open the shut bedroom door to escape the ramshackle sauna. La Lupe’s bulcheteando por la manaña seemed to be over. As she opened the door and walked out into the hallway, La Lupe in the living room dressed all in black. The last time La Lupe was in black was when her husband died. On the first anniversary of his death, La Lupe emerged from her year-long self-imposed black widow attire dressed in elastic denim jeans, a paisley blouse, and leathery white Keds. She stood outside her pre-burnt craftsman house, smiling at Catalina with new dentures, having pulled out her worn crooked teeth she tolerated because for decades there were more important things not to tolerate. As Catalina walked up the steps onto her grandmother’s sea foam pink tiled porch, La Lupe proudly told her she was taking better care of herself again. She wished La Lupe had pounded her chest a couple times for dramatic effect.

Catalina assumed the mournful dress must have something to do with La Lupe’s sister in-law, Beatrice Del Rio Negrete, known as Biachi to everyone. She was considered royalty in the family, as she was apparently Dolores Del Rio’s niece. Catalina was skeptical as the closest she ever got to Dolores Fred or Ginger for that matter was watching them dance in Flying Down to Rio. La Lupe’s shriveled but well-manicured hand held a water stained wine glass. It was Carlo Rossi wine, one of her favorites because it was on sale at Long’s Drugs every other week. It came in an oversized glass jug with a distinguished viejito on its label. It was Mr Rossi himself, toasting and smiling at La Lupe. She had a dour look on her face. Catalina knew that La Lupe was going to approach this in her usual maudlin busy body way, mentally surmising that Tia Biachi was on some irreversible nose-dive into death’s abyss and she might as well prepare for the worst.

Abuela, don’t you think it’s a little early for wine?” Catalina asked.

“You’re too young to understand anything. Nada te importa.” La Lupe said as she steadied herself on her dead husband’s napper chair.

“ I’m sure Tia Biachi is fine. How many glasses, Abuelita?”

Only two, pero tambien me tome un valium.”

Her grandmother was doing her best impersonation of Judy Garland had Judy Garland gone on to be a Mexican senior citizen with the vocal harmony that attracted dogs and homicide detectives.

Abuelita, you know you’re gonna fall asleep soon, right?”

“That’s guud because you know this is very hard for me.”

“Why? Tia Biachi isn’t dead yet.”

No, but che’ll be dead soon. Aye, mi pobre hermano.”

La Lupe was convinced her brother would be a widower soon. She crept past Catalina, handing her the glass of wine. She watched her grandmother go down a lone step into her bedroom that gave away that it was once a garage. She turned on the T.V and carefully laid herself down. The dark wood headboard creaked, slightly rocking La Lupe back and forth, lulling her to sleep within fifteen minutes. Catalina arrived at the conclusion that La Lupe must have only ate half a banana and drank a cup of Nescafé before she decided to get lit. She took a sip of her wine.

 

The nomads of Imperial Valley don’t swathe themselves with sand scarfs, they hold umbrellas over there heads. Catalina unfortunately did not own an umbrella. Hastily putting on a pair of black leggings and a tank top, she walked over to her sister’s house once La Lupe was asleep, leaving the air on so La Lupe wouldn’t die of heat stroke and shutting the door tightly to prevent her grandmother from screaming at her for wasting money. By the time she rang Isa’s doorbell, her dark hair and clothing were making her feel as if she was an ant to a snotty child’s magnifying glass.

“La Lupe thinks Tia Biachi is as good as dead.” Catalina said.

Isa set a glass of ice water in front of her. The cool air circulating through her sister’s house dried the sweat all over her body.

“She needs to stop watching T.V all day. She should take a walk or go do some shopping. She used to like shopping.”

“Have you been outside? How can anyone do any of those things here?”

Isa didn’t answer or make eye contact with her. By now Catalina knew not to take offense to it. Isa was making a to do list in her head as she washed the baby’s bottles in the sink. Drop baby off at daycare, go set up classroom for the coming school year, buy groceries, bathe baby, set aside time after baby’s bedtime to do homework. Six more classes and she would get her teaching credential, then she can get a job working at the public school instead of dealing with the penny-pinching nuns that once taught her the importance of humility and service to god. Why oh why, didn’t she get this done before the baby?

She could see Isa nod her head in disapproval as she placed the bottles on a wire rack and air-dried her hands. The list continues Catalina thought. Fernando would be home tomorrow. She needs to have dinner ready. His prison guard shift ends at four. Hopefully, there isn’t a lock down. Hopefully, he doesn’t head straight to his friends house to smoke a joint. Hopefully, he wants to see her and the baby maybe take the baby, so she can squeeze in a pedicure or take an exercise class. The baby weight needs to come off.

“Did you get the job,?” Isa asked her.

Catalina didn’t realize she was also on the mental to do list.

“Yes, thanks for the help, I am now an official librarian.”

“Well if you can’t do it in San Diego…” Isa trailed off. She disappeared to pack the diaper bag.

Catalina did do it in San Diego. She did it for a year while carrying a full load of units. Catalina remembers doing it all assuming she just could until she changed her mind.

“Do you need me to help you with anything, Isa?”

“No. I need to go. Lock the door on the way out and don’t forget to hide Abuela’s valium and watch her booze intake. She’s gotten worse since Mom.”

Catalina arms began to get goose bumps. She was cold.

 

The San Juan Hotel welcomed Catalina back with its familiar fabuloso cleaning fluid scent shooting up her nostrils. As she glided toward Leticia’s Supper Club, the hotel’s restaurant and bar, nicotine, alcohol and sizzling meat dissipated the lavender aroma. It had been over two years since she’d been there. The last time was during Thanksgiving break. She was with Nick were off from school and they were staying with her mom. Isa was married and humping herself into a frenzy for a baby. Their father had finally dissolved for good after pinging in and out of their lives. La Lupe was in a temporary apartment and her seared belongings were in storage. Everything was perfect.

Catalina entered through the ceramic tiled corridor lit by a lonely bulb that swayed back and forth to the same musicians that hadn’t seemed to stop playing since she could remember. They installed her first car stereo speakers as that was their day job that kept their nights free. She opted to flee from La Lupe’s sacred evening ritual of holding all calls and taking a vow of silence to watch her Spanish language soap operas. It took one viewing for Catalina to realize that all the novelas had the same plot. A naive but beautiful maid, nanny, or poor long lost relative innocently captures the heart of a rich handsome Latino while his conniving but striking ex-wife tries to ridicule, intimidate or poison the naive but beautiful maid, nanny or long lost poor relative who is so sweet she just wants to love his children and clean his toilets.

She found a stool at the end of the bar next to the floor to ceiling iron gate that separated it from the restaurant. The restaurant patrons looked like prisoners being sent to a dungeon with a well-stocked salad bar. Mini murals of bullfighting and flamenco dancing etched along the restaurant walls made it seem as if the Iberian peninsula was closer than the Mexican border.

Her mother loved dragging her to dinner here even on school nights or whenever their father would randomly disappear. She always seemed to know someone and sure enough, they’d wind up joining them, sharing a piece of steak too big for her mother or eating the fries off of Catalina’s plate. As she grew older and they continued with tradition, it occurred to Catalina it was almost as if her mother was waiting for someone who never showed.

A woman at the bar swiveled her oversized hips away from her rum and coke. The electric organist and guitarist slash car speaker technicians gave her the signal. She began to bellow out an old bolero song Catalina’s father used to hum. Her frosted tips glistened as a couple of primary colored strobe lights cascaded across her face. It was a busy night and everyone was watching her from the high bar tables and the crimson booths at the conquistador friendly restaurant.

She and Nick sat at the other end. She remembers her eagerness, she so desperately wanted him to find her interesting. A place like Leticia’s could quench his kitsch curiosity in a town like Calexico that struggled to hold onto anything that wasn’t a super sized meal or a Big Gulp. Her last image of Nick was him telling her she’d be hard pressed to find someone better with his eyes bulging like an embittered fish swimming in an ocean of mothball laced yard sale furniture. In the haze of her hangover as she was moving her things out to return to her home, Catalina, swore she saw the words bubble out of his mouth. Sometimes she wanted to call him and tell him that he was right. She was alone and taking a poor paying library job at an insignificant college she wasn’t even enrolled in. She could add dramatic effect, crying and begging that he make the one hundred and seventeen mile drive east to save her from this hapless trek back into the desert, helping her move her crap back to safety of their apartment. She could reenroll and get her old job back. As Catalina sipped her beer, she acknowledged that she missed San Diego and Nick but at least she didn’t feel like a failure in Calexico.

“Talia is that you?”

A man called from the end of the bar, leaning forward, gripping its vinyl edge. Catalina couldn’t make him out and she was distracted by the bolero woman who was finishing her solo. At first she didn’t think it was meant for her but a sense panic raced through her when she realized he meant Natalia, her mother. It’s Tsang she realized. Tsang who lives in the hotel and used to smoke cigarettes after dinner with her mother while Catalina had dessert; Isa always absent on her usual date with Fernando. Tsang and her mother would gossip or talk about the latest biography they were reading. He owned the market across from La Lupe’s burnt home on Main Street. It was originally an A&P his Chinese immigrant father opened at the turn of the century, having saved enough working for slave wages constructing irrigation canals. Catalina’s mother once told her that Tsang once showed her the store’s underground basement where there was a tunnel that used to go across the border into Mexicali during the prohibition. She asked Natalia if she was afraid that Tsang would chop her into bits or have his way with her. Natalia said Tsang was much too gentle with her to do such a thing. Her mother also added that he was quite gay.

Catalina’s saw that Tsang was drunk; his eyes seemed blurred with his baldhead moving to the rhythm of the organ’s rumba switch. She feared he’d get emotional with her. The Canales family buried Natalia within forty-eight hours like they do in Mexico but they invited no one. They had no wake, no glorious mysteries recited to rosary mourners or a public mass that celebrated her mother’s soul. No one eulogized Natalia or even threw a party afterward where there would be free catering, beer and wine with people catching up after years of not seeing one another, forgetting the soul they prayed for or the corpse they left in an empty cemetery lying under a heap of cheap rotting flowers.

She pretended like she didn’t see him. Natalia once taught her how to avoid people at close range. Her mother used this maneuver whenever she needed to avoid a conversation she didn’t want to have. Catalina would find somewhere quieter to drink.

The music from Leticia’s Supper club faded like an animal wailing from a distance as she zigzagged between severe Spanish colonial leather benches and sturdy refectory tables with brochures highlighting points of interest across the border in Baja California’s capital..The hotel lobby was deserted yet held together by its antiquity. She needed to avoid Tsang. The funeral was a regret but her mother’s death felt too heavy to have done anything differently. The entrance’s revolving door oscillated her into the night air. She began an aimless getaway that would pull her toward her grandmother’s old home.

Before she even started school like Isa she used to look forward to visiting La Lupe because it meant going downtown with her mother. They would drive onto the empty front yard, parking on a patch of dirt riddled with white rocks that had fallen from the roof. Catalina was careful not to step on the armies of red ants marching over the scorched earth. Natalia would fawn over turquoise bracelets and onyx earrings at Herzog’s jewelry while Catalina ate crumb donuts Mrs. Herzog had tucked away behind a velvety curtain on top of the black safe with its gold roulette lock. At the fabric store, a Spanish radio station would boom accordion heavy Norteño music while Catalina picked out scraps of material to make Barbie outfits as her mother rummaged through rows of deep bins trying to find suitable upholstery to redo their beat up sofa. She admired the glittery shimmer against her mother’s pale skin as she modeled an off the shoulder bugle beaded dresses. The owner of the dress shop, a Galician woman who smoked from a serpentine cigarette holder, would take in the loose material with safety pins, always commenting how Natalia had lost weight since her last visit. They’d duck into the local dime store to pick up one player activities, silly putty or colors and coloring books so if Natalia took too long talking to friends at the drug store lunch counter, Catalina had something to play with while she sipped her 7-up and ignored her cheese sandwich.

The street was always full and everyone was taller than her. Making their way back to La Lupe’s she held onto her mother’s slender hand, Hola Talia! echoing over and over, a fog of voices Catalina could not unscramble. She thought her mother must be an important person. Catalina would sometimes catch people she did not know looking longingly at her mother. She held on tighter, pretending her mother’s fingernail polish was her very own mood ring; bashful pink, heart shaped red, ice blue. Natalia acknowledged everyone never changing the length of her grin and wearing dark round sunglasses to hide away her weary gaze determined to continue the quixotic quest of maintaining beauty and grace even as contentment strained out of her like freshly squeezed orange juice. The visit to La Lupe was the oasis in desert after a long hot walk. Downtown was the whimsical mirage Catalina and her mother created as mother and daughter.

As she paced toward the burnt shell of her grandmother’s home that had not been touched, downtown’s commercial buildings where old men solemnly staring back at her with for rent signs stamped across their foreheads. A hum of crickets called out to her as spotty patches of light led the way, exposing the stained sidewalk, once a yellow brick road. Tsang’s market was still open for business at the end of the shabby street despite its owner’s intoxication at the local watering hole.

Catalina sat on her grandmother’s porch floor staring out into the street, watching the market close down for the night with a caguama, a bottle of beer named after a turtle’s body shape in her hand. Her bottom was covered in ash but she didn’t want to go home to a home that didn’t feel like her home anymore. La Lupe was still watching novelas. Isa had Fernando back and they were playing adults. She didn’t want to talk to anyone.

Main Street was full of potholes. It hadn’t changed since many monsoons ago when children celebrated the confining end of torrential rain by drifting along Calexico’s commercial district in inflatable rafts. The grocery store turned off its last light. Hermana Paula, La Lupe’s next-door neighbor’s imitation crystal chandelier was dimmed low. The fortuneteller’s unmade satin bed could be seen from a window that had a half open rainbow serape draped over its rod. Hermana Paula told Natalia and Catalina that it was she who called the fire department fearing La Lupe might have been trapped inside her home. She insisted that the heavy smoke wafting into her home office, once a Mexican restaurant had blocked her clairvoyance. Otherwise she would have known that La Lupe was staying across the border with Joanna.

As Catalina lit a cigarette, a homeless woman in a long housecoat appeared from behind the market’s alley. She was dragging a flat cardboard box she chose to assemble in the middle of the street. Catalina wondered if she was looking for a better place to sleep. The woman suddenly stopped and she was able to see that she was a frail aged woman and her frock was not a housecoat but a grimy white tunic with traditional Mexican embroidery on top. She carefully lined up the open square box in front of her, both hands grasping the serrated edge. With her head hanging down and her unkempt grey ponytail pointing toward the moonlight, the box lady slowly began to push along Main Street. Catalina assumed she’d keep going until she floated away out of sight, but the box lady stopped at the end of block, turned around and began to make her way back, never acknowledging the din of distant cars, the trickle of pedestrian traffic crossing back to Mexicali or even Catalina, who was now tracking her moves. The box lady stopped at the precise spot where she began her laborious push. She turned around. She began again. She said nothing and Catalina could only hear the contact between gravel and cardboard. At that moment Catalina wanted to understand what her future held, why her mother decided to leave her here alone forever held captive by the box lady pushing her load east to west, west to east, all night long.