Gabriela Maria raises a ceramic spoon filled with cold gazpacho to her lips and sips the contents. The hot, dry afternoon sun filters through her faded yellow curtains and lands slanted onto her brown, wrinkled arm then to the tricoloured carpet on the floor beside her. Involuntarily she gazes out her window and through her backyard to the road that passes her doorstep. There are no cars and no one walking along the road and Gabriela experiences a familiar pang of grief. It’s better not to keep looking at the road but her eyes keep drifting to it after every cold gulp of soup. Rodolfo glances up from his soup. His black eyebrows furrow and wrinkles appear on his otherwise smooth, soft forehead.
“¿Qué pasa, mamá?”
“Qué piensas, Rodolfo.” It’s useless. Rodolfo continues to look at her while his spoon floats on the top of his gazpacho. Finishing his soup he stands up and removes his mother’s bowl from the table. Gabriela remains in her chair clasping and unclasping her hands. Their bungalow, built of cement, is guarded by a black wrought iron fence surrounding the premises – a feature Hernando insisted upon only three month ago. Walking though the door there is a small kitchen with an electric stove, a refrigerator and an ornate armoire filled with hand painted china. In the middle of the kitchen is a solid oak table filled with scratches and dents. Etched into one edge of the table is Hernando’s signature word when he was eleven years old – “shit”. Gabriela had locked Hernando in his room for an entire night when she saw the engraving on her oak table, but the punishment would have been worse had she understood the English word. There is a large window with yellow lace curtains beside the back wall of the kitchen beside the refrigerator. This is the window Gabriela stares out for hours each day until her back cramps up and she shuffles outside to take a walk down the road that runs in front of her pink stuccoed home. Today, while walking down the road thoughts shift aimlessly through her mind: In three days she will need to pay the electricity bill; Rodolfo will have to go to work tomorrow which means she will be alone for the day; her heels are aching from the worn out soles of her sandals and she can feel the small stones under her paper thin footing as she walks. How many days has it been? She begins counting, although she’s already made the tally for today and can easily remember the tally from yesterday and add one or the tally from the day before and add two. 11 de Junio is when Hernando last came home and today we are 23 de Junio which means it’s been twelve days since she saw Hernando last. It’s the longest he has ever been away from home and Gabriela’s hands are stiff and aching from the twisting and pulling that they’ve suffered since Hernando’s disappearance.
I’m no idiot, thinks Gabriela. I know how much a new refrigerator and stove costs. I also know how much a wrought iron fence costs and all of these things could not be paid for off of Hernando’s salary as a mechanic – especially not when some of that salary goes to Alejandra for José. It’s been months since she’s seen either of them so it’s safe to assume they are split for good but why it happened is beyond Gabriela’s understanding. Families are supposed to stay together through the best of it and the worst of it, para mejor o para peor. Hernando won’t discuss this with her though and so she’s given up trying. She squeezes her eyes against the hot afternoon sun and wipes small beads of salty sweat from her creased brow. If Hernando comes home, she thinks, I’ll never bring up Alejandra again - never. She hears shuffling behind her and slows down her pace. Rodolfo catches up to her and slides his arm through hers. He’s a good boy, she thinks, but what happened to his brother? Ever since he was a child Rodolfo was meeker, sweeter, a homebody. Rodolfo would stand next to Gabriela in the kitchen while she pulled apart chicken for sopa de lima. He would peel the limes and dig out the sour flesh and hand them one by one to Gabriela, basking in the praise he’d receive for helping in the kitchen. Hernando could not be persuaded to stay inside. Where did Hernando go when he wasn’t home? Why wasn’t I paying better attention to that? When Hernando came home at 9 p.m., having missed dinner, moody and quiet, why didn’t I demand answers? Gabriela knew why. She wasn’t sure when it started, but there came a time when she started to fear Hernando – not that she believed he would hurt her, but that she was unable to discipline him anymore. He was beyond her, and if she tried to demand answers or keep Hernando home, she worried that he would simply disregard her demands. There would be nothing she could do to keep him home and by imposing rules that she could no longer enforce, she would lose what little integrity and power she had managed to keep in the house if he decided to disobey her. If only Miguel was still alive, still here – Hernando never would have slipped past the grip of his father. Nunca. How could Rodolfo and Hernando have turned out so differently, growing up under the same roof? These were questions that Gabriela could not answer and now they didn’t matter. Hernando had been gone for 12 días… y a dónde? So many questions existed within Gabriela’s mind without a single avenue for answers. Rodolfo knew none of Hernando’s friends and neither did Gabriela – he never brought a single friend home. As he got older he would stroll into their house later and later. Gabriela always waited up because she was incapable of sleeping when she didn’t know where Hernando was. She would wait up all night as he got older and started skipping coming home altogether. It was around that time that Alejandra came into the picture. Gabriela had hoped, in vain, that Alejandra would straighten Hernando’s direction. She had hoped Alejandra would encourage Hernando to come home and see her, to spend more time with her. The result was the opposite. Once Alejandra came into the picture he had a place to stay in Michoacán. However, even at the worst of times he would never go more than a few days without coming home to visit. He would show up at the door with some kind of gift – a peace offering – hoping to assuage his mothers concerns with gadgets. Hernando even had a cell phone which she desperately wanted to call but had no landline of her own. After he had gone a week without visiting, Gabriela walked the two hours to Hector’s house in their neighbouring town. Miguel had worked with Hector and he was a good friend to Gabriela, but he also had a landline. She stayed at his house all afternoon trying Hernando’s cell but the line would disconnect after two rings. Hector tried to explain to her that meant the cell phone’s battery was dead - muerto - a word Gabriela had no interest in hearing.
Rodolfo gently pulls on Gabriela’s arm, guiding her back towards the direction of their home. It’s getting hot and Rodolfo has learned that if he doesn’t walk with his mother she might wander all afternoon, returning in the evening dehydrated and full of dust. There’s no one left to take care of her, he thinks. He had once planned on moving to Guadalajara and finding a wife. He wanted to own his own store and sell some of the food he had been so good at preparing growing up. That would be impossible now. His mother would not leave her home where she had lived for over 45 years and he would not leave her alone. Pinche Hernando, he thinks, that selfish son of a bitch. He had never been close to Hernando - he couldn’t understand his callousness, his moodiness. He didn’t fear him the way his mother did in his later years; rather, he just resented him. He knew, without ever being told directly, that Hernando was selling drugs in Michoacán. He didn’t admire him for it and he wasn’t envious of all the money he brought home – money he had to begrudgingly accept because they needed it. He just thought his brother was impossibly stupid. Ever since the cartel split in Michoacán the competition for control of the city had been a blood bath. Rodolfo suspected Hernando was working with the Familia cartel, but he had no way of knowing for sure. He would never ask and Hernando would never tell. He didn’t want to know anyway – the further away you stay from that mess, the better. Rodolfo would listen to the radio in an effort to glean any information about the combat for dominance in Michoacán but the only information he ever got was running totals of the dead. The tally of los muertos only increased and they murders had become increasingly gruesome in an effort to send clear broadcasts of which cartel was the strongest. There were always more and they were always nameless – unidentified nobodies that no one sympathized for because that was the risk you took when you got involved in the trade. Furthermore, los federales and the DEA were becoming less inclined to get involved because involvement put their necks in the noose too. Rodolfo knew all this and Hernando knew it too – the reality of the situation escaped no one. He always turned off the broadcasts if Gabriela entered the room.
Rodolfo handed Gabriela some water he had brought along in a plastic bottle. Her lips were cracked and flaking and she drank the warm water quickly. Handing back the bottle to Rodolfo she straightened her stiff back and looked up to meet her son in the eyes. Her look conveyed too many emotions at once: Gratitude, exhaustion, fear, and love. By the time they made their way back to the road that passed in front of their door the sun was coming down and casting a dark red haze above the yellow sand of their road. In the distance they could see a car parked in front of their house, even Gabriela with her poor eyesight could discern the shape in front of her house. She breathed in sharply and squeezed Rodolfo’s arm and quickened her pace. The black SUV began speeding towards them, kicking up dry dust and creating a cloud of nothingness behind it. It sped past Gabriela and Rodolfo indiscriminately, as though if they had been only two feet to the right the car would have run them down just for being in the way. The dust settled and their house came back into view, much closer now than before. Rodolfo saw it before Gabriela did and steered her away from the front lawn where her oldest son lay slumped across their front stoop. “Necesitamos verduras, mamá” Rodolfo lied, leading her towards the small garden behind their house, instructing her to collect some cabbage for supper, but her eyes remained fixed on the SUV in the distance, now only a spot, a dark stain on the otherwise barren landscape.
Lindsay Clayton Day works as a
high school Spanish and English teacher. While teaching is a joy,
writing has been a lifelong passion. “Jalisco” is a reflection of her affinity for Mexican culture and