Hold My Calls

Hold my calls

I made an announcement a few days ago that Deputy Ricos Tale 5, “A Reasonable Explanation,” will be released in August. Somebody asked what happened to “The Hardest Word.” Good question. That was a working title and in the end it didn’t make sense for this novel. My publisher liked the title and so did I, but I can’t write to fit a title. It doesn’t work like that.

“A Reasonable Explanation” is the same novel I started, but it didn’t go where I thought it was going because Deputy Ricos kept taking it other places. The plot I had in mind would have made sense for the former title, but it wasn’t to be. One thing is clear to me: the deputy no longer cares what I think.

The imagination that brings forth fictional works also brings all the bugaboos you can imagine. As I write on the next Tale, I’m sometimes gripped by panic. What if my readers don’t like the new novel? What if I never finish another one? What if? What if?

“So what if they don’t like it?” counters Deputy Ricos with a lot of attitude for a woman I could erase with a tap on the delete key.

The problem is that I won’t/can’t erase her and she knows it. She is in me and I am in her. If she and I never wrote another tale, she’d still be with me as long as I live.

I think I struggled to write about 80,000 words before my character took it away from me. “Good grief,” I could hear her say, “You have no idea what you’re doing. Go read or something. I’ve got this.”

It’s with you, Deputy Ricos. Please hold my calls.

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The Boy in Room Nine

This essay was published in the Big Bend Gazette  almost five years ago, so you may have seen it. Spoiler alert: This is sad in places. I’m posting it today because today is his birthday.

The first time I saw him was in Paso Lajitas, Mexico.

We spent the night, my boyfriend and I, in a house I knew was his, but he never mentioned that his parents lived there, too. We arrived at three AM when the place was dark and still. I assumed we were alone.

The next day a woman was sweeping the kitchen, and a man was raking the yard. I hadn’t really taken this in when a chubby child burst through the screen door, letting it bang shut behind him. I thought he was a neighbor boy, but he hadn’t bothered to knock.

The wrinkled woman wielded her broom with frightening intensity. She hadn’t combed her hair yet, and her Spanish was impossible to understand, and she was talking to me. I had managed, “Buenos días”, but barely spoke more than that, and she rolled off a long string of questions or directives—or something.

I tried to leave, but when I started walking towards the Rio Grande, she began to squawk and flail her arms. She was concerned I was leaving without an adiós or a cup of café. I finally got it that I was to have coffee in her house, at her table. I went back obediently, sat down, and pondered these odd people who had turned up in my boyfriend’s home.

Halfway through the first cup, which tasted like the river but worse, my boyfriend staggered out of the bedroom, blushed deeply, and sat across from me. We mumbled “Buenos Días” to each other, and then the woman descended on him with a steaming cup of river-y brew and a million run-on words.

He held his hangover-tortured head in his hands. All I understood of the entire conversation was when he said, “Por favor, Mama, silencio.”

He had called her Mama.

His mother had essentially caught us in the act.

And there was this boy gawking from the kitchen. For whatever reason, he found me riveting. I found him somewhat repulsive in his grimy shirt and oversized belly. Since he was staring, I smiled, but he only stared, his mouth open slightly. I had no patience for children. I didn’t dislike them; I simply didn’t bother with them.

On top of everything else, the child had no table manners. He ate like a pig, and the old woman encouraged him, as if he needed her help.

When we left, the woman smiled and had many words for me. They seemed kind, but I was lost and said almost nothing. The grubby boy snickered. I glowered at him and hoped I’d never run into him again.

Eventually my boyfriend and I were properly married in Texas. The nameless boy was at our wedding, grabbing food off tables laden with it and discussing me with his equally filthy little friends. They dashed around the guests, giggled, made faces and farting noises.

I finally asked my new husband, “Who is that boy?”

He motioned to the reprobate, who didn’t hesitate to come forward.

“This is your nephew, Manuel.” Then he explained to the boy that I was his Tía Beth.

The boy named Manuel held out a grungy hand, and I had no choice but to take it. I was now related to the little insect. He grinned.

* * *

Twenty-seven years later I’m sitting in room nine of the intensive care unit in Odessa Medical Center Hospital, looking at Manuel, a man I love so much I think my heart will burst. He’s had a stroke at the young age of thirty-seven. Machines breathe for him, feed him, medicate, and hydrate him. A machine carries waste from his body to a bag. Another massages his feet so he won’t have blood clots in his legs.

“Wake up, Manuel. You have to wake up.” My words remind me of his school days when he was sometimes reluctant to rise and shine.

“You must wake up. You have to.”

Nobody could wake him, but I was arrogant enough to think he would come out of a coma for me. After all, I had loved him since he was ten, taught him to bathe and dress in clean clothes every morning. I even taught him to use a flush toilet.

It started with, “Will you enroll my nephew in Terlingua School?”

I did it for my new husband whom I adored. I married one man but got two. It took less than five weeks to fall in love with Manuel. Why hadn’t I noticed how cute he was, how happy and easy to get along with? And what a big heart he had?

Now that heart is enlarged, strained; his blood pressure rages and his brain is badly damaged. Then the doctors drop by to say there’s a 97% chance he’ll never wake up.

This cannot be happening, not to Manuel.

* * *

I began to take him places because he’d never been anywhere. In Alpine, there was a five-and-dime that had a section devoted to toys, so I took him and said I’d buy him one thing, his choice. He perused aisle after aisle, eyes wide with wonder. After lengthy deliberation, he chose a helmeted man on a motorcycle. As far as I know, he still has it. He seldom played with it and kept it on a shelf. Many more toys would follow, but that one was special, to both of us.

For lunch that day he had his first American cheeseburger and French fries. While eating, he shyly asked if I was a gringa.

I admitted I was.

He gave this the same long deliberation he had given his choice of toys. I thought I knew what he was thinking. He had heard negative things about gringos, and maybe something had been said about me in particular. I hadn’t exactly made an impressive debut with his family.

His big brown eyes held mine a long time, and then he asked, “Are you sure?”

I laughed and said I was. Why did it matter? He shrugged, avoiding the question.

We were leaving the restaurant when he looked up at me, his eyes shining with emotion. “I like you anyway,” he assured me.

I told him I liked him, too, and as he took my hand, I realized the little insect had effortlessly infested my heart.

* * *

Now we imagine that he still hears us, so we talk to him. The doctors say he can’t hear. It’s not his ears—they work fine. The brain he needs to process the sound does not. So we touch him until they instruct us not to. They don’t want him over-stimulated. His blood pressure still rages out of control. We can’t talk to him or touch him so we watch him, willing him to open his eyes.

I wordlessly beg him to wake up, but somehow I know he won’t. I sit with him, talking to him in my head. Thank you for sharing your wonderful self with me, Manuel. The world will be different without you in it.

 I want to gather him onto my lap and kiss him, tickle him, make him laugh, make it all better.

It will be so hard to let you go.

The ventilator makes a steady, rhythmic sound. My daughter, his sister Margarita, stands next to me with tears rolling down her face.

* * *

From the day I brought her home from the hospital he referred to her as his sister. She never knew differently until elementary school. Anyway, in our family, relationships are cloudy, and others are confused by who’s who. I refer to Manuel as my son and he calls me Mom. I was his aunt for only weeks. I became his mother without realizing it. There was no special day to commemorate.

Manuel was a gift I accepted without question, which was strange for a woman immune to children. I can’t explain it except to say it was a chubby, dirty boy who changed me.

One day we were lying on my bed, counting Margarita’s fingers and toes for the thousandth time and marveling at the perfection of her tiny self.

Manuel looked over at me. “Right that I have your blood, too?” He needed to belong, those eyes said, and he wanted to belong to me.

“No, Manuel, you don’t,” I said, “but you have something more important than my blood.”

His eyes were huge. “What’s that?”

“You have my heart.”

* * *

Day eight of the hospitalization: His team of doctors wants to meet with the family. Five of us are chosen to listen to their dire prognosis. These guys give new meaning to “grim.” They have to replace the breathing tube which is now causing damage to his throat. They can do this with a tracheotomy and at the same time install a feeding tube in his stomach.

They believe, according to the latest brain scan, that Manuel is in a vegetative state. His chance of waking is 1%. And if he awakens, he’ll likely not know anyone or even himself. I thought that was terrible news but then they dropped the bomb: We can keep him alive for years, but at what cost to him? Once we install the breathing mechanism in his throat, if God wants to take him, he won’t be able to go. Later, when the family realizes the kind of life they’ve chosen for him, the only way to let him go would be to remove his feeding tube and medications. In other words, you’d have to choose to kill him.

I can’t grasp the horror of that.

* * *

Before Manuel spoke much English, I tutored him on what to say if we were stopped by Border Patrol (his one great terror): “What is your citizenship?” “American.” “Where were you born?” “Odessa, Texas.”

We did get stopped, by a female Border Patrol agent. Manuel’s eyes were huge. She leaned towards the window and asked my citizenship.

“I’m an American citizen,” I said, loudly and clearly, so he would remember what we had practiced.

She then asked Margarita’s citizenship. “She’s an American citizen,” I said again, loudly, so Manuel would take the hint.

But when she asked him, he froze.

She repeated the question differently, “Of what country are you a citizen?”

Manuel said proudly, “Odessa, Texas!”

She and I laughed and she let us go on.

A few years later, Manuel introduced me to George Strait and wherever we drove we listened to him at high volume. When I tried to sing along, he would make the sound of a police siren. Irritating, but so comical I had to laugh.

He could also do the best impromptu rap I’ve ever seen. Manuel was always entertaining us.

* * *

So. Boiled down, our choices are to remove the breathing tube, unplug the various machinery doing various jobs, and let him go quietly, or to relegate this man we love to years of a vegetative partial-existence. My God, what kind of choice is that?

A young man of fifteen, much like his father, steps up. “My Dad wouldn’t want that,” he says, so sure we all hear it. Anthony will carry on his dad’s legacy: big heart, kindness to all, and endless good humor.

As his body dies, I hold Manuel’s big hand and worry that he never knew the extent of my love or how much I appreciated his sense of humor and the kind things he did for me. In every way that matters, he was my son. The depth of my grief surprises me, but I don’t know why since he still has my heart.

Breaking the Rules

breaking the rules One sparkling day in 1983, The Cowboy invited me to come to Paso Lajitas. I met him at the Lajitas Crossing on the Rio Grande at the specified time and was surprised to see he’d brought his truck to meet me. His preferred method of travel was his horse, “Gringo.”

We ate lunch, which probably made my throat burn and my nose run, but I bet I had seconds. After eating, the group sat around the table talking in an animated way about various things. I was lost within the first few minutes, but I smiled and pretended to be there.

My mind wandered all over. It has always ignored a command to “stay.” From the open doorway, I watched the dirt road and the sunlight pouring onto it. A clattering old truck passed, raising a cloud of dust that hung suspended and made everything hazy. Laughing boys rode by on a donkey.

Cowboy turned to me and said, “¡Vámonos!” I knew that meant we were leaving, but that’s as far as it went. He could have been returning me to the crossing, taking me to San Carlos, or flying me to the moon. I would’ve gone anywhere with him, so why make a fuss?

We were going horseback riding, or one of us was. We only saddled one horse. Maybe there was another horse waiting somewhere. Or perhaps he was going to ride and I was going to watch him—do what?

We headed towards the river on foot with Cowboy leading Gringo. It was hilarious listening to him encourage the horse to keep moving. “Andale, Gringo.” “¿Que paso, Gringo?” “¡Muévete, Gringo!” It sounded like he was putting a “gringo” through his paces.

At the bank of the Rio Grande, Cowboy jumped up into the saddle with the speed and agility of a cricket. He held out his hand to me. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t yet mastered mounting the normal way and now this? Gringo looked ten feet tall from where I stood. Who signed me up for cowboy stuff anyway? I managed to mount, thanks to the help of a strong hand, but there was nothing graceful about it.

I asked where we were going because it was clear no information would be volunteered. He pointed skyward to the Mesa de Anguila. I had been up there hiking and I knew it was Big Bend National Park land. Back in those days, horseback riding was allowed in the park, but only on specific trails.

I blurted, “That’s Big Bend National Park.”

He nodded and clucked at Gringo and into the water we went.

“No caballos,” I added in case he didn’t know that rule.

“Si,” he said. “No caballos.”

I asked why we were going into the park. We had the entire Mexican side of the river to explore. Why flaunt our great big beautiful caballo in Park Service faces?

“Estoy buscando una vaca.” He was looking for a cow. Ohmygod. Was I really going to enter the national park with an undocumented immigrant while riding on forbidden livestock in order to look for another type of forbidden livestock?

Once we arrived on the American side of the river, we got off the horse and had a huddle about our mission. Cowboy explained that if park service people found the cow before he did, he would never see it again. His eyes told the gravity of the story more effectively than his words.

In answer to the above question: yes. I did not hear me backing out. I was a good girl gone bad. And it didn’t even take a long time…

We remounted the horse. On the upside, I was getting better at that. We headed up and when I say up, I’m talking about straight up. It was terrifying. Rocks were flying into the air and the horse was slipping and sliding. All the cowboy had to say about it was to “hang on,” as if that helped.

He said, “Ay, Gringo” and other encouraging words to his caballo, but his girlfriend was slipping off the horse’s rear. Remember that I was in back of the saddle AND I was not a horsewoman in the first place AND I wasn’t supposed to be there anyhow. I wondered if my sisters would even be surprised if I died falling off a steep mountainside above the Rio Grande while accompanying a handsome cowboy on an outlaw mission. No. They wouldn’t be. They would miss me, but surprised? No.

The top of the mesa is another world. There aren’t supposed to be any cattle in it. Absolutely not. Or horses. As I glanced around for park personnel, Cowboy explained that animals don’t understand that one side of the Rio is Mexico and one side is another country where they are not welcome. Well, duh.

To shorten the story, Cowboy found the renegade. He left me lolling on a rock to admire the river while he ventured farther onto the land where neither he nor his animals were supposed to be. He came back towing a cow with a rope tied around one horn. I was horrified to see that a bull was following them. Okay, let me rephrase that. A black, bus-sized creature followed a few hundred paces behind. He snorted occasionally in case anyone mistook him for a puppy.

Cowboy gave an innocent shrug. “El toro no es mio.” Maybe the bull wasn’t his, but it was in love with his cow.

I indicated El Toro and asked, “Is he coming with us?”

“Who is going to stop him?”

That settled that.

Then, because the cowboy can’t help himself, he asked with a straight face, “You riding with me or would you prefer to take the bull?”

 

2015 First Place Winner!

2015 first placeToday it’s official! The Texas Association of Authors has announced that “Border Ghosts” won first place in the Police/Crime Fiction division. I jumped the gun and announced it on my Facebook author page a few days early. That’s a long story that doesn’t bear repeating here (or anywhere!)  I won, so I’m entitled to a little bit of early yada, yada, yada, right?
I’m thrilled. I’m proud. I’m grateful. I’ve laughed and cried and happy-danced about it. I’m also a nervous wreck that I’ll never do it again. That’s one heck of a lot of emotion and random thoughts banging around in the head of a woman who is trying to write. I already have so many things going on in my head I wonder when it will explode. Or maybe it has.

I’m working on the next Deputy Ricos tale and planning the next and so on. It’s not enough to win an award. I have to keep writing.  And OMG, the pressure to make it measure up.

It all began so innocently. Well, it wasn’t 100% innocence.  I wanted a woman to die and I killed her. End of story, right? Wrong. I opened a dam.

Sometimes when I sit staring at my uncooperative laptop (it won’t write unless I’m typing on it) I wonder if I’m doing the right thing.  What have I started?

A New Year, Crazy-Writer Style

bookLast year was difficult in many ways, but writing-wise it was amazing. I got a tiny taste of what it would be like to be famous…very tiny, mind you, but it scared me to death. My overriding thought: I don’t have what it takes for this.

“Don’t you think you’d better figure it out?” snapped Deputy Ricos from inside my head. “You can’t just walk away!”

I told her to hide and watch me. She didn’t like it, but what was she going to do about it, write herself? That was what I half-expected. Anyway, I ignored her. What did I care?

Then I got a call from Front Street Books for more books. When I delivered them, someone asked, “When is your next Ricos novel coming out?” Ricos novel? La, la, la, I can’t hear you.

Whether I was ready or not, 2015 slid in. Even from a state of denial, I could feel the sizzling excitement and potential of a brand new year. What was I going to do if I didn’t write? Lie around?

After a couple of days of pathetic procrastination (Netflix, Pinterest, whining to friends), I rethought the whole writing thing. Forget fame and fortune (neither of which I have), the truth is I’m driven to write by a force I don’t understand. Deputy Ricos was correct that I needed to figure some things out, but the first thing for me, always, is to write.

Once I shoved away my doubts and fears and gave myself over to it, my muse came. I don’t even know what that is exactly, but when it comes I feel as though I’ve been zapped; I’m wired. I was held captive for two weeks and voila! My novel is finished. It needs polishing and tweaking, but the most painful part is behind me.

If you didn’t miss me while I was gone, that’s okay. I didn’t miss me either until I “came home.” This sounds crazy, and I know it is, but when I say I was “gone,” I’m not kidding. I was living the wrong life, at the wrong age, doing things I can’t do; everything was wrong, but oh, what fun! I returned to my “real” life a little disappointed that I had to return at all…not to mention I felt lost. Huh? What’s going on? Where is everybody? Today I went grocery shopping (don’t ask me what I ate for two weeks because I have no idea) and Alpine is still here.

No matter what else you can say about me, I’ve proven that I can start something and finish it. Now, if I could just apply that to housekeeping and staying organized. ¡Ojalá!

Typical of “the way things go” I’ve returned, but The Daily Planet is leaving. It’s going on “retirement mode” so Mike and Cindy can travel and have time to do whatever they choose. More power (and all good wishes) to them!

Without doubt, I will continue to be my opinionated, outspoken self on my blog here and also at this location: www.elizabethagarciaauthor.com  I’m not promising to post weekly. The only thing I can promise is to write.

Adiós, friends and Happy Trails! Thank you for the time you spent with me.

A Gift from a Six-Year-Old Girl

 

scrabble New Year Christmas has come and gone. Whatever holiday you celebrated, I hope it was wonderful. In reflecting on the many presents I received, an important one from long ago came to mind. It was a gift that had nothing to do with any holiday, but it embodies the spirit of this time of year: love.

In the column, “Adventures with the Cowboy,” I told you about the first full day in I spent in Mexico with a native. I failed to mention an important part of that story. When I came out of the bathroom at the cowboy’s brother’s home, a small girl was waiting for me in the hall. She had gleaming black pigtails to her waist and was off the charts on the cuteness scale.

“This is Azucena,” the cowboy said. He obviously adored her.

She smiled up at me and quietly gave her preferred name, “Susy.”

“Susy,” I repeated and told her my name, but she took my hand and called me “Tia.” I wasn’t married to her uncle but how would I explain that in my limited Spanish? I let it be because she didn’t seem to care. Susy accepted me for the clueless gringa I was. She pulled me through her house, showing me the things that were important to her: toys, books, and her little brother. She patiently told me the names of things in Spanish and I repeated the words. I explained what they were in English and she did the repeating. We laughed and had fun and didn’t care if we were butchering each other’s language. Being only six, Susy didn’t understand everything going on, either. Maybe she thought I was a little girl, too.

As we were leaving, Susy asked the cowboy if she could come with us. If he’d been the type of man who could’ve said no to his adorable niece, I would never have married him. When he told her to “get in the truck,” she looked up at me and grinned as if we were partners in a conspiracy. Her dark eyes were shining. She repeated what he’d said as if I didn’t understand him but would understand the words if she said them. Who wouldn’t fall for such a precious child?

Susy seemed to understand me no matter what came out of my mouth. We didn’t need language so much. That afternoon, she made the many painful introductions to strangers seem easier. My Spanish was so bad that people would often look at the cowboy and ask, “What did she say?”

I wanted to yell, “What is wrong with you? I was speaking Spanish!” but the amazing thing was that Cowboy usually understood. Maybe it was in the same way parents understand their newly-talking baby when no one else can. It comes with familiarity mixed with a lot of trying hard.

Susy sat close to me when we rode around or stood close when we were standing. She was my tiny six-year-old champion. She made me feel loved and accepted, so I wasn’t really a stranger anymore. I couldn’t speak the language of her country, but I understood hers. Susy spoke love and I got it loud and clear. I stopped being so nervous about not understanding words. Everybody everywhere responds to love.

Here we are in the last week of 2014 and by the time you read this, there won’t even be an entire week of it left. I usually feel panicky at this time; I start to beat up on myself for not accomplishing all my goals or for my “fails” and perceived “fails.” I refuse to do that this year. Instead, I’m going to work on being more like six-year-old Susy—full of love and not afraid to take it out and spread it around.

I wish you the best in 2015. I hope there are many “Susys” to take your hand when you need it, but if you don’t have a Susy, try to be one.

 

Tamales for Christmas

tamales

It was a month before Christmas, 1983. I was sitting in a hole-in-the-wall café in Ojinaga, Mexico with my husband of five months. We’d been to a dance in Lajitas, so it must have been two or three in the morning. The place was clean and the food was mouth-watering, but it was not like a restaurant in the U.S. Not like any restaurants I’d been in, anyway. It was humble, with seating for twelve if you pushed it. Nothing matched as far as the décor went, but the most striking thing was that instead of an all-out “Christmas is coming” theme, there was one straggly bundle of tinsel hanging in the window. Other than that, it was business as usual.

“I hope you don’t make a big fuss about Christmas,” my cowboy said, as if he’d been reading my mind.

As usual, I didn’t know where this was going, so my comment was, “I love Christmas.” I was enthusiastic because I did love it and still do.

“Okay; but do you make it a big deal?”

“Well, yes!”

He said, “I hate it.”

I tried not to panic. This was just one more way in which we were as different as the high country of the Chisos Mountains and the floor of the Chihuahuan Desert. Together those two make an astounding national park; better together than they would be separately. I had high hopes for us.

“Christmas makes me think of all the poor kids who get nothing,” my husband continued. “How can anybody believe in Santa Claus? And what a cruel thing it is to tell children about an imaginary old man who brings gifts.”

This handsome hombre was totally ruining my buzz. Then he said, “We’re not going to tell that lie to our children.”

“Now wait,” I said. “Our children will not be poor. Why can’t we have fun with them? I’ll show you how much fun Christmas can be.”

“I have never been given a new toy.” He spoke as though he hadn’t heard a thing I said. “Not once in my life.”

By this point I was biting back tears. “What did you get at Christmas?”

“Tamales,” he said, “If we were lucky enough.”

* * *

Our first Christmas together was spent in San Carlos, Mexico, my new husband’s hometown. We stayed with his sister and her family, but we were in and out of so many houses I lost count. Many of the people we visited were relatives, but I seldom caught the connection in the introduction. I was included in everything, no matter how lost and foreign I must have seemed to them. I was becoming adept at smiling and pretending to know what was going on.

I had lobbied the cowboy until he accepted the fact that I was going to take little gifts for our nieces and nephews. My Christmas spirit was not to be deterred, but I did tone it down a notch.

I gave my sister-in-law a few decorations for her table and windows. It was not much because I didn’t want my husband to be uncomfortable. When he saw his sister’s face light up, he smiled at me. I believe she still has those things 31 years later.

Every time I have ever been in Mexico I learned something of value. That year I learned that Christmas does indeed come “without ribbons. It comes without tags. It comes without packages, boxes, or bags.” (Thank you to Dr. Seuss). Of course I knew that already, but I came to understand it on a more gut level. I took it to heart.

That Christmas was the first time I heard the familiar tune of “Silent Night” with different words, beautiful words. All I understood was: “Noche de paz, noche de amor,” which means “night of peace, night of love.” I believe those two things are what we need more than anything, every night and every day of the year. I believed it then and haven’t changed my mind about it in 31 years.

Strangers hugged and welcomed me everywhere I went. I was offered empanadas and bizcochos until I thought I’d explode. At night we bundled up and watched the stars and breathed in the clean, cold air. We shared tamales with our family because we were “lucky enough” to have them. We laughed and had fun. Children ran around, joyous to be alive no matter any other thing.

This Christmas, I wish you everything your heart desires. I hope you are full of joy and if you are, please spread it around. We live in a world desperate for love, peace, and joy. I hope you are “lucky enough” to share tamales with people you love.