An excerpt from “Media Vuelta,” by Michael Jayme-Becerra
When the Greyhound stops in El Monte, Jose Luis has trouble getting off. The aisle is too crowded for him to pass with his guitar case and bulging sack, so he waits. He stands as the other passengers bump and jostle one another, his sack’s thin handles cutting into his bony hand. A bead of sweat slips from the inner band of his Stetson. He tries to imagine Rubí waiting for him outside these stuffy confines, but her image escapes him yet again, and the anxiety at the back of his mind spreads wildly. When Jose Luis moves forward, he’s like a thermometer whose mercury has no room to rise.
He thanks the driver before exiting and ducks so that his hat doesn’t hit the top of the door. It’s late, about eleven-thirty, but the bus terminal is still busy with people. The Greyhound pulls away, replaced immediately by another rumbling bus. The air thickens with gray exhaust and Jose Luis coughs. He makes his way through the people milling around and finds the escalator that descends to the street. Downstairs, he rests on a concrete bench, happy to set his things down.
The plastic sack is made of a red and green mesh. It’s the type that women use to shop for groceries in the mercado, and he feels silly carrying it, as if he’s traveled from Chihuahua to El Monte with a purse instead of a suitcase. In the sack are three small bags of carne seca, the other half of a sausage sandwich, some clothes, and two soft apples that Jose Luis bought from a girl after crossing the border into El Paso. Underneath the sack is his guitar case. The case appears older than the guitar inside it, the thick black leather scuffed and scratched with nearly fifty years of wear. In places, the leather is cracked, and in one of these splits he has stowed his carefully folded money.
When he left this morning, the sack fit neatly under his seat, the first bus from Ciudad Chihuahua empty enough so that his guitar case rode on the seat next to him. After a lengthy inspection at the Juarez border, he asked for directions to the second bus station, his green card snapped securely in his breast pocket. The bus from El Paso to Phoenix was so full that he was forced to ride with the case upright in his lap, hat on his knee, face pressed to the window. It was twilight as they crossed the desert, a storm forcing the sun into quick remission. The sky darkened quickly, lightning jabbed the expanse of sand and cactus, and thunder thumped the sides of the bus.
Jose Luis is sixty-five years old, and he hasn’t left much behind him. His second wife died some time ago, and the last decade of his life in Chihuahua has been a sad and solitary stretch of time. His daughters from his second marriage, Josephina and Lourdes, were both married long ago. They have families of their own and work at jobs that pin them to the American factories on the Mexican side of the border. Lourdes makes circuit boards for IBM, and Josephina installs door handles on an assembly line for Ford. Once a month they both send Jose Luis money orders, the total averaging thirty dollars. He makes the rest of his money playing for Mexican tourists visiting the cathedral in the plaza. Up until this summer he was content getting by with enough for a few tacos de buche and a few cervecitas on Sunday night.
But last August, Josephina enclosed a letter along with her money order. The letter was a brief one about a young girl named Laura who had begun working at the Ford plant in the spring. Laura was assigned to the same assembly line as Josephina, and when the two women talked on the bus ride home, the subject of family arose. They talked about their parents getting older, and Laura told Josephina she felt lucky that only her tío Jose had died, a distant uncle in California whom she hadn’t seen since grade school. In the course of the conversation, Josephina recognized the name of the man’s wife, along with the name of the city from which she came. Josephina asked more about this woman, and by coincidence she happened to be who Josephina suspected, Rubí Navarro Santiago, her father’s first wife, the woman she remembered her parents arguing about all through her childhood. Laura brought an address to Josephina, who, out of curiosity more than anything, told her father it might be nice if he passed on a few kind, comforting words to his former spouse.
Instead Jose Luis spent the summer revisiting a time he had long forgotten. He could no longer picture Rubí perfectly, and he went through his things in search of old photographs, only to come up empty-handed (his second wife had burned them all long ago). The summer wore on with all the humid stickiness Chihuahua has in August and vague recollections arose with increased frequency from the depths of Jose Luis’s memory, smells and tastes and sounds he once knew well. When tourists requested the occasional bolero of Jose Luis, he played the ballads with Rubí in mind, singing with his eyes closed, and soon enough she began making fuzzy appearances before him. When the weather had cooled, Jose Luis played only these requests, and most of the money he had made began going to an adjacent group of Tarahumara Indians, three grubby girls wrapped in swaths of paisley whose songs were composed of horrible squawking noises made by reedy wooden flutes. By November, snow falling in the plaza, the city around Jose Luis alive with his past, he’d convinced himself that every day he awoke in Chihuahua was a wasted opportunity to make amends and win Rubí back.
“Media Vuelta” originally appeared in its entirety in the print version of At Length, which no longer exists. To read the whole story, check out Michael Jayme-Becerra’s Every Night is Ladies’ Night. And to make sure you don’t miss future novellas from At Length, please sign up for our RSS feed or email list.