MARIA WAS USED TO TIGHT SPACES, unlike Michael who always felt a little as though he were living in a jail cell with an unlocked door and as a consequence took many walks to alleviate the sensation of claustrophobia. But Maria, she had known nothing but limited space since she was born.
She was born in Hermosillo, Mexico, and was delivered by midwives--not because her mother had read books on natural childbirth or had rebelled against doctors and hospitals and anything that reeked of a male-dominated society, but because that is how it was done on the east side of Hermosillo where "los pobrecitos," the poor ones, lived. It was purely a matter of tradition dictated by economics. If you were born to parents who lived on the west side of town, who lived in one of those houses up on the hill on one of those long avenues with all the beautiful gardens with boganvias and fusias and large aromatic roses, in one of those houses with long shady entrance ways and cool gardens with fountains, in one of those houses bordered by quiet, well-protected streets watched over by the police, you went to the hospital to be born; or rather your mother went to the hospital to have you.
In the case of Maria, she did not have to leave the house to come into the world, and the birth had been relatively quick and easy for Marias mother.
True, her father had wanted another son--or at least publicly that is what he said. There were three boys in the family and four girls, so a son would restore balance between the sexes. But the fact is he was well pleased with the plump little girl that caused his wife so little pain and who adapted so easily to the small bed made from an avocado crate, in the bottom of which a pillow was placed as a mattress, and that sat at the side of the sofa in the tiny living room. Neither the glow of the old television at night with the volume turned low, nor the sound of her father strumming the guitar--nor even the fights of her brothers nor the street sounds of automobiles--disturbed her.
Yes, the father was well pleased with the latest addition to the family--better, if the truth be known, than he was with any of his sons--till about the age of sixteen when Maria took off for Nogales with her first lover. Certainly one of the reasons for her fathers secret preference for this child was her ability to play the guitar and her fine voice. By the time she was twelve she played much better than he did, and yet she still doted on all his songs and sang them while he strummed. He had not expected such talent in any of his children and treated it like a gift from the Creator. At age thirteen he even arranged a few private music lessons for Maria. After two lessons she advanced so far that the student-teacher relationship became reversed: the teacher began to learn from Maria.
But then Maria met Miguel, a tall, slim musician from Nogales, and she took off with him, leaving her father to sing his songs and play the guitar all alone; and he was very sad, because her fine voice with all its passion had added so much to his own limited strumming. At the same time he was surprised. He had felt that his little girl was safe from the world, safe from being snatched away by the whims and fancy of some tall, handsome lover, some "amante." He did not think any man smart enough to penetrate the abundance of her exterior to behold the priceless gem within. Such vision, he thought, was reserved for fathers and certain "viejos" or old ones. But apparently this Miguel had such vision, or he was a very stupid young man or was blind or both.
If only she would come back for a visit, her father sometimes thought, as his wife watched the TV and he strummed his instrument. "Maybe this Miguel, maybe he will mistreat her and then she will return."
But Miguel did not mistreat Maria; he in fact adored her as much or more than the father--even her big legs, her fat arms, her stout torso, and her chubby round face. They played together at a little cantina on Avenida Cabron, and he had never worked with a female musician who had the vocal dynamic power, both tender and passionate, of Maria. He had worked with some fancy "pollas," it is true; he had worked with some slick "pollas," thin and beautiful and with inviting smiles that stirred every man into a state of lust; but these "pollas" had always been trouble in the end.
Which is not to say that Maria did not stir up passion--for she did, most definitely!--but it was a deeper passion, a passion almost without name and directed towards an unspeakable truth, some existential mystery. And it was not only male passion that she could stir to a frenzy but female as well. She touched people in a tender spot that made their hardness melt like ice in the sun.
The very idea of Marias father that she would return home after Miguel mistreated her was simply the wishful thinking of a man who was growing old. Though not likely, nevertheless the opposite was more likely: that Miguel would return home to his mother after Maria mistreated him.
Miguel liked Maria so much that occasionally he went out and stole things for her--just little things they could not afford--never big things, like a car, but earrings and bracelets and gold pins and colorful silk scarves. Things that fancy "mujeres" in Nogales had but that musicians working in a cantina--even seven nights a week as Maria and Miguel worked--could never afford. And she never asked where Miguels presents came from, though she probably knew; thus they were even more special than if he had bought them. She even wrote a song one time about "regalos"--presents--presents you purchased with money--"dinero"--and presents you purchased with a daring heart--"el corazon valentia"--for the one you loved.
The day after she wrote the song she began to sing it in the cantina, and within twenty-four hours two burglaries of expensive jewelry had been reported in the surrounding neighborhoods--a little ruby heart with a diamond in the center was stolen from "Ricos" down the street, and one street over on Avenida Revolucion a silver stick-pin butterfly was lifted from a department store by a brazen youth for a girl he hadnt yet even worked up the courage to speak to. And Maria herself was so well pleased with the way the lyrics of the song fit the notes of the melody--an alternating minor-major sequence of notes that left one dazzled yet dubious about the true key--that she was tempted to run out and steal something herself but did not have to, as Miguel beat her to it.
"Que piense, mi amor . . ."--"What do you think, my love, about a really good piece of steak tonight and a bottle of red wine?"
The thought of steak and wine spoiled Marias own appetite for stealing as she sat on the sofa strumming the guitar in the couples little room above Mercado Morales on Avenida Cabron.
About eight thirty, after they heard Morales lock up and close the back door from which he always left, Miguel said, "I will be back soon, my love."
He crept down the little staircase to the back of the store and began to pick the lock. "Ay, cabron," he said to himself, for the lock was a new one and it was more difficult to pick than he had expected. Apparently Morales, that devil, had replaced the old one last week after someone else had broken in for a bottle of wine and some bread--not to wipe Morales out by stealing in quantity, no, that would be wrong, very wrong, but only for a bottle of wine and some bread.
After much fuss the new lock finally yielded to experienced fingers that had no respect for the latest in "security systems"--yes, the new lock had been designed in the United States by a San Jose, California company whose very profitability depended upon the ambidexterity and resourcefulness of fingers like Miguels. But it was not without a struggle that the new lock was picked, and silently, in his heart, Miguel feared the next generation of such locks. There was something unscrupulous and unfair about them that brought shame upon Morales, Miguel felt in the depth of his heart.
Sitting upstairs, thinking about what they might eat with the steaks, Maria began to wonder what was taking Miguel so long. Usually on such missions he was back in no time. Partly it was because of the extra work that it took to pick the new lock. And partly it was because he decided to revenge himself, both on Morales and the San Jose company, for the inconvenience they had caused him. And partly, if the whole story is to be told honestly, it was because Miguel had grown temporarily greedy--oh, yes, none of us, not even the best consciences, the most devout Christian, the greatest saint, Miguel had recently read but apparently forgotten, is ever completely free of the greed motive. And had not Christ himself, though perfect, at least experienced temptation? Thus it was that Miguel, upon this one occasion, took his time and appropriated a few things that he did not truly want or need.
He took fresh baked tortillas; he took olives in a little jar; he took a big link of the hot, spicy chorizzo sausage that he liked so much with his eggs--oh, yes, there would be a tomorrow, and did not that tomorrow begin with a rising sun and the cock crowing and breakfast and eggs?--; he took ears of corn and two plump tomatoes and a chunk of cheese--oh, what a feast they were going to have in honor of that goat Morales--; and he took coffee, oh, yes, coffee, and even a box of spiced chocolate to put into the coffee. In his revenge, he even remembered to get the steak and the wine as well.
Ay, this was going to be some feast to remember, thought Miguel, as he headed toward the back door of the market, his arms loaded with tasty wonders. And crackers, too, why not, he thought. He spotted them on the lower left shelf as he approached the door. As he freed a few fingers from all the other goods to grab a package of crackers and as he bent down carefully so as to drop nothing, a wedge of light shone from the opening door. As he looked up two sharp points of light, like giant firecrackers, exploded before him, then reverberated within his body. Then he was falling, falling, and all the good things he had in his arms, all the good things he had gotten for Maria, were getting away from him, slipping from his fingers, floating every which way through the air out of his control, and he was now falling with them. Then he was staring at the cellophane side of a package of crackers that was only two inches away from his left eye, and nothing was moving. His shirt was warm, wet, sticky, though he did not feel it; and there was a buzzing in his ears, as though he were watching the test pattern on a television late a night in an unfamiliar room.
After a minute or a week or a month--time was blurring--someone stood over him; after a week or a month or a year a woman stood over him--a woman like a mountain, a great, forested mountain--and the mountain held him in its arms, its branches, and the mountain was screaming orders at a man who obeyed them instantly as though those orders came straight from God. Then there was a mighty storm on the mountain, and the mountain was trembling and sobbing and shaking. Then the mountain was no more, or the mountain was everything. Miguel had entered the mountain.
Maria did not recover from the experience for a long time. She sat for many hours, many days not touching food or guitar. She thought only of Miguel. His image was a constant one, bringing pain, numbing, more pain, then silent wonder, though with no comfort or relief, about the mysteries of life. At times she wished that she could die too. Then, maybe, she could be with him; or, at the least, the dull pain, which was all she felt now, would go away.
When her father came up from Hermosillo and literally forced her to eat--he would not let this daughter of his die and he hoped that now, even though he was very sorry about Miguel, this daughter of his would return home--she began to realize that she would have to do something: move or stay but in any case begin a new life.
As for Morales, after a two week boycott in which not a single customer entered his store, he replaced the new locks with the old ones.
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