Chapter 5

BEFORE MARIA LEFT Nogales she began a song. The words were:

El ladrón benemérito . . . :

The worthy thief who stole my heart away
Is gone now and I do not know my way.
The sun is rising but my heart is falling;
The moon is shining but no one is calling . . .

But she could not finish the song, for like the lyrics, she had lost her way.

Nevertheless, one morning, about three weeks after the shooting in ordinary time and about a lifetime of grief to Maria in her time of mourning, she packed what little she had, told her father that she was going on a little trip to the north--"un viaje peqeno al norte"--and went to the bus station and bought a ticket for San Diego.

At the station her father pleaded with her to come home for awhile--"until you are stronger, daughter, until you have put on weight, well, or something," he said--but she said she wanted to see California and the United States.

"You will be cheated there," he said bitterly, "cheated right out of your soul." But he did not know how to handle the situation. None of his other children had ever wanted to leave Hermosillo.

"Well, then this is a good time to go," she countered with a difficult smile. "I don’t think they will find much to take!"

Undaunted, he continued:

"When they have taken your soul away from you, then they will spit on you because you are poor. I know this."

"Papa, papa," she said, "that happens right here. It is no different in Mexico."

"I know, I know," he stammered, groping for a new thought. "But here it is done with respect by people you know, by your own brothers and sisters. It is better that way."

She agreed with his logic but left anyway, promising to write soon. "I will send you a little song, papa. You will like it!"

She did not know what she would find in San Diego. Perhaps love again. Perhaps only sunshine and some vague reason to live one more day. She had always heard that the sun was bright in San Diego--she had always pictured it as a larger sun than the one that shown in Hermosillo and rounder and fuller--and that the people there had lots of money and were always happy. Though she knew deep down this was probably not true, for awhile it helped her get by thinking it was so. And she had never been north of the border before--she had only heard about how fabulously rich the people of the United States were. Fabulously rich and generous and happy, too, she thought, making herself feel better. Well, you could hope they were, it is possible, she told herself. She recollected a Hollywood movie she had seen one time with her brothers and sisters. All the actors were handsome and well dressed and all the actresses beautiful and wore gorgeous gowns, and all were throwing back their heads and laughing when they were not shooting each other and crying. So maybe it was so.

She arrived on an overcast day when the sun--the same sun, incidentally, that she had known in Hermosillo and Nogales--came out only for a few hours in the late afternoon. And not knowing anyone in San Diego, she simply wandered the city for a few days, napping on beaches and seeking its heart, which always seemed to be "just over there." It was much bigger than she had expected, and there were so many parts to it--not just the rich, flower-lined avenues as in Hermosillo and the poor section, but various divisions and grades of rich and poor, drab and colorful, cheap and tasteless and showy and even gaudy--that she did not know what to think after awhile. It confused her. The beaches, however, she liked. She had only been to the beach once, and that was in Kino Bay, sixty miles west of Hermosillo. There the beach was mostly rocks and a litter of sharp little shells from the Sea of Cortez and relentless little flies that bit you, especially if you had as much flesh to bite as Maria did. She was greatly loved by little flies. In San Diego the beaches were big and broad and sandy and the flies--there weren’t that many of them--were big enough to swat. She liked the sunset over the water, even though it made her feel lonely, almost desolate, for feeling something was better, oh, much better, than feeling nothing.

Sitting on the beach in the afternoon of her second day in San Diego and playing alternating E minor-E major chords while thinking a little about the words to her song, Maria got the urge, for a moment, to let loose and play. She played two songs straight through--ones she had performed nightly at the cantina with Miguel--then went back to softly strumming the alternating major-minor chords.

"Hey, you can really play," she heard a voice say, then saw a young woman walking towards her. "Are you professional or something?"

"Am I what?" said Maria, somewhat startled by the young woman.

"Are you professional? Do you play somewhere? ‘Cause, boy . . ."

"I used to play with my friend, my boy friend in Nogales," said Maria, her eyes filling with tears, "but he . . ." She could not go on.

"He left you?" asked the woman.

"No, he did not leave me," said Maria resolutely. She explained, her voice trembling, that her friend was dead, gone, "muerto, fallecido."

The young woman introduced herself as Margarita. She sat down in the sand next to Maria and said, "Well, that tops my story. My boy friend just left me. I’m sorry." She said she was headed home to fix dinner. "But I’m not really hungry. Wanna come? Maybe we can make each other eat."

Maria grabbed her guitar and a small bag, and they walked together the two blocks to Margarita’s apartment or apartment complex. As Margarita unlocked the entrance door to the complex, Maria glanced from the red security sign on the fence by the heavy metal door to the cars parked bumper-to-bumper along the street. All were bright, shiny, new--and undecorated, unlike the old cars in east Hermosillo that were not worth much but were decked out like Aztec royalty.

Over dinner, then coffee, Margarita explained to Maria about San Diego and the United States.

"It’s not like Mexico," she said, as Maria watched her squirt something from a pink plastic bottle into her coffee. "People have jobs here, at least most people do, and there’s lots of money." She hesitated. "It’s like one big party, if you like that kind of thing. But you have to work." Margarita explained that it was essential for Maria to get a good job if she were to be happy.

"Without money there’s nothing you can do; that’s the way it is here."

The sound of rock music--mostly the electrified bass--beat through the wall in the little kitchen of the furnished apartment as Margarita handed Maria the pink plastic bottle, then remembered to push the on-off switch to off on the automatic drip coffee maker. She did not like the taste of burnt coffee no matter how much sweetener she put in it.

Later that evening the two women walked back down to the beach for a drink at a bar on Rio Del Mar, which might have been better named Rio Del Bar for the number of drinking establishments located there. They even danced with two men who said they were from Manhattan Beach.

"Where is Manhattan Beach?" Maria had asked, careful of her English.

"Near Redondo Beach," one of the two men said.

"And where is Redondo Beach?" Maria had then asked.

"Near Manhattan Beach--in the good ol’ US of A," the other man shrieked, nearly falling off the bar stool.

But it was an exciting evening for Maria who had been feeling little but numbness and emptiness for the last month, and when Margarita asked her if she wanted to move in and share the apartment with her, she said yes, feeling surely that life was turning a brighter corner for her now.

Now if San Diego had just been the little apartment two blocks from the beach and her new friend Margarita and the warm water and the big beach and occasionally flirting with some men in a bar--men who mostly left her baffled as to who or even what they were--Maria might have been content to make a life in San Diego. She went to the beach every afternoon and sat in the warmth and comfort of the sand, almost like a child recovering from an illness; and she began to strum the guitar more seriously now while watching the sun transform the horizon into a spectacle of radiating oranges, smoldering reds, and oozing, egg-yolk yellows; and she even discovered a few new words to her song.

Ay, la vida misma, tu eres esto ladrón benémerito . . . :

Oh, life itself, you are that worthy thief;
You play with us, then leave us to our grief.
Here the beach is broad and young men run,
And laugh and smile, and say they’re having fun . . .

But it was the job that convinced her that San Diego was not somehow her place. At first she had worked in a little cafe and that had not been so bad. She did not mind serving coffee and cleaning up messes and even some of the arrogant people who came in and wanted everything immediately, even though there were many other people in the restaurant, and then, when they got it, left no tip. No, those were indecent people--"gente indecente"--but all too common, and she tolerated them. But at the cafe she did not make enough money to both eat and pay her half of the rent--an economic reality that Margarita had to explain to Maria on paper.

"You see," said Margarita as kindly as she could one evening, "if you make three-hundred and sixty dollars a month and your rent’s three hundred and fifty, you will only have ten dollars for food. You will starve, Maria!"

Maria saw reality, grim as it was, faced it courageously, and took a job at an assembly plant that made home and office security systems--a competitor, in fact, of the San Jose company that made the system that detected Miguel in Marcado Morales.

For two weeks the fluorescent lights, the plant’s own security system, and the plastic card that she inserted in the "point-of-entry" terminal that let her in and logged her in-and-out time; for two weeks the lunch room with all its new and seemingly indestructible, high-bond, plastic furniture in multiple party colors; for two weeks the regulation of her time from when she entered the plant to when she ate lunch and had a snack and went potty to when she went home; yes, for two weeks all those things were a novelty, though an odd one, and a strange new game that she played with an open mind, since she had not played it before. Then she got sick and stayed home for a day, and when she went down to the beach in the late afternoon to watch the sun set, she only found herself sitting. She forced a few chords from her guitar, then set it down; she thought about her song but no new words came.

She did not know exactly what was wrong. Going by what Margarita had told her, she had done the right things and should be happy. But she was not. She simply was not. In the end the best explanation she could come up with was this: she had made a mistake; she had stopped in the wrong place. Probably she had stopped too soon, her "place" being further north.

The next day she collected her two weeks pay at the plant, tore up the employee insurance forms that had been given her on the first day; then she packed her few belongings, left Margarita a tearful note, and departed on the next bus out of San Diego.

Oh, big bus, oh, dirty bus, take us far away;
We have made a bad mistake, we do not want to stay . . .

She laughed at the silly lines as the bus roared out of the grimy terminal in "Old Town" San Diego, a part of the city that no amount of renovation could rob of an honest legacy of sailor’s brawls and prostitution. Compared to the clean work bench she had just left behind at San Diego SafSys, the litter of candy wrappers and peanut shells was a wholesome and pleasant sight.

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