Big Angel was late to his own mother’s funeral.
He tossed in his bed, the sheets catching his feet in a tangle. Sweat tickled his sides as he realized what was happening. The sun was up — it was bright through his eyelids. The burning pink world. Everybody else would be there before him. No. Not this. Not today. He struggled to rise.
Mexicans don’t make these kinds of mistakes, he told himself.
Every morning since his diagnosis, he had the same thoughts. They were his alarm clock. How could a man out of time repair all that was broken? And on this morning, as he was awakening to these worries, cursed by the light, cursed in every way by time, betrayed by his exhausted body while his mind raged, he was startled to find his father’s ghost sitting beside him on the bed.
The old man was smoking one of his Pall Malls. “That’s a lot of weight to carry around,” his father said. “Time to wake up and let it go.”
He was speaking English. His accent had gotten smoother, though he still pronounced “weight” as gweitt.
The old man became smoke and rose in curls to vanish against the ceiling. “Watch your language,” Big Angel said.
He blinked his eyes. He was the family’s human clock. If he was still asleep, they were all still asleep. They could sleep till noon. His son could sleep till three. Big Angel was too weak to leap up and start shouting. He poked his wife in the back until she started, looked over her shoulder at him, and sat up.
“We’re late, Flaca,” he said.
“No!” she cried. “Ay Dios.”
“Sí,” he said, deeply satisfied somehow to be the one to lay down a rebuke.
She sprang from the bed and raised the alarm. Their daughter, Minnie, was asleep on the living room couch, visiting for the night so she’d be on time. His wife shouted, and his daughter crashed into the coffee table. “Ma,” she complained. “Ma!”
He put his fists to his eyes.
The women came into the room without a word and levitated him out of bed, then helped him to the bathroom to brush his teeth. His wife took a comb to his bristly, stand-up hair. He had to sit to pee. They looked away. They wrestled him into slacks and a white shirt and planted him on the edge of the bed.
I am going to miss Mamá’s funeral, he told the universe. “I never cry,” he announced, his eyes bright with hard light.
They ignored him.
“Daddy’s always watching everything,” his daughter said.
“Es tremendo,” her mother replied. No measure of psychic strain could budge the world or his body into faster motion. His family? Why should today be any different? Chaos. In his house, they were suddenly all awake and moving around like crashing doves in a cage. Raucous flutter and no progress. Time, time, time. Like bars across the door.
He was never late. Until now. He, who endlessly combated his family’s reliance on “Mexican time.” They drove him crazy. If a dinner gathering was announced for six o’clock, he could be sure it wouldn’t start until nine. They’d walk in as if they were early. Or worse, they’d say “What?” as if he were the one with a problem. You know you’re Mexican when lunch doesn’t show up till ten at night.
Qué cabrón. The morning had crept downhill like brown sludge. Muffled. Yet sounds were violently silver in his ears, all reverberations. Noise shocked him. His bones wailed deep in the midnight of his flesh, as white and hot as lightning.
“Please,” he prayed.
“Daddy,” his daughter said, “tuck your shirt in.”
It was loose in the back — it kept coming out of his trousers. But his arms couldn’t reach it. He sat on the bed glaring.
“My arms don’t work,” he said. “They used to work. Now they don’t work. You do it.”
She was trying to get into the bathroom to spray her hair. Her mother had laid waste in there, scattering brushes and girdles and makeup everywhere. Combs lay across the counter like fallen leaves from a plastic tree. Minnie was already sick of this whole funeral thing. She was almost forty, and her parents made her feel sixteen.
“Yes, Father,” she said. Was that a tone? Did she have a tone just then? Big Angel glanced at the clock. His enemy.
Children outside raised hell with a legion of dogs; they were all absolved of the sin of noise — even of the sin of time.
Big Angel de La Cruz was so famous for punctuality that the Americans at work used to call him “the German.” Very funny, he thought. As if a Mexican couldn’t be punctual. As if Vicente Fox was late to things, cabrones. It was his calling to educate them.
Before he got sick, he had arrived early at the office every morning. At every meeting, he was seated at the table before the others came in. Old Spice in a cloud all around him. He had often set out Styrofoam cups of coffee for each of them. Not to show them respect. To tell them all to go to hell.
Like Nature Boy Ric Flair said on the TV wrestling shows, “To be the Man, you gotta beat the Man!” “Be a Mexi-Can,” he told his kids. “We’re not Mexi-Can’ts.” They snickered. They had seen that in, like, an El Mariachi movie — Cheech Marin, right?
He didn’t care about the job — he cared that he had the job. He brought his own colorful Talavera coffee mug to work. It had two words painted on it: el jefe. Yeah, the employees all got the message. The beaner was calling himself their boss. But what they didn’t know, of course, was that “jefe” was slang for “father,” and if he was anything, Big Angel was the father and patriarch of the entire clan. The All-Father, Mexican Odin.
And, by the way (bi de guey), the de La Cruz family has been around here since before your grandparents were even born.
His bosses could never have known that he was one of many fathers who had walked these territories. His grandfather Don Segundo had come to California after the Mexican Revolution, crossing the border in Sonora on a famous bay stallion called El Tuerto because he had lost one eye to a sniper. He carried his wounded wife into Yuma for help from gringo surgeons. Stayed in a burning-hot adobe close enough to the territorial prison so a person could smell it and hear the shouts from its cells. Segundo then stole a wagon and brought his wife all the way to California to try to enlist in World War I as a U.S. soldier. He had learned to kill while fighting General Huerta, and he was good at his job. And he had come to hate Germans because of the military advisors from Bavaria he’d seen with their ugly spiked helmets, teaching Porfirio Díaz’s troops to use air-cooled machine guns on Yaqui villagers.
Dad had told him the story a hundred times.
When the United States denied Granddad’s request to serve, he stayed in Los Angeles. Big Angel’s father, Antonio, was five. He wasn’t allowed to swim in the public pool in East L.A. because his skin was too brown. But he learned English and learned to love baseball. The de La Cruz family became Mexican again when they went back south in the great wave of deportations of 1932, joining two million mestizos rounded up and sent across the line in boxcars. The United States had apparently grown weary of hunting down and deporting Chinese people for the moment.
What. Time. Is it? When are we leaving? Is Perla dressed yet?
He held his hands to his head. The entire history of his family, the world itself, the solar system and galaxy, swirled around him now in weird silence, and he felt blood dribble down inside his body and the clock, the clock, chipped away at his existence.
“Can we leave now?” he asked. But he could not hear his own voice. “Are we ready yet? Anybody?”
But nobody was listening.
A week earlier, Big Angel’s arrival at his mother’s deathbed was the most heroic thing his wife had ever seen. This, after a lifetime of watching her Flaco be a hero. And the old woman refused to accept it. Perla didn’t like that old witch. But dying, well, that earned her several points.
She knew how much the day had cost him. She could envision him walking back through all their history to be his mother’s child one last time.
He didn’t talk to Perla about La Paz much. He was broody by nature except when he was overtaken by good moods. Or feeling naughty. She still blushed at the memories after half a century. Oh, the things he did with her. Until he got sick.
Even when he brooded, she knew when he was thinking about La Paz and his father and all the things that had happened back there. He just hung his head and stared at the floor. Now that he didn’t smoke anymore, he drank many cups of black instant coffee and thought. And ate too many sweets.
Her thoughts were not of La Paz but of coming north. It was the biggest decision she had ever made, and she relived that terrifying moment almost every day. It wasn’t the trip that had been terrifying, or the destination. Rather, she had known that with this one step she would join her fortunes to his. Forever. Risking everything. A romantic choice, yes, but also one that could have left her with nothing.
She was already the mother of two fatherless boys. She didn’t understand why her Angel had taken to calling her his “Perla of Great Price” when everyone in La Paz saw her as damaged goods, another silly girl used and forgotten by a man whose name she chose not to remember. She wanted to believe what Angel said, and yet she feared it was no more than his nature. She saw how he charmed — and was charmed by — other women, and she was frantic to keep him from their beds. She wasn’t always sure what was real. Only that she needed to be with him. There would be no going back home after this decision.
She and the boys headed north before there was a modern highway. Her bigger boy, Yndio, was a toddler, and Braulio was only a baby. It was one long bus ride that cost all the money she had. Rough roads, sometimes over dirt and boulders. The stops were at terrible taco shacks with outhouses, or gas stations with drooling, stinking toilets much worse than outhouses. The people aboard the bus had brought their own food. She had carried a kilo of tortillas, a clay jug of water, and goat cheese. Four days riding.
South of Ensenada, police had set rocks across the road to stop the bus. They boarded and pointed their pistolas at the passengers and went through their bags. Perla had no money to offer. They ignored her boys. But they put their hands on her breasts. She looked out the window and held her breath and pushed them away with her mind. Angel’s father would have stopped them, she told herself. She didn’t have a father.
She looked at them with her hateful stare. One day, you’ll beg.
The three policemen snagged a man by the arms and dragged him from the bus. They kicked at the doors to let the driver know he should leave. Nobody dared look back or listen to what the man was yelling.
Everybody smelled by the end of the trip, and they were mortified — no Mexican wanted to smell like a barn animal.
Tijuana was another world. Perla and her boys huddled outside the bus terminal on the north end of town, near the riverbed, in clouds of exhaust smoke. La Paz was all deserts and sea, perched at the tip of Baja. It caught ocean breezes and crushing subtropical heat and hurricanes.
She had cooked in her mother’s restaurant. Her sisters beside her — all slaves to the old woman. Her boys had grown up near the ferry terminals, watching huge white boats groan in from Mazatlán. They watched boys not much older sell chewing gum and trinkets to visitors. When the fishermen docked, children haggled for cheap crabs or begged for a tuna. Sometimes they swamped out the boats for sodas.
Yndio considered this training for his future. This was how he was going to care for the family. Sometimes he was able to bring his mother a bottle of Coca-Cola. And though they’d been hungry, it was home.
But now they found themselves afraid and excited, as if Tijuana were El Dorado and all good things awaited them. It was loud and pushy. Scary and tumbledown. Too bright. Too colorful. Perla’s overwhelming impression of Tijuana was twofold: symphonies of noise and endless swirls of dust. And stringy street dogs all of the same stumpy build, the same yellow-red tinged fur, the same black patches of bare skin. All of them moving through traffic with insouciance, like dancers or bull-fighters, seeming to bounce off the bumpers of old Buicks and under the two-tone city buses called burras, but bobbing out of the dust clouds again and hopping onto curbs unharmed, where they stretched out in the sun and slept with ies in their eyes. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Tijuana was what they never imagined: the unexpected gringos. Downtown Tijuana was an endless parade of towering, noisy, apparently rich Americans. Perla was astonished to realize the kids were already learning English. That was something she did not expect.
She remembered how Big Angel chose to go hungry so everyone could have a tiny bit of food, even if it was only a mouthful. He’d divide his portion among her sons. That’s when they had taken to calling each other Flaco and Flaca. They would never be that thin again.
Sometimes he brought candy for her two boys, though she scolded him. “Perla,” he said, “life is sour enough. Let them enjoy this.” That first Christmas, he bought the boys a bike to share and bought her a new dress. She had knitted him a sweater, and even though it was hot that year, he wore it every day.
Big Angel was her hero. She did not know his heroism was fueled by fuming rage. He fought anyone who insulted her or her children. He even fought off his own family’s rebukes and married her, then snuck them into the United States when it became obvious that only hunger and dirt and rats and evil police waited for them in the poorest of the colonias where they could afford to live.
Perhaps his biggest mistake was his believing that rage could help him be the perfect father. It was really all he knew about being a father. On some days it almost worked. But Perla was so afraid of losing what she had won that she became more strident in her defense of her man, insisting to the boys that Angel was always right, even when she knew he wasn’t. And the boys’ occasional bruises told them otherwise as well. It fell hardest on Yndio, the oldest. The one who had been his mother’s protector and defended her honor in the streets of La Paz, scrounged for food, done odd jobs, and still remembered his birth father. Yndio, the older brother, who found himself usurped and then disciplined, began a lifelong resistance Big Angel could never overcome.
Families came apart and regrouped, she thought. Like water. In this desert, families were the water. ●
A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his landmark work of nonfiction, The Devil's Highway, Luís Alberto Urrea is also the best-selling author of the novels The Hummingbird's Daughter, Into the Beautiful North, and Queen of America, as well as the story collection The Water Museum, a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist. He has won the Lannan Literary Award, an Edgar Award, and a 2017 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, among many other honors. Born in Tijuana, Mexico, to a Mexican father and American mother, he lives outside of Chicago and teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
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