Of sweeter things

“The determination and machismo of this war has not changed,” wrote Vicente, “and yet it has agitated me in deep ways. There is, I think, a mute despair among us, but it is tempered by the same resolve we clothed ourselves in at its beginning.

“We still, to a man, yearn for a bit of simplicity and homeliness in our days: a length of hickory to stir the hearth coals, a blackened spoon we can polish and preserve. Or, simply, a piece of bread beneath a soup bowl. But — and I write this with great reluctance — I cannot rationalize why we are still fighting. Our days are forged by anxiousness and irresolución, and we are steeped in sloughy maroon soils; the air, a perpetual spray of crimson tissue, chokes us, and beclouds our eyes. We are hungry to advance, but more, we are starving for this to be done.

“I beg you forgive me my propensity for awful detail, but I cannot seem to exorcise these thoughts. There is such foulness in the air. I cannot remember, or even imagine, the fragrance of your hair. When I close my eyes, it is to reach for you. But now, as I am, slanted inside the torn shell of some beast’s remains, my trousers pierced by rocks, my bootlaces rotting in clots, the remains of my tobacco, wet crumbs, I think I shall rest for a moment. I will write you another letter, and of sweeter things. But now, I cannot think of anything that can calm me more than the thought of you, and home.”

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The storm

We sit cross-legged on the scatter rug and listen to the rain peck at the windows. The water fractures itself against the screen and it draws patterns I want to trace with my fingers. We have a box of candles on the kitchen table, for when the dark comes back inside. She leans into me whenever the rain turns loud, and her face is solemn and so still. Outside, the wind carves itself into the hickory trees. She can’t hear me offer up comfort, so I lean back into her. We listen. We wait.

The Motel Fatigado

Oh, honey, there are shapes beneath these roads. They push me and they drag me, and, God help me, I’m yoked to every mile. I’m numb to the drizzled headlights and smudged taillights, the curves, the swerves, the nerves of bumper-to-bumper, the mathematical sinew of the overpasses, the poster board landscapes, the flat hallucinations of the Alpha and Omega.

Oh, and sweetheart, the construction, the obstructions, the crazy and the caffeinated, they want to pour their horsepower into the concrete while I’m steering left-handed, trying to pry the goddamn plastic lids off the goddamn Styrofoam cups, and honey, I always spill the hot coffee on my fucking wrist.

These have been my nights and days since you left me.

And then I came upon this place: a slender space beside the swagged shoulders of an unmarked highway. I recognized the tarnished ancianos who were waiting for me. There were six men and a woman, and they were sitting in a straight line on the sloped walkway of the Motel Fatigado. A flat line of hands rose to guard eyes against dust and sun. They studied my silhouette for a moment, then resumed their pinched slouches.

An old man dismounted from his chair and approached. He was wearing a shredded straw hat and baggy jeans. His shirt was a clean button-down, a faded antediluvian white. He could have been an Old World priest soliciting confessions. More likely, he was tired of sitting.

“You have el bagaje? Suitcase?” he asked.

I nodded.

He pulled a packet of folded tissue paper from his shirt pocket, and offered me a cigarette. He told me that Room 8 was vacant and clean. He did not ask me my name. I accepted his tobacco, and he lit it with a wooden match. His hands were narrow and veiny.

He said his name was Cándido, and the woman was called Melancholia. “The new guests always ask about the woman,” he said. “You see her? The beautiful woman who sits among the dogs? She is clean-handed. You understand? Inocente. She knows magic. You prey on her, you will leave with bruises.”

I nodded.

“Sit with us,” Cándido said. “Melancholia keeps plastic cups in her room. We have tap water and tequila. Perhaps there is ice. I will introduce you to the others.”

I declined.

The good girl

Compelled to stir the ashes, of what was cruel, what was unadorned. And still I reach for those extinguished minutes and years, and walk into the smoke, shoulders broke, bending to grief’s provocation, aroused by what could have been.

Elani was the most gifted of us, but it was hard to watch her subtract herself from happiness. She was the good girl, the kind girl, the quiet girl who leaned into the shade of a river birch while others swung from ropes and imprinted the water with their thrashing bodies.

She was not destined for great things, and she did not pursue them. The current ran deep, and she found comfort in her aloneness and sandpapered memories. She had no quarrel with pain. She reconciled it as the great truth of life, and saw strength as a punch in the belly, holding back the yelps, damming the tears behind waxwork eyes.