– Nonfiction by Rebecca Walling –
Runner-up in the Dreamers Creative Writing Contest: Stories of Migration, Sense of Place and Home
My mom made sure we were in the car by three in the morning, quickly cramming us into a rented tour van. Eleven of us were on the way to Mama Cuca’s house in El Paso, Texas. It was still cold when we left, dew clinging to the grass, spiders still spinning their webs. My sisters and I bundled ourselves in two layers of pajamas, arms full of blankets and pillows, mimicking the coziness of our beds. My mom sat behind the wheel, her small body barely tall enough to see over the raised steering wheel, her wild brown curls pulled back in a tight braid. Purple light from the open sky danced on the desert sand, reminding us of the nothingness that lay ahead. For two weeks we were leaving the beauty and familiarity of palm tree lined streets, trading in freeways for two-lane highways.
My sisters and I spent the 13-hour car ride trying to sleep, and trying even harder to remain quiet as our relatives spoke quickly in Spanglish. Their r’s melodically rolled and our aunts and mom cackled loudly, repeating inside jokes in unison–jokes we didn’t understand, the meaning lost in a language we didn’t know. We wanted to be included like our cousins, like we were taught Spanish by our mom too. Instead, I held onto small familiar phrases and pretended I knew what they meant, repeating the lies to my two younger sisters.
Except for the mention of a playhouse in English, the drive was a blur of secrets and half sentences, finished by everyone but us. The playhouse was our mom’s when she was little, a place that Mama Cuca and Papa Mondo fixed up for all of the grandchildren, but especially for our mom. Before we left, she told us she made food for her cousins on the real gas stove, using the sink with real running water to wash dishes. All of these mundane activities were alive with the promise of playing pretend with real ceramic dishes, instead of the hollow plastic ones we had at home.
When we finally arrived, it was dark again. My mom, my sisters and I stayed in Mama Cuca’s old house, our aunts and uncle spread out between the rooms in the two other Santillián homes. The three of us followed our mom inside the dimly lit house. Sheets covered the furniture, and a scorpion scuttled across the floor, hiding in a dusty corner. My sisters and I clung to her sides, pushing her to take the lead until we made it to the hallway.
Instead of the dank, wet smell occupying closed-in houses, the desert had spread its arid emptiness throughout the rooms, leaving everything cracked and brittle. Our bare feet collected dust from the floor, leaving empty spaces like snow. My sisters and I ran to the bathroom door, our mom trailing behind us. We struggled to reach it, sneaking around the corner of the peeling wallpaper and swatting away dusty spider webs. The light flickered on, exposing a graveyard of bugs. Dead cockroaches covered the bathtub and crowded in the toilet bowl. In preparation for our visit, one of our many cousins had poisoned them and forgot to clean up the bodies, the empty can of Raid left sitting on the edge of the tub. My mom rushed to our tired yelps, finding us cowering behind the door, peeking in. My sisters and I held hands and wiggled, trying not to pee ourselves from terror and need.
“Shush. They can’t hurt you,” she said, through gritted teeth.
She pulled the shower curtain closed, hiding the bellied-up bodies, and flushed the toilet to destroy any more evidence of abandonment. My sisters and I stared at each other, not wanting to be the brave one.
“Mommy, please. We don’t like it here,” we pleaded.
“Why? This is your Mama Cuca’s house. Why are you so scared?”
The long drive had given her time to reunite with her siblings, to fall back into the hard, Mexican mama persona, no longer the whitewashed mom. We had to be strong, like her, and act like the bugs weren’t there, like we weren’t the spoiled white children she raised us to be.
“Mommy, we want to go back home.”
“No. We’re here now and we’re going to stay here until it’s time to leave.” Her mouth had become a straight line across her face, her eyes and body tired from driving for so long.
“Ay, stop it. You need to pee, pee. I’ll stand right here,” she said, standing in as our protector between the curtain and sink. She held each of our faces to her breast as we peed, handing us toilet paper when we were finished–the mom in her still present, still clinging to her quickly thickening Mexican skin.
My mom and I stayed in Mama Cuca’s old bed. It was covered in plastic and we put our blankets on top of it, neither of us wanting to unmake the perfectly creased sheets to see what was hidden underneath. Mama Cuca would know if we didn’t put it back together the right way. As my mom slept, I laid awake in terror, watching bugs slither and crawl across the floor. My sisters stayed in another room, sharing a bed with security only sisters can provide. I tried to pin my eyes shut until the safety of daybreak, wishing I could curl up next to my sisters on the small cot.
Before we awoke, my mom swept the cockroaches from the tub, so we didn’t cry when she made us take a shower. But that didn’t stop us from believing the cockroaches still lived in the drain, waiting for our mom to disappear before they assaulted us with their tiny legs and indestructible bodies. We took turns showering and she refused to wait in the bathroom, leaving us crying with shampoo in our hair. We missed our dad. She was nicer around our dad, subdued and doting, coddling us, but he did his best to remain busy when a trip to El Paso was planned.
“You and your sisters just sit around and cluck like chickens! It’s too much for me,” he’d say to my mom, watching a baseball game with his LA Dodgers cap proudly on his head. “Is Benny going? If he’s going I might consider it.” He knew our Uncle Benito wasn’t going. He never went. My dad was right: her sisters were a bad influence on her.
Mama Cuca’s house didn’t have air-conditioning, only dusty ceiling fans, pushing the hot air from one room to the next. By eight in the morning, sweat coated our bodies, making our hair greasy and showers unnecessary. We decided to go outside, hoping to catch a breeze that might cool us down. I let the screen door slam behind us and Nana ran out, yelling, “Ay! Don’t you slam that door, or your Mama Cuca will come and pinch you! You hear me?” Her dyed red hair blazed in the sun, her drawn-on eyebrows rising unnaturally high. She wagged her long, pointed fingernail, warning us.
We knew Mama Cuca was dead. We learned early that Mexican family members lived on after their deaths to haunt and love us, to guide us and watch over us, to punish us when we slammed doors in their houses. We walked in and out testing this, slamming the door hard behind us until Nana came back and pinched us herself.
“You feel that, huh? You’re lucky Mama Cuca isn’t here to pinch you.”
She locked the screen door behind her when she went inside, rattling off complaints to our mom in Spanish. We were banished to the yard until we remembered our manners.
One of our cousins came over to play with us and we bounced around him telling him our names, explaining we were just visiting. We asked him about the playhouse and he teased us by speaking in Spanish, asking if we knew what he’d said. We shook our heads, our understanding of Spanish stopping at some colors and numbers, hoping he still wanted to play with us. Our nana must’ve said something to him about us, the gringas.
He ran in front of us and turned around quickly to shout, “Puta!”
“Hey, you can’t say that word,” I said, trying to keep up with him.
He didn’t know where the playhouse was and took us out to the small hills surrounding the community of Santillán houses, of our family’s houses. He picked up sticks and pieces of metal out of the random trash heaps in the scattered ditches we passed, pocketing some things and tossing others over a metal fence into a ravine. We followed him as he ran up and down the steep hills with ease, trying to find treasures like his. We felt foreign on our own family’s land, constantly looking to our cousin for guidance. This was his home, and we didn’t belong, we were just visiting. Soon we would be back in our small suburb, our mom no longer mama.
Our cousin went home and we watched waves of heat hover above the asphalt and concrete, making everything move and dance. We ran through the barren yard, chasing after each other in circles, red dirt swirling around us. The afternoon drew on and we drifted aimlessly, the playhouse still hidden, the sun roaring down on us. We slid underneath the awnings of the house, trying to find shade. My sisters and I jumped from shadow to shadow, pushing each other into the sunlight and watching each other burn like vampires in the stifling heat.
When Nana went next door to see her bedridden sister, we snuck back inside to beg our mom to take us to see her playhouse.
“Mija, it’s all locked up. There are bugs in there,” she said, wearing an elaborately embroidered apron and a towel over her shoulder. She tried not to raise her voice, continuing to wash dishes, but we clamored around her, and the vein in her forehead began to pulse.
Our uncle sat at the small kitchen table, drinking a morning beer, and chided us as we begged. Our cries increased with each of his quips, and it was clear to him we weren’t going to give up. A Mexican mama didn’t discipline us. We didn’t fear the belt or chancla, because we didn’t know what they were.
“Irma, they say they want to wash dishes in the playhouse, let them wash some dishes! Ay, come over here and help your mama.”
“It’s not the same!” we cried in unison.
Fed up, my mom threw down the dishtowel and turned to my Uncle. “Ay, yi, yi. Jerry, you told them you would take them over there. Take them over there.”
We looked up at her tensed face, realizing her Mexican accent was back, floating above every r and d, rounding the end of her sentences into confident commands. She moved her plump, red hands through her hair, rubbing her eyes under her glasses. Her skin had darkened and dried from the desert sun. The immersion back into her own culture was causing the whitewashed façade she worked so hard to create for us, for our success in our predominantly white town and our school full of predominantly white kids, to deteriorate. Her polite phone voice had disappeared. I wondered where my mom had gone.
Uncle Jerry finished his beer and brought us over to a small shack with boarded up windows and a padlock on the door. He unlocked it, revealing a hoard of dusty furniture piled inside. We scrambled in behind him, catching a glimpse of the stove and sink before he turned around and shooed us out, “Mija! It’s not safe in here!”
“Here, you see this?” he asked, wiping his forehead. “Your mama used to play with this,” he said, holding a chipped play dish and handing it to us. We brought it close to our faces and carefully passed it around, its blue swirls mimicked designs on real china. This was the treasure I had been waiting for–the connection to our mom’s childhood, the one she pretended she never had and buried beneath the last name she took from our dad. Uncle Jerry went back inside and we heard him curse in Spanish, trying to move the piles of wooden chairs. We held the small dish up to the sun, blocking out the fiery, white heat, and thirsting for an invitation inside.
“It’s too hot in there, mijitas. I have to ask your tías where to put all these chairs. We’ll try again tomorrow, okay?” he said, coming out covered in sweat and a thin layer of dust.
The next day, we stayed near the house. Our cousin was at school and we were too scared to wander close to the fence without him guiding us along the small hills. Our aunts and uncle and mom sat around the kitchen table with photo albums, crying and laughing.
“Mommy, we’re bored.”
“Do you want to help your nana scrub the floors?” one of our aunts spat back.
We shook our heads, sulking out of the room. My sisters decided to take a nap, and convinced I was old enough to forgo the siesta, I went into the living room full of half open boxes, finding a portrait of Mama Cuca sitting on one of the covered end tables. It was the same portrait hanging in our house, a black and white photo in a mimicked Victorian-era frame. As a young woman, she had been beautiful. Her dark hair perfectly curled in the popular early 1920’s style, her lips dark from red lip stain. She was solemn, but vibrant. Her eyes followed me in every direction, the edges of her lips curving upward ever so slightly.
My mom crept up behind me in the cluttered living room, putting her hands on my shoulders. “Do you remember meeting her?”
“I thought she died before I was born?” I asked, picking up the frame.
“She did. But when I was pregnant with you, she told me you’d be a girl.” My mom winked. “You were here for the first time when you were just old enough to walk. You ran up and down these hallways, and your nana kept telling you Mama Cuca was going to get you if you didn’t stop! But you just kept laughing and running. Then you stopped right there, at Mama Cuca’s bedroom door,” she said, pointing down the hallway to the room we’d been sleeping in.
“Because you saw Mama Cuca in there!”
I looked back at the portrait and saw my nose as her nose, and moved my fingers up to my chin. I traced the outline of her face with my index finger, feeling my own. Our eyes locked on one another and our mouths curved in the same mysterious way.
“Come on, lets go see if the water still runs in the playhouse,” my mom said, leaving the living room. I followed her through the house, stopping at Mama Cuca’s bedroom, trying to imagine the shape of her in the doorway. The screen door slammed behind my mom, and my nana came running from the kitchen with a wooden spoon in her hand.
“Irma! You know not to slam that door!”
I walked past my nana and into the desert sun, squinting my eyes and walking into the trail of red dust leading toward the playhouse.
About the Author – Rebecca Walling
Rebecca Walling lives in a small town outside of Iowa City, IA. She has devoted herself to a humanistic approach to life, taking in the hard edges of reality along with the mystical tangles of dreams. Her work can be found in Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, and on Not Your Mother’s Breast Milk.
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