The Whims of Gulls
For M. E. Parker
That same day the bridge was blown up by Border Patrol, a peculiar flock of seagulls descended upon the high desert town of Marfa. From the window of his bedroom on the second floor, Joaquín watched twenty or so gulls crisscross the overcast sky, calling out to each other in growing alarm. At least five hundred miles from the Gulf of Mexico, he couldn’t understand what would bring them here. Surely something had led them astray.
The wind was harsh that August evening, a sweeping ferocity that slapped the screen door against the paint-chipped siding. An indistinct grey rolled above, erupting with patches of muted lightning. Usually these kinds of unfavorable conditions would’ve sent him in search of little Paola, who’d disappear in the tall clumps of switchgrass and black dalea shrubs that now grew wild and unfettered all over the former ranch. Joaquín always knew how to find her, tracking for signs until he saw the bees scatter among the shrubs. He’d listen for the rocky soil crunching beneath the thin soles of her plastic sandals as she crept across on her haunches; the sound oddly comforted him. Stopping at a distance, just far enough for his voice to carry over through the tall grass, he’d announce that he would count to ten; usually around nine, her little head would pop up and she’d give him a toothy grin.
But that evening after Joaquín collected her, he hadn’t insisted that she come inside, only that she stay on the porch until dinnertime. She’d pecked him on the cheek as he put her down, and then slipped off her sandals as she’d climbed up on the porch swing. Instead of heading to the kitchen, he’d fled to his study, feeling a migraine coming on as the winds died down and the mugginess crept into the house. He’d opened the window and waited for the wind to return.
After an hour, the wetness bore down on him. His vision became fuzzy and what lie before seemed to be boiling, and for a moment, he drowned in the deadness of his own thoughts, forgetting where he was. Rubbing his temples, he listened to Paola pushing off the ground with her bare feet, the tarnished metal chains creaking. She was now heavy enough so that the uneven rods which suspended its weight lifted up on one side, tilting her slightly.
It would be dark soon, the weak light of the evening sun escaping from just beneath the horizon. But just as he arose to call her inside, one of the gulls veered away from the rest. It flew low over a long patch of cacti and bluebonnets that grew on both sides of the steel fence separating his property from the Interstate. The throbbing between his eyes quickened as it sailed toward him, and a sudden chill swept through the air, stirring the evening from its stupor, lifting the somnolent land from the heaviness of the humidity. He felt the wind of his face as the gull curved past his open window and then flew straight up into the air with a direct precision that left him breathless.
Thunder rumbled across the haze, and for a moment the gull seemed to stop short right in the air, hanging onto a sudden gust. Joaquín rubbed his eyes; perhaps it was a hallucination brought on by an aura of the migraine. But as the wind grew stronger, the gull was knocked back and tumbled from the sky, zigzagging as if falling down some unseen staircase, belly-up, its wings twisted at the ends.
Just as Joaquín arose from his chair, so that he could see where it would land, a horrible screech rang out as its contorted body collided with a battered pickup that was pulling up onto the driveway, just outside the new gate of his home.
Slamming on its brakes, the truck stopped quickly as the gull slowly slid off the hood of the truck. His mouth went dry, and he felt his skin warm. After a moment, the engine revved, though the truck did not come any closer. Joaquín watched as the bird fell to the ground and hobbled away, the clattering sound sharpening into a stammer, the pulse of transmission quicker than that which beat on the left side of his head. It was a sound he remembered from years ago: the sound of false hesitation.
So she had come after all; Joaquín rarely remembered her making good on a promise. When she had called earlier in the week, he’d tried not to take it as an insult when, after ten years in passing now, she’d asked if he was still living in Sal Si Puedes.
Daddy had said never to come back, and even today I still hear Mamma going on that I shouldn’t push the issue, when it was my old double-cab, my stupid suitcase with faded daffodils, my wrenching and yanking like I knew what was at stake when they locked me inside the truck, still half-delirious from the complications. I sat between them the entire way, so we all saw where I was going, clear as day. No one said a word from there on - I never had been caught in such stillness. Like all the hope in the world had been caught on the curve of the wind, sailed right over our heads, just missing the thorns of our ancient mesquite tree where Mamma and Daddy had been fighting and I had been wrenching and yanking, and suddenly we all stopped. And I mean like we all went into collective heart failure, as what had gone haywire and tongue-wild in the air that day suddenly went quiet, dead and right. Like how the first autumn northerners barrel in out of nowhere, just to hurl themselves straight into stillness.
In his youth, Leigh Davis had been the headache of her family. Her inquisitive nature and flighty behavior were forgiven by other girls due to her lack of beauty. At fourteen, Leigh was stick-thin, with an angular face and pale skin that looked wrong with the frosted makeup popular at the time. She didn’t tease her hair which was too straight to perm, nor did she lay claims to any boys, and for both these shortcomings, she was immensely popular. Most mothers simply felt sorry for her, for a woman so young to understand the limits of what she could acquire.
However, things changed when Leigh showed up to make her debut at Junior Cotillion in a flamenco dress instead of proper taffeta with a sweetheart neckline. Her mother was the only mother who hadn’t showed up, and the ladies of Marfa couldn’t blame her.
They watched in horror as their daughters rushed up to her, fingering the silk fan and marveling at the Spanish comb that held the bun high on her head.
Wasn’t Leigh Davis old enough to know better, they whispered to each other, all the while smiling politely. Or was she taking advantage of her well-respected father’s well-known financial problems which left him little time to worry about anything else?
All would’ve been forgiven for such an awkward, gangly girl, until the future star quarterback asked her to dance. One mother waited for them to dance by to announce that perhaps Leigh Davis would rather find herself living on the other side of the river.
When Joaquín heard this story three years later, he’d asked her if that was where she got the idea to be with him.
For she’d then bloomed into a full-on spectacle, spending money her family no longer had on turquoise jewelry, long denim dresses and tall boots with suede fringe. Her father had refused to acknowledge any of this when he’d drive into town every Friday, just before sunrise. He was a tall man in tight jeans with a bit of a gut over his belt, with a gait slow and straight, as if he had yard sticks stuck in his pants legs, his arm arched at his sides in perfect right angles. He’d stop off at the Firebird Diner for coffee and the latest troubles: feuds along the border, never enough rain, disappointing sales at livestock auctions. He always listened and advised, but never offered up his own lamentations.
After collecting his mail, he’d then make the rounds at the stores as if it was his official duty to check in on their well-being. But as his finances diminished and her ensembles became more absurd, he ventured into town less often, sending a ranch hand instead to run his errands.
Joaquín had never met her father and wondered how much he knew about them. What had Davis said, for instance, when his daughter commissioned a seamstress from Sal Si Puedes to make her pleated skirts with lace, in homage to those once worn by Joaquín’s mother’s family, who had descended from the Mazahua women of Michoacán. His mother, who wore shorts and t-shirts, had never taken kindly to Leigh doing this, nor did the families of ranchers who were soon facing foreclosure and bankruptcy, just like the Davis family.
After Davis lost the property, which was bought by an oil man who’d come to retire and play cowboy, he moved his family to nearby, tiny Candelaria. Though defeated, he never stopped rebuilding the lines that had so clearly defined him. In fact, he was the first one who’d proposed the removal of the rickety footbridge between Candelaria and the Mexican farming village of San Antonio. He warned the townspeople of the burgeoning number of Mexicans who freely crossed over, that they did not come for Candelaria, but had their sight set on taking over Marfa, its houses, its schools, its city council.
Over two decades later, now that the drug trade was out of control, Davis had his wish granted. But he’d died just days before he could see the bridge was destroyed, as border patrol trucks rolled in and left behind not one piece of the wood or wire, the murky water of the river below motionless, coursing nowhere along either side of the muddy banks.
Daddy promised the stillness wouldn’t be real once I got real problems. In Plano before they left me for good, he said, Leigh, if you’re smart, you’ll forget the stillness inside and the broken bits left behind and never look for the why. Cause all you gonna find is the bitter sums when the sky tries to add up the land beneath it.
Years later, though, the stillness has grown, sprouted roots, deep and twisted. I keep thinking about the nomads who’d settled Candelaria, all the time they had to themselves. And I wonder if nomads knew time at all. I’d like to think they didn’t.
I’d like to think there was a time when everything was anything, so your road would’ve been my road. That is, straight to the water source. When there were no strangers, just new things. And so much in the world was far from plain and clear, but that was no big deal.
No one knew much about Candelaria, not even Joaquín’s father who knew everything about the border. He’d told his son that nomads had settled the town, though he couldn’t say why they chose the area. The old man had never liked Candelaria, and thought it was for failures and smugglers.
Joaquín’s family had lived for three generations on the poorer side of Marfa, in an unofficial colonia that the residents called Sal Si Puedes. Most of the adobe houses had no plumbing, and it wasn’t until Joaquín had left for college in Austin that the colonia finally had a paved street.
Leigh had had two minds about him going to college. At that time, someone like Joaquín didn’t have much of a future in Marfa; his intelligence and drive would’ve been wasted. But she was bitter all the same, for while he was getting out, she was being driven further in: Davis was doing his best to marry her off to one of the sons of the many oil men now flooding Marfa.
While she was being presented to middle-aged men in proper taffeta with sweetheart necklines, Joaquín spent much of that summer alone, wandering the area around the Caldera rim. He didn’t see Leigh at all until the night before she called just as he was going to sleep. She wanted him to go to a motel with her in Alpine, where no one would know them.
What he remembered most was the silence that then fell between them, and how they’d spent most of the time in that open shower. The metallic taste of the droplets of water stuck to her face, as her slight body pushed him hard up against the wall, the peeling wallpaper sticking to his back. They’d both slipped, several times, but wouldn’t stop until they physically couldn’t.
They collapsed on the bed, the comforter smelling of stale smoke, with wet hair, the towels drawn tight at their waists. The bed was never unmade, and they checked out an hour before the sun rose.
Joaquín drove home to Sal Si Puedes in her pickup, as she curled up in his poncho in the backseat right behind him, hunched against the window. No matter how much he adjusted his rear view mirror, he couldn’t see her face.
He stopped just on the outskirts of the colonia, watched her sleep for a moment, and then reached out to touch her. Leigh woke up quickly, backing away from the touch that interrupted her dreams. He waited for her to collect herself and then asked if she was awake enough to drive back to Candelaria.
Leigh didn’t answer him but climbed over the front seat as if they were merely switching drivers. She pulled off the poncho and tossed it to him, pushing him out of the driver’s seat. She laughed as she drove off, honking until the colonia dogs began barking and ran out to him.
Months later, no matter how many times he washed the poncho at school, it still carried that sweaty, stale smell of the comforter, mixed with the sandalwood essence she wore. He did poorly in his class that first semester, and called her every Sunday when her family was at church. He counted down the days until Christmas break.
But when he came home, she’d become engaged to the son of a now impoverished oil heir. After an argument just outside the colonia, which the residents of Sal Si Puedes witnessed from a distance, Joaquín and Leigh disappeared.
They camped out that night near at the stony grounds of the Sierra Vierja, and almost froze to death. Wearing only a pair of jeans and a light sweater, Joaquín covered her shivering body in the poncho, their throats filling with the cold, until they stumbled onto an abandoned barn. It was the last time they’d ever see each other. After that night, his grades improved dramatically, but the rough fibers of the poncho caused him to break out into welts, and he’d have to throw it away by next spring.
Mamma says he went out all skin and bone and free of past regrets because he no longer planned on leaving anything behind. This morning at the funeral, no one would speak to me, or sit with me in the pews, not even Mama, and during the service I thought about when her father was still alive. He’d never gotten along with Daddy and just before he died, I was the only he’d speak to and I remember he told me that the bell of the market sounded like a carillon of church bells and people didn’t know whether it was time to praise God or head over to the slaughterhouse. When the border was one big lie and the siesta was as official as things needed to be and all border-dwellers were called Tejanos whether white or brown. When life was understood as it was lived. On horseback, down the trails, along the railroads. When places and names were not set in stone, and truth roamed free as the people cause they understood that life meant to be pursued, not studied and pulled apart until all you got is facts but no hope for them.
And that next Christmas Joaquín did not come home, although it was around this time that Leigh’s mother had come to call on his mother in Sal Si Puedes, cradling a screaming infant in her arms. The child was just too dark to think otherwise, Mrs. Davis had said, refusing to come inside, and leaving Joaquín’s mother to raise Paolo for the first five years of her life.
His mother still liked to remind him that Paola had cost Leigh her impoverished oil heir and banished her to distant relatives in Plano. She told him, this is how her people live with us: we have literally been cleaning up their lives for years. And when it’s something they don’t like, they send it away and rebuild their sand-castles in the desert, when the desert will always win.
Only now Joaquín knew that his mother had been right all along; the desert was indeed encroaching and the land wasn’t good anymore. Rather than face that the landscape of power had shifted in Marfa and try to adapt, those like the Davis family buried themselves further into their own illusions of right and wrong. To them, he was an illegal, an invader taking over, when he’d been born in Marfa, when his ancestors had helped build those ranches, as well as the very schools and restaurants that hadn’t allowed Mexican-Americans in. As the stones of those markers now crumbled, it was up to him to clean it up - but not in the way his mother had learned. For now Joaquín, a college graduate, was on the city school board, seeking funding for outreach programs to those in the colonias. He did not care to disturb the old timers’ delusions of grandeur: the cowboy churches, the family-owned storefronts on Main Street, the spirit of land that could not be broken anymore than the feral horses that had long since disappeared. These fantasies were to be left for them and the tourists. For those so easily fooled.
Originally he’d come back to Marfa with the hope that Leigh would return. And yet it was for Paola that he’d leave it for a place which didn’t fade along with its glory days, where the last bridge between it and somewhere else had been destroyed not out of fear but spite. No, he couldn’t stay, for he was just as guilty when, rather than save what was left of the Davis family’s ancient mesquite, he’d rounded up some day laborers in Candelaria. He’d sat on the porch swing for an entire afternoon, watching them uproot the centurial tree. Then he armed them with chainsaws to make it easier to cart it away to the dump.
It wasn’t until this moment that Joaquín realized he’d also been seeking a larger sense of revenge. When the oil man who’d bought the Davis ranch went broke, it was Joaquín who’d seized it at a government auction at a murderously paltry sum, and then let it fall into a state of ruin. What he hadn’t expected, though, was the resistance from his own parents. For all his desire to move them into a modern house, his parents chose to remain in Sal Si Puedes, in their adobe home across the hastily paved road. They couldn’t bear the shame, unable to understand why would someone like Joaquín who’d gotten out would come back, to where everything changed rapidly and yet remained the same, to a place stuck in a continual shattering stillness, in a long-drawn-out conflict that had never been a war but a way of life.
She held my eyes, even from a distance. I hadn’t expected such eyes, so large and uneasy that they overwhelmed her small face. It was as if she’d been watching me all her life from a distance, sitting on that porch swing where Daddy used to rock himself calm, contemplating the dry scraps of his land that became more dust than soil.
I don’t know how long I sat in my truck, with those big eyes on me, with those strange cries ringing out all around and the new gate tall and black and shining in the overcast. He’d put up a steel fence that stretched so far it seemed to go on forever, not at all like the rusty wire strung around the crooked fence-posts of my childhood, its wood worn both by weather and resignation, how many years did Daddy spend talking about replacing it, but said we no longer had anything worth stealing.
And, now before me, what has been taken and what has been left behind: that bruised, swaying darkness, the sound of things that lie in wait, opaque and unknown, seeming so far away and I no longer knew this place and I did not know her at all and yet had carried them both all the same, for he’d become the link between them in my absence and at that moment everything that had laid between me and them surged high above, flinging the stillness from heights both vast and slight, as if there’d never been any ground at all.
She stepped out of the battered pickup, struggling with an overstuffed suitcase, her head bowed and almost imperceptible beneath a large black hat. She wore a simple, dark dress that stopped just below the knee. It fit her tightly, but as if to emphasize a certain severity rather than the shape of her body. Was this really the same woman?
As she approached the gate, he suddenly saw that the fallen gull was trying to squeeze its body between the bars. The woman didn’t seem to notice; she was looking up at him, where his study - once her father’s - extended over the front porch. He wondered if she could see him, if she remembered that last desperate night in the motel, if she knew that Paola lived with him now.
As she came closer, her shadow grew long and thin in the dim light, passing right through the gull and onto the front yard that hadn’t been mowed in almost a year. At that moment, he thought about little Paola who liked the state of things very much, and how each day she wandered further away from the house, deeper into the ten acres that he himself had not yet fully explored. He liked having to find her every evening just before dinner, although sometimes his heart beat wildly, and he worried that he might one day lose her that open field overrun by weeds and wildflowers.
Such displays of abandon wouldn’t fool Leigh Davis, who knew what constituted neglect, and what was simply indifference.
As a rough wind stirred in the sky, inciting shriller cries from the gulls above, the woman cried out as the small figure ran toward her. She fell to one knee and held out her arms, weeping loudly enough for Joaquín to hear through the tumult, but Paola stopped short at the gate, barely paying attention to the woman. At first he didn’t understand why Paola was crouching down, ignoring the woman’s cries and frantic waving of her arms.
But when he realized what Paola was doing, he too wanted to cry out. The little girl had never seen a gull before, and didn’t know that once the ungrateful creature was free, it would call out to its flock and put her in danger. Imagining the soft skin of her hands being ripped open, he wanted to shout, leave it alone, but couldn’t. All he could do was close his eyes and count to ten.
Before he was halfway, he heard the creaking sound of the gate. He opened them to see the woman motioning for him to come down, Paola’s hands empty and reaching up to the sky as if she was still letting go.
But Joaquín turned away from the window. He put his head down in the desk and cried without a sound, hoping that Paola would sneak in and surprise him by touching his neck with her freezing hands, as she liked to do in the evenings.
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