by Toni Morgan
We all stared at the words San Ignacio painted on a piece of weathered wood nailed to a stake pounded into the ground. An arrow pointed toward the mountains.
“Jesus, that road looks worse than the one we’re on,” said Jack, sitting in the passenger seat next to Tucker. Tucker’s nearly bald head loomed in front of me.
“I knew we should have stayed nearer the coast.” Kay had fallen in love with the beaches around Puerto Vallarta and never missed an opportunity to complain about leaving them, which we’d done two weeks earlier. But we were in Mexico to show Jack the cotton-growing potential of the central regions. Tucker procured for the Army, and the Army needed cotton for uniforms.
“Well, what do you all think? Should we turn off here or keep going?” Tucker revved the engine slightly.
Kay and I were for keeping to the road we were on, but Jack and Tucker voted for the turn-off. Tucker put the station wagon into gear and pointed it toward the mountains. Dust plumed behind us. Before long, it lay thick on the dashboard, our luggage and on the extra water cans piled-up in the back. I would have given anything about then for a long soak in a tub of warm, sudsy water.
“Let’s roll up the windows—the dust is so thick in here I can hardly breathe.” Kay was from Texas. “Amarillo, honey,” she told people in her flat, nasal drawl.
We’d all met in Phoenix where so many people moved after the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor, looking for excitement or jobs or both. Tucker was from Tucson. Jack came from California’s Central Valley, where his family owned a large cattle operation. He moved to Phoenix partly for business opportunities and partly to get away from his wife.
I was from southern Idaho, near a town that no one ever heard of. The only thing different about the four of us was that they’d been born rich. My family had eked out a living on land filled with lava outcroppings and little else. There were five of us kids and never enough money.
“It’s too hot to roll up the windows,” Jack told Kay, using a linen handkerchief with his initials embroidered in the corner to wipe the sweat from his flushed face.
“Well, I’d rather be hot than choke to death, sugar.”
“Then put out your cigarette.” Jack often complained about Kay’s chain-smoking. She ignored him, as she always did, but she didn’t say any more about rolling up the windows.
I wondered again why I’d decided to be part of this trip. Tucker had seemed indifferent whether I came along or not. We’d been together nearly six months and I still wasn’t sure we’d ever have a permanent relationship. Or if I even wanted one. At least I knew he wouldn’t be drafted.
My mother had been dead-set against my coming. We’d argued for days.
“I just don’t understand you, Virginia. I’m going to ignore the fact that you’re obviously sleeping with that man.” She never referred to Tucker by name; he’d been married twice before and she viewed him with suspicion. “But how can you go off and leave Richie? He’s only three. What if he gets sick? What if I need to contact you?”
The trip sounded like a lark though, and I was tired of all the war talk at home. I told my mother I was going and promised to call her as often as I could. Besides, Richie loved being with her. He probably wouldn’t even notice I was gone.
The road started to rise and soon we were in low, rolling hills. Sage and mesquite still covered the landscape, but now an occasional juniper staked a claim in the rocky soil. When we reached the top of yet another hill, we looked down to a dry creek bed strewn with rocks and boulders. Clumps of willow grew along its edges. On the other side of the creek, tracks led up a smaller hill and again disappeared over the top.
The car ground its way down to where the road ran into the creek bed. Tucker drove slowly forward, maneuvering between boulders. Jack braced his hand against the dashboard. In the backseat, I clung to the door handle to keep from being pitched sideways into Kay.
When we reached the opposite side of the creek bed, Tucker stopped the car and we all climbed out. Tucker looked back the direction we’d come and then at the tracks leading up the hill. “Well, what do you think, folks?”
“I think we’re fuckin’ lost, honey.” Kay dropped her cigarette on the loose gravel and ground it out with a sandaled foot.
Jack reached through the open car window, pulled the map from the glove compartment, and spread it across the hood of the car. He and Tucker leaned over it. Kay wandered over to a large boulder, sat down, and lit another cigarette. Her sleek brown hair fell forward as she leaned into the match, cupping the flame with carmine-tipped fingers. She blew out a long stream of smoke and appeared to ignore the two men arguing over the map.
My blouse stuck to my back and my linen shorts had ridden up into a bunch between my legs. I was stiff from sitting in the car all day. After getting a drink of water from the sweating, canvas bag hanging off the outside mirror and resting against the station wagon’s wood side, I started to follow the tracks up the hill. In addition to working out the kinks, I was eager to get away from the others, at least for a while.
As I climbed, I thought back to our recent stay in Mexico City. While Tucker and Jack went to meet with someone from the government—a land surveyor I thought—and Kay sat in the hotel bar drinking rum and coke and flirting with the young bartender, I explored the nearby streets. Brilliant red bougainvillea surged up and spilled over many of the high walls. I peered through an open carved wooden gate to a courtyard and a house with a long, covered patio. More bougainvillea climbed the patio’s posts. From somewhere came the tinkling sound of water.
After a few more blocks, I arrived at a small plaza shaded by ancient oak trees. The raucous sounds of birds filled the air, but I couldn’t see them. Then, as though one of the trees exploded, hundreds of small, pitch-black birds flew up, only to disappear again into the branches of another tree, their noise undiminished. Filling the sidewalks surrounding the plaza were tables and stalls with fruits and vegetables, lace table cloths and leather goods, cooking utensils, toys, a crate of chickens and even a live pig.
I spotted a soldier made of tin—its cheeks rosy, and a trim mustache above its upturned mouth, its legs and arms thin as straws, a trumpet in one hand—and had to buy it.
Tucker grumbled whenever he loaded or unloaded our luggage. “Why do you buy junk like this?” Or, “This is a business trip, Virginia, not a goddamn shopping excursion.” I didn’t bother to respond.
I reached the top of the hill and yelled back to the others. “There’s a town. I can see it.”
It was dusk. A church and several small buildings were silhouetted against the sky as we approached, dark against lavender, and lights flickered in the windows of houses scattered down the hillside.
We entered San Ignacio by what we later learned was one of two roads leading to San Ignacio. The one we’d taken was seldom used—the creek crossing wasn’t dependable, we were told. The other, more-traveled road led from the coast, crossed the road we’d driven much of the day, passed through town, continued over the mountains, and eventually led to the Gulf.
It was not unusual, apparently, for motorists to be stranded in San Ignacio, especially during the winter when the road through the mountains became impassable. With the war in Europe and the Pacific going on, though, and fuel harder to come by, there were fewer travelers on the road at any time of the year. We had no trouble finding a place to stay.
The room Tucker and I were offered was sparsely furnished. A bright magenta blanket covered a double bed. The intertwining roses and vines on the wooden headboard were crudely carved but somehow delicate-looking. I thought of the unknown, unskilled artist who’d carved them and wondered if he ever thought of the people who might eventually sleep in his bed. Above it, like a benediction, a gold-painted cross hung on the wall. Across the room, a painted chest stood beneath the single window. No rug covered the smooth, wood-planked floor and no curtains hung at the window.
“Do you need your other suitcase from the car?” Tucker asked.
I propped the tin soldier on the chest beneath the window. “No. I have all I need in the small one.”
“I don’t know why you have to drag that thing to our room every night.”
I stepped back to admire my handiwork. “He makes me smile.” I turned to survey the room once again; its simplicity appealed to me.
“There’s a cantina across the street,” Tucker said. “Let’s get a drink.”
I shook my head. “I want to take a bath and wash my hair. And I want to call home again.”
“You can do that later. Right now I want a drink.” He didn’t wait for me to answer.
Resisting the urge to argue, I followed him down the narrow stairs. At the bottom was a door that led outside.
“And I want you to be nicer to Jack.”
I stopped mid-step. “Be nicer to Jack? What is that supposed to mean? How am I not nice to Jack?”
Tucker didn’t pause. “You know how you can be. And he likes you. I can tell by the way he watches you.”
“So what?” I hurried to catch up with him as he shoved open the door. “Lots of people like me,” I said when we were both outside. “Besides, I am nice to Jack.”
“Well, be nicer. I need his money.”
“What are you asking me to do, Tucker?”
“Nothing. Forget it.” He took my elbow and started to walk across the road to the cantina.
I pulled my arm away. “How can I forget it when you just said it?”
He didn’t answer.
Jack and Kay sat near the bar in the dimly-lit cantina, each with a glass of tequila. A plate of sliced lemons and a dish of peppers was on the table between them. Kay’s coloring was heightened. It looked as though they’d been arguing.
Jack glanced up and waved when Tucker and I walked in. “The tequila isn’t bad,” he said when we reached their table.
A brown-skinned woman with coarse gray hair hanging over her shoulders in two long braids, came to take our order. In a gathered skirt of black cotton, an embroidered white blouse that fell off one shoulder, and her dusty feet thrust into leather sandals, she didn’t smile, but stood silent, waiting.
In rapid Spanish, Tucker ordered a beer for himself and a glass of tequila for me.
A single bulb, dangling on a short, black cord, cast a weak light that failed to reach into the corners of the low-ceilinged room. Another single bulb dangled above the bar and the small kitchen behind it. Along with the smells of beer and cigarette smoke, the air was ripe with cooking odors.
Tucker and Jack talked about cotton. Tired of the subject, I watched two men at a nearby table. One wore a dark suit. His thin black tie hung loose at the collar of his white shirt, but otherwise he looked tidy, as though someone who cared about his appearance had tended him. His companion was thin and dark, with pockmarked skin drawn tight over his narrow face. His dark eyes stared out from under thick bushy brows. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to make out what was being said, but the thin one was drawing lines in some beer spilled on the table, and alternately jabbing his finger at the man in the suit.
The waitress brought our drinks. I sipped the tequila, enjoying the sharp taste on my tongue and the spreading warmth as it hit my belly, and tried to make conversation with Kay. I gave up when, lighting one cigarette after another, she made it clear her mind was on something else.
Finally, her eyes on Jack, she leaned back in her chair and exhaled a long stream of smoke. “Well, y’all will know soon enough. I’m pregnant.”
Jack scowled. “For Christ’s sake, Kay, do you need to blab everything you know?” He tossed back the remainder of his tequila.
“Well, I think it’s important for our friends to know I’m knocked up, sugar.” She gave me a strained smile. “Aren’t you thrilled for me, honey? Do you suppose it’ll be a boy or a girl? I’d love to have a little girl, I think. But then a little boy would be nice, too—I just know he’d grow up as good-lookin’ an’ sweet as his daddy.” She lit another cigarette then quickly stubbed it out and started to cry.
“Just shut-up, Kay,” said Jack. “God dammit, can’t we just finish this trip and think about our problem later? Where’s the waitress? Let’s see if we can get something to eat.”
“I don’t want anything to eat. Besides, it isn’t your problem, it’s my problem. You already have a wife and a son.” Kay downed the rest of her tequila in one gulp before pushing back from the table. She got up and walked unsteadily to the bar, where she loudly ordered another drink. I knew from experience there was no point in arguing with her or trying to get her to go back to our rooms. She would drink until the bar closed.
Jack, grim-faced, pulled the map out of his pocket, unfolded it, and spread it across the table, the plate of lemon slices and the dish of peppers pushing up the worn and creased paper like small hills.
“The problem will be getting water to where we’d need it,” he said. He pretended to ignore Kay.
“We can irrigate. This is the eastern edge of the three parcels, right?” Tucker tapped a spot on the map with his finger. “And the river is here at its closest point. That’s what, three miles. It won’t take much to ditch that far.”
Jack looked doubtful. “Who’s going to do the work? Look at the country we drove through today. There are no people. The place is empty.”
Tucker waved Jack’s concerns aside. “We’ll bring them in from Leon and Guanajuato. There’ll be plenty of people in those places who want work—they can throw up some shacks to live in. A year, maybe two, and we’ll produce as much cotton here, in one spot, as all the fields they’ve put in around Phoenix. It’ll be ten times cheaper and the government will buy it from us without thinking twice.”
Jack still looked unconvinced, but Tucker went on talking about the plan and the route the four of us would take in the morning.
I returned to watching the two men at the other table, wondering if there would be a fight. But the pockmarked man appeared to have calmed down. The man in the suit got to his feet; I heard him say goodnight to the other man. As he turned to leave he nodded to me. “Buenos noches, Senora.”
I drank the last of my tequila, stood, and told Tucker I was going back to our room. “It’s too late to call home, but I still want to take a bath and wash my hair.”
Tucker looked from me to the man in the suit then back to me, one eyebrow raised. “Lowering your standards a bit, aren’t you?”
“That doesn’t deserve an answer, Tucker.” I turned and walked out, my back stiff with anger.
When he wanted to be, Tucker was the most charming man I knew, which was all the time when we first met. I rarely saw that side of him anymore, and I didn’t understand what drove him to say such hurtful things. I’d never tried to keep it a secret that I’d been with other men, but I wasn’t a tramp. I didn’t know why he treated me like one. More, I didn’t know why I let him.
A short time later, as I worked shampoo into my hair, I thought about Kay’s announcement. She and Jack had been arguing. Did he want her to get an abortion? Abortions were illegal, but possible if you had enough money. Jack had plenty. I wondered if Kay would go along.
My hair still damp, I lay under the magenta blanket and forced Kay’s problem and Tucker’s rude behavior from my mind. Instead, I pictured my little boy asleep in his bed, his fingers pinching the faded silk binding of his old baby blanket, and I thought about the last phone call to my mother.
“Virginia, I can’t hear you. What did you say?” Her voice was faint and tinny.
“I said how is Richie?” I shouted to be heard over the pops and crackles coming from the receiver. “I bought him a present.”
“When will you be home?”
I continued to shout. “Soon. Maybe next week or the week after. How is Richie?” I heard more wheezes and pops. The woman behind the desk looked up at me, and then down at the ledger opened in front of her.
“What? What did you say? Virginia, I can’t hear you. You need to come home. Richie misses you, and he’s started….” The line went dead.
“The line went dead,” I told the woman.
“I’m sorry, Senora. I will try to reconnect you.” After forty minutes without success, the woman told me the switchboard was closed until the following morning.
It had been three days and I still hadn’t been able to get through. What was my mother trying to tell me about Richie? What had he started?
Tucker was no help. “You worry too much,” he’d said when I told him about the phone call. “Kids are always up to one thing or another. Next week it will be something else.”
Maybe Tucker was right. I punched up the pillow and rolled to my side. The bedsprings protested with a loud squeak. Outside the window, stars dotted the carbon-colored sky. A dog barked, way off in the distance. I thought again of my little boy.
I awoke with a start at the sound of someone tripping on the stairs.
A moment later, the door to our room opened and Tucker entered. He stood for a minute. Over his heavy breathing, the sound of two sets of footsteps continued down the hall. A second door opened and clicked closed.
Tucker crossed the room and dropped down on the end of the bed; I drew my feet back just in time. Shoes fell to the floor. I pretended to be asleep. Tucker muttered under his breath as he struggled to get out of his trousers and shirt.
When he climbed into bed, he pulled me to him. His arms and face were cold from the night air, and his breath smelled of beer and tequila. I turned my head and tried to move away. He jerked me to him again and thrust his hips against me. His erect penis poked my thigh. He thrust at me again and his peeling forehead cracked me on the cheek, bringing a stinging pain and tears to my eyes.
“Quit it, Tucker. I’m not in the mood.”
“What’s the matter? Your little Mexican bandito wear you out?”
“I mean it, Tucker. You’re drunk. I’m tired. It’s been a long day. Let’s get some sleep.”
“I mean it, Tucker,” he mimicked.
The foul smell of his hot breath disgusted me. I pushed away from him one more time.
“Come here, dammit. I didn’t bring you along to tell me you’re not in the mood. I’m in the mood and that’ll have to be enough.” He grabbed my arms and rolled on top of me.
I slipped off the bed and searched along the floor for my nightgown. I tied the torn straps together and slipped it over my head then rolled an already snoring Tucker over and wrapped myself in the magenta blanket. Toward dawn I fell asleep.
Tucker ignored me as he repacked the small suitcase he’d brought in from the car the night before. Still without saying anything, he snapped the case shut and carried it from the room.
I took another bath, dressed, and went downstairs. Tucker sat at a table with Jack. Jack looked up when I entered, but quickly returned his attention to his coffee. Neither man looked happy.
I filled an earthenware mug with steaming coffee from a hammered silver coffeepot, and crossed the room to sit on a chair Jack dragged over from another table.
“Still upstairs,” Jack said. “She’ll be down pretty soon.”
Tucker glanced around, still not looking at me. “Where’s your bag? Aren’t you packed yet? We want to pay the bill and get out of here.”
“I’m not going.”
Tucker frowned, though still avoiding my eyes. “What do you mean, you’re not going?’
“I mean I’m not going with you. I’m staying here.”
Just then Kay came in wearing dark glasses and carrying her suitcase. “You can’t stay here,” she said.
“Of course she’s not staying here,” said Tucker. “Now go get your things together, Virginia, and stop playing games.”
“I’m not playing games with you, Tucker.”
Kay looked at the end of her cigarette and tapped the ash onto the floor. I felt Jack’s eyes on me.
“How are you going to get back to Phoenix then? We’re not coming back here for you,” Tucker said. His gaze finally met my eyes.
“I don’t know. I’ll find something, a bus maybe.” I had no idea how I was going to get home, but I felt reasonably certain that busses passed through San Ignacio to somewhere I could get transportation.
“You’re crazy.” Tucker’s eyes narrowed. “I mean it. Are you coming with us or not?”
“I’m not.” I took another sip of coffee, hoping he wouldn’t notice my hand trembling.
“Suit yourself then.” Tucker stood, pushed his chair back and strode away. Kay followed him.
“My God, Virginia,” Jack said after they’d left. “Are you out of your mind? Whatever Tucker’s done can’t be this bad. You’re cutting your damn nose off to spite your face.”
“Maybe. But I’m still not going.”
He leaned toward me. “Tucker’s right. You are crazy. There’s no telling what might happen to you down here. Your Spanish is no better than mine is, the American Embassy is miles away and there’s a war on, for Christ’s sake. Or had you forgotten?” He straightened. A wet spot spread across his shirt front from coffee spilled on the tabletop.
“Europe is a long way from Mexico, and so is the south Pacific.” I jumped at the sound of the car horn blasting out Tucker’s impatience. “I’ll be okay.”
Jack asked me one more time to change my mind. When I still refused he gave an exasperated sigh and got to his feet. I stood, too.
“Do you have enough money to get home?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“Here’s some extra, just in case.” He handed me several folded bills and then turned and left to join Tucker and Kay.
Wait, I’ve changed my mind. The words trembled on my lips, but I didn’t say them. Instead, when the door closed behind him I ran up the stairs. In the room Tucker and I had shared, I crossed to the window. All I could see of the station wagon was its dust-covered rear window and the extra fuel cans strapped to the bumper as it disappeared over the top of the hill. At the side of the road, next to where we’d parked, was my blue suitcase.
I picked up the painted tin soldier and cradled him in my arms; sunlight glinted off the gold trumpet raised to his smiling metal lips.
About the Author:
Born in Alaska, raised in Oregon, where she studied history at Portland State University, and married in Hawaii, Toni Morgan has lived all over the United States, from California to Washington, D.C., and the world, from Denmark to Japan. She now makes her home in southwestern Idaho. She is the author of six novels: TWO-HEARTED CROSSING, PATRIMONY, ECHOES FROM A FALLING BRIDGE, HARVEST THE WIND, LOTUS BLOSSOM UNFURLING, and QUEENIE’S PLACE. Toni’s articles and short stories have been published in various newspapers, literary magazines, and other publications (http://authortonimorgan.com)