Fiction Fiction 2009

Alba

Último knew people claimed they’d seen Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary and even Jesus Christ. But this was Alba, an ordinary girl from Ricardo Flores. She had on shorts and a pale blouse, and her face was conflicted with desire. “Let me make a fire,” he said to her. “You must be cold.”
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Último was born in the village of Ricardo Flores Magón and raised there with two older sisters without being much aware of the wider world. Growing up, he thought of his father, Fidel, as already old. He slouched, his face was wrinkled, and he wore a straw hat with the brim coming apart and a gray heron’s feather in the sweaty red band. “This hat keeps me alive,” his father said. “You don’t know.” His mother kept goats and chickens and a small garden, watered by hand, and made baskets from yucca fiber and marketed them in Chihuahua. Then his father disappeared, no one knew where, and money arrived from different places Último had never heard of. His mother said that in the States, money grew in the gardens like squash and beans.

Último was an altar boy—every boy was—but he had doubts about God. He had been to Chihuahua with his mother once and felt the energy of the city, had seen the lights and the cars, the radios and TVs, the clothes, soaps, and a thousand other things, and why would God make such things that belonged to so few?

Último did well in school without much effort, and girls were kind to him. When Último was 14, the padre warned him of sins Último had never thought of, and when he inquired of his sisters’ friends, they laughed and kissed him and showed him what pleasure a boy might receive from their hands and mouths. Último was troubled that God should not want him to do what felt so joyful.

So he passed his days reading and learning from the girls and playing soccer. When he was 17, his father came home for several months. He had a car and nice clothes and wore a hat that was useless against the sun. He told stories of Fresno and cotton-picking, of Castroville, where artichokes grew, and Yakima, Washington, where apples were heavy on the trees. If a man was willing to work, he said, there was money everywhere.

His father wanted to take Último back with him to Cali­­fornia, but Marta, the older sister, was pregnant in Buen­a­ventura and needed help, and the younger sister, Lorena, couldn’t be left alone. Most of the day she sat with their abuelita under the thatched awning, but sometimes, without warning, she screamed at a lizard or a bird, and once she’d torn off her shirt and run through the village crying out, “God is chasing me.” Another time she took the knife she was slicing papayas with and stabbed herself in her arm. The abuelita was too old to do what was necessary for Lorena, so when his father went back to the States, Último had to stay longer in Ricardo Flores.

Elena Rivera appreciated how good Último was with Aparicio and saw no reason not to help a tall, good-looking boy who had gotten himself to the U.S. That’s what she told Último one afternoon in September when he brought over a video of Abu and the Giraffe for her son. “What will you do when it gets cold?” she asked. “You can’t sleep at the river all winter.”

“Maybe I will rent from Hector Lopez when his pickers are gone.”

“My parents have a vacant house a little ways out of town,” Elena Rivera said. “There is a spell on it, because a child was killed by a rattlesnake.”

“The place by the dry arroyo?” Último asked. “It has tires holding down the tin roof.”

“That’s it,” Elena said. “The windows are broken, and who knows what else is wrong with it. You’d have to do some repairs. Are you afraid of snakes?”

“Yes and no,” Último said.

“Which?”

“No,” Último said.

“If you’re interested, I will ask my parents about it.”

At the end of his days in Ricardo Flores, Último had a girlfriend, Alba, three years older, a friend of Marta’s, whom his mother had gone to help. Alba was devout and shy, and she went to Mass every day with her mother. She wasn’t one of his sisters’ friends who’d shown him what pleasure was, and he knew better than to coax her or try to kiss her. Instead, he asked to see her naked body.

“Once,” he said. “I want to remember you when I’m gone.”

“You can remember me with my clothes on,” she said.

“I promise I won’t touch you.”

“You will look at me with lust. That’s a sin.”

“I might look at you with lust,” Último said. “That will be my problem.”

“Why would you ask this,” she said, “when you know I cannot do such a thing?”

“There is no cost for a question.”

The next day, as they walked outside the village, Último asked again.

“I have already answered you,” Alba said.

“You might have changed your mind,” Último said. “You might have decided there could be no harm in it, because I will be in the States.”

“When are you going?”

“Soon,” Último said. “When my mother comes back from Buenaventura.”

“In any case, where could we do such a thing? Lorena and your abuelita are at your house, and my mother is at mine.”

“In the church is a room behind the altar where we used to wait before Mass,” Último said. “No one is there in the afternoon.”

Alba laughed. “You’re as crazy as your sister.”

“Only once,” Último said. “I want to walk all the way around you, so when I am in the States, I will remember clearly your whole body.”

“Without touching?” Alba said.

“Yes.”

“It won’t happen.”

A week passed. Último tended Lorena, who was seeing the Virgin Mary in the clouds. He humored her, sang to her, told her she would live to be 103 years old. They threw stones into the ravine. Último read her stories from a magazine.

Their mother returned, grieving for a lost granddaughter. “It was God’s will,” she said. “The child was never well, but did it have to die?”

“God’s will,” Último said. “What is that?”

A few days later, Último filled two plastic bottles with water and loaded his backpack with food that wouldn’t spoil—peanut butter, bread, cans of stew—and said goodbye to Alba at the tienda where she worked. “I am leaving tomorrow before daylight,” he said. “I am going alone so I won’t get caught. I promise I’ll write.”

“How will you find your way?”

“I am destined for great things,” Último said.

“I have changed my mind,” Alba said. “I will do what you asked.”

Último said nothing.

“At two o’clock I have a break,” Alba said. “I will meet you at the church.”

“Promise?” he asked.

At two o’clock that afternoon, Alba appeared at the church as she said she would. The room Último remembered was behind the altar, though he had forgotten how barren and simple it was. There was only one square window high up in the wall, and light fanned down onto the plaster of the wall opposite.

“You have to turn around,” Alba said.

Último turned around and stared up at the light. He heard the swishing of clothes, a dress fall to the floor, then quiet.

“Now,” Alba said.

He turned back slowly and saw her body, her small, dark-tipped breasts, her long black hair over one shoulder. She did not hide herself with her hands, but she lowered her eyes. He was aware of her face, the expression of chasteness, but joy, too, as if she was both ashamed and glad of the moment. Último walked all the way around her so that, for a few seconds, his shadow fell across her body, and then her body returned to light.

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