Excerpt from 'Their Dogs Came with Them'


Their Dogs Came with Them

A Novel

By Helena Maria Viramontes


Copyright © 2007 Helena María Viramontes
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4165-5406-6

Chapter One

The Zumaya child had walked to Chavela's house barefooted, and the soles of her feet were blackened from the soot of the new pavement. She swung her tar feet under the vinyl chair as she stacked large, empty Ohio Blue Tip matchboxes the old woman had saved for her into a pyramid on the kitchen table. Throughout the house, scraps of paper, Scotch-taped reminders, littered the walls. Cardboard boxes sat nestled like hungry mouths of birds wide open for wrapped tumblers, cutlery, souvenir ashtrays. Bulk-filled pillowcases leaned against the coffee table, tagged by the old woman with words so scratchy they could have been written by the same needle used to pin the notes to the pillowcases: cobijas, one note said; Cosa del baño, said another. No good dreses. Josie's tipewriter. Fotos. The child swung her feet as she stacked sixteen then eight then four then two then one hollow matchbox until the shadows lengthened in the kitchen. Before the lightbulb had to be switched on, before the old woman Chavela ordered, Go home now, listen to me, it's getting late.

Chavela continued packing tin cans from the pantry into a box on a chair opposite the child. The old woman was toothpick-splintery like her writing. Her hands trembled from the onset of Parkinson's. Rhubarbs faded from the print of her housedress. She padded across the kitchen wearing neatly folded-down cotton socks and a pair of terry-cloth slippers. She barely whooshed the air whenever she passed the child.

Are you deaf? It's getting late. Chavela's croaky words floated from a distant place to the child's ears like yanked strands of seaweed beached on the shore. The child held a matchbox in midair and looked at the greenish flame flicker under the iron comal and waited for the old woman to say something else. The chair was hard, lumpy and stuck to the child's thighs. Chavela shook out a cigarette from a cellophane package, propped it between her stitched crunch of lips, grabbed a matchbox and shook it, rattled another, then another in search of matchsticks until she had scattered the pyramid about the table.

Chavela waxed the shiny temples of her forehead with her tobacco-tarnished hand. The child could see the milky film of her eyes scanning around the kitchen in search of matchsticks and finally the old woman said, It's not right, I'm telling you. Chavela raised the flame on the stove and hunched over the spurting fire under the comal. The heat splashed on her face and then she lowered the gas, inhaled and coughed and returned her gold bunched package to the pocket of her rhubarb dress.

The child had dreamt of lizards, and it was because of the dream that she had listened to the smaller Gamboa boy, who had caught a tiny lizard from a mound of bulldozed earth. The earthmovers, Grandmother Zumaya had called them; the bulldozers had started from very far away and slowly arrived on First Street, their muzzles like sharpened metal teeth making way for the freeway. The Gamboa boy had hidden behind her grandfather's toolshed, and psssted at the child to join him. His face tar-smudged, he held it and at first the lizard clawed the thin air. In his other hand, the Gamboa boy held a pair of rusty scissors. He reassured her that the tail would grow back. It's not right, she knew, even if they witnessed a miracle. The lizard turned to stone, stiff and silent. They both waited. He made her touch it and then he made her touch the rings of wrinkled skin. The cold sensation never left her fingers, his clamp around her wrist as he pulled her behind the toolshed never left her, his dirty rough clasp where the lizard's head poked in and out never left her. That feeling - it's not right - never left her.

The old woman had taped scribbled instructions all over the walls of the house. Leve massage for Josie. Basura on Wetsday. J work # AN 54389. I need to remember, Chavela had told the child when the child pointed a matchbox at the torn pieces of papers clinging on the walls. Water flours. Pepto Bismo. Chek gas off. It's important to remember my name, my address, where I put my cigarillo down Call Josie. Chavela Luz Ybarra de Cortez. SS#010-56-8336. 4356 East 1st or how the earthquake cracked mi tierra firme, mi país, now as far away as my youth, a big boom-crack. The dogs and gente went crazy from having the earth pulled out right from under them. Cal Mr ... Lencho's tio sobre apartment. Shut off luz. The earthquake's rubble of wood and clay and water yielded only what was missing; shoes without shoelaces, flowered curtains without windows, a baby rattle without seeds in its hollow belly, an arm without a body; and how the white smell of burnt flesh choked. J work # AN 54389. Smoke outside. That's why I began to smoke cigarettes, to hide the white smell even over here in El Norte, even after seventy-seven years, so don't complain about my cigarillos.

But Chavela forgot to smoke her cigarettes outside and the tobacco made the child's nose itch. She smoked in front of the kitchen sink where the linoleum floor was scuffed with so many years of standing to scrub metal pots or pour a glass of tap water. The old woman inhaled quietly, and stared out the window at the lawn of her small yard to see the lemon tree that yielded lemons every other year, to memorize the potted ferns hanging from the shanty arbor built by a married man she had once loved. As she exhaled, the cigarette smoke resembled coiled earthworms without the earth, and she studied the shrubs of bursting red hibiscus bushes that bloomed lush and rich as only ancient deep-rooted hibiscus shrubs can do. Chavela squinted to keep the fumes away from her eyes and then rested the cigarette on the cigarette-burnt windowsill where she had rested hundreds of cigarettes or saved little discoveries such as safety pins or loose Blue Chip Stamps or buttons. The old woman returned to her task at hand and placed another cardboard box next to the child. Chavela's shaky fingernails ticked against the cardboard lid like the rooster clock on the wall.

I'm trying to tell you how it feels to have no solid tierra under you. Listen to me! Where could you run? The sound of walls cracking, the ceiling pushed up into a mushroom cloud. Do you need Dräno to clean out those ears of yours?

But the child heard it, a long rip of paper.

It just wasn't right. Nothing was left, I tell you. Nada. I cried for so long that if my grief had been a volcano, it would have torn the earth in two.

The child gazed at her, imagining an egg cracking into two jagged halves.

My tears could wash away mounds of clay, a flood as dark as blindness pouring from my eyes.

The child imagined a river of molasses.

And under all the rubble, under all that swallowed earth, the ruins of the pyramid waited.

The child knew the end of the story and continued stacking the matchboxes. Pay attention, Chavela demanded. Because displacement will always come down to two things: earthquakes or earthmovers. The child stared at Chavela's cigarette smoke coiling as thick and visible as the black fumes of the bulldozer exhaust hovering over the new pavement of First Street.

Now go home! the old woman said abruptly, packing a set of newspaper-wrapped plates in the box. At least you have one.

Saturday morning barely stretched against the skies. The dull gray doused the glow of the yellow porch light. The child lay buried under a heavy fleece blanket imprinted with a lion roaring. Someone had given the orange blanket to Grandmother years before the child came to live with them, and though she tried to be a good girl humming under the weight of the animal heat, the rigidity and the goodness became impossible. She poked her head out, saw morning light, relieved.

She yawned almost as earnest as the lion, and then swallowed a few times to clear the ocean waves in her head. Her hearing sometimes reached and sometimes connected or sometimes didn't connect to the waves of sea. Fever-sweaty, she wrestled one leg then the other from beneath the tight hot compress of the blanket until she was free to jump on the lion's incisors. The springs of the mattress squeaked and the headboard bounced and the pillows spilled to the floor and then Grandfather's thundering threat, Renata will get you! followed from the next room and she froze.

For weeks he had engaged the child's attention with the story of Renata Valenzuela, a local schoolgirl who had vanished, abducted one afternoon. Grandfather once pointed to a derelict house claiming it belonged to Renata's parents to show the child what could happen if she was bad. The neglected grass burnt to coarse pricks under the carnage of dead leaves heaped everywhere. The windows were draped in straggly black curtains. Tongues of paint curled from the rotted wooden door and whispered to the child of horrific grief.

At night the child refused to succumb to the long harrowing blankness and fought sleep in order to keep at bay the menacing Renata. Finally, the morning light arrived entirely, inviting. Her feet itched to walk against the cold hardwood floor and she slid off the bed and began to tiptoe to the window. She kicked aside a pillow and stubbed a toe on the doll that Mrs. M. of the Child Services gave her last Christmas. At the window, the child puttied her hot cheek against the rain-cool glass. On the other side of First Street, Chavela's blue house looked as empty as a toothless mouth.

The rows of vacant houses were missing things. Without hinged doors, the doorframes invited games. Shattered windows had been used as targets. Chavela never would have allowed her yard to weed wild, never allowed cans of trash to be scattered by the street dogs or left to the crows who pecked at coffee grinds and cucumber peelings. The earthmovers, parked next to the row of empty houses, were covered in canvas tarps and roped with tight-fisted knots to protect the meters, ignitions and knobs on the dashboards from the weekend rainstorms. Already the child viewed the two Gamboa boys sawing a butcher knife through the thickness of hemp knot.

The child wasn't allowed out of her room until her grandparents had awakened, until Renata's story disappeared temporarily, but the wait seemed as endless as the coming of morning. The honey-yellow floor was biting cold and her toes sprang up in resistance. She peeked out of her room into the long hallway. Sharp white light escaped from between the venetian blinds and then escaped from between the palm tree drapes, and the light stenciled distinct angles on the plasterboard walls. The child waited until the shadow became a chair and the wall became itself and the light became one morning slicing through the quiet dark of the house.

Her grandparents slept under thick hand-sewn quilts, the overhead fan chopping the still air. Their bedroom door was slightly opened, and the child remembered an aching floorboard that always groaned somewhere nearby. She breathed in as if she had sunk underwater, glided in and out of the shadows, around the chair, over the noisy floorboard and out of the hallway, and breathed out.

Except for a border of blue tile framing yellow windmills, the kitchen was austere and functional and smelled of bleach and bacon fat. The child reached over the counter and grabbed a single spoon and the lingering scent of honey made her hungrier. Still in her flannel nightgown, she pinched the uncomfortable elastic of her underwear, then jerked open a drawer and the spoons and forks bumped into one another. She selected a butter knife and then gingerly picked the aluminum handle of the porch door. The door hinges protested but did not prevent her from stepping out into the morning.

The clouds had shapes of squashed gum and the breeze that forced them to float above her tossed about her choppy-cut hair. She sat on the cool concrete steps of the porch, placed the butter knife beside her and scratched the bottoms of her feet. The eyelets of Grandfather's steel-tip leather boots stared at her as she slipped them on. They were clumsy, damp and sawdust-rough against her bare feet but she knew to return them to their rightful place before Grandfather awoke, his hunchback stuffed with endless scolding.

One of the Gamboa boys mouthed off to the other, and the smaller one punched and shoved the taller one. A milk truck passed and the udders of the cow looked too pink, too plastic fake, and this fakery irritated the child. The child yawned and swallowed. Then the ocean waves stopped in her head and the volume of sounds connected: the cawing ruckus the crows made while pecking the garbage, the milk truck bottles rattling, the boys' curses, the church bells clanking a summons, the dogs barking in response. She even heard the clouds that sailed across the light brush against each other like sandpaper.

The child thumped down the stairs and to the middle of the yard and then twirled a few times like a top. The flannel billowed above her knees until dizziness overwhelmed her. The shells of houses and fences and morning blurred when she came to a staggering halt. Light-headed, she wound herself up again, tripping on the laces and falling on the well-groomed lawn. Her mouth opened in laughter.

First Street seemed deserted. The cars were held back by a new traffic light at the intersection, and the child padded across the Bermuda grass. She waited for the cars to pass and then decided to clunk across the wide pavement. The loose laces of Grandfather's steel-toed boots trailed behind her.

Get outta here! yelled the lizard boy, the smaller but meaner Gamboa brother. He knelt on the canvas tarp, stopped his sawing and held the butcher knife straight up. He had worn the same T-shirt for five days.

Leave her alone, said the bald-headed Gamboa brother, the other one who was really a girl, but didn't want to be and got beaten up for it.

She's just the Zumaya kid.

So what?

She don't talk.

She better not. And then he said to the child, You better not. The lizard boy pointed the knife at his brother who was really a sister and continued:

She better not or else.

The child had heard people like Mrs. M. of the Child Services say she was deaf; but she wasn't - was she? - if she could hear them say she was deaf. It seemed fortuitous to the child, an option she commanded early on - to have the ocean's sob and then to decide the noise, the external reverberation of language and landscape, until she demanded the silence again.

The lizard boy severed the knot, the bald-headed one pulled and finally the tarp flew up and then whipsaw-slammed, slapping the concrete. The Gamboa boy who was a real boy cursed the child, blaming the noise on her, and screamed that she better make like a tree and leave. His voice boomed and the child hoped the lizard boy had not awakened Grandfather. She pictured him shirtless, hunching over the kitchen sink to wash his face, the bony spine of his bare back full of anger like the hump of a camel full of water. The child saw it all so clearly that she put her two palms up together in prayer, pleading, Please oh please oh please don't wake Grandfather.

Unwanted, the child clunked her boots toward Chavela's house. The outside stucco swirled under the blue paint where glitter specks glistened. Once the child entered the house, sunshine flooded the empty rooms. The linoleum bubbled on the screen porch and exploded like popcorn and the child did a little hat dance to the wonderful sound because by now this was all a game to her. Every room, as hollow as it was, smelled of Chavela's burnt tobacco and the child sneezed. The cigarettes had left stains on the windowsills and the child rolled a finger in each brown notch.

She looked out at her own house and all the other houses on Grandfather's side of First Street; the houses on the saved side were bright and ornamental like the big Easter eggs on display at the Segunda store counter. Some of the houses had cluttered porches with hanging plants or yards with makeshift gardens; others had parked cars on their front lawns. Some built wrought-iron grate fences, while others had drowsy curtains swaying in wide-open windows. In a few weeks, Chavela's side of the neighborhood, the dead side of the street, would disappear forever. The earthmovers had anchored, their tarps whipping like banging sails, their bellies petroleum-readied to bite trenches wider than rivers. In a few weeks the blue house and all the other houses would vanish just like Chavela and all the other neighbors.


Excerpted from Their Dogs Came with Them by Helena Maria Viramontes Copyright © 2007 by Helena María Viramontes. Excerpted by permission.
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