Every morning at 11 o’clock in a small, dusty town in South Texas, Sra. Puente would begin to prepare her husband’s lunch—just as she had when he was alive.
Across the street, the neighbors would smell the aroma and know that soon—at precisely five minutes before noon—she would begin her short walk down the street to the cemetery, clutching the lunch satchel in front of her. She always wore a simple, buttoned-down dress that would gently sway as she walked. The neighbors liked watching her as she walked by. For so many years they had admired her neatly combed, gray hair, pulled back into a matronly bun; her plain, round face without a touch of makeup; her husband’s lunch in her hands. They’d been watching from their kitchen and living room windows for so long that it was easy for them to forget that Sr. Puente had passed away some years earlier.
When he was alive, she always fed him right at 12:10, giving him time to clean up before she arrived at his workshop. As he finished cleaning, she would choose a place to spread out the dishcloth, unwrap the aluminum foil, and show him his lunch. He would rub his hands together and smile at her when he saw the spread. Before they ate he would kiss her on the forehead—his way of saying grace. Ever since they were married she brought her own lunch, too; she never ate at home on a workday. After he died, she said she wasn’t going to stop bringing him lunch just because he was working someplace else. (She imagined him carving out furniture or grinding down wooden spoons for the Kingdom of God, with God himself overlooking his handiwork. That’s what she told everyone.)
For a few months after he died, people gossiped about her lunchtime walks. But in time they no longer saw her behavior as eccentric. They began to think of it as a commitment she had made because of something that they were not privy to, something that had to do with loving the same person without fault for more than 70 years. She was 92 when he died; they had been in love since they were in their early 20s.
When other men came home at lunchtime, they would see Sra. Puente sitting by the distant grave, unwrapping the soft cotton dishtowel and foil to show her husband what she had brought. She would lean her head forward as if to receive his kiss, and then place the food on a baby blanket she had sewn by hand. Their only child—the inspiration for her great assortment of handmade baby blankets—had died at the age of 11 months. She kept the blankets while awaiting his birth. They were wrapped in plastic bags and stored in a back closet, but she would use them just the same. She also kept a faded, black-and-white photograph of the baby, wrapped in white blankets and seemingly sleeping in a small coffin. Standing at the head of the coffin were the proud, bereaved parents, their hands clasped together. They weren’t able to buy three adjacent plots, so Emilio’s grave (they always referred to their son by his name) was some distance from his father’s.
No one really knew what happened to all the lunches that Sra. Puente placed on her husband’s grave. They only knew that by the time she came the following day, the lunches were either gone or partially eaten. Townspeople imagined that boys from the neighborhood had taken it upon themselves to remove the food—to watch her react as they spied on her from a distance. But perhaps their motives had nothing to do with cruelty. At any rate, the fact that at least some of the food had disappeared was proof enough for Sra. Puente that her husband still appreciated her efforts. If anything was left when she returned the next day, she would assume it hadn’t been to his liking, and would promise to never bring it again. (She noticed that now that he was dead, her husband was no longer eating many vegetables.)
She started taking lunch to his grave the day after the funeral. She would have begun the day of the burial, but in keeping with local custom, the funeral had been held at 2 o’clock. Lunch hour was long past. The day was gray, with the breeze stopping just long enough for the ceremony to be clearly heard. There had been an afternoon drizzle, a sign from God to the locals that a good life was ending.
Sometimes they could hear her talking. The breeze, traveling some 40 miles from the coast, had a tendency to carry voices from house to house. That’s how word got around that another widow, widow Flores, was having an affair with Ramiro Lopez. The wind carried their passion from the Flores house almost four blocks to the Lopez house. Recognizing her husband’s whimpers, Sra. Lopez promptly showed up with his gun and shot a hole in his car—which he had just painted.
Because the wind had not been discreet, everyone who saw Mrs. Lopez get into the car and drive those four blocks knew where she was going. By the time she arrived—even before she arrived—a small group of neighbors had gathered around the front gate of the widow Flores’s house, waiting for the spectacle to begin. After the shooting, Sr. Lopez quietly stepped out of the house, zipping up his pants and combing his hair with his fingers. Ever since, he has remained faithful to his wife. Because of a lack of money—and a desire not to have to bring up the incident with his wife—he never fixed the bullet hole. (The slug had gone through the window on the driver’s side and entered the front seat—at a point where he could see it high between his legs when he entered the car or stopped at an intersection. Sra. Lopez had never been one to mince messages.)
From then on, the shooting became part of town legend, a historical reference. “The day that Sra. Lopez shot the hole into Sr. Lopez’s car” was right up there with “the day the pig was hit by the truck on the highway”; or “the day that stranger took little Arturo and left him in the washateria in Beeville”; or “the day Sra. Zapata cut her own children’s hair.” (She left bald spots and then colored them with markers so no one would notice at school.)
The town was small enough so that when strangers asked directions, they would be told to go “two houses down from where el Jotito lives.” Directions were always given in reference to people. “El Jotito,” pronounced “Ho-ti-to,” was the gay man who had lived in the community for many years; he had bought his own house. They worked alongside him in the fields, always acknowledging that he was different. “Oiga, Jotito, que piensa Ud. de la guerra en Vietnam?” they would ask. “Hey, Jotito, what do you think of the war in Vietnam?” He was part of their lives, and because he was older than many of them, they consulted with him as they did with other elders. But he knew, and all of them knew, that he was different enough to be used as a landmark when giving directions.
In the morning and then in the evening during dinner, Sra. Puente could be heard talking, unintentionally letting everyone downwind know that her husband was home—the same as always—and that he was enjoying one of her finer culinary efforts. She had always used terms of endearment when she spoke to him, as if she were about to pinch his cheek. When they were younger—in their 40s and 50s—she could never stop touching him as she spoke to him, much to his embarrassment. Finally he gave up and accepted her behavior; he stopped blushing and simply smiled at her.
People who heard her talking to him at breakfast or dinner never heard a reply, though the first few months after he died they listened intently to the wind. All they heard was Sra. Puente. After awhile, that too, seemed normal.
Once a week, always on Friday, Sr. Puente had a beer with his dinner. After he died it was no different: On Fridays she always showed up at Manuel Colmenero’s store to buy one beer, a Budweiser, for his dinner. It was always in a bottle, never a can. (They had rules in the Puente household, and she wasn’t going to be the one to break them.) She would carry the beer back in the singles bag, walking almost three-quarters of a mile down the dirt road, making sure to get home in time to put it in the freezer so it would be cold at dinner. Everyone knew what she had in the bag, but they learned that she was embarrassed to be seen with a beer. Out of respect, they stopped acknowledging having seen her, allowing her that three-quarter mile moment of privacy. Even children playing in the streets would quietly go inside to watch TV until she was safely inside her house.
Sra. Puente had never been in love before she met Sr. Puente. And once she fell in love with him, the rest of the town seemed to recognize the truth of the relationship. As far as anyone could tell, no other man ever approached her—or even considered approaching her—to ask her out, much less anything else. Once she had decided on Sr. Puente, Sra. Puente belonged to him and with him. Even in a little town full of people who couldn’t read or write much beyond their own name, everyone could understand what had happened when Sr. and Sra. Puente met. Even the widow Flores, who was known to have looked at men with an unholy gaze more than once, never again looked at Sr. Puente, except with humility and respect.
Sra. Puente liked to bake for Sr. Puente. And Sr. Puente liked cakes. They had grown slightly portlier over the years, though not so much as to be considered fat. The only visible consequence was that when Sra. Puente reached out and touched Sr. Puente’s face, she would sometimes take a pinch of his cheek, too. Sr. Puente again began to be embarrassed by his wife’s displays of affection. After some more years, he again gave up and accepted them as true signs of love.
Whenever she touched his face, Sra. Puente would get tears in her eyes, as if she meant to tell him that life without him would be meaningless, and that even if he died, she would not let go of him.
When Sra. Puente got pregnant, she was almost 32. No one knew why they had waited to have children, but in truth it was a miracle they had a child at all. Sra. Puente had a medical condition that, according to the visiting doctor, would prevent her from bearing a child.
When she got pregnant, no one was more surprised than Sra. Puente, with Sr. Puente a close second. Since they were uncertain about the sex of the child, they would speak in general terms about its future. Sometimes they would talk about “him” helping Sr. Puente in the shop as soon as he was old enough. At other times they would talk about “her” helping Sra. Puente prepare Sr. Puente’s lunch and then walking with her to take it to him. They talked about their plans for their child so much that before he was born, all the women who would watch Sra. Puente from their kitchen windows at noon had already started to imagine a little girl walking with her as she brought lunch to her husband. The little girl would be wearing a neatly ironed dress and red tennis shoes. The men had started seeing a little boy in the background in Sr. Puente’s shop, sitting on a stool.
Sr. Puente himself had carried the baby to the doctor. He never asked for a ride; he just walked as fast as he could through the thigh-high, dry grass of the empty lots, cutting the distance by almost a mile. He arrived at the doctor’s office in 15 minutes. Sra. Puente walked quickly behind him, dirtying the hem of her dress on the grass as she tried to keep up with her husband.
When the doctor came out to see Sr. Puente, he simply told him that the baby was dead, that there was nothing they could have done about it. Sr. Puente had not wanted to hand the baby over in the office, thinking that if he just held on to him for a few minutes, the baby would look up again and smile. After some 30 minutes—some say it was more like an hour—Sra. Puente convinced her husband that the baby had only been on loan, and that it was time to give him back. In the parking lot, she had to stop Sr. Puente when he started to punch himself hard on the face for not saving Emilio. Days later, you could still see the bruises. The doctor’s young assistant, who many years later became a doctor herself, had been standing at a window watching. She could hear his cries. She saw Sra. Puente hold down his arms and look at his face to stop him. He had kept repeating to himself through his sobs, “Yo no quiero dejar al niño aquí solo. Me lo quiero llevar pa’ la casa con nosotros.” “I don’t want to leave the baby here alone. I want to take him home with us.” After awhile, the assistant saw the couple walk away, holding hands as they crossed through the tall, dusty grass.
On the morning of the funeral, the rain came gently from the west. Having been awake most of the night, they saw the rain beating on the windowpanes. It occurred to each of them—and many years later they mentioned it during dinner—that on the day their son was buried neither of them could actually hear the rain. They had lain in each other’s arms all night, taking turns sobbing, until Sra. Puente finally got up and started getting dressed, saying it was time to bury their son.
His wake was in the front room of the house. All night long people had come and gone, taking care that the burning candles did not blow out. It was November, but seasons were barely perceptible in that small Texas town, and the doors remained open all night, save for their bedroom door, which was shut at about three in the morning to let them rest while friends and neighbors took care of their son.
At the gravesite, just before their son was interred, a university student who had been visiting the town asked if they wanted a picture. They had never taken photographs of each other and were more than a little uncomfortable with the thought, having seen only formal portraits, or glamour shots at the beauty shop. But they wanted a picture.
For a few seconds, before the body was lowered into the dirt, the couple stood at the head of the coffin while the young man snapped a shot. An instant before the shutter clicked, they automatically held hands, though each of them, like all of us, was suffering alone. Three weeks later, a small, black-and-white photograph arrived in the mail.
One particularly cold Christmas, Sra. Puente had been preparing dinner for hours. She had bought a small turkey. She baked Sr. Puente a cake, a particular favorite of his, and made tortillas. She had been talking aloud for hours, almost from the moment she woke up. She talked about dinner, about those early morning cups of coffee, and, occasionally, about their son.
In the middle of the afternoon, a car that she had never seen before drove up to the house. The neighbors had noticed it pass, raising caliche dust and looking elegant in the surrounding poverty. Some of the men stepped outside to watch when they realized where it was headed: to Sra. Puente’s house. By then she was almost 96, and people were a little worried about Sra. Puente. She still brought lunch every workday to the cemetery; she still visited Emilio’s grave; and she still could be heard talking into the coastal breeze. But they worried.
When the car approached the house, a man who appeared to be in his mid-to-late 40s got out. He was well-dressed and had the air of an educated, successful man, which seemed to reassure the men down the street. Nevertheless, they sat outside on the stairs in the cold, munching on their Christmas dinners. They wanted to make sure that nothing happened to Sra. Puente. By the time the man walked up the step to knock, Sra. Puente had already mentioned to her husband that there was someone at the door, and that she would see who it was.
The man said that years ago, when he was a u
e had visited the town to study its people, that he had photographed them as they went about their lives, doing whatever they did to survive.
One day not long ago, he was at home with his friends and remembered the town. He pulled out the box of photographs. His friends told him he should go back to South Texas to deliver the photographs, which is why he had brought the box to Sra. Puente on Christmas day.
Sra. Puente opened the box in front of her husband, and, together, they quietly looked through it until the darkness forced them to turn on a light.
There, in faded black and white, was Sra. Puente walking to take Sr. Puente his lunch. There was Sr. Puente raising their baby over his head, the baby’s head in the clouds. There was Sra. Puente sitting on their front step giving the baby a bottle. There was Sra. Puente with Sr. Puente beside her, pregnant and sewing a small blanket. There, toward the bottom of the box, was a picture of them holding hands, standing at Emilio’s grave. And there, from a distance, was the canopy that covered all of them, family and friends. It looked as if the rain had spotted the lens, making it lose its focus in spots, making it all the more difficult to see the image that had accompanied Sra. Puente all through the years.
Ruperto Garcia, a former Observer staff writer, lives in San Antonio.