Excerpts from The Valley The age of seven may be a mite early to meet Death head on, but that’s when I first met her; it happened of an early evening when I finally arrived home from school by way of the estuary and the canal, stopping for a long swim in each. The women of the neighborhood were standing in the middle of the street waiting for me: Don’t go home, now, Jehu; we’ll call you. In the meantime, you go on over to Gelasio Chapa’s barbershop. You wait there, now. And I did; I knew what was up, knew it right off, and I cried the better part of the night until they came for me; I was then fed and tucked but not in our house. I’d forgotten all about Pa, and when I did ask, I was told: Well, he’s been drinking for the last two days, see. He’s over at Cano’s place, but it’d be better if you let him be for now. And I did that, too. We, Pa and I, buried Mama not too far from San Pedro, and then Pa and I’d go over there once a month until he, too, one day and I mean, one-two-three, just like that , when one day, as I said, he died as he was telling me a joke; a joke which now, some twenty-five years and two wars later, I’ve not been able to recall for the life of me. I was about nine when he died, and it was by mere chance that a knockabout carny troupe pulled into Relampago on that same day. It was a small affair, the carny was; it included a fair to middling Big Top, and the main attractions were the high wire and the trapeze acts. The wire’d be strung out the length of the eighty-foot tent and a man \(made up to look Japanese or sometimes dressed up in a one piece bathing suit would show up and each one behind the other would then wend their way from one end of the tent to the other and back again. The wire was strong and tight enough, all right, but it wasn’t too high off the ground. Now, right behind a cotton curtain, a five-man ensemble played whatever had been agreed upon before the start of the show, and then the curtain would drop, the instruments would be set aside, and the musicians, dressed and painted up as clowns, would come bounding out to meet the public. They wouldn’t come out empty-handed, either. Each one carried a basket jammed with boxes of caramel candy; the boxes were not always hand filled to the top, but they were attractive: when flattened out, the customer had himself a Mexican flag as a souvenir. At other times, other men, or perhaps the same ones, depending on the size of the troupe on any given trip, the men, as I was saying, would stand in the middle of the main and only ring and localize their jokes, that is, they’d joke about actual people or characters from Relampago or from any of the other neighboring Valley towns. They’d carry on so that the Relampagans, a dour lot, would smile in recognition, nudge each other and, finally, burst out laughing but doing this was hard work ’cause Relampagans are hard to please. The thing is that once we buried Pa, and I was brought back to town, I was left alone there, in the park, and the people went off to work or, as we say: they went off to live, a vivir. Well, I walked around a bit; I thought about school somewhat, but then decided to call on my Aunt Chedes on the chance my cousins would be there. \(Aunt Chedes never attended funerals; it was her fear that if she did, then everyone there would die. Everyone, she said, and so she When I stepped in the house, I almost bolted out the same door I came in because, truth to tell, her crying made me uneasy, ill at ease. Although I missed Pa very much, and I did, I used to look at him as an older brother, one I never had. The point being that my memories of him must’ve been quite different from those of Aunt Chedes’ and of that I am certain. After a while she stopped her crying, but, and again as always, she had a case of hiccups. And there she was, breathing in and breathing out, when she stared at me for the longest time; she turned to the wall for a moment as if looking for something and then she looked at me again. Well, I figured she was fixing to faint or something, but she was frightfully absent minded, too, and then looked past me, and I thought she was planning to go off in one of those trances of hers. I stopped her by walking right to her, and asked: “Where’s the kids?” She recovered, was about to explain this end of it, when she stopped her ironing, placed her middle finger all of it, to the hilt inside her mouth. She then placed the iron on the trivet and, finger in mouth, she turned, opened the walnut ice box, and proceeded to fill a tall glass of water. The house was quiet, and she hadn’t said a word in about five minutes. Placing the glass on the iron board, she dipped that middle finger in the cold water, made the sign of the cross in the air and then on my forehead: Drink this, she said, drink this whole glass of water, Jehu. All of it, now, and don’t stop till you do. While you’re doing that, I’m going to say an Our Father backwards for today’s the day you’re to meet your new Pa. I looked at her, but she wouldn’t start until I started to drink. Standing there, mouth agape, I didn’t know what to do, but just in case ’cause you can never tell, I took the glass and began to drink as she halfhummed, half-sung out: Amen, evil from us deliver and .. . * * * In the Valley, there are families from around Klail, Flora, and Bascom who have known each other for some six-seven-eight generations, and many are blood related, 28 MARCH 11, 1983
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