Spring pulled back quickly, letting the heat infiltrate the open air. The square backyards in Hammond showcased plastic pools with yellow buckets and children's floaties. The teenagers habitually smoked on the street corners and curbs, more than they did during the school year, and their parents didn't admonish them, or, a more distressing possibility, they didn't even consider their children's indifference toward their own health.
Maggie's husband Lou wanted to get out of the seedy suburbs. The families were big and noisy (Niña vení ahora! and a girl would go running inside). The street signs either faced the wrong way or had rusted off their tired poles.
"What, Lou, you'd rather be in some neighborhood with gaudy Christmas decorations and bright green lawns?" Maggie hated this argument. "We're just fine here. If you think I want something elegant or pristine, you're wrong, and it's no good thinking about some Lala-land we can't afford." She didn't have to put it that way, but she considered her husband rather thickheaded and liked to push her opinions into his head hard so she wouldn't have to rephrase. Lou wasn't thickheaded, he was just plain. Plain enough not to contemplate the way his wife spoke to him.
The house to the right of Maggie's was unfinished and uninhabited. It looked inside out, the roof beams like giant ribs left bare against the sky. Lou thought it was depressing to live next to something deserted. But Maggie didn't mind because the house's open frame let her watch the sun rise through her kitchen window. She'd start the coffee, and, as the pot began to whimper, the sun streamed in, warming her face and soaking her grayish hair golden.
The house to their left was as full as the one on their right was empty. The Alvarez family was upstairs and the Romero family was downstairs, though, really, they were all up, down, and up again because they were good friends. They had come to the States together. In stages. First, the two fathers with the oldest kids, then the mothers with the younger ones (not so young, their fathers said—just tiny kiddies to caballeros). The little ones were still in El Salvador with their grandparents whom they called mamá and papá because they didn't know better.
But Alejandro and Benito Romero, who'd come to Hammond four years ago, just the two of them together, were the first ones to talk to Maggie. It was last summer, and she was reading on her front porch, but the hours found her turning each page with no recollection of the page before. The boys slowed their bikes, Benito said hi, and Alejandro nodded politely at her. They were both shirtless, and, if Lou had been there, he would have looked away until they passed. Maybe that's why they stopped, because Maggie was watching them over the edge of her book.
As vigorously as Maggie defended the neighborhood to her husband, she had never understood it as her own, or even incorporated it into the sphere of reality that she envisioned for herself.
The yells and cackles of the neighborhood kids didn't feel abrasive or hostile. At times, she blocked them out, "finding her center," as her surprisingly spiritual older daughter would have said. But more often, the pulse of the households and the deluge of Spanglish (like aluminum, then like water), which rushed from the doorways and yards enchanted Maggie.
She had often seen Alejandro with his girlfriend, Luz, on his stoop, kissing her temple, her shoulder, her neck, and when Benito came out and sat a step below them, it was more an addition than an interruption. The whispering pair became a chatting triangle. Eventually, Benito slowly drifted inside or Luz stood up, tired and walked home.
When Maggie's daughters were children, the neighborhood—and, later, even Hammond High School (seemingly forgotten at the bottom of a hill downtown)—were things to protect them from. When their younger daughter began to nurture an affinity for melodrama, she would come home from junior high squawking, "Unbearable! Torturous!" and so on. Lou, who adored his daughters beyond all logic, said, "Fran, you're as loud as the rest of them, hush, sweetheart," and at night, to Maggie, "I don't blame her, you know."