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Unterberg Poetry Center

Kate Berson

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."

But it was true that they couldn't afford to move somewhere else—Maggie didn't work after she got married. Lou worked for the New York City Fire Department with erratic hours, to his family's occasional frantic worry, and with a firefighter's peculiar mark of nobility—media—inspired or well-deserved, Maggie didn't know. Her plans for her own imaginative, effectual, worthy (probably non-existent) career became more distant every year, until they withered away, and she had to convince herself that she was satisfied as a professional mom.

The boys didn't get off their bikes, they just squinted from the street. Maggie said, "Hi," but Alejandro's flitty eyes made her think that she'd imagined their greeting her, "You glad to be out of school?"

They both dipped their heads, yes. Alejandro was shaggy-haired and lanky, his back curved into a C while he clutched his bike handles. Benito's shorter arms reached out in straight lines to his handlebars. A puff of stiff hair crowned his round face, and drizzled sweat over his forehead.

When Maggie asked their names, Alejandro answered for himself and his younger brother, offering no additional information. Maggie couldn't tell if he was guarded or assertive. They weren't able to say her name quite right. Maggie didn't correct them, but Alejandro said her name twice more, trying, unsuccessfully, to get the sound of the A right. "I will get it another time," he said, and his somber expression swooped into a slight smile.

That sweet flicker in his face made an eagerness for a novel friendship balloon inside Maggie, until she felt positively silly and unreasonable. She wanted to ask Alejandro every little question from a stockpile she hadn't known existed. She felt unjustifiably certain he would answer. But then the boys were on their way, and Maggie on her next page, which could have been blank or filled with fantasy, for all she knew.

The boys had caught Maggie in her particularly sad and self-conscious early fifties. There were months when her own high laugh made her wince, and the weighty awareness of mid-life and impending old age bore down on her. When she asked Lou if her face looked tired, if her skin seemed to hang a little loose, he said, "Not at all, Mag." It was a sweet little lie.

Her sense of isolation—preference for isolation—built a thin-skinned force field around her. Now, more than ever, she noticed her place as an outsider in the neighborhood, which for years had contented her. It was inevitable that she and Lou would not fit in, and for Maggie, this was far more pleasant than living in a place where she was expected to mesh into some "type" of person and could not. But, a long-time foreigner in Hammond, she'd never interacted much with her neighbors.

The next time Maggie spoke with the boys, she started with what she thought was the most basic—did they miss El Salvador? Alejandro's face knotted up, and she knew she'd intruded.

Benito said, "We miss it a lot," then, hands up, "Where are the pupusas here? I don't see any to buy, and my mom won't cook them."

Alejandro finished for him, "The food here is shit." His rudeness sucked the air out of Maggie's stomach. But when she asked the more innocuous, "So, what do you boys like to do?" Alejandro answered, "We like dancing, but the dances at the school here are also shit, they're so boring. Do you like to dance, Maggie?? His open-air A chimed.


"Then you should go to El Salvador. Only if you dance with rhythm, though, and do you have rhythm? In your feet?"

"I'm not too sure."

"Well," Alejandro said, 'my mother taught me dancing. And Benito, too. But we had rhythm on our own."

Maggie took a gulp of her iced tea, "I changed my mind, Alejandro. I have rhythm."

"Ha, ha!" Both boys' loud laughs reached the sky. It was possible that they were just humoring her. Maggie wished she could cup her hand over her tea glass and trap the echo of their laughter to listen to later. Instead, she waved goodbye, and they spun off.

But they came back. Often. Benito would joke around with her, sometimes making her guess what he'd just said in Spanish. One afternoon, Alejandro asked, "What do you think is the prettiest thing, Maggie?" She said her daughters, and she meant it.

"Both of them?"

"Yes, definitely."
Alejandro said Luz was the most beautiful thing he ever saw, and if any person saw her, that person would probably say the same answer. Maggie asked what he thought was ugliest, and Benito interrupted, "Luz, when she is angry with him!"

Maggie had no cookie or lemonade incentives, just a unique and new type of company to offer them. On the porch, toward the end of a long sun shower, Alejandro was saying, "I know it is impossible, but I did impossible things, Maggie." She was the first person he told about his plans to go to college. He had already printed out the application for the local community college. "I study for my classes a lot. More than any of my friends, I think." Maggie did not discourage him. She wouldn't dare. But her heart broke at the thought of him drowning in academia. She couldn't imagine that his English and education were enough to get him through the unforgiving exams and papers that her daughters had once cried over. But then she cast off all disbelief and made herself have faith in him. Such a lovely-eyed, excited young person could not fall short of success. Who deserved it if he didn't?

Lou didn't react to Maggie's new friendships with incredulity as she'd thought he might. "Well good," he said to her, "I hate thinking of you alone, reading all day."

"I don't just read, Lou, jeez." She fell right onto her husband's lap and kissed him for his understanding, for his ability to surprise her.

Alejandro and Benito told Maggie stories about rafts on violent rivers, worn-shoes treks, delays knee-deep in mud, cold nights, and hot days. Alejandro wanted Maggie to understand everything, and she wouldn't tell a single soul. Not one, she said, though he hadn't asked her.

At the border, their coyote, who'd cost six thousand dollars, disappeared in the night, and they had to go back and bring a big group. The next day they waited and waited because there was no coyote and they could see the man on patrol, like wood, like a statue. They needed to be invisible and make no sound, so they sat on the backs of their feet and sat on their butts and sat on big rocks and lied down very low on the dust. During the nights, they walked one way or the other way, but the patrol always was there. Their hearts were empty like their stomachs. But finally, the patrol man was gone, to another part of the border. Or maybe they were the ones gone and he stayed where he was. Alejandro was sick and when he said to his body, vaya, it wouldn't go. But Benito put Alejandro over his small, strong shoulder. Like a coat. And they walked a long time like that. Alejandro's cheek bumped on Benito's back every time they went a step, and the steps sounded like music, but maybe because he was so tired.

Whenever Alejandro mentioned college in the following weeks, Maggie supported him. "You work your ass off," was her refrain. Never, "You're a smart young man." (She'd always told her daughters they were twice as smart as any kids she could think of.) Though, in many ways, Alejandro was smart, brilliant.

Alejandro repeated the foreign phrase, "Work my ass off?" The words were strained through a tight smirk, which launched into hysterical laughter that spread to Maggie until they were both teary-eyed.

But weeks later, the pages of Alejandro's application were still blank. He stopped mentioning college, and taking his lead, Maggie did too. The last he said of the matter was, "The application confused me too much. It asks a lot of questions. And I know that if they do let me come there, I won't see Luz so much." It wasn't a resignation, nor a strong assertion, just a truth that he gave willingly to Maggie.

Maggie had never asked Alejandro and Benito into her house, nor did they invite her into theirs, until "Do you want to see the baby?"

"What baby?" Maggie imagined Luz's belly going from a board to a proud beach ball. "Luz?"

"No, no, one of the girls who lives in my house, Lucía, she had a baby last week," he said.

When Maggie walked in, the house looked like one big, cluttered room. On the living room table there was a pile of coloring books, a couple of CDs with seductive blonde girls on their cases, and a little stone-faced Virgin Mary crying with open hands. On the wall, they'd stuck up a poster from the movie Titanic, "From the Director of Aliens and True Lies," and next to that, the rugged stars of the Barcelona soccer team in blue and red stripes with yellow numbers.

Alejandro introduced Maggie to Lucía, who couldn't have been more than 20. Any other girl, Maggie would have felt sympathy, even pity for her. But Lucía was shining, hovering euphorically above the chair she sat in. She had her long hair in a ponytail that came over the front of her shoulder and her baby in one arm. They all sat for almost a half hour without saying much, just watching the baby. Every time he moved or made a noise, it felt colossal, momentous. Maggie asked Lucía how she felt, how did it feel to be a new mother?

Lucía said when the doctor went to hand her baby to her, she looked at the ceiling in the hospital and she pretended it was the sky, and she asked for un angelito. And that's exactly what he put in her lap.
"Those people are very religious," Lou said when Maggie relayed the conversation, "very Catholic."

Lucía is an evangelist," Maggie said.

"Yeah? Well." And he shrugged.

One of the last days of summer, Lou and Maggie were sitting on the porch, the two of them in satisfied silence. Alejandro and Benito were leaving their house to ride downtown. They waved at Maggie and Lou as they passed, but they didn't stop. They already seemed older to Maggie, almost bigger than their bicycles, but she knew it was just a notion. Once they got to the main road, their bikes looked like wires against the diluted sky. And when Maggie could no longer see them, she settled into the neighborhood's musty spell, considering the possibility that the boys, whizzing so fast away from her, had morphed into two of the pioneer stars that turn dusk to night.

Kate Berson is entering her third year at Tufts University with a double major in English and Latin American Studies. She is a member of the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service Scholars Program and currently interns at Global Policy Forum in New York. She hopes to write a collection of short stories as her senior thesis.

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