John Paul Jaramillo
When the green line bus cried to a stop near La Veta, Colorado, Lena sat alone. Tired and nervous, she finally sank into sleep as most of the passengers read or conversed to pass the miles. Within minutes she woke to worry and wonder. She told herself not to think too much about rejection or children. For a moment she cheered herself as she unhurriedly looked through her purse and then her wallet for her mama’s rosary. She noticed that everyone on the bus turned their eyes away as she prayed and rubbed the beads. It wasn’t long before the fear came upon her and the words she was supposed to say. She opened her eyes and focused on the tree line and then the flickering of blue skies and fence posts, power lines and changing shapes along the roadside.
Lena had traveled these 136 miles from her apartment in Huerfano County to her old home in Alamosa hundreds of times since her 18th birthday, but this trip seemed much more anxious. Maybe it was because Old Man Musso screamed at her for leaving the cleaners early on a Friday, and maybe it was because she had to run to make the 3:15. Maybe it was because she hurried through her duties carelessly and quickly to make the trip to her apartment and then downtown. Perhaps they all knew at work that she had something more important than the pressing of shirts and pants. Perhaps they knew she was on her way home to have a promise fulfilled. Perhaps they all sensed it was duty that moved her so quickly that day. As the bus droned Lena imagined their voices around her as critical and questioning. The thought threw her into more consternation as she pulled at her favorite winter coat, the only thing near that seemed familiar.
She sensed this trip was her duty, to leave her new life behind and return to the past. Little by little, as the miles went by, and she neared Alamosa, Lena knew she would suffer the pain of returning, dreading her father’s face and her stepmother’s home. As the gears of the green line strained and pushed her forward, her perceptions and imaginations heightened with the fear. Every second since the moment of departure she had wavered between worry and hope.
The green line does not travel to Monte Vista and there is not much traffic from the highway except for the farm trucks from Mosca and Del Norte. Lena’s jefe, Carlos Montoya, would make the drive in his truckito after returning home from South Fork. He’d done this for years. He earned money as a carpenter framing cabins and working on the lettuce farms. And on that afternoon she rode, Lena remembered those trips and those chances for conversations with her jefe.
This was the same stretch of road on which she left home and fieldwork for good, departing for the steel mill city of Pueblo. Lena’s jefe said nothing that day. He only smoked his nasty cigarillos as he drove her to Alamosa’s bus station. He gave her the few dollars he had in his wallet and then kissed her forehead. The jefe made her collect her suitcase and hatbox from the truck bed and then drove out to a rancher’s bar in Estrella.
This day, the green line dropped her downtown in Alamosa, and she saw her father’s truckito parked alongside the ticket office. Lena still held her mama’s prayer beads.
“Oh, Papa,” and Lena threw her arms around his sunburned neck and nearly exposed shoulders. “You getting so damn old. A real viejito, Papa.”
The jefe shook his head while she hugged him.
“In the last six months I’ve had sore throats and weakness in my legs,” the jefe admitted to Lena’s concern. “I got the sugar.”
Lena sat beside him in the truckito, watching his brown face. “What’s her name, jefe?”
“We named her Brunacita after your great abuelita from Chama.”
“The poor thing has to live with a name like that—“
“It is a family name and Felipa thought the baby should have an old name,” the old man explained.
“Tranquilena has served you, girl. So don’t say no more about it.”
Lena could only watch as he rocked his legs back and forth and rubbed at their poor circulation.
“You should have me drive, jefe.”
“You got a license did you?”
“Then how are you going to drive me? I’m not near half as dead as you think I am, Lena.”
“Well, you got the sugar and I’m just looking out for you, Jefe.”
On the way to the Jefe’s house, which seemed to be farther out than Lena had remembered, Lena leaned back and closed her eyes, opening them only when the truckito stopped for a signal light on First Avenue, and then again at the El Monte Hotel.
The jefe had slammed the door and started unloading her suitcase before Lena noticed.
“What’s this, jefe?”
“Your stepmother wants you here, hija,” the old man admitted. He wiped the sweat from his brow with remorse.
Lena’s eyes played an amused game with this, and then, if only for a moment, she thought she might cry and carry on. She thought she might lose all her courage right here in the middle of downtown Monte Vista.
“If this works out for you, mihija. This might all be for the best, no?”
That night Lena called Jeri back in Pueblo. First, she tried the apartment and then the Army Depot where he worked for the Ordnance Corps. She also called the State over on Main where he drank. Lena walked from her single room on the second floor down to the lobby in between each call to ask the woman with the beehive behind the desk for change. She had to ring the bell on the front desk, and each time the round woman walked through the back door as if to greet a new customer.
“Phone hasn’t seen this much attention in years,” the woman joked.
When she finally got the boyfriend on the phone, he was at the bar and she could tell he was drunk. She heard it in his slurs and in his laughter. Her lips pursed and her eyes glowed with tears and then she shook her head.
“I made it, Jeri,” she said. “I’m at a hotel because the old lady don’t want me.”
“Who the hell is paying for that?”
“I had it, Jeri.”
“Jesus Christ. When do you get the baby?”
Instead of answering, she held the receiver tightly and then she played with the phone cord. “If you have to go downtown to get something to eat, Jeri, then do it. Go down to the lunch counter at the drugstore for a hamburger sandwich if you have to. You need to eat. I’ve been worried—“
“You hear me? I said when do you get your baby?”
“I’ll have her soon, Jeri. But I’m not going to see nobody ‘til the morning.”
“And the old man?”
“He drove me. He’s gotten old, Jeri. Really old. You should see him—“
“How long do I have here by myself? When you coming back, mujer?”
“Soon. I have work.”
In her sleep that night she returned to Jeri and the apartment, and then she woke wringing wet and looking more tired than when she first slipped between the sheets. She stared at herself in the vanity mirror and for a good long while she thought she heard voices and a baby crying in the hotel. The contents of the room felt strange and sad: the suitcase, the table and chair along with the half-made bed. Around midnight she opened her door and stared down at the empty hallway and then out the window and the view over Main Street. She put her head against the cold glass and whispered her prayer.
The next morning the darkness broke with a crimson sun while Lena had her cigarette out in front of the hotel and waited for the jefe’s truckito. A honk sent her running back inside for her suitcase and her coat. It was the jefe who stopped the engine as Lena dropped into the dusty bench seats.
The jefe’s face was expressionless even as it began to burn in the morning sun coming through the windshield.
“What you got to say to me, Papa? What you come to say?”
“Your stepmother won’t leave the room this morning and she won’t stop crying.”
“Well,” she said with scorn and then raised her hands. “Take me to talk to her. You’re her husband. Take me to talk with her.”
For an hour and a half the two drove around the barren city in silence. The jefe stopped for coffee and then for cigarillos. Then the old man filled his truckito with gasoline, bullshitting with the boys at the garage. He bought some beer. Lena never moved a muscle, but rather sat in the truckito. Again, she grabbed her mother’s rosary beads and said her words of prayer until the jefe returned with his beer masked in a paper sack, placing it between himself and his oldest daughter.
As he fired the engine and looked over towards Chapman Street, he was half hoping it might be blocked or closed. He whistled loudly and then sang a little into the deserted morning. The houses and trees passed quickly as they drove. Lena again had that sensation, as on the bus, that the earth were pushing her towards something—inertia out towards an answer to her sadness of the last six months. She stared outside. The unpaved streets, where there normally would have been trucks of men piling past, were empty.
The jefe backed the truckito silently into his driveway and lit another cigarillo before finally asking, “When does the next bus leave, Lena?”
“I don’t know the time—“
“I’m asking you what time the bus leaves for Pueblo, Lena. You came and you gotta know the time for this. You’ve got to be quick, girl.”
“9:15 I think, jefe,” Lena answered. “The bus leaves at 9:15.”
“So we gotta be leaving for Alamosa by what time?”
“8:15 or so, jefe.”
“8:15 then,” the jefe answered. He looked at his knees and then to his shaking hands. “I’m gonna sit here and drink one of these beers, Lena. Now get in there and get your baby, you hear? Get in there.”
“Yes, jefe,” Lena said automatically. She opened her mouth and shut it again with shock. Then the jefe pulled a Pabst Blue Ribbon from his sack below the seat and popped the top with an opener attached to his key ring.
Sometimes on sunny, cold mornings Lena stood on the back porch of her apartment watching her neighbor’s children and dreamt of this day. Ever since the phone call came that the jefe wanted no part of this child’s life, ever since the stepmother got on the phone and agreed quietly and happily, Lena had been thinking of this moment.
Slowly and carefully Lena unlatched the side screen door and walked into the kitchen. Ordinarily the kitchen would have been filled with the stepmother’s children, but this morning it was empty. The small wood stove was quiet and only the radio broke the silence with the morning weather and rancher report.
“You here for Felipa?” the stepmother’s sister said in answer to the creaking screen door. She held a quiet baby in her arms.
Lena could only nod and half-smile. She stared across the room and tried hard to figure out the situation with her eyes. Maybe she was stunned, or maybe the lack of sleep caught her weak in the knees.
“Do you have everything you need back at your house?” The sister then looked at Lena with a furrowed brow.
“No,” Lena said. She cupped her hands over her mouth and her weak eyes ran over with tears. She nearly fell to one knee.
“No?” the sister yelled. “How do you expect to have the baby if you don’t have what you need at home in the house—“
Lena’s mouth was dry: “I didn’t know I was even going to be here today. I work, you know.”
The sister pulled the blankets from a small bassinet on the kitchen table around the baby and then handed Brunacita over to Lena. The girl was in Lena’s arms and she felt weak and then nearly sick with the physical weight—the actuality of it all. They both stopped talking and started listening to the baby.
“Where’s Felipa?” Lena asked.
“She can’t help crying. She doesn’t seem unhappy about anything; she just can’t stop crying.”
“Should I talk to her—“
“Jesus Lord in heaven, no,” the sister said.
And with that Lena bolted out the door and raced over to the truckito and her jefe. Lena shook her head and smiled, wiping the tears away above the bundle in her arms. Brunacita stopped the silence of the jefe’s drinking and staring with her soft cries.
The jefe swore. He wiped his tongue over his teeth and then spit out the window, “Here comes somebody, Lena,” the jefe said as he fired up the engine. “Well, you going or not?”
Lena set herself gently in the cab and then slammed the rusty door. Her chest expanded and Brunacita trembled in her arms.
“Lena!” Felipa called from outside of the truckito beating her arms across the hood. The sound went up and up. “Lena!”
“It’s over, Felipa,” the jefe yelled through the windshield. He drained his beer and then wiped at his mouth.
Lena’s voice went on caressingly to the baby in her arms as the truckito pulled from the driveway.
“You have her and it’s over now, Lena,” the jefe repeated.
“Lena!” the stepmother yelped. She looked tired and ragged in her housecoat. Her face red, her eyes anxious and wet.
As the truckito accelerated, Lena turned and watched the jefe’s wife fall to her knees in a wash of dust.