The Meaning of the Word

By Margot Pepper
Excerpt from Through the Wall: A Year in Havana (Freedom Voices, 2005)

Mexico CityThe traffic man sounded his whistle with such conviction that my mother looked up with a start.  He made some grandiose gestures and his oversized jacket sleeves flopped down betraying flimsy arms. In spite of them he convinced traffic on Reforma, one of Mexico City’s main arteries, to desist. On the far side of the boulevard, high up on the fourth floor, the Azaleas my father planted on our balcony assured me we were almost home. I held onto my mother’s pinky and her palm swallowed me up as we proceeded. Yet as we stepped onto the cement island on which the traffic man stood, her grip loosened. I squeezed her fingers but she failed to respond. She was staring at a paper cup rolling back and forth in the gutter. She had that funny distracted look that she had lately taken to wearing for packing things in cartons. Earlier that morning she had forgotten the passports in the bathroom of the American Embassy.

Through the WallMaybe because it was an especially dreary December day or maybe because my mother hadn’t been saying much, my hand in her loose grip suddenly felt restless and uncomfortable. It felt the same as lying in bed thinking late at night: the sheets in disarray and everything so dark you couldn’t see if some terrible thing had slithered in there with you. A creature so horrible you couldn’t begin to imagine what it looked like and that’s what made it horrible. Like trying to imagine what death was after my nanny, Lucía, first told me about it.

That had been almost a year ago. My parents had left for the evening which meant Lucía and I were free to sneak a beer and watch some television. On that particular night Lucía had selected a movie about a little girl who was left standing in the middle of the street crying because she had just seen her father get hit by a bus and now she had nobody left because her mother was already dead. So she just stood in the middle of the street crying for her father, her father, then her mother. “I’m an orphan! An orphan!” she sobbed, and that’s how it ended. When the commercials came on, Lucía asked me if I knew what death was. I shook my head, what was it?

This was going to be a tough one because Lucía didn’t believe in heaven and hell, though she would go to church every now and then just in case, and my parents didn’t believe in them either, so all that sprouting halos and wings business was just not going to do the trick.

Pos,” she began, which is how the poor pronounce “well” or “see.”

“Well… death is… what you’re celebrating when you eat sugar skulls on Día de los Muertos.”

“Oh,” I said. “That’s fun.”

“Sí, pos…” she began again. “Do you remember the car accident we saw by Chapultepec park last month?”

It had happened so fast I hadn’t been sure if I should look when I heard the women shrieking and crying, but Lucía insisted upon it and her judgment was usually right. She had been right the time she had wanted me to look at the blind man by the post office. He was always leaning up against the wall in the same place, clinking a few lonely coins in his aluminum can. My mother told me I would have nightmares if I looked at him. Whenever we were about to approach the corner she would warn me to close my eyes. She’d drop some pesos in his can, we’d continue on, then I could open my eyes again.

On one occasion my mother sent Lucía with me to the post office. When we reached the corner, Lucía asked why I was shutting my eyes. “Open them,” she said. “Look, look at him.”   His eyes were all glazed over like those on a blind dog, one a milky-white, the other a curdled blue. Well they were ugly, his eyes, but strange and interesting and I was glad I had seen them. So when Lucía pushed our way to the very front of the crowd where the boy had been run over and told me to look, look, I did.

Blood everywhere. Everything was blood. I couldn’t see the rest and I quickly turned away. I wanted to leave. But Lucía wanted to stay. She never missed a good accident. She had been there when a car jumped over the curb and ran over the legs of the old woman who sat on a blanket just outside our apartment building selling pumpkin seeds and Chiclettes. All of México was drawn to accidents, swarming to the scene like white blood cells rushing to ingest an unknown presence.

“That man is dead now,” Lucía said, referring to the young man who had been hit the previous month. “The man you saw is gone and is never coming back.”

“Where did he go?”

“Well… his body’s in the ground. They bury you when you die.”

“Doesn’t it hurt?”

“Nothing hurts any more when you’re dead. You can’t see anything, you can’t hear anything, you can’t taste anything. It’s peaceful. Like sleeping without dreams, only it’s forever.”

“And then what happens?”

Pos after a while your body begins to change. The hair gets long, the finger nails grow, and eventually it turns into dust like mud does when all the water has dried up. But before that happens millions of tiny bichitos–teensy-weensy hungry little bugs–nibble your flesh.”

Lucía tickled me and bit into my neck with a kiss, mimicking the bichitos. Her hands smelled of bleach and their dark color was comforting, more comforting somehow than the cool hands of my mother’s friends that were lighter with blue veins and lots of rings. These brown hands could make things appear and disappear and transform the wet earth we brought home from the park into beautiful clay birds.

“And then what happens?” I let out a squeal of excitement.

Pos, some of your body goes into the earth and helps the flowers grow so you become part of them. A little rabbit may come along and chew on a petal and since you’re part of the flower you become part of the little rabbit too.   That’s how you can end up as a rainbow. A bird song. The love, pos, that suddenly happens between two people. There’s nothing to worry about, pos. Though you stop being Eve, you don’t really leave. You just become something else, pos.

I didn’t understand. It was like learning what God was before I arrived at my own belief years later in the higher power behind what Einstein once called the mysteries of eternity, of life.

“Doesn’t he give you nightmares?”   I asked a schoolmate, pointing to the great big picture of the scary white man above her bed.

“That’s GOD!” she said.

“So? Who’s GAW-AWD?”

Each time she began to explain, her words would get tangled and she’d interject, “You don’t know who GOD is?!”

“So what does he do?” I finally asked.

“He can do terrible things to you for saying he’s ugly.”

Like giving me a headache, she said, and sure enough I came down with the cruelest headache I’d ever had, but I still didn’t understand what God was, nor did I care because the headache made me forget all about it.

But I cared about what death was because Lucía said it happened to all of us sooner or later, poor or rich, kind or mean, there was no escaping it, and since it was going to happen to me I wanted to be ready.

So every now and then, when I was lying still in bed and it was so dark I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open or closed, I’d think about it. I’d block out the muted sounds of the traffic four stories below until at last I thought I knew what silence was. I discovered it had a sound all its own: a very persistent, very constant high-pitched ringing to it that was so high you almost didn’t notice it was there only it always was, once you realized it, it never changed, and that’s what was so terrible about it.

When you’re dead, I thought, your ears would be for ever locked into this silence.

I looked deep into the darkness beyond my closed lids. It was strange, darkness. It was brownish and reddish like bricks but spongy and black too, yet none of these, nothing at all, yet something: warm and moist, but cool and thick. And endless. I tried to see just how endless it was, but it had no end.   I looked far into this infinity and imagined floating in it the way I imagined one floats in the belly of space’s darkness, suspended in death.

But death, I remembered, is darker still because you can’t see anything, so it is even worse than this.

So I lay there trying to hear less than nothing and to see less than nothing and to feel less than what I imagined I would feel floating in the belly of nothing, suspended in death. And when I thought I had the idea I told myself: “And death is forever. You’re alone like that for ever,” I said to myself and a peculiar emptiness began to grow deep inside me and work its way to the base of my throat. And when I thought I could understand that part, which filled me with a terror I’d never known, I reminded myself, “But forever is even longer than this.” At that point I’d cry for my mother.

 

Car horns were going off all around us. The buses groaned and heaved out their filthy exhaust, the eddies of litter at the curb-side swirling up with whirlwinds of dust. While we waited for the traffic man to motion us across the last leg of the Reforma, my mother produced a checkbook and busied herself studying the balance. She stared and stared at it and her index finger hopped downward across the page more than once.

My eyes drifted far down the street to see if I could spot our silver and black Lincoln drive up and turn right into the garage entrance, as it always did at dusk when I looked out my bedroom window. I knew chances were I wouldn’t see it because my father hadn’t come home at this time for over a month. My mother had told me not to expect the Lincoln any more, but I looked for it anyway, in case she was wrong.

Suddenly I thought I saw it. “Look, there’s the Lincoln!” I said pulling on my mother’s raincoat.

“Wait a minute, Eve. Can’t you see I’m busy?” she said in a tone which made me let go of her. At that moment the traffic man blew his whistle again and the people next to us began stepping from the curb. My mother didn’t move. I tugged at her raincoat again. “Wait a minute,” she snapped. The traffic man stopped motioning and turned towards her.

“¿Señora?” he asked.

Momentito,” she responded. “We’ll cross next time.”

The traffic man nodded respectfully and stepped out onto the street holding up his hand. When the traffic started again, however, he had vanished. I searched for him across the street near our apartment building but it was difficult to discern anything with the scene sliced up by cars as if in a broken film. I watched the car I had thought was ours vanish into the distance near Chapultepec Castle.

My mother put her checkbook away and pulled out her weekly planner. She let out a sigh which worried me because it was the sort of sigh she had made once when I had run a very high fever. I shifted my weight from side to side. “Mami!” I pleaded, and she put her book away and took my hand into hers. The warmth enveloped me like the smell of her breath mingled with her perfume when she read to me at night.

I glanced up at her but she was not looking at me. She was searching for something across the street. I wondered why the cars were taking so long to stop and remembered that the traffic man had to stop them, only he had disappeared. My mother let out an even bigger sigh. Her shoulders sank, she looked at the ground, then across the street.

“What’s he doing?” Her tone contained more exhaustion than it did irritation.

Suddenly a rusty turquoise car squealed to a stuttering halt before us, provoking an emphatic chorus of horns. The culprit, a young man in huarache sandals that threatened to unravel with his next step, leapt onto the island, all out of breath. I felt a tremor pass through my mother’s body and I jumped, digging my nails into her palm.

“Stop it. You’re hurting me!” she yelled, the last two words quaking as she pronounced them. Then she spotted the young man. “Jeezus! How did you get here?”   The man just grinned, as if he was very pleased with himself for having cheated death and having had the opportunity to do so.   His teeth were crooked and a few were missing, but his eyes were clear and alive. My mother shook her head and tried to smile at him but instead her mouth twisted into a contorted half-grimace. She turned away self-consciously and resumed searching for the traffic man.

“Where has he gone!” she sighed. She whipped around to face to the young man. “Can you help us cross?” but he was already dashing wildly through the pause in the five lanes of traffic. A car raced by just in front of him, the cab driver yelling obscenities which the young man returned as he landed on safe ground.

“My god. He was almost killed, the idiot!” my mother observed. Her palm had become damp and she held my hand very tightly. “Oh, where is he?” she took a breath. “He should be here. Doesn’t he realize I have a child, for godsake?” She said these words very slowly with many more breaths in between. “I have a child–” she repeated, as if each syllable took an enormous amount of effort until finally the word “child” tumbled out like a lead weight and fell to the ground.

She rolled her eyes upward towards the sky, then tilted her head back. I looked up but all I could see was a grey as dismal as the sound of the cars all around us. I looked at my mother’s eyes. I didn’t like what I saw at all. They were glassy and funny-looking. I had seen them that way before.

Then she let out a shudder.   Just a little tiny half-human, half-animal whimper. Then came another sound, a deeper sound which drew itself out of her throat from far within. I knew it was coming. I knew it was coming like when you look at the clouds and can see it’s going to rain. She had only cried in front of me twice and both times within the last two weeks. I hated it when she cried.

The last time my mother had cried was when she, my grandma “Nanny” and I were eating dinner. Nanny had come all the way from Boston which was unusual since she always arrived after the holidays. Lucía had just served us bowls of chicken soup. Everything was new in a horrible way. Stacked boxes blocked the view of the city and Chapultepec Castle. The cabinets were missing and everything was very quiet. Except for the slow slurping of chicken soup. I watched my mother slurp her soup the way she did when she was sick in bed. I didn’t like it at all when she was sick. It was almost as bad as her crying, which she proceeded to do, right into her soup, in the middle of dinner, in the middle of all that silence. And I began to cry too because it was horrible when my mother was sick and when she cried and now Nanny was crying too. We’re crying because we’re all sick, I thought.

And I was crying because her crying reminded me of the first time I saw her cry. I had gotten up to see what was for breakfast and Nanny and my mother were standing in the hallway just outside Daddy’s study and they were blocking the way. I thought he was still in there sleeping in the hospital bed that rotated upwards on a circular frame and was as much fun to ride as a Ferris wheel, but then I remembered he had been staying in the hospital. My mother and Nanny just stood there, in front of the closed door, looking at me.

“Well, Muriel? Are you going to tell hah?” asked Nanny.

“Shhhh!” my mother snapped.

“But daaahling, you’ve got to tell hah!” Nanny’s words were loud and shaky, bordering on the hysterical. She began to cry.

“Oh Mother for godsake… Now I’ll have to.” My mother looked up at the ceiling while I waited. Then she looked me straight in the face. Her eyes moved from side to side gazing into mine as if she were speaking into my left eye, then my right, back and forth.

“Eve, I have something to tell you…”

I knew what it was. I looked at the closed door.

“Is he in there?”

No, he was not in there.

“Then why can’t I open it?”

Because there was no reason for me to open it.

“Am I going to get to see him?” See him the way it was done in the movies and folk stories, all dressed up, lying quietly inside a casket holding some wild flowers.

“No.”   He had died in the hospital the previous night and they had turned him to ash because that’s what he had wanted, so I would not get to see him anymore, he was gone.

So what, I thought. It’s not that bad. And really it wasn’t all that bad; I felt the same. Everything looked the same. Until my mother began crying. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t feel sad. But, I thought, they cry when it happens on television and I had better cry because she is. So I began to cry and the more she cried, the more I cried too.

The traffic choked all around us and my mother’s hand grew heavy. She was really sobbing now. Her body was an earthquake of tearful shocks and after shocks.

Then it happened. With the intention of wiping the teary smudges of mascara from her eyes, she let go of my hand. It was different than when she let go to make marks in her appointment book. It was different because this time she could not stop what she was doing, no matter how much I needed her. She simply did not belong to me at that moment; she belonged to herself.

I didn’t know what to do. “Don’t cry,” I wanted to say and hold her the way she comforted me whenever I cried and I’d melt into her and cry even harder. But no sooner had I said it than I really wanted to cry because it confused me, being the one to say it, and now I wanted her to make everything all right again, only she was no longer there. She had changed into something unrecognizable, something frightening and uncontrollable, something earth-shaking and dangerously flimsy that was not my mother. My mother was changed, or she was never my mother. This was my mother. The other mother would never come back.

I thought about never being able hold my father’s hand again, never being able to sit in his lap on the plaid wool chair and his giving me a peppermint, no matter how much I wanted this. A peculiar empty feeling expanded inside me, just beyond my rib cage, near my heart, which seemed to vacuum all the warmth out of me and work its way around my chest, then down my arms and into my finger tips as if I’d just ingested a black hole of loneliness, my fingers aching for a remedy beyond their grasp. The hollow feeling grew until finally the tears began slowly to fill up the emptiness. Good and hard I cried. For now I understood what that word meant, and it was nothing like what I had imagined in bed.

The terrible sensation that connects the throat and heart. Stranded at sea without so much as a hand to hold. Nothing. The chilling wind. The noise of things machine. The barren silence of things human. And a sky, the colorless egg-white of a blind man’s eye.

I pulled at my mother, but she could not console me. It was at that moment that a new permanent kind of terror was spawned within me as I envisioned myself the orphan in the movie Lucia had shown me. I thought of how helpless she was, without a single sole to help her, and it was like falling off the edge of the earth.

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