Fiction Contest 2017 - 'Slow Drip'
Every year the people gather on the dusty slab of land where the old potato chip factory once coughed clouds of steam and the smell of burning grease, where the bald patch of ground opens to a green mouth of woods. Lupe’s mother warned her about those woods when she was a child. Hobos lived back there, vagabundos who would kiss you for a quarter they’d bummed off one of the church women who couldn’t resist a sad story.
Twenty years later, perhaps the hobos are still here, watching as the white tents rise, bright against the sun, fixed in place by nails so large, someone always trips, cursing when they cut a corner too fast. It’s summer when everyone comes to this place where no one goes. They bring their children in strollers, in rebozos, let them run shoeless over the cracked ground. Sometimes, kids go missing, but they always get found. If they didn’t, you’d hear about it next year and the year after that. Those kinds of stories don’t die.
Today is Sunday, the final day of the Fair. The last two nights, Lupe has gone home with her belly full and three children who go to bed with no fuss, their veins packed with sugar from marzipan roses, lulling them to sleep. Manuel didn’t answer either night she called, but he left a message last night while she was asleep, even though it is an hour later there. He called her Lupita before he hung up, which is either a sign of love or lies. Lupe doesn’t have a reason to worry — he invites her to these academic conferences whenever he goes. So why does she wonder every time he leaves? Because he is a man and she is a woman and that is the way it always is.
Chepe, Guillermo, and Belen are anxious to get a good spot for the main event, the final competition. Contests, that’s the real reason people come to the Fair. Everyone wants to know who’s the best, so there’s a competition for everything — sheep, cattle, dogs that can follow instructions, dogs that can jump the fastest through hoops. There’s the pie contest and the pasteles contest and sometimes the winner is the same in both, she’s such a good baker.
Last year, Manuel got a blue first place ribbon for his photograph of a wilted orchid, leached by the sun on their kitchen window sill. Lupe examines the photo entries this year and determines none of them are as good as Manuel’s. He’s proud of that photo, the only thing that hangs in his study above his desk, but Lupe avoids looking at it when she cleans. Something about it swats at her heart.
But it’s this final competition that is the reason so many more Fair-goers are here today. They stuff their mouths with tortas and prepare their hearts to listen to the Tale Tellers.
Lupe gathers her children as the throng sweeps them toward the wooden platform in the center of the Fair. Parents lift children onto shoulders to get a better look, but Lupe’s niños are too heavy now. “What do the contestants look like this year?” the people wonder. Sometimes you can’t tell, sometimes they look like everybody else.
The judges are introduced and take their seats at a table draped in white cloth. Insects tick while the heat from the midday sun sweeps between legs. The distant bark of dogs merges with the low-bellied whir of the highway as the people wait.
The emcee, a man in a leather tasseled vest and red cowboy boots takes the stage, and announces why they are all here: to be reminded. He yells himself into a frenzy, rattling like a snake tail, and the crowd cheers, ready to be swept along. Already sweating, he introduces the first contestant: Mona Sloss.
A large woman in a floral-print dress climbs the steps to the stage. Her big belly and hips already have people rooting for her: Who can be happy at a size like that? When she and the throng are settled, she begins.
She’s lost two sons this year. The first was killed in a drive-by at the Shell Station. Died with a package of sour gummy bears in his hand, the blood from his head mixing with the oil stains of long-gone cars. This is enough for some of the women in the crowd, who too have lost sons to the streets, to dip their heads and weep. Others aren’t so impressed. The story is not so uncommon to be anything special.
Mona continues, feeding the crowd’s hunger for more. Her second son, her baby, two years old, what happened to him? His sister gave him a bath. Threw all her Barbies into the tub because she thought they could all play mermaids together. At nine, she should have known better.
Now the girl lives with her cousins in Houston because Mona can’t stand to look at her. Now she’s lost all her children.
That’s not all. After they buried their smallest son, her husband left her for another man, their mechanic who smelled like gasoline and mushrooms. She thinks it was grief that led to her Diego’s desire for calloused hands, the tingle of a moustache against lips. Something totally different from his life before, something that would help him forget. Now he lives in California with that damn grease man.
“Mierda,” the crowd says under their breaths. That’s bad. All in one year. They nod their heads and wipe their eyes in approval.
But Mona isn’t done. She brings it home with one last whopper: earlier this month, they found two lumps the size of peach pits in her lungs. It is as if God wants her to die alone.
There is a round of applause when she finishes and hobbles off the stage. One woman leans over to Lupe and whispers, “Pretty good, but did you notice she didn’t say what stage the cancer was? Probably left it vague so the judges would think stage four, but I bet it’s only stage one.”
A man in a wheelchair is rolled up the shifty ramp onto the stage, his face webbed in pink and red splotches, like smashed strawberries. The man’s voice is like the low buzz of a power line in the rain. His arms and legs lie still, like floppy rubber tubes.
Each time he takes a breath, he heaves it into the microphone as if slinging a bag of flour. All that effort just to make a sentence. People look at their shoes. It is embarrassing to watch him for too long. The judges take note.
When he was a boy, the priests told him his body was a temple. He believed that to honor God was to train this holy vessel to obey. He shoveled gravel, poured concrete, then lifted other bodies as an orderly, hefting the elderly in and out of beds as tenderly as a mother drawing a baby into her arms. He became a paramedic, the first responder to hold people’s hands while the pain racked their limbs, and finally a firefighter. A rescuer, like his namesake, Jesús. El niño de la Virgen. One who saves.
It was a boy he was saving when the ceiling beam broke. The child was in his arms and they were nearly out the door. That was the last thing he ever felt with his hands, that small neck and skull being crushed against his chest. Afterward, the child dead, and Jesús, paralyzed forever.
The fire raked across his body and face, leaving its ugly fingerprints, and the wounds near his eyes grew black with infection. Now he is blind.
The crowd sinks into themselves. How blue the sky is against the green woods!
When he is finished, a woman in a long black chiffon dress wheels him away. “His wife,” someone whispers. She is a beautiful woman, slender as a tear. It is a pity, this cold irony.
“The wife shouldn’t have gone up there,” the woman next to Lupe says. “At least he has her. You can tell there is still love in his life. Not like that first gordita with nobody.” Lupe, like those around her, tries to weigh which story is sadder.
A girl about 12 limps onto the stage, darker than anyone else, the sky at midnight with no stars. Her accent is thick and beautiful, not American, not Mexican or even Tex-Mex, and she speaks as if chopping onions. Hair swaddled atop her head, braid a sleeping snake, she’s pretty at first, until you notice she has no ears.
From where? Some place in Africa. Lupe does not recognize the country’s name. The girl had been shipped to America, stuffed in a big crate with a dozen other girls, labeled as furniture. Delivered to a house in a nice neighborhood where no one suspected anything because there were potted geraniums on the porch, they were kept in the basement except when men rented them out. Like movies from the video store, Lupe thinks.
The girl’s village, burned. Father, mother, burned. Four brothers and two sisters twisting from tree branches like a single thread trying to braid itself, coil, uncoil, coil. Only the girl escaped because she was pretty. Not escaped. Was spared. No, when she tried to escape one night with another girl, Nyaga, they were caught and had their ears clipped off with garden sheers. The second time, had their knees beaten so badly that now the girl walks with a limp.
A collective wince ripples through the crowd. Lupe’s own ears burn, and she pinches a gummy lobe. She has never thought much about her ears.
This girl, what did she say her name was? Lupe didn’t catch it, it had unfurled so quickly like a flock of birds.
Then, just like that, the girl was rescued. How? the people shout. A kind man who was part of an organization that goes undercover to save these girls. What happened next? She was taken to a women’s home. Hated it. But why? You would too if no one knew you or spoke your language. If no one had seen what you saw. Guess that’s true. The other girls from the kitchenware crates were long gone. She kept her head in wraps and walked out the door. This was three years ago. She has been on the road since, doing what she knows how to do with men in exchange for words. In addition to the money, she makes them pay her an hour of reading chapter books she steals from the library by ripping off the barcode sticker.
Every night, she is alone with memories that descend on her like wolves. In her dreams, she sees them, smells their charred bodies, hears the glunking sound of blood bubbling, boiling, their throats choked with it.
Even the crickets grow silent. There is no air in the crowd, no room in the lungs for anything but stillness.
I wish I had died, but I am too much of a coward.
I live with that shame every day.
Without a doubt, the judges have their winner. The woman next to Lupe nods in approval.
A few more contestants tell their tales, but no one can compare. No one can stop talking about the girl from the furniture crate.
Lupe, like the others who have come for the same purpose, gathers her children around her. She runs her fingers through their hair, over scalps still attached to skulls, protecting minds that still dream of Neapolitan ice cream on Sundays.
Lupe turns as the mob surges forward to crown their winner, the Tale Teller whose tragedy is the worst, the hardest to reconcile. In the Sundays to come, her story will be the substance of priests’ homilies and preachers’ sermons. What lesson to be learned? Thank you, Father. Thank you that it is not me.
The people have what they came for: gratitude. They leave understanding how easy their lives are, how blessed.
Lucky, that is how Lupe is supposed to feel, like everyone else who still has their eyesight, the use of their limbs, their homes, their untouched children. Tonight, huaraches will taste better, café sweeter, and children will not complain about fruit for dessert. Husbands and wives will make love, putting aside petty arguments, and it will be as moonlit as it was the first time. Children will share toys, no fighting or tears between siblings. Insomniacs will find their pillows welcoming midwives, easing them into lush sleep. All can’t wait until next year, to chase this feeling of lightness, for the Tale Tellers to conjure it again.
Only Lupe will lie awake, alone, the light of the moon through the plastic blinds nestled on the sheets beside her. Every year, she returns from the Fair, feeling the same way: empty, as if her insides have been scraped out.
All the little burdens she has been forced to bear in this life, she stacks like stones on a scale. But even together they never equal enough to balance the weight of the Tale Tellers’. What is her pain compared to theirs?
Still, their stories do not move Lupe to tears.
A cage of thorns grows around the heart. That is what life gives you. Small nicks to the muscle, a slow draining of the blood.
What are her little thorns?
The warm, sour smell of Manuel still asleep in the morning. Belen pulling the boiling pot of water on herself, the blotchy burn scar on her shin. Lupe’s fault for not watching. Or the time Guillermo, at two, wouldn’t stop screaming in the middle of the night and she pinched his baby arm as hard as she could. It still scares her to know that no one would suspect her capable of such cruelty.
The look in Manuel’s eyes just before he comes that tells her he’s far away from her, the sudden violent spasms of his body that have nothing to do with Lupe. Or last week after she finally moved the couch by herself to vacuum and found a tuft of yellow fur. Coco’s. Their lab who had died two years earlier of a belly tumor. She couldn’t bring herself to vacuum it, instead hefting the couch back into place.
Or the first time she had gotten sick after marrying Manuel, alone in the apartment, without her mother to stroke her forehead and feed her estrellita sopita and make her lemon ginger tea with a stick of cinnamon for a straw. Manuel had merely set a bag of cough drops on the bedside table and said he’d sleep on the couch, no sense in them both getting ill.
Losing the fake sapphire ring her grandmother had bought her at a garage sale as a child after she’d been careless and left it on while swimming in the gulf. How easily it had slipped from her finger and sank under the waves. Manuel in the hotel saying, “At least it wasn’t worth anything.”
The time she’d been reading Crime and Punishment in an attempt to better discuss Manuel’s literary interests when she realized the slip of paper she’d been using for a bookmark had been a note from her childhood friend, Frances, who’d moved to Pennsylvania some years ago. Lupe hadn’t heard from her since.
Or last year at the end of summer, when she’d been startled by a molting cicada stuck to the side of the porch banister. It had disgusted and awed her, the way the insect trembled as it struggled from its shell, the delicacy of the slick wings a surprising electric green. No one had been around to see it, except her. Later, she tried to tell Chepe and Guillermo about it, but Chepe had wrinkled his nose and said, “Gross.”
What do they all amount to, these small nicks to the heart?
Lupe rises from her bed. She goes to Manuel’s study, filled with the silent books that will always be more interesting to him than her. The moon is here, too.
On the wall hangs the wilted orchid photograph. She had not noticed the plant had died until he showed her the developed photo. Every day she washed dishes at the window, and she had not seen.
But Manuel had. Manuel, who was hardly ever in the kitchen. Manuel, who had a bouquet of sunflowers delivered to the house the day after he’d forgotten her birthday. Manuel, who had noticed her failure of attention, her lack of care.
The photo was his transformation of Lupe’s deficiency into something beautiful. But she cannot look at it for long.
It exposes something raw about her, something about what she lacks. It says, you don’t care. It says, your pain is not enough.
She thinks of the Tale Tellers, those who have had their hearts sliced open by a series of sudden impacts, so the blood spills all at once. Hers is slow drip. But maybe everything equals out in the end. A pool of blood beneath an empty body. All that differs is time, the way it can stretch suffering out like dough.
For Lupe, there will be no stage, except this, when she is by herself, the house a silent audience. When she is gone, what will be left of her little stories? Merely wrappers. Empty packages. Just a memory from a tale a great-grandchild once heard, and then not even that, her name gone from lips like the shadows of birds taking flight.
She takes the photo off the wall and sets it gently into the trash bin. Tomorrow, when she cleans, she will remove it from the house completely.
In the darkness, Lupe listens for the slow waves of her children’s breath, the tick of their hearts. She listens, while the walls, the floor, the moon, wait for her to speak.
Photo by Joeff Davis
Cora Rowe received her MFA in Fiction from the University of Oregon and is a first year English PhD candidate at Georgia State University.