Monday, December 1, 2008

Playing at the Borders

In the kitchen they sit around the table, all different shapes and sizes. This one is lean and pretty with a cruel little mouth and matching dark eyes set in a bronze face, another is round and white with a plain face void of any make up, a simple face that reveals a sweet disposition, this other one is short with kinky hair and a perpetually sour look on her clean face, and here is another with springy hair and eyes that are on the verge of snapping shut with fatigue. She is a composite of them all, oscillating between their extremes, unable to be completely cruel, incapable of being wholly jolly, with curls and make up, neither thin nor thick. At the head of the table sits the mother, unlike any of them now that age has overtaken her. With her short haircut and spectacles, her casual pants and striped sweater, she could be the mother of any one of them, or of none of them at all. The sisters sit at the table, and so does the sister in law, bouncing a baby in her lap. The brothers come and go, two of them. One is the master of the house, the father of the little baby bouncing at the table. He has a mustache and a weathered air about him. He looks as if he has stepped out of another era, an era when men were stronger, harsher, almost made of stone. The other is bigger and has a more modern look, he wears a hooded sweatshirt, and he can speak as easily in English as in Spanish. A son in law hovers behind the mother, rubbing her shoulders, drinking and joking.
In the living room, the old uncle sits in a chair wearing his brown hat and a red tropical shirt. He tells the story of his retirement to two women, friends of one of the sisters, one is a painted and bejeweled Latina, the other is the only "Gringa" in the whole bunch. His white whiskered face is tanned and his huge belly heaves as he explains that he left San Francisco, out of boredom after his retirement, and he moved to Florida so he could work again without loosing his pension. After seven years of listening to his wife complain about that land, so similar in climate to their home country of Nicaragua, they returned to San Francisco to find that their old house was now worth a million dollars and far from their financial reach. So they live now in Sacramento, economically exiled from the beautiful windy city, permanently aware of the consequences of a whimsical decision. He tells the story of his years of reckless drinking, and of his mother’s collapse in the middle of the street, which led him to set the bottle down on top of the television set and vow never to touch the stuff again. Then he stands to teach the blonde haired gringa how to salsa.
"March!" he tells her, "Forward… and now back."
They put a cake with a little candle set in its center, shaped like the numeral eight, on a high round table. Everyone comes round. A boy sits on a tall stool in front of the cake and his brothers crowd around him, placing gentle hands on one another’s shoulders. For a moment, in the random course of events, they stand in a line from eldest to youngest. Then the room is filled with song and the candle is extinguished with a soft swoosh of warm breath. The birthday boy’s face is pushed into the cake, leaving his nose and cheeks covered in blue frosting. His brother, the second to the eldest, comes to his aid and wipes his face with a towel as carefully and lovingly as an old kind mother. The cake is cut and the children leave theirs lying about, because they dislike the fruit in the center.
The sun has gone and the light is fading. The children run in a long howling line around the outer perimeter of the house. In the back, there is a built-in swimming pool filled with dirt and weeds instead of water. The concrete around the house is cracked and uneven, moved by decades of seismic activity. Behind the house, there are a series of smaller cottages and sheds, white paint peeling from the wooden boards, rusty old nails sticking out of old forgotten corners. The children keep on playing, running, jumping, screaming, laughing. Dangerous possibilities abound. Plenty of opportunities for a terrible accident. The neighbor’s houses are far off across fields that have lost their golden color under the pale sheen of the moon. The few gates which might confine or protect the children have been thrown open through the course of their raucous parading. They make their way up a long dark street, seeing phantoms in the shadows of every shrub. The very eldest of their party permits himself to tremble a little, and the very youngest pulls herself to her full height and presses on bravely so that they are all one, unified in their quest to touch the unknown.
Inside, the house is brightly lit and the music plays loud and lively. The tiniest children, the babies, ride around over the hard honey colored floor on tricycles, crashing into the legs of the adults, happy to hear them curse. The old Mother dances now with the two friends of her daughter, the Gringa and the painted Latina. The three face each other forming a soft triangle which pulses like a beating heart as they move into the center and then back out. As a unit, they rotate 30 degrees and then back, always suggesting with this motion that they will turn in a complete circle, but never quite fulfilling that suggestion. They shuffle in and out, wiggling their hips, and keeping their wrists limp, subtly invoking a thousand years of hidden sacred dancing.
The windows of the house are small, holding the dark night at bay, framing its deep purple color in little squares of yellow, beige and white. From beyond the little windows, comes the laughter of the running children, still together, still playing at the edge of the known world.

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