Look Me In the Eye

A Fireside Chats excerpt by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

Benny Cantun hauled the Weber barbecue grill out of his pickup and set it in the empty parking space between the truck and his cargo van. While he did his macho duty, Aurelia took the younger children into Merry Market to use the toilet. If one had to go, she took them all. She said it was like a contagious disease, which always made Benny chuckle. So he laughed as he built the makeshift hearth of the temporary home they and a good number of other wildfire evacuees were creating in the market’s parking lot.

“My Aurelia, she is a good woman,” Benny murmured. He paused from his chores to remove his palm leaf hat and wipe his brow, and he took another moment to watch the growing community of those who also refused to leave town or had no place else to go, nestling in as the wildfire’s winds swirled ash across the graying asphalt. He put a fire starter on the grill, stacked a pyramid of charcoal on top and thought of his young primo, his cousin Jesus, just arrived from Teotihuacán and stubbornly camping in the barranca near the recycling center, when he could have been staying at their ranch with them.

“Where will he go now, with the fire? Foolish kid, too much pride,” Benny said to no one in particular, because no one was close enough to hear him, not that Benny was in need of an audience. In fact, even when his family was around him, he suspected his words sounded puny compared to Aurelia’s. When it came to his wife, she might as well be La Virgen de Guadalupe herself. She ruled the family, as his mother had hers. And he knew it was best, just as he knew it was his job to rail against it. The only thing Aurelia really needed him for anymore was to capture her rage when it escaped her. “Ah, bueno, as it should be. … I hope that boy joins us here — if he receives the message that our destination is this parking lot that wishes it was a campground.”

“Papi! Who are you talking to?” Benny’s oldest girl, Graciela, the one most like his Aurelia, called from inside the van.

“Nobody, nobody.”

“I bet you’re talking to yourself again, Papi, sí?” Graciela looked out the side door and twirled her finger by her temple.

“A little respect, por favor, Nena!” And they laughed together, knowing he would always talk to himself and she would always kid him about it, teasing being their common expression of love.

Benny pulled a match from the band of his hat and started the fire, noting the contradiction and sending a quick prayer to La Virgen.

“Maybe the boy won’t show; maybe he’s afraid to be seen by all the uniforms in town. La Migra, immigration, though, aren’t among them, but he won’t know that if he doesn’t pull his silly head out of that ditch. I guess we’ll find out as the night progresses.” He fanned the fire a moment with his hat, then meandered to the van to check on Graciela’s efforts to convert it into a comfortable bed for them all.

Benny admired the movements of his girl, so like her beautiful mother. She had finished high school while working her way up to checker at the market, and now she was taking her first classes at Palomar College — while she helped with the younger children and paid for half of her own education. Benny knew it was all Aurelia’s doing, but he couldn’t resist the glow of pride when he saw the girls at church who had not fared as well, coming to his youth group with swelling bellies and no papis to honor them, their babies or God. He looked into the van. “You have your Mami’s fine looks, Nena, but you did not inherit my mouth. You’ll need a lot of hot air to make those mattresses soft for us all.”

“Okay, Papi, you can blow them up with all your hot air if you want, but they come with a pump.”

“Ah, sí, sí, sí. You inherited your Mami’s smart cabeza, too. You’re a good girl, Graciela.” Benny tossed up a prayer of thanks that she was wise enough to grace Aurelia and him with sufficient ignorance to keep their hearts at ease. As best as he could tell, she put herself at little risk, swatting away the caballeros who would lead her from her path.

“Thanks, Papi.” Graciela silently re-affirmed her belief it was better not to share everything with her parents. “You’re not so bad for an old burro, but get out of my way so I can finish.”

They laughed again as Graciela pumped air mattresses and Benny turned to the cab of his truck and pulled an old portable radio from behind the passenger seat. It had only two working settings: Benny’s favorite music station and KGAP, which Benny usually avoided, but he thought tonight might be a little different. News littered with religiosidad was better than no news. He put the radio on the tailgate, turned it on to his music, and stared at the smoking charcoal. “Burn, you rotten bandits.” He poked at the briquettes, a compulsion he shared with the men of his family — it didn’t matter that their poking invariably postponed the magic moment when the coals accepted their destiny.

He hummed to the radio’s Ranchera music, contemplating the endless line of baptisms and quinceaños — much more spirited than the gringos’ cotillions — and family weddings that reached back before his conscious memory and, he well knew, would continue on far beyond the days his bones would fertilize the trees that now fed his family. He smiled as he wiped the perspiration from the back of his neck, its scars and creases, a map of his thirty years working his way through Fallbrook’s avocado groves to now owning four and managing many others.

“Most days, life is good in Fallbrook. Gracias a Dios.”

A rusty, rattling RV pulled alongside Benny’s van and stopped with a chorus of squeaks and groans and rattles, drowning out a taunt from Graciela for talking to himself again. A slim woman in a paint-smudged shirt slipped down from the driver’s seat, walked toward the market and met Benny’s glance. He looked away, but she smiled and said, “Ah, Monjaras, one of my favorite singers.” ...

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(Photo by Ross Orr via a Creative Commons License.)


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