“Qué será, será.”
This wasn’t actually the first thing she said after telling him she thought she might be pregnant. Before these words came out, they’d discussed the quality of the pregnancy test stick, examined its packaging, verified the expiration date. His first impulse was to walk back to the village farmacia and get another—this one could be showing a false positive. She said it was too hot outside, and that there were other signs—missed period being the big one. He acknowledged that he might not have pulled out in time once or twice before the trip when they ran out of rubbers. Fucking coitus interruptus, chingao, he should’ve known better.
And then she said it: “Qué será, será.”
“What do you mean?”
“Whatever will be, will be.”
“I know what it means,” he said.
She gazed at him serenely.
“Are you saying,” he began. He didn’t know how to continue. He knew he should show some tenderness, but her reaction to the situation was just so… Qué será, será? She had to be kidding.
“Anyway, that’s not a saying in Spanish,” he said. “Doris Day invented that. The goody-good actress? Her songwriters or whoever.”
He was sure about this, but he wasn’t sure she believed him. In the course of this trip it had become evident to her that he didn’t know as much about things as he’d let on. In particular, he’d oversold his knowledge of Spanish, and of Mexico. When they’d first met poolside at the Fandango Apartments in L.A. he’d acted as if Mexico was his oyster. In fact, he’d only been there twice before, to visit relatives on his father’s side in their dusty village in Sonora.
“I’ve never really been there,” she’d said. “So I don’t really know.”
He leaned on the long pole he used to skim the pool, net side up. “Isn’t there a song like that?”
“What does ‘never really been’ mean?”
“It means I went to Tijuana with my parents once to shop.”
“So you don’t really know.”
“‘Never really been, but I’d sure like to go.’”
“Oh yeah?” He liked the way she crooned the line. What a cutie.
“There are some beaches down there, my God,” he said. He’d never been to those beaches, not really, but he’d seen a lot of pictures. Zihuatanejo. Huatulco. He knew how to pronounce the names.
She was still in college—a senior. He’d dropped out the year before, but had kept his maintenance job at the Fandango. A few months ago, he heard the manager on the phone refer to him as the “pool boy.” And a resident had posted a message on the bulletin board in the laundry room imploring other tenants to join him in requesting that the “leaf blower” not blow leaves so early in the morning. Pool boy, leaf blower: Mexi-jobs. He needed to go back to school and get a degree in something—anything.
Pool boys were staples of porn fantasy, however, and he’d been successful in ironizing this fact into some real action, not only with Melanie but with several girls preceding her, girls who had, conveniently, moved on—the Fandango Apartments were primarily student apartments, with high resident turnover. Okay, it wasn’t all ironic fun. In Melanie’s case, he also ran valuable interference for her dogs, two large German shepherds she’d managed to smuggle into those no-pets apartments. He’d let her know when the manager was gone and she could bring them out; and seeing him with the dogs, the other residents assumed they belonged to the apartments, watchdogs or something. He also helped her pinch their anal glands one day—a loathsome task, but it won him points.
Then she’d wanted to take the dogs with them to Mexico. “On the bus?” he said. “Are you kidding?”
“You always hear about animals on Mexican buses.”
“Those are chickens. A pig at the most. All tied up. And those are the third-class buses, not the Estrellas.”
“We could pretend we’re blind, and they’re our guide dogs.”
“Don’t be silly. Anyway, dogs are treated like vermin in Mexico.”
This she didn’t believe at all. Dogs vermin? But he’d seen how they behaved in his father’s hometown in Sonora. Slinking, tail-tucked, abused creatures. One day, his toothless, bawdy Mexican grandmother told him the Nahuatl myth that explained why dogs sniff each others’ butts. Seems they got so tired of humans abusing them that they decided to complain to the god Tláloc. They rolled up their letter of complaint and stuck it up the butt of a brave volunteer, who would need his jaws free to defend himself on the dangerous journey. He never came back, and subsequent dogs have forgotten what he looked like, but they persist in checking each other’s butts out, in the hope that one of them is the one, with the answer from the god tucked in there.
Thanks to Melanie and her dogs’ swollen anal glands, Ricardo would now be able to tell his grandma, if he ever were to visit her again, the real reason dogs sniffed: the pungent odor emitted by the glands told the story of dogs’ reproductive readiness. Other dogs read the smells like we read letters. Would that he had known how to “read” Melanie like that on whatever fateful night it was when he got her pregnant. If she really was pregnant.
“We need to go to town anyway to eat,” he said. “By the time we stop by the farmácia and get another tester, we’ll be hungry.”
“Too hot,” she said. “Too hot to eat.”
“We’ll get a beer.”
“Can’t drink if I’m pregnant.”
“I’ll go, then,” he said. Softening: “I’ll bring you back a fried fish. From the lady you like, on the corner.”
“Okay, thanks!” she said.
It was that brightness that had attracted her to him. Her gameness. As in the way she’d taken him up on his invitation to travel with him to Mexico. And she wasn’t a complainer: Her remarks about the heat were simply statements of fact. The dirt road shimmered before him. It was going to be a two-wring walk to the village; that is, he was going to have to wring his t-shirt out twice by the time he got there, the sweat plus the road dust turning it an even red-brown. The sun cooked word-scrambles in his head. Two-wring shirt; two-ring wedding? After tour-ing Mexico. Goddammit, no. Puta madre, no. Tourette’s Syndrome, he could fake—in two languages. So what? Fake a condition: could save him from marriage, but not from child support. Chingada madre. She had her laid-back, take-it-as-it-comes charms, but they were precisely the qualities you didn’t want in a wife. Not if you had ambition to become more than a Mexican pool boy and leaf blower. Qué será, será, my ass.
A truck came careering towards him, one of those slat-sided things bulging with sugarcane cutters, each carrying a machete: imagine the carnage if it crashed, the bellies sliced open. He stepped off the road and the leaf of a mala mujer brushed his hand. Mala mujer, evil woman. Son of a bitch, it stung. But it woke him up. A little evil woke you up.
The village’s first shacks came into view, shelters cobbled together from all kinds of materials: corrugated metal, tarpaper, tires. He entered the farmácia where they’d bought the pregnancy test, took a refresco from the rusty cooler, guzzled it. He had intended to get another test pack here, another brand if available, but the sugar spiked him to look for a different farmácia altogether, a better one. He descended the cratered street, turned a corner, and saw more town below, much more than either he or Melanie had realized existed. A squalid-looking downtown, devoid of any fine buildings. No cathedral. A little a plaza with a dead fountain and badly-pruned trees. A few stores around the plaza: that’s where he headed.
The plaza smelled of rotting crabs and dried shit. The crabs’ shells, empty of flesh but buzzing with flies, lay piled on the bare soil beneath one of the butchered laurel trees. The shit, hidden somewhere, was unmistakably human—it took him back to his days working in fields and orchards of California where the farmers refused to provide Port-a-Potties and the workers had to make their “necesidades” between the rows. It was the most essentially human smell he knew of, besides sweat.
The creature who approached him on the plaza was human, though of a very degenerate—the word popped into Ricardo’s mind immediately—sort. His skin was blue as the faded paint in the plaza’s dry fountain and his lips even bluer, and his eyes were strangely high on his forehead, flounder-high. He had a high, tinny voice: “Busca hotel?”
“No, hotel no.” It was hard to look at the boy, and the boy reciprocated by letting his flat flounder gaze roll up to the storm-torn fronds of a palm tree. “Busco farmácia,” Ricardo said.
The boy shot a stubby finger at a building on the corner.
The pharmacist, who was dressed in a long white doctor’s coat, took the test stick out of the box, showed Ricardo the middle window. “Aquí rojo,” he said, “positivo.” He held his hands out from his belly. “Positivo, rojo. Negativo, azul.”
“Sí, sí,” Ricardo said impatiently—he hated when people down here talked to him as though he were a dumb gringo, or worse, a dumb pocho, which is what they called Mexican-Americans. As if he couldn’t read either the English or the Spanish instructions in the box, which on the outside read: “Fast—Easy!”
“No tiene algo— ” He didn’t know how to say it. Something to make it go away, to make the positivo go away. No, probably not. Mexico was a Catholic country. And the Pope had said we should welcome more babies “to the banquet of life.” He let the unfinished question hang, paid, left.
The fishmonger was at her usual post by the first farmácia, frying huachinango in oil opaque from overuse. She wrapped two of them for him in pages from the lurid nota roja section of the local newspaper, absorbed grease superimposing the stabbed corpse on one page onto the mangled car of the next. He bought a couple of bolillo rolls to go with the fish, and drank another heavily-sugared refresco to prep himself for the hot walk back to Melanie and the beach.
Speaking of sugar: Down in a ditch by the side of the road squatted a clutch of children, stripping the rinds of sugar cane with their teeth and sucking on the pulp. Children with the swollen bellies of malnourishment, “feeding their hunger”—a phrase he remembered from a sociology class—with empty calories. Maybe he should go back to the fishmonger and get them some fish. But who was he to multiply fish and loaves—Jesus? Alternatively: You give a man a fish and he eats for one day, you teach a man to fish and yadda yadda, so he should get a boat and gear and take them out to sea, right? Already the heat was again making his thoughts trip over themselves, but one came clear and cold: There were just too many children in the world. Period. Children of parents without the means to care for them properly. That was just a fact, a fact that Melanie, fact-facing Melanie, should be able to understand.
He found her on her elbows in the sand like a Mayan Chac Mool, gazing out to sea.
“Life’s a beach,” he said. “Oh, except for this guy.” He pointed to one of the corpses in the newspaper.
She folded away the picture without comment and ate the fish delicately, bringing bits of it to her rosebud mouth between pinched fingers. He brought her two aguas minerales from the cabaña and, trying not to sound impatient, said, “as soon as you feel like peeing, you can try the new test.”
He followed her into the cabaña. She peed into a glass, and he dipped the stick into the urine. Yes, Einstein was right, time is subjective: Those were a very long ten minutes. As he watched, with growing dismay, the window wax pink and then red, he thought: Could I have been a physicist? I might have become a physicist. It was possible—anything had been possible, before this fucking red.
She, on the other hand, watched the transformation untroubled.
“I think we should stay in town tonight,” he said.
“It’s bigger than we thought. It’s real. You wanted to see real Mexico, didn’t you? Because you’d never really been?”
She seemed to be considering if that’s what she’d said, if “never really been” meant that. Or maybe she was thinking why see it now, when they had a potentially very romantic night ahead of them on this beautiful beach, possibly the most romantic night they’d ever have in their long future together?
“But we’ve already paid for the cabaña for tonight,” she said.
“Exactly the kind of thing we’re going to have to think about from here on out, right? Money. Money, money, money. Congratulations: You’re more practical than I thought.”
She regarded him with that bemused look of hers that told him that he was never going to persuade her through frontal, much less sarcastic, attacks; but he also knew he would keep making them if he was forced to stay out here with her, stewing in the situation.
“We can make it before it gets dark,” he said. “Make it to reality. Because this out here, this is all fake. These fucking sunsets are unreal, you said so yourself. The only really real color now is the red on that fucking stick.”
They contemplated the glass with its two inches of her urine, the stick standing in it, and he felt strangely aroused and ashamed at the same time.
“Enough beach, anyway, don’t you think?” he said, softening again. “Your name is Melanie, not melanin, and right now you’re glowing just fine.”
She was fine, all right. He wanted to fuck her, and the way she laughed made him want to fuck her more, but no, then it would be dark, and they needed to avoid, he needed to prevent, that kind of night.
Once again, the torrid walk to the village. By the time they got to the first shacks, the sun was dropping fast over an ocean they could no longer see. Insects began to sputter from the scrub, revving to their steady nocturnal scream.
“Fatalism: That’s the word I’ve been looking for,” Ricardo said. “That’s the cause of this poverty, one big cause. You know what fatalism leads to?”
“What.” She hiked her pack up on her shoulders.
“Fetalism. Fatalism, fetalism. Know what I mean?”
She was plainly tired now and wanted to get to wherever they were going, and it was possible she wasn’t even processing this. Which was maybe just as well; she’d once told him he was “too clever by half” in a way that suggested he was only half funny.
But he’d cleverly timed his remarks to coincide with the place he’d seen the big-bellied, sugar-munching children, and there they were, two of them anyway, now riding a frightened pig, to which they’d harnessed a little wooden-wheeled cart. Every time they smacked it with their sticks it gave a squeal and a start, and they squealed with it, gleefully. He cut his eyes to Melanie to see what she made of this hideous scene, and was horrified to find a maternal little smile at play on her lips.
“There’s a little plaza down in the centro,” he said. “We should go there.”
He wanted her to see the blue boy. After she’d taken his deformities in, he’d let drop that he’d worked in pesticide-laced fields in California alongside a cousin whose kids had been born with spina bifida and other maladies which, it could be conjectured, were caused by gene-mutating chemicals.
They trudged by half-finished buildings spiked with rusty rebar, half-built cinderblock constructions choked with garbage, foul, dead-animal smells coming from more than one of them.
“Lack of planning here,” he said. “Lack of foresight. The money ran out for these projects, or whatever, and here they stand, abandoned. Oh, well. Qué será, será.”
“How far is it to this plaza?”
“It’s just right down there.”
The blue boy was sitting on a crumbling concrete bench, his strange flounder’s eyes fixed on something happening in the parched fountain. Three or four dogs—five?—were gathered there, and one of them was fucking the littlest one, who squeaked piteously with every thrust. The other dogs made tentative, tuck-tailed, hyena-like charges at the couple, but were driven off by the male’s snaps. Three young guys sat at another bench, making comments and laughing.
Finally one of the other dogs rushed, in a blur of reddish fur, the copulating pair and sank its teeth into the male’s shoulder. The male separated from the female, and he and the red dog rolled off in a snarling ball of fury. The female hobbled to the fountain’s dry spigot and began licking it, and though she could coax no water from it, sympathetic urine trickled from her. Another small dog ran up and drank the drops from her rear with small quick laps.
“Oh, Jesus, God,” said Ricardo.
The blue boy, hearing his English, snapped to attention. “Hotel?”
Ricardo let Melanie absorb the tawdry scene for a moment longer before replying. “Sí. Hotel. Dónde?”
Ricardo felt the wicked eyes of the young guys on the bench follow them as they in turn followed the blue boy up a road whose pavement soon gave way to hard dirt pocked with potholes big as bomb craters. Melanie trudged along pensively until a Doberman with a spiked collar lunged at them from a rooftop, making her cry out. A man in dark glasses and a gold-plated pistol at his side turned and watched them from behind an iron gate.
The “hotel” the boy took them to was a ramshackle hodgepodge of windowless cinderblock rooms with metal doors. Its proprietor, a sour-smelling woman with the kind of expressionless expression Ricardo’s father called cara de palo—stick-face—took them to one of the cubicles, murmured a price, pocketed Ricardo’s money, and handed him a key. The metal door shut with a clang and a shudder, and the boy’s voice, pitched super-high as he pleaded with the woman for his finder’s fee, faded away.
Dusty-bladed fan in the corner, bare bulb dangling from the water-stained ceiling. Two canvas cots. Mosquitoes mashed in bloody streaks on the walls. This was the ideal place to have the Talk, the Talk about Reality. Because these were the real conditions most of the world lived in. Megacities full of places like this, and worse, actually, much worse. Mexico City, Manila, Mumbai, you name it, slums sprawling mile after mile.
Oh, not that he and she would ever end up in this kind of hovel. They were Americans! Okay, then let’s talk about that reality. Because the reality there was that the average American child used more of the world’s goods than what—sixty Ethiopian children? Thirty Nicaraguans? How many Haitians? He couldn’t remember the exact numbers from sociology class. In any case: used up appalling amounts of limited resources. In the brutishness of this town and these surroundings, he could say a brutal truth: Any way you cut it, the world didn’t need another human.
She rummaged in his pack and brought out their last liter of mineral water. Ah, good place to begin. Forget fossil fuels, fossil water was running out. All the great reserves of underground water, pulled up and evaporated. The cynical upside: fewer of those plastic water bottles to float around the Great Eastern Garbage Dump, a place in the Pacific now three times the size of Texas.
She’d be surprised at her Chicano pool boy/playboy’s concern about all these things? Get used to it, baby. He knew reality.
She fumbled at the door’s latch.
“Where are you going?” he said.
“I’ve got to get water to those dogs.”
“Dogs? All the way back at the plaza? The pariah dogs?”
“No. This place is dangerous.”
“Well, come with me!”
“No. No, Melanie! We stay right here. We have to talk.”
The metal door swung open and she started down the road. He bolted after her, then stopped. Okay, then. Okay! Good. Let her go. Let her go encounter reality on her own.
He sat back down on the cot. He got up and turned on the fan. He paced the room. Those young guys on the plaza bench, one of them with a sinister shaved head. The man with the gold-plated gun. In the fan’s hum, he thought he could hear her voice, her cry. He snapped it off and listened. A dog in the distance barked sharply—the Doberman?
Desaparecida. Like the others he’d seduced at the Fandango. Gone—he’d never heard from them again. Good. They’d let him move on.
He grabbed the key, slammed the door behind him, broke into a trot. The Doberman’s barks grew louder, he caught the golden gun out of the corner of his eye, the barks receded. He stumbled in a pothole, fell, continued, the palms of his hands burning. As he neared the plaza, he heard wolf-whistling. A young man’s voice: “Ay, mamacita, ¡quién fuera un perro!”—would that I were a dog! Other male voices laughed. “Hey, baby—wanna fuck? Wanna fuck my fren?”
Then he saw her, coming towards him, her eyes wet, the little female cradled in her arms.