I loved you then, I love you still.
It wasn't just to save a few miles on his not so springy bones that he took the shortcut. Andy took the shortcut because he loves the noises trees make in the dark, thick time before dawn. Always has. So instead of humping blacktop, he'd cut through this way with the trees rustling around him. He meant to come right out on the Nambe road that winds through the hills and down into the village of Chimayo.
The road kept on not being there. Andy didn't even snap when the two guys ahead of him, one swinging a flashlight, their jackets taped with reflector strips, vanished. Now it's four A.M. and he's sitting under a cottonwood, waiting till he can see his way out of here. This is what he gets for walking the pilgrimage at night so he can come up on Chimayo just as the world is growing light at the edges.
It's the Syndrome's fault he got lost. Periodically, since about December, it seizes control of Andy's facial muscles, causing his eyes to wink and blink, his lips to oo into a fishface. Or maybe the fault is Teresa's--she's barricaded an avenue of Andy's brain for thirty-nine years, keeping out who knows what other bright information or chances. He'd been pondering how to evict her from the private preserve of his memory as he ambled along the shortcut, a pinche little footworn track that meandered and curled, branching off here and branching off there.
Now he'll miss dawn shining up the hills.
Andy uproots some tasselled weeds and throws them. They blow back on him, como no, so he knocks them off his pants and uproots some more and holds them in his fist. His back rests against the cottonwood's furrowed hide, his feet are dug into last fall's crackly leaves. The wind is up, teasing his ponytail, tossing the top branches. After a while, he chews the tasselled weed; it tastes like celery.
Thirty-nine years since they were eight years old.
An excitable girl, Teresa, small with lashing black hair. A sparrow-sized girl but not a sparrow. No, if Teresa had been a bird, Andy thinks she'd have been parrot colors, mango yellow and lipstick red, blue and wild bright green. She'd have sung or scolded all day. When she got mad, her family ran for cover--even her stooped abuelo, who'd ridden with Pancho Villa, and who prowled their yard with a crooked stick to defend the house. Dogma cuando la sangre no esta caliente, he'd say, retreating to his room, Angry women are bad for a soldier's nerves.
But she didn't get mad at Andy. Exasperated, maybe. She dug at him as though with an impatient yellow beak--pried, prodded, tickled, and teased him. What do you want, woman? he'd laugh, though she was barely a woman and he barely a man. Only el mundo, Teresa would stare him in the eyes, and a hundred dollars. Give it to me.
In those days Andy didn't have the hundred. As for the world--how could he give her what she already was?
If Teresa would vacate his head, the inside of him would be more spacious and peaceful; Andy could, for one very small instance, go to plays. His nephew Berto was always asking him to come down to the high school, see him act. Just last month Andy put on a jacket, paid two dollars at the door, stumbled over a fat extension cord to the metal folding chairs around the stage. How could anybody see in here? Everything painted flat black. The kids wearing baggy suits and dresses, contorting their mouths into English accents, Berto a detective with shiny hair. A house scene. Smooth, too, except for a door that stuck so a girl exited through a window. Then after the first act, some kid stagehands dressed in black began to move the furniture, quietly. Picked up the chairs. Turned the sofa. Quietly, quietly. Brought in a lamp, a rug, smoothed the humps. The neck hairs beneath Andy's ponytail crawled; his heart chilled. He went out and sat on the steps, came in an hour later when he heard the applause, shook Berto's hand. Went home and turned Teresa's photograph facedown.
Ramiro and Sammy, city cops like him, his brother locals keeping him out of the scene. Squeezing him at the door. It was easy; Andy has never weighed more than one-thirty in his life. They told him to go home, go back to the station. State cops had it all fixed anyway, had been there first, had, he was sure, the locals were sure, doctored the room. They picked up the knocked-over stuff, a lamp, bills on the floor, a rack of Sports Illustrated, smoothed the twists in the rug. Did that to cover for one of their own, their cop buddy, Teresa's husband.
After that night at Teresa's, Andy turned in the blue uniform. He bought himself a saw and some carving chisels and became a furniture-maker like his father.
Andy cocks his head at the silky tree voices, sisss sisss crisp sisss, all around him, boughs swaying. It's chilly but the wind carries some strong spring in it, the trees shuffle and brush, they love it out here at night, imagine, Andy thinks, a tree in a house . . . He realizes he hasn't been seriously outside in the night for a long time.
He hasn't walked the pilgrimage since the year Teresa broke up with him and he fuck her signed up and went to Nam. Teresa coming into his kitchen asking for her pictures back. Andy knew which ones she meant, the Polaroids of her naked on his bed, her pretty little body curled on the red and blue Indian blanket. But why was she doing this? What had he said wrong?
Nothing! She threw her hands out. Then she drew them back in and whispered, But somewhere in my heart is starving.
He had always accepted this girl was dramatic. Really he accepted everything about Teresa--except that his acceptance puzzled and annoyed her. Andy sighs and stirs his hand in the old leaves. He should have built a few road blocks, given her something to throw herself against. He should have developed some drama himself.
She took the Polaroids. The screen door banged. Andy sat there tingling, his hands and feet shocked cold. He called and called her on the phone but her mother said some gringo was writing Teresa poems. One night this gringo even slept outside her bedroom window, the boy was obsessed. Her mother said, Let her be a while, Andres, her head is full of cotton candy. Eee, girls, you know how they are.
He guessed he didn't know how they are.
So he signed up a week later and made the pilgrimage. It wasn't a knife he carried in his heart; more like an anvil in his bowels--he had to drag himself along the road. It was snowing when he started out; Andy let the snow pile up on him. He passed only two other walkers and at the head of the Nambe road an old man tending a luminaria for the pilgrims' comfort, stirring the fire around. The old man had some mean-looking boys with him. Watch your back occurred to Andy, then Who cares, but one boy came forward and invited Andy to warm himself a while.
The pilgrimage worked for him that time. At some point, maybe when he was hunkering by the fire, sweet pinon smoke nestling in his hair and clothes, or maybe when the snow stopped and he was peering upward at an isthmus of stars, Andy knew he would come home untouched.
Vietnam's heat met him like a furnace blast in the face, right there on the steps of the plane. Andy walked down into a mortar attack. People running off the plank across a huge flat field, diving behind a sandbagged embankment. Andy jumped over, landed on a sergeant who yelled, Get off my ass, you fucker! One little fat Mexican guy behind Andy just running in circles around the field screaming, Me van a matar! Ay por Dios! Me van a matar! Finally crawled underneath a gasoline truck. Ay por Dios, Andy said to himself, the guy is cinders. When the attack stopped, Andy jogged over and got him out from under there, talking to him in Spanish, asking him if he was all right. Si estoy bien, the man said, Gracias a Dios, Gracias a Dios.
Prayers all over the hut on the day they read the assignments--Not in front, Not in a combat unit, Not in front, Please. The sergeant called his name, Andy what in the hell is this name C'de Baca.
Trying to explain it was Spanish from Cabeza de Vaca, the sergeant rolling his eyes, sticking him with Alphabet.
Muttering all around him, Please Please. Andy knowing he'd be okay. The `sergeant's thick thumb on the clipboard.
Alphabet, Medical Supply.
Medical supply. Far out.
Andy stretches his chin and massages the muscles around his mouth. The neurologist has tried five kinds of pills on him already. They don't work for shit. He says Andy's brain signals are haywire. Misfires. Andy thinks stress. Andy thinks he hasn't been touched in three years but who tells a doctor that. Either way, the Syndrome could go into spontaneous remission. Any day, gone, just like that.
Ramiro squeezing him at the door to Teresa's house. Go back, get out of here, man. Sammy, get him out of here.
Sammy shoving him into his city cruiser. Two city cars, four state. Sammy's acned face, like he had fifty vaccinations on it, mounds and dents, scared eyes, shaking his head. They were cousins; Andy knew what his Aunt Lola spent on Sammy's skin--ointments, pills, blood-purifying herbs.
Sammy whispered, Look, didn't Teresa use to be left-handed?
The back-slanted handwriting. The notes passed to him in civics class. Later, on the pretty envelope delivered to the base hospital, a wedding invitation, he was stunned, like he would come home to see her marry the gringo. Like he would go even if he was back home and his front door opened onto the altar. Andy took his keys and raided surgical supply. He brought back a big-ass saw, femur-grade, held the envelope on edge, and began to saw it into strips. Would saw up the shiny-print invitation, too. A guy up in bed wearing sunglasses in the dark, watching.
The guy asked, Who you amputatin', man?
Andy told him to mind his own fucking p's and q's.
The guy laughed. Man you must be Alphabet. You Marion Ricks's friend?
Sawing. Paper strips falling around him. I know Ricks, Andy said. Why?
Why you think? Cause you here tonight instead of Ricks. Alphabet, you are one teeny tiny stupid fucker.
I wouldn't talk that way to a man with a great big saw if I was you and couldn't run away.
The guy's sunglasses caught a beam of light from the hallway. Listen, motherfucker, I might just rise up and fly right out of this bed, for all you know.
I guess so, Andy finished sawing the invitation, you don't have no feet.
Deal with it, the guy said, you got to deal with it. The sunglasses were sunk back on the pillow, the guy's chin up in the air. Still hurts, don't it, my alphabet man? She is gone and she still hurts you like a son of a bitch. You can still feel her shape, her nice warm skin, her wiggling little self. You go to touch her, don't you? Now speak with the doctor, Alphabet, you go to touch her, right?
So what you care if I do?
The chin thrust up from the pillow, talking. Man, you go to touch her again and again and it is just your own weak dreams. Deal with it, you got to deal with that shit. You know your problem?
Andy stopped sweeping up the paper shreds, leaned on the broom. How is it you claim to know so much about my business?
The guy crooning, Ain't nobody need to tell Noah about the flood. So you listenin', Alphabet? Here comes your problem. She is invisible and she is the realest thing you know.
Andy turned his back and mock-sauntered out of the room for a dustpan. But there in the supply closet, as if she'd waited for them to be alone, he heard her laughing voice. Clearly as the clang of the dustpan, which he dropped: El mundo--and a hundred dollars. Give it to me.
Andy squints toward the sky through the top branches but gets that strobe effect the Syndrome produces. He could use a cup of coffee. A friend told him some people give it away to the walkers--tastes like brown water but the coffee smell and the caffeine are heaven. Every year those same people park their airstream on the road, set up a card table, give away donuts and cookies, too. Nobody doing that when he walked last time. Just Andy and his legs going down the road.
Teresa's voice on the phone the last time he talked to her: Evening, Andy was putting on his uniform for the 8 to 6 A.M. shift. Her voice gave him a shock, so familiar, like she'd really been always with him, just gone for a while.
She said, I made myself one big giant mistake, Andy. He doesn't want kids, he just wants me. Every breathing minute. It's like living under a boulder you can't push off.
I'm sorry it turned out that way. Andy wasn't sorry, for himself, but her voice--without its bright bird-lift--made him sad for her.
Why didn't you get married? I thought you would.
Didn't happen for me again, Teresa.
Well, I'm going to leave him. Tonight. I'm going to do it tonight.
They sat there a while, Andy thinking his ribs might crack from the pressure of anticipation, then she said it.
Andy, could you still love me?
He would have laughed but his throat choked. Yeah, I could.
She sighed, then tensed up again. Sure you mean it?
Peeled his tongue off the roof of his mouth, I mean it, I do.
Still love you.
A few hours later Andy was slumped behind the wheel of his own cruiser, numb, not really sure how he got there. Someone crouched in the space of the open car door--Sammy, face like a wound stirred around, poking him. Andy, Andy. Didn't Teresa use to be left-handed?
He nodded, She's left-handed. Cruiser dials lit like a space ship, didn't know what was what anymore.
Sammy looked back over his shoulder toward the four state cars. Eee man I'm sorry Andy. The gun's in her right hand.
His head fell forward. Forehead pressed into the metal ridge of the screaming horn, matching his outside to his insides, until Sammy pulled him off it. Still love you.
Andy pokes a finger in his ringing ear, kills the echo. Considers whether the Syndrome is creeping next into his ears. If it gets in his ears, he'll hear like he sees, like his little niece Bernadette wrenching his truck radio dial back and forth, deafening the middles out of sentences.
The sky is definitely graying. Andy should get up but instead he shifts his head on the trunk and pulls his jacket tighter, wraps his arms around himself. His eyes wink closed and he lets them stay that way. There's been women since but it never clicks, never sticks, he can't explain it.
Andy sees the polaroids of Teresa again, her body a snowdrift on a field of sky and apache teardrops, her bright eyes that want everything, her sly smile, the polaroid going clunk on the dresser, and he dives toward the bed but lands on the roof of St. Anne's, lands on a day they were eight and still located in the same geographical world.
Some fantailed pigeons had got loose from a cage and roosted on the school roof. Three storeys up. Man offered five dollars to get them down, big money, and Andy the smallest and quickest of the boys. Light. Cartilege for bones. Pretty little waddlers with colored tails, purrrting and gurgling like water whistles.
April day, wind chasing the clouds across the sky, Andy up on the roof with a gunny sack, running and sacking. Four nuns down below praying, then squinting up and shouting, Andy, be careful! Praying again. Andy pretended to slip, windmilled his arms around just to hear them screech. Great. Caught a pigeon, shooed it in the sack, sloping shingles and blue sky, the top half of the world.
Then he saw a girl standing by Sister Fatima. Big fat sweet-hearted Fatima, hiding her eyes. Andy gave them the slipping act again, collapsed, grabbed at a shingle. Laughing to himself. A pigeon skittered sideways. Fatima swooning, hooting Andy! Oh Andy! The other nuns black and white semaphores.
Don't look down!
He hears his own faint command to that young Andy, Don't look down there! Look at the bird. He grabbed it, about to shove it into the sack. Prrrt, it said, its eye a rainbow, dumb little water whistle.
Andy looked down.
And looks down and looks down the length of his life at the girl beside Fatima, head tilted back, tide of black hair lapping her waist. Heel wedged to the instep of the other foot like a T-square. Arms folded. Sun snapped from her eye, shot him a dazzle of prism, zap!
Andy jumps like a trout. His eyes pop open. He's flinched onto the dirt with both hands, banged his head on tree bark. Did he go to sleep? Must have, look, the night's gone. Everything around him woody and bud-green, morning shadows sharpening these gossipy trees.
Sissss, Crisp, Teresa, Sissssssss.
Bullshit, even if every chingada word is true.
Andy creaks up to his feet brushing off his pants, batting cottonwood fingers out of his hair. He can find his way out of here now. And it's not Teresa goddamnit, he'd take a nice not so pretty old as he is woman any day of the week, any hour. It's not Teresa. It's what they would have been, him and her together. That was his part, his place, his turn on the wheel. It just never rolled that way again and what is he supposed to do about that?
It's after seven o'clock, he'll make the santuario by ten. The road is right up there, he's pretty sure now. Andy peers ahead.
Specks in the distance hopping up and down like fleas. Some low, some higher. Pretty sure they are hopping. His eyes are acting normal but Andy puts the heels of his hands to his eyelids anyway and holds them steady. The specks up ahead become bouncing balls with legs. Maybe little heads?
A trailer with white siding, no skirt, pot of stems with a bleached ribbon, a toy lamb, flat. Bouncing balls are children, baby children, one hopping on a card table, the other two kicking up the road. The one on the table probably not three, handmedown sweatshirt over stained foot pajamas. Face like a sunflower zipped into the hood.
"Yay!" they're screaming. "Yay! Yay!" The littlest one claps, stomps baby feet. Waylaid, snatched by chubby hands, Andy's claimed, captured by miniscule businesspeople, towed to shore, their valued customer.
Does he have any change? How much do they want?
"Free ice tea! Free ice tea!" shoots up from both sides of him. One detaches long enough to slosh tobacco-colored water from a pitcher. The little one stomping the card table, pitcher trembling in the quake.
He asks them, "Is the road straight ahead there?"
"Free ice tea!"
Their eyes like quarters as he accepts the styrofoam cup.
Andy tastes the tea. His eyelids flicker, blinking and winking, he sees plantations of sugar cane shadowed by Hawaiian volcanos, Himalayas of lump sugar, beaches of extra fine granulated, his teeth twang. He makes a fishface.
The children imitate Andy, even the baby on the table puckers and smacks.
Andy pokes out his chin to ease the crimp in his mouth.
"More? Hey you want more?"
He holds them off. Tries again, "The road's right out that way, isn't it?"
They shrug, fishfaced, gleaming.
He sets his empty cup down on their table. The little one is squatting, hands on baby knees. "Ummm good," Andy says, "thank you." He waves at them. He walks off but can't help looking back.
Back in December he'd gone and asked Teresa's mother if she minded if he ran the memorial notice.
I don't mind, her mother said. I'm glad somebody remembers Teresita like I do every living day. You know where that rotten bastard is?
Andy didn't have to ask who she meant. I don't wanna know, he said.
Okay I won't tell you, Andres. You're my real son-in-law, Teresa's mother said, not that hijo de puta.
Andy ran the ad on the eighteenth anniversary of the day Teresa's husband put the gun to her head, maybe just to scare her, maybe he screamed too when it went off, who's gonna know now. There in the obits Andy shouldered past the other dead people and in their approving presence--a Schumacher from Chicago, an abuelita from Rio en Medio, a guy named Freddie in a too fast car--finally said his piece.
I Loved You Then, I Love You Still.
Is that what you wanted to hear, Teresa? Can you hear me now?
Forty-seven years old. This is how it turned out.
This stupid mystery is your life, he marvels, and he skinnies through a barbed wire fence and trucks across a bit of field where a brown horse startles him with a husky neigh like an engine turning over. Then someone's back yard. One house, another. Wind's up again. A cottonwood swipes down with its young mustard-green knuckles. Andy dodges, and comes upon it.
There past the trees, colors jerking along. A bob of white and blue. There's the road, the world going on all the time right beyond where he could see. A couple with their arms around each other, a viejito, a yellow dog on a rope. Two women, one stout in the middle, one short and slim, some teenagers all in black walking backward to give their leg muscles some variety, punching each other.
Andy crosses a ditch and climbs onto a graveled curve of the road. A woman in front of him stops to tie her shoe; he's obliged not to step on her. His mouth is okay but he runs a hand across it. "Morning," he says.
"Hi." Two women answer him back. "Got some miles to go, don't we?" the stout one says, as she straightens and catches her breath.
"Yep." Andy walks around them. "But you'll make it."
He's out of Nambe's trees and into the hills. If he'd been on schedule, he'd have seen the mountains roll gently away and the sun strike the hills amber and rose. So that part of the day is gone and the hills are rusty red but he'll still come down to the village where the acequia will be gushing and the fields are soaking green, where the apple trees float their white blossoms above the boughs. The priest will have shoveled out the healing dirt into a box on the altar. Pilgrims will rub it on their knees or kidneys, take it to sprinkle in the four corners of their house. That's how it is and that's how it will be and if Andy C'de Baca is only a bird-shadow skimming the hills, what a fine light thing to be.
A pain stitches two ribs tight. Who is he kidding.
"Ya pa que," Andy whispers, a bitterness that seeps into his mouth every so often now--What for, Stop wanting, Give it up. Occasionally he yells that. The worst is just to find himself against a wall in his shop, his eyes stinging.
But this time he bargains. He makes a deal. If I could have that feeling like after I got home from Nam. Teresa was married, past, I let her go. I went out and sank my feet in my mother's garden, felt the sun on my face. I had my life. I just was. The treetops angled their beams into my empty hands, I thought I would burst from the peace of it. I wanted nothing, belonged to no one but that living day. If you give me sometimes a minute like that one, I'll be satisfied with this damn life, okay? I won't look for more. "Then . . ." he demands from the bitterness its part of the deal, "just shut up." "Is he talking to himself?" someone asks.
Heat prickles Andy's neck. He turns to see the two women he passed catching up to him.
"Because if you are, we might as well talk back to you," the stout woman says. "If you don't mind. Talking helps me not notice how tired I am." Her name is Irene and this is her sister... Andy doesn't catch the name. Irene laughs, "Let me tell you, my sister and I already know every last word each other could think up to say."
"Andy," Andy says, and as the women smile and nod, he automatically takes the outside next to where the cars pass by. "So do you walk every year?" Irene asks. She has a good stride for a tired woman.
"Once before. Been a long time."
Irene says, "Yeah? My husband used to walk years ago back in the sixties. When did you come?"
Andy smiles. "Sixty-nine. It snowed."
"Yeah?" She looks at him then and it's like they know each other a little. She says, "Most people had forgotten about the pilgrimage back then. They thought it was old-timey stuff, all primitive. Then we get computers and in TV and here they are again."
People are strung out in clumps all along the road, before and behind them. One family pushes a stroller with a pink balloon tied to it. Far back some tight group with a banner crests a hill, a human galleon with flag flying the wind. Two guys in headbands and blue tattoos veer around, nodding as they overtake Andy.
Irene describes her husband's diabetes, which needs a lot of attention, and last week he couldn't make out the newspaper anymore, which she won't get into but it leaves her a load of work to do. She's started seedlings to put out next month, on every windowsill and the kitchen table she's got her green babies--tomatoes, peppers, squashes, she already set out her onion and garlic, now that's a pretty one growing, some herbs and one other thing...
"Marigolds," her sister reminds her, "to keep the bugs off."
"Marigolds, right." Irene's head bobs.
Andy's stuck back on her husband and the blind newspaper but the mention of flowers jumps him to something he hasn't remembered in twenty-five years, these plants with white flowers on a trail in Vietnam. When he ventured near them, the plants' tiny white faces shrank back from him like frightened people. He tells the women about this curious phenomenon and it's nice, telling someone something he's remembered, just like that, without storing it up to tell later and then forgetting all about it.
"Did the flowers go back how they were after you scared them?" the sister asks him.
Andy points his finger. "You know, that's exactly what I tried to see. I think they did."
"That's amazing," she murmurs. "They'd have run away if they could."
"They weren't the only ones," Andy says.
"Yeah, but the point is how did they do that." Irene is emphatic. "All my plants can do is sit there. Some of the herbs though have medicinal properties that--"
Medicinal herbs calls up Andy's Aunt Lola and a flash of his cousin Sammy's lumpy, agonized face at the cruiser, but Andy shuts off the picture. Shuts it off. Instead he listens to Irene. She has a low and easy voice that goes fine with walking; every so often he asks her a question. Of course he knows about osha for colds, who doesn't, but she's telling him about an osha cure for snakebite and her uncle, who poked his head in a rattlesnake hole and got bit six times in the face and all his teeth fell out then grew in again.
"You expect me to swallow that cuento?" Andy chides her.
"Historia de verdad!" Irene protests, laughing.
"Would you look at this one," Andy elbows her as a red-haired man jogs past, talking on a cellular phone.
Irene's mouth falls open. She says she walked last year in the afternoon when a helicopter kept chopping around overhead to get pictures like they were refugees. That's why she's walking early this year. "Reporters don't get up this early."
"A helicopter," Andy shakes his head, "what next."
With a lift of her shoulder, the sister gestures toward the red-haired man. "Next year why bother walking--let's just fax our prayers in."
Andy laughs. He can smell summer not too far off in this fresh morning, and he does not want to be any other place than he is right now. The sun spills yellow on the red hills, the clear yellow light falls over him, too. Over Andres C'de Baca, furniture-maker, uncle, friend, kind enough man, lover of trees.
The sister smiles at him in a weary, friendly way and the smile invites him to notice the lines worn around her mouth, her eyes. Her hands are jammed in her pockets, he can't tell if there's a ring. But he's looked, hasn't he. To see if she's a free woman.
Andy you son of a bitch you broke the bargain you went and looked.
His lips quiver. His eyes tic. Andy slips the rubber band from his ponytail in order to snap it on tight again--a subterfuge to turn his face aside. But neither woman seems to notice that his heart is a sorrow he carries in his arms or that on the round hills inside him light is breaking amber and shadowed violet, or that at first grasp his long hair escapes him, waving out in the wind, whispering that he cannot quit. But then who, today, is so different from him? Who's not carrying a sorrow? Today hills walk into the hills, a procession of scarred green walks down to meet the blossoms on the trees' spread arms, Andy C'de Baca is only one among them. He pops on his rubber band, savoring the perspective that those other days visited by loneliness and regret are the illusion, that this day is the real day.
Irene exclaims, she's stumbled on the gravel shoulder. He grabs her arm. On the other side, the sister throws out her hands to catch her, and Andy looks.