Jillian Speaks

By Beth Alvarado

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When he was a kid, he said, the water had effervesced right from the faucet, a rainbow in your glass.

 
1

Bobby Guzmán, Angie O’Malley thinks when she opens the door and sees the long-lost love of her life. That’s all she thinks. That’s it. Bobby Guzmán. His name. She doesn’t think, Bobby Guzmán, where have you been? She doesn’t think, Bobby Guzmán, where the hell is my back- child support? No, she just registers the fact of him in the flesh, pure and simple—but this is because, ever since Juana of God lifted the seven black river stones out of her belly, she has felt much lighter. All anxiety and resentment have fallen away. She is calm. She knows all is as it should be. Qué será será and all that.

This excerpt of Beth Alvarado’s forthcoming book Jillian in the Borderlands (Black Lawrence Press, October 2020) is reprinted with permission from the author and the publisher. It is now available for pre-order and Beth is donating her share of the proceeds from pre-orders to No More Deaths.

Jillian in the Borderlands, by Beth Alvarado

Jillian Guzmán, who is nine years old at the beginning of the book, communicates through drawings rather than speech as she travels with her mother, Angie O’Malley, throughout the borderlands of Arizona and northwestern Mexico. Later she creates survival maps for border crossers and paints murals at the Casa de los Olvidados, a refuge in Sonora run by the traditional healer Juana of God.

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Besides, and it must be said, even at 45, Bobby Guzmán is one good-looking guy, what with that thick black hair and those white teeth, not to mention his broad shoulders and the way his shirt sleeves just reveal his biceps and how they are round and firm and a little paler than the rest of his skin.

Oh, Angie thinks, Bobby.

It’s as if the intervening years have been erased, as if all sadness has fallen away, as if all is forgiven. Bobby. She suddenly feels how lonely she’s been.

The last time she saw him, it had been at a party. A few years ago. He was with another woman, walking up the stairs. To the bedroom? He had that shy look of pleasure on his face and she felt this longing, this regret, that she was not the woman on the stairs, would not be the woman in the bed. And the woman had looked so willing to give herself over completely to him, which was something Angie had never been able to do. Not fully. Angie was not one who surrendered, not even in love-making. There was always at least a tiny bit of herself she held back.

She knows she’s not what anyone would call a generous person, a forgiving person. Had she found fault with things that now would strike her as inconsequential? Yes. She’d held grudges: also true. She had changed her name, and Jillian’s, from Guzmán to O’Malley just to spite him. (For instance.) (How white of you, he’d said.) So she knows it must be hard for him to come back. If indeed he is back.

But: I’m sick? My liver is as bumpy as a toad? That’s what he’d said. All he’d said.

And when she doesn’t respond: “Can I come in?”

He touches her. A pang goes from her throat to the root of her, a spasm twisting through her heart and gut, clear through to her vagina. A warning, maybe.

She leads him into the living room where her sister, Glenda, in a wheelchair, is reading from a children’s book as her boyfriend slides his finger under the huge print. Her mother’s watching golf on the TV. Of course. She looks up long enough to give Bobby a solid glare, just like in the old days. Jillian’s sitting at the dining room table with Stevie Jr. and Bella. They’re all doing their homework. Jillian looks up, but then turns back to her book. No recognition at all.

Angie can see the dismay on Bobby’s face. Her knees go weak with the sorrow of it. Things have changed. But what did he expect?

“Yes,” she says, “they all live here. Don’t ask.”

She takes a breath. She doesn’t need any more stones in her belly, no more knots around her heart. Think about it, she tells herself, when someone’s in trouble and they turn to you, that means something, doesn’t it? It certainly means they feel loved by you. They trust you. Or at least there’s a bond that hasn’t been broken.

If your soul flew up into the sky at night, up near the stars, it would be able to see the darkness spreading beneath the skin of the earth and if it rained, as if to wash it all away, it only washed it deeper into the sands and the stones and the ancient waters below the dry surface of the desert.

2

When Jillian’s dad, Bobby, talked about the TCE that made his liver bumpy, she saw it as a huge darkness spreading underneath the ground. She saw men in uniforms cleaning airplanes and airplane parts and then pouring the used solvent into barrels, loading the barrels into the backs of trucks like army trucks with canvasses over the back, like in old movies about World War II. These trucks had lots of barrels inside of them and inside of the barrels, this solvent was bubbling and eating away at the metal. The men had on gloves, they had to be very careful, and they unloaded the barrels from the trucks and opened them with screwdrivers and dumped the liquid in them into ponds, ponds that were not lined with cement or lead or anything, and so it was as if they were pouring the solvent right into the dirt. If the dirt of the ground had been alive like an organism instead of only alive with organisms, if it had been skin instead of only the surface of the earth, it would have sizzled and shriveled and screamed. Jillian was sure of this. Instead, only the organisms in it sizzled and shriveled and died. They did not scream for the earth does not scream, and the dark liquid seeped down deeper and deeper, a dark stain spreading underneath the ground, seeping deep into the sand in the washes, into the water in the pools beneath the skin of the earth, spreading wide beneath creosote bushes, beneath palo verde trees and mesquite, into snake holes and rabbit holes and the dens of pack rats and the cute little squirrels, juancitos, her father called them, beneath the prickly pear and ocotillo and tender grasses and brittlebush, beneath the houses people lived in, beneath their horse corrals and chicken coops, beneath vegetable gardens and citrus trees, beneath swimming pools and schools and parks and playgrounds and even hospitals. If your soul flew up into the sky at night, up near the stars, it would be able to see the darkness spreading beneath the skin of the earth and if it rained, as if to wash it all away, it only washed it deeper into the sands and the stones and the ancient waters below the dry surface of the desert.

This, her father was sure, was why he was sick. Sure, he had drunk a few beers in his life, he would admit that, but he had also drunk that water when he was a child. He had bathed in it and poured it over his head with a garden hose on hot summer days and when he went to the swimming pool, he had leaped into it with his friends, friends who were also growing bumps on their livers and kidneys, or tumors in their brains or testicles, or getting diseases of the blood, who were also dying or dead. And not only were his friends dying but their parents were dead, not to mention their aunts and uncles, their brothers and sisters, their wives and children, which is why he was so glad, in retrospect, that he’d left Jillian behind after the divorce and had not taken her with him to the south side of town where all the Mexicans and Indians lived, where there were now red lines around housing developments and where the cleanup, although it had begun years ago, was too late for him, too late for so many.

When he was a kid, he said, the water had effervesced right from the faucet, a rainbow in your glass.

I filled my heart with their prayers and my own, and we stayed like that for a while, but none of the doctor spirits entered me. Not one.

3

La guera, Angie, when I knocked at her door, she was surprised to see me. After all, it’s not every day that Juana of God shows up on your doorstep. But I wanted to check in on her and her sister Glenda and the girl who does not speak (although she could if she wanted or so the spirits tell me), and we’d been at the hospital, Nardo and Junie and me, and we needed a place to rest before making the trek back to Magdalena. La Angie, she seemed happier now that her house was full of people and now that her novio was home. And that is what the nuns always taught me: if you have only a crust of bread, better to share than to keep it all to yourself. What you give, it will come back.

But this novio, this Bobby, he was not well. Even Nardo could see it. Even little Junie. We had come for my yearly torture with the cardiologist and, again, el doctór had filled my veins with poison and taped his wires to my chest and made me run on a treadmill, faster and faster. ¿Juanita, can’t you go any faster? And he looked at his computer to see inside me, mi corazón, pumping and pumping on his screen, about to explode if you asked me but, of course, he never asks me. ¡Juanita, faster! He knows nothing of Juana of God, and that is just as well, but no one has called me Juanita since I was a niña at the orphanage in the hills of Magdalena and so it made me feel as if I would get a swat on my knuckles and so siempre I try to do as he says.

“Tell me,” I said to this Bobby, who is muy guapo, I must say, la guera, she has good taste in men. “Tell me about this surgery.”

We were sitting at the dining room table, Nardo and Bobby and Angie and me, drinking coffee, and Marisol brought out some almond scones with dried cherries and white chocolate and I was thinking about what el doctór would say about that when Junie started growling and, for a Chihuahua, I have to say, he has quite a deep voice. Even though he and Marisol are ancient enemies, you would think they could have come to some sort of agreement by now, but No.

“Watch it,” she told him, “or you’ll be an hors d’oeuvre.”

And did he stop? No, he nipped at her ankles, he wouldn’t back down, and so I had to pick him up and, still, safe in my lap, he growled.

“He’s been falling over a lot,” Nardo told Marisol as if that would soften her heart. “It’s like he has a seizure or something. Clunk, over he goes, and then he gets up a few minutes later as if nothing happened.”

Marisol just shrugged and put a bowl of crema on the table. “Maybe it’s the spirits in him,” she said. “Están cansados.”

Espíritu santo, I was thinking. Even God must get tired these days.

Bobby was saying that there was a growth on his liver and they biopsied it with a long needle. Malignant. Then they went in and took it out and it was much bigger than they expected. And it had spread. Like wildfire. More tumors.

“They stuck a needle in it?” Nardo asked.

“They woke it up,” I said.

“That’s what I thought,” Bobby said. “They pissed it off.”

“Es la verdad,” I said, “those procedures, como se dice, invasive, I don’t believe in them.”

Marisol rolled her eyes. “This from la mujer who scrapes the eyeballs de los enfermos with a kitchen knife.”

Angie shook her head at Bobby. “And who plunged her hand into my gut and pulled out seven stones. Without anesthesia. No stitches needed.”

“If I did that,” I said, “it escapes me.” I felt a little woozy just imagining it.

“It was the spirits,” Nardo said, patting my hand. “She doesn’t even like the sight of blood.”

“Or the thought of pain,” I said.

“I didn’t feel a thing,” Angie shrugged.

“This cancer you have,” I asked Bobby, “it is from the poison they poured into the ground? No? The Air Force, I think.”

“For years,” he said. “Since 1952.”

“I’ve seen so many people sick from that, so many. They come down to la casa to be healed. Pero a veces the cancer is muy fuerte. No hay nada que hacer.”

“That’s what every doctor tells me: I have done everything I can.

“My prima, Marta,” Marisol broke in, “she died from it. It was the lymphoma, it went straight to her brain. One day she was loca, two months later, dead. Only 40 years old and with three kids. If she’d stayed in Cananea, she’d still be alive.”

I waved my hand in the air and the rings and the bracelets made a music to gather everyone’s attention. “Los pobres,” I said. “They may as well be los desparecidos. No one sees them. So what does it matter which side they live on, north or south? No one has a voice. Nadie.

And then Bobby, he’s a smart one, he went on about how the poison sinks to the bottom of the wells, to water that is millions of years old, maybe, and they would have to pump it all out and filter it somehow, tu sabes, which is muy muy caro, and so they shut down the wells. “But do you think it stays put? It’s liquid! ¡Que pendejos!”

I put Junie down on the floor and he whimpered. “Come over here with me, Bobby,” I said because, and this is what I was thinking, we can do nothing about the past, and our anger, maybe it feeds the cancer. Puede ser. “Now lie down on the couch and close your eyes. Take a deep breath.”

I was trying to draw the spirits to me, but I was so tired, and Junie had been falling over lately, es la verdad, sometimes several times a day. This channeling is not an easy business, no matter what anyone says. But I gathered myself, I opened myself to God or whoever else might be listening, whatever angel, and of course Bobby has his own angels all around him. I rubbed my hands together, warming my palms, and then I laid my hands on him, on his liver and all around it. He was very sick. I called them to help me. I felt their warmth and power, but I knew maybe all I could hope for was to take away the pain. I prayed anyways. I filled my heart with their prayers and my own, and we stayed like that for a while, but none of the doctor spirits entered me. Not one. I always feel like such a failure when this happens, but what can you do?

This I know: there are times when there is no hope for what will happen in this world, where what people have set into motion, the spirits cannot reverse. Qúe será será, no matter how strong the will. All we can do then is accept the truth for in acceptance there is, sometimes, something as great as peace. Maybe it is faith. ¿Quien sabe? I don’t know. No one knows. All this, I said to him in my thoughts and I know he heard me. We were all quiet, hushed, our hearts on hold, we were trying to pray even though we knew, we all knew, and it was a sad thing. The light was draining from the room. We heard the voices of the children coming home from school, a plane overhead.

“Mi’jo,” I said, because I did feel a great love for him, “you have to make a truce with this thing. Live and let live. Every night, you tell it this: you will let it live inside you if it will let you live.”

It was literally a ghost town, all the people who had died from the TCE rose up as soon as they turned the corner.

4

All the way down to her tata’s house, all the way down South 12th Ave., Jillian’s eyes were filled with color, bright yellow and pink and blue storefronts. ¡Mariscos! ¡Panaderia! ¡Carniceria! ¡Raspados! Her dad stopped at Dos Hermanos to get menudo and pan birrote and while he was inside the store, she started drawing the storefronts with their big black letters and the wrought iron over the windows. Somehow, because it was a particular gift of hers, she could see different eras superimposed over one another as if time were not linear but instead a palimpsest, one layer on top of another, and so she could see how it had all looked back when her dad was young, too, the round green buses belching their black fumes and the boarded-up windows on the stores and houses and old cars and so many people walking, whole families, and then, when they turned on the side-streets, she saw everyone who used to live there. It was literally a ghost town, all the people who had died from the TCE rose up as soon as they turned the corner. As if to give a shout out to her dad, they came out to the curbs and waved as he and Jillian drove down the street. It was as if the people who had gone before wanted to tell him they were waiting, and he wouldn’t be alone when he left this world.

Of course, there were also people who had taken their places, who walked on the ground they had risen out of, who had moved into their houses and parked their big trucks in the driveways and on the streets, the stereos blaring Mexican music and rap, the little kids weaving in and out on their bikes, the dogs yipping and the meat sizzling on the barbeques. Jillian drew them all, the living and the dead, the palm trees and the leafy green trees, the bright bougainvillea and hollyhocks and oleander, the saints in their grottos as if the people still lived in Mexico. She half-expected to see parrots or other tropical birds and so she drew them, too, swooping above the gray ghosts.

When her tata opened the door, she saw that her dad looked just like his dad except his dad was old. He had white hair and lots of wrinkles, a bigger nose and very long ears, and Jillian knew, suddenly, in a flash of heat to her heart, that her father would never get that old. She felt the sudden shadow of future sorrow as it fell over all three of them.

Half in English and half in Spanish, her dad and her tata started talking, a river of language she could follow because fortunately when she was born, even though she wasn’t given the gift of gab, the universe had downloaded some rudimentary Spanish into her brain. Listening to her dad talk this way, seeing her tata, she suddenly remembered her dad from when she was little, how his t-shirts used to smell like a dusty sun with a little Old Spice and how she used to wrap her dolls in them. She remembered that he loved cartoons on the TV and when he’d come home from work, they’d sit on the floor and eat cold cereal at the coffee table and watch Roadrunner and Coyote, Yosemite Sam, those old school ones, and even the neighborhood kids would come over and knock on the door and her dad would pour bowls of cereal for them, too, and her dad would laugh and laugh like he was still a kid himself. He didn’t care if they drank up all the milk and ate up all the cereal and, when her mom complained about it, he’d say, okay, I’ll give them mine. Or, when have I ever let you go hungry?

Why was she remembering all this now, she wondered. And why, now that he was here, did she suddenly miss him? She suddenly missed all those years he’d been gone. She was ravenous, not for his attention, exactly, but just to be near him, in proximity, as if she could soak him up and make up for lost time. And truth be told, she was a little angry at him. And at her mom. She remembered echoes of their arguments, not the words, just the sharp discordant notes that had started at breakfast and seemed to never stop, her mother talking talking talking, always talking, an undertow drowning her father, a riptide sweeping him away, driving him to drink is what he said, so it wasn’t like he was blameless. He was wrong, too. But why hadn’t they been able to overcome those problems for her? Was it so much to ask?

She could see herself in the backseat of the car one summer night, words zinging like arrows until she, Jillian, had wished she were deaf as well as mute. Her father had jumped out at a stop sign and disappeared into the night. What was that all about? “Someone’s had too much to drink,” her mother had said, and they left him behind.

But. Whatever. Jillian told herself that was all in the past now, gone, nothing anyone could do about it, and so she started to worry about future lost time instead of past lost time, because she could see inside her dad and something was growing there that shouldn’t be. It gave her a scary feeling, like there are things you know will happen, darkness, pain, and you can’t stop them from coming. Just like the darkness had spread beneath the ground, seeping into rivulets between stones, reaching out its tentacles; now it was doing the same thing inside him, pooling in his liver, spreading through his veins, changing his cells.

Her dad and her tata, their talking went back and forth between languages often in the middle of a sentence, and in this way, her father was breaking the bad news about his bumpy liver to his dad, who had to sit down when he heard it. It knocked him right off his feet and would have in any language, Jillian supposed, since at one time, a long time ago, before she was ever born, her tata had held her dad in his arms and maybe even changed his diaper, although Jillian doubted it if only because her mother always said, That Bobby! He never even changed a diaper!

Her tata said the woman next door had lost three of her five children. And Juan. Did her dad remember him? He’d worked on the roofs with her tata, he was one of the first to get the cancer, and he’d been smart enough to get in on the lawsuit.

“But now,” her tata rubbed his fingers and thumb together, “his daughter is sick and there’s no money. No one else will ever see a dime.”

“Nope,” her dad said. “Nada.”

“Those pinche lawyers, they took it all.”

Her dad nodded. They were both quiet for a while, eating their menudo. Although they were no longer speaking aloud, she could still hear them. Her father was thinking about how he wouldn’t be able to leave anything for her, how he’d had to sell his house even though he’d had insurance, how his medical bills had taken up everything he’d saved, and now there was no time to earn more. And her tata, he was just sad. He had grown up in Mexico, had been abandoned as a child, and so he didn’t expect justice, not in this life, not for himself, but he had expected something better for his son. Jillian began to draw her dad and she wondered, if she drew him getting well, if she believed he would get well, would that work?

Jillian began to draw her dad and she wondered, if she drew him getting well, if she believed he would get well, would that work?

5

Jillian liked the way her father smelled. When she sat next to him on the couch, she fell right back to sleep even though, in her bed, she had felt a kind of terror of falling through darkness. She had opened her eyes to stop it, but it hadn’t worked. Her heart had been beating until she thought it would jump out of her throat, but sitting next to him, and feeling his arm against her cheek and smelling him, the feeling of falling went away, became floating, and in that floating she could hear and see everything. She could see Marisol and Marta as girls playing in a creek on their nana’s ranchito, she could see the way their tata put big boulders in the creek so that it would pool, and they could swim. The ranchito was down in a canyon and up above, on the rim, there were men riding horses. She could hear the sound of the horseshoes clattering on stone and there was sharp sunlight in a flat blue sky. She could see Marisol and Marta when they had little babies on their laps and when they were lighting candles on birthday cakes and making Halloween costumes and first Holy Communion dresses, all those things comadres do together, and then she could see Marta on the bed in the hospital room, the babies now grown into young women who would wash her and dress her after she died. Her father had done this, too, she could see. He had helped people with small things, like hanging doors or fixing their roofs or giving them money, and with bigger things like listening to their stories and sitting with them when they were lonely and talking to them when they were dying.

And this, Jillian knew, was the reason for falling through darkness. She knew no matter how kind her father had been, it wouldn’t save him. One day, soon, within weeks, he would be walking his two miles a day and asking for tacos for dinner and the next day, it would be as if he had stepped off a cliff. His decline would be that sudden and that precipitous. For three days, Jillian knew, he would be dying and then he would die, and she wondered if she should tell him, but then she felt him put his arm behind her so she could stand up from the couch, he guided her by her shoulders, one warm hand on each shoulder to her room. She opened her eyes and sat on her bed and when she looked at his face, she knew he already knew.

Maybe he had told her, maybe that’s where these voices, this knowing, came from. She wondered. He had a nana who knew things, Jillian remembered, a nana she had never met or seen but somehow, now, on this night, she could see her face and her dark hair in a braid wrapped in a circle on top of her head, she could see her hands, the long, strong fingers unpinning the circle, pulling themselves through the braids. Sometimes the knowing scared this nana just like it scared Jillian, but nothing seemed to scare her father.

She lay down on the bed and her dad sat next to her and he rested his hand on her forehead, like when she was little, and she felt a warmth all around her heart and she knew when he was gone, this was how he would come to her, a feeling of warmth around her heart. It would always ease the fear of falling through darkness. She closed her eyes and he kissed her on the forehead, and she thought, I promise. I promise I will not let what happened to Marta happen to you. I will not let them keep you hooked up to machines in a hospital. And he said, I know, Mi’ja. I know you love me.

Why had he chosen to drink, he wondered in those moments. Why had he thought coming and going with his friends was a kind of freedom?

6

Angie had tried, when Bobby came back, to fast-track her forgiveness for she knew, acutely, that they had only the moment—the past had receded far away, so far as to be almost insignificant, and the future was not even a speck on the horizon. If they didn’t live in the moment, they would not have a life together at all.

Of course, this is always true, she knew, you always have only the moment. Still, even with this knowledge, instantaneous forgiving was easier said than done and sometimes, when Bobby was making love to her, she couldn’t help but bite him. Just a nip, really, usually on his lip or his shoulder, but it would remind him to treat her very gingerly, knowing as he did, that old arguments had just intruded, his refusal to quit drinking, say, or to see a counselor.

Why had he chosen to drink, he wondered in those moments. Why had he thought coming and going with his friends was a kind of freedom? Maybe he had been too reckless, maybe she had been too rigid. Maybe. All those maybes. Maybe they had both been too young. Maybe they had both believed they could change each other, which, of course, never works. And then they had both seen other people: when she was free, he wasn’t; when he was free, she wasn’t. There was that white guy who earned so much more money than he did, which complicated everything in his stupid head. But why had he cared? He’d wanted to come back, it was his pride that kept him away, and he’d stayed away until it was too late to think about pride or about anything but what the heart wanted.

This grieved him, that he had made her feel less, as if drinking were more important, as if life with her was somehow not enough, as if his pride was more important. If there were only one thing he could take back, it would be this pain he had caused her. And Jillian. He had not been a good father to Jillian. He had not valued his treasures when he’d had the chance.

On those nights, as they were lying in bed, her head on his shoulder, he would distract her by talking about the house they would build someday, how they would plant mesquite trees in the backyard and hang from their branches clay pots filled with water so that the water would stay cool even in summer. He described his nana’s garden, the hollyhocks, the corn and squash, chard and tomatoes, how he and his brothers had run along the rows, chasing one another in and out of the corn and in and out of the sheets hanging on the line. His nana had made tortillas, he said, under a ramada, outside under those trees, always a pot of beans simmering there next to the cast iron placa.

He loved this one song about a saint behind a glass and the smell of coffee in the mornings and he used to sing it for her, his breath ruffling her hair as they were lying there, and even though he was always off-key and had forgotten most of the words and had to hum instead, she found herself feeling calm. She didn’t know why she loved hearing about his childhood so much. She could imagine the trees, their velvety green leaves, and the mourning doves, and the light from the sun. She would lie on her side, her hand on his heart and it felt, if she closed her eyes and breathed deeply, as if they had never been apart and never would be. She could see him running there, in his nana’s garden, a small brown boy like the son they’d never had, his whole life in front of him.

But the truth was that most of his life was behind him and, in her opinion, much of it wasted. He never got to see the things he wanted to see, like Jerusalem or Mexico City or Machu Picchu. He wanted, she realized, to go to places where several layers of time were visible at once. She didn’t know why this made her so sad, that he had spent his life driving nails into two-by-fours and walking along the roof trestles of other people’s houses, that his own life had stayed small. He hadn’t even known his own daughter and would never know her now, not really, nor live to see her children.

Thinking about those things, of course, did not count as living in the moment.

He still lived in the moment, even as he was dying; he always had; he had always been fully present. When you were talking to him, he listened, as if you were the only person in the world. He even listened intently to her sister Glenda’s word salads, for instance, and could interpret them—when she said she’d lost her Alaska, he said, she wanted more ice in her water. He enjoyed each moment, making love, eating a steak, laughing at a joke, watching Jillian draw. It was as if, for him, each moment could expand infinitely, hold everything, was all that ever mattered. And more and more she did feel as if each moment contained all time, which meant it also contained the past they had already squandered and the future they would not have.

Or maybe it was simply as if time were accelerating. At night, when he was lying on the bed, watching her brush her hair, she could see him in the mirror behind her and she would suddenly feel young and desirable, beautiful simply because she was still full of life and he was looking at her. But, looking at him watching her, she realized he was aging much faster than she was. He was waning. His beard was speckled with gray and the hair on his chest had strands of gray and his skin was getting dry and papery. One night, when he made love to her, she could feel his arms were not as firm as they had been even the day before. Each day he seemed to age by years. His stories, at night, were often the same stories only more and more they were peppered with the ghosts of the dead who, it seemed to her, were as present to him as she or Jillian were. He tired easily. He would fall asleep while sitting up in a chair. He was falling out of time.

One night, his arms shook as he tried to hold his weight above her and she felt his biceps with her hands. They felt like an old man’s. Tears started seeping from the corners of her eyes, she couldn’t help it, and he could tell, and that was the last time they ever made love.

One day, she stood next to him and said, maybe we could just lie on the bed next to each other, naked, and hold each other, and I could put lotion on your body. Your skin is so dry.

And he had said, Oh, Angie.

He kissed her forehead, patted her on the shoulder.

This was next to the dresser, in passing.

One day she said, I feel as if there is a great distance between us.

One day, he said, I am losing my words.

He said, I am so cold.

He said, I can’t feel my legs.

And then he was gone.

And, although she and Jillian had sat by his bedside and held his hands and witnessed his last breaths, she couldn’t figure it out, death. It was such a strange thing. Where had he gone? And why was everything else still the same?

  

  

Beth Alvarado“Jillian Speaks” is an excerpt from Jillian in the Borderlands, now on pre-sale from Black Lawrence Press. Beth Alvarado’s previous books include Anxious Attachments, winner of the Oregon Book Award and long-listed for PEN America’s Art of the Essay Award. Visit her at www.bethalvarado.com

Read Beth Alvarado’s essay “Die Die Die,” appearing in Terrain.org.

Header photo by Shelly Still, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Beth Alvarado by Brigette Lewis.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.