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Estrella, Extranjero

by Chavawn Kelley
 

If an employee is exposed to some gruesome scene, then the Wyoming Department of Transportation sends you for counseling. If a man dies out there and you’re the one that finds him, I figure that somehow makes you related. I’m not sorry it was me on call that night.  
    — Troy Trabing, 2001

I

Beads of condensation stream down the windows of the Buckhorn Bar, where bodies are close-packed and talk is loud. January in Laramie. Steam and breath collect against the night-chilled panes. Good night, José! Hope you don’t live far!, his companions from the wood mill call. The heavy door closes on half-sentences and sweet, stale smoke and beer. His will be a natural death in that nature is involved. In the warm tongue of streetlight, he doesn’t feel the frost that pierces the thigh. When a man drinks, the town is warmed. Square-top Western storefronts melt into round tenderness, relieved of their corners and their ache. The street dead-ends him into a chain-link fence that protects the native-born from the tracks of the Union Pacific railroad, but he climbs it easily. He jumps and regains earth. ¿Mire, See? Two Coors do not deprive a man of his self-governance. The snow that remains from days ago collects along the rails, is swept up in puffs, and settles again. He steps between the tracks.

In the train yard the prairie is barren, fuel-sodden and silent. The rail welding plant (jobs for five) is closed for the night. NO TRESPASSING. The smell of churros, pastry sold by street vendors in Tepic, registers in his sinuses. Batter piped through a star-shaped pastry tip and crisped in super-heated oil, a gift to Atzlan from Portuguese sailing ships. This aroma floating from across the Clark Street viaduct is tomorrow’s doughnuts frying. José has never been to Daylight Doughnuts. He crosses the seventh set of tracks and the eighth. No train to Omaha, no train to California. Ningun persona es ilegal.  He stops and tugs at the sleeve of his denim jacket and lunges to remain upright against his tugging. He bought the jacket at K-Mart on Third Street after his first paycheck. Also these white athletic shoes and Wrangler jeans. In the language of hypothermia, this struggle to remove his jacket is called “paradoxical undressing.” The metallic buttons resist. Where are his fingers? Patas. His hands are paws. Free of the jacket, he feels warmer, though the shivering does not subside. There are those who will conclude the victim was drunk, which is not exactly true. A Rabbit! “¡Hey, Consejo! What rabbit is ever hit by a train?” The creature pauses its bounding. The answer, of course, is none. The chain holding the fence gate is long, and José is small. He slips through easily. A rabbit would have to lie upon the track and wait for the train to come.

This progression from Buckhorn Bar across thirteen UP railroad tracks to the ragged skirt of town is smooth, not a long prayer at all. At Cedar Street, where he should turn north, he forgets and continues on. Cold will do this. He knows there are Sanchez’s and Gonzales’s here because of the plaques they wire to their fences and suspend above porch steps. Dogs on Hodgeman and Spruce are called in at night as Copper and Chili. Yet inside, they are greeted as Cobré and Chinchilada. Such is the West Side neighborhood. Idling train engines make the back doors ring. The front doors shudder against the Interstate’s thrum. In June, about the time the window screens go up, the cottonwood leaves bloom to muffle I-80’s seething. Tonight the windows are closed against winter. Pine cut and hauled down from the national forest is burning in wood stoves next to ocean-blue TVs. Smoke scents the air. Tatewari, Grandfather fire. A black dog comes trotting along in the street. “¿Do you travel far?” She cocks her head as if listening. It is wise not to let on how much you know.

II

We’re out on Highway 130 on the edge of the Big Hollow. It’s like being perched on the rim of a bowl. We can see across to the mountains in Colorado. Did you know the Big Hollow was blown out by wind? Hard to picture, isn’t it? We used to look out onto Sheep Mountain to the west. I guess we still do, but a couple years ago, this doctor from Chicago builds a house down the road, a big log house with stained glass and a string of garage doors. Used to make me feel strong, somehow, looking out onto Sheep Mountain. Now all I see are garage doors starin’ at me. Guy comes out for the summer fly fishing, he’s not that old, comes by himself, spends the rest of the year deep-sea fishing. Kavanaugh’s his name. God, I wouldn’t trade Meg and the girls for all the fishing in the world. I’ve lived in Wyoming all my life. I like fishing, but who does that help? I mean, if you don’t even eat em? If you’re a doctor, shouldn’t you be healing folks? Well, I guess you are a doctor, aren’t you? And this isn’t what I’m supposed to be talking about, is it? I’m sorry to get worked up over it. Got no right, I know. Just feels like he stole something from me, that’s all.

I started out at the Buckhorn. I wasn’t drinking. I was just hanging out with some buddies. The guys from Mountain Cement were all worked up about this lawsuit. The environmentalists trying to close everything down. Don’t make sense. Anybody can see we got clean air. Wind blows hard enough, it don’t matter what you stick up there, not like Denver. What I don’t get is what those people think we’re supposed to do for jobs. We can’t all be university professors and lawyers, can we? How they think we’re supposed to feed our families?

Guess I’m pretty lucky to have this job with the state. I like it well enough.

III

At Snowy Range Forest Products, other men do the same job as José, feed boards through a shaver to produce astragals, moldings of elegant symmetry. Astragals, from the Latin for vertebra, astragalus. José knows nothing of Latin. In Wyoming, he is Mexican, not Latino. In Mexico, he is Indian, not Mexican. But while other men produce solid lineal moldings, no others are so fine as José’s. Grace pours through the curves in his hands. The machinery is the same, but for him, the wood is alive, and the astragales are pleased to be released to him. Life resides in the bones.

Where José was born, the men make masks. These are carved from wood to which they apply a film of pine pitch and beeswax. Into this they press a firmament of tiny beads in red and green, blue and black, yellow, pink and turquoise to create the face. In the designs, maize grows straight along the nose. On the cheeks, the moon swallows the sun. Across the forehead, the eight-segmented cactus buds swirl and multiply. The masks look out with straight mouths or smiles. They are mirrors to god, they are never worn. But in Laramie, at the pleasant job and at the Buckhorn tonight, José wears a mask of his own making. He doesn’t speak. He wears it backwards, face to his face, so the colors don’t show. He lacks the strength of such colors in this land of brown and gold.

At the Buckhorn, a trophy deer with a huge five-by-five rack presides from the wall. As Justin tells a story to their companions, José stares. At work, Justin operates the bagger that packages the company’s wood stove pellets. The story goes like this: José comes to this country and the first thing he wants to do is see a Rockies game, see? So he goes to the game and the only seat is way up behind the flagpole. The words come and go, flashes of comprehension, like a wing that catches sunlight at a certain angle. In the yarn paintings of his uncles, the deer and the cactus buds are one. In Wirikuta, the desert is green in January. The peyotero shoots the cactus with an arrow as if shooting a deer. The peyotero slices off the bud with his sharp knife, leaving the root—the long bone from which the deer may be reborn. The buck watches José through the eyes of the cactus. Illegal in America. So afterwards, somebody asks him, how do you like America, José? He says, “Oh, very much. Before the game, everyone in the stadium is standing, and they sing Hoe-oh say can you see?!” Justin floats the words at the end, embarrassed that the story requires a bit of song. In Wirikuta, the peyoteros sing unabashedly to the cactus. Everyone at the table laughs, and José’s mask is smiling. He recognizes the national song.

From near the pool tables where quarters are stacked on polished wood, the sound of breaking glass interrupts the laughter and their newfound fraternity. The university girls, ranch hands and workers from the cement plant spread out from the shards and for a moment a well of quiet opens, before the voices and standing drinkers close to fill it in. Justin leans sideways and pulls José close. It’s just a corny joke—you know that, right? The windows of the Buckhorn Bar sweat with the colors inside.

IV

Last summer, I was up at the summit on the striper. Telephone Canyon’s one of the steepest, curviest stretches of Interstate in the country. Well, I guess you know that. So I stick my head out to check the paint behind me. I pull back in, next thing, this truck breaks through the cones and comes tearing by not four inches away. One second later and I wouldn’t of had a head to put a hat on. I went home and cried like a baby. Thought about it for days, what it means to be alive, but you know what? Nothing changed. I just went back to work. Guess I didn’t need a trauma specialist for that one!

Couple weeks ago, I’m in the snowplow in a whiteout. The truckers are complaining on their CBs. They’re backed up a good mile. I get up there, and this truck is stopped in the middle of I-80. I can’t talk to him, cause he’s got his radio off. I get beside him, he doesn’t even see the yellow lights flashing on the snowplow. So I get out and climb up the side of the rig and pound on the window. I look in, this Iranian fella’s steering for all he’s worth! He thinks he’s moving! He’s scared and he can’t see, probably never seen snow in his entire life. These Canadian firms, they’re running all these trucks now. They can’t hire enough drivers, so they go to places like Iran and round em up. “Hey, you want to be a truck driver?” This guy’s wheels are rutted in the ice, they’re spinning and he thinks he’s on his way to Rawlins!

Can’t blame the guy, really. Snow like that’s like driving into a funnel. When it’s really dumping, we can’t get it clear. I’ve gone through fifteen loads of sand in one twelve-hour shift. That’s a hundred and fifty tons, and it’s like you’re not even out there. They close the road, and everything stops. You’re out there plowing, and the whole thing’s kind of surreal, you know?  If you’re lucky, George Jones is singing on the radio. It’s warm inside, but you hardly feel it cause you gotta keep the windshield cold so the snow don’t melt and ice up on it.

That’s the thing: There’s an accident and people get exposed out there. They’re not dressed for it. I have to get em up in my cab till the patrol car comes. Otherwise, even if they’re not hurt, they end up at Ivinson Memorial Hospital being treated for hypothermia. People just don’t realize the cold will kill ‘em.

Shit, as long as a head of lettuce picked in the Imperial Valley on Wednesday gets to restaurants in New York City by Friday, then I’m doing my job. But when that stops, then I feel responsible. I don’t want to know who anybody is. You read about it in the Boomerang, though, all of a sudden it’s a truck driver from North Carolina or a family from Oregon. God, that’s when I hate it. Then it doesn’t matter where they were going. Only where they were from. And that they never made it back.

V

Past the little backyards, the last alley borders a field. Frost on shorn grass no longer glistens in streetlight. The wind blows stronger outside of town. Skin fuses to the chilled night air. At Garfield, the old bridge over the Laramie River is being removed. Built in 1925, it was narrow, and two cars could barely negotiate it. José steps past the barricade, between the crane and backhoe parked there. The smell of hydraulic fluid is faint. José slips down the bank to the frozen river. The river is not wide, and José is light. He crosses easily. On the other side, the deadwinter earth feels alive to him as it hasn’t before. Grandmother Growth waits to be reborn into the bones of the prairie. It’s a wonder José can walk with the cold taking possession of his legs. The blood has abandoned his limbs and now stays close to the fire, his core. Perhaps the cold doesn’t steal his intention, but directs him to it. The heart is strong.

When José’s grandfather was born, the baby’s father crouched in the rafters above the laboring mother, a string tied from each of her knees to his testicles. In her pain, she screamed and tugged and the father cried out, suffering her joy. The parents tied by cords, the babe slippery with birth, they are the ancestors. The alive are ancestors to the dead, and the dead are yet to be born. The wind is an ancestor. The two-headed eagle woven in repetition on Maria Cortesana’s loom, José’s father amid empty brown bottles of Negra Modelo, his mother in Nayarit, tuberculosis doling out each breath for the price of a cough or two (no doctors, only José’s wages). The alive are ancestors to the dead. And the road is never straight. It bends and turns and takes its course, a snake. This is what the government doesn’t understand when it builds airstrips into the Sierra and roads into the desert so families hunting the cactus in the hoof prints of the deer god must take the bus and cross straight wire fences to place their ofrendas, brightly colored gifts, at the muddy desert springs. We are all of us healers or singers or creators. A pair of mule deer, male and female, stop their striding before José, who stares. ¡Your ears are enormous! As the men in the Buckhorn and the wood mill are immense, so are the deer bigger, and their ears—José has never seen ears as large. ¿Do you have so much more to hear than the deer in Wirikuta? “Little brother,” answers the one who shed his antlers in the fall, “The Interstate snores and brags. But you will know when you reach your truth.” José looks down at his two feet. He is wearing sandals with tire-tread soles. His pants are loose and white. His mother has embroidered the toto flowers and deer in red. No pockets, no copper rivets. His fingernails are pink and smooth, no dirt behind their white curves. In his woven pouch is the pearl-handled penknife he once used to carve tiny horses for his nieces and nephews.  

The Interstate is a current modulating the high whine of speeding wheels and the deep convulsions of power engines shifting. He moves toward it. Inter-estado, Estados Unidos. ¿You need another drink, José? ¿José, can you see? Everything in America makes everything you believe seem foolish. I-80 is a sleepless confounding. But for the first time since he was young and tender like a green corn plant, José feels at ease. The cold-stolen arms and legs give up their warmth to the newborn heart. José drops down to the pavement. His knees rise to the chest and his chin drops. The cold has delivered him here. A man begins the journey with a thump of the heart and all that follows is the crooked long wandering of his seeking only that. The mask is his own face. The colors, his only offering, he turns to the night sky, and through an eye-shaped door, he sees a tiny bead, a star, a fire growing. Across the wavering flame the blue deer and the corn girls join him. His mother smiles to see him near. The white flame doubles and rushes toward him, growing larger. The woman at the bar who spilled the tray touches his right shoulder. A man he doesn’t know waits with cupped hands. At the instant the mirror of god reflects José Lazaro Martinez, motion shatters him. He releases his broken bones and severed spine Tha-dump to the asphalt floor and flees the bloodied shoulder of the road. It is dangerous to remain in the land of the gods too long.

VI

I keep the radio playing, but it doesn’t matter, the radio in my head’s louder. The call comes in, “There’s a deer or something hit out there.” My heart’s about to burst and it’s playing over and over. It’s like my own country song! I guess what I’m feeling is how you can mourn for something you ain’t never known. Like that elk herd that used to live up on Sheep Mountain. My dad talked about how they used to come down to the ranch in winter. My great granddad was one of the first to grow hay in the Big Hollow. Or they’d be out by the highway. They weren’t big like the elk up in the mountains. That’s when you could still drive up on Sheep Mountain, before the Forest Service closed the road. And Meg and that baby boy of ours—I was tore up, but it never was for me like it was for her. Even after she seemed better, I’d see this look come over her and I’d know. But that was different. He was inside of her.

It was cold that night. I started out at the Buck and it was just a regular Thursday night, everybody getting geared up for the weekend. I wasn’t supposed to be there, I know that. I was drinking Pepsi out of a can—so you could tell that’s what it was. And I was eatin’ Corn Nuts. Crazy, what you remember, isn’t it? The guys were talking and everybody was laughing. The roads were clear and I was on call. There’s this waitress, Cindy. She’s kind of a little thing, and her hair hangs down, crooked and dark. She wears this tight-fitting t-shirt that’s pink, and the neckband’s cut out of it. Her breasts are so small and pretty, and the way she moves and smiles. She’ll touch you whenever she serves you a drink, like when she got me that Pepsi. Just on the arm or the hand or on your back. It’s nothing, but she touches you and you feel like there’s not a God-damn thing wrong in the world. I don’t know what it is, the way her God-damn collar bones stick up, I don’t know. But I shouldn’t be telling you this. It doesn’t make any difference. I’m sorry.

I was back home when the call come in. It was right out at milepost 312, where the Interstate makes that big curve. Whole thing runs east and west across the country, just like the train did first, but you come down off the summit and there’s Laramie down in the valley. And you see the smoke coming out of the stacks at Mountain Cement, even at night, and you’re heading around the edge of town. It was right there where you make that 90-degree turn that breaks every law of Interstate engineering before it straightens out again.

The stars were out. There were about a million of them, the way there are on a clear night. Reminded me of when we’re out hunting. You’re sitting out by the campfire and it gets late and the fire scatters to embers and the cold is on your back but you feel like you’re burning up. Freezing cold and burning up at the same time. That’s how I been feeling since this whole thing happened, like I’m numb and not here, invisible, but freezing cold and burning up at the same time. And I just keep hearing that call come in, “There’s a deer or something hit out there.” And I get the call and I go out there like always. There’s only this little bit of snow out on the shoulder and I’m out there with the plow, scooping the mess off to the side. There in the headlights, ripped-up meat and bones, and you can see the blood smeared across the road and the red in the snow. Wasn’t anything I hadn’t done before. Then there’s this torn wet cloth. And if that was the end of it, I’d be okay. I wouldn’t be sittin here talking to you. But then, there I was and the trucks and the cars are whizzing by. And it was his… God, he’d been out there for hours. There was his hair and these black pools for eyes, lookin at me like why wasn’t I there before to help him. I’m sorry. I’m.... And there I was, scooping him off to the side… I called dispatch and waited for the patrol.  

I don’t know. I know I wasn’t supposed to, but when I stopped the plow, there was something shiny, and I got out and picked it up. This little knife. I know I shouldn’t of, but I kept it. Who was there to send it to? Nobody knew who he was. Just some Mexican working at Snowy Range Wood Products. Nobody knew where he came from or who to send him back to. They cremated what was left of him. Anyway, I get back in the snowplow and it’s warm in there and a country song’s playin, and I call dispatch. “This is 1028 at 3:12…” First light’s startin to show behind the hills.

  
  

Chavawn Kelley lives with her husband and son in Laramie, Wyoming. Her writing has been published in Creative Nonfiction, Quarterly West, High Desert Journal, and elsewhere. "Estrella, Extranjero" is part of a series of short stories set along the I-80 corridor in southern Wyoming. She has received fellowships from the Wyoming Arts Council, the Ucross Foundation, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Can Serrat International Arts Center (Spain).
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