Where They Bury the Bones by Mary Milstead

 

 

Where They Bury the Bones

by Mary Milstead

 

    

                 

In the blue-black of early morning my cousin Ramón and I walked out the front door. The rest of the house was asleep and our Uncle Diego was waiting for us outside in his truck. The buses weren't running yet and the street was quiet. Every morning Ramón and I got a ride with our uncle down to the corner of Burnside and 6th, where we would line up along the sidewalk and wait for the trucks.

 

Uncle Diego had been here a long time, and he had a good job loading cargo onto ships in the river, but the old pick-up spot was still on his way. Ramón leaned against the passenger side window and rubbed his eyes. We drove past a convenience store that was buzzing with fluorescent lights and eighteen-wheelers.

 

"See you tonight," Uncle Diego said as we hopped out of the truck. "Good luck."

 

He knew what it was to work like this. It was what he did when he first got here, before he got papers and the kind of job that was the same every day. I knocked twice on his window as he pulled away.

 

"I can't believe it," Ramón said.

 

There was already a line of men along the sidewalk. A few faces were familiar, men I had worked with on other days, some guys that lived in our neighborhood. We nodded hello. A few faces were brand new. It was easy to tell them apart, the ones who had just arrived. Their clothes were not very clean and their jaws were locked down tight. They leaned against the fence and stared at the abandoned building across the street. The rest of us had relaxed the muscles in our backs and we leaned more easily, but we were all the same. We were from Guadalajara and D.F. and Oaxaca and Saltillo. Some of us were from as far away as Peru and Venezuela and Guatemala, short Mayans with black hair and broad noses. We were all here to work.

 

Ramón and I took our spot further down the fence, next to an old man wearing a blue shirt and dirty cowboy boots. I'd never seen him before, but he nodded to us. His mouth got tight when he saw Ramón.

 

Ramón was only twenty-five and built like a bear, with a wide chest and thick arms. He always got picked first. The men could tell by looking at him that he would be a fast and hard worker. He would be able to lift the heaviest things. When the trucks got close he pushed his chest out and flexed the muscles of his arms to make sure they saw him. I did this too, but I'm older and smaller, so the effect was not as impressive.

 

The first truck pulled up, a clean white full-size with company logos on the sides. The man in the truck held out one full hand and the five guys closest to him jumped in the back. The sixth got his foot on the bumper but he wasn't fast enough. The truck pulled away and we all stepped back.

 

The sky turned light gray with the threat of a sun somewhere behind the clouds and the hum of cars on Burnside grew. Every time a truck got close, we all stepped out toward the curb, puffing up our chests and flexing our muscles, making ourselves look bigger like wide-necked snakes. When the truck drove away without us, we stepped back, leaned back against the fence and rested on our ankles. It was like we were breathing in and out, all together in a big group.

 

Ramón left in a clean black truck driven by a white-haired old man. He tried to bring me along, pointed at me hopefully, but the man shook his head and held up one finger.  There were not a lot of trucks today. The sky was still gray and some of the jobs would wait until tomorrow.

 

The old man we didn't know was sitting down on the ledge behind me. He scraped the bottom of his boots with a stick. Mud fell in clumps across the sidewalk.

 

"It's an interesting way to pass the day," he said. He chewed a long piece of grass and it moved just a little as he talked.

 

"We do what we have to do," I said. "And the view, it's not so bad."

 

The fence was cold against my back. The cars on Burnside were moving faster now, waking up, pouring like a silver stream toward the shiny buildings downtown. Back home, I'd worked at the bank. Not in a big shiny building, but in an office on the second floor, with a window. Every morning, I said hello to the same people. Every day, the same list of things to do. Every evening, the same slow walk home past the butcher and the bakery and the laundromat. Men like this old man lined the street, resting on their ankles, nodding to the younger men who walked past, full of purpose.

 

"It will be the same no matter how soon you get there," they would say.

 

A red truck, old and rusted and low to the ground, pulled around the corner and slowed down. We all stepped forward, and I swelled my chest. It stopped right in front of me.

 

The man in the truck leaned across his seat and rolled down the window. He pointed at me, one long gray finger.

 

"Ah, it is your lucky day." The old man next to me spoke without moving his lips.

 

"May you get picked up by a young woman who feeds you steaks," I said.

 

He laughed. "I hope it is so, because a dog that doesn't walk doesn't find a bone."

 

I waited at the curb while the man in the truck looked me up and down. The skin around his eyes was loose and wrinkled.

 

"Okay," he said. "Let's go."

 

I climbed into the truck, making sure to wipe my feet off before climbing in, even though it was an old truck and already dirty. He looked like he had about fifty years. The rest of his face was as wrinkled as his eyes, like someone who'd spent a lot of time working

in the sun, but his arms on the steering wheel were skinny, like someone who sat at a desk. His hair was dark gray like asphalt and a little long.

 

"Got a basement renovation," he said. "For my mother-in-law."

 

He rolled down his window just a crack, like he was going to light a cigarette, but he didn't reach for his pocket. His turn signal clicked and he turned onto MLK. The truck floated around the corner like a big boat in calm water.

 

I nodded and looked out the windshield at the wet pavement in front of us. I spoke English, but at the beginning of the day it was better to sit still and see how it was going to go.

 

We pulled onto the highway and then kept driving over the bridge into Washington. I had only been to Washington a few times before. Even though I knew it was Washington State, and not Washington DC, it made me think of the capital and the White House, and the fact that I was in America. It made me nervous and proud at the same time, like I was in a movie and everyone was watching, but I wasn't sure whether they'd clap. As we crossed over the Columbia in the old red truck, the clouds broke, and the sun came out.

 

We took the first exit on the other side, and the man didn't say another word to me. We drove past a big shopping center with an empty parking lot. There was a blue pay phone near the front door of the Big Lots Department Store. We turned into a small quiet neighborhood with big trees in the front yards and old cars parked in the driveways.

89th Avenue. Thurgood Drive. The man stopped in front of a small white house. 3286 Thurgood. Easy to remember. There was an iron bench on the front porch and purple flowers hung on the bushes.

 

"Come around back," he said. He led me through a side gate and into the backyard which was thick with bright green grass. There was an outside entry to the basement, and I followed him down the stairs, through the thin wooden door. He pulled a chain from the ceiling and the light clicked on, a single bulb hanging from a socket. The basement was damp and still pretty dark, even with the light on.

 

"What are you doing down here?" he said.

 

I started to answer, but then I realized that he was looking into the darkest corner of the basement, where an old woman was sitting on a folding chair. She had been sitting down here in the dark, for who knows how long. All I could see were her glasses, big and round. They stretched from her forehead to her cheeks, like white circles on the face of a spider monkey.

 

"It's my apartment, isn't it?" she said. "Don't I live here now?" She blinked her wet eyes, adjusting to the light, which must seem bright to her. Her mouth was twisted in a little knot, and her hands were crossed against her chest.

 

"Not yet, Maude. Not yet," he said. He sighed and stepped toward her. "You have to get out of here so me and Paco can get some work done."

 

"Impossible," she said. "I'm staying."

 

The man turned and looked at me, his face heavy. He shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes, trying to make it light. But there was the heaviness of real anger in his eyes, mean and red.

 

I shrugged and smiled.

 

A sledgehammer leaned against the wall near the door. He pointed at it and made a swinging motion with his arms. "We need to bust out the floor."

 

His voice was suddenly very loud and he was speaking very slowly. Maybe it was for me, or maybe for the old woman. He pointed at the ceiling and ducked down. "Too low," he said. "We need to dig down to get more space."

 

"I can't walk around bent over," she said. "It hurts my back."

 

She also made her voice loud and slow. "I am not a young woman anymore." She kept looking at me, so I nodded.

 

"We know, Maude," he said.

 

He handed me the sledgehammer and told me to get started. He'd be back. Maude stayed in her chair in her corner and together we watched him walk back through the door and close it. I thought I heard the click of a lock, but she didn't react. His heavy steps clumped up the stairs outside and we were alone in the strange underground room.

 

It would be much better if the old woman thought I couldn't understand her, so I picked the hammer up and brought it down hard without looking at her. It hit solidly on the concrete floor, and the force of it ricocheted through my arm and across my back. There wasn't enough room to hold the hammer over my head, so I had to lean forward and bear the weight in my shoulder and my back. It was going to be a brutal day, maybe the hardest work I'd done. It was harder than digging a regular ditch, harder than carrying rocks.

 

The concrete was thick, and I continued to hit it as hard as I could. Small dents  and flowering cracks formed underneath the weight of the hammer and my swing. I kept swinging until I broke through, until I could pull away a chunk and see the dark earth below. The old woman had been sitting quietly, watching me work, flinching every time the sledgehammer hit. I broke through four inches of solid concrete and the dirt underneath was soft and black. This must be where they bury the bones.

 

I stood up straight to stretch my back.

 

"They don't want me in the house anymore," she said. "They're gonna make me stay down here."

 

I didn't look up. I leaned back down and swung the sledgehammer again. A chunk of the floor came loose, and I picked it up and tossed it to the corner behind me. I kept my head down.

 

The muscles in my shoulders burned. The concrete cracked underneath the hammer.

 

I pried up more pieces of concrete, and she sat still in her corner with her hands in her lap. She stopped talking. Maybe she was tired, or maybe she decided I couldn't understand her.

 

She looked like my Tia Rosa, my great aunt who lived with us in Oaxaca. She was a sad woman, Tia Rosa. She had buried three husbands in her long life and she carried all that sadness around with her. By the time she came to live with us, she had this look on her face all the time, the lopsided fake smile of a dog who has never been invited in to lie by the fire.

 

The old woman in the corner made a noise, something between a cough and a laugh, and she stood up. I kept my head down, kept swinging the sledgehammer.

 

She walked past me and her footsteps stopped at the door. If it was locked, we would be trapped down here together. She was standing with her hand on the doorknob and she said, "I'll be back," in a quiet voice. I nodded. Okay. I'll be here. She left the door open as she walked slowly up the stairs, holding the railing the whole time. Water splashed in a sink upstairs, like someone was washing dishes. I was left in a stripe of sunlight, in the fresh quiet.

 

The floor was coming up more easily now. She seemed like a nice woman, and I wanted to help her, but I couldn't. There was nothing I could do but this work in front of me, this floor that needed to be deeper.

 

Outside, the engine of the truck coughed awake. I set the sledgehammer down. I held my breath. It had to be the truck. It struggled and choked like the old truck had, like only an old work truck could.

 

Was the old man leaving me here? If he left I would be stranded in the wrong state. I needed him to take me back to Portland. If I was late I would miss my ride with Uncle Diego and I'd have to walk the whole way home and I would miss dinner and Marisa would be worried. There was only enough change in my pocket for one phone call, but sometimes it was hard to hear the phone and if no one answered I would be stuck and they would not know how to find me.

 

But the front door of the house opened, and the big heavy steps of my boss shook the porch. If he was still here, it must have been Maude that left. He yelled into the street. I couldn't make out the words that he was saying. He came storming down the stairs and to the open basement door.

 

"What the hell is wrong with you?" His lips were covered with spit and the heavy red anger was thick in his eyes. "Did you have somebody follow you here? Where the hell is my truck?”

 

I let go of the sledgehammer, leaned it gently against the wall in front of me. I held my hands up, palms facing the angry man.

 

"I picked you up, I gave you work." His hands were curled in fists at his sides. "I was gonna pay you."

 

My mouth opened but nothing came out. He was standing between me and the door, between me and the stairs. The weight of the basement was heavy around me. He thought I’d somehow stolen his truck, but stayed here to finish the work. There was only one way out, and he was standing in front of it. I didn’t know how to make him understand, how to get myself safely back into that patch of light.

 

"Tu madre," I said.

 

His entire face became red. Tiny bubbles of sweat swelled across his brow.

 

"My what?" he said. "I speak Spanish, you little shit."

 

He took two steps toward me.

 

"No, no," I said. My words stepped all over themselves, got caught between my throat and my teeth. My heart shook underneath my blue work shirt. I stepped back, but the wall was there.

 

"Your mother," I said. "The mother of your wife."

 

I pointed up the stairs.

 

The line of skin between his eyes deepened. "You speak English?" he said.

 

"A little." I swallowed hard, my tongue like wet sand.

 

He spit on the floor as he looked to the corner. The chair sat empty and he turned and he ran up the stairs.

 

"Irene," he yelled. "Your mother stole the goddamn truck."

 

I wasn't sure whether I was supposed to finish the floor or not. I'd broken up a small corner of it already. The sledgehammer was so loud. Upstairs they were running around and opening and shutting drawers. The front door opened and slammed shut several times. Another engine buzzed.

 

With the small shovel I began digging out the soft black dirt I'd uncovered. This was quieter, and I would be able to hear when they came back. They had to come back.

The black earth moved easily. There was golden white sand on the beaches back home, near the house where my grandmother lived, the soft lips of tiny polished rock like marble on my bare feet. It was the kind of sand that was so soft you sank a little when you walked across it and you could push it aside with a lazy brush of your arm. There I would sit on the beach, sinking in the warm sand, drinking a cold drink, smelling the rich meat sizzling on the grill, popping like fireworks. Our family would play in the surf and Marisa would kiss me. We hadn't been swimming in years now. The babies didn't even know how to swim.

 

The back corner of the basement was getting cooler, like a breeze was blowing up from the fresh earth. This dirt hadn't seen air or light in centuries and all of a sudden it was free.

 

The idea was that we'd make enough money to send home, to make it worth it. When the bank closed down we had to do something. I had my wife with me, our kids, my uncle and aunt, some cousins. I could handle the rain and we were pretty safe. But all I did was work, and there never seemed to be quite enough. There were too many days like this, too many crazy people. Marisa was lonely, tired of the days inside for rain. I scraped the shovel against the dirt and pretended it was the sound of far away seagulls and didn't hear her footsteps on the stairs behind me.

 

"Hey," she said. She was so close to my ear, so surprising, that I jumped and almost dropped the shovel.

 

Her face was no longer long and sad. She had red lipstick on and her hair was pulled up in a knot on top of her head.

 

"Come with me," she said. She wrapped her long fingers around the corner of my shirt and tugged. I leaned the shovel against the wall. I couldn't go with her but I couldn't stay here.

 

"Come on," she said. "I'm getting you out of here."

 

I walked behind her, still not sure this was the right thing to do, dragging my feet.  We were getting close to the door.

 

She turned and pulled up the sleeve of her shirt. The arm underneath was swirled with blue and red bruises.

 

"See this? It's not safe here."

 

The red truck was parked against the curb, idling, the engine bubbling like it wanted to die. The driveway in front of the house was empty. Maude opened the passenger door and nodded for me to get in. The seat was cold beneath my jeans.

 

The street in front of us was lined with quiet parked cars. She took forever to walk around the truck. My hands were tight balls in my pockets. I still had time to jump out and run. I didn't know where she was planning to take me. She got in beside me and slammed her door shut.

 

The truck lurched away from the curb and I could feel my heart running races in my chest. If we got pulled over, I would be arrested. They'd say I stole the truck, that I kidnapped this old white woman. I leaned against the back seat and slid down low. I reached around behind me and found the seat belt, pulled it across my chest and clicked it closed.

 

We turned and passed the parking lot, now full of cars. The phone.

 

"Where do you live?" she said. "I'll take you home."

 

"Burnside is okay."

 

"No, no, I'll take you all the way home."

 

Impossible. The truck would never make it through the Sonoran desert.

 

"I live on Burnside," I said.

 

We drove through the rain and across the bridge again. She turned on the radio and hummed to a song I'd never heard before, an achy old jazz song.

 

"How long have you been here?" she said.

 

"One year and a half."

 

Red and blue lights flashed in the rear view mirror and I stopped breathing. This was it. I would lose everything and they would send me back home, where I didn't need anything.

"That's how long I've been here!" she said. She turned on her blinker and moved into the right lane. The cop was still behind us with his flashing lights, and I thought about Marisa and how I would let her know what had happened without telling the police about her. She would follow me home and we would be okay. I would find some other kind of work. We would swim and lie in the sun.

 

"When my husband John died I moved up here to be close to Irene. Ha!" she said. "I thought we would grow berries."

 

The cop flew past us on the left. I took a deep breath and rolled down the window. Rain blew in against my face, cold and wet like tiny needles.

 

"Well, now I'm done," she said. "I'm heading south. As far south as this truck will take me."

 

She drove up to the corner on Burnside. She knew exactly the place.

 

"This is where you live?" she said.

 

She laughed before I could answer. "Go on, get out. Better luck next time."

 

I got out and shut the door behind me, and she drove away laughing, like a crazy person, like a roach drunk on the bright kitchen light.

 

I walked back over to the sidewalk. It was almost lunchtime and the sun was shining high in the sky but the stragglers were still here, still waiting. The old man in the blue shirt was sitting right where I last saw him. "No steak for us today, son," he said. He shook his head, but smiled quietly. He'd seen many days without steak, this was just another one. Ramón and Diego would not be back for hours.

 

I sat down next to him. Maybe another truck would come by. Maybe there would be a good afternoon job. Maybe tomorrow I would wake up and come down here and get picked up by a company truck. No nonsense, a lunch break, dependable money.

"No, there is no steak here," I said. "But do you know where they have the best steak in the world?"

 

He leaned back against the fence and crossed his arms across his knees and closed his eyes as I told him about steaks back home, the carne asada they sold from a small cart on the beach. The soft hiss of the grill, the onions that looked and tasted like caramel.  His lids were heavy and he looked like he was almost asleep. A slow smile crept across his face like a lazy wave.

 

"I think I know the place," he said. "Is there also a woman who comes by with fresh hot tortillas?"

 

"Yes," I said. "A woman with tortillas and a girl with slices of pineapple." A truck turned the corner toward us and the men standing around us stepped toward the curb. I put my hand on the old man's shoulder and we let them move without us. His eyes were still closed and he smiled again and said “And what about the music? I can almost hear the singing of the guitar.”

 

 

**

 

Mary Milstead is a native Texan now living in the beautiful wet

Pacific Northwest. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in

Southern Hum and The Intentional Ducati. She is a student of the

Dangerous Writing Workshop in Portland, Oregon and attended the Tin

House Summer Workshop in 2006.

 

 

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