I’m learning to listen to the stories as they want to tell themselves: I know that sounds odd, but it comes from years of listening to my mother’s stories and only now realizing that I haven’t been fully understanding them. Most of my recent fiction has come from delving again into the stories she has told me, particularly of the deportation years, as I call them, when my father was repeatedly sent back to Mexico before the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act changed our lives and many of those in our Central Valley town of Dinuba, California. I used to think that my parents’ reunification was the only story but, as the first line proved to me, sometimes other pressures took over. When that line came to me, it snapped me out of my recurrent doubt that the “domestic” or the “realist” story can’t do much in a fraught and complicated world. It reminded me that the infinite ways in which we struggle to keep or make family is more than story enough.Manuel Muñoz, Contributor Note
It’s all in the details: the choices of which perceptions to present, which details to leave vague, what language to use, and bang! Muñoz creates a sense of caution and foreboding deeper than the mere plot might allow to explore the conflict between suspicion and need.
The first sentence referenced above is “Her immediate concern was money.” Even before we have any idea who she is or where/when this is taking place or what the circumstances are – it could be a recent widow in a Park Avenue penthouse or a noisy tenement, or a suburban teen planning to run away from home, or a business manager who just lost her job – we are all familiar with money problems, so we can feel an immediate sense of affinity with the protagonist, some empathy for what she’s feeling, even if it turns out her concern is losing the vacation home on the beach rather than having nothing to give her kids for dinner that night. And something else besides: we know there are other concerns, behind this first, most immediate concern. This is not a make-it-til-payday crisis; this is deep shit.
When the street fell silent at dusk, the screen doors of the dark houses opened one by one and the shadows of the women came to sit out on the concrete steps.
We soon get the setting: Delfina, and the other women of the neighborhood in agricultural California, have realized their husbands aren’t coming home from the fields tonight, which means they’ve been rounded up in an immigration raid and might not be home for days – or ever. I didn’t realize, until I read Doerr’s brief comment in the volume Introduction, that this was set back in the 80s, the time of the stories Muñoz’ mother told him. It’s hard to read anything about immigrants right now without referencing current events; I’m not sure there’s much of a difference in any case.
She was alert to her own worry, to be sure, but she felt a resolve that seemed absent in the women putting out last cigarettes and retreating behind the screen doors.…The longer she held her place on her front steps, the stronger she felt.
We don’t know a few key details, details that may be part of the current moment or just as much part of the 80s. We don’t know how precarious anyone’s immigration status actually is. We don’t hear about green cards or citizenship. Delfina defines herself as being “from Texas”, an identity borne out by her car’s license plate, which seems deliberately nonspecific. It’s understandable she doesn’t discuss details with her neighbor Lis, whom she’s just met, but it’s a writer’s choice to not inform the reader. This accomplishes a couple of things: without a way to easily categorize, therefore judge or pity, the family, it strips away some of the tendency to read politically, and keeps us focused on a woman whose husband is, for an uncertain period, gone. And it keeps us wondering about the source of this sense of resolve.
Wariness best defines the interaction between Delfina and Lis; they come across as two boxers in a ring, sussing out the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. Delfina is nobody’s fool; “On the long drive from Texas, she had learned that strangers only approached when they needed something.” This emphasizes that, although they are physically neighbors, they are strangers. This is not a cozy neighborhood where someone drops in for coffee or you can ask someone to keep an eye on your kid while you run to the store.
Lis twanged my antennae from the get-go; I’m surprised Delfina doesn’t cut her off and go back inside, and that has to mean something. We already know she’s not naïve; maybe desperation? A willingness to entertain suggestions so she can feed her four year old son? Maybe even a longing for the kind of relationship that would entail neighborliness, a willingness to see if that’s possible. But still, the caution.
Lis suggests they go pick peaches for some quick cash. She offers her ten-year-old daughter as babysitter for Delfina’s son – “if you trust her.” She says this trust thing twice, which had me screaming, “No, don’t go!” It’s almost a dare, isn’t it. You mean you don’t trust my kid? In the meantime, there’s the whole issue of trusting Lis.
And, surprise surprise, Lis earns all the wariness, and then some.
Delfina looked down the road to soak in that blessed quiet and the longer she looked, the emptier and emptier it became. The empty row where, she realized, Lis had disappeared like a faraway star.
The language here emphasizes Delfina’s solitude again. No man is an island, but a woman often is. And yet she must depend on the kindness of strangers, a kindness that, as I read, I doubted. I kept waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under me. The surprise is that it wasn’t, that sometimes, kindness, even from a surprising source, is kindness, not a trick. Her gratitude and relief takes the form of a bottle of Coca Cola.
When I read Jake Weber’s post, I found a lot to chew on, so I’m gonna go over there for a while. I think this story worked – where others have failed – because it kept me focused on exactly what Muñoz intended per his CN: how we make a family, whether on Park Avenue, Maple Street, or the dusty edges of the fields.