He says he walked forty miles through a black desert full of mysterious cacti and broken glass and empty bottles in order to get here. He says that by the tenth mile there was no water and he thought he would die.…The land ahead of him began to remind him of a sky. Especially at night. He says he yelled words in Spanish, which are hard for him to translate into English. But, they went something like this: “BREAK ME IN AND OUT! He says he stared at the mass of land and sky and yelled “BREAK ME IN AND OUT!” (in Spanish) to God over and over, and that is why he lived and that is why he lights the candles now.
Kids and parents often live in different universes. When I was seven, I desperately wanted a quarter to buy Big Red at the school book fair. My father said no: “Books! You’ve got plenty of books.” I was ashamed of both my want, and my greed. We weren’t anywhere near poor; he was President of Dictograph Electronics, we lived in a rural Connecticut niche upscale of Westport. It wasn’t until much later I realized my father had other things on his mind: my mother’s cancer, and the discovery of embezzlement by the treasurer of his company (and a friend, someone he’d personally placed in the job). We were in different universes.
Toby and her mom are in different universes. In Mom’s universe, she’s cleaning houses all day, and trying to stretch three chicken breasts a week between her and her two kids with a lot of ramen, and worrying about her ten-year-old daughter too-frequently visiting the illegal alien down the hall. But all Toby sees is the upcoming Reptile Show, with its star attraction: the monitor lizard.
Monitors are my favorite animal – enormous, iguana-looking creatures with pointed spikes along their spines and sharp-slithering tongues. They seem slow and lazy, but once they start running nobody can catch them. If attacked, they use their swinging tails as a weapon. They’re also geniuses and can count to six. I’m not sure if they count on their fingers or if they thump their feet like horses. If I had a pet monitor I’d let it stay wild. I’d take it out to the desert. I’d teach it to count higher than six.
Toby makes a deal with her mom: she’ll stay away from Edilio for the month until the Reptile Show, and her mom will take her. At least, Toby thinks that’s the deal. It’s a hard deal, especially when there’s no food in the pantry, but Edilio, for all the suspicion Mom throws his way, surreptitiously feeds Toby leftover Chinese food even though his nasty girlfriend tells him not to.
Toby knows a lot about poverty, though she hasn’t quite figured out truth yet.
Steam from the noodles has fogged the window above the sink. A crack runs sideways between two corners. It has been that way for a while. When it rains, water beads along the crack and then trails down inside the window. My mom called the landlord. She said that’s why we rent. So we don’t have to fix things ourselves. But the landlord hasn’t come. And the crack is still there.
This little girl seems to understand the limitations of her world:
The red carpet is coming up so the cracked tiles show through underneath. I press a foot down over the curled fabric as hard as I can. I release my foot and the fabric pops up. There is no fixing that.
This reminds me of an image from Marc Watkins’s “Two Midnights in a Jug“: “Her bare feet touch cold linoleum beneath her bed, some of the tile edges curl upwards till their ends make a knife of plastic. She walks to the kitchen, avoiding the painful tiles, without looking….” As did Watkins, Gray effectively uses the mundane details of Toby’s life – the curled carpet, the cracked window – to link to the thematic exploration.
In her One Story Q&A, Gray explains that the characters of Toby and Edilio arrived to her “as a pair” and turned the story from a light fun piece to something with more depth. I’m glad they led her where they did.
As for the Reptile Show and the monitor lizard… well, Toby learns more about the limitations of truth, and that justice doesn’t always happen. At least not on an obvious timeline. But somehow, from the way she’s written, I just know she’s going to make it through her desert, and she’ll light a candle on the other side.
Addendum: About the Art –
I started with monitor lizards, of course. But the photos I found were uninspiring, not good enough for this story.
So I started searching for things like “man crossing desert” and this ended up buried deep in the results. I had no idea what it was, but I got the impression of Emilio shouting, “BREAK ME IN AND OUT!” and little Toby standing behind him, listening and learning about how to get through a desert. Turns out, it’s a snow sculpture from 21st International Snow Sculpting Championships in Breckenridge, Colorado, run by, sadly, a real estate developer trying to coax people to move there by providing fun and games. But the accomplishment of Team USA/Vermont still intrigued me. This isn’t the first time I’ve swapped sand and snow; the photo for the Harry Crews essay “We Are All of Us Passing Through” is sand that looks like snow, so I was happy to reverse the process. Then I read the text explanation of the sculpture, titled “Marco!” provided by Team USA/Vermont:
One child is emerging from the water nearby to another in a game of Marco Polo. The entomology of the game has its roots in the Venetian explorer, but the origin of the game is hard to pinpoint. This excerpt from Marco Polo’s diary provides a clue – he writes about crossing an expanse of desert – “When a man is riding by night through this desert and something happens to make him loiter and lose touch with his companions, and afterwards he wants to rejoin them, he then hears spirits talking in such a way that they seem to be his companions. Sometimes they even [hail] him by name.”
This fit so perfectly with Gray’s story, I felt I had been led to it.