. . . bunch, bind, stack, cut, but not the hands . . .
Endless routine produces endless sound; voices in la fábrica fade upward, disperse, incline to echo.
You’re from San Miguel de las Rosas . . .
. . . de las rosas . . .
Rosa glances at her coworker, at her work, nods, braces for the question.
Has anyone got work?
. . . work . . .
Only in heaven.
Compose yourself. Keep your eyes open. Rubber gloves help. Hinder. A centimeter of rubber between you and . . .
What’s up there anyway? The echo. The clock. Never-ending . . .
Ten meters up to the beams, more to sheet metal. No heat. Girls in watch caps, wool. Girls who will always be girls. Muchachas, meters apart, like Rosa . . . like Maria and Alexandra and Gloria . . . steady dead feet on dead stems, dead stems on concrete colder than the cold hands of love after cold work.
Las muchachas know: something takes hold of all who stand and push and pull or cut, grasps ankles, knees, the small of the back . . . carves you into something slighter, whittles you down, down . . . maybe, in the end, lets you up.
And so, at long last, you take wing, soar past San Miguel and all the other saints, but for now . . .
. . . standardize buds, stems . . . sort by color, size, length . . . bunch by la docena . . . pile for pickup right . . . leave room for the next load left . . .
Outside, to keep intruders out, or las muchachas in, stands an armed guard.
Rosa braces, shifts, braces, eyes the clock, readies herself for the soap playing behind her eyes, between her ears: the daily, hourly telenovela . . .
An overdressed Jesús strolls toward the camera. His overpowered troca, the gleaming eight cylinder Lobo, follows at heel. Innumerable speakers quake to his command. Music he does not really like shakes the windows, shudders the walls. Jesús tilts his head, observes Rosa, the working girl at work, shape contoured by lineage. Form and figure.
And of the self: disposition, promise. Rosa, walking out, would be . . .
Even when hands flail the air in search of one he wants, hands soft as money, hands his mother would not want to see calloused, Jesús cannot always find the word, the word Rosa must, eventually, listen to even as Jesús listens to his mother’s.
Must you always . . . work?
My family . . .
Your family? You’re another . . . generation.
Since my father . . .
Since your father worked himself . . . to death, you’re the . . . the man.
I’m the woman.
Jesús tunes his refrain, sings not the eternal, but the new, speaks of . . .
Jesús’s breeding will not let him mention skin red as roses, nails stemmed and thorny, fingers that could break yours. Jesús’s mother has small white hands with which to cross herself; hands that, for whatever reason, do not offer to take yours.
All know stories of injury, mutilation. Disfigurement.
Rosa is tired of talk, tired of being tired. Rosa relies upon composure, temperament, qualities which serve at work, which steady when work is done, when Jesús will try again. After hours, the big black Lobo idles outside, Jesús inside, primed. Ready.
Only fear of cutters, shears, forces la telenovela de la troca from Rosa’s head, keeps her eyes open. All know stories of injury, mutilation.
Rosa wouldn’t be first. Or last.
A girl with three fingers on one hand, two on the other . . . What kind of prometida would she make? Of novia? Esposa? What husband would want to watch claws claw the table; wonder how the salsa would be snatched this time, the tortillas grabbed; would like to feel pincers slipping down his belly?
Rosa nods, blinks, nods. Severed fingers wriggle in the rosebuds. White worms of love and death writhe and couple. Rosa winces, widens her eyes.
The hand of management may be unseen but breaks must be accounted for, productivity reckoned.
Rosa weighs a chain of interchangeable days, an infinity of finite segments. Reflects. Thinks. Do her flowers suffer cutting, binding, arrangement, only to have former classmates slip stories through, around; stories of girls de la secundaria who, instead of resting their wrists on glass . . . glass set with a simple centerpiece to offset their charms . . . went to work?
Lost a hand.
She’ll never get a man.
Not with that stump.
Hope she doesn’t lose the other.
Silken señoritas double and hoot, ogle each other through blossoms, blossoms bowing low as unpaid servants.
It’s not true.
You . . . ! That’s not funny.
How . . . ?
You made it up.
Las señoritas don’t have to be happy as grandmothers to cackle at the less fortunate, pleased as mothers to crow over their heads.
. . . cut, discard, bunch, bind, stack, cut . . .
Rosa mouths the invocation that requires no hands, no fingertips; a rosario, not for any bed of roses, merely the appeal of everyman, every woman, who works: not for intervention. Something simpler. Basic.
Space in which to take a breath, make up a mind.
Rosa will never sneer for toothy snapshots, small talk with the flower of her generation. She will do what needs to be done.
. . . cut . . . eye the clock . . . cut . . .
Rosa intones her supplications, wonders who the patron saint of rose-cutters must be, asks in as few words as possible if . . . if . . .
. . . in a world where nothing outweighs must and have to . . .
. . . some opportunity, if only a chance, might, possibly . . .
But work. Don’t forget. Watch the clock. Work.
When Rosa and San Miguel finally meet, will he say those who have to work ought never forget it? Anything else is seduction and lure.
If the saint holds the scales of judgment high, he holds his sword higher. If Rosa, the worker, is found wanting, what then? San Miguel rustles his skirts, shifts his foot on the demon of need, the dragon of wealth. Flattens, crushes. Rosa watches as flames of hell roast leathery wings, wonders what the consecrated one has in mind for her, what Jesús’s mother is mumbling beside her prayers. Rosa, the resilient, tunes in the soap, hears once more, the urgings of the young man who might one day, if not quite miraculously, be hers.
Haven’t you had enough?
. . . enough . . .
Isn’t it time to. . . ?
. . . to . . .
Of a night in the half-light of the overpowered troca, a young man’s eyes pause upon the hands of a girl who might one day be his.
For now, Rosa, glancing upwards, gives thanks for . . .
Even if ones she cuts are not destined to grace casas where wall and roof don’t quite meet, where winds of want blow above, beneath—or through—the door. Casas on the edge. Casas nevertheless blessed. With color. Movement nursed from cuttings borrowed. Cuttings found.
Casas Rosa pictures as she cuts, when her ears let go of el monólogo de la troca, the Lobo with honed hubs, hubs to take your toes off if you stand too close, spinning blades of chrome long after Jesús pulls to a stop outside la fábrica. Or down in the dark of the hollow he’s parked her in. Hubs spinning as Jesús entreats, implores; accompaniment to the voice that is accompaniment to them, to hands that, unlike words, wander over workplace clothes without hesitation.
Meanwhile. In the interim.
Por el momento.
. . . cut . . . discard, bunch, bind, stack . . . cut . . .
Gather. Gather God’s gift to the poor. Give.
Rosa knows, behind his belt buckle and his boots, Jesús is better than his hubcaps. One day the fiend of fashion will let him go, the words of his mamá will lose their weight, fall to the floor. Somewhere, inside Jesús, the inner Jesús wants the best, the very best, for Rosa. As Rosa knows, inside her and never venturing out, certainly not as advice, as counsel, she wants the very best for him.
In sleep, Rosa wonders what gnaws, chews, her fingertips. Nothing deadens the stab at the base of the thumb. A stab to remind that Maria’s and Alexandra’s and Gloria’s . . . that a hundred hands, gnawed, chewed, stabbed . . . might jump at the same hour of the night.
In sleep, petals fall soundlessly, veil, cloak, entomb, and inter. Petals soft as her innermost self, petals to cover and conceal, shroud, no matter which way Rosa lies, working hands cupped over mouth and nose; shielding space that is hers, hers alone. Petals blood red even in the dark.
In sleep, Rosa turns, turns, turns again in a soft, suffocating mound that suffers no intercession, brooks no relief. Petals San Miguel may have scattered but will never catch. Short shallow breaths no saint will help her take.
Some roses, Rosa knows, fuller than others, apparently suitable, desirable, prove, when handled, more fragile, more delicate; from them petals must, one by one, be pulled, discarded.
Roses of the night, Rosa concludes, are black: a rosary is a plot of earth.
And still, Jesús waits behind the wheel to caution, counsel, question the wages of her toil. To suggest . . .
When words will not come to him, Jesús lurches the Lobo out of the chance view of señoritas who would not be caught dead in the weeds, flowers de la clase media. Lurches down in the hollow of nobody’s dreams. Stops, turns, touches that which he cannot help but touch. The sculpted shape. The carven form.
Jesús likes breasts soft as lips, lips soft as breasts. Jesús plucks the platform that so well serves the hours of the workday, the days of the workweek.
Hurrying hands run into Rosa’s. Jesús stops. Stares.
Is he considering the final assault, forearm under the chin, hand wrenching wool, dragging denim, clawing cotton? Or recalling some advisory he failed to issue on the way down?
To a soul on a seldom traveled road. Budding Rosa. Rosa of possibility. Promise. A young, if weary woman, a woman ready, on her own, to reach.
Working fingers, though hardened, bent, take action, work their way across a thigh . . .
Jesús, heeding some cry only he can hear, some voice right there in the truck, turns. Turns away. Rosa’s question soft as her invisible soul.
Why . . . ?
Jesús’s answer softer still.
I’ve climbed trees, I’ve hung from branches, softer than . . .
Why this half sentence cuts deeper Rosa may never know.
Without warning the hands of the clock that floats above her workstation pause upon the phrase Jesús cannot . . . or is kind enough not to . . . to finish. Without warning they reverse, accelerate, spin as if they would take your hands, leave them lying at your feet.
Composure departs, temperament fails. Rosa throws herself against the door, tumbles out, bends in, murmurs as softly as her forlorn and not quite lover; her guide to another landscape, another life, the next.
You think when I can sit I want to hear what’s wrong? Go back to your soft white señoritas leaning on tables, your . . .
Even as she speaks, Rosa knows she will never see Jesús step out from behind his belt buckle; that Jesús will never see Rosa bang out of la fábrica, leave las muchachas awed, the armed guard taken aback.
El Lobo spews dirt, rock, bumps up onto the road as Jesús slams the door; dust settles round Rosa, night opens above.
Night in which Rosa finds her way home, kneels to the knowledge that whatever was or wasn’t, isn’t, will never be.
A soft bouquet tickles the throat, flowers the branches of the lungs. Hands joined since childhood turn from each other, oddly repelled.
Neither request nor response comes to Rosa.
Except for petals Rosa must not dislodge, that will be tallied, counted against her, Rosa’s mind is empty. Whatever rises, rises unacknowledged. Something else, half infernal, half spinning of the spheres, resounds. Something beyond routine, if only reverberation rising to echo; if only the half-heard soap behind the eyes, between the ears . . .
If only la telenovela of possibility.
No need to become a notary, some underemployed professional. It’s up…
. . . to me . . .
The only way out is . . .
. . . out . . .
Maybe Maria and Alexandra and Gloria were made for this, not . . .
. . . not me . . .
No need to give . . .
. . . notice . . .
No one’s surprised when nobody shows, not at . . .
Not at those wages.
Not even if there’s nothing else.
Rosa’s sure: a devoted Jesús, somewhere on the road to somewhere else, is reconsidering, looking for a place to turn around, return.
Even if he isn’t, Rosa, half rising, more than half resolves to reconsider what has been said, to, somehow, listen to the man who isn’t there, and yet…
Eyes that will not close tonight will not stay open tomorrow. Feet will falter on a pile of stems; the garland of the future waver; el rosario of the mind drop; cutters, shears, unbidden, move by themselves.
No one remarks the silence.
Maria and Alexandra and Gloria note no cessation of movement, stand on their own stacked stems, clutch bouquets of their own, watch, or fail to watch, their own rough hands.
Michael McGuire is the author of a short story collection, The Ice Forest (Marlboro Press), named one of the “best books of the year” by Publisher’s Weekly. His stories have appeared in The Paris Review, The Hudson Review, New Directions in Prose & Poetry, and elsewhere. His plays have been produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Mark Taper Forum of Los Angeles, and at other theatres. They are published by Broadway Play Publishing.
Stripping Away the Sorrows From This World by Jesús Gardea, a master of the short story and an underappreciated writer of the border. He survived for years as a dentist in Ciudad Juá rez. When I went to meet him, I learned he had recently collapsed and died in the street in Mexico City while seeking funds to continue his work as a writer.
Homepage photo by Jesse Garrison