Work in Progress
My novel-in-progress, Fault Lines, is set in a fictitious Latin American country in the 1980s. Peggy, an American housewife, travels to Santa María to search for a dear friend who has gone missing in the country's civil war. Along the way she picks up two hitchhikers: Jewel, a young Santa Marían who has been separated from her family in a terrible accident, and Nicky, an American who has come to Santa María on a suicide quest. As they journey together, their separate missions intertwine, and they come to help each other understand, and repair, the fault lines in their lives.
The taxista, a round black man, studied Margaret's face when she told him the address. “You don't have any business on the Calle de la Esperanza, señora. It can't be.”
His Spanish was a blur, nothing like the carefully enunciated sentences on the language learning tapes Margaret had been listening to at home. Confused, Margaret showed him the envelope containing María's last letter. “Busco a una amiga. I'm looking for a friend,” she explained.
The cabby looked dubious. “American lady?”
“Me? Canadian,” Margaret lied. Richard had directed her never to tell anyone she was American, because people in other countries hated Americans.
“Look,” the cab driver said. “It's not a good idea. First time in CMD? You been around to see the sights? I'll take you to see the sights.”
“Por favor,” said Margaret.
The cabbie looked at her, then looked away. Then he said, “I am going to stay right there and wait for you, and bring you back here again when you're done with your friend. Yes?”
“Thank you so much.”
Glad to find her so sensible, the cabbie helped Margaret into her seat and then peeled away from the curb and zoomed up to the next stop light. Margaret clutched the back of the seat in front of her to steady herself.
“Not to worry!” the cab driver cried with a hearty laugh. “I've been driving since I was twelve! You're in good hands!” As soon as the intersection was clear of oncoming traffic, but before the light had turned green, he tramped on the gas and they sped ahead. “So, your husband lets you travel by yourself?”
Margaret fingered the damp letter in her lap. She knew what was coming; the driver wanted to find out if she was single. The last thing Richard had said to her before she boarded her plane to Miami was, “Stay away from Latin men,” although how she might do that in a country in Latin America, he did not elucidate.
“He's foolish,” the cab driver told her, “to let you out of his sight.”
Margaret must have looked alarmed, because when he caught her eye in the rearview mirror he burst out laughing again. “Don't worry, señora! You don't have to worry about Ramón. I have been married 23 years, and I have never been unfaithful, not even once! I adore my wife!”
Traffic had come to a standstill due to some obstacle ahead they could not see. Ramón laid into his horn with the fat palm of his hand and then, when the line of cars in front of him did not budge, cried gaily, “Crazy fucking drivers!” and pulled the cab up onto the adjacent sidewalk. Pedestrians and sidewalk merchants stepped out of his way, and he bumped down off the curb and into the street again at the end of the block, swinging into his lane just ahead of the cars he had bypassed.
Margaret was used to city sprawl and long driving distances, but CMD, Ciudad Madre Dolorosa, was like nothing she'd ever seen before: cramped, crowded with drivers, dirty and disheveled. So many people were getting around on foot that she could hardly believe the taxi could proceed without flattening a pedestrian, and Ramón treated traffic signals as mere suggestions. By the sides of the road lay piles of refuse. Margaret saw many people in shabby clothes, looking, themselves, worse for the wear. She realized she hadn't thought much about Santa María being a “poor” country, or what “poor” meant. She had a few mental images of poverty from, for examples, magazine ads for Save the Children. She'd somehow always imagined those children to be few and far between, unfortunate individuals who had met with an uncommon degree of misfortune. Yet here was a whole city full of people with the shabby clothing, the tangled hair, the worn-down posture and expressions of the children in those ads. Margaret was disconcerted and confused.
They drove quite a long distance through streets like these. Margaret wanted to ask Ramón to explain the poor people to her, but she couldn't think of what to say. It wasn't a language problem—she could Lego together reasonable sentences in Spanish—but a conceptual one. The city baffled her, but she didn't know how to ask for an explanation.
The letter in her lap was María's last, and bore a postmark that was almost two years old. It was addressed to “Dearest Pegui” and was cryptic regarding María's reasoning. “I take up pen and paper,” the letter said, “and write to you with affectionate thoughts, sending my warmest greetings to you and to each of your beautiful sisters, to your mother and also to your husband. My hope is that this letter finds every one of you well and happy. This is my most heartfelt wish.
“I am writing to you now to tell you that I will not any longer live in La Hacha. There has always been a lot of activity there and we have always managed. But today there is too much activity, it is no longer possible for an honest person to manage. My family and I have taken the decision to move ourselves to another city. We now are living in the city of Ciudad Madre Dolorosa in the department of Bolivar. I do not like to move myself but it is better this way. We will find work and there will not be so much activity.”
At first Margaret thought the letter's vagueness owed to the strange state of María's written English. But later she had other thoughts. La Hacha was a border town, close to Venezuela, and a port town, accessible to the whole Caribbean. It was a good spot for smuggling things in and out of the country, including cocaine. Maybe, too, there were guerrilla fighters in the area now. The American newspapers were full of reports of cocaine trafficking and armed resistance in Santa María; in fact, newspaper reports from Santa María rarely reported anything else.
“I must end this letter now with thoughts of love and with prayers for you and all your beautiful family. It is my most fervent wish that you be satisfied in your life. I entrust you to the hands of the Holy Mother. Always your good friend, María de la Paz Perez de Lopez, your María, your Pacita.”
María was in trouble. There could be no other explanation for her long silence. But it had taken Margaret months, months of pleading, months of bargaining, to convince Richard to let her make the trip to look for her María, her Pacita. (María's name was an affectionate family joke, because, “Pacita” --“little peace”--was a homophone of “Pasita,”--“little raisin.” And a small, dear, brown little raisin of a woman she was). María de la Paz had been more of a mother to Margaret than Mrs. McClellan had ever managed to be, and she had brought some measure of peace to Margaret's flawed childhood. After the years of selfless nannying that she had given Margaret and her sisters, Margaret could not abandon her now.
After the better part of an hour of bumpy, lurching driving, they entered a barrio where the dwellings seemed to have been made by hand, brick by brick, inexpertly mortared, with roofs of corrugated tin. Sometimes the tin didn't cover the whole house. It left a gap—to let smoke out, to let rain in. Houses here did not line the street in neat rows; they were crammed together wherever there was space for one. In an earthquake there'd be trouble, Margaret thought. The houses sat in a jumble on the steep slopes of a hill that could easily become a landslide. Why would people put houses here? she thought.
Ramón turned and started up a little hill. The pavement abruptly came to an end, and his taxi wheels spun in the mud. “Es puro lodo,” he said here. Nothing but mud. “I'm sorry, señora. The car won't make it. We'll have to walk.”
Ramón motioned for Margaret to show him her envelope again. Margaret was relieved. She didn't think she'd be able to find the house on her own. She didn't really even conceive of these buildings as houses. They looked more like tool sheds to her.
“Watch your step.”
It had been raining in the days before Margaret's arrival, and the unpaved Callejón de la Esperanza was a mess. Margaret stepped over the wettest places. Ramón spoke to people as they stepped up the hill, in his rapid-fire way, and they waved him in the proper direction. At last he stopped and gestured at a door.
Margaret knocked, but when a man came to the door, she found suddenly that she didn't know what to say. She had never met María's husband, and was trying to gauge if the fellow standing before her were the right age to be him. Margaret could not connect the hovel, with its makeshift construction and its door facing a dark gap between it and the house next to door, to María.
“Number six?” Ramón asked.
“The lady is looking for someone.”
Margaret emerged from her fog then and stated María's full name.
The neighbor was dressed in a tight-fitting t-shirt that didn't fully cover his hairy stomach, and very worn pants and house slippers. The Lopezes didn't live here, he said, but he did remember María and her husband and child and others in their family. He invited Margaret and Ramón inside. “The Lopezes couldn't stay here. They moved to, a ver, they moved to ...”
“Lamentación!” shouted a woman's voice from the other room, the only other room, Margaret could see, in that house. A towel hung in the doorway between the two rooms. She glanced around. The floor was of hard-packed dirt, swept clean. The concrete-block walls of the front room were painted robin's egg blue, and in the center of the main wall hung a shrine, about the size of a birdhouse, made of scrap lumber, with an image pasted inside. Margaret had noticed two or three such shrines since she'd arrived in CMD, on the exterior walls of houses and, once, mounted atop the cash register in a supermarket. At first she had not recognized the image inside, of a round, brown woman, small but sturdy, often holding something in her hands: yuquicas, or a water bucket.
“No, old woman!” the neighbor shouted to his wife behind the towel. “They were from Lamentación! From!”
“They-were-going-back-to-Lamentación!” the wife shouted back, with the succinct phrasing of someone who has to spell a thing out to an idiot. “They were going home. Don't listen to him,” she shouted, apparently to Margaret, although the shouter couldn't see her visitors. “He doesn't know what he's saying.”
The husband shrugged at Margaret; would they like a gaseosa? He pushed the towel aside and reached into the other room. Ramón accepted a bottle of bright red soda pop, but Margaret shook her head.
She and Ramón took the only two chairs in the house, next to the only window, and made small talk with the man in house slippers for a few minutes. She was surprised at his invitation, since they had nothing more to discuss. His wife appeared from behind the towel. The Lopezes, she said, were the people “from before us,” she said. She got a little fire going, with scrap wood and scrap paper, in a metal grill. There was no chimney; the smoke rose and escaped through a square cut out of the corrugated tin roof.
So Margaret's one lead to her missing friend's whereabouts had led quickly to a dead end. Her heart sank: she would have to leave the capital city, with its dolorous name, to go looking for María—journeying to an even more remote and sorrowful-sounding place, and with even less likelihood of success.