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  • The Western Exposure is Always Brightest in the Final Hours before the Sunset


    Dear Lino, I know we haven’t talked in a long time but I have something to tell you.  No, everything is fine, but I’ve been busy. Let me tell you what I’ve been doing—the herculean labors this old woman of yours has endured.

    It all began with the rain. Yes, rain. It rained like it hasn’t rain in decades around here and more than I’ve ever seen. Yeah, I agree, global warming. Anyway, the rain began with one long thunderous crack, erupting like a tear in the fabric of the sky, a rip that cast down million and millions of fat rain drops.

    It rained without end. It began after the first red streaks of light on the horizon while I was feeding the chickens and didn’t end, I think, until long after I crawled into bed. Let me tell you it’s hard to fall asleep when it rains and thunders that much. The whole day was dark, and windy and the rain blew into my eyes when every step I took when I stepped outside to gather some eggs. A bad feeling descended over me, one I couldn’t shake for anything.

    What do you say, oh yes, the Pecos. Yes, it flooded, dear. So come the next morning the rain had stopped. It was beautiful. The sun was warm and a gentle wind stirred the weeds that I knew now would finally flower. I walked the property to gauge the storm damage.

    You know, storm damage here is nothing like what I saw when I was a girl in Iowa. There the winds can knock down whole trees that smash houses. So at first I didn’t expect to find much, and didn’t and then I thought about the Pecos, what if it…and I ran as fast as my old, arthritic legs would allow down to the muddy banks.

    I dropped to my knees when I got there. The Pecos was flooded way over its banks, what we would call a stream in Iowa had become a raging river as wide as our adobe and filled with swift brown current surging downstream with a splashing roar. Yes, Lino, worst, of all it carried away… everything, a good chuck of our property was washed away, including yes, our baby’s, our dear, sweet baby’s grave. Cried?  Yes, like the rain that created the flood.

    In mere days, after the waters receded leaving vast tracts of mud, and downed large and small cacti and the occasional old dried piece of wood, I began moving rocks from the other side of the river to our side. Why? To make a flood wall. I thought I can’t let this can’t happen again.

    There were so many rocks on the other side. And not just brown and white rock either, no. There were red ones, blue ones, and even pink ones with black streaks. Its hard work wadding across the Pecos. Lino, it’s back to normal now but at first the water was a muddy brown, and deep, up to my thighs and cold too despite the desert heat.

    Once I got across the river, I picked out a rock I thought I could carry back and then without the slightest hesitation I began the dam. Oh, dear, you don’t have to say that—I always know when you’re proud of me. Sometimes, I could carry a rock all the way across without stopping—if it wasn’t too heavy that is, but after two hours of carrying and stacking the rock, making sure they fit securely together I sometimes had to stop midway across the Pecos. Sometimes I worry what might be in the water flowing around me. Then, I think of you. You never backed down from anything in life, did you?

    Am I finished yet? No, not by a long shot. There’s still plenty to do but I’ve made great progress and hope I can finish the flood wall before spring arrives, bringing the greatest chance of flooding again. I think the damn will be complete in time and it will be a thing of beauty too with all those colorful rocks and functional. It will keep the water where it belongs.

    Lino, dear, there is something I have to tell you, though. Are you listening?  I put down another gravel marker for our child, our son Jara.  It lies much father back from the Pecos.  Not in a million years could the Pecos flood that high. Our boy is safe there—or at least his marker is.  I don’t like to think about where he is now. Somewhere far away.

    The day they carted in his new tombstone and stuck it in the ground made me think about our baby in a way I hadn’t thought about in decades. I remembered the dark curls of his hair—something like yours—and his light brown eyes—a mixture of the colors of ours I always thought. And then I remembered the story I knew I now had to tell you, the story I have hidden for so long now, but can no longer hide.

    It happened while you were overseas during the War. One day, I drove the thirty miles to the nearest town for my monthly grocery shopping. After I finished shopping, I decide to step into a salon for a cool drink, just a short one, mind you. So there I was at my table drinking my beer in peace when a stranger sat down at my table. He was an older gentlemen—too old for the draft I surmised. He offered to buy me a round.  At first, I declined and told him my property and the animals couldn’t take care of themselves. Hell, you know, I can’t even the leave the property over night for fear of thieves—those mostly harmless, good for nothing brothers that live down the road a piece, you know the ones, I think, stole my old, favorite stove.

    Anyway, the older man, Sam, he said his name was, tipped his hat and sat back at the bar.  That should have been the end of it, Lino, but it wasn’t. Maybe it was the way his teeth shined when he smiled or the way his eyes glistened when he looked at me but I decide to take him up on his offer. He bought me another beer and we talked. He said he owned a ranch not far from town and came in to town today for feed and libations. His moustache had just the smallest hints of snow in it. I never told him I was married or that you were overseas. I don’t think I had to, Lino, I think, he knew the score already. In those days, with the war going on, it was the same everywhere. Wives got lonely without their husbands.

    I didn’t know where you were exactly? Where were you Lino? That day? Someplace in Germany or France. Even though, we were winning the War, I knew a lot of boys who died in the War and sometimes I thought I would never see you again, and your letters were getting farther and farther apart as the War dragged on.  I didn’t know what to think really.

    After our drink together, Sam, bought me supper at a nice restaurant down the street, Emilio’s. He was a widower.  His wife had died of tuberculosis years ago and his children had grown up and moved away. He was like me, alone in the world, perhaps even lonelier than I was, though, and yes he was charming and kind and thoughtful, but with a streak of melancholy in his soul that bubbled up when he talked about his wife. It made me think of you dying overseas, face down in the mud, a bullet in your heart. It made me drink too much and before I knew it, it was dark and he offered to put me up for the night and I thought why take a chance of driving home, why not avoid the danger of all those long, twisting roads at night, especially in my condition. It was with real gratitude that I took him up on the offer and told him to not to expect any hanky-panky and he didn’t, and I slept just like a baby that night in his guest room.

    The next morning I woke up early, while Sam was still asleep, and I was already in the car, starting it up when he came running over to the car and invited me to have some bacon and eggs and coffee.  At first, I made my excuses, the property, the animals, but when I saw the disappointment in his eyes, I relented. We sat at the dining room table, I can still feel the warm sunlight on my back from his kitchen window. He told me how much he loved his ranch and wouldn’t trade his life on it for anything in the world, and felt his beef was a real contribution to the war effort. He proudly said he was doing his part.  As for me, I told him my days were filed with feeding the chickens, and horses and dogs, tending a vegetable garden, one big enough to earn extra money, and in general the upkeep of the property. There’s always something to be done, I laughed, a new roof, or a broken window to fix, or some section of the fence to mend.

    We started our goodbyes again.  In the doorway, he gave me a warm hug and told me what a pleasure it was to meet me. And, something melted inside of me, and I nodded and walked quickly to the car, and peeled off for home. My eyes are filled with tears and I was a couple of miles down the road before I found myself suddenly turning around. It was like I was in a dream, and couldn’t control my actions. I just followed my instincts and knocked on his door and fell in his arm. And then we went inside, and you can guess the rest. Love him?  No, no, oh, I don’t know. I was lonely, he was lonely and our paths just happen to cross.

    We spent the rest of the morning together. In bed, yes. And that was that I never saw him again, and although I did return once to his house but he wasn’t home and I took this as a sign that we were not meant to be together and thought nothing of this matter until the morning sickness came—and by that time you were already back home and no better knew the better about any of this.

    Why tell you this now? Why not now? I am an old woman, without many years left. I have nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed about. I have no desire to keep any secrets and only want to live in peace and honestly the rest of my days. I have only loved one man, you, Lino, and although Sam is his father, you are the one who was there for me when I gave birth him, our Jara, and though, he only lived a few months before dying one night without any apparent reason I know you and I were the ones who loved him and grieved for him and still do.

    Lino, there is nothing more to say. Jara’s grave is next to yours now, where it belongs and one day, soon perhaps, sooner than later, I will join you both and we will be a family again. We will be together and nothing will separate us, not even the worst flood that has ever washed upon the dusty shores of the Pecos. Be at peace, Lino. I am counting the days until we are all together again, until we are all standing in the light, the western exposure is always brightest in the final hours before the sunset.

    About The Author

    Mario Duarte

    Mario lives in Iowa City, Iowa and is an alumnus of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has published poems in the Acentos Review, Palabra, Shadowbox, Steel Toe Review, Passages North, and Yellow Medicine Review, among others, and has poems forthcoming in Slab, and a short story in Huizache.