The Border Picnics
There is a tree growing against the fence; its bark is taking on the pattern. The tree gives a little shade on either side, and that’s where Ray sets up his chair to wait for her. Perhaps the park existed before there was a border. Perhaps one day this tree was repatriated, the arbitrary nationality of shrubs.
When they first found the border fence they began seeking out its orifices. Porous as chainlink is, not everything that passes through is contraband. The way a dead loved one calls you in a dream and the conversation is so mundane that you wake up full of regrets; all that which cannot be exchanged in sleep.
Ray has brought a long thin envelope of cash. Soon she shows up, carrying long thin food, and they take turns slipping things through.
“I dreamt of my father last week.”
“They built a swimming pool in town.”
“I haven’t been going to church.”
“I heard there’s a big storm coming.”
Ray is too busy eating her tamales to tell his wife that she looks lovely with diamonds all over her face, the sun through a chainlink fence. And all over her breasts too. Not everything is contraband, but it wouldn’t do to try and touch them—the impotent grope of four fingers squeezing through chainlink. It wouldn’t do. If she can tell he’s drunk, she doesn’t mention it.
There’s a priest who takes confession at the border and offers communion from his side of the fence to a small congregation on the other. Some bodies pass through more easily than others; that body which melts on the tongue, or that which can be wrapped in a cornhusk. The priest is often there on Sundays when Ray and his wife are having lunch, but they’ve never listened to his sermons. No one wants to be watched during confession, so Ray tries not to stare too long at the motley congregation. Instead he fixes his eyes on the geometry of light lying like a blanket across the body of his wife and tries to think of what to say to her.
“Wish I could take you to the movies or something.” He means to smile like a husband but instead smiles like a TV actor. At the movies he used to watch her face out of the corner of his eye. Her face, a glowing screen that smiled and frowned and sometimes kissed him.
“Me too.” She says to some tree branch just above his head.
Every week he tries to leave without looking back, but today, as always, he gets to the street and turns around to watch her walk across the dusty field away from him—a sight that no longer makes him clench his fists, but still feels awful. From this distance the chainlink is nearly invisible, and it looks like maybe he could run right up from behind and grab her, like maybe the people kneeling for communion are just congregants in a roofless church. If not for the fencepost shadows striping the grass, if not for the eerie distance between their tongues and the priest’s reaching fingers.
When she was first deported Ray stopped paying his rent. He still went to work every day but bringing a paycheck back to an empty apartment felt like building a sandcastle with the tide coming in, so most nights he went and drowned himself at The Orpheus, waking up like driftwood with the certainty that he’d forgotten to tell someone something important. His landlord stationed himself on the couch one night and when Ray got home he made him empty his pockets and his wallet and kind-of shook him around. The landlord is a big guy, so Ray could tell from the gentleness in the way he pinned him to the wall that some woman had probably been pulled out of his bed once too, or quit, and left him knotted up in the sheets.
“It won’t be any easier on the stoop, man.” He was right, so Ray started paying rent again.
He was having trouble sleeping alone, so he went to see a medium. She drew a line on the floor with chalk and they sat on either side of it facing each other. Soon she was talking like his dead uncle. He wondered why this uncle, of all people, was the one to show up, since he’d never really known him—except for the frightening skewered eagle tattooed across his chest and the occasional drunken telegram sent to Ray’s mother, whose contents Ray was not allowed to read but always managed to read in the look on her face. So when his uncle appeared on the other side of the chalk, Ray just talked about what he’d eaten for lunch. It was only after the medium snapped out of it and swept away the line that he thought to ask how to say “I miss you” in other languages. His uncle had been a polyglot and an alcoholic.
The next time Ray found himself at the medium’s shop he was pretty hammered. Earlier that day, at the fence, he’d noticed how his wife was beginning to tilt backwards when she walked. Where had she learned that warrior gait, brandishing her belly before her like artillery? An unborn child is a kind of ghost, especially for fathers. She described the way her heart echoed now, the parades his son was marching in there, and he excused himself to vomit in the bushes. Nothing solid would sit with him.
So instead of heading back to work, he went down to the bar and drank several rounds with the idea of a little boy in his lap. Soon his feet were pins and needles from the weight of it and he stumbled over them like bricks when he stood to leave. It’s easy to forget about daylight at The Orpheus, but when he emerged the sun was offensively cheery; it was too early to go back to the apartment, full of corners where a crib could go. So he wandered down the street to Madame Sharon’s, where he found the old quack smoking cigarettes and working on a jigsaw puzzle.
She locked the door behind him, and they moved into the back room. There were already a couple of candles lit, so she just chalked the line between them and sat very still with her eyes closed, while he bobbed up and down on waves of his own making and waited for someone to show up.
He knew it was his father before she spoke because Madame Sharon got lockjaw; Ray’s father had been a clenched man. There was lipstick on her teeth, but when she bared them his Pa’s deadbolt voice slid out familiar.
“You might have shaved.”
Ray was too drunk for this conversation—he’d come to tell his uncle the flavor of his wife’s cooking on its way back up. He’d come to fill the daylight, to talk darkness in around him like a telephone call in a dream. But conversations with his father had always been fluorescent.
“Hi Papa.” A little boy voice, slurring its syllables.
“I wasn’t expecting you…”
“Your wife has left.”
“She…uh…she wanted to have the baby back home, with her mother…” A little boy’s stumbling lie.
Madame Sharon silenced him with a raised hand, the old cudgel. Ray remembered his father’s body as rough-hewn tools, all chipped stone. As a child he loved to watch him watch television. After work his father would sit in the dark with a beer and a foreign serenity on his face, and Ray would lie off to the side watching the bluish TV light puddle up in his eye sockets and flow black into his wrinkles when he cried. Only when Ray’s mother came to put him to bed would his father turn away from the screen and notice him, then go solid again.
Hoping perhaps to soften him with their story, Ray continued, “I have lunch with her at the fence every week. I bring her money. I am working very hard...”
Beneath the medium’s painted blue eyelids, his father’s gaze was pebbles.
“It takes more than money to provide for a family.”
If he’d been taught sarcasm, Ray might have had a shield for this comment—like you were ever more than marble, he might have said, like you knew what a lonesome child looked like. But he was drunk, and theirs had not been a house of eye contact. His voice was strangled and rising.
“They took her! We tried to fight it, but they took her! What more can I do?”
“You have to do something. What kind of man lets them take away his family?”
Bloodied Ray always was before him, always coaxed into red. And it was a bull’s desperate rage that took hold of him now- before he knew what was happening, he raised his own stone palm with a low groan and brought it down across Madame Sharon’s cheek.
Suddenly, where his father had sat, there was just an old woman writhing on the floor in gentle spasms. Ray tried to stand, but her eyes shot open.
“Don’t!” she wheezed, “The chalk…the chalk…”
He found a broom in the corner, swept away the line, and knelt beside her, apologizing.
“You never, ever touch,” she hissed, “you never touch me when I’m over there.”
“I forgot. I’m so sorry. It was my father…” His tongue was whiskey thick; he felt monstrous.
She told him she’d had worse, that lots of families have unfinished business, and when the spasms subsided she patted him on the shoulder and made him pay double.
Ray’s wife was never much of a housekeeper, but she loved a fresh shirt. She used to bleach their socks and undershirts in a bucket every Sunday, stirring them with a long wooden spoon turned bone white. These days it’s bewitched, and the bucket too, sloshing around while he sleeps. What kind of man dreams about laundry? At night he undresses and his clothes keep the shape of him on the floor. Each day he puts them back on like a snake climbing into its left-behind skin; mornings are yellow in the armpits and ill-fitting. Maybe he will bury the spoon, corpse that it is. Maybe he will bring it down to the border next time, and pass it to her through the fence. You will need it for diapers, he’ll say with the authority of a man who provides for his family, for diapers, feigning the easy pragmatism of a person whose sheets are already warm when he gets into bed, who falls asleep every night beside his wife’s foul breath and doesn’t think to memorize it. An old wooden laundry spoon, that might pass through.
When he masturbates he doesn’t picture anything. In the bathroom stall at The Orpheus there is a dick-sized hole at dick-level. Just because there’s a hole there, doesn’t mean anyone’s ever stuck his dick through it. But still. That’s what it feels like when he masturbates. Like he’s just sticking his dick through a hole in the wall and some indifferent hand is trying to remind him what to say next time he sees her.
The landlord is in a crummy rock band and they practice in the room directly below Ray’s kitchen. One night Ray was getting nauseous watching the Cheerios in his bowl bounce around to the beat, so he went down to the basement and shut off all the power. The whole building filled with a confused silence—no televisions, no refrigerators humming, no infernal guitar riffs. Ray hung around the lobby as his neighbors emerged, their faces flickering, in that cautious zombie shuffle of people holding candles. It was a grumbly vigil (“My show was on…There’s still shampoo in my hair…I have food in the oven…”), but kind-of peaceful too, shrouded in the basic comfort of knowing that this was someone else’s problem. They had time enough to learn each other’s names before the landlord got to the circuit board. And it was funny, after the sudden revival of the fluorescent lamps in the lobby and the awkward bathrobed march back upstairs, how much homier his apartment felt knowing all the other people in the building were resetting their clocks too.
Time is her belly. Each week he watches her heave seven more days across the grass towards him and he feels like Rip Van Winkle. What has he done since their last picnic? Taken off and put on his clothes seven times. Dreamed of and forgotten many conversations. When he sees her it’s as if she’s been doing the living for both of them, she glistens with the effort of multiple heartbeats. Of course he is not jealous. She’s the one who was sent away. But no one told him fatherhood would be such a deserted country.
“Have you found any more information about how to get us back?” She is gentle with her questions, but they always make him ashamed. What kind of man…
“I’m working on it. I called several offices. It seems like the rules are always changing.”
“Well, keep trying. It won’t be long now.” Warrior smile. Warrior ankles bulging out of her socks.
“I brought you something.” He takes out the laundry spoon. “You’ll need it. For the diapers.”
She looks down at the whitened paddle, surprised.
Her eyes skitter down the length of the fence and then back to the bleached wood pointing at her like a finger bone through the chain. “You know, why don’t you hang onto it. My mother has about a hundred of those. And anyways, she refuses to let me go near the bleach. Sometimes I feel like I’m the baby who just moved back in.” She laughs, and it sounds almost natural. “Thanks, though…It was nice of you to think of it.”
If you were home, he wants to tell her, I would be doing your laundry. I would be growing old to your heartbeats. I would be smoothing the wrinkles off your face in the morning and dancing with our son under the sheets.
She is so taut; she lifts her shirt to show him how her belly button has turned inside out. He wishes she would lean against the fence so he could feel that live translucence, the network of blue veins. But he doesn’t ask; the impotence of fingers. Instead they say goodbye with their palms, a warm metal diamond cupped between them, before he passes her the envelope.
When he leaves he thinks of a hundred things he could have said in place of the many mundanities. I miss you, in English, or you miss me as it is said in French, or, if he were speaking honest Spanish: I have become a stranger to you.
The things he owns are so inanimate. He used to recognize certain forks when he set the table—the heft of them or the pattern on the end—but lately they are all plastic and multiplying in the drawer. Even take-out, she ate on a plate with real cutlery. Now, sometimes, he uses the chopsticks they give you, though it’s messy. The small struggle is nice, an occasional sticky piece of chicken in his lap and the aw fuck and cold water dabbed over it.
They never fought. Or rather, their fights were united against some vague common enemy lying in wait outside the door. She had a way of dragging the curtain open with her toes every morning to let the sun come in over them. Fighting with her was like that, all this brightness, a door flung open to reveal some strong feeling Ray didn’t know he had. She asked him to marry her in a museum, and he was a little angry at first. She asked at the museum, that is, they were married in a church. But she said it right there in front of some Christ elongated in a purple sky, as if commenting on the artwork.
“I think we should get married.” And once she said it, it had always been true and Ray felt blockheaded for waiting this long, all the way through the marble sculptures and into this room of pale faces.
“Yeah…yes. We should.” He turned her around to face him. “I’m sorry for…you know, for leaving you to say it.”
She just smiled reassuringly, like a fiancée, but a little sad, and he was angry all day, at some vague enemy that made him unable to get to things on his own. Angry at the sculptures even, with their blank eyes and immobile expressions.
The few times Ray has dreamed of fatherhood, he is peering through eyes like greasy diner windows, unable to see the kid’s face. And when he tries to speak, it is with a heavy jaw and when he tries to lift the child his arms will not move.
Ray’s parents drank, but they were not loud. In fact most nights when he was a kid, they were like a TV being turned down, until both of them were buzzing dully from their seats and Ray couldn’t eat without feeling cacophonous—a little boy with a huge clanging fork. It was in his twenties that he realized he could not recognize hunger. He ate at meal times or when other people were eating, but he never knew whether he felt like having food. A child must be taught to recognize himself. At the very least, Ray tells himself, I want to raise a son who knows when he’s hungry and sad, and when it’s time to marry the woman he loves.
It is a week of short conversations and simple exchanges—Ray’s neighbors have forgotten each other’s names. Seven days pass, and soon he’s at a gas station buying a soda on his way back to the fence. Near the checkout there are postcards of local landmarks. One of them has a picture of the border park, all green grass with that tree and the fence in the background: Goodwill Gardens! Ray is tempted to buy a bunch of the cards, and send one to each senator letting him know exactly what he thinks of their goddamned goodwill. Instead he buys his wife a few roses and drives down to the park to wait for her.
The priest is there, murmuring through the fence to a small gathering on the other side. Ray sets up his lawn chair further down, out of earshot. What is it that brings them all the way here for church? Surely there are plenty of priests on their side, plenty of places to kneel for the host where there’s less risk of it slipping out of the father’s pinched fingers into the dust. Maybe this is where a man comes with his worst sins, as if whispering them over the border is the only way to really be rid of them.
She’s late. He didn’t bring a book, so he just sits around trying to think of anecdotes about his life that don’t sound like cereal for dinner and dirty laundry. It might be hunger at first, but as the minutes pass he starts to feel a new shiver in his intestines. Ever since she was deported, he’s avoided calendars. The days are long enough, he doesn’t need to see them stretched out ahead of him like boxes waiting to be packed full of deserted clothes. But now, for the first time in many weeks, he begins a cautious arithmetic. How many months has it been? He hates this equation; it always finds him naked and oblivious to his own happiness, smiling into her eyes, maybe this time, maybe this time…
Maybe it’s time. He allows himself to think it. Maybe it’s time. It has been an hour; she’s never this late. He stands up and paces along the fence, searching for someone in the park to verify the day, the time, the fact of her absence.
The morning after they lost their virginity, he walked with her to a diner for breakfast. He can remember blushing at all the strangers they passed on the street, wondering how they could move so normally while the sidewalk was trampoline under him. “Eggs please” and last night, last night—surely the waiter could read it on his skin. Driving away from the park now, he can’t believe how easily other drivers stay in their lanes; he wants to stick his head out the window and yell into every passing car, I think it’s time! I think it’s time! He can barely keep his car on the road.
Madame Sharon is gluing down her jigsaw puzzle when he rushes in.
“My son is being born!” Ray tells her. “Or was born already! My wife didn’t show up today! I think she must be having the baby!”
The medium seems surprised to hear him talk to her like this. It occurs to him that she probably doesn’t remember most of their conversations.
“That’s good news.” She is gentle, but distant. “So…would you like to do a session?”
Suddenly he’s self-conscious; the last time he came he slapped her across the face and now he is expecting felicitations. He can offer no reason for showing up at her shop, except the need to tell someone why he’s got a fistful of flowers and an empty stomach. For a moment he’s tempted to go to the back room with her and try to conjure a relative with whom to share the news. If only he could be sure to talk to his mother. But that would just make him homesick. So little can be exchanged with a ghost; good news, sure, but no teary kisses, no fatherly handshakes.
“Uh…no. That’s okay.” He is still holding the roses. “I just came by to give you these, you know, because of the last time.”
The old woman takes the roses and holds them to her nose. “Thank you. They’re quite nice.” He hangs around while she trims the ends and fills a jar with water for them. Her jigsaw puzzle is all kittens and yarn, not exactly spiritual, and he wonders what she’ll do with it once all the pieces are in place.
Back at The Orpheus, Duffy is polishing glasses and watching TV.
“What do you have on tap for a new father?” Ray slides onto a bar stool, beaming.
“She had the baby?”
“As we speak!”
“Hell, I’m glad to hear it. I’ve been worried about her, with all this news on crackdowns at the border.” Two shot glasses appear, tequila. Ray responds only to this second gesture, crackdowns being a word he’s long since deafened himself to. He lifts his drink ceremoniously. Duffy lifts the other, nods at Ray, and they swallow it down, gasoline, a lit match. Ray usually hates tequila, but it feels right this afternoon, like a pulse from the south. When it hits his empty stomach, he shoots to his feet.
“Off so soon?”
“I’ve got to get home! She might call.”
“She hasn’t called?”
“I haven’t been home!”
A good bartender knows which conversations are over. Duffy picks up his dishrag and goes back to polishing glasses.
“Well, that one’s on the house. And, you know, congratulations.”
Ray gets back to his apartment and, for the first time in months, he’s happy to be home. He bleaches everything: the sheets, the curtains, his reeking shirts. What kind of man puts on yesterday’s clothes? He is ravenous and he eats. He looks in the mirror and practices smiling and frowning. Next week, he tells himself, I will shake hands with my son. He will reach through the fence and I will hold all five of his fingers in mine.