A LINE OF BROWN

by Gilbert Arzola

Once.

The yard is sand and weeds. Even the road leading to the house is barely more than a path, surrounded by ragweed and crabgrass where tires didn’t pass.

It is July.

You are in Indiana.

It is late afternoon and you are staring out the screen door. Your husband is dead.

The screen, torn in one corner, repaired by grey tape wrinkles, fades and turns up at the edges. Outside the screen door and one step down, you can see now that you are surrounded by farm fields. The fields are green, flat and bare of trees.

What’s to become of you?

Hope is always first. You were migrant workers, invisible to the world. He looked stronger, smarter than the rest of the brown men leaning against cars when you walked by that day. A good choice, a wise choice—your father thought so too.

The most important thing to your father was that you marry a Christian, a religious man. That he went to church. That he was good in God’s eyes.

But all you saw were his eyes. The muscles in his bare arms shimmering with sweat from working in the fields. You saw that too. A good choice you thought.

And it felt like magic. As if all the others and everything around them faded into a mist and disappeared.

He was all that you saw.

This must be what love is, you thought.

And then he smiled.

What oh what is to become of you?

Ten years, twenty years, thirty years later. You only remember parts of in between.

You try, but you don’t remember the hour, the minute that hope fell dead from the sky like a bird shot.

The day that you thought: I am going to live and die like this.

Hope is always last.

Leaves erupt from naked branches one minute, snow falls the next.

It will get better. He’ll find good work, you said to yourself. You said it to him. We’ll get out of the fields.

The days run into each other. There is no way to measure that.

Finally it becomes about just getting to supper. About hours instead of days. Days instead of years. Just get to supper and then to sleep. The calm empty of sleep.

You want to blame the leaves, the sky, you want to blame the summers as hot as ovens.

You end up blaming him.

He is walking toward you now. Twenty years, thirty years, forty years later. From where you are standing you can see him. He is limping slightly, favoring the leg that was broken.

You can’t remember how it happened.

What matters is that it was broken. And like all things, it healed eventually. But it didn’t heal right.

“Good as new,” the doctor said.

But that wasn’t true. Nothing is ever as good as new.

He is just a line of brown against the pale, yellow sandy road. A line that is getting larger with each passing second. His face isn’t clear, but you know it’s him. In the heat waves rising from the ground, you know it’s him.

You were poor. You travelled from one camp to another, following the crops. You saw the world. But it all looked the same. It all smelled the same and there was never enough.

Poor as an excuse. Poor as dirt.

There’s nothing wrong with being poor, your mother told you once, trying to be wise. You were only fourteen. Look around, she said. Everyone we know is poor. But we are rich in the Lord’s love.

“Where is the Lord when there’s no money, no food?” you asked.

She slapped you and her face turned red with anger.

Now you know. You can still feel the sting. And now you know. Twenty years, thirty years, forty years later. You stole the last thread. Your questions were her questions. But she’d never asked them out loud. She didn’t dare ask them out loud.

God would know then.

It got quiet after that. She never said she was sorry. She went back to folding laundry as if nothing had happened. She smiled at you.

“We’re rich in the Lord,” she said again.

Closer, closer. You can almost make out his face now. Brown as worn leather. Brown as a dead leaf. He is walking slower, as if he doesn’t want to ever get home. Petra, the neighbor lady is suddenly beside you. She is putting a hand on your shoulder.

“Are you alright?” she wants to know. “Why don’t you come in out of the sun?”

But the line in the road is coming closer and your legs won’t move. Closer until one line becomes two.

Two men side by side. And the limp is gone.

Ten years, twenty years, thirty years, forty years later.

“He’s with the Lord,” Petra says.

The two men walk up to you and one hands you a brown paper bag.

“These things were in his pockets,” he says without looking you in the eye.

The other man is taller and white. “Take as long as you need,” he says, shoving some money into your hand and wiping the sweat from his brow. “To help you get home.”

What oh what is to become of you?

______________________________

I am the second son of a migrant worker living in Valparaiso, Indiana with my wife Linda. I was named Poet Of The Year by Passager Press in 2019. My first book of poetry,  Prayers of Little Consequence, was published by Passager in 2020. Rattle published a chapbook The Death of Migrant Worker in 2021 after selecting it from 2000 submissions for their annual prize. My story “Losers Walk,” originally published by Chaleur, was nominated for a Pushcart Award in 2018. I was a finalist for the Montoya Prize. My work has appeared in Whetstone, Palabra, Crosswinds, The Tipton Review, Passager, Slab, Gemini, and The Elysian Review, among others. Currently I’m at work on a collection of stories entitled Once Upon a Time When I Was Mexican.

I am the second son of a migrant worker living in Valparaiso, Indiana with my wife Linda. I was named Poet Of The Year by Passager Press in 2019. My first book of poetry,  Prayers of Little Consequence, was published by Passager in 2020. Rattle published a chapbook The Death of Migrant Worker in 2021 after selecting it from 2000 submissions for their annual prize. My story “Losers Walk,” originally published by Chaleur, was nominated for a Pushcart Award in 2018. I was a finalist for the Montoya Prize. My work has appeared in Whetstone, Palabra, Crosswinds, The Tipton Review, Passager, Slab, Gemini, and The Elysian Review, among others. Currently I’m at work on a collection of stories entitled Once Upon a Time When I Was Mexican.