Michael McGuire was born and raised and has lived in or near much of his life; he divides his time; his horse is nondescript, his dog is dead. McGuire is rumored to have bent an elbow once or twice in D.F. with B. Traven; but the facts in this case, as with so many in the writer’s journey, are uncertain. A book of his stories (The Ice Forest, Marlboro Press, distributed by Northwestern University Press) was named one of the “Best Books of the Year” by Publisher’s Weekly.
The girls were innocence itself, at least till the age of eight.
The boys, even before, were obviously devious and calculating. Untrustworthy. As soon as one of the girls was fifteen, she quit school and married a young man very much like herself, a nonstarter in his early twenties who had learned how to work only when he had to, how to depend on food and shelter most of the time from anyone who might be considered family.
The fathers of the boys and girls, having sensed a bad thing growing up around them, were long gone.
The mothers of the boys and girls were sisters or half-sisters (even they didn’t know) and, though both were dark, neither was as dark as their old mother who was shadiness incarnate, shifty eyes all the more obviously shifting in such a dark face.
One of the mothers, Angelica, no worse than her sister and no better than her mother or her children, stumbled into a job cleaning house in town, but after a few weeks she must have gotten bored with the steadiness of it for she staged a break-in and was later observed in a neighboring town hawking odds and ends filched from her former employer’s closets and drawers. Former because—it had to be said for her—she must have felt uncomfortable mopping the tiles in a house she had so successfully burglarized.
The family dog, Sucio, didn’t look much better than the children or the parents. Large and black, if gray with the years, skeletal from constant hunger, he’d lost his hair in great patches to some dietary deficiency or skin disease. No one fed him, but enough fell from careless hands and mouths or could be scavenged in the street that he’d totaled twelve or thirteen years with no end imminent. He was always hungry, always itching, but of an understanding disposition. He tended to occupy his bit of cold stone floor, head on his paws, watching and, with one ear in occasional motion, listening.
Sucio didn’t miss much and here the differences begin. There was one girl child, Angelina, as observant as Sucio.
Like him, she kept her thoughts to herself though her mother, Angelica, could sense her, even when little, thinking about things...judging...and would unceremoniously kick her in the shins. But, in spite of her bruises, or maybe because of them, Angelina made it through the three schools—la primaria, la secundaria y la prepa—perhaps also because she remained small and no one noticed her preparing herself for a world somewhat larger than the one she had been born into.
And what world was that?
In a word, there are people—you know who they are—who despise all who have less, especially those who have much less and, in particular, those who have much, much less, and are noticeably darker. Yet that was Angelina’s world, a world of undeserving have-nots that would justify the most mean-spirited conservatism...yet Angelina was always kind to her mother, her aunt, her dark, dark grandmother, her brothers and sisters and even to the young good-for-nothing her eldest sister had married, though he, Serfín, had been trying to reach under her, Angelina’s, skirt from the time she was ten. A move she would laugh off while moving quickly away, as if she didn’t want to hurt whatever feelings boy-man might have had buried deep within.
And so, if only by chance, one day Angelina completed her basic schooling and, if she could find the means to survive in the city, the door was open: she could take the examination and go on to whatever she had in mind, a whatever she had kept to herself, if only because none of her ragtag family had ever asked, but also because, like the aging, itching and underfed Sucio, she had never been inclined to put anything into words.
Angelina, in spite of her small size, was the strong silent type. When her mother came home from “work” one day and laid out various baubles and gewgaws upon the table which grandma held this way and that in the light as they discussed where such a find might safely be hocked, Angelina was as quiet as when her mother came home from a visit to the doctor’s with a couple hundred more pesos in hand than she’d had when she entered his office.
Angelina, though small, was pretty and soon after she left home she made the acquaintance of several men, or boy-men, one after the other, though each of whom was in his own way distinguished and eventually moved on, each letting her know, one way or the other, that he was above her to such a degree that his family would never approve of such a match. A student doctor, a student architect and a student lawyer had in this way moved on and since—like the roof dog who never leaves his roof—no one moves very far in Angelina’s part of Mexico, she watched each of them marry someone else and took their calls as each called to tell her how much he missed her but, after all, there was family to think of and, underneath every roof in Mexico, family comes first.
So Angelina proceeded, in the city nearest to Pueblo Nuevo, without love, to put herself through the university, going to work when other girls went out to play, studying while others slept though, in the end, not doing much better than they in the examinations because Angelina was, finally, no genius and no more of a careerist than she was a party girl. Well then what, or who, was she? It was a question she asked herself as she gazed out the oversized windows of the lecture hall and seemed to hear—with one ear—what a precarious position her country was in, how everything, at any moment, might fall apart for in these grim days anything was possible.
Not just flood and drought, poverty and disease, but war, war in the streets—mexicano contra mexicano—until all came tumbling down and nothing was left. Nothing, except...
At least that was what she thought she heard, though she was not sure if anyone else heard what she was hearing. Sometimes, between lectures...in the cold halls of an institution of higher learning...she would question a fellow student, some boy or girl she might have sat next to...
“What are we going to do..?”
The answer was always the same.
No doubt it was her earnestness that brought on that answer for, if she made an effort to ask more casually, the questioned would naturally assume the questioner was asking in reference to upcoming distractions as in...
‘What, oh what, can we do this weekend that we didn’t do last?’
So Angelina completed and left the university, somewhat more knowledgeable, but no less lonely than before, as she was no taller and no less attractive but no more desirable to a young man of family who could sense with that infallible sense those who have more have hidden somewhere beneath a raised eyebrow that Angelina was obviously beneath them. Though unlike most of her lineage she was neither devious nor calculating and had never thieved nor whored, something clung to her...even if it wasn’t the something Sucio recognized at the end of the block when she came home and the old fellow struggled to his feet to wag his old behind along with his old, now hairless, tail and his eyes filled with a love the constancy of which Angelina had not encountered elsewhere.
She could not help wondering what the old dog saw that young men with university educations didn’t.
Did that wagging, trembling, yet nearly immobilized rear end, say ‘you are one of us, Angelina, you always will be,’ or maybe something altogether different like ‘how good to see you, my dear, you and I have always been different from the rest of them in this rat hole; and how are things going for you out there in the world of doctors and architects and lawyers and how is our country changing—is it for better or worse—or is it like here, my dear, always the same?’
Yes, that might have been what old Sucio was thinking, though Angelina had her doubts, and on the first morning after, just as if he had been awaiting her return, the old dog was dead but not gone, on his bit of cold stone floor, eyes still open, having made a note of her return and taking his wordless exit with a clear conscience.
The family ate, apparently unaware the dog was dead, that no one would glean the bits that fell to the floor. After breakfast Angelina brought Sucio to the attention of her brothers who wanted to leave him where he was since the garbage truck would be there the next day and they would not have to lift him twice. Angelina, however, wanted to bury him and required assistance, for the ground was hard and useless almost any way you went from Pueblo Nuevo and you needed a pick and the ability to swing it, in addition to the spade.
Ángel, her second brother, the one still at la secundaria he would never get beyond, agreed, and together they took old Sucio out in a wheelbarrow. It wasn’t a long trip, but Sucio’s bones were surprisingly heavy, his long black legs sticking straight up in the air as brother and sister took turns pushing the wheelbarrow. Considerately, Ángel took the handles for the uphill portions and whenever the dirt and rock of the unproductive earth was more hopelessly rutted than usual.
Angelina, again taking her turn, thought she remembered the old dog as a pup, but it had to be an impossible memory for she had been a little girl and now she was in her twenties and everyone knew a dog, especially a sick, underfed dog, did not live into his twenties. Perhaps there had been two Sucios, one father of the other. She thought she’d ask.
“Is this the second Sucio? Was there another Sucio before this one?”
“How would I know?”
“Well, you could ask.”
“If you want to know, you ask,” said Ángel who, though being helpful for once in his life—perhaps he was under the influence of la maestra de la secundaria, a teacher he was a little bit in love with—usually avoided work as successfully as any of his siblings or in-laws for, as everyone knows, like attracts like, and Angelina’s family, no matter how extended, was well-suited to a land in which very little, if anything, grew.
Each knew how to do a job poorly, late or not at all or...if it was particularly easy and the employer actually paid his employees, no matter how temporary...to do the job so it would have to be done again—again and again—a practice known as chamba.
And la chamba was good enough for a road that didn’t really go anywhere or a country where la corrupción y la violencia would have to be faced every morning for eternity.
Angelina, of course, was the exception. She now, though perhaps no one in the family realized it, had more schooling than all the rest of them combined. There was another exception too, she thought, the dead dog, who had always seemed—if only to Angelina—of another class altogether.
“I remember,” she said to Ángel as she handed the handles back to him for a particularly rough spot in the never to be finished road, “I remember talking to Sucio when I was a little girl, I remember taking his old head on my lap and telling him how, one day, I was going to get out of this hellhole and do something.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Ángel, “and besides Sucio was a puppy when I was a kid. I remember playing with him.”
They walked awhile to the sounds of the wheelbarrow’s one wheel and the clatter of the tools against the handles, tools laid across the dead dog so they wouldn’t fall off.
“Maybe that’s what this all means, Ángel. Maybe it’s time to stop playing,” said Angelina.
“What do you think you’re doing, little sister?” Though Angelina was years Ángel’s senior, he always called her little sister because she was so much smaller than he was. “You’ve been going to school for as long as I can remember. That’s playing, isn’t it?”
They took a cow track off the road and Ángel leaned into his burden, nearly running with it until they were over the first hump and he came to an abrupt halt.
“How about here?”
Angelina looked around them. “There’s a view.”
“I’m sure he’ll appreciate it,” said Ángel. “Anyway, under that bush the ground looks soft. Softer anyway. It looks like work anywhere else.”
“He won’t be washed away in the rainy season?” asked Angelina.
“If he is, he’ll come home just like you and we’ll wheel him up and bury him again.”
“Chamba,” said Angelina.
“Chamba,” said Ángel.
“Go on home, Ángel,” says Angelina, when the work is done. “I’ll sit here a while.”
Ángel leaves without observation, without comment. Ángel—like the roof dog—returns to the life he will always lead. At least, for a moment, long enough to bury old Sucio, he had stepped out of it and Angelina knew she should be grateful.
But memory persists.
Sucio as a pup, jumping against her shins, looking up into her eyes. She can still see him, though he is now dead and buried. He died with his eyes open but if he had reached any conclusions about the family he had observed all his life, or about the one who exchanged so many looks with him over the years, the daughter who was different, he had not shared them with anyone before he went, not even her.
Angelina sits on the ground that has been dampened by Sucio’s internment, even if most of the dirt and rock has been thrown back on top of him and tamped by a leaping, stomping Ángel, and wonders if the old dog died suddenly, surprised at the suddenness of it, or slowly, thinking nothing has changed, not in my lifetime, and now it will go on without me, as it always has been. All families couldn’t possibly be like this but, for some reason, those who are remain so. Those who are higher up sometimes come down to join them. I have seen that. Sons and daughters who are not worthy of their fathers and their mothers. Down, down they come. To join families like mine, the ones at the bottom.
No, Sucio could not possibly have thought that. Dogs do not think, at least not deep or long.
I know, said Angelina to herself, I know what he was thinking. He was thinking ‘where are you, Angelina, something is happening to me, I don’t know what...though I have a suspicion...but I wish you were here to sit beside me and put your hand on my chest and...explain...’
Dogs, thinks Angelina, like to have things explained. And things need an explanation, she couldn’t deny that, and dogs, if anyone, deserve one.
Even if they don’t understand a word, if the only real communication is with the eyes, the ones that are looking and the ones that are being looked into. Yes, dogs love explanations, concludes Angelina, and I wish I had been sitting beside Sucio late last night or early this morning on the stone floor looking up at my family, my particular group of...of—of two-leggeds, I’ll bet he called them—wondering why they are what they are, why schools and school lunches, vaccinations and even the refurbished ambulance el gobierno has somehow obtained to squeak and lurch and lean and screech the citizens of Pueblo Nuevo some torturous hours to the Civic Hospital after some part of them has been sacrificed to the new farm machinery that is just beginning to make its appearance, will not lift them up.
Will not set them on their feet.
“If I had known you were going, I would have sat there until you were gone, Sucio, and known no more about my family than I did when I sat down to look up at them from your viewpoint years ago for, as you know, not only did we exchange a thousand looks and a thousand sighs, you and I, but—if neither of us knew quite what the other was thinking—we both knew what we were thinking about.
“We were thinking about those who will bear no thinking about for they are the hopeless, those who don’t even know they are without hope and wouldn’t understand if someone else, you, say, or I, were hoping for them, wouldn’t see it if it was right there in our eyes...
“Writ large, writ in capitals, something like ‘GOD HELP YOU’ or even something less unlikely like ‘you know what I’m going to do as soon as I get the job that ought to come with my education? I’m coming back for you, for example, little brother, my younger brother. I’m taking you to live with me. In the city. I’m going to put you in the same seat I sat in. I’m going to listen to the same lecture all over again, the one about the grim state of our country, the terrible possibilities, the end of civilization...for, you know, it has ended here before...and I’m going to see you change. What do you think of that?’”
Angelina didn’t have to think of what Ángel would think when she said that to him.
Or even Sucio, if he happened to be listening with one ear.
She had only to close her eyes to see the look on the old dog’s face, even as he...his eyes already closed...might see the look on hers.