Aaron Michael Morales is an Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at Indiana State University. His first novel, Drowning Tucson (2010) cited by Esquire as the bleakly human debut of the new Bukowskiwas named a Top Five Fiction Debut by Poets & Writers. Other books include a chapbook of short fiction, titled From Here You Can Almost See the End of the Desert (2008), and a textbook, The American Mashup (2011). He edits fiction for Grasslands Review and reviews books for Latino Poetry Review and Multicultural Review. He is completing his second novel, Eat Your Children.
Rosa Delacruz was shrinking. She knew this because three years earlier, out of equal parts boredom and curiosity, she had taken up the hobby of marking her height in the doorway of her pantry once a month—the way parents do with their children as they age. When she first recorded her height, she was five feet tall. Not an inch more. Not an inch less. But today, after she lay the marker down on the counter and turned around to look at the line in the doorjamb, she saw it was even shorter than last month's line. So she took her measuring tape to the doorjamb and measured. Four feet one-and-a-half inches.
Her dwindling height bothered her immensely. It mocked her. It was a cloud swelling in her mind, pushing it to its very limits. Her hands shook as she retrieved the marker and wrote 4'1.5" on the paint-chipped doorway in black indelible ink. She held the marker to her nose—a habit she had retained from her childhood, a secret pleasure that made her feel, at turns, guilty and delighted—then replaced the cap and went to check the mail.
This is what her life had been reduced to in her old age. Checking. Always checking. Her height. The mail. The rain gauge on the trellis outside her back porch. Checking and rechecking. But nothing ever happened. No rain ever fell in the desert. No rain had fallen for quite some time. Maybe it had been months? Maybe it had been years? But she checked the rain gauge every day anyway, on the off chance that while she had been sleeping perhaps a flashflood had swept through Tucson, so quickly and forcefully that it was over before her body could respond to the sound or the smell of rain.
Nothing ever came in the mail either. It was as if everyone, even the credit card companies and the banks and the mortgage lenders, had written her off. No more fliers about bazaars at the church. No politicians courting her vote. No Publisher's Clearing House sweepstakes assuring her that she'd already won. No Columbia House Record Club wooing her to purchase ten cassettes for 99 cents. Nothing.
No one knew she was even alive. It made her want to hang a sign on her mailbox that said: Dear Mailman. Rosa Delacruz LIVES here. Please deliver mail.
Still, Rosa Delacruz did not give up her routine. It was all she had. She rose the next morning and checked her rain gauge and her mailbox, and then she shuffled into the kitchen to heat up her teakettle, returning to her dinette table with a steaming mug of Earl Grey to do the day's crossword puzzle. While she pondered the answers to the crossword, occasionally rising to reheat her tea or to adjust the blinds, Rosa Delacruz tried to determine the cause her shrinking problem.
Could it be that she was shrinking from the desert heat, drying up like a saladito? Impossible. After all, she drank eight glasses of water a day, minimum. And she tested the elasticity of her skin often. While it certainly sagged a little, having released its firm grip on her muscles years ago, it was still plump and alive when she pulled a fistful of flesh away from her body. No, she was not drying up.
Could it be, she wondered, that she was not physically active enough? Not a chance. She pulled weeds from the rocks in her front yard at least once a week, and she still walked to the grocery store on Wednesdays and Sundays to replenish her meager supplies, parsing tiny amounts of cash from her monthly Social Security check. A ten here, a twenty there.
Could it be her posture? Was she merely slouching more and more with age, like other elderly women she frequently watched from her front window who took delicate steps, backs hunched over as though they were looking closely at the ground in case they might spy a coin or a lost ring? This was not likely. Unless her eyes were failing her too. She only had to turn this way and that after she got out of the shower to see how her posture fared, and, although there was a slight slouch to her shoulders, her back was straight as a hairpin.
She was stumped. Absolutely baffled by the rate her of shrinking. One-and-a-half inches in the first year of her recordkeeping, three-and-a-half in the second year, and now, five-and-a-half in the third year. And it was only October. Technically, she still had three months until the third anniversary of her new hobby. She tried not to think about it, but the problem lingered in her mind from sunup to sundown. It was there when she went to the pantry for a teabag, the marks on the doorjamb a testament to her dilemma. It was there when she brushed her teeth, the sink creeping ever higher up her torso (she had recently decided it was time to buy a stepstool so she could regain the view she had three years ago). It was there when she went to sleep, the foot of her bed farther away each time she rolled over onto her stomach and scooted down to drape her feet over the mattress's edge.
Sometimes she woke in the middle of the night, her pajamas clinging to her sweaty body, terrified by another nightmare of shrinking ever smaller. It was always the same nightmare. She had gotten so small that she was no longer visible to anyone. She was in the desert, alone, tinier than a speck of dirt—each grain as big as a boulder—and entire herds of dirt rolled toward her every time the wind blew, forcing her to dive out of the way, leaping from the path of the oncoming dust storm. And there, only a few yards away, was a road, and civilization, but at her size it would take weeks, maybe months to reach. If ever. Still, she ran toward it anyway. Always on the run. Running, running, running. Her muscles ablaze. Her fragile bones aching. She woke up every time exhausted and petrified, and she grabbed her rosary from the nightstand and worried the beads until finally the blessed Arizona sun rose and she felt safe enough to climb down from her bed.
Which is why today, after yet another nightmare last night, Rosa Delacruz wanted more than anything to get to the root of the problem. Or at least break her routine. She thought about breaking her routine as she went about it. Checking the mail. The rain gauge. The marks on the pantry doorway. No, Rosa simply could not break her routine. The routine was her dearest friend. Her sure footing in a chaotic and rapidly changing world. Instead she decided to add something to the routine.
She decided perhaps now was a good time to pay a visit to an old friend, but when she retrieved her address book covered with red balloons and opened it to the first page, she remembered something that used to be part of her routine—something she had stopped doing so long ago that she forgot she had ever done it.
Yes, there was a time when—after checking the mail and the rain gauge and getting her tea—before turning to the crossword puzzle, she would first open her address book, uncap her magic marker, give it a little sniff, and then peel the newspaper open to the obituaries. Yes, that's what all these markings are, Rosa said to the address book. I remember how you got there, you silly little markings. You silly gooses. And her hands shook as she turned page after page, one letter at a time, through the entire alphabet, only to find hundreds of thick black lines covering the names of people she once knew. She finished the alphabet. Not a name remained. She briefly wondered whom all those names belonged to that she had blacked out. Not that she didn't remember a lot of them. She knew Marcela was in there somewhere, and so were the Galindezes, and of course there were the Betancourts and the two Franks and Paulie. But who had she crossed out that she had forgotten?
Rosa Delacruz lifted the address book closer to her face, positioning it just so in order to catch the reflection of the sun correctly and maybe illuminate the indentions of the writing beneath the marker. She tilted the address book forward, to the side, back toward her. She held out an individual page and tried to peer through it. But there was black on both sides and the exercise was for naught.
I guess it's time to throw you away, you old thing. She sighed and brought the address book up to her face, pressing her nose into its spine, inhaling the lingering remnants of marker. Oh, how Rosa loved that sharp tangy smell. Whatever the secret ingredient was that they put in those markers, it smelled so good. So powerful. As definitive and serious as death. Not to be trifled with. Once a marker covers something up, well that's the end of it. Poof. It ceases to exist. I guess that's what makes it magic, Rosa said, and she tossed the address book in the trash.
It didn't make her as sad as she thought it would, throwing away the past like that. She supposed she might break down and cry, maybe at least get a little teary-eyed or something. But there was nothing. Just the faintest smell of black magic ink tickling her nose, tempting her to take the marker out of the drawer and mark her height—even though she had just checked it yesterday—so she could take a little whiff, just a little sip with her nose. One sharp sniff. A little dab. A taste.
Instead Rosa Delacruz walked to her front door, grabbed her mauve cardigan from the reclining chair, and stepped out into the day. She headed toward Reid Park for some fresh air, taking her time, concentrating on her posture. The sun was warm on her scalp. She considered going back for a scarf to cover her head, then decided against it. The sun is good for you, Rosa. It's good for your constitution.
When she finally reached the park she took a seat at a picnic table overlooking the nearly empty lake and watched as squealing children waded into the muddy water, scaring off the nervous geese. She saw a teenaged boy and girl crawl up the side of the underpass and disappear into the shadows. Tricky, thought Rosa. I forgot how clever kids can be when they are hell-bent on looking for a place to do a little petting. A little necking. Some hanky-panky. She smiled and adjusted her backside on the picnic bench.
A toddler stumbled up the grassy hill following its mother. Tied to its tiny wrist was a balloon. One of those fancy silver helium ones with a picture of some cartoon character Rosa didn't know. The sunlight glinted off its surface, casting rays around the child and momentarily blinding Rosa. It reminded her of something from way back in her childhood, an activity her teacher had come up with right after the war.
Third grade, and Rosa's father was coming home any day now. He was still doing something in the European theater—that's what her mom always told her, daddy's over in the European theater, and Rosa always pictured her father on a stage somewhere, performing in his uniform, pretending to shoot bad men while a choir sang behind him and the audience sat in silence, completely enraptured by her dad singing and dancing and being a tall, strong army man. But he still wasn't back the day Ms. Jacobs filed the kids out onto the playground and gave them each a scrap of paper and a deflated balloon and a pencil and told them to write their name and the school's address on the piece of paper. Just put your name, the address, and a little note at the bottom that says: If found, please write! I'll be your pen pal in the desert! So she did. Rosa printed her name and the address and then, following the teacher's directions, she rolled the paper slip into the shape of a cigarette and shoved it into the neck of the balloon. Then she took her place in the line for the helium tank and waited impatiently while Ms. Jacobs filled each child's balloon and tied the neck and then handed each of them a piece of string to rope around the balloon knot. When they were all finished—all thirty-seven children—she lined them up and told them to hold their strings up high above their heads. Hold them up like this, she demonstrated by raising her arm like the Statue of Liberty, and the kids followed suit. Now, said Ms. Jacobs, we're going to release our balloons into the air and they are going to fly all over the world. Eventually they will pop and your piece of paper will come floating down from the sky like a bird and land in someone's yard. And maybe, just maybe, we'll get some letters in the mail. Think about it. We might get a letter from China or Antarctica. Wouldn't that be amazing? Now let them go! Thirty-seven balloons flew into the sky, their strings bouncing and twitching beneath them, flying higher and higher as the children lifted their heads to watch the flight, each child attempting to keep track of his own balloon.
Not one letter had ever come. At least not that they ever heard about.
And now, so many years later, as Rosa Delacruz sat in Reid Park watching the child's balloon bobbing in the air, she realized that maybe she was shrinking because no one knew who she was anymore. She was dwindling away. Like the names in her address book. One by one. And now she was the only one left. When she went to the grocery store, no one said hi Señora Delacruz. Not one person asked about her health or the weather or complained about how rowdy and rude the youngsters were becoming these days. When the cashier pushed her groceries over the beeping computer laser that looked up her purchase and added it to the running total on the tiny screen, she never smiled and asked her how her day was going. And the bagboy? He just looked angry and bored.
It was like she was invisible. A molecule blowing this way and that. At the mercy of the wind. Or a granule of salt washed away in a rainstorm, carried out into the middle of the desert to dissolve in solitude. She might as well shrink down to nothing.
Rosa got up to walk home, all the while thinking how small will I get? Will I one day have to start sleeping in the bottom drawer of my dresser or in a shoebox? Will I get so small that I have to crawl up on a teacup saucer and curl into a ball, covering myself with a doily and using an old teabag for a pillow? Will it get to the point where I won't even make tea anymore, I'll just chew a tiny sliver of a tea leaf and be up for three days, lifting pieces of dirt and crumbs from the floor and piling them in the corner of the kitchen, my heart threatening to explode in my chest from the caffeine coursing through my thin little veins? She shivered as she pictured waking up one day too small to lift a letter out of her mailbox. Too small to reach the doorknob. She would have to buy a toddler potty, maybe even use a tin can for a toilet when she was too small to reach the little plastic seat. After that, who knows, maybe a baby food jar. Then a bottle cap. A thimble. She'd have to start buying Barbie clothes. Little cheap summer Barbie outfits and plastic high heels. Little accessories for any occasion. Sunbonnets and sunglasses and little beach towels and a tiny plastic purse and a car that actually rolls.
Rosa toyed with the idea of stopping off at Goodwill on her way home. It was right there, across the street. She could go in and buy a few outfits of every size, progressively smaller. Teen clothes and elementary clothes and toddler outfits and infant clothes. Frilly dresses with milk stains on the chest. Onesies. Rattles and teething rings and sweaters made for kittens. She could just go in and shop for a couple hours. She was sure they took checks. She might walk in and say I'm Rosa Delacruz and I'm shrinking. Look at me! I'll come back next month with this little Girl Scout uniform on and you'll think what a great fit. You'll think it took me sixty-seven years to finally get all the pins for my sash.
But she didn't stop at Goodwill. Instead she stopped at Food Giant and picked out a bag full of red balloons. She grabbed another bag and then another. Four bags of 100 balloons each came to $8.52 with tax. After she finished filling out the check she underlined her name and drew three exclamation points after it. She waited for the cashier to ask her for identification, but he just ran the check through a machine and handed it back to her. He never even looked at her face.
When she returned home Rosa checked the mail again. Nothing. She checked the rain gauge. Dry. Her height in the pantry doorjamb. 4'1.5".
She grabbed a packet of her favorite stationary and cut each sheet into two-inch square sections. After forty minutes of cutting, she finally had four hundred little pink squares. She stacked them into a neat pile. And then, as the sun set over Wasson Peak, Rosa wrote out her name and address in her most elegant handwriting. Each square of powder pink stationary read: If Found, Please Write: Miss Rosa Delacruz, 3326 East 24th Street, Tucson Arizona, 85713. Your Pen Pal In The Desert! Four hundred times she wrote the same note over and over. Four hundred desperate slips of paper with twenty words written on each. She did the calculations. Eight thousand lonely words.
As she readied herself for bed, Rosa mulled the numbers over. Her existence had been reduced to eight thousand words. Four hundred paper squares. Four hundred red party balloons.
In bed, Rosa lay perfectly still and imagined that the odds were pretty good someone would stumble across her message. And, even in these busy times, these hectic days with computers and gadgets, even now someone would surely take a moment to pick up a rolled up slip of paper from the ground, unroll it, read her message and think, well, why not, why not write to a pen pal in the desert? She fell asleep smiling.
The next morning, she checked the mail. She checked the rain gauge. She measured her height in the doorway. Four feet, one-and-a-quarter inches. She had shrunk a quarter inch in three days. She sniffed the marker and capped it. And, with a new sense of urgency, Rosa Delacruz warmed her teakettle, left her newspaper unopened on the front porch, and pulled the pile of soft pink notes close to her. She rolled each note into a tiny cigarette, then placed a small piece of tape on each one to hold the shape.
Rosa didn't hear the teakettle whistling. And she did not hear the thunder in the distance. All she could do was focus on the slips of paper in front of her. The pile of tiny pink burritos growing to her left. The stack of little paper squares dwindling to her right. The kettle burned on. The water evaporated and the metal began to scorch, unnoticed by Rosa.
By noon, her stack of desperate notes was gone. In its place stood a pyramid of tightly rolled scrolls. By one-thirty the pyramid was gone. In its place was a mountain of red balloons, a rolled-note squirreled away in each one. By two-thirty Rosa Delacruz was showered, dressed, and the balloons were safely shoved inside her largest quilted purse. She checked the mail again. And the rain gauge. And her height—grimacing at the markings in the doorway, definitive proof that she wasn't going insane.
At three o'clock sharp, Rosa Delacruz opened the glass door to Florería Gutierrez. A whoosh of cold air met her face. She stood for a moment and let the cool air blow on her. At her back was the harsh desert sun. When she finally stepped inside, the bells strung to the door's handle tinkling behind her, she took a moment to adjust her eyes to the dim room then she strode directly to the counter with the ferocity of a person who knows her exact purpose. The counter was empty. But there was a small handwritten sign that told her to ring the bell for service. She looked around the showroom. Nobody to be found. Then she peered into the back room and saw a man wearing a white apron who was arranging flowers in a small wicker basket with great care. She watched him for a moment, admiring the tenderness with which he lowered each flower's stem into the basket, careful not to disturb or damage any of the other flowers and their delicate petals. Just before she tamped her hand down on the bell, she leaned down to sniff the markings on hand-written sign. Magic marker. Glorious. Her palm tapped the bell's plunger.
At first she felt bad when she saw the old man jump. It was a matter of comportment. Rosa didn't like to disturb a person at peace. But she needed this man to notice her, at least for a few moments, and she was relieved that when he appeared at the counter he smiled gracefully and didn't seem the least bit offended or bothered by her being there. On the contrary, he seemed pleased to see her. As if they had known each other for years and she had just returned from a long trip. And, after she told him her reason for coming to the flower shop, the shopkeeper smiled even bigger and assured her that he would have her order delivered to her house by noon the next day.
He kept his promise. At eleven-ten, a young man knocked on her door and after she answered he verified her name and told her I have those balloons you ordered yesterday, where do you want me to put em, and Rosa Delacruz opened her front door wide and waved her hand into the living room and said here, you can bring them in here mijito, and he poked his head in and looked around, then turned and walked casually to the delivery van—there were 400 balloons, after all—reaching in to grab two bundles of twenty-five, one with each hand, and then returning to the front door where he wrestled the balloons through the doorway and then released each bundle into the room while Rosa watched him work from the front porch, peering through the window and up at the ceiling where the balloons settled into their temporary home, until finally all eight trips were complete and Rosa Delacruz filled out the check in the amount of the invoice, underlining her name three times and placing an exclamation point at the end of her signature, then tearing it out of the checkbook and folding it neatly in half—a perfect crease—before handing it over to the delivery boy.
And then he was gone. And she was alone again.
It was of no concern to her though because she had 400 balloons and the solution to her shrinking problem. All she needed was one letter. One response to her appeal and she would stop shrinking. One pen pal and then she would be known again. She pulled one balloon loose from the bundle nearest the front door and carried it to the pantry and tied it around the doorknob of the pantry door. This was her last resort. If her plan didn't work out, well she would just tie the balloon around her waist and wait until she shrank small enough for the balloon to carry her off into the wide desert sky.
But that was for later. That was her backup plan. For now, she decided to carry each bundle out into her backyard and tie it to the baby saguaro cactus growing in the farthest corner of the yard. The strings were long enough that the balloons would be safe—say, if a gust of wind suddenly blew—from the needles of the cactus. Even so, there was the problem of getting the balloons out to the backyard without popping them, so she took her stepladder and a roll of masking tape and taped over every sharp surface between the living room and the porch screen door that opened onto the backyard. She taped the hinge plates and the pointy edges of each door. She taped the corners of her cabinets and the tips of the knives in her knife rack. The wine bottle opener and the pushpins on the corkboard. The corners of drawers and the television antennae tips. She taped her fingernails and the knobs on her stove. She taped the handles of her refrigerator and the leads of her pencils. The scissors and the letter opener and the needley edges of the aloe plant growing on her windowsill. And when she finally finished, Rosa Delacruz patiently ferried one bundle at a time from the living room into the kitchen and then out the backdoor and onto her porch, coaxing each balloon through the doorway, careful to be on the lookout for any sharp surfaces she might have missed, until finally she had tied the last bundle to the trunk of the saguaro and stood admiring the 399 balloons bouncing off one another. The hollow sound of the balloons bumping into each other made her smile. As the sun began to set, she could see through the red plastic of each balloon, and nesting deep in the belly of each one was a rolled up note that would finally bring her existence to the outside world. Each scroll a tiny potential savior.
Rosa's hands shook as she retrieved her sewing shears from her pocket, removed the masking tape from its blades, and lifted them toward the twine that held each bundle of balloons together. She snipped the first piece of twine tentatively and watched with satisfaction as twenty-five balloons pulled free, lifting into the now-pink desert sky, their silhouettes bobbing against the wide open canopy, blocking out the stars. She cut the next bundle and the next. With a calculated desperation Rosa Delacruz severed the twine of all sixteen bundles as quickly as her overly cautious hands would allow. And there, alone in her backyard as the sun set beyond the Tucson Mountains, 399 balloons lifted off for unknown locations. Some would probably burst before they reached an altitude of any significance—she was certain of this much—but the others, well she could only imagine how far they might travel before they rose too close to the atmosphere and popped from the pressure of rising too high into the sky. Others would simply be blown along some mysterious path, travelling on the wind, adrift above the desert, across the plains of Middle America. Surely some would venture north. And some would cross the Mexican border illegally and alight on the roof of a house in Sonora or maybe even as far south as Oaxaca. A few might even breach Cuba's airspace. Perhaps a handful of them would make the daring trip over the Atlantic. But either way, Rosa had done all she could do. She was certain someone would unwrap one of her little pink scrolls and decide what the hell, why not, then sit down after a meal and scribble a quick note to her. Someone. Somewhere. Now all she had to do was wait. Keep up the routine. Check the mail and the rain gauge and measure herself every few days. Keep checking.
All she had to do was keep checking.
And keep waiting.