From This Wicked Patch of Dust

Sergio Troncoso

The Beatles in Ysleta
July 1966

Pilar Martínez stumbled into her mother's apartment, which had once been a church in El Segundo Barrio in downtown El Paso. Nineteen-month-old Ismael was limp in her arms. Her husband, Cuauhtémoc, had locked the pale green Chevy Impala in the darkness of San Antonio Avenue. She glimpsed her husband's grim face. His brown trousers were speckled with mud and ripped at one knee. Pilar's own face was streaked with an ashlike grime, and her jet-black hair seemed a ball of snakes twisting to escape their torture. Marching into the bedroom, she nestled Ismael into the rickety white crib and hurried to the living room. Cuauhtémoc unlaced his boots, and don Pedro and doña Josefina, her parents, waited in front of the rust-colored sofa. "Nos robaron el cobre. It's been stolen, Mamá," Pilar said, shaking the numbness from her arms.

"Cómo? Quién?"

"Probably marijuanos from the canal behind the lot. They stripped it," Cuauhtémoc said bitterly, his green eyes flashing. He imagined twisting a rebar with his hands around an anonymous neck. "We talked to don Chencho already and he's coming back on Monday to redo the bathrooms, the kitchen. It'll only take a few weeks." Pilar slipped off her shoes, and fine grains of sand pattered on the floor. "Cuauhtémoc will do the plans for his new bathroom and living room to pay for don Chencho's work, as soon as he's able. It will be fine."

"But we'll have to move there."

"What? To Ysleta?"

"To Ysleta. Or the same thing will happen again. Another catastrophe."

"You don't even have running water! Or electricity! Y los niños?"

"Mamá, we don't have a choice." They had spent the day putting up a makeshift chain-link fence around the lot. "If we're not there, then our house will never be finished."

"Pilar, what you need is a good dog and a club," don Pedro said, hiking up his loose pants.

"What are you talking about?" Doña Josefina's eyes bore through don Pedro's shiny bald head.

Cuauhtémoc trudged to the kitchen and poured himself a cup of atole. Would anyone dare break into their house if they saw someone living there? He stirred the hot thick brown elixir with a spoon and lost himself for a moment in the clouds of steam. Pilar followed him, while doña Josefina and don Pedro shuffled behind.

"Pedro can bring milk every day, on his way to Socorro. Milk and eggs, and whatever else you need," doña Josefina said, wringing her hands as she sat at the kitchen table covered by a plastic tablecloth imprinted with yellow flowers and green stems.

"Seguro que sí. Whatever you need, you tell me. I can stop by every day after I'm done on the farm, too." "We need to do this in a week, as soon as don Chencho starts installing the new pipes, or the same thing will happen again," Cuauhtémoc said.

"It'll be all right." In her head, Pilar was already making plans to register the children at the new school two blocks from their house. That had been the plan all along anyway; they just had to start earlier. She marched through another doorway in the kitchen to the darkened bedroom where the children were sleeping. The aqua-blue wall between the kitchen and the bedroom reached only two-thirds of the way to what once had been the church's ceiling, dividing the massive rectangular space like a gigantic I. Under the dome above the I, the pendulous air traversed every room in the house, vaguely connected its noises, and seemed to harbor a residue of bygone solemnity. Pilar returned and sat down. "Ay, que greñuda! I look like a witch with this hair!" "Doña Pepita, I need to ask you for a favor," Cuauhtémoc said, staring at the cup in front of him. "We don't have the money for the new copper pipes . . ." His voice trailed off as he thought of what he had just paid for: the lot in Ysleta, the adobe for the unfinished rooms, more lumber, the chain-link fence. "Por supuesto, Cuauhtémoc. Whatever you want, m'ijo." "Seguro que sí."

"Not give. Lend. We'll pay you back in a few months, Mamá," Pilar said. "If I find out who did this, if they come back again, I don't know what I'll do. Malditos. Maybe I should buy a rifle." A shiver raced up Cuauhtémoc's spine.

"We'll call the sheriff, that's what we'll do. No rifle."

"Call the sheriff? With what, Pilar?" There was still no phone service in Ysleta. "Don't worry. There are plenty of gente decente in Ysleta. Don Chencho. Doña Lupe. Ramon. Pepe Chavez on Carranza, your sister Elvia. They will help us. Those potheads come out at night only when there's no one around. We'll be all right, you'll see." A siren echoed in the distance, on Paisano Drive. The canyon of red-brick tenements and old stone houses gave the street an ominous, permanent darkness that at night seemed to hide eyes behind every hedge and porch, even in the trees.

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