Teresa sold flowers at the blue line station. At night she rode the blue line to the red line and got off somewhere in Hollywood to meet Ramon. Why should tonight be any different?
On the blue line she gave up her seat to an old couple struggling against infirmity and the narrow aisle of the car as they searched for a place to rest. The man wore a suit of mismatched parts too large for his frame, and he walked with a cane. Between strides he paused to balance himself on it, quivering like a rag caught on a stave in a windy field. The woman, Teresa thought, was difficult to describe. She moved constantly. Even at rest she trembled, a specter in flux who seemed to oscillate between two dimensions: the physical world of the train and a realm of shadow that clutched at the fringes of her being. One state, a withering reality. The other, an inadmissible realization.
The man fished a bag of crackers from his pocket, and Teresa watched as he pushed one bite after another into the woman’s mouth, pausing each time for a response that wasn’t coming, sick with anticipation, like a child who shovels coins into the Fortune Teller machine at the penny arcade, awaiting word of the dreadful or the divine. The woman’s jaw moved mechanically. It continued chewing even when the food tumbled out of her mouth and onto the ground. These crumbs the old man scooped up and devoured before anyone but Teresa could see. His hand leaping from frock to floor in a palsied ballet of stealth and savagery. His wild and darting expression. Defeat pulsing in the blue lines around his eyes.
A soldier sat behind them. His left arm was missing. The sleeve was pinned to the epaulet of his uniform shirt. Teresa had seen him on the train before. Every night he sat in the same seat. Every night he rode to the end of the line. And every night after the train had disgorged its passengers onto the platform, he remained slumped against that same window, staring out at stars far away from those smudged against the L.A. sky, waiting for the train to pull him back to where he began.
Some flabby guero in the next row asked the soldier about Iraq. The fat boy spoke of guns and prophets and the stripes of flags. He spoke through the grit of a burger about retribution and the sacrifices every American must make. He twittered as he described the hanging of a deposed ruler, which he had seen on the Internet. The soldier mentioned Afghanistan while the boy prattled on, noting its expressionless terrain and the voracity of a desert that drank up water and blood with equal zest. Then he stared out the window in silence at the last blue lines of dusk.
On the red line Teresa prepared for Ramon with applications of meth and make up. She remembered the guero and thought of the others Ramon would send her tonight. They were always the same. They came to her drunk and entered her in the same rough way, their faces etched with angry red lines. Sometimes she imagined herself as the Madonna reborn. Imagined that she could absorb their pain and clear their veins of poison and return to them all the pleasures they had squandered or lost. Sometimes there was blood, but it was better than not bleeding at all. Ramon had told her so years before, with his soothing voice and knowing smile, when the first red lines flowed down her thighs.
Ramon had been raised in a town only a few kilometers from her papa, near Ushuaia. He liked to play Tejo as her papa had. And in a uniform, Ramon could have been her papa’s twin. But he wasn’t like her papa.
She remembered the guerillas bringing Papa from the hospital into the courtyard. She remembered the corpses of pulpy leaves floating in the puddles. She remembered a nurse moving swiftly from room to room, closing the shutters and making the sign of the cross as she fastened each latch. She remembered how the latches sounded like the heavy bolts of the guerillas’ rifles.
And she remembered Papa sitting in a puddle with his head resting on the peaks of his knees, heavy lines of red and black smeared across the cracked plaster behind him.
When Teresa arrived at the house, Ramon was tending to one of his new girls, a fourteen-year-old who called herself Leticia. The swelling around the young girl’s eye was subsiding. The other bruises could be covered up with cosmetics. Ramon urged Leticia to rest and escorted her to an unused bedroom where she could spend the night. He helped her into the bed, drew the covers around her, turned out the lamp and cracked the door enough to keep the light out. There were no locks in Ramon’s house, no shut doors. “Very bad for business,” he used to say.
Teresa thought Ramon looked older tonight. Not tired or infirm, but as if he’d misplaced his youth somewhere nearby and hadn’t realized it was gone. He shuffled around the room in a daze, finally allowing his inertia to carry him as far as the bar where a colorful glass sweated onto the oak. One bead of water broke free from this gathering pool and slid toward the end of the counter. Ramon watched it crawl over the edge and cling to the brass rail. It swayed there like a diaphanous pendulum, and with each stroke its bottom bulged and its grasp on the rail thinned. The event was eternally slow, but Ramon stayed fixed on the droplet. Finally it slipped. He followed its descent with sad eyes until the droplet reached its destination.
“Be careful, mija,” Ramon said. “People are crazy tonight. It’s like the end of the world.”
She laughed, because the world had ended long ago.
Bret Bass writes out of Long Beach, CA.