“Some things you could make happen, but life was made up mostly of things that happened to you, and even that didn’t account for the way fractured lives somehow held together.”
By Bobbie Ann Mason
March 5, 2018
The only thing Dave liked about working at the chicken processing plant—years ago now—was the company of his buddy Miguel. They used to argue over what kind of shit smelled worst, and Miguel insisted it wasn’t chicken shit.
“You get used to chicken shit, man! It starts to smell like home, like a nice little chicken house with fat hens making big eggs in their boxes.”
“Chicken shit’s the worst,” Dave insisted.
“No, man. Hog shit is worse. I would never work in a hog farm.”
Dave still missed Miguel. For a year, he had worked beside him in the gutting room at the plant. The plucked chickens, hanging by their feet from a moving belt, arrived in a shroud of steam from the scalding room. All day Dave and Miguel gutted chickens, running their sharp knives around the neck holes and with their left hands yanking out the guts into a vat below. The chickens floated above them, their necks dangling, and Dave and Miguel reached to empty them. Carve and scoop. Carve and scoop. “This takes guts, pardon the expression,” Dave was fond of saying. “Yup!” Miguel would say with a grin. At quitting time, they slid on the slippery floor like kids on a patch of ice.
“We’re lucky,” Miguel told him. “We get the warm steam. Down the line, at the screw-chiller, we freeze—our asses blue!”
Miguel told Dave he was worried that his wife, Maria, would become Americanized. “They start wanting money. They want this and that. They don’t want to work. They want to shop, so the men have to work hard.” He shook his head. “I have seen two of those marriages. They go to divorce and the woman gets everything the man worked for. Not good.”
Dave was disappointed when Miguel was promoted to the dangerous live-hang room. In live-hang, Miguel hung the flailing chickens by their feet on a moving belt that sent them to the kill room. He could hoist a bird overhead every couple of seconds. He knew how to avoid the claws and how to grab and lift the chicken with minimal strain to his wrists and elbows. Miguel won a bonus for being top live-hang man of the year, but Dave spent his gutting-room shift in the heavy fumes of wet feathers and chicken offal. His shoulder burned, his fingers were numb, his hands had open sores. In his yellow coveralls smudged with chicken filth, he was biding his time.
Dave had hoped for bigger things. Early in their marriage, he and Trish had hightailed it to California, expecting sunshine, good money, and an orange tree in the yard. But after being laid off from a foam-rubber factory, he and Trish, with their L.A.-born child, Ashley, returned to Kentucky. It was a relief to enter small-town life again, but jobs were scarce. Dave started out bagging gizzards, which was easy enough, but he earned more money gutting. Every night Trish massaged his hands with petroleum jelly. He slept in surgical gloves.
“Times will get better,” she said, stroking his arms tenderly.
Kentucky was cheaper than California, she pointed out. One day they would have a nice house, with a two-car garage and a garbage disposal. “Forget the orange tree,” she said.
Dave was afraid that when Ashley got older she would be embarrassed by his work. For now, it was play. He was the Chicken Man, in a costume Trish had made.
Eventually, with the help of his brother-in-law, Dave landed a good job installing satellite dishes. He wore a uniform with his full name on the pocket. In a white van with a sporty dish on top and “We dish it up for you” painted on the side, he traveled the tri-state region. They were saving for a down payment on a house. As he climbed onto roofs to screw on the pert little antennas, magic receptacles that brought in the world, the chicken plant was a nightmare memory, but he often thought of the Mexicans he had known there, especially Miguel.
Dave had come to know Miguel as a man of insight and courage. Three years earlier, Miguel swam the Rio Grande. The waiting coyote crammed 40 men into a van, and they rode for two hours. It was dark and cold when they were let out—on the edge of a town, they were told. The 40 dispersed, and Miguel stuck with Jorge and Tonio. When the dawn came, seeping across the desert, they saw only sand and tall cacti scattered like abandoned vehicles. They saw no roads. There was nothing to eat, but the coyote had given them one jug of water each. Miguel had a few snacks in his pocket. They started north. They saw no one. The sun scorched their skin. Jorge said it would be better to walk at night and sleep in the day, but Tonio said they would bake, like hens in an oven. Miguel said they had to dig a hole in the sand for shelter. It would be cooler. It was, and there was even a bit of moisture in the ground. It was scrubby, with sticker bushes and grasses that cut their pants. They saw lizards scurrying, birds flying up from hidden nests. They raided a bird nest and cracked an egg—a half-formed chick. Jorge ate it. And then Miguel and Tonio ate one. And then they each ate another one. They were on ranch land, and they came across a feed shed, where grain had been stored. They found an open tank of water. They parted the scum on the water, teeming with insect life and eggs, and drank the putrid-tasting liquid. It soon made them sick, but they continued on.
The sun beat down, and they dug in the ground with sticks. They fashioned a tent with their shirts. On the fourth night, they walked toward a distant glow. Then they discerned the small lights of airplanes circling to land. Another night’s walk, and in the heat of the day, after resting, almost fainting, they saw houses.
The woman at the house where they stopped fed them and agreed to help them find work. It could have been a trap, but they had no choice. They would have died in another day. The woman wore bell-bottom trousers and espadrilles. She had a desert-colored cat called Speed-Bump, and she cooked packaged foods in the microwave. She went out to buy more, leaving them there, trusting them. She let them sleep in a comfortable basement guest room, with a TV and a refrigerator. Miguel spoke of his weeks there with fondness. The woman found them some work with a roofer, and after they earned enough money to leave, they paid a man to take them to work chickens in Kentucky.
Miguel had told Dave this history early in their acquaintance. “We almost died,” he said. “The desert was like the moon—no good air, no nothing,” He said that he and his two friends had each paid $800 for a van ride from Arizona to Kentucky.
“An airplane ticket wouldn’t cost half that much!” Dave said. “You were cheated.”
Later, he understood. But at the time he had believed that the rules were the same for everyone.
After Dave began installing satellite dishes, he lost track of Miguel, but one summer evening, he saw him leaving the Mexican restaurant with molded-foam boxes of carryout food. Dave had just parked his van.
“Hey, dish man!” Miguel laughed.
Miguel was still working in live-hang, and Dave shuddered with the memory of the soupy cleaning vats where the naked chickens bobbed. Miguel, grinning with pride, had news: he and Maria had a baby.
“Hey, that’s great, Miguel. I thought you were going to wait.”
Miguel laughed. Some things just had a way of happening. Pointing to the dish antenna, Miguel said, “You could fry some good tortillas in that on a hot day!”
Maria began coming by to babysit in the afternoons. Carrying little Joaquin in a striped sling against her body, she would meet Ashley, who was now seven, after school and walk her home, staying there until Dave and Trish got back from work. Trish was in electronics at Walmart. They had a little savings now, and they had bought a new dinette and traded in the car. Trish was especially pleased to have Maria in the house. She had been unhappy leaving Ashley at the Play Place, where an indefinable meanness lurked (Trish didn’t like the looks of the proprietor’s boyfriend). Dave and Trish had never hired help, and Dave had qualms about hiring a Mexican, but he reasoned that if the powerful chicken plant could employ so many illegal workers, surely he could hire a babysitter.
Maria was small and solidly built, with a modest forward tilt of her head, a tendency to giggle quietly when she couldn’t say an English word, and a pleasing willingness to help. She wore deep-pink pants most of the time. Sometimes she cooked supper for them—rice and beans, with bits of colorful peppers. Trish was crazy about Maria’s tortillas.
One day Maria said she would make tamales for them if she could get a hog’s head. Apparently meat from a hog’s head was a delicacy in Mexico.
“My uncle raises hogs,” Trish said.
“Yuck,” said Ashley, who was stationed before the Disney channel.
“Ashley, don’t act ugly. Hot-tamales are good.”
“Tamales, in corns,” said Maria.
“Corn shucks,” Dave said. He explained to Ashley how tamales were steamed inside corn husks.
“I’d rather have chicken,” Ashley said.
Maria said, “Miguel makes 10,000 chickens in one day. But he not bring one chicken home.” She laughed, demonstrating how a chicken under his jacket would flap and squawk, giving him away.
“I love hot-tamales,” said Trish, who was making goo-goo eyes at the baby.
“Need pig head.” Maria folded her apron and tucked it in a plastic bag.
Dave drove Maria home. She held the baby in his sling. The small house Maria and Miguel rented was dark, and the porch sagged. The neighborhood was always known as a black neighborhood, but now Mexicans occupied many of the houses. Miguel had cable TV, with the Spanish-channels package. He was mad about soccer.
Dave walked with her up the broken sidewalk and waited until she had opened the door and turned on the light. He glimpsed a pleasant interior, with bright colors.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
She nodded. Miguel would be home after his shift, at midnight.
The next day, Saturday, Dave took Ashley out for ice cream. Before returning home, he drove beyond the edge of town to a trailer park where he had done some jobs. “I want to show you something,” he said. As they drove up, he admired the smartness of the little gray dishes he had installed. But the place was worse than the dilapidated houses in the neighborhood where Maria and Miguel lived, even worse than anything Dave remembered in the poor neighborhoods in California. He pointed out the trash that had washed out of a creek—a sodden mattress, broken toys. A couple of dogs, tied to trees, were barking frantically. A dead bird lay on a doorstep. The trailers were rusted and dented, their underpinnings stuffed with hay for insulation. A meth lab had been discovered here recently.
“I hate this place,” Ashley said, holding close her doll, a large flat soft doll she had been carrying around since Maria had been coming to the house with her baby. Ashley was a waif of a child—thin, with some large, irregular front teeth coming in.
He said, “Ashley, sweetheart. I promise you we won’t ever have to live like this.”
He thought he would do anything for his family—work in live-hang, even break the law, if he had to. He thought Mexico must be a hellhole, yet Miguel had not left out of desperation. He said crossing the border was more of a thing to do when you are young—to go out and see the world, to experience America. Dave hadn’t quite believed Miguel.
One afternoon, when Dave got home from work, Trish said, “Miguel’s in trouble, and Maria’s very upset.”
Maria, appearing from the kitchen, was too flustered to speak, and Trish explained. After Miguel left his shift at midnight, he was stopped on the highway just a few hundred yards from the plant. He wasn’t speeding, she said. It was about his license.
“He doesn’t have a driver’s license,” Trish said.
“Of course not,” said Dave.
Trish said, “The cop didn’t arrest him, just gave him a warning. Maria’s afraid he’ll be deported.”
Maria was wrapping the baby tightly in a blanket, as if she could package him up and stow him somewhere safe.
“Is it illegal for the plant to hire somebody that’s illegal?” Trish asked Dave later.
“They get cheap labor, so they don’t ask.”
“I can’t believe Maria or Miguel would do something dishonest. I mean I know they’re illegal, but you know what I mean. It never occurred to me they couldn’t get a driver’s license.”
Dave was afraid Trish was no more naïve than he himself was, and he didn’t want to lecture her. He held her close, wondering how she would cope if something happened to him and she was left on her own. He was surprised that he could so easily imagine how strong she would be.
Two days later, Dave arrived at home before Trish and found Maria crying in the kitchen. The baby was asleep in a plastic crate on the floor. Ashley was in her room with homework. It was not until Trish had come home and Maria was more forthcoming with her that Dave understood what had happened. Miguel, afraid he and Maria would get deported, had left Kentucky last night to get his brother’s help in Arkansas. Miguel had telephoned her from Missouri, across the rio grande, she said.
“The Mississippi?” Dave asked.
“Yes. The ‘big river,’ ” said Trish, who had picked up some Spanish. “Miguel says if there’s trouble, the police will send him and Maria both back to Mexico but not the baby.”
Maria burst into tears and was barely able to speak. “Joaquin was born in America. They keep him here.”
Trish wrapped her arms around Maria. “No, no. They can’t do that. Don’t worry. They can’t take your baby away from you.”
Maria lifted the baby from the crate and rocked him in her arms.
“What can we do, Maria?” asked Trish.
She shook her head and sobbed. The baby squirmed and began to cry. “They want to take my baby.”
“Maria, listen … that’s impossible!” Trish cried. “Our government wouldn’t break up a family.”
“I have to hide my baby,” Maria said.
“That just can’t be true,” Trish said that night in their bedroom.
“But it is,” said Dave, shutting off the TV. “I’ve heard Miguel talk about this.”
“That’s outrageous.” Trish pulled off her jeans and top and wriggled into her shortie pajamas. Dave thought she had gained a little weight. She said, “This woman at work, Lillian, said we could get in trouble if we had anything to do with Mexicans. I didn’t say anything. But Maria needs us. I mean, we can’t just turn our backs, can we? What could the law do to us?”
Dave had a sick feeling, but he kept quiet.
“They can’t split up a family over a green card, can they?” Trish cried. “Isn’t that un-American? That’s like taking away your car if you get a speeding ticket. No, it’s worse. That’s not what I meant.”
“We have to be careful, you know,” Dave said.
“But she needs us,” said Trish. “If they get deported, we’re taking care of Joaquin. And that’s that.”
Ashley had overheard talk of the baby being taken away. Trish told her, “Listen. This is a secret. Don’t you tell anybody at school about Maria or the baby. Do you understand?”
“Somebody might steal the baby?”
“That’s right, honey-bunch.” Trish smoothed Ashley’s stringy hair. “So let’s just keep this secret.”
Dave patted Ashley’s head. “You do what your mama says. I mean it. If you say one word, you are going to be in big trouble, kid.”
Miguel telephoned from his brother’s in Arkansas. It was after supper, and Maria was still there.
“Dave, my friend. Can you help me? I need Maria and the baby to come here. Right now. Come to Piggott, Arkansas. Then call this number.”
Dave copied the number, which Miguel sounded out slowly. He repeated the town and the directions that Miguel gave to him.
“Are you in danger, Miguel?”
“Everything is fine. I need them here, but my car broke, and no bus till tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry, Miguel. I’ll get them there somehow.”
Dave motioned to Maria. She took the phone and began speaking in lively Spanish. Her eyes didn’t leave the baby, who was rocking in Trish’s arms.
Dave and Trish consulted in the hallway.
“We have to take her,” said Trish.
“It’s real risky.”
“Where did you say he was?”
“Oh, I’ve heard of that. That’s in your territory.”
“His brother works there.”
“Maybe we should go in the van?”
“No.” Dave was angry at the suggestion. “I don’t want to get the company in trouble.”
“You’re mad at me.”
“You and Ashley stay here. No use us all going to jail.”
“Don’t be ridic,” said Trish, swatting his arm.
“You’re staying here,” he said.
Maria, hanging up the phone, was smiling.
Trish helped Maria gather some things at her house—some bedding, a laundry basket of clothing, and the baby’s car seat.
When Dave was ready to take off, Trish shoved a bag of snacks at him.
“Handy,” Dave said. “We’d better not stop.”
After deluging Maria with a tearful goodbye, Trish caressed the baby’s face, saying, “Be good, little Snooks, your mama and daddy need you.”
With Maria sitting in the back beside the strapped, shrouded baby, he felt like a chauffeur hauling around a V.I.P. Trish had joked about having hired help, but now Dave was Maria’s servant, in his Dave shirt. He still had on his uniform, with his name on the pocket. He worried that he was too innocent, driven by his soft heart, headed for trouble with a large federal system he little understood. He rehearsed what he would say if a cop stopped him and wanted to know who Maria was and where he was going with her.
Maria sat quietly, making tender noises to the baby, singing a little. She had removed him from the car seat and was rocking him in her arms.
At the Ohio River, he remembered driving across this bridge when he and Trish set out for California, years ago—in a used car with $600 cash and a large cooler of food. Trish wore a ponytail and cracked gum in an oddly endearing way. She was fond of talking baby talk to him then, calling him Davy-Wavy. They were just kids, starting out. Her heart was set on seeing a Pacific sunset and touring Universal Studios.
“Rio grande,” he said to Maria as they crossed the Mississippi River to Missouri.
He knew this region well. It was part of his tri-state territory. “Did you know there was a Mexico, Missouri?” he asked, but she didn’t answer. He heard her murmurs as she fumbled with the baby’s clothing.
He drove south on I-55, his lights on perpetual bright since there was almost no traffic. The baby was asleep, so Dave didn’t play the radio. He realized he wasn’t afraid. He would know what to say to a cop if he trusted himself.
Most of the businesses on the outskirts of Piggott were closed. Dave stopped at a gas station with a minimart and called the number Miguel had given him. Maria had removed the baby from the car seat and was holding him close to her breast.
“Dave? My man. I’m with Julio. My brother. Is Maria …”
“I’ve got Maria. And the baby.”
“Good, good. Is okay?”
“Leave her and the baby there. And turn around and drive away.”
“I can’t just abandon her. And I have her stuff.”
“I will get her.”
“Miguel—are you sure it’s you?”
“Okay, prove it. What kind of shit smells the worst?”
Miguel cackled. “Hog shit, man. You know it is, but you’ll say chicken shit.”
“Okay, I believe you. I’m just confused about this whole thing.”
“I can’t stay on the phone.”
“Will you be here right away?”
“Just leave her at the minimart.”
“She’ll be scared.”
“You saved my family. I don’t want you to mix up in us.”
“I’m going to stay here till I see you,” Dave said.
“Okay. Ten minutes.”
“Miguel is coming,” he said to Maria.
He understood that she needed to go to the restroom. He touched her arm as he helped her out of the car.
“I’ll wait,” he said. “To make sure he comes.”
“Thank you,” she said, a stricken expression on her face. She lowered her eyes.
She carried a little package with her, the baby’s soiled diaper.
Dave watched her through the window as she headed for the restroom. Some cars scooted through the parking lot, looping through without stopping. It was late, near 10. Realizing he should have bought Maria some food, he entered the mini-mart and ordered two cheeseburgers and packets of fries and two milk shakes.
Miguel hopped out of a white truck and grabbed Maria and the baby in one large embrace. Leaving them to their private reunion, Dave loaded Maria’s basket and tote bags into the truckbed. After the baby’s car seat was in place, Miguel stepped forward to shake Dave’s hand.
“I can’t thank you enough, my friend,” said Miguel through a large grin.
Dave handed him the bag of cheeseburgers and the milk shakes. “Be careful, good buddy,” he said.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Trish kept saying.
“We may never hear from them again,” Dave said.
But within a week, on a Tuesday afternoon, Maria was at the door, wearing the same hoodie she had worn on the tense night ride to Piggott.
“Maria!” Dave said in astonishment.
“Cómo estás? ” said Trish.
“I am fine, thank you,” said Maria.
“Where’s Joaquin?” demanded Trish.
Dave and Trish pieced the story together, and later Miguel clarified it. He had dropped Maria off to surprise them while he went to Walmart for some flowers.
“Flowers for you,” he said, handing a mixed bunch of blooms to Trish.
The baby was safe in Mexico with Maria’s parents.
“I’m stupefied,” Trish said. “How did you get the baby across the border? In a tote bag?”
“A baby needs no papers to cross the border,” said Miguel. “My cousin Manuel had to return to Puebla because his mother is sick, and he and his wife take our baby with them, now is safe with Maria’s family.”
“My mother and my sisters,” said Maria.
“But if Joaquin was born here, isn’t he illegal in Mexico?” asked Trish.
“He has certificate of born,” said Maria.
“I’m so confused,” said Trish. Dave rested his hand on Trish’s shoulder.
“He is U.S. and Mexican too,” said Miguel. “Anyone with Mexican parents is Mexican.”
“How strange!” said Dave. He could not imagine how they could send their child away.
“Maria wants to work here for a year,” Miguel said. “Save money. It was so hard to make the crossing, she wants to stay and make money, but it is okay to get deported. We will not worry so much. We will go home to our baby next year. The U.S. can’t have Joaquin now. He is safe.”
Trish cracked a tray of ice and poured glasses of Coke for everyone. Before she and Miguel left, Maria went to the sink to wash the glasses, as if she were quite at home.
Maria and Miguel were often at the house. Maria worked the early shift at Good Muffin and watched Ashley in the afternoon until Dave and Trish got home. Miguel was still on the live-hang night shift. He and Maria displayed photos on their cell phones. The baby with Maria’s mother, the baby with his cousins and aunts and uncles, the baby sitting in his grandfather’s lap. In several photos, the family was sitting in a rusty-pink room around a floral oil-cloth-covered table with plates of food and bottles of Jarrito and Dos XXs.
“They all seem so happy,” Trish said.
“Joaquin is safe with his grandparents,” said Miguel with a large grin.
“He’s growing!” said Trish. “Look at those fat little cheeks!”
Dave relaxed now that the deportation threat didn’t risk the baby, but what if he and Trish had sent Ashley to her grandparents here and stayed in California to earn more money? The thought bothered him, as if he had missed a crucial point about what risks were worth taking.
Dave came home dead tired at the end of a week. Maria and Ashley were sitting at the table with a language workbook. Ashley was learning Spanish and teaching Maria English.
“Table,” said Maria.
“Que es español for dog?”
“Woof woof, you know?”
“Un perro.” Maria laughed.
“I want a dog,” Ashley said. “A perro.”
Dave said, “Would you take care of a dog? Who would take it for a walk?”
“I would teach it lots of things,” Ashley said. “Tricks.”
“Oh, I’m sure.”
Ashley said, “Look in the refrigerator. I don’t want any supper.”
Dave opened the refrigerator and a hog’s head greeted him.
“I make tamales for you!” said Maria. “My promise.”
The head was a gray color, the texture of rubber. The hog’s tongue hung out over the lip of the plate.
“Dave, don’t gag,” said Trish, who had rushed in from the bathroom. “I got it from Nicky, Grandma’s friend’s ex-husband? He got it from his neighbor, and he took it to this old guy who was going to make souse meat with it.” Turning to Maria, she said, “I don’t know how to explain souse meat, but you sort of pickle it? Anyway, Dave, Nicky went back to get the souse meat, but the guy was drunk and hadn’t done anything with the hog’s head, so Nicky brought it back and Grandma told him we were looking for one, so he brought it over. It’s already been boiled. Maria’s going to make us some hot-tamales!”
“More cook,” said Maria. “I more cook it.”
“I want a dog,” Ashley said.
“Not now,” said Trish.
“I’m going to the garage to work on some stubborn lug nuts,” Dave announced. The image of the gray hog’s head lodged in his mind like a sci-fi monster emerging from a satellite dish.
Ashley wanted a dog. Dave thought Trish wanted another baby; the way she had looked at the doll-like Joaquin had not escaped his notice. The photos of the abruptly weaned baby transplanted to Mexico had brought tears to her eyes. Dave didn’t know what he wanted for himself.
Some things you could make happen, Dave thought, but life was made up mostly of things that happened to you, and even that didn’t account for the way fractured lives somehow held together. Dave had always felt there was something he could not quite grasp, a leap he was not quite positioned to make. But he remembered the thrill Miguel said he felt as he hoisted chickens. That must be how he and Maria had felt, crossing the border and then later sending their baby home, like a certificate of deposit in a bank.
That day was three years ago, but Dave remembered it vividly. It was one of those arbitrary but unforgettable moments of self-awareness, a moment that otherwise held no particular meaning, only a cluster of sensations—the hog’s head, the Spanish word for dog, the lug nuts. Now Miguel and Maria lived in Mexico, with their growing family, and they were hoping to return one day. At Christmas, the two families exchanged cards and photos. Trish sent a portrait of the family—Dave, Trish, Ashley, two-year-old Sam, and the dog, Buddy. Dave had grown a mustache, and his open face seemed to gaze at the camera as if it could point him in the right direction.
Bobbie Ann Mason is the author of numerous books, beginning with Shiloh and Other Stories, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her memoir Clear Springs was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her latest book is the novel The Girl in the Blue Beret.