by Dianna Henning (First published in The Iowa Source)
It is precisely the way Miguel Flores irons his shirt, the thin run of each crease down the front’s two sections, the exactness of the press from shoulder to cuff on the crisp blue chambray that’s intriguing. When he puts the shirt on it is over the whitest of white T-shirts, tails untucked the same way other wards at Juvenile Hall wear theirs: his blue-jeans baggy like the other Mexicans, and lightly bleached from the Clorox he and his buddies smuggled from laundry. Miguel looks so scrubbed, so finished, he is art.
He tells me how his grandparents moved back to Mexico. “Too much trouble in this country,” he says. “They prefer the old ways.” His grandmother Nina ran her hand through his hair while she read him folk tales in Spanish. She called him “my dark one,” because he occasionally brooded over the simplest things. Nina must have known what I now see—the slightest rebuke causes Miguel’s face to cloud over until he looks as though he’s pondering a dilemma so deep, so wide there’s no way to bridge a route back to him. This gives him a depth beyond his years, a depth he’s unaware of.
“Can you unlock the art room?” Miguel asks. That’s where we keep the iron used for paper-making although he sometimes uses it for his shirt. Each morning and evening I check the shadow-boards where the paint-brushes, scissors and T-square are hung. After inventorying them I initial a security sheet that will later be cross-checked by an officer. My Art Therapy cupboard has several different kinds of paper, water-colors, art books and acrylics. For the wards of the state this room is a sanctuary, a place to get away from all the gang brouhaha on the fenced-in exercise yard. The Border Brothers have been going at it again—a kid was shanked while eating in the chow-hall just as he was about to shovel spaghetti into his mouth. Spaghetti and blood everywhere.
Miguel spits on his finger, tests the flat of the iron to assure himself it has cooled. His hair is so dark it is ink. He waters it down throughout the day and slicks it with both hands moving from his forehead back, the small residue of water picking up sequins of light. His blue chambray hangs on a peg to save it from wrinkling and paint spatters. Throughout his hours in my art therapy program I watch him the way a parent would. He returns the iron to its cubby-hole, his large shoulders crescent shaped as he hangs his chit back on its clip. Chits indicate a ward’s state number and if something comes up missing it can be traced, traced the same way memory is tracked, one thing becoming a clue to another.
His mother loves him. He tells me that and more. He’s her favorite, always has been according to his sisters. “Miguel, I’m counting on you my little man,” his mother Maria would say as she folded him into her arms. His sisters, in their pretty taffeta dresses, stood behind their mother making faces at him, their hair cupped softly around their silky necks. They’d silently mouth their mother’s words while they fanned out her skirt as a shield to hide behind.
It’s the little stories people tell on themselves that endear us to them—we continually breathe in the oxygen of other people’s lives until they become part of us, our skin threaded with their stories. By the end of our lives we must inhabit many bodies. This makes me particularly glad because I’m assured of my dear ones presence in my last hours.
In his yard at home Miguel had a lemon tree planted by his grandparents to celebrate his birth. When he grew older he picked lemons in the spring, each one plunking down into the sweet-grass basket sent to his family by an aunt. He remembers the cookies his aunt packed in their Christmas basket: molasses cookies made with lard, and persimmon cookies glazed with a light snowfall of sugar. When he gathered enough lemons he’d leave them in the sweet-grass basket on the front porch.
“Lemon cookies,” he called the fresh picked fruit as he ran back into the house to fetch a spray bottle and a wash cloth fresh from his mother’s laundry basket. He’d put both into his back pocket. As Miguel traveled door to door selling his lemons, each one was first showered clean before he handed it over to his customer. “Lemons for a quarter, five for a dollar,” he’d say. His pockets bulged with change at day’s end.
Even then he must have had big shoulders. He carries his shoulders as though something important was about to be asked of him. After his return from his ventures, his mother would cup his cheeks in her hands, kiss him lightly on the forehead. He swears those kisses burned through his forehead, that they gave him another eye. I believe this, for I sense something in him sees beyond the ordinary.
Miguel tells me his shoulders were so wide that the doctor used forceps at his birth. The forceps looked like stainless steel tongs his mother said. The terrible wrenching to extract him from the boat of her body rocked her back and forth until she thought she would drown on the delivery table. The lights of the room dimmed, and she didn’t know if she was slipping away, or if the world itself was vanishing. He tells me this story several times because he likes the thought of his life being so clearly earned. It’s a sign he’ll one day do something significant. This is the belief from the lore of his family which goes back many generations.
His grandfather Pedro, as was predicted, wrote a history book on Mexico when he worked at the University in the States. This brought many blessings upon the family, and enabled his grandmother and grandfather to return to Mexico. They never really fit in this country, he adds, and wanted the quiet and familiarity of the old country.
Last year he slipped up bad, hit a 7-Eleven one midnight in November. Miguel said he did it because his dad skipped town and they didn’t have a clue where he went. His mom had just been diagnosed with cancer and couldn’t be seen at the out-patient clinic until she had the co-payment in hand. They had insurance, although minimal, what he called ghost insurance because it was almost non-existant. During her convalescence he saw first hand how circumstances could snatch up a person’s home and everything gets auctioned off so fast one’s life seems a mirage.
On his midnight rendezvous with the store the cops nabbed him. I swear it was his shiny hair, the way it picks up light that tipped them off. He’d parked his mother’s VW Bug at the back of the 7-Eleven. It was late and Miguel thought it would be easy. He’d simply ask the attendant to tilt the cash register and empty it into his bag. This particular 7-Eleven was jinxed from the start. The cops heard about a hit via an informant so they planted two plain clothes cops in the parking lot.
Miguel used one of his mother’s nylon stockings to distort his face. “When I pulled it over my head I looked like Frankenstein,” he tells me. ”Even you would have been afraid.“ He held the bag open, ordered the man at the register to empty the till or he’d blast him away, although he had no gun, never owned one. The man sweat profusely, his bald head glistened, the ring of outer hair dotted with sweat beads.
”His head was a large bird’s nest minus the birds,“ Miguel comments. Just as the man at the register started to dish out the cash, the cops came up behind Miguel. One of them stuck his finger in Miguel’s back and the other one cuffed him. That’s how he arrived at the detention hall and finally Juvenile Hall. That’s how I got him in my Art Therapy class. You can’t make trouble while you paint. In classification the staff concluded he was “salvageable” which means some effort and money will be spent to rehabilitate him.
Yesterday, Miguel came ambling into my office, speech already written on his face, his eyes rapidly surveying a spot to sit. He cleared a stack of art books off the extra swivel chair and sat down. He knows how to navigate his world, claims it as though it’s every person’s undeniable right to make comfort in the midst of chaos.
“Do you think people can change?” he asks.
No answers come and moments swim in the air between us. I like to look at him, as I said earlier, to see who he is on the inside.
In such moments I recall an earlier story he told me.
Why, momma, does the bird fly and not us?” he’d asked his mother.
”Well, my darling,“ she answered, ”We are not gods and the birds are.“ He looked up at her amazed and began to flap his child arms as though they were wings as he darted between the Joshua trees in their back yard. Now his wings have been clipped he tells me. Miguel is still seated on the swivel chair in my office. His eyes are so clear they are luminous. In their brown globes I see infinity. Before I answer his question he’s gone on to the next.
”You know the passage,“ he says as he finds the exact page, ”in the story you asked me to read on free time? What I liked best in this story by Tim O’Brien is: “The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it hoping that others might then dream along with you and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.” For a moment he holds onto his words as though savoring them, then eagerly, as though about to burst, he adds: ”I know about spirits. I’ve seen friends shot up real bad in drive-bys. At night their spirits come to my bedside and tell me how to kick butt in heaven.“
This is the last thing I want to happen to Miguel, and I shudder at the thought of his friends being hunted down, their young lives spattered like some abstract painting. Oddly enough the excerpt from Tim O’Brien’s book that Miguel quoted is also my favorite. Since I believe him already an angel he has no problem in sniffing out the purest parts of language.
“Do you like to travel?” he asks.
“Yes, although I’ve not done nearly enough of it. But now I can afford to go places.”
“I went to college for a year,” he says. “Pulled good grades. Now I’ve royally f——ed that up. I liked learning. Can you believe that?”
I can. I listen and do not deny his messing up, although I know human nature is capable of great change, given the opportunity, that life specializes in reinventing itself. I suggest that he return to school after he paroles. The only problem is he has no place to parole to now that his mother is in hospice and they haven’t a clue where his father is. Both his sisters have been farmed out to relatives who have no room for Miguel.
“We have a spare bedroom,” I say to Sam my husband, but he won’t have anything to do with an ex-felon paroling to our house, and besides that’s not what I really want. It’s from the distance grandparents have that a wider range of influence can cause a positive outcome. Sam knows this and responds to my wistful thinking: “Now that Edward’s grown up you want another kid around?” There’s irony in his tone of voice as well as disbelief.
“You’re a die hard romantic,” he tells me. “You think these guys will be good, will curb their old ways. Well, I’ve seen enough and know differently.”
Since Sam is a self-made man he thinks he has the mark of truth blazed into his chest. “There’s so little we can do for the suffering masses,” he pontificates, then clouds himself behind The Times.
I talk about Miguel all the time. Who can blame Sam? Behind his certainty there’s an element of truth. It is up to the individual to make of his life what he will. Much will fall upon Miguel’s shoulders when he gets out. His shoulders are wide because of what will be asked of him.
“Colleges want bright young men like you,” I tell him. “You won’t have any trouble getting a scholarship.” Sam clips some information on minorities applying to schools from the newspaper, says pass it on to Miguel. Silently, and together, Sam and I are working towards Miguel’s future, although Sam would never admit any part in it.
My grandmother Nellie would have taken Miguel in. She would have said society’s shot to hell. She would have fed him tea and doughnuts and told him about the magical people who lived in the woods and who are so tiny a mushroom could house their entire village. Nellie might have gone on to tell Miguel about Ottis who also lived at the edge of Summerville, and how he became blind. It was as though drapes had been drawn across Ottis, she said. Yet, despite this handicap he took his daily jaunt into the village, his cane pecking sparks of light from the sidewalk. Ottis paused at all the fresh spring flowers in the neighboring yards to cup them in his hands. He could name plants by feel or smell. From this alone he knew what ailed various species and he’d engage gardeners in remedies for blight and other garden problems.
“To be blind and know where you’re going, that’s courage,” Nellie would say. She would have told Miguel stories to empower him. He would have listened because of the earnestness with which she spoke. Despite his youth he is wise in ways that could sadden one. He’s seen more than he should have for his years. It is written in his eyes. Eyes so large you can almost walk in them. Sometimes when I look at him I see a wise sage, and other times a reckless adventurer lurking beneath his expression. How could it be otherwise?
Miguel picks up the pencil he’s been tapping and the light glints off his hair. His hair is as dark as the blackberries I picked with Nellie as a child. He smells of lemons, of little suns. He has so many stories inside him that he’s already become a book. The first chapter might have had some disturbing moments, but I see future chapters of his life unfolding in accordance with who he is—a young man whose pain is brought into wisdom.
This is the way I’ll remember him: he’s walking up the hill to my house, a son’s hand clasped in his. He wears casual clothes and holds a forthright look in his face, a look that is steady. He will introduce me to his son. I will get down on my knees, look his boy in the eyes and see his father. Miguel will tell me school wasn’t that bad, that he graduated with honors and is now in Graduate School.
I will know this before he tells me. I will have seen it in a dream. We will have tea and cookies. He will smell of lemon.