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This tenderly wrought novel by a gifted new writer about a town on the Rio Grande resonates with pure border voices. Thirteen women-all ages and backgrounds-react in unexpected, humorous, and mysterious ways when one day the river suddenly turns crimson red. The bridge, which the women cross and re-cross in the course of this cycle of stories, becomes a site where the women acquire knowledge about their lives and their landscape as the mystery of the color of the river unravels. Romo illuminates a cross-section ...
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This tenderly wrought novel by a gifted new writer about a town on the Rio Grande resonates with pure border voices. Thirteen women-all ages and backgrounds-react in unexpected, humorous, and mysterious ways when one day the river suddenly turns crimson red. The bridge, which the women cross and re-cross in the course of this cycle of stories, becomes a site where the women acquire knowledge about their lives and their landscape as the mystery of the color of the river unravels. Romo illuminates a cross-section of border life in classic, lyrical prose, rich with elements of fable, ancient morality tales, and magic, all the while capturing the extraordinary textures of contemporary border life. El Puente/The Bridge captivates and entertains with its mix of closely observed reality imbued with deep spirituality.
"A story cycle that bridges together, like a string of papel picado, the lives of several women on both sides of the Tex-Mex border. The world, according to Romo, is bizarre, troche moche, heartbreaking, rasquache, endlessly romantic, tender and touching. As funny as a fotonovela, triste as a telenovela and wild as any Fellini." Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek
"Each voice of the women Romo has created blooms into a real life that we recognize immediately. He has created his own bridge between the seeming ordinariness of the women with an extraordinary event, beautifully told. We stand captivated in the presence of full human beings." Helena Maria Viramontes, author of The Moths and Under the Feet of Jesus
"Ito Romo's El Puente/The Bridge will charm its readers-meaning both delightand enchant them. Thirteen women's lives are woven together into the story of a possible miracle, or perhaps it is a hoax, or maybe sabotage with political overtones. Like an old-fashioned folktale, this deceptively simple novel unfolds the secrets of a community. Ito Romo is our storyteller at the border, bridging two cultures and many lives with his first novel." Julia Alvarez, author of How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Yo!, and In The Name of Salom
SHE realized her life was out of control when she burned the pot of beans. Now she had to throw them away, a whole kilo. She had to clean the old earthen vessel with a Brillo pad—scouring and scrubbing very hard, until all of the charred blackness was gone—rinsed away—flowing down the Rio Grande, where she emptied her washtub and the sorrow in her soul.
The five birdcages full of finches hung along the south side of the long room next to the windows facing the Rio Grande. Lorenzo, her mynah bird who ate dry dog food, sat in his cage set on a small, wobbly wooden table by the door. "Meow, meow," the large black bird mimicked. Carlota started yelling, "¡El gato! El gato! There's a cat in the house! He's going to eat the birds!" The Chihuahua barked nervously. Sonia, the maid, came running out of the kitchen, across the courtyard—and slipped on the huge pile of watermelon rinds left on the ground for the turtles.
Carlota dropped the box of Kibbles'N Bits that she was about to feed Lorenzo; her two basset hounds, Cowboy and Gina, pushed their way through the screen door and began feeding frantically around her legs, fighting the Chihuahua for the Kibbles, knocking her off balance because of her bad knee. She fell to the ground, but before she went down, she grabbed at Lorenzo's cage in a vain attempt to save herself and accidentally knocked off the wooden clothespin that held the cage door shut. The birdescaped. The dogs chased it. Carlota sat in the middle of the red cement floor of her bedroom, crying, yelling, "No veo, no veo," at the top of her lungs, as cataracts began to cover her eyes.
* * *
She lived in a twenty-three-room Spanish Colonial house with a courtyard in the middle. Seven of those rooms had been left intact, just as her grandfather had left them one hundred and thirty-six years ago. It was South Texas at the turn of the century: heavy wooden beams holding up eighteen-foot wooden ceilings painted blue, baby blue. There was a powder in the air like an old man's talc that you could see in the light of the evening sun shining through the curtains covering the windows. Three-foot-thick exterior walls painted every three years either yellow, light blue, or pink. And every night she sat in her rocking chair in her living room and stared at the long line of honking cars, trucks, and eighteen-wheelers in front of her house, all of them heading for the bridge two blocks away.
"Oh, how I love to watch the traffic," she'd say. And then sigh.
She sat here the night after Lorenzo had mimicked the cat, after she had fallen, in the dark, and she stared at the traffic, crying, slow tears, her rigid face expressionless, just staring straight ahead as if she could see what she thought had been her miserable life projected in the light beams of the passing autos. Or was it a beautiful life that she could now barely remember? Or was it that cataracts had begun to cover her eyes and no longer let her see the traffic as she used to? Or was it that the cataracts and the tears made the traffic look wet, as if it were raining, and raining always made her want to cry?
Which comes first? she thought. My sadness or my tears?
"Ya no sé," she said. She no longer knew.
I don't put a bullet through my head because I have neither the gun nor the courage, she thought as she pushed herself out of the rocking chair and moved her stiff, tired body to her bedroom, where she laid herself down on her grandmother's old bed, the moonlight oozing through the windows, the finches chirping every now and then in their sleep, a strange, cool breeze coming up from the banks of the Rio Grande.
* * *
The following morning, Carlota was making her miniature tortillas. It had been a difficult two days. Her rheumatism was acting up; both legs felt stiff at the knees. Her hip still hurt from the fall, and a deep depression still held her tightly, as tight as the joints in her legs. She looked out the large windows in her kitchen into the backyard. The mulberries had already fallen, and the ground was covered with them, making it easy for the animals to leave their prints all over the hand-laid brick courtyard—little bird prints; strange, almost prehistoric-looking turtle prints; soft-step cat paw prints; and the big, fat prints Of the basset hounds. She stared at the hundred-year-old mesquite in the far, south corner, a twenty-foot limb held up by a heavy, thick, rusting chain. She remembered her father building a dirt dam around the tree to make sure it got enough water. She remembered sitting under the tree as a child and chewing on the mesquite pods, sweet and sour. While she stared at the tree, she reached her hand into the tin that held the coffee, and as she was about to throw it into the pot of boiling water, Sonia ran in, screaming.
"Calo, algo pasa en la televisión," Sonia said. Although Sonia could not understand English, she knew the beep, beep, beep that announced a coming storm or other possible catastrophe on television. Carlota made her way across the courtyard to see what was happening, slowly, using her cane with each step she took to cross the courtyard into her living room.
"Juan! Juan!" Carlota yelled to her driver and groundskeeper, "Hurry. Go get the car. river is turning red. Hurry! Get the car. Take us to see it!"
It took Juan over an hour to get the car from its parking space around the corner. Carlota was yelling at him when he finally arrived, "What took you so long?"
"I couldn't get through. The traffic is bad. I don't know what's happening," answered the man as he shut the car door after Carlota and Sonia had gotten into the back seat.
"Well, what do you think is happening! Something is going on with the river—that's what's happening. Let's go, let's go!" Carlota spoke to him in a grammatically correct yet highly accented English, keeping her promise to speak to him only in English when he arrived from Mexico five years ago so that he would learn the language.
It took them forty minutes to move one block. Carlota was becoming agitated. And Sonia got nervous because of all the policemen and INS officials in their green outfits standing at almost every corner. As they arrived at Convent, the street that led to the bridge, the policeman directing traffic would not allow them to take a right turn onto the bridge but, rather, made them cross Convent and continue going straight.
"Now what are we going to do?" whined Carlota, her anxiety at a peak.
"Well, I'm going to go straight and follow the street along the river. Maybe we can see something," Juan answered.
The radio announcer had stopped playing country-western music hours ago and was dedicating all the airtime to the news of the day, saying, "The waters of the Rio Grande have turned red. Again, this is a special report—the waters of the Rio Grande have turned red. Downtown traffic is at a standstill. Do not go into the downtown area unless it is an emergency. And if you are planning on going across the river, wait for the next traffic advisory. Right now, eighteen-wheelers are backed up Highway 35 for more than twenty-five miles. Once again, government officials are investigating the strange color of the river. We should have a report from them within the hour."
Juan pointed up to the sky as he stuck his head out of the car window to look at an ABC News helicopter.
"Look, Calo! A helicopter," he said.
At almost every block in the downtown area, there was some kind of broadcasting apparatus, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, along with local and area cameramen and reporters.
They followed the street that ran along the top of the high banks of the Rio Grande for almost ten miles. There were so many parked vehicles and so many people perched on the cars and trucks or standing along the edge of the banks that they could not possibly see the river. They couldn't get even a peek. Afraid of falling, Carlota refused to get out, and Sonia ducked, her head low inside the car, so that the INS officials, who weren't even around this far away from the downtown area, would not see her.
Disappointed, Carlota told Juan to return home. She was even more upset after the newscaster reported a sudden thunderstorm on its way to the city. The typically baby blue sky was turning a dark gray, and this made Carlota very nervous; she had an incredible fear of thunder. Once, she had forced a Greyhound bus driver to stop and let her out in the middle of the road on the outskirts of the city because she could see gray clouds ahead from the front seat in the bus. Against all the regulations, the bus driver stopped the bus to let her out because she had begun to scream uncontrollably, almost causing a panic.
It took them over an hour to get back to the house, and even with all of that, Juan had to drop them off half a block from the door. Just as Carlota entered the door, Sonia still hiding in the car from the "migra," the sky let loose with a shattering boom. Carlota yelled. The thunderstorm erupted.
* * *
A couple of hours later, after the storm ended and the city was engulfed in bright South Texas sunlight and unbearable humidity, Carlota asked Juan to get the car again.
"Ándale, Juan," she said, "go get the car. Let's see if we can see the river."
Juan left once again to try to maneuver the car back to the front of the house. It was almost impossible with this kind of traffic, but he succeeded. Within twenty minutes, he was in front of the house, helping Carlota into the backseat.
Sonia refused to come because, she said, "There are too many policemen and immigration people out there."
Just as Juan got back in the car and closed the door, an eighteen-wheeler stopped for a fraction of a second and gave him enough time to get into the lane that led toward the bridge.
For forty-five minutes, Juan was stepping on the gas, guiding the car about three feet forward, and stepping on the brakes again. He had to turn the air conditioner off and keep the windows rolled down so that the car would not overheat. Perspiration rolled off his forehead. He kept wiping it away, talking incessantly while Carlota watched all the commotion outside the car window. She did not perspire; she never did.
They finally got to the bridge, paid the toll, and slowly rolled on. It took Juan over an hour to travel one quarter of the length of the bridge. Now, Carlota's nerves were beginning to come undone again. She couldn't see the river's water from the car, there were so many people, cameras, and policemen all along the bridge. Her anxiety was mounting. Knowing that she was about to start yelling at him to turn around right there and then—which would have been impossible---Juan suggested that she get out of the car and look over the handrail.
She said, "Yes."
He was completely astounded. Never had he expected her to agree. He thought she wouldn't even think of it, and they would get into an argument, and with this argument, he could distract her from erupting---although he was very used to dealing with it. This way, she wouldn't insist that he turn around or stop the car and walk her home—or something just as absurd.
He put the car in park, and since traffic was moving so slowly, he got out of the car, went around to the back, opened Carlota's door, and helped her onto the sidewalk. Then he ran back to the car and got in; the cars in line behind him were beginning to honk. He heard Carlota yelling for him not to go too far.
He asked himself under his breath, "Where the hell am I supposed to go?"
Doing something no one would ever have expected her to do, Carlota cautiously pushed her way through the crowd, holding tightly to her cane, telling those in her way, "Please let me through. I want to see the river. I'm an old lady, look. I can't even walk. Please let me see."
She finally squeezed her way to the rail and looked out over the side of the bridge. When she saw the river, she could not believe it. The water was dark, dark red, as far as the eye could see. A woman pushed her aside to get a view of the river, and this made her lose her balance. She yelled, and a young man standing next to her tried to hold her up, but as he grabbed her arm to keep her from falling, an eighteen-wheeler blew its horn and loudly screeched to a halt in front of two old men running across the street, startling the young man, making him lose his grip on Carlota. She almost fell to the sidewalk, everything spinning around her, the wind from a low-flying helicopter above, the smell of mulberries, mulberries everywhere. But the young man regained his grip on her arm and saved her.
"What happened, young man?" she asked.
The young man pointed across the bridge and said, "Those two men almost got run over by a truck."
She remembered Juan and the car and started looking around for him frantically. She spotted him about fifteen feet away. She asked the young man to please help her back to the car, and as she grabbed his arm to help herself walk, she looked across the bridge and saw a young woman squatting, two old men giving her their shirts so that she could rest her head against the rail of the bridge, and an older woman kneeling in front of her, holding a newborn baby. The sidewalk was covered with blood. People were yelling frantically for an ambulance. The old woman held the child tenderly, wiping the baby's face with the hem of her ancient housedress.
Looking straight ahead at the long line of cars in front of her, Carlota cried quietly, "Juan. Juan."
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