The Miracle of the Milk Cans

 [img_assist|nid=4293|title=”Paysage de la Drome” by Kathleen Babb © 2005|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=200]Luz blessed the day her neighbor, Don Chuy rolled-over his milk truck. Nobody would ask for an accident like that, but now, years later, she knew Don Chuy blessed the day too. It was the day he was miraculously spared from the jaws of death, the day the Virgin spoke to him.

The day of the accident that led to the miracle, Don Chuy was at the top of the hill, about to descend, his truck horn bleating, telling the housewives he’d arrived with fresh milk from his ranchito. Suddenly a young mother carrying a baby stepped in front of his old pick-up. He swerved and rolled over, down the hill.

The cans clattered, splashing thin cow’s milk over the discarded Sabritas bags and Cloralex bottles that littered the hillside. They came to rest just before the dirt road below, in a brilliant patch of sun, stacked like silver bullets. Later, Don Chuy remembered nothing about the pickup going roof-wheel-roof-wheel. Luz was outside with her soup pan, waiting to buy milk, when the truck crunched to a stop against the rock on which she sat when she bagged roasted squash seeds.

Luz, who had the only telephone on the hill, rushed inside. She remembered how her youngest son Oscar had talked about a fight at the basketball courts—a guy was cut and somebody’d called 9-1-1 for the emergency. Luz dialed and miraculously, minutes later, an ambulance screeched to a stop at the top of the hill. Two rescuers clambered down with a narrow stretcher and a bag of life-saving equipment, and when they peered into the truck, Don Chuy was not smashed to pieces in the driver’s side where he should have been, but curled up peacefully on the passenger’s side as if he were sleeping off an all-nighter.

Since the day he walked away unscratched from his truck, Don Chuy had been organizing tours to the Guadalupe Basilica in Mexico City . What better way to give thanks than to bring a busload of people to the feet of the Virgin? All the more to adore her.

Don Chuy charged an affordable fare, only 180 pesos round trip, including snacks. Everyone knew he wasn’t profiting. He ladled yogurt from big plastic tubs into cups and passed out bean and potato tacos and fruit.

Luz wanted the Virgin of Guadalupe to save her sons. Well, her daughter too. Jimena’s life was just as much a mess as her brothers, but she had more confidence in women to straighten out their own affairs. Hadn’t Jimena, fed up after years of arguing with her about what to make for dinner, crossed the river in the night and joined her brother in Florida ?

One morning as she was buying milk, Luz told Don Chuy to save her two spaces. If the Virgin of Guadalupe could spare Don Chuy, surely She could spend a little time working the kinks out of her kids’ lives. Luz and her husband Mariano would board at five a.m. , eat some yogurt, take a nap and walk past the scapula and rose-petal rosary-sellers by nine with enough time left in the day to pray for her troublesome sons.

Luz remembered when they were little, sitting on the edge of her bed, Oscar in Jimena’s arms, all five of them, even the baby rapturously watching an India Maria movie. Unlike some of the neighbors, Mariano always had work, building was booming in Mexico City and he joined up with the crews that built schools and hospitals. He came home to San Miguel once a month, pockets filled with cash. He’d bought the first television set in the neighborhood.

Luz liked to turn the dial to movies for the kids—when she was home. After dark, she’d make a pot of hot Café Legal with cinnamon and sugar and give the kids crusty rolls, warm from the night bakery. She remembered a clear moment when she’d looked at those five little faces, dirty from playing outside all day, blowing on their coffee, laughing at la India Maria. They’d been so innocent!

Late in April, Luz and Mariano rose in the dark and boarded Don Chuy’s bus in the pre-dawn gloom. The sun appeared as the bus rumbled past the outskirts of San Miguel. Luz watched the sparse, brown countryside, thinking of Raymundo, her oldest son. Happiest when he was talking the night away with his brothers, his hand wrapped around a liter bottle of beer, he had women all over the place, so that he never had to settle in one spot. If he had a fight with one, he went to stay with the next one. There was Angeles in San Miguel who followed him around like a sad cow and Luz was sure he had one over in Leon too. Couldn’t he just pick one of them, and make a home?

Lately when he’d come to San Miguel on weekends, he’d seemed jumpy, suddenly solicitous, then angry. Bueno, Raymundo had always been an angry kid. Maybe that’s why her husband had spoiled him. Raymundo always got the new shoes, the new pants, the new ball. And she’d allowed it. Maybe it was because she and Mariano knew Raymundo cared more about what others thought of him than the rest of the children. If obliged to wear patched clothing, he skipped school and picked fights with his siblings.

Maybe it was that, as the oldest son, Raymundo had suffered most from their early years of fighting. Luz had only noticed how angry he was when she stopped drinking. He’d been nineteen years old by then, a high school graduate with no direction. Had a baby by a woman he never wanted to see again. Drank all night and slept all day. What could she have said to him about making a future? She had no education and a busload of guilt. What right did she have to tell him how to live his life?

Gazing at a group of skinny rancho horses out the window, Luz remembered coming home late one night from drinking in El Gato Negro with jobless Don Ceferino. She’d walked into the children’s room (Mariano had built an extra room for the kids to sleep in by then) and snapped on the light. There was Raymundo, must have been about eight, sitting in the middle of the bed, his back rigid, his bravado gone.

"What are you doing?" she’d asked.

"Ma, I’m being good," he’d said.

She’d always thought Raymundo, the swaggerer and braggart, could take care of
himself , but she’d been wrong. He was just as needy as the rest.

Then one day he’d up and left, and when he came back, he showed her his law school diploma. Luz had sighed with relief. Now she wouldn’t have to worry. To make sure, she had him draw up the deed (now that he was a lawyer!) to the house in his name. A house, a career and now that he was working with that attorney in Leon , all the fancy clothes he could afford. Still.

Luz’s prayer for Raymundo was that he marry one of his women and have Mariano build a second floor apartment for them on the San Miguel house. Raymundo’s house. She would cook for him, well, for the couple, and her son would see she did care after all.

What Luz wanted next was for Oscar to leave his wife. Or for that big-assed piece of riff-raff who thought she was a princess to leave him. Then maybe her baby Oscar would grow into the fine man she knew he could become.

Oscar had a nice girlfriend before this one. The former girl’s father had a successful tin and iron business. He could have set Oscar up as shop manager, or in exports! She had been a sweet, quiet girl who brought Luz cheese pies. But just as they were talking marriage, Oscar saw Waggle Tail at the basketball courts and he dropped the pie-maker as if he’d been burned. The new one jiggled her ass at Oscar until he couldn’t speak.

Waggle Tail thought she had that kind of power over everyone, thought she could be served her food and get up from the table without even carrying her plate to the sink, not to mention wash it. Soon as he got her pregnant, Oscar brought Waggle Tail to Luz’s house to live. Luz didn’t protest; it was her duty to take the girl in. Now Luz just wanted a little cooperation, a little housecleaning help, a little respect! Leaving the house to board the bus that morning, Luz had to step over a stinky diaper on the step. The girl left her musty underwear in a wet pile on the shower floor!

Somebody told Oscar once his wife should be a model and that was all he could see. But green eyes and a pretty face didn’t make a girl useful and Waggle Tail was about the most useless twenty-year-old Luz had ever seen in her life. The worst part was she didn’t want to learn to wash her clothes or cook. God knows Luz had tried to teach her. Waggle Tail let her dirty clothes pile up higher every day, then, instead of washing them, bought new clothes for ten pesos a piece at the Tuesday Market. She thought a container of gelatin was a fitting lunch for a child almost a year old!

If Waggle Tail left her son, she would leave Luz’s house. And then maybe Oscar wouldn’t stay out all night long, getting into fights. Although who could blame him? With the crib squished next to Oscar’s bed now, one couldn’t take more than a step without hitting furniture or dirty clothes. And Waggle Tail couldn’t get the baby to sleep until midnight , so the room was nothing but a four hour high-decibel cry-fest. There was one way to keep your man at home, but with the baby awake half the night, Luz was sure Waggle Tail wasn’t tending to her man’s needs. And if she did give Oscar any, she made him work for it first, sending him out into the street to bring her back hamburgers from El Ranon’s stand.

Maybe she’d get fat.

By nine in the morning, the sun was higher and the bus was slowly stopping in the Basilica’s parking lot. Luz sighed as she picked up her purse. The destruction of a marriage. Was that something to pray for?

The new Basilica gleamed in the sunlight, its side construction soaring like beams of light from the Virgin’s fingertips, not Guadalupe, but another Maria, mother of God, which Luz saw once on a holy card. The old Basilica, built some four hundred years ago, was to the right, roped off in parts, tilting forward, sinking into the soft centuries-old soil.

Mariano, her husband of thirty-three years, pushed his thick hair under his cap and tucked his t-shirt further into his sweatpants as they approach the new cathedral. At his side, Luz walked with slow steps. She wanted to pray for new knees, but only after she’d ticked off everyone else on her list. Plus she thought bad knees were her penance, and maybe she was still supposed to be repenting.

Inside, there was a mix of reverence and festival. Children played in the aisles; mothers with shawls over their heads distractedly tried to hand them sandwiches. Whole families were camped in the pews in front of the tilma, Juan Diego’s cape that still bore the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Luz gazed at the tilma in awe. Four centuries after Juan Diego carried roses wrapped in the cape to the bishop, to prove he’d seen the beautiful lady who claimed to be the mother of God, it still looked vibrant, undiminished. Luz read in a church bulletin once how the tilma had been examined and tested and scientists still couldn’t explain how the colors of the Virgin’s face and her mantle hadn’t faded in four hundred years.

Luz and Mariano slipped into a rear pew. A lady shuffled past in the aisle on her knees, a small girl, about six years of age, holding her by the elbow. Luz watched the woman’s slow progress toward the tilma with some envy. She should have crawled to the Virgin herself years ago, then maybe she’d have been spared arthritic knees , but of course by the time she’d made her first pilgrimage and promised to stop drinking, smoking and leaving her kids, her knees had already started to go.

When she was young, it hadn’t been hard to be good! At sixteen, she’d been pregnant with Jimena, happy with her man. She didn’t drink at all. Mariano was a serious boy, a worker. He’d built them a room on the little parcel of land her father gave them, a room with rounded windows, a modern touch he’d picked up listening to the stories of laborers who’d begun to work in the big building boom in Mexico City . He built a sturdy washbasin for their clothes and an alcove for a stove. He was going to buy her a stove! But before he could, he told her there was no work in San Miguel; he had to go to the city. Luz was left behind.

When he came home for the first time, after a month, Luz’s belly was rounder and he had to beg her to make him a meal. For four whole hours she refused so he could see how unfair it was that she was pregnant and alone. Couldn’t he have found something to build in San Miguel?

"Go to your mother’s house until you have the baby," Mariano said.

"Never," Luz said. She hated her sister’s boyfriend, who had moved in with her mother. He didn’t work and he went through the pockets of everybody’s clothing.

Luz thought she had Mariano convinced to stay when he rubbed her feet that night, then she rubbed his back, but then, at five in the morning, she heard him shuffling around their new room. Luz pretended to stay asleep; her husband touched her shoulder and was out the door, headed for the bus station in the moonlight, his new transistor radio tucked under his arm.

With Mariano working in Mexico D.F., Luz couldn’t help but be distracted by Nacho when he delivered iron doors to the house in which she worked and Don Cipriano selling tomatoes from the back of his truck. In the cavernous Basilica, she shook her head. Old names to her now. That was something to be thankful for.

Luz had only visited the Basilica once before, twelve years earlier. That was when she’d made her first pledge to the Virgin, the day after Cheme, her second boy, only seventeen, disappeared in the night. Luz threw her bottle of Presidente brandy into the creek when the sun rose that day and watched it sink through tear-filled eyes. She asked the Virgin to keep Cheme safe. Then she took a bus to the Basilica to send her prayers for his safety straight to La Guadalupe’s ears. For five months she was too grieved to miss her smokes, drinks and male callers. Then Cheme phoned San Miguel’s public telephone station from the United States , asking they play his message on the radio. Miraculously, while Luz was washing dishes she heard it. Cheme had tried to cross six times before he made it. He’d already been in and out of trouble (Luz interpreted this to mean jail) but he had a job and a place to stay and she wasn’t to worry. In gratitude, she stopped going out for good, made a truce with Mariano. Now it was twelve years since she’d had a drink, smoked a cigarette or entertained a boyfriend. Twelve years since Mariano came home, taking smaller jobs in San Miguel and eating regular meals in Luz’s kitchen.

During that time, Luz thought several times about getting it all out on the table, saying to Mariano, "Look, I’ve had boyfriends. You’ve had girlfriends. It’s all in the past.” But what if Mariano, instead of agreeing, turned accusing? What if he refused to acknowledge his part, and then constantly reminded her of her failings? Would he feel he had to go out and beat up Nacho and Don Cipriano? What if he left her? She used to think it was what she wanted , but faced with it, she’d felt a little sick in her stomach. They’d had five kids together and Mariano was a good provider. She didn’t say anything. And as the tantrums of their earlier years diminished, the silence about the lives they led when they were apart from each other grew bigger, until now it felt impossible to talk about.

Luz was on her knees, even though it hurt, thinking of Cheme in Florida . Owned his own trailer home now, had lived with the same woman for eight years, installed sprinkler systems, had people working for him . He called sometimes, sent checks, seemed to have forgiven all those years when he didn’t come first, when none of her kids did.

Not that Cheme was suddenly a saint. Jimena, up in Florida with Cheme now, was the one who kept Luz informed that he still liked to get drunk, smashed up his trucks. Luz’s prayer for her son was that he’d give up the bottle and work on his sperm count. Twenty-nine years old and still no children. She couldn’t understand it.

With Jimena in Florida bossing Cheme around, Luz worried a little less. Jimena didn’t set by drinking, which was what had started the real trouble between mother and daughter. Her daughter blamed the bottle for the time Luz left the children in her care. Jimena had been twelve, Luz gone without a note, their father working a construction job in the city. Jimena in the kitchen cursing Don Cipriano, imagining how, while they were in school, Luz had gathered her dancing skirt, her make-up, her vinyl purse. Imagining the old man (he was thirty and not even good-looking!) waiting with his bottle of brandy in his vegetable truck at the top of the hill.

As the oldest, Jimena had taken over, passing out bowls of beans to her four little brothers sitting on the steps, silent and scared, yelling at them extra gruff to get into bed so her voice wouldn’t shake. By the fifth day, she was cutting nopales from the cactuses in the countryside to feed the boys. So relieved on the eighth day that her mother came home, she returned to school and studied extra hard. In class, she twisted her hair so tight it fell out of her head in clumps.

When Jimena finished high school, she stayed in the house, and with nothing else to do, argued with her mother over money and food. Luz left fifty pesos when she went to work, and told Jimena to make breaded beefsteaks. Jimena made a pot of beans, bought two kilos of tortillas instead of one and gave most of the food away to a half a dozen young gay men she’d befriended, who, rejected by their parents, lived in a cheap house together nearby.

"It is not my duty to feed the neighborhood," Luz yelled at Jimena, when she came home from work to only a scraping of beans and an almost emptied bowl of salsa.

"You don’t care about anyone but yourself!" Jimena shouted back.

Luz had pledged to change quietly. After Cheme left, she came home regularly, didn’t spend afternoons in the bars any more, and made chilaquiles on Sundays while they watched All-Star Wrestling. She did care. But Jimena seemed stuck on the old Luz, which annoyed Luz as much as the missing food. She’d point out in an icy tone that the chicken soup had not been prepared as she’d instructed, and that if tuna fish and mayonnaise on crackers was the only meal Jimena could manage to put together, why was Luz leaving her so much money and where was the change?

Jimena was twenty-six when she took the bus to meet the coyote Cheme sent for her. She’d been arguing over the slightest possible thing with her mother for months, walking around the house muttering, "I can’t wait. I just can’t wait."

Luz couldn’t wait for her to leave either, if that was how she was going to behave. Then the day came. Jimena stood by the door, backpack over her shoulder, bus ticket to the border in hand. Luz was looking for an opening to say the tender words she’d rehearsed, but before she could, Jimena turned to her.

"You—left—us!" Jimena said. "How could you have done that?"

Luz had only bowed her head, her body shaking with sobs.

That had been three years ago. Luz was afraid she’d never hear from Jimena again , but after two months, she’d received a letter. Luz’s body rippled with fear as she held it in her hand. Would it be filled with more accusations? Would Jimena, with thousands of kilometers between them, finally say everything she’d always wanted to tell her mother? And wasn’t it time?

Luz steeled herself. But the letter contained photos of Jimena with a skinny boy. " Florida Beach " was scrawled on the back of the first one. "Pick-up Truck" was written in English on the back of another: Jimena leaning against a truck with a Florida plate, a bandana around her head. In a photo received this year, she was in front of a trailer home with the same skinny boy. The beanpole looked nice enough. Will he build you a house, give you a baby, buy you a stove? Luz would like to ask. One of Cheme’s lawn care guys, was all Jimena would say about him.

Luz had a vague idea that other people were capable of things she was unable to do. She’d worked in gringo houses, rich ladies’ houses, washing their clothes, cooking their meals – she’d seen people embrace, say words she was fairly sure had to do with how they felt about one another. She just didn’t know how to do it herself. As a seven-year old child, Luz had announced to her own mother she wasn’t going to school any more. Her mother, without turning from the tortillas she was putting on the fire, shrugged. After that, her father had taken Luz to the river where he collected sand to sell to the homebuilders, who mixed it with cement. Sometimes he made four trips a day, first with their burro, and later with a rattlely second-hand truck he managed to buy. Luz played at the river until the trip home, singing to herself, speaking to nobody. Maybe if she’d had playmates, she’d have learned to say things like, "You make me mad," or, "Let’s be friends."

Gabriel, Luz’s second to youngest son was the love child, always touching people, making them squirm. "Pa," Gabriel greeted Mariano, squeezing his father’s broad shoulder. Sometimes his hand lingered on Luz’s back as they spoke. Luz used to show affection by barking, "Go wash your hands!" before she gave her kids their soup , but Gabriel had his daughters on his shoulders, crawling into his lap. They kissed each other right in front of everybody. He talked to his dogs like they were people! Gabriel wanted to tell people what to do with their lives. He wanted people to talk. That’s what his problem was. Must be from being married to the American.

But sometimes Luz thought Gabriel had the right idea. "If only I had been able to look at her. If only I’d said I was sorry," Luz now told the Virgin of Guadalupe.

When she felt Mariano patting her back, Luz lifted her bowed head and realized there were tears on her cheek. At the front of the church, the Virgin smiled kindly. There! Didn’t She lift her eyes for a second? Mariano said that he’d been watching the progress of the lady on her knees. He hadn’t noticed. But Luz was sure. The Virgin of Guadalupe had smiled. People around her were busy with their rosaries; nobody else seemed to have observed it either. It was a message just for her. La Morenita had smiled on her, the former sinner, Luz Martinez . What could it mean?

Perhaps it meant Raymundo would come home to live soon. Or that Waggle Tail would leave her son. Did La Guadalupe wink? Heh, heh, sister, your house will be in peace pretty soon. The American Wife couldn’t believe Oscar didn’t give his mother a single peso for phone, cable TV, food. Food!

"Two grown people still expecting Mommy to cook for them!" the American Wife fumed. "Kick them out of the house. That’s the only way they’ll grow up!"

If it was possible anyone was bossier than Jimena, it was the American Wife. El Bolillo, Mariano called her, “White Bread” not without affection. Luz wished she had her nerve. Married to her, Gabriel was the one she worried about least. Her American parents had sent money; they’d started a hair salon, built a house, put her two beautiful light-skinned granddaughters in good schools. But toss Oscar, Waggle Tail and the baby onto the street, three people who could barely take care of themselves? She just didn’t have the heart. And suddenly her thinking was clear.

Job or no job (sometimes he worked as a waiter, then always got into a fight and got fired) , Oscar and his family would go on living in her house, until they didn’t any more, if that time ever came.

Who else, after all, would see that Oscar’s son ate chicken soup and rice, and mashed frijoles and potatoes? Maybe the Virgin’s wink meant that Luz would help Raymundo give up some of his anger. Or that Waggle Tail’s selfishness and sloth were not going to affect her like before, that she, Luz would glide through her own house with an inner knowledge that she was doing the best she could.

Luz was blindsided by a new thought. Perhaps Jimena was at peace.

Luz was sure the Virgencita was putting these thoughts in her head and that they amounted to something like forgiveness. And that was it! That was what she had come to pray for after all.

Mariano’s hand was at her elbow, helping her rise. She lifted a finger, one more moment. Luz felt at one with the thousands of prayers being uttered at that moment all around her. The lady on her knees had almost reached the altar. Luz wondered what promise she was fulfilling, if Our Lady of Guadalupe had saved a sick daughter, or seen a son safely across the border. The senora stood, making the sign of the cross. Luz stood too; vaguely aware her knees were not vibrating with pain. She lifted her face in gratitude and a warm feeling flowed through her, as if the beams of light that surrounded La Guadalupe’s cape were lifting her.

With this warm feeling came the knowledge that her hostility toward Waggle Tail, whose name was Frida, was actually shame for her own selfish life. "For the past twelve years, you’ve been nothing but giving," was the thought La Guadalupe was giving her now. And Luz knew that the forgiveness she sought was inside her and the deal she had to make was with herself.

Don Chuy’s eyes were rimmed in red as he cheerfully waved Luz, Mariano and their neighbors back onto his bus. Today’s driving would add up to eight or nine hours for him. She patted Don Chuy’s arm as she shuffled past, eyeing the empty yogurt buckets, but there were two plastic bags filled with what smelled deliciously like tacos behind the driver’s seat.

Sweet, absolving Don Chuy! Luz wondered for how many years he would go on living out his promise to the Virgin. She remembered standing stunned the morning his truck crashed into the rock in front of her house, soup pan hanging uselessly from her hand, watching the sun bounce off the milk cans, not knowing the miracle of his survival was also unfolding for her. Susan McKinney de Ortega, born in Philadelphia, is a former television news reporter and daughter of a St. Joseph’s University coach. Her stories have been published in Salonmagazine, The San Miguel Writer, Literary Bulls and and in Mexico : A Love Story by Seal Press (Spring, 2006) . She lives in San Miguel de Allende in the Mexican central highlands with her husband and their two bilingual daughters.

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