By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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The house of Esperanza was a small concrete structure near the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the southwest section of Immokalee. Its detail work had never been completed. Three of its outer walls lacked stucco, pipes and wiring were exposed throughout the interior, and several windows were still without glass. The roof had been tarred but remained ungraveled, and it leaked from a half-dozen places. Esperanza had informally inherited the house from Salvador Escondido, her husband by common law, who one morning kissed her goodbye at the door, left for work in the fields, and never came back. That was nine months ago. The most popular rumor was that he had run off with a gringa from Fort Myers and was now working as a waiter in Chicago.
Julio had only recently arrived in Immokalee from the central Florida orange groves when he met Esperanza, nearly two months ago, while buying beer in the Mariposa Market with his good friend Francisco. He saw her at the far end of an aisle, leaning on a shopping cart and contemplating the shelves of canned soft drinks and juices. She was, without question, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen outside of the movies and magazines. Francisco caught his look. “Forget it, hombre. That one, she used to do it for twenty dollars — a lot, yes, but worth it, or so it is said. But no more. I think she found God again, who knows?” Francisco habitually spoke as fast and voluminously as a man on the radio. “But I tell you one thing: a man I know offered her forty dollars last month — imagine it, forty dollars! — and she slapped him. A couple of fools — he for offering forty, she for turning it down. Now she keeps her nose so high — like this — she seems always to be looking down at the world and every man in it. Bah! She’s a strange one, that puta.”
“Don’t call her that,” Julio said without taking his eyes off her. He was enraptured by her proud posture, the long, liquid blackness of her hair, the sway of her breasts, the play of brown leg muscle under the hem of her skirt. He wondered if the two children with her — a boy about six, a girl slightly younger — could possibly be her own. She seemed too firm of flesh, too exquisite in her blend of fullness and leanness to have already borne two children.
Just then, the boy accidentally brought down a furious slide of canned goods from a shelf. One of the cans struck her foot, and she cried out and would have fallen if she had not been holding on to the cart. Julio rushed to her without thinking. He dropped to his knees and tenderly cradled her injured foot. Two of her toes — exposed in open sandals — were bloody and rapidly swelling. He looked up to see her staring at him in pain and curiosity. “Please, señora,” he said, “allow me to help you get your children and your groceries home.” He was surprised by his own boldness, but he could not have kept himself from speaking so to her, not now. Up close, he saw that she was older than he would have guessed — and even more beautiful than he had thought.
“Thank you, señor,” she said softly, smiling now.
And so he took her home. And she insisted that he stay to have supper. And later they drank coffee with milk and smoked and talked. And much later they went into her bedroom and made love. And Julio, as he discovered several days later when his morning urine came out scalding, caught the clap.
Her first husband, whom she had married in the church in Ciudad Camargo on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, had been killed in an oil field accident in Encino, Texas, just a few months after the birth of their son, Raul. He had been in the country illegally and had no insurance. For the next two years she lived with her Aunts Zenaida and Constancia in Matamoros. Then she met Salvador Escondido and went with him to Florida. During their four years together, she had two children by him — María and Benito.
After Salvador left her, she had been forced to provide for herself and the children however she could. She had first gone to the local welfare office, a frustrating world of endless questions, demands for documents, application forms, official signatures, stamps of approval. Thus the process of securing welfare benefits was a long and complex one, and in the meantime she had supported her family by various means. She had taken in laundry. She had taken in ironing. She had taken in sewing. She had taken in men.
One of these men had made her pregnant, but with the help of Señora Colima, a neighbor woman highly skilled in such matters, she managed to abort the pregnancy without suffering anything more serious than a mild infection lasting only a couple of weeks. But then another man infected her with a particularly tough strain of gonorrhea, and despite repeated trips to the local clinic, she was unable to rid herself of it. The clinic doctor, a young Chicano named Gonzalez, asked how she ever expected to get cured if she persisted in having sex with men who carried the disease. She got angry and said she was persisting in only one thing, keeping her children fed, and she stalked out of his office. Not until her welfare payments were approved and began to arrive in the mail did she stop seeing men and return to Dr. Gonzalez and his penicillin treatments. By the time she met Julio in the Mariposa Market a few weeks later, she was assuming she’d been cured.
The rumor had swept across the field that morning like a brushfire in high wind: a raid was coming — a raid by la migra, the American immigration agents. Maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after, but soon, very soon.
This rumor was not an uncommon one. In this part of the world, it came up almost as regularly as the sun. But la migra did make a raid now and then, that was a fact, and it had been some time now since the last one, another indisputable truth. And sometimes the rumor carried an inexplicable feel to it, an intuition that attaches to genuine threat. This time it had that feel. Julio believed it: a raid was definitely coming very soon.
Francisco, for one, was not going to wait for it. During the lunch break, he chain-smoked Marlboros and gulped two RC Colas in a row while he told Julio about his plan to escape to Miami on the 11:30 bus that very night.
“I know there is more of la migra there than here,” Francisco said, “but the same is true for Latinos. Miami is as thick with Cubanos as a good stew is packed with chiles. Latinos from all over live there, some legal, some not, and who cares? You know the gringos can’t tell a Mejicano from a Guatemalteco from a Cubano. To them we are all the same. In such a big city so crowded with Latinos how can we not be safer than in this little pueblo of a place? And we won’t have to break our backs in some stinking tomato field to make money, either. I have spoken with people. We can become taxi drivers. Anybody can become a taxi driver in Miami — anybody. I have been told by people who know.” Francisco abruptly raised a hand as though to ward off an objection, though Julio had given no sign of making one. “I know what you are going to say,” Francisco said. “How can we become taxi drivers if we do not know how to drive an automobile? That is one of your fundamental problems, amigo: you are forever looking at the dark side of things. The answer to your question is a simple one: we will learn to drive. Besides, there are many other kinds of work which we can get in Miami. For example: we can work on a fishing boat helping the turistas to catch fish. Think of it! A beautiful white boat out on the magnificent sea! Imagine getting paid to fish from such a boat. This country — dios mío! Or perhaps you would prefer to work in a large lovely hotel and wear a clean white jacket. Would that not be a thousand times better than being out here in this godforsaken field of dust and bug poison, sweating your life away like some burro? In Miami we can live a life such as we were meant to, hombre! I have been told.”
Julio smiled and shook his head, more in amazement at the strength of his friend’s dreamy faith than in decision. But Francisco thought he was rejecting his plan.
“Well, one thing for certain,” he said, “any fool who stays here is going to be in the hands of la migra before long. You know that is so.”
Julio did know that was so. What he didn’t know was what he was going to do.
“What do you have here that is so important you must consider whether you can leave it?” Francisco asked. “A donkey job picking tomatoes? A lousy cot in a flophouse full of drunkards? An appointment with la migra is what you will have here if you don’t come with me tonight.”
True, Julio thought. Nothing but the truth.
Francisco’s face went sly. “Can it be the woman? Is that it? Are you thinking of her? No, my good and reasonable friend Julio would never be so foolish, not him.” His face became serious. “Hey, hombre. Not for her, eh? Not for her.”
Julio said nothing. He chewed his tasteless cheese sandwich and sipped from a can of warm Dr. Pepper.
“Listen, amigo . . . she is . . . she was . . . well. . . .”
Julio glared at him, but Francisco was looking away, groping for diplomatic words, shaking his head as he found none. “She was a puta, hombre,” Francisco said. “Everybody knows she —”
“Shut up!” Julio snapped. “I have told you before not to use that word about her. She is that no longer.”
Francisco put up his hands and nodded rapidly. “You are right, amigo. I spoke improperly. I apologize.” He stood up slowly. “Look, if you decide . . . well, maybe I’ll see you at the station tonight.” He began to walk away, paused, turned to look at Julio, seemed to want badly to say something he didn’t know how to say. He shrugged with upraised palms and turned back toward the field just as the crew chiefs began blowing their whistles to signal the end of the lunch break.
At sunset the crews boarded the field buses for the ride back to town. They arrived at Farmer’s Market in the dark. Julio went directly to The Ross Hotel — a large one-room warehouse furnished with worn folding cots and battered surplus wall lockers. Most of its residents were highly transient, and many of them had known better fortune. Julio had lived here from the day he arrived in Immokalee. He washed up and changed his shirt, then went to the desk by the front door and reclaimed a shoebox containing some personal possessions from Oscar, the evening manager and half-owner of the place. Oscar retrieved the shoebox from a closet behind the desk. The closet was kept locked, and only Oscar and Martin, the day man and other half-owner, had the keys to it. One time Oscar had discovered a resident trying to force open the closet lock, and had broken the thief’s back with a tire iron. It was said that the closet of The Ross Hotel was safer than a bank.
The moon was just above the pines when Julio got to Esperanza’s house. He stood across the street and smoked a cigarette, enjoying the hymns of the evening congregation at the Catholic church. The windows of the house glowed warmly yellow, and he reflected on the pull they exerted on him, as palpable as an embrace. Out here was darkness and a feeling of drift, a chilly night wind from the swamps. The wind carried the smell of deep ripe earth, an odor of cold blackness. One night Julio had been so drunk he staggered into the woods on his way back to The Ross and passed out. In the wet rosy light of early morning he had awakened with this smell packed into his nose like graveyard dirt, with its taste foul in his mouth like mud. The thought of that morning, of having slept in the woods, made him shiver. It struck him now, staring at the bright warm windows of Esperanza’s house, that he was deeply, achingly lonely, and that he had been feeling this way for a long time. The realization was unsettling.
Now the singing in the church had ceased, and he could hear her children laughing and shrieking happily over whatever game they were playing. And, just barely, he could hear the strains of music from the little radio she kept in the kitchen and rarely turned off. His stomach growled. Though he had not been hungry at all today, his appetite was suddenly clamoring like a drunk-tank inmate.
He crossed the weed-and-sand front yard and knocked on the door. The children’s voices rose excitedly, and a moment later the door swung open to reveal them all, beaming at him: Raul, the eldest at seven years of age; María, nearly five and already destined to break hearts with her beauty; and little Benito, four years old and shy but curious. Julio ruffled Raul’s hair and gave Benito a quick tickle under the arms, then swept up María and spun her around as she screamed with delight. When he set her down again, she gave his leg a tight hug before running to rejoin her brothers at Chinese checkers.
Julio shut the front door behind him, set his shoebox on the sofa, and went into the kitchen. Esperanza was at the stove, stirring a pot of beans and pushing the hair out of her eyes. She looked at him seriously for a moment, then smiled.
“Are you hungry?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I am.”
“Sit at my table then, and I will feed you.”
The greeting had become a ritual with them, having been the first words they had exchanged in her house. That first time, she had served him chiles rellenos more delicious than he had believed possible. So wonderful was her cooking that the first few times he had eaten it he was assaulted by memories of Mexico, and he had eaten in a melancholic silence she had been careful not to intrude upon.
They had spoken of Mexico from the beginning, naturally, but almost always in connection with her past, not his. She had told him everything about herself, even about the whoring. She said she could not live in lies with any man. A month after they’d met, she asked him to live with her, but he had declined, reminding her that such an arrangement could jeopardize her welfare income. She said she was willing to take the risk — that she had been thinking of getting some kind of job, anyway, and quitting the welfare. He said that until such time as she actually did get a job — something not likely to happen soon, as she still had two children under school age who needed much care and attention — until such time, the risk of losing her welfare money was not one she should impose on her children. His suggestion that she lacked proper maternal concern narrowed her eyes, but she kept her tongue in check and deferred to his reasoning. And he kept his cot at The Ross Hotel.
There was, of course, more to it than that. For one thing, it was his habit, upon leaving her bed, to go to The Green Rose Bar and have a few drinks and sing a few songs in the company of his friends. If he were to move in with her, that routine would have to end. Not so much because she would object (though maybe she would not; who could say with certainty how this Esperanza would react to anything?) — after all, he was the man here, the one to make objections, not the one to be objected to. No, his nights at The Green Rose would end because he himself did not think it proper for a man to come to his woman’s bed stinking of drink, especially not in a home with small children. (Oh, is that so, my saintly amigo? Julio asked himself. Is that what you think? Is that what you thought last night? But the recollection of the previous evening was too shameful to dwell on, and he quickly banished it from his mind.) Yet, the only consistent pleasure he had in his life today — besides Esperanza and her children, of course — was in his barroom fellowships. If he were to surrender those, even in the name of proper home life, he knew he would miss them and be less content. And what man of sound reason deliberately sought to make himself less content?
There was still more to it than that. Here was a woman who openly admitted to him that she had committed prostitution — and yet she was raising three well-disciplined children in the ways of the church, teaching them proper behavior even as his own mother had tried to teach him. Here was a woman who kept a clean house, cooked marvelous meals, prayed alongside her children at bedtime. She showed him the respect, obedience, and fidelity a woman owed to her man. Yet she could tell him frankly, without shame, that she could live without a husband — though she would prefer to have one — but not without the comfort of a good man in her house. He saw her, by turns, as fragile and tough, guileless and mysterious, saintly and beyond redemption. In a way he couldn’t explain, she made him feel confused and frightened.
There was, finally, one more very important thing, one of the things he had not been so quick to be honest with her about. Like not having told her his real name until they had known each other for nearly a week. And not until two weeks ago had he confessed to her that he was in the country illegally — an admission to which she had responded, quite matter-of-factly, that she already knew. When he asked her how she had known, she smiled at him as though at a sweet but slow-witted child.
Ay, Julio. You are so obviously mojado, my son, that the back of your shirt is still wet. It could only be more obvious if you wore a big sign saying, ‘I am illegal.’ Every day that you show up at my door I give a prayer of thanks to God that la migra did not get you.”
But it was not until the night before last — as they lay enveloped in each other’s arms, and she said that though she did not have to have a husband she thought her children should have a father and asked him to marry her — not until then did he tell her he was already married.
Tonight she placed before him a plate of mole de guajolote, a turkey stew in rich chocolate-and-spices sauce. In addition, there were steaming beans and rice, hot tortillas, fried green chiles, and cold beer. She sat across from him at the kitchen table and watched him eat. The little radio on the shelf over the kitchen sink was tuned to one of the local Spanish language stations, which tonight was playing a succession of songs from the Mexican Revolution: “Adelita,” “Jesusita de Chihuahua,” “Valentina,” “La Cucaracha.” In the living room, the children sang along with the radio. They had finished their checkers game and now were occupied scissoring pictures out of magazines — photos of movie stars, palatial estates, exotic landscapes, automobiles, jewelry. The few finished walls in the house were liberally papered with such clippings — and hung with crucifixes of various sizes, and with laminated pictures of the Holy Virgin and the Sacred Heart.
“I have the medicine for you,” Esperanza said, taking a small brown bottle from her apron pocket and setting it on the table. “I’m sorry it took Irma so long to get it, but she had to be very careful. She says this is much stronger than the medicine you tried before. She says to take one pill every morning and every night. The burning should stop very soon, but Irma says it is important to continue taking the pills until they are all gone, even after the burning has stopped.”
“Do you have to take such pills?” Julio asked.
“No. The doctor is giving me injections.”
“He thinks you are . . . seeing men again?”
“I don’t like for him to think that.”
He had not risked going to the clinic himself. It was widely said that la migra had agents posted there, disguised as field workers, keeping an eye out for illegals. The radio periodically announced that such rumors were completely false; anyone needing medical attention could come to the clinic in total assurance that no one would question his immigration status. Such announcements, too, were said to be tricks of la migra.
He had a second helping of everything and drank another bottle of beer. As he finished mopping the mole sauce from his plate with a tortilla, Esperanza excused herself and went to put the children to bed. Raul called good night to Julio from down the hallway. María dashed into the kitchen and gave him a quick hug and kiss before scooting away again. Little Benito appeared in the kitchen doorway, smiling timidly, then bolted away when Julio winked at him. While Esperanza knelt with the children in their bedroom and led them through their prayers, Julio finished his beer and smoked a cigarette and listened to the songs of the Revolution.
After she tucked the children into bed and turned out the lights in the rest of the house, she rejoined him in the kitchen and poured coffee for them both. They sipped in silence; then, after a while, she refilled their cups and turned down the radio.
“You are very quiet tonight,” she said.
He smiled at her and shrugged.
“Last night you were not so quiet.”
He felt his smile dissolve. “I do not remember so well about last night.” In truth, he remembered enough to taste the shame of it.
“I am not surprised,” she said. “I am told it can be difficult to remember things after one has been so drunk as you were.”
“I am very sorry to have come to your house in such disgraceful condition,” Julio said without meeting her eyes. “I hope you are able to forgive me. I will never do such a thing again.”
“There is nothing to forgive,” Esperanza said. “You told me you love me.”
Julio could not bring himself to look at her. He drank some coffee and lit a cigarette.
“A man gets drunk,” Esperanza said. “That is what a man does now and then. He gets drunk and he says things. You said you wanted to marry me.”
Julio closed his eyes. Esperanza took their cups to the sink and washed them and dried them, then hung them on little hooks over the sink. She returned to the table and lit a cigarette for herself.
“I will not ask you about the love, Julio. Questions about the love are always so foolish. No one truly understands the love.”
Julio kept his eyes closed and said nothing.
“But now I want to know if truly you will marry me.”
The cigarette burned his fingers. He opened his eyes and snuffed the butt in the ashtray.
“If you marry me, Julio, you will then become a legal citizen of this country. Automatically. Because you will be married to a citizen. Did you know that?”
He had not. “Yes,” he said.
“You will no longer have to live in fear of la migra.”
“No.” Think of nothing, he thought.
“I can be a very good wife, Julio. I will be, for you.”
“I know.” It was not so hard to think of nothing.
“The children like you very much and respect you. I believe you will be a good father to them.”
“Yes,” he said.
“Will you then truly marry me?”
He sighed. “Yes.”
They smoked for a while.
“I am very happy, Julio, but I must tell you one thing. Last night when you were drunk in the bed with me and telling me how much you loved me, you kept calling me Estrella.” She was watching his face calmly but intently.
“Is that the name of your wife?”
“Yes.” The name touched his heart like a rainfall.
“Where in Méjico is she?”
“Oaxaca.” Estrellita. Look for me in the spring, querida, he had said. I will return to you in the spring and we will never again be so damned poor.
“Well, I thought you should know about that.”
Julio studied the palm of his hand, concentrated on its lines, its thick scars, the marvelous manner in which it obeyed his commands to open and close.
“But I want you to know also that it makes no difference to me about her. I don’t care if you still think of her. I don’t care if you still love her. I don’t care even if you sometimes call me by her name in the night. She is there and you are here, with me. And you will stay here, you know that. I want you to know that as well as you know the feel of my breast in your hand. I give myself to you, Julio. I give you my family and citizenship in this country. I give you my house where you know you will always be safe. All I want is a good father for my children and a good man in my bed. I ask nothing more. You have my love, of course, but I do not demand yours in return. I can live without the love. I have lived without it for a long time.”
They lay on their backs, their shoulders touching, and smoked in the dark. The sheets were musty with their sweat and lovemaking.
“You spoke other names last night,” she whispered. “In your troubled sleep. Calles. Ochoa. Murguia, Muria, something like that. Tell me, who are those names?”
He watched the tip of her cigarette flare and cast her face in red light and shadow. The names were of some of the men with whom he had crossed the Río Grande on a moonless night many months ago. In another lifetime.
“Nobody,” he said. “I don’t know. Who can say why he has the dreams he has?”
They put out their cigarettes, and then she turned on her side so that her buttocks pressed against him. He reached around her and held her breast, then slid his hand down her smooth belly. She worked her hips and in a moment they were joined. This time their lovemaking woke Benito in the other bedroom. The child was a poor sleeper and given to frightening visions in the dark. By the time Julio convulsed and rolled apart from her, the boy was wailing, and Esperanza got up quickly to tend to him.
He lay awake. The wind shook the trees. Moonlight swept in and out of the room through the open window above the bed, gleamed on her breasts. She snored once, lightly, and smacked her lips and moved in more snugly against him, and was immediately breathing deeply again. A dog barked persistently in the distance.
He could smell the rain coming. He remembered that they had come to bed around nine o’clock, maybe a little later. He wondered what time it was now. The wind-up alarm clock was ticking on the small table on her side of the bed, out of reach of the moonlight.
Maybe you will be as poor as always, he thought. And maybe you will never get back, in the spring or any other time. Maybe you are damned, like good-hearted but foolish Francisco, to living on the thin air of dreams. Stupid dreams. Or worse — to living without even that. Maybe there is nothing ahead but defeat and more defeat and, if you are still alive, yet more defeat until you are dead. Maybe.
The dog went silent for a moment, then renewed his barking more loudly than before. Julio gently disengaged his arm from around Esperanza, paused to see if she would awaken, then eased out of bed. He found his clothes in the dark and carried them into the living room.
He dressed quickly. He knew the clouds had massed much larger: the periods between the sweeps of moonlight through the windows had grown longer. The wind was now tearing at the trees. He groped along the sofa until he found the shoebox, then took it into the kitchen and switched on the little light over the counter.
He cut away the tight string wrapping around the box and removed the top. In the box were a deck of playing cards, an empty key ring, two pairs of wool socks, a few sea shells, a tarnished brass belt-buckle, a blue bandana, and a large jackknife. He took out the bandana, a pair of socks, and the knife. He closed the box and retied it tightly and set it on top of the counter over the sink. He went through his pockets and placed all his money on the counter, spread out the bills and coins, then repocketed two dollars of it. He tied the bandana around his neck. He picked up the knife and admired the smooth clean feel of the polished onyx grips — then opened it as he had been taught by Muria, with a hard backhand snap of the wrist, so that the blade appeared almost magically. It was six inches long and honed to the fineness of a shaving razor. Julio had cleaned it and oiled it before storing it in the shoebox.
He folded the blade back into the haft and put the knife in his pocket. He scooped the money off the counter — five dollars and some change — and went silently back into the bedroom. The woman was lying just as before, on her side, her face in dark shadow. She was still breathing easily and deeply. He carefully placed the money on the dresser and quietly opened the closet door and took his hat from its peg. As he retraced his steps to the bedroom door, she said distinctly, “God will damn you for your stupidity.”
He did not even break stride. He went down the hallway and through the living room and out the front door. He walked fast across the yard and turned down the street into the gusting wind and, refusing to surrender, left behind the house of Esperanza.
James Carlos Blake