THE RAINY SEASON had begun a month before. It usually rained at night, sometimes all night. I lived in a large empty house above a bus station, one of two terminals in Jerez, a quiet Mexican town of sixty thousand. The evenings were peaceful but a bit too long. From my dim, unfurnished living room, I would watch the rain slide in a slanted sheet from the rooftop. It was like living behind a waterfall.
One night, feeling restless after two or three drinks, I decided to visit my friend Ismael the woodcarver, who lived three blocks away. It was about nine o’clock. The rain had just stopped. As I closed my front door and began to walk up the street, someone called to me. I turned and saw a young girl approach out of the darkness. She appeared neat and studentlike, slightly stooped by the weight of a backpack, a brand-new notebook under her arm. Her long, shiny hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She spoke to me in rapid Spanish, in a pipsqueak voice.
“Do you speak any English?” I asked.
“You must speak more slowly, then,” I told her in Spanish.
“Can you tell me where the bus station is?” she said.
“Yes, it’s right there,” I said, pointing to the closed steel gate. Normally, the gate would have been up, and a crowd would’ve been gathered by the big planter out front, waiting for the next bus. But tonight the area around the planter was vacant.
“Usually, the terminal is open until ten,” I explained. She looked up at me with concern. She had pale greenish eyes, a long neck, and little gaps between her teeth. She shifted the weight on her back.
“Are there any more buses?” she asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said.
She showed me a blue twenty-peso note. “Do you know where else I can buy a ticket?”
“Maybe from the . . .” I mimed holding a steering wheel, unable to think of the Spanish word for driver.
“But what if there is not another bus?” she asked.
“Where do you live?” I said.
I recognized the name of a little rancho to the south. “How far is it?”
She pressed a finger to her lips, tilting her head. “About nine kilometers.”
Too far for a young girl to walk in the dark along the narrow road, I thought, even though she probably would’ve been safe. I rang the doorbell of Angel, who ran the bus station. There was no answer. Both of his cars were gone, and all the lights in his house were off.
“Sometimes he takes his family to Puerto Vallarta,” I said. “He might not be back for three days.”
“What am I going to do?” she said. “How am I going to get to Arroyo Seco?”
I shrugged. “If I had a car, I would give you a ride.”
“Are you a gringo?” she said, peering up at me with a slight, playful smile.
No one in this town had ever mistaken me for anything else. I was also called “white boy” and “guero.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Will you give me something to eat?” she said.
I wasn’t sure if I had understood her correctly. She didn’t seem poor and had none of the mannerisms of a hustler.
“What are you doing in Jerez?” I said.
“I’ve been going to school.”
“It seems a little late for school.”
“I was at a friend’s house,” she said.
I asked if she might be able to spend the night with her friend. She said that wouldn’t be possible.
“Isn’t there anyone you can call?”
“Oh, no,” she said, making her eyes big.
“I don’t know what I can do to help you,” I said.
“Can I stay the night with you?”
Again, I wondered if I had heard right. I scratched my head, then asked if she wanted to come with me to the house of my friend Don Ismael, who spoke both English and Spanish and knew much more about Jerez than I. Perhaps he would be able to help her. She eagerly agreed, and I let her put her notebook and backpack inside my locked door for safekeeping.
“I’m thirteen years old,” she announced as we crossed the street.
She looked older than thirteen. Fifteen maybe. I told her I was forty-four, old enough to be her father. More than old enough. She laughed and then began to cough. It was not a phony cough.
“Are you sick?” I said.
We crossed the bridge over the river, which was usually stagnant or dry, but now ran swiftly from a month of good rains. She seemed happy just to tag along with me wherever I went. I didn’t know if this was an indication of trust or innocence or desperation. Perhaps I should’ve been the one who was worried.
“Where are your parents?” I said.
“I have no parents.”
“Do you have any grandparents?”
“Brothers or sisters?”
“Aunts or uncles?”
“You have no family?”
“I have no one,” she replied cheerfully, swinging her arms and looking up at the sky. “And I would like something to eat.”
We turned the corner onto Enrique Estrada, Ismael’s street, where Arnufo the taco vendor was stationed under the blue tarp of his outdoor stand. Arnufo was about thirty and had two small children, who could usually be found scrambling over the cases of soda pop. He pulled a piece of sizzling meat out of the boiling lard, flopped it onto a tree stump, and began to whack away at it with a hatchet.
“Buenas noches, Arnufo,” I said as we passed, wondering what he thought of my walking the streets at this time of night with a strange young girl.
Arnufo nodded to me. If he thought anything, he didn’t show it.
The little girl glanced at the meat and smiled. “It smells good,” she said.
“What’s your name?” I said, realizing I hadn’t asked.
“Estrellita,” she said.
LIKE MANY PEOPLE in this part of Mexico, Ismael lived in a cement building in a walled-in lot behind a great steel door. I knocked and shouted his name, but there was no response. He lived far back in the corner of his property, in a little two-room dwelling. Perhaps he couldn’t hear us. She will have to spend the night with me, I thought. How is it that I had become this child’s guardian in a matter of minutes? I had no children and never wanted any. I was not up to the task.
I stood for a minute longer, looking up at Ismael’s aqua-colored door.
“Should we try again?” Estrellita asked.
I knocked once more, then realized the door was unlocked. Ismael often left it open, even late at night, so he wouldn’t miss visitors. We went in.
Off to the left was Ismael’s workshop, covered only by a corrugated-iron roof. A light glowed dimly in the house. He was home. Good, I thought. Maybe he will be in the mood for adoption. The girl followed me closely. “Puercos,” I said, as we passed a small cement stall that held two smelly black pigs, which Ismael was raising for slaughter. Estrellita giggled.
Through the window, I could see Ismael working at his computer. He was sixty-nine, knobby and twisted like an old troll from thirty years of felling trees in the forests of Oregon and Washington. What was left of his hair hung in soft snow white curls to his shoulders. His coarse, severely neat white mustache was yellow at the edge from nicotine.
Ismael jumped up when he heard my voice. I don’t know who he thought the girl was, but when he saw her, he brightened even more and turned on all the lights to show off his museum of woodworking treasures. Around the kitchen were carved figures, sculpted picture frames, finely wrought panels and plaques, and a hope chest in progress. Drawings for a de Medici bed frame were spread across his drafting table. Ismael was a fine carver, famous in the Pacific Northwest in his day.
I pointed to my little friend. “This is Estrellita,” I said. “She has a problem.“
Ismael’s face fell. “What’s the problem?” he said.
“She lives in Arroyo Seco —” Ismael had been born and raised not far from there — “and she’s stranded in Jerez. She says she has no family. Tell him the story,” I said to Estrellita.
Ismael ushered us into the bedroom and sat down in front of his computer, which he’d just hooked up the day before.
As my little charge stood before Ismael and recited her tale, he began to look doubtful. She seemed happy just to be around people who might tell her what to do. Perhaps the warm house and the presence of adults reassured her. If she was entirely on her own at age thirteen, this would be only natural. I asked Ismael to inquire about her family. I didn’t catch her reply, but he suddenly appeared to be fed up with her. She glanced back and forth between us. The sweet and gratefully optimistic look in her eyes reminded me of a stray dog who’d been taken in for the night. I think she would’ve been content just to stay with us, perhaps for several years.
Ismael told Estrellita he was certain that another bus, one that would stop at Arroyo Seco, would be coming along soon. It would be the last bus south for the night. She would be able to buy her ticket from the driver. Twenty pesos would be plenty. He told her she should hurry if she wanted to catch that last bus.
“I’ll take her back to the station,” I said.
“Are you coming back?” Ismael asked me.
“As soon as I get her squared away.”
“Good.” He lit a Mexican Marlboro and returned to his computer.
Estrellita and I walked back out through the darkness, past the dark, sad smell of the puercos. She trotted along fearlessly and obediently behind me. As we exited by the great metal door, she reminded me that she was hungry.
We stopped at Arnufo’s little taco stand. Arnufo was always working to support his growing family. During the day, when he could not find cement-laying work for seven pesos an hour, he shined shoes in the plaza. Every evening at sundown, rain or shine, he set up his taco stand. I ordered three tacos adobada (pork) to go. Estrellita looked up at me sweetly and asked for a refresco. What kind? Strawberry. She gave me those big eyes, and I rolled mine a little, but I didn’t mind. The whole meal cost not much more than a dollar, bottle deposit included.
As we walked back to the bus station, Estrellita was bubbly and full of questions. She wanted to know where I was from, what I did for a living, why I wanted to live in Jerez, why I didn’t have a wife and children. Two men were sitting on the planter waiting for the bus when we arrived. As Ismael predicted, another bus was due, and it would stop in Arroyo Seco. I got Estrellita’s things out from behind my door. She took her place at the planter, foil-wrapped tacos in one hand, strawberry pop in the other, the most contented-looking stranded child I have ever seen. I asked the men to look after her.
“Gracias!” she called to me in her pipsqueak voice as I walked away.
When I returned to Ismael’s house, he poured me a glass of Xalixco tequila, which he liked to mix with orange soda, and we talked about the girl. He shook his head. He didn’t believe her stories. I told him I thought she made an unlikely hustler. There had to be some truth in what she had said. On any other night, she would’ve been successful in her original intention of catching a bus. Only because the station was closed had she been forced to rely on me.
Ismael remained skeptical. “She wanted something from you,” he said, “and she got it, didn’t she?”
“A few tacos,” I said.
“You’re a soft touch.”
“I prefer to think of it as kindness from a stranger.”
“Kindness from a sucker is more like it,” Ismael said.
“How can you be sure she wasn’t on her own?”
He scoffed. “Arroyo Seco is a small town,” he said. “A thirteen-year-old child would not live alone.”
Outside, it began to rain hard: chattering, slashing, jungle rain. I wondered whether Estrellita had caught her bus, or whether she was stuck out in the rain with her soggy tacos and bottle of strawberry pop. Did she have enough money for a ticket? And who, if anyone, would be waiting for her when she got home?
Ismael and I played pinochle on his new computer while lightning crashed in ghastly green sheets against the curtains, and thunder cracked and rumbled like an avalanche of bowling balls. Afraid of a power surge, we shut off the computer, then drank a good half liter of tequila mixed with a liter of Fanta orange, smoked a dozen cigarettes, and each ate four tacos, which I bought from Arnufo’s stand in the rain. At 1 A.M. I had to leave, rain or no. Ismael loaned me his rain jacket and straw hat.
On the way home in the steady downpour, I continued to think of Estrellita. Even if she wasn’t entirely on her own, it was quite possible that her father, like many Mexican men, had gone to the States to look for work, and maybe decided to stay there for good. Her mother may well have gone with him. There had to be some explanation for why no one cared whether she spent the night with a stranger in a city nine kilometers from home.
The rain let up, and the clouds began to scurry away from a bright full moon. The shadows were long between the slender, moonlit puddles of rain. All the way home in the silvery darkness, I kept an eye out for Estrellita. Any minute, I thought, she could’ve popped out of the shadows to ask me a silly question: Why do you live in a big house all alone? But I didn’t see her, and as I approached the depot, the planter was unoccupied. There was no one on the street, only a few scattered cups and potato-chip bags. I stood there for a while, hands in pockets, looking up the dark highway.