“Time to change for supper,” Alton says. He shucks a clam and tosses the shell off the edge of the porch. He nods to my niece, Lulu, who sidles up and takes my glass, the chill on it long dripped off and evaporated in the breathless heat of a Mexican July.
Lulu opens our makeshift icebox and breaks two chips loose from a block of ice reserved solely for me. She measures out three fingers of whiskey with tender precision. Lulu is a ten-year-old sweetheart in a white cotton dress ablaze with embroidered flowers, and she is the reason our trio is where it is: nowhere.
Two months ago the Romero boy delivered a telegram from my sister, Alice. The telegram flapped in his small hands as he raced down the beach toward the house. He stopped short when he saw me on the porch because I’ve become the person, obscurely blighted, who makes a child wary. Lulu went out to meet him. He handed her the telegram, and she thumped back up the porch steps, dropped it in my lap, and ran back to him. They bolted down the beach.
ARRIVING BY CAR YOUR BIRTHDAYS STOP PREPARE EVERYONE. Were I one to give fair warning, I’d have shown Lulu the telegram. Your mama has decided to grace us with her presence. Instead I burned it, a brief lick of flame that went unnoticed in the noon heat.
The day I turned seventeen, Alice and I climbed to the top of Black Mesa. We sat close and watched thunderstorms sweep across the sagebrush valley and disappear into the tall pine of the mountains. The rain never reached us. Later we fell asleep in the sun. I woke first, lay quiet, and brushed bits of grass from her hair while she slept.
Tomorrow is my twenty-eighth birthday, Lulu’s ninth. There will be postre, with raisins, and people from town will stop by with good wishes because they love Lulu. She’ll wear a paper crown studded with tiny shells; a new one is made every year for the birthday girl. I’ve taken special care with the crown this year, lined it with an extra layer of paper in hopes that it will last for another birthday, because this one will be our last together.
Lulu knows nothing of this. For her this day has been like every other: a sunny frolic, an everlasting holiday, in a childhood so free of cares and bereft of guidance that only her good sense saves her. Today her endless romp has culminated in the capture of a horned toad, which now wears a dress fashioned from a scrap of cloth and scrabbles in a box at my feet.
“For you, Aunt Julia.” Lulu places the whiskey in the exact middle of a wooden crate that serves as my rickety side table. A bulls-eye water stain—evidence of hundreds of drinks, all poured by Lulu, all drunk by me—blooms on the sun-bleached wood. Always I put the glass back down where Lulu first placed it, just to please her. If I could take one thing with me when I leave, it would be that piece of wood, a remembrance of the way Lulu and I communicate best, with no words.
She settles down cross-legged and rests her head against my knee. After tomorrow I won’t see her again, and there is no way to prepare everyone, no way at all.
I was nineteen the night we arrived here, Alice twenty-four. Alton’s back was straight as a pin. Just days earlier, we’d boarded a train leaving Albuquerque, slid the compartment door shut and looked anywhere but at each other. With every mile further west we breathed a little easier. Alice kept a hand over her belly, shifting with a life of its own. Alton slept. Hours later, he woke surprised to find us already in Phoenix.
In San Diego Alice paid cash for an old Ford, the first car anyone in my family had ever owned. Next we drove to a market and Alice bought out the place. Dried beans and meat, pots and pans, a small camping stove, cloth to cut up for diapers. In hindsight, one tell-tale purchase: cans and cans of evaporated milk, enough to last Lulu for months.
“Where’d you get the money for all this?” I said, though I could guess.
Alice didn’t answer. She eased herself into the car, rolled down the window, and hung her freckled elbow out in the sun. She honked the horn: Get in. I slid in next to her, and Alton sat in the back. When we crossed into Mexico, she looked over at me and promised, “Just until all the trouble dies down.”
The road was rutted deep in some places, baked flat in others, barely a road at all. The land fractured in the heat. Now and then a car jostled by in the opposite direction, a flash of teeth and a finger lifted from the steering wheel in greeting. At night we slept on blankets spread out near the car. Once we woke to find shadows watching us. Alton shouted, “Haw!” and the coyotes disappeared into the night.
Halfway down the peninsula we turned east, away from a sun slipping down the other side of the sky. Alice’s belly pressed up against the steering wheel as she drove. My alarm increased in proportion with her contractions, but she shook off my hand when I tried to take the wheel. “Not yet,” she said, “it’s not bad yet.” Alton sat in the back like a docile child.
Just after dark the road dropped down to the Sea of Cortez, a swirling emptiness in a night with no moon, no glints off the water, only blackness stretching out to an invisible horizon. Alice stopped the car on the beach. Alton and I helped her ease into the back seat.
“It hurts now,” she said, a gasp of words. “Hold my hand.”
Not a breath off the sea as Lulu came into the world. Alice gave her a name of nonsense syllables, no history and no obligation, a name our mother would have hated. Alton fished a jackknife out of his pocket and cut the umbilical cord. I wiped Lulu’s face and wrapped her in a camp blanket.
Next morning Alice and I peered at Lulu as she nursed.
“She takes after you,” I said, though in fact she didn’t.
“She has his eyes,” Alice said, and I turned away because I couldn’t tolerate the thought of Owen Jack having anything to do with Lulu.
Later Lulu slept on a blanket in a patch of shade beside the car. Alice dug in the sand at water’s edge, a pile of clams at her feet.
“Happy birthday,” she said. “Forgot to say that yesterday.”
“Plenty else going on.”
I bent down to help. Soon we had a mountain of clams and set about figuring out how to eat them.
The next morning I woke alone to Lulu’s cries, the sound of the Ford’s engine long lost in the thicket of my dreams. Alice was nowhere to be found. I stared at the cans of evaporated milk, now stacked neatly on the sand alongside our other supplies.
My heart was broken, possibly murderous. “Where’d your sister get to?” Alton said, and held Lulu out for me to take. But I turned away and ran down the beach until I was out of breath. Even then I could hear the faint edge of Lulu’s wails. I looked back at Alton, who crouched on the sand as the beach lengthened away with the tide.
In the end I walked back to them. This time, when Alton held out Lulu, I took her. She rooted hopelessly at my chest, and the heat of the sun made her fists startle open like tiny starfish. I soaked evaporated milk up with a hankerchief and dripped it into her mouth. She screamed all that afternoon, and we held her close, whispered words to comfort her.
Later that evening a señora came down the beach. Shells crunched beneath her feet. She took Lulu from me and started walking. “Vengan.” We followed her to the house that Alice had paid for on the sly: two rooms, three small windows, back then only packed dirt for a porch. The señora gave Lulu back to me, retrieved a broom from a corner of the dark room, and insisted I take that too. When she was gone Alton took the broom from me and started sweeping. I sat outside and cradled Lulu, whistling songs to distract us.
Days later Lulu was a gaunt baby, her face a twist of pain. I walked to town and was directed to Pilar. I promised her anything if only she would come. She put her own baby on her back and trudged down the beach after me, took the bedroom, and nursed Lulu alongside her own. Over those first months she worked her way through our stockpile of goods, and we were only grateful.
Nine years on.
Alton’s twisted back pulls his shirt buttons into a crooked line across his chest. He cuts a lime in half and squeezes it over the clams. Lulu adds a handful of herbs pilfered from the Romeros’ garden. If there are clams to be had, Lulu and Alton will find them, and on a bad day for clams they’ll fish in the evening. We have never been without a meal.
I swirl the whiskey in my glass. Time to change for supper—a switch from water to whiskey, Alton and Lulu’s not-at-all-private joke of long standing. Those two never change for supper; they continue on with weak coffee for Alton, lukewarm horchata for Lulu, and a cheerful equilibrium that nothing ruptures.
Almost nothing. For the past few weeks I’ve changed for supper on my own, a deviation that startles them into bewildered silence. They watch as I rinse my own glass, add my own ice, measure my own whiskey. Every day I make adjustments: an extra chip of ice but a little less whiskey, a surreptitious splash of water to dilute the drink, a quick slosh out of my glass as I sit back down. Now and then I let Lulu make my drink, just like old times, to slake their worry.
This reduction in liquor costs me. I try not to snap at Lulu. I fight to keep my food down. I hide my trembling hands in the bedroom and my headaches under a sunhat. Were I to announce a curb on the whiskey, Alton and Lulu would gladly concoct un jugo fantástico to distract me. They’re not against me. But not long ago Lulu played on the beach and I saw the harsh lines of Owen Jack’s face rise up and overpower her delicate features. I felt something coming for me, a stealthy shift in my direction, a movement as insistent as the tide. Lulu felt me staring; she gathered her pile of sand dollars and retreated to the cove.
I’ll greet Alice with a smile that says Let bygones be bygones. Lulu and Alton will be taken by surprise. I’ll send Alton out to fish for supper, and after that I’ll laugh too much and pretend to stagger, watery cocktail in hand. Alice will take away my drink and help me to lie down. We’ll look at each other with love and wariness before she shuts the door and leaves me to sleep it off.
Lulu will break out the smile she’s hoarded for her mother all these years, and while my sister sits distracted by the warm sprawl of nearest and dearest in her lap, I’ll rifle through her suitcase and take what I need, then make my own bolt down the beach. Adios.
Tonight I sit in my chair and pretend to drink my drink as Alton doles the clams out into bowls. I look over at Lulu, who gently scratches her horned toad’s back with a tiny stick. The soft light fades across the sky, the sand, the waves, the roaring ceaseless hum of it all. But happiness never makes me happy for long.
Our mother had a rare quality: goodness emanated from her like a reproof. She had been known to induce a faint shame in others simply by proximity to her virtue, and I count myself as one of those afflicted. She was forever ministering to the sick, taking care of other people’s children, raising money for a burial or a burned-out barn. But although she was admired for her good works, she wasn’t loved for them. A grateful soul might knock on our door and leave pie or jam or homemade cordial, but never did anyone throw their arms around her or invite her into their home. She accepted their gifts with dutiful protests—truly there was no need, happy to be of help—and saved their offerings for my father.
“Plum cake from the Howards,” she’d say to him. “Cherries from the Navajo family who lost their baby, over by Gallup.”
“This town is lucky to have you,” my father always said. “Hell, I’m lucky to have you.” They held hands at the table, inside a pool of light from the lamp, while Alice and I hovered in the shadows just beyond.
My father died when I was eleven. Heart stopped, no coming back, a silent sprawl in the back pasture. For a time the sharp edges of frozen snow kept the shape of him, a long lean hollow that later melted down to mud.
We buried him at the edge of the valley beneath a lone apricot tree that gaped up bare to the winter sky. Alice argued with our mother about burying him out there by himself, alone and unprotected, with not even a rough wooden fence like the one that encircled the cemetery on the other side of town. “Who will make sure nothing bothers him?” she asked.
“I will,” our mother said, “and when I’m gone you and sister will watch over him, and your children after that.”
Yet not long after the funeral, in the springtime spirit of airing all dusty corners, our mother informed us that Alice and I did not, after all, share a father. On their wedding day, my father had taken our mother out to the barn and stroked a horse’s rounded side, said he could spot a pregnant filly before anyone else had an inkling of it.
People like to think that plain folks have the virtue of speaking plainly, but some of them speak so plainly that nothing is plain in the least. I believe my father meant to communicate a kindness that day in the barn, but our mother misunderstood, and spent her married years trying to pay off a debt he never imagined needed collecting.
Alice took the news as if it were a blow to endure. She slept in the freezing barn for weeks, as if to outstrip her pain with other discomforts. I’d known, in the way children do, that my father had always favored Alice; and in that moment I resolved to love him less.
“Will Alice’s father come to see her?” I asked.
“He doesn’t know about her,” my mother said, as if that answered the question forever. And from that time on it seemed that our mother was somehow free.
Lulu holds still while Alton braids her hair. They murmur back and forth, sing-song noises and silly jokes meant only for each other. Her scalp pinks from the tight pull of the braid, a weave of shiny copper that begins at the temple and swirls down to the nape of her neck before swooping back up to her other ear. Over the years her crowning glory has grown ever more intricate, more fantastic, the strands of braid a masterpiece, equal parts caprice and calculation.
They stop their banter when they see me in the doorway. Our kitchen is a table with a dented metal bowl for a sink, and we stockpile water in bottles filled from the spring outside town. The icebox—scraps of metal held together with wire and packed with sand for insulation—sags on a bench by the door. Alton secures Lulu’s braid with a thin strip of leather. Lulu darts up to kiss my cheek. Happy birthday to us.
“Polk’ll be arriving soon,” I say. Alton nods. We lug the icebox down the porch steps and load it onto a small wooden cart. Sometimes Lulu comes along and takes a turn pulling the cart, but today I shake my head, and she heads down the beach in the opposite direction. Alton follows her, bucket in hand. They spend their days scouting for what they consider treasure: lengths of snapped-off fishing line, a bent spoon or blackened pan, faded magazine pages to paper the walls.
I pull the cart down to where the sand is wet, and the wheels roll easily toward town. Already the sun has smashed the color from the sky; the elefante wind whips in off the water and beats the sand up against me. Alice is coming ever closer, navigating a road faint and rarely used, past scrub-brush and ocotillo and rattlesnakes that coil in puddles of shade between the rocks. To calm myself I imagine that the color has faded from her face along with mine, her cheeks rough and hollowed out from too much sun and discontent. No one wants to be the ugly sister.
I pull the cart past adobe houses with children jostling outside in the dust. They tilt their chins in greeting as I pass, “Buenos,” and I do the same in return. There is no church, no policia, just one small cantina and more Mexican prairie dogs than people. Four extended families live here, maybe a hundred people in all. Sanchez, Romero, Quintana, and Smithson. La familia Smithson survived a shipwreck and swam ashore more than a hundred years ago. They stand out because of their sandy hair and blue eyes, but take care to be more devoutly Mexican than anyone, and they will have nothing to do with us. We’re the fifth family, and they call us Los Güeros, a nod to our light hair and perpetual sunburn that carries with it a faint stink of scorn.
They say I should do better by Lulu. “Tán sola, la pobrecita,” they like to cluck under their breath. Lulu accepts all invitations and often brings home leftovers on a chipped plate wrapped with newspaper. Later she’ll return the plate and in this way be invited in again, though it’s not the food she cares about. Poor child, so alone. But Lulu knows nothing else, and I don’t believe in her loneliness.
It’s not impossible to leave this place. Pangas arrive from nearby towns, fishermen come and go, and every month a two-seater plane arrives from Mexicali and lands on this sun-baked strip of beach for our benefit alone.
The first time the plane ever came, the noise of it woke me. I ran down the beach, and there was Polk, squatting in the shade beneath the airplane wing, a cigarette clamped between his teeth. “No one you could be but Julia,” he said, and flipped an envelope onto the sand in front of me. Then he got back in his plane and disappeared.
Always it’s the same. On the envelope is my name, written in Alice’s schoolmarm hand. There’s never a line for any of us. Inside the envelope is an amount of money that will keep us but not free us, and we’ve learned to live accordingly.
The second time I heard the plane I didn’t say a word to Alton, just picked up Lulu and headed down the beach. Polk blocked my way when I tried to climb into the plane. “No can do,” he said. “Strict instructions. I’m just the man who brings the cash.”
I put Lulu down and went for him, cracked him upside the head before he knew what I intended. “Is she coming back? Tell me, you bastard! Take me with you.”
He punched me in return, and I landed hard on the sand. Lulu began to wail.
“You’re going to have a shiner,” he said, wincing as he touched the side of his head. “I don’t like to hit a woman, goddamn you.”
The next month he handed me a peace offering, a bottle of Templeton Rye. “Good medicine,” he said. “I grew up on it.”
“I don’t drink.” This was true at the time.
“Could be the old man wants it, if you don’t.”
He brought a bottle or two every month after that. I lined the bottles up on the porch, over the months doubled them back for another row. They sat in dusty lines, untouched, waiting for a rainy day I only later learned to recognize.
And then, for a few years, Polk didn’t come. I waited in the sun next to the cantina until long past noon. But no Polk that day, nor the next month either, and then not again until 1945.
During those years without Polk we sometimes traded whiskey for necessities. Lulu handled all the transactions because the families liked her best. I’d hand her a bottle and a small glass, and she’d set off for town. She’d pour two, three, or four fingers’ worth, depending on what we needed. Bread, canned goods when we could get them, clothes for Lulu as she grew, outdated newspapers left by fishermen or brought back by a schoolteacher who came from San Felipe to teach occasional stints in town.
Alton read the newspapers column by column, folding them to expand and contract as needed, a habit developed for the crush of a New York train but serving now only as a bulwark against the wind off the sea. In late 1945, he showed me a blurry picture of the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki. Lulu laughed at the names: Fat Man, Little Boy.
Soon after that Polk started flying in again, after nearly four years on the other side of the world. He handed me an envelope of pesos with Alice’s handwriting on it. My anger blazed up, bright and precious. I was glad to have it back.
La Rana centers on two sisters, Julia and Alice, reunited after a bitter nine-year separation. The setting is a tiny fishing village in Baja California, in the 1950s. It’s a liminal place, one of great extremes, where hard dirt and squat cacti exist alongside water that is warm, deep blue, and fertile. I try to use language and rhythm to suit this juxtaposition: lush, but with an edge.
I’ve worked on this book for more than a decade. In many ways it’s been a burden to me. But what I’ve discovered, after all the fits and starts and terrible endings, was that those years were necessary. I had to become an older, wiser person to understand this story and then see it through. Finally, it became a joy to me.
At first I envisioned a straight-up story about the conflict between two sisters: Alice has abandoned Julia in Baja, along with Alice’s newborn baby, Lulu. Julia seethes for years and feels a deepening sense of unease about Lulu, who spends her days on the beach with her grandfather, Alton, a man whose grip on reality is tenuous and confused with memories of his itinerant childhood. Nine years later, when Alice returns for her daughter, there is a reckoning.
This storyline has survived, but over the years, as I’ve gained more insight into my own family dynamics and history, the themes have changed. I’ve come to understand that the impetus for this story began with my grandmother, who lived her entire life in a stark landscape both beautiful and demanding. One of my earliest memories is of her swinging her hoe down to chop off the head of a large rattlesnake, not two feet from me. When the snake’s body stopped whipping about, she dragged it to the compost heap. All her life she was unflinching. This helped her family survive the Depression, but the emotional costs were passed on to the next generation, and the next. Utility in everything was paramount, softness a weakness, repression a useful virtue. Over time, the price of this philosophy becomes clear.
Nancy Foley lives in Hood River, Oregon. Last year she made the shortlist for the 2020 First Pages Prize, with juror Sebastian Faulks. Her short story “Bottle” won First Prize for Fiction in the Sonora Review 24/25, and in 2013 she was awarded a Hedgebrook Writers in Residence fellowship to work on an early draft of La Rana.
Embark, Issue 14, April 2021