By Danny Thiemann
The photo showed a tall brunette. They’d broken up. He didn’t say why. Wasn’t hard to guess. For him, love came on stilts, awkward and out of reach. Abby was beautiful. Her eyes were not brown so much as wicker woven to carry her present moments into the past. He woke holding her photograph—his knuckles five backs bent in harvest of a world beneath his palm. He looked at her the way fire must watch the stars, or how the moon must watch the sea, seeing himself in a past he could not reach. Abraxas got dressed and lay face down on the bed. He traced the dirt on our sheets. Motel mattress-stains were a poor man’s atlas, even better perhaps, at mapping islands of others’ pasts.
Tell her you love her and that’s why you’re giving her the facts, I said.
That ain’t love.
It’s a start, was all I could say.
Speak with your hands, he reminded me. To say sorry in sign language, I put my hand to my chest and moved my fist in a circle.
My brother says I’m sorry with a fist around his heart, Abraxas signed.
I know my hands are dull as stones, I signed. But your hands are like stones in a stream. You toss them into your speech. And they sing.
The world looks different now that I can’t hear, Abraxas signed to me. I look at the sky. Birds just look like leaves with feet.
Ready to see Abby? I asked. Abraxas nodded. He locked the bolt to our trailer to close the door on a past he never heard slam. Our boots crunched the gravel along the train tracks. Abraxas jumped on first and I turned to see if he was serious, if we were really going to see her. I closed my eyes, listened to the train, and heard the Doppler effect of someone caught between reality and a dream; the more distance he put between our lives changed how I heard the wanderer within me get up and leave.
There was no better way to enjoy the Midwest than while on the run. By the time we hit the big city, the stars disappeared with any sense of where we came from. Replace sand with light, and the yellow-windowed skyscrapers of almost any city will look like hourglasses measuring a new kind of time. Back home, pairs of sneakers hung on telephone wires like two more reasons people never left town. But here, the city was a colossus in wonder at the scale it imparted on the world around us. Through my window I felt the city’s telescopic effect—depending on the depth of our pockets and the height of our confidence, the city could lift or diminish our trajectory across it. The buildings began their reverse petrifaction at dusk, turning stone into ink that drew darker figures into the streets.
Lose a woman like that and waste a life needing, if not her, then at least her wanting of the past. She’s engaged now, of course, with her looks, and her talent, and her waiting so long for something to do. Abby will see me with a bigger nose, older, with bigger ears, less promise, less hair, feet worse for wear, standing on five syllables small as toes, the “what if” and “if only” of a woman that left me on my heels.
What, you don’t like your food? I asked Abraxas when we grabbed some eats.
It’s not bad, Abraxas signed with his free hand.
Your vegetables, I pointed with my fork.
I don’t eat colors. I eat skin tones. Abraxas ate his burger and not his salad.
“Aren’t you Bixler’s kid?” our waiter asked Abraxas. I translated.
“Who wants to know?” Abraxas said through my interpretation.
“Probably your father,” the waiter said and I laughed with him.
Abraxas just gave him the finger.
“The name’s Mauricio,” our waiter shook our hands.
“What happened to papi and the gang?” I asked him.
“Secure communities,” he said. “Most of the cab drivers are from places people here can’t pronounce. Oaxaca alone had Asunción Ixtaltepec, Cuyotepeji, Cacalotepec, and Tlacolulita. None of us had papers. You know the rest.”
“So where’d most of ‘um go?”
“L.A. Some went back to Oaxaca or El Salvador.”
“Anyone still picking up fares?”
“Sancho has a cab.”
“You know how to get a hold of him?” I asked.
“Yea,” the waiter said. “But he’s got the personality of a urinal. Spits when he talks and I’d never place my mother in front of him.”
Let’s see him anyways, Abraxas signed.
“Sancho, my man” I yelled. “Take us down to the Waterfront, we’re going to see his novia play tonight.”
“Puta, I ain’t driven por aqui in a while, tu sabes?”
“No, I don’t know. Que paso?”
“‘Dis ain’t my territory. Todo nuevo,” he said as we locked eyes in his rearview mirror. “I find a neighborhood, and it disappear. Así,” he snapped his fingers. “Like that, don’t find it no more.”
“You can’t find the gas pedal on your own cab,” Mauricio yelled.
“Well you is no finding your pito when you take a piss,” Sancho shot back.
“It’s pouring rain,” I said.
“’This ain’t nothing,” Shancho shot back. “But me? I love d’clouds.”
“What about um?” I asked.
“They’re beautiful, do you think?” He pointed up at the sky “We spend our lives in carriages, imprinting ourselves not on our parents but on these evaporated lives.” Moonlight spilled across the Hudson. Abraxas scratched his girl’s initials across the fog on his window—“A.K.”—and stared at his reflection inside the letters. In the same way we never saw light but what it fell upon, we no longer saw ourselves, it seemed, except in the reflection of the ones we lost.
We pulled out of the fog and rolled up to the club. Abby took the stage. She was stunning. Her dark blue dress revealed breasts so full and white they described whole new phases of the moon. She told the crowd about herself as she sat at the piano. Her father was a bargeman on the Hudson River who lowered weights in the water to measure its depth. And as I listened to her play piano, I could hear the black keys do the same to her. She sang. By the time a woman starts singing the blues, she usually means nothing to whoever inspired the tune. But not her. Jesus, I said to Abraxas, you need to talk to her. To say “Jesus” in sign language, the middle fingers have to be driven into the palms, so it looked like I was either nailing myself to a cross or saying the one word in sign language the table next to us understood. Abraxas glared at the bassist backing her up.
Be easy, Abraxas I said. Gentlemen don’t fight.
So don’t fight like a gentlemen, Abraxas signed to me. He kicked the bassist’s amp over and jammed the guitar input into his ear. The bouncer trundled over and the next thing I know Abraxas was bleeding from a broken shot glass. EADG lines were smashed across my face like a shoe print. We were lying face down on the pavement outside. People stepped right over us. Nearly 2 a.m. and the streets were still packed. The moon was reading the city like a man reads braille, touching the bumps of people moving in crowds who hoped to rearrange the text of the city’s story until it told their own.
This is what you came to tell her? I asked. Abraxas wiped glass off his lips. He looked up. Orange streetlights tossed their copper coins into the wells of his two black eyes. The streets had become a kind of unleavened desolation. Abraxas turned down a dark alley and I followed him for blocks without saying a word. I pressed my flashlight’s hot surface against my hand. My fingertips turned a deep bright red, the same color as when I first held ice and my need to see the world melted into wonder at having held a small part of it.
We have to go back, I told him. He knew I was right. But it took almost a half hour for him to calm down and flag another cab.
“Como te llamas?” I asked the driver.
“Valentine,” the cabbie said. “Where to?”
“The Waterfront. Hey, señor, what happened to the cabbies? Took us damn near a half hour to flag you down.”
“They’re getting plucked off, disappearing, señor. Some say parts of the city have gone with them,” he smiled.
“Plucked off?” I asked.
“ICE, he said.”
The fog was eating parts of the city we were tunneling through. Abraxas, you have to go back and talk to her, I said. He just sat in the back of the cab and opened up a comic, Crisis on Infinite Earths.
What are you reading that stuff for? I asked.
They can’t get their story straight, he signed back.
Like Superman is supposed to fly in one parallel universe. In others he can only leap a building in a single bound.
So DC Comics came up with this idea of infinite earths. He turned the page with fingertips that were bigger and rougher than his knuckles from working as a picker in the fields for so many years.
I’m just saying, he pointed to the characters on the page, there are a lot of parallels between us and them. Take Batman. People are afraid of him, or don’t understand him, but they need him. He’s part of the city’s shadow. He’s fighting both the criminals and the cops. He’s like us, cabrón. He’s like all of papi’s friends who came across the border with los polleros. Cut off from his parents, fighting to stay sane, and trying, by daylight, to look like everybody else.
See, I said, I thought of him as just a badass motherfucker.
Like I didn’t? I’m just saying Gotham has two names, “Metropolis” by day and “Gotham” by night. But it’s the same city. Think about any of papi’s friends that left home—they’ve always been of two cities, the one they live in and the one they left behind. The bat signal shines from the floor of one city into a sky that belongs to another.
My brother knows how to love a book but not a woman. Knows how to leave her but not how to turn a page. The cabbie took us back to where Abby had played but the place looked deserted. Bottles broke on the pavement. Radios that had been playing music on the chess tables turned to static. Abraxas lit a cigarette so I could ‘hear’ him better by its glow. I’m going to go in that building and see if they’re still there, he said with his hands. If I need help, I’ll light one match in the window. If everything is cool, I’ll light two.
I watched Abraxas walk towards the entrance. When he stepped beneath a streetlight, his shadow followed like an old fighting rooster he used to own, drawing moonlight or blood, which to a shadow may have been the same prize. He wasn’t gone for more than a half hour when I yelled, “Oh shit, La Policia” even though I knew it’d do no good. When the first cruiser pulled up I thought I saw, way up in the corner of a window, a single match call for help. Abraxas, I started yelling. I waited for the second match to signal things were cool. The cruisers flashed their brights. They flooded the building with light.
“Turn it off! Turn off your brights!” I screamed at the cops. I couldn’t hope to see the light of his match in the windows if their lights flooded the building. I made a run for it, hoping to grab Abraxas before they did. I turned a corner of the building. Abraxas busted out the back with Mauricio, Sancho and Abby in tow. We ran down streets with alleys appearing in front of Mauricio’s nose. I couldn’t see what Abraxas was trying to sign to me. He threw me scraps of tin and aluminum out of a dumpster and wrapped them around my wrists. Glints of moonlight helped us see each other’s hands better.
“Abby” Abraxas yelled. It was the first time he’d tried to speak out loud since papi’s gun went off next to his ear.
“What?” she asked him. He pulled her picture out. The clouds broke in the sky and moonlight reflected off the metal wrapped around his wrists. Women also cast a light. But whether that light was brighter from a woman he’d lost or hadn’t met yet depended less on her beauty and more on the reasons he had to watch it fade.
Come with me, he asked her.
Abraxas, Abby signed back to him, whatever you are asking me, the answer is ‘No.’ But you don’t listen, do you? Look at me, Abraxas. Spend some time with me. And tell me you don’t see in my eyes a second sky.
“Gotham, Mexico” won a Table 4 Writers Foundation Writers Grant in 2014.
Danny Thiemann is a migrant farmworker advocate in the Pacific Northwest. He is a 2008 recipient of Cairo, Egypt’s Madalyn Lamont Award for Literature from the American University in Cairo. In 2009, he served as an Arabic-English documentary film interpreter and interviewer for SeeChangeNow.org in Nablus, Palestine. From 2009-2010 he worked as a Modern Story Fellow in Hyderabad, India teaching film and photography to help students document social issues. In 2011, he worked as a Milt Stewart Global Law Fellow in New Delhi, and as a Arthur C. Helton Grantee in Costa Rica where he helped develop a conflict resolution program for the Inter-American Development Bank. Most recently, he served as a 2012 Global Law Fellow with the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center in Mexico. He is a contributor to Guernica, Insight on Conflict, and the Matador Travel Network.