Saira Ramos

THE VALLEY

In her dreams he would taunt her, older in this world but still the same gentle face that watched her as she cradled him in her arms years ago. Sometimes he would be holding a young boy with his dimples and intense gaze. Norma would wake up with tears in her eyes, back in her small room cluttered with stuffed animals from her grandchildren and various versions of La Virgen in statue form. Her oldest son smiled at her from his framed home, amongst the faded flowers of the wallpaper, in front of her small twin sized bed. This particular morning, Norma whispered a small prayer for his soul, uneasy from his constant appearances in her sleep. The last time she saw Luis she couldn’t bare to look at the heavily made up face laying in that long coffin. She remembers nothing afterwards except for waking up to her children crowding around her.

These days it was getting harder and harder to get out of bed. Her bones would creak and ache. She could hear the loud pulse of the cumbia music that her son’s wife, a Salvadoran woman, would play as she got ready for work. The humidity of Southern Texas already permeated the small trailer, Norma wished they had the money to get an A/C unit. The summer brought a brutal heat and her children leaving their children with her.

Oscar and Santi dropped off their children (4 total) at Norma’s house the other night. Oscar said he didn’t have the money to feed them this month, he was in between jobs, while Santi simply said he needed a break (their mother was drinking a lot again, a yearly routine). Both were meek when telling their mother this. Norma would never say no, but felt her heart sink every time she saw their respective truck or car drive away down the dusty road. More people packed into the small trailer.

She heard the children starting to make noise, giggling amongst themselves outside her room, probably tormenting that Salvadoran woman’s small son. The grandchildren would cry out in a wild chorus of English, too fast for Norma to understand well. Their Spanish would stumble out their small mouths, sticking to the harsh English words that followed. More and more of her grandchildren were unable to communicate with her in the language she was swaddled in since she was put onto this earth. Even her children, the ones who lived away from The Valley, started to lose the lilting Spanish she taught them, their words slowing down like Norma’s movement.

Some of the grandchildren complained about the frijoles she spooned onto their plates full of chorizo con huevo. She started to tune out one of their protests for something else to eat, she was used to the younger children crying out for American things she did not have. She was never one to tell her children “no” but also never said “yes”, she only pursed her lips and continued washing dishes.

She heard a crash from her sons’ shared room on the other side of the trailer. The small Salvadoran boy darted out the room, her son, Manuel, paced after him, swearing loudly. Norma wanted to scold her son for always giving the boy a hard time but the fire in his eyes reminded her of his father. She instinctively winced when she heard Manuel roar at the boy for knocking something over. The grandchildren’s chatter turned into small whispers, they all glanced at Norma. Manuel sounded and looked like his father, Norma went back to the days almost twenty years ago when they all first came to the United States.

Emilio was drunk again, one of the neighbors called to warn Norma about her husband stumbling down the block. Luis, this was before the accident, looked up at Norma. He heard her voice drop, the worried tone in it. Norma gave her son a sad smile, telling him to check up on his younger siblings. As if on cue, Emilio burst through the door. Slurring his words, yelling for something to eat. Norma flinched at the roughness in his voice, turning her back to him to heat something on the stove for him. Her husband didn’t like that she wasn’t looking at him so he started to yell even louder at her. Luis ran to the kitchen as he heard Emilio start to slide the belt out from the loops of his pants. Norma doesn’t like to remember what happened next, the neighbors came running when they heard noise from the Gonzalez household. Luis wiped the blood trickling from his mouth, spitting on the broken moaning body of Emilio laying on the ground.

“No toques mi mama,” he hissed, as he pushed past his siblings and neighbors that crowded the small room. Norma shivered at this change in her son.

After this incident, Luis would wander the streets of Northside with his girlfriend. He got beat up by the cops one night for being belligerent and resisting arrest. Norma was afraid he would get sent to Mexico for not having papers. The family was fractured. Emilio would rarely come home anymore, when the children asked for their father, all Norma could say was that he was working. She knew that he was done, she had to support their large family on her own.

The last time she saw Emilio was at Luis’s funeral. He made no attempt to acknowledge his family. He sighed as he came up to Luis’s coffin, quickly leaving after that. The only happiness Norma felt that day was that Emilio was out of her life for good. Manuel always resented her for not saying anything to their father. They moved away from Houston to the Valley. Norma felt guilt for leaving Luis’s soul trapped in that house he passed away in.

Back to this particular morning, the telephone is ringing, it must be Norma’s daughter on the East Coast. The only one to leave the state of Texas. The first thing Maite asks Norma is: “Have you been seeing Luis in your dreams?”

Norma is close to tears and nods even though Maite cannot see her. Maite seems to sense that this is an affirmation.

“Mami, he’s been in my dreams lately, I see him with a baby sometimes. It always feels so real,” Maite sighs, Norma can hear the noise of Manhattan in the background.

Her oldest daughter makes a living cleaning rich white people’s penthouses in New York City. Norma always worries for her well-being. The children are all crammed in a small apartment and Maite’s husband is always working. Norma thought she would be the one to make it out of all her children.

“I miss the Valley, I wish I stayed there with you,” Maite blurts out, “It’s so hard here, I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“Mija, I’m proud of you, I wish you were here but I’m so happy you’ve made a life for yourself,” Norma finally says after a long silence.

She thinks about her sons who orbit around her, hurling their small children at her. Luis taking himself off the earth made his siblings lethargic. He was the one who helped take care of them and helped Norma around the house. He defended them from Emilio but when he was gone it all fell apart. Norma’s remaining sons could not be independent, they lived like life was pointless. They all were verbally abrasive with their wives and drank heavily. Her sons would never put their hands on their children or lovers but their angry tones sprung out constantly, a product of their father.

At night when everyone is in bed, Norma looks at the faded portrait of her oldest son. She hoped he would visit her in her dreams again. This time it wouldn’t feel so bittersweet.

“Luis, I’m sorry I couldn’t help you. I love you so much,” she whispered to him. She lit a vela of La Virgen. Her small room was painted by this warm glow.

In her dream, Luis and Maite were small children. Norma took them on a walk through their old neighborhood in Houston. She had the money to buy them paletas from the paletero that would cry out as he wheeled past their small turquoise house. Her two oldest children smiled up at her. She gathered them in her arms, whispering how much she loved them. She kissed them both on their heads, they were here with her for a little, it felt perfect.

She woke up feeling heavy, it was still dark out. She wandered out to the living room where her grandchildren were sleeping. The four young children were all sprawled out on the floor in sleeping bags and she smiled down on them.