Silencing Rivers by Jade Smith

Rio Grande (2)

I reached down to the bottom of the back bar. I poured another tequila shot and slid it down the crumbling lacquer to Marcos. He didn’t look down as he caught it. He had been sitting there the entire night watching me tend. I wiped the tables down and I could feel his body shift and his legs open when I bent down to grab the towel I dropped. It was a Monday night and Marcos and the other loyals were clamped tight to their half-full Bud-lights and if they’d gotten paid, a short whiskey and ginger ale. I tried to quit once. But Raul told me he’d give me a raise. Promises are always made when a girl like me tries to get out. So I smiled, flipped my long black curls, and stuffed singles into the back pocket of my jeans. This was the only way for a girl like me. Smile. Flip. Wipe. Pour. Smile.

My father had fixed Raul’s carburetor. There’s no money in housing regular drunks and giving them free tequila. So, the next day, I was behind the bar. Papa said it would help me pay for school. Hopefully a teaching gig after graduation. A degree. This was the only way. “Smile,” Marcos said. “This is for you.” I stuffed a single in my back-pocket and wiped drooling beer foam off of counter-tops.

The bar was crawling with sticky sweet cockroaches and flies that clung to the walls because of the brawls that sent men and glass shattering against the stucco. It was any other night, the pool tables were full and the beer was dripping out of men’s gaping mouths as I slid out from the back of the bar and made my rounds of delivering tequila. He was standing in the corner. Watching. He had a bow tie and leather shoes. His silk handkerchief was folded in a triangle and placed neatly in his breast pocket. His pants were pressed and he wasn’t drinking tequila. He signaled me over with a nod. “Whiskey sour”, he said. That’s all it took. I was already his. When my father gave me away six months later he said, “Smile, hita. You’ve made it.”

There was no way a bartending job was suitable for a married woman. Not a lot was suitable for a married woman of his. Skirts were longer. Makeup was less frequent. Carlos didn’t want me away from the girls too long, the twins were just newborns and they needed their mother. He stopped paying tuition right after that.

Errands were monitored by the gossipers of the town. Somehow, Carlos always knew if we had gone somewhere else than the store or to the dry cleaners. Soon, those were the only places acceptable for a wife and a mother. Soon, I was quieted every time I spoke against him. A sharp jab to the cheek one night ended any craving I had for ice cream. Or a movie. The market was the only place for a black eye and a grasp mark on my arm. No one asked questions there. They looked down when I wheeled the cart of screaming twins and parmesan cheese to the cashier’s counter.

Soon there was no need for reprimands. Carlos was gone most weekdays, a job out of town, only twenty minutes away in Las Cruces but he knew he no longer needed to be home every night. He spent his time between the site and strip joints full of college girls majoring in finance or business at a state school. He stroked their backs, and placed singles in their strings. “Smile,” he’d say. And they’d flip their hair and pour him sours. He came home with bags under his eyes and glitter in his pockets. I’d empty them and put them in piles for the cleaners. His blue pair had a tear near the zipper; I stitched it, folded them, and placed them in the trash can.

That night the twins were screaming in unison. Their wails could be heard down the street and no matter how much I tried, they were inconsolable. Carlos called and said he wouldn’t be home for dinner and not to wait up. Said he had to stay in Las Cruces. “Besos for my girls.” I hung up the phone and listened to our children wailing. It was dulled by a slight rushing sound that rang in my ear. It grew stronger and muffled the twin’s crying. It was a river. I couldn’t hear the twins anymore. I went down the hall to their room. Their faces were wet with tears but all I could hear was water. Gushing Violent.

I dressed the twins in their white lace baptism dresses. The buttons wouldn’t close in the back. I put bonnets on them so their ears wouldn’t be cold. I tied their pearly shoes. And folded the silk ruffle on their socks. Their cheeks still wet, I loaded them in the sedan and pulled on the interstate.

The Rio was full. Rain from the recent month brought the water close to the tree by the shoreline. I waded in with them. The white lace at their hemline turned a muddy brown. Their sobs muffled still. I didn’t feel the water. I just heard gushing. We were up to my shoulders. Then our necks. I kissed their silent open mouths and tasted salt on my lips. This was the only way for girls like us. “Smile.”

Published by

El Portal

Eastern New Mexico University’s literary magazine, El Portal, offers a venue for the work of writers, artists and photographers. ENMU students, national, and international writers are welcome to submit their original, previously unpublished short stories, plays, poetry and photography. No entry fees are charged. Cash prizes are awarded to first-, second- and third-place winners in each category (only ENMU students qualify). El Portal is published each semester at Eastern thanks to Dr. Jack Williamson, a world-renowned science fiction writer and professor emeritus at ENMU who underwrote the publication. El Portal has been published since 1939.