I admit it, I ran away. After I was sacked in my mid-fifties and I drove my wife back into the arms of her daddy’s money, I had no way back to what I had done well in my life. There wasn’t even a way to get a new job—in 2009 laid-off managers with few friends were unemployable. Because I had a little money I rented a cheap tumbling-down house on the river in the cottonwoods, miles northwest of Albuquerque and the scenes of my failure. I waited there for a job to find me. The house was just upstream from Consuela Romero, the woman I would destroy.
I was picking up my mail at the boxes on the road when she first spoke to me, in the early summer just as the sporadic rains finish. She approached me like a bird about to fly up and away. “Excuse me? You’re my new neighbor?”
“Depends I suppose on where you live and where I do.” It was easy to be smart-ass at first, before she fell under my dominance and into my imagination.
She took it seriously. “You shouldn’t pretend, señor. We have seen each other. I am Consuela.” She offered her small brown hand, but she didn’t look at me—she gazed at the dust down to her right. Maybe she didn’t like men thirty years older. Grandfathers.
“Right you are. I’m pleased to meet you, Connie. My name is Charles. I’ve admired your place as I drove by. Mine is run down.”
“You rent from Ramon? He’s a nice person if you’ve been here for a while. He probably won’t fix anything. But he might help you, if you were doing it.”
I told her I didn’t care enough to fix up the Gutierrez place, but that I did wish I had a garden like hers. “You’re out in the garden all the time—you must really like it.”
“No, Señor Carlos. It’s just part of the old ways. I do it to honor my mother and father, and my grandparents. It is my grandfather’s house.”
“I’m sorry, but I prefer to be called Charles.”
“Sí, I understand.” She tried it out. “Charles.”
“You live with your parents?”
“No, they have all gone now. I live by myself.”
Reflecting back on it, I was wrong to always call her Connie. It was my first failure of acknowledgment.
A week later she drove up to my house. I stepped out past my tattered screen door to greet her, leaned on the front of the adobe, breathed in the dust raised by her truck. She was in silhouette—I was squinting into the bright sun. “Here. I’ve brought you something.” She handed me a paper bag, then stood twisting the end of her belt back and forth.
I peered into the sack, picking out vegetables—early squash, early tomatoes, cilantro and fresh lettuce. I thanked her and thanked her again, enjoying myself as I played her.
“De nada,” she said, but it was something, not nothing. While I handled the sack, I worked around to the right and sneaked glances at her. Not the country-club type of woman I liked.
“I tell you what, Connie, I can cook a bit. Why don’t you come back for dinner? I’ll make pasta with a cilantro pesto. We can use these things up while they’re really fresh.”
She turned away from me and stared into the distance. I think she was considering the offer, and considering also who made the offer. She was shorter than I and thin to the point of pain. It was her hair that got me—black and shining as obsidian. Unlike me, she didn’t dress in town clothes but in the denims of a field worker, under an old straw hat. I wondered what it would be like, to cut myself on those sharp angles and jutting bones.
She said, in a mouse’s voice, “Okay.” She turned and slipped back to her truck.
I shouted: “Let’s say at six!” But she didn’t answer. In that moment, she had given in. I think she knew where it would end. But she was that lonely.
After that, we were like the river below us, roiling swift towards a sea beyond. Anytime the bugs in my head were too much, I reached out to find her fluid skin beneath my hand, there in my room under the old window. Her hair flowed out on the pillow, shining in the desert moon, smelling of soap, of rosemary.
If she never admitted we were together, I didn’t want to know. I ignored her quirks, like how she fiddled with her fork endlessly, the long silences. And the way she wouldn’t look me in the eyes. A shame. They were beautiful eyes, if a little bruised deep down.
At times she came across so childish. She sat on the edge of the bed wrapped in the sheet—after I had strained my way to a sweaty finish. Not talking, hunching her shoulders. She would leave me in my bed, to go sleep alone in her grandfather’s house. That was the thing I resented, that declaration of shame.
She didn’t need a social life—but I did. We went out to dinner in the village whenever my budget could afford it. I introduced her to my new friends—I had been in sales, I knew how to attach friends to me like limpets. I dressed her in the style I liked—bought her a couple of summer dresses and accessorized her. She rebelled at the white one, I thought, because of its plunging neckline. “Charles, que meustra demasiado y—the color of death.”
“I like it, Connie. You look great in white.”
“The old ones will not like it.”
No one I knew had ever said things like that. Her superstition embarrassed me. A creepy idea, dead people watching over us.
We flowed on like that, two streams half-coiled together, through the summer and winter and into the time where the snow pack melts and the rivers wake up. She would come to me in the morning and make my breakfast, then disappear for the day. At dusk, she would be there with whatever pitiful offering of food she could make and we would cook together while I drank. And talked. I told her of my wild plans, for a new company, for an old friend in Chicago who would surely hire me, for a way to turn my little stake into a fortune as soon as the market came back. Sometimes she would touch my hand, and I would fall silent. That was the only time I surrendered command.
I claimed it was the priest’s fault for a long time. He was perched there on her porch that early spring day when I dropped her off, at her grandfather’s house. The priest brought the dusty black clothes and piercing stare of another century with him. She walked up to her porch, wearing the new white dress I had bought. I could tell by the way she skittered up to the door that she would be upset for days, more twitchy, even quieter than usual. She didn’t come to me that evening. Only the next morning when I drove down to her house did I learn something about her. Her actions told me that day what I had never asked. She told me a little of who she had been, and what she had wanted.
An empty white dress fluttered from the branch of a tall tree beside the house. Shoes and pitiful cotton underwear lay beneath it in the soft sunshine. The river ran wild below, just across a short meadow, filled with meltwater and the rippling trace of an unknown woman.