Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
New York Live Arts presents
BOMB’s 2007 Fiction Prize Winner, selected by judge Amy Hempel.
We came across the ruins of a house one summer. It was at the end of a long dirt road, not too far from the beach. We’d been traveling, Jacob and me, and we decided right away to move in. This was Mexico, Baja, July.
The walls were long gone when we got there. The roof had been stripped of its tiles. The sun came in through the ceiling; the breeze blew right through. The whole frame looked spindly to me, its posts like skinned ribs. But Jacob was sure it would hold. “I think we could stay here a while,” he said.
And we did. It was like camping, but better.
We made walls out of bed sheets. We bought a mattress on the street.
We used Catholic candles to light the house at night, the tall kind in glass with paintings of saints on the front. We bought dozens and dozens in every different color and every different saint. My favorite was the Virgin of Guadalupe—she was Mexico’s favorite too. She was always with roses. This was her miracle: the impossible midwinter rose.
We had met again at a wedding a few weeks earlier. Before that, we hadn’t spoken in five or six years. Things ended badly between us the first time.
“I don’t know,” I said, when Jacob asked me to come with him. He was going anyway, he said, to Mexico, and maybe I should come too. We’d been having a pretty good time at the wedding, remembering each other together and apologizing. We were still in our twenties, but late. “I don’t want to horn in,” I said.
“You’re not horning,” he said. We were drinking champagne. We were eating white cake. My knees were touching his knees under cover of the tablecloth.
He had recently quit his job. “Too corporate,” he said. “I’ll figure something out I guess. But first, Mexico.”
He’d always been that way: he did whatever he felt like. I used to call it stubbornness. Now it seemed like something else.
“And then maybe South America.”
The more I talked to him, the more I felt like I missed him, like I’d been missing him all this time without realizing it, which was maybe the truth, but hard, that you could miss a thing your whole life without noticing. I had thrown away all my pictures of Jacob for the sake of someone else, who wasn’t worth doing that for.
“You should come,” he said. I was teaching high school then—art and art history—and it was summer, so I had a little time.
“A week,” he said “Maybe two. You’ll like it. We’ll drink beer on the beach. We can catch up. And don’t worry, we don’t have to make a big deal out of this. I’m over it.” He paused. “Really.”
I was the one who ended it before, and he didn’t take it very well.
“OK,” I said. It seemed like a crazy thing to do, but I felt like doing something crazy. “I’ll go.”
We drove down to Baja in his stick shift sedan, listening to the bands we used to listen to. They were Jacob’s bands really, not mine. I hadn’t heard them in years.
“This is like a reunion tour,” he said, as we climbed the road out of Tijuana. We didn’t make reservations. The idea was to explore. “Katie and Jacob, together again for one final tour.”
It was a small house: one story, the remnants of three rooms. All that was left was the frame. The doorways were intact, but there were no doors anymore. We found square holes in some walls where windows once were. You could see the ocean through some of them, just a sliver, but still.
This house was dying—that’s the way we felt. It was returning its parts to nature. I was always sweeping sand out, and sand was always drifting back in. “Ten years from now,” Jacob predicted, “I bet this house will be completely gone.”
It was set off by itself on a little brown hill. Almost all the hills were brown down there. This was a desert pushed right up against a sea. Our only close neighbors were the wreckage of trailers, and they did look like wrecks, like they’d been washed up by some storm, instead of towed here on purpose to be lived in and loved.
We liked to wonder about the people who came before us. We made up their life stories. Whose eyes had looked up at that ceiling? Whose bare feet had crossed that floor?
Jacob’s people were famous, fantastic or criminal. Mine were more daily; they were workers or mothers or kids.
You could buy anything used on this one little street, and we wanted things used because they went with the house. Everything for us was a relic that summer. We smelled 20 years of barbecues in the smoke from our grill. We bought bright orange armchairs that were all sat out. We bought a round wooden table stained with dinner grease.
We went on salvage missions for fun. Walking on the beach one day, Jacob spotted a piece of metal. It was lodged flat in the sand like a tide pool or a puddle. We tried to dig it up, but we couldn’t find the edges. We dug wider and wider, until we recognized it: a whole pick up truck, the roof collapsed flat against the seat, buried there who knows how? That was the thing about Mexico: anything seemed possible.
We fantasized about dragging the truck up to the house. We could plant a little garden in its bed, or just leave it out front like a work of found art.
We got as far as the steering wheel, then gave up. We got bored of the digging.
In our first life together, we were students. We were neighbors in university housing. We had never even owned our own furniture. He was studying English, and I, art. We were very serious then. We told each other everything we ever learned. We wanted to remember every fact, as if you could understand the world by memorizing it, part by part.
Here’s something I still think about sometimes that Jacob learned in some linguistics class he took: there’s a certain Indian language, Hopi, I think, that relies entirely on the present tense. There’s no past tense or future tense or future conditional. Just a forever, perpetual present. How lovely, we thought back then, how ingenious. We wondered what they say when someone dies. Was there no way to express loss? And what then? English was different, we were sure. It came prepared for every occasion: he died or had died, is dying, or is dead. Will die.
This obsessed us for several days, I remember. We never got tired, back then, of arguing over what could never be known. We could spend whole days on nothing but talk.
Jacob’s Spanish was better than mine, so he was the one who went out for charcoal or onions or beer. I liked the way he looked on those evenings, walking back up the road to the house. He was very long-legged, gangly even, but he’d gained a little weight over the years, and it suited him. That’s the way his body felt to me that summer: familiar but new. I liked everything I found. His skin turned tan. His hair stayed dark. And there was something more. Even his movements seemed different; they were, I don’t know, easy.
There was a camping ground nearby, and at the end of every day, we walked over there to shower and shave. There were separate showers for men and for women, but Jacob liked to sneak in with me, and the first thing he did when he got there was silently shampoo my hair.
We ate street food most nights: tortas or tacos or burritos from stands. Or else we grilled something on our own. When we wanted to splurge we went to a sit-down seafood place just up the road, where fishing nets and antique scuba gear served as decoration. This is how we spent the money we would have spent on motels. I always ordered the same thing: ceviche to start, then shrimp veracruz.
We got to know the owner a little. His name was Diego, and he gave us free wine.
“Not too many Americans here,” he said, sitting down with us sometimes.
(He was right. They went elsewhere in Baja, not here.) He liked to talk about America, about what was different and what was not. He was potbellied but handsome, and he always wore a tie. “Just you.”
We left drunk. We tipped big. We called the place Diego’s, but that wasn’t really the name.
Things were quiet during the week, and we liked it that way. Weekends were noisy. People came down from Tijuana, I guess, and the other big cities to camp on the beach, and barbecue and jet ski.
We stayed near the house on those days, and worked on décor. I painted and rearranged. Jacob hung a hammock from an overhead beam, a plastic Aztec calendar from a nail above a doorway.
But we spent weekdays on the beach, walking or swimming or just laying around. I collected sand dollars at first, and hung them up on strings outside the house. But there were hundreds of them on that beach, too many. It’s no fun unless they’re rare.
Jacob did a lot of reading. He’d brought a box of books in the car. “I haven’t read like this since college,” he said. “It’s such a simple thing, you know? Just reading, but when I’m working, I feel like I never have time to do it.” He read whole novels in single sittings.
I felt the same about art. I sat next to him with my sketchbook doing drawings of the other people on the beach—the old men in folding chairs who stayed still for a while, or the tanned young women who stretched out on towels to tan themselves further. Others sold jewelry or tie-dyed sarongs—these women moved quickly, too fast to draw—and there were always small children selling chicle around.
I sketched Jacob in pieces: close-ups on hands, or pelvis or thigh.
“Thank God I have summers off,” I said. My pencil was sideways in my hand. I was shading in shadows on a little girl’s face.
“I don’t see how anyone does anything full-time,” he said. He had a book in one hand, and he was running handfuls of sand through the other. “Not for a whole lifetime, I mean.”
“Me neither,” I said. I was not looking forward to September. I was sick of teaching art. I hated the idea of it now more than ever. The linoleum of the art room, the burnt smell of the kiln—these things felt remote to me now. Impossible.
The main feeling I had when we were in Mexico—and I know Jacob felt it too—was that we could do whatever we wanted to do, and nothing we didn’t.
We’d been in Mexico for three weeks when we heard about the kidnappings.
We read about it in the local newspaper, or Jacob did. We bought it sometimes at the liquor store to practice up on Spanish. It took us a long time to get through the article, even with a dictionary. Whole phrases went untranslated. But we understood the gist, all the meaning in that one word: secuestros.
All the victims were businessmen so far—some of them local—kidnapped by one drug cartel or another.
“They take them for ransom,” said Jacob, “As high as a million dollars sometimes. And most people have been paying it. It’s crazy.”
“Are they killing people?”
“A few, I guess. If they can’t get the ransom.”
I guess Jacob could see what I was thinking because the next thing he said was: “No, no. Don’t worry. They just do it for the money. We don’t have any money.” He was shrugging his shoulders. He was casual and calm. “And we don’t look like we have any money. All we have is a shitty car.”
I tried not to let it bother me. Worrying didn’t suit the lifestyle. We went on with our days as usual. Weeks went by. A red tide struck; algae turned the ocean brown and kept us out of the water. It was poison for jellyfish. Dead ones washed up on the beach by the hundreds. They were all the same kind, as big as Jell-O moulds, all a bright patterned pink. We loved the sight of them. They were so pretty. It didn’t matter that they were dead.
We went to Diego’s for dinner one night, and for the first time, Diego wasn’t there. When we asked the waitress about him, she leaned down and said softly in English, “He’s with his family. They kidnap his cousin. Diego try to get the money for him.”
The man had been kidnapped from his house, she said, in the middle of the night. After that, I was scared.
“It’s not any more dangerous here than it is at home,” said Jacob. “Murders and kidnappings happen all the time in the US too. It’s not just here.”
“I know,” I said. “You’re right. But it’s scary, you know?”
“We’ll be fine,” he said. He put his hand on my knee, and he left it there. It was so reassuring, that hand on my knee. It reminded me we were free. We were sitting in our armchairs, legs interlaced. I looked up at his features—slack shoulders, slack jaw—and I wanted to be like him, that carefree.
The red tide cleared. The ocean turned blue again; it really was blue there, not grey like it is in some places. A high tide took the jellyfish back out to sea. I went swimming once or twice. I would get used to it, I decided, the less pleasant facts of this pleasant place.
We didn’t talk much about the past. I went down there thinking that we would, but we didn’t. Jacob only brought it up once.
“You know,” he said one night, while he sliced up a lime for his beer. “You really screwed me up for a while, lady.”
We were in our armchairs again, face to face. This was what we did at night. The house looked like a lantern after dark or an oversized living room fort.
“I don’t think I knew what I was doing back then,” I said. I’d been thinking it over, the last few days on the beach, and this was what I’d come to.
“Really?” He rocked forward in his chair. We could hear gunfire in the distance. There was a shooting range nearby that we never understood. Guns were strictly prohibited in Mexico, but here, people shot freely at stacks of tires arranged above the beach. “So you’re saying—I mean, what are you saying?”
It’s hard to know what happened to us the first time. Something changed after college. We were both working too much. Maybe that was the problem. We didn’t function well in fragments; we were used to long stretches, our big nights and our big days. We only worked in excess. We started fighting, I don’t know about what. I remember, near the end, hating him in details, the way he always interrupted himself to qualify whatever he had just said, or the sound of his fork clinking against his teeth when he ate.
But when I looked at him now, I knew it was different. I would never leave him. “I think that was rare,” I said. “What we had then. Rarer than I knew, and I’m sorry.”
Jacob had a dimple in one cheek that only showed when he smiled a full smile. I was in love with him again.
“Let’s just stay down here, Katie,” he said. He was resting one foot on top of one of mine, but he couldn’t keep it still.
“I’m serious. How long do you think we could stay?”
“Without money? Not long.”
But he’d been thinking about it for a while. He already had a plan, and he was giddy with it.
“We could work for a few months every year in California, then live the rest of the year down here on the money we made. Think of how far it would go down here, especially with free rent.”
“You’re serious?” I asked, but I was already sold.
“Completely. As long as you don’t rip my heart out again, okay?” He laughed, and so did I.
One of the bedsheets we’d been using for a wall was flapping loudly like a sail, and Jacob got up to pin it back to its posts. I’d painted scenes on all those sheets by then. This one was a night sky, but not our night sky, one I’d invented, and filled with made-up constellations and distant made-up stars.
“Or we could just stay here year round,” I said, “Teach English part-time somewhere or something.”
And why not? We were still so young then. We could do what we wanted.
“Exactly,” he said. “Let’s do that. I bet you could sell some of your drawings.” He took two more beers from a cooler we’d found. He opened them both and dropped a slice of lime in each one.
I listened for the ocean. The sound was so constant there, you almost forgot. So this is it, I was thinking, as Jacob walked back across the room: this is how I want my life to be.
In the morning, I made it final. I called my school from a payphone. I told the principal I wasn’t coming back in the fall. She wasn’t happy, but I didn’t care.
It was a few nights later, a Monday, I think, that I woke up to the sound of a car’s engine. We never heard cars this close to the house. We lived among wrecks, and they’d all been abandoned.
Jacob woke up too. He went to the doorway for a better look. It must have been 6:00 in the morning or so. The sun wasn’t up, but you could feel it coming. There was light enough to see.
“Who is it?” I whispered, pulling the blanket up to my chin. I wasn’t dressed.
The engine slowed, then died. We heard voices. Car doors opened and closed, but quietly—everything was done very quietly.
“I don’t know. A couple of guys in a truck,” said Jacob. He was crouched low in boxers, looking out through the gap between two hanging sheets. He looked like a kid that way. “I think they’re coming over here.”
“Here?” The kidnappings were still on my mind. We weren’t rich, but we were Americans, and I thought they might think we were worth something. “To the house?”
“I guess,” he said. I could tell he was thinking the same thing I was.
It got very quiet. I listened for footsteps. All I could hear was the ocean, the irregular sound of the waves.
“Shit,” said Jacob. I’d never seen him really scared before. He opened his eyes wide and said, “One of them has a gun.”
All we had for a door was a sheet. The walls were the same. It was no better than a tent. I don’t remember getting out of bed, or putting on a shirt. These were steps I took because steps needed to be taken. I did not deliberate. I acted, that’s it.
“Let’s go,” I said. I was already heading for the back.
“Go where?” Jacob hadn’t moved.
“Wherever,” I said. We heard footsteps now in the dirt outside. They were only a few feet away. They were kidnapped, are being, will be.
“Maybe I should try to talk to them, tell them, I don’t know, that our families don’t have any money.” He was folding and unfolding his hands.
“Come on,” I said. I started to cry.
I could see their shadows now through the sheets. They were whispering to one another in Spanish. It was too late to get away.
Someone tore down the sheet in the doorframe. A man with a rifle lunged in, rifle first. He pointed it vaguely toward us. He seemed nervous in the role, but willing. He was younger than we were. He was wearing a t-shirt and jeans.
There were three of them, two young, one older. I could tell from the way they looked at us—like we were nothing, like we were dirt—that they didn’t have any sympathy for us, and they weren’t going to.
They began to yell at us in Spanish. I understood nothing they said, but the words sounded like orders. The youngest one grabbed me by the wrist and held me that way. His fingers were hot. I felt sweat on his palm. The one with the rifle shoved Jacob into a post. I ran through escape plans: if I kicked this man hard enough, and if Jacob grabbed the gun … but no, we wouldn’t do it. We were not that kind.
“No tengo dinero,” said Jacob in slow, crippled Spanish, I don’t have money. “Mi familia no tiene dinero.”
Jacob reached into his pocket. He meant to offer them his wallet, I think, but it startled them. The one with the rifle pointed it suddenly at Jacob’s chest. I screamed. Jacob flinched.
I stopped squirming then. There was nothing else to do. These men were in charge. Soon we’d be in their truck, headed who knows where. I thought of my parents, of the phone ringing in their sunny suburban kitchen.
The oldest man shouted most. He was waving his hands around, red-faced.
Jacob and I stayed quiet now. We kept our heads down.
The man resorted finally to English: “This is my house!” he shouted. “This is my house! I build it for my family. I stop building for one year, and you move in? Is not right.”
He kicked over some beer bottles we’d stacked in the corner. One of them broke and scattered glass on the slab. The sheet from the doorway lay in a heap on the floor.
“Get out!” said the man. The other one let go of my wrist. “Get out! Go!”
We left everything behind. As Jacob started the car, I watched them slashing our sheets like they were cutting back weeds. I could see that their truck was full of building supplies: drywall and two-by-fours and tools. We had mistaken a year’s worth of wear for 50. It fooled us as well as gilt.
We drove back to California that afternoon. We hardly spoke. I remember the sky: it was as clear as I had ever seen it. The ocean was dark and blue. There was traffic at the border, and they asked us, when we crossed, about the reasons for our travel.
It was almost dark by the time we reached my apartment. All along the block, streetlights and sprinklers were clicking and flickering on. Jacob and I said goodbye right there in the street. We made vague plans to get together, but I think we knew then that it was over. We didn’t have to say why.
In September, I went back to teaching. I don’t know what Jacob ever did.
Karen Thompson was born and raised in San Diego, California. She is a graduate of the Columbia MFA program and is now an associate editor at Simon & Schuster. She lives in Brooklyn and is currently working on a novel.
Special thanks to contest judge Amy Hempel, whose most recent book is The Collected Stories (Scribner, 2006). BOMB congratulates recipients of honorable mentions Patrick Dacey and Donna Epler.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby