"American Folk" is a story I wrote in the summer and fall of 2013. It's an attempt at finally getting right the various, unfruitful attempts to write a story about someone entering a stranger's house on the premise that one used to live there as a child. It's also a way for me to use a title that I had used for various projects, including a novel and a book of short stories (and a short story within that collection), but none of those ever really quite fit the title. Once I completed this story, I knew that this would be the right title.
And finally, this story was also the piece I used when I spoke to a class of students at Salem State University in the fall of 2013. The story uses Spanish - in addition to English - dialogue, and I reached out to Dr. Kristine Doll - a neighbor and friend - and she assisted in the translation, and invited me to discuss the story in one of her classes. The class - comprised of mostly students for whom Spanish was their first language - helped me further correct the translation, and we also spoke of the importance of contextual translation over textual translation. Her students provided me with new insight into the work, and listening to them was very educational. It was a great night.
For the moment, I'm not sure where to place the story, but I'm very happy with its state, so it makes for a nice piece to present here.
It’s one of those days when sunlight comes through the windows and you can see dust hanging in the air and a quiet house is a kind of music of its own except for the scraping of forks across plates and then the sound of a knock on the front door breaks the silence and everyone stops eating. One of those days.
Seated at the table is a family of nuclear four - a father, a mother, a daughter and a son. What’s missing are a Collie at their feet and local news on the TV. What’s missing are the sounds of a sprinkler in the yard, of porch chimes and a washer lumbering through a cycle.
When the parents hear the knock on the door, they exchange a look and then the mother nods and gets up because she’s the only one of them who speaks English. The wooden chair legs scrape the linoleum and the abrupt sound startles them the way the knocking did
- which happens again -
and she looks at her children and smiles at them because their father won’t. Maybe it’s because he’s thinking about his truck parked outside. Or maybe it’s because of the bandage wrapped around his right hand and the blood that seeps through the gauze.
She walks into the living room and sees four people standing at the long front window: the shadow of a family not unlike her own - two adults, two children - with their hands cupped to the window. She pauses before she opens the door, preparing herself.
“Hi.” A wide smile from the man. “How are you?” He wears a straw hat with a black band around it and a t-shirt that says MY INDIAN NAME IS YES DEAR.
“Very good, thank you.” In her own voice she hears her accent and says no more.
“I’m Rex.” he says with a hand on his chest, then he touches his wife’s shoulder, “and this’s Carol and that’s Russell and that’s Shandy.” The boy wears a baseball cap and he tugs up and down on the bill; the little girl wears a pink bandana and a chocolate milk mustache. The kids are both freckled and sun-kissed, quiet and wide-eyed as they survey the house, the porch and the green expanse that surrounds it. The house sits on a dusty county road, alone for at least a quarter mile.
Rex pauses, angles to look past the woman and into the house.
“I actually grew up in this house,” he says. “Lived here ‘til I was twelve.”
“I see,” she says, immediately thinking of the house she’d grown up in, an auto garage in Chihuahua that had been converted into an apartment. When it was cool enough, she and her brothers used to climb onto the hot roof with blankets and throw paper airplanes into the street.
“And we were just driving through and thought we’d stop and see if-” Rex cuts off and looks up around him. “I have to say it’s just so surreal standing here like this.” His voice trails off and he points to a light fixture above him. “This overhang’s been redone.”
Carol leans in and lowers her voice. A woman-to-woman kind of tone.
“He’s too proud to ask, so I will. Can we come in and walk around? Won’t be but five minutes of your time.”
“Come in?” she asks.
“If you don’t mind,” Carol says, “just to have a quick look around.”
Rex removes his straw hat, exposing a bald, sunburned head, and he holds his hat to his chest. He teeters back and forth on the heels of his white tennis shoes. He has skinny sticks for legs and like his wife, he sports a purse-sized paunch around his midsection.
“Just five minutes?”
The woman smiles and then pulls the door open and gestures with her sweeping hand.
Rex stands in the living room looking like a displaced king. Closes his eyes and breathes deeply through his nose, puffs up his chest. He takes a moment to savor the bouquet of the old home.
“It’s like I never left.” With his eyes still closed, he motions around him. “I’m on the ground playing with little green Army men and Dad’s watching Rockford Files.” Smells the imaginary food. “Mom’s making chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes and sweet corn.”
Behind him, the woman’s family has gathered. The father holds his two children close to him, tight in his arms. Who are these people. He looks to his wife to translate the situation, even if only through facial expressions. Do we need to leave.
Rex goes on like a preacher swelling to a point.
“Out back I built a tree house with my dad and my uncle Kent. Where I kept magazines I’d stolen from my dad and candy bars I’d bartered at school.” He nods, as if communicating with the dead. “I played baseball down the road at this dirt diamond behind a honky tonk bar called,” he winces and snaps his fingers, “the name’s coming to me.” More snapping. “It’s coming to me, it’s called-”
Then Rex stops, opens his eyes and turns around to see the man with his two dark-skinned children. The boy is holding a cold can of RC and the girl is holding a banana. The father has a mustache and he wears an oil-stained work shirt that says Dobbs Auto unbuttoned halfway down his chest, and a name tag sewn over the left breast that says Hector.
Hector’s bandaged hand holds his son close, his good hand contains his daughter; they both have dirty clothes and ink-black sweaty hair that sticks to their foreheads. The little girl smiles; a tooth is missing but she doesn’t seem to notice or care.
And there’s a stilted silence while both families assess each other.
“We were just,” the woman says, “eating.”
“Well, I don’t want to interrupt y’all.” Beyond Hector and the kids, Rex can see plates and forks on the table, plastic tumblers half-filled with water. “I was just telling your wife that we came just to look around. I used to live here. When I was a boy.”
“Dice que sólo quiere entrar a ver la casa.” She tells her husband across the room, then explains to Rex and Carol that her husband doesn’t speak much English. He and the children spark when they hear Spanish. “Dice que vivió aquí cuando era niño.”
Hector relaxes a little, he himself thinking about the home where he grew up. His mother worked for a church in Monclova and she was given the finished lean-to that had been built behind the rectory. He and his brother helped serve food on Thursday and Friday nights and were allowed to eat the food that was left over: ears of corn and fried beans, steamed cabbage and cold peppers. His first kiss was in one of the pews during a thunderstorm.
“Creo que está bien,” she says.
“You know, I didn’t got your name,” Rex says to the woman.
“Ana,” she says.
“Ana.” There is approval in Rex’s voice. He likes this name. To him, there’s something American and wholesome about it: prairies and wagon wheels, Sunday church and snowball fights. Then he looks to her husband. “And… Hector?” he asks, pointing to the name tag. “Happened to your hand, amigo? That don’t look good.”
“Pregunta sobre su mano,” she says to her husband. Then to Rex: “He cut it when he fixed the car.”
“Fixing the car, huh,” Rex says as he stares at something across the room. “Whose car?”
Over the mantle are framed photos of the family who lives in the house. The family is white; the husband and son have red hair and green eyes and the mother has dishwater blonde hair. Letter blocks in front of the photos spell out THE BURTONS EST 1992.
“¿Tenemos que irnos?” Hector asks. “Ana?”
Ana and Hector listen to the footsteps overhead and huddle near the sink, whispering while their children finish eating. Strewn over the counter are open casserole dishes and plastic tubs of leftovers. All the food is cold but it doesn’t matter. The plates contain food scraps like shrapnel: banana peels and chicken bones, biscuit crumbs and the pull tabs from soda cans.
A breeze from the broken window cuts the summer mugginess, and Hector points to the glass shards, raises his wounded arm.
“Tenemos que irnos.”
“Pero parecen buena gente,” Ana says, telling him they look like nice people.
And then she tells him that she saw something like this on TV once, a man visiting his childhood home. This is an American custom, she says, and soon the American family will be on their way just like we will be on our way. Ana places a hand on his shoulder and assures him that everything will be all right.
And besides, she tells him, their van is parked behind our truck.
Soon, Rex plods downstairs while his family trails quietly behind him.
He looks at Hector and Ana who stand guard over the kitchen, blocking the door like soft-eyed sentries hesitant to act. Behind them, drawers and cabinets are open and the air smells like cold lasagne and fried chicken. He sees the back door and its broken window, the remaining shards bloodied. The bandage around Hector’s hand is unraveling and the white of the gauze is losing to the purple-red of the blood.
“I broke that window when I was a kid. I was about Russell’s age.” Rex looks back at his own son who patiently waits for the scene to play out. “Playing out back with some neighbors, sent a ball right through the window while my mom was making dinner.”
“Rex, honey, maybe we should go,” Carol says, “and let them keep eating.”
“And I ate breakfast in this kitchen every day.” He sniffs the air in search of a scent long departed. “Biscuits and gravy, that was my favorite. Hard to get that right, you know. Secret is you gotta use corn starch to get the consistency you want.”
“Thank you for letting us in,” Carol says to Ana, then tugs on her husband. “Let’s go.”
But Rex doesn’t move. He looks at Hector and Ana and the two children behind them.
“Dad moved us to St. Louis. Got a job at a plant there.” He takes a step forward, talking to the children, too. They look up but Ana turns around and says to them seguir comiendo. “Every house we lived in after this one was smaller. We kept moving farther and farther away from Kentucky. We lived in Colorado after that. When I was seventeen we moved to Sacramento.”
“Rex,” Carol says quietly.
“Know how many times I’ve daydreamed about coming back to this house?”
“Rex. We shouldn’t be here.”
“And neither should they. It’s not right to break into another person’s home,” he tells Ana and Hector, “and steal what folks have worked so hard for.”
“¿Qué dijo?” Hector asks.
“We were hungry,” Ana says.
“Someone worked hard for all that food. It’s a shame, is all I’m saying.”
“Our children were hungry.”
Rex shakes his head like a disappointed parent extending a lecture. He lingers for a moment and then walks out the front door, stopping first to finger the various notches cut into the door frame. He stares at them, the notches separated by an inch or two, and he remembers his father nicking the door frame to measure his height every birthday that he lived there.
And then he walks outside where his red-faced family is waiting for him.
It’s one of those days when the sun seems to linger long in the sky and people get fed up because it’s August and the heat will not subside and the only sound in the kitchen is the humming buzz of a housefly circling its food, the sound like a zipper forever opening and closing.
Ana and Hector and their children huddle in the kitchen, waiting for the American family to leave. They can hear an engine running and muffled voices, the stir of domestic argument. The unoccupied farmland that surrounds the house allows for sound to travel unimpeded, making for a private living that is also exposed and vulnerable.
And then they hear a car door slam shut and footsteps approach the house. A knock on the door, urgent, quick. The engine is still running.
This time Hector goes to the door unequipped with language but not needing it. He understands the situation enough to face Rex again.
But it isn’t Rex standing at the door. It’s Carol. She holds bottles of water and oranges and chocolate chip granola bars, all of them dripping wet. Her arms and hands are wet, too, icy white from reaching into a cooler of ice water.
“I want you all to have these,” she says. “Just pulled ‘em out of our cooler so that’s why they’re wet.” When she remembers that Hector doesn’t speak English, she nods her head to signify the house behind him. “Can I talk to your wife? Ana?”
And Hector can see Rex sitting at the wheel of a silver minivan. He does not look at the house, though Russell and Shandy’s faces are almost pressed to the glass. Hector imagines that inside the van the air conditioning works perfectly, unlike his truck’s. Two hours outside Little Rock it had begun to give up, and they had been driving without cool air since Memphis.
Ana walks to the front door with her children behind her. Steps in front of her husband, her arms folded.
“I want you all to have these,” Carol says.
“You don’t think my husband works hard?”
“Please,” Carol says, “take these.”
“My husband, he works hard. I want you to know this.”
“Please.” Her arms are still full. She looks like a nun without a habit, holy water running down her pale skin. “Take these, at least for the kids.”
“No one works harder for his family than my Hector. Do you know why he lost his job in Texas? Do you want to know why?”
“These are fresh oranges. And granola bars for breakfast. They’ll want something sweet.”
“He was working for a garage, fixing cars. Standing underneath the cars. An axle came loose, hit him right here,” she turns around and touches her lower back. “And because he is undocumented, they told him, ‘Go.’ They made a motion like this,” she says, waving her hands in the air like shooing a fly. “We have no insurance. For him to wake up, do you know what I have to do? I reach down and I wrap my arms around him and I pull him up.”
“I’m sorry that happened to him. I really am.”
Ana bites her lip and then reaches out and takes the food and water from Carol. She gives them to Hector and asks him to go back inside the house with the kids.
Carol shakes her hands free of water and pats them on her peach-colored shorts that barely cover her varicose veins.
“The thing about my husband,” she says, “is that he really does mean well. He’s one of those guys that if you knew him, you might understand him.”
“I understand,” Ana says. “I understand what he is saying.”
“He just… he has a thing with illegal immigration. One of those issues that kinda gets under his skin.”
“In Harlingen we stayed with the neighbors. Paul and Sherry. They fed us, gave the kids clothes from their church.” Ana winces as the summer wind blows dirt in her eyes. She looks like a Depression subject in a painting, a sunburned Okie traveling north for work. “Now I think, I think maybe this was not so good an idea for them to come with us.”
The door opens and the kids appear behind Ana, hanging onto the door frame. They smile at Carol; the granola bars in their hands, unwrapped and partially eaten. “Gracias,” the girl says. The boy only nods and looks away, embarrassed. Hector waits a moment, watching the two women, and then he closes the door in a way that almost appears as if Hector and Ana themselves own the house, that their children have been raised there and catch fireflies in the summer, that when storms roll in the two tired parents watch the sky from the porch the way they always do.
“What’re their names?”
“Pilar and Manuel. Named after Hector’s mother and my father.”
“So where will y’all go?”
“Wherever there is food.”
Rex honks the horn but Carol doesn’t turn around.
“I wish there was something I could do. With money, Rex is…” she trails off, shaking her head. “But he’s a good man. I promise.”
“Thank you for the food and water.”
Carol takes one last look at the house and then returns to her family.
After the van drives off, Hector comes out to the porch, holding Pilar with his good arm. She tears apart the orange; the skin falls to the ground like ugly confetti. Manuel leans against the house under the wrought iron address number. He rolls and unrolls the granola bar wrapping like a party horn. He sees his mother rest her head on his father’s shoulder, and together they watch the empty county road. She asks him about his hand - how is it, is it good? He shrugs this off and leans over and kisses her neck. He tells her that he loves the way she smells.
And then he tells her it’s time for them to leave.