Chuck Barrett

Progressive fiction, poetry and commentary

For My Readers…Story Time

Author’s Note: This section will feature a new complete short story for my readers from time to time.

El Ride

Six double steel lines meet downtown and make the Loop.  Lucha waits at Dearborn, underground, mulling her day, her collar set high against the November wind blown in by every passing train. She hears Ramón, the Guatemalan whose asylum case she lost.  He is speaking urgent Spanish to her ear in the crowded cell they call the “tank” at the immigrant detention center during the fifteen minutes she is given to interview him before his case is called.  With stale breath, sweating mustache and huge, liquid brown eyes he speaks of death squads and murder down there, of his wife and children in hiding from “la migra” up here, the daily fear of betrayal.  He is still talking as the uniforms cull him from the tank and Lucha must go her separate way up to the hearing room. 

His translator and advocate, his portavoz, she hears again her words in his defense, “reasonable fear of persecution, probable death squads, likelihood of disappearance.”  Words with qualifiers, qualifiers that the law requires, yet words that wobble, wiggle, stumble. Unlike the words of the government prosecutor that slam off the old granite walls of the hearing room with a finality like the crack of the judge’s gavel: “illegal—alien.”  

She sees the uniforms take him away in cuffs.  Another train roars into the underground vault, flattening words and thoughts like pennies on the rail.

Frequent express trains go north to stolid streets of bricked houses with stained-glass windows and varnished oak interior trim.  South and west-bound trains go mostly to barrios and ghettos and factory-burbs. Neither fast nor often.

Lucha turns toward the train. Faces in dusty windows are silhouetted faintly like hieroglyphs on weak paper lanterns against a gray wash. Chicagoans call the train El, for elevated, the same word as he in Spanish.  She boards, southbound for Pilsen, her barrio.

Pilsen tracks are second-story high, run right by the windows of two-flats and storefronts, making voyeurs of passengers, causing yellowed paper shades to be drawn for miles. El pounds through an opening in St. Luke’s Hospital and stops. A young African-American woman rushes out, brushes past an old man coming in.  He could be her grandfather. Both wear green uniforms under jackets. His shift over, hers to begin. He grabs the center pole against the jerk of the start, raising vascular cords on a gnarled brown backhand, a map of modern peonage.  El rumbles towards Eighteenth, riding the waves of uneven track.

Across the aisle a young man sits in a chartreuse silk shirt and black-patent shoes. He hunches over a slick piece of tile, his game board, balancing it against motion on mobile knees. El jerks, shaking loose the pea he thumbs beneath a thimble in the old hustler’s ritual of hand and eye. The sallow-faced young woman seated opposite, suckling her infant, doesn’t spot the pea as it falls and rolls beneath her seat.  She leans to choose the magic thimble, a nipple jerks from the baby’s mouth.  He whimpers.  Lucha gasps, starts to rise, words rising with her, yet they barely escape her throat. Too soft, they float briefly like soap bubbles, then dissolve in the air.  El slams on the brakes, booming like a cannon in a cavern.  Lucha is thrown back.

The mother picks up an empty thimble, losing tomorrow’s rent.  Her red-flecked eyes flare, then turn opaque, like seconds in a sack of cheap marbles.

El rocks side to side at the stop, Lucha is carried out with the crowd in a human wave.  Her flats bang down the platform’s iron staircase. She looks at a big patch of weedy turf and asphalt known as Zapata park. A couple of boozy borachos and a basketball hoop lean against each other.

Last weekend families filled the park with picnics of steaming barbacóa, carnitas, asadas. Knots of young men crunched peanuts with chile and limón, drank cervezafría. Kids and grandmas bounced beach-balls.  The pick-up game at center court raised cheers and catcalls. ¡Estupendo! –a blocked shot. ¡Pendejo! –a layup missed.

Lucha crunches over glass shards, past Casa Atzlán, where Zapata, Juárez, Sandino and Ché guard the front door in a mural three stories high. Peasants plant corn and fight Federales with machétes. Children read candlelit books.  Quetzalcoatl, the fierce plumed serpent-god of Mexico, coils around them all in red, white and green guardianship.

A block later Lucha steps through a wrought-iron gate, walks down a narrow walkway to the rear of her two-flat. She lives up, the landlady, Nora, a former Mexican nun, lives down. The little sign in the front window says, No tire basura. Somos pobres pero limpios. Don’t throw trash. We’re poor but clean. Often in the wee hours Lucha hears the swish of Nora’s broom on the sidewalk, haunting even the most punishing of winter rains.

Lucha climbs the back stairs to the entrance into her kitchen, makes herself a cup of Guatemalan coffee. She stares at the steam, sees the shiny blur of the hustler’s thimbles whipping back and forth like a ribbon snake. The pea drops. The mother leans once more, leaky nipple jerking from her baby’s mouth, and pushes a long brown finger out across the gap between her tight-drawn hope and the thimble’s promise.

The moment hangs, rocks slowly side to side with the train. Lucha’s lips form sounds. S of Sister! D of Don’t! They wobble, fall short, suspended over the two-foot chasm of the aisle between herself and the mother’s ears, just like her vocalizations for Ramón did not make strong words either, words with wings of power to reach across the canyon between Ramón and the judge’s bench, reach his ears, push into his mind.

The mother slumps. Ramón is led away.

Over and over, all night long, sleep—like El—jerks to a stop, the scenes flicker, the faces merge.  Flashes of brightness in hollowed eyes, receding fast.

El lights, going down the underground.

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