When You're Hungry, You Think of Bread, by Mather Schneider

All of a sud­den Noelia want­ed a Moringa tree. Moringa trees were the new thing, hot on the inter­net. You could make tea from the leaves, they would cure what ails you, a mir­a­cle plant, like a beanstalk to con­nect heav­en and earth.

Noelia is Mex­i­can, and one time when we were in Her­mosil­lo we vis­it­ed her uncle Raul. Peo­ple rarely vis­it­ed Raul, he lived in his dead mother’s house all by him­self and he tend­ed a lit­tle gar­den and was a bit of a mys­tery. He was friend­ly and smiled and showed us around the house, but not all the rooms. The house was small like almost all the hous­es down there and it had rough wood roof beams and a wood stove. The only fur­ni­ture was a table in the kitchen. No tv, no bed, no com­put­er. Raul didn’t need any of that stuff I guess. When it came time for us to leave he didn’t want us to leave, and he shook my hand and held it for a long time. He gave Noelia a lit­tle jar of Moringa seeds that he had gath­ered from the Moringa trees in his yard.

That jar sat in our cup­board for 3 years until the oth­er day, when sud­den­ly Moringa seeds were the hot new thing. Noelia took out the jar and shook it. It’s like a jar of mir­a­cles, she said. She pre­pared a spot in the dirt by our patio, buried a few seeds and watered them. She was very hap­py and beau­ti­ful in the sun­shine.

The next day hap­pened to be the fourth of July, which doesn’t mean a hell of a lot to Noelia, and even though I’m a white Amer­i­can it real­ly doesn’t mean much to me either. How I got here to Tuc­son so far away from where I grew up in Illi­nois, and how Noelia got here so far away from her fam­i­ly, well that’s one of those things, long sto­ries for anoth­er time. We watched some fire­works that our neigh­bors set off but it wasn’t very inspir­ing. It all felt kind of sil­ly look­ing up into the sky and wait­ing for the bright lights that were nev­er quite what you hoped they would be.

The next morn­ing, and this is where it starts to get strange, there was a dog on our patio. We don’t have a dog, but there was a dog lying right in that spot of dirt where Noelia had plant­ed her Moringa seeds. It was a male pit­bull, tan, big, old and sad look­ing. Dogs hate the fourth of July, and appar­ent­ly this one had been fright­ened by the fire­works and had run away from its home and end­ed up there on our patio. He didn’t look well at all, he looked hope­less and lost, lying in the new­ly turned dirt, which must have been cool in July desert heat. We approached him, care­ful­ly, but didn’t dare to touch him. He didn’t seem aggres­sive, but he didn’t wag its tail either. I put a dish of water out for him, and Noelia made him some scram­bled eggs. His ribs poked out and there were scars on his body. He didn’t want the eggs, but drank about a half gal­lon of water, and then went to sleep.

He slept all day there, and lat­er the eggs dis­ap­peared. He didn’t seem inter­est­ed in leav­ing, he didn’t budge. Noelia was kind of irri­tat­ed about her Moringa seeds, but she also felt sor­ry for the dog. She has a huge heart, and is not ashamed of it. The pain and con­fu­sion in a dog’s eyes some­times, you know? He looked like the kind of dog that had not had much love in his life, didn’t have a lot to live for, prob­a­bly nev­er had. I won­dered what his name was, no col­lar, no clue. I imag­ined he had lived in the same small yard all of his life, until this one noisy night of gun­shots and fire­crack­ers when he blind­ly ran, some­how escaped his fence and ran the streets. What was after him he’d nev­er know.

The next day he was still there in that same spot of dirt. I went around the neigh­bor­hood and asked some peo­ple. Nobody knew any­thing. I didn’t want to call the pound, I knew they would kill him. Nobody would want this ugly guy. The thought of hav­ing a dog around wasn’t so bad real­ly. But, still, I knew he would leave shit in our yard and eat a lot of food and be a respon­si­bil­i­ty for us. Maybe he would bite us one day. I try to be real­is­tic, I try to be prac­ti­cal. But I could tell Noelia was already in love with him. She went to the store and bought a bag of dog food and we put it in a bowl and he ate it up. But he still didn’t warm to us, he just looked at us like he was ask­ing us a ques­tion. He looked at us like he was sure we under­stood the ques­tion and sim­ply refused to answer, which made him sad­der than ever.

I want­ed him, but I didn’t want him, which is the way I am with life. I knew how I was sup­posed to feel, but there was a part of me that just want­ed that dog to dis­ap­pear and leave me alone.

It rained that after­noon, one of those hell-fire mon­soon rains we get here in the sum­mer, and how that dog would ever sniff his way home after that I had no idea. A rain­dog, I thought. And I thought of Tom Waits’ song Rain­dog and how we loved that song in high school. As young peo­ple we had thought of our­selves as rain­dogs, all those friends of mine back in Illi­nois I had not seen in 25 years. We were so melo­dra­mat­ic and corny, thought we knew every­thing.

Noelia and I had to go to work the fol­low­ing day, and when we got home from work, the dog was gone. Noelia cried a lit­tle. I was sad too, but I was also relieved. Feel­ings are con­fus­ing. It’s ok, I told her, he prob­a­bly found his way home. But she didn’t believe me. She’s not THAT gullible. I’ll make you a nice din­ner, I told her, and we’ll watch the nov­ela on tv. We always watched the Mex­i­can nov­ela which came on at 6 while we ate din­ner. It was nice watch­ing the dra­ma of the char­ac­ters’ lives, which became so ter­ri­ble and then so per­fect so quick­ly. How the women cried and were so beau­ti­ful, the men so hand­some, and how they rose to their many sud­den and unpre­dictable chal­lenges. It was all very corny, but some­how we loved it and it helped.

I was putting the final touch­es on the enchi­ladas when Noelia got the phone call from her sis­ter Rosi­ta in Her­mosil­lo. I looked at her face while she lis­tened and thought, Oh, shit, what? The nov­ela was about to start. Noelia’s beau­ti­ful Yaqui face went pale. How I loved those high cheek­bones and that long black hair and those huge dark eyes. She hung up the phone and walked to the bed­room. I fol­lowed her, put my arm around her where she was sit­ting on the bed. Mi tio Raul esta muer­to, she said. Her uncle Raul was dead.

Mur­dered. Some­one had bro­ken into his house and beat him on the head until he was dead. He had lain on his floor for 3 days in the Her­mosil­lo heat naked until he was bloat­ing and stink­ing. Noelia’s moth­er had found him.

I am a cold bas­tard, a cold white bas­tard, and I am not proud of it. But I was hun­gry, you know, and I got up and ate some enchi­ladas. Noelia didn’t eat any­thing. I watched the nov­ela for 15 min­utes but I couldn’t escape it, so I turned it off and went to bed.

We had to go to Her­mosil­lo. God, how my wife missed her fam­i­ly. She missed Mex­i­co so much, the fam­i­ly, the dra­ma, the close­ness, the shared life. We lived in Tuc­son, where we’d end­ed up. I missed my fam­i­ly too, but that was buried deep­er, and I don’t talk about it.

We drove south, through the bor­der at Nogales, past the tarpa­per shacks on the hill­sides, through the small pueb­los, Imuris with its smok­ing carts of carne asa­da, Mag­dale­na, that “mag­i­cal town,” and San­ta Ana with its cop­per wares and big stone stat­ues and foun­tains. It was the qui­etest trip we had ever tak­en. “Every­thing is so green,” Noelia said. Her his­to­ry, her beloved Mex­i­co, green from the rains.

Every­one was at the tiny funer­al par­lor in Her­mosil­lo, and there was very lit­tle park­ing. I final­ly inched in between two cars on a side street and prayed our new car would not be scratched or dent­ed. Inside was the fam­i­ly, dozens of them, most of whom had not seen Raul in years. Nobody knew what hap­pened, why it had hap­pened, how some­body could beat an old man until he was dead and leave him lying naked like that, what he had done to deserve it. The lid was closed, of course. They said he was so bloat­ed they had to put him into a plas­tic bag and it took three men to shove him into the cas­ket. Noelia joined the fam­i­ly and I sat alone, the white ghost among them, lis­ten­ing to the Span­ish which I only half under­stood. Most of them looked at me and won­dered what I was doing there, where I had come from, what my sto­ry was, and I was won­der­ing the same thing.

After a cou­ple of hours we all pulled out and head­ed to the church. Again, park­ing was a night­mare. The church was hot as hell, which sounds corny, I’m sor­ry, but it’s true. The women fanned them­selves and the men mopped their faces with col­or­ful hand­ker­chiefs. The priest said his thing, most of which I didn’t under­stand.

Ceme­ter­ies in Her­mosil­lo are not like those in Tuc­son. There is no grass and hard­ly a tree and the graves are crammed togeth­er and the head­stones are crum­bling and many of the graves sunken in. I couldn’t believe how many holes were already dug and ready. There were so many we didn’t know which one was ours, or rather, which one was Raul’s. There were so many you had to be care­ful not to fall into one.

Right before they put the cas­ket in the red ground, Noelia’s moth­er leaned over the cas­ket and start­ed cry­ing, very loud and the­atri­cal. It remind­ed me of a nov­ela, corny, I thought, just for show. I am not proud of these thoughts. Some­one asked me if it was true that grin­gos buried their dead stand­ing up, feet down. I said, No, we bury our dead the same way you do, lying down. One day you’re here, the next you’re gone, that was the pre­vail­ing sen­ti­ment. I’m not sure if it does any good to real­ize that.

Two Mex­i­can kids with ban­danas over their faces low­ered the cas­ket into the ground and start­ed to shov­el the dirt. You know that sound of the dirt clods hit­ting the cof­fin? With their ban­danas over their faces they looked like ban­dits. One of them had a Super­man T‑shirt on.

Noelia stood very close to the bur­ial and I stood back. It was late after­noon and the sun burned the side of my face. It was then that I had the strangest thought, which is so corny I hes­i­tate to tell it. I thought of the dog that showed up on our patio, its sad lost eyes, and I thought that maybe some­how there was a con­nec­tion between that dog and poor dead uncle Raul. I imag­ined the fear he must have felt when they broke into his house, and came for him, the hor­ror of being beat­en on the head and left to die, know­ing no one would come to help him, know­ing there was no escape. I won­dered if he had tried to run. Why had he been so iso­lat­ed from his fam­i­ly? Why had we not vis­it­ed him or thought of him in 3 years, those Moringa seeds in the jar in the cup­board? I imag­ined him lying on his floor, feel­ing his life slip­ping away, his soul trav­el­ing through the dark night all the way to us there in Tuc­son, to appear to us in the form of that dog, with his eyes that looked so human, ask­ing for help. Or maybe he just want­ed to say good­bye? We were afraid to touch him, and we fed him scram­bled eggs, and I wished he would just go away. And then he did.

There was a man sell­ing ras­padas at the ceme­tery, an old brown wrin­kled man with a big smile. He scooped the ice into cups and poured the sweet syrup over them, straw­ber­ry, tamarind, vanil­la… I watched him work­ing under his lit­tle umbrel­la at his lit­tle cart, and thought, every day he was there, sell­ing sweet ice among the dead.

The mourn­ers slow­ly sep­a­rat­ed and start­ed to leave and the old ladies urged every­one to get togeth­er again, and not just when some­one died.

Rush hour traf­fic was insane in Her­mosil­lo, and I cussed when I hit the pot­holes. Usu­al­ly before we leave Mex­i­co we will buy some seafood and tor­tillas, but this time I asked Noelia if she want­ed to, and she said “No.”

When we got home to Tuc­son I would like to tell you that the Moringa plants were sprout­ing, but that would be corny, and any­way not true. There was noth­ing but the dark red dirt, pat­ted down where the dog had lain. I don’t know how long it takes Moringa plants to sprout, so we’re still hope­ful. Whether they can do all those things they’re sup­posed to be able to do, well, I’d like to believe it, you know. I real­ly would.

schneider44Math­er Schnei­der is a cab dri­ver who divides his time between Tuc­son and Mex­i­co. He has 4 full length books out avail­able on Ama­zon and has had poems and sto­ries pub­lished in the small press since 1993.

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