A Very Beautiful Country

 

After working a six-to-six stacking bags of dry cement along the river, Pablo and Lalo shouldered their packs and hiked out to the bucolic edge of town, destinationless and encouraged by the first warm day of spring. They hiked a path beginning innocently enough as a dead-end street that narrowed and headed east between warehouses before devolving over several miles into an increasingly moss-cracked, oil-puddled alleyway. Finally it emerged, clear of the suburban fray, to reveal its primeval origin as a wooded, creek-side path. Trailers and even several big, dark-windowed houses drifted in the distance as they hiked, these obscured by the tall grass and brambles, magnolias and rhododendron blossoms, maple starts and new oak trees. They passed just-blooming blackberries wreathing the feet of transformers, graffiti tags beneath the blackberries. The power lines followed the creek which, Lalo explained, likely originated some ways up the mountain looming huge and wide against the sky before them. He and Pablo shed their coats as they walked, hung them from the bars of their packs. Flower petals blew in the gilded light and birds and the babble of water nearly insulated them from the sounds of the freeway nearby. 

“This water is clean, though,” Lalo assured him. “Trust me on that. We could bathe in it, drink it all day long, anything. I have a certain sense when it comes to water and I’m telling you, we follow this, it starts from a spring somewhere up there. That or melting snow, maybe. Something with snow. Definitely something like that.”

Their wander ended when they  collapsed at last beneath an accommodating willow tree. They tooktheir evening meal, thenreclined, passing the last half of a celebratory joint that Pablo had been saving.

“I could baptize your son in this water,” Lalo said, deadpan. “If you wanted, I could do it. In this very creek right here. Pablo—Pablo, are you listening to me?”

Pablo, who had indeed been listening, laughed quietly at his friend, smoke leaking from the sides of his mouth. He laughed because Lalo often spoke this way, through an irony so ambiguous and sleepy-eyed that it was indistinguishable from the truth. The pot only exaggerated it. Pablo had just that morning learned of the birth of his son via a cellphone call and this was already the third time Lalo had offered to baptize the child. Lalo watched his laughing friend through a grave mask, causing Pablo to laugh harder, until his laughter finally dislodged the smoke in his lungs and became coughing. And Lalo watched even this deadpan, and then reclined once more.

“I’m glad we agree,” he said.

Later, as the last light lingered, two white people, an old woman and a young man, rounded the nearest bend in the trail. They argued with one another in a language that Pablo did not right away recognize. The young white man startled and froze seeing them, but the womancontinued her heedless limp into their camp. As she walked, she harangued the young man, unceasingly, until the very moment she could go no further without tripping over Pablo’s pack. There she paused and, while still speaking, her eyes found comprehended Pablo and Lalo. She looked back and forth between them and her tone and demeanor became suddenly very different. Pablo understood, from both the look in her eyes and the young man’s apprehensive expression, that the woman was touched, and that language was likely not the only barrier between them.

She extended her hand to each of them, wrist limp, the vitriol which she had only moments ago poured upon the young man now replaced by an aristocrat’s gentility. Pablo took her hand tentatively, looking to the young man. Lalo, meanwhile, clasped her proffered hand manfully and looked her up and down, smiling boldly. She smiled back at him, and they gazed at each other as though they were much more than strangers in a clearing on the edge of town. 

“Baba,” begged the young man, but she dismissed him, waving. “Baba, come on,”

The woman wore her hair stuffed up under a cheap cowboy hat, mud-caked men’s galoshes beneath a long dress, and a red sweatshirt over all, the fingers of her hands flapping like birds in its too-big sleeves. The young man, with his thin mustache and ballcap, appeared to be twenty at the oldest. He passed an iced tea SoBe bottle in a paper bag between his hands, winced as the woman lingered before Lalo, and tried to urge her on, with little success.

“Good evening,” said Pablo, speaking English.

“Hey, man, I’m sorry, my grandma--”       

Whirling at her mention, the woman’s brutal scolding of her grandson suddenly resumed, but only briefly, before returning her grinning attention once more to these two men who were perhaps her guests, or maybe her hosts.

“Hello, hello,” she said, and waved to them like a little girl. “Hola!”

Pablo decided they were Russian, or Polish. Lots of those people lived out this way.

Though he knew little English, Lalo sat right up at the woman’s words and was even inspired to kneel dramatically before her in stoned and noble greeting. This pleased the woman, and she covered her mouth, giggling, and waved for her grandson. Her gaze fixed on Lalo’s, she made some request at which her companion bristled and, when he tried again to urge her on, she turned and rained a storm of scolding slaps on her grandson. Beneath them he wilted and seemed powerless. The brim of her cowboy hat fell back in the light, and Pablo saw that while she was hunched and small in stature like her grandson, her eyes burned fierce and clear and, by the time her gaze returned to Lalo, Pablo had seen that she was beautiful.

“Look, I’m sorry, my grandma,” the young man said, “it’s just, we’re on our way to Mass and she wants —ow, fuck, I am!—she just wants to say that, you know, there’s gonna be food there and stuff. Free food. Like a dinner,” he said.

The woman continued, alternately smiling warmly at Lalo and Pablo and striking her grandson as he spoke.

“It’s at St. Andrew’s and it starts soon, is what she’s saying. For whoever wants to go.”

He stepped back began to drink from the bottle before the woman slapped the back of his head still again, unsatisfied. He rubbed his neck and rolled his eyes, flinched when she raised her hand again.

“Jesus Christ!” he said, and cursed her in their language. “She says it’s Holy Thursday.”

“Maundy Thursday!” the woman said, clapping her hands together. “Great Lent is over!”      

“Yeah, yes, Great Lent is over,” he said, “and my grandma, I guess, she says you should come. If you want. With us, she says.”

The woman nodded encouragingly, gestured down the path.

“She’s inviting you,” he said.

Still kneeling, Lalo waited as Pablo translated the invitation, seemed earnestly to consider it. He made his face very somber before he placed his hands over his heart and, looking deep into the woman’s eyes, in an adoring and reverential Spanish, answered.

“He says,” translated Pablo to the young man, “that while he would be honored to accompany your grandmother to Mass...such a beautiful woman...he fears he must decline, he says, because,” 

And here Pablo paused as he laughed, covering his mouth.

“What? What was it?” asked the young man.

“He fears he must decline,” said Pablo, “because he does not wish to offend this, uh, the man who has come before him. Her sweetheart, perhaps, he says.” Pablo raised his eyebrows meaningfully. “My friend says he does not wish to anger this man.”

Lalo’s eyes smoldered as he once more took and now gently kissed the woman’s hand, causing her to giggle and blush.

“I think he means you,” Pablo said, smiling at the young man.

The young man grimaced and took a drink, muttered in their language.

But it was too late, they both saw now. The woman had been charmed, much as Pablo had seen Lalo charm the hearts of so many: friends, strangers, bosses, police, women and men both, even Pablo himself sometimes. He watched as the woman’s kissed hand melted at Lalo’s touch, as Lalo nodded flirtatiously, indicating the grass beside his pack, something he wanted to show her there, and this was all the invitation she needed. She knelt down. Lalo smiled. 

The young man sighed and took a long drink. He offered the bottle to Pablo as he dug in his coat for cigarettes. Pablo accepted, throat dry, then coughed, surprised by the heat of liquor in the iced tea bottle.

“Do you live close?” Pablo asked.

 The young man exhaled, nodded back the way they’d come. “My uncle has a place,” he said, “near the recycling plant.” 

“That’s a long way to walk,” Pablo said. “How much farther do you have to go?” 

“Not far,” he said. “We do this twice a week, so, not far.”

He had a particular way of holding his cigarette, light on the tips of his fingers, cherrypointed down like the point of a carving knife. 

Lalo called to Pablo. With dismay, Pablo saw that his friend had removed the violin—that stupid violin—from his pack and opened its case. He realized, by how Lalo now presented it to the woman, that they had been discussing it. The woman looked to Pablo with the same expression, hands clasped.

“She wants to know about the violin,” said Lalo, grinning. “Please—tell them about the violin.”

Pablo sighed and grimaced. He considered their party there beneath the willow tree, the three expectant faces. “The violin,” he began, stopped. He raised his hand and the young man handed him the bottle. He took another drink.

“The thing about the violin is it belonged to a man from a camp we stayed at a few nights ago, a man who died that night, while we slept. We found his body in the morning, but no one knew him to say who he was or even where he came from. So we divided up his things. And my friend here wanted the violin.”

Having spoken of the dead, Pablo raised the bottle before him, crossed himself, and took another drink. He coughed and returned the bottle to the young man who, similarly crossing himself, also drank. The old woman and Lalo crossed themselves as well.

“It’s kind of a messed up thing, I guess,” said Pablo.

“How did he die?” the young man asked.

“Drugs,” Pablo said. “His eyes were still open in the morning, you know, his things beside him. Someone said he’d just come from Washington. He said the drugs are very strong there now.”

The young man nodded, drank and said no more.

Lalo and the old woman, meanwhile, had resumed their collusion, untroubled by the instrument’s origin. Encouraged by Lalo, Pablo now saw that the old woman held the battered instrument and bow in her hands, already deep in some ritual of preparation. She twisted the end of the bow, its slack hairs tightening, rubbed them several times with the small, amber nub she found in a certain compartment of the case. She pinched the instrument neatly between her chin and collarbone and, though just two strings remained stretched unbroken across its bridge, she began to pluck and tune these, turning the pegs until their notes sang easily together. Lalo watched her grinning. 

“I told you we were meant to take it,” he said to Pablo, “I knew there was a reason for us to find this violin. I knew we wouldn’t regret it.”

“Your grandmother,” said Pablo to the young man, sighing, “I see that your grandmother plays the violin.” And the young man smiled at this, in spite of himself. He shook his head as he smiled.

“Shit yes she plays,” he said, took a swig, a drag on his cigarette. “She learn to play in Ukraine—right, Baba?”

“Ukraine!” echoed the woman, triumphantly. And, with that, she stood and tipped the bow across the strings and, like a light turned on in a dark room, the golden idyl of their evening camp beneath the willow was with her music suddenly transformed. From the first note the sound caught fire to the still and slimming light around them. Pablo saw how her long, agile fingers made sense now, watched them slip and dance up the violin’s neck, precise and arched, trembling only to wring the feeling from a chosen note a moment longer, bow held light by the tips of her fingers and pitched down in a manner not unrelated to how her grandson held his cigarettes.

The music Pablo heard, though, turned out to be very different than what he’d expected. Mid-tempo and consisting mostly of just a few repeated, aching notes, the melody was suddenly familiar to him, though from where he could not say, and the combination of these two feelings—familiarity and foreignness—was like a lever that pried him open, leaving him exposed and raw and vulnerable. Even if it was just the pot, he already knew he might cry.

Staring into the middle-distance, silently counting measures, the woman took a deep breath, made an O of her mouth, and, in an English having nothing to do with the few, accented words Pablo had so far heard her speak, an English learned phonetically from the sound of it, right down to the rural twang, he heard the woman sing:

Oh, I am a lonely cowboy and I'm off on the western trail

My trade is cinchin saddles and pullin bridle reins

But I can twist a lasso with the greatest skill and ease

Or rope and ride a bronco most anywhere I please

It was a cowboy song, Pablo realized, and he nearly laughed out loud at the fact, not some waltz or folk dance, but an honest-to-god country and western song, and an old one, old like the Anglo country songs Pablo’s own father had loved and played when Pablo was a child, songs played and loved still by Pablo’s wife back home, played on his father’s same record player even, an item yet preserved and maintained, and at some expense, an item that he hoped to pass on to his own son, he realized. And the shock of it, this private, tender piece of him discovered here in this strange and distant country, it confirmed his earlier hunch and filled Pablo’s eyes with tears. He tried to halt them, dug his fingernails into his palms, focused on the old woman’s lips, chapped and peeling, as they curled around the low voice in which she sang, but to no avail. She sang passionately, eyes closed, hips swaying. 

Oh, I love the rolling prairie that's far from struggle and strife

Behind a bunch of longhorns, I'll journey all my life

But if I had a stake boys, soon married I would be

To the sweetest girl in this whole wide world just fell in love with me

Self-conscious, Pablo looked around and saw that he was not the only one so moved. Lalo wept openly at the woman’s feet as the day’s last light broke over the western hillside and diffused through the willow’s curtain of budding branches. His wincing, hunched posture gone, Pablo saw the young man stand tall now, clearly proud. When she finished playing, the sound of her final note lingered there with them a moment a longer—a long, magic, humming moment—and then was gone, set free, never to return. 

Pablo took a deep breath. The young man's smoked cigarette fall smoldering through the dusk to the trail beside him, then extinguished. He felt the night and, with it, the familiar chill of the winter he’d just spent in this place. He wiped his eyes and said, quietly, in English:

"Beautiful."

"You know that song?" the young man said. He drank, passed the bottle to Pablo. "She knows lots of old songs like that," he said. "My uncles, they used to mail her the records when she was little and still played, back in Kiev. She used to play in the symphony, or one of them, or whatever they had back there. Whatever they’ve got, a big one, that’s where she played." 

The old woman bowed and stepped politely from the drama of her performance, a silhouette in the deepening dusk. "Gracias, thank you, gracias," she said. She took Lalo by his hand and helped him to his feet before her.

"She used to know how to play everything, fancy stuff, all of it, but that shit’s gone now,” he said. “Now, when she gets to play at all, it’s just this, always this, the same old redneck music, over and over and over." But the young man laughed, like he couldn’t mind if he tried.

Pablo passed the bottle to Lalo who took it, wiped tears, raised the bottle up and said, "Truly, what a fine celebration this has been. Let us drink to friends, to the end of Lent, and to the birth of my good friend Pablo's first-born child, a son." He took a long drink before handing the bottle to the woman who, in turn, handed it back to her grandson, who happily drank once more.

"What did he say?" the young man asked, wiping his mouth.

Pablo smiled and blushed. "He said that we should drink to friends, and to Lent,” he said, “but also to the birth of my son, which I have only just now learned of earlier today. My wife back home…I, I’m sorry…she has given birth to a healthy boy. This one," he said, wiping his eyes, indicating Lalo, "he has given me no peace since hearing about it. All day at work, all he talks about is my son, my son, how proud I must be, and, most of all, that I must choose him, Lalo, to be the child's godfather."

"It's true!" said Lalo in Spanish, knowing at once what they discussed. Or possibly not.  As the woman carefully returned the violin to its case, snapping the clasps, Pablo, still seated, felt Lalo’s strong hands grip his shoulders behind him in the dim, and heard his friend say proudly, "Everything this man tells you is true!”

Preparing to leave, Lalo insisted that the woman take the violin with her, but she refused. Following much translation and negotiation, they agreed finally that she would pick it up on her way back and that, in the meantime, Lalo would keep it safe.

"Please tell her again, from both of us," Pablo said to the young man, "thank her for her song. Her music is very, very beautiful."

The young man told her what Pablo had said and her response came easily.

"She agrees,” he said. “She says, ‘It’s a very beautiful country.’"

And they all agreed it was.

Later, after their visitors had traveled on, Pablo and Lalo rolled out their tarp and bedrolls by flashlight. Pablo's mind still lingered on thoughts of home, on his wife and the son he’d yet to meet, and on the music playing in that home where he imagined them.

He watched Lalo work himself into his sleeping bag. They’d met three months before, waiting in line at the day laborers’ clinic in the worst part of winter. And though Pablo appreciated his company, even liked and cared for him, he was always aware that Lalo was a bachelor and, whatever his thoughts falling asleep, Pablo demurred to imagine them. He pulled his own sleeping bag up over his head and rolled his body against his friend’s. For the warmth. 

Through the willow boughs, a clear night sky opened above them, generously dense with stars.

He heard a coyote yip, the roar of trucks on the freeway.

That night, it grew quite cold.