Martha Luege



This is not it, this is not what I meant at all, she thought as she massaged her temples, eyes closed, trying to ignore the monophonic Mariachi music pounding in her head. But it wasn’t Mariachi music. “No, Mom, it’s called Jarocho, from Vera Cruz.” She remembered her daughter explaining, as if she might one day detect the difference or possibly care.    Mariachi, Jarocho, whatever. To her it was noise and it was annoying and it was so hot and the metal chair was sticky and everyone was speaking Spanish and they smiled at her curiously, an elegant, blond, over-perfumed American older woman surrounded by varying shades of brown skin draped in their Sunday best, which looked like mismatched tops and bottoms pulled out of church boxes. She did not want to be there, surrounded by anomalous kids of all ages whining, eating, fidgeting, wearing what they thought were costumes; Disney princesses printed on stained pink polyester dresses accessorized with Mardi Gras-style green and gold necklaces, pink ballet body suits missing tights and tutus. A handful were wearing traditional Mexican dance garb, white off-the-shoulder blouses with flowing red skirts, round halo-looking head pieces that reminded her of braided bread but were made of thick fabric green and red.  Some of the children wore a hypnotic gaze, as if intentionally blocking out the deafening, shrieking music, the heat, the loud incomprehensible chatter, the strong smell of carnitas, beans and tamales. Others rocked back and forth and spoke strangely, loudly and jerked their bodies in wacky quick moves. 

The stage was a semi trailer that had been rolled into the small parking lot earlier that morning, one side removed. The white aluminum panel in the back of the stage displayed a large handmade sign that was attached with masking tape. Susan had to lean her head to the right to read the words Children’s Therapeutic Art Center because the top right of the sign had come undone, the useless piece of masking tape remained stuck on the wall panel as if  proud of its ineffectiveness. Katherine had been so excited about the end-of-year festival that Susan now needed to readjust her expectations and accept that perhaps this was their idea of a party, a concert and a recital all in one. 

Susan momentarily revisited her menopausal ruminations. She proudly acknowledged how she had succeeded passing on her Christian values to her daughter.  Katherine had remained a virgin longer than she had expected. Never took drugs. Read, reread and studied the Bible. There was that year in the convent, and that was not it either, not what she had meant at all. After all, she wanted a wedding for her daughter, grandchildren, a normal life. But when the call came from the Santa Barbara police station telling her Katherine had been arrested for trespassing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, normal got tucked away in a drawer under the albums of endearing baby pictures. She was told blood had been spilled on the walls. At first Susan panicked thinking the girl had been shot or hurt, but the police quickly explained how she had emptied a small bottle of blood she had brought along with her to the anti-war demonstration.

Now Katherine seemed to have redirected her need to save the world, this time taking on the job at the center, teaching ballet and theater to The Underprivileged and The Special Needs children in the poor, mostly Mexican neighborhood not far from Los Angeles. As the two hosts tried to untangle the large old fashioned microphones, the thick wires intertwined as in a dance, a piercing noise further irritated Susan’s headache and frightened some of the kids. The hosts took turns apologizing, one speaking in Spanish, a gray-haired Latin lady wearing large eye glasses and a grim, important look normally seen on “breaking news” anchors; the other, an exuberant young man who translated everything that was said into accented English, added his own cool-dude attitude to the translation.

“Are we having a good time?” He yelled unnecessarily into the microphone. There were maybe 100 people scattered in the small parking lot. He didn’t get the response he was looking for and yelled again, this time causing the large speakers to reverberate. And it seemed to Susan he would continue to yell until he got what he wanted.

“YES!” screamed Susan.

So no, this wasn’t what she meant at all. A good Christian life meant going to church on Sundays, finding a nice young man, getting married, having children and dedicating your life to your husband and child. Sure, it meant giving money to the poor, praying for the less fortunate, maybe volunteering here and there at the clinic or at soup kitchens around Thanksgiving and Christmastime, or organizing fund raisers, but it certainly didn’t mean this. It didn’t mean traveling to El Salvador either with a group of nuns to live under God knows what conditions to help people who didn’t even recognized they were being helped and coming home sick, so much vomit and diarrhea. That’s not what she had meant.

She should have known. And in a way she did. There were early signs. When Katherine was about 12 there was that telephone conversation that seemed to be taking on a serious, adult tone. “No Samantha,” said Katherine “It’s going to be alright, you can’t think that way—-listen to me, running away isn’t going to solve anything—no, don’t talk like that.” That’s when Susan grabbed the phone to find a sobbing, hysterical, incoherent child’s voice on the other line playing with words like suicide.

“Katherine can’t help you, honey. You need to talk to your mom and dad.  I’m going to hang up now.” And she told Katherine she was never to speak to this child again.

“I know it sounds mean, but you are too young for this. My job is to protect you. We can pray for Samantha and maybe I’ll talk to a counselor at school, but I don’t want you to talk to her again. You understand?”

No, she didn’t understand. How could she love her neighbor as herself and never talk to Samantha again? And, Mom, what about compassion? And Susan had to quickly edit her words and stress compassion from afar, prayer, intention, allowing God to take of care of it, all of it, from heaven above. Not you, honey, not my daughter.  You stay safe. And later, how could she stay safe and dance and enjoy a sweet sixteen party when the patients at the AIDS hospice were asking for her? Her mother didn’t know she volunteered at the hospice.  “You know, sweetie, if you have a cut on your hands or fingers, like that one, from picking at your nails, you know if you get any kind of bodily fluid on that you could get AIDS. It’s too dangerous. You just stay away from those people. Okay, honey?”

When Susan realized that her daughter seemed to have a heightened sensitivity toward mankind’s suffering, she made sure to throw away the newspapers before she woke up and always changed the channel whenever the news came on. She didn’t want Katherine to hear or see all the bad things that were happening in world. She wanted to insulate her in a perfect Disneyesque existence, where you could let your love grow innocently and safely. It was the world she wanted, not just for her child, but for everyone. The one God was supposed to have created, but didn’t and so she would do everything possible to mold one from clay, or pixy dust or whatever maternal powers she could summon, for her child, her only child. Keep her away from the troubled kids, the homosexuals, the drug addicts, the bad boys who just want sex, so many lost souls. But there was so much more she couldn’t keep at bay and the world with all its varying forms of pain surged through all of Susan’s protective barriers and rushed in to invade her daughter’s gentle soul.  There was nothing more she could do, but watch.

The small stage was now crowded with a group of children between 10 and maybe 15? It was hard to tell with retarded children, but no, Mom it’s better to use the word “delayed,” that’s what Katherine said. But Susan was not very good at remembering these vocabulary lessons and she called things as she saw them and she saw retarded children dressed in traditional Mexican costumes getting ready for their performance. The girls wore makeup, perhaps for the first time in their lives, a little eyeliner defining the soft almond eyes, some blush, a touch of reddish lipstick to accentuate their natural forming smiles. A couple of the boys moved their arms and legs awkwardly, some sort of disability Susan did not recognize.

Their instructor, an obviously gay man wearing makeup, a red scarf on his head and dressed in the male costume, black pants and white long sleeve shirt, faced a little girl holding her hands while looking around to make sure all were in position. He gave them some last minute instructions in Spanish, which the kids seemed to ignore as they stared at the crowd, staring back at them. The music would not start. Small Mexican men rushed the stage, to and fro. A large white man with glasses came from behind the crowd carrying a new large portable CD player. He plugged it in and the Mariachi music blasted through the large speakers. This time, Susan was pretty sure, it was Mariachi. The kids moved their feet here and there, so much slower than the instructor. He continued to twist his neck from left to right, right to left, trying to see his dancers and yelled instructions as the kids twirled, at different times, it seemed whenever they felt like it or remembered. Sometimes they would just stop and look at the crowd, as if they forgot who was entertaining whom. But the girls liked to make their skirts sway and moved their arms, joyfully perhaps? Susan couldn’t tell. Sweat poured from the instructor, as he danced swirling his head exhaustively trying to corral this unusual group of performers. So much effort, thought Susan. She supposed it was commendable.

The music stopped. Susan took a deep breath and the crowd clapped. The lady at the microphone did not seem pleased with the applause and demanded more. Some of the kids bowed, while others again were mesmerized by the audience. They were rushed off the stage, the gay young man hurrying them along. And now Susan could clearly see Katherine to the side of the trailer stage, helping her kids go up the stairs. Snow White, she thought. Katherine used to make a perfect Snow White on Halloween when she was little; her alabaster skin just like in the fairytale, her eyes bright blue, her beautiful porcelain face framed by dark silky hair. And that smile, a smile that made the worst of tragedies acceptable, sometimes even desirable. Such a stunning girl, thought Susan, hiding in such plain clothes, old jeans, large t-shirt and tennis shoes. 

She hadn’t been a bad mother. Sometimes Katherine’s goodness made her feel bad, like she was the dark and Katherine the light. In her heart she knew Katherine had just taken to heart the lessons she had taught her. But Katherine was so much better at Good. She was fearless and so Susan feared. Katherine LOVED selflessly; Susan, then, loved selfishly. The comparisons would be endless unless she stopped comparing. But she could not.

Katherine’s girls were a parade of mostly brown and black unlikely ballerinas; ages ranging from about five to maybe eight, it was hard to tell. They wore different color body suits, some pink, two black, one blue, some without tights others without shoes. None wore tutus. But these little ones brought smiles to the crowd and Susan held back a tearful smile, so much sweetness on the stage, adorable tiny victims of chance. As the classical music played on, the crowd occasionally turned back to look at Katherine to see the steps the girls were supposed to be imitating. But the girls looked around, some twirled, one seemed to want to lift an arm, but quickly changed her mind, a couple just stood motionless as if posing for a photograph. In contrast Katherine was in constant motion, flowing from a plié to arabesque to tondue to first position then fourth and so on to the end of the song. Moms were proud. Susan was proud.

Do these people even appreciate your sacrifice? She would ask her daughter. What sacrifice? Katherine couldn’t see the life Susan had envisioned for her, couldn’t see what she was giving up. And Katherine never gave up. She’d repeat a plié a thousand times if that’s what it took to get her Disadvantaged and Special Needs girls to bend their knees. And occasionally she was gifted with a bended knee that may or may not be repeated. So much effort, thought Susan, but wouldn’t dare finish the thought although the words floated about, tempting her to acknowledge them, but for what, she never allowed herself to ask. Yet wondered just the same.

  The little girls didn’t bow and the lady with the microphone once again demanded more applause. More, more.  Susan wondered if they were simply applauding themselves for being there. As if saying, look at us, we are here with these children who are oblivious to everything but we care, clap for us, we deserve it. And that she could agree with. These people did deserve applause for plowing right on through, moving forward, marching onward no matter the results, for not caring about the results in such a results oriented world; for putting on a bad show, an awful show but doing it anyway. For all the good in this place there seemed to be very little honesty. But God forgive her, she was falling into the trap again, thinking bad thoughts because these people were so goddamn Good.

Good, like the young man who attempted to hide his fiery red hair under a large straw hat; but the red eyebrows against his very white skin called attention to his face and nationality as he played the miniature guitar. “That’s called a jarana,” her daughter, now seated next to her excitedly whispered. The group was playing son jarocho again and Susan smiled and clapped her hands to the beat, wanting to please her daughter.

“He’s good isn’t he?”

“Yes, honey, he’s very good,” so goddamn Good. This was obviously Joe, whom she had talked about on the phone. Joe who would take her daughter away, seduce her away, drag her away to an isolated mountain somewhere in Vera Cruz where he was painting and making prints recording the lives of Jarocho musicians; some, very, very old, dying, like many of their traditions. Once a upon a time he lugged his few possessions up that mountain far, far away in nowhere land, to learn about the music and culture and fell in love, so the story goes, with both, and now in love with her daughter too.

“He’s doing very important work up there in the mountains,” they announced from the tiny stage. Commendable indeed. And she let the other two words float by and didn’t dare ask, but wondered anyway.

Cucuy! Cucuy! Susan found herself screaming along with her daughter and the rest of the now exuberant audience. Cucuy! That’s what Joe wanted; Joe and his fellow Jarocho players, strumming their little toy guitars; Joe with a kind smile that hid his teeth and his plans and justifications. Cucuy was the boogeyman up there in the mountains, the one that scared little children into good behavior. He was big and hairy, with a scary, gigantic red ear that could hear the children misbehaving. What a fantastic legend, what a marvelous tradition, it should be remembered, recorded, drawn, painted, printed, put to music and it’s commendable, so admirable that someone is doing this, that Joe, Katherine’s Joe is the designated savior of this dying culture. And dying it was, as demonstrated by the teenage girl traveling with the band, sitting up on the stage translating the tale. She was embarrassed by the enthusiasm of the singer, the storyteller, she did not want to translate his passion, just the words, or some of the words, the ones that didn’t embarrass her. And at the end of every sentence she shook her head to the side, like some sort of tick with a purpose, to move the piece of jet black hair that fell unevenly over her left eye. She was dressed in a black t-shirt, skin tight black jeans, a ring dangling from her lip, a chain from her hip, hair that was straight and longer in the front, curly, teased and crazy in the back. When not translating, her eyes fixated thoughtlessly somewhere behind Susan. And at that moment Susan realized she had more in common with this young girl than with anyone else there, specially her daughter.

It’s so hard when kids become adults, when you can’t scoop them up, off the floor and take them and strap them in the car and drive away from the bad place, the hot place, the sad place. But she’s happy, that’s what her friends tell her. She has found love, the powerful love of God, the love of Jesus, the love of Joe. But Susan did not want to be Mary and find herself crying at the foot of a cross, the foot of a mountain. That’s not what she meant at all, when she said long ago, “Honey, be good.”

And the words, those two other menacing words kept circling, like hawks. Does she dare ask? For what? For what? For what? Oh God, what’s it all for? And her eyes swelled up and she stood up and Katherine followed and there was a hug and a tissue appeared and Susan laughed and looked into her daughter’s bright blue eyes, “Must be the hormones,” she told her. Her daughter smiled her magical smile and Susan’s anguish and sadness instantly disappeared, went away, all the way up to the boogeyman in the sky. Susan imagined maybe it was just like this for Katherine, when her unusual ballerinas looked up at her and their angelic, bewitching smiles lifted the enormity of the world’s grief away, all the way up to the Cucuy in the sky.

They hugged some more and laughed a tearful laugh because everything was fine; because, really, this was not it either, this was not what she meant at all.


Martha enjoyed a career in advertising before dedicating time to writing fiction. Her stories have appeared in Women Writers: A Zine and Moondance Magazine. She has also published nonfiction in a variety of popular magazines. She was born in Cuba, lived in Spain and was educated in California. Currently, she is working on a novel set in the not-too-distant future of a post-Castro, post-Communist Cuba, exploring the many emotions this little island provokes in her and the rest of world.


August 2010