Phillippe Diederich



Phillippe Diederich is a Haitian-American writer and photographer born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Mexico City and Miami.  His short fiction has been awarded the 2013 Chris O’Malley Fiction Prize from The Madison Review, the Association of Writing Programs Intro Journal Award for fiction, and received two Pushcart nominations.  His stories have appeared in Quarterly West, High Desert Journal, Hobart, Frostwriting, The Wisconsin Review, and many others.  He is the author of Communism and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, an eBook that includes an essay and forty black and white photographs of Cuban Harley-Davidson bikers in Havana, Cuba.  His first novel, Sofrito, will be published in the spring of 2015 by Cinco Puntos Press.

The Widow of Calle Virtudes

            My name is Flor de María López de Gutiérrez and I am not a widow. I was a widow once, when my husband, Camilo, left for El Norte to find work. It was after our second child had been born. The first child had been a girl, but she passed away of a fever two weeks after she was baptized. The second child was a boy. He was born healthy and stayed healthy for the first year, and this one we called Antonio after my husband's grandfather. When Camilo told me it was time for him to go North to find work with some of the other men from town, I only had one question: "For one year, or two?"

            "One," he said. "If the work is good and there is good pay. Otherwise two."

            "And no more," I said.

            "Y nada mas," he said.

             That same night we sat at the wood table in our small house at the end of Calle Virtudes. Under the dim light of a single bulb, we counted the few pesos we had managed to save, mostly from my dowry and the sale of a color television that had been a gift two years before, and a little more from the season we spent working in a banana plantation near Tapachula. And still, there was barely enough for us to pay for the bus to the border and the coyote to guide Camilo across the border.

            "It don't matter," he assured me. "I'll just catch a ride or hop the freight with the Chapines."

            He seemed so sure of himself, I never imagined there would be a problem. Most of the men in our town had gone north and found work. We all knew it was dangerous and we had heard stories, but the men went and came back and this was how most of the brick houses in the village had been built. Now that Camilo and I were starting a family, it was his turn to go.

            And so he left on a cold morning in May when it was still dark. I watched him walk to where the packed dirt of Virtudes met the pavement of Avenida Progreso. His cousin and two other men were waiting there. He did not turn or wave to me. They huddled together for a moment, and then walked north on Progreso, their bodies silhouetted against the white wall of the school, their bodies slouched forward with the weight of the bags each of them carried on their back like hunchbacks. 

            I went back into the house, lit a veladora and prayed to the virgen.



            There are no words to describe what a woman feels when her husband disappears. This is when she still has hope, before she knows he is dead, when it is just a void of existence, when there is nothing but an emptiness that follows you around like a hungry dog.

            I could not stop thinking about him, about what could have happened, about where he could be, and why he had not sent word telling me how it was up North, working in a long flat vegetable field, or construction or picking apples or berries, or skinning pigs in a meat processing plant, or cleaning buildings in the middle of the night.

            Every day in the street people asked me: "Any news Flor de María?" And all I could do was shake my head and offer them a difficult smile and utter words I didn't believe myself: "No, not yet. But you know how it is up there. He'll send word soon, I'm sure." Then I pulled my huipil forward over my head to try and hide my sadness.

            I thought and thought and thought so much that my head felt as if it did not belong to me, but to a machine that repeats the same thoughts every day and night, a maquiladora that is building something you refuse to accept.

            For almost two months all I could do was pray for word of his safety, but when Begonia Martínez, blood cousin of my husband came to the house at the end of Virtudes, her face pale and sympathetic like one of the paintings in the church, I knew that with her came the sad news I had been dreading since the day Camilo had left. "Chato called. He said they were riding a freight out of Lechería, and Camilo fell between the cars." Then she respectfully crossed herself, very slowly as if the movement from her forehead to her center, and shoulder to shoulder, needed to be perfectly straight and deliberate because of the significance of the moment.

            I watched it all in slow motion until her fingers reached her lips in a kiss, and then those same thick lips reshaped themselves as she formed the words no wife ever wants to hear: "Your husband is dead."

            The horror that came over me was that I was relieved. A great weight like a rock was lifted off my shoulders. I suppose this was relief of knowing. I exhaled as if I had been holding my breath underwater for five years. Relief was followed by guilt, and then grief; all of it one after the other in quick succession like the movement of Begonia's hand dropping to her side after crossing herself.

            For a brief instant I doubted that I had heard her correctly, that it was an illusion. A mistake. But I knew. Deep down I knew, and maybe I had known all this time that something terrible had happened to Camilo, and this had been the reason my head had been filled with so much hope.   



            Do you know how much it hurts to have a funeral without a casket? How can you bury someone dear to you, when he is not present? To die away from home, from your own land, away from your people, must be the most terrible punishment. I could not imagine Camilo in another cemetery. I did not even know if he had had a proper burial. Maybe his flesh had been devoured by vultures, his bones bleached by the sun along a stretch of desert in Durango or Coahuila, or Chihuahua. The only thing I knew for sure was that he was not here with us. He was not resting in the moist earth of southern Oaxaca, in the hills along the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where the rain and the sun caress us like children and the dirt is a rich, deep brown like the color of our skin.

            My poor husband was dead, and I was a widow without a grave. I had no place to weep over our misfortune. I had no place to pray for him. And in early November, when we honor our dead, what could I do if I did not have my husband nearby? How could I clean his grave, set out a little pan de muerto, offer a small glass of tequila for his spirit? How could he possibly travel from wherever he was to where I was?

            And where was he?

            Begonia had few details: "Camilo. The men. A microbus from Tehuantepec. Two days of rain. A freight train to Mexico City. Money. Another freight from Lechería. Other migrants. Honduras. Guatemala. Money to hire a coyote to cross the border. Camilo. At dawn. Camilo. Asleep. Camilo. Pushed off. Camilo. Moving from car to car. Camilo.  Killed instantly."

            Then Begonia laid her hand gently over my trembling hand and whispered, "I'm sorry, mija."



            We had a mass. The family came. Friends came. No one had ever been to a funeral where there was no deceased. Camilo lived in our memories as husband, father, son, friend; but he was not there, not in body, not in spirit. It was the saddest mass I ever attended.

            I was in mourning for forty days. Then, as soon as I removed the black ribbon from the front door of the house, the men started coming. I was a widow, and they say a widow needs a man.



            When I was a little girl, one of our neighbors, lost her husband. Within a few months I noticed a transformation had taken place. She was no longer like the other women. She dressed differently. She quit braiding her hair and covering it with her huipil. And she wore make up. She painted her lips a shade darker and put a little blue over her eyes. It was as if in her husband's death she had become a real señorita. And the men came and took her out for walks in the plaza, for nieves and dancing. They even brought her gifts.



            The men who came to my home came well dressed, clean, with their hats off and a friendly bow. Some smelled of cologne, some smelled of their wives' cooking.  But these men did nothing more than sit across the table from me and grin like fools. I served them a cup coffee or a glass of Pepsi, and then they left. Some, who came for a second or third time, offered to help me with the milpa, the small plot of land Camilo had panted with corn and beans, but it was not ready for harvest. Not yet.

            One older man fixed the roof of the house, replacing a sheet of corrugated steel that had a dip where water pooled after the rain. It had rusted through and when we saw heavy rains, it leaked into the house.

            The women were another story entirely. They shunned me. My friends, who had paid me visits while I was in mourning, stopped coming. They avoided me in the street, and looked at me with scorn as if the fact that I had become a widow was my fault.

            Then one day a young man came to my house. He was sharp and well groomed and had the hair and smile of a telenovela star. He said his name was Mario.

            Most of the men who came to visit were older, opportunistic. Mario was young and genuine. He was the real thing. And it would be a lie if I said I was not moved by his presence. Some of the men who came to visit never came back, but Mario came every three days. He was pleasant company.

            It was just over three months since the news of Camilo's death when Mario reached across the table and took my hand. That's when I started to wear my hair down, unbraided. The following week when he came to visit, Mario held my hand while we drank coffee. Then, as he was preparing to leave, he pressed me against the threshold and kissed me. I almost fainted.

            By then end of the month we slept together and I was happy again.

            Mario came to town from Oaxaca twice a week to make deliveries of non-perishables to the stores and restaurants in Tehuantepec and Salina Cruz. He made his deliveries until the afternoon. Then he parked his truck behind the José's carpentry shop and walked to the end of Virtudes and into my heart.

            My memory of Camilo faded to gray. He was blurry like a fog. It was as if he had not existed at all and was only a photograph on my mantle. Even our child did not look like him, but like my father, rest his soul.

            That year fall came like it always did with a cool breeze and the smell of dust. It was harvest time. I asked Mario to help me with the corn, and he smiled and promised he would come back in the weekend with some of his friends and take care of it. But he did not. Every visit was accompanied by an excuse. It went on that way for weeks. Then, just as suddenly as he had shown up at my door, he stopped coming by the house. He didn't call, or send word. He vanished just like Camilo.

            It tore me up. When I couldn't take it anymore, I waited for him to make a delivery at the tienda, but a different man arrived.

            "What happened to Mario?" I asked.

            "His wife had a baby," the man said. "We switched routes so he could stay closer to home."

            On the outside, I was Flor de María López de Gutiérrez, widow of Camilo Gutiérrez. But on the inside I was a heartbroken young woman mourning for the loss of Mario whose last name I never learned. His absence was severe. It weighed on me far more than Camilo's death. I was alone again, but this time the loneliness went deeper than death. It strangled me in places I did not know existed.



            My little boy was starting to wonder about his father. And the corn in the milpa was rotting. I had to hire half a dozen men to harvest it over the course of the following week. I paid them with a percentage of the crop, food, and occasional compliments from a widow with loose hair and a painted smile.

            I was twenty-two years old and felt like an old woman carrying the weight of a dead husband, the burden of a broken heart while tugging along a child who ate too much. So when Don Alonso Hernandez came calling, I thought God had finally realized my misfortune and sent an angel to reverse my fate and reward me with a simple thing called kindness.

            "Señorita Flor de María," he said, clutching his hat against his chest with one hand and offering me a small bouquet of wildflowers with the other. "I hope you don't mind me coming to you this way, but I could not help myself. You are a flower in the desert."

            Compliments. That man was full of them. They came out of his mouth like the spittle that sprayed whenever he pronounced his Ss or Fs and sometimes K. Yes, he was an old man, but he was sweet, and in his own particular way, adorable. He was also relatively wealthy. And I was very poor. I could not see a better option for Antonio's and my future. I could not just strap my son to my back and walk to El Norte by myself without money or guide. I knew what Don Alonso wanted, and I acquiesced because Antonio and I needed to eat.

            At least he was a gentle man, and sensitive to my son's perspective, so he only came to the house when Antonio was at school. Every time I braced myself to receive the weight of the old man against my body, I just held my breath and let my body go loose like I was dying. I closed my eyes and saw Camilo. I saw him smiling at me across the little wooden table, telling me it was all going to be fine, that he was going North with his cousin, that it was safe. And I saw him walking away in the dark of the morning with his head bowed, his bag high on his back like a lump at the end of Calle Virtudes.

            When I stood in line buying tortillas, when I walked to the school to meet my son, I talked with the other women. Except I never talked much. I listened. I heard them complain about their life, their husbands, their fate. They were not happy with what God had given them. There was never enough money. Their husbands were always out at all hours. They got drunk; they beat them. They said they were good for nothings. Then I thought of Don Alonso and his breath that stank of dead rat, his crooked smile, his gentle caress, the rough grunting he made when he loved me, and the short acute farts he discharged in his sleep, I thought the life of a widow is not so terrible after all.

            Besides, Don Alonso took good care of me. He hired some men to fix up the house. He bought me groceries, clothes. He even bought me a new bed, a big one with real springs. Things were so good that I neglected the milpa. Who wants to spend long days under the hot sun hoeing and weeding?

            Not me, that is for sure.

            All a woman ever wants in life is peace. And for a few months I had that with Don Alonso. I was aware that people talked. I heard them. They pointed at me and whispered to each other. They thought I was easy, a whore, una puta. But none of what they said bothered me. I did not judge them. I knew how much they suffered. I was just a widow. I was better off than them.



            One evening in spring when I was pulling the laundry off the line, I saw the figure of a three-legged man at the end of Calle Virtudes. He had high shoulders and a small head, and moved slowly in the center of the road like a goat. As he came closer I saw the crutches. He was missing his right leg. I set my laundry down and searched my pocket for loose change to give him because I thought it was a beggar. When I glanced up again, he was much closer and his face was illuminated by the light of my neighbor's window. It was Camilo.

            When he was directly in front of me I could see that he had not just lost a leg. He had lost his right ear and his right eye, and he had a long scar along the right side of his face that had mangled his nose, mouth and chin.

            He looked like a monster.

            I did not know what to do, so I turned and walked into the house and called our son. "Toño, your father's home!"



            It was not his disfigurement that repulsed me. A woman can learn to look past the physical horrors of any man. Besides, when he made love to me, I closed my eyes like I had done with Don Alonso and saw the same thing: Camilo when he was Camilo.

            What I could not stand were the little things. His voice had changed. It had a high-pitch whine like the grinding machine at the nixtamal. And because he had no control of his nasal passages, he wheezed when he breathed, and there was always a thread of snot dripping down his lip, which he wiped with the back of his sleeve or licked with his own tongue.

            The stump of his leg had a scar like a cross, a pink X where I had to apply aloe ointment for him every night. The ritual aroused him, and almost always led to him mounting me. What he got out of it I will never now because his facial disfigurement made it impossible for him to smile.

            Then the drinking started. I suppose it was inevitable for a man in his condition. After all, there was nothing else he could do. It began with his friends coming to the house. They sat on chairs and crates in the front yard and drank beer or the cheap mezcal from Don Alonso's store. As the afternoon turned to night, the conversations got louder until it seemed that all that was left was laughter and arguing, and the occasional yelling of his new nickname: Tuerto.

            When his friends did not come, he drank alone, sitting in the little wood table, taking long swigs directly from the bottle, watching me cook dinner. Sometimes we would laugh. Sometimes we would argue. Sometimes he would slap me. Sometimes he would try to mount me, but he was usually too drunk and just passed out in my arms like a baby. He slept until noon while I weeded and tilled the milpa. All through spring and early summer I planted corn and calabaza. I took in wash and sewed for people. I kept the house clean and tended a small vegetable garden in the back. I fed Camilo and Antonio, bathed them, dressed them and reminded them every day that God loved them.

            It was all worth it: to have him home, laying peacefully by my side on the big bed Don Alonso had purchased, Antonio between us, his small fingers tracing the scars on his father's face and making up glorious stories of the battles his father had fought while he was away in El Norte, making a better life for his family.

            Now I was just like everyone else.