When they came for him, they came for him in the black stillness of a moonless night. Insolent and gutless, the sons of bitches kicked in the dilapidated door with its peeling paint in the house of sloughing, puttied stucco. Juan Romero had given us up. And now, all I am left with is this tattoo of a tear hanging on my cheek.
Ernesto Gonzalez and I were good, until that son-of-bitch, Juan, came into our lives. Sure we were just getting by, living from paycheck to paycheck with our combined paychecks, Ernesto from the garage, me from the bakery, and though we could have called any other house a mansion, we lived the small happinesses that most any couple do who’ve been together for three years.
When they came for him, they were drawn to the bedroom, where I was mewling like a cat, Ernesto thrusting himself deep inside of me. That door they didn’t have to knock down. One of the four officers snatched Juan from the top of me, throwing him to the floor, then another one helping the first one to pin Juan’s arm behind his back, as they rolled him over and stood him up. His manhood was at half-mast, and as they shook him, his cock waved like a wind sock at the airport. I sat there watching it, propped on my elbow, naked, the sheets drawn up to my chin. A third officer, grabbed me and put the shackles on, my breasts swinging back and forth, the officers snickering. “Who are you?” one of the officers directed at me.
Shaking with both fear and anger, I said, “Esmerelda Morello, his wife.” But that wouldn’t be entirely true: Before the altar, Ernesto and I had never taken the vows. But that didn’t mean we were any less connected to each other.
The first officer to break into the room declared, “Ernesto Gonzallez, we’re arresting you under the suspicion of armed robbery.” Then he read him his rights. I told him never to hold up the liquor store, especially with that idiot, Juan.
Within six months, the two, Juan and Ernesto, were convicted in the Pueblo County Courthouse. Ernesto, this being his second offense, got ten years, while Juan, turning snitch on him, got only three.
Though, never having bonds endowed by the church and state, nor having any kids between us, Ernesto and I were as close as a door on a ship to the water-proof jamb. In Colorado, the state penitentiary is carved out of a ridge that descends north-south at the western edge of the city. In the afternoon, when the sun is setting, the sunlight glistens off the stainless steel barbed wire capping the wire fence. Shortly after he had been confined to his second floor in his spare cell block, with a cell mate he neither liked nor trusted, I moved from Pueblo to Canon City to be closer to him.
Though it was only a thirty-three mile journey, it was like diving into a pool, this new culture of wives, girlfriends, and children that hovered in Canon City, tied to the place solely because their men were in stir. I began hanging out mainly with Linda, whose man was in for attempted murder, and Jesse, whose man was in for life for attempted murder—gunplay that had gone too far. I began putting on the heavy makeup they did; I began wearing the same clothes they wore to visit their men, the same clothes on the street. No one who had lived in Canon City past the turn of a season had trouble picking us out from the ordinary, law-abiding citizens of this lazy, high plain of nothing but scrub, and all its thirteen prisons as if they were ant colonies, where many a car owner parked their vehicle on the dying, yellow lawn. Then I did what all the truly beloved did when their man was in prison: I had a tattoo of a tear emblazoned on my left cheek, just below my eyes.
The first time I came to visit Ernesto, who was by now in his mid-twenties, and me five years younger, the snot-green room of cement was parted down the middle by a partition, the prisoners on one side, the visitors on the other. In the partition was glass as thick as coke bottles, where one could talk to the prisoners, but to hear them, one had to use a telephone receiver. I cried throughout the allotted time. “See how I love you?” declared pointing to the tear. “See.”
“I bet when you leave the prison, you’re just another puta.”
“No, no, Ernesto, I could never betray you.”
“Sell my stash and save the money in a bank drawer. Save it until I get out. If I find you sold it and took the money, I’d track you down like a dog. Your life would be mine.” When I asked him how I could do it and still work full-time as a maid at the Royal Gorge Inn and Motel, he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “You’ll find a way.”
And so I continued apace, my days at the motel, my Saturdays at the prison, and just occasionally, a junkie for evening company. One, Paulo Ramires, I shared my bed with, who took Ernesto’s smack from him and stayed with me, never interrupting my appointed schedule. I never missed a visit with Ernesto, even while Paulo was my backdoor man. Then, one month, while this had been going on a long while, Ernesto started the conversation out with, “You fucking cunt. You goddamn puta. Who’ve you been sleeping with? Don’t bother to deny it. I already know.” By this time I was hysterical. The guard escorted me out of the visitors’ room before my allotted time was even up. I went back to my house in Canon City, the one puttied, where the rains and snow were making inroads, which were as dull and drab as weeds one might pull from their gardens. I cried all the way home, and threw myself in such a state on the bed that I scared Oscar, my cat. How could I lose Ernesto? How could I lose the one person in my life that held it together? My father was an alcoholic, while my mother, who was a nurse, was into pills. They meant little to me compared to my Ernesto. I realized there were times that Ernesto could have treated me better, like the time he totaled my Ford Pinto, the time he insulted my brother then gave him a thorough thrashing, and the way he left his empty beer cans for me to pick up. When he was really drunk, he’d say, ”Pick them up, bitch, I want my cradle looking clean.” Seldom did he get that way, and not once had he ever hit me.
He was, in his own way, faithful to me, as loving as anyone I’d ever known.
One day, when he was just about to enter his second year of confinement, the duty guard in charge of checking the visitors in, pulled me aside as I entered the prison. “You’re Esmerelda Navarro, aren’t you?” he implored.
I stepped back, repulsed by his jailor’s uniform.
“Why do you ask?
“Are you, or aren’t you. It’s a simple question. An innocent one.”
“Yes I am Esmerelda Navarro.”
He took me by the arm and eased me into a dark and distant recess in the jailor’s section. When we were suitably apart from all the other visitors, he said, ”I’m afraid there’s been an accident. Another inmate knifed Ernesto. We tried to call, but you have no phone. The ambulance left not thirty minutes ago for St. More’s Hospital.”
“Is he okay.”
“Now that, I wouldn’t know. I’m a guard not a damn doctor!”
“No, you’d never had made it with your bedside manner.” My lower lip was beginning to quiver, my heart racing.
I drove the thirty mile an hour streets with my foot pushed to the floor of the gas pedal. The penitentiary was clear across town, but I made it in less than twenty minutes. At the entrance to the emergency room, the charge nurse knew immediately who I was, for the tear gave me away.
“How is he?” I blurted.
She didn’t answer but guided me back towards the entrance, as though any bad news would be tapered by the eruption of spring outside, the birds chirping, the flowers just coming into bloom that late April day.
I screeched to a stop. “Who’s going to tell me how he is?
“I’m afraid he didn’t make it. From the entrance wound, it looks as though he was stabbed directly in the heart. I wailed until they brought the emergency room doctor; I wailed until they brought the chaplain.
By Joseph Dylan
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