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“Bringing back to life all the people I killed is the one wish at the top of my list.” Had she said those words aloud? Libertad sat up and looked around to check if anyone had heard her.
Maciza, dozing a few feet away, had trained her ears to listen for rats tiptoeing around their prison cell. She easily heard Libertad's impossible wish.
"So, who did you kill?"
"It's none of your business."
"Did you kill anyone?"
Libertad couldn't get herself to confess anything. She opened her journal and in the darkness searched for her pen between the folds of her blanket. A cellmate in the far corner snored. Someone in one of the upper bunks yelled, "Shut up!" With so many women sleeping in such a small cell, it was hard to tell where one body ended and another began, making it difficult to identify oneself as an individual.
"I don't think you killed anyone, Libertad. I think you want me to believe that just to impress me. Were you pushing chocolate in Tijuana?"
"Mud, tootsie roll, heroin. Maybe you kidnapped some rich bastard. C'mon, Libertad, give me some trust. You've been in this shit hole for almost a year. It's time to share."
"I said it's none of your business."
"Were you hanging with one of those narcos, or was it fraud? Or a scam? I bet it was one of those educated people's felonies."
"I'm not going to talk about it."
"At least tell me what the hell you're doing locked up in a Mexican prison. Your government should be trying to get you out of here. Isn't that what Americans do in their movies?"
"Just drop it, will you? I'm not digging around to find out why you're here."
"That's because you already know."
"All I know is that you killed your husband. It's no secret. You've told everyone."
"Yeah, that's right. But why I did it is what I don't discuss with just anyone. Only with someone I know will understand. That means you, and no one else in this goddamn hen pen."
"All right, why did you do it?"
"I did it for love."
Libertad wished she were as certain as Maciza was about why she had made her own mistakes. But her memories were in disarray. She needed to do some serious mental housekeeping.
In her first few days at the Mexicali Penal Institution for Women, Libertad had kept to herself, but the more she tried to avoid conversation with the other inmates, the more she was stalked with questions in the hallways, in the showers, in the toilet, in the kitchen. Every so often she tried to tell them why she was there, but she found it impossible to explain. Once, when she was asked directly, she uttered a fetus of a word, something like, "Iaaggrhh." Since she was in the cafeteria, the woman next to her thought she was choking and proceeded to pound her on the back with all her might. Her tray fell off the table and her poor man's chilaquiles—with no chicken, that is—spilled on the floor.
Libertad was not complying with the unwritten rule that all new prisoners had to declare and make public the reason they had been incarcerated. Everyone had to know who had done what to whom and why the prisoner claimed to be innocent. Of course, extensive details of the crime were expected. Otherwise, what would they all talk about in those long desert days?
Because Libertad's strange behavior had brought out a chronic uneasiness and a desperate curiosity among her fellow inmates, she tried to belong in other ways. She taught Diva, one of her seven other cellmates and an authority on prison fashion, how to calculate the time by positioning her fingers in a certain angle against the palm of her other hand.
"It's a hand sundial."
"Very useful around here," said Diva as she tried it, nearly burning her eyes from staring at the sun in the middle of the exercise yard.
Libertad also helped Maciza train for a nonexistent marathon by timing her laps around the cellblock's hallways and shared her tamales with Culebra, the woman with the longest fingernails she had ever seen.
But even after curfew, after the lights were out and everyone had settled in to sleep, a question would shoot into the darkness of her cell.
"Are you in for murder?"
As the first couple of months went by, Libertad's cellmates began to lose control of their curiosity and tried all kinds of techniques to squeeze the story out of her, even the hard-core ones they'd been exposed to firsthand during their encounters with the Mexican authorities. But just before they resorted to torture, Maciza put a stop to it. She knew Libertad would crack sooner or later. She had subtler, more effective psychological ways to work her over.
"It's okay, I can wait. You can blab your guts out when you're ready," Maciza would say. "That's all we do around here, anyway. We blab our guts out."
"It's not that I won't talk, Maciza. I just can't."
"Don't worry, it will come out. We'll make it come out."
A book changed everything. Which book, Libertad didn't remember. All she knew was that a few months after she arrived in the Mexicali Penal Institution for Women, she went to the library, picked up a dog-eared paperback, and began reading aloud, the way her father had taught her and the only way she knew. Sitting in that dark and sorry-looking room, she noticed that the words on the page were different from the words she said.
She wondered if her thoughts were getting tangled with the plot. It happened to her sometimes, when she was tired. She tried to read again, this time paying more attention to the story, but it didn't work. By the time she looked up, a small group of inmates had gathered around her and were listening attentively. From then on, she'd go to the library, pick any book, and read as loud as she could. Somehow, between the chapters in those tattered paperbacks and the stories in her mind, the words transformed themselves into her own account of the events that led to her incarceration.
When she read to her fellow inmates, she felt the pressure in her chest ease. She imagined her lungs backed up with words and her voice pushing them out, letting her breathe. Wiping her soul clean of remorse had turned out to be most difficult and slow, but she had more time than life. This was her only way of alleviating the pain.
We started the business together when I was born, my father and I. The sign on the door of our truck read GONZALEZ & DAUGHTER TRUCKING CO. I'd touch those words before I got in the cab. This ritual gave me a sense of comfort. It was part of my routine. To feel the subtle texture of the pink words and the purple border and with the same fingers make the sign of the cross. Then, to open the gate of the tiny plastic altar glued to the dashboard and kiss the Virgin of Guadalupe. All that had to happen before I put the key in the ignition.
Libertad made eye contact with the other inmates listening to her story in the prison library and wiped a drop of sweat off her forehead.
Soon after she realized that whenever she read aloud she drew an audience, and that the stories she told were not in the books but in her head, she decided to find a way to turn her time in the library into a prison activity. It would be her way of confessing her crime to her fellow inmates. So, in a long letter written on the back of an unused visitor permit, Libertad proposed to Warden Guzmon to set up and run a library club at no cost to the government. Her suggestion was immediately approved.
That hot and arid day she pretended to read from The Three Musketeers. The paper in the mangled book was so brittle and dry that it absorbed her saliva, desperately quenching its thirst every time she licked her finger to turn a page.
The air, too, was a prisoner here. No drafts. No fresh air. Only heat, the kind that injures the nostrils. This jail was the hottest place in Mexicali, a city known to be the hottest in the world. But the inmates' attention never wavered. Maciza, sitting in the second row, blew quick breaths down her shirt in an effort to dry the sweat that pooled between her generous breasts.
Like millions of other Mexicans, I was born in Los Angeles, California. But I never lived there. I was always on the road, traveling with my father. We took our truck across the country, from coast to coast, on interstate highways, back roads, even small dirt roads that would never make it to a map. But we didn't cross over to Mexico. Ever. That country, as much as I'd learned to love it, was off-limits for us and I never set foot in it until much later in my trucking life. Everywhere else, I was known as Gonzalez's daughter, Gonzalez's girl, Gonzalez's kiddo.
And what about my education? What I know I learned from my father. We'd make a special stop in every city to browse for books, in English or Spanish, particularly in those small, cluttered bookstores almost always located in busy downtown streets where it was impossible to maneuver, let alone park, our rig. But the ordeal was part of the thrill. Wherever we went, no matter what type of road we traveled or how heavy a load we hauled, we read aloud to each other over the constant rumble of the engine. I never went to school. I was truck-schooled.
As a little girl, I read while my father drove. Later, when I finally took over the steering wheel, he did the reading. Then we'd trade places. Because we couldn't store the books we'd already finished in our truck's tiny sleeper, we'd throw them out the window, leaving the highways scattered with knowledge. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is probably lying by the carcass of a skunk on the shoulder of Interstate 10 just past Indio. Loose pages of Hamlet tangled in tumbleweed must be rolling across Highway 86, over by Salton Sea. Sand dunes on the way to Palm Springs, right where the windmills catch the air from the desert and turn it into electricity, are digesting the deluxe edition of Don Quixote. If I could string together all the lines of text I've read aloud on the road, I'd be able to tie a bow of words around the world.
Libertad stopped to check the time on the clock hanging high on the wall across the library. Once again, as it had been since its inception a couple of months back, the hour allotted to their weekly Library Club had gone much too fast. She put The Three Musketeers on the shelf next to Crime and Punishment and announced to her audience, "That's it for today. We'll continue next Wednesday."
"Where's the mother?" asked Maciza on the way out. "Where the hell is the mother?"
"It's coming up in one of the next chapters."
"Why isn't she in the truck with her little girl?"
"You'll find out."
From the Trade Paperback edition.