This chapter provides a peek into Myrna’s past through a ghostly encounter in the present.
In the cool quiet of the hospital room Myrna felt at peace. She hated hospitals, but at least the food here was edible and the nurses were kind. She wasn’t really sure why she was here, but the IV in her arm and the stitches in her cheek reminded her that something big had happened. The cause didn’t really concern her. No matter what had happened, someone would take care of her.
After the chaos of the day, Myrna was finally alone. She had been alone most of her life, even when she was surrounded by people. As one of nine siblings she rarely had privacy, and once she became a parent, “alone time” was virtually non-existent. She craved solitude.
There was light and noise in the corridor, but she felt disconnected from it. She stared around the dimly lit room. There wasn’t much to look at. This was a place of transition. There was nothing in the room that made it feel welcoming or familiar. The thought was strangely reassuring. It meant that she wouldn’t be here very long.
Myrna sensed his presence before she saw him. Anticipation, apprehension, elation; it was a familiar mix of feelings, a heady cocktail of tension that nearly overwhelmed her, and something she hadn’t experienced in a very long time. She had always felt that way around him. Guess you’re never too old, she thought wryly.
Looking toward the window she could see his silhouette against the blinds. When he realized that she was aware of him, he moved closer. Stopping near the foot of the bed, the light from the hallway illuminated the pale skin of his face. He rested a hand on the footboard. Light glinted off a chunky gold ring.
“Querida.” His voice was low and quiet, almost like a purr.
“Rigo,” she breathed his name.
“Querida, I have missed you.” In the semi-darkness she could see that he was unchanged. The strong jaw, the dark wavy hair, the proud posture – it seemed he hadn’t aged at all. She yearned to touch him, to connect with his electricity.
He smiled, his white teeth gleaming. “Ah, I see that you have not forgotten how it was between us. We had magic, cara.” His voice was silky, enticing; his charm undeniable. Myrna felt herself drawn to him.
“All is well, cara mia. Allow yourself to be with me.” He took a step closer, but did not touch her. Now she could see the scruff of beard on his chin and the small golden cross at his throat. He never took it off. He had received it on his confirmation day, and although he frequently strayed from the teachings of the Church, his faith in the tiny suffering Jesus never wavered.
“My sweet Myrna, you are ill,” he commented. “I have come to comfort you.”
“Rigo, how did you find me? After all these years….” It had been nearly six decades since she’d seen him. The last time she laid eyes on him he was stumbling out the door, heading into Mexicali. In a drunken rage he’d pushed her down and whipped her with a chain, leaving her huddled in a corner, bruised and bleeding.
Memories of that night galvanized her rage. She pulled back and hissed, “How dare you come here?! How dare you visit me and act as though you care! I will never forgive you for what you did to me!”
Rigo hung his head, but made no move to leave.
In response Rigo shook his head sadly. “Querida, I cannot leave. You have summoned me. I am not free to go.”
“What? What are you talking about? I didn’t ask you to come here! If you don’t get out I’ll call the nurse and have you thrown out!”
Aside from shaking his head, Rigo stood motionless. “I cannot leave. It is not my choice.”
Myrna’s rage downshifted to irritation. “You already said that! What do you mean? Explain yourself!”
Rigo gave a low chuckle. “Ah, querida, there is much to explain.”
Myrna indicated her arm still tethered to the IV. “I’m not going anywhere. Start talking.”
“Where would you like me to begin? With how much I loved you?”
Myrna snorted. “Hah! You never loved me. If you did you wouldn’t have been drunk most of the time and you wouldn’t have beaten the daylights out of me. That’s not love! I want to know what you’re doing here. How did you find me?”
“As I said, you summoned me. I am here because you want me here. Tell me, my sweet Myrna, why did you call?”
I didn’t call him, she thought. He’s playing games with me. Suddenly her whirling thoughts ground to a halt. She became aware that Rigo had been standing next to the bed absolutely motionless. There were no nervous movements of the hands, no shifting of the feet. He didn’t turn his head to avoid her anger; he didn’t flinch. Everything about him was unnaturally still. She blurted out, “Am I dead?”
Again he chuckled. “No, cara, you are not dead.” He turned to face her. “I am.”
Myrna drew a sharp breath. He was dead. She was talking to a dead man. For the first time she noticed a small hole in his impeccable white shirt. It was located just above the left pocket. The hole was round and clean, as though someone had used a punch to remove just a tiny piece of the fabric. As she contemplated this oddity color began to seep into his shirt at the edges of the hole, spreading slowly outward. The color wicked through the fabric, becoming darker and darker until it was an unmistakable shade of crimson. She searched his face for an explanation.
“Ah, querida, it has begun. Our time is limited.”
Bile rose in her throat. She felt queasy and gripped the bed rail. Her voice was a frightened squeak. “Who shot you?”
He shrugged. “A jealous husband. I deserved it.”
“After you left. A year, maybe a couple of months more. I was never good at keeping track of time.”
“You were drunk.” It was not a question.
“True. There is no time inside a bottle.”
“So…he walked in on you?”
“Yes.” He looked down at his shirt. The stain was growing larger. “Querida, there is not much time. You must tell me why I am here.”
“I have nothing to say to you. And if I did, it would blister your ears. Do you have any idea what you did to me?”
“Si. I saved your life.”
For a moment Myrna was speechless. His simple statement broke her reserve, freeing the pain and anger she had pushed down for nearly six decades.
“Did I hear you correctly? You think you saved my life? More like ruined my life! Have you forgotten how you treated me? Once we eloped you started drinking and you never stopped. I tried everything to make you happy, but the harder I tried the worse you treated me! Why did you marry me, Rigo? Why did you choose me? Was I begging for abuse?”
Very quietly he said, “Yes.”
“What? Are you crazy? I certainly didn’t sign up for that!”
“Oh, but you did. You knew I was bad. You knew I was dangerous. That’s what made you want me.” Pity crept into his voice. “Your life was so small. Your family – they controlled you. You lived in the land of opportunity – Hollywood! But for you it was only a hospital kitchen and a bus route. What kind of life was that?”
Myrna was indignant. “It wasn’t a thrill a minute, but it was my life, and you stole it!”
Rigo sighed and shook his head. “Cara mia, don’t you see? You needed to break free and you knew they would never let you. You had to be bold, to rebel! So you sold your soul to the devil.” He grinned and bowed stiffly.
With a shock Myrna realized that he was right. From the time she was a young child she had felt stifled. She had never felt valued; she had never felt as though she counted for much. She was a good student, but Ralphie didn’t believe that women should go to college. There was no appealing his decision. As far as her family was concerned, her fate was sealed. She would work until she met a suitable man and got married, then make babies and become a full-time homemaker.
But that was not enough for Myrna. She longed for more out of life. She wanted to study new ideas and travel and meet people with perspectives different than her own. She wanted to sit in cafes late at night drinking wine, debating politics and analyzing the works of artists and writers. She wanted to be part of the movement for social change; to make her voice heard.
She was angry when her mother didn’t question Ralphie’s decision. Mother was always proud of Myrna’s academic accomplishments, and would take Myrna to Woolworth’s lunch counter to celebrate each excellent report card. It never occurred to Myrna that she would be denied the opportunity for a higher education. So it was a slap in the face when her mother didn’t stand up for her, didn’t tell Ralphie that he was wrong. Myrna tried to talk about it, but Ma wouldn’t listen. “Myrna Mae, being a wife and a mother is a full time job. You don’t need a lot of book learning to be good at that. Just try to be happy.” It had been a complete betrayal.
She turned questioning eyes on Rigo. He nodded, encouraging her to keep remembering.
Everything had changed during her senior year of high school. She had a shorter school day, so Ralphie declared that she could take on more hours at the hospital. Thus she began getting up before sunrise to work the breakfast shift. Because she was earning more money, Ralphie decided that she should pay for her own school clothes. Ralphie made all the decisions and no one questioned him. Except Myrna.
It was a Thursday evening. The dinner dishes were done (meatloaf of course) and Myrna was heading to her room to complete her homework. Mother called to her from the front room, asking Myrna to bring her pocketbook from the entry table. Handing the purse to her mother, she watched the TV news for a few minutes. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was addressing a gathering of white folks. Every one of them looked hard-faced and angry. Myrna marveled at Dr. King’s courage in facing down that crowd.
Mother was extracting coins from her wallet, handing them to Myrna. “Here, honey, here’s your bus fare for tomorrow.” Before she could thank her mother Ralphie started bellowing from the depths of his armchair.
“Whoa! Hold on! Don’t give her any money! She has a job. She can pay her own damn bus fare! This isn’t the welfare office!”
Both Myrna and Ma stared in astonishment across the living room. Was he serious? The bulging veins at his temples indicated that he meant it. She knew it would be wiser to remain silent, but Myrna couldn’t help herself.
“Ralphie, what’s the big deal? It’s just bus fare.”
The angry alcoholic launched out of his chair and grabbed her wrist. He began shaking her violently until she allowed the coins to drop to the floor. His tirade terrified her. She could smell his rancid beer breath as he shouted in her face. “You little pig! You just take, take, take! You’re nothing but a drain on this family! I don’t know why they didn’t give you away too! You’re lucky to have a roof over your head and food on your plate. From now on you pay for your own bus, you hear? Now shut your trap because I’m trying to watch the news!” He turned her loose and retreated to his recliner.
Myrna was quivering with rage, fear, and humiliation. Her wrist throbbed from his crushing hold. Ralphie had always had a temper, and she’d seen him take it outside with her brothers many times, but she never imagined he would lay hands on any of the women in the family. What if he did that to Ma?
She glanced at her mother, still seated on the couch clutching her little coin purse. Ma hadn’t said a word during the confrontation and remained silent in its aftermath, staring straight ahead, as pale and still as a figure in a wax museum. Myrna followed her mother’s gaze across the room and landed on a family portrait. She observed the smiling faces of her siblings dressed in their Sunday best. When she turned back to her mother she saw that there were tears in the old woman’s eyes.
“Ma? Ma, it’s okay. I’m not hurt. Please don’t cry. Ralphie’s a big bully, but he didn’t hurt me.” From the other side of the room Ralphie snorted. Ignoring him, she coaxed, “Ma, come to the kitchen. Let me make you some coffee.”
Her mother sat woodenly at the kitchen table while Myrna prepared the coffee. Suddenly Ma began speaking in a quiet, sad voice. “Well, the cat’s out of the bag now, thanks to my loud mouth son. I’ve always planned to tell you, but I just never found a good time. Guess this is it.”
“Tell me what, Ma?” A shiver of fear crept up her spine.
“About your sister. I mean, your cousin. Oh, hells bells! About Barbara. She’s your sister, not your cousin.”
Myrna was confused. She had two sisters, Dot and Madge. She had a cousin named Barbara, but Barbara lived in Colorado. None of this made sense.
Observing the bewilderment in her daughter’s face, Ma explained. “It was 1933. I was pregnant again. Our ninth child. The farm wasn’t doing so well. We were already struggling. Your uncle Jim had just found out that they couldn’t have babies of their own because Em was missing one of her lady parts. Nothing to be done about it – she was born that way. They were heartbroken.”
“So when Barbara was born you gave her away?” Myrna was incredulous.
“No, of course not! You act like we left her on the steps of an orphanage!” Patiently she continued, “We couldn’t afford another child, and we are good Christians, so we didn’t…take other measures. Jim and Em desperately wanted a baby, and they could afford it, so it was the best solution all around. Jim even paid the hospital bill, and they drove all the way from Denver to Des Moines to be there for the birth!”
“He paid for her? You sold her?!” Myrna felt nauseated.
“Myrna Mae, watch your tongue! Barbara was not abandoned, and she wasn’t a black market baby! She was born into a family with eight children and a struggling farm, and we couldn’t afford another child. She was raised by family, my own brother; they wanted a baby and couldn’t have one. Don’t you see? Barbara was given a good life, and she’s happy. It was the best thing, Myrna Mae.”
The younger woman could see her mother’s point. It was a good thing. And they had kept the baby in the family. But still, it was bizarre to think about her cousin who was really a sister. And what about herself? Barbara was two years older than Myrna. Ma saw the question forming.
“Things had gotten a lot better by the time you came along. They wanted you too, but it nearly killed me to let go of my baby. I couldn’t do it again, but the first time I didn’t see another way.” Her eyes welled once more.
“Oh, Ma!” It was all Myrna could say. She held her mother’s hands across the kitchen table. They sat that way for a long time, until the coffee went cold.
∴ ∴ ∴
Coming back to the present, Myrna realized that the path of her life had taken a detour that night. She had admired her mother’s courage but knew that she could not endure that subservient type of life. She was sick and tired of being controlled by her drunken brother. If college was not an option she would find another way out.
A small movement broke her reverie. She looked up to find Rigo still standing at the foot of the bed. By this time the crimson stain had spread across the entire left side of his shirt. He peered at her inquiringly.
“You did. You saved my life. You saved me from the hell that my mother settled for.”
He grinned. “I knew you would see it, cara. Tell me, did you love me, or did you just use me to escape?”
Without hesitation she replied, “You were my first love. You were everything to me. Too bad you were such a bastard!”
He shook his head ruefully. “Si, si, I was. My father – he was merciless. I tried to escape too. I chose a bride I knew he would not approve. I needed to show him that I was my own man. But it wasn’t enough. I was too young. So instead of becoming a man I crawled inside a bottle. I was cruel to you. You didn’t deserve it. Lo siento, querida. I am so sorry.”
“Did you love me?” she asked in return.
“In my own way,” he replied, “as much as I was capable. I don’t think I really understood what love was.”
She nodded sadly, accepting his explanation. “What happens now?” she asked.
“Now I return to the other side. I remain there unless I am called forth again.” He looked down at his shirt, which was thoroughly soaked with blood. “Time is short.”
“Wait Rigo! What happened to Rosalia? Please tell me that she is happy!”
He laughed a hearty laugh. “Oh, cara – yes, she is happy! She convinced my father to send her to boarding school. She met a boy. They have four fine sons and they breed magnificent quarter horses. They travel all over the world.”
“Did she become a pilot?”
“No, but her grandson did.”
Myrna smiled. It was a joy to know that Rosalia had a good life. She wondered what had happened to his other sisters. She started to ask, but he put a finger to his lips and shook his head. The time for talking was over. He kissed his fingers and extended his hand toward her. There was a look of infinite tenderness in his eyes that erased the decades of bitterness she had harbored. She could tell that he understood. He smiled at her, and then he was gone.
“Goodbye, Rigo,” she whispered. She closed her eyes and fell into a dreamless sleep.