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Marisol faces the challenge to return home in time for her father's ceremonies on the Day of the Dead.
Fourteen-year old Marisol and her mother are on the run from their home in Tijuana, Mexico. Her father, investigating the drug wars as a journalist, has been murdered.
But Marisol’s new home is a riverbed camp in a rich California suburb. A wildfire separates Marisol from her mother and her school. Cut off and alone, she challenges herself to find a way to reunite with her family and to celebrate the Day of the Dead in Mexico to honor her father with the proper traditions.
Some Rivers End is a book that will keep readers laughing, worrying, and cheering for its Hispanic protagonist, Marisol de Lira Lima. Some Rivers End will appeal to a wide audience, boys and girls, ages twelve and up as well as to adults. It is the first of a planned trilogy (coming: a prequel, The Pinata Maker’s Daughter and a sequel, So You, Solimar).
Some Rivers End is "a terrific book, sweet, hopeful, and funny" with the last chapter "a joyful surprise" in the words of Eve Caram, novelist (Trio, 2010) and UCLA Extension Writers' Program teacher.
Although I wrote the book with teens in mind, I believe men and women, book clubs, and guys will enjoy Marisol's journey.
Chapter 1: Ashes
The first time I saw my home in America, I said to Uncle Tomaso, “Wait, what?” People probably think it was a big house with a swimming pool and five bathrooms that amazed me, right? I wish.
He led Mama and me off the bike path through thorn bushes to sleeping bags under an oak tree. Everything smelled dusty and dry. He laughed with his fake-gold front tooth glinting, “Marisol, mi casa es tu casa.” That was in August.
It’s the beginning of October now, and I should be starting my waltzing lessons with my birthday gift certificate for eight months of dancing with Papa before my grand quinceañera next May.
Instead, I am living in a river camp. I am no longer new here or so creeped out about how and where we live. This river has no water. That was a first lesson about Los Angeles. Papa had told me his story again when I turned fourteen that there is a river in all of us. Did he know about this river that has no water? He knew everything. He was thinking of some kind of river in the brain or in the body. Maybe the river is part of the soul and that’s why some days I still feel Papa’s arms around me reading a book together. Maybe Papa’s river was made of words?
I wish I could find another river, not this one because this dry river where we camp is not such a good place. We hide our lives behind the tumbleweeds that are taller than me (154.9 centimeters) and so overgrown together that our paths between them are narrow. Tomaso said the city usually cuts the tumbleweeds in the summer because of fire dangers, but they didn’t do that this year (budget cuts). It’s also why we can’t have a campfire or a stove in camp. He says it’s better for us that the city ignores the river valley.
Each group has their own camp under their own oak tree. The best, tallest, widest oak trees are the furthest from the houses across the street. We didn’t get one of those trees. There are twelve or fourteen camps at this end of the river valley, with most camps for working men like my uncle Tomaso. A few of the men have women with them and sometimes I hear women’s laughter on pay day nights, but I haven’t seen any children because the women work during the day too so they leave their children with their abuela probably in Mexico as we left my baby brothers, Diego and Hermes.
The tumbleweeds scratch my skin, leaving itchy spots, and the dust is always up my nose making me sneeze. Our oak tree is short, but we use the branches to put up blankets for some privacy. We have dug a hole under the oak tree to keep our valuables in a coffee can, our passports and savings money. The river valley is wider than the football field at school. Power towers rise in the middle of it maybe fifty meters apart. I would convert that to yards if I were better in math, like my friend at home, Natividad, who is practically a mathematical genius.
It is hard enough to be fourteen, still a child in the eyes of the family, beginning to grow up in the eyes of the boys at school. Since school started, I have studied the boys at my school when we are doing silent reading or running around the track. None of them have the dark good looks of the dangerous boys like Puma at home or even Tomaso, and certainly none matches up to my father, who was tall and dark like Antonio Banderas or Helio Castaneves. I want to be fifteen and celebrate my quinceañera and know my place and maybe find the river in me that is not this dry, ugly river. The river in me would be fresh and clear and open to the sea.
I don’t always like my time at school where the rich kids drive away in their cars at lunch time and some of us stand in line for a free lunch that tastes like paste no matter what the hair-net ladies think they are serving us. School lunch was a second lesson about Los Angeles. I eat the fruit because fruit can’t be ruined by the mixer machine. Mama works hard as a nanny, but we can’t pay an apartment deposit. I wish other kids my age lived here in the arroyo so I had someone to talk to; then again, I wouldn’t wish this kind of life on anyone who is my friend. I miss Paloma’s laughing and Natividad’s wise cracks and the way time passed so fast at school or at home when we were together.
When I go to school each day, I tell myself, at least I am clean and I smell good. Why do the rich kids wear torn uniforms that they call hot, and some of them even let their hair stink and that’s cool? If one of the poor kids stinks, kids text each other and laugh behind their hands.
I remember back to the first week of school, and I will retell it exactly as it happened to me:
The teacher said something rude and stupid. I stay after class to talk to her. Until this moment, I liked her best. Still, my father taught me not to assume, but to ask, because if you assume, it makes “an ass of u and me.” He learned that saying in journalism school. Papa said the only exception about assuming is for family and taxes because I can always trust my family, and taxes will always go up. Every day he reminded me there is a river in all of us, and that no one can step into the same river twice. I understand that second part. Rivers change the way waves at the beach do, always new ones. But the first part, I nodded as if I understood that, thinking he must see the water go down the throat so that it comes out you know where, but now things have changed, it’s too late, I cannot ask him.
I will ask this teacher about her rudeness, and Papa, I will try to tell you of all the things I do and see in America that we would have laughed about or maybe we would have investigated further to avoid assuming. He had so many words of wisdom for me, and when I didn’t understand I should have asked, but he also included another rule where he said I should learn restraint, which means not blurting or butting in.
Was it because he butted in that he’s dead, and we’re hiding? And even so early in the school year, here I go, butting in with this teacher.
“Marisol?” the teacher asks, and I’m shocked she knows my name on the third day of the school year. The other teachers are still using seating charts except for Coach Sneed, who calls all us ninth graders one name—Bozo plus our line up number-- and the math teacher since he doesn’t use seating charts and probably won’t learn our names ever.
“Mrs. Kovacs, I don’t understand why you would say we are slow like most asses,” I say. It bothers me to think she called us stupid and slow like donkeys. Nati taught me there are Mexican asses like burros and American asses like butts. Her father, Mr. Cho, wanted us to quit saying asses.
“Do all American teachers say these things? Before this all my teachers were nuns.” I don’t tell her my other school was in Tijuana although Papa only spoke English to me and to my brothers so we would grow up bilingual for when his assignment finished and returned us to the U.S.A.
Mrs. Kovacs runs her fingers through her curly gray hair, which is cut into layers and looks like a cabbage. She laughs and laughs. Her nose whistles. “No, honey, not asses.” She writes on the white board. “Look. They are slow as MOLASSES. That’s called an idiom, an expression that doesn’t translate exactly. It’s like a nickname, but for language. Okay? Do you know the word molasses?”
I laugh too. “American idioms could cause some problems for me. I understand when I see the words, but hearing them, not so much.”
“Why don’t you keep a list of them? Our English class will work on lots of things, and I will add idioms to our list.” She turns to jot a note on her grade book on the lectern and then picks up a hall pass paper. “I’ll write you an excuse for your history class with Mr. McKee. We don’t want him to think you’re as slow as molasses.” We both smile, I take the pass, and for the first time, I think maybe I will like ninth grade at East Valley High School in Santa Dorena. It is north of Los Angeles and far from my Mexican home.
Life isn’t fair here in America. I goofed up when I assumed it would be. This is the most surprising lesson I have learned so far, except for new idioms with Mrs. K.
Fire leaps far away against the sky. The wind blows and blows, throwing off the smell of burning things. On the mountaintops, the wind whips the flames into whirling plumes, but we’ll be safe unless the wind changes directions, which it won’t, not in the fall in Southern California.
That’s what Uncle Tomaso says. He has traveled here to live and work for three years with his green card to make it legal. If it wasn’t legal, he would probably do it anyway. Tomaso is not fond of obeying someone else’s rules.
He also says rain is worse than fire, which I don’t believe at all.
I beg Mama for the same thing each night. “Please, Mama. Let’s go home. To Abuela’s. To Tijuana.”
Her smile turns down a little. I shouldn’t hurt her like this when she is trying so hard. Her hair is gray along the part between her black braids and her body is a rectangular block, like a tamale. She pats my hand the same as every night and gives me the same answer too.
“Marisol, querida, Marisol de Lira Lima, life is safer here. This is what your father would have wanted. It was our plan to return to America for your high school years, after your quinceañera. So now you and I are here sooner. You will get your education and become a famous American doctor or lawyer or business woman or whatever your heart desires.” She points to the north. “Look across the street, right there. We will own a house that big some day.”
I look. Because we are low in the Santa Dorena riverbed, I see only the top stories of the house and the brick wall the homeowners put up. I know the house because Mama works there, and I do my homework there and most mornings, I get ready for school in the shining bathroom. I don’t want that big house. I want my old life, with my brothers and my grandmother and my two aunts.
I want Paloma and Natividad to walk to with school each day, telling secrets on the dusty street as we had since we were little ones. My old school, I guess our colors were black and white, with the nuns who pressed their lips tight as they scolded us about our short skirts (black) turned up at the waistbands or our blouses (white) pulled out. The nuns said, “No todo lo que brilla es oro.”
But we wanted to shine like gold. We used to sketch in our notebooks to share at recess what we would wear to school if we could. I dreamed of a mini-dress in the bright colored squares of a Mondrian print (Tia Gloria is an art major). The dress has a fringed edge that swings when I walk. So do my triple-bangled earrings. I wear poofy hair and short boots. Paloma drew baby clothes with ruffles for her someday, and Nati concentrated on the preppy look. Dress codes apply to all schools, American or Mexican. I should believe clothes aren’t important since only our calavera, our skull and skeleton, is our real self. But that turns my thoughts to Papa.
In my dreams, my papa is alive, his skull not broken open in the street like he was a used piñata for the trash after the party.
Gangster people hated my father’s newspaper reporting, and for that, they shot him. The police and Papa’s newspaper said this same thing, that Papa was a double agent, a double crosser, playing both sides against the middle. He was the fourteenth journalist to die in the drug wars. He had told us not to worry, that he was careful and balanced in his reporting. I am afraid this was an assumption on his part. He became a target as if his head had a set of red circles on it instead of wavy black hair and bright white teeth and his Zorro mustache, no matter what he said. Tomaso says the drug war gets worse every week now.
For that, we ran away, Mama and me, before Papa’s funeral, before saying a proper goodbye or honoring him. We didn’t have even Tomaso’s so-called friends to help us reach the U.S. I say so-called friends because he fights with them almost every Saturday night over a pretty girl or who pays the bar bill or who drinks how many bottles of beer in the camp.
We couldn’t cross the border even with our American passports because some of the cops are crooked and work for the gangsters from the drug cartel. They would have found Mama and me for sure. One thing about the bad boys is that even they respect babies and grandmothers, which is lucky, because Hermes and Diego and Abuela would not have made our trip any easier, and I can’t imagine trying to live with all of them in the river camp with us.
The bus dropped us off at the marina in Ensenada, we paid a fishing boat captain, and he took us north in choppy seas. Mama and I were both sea sick, the captain laughed and said we were chumming for him. I didn’t care if he laughed or threw me overboard. I was too sick and too sad. My arms and legs felt like cement sacks the workers were using to build a fence at Abuela’s.
The boat chugged slowly, bobbing in the waves, to a beach north of San Diego but south of Los Angeles. Our clothing packs got wet while the boat idled outside the breakers at low tide, and we jumped into the shallows. Mama had our traveling money and our passports in a plastic bag in a back pack in a trash bag. Felipe met us, took some of our money to drive us here, to Santa Dorena, where Tomaso waited.
We expected an apartment, but he showed us the river camp and said it was a better hiding place. He chewed his lip, acting as if he didn’t quite believe his own words. This was in the month of August.
The first night, I crawled into the sleeping bag and cried and cried. Mama held me, but she cried too, and then she told me my favorite story about how she met my father when he was twenty and she was eighteen. She makes it sound like a fairy tale, beginning,“Once upon a time in Rosarita, . . ."
I fell asleep listening, and in the morning we went to register for the American school.
We have changed our names in America. I am Marisol DeLira at school. No Lima for Papa, and when I dropped even his name, I dropped a chunk of my heart to leave back on the street with his blood and his broken skull.
The shrub oaks jitter, and I pull my sleeping bag higher. I hear the coyotes howling, the men in the other camp laughing, their radio too loud, and they are drunk. I hope Uncle Tomaso won’t bother to shush them because someone will want to fight him. He is smaller than the other men, like a bantam rooster, and he likes to fight to prove he can take it. He has no restraint. He assumes people will listen to him, even when he is drunk.
When he is not fighting, Tomaso is funny, singing about girls with pretty brown eyes and telling stories of the hundreds of girls who have fallen in love with him. Mama throws a serape over his head when he is too silly. He is Papa’s younger brother. She spoils Tomaso with foods he likes and makes excuses for his behavior. He is like my papa except that he has more muscles, less sense, and his hair is jet black with no gray in it. He begins the day wearing a kerchief around his neck, but by afternoon it winds around his forehead. He says it’s his trademark, like Papa’s Zorro mustache. Tomaso does not have perfect teeth or even a perfect replaced front tooth since he let the dentist use a cheap alloy instead of real gold. “No todo lo que brilla es oro,” Papa would say just like the nuns. Everything shiny is not gold. I know this. Does Mama? Does Tomaso? Does he think his fancy tooth fools anyone that he is a rich man?
Since Papa died, Tomaso is shorter, or he walks shorter, with his shoulders stooped forward, as if he is carrying Papa’s death like a burden to his soul. To me, Tomaso is immature and selfish, and I am ashamed when I wish he could be dead instead of my papa.
Noise thunders above us. A sheriff’s helicopter shines a light into our arroyo, and a voice calls down, first in English and then in Spanish, “Evacuate. Go to the school.” A hush falls as the copter moves farther north along the river bed. Mama and I begin to pick up the paper bags with our clothing and my schoolbooks for tomorrow. We get ready to push the purple shopping cart up the gravel path. Tomaso says “No need, no problem.” He must be right since no one else is moving or packing. Are the sheriffs trying to scare us so they can deport us? Mama and I have our passports.
The wind picks up. Mama pulls me to lie down in our sleeping bag zipped together under the oak tree. Our hair gives off static electricity that makes us jump. Ashes blow towards us, falling like snow. Tomaso hands me a kerchief he has gotten wet from our five-gallon jug of fresh water. I tie the scarf over my mouth and nose. We’ll stay. The three of us say our rosary with a special prayer to St. Florian.
“Sleep, ladies. I will be your St. Florian,” says Uncle Tomaso. He smiles in our direction, but he looks across us to the oak tree and then up into the smoky sky. His mouth closes in a firm line.
As impossible as it seems, I sleep.