Porous Borders

(A slightly different version of this poem was published in The Chaffey Review.)

Light sinks into the skin

of the ocean.

Under crumpled canvas in the back of a pickup

headed north over the 15 freeway’s washboard,

a kid, laboring for breath, rides the bumps in the road,

stomach acid slithering up his throat. A mystery

of heat and darkness. Cool jets of exhaust and morning air

lick at the tarp, causing the boy to cough.

Tonight is too far away.

Light through the water moves faster

than his thoughts, his tendency to equate space

with freedom, his devotion to Los Santos,

his memory of kidnappings, the burnt offerings

Tia Juanita made after her daughter died.

He hears the unfamiliar whine of American radio

streaming out of the windows of passing cars.

His mother is breathing into his ear.

The faint smell of the mint she found

in between the seat cushions in Ernesto’s pickup

before they met with the coyote. The smell

of wet switchgrass, gravely waving to the drivers,

the shoulder gently sloping like a pregnant belly,

swollen. The taste of honeywater in his mouth.

The dark circles under her eyes haunt his memory.

She’s passionate, even in sleep, in the face

of disconsolate attempts to move north.

But now they’re almost there.

But where is that?

Tia Inez will still be pulling a double shift when they get

to a cul-de-sac in La Puente. The bridge.

The front door of the apartment will be screened

by a heavy lacework of rusting iron, bursting with red,

like capillaries on a drunkard’s nose.

He will stare at the stucco facade.

A billboard will read: “You deserve a break today.”

The bright letters will mean nothing to him.

He will mouth the word for home.

The boy closes his eyes:

The waves sang in the distance,

the foam white like ghosts. His urine etched steaming worms

into the uneven ground. He stumbled over the litter

in the street – dominoes, teacups, broken glass.

On the beach, he gave his yellow rock to one of the beachcombers

so the man wouldn’t find the anemone hidden in the turbid water

of his bucket. Ernesto zigzagged through the streets,

his truck cutting turns like a scalpel. It idled

in front of their home. Words spilled out of their mouths

when the coyote stuck out his hand. He had no time

for questions and the money paid for travel, not answers.

Ernesto said his brother, Tonino, had a hook

instead of a hand, a piece of the price

of his northbound trip.

The boy’s mother kisses him

and then the cross hanging from her neck. The thumb

of sun has prodded her awake. Her swelling belly

ripples in the heat, a mirage, a miracle. A sheet

of sunlight cleft by hungry shadows.

As he and his mother arrive at the border,

he feels the same way he did on the ledge

overlooking the sea. There is nowhere else to go.

The rocks reach out of the water like spears,

but he pushes off anyway. He jumps headlong,

the sea foam spilling like clouds.

Somewhere beyond memory,

the sun-stained water gurgles,

salt glazing his lips.

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