An Immigrant Woman



Slip-pilings on the Brooklyn littoral
—the poles still tarry, flimsy; the ferry terminus
with its walledup doors wan doorshapes
on eroded sills. Downstream, the strutwork
of the Williamsburg cable tower
threw its cool shadow half a mile inland
over tarpaper seams, gantried water butts,
and splintery tenement cornices milled
with acanthus and classical grasses
of nineteenth-century dream-slum fantasy.
We could see, from our rooftops, the endspan
floating its ant-threads of traffic
to the granite salients of the anchorage,
and through its strands on the west
the Financial District’s watery silhouettes.

But it was our own foundations, crumbling
in the sandy soil, that made us protest
the drill rigs sounding for a wider bridge ramp
to funnel the airport traffic over us
into Manhattan. “Construction tremors
will weaken our buildings”: from the over-roosted
tenements clinging near the anchorage
flew manuscript lists of signatures, block-groups’
painfully Englished petitions. But City Hall
adoze, sleep-feeding, just flooded us


with chimerical figures and blueprints,
wearing us down. Our own “block-leader,” Luz,
a Guatemalan law student at NYU
where I studied classics, distracted us
more easily with her “pure language”
or anti-Puerto Rican tirades. “Call that Spanish?
Take my sitter—muy indio, still speaks some
Maya mountain-language BUT
the beautiful Spanish!” And so one evening this sitter,
Pilar, came over—forty, perhaps, with a long
fawn-tinted oval face, and read in low tones
an archaic poem to the Madonna. “My daughter
knows it in Quiché and English—” and she passed around,
wistfully, a First Communion photo—flat cheekbones
like her mother’s, long black braids, straight look.

Luz told us Pilar had lost husband
and son to the Violence; a machine-gunned
death heap in the center of their village—
“They killed all the men. But when my family
came here, she came with her girl, we helped with the
green card, and she’s a hotel maid now
near the UN ...” Much realer, this, than our own
bridge-inflicted, some-day disaster. And who knew
but our bridge might metamorphose,
as the City said (“Global cities draw capital”), into a river
of money (“We’ll all sell cuchifritos on the ramp”),
and anyway, mainly, summer


was running out, with its open evenings
and windows. One Saturday, turning onto my block
from the subway, I heard my name, crossed
the street where twin buildings had area-ways.
and saw you waving, the same, Pilar,
from a window below the swag-bellied area railings.
“Come have some coffee—go around in back.”
I walked down the building-side, and turned in a trash-littered
airwell by a door with multiple doorbells.
You opened from a wooden hallway, unpainted,
with padlocked doors. “See, the super’s cut up his flat
for illegals. They took out an inside wall, so our room
has a window—we all share the bath.” I entered
a lime-walled room—chairs and table, sofa-bed. Your front wall
was the building front, the three others
drywall. On the bureau, a black-shawled
prie-dieu: two photos; two candles in translucent, white-waxed sacks,
and a polychrome Madonna with meeting brows.

Through your window, car wheels, railings; and, above,
my own second-story windows. “We saw you
reading there,” you said from behind me, “when we moved in.”
You sat me on the sofa, and formally presented your daughter
(she moved her schoolbooks all to one end.) Near her, a shallow,
linoleumed-over trench and a bathroom sink. You said:
“I’m a widow from the mountains near Morache, very near
the home-town of Señora Luz. My real work is hotel maid, and I’ve got
a nice job, at a place called the Tricontinental.”
Then you paused, and I felt how clearly
you’d presented yourself, as Americans do, with your job,
your état civil, and I said: “I’m a graduate student
at NYU, where Luz studies, no, not married, no children ...”
I tried to add something else at once, to leave this less ...
definitive, but nothing came, so we ran through bridge-rumors,
and soon we were hardly listening, waiting
for our own next word, and laughing at our gabble. Pequita
told us what the priest had said
about the drilling; you spoke of Pequita’s
First Communion, and none of us could stop
finding striking things to say. Next day you came over
to see my plants, and I came back for soup-supper, looking up
at my windows, which in the easy half-yellow light
of autumn looked oddly beckoning. As we ate,
you leaned forward, with a sudden rogue’s smile,
and mockingly proposed that we three walk across the bridge,
“There’s a path up there. If the bridge
is bad, we’ll tell off the Mayor—” (In what spirit, I wondered,
had you listened to our committee?) And when I got home
I looked down, and through your sheer curtains saw you
cleaning up, and Pequita, at the table, reading.


But next week, instead of the plank stair
that zigzags up the anchorage-side, we wandered
the riverside shipping alleys. From below, we could see
overhead the under-arch of the bridge, and feel
the resonant top-thrum of westbound
subways and trucks. Then the riverside—I loved
this part. A sort of post-industrial fenworld, with tiny
terrace houses, big dredger-parts laid aside
from the drillings, and abandoned wreckers’ lots
filled with sea-floor light and trembling, long-awned
panicles of switchgrass. Its timelessness
soothed me—though ephemeral. Even that day, one freshly
tuckpointed facade, and a pair of brandnew bronze
Edwardian mermaid doorknockers. I could see
our quarter five years from now, say—the withering
discount chains, tentative boutiques,
and mother and daughter figuring, to the upscale
“pioneers,” as neighborhood indigenes, living on
with strange literalness among them, supplying
their just-permissible quantum of urban grit.

You were ahead, and Pequita trailed us, rattling weed stalks
with a stray lath. As we progressed in and out
of the endspan’s slatted shadows, you turned
and called me into a side-lot—sunken concrete, flask-
green puddles, to a broken-off building wall. It had been
interior, once—rows of soiled roomsized
plaster squares trailing sawn pipes, with one high trembling
toilet, like a pearl. In a lower square, fringed
with ailanthus and barbs of gang graffiti,
was a mural. Muy latino: the mountain
dreaming the city: a terrace cafe with palm trees
and a dancer shawled in black lace, with inward-angled
castanets. And you lifted yourself on tiptoe,
Pilar, to touch the lace, as you might have grazed
Pequita’s cheek. I felt a pang, as if I already needed you
sturdy inside your sturdy body, not this gesture
as if, exiled within, you reached out— We stepped
back, museum-wise, to contemplate, and you said:
“Luz likes to say I’m some mountain-woman, but when
my mother died, I lived with my aunt in the City—I only
went back when I married.” I told her I’d lived
in this city, with a stepmother, who’d divorced my uncle
to marry my father; and beat me. “A stepmother’s
a curse of God,” you said gently. And on the walk back,
pointed out more wall palms, beaches, until New York
seemed a dot in a belt of capitals
high on the globe: world-cities, packed
with immigrants, refugees, Gastarbeiter: a snowy
latitude suffused with tropical nostalgia.


We were a threesome. Coffee, suppers, TV,
Pequita at my computer—you’d asked me to teach her—
or sleeping on my sofa, one bad month
they moved you to night shift. Yet only that summer,
I’d worked in my window like a scholar
in a lamplit bay, the night filled with myriad noises,
like Roman Juvenal, to whose ears “came ever
the sounds of buildings collapsing.” Across, the two
tenement-faces, florid, all bucrania, meanders, dusky trails
of fire-escape bedding. And everything underlit
by the sinister, slow-stopping car lights of our street.

But now it was the dailiness of two
from another hemisphere. Through snow-fissures, winds fluting
on railings and building-flaws, Pilar in her low frame
paced with armfuls of laundry, washed
in the sink and hung to dry everywhere. The thousand
stratagems of those who simply must not spend;
and the tiny mother-decisions: though you preferred
periphery, housekeeping around her,
you’d make yourself interrupt her, to mop
behind your sweeping. And Pequita—I saw her wrap
you up on the sofa when you had flu, and bring you
orange juice, as they’d taught her in school, for she
loved you, she was the person who loved you—
I saw too, that of what I wanted the university
to be for me—a tiny model of the city
with its own rules and subsets: “Tell me
each day who I am”—you’d found your part
in Pequita; I followed the shape
of your day touching center as it funneled
into her hand and moving pencil-point.


For everything seemed natural to Pequita:
the Credo, her photocopied choir music
piled beside the tidy prie-dieu,
our neighborhood of syringe-filled gutters, drug-stoops and pimps,
her school’s turkey cutouts, metal detectors, backed-up toilets ...
Our human wilderness, half-urban, half-surreal
to her was a matter-of-fact Eden, like the picturesque ruins
and laughably rococo grottoes imagined

by the seicento as the Golden Age.
—And I, I thought her whole world, it comes back—
touching, as if her child’s paradisial will were there
for my affectionate recreation, like our still faithfully,
occasionally, typed-up and dispatched
protests from the Ramp Committee to the Mayor. Slight effects
of perspective, tiny human gestures
giving point to the city’s vast, ironic beauty.



At a moment when no one was thinking
about her, Pequita awoke. Perhaps
she enjoyed the solitude, Pilar asleep,
me asleep across the street. She got up
and stood on the cheap oval bathroom rug
before the sink. At seven the drills started,
deeper-toned than ever before (they woke me)—
and part of your ceiling fell in; a beam
splintered, plummeting straight to the oval rug—
The person screaming over the phone
was Pilar. I thought it must be really
all right, or she’d be crying not screaming,
but when I’d called 911 and run over, Pequita
was barely alive.

Then the hospital corridors,
me trying to close my winter coat
(the buttons were off) on my nightgown, you
on a bench, staring straight ahead.
When they said Pequita was
“gone,” you were utterly silent. I brought you
to my place (though our street was a tangle
of police lights and yellow tape), terrified
of your fixed inner focus, as if you had
a plan ... Next night I had Luz stay over,
I slept at her place; the third I was back. You,
thank God (I thought), were crying, and Luz
had set up the service. She propelled us downstairs
and to a tiny brick church I must often have passed
without seeing it, two blocks inland.

Egg-blue inside, it was, with a little green
and gilt altar, dark Stations on the walls,
and the statue of the Virgin of Guadeloupe
placed oddly below the altar stairs, so that Pilar,
after the death-mass, could kneel
before her, praying straight into her face,
while I on a kneeler buried mine in my hands.
What would the mother live for now, the hotel, me, or Luz,
already writing more endless mad letters? Yet only these
had from the City real answers: they’d brace the drill site
with vibration-absorbing piers; and they wanted
her and her friend Mrs. Citrin to know
“that no one else had been more than lightly injured.”


It was the end of winter, very dark. The building
managers, nervy, had moved you to the first floor
next door, till you found a new place (I knew
you weren’t looking). Each day I saw you
arrive from work, answer my call tersely,
then pull down your blinds. A shadow showed rarely,
flattened, shapeless; you lay on your sofa a lot.
“Thanks Anne—I’m better without company,” or
“please understand.” But often, later
in the evening, you’d come down the stairs
and turn inland. Then, one morning as I was passing
with early groceries, you were leaving the parish hall
in your black winter coat, heavily scarved,
and we paused. Approvingly, you tapped one glove
on my armload—you’d told me to cook more, dictated
recipes. I asked if this had been Pequita’s
choir-practice place; the sentence wavered,
but you replied with grim joy,
“She’s not practicing now.” It took me a minute.
Pequita was singing, this moment, in the Presence.

Still what you felt most (it was in your face)
was absence, absence, but from something bitter
in your eyes, that seemed small and round with the cold, I felt
your desire to exclude me and our old collusive ironies.
What were such luxuries now, ironies, Anglo friends;
and I thought you hated my mind
that remembered the brownpapered books,
the orange juice. I reached to touch your arm—to get past
this, but no, you had to get home:
“I fasted for communion”; and your eyes
swerved away. All my laughable,
my lovely, delusional studies, that I’d seen you
sort through for Pequita, were now an affront. And yet
I felt you moving behind your own mind, as if
with something held in reserve ...


But then you stopped answering the phone, went
less often to church. What I thought
was that you were angry (certainly I was). Perhaps
I thought you needed to talk, and I’d visit you
in Manhattan. So one morning in March,
in the black coat I’d got for the funeral, I walked east
from the forty-second street Lexington stop
to the three-story, fairy-lit jungle atrium
of the Tricontinental, and went to the seventh floor,
where you started. There was a cart in the hall,

a gleaming chrome maid’s cart half-projecting
from a bedroom. On its sides were rows
of glasses with lace sani-bonnets, gold-
stamped mini-soaps and deodorants. It moved out,
and you stood in the door with a sheet-load, looking fat
in a starchy pink uniform monogrammed
PILAR. When you saw me, you dropped the sheets
and in pain, pressed both palms to your cheeks,
and looked at me looking at you. When
I started sobbing, you took my shoulder and backed me
to the elevator. Pressed the button, stepped back,
and then, to my surprise, gave me a sudden hug
before pushing me in.


It had been always this half-connected
and tenuous, our friendship. What light on my own
isolation and need, that I hadn’t known.
But you actually called me, that week, to propose
our old joke, a bridge walk—maybe Saturday?
Your voice in my ears sounded wobbly
with tension, held-backness, so I got in first:
a friend had wound up her doctorate and left me
a minute Village studio starting June ... After that
I could listen, somber, as you poured out
your need to leave, Luz’s cousin, the possible
hotel job “right in LA.” You added “Anne,” and broke off.
“Well, I’ll tell you that later. Look, it may
snow on Saturday, OK?” “I don’t care.” And before

you hung up, I’d resigned you,
given you up. We’d part, on my side
in anger, on yours in oblivion. I met you
at the foot of the anchorage stair
(not the eastern approach, with its easy grade
near the ramp site). We climbed through the snow,
slowly, pausing at landings for different
views of our old alley world. Like a museum
of disused urban functions—we noted a bricked-over
backyard privy arch, and from higher, roof-huts, inkily distinct,
of old-style tenement dumbwaiters. The whole scene
thrown out of drawing by one of those giant
NYC cable-spools, charred at the bottom
where some homeless had tried to burn it.

The moist snow was sweeping
through the cable tower when we clambered
onto the path beneath it. As we moved, hunched slightly,
onto the mainspan, the whole city abruptly
whited-out to a monochrome geometry
of vertical and stooping gray lines. I thought
how Pequita would have loved it, and caught
her mother’s eye. We went on cautiously, soon
pausing to stamp our boots and look over the rail
at the traffic lanes below us. “Anne, what
I started to say before—this is it: I’m sorry
I didn’t talk to you—you understand?” “Of course,”
I lied aimlessly. But you, glancing sideways,
“But I’m really sorry ...” “No, really ...” You shook
your head slightly, then took my arm. “Okay then—
what’s this thing?” pointing a snowy boot
at a bolt as high as our knees, with a rusted-on octagonal
nut: “It’s just a bolt.” You tapped your glove on a strut—
“strut,” I provided. And you said, pompously, in Luz’ very
intonations (in what spirit had you
listened?)—“The tolerances just aren’t there.

Then, feeling easier, we started naming everything—
spikes, spun-wire vertical cables: English,
Spanish, and then I heard you speak Quiché (words once
for vines, for split trunks
over gorges?) But everything on the bridge was
shabby, neglected-looking; and you said
soberly: “If anyone was supposed
to look after this bridge, he’s forgot all about it.”
We didn’t link arms again, but started back, pausing
to throw a few loose snowballs
on the Manhattan traffic below us. We’d go
our separate ways—I’d go on delaying, skirting
around my burnt-out places; you’d go
where you could, forget what you could—
some Job-like relinquishment of inquiry
or thought; organisms tend to persist ... When
we got down to the massive base
of the anchorage, we managed a hug
that took in our past, at least: one embrace
of two black winter coats in the snow.
Anne Winters’s poems “The Mill Race” and “An Immigrant Woman” are from the book The Displaced of Capital © 2004 by The University of Chicago.
Source: The Displaced of Capital (The University of Chicago Press, 2004)
More Poems by Anne Winters