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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  September 2010

Another story about New Mexico farmworkers, although set in the present day, Noreen Lehmann's tale brims with black humor and unexpected twists. But you may find yourself nodding that the idea behind "De Garza's Coffin" makes a lot of sense.

De Garza's Coffin

If there's got to be a wake for you, why not hold it while you're still around to enjoy the party?

By Noreen Lehmann

José Luis de Garza was a happy man. His lovely Lupe had given him four children who were now having babies of their own. Of course, three had moved to the big cities, Las Cruces and EI Paso, to find work, but they weren't that far away. His youngest, Umbaldo, still lived in San Miguel, New Mexico, and would take over the chile fields after him. For now, Umbaldo helped him part time and was the maintenance man at the local elementary school.

de garza's coffin

José Luis stopped working in his field for a moment and squinted up at the sky. He mopped the sweat off his brow with the red kerchief he wore under his straw cowboy hat. The position of the sun told him it was almost noon and he knew today was Thursday. For longer than he could remember, José Luis had been meeting his best friend, Paolo, for lunch at Chop's every Thursday. The restaurant and bar were located just a few miles south down Route 28 in the town of La Mesa. It started out as a family-owned place for locals to gather, but had recently been discovered by the tourists. He really didn't understand why. The building looked very run down and the inside was extremely plain. Of course, the cooking was very good!

He loaded the implements he had been using in the back of his dark green pickup truck and climbed in the cab. True, at 60 he wasn't as spry as he had been 20 years ago, but physical labor kept him in good shape. There was only one problem, which he intended to discuss with Paolo today over chile rellenos and a beer. Most days Lupe would prepare a lunch of soft tacos filled with leftovers for him to take to the fields, but he and Paolo started this tradition when they could afford it — maybe in the early 1990s, he wasn't sure.

If the economy keeps going in the direction it was heading, we may need to cut back to once a month, José mused as he guided the truck into an empty space in the dirt parking lot next to an old black pickup he knew was Paolo's. About 10 vehicles were there, most of them pickups or Harley Hogs. That shiny new top-of-the-line bike had to belong to a recently retired doctor or lawyer. Who else could shell out 20 grand? It was easy to spot the trucks belonging to the locals — they were the old, dusty ones, many with dents.

He had once overheard some gringos talking in the restaurant and one had stated, "You're not really a New Mexican until you own a pickup truck!" How true!

The same waitress who served them over the years had saved their regular table, and was talking with Paolo as he entered. After greeting them both, José sat and said, "The usual."

"So what else is new!" The woman laughed as she left to put in the order.

The two men chatted for a few moments about family matters, the weather and the crops. Paolo also grew chiles; his fields were farther south, between La Mesa and La Union.

"Amigo, I need to speak with you mano y mano." José stopped talking as the waitress returned with the two beers. After she left he continued, "I've had this problem for awhile. Three or four times a night I have to get up to pee, and the stream, well, it isn't steady, and sometimes I feel like 1 have to go, but I don't. Know what I mean?" By this time he was barely speaking above a whisper. Paolo leaned forward.

"Also, now you know I love Lupe, but I don't seem to want her as much any more, and when we do make love it's not as good."

The server brought the two plates, which gave Paolo time to think of an answer. "José," Paolo patted his friend's arm as he responded, "my wife's first cousin, Juan, had the same problems. He went to a doctor in Las Cruces who gave him some medicine and now he's much better. Men have a gland down there which can grow bigger as we get older and cause problems. But Juan was lucky. The doctor said in a few cases it can be more serious. I'll get his name, address and phone number and you make an appointment to see him."

"Gracias, amigo."

Six weeks later

"You're loco!" Paolo shouted.

The two men were having lunch again at Chop's. José Luis had gotten some bad news, but his friend didn't think it was that bad. Paolo tried again in a softer voice, since several of the other diners had turned to stare. "Look, I know the doctor said it's cancer," he continued. "But it's a type of cancer that is slow growing and radiation can work on it. Isn't that what he said?"

"Cancer's cancer," his friend stubbornly insisted. "If it doesn't kill me, how do I know the radiation won't?"

"What does Lupe think of your idea?"

"About the same as you, but she'll go along with it."

"Have you talked to the Padre?"

"Yes. He'll attend, but he won't say any prayers or give a blessing."

"Of course," Paolo said under his breath. "That one would never miss a good party."

"My mind is made up. You know how great wakes are. The cerveza, the tequila, and all the wonderful dishes the women prepare. The enchiladas, the menudo, the tamales...."

"Don't forget the caldillo," Paolo added, getting into the spirit.

José continued, "Plus all the nice things people say about the dead one, except he can't hear them! Well, I want to have my wake while I'm still alive!"

"Don't you think buying a coffin and lying in it is going a bit too far?" Paolo figured he'd give it one last shot, despite his momentary lapse over the green chile stew with beef.

"How else are people supposed to know it's a wake?"

José's friend shrugged and gave up. "OK, amigo, if that's what you want then that's what we'll do."

The wake

The day dawned sunny and warm, like most days in southern New Mexico this time of year. It was fall, José Luis' favorite season. The chiles were harvested but the pecans still hung on the trees. Lupe had been cooking for a few days, as had Paolo's wife, Eva, and some of the other women of the village. José rose early, as was his custom, and drove north through Mesilla to meet his oldest boy, Tito, at Sam's Club in Las Cruces to buy the liquor.

Afterwards, they went to Baca's Funeral Chapel to load the coffin he had already purchased into his pickup. They had to place it at an angle and tie it down. José figured if he went to Baca's first, the contents of his truck would cause a riot in the parking lot of Sam's. Father and son parted. Naturally, Tito and his family would be coming to the wake later that evening.

The rest of the day was spent setting up and carrying the food and drinks into the Parish Center. Initially, José had planned to have the wake in his home, but as word spread, more people wanted to attend. Padre Francisco made the place available for $30, much less than the Riverside Dance Hall had wanted.


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