(Editor’s Note: Next month we’re reading Jazz, Toni Morrison’s stunning novel of life in 1920s Harlem. Check out the reading/discussion schedule here. And now, let’s talk about José Skinner’s “Qué Será.” As usual, discuss this story in the comments section, and click the “Notify” box to stay current with the conversation. DD)
Okay, honesty time: I ran from “Qué Será.” For weeks after skimming it, I ran. I gleaned that it deals with heavy themes: unplanned (and partially-unwanted) pregnancy, starving children, abused animals, etc., and I ran. Much like I do when I see an impoverished child from another country on TV. Pathetic, really. This story, with its brutal honesty, forces us to face these issues.
As part of my moderation preparation (modprep, if you will), I prodded a mentor to read this piece and give me his insight. He happened to read another one that I posted on Facebook, and said he preferred the latter, “pretty” one. I was determined to delve into “Que Sera,” whether I personally found it “pretty” or not, and find the merit. Boy, did I.
Straightaway I was caught off guard by the title. It seems like a portent of “what will be,” and accomplishes this by leaving off the last portion of the saying. How is this significant?
The piece begins with an American couple, staying in an upper-class cabana in Mexico, who have recently taken a pregnancy test they purchased from the local farmacia (pharmacy). The story is primarily from Ricardo’s perspective, and it quickly becomes clear that Ricardo is not at a point in his life where he would welcome fatherhood. He’s a college dropout and student apartment go-to maintenance boy who desperately wants to finish school, in order to have a different occupation besides the “Mexi-jobs” of “pool boy” and “leaf blower.” We learn that he worked the “fields and orchards” in California, so we get a feel for his social class. His dad’s family came from Sonora, Mexico, but we aren’t given a clear picture of where Ricardo comes from. But it is clear that he is quite distant from Sonora, physically and culturally. How do you feel about Ricardo, a Mexican-American, using the term “Mexi-jobs”?
Melanie is a college senior who lives at the student apartment complex where Ricardo works. We are given very little information about her, except her responses to Ricardo’s voice and actions. We have no indication that Melanie is of Hispanic origin, except for the bit later in the piece about her reclining on the sand “like a Mayan Chac Mool.” This is not a clear indicator, however, of Hispanic descent. I propose, based on their seeming cultural differences and her Caucasian name, that she is not Hispanic. Do you feel that this contributes to the distance between these two characters? Is this important?
In the paragraph that begins “He was sure about this…” there’s a brief shift to Melanie’s viewpoint. This is important because it gives us an understanding, however minute, of what Melanie thinks of Ricardo. What I gather from her POV is that she feels Ricardo has not lived up to his facade, that “he didn’t know as much about things as he’d let on.” Despite this, her attitude throughout the piece is calm, much to Ricardo’s chagrin: “She had her laid-back, take-it-as-it-comes charms, but they were precisely the qualities you didn’t want in a wife. Not if you had ambition to become more than a Mexican pool boy and leaf blower. Qué será, será, my ass.” Why do you think Ricardo believes these qualities in a wife to be detrimental to ambition?
Ricardo is annoyed by Melanie’s seeming non-answer to the pregnancy situation, the “Que sera, sera.” During this initial portion of the story, the two engage in interesting dialogue concerning the phrase and its non-Spanish origin (for anyone interested, read this). Melanie says she wouldn’t know because she’s “never really been” to Mexico, citing James Taylor lyrics. Ricardo becomes confused about the Taylor lyrics, they discuss it, and this section of dialogue ends with Ricardo thinking that Melanie is a “cutie.” He seems easily distracted by women’s physical attributes. Do you think this portion of dialogue is important, or just a tongue-in-cheek aside?
The next several paragraphs are told in flashback form. We find out that Ricardo has had a number of flings with previous residents of the complex, that he helped express Melanie’s dogs’ anal glands, helped her hide them from management, and we get background information that dogs are treated “like vermin” in Mexico. Included in this section is an interesting Mexican folk tale, told to Ricardo by his grandmother. How is this folk tale important?
Then we’re shifted back to the present, and Ricardo tries to coerce Melanie to walk with him into the nearest village to eat and purchase another pregnancy test. She declines, blaming the heat. He says he’ll bring her a fish from a local shop/stall. He walks down to the village, and we’re given a large amount of detail concerning the squalid surroundings, including smell: crab carcass mixed with human feces. He meets a “degenerate” boy who asks if he needs a hotel and a pharmacist who irritates him by treating him like a “dumb gringo” (Caucasian) or “dumb pocho” (Mexican-American).
Having downed two refrescos (sugary drinks), Ricardo purchases the fish for Melanie and is heading back toward the cabana, when he sees a “clutch” of children in a ditch, sucking the sugar pulp straight from sugar canes. He engages in a brief ethical survey of whether or not he should buy a fish for the children, then decides that “There were just too many children in the world. Period. Children of parents without the means to care for them properly. That was just a fact, a fact that Melanie, fact-facing Melanie, should be able to understand.” Do you feel, as I do, that this is the ideological crux of the piece? Does it give us a clear picture of Ricardo’s outlook and personality?
He returns to the cabana with Melanie’s fish. After eating, she urinates on the second pregnancy test strip, and Ricardo is upset again when the test is positive. Hoping to persuade Melanie to reconsider continuing the pregnancy by showing her the sugar-sucking children and the deformed boy, he suggests that they stay in the village that night, saying that it’s “reality,” whereas the upper-class cabana on the beach is not. She reluctantly agrees, and they start on their “torrid” walk to the village.
Along the way, Ricardo makes witty, sometimes sarcastic comments concerning their situation. As they pass incomplete buildings: “’Lack of planning here…Lack of foresight. The money ran out for these projects, or whatever, and here they stand, abandoned. Oh, well. Qué será, será.’” His plans to show her the deplorable conditions and children don’t play out exactly as he hopes. Instead, the two come across several male dogs attempting to have intercourse with a smaller female in the plaza. The female dog gets free when the males begin fighting, and tries to lick water from a dry spigot. How is this scene important?
The couple follows the deformed boy to a cinder-block “hotel.” There is no dialogue for several paragraphs, but Ricardo speaks of the horrid conditions that most of the world lives in, the resources that American children use, and the lack of potable water in the world. They finally speak to each other when Melanie tries to leave their room in order to take water to the dogs. Ricardo urges her to stay and talk, saying it’s dangerous, but she wants to leave anyway. She asks him to go with her, but he refuses, upset that she doesn’t want to figure out a solution to their situation. Are these characters likeable? Do you care about their predicament?
After hearing what he thinks is her cry, Ricardo makes his way down to the plaza where there are men making offensive sexual comments to Melanie, and she is crying and holding the “little female.” We can only assume that this is the female dog from the plaza. What correlation, if any, can we draw between the “little female” and someone or something else in the story? Why was Melanie more concerned about the dog than the children? Or is that not the case?
I’d like to see lively debate, so let’s get this rolling!
Heather Nelson is Fiction Editor for Black Heart Magazine, collage-maker, film nerd, Raymond Carver lover, and moscato aficionado. Having penned poems since she was twelve, in recent years she has put on her big girl panties for short fiction and novels. She is writing her first one, which she describes as “Fight Club for soccer moms.” Dinner parties, Vicodin, a homeless intersexual prostitute. She hopes Chuck approves. Find her on Twitter @HNelsonAuthor, or check out her blog: Writingmusclememory.blogspot.com.