• On Jose Skinner’s “Que Sera”

    Posted Posted by Heather Nelson in WBN News & Events     Comments 20 comments
    Jun
    19

    (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.

     

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    20 Comments to “On Jose Skinner’s “Que Sera””

    • I love the grandmother’s myth about why dogs sniff each other’s butts. Why is that important to the story? Because Ricardo is full of digressions, thinking about things as they relate to his own situation, his own problems. He seems to prefer his grandmother’s version of reality, but as he now knows, thanks to Melanie’s dogs, dogs smell each other because they want to know if it’s “that time of the month.” He wishes he had that ability, as he could’ve avoided his current situation with this special type of knowledge. Of course, that isn’t true: he’s a human being, who’s supposedly much smarter than a dog. He and Melanie have used condoms, except for the fact that “He acknowledged that he might not have pulled out in time once or twice before the trip when they ran out of rubbers.” He acts as if he is blameless in this affair, yet he’s the one who decided safe sex wasn’t high enough on his list of priorities to bother with. Would he have used his doggie skills any better than his human skills? I doubt it.

      But Ricardo is rather dog-like, despite himself. He is loyal to Melanie, despite being annoyed with her, going out to fetch her some food and drinks and a second pregnancy test. He comes to protect her at the end of the piece, despite his original decision to “Let her go encounter reality on her own.” He has been helping her hide her own dogs from the apartment’s management. There is some parallel with the dogs, I think, where Ricardo wants to suggest that it’s a “dog eat dog” world where only the strong survive, but even he is taken aback by the dogs fighting over the chance to fuck the “little female” that Melanie rescues at the end. He wants to be a realist, maybe even a cynic, but he doesn’t want to have to live that hard life, either. He, himself, has never really been to Mexico, and he is trying to prove that he knows how tough things are in the real world–as much to himself as to Melanie–though they are both leading pampered lives compared to most of the people in the world (as he references in his facts and figures). So what does that mean? Men are dogs? Ricardo wants to be the top dog? Dogs are a man’s best friend?

      • Laura sinks the three pointer!

        • Indeed! Great points, all around. I’m about to address them.

          • Like you say, Laura, Ricardo is definitely dog-like in the loyalty department. “Fetching” (your word, not Jose’s; but appropriate) her some fish, frantically pursuing her at the end when he thinks she might end up in some trouble (after taking a few minutes to decide if he gives a shit). He runs after her, falls, hurts himself, doesn’t care … he’s just blindly sprinting, trying to ensure her safety. (The writer uses “broke into a trot,” but we know better).

            How about some qualities decidedly un-dog-like? Ricardo wants out, right–or so he thinks–but he doesn’t have the balls to take active steps. So when Melanie takes the second pee test, with the same result, Ricardo’s first line is “I think we should stay in town tonight.” Why? Because in town, there are (seemingly) no rules, no laws. It’s dangerous. Especially, perhaps, for a young, attractive tourist.

            Heather, you write, “Hoping to persuade Melanie to reconsider continuing the pregnancy … he suggests that they stay in the village that night.” I think it might run deeper than that. My take is that Ricardo wants exactly what he gets at the end: Melanie walking into a potentially life-threatening situation. Now granted, it’s probably not all as dangerous as (the somewhat naive) Ricardo thinks it is. But that’s irrelevant. *He* thinks it’s life-threatening for her, which is all that matters. And in the end, Timmy’s fallen into the well and Lassie runs to save him.

            I’ve lost track of my point. Ricardo is both dog-like and human-like. Maybe he’s a werewolf.

            • Oh, sure. Ricardo pushing for them to stay in the village certainly runs deeper. As I suggest, he wants Melanie to see the “real” world and all its dangers. I mean, I guess it’s possible that he wanted her to be in actual danger, but that seems a tad off, to me. Ahhhh, unless you’re saying he wanted to be the hero figure. Which I could see. Funny, referencing Lassie. ;)

      • Right, exactly. In some ways, Ricardo seems like a “dog,” more intent on humping his way through the apartment complex, than actually bettering himself and his situation. But, he isn’t such a player that he wants Melanie to be unprotected and victimized in the village. He’s a gray character, much like every person in the real world.

        He does not strike me as unintelligent, due to specific dialogue like the Melanie/melanin bit, but he certainly is too young and inexperienced to really know anything about life. Most of his information seems to be secondhand. However, he has lived a bit, as we see with his anecdote about feces and working in the fields and orchards. I think you’re correct in that he is trying to convince himself that he knows what’s up as much as he is trying to convince Melanie. And, as we see with the shift in perspective toward the beginning, she is not fooled.

        I see a strong correlation, for sure, between the men in the plaza and the male dogs trying to have sex with the female dog. Which, by association, draws parallels to Melanie and the female dog. However, there is also a parallel between the female dog and the child that Melanie is “carrying.” In a sense, Melanie is cast as the epitome of Motherhood/a pseudo-Virgin Mary figure, and her act at the end is that of a Savior.

        • I think some people also feel that comparing humans to other animals is necessarily lowering the status of humans, which I don’t think is true at all. We’re just hairless apes, after all, aren’t we? So if we’re anything like dogs, hopefully we have all the best qualities of a dog. I think that’s part of the reason why humans like domesticated animals like dogs and cats: we can see ourselves in them, and we do our best to ease their suffering, if we aren’t totally horrible people.

          • We’re most certainly animals. Science proves it! I think we do a lot of ill by hierarchizing everything, with us at the top. That’s a major reason why we’re in this global predicament. And, it all boils down to ego. But I’ll stop there, because that’s a hot-button topic for me, and a bit of a digression. :)

    • I may be off base here, and even if I’m not it could be totally irrelevant. But is there any indication that this piece is set in the present day? I have scant evidence otherwise, outside of the fact that there’s no mention of anything modern, like cell phones, computers, etc.

      But to wit:

      1) How many people our age know who Doris Day is? “Doris Day invented that. The goody-goody actress?” Ricardo says early on in the story. Doris who? What is a “Doris?”

      2) James Taylor’s “Mexico” came out forty years ago. But its lyrics pop to Ricardo’s mind, and when he asks about the song Melanie responds immediately with the singer’s name, and later quotes some more lyrics. Maybe they’re just two young people in 2009 who like James Taylor. Or maybe this story is set back when James Taylor was a big name.

      3) “Pool boys were staples of porn fantasy.” They *were*, back when porno films had narratives. Which they no longer do.

      4) There’s a local newspaper. Meanwhile, in 2012, New Orleans is about to become the first (of what will soon be many) major city without a daily. Though for all we know this village’s paper is some kind of monthly circular, which are still plenty prominent. This is a weak point. But still a point.

      5) Oops. So, Bombay was renamed Mumbai in 1996. And Ricardo refers to it as Mumbai.

      6) Also, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was discovered in the late 90s.

      Well, so much for that, I guess. Now someone will reply to this and say, “There’s also that scene where Melanie pulls out her iPhone.”

      Interesting that Ricardo refers to it as the “Great Eastern Garbage Dump.” When you Google that phrase with quote marks around it, “Que Sera” is the only result that comes up.

      https://www.google.com/#hl=en&sclient=psy-ab&q=%22great+eastern+garbage+dump%22&fp=d7067ed79abe3ebc

      Good night.

      • Good try, Duhr! Is there even any indication that this analysis is set in present day? I mean, you just said iPhone, and those were invented in 2007… Oh wait. Crap. The date is clearly marked at the top of each comment. :P

        • I mean, I’m not saying that if a character reads a physical book instead of from a Kindle that it’s an indication the story isn’t set in the present day. But would I have noticed these (minor minor) things if there weren’t at least a modicum of sepia tone to some of the imagery here?

          I don’t know. Maybe.

    • Where is Mr. Skinner? HELP! We’re destroying your piece with our nonsense! :)

      • Nonsense! I mean, you’re not destroying it with nonsense. I hadn’t thought about a lot of these things, at least “consciously.” But now I can see that Ricardo puts himself forth as guide-dog, seeing-eye dog, then (fleetingly) throws her to the dogs (I think he really does think something awful might happen to her, since he’s built up in his mind what a sinister place the town is), then rescues her, Lassie-like.

        I guess it must be set in the present, or close to it, considering “Mumbai” and all. I think they’re calling it Great Pacific Garbage Patch now. I think I read it the way I have it in Ecotone (?) magazine.

        Those L.A. kids, they sure know their movies and pop culture. But everybody should know the treacly Doris Day, and the treacly James taylor, no?

        More shortly. Thanks for the great comments…

        • Doris Day is still alive (!) and lives in Cincy. Let’s go ask her how many college-aged kids stop her on the street.

          For some reason I thought she was much older than 88. Actually, I thought she was dead.

          Also, from Wikipedia: “Day released ‘My Heart’ in the United Kingdom on September 5, 2011, her first new album in nearly two decades.”

          I smell a listening party at WBN.

          • No one worth knowing lives in Cincinnati. I say this as someone who was forcibly relocated to Cincinnati during my final year of high school, and who escaped as soon thereafter as possible.

            But yes, I have heard of Doris Day. She’s of the Sandra Dee goody-goody school of girl singers that are best left to the dusty past. Besides, haven’t you kids ever seen “Heathers”?

    • It’s not letting me reply to your last comment, Heather. So here:

      “Oh, sure. Ricardo pushing for them to stay in the village certainly runs deeper. As I suggest, he wants Melanie to see the “real” world and all its dangers. I mean, I guess it’s possible that he wanted her to be in actual danger, but that seems a tad off, to me. Ahhhh, unless you’re saying he wanted to be the hero figure. Which I could see. Funny, referencing Lassie. ;)”

      I am in fact saying that the idea of Melanie being in actual danger is attractive to him on some level. If something happens to her at the hands of someone else, Ricardo gets out of this situation without being the bad guy. It would be a free pass for him.

    • If he’s initially attracted to her “que sera-ness,” it comes to frustrate him when it keeps her from seeing “reality,” and I think for that moment (when she goes off on her own) he actually does hope something bad’ll happen to her and he’ll be free of her, but then he comes to his senses…

    • Because many of the last comments were deleted from this post, for posterity I would like to again thank you, Mr. Skinner, for speaking with us about your piece! :)

      • Thanks for reading it, and good luck w/ your MFA application…

        • Thank you so much! Hopefully, the submissions committee won’t laugh hysterically when they get to my writing sample. :)

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