On the Way by Cyn Vargas
Curbside Splendor, 2015
The narrators of Cyn Vargas’s stories tell quiet, deceptively simple accounts of loss, family mysteries, and their earned understanding of their experiences. The stories in On the Way are simple in language and prose style and complex in their emotional freight. In some of the stories that these girl-narrators tell (the narrators are almost all girls), fathers and mothers disappear, a grandfather wanders out at night, and a mysterious man in a car lot turns out to be a relative. Each girl looks at uncomfortable truths straight on, takes action, and doesn’t flinch.
In two stories, girls travel to see the family homelands of El Salvador and Guatemala for the first time. The narrators’ names are different in each story but these young women feel related because of their manner of storytelling and their plucky insistence on learning adult secrets that are kept from them. They continually negotiate the space between their families’ worlds in El Salvador and Guatemala and the home they know in Chicago. The stories state their problems quickly, the pacing is stream-lined, and resolutions are earned. Here is the opening of “Guate,” the first story in the collection:
When I graduated eighth grade, Mom took me to Guatemala. It was the first time she’d been since she left at eighteen. She would often talk about it as a magical place with volcanoes that spurted lava, and black sand by the ocean. Mom thought I was finally old enough to enjoy the country. I didn’t know it would be the last time I would ever see my mother and hear her voice. I wish we had never gone.
Vargas delivers the story she promises with this opening — its sadness becomes the reader’s own. The clear-sighted narrator in “Guate” feels like kin to the narrator of “Myrna’s Dad,” who investigates on behalf of her younger cousin, Myrna. Here’s how the story sets out a question that must be answered:
My younger cousin Myrna came out of the womb asking questions. Why does a dog bark? Why is the sun hot? Where is my dad?
I was four years older than her, so I could tell her why dogs barked or why the sun was hot, but I had not answer to where her dad was. My Tia Concha never spoke about him.
By the end of the story, she has seen her cousin’s father is even if she may not fully understand why Tia Concha didn’t speak of him. For a young girl, the complexity of that can’t be fully answered.
These stories are spare, but there is just enough detail to involve our senses, as in the title story, in which the narrator’s grandmother lied to a bus conductor about her granddaughter’s age to get her free fare and other bus passengers confront the girl:
“Yeah, you’re not nine,” said the other. Her lips had no wrinkles, but her hands had big blue veins, like pipes beneath her skin.
I did what I usually do when I don’t know what to say to strangers. I acted like I didn’t understand.
I shook my head and raised my arms, my palms toward the sky like I was balancing an invisible glass in each one. It was easier than explaining Grandma didn’t want to dish out an extra buck to let me on the bus even though she had wads of cash in her bra. I had watched her take out a stack of bills, damp with sweat and smelling like the Walgreen’s perfume she wore, to pay for things like vitamins and pantyhose at stores.
These details tell us who is remembering the story and remaking it: the “big blue veins, like pipes beneath her skin,” are the kind of thing a child would notice, and the “stack of bills, damp with sweat and smelling like the Walgreen’s perfume she wore,” is exactly the sort of sense memory that impresses a child.
Near the end of the collection, two stories, “Next in Line” and “Blind Guy,” are from the perspectives of middle-aged men. It’s was a wise choice to include them in the book. In “Next in Line” a DMV worker falls in love with a woman taking a driving test, and in “Blind Guy” a man sets out to reveal a thief in a candy store. Like the balance of the stories, the reader is on sure footing from the first paragraphs. A story map is laid out, and even if we don’t know the path we will follow, the territory and the perspective are well defined. No person is just one thing, Vargas seems to say. We seem to be this, but then we learn more, and discover we are something else instead. Each narrator has a story they know to tell, but a second story bleeds through, a story that speaks of darkness, fear, compassion, or courage, a story that reveals itself in the act of telling.