The fifth volume of our anthology published on October 1st and is now available for purchase. To celebrate its launch, we are interviewing each of the ten authors who appear in the collection. In “Communion,” Jonathan Nehls examines a Mexican immigrant’s journey. From an exploitative job in the meatpacking industry to prosperity in construction, Manolo has made a success of his life. His American trajectory, however, is rife with betrayal, both toward others and himself.
“Everyone knew how they got there—Mexicans in a meatpacking town—whether they said it or not, and their knowing was a threat.”
We always like to ask our authors what inspired the idea for your story and how long did it take to develop?
Quite a while ago, I’d say, five years at least, I wrote the first draft of “Communion” — a draft with a different title and characters, another story altogether. What’s shared and central to my original grasping, and what the story “Communion” later became, was the inciting incident, a man dumped in an alley, found alive, suffering from injuries consistent with a fall, who died soon after, anonymous and unmourned. A similar occurrence inspired the founding of a day laborer center in Denver. I volunteered at the center for a few months, assisting with wage theft clinics. While there I heard stories of exploitation, predatory employers who bilked tens of thousands of dollars from undocumented immigrants and the poor, targeting them for their vulnerability. In the face of scrutiny, the employers often dissolved the companies and avoided prosecution through loopholes in labor laws, and did the same all over again. My experience at the center, the story of the man in the alley, stuck with me.
The man’s body was found in Denver’s Central Platte River Valley, a place called the bottoms, a desolate wasteland of crumbling viaducts, teetering grain elevators and warehouses and factories, rail yards and vacant lots. This was in the 1980s. The man was presumed to be homeless, undocumented, his death attributed to a construction accident, no culprit named. In researching the story, I prowled news archives, pored over death notices, explored the seedy and saddening circumstance of the nameless and unclaimed dead. The records are sparse: age, height, weight, personal effects, tattoos, scars, missing teeth, their final resting place near dumpsters or stairwells or storm drains. Just unimaginable degradation. A man reduced to a body, a burden. A thing to be disposed. I think what shocked me about the story, was how little was done to cover it up. The apparent desperation of the man who’d dumped the body, and at the same time, the total disregard, as if no one would even bother to investigate. From this, I tried to imagine the circumstance where an otherwise good man would be forced to commit an unspeakable act. I asked myself, Who might have known the man who died? Who, at one time or another, might have found himself in the same position, and seen himself in the victim?
For readers who haven’t read the story, a contractor (Manolo) chooses not to help an undocumented worker who is fatally injured on a job because he can’t get help without risking his own deportation. The story tackles immigration, undocumented workers, and what happens when you sacrifice someone else’s well being for your own. What was the biggest challenge for you in writing this?
I’d say the research. I wanted to get things right. I got sidetracked a lot. In this and in other projects, I’ve researched the journey of immigrants from Mexico, how, especially in the 1980s, those who made the trip depended on someone they knew to guide them, and most likely would have passed through urban areas such as El Paso, Nogales, or San Diego. Whereas now, organized crime has taken a more prominent role, and increased border security has forced immigrants out into barren isolated corridors, where travel is far more dangerous. I spent quite a bit of time wading through the gore and pressures of work in the meatpacking industry, watching videos of meat dismembered and packaged from the kill floor to shipping, reading stories of workers’ struggles with chronic injury and the constant demands of the work. I also put a lot of time into researching Denver of the 1980s, stretches of which were grim, dilapidated, and abandoned. I think all of these elements contribute to Manolo’s decision to abandon the boy — looming deportation, witnessing fellow workers ground down and disposed, the poverty that surrounds him. He’d been worn down, calloused.
How is Manolo changed by his decisions, and in what way was his hand forced?
When Manolo arrives from Mexico he’s young, naive, but soon sees how things work, and recognizes the precariousness of his position. He catches on to the code of silence at the meatpacking plant, the implicit threat of stepping out of line, of injury, and the indifference of the company toward its workers, links in a chain, pitting them against one another, riding them till they’re spent. The risk of deportation hangs on him, always there, and limits him as a man, the man he wants to be. The very nature of his predicament compromises his range of action, a man living safely only in shadows. He becomes wary of people’s intentions, sees opportunists, exploiters. His slant relation to power, the coerciveness, has a cumulative effect, and hardens him in a way, though fails to strip him of compassion. When he leaves the boy to die, he seems removed from the action, as if nudged by something outside himself. But what he’s done gnaws at him. He can never quite convince himself of the fatalism he wants to believe in. He lives afterward with an intense, hidden shame that he can never reveal.
Talk to me about the ending of this story. Your piece jumps ahead from the inciting action ten years to an arts festival Manolo attends with his family. Without giving away the farm, I’m curious: what caused you to send Manolo here and what does your conclusion offer him in terms of closure.
During those ten years, Manolo prospers. He dedicates himself relentlessly to his work as if through toil he’ll find absolution. All the while, money accrues, he watches his family transform, become American, and all of this before he can recognize they’ve changed. At the arts festival, he finally stops, has a moment to reflect, but finds himself in a strange land. He feels foreign, estranged from his American family, from the opulence and excess of the festival, the overpriced, incomprehensible artwork, the absurd, self indulgent Americans with their tattoos and sandals and dogs. He and his family make their way to a tent where a man’s naked body is displayed, a body made from Jell-O. Behind the body, a performance artist dressed as a butcher stalks back and forth. The artist holds forth, a speech Manolo finds bizarre and disturbing. After a sort of communion service, the artist invites the crowd that’s gathered to partake in the body. As Manolo stands before the body, the distance he’s put between himself and his actions come to the fore. There’s a strange moment with the performance artist, who intimates a mysterious knowing. Manolo feels exposed. The betrayal of his friend, the boy, his country and ideals, seem to be on exhibit, and no one cares. I don’t know what this would suggest in terms of closure, but perhaps there’s some realization.
In what ways is this story similar to (or different from) your other writing? What are you working on now?
I tend to start with character. I find each work takes on the personality of the character, and their predicament. Though that’s not to say, as in “Communion,” I don’t sometimes start with an image, incident, or dilemma. I was once, on exiting a supermarket, approached by a three or four-year-old boy wielding a toy gun who took aim and unloaded a barrage of machine gun racket in my direction, meanwhile his father tried to rein him in, imploring the boy to only shoot at daddy — that became a story. I’m currently at work on a collection of stories that explores the performance of masculinity. By masculinity I mean the behaviors and attitudes that incline toward violence and cruelty, one-upmanship and humiliation, that encourage stupidity and erraticism and immaturity; the sort of spirit-killing that stifles any instinct to kindness and leads to walled-off, unreachable men. The stories follow wayward, but otherwise sensitive, men and boys as they struggle against or succumb to these influences.
I’m also at work on a novel that takes place in 2010 along the US Mexico border, during the waning days of the Minuteman Movement in Arizona and the height of violence in Ciudad Juárez.
What are some of your favorite stories?
These are some of the stories I find myself coming back to again and again: Robert Boswell’s “The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards,” Jean Thompson’s “Mercy,” Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Michael Cunningham’s “White Angel,” Junot Diaz’s “Ysrael,” Alice Munro’s “Miles City, Montana,” Carver’s “So Much Water So Close to Home,” James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” Isaac Babel’s “My First Goose,” and most anything by Flannery O’Connor.
Jonathan Nehls is a graduate of the Bilingual MFA Program at the University of Texas at El Paso. Originally from Denver, he lives in El Paso and teaches in El Paso and Las Cruces, New Mexico. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cimarron Review, Gulf Stream, The Ilanot Review, and New Haven Review.