2019 Short Story Contest Winner
Updated: Nov 30, 2021
by A. J. Rodriguez
Tío Albert’s hand on my shoulder wakes me from the haze of the nap I’d fallen into. My ass is parked on a stack of empty fruit cases I nabbed from the Inn’s kitchen for one of the mandatory smoke breaks I need to put up with this pinche bell hoppin’, errand runnin’, less than livin’ wage job.
Oye, Güero! What the fuck!
Whatchu need uncle?
Not here. I’m not your uncle here. Comprendes?
His fat, black-suited frame blocks out the sun. Tío’s the least gordo man in our familia, but still has a gut packed full of abuelita’s sentimental over nourishment. I see him scowlin’ and makin’ his coffee-cream cheeks ruddy. With his polished loafers, he swipes the smolderin’ cigarette butts just inches away from my own ash dusted shoes. He pulls out a handkerchief from his ass pocket and wipes the sweat off his bald head. It’s a runnin’ joke that all the Chavez men lose hair as their stomachs get bigger. My bro’s the only flaco, but we all know it’s just ‘cus of his wackass, meth-head lifestyle. I’m only twenty-one years old, but already feel my hair thinnin’, which pops attributes to daytime pendejo nappin’. I stretch my arms, and the kinks of boredom tighten my muscles.
We need to redecorate the lobby for the summer season. Mr. Rosario wants authentic
New Mexican bullshit hangin’ ‘round the lobby.
I yawn and ask what kinda bullshit.
Tío Albert pushes his damp handkerchief back in his pocket.
Like chile ristras n’ shit. Like howlin’ coyotes, like cactus—serape curtain shit.
It ain’t even chile roastin’ season though.
Then get imitation ones in town, wey.
You mean that plastic shit?
Mr. Rosario’s from Texas. He won’t know the difference.
Can’t you send Rudy?
Tío Albert straightens and I can see a hot n’ fresh veneer of sweat on his baldness.
This shit is what you’re on the payroll for Güero. Don’t forget who saved your ass from bein’ a disappointment to your moms and pops.
My mind blanks on a comeback. The relationship between men in our family centers on a constant tug-of-war of rightness. This summer, in the gutter of my own anxiety n’ aimless-ass rage, all I been doin’ is tryin’ to stand my ground and pull the rope away from the uncle who hooked me up with this puto job. Tío Albert hasn’t decided whether to be proud at my attempts to be a man or to yank the rope so far back that I fall flat on my face.
Go to that marketplace ‘round the outside of town and see what they have there.
You mean Mercado María off 14?
Tío Albert’s already walkin’ back into the buildin’. Before steppin’ through the shady doorway into the kitchen he turns back towards me.
Rapido Güero. No excuse for your ass to miss more work.
Roger that bitch-ass jefe.
What was that you fucken’ lobby boy?
Right away boss.
I reach for the cigarette pack from my black pants and already feel its flatness. I open it y no hay nada. A la chingada. I throw the pack to the ground, spit on the gravel, and untuck the sandy-tan collared shirt. I want the mountain air to collect under the folds of fabric and breathe through my body. I like the color of the shirt even though it’s a size too small and articulates the contours of my developin’ gut. Its shade matches the fake-ass adobe brown plaster that covers every inch of wall at the Inn where I work. It’s a choice background to camouflage lobby boys ‘cus they won’t distract guests with their hustle n’ bustle. That camouflage helps me evade guests, my slave drivin’ uncle, and other employees like the little old cleanin’ lady that calls me m’ijo and always asks me to unclog the gabacho burrito shits from the broke-ass toilets that suffer from the anemic flow of New Mexico’s water supply.
The Inn sits on a hilly spot ‘round the perimeter of town, at a point where you can get a painter’s shot of the landscape. For that reason, the place gets an assload of traffic, and it makes my life and thoughts and body numb as I haul bags from the authentic pueblo-style lobby to the authentic pueblo-style rooms tricked out with authentic pueblo-style AC n’ forty inch plasmas. The Inn, like most places in Santa Fe, packs itself with pink urbanites that have enough cash to escape the public meltdown they had in whatever grey-ass city they came from.
Don’t get me wrong, Santa Fe is a historical town, but its history got turned into a goddamn ornament as more and more hotels sprang up ‘round the old Spanish-Católico style government buildings. The details of its people n’ past got smoothed out and put into shop windows for people to gawk at with sunburnt faces. The Inn I work at is one of the most historical buildings from that process, and it’s my job as lobby boy to momentarily rid people of their possessions so they are free to observe the plastic product of history.
Santa Fe is our capital—built on Pueblo land—abused by the Spanish—frontier outpost for independent México—conquered by king James Polk and the big dick de Los Estados Unidos. My family mixes itself into all these histories ‘cus we been here from the beginnin’.
Spanish conquistadors raped my Pueblo ancestors who then gave birth to the first mestizo babies. After some time, those mestizo babies started makin’ newer babies with all sorts of folk. Those babies got called so many things and no one knew how to get them straight, so they started sortin’ them by color. But people kept makin’ babies with no regard for skin. It took a while for people to give up and start callin’ these newest babies New Mexican. That’s the way my pops and my uncles and my brother talk ‘bout our history. We’re a product of everybody fucken’ everybody. They think bloodlines never thicken—that they only thin through time.
But Dawn, the girl I’m in love with, has her own way of talkin’ ‘bout our narrative. She knows all the players involved, she’s a history major on a big ol’ scholarship and can shit out the names of all the people that shaped our past better than anyone I’ve ever known. She likes to think all those mestizo babies were born outta some sorta love. For Dawn, it ain’t so much ‘bout power, but ‘bout madres y padres and a collective family. She thinks that first New Mexican baby was conceived from two people of the desert n’ mountains who only spoke to each other in love. I’m not sure how I feel ‘bout all that. I’m still uncomfortable in my own skin. I’m still tryin’ to come up with an answer of why I’m in love with Dawn.
The Mercado María, where I’m drivin’ off to with all this shit swirlin’ ‘round in my head, falls under the same sorta timeline as everythin’ else in this tierra chingada. It originally consisted of ramshackle tents that farmers n’ cooks brought together in an empty n’ cracked parkin’ lot. They did this every other weekend to sell their fresh exotic flavors to gabachos hungry for somethin’ culturally “genuine” to validate their presence inna place that ain’t their own. It got so goddamn popular over the years that the vendors would run outta product within an hour. I remember goin’ as a child and almost passin’ out from the sensory shockwave that rippled through my body. It was dizzyin’ tryin’ to take in the rainbow of faces and aromas and commotion. I remember losin’ myself in the cacophony of norteño music that bled through static speakers of pickup trucks blastin’ 105.9, La Tri-Color radio station. The energy from that day left me with my first taste of home cooked sabor Nuevo Mexicano.
But a couple years ago, some development company took advantage of Mercado María’s popularity and bought the dusty parkin’ lot property it sat on. They tore away the fractured pavement and brought this new “marketplace” into the 21st century, makin’ sure they
“maintained the integrity of its traditional New Mexican charm.” All I know is that the archway leadin’ to the new marketplace reads “Bienvenidos al Mercado de Maria,” and that there’s an accent mark missin’ over the “I” in María.
To get to the Mercado María you have to drive by the desolate lot of an empty and incomplete car dealership belongin’ to local celebrity Joe Buffalo. The dealership was a failed attempt to expand his car sales empire into Santa Fe. Story goes that Buffalo lost a fight with the city council who didn’t want him to come in n’ fuck up the local enchantment they worked so hard to create. It didn’t stop Joe from beginnin’ construction on his new colony, but the city slapped his ass with some citation that caused all construction to stop. Nobody’s bothered to clean it all up or hide it away. All that’s left is a laundry line of faded confetti flags that run from powerless lampposts and a fence with barb wire snakin’ ‘round its borders.
Now after toda esa mierda, Joe Buffalo’s sole claim to fame comes from his prolific-ashell advertisin’. I pass by ten pinche billboards for his car dealership on the drive from our place off University Boulevard to the Inn at Santa Fe. When I was younger, there only used to be one.
It stood off of I-25 and it was a big deal when it came up ‘cus it was the tallest structure in Albuquerque at the time. My pops said that pinche billboard caused the First City Bank to add six floors to their thirty-story building so that it could stand taller than Joe. Pops also said this battle for height supremacy prompted the bank to deny him a loan for a car he planned to buy from Joe’s dealership.
Growin’ up, I was too small to see Joe’s face on that pinche billboard from my place in the backseat of pop’s old car. In my mind, Mr. Buffalo sat at a divine level. For all I knew, this man could move mountains—or at least build them. But by the time I turned old enough to see his face, I’d already come to the realization that God may or may not be real, so seein’ his fat cheeks and ten-gallon hat came to me as no less of a disappointment than the fact that Santa Claus was neither real nor Hispanic. I did, however, come to appreciate the car my father managed to buy from Joe well after the bank fucked him. He passed that car on to me when I turned sixteen—when my huevos supposedly dropped—when I needed somethin’ to prove I had any huevos in the first place. Pops got his first car at twenty-one, but by then he’d been called a joto so many times, and he told me the reason for that was ‘cus he didn’t have anythin’ to call his own. He told me sixteen was the age to start provin’ yourself, as a man n’ all—como un hombre real. At twenty-one, I don’t think I’ve started provin’ jack-shit. I think pops knows that. At least I haven’t been called a joto too many times.
I’m sittin’ in the front seat of that car pops got from Mr. Buffalo as I drive by the empty car cemetery and the final billboard that marks the end of his reign—before ‘rez land takes over. I look at the odometer, then Joe’s face, then the bolo tie and beige jacket ‘round his fluffy shoulders. I look at the pink puff of flesh n’ the slick-backed, negative space of hair, which drapes his forehead n’ curves ‘round his cheeks to converge inna long ponytail that hides behind his chin of a neck. That jet-black ponytail hasn’t faded or receded through a decade’s worth of billboards, even though the wallpaper started to peel years ago. Now the color of his skin looks all washed out. There’s a runnin’ joke that Joe has people repaint his hair as negro as possible ‘cus it’s the only concrete indicator of his proclaimed Pueblo Indian heritage. I guess there’s the name, but the worst kept secret in town is that Buffalo ain’t his real last name. Joe’s real last name is Smith or Johnson or somethin’ along those white lines. What he didn’t know is that names like Smith or Johnson are just as Indian as Buffalo. Shit, he might be the only buffalo left in the whole Southwest.
Pullin’ into the even n’ painted parkin’ lot of the Mercado feels like walkin’ into a newly furnished memorial for some long-lost mythical ruins. One of the additions to the place is a gift shop and information center. To get to it, I pass through the main plaza lined with stands neatly filled with foreign frutas y verduras. Behind the strawberries, and grapes, and peaches, and avocados, and hot peppers sit silent venders who watch me along with what little tourists roam the shade of retractable awnins’. Their eyes seem focused, but on somethin’ that ain’t there in front of ‘em.
The lady at the counter of the gift store gives me a bright, hospitable smile and asks what she can help me with, but I stand still, caught off guard by the cookie-cutter transformation of a space that I remembered as wild. Her name tag reads “Barbara” and her unblemished picketfence skin looks as if it was painted on daily.
I’m looking for some ristras, you know the chile— Oh, I love ristras! They remind me of spicy Christmas trees.
Do you have any? I’m fine with ornamental ones.
Ornamental? You mean for decoration?
Yeah, something like that.
Oh, I’m so sorry sweetie! We won’t have anything like that for another couple weeks.
“Barbara” cocks her head to the side as she delivers this mild disappointment n’ commands her ruby cheeks to slump into a somehow sanguine lookin’-ass pout.
I’m afraid so honey.
She clasps her hands in front of her and apologizes once more with a confined smile. She tells me to come again, and I march outta the shop mutterin’ gracias puta. Outside, two barefoot boys laugh as they try to chase down a dog with an avocado in its mouth. Not far away stands a distraught lookin’ white woman with several squished fruits lyin’ at her feet. Next to her, a mocha-skinned man inna vaquero hat positions himself at the corner of the broken stand tryin’ to keep others from fallin’ out. He yells at the boys for help, and they drift back towards him with their heads down n’ smiles gone. I snicker as I get into the car and watch the dog run off into the distance. I see him look back for his pursuers and notice the avocado is no longer clutched in his mouth.
Not too long after the failure to launch his Santa Fe dealership branch, Joe applied for Pueblo membership, but failed at that también. Word on the street says he’s applyin’ again. Folks say he got some new proof that legitimizes his claim to a real good blood quantum. Some say the Santa Ana Pueblo will take him on account of his supposed cash, but others say they’ll deny him again. I think he ain’t got shit to prove that one of his great-granddaddies signed some fed’s puto document sayin’ he could be a legalized savage. If it weren’t for that pinche ponytail I don’t think anyone would believe his ass. I mean sure you can be white and be Indian—that’s just the way history’s made it—but Joe’s the type of redneck peludo that would offend you if he called himself anythin’ else other than what he is: just another fatass gabacho sittin’ high n’ pretty up on a billboard. Either way, that ponytail allowed for good business with folks darker than him. But in reality, people don’t care ‘bout hair and color and blood—they just want to own somethin’.
The only person I know that cares is Dawn. I tell her I hate that she cares so much—‘bout Joe n’ his ponytail—‘bout my dad n’ his car—‘bout me y mis huevos. She always stares into me with a look that eviscerates every molecule of my bullshit and tells me I care more ‘bout life than she ever could. I never know how to respond with words, so I just cup her cheek while she rubs her glowin’, sun-bronzed skin into my palm.
I do know one reason that Dawn cares so much revolves ‘round her own history with her father—or the lack thereof. She comes from a single (white) mamacita household—where that (white) mamacita got knocked up at sixteen by some (brown) sucio. That (brown) sucio skipped town right after he learned that (white) mamacita was pregnant. Dawn never knew that (brown) sucio and was never told what he looked like by that (white) mamacita. All her moms told her ass was that her daddy was an Indian. And ‘cus of that—before she could see his face—Dawn thought the deity of Joe Buffalo was her papa. She always thought the ghost of her father existed in some higher place. As a child, the highest place she knew of—that we all knew of—was Joe’s billboard. She thought way up on that perch looked like the best place for her pops to have run off to.
But at some point, Dawn got told somethin’ most of us have to learn when we get a little bit taller. She got told there must be a reason why she was a little bit tanner than her mother.
‘Round the time she learned that, she’d grown tall enough to see Joe’s pale face on that
billboard. The heavens she’d built crumbled all over her. She told me she cut her hair to a boy’s length durin’ that period of time.
Dawn’s onyx hair now shrouds her caramel neck like smoothed out vines on a willow tree. Except, I ain’t ever seen a tree like that—save in like paintins n’ shit. What I have seen is Dawn’s hair swirl all ‘round her face on those days when the air feels like a hot thirsty breath, when we would drive together in my brother’s whip. I used to take his car without him knowin’
‘cus he was too busy bein’ all strung-out by the shit he robbed from the pharmacy at the Presbyterian hospital. He was so fucken’ gone I could invade his life and take whatever, whenever I pleased. I wanted his car ‘cus it had no top and when I would drive it, I could feel how the desert breeze was everywhere.
Durin’ those drives with Dawn, I imagined the fire she felt for things unleashed itself into that air. She’d let her head lean back to face the sky n’ all the things she dreamed were up there. I’ll never forget the view of her closed eyes, her curled lips, y la sonrisa brillante etched through her polished cheekbones. I’d like to think I had somethin’ to do with that boundless smile.
Dawn n’ I used to take those drives on the same roads I’m burnin’ through on my drive back to work. The Mercado María sits on the very edge of Santa Fe County, which borders the bareness of Pueblo reservations that lie above the northern crest of the Sandias—just before all the bougie hippie bullshit begins. In all that space devoid of time, you can only focus on the land, which is a skeleton this time of year. It’s been a scorchin’ summer—so hot that a fire lashed out a couple months ago n’ terrorized the mountains ‘round the city. I watched it all with Dawn from the porch of our apartment complex. We stood with our hands grippin’ one another as the flames formed a violent horizon over the closest thing Albuquerque has to a skyline. I couldn’t help but focus on the way the distant light danced in the black oblivion of Dawn’s eyes. Her eyes are both a mirror and a telescope—two piercin’ things that pull you so close to her heart that you feel like you’re a floatin’ astronaut lookin’ from space at the face of the whole goddamn earth. After the fire left the mountains bald n’ smokey, Dawn turned to me and said she thought it was a beautiful and sad thing. We made love like that fire and I thought to myself:
Yes, yes you are.
Now on the drive back to the Inn, the juniper and piñón trees still look like burnt match stubs, which leave the desert yearnin’ for whatever patches of color it once had. This place has no name—save for the occasional strip of huddled buildings that’s one drought away from a fucken’ ghost town. There’s also the Indian names, which are everywhere. Dawn taught me, on one of those drives in my brother’s car, that the world lives in names. When you speak a name of a place you speak with your ancestors’ lengua. They are there with you, they are sayin’ what you are sayin’, and you all speak without time. I asked Dawn if she speaks with her pops’ or moms’ lengua. She looked at me rather plainly and said neither. When I asked whose lengua she’d been usin’ her whole life she said it was the lengua of all her mothers and all her fathers. I rolled my eyes at that, called it a load of shit, and shifted myself away from her so she couldn’t see my forced projection of boredom. Her eyes seared through my body like they always do, and she smiled.
You speak with all of their tongues too, you know.
She’d said this while runnin’ her fingers along the back of my head, grazin’ my hair like wind through pine needles.
Do I only speak them when I’m with you?
That’s up for you to decide.
She grabbed my hand off the wheel n’ kissed it. Shiftin’ myself again, I let my other hand take control and let her hold the one she’d kissed in her lap. I smirked a little, which she knew meant I was in love.
Oye, can you even speak any of the Pueblos languages, or Navajo, or Hopi, or whatever you are?
I don’t know what I am. You know that.
I think you do know.
I can feel it but can’t put a name to it. A white name at least.
She chuckled a little and I felt goosebumps along my arm as I felt her tummy move.
Can’t it be a Spanish name?
It’s always the same to me. Always something one-dimensional. Always skin deep.
I like your skin.
Sure you do.
I don’t speak Spanish.
Sometimes I feel like I don’t neither.
Focus on driving. This wind is too loud. I can’t hear you anyway.
That drive was before the fire—before I started workin’ in Santa Fe—before she started volunteerin’ with the Santa Ana reservation to help with the overwhelmin’ tribal applications. The Santa Ana are one of the more successful tribes in the Pueblo nation given their bigass casino. Every vato who thinks they’ve got a drop of sangre Indio wants a piece of that ass. I don’t know why gabachos like Joe Buffalo wanted in. I think it has to do with ownin’ more things.
I feel the sweat in the air as I walk back into the Inn. On my way to the lobby, I avoid most everythin’ and everyone by not liftin’ my eyes from the ground. I frown and concentrate on the concrete surface of the kitchen and count the bone white n’ turquoise tiles on the plaza floor. I focus on the drip of the fountain at the center of that open-air room. I want to block out anyone callin’ my name.
Órale pues, where my ristras at Güero?
Tío Albert stands at the entrance to the lobby, hands on hips, and lookin’ pissed the fuck
Mercado didn’t have ‘em, so I came back.
You came back with nothin’.
You asked me to go see what the Mercado had, and they didn’t have shit, so I came back.
What’s the big deal?
Cool it smartass, right now you ain’t at the bigshot University.
What’s that got to do with anythin’?
It means you’re here and you got responsibilities. It means you have to be on time. It means you have to do what I say. It means you can’t make your own rules. It means you have to learn some respect. It means stop actin’ like you don’t fucken’ know better. No more draggin’ your ass in n’ out of here whenever you want like you own the place. You don’t Güero. You’re just the lobby boy. My lobby boy ¿Entiendes cabrón?
As he said the word boy his lips imploded in slow motion, gatherin’ saliva as he formed the b. On the oy he unleashed a steamy shot of breath, which hit me like a blow dryer.
Go get yourself a mint uncle, and I’ll get to bein’ your pinche lobby boy.
With that I turn away from him and put on the fakest, most teeth clenchin’ smile as I greet a wheezin’ gabacho family waddlin’ into the lobby. I’m taller than all of them so I bend my knees a little as I ask them if they’re checking in. The father nods.
The mother beams at the exotic word. The father’s eyebrow twitches as if he didn’t expect this pale kid to talk like that. The two little turds accompanyin’ them don’t look up from the screens at their fingertips. I gesture to the colored pile of L.L. Bean sacks packed in the back of a minivan. It’s parked outside the lobby’s open door.
Would you all like some help with your bags?
The father sighs and squints at my nametag, which has my full name on it. He looks at the car, the pile, and then at his kids who seem so far off. He looks back at me.
No, thank you.
I clap my palms together gently and smile.
Okay great. Let me know if you need anything else, señor.
I pivot away from their faces as fast as I can only to see Tío Albert glarin’ at me. He’s got his arms crossed and he nods back at the family. I shrug. He points a finger at me and then at the father behind me to emphasize that I wasn’t doin’ my job. I lock eyes with my uncle. He’s leanin’ his chin up at me like he’s back on the block with my pops actin’ like one of them OG Burqueño cholos. He and I both know he’s racked up more street cred than I could ever grab inna lifetime.
I’ve never been that good at mad-doggin’ anyone. At an early age, Tío Albert asserted himself as the best in our family at struttin’ his macho vato shit. Pops says that’s ‘cus he’s the youngest and wanted to make sure no one called him a pussy-ass baby growin’ up. He’s got scars on his knuckles from all the times he punched glass to show people how angry he could get. It took him awhile to get over his mean streak and focus on somethin’ other than bein’ the toughest esé en el ‘varrio. Pops said Albert straightened his act out after he learned the baby mama, he’d run away from died as an unanticipated causality in some South Valley shootout. Apparently, the baby mama was walkin’ back home from work to surprise her daughter with a birthday present. After her death, child services wouldn’t let Tío Albert take care of his daughter ‘cus she’d never known him—plus he had no place of his own and no stable trabajo. I guess that motivated him enough to get shit straight n’ work his way up to where he is now. He still doesn’t have his daughter. Some lovin’ gabacho family from Tucson adopted her. I hear she’s out east studyin’ psychology at an ee-vee league school.
Tío Albert was ‘round my age when all that shit hit him. I think he channeled the rage of that loss into work. He turned that esé, “I ain’t takin’ no shit from no one, foo,” attitude into a means of dominatin’ his career—to even get a career in the first place. I’m starin’ into the face of that attitude now. I think ‘bout Tío Albert’s daughter, the prima I’ve never met, and decide that I’ll let him have this one. I turn to face the family again. They’re gathered ‘round the van, and the bags haven’t moved. The father has his hands on his hips, releasin’ them at points to shake them wildly at one of his kids. It’s a boy and he’s lookin’ down into the ground with his plump hands tenuously clasped behind his back. The other kid is a girl who’s wrapped up in her mom’s arms. She’s still keepin’ her gaze locked on her screen, lookin’ uninterested in the situation as if it all was a tiresome n’ repetitive occurrence. I run over to them.
Excuse me señor. I don’t mean to bother you again, but are you sure you don’t need any assistance with your luggage? I can take it off your hands so you…
The father hasn’t turned to look at me. He’s still bearin’ down on his son. I can see through the scrunched-up fat on the kid's face that he’s holdin’ back tears.
…So you can get settled in.
The father doesn’t move, and the only sound comes from the snifflin’ of his son. The mother clears her throat sheepishly. Thank you dear, but I think—
The man finally looks up to squint at me. The sweat on the pudge of his face is startin’ to wash away the creamy film of heavily lathered sunscreen. I can see the veins on his forehead poppin’ underneath his salmon flesh.
We’re all set. Thanks.
Well it’s my boss’s policy here that I’m supposed to relieve all guests of their luggage upon arrival.
Tell your boss you get to relax on this one.
Hey man, as much as I’d like that, I still have a job I needa do.
Marv just let the nice young man—
A pause hits the air. I notice the boy look up from the ground to scowl at his father, but as the father turns down to meet his son’s look, the boy just jiggles his head back to a bow.
My son here needs to stop pouting about helping his family.
The boy coughs through his nose.
And for Pete’s sake stop crying!
His son runs the back of his hand ‘cross his face to wipe away any evidence.
And what did I tell you about eye contact, mister?
The boy starts to mumble an answer, but a hiccup from chokin’ on unreleased tears cuts him short.
Speak up son!
Look, sir, I can grab the bags. Really, it ain’t no—isn’t a—problem. You guys are on vacation and—
Now you’re wasting this young man’s time!
Really, I mean you—
Marv, we— Sharon, he—
Man, fuck this shit.
Someone gasped as those words left my mouth at a higher volume than intended, but I’m already reachin’ for the bag at the top of the pile. It’s pink with a stitched black monogram. All over its surface are stickers of glitterin’ rainbows and cartoonish stamps with dates underneath them. Above the monogram there’s four stick-figure people inna line, descendin’ in height from left to right. I notice there’s the same drawin’ on every single bag. On the pink one I notice the tallest figure—the one on the left—has been scribbled over in black marker.
Hey don’t touch that! It’s mine.
The voice is the girl’s. These are her first words to me.
Let it go!
Her high pitch command seethes through my ears in an unexpected n’ authoritative wave, but it doesn’t stop me from rippin’ the bag out the trunk. I’m swingin’ it through the air, and I hear the patter of her feet comin’ towards me. I feel the strap of the bag slippin’ through my fingers. I don’t think I meant to let it go. I wasn’t holdin’ on hard enough neither. The thunder of the impact silences everythin’. I don’t even hear her fall back onto the ground. The wheel at the end of the bag had caught her ‘cross the left eye. The silence comin’ from her, from her family, from the thinness of the mountain air, makes the red pourin’ outta her brow brighter than it should be. We’re all waitin’ on her. She looks ‘round at each of us with her good eye, the other already startin’ to swell. I think she’s processin’ how she should react to the pain—how she should show her family the hurt. It begins with her quiverin’ lip, then her body starts to vibrate, and finally, after seconds that last longer than time itself, her scream rockets out into the Santa
The mother runs over to Mary and embraces her with the infinite compassion of a parent tryin’ to heal a broken child. With her mom’s arms swallowin’ her, Mary’s started to put everythin’ she can into lettin’ the whole goddamn universe know what we’ve done to her. Her brother joins her inna chorus of wails.
Now look what you’ve done.
But the father’s not talkin’ to me. He’s still scoldin’ his son.
Tío Albert’s stampedin’ over to us, and I can see the restraint in his arm as he unclenches his fist. He pushes past me, leanin’ his shoulder into my back, lettin’ me know how much he wants to whoop my ass.
What happened here, sir?
My daughter walked in the way of your lobby boy while he unloaded my van.
Tío Albert raises an eyebrow at the father—contempt growin’ in his face. Whether it’s for the gabacho guest or me I can’t tell.
Güero, did you hit her?
Mary howls and the pierce of her voice slaps my mouth shut. The father glares at the mother strokin’ his daughter’s hair. She meets his gaze, and the look in her eye screams louder than her daughter’s sobs. The father keeps his jaw fastened.
Güero, did you hit her?
The bag slipped outta my hand. I—
Did. You. Hit. Her?
I can’t answer him. The kids’ cryin’—the mother’s stare—the father and his words. I don’t want to answer my uncle. He scoffs n’ waves me away.
Go get someone that can help. You’re done here Güero.
And I’m relieved he let me run. By now some of the other employees had arrived at the scene. Among them is the little old cleanin’ lady—the one that calls me m’ijo. She has her hands ‘round Mary’s face while the mother rubs her daughter’s shoulders. One of her knotted hands palms the girl’s right cheek while the other dabs her wound with a damp cloth. Her skin is the color of earthy terracotta clay, and it radiates with the warmth of dry beach sand. I see her lips move inna cooin’ motion ‘round the girl’s ears. She’s singin’ somethin’ soft to her. I can’t hear it through the growin’ buzz in the lobby.
As I walk away, I feel the heat of someone’s eyes followin’ me. Back in the parkin’ lot, the sky is darkenin’ with grey clouds comin’ from the horizon. I’ve made up my mind that I’m leavin’ without really thinkin’ ‘bout why it’d be better to stay. The only thought swimmin’ in my head is how the blood of Mary’s cut had spilled everywhere: onto the ground, onto her mother’s skirt, onto the tanned leather of the little old cleanin’ lady’s hands. I want that to be the last memory I have of the Inn—of Santa Fe. I hear the poundin’ tempo of a pair of feet on the gravel.
Tío Albert had stormed after me. He’s standin’ in front of my father’s car, blockin’ my escape.
Oye, you wanna tell me what the fuck happened in there?
There’s nothin’ to tell uncle. I was takin’ their luggage and the kid got in the way.
I just called an ambulance. She’s gonna need a lot of stitches.
I didn’t give her shit.
Do I need to call the cops too?
Do whatever. I’m outta here, wey.
He sizes me up and leans his chin back the way he did before. I take a couple steps forward. I see the glimmer of whatever’s left of my uncle’s old ‘varrio fire flare through his eyes.
Oh yeah Güero? Whatchu gonna to tell your dad once he finds out I fired your sorry ass?
I’m quittin’ this pinche job anyway.
It’s my pinche job, Güero. You don’t have jack shit here, cabrón. It’s mine.
He pounds his chest as he tells me this.
It’s mine ‘cus I worked for it. What have you ever worked for?
You don’t own me uncle.
You sound like your brother.
You don’t own him neither.
He decided to throw everythin’ away. You wanna end up like him?
As long as I don’t end up like you, wey.
And what Güero? You think that’ll make you a man?
It’ll make me a better man.
Whatchu you know ‘bout bein’ a man, cabrón?
You ain’t my fucken dad. You ain’t no one’s dad.
Watch your fucken’ mouth you little shit.
Whatchu gonna do fatass? This ain’t the fucken’ good ol’ days. You don’t have shit now.
All you do is kiss gabacho ass n’ act like that makes you worth somethin’.
I watch my uncle’s hands curl into wound-up fists. The clouds have made their way over our heads now, darker n’ more endless than before. For a moment, I think I hear thunder. I think I’m watchin’ lightnin’ strike the ground between my uncle n’ me, but the sudden sting in my face tells me otherwise.
I was gonna punch your punk ass, but I realized that children don’t deserve punches. They don’t deserve a goddamn suitcase to the face neither. Children don’t deserve to be treated like adults ‘cus they’re too young and dumb to understand how things really work. All children deserve is to be slapped around so they can start learnin’ when to keep their fucken’ mouths shut. That’s all you deserve, Güero. A slap in the face. When you’re a man—if you ever become a man—maybe you’ll deserve to be punched like one.
The only punches I’ve thrown in my life are ‘cus of my family. I only threw them when fightin’ off innocent attacks from my brother or pretendin’ to box into my father’s open hands. As I’m swingin’ my fist through the air at my uncle, all I can think ‘bout is how those times make me feel all nostalgic. I think ‘bout how a punch will never mean the same thing again. My knuckles meet the bone of my uncle’s cheek with a crunch. I feel the hotness of his blood as it boils to the top of his skin. He falls back against my father’s car, and I recoil, waitin’ for the pain to hit me. There are no more flames behind Tío Albert’s eyes. All that’s left is a look of disappointment n’ longin’—like he’s watchin’ the credits of a movie he thought he’d never get to the end of. I look up and see there’s a storm headed straight for town. We need the rain is all I can think.
Tío Albert coughs from deep in his chest and spits a clump of red onto the gravel. He pushes himself off the car as drops of rainwater start to slide down his scalp.
Go home, sobrino.
I watch as he walks past me like a ghost. I don’t think either of us feels like we’re here anymore. Before enterin’ the Inn again he turns back towards me.
I don’t want to ever see your good-for-nothin’ ass here again.
With that I’m left alone. The rain starts to come down hard. I let my hair get soaked. My shirt turns the color of dark mud and droops off my skin like mountain erosion. I don’t even bother to take it off on the drive back.
The storm moves in the same direction as me. The road is still blurry even though I have my windshield wipers on blast. I tell myself it’s not ‘cus of the tears I’m hidin’ behind my eyes. I try to concentrate on what’s waitin’ for me when I get back. I try to concentrate on Dawn—on the smile she might have when she sees me—on the story she’ll tell me ‘bout her day—but the volcanic pulse of my swellin’ hand keeps her outta focus.
The beauty of desert storms is that you can see them comin’ miles before they start and see their end as they float thunderously overhead. The blue sky waits for you at the tail, along with whatever rainbows the storm may have shit out for you. They remind me of electric tumbleweeds rollin’ through the dry air. The storm passes over me as I ride back into
Albuquerque. The sun’s beams stab through the remainin’ clouds n’ reflect off the puddles on the road. The sky is bathin’ the world inna halcyon light.
Immersed in that golden sheen, I pull into the Lonestar gas station. There’s a single pump man here whose only identifiers are his toothless mouth and the smudged name patch stitched into his overalls that reads, “Larry” in red cursive letters. Actually, his mouth ain’t entirely toothless. He’s got one yellow canine that dangles on the left side of his gums. For that reason, vato’s known as Larry One-Tooth. He’s the reason I like to stop at the Lonestar. He doesn’t speak a lick of English, but always looks me in the eye n’ spits some lyrical shit in Indian. I think it’s Zuni ‘cus it sounds like nothin’ I’ve heard before—like a low chant of scattered drums glidin’ under a ghostly melody. Zuni’s the only Pueblo lengua Dawn has trouble with, and she can’t pick out any of Larry’s words, but I tell her that’s only ‘cus of homeboy’s nonexistent dental work. One-Tooth’s developed a fondness for me ‘cus I tip him in cigarettes, and he likes feelin’ Dawn’s hair when she happens to be in the car.
I pull up to Larry’s pump n’ tell him I’ll be back with his smokes. He looks back into the car and I shake my head to let him know she ain’t with me. He nods n’ grins at me like I told him a dirty joke. His tooth pokes out underneath his curled upper lip as he smiles. Inside the gas station I greet the oldass, cowboy-lookin’ clerk behind the cash register. He tips his cap n’ turns ‘round to grab my preferred pack. I ask him how he’s doin’. He shrugs n’ looks up to hand me the pack, but his body stops mid-motion. His attention’s been directed to somethin’ happenin’ outside.
What in the goddam fu-hck is that?
His eyes widen, and I turn ‘round guardedly to face a pink blob crashin’ into the station window. The blob turns out to be a person—a man wearin’ nothin’ but chestnut colored cowboy boots. They’re the flashy “everythin’s-bigger-in-Texas” type with turquoise patterns ‘round the instep and calf. His gut is all plush n’ milkshake white as it squishes against the dewy raindrops on the glass. His flesh looks like toothpaste tryin’ to escape its tube. The only hair on his body comes from the curly black and grey pubic fluff shroudin’ his chilito. I feel sorry for that little guy, wiltin’ like a dead flower underneath all that fat. The man’s face prunes into a hurricane of wrinkles n’ creases as he rattles his fists against the windowpane. He’s yellin’ the same shit over n’ over, but I can’t make out the words.
This city ain’t no stranger to meth-heads sheddin’ their clothes n’ runnin’ ‘round town as if God had lit ‘em on fire like some holy burnin’ bush. My own shitshow brother pulls wack-ass moves like that on me n’ my family all the damn time. But somethin’ ‘bout the cleanliness of the bare n’ rosy white skin, the flashiness of those boots, and the sheer mass of that belly separates this vato from your typical New Mexican lunatic. He looks like he shaved this mornin’. The lines
‘round his mouth n’ brow imply that he’s had a career’s worth of smilin’.
Holy fucken shit.
I say this aloud as I realize I’m starin’ into the face I’ve been starin’ at all my life—the sky-high face that smiles at me ten times a day. I’m starin’ at a buttass naked Joe Buffalo. He’s still got the ponytail, but it’s shorter and much thinner than his billboards make it out to be. In fact, Joe’s barely got any hair on the top of his head. He’s still chantin’ the same shit through the window. I follow his lips and finally piece together his words.
I look over to the cowboy who’s gotta hand reachin’ underneath the counter. The Buffalo directs his fury at the cowboy beyond the wobblin’ windowpane.
Ay! You cut that shit out or I’m gunna call the sheriff’s department.
Yo man he probably can’t hear you.
Then this sun-uv-uh-bitch gon’ die.
He pulls out a single barrel shotgun from beneath the desk, loads a shell, and aims outside towards the buffalo.
But Joe’s already makin’ for the road—his blubber flappin’ wildly in the air. The burnt orange rays of the settin’ sun bounce off his marble skin and transform him into another reflection of New Mexican light. The cowboy unloads the gun and sets it back under the counter.
Well, that’s gunna be 8.99 for the pack and 20.45 for the fill up.
I clear my dry throat and try to swallow the shock of the moment.
Did you know wh—
The cowboy stops my question with an open hand.
Ain’t no one give a rat’s ass ‘bout that man.
I gesture towards the window still fogged from Joe’s breath n’ body.
But c’mon though, that shit was pretty crazy…right?
Ain’t no crazier than any other bankrupt fool who flushed his business down the shitter.
Did it really go down that bad?
You think you can just fail at buildin’ the biggest goddamn car dealership in the whole fuckin’ state and not royally screw yourself in the ass?
I’m stuck standin’ there with my mouth unable to form a syllable.
Here’s your shit son, now git.
I grab the pack instinctively with my good hand. I step out the station like a zombie and see Larry One-Tooth waitin’ for me by my father’s car, eagerly twiddlin’ his fingers. I toss him the pack and he takes out a couple smokes.
Crazy white buffalo.
Crazy. Crazy. Crazy.
Wait you speak English now?
Crazy white buffalo!
Who? That man?
Crazy. Crazy. White. White. Buffalo! Oooha!
Larry bows to me as if I were an audience of a thousand. He throws me back the cigarettes n’ saunters off, still cacklin’ to himself.
By the time I get back to our place on University Boulevard, I’ve already smoked my way through the whole pack. The throbbin’ in my hand hasn’t gotten any better and every twitch of my finger seems to inflate the pain n’ swellin’ even more. My work shirt is completely dry, but still feels loose ‘round my skin. Peach brush strokes left by clouds paint the violet backdrop of Albuquerque twilight. That’s the last thing I look up at before I unlock the door to our apartment.
The place is cool n’ quiet as I walk in. Dawn isn’t one for decoration, and I don’t have shit to decorate with, so our walls are essentially bare. Sound carries like we’re stuck inna cave, and the air moves free n’ ghostlike, but the space never really feels empty—at least not when she’s here.
Her voice carries through every room of the apartment, which given its size, isn’t that impressive, but her sounds make this casita our home.
Just wanted to let you know I’m back.
I’m glad you are.
She’s come out from our room to stand in the hallway. Her hair’s tied back behind her head, which makes the contours of her neck defined like felt-pen strokes. She’s wearin’ a t-shirt from the St. Pius camp we met at in high school. It was one of those month-long things held at an Indian Reservation organized through some Catholic youth group our parents made us join. Our job was to connect with the local kids through a shared spirituality. I realized pretty quick that connectin’ with someone on a personal level is pretty hard when Jesus is always standin’ in between you. I tried to mention our lord as little as possible durin’ that trip. The ‘rez was up near Taos so I struggled to breath in the starvin’, elevated air. Dawn struggled with the fact that most of these kids looked whiter than she did. We bonded over our confusion. The first time she kissed me was in the tiny-ass Church’s basement. We were supposed to be makin’ a statement, but I would’ve shat on a crucifix just to be within arm’s reach of her. That was the summer before we left for school at UNM.
Dawn lifts her arms to welcome me. The shirt slides up and exposes her stomach. It’s smooth, warm, and dark like a thermos. I feel the entirety of her body embrace me, and everythin’ I have melts into her.
Did you eat, ‘moza?
Ms. Clara brought some frybread and beans to work today. I saved some for you in the fridge.
What was the occasion?
There was none. She just likes bringing food to people.
Did you have anythin’?
A little. Frybread makes me queasy.
I’m already rippin’ apart a piece for myself and puttin’ the rest in the microwave. I grimace as the fibers in the tendons of my hand cry out. Dawn grabs my palm n’ presses gently against the puffiness ‘round my knuckles. Her eyes are on mine as I wince from her touch.
What happened love?
Some brat stepped on my hand while I was gettin’ his luggage.
Must’ve been a hard stomp.
Yeah—almost like it was on purpose.
I hadn’t practiced that response or even thought ‘bout the lie. The words seem true. The order n’ subjects just feel blurred.
You need to ice it.
The microwave timer goes off.
We sit at our cheap-ass plastic table in what is allegedly the kitchen, but we can barely fit two chairs in the room. It bothers Dawn that we can’t have people over. Her moms hasn’t ever seen the place. I refuse to let my pops visit. It ain’t even our apartment. The only reason we get to live here is ‘cus the original tenant—who technically still qualifies as the current tenant—is away for the summer. She’s a classmate of Dawn’s who gets to have her own place ‘cus homegirl’s got un ‘ijo. The university uses this type of housin’ to let the single parent students— the ones who sneaked a child through admissions, or the ones who didn’t use the free condoms in the dorms—take care of their too-early families. Dawn helped look after the kid whenever the mama got swamped with school or had a night shift at the movie theater downtown. Homegirl doesn’t know I’m crashin’ here también, but Dawn treats everythin’ with care, so I can see why she never gets questioned ‘bout shit. I ask how her day went.
What’d you do at work?
The same thing as yesterday and tomorrow.
Any good ones?
Not really. The applications themselves are always repetitive. They’re just pieces of paper anyway. It only gets interesting when I recognize one of the applicants.
Does that happen often?
No. That’s why it’s interesting when it does…and it happened today.
I walk over to the refrigerator and grab a beer from a week-old case of Corona.
So, who’d you recognize?
She pauses for a heartbeat moment and I hear her pulse all the way from ‘cross the microass kitchen. I crack open the bottle and the sound smacks the air as she recites the name.
Shit. No mames, wey.
She rolls her eyes at my swears n’ beer.
He was really livid about the whole thing. Spitting this and that, yelling like a maniac about us fucking up and the fucked-up system as a whole.
Dawn makes a point of puttin’ air quotes ‘round all the curse words that come outta her mouth.
We could smell the booze on his breath. You know we’ve all dealt with drunks before— on the ‘rez and the casino—so—
What do you mean by “we”?
I mean the people who have to look after that broken system Joe was spewing all this trash about.
I swallow another bite of frybread.
He kept screaming about how we didn’t know who he really was.
Which is what?
A red-faced alcoholic obsessed with gambling.
That sounds like an Indian to me.
You don’t mean that, and chew with your mouth closed, please.
I stop the movement of my jaw and seal my lips.
You need ice.
What’d you end up doin’?
Go get some ice.
I grab a plastic bag from Dawn’s recyclin’ drawer and fill it with chipped off chunks of ice from the freezer. I tie the bag closed and wrap it over my hand with a dishtowel. I wave it at her.
She nods and continues with the story I already know the end of.
Ms. Clara apologized, and he quieted down after he realized that’s all he was going to get from us. He accepted that nothing was going to change because of him. I gave him some free drink vouchers at the casino. He took them without another word.
Why’d you go n’ give him that shit? I think those drinks took him off the deep end.
Dawn tilts her head and looks up at the popcorn ceilin’.
Impulse, I guess. You’re not the only one who gets frustrated with stuff like this.
I can feel her mind driftin’ inwards n’ away from me, so I decide to tell her ‘bout my own experience with the naked white buffalo.
He said legalize dreams?
That’s what I heard.
She’s got her elbow on the table, cradlin’ her chin in her palm. She’s lookin’ at the ice that’s started to melt over my hand.
Well, it’s not my fault how we validate things at the office.
No one’s blamin’ you, mi vida.
I never said anyone was.
Then what’s your point?
I don’t have one. I just think that man doesn’t know a thing about how dreams work.
How things really are, and what they mean.
She takes the ice off my hand, which has grown bluish from the cold in my veins.
You said a kid did this to you?
Yeah, some little shit from a touristy white family.
Was it a boy?
Is that a question?
No, I just thought you said it was a he earlier.
Okay well, it was a girl though—honestly.
Can you move it?
I try flexin’ my fingers but can only shiver them through the swellin’ and the cold.
Oof baby, hopefully nothing’s broken.
Dawn contorts her face as she struggles with the pain of empathy. She gets up n’ walks to a cabinet with the bag of ice in hand.
I doubt anythin’ is.
She returns to the table with the bag covered in tinfoil.
Give me your hand.
She places the pack over my flattened fingers and starts to wrap a cloth ‘round my palm.
I need to tell you something.
I’ve been seeing a doctor at a clinic over the last couple weeks.
What type of clinic?
Her eyes don’t move away from her work on my outstretched hand.
It’s part of Planned Parenthood.
I’m watchin’ her circle the cloth over my knuckles.
I think you can guess.
Humor me, querida.
I don’t have to do anything for you.
She’s finished coverin’ my injury and moves her eyes level to my own.
I was pregnant.
For twelve days.
In a sense.
Well it happened. You impregnated me. You have that on me, but I’m not having it now.
Don’t you think we—
You know where I come from. How old my mom was when she had me. How my dad fractured us. You know how I feel about family. I want you to acknowledge and accept that.
She’s locked her fingers into my uninjured hand. Breathin’ feels hard right now, and I feel like I’m at a high altitude.
It’s okay to get emotional. You can be mad at me, at the world, at yourself. No one’s stopping you, but what’s done is done.
I’m not mad I—
I’m sorry for telling you like this, baby. I’m sorry for saying it at all. I was battling with myself about saying anything. I hope this doesn’t ruin what we have.
It won’t. I love you.
I do too.
But…why do you love me, Dawn?
Her thumb shoots pain up my arm as she runs it against the skin on the back of my hand. My eyes drift upward n’ swirl ‘round the room. I notice how empty n’ white our imposter space is. I feel like I’m floatin’ inna limbo between sick n’ high. I’m not sure if I should feel like I’ve lost somethin’. I only feel a change in the air temperature and its pressure circlin’ my body.
Dawn still hasn’t answered me.
I see her starin’ reflectively in my direction. She’s lookin’ at me, but her eyes seem to shimmer past me.
I don’t know, baby, I just love you. You don’t see it in yourself, but you really are a lovable person. I feel like I’m home when I’m with you. You feel right.
More quiet swims between us. I say without blinkin’ that I lost my job today.
I punched my uncle in the face.
Why would you do something stupid and irrational like that?
Don’t know mi amor, I was just fed up.
Why’d you lie to me about your hand?
‘Cus I was afraid to tell you what really happened.
Afraid? Of me?
I don’t know how to answer that, Dawn. I was afraid to tell you I got fired.
That’s part of the problem, isn’t it?
She rises up and takes the ice off my hand. She walks over to the sink, and her bare feet create hollow claps on the linoleum of the kitchen floor.
She turns on the faucet and the sprinkles of water hit the metal of the sink n’ bounce up all ‘round her.
Your problem is that you’re afraid. Afraid that you’re nothing like the men in your family.
I can hear the rest of the ice crackin’ and dissolvin’ in the sink.
You feel like you can’t let anything make you vulnerable, you’d rather get rid of something than ever be challenged by it.
Didn’t you do exactly that by abortin’ our baby?
She turns off the faucet n’ slams me with a hauntin’, expressionless gaze. Her muteness means she’s givin’ me the time to apologize before remindin’ me that she’s had worse vile thrown at her. The shit I just spat her ain’t phasin’ her steeliness at all.
I’m sorry, that was a terrible thing to say.
She raises her eyebrow at me.
I didn’t mean it. I’m upset—and confused. I can’t think straight right now.
Here’s the thing, Güero; you need to embrace that you’re never going to be just one thing. Your personhood is this giant, poetic mess of everything and everyone you’ve ever known. You are all their faults and all their virtues. I know you know that, and I know you think about it tenderly, so do yourself a favor and give yourself some credit. It’ll make your life more enjoyable. You’ll stop placing an importance on saying mean things. If you do that, it’ll make it easier for me to love you.
I keep my mouth shut ‘cus it’s the only way I can hold back the flood wellin’ up behind my eyes. She looks me up n’ down, then sighs as my silence festers.
I’m done talking with you about this. We’ve both had long days so I’m going to put a movie on the projector. I want you to join me, but I understand if you don’t. If you do, bring a blanket. I think I want to fall asleep next to you.
I gulp in relief and force my mouth to open.
You’re not mad?
At what? Your lies? Your hurtful words? Of course, I am, but I’ll get over it.
I’m sorry—I never want to hurt you.
I know you don’t, but I stand by what I did. If you feel upset because of it, then that’s something you have to work out yourself, baby.
She kisses me on the cheek, leaves the kitchen, and I remain seated.
The only part I love ‘bout this apartment is the way our projector fills the blank white walls in perfect symmetry. The plaster is smooth n’ clean enough to keep the images undistorted, but we use the projector so damn much that the bulb’s light is startin’ to fade. We can’t afford to replace it. Even if we did, I would miss the old bulb. The projector was the first thing we ever bought together.
I decide to join Dawn ‘cus I can’t bear the thought of goin’ to sleep alone. I bring her favorite blanket. It’s fuzzy and has a geometric, pueblo-style pattern on it. We didn’t get it on a
‘rez or nothin’ and it sure as shit ain’t made on one. I doubt any Indio had a say in its creation.
It’s probably the least authentic Indian thing in the apartment.
I drape the blanket over Dawn’s body and sit on the couch. She curls up next to me n’ closes her eyes. She’s put Pocahontas—the Disney one—on the projector. She loves that movie despite what she knows it represents. She still enjoys the songs ‘cus they sound beautiful and sad. Her mom used to sing “Colors of the Wind” to her as a lullaby. She told me as a kid she just liked the idea of an Indian princess. Pocahontas was this first person she saw that gave her a sense of herself. She said once that it was the only thing that made her feel like she could exist in the world she lived in. Pocahontas had patched up some of the empty n’ lonely moments of her childhood. Now she can’t seem to let the princess go.
We’ve watched this movie so many times that it’s now its own sort of lullaby. It only takes fifteen minutes before I feel soft snores comin’ from Dawn’s lips. My mind ignores all the simmerin’ embers from the shitshow of today. All that pops into my head is a story my father told me on my sixteenth birthday—the day he gave his car to me. He let me drive us all the way to his favorite overlook in the Sandias so we could watch the sun set over nuestra tierra.
The story starts with pops at twenty-one. He’s drivin’ to Los Angeles in the first car he ever owned. He’s on the way to tell his hermano Albert that the mother of his child died from multiple bullet wounds. He hasn’t seen Albert ever since he skipped town, and part of the reason he’s travelin’ to L.A. is to make sure his younger brother is still alive—plus it was a good excuse to put some miles on his new whip. ‘Bout four hours into the drive—‘round midnight—he passes the border into Arizona and enters Hopi reservation territory. The sky above these parts is virtually untouched by any sort of manmade electricity. The atmosphere of the desert acts as a perfect telescope for lookin’ at the universe. La luna, las estrellas, and even some strands of the Milky Way shine down so bright on the empty road that pops turns off his headlights. No wonder esos Indios believe the spirit world ain’t so far away from our own.
He’s drivin’ like lightnin’ under the blanket of heaven and it feels as if he’s movin’ without any connection to time. The world is a beam of light, so pops doesn’t notice the check engine light. He can’t tell that the smoke startin’ to radiate ‘round the air is ‘cus his car is seconds away from burstin’ into flames. He thinks it’s just fog. The motor bangs like a gunshot, so pops jerks the wheel in surprise and flips the car. He doesn’t hear nothin’ before the contact of his head on the wheel sends him into blackness. All he sees is a flash of color and an energy that reminds him of sunrise.
Next time he opens his eyes he’s lyin’ with his ass parked on the couch of some Hopi woman’s house. She does not speak to him as she hands him a glass of water. Pops ain’t in pain but feels tired and weight in every inch of bone. He dips in n’ out of sleep and his dreams weave themselves into his reality. When his eyes open now n’ then, there’s always someone sittin’ ‘cross from him. Sometimes it’s the woman; sometimes it’s a small girl. Each time he awakes they give him somethin’ to eat or drink. Every so often he’ll hear a song comin’ from a voice floatin’ ‘round him. When he finds the strength to get up from the couch, the first thing he notices is the girl lookin’ up at him with a smile all scattered with baby teeth. Pops asks where her mama is. She points to a window behind him n’ says:
He follows the trajectory of her finger out through the window and sees an emaciated, horned animal the size of a pony. It’s swattin’ a horde of flies away with its tail and grazin’ a fenced-in patch of dried grass. Pops looks back at the girl who giggles at him and runs through the front door. She returns moments later with the woman. Without a word, she hands him a fresh set of clothes—a flannel n’ jeans—and motions for him to come with her.
They all gather inna rusty pickup truck outside the house. The decade-old engine groans as the woman pushes on the gas. The girl sits between the two adults on the bench seat. She turns ‘round n’ waves goodbye to the buffalo as the truck pulls onto a dirt road. The lullin’ rhythm of the car hummin’ along the earth is the only sound on the drive. Pops drifts off to sleep again and wakes up at a bus station outside Flagstaff. He learns it’s been nearly a week since he left town for L.A., so he has to bust his ass home ‘cus he can’t miss any more trabajo. Later on, pops learned from my Abuelita that child services notified Albert of his baby mama’s passin’ the day after he left. She doesn’t think Albert will come back for his daughter. I remember askin’ my father if he did.
Simón. He did.
Where is she now?
Somewhere far away from here.
Is she happy?
I don’t know.
What happened to the girl n’ the woman? The buffalo? The Car?
I never saw any of ‘em again. I don’t even have the clothes she gave me. I lost ‘em all.
Are you sad ‘bout it?
‘Cus I have this story to make sense of it all.
But they’re still lost, n’ they ain’t comin’ back.
Then what’s the point of tellin’ the story?
The point is you don’t have to go through this alone.
Do you really mean that?
Copyright © 2020 by A. J. Rodríguez.