by Julien Fish
I wept for Armando Palomo at his funeral luncheon, but not otherwise. I wept for my lacking toward him in recent years and embarrassment at the thought that the tears salting my tamales might have been taken by others at the table to mean that Armando and I must have once shared the very dish in a tender memory just triggered. We had, but it wasn’t cause for my tears. I blew my nose.
The stench of unwashed black suits and stockings peppered the meat, soured the water. Smacks from dry-stuffed mouths woke the rattle in the rims above and the hardwood of the gymnasium gave mottled imitations of the floating chatter. Too much for me. I kissed his mother on the head, first kissing his sister Pati by mistake. She looked more like Armando’s mother than his mother did. Ay, she’s a woman. I kissed the other strangers at their table and left.
I stopped at the sunday school classroom where we had viewed the body to see what I’d feel as I looked on it alone, without the grief pollution. There’s no comfort in the company of mourners—not mexicanos. At the viewing I sat far on the wall on a stray piano bench and beheld each blubbered lip with guile: they’ll soon make unearned peace with his passing, probably. If they’d loved him like I had they wouldn’t be talking about the Cowboys moving to LA. They wouldn’t be so hungry.
I entered. A well-legged girl was up on the casket. She was knelt on the polished cedar in white socks, on the closed half of the lid where his hands were folded. Bent into the opening, elbows strung, reaching toward his face with a pair of tweezers and a held breath. She heard me, but did not break focus as she plucked a palm’s worth of makeup-caked hairs between his eyebrows. She slid down from the casket and flipped over her flat hand, letting the hairs onto the carpet where they disappeared into the obscured industrial pattern, as does anything smaller than a button.
You try the menudo? Sure, I said.
I’m gonna end el culo that dressed him up like this.
How old are you?
They made him smile like he’s got a fart.
Huevón probably died with a fart or two still in him, k no?
She frowned and turned. She reached across the casket and gripped the long handle then scrambled onto her knees again, bent into the opening again. She walled her face with forearms and I left without saying goodbye to Armando.
The truck wouldn’t start and Claire wouldn’t answer. Vamos, I’ve got work tomorrow, I said. I turned the key a third time. Nada, this piece. Five hours to Santa Fe, I said. From the back of the lot where I had parked I saw the uncles wobble from the church onto a tailgate where they broke into a six-pack one had left cooling in the bed. I knew the other by his bald head and limp. He had taken us camping one summer in Las Cruces and said to call him Tio. He’d have gladly given me a jump, a lift. But I couldn’t talk to Tio or any Palomo right then. I left a message for Claire: be home tomorrow afternoon, probably. I’ll miss the matinee, sorry, should be back—I don’t know, I’ll let you know. Good luck tonight. I felt her slap my back as I hung up. Luis! It’s bad luck to say good luck in theater! I folded the phone, keys, tie, and wallet into my jacket and laid it on the seat. Pati came out with cake slices for the uncles. Tio picked the walnut bits from the frosting. Es que me dan la tos fea! I saw the girl on the casket, bent into the opening, touching Armando. So I walked.
The air was crisp against the September sun, I rolled my sleeves. Upper valley was pleasant and lonely with its wide roads and tall cars, the expensive smell privacy. That hadn’t changed. I passed the brick homes and RVs, down the sharp hills, through the parking lots of two malls neighboring. Went inside the second for a pretzel before feeling for my wallet. It was new and loud and bright, the salt-and-sweet-dough-air heavy and coming through my ears. I looked for teenagers, but saw only sandalled couples old as my parents, most of them white like my father. A well-dressed toddler ran from abuelita to the escalator, the leash on his harness flitting along the linoleum. A sad man about my age asleep at a cell-phone cover kiosk. On luck I found an early-abandoned massage chair with forty-three seconds left on the session timer. I slipped my loafers and sat at thirty-six seconds. The knobs were punishing, but well wanted. I closed my eyes and sunk. I forgot where I was. . . . Forgot El Paso entirely. . . . Summers in El Paso. . . . Mornings at EPCC with Abuelito, in his bootbox of an office spinning in the chair while he taught Biology, knocking scantrons and yogurt cups of staples to the floor. . . . Our summers. . . . Laughing, scared as rabbits, crawling under pews in the pitch-black chapel after La Santa Cena. . . . Me and Armando. . . . Pati too, sometimes. . . . Swimming in the—stillness. Time expired. Again so bright and loud. God help this embarrassing place, I said. I left with heavy shoulders and wanting salt.
Near evening I crossed the tracks into lower valley. A dusty wind smelled wet as clay and I could feel the sweat-beads slowing and cold on my temples. I unrolled my sleeves and watched the sun poach earthward, washing orange the mountains and a thinning bar of sky. At once the ripest and most rotten peach in a broken pool, taking with it all the heat. I kept along the sidewalk as the shadows pulled and weakened.
The houses modest and stately and closer together. In one groomed yard a St. Bernard filling up the porch, present as a bear. He was nimble coming to the iron fence and bowed his head over. His eyelids yawned into pink, sodden bowls that seemed to say, Come, reason with me . Ears first, I scratched him as ownerly as one can through a fence. I could really read that dog. I found the good spots fast—the best spots—warm patches of underbelly that pitch a growl up to a purr. I scratched that slobbering son of a bitch until he rolled over, snoring like a generator. Crossing the street, clumps of white hair on my slacks and hands, I felt an aching hollowness. Claire hates dogs.
Every other streetlamp was dead or dying in the quickened darkness. I felt my blisters and walked to the playground on the corner, sat on the carousel with a loafer heeled in the dirt, inching myself around its axis. I had paused long enough to pull my arms into my shirt and shiver when a green Explorer that looked like mine slowed left at the corner. Green or black? Too dark to tell. It passed the playground, stopped seconds further and reversed, stopped again in front of the carousel. The driver dropped his window and waited for something. I was the only thing around, it seemed. I approached with my tucked elbows jutting from under my shirt like some inchoate thing. I had not come close enough to see his face when he reached across the cab and tossed something black. It unfolded on its way, spinning to the ground before me like a moth.
No te enfríes, o.k. huero ?
The yellow of teeth then pulled away and gone. I replaced arms in sleeves and picked up the black thing. I sang something grateful to God and the park—a jacket! Left arm in first, I swung the heavy suede around my back and as I entered it felt the fit I had paid the tailor for. I reached inside the left-breast pocket and found: ticket stub for Grease! tissue with blotted snot and chile verde, receipt for roses and gin. Pura mierda. That was my green Explorer. My tongue dried like a stone and I checked the other pockets. No wallet, no phone. He must have liked the tie too. There I was, robbed and warmer than before. My Explorer that wouldn’t start, my green Explorer. Tio probably even helped him jump it. Qué raro este bondad.
There was no dog when I returned to the fence, only his shape stamped dark into the lawn. I crushed the unswept leaves along the walks through a snake-line of streets, thinking of anything but my truck and Claire’s post-show eyebrows, the hellish vibrato-humming and conjugal levels of detail in telling how it all went. I could see her: thighs crashing in her poodle skirt, livid that I hadn’t called her right away. What if something had happened to you?! Why didn’t you borrow a phone? Her pale face wagging as I admit that I had never in six years, memorized her number. . . . The girl on the casket, white socks bunched and loose about slender ankles. I laughed. . . . Ankles? Those are the first thing to go, Armando would say. Like, Carmen? She’s hot now, fersure, but come twenny-five, twenny-six, she’ll blow up like a bouncy-castle. It’s the magic taco, man. Every mehicana eats it sooner or later. Just look at the mamis. . . .
A droning wherrghr . The snuff of lust-curdled cardboard. Gatos. They own nights in the lower valley as rats do in other cities. I could hear them brawling and breeding in every unlit depth. I kept walking. The cats soon faded. Near silent. The red dust muted my loafers and thickened into dirt down the narrowing street. That street so hardly lit, so familiar and awful. It disturbed my soul and seemed to kissed my cheek. A tall girl with a round belly kicked a red rubber ball high into the earthy swirl and in my path. I overshot the return kick and sent her running and squealing toward the unseen landing. I wouldn’t see her again. Most were inside, their telenovellas glowing round and warm on their curtains. A few boys sitting on patched cement with loose heads, beeping on bulky handheld games, lonely for siblings. It did feel lonely. That street where houses turned to trailers spaced just enough to swing a door. Each painted one of six colors like an opened box of old chalks: once-bright pastels worn to rubble by children and monsoons.
Before me was a trailer with three bay windows covered by a wire screen, each angled to its own view of the black sky. At those windows my body traded balance for grief. I buckled. I skirted the trailer, eyes in adjust. The once-blushed walls found unbleached under the roof drains, the aluminum skirting peeled out in sanctuary to every small animal. In back a glassy patch of sand we once called wild—the rebar staked there, too deep to move, still bent at the top from the post driver. That bend our only edge against the other kids. All year I’d practice for summer, tossing and fetching a plastic horseshoe behind the rec center, wearing work gloves over my knits, tossing and fetching, fingers cold enough to cry. Dios, God, quítame este dolor. To the other side where the storm-door bore angry pocks and clacked loose with the wind. Knocked there. Knocked again and nothing. Back at the windows, the circle complete. . . . Walking through El Paso all that way, day into dusk, refusing to believe where my feet were bearing me: 136 Calle Delfina, donde vivían los Palomo. I vomited pale-green until I had nothing to heave but my grief. I saw our three bright faces pressed to the acrylic of the bay windows, each angled to our own view of the happy sun. Armando, Luis, Pati. Tres mosqueteros. Two machotes and a mosquito with nothing to know in summer but joy.
The drawling cats again. Behind the trailers the humming of border trucks and four fired whaps! far off. Calle Delfina, the hand-torn edge of America. I watched the stars and wondered which ones belonged to them, to us. A pitbull stirred ten steps from me. She was asleep, sunken in a channel of her own clawing. Prostrated in pointed attention like a sphynx, blue coat rolling over wrested collar, twenty-foot chain slackless and violent to the anchor. Her tongue out and limp, as if she had collapsed in the struggle to reach whatever it was she’d been barking at.
Julien Fish is from an avocado town in southern California. He lives in Idaho with his wife and dog.