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Sara Campos

Under the Red Star of Mars

   Lisa Old Bull sat next to her boyfriend Derrick on the Ferris wheel with a hand on his knee contemplating how she was going to get rid of him once and for all. When it was their turn at the very top Derrick drank again from his goddamned wineskin, the fake-leather wineskin he’d ripped off from Wal-Mart and couldn’t quit talking about, showing all his friends at the fair and squirting them drinks. They were his friends. She barely knew any of them. At the top it was windy and cool and Lisa could see the big buildings of downtown Oklahoma City lit up dull orange for a few seconds. On the way down the view was erased by the Cyclone roller coaster. It was swinging around a wide turn and all the people on it had their mouths open screaming and their arms in the air like they were praising something. The roller coaster roared around the turn, then grew silent. Lisa now heard the Ferris wheel’s own tinkly fairy-tale music, not unpleasant. She only wished she could enjoy it and she couldn’t, thinking about ditching Derrick and making it to the bus station by 11.
   Derrick had worked her over again two nights ago. Of course there were no marks showing – that was his trick. She lifted her hand off his knee and rubbed the bruises under her sweater. Her arm was so tender she could barely lift her fork that morning. Derrick didn’t eat, had already started drinking, or, rather, picked up where he had left off last night after passing out on the kitchen floor. Instead of drinking from the bottle or pouring it in a glass, he put it in the damned wineskin, the wineskin she wished she could cram up his ass and inflate. A wineskin! He had sat around in a stupor listening to rap on their little cassette player over and over and over. Kept rewinding the same song. Never played the other side. He had the volume maxed out and the speakers rattled weakly all morning while she patted her bruises in the bathroom. With his bloodshot eyes half shut he banged on the glass table until all the silverware and salt and pepper shakers bounced onto the floor.
   They were nearing the bottom of their ride and it was slowing down but just when Lisa thought it would stop it jerked and made a creaking noise and kept going again. Crap. Three midgets dressed up in Harley gear were in the cart above them, swinging their little legs. They all wore boots and leather caps and jackets and had their arms around each other. Fuckin’ A! Lisa heard one shout. At least they were having a good time. Derrick was grinning like an idiot holding his wineskin in the air and wearing that dumb bandana he thought made him look like some kind of hard gangster. Instead he looked like Aunt Jemima. His friends on the ground were looking at them and pumping their fists like it was a big deal Derrick was riding on a Ferris wheel and drinking cheap whisky from a Wal-Mart wineskin that leaked all over him. Lisa lifted her arm, achingly, and put it around Derrick’s shoulders and squeezed him, then rubbed his knee again. She put his head on his shoulder. The key was to act like nothing was happening with this guy. Any guy who’d rob a bank was liable to do anything. Of course, he hadn’t shared that Fun Factoid with her until last week, after they’d already been together three months. She knew when he was lying and when he wasn’t and the semidrunk state he was in at the time was when the confessionals always began. She sincerely hoped he was lying but really didn’t want to know anymore about it if he wasn’t. And if he had done it he obviously didn’t have any of it left so what did it matter anyway? She had swore she’d never get into anything like this again, but, damn, here she was.
   Finally the ride ended but they had to wait as the baskets were lowered one by one so the riders could exit. Just their luck they were at the very top again. Derrick offered her a drink and she tipped it up but nothing came out until Derrick squeezed it with one big hand and a long squirt, tasteless at first, burned her throat. She would rather just puke all over him, feeling stupid up there with her mouth all wide open but he didn’t like it when she wouldn’t drink with him and she wanted no complications tonight. The container was nearly empty. His eyes were getting that glazed-over look. Already he looked in a sour mood. This guy could go through enough moods in a day of drinking to satisfy a schizophrenic. That made his fifth “skin” (as he called it) today. Go to the fair with the gang, have a good time, ride some rides, have some fun. Pure wishful thinking. She was keeping track of his drinks, and hers, just like she had been keeping track of the money she’d been stashing away over the last few weeks. A little drinking money here, a little there, combined with money she’d saved from donating plasma downtown. Fifteen bucks on Wednesdays and 25 on Fridays. Derrick wouldn’t let her work – too scared she’d meet someone else or earn her own money. The last time she’d ran away from him he found her at a friend’s house and beat her and kicked her ass with his steel-toed boots.
   It was their turn to exit. They fumbled with the aluminum bar and got it over their heads and stepped off. Derrick was wobbling a little but Lisa wanted to get him good and messed up. The midway was full of people. They had to shuffle along like it was a mini-Mardi Gras. He reached down and pinched her ass. She slapped his arm playfully. Watch it, she said. All part of the game. Pink cotton candies and balloons bobbed around them. One balloon was twisted up to look like an alligator. On the way to the beer tent they passed Hammer Time. Oh God, she’d never forget that time at Truelove’s when he got out on the dance floor by himself and danced to “U Can’t Touch This.” Lisa smiled in spite of herself. Of course he was drunk off his ass and she didn’t have time to be embarrassed for him, she was laughing so. She laughed so hard her sides were sore in the morning and it hurt when she yawned. She and every skin in the house was laughing their asses off at the only negro in Oklahoma City who couldn’t outdance an Indian. It was something he’d never live down. Some in town still called him “Hammer.” Now, by her side like an obedient dog, Derrick was in his zoned-out state. You couldn’t really tell by looking at him, he looked OK to anyone else, could make decent conversation, but she knew he’d never remember any of this. She could lead him around like a cow if she wanted. She got him to pay for two for Hammer Time, which looked like a giant spinning two-headed hammer. Standing in line, he took a long drink from a pint bottle – no attempt to conceal. This one would be for the road, she thought to herself.
   Cages formed two ends of the hammer. They climbed in, it swung slowly to the top, and another couple boarded below. Derrick’s head dipped quickly like he was nodding off but the music began – “U Can’t Touch This” – and they lurched down. It would swing down to the bottom and rise back up nearly to the top again on its own momentum but near the top would hesitate and fall back down. Then someone cranked it up a notch. Derrick whooped. He was having a blast. They swung down, and up, and right when they were at the very tip where it was either swing back down or continue over the top, they continued over the top. Their heads were angled upside down to the floorboard. Imagine the second hand on a watch spinning wildly. Imagine the human boilermaker – vodka and overpriced foamy beer – next to you. They both screamed, it was wild.
   When it ended, Derrick was sufficiently shaken and stirred. You could tell by looking at him that his world was still spinning. Lisa guided him to the beer tent with both arms locked around his elbow and sat him down and told him not to move, that she was going to the restroom and would be right back with a couple beers. He nodded dumbly, shook his head quickly to get his bearings and tried to stand, but sat.
   Past Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, the Strongman/Sledgehammer Contest (“Step right up!”) the Bearded Lady, the 30-Foot Man-Eating Anaconda, the Fire-Eating Sword Swallower and the Ass-Kicking Booth (“Everyone’s a winner!”) Lisa headed out, besieged an all sides by an oddball mixture of music: “The Candy Man Can” for kiddy rides, ’80s guitar rock and hoe-down fiddle from a red checkerboard tent with a chuckwagon inside. A siren wailed from somewhere in the city. Just past the Three-Headed Donkey, the Hypnotist was making a man and woman paw at the ground facing each other like they were bulls. They had rubber horns on their heads and held sticks for forelegs. She was short and round and he was tall and skinny. The crowd in front of the Hypnotist was laughing hysterically and pointing. Lisa felt like she was shedding skin as she passed these booths. Past the BB Machine-Gun Target Range and Bumper Cars was the Basketball Shoot right near the end of the midway. Lisa felt lucky. She sank all three shots and won a stuffed toy moose. It was the only thing she held when the taxi dropped her off at the bus station. She saw the lights of the fair as the bus rocked down the turnpike with its snoring passengers. The Ferris wheel looked like a slow spinning drum, tilting red, white and blue. The bus continued to sway, like another ride she wondered if she’d ever get off of. She propped the moose against the window and slept.

   At the Tulsa station she phoned and found that Myra’s number was out. She would have to walk, but not now. She sat in one of the plastic orange bucket seats to wait for daylight. Her tongue tasted like paste from the beer, vodka and cigarettes. Her neck was sore from sleeping, she had a hangover, she was the happiest person in world. Free at last. A black chick with clicking beads in her hair came up and wanted to know if she could “axe” her for a cigarette. She told her she was fresh out. The diner was closed and all the baggage lockers were bent with their doors hanging off and obviously out-of-order. Mexicans sat in a group next to the curbside window, some looking around worriedly as if they might miss their next bus even though there was absolutely no activity inside or out except for a couple of cabdrivers out front nodding off in their rides.
   She went outside to smoke (she had fibbed) and saw a raccoon trotting down the middle of the street. A raccoon! There was no traffic and it was deserted but there was the little raccoon with its bandit face. She couldn’t believe her eyes, but there it was. She laughed. Look at that raccoon, she said out loud to no one. The raccoon turned at Detroit street and cut through an empty parking lot like it knew all the shortcuts. Lisa liked the way it walked, not hurriedly but with no wasted motion either, on a straight line to whatever business it had.

   In the morning, when everyone in the station had been replaced with a new cast of characters, Lisa left to look for her cousin Myra’s. She’d been there once, over the summer, with Derrick (she hurries her pace at this thought of him, as if he were behind her) and thought that she could find it in the daylight. It was a duplex apartment in some projects down by a river. She walked underneath towering, symmetrical skyscrapers adjacent to historic-looking Gothic-style churches. The boxy skyscrapers were impressive enough, jutting into the blue sky, but fairly ordinary; however, the churches were gloomy and intimidating, with hundreds of sharp granite spires, sculptured angels in flowing robes blowing horns, and chiseled Latin letters underneath stained glass. You could look at it for an hour and keep seeing new things.
   Looking up, she nearly walked into someone waking up from bushes next to the church and almost wet her pants, letting out a small yelp. Newspaper and old coats fell to reveal a tiny bearded man in an orange ballcap. Morning, m’am, he said. She nodded quickly and walked on and glanced back and there he was taking a leak against the cathedral.
   Someone waiting in a long line outside a plasma center gave her directions to the river, which was about a mile to the south. She walked across a bridge which spanned a busy highway, the morning-rush traffic loud. She passed a nice brownstone apartment building. Behind it, an old lady with a sack of aluminum cans in a grocery cart was peering into a Dumpster. Lisa cut through an alley, walking through serene, leafy neighborhoods where shiny black Mercedes or new trucks were parked in long driveways. She saw the river in the distance. Leaves were falling all around, spinning and floating.    
   At the river, cottonwoods and sycamores ringed the near bank, flaring red and copper in the sharp clear light. The water sparkled golden through the trees, which were afire with color, and the leaves they shed crunched under her feet. Lisa found a park bench and sat, brushing away more leaves. She could see Myra’s projects across the river behind a floating amphitheater. She would give her some time to wake up. Beside a tree, a squirrel stood nibbling on a dog turd, its roller-coaster tail twitching happily. A jogger trotted by, trailing his breath, and raised his hand. This is a nice city, she thought, beautiful buildings, neighborhoods, the river, hills. She thought she might be thinking that way just because it was all new to her but she pushed that to the back of her mind, wanting this to be the place where she could start over, without him. She began to think of Derrick. He had a good side and that’s the part she would miss. But the bad side overwhelmed the good side and scared her. It didn’t matter. She wasn’t going back. She hoped he’d find someone else and forget about her.
   She tried to make her mind go blank but couldn’t. Tears welled up and she began to cry there on the park bench. She didn’t cry for herself but for her little brother. She missed her little brother Eric. She had named him and took care of him all the time before she had her argument with her mom and took off with Derrick to live in the City. She’d go back and visit him sometimes while her mom was at work and Eric cried hard every time she left. Then she thought about how Eric would close his eyes and think you couldn’t see him and how he’d scribbled his wobbly inverted ‘E’ in red crayon on the kitchen wall and denied doing it, like there was anyone else around who would have done that. Lisa smiled to herself.
   She didn’t want to go back to her small hometown of Watonga because Derrick knew where her mom lived, and Oklahoma City was out of the question. Her mom and dad were going through hard times and she didn’t want to bring any more trouble down on them. Plus, she was sick of Watonga. It was small, everybody knew everybody, people moped around like they were dipped in molasses, and it was just plain boring. The only thing to do in Watonga was go to Oklahoma City. She got up and walked across the long bridge and saw the shadows of some fish near the bank in a deep pool. She could see Myra’s duplex but when she got there an old crippled black woman told her that Myra had moved out the month before.

   Lisa walked back downtown. People were shuffling through revolving doors in all the big buildings, city buses were moving and car traffic was heavy. Down a few blocks there was a line of homeless people outside of a church. The sign said: “Iron Gate. Breakfast 8-11.” There was a McDonald’s across the street, but she got in line at the church to save money. She was hungry and devoured the scrambled eggs and toast and jelly and drank the hot watery coffee. The room was full and everyone ate with their heads down. It was too early for small talk. Going out she saw a sign taped to the window that said “Chrysalis Women’s Shelter. Helping Those Help Themselves.” She wrote the address down and asked directions.
   She had to fill out forms at the shelter and they gave her a bunk and an appointment to meet with a counselor at 11 a.m. The girl on the bed next to her woke her up at 10:45 like she said she would. Her name was Gloria Seven Star. She was an Indian girl, too, and seemed nice enough, but she had a black eye. Lisa gave her a handful of cigarettes. In the counselor’s office more paperwork asked more basic questions: name, address, emergency contact. They said if she had a warrant out she might as well tell them now because that would be one of the first things they’d check by law. But she’d never even had a speeding ticket. She’d been through all this before, in Oklahoma City. She’d stayed at a shelter there for three days until Derrick found her and she went back with him. It was their first breakup and she had missed him. Never again, she thought.
   The counselor gave Lisa a lot of papers which had information on where she could get help. Back at her bunk she read over the papers.
   "Where’s all your stuff?” Gloria asked.
   “I left it all. This is it,” she said and held up the moose.
   They laughed and later went out walking around together. Gloria was from out of town, too – Ponca City – but had been at Chrysalis a month and knew Tulsa pretty well. She put on her sunglasses and showed Lisa the library which was good to know because you could read the newspapers and use the computers or just sit and think. It was also cool in the summers. She showed her Saint Vincent DePaul’s where they would help you get eyeglasses if you needed them. Lisa didn’t. Gloria showed her the Indian center and the new Indian clinic. At the Indian center they would help you put a resume together and give you bus tokens to go around and look for a job. All these spots were within walking distance of Chrysalis. Gloria had a car and after supper in the dayroom she took Lisa around Tulsa and showed her the highways that circled around the city so she’d know where she was.
   Don’t worry, it’s easy. You’ll get to know it, she said.
   That first night in her bunk Lisa thought about Derrick. She’d never seen anyone change so fast. At first she had a blast. They went on trips to Dallas and St. Louis, he bought her roses and clothes and opened doors for her. But after about a month they went around acting like they’d been married for years, griping at each other, and he’d belch like a bear and fart right in front of her, scratching his ass and throwing his underwear all over the apartment. Another rebound relationship. She recalled the argument when she told her mom, You’ve got him all wrong. He’s really a nice guy. We’re going to get married. She would tell her she was sorry if it was the last thing she did, but she wasn’t yet ready to eat crow.

   A week later Gloria’s papers came through and she got an apartment in the Osage Hills projects about a mile from downtown. Gloria had two kids who lived with their father’s parents in Ponca but she put them down on the application anyway in order to qualify. Lisa helped her move in. It wasn’t what you’d call nice, but it wasn’t scroungy or roach-infested either. Just a year earlier even the Tulsa cops wouldn’t come to Osage Hills and forget about ordering a pizza. They talked about it, then Lisa moved in, too.
   They lived together two months before Lisa moved into her own apartment across from Gloria. Both found jobs. After she got on her feet Lisa began beadworking again, buying supplies at Lyons Indian Store: buckskin, beads, needles, thread, wax and a loom. She spent that first month in the projects doing beadwork while Gloria worked at a nursing home where she helped feed and bathe the elderly. Lisa crafted outstanding beadwork, using the finest-sized cut beads which glittered musically under the light. She made odds and ends like lighter holders and hair barrettes but also necklaces and elaborate hat bands. The designs were intricate and brilliantly colored and looked complete to the eye but Lisa always stitched one bead out of place or left a spot blank like grandmother White Shield taught her. Nothing’s perfect, her grandmother told her.
   She got to be friendly with a buyer at Lyon’s and the woman offered her a part-time job framing paintings and prints at her Indian art gallery downtown. Lisa was a natural, cutting intricate geometric designs into the corners of the matte board, picking just the right colors, deciding to go modern or classic with the frames. So she was fairly busy those days, beading, working at the store and going out with Gloria some evenings.
   Gloria took her one night to Dummy’s, a better-than-average Indian bar which billed itself as “the smart place to be.” The only other Indian bars were right downtown where little gnats landed in your glass and everyone was old and just sat there staring at the counter. If someone got up and played the jukebox it was a cataclysmic event. But Dummy’s was in a strip mall on the edge of the river that had live bands and a bouncer named Bull. They went on Ladies Night and sat in a corner. Lisa wore just jeans and a sweater but Gloria was all dolled up, wearing perfume, makeup and lipstick so red her lips glowed in the dark. It was crowded and everyone had to shout to be heard. The louder everyone shouted, the louder the deejay turned up the music. The louder the music, the louder everyone shouted, et cetera.
   At the bar Gloria saw her cousin Frank who was with two friends she didn’t know. She brought them back to their booth and everyone piled in with their pitchers of beer. Lisa was having a good time, sipping on her rum-and-coke, smoking cigarettes and joking around with the crowd. It was better than the tired old Oklahoma City scene. The guy sitting next to her was good looking – she liked his hair – but he was so shy he wouldn’t even look at her. Lisa tried talking to him but when he answered he only turned in her direction and stared at the table, sad-faced and hang-dog. After a while Lisa gave up on him too – morose. She went to the restroom and when she returned she looked up and saw Derrick standing at the bar looking around. Lisa looked away quickly and scrunched herself in the corner. She kicked Gloria under the table, leaned over and whispered, “There he is, at the bar!”
   “My ex!”
   “Oh, shit, what do you want to do?”
   It was so crowded that Lisa didn’t think he’d see her if they stayed to the rear and slipped out back but right when they were at the door, she turned to look and he was looking right at her. She heard him yell “Lisa!” plain as day but by that time they were running through the parking lot. Lisa noticed his black truck right off, near Gloria’s red hatchback. Gloria peeled out and darted right into traffic on Peoria but Lisa looked back and saw the truck right behind them. There were two people in it. They turned onto a residential side street but the streets were all loopy and they wound up right back on Peoria, where they saw Derrick coming down the opposite side. Gloria went the other direction but Derrick U-turned in the middle of the road. Gloria shot through a red and sped back to Osage Hills, hoping that by taking the back entrance on Mohawk they could throw him off. Gloria had the presence to park in the wrong lot and they ran two buildings over until they reached Gloria’s and ran inside and locked all the doors and windows. They peeked out a curtain and Lisa saw the truck cruising slowly down the street. She was mad enough that she would have shot him if she had a gun.

   At work Miss Rose asked her to begin a special project. She was to frame a set of original paintings for an upcoming show but would have to work full time on it over the next few weeks. Lisa didn’t mind as she needed the money and it would help keep her mind off Eric, Derrick and her mom. She wanted nothing more than a roof over her head and to be left alone for a while. She liked it at the gallery: There were a lot of nice paintings and sculptures and odds and ends like dreamcatchers and drums and books on Native Americans. She felt lucky to work there. It didn’t even feel like work other than she had to be there at a certain time for a certain amount of time. There was even a picture of some Cheyennes from way back standing in front of a seven-seater Model-T and she swore to Miss Rose that one of them was her grandma.
   Miss Rose led her into the back store room to show her the paintings she would be framing. Lisa was flabbergasted. They were all so huge and in her favorite color combinations: green and gold; purple and yellow; aqua and red; silver and blue. One was a brightly colored fancy-dancer, another a twisting line of figures marching into the snow with horses and wagons; others showed men inside a teepee in a peyote meeting or on horseback in a prairie with a giant tornado in the background, and one even showed a woman screaming giving birth. They leaned against the wall almost as tall as she was and about as wide as she could span her arms. The paint hadn’t even dried on some of them and the smell was strong as soon as you stepped into the room. She could already tell how she would frame most of them and Miss Rose had some ideas that they wrote down. All the paintings had the same geometric signature in the bottom right that looked like a bobcat with fangs and a tail: “Coolwater,” it read.

   On her way home Lisa got off the bus at the downtown station and stopped in the library before heading down the underpass and climbing up to Osage Hills. Inside it was cool and marble glossy with a gurgling water fountain hidden inside plastic palm trees and vines. There were shiny pennies covering the bottom of the little blue pool. She got on the Internet to look for a used car and to check on financial aid for community college. But she couldn’t get into the newspaper’s website and had forgotten her PIN number for the grant, so she absently punched in her name, “Lisa Old Bull.” As expected there wasn’t anything about her, just a bunch of stuff that had either “Lisa,” “Old” or “Bull” in it. She looked up and saw someone who looked like Derrick wandering around in New Biographies. The thought of him browsing books at the library almost made her laugh out loud. Was she losing her mind or were a lot of people looking like Derrick? So she punched in Derrick’s name quickly but of course there wasn’t anything on him. Then she thought of what he had told her about the bank, which she never really believed anyway. She typed in “Choctaw” but got a million things on “Choctaw, Oklahoma” and “Choctaw Indians.” Then she typed in “Choctaw bank robbery” and there it was, a link to a story in the Oklahoma City Times that read: “Bandana Bandit Sticks Up Choctaw Bank.” The article said that a man wearing a blue bandana walked into the bank right after it opened and made off with about $10,000 after sticking a bag and a letter in a teller’s face that said “No phunny stuph. I’ve got a gun.” It was during a blizzard and he took off running like a track star into the storm and vanished. She put a hand to her mouth. That was his him! It would be funny it weren’t so pathetic. From “Hooked On Phonics” he began to believe all “F” sounds were spelled “ph.” Plus, he wore that stupid blue bandana like a skullcap and his favorite line was “No funny stuff.” She must have heard him say it a million times. Mom always asked her if she was still seeing “Hooked On Phonics.”
   That night she dozed off on her couch beading on a white coin purse she was making. She woke up when her cell phone rang. It was Gloria wanting to know if she wanted to eat a pizza but Lisa said she was too tired and had to be at work early the next morning. In bed she started thinking of Derrick again (Dammit!) and all the stuff she read on the Internet. He could have been somebody had he applied himself. He was coming along well with “Hooked On Phonics” but would have killed her had she told anyone. Not being able to read was something he was very embarrassed about but hid well and hardly anyone knew. Suddenly Lisa realized it was storming softly outside and heard the patter of rain as water streaked the windows. They would lie together naked in the hot apartment at night with the sheets and lights off and the windows up listening to storms: no TV, radio or talking. Just the flash and whip-snap of lightning, low growl of thunder and steady applause of rainfall. With the cold breeze on her face she would fall asleep on his chest. God, what he could do to her.

   At the gallery the next day she was putting a big wooden frame around the tornado painting in the back when she looked and saw someone regarding her attentively from near the cash register in front, talking to Miss Rose. Her first thought was that he looked like Elvis Presley with his sunglasses and swooped-back hair-do. The collar on his windbreaker was even flipped up. Just a little too cool, she thought. Lisa returned his gaze, thinking two can play that game. But she got busy when he and Miss Rose started toward the room.
   “Lisa, I want you to meet the artist, Jordan Coolwater. Jordan, Lisa, Lisa, Jordan.”
   Lisa wiped the hair out of her eyes and shook his hand, noting the flashy diamond ring on his pinky finger.
   “Pleasure,” he said behind his shades, square teeth gleaming.
   “Jordan, Lisa here has been framing all your paintings. I want you to look at them and tell me if there has ever been a better job done. Just look at them,” Miss Rose said.
   Miss Rose often gushed over her and was sometimes embarrassing but Lisa loved her to death. She watched Jordan walk slowly past all the paintings, stopping at each one and taking a few steps back, crouching and looking them over from all angles.
   “They look fucking great,” Jordan said, then laughed. “He said modestly.”
   Lisa was shocked. She never really thought about the artist as she had been framing the work over the past few weeks, but now that she thought about it she just assumed someone a lot older had painted them, someone at least her dad’s age. That someone her age could do this really astounded her. She thought them some of the best paintings she’d ever seen and she’d seen some good ones. Her uncle Roland Yellow Eyes was a famous painter.
   “Thanks,” Lisa said.
   Miss Rose guided Jordan around to all his paintings and they discussed some things in hushed tones, Jordan pointing around at the pictures so that his ring glittered in the light. Lisa got a drink of water from the cooler in the corner.
   “Hey, Lisa,” Jordan said suddenly, turning from the paintings. “Would you like to get something to eat?”

   Jordan opened the passenger’s door to his white Corvette, which crouched directly in front of the gallery in the only reserved spot. It had thin red pinstripes stripped along the side like flames and fat tires with raised white letters on them. The license plate said “COOLWATER #1.”
   They headed for Frank’s, a popular barbecue shack near Sapulpa about 15 minutes away that Jordan said she would like. He quickly navigated the downtown streets, roaring onto the expressway after two fast lefts. Lisa felt herself surge back into the leather as if being pushed by an invisible force. She thought he’d be your average everyday dickhead because he acted so cool, wearing snakeskin boots and a gold chain with a little boxing glove swinging off the end, always looking in the mirror and flicking at his hair. She still hadn’t seen his eyes. She fought an initial urge to be flippant with him, he seemed such a cocky sucker. But he was actually easygoing, asked where she was from and said she had done a great job with the frames. He kept asking questions about her instead of talking about himself, which was a good sign. She asked him how long he’d been painting. Since high school, he said. He told her he was nervous because it was his first one-man show in his home state after recently relocating from Santa Fe where rents and gallery space were going through the roof. It was about half as cheap to work in Oklahoma, he said.
   “But enough about me,” he said. “Let’s talk about you. What do you think of the paintings I have out for the show?”
   He laughed and slapped the wheel at his own joke. So he was sort of a doofus, she thought. Lisa felt that she usually intimidated guys with her looks but found herself staring at him the whole trip as he drove easily with an elbow jutting out the window and a toothpick sticking out of his mouth, other hand on the 8-ball gear knob.
   He turned the stereo up full blast. It was “Early in the Morning” by the Gap Band.
   “Favorite song?” she asked.
   “No, it was in there when I bought it. It’s stuck,” he yelled and they laughed.
   Without looking he offered her a stick of gum. She took it, thinking it was fun to be around someone with a little self confidence – even if the ride was a little bumpy.

   Lisa saw him nearly every day after that because he would come by the gallery and help hang the show, make little additions to his scenes, and set up his sculptures on pedestals. Miss Rose had closed the gallery and they played the music loud and drank punch that Jordan spiked with vodka like a high school kid. Her heart dropped one day when he walked in with a pretty girl but it was only his cousin come to help out. They always went to lunch and he began driving her home at night although at first she was embarrassed of living in the projects, afraid the dealers would be out there selling crack when he dropped her off. Sometimes cars would be lined up like at a drive-thru, making quick buys off the sidewalk. You’d see the same vehicles coming back every 15 minutes or so.
   One afternoon she brought him inside to show him her bracelets and beadwork. He sat down at the kitchen table and pulled out a little bottle of rum, getting up now and then to look out the curtains at his Corvette.
   “Let’s sit out back,” Lisa said.
   She made drinks in plastic cups and put the radio in the window. A storm was moving in north from Bartlesville and every time the pink clouds lit up with lightning the radio crackled. They sat on lawn chairs on the cement slab of patio, talking about their families. Lisa told him about the fight with her mom and how much she missed little Eric. They discovered that they both had dads who had drank all the time until Jordan’s died and Lisa’s finally stopped. Both their moms were smart enough to quit in their 30s. They talked about all this while drinking their mixed drinks. Lisa watched how Jordan smoked, exhaling forcefully out his nose like a cartoon of someone steaming mad.
   Purplish, bruised clouds sailed in and it grew chilly and dark. It rained softly at first then tilted sideways with a blast of wind that sprayed a layer of tiny ice pellets. Jordan picked one up and popped it in his mouth. They wanted to stay outside but gathered up their stuff when the hail started bouncing all around them like marbles. She felt his hand on her shoulder when they went in. Just then lightning zapped a transformer across the street, a million-to-one shot that delivered an eruption of blue and red sparks like a fireworks show.
   “Whoa!” they said unison.
   The lights inside flickered weakly then blinked off. Lisa ran around shutting all her windows, which were hard to get down. The one in her bedroom wouldn’t close all the way and the wind rushed through the narrow gap underneath with a spooky howl. She heard Jordan yelling something from the kitchen. It was pitch black out. She couldn’t even see the highway because the street lamps were down. But when pink lightning lit up the parking lot briefly she saw the big oak tree in back bent sideways, about to explode with its crown brushing the ground. Then the darkness descended like a drawn curtain and was black again.
   She grabbed Jordan by the hand and they rushed in darkness down the hallway, stumbling and laughing into the bathroom where she slammed the door. She was so glad he was there with her at that moment. She hugged him as tight as she could and felt his cold hands go up her shirt in back. It gave her goose bumps. She was shaking – from what she didn’t know – and tried to bury herself inside him. They began to kiss as what sounded like an aquarium full of dimes shattered above them, then a roar like a jet skimming the roof, then abrupt silence except for the lip-locked clicking of their teeth. Lisa pulled away first, head spinning, tasting the sweet rum on his tongue. As if from under water she began to hear a rotating mixture of car alarms and sirens outside.
   It was all over in the proverbial split second. Sunlight speared through the breaking clouds while rain dripped off the eaves of the apartment in fat drops like pearls. Huge squares of roof shingles here and there made the front yard look like a quilted blanket, stitched with tree bark and wet leaves. Lisa never forgot the look on Jordan’s face as he stood there looking at his Corvette. A limb had caved in the roof and a red brick had spider-webbed the windshield and lay in the passenger’s seat. Other than that it was perfectly fine. A kid’s trike sat on the hood but there was no kid on it, thank God. Lisa felt sorry for him as he walked trancelike towards the car, unsure if he’d break down crying or flip out in anger. But he never lost his cool, only walked once slowly around the car with a hand on his chin, opened the trunk and got out some paintings.
   “Look at that rainbow,” he said to her walking inside.

   It made for a good story to tell everyone at the opening the next day. Hundreds showed up: dealers, other artists, curious people off the street, buyers, collectors, the homeless for the wine and cheese, someone who said he was writing an article for an Indian art magazine. There was free beer and liquor but Jordan had his smoky green J&B bottle in back. Lisa watched him handle his fans in his sportscoat and dress boots, smiling and chewing gum, listening intently to the blue-hairs, signing their programs, towering over them while posing for photos. The pomade in his hair shined under the track lighting. He caught Lisa’s eye and winked. She stuck out her tongue at him playfully. No one else saw.
   All his paintings and sculptures sold, but according to Miss Rose that was a foregone conclusion. In spite of herself Lisa counted it all up mentally – it had to be ten or fifteen thousand dollars. She guessed he could afford to have the Corvette fixed. She went with him and some other artists to the lounge at the Adams Mark, where they all laughed loudly and drank like they owned the place. Jordan put the tab on his money-green American Express card. When the bar closed the crew went up to their heavily draped, cinnamon-smelling suite where Jordan had more scotch and beer and they told stories and jokes that Jordan tape-recorded because his “hero” as he called him, Elvis Littlechief, 77 years old, was there. Lisa fell asleep on the bed and when she awoke in the morning they were still going at it.

   The gallery felt like a mausoleum when Lisa went back to work. The opening and the days and weeks preceding it assumed a dreamlike quality as if it never happened. Jordan had sent her a postcard with a drawing in Prismacolor of an Indian couple wrapped in a shawl kissing underneath a tree while yellow leaves and the sun fell behind them. “I’m not very good with words but thanks for helping with my Art Show. You are a very special person.” He had wrapped the words around the figures with a P.S., “Drawn with left hand.” She studied the sketch, trying to determine if the image was romantically portentous or contained hidden implications. Anyway, it made her feel good.
   She went back to part time for Miss Rose, running the cash register, answering the phone, dusting off the art or working on her beadwork. She framed Jordan’s postcard and stood it on her dresser at home. She started summer school studying economics and art history but could only get a partial grant because she had defaulted on a student loan 10 years earlier. She figured that was one of her first lessons in economics. She had to use the copier in the library to Xerox pages for the assignments because she couldn’t afford the $150 textbooks. One night in class while Mr. Williams was going on about international trade she got a vibrating text-message from Gloria: “I SAW YOU KNOW WHO DRIVING DOWN THE STREET.”

   At home Gloria told her she couldn’t be 100 percent sure but it looked like her ex in the black truck. It was going real slow down the street and pulling into the various parking lots in the projects, idling, then backing out.
   “Ha ha, he doesn’t know I don’t have that car anymore,” Gloria said out on the porch. The red hatchback had been crushed in the tornado, but Gloria had actually come out ahead, getting an almost-new one with the insurance money and using the rest for clothes. Lisa could hardly pay attention to what she was saying, though, she was so mad about Derrick still trying to find her after she had started all over from Square One and was seeing someone else. There was no doubt in her mind that it was his ghetto black ass lurking around again. She thought it all over and called Jordan and left a message since he never answered when he was painting.

   Jordan came over late the next day driving slow in a freshly waxed graphite-and-blue Silverado with spinning gold rims and a supersonic bass vibrating the tinted windows. When he had said to look out for a silver Chevy she didn’t think he’d meant a freakshow carnival on wheels. The vanity license plate (“RED RACE”) in front was outlined in blinking-red neon lights. God she hoped he wasn’t drunk already, dreading the messy business ahead he yet knew nothing of.
   “What’s up with the gangstermobile?” she asked him as he walked in the door, then hugged and kissed him, nearly knocking him over. He said he was sorry he was late, he had stopped by his dopehead cousin’s to borrow his car and messed around and got stoned out of his mind on Thai stick. She would have to drive if they were still going to Watonga because he had to wait for it to wear off which might be tomorrow the way he felt right now, he said. He took off his sunglasses and rubbed his eyes. His cousin had helped clear Jordan’s sinuses with two big nose hits from a three-pronged turkey-foot joint. Jordan said it usually didn’t affect him much but this stuff must have been the real deal – redhead sense, the cousin called it, which didn’t make any sense. Jordan said he couldn’t keep his balance pumping gas, feeling like the wind was going to blow him over, never mind that he weighed 220 pounds and there was no wind. On the crosstown expressway to her place he felt like he was sailing along normal but when he looked at the speedometer he was doing 30 miles an hour. He said there was such a deafening hum in his head he had to turn the stereo all the way up just to hear the music, but Lisa told him she heard it clearly inside with all her windows closed and the TV on.
   That was when Lisa decided to tell him the reason she needed to go to Watonga was to get rid of an ex-boyfriend, an illiterate spraypaint huffer the newspaper called the Bandana Bandit who’d stuck up a bank two years ago and for the past three months had been driving over from Oklahoma City and stalking her, drinking tallboy beers in the parking lot outside her window, a real country negro with jacks and sledgehammers rattling in back of his pickup.
   Before they left they made love on the couch, and while doing so she added it to her mental list of places they’d desecrated in the apartment: couch, recliner, dining table, wooden chair (broke it), kitchen counter, shower, bathroom sink, hallway, hammock (ripped it), patio, stairway – everywhere except the bed it seemed.

   About an hour outside Watonga on I-40 Lisa called Derrick and told him she couldn’t help it but was thinking about him and just wanted to call and say she hoped they could still be friends. In the passenger’s seat Jordan was making faces and pointing at his mouth acting like he was going to throw up. Lisa stifled a laugh. On the other end of the line Derrick had taken the bait like a sucker fish just as she knew he would. She felt guilty taking advantage of his gullible ass, but knew he would never give up looking for her. When they reached her mom’s Eric ran out of the house and jumped in Lisa’s arms. Jordan shook hands with Lisa’s mom and uncle, and her uncle offered him a beer.
   “Thank you, there is a God,” Jordan said .
In the kitchen Lisa called the tribal cops and explained the situation.
   “If nothing else he’ll be driving and he don’t have a license,” she told them. “And about five warrants right here in Watonga alone.”
   She hung up.
   “They’re right around the corner,” she said.
   Then she called Derrick and asked him where he was at.
   “Right up the street,” Lisa announced.
   Lisa peeked out the drapes and when she saw the black truck called the cops again. Derrick parked along the street and got out, eyeballing the Silverado, and began walking to the front door. Eric looked out too and banged on the window until Lisa’s mom stopped him and took him back to his room. They all stood in the kitchen looking at Derrick’s shadowy figure until the cops came running up screaming for him to get down and don’t move. Lisa saw about a dozen cops in three different types of uniforms tackle and wrestle his big black rear to the ground.

   Lisa had to answer a bunch of questions about harboring a fugitive to get the $10,000 federal reward money, but she said she didn’t even know him when he did it, hadn’t seen him in a year and he had never lived with her so how could she have harbored him? Honestly, if he hadn’t kept showing up hassling her she would have been perfectly content to forget he existed.
   After taxes and paying off student loans and buying her mom a van she still had $5,000, which was about as much as the idiot stole in the first place. Maybe she’d say thanks by putting a few dollars on his prison commissary. She had to report it on her taxes which instantly made her ineligible to stay in public housing in Tulsa – probably the best thing to come out of the whole deal, other than Jordan asking her to marry him out there in the middle of the night while they lay on the 18th green at Roman Nose. (She added that to her list, too.) Looking up at the red star of Mars, she teased him saying she would have to think about it. But she loved him and there really was nothing to think about, believing in her youth that she would go through it all again if she had to.



Requiem for Jims

   “Dude, you’re an artist.”
   “How do you mean?”
   She winks and steps closer.
   Wednesday night, I’m chillin’ in the Student Union with a group of guys from my old high school. Nobody I’m real tight with but I hang with them all the same. There’s Lopez and Emerson and a Cubano everybody calls Char-less instead of Charles or Carlos. And there’s this girl he knows named Alicia. She’s got dark brown hair streaked with blonde and is constantly running her hands through it, making it messier and messier. I think I’ve seen her before, maybe even exchanged compositions with her. Everybody’s talking but before I know it, it’s just me and Alicia.
   “I should show you my work sometime,” she says. I recycle Disney stamps, you know, the kind kids use with ink pads. I get flawed ones, cut them up and mount them on old linoleum tiles. Then I paint them. My stepdad gets the stamps from his factory job. He’s not really my step-dad, just my mom’s old man. Mom’s always on him because he won’t go to church and won’t get married the way she’d like. He’s still sorta cool, though. He’s got sciatica and sometimes he gets this amazing, doctor-prescribed weed.”
   “You get high, Rudy?” she whispers. She winks again then does a wiggly move that makes her jangle like a tambourine because of a metal, fringy belt she’s wearing. She gives me a gooey-kind of look.
   I know where this is headed.
So why can’t I kiss her? I think about the rock candy I used to buy as a kid, how the little pebbles would explode in my mouth. Quick, cheap thrills.
   Maybe I’m not fired up about her.
   She steps closer; I step back; her kiss lands between my chin and left ear.
   Jims would’ve kissed her and then some. He would’ve slipped into her Toyota, rode her, and at least gotten a lift home. Why can’t I be more like Jims?
   Maybe living with Moms, sis and her baby’s making me soft.

   Rudy has no memory of his father, no pictures, only a set of playing cards that’s missing the king of hearts, the two of spades and a joker. And, a pair of worn leather dress shoes that his mother keeps hidden is the closet. Whenever she’s annoyed with him, she refers to him in the third person. “Rodolfo Alvarez will turn out just like his padre,” she says to the kitchen sink, “Irresponsable.” She doesn’t explain this, except to say it’s related to Rudy’s artistic temperament.
   What she gives Rudy are random facts: that the day his father left, he wore a dark blue windbreaker, the kind plumbers and other repairmen wear; that his father didn’t like his voice because it wasn’t low enough; that he and his father were born in the same town in the state of Jalisco, (probably conceived in the same bed but she doesn’t get that specific), and that they’re both broad-shouldered and tall.
   For the longest time, whenever Rudy goes about the neighborhood, he’s on the lookout for a tall Mexican in a dark blue windbreaker.

   I’m riding the 14-Bus home, past the panaderia, Horace Mann Elementary, and Saint James Church. The bus jerks to a stop and two teenaged boys get on. As the bus whines up the hill, my head’s busting with too many thoughts about Alicia; how I’m going to face her and everybody tomorrow? Two seats up, the teenage boys are talking too loudly, cursing and carrying on, oblivious to everything but each other. An older woman leaves her seat for one closer to the driver. I watch the boys and I’m back five years, back to when it was just me and Jims riding that same bus. Two thirteen year-olds talking shit. Life was simple then with me and Jims on the 14-Bus line.

   Jimmy’s email to Rudy from Baghdad: U should see these babes, man. They got these firm muscles and shit.
   Rudy: Beware them Linda Hamilton types. They’ll do you like they did the Terminator.

   I write in my notebook: What Jims would say about Alicia:
·  She’s not bad lookin’ if you go for Latina Madonna wannabe types.
·  You get a good lay and it doesn’t mean you gotta marry her.
·  Kissing leads to sex the way weed leads to heroin. Slippery slope? That’s jibe, Man. Your
   Mama fed you some scary shit.
·  What’re you afraid of? Your Mama’s spooky voice saying: she’s going to get fat and not from    her Tia Lola’s carnitas.
·  Man, just call the girl then we’ll talk.
Thanks, Carnal
   Friendship is random. You’re buddies with the dude who sits next to you in class, with the guy you shoots hoops with at the playground, or the kid whose parents are friends with yours. But deep lasting friendship? That’s not random at all.

   On a drizzly, Saturday morning, Rudy’s mother, wanting to enlist the aid of a strong male role model for her six-year old son, takes him to Dolores Park for soccer tryouts. Jimmy’s mother hopes for the same but oversleeps, arriving fifteen minutes late. The coach, an ex-marine who believes tardiness is a high crime, never even lets Jimmy kick the ball. Too bad. A little more flexibility and he would have nabbed a star player.
   And Rudy? Awkward and lumbering, constantly hoping his glasses won’t fall when the ball zips past. Rudy never has a chance.
   The coach makes selections. Rudy cries and his mother offers him pan dulce as consolation. Jimmy spits like his Tio Pepe and says he doesn’t need a team. His older brother’ll coach him. But can he have a cream-stuffed, chocolate covered pastry from Panaderia La Mejor?
   The mothers meet in line and drink their cafecito at metal tables. Rudy, recognizing Jimmy from his class, eats his pineapple empanada slowly and deliberately, knowing he’s being watched.
   “It’s not easy raising a son without a man’s strong hand, Señora,” Rudy’s mother says.
   “Please,” she says, “call me Carmen.”
   “Si, pues, Carmen. I’m Delfina.”
   The conversation lasts a long time -- one might say a lifetime. The women become Comadres. And in the tradition of adopted godparentship, the connection renders Jimmy and Rudy somewhere between cousins and brothers.

   Carnal, this place is fucking WEIRD. Like did U know jerking off on security duty is practically army policy? They hand out Hustler like candy. But damn if we can walk alongside a chick w/o being written up for FRATERNIZING! Like, it’s legal to come for pictures but not the real thing.

   It happens after school in the Horace Mann Playground. Third grader Cleveland Fisher waits for the teachers to disappear into after school programs, then, flanked by a lieutenant and a handful of wannabes, heads straight for Rudy.
   “Alvarez, Kyle here says you took my X-men comics?”
   The lieutenant sneers at Rudy.
   “I didn’t take nothin,” Rudy objects. He attempts a toughened look he has studied on television wise guys, but Fisher is too tall. Rudy thinks Fisher was probably held back a year.
   “Beaner, you better come clean. “ He grabs Rudy’s shirt collar.
   “I swear I never touched them.”
   “Where’d they go then?”
   “How the heck…should I know.” Rudy’s words start out strong then taper off. He worries he’ll cry and fog up his glasses.
   “Let em’ go,” Jimmy calls out; a ball bounces beneath his hand as he runs towards them. Fisher picks up Rudy and throws him against the wall. Losing footing, Rudy lands on the ground.
   “Fuckin’ wetback. You gonna tell me what happened or do I have to knock it out of you.”
   “Why dontcha look in Kyle’s backpack? Jimmy says calmly.
   Fisher looks at Kyle; the first lieutenant’s face takes on the look of those startled Halloween cats displayed on windows. Before Bad Ass-Number One can strike Bad Ass Number Two, Kyle makes like a bullet train and shoots down the street. Rudy and Jimmy bolt in the opposite direction. Someone’s gonna have to pay for this, Rudy thinks.
   “Why’d you do that,” Rudy asks when he catches up to Jimmy.
   “Rude, those guys is mean. I got my older brother. He can whup those guys good. Who you got? Your skinny older sister? I just thought you were going to need my help. Besides, you and me, we’s family. You know that.

   Between the sergeants looking over your shoulder, the 100+ heat and the bugs, u can’t score any women. Hope you’re gettin some, cuz I sure aint.

   As the English teacher waxes on overtime, Rudy realizes that once again, he’s going to be late for his job. When he gets to his locker, Jimmy is waiting.
   “You going to keep your job at Sam’s after high school?” Jimmy asks once they’re outside.
   “It’s a good gig. I can work part-time and still take some courses at the JCC. Besides Sam’s a good boss. What’re you going to do?”
   “I’m good with cars,” Jimmy says. “Day after graduation, I’m gonna work at Tío Pepe’s garage.”
   A week later, they’re walking so fast, they almost jam into a viejito’s mango cart. Nearing Sam’s, Jimmy announces, “Did I tell you? Ima go to Texas?”
   “Galveston. Make me some good money on one of them oil rigs. Buy me some clothes. Impress the ladies.”
   “And Tío Pepe?”
   “Cabron. Asshole said he’d start me off at minimum wage.”

   When the army recruiters come, a handful of students protest; three times that many queue up before cart tables in the high school foyer. The soldiers, one Latino, another African-American, look sharp in their crisp khakis. They handle recruits with tactical skill; one delivers the lines to the customers; the other keeps antenna lifted for passersby with potential. At lunchtime, Jimmy sidles the table and eyes the brochures.
   “A $2000 bonus just for signing up,” the Latino says.
   A speck of interest and the pitch continues.
   “Two weeks paid vacation, college skills…
   “He ain’t interested,” Rudy shouts.
   “… travel, a profession, whatever you want…
   I saved enough for a house.”
   In some neighborhoods, recruiting is a piece of cake.
   “Why’d you sign up, Jims?
   “The fuck, Carnal. I wanna make something outa myself. Get me some legal papers and outa this shit hole life.”
   “You’re one crazy dude; don’t you know there’s a war going on? You don’t need no desert sandbox.”
   “Sure there’s war. That’s part of it. War’s being fought for our freedoms.”
   Rudy sighs, his eyes trace the words Siempre Sureño spraypainted on a school wall. “You’re one twisted motherfucker, Carnal.”
   “No, it’s you that’s twisted. Don’t you know terrorists out there need their ass kicked?”
   “So now you’re Rambo, is that it?”
   “It’s not about that. It’s about bein’ a part of something, feeling like I belong here instead of some freaky alien leaching off the system like they say on television.”
   “Don’t listen to that crap. You can be all that you can BE right here. Go to school, get a job. Maybe even get down with Marisela Rodriguez. Or Lisa Simmons. Rudy draws her name out slowly with one eye half-closed.
   Jimmy nods and chuckles and the conversation drifts in a different direction.

   A week later, Rudy writes: Reasons against in his notebook:
You hate getting up early in the mornings.
Male authority makes you nervous. (He crosses this off because it’s too difficult to explain.)
Who’s going to drive your moms to work?
The next day, while listening to his mother’s radio program, Latino En La Mañana, Rudy gets a better idea.
    “You can’t go,” Rudy tells him. “You need a social security number. I know YOU don’t got one. You need to be legal to get it. They don’t take mojados like us.
   “I’ll give em one,” Jimmy says.

   Like the Keno numbers their mothers conjure up from Divine Providence when gambling in Reno, Jimmy dreams one up. That and a false declaration of citizenship get him in. The recruiters, only too eager to enlist another young grunt, don’t verify numbers carefully.
   Who wouldn’t believe a kid who says he’s a citizen, especially an ordinary-looking, Taco-Bell-eating barrio kid who’s lived here most of his life. After all those years their mothers spent hiding them from La Migra, who’d imagine Jimmy would have the gall to shout out, “Here I am. Take me.”

   Three weeks and Jimmy will be gone. So when he sees Marisela Rodriguez gossiping with Concha Sanchez, Rudy cooks up another scheme. Concha has an older sister who is friends with his. If he can get Marisela to hook up with Jimmy then maybe the fool will change his mind. Amazingly, Marisela likes the idea. She lacquers her hair into ringlets and during math invites Jimmy to join her at the pre-grad night picnic. But Jimmy doesn’t pay attention; he’s fixated on some blonde. Marisela is stunned.
   Later she’s pissed. She catches Jimmy in the cafeteria and lands a tray of mashed potatoes and catsup on his lap. “You can tell that no-count moron who’s attached to your hip I only did it on account of Concha. That’ll teach you to make a fool out of me.”
   Rudy and Jimmy don’t speak until Jimmy’s send-off party in his mother’s backyard. A dozen grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and a few leftover neighborhood kids hover over a banana cream cake dotted with American flagged toothpicks. Rudy lurks from the kitchen door until Jimmy hands him a piece of cake.
   “We’re cool, right?” Jimmy says to him. “You’d better write, Carnal.”

   This here’s a hellhole, Carnal. I’m not just talkin about the heat. U never know what’s coming at you. And you know what? We’re fuckin wetbacks here too.

   I race up the stairs, and as I fit my key into the lock, hear faint ringing that grows louder when I open the door. Mama always says when the phone rings that late, it’s never good news. Out of habit and because I don’t want the baby to wake up, I answer it.

   “It’s about Yimmee,” Jimmy’s cousin says, barely talking through sobs. Somebody else takes the phone. I stop listening. All I hear is, “We’ve made arrangements. We can’t have an open casket.” Long after I hear the click, a mechanical voice repeats over and over.
   My body freezes. It’s like all my bodily fluid has turned to ice.

   Later, I’m lying on my bed, looking at my stalactite ceiling. I can see Jimmy clearly: his dimples, the long hair he was proud of, his tough-guy, cholo walk that made him look like an old man with arthritic hips. I reach for a photo inside my desk. He’s wearing fatigues, giving a thumbs-up. A caption says: Presenting Private First Class Jaime Garcia. I fall asleep with it clutched in my hands.

   Rudy oversleeps and arrives late at Sam’s. Disheveled and unshaven, he looks like an unmade bed.
   “You look like shit,” Sam says. “Put this apron on and clean up Poochini’s mess.”
   Rudy mops the yellow puddles then sweeps. The timid chow chow’s fur clippings remind him of Jimmy’s hair – of things that are leftover. He wonders what was left of Jims?
   All day he struggles to focus, but fragments of Jimmy pop up in random places. A young blonde drops off a pug for a nail job. She has piercings on her eyebrows and elbows, just like a girl from school Jimmy mooned over for months. He’d joined the drama club just for a chance to be near her. All he did was saw lumber for the sets.
   In the lunchroom, Sam teases him. “Were you out partying last night?” Rudy casts his eyes down. Any mention of Jims and he knows he’ll sob uncontrollably – like his mother did sometimes late at night.

   It’s six thirty and if I run, maybe I’ll make it to the computer lab before class. Then I remember. There’s no point in emailing today. On the bus I pull out my notebook but can’t write anything.

   He’s late and the only available seat is next to Alicia.
   “Thanks for joining us, Mr. Alvarrrrez,” the professor says, rolling his “Rs” as though driving on a gravel road. “But we’re not on Latino-time and I was just explaining the next assignment.” Rudy glares at the professor.

   “Next class, I want five pages on someone or something that’s influenced you, someone who gave you pause, an event that made you think, changed your values. Take the next five minutes to start.”
   With clammy palms, Rudy grips the pen and writes his name and date at the top of the page. He then stares blankly at the blue lined paper. All he can think of is Jimmy but he can’t bear writing his name. He puts the pen down and lays his head on his hands.
   Just when he thinks he might cry, a slip of paper slides underneath his hands.
   You okay? Call me. Alicia (415) 285-1483.
   “Notes, Mr. Alvarrrez? Can we have a read? They might be more interesting than your compositions.”
   “Fuck it,” he says, loud enough for everyone to hear. He picks up his backpack and races out the classroom.

   Hundreds of votive candles light up Jimmy’s house. Shadowy figures huddle in corners, sharing whispered details of the blast. Rudy doesn’t pay attention. He watches two little boys make farting noises in the kitchen. When an older cousin swats one in the rear and separates them, Rudy moves to the living room.
   A wooden side table displays framed pictures of Jimmy. Below them are dog tags, a small patch bearing a U.S. Army insignia and a Simpson’s video gameboy – small personal effects the army recovered and sent home.
   Rudy examines the photos: Jimmy before a statue of a mermaid brushing her hair, Jimmy casting a serious pose for his senior portrait, his long hair brushed and shining; another in his platoon. If it weren’t for his fatigues, he could have been at a picnic. Next to those pictures are older, fading snapshots of another time. Some include Rudy: little boys in red hats pretending to be cowboys, another one before a birthday cake. It’s the last one that cuts through him – a little boy before seven candles, already savoring the chocolate icing.

   Late that night, he lies awake worrying that he might forget Jimmy’s voice. He jumps out of bed and rifles through piles of old assignments before rescuing a crinkled piece of paper.
   “Hey Rude. Thanks 4 the email. U don’t know how important it is for us to hear from home. The last few days have been kinda hard. We been doing field investigation 5 days and nights. The last day we get a break and some of us start playing soccer with a couple of Hajiis, the locals that is, that interpret 4 us. I don’t know how they can stand it with all these cowboys callin them Osama Bin Ladins. Anyway, we were scrimmaging when mortars start flying down. We’re used to that. But this is like a fucking blizzard. Everybody runs. Nobody wants to get purple hearted. Sarge Plunkett, a real cracker from West Virgina, he was directin traffic and that’s when we lose him. I hated the guys guts, Carnal, but he had a wife and 2 kids. I didn’t expect losing him to be so hard.
   It’s crazy here. I’ll tell U more, later. Write back, okay. Hey, you still writing in your notebook? U gonna have a book soon. Be cool, man, Always, Jims.

   Rudy stares at the paper a long while. Then without thinking, he flips opens his notebook:
   Carnal, when that bomb exploded on you in that Iraqi town I can’t pronounce, it’s like my own pellejo burning. Fuck, this isn’t happening.
   How could you leave us, Carnal? All for some rich dude’s Humvee? Somebody’s no limit American Express card? Cuz that’s what it’s about, you know? I tried to tell you. It wasn’t your war. You’s just the one who paid the price.
   You had another war you were fighting. A war inside you. You wanted to be noticed. But not the way they looked at you. You was tired of everybody seeing a janitor or gardener or illegal alien every time they look at you; tired of Lou Dobbs and Minutemen wanting us deported.
   You wanted dignity, Carnal, wanted them sergeants to know you’s a loyal, American boy with stars and stripes tattooed on your very soul. Don’t you know America’s not just the USA but Mexico and Guatemala and even Canada.
   You were so anxious to show everybody you were just like them. You weren’t going to get jumped into the Surenos, do prison-time or even flip burgers. You had it in you to be somebody. Make a name for yourself. As if your name Jaime Gonzales wasn’t good enough. You had to have a title. For six months you got your title.
   Six fucking months, Carnal. That’s all it took.
   Why the hell didn’t I stop you? Beat you senseless to keep you from that bus that day.
Who am I kidding?
   No way I coulda stopped you.
   You know what, Carnal? I hate you. I hate your fucking guts. I hate you for what you’re making me feel right now. It’s on account of you I’m an 18-year old man bawling like a little girl – like somebody mama would feed with a spoon. I’m dying, man. And it’s all because of you.

   Later, when Rudy tries to remember the next few days, his mind resists. He recalls carrying the coffin inside the church and the manicured lawns in the surreal stillness of the cemetery; everything else has the texture of cobwebs.
   After the funeral, he calls in sick to work. School he stops attending altogether. All he’s good for, he thinks, is microwaving pizza and watching Loony Tunes.
   When he does return to work, he’s quieter than usual. He decides he’s better this way. It’s even better when he stops thinking altogether. He takes on more hours at Sam’s and fills his days with clipping, washing, grooming and cleaning up after dogs. Days pass slowly. Sam, Rudy’s mother, his sister, everyone, perhaps even the dogs, give him distance. They cast such a wide berth around him that he starts feeling invisible – a ghost trapped between worlds.

   Sam’s door chime tinkles and a customer walks in. “We’re closed,” I say. Why do people always arrive two minutes before closing?
   It’s a woman and she doesn’t even have a dog.
   “Hi,” she says.
   She looks familiar but I can’t say from where.
   “It’s Alicia, remember?” she says, “I tried calling, but...”
   I groan inside.
   “I heard about your friend,” she says, “Charles said you guys were real real close. I’m sorry.”
   I can’t think of anything to say so I stare at the points on her boots, then grab my jacket, and walk outside. She follows.
   “You know,” she says, “We’ve missed you at school.”
   “That class was a joke.”
   “Maybe, but you should come back and take other classes. Writing classes.”
   I shrug.
   “I’ve read your compositions. They’re good.”
|   Her praise feels like a zinger, like I’ve just hit my funny bone. I turn her words over and over in my head. “I ditched my notebook,” I say finally.
   She shakes her head. “Keep writing and come back.” She says this firmly, and it occurs to me that she’s different than when I saw her a few months back; she’s quieter, more solid.
   We keep on walking and then she stops. “I almost forgot,” she says, “You hungry? I bought us some fried chicken.”
   I notice the bucket she’s been carrying like a baby. She winks, jiggling the way I’ve seen her do before. We find a bench and eat drumsticks. All the while, we listen to the dirge of the 14-bus as it lurches up and down Mission Street.