Scott Archer Jones
LA ELEGÍA PARA DAVID ALVAREZ
La limpieza es el lujo del pobre.
David Luis Raymond Alvarez thought sagebrush stank. No matter who told him how beautiful, how fragrant they found sagebrush, he still thought it smelled. E-voc-a-tive. Evocodor. Evocative of uncleared land killed by contorted, poisonous bushes. All the way up from Albuquerque he thought about death. And old white women. They had a stranglehold on life now, didn’t they? And now this green metallic smell hung in his nose, like a pequeña muerte para los vaqueros.
Today marked his birthday. Somehow he had woken up forty-four years old. He was fifty pounds overweight and balding. It didn’t matter. New Mexico sunshine bounced savage up into his eyes off the peeling dash. Traffic in Española jostled and nudged him, before it all thinned out as he steered north past the cholla. A few cars headed up to Taos with him, all strung out, all lost souls. Like him.
Below David saw the ranchito of Dominic’s abuelito. Its soft edges showed hard, flattened in the cold, sharp October light of a New Mexico noon. The old house nestled into the ground, tan and gray below two pines; a doublewide sat perpendicular to the adobe. He counted five cars and trucks in all, two of them nose-down in an arroyo to the west of the house.
He thought that out of five cars, two—the two in front of the houses—ran. At least most of the time. The one at the side of the house would be stalled in a twilight where the Martinezes could only wish it to run. The two in the ditch wrote out a family history. Outside the gate itself, a drill rig parked, enormous in the sun. Once painted blue, its rust bled through paint, dust and mud, streaks down the side.
In the yard past the gate, a white-haired, wrinkled man waited, thin, patient. He wore Ropers, jeans, a cowboy shirt with snap down pockets and a battered baseball cap. Or they wore him, kept him bundled together and upright. David stopped in front of him and stepped out of the pickup, extended his hand to the old man. The abuelo’s hand, bent willow branches in a sack of leather, had black age spots scattered across the brown skin. It disappeared into David’s slab of a hand. “Señor Martinez, cómo está?”
“Heh Gordo, it’s good to see you again, like an abra during a storm. We haven’t talked with you in many weeks, Davey.”
“Well, more the shame. I always enjoy coming by the Martinezes. Dominic asked me to look at his rig so I drove over as soon as I could.” The old man stepped in close, angled his head up to see David’s face. David snuck a half step back. The old man advanced, his rheumy eyes fixed upward on David. His narrow chest thrust bird-like into David’s fat gut.
“The eye, she looks better.” The old man nodded, stepped back.
“Sí, maybe. The vision has been the same for years, ever since they picked out the metal. Fuzzy.”
“You should wear an eyepatch. Muy simpatico, the war hero. Then you get chu a wife.”
David shook his head. Women want to know who you are, what you did. “It was a training accident, not a war. The eye is best for visions, not for love.
“Never mind. Is Dom in the house?”
“Dominic, he’s not here. He drove down to Mora to eat at the grill, visit a little while.”
“He’ll be back. In the meantime I’ll start. I talked to him on the phone; he told me what he thought had broke. I brought the parts from my shed.”
The old man considered. “You wanna eat with us? It’s just bean burritos today. My wife doesn’t let us have meat en Miércoles.”
“I’d like that.” A chance to sit down with Mama Martinez. Now a crow’s-footed old woman, she had taught in two languages in a one-room schoolhouse, down in the Rio Grande valley. The school had come and gone, but the Anglo woman, iron gray hair hanging down her back, had set down roots. Like a piñon, she anchored into the ranchito, and the valley.
If only all white women ended this way. Center of the family. A hundred grandkids. Not like mi anciana de blanca. A gift rather than el ojo rodeado de muerte.
Dominic and David knelt on the duck boards and stared at the kelly drive. Dominic said, “Welcome back to the valley. Shame it had to be for this.”
David said, “It’s cracked. You can’t use it. If you drop it down into the rotary table, it will just split up and fly apart.”
“Que chista. I tell you, David, I’m fixing something on this old rig every day.”
“Pobrecito. You wanted to be a driller. I got a six-sided kelly in the pickup, but it’ll be a bitch to lift it up here. Weighs a ton. You got a cousin can help?”
“Sí, Ramon will come over.” Dominic pulled out his cell phone. “What do I owe you, driving up from Duke City, bringing me a kelly?”
“De nada. It was just lying behind the shop. Besides, you wanna drill a free well for your abuelo.”
Dominic clapped him on the shoulder. “Gracias, David. Maybe you’ll help me, que no? Fire her up once she isn’t broke no more?”
David grinned. Stuck again as a driller’s helper. Spattered in mud, back sore from the bags of bentonite. “Sure. But I got to get back to Albuquerque tonight, so you’re on your own tomorrow.”
“You could stay the night here. My abuelita would give you a bed.”
Of course she made the offer, but he declined all pero de cenare. Smart, she set the meal outside, to protect her trailer from their dirt and grease. In the still of the early evening they three, the men, sat under the arbor while Mama Martinez brought out green chile stew and pulled pork smothered in chilé caribe. Meatless Wednesday didn’t apply if she had guests. They clattered their flatware, passed the platters back and forth. A single fly oscillated about—they all took turns swatting at it.
She leaned forward, her hand on the table near his plate. Years had beat her face all-to-hell, wrinkled it with a life well lived and tanned it down with a sun of happiness that rose every day. Her smile broke out, white teeth like a light in the dusk. He wished his own mamá had been this way, not stooped and torn apart with complaints, unhappy.
Her fingers drummed on the old boards. Here it comes. “You have friends nearby, don’t you, David? The Cannons up in Questa?”
He twitched. Now evil sat at the table. “So I hear. Moved up there from here, from Tres Piedres.”
The gaunt old woman leaned forward. “She nearly raised you, didn’t she? Mrs. Cannon, I mean.”
Glancing down, eyes to the side, he said, “Sí. She had a big hand in making me who I am.” He cleared his throat. “But I haven’t seen her in years. Dom, can I have the tortillas, please?”
The quiet talk of old friends rose up to meet the darkening sky, and the hundred-watt lightbulbs on a string up above shown down on the old tabletop. But all evenings do end. He closed the pickup door, locked their voices out, dropped into that same settled unhappiness that his mother had inhabited for years. In the faded white pickup, David drove east and south. He would drive the eighty miles to his own house, sleep and turn around for the return—conned into helping Dominic finish the well, set the pipe and install the pump. That’s what time worked out to be, a day of sweat, a week of grease and aching muscle, adding up to a year gone by, another decade’s wait for the end of his life. But he would not sleep in the valley where he had been born and raised, not after what the old white woman from Tres Piedras had done to him, never again.
In the cab of the truck, one night was like any other. Night made it easy to be twenty-four, not forty-four. A young man, his hands still dirty from the grave. He mumbled a quick prayer to Saint Catherine, asked her to intercede for the dead, his dead in Georgia and his dead in Tres Piedres. He reached up and touched the rosary that swayed beneath the rearview mirror.
Del cielo a la tierra no hay nada oculto.
1988, only discharged from the Army for four months. He had made the mistake and now he would pay. Midnight, and in the canyon between Española and Taos south of Rinconada, he dropped into sleep. In a quick curve to the right, he failed to curve and, lost on a trajectory of his own, merged together with the wall of basalt boulders. He experienced none of the fantasy cartoons of a crash, no huge noise or blazing, head-throbbing light. Only the change from sleep to a confused awakening. The red and blue strobes circled around him as he lay forward, his face pressed hard into the dash. Dust stood tall on the vinyl, individual grains cast their shadows in the stark relief of headlights from the emergency vehicles. A pack of cigarettes still lay in the tray in the center, under the mirror. The radar detector hung off a crazed windshield. The truck had pinned him deep within itself. Men ripped it open to fish him out.
He moved his hand, waved them back. Why bother? He could feel the hot pool of blood now – it ran back down his folded arm into his lap. The crash—he was glad. Now he didn’t have to choose. He closed his eyes.
The ambulance ran him north into Taos, not always the best place to have an emergency. In Española, he would have gotten medical treatment good enough for the nearby Research Labs. But the ambulance chose Taos, a village that prided itself on its laid-back Spanish charm, not on its emergency medicine. The nursing staff saw another young Mexican, fresh out of a car crash, mustached and with black hair uncut and clotted with blood. To the physician he was just another call in the middle of the night. Another chance to set bones and make neat little stitches.
At least it was or had been a Catholic hospital. Holy Cross. That would reassure su madre.
The room throbbed yellow. Walls had been painted a shining canary and the white linoleum had given up being Anglo, faded to the color of his father’s smile. David imagined the floor had been tinted by the pain in the room, like teeth discolored by coffee and nicotine.
He stared for two days at the fat venetian blinds, angled up towards the ceiling so the light bounced in but the outside remained invisible. Then he got up, slid the bad leg forward and hopped on the good. Sweating from the pain, he changed the angle himself. The view overhung a parking lot with the blank side of a grocery store beyond the gravel lot. Mejor que todos las barras de luz.
A nurse caught him out of bed and scolded him—like being in school again. It was worth it. As he lay prone in his bed, he could see some trees and the sky.
He waited four days for a surgeon who made the rounds from Santa Fe to the small northern hospitals. In the meantime, his cuts assumed the bruised and crusty appearance of healing. The itching—he worked a finger in under the bandages and scratched the wounds, a deep and satisfying defiance of authority. He used a knife from his dinner tray to scratch under the cast that shrouded his right wrist.
A TV droned in the corner; three other inhabitants in the room stared up at it. He couldn’t remember what brought them here, but he didn’t care. Two of them were grande roncacitos but he didn’t respond to that either. His leg hurt, but he found time’s slow crawl more painful. The first few days saw no excitement other than the re-emergence of glass fragments from the cut in his left arm, a sign of the quality of care he had received. Locals called the hospital “Holy Ghost.” He called it Santo Mortalidad.
His family drove in to visit. They complained about the crash, the ruination of a barely used pickup. Mama blamed it on his smoky white eye. “You shouldn’t drive at night, pobrecito. You only got uno ojo.”
He attempted a grin, lay pale in the bed with their brown faces bent down over him, attending him. They brought him jugo de frutas and smuggled in potato chips from the lobby machine.
Soon enough, they became bored. His sister and brothers told him they would come back to visit, or at least telephone. They left to go back to work, paid by the hour, not an hour to be missed. His father sat there a bit longer, drummed his heels, filled the room with his need to leave. He mumbled to his wife, patted David’s shoulder and strode away. David’s mother stayed, slumped down in a chair, two nights beside his bed. His father returned to claim her and pulled her away from David’s side. She promised to come right back. A long drive in from Tres Piedres. David knew his padre would talk her out of it.
The crash was only the latest symptom of what ailed him. The broken leg and wrist and the cuts were visible proof of his fall from grace. He had not been drinking that night, but—he had been for most of the previous week. He had carried the fatigue of borrachera and self-pity into the front seat of the truck that evening. Now his sin had locked him down in a hospital, where he waited for a surgeon who would pin his left leg back together. And his insurance. Would his job with the County pay the bills?
On the fifth day they starved him and wheeled him into afternoon surgery. They gave him a shot to drown his fear, then the sharp stink of gas. When he woke up, both his mother and his tía gazed down at him. Together they conferred. “He is still muy acamorrao.” He vomited up bile from the drugs. Puke on his chin. Rather than ring for the nurse, the two women cleaned him up. They knew the mess of life, and knew his weakness as another thing to take in stride. He slept off and on for a day, crawled into the belly of the snake.
Infection set in and tormented him with fever. Lying there, he slipped in and out of dreams. Some dreams felt real, as when the nurse helped him to a bedside toilet. Some dreams raved, as when he thought they had cut off his leg, or when he relived the accident at Fort Benning. All those bodies on the ground, mixed with pieces of helicopter on fire. Some dreams flew straight up out of his sin. Over and over, he laid the big man’s cuerpo de frio, the body into the trench, covered it with dirt and moved rusted cars onto the scar of the grave.
In his hot troubled hallucination, she appeared at his bedside. He glanced up and saw her, a round, short Anglo woman with long silver hair. Her face wore a worried frown and she spoke Norteño slang, “Todavía estás acuestao! Davey, it’s me, do you remember me?”
“Que onda, Señora Cannon. Of course I remember you. I’ll never be able to forget you.” She lived next door to his parents in the village of Tres Piedres. She had watched him every day that his mother worked. Su esposo, un grande hombre, had taught David to play baseball.
“I wanted to see how you were, David. First your poor eye, and now this truck crash! They say you’re sick, that your leg is infected.”
She sat down in the chair by the bed. He twisted his head to watch her, the ghost. A devil? “Sí, but they have me full of antibiotics and the leg es bueno.”
“I brought you a card and some fruit.” The envelope hung so close, it was a white blob that floated beneath his nose. He didn’t want to touch it.
“Where is Señor Cannon?” Wrong. He already knew about Cannon.
She gazed at him, steady, calm. “Why, we haven’t heard from him in a year. You know he ran off, Davey, that he left me.”
He stared at her with his head tipped. She swam at him sideways, ignoring the up-and-down of his gravity. He recoiled. “Is my mother here?”
“No, David, I drove over alone from Tres Piedres. She had to work.”
“Thank you for the visit, then. I feel sleepy right now, though. Perhaps you should go.”
“No, Davey. I think we should talk first. We share something, and I feel very close to you.”
“I don’t think this thing we share—I don’t think it’s good for me or good for you. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“All right, Davey,” She patted his hand. “We’ll keep the secret between us. You haven’t told anybody, have you?”
“Not even mi párraco, Father Balcón.” Her hand lay cool on his forehead and he remembered her comforting him as a child, the times she had made pain go away. He remembered her giving him cookies or lemonade before she sent him back home. He remembered the other thing.
“You know he shouldn’t have hit me, Davey? That it had to stop?”
El vecindario todo knew that he hit her. “He did wrong, pero quizas you did wrong tambien.”
“No, I was right, and you were right to help me. You do know that, don’t you Davey?”
He could never be sure she had really been there. He asked a nurse—she smiled, distant, thinking of something else. No answer.
When they let him out of the hospital, he returned to his mother’s house. He found a job with the highway department in Albuquerque and he joined a road crew that worked out of Deming. The leg hurt, every day. Like a penance.
Que susto llevaron las gallinas!
Two days before All Hallows’ Eve, the tenth year of the new century. David sat in the Socorro cafe with his friend and employee Frankie Duo, dressed in drillers coveralls. They had driven the rig down from Albuquerque to drill geothermal wells. With all the gear they trucked in to install, they would heat and cool the house of a rich man with the steady fifty-five degrees of the ground. But Frankie didn’t look steady; in fact he wore his shakiness like a coat. In the smell of bacon fat, singed bread and boiled coffee, in the clatter of the breakfast rush, they perched immobile. All around swirled a human bustle, while they barely moved. The light from the morning sun struck in through the window and made the dark, wood-grained laminate under their elbows shine like a mirror.
“Chite, a hard life, no?” Frankie screwed his face up against the unrelenting glare of the sun.
“Good thing we’re hard men.” They were. Frankie’s frame held only muscle and sinew, drawn down to wires on bone. David too was all muscle, if you didn’t count the half-inch of fat he carried on top of his strongman chest and shoulders. “So, you’re hurting today?”
“Who can tell? I may have stayed up late last night, had muy con mucho.”
“Your eyes are redder than the sandstone cliffs.”
Frankie, pained, replied, “Each hangover has un corazón, a small secret. They are like women. You have to treat them right, sneak up on them. Give each one what it wants, then she will let you go.”
“And besides, by la hora de acostarse, you’ll feel much better.”
Frankie grinned, his mouth thin and crooked. “Who knows? There is hope. Where is this chicharrón who wants a hole dug?” He made a show of peering around.
David shrugged. “He said to meet him here and he would take us out to his new house site. Problamente, doesn’t want Norteños seeing where he lives.”
“Sí. We might embarrass him in front of his vecinos. Or steal his pigs.” David glanced out into the parking lot, to see an F350 jerk up at the building, bump the curb at the walk. The driver door kicked out, an inch short of caving in a Corolla parked next to it. The owner slid down out of the tower of gleaming black, and with head ducked under a bull-rider cowboy hat, tramped towards the door.
Self conscious, David sat up straighter, rested both forearms on the table.
“Chu see him?” Frankie asked.
“Quizás. Varón grande de ciudad, stomping up.”
In the door and down the aisle of booths their client marched, pulling off the cowboy hat. David stared at him as the Anglo peered about, searched for him. A shock jolted deep through David. The man had a florid face, jowled and coarse, with a tan that rode on top of the flushed broken-veined cheeks of a drinker. The black hair swept back from a widow’s peak and painted the skull. The man’s shoulders, squared outwards broad and straight, showed he had been a powerful youth. Now a paunch hung over his belt. He dressed in cowboy-expensive, so unlike the last time David had seen him. David stared at the cold, hard eyes and remembered the rictus, the unfocused stare he had seen last. He beheld the tall bulky man and saw the sack of a being that lay in the bottom of the rude grave, eyes wide in the moonlight . David’s heart hammered. His field of vision narrowed down as if he saw a head-on crash roaring up at him.
Frankie leaned over and whispered, “You okay?”
David wheezed all his breath out. He could not say, “Here walks a dead man. Here is my secret.” There had to be an answer not rooted in the supernatural. Some differences in this person compared to his memory? Just a resemblance? Tal vez, familia, a brother or cousin of the murdered man?
The gringo stopped at their table. “Alvarez?”
David choked out, “Yes?”
Frankie threw David a puzzled look, leapt to his feet. “I’m Frankie Duo and this is my boss, David Alvarez. We’re Alvarez Geothermal. Are you …?”
“Guy Luther.” He ignored Frankie’s hand, stared down from his imposing height at David.
“Terms still the same as we discussed on the phone? Good. I’m on the clock here. Settle up for your breakfast and follow me out to the house site. I’ll wait outside.” He pivoted like a bull charging and hit the door of the restaurant.
David stood up, staggered, thrust his wallet at Frankie. “I got to hit the baño.” Acid vomit rose in his throat. David bolted away from the table into the guts of the restaurant, searching for the restroom.
Uno tiempo detestado, that next two weeks.
De la muerte y de la suerte no hay quien se escape. From death and fate, no one escapes.
Halloween. Yesterday David Alvarez and Frankie Duo had trailed around the job site obedient as bird dogs behind Guy Luther while the Anglo waved his hands. “I’ve got that backhoe over there rented for the duration of all the dirt work—you’ll use it to dig the trench for the lines into the house rather than truckin’ in your own and charging me. The driveway goes through here, so keep the lines ten feet off. I want the wells stuck out there where all that orange flagging is.”
Luther wasn’t Señor Cannon at all. He was a bastard, but he wasn’t Cannon. David huffed and puffed from the trek. He shrunk up inside himself, humiliated. But still he could feel it; something was coming. His bad eye throbbed.
“So ain’t you boys got anything to say?”
David said, “I’ll drill six wells like we agreed. That should provide you with six tons of heating capacity.”
Luther asked, “How far down should they go?”
“I’ll go down three hundred feet and we’ll case the first hundred in steel to avoid any ground water problems.”
“What kind of problems you talking about?
David waved his hands, the shape of a fountain. “Artesian wells, seasonal, during the rains.”
David nodded. “So is pulling a well and re-setting everything. We guarantee the wells, but only if we do it our way.”
“Okay, okay, okay. I want the guarantee in writing. And another thing.” Luther stabbed his finger at the barren, scrubby land. “I don’t want any goddamn drilling mud spilled all over the place. Dig me a pit, drop in a liner and bury it afterwards.”
Frankie protested, “But that’s not in the bid!”
David scuffed his boot in the dirt, glanced sideways at Luther. Another crap job with un perro come sus propias mierda. “Agreed, but only if I can use a clay liner.”
Luther grinned. “Suit yourself. Just keep the mud in the pit.”
Day of the Dead and a Sunday, only David and Frankie were on the job, not picnicking in some cemetery to honor their dead family. Winter hung in the air; cold gusting winds tore by. Up above, cirrus clouds streaked the sky, struggled even to exist. Yesterday they had dug the trench to the house—and had eaten a pound of dust as the wind blew it up in their faces. They wore bandanas across their mouths, not that it did any good. Wind made him uneasy, reminded him of the tearing gales from helicopter vanes. Reminded him of Georgia.
Tiempo de pozo grande, making the pit for their slurry. David set the stabilizers, pivoted the arm back and forth through its one-hundred and eighty. Reaching out, he took the first bite, lifted the bucket to the side and dumped it. Again, again, as he built a wall of spoilage. Then a bucket-full where they cut through a black layer of muck.
Frankie danced on the edge of the pozo, a dark animated stick of a man. His hands waved and his face fell open like a flower of panic. David cut the throttle and leapt down from the machine.
They poised on the edge of the trench. Frankie’s finger pointed like God’s judgement. “Coño, jefe! It’s bones!”
David jumped into the pit, knelt down out of the wind. The bucket had scraped across an old surface just beneath a black burned layer, unearthed polished ivory shapes. He saw ribs, and a shoulder, knees drawn up. And here another one, with a skull exposed. Its smooth circumference lay convex, dully glowed in the November light. He reached out and brushed across it, caressed it. Disculpa mio. Little images fired in his head, grenades going off. Dead bodies in olive drab, dismembered. Bloody rags. A rigid corpse in the back of his truck. Disculpa mio. On his knees, he gave a half sob. Day of the Dead. Death, all around him down in this hole.
Shards of pottery lay around him and the rotten rim of an old basket stuck up, torn by his machine. He had dug up an old Indian burial site. Mierde.
David stood up, stared into the sky. He raised his hands above his balding head, clenched his fists, tilted his face back. Squeezing his eyes shut, he bellowed out to everything and nothing. “Chingado! Can you make it any harder? Lo que en la condenación es lo que quieres de mí?
No hay nada fuerte para la muerte. There is nothing too strong for death.
David Alvarez had been at home for a week, using vacation time to reapply stucco here and there on his old house in Albuquerque, down in the Bosque. Now done with the patches he repainted stretches of wall and turned his attention to soffits on the addition and to the canalejas. Given enough time he would finish up the small projects and a great sense of emptiness would attack. At that point he might open a bottle of tequila, or maybe drown himself in the Rio Grande.
Winter had come upon him; no one dug wells in winter. Now work took a pause, a cycle of mending and repair before the push into spring. Feliz en la miseria, he wrapped a bit of gloom around him like a ragged old blanket. He paced the the floors of this old house and its silence and sat out the long evenings in the dusty kitchen listening to a radio. Tan de antes. He could maintain this low level of despair for at least another day or two.
But then Death disguised as two short women stepped up to his door. He gaped out from the kitchen window; the chimes rang behind him in the narrow hallway. Even Death was required to use the doorbell.
He knew one of the women well, too well. Señora Cannon. David surveyed her through his screen door. Her hair hung white to her shoulders, thin on top. The widow, the grandmother—the same round caucásica he had known. She observed him through thick spectacles that covered most of her face. Old age had trenched her upper lip with wrinkles. Her jaw set like iron. She would ask him something terrible.
Her husband had disappeared when David turned twenty-four. They said he had run off with a waitress from a bar in El Prado. They didn’t say truth. Life ran deeper than a simple booze-soaked affair with a young woman.
David had run from Señora Cannon, took on that job in Deming. Seen her, what, a half dozen times when he drove back for holidays? Then, death in his family. His sister Angelíca claimed the old ancestral house and became the family’s fat, gray matriarch. He and Angelíca didn’t get along—an excuse to never come back. También he locked out Señora Cannon from his mind, su corazón. And here today. What did she want?
Beside her stood a woman thirty years younger—also Anglo and perhaps good-looking in her time. She had run to fat at a young age, so her pretty girl face had disappeared, unpreserved by her middle age. Instead, flesh hung in jowls that bracketed her weak chin. Her face turned mournfully down, as if life had been mysterious and cruel.
Señora Cannon bided her time through his inspection. “Well, Davey, aren’t you going to invite us in?”
He brought them to the small living room, rather than back into his kitchen. This unused space would keep them at arms length from his life. He had to stop her.
“Que tal, Señora Cannon,” he said. He waited. He could feel it coming.
She delayed a bit, arranged herself on the small couch, placed her large handbag on the floor. Then she glanced at him and made her opening move. “You may not remember Michelle, Davey. She was a few years behind you in school.”
He nodded. “Michelle.” This unhappy woman had once been the sharp-voiced girl he had avoided.
Michelle sat silent; her mother answered, “I knew you would be glad to see us, Davey. Especially after all this time. And all we shared together.”
A shudder hit him like a snake striking—just like that, he trembled in front of her. “Sí. Señora Cannon. Tres Piedres was a good place to grow up.”
She stared at him through the windowpane glasses.
“I remember your biscochitos, and the hot dogs on the Fourth of July.”
Implacable, she moved forward to her goal. “It’s more than food we shared, Davey. As you know.”
“Pues, our families go way back. My mother would have been glad you looked me up. Are you here in Albuquerque long?”
“No, no longer than to say what we came to say. Then we’ll go back to Questa. I live there now with Michelle.”
The room sucked in a breath. And held it. Trapped by politeness, he asked, “Sí, I heard you moved. What is it you came to say?”
“Davey, you buried my husband.”
Verdad. She had waited for him in the dark twenty years ago, in front of his parents’ small adobe. He had come home late from work after a detour through the bar.
As he clambered down from the pickup cab in the dark, she seized his arm. Whispered fierce and insistent into his ear. She dragged him down the side of his house to the gate that separated their two yards. They stumbled a few dark steps to her back door. She made him go first, pushed at his back.
Señor Cannon lay half in the living room and half in the kitchen, on his back. His body arched up so his buttocks didn’t touch the floor. A grimace distorted his face. Dry vomit stained his chest and neck and clotted on his chin. His eyes stared straight up. David, swept up in superstition, glanced anywhere except into the face of the dead man. The room was a slaughterhouse. She still jammed her hand into the small of his back.
She said it in a low voice, “I did it.” Mean-spirited, a voice full of hate. A little chant of pride. “I did it.”
He twisted around to stare down into her face, to get his good eye towards her.
She stared down at her husband, a crooked little smirk on her face. “I poisoned him. The son of a bitch hit me one too many times. In my belly, in the breasts, hard. Where it doesn’t show.”
David could hear his breath rasping in and out. Light-headed, he staggered.
She gazed full up into his eyes. “I waited. Two days I waited and then I served it up to him in a green chili stew with his favorite cornbread. He’s dead. I’m glad it was me that killed him.”
David crouched beside the body, on his heels. He asked, “Have you called the police?”
Her voice soft. “Davey, are you crazy? Call the police?”
“This is an awful thing, Señora Cannon. It’s plain he died hard and sudden. They will know to look for poison.”
“Yes, Davey. You have to hide him. Michelle must have her mother. Michelle must grow up without shame. It will be easier, once we do this. She’s better off without him for a father.”
“Hide him?” he asked, stupid, vague.
“Yes, Davey. You have to hide him where he won’t be found. You have to help me—all these years we’ve been close, living next door, and I’ve been good to you. You have to be good to me now.”
Chite, chite, chite! When he moved his head, bright flashes fired off in his maimed eye. His whole body burned hot, a volcano.
He squatted there, beside a man who had died in a terrible way. He scrambled through his thoughts. Qué debe hacer?
She placed her hands on his shoulders. “Help me, Davey.” She leaned her whole soft body onto his back, pressed against him.
Determined. Forcing him. He dropped into her trap. He thought about how he could do it.
She waited. Watched him turn the corner.
He blurted out, “We can bury him. Under something that will not be moved, maybe forever.”
She slipped around beside him, smooth and quick. She knelt by that awful monument of hate. “Where?”
He glanced at her. “Mi tío Patricio, he has a junk yard. I used to work there in the summers. We can bury him under the cars.”
She didn’t even go with him. She only helped carry Señor Cannon to his truck and provided a plastic tarp to cover the body. She stood in the dark, her hand on his arm. “Think it through, Davey. Act it out, Davey. How will you do it?”
“There’s a back-hoe in the yard at the County. I work for them doing road repairs. It’s close to mi tío’s yard. I’ll use it to push some cars away. I’ll dig the hole. Then I will drag the cars back to cover the grave. No es como mi tío a clavar.”
“What if they find the body, years from now? Will they know it’s him?”
“Maybe they find out. Maybe they find the poison. I don’t know how to destroy the body.” She stared at him, her white face illuminated by the stars overhead.
He struggled for an idea. “We could make it confusing. We could drop things in the grave that are not his.”
“Good, good, Davey. What?”
“Was he ever in the military?”
“No, not him.”
“Then I will give my gun and my medal and place them in the ground with . . . .” He couldn’t name the dead man.
In the end, that is how he did it. Alone with the dead for most of the night. A rising moon shone down upon him, made the familiar eerie, made his village unknown. Parking in the junkyard, David hiked back to the County facility and used his key to open the gate. Perched on the backhoe he drove into the back of the junkyard and pushed three stacked cars away, revealed the bare soil beneath. In a half hour, piling the soil on the tarp, he had created a hole five foot deep, two men wide and more than long enough. He brought the truck to the grave. Now he had to touch the dead man again.
The corpse had gone soft—it had shit itself and the smell rose up around him. He wrestled the sack-like carcass out of the pickup and dragged it towards the hole. The body wriggled like an eel, fought to escape his clutching fingers. It tumbled into the grave. Face down.
This he could not abide. He had to jump down in the ditch and roll the dead man over. Señor Cannon stared at him, clay smeared across his forehead. Rage filled the corpse’s face. The muscles slack, his eyes bugging out, the mouth dropped open in a limp howl.
Shaky, David placed his Purple Heart on the breast of the dead man and placed his AR15 carbine by his side. By this act he disgraced himself, betrayed his entire dead squad. Less than a man, no more a soldier.
He could see Her through his bad eye. Above him, hovering at the edge of the grave, la Madonna de Azul. Her robes baby blue, her scapular glowing in the night, lighting her grace and splendor, her cowl cradling her face. She cried, a shining tear on her cheek, and her head shook back and forth, No. No.
David clambered out of the hole and stood trembling, sweating in the moonlight. The cold air caught his hot breath, whisked it up into the sky as smoke.
Two decades ago. And now Señora Cannon regarded him with narrow eyes. She had played her ace. He could feel his face flush. She hovered on the edge of the couch, expectant. Triumphant.
“Sí, I did do that. We could face murder charges together.”
“I knew you’d understand. Davey. And.”
“What else? There is more?” Of course, the final demand. Su última destrucciðn.
“Michelle is in trouble. Her husband is no good at all. He has . . . slept with half the town, and now he’s going to leave her. Without him, she has nothing, and with him, she also has nothing.”
“I am truly sorry for her.” Michelle sat dormant, barely in the room. Wrecked, cast up in his casita.
“It’s not Sorry that I came for, Davey. You understand how to help women. You have shown that before. I ask you to help Michelle and me. Like in the old times.” La serpiente había caído el piso.
“Help?” The last twenty years boiled down to this. Everything since the murder a waste of time and life.
“Yes. We’ll kill him, and you’ll help. You can make him disappear like last time.”
Twenty years ago, he had been young and had just been thrown away by the Army. Lost. Fallen into sin. Now just a middle-aged, sad man. The type of man so alone he waits numb and inanimado for his vacation to end, so he can go back to work. Sin sat upon him like his paunch and his age. Pulled him down.
Señora Cannon would double that burden, would pile it upon him. The threat of exposure. The murderer’s mark.
She smiled, an awful thing. She leaned forward and lay her wrinkled fat hand on his knee.
He twitched away, gazed up into the dimness of the corner of his room. She appeared there, la Madonna, crystal clear in his clouded bad eye. She gazed down at him with great sorrow.
The room hesitated. A sigh and it all fell down, into his soul. He could breath. Fresh air surged into his lungs. He rose to his feet. “No,” he said.