A.J. RodriguezFiction / Number 102
This shit was supposed to mean something. It was Abuelita’s new car. It was us inside it, driving to Del Rio so our señora could have this Caddy blessed by her hometown priest. It was Pops at the wheel, blasting the AC with the windows up, pushing his mother and seventeen-year-old daughter to the backseat where they shivered under the colcha Abuelita managed to carry in her bolsa along with silverware, a sewing kit, and packs of dulces she sucked on while humming some half-remembered bolero from her childhood.
It was me sitting shotgun, cradled by unwrinkled leather that farted and groaned along with my excited squirms at having grown big enough to see over the dash. It was my devastation when I realized that other than shrubs, endless desert, and a stubbornly still horizon, there ain’t nada to look at along the nine-hour journey from Albuquerque to this tiny-ass border town—a place I’d never known, or cared to know, beyond the framed photos of family reunions Abuelita decorated her mantel with.
It was halfway through, just after entering Tejas, when Chacha announced she had to take a piss. It was then that I stared down at my fidgeting hands and decided to remind Pops that I needed to call Moms and give her an update. It was then that the vato rubbed a palm against his temple—a habit that revealed whenever he was tryna jam some bad word back into his head—before rolling down the window and spitting the contents of his throat into the fuming air.
’Cus this shit was also weeks after the court’s ruling, months after my parents separated, seven years after I’d been born. It wasn’t how Pops expected it to go, the length of the custody battle or how it ended in a draw. I have the job; I have the job with security; I have the job with the State. It was all these excuses and complaints that slipped from his mouth like hiccups while heating up microwave meals, or watching my clothes spin in the dryer, or on the way to drop me off at Moms’s place (the casita where he—where we—used to live).
My mother sounded far off, as if she was all the way up in the sky. Her voice played like a scratched CD through the receiver of Pops’s flip-phone, the pullout antenna kind with a peeling government-property sticker (his office had given the entire I.T. department these to provide twenty-four-seven tech support). It was the first cellphone I’d ever seen, and I bragged about it to homies on the block in an attempt to show them that despite whatever chisme their parents might’ve said about my father and his failures, at least the vato had a legit-ass job.
Whatchu saying, mom?
I felt the hotness in my breath as it seethed out my nose, the same heat I’d noticed more and more since Pops moved out and the Bernalillo County judge segmented my life into slices of seven. I walked out from the shade of a West Texas gas station, back into the wall of some water-incinerating temperature, and stretched the length of my body to push Pops’s cell closer to the sun, like that would somehow strengthen the connection to my mother.
That ain’t how it works, baboso!
Chacha had an open palm extended towards me in a whatchu-fucken-thinking position, the other hand a fist on her hip. I snapped the phone shut with a speed that highlighted my embarrassment. While shuffling in the direction of my half-sister, I caught some cowboy-ass gabacho (who must’ve been older than Pops) staring at the jean shorts hugging her thighs. These looks were showing up all the damn time, gawks that mirrored the ones my friends gave upon seeing birthday cakes or Halloween candy but with a hunger that seemed to ignore any part of Chacha that wasn’t meat. They entered my life not long after my half-sister unleashed all that rage she’d bottled-up during those nights our father left her to take care of me while he stayed out late doing whatever.
I’d spent that evening like I always did, bombarding Chacha with questions about where Pops was and when he’d get home, as if asking over and over would prolong the disappointment from taking hold. In her hurry and irritation and fatigue, my half-sister spilled our Hamburger Helper meal onto the kitchen floor. I started wailing, using her accident as an excuse to let loose every emotion tethered to all the other bullshit we were going through. Chacha responded by slicing the back of her hand across my face. It was the first time she’d treated my body that way, with no other intention than for me to eat pain.
You wanna know where he is, mamón? she’d said. Cabrón is out tryna fuck putas—just like he was doing while married to your mom. It’s the same shit he’s been pulling ever since my mother left his sorry-ass for that whiteboy. You hear what I’m saying? Apá won’t be home ’cus he’s out there putting his dick in any hole that’ll let him!
I found it agonizing to meet my half-sister’s gaze after that. Even though I didn’t know una mierda about sex, I realized then how it can create or shatter a family. I was reminded of that fact whenever I saw some culero drinking Chacha in with his stare. I’d think of Pops and his dirtiness. I’d think of my half-sister and how she’d transformed into someone older, someone who’d swallowed the world’s bitterness and swam across the river dividing kids from grownups. I’d think of how me and her were no longer on the same side.
Jeez ’ermanito, Chacha said when I reached her outside the gas station. No need to be all pouty. I was just messing witchu. You didn’t have to hang up on Eileen like that.
I couldn’t hear her anyways.
Well duh. We’re out here in bumbfuck Texas, remember?
Yeah, I said, concentrating my scowl at the dirt beneath our feet.
¿Qué pasa, dude? I know this shit ain’t Disneyland, but we’re supposed to be on vacation. You got to skip school today!
What do I gotta do to get you to lighten up, huh? she asked, ruffling my hair and making me feel like a shoe after you yank the laces. You wanna a candy bar? Something sweet? My treat ’ermanito.
I shook my half-sister off me, muttered something about just wanting to get to Del Rio, and hurried back towards the car, blinking fast to fan away the blush bleeding through my cheeks. Abuelita watched from the backseat as I hopped into the Caddy, remaining still and quiet even after I greeted her. She kept her brick-colored hands, textured by the hills and valleys of age, clasped over her lap, which was draped by one of her traditionally patterned skirts. Those garments defined Abuelita’s wardrobe and provided the only bit of expressiveness on her body. ’Cus otherwise she wouldn’t let anyone read her. My grandmother restrained every movement in her eyebrows, measured the volume of her speech and the rhythm in her tongue. Her words came out all blunt and cold like she was serving you papers (You should not slurp your green chile stew because it makes you sound like a dog. Your sister needs to wear sunscreen because she is getting too dark and no one will be able to see her beauty. If your father doesn’t start listening to Jesus, he will not be able to survive this world).
Beyond acknowledging her commands, I rarely talked with Abuelita. It seemed like the two of us were separated by glass, the thick kind 7-Eleven cashiers and bankers stood behind in our varrio. Maybe that barrier was built by all the years between us—or my half-Anglo blood—or my failure to speak Spanish with her fluency. Either way I couldn’t detect that sound in her voice, the tone you hear from someone that teaches you their emotions, which was why the reasoning behind her car and this trip—why she included us in it—flew right over my head.
In his attempt to extinguish my whiny-ass questions about the whole thing, Pops had told me Abuelita couldn’t handle the long drive by herself and didn’t want to risk damaging the Caddy, which she’d dreamed of buying ever since she was my age. Nobody in Del Rio owned one back then, he’d said. The only place that All-American shit existed was way up on the billboards you see after driving through the Port of Entry.
But my grandmother never struck me as the type to buy into that sort of thing. She always muted the commercials on her TV—which she bought for the sole purpose of watching either telenovelas or the San Antonio Spurs—and scrunched her face as if smelling something sour whenever we drove by Kirtland Air Force Base. But that was probably ’cus it reminded Abuelita of her ex-husband, my abuelo, a Korean War vet I’d never met with an appetite for malt liquor and putting his fists through doors, walls, and the faces of his ’ijos.
Plus, when I saw the Cadillac earlier that morning, I got even more confused. I’d thought these cars were supposed to look all classic like that Route 66 diner off Central or the shiny whips OG cholos rode for their Sunday cruises. But Abuelita’s Caddy appeared like a newer, less grimy version of everything else I’d seen on the streets. No drop-top, no nada.
As we pulled out from that Texan gas station, I wondered why such an ordinary thing needed to be sanctified. What did my grandmother, the woman who’d grinded away forty years of her life to earn a weak-ass teacher’s pension, think holy water would do to make this shit worthwhile? Still full of questions, I watched the highway stretch out before us again, leading me and my family in a direction that pointed to nothing but sky, like some waterless river running straight towards heaven.
By the time we arrived at Tía Luisa’s it was too dark to make any judgements about Del Rio. The remainder of the ride had passed by in silence and sleep, the same plain-ass landscape feeding our fatigue and reluctance to force conversation. Yet while dragging my grandmother’s suitcase into the house of some vieja who was supposedly Abuelita’s favorite of her twelve siblings, I felt awakened by the simmer of menudo and a low-humming Pedro Infante song that radiated through my senses and made me think of holiday mornings.
Tía Luisa looked like a saggy-balloon version of her sister, same short hair curled tight y todo. She greeted us all with a How-dee! that whistled into the air like a Fourth of July rocket. As the señora made her rounds—kissing Abuelita between giggles, petting Chacha’s jaw with the back of her hand, squeezing Pops’s shoulder at arm’s length—I worked my eyes across the circus of knickknacks covering every surface of her small living room. The walls were peppered by crosses, big and small, crafted from wood and aluminum and plastic. Some had Jesus pinned to them, others were painted like Abuelita’s skirts. A stack of shelves running from the carpeted floor to the popcorn ceiling housed an army of veladoras, figurine saints, and alebrijes, near duplicates of the ones that bobbed their heads at me while meandering through flea markets with Moms back in Albuquerque.
On top of a wobbling table behind the señora’s couch, which was preserved in a glossy wrap, rested a scrapbook’s worth of framed pictures. They were stacked so close to one another that I could only pick out two. The first was a portrait of Tía Luisa’s deceased husband, a larger version of the one Abuelita kept amongst all our dead on a makeshift altar in her bedroom. The other was my own yearbook photo, taken before the divorce, a bowl cut crowning my wide eyes and baby-toothed smile. I couldn’t help but assume that she’d placed it there along the front row as some kind of proof we shared blood—or to show that she thought, maybe even prayed about me. Already belonging somewhere in her heart frightened and thrilled me. But I’d learned by then not to fall too far into such feelings, especially when they related to grownups.
N’ who might this guapito be? Tía Luisa said. I’ve heard so much about you. Lemme get a look ’atcha!
Before I could open my mouth, the señora had both her palms cupping my cheeks; they smelled like Vicks but felt dry and cracked. Her eyes were wet and shiny, the bottom lids pushing upwards as if holding back years of emotion. They leveled with mine, which were darting around like a caged animal.
Ay, mira! These rosy cheeks! This curly hair! Like an angel, this one is!
The señora clapped her hands together as she exclaimed this, and my gaze collapsed back down to the floor.
What do you say to your Tía Luisa, m’ijo? Pops said, nudging my shoulder with the back of his wrist.
I squeaked out a thank you, and she erupted with a laughter that crackled with the ghosts of a half-century’s worth of smoked cigarettes.
Tía Luisa did most of the talking throughout our meal—at a volume that drowned out the CD of Pedro’s “Grandes Exitós,” which she seemed to forget was playing ’cus it repeated twice before I went to bed. Most of what she had to say related to her grandson Nazario, who everyone called Chaio, and his son, Junior. The señora managed to bring up one or the other no matter the conversation. It started with her mentioning that Junior was only a couple years older than my ass. Then it moved on to how I’d be staying in the bedroom Junior slept in before Chaio Senior finally got his shit together, secured work as an agent for La Migra, and got an apartment that could fit both him and his son, the child who’d popped into his life at seventeen—whose adolescent mother died while giving birth to him.
After tossing all this history at us, which wasn’t news to anybody but me, Tía Luisa asked what I liked to do for fun. I froze, not able to think of any pastimes beyond throwing shit against the back wall of Pops’s bachelor pad or imagining a life with my parents back together. Chacha snickered at my I dunno response and told my great-aunt that I was in that still-figuring-it-out phase. That somehow animated the señora even more. She jumped into how Chaio Senior could take me and my family on a ride-along across the border to see how exciting the vato’s job was. She said it might inspire a future, set a path for me to work towards. My half-sister stabbed her fork into a piece of meat so hard it banged into the bowl.
Don’t you think he’s a little young for all that, Tía? she asked.
Before I could object, my half-sister swung her head to face mine, sealing my mouth shut with the same glare she gave George W. Bush whenever he appeared on our TV. The fire kindling behind that face reminded me of the time we were out to dinner at some random-ass Chili’s and Chacha had screamed at Pops for calling the Middle East full of dirty savages. She’d asked our father how he could say that shit when culeros here at home are calling us wetbacks and illegals. I remembered how deep Pops’s frown lines had run along his face as he remained mute, how my heartbeat bounced up into my forehead as I waited for someone to apologize—or at least say something to break the tension so all those fucken strangers would stop gaping over at us.
Tía Luisa waved her ride-along idea off, calling it silly, which prompted Pops to exclaim his interest in taking her up on that offer. Cabrón said he wanted to experience how a fellow government man performs his duty. The señora lit up again like Chacha hadn’t said nada, like she wasn’t gawking at our father with her lower jaw pushed in front of the upper. Tryna ease his daughter’s disapproval, Pops proposed that while he was out doing his thing with Chaio, she could take me and Junior to the San Felipe Creek—the same place he’d swam during his boyhood trips to Del Rio—the same place he’d shown my half-sister on her first trip here. Under the delight of our great-aunt’s giggles, Chacha muttered a fine that wasn’t nearly as loud as her shaking head.
So much to be excited for this weekend! Tía Luisa said, giving herself the cue to ramble through her eagerness about the blessing on Sunday, how the whole family (those who were still in town or not dead yet) planned to be in attendance. Even Padre Fidel, usually all sober n’ serious, had, after last week’s mass, expressed some interest upon hearing of Abuelita’s return with a new golden car. It would be his first Caddy to bless.
Abuelita pursed her lips at this information. The reason behind such a move, I guessed, might’ve grown from judgement or satisfaction. Either way, she dabbed the expression off her mouth with a napkin, along with the remnants of the few spoonfuls she’d taken as a courtesy to her sister’s efforts (more than she typically offered cooking that wasn’t hers). My grandmother then asked her sister what shape the priest had kept their girlhood place of worship in.
It’s looking real good, she said, throwing her hands up as far as those jiggling arms would let her. Best I seen in years. ¿Y sabes qué? Ever since this whole nine-eleven n’ Iraq deal, more n’ more boys been showing up to get their wings over there at Laughlin. They come into town a lot, part of their community service n’ all—even helped the Padre out with the church—gave it a flashy white paint job, cleaned up them rafters, installed new pews n’ toilets.
Chacha coughed while taking a sip of water. I looked across the circular table where she was crammed between the two viejas and saw the outline of her jaw sawing back and forth, the same movement that had preceded her outburst the night she clapped my ass.
Funny enough, Tía Luisa continued, that’s what got Chaio to join the Border Patrol. Right after them towers got blown up, he started yapping about going oversees n’ fighting for his country. But I says to him, You’ve got Junior to look after; you gotta responsibility to your family first. I says you can serve your dang country right here at home. ’Cus I ain’t a young woman no more. I done already raised him, his father, aaand his grandfather! How much more raising I got in me? What’s gonna happen to Junior when I’m gone? Who’s gonna raise that boy?
Tía Luisa cut her voice short and let those questions hang in the room like she expected one of us to answer them. Nobody even tried. Abuelita had her lips pursed again, tapping her fingers along her skirt like she did during those moments we drove through the shadow of Kirtland; Pops kept his mouth full, another habit of his to avoid talking; and my half-sister seemed to be vibrating in her chair, tryna hold back whatever curses were boiling in her brain. I just sat in our shared silence, wondering why someone would ask those things out loud while Pedro Infante sang in the background about some sad woman for the second time that night.
Chacha ended up breaking the quiet. I expected a bomb to go off, but she just excused herself for the night. Before leaving the room, my half-sister paused and closed her eyes, as if interrogating herself about the worth in a decision.
Y’know what, Apá? she said, so softly it almost got lost in the music. Let’s do it. That drive along the border.
The first thing I understood upon meeting Nazario Senior was that he shared the same look of hunger for my half-sister as every other pinche sucio. The second thing was that his law-and-order-looking ass wanted to go by Charlie, the name they called him at work. He’d corrected my father that morning after the two men hugged and the elder clapped the younger on the back saying, Good to see you, Chaio. Charlie slicked back his greased hair, clearing his throat in a way that made him sound like one of my teachers preparing to explain a punishment, and told my father how he should be addressed. Pops apologized, head cocked as if asking a question, and I felt the urge to stab this puto with one of Tía Luisa’s crosses.
But my fists unclenched as somebody nearly tackled my ass to the ground. Based on how snugly he’d wrapped his bony arms around me and the shrill way he’d screamed Hello Cousin!, I knew Chaio Junior was the type of chamaco who’d get a lot of shit from boys in my varrio. At one point during our border excursion, while staring at Mexico over the Rio Grande’s rushing water, I would tap Chacha’s shoulder and whisper a question into her ear, Is he retarded or something?, and she would shove me with every brick of strength in her body, as if I had the flu and had tried to cough in her face.
My cousin rocked me back and forth a few times, almost dancing. I shuddered, overwhelmed by the sensation of warmth blooming from this stranger’s embrace and the wheeze of his barely controlled laughter. Once Junior pulled himself off me, I was exposed and unraveled in a way that felt opposite to the night Chacha slapped me. A smile tickled through my face but was erased as soon as Charlie opened his mustached mouth.
Sorry, he said. We’re working on boundaries. Aren’t we Junior?
Ay mi Chaio! Come here already!
Homeboy flew by me as if I’d never been there. When I turned around, he was wrapped in my half-sister’s arms, squeezing as hard as he’d done with me. A needle of jealousy pricked my chest. I couldn’t tell whether it was ’cus my moment with Junior wasn’t anything special or that my half-sister hadn’t held me so closely since my parents split. Once Chacha let him go, I watched the chamaco in awe and bewilderment as he went around the casita, gliding his lanky, sand-colored limbs while greeting every object like they all shared a history together.
Charlie’s Border Patrol pickup sat parked in the driveway, towering over Abuelita’s Cadillac, its polished white paintjob making my grandmother’s Dream-Come-True look like a piss stain in snow. Bolted to the bed was what appeared like a small shed, but upon seeing the tailgate, I found a door, no taller than me, next to the agency’s toll-free number, with a window crisscrossed by bars and a lock hatch thicker than my arm. Junior caught me staring and stated, in the same tone he used to recite all the facts and anecdotes within his brain, that this part of the truck was where Papi puts all the bad guys.
Chacha was next to both of us then, and I gazed up at her as I tended to do in times when I felt adrift or unsure. She appeared in pain, lips curled in on each other, eyes fixated on the window. Her stare iced my heart. From then on that image of her face would flash like a movie frame whenever the border crossed my mind.
Junior spent our drive to the Port of Entry rehearsing the entire encyclopedia of information he held about his varrio, stringing together details that made this dinky-ass town seem much larger and more alive than any other place I’d visit.
Over there I had my first cheeseburger at that A&W, he said—Right there is the candy store where I saw my favorite Spiderman piñata n’ Missus Ortiz gave it to me for free on my sixth birthday—Behind that house there is a coop where Mister Rivera feeds his chicken fighters—That is the mailbox where I put letters to Santa in—Sometimes gra’ma Luisa takes me to that park and we sit together with our feet in the canal and laugh and cry under a tree that has lived for more than a hundred years!
By the time we neared the border and the streets became wider, pushing all greenery to the margin, Chaio’s commentary began to slow down like the cars that would move over for his father’s truck as he revved the engine, growling like some animal on top of the food chain. Soon, as we slowed our own roll, my cousin became quiet altogether. All I could see was canopies of concrete surrounded by dense black fences plastered with signs prohibiting the transportation of illegal drugs, guns, and people.
The only bodies outside the window were men wearing the same swamp-green uniforms as Charlie, their eyes hidden behind tight-fitting sunglasses, each strutting through waves of heat wafting off the pavement with a weapon on their hip. My pulse centered itself on my neck, matching the bounce of Chacha’s knee, which rubbed against my own, creating a friction between our skins that made me want to jump out the truck.
Charlie saluted the men as he pulled into a spot beside other white vehicles. The smell of leftover menudo and soggy bolilos that Tía Luisa had insisted we bring along swam up into my nostrils, sparking a queasiness that sloshed around my stomach. Cabrón asked Pops what he’d like to see, as if the vato was the only one capable of answering, but my father just raised an eyebrow like he needed to hear the question again, a move that mimicked all the times he spaced-out when Moms started fussing over whatever needed to be done in our lives. Before Charlie could repeat his words, a moan started to leak from my cousin’s mouth.
What is it, Junior? his father asked, grating his temple into a propped-up fist.
I wanna go to the Water Spot.
C’mon now. This isn’t about you—
I wanna go to the Water Spot!
What’s this Water Spot, mi Chaio? Chacha asked, slipping her voice into the moment, much looser and leveled than the tension in her legs.
It’s the place we go when Papi has to take me to his job. It’s the only place I like here. I once found a whole family’s shoes in the bushes!
The Water Spot turned out to be a secluded bank along the Rio Grande, miles from the Port of Entry, ringed by a half moon of head-level reeds. On our journey there, Chaio had been consumed by his excitement, swaying in his seat and clapping his hands together at random intervals. Each time homeboy pulled that move, I spazzed out like he’d dropped a cluster of cherry-bombs at my feet. But beyond the jumps in his voice, the extent of our conversation stopped at Pops and Charlie bitching about all the paperwork involved with a government profession.
Once we arrived, I took a second to marvel at the force of the river, how its flow carried water that had traveled, like me, all the way from Albuquerque. After soaking everything in, I asked Chacha that question about Junior’s nature. While the power in her shove would cause me to refrain from saying that word for another decade, the hurt it banged into my heart would trigger a decision to walk into the Rio Grande, to ditch my family for another world.
Feeling bitterness along my tongue and every ounce of heat on my skin, I took off my shirt before glancing over at them. They were all focused on Junior, keeping an eye on my cousin as he laughed and skipped around the foliage in search of fossils left by other torn apart families.
The current knocked me down upon taking my first steps, sweeping my legs and tossing my body more than five house lengths from the Water Spot. But once I managed to dig my feet into the clay, muscles absorbing the gasoline of adrenaline, I realized the depth wasn’t any taller than my chest, enough for me to haul myself at a diagonal towards my goal.
Chacha’s scream was the thing that stopped me, a sound as haunting and paralyzing as her hand crashing over my face. I found myself looking back, suddenly cold, panicked, and caught in the middle of the river, the water continuing to push me further from my family. My half-sister, her silhouette no bigger than my thumb, continued to yell, but the roar of the current drowned out her words. Pops had jumped in behind her, and I felt my throat attempting to shout, through sobs, the one word my brain could conjure. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
But what I would later consider the closest thing in my life to a miracle materialized just as my family disappeared beyond the horizon. A mound of dead and tangled tree branches, lodged into the earth. I wrapped my body around the thickest one, remembering the grasp mi primo Chaio had held me in, and then scrunched my eyes shut, clinging on till Chacha was able to reach me. With a strength that brought to life all those nights she looked after me while Pops was out being a sinvergüenza, Chacha carried me up the river, passed me along to our father, and supported him as he walked me, curled around his shoulders, back onto the bank of the Water Spot where Charlie had his arms tied around his own son, who was shrieking again and again. What’s wrong, cousin? What’s wrong?
The blessing was pretty fucken forgettable. Maybe it was the weight of the heat, which pressed down on the world like water at the bottom of a swimming pool. Or maybe it was the past twenty-four hours, full of chaos and shame and interrogations about my actions, that had drained me of myself, making it impossible to embrace the occasion. Or maybe it was the lingering ghost of Abuelita’s face, splattered with anguish, as her eyes took in me and Chacha, wet and bruised by the river, baked and swollen from the sun. Or maybe it was the distance everyone kept from me during the ceremony, generations of cousins and neighbors and strangers giving me, the pendejito who tried to swim to Mexico, quick nods and smiles embroidered with pity, the same kind parents broadcasted whenever Pops was late picking me up from after-school programs at the community center. Or maybe it was how Padre Fidel’s boring ass slowed the motion of time, turned everything so damn solemn and severe.
Yet there was one memorable moment. It happened outside the church, painted white by those military boys, while Padre Fidel stalked like a mantis around my grandmother’s car. As the vato recited some Latin shit, flicking droplets from his skeletal fingers onto the Caddy’s shell, Chaio Junior, who stayed closest to me throughout the service, decided to shout a revelation to the whole pinche congregation.
Cousin! he said, cutting off Padre Fidel’s monotone. That Jesus water comes from the river you got lost in! Drink it so he can save you too!
At the time, Charlie’s furious shushing—Chacha’s uncontainable laughter—the crowd’s deafening pause—forced my palms to shove themselves into my eyes. I wanted to be anywhere but there, crammed in a circle around that fucken pointless Cadillac. I wanted to be nowhere, exist in the nothingness of my vision.
But decades later, while reconnecting with my half-sister over beers after another death in the family, I looked back at Del Rio without shame. Chacha brought up the trip to fill a silence in our conversation. She recounted, through snorts and watering eyes, how hilarious it was when our primo Chaio stole the stage from that priest, how loco it was seeing my dumb ass swept away by the border’s current. In the glow of her nostalgia, despite the embarrassment I’d carried with me across all that time, I couldn’t help but release the tension in my shoulders, sigh out my own chuckles.
But once our good vibe died out, Chacha’s face dissolved into an expression that echoed the one she’d formed while staring at Charlie’s patrol truck. I kneaded my cheek in response, a nervous habit I’d developed at some point in my life, and gave her a ¿Qué pasa? nod. My half-sister opened her mouth and hesitated, concentrating hard like she was tryna keep the words from spilling over her lip.
Sometimes I still get hung up about it, she finally said, making us go to the border instead of the creek. None of that shit would’ve happened to you if I chose different. And you know what the worst part is?
I made that decision for sucha pendejada reason.
My half-sister barely waited for me to finish asking for an explanation before beginning her confession. She said leading up to our road-trip, she’d learned that Pops only swam in that creek as a child because his body wasn’t allowed to touch the water of Del Rio’s public pool. She said it was Whites Only. She said schools, restaurants, and water fountains were too, meaning Abuelita and Tía Luisa and all them viejos at the blessing were forbidden from using them in their youth. She said we would’ve passed those places on the way to that creek. She said seeing me and Chaio swimming in that water with that knowledge would’ve fucked with her head. She said it just didn’t feel right.
The tornado in my stomach, the same kind you feel during the plummet of a rollercoaster, lasted for no more than a second before being replaced by the shock of Chacha’s hand grabbing my own.
I’m sorry ’ermanito, she said, weaving our fingers together. I wish it all went differently.
I shook my head, saying it wasn’t her fault, that I was to blame for what went down at the Water Spot, that she’d saved me. My half-sister shook her head too, and I realized she wasn’t just talking about Del Rio. Chacha wanted that apology to stretch across time, wash away the entire sea of bullshit. Every fight, every insult, every inch of pain. We both knew it wasn’t enough, but at least some sort of Band-Aid had been ripped off. I apologized back, airing some of the guilt lodged in my chest. Chacha shut her eyes to dam the tears while running her hand across my knuckles like a river over its stones.
After me and my half-sister went our separate ways, I cruised down Central remembering something beautiful. Before the blessing, Abuelita had gotten behind the wheel of her Cadillac and taken it to a drive-thru car wash. Her son was at her side and her grandchildren sat next to one another in the backseat, everyone dressed in their cleanest clothes. She guided us into the tunnel, out of the sun’s heat, and soon there was nothing more than water, the car, and four family members. With every forward motion, the stains gathered throughout our journey were rinsed off, dirt and bird shit and dead bugs fading from the Caddy’s golden skin.
The whole thing reminded me of the desert monsoons we’d get caught in sometimes on the highway—those five-minute spells when God seems to wring out the entire sky. I loved those storms. I loved how their brief, torrential rainfall swallows everything before making it feel all pure and fresh. It’s like the world is being born again, the closest it’ll ever be to perfect.
A.J. Rodriguez was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He holds a BA from Cornell University and an MFA from the University of Oregon, where he was the recipient of the Logsdon Fiction Award. He is the winner of Fractured Lit’s Anthology Prize, the Gival Press Short Story Award, and CRAFT’s Flash Fiction Contest. His work has also placed as a finalist in New Ohio Review’s Fiction Contest, Indiana Review’s Fiction Prize, and New Letters’s Robert Day Award for Fiction.