AWP Intro Awards Winner
A cloud of yellow dust rose and dissipated like a ghost far in the lavender mountains. It reappeared on the next mountain and vanished behind the next one. When it came back into view it was closer. Graciano leaned toward his father and pointed. “There it is. Can you see it?”
They were sitting at the top of the mountain under the shade of pine and oak trees where the dirt road that cut across the sierra joined the smaller dirt road that led to the village of Ocote. About a dozen market women and their children from the adjacent mountain towns sat surrounded by colorful plastic mesh bags loaded with goods. The bus from Tlapa de Comonfort came only on Thursdays and it was always late.
Graciano helped his father stand. They watched the bus climb. The roof was covered with luggage and a blue tarp that had turned brown with dust. As it appeared around the last mountain the sound of the engine churning in low gear came with every gust of wind. Everyone stepped forward to watch it climb, its stiff shape moving slow, bouncing and turning to avoid potholes and rocks.
Osiel was not on the bus. Graciano and his father stood waiting, but he did not appear. The market women shuffled past them and boarded the bus. Then the driver climbed back on, and the bus drove off in a cloud of dust and diesel.
It had been three years since Graciano’s mother had sewn their life savings into Osiel’s belt strap and they had waited together for the same bus to take him away, to the North, with all their hopes. He was sixteen years old. Then last week Osiel telephoned the caseta telefónica and left a message that he would be coming home in this bus.
Graciano took his father’s arm. “Maybe he missed the bus, papá,” he said quietly. The old man did not move. He stared at the distance, the trees and sky.
As they walked back into town, they passed small houses made of lumber and corrugated tin that were so old they had taken the color of smoke and dirt. A dog barked after them from behind a barbed wire fence and the smell of the pine trees faded to something human: charcoal, fuel, excrement. Graciano held his father’s arm to keep him steady as they turned onto a side path that dipped and began to slope down. They made their way between a series of gardens and empty lots, and entered the yard of the unfinished brick house they had built with the money Osiel had sent home in the last three years. It was small, but had two stories and a concrete roof with long stalks of rebar that stuck out against the sky like rusted twigs. At the end of each stalk, Graciano’s father had placed empty soda bottles because he believed it protected them from lightning.
“How do you feel?” Graciano knew Osiel’s absence was hurting their father who had aged immensely after the death of their mother the previous year. He helped the old man to his place on a cushioned chair in the living room.
The old man nodded and looked out the window.
“He’ll come next week, ya vera.” Graciano fetched a glass of water and placed it in his father’s hand.
The old man did not answer. Graciano sat facing him. “Are you sure María said it would be today? Maybe he got detained in Chilpa or in Mexico City. She never said where he called from, verdad? You know how it is.”
He knew his words would make no difference. His father would believe whatever he had made up his mind to believe and nothing could change that. He was probably thinking tragedy had found his oldest son and was already grieving for him. But Graciano knew Osiel, or at least remembered him well enough to know he probably got drunk somewhere and missed the bus.
The store was small with four narrow isles, Bimbo and Sabritas displays, two small commercial refrigerators that were old and in constant need of repair, and a long counter that ran along the front and side of the store.
Xochitl was putting away empty Pepsi bottles on a wooden crate when Graciano entered the store.
“So, is he here?” She shoved the crate of empty bottles out of the way and came around the counter to meet him.
Her excitement bothered him, but he put it aside with the rest and looked casually around the store like it didn’t affect him. “Can you come out?”
“Papá,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
Her father glanced at Graciano. “Don’t be too long.”
They followed the road down from the plaza where workers had been digging to run a sewer drain, but for some reason the work had stopped and the street around the plaza had been torn up with holes and piles of dirt and rock for almost three months. They crossed an empty lot and climbed up a low hill to a small orchard of about thirty apple trees. It was the same place they had come to the day after Osiel left for the North, when Xochitl stormed out of the store in a fit of temper. Graciano had run after her and found her crying face down in the grass, her body convulsing with uncontrollable sobs. He did not know what to do, struggling with his own loss and confusion. He sat on the grass beside her and placed his hand on the back of her shoulder and told her it would be all right, that he understood. And for three years they had been coming to this place, sharing their own unspoken emptiness.
This time it was different. She lay on her back, her thick brown lips parted to the sky. There was something powerful and confident in her posture. Graciano felt his body tensing. He followed the length of her body, taking every second that passed like a breeze too quick to inhale and wishing he could hold time still for all eternity. He rested his gaze on the outline of her cheekbone, a strand of hair across her eye, her thin fingers resting on her chest. Without thinking, he reached out and touched her hair with the tip of his fingers.
She swatted his hand playfully.
“It was a leaf,” he lied.
She spoke to the sky. “Why didn’t he come?”
He didn’t answer. She sat up and turned to him. “You really think he’ll be here next week?”
He would have preferred it if she was devastated, angry; anything but happy. For three years he had been at her side, not Osiel. She had told him so much. He wanted her to bury her face in his chest and cry. He wanted to protect her.
The heat of the afternoon sun beat on his brow and he leaned into the shade.
“What’s wrong?” She touched his arm.
He turned away and fought the impulse to get up and run. Her smell was all over him and he wished that when he died he would be buried with a bar of her soap so she would stay with him forever.
“He’ll be back next week. You’ll see.” She leaned against him and ruffled his hair. “Poor Graciano, you miss your brother. Que lindo.”
He felt perverse, lying to her like he was, cheating her for sympathy; but it was the only way he knew he could be close to her. This was their final moment. Osiel would be coming home. He wanted to stay like that forever, but it only lasted another minute. She stood and dusted off her apron and said she had to get back to the store.
Early the following week, the dog barked incessantly for a few minutes, then went quiet. Graciano walked around the back of the house and through the living room to the front door where he found his brother. He was taller and darker, and wore a pair of baggy jeans and sneakers and a long black t-shirt with a silkscreen of a revolver across the front. He had a small diamond earring in his left lobe and his eyes were black and empty like deep holes without reflection.
Osiel smiled. His gold tooth glinted in amber.
“Osiel!” Graciano said, surprised.
“What’s going on?” Osiel put down his Dallas Cowboys duffle bag and gave his brother an abrazo. “Where’s the old man?”
Osiel took a deep breath and looked around the living room. “So this is what you did with the money I sent.”
“What happened Thursday?”
“Thursday? What are you, my mother?”
They both froze and stared at each other for a moment, then crossed themselves at the same time. “Perdón, mamacíta,” Osiel said and glanced at the ceiling.
“Papá was really disappointed you weren’t on the bus.”
Osiel shrugged. “I met a girl. José Inés gave me a ride on the Pepsi truck this morning.” He stepped to the stairwell and called out, “Papá, ya llegue!”
“He’s getting old.”
Osiel looked at his brother. “And you?”
“You grown up?”
Graciano smiled nervously. “I guess. Sixteen.”
“You got a girl yet?”
“Osiel?” They heard their father’s voice and they both turned to the empty stairwell.
Graciano felt his muscles tensing. “Have you seen her?”
“No. I’ll see her later.”
“You should go see her.”
Osiel grinned. “Yes, I’ll go see her. Don’t worry about that, cabrón. She’s waited for me for three years. She can wait another fucking day.”
They walked into town together. Osiel jingling with chains and metal parts imported from half a dozen American flea markets and a Pittsburgh Steelers baseball cap he wore backwards on his head.
“No one’s been trying to see her?”
Graciano walked a step behind his brother, his eyes fixed on the tattoo on the back of his shoulder; a colorful rendering of the Virgen de Guadalupe. He had never seen a tattoo. As Osiel walked, the body of the Virgin moved like she was slow dancing. “No, no one. I’ve been watching her for you.”
“It’s been very quiet,” Graciano said. “Everyone’s going to the North.”
“Yeah? Well there’s nothing there. It’s a worthless journey.”
“Yeah, but the money.”
Osiel stopped and turned to face his brother. “What about it?”
Graciano spread his arms. “It’s good, no?”
There was a long pause. It had been three years. Borders, invisible lines; a parameter was being reestablished. Graciano averted his eyes.
“Yes,” Osiel said at last. “I guess it is.”
Graciano was going to say something but stopped.
Osiel grinned. He hooked his thumb at the front of his belt and took long strides as he walked, his free arm swinging deliberately.
When they came into the store, Xochitl’s father stopped his work and hurried out from around the counter. He laughed joyfully and gave Osiel a generous abrazo, his hands patting him on the back with loud clapping sounds. “Hombre, you’re back at last. When did you get in?”
“Yesterday, with José Inés.”
“Xochitl?” he called to the back of the store. “Look who’s here to see you, mi amor.”
She walked out from the back of the store, wiping her hands on her apron. When her eyes met Osiel, she blushed and averted her eyes to the ground. Then she noticed Graciano. A quiet melancholy cast over them.
She paused a few feet from Osiel. “You’re back,” she said.
“Yes. I always said I would be.”
“And nobody doubted you, mijo,” her father interrupted and patted Osiel on the back. “You kids should go out to the plaza. Come on.” He pushed Osiel and Graciano out of the store. Xochitl followed them out and turned to her father.
“It’s all right, mija.” He waved. “Take your time. Have fun.”
They sat at a table in the little comedor on the other side of the plaza. Xochitl and Graciano had Pepsis. Osiel ordered a beer and sat sideways so he could look out at the plaza. He said nothing. He watched the people. He held the beer in his hand and took short nervous sips. His knee bounced up and down under the table. Three years had passed and he had not yet looked her in the eyes.
Osiel waved to a friend. “Qué pasó, güey?”
A young man in a cowboy hat and boots paused. He spread his arms out and smiled.
Osiel grabbed his beer and ran across the street to meet him. Xochitl looked after him. Slowly, her smile faded, but her gaze remained on him for a long time. Finally, she turned to Graciano. “Why’re you looking at me like that?”
“Like you’re feeling sorry for me.”
She turned away from him.
“You need to get back?” Graciano asked.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“I was just asking.”
She looked down and touched one of her braids. Her fingers intertwined with the blue ribbon laced between the black hair. Graciano sipped his Pepsi and looked at a poster on the wall: two women in tight shorts and cowboy hats stood by a red semi-trailer. Tecate.
“You think they’re pretty?”
Graciano turned but avoided her eyes. “No. . . Yes. I guess.”
She smiled and looked back at the plaza. Osiel was crossing the street toward them.
“Ese carbrón.” He laughed and sat. “I’m going to get together with him. Get a business started.”
Xochitl face was illuminated. “What kind of business?”
He waved. “I don’t know, something.”
Graciano leaned forward and drank his Pepsi. Three years of gestures and thoughts and ideas: smiles, looks, words. He could see, from the corner of his eyes, that she was still looking at Osiel, hanging on him, waiting for him to tell her something she wanted to hear.
Osiel fiddled with the gold chain around his neck. He took a sip of beer and looked back at the plaza to see who else he might recognize. Finally he stood and dug out a few pesos from his pocket and put them on the table.
“Where you going?” Xochitl straightened her back.
“To the cantina. See about some business.”
Graciano leaned back on his chair and looked at his brother.
“What?” Osiel said.
Xochitl glanced at Graciano and back at Osiel.
At that moment the priest was making his way across the street to the church. A shoeshine boy poked his head into the comedor and pointed to Graciano’s boots. Osiel snorted and walked out. Graciano and Xochitl watched him strut, his thumb hooked on his belt and his arm swinging wide, down the center of the street in the direction of the cantina.
When he was out of sight, Xochitl looked down at her hand resting on the table. Graciano stared at the space between the street and the plaza for a long while. He knew how she felt. He took a sip of Pepsi and fought back the tears.
Xochitl walked up the trail toward town. She was walking fast, her arms swinging back and forth. She kept her head down and did not raise her eyes from the path until she had almost come face to face with him.
“How are you?” He stepped off the path to let her through.
She shrugged and looked down at her feet. “Fine.”
“Really?” He reached out to her. She shuddered, but did not move away. She leaned toward him and let his arm come around her shoulders, taking her close. She took a deep breath and he felt the tension in her body relax. Her face pressed against his chest.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with him.” Her voice was muffled. She was talking into his shirt.
“It’s been three years,” he said.
She nodded her head and sobbed.
“Maybe he doesn’t feel like he used to.”
She stopped and slowly pulled away from him. “Don’t say that,” she cried, her eyes still downcast.
“I’m just saying...”
“Don’t.” She stepped away. She was trembling. “What’s the matter with you?”
She threw her arms violently in the air and turned away. “With you. With Osiel. With everyone!”
Graciano took a step back and watched her run up the trail and disappear around the hill. He turned and looked at the path that led down to his house. His heart pounded heavy against his chest.
Graciano and Osiel stood before their father in the small living room of the house. The old man sat, a blue plastic glass of melon water in his hand.
“Your cousin is mending the goats down by the valley near the milpa,” the old man said. “Pick three heavy ones and bring them home. Doña Herminia and her sister agreed to cook at the house. I want the both of you to help them with whatever they need.”
Osiel laughed. “I don’t mean any disrespect, papá, but I’m not a cook.”
Graciano looked at his brother and back at his father.
“Bueno, pues.” The old man rubbed the palm of his hand gently against the arm of the chair. His eyes were dry and old and half shut with the history of his own life. “You do what you can to help. Graciano?”
Osiel looked at his brother.
“This is for you.” Their father looked at Osiel. “Everyone’s been waiting for you to return and now you’re here. Gracias a Dios. We’ll have a mass and give thanks and bless you and your mother, que en paz descanse. We need to treat our guests well. I expect nothing less from either of you.”
“Fine by me,” Osiel said.
“Bueno, go on and pick out the goats then.”
They left the house and followed the path between the houses and the little gardens and corrals until it was only empty fields, and occasional trees, then more trees.
“He’s getting old,” Graciano said.
“We have to take care of him. He can’t do the things he used to do.”
Osiel looked back at his brother. “You can do it. I’ve done my part. If you only knew the shit I went through in the North.”
“So you’re staying for good?”
The path came out of the forest where the plateau ended and the cliff began. There they paused and looked down at the milpas below. It was the only place where the land was flat and those who had been here since the old days had their milpas there. The others had to plow and harvest on the mountainsides which was difficult and tiresome work. Between and outside rows of corn below, they could see the goats spread out like brown and black dots.
Osiel whistled and waved. Their cousin looked up and waved at them. A narrow path that had been carved out of the side of the cliff led down to the valley. It was a long way up and a long way back.
“I don’t know,” Osiel said quietly. He handled the mecate rope he had taken from the house to tie up the goats.
“You’re not going back, are you?”
“Entonces?” Graciano moved to the path at the edge of the cliff.
Osiel was silent. He turned the mecate around and around, wrapping his hand in the rope.
Finally, Graciano asked him. “And Xochitl?”
Osiel looked up and grinned, his gold tooth catching the sun.
Osiel nodded. “How come you’re so interested?”
Graciano tensed. He shuffled his feet and looked down at the goats.
“You in love with her, o qué?”
“No.” Graciano felt his stomach twist with fear.
“I see you looking at her. What happened when I was gone?”
Osiel kept grinning, nodding his head, turning the rope around his hand. He stepped forward and pointed at his brother. “Something happened.”
“No. I swear.”
Graciano felt the heat of the sun penetrating every pore in his body.
“Osiel, I’m your brother, cabrón.”
Osiel kept coiling the rope round his hand. The corner of his lip twitched. “Did you –”
“Que no. Nothing happened. Te lo juro.” He crossed his index finger over his thumb and kissed it.
Osiel watched him, his hands moving calmly one around the other, coiling and uncoiling the mecate, back and forth.
Graciano felt his breath escaping his lungs. Every time he inhaled it blew out like a balloon without a knot.
“I’m going to marry her,” Osiel said calmly, his black eyes glued to his brother’s. “I need to know everything.”
Graciano felt his knees weaken. His entire body became a part of the sun. “Qué?” His vocal chords contracted in a small cry. He coughed and shook his head. “I thought that, maybe. . .”
“She proved it to me.” Osiel tapped his chest with his hand. “She told me everything. It’s finished with you two, me entiendes?”
“But no,” Graciano stammered. He felt his body beginning to shake uncontrollably. “I just kept her company, for you. I did it for you.” But everything that he had kept silent and hidden for three years came to him. Every second he spent with Xochitl flashed in a clear beam of recognition. Love existed within and without himself. He looked away, down the cliff, the rows of corn, the goats, his cousin waving. He turned and stared into his brother’s eyes. He knew everything now. “But you can’t,” he cried. “You don’t love her.”
“Love has nothing to do with it, pendejo.” Osiel grinned and his gold tooth flashed like lightning.