For years and years I hated him. I thought of ugly words instead of his name. I imagined what I’d like to do to him, and everything I imagined I’d do made blood. I mean real blood. I’d made blood happen in the past. Not gun blood, not bullets, not knife wounds. I wasn’t a killer. But broken teeth, yes, absolutely. I imagined the bones of his nose being shifted to the side by my knuckles and saw blood running into and around his bleeding mouth. I imagined kicking the fucker in his fat gut. Once I dropped him, too, a couple times bruising his ass as he was curling up like a pill bug, hiding the more precious, softer parts of his body. I never imagined kicking him in the face. I only wanted to fuck him up physically like he’d done me financially. We’d had one of those transactions that didn’t turn out as good as he promised and which left me talking nice and making good to dudes from Juaritos, while he walked away expecting me to be as easy on him as his rich family was. I hated that nothing would keep him from owning up to it, because that was typical of him, too. He knew I was pissed and just how much and he knew why I’d never got back to him when he’d tried contacting me over those years.
Years and years. Lots of years that had almost erased the years of friendship before, when it was kicks. He had taught me shit back when we were friends, taken me where I wouldn’t have looked and couldn’t have gotten in. I hadn’t forgotten that. He was such a puto, could mess so much up so easy, except he would do the same to himself. Aquel pinche Junior meant to do good, he just didn’t always. I was old enough to have chavalitos in school and he was old enough for his to be out of it. But my bad life was past and my good life had me on a flight to Austin, a city I hadn’t been back to since I’d left all those years earlier. And so one day I got over the hating. One morning I woke up and I didn’t see blood anymore. Just like that.
I’d been put up in a suite in the hotel, and that night I’d opened the curtains to see the pink State Capitol below. I loved the view as if I’d made it myself. I opened a bottle of the complimentary wine which, no expert, tasted nice to me. That’s where I was—admiring the view, drinking the wine, when Junior showed up.
“How long’s it been?” he said.
He seemed to have got taller and bigger, which made him taller and bigger than most men, but his paunch was paunchier, and his hair, combed maybe the day before, was getting gray, and his skin was chapped from too much drinking, and his teeth were yellowing. I saw them because he was so happy to see me.
“Years and years,” I answered. “A long time.” I dragged over another stuffed chair to face the view. He sat down as if the windows weren’t there. Maybe I wanted him to admire the view like a girlfriend, a little envious. He just didn’t care. “You want some of this wine?”
“What kind is it?”
“Free,” I said.
“I meant was it red or white,” he said.
“Freakin’ Junior, you gotta be kidding.” I poured the red wine.
“I don’t like white wine,” he explained.
“What, a bad childhood experience?” I said, regretting my meanness the second I said it. He was not looking rich. It’s just that I’d never been put up in a hotel suite in Austin before. So I changed the subject before anything sank in. “How’s your little brother these days?” His stepbrother, who I’d always been compared to positively, was already a state senator. Their dad had been a United States congressman forever.
Junior was a pro. Nothing startled him. “His head is so deep up it, he thinks the air he’s sniffing is sweet.”
Seeing Junior told me enough about him.
“So look at you here in Austin! Looking badder than ever,” he said.
“Things are the best ever for me,” I admitted.
“I get to the gym whenever I can.”
“You still a Mexican?”
“I probably gotta carry them papeles for people like you, don’t I?”
“You got papers?” He was laughing. “Do you?”
I was laughing.
“I use a pipe,” he said.
I shook my head and we drank the wine and talked about his ex-wife I’d never before even asked about—a lawyer!—and a grown son who was living in Bolivia and our good days in Chuco, Los, Juárez, Burque, but never about what had happened, and we smoked until he was right, the view was no big deal.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said. “You hungry? I’m hungry.”
Once we were out the hotel room door, I’d become the me of back then—both suspicious and feeling watched, even though we were the only people in the hallway and far away from my old neighborhood. I hadn’t had this reaction in so long. Back then it was Junior who cleared me in, and now, going down an elevator with him, being next to him made me think twice about if I was holding, where I stashed it.
I could breathe outside. A part of the moon was up, the sky darker above it than below. It wasn’t hot like it usually was in Austin, and it wasn’t cold either. It was a night to be driving a convertible and loving Texas. “Damn!” I yelled. “This is lots better than I’d been expecting!”
We were heading to his wheels. “I was telling you I wanted you to come with me on an errand,” he said. “You good with that?”
“Sure. Let’s ride for a while.”
“I need to pick up some money.”
“You don’t gotta worry about it,” I said. “It’s all on me, like I told you.”
“I just wanna pick up this money while he’s got it and expecting me.”
His coupe wasn’t close to new, but it was worse than that. Trash had taken over the back-seat area completely. And if it wasn’t trash, it was well-disguised as it—fast-food bags and wrappers and cups, and beer cans, and a couple of broken mechanisms of some kind, in a gutted and skinned state. Clothes that, at first glance, seemed like shop-rag material. And that was what I could identify.
“So what’s up with you, man? You undercover, pretending to be homeless?” It was then I noticed that his T-shirt even had a hole in an unstylish place.
He didn’t laugh. He ignored me. Or maybe his head was somewhere else. He still drove with a too-heavy foot, and even the car held back as he took it out of the parking lot and toward the highway. Both front windows were down, blowing around the shit pile behind us, but he didn’t blink even when a sheet of paper exited and took flight. It was a car old enough to have wind wings, but only the one on my side had glass. It was open, maybe permanently, because it seemed as though it could not be adjusted. I was trying to move it because the wind was coming too hard at my face.
“Shit,” I said to it.
“You break it, you pay for it,” Junior said, almost yelling. “Air conditioning ain’t cheap, even if it’s only a Mexican a/c unit.”
I moved my face. “You are still a funny mother.”
It was probably too windy for him to hear me say that. And so we didn’t talk a lot but it was that good kind of not talking. We were on a dark country road, going I didn’t even know where— east or west or the others, but it was ranch and farmland, barbecue joints and taquerías and a Dairy Queen glowing brighter than any full moon. It was nighttime and beautiful stars twinkled.
“Look, so here’s what it is,” he said, slowing down to a coast. “This guy owes me and he hasn’t been paying me any, and I want to get it from him.”
“Whaddaya saying, ‘Get it from him’?” I knew.
“I sold him some ounces of crank.” He waited for me to say something. “He paid me a little when I fronted him, and I been telling him he needs to pay up. I told him I was coming over to get it today.”
“Junior, what the fuck.”
“Come on, hermano.”
“Don’t be calling me that shit. I hate when you people do that.”
“It’ll just be a minute. I’ll get at least a payment, you know?”
“Damn, man. I told you I’d buy you dinner, that it was on me. Not this.”
He was slowing down, and then he made a left into a caliche driveway close to a bar named Gar’s Bar. You could see it only when you were close enough, because the sign had no light illuminating its painted words. The bar’s only light seemed to be coming from a couple of small neon beer signs in the window, Tecate and Bud Light. Other than that, it looked closed.
“It won’t take but a minute or two. Just a minute.” He stopped in the dirt lot and got out fast. I was sitting there, fuming. “Come on out.” He turned back and leaned down at his open window to me. “Be hospitable to him, you know? Friendly. Have a beer.” He was smiling at me. “Then we’re outta here.”
I was pissed off, but I got out if for no other reason than to move. I didn’t believe it would take only a couple of minutes and I didn’t want a beer, but I finally followed him through the bar’s screen door on the side. It was dark inside, the only light in the front provided by the beer neons. Already at a back door, Junior’d found a chain that lit a bulb in a hall. Hey Garc��a! he was yelling. Garc��a! Dogs got to barking, at least two big ones and a little yapping one.
“It’s fuckin’ closed,” I told him when he clunked back. The wood flooring seemed to be the exact same material as the siding outside, with the same warped weathering. “Maybe even abandoned.” The same brown outside was the brown inside, good for plants either way, with a little water.
“No,” he said. “I’ve been here when it’s hopping.”
Somebody came through the back door. It was an ugly dude wearing a blue jean shirt with dumb patches all over it, sleeves torn off. He looked surly until he recognized Junior. “I’ll go tell Gar. You guys help yourself to a brew. They’re right over there.” He clomped out the way he’d come in and Junior got both of us a bottle and opened them.
I didn’t want one.
“You gotta take it. Take it!”
Shaking my head, I took it. “You know how stupid this is? I don’t wanna be doing this shit anymore. It never even crossed my mind I ever would again.”
He wasn’t listening to me. He was ignoring me. Or his head was somewhere else. “Now look,” he said. “I’ll be doing the talking.”
I drank at least half of the bottle. I was so mad there weren’t any words. I started thinking about my babies, my wife. How I’d explain it to her if something went wrong. I wouldn’t believe me if I were her either.
The sleeveless shirt came back, that screen door behind him slapping closed. He came in the big room with his eyes more on me this time. I was leaning hard against the pool table. He switched on the light over it. I felt his eyes on me while he and Junior talked to each other. I wasn’t looking at either of them. I took the second beer Junior brought me and started drinking. I was thinking about it going bad. How we’d be in the newspapers, on the front page. It’d be a good story, especially because we were here in the state capital. Last time Junior was popped, near Sierra Blanca, where there were no newspapers, a bust that big would’ve been a few years of time for anyone else. It wasn’t meth though. I hated meth, too. I hated people who made it, used it, were around it. And that other was a younger Junior. This Junior, now, well, nobody’d have any sympathy, connects or not. And whatever it meant for him, it’d be tough-to-impossible for me to explain my being here, and sure to cost and damage me. I wanted to leave.
“Let’s get the ball rolling,” I said finally. “What’s this wait?”
Junior was probably finishing his fourth beer. Dark as it was, the white in his eyes highlighted the red veins. “Where’s García now?” he asked.
“I’m sure he’s still in the house,” said sleeveless. “He said he’d be right out.”
Junior brought me a new beer. I glared at him. “Let’s get this done,” I said.
Junior went for another for himself and, nervous, circled to the back door. Hey García! García! The dogs barked crazy. He came back toward the main room. “I’m going over there,” he said right in my eyes. “I’ll be right in that house right over there,” he told me. “I’ll speed things up.” He went out the back.
I was alone with sleeveless dude. I didn’t want to talk and I didn’t want to talk to him. I could tell he was still watching me. First I was rolling the cue ball against the cushions, then I picked up a stick and banked it around. Suddenly a pickup crackled along the driveway and parked in the lot and a couple of dudes came in. One wore a cap from a parts house, the other a welder’s cap. They ordered beer. One took a stool, the other leaned by the bar, and the three of them conversed. I still couldn’t believe anybody would think the place was open. I was trying to be a little patient. Then I didn’t want to be anymore.
I took off out the side door and walked alongside the bar, making the dogs bark once I reached the back of the building. They were behind a short link fence, leaping and spinning. Their yard was next to a white house with a yellow back-porch light on. It was probably where Junior had gone, but I wasn’t sure. I turned and followed a dark but groomed path to the front door and I rang the doorbell and waited. I rang it again and waited again in the dark. I rang it a third time, and then a fourth and then a fifth, with not nearly as much space between those. I had no intention of stopping when an overhead light came on. The door opened.
It was Junior. Smiling. High.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Just get in here,” he said.
I followed him into a living room. There was a strangeness to it that took me some seconds to locate. It was that most everything in it was creamy white. The couch, the cushions on it, the lampshades, the legs of the glass-topped coffee table, the walls. But mostly it was the rug. A creamy white rug. And it was very clean, not a streak anywhere, as though it were still new, maybe vacuumed a couple of times a day, too. There was a little boy, six or seven, sprawled out on it, on his stomach, watching cartoons on the TV. He didn’t even look up at me or Junior as we stepped around him toward the kitchen area. But stranger still was the man on the phone in the corner of the new creamy couch—except for a long-sleeved white shirt, he was all in black. He was wearing a black hat, a black vest, black pants, silver studs on the seam. He had a black mustache and goatee. Only his polished brown boots defied the color scheme. He didn’t even look up as we’d stepped over what I figured was his son. His head was bent into the telephone.
We stopped in the kitchen by a glass dinner table, which was next to the living room. Below us was white tile. Junior opened the refrigerator. He brought me a beer. I wouldn’t take it.
“What’s the story?” I said. “I wanna get outta here.”
As he plopped down, he nodded over at the dude on the phone. I already didn’t like that man. But right then I didn’t like anybody, and especially not Junior. “As soon as he gets off,” he said. He put my beer close to me anyway and sipped his. “That’s García.”
“Yeah,” he said. “For short.”
I shook my head. “What an asshole.” I was mad.
Junior stopped smiling at this and he walked over to García, interrupting him, making García lower the phone. I couldn’t hear what they were saying because of the TV. García stood up and they went on talking and the little boy paddled his feet and rolled some, happy with what was on. García looked at me. It was a little longer than a glance and he probably saw me shake my head. I was not interested in sitting patiently. I was pacing without moving my feet much. They talked close to each other’s face, and hands moved and García went into his wallet. Junior came back.
“Five minutes, five more minutes,” he said. “Look, you want some of this?”
He actually seemed pleased with himself for getting an eight ball of coke, and he was unwrapping it like it was a real thoughtful gift.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I wanted to scream and make a scene now but there was the little boy. I forced a whisper. “You fuckin’ gotta know you’ve lost your brains!
“It’s not shit, it’s not cut,” he said.
“Junior,” I said. “There’s a little boy right there! Don’t you even see that little boy right there?”
The little boy didn’t look at us. The TV was there and we weren’t.
“He doesn’t see us,” Junior explained.
I lost it, and I lost it completely. “No!”
Everything changed. I probably was still screaming at Junior but I only saw him scrambling away as the glass of the table shattered after I slammed the thick bottom of the beer bottle through it and the shards scattered on the white tile. I didn’t focus on what else was happening for a short space of time, and when I came back around the little boy was not in the room and García was hurrying to take his distant position at the corner by the phone and the TV was off. Suddenly Junior was there talking to him, both of them afraid to even look at me, their bodies squirming when they sensed I was too close once I started really pacing, hard, on the creamy white rug.
“We’re leaving now, right?” I screamed. “No more! Now!”
Huddled, they were mumbling to each other, or so it seemed to my ears.
“I’m not waiting one more minute,” I said. “It’s now, I’m fucking done! You understand?” I headed to the front door but before I went out I turned. “You hear me, right? I am so fucking serious! I do not want to come back here!”
I left the door open behind me when I swung it open, the square light of the room projecting a path toward the parking lot. There were two more pickups now, and another car next to Junior’s heap. I went over and thought I’d kick it, kick anything, when I saw that light go out as the door was closed. I told myself this was losing it, but I had to—I had to go back there because it really did make me even madder that the door was shut. I kicked it hard. That door didn’t open and instead pushed me back, making me almost fall, which infuriated me even more. I balanced myself and kicked, kicked, then really laid into it, and the wood from the jamb ripped away and the front door blew open. I saw them both standing where I’d left them. A quiet descended over me. I felt calmer. “Leave this open,” I told them.
I don’t know how long the sleeveless punk and a bunch of the others had been out of the bar, hovering by the side screen door. I was meditating, leaning against the coupe, looking up through branches of an oak tree at the stars—it was a pretty night on the outskirts of Austin, Texas—and it was only then that I saw them. I was feeling so much better that I didn’t want to move yet, even though I’d finally figured what I didn’t want to have to do next, which was to get Junior’s car keys and get out of this place. I didn’t uncross my arms when sleeveless took a long route to the front door. I watched him, and as he got halfway into the tunnel of doorlight, the big silhouette of Junior started coming through the other way.
He arrived smiling slyly.
I moved away from the coupe. “Can you drive? Maybe I better take it.”
It was as though he didn’t hear me. Pondering, he finally took a few steps back, into the line of light from the doorway, very close to a shiny new pickup. With his back to me, he fiddled with his pants until I heard the spigot splash of a urinating horse. As Junior arched his back a little, there even seemed to be the shadow of a horse’s unit. It was ridiculous and, despite my renewed dislike for this man, I giggled when I heard one of Gar’s patrons hollering about it—from a distance, not willing to approach.
Junior jumped into the front seat as if I was in the car already. I hurried in. It was almost like he was fishtailing in reverse, and the tires spit rocks and dirt, but neither the tail nor the headlights nudged anything and then we were on the road, windows still down.
“He came through,” he yelled over the wind, “and I’m feeling lots better.”
Maybe he expected me to say something, or maybe he didn’t. Now we were driving and not talking and it was that bad kind of not talking. If I was a little drunk still, I didn’t want to imagine what he was while he was pushing a speed impossible for me to check on. Not feeling like rolling up my window, keeping it and the wind-wing blast between us because I didn’t want to feel as though I was sitting that close to him, I tried to keep my eyes up skyward, at the stars above the staccato of ranch fences or crop lines. When I looked straight ahead, I tightened up with the thought of the force of a sudden mangling wreck. Looking upward I could make it more about space and time’s slow passage, death peaceful and inevitable.
He had to slow down when we got nearer the city. Though I thought he might jerk to the left of the two-lane traffic going in, he only tailgated and changed lanes. But all of this slowed him down, and then we were back on the interstate, the pink Capitol aglow on the skyline.
“Hungry?” he said.
I looked over at him even though I’d sworn I wouldn’t until I got out of this car. He was smiling. It was his sincere kind of smile, too. “Let me buy. I want to.” This was Junior grateful, generous.
“You remember where the hotel I’m staying is?”
“You don’t want to eat? I couldn’t have gotten it done without you, I know it.”
“I’ll get out at the hotel.”
“Come on,” Junior said. “Don’t be that way.”
A couple of turns and the hotel was a stoplight ahead.
“You scared the shit out of him,” Junior said. “He didn’t know what you were gonna do to him. Before you went outta control, I kept telling him you only wanted your end and I had to pay. After, I said I wanted it all to be done with it.”
“He had the money too. Had it and wasn’t giving it to me.”
He stopped in the parking lot and he even turned to find a space.
“No, I’ll just get out in the front,” I said.
“Don’t be this way,” he said. “You were great! You were one scary Mexican.”
I didn’t slam the door, anything. I was so glad to be back in the hotel, hearing the live piano music. Elated when I first checked in, now I was self-conscious and embarrassed, and I crept over to the elevator doors, hoping nobody’d make me explain what I was doing here.