Rush hour was over but traffic in the city was still bad. The long summer days kept the streets busy. Chuy did not like this drive and did not enjoy going to his sister’s. His mood got worse by the mile.
His sister lived on the south side, in a neighborhood of little off-white stucco houses with black iron bars on the windows and doors. It wasn’t the worst neighborhood in the city, wasn’t even considered one of the bad ones. But it was bad enough to Chuy. He didn’t understand why his sister left Los Huertos. Now land in the village was so expensive she couldn’t afford to move back.
The streets were empty in his sister’s neighborhood. Chuy guessed everyone was still inside eating dinner, or stuck in front of their TV sets. He could hear TVs blaring from some of the houses. It was quiet otherwise, quiet except for the constant hum of the highway. You could see Route 40 from the patch of gravel that was his sister’s front yard.
As Chuy turned into his sister’s little dead-end street, his nephew Tomas came out the front door of their little house. Tomas was small and fine-boned. He would enter eleventh grade in the fall. They waved to each other and Tomas met Chuy’s truck at the curb.
“How’s it hangin’, Unc?”
Chuy shook his head.
“I hate the damn traffic.”
“Yeah. Me too. Thanks for comin’ down.”
He climbed out of his truck and followed Tomas to an old Malibu parked in the short driveway. It had been bleached by the desert sun to a flat gray-blue.
“Payne’s gray,” Chuy said.
Chuy gestured at the car with his chin.
“I was looking at paint chips today. They called this color Payne’s gray.”
Tomas looked at his car.
“Huh,” he said.
Chuy poked his chin at the car again.
“Tell me again what’s wrong.”
Tomas described the trouble he was having. A rough idle they thought they’d fixed was back. The car choked going into second gear. He popped the hood and they stared at the engine. It was gray too, a dull greasy gray.
Pain’s gray, Chuy thought, and laughed quietly.
“What’s funny, Unc?”
Chuy considered explaining this pun to his nephew.
“Nothing,” he said. “Where’s your tools?”
A half hour later Chuy had the idle back under control. He and Tomas were gathered around the engine again, listening to it hum. Chuy wiped his hands on a rag and handed to it Tomas, who did the same.
“Hey Unc,” Tomas said. “I almost forgot.”
Chuy looked up. Tomas tilted his head toward Chuy’s truck.
“You know the gangbanger stole your wheels?”
Chuy nodded. Tomas straightened his head. He held the rag by a corner and spun it around in circles. Chuy frowned.
“He’s dead,” Tomas said.
Chuy felt a twinge in his stomach. The backs of his hands went cool.
Tomas nodded. He stopped spinning the rag, then started again.
“What happened?” Chuy said.
“They stabbed ‘im.”
“Somewhere that killed him.”
Chuy looked down at the engine.
“I meant where was he. I thought he was still in prison.”
Chuy looked up again.
“Who stabbed him?”
Tomas stopped spinning the rag.
“Someone from his gang. They say he was cuttin’ a deal with the cops.”
“How do you know about it?”
“His aunt or something lives near here. It’s all over the neighborhood.”
Chuy nodded once and looked back down. He watched the engine vibrate. He took a deep breath and tapped his fingers on the top of the fender.
“Shut it off,” he said.
His voice was hard. Tomas froze for a second, then slipped his head inside the driver’s window and cut the ignition. When he was standing next to the open hood again, Chuy looked him in the eye.
“Tell me you’re not in his gang.”
“I’m not in any gang.”
Chuy stared at him for a long moment.
“You’re telling me the truth.”
“Yes. I’m telling the truth, Uncle.”
Chuy stood up straight. He put his hands behind his hips and stretched his back. He walked around to the other side of the car and looked at Tomas. The boy turned toward Chuy and blinked up at him.
“You swear to me?” Chuy said.
Tomas turned back toward the car.
“They don’t want me.”
Chuy folded his arms. He studied the side of the boy’s face.
“What do you mean?”
Tomas shrugged and said nothing.
“Out with it, Tomas. What do you mean by that?”
“Like I said. They don’t want me.”
“And that’s a bad thing?”
Tomas hesitated, then shook his head.
“Do they give you any trouble?” Chuy said.
Tomas shook his head again.
He glanced up at his uncle, then looked away.
“I’m nothing to them,” he said.
Chuy watched the boy’s suffering.
“And that’s a bad thing?” he said again.
His voice was gentle and quiet. Tomas spread his fingers out on a fender and stared at them.
“I’m nothing to anyone,” he said.
He almost whispered it. Chuy’s heart missed a beat. It lurched heavily in his chest and he felt sick. He stepped forward and wrapped an arm around his nephew’s delicate shoulders.
“You’re something to me, Tomas. You’re very important to me.”
Tomas still stared at his fingers. Chuy looked down at the side of the boy’s face. Tomas blinked, then blinked again.
“The kid who stole my truck. They wanted him, right?”
“And he’s dead. Right?”
Tomas nodded again. Chuy squeezed him hard.
“You stay alive, Tomas. I would miss you too much.”
Tomas nodded a third time. He ran the back of a greasy hand across his nose. After a moment, Chuy gestured at the engine.
“Let’s get this wreck of yours out on the road and see if it still chokes going into second.”
They tooled around the south side for about ten minutes, going up and down through the gears. The car ran fine. Chuy was struck again by what a good driver Tomas was, confident but cautious, so unlike the typical teenage boy. They didn’t talk much because Chuy was intent on the sound of the engine and Tomas knew to keep quiet. When Chuy was satisfied with his repairs, he told Tomas to head home, and that set Chuy to an old line of thought.
“How’s your mother doing?” he said.
“Better, I guess.”
“She still drinks?”
“Yeah. But not as much. She doesn’t get drunk so often.”
Chuy glanced at a billboard. A group of half-naked Latinas played in a fountain next to a giant beer bottle.
“You hear from your father lately?” Chuy said.
Tomas shook his head. Chuy left him alone. A few minutes later, as they turned into the little dead-end street, the front door of Tomas’s house opened, and his mother stepped outside.
“Speak of the devil,” Tomas said.
Chuy snorted and suppressed a grin. His sister met them in the driveway. She was still in her work clothes, the pale green uniform she wore to clean rooms at the hotel up on the highway. Her hair needed to be washed. She had let it down and it spilled across her shoulders and her back.
Chuy and Tomas climbed out of the car. Chuy’s sister took a pack of Newports and a butane lighter from a big pocket on the front of her dress.
“How’s it runnin’?” she said.
Tomas looked at Chuy.
“Good,” Chuy said. “How’re you?”
She shrugged and tapped a cigarette from the pack. She put it between her lips, lit it, tilted her head back, and blew smoke up in the air. She dropped the cigarettes and lighter back in her big pocket.
“Fine,” she said.
Tomas fidgeted with his keys. Chuy took a deep breath. His sister let out another jet of smoke.
“I should go,” Chuy said.
His sister squinted up at him.
“Sure,” she said.
Chuy turned to Tomas.
“Let me know if it acts up again.”
Chuy went down the short drive and got in his truck. He started it up and pulled away. He turned around in the tight cul-de-sac at the end of the little dead-end street. His sister and his nephew were still out front when he went past. He waved at them and they waved back. His sister spoke to Tomas as Chuy turned out of the little dead-end street. Her voice bounced off the houses and the asphalt and into Chuy’s truck as he accelerated away, back toward the highway and Los Huertos.
“I hate it when you call him ‘Unc’,” she said.
The traffic on Route 40 was still bad. Chuy found himself stuck between two semis. He shook his head and checked his mirrors. A solid line of cars and trucks filled the passing lane as far back as he could see. He shook his head again and turned the radio on. He punched up a couple stations then snapped the radio off. He checked his mirrors a few more times, then gave up and got off at the next exit. It wasn’t his usual turn; he would have to wind his way through some back streets to catch Kurtz Boulevard going north to Los Huertos.
This part of the city was tire dealers and car parts and auto repair shops. The sidewalks were always empty. There was no reason to come here that didn’t involve driving. Chuy sat at a light and watched an older black man and a young Anglo lock up a body shop. The black man went south in a powder blue vintage Mustang convertible and the Anglo followed in a red Nissan Sentra with racing stripes and custom hubs and tinted windows. The Sentra turned right at the end of the block and disappeared behind a low cinderblock tire dealership.
The light changed and Chuy continued west. After a few blocks, the auto parts and supply stores were replaced by warehouses and truck terminals. The buildings were big and dark and the streets were empty. He looked down one of the wide avenues that ran north and south and saw a string of hookers posing and promenading on a dirty sidewalk. There was a cluster of them around a red Nissan Sentra with racing stripes and tinted windows. Chuy smirked and shook his head. One of the hookers got in the car.
Chuy wondered if his sister had ever sold herself. The thought came up out of nowhere and hit so hard he jerked backwards in his seat. He remembered how she looked in her ugly green uniform, her dirty hair spilling down, her cigarette with red lipstick ringing the filter so it looked like it was dipped in blood. She had a lazy insolence like the painted women on the wide avenue. He shook his head and took a deep breath. She had never been a beauty, but what she had, many men wanted — just like the street walkers. He shook his head again. He drove through empty blocks of sooty buildings. Trash blew around in the evening wind.
At the edge of the warehouse district there was a long block where street dealers fed the commuter trade. Chuy sat a stop sign and watched a transaction go down across the avenue. An Anglo businessman in a gold Lexus was buying from a kid who looked like a harder version of Tomas. Money and drugs changed hands and the Lexus took off down the block. Chuy started across the avenue and the kid gave him an expectant look. Chuy snorted and shook his head and rolled on past.
Traffic was light going north on Kurtz Boulevard. The southbound lanes were busier. Chuy guessed these oncoming cars were stragglers from the day shift at Persicon. Maybe they went out for dinner in Rancho Grande, or did some shopping before going home. Chuy wondered at a life spent making computer chips all day, in that big blocky monstrosity of a plant that looked ready to tumble off the mesa and crush Los Huertos. He could not imagine it was a good life; the smells that came from that plant sometimes were all he needed to know. The cars kept coming and Chuy wondered when all these people would leave. He was certain they would not stay forever. This was another western boom, cast in silicon this time instead of gold or silver, and like all the others it would end.
Chuy sat at the traffic light at the end of the Boulevard and looked east to the Jitomate Mountains. They blushed the ripe red that gave them their name. He looked to the west and saw pink and orange clouds piled along the bottom of the sky. Up above was pale blue. It was calm and cool here on the edge of Los Huertos. He could feel the sweet pull of the Rio Hu rfano, coursing through its channel a half mile to the east.
The light changed and Chuy crossed Bosquecillo Boulevard and entered Los Huertos. He turned left at Rico’s and smiled at the full parking lot; his friend Rico Lupe would be busy tonight. He turned right at the mission church, onto Entrada Oeste, then made the first left onto the narrow dirt lane that led to his house.
He looked ahead down the lane and saw a cop car back out of a driveway. He couldn’t be sure at this distance but it looked to be his house. His heart fluttered a little and his stomach felt hollow. The police cruiser and Chuy’s pickup slowly approached each other, rumbling over the rutted dirt, dust clouds trailing behind them. There was no breeze just now and the dust hung in the air.
The car was in shadow at first, from a cluster of trees along the lane. When it came out into the sunlight, Chuy could see that there was only the driver in the car, an Anglo wearing sunglasses. That made him feel better; he guessed that bad news would come with two cops. As they drew near, the cop pulled off his sunglasses and Chuy thought he looked familiar. Then the car was slowing down, and Chuy slowed too. The cop waved out his open window, and they drew to a stop next to each other in another patch of shade from another cluster of trees.
“Good evening, Mr. Sandoval.”
It was the young Anglo police detective that had brought Chuy home after his truck was stolen. But now he was in uniform and driving a marked car.
“Hey,” Chuy said. “I didn’t recognize you.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“Why the change?”
The cop frowned.
“Well you see—”
Chuy grinned at him.
“You got demoted?”
The cop blushed. Chuy felt bad and stopped grinning. The cop looked straight ahead for a moment, then turned back toward Chuy.
“I’m in training. The day we met was my first day out of uniform. Most the time they still make me wear blues.”
“Okay,” he said. “No big deal.”
The cop shrugged, then he grinned at Chuy.
“You gonna stop making fun of me so I can tell you why I’m here?”
Chuy laughed a little, then he was serious.
“I think I know why you’re here.”
“The kid who stole my truck got killed.”
The cop nodded.
“News travels fast,” the cop said.
“I heard his gang killed him.”
The cop hesitated, then nodded again.
“Yeah. They did.”
Chuy shook his head, then he squinted at the cop.
“Why’d you come to tell me?”
The cop glanced up the lane, then looked back at Chuy.
“I thought you’d want to know.”
“You’re right. Thanks.”
The cop just shrugged.
“So was the kid cutting a deal?” Chuy said.
“Is that what you heard?”
Chuy nodded. The cop nodded back.
“He screwed up before and his gang wasn’t happy when he screwed up again. He cost them both times. He got scared, he turned to us, and he told the wrong person.”
The cop glanced away again, back up the lane.
“He was a stupid kid and it caught up with him,” the cop said.
Chuy watched the cop for a moment, then looked down the lane toward his house. A roadrunner popped out of the brush and onto the dirt, flicked its wings and scampered away. Chuy turned back toward the cop. The cop was looking up at the sky.
“You think the monsoons are over?” the cop said.
“I hope not.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
The cop blinked up at the blue, then looked at Chuy.
“Tell me something,” Chuy said. “What made you want to become a cop?”
The Anglo smiled with half his mouth.
“I wonder that myself. My old man was a cop, his old man was a cop. My mother’s old man was a cop.”
“You got any brothers?”
The Anglo nodded back.
“Any of them cops?”
The Anglo shook his head.
“One’s a fireman, one’s in the air force, and the black sheep sells insurance.”
Chuy snorted when he laughed.
“Two sisters,” the Anglo said. “One’s a nurse and the other’s a schoolteacher.”
“Yeah, that one brother really doesn’t fit.”
The Anglo smiled and shook his head.
“What about you, Mr. Sandoval? Do you have any brothers?”
Chuy shook his head.
“Not anymore. My older brother died in Vietnam and my younger one was in a car wreck.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Thanks. It was a long time ago.”
Chuy stuck out his hand and used his thumb to point behind him and off to his left, across the hood of the police cruiser, across Los Huertos and across the Rio Hu rfano.
“I have a sister down in the city.”
He let his hand fall down against his truck door.
“My nephew told me about the kid who stole my truck. The kid’s cousin lives near them.”
The policeman nodded. Chuy nodded back. The conversation had come full circle. The policeman put his sunglasses back on.
“Well, Mr. Sandoval, it was good talking to you.”
Chuy nodded once.
“You too,” he said. “Thanks again for coming by.”
The policeman dipped his chin once and started off up the lane. He gave a little wave and Chuy waved back. Chuy got his truck going again. He checked the cop’s progress in his mirrors. When Chuy started into his drive, the police cruiser was turning left onto Entrada Oeste. Chuy expected the cop to turn right, back toward the city. For an instant he wondered what drew the policeman deeper into Los Huertos.