A Fistful of Rocks

By Chase Dearinger

ust three hours after I moved into the little backhouse on Fourteenth Street that summer, I saw my neighbor, across the alley, staring at me out of his second story window. He was Mexican – all my neighbors were – and he lived with his wife, three kids, and two mutts in an apartment atop a garage that I never saw one car go in or out of.  Over the year that followed I don’t think I ever saw that window shut, and that night, beneath the jagged purples and oranges of my first West Texas sunset, I saw him there, with the dark blue curtain pulled back, staring at me. I closed my curtains and sat in the metal folding chair behind them, frozen in a strange, lonely terror.

It wasn’t like I’d never seen a Mexican before. I’d moved to Lubbock from Oklahoma, a place where migrant workers did the majority of minimum wage jobs, but it was nothing like West Texas. I was clearly the minority. Flooded by the sudden awareness of my late-model Impala, my Apple computer, my Gap cardigan, I decided then and there to grow a beard.

The next day I pulled back my curtains and watched the open window across the street as I unpacked boxes and assembled the metal frame for my twin-sized bed. Outside, nothing stirred except for the two mutts, which I had named Fucker and Idiot. They were chained to a gas line at the bottom of the garage and barked for at least a half hour every time something moved down the alley. Each time I took trash or empty boxes out to the dumpster behind my house I was paralyzed by the dogs’ apoplectic barking. Fucker was some sort of pit bull mix and looked like he weighed at least a hundred pounds, and Idiot seemed to be some sort of Lab-dragon mix that had scars all over his face. His eyes appeared to have no cavities; scars marred the skin that should have been his eyelids.

It didn’t take me long to get the few things I had in order; I hung nothing on my walls except the oval-shaped portrait of Jesus that my mother had given me as a boy. His blue eyes and neatly styled hair stood guard above my bed. I had taken a job keeping the books at a massive lawn-care company after my wife left me for someone who was less of a goy. That night I cried in bed like a twelve-year-old forced to attend a summer camp he hated. The sound of my cries was drowned out by Fucker and Idiot’s endless barking. I still don’t know what bothered me more – the barking or whatever it was that they barked at. I never found out who or what it was – a raccoon, my new neighbor with a hunting knife between his teeth, a cat, a burglar, the man that slept with my wife – but the idea of it lurking out there, just outside the walls of my comfortable little space, frightened me more than the thing itself. Eventually my crying seemed silly and I fell asleep with a headache.

The next morning I met Roberto, the man I was replacing. A robust man with thin, gray hair slicked back and a gold tooth that occasionally made its way out with a smile, Roberto had two weeks to familiarize me with the company’s books and software before leaving for a cotton farm he’d inherited from his mother. Despite her passing he was always in a chipper mood, a smile on his face and his top button buttoned.

“I think you’re going to like it here,” he told me on my first day. “Everybody is very laid-back. Just make sure you’re here on time, you only take a half-hour for lunch, and you don’t screw up, and Mr. Martinez will take care of you.” It was exactly the sort of thing I’d been looking for – somewhere that I could fly under the radar – and it seemed as though Roberto had been interested in the same thing. So much so, in fact, that he would retreat from an easy, low-key job even further into the rural oblivion of a small, West Texas cotton farm. I felt a secret kinship with him.

TNT Lawn Care resided in a mammoth, beige-colored metal building without windows. It had to be at least five thousand square feet of polished concrete and machinery. The grounds were impeccable. Roberto led me to the back of the building. He pointed to my desk, a folding table with plastic trim held on by clear packing tape. The office had no boundaries except for the exterior walls, a work truck, and a freestanding bookshelf filled with pictures of Roberto’s wife. The smell of cut grass and motor oil clung to everything.

Roberto turned toward me. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Why did you come here?”

“I don’t know.” I forced a laugh. “To get away?”

Roberto looked around the warehouse and then smiled at me.

“In that case, I think you’re going to like it here.” We both laughed with ease and a hope swelled up somewhere inside of me that he’d ask me to move with him to his farm, live in the barn, mend fences, mow the grass, feed animals.

That night, while sitting in the folding chair by my window, trying my hardest with a pocketknife to turn a block of basswood into a duck, a high-pitched grating sound stabbed deep into my ears. I turned out the lights before pulling back the curtains. Peering out, I could see my neighbor beneath the streetlight in our alley. He was short, but his arms were as big as tires. The sleeves were torn off of his black t-shirt; tattoos spilled out from beneath the ripped shirt and circled his arms. They curled their way up his neck and disappeared into his thick, black hair. I ran my hand over my own flakey scalp and wondered when the hair had started to fall out.

An arc of sparks flashed across his yard and the piercing noise came back again. Fucker and Idiot paced nervously around his feet, the tinkle of their chains harmonizing with the ugly scraping sound. He was at a bench grinder, one I hadn’t seen outside of the garage before, and he was sharpening something. I couldn’t tell what it was – a lawnmower blade, a knife, an axe – but whatever it was, it didn’t need to be sharpened at night. He stopped when the door at the top of the stairs opened and a girl no older than six ran down and wrapped her arms around one of his thick legs. He patted her on the head. She let go and tossed something into their dirt yard, sending up a small cloud of dust, and Fucker and Idiot immediately scrambled for it. Fucker got his teeth around it first, but after a snap and a snarl from Idiot, he let it go, and they both retreated to their respective corners, where Idiot feasted. The sparks flew again as my neighbor went back to sharpening.

*  *  *

By the time my beard had reached my shirt collar, the beginnings of a duck had emerged from my block of basswood. Wood shavings surrounded the folding chair by my window, an impact crater that grew by the day. My knife had dulled and I needed detail tools and paint to turn the pale silhouette into a full-color mallard. I unpacked my jacket for the first time when I left that afternoon for the Mega Hobby store; the air was chilled and dry and I longed for a visit from the humidity of Oklahoma.

The burst of warm air and Muzak that greeted me when I entered the store was welcome; it was even almost nice to be around people again. As I moved between the registers, I was greeted by a large display of fake pumpkins and fall décor. Colored, plastic leaves strategically littered the ground around the displays. There didn’t seem to be any logic to the organization of the store; I began looking for someone in a red vest to help me. When I turned the corner down an aisle full of fake sunflowers, glass beads, and vases, I saw a woman pushing a cart filled with Halloween decorations. Two children hung from the sides of the cart, one singing in Spanish, something about gathering to visit Mary, or visiting the gathered Mary’s.

I couldn’t help but stare at their mother, who, though she had her back to me, was stunning. Her dark hair was pulled up in a bun, but still had a soft bounce that made me want to bury my face in it. Her dark, slender neck was smooth, and gently curved its way down into a fitted dress, the same color as my neighbor’s dark blue curtains. I was glad she had her back to me; I could stare and imagine introducing myself, getting to know her, marrying her, and raising her children. Then something tugged at my pants.

“Hello, mister. I know you.” All of the warm feelings that had filled me flushed downward, exiting through my toes and spilling onto the Mega Hobby floor; it was my neighbor’s daughter. I had never experienced so much dread over a six-year-old girl. Her eyes were wide and brown, and both of her front teeth were missing. I held my breath and backed away, searching the shelves for something to plausibly be interested in. When I was out of the aisle I turned my back to them, leaning against a display of miniature, ceramic haunted houses that lit up from the inside. I let out a breath, but when one of the houses fell off and shattered on the ground, I jumped again. Then I heard the woman shout.

“Maria!” The rattle of the cart came closer as I considered my options. I told myself that these were just people, despite the fact that I hadn’t had contact with many of them in the last few months, and I turned and forced a smile just as she rounded the corner.

“Maria!” she shouted again. The little girl had followed me around the corner, laughing at me. “What did you do, Maria?” Her tone was sharp and indignant.

“No, no,” I said. “That was me.” She looked at me with the same eyes that her daughter had. They were wet and beautiful and I didn’t want to look away. “I was just—startled,” I said. She tilted her head and narrowed her eyes.

“I know you,” she said, nodding and pointing her index finger at me. “You’re the one that lives across the alley from us.” Her finger started to nod in unison with her head. “You live behind us.”

“He lives behind us,” the little girl echoed. The two boys hanging on the cart giggled.

“I’m Jonathan,” I said, and stuck out my hand. I felt like I had been caught, red-handed, and was about to receive some sort of lecture from a woman at least a foot shorter than me. I could hear her accusing me of following her, of stalking her, in the same sharp, accusatory tone she’s used with her daughter. She reached out and took my hand, her bright red nails wrapping around my fingers.

“I’m Penelope,” she said. “But most people call me Penny.” She released my hand and smiled. “So you do live behind us?”

“I think so, yes,” I said. “I’ve never seen you before, though. Just a man and—your daughter?”

“Yes, yes,” she said. “That man is my husband, José, and this is Maria. And this is David and José, Jr.”

“Okay,” I said. “So nice to meet you.” I’ve never actually met him, just—”

“You just watch him through the window.” She laughed and the kids all laughed with her. “You should come by sometime,” she said. “Share some chili with us, introduce yourself properly. You look like you could use a home-cooked meal anyway.”

“That sounds nice,” I said. It would never happen.

“You should shave off that beard, though,” she said. “José hates men with beards.”

I stood in silence and she smiled at me. After a few painful, speechless moments, she turned her cart and moved it around me, her children following behind her. I found the wood carving supplies section on my own and picked out what I needed. Penny and her children were a few places in front of me in the checkout line; I stood as still as possible and directly behind the man in front of me so that she couldn’t see me. As she walked out the automatic door and into the cold, she turned around and waved at me. “Goodbye, Jonathan,” she shouted over the sounds of the store. “See you soon.”

That night I tried to imagine my wife, lying on our bed and waiting for me, her eyes pulling me closer, but each time I approached the bed it was Penny, laughing at me.

The bench grinder roared outside my window.

*  *  *

It didn’t take me long to realize my new routine did nothing but make me lonelier. Honestly, I was proud of it. Each day I’d wake up, boil water for oats, eat the oats, run forty-five minutes, shower, trim my new beard, dress, drink a cup of Earl Grey tea while listening to the news on the radio, drive to work, put in four hours, eat a burrito from the 7-11 on my half-hour lunch break, put in another four hours, drive back home, cook some sort of meat from my freezer, listen to the news on the radio, read for an hour, continue working on my wooden duck, take an Ambien, read until I fell asleep. I hoped such a strict routine would give me character, would make the time go by faster, but the more time that passed and the more rigid my routine became, the easier it was to simply go through the motions and check out along the way. Often I got in my car after work and slipped into a sort of coma, only to come to parked on the street where I lived. This happened while running, too, even sometimes while reading, the words slipping through me like loose change. Without really noticing, this half-conscious routine had become my life. It didn’t even occur to me that Fucker and Idiot stopped barking at me. I’d become a ghost.

Then my ex-wife called. I stared at my caller-ID for a while, unwilling to recognize the number, and then, knowing who it was, let it ring even longer, debating whether or not to take the call. Finally the phone fell silent and a voicemail was left. I called back without listening to it.

“Hey, I just wanted to check in and see how you were doing. How is Texas? Where are you again?”

“Lubbock.”

“Yeah, how’s Lubbock?”

“It’s great,” I lied. “The weather is fantastic. The summers are hot, but it’s a dry heat, you know? Feels sunny instead of broiling. And the falls are perfect. How are you doing? How’s Joel?” I immediately regretted asking. There was silence over the line. I imagined him next to her on our couch, flipping channels, his feet up on my coffee table, making mocking faces that he imagined went along with the voice on the other end of the line.

“I’m great,” she said. “Still teaching a few sections and working at the library now. Anyway, just wanted to check in and make sure everything was okay.”

“Yeah, yeah. Everything is wonderful down here.” I took the phone outside and leaned against the back of the house. I looked back and forth down the alley; there was no one to hear our conversation. “The new job is fantastic. I mean, they don’t exactly need a CPA to keep these books, but the pay is okay and I can’t complain about the health benefits.”

“Have you met anyone? Making any friends or seeing anyone?” Again, there was silence over the line.

“Yeah, sure. I’m meeting some people. There’s this guy that lives across the alley from me and we’ve been hanging out some.”

“Good,” she said. “I’m glad to hear that. Okay, well, I’m going to get going, just thought I’d—”

“Wait,” I said. A memory disrupted my thoughts – of her in bed, her almost-porcelain skin, her breasts rising and falling with her laughter, my hand squeezing her thigh, extracting the laughter a pinch at a time. Before I could say anything else, Fucker and Idiot started barking, transfixing me in the alley, exposed.

“What’s that?” she asked. When I looked back at the dogs José was there, out of nowhere, standing at the bottom of the steps, staring at me. I turned and went inside, locking the door behind me, breathless.

“Nothing,” I said. “I’ll let you go.”

I took an extra Ambien that night and lay in bed, motionless, waiting for someone or something to break down the door.

*  *  *

One of the most reassuring parts of my job at TNT was the monotony of the numbers. I spent the first half of the day entering invoices, printing out checks, and paying bills, the second half of the day filing and talking on the phone with vendors. Even though my office was open to the entire warehouse floor, no one ever bothered me except when employees came by to pick up their paychecks every other week. I’d slowly moved my work from the folding table to what had been Roberto’s desk; he’d left it completely empty except for a collection of Genesis cassette tapes.

I continued to slip in and out of what felt like was consciousness, until one day I discovered that Roberto had been cooking the books. I found this when one of the drivers brought me an invoice for the yearly maintenance on his truck. I entered the invoice and went to file it, but there was already an invoice for truck #12’s annual check-up. I pulled the file, and another, and after pouring through hundreds of orange papers realized that there was a duplicate for every maintenance invoice going back a year and a half. That afternoon I pulled several more files. There were duplicates on a number of services: maintenance for the riding mowers, oil-changes for the trucks, payments to insurance companies, workman’s comp, even landscaping for the grounds. After just a half of an hour of looking, it was clear that Roberto had taken off with at least six thousand dollars. It wasn’t the biggest scam in history, but it was definitely illegal, and now that I knew about it I was obligated to tell someone or become implicated myself. There would be legal action and then a storm of auditors would descend on my quiet, safe little space in TNT.

That night I sat in front of the window, painting my duck, and I wondered how long I would wait until I told Mr. Martinez, a man that I’d only spoken to only a half dozen times. The fewer anomalies there were the less contact I had with him, and there had been very few anomalies. I reached out and pulled the curtain back with the end of my paintbrush; the window across the alley was still open despite the fact that the temperature was dropping. A light flickered and I let the curtain fall. I got in bed with my book at the usual time, but the situation with Roberto wouldn’t let me concentrate. No matter how hard I tried, it didn’t seem possible to orchestrate a life in which I was left alone. As if to prove just that point, later that night my phone rang. It was her again. I let it go to voicemail, but immediately checked the message.

“Hey, it’s me. Just checking in on you—answer your phone. Please call me back. I have something I need to tell you about Joel and I. Hope everything is going okay. How is your new friend?” She sounded insincere, as always, but I pretended she wasn’t. I tried to cry myself to sleep, but couldn’t. All that came out were empty, histrionic heaves, which eventually led to a sort of laughter more disconcerting than any tears.

*  *  *

One chilly November day Penny finally tracked me down and insisted that I come over for chili. The weather was perfect for it, she said, and I wouldn’t have to travel far. If she had lived somewhere else I probably would have found an excuse, but I imagined José, sitting at their window, telling her that he could see my cowardly silhouette behind the curtains, when I had told her that I had a church meeting to go to, or a game for my fall softball league. I told her I’d be happy to come.

Before I went to bed I shaved. I used scissors to take off most of the beard, thinking of Penny’s bare neck with every clip. The razor burned, but slowly my face emerged. I washed it and stared at myself, unsure if the image in the mirror was accurate. What sort of man hates beards so much that his wife has to tell men to shave them before coming over? I dried off my face and realized that I would have done anything that Penny asked of me. I hated myself for that.

The next night, the streetlamp in the alley cast a shadow of the wire running between our houses on the dirt road below. A pair of tennis shoes dangled from the wire. I stood on the shadow like a balancing act, crackers and shredded cheddar cheese in hand, trying to decide whether or not to go. There was no one in the open window, and although the lights were on behind the door at the top of the stairs, I could have left at that moment and no one would have seen me. I could have gotten in my car and driven to work, sat at my desk in the dark, eating crackers and cheese alone, taking another look at all of Roberto’s crimes. It was one of those moments, just before doing something that you don’t usually do, when you know everything has already changed. I could go on, eat dinner with these people, and be in bed by the usual time, opening myself up to more relationships that would eventually splinter and complicate themselves, or I could continue to hide, thus further galvanizing my role as a coward.

I breathed deeply and the cold wind seared my naked face. As I got to the bottom of the stairs, I tried to let my shoulders relax, but the silence around me was broken by the jingle of  chains. Fucker and Idiot were immediately upon me, back haunches in the air, the hair on their backs standing up, barking and snarling, kicking up dirt. My arms went limp and the cheese and crackers fell to the ground. The noise was broken by the slap of the screen door at the top of the stairs and the commanding voice of Penny shouting in Spanish. The dogs backed down and returned to the darkness of the yard.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, picking my contribution to dinner up off the ground and dusting them off. “I hate those dogs, but José thinks they keep people away.”

“They speak Spanish,” I said. “Who knew?” She smiled, pointed at her face and then mine, and smiled even bigger, revealing straight, white teeth.

Inside, Penny set the cheese and crackers down next to an identical box of saltines and another pouch of shredded cheese. The front door opened up into one large main room with hardwood floors. I was standing in a kitchen, which surrounded a small, wooden table that’s finish was scratched almost completely off and that’s legs looked as if they’d been chewed by dogs. I wondered how they’d gotten that way with Fucker and Idiot always outside. The other end of the room was separated by a dark green sectional couch, on which José was sprawled out, shirtless. He raised his bottle of Budweiser to me and I waved. He was watching World’s Deadliest Animals on a small TV on top of two stacked red milk crates. A scene of the crucifixion hung above the TV; when I looked closely I noticed that Jesus had dark hair and dark eyes. There was a door next to the TV, behind which I knew was the room with the open window. I appreciated the simplicity of the arrangements, and, despite the condition of some of the furniture, the place was immaculate.

“Hello, Mister that I know.” Maria had popped up out of nowhere, and was standing by my side. Before I could answer, her two little brothers appeared from a hallway behind the kitchen and stood on each side of her, sizing me up.

“Hello, Maria,” I said.

“This is Jonathan,” Penny said. “Call him Mister Jonathan.”

“Hello, Mister Jonathan,” Maria repeated.

“Hello, Mister Jonathan,” José Jr. and David said at the same time. I said hello and they both ran back down the hallway, shouting at each other. I stood there, looking at all the places I could sit down, while Maria set the table.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” I asked.

“No, no. Everything is fine,” she said. “You can have a seat and watch some television with José if you’d like.” It was exactly what I was hoping she wouldn’t ask me to do. I circled around one end of the couch and sat on the side adjacent to José. Up close, and in the light of the TV, I could finally make out his tattoos. A rattlesnake coiled its way up both arms, from the wrist to the shoulder, their rattles emerging onto the backs of his hands, their heads spilling out onto his chest, jaws unhinged. Between the two, at the center of his chest, was a colorful rendition of the Virgin of Guadalupe. She sat indifferent to the rattlesnakes on both sides. José wiped his hand off on the couch and reached out for me. I recoiled for a moment, but then realized he wanted to shake my hand.

“José,” he said.

“Jonathan,” I said.

He crushed my hand in his fist and then returned to watching the TV set. A disembodied voice was describing the Australian funnel-web spider, which weaves welcoming, tube shaped webs with silk trip-wires. The funnel-web spider, the narrator said, was the most poisonous spider in the world.

“So what you do?” José asked.

“I’m an accountant,” I said. He looked at me and took a long pull off of his beer.

“What do you do?” I asked. He looked at me again and took another swig from his bottle. After a few moments of silence, he stood up, opened the door to the mysterious room – I craned my neck to try to look inside – and closed it behind him. Penny shouted comida and the kids all ran back into the room.  We sat at the table and Penny said a prayer. Everyone crossed themselves and José Jr. reached for the ladle in the pot in the middle of the table.

“Excusa que,” Penelope shouted. “Let our guest go first.”

“No, no,” I said. “It’s okay.”

Penelope’s voice grew stern and she repeated herself. “Let our guest go first.” I obeyed and shoveled a heap of chili into my bowl. I imagined her using that voice with me, and simultaneously felt pleasure and self-contempt. I opened my box of crackers, which were already all broken, and poured some into my bowl.

“Is José not joining us?” I asked. Nobody answered. There was an empty place setting to my left. I dug into the chili and put a spoonful in my mouth; there was something so spicy in it that my eyes started to water. It was as if every cell inside of my mouth was on fire, crying out for air and water. My lips grew numb. I smiled and looked for a saltshaker, but couldn’t find one. “This is delicious,” I said. I put another spoonful in my mouth and the water in my eyes finally broke; tears ran down my eyes. Maria started laughing and the two boys joined in. José Jr. made two fists and rubbed them on his eyes.

“Boo-hoo,” he said. “Mister Jonathan is a crybaby.” I took a drink of water and let one of the ice cubes slide into my mouth. Penelope looked at José Jr. and I winced in expectation of another stern reprimand. She just laughed harder.

“Not used to habanero?” she asked. I laughed and shook my head. I poured the rest of the crackers in the sleeve into my bowl.

“It really is delicious,” I said. José Jr. laughed so hard he snorted. We ate in silence, and eventually my mouth got so numb that I could tolerate the flavor. Midway through the meal, the door at the back of the room opened and Jose emerged. He pulled on his black, sleeveless shirt as he walked though the door and past the table. All I could think about was how cold he would be in that shirt.

“Are you going to eat, honey?” Penny asked. He stopped and looked at her, but didn’t answer. The screen door banged behind him and we all chewed in silence. I could hear the bang of his boots down the stairway, the garage door open. After a few more moments of silence, the screeching noise of the bench grinder started up. Penny excused herself and followed him outside. The bench grinder stopped just long enough to hear them shouting at each other in Spanish, and then she returned. She seated herself again, took a breath, and smiled.

“I apologize,” she said. “He hasn’t been quite the same since he came back from Iraq.”

I swallowed another mouthful of chili.

*  *  *

Another week went by, and I still hadn’t said a word about Roberto’s trespasses to anyone. I double and triple-checked the numbers, called companies and confirmed invoice numbers, hoping all the while that I had made a mistake. That was my biggest fear; in all my attempts to shelter myself from the carelessness and selfishness of others, I couldn’t stand the idea that my own mistake could muddle up another person’s life, an innocent man who had retreated to the country to avoid these sorts of things himself. But the more I checked, the clearer it became that he was guilty. I could have brooded over the issue even longer, but the next Friday’s payroll put TNT in the red for the first time since I’d started working there. Reserves were drying up, and if I let it go any further, I would eventually be implicated. When I left that day, I took Roberto’s forwarding address with me.

I could find Levelland on the map, but could not find the address I had. It was just a grid of section lines and county roads, unmarked farms with a small town in the middle. I tried to talk myself out of going to speak with him, tried to tell myself that it was completely irrational for me to find him; I should just tell Mr. Martinez what I’d found, blow the whistle, and sit back and wait. But for some reason I needed to know for myself that he’d done it. I wanted him to explain to me why someone would work so hard for so many years to rip someone else off. I was tired of the fact that there were so many seemingly innocent people, walking around on this Earth, fooling other people and ruining their otherwise tranquil lives.

I put the map down and saw José in his front yard, pouring dog food from a giant bag into Fucker and Idiot’s bowls. He was methodical about it, pouring the food slowly and then evening it out at the top with his hand. When he was done filling the bowls, he stood up and looked into my window.

*  *  *

Outside, I shouted José’s name across the alley, but he ignored me, leaning the bag of dog food against the garage and cracking his knuckles. I started across the dirt road, following the shadow of the electrical line above.

“José, hey, do you know anything about Levelland?” When I got to the other side he turned and faced me, looking down at me like some sort of god that’s owed its penance. “Do you know anything about Levelland?” I asked again, my voice much quieter.

“I grew up in Levelland,” he said. “It’s about forty minutes west of here.” I spun my head, looking in every direction until Jose lifted his arm and pointed west. “Why you asking?”

I held up the scrap of orange paper I’d written the address on. “I need to find this place, but I can’t find it on the, uh—” I winced. “On the Internet.”

A grin slid across his face as he took the paper from my hand. “Yeah, man,” he said. “This is on County Road 389. I know where that is. “What business you got in Levellland?”

“I need to talk to someone about something.” Jose stared at me, the grin still in place, and I blushed at my vagueness. “A guy from work, who stole some money.” The grin disappeared and he looked up at the sky.

“You mean like they robbed you?”

“No,” I said. “He was an accountant like me. He was double-dipping on the invoices and—” I stopped myself. José wouldn’t understand and I had no idea where County Road 389 was. “You know what? Forget it. Maybe I’ll call the cops or something.” I turned around and saw José’s shadow shrink on the dirt at my feet. This was all going to get figured out before I reported it and I was going to end up alongside Roberto in prison.

Jose stepped in front of me.

“I can take you there.”

*  *  *

He sent his garage door flying up with a single yank. A bright yellow Chevy pickup truck – an older model – sat inside. An enormous sticker of the Virgin to match the one I’d seen on his chest graced the back windshield. There were as many as fifteen lawnmower blades hanging on the back wall, the new light from outside glinting off their bevels, filling the garage with a scattered glow like a disco ball. There wasn’t a lawnmower anywhere, and after turning around to check, I remembered that his yard had no grass.

“Is that what you sharpen?” I asked.

“The sound keeps me cool,” he said. “I don’t do so well with a lot of loud noises – they spook me – but that sound I like. Don’t ask me why.” I didn’t. He gestured to get inside and I obeyed, but when I’d settled into the passenger’s side, José pulled the keys out of his pocket and held them out tossed them to me. “I don’t really drive anymore,” he said. I took the keys and slid across the bench to the driver’s side. When we were both in, he motioned with his head for me to put my seatbelt on. With each passing moment, my growing excitement oscillated with a deep feeling of regret.

Before long we were out on 114, headed west. José demanded that I drive twenty miles under the speed limit the entire way, cursing prayers in Spanish under his breath and tightening his grip on the dashboard when the roar of a passing semi came upon us. Something scratched and rattled in the back, I turned to see what it was and found an unsharpened lawnmower blade sliding around in the bed.

“Watch the road!” Jose said. After that he didn’t speak another word and I couldn’t help but feel like something bad was going to happen. I thought twice of stopping, going back, but I couldn’t bear the thought of José’s reaction to turning around in the middle of the highway; there was only one path for us. I didn’t know who the bad thing was going to happen to, but I could sense it, like a deer senses a hunter despite his quietest attempts. As Levelland grew in the windshield, he finally spoke.

“I should thank you for coming to dinner last week,” he said. “We don’t have guests that often.”

“Oh, no problem,” I said, happy for conversation. “Your wife is—” He turned his head, glared at me, and I shut my mouth. Ten minutes later he motioned for me to turn onto a dirt road without a marker and we were surrounded by the white remnants of cotton fields. The bright, smashed bolls on the side of the road looked like a light snow had just moved through the area. After another ten minutes he checked the address and motioned for me to pull down a long driveway that led to a gray, two-storey farmhouse with a black roof. A flowerbed full of rocks and cacti traced the edge of the front porch. I jammed the truck into park and looked over at José. The fields were completely fallow – odd, sad, without growth.

“This is it,” he said. I had been so mesmerized by José’s offer to help me, and terrified by the drive itself, that I hadn’t had time to think about the gravity of the situation or what I would say to Roberto or whether or not the idea was crazy. But sitting next to José in that pickup, I felt a sort of buoyancy – a confidence I’d never felt before – and I was almost sure that what I was doing was the right thing.

The narrow, broken brick path to the front door became a tunnel for me, a dusty vortex pulling me to the screen door. I imagined my wife standing on the front porch, Joel’s arm around her waist, laughing. Before I could get there, though, the door flew open, slamming against the side of the house, and Roberto appeared on the front porch, shirtless and staggering.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Hey Roberto, how are you?” He stepped to his side but his bare foot slid off the edge of the porch and he fell into the rocky flowerbed. I could smell the whiskey on him from five feet away. He looked up at me and a bead of blood ran down between his eyes.

“What are you doing here?” he asked again. Before I could answer he had reached down into the rocks, filled his hand, and hurled them at me. Most missed but one caught me in the ribs. I started backing up. “Get out of here,” he said, rolling in the rocks until he had enough balance to plant an elbow and rise. He bent over and picked up more rocks with each hand. They pelted my back as I ran back to the truck. Handful after handful rained from the sky, landing on the hood of the truck, cracking, popping, exploding. One hit the windshield and a system of paper-thin veins spread out across the glass. I dove inside. José was on the floor, his hands shielding his head. He was sobbing.

A headlight shattered. I spread my body low across the bench. Tiny blasts echoed from the roof of the truck, another rock struck the windshield, the veins growing.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry.” José wiped his tears under the cover of his other arm. “Let’s just get out of here.” Before I could sit up and start the truck, José had turned over and opened the door. A smattering of rocks crashed against it. José crouched behind the door, a placid look on his face I’d never seen. A rock cracked the window above him and he didn’t even flinch. When I looked back to the porch, Roberto had stopped for a moment, swaying in the flowerbed, squinting to make out what José was up to.

“What are you doing?” I whispered, but José ignored me. He cracked his knuckles and plunged his arm into the bed of the truck, emerging with the unsharpened lawnmower blade. Before I could ask again he’d stepped out from behind the door, the blade held high over his head, Spanish pouring from his mouth and chest in an indiscernible roar. As soon as Roberto realized what was going on he turned, scrambling back inside his house. And just like that, I was running too, the three of us caught in some grotesque race: Roberto for his life, José for his sanity, me to prevent a possible murder.

When I got inside, Roberto was on his back on the floor, and Josée was standing above him, lecturing him in Spanish. Roberto looked up at me with pleading eyes at first, but as the speech went on, his fear dissipated; by the end he was nodding along. When José finished, he dropped the lawnmower blade on the floor and I looked around for the first time. There was nothing. No furniture except a card table covered in empty bottles, bare walls, just a whitewash that made me suddenly feel sad.

“Where is everything?” I asked. “Where is your family?”

Roberto sat up and dusted off his hands. “Gone,” he said.

*  *  *

Back on 114, I asked José what he’d said to Roberto. He told me he said that Roberto shouldn’t have stolen, that he shouldn’t have thrown rocks. I’d have to explain everything to Mr. Martinez, wipe my hands clean. We didn’t speak the rest of the ride home. In fact, we never spoke again outside of the occasional hello. We returned to staring at each other from our respective corners. I bought a box fan to drown out the incessant barking of Fucker and Idiot.

*  *  *

Several weeks later Penny knocked on my door. She glowed like usual, even in a grey sweat suit.

“I’m going to be putting some chili on in a bit. Would you like to come over again tonight?”

“I think I’ll stay in tonight,” I said.

She reached out and squeezed my hand, her grip much stronger than I’d imagined. “Okay,” she said. “We miss you.”

When I sat back down I saw José, up in his window, looking down on me.

I left the curtain open.

*  *  *

The instant I put the truck in park in front of José’s house, the door flew open and Penny sped down the stairs, the children in tow. I pried myself from the driver’s seat and stood next to the rock-ruined truck, resting my arms on the bed. I smiled at her, but she didn’t smile back.

“Where have you been?” she shouted. “What happened to the truck?” Jose climbed out of his side of the truck and put his arm around her neck, holding her down and kissing the back of her head.

“We had to run a little errand,” he said, a smile on his face. Penny began murmuring to him in Spanish, but when she noticed blood smeared across his chin, began shouting again.

“What did you two do?” She fixed her eyes on me, but I ignored her, slamming the truck door. The children all gathered around him, even the dogs were jumping up at his side. I crossed the alley, my arms stretched out, my feet one in front of the other along the tightrope shadow of the electric line. Inside the house I sat by the window and watched José and his family. It looked like they were arguing, but the argument was punctuated by Penny’s laughter. She licked her thumb and rubbed at the blood on José’s chin. He pointed at the windshield, motioned with his arm like he was throwing something, and laughed. His whole body was animated; the kids waved in unison with the pulsing of his limbs.

I remember once coming into our home on a summer day, my leg bleeding from a lashing I’d taken from the Weed Eater, eager for my wife’s pity. She was sitting on the floor in front of the couch with a book in her lap. When she saw the cuts she laughed, and before long I was laughing and on the floor, too, my head in her lap. Her dark hair fell down over her shoulders, the book covered the bottom half of her face. I watched her eyes, hoping that if I looked hard enough she would look back, and she would know that I loved her. But her eyes just scanned the page, absorbed by another world.

Watching José and his family outside of the widow, I pulled the phone out of my pocket, ready to call her, but when I looked at the phone, everything in me went still. I put the phone back in my pocket and picked up my knife. I had a new block of basswood and I was ready to carve another, better duck. I tried to sink the knife into the block but the wood resisted me, the cut jagged and the wood torn. I reached into the bag, retrieved the whetstone, and spit on it. Running the knife across the gritty surface, I watched the blade’s edge cruise along the stone. I switched sides, the bevel already recovering its sheen, ready to be polished on a finer stone. I closed my eyes and listened to the grind.

___

Chase Dearinger holds an MFA from the University of Central Oklahoma and is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing from Texas Tech University.  His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Bitter Oleander, Eclectica, and Short Story America, among others.  He is the fiction editor for Arcadia, a literary magazine.


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