Michael was aging. His smile was young, but the slack of his skin and the hollows of his face belonged to someone far older than 33. He was a sales manager at a medium-sized marijuana dispensary on Colfax Avenue that resembled a cell phone store, complete with kiosks of edibles and cases of “hardware.” Whenever Alicia’s husband, Gary, left town for his annual auctioneers’ convention, she called Michael. She recognized her inability to spend an evening alone. That, and she still loved Michael. Probably always would.
When night fell, Alicia slipped into his old teal Nova, a vision out of a low-rider magazine, even if the interior was a pigsty, with a sweatshirt, some woman’s black tights, and three empty spray-paint cans on the floor. Alicia picked up one of the cans. It rattled like pebbles as she rolled it across Michael’s lap. “Keep this shit in the trunk. Joaquin got charged with a felony last summer.”
“Only because that pendejo couldn’t outrun the bull. Besides, someone has to make these invasive yuppies uncomfortable. Weedy motherfuckers. Growing out of control.” In his worn leather jacket, Michael gestured toward Gary and Alicia’s concrete-and-glass house, a black square among the updated Victorians. “Where to, my little gentrification Malinche?”
“Why the hell we going there, Cia?”
“It’s my dogs. Fleas, all over their ankles and behind their ears.”
“Have you considered the vet?”
“No, no,” said Alicia. “They need that real medicine, that herbal stuff.”
Their names were Kane and Oscar, Gary’s from before the marriage, black labs always in hysterics. Alicia tolerated the dogs, only shuddered at their clumsy galloping, their narrow bodies twisting around the end tables and chairs. That morning, after wrangling them into the back yard, where Kane, her least liked, gnawed an entire fallen tree branch, Alicia went upstairs to discover that she was pregnant for the second time in her life. She was 29, would turn 30 in a week, a perfectly acceptable age to have a child, but Alicia only felt dread. Almost grief. She was wrapped in a white bath towel, hunched over the toilet, as she broke the plastic pregnancy test in two, burying it beneath the unused tampon wrappers and wadded Kleenex. She wouldn’t tell a soul, not even Gary. Especially not Gary, who’d had so much to say lately about her biological clock.
They’d been married two years. Gary was 54, a spry, white-haired auctioneer from Nebraska who owned the largest farm and automotive equipment auction yard in Denver. He’d been interested in reaching a wider, Spanish-speaking audience when he first saw Alicia at a meeting for the Univision network. “You,” he told the 26-year-old graphic designer, “have a great fuckin’ nose.” Alicia grew to call him her rancher, her vaquero, her daddy. Gary simply called her by a childhood nickname—Ali Bird. In bed, she liked him to call out this name with his auctioneer’s tongue. All her names, really. Alicia Monica del Toro and, later, Alicia Monica del Toro Parker.
Not long after the wedding, Gary took Alicia on a weekend trip to Key West, where they chartered a speedboat and rode out to meet the sunset across the glassy plane. With the sea breeze strangely still and their faces warmed by rum, Gary held his wife from behind. “We’d make some damn good-looking kids,” he said.
“You already have two dogs. What more do you need?”
“Give me just one, Ali Bird. A son to carry on my name.”
“You don’t need a son for that,” she said. “I carry that name.”
Botánica del Cobre sat adjacent to Tacos Jalisco, a narrow food counter with a limited selection of carnitas and tequila. Michael insisted on stopping there before anywhere else. “Just a shot or two, you know, to get the night rolling.” It was packed with a few Mexicano families, a number of Chicano rockabilly couples, and, of course, a smattering of Anglo newcomers, white kids in Carhartt hoodies and Redwing shoes, the clothing of work they’d never know. “I hate ’em,” Michael said, clearing salt from his bottom lip. A young blond in a see-through top eyed him from the soda fountain, obvious and driven. “I’ll screw ’em, but I hate ’em.”
“Story of your life.” Alicia wasn’t as irritated as Michael by the influx of Denver residents. Mostly because she lived among them, greeted them by name at the dog park, walked alongside their designer strollers on Saturday mornings.
“You can handle it, Cia.” Michael scooted a glass of Hornitos across the table.
“Watching my figure.” Alicia wasn’t sure she believed this, but it sounded plausible. “Come on, del Cobre’s closing soon.”
Michael tossed back the second shot. Beneath the table, he cupped Alicia’s knee, a muscle memory pat. “That’s one place,” he said, “that I’d be happy to see close for good.” He smiled at Alicia. “For the record.”
It had been more than a decade, she thought, since they first visited the botánica. Alicia’s father was dying of liver cancer brought on by years of working the uranium mines outside Denver. The doctors prescribed morphine, OxyContin, fentanyl patches. Nothing masked his agony without shutting down his brain. “That’s it,” Alicia’s Abuela Lopez told her one autumn afternoon. “Your papa deserves to die with dignity of mind.” She sent Alicia and Michael down Lawrence Street with a piece of paper on which she had written a list of herbs in her shaky script. When they returned to the rented hospital bed, Alicia’s father held her hand and asked in an empty voice, “Were you in the garden, Stephanie?” That was the worst part, how toward the end he often confused Alicia with her mother, Stephanie Elkhorn, an Anglo woman who, when Alicia was four, packed her purses and thrift-store dresses and didn’t come back.
They entered the botánica to the ringing of bells, a banana rind tied around the brass doorknob. Protection or warning. Either way, some kind of brujería. The walls were covered in crucifixes and mirrors, rodent skulls, and santo candles. An old man wearing several orange-and-black necklaces lounged in a lawn chair, catching the end of some sports program on a decades-old radio. He fiddled with the antenna and waved at Michael and Alicia, motioning toward a bilingual sign on the counter: Ask me about free cleansings for New Yr. Bring eight lilies & 1 coconut. Must wear white.
Michael pulled Alicia near, speaking warmly through her hair. “For the dogs, right?”
She shushed him, pressing him away with an open palm. “Excuse me,” she said to the clerk.
The man pointed to his radio, then right. A woman in a pink frock, her back slightly curved, emerged from behind a beaded curtain. She stepped onto a wooden box, standing tall at the long counter with display cases of fresh cow hearts and dried cobra skins. “Les puedo ayudar en algo?”
Alicia spoke only enough Spanish to bump her way through a sales transaction. When she was growing up, Abuela Lopez sometimes spoke to her in a southern Colorado dialect, almost archaic. Michael’s family was from Bakersfield, making him useless, unless you needed Spanish slang for pussy and 40 ounce. Alicia checked that he was out of earshot when she asked, in her broken Spanish, for an herb called neem.
Alicia flashed the canary diamond on her left hand, out of shame or conceit, she couldn’t decide which. She then turned her back to Michael, pointing to her womb.
“No se garantiza que funcione; y también duele.”
“Entonces ya lo sabe,” said the clerk. “Lo sabe mejor que yo.”
“No way,” Michael hollered from across the botánica, “this incense is made from, I shit you not, viper sperm. What the heck?”
Alicia ignored him as the woman headed into the back room. The sounds of the radio cracked away from sports and into conjunto music. The air smelled sharply of dust, an ancient scent. When the clerk reappeared, she held what looked like an urn and gave explicit directions to steep the leaves in boiling water for half an hour. Alicia thanked her, paying in cash.
Outside, the moon was nearly full.
“Fleas?” Michael asked as they walked toward the Nova, their shadows slim on the grainy, amber-colored asphalt. He opened the passenger door with his key. “I don’t like it when you lie, Cia.”
She faced him, studied an L-shaped wrinkle across his cheek. “I’m pregnant. I don’t want it. The end.”
“You should tell Gary, if you haven’t. It’s the right thing to do.”
Alicia turned away from Michael as he shut her inside the car. It was colder than before, the light shining in such a way that the moment seemed slow, as if time had slightly realigned to another beat. “It’s not really any of his business,” she said. “And it’s none of yours, either.”
They parked the Nova outside an abandoned adult theater on 23rd Street. The lot sloped into a cement trail that ran along the South Platte River, leading to the Union Pacific Rail Yard and Confluence Park, a spot where, some 150 years earlier, according to Alicia’s freshman history class at UCD, Denver began when an Anglo named William Greeneberry found gold and the city erupted. Before that, it was an Arapaho camp. Now it was a desolate hillside filled with stoners and the homeless, flanked by multimillion-dollar condos and public art. The new Queen City of the Plains.
They moved toward the river, a row of Section 8 apartments on the left. Alicia remembered her first place after Abuela Lopez died and the bank took the house on Galapago Street. It was a basement studio with subterranean windows and cruel lighting. Cobwebs and spider sacs appeared often. Alicia would open the window, shoot a stream of ammonia from a spray bottle, and break the sacs against the corrugated steel lining the glass. They never had problems with insects on Galapago, though once while riding her bike past the old house, Alicia saw an Anglo woman in a purple dress gingerly directing a group of exterminators through the yard. “Watch your step,” she had said. “The new owners are still improving the foundation.”
Michael and Alicia halted before a human-sized cut in a chain-link fence. The whole of the Union Pacific Rail Yard was visible, an elegant expanse of routes sending trains north into Wyoming, east into Kansas, and west, through mountain passes and whiteout valleys, into Utah, a journey ending in California sunlight. Alicia loved the idea of her name riding so far. Not Alicia del Toro Parker, but her tag name—K-SD, easily pronounced cased. Michael reached for Alicia’s hand, but she smacked him away. She climbed through, effortless and sleek. He followed, the fence trembling.
At the yard’s western edge, they searched out a clean freight. Within the aisles of tracks, Michael and Alicia passed the ghostlike shapes of hoppers and field mice stalked by feral cats. The bodies of homeless men were sunk into the jagged banks of the yard, their busted boots and clumped sleeping bags gray mounds upon the dirt. Michael lit a cigarette. Beneath the yard lights, his face seemed younger, his teeth ivory and his eyes shining. They continued on past empty cars with crude tags by amateurs. There were massive DEKO signatures, left by a long-standing Denver crew with gang-banger tendencies. Michael exhaled his smoke, pointing to a character tag, Snoopy with chicken scratch beneath it: Mile Hi City. He hated this shit, and she agreed. They moved behind a yellow switcher where, some 20 yards ahead, a water tower stood with a silhouette of a K-SD piece. Michael said, “All I remember was climbing that rickety ladder”—he paused, adding, as if for good measure—“your ass in front of me the whole way.”
“Good god. Let’s hit this train, already.”
With their backpacks heavy, they rushed the tracks, the iron walls forming a canyon in the night. It was like old times, when they were young and Michael was enough. Alicia bumped him with her right shoulder. “I always think of you, Mikey. When a train rolls by my place at one A.M., it’s all you.” She loved the trains, how they conquered time, how they never died.
“Me too,” he said. “I hear the sounds of the tracks rattling, the horns blaring, and those caution gates getting lowered. It gets me all hot. Then I turn to the chick beside me in bed and say, ‘This reminds me of my ex-girlfriend.’ ”
Alicia stopped walking, her boots hitting the ground with a smack. “You’re an asshole. I don’t want to hear that.”
“Why not, Cia? You’re the married one. Same dish every night.”
“I don’t see why you have to jab, that’s all.” In the far distance, she spotted their freight, clean under shadows, a track pointed toward Kansas.
“You don’t know why?” Michael said.
The first time, it was Michael’s. Alicia was 19. At the King Soopers on Speer Boulevard, she shoved an e.p.t. box into her unseasonably warm coat and biked to the house she shared with her Abuela Lopez on Galapago Street. Alicia took the test in her upstairs bathroom, later emptying the wastebasket in a nearby park. A clinic doctor prescribed a pill that knifed Alicia’s insides for three days and two nights. On the third day, dizzy and partially blind with pain, Alicia staggered into the kitchen, where she found Abuela Lopez standing at the counter chopping pork with a butcher’s knife. It was spring. The windows were open. The smell of lilacs pushed into the house and mixed with the scent of raw meat.
“Abuelita,” she said, “I need to tell you something.” Before Alicia could finish, Abuela Lopez missed the pork, slicing her right thumb, blood flowing over the meat.
Abuela Lopez called her granddaughter many names that day. Selfish, cruel, stupid, childish. When she got the bleeding under control and her temper sealed away, she told Alicia, “Before all this bullshit, we only had the herbs, mi’ja. Why didn’t you ask me?” Abuela Lopez knew what plants to use, the temperature at which to sip the tea, how many cups for how many days, how long the cramps would curl Alicia’s insides, and to what extent she should expect tenderness in her breasts.
They agreed on the freight. Michael walked to one side while Alicia went to the other. She removed her gloves and ran her hands over the chilled steel. Weeks before, Alicia had planned her design, a navy signature centered with slim text, white gradient shading, a black circle in her K. Michael always told her that he didn’t like K-SD much, that Alicia should write something else, something clearly feminine. But Michael’s wasn’t much better. Sloke. Who would write that? And what the hell did it mean? They pulled the cans of Rust-Oleum from their bags and began painting. Alicia did countless designs for work, but when it came to trains, some unknowable engine drove her hands. On more than one occasion, in more than one dirt lot, Alicia experienced the feeling of seeing her signature appear, as if she had uncovered it beneath the dirty metal.
With her scarf covering her nose and mouth, Alicia rested in the midst of her long dash, peeking around the car’s edge at Michael, who never looked better than when he was writing. He worked his spray can gracefully, his dark eyes focused only on Sloke. In the triangular space between his outstretched arm and neck, a far-off streetlamp formed a spiral of light. “How’s it going?”
“Half-finished. You still on your second letter?”
“My dash. The edges are so clean, so nice. You wouldn’t know about it.”
Michael shook his can, started again. “Oh, Cia, I know about that dash.”
“You’re an idiot.”
“I know,” Michael said with pride.
A low vibration rattled the track. A ghost train rolling. An engine firing. Michael and Alicia stiffened as they examined the rails. They once knew a kid who died in the yards. He wasn’t much older than 16. It was the middle of summer, early at night. The bull hadn’t come out to patrol. Nothing like that. The kid was painting a train when he took a step back and a single freight rolled over him. Word spread among the graffiti crews, and soon kids visited the unfinished signature, painting their wishes in black. A poem appeared. May your journey be an endless track, may your trains keep rolling, may your name be completed when you’re back.
Alicia kicked the freight, a booming sound. “Someone’s been practicing.”
“Get to work, Cia. Who knows the next time you’ll get—”
Light flashed over his face, not the floodlights or the streetlamps, but a concentrated stream. Michael squinted as Alicia tried to dodge the white rays, spinning round to search the rails.
Bulls. Some 20 yards behind.
Tossing their backpacks beneath the car, they set off, Michael in the lead, cutting corners, jumping tracks. They had run before, and they knew the course. At the border of the yard and Confluence Park, Alicia climbed a chain-link fence, otherworldly, lithe, as though she’d lift into the sky and join the stars. But she only fell back to earth, a quick slap on dead grass. They ran on, keeping pace as two male voices hollered for them to do something like give up, to lay over, to end it. Alicia imagined hounds were tracking them. She stuck out her leg, tripping Michael. Before he could utter a word, she was on top of him, removing her scarf and unzipping her jacket. She pulled her sweater above her breasts and unhooked her bra.
“Just shut up,” she whispered. “Don’t say shit.”
She cupped Michael’s hands in hers, guiding them along her stomach, shivering at the chilled smoothness of his palms. She let go, feeling his hands gliding lower to her center. She arched her body upward, her back bending in a kind of release. The flashlight’s beam reappeared as two policemen stood at the top of a hillside, witnessing Alicia with the sides of her puffy coat flung open like a gutted animal. Michael lay silent, pinned between her legs. Alicia breathed, waited. The policemen arrived.
“What’re you doing?” they said. “Cover yourself.”
Alicia snapped around and began to cry. They were no older than 20, young men with unremarkable faces, one blond, the other darker, shorter, maybe a boy with a name like Mendoza. When the blond officer ordered the couple to stand, Alicia rolled onto her feet, inspecting her hands for paint. She then flashed her left hand, a rock sparkling more than any badge. “I’m so embarrassed,” she said as Michael stood beside her. “We were on a night walk, celebrating. We’re having our first baby.”
The same officer asked Michael if this was true.
“Yes, sir. Proud papa got carried away.”
“Carried away?” The shorter one now. He looked at Alicia’s boots, a thin spot of navy paint across the right tip. She moved that leg behind the other. “Did you see anyone come by?”
No, they both uttered at once, no one.
“But then, again,” Michael said, “we weren’t really looking.”
The officers asked for IDs but didn’t seem surprised when neither Michael nor Alicia could produce one. “Look,” the blond said, “congratulations on your baby. I got two myself, little girls. But that doesn’t mean you can publicly do whatever you were doing.”
“Of course,” said Alicia. “I was just so, I don’t know, moved.”
“We get it,” said the shorter one. “You were carried away, moved. What’s your name, ma’am?”
“Stephanie. I’m Stephanie Elkhorn. And this is my husband, Gary.” Alicia wouldn’t look at Michael even as she felt him glaring at her.
“This is a warning, your one and only. Get your things and get out of here.” With that, the policemen turned around and marched up the hill, the metal on their boots and hats flickering with moonlight.
Michael and Alicia stood quietly, the city’s skyline enclosing them like a lid. They walked the long way back to the Nova and after several blocks, Michael turned to Alicia. He touched her face, kissed her cheek. He thanked her for saving them. Alicia imagined him like those sea creatures she’d heard about but would never see. They were so far down, in complete darkness, translucent, their guts exposed like broken clocks. “It wouldn’t just be more of you,” he said. “It’d be more of Gary. More of you both.” Michael then zipped Alicia’s coat and reached for her scarf, lightly threading it behind her neck. “Alicia del Toro Parker, I can’t see you anymore.”
For her 30th birthday, Gary took Alicia to a cabin he owned, near where her family was from in the San Luis Valley, where she’d spent her summers as a kid, where her father was buried. The cabin sat high in the valley, overlooking the sculpted mounds of desert earth. The weather had brightened. An autumn weekend that felt like late spring. Low-slung clouds crept above, their shape-
shifting shadows trailing over the white peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The land was aflame.
It was late. They drank gin and tonics outside, near a large fire. Alicia had come off her weeklong break from drinking, and the booze ran swiftly through her veins. Gary reclined in a wicker chair. Alicia sat across from him. Gazing into the sky, she stood then and stepped away from the fire. She held her drink with one hand and, with the other, pointed to the stars. Kane, behind her, licked the backs of her knees. Alicia hardened her stance, placing her free hand on the dog’s collar. She thought of Diana; she thought of the moon.
“What’re you looking at, Ali Bird?” Gary said.
“I’ve always been able to find the North Star. It was one of those things my dad taught me, so that I’d never get lost. What does it mean that I can’t find it tonight?”
“It means you’re drunk, birthday girl.” Gary laughed, signaling high above them.
The sky was hazed with the dust of a billion stars, a black void that seemed designed yet eternal. Like a small sun, the fire’s heat pressed into Alicia, warming her face and arms. She took off her sweater, dropping it to the ground. In the distance, above the dirt road into town, headlights curved along a mountainside, traveling into the dark. There were the sounds of the crackling fire, Alicia’s heavy heartbeat, Kane’s breathing loudly beside her. The wind shifted as a rush of embers jumped from the flames. Alicia knelt down to her dog, shielding her watery eyes from smoke. “There it is,” she lied. “I can see it now.” But Alicia saw nothing.
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