Fiction | March 01, 2003
Winner of the 2003 Editor’s Prize for Fiction
The hedge hides the five-foot chainlink fence in Manny’s backyard. Yellow-green, green, dark and soft-looking at ten P.M. He planted it when César started fifth grade, and now his boy is a senior. And a father! The hedge muffles the sounds of transmissions and airbrakes on 19th Avenue and softens the squeals of los niños in the next lot over. On a clear night like tonight, two stars visible above his rectangular plot, with a half-smoked joint and a cold mug of Gallo blanc, Manny can almost believe he is out of time.
He strums his guitar and struggles to remember a line from a lullaby about a lost goat. “Yo, Pop,” he hears from inside the house. He hears the stretch and snap of his spring door.
“Hey, kid,” Manny says. “What’re you doing here?” César moved in with his girlfriend, Sunui, and her mother three months ago, a week before the baby was born. Though he’s just ten blocks away, he has only visited twice in the last month, once to collect his barbells.
“Special homework project.” César slings his backpack onto the picnic table. “I need your help.”
“For reals, Pop. It’s for the new guidance counselor. The one with the loud shoes.”
“What she does to my clean floors.”
“She told us to interview our parents. Career Satisfaction Survey, it’s called.”
“Lead Maintenance,” says César. “Sounds better.”
Manny watches César open his notebook, pull a two-page questionnaire from the sleeve of a folder. “How’s the baby? How come you never bring her by?”
“She’s got an ear infection.”
“You told me that three weeks ago. I know something for it.”
“Abuelita gives her Tylenol.”
“Abuelita?” Manny shakes his head. He takes a long pull on his roach and two short sips from his wine. He really needn’t let himself feel irritated or hurt. What good will that do?
César asks, “How did you choose your career?”
Manny smiles. “Well, when I finished medical school and law school, top of my class-”
“Come on, Pop.”
“I felt I had many choices, but-”
“Be real. How’d you get started?”
“I had a passion for picking strawberries.”
“The whole life story?” César exhales.
“And I loved the ladies, the way they filled their baskets. Ah, the way they bent over. Yes, indeed, my first choice was love.”
“Tell me about your education. I’m kind of in a hurry. We could start there.”
“Did you get that down about my first choice?”
César reads from the page. “‘How did you learn the skills you need for your current job?”‘
“Yes!” Now César shakes his head.
“I’ve learned a few things in my life, I guess.”
“You’re a hopeless and crazy old man. You sit back here and get stoned and daydream about Mama and the old days.”
“I was trying to remember the words to a song.”
César closes his notebook but leaves the questionnaire on the table. He sips from his father’s mug. “I’ll have to catch you another time,” he says, and then, “How can you drink this?”
“Tengo la esperanza.”
Manny pushes a wide, soft broom around the perimeter of the St. Anthony’s gym. There is no need; the wood is polished clean. He is waiting to see César take his turn on the mat in the center of the floor. He hopes Sunui will show and that she’ll have his baby granddaughter in her arms. The bleat of a canned horn signals the end of a match of one-hundred-thirty-seven pounders. César is team captain. He is one hundred forty-seven, stocky but surprisingly limber. He rises from the bench and stands to face the coach. He fits his headgear snug over his ears, his curly black bangs pushed through a flap in the top. Often as he jogs to his edge of the circle he shows Manny two fingers, which means, I’ll pin this turkey in the second period. Sometimes he shows three, sometimes one. And sometimes, as in the state finals last year, he wipes one hand across the back of the other to say all bets are off. Today he looks blankly in Manny’s direction.
The opponent is anything but fluid. He leaps at the whistle, then begins a series of contorted movements of head, neck, shoulders, elbows. He looks like a chicken with hiccups. He surprises César with a headbutt to the nose. There’s a whistle, a warning, a thin line of blood descending to César’s upper lip. If anything, this should help César to focus, but on the restart he seems to be searching the stands. Maybe he’s looking for the college scout, Manny thinks. Maybe he wants to make a little suspense, give a performance. Manny squeezes his broom handle like it is el cuello del gallo. The opponent claps his hands in César’s face, then ducks below and scoops César’s right leg, pulls it tight to his chest. César goes down on his hands, attempts to sprawl flat. “He’s not getting enough sleep,” says Manny to no one.
At the start of the third period, César is trailing by five points. It is his turn to take bottom. He sits back on his haunches, scoots his hands and knees to the lines. He rolls his neck once, then lifts his head and scans the bleachers. He’ll need a reversal, or at least an escape, and quickly, but at the whistle he freezes, tries to hold his base. The opponent drives a hard deep-waist and pulls César’s right ankle high into the air. He cannot turn César or break him down, but time is on his side, and César seems without a plan.
Manny has never been invited to Sunui s mother’s house. His pride prohibits him from asking. César calls her Abuelita? Manny has seen photos, and he figures her to be about his age, fifty. She is compact, shaped like a bottle of aspirin, Manny thinks. Once he introduced himself in the parking lot at Safeway. She seemed preoccupied and not friendly, but not so unfriendly either, considering that his son has knocked up her daughter in their senior year of high school. “She seemed aloof,” Manny told his friend Joe, “like the white women who teach at St. Anthony’s.”
Once, after an extra glass of Gallo blanc, Manny confided to César that he thought Sunui would not make a strong woman or a good mother. Though he’d hardly ever heard her speak. “She’s a complainer,” he’d said. “Your mother never complained.” He wishes he could take those words back. What he’d said about Sunui may or may not have been true, but what he’d said about César’s mother was absolutely false.
It’s Friday night. He yanks twice on his combination lock out of habit, leaves his locker, his floors, St. Anthony’s for the weekend. He feels heavy. Is it because César lost a match that he should have won? Because he did not get to see the baby? Or is it what follows, his weekly visit with Joe Harper? It is all of the above and something he cant yet name. He scans down the dial on his car radio and then back up, and down again: angry snips of rap, country without a hint of soul. He finally hits upon Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” and for a minute and a half he feels his young pulse, his possibility. The feeling disappears when he turns the corner into Joe Harper’s housing complex. Six speed bumps, six two-story beige brick barracks. Joe’s parking space is always empty.
Manny knocks. He waits. He enters. “Joe.”
A water stain on the kitchen wall looks like Mexico, a little tail for Tijuana. Manny ritually touches the place where he grew up, fifty miles west of Mexico City. The air is thick with the odor of stale butts and urine. The living room is a perfect square, with a single square-framed aluminum window casement freckled with rust, a crack in one of the panes. Facing the window is an imitation leather sofa on four glossy gold casters, but one is bent at the stem, and the sofa tilts down toward that front corner. The coffee table is covered with the works: mirror, razor, spoon, syringe, a little intravenous morphine, a little toot of crank. A nice way to fly, Manny remembers-and a brutal way to land. “Joe?” Stick with the wine these days, the occasional bud. “Joe!”
“I’m on the can. You’re late, you bastard.”
“Traffic, I guess,” says Manny.
“You don’t have to do this.”
“Maybe you do have to do this.”
Manny shakes his head. “Where’s your chair?”
“Very stupid question. Come in here and give me a hand.”
Manny goes to the window, tries to slide it open for fresh air, but it wont slide. He leans in the bathroom doorway. His friend is standing beside the toilet, bare-assed, one round pink battering ram where a knee ought to be. The wheelchair is two or three awkward steps away. “Forgot to set the fucking brake,” Joe says. “Give her a little push this way.”
Manny does as he is told. He turns his back and waits for Joe to pull boxers and pants to his waist, then wheels Joe out into the living room.
“Kitty’s?” says Manny.
“Where else?” .
“I don’t know.” But Manny knows where he’d like to be. He’d like to buy some red and yellow tulips and drive over to Sunui’s mother’s house. He wants to punch César on the shoulder and tell him we all have bad days. He wants Abuelita/Mamasan to see that he is a good father and that if César is a good father, she’ll know where he learned. He’d like to search the baby’s face, her eyes, her smile, see if he can find traces of his dearly departed. Sixteen years ago.
And if he can’t be there, he’d like to be alone in his backyard, traveling.
“Then it’ll be Kitty’s,” says Joe.
“You don’t like Kitty’s.”
“Kitty’s is fine.”
“It gets you down is what you said.”
“Nobody likes a drunk with a good memory.”
“A one-legged drunk to boot.”
Joe lifts the mirror and a straw from the table. Three thin lines of powder. He offers, and Manny waves it off. Manny moves to the window, tries again to force it open.
“It’s busted,” says Joe. He snorts one and two in the left nostril, line three in the right. “All right,” he says, “let’s fly.”
“Let’s roll,” says Manny. They roll the hall, the ramp, down a thin cement pad between patches of dirt and dead grass. When they reach the car, Joe pivots and wriggles into the passenger seat. Manny collapses the wheelchair and shoves it into his hatchback. It fits neatly, as the stroller once did. The bike with training wheels was a pain in the ass. Skateboards, scooters, dirt bike, mountain bike. “What is this? What’s eating me?” says Manny to no one.
He starts the car.
“What the hell’s eating you?” says Joe.
Kitty’s: black-painted wood floor, buckling tongue-and-groove beneath the stools. Flat black unevenly spread over knotty pine paneling. A large mirror behind the bar is framed with a tangled string of white Christmas lights. No frills. “No checks,” says a sign above the cash register. “No credit.” There is no door on the men’s bathroom. Kitty was a big-breasted, dark-eyed woman from Ukraine when she was alive. No one knew her real name. Tonight’s whiskey jerk is a kid with a shaved head and a pierced eyebrow who looks no older than César. He turns the pages of the free weekly. He punches numbers on a cell phone. Drinks are fifty cents cheaper here than at the saloon across the street. Joe says he likes Kitty’s for “the atmosphere.”
“So?” says Joe.
“You don’t want to hear my troubles. I don’t want to talk about them.”
“Your kid moved out.”
“Give us a bourbon and a glass of Gallo,” Manny says. And then to Joe, “He did the right thing.”
“I don’t think that’s the issue.”
“What’s the issue, Dr. Seuss?”
“Now you’re old.”
“Hell, I’ve never been so free. Now I can do whatever I please.”
“That’s the issue.”
“Aw, Christ.” Manny leaves Joe at the bar. He drops four quarters in the jukebox. Conversation halts with the thrum of “Midnight Mile, ” the Stones’ best love song, according to Manny. Two speechless rounds pass before the Friday-night bartender takes over. Blond and brown with black roots. Pam. The Atmosphere.
“When you gonna stop dragging this bum around and get yourself woman?” she says to Manny. “A two-legged woman.”
Joe loves it. “Legs’s always been overrated in my book,” he says.
“You with a book?” Pam says. And to Manny, “It doesn’t feel like Friday night.”
“It feels exactly like a Friday night,” Manny says.
“Oh,” says Pam, and to Joe, “What’s with your date?”
“Poor guy’s got too much time on his hands,” Joe says. “Or not enough.”
Manny, beginning to feel the warm blur of his wine, picks through the files-what the hell to talk to Joe about. There’s Joe’s diabetes and his poor self-maintenance, always pointless, always a downer. He might still lose a toe on his remaining foot, but he knows it, hears ii three times a week from the visiting nurse. Manny could talk to him about their days together at the cocktail ice factory. The road trip to Mazatlán. He could talk about César’s wrestling, the likelihood of a college scholarship, the unlikelihood now that he could accept, with a baby. Leave that alone. There’s always, Who set Rudy up? Or had Joe gotten the inside line, announced a week ago, that Rudy, their old drinking buddy, with the best dope in the Bay area, set himself up? That he’d fallen for something up at Quentin? Love. It’s early, about two hours and eight rounds early, but Manny could cut to the point, might even shorten this miserable night. “So what’s your reason for living this week?” he says to Joe.
“Well, I’ll tell you,” Joe says. “One: they’re running forty-eight hours of Clint Eastwood on AMC.” Manny nods. “Two: ’cause Pam is alive, and I promised I’d outlive her.” Pam, unpacking a case of Coronas, seems not to hear. “And three:” Joe orders another round, sips off the top of his drink, touches Manny’s glass with his own, “because I got scared I’d never feel high again.”
Lift, twist, use the legs and not the back. Joe is snoring on the couch at five-fifteen A.M. and Manny is on the road by five-sixteen. The only twenty-four-hour plate of huevos rancheros in town is at Denny’s, and it’s out of town. He’ll make his own at home, but he doesn’t want to go home, not yet. He could drive to the ocean and wait for the sunrise, but he’s got a chill, and his heater is not working. He could fix the heater, but he needs a hose, and NAPA won’t open until ten. Not much on the radio at this hour: a conversation about original sin, a lengthy promotion for a machine that hardens abs. Sleep would be nice. He turns right and right and left, and he’d like to stop, but the lights are all blinking yellow. He coasts down Sunui’s mother’s street, pulls to the curb in front of her house. How embarrassing it would be if César spotted him. But I’m free, he thinks, I can go wherever I like. Anyway, I’ll wake up in time. He cuts the engine. He watches the door until his eyes feel like huevos picante, then tilts back his bucket seat and dozes.
Olive-green pants and shirt, olive-green plastic garbage can on wheels. It’s Monday morning, and Manny makes the rounds of classrooms and offices. He is happy that the guidance counselor, Ms. Avery, is not in yet. He takes her wastepaper and leaves a completed Career Satisfaction Survey on her desk.
He does not see César in school all day.
Tuesday, Manny sees César get on his bicycle and leave campus at two-thirty. His son will miss wrestling practice.
Wednesday there is a home match against Gonzaga. Manny is later than usual getting to the gym because the vice principal has an important opinion about floor wax. Manny knows the VP only wants to give the impression that he’s paying attention, and on some days Manny appreciates the exchanges; no one wants to think that his work is unnoticed. But today Manny is in a hurry to see his boy make him proud. He walks as quickly as he can from Robertson Hall to the gym. The pounding hurts his feet and his chest.
Through a window in the foyer Manny can see that the one-hundred-thirty-sevens are on the mat. He is not too late. He pulls his soft broom from the closet and pushes his way onto the gym floor. César is on the bench but dressed in his school clothes. He has his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. He must have the flu, Manny thinks.
Manny polishes his way to César’s friend Miguel, who is leaning against the bleachers. “Is he sick?” Manny asks. “I know something’s going around.”
“Too many burritos going around,” Miguel laughs. “Or maybe it’s Mamasans cooking. He’s four pounds over.”
What’s eating Manny? Two words, three syllables each: depression, loneliness. He knows very well what they look like. It was not his wife’s oncologist but César’s doctor, the pediatrician who’d diagnosed one-year-old César’s first earache, Dr. Philmann, who’d whispered to Manny in confidence, “She’s bound to get depressed.” And she had; her sexy brown eyes, her fierce brown eyes, her laughing brown eyes had turned opaque, yellow-flecked and gray on the surface. She’d seemed like a petulant girl, unjustly punished and refusing to leave her bedroom when the punishment was finished. She’d punish back. Everyone. Every minute.
“What can I do?” Manny had asked.
The doctor shook her head. “Take care of yourself. Really.”
“No,” Manny had said. “I want to know what I can do for her.”
“Not very much.”
“What!” he shouted, startling her. It was unlike him to shout at any one, so he remembers the encounter with Dr. Philmann vividly an often. And because of what she said: “Make her know that César wil be cared for. Make her believe it. It will help her find peace.”
Then, of course, there is Joe Harper. Some part of every Friday night (or to be accurate, Saturday morning) is devoted to his slurred and sloppy songs of depression and loneliness. The Poor Joe Show starts about one-thirty or two, when the battle for his central nervous system has been decidedly lost by the home team. Lately he’s obsessed with Pam. In the wee hours come the tears and sometimes a loss of bladder control. Never mind that Pam is married. Never mind that she is playing Friday night bartender/hostess, that her unique congeniality is part of her job, that in spite of or because of his weekly drunken advances she doesn’t want to know Joe when she’s off the clock-Jo wants her. He believes she’d want him. Or that she should. That she is withholding her expression of desire for him to punish herself. Or that she thinks it is best for him. He thinks she thinks he thinks he is undeserving and so could not accept her real affection. But of course he could, instantly. Never mind that she calls him “buffoon.” It’s the logic of his darkest hours.
With a sip of Gallo and two tokes of weed, Manny realizes that the hedge couldn’t exist without the hard metal fence behind it. It would have been trampled a thousand times.
At six-thirty Friday morning, César bicycles to Manny’s apartment. Manny invites him inside, but César is in a hurry, as always lately. He is not the jaunty, happy kid of a few months ago. He doesn’t laugh. His jock walk and the practiced homeboy gestures seem much subdued. His black curls are pressed flat on one side of his head; his face looks swollen, and his eyes dart like sparrows. “I was wondering if I left that Career Satisfaction Survey here. I cant find it. I’m supposed to turn it in today.”
“I’m sure it’ll turn up,” Manny says.
“What happened with your match, kid? I heard you were over by four pounds.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Why doesn’t it matter?”
César looks as if he might cry. He stares at Manny’s shoes, at his bicycle parked on the sidewalk. “It’s bullshit. Even if I win, I lose.”
“Maybe your team is counting on you.” Manny throws his arm around César’s shoulders. It’s an awkward hug between a father and his teenaged boy-also a father. Manny can feel César tensing, his spine rigid, head down, a very slight pull away. Manny squeezes harder. He ruffles César’s matted curls with his free hand. “You never know who’s counting on you,” he says.
Typically, when Manny sees Sunui in the halls at school, he nods. She nods. They never exchange many words. If he asks about the baby she gives a sullen, perfunctory response. “She’s doing good. She’s pretty good.” If Manny catches her alone, which is rare, she tends to be a little more forthcoming. When she is with her girlfriends, she seems not to notice Manny at all, in his olive-green work suit. So it is a big surprise when Sunui peels away from her buddies to catch Manny’s elbow at the mop sink.
“My mother saw you parked in front of the house on Saturday morning. You were sleeping.”
Manny smiles nervously. He’d like to hide in the sink.
“Can you come to dinner tonight? Mother wants you to come. So does César.”
Manny is speechless. He’d never much cared for Sunui’s appearance: slight, Asian, with bleached, magenta-tinted hair. He’d always found her hard to look at, but up close now she seems to sparkle. Is it the glossy bronze lip paint or the half-dozen copper bangles on her slim wrists? Is it motherhood?
“I’m sorry we’ve taken so long to invite you. Mother is embarrassed about the house. She’s that way. We don’t have much company.”
“What time?” says Manny.
“Dinner time, I guess.”
“I know something for ear infection,” he says proudly.
“That’s good,” says Sunui. “Bring it with you.”
Manny speeds home after work. He showers. He trims his mustache and the few extruding nose hairs. It’s a temperate January late afternoon-no thin, nervous, rust-colored clouds, as there have been the past few days, but soft white ones, now turning pink and burnished like gold or palladium. This could be another season, another country. He is shirtless in his backyard, his favorite white-on-white button-down draped across his picnic table. He sips, he tokes. The invitation seemed so warm, so genuine, so like this strange appearance of spring just before twilight, a beautiful surprise. And yet it will soon be Friday night, and he feels nagged by a sense of obligation to Joe Harper. What could he possibly owe Joe? How many times has he pondered the question?
They became friends when Manny took work at the cocktail ice plant. César was in the first grade then, and he’d made fast friends with Miguel. On Friday nights César would sleep over at Miguel’s house. Manny knew it was important for César to have a buddy and thought that he should know what a family looked like, what it was like to have a mother in the house. The first time it took some encouragement from Manny, but ever after César seemed to live for Friday nights, and when Manny retrieved him on Saturday afternoons he’ be silent and sulking.
So Manny could feel bad-never his way-or he could make a friend of his own. Joe was healthy then, or healthier. He had two legs. He had robust sense of fun. “Get a life,” he’d say. “Don’t be such an old maid, he’d say. “It was ironical,” Manny had once told César, “that that was supposed to be my time, my freedom, but really I wanted to be with you.”
There’d been road trips, a fishing trip, always booze and sometime crank, sometimes Rudy, sometimes prostitutes. Anything to melt the numbness from long hours of tossing, stacking, packing twelve-pound bags of ice. Chipping, shoveling, sweeping, shaking out their brittle knees and ankles, blowing on their fingertips; it is ironic, that if time with Joe had once meant fun and freedom, time away, it had later coin to mean exactly the opposite. And perhaps even more ironic, Manny almost understands in this strange glow of now, is that he feels les burdened as Joe’s escort and Friday-night caretaker than he did when their sole purpose was fun.
On the way to Sunui’s mother’s house, Manny stops at the farmacia botánica for hoja de ruda. Next door he buys a half gallon of Gallo blanc and a fifth of Jim Beam for Joe, for later. He hasn’t called Joe because he can anticipate the entire conversation, and he doesn’t like it. Two doors down he finds the red and yellow tulips he’d wanted.
He hasn’t thought of a good lie to explain his sleeping in front of their house-not even a bad lie. As he walks up the front steps, he feels some of his happiness dissipating, worry seeping in. I wonder if César is embarrassed by me? By this foolish, sentimental, hopeless old man. César can attend the private high school because Manny works there and Manny works there so that César can attend, but the parents of his schoolmates are not janitors. They have careers. They take vacations in Hawaii and sometimes Europe. They drive BMWs and Volvos.
The lawn in front of the house is well groomed, modest, tasteful. Sunui opens the door before he can ring the bell. She holds the baby in her arms. She signals, “Sssshh!” because the baby is sleeping and points Manny toward the kitchen. “My mother wants to talk to you,” she whispers. Manny recognizes the scent of Murphy’s Oil Soap and appreciates the luster of the oak floors. The walls are clean and bare except for three small watercolor paintings of shoreline, mountains, tall conifers: simple, meditative pieces in shades of green-gray and blue-gray. Everything feels square and orderly except for the loud and leaning tulips in his right hand. He identifies the sweet fragrance of pork dumplings, and Sunui’s mother appears.
“I am glad you could come,” she says. She extends a hand, but no smile. “I am Ki-Yang.”
“I’ve been looking forward to seeing my granddaughter,” Manny says. “I’m Manny. We met once before.”
“You work at the school?” she says.
“Is that what César told you?” Manny laughs. “I’m the janitor.” Manny wishes he hadn’t carried in the large bottle of wine. He feels nervous, and so he talks. “Where is César?” “I was admiring your wood floors.” “I hope you like tulips.” “How is the baby?” “What kind of work do you do?”
Ki-Yang moves slowly and deliberately. She reminds Manny of the school principal in the way she displays a practiced and disarming calm. “I work with juvenile delinquents. I’m a counselor, but only part-time now.” She points Manny to a seat at the small, round kitchen table. “The baby is fine, except for an ear infection, which seems to be improving.” She takes the tulips and places them in a ceramic lead-colored vase. “These are very nice.” She offers coffee or tea, “or a glass for your wine,” and then she sits and folds her hands on the table and says, “Where is César? That is what I want to talk about.”
Sunui appears in the doorway without the baby. “She’s sleep Mom. I’m going to watch a video.”
“Not too loud,” says Ki-Yang.
“I thought César would be here,” Manny says.
“You’d think so.” Ki-Yang stands to lower the heat under a pot of rice. She surprises Manny by pouring herself a glass of his wine. “I’m sorry it has taken so long to invite you. I wanted your son’s permission, but he would only ever say, ‘It isn’t a good time.”‘
“I don’t understand,” Manny says.
“Do you want to know what I think?”
“He wants you to be proud of him, but he is not proud of himself.”
Manny wants to respond, but the best he can do is excuse him to the bathroom. Ki-Yang points him to a pale louvered door, a small sparkling sink and a toilet. There is a hand-carved wooden soap dish, a set of wooden brushes and combs. On a shelf are a dozen one-in high jade figurines. Modest, dignified, vaguely feminine, high class. No, Manny thinks, César is embarrassed by me, or disappointed, the way he used to seem when he returned from a sleepover at Miguel’s. He doesn’t check me out at school anymore, not to say hi or introduce one of his friends. He hasn’t bragged or confided or tried to make me laugh, not for a long time.
The scent is Simple Green. It looks as if someone has scoured the toilet seat with Comet and removed some of the finish. When he comes of the bathroom, Ki-Yang is setting plates on the table. Sunui does not join them. Manny can hear voices from the television, sounds of squealing tires and gunshots, and he knows it is Lethal Weapon 2 or 3 or 4 that Sunui is watching. He’d prefer watching to having this conversation
“César often does not come home until very late. He seems to need to be with his friends now, which I can understand, but he leaves Sunui alone with the baby. I can’t remember the last time I saw him change a diaper.” Ki-Yang serves a dumpling and a ball of rice onto Manny’s plate. “I know it is hard for a young man to become a father, especially in this country, where young men are told they can do and be whatever they want.”
Manny bites into the dumpling. The pork filling burns his tongue. He has difficulty swallowing.
“But it is unfair to Sunui,” Ki-Yang continues. “She was a very good student. She wanted to go to college, too.”
“Yes,” Manny says, and he thinks, this must be the way to talk to juvenile delinquents: no funny business, right to the point. But where is this leading?
“Let me get to the point,” says Ki-Yang. The baby makes a brief squawk and, a moment later, a full-throated call for attention. Manny stands and follows the sound to a bedroom, a wicker bassinet. Sunui comes through the door behind him, and behind her is Ki-Yang.
“Can I hold her?” Manny says.
Sunui and Ki-Yang nod. “Either César changes his attitude,” says KiYang, “or I’m afraid I will have to ask him to leave.”
Manny looks at Sunui looking at Ki-Yang. He can read no surprise, no expression at all.
The baby is quiet in Manny’s arms, but she looks uncertain, that gummy-faced, postnap stretch and yawn that might quickly give way to an explosion of anger and tears. Manny sways to the melody of an old lullaby, something involving a lost goat. Or was it a lost boy, found by his goat? He searches the baby’s face for signs of his family, but he can find no real likeness other than the jet hair. The little girl has the features of her grandmother: straight dark lines on a pink-and-white dumpling. When her eyes open they are slate-colored and shiny like marbles. It could be a look of peace or one of silent terror. Manny sways and sings.
Two and a half hours pass with very little conversation. Manny brightens when he remembers to share his earache remedy. He pulls a rolled leaf from the small glass vial he bought at the farmacia and passes it beneath his freshly trimmed moustache as if it were a fine cigar. He offers an incantation in Spanish, the same performance he’d given years ago to amuse his miserable wife, then steeps the leaf in boiling water. Sunui laughs. Even Ki-Yang permits herself to smile. When it cools he attempts to place it in the baby’s ear. The baby wriggles and cries. She arches her back and screams. Ki-Yang tries once. The baby will not have it. Ki-Yang suggests that they try it another time. Manny agrees, but he is certain that she won’t. He cradles the infant in the kitchen, and when she fusses he paces the hall with her, humming his lullaby. Finally she settles, and he sits with her in the living room. It is Lethal Weapon IV, and Danny Glover is sincerely worried about Mel Gibson’s sanity again. Manny gives up the baby so Sunui can feed her. It is well past bedtime, and the women are preparing to retire.
Then Manny hears footsteps on the porch. “He’s here,” Sunui says.
“I’ll talk to him,” Manny says.
“Good night,” says Sunui.
“You are very good with the baby,” says Ki-Yang. “Good night.”
Manny finds César on the porch, bent in half, fussing with the lock on his bicycle. “Don’t worry,” he says, “they’ve gone to bed already.”
“What’re you doing here, Pop?”
“I was going to ask you that.”
César straightens. He seems unable to speak. Manny does not move out of the doorway. A car passes slowly down the block, the bass from its speakers throbbing so deep and so loud it makes the porch vibrate. “Take a ride with me,” Manny says. “I need your help with something.”
Manny has never been good at saying what’s wrong because too easily it comes off like complaining, and complaining is something he doesn’t like. But he’s also never been good at hiding his moods, certainly not from César. What he thinks and feels shows in the dark between his eyes, even in the half light of the porch.
They sit in Manny’s car. He pulls into traffic.
“I guess you heard some things in there,” César says.
“Maybe there’s some things you didn’t hear, too.”
Manny looks at the road as though it takes all his concentration.
“You probably don’t know that Sunui hasn’t stopped bitching since the baby was born. Or that her mother is even worse. We don’t even talk to each other anymore. Not at home or at school.”
Manny just drives.
“Hell, I know what my future looks like, Pop. But right now I miss my friends. They’re all going off to college, and where am I going to be?”
Manny hits a string of green lights, and he accelerates. He decides to head toward the ocean. What’s eating Manny is the fear that he’s the person most important in his life. In spite of, or because of—irony of ironies—eighteen years of sacrifice, he feels he’s failed to teach his kid how to be happy in the world. He parks on a narrow, dark road; all around tall reeds fold in the sea breeze. “They’re thinking about kicking you out, kid. How’d you feel about your future then?”
Now it is César’s turn to sit with his thoughts. They sit for minutes, with no sound but the occasional soft spray of sand against rubber and steel and glass. In the light of a passing car, Manny can see the earnest pain on his boy’s face. It’s the look he had at six years old, trying to do a proper push-up or lift his bike with the training wheels out of the hatchback. It’s a face he’d made often in those awkward first weeks at St. Anthony’s, unsure if he could or even wanted to fit in. Over the years Manny has learned to interpret that look as, “This hurts, but I need to do it myself.”
“I do care about the baby, Pop. I do.”
“Is it midnight?” Manny says.
“It’s past midnight.”
“Let’s go meet a friend of mine. His name is Joe Harper.”
César will recognize the name, Manny knows, but he’s never met Joe, probably never thought much about him except perhaps to notice that he seems to be his dad’s only friend. They ride in quiet, until they reach the six speedbumps. Then there’s the whine of Manny’s tired suspension, the thump and rattle of the jack and tire iron in the spare-wheel well.
“Joe,” Manny calls from the door, César standing at his side. “Joe!” He doesn’t expect an answer. “Come on,” he says to César.
The apartment smells worse than ever. César follows at Manny’s shoulder. Manny touches the spot on the water stain shaped like Mexico and says, “That’s where I grew up,” but he can see that César missed the gesture, and he wonders what the kid’ll make of the words. They find Joe face down on the couch; his hips and his legs have tilted over the edge, and his knee rests on the carpet. There is a dark stain at his crotch. Several feet away, the wheelchair is lying on its side.
“Holy shit,” says César.
“Help me get him cleaned up,” Manny says.
“Can we at least open the window?” César says.
“You can try.”
César pushes on one frame and tries pulling on the other, but no luck. He then hits the seam with the butt of his hand, and one of the frames slips into its track. It slides with ease.
“Nice going,” says Manny. “Now go run the bath. Not too deep, just to sit in.”
César does as he is told. When he returns to the living room, Manny has Joe seated upright. The wheelchair is also upright and parked beside the couch. “Help me here,” Manny says. “While I hold him up, you let down his pants.”
Joe’s buttocks and thighs are riddled with scar tissue, blotches of dark brown and blood-purple, the texture of scalded milk. César turns his head and takes a deep breath. Together they lift Joe into his chair. “Toss those wet things into the basket in the closet,” Manny says. He wheels Joe into the bathroom. “Give me a hand here, would you?” César is at Manny’s side instantly. They lower Joe into the water.
“Whadda fuck?” Joe screams.
“The water is ice cold,” Manny says. “Didn’t you ever give somebody a bath before?”
They hoist Joe out of the water. “Just turn up the hot,” Manny says as evenly as he can. They lower him back in. “I brought you some bourbon,” Manny says to Joe, “but it looks like you must have had some laying around.”
“Shit,” Joe says. “Where the fuck were ya tonight?”
They heave him out of the bath. “And who’s this?” Joe says, squinting at César. Manny is on to the next room to set out a towel a dry things.
Joe’s face shows no comprehension.
“Manny is my father,” César says.
“Oh,” Joe says, “you’re the reason.” And he calls to Manny, “This’zz why ya abandoned your old buddy. This’zz why ya … hey, ain’t ya gonna have a drink wid me?”
In front of Joe’s barrack, César lets out the breath he’d been holding for two minutes. Manny can see in the floodlight that the kid’s face is drenched. “Wow,” César says.
“That was record time,” says Manny. “Would have been even faster if I didn’t get fumbled up with those boxers.”
They lean on the roof of the car, each looking at his own folded knuckles. “They all cracked up,” César finally says. “Especially Ms. Avery.”
“The Career Satisfaction Survey. The part where you said you’d be happier in your job if the guidance counselor would get herself some different shoes.” César laughs. “She read it out loud. You should’ve seen her face.”
“I was serious,” Manny says, laughing. “Serious.”
On the ride César talks: how his friends are freaking out about college applications, how he’s going to get his weight down and his mind focused for the state tournament, how he figures he’ll get some time alone with Sunui and what he wants to say, how he plans to get a job with UPS, where the pay is hella good, and he can kick back some money to Ki-Yang for the rent. He says he wants to get a baby seat for the back of his bike and that way he can carry her around when he’s training on the hills.
“I could help with that,” Manny says.
When they reach Ki-Yang’s street, César says, “When you said we should go see your friend, I got this idea you were going to tell me you were gay or something.”
“There’s something I need to tell you, kid.” Manny laughs.
“Shut up already, Pop.” César laughs. “That, I couldn’t probably handle right now.” And when the laughter subsides and they pull up in front of the house, the quiet of the late hour is startling. There is no bus or car or even a breeze, only the ringing awareness that in a moment each will go his own way.
César says, “What?”
“What do you mean, what?” says Manny.
“Why’d you want me to see that?” César says. “To help you?”
“Can’t a father ask his son for help?”
“You never did before.” César has his fingers in the door latch, but he doesn’t pull. “Why?”
“I guess I wanted you to feel proud,” Manny says.
“Proud of me? Or you?”
“Sí,” Manny says. “Yes.”
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