Día de los Muertos: Chapter 13

Thirteen

Palmdale / 12:30 P.M.

Calhoun drove the jeep up to the last gate. Castro slid out of the jeep. They’d crossed the border at the Hittleman’s cattle ranch. Hittleman got five hundred dollars a week to keep his mouth shut. Castro walked across the metal cattle guard, opened the gate with a key and waved Calhoun through. The gate marked the end of the Hittleman ranch. Calhoun nosed the jeep over the metal cattle guards and it was over. Calhoun pulled out onto the shoulder of the highway. He glanced into the mirror.”Well…” the lawyer said, “Where’s the coyote who takes us to Los Angeles?””Up the road a little,” Calhoun said. The lawyer looked suspicious, still worried that they were going to kill them. Castro closed the gate and trotted across the empty highway and got back into the jeep. The Guatemalan kids and the Palestinian were asleep; the last hour on the Hittleman ranch had been uneventful as the desert flattened after they plowed through the river that separated Mexico and the U.S.

“Okay,” Castro said, closing the door. “I want to buy a pair of sunglasses while we’re here. At the Kmart. It will only take a minute.”

“Thank God we’re here,” one of the lawyer’s sisters said. She crossed herself. “Thank God we are in the United States.” A yellow school bus passed them, and behind that, a green border patrol sport utility, the back windows blacked out.

“Well, that’s it. We can turn them in now,” Calhoun said. The lawyer looked like he was going to die. Calhoun pulled up on the highway and followed the border patrol.

“Is it money you want?” the lawyer said. “I’ll pay you more. I knew you were liars and cheats! I knew it.”

A half mile up the road the border patrol car pulled into a substation. Calhoun drove on by. Castro burst out laughing.

 

He’d passed through Palmdale dozens of times in the last few months, but now as he saw it again, he was forced to look and remember. It hadn’t changed since the day he’d met Celeste – the low brick buildings, the camphor trees. He remembered the gray linoleum floors of the high school and the way his father had taken him around and introduced him to the other teachers.

They’d delivered the cargo in the parking lot of the truck stop. It was one of those truck stops that was busy night and day. There had been no time for good-byes. The cargo was hustled out and transferred into a silver van and they were gone.

All the time he was drinking coffee at the truck stop, it bothered him. It was a physical feeling. Why do I care? he kept thinking. Why did I want to give her money? Why do I care if she’s there when I get back? Why do I want to go back there? He didn’t try to explain to Castro where he was going. He dropped Castro off at the Kmart and said he’d be back.

 

The red newspaper box nailed to the fence post was still there, the narrow serpentine road winding into the desert hills. Calhoun stopped for a moment at the turnoff to the Stone ranch. It was as if it were that first day he’d brought her home. Calhoun looked at the empty seat next to him. For months now everything had been going by so fast. He’d made so many stupid decisions without thinking. He saw them all now. Today when he saw her again, it was as if he had suddenly come to a stop. He looked around him and realized how stupid he’d been.

Fuck it, he thought. I have to tell him.

Calhoun closed the door to the jeep and waited for the dogs to come out of the ranch house the way they used to, but there was nothing, just the sound that the desert makes in late morning, that crackling sound, as if the ground were drying up under your feet. He glanced at the ramshackle ranch house. One corner of the roof sagged. He remembered Celeste’s bedroom. There’d been a naked light in the closet. He saw her coming out of it that night before he was arrested. She’d been laughing. He turned and looked at the path toward the chicken houses. He saw how they seemed to be nestled perfectly into the landscape, brown and windblown, like they were made out of rock and not wood. Calhoun stood for a moment, held by the past. Then, looking at the chicken coops, he remembered the charge: statutory rape, his father’s lawyer asking him if it was true.

“Mr. Stone.” Calhoun called it first loud, then again louder. “Mr. Stone!” He waited for Celeste’s father to answer. He wanted to see him. He wanted to apologize. He wanted to go back to that night and explain that it wasn’t what her father thought. He turned from the coops and walked toward the ranch house. It had a tin roof, and the roof looked like pure phlogiston in the sun. Under the porch was a smear of shade. I want to speak to him one more time before I take her away. It was then he knew why he’d brought her back to the Amigo. He had no intention of letting Celeste go now. He would as soon have died.

“Mr. Stone!” His shoes kicked up the dust of the yard. A few things had changed. The barn door was open and Calhoun saw the tractor. It was a new, green International Harvester with a hay cutting rig on the back. He walked up on the porch and knocked. There was a turned-upside-down horse shoe over the door. The screen door was new; the front door had been left open.

“Mr. Stone! It’s Vincent Calhoun.” He braced himself and knocked again on the screen door. He saw a pile of Readers’ Digests and a kerosene storm lamp on the dining room table, a red and white checkered oil cloth.

“Mr. Stone!” No, it hadn’t been like they’d all said, that he’d wanted her for her body, that it was just the sex. He put his hand on the door. I could go in and…but that was it. It was the sex and it was her nakedness, and the, yes, it was the look of her ass and her tits and that was all I wanted, wasn’t it…my face in that pussy. Wasn’t it. And it was wrong because I was a teacher and supposed to be better than that, but I wasn’t. He let the doorknob go, the truth pouring into him. All this time he’d lied to himself. He remembered now how he’d looked at her that first time and what he’d thought. I want that. I want a piece of that. He turned around and saw the emptiness of the sun-blasted yard and remembered how he’d looked at her in the car that day. And it was still the same. It was an odd desire. But now it was something else, something he had to hold onto. It was bigger than desire now.

He heard the rattle of a truck, the chains on the back. Calhoun saw an old Ford pickup coming down the road, the dust up behind it, the sun burning the windshield. Calhoun opened his coat, ran his hand around his waist nervously. What was he going to say to him? He stepped into the hot sun and waited. The truck got closer, the green rusted Ford coming in and out of the cloud of dust. The truck stopped at the gate. Calhoun looked behind him and regretted having come. He looked toward the coops, and for a moment, he saw her in her jeans, no shirt, the way she used to walk around her room when they were alone. How young she was then. He’d wanted her all the time. Everything about her he’d wanted and nothing had changed. I’m going back to Tijuana and have her.

Stone shut off the engine and slid out of the truck. He was older now, maybe fifty. There was a hunting rifle on the gun rack of the Ford. Calhoun walked a few paces forward, his white suit blazing in the sun. He looked out from under the shadow of his havelock.

“Mr. Stone.” His voice sounded funny to him. A dog dropped out behind Stone and ran up to Calhoun and sniffed his shoes.

“Calhoun?” Calhoun looked up. Stone grabbed for the rifle and pulled it down from the rack. Calhoun heard the bolt move. He looked into the sun. His sunglasses were perfect for this kind of light. They cut everything down to clear sharp yellows. He saw the rifle against Stone’s chest and heard the sound of the bolt going home.

“You son of a bitch. You ruined my little girl,” Stone said. Stone moved in front of the Ford’s big chrome bumper.

“I came here to say I was sorry.” Calhoun heard his own words, and watched Stone lift the rifle. The idea that he was going to shoot him didn’t seem to matter. He watched the hardness in Stone’s face in the yellow light. You couldn’t really read it any more than you could some old desert animal’s.

“You’re a little late with that, aren’t you, boy?”

“Yes, I am…I’m taking her away.” There was a gunshot. Calhoun flinched at the bit of yard which exploded at his feet. He looked up. “I found her again and I came to say I’m taking her away.” Calhoun spoke to the man and the rifle. Neither one of them moved. The dog came back and went and sat, tongue out, at his master’s feet. “If you kill me, you’ll ruin the only chance she has,” Calhoun said.

“Where is she? She here now?”

“No. She’s in Tijuana.”

“What the hell is she doing there?”

“She’s been in a Mexican jail. I found her this morning. I want to help her.” Calhoun saw the rifle stock tilt down, the barrel go back on his shoulder.

“The day I saw you, I told her you were no fucking good,” Stone said.

“I came here to tell you, you were right about me then. But I can’t undo that now.”

“She’s in Tijuana?”

“Yes…” Calhoun said. “I don’t have a lot of time here. So I want to know whether you’re going to shoot me or not, because I’m going to walk up to you now.” Calhoun started walking across the yard toward her father. Stone didn’t move. Then he slung the rifle over his shoulder as Calhoun got closer. As he walked up to him Calhoun saw the tufts of white hair coming out of his blue denim work shirt. His face had been etched by the wind. Calhoun was afraid to look him in the face. Then he forced himself to. For a moment, they looked at each other. It wasn’t hate Calhoun saw. He had expected hate. He saw pain and hadn’t expected it.

“She left not long after you did. Went to L.A. with some new asshole,” Stone said. “I don’t know what she got up to there. She was in a dirty magazine, I know that.” His voice was tough and deep and burnt-sounding, pretending he didn’t care. But Calhoun saw the look in his squinting, sun-hooded eyes. It was pain. The rest of him was all desert except for the eyes.

“She could come back here. I don’t give a damn what she did in any magazine,” he said.

“You were right about me. I came to tell you that. I was wrong then for what I did,” Calhoun said. He felt stupid.

“I keep her things,” Stone said. “I got ’em in there, in the house.” He nodded toward the ranch house. “Is she all right?”

“I think so.” Calhoun said. “I got to go.”

“You’re going to help her…you mean that?”

“Yes, I do.” Calhoun turned around and walked toward the jeep.

“There isn’t a day goes by I don’t miss her,” Stone said. Calhoun stopped; it was as if he’d been shot. He realized then that he loved her. That was what this was about. He loved her and he hated her for what he’d done. He hadn’t let the emotions penetrate, but they had now – both of them. He’d come here to understand it. Both emotions were on his face when he turned around. He’d come here to lie to himself one more time.

“I guess it’s been the same for me. Every god damn day,” Calhoun said. He watched her father come toward him, the dog following.

“You tell Celeste… Tell her I…still have her things. You tell her that, then,” Stone said. He walked past him into the house.

 

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