Tayo thought of Rocky then, and he was proud that Emo was so envious. The beer kept him loose inside. Emo’s words never touched him. The beer stroked a place deep under his heart and put all the feeling to sleep.
Then Emo took out the little bag again. He fumbled with the yellow pull-strings and opened it. He poured the human teeth out on the table. He looked over at Tayo and laughed out loud. He pushed them into circles and rows like unstrung beads; he scooped them into his hand and shook them like dice. They were his war souvenirs, the teeth he had knocked out of the corpse of a Japanese soldier. The night progressed according to that ritual: from cursing the barren dry land the white man had left them, to talking about San Diego and the cities where the white women were still waiting for them to come back to give them another taste of what white women never got enough of. But in the end, they always came around to it.
“We were the best. U.S. Army. We butchered every Jap we found. No Jap bastard was fit to take prisoner. We had all kinds of ways to get information out of them before they died. Cut off this, cut off these.” Emo was grinning and hunched over, staring at the teeth.
“Make them talk fast, die slow.” He laughed. Pinkie and Harley laughed with him, at his joke. Leroy came over for more money; Tayo threw him a twenty dollar bill. He was getting tense. He needed more beer to keep him loose inside and to make his stomach feel better. He swallowed some more. Every word Emo said pulled the knot in his belly tighter.
“I only went after the officers. These teeth, they were from a Jap colonel. Yeah.”
Tayo could hear it in his voice when he talked about the killing—how Emo grew from each killing. Emo fed off each man he killed, and the higher the rank of the dead man, the higher it made Emo.
“We blew them all to hell. We should’ve dropped bombs on all the rest and blown them off the face of the earth.”
He went into the old man’s field to look at the melons, all round and full of slippery sinews of wet seeds. He raised his foot carefully and brought his boot down hard on the center of the melon. It made a popping sound. Seeds and wet pulp squirted out from the broken rind; they glistened with juice. He kicked the pieces and scattered them around the corn plants. He pulled one from its stem and held it in his hands. The skin was shiny and smooth, veined and mottled like green turquoise; he felt the shape. The symmetry of the oval pleased him; he raised it high over his head and smashed it against the ground. He made certain they were all gone. He looked back, down the long row. Tiny black ants were scurrying over the shattered melons; the flies were rubbing their feet on fragments of pulp and rind. He trampled the ants with his boots, and he kicked dirt over the seeds and pulp. He watched flies buzz in circles above the burial places.
Emo had liked what they showed him: big mortar shells that blew tanks and big trucks to pieces; jagged steel flakes that exploded from the grenades; the way the flame thrower melted a rifle into a shapeless lump. He understood them right away; he knew what they wanted. He was the best, they told him; some men didn’t like to feel the quiver of the man they were killing; some men got sick when they smelled the blood. But he was the best; he was one of them. The best. United States Army.
Something was different about the beer this time; it swelled through his blood and made all the muscles loose and warm, but it was also loosening something deeper inside which clenched the anger and held it in place. He could feel it happening. Like two days of snow piled deep on the branches of a big pine tree the morning of the second day, when the sun came out and crystal by crystal penetrated the snow, melting it away from the pine needles until a single gust of mountain wind and suddenly all the snow came tumbling down.
Emo played with the teeth; he pretended to put them in his own mouth at funny angles. Everyone was laughing. The teeth sucked up the light, and darkness closed around Tayo with an ambush of voices in English and Japanese. He clenched his hands around the bottle until he felt a sharp snap. It was too late then. It tore loose. The little Japanese boy was smiling in the L.A. depot; darkness came like night fog and someone was bending over a small body.
Tayo jumped up from the table, panting; the sweat ran down his face like tears.
“Killer!” he screamed. “Killer!”
The others were quiet, but Emo started laughing. His voice echoed around the room.
“You drink like an Indian, and you’re crazy like one too—but you aren’t shit, white trash. You love Japs the way your mother loved to screw white men.”
Emo’s shirt had dark circles of sweat under each arm. Tayo watched his belly and the way the shirt stuck to it with sweat; he watched the belly quiver when Emo laughed at him. He moved suddenly, with speed which was effortless and floating like a mountain lion. He got stronger with every jerk that Emo made, and he felt that he would get well if he killed him. But they wouldn’t let him do it; they grabbed his arms and pulled his hands out of Emo’s belly. He saw their mouths open, yelling, but he didn’t hear them, and the snow tumbled over him. The silence was dense; the darkness was cold.
When the cops came, he was still gripping the broken bottle in his hand, and watching his own blood flow between the fingers of his fist and drip on the Mexican’s oiled wood floor. He stood still; only his brain was moving. The haze from the beer was gone, like heat and dust washed out of the sky by a summer rain. He should have hated Emo; he should have hated the Jap soldiers who killed Rocky. The space to carry hate was located deep inside, below his lungs and behind his belly; but it was empty. He watched while they knelt over Emo and then loaded him into the ambulance. His hand didn’t hurt either; the blood felt like warm water trickling down his fingers. He didn’t feel anything.
The cops made him show them the hand. They wrapped it tight with a big roll of gauze and handcuffed him. He dozed in the back seat of the police car all the way to Albuquerque; he knew what his eyes had seen, and what his ears had heard; he knew what he felt in his belly and up and down his backbone. But he wasn’t sure any more what to believe or whom he could trust. He wasn’t sure.
The Army recruiter had taped posters of tanks and marching soldiers around the edge of a folding table. The Government car was parked next to the post office under the flagpole, and he had set up the table next to the car, trying to find shelter from the wind. But the posters were flapping and twisting around, and the brittle edges of the paper were beginning to split and tear. There was a chill in the wind during the last days the sun occupied a summer place in the sky—and something relentless in the way the wind drove the sand and dust ahead of it. The recruiter was sitting on his folding chair, but he had to keep both hands on his pamphlets to keep them from scattering. He had been waiting for more people to show up before he began his speech, but Rocky and Tayo and old man Jeff were the only people out in the wind that afternoon.
“Anyone can fight for America,” he began, giving special emphasis to “America,” “even you boys. In a time of need, anyone can fight for her.” A big gust of sand swirled around them; Rocky turned his back to it and Tayo covered his face with his hands; old man Jeff went inside the post office. The recruiter paused to rearrange the pamphlets and check the damage the wind had done to the posters. He looked disgusted then, as though he were almost ready to leave. But he went on with his speech.
“Now I know you boys love America as much as we do, but this is your big chance to
it!” He stood up then, as he had rehearsed, and looked them in the eye sincerely. He handed them color pamphlets with a man in a khaki uniform and gold braid on the cover; in the background, behind the figure in the uniform, there was a gold eagle with its wings spread across an American flag.
Rocky read each page of the pamphlet carefully. He looked up at Tayo and his face was serious and proud. Tayo knew right then what Rocky wanted to do. The wind blew harder; a gust caught the pamphlets and swirled them off the card table. They scattered like dry leaves across the ground. The recruiter ran after them with his arms out in front of him as if he were chasing turkeys. Rocky helped him pick them up, and he nodded sharply for Tayo to help too. Rocky talked to the recruiter about the training programs while they shook sand out of the brochures and folded them up again.
“I want to be a pilot.” He paused and looked at the recruiter. “You can fly all over the world that way, can’t you?”
The recruiter was packing the leaflets into a cardboard box; he didn’t look up. “Sure, sure,” he said, “you enlist now and you’ll be eligible for everything—pilot training—everything.” He folded the legs under the little table and slammed down the lid of the car’s trunk. He glanced at his big chrome wristwatch.
“You men want to sign up?”
Rocky looked at Tayo as if he wanted to ask him something. It was strange to see that expression on his face, because Rocky had always known what he was doing, without asking anyone.
“And my brother,” Rocky said, nodding at Tayo. “If we both sign up, can we stay together?”
It was the first time in all the years that Tayo had lived with him that Rocky ever called him “brother.” Auntie had always been careful that Rocky didn’t call Tayo “brother,” and when other people mistakenly called them brothers, she was quick to correct the error.
“They’re not brothers,” she’d say, “that’s Laura’s boy. You know the one.” She had a way of saying it, a tone of voice which bitterly told the story, and the disgrace she and the family had suffered. The things Laura had done weren’t easily forgotten by the people, but she could maintain a distance between Rocky, who was her pride, and this other, unwanted child. If nobody else ever knew about this distance, she and Tayo did.
He was four years old the night his mother left him there. He didn’t remember much: only that she had come after dark and wrapped him in a man’s coat—it smelled like a man—and that there were men in the car with them: and she held him all the way, kept him bundled tight and close to her, and he had dozed and listened, half dreaming their laughter and the sound of a cork squeaking in and out of a bottle. He could not remember if she had fed him, but when they got to Laguna that night, he wasn’t hungry and he refused the bread Uncle Josiah offered him. He clung to her because when she left him, he knew she would be gone for a long time. She kissed him on the forehead with whiskey breath, and then pushed him gently into Josiah’s arms as she backed out the door. He cried and fought Josiah, trying to follow her, but his uncle held him firmly and told him not to cry because he had a brother now: Rocky would be his brother, and he could stay with them until Christmas. Rocky had been staring at him, but with the mention of Christmas he started crying and kicking the leg of the table. There were tears all over his face and his nose was running.
“Go away,” he screamed, “you’re not my brother. I don’t want no brother!” Tayo covered his ears with his hands and buried his face against Josiah’s leg, crying because he knew: this time she wasn’t coming back for him. Josiah pulled out his red bandanna handkerchief and wiped Tayo’s nose and eyes. He looked at Rocky sternly and then took both of the little boys by the hand. They walked into the back room together, and Josiah showed him the bed that he and Rocky would share for so many years.
When old Grandma and Auntie came home that night from the bingo game at the church, Tayo and Rocky were already in bed. Tayo could tell by the sound of his breathing that Rocky was already asleep. But he lay there in the dark and listened to voices in the kitchen, voices of Josiah and Auntie and the faint voice of old Grandma. He never knew what they said that night, because the voices merged into a hum, like night insects around a lamp; but he thought he could hear Auntie raise her voice and the sound of pots and pans slamming together on the stove. And years later he learned she did that whenever she was angry.
It was a private understanding between the two of them. When Josiah or old Grandma or Robert was there, the agreement was suspended, and she pretended to treat him the same as she treated Rocky, but they both knew it was only temporary. When she was alone with the boys, she kept Rocky close to her; while she kneaded the bread, she gave Rocky little pieces of dough to play with; while she darned socks, she gave him scraps of cloth and a needle and thread to play with. She was careful that Rocky did not share these things with Tayo, that they kept a distance between themselves and him. But she would not let Tayo go outside or play in another room alone. She wanted him close enough to feel excluded, to be aware of the distance between them. The two little boys accepted the distance, but Rocky was never cruel to Tayo. He seemed to know that the narrow silence was reserved only for times when the three of them were alone together. They sensed the difference in her when old Grandma or Josiah was present, and they adjusted without hesitation, keeping their secret.
But after they started school, the edges of the distance softened, and Auntie seldom had the boys to herself any more. They were gone most of the day, and old Grandma was totally blind by then and always there, sitting close to her stove. Rocky was more anxious than Tayo to stay away from the house, to stay after school for sports or to play with friends. It was Rocky who withdrew from her, although only she and Tayo realized it. He did it naturally, like a rabbit leaping away from a shadow suddenly above him.
Tayo and Auntie understood each other very well. Years later Tayo wondered if anyone, even old Grandma or Josiah, ever understood her as well as he did. He learned to listen to the undertones of her voice. Robert and Josiah evaded her; they were deaf to those undertones. In her blindness and old age, old Grandma stubbornly ignored her and heard only what she wanted to hear. Rocky had his own way, with his after-school sports and his girl friends. Only Tayo could hear it, like fingernails scratching against bare rock, her terror at being trapped in one of the oldest ways.