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Authors: Bruce Machart

Men in the Making (6 page)

BOOK: Men in the Making
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Searching for a spot, Tim steers wide to the left around the rear of an old beat-to-hell Buick that's jutting out from its parking space. A car with a heavy, twisted bumper, pulled out jagged-like on one side by a previous collision. He eases down on the brake and waits while, six or seven spaces from the front of the store, taillights come to life on a Dodge van. When it backs out, he makes a sharp right into the spot. Beside him, Natalie's breathing hard through her nose, her face furrowed with worry. She pulls the sleeping baby from the car seat, holds him under his bottom and cradles him close before handing him to Tim and snatching her purse from beneath the seat.

"I don't know how he can sleep," she says. "He's soaked clean through. How'd we ever run out of diapers, anyway?"

Tim rocks the little guy in his arms awhile, amazed as always by the kid's weight. Almost nothing. Seems lighter than the JCPenney Christmas catalogues he delivers each October. When he climbs from the cab, he waits for Natalie to make her way around the bed of the truck.

"I just don't get it," she says, straightening her purse strap on her shoulder.

"We just ran out," Tim says, his voice too full of impatience. "It's bound to be my fault. That much I'm sure of."

Natalie shoots him one of her more matrimonial looks. "Not that," she says. "I mean, one time when I was barely in high school, I flew up to Tulsa to see Grandma Lawson and there was this woman sitting behind me on the plane with her baby. Well, at the time I'm not exactly looking forward to some squalling brat sitting behind me, but when we take off the kid's just as quiet as he could be, you know?"

Tim shuts the door gentle-like, gives it a final nudge with his hip. "Like this?" he says, nodding down at the baby.

"Yeah," she says, sliding her hand into the back pocket of his Wranglers as they head toward the store. "I mean, I know he's a good kid, sleeps like a champ, but that's not what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about is that, after a couple minutes, I'm sitting there on the plane reading my magazine and I feel this shot of something warm in my hair. I just barely feel it, you know, like when someone's standing right behind you in line at the Safeway and you can feel their breath in your hair? But then it happens again, and when I turn around this woman isn't even embarrassed. She's just sitting there smiling with this little tit poking out of her blouse. She's kinda shaking her head and looking at me while this baby is sucking at her like some kind of newborn Hoover, and I mean going
berzerk,
Tim.
Really
sucking. So hard he can't keep up with the stream. So hard that all of a sudden, when it's too much for him, when he's gotta catch his breath, he jerks his head back and the milk goes flying, and the woman, she's just laughing, looking over at her husband who's beaming down like he's Joseph and the three kings have just forked over the frankincense and myrrh, and there I am with some strange woman's milk in my hair. And do you know what she finally says to me?"

"I hope to God she
uddered
an apology," Tim says. He leans hard on the word, but Natalie doesn't bite, doesn't seem to notice at all.

"Not even close. She just kinda shrugs it off and says, 'He gets so greedy when he's hungry.' That's what I'm talking about, Tim. That's what I want."

 

Pulling into the parking lot, without looking down, the Ramirez twins stab their cigarettes out in the overflowing ashtray. Raul steers slowly up the side drive toward the front doors, scanning the parking lot.

Fucking midnight, he thinks, and look at this. Too busy. Too many cars. People.

"Just relax," Jesus says. "Just drive."

It's always been like this. Jesus was born first, ten minutes, and their mother says he came out breech, his arms thrown over his head like he was reaching up for Raul. Ever since, it's as if he's decided never to let go again. When it comes to his twin, Jesus refuses to miss out on anything, even a thought. He hears them all.

Strange as it is, Raul doesn't mention Jesus' hold on him, not to his younger brother, Eduardo. Not to the gringos he sweats with six days a week, hunched beneath the sun tying iron, lacing and weaving rebar up on that half-finished bridge so the mixers can pour the concrete. His day job. The one that pays rent, buys groceries. The rest—the stereo and the new blue paint for the LeMans, the two-tone roach-killer shoes like the old Pachucos used to wear—it's all from these rides with Jesus. Jesus who knows everything. Everything. What he's thinking, man.

About this, he tells only Monica. Because she licks her lips when she listens. Because she shines, brown like new pennies. Because she keeps her fingernails long and red and runs them together like a rake through his pubic hair when he's finished. For her, he'll tell, and one night he does. He gives her ear a little bite, leans in close to whisper it. "He hears what's between my ears, baby. Motherfucker always knows. Always."

"When you think about me?" she says. "Even then?"

He runs his tongue down the outer ridge of her ear. "And when would that be, baby?"

Now Jesus points, says, "Quit thinking 'bout your little split-tail, man. Business before putas, vato. Look here, what we got."

And there they are, easy pickings, coming up on Raul's side of the car. It's luck of the draw, he knows, but twice this month they've been on his side, no time to circle around, so he has to snatch
and
drive.

He takes his foot off the gas, lets the Pontiac ride the idle. "You crazy? They got a baby, man."

"
She
don't. All she gots is a purse."

 

Years later, Tim Tilden will teach his boy to drive. He'll rush home from a hot day spent cooped up in his mail Jeep and watch his son's fluid fadeaway move beneath the basketball hoop he'd mounted on the garage for the kid's twelfth birthday, when Timmy insisted he be called Tim, just Tim, like his father who now, fifteen years after Natalie's death, will stand there in the driveway jingling his truck keys in his hand, wondering how many times she would have confused them both by calling their shared name, how many times they both would have answered from the living room when she piped up from the kitchen, "Tim, could you give me a hand in here?"

After the boy shoots his final jump shot, rimming it in, he'll turn to his father, wink, and grab his shirt from beside the old metal garbage cans where he'd thrown it an hour before. Tim will look at his son, at the man he's become, at the hard muscles of his shoulders and the confidence of his long strides. He'll smile at the idea that, way back when, he'd questioned a newborn's masculinity.

Father and son, they'll carry the cans out to the street, pace off ten steps and set the cans next to the curb, thirty feet apart. In the truck, Tim Tilden will show the boy the basics of parallel parking. He'll explain that this is where the SOBs get you, that this is the part of the driving test where most people lose their cool, that it's all confidence and finesse, and that any man worth his weight can do it with his eyes closed. The boy will line the truck up, stretch his arm across the seat top as he looks back, angling between the cans, and when he begins to straighten up, he'll wink once more at his father. He'll be in, first try, no problem, but when he moves his foot for the brake, something will go wrong. He'll miss. He'll catch the corner of the accelerator with his foot, and the lightest tap on the gas will push the truck back into the can. When it crashes onto its side, the boy will sit there in disbelief, amazed by the noise the damn thing makes, puzzled at the sight of his father, who will have closed his eyes against the sharp sound of impact, and who will keep them closed while the trash can lid rolls across the street, throwing sunlight from its surface while it whirls, in a clanging, oblong spin, to a stop.

 

"Grab hold with both hands," Jesus says, "and punch it. I'll take the wheel." Raul nods, but his head, Jesus knows, isn't in the game. It's the same every time. He's worried about witnesses, imagining handcuffs and some HPD jail cell, eyeing a group of teenagers who are flirting and smoking just outside the Walmart doors. He's thinking, They've got us pegged. They're watching.

"Don't worry about them," Jesus says. "Just kids, vato."

Still, Raul isn't moving, so Jesus gives him a knuckle thump hard on the side of his head. "I said don't
worry
about it. I got us covered."

An hour before, Jesus had swapped the plates on Raul's LeMans with a pair he'd stolen a year ago from a late-model Nissan. He'd been on his way to the beach in Surfside when he noticed the car abandoned on the side of Highway 288, not far from the lockdown in Rosharon. It had been a solitary thrill, one full of senseless risk, a slap in the face of those HPD shit kickers who so often put him and his boys against cars or walls and kicked their feet apart and frisked them in their east-side streets. In a way, it felt like the first time he'd snatched the belt from his mother's hand when he was twelve, and told Raul to get outside, and looked the old woman square in the face and told her she wouldn't do that—not to Raul, she wouldn't—not anymore, because it could suck the life out of the boy and because there was something sick about it, swinging leather at your own flesh and blood, and because, from now on, if Raul got out of line, Jesus and no one but Jesus would handle it.

Yes, it seemed the same somehow, to pull up behind that car, to step down from his truck with his tool kit and feel the swirl in his stomach from his three-beer breakfast, to turn the screws and yank the plates while tanker trucks blew by on their way to the coast and while, less than half a mile away, prisoners worked the fields as armed guards on horseback spit tobacco into the broken soil.

They are safe, no plates to trace, but still, Raul doesn't look convinced. He wears worry up high on the ridge of his eyebrows, and Jesus thinks maybe he'll blow their chance, but at the last minute Raul turns the wheel to the left, veering toward the couple as they approach the store. Raul looks his brother hard in the eye, then turns and slings his arm casually out the window as they rumble nearer, and Jesus hears his brother mapping it out in his head.
Easy now. Come up on them slowly. Just like before. Reel her in. Grab the purse and go.

 

What the hell is
this,
Tim thinks. The car, it's coming up on them, shining and blue and so close that in a second or two the driver, a Mexican with his eyes locked on Natalie, will be able to reach out and touch her if he wants, maybe cop a feel before speeding away. Perverts, Tim thinks. Perverts at the goddamn Walmart.

But something's not right. Tim knows it by the way Natalie's fingers clench in the back pocket of his Wranglers, by the way the guy in the passenger seat leans into view with a tight smile on his face, by the sudden, cool slicks of sweat in his armpits. Then the outstretched arm, the driver reaching for her, and there's not a thing in the world Tim can do. He's holding the baby. He's holding the baby and he can't let go and the engine revs so loud that when Natalie's hand wrenches back in his pocket Tim thinks at first it's the noise itself, the goddamn sound of the thing, that's spinning him around.

And then—
Jesus Christ,
she's sliding. She's sliding alongside the car.

 

Before Raul sees the fear on her face, before he braces himself and puts his foot down hard on the gas, what he notes is the purse strap in his hands, the thin band of leather that links him to this woman who only now, when he kicks the accelerator and tightens his grasp, seems to recognize what's happening, her eyes frozen somewhere between surprise and panic. Raul feels the air, hot and solid and rushing in the windows, pushing him back in his seat. He keeps on the gas while Jesus leans in close, taking the wheel, and Raul knows that something's gone wrong. Too much weight on the other end, too much pull, and outside the window, where there should be nothing but asphalt and parked cars and a purse flapping wild in the night, she's there instead—the woman, one shoulder jammed tight against the door of his car, just inches from his hands, hung up in the strap of her purse, her eyes fixed hard on him. He hears it, the sound of her, the hiss of fabric and skin giving way to asphalt.

She's struggling to get free, but what Raul sees is a woman fighting him, the
pinche gringa,
and he tightens his hold as the car gains speed and the leather bites into the palms of his hands and he thinks for sure he's bleeding. He looks up and Jesus nods, smiling, yes, but only from the corners of his mouth, and then Raul sees the car parked crooked in its space ahead, the way it's jutting out into his path, its bumper crumpled and sharp and coming up fast. And the woman is still there, eyeballing him, begging him with a blank-eyed stare to stop. It's you, he thinks. It's you, puta. Let. Fucking. Go.

"No," Jesus says, because he hears everything. What's between his ears, vato, but this time he's misunderstood. "Hold on, Raul," he says, and Raul hangs on.

They all do.

 

They have taken his wife. They have taken her and he's standing here motionless watching them, holding on to his son. Not doing a goddamn thing. He's seen the scowls of their faces and the hint of a smile from the one who reached over to grab the wheel. He's felt her hand clench tight in his back pocket when they took her, heard the denim rip at the seam when it gave and she went sliding away. And now—oh Lord, now as her head is cracked wide by the bumper of that junkyard car, Tim can only imagine what might have been. Not the future and the years they might have had together—impossible now, he knows—but the way he had seen them and the things he should have done. He imagines himself stepping between Natalie and the car, lunging down hard on the driver's arm just as he reaches out for her purse. He imagines hearing the sound of it, not his wife's head hammering hard against steel, but the echo of the driver's arm snapping at the elbow under his weight.

Raul feels the shock of her impact in the socket of his shoulder, a single jolt of resistance that pulls him out the window up to his waist, and then they're free. He's held on. He's got the purse, and when he pulls himself back into the driver's seat and squeals the tires onto the feeder road, Raul's pulse is louder in his ears than the engine. His fingers are tingling and he can't feel the steering wheel and there's this emptiness opening wide inside, hollowing him out, a kind of hunger he knows he'll never keep fed. "They gonna bring us down, Jesus. Holy shit, man, this is it. They gonna find us. They ain't ever gonna stop looking."

BOOK: Men in the Making
6.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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