Authors: Urban Waite
The Carrion Birds
For my mother,
who showed me at a young age
how to pick morels from the ashes
I wish that road had bent another way.
How terrible for a person to know what he could have been. How he could have gone on. But instead having to live along being nothing, and know he is just going to die and that’s the end of it.
woke Ray around three thirty in the morning. He lay there, eyes open. The
neighboring trailer lights casting a soft orange glow through the overhead
curtains and the smell of the night desert outside, ancient and scraped away,
through the sliding glass window.
Running a hand down his face, he could hear the
phone still. Wasn’t this what he’d asked for? Wasn’t this to be expected? He bit
at his lip, tasting the salt of dried sweat on his skin and feeling the pain as
he rubbed at his cheeks and tried to bring some life back into his face.
On the bedside table the phone was still ringing
and he put his hand out, searching. A series of empty beer cans tumbled to the
floor and he heard the soft patter of a can somewhere below that had been
Too damn early.
He pushed himself up in bed, bringing the phone to
his lap, the receiver to his ear. He rested his back on the wall and waited.
“You ready to have some fun?” Memo said.
Memo’s voice cracked and Ray imagined the smirk
already formed on the man’s face. “I thought all you old guys woke before the
sun came up.”
“I’m not one of those ‘old guys,’ ” Ray said.
“Relax,” Memo said. “It’s a compliment.”
“Yeah? Define compliment.”
“It’s going to be just like the old days,” Memo
“I hope it isn’t.”
The line went quiet for a moment, then Memo said,
“I called to let you know the kid is on his way. Let’s let bygones be
Ray sounded out the syllables. “
“Listen,” Memo said. “He’s my nephew and he looks
up to you. He’s the future around here so try not to get him killed.” Memo’s
nephew was Jim Sanchez. He was a kid to Ray, just out on parole after five years
away. Ray with no real idea what to expect.
“I never said I’d babysit.”
“You also said you’d never work for us again.”
“Yes, they do,” Memo said, then he hung up.
Ray slid over and put the phone back on the bedside
table. Life hadn’t worked out the way he’d planned it would. The only reason
he’d agreed to work for Memo again was because the job was outside Coronado. It
was his hometown, a place where he’d married, had a son, and raised a family.
All that more than ten years ago, when he was in his late thirties. His life had
changed so much since then, since he’d taken the job with Memo. The round bump
just beginning to show on Marianne’s belly. No work anywhere in the valley and
Ray with a real need to put some money away.
Ten years and Ray hadn’t set foot in the place,
hadn’t even called home in all that time. A twelve-year-old son down there who
Ray feared wouldn’t even recognize him anymore. All this Ray had thought about
when Memo called, offering him the job, offering Ray a reason to go home, even
if Ray’s own reasons these last ten years had never been good enough. He owed
Memo that at least. Ray had wanted this for so long and never knew how to do it,
something so simple, a visit to see his son, a new life away from the violence
of the last ten years. Memo at the source of it all.
Memo had been a young man when Ray first met him.
Thin and muscular with the square Mexican features that later, after his
father’s death, began to round and cause Memo to appear as solid as a kitchen
appliance, his head now bald along the top and shaved clean as metal around the
sides and back.
Ray had liked the father more than he liked the
son, but it was Memo who had recognized the skill in Ray, and as Memo was
promoted up, so too was he. Ray was good at what he did, hurting people who
stood in the way of what Memo wanted. Enforcing the power of Memo’s family and
making sure the drugs they imported always reached their destination. But Ray
was careful, too, and he’d survived a long time by picking and choosing the jobs
that came his way.
Dark skinned, Ray had a shock of gray hair near
each of his temples and the round Mexican head that had been passed down from
his mother’s side, and that he’d grown used to seeing on his mother’s cousins
and brothers as he’d grown up. With his hair cut short the definition of his jaw
was more apparent, his features more pronounced where the coarse hair at his
chin came through in a patchy beard.
He raised his eyes to take in what he could of the
room, small and clogged with cast-off clothing. The back of his throat raw with
pain and tasting pure and simple as cleaning alcohol. The chalk-dry mouth that
went along with his drinking. Seven little dwarves climbing around in the back
of his head, ready to go to work, and just like that they did, rock chipping.
Miniature picks raised overhead, pounding away at the back of his skull in
unison, one after the other.
From the nightstand he took a bottle of Tylenol.
Cupped three of the pills in his hand and swallowed them dry, chasing them with
an antacid, followed a second later by one of the ten-milligram pills the doctor
at the VA had told him to take twice a day. The seven dwarves still chipping
away at the back of his skull, singing a child’s song he could only now draw up
out of memory, but that he’d once sung for his son. “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s
off to work we go.”
Ray ran the water in the sink. The single bathroom
light of a wall sconce shone yellow over his features. The mirror grown heavy
with steam, obscuring the round face that looked back at him.
He held a hand under the water, feeling the heat,
and then he brought the water to his face, letting it drip off his chin into the
sink basin. The throbbing in the back of his head receding, flowing back into
him little by little, medicine working, as if the men in there had gone
exploring down his brain stem.
He’d decided as soon as Memo had told him about the
job that it would be the last he would do. He was going home to Coronado. He was
going home to see his son. The money he’d saved would get him through the first
few years. He’d need to look for employment after that, perhaps even roughneck
in the oil fields again, but until then it would be enough. This last job would
help him with anything extra he needed.
In the years he’d been away he’d kept himself thin,
working away on the fat that appeared from time to time at the waist of his
pants or in the thighs of his jeans. Rigorously testing his muscles till the
sweat beaded and dampened his clothing. Still he’d gained weight over the years
since he’d left Coronado. What remained of the lean muscle appeared in the lines
of his brow and the slip of his mouth as he worked his jaw in front of the
mirror, lathering his face with shaving cream.
He was careful with the razor. Each pull of the
blade revealing the thin muddy brown of his skin, a mix of his father’s pink
tones and the darker skin of his mother. The deep cast of his face swept away
with the freshly shaven hair and his father’s thin, hawklike nose more
Memo had said it was a shame what happened. Ray
didn’t know what to say about it. Nothing he could say would make the past go
away, bring Marianne back or cure his son, Billy. There wasn’t one thing Memo
could do, Ray knew this, knew how it worked, how the past didn’t change but the
Far out in the trailer park Ray heard a dog begin
to bark and then he heard the sound of gravel under tires. He checked his watch.
He went to the kitchen window in time to see the man he assumed was Memo’s
nephew, Sanchez, pull past in a Ford Bronco, brake lights coming on, dyeing the
kitchen blinds red as desert grit.
From the cabinet over the fridge he searched for
the cracker box with his gun hidden inside. The cabinet high enough that he
couldn’t see more than a few inches within and was forced to feel around in the
darkness above, bringing out box after box and then shoving them aside. Little
mementos of his former life hidden all over the trailer, tucked in beneath the
bench seat in the living room, shoved beneath the bathroom sink, out of sight
behind half-empty bottles of shampoo. All of them just small things—just what
he’d thought he could take with him, what he thought he might want sometime down
the road, but that he wanted nothing of now.
He stood looking at a box of Billy’s playthings,
knowing each and every item inside: a small plush toy, a plastic action figure,
a rubber bathtub duck. Everything inside, and even the smooth worn feel of the
box in his hand, a reminder of every reason he wanted out of this business and
hoped he’d never have to do it again.
This job was just a talk, Memo had said. Though Ray
knew it would be more. It would always be more. And he knew, too, that he was
out of time, and outside Memo’s nephew was waiting for him, waiting for him to
come out of the trailer and do this job.
Ray slid the toys back up into the cabinet. Finding
the box of Ritz, Ray removed the clear plastic bag with the stale orange
crackers inside and brought up the Ruger. The gun a dull metallic black,
unreflective under the kitchen lights, pieced back together and cleaned after
every use. He wrapped the pistol in his jacket before he heard the knock at the
Sanchez stood there at the base of the trailer
stairs, his breath clouded around him in the air. Ray pushed the door aside and
walked out into the cold. He felt the air first, a dry forty degrees. Behind
Sanchez in the trailer park half-light, the Bronco sat with the driver’s door
left open and the thin drift of a Spanish music channel carried on the air. The
only other constants the bark of the dog far off toward the park entrance and
the shadowed bodies of the trailers like cast-off building blocks, scattered all
down the slim gravel road. Not a one of them the same, scraped and dented from
tenants who had come and gone and left their mark. Ray’s own trailer, an old
Dalton, rented out from the park for fifty dollars a week, rested there behind
him on wheels and cement blocks.
Ray watched how the kid moved, looking up at Ray’s
trailer like it was the first time he’d seen one and could hardly believe it.
Like Memo, he was Mexican, a few inches taller than Ray, young and thickly
muscled with his head shaved to the skin and a chin strap of black hair from one
ear to the other. Wearing a hooded sweatshirt and white tennis shoes.
“You the new blood?” Ray asked.
The boy stared up at him, a smile sneaking across
his face. “You the old?”
hours later Ray leaned back in the Bronco’s seat. The darkness of the locust
thicket wrapped all around, shadowing the shape of their vehicle from the dirt
road in front of them. The drive down from Las Cruces on the interstate had been
quiet. Twenty miles out Sanchez pulled over and let Ray drive. They headed south
toward the Mexican border, down a road Ray hadn’t been on for ten years.
Hardtop, cracked and filled with tar. Frozen in the high desert night and then
warmed through again in the day. Hundred-foot cement sections bouncing steady as
a heart beneath the springs. Scent of night flowers and dust in the cool desert
Sitting there, Ray knew his life had been sliding
away from under him for a long time and today seemed like it would be no
exception. They’d driven almost two hours. At the end of it, after they’d pulled
up off the valley highway and found the dirt road running high on the bluff,
they sat watching as the sky slowly lightened in the east. No part of him
wanting to be here and only the solitary hope he held on to that the job would
be done soon enough, and with it the life he had followed for so long, for which
there seemed to be no cure.
There was a plan and he tried to think on this now.
He’d grown up working for his father in the Coronado oil fields, his shoulders
and arms carved from a daily routine that he continued still, doing push-ups on
the floor till his heart ached and his lungs pumped a fluid heat through his
“My uncle told me you retired,” Sanchez said. The
slow tick of the engine in the morning air.
“I stopped working for Memo,” Ray said. He watched
Sanchez where he sat. The close cut of his hair outlining his thick eyebrows and
muscled Mexican face. “I didn’t retire, I just don’t work for your uncle
“You’re working for him now, though, aren’t
“I have my own reasons,” Ray said.
The Bronco had been stolen off a lot the night
before and fitted with a flasher box, wired directly into the headlights. A
spotlight bolted on just above the driver’s-side mirror, with a thin metal
handle that reached through a rubber glove into the interior of the cab. Sanchez
coming to get Ray in the night, before the sun ever crested the horizon. The
younger man wearing only a baggy set of jeans and a black sweatshirt against the
cold, the smell of tobacco and axle grease hanging thick around him.
Ray in the waxed canvas jacket he always wore. The
jacket padded to keep him warm. He wore a flannel shirt beneath, buttoned almost
to the collar, and an old worn pair of jeans, stained from other jobs and other
troubles, but worn regardless. The smell of sage and desert grit now floating up
through the vents as they sat talking, their eyes held forward on the murk of
the coming day. “I plan to move out of Las Cruces on this money,” Ray said.
“Where?” Sanchez laughed. “Florida? You’re not that
old and you should know you don’t retire from this line of work.” He brought out
a small bag of tobacco and some papers.
“This line of work?” Ray said.
“You know what I’m talking about.”
Ray told him he did. He knew a lot about what
Sanchez was talking about. Perhaps he knew too much. All he really wanted was a
way out, and he’d had it ten years before. Only he hadn’t taken it the way he
knew he should have. “You’ve been lucky,” Sanchez said, packing a cigarette.
“I have,” Ray said, agreeing. “I’ve tried not to
“The way I hear it from my uncle it was an
accident. But still, mistakes were made.”