JOHN PAUL JARAMILLO
The little dirt-faced Beatrisa and I would slip out after midnight down to the blacktop of 21st lane past cottonwood and locust trees. This was back in the day when the Abuelo was still alive and had us working onion fields near Española, New Mexico.
On bare feet stained from running along ridges and furrows, we crouched and dug with sticks, collected rocks and targeted road signs. We avoided barbed wire fences and leaped around blossoms of cactus stems with our feet and heels. One night I tripped up and fell the farthest down, every grasp for balance spiked with pain while Bea pulled me level.
Outside our shared bedroom window, I boosted Bea up and then whispered, scratched at the window and growled and cried like a dog until she strained to pull me inside. In bed, we arranged ourselves and carefully removed barbed spines from arms and legs. We kissed one another’s skin with sympathy and stayed awake as long as we could, listening to mutual breathing and staring into the colorless walls.
When the sun finally filled the space, the Abuelo Santiago, our Grandfather, washed our dirtied feet and faces and warned us about what would happen if dogs were to ever catch us.
“Not scared of no dogs,” we answered back.
The Abuelo had hauled pad locks and metal for the back door and laid the locks out on the kitchen table. The job of securing the house was what he meant to do, but we ran him ragged most days. He didn’t have the eyes to match locks and keys.
Before the summer ended, my shady Tio Neto showed up and sprayed gravel when he slammed on the brakes. He often drove by and brought fresh corn and vegetables from the fields, brought cigarettes and a bottle. He slid out from the ride and handed the supplies over and gave word about some government check the family was waiting on.
He walked right in and sat and yelled for brewed coffee. He squinted and sniffed the air and then he complained about the general condition of the compadre’s workhouse and yard.
“Why the hell don’t you set these kids to work?” he asked. He pointed to the piles of laundry and dirtied bedding that lined the hallway. “Don’t you ever clean around here?”
As the two men talked and smoked, and then later after the Abuelo and Neto drove off for who-knows-where, we hung out in the side yard and kicked at dirt clods and rocks. We held hands, drank cool water from the hose and stroked one another’s hair. We chased frogs around what used to be the flower garden and then crawled under the porch and discovered snakes.
Weeks later while warm in that ancient metal-framed bed, I listened to the Abuelo stoking the woodstove for breakfast. The old man toasted tortillas on the stovetop and brewed strong smelling coffee and could be heard lecturing Neto who had returned after days of drunken partying. I shot up and stood beside the kitchen door, peering around the corner to see the men drinking coffee and smoking.
“What’s up, little man,” Neto said to me. He jabbed his cigarette into the ashtray and slapped my hands and sparred with me. He gave a fake left to the jaw, and I gave him a fake uppercut. I could see scratches on his face, his eye bruised and blackened. I smelled cigarettes on his clothes before I heard him speak.
“You’re strong, huh? One day you’ll kick some ass, boy. Fists of cement, uh,” Neto said.
“I’m trying to teach respect and work,” the Abuelo told him. “And you teach him to be a goddamn disgraciado. Don’t want him to be no punk, no juevon. He even runs off at night like his damned Uncle.”
“Little man can do what he wants, viejo.”
“He’s not your boy,” the Abuelo said. He rose slowly, wearing only boxer shorts and scratching at his immense hairy back.
“Get down, protect your head, dodge and slip around my punches. Protect yourself, manito,” Neto continued, jabbing at my face.
“Jesus, Neto,” the old man snapped, crossing his arms. “Can’t you go a day without trouble? Go clean yourself up. We got field jobs today. Both of you.”
As I dressed Neto came into the shared bedroom and wrapped medicine strings around my wrists. He slipped a bag of sage around my neck while Bea sat and sniffed the leather and root. “For evil spirits,” he told me.
Soon, we were in the Abuelo Ortiz’ Dodge in an onion field parked side-by-side with rows of ranch trucks and battered old cars. The smell of grasslands and morning dew drifted on the wind. The Abuelo sat on the truck tailgate talking with a mix of other workers guzzling from metal thermos tops. He watched Neto and me, along with Bea, slip on gloves and choose our shears and sacks. Just then a row of headlights, the sheriff’s and two others, jolted down the old highway toward the collection of men readying to start work.
“Looks like it’s all caught up with you, no?” the Abuelo yelled. He laughed and slapped Neto on the back as hard as he could.
Neto’s reaction was to sprint. I kept up with him for a while, but then eventually, slowed and watched as two deputies held my Tio’s arms and another pushed at his head, cuffed him and crumpled his body into the ground.
For the rest of the afternoon the Abuelo kept looking over and warning us. “There’s right and there’s wrong, mi’jos,” he told us. “You understand me what I’m trying to tell you?”
We came inside from another night of wandering around the fields and found the Abuelo sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee and suffering from chest pains. We stood with muddied feet and pant legs asking for breakfast, and then the man yelled for Bea to do the work of peeling potatoes and frying eggs.
He took the opportunity to tell Bea her mother planned on returning for her soon. He told me to get ready to leave for his home in Colorado. “When will my mama come?” I asked only to be ignored.
“The fieldwork is over and done,” the man explained. “No more summer in New Mexico for you. Hear me? So no more running off. That means you, boy.”
I shook my head and felt the tears burning.
“Children don’t run around them fields. You don’t want your cousin killed do you?” he said to Bea. “You’ll fall in a damn irrigation ditch and never be heard of again.”
“Do we have to go?” we complained.
“Can’t stay on around here.” The man sat in the kitchen and set down the rules of behavior for us, how his wife, the Abuela Cordelia, would expect absolute obedience in Colorado. Then he walked into a backroom of the ancient workhouse and found the sofa, and we could hear him snoring and coughing in pain well into the afternoon.
The mustached Tia Viola who was also making the move came by later. She had a bag filled with some new clothes from the K-Mart, a dress for Bea and a stiff dress shirt and slacks for me. We were making painful faces as we were forced into our baths and then our clothes, our nicest and most slippery pair of dress shoes for church.
Next, we loaded our boxes and suitcases leaving the dirty laundry behind. We first stopped at St Francis of Assisi for mass, and Bea and me whispered and giggled through the act of consecration to the immaculate heart of Mary prayer. The Abuela was the one to grab our arms and twist and pinch at our skin. Out in the lot, in between parked cars, she was the one to slap at our bottoms and legs.
“You’ll learn to be respectful in the house of your Lord,” the Abuela announced.
Later, we moved into our home on Spruce Street in Huerfano County, Colorado. That night during the chores of scraping dishes and sweeping the kitchen floor, we noticed welded bars to all the windows and the security door, double locks to both sides with no way in or out.
The day before Bea’s mother, Cynthia Otero, made her way down Spruce Street to introduce the girl to her father, the woman had smoked meth for the first time. Her boyfriend of a few weeks nearly choked her out over some kind of check she couldn’t cash.
“It makes me sick as a goddamned dog I have to come here,” Cynthia began. She kept her daughter in the running car as the morning rain pattered around them. “You know she’s yours, Ray.”
Ray “Cornbread” Vigil had come to his door shirtless, with his myriad of tattoos exposed. He wore a razor thin mustache and his belly popped out over his belt buckle. “Jesus Christ, Cynthia,” he said.
“I was thinking maybe you have something for us.” For a long aching minute there was nothing.
Cornbread stared and snuffed.
“Well,” Cynthia continued, “don’t worry. I ain’t leaving her with you. If that’s what you think. But I hope you’ll do right by her, Ray. She’s with my Tio and you should watch out for her is all I am saying to you.”
She paced back to her Plymouth confused. She lit a cigarette and nearly cried over the steering wheel.
“Who is that man, Mama? What house is this?”
“Be quiet, girl. He’s nobody to you.”
Cynthia showed up at Ray Vigil’s many mornings after that first visit, for money or a place to sleep. According to Tio Neto and the neighborhood, only two people knew the truth of those morning arguments between Cynthia and Cornbread Vigil.
The papers reported the woman was finally shot right through the front door of that old basement apartment. The police say that Vigil held a .380 caliber handgun below the peephole and emptied the weapon. A bullet slammed into her spine. The papers said Cynthia passed on after a week in a coma.
Tio Neto had a clip from The Huerfano Chieftain:
Vigil has been charged with second-degree murder in the March 26, 1983, shooting
death of 28-year-old Cynthia Otero. He is accused of shooting Otero as she entered his
East Side apartment. A Denver District Court trial in the shooting ended in mistrial last
Nov. 1 after Otero family members were spotted outside the courtroom showing an 8-
by-10 photo of Ms. Otero to jurors. Jurors reported they had been discussing the photo
in private. Huerfano public defenders Doug Wilson and Victor Reyes asked for a mistrial
because of the victim’s family’s misconduct.
Vigil stood with his front door open while the mother of his child was on the floor in front of him, and he stared down at her bloody face and clothing. Neto swore the man was not the cold-blooded killer they made him out to be. He assured people Vigil screamed and wailed for forgiveness.
According to The Huerfano Chieftain:
Vigil told the 911 operator, "She's lying in the hallway." When asked to look closer, he
added, "I recognize her now. It's Cynthia." Another key piece of evidence was a security
chain lying on the floor of Vigil's front door. The defense suggested it was forced off,
causing Vigil to suspect a would-be burglar. “This was an instantaneous, split-second
reaction to an apparent breaking and entering,” Wilson told the jury.
Tio Neto explained later that if Cynthia had come a day earlier Vigil would have been drunk and asleep. A week earlier, and Vigil would not have had several unregistered weapons in his possession.
“I don’t know how it all could ever be understood to such a young mind,” Tia Viola told people not long after the death of Bea’s mother. She said the girl’s hands were made for sorrow and trouble, broom and mop handles. “Oh, that poor girl. Pobrecita. Like a slave. Like a damned stray dog.”
That was how it played out. The young girl’s painted fingernails left cracked and bitten from the chores of peeling potatoes and soaking beans to cook. Skin dried and burnt up, prone to hives from cleaning with bleach and cleanser. If I was the grandmother’s eyes and ears, Bea was her hands and legs.
“Your mother calls you or sends money from wherever the hell she happens to be shacked up, but out of all the family Bea is the one with nothing, manito,” Viola explained to me. “Her mother is dead and gone and the father in and out of jail for years. Not a penny.”
She said I was lucky to be born a man, lucky to do whatever I wanted, when I wanted.
“That girl has to ask for permission and money to do anything. The grandmother has them kids in control. Especially that one. She has to ask to go out to the backyard. The poor creature,” the Tia said. “She has to earn her way. But this one isn’t a daughter. She’s a slave. Mark how I tell you. She’ll go the way of her mother for sure. Pregnant or dead. Dead or pregnant.”
Later during her high school years, Beatrisa, the fifteen-year-old whore of Spruce Street, ran out back with her mass of fake crimson hair. She screamed and carried on: “Neto grabbed at me!”
Abuela Cordelia was sweeping up October leaves when it all played out. “The whole damn neighborhood can hear you and your mouth. What is it, cabróna?”
The girl rubbed at fresh bruises. “I was looking in the closet for one of the Abuelo’s sweaters and the boys said Neto was dead drunk and wouldn’t hear.”
Bea, the skinny grasshopper of a girl, rolled her eyes. Her legs shimmered with lotion, and she looked at me and nearly smiled. “I put a mirror to check his breathing.”
“For Christ’s sake!”
“He pulled at my hair and kicked me in my ass and legs. Locked me up in the closet and wouldn’t let me out.” She acted out the man’s blows, trying to capture every detail and drama of the crime.
“Hey, who taught you to say ass? I’m not one of your friends. Who taught you that kind of talk?” the Abuela Cordelia snapped through her shaky, false teeth. “Didn’t I tell you not to mess with those clothes? To mind your own goddamn business.”
“He’s dead and don’t wear ’em no more.”
“You don’t have to tell me my husband is dead, cabróna,” the old woman argued. “I’m the one who buried the man.”
“He didn’t have to wail on her,” I said.
“And who the hell’s talking to you?” the grandmother snapped, shutting me up. “Both of you. Get in the house and get the breakfast going.”
Bea bawled and punched at her thighs. “Neto is the one!”
A few weeks later Bea’s lip came up busted and scarred, her t-shirt ripped off of her. She found someone with quarters and called from the Mesa Theatre pay phone. I convinced Neto to drive out and the first thing he did was give her his sweatshirt. She begged us not to tell the Abuela.
The next day she wore heavy makeup over a pretty obvious bruise, the makings of a deep scar on her temple, and we bypassed school. We walked over to China Lantern Diner near Santa Fe Avenue to blow dollar bills on egg rolls.
She was particularly striking even with her wound, radiant and fragile, and on the way she gave a 4th Street vagamundo a five-dollar bill.
“If he doesn’t use it for anything worse than cigarettes or booze that will be good with me,” she said. “People ought to look out for one another, cousin. That’s what religion’s for, no?”
All she had to do was speak. I was too young not to love her.
In a booth, under a mural of the Great Wall of China, I asked her why she had dragged me there. I told her the place was greasy and the waitresses were careless.
“It’s one of the great works, Relles,” she explained, and in my memory she was the only one back then who called me by name.
I didn’t say a thing, kept munching on fried rice and draining refills of RC Cola.
“Like those cathedrals in France, manito.” She had just read The Hunchback of Notre Dame in school and listed all the places she dreamed of travelling.
I asked why she fucked such cabrónes.
“Who says I fuck guys?”
“Neto says. Brandon Flores and his brother. Derrick Espinoza.”
After a few sad bites she answered, “None of Neto’s fucking business. The creeper Neto. And what about you? The hediondas you drag home? Come on. Dolores Mendoza?”
“What about her? She gets me into the dog track for free.”
“Pancake assed,” she said, laughing. “And so now you’re a dog player like your pinche good-for-nothing uncle.”
We walked around most of the afternoon, and that night stood in the living room listening to Neto's Richard Pryor albums. We repeated the punch lines out on the back stoop, and under a disaster of telephone and electricity wires, we stood and dreamed, made sad promises to one another.
One day, at the bus stop after school, Bea stood and smoked weed, another of her sins. She smoked in alleys and in cars, down in Bessemer Park and empty parking lots, sitting on picnic tables and sitting on concrete pylons under interstate overpasses. Those were the usual haunts. Sometimes her friends laughed because she wrapped a flannel shirt around her hair.
“Why do you wrap your head, Bea?” they all asked, laughing.
“Porque the Abuela slaps me if I have the smell on me. The Tio too. Caught me one time because of it. I told him like this, I say, 'You ain’t my Father.' He pulls me out of a car because he spotted me with a loose smoke behind my ear.”
The girls she ran around with didn’t know the home on Spruce where she came from. But I knew. We were the same.
“Cabróna, you better not be smoking,” Bea mimicked the grandmother for the benefit of her crew. “Your Abuelo Santiago died of the cancer. In his lungs. His tongue and throat completely dead and rotted out.” Bea said, “I tell you I hate her and that stupid son of hers. I hate looking at them.”
When it was just me walking alongside of her, off of Abriendo Avenue, she put her arm around me. I smelled weed and vanilla perfume.
“These trees are oak,” she announced while walking from the bus stop. She held a monstrous pack filled with textbooks and library books. I didn’t even carry a notebook to school anymore.
I stared at her brown eyes and her freckled neckline. “What do I need to know about trees, Bea?”
“Because I’m telling you,” she said with those full and scarred lips, the same as her murderous father. “Because they’re damn beautiful. And because you should study so we can get to college.”
Dogs were barking up and down the street and for Bea it was as simple as that.
“For fucking trees?” I said.
“Biology. Or maybe philosophy or engineering. Mrs. Medina says I got the grades. Says, 'The more math you take, the more money you make.'”
“I could go into the army. Like the Abuelo,” I said. Then I asked her if she missed the old guy.
“I halfway expect him to be around sometimes to lecture me when I come up to the yard, you know?” In the time it took to drag on her cigarette she put her hand into mine. “I like to go into his closet to smell his clothes. Smells of wood smoke and pipe tobacco.”
“Is that when Neto caught you?”
“Now that’s the worst of it. Having him around all of the time. Neto the idiot. Neto the loser. Like I say. Well, loser-ish, anyway. I’ll tell him to his face if it comes to it.”
“You don’t think women would want a man like Neto?”
She laughed. “Ask any of his wives. Ask them! Any woman with half a brain threw him out on his broke ass.”
So I was cruel to her and called her a whore. That was the way we all treated each other on the block. As I write this I regret owning only one wallet-sized photo of Bea, and in it she is much younger than I remember her. She’s on Spruce Street in the backyard with her mother. This was before the hair dye and the lip piercings, before her Goth days when she went and shaved the sides of her head. Before the reputation and the god-awful cheap tattoos that carved her ears and neck and that the grandmother said made her even more of a whore and disgrace. Before all the self-loathing we were all known for. At this time her mother is still the love of her life. She smiles wide and stands back against the metal clothesline pole where as little mocos we ran blindly through mazes of drying bed sheets and flapping Levi’s.