Read an Excerpt
A Novel in Stories
By Susan Straight
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Susan Straight
All rights reserved.
NACHO / APRIL
Nacho usually found the first five or six cans in the English classrooms at the far end of the hall. He lined them up on the wooden shelf at the front of his cart, where the spray bottles hung from their notches and swayed gently like lanterns. He piled the cans into a pyramid, and all night while he wheeled through the halls, he was careful not to knock them over. He thought of them as hood ornaments: red Coke cans, green 7-Ups, purple and orange Crushes. They gleamed like metal-flake paint in the dim hallway lights, their vivid colors transforming the cart into a lowrider skimming slow over the floor, only inches between the base of the trash can that sat on the wood and the asphalt-gray linoleum.
He had oiled the wheels so that the ride was as smooth as possible. By now, in late spring, the sun set during the early break, at seven, so the first hours of his shift weren't bad. The fading light hung gold, reflecting through the window shades as he closed them. Nacho glided through the classrooms on the west side of the basement to get all the sun he could, sliding the dust mop in long arcs to the beat of the music on his headphones. He dropped the next few cans he found into the trash bag hanging with the spray bottles, and when the light grew more intense, the way it did when the sun was on its way down, he headed toward the auditorium.
The building sat on a hill at the edge of the college, and because wall-high windows surrounded the auditorium, Nacho could see all the athletic fields and dorms if he stood near the brick walls encircling the huge room. He parked his cart against the door; he could time it now, without any clock, so he could lean against the bricks when the spring sun had finished warming them, if there had been a sun that day. It was the only moment during the night when he allowed himself to think of home; he squatted with his back to the bricks and felt Rio Seco, the stucco on his father's house like a baking oven against his palms when he leaned there with Snooter and Ray-Ray.
It had been a long winter. When he called his father and Snooter, his father said, "Boy, your nuts gon shrivel up from that cold," and Snooter said, "What you paintin this week, more snow? Individual snowflakes, cuz?" He almost laughed at himself and wanted to leave. Snooter was the one who had come East first, after he joined the Air Force. He was stationed at Westover, and when Nacho took the bus out to Massachusetts to visit, they went out to Amherst to check this girl. Snooter got kicked out of the service for smoking big weed, but Nacho had gone back to Amherst and stayed.
The cassette he was listening to ended abruptly, and he looked at the hall clock. He'd forgotten for a moment that he planned this, timed the songs so that just about now, the right one would come on. He turned the Funkadelic cassette over and listened before he raised the volume; the vibrations of heavy shoes clomping down the stairs to the basement began, and Nacho thought that since Wysocki had been hired two months ago, break time was almost like a routine. It was for the new boy's educational benefit that the shit had started, really started, he thought. He unplugged the headphones to let the music out.
"I am Sir Nose D'Void of Funk
I can't swim
I never could swim ..."
The drums echoed loudly, and Zadnek stopped about five feet away. "He's got the usual jungle music on. Hooga booga booga," he said, but his arms stayed straight, hands jamming the pockets of his pants so that they hung away from his butt. Nacho stared at him. Zadnek was tired.
Donohue, the middle-aged redhead, pulled his thin lips inside out with his fingers, locking them into place so they looked like thin strips of steak. He shuffled around, bending his knees.
"See how he's squatted, Wysocki?" Zadnek said. "There ain't no chairs in the jungle." He paused. "Ask him."
"How's life in the jungle, bunny?" Wysocki said. He was fat, about a year younger than Nacho. Slow, but warming up with these excellent tutors, Nacho thought. He smiled at Wysocki, keeping Zadnek a shadow in his peripheral vision. "Wysocki, man, I ain't in the jungle. This is the ocean, man, and you're in it, too. Can't you hear the music?"
Wysocki looked at him as though a floor tile had spoken. Nacho had never answered him before. The chorus played.
"Never learned to swim
Can't catch the rhythm of the stroke
Why should I hold my breath
Feeling that I might choke?"
A moment hung in the air, and then the music swirled and pounded. "See, he can't even talk like a human," Zadnek said. "They speak a different language. Nigger babble." He walked toward the radio, and Nacho jerked the cart. The cans in the bag rattled, the stack fell, clanking onto the tile. "Playing building blocks instead of working, huh?" Zadnek said.
"Nickel a can," Cotter said.
"Yeah, for fuckin bums that dig in the trash," Donohue smiled.
Nacho opened his mouth, but all four had turned away toward the break room. Zadnek's pants shifted flat over the empty space where his ass should have been, and the khaki slanted back and forth with his steps. Nacho ran his thumbnails hard over the pads of his fingers, wishing again that he could talk instant shit like Snooter. He turned the radio up louder. His cousin would have said something in a flash. Nacho thought hard, listening to Snooter's voice. Something like, "Let the bass line hit ya where the good Lord split ya, motherfucker." Zadnek was supposed to have cancer of the butt. "It'd be therapy, baby," Nacho called toward the closed door.
He walked toward the auditorium entrance, then heard the deep hum of talk grow louder; the break-room door had opened, and Zadnek came out. He didn't look far enough down the hall to see Nacho but walked the few steps to the basement soda machine and bent his neck, looking for something on the floor. Loose change, Nacho thought, always lookin for some money. Damn, he must can't see shit. Zadnek bent quickly and pushed his fingers under the edge of the machine, then stood up and went back to the room. The faint yellow light coming from under the door was nearly the same as the last daylight that had hung near the windows, Nacho thought, hearing the slap of hands on a table, and he went back into the auditorium.
"Here's my ducats," he said aloud. There were only a few cans scattered around the room, but next week, when finals began, there would be a lot more, he thought. Students would get nervous about their tests and drink soda. He'd thought it was comedy that he'd ended up in a place where cans, unsquashed, brought five cents each. At home, his father kept huge barrels behind the house, and the boys had to stomp all the cans inside and take them to the junkyard once a month. It was only twenty or thirty cents a pound, barely worth the gas. But here, with all the cans he collected at work and from the lawns of the frat houses he passed on his way home at 2 A.M., he made enough each week to pay for the phone call home. He hated those five minute calls, when you just finished talking preliminary shit about each other and had to hang up. The more cans he found, the longer he could talk.
Shoot, he thought, I'ma save the money for last tonight. Go ahead and do the bathrooms so I can finish early and get in the refrigerator before them Cylons take over again at lunch. Cylon Warriors. He smiled, pulling the cart toward himself. He saw Snooter's surprised face, long ago, when Nacho told him that Cylons weren't the ones all dressed in white with no faces, only helmets; that was the Storm Troopers, in Star Wars. Cylons were all in silver, on "Battlestar Galactica." "Damn," Snooter had said. "But Cylon sound better, don't it, cuz? I know what it is." Snooter was always looking, listening for the sound of the word, the way it turned in his mouth and then in the air when he let it go. And he was right; years later, people in the neighborhood would say, "Man, them Cylons dogged my check this week," or, "Yeah, homey, that Cylon chick was fine for her kind."
Nacho was near the windowless rooms and offices on the other side of the basement, and he propped open the door of the men's rest-room. Why I'm thinking so much about Snooter tonight? I know he ain't thinking about me, he's talking some girl into some loving.
Nothing pleased Snooter more than inventing language. He always talked in secret tongues when he and Nacho were cutting some rich man's yard and the man was within earshot, opening the patio door to see what they were doing, getting into his car. "He got a wine hooptie, man, and I ain't got but Moe and Joe, but I ain't never gon have to wear no helmet, I tell you that right now." Mr. Everest had a new BMW, and Nacho and Snooter had feet, but he was wearing a toupee, and Snooter always managed to mention it in his presence.
The bathroom didn't look bad. I never was able to whup anybody with my mouth, Nacho thought, going into the stalls to push out the tangles of toilet paper with his foot. No new writing.
The first night he'd worked in the building, a wet evening that made the air inside the bathroom feel trapped and moist, he'd been in a daze, worried that he wasn't cleaning anything right, and in the second stall, he'd leaned over the toilet to get into the corners. He saw the words, magic-markered in heavy, dark blue on the wall just above the seat.
If Black is Beautiful
I just created a Work of Art
Nacho looked away, at the pictures of genitals, the cusswords, and then he looked back at the words alone over the toilet. Anybody could write Fuck Niggers, but somebody had thought about this one for a while. He found a wire brush and cleanser in the cart and started to strip the ink off the tile, then off the painted metal stalls. He scoured the spider-penned sayings off the sides until the thin layer of paint faded away, thinking about what he and the other guys had always written on surfaces. Their names, where they were from, not as fancy as the Chicanos, but enough. White boys always wrote about fucking some girl or fucking with somebody else. When he stood back and looked, the worn-away patches where the metal showed through were cotton-edged as clouds, full and dark on the pinkish institutional walls.
Now he pulled the mop out of the bathroom and onto the hall floor, standing it up to let it dry. Emptying the trash, he listened to the short clanging of the metal wastebaskets, like dogs barking in the tunnel of the halls. The mop-water shrank into wispy ghost shapes as it evaporated on the grayish floor.
Ten minutes before the lunch break, he opened the door to the room; a cool rush of smoke and coffee air pushed past him from the greasy couch, the long wooden table where the janitors ate and played cards. Nacho opened the refrigerator. He rarely brought anything that needed to be cooler than the building already felt to him, but tonight he'd packed canned pineapple, and he wanted it chilled.
He wondered what Zadnek was eating, looking at the only two bags left in the racks. If Zadnek had cancer of the ass, could he eat? How did he go to the bathroom? Nacho pushed the door closed and turned to leave.
Zadnek stood by the soda machine again, his neck bent over like a floor lamp, and Nacho thought, What a fool. Ain't but four or five students been through here in the last three hours, this time on a Thursday, and he still looking for money.
Zadnek started when he heard the door shut. "What the hell are you doing?" he said hoarsely.
Nacho held up his lunch bag.
"Still can't speak English, huh?" Zadnek said.
"You really blind, too?" Nacho said, surprising himself.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Zadnek said, his face thin and folded as a rag.
"Too? Too. Means along with whatever else ain't right with you." Nacho went down the hall to the stairwell, and after the door closed behind him and Zadnek couldn't see, he started up the five flights.
A flattened seat cushion sat against the brick wall that ran the length of the roof. Nacho had taken it from one of the student lounges when he began to eat his lunch there. A vent blew warm air toward him, air that smelled like California, dry and static. He could see so many more stars here than in Rio Seco, where the smog and lights blurred the sky. He turned the knobs on the radio to see what he could get. On some nights, stations came in from all over: WWWE in Cleveland, oldies on WGY from Albany, CKLW from Windsor, Ontario. On other nights, nights which looked identical as far as he could tell, there was nothing at those thin lines on the tuner, and he wondered what in the air blocked the waves from reaching him.
He laughed at the voice he could hear faintly. "This is Big Bozo, playin one for Big Stick and Dog Breath and all the other truckers out there. WLW in Cincinnati, the country's country!"
The pineapple juice rushed thick against Nacho's teeth. All winter he'd eaten canned fruit, not up on the roof in the snow, at first, but in the break room. He'd never been so close to so many white guys before, and one night he realized he was doing what he'd always watched his father do, standing in the yard waiting to get paid: he wasn't looking at their faces, into their eyes, because they were looking so hard at him. They seemed to watch him eat, watch every movement. He couldn't see them looking, but they were. They talked about the students, cussed them for their sloppiness, their money, their stupidity. They talked about what electricians were making, fuck yeah, and insurance, all things he knew nothing about. When the Celtics came up, they looked his way pointedly and praised Bird and Ainge. They seemed to look deep into his mouth when he said, "How you doing?" and then one night he heard Cotter and Zadnek after he'd left but still stood outside the door probing his teeth with his tongue. "Did you see what color his gums were? I've seen em black as tar on some."
He didn't want to look into their mouths, or their ears, and soon he felt their eyes on his pants. He began to go up on the roof then, in the fall, and when the snow came, he ate in the auditorium.
He would get his lunch from the refrigerator and leave.
"Somethin stinks," Zadnek said whenever he started to leave.
"Yeah, but my food's been tasting better lately."
"Wait, now, the stink, it's leavin."
An Official Running Nigger Target was taped to the refrigerator door then. HEAD SHOTS DON'T COUNT UNLESS METAL PIERCING CARTRIDGE USED read the words at the bottom. Nacho took out his matches and burned the shape of an icicle through the words.
He rubbed his feet over the gravel on the roof. Sometimes, when there was a full moon, he brought his sketch pad up with him and drew the telephone poles and wires near his father's house, with rows and rows of blackbirds sitting strung out like jewels. He made their tail feathers long and ragged, their backs shiny. The colors of the night seemed easy. When he'd registered for the art class, he'd thought he would draw leaves on Amherst sidewalks, the way they curled and seemed to hold light inside them, like water, for long moments in the evening. Or icicles when he saw them grow, thick and shiny-wide as dozens of buck knives opened and hanging from edges. But what came from his pencils and then the brushes he'd learned to use were tumbleweeds in the fields, wrought-iron fences. He drew them the way he always had, sliding the pencil back and forth, leaving the gleams with empty space in the gray, burnished lead.
The instructor, Mr. Bowers, said, "Try some color. Do the shades you see at home." He saw sides of buildings, gold dates falling from palms to litter the sidewalks, his father's aqua-blue truck. The autumn leaves and bluish snow faded, and he could only recreate home, it seemed, but Bowers said that was the way it went, that strange colors sometimes helped you see the familiar ones more clearly.
Nacho breathed in the dry heat from the vent, like a wind from home. He remembered one night right after he was hired, a night when neither Zadnek or Donohue came in. When Nacho went to the refrigerator, only Cotter sat at the long table. "Hey, are you really from California, no shit?"
Nacho sat at the far end. "Yeah."
"Do they really have girls walkin around on the beach like that? Playin fuckin volleyball with no clothes on and shit?"
"I don't know. I never went to the beach."
"Fuckin A, you said you was from there."
"Rio Seco ain't even close. It's a couple hours from the ocean."
"Shit!" Cotter laughed. "You have to watch it on TV like any asshole from here. That's pretty funny." He kept laughing, and Nacho smiled. But later, when he no longer ate in the room, Cotter danced close to him for the others.
Excerpted from Aquaboogie by Susan Straight. Copyright © 1990 Susan Straight. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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