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Alex Mindt on Fathers and Sons The title story of this highly praised book, about a small-town Texas science teacher threatening to flunk his high school’s brilliantly talented football star, sets the collection’s timely theme, the conflict between the image of how American men are supposed to act and the way they secretly feel like acting. This theme is skillfully modulated in almost all of the book’s eleven selections—from “Stories of the Hunt,” about a boy discovering that his ostensibly he-man...
Alex Mindt on Fathers and Sons The title story of this highly praised book, about a small-town Texas science teacher threatening to flunk his high school’s brilliantly talented football star, sets the collection’s timely theme, the conflict between the image of how American men are supposed to act and the way they secretly feel like acting. This theme is skillfully modulated in almost all of the book’s eleven selections—from “Stories of the Hunt,” about a boy discovering that his ostensibly he-man woodsman father doesn’t in fact know the first thing about tracking deer, to “Immigration,” about a Vietnamese refugee working in a Las Vegas casino and dreaming of becoming the worlds greatest Elvis impersonator. Alex Mindt seems instinctively to know all the angles of story-telling, from quickly building dramatic tension to creating vivid characters through a minimum of dialogue. His every turn of phrase smolders in the reader’s mind.
Sabor a Mí
The song says, "So much time we have enjoyed this love." But songs aren't life. What do you do when your grown daughter, a mother of two, comes to you and says she wants to be now with women? I am old, too old for this. So I tell her to leave and I will pray. My whole life I pray and look around, what good has it done? What do I have? My son, my first son, Juan Jr., in Los Angeles, his body found in a car under the freeway. My second son, Javier, sent back from Vietnam in a bag, for nothing.
In Mexico you don't lose your family, even after they die. Here everyone is alone. Loneliness made this country. When you are lonely, you either find some way to kill yourself or you work hard and make money. People here, they either die or they become rich.
When I was fourteen I waded across the Rio Grande at Ojinaga and saw this country from the back of a pickup truck, picking sugar beets in Minnesota, apples in Wenatchee. In Ventura there were strawberries. In Calabasas, tomatoes. Figs in Palm Springs. Cotton in Arizona and Texas. Now I live in New Mexico. Many years have passed. I saved and saved until I had my own small restaurant and raised my family. I insisted they speak perfect English. Now not one of them speaks Spanish. When I talk to them I have to think about every word.
I do not have a home. I have this facility, in Santa Fe, the second-oldest city in America. My youngest boy, Mario, he pays for this place. He owns a body repair shop in Albuquerque. Every month I get a check. But does he come out? Does he take his gringa wife and their kids to see their papi? Last year, I went down to his big house for Lori's quinceañera. But where was the pan dulce? The dancing? After a few minutes, the kids, they get in their cars and drive off. My son, he just shrugs.
Last week I received a letter in the mail. It was from my daughter. There was a picture of her and a dog and another woman. The dog had long ears. The woman had short hair. Inside was an invitation to a wedding. I had to read it several times.
My daughter, Raquel, wants now to marry this woman. Her first husband was named Charlie. Her second will be named Diane. Raquel was so smart. She learned English so fast. And then in school she learned French and could speak that too. But not Spanish. She went to Paris and became a cook like her father. Only what she makes, with those thick creams, I don't eat so much.
Rosalinda, what do you say to me now? I wait for your voice when the noise fades and the crickets sing. But you are silent. Why won't you speak to me? I live in a facility now, Rosi. For my sadness, the nurses, they give me pills. I still think of that day, climbing down the fig tree. You were at the meal truck, holding a stainless steel tray, the sun shining twice on your lovely skin. I remember your long black hair pulled back tight, and the mark of dirt on your forehead, and how all I could do was smile and look away.
Rosi, I know what you would say. But Raquel wants to love this woman, and I say no. She has a son and a daughter, you remember Stephen and Elizabeth? But who listens to me? She did not ask my permission. Am I not her father? I do not know my own children. They move around me like ghosts.
The food here is hatred on my tongue. Eggs and toast too hard to chew, not even the beans have flavor. But I am leaving now. I have eaten breakfast. I have put on my good suit, and now Raquel will hear what I have to say. The gate is open in the back behind the piñon tree, and outside the cars are rushing. A river of steel and rubber roars past. It is late morning, but the sun is rising fast in the sky. I will walk until darkness, and then I will keep walking if I have to. Outside Santa Fe the air is dry and sweet from the lavender and poppies. The sign says Taos 78 Miles. I will walk 78 miles if I have to.
I do not hold out my hand. Cars will stop. An old man, walking a highway, a slumped, old man, surely someone will stop and ask where I'm going. Gringos are not all bad. They clean up after themselves and act nice, even if they don't mean it.
I need you now, Rosalinda, for I have walked a long time and the sun is pushing down on me. The road is uphill. In a car you don't notice so much. But when the foot comes down, the ground is so much closer than when the foot came up. I have walked almost to the Indian reservation outside of town. Cars and trucks do not see me.
The dirt on the roadside is hard and dry, and the ravine beside me is full of rocks and no water. In this country, rivers and streams, they dry up. The sky takes our lives away. We become clouds. When it rains I see all the people who've gone before me. Mami, Papi, my baby boys. I see Tío Julio on a mattress under an apple tree, playing a guitar with only three strings. There are black birds and rotting apples.
But I don't see you, Rosi, and every time it rains I ask, what is wrong? What did I do? I would like it to rain now. It is so hot. Sweat is now bubbling up under this wool suit I still have, this suit you bought for me, for Raquel's quinceañera so many years ago. Do you remember Tío Julio and his band playing "Sabor a Mí" in the darkness, and how we danced? Do you remember the lovely noise of that night and the sangria, how the neighbors came over and then more and more until our yard was full of dancing?
I need a car to pull off now. My knees are burning with every step. I will stop and wait here until someone pulls over. This is a country made of rushing. Here, no one is anywhere, they are in between places. Only the dead are content.
Voices are singing from the shrubs and red stones. "Tanto tiempo disfrutamos de este amor." Even the cars sing as they rush by. "Nuestras almas se acercaron tanto asi." And I have to sit down. There is a pale rock, a large stone. Its shadow goes down the hill by the dried-up river.
Behind me the wind rises up, and a car pulls off the road. It is green, covered in dust, like a fig tree. A gringo gets out and looks at me over the roof, his light hair blowing sideways in the wind. "Hey," he says. And then he says something else. But a truck passes, and I can't hear him. And then he comes around the car and opens the door. He is kind of fat in the chest, with thin, pale legs, and he wears sandals, brown shorts, and a flowered shirt that hangs open over a white T-shirt. "I came by a minute ago and saw you walking," he says. "Thought I'd double back and see if you needed a lift. You okay?"
He wipes off the seat for me, and he tells me to push some buttons under my legs to be more comfortable. But I am fine.
"My name's Peter." He holds out his hand to me.
"I am Juan."
"Juan. That's John, right? In English, I mean."
"Yes." Inside the car cold air is blowing at me.
"This a little cold for you?" he says. "Here, let me crank this down a bit." He turns a dial. "As you can see, I like my air conditioned." He turns the steering wheel and goes onto the highway. "You want something to drink? Water, beer? You look a little thirsty."
"No, thank you."
Sunlight bounces off the car's green hood, and voices come out of a small speaker on the dashboard. "What's your 10-20, Wayward Juice? Wayward Juice, you read me?"
The gringo, Peter, he frowns at the speaker. "This guy's been calling for Wayward Juice all morning. Don't know why I bought this stupid CB, thought it would keep me company, I guess."
The tops of the mountains are white in the distance ahead of us.
"So, where you heading, Juan?"
"No kidding? Well, serendipity-do, so am I! I hope you're not in a hurry, cuz I was planning on taking the scenic route."
"I have to be there by seven."
"Oh, well, we've got some time then." He speaks very fast, this gringo. "So, why are you walking up to Taos on a hot day like this?"
"For a funeral." I do not know why I say it. God forgive me. But how do you tell someone that your daughter is marrying a woman?
"I'm sorry to hear that," he says. "I hate it when people die. Was this person close to you?"
I turn my head and look out the window.
"Well, I'm sorry about that. I'm real sorry." He holds up his can of beer. "How 'bout a toast? To those who've come before, who've paved the way, and showed us how to live." He drinks his beer and places it between his legs.
"Horny Buzzard, we got a Kojak with a Kodak in a plain white wrapper."
Peter chuckles and shakes his head. "You hear that?" he says. "Man, they say the funniest things. 'Kojak with a Kodak.' I don't get half of it."
He turns onto the road that goes through the mountains, the high road, they call it. "I have to go the scenic route," he says. "I just can't stand those freeways. Freeways are just beginnings and endings. You know what I'm saying? You're either leaving a place or arriving at another place. And really there's nothing in between. I've been reading some books lately, you know, things I never read in college. Never had any use for them until now, I guess. But let me ask you, Juan, do you think it's a coincidence that the transcontinental freeways were being constructed at the precise time that existentialism had its greatest hold on the American psyche?"
I look out the window. Piñon trees are green spots on the hills around us.
"No comment, huh? I mean, don't get me wrong. America is great, right? The greatest country in the world. But there's something missing, isn't there? That's what I've found, and you know where I found it?"
"Yes!" he says. "The freeways. They're like an empty stomach, you know, and it just wants and wants and wants." He reaches under the seat and pulls out another can of beer. "You sure you don't want anything to drink? They're getting kinda warm."
"No, thank you."
"You know what, Juan? This is my first time in the Southwest, and it's beautiful, it's flippin' unbelievable, the mountains, the sky. I know what you're thinking. I'm one of those crazy gringos, right? A car full of crap, driving all over hell? Yeah, well." He smiles and shakes his head. "I got this friend, Gary. Now Gary's a computer guy, you know, one of those Coke-bottle glasses type, all hunched over half the time, jerking off three times a day to some porno Web site, motherjugs.com, that sort of thing. He's got a shooo-wing for old ladies with big cowangas, if you get my drift. But don't get me wrong, Gary's brilliant, just like, wow, his brain, and he talks about systems, how things work, interconnected grids and all that, you know, overload and whatnot, and the truth of the matter, Juan, is, well, my wife left me a couple weeks ago. Took the kids with her. So I just got in the car and put my foot on the pedal. My hard drive just overloaded, as Gary would say. My firewall, or whatever, was just burning up. You're the first person I've had the chance to really talk to. Lucky you, huh? This CB, nobody wants to talk about real stuff. Just like police warnings or scary sex talk. I mean, some real unpleasant doo-doo." He smiles and blows out air. "That's what Tyler calls it. My son. He's twelve and he still calls it doo-doo."
He is quiet for a while, humming to himself, tapping the steering wheel with his fingers. "Hey," he says, "you know about this church up a ways? What's it called?" He reaches down for some papers. The car begins to swerve. "It's down here somewhere." All over the road, we are swerving. He finds the paper and grabs the steering wheel. "Whoa!" he says. "Ride 'em, cowboy!" He straightens the car out. "Anyway, like two hundred years ago," he says, "or something like that, this friar was digging and he found a crucifix, this miraculous crucifix in the dirt, and then they built a church around this pit, and over the years several miracles have been documented. I don't normally believe in that stuff. But then again, I don't normally just hop in my car and haul ass around the country."
He keeps talking. He talks and talks, but he is fine. Strangers will say things to you your family would never say. He tells me that he is afraid of heights and the ocean. And then he says, "Have you ever felt so sad that you can't feel anything? Have you ever just done something, just anything, I mean stupid things too, well, mainly stupid things really, to just maybe show yourself that you're still alive?"
I don't answer. We drive past a gringo market selling Native Arts and Crafts, and a restaurant with a sign that says Savor the Flavor. I think of Raquel, and how after coming back from France she told me there's more to flavor than chile and salt. "Why not use all the spices available to us?" she said. Then she said I was limited, I never opened my mind. I remember all the shouting and yelling, and never knowing why she was so angry at me. "With my limited money," I told her, "I gave you everything you wanted." And now she cooks snails.
Peter talks on and on until we drive through the Nambé Indian Reservation. He goes off the road and stops at a small adobe church, brown and leaning this way and that. "Hey," he says. "You want to take a look?"
"No, thank you," I say.
"Okay. I'll only be a minute." He takes a silver camera from the backseat and starts clicking photos.
Raquel is right now preparing for her wedding. The first one, so many years ago, in the church of St. Francis de Assisi, she took my arm, and my whole body shook, she was so beautiful. Her wavy black hair was all up on her head, and her white dress dragged on the ground behind her, like a queen. As I look down now, I cannot believe it, but this is the same suit I wore to her first wedding. And there is the button you sewed on, Rosi, that looks almost like the other buttons. Hush, you said, nobody will notice one silly button.
Peter gets back into the car and says, "That sucked. No one's around, and I couldn't get in." Peter puts the car back onto the highway and says, "Atheists for Jesus!" and punches the roof with his fist.
A voice comes from the speaker. "10–11, Blutarski! 10–11!"
Peter looks down at the radio and then at me. "I wonder what 10-11 means," he says.
"I said, that's a 10–42 Apache Bob. We got a meat wagon on yardstick 39."
He leans forward and turns off the radio. "A meat wagon. You think that's like a meal truck, Juan? Cuz I'm getting kind of hungry. Maybe they're selling sandwiches or tacos." Peter keeps talking about what he likes to eat, spaghetti, pot roast, what his mother used to make him when he and his brothers and sisters would come in from playing in the park. He talks, this gringo, like no gringo I've met, until we make it to the dusty junkyards of Chimayo, where everything has been left for dead. He stops in the parking lot of the shrine at El Santuario de Chimayo.
"This is it," he says. "The church I was telling you about, with the pit and the miracles. This is a sacred place." He opens the door. "Come on, I'll buy you something to eat."
There is a burrito stand, a restaurant, and a gift shop that sells T-shirts and refrigerator magnets in the shape of the shrine. Tourists bump into each other, looking at postcards and coasters. Peter talks to people he doesn't know, people behind the counter as he pays for postcards and T-shirts. Against the wall there is a large stuffed dog wearing jeans and a cowboy hat sitting in a chair with a pistol in his hand. Cowboy Dog, the sign says.
In the sacristy of the church there is a small round pit with a mound of dirt to the side. Crutches of wood and aluminum hang on the wall along with rosary beads, pictures of the sick and lame with letters and handmade shrines and crucifixes.
Peter points down to the mound of dirt. "This soil is supposed to be magical. It has healing powers, they say." He looks at me and smiles. "I don't believe any of that crap," he whispers. "But I'm definitely feeling something in here."
I get down on my knees at the pit and close my eyes. I am not praying exactly. But I want to listen, Rosi, for your voice. I spend my days talking to you, my love, but I can never hear you. Maybe your voice will come to me here. I think of those other women. Is that why you are silent? I know I was wrong, but that was so long ago, and I never speak to them, or think of them. They meant nothing, Rosi. I wasn't easy to be with, I know. But what about you? After the children left, and the house was empty, you wouldn't speak to me, and I know why. That was how you did it, Rosi. That was how you punished me. But please, mi amor, please know that I loved you as best I could.
When I open my eyes, Peter is sitting beside me with his eyes closed. He is a funny gringo. The wind has taken hold of him.
He opens his eyes and whispers, "You feeling anything, Juan?"
"Really? What do you think it is?"
"Pain," I say. "My knees. Will you help me up?"
Before we leave, Peter takes a picture of me at the pit, and then he asks a gringa to take a picture of us in front of the wall of crutches and shrines. He puts his arm around me and smiles.
Back in the car Peter eats a burrito while he drives. He says that there is definitely something back there. He holds up his can of beer. "A toast," he says. "To history, to all those who have come before us, to all those searching like we are, Juan."
Excerpted from Male of the Species by Alex Mindt. Copyright © 2007 Alex Mindt. Excerpted by permission of DELPHINIUM BOOKS.
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