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"An utterly distinct literary experience. No one writes like Gary Soto. Rather than falling into the trap of politicizing his subjects--blaming Anglos, blaming the church, blaming anyone at all--he simply presents the lives of these three men with emphasis on the minute details, the micro-decisions, the often-perverse impulses that actually comprise so much of human existence. By doing so, he achieves universality."--Gerald Haslam
We Ain't Asking Much
For six years Roberto Silva had worked as a security guard at the Walnut Bank in Oakland, worked in close proximity to large amounts of money stained with the juices of life, torn and invisibly tainted with cocaine, marijuana, and God knows what other drugs. Roberto surmised that the money was dirty, or why would these greenbacks fly from hands so nervously? He added another theory. The lower denominations—fives and tens—gave off the peculiar odor of old men; still, he figured that the bills were worth more than the salt mines that gathered under his arms at the end of a workday. He lamented that the money belonged to other people, some of them feebleminded, sourpusses, income-tax cheats, or would-be killers in glossy red pumps. Some belonged to misers stingy even in offering a smile. That would have required a blast of energy, a minimum of six calories to lift up the corners of their mouths. Life's not fair, Roberto thought while he watched old Mr. Berger lean to his right side as he exited the bank. He was a regular customer whose colorful ties were wide as bibs. Roberto suspected that the old man's leaning posture was to counter the weight of money in his jacket's top left pocket; he could imagine no other reason.
Mr. Berger hurried past Roberto without a nod, a faint smile of recognition, or even an abrupt "excuse me." The old bugger rushed past within inches—no, a fraction of an inch, the width of an eyelash—of brushing against him. He risked a collision that would have proven that his awkward posture was indeedthe result of hoarding twenties in his pocket.
"Cabrón!" Roberto thought, then admonished himself for this silent and uncharitable outburst. But the man should know better than to run down the people who guarded his money. Guarded it with their lives, mind you!
Roberto had spent the morning in front of the bank, pacing from the cement planter box to the iron bench along with Gus Hernandez, the other security guard, their steps grinding a path toward blithering boredom. Neither looked at the other for, as in a bad marriage, they had seen too much of each other in the course of years. Neither found the other worthy of comment.
Roberto fought the urge to plop himself on that bench. The corns on his little toes throbbed. His mind was dulled, lacking even one elementary thought to turn over like a shiny coin. Still, he had to keep pace with Gus.
He caught himself watching a dog the color of an old mop urinate on a parking meter. "This is stupid," he mumbled. It wasn't this beastly spectacle that bothered him, but his silent gambling whether the urine would slip over the curb in a sort of waterfall. The urine puddled impressively, but its mass was not large enough to create a flow over the edge.
During Roberto's tenure as a security guard, his countless yawns had permanently creased his face and stretched his lips until they were slack as a child's jump rope. At thirty-three he appeared older, somewhere in his early forties, his life more than half over, his stomach and precious innards still chugging along but losing speed.
This was how Roberto felt when the bank manager, Mr. Wallace, called him into his office, a cubicle adorned with snapshots of his family. Mr. Wallace's chair squeaked like a metal fart before the bank manager asked if Roberto would be willing to retire.
"Do I look that old?" Roberto asked, worried that perhaps he had indeed withered on the vine of life. He sat erect while asking the question. True, he had noticed that he left more hair on his pillow, that his front teeth, never really white, had yellowed like candles, and that actually—a pathetic admission—he had recently begun to use both hands to push himself out of his La-Z-Boy recliner. And true, unlike a great many tunnel-visioned oldsters, he had saved very little. He was banking that he would get married, sometime soon, and that he and this wife, whoever this delicate love might be, would care deeply for each other. At least for the first three or four years.
"No, retire is the wrong word." Mr. Wallace corrected his lax use of language. He explained that with the advent of better security—he pointed vaguely at the video cameras bolted to the four corners of the bank—one of the two security guards had to go. He employed the word cost-effective.
"But Gus is older than me," Roberto argued, his back slowly buckling to gravity and hurt though he strained to keep it straight, soldierly. After all, they were talking about his life.
The chair let out another metallic fart when Mr. Wallace opened the desk drawer and brought out a thick envelope. Roberto licked his lips and swallowed. He anticipated a packet of money. Instead Roberto watched with fascination as Mr. Wallace unfolded a form that, from all appearances, was in triplicate, possibly more.
"Yes, Gus is older," Mr. Wallace remarked. "And that's why we want to keep him." He bit the cap off his pen and for a moment let the cap remain in the corner of his mouth like a stogie.
Roberto blinked at his boss. He didn't understand.
Mr. Wallace leaned toward Roberto, a conspirator, and removed the cap from his mouth.
"You see, this job of yours is going nowhere," he whispered, then leaned back to wait for Roberto to size up the meaning. He waited longer than Mr. Wallace expected, who was prompted to say, "You don't want to be like Gus, do you?"
"What do you mean?" Roberto asked.
"I mean you have a future!" Mr. Wallace brayed as he leaned back, his hands now behind his head like a holdup victim.
I have a future? Roberto wondered. He had dropped out of Fremont High School when a classmate tried to crack a chair over his head, an act of violence precipitated by Roberto's refusal to share his answers during a history test that he failed miserably. After a series of jobs cutting lawns and hauling debris, he lucked into a job at a foundry in Oakland. First he pushed a time-whittled broom from one end of the factory to the other, and soon he was taught to operate a lathe. He would have kept on shaving metal rods into surgical tools thin as chopsticks except one afternoon at the lathe, a curl of metal shaving leaped into his mouth, the carpet of his tongue gargling the still-heated object. He remembered the struggle to cough up the shaving, his head bowed and his hand squeezing the tube of his own throat. But the shaving simply wiggled down his throat, momentarily lodging in his esophagus before settling in his stomach—all while the lathe continued to throw out a confetti of metal shavings. He remembered moaning, "Oh, God!" and a fellow worker slapping him on the back and shouting over the noise of the machines, "Throw it up! Cough it up!" But he had swallowed the shaving. When the incident was reported, Roberto was let go. The foreman didn't want to risk keeping a machinist who couldn't keep his mouth closed while doing his job.
But that was years ago. While nothing happened to him internally—Roberto feared his stomach might blossom open from the razorlike shaving—his life seemed to hang in delicate balance between one paycheck and the next. Now Mr. Wallace was saying that he had a future, an impression he had held about himself all along.
"Listen," Mr. Wallace said, his hands and arms coming down from behind his head. He looked furtively about the cubicle before he confessed in a near hiss, "I'm getting out, too." He divulged this news while gazing at his family of snapshots, teeth bared, though some might call it a smile. He then really smiled. "Roberto, get out while you're young! We'll pay you for a month, plus here's this packet of money as a gift of appreciation." His eyes cut to his desk drawer. With his teeth bared, he said with a chuckle, "You like money, don't you?"
That's how Roberto came to leave his job at the Walnut Bank.
Even before the prompting from Mr. Wallace, Roberto had thought of quitting. He couldn't imagine spending another year, let alone his life, up against the wall, his punishment for not cooperating with that thug in history class. He signed the forms. He shook Mr. Wallace's hand. The grip was nearly pressureless because, at heart, Mr. Wallace didn't care one way or another if Roberto dropped off the face of the earth.
Roberto spent the remainder of the day nearly prancing in front of the bank. He threw himself onto the comfort of the bench. He taunted Gus, a serious and loyal employee, one who raised the set of flags each day and more than once permitted tears to flood his eyes. For this really old fellow, the whip of flags was a solemn sight. Plus he took pride in protecting other people's money.
"Carnal, I'm outta here!" he told Gus when Gus asked why he was acting so sloppily. "I got a future. That's what Mr. Wallace said. So I'm getting the hell out."
Gus's face darkened. He told him that he shouldn't use such language.
Gus's face darkened even further. "Because I'm asking you, hombre!"
Roberto abandoned his post—for who could fire him, now that the ink was dry?—and from a nearby pay phone, he called his friend Manny Sanchez, a mechanic in a transmission shop, the only guy he knew who had swallowed anything close to a metal shaving. His was a two-inch spring that popped off the shaft of a 1967 Chevy clutch and shot like a rubber band into his mouth. But this spring was less worrisome than Roberto's metal shaving because Manny's stomach was a globe-shaped beer belly that absorbed just about anything. He gulped the spring and kept working, though he did swallow numerous times to wash down the oily taste. Later he joked that he had more spring in his legs, having eaten one.
Roberto crowed that he was a free man. For a good time, he told Manny to get down to the bank, the sooner the better. "They're paying me good to get the hell out."
Manny arrived and the two left arm in arm, Roberto yelling that he was a free man and wasn't America great? He wiggled out of his security jacket and tossed it at Gus, who smoldered from this apparent desertion. He muttered in Spanish that Roberto was a low-class Chicano. If Roberto had glanced back that day, he would have seen the flags waving good-bye. But he didn't look back. The future lay ahead, just around the block. They headed off to a college bar with loud music and strata of cigarette smoke, a stink that made them feel belatedly educated, one of the crowd.
"I got it made, dude!" Roberto yelled over the music.
"That's right!" Manny agreed.
They ordered and ate a basket of fish-and-chips and argued heatedly whether or not the Pilgrims ate turkey at the first Thanksgiving. Manny was certain that those black-caped Pilgrims had dined on such a bird, but Roberto, drunker because he was smaller than his moose-headed friend, was in doubt. He was one hundred and ten percent positive that turkeys were from Mexico, his grandfather's homeland. How could turkeys walk all the way from Chihuahua to Plymouth Rock? Roberto asked. Dumb as they were, Roberto alleged, no turkey was going to walk two thousand or so miles to have its neck wrung.
"Prove it!" Manny taunted.
Roberto smiled, certain that Manny was cornered. After all, weren't they in a college bar? The students had to know something.
"Any of you know where turkeys come from?" Roberto yelled to the crowd, legs straddling the stool, a real buckaroo as he raised himself up, slipped, and sat right back down with a jolt.
The college students glanced at the pair and some hunched deeper into their bear-thick coats, fending off such an intellectual challenge since it was November and midterms were long past. The mind needed rest.
"I thought you guys were in college!" Roberto snarled when no one dared to scratch at this historical issue. He turned to Manny. "I say the Pilgrims ate acorns and shit the first year, and then maybe some turkeys later."
The bartender warned him to quiet down. And Roberto did because he liked the bar and intended to visit the place again, perhaps with a date. He had already prepared in his mind to tell this date—Marta, a cashier at Lucky Dog pet store, came to mind—that this was where he and Manny, a true buddy, had talked turkey. His face lit up with his little joke.
"I got no regular job," Roberto crowed, toasting his nearly full beer against the army of empties in front of him.
"That's good," Manny slurred. He raised his beer and set it back down.
"But I got willpower." Roberto pushed himself up from his stool when he said this but sat back down when the bartender knitted his eyebrows in his direction.
"That's important stuff to have," Manny agreed. "Willpower! Chicano power!"
The two laughed, drank more beer, and then released it in the men's room, where an exhaust fan stirred the air but couldn't discharge the stink out to the alley. After four wobbly excursions to the men's room, Manny had also decided to quit his job, snarling that no one except his mother could tell him what to do and she was dead. He got on the telephone and made a call to the transmission shop. He told them to take that job and shove it.
"Did you hear him, man!" Roberto screamed into the receiver after he wrestled the telephone from Manny. He handed the telephone back to Manny. "Tell 'em, man. Tell 'em where to shove it!"
Manny's lower lip fell open like a sack. He grinned for a moment before mumbling, "Grandma Moses's butt. That's where it goes."
Roberto was confused by this remark, but since his bud Manny had one more year of high school than him, he was convinced that it meant something.
"You got willpower," Roberto congratulated his friend after he hooked the telephone back onto its cradle. "Let me buy you an imported beer. Something from really far away."
They staggered to the bar but were told to leave. The bartender was tired of the two drunks, both unaware that their zippers were down. They departed without an argument. They took their happiness out into the street, pissing in wintry bushes forty feet from the bar and once again at the end of the block, like two dogs marking a trail for their later return.
At fifteen minutes to four, at the beginning of the 1990s, there was at least one job opening in Oakland. The job was filled that same day at seven minutes to six by a Samoan who could lift a transmission as easily as his lunch box packed with four sandwiches, a family-size bag of Cheetos, and a thermos of coffee laced with nondairy creamer.
A month later Manny returned to his job at a lower wage, a lesson in life because he was now engulfed in the shadow of the huge Samoan. As for Roberto, he held out for six months, watching television and living off his meager savings and a few odd jobs. These jobs let loose a reservoir of sweat he didn't know was inside him. As a security guard, he had used up his legs and part of his brain from boredom. But crawling on a pitched roof that summer and raising a hammer for eight hours, he discovered the horrors of real work. He hadn't known the body could take such punishment.
By late summer Roberto had to vacate his one-bedroom apartment after the electricity was cut off and the landlord began to bang on the front door as well as the back, shouting for him to get the hell out, that he wasn't playing anymore, that his brother-in-law was a cop who enjoyed breaking heads for sport. Roberto was poorer than the ants that marched darkly across the kitchen sink.
"I messed up," he confessed to his hands, which lay on the dining table like gavels in judgment of his unwise career move. If they had minds of their own, the hands would have clutched Roberto's throat and strangled him.
Roberto wiped his eyes. It was late afternoon, and darkness was coming into the unlit dining room where he sat. He felt more worthless than those straight ahead, no-bullshit ants, which at least knew their purpose. They could bed down in the ground while he, a man with a stone in each shoe, had to hike down a long road.
Roberto cursed his luck and scolded himself for believing Mr. Wallace's cheery talk about a future. In Mr. Wallace's world, destiny really existed. Early in their sabbatical from forty-hour workweeks, he and Manny had talked about applying at Circuit City, an electronics store, both convinced that all that was required—aside from a clean criminal record—was a coat and tie. They hadn't figured on needing a high school diploma.
Having no job was one dilemma; finding a place to house his troubles was another. Roberto stayed at a friend's house for a few weeks during the summer but was asked to leave at the beginning of autumn. He lived with another friend for a week and then moved into a car whose engine just stopped while he was hauling cans to the recycler. Friendless, Roberto resorted to making a home of an abandoned Quonset hut in the middle of a vacant lot not far from a shopping mall. He moved there with his clothes, a few sticks of furniture, an ice chest, and a treasury of records from the 1970s—Santana, War, the Bee Gees, the Supremes, Grand Funk Railroad, Fleetwood Mac—timeless music that would outlast plutonium, it was so good.
He swatted a broom at the wooden floor, rounding up a cloud of dust that he prompted into a far corner, where the floorboards themselves were pinched nearly to dust by termites. With a swooping motion he wiped the hut's one window with an ancient newspaper and then sat down to consider its headlines. One headline said The Challenger Explodes! The astronauts were reduced to a human grit endlessly orbiting the earth. He sighed at this tragic news. And while he didn't wish to show those lost souls disrespect, he used the newspaper to close a hole in the wall where the wind whistled.
The third day he woke to the finger tap of rain on the metal roof. For a moment, confused, he thought he was bedded down inside a snare drum, the way the rain clanged. He dragged his hands down his face like a washcloth, his first cleaning for the day. He yawned, stretched until a bone in his back clicked, and sucked on a back molar pasted with crackers, a late snack from the night before. Roberto hadn't spoken to anyone in two days, and he opened and closed his mouth, for he had to keep those body parts of his working. He swabbed his mouth with his tongue in readiness for his first words of the day. He sighed and said, "Oh, God."
He stood up, sat back down, and glanced wearily at the cover of Santana's first album, a pen-and-ink drawing of a lion. Any other day, Roberto had surmised that the kingly beast was roaring, but now the lion appeared to be yawning. At him.
He slipped into his shoes, curled from rain and age, and walked in a circle, his one way of stoking a fire inside what a religious brother on the street called his God-given temple. A fire was what he needed—that and a cup of coffee laced with cream and perhaps a glazed doughnut or two would make things all right. He actually pursed his lips, the bud of his mouth deepening with lines.
"Oh, God, I need coffee," he said desperately.
Instead he drank water from a red-plaid-printed thermos and paced back and forth, admonishing himself because he could have done the same thing in front of the Walnut Bank and gotten paid for his time. But here on the edge of nowhere, he just raised a faint stink of dust as he toured the meager confines of his new lodgings. He found a pile of newspapers but was frightened to rifle through them, for the headlines might be even more unsavory than the Challenger's explosion.
The window was rain beaded and foggy. He wiped the glass for a better view. He could stride in the direction of the new mall or chance the old commercial area of Fruitvale. It was a matter of a toss of a coin, nothing more.
Breakfast was a few moist crackers and a single tangerine. He risked stepping outside for his personal business behind a wind-whipped oleander and trotted briskly back into the Quonset, shuddering from the cold. He put on an extra sweater and scanned his home of two days, then left the hut, using a piece of cardboard as an umbrella. He trudged through the vacant lot, mud sucking his shoes, and headed toward East 14th and Fruitvale Avenue, the crossroads for Chinese, Vietnamese, and Latino immigrants. He knew life thrived among its bustle of merchants and shoppers but was clueless what to do once he got there. Still, he trusted that if he just mingled with others, shoulder to shoulder, his grin to theirs, his outlook would improve. If nothing else, he could pick up body heat from these people.
Lately he had begun to count his steps, one to a hundred and over again, an obsession that dried his lips from the repetition of numbers. But this morning when he found himself chattering numbers, his mind an adding machine gone haywire, he scolded himself to be quiet. He forced himself to turn his mind somewhere else. His vision fell on a faraway street where he noticed a car stalled in the intersection. Two men—worker ants—were pushing the vehicle to the side of the road.
"I wish I had a car," he said absently. He looked down at his shoes, two rodents moving through weeds and mud. "And a new pair of shoes."
He found his mind short circuiting, whirling with ideas and silly notions, images that, if held up to the world, would make little sense. He blamed his hunger, his lack of sleep, the high school thug who had nearly whacked him with that chair, and finally his years as a security guard, where his brain sought desperately for sustenance. His mind, he judged harshly, had become a large bowl of shapeless mush. And this mush inside his head demanded stirring. He promised himself that he would start reading books.
The rain stopped, and suddenly the sun broke through the clouds above the former Sears building, long abandoned. The jagged edges of its industrial-sized windows were lit with this new sunshine. The sun broke expansively in the east, bringing joy to Roberto that quickened his steps. He threw down his makeshift umbrella and leaped over a puddle, feeling that he was headed toward something good.
Walking among people further deepened his sense of joy. Some were herding children to school, and others were limping toward La Clinica de la Raza, a hospital. Others blew on plastic foam cups of coffee while they waited for the bus. He crossed the street at East 14th and halted in front of Alfredo's, a mom-and-pop market that took no chances—it sold both Mexican and Asian food, plus a few club-shaped ham hocks for its black clientele. Raindrops leaked from the striped cloth awning over the storefront, one striking Roberto's knuckle, the sign of a blessing. He opened up his palms and gathered additional drops to wash his face.
The produce was set out in bins on the street. The shoppers pinched high-priced tomatoes and pears, held up paddles of nopales, peeked under the skirts of lettuce, and quizzed the mangoes with the press of their thumbs. While he didn't have a coin to speak of, he felt obligated to assess the produce. What harm would result? He sniffed a lemon, an acidic scent that was a meal itself, and inquired of a Salvadoran woman, over whom he towered like a banana tree, "The prices are going up, no?"
The woman was unresponsive to his friendly overture. Instead she continued to bag the lemons quickly, her hands the flittering hands of a factory worker moving without thought.
His stomach grumbled, and something seemed to fall off the inside of his ribs—the last of the taco he ate yesterday? The noisy stomach continued groaning for the food that was within reach; all Roberto had to do was pick up an apple and bring it to his mouth. I'm no thief, he thought, and scolded his stomach for tempting him to crime.
His attention returned to the short woman, now toying with peanuts. He suspected that she was ignoring him because she thought he was a street person without a single coin in his pocket. He tried again to establish a rapport with the woman because he understood from her, as well as others, that he was a mere apparition with no more substance than the glare on a windshield. "I said the prices are going up because of the frost." She raised her face—and said, "No speak English."
To this, Roberto, his spirit once again revived, remarked in Spanish that weren't the lemons a bargain and, hey, the jicama was overpriced but what a crunchy taste! The woman smiled the ruins of her teeth, which were trimmed in gold, cracked, and blue with shadows. Any other day, Roberto would have been shaken by this display, but today he was encouraged. If this woman could smile through the wreckage of her mouth, then there was hope.
He sniffed the produce, one piece at a time, and left when Alfredo, the owner, came out, wiping his hands on a red apron. Roberto didn't want to risk his relationship with this woman or Alfredo or the colorful flood of fruits and vegetables.
He walked three blocks to Sanborn Park, where he sat in the wickery shadows of a sycamore stripped of leaves. He rested his feet, but not for long. From across the lawn, a needle-thin junkie approached, twirling on a finger a sombrero gaffed from the wall of a Mexican restaurant.
"I got this hat here, my man," the junkie in bedroom slippers announced. "And I ain't asking much."
Roberto proceeded toward the library but saw that it was closed, though a light burned behind half-open blinds. He felt small in front of this ivy-shrouded building, small, suddenly weak, and almost delirious. He had a vision of the walls of the library opening and the books pouring out onto the street. He rubbed his eyes. He rubbed them until a light sparked behind their lids and a terror leaped upon him: he envisioned an avalanche of books smothering him with words and pure learning, dictionaries and encyclopedias belting him for his own good. He raised his hands as if in protection and let out a cry. He grimaced and sensed a burning in his stomach. The curl of metal shaving, rusted as a fishhook, about to surface after all these years? His face grayed to the color of river rock, and the latches of his knees buckled.
Two women approaching from the other direction gave him room on the sidewalk. They feared that he was drunk or, worse, another crazy on display. But within minutes, the pain in his stomach receded like the tide. He adjusted his coat, and in its improved fit, he felt a lot better.
The sun was now sucking up puddles and the river coursing along twig-dammed gutters. The wind moved the litter along, and the people at the bus stop were gone. His happiness was all too brief. He meandered down Fruitvale and onto Foothill, a street that, except for the occasional upheaval of cracked sidewalks, was perfectly flat. He was baffled how a street could be called Foothill when there was no hill to speak of. Where were the fruits, too, as in Fruitvale? His mind speculated about a past when village life had the kindly locals eating right off the trees. Aeons ago, these locals wished for nothing more than what they could fit in their mouths.
He was prepared to return to Sanborn Park, where he could marshal these thoughts on a park bench, when his gaze made a roving turn. He spotted some Christmas trees on the side of a closed-up thrift shop. He paused and regarded this mysterious find, his hand massaging his stubbled chin. What are they doing there? he wondered. He walked past the thrift shop, stopped, and returned, his shoe kicking a pebble, for a second peek. They're abandoned, he surmised. Or why else would they be there?
Roberto scanned his surroundings, sizing up the feeble artistry of poor businesses and shabby houses dressing themselves for Christmas. Some storefronts were brightly lit with a lasso of Christmas tree lights, their windows white with the buildup of fake frost. Red bows hung in a black beauty parlor, and painted on the windows of one liquor store, a roly-poly snowman was tipping back a cold beer. On a distant roof, Santa and his sleigh were blown over but still pulsating a string of festive lights.
"It's my lucky day," he said to himself, and shuddered.
He approached the Christmas trees, glancing left and right, conscious of the gravel under his feet, and sidled up to them. He stood next to them, hands wrist deep in his pockets, and did his best to whistle. His whistling didn't last more than three seconds before the melody died, and he had to breathe deeply to get the song cooking again. He then faced the trees. If the trees had had hands, he would have shaken them. Instead he touched their limbs, his fondling hand exciting a scent of pine. He mustered up a scheme to peddle these three trees, each one shorter than the next, this family of trees, all orphans, two brothers and one sister. Yes, they're orphans, he agreed with himself, trees looking for cozy homes.
He hustled the two largest away, rushing wildly down Foothill while the rain-tipped branches slapped and scratched his cheek. He felt like a kidnapper, devious. He cut across Foothill onto 23rd Avenue and finally Ford Avenue, a cul-de-sac with older but tidy homes. The trees were heavy to carry without accidentally snapping a lower branch against the kick of his running knees. This took strength, and he had almost none. His breath flowered before him.
"I'm going to find you dudes a home," he said to the trees. "Then I'm going back and get your sister a place to stay."
He was convinced that he hadn't really stolen the trees but rescued them from oblivion. Time would whittle them to twigs and scattered needles, but before their earthly lives ended, he contended, wouldn't it be beautiful to be dressed up with bulbs and lights, Santas and candy canes, icing and popcorn needled on kite string? He cooed sweet words to the trees and, sufficiently rested, raised them up and continued. He walked halfway down the street, a dog bark prompting more than one curtain to part.
He halted to debate which house to try first. He ran a hand down his sweaty face, salted from his enterprising work. He caught his breath and climbed the steps of a house that appeared naked and in need of the Christmas spirit. He knocked lightly, then with gusto when no one answered.
A voice boomed like a gunshot, "Go away, fool!" and he didn't have to be asked twice and couldn't disagree with the man's appraisal of his scheme. To the hightailing Roberto, the voice belonged to someone at least eight feet tall with the girth of an ancient redwood. His next attempt was a neighboring house with tall black stairs. He knocked and the door opened immediately, albeit not wide. Behind the shadow of the screen door stood an elderly woman, small as a child. She was wearing a sweater and a housecoat and below those articles of clothing an apron with tidy creases.
She examined Roberto, who began his sales pitch brightly. "I got trees." He then remembered the line from the junkie with the sombrero. "And I ain't asking much."
She opened the door wider, a pot roast scent rushing the porch. Roberto's nose flared. His eyes widened and saliva bathed the buds of his tongue. He swallowed. This smell kicked Roberto's stomach into another painful mood swing.
"My husband died," the woman stated calmly. She unlatched the screen door and came out on the porch. "My children can go to hell. I never see them. Why do I need a tree?"
Roberto stepped back to give her room, swinging the trees away from her as he waltzed them against the porch rail. He was unsure what to make of the dead father and the children. He didn't know where to take his sales pitch. So he observed, "Everyone has a tree. Rich families often have two."
"The rich can go to hell. My children are rich, and do I see them?" The woman made this remark without an outburst or a gesture of flung-up-in-the-air hands. Her voice was flat. Her eyes were blue, their clearness suggesting more a child just learning her colors than someone who was at least seventy. And her face was like her apron, neatly creased.
"Ma'am, I need to sell these."
She measured Roberto's despair, her gaze first stopping at his shoes and then settling on his dirty knees. She didn't need to go higher.
"How about twelve dollars?" he asked.
She blinked at Roberto.
"They're special trees," Roberto tried. He remembered Manny drunk on the telephone. "They're Grandma Moses trees. You ever hear of that kind? They grow them in Portugal but also some here. In mountains we never heard of." He licked his lips, worried that he had done a half-assed job of describing the genus of the tree. When he started to add a historical touch by saying that Grandma Moses trees were popular with Democratic presidents, she told him to be quiet and went back into the house. He was set to drag the trees down the steps when she came out of the house.
"Where are you going?" She waved a coin purse at him.
The elderly woman bought a tree and invited Roberto in to help her string it with lights and hang a five-pointed star on top. The limbs sagged under the red bulbs.
"Go outside and look," she asked.
He did what he was told; after all, she was his first customer. He climbed down the black steps, rubbed his hands in the cold, and looked at the house for two minutes. On his return, he chirped, "Beautiful! The bulbs make it stand out. You can't go wrong with a Grandma Moses tree."
He sold the tree for six dollars and went away with a ham-and-cheese sandwich, the meat hanging like tongues from the corners of the bread. He devoured the sandwich while he carried the other tree in his free hand. He next tried Myrtle Street, which was less tidy; in fact, as he walked farther into the neighborhood, he realized it was junky. He was spooked as he passed dogs behind chain-link fences and saw a youth standing on a porch, a cigarette half hidden behind his cupped hand.
"What you got there?" the teenager asked. He wore a knit cap and baggy pants that hung from his hips. Any lower and the cops might haul him for in indecent exposure.
"A tree." He averted his eyes from the teenager.
"Yeah, like duh, motherfucker," the teenager sneered. Smoke flowed from his nose and then was pulled back in, as though in his fierce nastiness he kept everything to himself.
"It's Christmas," Roberto said without missing a stride. The teenager took a bold step down the stairs. He let the smoke drift upward and real flames seemed to from flare his nose, flames from way down in the belly. The teenager continued to taunt Roberto, but Roberto didn't listen. He was going places.
The street was poor, but at the end of block he sold the tree to a woman named Peaches.
"That's a nice tree," she cried as she clapped her large and work-worn hands. Roberto could tell she meant it. He felt blessed to have such an enthusiastic customer.
Her husband was blind. Still, with his suspenders down and his slippers nearly off alligator-long feet, he followed Roberto and Peaches as they scavenged a closet in the hallway for the Christmas ornaments—four crosses of Jesus and some lights, alongside Bibles, broken candles, and hymnals almost as ancient as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The husband trailed them into the kitchen, where Peaches searched for replacements for the burned-out lights. He caught up with them when they returned to the overheated living room. His eyelids fluttered, and his mouth muttered something that might have been a prayer because he uttered the word, "Amen."
The husband hummed as the two fashioned a beautiful Christmas tree. When they finished, he asked Roberto in stutters if the tree was pretty.
"You should see it," Roberto chimed. He guided the old man's hand over the limbs as together they touched the bulbs, one by one, and on tiptoes a star shiny as a new spoon.
"Amen, I can see it!" the husband said, and Roberto caught himself saying amen for selling the tree for four dollars, mostly in change.
When he had left and crossed the street, Roberto broke into a jog. His pant pockets jingled like tambourines, the quarters slapping in time to his stride. They jingled the music of a man making a comeback in life.
Roberto fetched the little sister tree from the closed-up thrift shop and made a pilgrimage to Alfredo's market. He bought fruit, bottled water, and two hog-sized burritos, which he took back to his Quonset hut. It was nearly dark, and the sky was boiling with a new front of rain clouds. The threat of rain made people retreat into their homes, inc]uding Roberto.
He stood the tree in the comer and stripped off his two sweaters, then put one back on when his body began to cool from the long walk home.
"Your brothers got nice, cozy homes," Robcrto informed the tree. "And vou're going to have one too. A warm place for the holiday."
He ate his burritos and drank the water while remembering a previous Christmas when he was a boy in Texas. His aunt Virginia, snake mean, had prodded him and his cousins to visit Santa Claus at a department store. That's where her ex, Uncle Peter, worked as Santa, ho-hoing to the children. They were all brown skinned in that border town, where the sun had stained them the color ofwahmts. Uncle Peter was five months behind on his alimony plus child support, though he had been seen driving one of the first air-conditioned cars in town. His aunt forced young Roberto, a sparrow of a child, to climb into Santa's lap on a Saturday morning when he should have been home watching cartoons. Roberto had just sat there, two fingers in month, scared not because it was his first visit with Santa, but because of what his aunt had told him to say. He recalled how Santa—Uncle Pete behind that beard—asked if he had been a good boy. He nodded and sucked harder on his fingers. When Santa pulled them out, Roberto shook his head and shoved back them back in like candies with their own natural sugar. When Santa asked what he would like for Christmas, he took his wet fingers out of his mouth and pointed to his aunt hiding near the Christmas tree. In a baby voice, he said, "Auntie says give her the money." He recalled how he was bumped from Santa's lap and Auntie jumped on her ex, pulling off his beard and scratching his face, tough as a leather baseball mitt, which was painted pink instead of its normal brown. While the two fought, Roberto reached under a chair for Santa's candies, a fistful, which his aunt let him keep because she was so proud of him. The department store ruckus even made the newspaper—"Santa slapped by former Mrs. Santa." Roberto shuddered at the childhood memory and drank his water.
The dark bullied itself into his abode, and he lit two candles. He admired the tree, fresher than he could ever expect to be. He got up from his cot and sniffed the needles.
"You smell good, little sister," he said. He pulled a needle from a limb and fit it into his mouth. "And you taste good, too!"
A profitable idea, rainlike, tapped him on the forehead. He could cut the tree down, strip its long and short limbs, and twist and bend them into wreaths, perhaps even brightened with ribbons and shiny things. His enterprising future stretched ahead. He took off his sweater, for his ambition produced an unnatural heat.
He took a knife, sawed through a lower liinb, and bent it bow shaped. It sprang back like a car antenna. He took the knife up again and practiced on another limb. Some of the needles rained to the floor, but most survived, seemingly dedicated to his design. He cut another limb and then wove the three limbs into a halo-shaped wreath. With the limbs struggling to break apart, to snap back into their natural shape, he tied the entire prototype with wire. The limbs behaved and were newly transformed.
"You're looking nice," he cooed. He recalled how as a boy in Texas he had glued Popsicle sticks to a toilet roll in an effort to make a pencil holder. But the glue couldn't stand up to the summer heat and the Popsicle sticks came off; he ended up just trumpeting nonsense through the toilet roll until his mother told him to knock it off. Many years later, however, he was proving himself an artisan. There was definitely no heat in the Quonset hut to ruin his industry.
He hung the wreath on a nail on the wall and stepped back to admire his creation. It was good enough to adorn a door or a window or possibly the front of a car—he had seen a Volvo just a few days before with a wreath wired to the grille.
He twisted two wreaths and stripped off the small remaining limbs that would not bend. He had a use for them, too. He glowed over his handiwork, though he was saddened at the sight of what remained: a long torso of the Christmas tree nailed to a cross-shaped stand. It looked naked, nearly scandalous.
"Looks like you ain't going to get a home." His voice grieved for the sister tree.
|I We Ain't Asking Much||1|
|II Literary Life||65|
|III The Untimely Passing of the Clock Radio||131|