On an overcast November afternoon, a Taos County sheriff's deputy drove up the deeply rutted road to the Bacas' house outside the mountain village of Las Trampas and handed Yvonne Baca a faxed letter from the California Department of Corrections. Yvonne waited until the deputy drove away, and then read the letter to her husband, Teófilo:
As inmate's stated next of kin and person(s) to contact in the event of emergency we hereby inform you that inmate Faustino James Baca has been hospitalized in critical condition at San Francisco General Hospital following injuries sustained in a disturbance at the Soledad Correctional Training Facility . . .
As she read, Teófilo's legs began to tremble with the same hollow weakness he felt after a day hauling logs up a steep mountainside. "Asesinos hijos de puta," he whispered, groping for a chair. "Cobardes."
Yvonne took her red rosary beads from their lacquered box and knelt before the retablo to pray. After a moment, Teófilo pulled himself up and ducked into the tiny bedroom to change clothes. He pushed his still-shaky legs into his new Wranglers and chose his best buckle, the massive nickel one etched with his family name, Baca. He put on his black yoke shirt; its pearl buttons snapped in his head like distant gunshots. He brought his black boots and a jar of cracked old polish from the closet and polished the boots with slow, deliberate strokes, trying to calm his mind.
When the boots were polished, he reached up into the space behind the smoke-darkened third viga and took what was left of his earnings from the last four cords of wood he had cut. He slipped the money into his sock and pulled on his boots, rolling the legs of his jeans over them tight as bark on a log.
"That's only enough money for one to fly," Yvonne said. "And then maybe only one way."
"We could take the Greyhound."
"The Greyhound takes two days. By then . . ." She didn't finish. "You should drive down to Albuquerque and get the next plane," she said decisively.
"Yes," he said, adjusting the horsehair band on his felt hat to hide the worst of the moth paths. Twin hearts beat in his temples when he put it on. "But you'll need the truck while I'm gone. You drive with me to the airport and bring the truck back."
Yvonne flicked a brush over her tight black curls and was ready.
Teófilo had often wondered about the silver splinters that arced across the immense sky above Las Trampas and sank into the setting sun like falling sparks. It was difficult to imagine people sitting up there the way Yvonne had told him about, calmly drinking coffee and watching movies. But today, as they wound their way down into the Española Valley in the old Chevrolet, he wasn't thinking about planes or the flight he was about to take; he was brooding over the letters Faustino, his only brother, had sent them from Soledad prison.
The first letter, which was the first news Teófilo and Yvonne had had of Faustino since Teófilo had kicked him out of the house, coldly advised them where he had ended up. Other, more conciliatory, letters followed, sometimes wrapped in paños, big handkerchiefs on which he had drawn detailed pictures of hourglasses, prison bars, and butterflies. These letters detailed the complexities of prison life\--the protection rackets, the racial hatreds\--using slang that Teófilo did not always understand. They also proudly dismissed Teófilo's offers to go out to visit him: Faustino assured his brother he would be out on parole soon.
But in his last letter, which Teófilo and Yvonne had received only two weeks ago, Faustino practically pleaded with them to come to his parole hearing so that the board could see he had good and caring relatives.
"The Crip mayates call me rata, bro," Yvonne read. "And since I'm not into gangs, I don't get no protection from La Familia or La Eme. If I don't get out of here soon, my ass is grass."
Rata. Teófilo heard the word like a stab to his heart, not only because he knew it to be a serious charge among prison inmates, but because it happened to be the very word, spoken by Faustino in a completely different context, that had so enraged Teófilo the day he asked his brother to leave.
Teófilo had been in the yard that morning splitting fragrant cedar and yellow ponderosa when his brother emerged from the sagging little cabin, yawning and scratching. Faustino, whom Teófilo and his wife had taken into their home until he got his life together, squinted at the heaps of firewood and scrap lumber.
"Vivemos como ratas piñoneras, carnal," he said. "We live like wood rats."
Teófilo made no reply. But his aim was off the rest of the morning, the misses glancing off the wedge, sending their sharp ring through the canyon as they scraped brilliant new wounds on the head of the sledge. Finally, after one stroke missed entirely and shattered the wooden handle, he marched into the house and told his brother:
"Agarra tu camino, hermano, largo de aquí. We got no use for you."
And Faustino was gone before Yvonne came back from the Furr's supermarket in Española with the week's shopping.
"But you know he says tonterías when he's going through detox," she told Teófilo, gazing dejectedly at the big white slabs of menudo she had gotten especially for Faustino. Menudo, with lots of chile pequín, was one of the best things for hangovers and alcohol abuse. "You're too sensitive, Teo."
Teófilo knew she was right. Faustino's brain was not yet dry; it was still soft and fofo like rotten heartwood. But he was still angry: "I don't give a shit! If he thinks the life of a woodcutter is so fucking bad . . . fuck him! Let him go back to stealing! 'We live like rats,' he said."
"At least he said 'we,' " Yvonne had murmured.
If the day when Faustino had left was clear and limitless, today was the opposite, the leaden sky soldered low and tight onto the horizon. Chícoma Peak across the valley was a solid triangle of snow. Teófilo glanced behind the seat to make sure the tire chains were there, and they were, bunched like a ball of steel snakes. Beside them lay a rusted old wood-splitting wedge, and the two of them together, wedge and chains, reminded him of a dream he had had in which his brother, having escaped from prison, came to him in shackles, and Teófilo freed him of them with a single blow of his sledge-driven wedge.
Yvonne knew how to put the tire chains on, even in the dark, and it would be dark when she drove back from Albuquerque. She was very capable. Much more capable, he often thought, with a kind of fearful love, than he.
And far more knowledgeable about the world. Sometimes her greater knowledge shamed him, but right now he was not ashamed to ask her what he had wanted to ask when she had read him that last letter from Faustino.
"Prieta, what is Crip?"
"It's a gang," she replied. "Crips and Bloods. Those are gangs."
"And what is mayate? What is that?"
Her dark complexion deepened. "It means, you know, Black. It's a bad word for a Black man."
Teófilo thought about the first and only Black man he had ever seen. It was at the Furr's in Española. He was a large man the color of Río Grande basalt, with hair so short it looked like lichen. Teófilo followed him discreetly around for a while to see what he bought: nothing unusual at first, just chips and Cokes, but then the Black man picked up a long package of pigs' feet, and that gave Teófilo a strange feeling of solidarity with him: Anglos never bought pigs' feet. Teófilo noticed then that the chocolate-shirted Furr's security officer, an hispano, was also following the Black man around, and anger flashed in him that this cop was hassling a brother. Then he caught himself: what did he, a wood man from the sierra, really know about these things? After all, Faustino's letters from prison made it seem that Blacks were natural-born criminals.
On I-25 south of Santa Fe, Teófilo let his eyes dart to the barren plains to the east, where the Penitentiary of New Mexico was said to lie. He could see no sign of it, though, and could only imagine it sitting out there in the darkening emptiness, a crowded den of restless men behind a tangle of barbed wire. He imagined all the various tribes swarming in there, the ones his brother had told him about: cholos, mexicanos, mayates, Apaches, mafiosos, bikers. At times he had had almost a kind of envy for his little brother's knowledge of this complex society; but now he could only think of it as a nest of rats turning on each other, as rats from different tribes always did.
It was evening rush hour in Albuquerque, the traffic tight and tense, cutting in front of him, riding his tail. Forced to stay in the middle lane, he nearly missed his exit to the airport and kept going to Belén. He swerved onto the looping ramp at the last moment, bald tires squealing. The car behind him, a small red sports car, blared its insulting horn at him. Yvonne caught her breath, perspiration bloomed under his arms, and for an uncontrolled instant the pickup slid toward the dusty little cemetery that lay below the ramp like a collection of a hundred forgotten roadside descansos, before correcting itself.
The airport signs baffled Yvonne: long-term parking/short-term parking/baggage claim/departures/arrivals . . . a barrage of arrows.
"Take\--" She hesitated. "Take that lane!"
Teófilo swung into the lane to his left. Before them loomed a concrete portal, some of its entrances lit with green lights, others with red. The incoming cars jockeyed to the green ones, where drivers snatched cards from metal boxes. Striped bars rose and fell, letting the cars into the hulking garage.
Yvonne could not make out the words on the dimly lit box. "Let me see if I have change," she said, hunting in her purse. "Maybe it wants coins."
The car behind them gave a long blast of its shrill horn. Teófilo glanced in the rearview: it was the little red sports car again. A Black man in a fur coat leaned out of its window. His bald head, sticking up from that feathery coat, looked like a turkey vulture's.
"Hey, cowboy, what the fuck you doin'? What the fuck you doin'?"
Teófilo's heart stopped, as if to gather strength for the next beat; and when the next one finally came, it jumped into his throat and exploded there, strangling his curse.
The Black man swiped the air in disgust, careered into reverse, took another lane. The bar rose smoothly for him, and he hurtled into the garage, the screech of his tires echoing jeeringly from the darkness.
Yvonne leaned into her husband's trembling body to scrutinize the box again. "Déjalo, Teo, forget it, it's not worth it," she murmured. She reached over and pushed the button, and a ticket popped out like a mocking tongue. She yanked the ticket and the wooden bar rose.
The mayate's insults ringing in his ears, Teófilo experienced the same weakening in his legs he had felt after Yvonne read him this morning's letter. His shaky foot released the clutch too abruptly, and the pickup bucked and stalled. Yvonne threw her arms over her face as the bar came down with a thud on the windshield.
Teófilo did not punch the button again or get out to try to lift the bar. Instead, he turned the engine back on, revved it, and drove forward. The wooden bar bent against the windshield post and gave with a sharp and satisfying snap, like the brush he sometimes had to drive through on a long-abandoned lumber road. Yvonne gasped and glanced around, but no one was behind them now and no one seemed to have noticed.
Travelers thronged the terminal. Yvonne hurried to a row of TV screens. "Here. America West. Departure to San Francisco in, let's see . . . twenty-five minutes! Let's go, Teo."
She led him to a ragged line of passengers. A weary Anglo family in front of him nudged their enormous bags forward with sneakered feet. He stared down at his boots. "Cowboy," the mayate had called him.
Yvonne asked the harried, pink-cheeked woman at the counter about the next flight to San Francisco, and the woman typed crisply on a keyboard and said, "Yes, we have one seat available, how would you like to pay for that?"
Teófilo had forgotten to take the cash from his boot ahead of time, as he had planned to do. Now he cocked his left ankle over his right shin and tried to work the boot off as fast as he could. Yvonne grabbed his leg to help. Groans from impatient travelers rose behind them. At last they got the boot down far enough to extract the limp wad. The woman at the counter counted the bills disdainfully with her carmine fingernails.
His face burning with shame, Teófilo hobbled aside and braced himself against the counter to pull his boot back on. In the midst of his struggle he glanced up and met an audience of faces, some amused, some curious, others merely bored. And there, in the middle of the adjacent line, laughing with a blond girl, fur coat and shirt open to mid-chest to reveal a broad curve of pectoral muscle and a massive gold chain, stood the Black man.
Neither the blond girl nor the Black man was looking at him, and later he would come to believe they had not been laughing at him at all. But at the moment he was sure they were. He jammed his foot down hard, and the boot twisted to the side, throwing him off balance.
He heard his wife's voice as if through a bank of fog: "Gate 5-A, Teo."
The boot popped into place at the same time that his rage and humiliation locked in to a purpose. "Wait here," he told her hoarsely, and disappeared toward the garage.
He remembered something his brother had written: "Aquí en la pinta, el que madruga, la gana, bro. You got to get a jump on your enemy." Which is how they had gotten Faustino, no doubt. They had sneaked up on him. Le madrugaron. The other inmates would have turned their backs on the attack, saying nothing for fear of being branded ratas themselves.
Teófilo made a beeline to his truck, knowing where it rested among the other vehicles as surely as he knew where a given tree lay in the forest. He rummaged in the darkness behind the seat for any kind of makeshift weapon. Shanks, Faustino called them, something like that. He found the splitting wedge next to the tire chains. A rusty five-pounder. It felt good and familiar in his hand. He slipped it into the front pocket of his coat and strode back to the terminal.
He glimpsed a flash of fur disappearing into the men's room like a wild animal. He started after it, eyes hot, hand sweaty on the wedge. He imagined his brother being stabbed over and over by the mayates in a dim, shabby prison latrine, the tiles cracked, the blood pooling in the trough with the piss. And now Teófilo imagined himself driving the wedge into this mayate's black skull, the way cattle are stunned to death.
But he was unable to follow him into the rest room. He remained outside its doors, cold and shaking. It was with relief that he saw his wife approach.
"Teo, where have you been?" she asked. "We got to hurry. The plane's about to go!" She looked into his sweating face. "Ay, Teo. Ay, Teo. It's going to be okay. Faustino's going to be okay. But you got to go now. You have to go see him."
She steered him down the crowded corridor. The security men at the checkpoint told him to put his belt buckle, and everything metal in his pockets, in a plastic tray. Dazed, he drew his belt through the loops of his jeans and rolled it up and placed it in the dish. Then he took the wedge from his coat and placed it beside the belt. The men stared at it.
"He's a woodchopper," Yvonne explained quickly. "He forgets he's carrying it."
"Forgets he's carrying this?" said one of the security men, the Black one, hefting the wedge in his palm and laughing.
"Yes, he forgets he carries it," she insisted, but she was looking at Teófilo strangely. "Just keep it here and I'll be right back for it," she told the men.
The Black man made a chopping motion with the wedge, like a caveman with a hand ax, and laughed again, shaking his head.
Teófilo looped his belt back on. Now he wanted to laugh too, crazy-man laughter. He wanted to snatch the buckle off his body, this buckle that read, "Baca," and with a yell of insane glee, hurl it down the corridor so it could be trampled by this mass of purposeful and competent city people. Because fuck the Bacas, right? Fuck the Bacas and the horse they rode in on, these fuck-up people from the nothing village of Las Trampas, New Mexico. All of them fools, pendejos, a whole line of pendejos beginning with the first Bacas the valley people sent up there to fight off the Comanches trying to come across the mountains. Now they were nothing but wood rats and criminals. Las Trampas de los Pendejos, should be the full name, the Trap of Fools. So laugh, all you gringos and all you mayates, you have a right.
"Teófilo? Amor? You got to board now." Yvonne handed him a plastic orange card. Then she held him to her. "Ay, Dios mío. Oh, my God. Give my love to Faustino. If you need me to come out, call Tía and leave a message. Bueno? I can get the money."
And then she was gone.
The plane was nearly full. A flight attendant guided him to his seat and buckled him in like a baby. It was a seat by the window, but he couldn't see anything outside, only a dull blur of himself.
A moment later he heard a man's big, friendly voice boom down the aisle, and then a heavy figure sat down beside him. A volley of exotic scent hit him. He cracked his tear-dampened eyes. It was the Black man in the fur coat.
"Oh, man, this traveling just wipes me out," groaned the man. "I just about missed this little old flight." He shifted his weight. "Hooee. Well. Hey, I'm Reginald King." Awkwardly from his cramped position, he stuck his many-ringed hand into Teófilo's chest.
Teófilo's heart thrashed, but he remained paralyzed in his seat, trapped and helpless. Anger sparked in the Black man's eyes when Teófilo did not reach for his hand, and then faded when his gaze dropped to the worn felt hat in Teófilo's lap.
"Oh, yeah, okay, now I get it," he said, and leaned heavily back in his seat. "Just my luck."
The plane began to taxi and the man spoke again. He spoke in a murmur, looking straight ahead. "You know . . . people in the city, in the urban life, go crazy. It's a crazy life, man. You yell at people in traffic. You yell at people you don't know. People you don't know, and you think you'll never see again. It's the freedom of being anonymous, know what I'm saying? It's crazy, man, crazy." He rested his head on the headrest and closed his eyes. "Oh, man."
The pilot's voice crackled over the intercom to announce that they were awaiting clearance for takeoff. Then the Black man spoke again, softly, eyes still closed.
"You're from, how'll I say it, the country, right? I'm from Oakland, California. Sometimes I think, damn, what would it be like to be from a rural place, where you know everybody, their whole family, everything that's happened to them. You know what they've been through, and you learn to be careful about what you say. The only time I learned to do that was when I was doing time, you know, in prison, where you know you're going to have to see, every day, the guy you just dissed. And then you get back into the outside, and you forget again . . . know what I'm saying?"
The shrill of the jet engines grew, and the plane moved forward and gathered speed. Teófilo sensed a strange gathering in some centerless center of his body, and then something, like the tender finger of God, pressed into his heart, and calmed it.
The Black man put his hand out again, pale palm cupped and facing upward. "Hey, look, my man, I'm sorry about all that in the garage out there. All right? Okay, brother?"
The plane lifted from the ground, and Teófilo felt a tremendous release. And though he knew this was the effect of their becoming aloft, he was sure, too, that this is what it felt like when the soul left the body upon death.
In front of him, against the dark blue of the seat, remained that outstretched hand, warm and waiting.