I was twenty and living in the house on Toluca and Elmore with a friend who at some point in his life had an accident that left his face severely burned. His name was Marcelino. He would go on to live another twenty-three years. His son, my godson, who spoke no Spanish, let me know his father had passed on. He did not mention that a young woman had lured him into an empty apartment where she’d had a male friend hide under the bed, or most likely, in the bedroom closet. He’d been found pants at his ankles, pockets empty, a victim of blunt force trauma.
I first met Marcelino while bussing tables at a Wyatt’s back when the Montgomery Ward’s had just opened in Wynnewood Village. They kept him in the back and wouldn’t let him come out to bus the tables. We served mainly wealthy and very old white people. You imagined they lived in those houses on Colorado. At their request, I would sometimes walk older ladies to their Cadillacs. Once I had to sing a Juan Gabriel song before one would let go of my wrist. Learn English, the manager said to me, and maybe you can get out there and wait some tables. But before I could learn enough, I left to work in a factory in Farmers Branch that was hiring. Marcelino came with me. Not much later we were renting together. We lived right next to a William’s Chicken, our skin frequently smelled of pollo; we were near a campo where paisas and children gathered to play, we were close to Wynnewood, you could hear the crows. Nearly every house had iron bars over its windows. We thought the bars ridiculous mostly because we didn’t have them and because we had nothing a soul (not even a desperate one) would want. Bars or no bars, if you did have something worth having, they’d take it, whether you were ridiculous about home security or not.
The day we moved into the house on Toluca we witnessed a Caprice hit a man and then go on its way smoothly like there was all the time in the world, the way you drive past an accident trying in too little time to spot blood, gauge the damage—human and material. He’d been inside the Caprice first, Marcelino was telling the few people who came out of their homes to see. Then, Marcelino said, the man got out, walked in front of the vehicle, yelled something foul at it and walked ahead. The Caprice stood still for a few seconds but moments later got some speed and struck him. The man’s body landed in our jardín, not far from where we’d been standing. We thought he was going to die right there but he must’ve had other plans because he kept yelling that no one better call nueve-once. Well fuck him, a woman said before leaving. He kept saying it until all the people who’d gathered lost interest and dispersed. I grabbed him and wiped his face down with my shirt. You need to get to Parkland, I said. Marcelino said to send the man away before they came back to finish him up and took us entre las patas. I didn’t listen.
I just need something for the payphone, the man said.
I said I’d look for monedas inside.
Don’t give him shit, Marcelino said. And: If he got run down, he must’ve done something to somebody somewhere. That afternoon I sent the man off into the city of Dallas with a cup of water and a little more than a dollar in change. For a long time you could find evidence of what had happened: little shadows on the pavement the color of boiled beets.
As alone as we were, having a woman was more important than drinking water. That’s why it hadn’t bothered me when Karina came to live with us even though she wouldn’t put in on rent. The first time I saw her was on my way to the restroom to urinate at around two or three in the morning. I’d been sleeping. I saw her in the living room, sitting on Marcelino’s legs, her bra at her feet. Because it was so quiet in the house and because I’d still been under the impression that people could tell how big your dick was by how loud you pissed, I’d attempted to pee extra hard. The next morning we drove to her apartment and brought her things with us. Back at the house, she had the nerve to ask what I never had: What happened to your face, Marcelino. Teasing, he said, What’s wrong with my face? I walked out while he got serious and told her the truth.
She had wanted me to meet a sister-in-law of hers who she would later have issues with:
I’m telling you, she said, if she wasn’t the mother of my brother’s child…
But I had a woman. Liliana. Our relationship consisted of distance and a back and forth of letters. I was to write her until I’d saved enough to afford a coyote of reputation who’d cross her with fake papers.
Sometimes, while I was writing, Karina would come over the shoulder and say, You think she’s waiting for you. She’s been through half the pueblo by now.
Liliana thought I’d be the one to move on first.
Alfonso Lomeli, they all move on. How are you different?
You’ll see, I wrote back.
I thought it would be powerful to write a letter containing only those words, but by the time it reached her (and plus whatever time it took her to actually read it—I had this nasty feeling inside, a sickening suspicion that my letters weren’t what they used to be for her) all context had been lost. We spent about two letters figuring out what I’d meant by “You’ll see”.
Oh, yes, she responded finally—along with some other thoughts and concerns.
Marcelino didn’t believe in waiting like I was doing. He suggested I be as unfaithful as I could while I could because it would get harder once Liliana was in the country. During the three years we lived together, Marcelino had slept with more women than I thought healthy: ones who loved him, those who would fuck him but wouldn’t put their lips to his, those who were with him because they had no place else to go, and, most often, the ones he paid. Once he brought a woman like that home for me. He had knocked for me to come out my room: I got you a little something for your troubles, he said, come out. Te va a gustar. I was a little heartbroken. Liliana had taken longer than usual to respond to one of my letters. I wanted to be alone so I said nothing. I thought the little something would be a bottle or a plate of food. Hours passed before I finally emerged because I needed to urinate—again at around two or three. There was a dark figure on the sofa: Marcelino, I said. It was a woman. She’d been sleeping, some hair was in her mouth so there was a sheen to her strands from saliva. Soy Ana, she said. Ana told me parts of her life and I listened from a distance, and then we were kissing and then she went back to sleeping. After, I thought to write Liliana to let her know. That, Marcelino had said, was why I was alone and he wasn’t.
As a rule, we went out only as necessary. To the lavandería, the mercado, the pulga, the yonque then straight back to Toluca and Elmore. But when the sadness was upon us, we’d get fuck-the-migra reckless and hit the billar on Polk and play and drink and talk non-stop like a bunch of hard-up hornballs recently free from jail. At that same pool hall, I had to pull Marcelino away from a man who kept staring at him. Like what you see, Marcelino said, and before the man could say whether he did or didn’t, Marcelino was upon him. I grabbed him around his neck, trying not to touch his face. The others, friends we’d made that very night, went for his legs. Back at the house, we’d agree to never go out again. But then we would.
We rarely drove though; if we did we’d do it like there was someone trailing us, a friend following us from point A to B. We’d look over our shoulders with frequency to make sure they’d caught the exits and turned right or left when we did. The one time we braved it and travelled outside of Dallas, we came back to find our television gone. Karina had sold it. We’d gone out to Galveston, just the two of us. She’d said she didn’t want to come because she was going over to her mother’s. She wasn’t there when we came back but two nights later she appeared. Marcelino didn’t even let her speak. She left, and I thought it was the last we’d see of her.
Across the street from us a woman named Sabrina had roses, gardenias, and lilies coming out the ground, and a magnolia with flowers the size of human skulls. Our piece of earth gave us no more than a sad bundle of nopal. We assumed Sabrina was single. We’d stop by when we saw her outside messing with her garden, but though she was always kind, she never seemed into us. She must be lesbian, Marcelino said, giving up. She was hard to find because she worked third shift. But I tried. I was writing Liliana less and less. All I really had was Marcelino and some brief, meaningless moments with women that I thought meant more. The looks of women at the factory who would whisper things to each other when I passed or the times I fell in love for trifles: a woman taking your hands to see how cold they were then making you a coffee only to never ever do it again.
Karina, after a month or so, started coming around every so often and if we let her in, we kept close watch. She’d go with Marcelino into his room and they’d emerge after about an hour and then she’d leave. She’d always ask me, Are you still with that girl?
The last time she came over was with a man she said was a relative. His name was Jessie. They arrived at around nine one night during the coldest October I’d ever know. Marcelino said don’t answer but I told him Karina was out there with just a sweater, her face paler than the fat on slabs of meat. We’d been fighting desperately to keep warm. Had switched on all the burners and, for a reason that seemed legitimate at the time, I’d stuffed socks in my pockets. We had nothing in our closet for the cold; the year before we’d gone in late November and bought a paycheck’s worth of winter clothes from the pulga. But we’d donated it at the first hint of warmth. This frio had caught us pants down, bien pinche desprevenidos. When we let them in, Jessie, who neither of us knew, said: She’s pregnant! The bulge under Karina’s sweater was no child. It was a small heater, the extension cord hanging down below her knees. We huddled around it and were drinking here and there freely from a bottle of Hennessy because Marcelino hadn’t put his mouth to it yet. Unlike his face, his lips were normal except they hung strange, favoring the right. Then we got hungry and spoke of eating and, more specifically, of eating chicken—William’s Chicken. We ate a lot of chicken in those years because William’s was closer than the mercado, which we had to walk to Illinois and Zang for.
I took my time walking to William’s because Jessie had made me nervous. I was praying—no, that’s a little much—I was hoping Marcelino would get rid of them by the time I returned. On the way I kept looking above to the roofs of the neighborhood to see who had chimneys. Sabrina had one. Earlier we’d spent some time outside her home with a Polaroid camera we’d gone mita y mita on. Marcelino kept saying to lift my chin and inhale so my chest would swell. We’d been taking turns in front of her house prepared to send away photos to families claiming what was hers as ours. If we could fit it we’d write the year down and something small like I’m fine or Working and send them off to family.
Or to Liliana: your garden awaits.
While walking back I was glad to have the heat coming out the bag work its way up around my hand, though after some hurried steps it turned into only a tepid presence. When I arrived, I found the door had been left open. Marcelino sat in the hallway holding his face, blood coming down from his head and onto one of those good-looking sweaters he liked to wear.
Told you not to let her in, he said.
I put a pot in the sink and let the water run til warm and had a rag ready for him. I knelt next to Marcelino who was in the same position as when I found him: one hand on his face, the other down next to his leg. They’d pulled his pockets out and his wallet, still fat with business cards, didn’t have a buck in it. There wasn’t much else to take: we had beds to sleep in and chairs to sit on and a table we got garajiando for what it costs to patch a tire. Te dije, he said again, and slid a little closer to me, waiting, I believe, for me to put the rag on his head. He waited for what felt like minutes, could’ve waited an hour—I wasn’t going to do it. I had my hand out so he’d take the rag and he looked up at me and then finally he took the rag and placed it over his face. We didn’t touch the chicken that night but I had thought to warm it up for us in the morning.
When I woke, the rooms smelled like Brut and a two-piece and hair gel. Marcelino was outside wearing the coat he liked, suede and borrego. Because of his burns, you wouldn’t guess he’d taken a beating. You’d have to look closely, but I always thought it inappropriate to stare at someone’s misfortune. Apart from some swelling, I only knew he’d been hurting because he popped several pain relievers, and because on the table, next to the chicken we hadn’t eaten, was a slowly dissolving paper towel with ice cubes in it. Jimena, the woman he’d been seeing lately, was inside her Impala, Marcelino under the hood trying to make it run. I stepped out a raíz, toes curling upwards with cold. My exhalations and theirs like puffs of talcum.
Where you going, I called out to him.
Iglesia, he said, con Jimena. Marcelino never went to church unless there was going to be a raffle or someone we knew had died.
He’d been seeing her often, every Tuesday and every Friday for nearly two months. And for the most part he’d been faithful. I smoked a cigarette and went inside thinking to put something on and help him out. And maybe get invited to church. I was young enough to think that every woman was interested in me, so I threw some water on my face and hair and was going to walk out there with only my shirt like the cold didn’t bother me even though our windows still looked like a drinking glass left too long in the freezer. I had a mustache then. I went out with my sad looking mustache and an unbuttoned shirt feeling the hair on my chest crinkle. But they were already making a right on Elmore. Motherfucker, I whispered as if there was someone who would’ve heard had I been louder. I’d pictured us eating and leaving for misa together. Instead I sat in the house waiting and writing Liliana, probably sounding a little desperate; it was one of the last letters I’d ever write her. When it was time to send it off, I included the Polaroid of me in front of Sabrina’s house we’d taken the day before when we were still shocked by the cold. It was hard to explain how cold it had been without snow or hielo coating the streets, fences, roofs and spigots. If she took the time to open the sobre, she’d see the picture and think it was taken sometime in June. She’d not believe it as cold as I’d said. I know it looks like summer, I wrote, but up here it feels like December.
Only weeks after the incident Marcelino moved in with Jimena. When he told me he was leaving, it felt like he was breaking up with me and I wanted to ask if I’d offended him somehow but he started speaking about helping me with the rent while I found a roommate or a woman. I refused.
Marcelino and I went our ways and I was nearly forgetting about him when I received a call from him asking if I’d godfather his son, his second. We hadn’t spoke for years but I said I’d do it. At the baptism, he told me he was working night shifts for Home Interiors with a bunch of chilangos and a Nigerian who claimed a lion had bit him. I was surprised when I held his child to look on a face unblemished as if the burns on his father’s face would leave a mark on him. I was still surprised at Jimena. Her hair was big, intentionally so; her dress something out of a Macy’s. Some of the women Marcelino used to associate with were butt ugly and often slid their hands in front of their mouths when they laughed or smiled because they were shy about their teeth. I was still working at the same fabrica, I told Marcelino, but had replaced the line lead who’d had his hand stuck in the assembly line, tore things in there, and had yet to return. I didn’t tell him that I was starting up with a woman from Juarez or that Karina had called from Lew Sterrett once, only I hadn’t accepted the call. I sometimes wondered what would’ve been if Karina hadn’t come over that night, wondered if she’d of come at all had it not been so cold.
Y Liliana, he said.
I told him she had married. Como vez? I said.
Before he could answer, Jimena, all smiles, took Marcelino by the bicep and pulled him away toward other people. He looked back at me one last time, his face looking tender, some of it always threatening to very slowly slide off the side of his jaw. I waved to him, one of those waves you hope says more than see you later.