[Follows " Microcosm", "Hebrews 13: 1-2 ", " The son never shines on closed doors" and "July 4th"]
Ernie watches the stranger walk away and gloats over Lou's bewildered look.
He smirks and takes a sip out of a bottle still wrapped in a brown bag.
« That'll learn him". He feels a slight burning in his throat as the syrupy beverage makes its way slowly down. On reaching its stomach, a soft warmth, right in the pit, reminds him he has not eaten yet and still does not feel like it.
He guffaws loudly as he shuffles his gaunt frame across the room and flops down into a sagging armchair. Saliva is dribbling down his chin onto his naked chest but he does not seem to care. He looks at his strangely-shaped reflection in the TV screen. It looks as if he were made out of gum, easily moulded, elastic. His ribs can easily be counted and his muscles are well-chiselled , although empty of true substance.
He tries to look harder in the dull green screen but cannot find any traces of her. This place, with the shaggy carpeting, the rickety pieces of furniture, badly-insulated, with its cohorts of cockroaches making their way from one sink to another, is the only thing she has left behind. One day, she just didn't come back.
And yet, at some point, they were doing great. She found some work at a shopping mall, 50 miles from Resguardo. She had to wake up very early, leaving Ernie behind, a knot around stomach and throat as she took a last look at her boy peacefully breathing in deep sleep. Every now and then, during the day, while sweeping floors and picking up trash, she was seized by creeping anxiety. Did she lock the door correctly on her way out? Every morning, she worked at the handle, pushing it up and down, just to make sure that no one would creep inside and discover her scrawny boy swaddled into the sheets surrounded by fraying plush toys. She could barely grab a bite at lunch,scanning her sleepy morning memories, trying to remember if she did turn off the gas switch. Did she leave the potato chips and the can of coke on the counter? Would the boy go out and get into trouble?
Ernie then switches to that summer holiday. He still can't quite figure how she managed a station wagon, even though its tail pipe touched the asphalt with every rut, the brakes grating worryingly and it felt as if it took the car forever to stop. Foam tried to escape from tears in the seat. And the wipers stuck needlessly to the cracked windshield. Layers of dust made you cough and you were lucky if the twisted aerial managed to receive any station. A suspicious whine came from somewhere under the hood, and they had to stop to let the car cool in the shade. Even though they drove through endless straight road, he grabbed the overhead handle. His mother was positioned close to the wheel, staring straight forward as if it was about to be swept away. She lost her temper every time a truck passed them and honked its disapproval at his mother's turtle pace. She drove close to the right side and sometimes you could hear the tyres screech for driving athwart the dirt shoulder.
But Ernie relishes the memory anyways. The countless stops in roadside diners with the checkered floors, the cheap red leather booth, the Formica table tops cleaned up with drenched tea towels, the suspicious look of the waitress and her tattooed husband looking at them from the kitchen, chewing gum ostensibly, mumbling racial slurs under his breath. The people you met on the road, at gas stations, in the middle of the night, the sleeps in motels every three days for shower and breakfast, the long lonely road with stray birds perched on picket fences, soaring as you drove by.
« Mom, are we there yet? »
« Whatddaya mean , there? » A hint of worry in her voice. “What’s home to you anyway?”
“ Resguardo , Mom, I mean this is where I ‘ve always lived. This is home fer me, fer sure”
She didn't answer, looked in her rear-view mirror and pretended to holler at the truck which was not driving on her ass.
“You never dreamt livin’ some other place? What’s there in Resguardo?”
“Anita’s there, she’s a nice girl mom”
She could not find anything to say about the little girl, living with her mother and little brother at the top of the liquor store. The way her husband had died; she had never wanted Ernie to go back playing around the Lank’s farm.
“The girl’s all right”. She still resented Maria’s getting that job at the liquor store.
“So , where are we going mom?”.
At that time, he did not know that this drive east was a last resort. She had to find him again. She got the address from his sister, always ready to play her brother a bad turn “ Doncha forget to tell him you track’d him down because of me sis” hanging up in her characteristic guffaw. That bum had to pay. Disappearing in the middle of the night after a quickie in the kitchen, to apologise once again, for coming home late smelling of cheap perfume, alcohol and tobacco, fucking his way out of trouble. “ ‘m out honey, need to get this nigger smokes from the Chicano”. Of course, he never came back, her tip jar wolfed away, listening at the clock as it was mocking her for thinking he would show up eventually, the ticks turning seconds into minutes, minutes into hours, hours into days, days into months leading her to that fateful phone call she had always imagined but did not expect when it rang through the emptiness of the living-room. Her mom had died, some money was in her way, she could finally start over.
But Ernie has never received such a phone call. He whiles the time away, buying quarts from Anita, doing odd jobs, minding his mother’s warning (“Don’t you go near the Lank’s farm”), he could have left the place a thousand times, sold it for a few bucks, hopped on the bus to wherever, followed the Lank boy to that city on the Pacific, found himself a nice place, a nice girl, drinking buddies to share barbecues and coolers full of beers, had a kid or two and been a father, a real one, taken good care of their mothers. But first,he needs that phone to ring.