“I don’t care what she said, I care what she did to our family.”
“She didn’t do anything to this family, Chuleta, that was you. You’re the one who tore it apart, rib by rib and slice by slice. You took up your fork and smashed it down flat against our skulls. What choice do you think we had? Answer me that, and then I’ll believe it’s her fault.”
“I’ll kill her.”
“Yes, I would. And you know what, I’ll kill you too. I’m gonna kill everyone in this place, and I’m gonna smile while I do it. You hear me? You hear this? This is the sound of a man who’s had enough. And you know what happens when a man has enough? He snaps. I’m gonna snap too, and when I do, your neck is gonna follow.”
“Don’t do anything you would regret, brother.”
“Don’t call me your brother.”
“Is that not what you are?”
b a n g.
“Is that not what,” Chuleta said, “What you are?”
He stepped over the body now lying in a splash of sealskin slick blood and sighed, avoiding the gaze of the startled bartender and brushing pieces of fragmented bone off his jacket. There was no point in sticking around where he was wanted, especially when those who wanted him were those who would rather tuck him away in a coffin than see him rot in jail. No, Chuleta wasn’t scared of the law that the police kept. He was scared of the men who kept the law of the streets, the men who wouldn’t hesitate to lope his arms off, feed his feet to a crocodile, and then pop his eyes out and set them on a soap dish to watch as his last hopes and dreams fell down the sink. Another danger filled his mind; the thoughts which invaded his brain day in and day out.
Vianca. She was a coarse kind of woman, if you could call her that- it was debated based on her age- and she spoke like she looked, her tongue as fast as her hands, stealing anything she could wrap her fingers around. Chuleta first met her at a funeral. He should have seen the end coming even then, but he was distracted. Vianca had sauntered up to him while he picked at the olives set in a row on the buffet table, his eyes wandering and listless as he prodded the black spheres with the end of his knife. Some might say it was not appropriate to carry the thing around, seeing as it was sharper than the women’s gossip on a Sunday and quicker than a newsboy on his payday, but as usual, Chuleta did not listen to them. The knife was his child, and it would have been more inappropriate for a father to abandon his son than to take him to a funeral, no?
Vianca’s hands were always so cold.
Cold, cold, cold. That’s all Chuleta could think of when he imagined her, shiny eyes all green and sticky with tears, dress wrapped tight around her, more glove than attire, squeezing her here and there in a way that would have made weaker men collapse into her arms. That was her trick, Chuleta knew. She played the part well, but he had seen it before and he saw through it now. She had hit his hand with her own, then glanced over at him with her sticky teary eyes all aglow, like it was some sort of scandal already. It wasn’t. Chuleta wouldn’t let it be a scandal. He stepped away from her, that day at his uncle’s funeral, and walked away back to his seat. That woman, he told his brother next to him, is a spy. His brother had shaken his head and laughed.
“No, she’s not a spy.”
“Then who is she?”
“She’s my girlfriend.”
Chuleta should have shot him then. He didn’t know how things would escalate though. Not all the future thinking in the world could have prepared him, and if there was one thing that Chuleta knew about himself, it was that he was a forward thinker. He should have seen it coming.
It was all so obvious.
Chuleta continued out of the bar, holding his head at an angle at which he hoped would keep him safe from recognition. There were eyes, ears, noses, feet everywhere. He couldn’t trust anyone, especially not himself. All he had to do was get home without getting killed. Or killing anyone else. He didn’t like shooting his brother, no matter how callous he acted towards the situation. Of course he cared. But he couldn’t realize that, it would only stop him from doing what he needed to.
He kept walking, the leaves on the sidewalk crunching under his big black shoes. They were his best pair, but now, due to the spotty red stains leading a trail to his socked ankled, they would have to be demoted. Blood. Messy. Chuleta should have worn sneakers. That way he could have thrown them away without feeling the money leaving his pockets. Sneakers, at least the ones he would have bought, were cheap as dirt and ran faster than wet mud, slashing and slopping through the streets and gutters after a cleansing rain. Man, what would Chuleta do to have it rain. To stare up at the sky and watch the clouds peel back and feel the water slapping at his clothes, shredding away every last layer of guilt, making his body heavy with freezing drops but lighter of the poison within. What Chuleta would do, well, for a lot of things. As he walked, a young girl passed him, pushing a small stroller.
His stomach made a squelching noise and he leaned against the nearest building, for once not caring about who did or didn’t see him. He had killed her. Taken the gun from his jacket and pressed it to her window and pulled the trigger and watched her fall, dishes breaking at the same time she hit the ground, her body bouncing like a rubber ball you could buy for quarters at any corner shop. Chuleta had killed her. Not the girl pushing the stroller. He killed her. Vianca. And yet he used her as an ultimatum against his brother, who loved her more than a boat loves the sea, more than the sea loves a storm. He should have never done that, not when he knew the guilt of killing her would worm inside his body like hot fire, turning him to ash from the top of his sordid head to the bottom of his peeling feet. The girl pushing the stroller glared at him.
Could she see what he saw when he looked in the mirror? It pained him to move away from the support behind him, but he had to move before he became one with the brick wall. He stumbled down the rest of the way, swerving but more sober than he had been the day of his birth. There was no alcohol that could eat at him like the toxins of his own actions. It was wearing at him, eroding his bones and making him pull at his own hair, taking chunks of it between his fingers and throwing the strands-black and gray both mixed- onto the sidewalk. This was, against his better judgement, the perfect picture of a man in torment.
“Why don’t you like me?” Vianca had asked him once, when they were alone on the back porch at his mother’s house. His brother had gone inside, either to get another bowl of food or to steal from someone’s purse, and Chuleta had been left with her. She sat across the table, long legs crossed underneath her and slender- though some would call it gaunt- face cupped in both her hands. She’d just had her nails done. They were red. Chuleta found her manicures a waste of the family’s money, but his brother insisted on allowing her to go to the salon whenever she wanted. It was an issue of spoiling the women, Chuleta always said, that ended so sourly. That was one of the reasons he never got involved with the girls anyway. They were a piece of work, sure, but he doubted whether that was worth the work he’d have to do to keep them happy. He wondered it more as Vianca leaned across the table. She’d asked again, “Why don’t you like me?”
“What is there to like?”
Vianca rearranged herself, tossing her locks of licking blonde hair and adjusting the neckline of her blouse up along her collarbone. “I think there’s a rather lot to like, Franny.”
“What did you call me?”
“I heard your brother call you that once-”
“And? I heard my brother call you all sorts of things, that doesn’t mean I repeat them, does it? Haven’t you learned any manners yet, or did you leave those when you left your father’s little goat farm?”
“Shut up.” Vianca had a way of commanding anyone around, and it made Chuleta’s nerves buzz with fury. “You don’t know anything about me.”
“Then you should know that you know even less about me, about my brother, about our family. And don’t tell me what to do with my mouth, little girl.”
“There’s nothing little about me.”
Chuleta laughed, “Then I guess we’re not counting having sense, because I would bet any prize in the world that you’re lacking an ounce or two of that. Hm? What? I said it. You’re not smart to be bothering me like this.”
“You think I’m scared of you?”
“You think I’m impressed by you?”
“No.” Chuleta had his eyes locked with hers, a battle which he intended to win at all costs. “Look at me.”
Her gaze dropped to the table then. “I won’t.”
“Oh, but you will. You’ve always been looking at me. You wanna know why I don’t like you, Vianca? It’s because everytime I’m near you, I can feel the desperation radiating off your body like the stink of a pickle jar. I can see your eyes following me, like I’m some delicious steak you can’t wait to stick a fork into. You think you hide it well, but I know what you want, and it’s not my brother. How would I let you do that to him, to me, to our family? He loves you.” Chuleta hit the table with his palm, flat down. “Do better.”
He could’ve left it there, but Vianca kept her eyes stuck to his like tacks in a cork board. She had her teeth in something and for whatever reason unbeknownst to Chuleta, she wouldn’t let go of it no matter how hard he pushed her. “I don’t love you, you know.”
“No,” Chuleta laughed again, this time the harsh edge cracking, “I know you don’t. But I do know you love the power I have in the city, this state, some might even say the country. I know you look at me like I’m some kind of royalty but let me tell you something and you’d better listen if you value your life even as a worm values his.” Vianca’s alert eyes now scraped the table, but Chuleta lifted her face back to meet his. His hands were gentle, kind even, but behind every muscle movement was a greater motivation, and Vianca could feel that in every finger from pinky to pinky. “I’m not the kind of person you want mucking about in your garden, alright? I can’t settle, I won’t settle, I tried to imagine myself settling once and I got so amused by the idea that I almost crashed my whole car into a compound of garbage cans. So whatever princess you fancy you’d be with me, you’re wrong. I don’t share my crown with anyone, much less chihuahuas.”
“Did you just call me a chihuahua?”
“Yeah, why, would you rather be a pomeranian? Look, either way, I’m the bigger dog. And you know what big dogs do to little, yippy, obnoxious dogs?”
Vianca nodded, “They tear open their stomachs and eat their internal organs, then carry the disembowled carcasses back to their favorite digging spot, where they-”
“I was just gonna go with something ‘kill them’ but that works too.”
“Sure, whatever floats your boat.”
“This is another reason I like you. You can be all mean and scary and threatening to kill me one second and then the next, you’re making jokes like nothing happened, like you don’t care anymore. I want that thick skin. I want to learn from you, how to be so callous and unfeeling but still maintain my humanity.”
Chuleta wondered if she still found him to be humane as his face popped up in her kitchen window, seconds before he broke her dishes, her heart, and her life. He kept walking down the street, but the images of his brother, of Vianca, of every other person who had gotten in his way sometime or another, all their swirling faces spun around in the washing machine of his mind. No matter how hard the machine ran, though, there was no washing the crimes he had done. He was the stain in the streets and as much as he wanted to scrub his hands of the blood he expelled from so many people’s bodies, there seemed to be no atonement. No one mourns the wicked, but everyone misses the innocent.
The people Chuleta passed as he walked back home stared at him, trying to figure out what had cracked his clock, but they couldn’t find it. He wore the secrets of what he’d done- not just the murders but the other, darker secrets too- deep in his chest, so deep that they only showed themselves to the light when it was being popped down his throat. He turned the corner, so close to his apartment, and saw the billboard. It was huge, and glimmering, and her face was the main feature.
THE INNER WORKINGS OF THE UNDERBELLY: A GRITTY NEW EXPOSE BY AWARD WINNING JOURNALIST VIANCA PORTELLO.
She had exposed them.
Snaked her way into their hearts and then crawled out their empty eye sockets. Vianca Portello was never in it for the love, for the power Chuleta had come to think she wanted. She was working for them, for the outside world, for those who would think of Chuleta and Alfombra, the two brothers, as something so criminal in foundation that not even the cockroaches of the city would want to eat them once they were gone.