The following is an excerpt from Charles de Lint’s new novel, The Mystery of Grace, a self-contained tale of magic, loss, and redemption. Altagracia–her friends call her Grace–has a tattoo of Nuestra Señora de Altagracia on her shoulder, she’s got a Ford Motor Company tattoo running down her leg, and she has grease worked so deep into her hands that it’ll never wash out. Grace works at Sanchez Motorworks, customizing hot rods. Finding the line in a classic car is her calling.
Now Grace has to find the line in her own life.
* * *
The Mystery of Grace, by Charles de Lint (excerpt)
I do not understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are, but does not leave us where it found us.
– Anne LaMott, from Traveling Mercies.
We stand always on the edge of wonder…and need only to be pointed in the right direction to see it.
– Robert J. Howe, from his introduction to Coney Island Wonder Stories.
When we die…it will be different for each of us.
– Tori Amos, from an interview in Mojo, October 2006
The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost.
– G.K. Chesterton
She woke up when he got out of bed. As she lay there, listening to him pee, it occurred to her that she’d actually been sleeping. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a real sleep. She stretched languorously, appreciating the pull on her muscles and how the sheets slid across her skin. When the toilet flushed, she sat up to watch him return to bed, but he didn’t climb back in. Instead, he sat at the end, pulling up his feet to sit cross-legged on the comforter.
“I killed my brother,” he said.
He lifted a hand. “Oh, I don’t mean literally. I killed him by neglect.”
She leaned back against the headboard, pulling the sheets up over her breasts. A moment ago, she’d been comfortable with her nudity. Now she felt uneasy and goosebumps marched up her arms. She realized that for all their earlier intimacy, this was still a stranger’s room. He was still a stranger, and she wasn’t sure she liked the turn the evening had suddenly taken. No, scratch “evening.” Make that late, late night. Almost morning.
If she couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a real sleep, she really couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone home from a club with a stranger. But he’d seemed so nice. He still seemed nice. Except right at this moment she didn’t trust that he actually was what he seemed.
“Why are you telling me this?” she asked.
“I don’t know. It’s the anniversary of his death—he’s always on my mind at Halloween. And I find that any time I’m really, really happy, I think of him and how it’s one more thing he’ll never get to experience.”
“That’s messed up.”
“You’re still not saying why you’re telling me this.”
He shrugged. Those dark brown eyes of his settled their gaze on hers and she found it hard not to melt into their warmth.
“I know we’ve just met,” he said, “but I felt this real connection with you, right from the first moment.”
She smiled, and relaxed a little.
“You don’t need a pick-up line anymore,” she said. “I’m already in your bed.”
He smiled back. “I know. I guess I just wanted to share an…I don’t know…intimacy with you.”
She let the sheets fall and scooted over the bed until she was sitting right in front of him, cross-legged as well, their knees bumping. She took his hands.
“Tell me what happened,” she said.
It wasn’t a long story, but it was long enough. His bedroom windows faced west, so neither of them saw the dawn pinking the city’s skyline. She wanted to tell him what happened wasn’t really his fault, but she knew that wasn’t the way this kind of guilt worked. Intellectually, he already knew that. It was his emotions that were tripping him up. The tangle of love and memory and what might have been.
She wanted to make love to him again, but a pressure in her bladder told her that first she needed to use the toilet herself. She leaned forward and they shared a lingering kiss.
“Hold that thought,” she said as his hand rose to her breast. “I just need to pee.”
He stayed on the bed when she got up, listening to her use the toilet as she’d listened to him use it earlier. He waited, but there was no sound of flushing. There was no sound at all. After another few moments, he turned around.
“Are you okay in there?” he asked.
There was no response.
He got up and walked barefoot across the hardwood floor. The sun was up now. When he reached the bathroom door, he could see that the small room was empty. He stepped over to the bathtub and pushed the shower curtain aside. She wasn’t there either.
He’d had his back to the bathroom, but surely he would have heard her leave the bedroom. So where did she go? She hadn’t come through the bedroom. The only other way out was through the bathroom window, but it was too small to crawl out of and he would have heard the squeak of it opening because it always got stuck halfway up.
He backed out of the bathroom and looked around his bedroom. That was when he noticed the scatter of his clothes on the floor by the bed. His clothes. Hers weren’t there.
Had he fallen asleep and she’d slipped out without him noticing?
He knew he hadn’t, so she couldn’t have.
Had she even been here in the first place?
That was an odd thought, except suddenly he wasn’t sure of the answer. Real people didn’t vanish into thin air.
He could remember her every detail. All the tattoos. The smell of her hair. The silky touch of her skin contrasting against the rougher texture of her hands—a mechanic’s hands, she’d told him. He could remember her enthusiastic participation in their love-making, and his penis still had a touch of post-coital thickness.
He’d definitely had sex with someone—unless he’d just been jerking off in his sleep.
He sat on the bed and stared out the window for a long moment before he went through the apartment, turning on lights.
There was no one here.
It didn’t look like there’d ever been anyone else here.
Great. He’d just fallen in love with a dream. Or a hallucination.
And surprising as that was, falling in love was exactly what had happened. He’d fallen for a woman he’d only just met, and fallen hard. Except it appeared that she was imaginary.
He rubbed his face with his hands. Halloween was always bad. It had been ever since the night Tim died. He’d always been able to bear the pain of the anniversary with a certain stoicism, hiding it from the world at large, staying busy, making sure he was around people so that he didn’t have time to brood. But no matter how much he tried to distract himself, eventually he had to come back to the apartment, where the memories lay in wait.
Tonight had been different. He’d met Grace. She’d come home with him. They’d talked for hours, made love, fallen asleep in each other’s arms.
Except he’d only imagined her. He’d imagined all of it. The sex. Feeling this incredible, immediate bond with her. Even sharing the story of Tim’s death, which he never did with strangers…
Then his gaze rested on the two wineglasses standing on the coffee table. He remembered opening the bottle when they got back from the club. They’d each had a glass. There was still residue at the bottom of the glasses and the wine bottle on the table beside them was half full. More to the point, there was lipstick on the rim of one glass.
He looked back into the bedroom.
So she had been here.
But if that was true, if he hadn’t just imagined her, then how the hell had she disappeared?
* * *
He waited until the hour was vaguely reasonable—staring at the clock until the digital numbers finally changed to seven—before he picked up the phone and called Danny. It rang a half dozen times before Danny finally picked up.
“Man,” he said, his voice thick with sleep, “if you’re selling something, it better be good.”
“What could anyone sell you? You’ve already got everything you need.”
“My point exactly.” Danny paused for a moment, then added, “Jesus, John. It’s seven o’clock in the morning.”
“Yeah, I know. Sorry about that. I just need you to answer a question for me.”
“The answer is: yeah, you’re a dipstick. Now can I go back to sleep?”
“At the club last night,” John said. “Was I with a woman?”
“Are you kidding me?”
John’s heart sank. He knew it had been too good to be true. Except then Danny went on.
“She was awesome, man. I mean, not cover girl pretty, but a genuine looker. And seriously hot. Kat Von D hot, what with the tats and all.”
“Come on. Didn’t you ever watch L.A. Ink?”
“I don’t have a TV.”
“And that’s something we need to have a serious conversation about. Who doesn’t have a TV? What happened to you, man? You used to be just as much of a media geek as the rest of us.”
“I’ve got a computer.”
Danny laughed. “That’s like saying you’ve got a cell phone. These days, everybody’s got both. Hell, my grandfather’s got a Blackberry and I can remember having to set the time on his VCR whenever I went over to visit because he couldn’t figure even that out. Forget taping a show. But now? He’s like this tech pro, downloading game scores and weather forecasts, sending text messages to my mom and dad. You totally need to get back into the game.”
John didn’t bother to argue the point. He was too high on the swell of possibilities filling his head and his heart to even really pay much attention.
She was real.
He still had no idea how she’d left his apartment without him seeing her go, but that was completely overshadowed by Danny’s confirmation.
“So why were you asking about that woman you left with last night?” Danny asked.
He laughed when John finished explaining.
“What?” Danny said. “You think you’re such a loser that you made her up? Get real, Burns. Everywhere we go, women are always giving you the eye. It’s like I was saying last night. You’re this total chick magnet.”
“Oh, come on.”
“And I guess what’s so appealing to them is that you’re oblivious to it.”
“I think you’re—”
“She went home with you, didn’t she? Do you think she’d just go home with anybody?”
“I hope not.”
“Anyway, I wouldn’t worry about it. If you guys got on as well as you say you did, she’ll probably be calling you soon. Or you can always ask Nina to find out who she is. I think she knew everybody at the Solona Music Hall last night.”
“She didn’t know her.”
“Well, someone must.”
“I guess. That was a quite a crowd there last night.”
“Tell me about it. And some of those Wicca girls are totally hot. Who knew? I thought they’d be all, you know, not so much.”
John didn’t bother to ask why. Danny was a sweet guy, but sometimes he just got too focused on women and their hotness factor.
“And Helen,” Danny went on. “That girl you saw me talking to? I didn’t get lucky like you, but she totally wants to get together again.” He paused a moment, then added, “Unless she gave me a bogus number. Aw man, what if she gave me a bogus number?”
“I’m sure she didn’t.”
“Says the guy who calls to confirm that he even met someone last night.”
John laughed. “I should go. Sorry about getting you up so early.”
“That’s okay. You owe me a favour now, right?”
“And we totally need some new concept drawings for the Addison DVD. They want something edgier for when we come out of that intro clip into the main menu.”
John sighed. “And when do you need them by?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
But when he went to his drawing board after he hung up the phone and picked up a piece of charcoal, he found himself sketching Grace’s features on the paper tacked to the board instead.
The need to see her again was like an ache in his chest.
Altagracia “Grace” Quintero
Abuelo—my grandfather on my father’s side—always liked to say, if you’re going to do something, do it the best you can. Do it like it’s the last thing you’ll ever get to do, the one thing by which you’ll be remembered when you’re gone. It doesn’t matter if it’s pulling somebody out of the river, or replacing a set of spark plugs. What’s important is that you make it count.
I remember when my father first left us, Mama didn’t want anything more to do with Abuelo. She got a divorce and became a Convertino again. My brother Tony took her maiden name, too, but I stayed a Quintero—not out of any loyalty to Papa, but out of respect for Abuelo. He was such a sweet old man, as loving and loyal as Papa hadn’t proved to be. Tony never warmed to him—he saw too much of Papa in him, I suppose—but though she came to regret it, Mama let me visit with him whenever I wanted.
Abuelo was seventy-eight when Papa left us. He lived another ten years, and he lived those years well. I never met another person so present in the moment, giving whatever occupied him his undivided attention. You could think it was because he was old, but I don’t think that was it. It was just how he lived his life—how he’d always lived it.
I wasn’t so good with giving the present moment my best, that first winter after Papa was gone.
I was in my final year of high school, wishing I was a cheerleader, but for all the wrong reasons. I wasn’t exactly brimming with school spirit, and I didn’t really care to stand on the sidelines when it came to sports. I just wanted to be popular, or at least accepted, but it was my curse to be average. Not fat, not thin. Not pretty, not ugly. Just…average. The kind of person who always fades into the background of any social gathering. I remember thinking that even being stupendously grotesque would be an improvement, because at least I’d be noticed.
It was only when I stopped trying so hard that things changed for me, and Abuelo had his hand in that, too.
He lived and breathed cars. Abuela had died years ago—so long ago that I barely remembered her—and after Abuelo retired, he devoted his time to rebuilding a junked 1929 Model A Ford in his garage. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent working on that car with him. I think we did everything but the engine build, window glass cutting, and the front seat upholstery.
It’s such a sweet ride, painted a classic hot rod primer red. It’s got the bigger ’32 Ford Flathead V-8, ’46 Ford truck brakes, and we had to do a two-and-a-half-inch chop and shortening of the rear to accommodate a ’32 Ford rear gas tank, but otherwise we went the traditional route from front to back. I hate it when gearheads mix styles too much. What’s the point of a custom restore if you can’t still see the original lines? Because that’s what it’s all about. You find the line.
You take something Detroit built and you make it better. Trim it, stretch it, get rid of all the unnecessary stuff.
Find the line.
That’s why Abuelo’s Model A is so sweet. He found the line. We did. And when I understood—when we were done and we stood there looking at this beautiful thing that we’d made from an old junker—there was nothing else I wanted to do after that.
Working on the Ford in Abuelo’s garage led me to taking shop at school, and that was where Mama started to have her regrets. She realized I wasn’t her good little Catholic daughter anymore, meeting the world in a pretty dress with perfect hair the way I had at my confirmation.
“Gracie,” she’d say. “Girls don’t work in a garage. No boy’s ever going to want a girl who knows more about cars than he does.”
She was wrong about that. I was the only girl in shop, and I’m the only girl mechanic at Sanchez’s Motorworks where Abuelo got me a job. The boys like it that I’m not a pretender. I’m my abuelo’s granddaughter. I live and breathe classic cars and the whole hot rod culture that goes with it. The rockabilly music, the lowriders, the tattoos and all. My mother gave up on ever marrying me off to a lawyer or a doctor after I got my first tattoo on my left shoulder. It’s of my namesake, Our Lady of Altagracia, and we’re talking a serious tat here—none of your butterflies or Chinese ideographs that could say any damn thing and you wouldn’t know. No, this is a full shoulder, colour portrait of the saint.
Abuelo smiled when he saw it. Back in his day, only the real tough chicas got tattoos. Now anybody with a few dollars and the time can get one done. But I don’t care. I don’t care how trendy it is, I just like skin art, even if it is a little like crack. Getting them becomes addictive. These days I forget how tattooed I am until I see myself naked.
“Tattoos,” Abuelo once said, “are the stories in your heart, written on your skin.”
He should know. He had a half dozen of his own, including a portrait of Abuela on his chest, right above his heart.
Abuelo’s funeral was three weeks ago, which is what’s got me to thinking about all of this. I’ve been going through old pictures of him, looking for one that I can have put on my skin the way I got a portrait of Mama after she died. The one of her is on the left side of my chest, just under my collarbone so that she and Our Lady of Altagracia can look at each other and keep each other company.
Abuelo was eighty-eight when he died. He still lived on the East Side in that little house of his with the big garage on the side, and he still worked on cars. The latest project was a ’50 Ford coupe—Abuelo always had a fondness for the Ford Motor Company, and I can still remember his big grin when I got FoMoCo tattooed down my right leg. It’s in a loose, loopy red script, with a stick of lipstick in a flourish at the end as though it had been written with the lipstick. I’d been helping him out on weekends, and we’d just finished chopping the top on the way to giving it that killer fastback stance those old Fords carry so well. We had plans to head over to a swap meet on the weekend, hoping to trade for a grill and front bumper—the ones on Abuelo’s coupe were trashed. Knowing he wasn’t such an early riser anymore, I called him on the Friday night to find out what time he wanted to leave.
I got worried when there was no answer. I’d bought him a cell a few months ago, and made him promise to keep it charged and clipped to his belt, so I knew that he’d answer if he could.
I don’t think I ever made such good time crossing the city as I did that night. I’m just surprised I didn’t get pulled over. I pushed that old Fairlane of mine to the limit, changing lanes, jumping lights, doing anything I could to get out to his house on time.
But I was too late.
I found him in the garage, under the Ford coupe, a wrench in his hand.
Next to holding court in a corner booth at Chico’s, a shot of tequila in hand and his compadres gathered around, this is how he’d have wanted to go out. Though he’d probably be pissed that he wasn’t going to see the coupe up and running again.
I sat there on the concrete floor and cried for a long time before I was finally able to call 9-1-1.
There was no one else to make all the arrangements. I had no idea where my father was—if he was even still alive—and there was no other family around. Maybe there were some cousins back in Mexico, but I didn’t know any of them and Abuelo never talked about the people in his old life before he immigrated here. Abuela was long gone. Tony lived in Italy now, working for some architect. He didn’t even come home for the funeral. When I called to tell him that Abuelo had died, he actually said, “I didn’t know he was still alive.”
I know they’d never been close, but still. That was harsh.
The long and short of it was that Rodrigo Quintero was laid to rest on a cool, overcast autumn day with only one member of his immediate family in attendance—which would be me. Though I don’t mean to imply that I was the only person there. It might have been the middle of the week, with the weather offering up a grey day to suit my mood, but San Miguel Cemetery was filled with people for his funeral.
My best friend Vida Ortiz stood beside me at the graveside—looking gorgeous in a tight black dress, her dyed blonde hair subdued by a veil. My boss, Shorty, and the rest of the guys from Sanchez Motors were there, along with the gang from Chico’s, members of the local hot rod club, and all kinds of people who normally I’d only see at car shows and rallies and swap meets. Outside the cemetery, Mission Street was lined with vintage cars for blocks in either direction. Getting here, we’d been like a parade following the hearse—it didn’t hurt that the hearse itself was a rebuilt 1930 Nash 480 Special Six that a friend of Shorty’s had lent us for the day.
Abuelo would have loved it, though he’d probably have preferred the hearse to be a Ford.
After the ceremony, we all went back to Chico’s, filling the parking lot and the streets around the taquería with customs and classics. Vida organized all of this. She might play the part of the dumb blonde when she’s posing for photographers at the car shows in her vintage outfits, but she’s been running a successful tattoo shop for ten years and you don’t stay in business that long being dumb. She’s the most organized person I know.
As often happens at Chico’s, after a couple of hours an impromptu jam started up in one corner featuring a mix of mariachi and rockabilly. At one point, Shorty got up and sang one of Abuelo’s favourite songs: Big Boy Groves’s version of “I Gotta New Car” with its litany of the problems that buying a new Caddy caused him. And of course it’s got that classic last line about how the next time he gets a new car, it’s going to be one that he can “afford,” and when he says afford, he means “a Ford.”
It didn’t matter how many times Abuelo heard that line. He’d always laugh and bellow it out along with whoever was singing the song. I usually did, too, but that day it just made the tears well up in my eyes. I remember Vida grabbing my hand before I could smear the mascara she’d so carefully applied hours earlier and dabbing the tears away with a Kleenex.
“This is going to be so hard,” I told her when I could trust my voice not to break. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without him.”
“You’ll do what he’d want you to do,” she said. “You’ll carry on, like he did after your abuela passed. Like you did with your mother.”
I nodded, but I knew it wasn’t the same. Mama and I hadn’t always gotten along as well as we should, so besides the sadness, I also had to carry around all this guilt. I don’t think Abuelo and I ever had a cross word for each other. I mean, ever.
“Are you still going to get a portrait of him?” she asked.
“Oh yeah. But I have to find the right picture.”
She nodded. “Come by the shop whenever you’re ready.”
Vida was my tattoo artist as well as my friend. Her brother had done my first tat of Our Lady of Altagracia, but as soon Vida started working for him, she was the one I went to for my ink. When she opened her own shop, my business followed her.
“You should say something,” Vida told me.
She nodded to the makeshift stage where Shorty was trying to get my attention.
I wished I hadn’t looked. There were a thousand things I had to say, but I wasn’t sure I’d get through any of it without breaking down.
Vida knew me too well. She could see that all I wanted to do was escape into the parking lot. She put a hand on my arm. I wasn’t sure if she was comforting me, or stopping me from taking off.
“You have to go up there,” she said.
“I know. I’m just…I don’t know if I can get through it…”
“These are all his friends, Grace. They’re all your friends, too. If you can’t finish, they’ll understand.”
I knew she was right and finally I got up on the stage.
For one long moment I stood there looking out at all these people who had been so much a part of Abuelo’s life. Who were still a part of mine. I cleared my throat, and gathering my courage, I started to speak. My voice cracked more than a few times, and I kept having to blow my nose and dab at my eyes, making a mess of my mascara. But I got through it.
Other people got up after me, sharing stories, talking about how they’d first met him, how he’d helped them. I’d known he was well-liked in the local hot rod and custom community, but I guess I never realized before that day what an impact he had, not just on me, but on so many other lives.
I think about that, and it’s comforting, but then I always start thinking about how maybe I could have prevented his death. If I’d gone out to his place right after work instead of going home first. If I’d made sure he was getting regular check-ups. If if if…
I’d been worrying at the memory of my abuelo like a dog with a bone, filling my head with what-ifs and should-haves and if-I-could-do-it-over-agains, which is pretty ironic, considering that advice of his. Here he was gone, and what do I do instead of living in the moment and doing the best I can? Pretty much the exact opposite. I even took up smoking after having quit for eighteen months.
Vida was so pissed off with me. I tried to make like it was no big deal, but it’s scary how quickly that little addiction takes over your life again.
I convinced myself during the first week that it was just to get through this serious rough patch, what with Abuelo gone and Tony being a jerk and me having to handle everything. I’d let the cigs get me through and then I’d just go cold turkey again. It wouldn’t be so hard, this time around. I’d already done it once, right?
By the second week, I knew I wasn’t kidding anyone, least of all myself. By that second week, I was already rearranging my life to accommodate the habit, because you know the smoker’s motto: smoking comes first. Someone invites you to do something—go out for dinner, stop by their apartment for a visit—and your first thought isn’t whether or not you’d like to do it. No, the first thing you wonder is, can I smoke there?
By the third week I knew I had to get real about this. Shorty was ragging me about all the smoke breaks I was taking. I was already rediscovering my old smoker’s cough, and started to get a little out of breath walking up the two flights to my apartment. So I threw my half pack of cigarettes in the trash at the garage before I went home and you know, I was doing really well there for awhile—at least an hour and forty-five minutes—until I realized that, yes, I was going to quit, I really was, but not tonight. I’d get serious about it tomorrow. Tomorrow was Saturday and I could go to the garage and distract myself with work.
Normally, I did all the custom jobs, working on the classics. Old Fords, ‘Vettes, Monte Carlos, DeSotos, Chryslers, Tuckers, Caddys. If it was slow, I’d help out in other areas of the shop, but I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have three or four jobs lined up to come into my bay. I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging, but Sanchez Motorworks has got a serious rep as the go-to place for hardcore gearheads and hot rodders, and I’m part of the reason. Not the biggest. That’d be Shorty, who’s been customizing and rebuilding cars since I was still diapers and tats were just pretty pictures on my abuelo’s skin.
Right now I’m working on a killer ’56 two-seat T’bird. It’s not a big job. I’m just replacing the porthole and rear windows on the removable hardtop, then giving the whole vehicle a new paint job.
But the real reason I was going in is that I’d promised to help Shorty’s nephew Tito work on his car. Tito’s a good kid, but he got into some trouble recently. He was starting to run with some gangbangers and got busted trying to boost a car. It was only a first offence, but the D.A.’s office doesn’t see much beyond the brown skin when it comes to people like us. Tito was looking at county time, except he got lucky and pulled Andy Hoffman as his public defender. Hoffman’s got a reputation of being a bulldog and the D.A.’s office knows it, so they played fair and Tito got a sentence deserving of the crime: community service, a fine, and a stern warning.
To keep him out of trouble, Shorty lets him hang around the garage where he’s been helping us all out. When you’re under a car, you can always use an extra set of hands to pass you a wrench, or that Phillips that’s just out of reach.
Last week, Shorty gave him a junked ’72 Monte Carlo and even promised to help him out with the insurance once it’s up and running. All Tito has to do is keep his nose clean and do the work on the car. No charge for parts.
He’s supposed to do it on his own, but we’ve all been helping him out. We don’t do the actual work. We just show him what he needs to do whenever he isn’t sure about how to tackle the next problem. Well, mostly. Sometimes it’s easier to do, than it is to show, and it’s a big job for anyone to do all on their own. But like I said, he’s a good kid. We all like him. So putting a few hours in here and there to help him out isn’t a hardship. And I know that if I get deep into working on a car, I won’t even think about having a smoke.
But that’s tomorrow.
Tonight there’s just me, alone in my apartment with no distractions and too many thoughts.
So I put on a jacket that I don’t really need over my sleeveless T and leave my apartment, walking down the street to Luna’s—the local corner grocery, which is actually in the middle of the next block. It’s a warm night but there’s a cool breeze blowing in from the desert. I can’t see the mountains because of a cloud cover. The sky’s been teasing us with October rains for days but it never quite delivers more than a few minutes of misting rain—just enough to bring the smell of creosote into the air.
If Solona was a town, instead of just one small part of Santo del Vado Viejo, 26th Street would be its downtown main street. Most of the area is made up of single-story adobe houses with dirt yards, cacti, scraggly palo verde trees and mesquite, but the buildings lining 26th are two story brick and wood, except for where I live. The Alverson Arms rises to a towering five stories of grey stone that some enterprising builder hauled all the way down from the mountains back in the early part of the last century. I’m guessing it was a showpiece in its time, but now it’s just as rundown and shabby as the rest of the neighbourhood, except taller and grey.
The rest of the buildings on the street are small businesses with apartments overhead. For the most part, name-brand businesses and affluent yuppies have yet to take over this part of Solona, and everything’s a little scruffy looking—Vida likes to say it’s “genteel.” That’s not to say we don’t get the touristas from the ‘burbs or downtown coming here to shop, try some barrio food, or just to check out the bands playing at the Solona Music Hall. But if you live in this neighbourhood, it doesn’t matter if you’re Mexican, Indian, black or white, the one thing we all have in common is that we don’t exactly have a lot of disposable income. It’s month-to-month for most of us down here.
On the plus side, at least we know pretty much everybody—to nod to, or say hi, if nothing else. It’s possible to be a woman and walk around these streets in the early evening without needing some burly boyfriend to keep the wolves at bay, and I like that. I’d never do it downtown, and I don’t scare easily. I may look like a tough chica, but I’m all about being safe.
I love walking into Luna’s. As soon as you come in the door your nose fills with the redolent smells of chiles, shredded beef and pork tamales, salsas, cilantro, and corn tortillas, fresh off the press. Estefan and Dolores Luna—the owners—are invariably behind the counter, no matter what time of day you come. If they’re not, it’s one of their kids. Joe, who’s studying to be a lawyer. Rosie, who’s going to be a chartered accountant. Or Mateo, the youngest, who’s still in high school.
Ranchera or norteño music is usually playing on the sound system, or they’re watching telenovelas on an ancient 14” colour TV—an old set with a line of static running along the top of the screen. The counter is laden with CDs and cassettes of Mexican music, jars of salsa, cans of spiced fruit, thick guayaba and membrillo jam, plastic bags of wheat flour tortillas, and there’s always a small metal tray lined with wax paper, on which are laid out rows of fresh empanadas. Dolores makes the fruit turnovers herself, just as she makes all their salsas and tamales.
Behind the counter are all the cigarettes. Above them, on a long shelf that runs the length of the wall, is a row of votive candles from which Jesus, the Virgin and various saints look down upon the store.
The Lunas always have a smile for me when I come in, though they were wary the first time. I could see it in their eyes: what kind of trouble is this tattooed girl going to cause? It’s something I get all the time from people who can’t see past the skin. The flip side are the people who can focus only on the skin—like my tats are all I want to talk about. With all my ink, and the grease I can never completely get from under my nails, I guess the only place I really fit in is with my own people—the hot rodding crowd. Or with folks like the Lunas who know all about snap judgments made on how a person looks.
I knew I was going to get a lecture tonight from Estefan about buying cigarettes. He might sell them, but he wasn’t happy about it. Still, he knew the demand was there and if people had to go to the 7-11 for their cigarettes, one block further down the street across from the park, then they might also do the rest of their shopping there: picking up their beer, pop, chips and all the other sundries for which people don’t feel like making a special trip to one of the big grocery stores.
Not everybody’s in love with the homemade Mexican specialties that you can only get in a small family-run shop like Luna’s.
I can see the bright lights of the 7-11 as I linger outside the grocery store for a moment, not quite ready to go in. Both Estefan and Dolores had been happy when I told them I’d quit smoking. I was so not looking forward to breaking the news to them by buying a package of cigarettes, but I didn’t even think of going to the 7-11. That just felt like it would be disloyal.
But finally—because after all, “Smoking comes first”—I push open the door and go in. Estefan and his daughter Rosie are behind the counter, watching TV. Smiles light up their faces when they recognize me.
“Hola, Grace!” Estefan says, speaking Spanish as he always does with me. “<What did you forget tonight? Some of Dolores’ salsa?> ”
I had dropped in on the way home from work and bought a bag of fresh flour tortillas. I do usually have it with salsa, rice and beans, but tonight I’d felt like making rolled up peanut butter and sprout sandwiches.
“No, I just wanted to get a can of, um, beans,” I reply.
I don’t know why I said that. I suppose it seems easier to pick something else up first and then, when I get to the cash to pay, to casually ask for some cigarettes as well. How pathetic is that?
“<You know where they are?> ” Estefan asks. I nod, but before I can go down the aisle, he adds, “<Here it is, Friday night. A pretty girl like you…why aren’t you out with some nice boy?>”
I don’t know who’s more embarrassed—his daughter Rosie, or me.
“Pop!” she says. “You don’t ask things like that.”
But he just shrugs and smiles, unrepentant. “<I was only saying.>”
“It’s okay,” I tell them, switching to English. “I wanted an evening in by myself—that’s all.”
I know they can read the lie. Ever since Abuelo’s funeral, I’ve been holing up in my apartment when I’m not at work. I don’t want to party. I don’t want to go out for drinks or a concert—which is driving Vida crazy. And as for “nice boys”…I’ve never been good with relationships. Friends who happen to be male? Sure, lots of them. Lovers? Not so much. I think that’s Papa’s legacy to me. I don’t trust anyone to stay.
And now Abuelo’s death has once again reinforced the fact that life is transitory. Nothing withstands the cruel march of time, especially not relationships.
“I’ll just get those beans,” I say.
I hear the front door open as I head down the aisle—followed by Estefan greeting whoever’s come in, the way he does with everybody. I don’t think anything of it until an unfamiliar male voice tells him to empty his till. I stop in the middle of the aisle, and turn around to see a young white guy—just a kid, really—standing at the counter with an evil-looking pistol in his hand. He has his back to me. His hand is shaking and he keeps looking from the front door to where Estefan is slowly opening the till.
I hate guns. I hate the people who use them even more.
I don’t think the kid even knows I’m here, and I want to keep it that way. But all he has to do is glance down the aisle and he’ll see me. He’s obviously a junkie, and the one thing you don’t want to do with a junkie holding a gun, is startle him.
I start to back away, out of his line of sight. Instead, I trip over a box filled with packages of rice that’s sitting on the floor. I lose my balance and start to fall backward. Trying to compensate against the backward momentum, I’m too successful. Just as the kid turns in my direction, I’m lunging forward, arms flailing the air.
I know what it looks like. I know what he sees.
It’s one of those awful moments like a car wreck when time stretches, but no matter how much time you seem to have, you’re actually rushing forward with the speed and force of an eighteen-wheeler to an inevitable conclusion.
I want to shout, No! I’m not trying to take you down.
But all he sees through his junkie paranoia is some crazy, tattooed woman, waving her hands as she charges toward him.
I see the muzzle of his gun flash before I hear the sound.
I hear the loud thunder of the shots, booming in the confines of the store, before I feel the impact of the bullets.
They punch me in the chest.
The force of the impact spins me around. It sends me crashing into the displays of canned and dried goods. I claw at the shelves. Cans and packages of beans and rice come crashing down all around me as I fall.
Then the shock of the pain hits me.
I try to suck in air as I tumble to the floor, but there’s no air to breathe.
I can’t hear anything for the roar in my ears.
I can’t feel anything except the screaming pain.
I can’t see anything.
No, that’s not true.
I see a light.
The overhead fluorescents.
And somehow, I’m falling into them.