Teresa was swimming laps when the monsoons came. She was nearing the side of the pool when thunder rumbled behind her and children screamed. She turned without hurry and started back across the water in her slow smooth breaststroke. Ahead of her, an enormous thunderhead towered up behind the low cinderblock pool house. A few feet ahead of her, a bird flashed across the water and devoured a dragonfly in mid-flight. Teresa smiled at the bird and at the white mountain floating over the mesa. When she came to the pool, the sky was empty, and now the monsoons had come.
Children shouted and pointed toward the thunderhead. When sharp thunder came cracking across the open spaces, Teresa knew the children had seen lightening. Down in the water, she had missed it, her view blocked by the pool house. The lifeguards blew their whistles and ordered everyone from the water. The pool was high on the Western Mesa, at the far edge of Rancho Grande. It was a good place to get hit by lightening.
Teresa ignored the lifeguards and swam to the chromed ladder at the far side of the pool. She thought about the big summer storms that would come, how they would drench the desert and stab the mesas and mountains with lightening. Thunder would roll around the vast Río Huérfano Valley like bowling balls in an empty swimming pool, and she would lie awake in her bed next to her husband and listen. Teresa was very glad of it.
She grabbed the metal ladder and climbed out of the water. She found her towel and watched the thunderhead approach and the people scatter. Mothers were yelling at children and packing their things. When the thunder came again, louder and deeper this time, Teresa gathered her own belongings and made her way out to the parking lot.
Forked lightening flickered as she unlocked her car. She breathed deeply and smelled dusty ozone. She stood by her car for a moment and watched the thunderhead churn, watched the storm currents twist within it. Gray clouds were forming further across the mesa. The storm was moving north and east across the valley.
She got in her old station wagon and drove down Southern Boulevard through Rancho Grande. She was stopped at a traffic light when the huge thunderhead slid before the sun and lightening flared within it. But it did not rain. The rain came later, when she was off the mesa and down in Los Huertos, on the flat land by the Río Huérfano, going north on the wide dirt of Entrada Oeste.
It started in heavy bursts of fat drops, then turned hard and steady as Teresa entered her narrow lane. It twisted in the conflicting gusts of wind, lashing her front windshield one moment and the rear window the next. She went slowly through it, parked in her drive, and was half-soaked when she stepped onto her front porch. The rain was cold and she shivered as she watched the water pool under the Russian olive tree in the middle of her yard. The water floated on a layer of dust, then it soaked through and ran into the earth and stained it the color of tea.
Chuy drove his truck down the lane a few minutes later and he was drenched when he stood next to her on the porch. They stood together and smiled at the rain. Teresa made dinner and they ate, and it was still raining, much softer now.
She woke past midnight and the rain was strong again. Thunder careened across the valley and collided into the mountains. The lightening bolts were long flickering, green-edged swords that sliced open the darkness. She knelt down next to a barely-open window and smelled deeply the spicy desert rain.
Teresa lay in bed and let her eyes adjust to the gray morning light. She knew there was something unpleasant that needed doing this day. It came to her when she was sitting up, her feet on the floor, looking out the window at their side yard through the part in the curtains. They were expected at their daughter’s in-laws’ for dinner.
“Good morning,” Chuy said.
Teresa looked at him over her shoulder.
“I just remembered what day it is.”
He smiled and put a hand on her lower back. His hand was rough and warm.
“You think it’s going to rain?” Teresa said.
Chuy reached for the remote control and turned on their little TV set. He found the right station and the weatherman told them that storms were predicted to come that afternoon, clear around sunset, and return just after dark. The weatherman warned of heavy rains and strong winds and powerful lightening. Chuy turned the TV off.
“I hope he’s wrong,” Chuy said.
They had talked about their in-laws’ invitation several times and agreed it might not be too bad if the weather was fair. If the skies were clear, their hosts planned to grill and eat outdoors. They could pass the time under the open sky, standing around with drinks in their hands. There is always a sense of escape when the sky is over your head.
They dressed in silence. Chuy went out in the yard for a while and Teresa made breakfast. They ate quietly. Chuy finished first and cleared his dishes, then leaned against the counter and watched Teresa. She sipped the last of her coffee, the cup in both hands, her eyes unfocused.
“Do we have to go?” Chuy said. “We’ll be stuck inside the whole time.”
Teresa lifted her chin and turned up the corners of her mouth.
“Didn’t you hear? It’ll clear around sunset.”
“Great,” Chuy said.
They did their chores without haste. Late in the morning dusky gray clouds blotted out the sun. The rain started early in the afternoon.
When it was time to go, Chuy and Teresa stood on their front porch and wished they could stay home. Teresa held a basket of cookies in front of her, cradled in both arms. A blue cotton dishtowel draped over the basket kept the cookies dry. Chuy had his hands deep in his pockets. They watched the rain fall in heavy sheets from greasy-looking clouds that churned overhead.
“Maybe you can pretend to be sick and we can leave early,” Chuy said.
His tone and expression were so serious it made Teresa smile.
“Why me? You look sick already.”
“Do I?” he asked hopefully.
“No. You look fine.”
Chuy frowned at Teresa and she laughed at him. The wind lashed rain against the side of the house. It sounded like marbles scattered on a wooden floor.
“It’s just a couple hours at your daughter’s in-laws,” Teresa said.
Chuy grimaced. Teresa started to laugh again.
“How can you laugh? It’s horrible.”
Teresa took his arm and felt the hard muscles and led him outside into the rain and into his truck.
The invitation was relayed by their daughter Marbella. Teresa was at Marbella’s house, helping sew a holiday dress for her granddaughter Karina. They worked in the dining room, spread out over a round oak table.
“Mamá, I have to ask you something,” Marbella said.
Teresa stopped and waited. Marbella’s eyes were cast down, watching her hands measure cloth. Teresa watched her daughter’s smooth motions. When Marbella looked up, Teresa looked into eyes that were large and round and bottomless. Teresa’s grandmother had the same eyes. Teresa often noticed how her daughter and her grandmother were alike. Marbella had the same soft build and was old-fashioned. When they worked together like this, Teresa felt her daughter was both her future and her past.
“Will you come to Wyatt’s parents’ house for dinner?” Marbella said.
Teresa swallowed the words that wanted to come out.
“It’s been four years,” Marbella said.
Teresa nodded and still said nothing.
“Karina is almost three now.”
“I know, sweetheart.”
“It’s gone on too long.”
Teresa noticed Marbella’s cheeks. Marbella always had lush skin but today she glowed. Teresa’s heart skipped when she wondered if her daughter was pregnant. She wanted to ask — but Marbella would tell her if she knew. Eventually Teresa reached out and squeezed her daughter’s hand.
They smiled at each other and went back to work. They pinched their lips together and frowned at the cloth in their hands. They said little more as the afternoon stretched on. They finished the little white dress with intricate red trim. It had short puffy sleeves and a wide skirt. The two women stood next to the table and Marbella held the dress up so they could examine it.
“Karina will love it,” Marbella said.
“Thank you, Mamá.”
Teresa hugged her daughter.
“When do we go to the Ames’ house?” she asked.
Marbella told her the invitation was for 6:00 o’clock on the Saturday after next. Teresa kissed Marbella goodbye and went outside to her old station wagon.
Heat waves rose from the car’s roof and hood. Teresa climbed in behind the steering wheel, then reached around inside and rolled down all the windows. She had to lean way over the bench seat to open the ones in back. The hot vinyl stuck to her skin. She started the engine and went down the short side street her daughter lived on. She caught the green light at the corner and turned onto the boulevard.
Teresa thought about the Ames on her way home, remembering what she had been told. She knew their house was big and ugly, that Mrs. Ames was a terrible cook, and that Mr. Ames talked of nothing but his job. Wyatt would joke with Chuy and Teresa about his parents, then he would smile at Marbella and say, Isn’t that right, honey? She would nod and sometimes she would smile, but she said nothing.
Marbella would never say bad things about her in-laws. Marbella was not really comfortable saying bad things about anyone. She was like Teresa’s grandmother in this way too. Teresa did not feel like a nice person compared to her daughter. She knew how much Marbella valued peace and she resolved to do her part in achieving a truce with her daughter’s in-laws.
Wyatt was the only member of the Ames family present at his wedding. The others sent only their regrets and a clutter of cheap gifts. Wyatt’s parents ducked all involvement in the preparations, and with the date set and the deposits paid, Chuy and Teresa had yet to meet their future in-laws. That was when Wyatt’s parents told their son they could not attend his wedding because Mr. Ames was required to speak at a business conference in Germany, and that Mrs. Ames must accompany him because it was a “wives included” event. This announcement came just a few days before a dinner planned to finally introduce the Ames and the Sandovals. At Wyatt’s insistence, the introductory dinner was cancelled, and the introductions indefinitely postponed.
The rain stopped as Chuy and Teresa crossed the Los Huertos village limits, then splattered on and off as they made their way north on Route 418. Traffic was steady, but the four-lane road of velvety-looking black asphalt and glowing yellow lines wasn’t crowded. It was built for growth, and all along it this growth was taking over the Western Mesa.
They passed the serial developments that spread down the slope from the road to the river. River View I started at the edge of Los Huertos; it was a jumble of large and medium-sized houses, many of them too dark for the desert sun. River View II followed; here the houses were more homogeneous in size and color, medium to medium-big, and all painted lighter shades.
River View III was last. All its houses were big and boxy, their walls covered with pale stucco, and their roofs slathered with thick tiles of glossy blue or green. And though the houses were larger and more ornate, the lots were the same quarter acre, so the big fancy houses stood cheek-to-jowl in lush irrigated lawns that were cut apart by low cinderblock walls.
This was where the Ames lived.
“We want to turn on River View III Way,” Chuy said.
“There it is.”
The street was wide and black with no lane markings. It emerged between a pair of small yellow-brick walls. On each wall was “River View III” in thick brass letters ten inches tall. As they made the turn, the clouds opened up and everything disappeared behind the rain. The truck’s wipers were useless. Chuy pulled to a stop just inside the entrance. He parked at the edge of the pavement, put his emergency flashers on, and turned off the struggling wipers. They watched the sheet of water pouring over the windshield. It was dimpled by the fat drops smacking into it.
Eventually the wipers could clear the glass again, and they made their way through the thicket of houses till they found the one they were dreading. It was a big chunky house with lots of gables. Wyatt’s light blue sedan was in the driveway. Chuy pulled up to the curb out front and turned off the engine.
“Ready?” he said.
“No,” Teresa replied.
Chuy laughed and took her hand. They sat and listened to the rain. Sounds became muted and Teresa’s skin tingled. She looked at her hands, at her fingers laced through Chuy’s. There was a frozen moment of absolute stillness. Teresa looked up expectantly, sensing what would happen without knowing what it was.
Everything went yellow-white and an orange jolt of lightening exploded the brick chimney on a tall house a few lots down. The thunder clap seemed to split open the truck. Their eyes were stunned by the bright flash and their ears rang. They could not see the bricks from the struck chimney tumbling through the air, and they could not hear the thuds the bricks made when they landed in the manicured grass, the hard smacking sound one made when it landed flat in the street. The sound of the rain came back while they were still blinking, then the thunder rolled back from across the valley, where it had bounced around in the Jitomate Mountains.
“Are you ready now?” Chuy said.
Teresa squeezed his hand and nodded emphatically. They clambered from the truck and trotted up the driveway. The rain was thin now but the clouds were so thick overhead that the afternoon had the light of evening. Teresa carried the basket of cookies clutched against her stomach and she hunched over it as she swung her legs.
The big front door opened when Chuy and Teresa were halfway up the drive. A middle-aged Anglo woman stood with one hand on the knob, framed by the doorway and back-lit by the electric lights that glared from within.
“What on earth was that?” she called out.
She was small and fine-boned. Her hair was honey blond and as Teresa got closer she could see that it was dyed. The Anglo woman wore a linen pants suit and had gold jewelry wherever it could be hung or draped or clasped. The fat diamond on her engagement ring caught the light and glinted.
A deep voice came from behind her.
“Lightening, Georgia, what else could it be?”
Teresa stepped onto the short stone walk that led from the driveway to the house. Chuy was behind her. She glanced down at the flat stones to make sure of her footing. When she looked up again, an Anglo man was standing behind the woman in the doorway.
He was almost tall and had narrow shoulders. He wore black-framed glasses and had sparse colorless hair. He shouldered his wife out of the way and Teresa knew what kind of man he was. He had a round gut that hung low and pushed out his belt buckle. The buckle was large and ornate, made of silver and turquoise. The pants they held up were black and the shirt tucked into them was short-sleeved and off-white. There was an expensive pen in his shirt pocket.
Teresa went up the three front steps. On the small concrete slab that footed the front door, she stepped to the left so that Chuy could stand next to her and handle the introductions. Chuy put his hand on the small of her back and it felt warm and solid. The Anglo man extended his hand and Chuy took it, so these three people were connected by touch, with Chuy the conduit from Teresa to Wyatt’s father. Teresa felt her husband’s fingers stiffen against her skin and muscles. The warmth of that strong hand against her back dimmed.
“Brent Ames,” the Anglo man said. “This is my wife, Georgia. Come on in. The kids are in the den.”
He dropped Chuy’s hand and turned inside. Chuy started to follow, then he stopped to smile and nod at Georgia, and abruptly stuck his hand out. Georgia tilted her head to one side and smiled back at him and took his hand in both of hers.
“So nice to meet you, Chew-ee,” she enthused.
Chuy nodded and grinned and Teresa knew he wanted his hand back. Georgia released it and Chuy gave a slight bow before he went down the hall after Brent. Georgia turned to watch him go. As Teresa stepped through the doorway, she noticed that the Anglo woman seemed to be looking at Chuy’s ass. A cold snake stirred in Teresa’s belly and her footsteps clattered on the marble floor. She stopped to wait for her hostess. Georgia closed the door behind them, then turned and beamed at her guest.
“And so nice to meet you, Tah-ree-sa!”
Teresa forced a smile and held out her cloth-covered basket.
“I brought some cookies,” she said.
Georgia took the basket and lifted a corner of the cloth and peeked inside.
“Oh, how lovely! You made biscochos!”
“Biscochitos,” Teresa said.
The name of these cookies, anise flavored and dusted with sugar and cinnamon, divided the state and had been debated in the legislature. They were biscochitos in Teresa’s family and in Chuy’s family and always would be.
Georgia ignored Teresa’s correction. She let the cloth drop back over the basket and put some fingertips on Teresa’s wrist.
“Did you make them yourself?”
She took the fingers away and waved the hand at Teresa.
“Oh, of course you did. Just like that darlin’ li’l dress Sweet Bun has on! You are so good with your hands! Marbella tells me you taught her everything she knows.”
Georgia said mar-bel-luh instead of mar-bay-uh. Teresa had been warned by her son-in-law, but she winced slightly anyway. Georgia was looking directly at her and pretended not to notice, but Teresa saw delight flash in those cold green eyes. The snake turned in Teresa’s belly again.
It took Teresa a moment to decide that “Sweet Bun” must be Karina, the granddaughter they shared.
She isn’t anything like a sweet bun, Teresa thought.
Karina was dark and slender with straight black hair and large round eyes the color of a moonless sky. She was quiet and intent and sensitive. Nothing fluffy or sticky or syrupy about her. Teresa looked at the fake smile plastered on Georgia’s made-up face and felt appalled that such a woman could be the other grandmother of little Karina.
Georgia’s fingertips were back on Teresa’s wrist. They were light and soft and cool and feathery, like tarantula feet. A little shiver slithered down Teresa’s spine. Georgia took her fingertips away again and started toward the back of the house.
“Come on in the kitchen! I’ll show you what I made to eat.”
Their footsteps sounded hollow on the marble floor. Teresa shivered again.
The kitchen was white tile and stainless steel and yellow pine. There were two sets of floor cabinets and three sets mounted on the wall. Along the top of the longest wall-mounted set was a long line of kachinas, ceremonial dolls made by Hopis and Zunis and Navajos. Georgia saw where Teresa was looking and waved her hand up at them.
“Aren’t those darlin’ things? I just love those things.”
It always sickened Teresa to see the native culture’s artifacts displayed as the conquering culture’s trinkets. But she knew that artisans earned their living making things for women like Georgia, and if such women didn’t buy them, the crafts would wither and might even die. It was a circle she always went around whenever she encountered it.
Georgia waved her over to the counter beneath the cabinets with the kachina dolls and showed Teresa the side dishes. The potato salad and coleslaw looked almost passable. Teresa recognized the tortilla chips as a flavorless store brand. Georgia led her to the oven and turned on its interior light. A meatloaf bubbled within. There was a steamer on the stovetop that Teresa dreaded. Georgia led her to it and lifted the lid.
“Now I’ve never made tamales before, so we’ll jus’ hafta hope for the best.”
Por el amor de Dios, Teresa thought. The little gray loaves were slimy-looking and smelled of grease. Tamales were a specialty in Teresa’s family and she suspected Georgia knew it. Georgia gestured at two saucepots on the back burners and said one was beans and the other rice. She turned to Teresa and plastered on her fake smile.
“Well, let’s go see the kids,” Georgia bubbled.
The den was a square windowless room in a back corner of the house. There was a large gray stone fireplace opposite the door. Family photographs in silver frames were arranged across the mantle. The walls and ceiling were painted a creamy white. The carpet was dark green and the furniture was heavily made of wood and leather. Yellowish light came from four fixtures buried in the ceiling.
There was a small wet bar in the corner to the right of the fireplace. Brent Ames stood in front of it, pouring drinks. Chuy was in a low-backed chair next to the bar with a glass of beer in his hand. Brent carried the drinks he made over to Wyatt and Marbella, who were sitting together on a long sofa set against the wall to the left of the doorway. They were at the end nearest the door and Karina was at the end nearest the fireplace, playing silently with a doll.
Georgia touched Teresa’s left forearm with those spider fingers.
“Have a seat, Tah-ree-sa,” Georgia said.
Teresa sat next to her husband, in a matching low-backed chair, and Georgia sat by herself on a love seat next to the door. The love seat made a right angle with the long sofa.
“A drink?” Brent said.
He smiled only with his mouth. Little hairs went up along Teresa’s forearms.
“What would you like?”
She knew his wine would be too sweet. She glanced at Chuy’s glass.
“Beer would be nice.”
“Beer it is.”
Georgia started talking and no one listened. Chuy took a deep breath. Teresa looked at him and he raised an eyebrow very slightly, then indicated Georgia with his eyes. Teresa widened her eyes for a moment. Brent moved toward them from the bar and handed Teresa a glass of beer. The glass matched Chuy’s, green and thick, and a line of foam trailed down its side.
Brent went past Teresa to some stereo equipment in the corner to her left. He pushed some buttons and soft inoffensive jazz tinkled out of speakers mounted up near the ceiling in the back corners of the room, to the left and right of the fireplace. Brent moved past her again and sat in an easy chair next to Karina, down at the far end of the couch. Georgia had not stopped talking.
Teresa looked at her son-in-law. Wyatt was watching his mother with a pained expression. A large photo portrait of the Ames family hung above his head, taken when Wyatt and his siblings were teenagers. There was an older brother and a younger sister, both smiling imitations of their parents. The first son had his own pair of black-framed eyeglasses and looked stiff and self-important, and the only daughter had her own honey blond dye job over fixed blank eyes. The teenage Wyatt stood off to one side, with a knowing smile and a hint of defiance. He was dark against his pale family and lean against his fleshy father and brother.
“Our other two are Brent Junior and Suzanne,” Georgia said.
It took Teresa a moment to realize this comment was addressed to her.
“That was taken when the kids were in high school. All three a year apart. Brent Junior was a senior and Suzanne was a sophomore.”
Teresa looked at Wyatt and found he was looking at her. They smiled at each other.
“Wyatt was a junior?” Teresa said.
“Yes, that’s right. Brent Junior played football and was in the honor society and Suzanne was a cheerleader.”
See, Wyatt’s face said, I don’t matter here. Teresa held his eyes when she asked her next question.
“What did Wyatt do?”
“Oh, I don’t remember that he did much of anything. Did you, Wyatt?”
“As little as possible.”
Brent Senior grunted.
“Ain’t that the truth.”
“But I did get the best grades in college.”
“Your brother is vice president of his bank,” Brent Senior said.
Wyatt took a deep breath and looked at his drink.
“So you keep telling me.”
Brent Senior grunted again and glared at Wyatt and bit off part of his vodka and tonic.
Georgia resumed her chatter. This time Teresa listened. Georgia went on about Brent Junior and his successful banking career and his lovely wife and their two darling children. She said they owned a big beautiful home in a very desirable San Diego suburb with a Mercedes and a Lexus in the driveway.
Teresa looked at Wyatt while Georgia spoke and remembered what Wyatt had told her. Brent Junior had been drinking heavily since college. He spent as much time in bars as he did at home. His wife had stopped trying to conceal her affair with a Navy officer. The kids were sullen and neglected. The house was cheaply built and had a commanding view of a superhighway. Wyatt went there once and swore he would never go again.
Brent Senior cut Georgia off. He cleared his throat loudly and his wife stopped talking in mid-sentence. Brent frowned at Chuy.
“I understand there’s good money for men who can work real adobe.”
His practiced voice was deep and round and sonorous. Chuy almost smiled. The corners of his eyes crinkled.
“I make a living. I’ll never get rich patching old walls.”
Brent deepened his frown and pursed his lips. When he lifted his drink to his mouth, Georgia started chattering again.
Now she bragged about her daughter Suzanne who married her college roommate’s rich uncle and moved to Atlanta where his family was in the construction business. They lived in a spectacular old plantation house and belonged to the right clubs and Suzanne was on all the right social committees. Suzanne’s darling teenaged stepdaughter was an accomplished equestrian and attended an exclusive private school.
Teresa watched Wyatt again. He could laugh about his brother, but his sister pained him. His brow tightened while his mother spoke. He had told Teresa that his sister’s husband was fat and abusive and his sister was skittish and anorexic and the stepdaughter was a gorgeous slut. Wyatt visited them once while he was at a software conference in Atlanta and said their house was like a museum. He spent most of an hour wandering through it, looking at the art and bric-a-brac. He came upon the stepdaughter in an upstairs lounge. She made a pass at him and got foulmouthed when he declined.
Georgia stopped in mid-sentence again, this time because lightening struck loudly nearby and the lights dimmed. Teresa had forgotten about the storm outside. The sounds of the wind and rain didn’t reach the cave-like den.
“Heavens-to-Betsy what was that,” Georgia said.
Brent grunted from his chair in the corner.
“Lightening, Georgia. Just like it always is.”
Karina put her doll down and crawled across the couch and curled up against her mother. Marbella cooed to her and stroked her hair. Teresa watched them and noticed again how Marbella’s skin glowed. She felt a catch in her throat when the powerful hope came that Marbella was pregnant. Teresa swallowed hard and looked down at her lap. She swallowed again and brought her eyes up and looked at Brent Ames.
Brent had cleared his throat again. It stopped Georgia from more babbling, this time about storms and lightening and how they scared her. Wyatt looked at his father with disdain; he seemed to know what was coming. Brent spoke again, and again it was to Chuy.
“Maybe Wyatt has mentioned that I work for Persicon. My background is in materials research.”
Brent Ames went into a long discourse about his job, in his studied domineering voice. He wallowed in his own self-importance. He did not notice, or did not care, that no one listened. Teresa had been uncomfortable and anxious; now she felt the heat of anger start to burn in her heart.
They all knew what Brent Ames did. He managed people and machines that made silicon chips. He led a team of engineers and technicians at the cubist chip plant that perched on the edge of the mesa overlooking Los Huertos. The chip plant dominated the local economy, and Brent was in senior management. In a few years, or even a few months, he might be running the entire plant. The chip business was booming and promotions came fast.
Teresa looked at his thinning colorless hair, oiled back against his head. She noticed that his eyes were beady and red behind their black glasses. His low-slung gut bulged onto his lap, pushing his belt buckle up and out so that it angled toward the ceiling. His words were a humming drone, like the sound of the machines he was describing.
Teresa imagined him at that conference in Germany, the one more important than his son’s wedding. She saw him standing at a podium, speaking in this same condescending tone to a roomful of identical men. And his wife sat in the front row and admired her fingernails.
Teresa looked around the room and saw that only Chuy was watching Brent. Wyatt had his eyes on the floor. Marbella looked down at Karina, who sat sideways in her mother’s lap, facing away from the talking man. Teresa suppressed a smile when she saw that Georgia was examining her fingernails.
Teresa looked at Chuy again and knew he was not listening to Brent’s words. She also knew that Chuy thought this man a fool. Her husband’s mouth was a straight line and his eyes moved slightly over Brent’s features. At the corners of his eyes the little crinkles came and went. When he was a younger man, he would have wanted to punch Brent Ames. Teresa was almost sorry that wouldn’t happen.
Teresa looked at Brent and made herself listen to his words. She was curious what this ugly and pompous man thought was so compelling about his employment. He was deep into the details of the manufacturing process of silicon chips. He mentioned water, and for Teresa the words went away again. The droning hum returned.
Teresa knew about Brent’s chip plant and all the water it needed. People had lost their water so that Persicon could pump wet money from beneath the desert floor. Chip making requires immense amounts of water, and when the big plant came to life and started sucking at the aquifer, well levels all over the western edge of the valley fell. Some wells ran dry. Families who had lived in Los Huertos del Río Huérfano for generations, people who had good wells for a hundred years, found themselves without water. A few landowners tried to fight but too much money was on the side of the chip makers.
Georgia excused herself and left the room. Brent ignored her and droned on. Georgia returned and stood in the doorway. Brent scowled at her and kept talking, for another minute or more. He concluded abruptly, then turned to Chuy and gestured at his empty glass.
“Ready for another beer?”
“Dinner’s ready,” Georgia said.
Everyone looked at her but no one moved. Brent gestured at Chuy’s glass again.
“That doesn’t affect whether the man wants another beer.”
Everyone looked at Chuy.
“No thank you.”
“Well then,” Georgia trilled.
She turned and left. Brent went behind the bar and clanked ice in a glass. Everyone else slowly left their seats and carefully made their way into the dining room.
Georgia insisted on serving and heaped their plates. The food was even worse than Teresa expected. The greasy tamales had a sour aftertaste. The meatloaf tasted like lard and bread crumbs. The coleslaw was runny and both too sweet and too tart. The potatoes in the potato salad were overcooked and the sauce they swam in was heavy and bitter and tasted of cheese. The rice and beans were dry and salty. The store brand tortilla chips seemed good in comparison.
Teresa picked at her plate and glanced around the table. Chuy and Teresa sat on one side, their daughter’s family on the other, and their hosts at either end. Georgia sat to Teresa’s left, at the foot of the table. Wyatt was across from Teresa, with Marbella at his left and Karina in between. Brent was at the head of table, off to Teresa’s right. Chuy sat next to Teresa, between her and Brent. Teresa watched her hosts and saw that Georgia opened her mouth wide around each bite and squinted when she chewed. Brent methodically chomped each mouthful.
Teresa tried to stop it, but her anger grew, swelling in her chest, pushing her heart against her ribs. She was offended by the horrid food, the waste of it, the hostility of it. No one could make food this nasty without trying. She watched Marbella and Wyatt pick at the disgusting tamales. She looked at her hostess again and saw in Georgia’s eyes that same cold delight with which she mispronounced Marbella’s name.
Brent rose and lumbered toward the kitchen. Karina asked Marbella if she could have a glass of water. Before Marbella could respond, Georgia passed the request to her husband.
“Brent dear, while you’re up, please fetch our li’l Sweet Bun a glass a water.”
Heavy footsteps moved across the kitchen. A cabinet door opened and closed, then the footsteps came again, followed by the sound of running water.
“Not tap water, dear. Are you trying to give her a stomach ache?”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake.”
More footsteps, then the sound of the refrigerator door being yanked open and smacked shut. Water gurgling into a glass, then the refrigerator opening and closing again. Footsteps coming toward them. Brent entered the room, a bottle of steak sauce in one hand and a glass of water in the other. He put the glass in front of Karina and resumed his place at the head of the table. He covered his meatloaf with steak sauce while Karina sipped from her glass.
“Thank you, grampa.”
The room was quiet and still. Only Brent was eating. Karina slowly drained her glass.
“Your water isn’t good?” Chuy said.
Brent and Georgia answered simultaneously.
Brent took a bite of meatloaf.
“It makes my stomach hu’t”, Georgia drawled at her husband.
“It’s good enough for me. If it’s good enough —”
Brent was mumbling around his mouthful. He chewed and swallowed and wiped his lips. Georgia sipped her Pepsi.
“If it’s good enough for that expensive equipment down at the plant,” Brent said, “it’s good enough for your damn stomach.”
Georgia drew herself up and put her chin in the air.
“Brent Ames, please watch your language. I will remind you that your granddaughter is present.”
Brent glanced at Karina, then went back to his meatloaf. Teresa wanted to plunge her fork into his throat.
“Why do you do that here?” Teresa said.
Her voice came out too loud. Brent pretended the question wasn’t for him. He squinted at his plate and put a bite of his wife’s disgusting tamales in his puckered mouth.
“Why in the desert?” Teresa said, her voice more controlled.
Brent sat up straight and squinted down the table. He put his cutlery down and cleared his throat. Teresa glanced at Marbella. Her daughter gave her a level look. Go ahead, the look said. Do what you have to do.
“Do what in the desert?” Brent said.
“Why make computer chips in the desert? It takes so much water, why do it here, where there’s so little water.”
He adjusted his glasses and lifted his chin. He gave Teresa a blank look, then put on a tight little smile.
“Actually, Teresa, there’s plenty of water. We’re sitting on the largest aquifer in the United States.”
“You don’t know that.”
He adjusted his glasses again and frowned at her. Teresa gave him time to reply. He did not. He took a sip of his gin and tonic instead.
“I have a cousin works in the governor’s office,” Teresa said. “She tells me no one knows how big the aquifer is and it costs too much to find out.”
She paused. Brent blinked at her.
“Three hundred million dollars, the Army Corps of Engineers estimates. No way the state can come up with that. No way your company will ever pay that. So the people who want it to be big, they say it’s big.”
Brent blinked again, then he smirked at her.
“And the people who want it to be small say it’s small.”
“When it’s gone, no way to put it back.”
Brent frowned again and looked away. He intertwined his fingers and studied his hands.
“The aquifer is enormous. We’re sure of that. We’ve made an investment here —”
“I know people with wells went dry.”
His chin came up again. He puckered his mouth. Some color came to his pasty cheeks.
“That had nothing to do with us.”
“I don’t believe that. My cousin tells me the governor doesn’t believe that. No one but Persicon and your supporters believes that. I don’t even believe that everyone on Persicon’s side believes that. The plant starts up, the wells go down. Old wells, wells that were good through bad droughts. How much more obvious does it have to be?”
Brent looked away from her and cleared his throat again. He swallowed and cleared his throat some more, then he lifted his drink and drained it. He held onto the empty glass after he put it back down on the table. He looked at the glass while he spoke.
“I really don’t want to argue about water.”
The disdain in his voice was violent. The room was quiet for a long moment. Teresa saw that Georgia was examining her fingernails again and felt her anger rise some more and managed to clamp it down.
“She has a good point,” Wyatt said. “Is that why you don’t want to discuss it?”
Brent exhaled deeply. He let go of his empty glass and put both hands flat on the table. His face paled while Wyatt’s darkened. Even Georgia looked up to see what was going on.
“You don’t know anything about it,” Brent said.
“How much is there to know? We live in a desert. How can water not be a problem?”
Georgia waved bespangled fingers over the table.
“Mar-bel-luh,” she said, “what do you call that darlin’ dress Sweet Bun has on?”
Wyatt looked sideways at his mother. Brent stared at a spot on the wall over Georgia’s head.
“It’s a holiday dress,” Marbella said.
“A holiday dress? Why that’s just lovely.”
Brent stood up. He shoved his chair back as he rose and it slid off the rug and scraped on the hardwood floor. He remained at the head of the table for a moment, then stomped out of the room, each footstep shaking the floor.
“What holiday would that be?” Georgia said.
Teresa found Marbella’s eyes. Teresa raised an eyebrow and twisted her lips. These people, her expression said. Marbella held her mother’s gaze while she answered her mother-in-law’s question.
“It doesn’t have to be a holiday,” Marbella said. “A holiday dress is a nice dress that you make for wearing on a special occasion.”
She made her voice even softer and more soothing than usual. Teresa took a deep breath and smiled at her daughter. No one spoke for a moment. Chuy shifted in his seat and the chair creaked.
“Any occasion? Well that’s just lovely,” Georgia said. “I thought maybe today was some Latino holiday I didn’ know ’bout.”
Teresa’s heart boiled. She looked at Marbella and could see that even her placid daughter was finally angry. Teresa looked at Georgia.
“Are we in Latin America?” Teresa said.
Her voice was sharp and pointed. Georgia’s eyes opened wide and her hand went to her throat.
“Why no. Of course not.”
“Latinos are from Latin America. Our families have been here, in North America, for many generations. Some for thousands of years. We have ancestors from Spain. Spain is in Europe. Spain is not in Latin America. We are not Latinos.”
Teresa was relieved by her outburst. The heat in her chest subsided to a warm glow. It felt good to talk to these people as they deserved, to speak her mind, even if what she said was just a snippet of all she wanted to say. Georgia blinked at her and said nothing. Teresa watched as the Anglo woman’s eyes fluttered among the females in the room, from Teresa to Marbella to little Karina.
“You know,” Georgia said.
She let the words hang. Teresa saw Wyatt lower his head and look at his mother from under his eyebrows. His face darkened again.
“You know,” Georgia repeated.
She put her chin up and gestured at Karina, waved bespangled fingers in her direction. It was a dismissive gesture and Teresa was very tired of it.
“I think I’m gonna have to make our first granddaughter — Brent Junior’s little Darlene — a holiday dress.”
“Aw Jesus,” Wyatt said. “Would you stop?”
Georgia pulled her chin down.
“Why I never,” she said.
She fluttered her eyelids.
“Wyatt — how dare you.”
She put her chin back up. She rose slowly and took mincing steps away from them. She gasped theatrically when she was out in the hall and her small hard heels were clacking on the marble floor.
Teresa looked at Chuy. His face was immobile but his eyes gleamed. He raised one eyebrow. Teresa did the same. Karina said something to Marbella that Teresa could not hear. Marbella leaned over and rubbed her daughter’s back and whispered an answer. Teresa saw the little head nod in response. Marbella kissed her daughter’s hair.
Heavy footsteps approached. Brent charged into the room and glared at his son. Little Karina huddled against her mother. Teresa’s heart throbbed against her ribs. Brent jabbed his finger at Wyatt.
“I want to talk to you,” Brent boomed.
“I said I want to talk to you.”
“Anything you have to say to me, you can say it right here. This is my family.”
Brent stopped jabbing. He waved a hand at Teresa.
He stopped flapping his hand and let it fall to his side. Teresa was surprised by her own calm. It felt good to have his distaste for them finally out in the open. Brent jabbed his finger at Wyatt one more time.
“Damn you, Wyatt. God damn it.”
He turned and left. His heavy steps pounded on the marble in the hallway. Teresa looked at Wyatt. He smiled sadly at her and Chuy.
“I should have known,” Wyatt said. “They just don’t know how to behave.”
“Should we leave?” Chuy asked.
Wyatt looked pained.
“Only if you take us with you.”
Teresa and Chuy nodded. Marbella managed a smile. Wyatt patted Karina’s head and stood up.
“I’ll go end this circus,” he said, and left the room.
No one spoke while Wyatt was gone. Teresa’s fading adrenaline left a hollow feeling in her chest. She watched her daughter stroke her granddaughter’s hair and felt her own tensions being smoothed away. She wondered if Karina would also have a daughter when she was grown and this chain of women would continue. She hoped very deeply that it would.
She felt eyes on her and found Chuy watching, his black eyes glittering. She was certain he knew her feelings and she smiled and looked away and felt color in her cheeks. The power of her love for this man and this young woman and this girl overwhelmed her. She felt it hard to breath.
Two sets of footsteps came from the hall, one unmistakably Georgia’s prim little march, and Teresa’s heart throbbed again. She sat up straight in her high-backed chair. Wyatt came into the room first and Georgia followed behind, dabbing at reddened eyes.
“Please y’all,” she said, “I do wish you’d stay for dessert.”
Teresa was shocked. Why extend this ugliness? There was no one left to maintain appearances for. She started to decline, began to form the words, then saw the look on Marbella’s face and stayed for her. Chuy did it because he was too polite not to.
Brent did not join them. They had coffee and Teresa’s biscochitos and a supermarket ice cream cake with red and blue icing. Everyone got a piece of it and no one ate much, not even Karina, but Teresa’s cookies disappeared. When the cake had been melting on the table for fifteen minutes, Georgia excused herself for “the lady’s room” and while her steps still sounded in the hall, Chuy leaned close to his wife.
“Please let’s get out of here,” he whispered.
“As soon as she gets back.”
He nodded and squeezed her hand. Teresa kissed his cheek. He squeezed her hand again and everyone waited to go.
Georgia was back in a few minutes and didn’t argue when Wyatt said they were leaving. She resumed her mindless banter, as if the angry scenes had never happened, made sure Teresa had her empty cookie basket, then mumbled excuses for herself and went upstairs.
The Sandovals gathered in the front hall. Chuy opened the big door and Teresa was surprised to see sunlight. The low thick rain clouds had become high and spare, and the long summer evening was still winding down. Scattered raindrops caught the sunlight and made short gleaming streaks through the air.
Wyatt held a big green and red umbrella and walked Chuy and Teresa down the driveway to Chuy’s truck. He opened Teresa’s door for her.
“I’m sorry,” Wyatt said.
He stood in the corner made by the cab and the open door. He crouched down so that he could see Chuy too.
“I thought maybe they had changed. They never do.”
Chuy leaned forward on the steering wheel so he could see past Teresa.
“These things happen,” he said. “Family can be real tough.”
Teresa reached up and put a hand on Wyatt’s cheek.
“You deserve better,” she said.
He smiled. His eyes glinted like purple agate.
“I have better,” he said.
He stood up straight and closed Teresa’s door. He patted the roof of the pickup cab and went back up the driveway with the big colorful umbrella to fetch his wife and daughter. Chuy and Teresa waved at Marbella and Karina standing in the doorway of the big ugly house, then Chuy started the engine and eased the truck into gear and they glided away down the rain-soaked street.
The pickup truck went straight for about a hundred yards, then Chuy made a gentle swerve around a small dark lump lying in the road.
“What was that?” Teresa asked.
“Looked like a brick,” Chuy said.
When Chuy and Teresa pulled into their drive and stepped onto the sodden earth, ragged clouds in the western sky were tinted peach and bronze by the setting sun. The low sun shot golden beams in under the clouds and across the valley to the Jitomate Mountains. The Jitomates form a stone wall at the eastern edge of the Río Huérfano Valley. It is a vertical mile from the valley floor to the crest of the ridge, and the mountainside that faces the valley is sheer bare rock. The stone is a predominantly pink aggregate that responds dramatically to light, so the face the Jitomates presents the valley changes with the time of day, the weather, and the seasons. This time of year, they were usually deep purple at dawn, reddish brown in the morning and midday, and spectacular reds and pinks in the late afternoon and evening. Today the golden sunset turned the illuminated stone into hammered copper, and cast shadows that were a deep tomato red.
At the crest, a rainbow arched. Intensely colored from end to end, it had thick deep bands of purple and red. Under its curve, a small thunderhead, wedge-shaped and cotton-white, sent jagged lightening bolts skittering across the rock edge of the ridge. The lightening and the stone turned shades of bronze. Behind this, the sky was a pure and enveloping deep-ocean blue.
Teresa had lived all her years in this spectacular valley and was used to the spectacle of its sunsets. She could look out her window and smile vaguely at a display of colors that would make the tourists cry for more film. But this evening’s display was more astoundingly beautiful than she expected to encounter in this mortal life.
“Look at that,” she whispered.
She touched Chuy’s arm.
“I’ve never seen anything like that.”
She watched the lightening bolts flicker and jump along the open rock at the ridge’s crest and laughed like a child. She stole a glance at Chuy and saw his mouth hanging open. When she looked back at the rainbow, she noticed its colors had darkened slightly, and the rounded edges of the thunderhead were now tinged with gray and pink. She was moved by the subtle changes and how imperceptibly they occurred.
She heard a car out in the lane, glanced down and saw a familiar light blue sedan through a gap in the trees. She turned away from the mountains when her daughter’s family pulled into the drive. Wyatt was at the wheel, Marbella was beside him, and Karina was in back. Teresa waved, then she turned back to face the Jitomates and stepped closer to her husband and took his arm. Car doors opened and closed.
“Daddy, look!” Karina called out.
“It’s so beautiful,” Marbella said.
They came and stood with Chuy and Teresa and everyone was mesmerized. Eventually the lightening stopped and muted conversation began. Then Wyatt followed Chuy back around to the garden, to check on Chuy’s peppers. Marbella stood with Teresa, Karina between them, and they watched the colors shift on the mountains as the light faded and the shadows grew. They watched the thunderhead drift slowly away, toward the rolling plains past the mountains.
“I’m going in, momma,” Marbella said. “That food was so horrible. I want to make something we can eat.”
“That’s a good idea. I’ll be there in a little bit.”
Marbella went across the yard and up the porch and into the house.
Teresa had pushed the ugliness at the Ames out of her mind somewhere back in River View III. She had enjoyed the beautiful weather all the way down Route 418 and into Los Huertos and right into her own front yard. She felt guilty for forgetting about the ugliness when she knew how heavy it must weigh on Marbella.
Little Karina leaned against her thigh. Teresa lifted Karina up and perched the child on her hip. She felt the good cotton cloth they had used to make the girl’s dress, and she felt the smoothness of her granddaughter’s skin. She shifted the child a little higher and put her cheek against Karina’s head. She felt the silkiness of the little one’s hair and smelled its hay-scent.
Shifting the child brought Teresa’s right index finger to a small tear along a seam in the holiday dress. She worried the tip of her finger into the hole and again Teresa had the sharp pang of hope that Marbella was pregnant. She stood in her yard, the damp earth dark under her feet, and held the silent Karina tight and watched the Jitomates slowly conclude their color show. She stood till the rainbow was a barely perceptible smear of purple and red, and the small thunderhead was no longer in sight
Al Sim is the author of Stories in the Old Style, published in 2006 by Press 53. He is the recipient of the Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Award, and has published in Antietam Review, Crab Creek Review, Portland Magazine, and many others. “The Holiday Dress” belongs to a sequence of linked stories set in Los Huertos, a fictional village in the Southwest. A first volume of these stories is slated for publication in Spring 2007 by Press 53.