Lolo grows up in Stockton, California, until he is seven and his sister Ceci is 12. That’s when they pass a gang fight on the walk home from school, and there’s a bang like a firework. Suddenly everyone’s screaming. Ceci tugs Lolo into a run, his Mario Kart backpack thumping. In school the next day, Lolo holds his breath and feels his skin crawl as he waits for the teacher to say who died. Two days later, there’s the second shooting of the week.
“Enough already,” say Mami and Ed, and the family packs up and moves to Oakdale, 30 miles away.
Oakdale’s slogan is “Cowboy Capital of the World.” There’s a green square park and a cheese factory and a tiny shingled Cowboy Museum. All around Oakdale, fields and orchards spread out, so flat and far it makes Lolo’s head ache to stare down the rows. Heat hovers everywhere, and shade is a treasured thing.
In Oakdale, white people own the stores, the farms. Lolo’s people work the field. My people, our people, your people, Mami says. But Ed is white.
“So Ed is not our people?” Lolo asks Ceci.
“Don’t be stupid,” she says.
For that first year in Oakdale, Lolo has an imaginary best friend named Oscar. Oscar goes everywhere with Lolo. In the second-hand store, Oscar comes with Lolo into the little curtained dressing room and tells him which outfits look cool.
“Who are you talking to in there, m’ijo?” calls Mami.
Another time, when Lolo’s playing on the quiet street, a bunch of white boys rush by on their bikes, standing up on their peddles, coming so close that Lolo has to jump into a bush. Oscar cusses them out as Lolo sits on the curb and shakes leaves out of his shoes. Oscar fades somewhere around Lolo’s ninth birthday. Lolo doesn’t have a best friend.
Mami introduces Lolo to Mexican music, pop-ballads, Enrique Iglesias. Ceci introduces him to Beyoncé and Adele and Taylor Swift. But it’s Ed who introduces Lolo to old country music: Johnny Cash, Woodie Guthrie, the deep voices ringing and thundering through the decades until they reach this little living room, smelling of Ceci’s perfume.
The other middle school boys like blasting rap so loud Lolo can feel it expanding the marrow in his bones. Lolo likes that, too, but when he’s listening to music on his own he puts on old country.
Ceci gets pregnant at 17 but finishes out senior year and gets her diploma, walking across the stage with her big belly, Mami and Ed so proud they’re crying. While Lolo starts high school, Ceci lives at home and works her way through community college. Mami takes care of baby Raf.
Lolo is in and out of detention, which is held in a brown portable smelling of feet. He’s not in there for anything bad; he just doesn’t do the homework, doesn’t come to class. It’s all so boring. When he does show up, he sits in the back with a shifting group of other Latino guys and they laugh and hassle the teachers. But even in this group of friends, Lolo doesn’t quite fit. His friends’ parents are farm workers; Ed’s a welder, and Mami’s a manager at Safeway. And guys keep dropping out of school or joining the army. But Lolo smiles easily, laughs easily; the other guys don’t know he’s lonely.
After class, they all go chill at the green square park, until a cop busts Guillermo for weed, and then they start hanging out at Lolo’s house.
Mami says, “Here comes the hurricane,” because the fridge is about to get cleaned out. Four-year-old Raf runs around demanding piggybacks. Ed provides alcohol.
“Wish I had a stepdad,” someone says.
When Lolo’s a junior in high school, Ceci marries her college boyfriend, Felix, and they move into a house on the other side of Oakdale. Felix is a good guy; he acts like a dad to little Raf. Lolo doesn’t have a date at the wedding. He’s never had a date in his life.
“Baby Cheeks,” Ceci sometimes teases him; he has a very round face. Maybe he’ll never get a girl.
Sometimes Lolo tells the guys he’s busy, and he goes walking alone along the side of the highway. His people are stooped over in the fields. It can’t just be these two choices: to sit, almost weeping from boredom, in the four gray walls of the classroom, or to break your back picking white men’s crops. Lolo ducks into the orchard. Here, the dirt is soft and brown and the edges of the tree trunks glow in the evening light. He likes the walnut trees best, the broad skirts of pale green leaves rustling over his head. Quiet. The shadows cool and smooth and blue. There are beehives at the end of the rows, and bees drift through the air like spots of sunlight, humming. Lolo is not afraid of them. He is too happy here for fear.
When Lolo graduates high school, he starts bussing tables at The Unlawful Waffle, a 24-hour breakfast place with framed photographs of outlaws on horseback. The women’s bathroom has a sign saying “Doñas” and the men’s says “Vaqueros.” Those signs hurt Lolo’s soul a bit––reducing the mighty vaqueros to a bathroom sign, but the pay is pretty good. And the boss’s daughter is a beautiful Latina girl, a senior in high school. She’s over at The Unlawful Waffle all the time. Her name is Ellie. Intense, laughing Ellie, always wanting to talk about how can everyone work when there’s nothing to work for, we’re all gonna die? He tries to convince her of the realness of the world: what about music, what about wandering down the lanes of the orchard? What about (he thinks, but doesn’t say) talking with me?
They never convince each other, but she wins every argument: she uses such fancy words, talks so fast. The conversations late into the night in the fluorescent kitchen, Lolo working overtime with his chapped hands, washing dishes, Ellie sitting on a stool by the dishwasher. Her leg jiggles as she speaks.
“How do you think about this deep shit all the time, Ellie?” he says.
“How do you not? What do you think about?”
“I dunno. What’s Trump gonna do to our country. What’s for dinner. What’s gonna happen in Breaking Bad. My friends.”
Ellie laughs her tremendous laugh. “I just don’t think about people. I mean if they didn’t call me it wouldn’t occur to me to talk to them. I’d just be wandering around in my own brain.”
“That’s fucked up,” says Lolo. “You need some therapy, chica.”
Ellie has a dimple that flashes in her left cheek. Little sideburns of downy hair. Even her zits are beautiful. This gives Lolo hope: maybe she, looking at him, thinks his baby cheeks are cute.
“Lolo,” she says, very tenderly, “you always know how to make me laugh.” She brings him lotion for his hands, rubbing it into first one, then the other, as Lolo stands in silence, trying to laugh but not finding any air. Her fingers are warm and soft and rub in slow circles over the backs of his hands. This is real, he wants to tell her.
Lolo shows Ellie the orchard. Her shiny black boots get filmed in dust, but she doesn’t complain. He points out everything: the bees, the rustle of the leaves, the sky opening up. He wants her to feel it; he wants her to be happy. He turns to her to make sure she is looking at everything and she isn’t, not at all, she’s looking at him.
Ellie is the first girl Lolo has sex with, her bedroom covered in punk-rock posters, her parents gone for the weekend. When he wakes up the next morning, his arm is all pins and needles because Ellie’s head is on it. She is still sleeping, her dark hair crazy, her legs mixed up with his. Slowly, slowly, Lolo extracts his arm from under her head. Then he lies there, watching the room lighten, thinking maybe he will never be sad again.
At the end of the school year, Ellie graduates. She’s gotten a scholarship to San Jose State University. She’ll move into the dorms in the fall.
Ellie works as a hostess at The Unlawful Waffle that summer. She’s in the kitchen with Lolo whenever things get slow. Ellie’s parents know about them by now; Lolo’s boss has developed the unnerving habit of winking at Lolo. As the summer goes on, Ellie comes back to the kitchen less and less. After work she just wants to read. In her room, Lolo sits at her desk and practices bouncing a ping pong ball into a cup. Ellie’s propped up on her elbows over her book.
“Do you have to read all the time?”
“Have you ever read a book outside of school?”
“I know you think I’m stupid.”
“I just think there’s a world outside of Oakdale and you don’t put in any effort to know about it. Could you stop bouncing that thing? It’s infuriating.”
Lolo gives the ping pong ball one final bounce, extra-hard, for emphasis, and it hops off the desk and rolls under the bed. Lolo doesn’t retrieve it. Ellie bends over her book, tight-lipped.
“I just wanna hang out,” says Lolo. “We don’t have that much time.”
“I know, okay? You bring that up constantly. It’s like dating an egg timer.”
They stand outside The Unlawful Waffle. It’s the last day of summer and the air smells of asphalt and dust. Ellie is wearing a thin yellow dress.
“So that’s it?” says Lolo. “You’re leaving?”
“Yeah, I’m leaving. What did you expect?”
Lolo doesn’t know what he expected. Not this feeling like dark shutters closing over his mind.
“It’s just an hour and half drive,” says Lolo. “I can visit on weekends.”
Ellie stares at the ground.
“I don’t want to do long distance. I don’t want to be boxed in. You can find somebody who makes you happy instead, instead of miserable like me.”
“You don’t make me miserable,” says Lolo, very miserably, and there it is: she’s won another argument.
“Friends?” says Ellie, looking up at him. “Please? I don’t want to lose you.”
Lolo tries to answer yes, but he can’t seem to speak.
Lolo has worked his way up to shift manager at The Unlawful Waffle, but he quits. Every inch of that place reminds him of Ellie. Ed helps him get a welding apprenticeship. Welding is so much better than working at the restaurant, so much better than school. It requires intense concentration to make sure he doesn’t burn himself or mess up. Too much concentration to think about Ellie. Lolo loves the fountains of orange sparks. At the end of each day he has created something.
His new friends at work get him to start steer-roping. He’s never ridden a horse or lassoed a steer but he loves it immediately. It’s a great sport: the urgency of the moment, entirely present in your own skin, pelting forward on the horse, the little steer dashing crazy everywhere, the rope spilling into the air in perfect loops like smoke rings and falling quiet over that unsuspecting head.
All the other steer-ropers are white boys with Trump bumper stickers on their pick-up trucks, but Lolo doesn’t mind. Much. He can talk about how horrible Trump is with Mami and Ceci and Ed. And sometimes with Ellie; they still Facetime. Ellie calls Trump “he-who-must-not-be-named,” which makes Lolo laugh. But it’s not the same as having her near. He can’t be honest with her anymore. He can’t say: you broke my heart.
Bryce works with Lolo and steer-ropes with him. Bryce is a skinny white boy with acne and stooped shoulders. All the girls who come to the rodeos check him out. It takes Lolo a few weeks to figure out why: it’s how Bryce walks. The rolling stroll of a cowboy, straight out of the movies. The hat tilted down, like he’s got something to hide. An air of mystery. Though really, he’s just shy.
Lolo and Bryce get high in the parking lot behind the rodeo one evening. Lolo plays his favorite Johnny Cash songs on his phone. They start talking about how can they know that God exists if they can’t see Him.
Then the revelation: “We can’t see music, but we know it exists!”
“Dude, you’re right! And it fills up the air all around us, just like God!”
Enlightenment! Joy! Lolo wants to call Ellie and tell her, but doesn’t.
The next morning, sheepish, at work, Lolo says, “Shit, dude, we can hear music. That’s how we know.”
“Shit,” says Bryce, and they laugh so hard their boss tells them they’ll burn the place down if they can’t keep it together.
Bryce’s aunt and uncle own a pack station up in the Sierras. Every spring Bryce goes up there to work and stays all summer and fall. Once the snow gets too thick and the Forest Service comes in saying that the road will close in a few hours, they all come back down to Oakdale, and Bryce keeps welding until the snow thaws. The packers take people who want to camp, put them on horses, pile their stuff onto mules, and lead them up into the mountains, to little lakes. After a few days, they pick up the campers and lead them out again. Bryce tells Lolo of riding all day on trails by waterfalls and pine trees. The whole milky way comes out at night. Bryce’s stories enchant Lolo. All he knows of nature are those stolen moments in the orchard.
“Uncle Kenny wants me to recruit all my rodeo friends,” says Bryce. “Anyone who can ride a horse well.”
“Me?” says Lolo.
“You,” says Bryce.
“You’re doing what?” says Mami, when Lolo tells her. “There are bears up there. And fires. And lightning.”
“You’re always telling me I should move out.”
“To an apartment, not to the wilderness! Are you trying to become one of those white cowboys you’re always hanging out with?”
“The vaqueros were cowboys, Mami. And the caballeros. I’m gonna be the one to remind all those white-ass cowboys that they got it all from us.”
“Oh, yeah?” says Mami. “That’s your big plan?”
She stares him down until he laughs.
“I just want to try it. If I don’t like it, I won’t go next year. But what if it’s the place for me and I never go and I never know?”
Lolo visits Ceci and Felix the night before he leaves.
“I still think you should try community college,” says Ceci. “But if this is what you want…”
“This is what I want,” says Lolo.
After dinner, Lolo sits in the yard, watching little Raf. Raf scoops up handfuls of pebbles and sprints them over to the other side of the yard, his chubby legs pumping, cheeks wobbling from effort. Lolo scoops up some pebbles and lets them fall to the ground. They pitter-patter.
“Sounds like corn popping,” he tells Raf. “Have you ever heard corn popping?” Raf doesn’t respond. He is too absorbed in rushing pebbles over to his pile; he plays with such urgency it looks like work.
The next morning Mami gives Lolo a ridiculous amount of food for the car ride and Ed gives him a bunch of country CD’s and then Bryce is honking from outside. It’s a long drive. Fields and orchards wrinkle into hills and then straight, tall trees are poking up into the sky, crowding together, blocking out the light.
“Pine trees,” Bryce says, and Lolo is grateful, because he didn’t want to look stupid and ask.
A few more hours, then they’re turning down a dirt road, bumping along to a collection of cabins and a lodge and a corral full of horses swatting invisible flies with their tails. Cliffs of granite and pine loom up all around. White-haired fishermen stud the stream. Lolo hauls out of the car and runs his fingers through air all hazy with amber light.
“It’s the smoke,” says Bryce. “But the fires shouldn’t come near.”
Bryce’s Uncle Kenny is in charge of the packers. He is soft-spoken, and puts on little round glasses when he peers into the hood of a customer’s broken-down truck. He’s a white guy, 40 or 50, maybe: Lolo can’t tell adults ages too well. You’re an adult, Mami would say, but 20 doesn’t feel like it.
Bryce’s aunt, Kenny’s wife, runs the administration of the whole place, all on paper. It’s probably the only establishment left in California that doesn’t use a computer. She is fat and sarcastic and moves with benevolent certainty, like the sunrise would wait for her if she asked. Her name is Delilah.
“Delilah? Like the––”
“Guess you get that a lot.”
She smirks and leads him to her desk, under the mounted deer heads. Lolo signs his contract under the curving shadows of the antlers.
All the packers wear the same thing: Wrangler jeans, plaid shirts, cowboy hats, boots with no laces. They start out the season with five of them: Lolo, Bryce, Jeff, Trent, and Rick. All five sleep in bunk beds in the same cabin, which smells less like pine and more like socks with each passing week. Everyone is white except for Lolo. Jeff is 30 and snores. Trent is 16 and reads gay porn in bed. Lolo didn’t know you could read it; he thought it was just an internet thing.
“Is Bryce straight?” Trent asks Lolo.
“Yeah, sorry, man.”
“Figures.” Trent sighs. “He’s got something, you know? Mysterious.”
“Everyone falls for it,” says Lolo. “He’s just shy.”
Rick is 20, and wakes up for the sunrise every morning to fish before the stream fills with old men in their clunking waders. Rick snores too. Lolo stuffs a pillow over his head to block out all the snoring that fills that little room. The snoring saws its way into his dreams. An alarm goes off at six every morning. The snoring stops, and Lolo thinks this is what really wakes him up.
Delilah does laundry for the five of them each week, a mountain of plaid shirts and Wrangler jeans. They stop caring which clothes belong to which person.
There’s no WiFi at the pack station. On his day off Lolo borrows Bryce’s truck and drives down two hours to the little town of Strawberry. Country music on the radio. The words are unimportant; it’s the beat he feels, it’s the strumming of the guitar that’s carrying him, it’s that deep voice. Another human out there is singing to him, somewhere beyond the peaks and the valleys, the rockfalls and the snow. Granite out the windows, pine trees against a blue sky, the sunlight raw and endless, chafing against his eyes. Strawberry consists mainly of a red clapboard inn with a restaurant. He goes inside and orders a turkey sandwich. The waitress here is an old white lady with a ribbon tied in her hair, and no wedding ring. Looking at her makes Lolo want to cry. The Wi-Fi here is not good, but it exists. Lolo sits on the back deck over a stream and trees whose leaves are almost white in the light.
He Facetimes Mami. “How’s my caballero?” she asks him.
“Good, good,” says Lolo, smiling widely. “I’m making friends.”
Ed pokes his head into view, eating yoghurt. “Lolo! Are you surviving or thriving?”
What a pair of lovable dorks. “Thriving, claro, señor,” says Lolo.
“No bears?” says Mami.
Once Lolo has finished telling them that everything is perfect, he hangs up and Facetimes Ellie. She picks up on the third ring and there’s her face, so much more beautiful than he remembered. He had made her ugly in his memory, to make it hurt less, but here it is: the dimple that flashes in her left cheek, the soft downy hair that grows like little sideburns. The video’s going wonky. It just shows a still image, and then every few seconds it snaps to another still frame: the mouth in a different shape, the hair flying off to the side, now the hand outstretched, a rapid photo album. If he could print them out and hang them on the wall in frames he would. Now she’s laughing: “Lolo, have you heard a word I said?”
He blames the audio connection.
Ellie tells him about her classes and he smiles and tells her about the other packers and knows that one day he will fall in love with someone else and be happy but probably he will never stop loving her too. Very probably whenever he sees her face for the rest of his life he will feel this way.
The others haze Lolo and Rick (whose first year it is too), and make them sleep outside on a granite slab with no sleeping bags, having told them about grizzly bears and coyotes and flesh-eating vampire mosquitoes. Lolo and Rick lie on the granite, a yard apart. The whole milky way spangles out above them. Lolo wants to ask Rick to cuddle for warmth but he doesn’t want to sound gay. He wants to ask Rick to talk about something, anything, but silence is falling gray all over them like forest fire ash. Every shifting stick is a grizzly bear or a coyote. Mosquitoes lurk in clouds around Lolo’s face and bite his forehead. He curls into a ball on the granite and hides his face. They bite his knees. His toes have gone numb. He cries silently, and imagines that the tears are freezing. It’s the sound of Rick’s snoring that builds a roof and walls around Lolo and finally lets him fall asleep.
Bryce is red-faced and apologetic the next morning, as Lolo and Rick stagger, grimy and exhausted, into the cabin.
“They did it to me when I started,” Bryce says, and Lolo punches Bryce’s shoulder, and then punches Rick’s shoulder, and then they’re all punching each other’s shoulders and grinning.
Lolo’s first pack trip, and he’s riding Lazy Boy, who loves to eat. Lolo has to keep yanking the horse’s head away from the foliage and kicking him to get him going. Bryce rides all the way in front, with his hat tilted down, and behind Bryce are the customers: two middle-aged botanists from Oregon who pluck leaves off the trees and show them to Bryce and Lolo. Lodge-pole, ponderosa, juniper.
“If you don’t know their names it’s all just a green blur,” says the man.
“But if you know them, they become your friends,” says the woman. Lolo likes how they speak, stepping off each other’s sentences.
The first few hours are glorious. Rushing white rivers, wildflowers, glittering lakes. But a few hours later his thoughts consist primarily of the word “fuck.” Lolo’s done tons of riding for rodeo, but never anything like this. Never five hours in a row on a horse whose legs keep skittering on rocks inches from a cliff edge. Never five hours of having to stare at the swinging butt of the horse in front, watching the tail curve up in an arch as it farts, or the legs widen as it jerks to a stop to let out a hot stream of urine, or the shitting-while-walking scenario, the goopy clods falling just in time for Lazy Boy to step on them. Lolo didn’t lengthen the stirrups enough, so his knees are in pain. He has to turn around constantly to make sure the mules haven’t gotten their stupid-ass selves stuck in a crevice or fallen off a cliff.
Bryce and Lolo drop the botanists off at the campsite, unload the mules, and mount the horses to ride back. Bryce takes charge of half the mules.
“They go faster when they’re heading home,” says Bryce. “It should only take four hours.”
“Great!” lies Lolo.
“Dude, your face right now,” says Bryce, and starts laughing.
Bryce laughs so hard he almost falls off the horse.
Rides and rides. Cliffs and mountains. Lodge-pole and ponderosa and juniper. A marmot that streaks across the rock. One day, the fire-rangers call to tell them all to pack up and evacuate: the fires are getting close. It’s a false alarm.
Rides and rides. Cliffs and mountains. Horses’ butts’ swinging. Saddles. Snoring. The little cabin. A hot day, so hot that flies cluster thick in the horses’ black nostrils, seeking moisture. The packers strip down to their boxers and wade into the stream. The water is icy but only comes up to their knees. They lower themselves down, in pushup position, until they are submerged. The water closes over, around, registering more as pain than cold, and Lolo bursts out, swearing, triumphant, entirely numb, the world drenched in clarity. The outlines of everything are crisp, like someone has traced over them in silver pencil. Bryce is lying on a slab of granite, trying to leech some of its warmth. Rick is taking pictures for his Instagram. Trent is yelping and doing jumping jacks. Jeff has remembered a towel. Lolo lies next to Bryce on the granite. The stone is gritty and warm and imprints little bits of dirt into his skin.
“Fucking freezing, right?” says Bryce.
Lolo’s teeth are still chattering. It hurts to breathe all the way in. Like his chest is constricted. He used to feel like this a lot, he realizes. He used to feel like this whenever he thought about Ellie. But already the warmth of the stone is seeping in. Already the tightness is loosening.
Lolo is the only packer who isn’t white until Kaleb comes at the beginning of July. Kaleb is black. He grew up in the South Bronx. He’s Lolo’s age. He snores.
“You guys are actual cowboys,” Kaleb keeps saying. “It’s like the Wild West.”
“How did you even end up here?” says Rick.
“Delilah was my mom’s best friend growing up,” says Kaleb. “I needed a summer job, so…”
“Wild,” says Rick.
“You’re telling me,” says Kaleb. “Delilah wasn’t so clear that I was gonna have to ride the horses.”
And suddenly Lolo is on the inside looking out, at this city-boy newb from way out east.
On their day off, Kaleb and Lolo take Lazy Boy and Flash and go riding out to Reservoir Lake. The air is soupy with smoke today, and the dust that the horses kick up comes roiling in clouds. It coats the inside of Lolo’s nostrils and crusts the corners of his eyes, but he is used to it by now, and doesn’t mind. Lolo rides upright, his hips moving with Lazy Boy, like they are one, the warmth and the solidity of the horse between his thighs, the reins held loosely in one hand––Kaleb tight-legged, clinging to Flash’s saddle-horn with two hands.
They sit over the blue and the glitter and spit dip into the smoky sunshine.
“I’m glad you’re here,” says Lolo. “It’s been fucking with me not to have anyone to complain to about Trump.”
“What is he fucking thinking?” says Kaleb.
“He doesn’t think at all.”
“If I had known all these guys were gonna be Trump supporters I wouldn’t have left the Bronx.”
“Really? And let them have all this for themselves?” says Lolo. He spreads his arms out. Below them light skates over the surface of the lake in diamonds. Behind the lake are mountains, and behind those mountains are bluer mountains, and grayer. Clouds are starting to collect themselves on the edge of the sky, dragging beneath them great puddles of shadow. “They stole it anyway, we gotta take it back.”
“We’re not Indians,” says Kaleb.
“True,” says Lolo. “But you know what I mean.”
“Bryce has a Trump bumper sticker,” says Kaleb.
“I know,” says Lolo. “Pretty fucked.”
“But he’s, like, your best friend.”
“I guess I take what I can get,” says Lolo. “There aren’t huge numbers of people begging for the position.”
On the ride back, a storm rolls through. Neither of them remembered raincoats. The drops come fast and hard and cold, peppering their skin through their shirts. Lightning flashes, and the horses move restlessly. Then comes the crash of thunder.
“Shit, dude, we have to get down from the ridge!” calls Lolo. They go trotting down the trail as fast as they dare, the horses’ feet slipping on the slick stone. Is this how he dies? Kaleb bounces haphazardly in the saddle. Lolo stands up in his stirrups. He can feel his own heartbeat, jerky, electrical. His hands are pink and clenched with cold. The rain turns to hail that pelts indiscriminately on the pine trees and Lazy Boy’s neck.
“It’s fucking hailing!” Kaleb calls. They are both grinning madly. This is the glory-moment, the one worthy of an old country song. Hail, skittering on the dirt, ringing on the granite, melting on Lolo, like he is part of it all.
Header photo by Faith Photography of Nevada, courtesy Shutterstock.