A Short Story by Tomas Baiza
Aurelio’s head exploded sixty miles east of Ely, Nevada. Even blinded by the pain, he knew the violent eruption of presence had something to do with the Spam burrito his mother had made for him that morning.
“No te olvides esto, m’ijo.(1) For when you get hungry,” his mother said, handing him the foil-wrapped bundle. She wiped her eyes in the predawn chill, next to the little pickup. Behind her, Aurelio’s older half-sister stood frowning.
Cami frowns when she’s upset, he told himself. She cares. I know she does.
“And make sure to put gas in the tank,” his mother gulped. She lunged in to press her cheek hard against his. “You can be so forgetful when your head’s in the clouds.”
“Knowing him he’ll end up on Jupiter,” Cami added.
Aurelio sniffed back tears. In his hand the bundle felt oddly…heavy.
✶ ✶ ✶
He crossed the state beneath a crushing homesickness.
Wasn’t he supposed to feel better about this? Didn’t doing this show character? Courage, at least?
Aurelio wasn’t sure whether trips to San Francisco, Fresno, or Tijuana officially counted as ‘travel.’ And he’d never been away from family before. It wasn’t until this summer that he realized he’d been raised with the Bay Area conceit that the world came to you, and so there was little need to go into the world. You could hear all the accents you want from the kitchen window, thank you very much.
The highway twisted upward as the familiar black oak foothills gave way to dark, pine-covered mountains. The rich kids at school–the ones who spent weekends skiing and came back on crutches–mentioned the Sierras, but how could he have truly known? Their beauty shocked and humbled him.
“If I’ve never actually seen anything past the Sierras, does it really exist?” Aurelio said out loud in the empty cab. He half-expected a response from the passenger side of the bench seat. Was he crazy to want it? Someone to share his journey–and his guilt? He glanced down to his right.
Nothing. Just a foil-wrapped burrito.
✶ ✶ ✶
“Who is it that can tell me who I am?”
He read the passage again and again until King Lear’s words were torn from his hands. He knew it was stupid to let himself get distracted on the way home from the bus stop. The library book was too big and heavy for his backpack, which was why he’d been holding it.
“Think you’re special, fucking schoolboy?” Manuel pushed his forehead into Aurelio’s. Manuel’s hot breath smelled of Skoal and MD 20/20. “Think your fancy joto school means you’re the shit?”
The blow landed cleanly. Aurelio’s knuckles didn’t even hurt when Manuel’s nose snapped.
Manuel fell to the pavement, a viscous slurry of snot and blood gushing through his fingers. Two other boys stepped back when Aurelio moved to pick up the library book. Eyeing them, he brushed the dirt off the Shakespeare anthology and continued down the sidewalk, stealing glances over his shoulder.
Just keep moving, Aurelio told himself. His heart slammed behind the book he clutched to his chest.
–¡Jódete, culero! ¡Pinche bolillo!(2)– Manuel gagged through the blood.
✶ ✶ ✶
Just as the trucker’s atlas indicated, there was, indeed, a world beyond California. At Carson City, Aurelio turned east onto Highway 50. Peering through the bug-spattered windshield, he was sure that the dessicated hardpan of central Nevada must be where Mars rovers were field tested and used-up mariachis sent into oblivion when they became too old to play “El Niño Perdido(3)” on trumpet.
Every hundred miles or so, signs mangled by shotgun pellets would remind him that he traveled ‘The Loneliest Road in America.’ Rusted barbed wire. Splintered fence posts. Sun-battered sage and bitterbrush. Dirt roads that intersected the highway at ninety-degree angles and disappeared into the horizon.
“Where the HELL do those roads go?” Aurelio marveled, twisting the radio dial for anything but preachers or pedal steel guitars. He was pretty sure he’d give his left testicle for just one Metallica song here in the middle of nowhere.
✶ ✶ ✶
“Michigan? May as well call it me chingan.(4) Why there, Lio?” Cami had asked. She liked to call him ‘Lio,’ slang for mess or hassle. “You also got scholarships to Berkeley and Stanford. Jeeze, even UCLA would have been better.”
The only two things Cami and Aurelio had in common: their mother and a principled disdain for Los Angeles.
“I heard it’s so humid there it’s like living in someone’s sobaco.”
Oh my God. Will it really be like living in an armpit?
“And leaving me alone with mom…” Cami trailed off, a deep furrow carved into her brow. Aurelio wondered how long before that frown became permanent.
How do you tell the only family you’ve ever known that you want to experience something different? Is that betrayal?
“You must really want to get away from here. Only gabacho(5) kids move away from home just like that,” she said, snapping her fingers in his face. “Guess that settles it, huh?”
Aurelio looked at himself in the rearview mirror for the hundredth time that day and sighed.
Guess that settles it.
✶ ✶ ✶
Just outside Stagecoach, at the first hint of hunger, he eyed the foil package beside him.
That’s when he felt it, both alien and disturbingly familiar: doom. Doom in the old Anglo-Saxon sense of an inescapable outcome.
All summer it had clung to him like a sweaty veil, that smothering sensation of being watched as he slid on a track toward some inevitable destination. Sometimes he would just stare at his dinner, lost in thought, while Cami and his mother side-eyed one another and pursed their lips.
These moments were different from the mundane narcissism of youth, that certainty of being the protagonist in an epic drama watched by an invisible audience. Moments like this were more ominous, a familiar presence hunched in a corner of his consciousness like a gargoyle, watching with keen interest everything he did. During these episodes he would go blank, for with the presence came visions he couldn’t at all fit into the puzzle of his eighteen years, like memories of a life not yet lived.
At 70 mph, Aurelio stared at the burrito his mother gave him and thought of a gargoyle.
✶ ✶ ✶
He had packed the night before and thought he was the first one up until he heard noises coming from the kitchen.
His mother stood at the stove in her polyester flower-print nightgown, her short, compact shape moving efficiently to manage a frying pan and two steaming pots. It smelled amazing.
Aurelio gently nudged her aside and took over at the black iron skillet. You had to turn the cubed Spam just right in the chile colorado–too quickly and you’d turn it to mush, too slowly and it would burn. At exactly the right moment he scooped the fried Spam onto the large flour tortilla his mother had laid out and prepared with rice, spiced black beans, and papas.
Aurelio had seen his mother fold a tortilla a thousand times and it always filled him with wonder. When he did it a stray kernel of rice or recalcitrant frijol would escape and require herding. His mother’s tortillas were perfect. Always. She gave him a long look, as if she were deciding on something. She blinked at him once and then added one extra fold.
He was certain she could trap space and time in a tortilla if she wanted.
Watching her wrap the burrito in tin foil, he felt it–someone else in the kitchen with them. He looked around. No one. Cami was still in bed.
They lingered in the kitchen trying to seem busy until Aurelio acted like it was sleep he wiped from his eyes. “I’m gonna start loading the truck.”
His mother looked away and nodded.
✶ ✶ ✶
Aurelio stopped for gas in Fallon and thought of her.
Does she think I’m gabacho now? Under a white sun, he watched the digits slowly tally the gallons and dollars on the pump. Do we not get to go places, too? Why should I have to stay home to be me? What does ‘being me’ even mean?
He hesitated before getting back into the truck. The tin foil glinted in the sun blazing through the windshield. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something waited for him in the cab.
Get in, it seemed to purr. Just another 2,100 miles to Ann Arbor.
Aurelio slipped behind the wheel, slowly. Would whatever was in the truck with him object? Or maybe it could help with some of these questions?
Nothing. Just suffocating heat and sweat starting to bead on his forehead.
Pulling away from the gas station, Aurelio was confronted by a gaudy procession of fast food joints. His mother would have sneered.
“M’ijo, when you’re there, make sure to eat well. And for Heaven’s sake, stay away from chicharrones.”
“I don’t think they even have chicharrones where I’m going, mom.”
“¿¡Te imaginas!?(6) A place without chicharrones!”
Maybe living in an armpit meant you were also denied spicy pork rinds?
✶ ✶ ✶
The road rippled and shined in the stupefying heat. Aurelio checked the temperature gauge and felt some measure of relief. The truck was beat up, but it ran well.
The previous summer he had walked the used car lot with his mother. She pointed at a little Mazda pickup that had seen better days. “What do you think, m’ijo?”
He smirked. “I think this one,” he nodded at a slightly less-old Ford. “It’s only $200 more. We’ve never had a car with air conditioning, mom.”
“Uy, no,” she said, wagging her finger back and forth as only his mother and grandmother could. “Too expensive.”
✶ ✶ ✶
For the next two and a half hours, Aurelio fought sleep while the heat shimmers danced across the two-lane highway. Between head bobs, he would peek at the foil bundle and his plastic water bottle next to it. Outside, the mirages quivered and twisted and swirled into the shapes of arrows or hands. Some beckoned him forward, others back. The phantoms crowded his windshield until he couldn’t see past the end of the hood.
“Fuuuck!” he shouted at no one, sweat dripping from the tip of his nose. He opened the bottle, splashed warm water onto his face, and stuck his head out the open window to let the water sling away, like slobber off a dog. It helped. The asphalt still folded and swayed in the afternoon heat, but the spirits had fled. The perfume of super-heated sage filled his head.
With the trucker’s atlas opened on the steering wheel he traced the red line of Highway 50 eastward.
I’m starving–and I’m not even at Eureka yet.
✶ ✶ ✶
“What if you could speak with your younger selves,” Father Álvarez had asked the boys on their last day of school. In three months, all of them would be expected to start college. “No! Better yet, your older selves?”
Aurelio liked his Philosophy class. It was where he got to think about big questions without being teased or feeling self-conscious. He also liked that Father Álvarez rocked a leather jacket and listened to the Rolling Stones in his office when he wasn’t teaching, giving Mass, or scaring the crap out of the first-years.
He started meeting with the old Jesuit after the first fight, freshman year. Aurelio preferred his talks with Father A to the meetings with the therapist he’d seen off-and-on throughout high school. Father A didn’t preach God-this and God-that. He mostly listened and didn’t use phrases like ‘dissociative affect’ or ‘borderline personality disorder.’
“And I don’t mean in that bullshitty, hippy, get-in-touch-with-yourself way” Father Álvarez groaned to the class. “I mean an actual conversation. What would you say to one another? Would you really want to know what life has in store for you?”
Such questions dogged Aurelio the entire friendless summer–possibly his last summer at home. With no one to speak with or confide in, voices echoed in his own head debating the relative merits of his decision.
If only I had a sign. Something to tell me I’m doing the right thing.
✶ ✶ ✶
The little truck blasted through Ely. His mother told him once that his father–a red-headed white man he knew only from photos–had been jailed there a long time ago.
Doom, it seemed, had brought Aurelio here. And the gas pedal will get me the hell away, he thought. He pushed the pedal down as far as it would go.
Highway 50 spit him out the east end of the scabrous mining town. He tried to smile. The temperature was falling and the sky had taken on a surreal purplish wash. Still, the truck cab began to feel close again in the high-desert gloaming.
Aurelio’s stomach growled. He could smell the burrito through the foil now.
✶ ✶ ✶
It all happened at once
the dash cluster, gas gauge, the needle pegged on E
sixteen-gallon tank, 258 miles between Fallon and Ely, sixty miles past Ely, averaging 21 mpg–SHIT!
as he took his first bite.
✶ ✶ ✶
It was a minor miracle the little Mazda didn’t roll as it slid sideways across the gravel turnout.
Aurelio stumbled out of the cab and ran through the dust cloud into the desert. Gnarled sage and bitterbrush snagged his t-shirt and jeans. On his right the looming silhouette of Wheeler Peak jabbed upward to tear a hole in the painted sunset. Jet engines roared through his head. He saw the mountain with two minds, a dual consciousness that made him feel old. Still clutching the burrito, he instinctively took another bite.
Lightning ripped through his brain again. Tortilla, beans, papas, and cubed Spam spilled as he fell.
–¿Quiubole, güey?(7)– A voice in his head, familiar and a little melancholy.
Aurelio sprawled on the ground. Cool desert sand rasped his cheek. “Who–? How?” A bone-dry breeze carried his words away.
–You said you needed a sign. Mom’s care package.–
“Seriously? You couldn’t think of anything better than a haunted burrito?” Aurelio laughed through his tears.
–It’s the one thing I remember clearly from the first day out.–
“You’ve been with me this whole time?”
–More or less. I’ve lost you now and again, but you always help me find my way back.–
Aurelio tried to lift himself off the ground, to focus through the pain. He gave up and lay face-down again. “Cami says–”
–¿Qué te importa lo que dice Cami? (8) She doesn’t get to tell you who you are. Nobody does.–
“But I’m leaving mom.”
–She’ll never tell you this, but mom basically built you to leave, to have the choices she never had. She knew this might happen. She’s been preparing for it. Why do you think she mortgaged everything to send you to that expensive school, to pay for a counselor, to buy a pickup truck for no obvious reason?–
Aurelio’s breath caught in his throat.
–Your paths diverge starting today, but she’ll always be our mom.–
“I can still turn around.” He pushed his cheek into the sand, trying to make it hurt.
–And you’d run out of gas before you got to Ely. All this momentum...gone.–
He blinked through tears and looked up. The mountain still rose above him, but he saw it normally now, through two eyes.
Aurelio rolled over to look into the darkening sky. “Will you stay with me?” he asked the first star he saw.
–We won’t talk like this again, but you won’t be alone. Just keep moving forward,– the voice said, eliding into the cool desert evening.
“But the tank’s almost empty.”
–Onward, man. Adelante.–
✶ ✶ ✶
Aurelio let himself be lulled by the scrape of his shoes on the rough desert floor, the rhythm gradually cleansing his memory. He brushed the dirt off himself and wondered why his head throbbed. Dust still hung in the air when he opened the driver’s side door. He paused. The cab felt empty when he slid behind the wheel.
“Sixty miles west to Ely. We won’t make it that way,” he said, patting the dashboard.
The engine turned over on the first try. Aurelio eased the truck back onto the highway, eastbound, short-shifting to preserve the last drops of gas. He didn’t know who he would become, but whoever it was, he felt a vague confidence that it was both behind and ahead of him.
With the needle tapping E, a single word repeated in Aurelio’s head like a mantra.
1. “Don’t forget this, my son.”
2. “Fuck you, faggot! Fucking white boy!”
3. “The Lost Boy.” A standard of Mexican mariachi music in which a trumpet player takes up a position away from the band to give the audience a sense of dislocation and loneliness.
4. “They fuck me/they’re fucking (with) me.”
5. Derogatory Mexican/Chicano term for a white person (“honky,” “cracker”).
6. “Can you imagine!?”
7. ”What’s up, dude?’
8. “What does it matter what Cami says?”