Daniel Peña, 29, is a Pushcart Prize-winning writer, whose work focuses on immigration and the drug wars in Mexico, and is a Professor in the Department of English at the University of Houston-Downtown, where he specializes in Fiction. He is also interested in narratives that humanize victims of violence in Latin America. At the University of Houston-Downtown, he teaches Intro to/Advanced Creative Writing as well. Formerly, he was based out of the UNAM in Mexico City where he worked as a writer, blogger, book reviewer, and journalist. He is a Fulbright-Garcia Robles Scholar and a graduate of Cornell University. His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, The Rumpus, the Kenyon Review Online, Callaloo, and Huizache among other venues. He’s currently a regular contributor to the Guardian and the Ploughshares blog and his novel, BANG, is forthcoming from Arte Publico Press. He was born in El Paso and now lives in beautiful Houston, Texas.
Fiction, Poetry, Non-Fiction (essay), Journalism
Daniel Peña, 29, is a Pushcart Prize-winning writer, whose work focuses on im
in Mexico, and is a Professor in the Department of English at the Universi
ty of Houston-Downtown,
where he specializes in Fiction. He is also interested in narratives that humani
ze victims of violence in
Latin America. At the University of Houston-Downtown, he teaches I
ntro to/Advanced Creative Writing
as well. Formerly, he was based out of the UNAM in Mexico City where he worked
as a writer, blogger,
book reviewer and journalist. He is a Fulbright-Garcia Robles Scholar and a grad
uate of Cornell
University. His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, The Rumpus, the Kenyon
Review Online, Callaloo,
and Huizache among other venues
currently a regular contributor to the Guardian and the
Ploughshares blog and his novel, BANG, is forthcoming from Arte Pub
He was born in El Paso
and now lives in beautiful Houston, Texas.
Originally appeared in the Kenyon Review Online, Fall, 2013
There’s a corrido that says every boy’s death comes from his desire to be like his father. And then when the boy dies, he finally becomes a man. But let’s be clear—I really just died at sixteen and I died nothing like my father, just so you know.
Sometimes I think about that—me trying to become like father—which would have been a glorious death. My uncles say they used to call my father’s room the squirrel’s nest because he got so much nut in there growing up. Well, I didn’t die that way. I was lucky if I could get the Manuela kind of loving (manuela, mano, hand, get it?) on a regular basis.
There are no rites of passage for men in this country—like they have in Africa or like my friend Josh had when he was thirteen—so, I guess I’ll start the year of my death, sixteen, which is more or less when you become a man in America.
I’m sixteen the night they say I’m supposed to become a man. In Harlingen, you can drive at sixteen but there’s no truck the night of my birthday. Papa has the truck and he’s nowhere to be found. That’s the
way Mama says it, “nowhere to be found,” like he’s a lost set of keys or a good pair of scissors she doesn’t want to return to the neighbors yet. But we all know where Papa is the night of my sixteenth birthday and we all know that the truck isn’t coming back tonight. I’ll have to wait for tomorrow to become a man, wait until Papa’s sober enough to give me my first driving lesson on the county roads where the cops don’t care and sleep all day in their hot Crown Victoria’s with the lights on full rock n’ roll, just to slow you down. Well, that’s going to have to wait till tomorrow. Sixteen years old and then one day and then I’ll be a man. In true Texican fashion I’m always late to the good things:
But lucky for me, I can’t be late to my own party because it’s at my house which is actually just a school portable on bricks with five armadillos underneath. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice house and it’s not like we don’t have plumbing and a kitchen and other amenities (it’s got a four stamped on the side of it, and there’s one armadillo named Frijol that eats all the ants so they don’t sting us, and there’s even a chalkboard in me and Cuauh’s room) but it’s just—um—long, I guess.
My birthday is in December, right after Jesus’ birthday. Like the very next day after Jesus’ birthday which sucks because everybody gives you two small things instead of something big and then something small. My best friend Josh says that’s what it’s like to be Jewish except you have eight days of small things instead of two but that when it’s eight the things are even dumber. Like one day there will be a sketching pad and then the next day there will be pencils and then the next day there will be a red pencil or something. My best friend, Josh, is really good at art. In fact, he’s really good at everything. He’s the only starting freshman on the football team, he can play the blues like Jimi Hendrix (with a Fender Strat), he’s already doing Algebra II and he’s only fourteen (I’m not even doing Algebra II).
It must be cool to be the chosen people.
Anyway, my best friend Josh and me go way back. He taught me English as soon as I got here (when I was seven). They put me in kindergarten because I was so dumb, like really dumb, but Josh never made me feel that way. He always said that I’m even smarter than my brother which is saying something because my brother, Cuauhtemoc, is super smart. He’s like, this freak of nature that never got a B in his life and he doesn’t even try. He’s also a pilot, a crop duster. The boss trained him when his own son crashed and died five years ago. My brother was sixteen when the boss’s son died, and he’s twenty one now so he’s got a couple thousand hours of flight time which is a lot for someone his age. The boss calls him the flying Mexican like he’s some sort of sideshow but everyone else calls my brother the angel of death. The pesticides he sprays makes us all dizzy and sick until we have to lie down in bed and puke up our guts. Mama is secretly proud that my brother Cuauh can fly, even if he makes us all sick, but she’s really careful not to show that she’s prouder of Cuauh than me. Cuauh’s thing is flying, my thing is—I guess I don’t have a thing yet. I’m working on it.
Well, anyway, today is my birthday and its cold outside and Cuauh is finishing off the fields and Mama has called every friend I have and we’re excited because they’re all coming tonight.
I sit at the Formica table watching Mama add water to a green bowl ofmasa. Her hands are shiny and cracked, the kind of sheen that waxes your features when your skin is too dry. Her hands are always too dry from sewing for the farmhands, for the boss, for whoever she can find to bring her their busted, torn things so that she can make them whole again.
She presses on the masa with her bobbin smashed thumb. Her index fingers on both hands bleed with little crescents under the nail where the needles have slipped into the skin.
She pours in more water from the faucet into the bowl, mixes it in with her bleeding fingers. Iron is good. Her mother told her that once—you sweat and bleed and so it goes.
The mixture is right. I can tell by the way she presses it with her thumb three our four times and then shakes the bowl a little.
I bury my head in a book, read for a while, but my headache is coming on now. I can feel it throbbing from behind my eyes. Mama takes a hunk of masa and rips it apart in her hands. She rolls it all into a tiny ball.
She likes the sticky, spreading sound of it coming apart. She cradles the tiny ball in her too cold hands. I love the way masa smells—like the earth and nothing like food—and of course the way it sounds when it’s rolled under the iron tortilla press between two wax sheets of papers until it’s turned flat. “All grown up,” she says. She always says that when the masa is ironed flat and then she puts it on the comal. It hisses and steams until it’s hard on the outside but still soft on the inside. I love it when Mama makes tortillas half burned and half not. Still doughy if you know what I mean. She never does that with brownies though. She always burns the brownies.
My mother is the best cook in the world. She eyeballs everything. She only really cooks when she feels nervous or when it’s a big day like today, my birthday. Most of the time we eat pizza or KFC special recipe which I love, I love all fast food. I ask her why she just doesn’t order KFC for my birthday but she pretends like she can’t hear or like she doesn’t understand. Mama only speaks Spanish.
She moves from the comal to the table with the first tortilla in her hands. Somehow it doesn’t burn her. She winces a little bit but throws it on the plate in front of me. I’m reading this guy named Kipling because Josh said I should. I want to be like Josh so I try to do the things he does sometimes.
I love the way Kipling’s words feel like marbles in my mouth. I’m so hungry that I bump my head when I reach for the first tortilla. I put the book down. The filament dances inside the forty-watt bulb over the kitchen table. Everything is shaking for a second, everything is lacquered in shades of gold. The rusted out kettle on the stove is more of a champagne but the wooden cabinets glow more of an amber. The shaking filament does something to my eyes that make them burn and I can feel the migraine coming on. See-saw, see-saw and the world is moving like it does with the pesticide spins, this uncontrollable nausea. The doctor says I drink too much caffeine (I love Coke, I have it with every meal), but I know it’s the pesticides, everyone knows, and light only makes it worse. I see these crazy geometrical shapes whenever the bulb shakes too hard and when I close my eyes they’re still there like a bad dream, like a throbbing at the front of the brain.
“Let’s go outside for awhile,” Mama says and I can tell that she can feel it too but she’ll never say so. I say, “are you okay?” and she says, “me? Of course I’m okay. Let’s get some fresh air for a while. Let’s see if your friends are coming up the road.” We both know still that my friends aren’t coming but we go out anyway. Mama brings her cigarettes with her.
Mama drapes her weight over my shoulders and it’s a good kind of weight. I ask her if she wants to hear some Kipling and she says, “claro.” She likes to hear me speak English. Mama promised her mother that if she left home and brought us up here that her grandchildren wouldn’t speak with an accent like their father. My ‘buelita (que dios te bendiga) said that she wanted us to talk like gangsters or cowboys.
I read and over enunciate each word for Mama, just to make her laugh. I try to ease her nerves a little bit and sometimes this helps.
Things that worry my mother:
Tonight she’s worried about the truck but she’s also worried about Ronnie. Mama says you pick friends you secretly want to be like. Papa wants to be American and Ronnie wants to be free from the government. After ‘Nam (we can say ‘Nam too) Ronnie built a soft field runway and vowed to live off the grid. He flew in weed first, then Columbian cocaine, then other stuff my father doesn’t like to talk about. My father translates everything between Ronnie and the pilots. And then they drink.
My father’s wrecked the truck twice with Ronnie: once hitting a deer on seventy-nine, and the other time hitting a turtle on purpose and swerving into a culvert. Mama says drinking doesn’t make you do things you wouldn’t normally do, it just gives you the permission to do all of the things you could never do sober:
See my father with a guitar singing free bird; see him shoot two guns with one hand; see him douse a shop rag in aviation fuel and watch it burn blue; see him throw a coke bottle Molotov cocktail in the rain tunnel by the tracks; see the flames roll across the ceiling like a thousand burning hills inverted and curling and the whoosh, hot enough to draw the skin tight over your face.
He drinks for the ulcer in his stomach, the hump on his back, the rot of every wiggling tooth in his head. “Para todo mal, mezcal,” he says, “y para todo bien, tambien:” for all things bad, mezcal, and for all things good, just the same. So, maybe he drinks just to drink but whenever he drinks he’s always drinking with Ronnie.
I want to get drunk with Papa on my birthday and Mama says, “why would you want to do a thing like that.” Sometimes you can tell your mom things but there are a lot of things you just can’t and that makes me sad a little. She says getting drunk feels the same as when you get the spins and why would you want to do a thing like that.
Today I’m sixteen and I don’t have the spins that bad, not like my father who bleeds from the nose—thick, dark streams that cover his moustache and make him look green. When he bleeds he turns the same green we all turn in the winter. His face is bloated, his black eyes sunken. Every week he gets the spins and every week there’s a washcloth black and heavy with blood between his fingers. He sets it out till it turns brown under the white sun and my mother hates this because the flies come and she sets out jars of water with borax and sugar. The dog always laps this up and shits for a week. Then the flies come for the shit.
Flies find death like bees find honey.
My brother, Cuauh, clomps from the culvert to the house and I can hear him coming from just beyond the gate. He likes to walk the gravel with his boots just to hear the stones pop. He’s bought himself a new pair of Tony Llamas, black ostrich skin stretched over the toes and a silver bracket at the tip that makes him look like an elf. Que fresa. That’s what we call people like Cuauh—fresa—because he dresses like he’s in a Tejano video every day. He thinks he’s handsome because mama says so but that’s her job. A mother’s job is to keep you from yourself. Not forever, but long enough to where people can’t get to you any more. As long as you’ve got a mother you’ll never have to look yourself in the mirror. In fact, you’re exactly everything opposite of what your mother wants you to think you are, if you really think about it. Not to say that she doesn’t know you—she knows everything about you (even the dirty stuff)—but she’s simply not willing to show the parts that would destroy you. Those parts of yourself she’s not willing to show you? That’s called character.
Character is Cuauh’s flat, curly head in perfect parallel with the horizon as he nears us. He’s coming from his girlfriend’s house, or the Hangar, or the discount liquor store—Good Times Too—or from another girl’s house his first girlfriend doesn’t know about yet. Cuauh is always coming from one of his lives and bleeding some of it into another.
“Truck still gone?” he says. He throws away the cigarette behind his ear while Mama looks away. She pretends not to notice.
“Yup,” she says. She kisses him on both cheeks.
“You feeling okay?”
“Yup,” she says again. “Como fue los cielos?”
“Duro, bien duro,” he says. Horseshit, I want to say. You sit in a plane all day. “Los cielos no me agradecen.” He always talks poetic like that. The heavens weren’t agreeable today, or the heavens gave me a rough time or some other such speech about the heavens.
“Pobrecito,” she says, “you must have been so frightened.”
Fuck that noise! I want to tell her about the orange picking, as if she doesn’t remember, and the countless falls from the ladder, and the bruises on my ass, and the farm hands and their dirty tricks where they cut a vinyl strip along the underside of your bag with a box cutter so the whole mess spills out not ten paces from the tree.
“Very scared,” he says and I want to gag, ‘cause it’s my fucking birthday and I’ll gag if I want to.
So, I know what you’re thinking right about now—what’s with this woe-is-me grindio(gringo + indio= me) ? Señor Dizzy all the time? Señorwants to be a man? His life doesn’t seem so bad. But I haven’t even told you the worst of it yet.
The worst part is after we’ve prayed and after we’ve eaten. We’re porch smoking—me, my brother, and Mama. She can smoke better than any of us. She can French inhale so that there’s a continuous stream of smoke between her mouth and her nose. It’s like someone continuously pulling a ribbon through her head. When we were little she used to do this when we were upset.
Try it, cabron. Imagine your own mother shooting smoky arrows through hearts and try not to laugh.
She combs her hair on the porch while we freeze and drink hot chocolate. She says the cold makes it easier for her to tug the jagged tooth ivory brush through the kinks in her hair. She pulls hard and steady, doesn’t even wince when it snags because her mother used to pull her from the hair all the time. That’s how she says it, all of the timewith her eyes wide and slick like she was about to cry but wouldn’t cross that threshold. It stopped hurting after she was twelve.
“He’s not coming,” she says as if it needed to be said. He’s not coming, nobody is coming. We’d been waiting four hours. If it’s true that your friends pick you because they secretly want to be like you, then it should be said that no one ever wanted to be like me. None of my friends came, not even the Mormon kid from Sweetwater who’d been trying to save my soul. If you can’t count on Mormons then who can you count on?
Definitely not my father. Your father skipping your birthday hurts almost as bad as Mormons skipping your birthday.
“I have to go to bed,” says Mama. She packs up all the food in aluminum foil and Tupperware. We’ll be eating Chicken Mole for a week. She cleans up the table and washes her hands. She asks me if I want to eat cake and I say no. Cake doesn’t feel right.
“Do you want your presents at least?”
“Sure,” I say and this makes her light up in that way that only mother’s can.
“Esperame, esperame,” she says and dances back into the kitchen, both hands in the air. She makes me close my eyes so I do. “The first present,” she says, “I’ve had for a very, very long time—It’s good luck. My aunt gave it to me. You rub it whenever you’re in trouble and wherever you are in the world, luck will always find you.” I open my eyes and she’s unclasping the blue porcelain key she’s always worn around her neck. “It’s usually given to the women in my family,” she says, “but you don’t have any sisters.”
“But you’re obviously the most puto,” says Cuauh
“No,” says Mama, “but you’re the youngest and you need the most luck.” Jeez, I don’t know how to respond to that but I’ll take it. We typically gloss over these kinds of moments in my family. I think most families do. I guess we gloss on to the next one after that: my second present hidden inside a yellow box of Fideo from the panty. It’s wrapped in red and white paper. Fancy.
It’s got a white bow on it but not the kind that’s tied, the kind that looks like a giant geometric explosion of ribbon.
“For you,” she says and offers it to me in the palm of her hand. I can tell by the weight what it is already. I’ve been wanting a Zippo for so long, ever since Ronnie showed me his collection of ‘Nam Zippos the last time I dragged my father home. There was one that said Been to Hell, Lived to Tell and another one that said, Hot Damn Vietnam. They’d been engraved in the field with brass on blank casings. I already know what I’m going to write on mine. 100% Chingon. Which loosely translates to “one hundred percent mother fucker.”
Well, as it turns out, my Zippo doesn’t say quite that but it says: CUNT PUNISHER. In all caps, hot pink letters, just like that. My mother doesn’t speak English. The only Spanish speaking guy at the gas station told her it was masculine so she bought it.
Neither me nor Cuauh has the heart to tell her what it means and she kisses us both goodnight on our foreheads. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Sleep tight,” she says, “and wear a coat. You’ll freeze.” She says we’ll celebrate when my father gets back and then she goes inside to rest. That’s the last I see of my mother for a while. Those are some of the last words she says to me.
When she’s asleep me and Cuauh crack up so hard it hurts our guts. He takes some kerosene from inside the shed and pours it into the cotton screen that feeds to the wick. “How do I look? How do I look?” He poses with a cigarette in his mouth, his fingers conveniently at the sides of the lighter so you can read what it says, even in the dark.
“Does it glow?”
“I don’t know,” I say. The yellow bulbs outside make everything look like they’re glowing. There’s the gold wash. Then beyond that halo just the black of the groves. It’s like this all over Harlingen. Our house is the only island of light for three and a half miles. The rest looks just like the sea if you’re high up enough.
“You ever flown at night?” I ask Cuauh.
“One time,” he said, “over water when I was training.”
“What’s that like?”
“Scary,” he says, “can’t tell what’s a boat and what’s a star. All of those boats have lights. And the sea is pitch black. I mean black-black. And when there isn’t a cloud in the sky who’s to say the sea isn’t the sky?”
I’ll admit it. I’m jealous of Cuauh but every once in awhile he says something like this, that only someone like him would know, and this makes him instantly the most interesting person in my life.
“So you accidentally pitch down?”
“You know it,” he says. The other thing about Cuauh—he doesn’t make you feel stupid when he’s explaining something. “You’re at the mercy of your instruments.”
“That and the artificial horizon. And the climbing speed.”
Wow. Cuauh knows everything.
“But flying over land at night is worse. Radio towers, birds. Did you know some birds fly at night?”
“They fly way up there though. They ride the thermals in circles like buzzards, you know?”
“I’d kill to see that,” I say.
Cuauh looks over his shoulder toward the highway. I can tell he’s got something on his mind by the way he shifts his weight as he smokes. “Papa’s at Ronnie’s?”
“Yeah,” I say.
He mulls this over a little bit. Shifts his weight, back and forth, back and forth again. The grove boss is gone so he knows he can pull it off. I know what he’s thinking before he even says, “you wanna kill two birds with one stone?”
“Sure,” I say.
“If I do this you gotta share your present with me though.”
He pulls out a tall bottle of Jim Beam from under the porch steps. He takes a swig and I take a swig. Not enough to get lit but enough to feel good for a little while. He makes his way to the hangar and I’m close behind. “Eight hours bottle to throttle,” I say.
“That doesn’t matter. We just wet our beaks. We can still fly.”
Beside our house is the tool shed and beside that is the hangar where the single engine Pawnee sleeps at night. I’ve only been inside it once but I know all of the placards, the entire control panel by heart. I’ve read the POH (pilot’s operating handbook) Cuauh keeps in his room, cover to cover, over a dozen times. I’ve read everything in the house. I know the last time the propeller’s been replaced and the last time the oil’s been changed. I know where the pitot tube is and what Cuauh means when he tells me, “take off the ram cover. Make sure the static vent is clear.”
Cuauh checks the oil in the cowling, the fuel in the wings, the hydraulic fluid in the brakes, the fuel sump with a blue enamel cup, the elevators with an up-down motion that shakes the plane and kicks the yoke back and forth inside the cabin like a phantom flying.
“Pre-flight done,” he says. He takes another swig.
Cuauh hands me a set of headphones, turns on the radio, and listens for the ATIS (the weather) coming out of Easterwood Field. We’re close enough to Easterwood where we use their broadcast to fly. The automated voice reads: “Harlingen Easterwood field. Automated weather observation one zero five three zulu. Winds one six zero at three six. Visibility eight. Sky condition overcast one thousand seven hundred. Temperature zero one Celsius. Altimeter two seven five.”
Cuauh turns down the ATIS. His voice comes in mellow through the yards of wire.
“Hell-lo, Hell-lo. You hear me?”
“Sure,” I say and he hands me the bottle. He gets ready for the call. It sounds like this:
“Harlingen traffic, Pawnee five-four-zero-zero-Juliet with weather ready for taxi and takeoff, departure toward the south east, Easterwood groves.”
You say your location at the end so anyone in the sky knows where you’re coming from. Lucky us though. There’s not a plane in sight, not in the sky and not on the radio.
“You ready,” says Cuauh.
“Clear!” he yells outside the window. You yell clear even if no one’s there, just so you don’t chop someone with the propeller or something. “Power on,” and he turns on magneto one, then magneto two. He cranks the engine and it sputters. He pumps the throttle three times with long strokes to push the fuel into the engine. It’s cold and there’s no primer. The propeller catches and whirs fast so that it pulls the windows up and out on its hinges.
“Latch those down,” he says. It’s freezing and the windows are fogging up.
What will Papa say when he sees us flying on to Ronnie’s runway? What will it be like to fly him back drunk? I already know what I’m going to say to him. I already know that I’m going to stick it and twist it so that it hurts real bad. And isn’t this the saddest thing in the world? I’m living a dream, I’m flying, and all I can think about is hurting my father.
A soft field runway is really a dirt field. The name is ironic because it’s bumpy as hell to take off from or land. The ground is uneven, full of stones, full of potholes that dig the front wheel so you lose speed if it’s not off the ground.
The soft field takeoff warrants fifteen degrees of flaps and a slight pullback on the yoke. The flaps to pop you up with premature lift and the back yoke just to get the nose off the ground. The nose is always the first to leave on takeoff. You ride with the front wheel balanced just so that it’s hovering, long enough to where you’re riding the pocket of air between the plane and the earth—ground effect, it’s called—until you’re fast enough to take the main wheels off the ground too.
We ride that pocket until eighty knots. The Pawnee gallops over the dirt as haughty and elegant as your average town drunk, rising and then falling back down with a thud on the wheels, a skip in the air, a flutter of the ailerons to keep it steady and straight until Cuauh pulls back gingerly before the trees and we barely clear the grove. You can feel the leaves scraping at the belly of the plane.
Cuauh takes a swig and I take a swig. The world disappears below us. Everything is smaller. Everything is calmer. Everything is disappearing.
We don’t talk, me and Cuauh. I imagine he realizes, as I realize now, that the first time is Holy beyond other things you’ve known to be Holy up to that point. You’re completely in the hands of God whether you’ll admit it or not. It doesn’t make sense, this much metal floating up in the sky. You never get over the feeling if you’re the one that’s flying. Every passenger thinks nothing of it. Someone else is in control. And how dare you if you’ve ever relaxed too much on your ascent into the sky. If you only knew the terror beneath the skin of the pilot, the jitters that possess his hand as he steadies the yoke. When you’re close like that, side-by-side in the cabin, it’s immediately transferable. You can feel the buzz coming off his skin. Cuauh is scared shitless and I’m scared shitless but we both push to the beyond. Higher, faster.
Anything that happens now is cosmic. Maybe that’s an excuse for fucking up, for what happens with the rest of our lives.
We’re above the juncture of seventy-nine and the railroad tracks that lead to Ronnie’s house. We see the lake just a mile ahead but we’re sixteen hundred feet up, low enough to stay beneath the seventeen hundred ceiling of clouds but also low enough to see the make and model of cars along the highways of Hidalgo county, the roads that wander from memory back into Mexico where they become ruta’s,calles, little cities that form like falanges on the other side of the river.
The engine sputters and cuts. There’s icing over the carburetor, you can tell by the way the engine buffets inside the cowling like it’s struggling to breath. The nose dips. All is silent. There’s not a word said between us.
Cuauh applies the carb heat and waits for ignition. We both stare at the propeller as we head into the darkness below. At one thousand feet he hits the rudder and yaws us left toward the highway. He can’t use the aileron or we’ll lose altitude faster. We can’t crash into a grove or else we’ll die for sure. No one hits a tree and survives.
Three hundred feet and you can see the faces of the people in their cars. It’s then I know we’re landing near the highway, in a clear patch of field to the right.
I can’t tell yet whether this is the best or worst way to die.