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Each summer, Mom and I pool our money and make our annual pilgrimage to the carnival on the west side of La Puente.
As a young girl, I was mesmerized by the flashing lights and loopy music, salty popcorn smells and sugary sodas, giant turkey legs and diamond rings tumbling inside plastic capsules. We had yet to tire of the dirty midway, the cheap toys, the wheezing Scrambler. Fingers had yet to be pointed at us, so the carnival was still our space for mother–daughter bonding, a spiritual elixir to deliver me from whatever ailed me—which, to Mom’s way of thinking, was always reducible to the heartbreak of having been abandoned by a great love. Let’s be real. We all know whose heart she was talking about.
Fast forward ten years, and I am walking the midway, my body tingling beneath my dress. Two nights earlier, Rico told me to come back today, Saturday—Alone, young lady—then brushed his fingertips across my lips. Twelve long months I have nurtured this love, and tonight is the night, our last night at the carnival, my last night in this town. But I am not alone. Mom is holding my hand, swinging our arms as if we were best friends watching the Ferris wheel go round and cotton candy being swirled into its roundness. The only thing, though, that we share is our love for two men: I have Rico, and Mom wants to win back Carlos, or at least I think she does. Mom’s is a long, tragic story anyone can watch on Lifetime nowadays: Mom likes boy. Boy’s girlfriend is mom’s best friend. Mom steals boyfriend. Mom loses boyfriend and best girlfriend. Blah blah blah. As anyone can see, this trip isn’t about mother–daughter bonding, but I guess I should thank her for bringing me Rico. A year ago, mom was so busy mooning over her old boyfriend that I found myself wandering the fairway, and before long was drawn to a booth run by a long-haired guy with gray eyes. Soon, I was pelting yellow duckies with pellets—tat tat tat—and watching them fall back into a thin ribbon of river.
“Look,” Mom says, pointing to Rico’s booth. “Let’s shoot some ducks.”
He is handing a customer a toy rifle, oblivious to us, and that’s how it should be. I can’t take the chance that mom will see me and him together and divine my intentions. “This way,” I say, nudging her toward a long white trailer with pictures of a two-headed woman and the “Smallest Man on Earth.”
“Great,” Mom says, her voice deflated. “Let’s look at the freaks.”
“Why do you call them that? What did they ever do to you? We’re the freaks, mom. Jesus.”
Her shoulders sag, more deflation, and Mom’s sweat reeks of the sour dampness of desperation. Or maybe my pores are leaking because I am afraid of going or staying, of being with Rico, of not seeing my mom for a long time, maybe never again once this all goes down. She is trying to be different from the woman who barged into my bedroom after school today and practically forced me to go with her to the carnival. I told her it was about time she showed up for something, and she told me to watch my tone. Like a child, I said she should watch her tone. She should have gotten mad, I would have if my daughter backtalked me, and anyway, I wanted a mother who gave a shit. What I needed couldn’t be more obvious and more out of reach than trying to gather a crown of stars from a night sky. All I heard was her mumbling another pathetic apology, “Let’s just have fun tonight, Fidelia, like we used to.”
“Remember that year you . . .”
“I’d rather not stroll down memory lane right now if you don’t mind.” I slipped into a pale-yellow dress, and she said I looked nice. I didn’t scream to the constellations that I wanted her to do what mothers do.
We have come to a place with lots of games and chances to win cheap prizes. Wordlessly, I drag her into the dingy white tent, and we make our way to a corner with glass boxes with cranes used to capture the junk housed within each one.
“Let’s play, mom. We both need diamond rings.”
She hands me a quarter for my machine and deposits one in her own. We try to capture the rings with the jaws of the crane, but they plummet into a sea of plastic capsules. Mom is into it, but after a couple tries, I feel like I’m five years old again. It doesn’t matter. Midnight will come, that magic hour when they cut the lights, the rides and booths close, and the carnival picks up stakes. I will stow away in Rico’s battered pickup, which will merge with other vehicles and long-bed tractor trailers. Our caravan will lumber west to Utah. By sunrise, while a Jethro Tull album spins on the record player in my bedroom, my mother will be searching for answers in the flat, brown eyes of my blue teddy bear.
I glance at her as if for the last time. The box is lit from within, illuminating the darkness around her, but mom is gone. I tear out of there, hoping to intercept her before it’s too late. She’s heading to Rico’s booth. Nearby is her nemesis Eraclia; you can’t miss the bouffant and Merle Norman makeup of Mom’s ex–best friend. Even the woman’s name is a nightmare. I run toward mom, my protectiveness kicking into high gear. Then I stop short. Let their collision be my salvation.
The chance to pay Genoveva back may never come again. That’s why I’m light-footed as I trek toward the dirt lot behind the high school, why the twinkling carnival lights make me feel giddy, a feeling so unbecoming of the Parish Council president and more like a former sweetheart hoping to win back the man she never stopped loving. By the end of this splendid evening, right after I make good on my simmering promise, I hope Carlos will reward me by winning a stuffed pink snake as a gesture of love for me and our hoped-for new life.
On the midway, I make a beeline for the bumper car track. I spot Genoveva, but under the circumstances I do not wave or call out to her, just keep my stride. If we bump into each other, so be it. I of course have nothing to be ashamed of, then or now. All those years ago, when Carlos and I were engaged, I had been a quiet, obedient girl, proud of my strict religious upbringing. But something inside me snapped when he became enamored of her, his resolve evaporating after a few whiffs of her stinky perfume. I hollered, I howled, I called her a bitch. I tried to have her removed from the parish, confessed her horrible sins to the priest, gossiped endlessly until people told me to stop, until finally, in everyone’s eyes, I became a bitch myself.
Genoveva is in full stride too, and we are sure to run into each other. I welcome it, though I shouldn’t say or do anything to jeopardize the agreement between the Parish Council and Genoveva. On the other hand, if we happen to have a run-in, who’s to say I brought it about? I relish this potentiality until her teenage daughter whose name I always forget comes bounding up to her mother. Every time I see them, I am reminded of that Doublemint commercial with the twin sisters. Mother and daughter both have short, curly hair and blue-green eyes; their bodies are long and curvy in the right places. Genoveva greets her daughter, catching my eye in the process. Her face hardens into a grimace, and her daughter must coax her to duck into a tent just off the midway. Our Parish Council’s surprise meeting crosses my mind, as do the final words I spoke to her, “The point is, we trusted you, Genoveva.”
We five council members sat in foldout chairs on this side of the foldout table; Genoveva sat on the other. I began by thanking her for taking time to meet with us.
“I was summoned,” she said.
I ignored her sarcasm, choosing instead to remind Genoveva that we the Council had been impressed by her efficient management of the parish office. “We appreciate how well you have handled the finances and balanced the books, answered the phone, and cared for us while we waited to speak with Father Burnson. Yours is an unsung job, and we respect you.”
“No one can bring the town together like you can.” Herminio was the oldest council member and the orneriest. “One phone call,” he said, raising his index finger.
“It’s true,” Petronia chimed in. “Geni could pick up the phone and before you know it, Charlie the butcher would bring fifty pounds of hamburger to the annual picnic.”
“Remember when Evangelina at the hair salon donated free haircuts to parishioners?” Lucia said.
“That terrible snowfall left the whole town without heat for a good week,” Bruno said.
“There’s gotta be a logical explanation for this situation,” Lucia offered.
I felt the tide turning toward Genoveva who languidly sipped coffee while the compliments rolled in. “As I said, we all appreciate your efforts, Genoveva, me most of all.”
I heard snickering among the members, a long sigh from Herminio who had grown fond of Genoveva after the love triangle fiasco, taking her side in all matters. Me, he barely tolerated.
Genoveva placed the Styrofoam cup on the table and retrieved a nail file from her purse. “Keep going,” she said, waving the file at me. “This is getting interesting.”
Petronia cleared her throat and the rest of the Council seemed at pains to keep from laughing. I was the only one appalled by her attitude. “Genoveva,”—and here I uncrossed my legs and placed both hands on the table—“our coffers have been stagnating this past month. I’ve done the math, each time coming up short, each time connecting more dots until we find ourselves here, with you.”
Genoveva kept filing her pink-lacquered nails.
“Can you explain this shortage?”
Genoveva’s eyes never left mine. “You never were good at math, Eraclia.”
In another time, we would’ve had a good laugh while tending to our bowling balls at the local bowling alley or driving to Penitente Canyon to pay homage to La Virgen. I leaned back in the chair. “I know enough to know that three’s a crowd.”
“That has nothing to do with church donations, which are fine. But thank you for asking.”
“It has everything to do with church donations, I’m afraid.” Genoveva stopped sawing away at her nails for a split second. I knew then she would go down, and I would savor every moment. “And your daughter?”
“What about her?”
I have known Genoveva my whole life. I was her daughter’s madrina. When G answered a question with a question, it meant she felt scared, cornered. Time to strike at the exposed underbelly. “I know she’s been helping you at the office.”
“Is there a law against it?” Herminio said.
I was relieved that he butted in. I didn’t want to do this even though she deserved what was coming to her.
“Are you sure we’ve checked everything?” Petronia said. “It seems hard to miss that much money, you know.”
“There’s just the daughter left to interview.” I heard the crusty edge of my voice, the rise in octave. “Let’s schedule it, and we’ll find out more.”
I heard murmurs of assent, an exhalation of air.
“There’s no need to interview her,” Genoveva said.
“Why not?” I said.
Genoveva stopped filing her nails. “Because I did it.”
Everything went quiet except Herminio who seemed to deflate into a ball of wrinkles. “You realize what you’re saying, Genoveva, no?”
“No se preocupe, señor,” she said.
Petronia offered to call the police, but I said that as president I had to make the call.
“I ask only to spend my last night as a free woman at the carnival with my daughter.”
We Council members could not in good conscience deny her this wish. “Of course,” I said, informing her as well that her time there would be limited. She gave no argument, merely nodded.
I said those words about trust and its loss while she was still brandishing the nail file. The council members threw on their jackets and left without speaking to me, all of them hugging Genoveva, a couple holding back tears. Lucia shot me the dirtiest look and Herminio may have flipped me the bird. I was alone in the conference room, savoring this victory. After all these years, I had vanquished my rival. Why did I feel ruined too?
All I ever did was flirt with Carlos, but there’s no point telling Eraclia that. She’s clung to misguided jealousy for years, and that makes her dangerous. With her as its president, I don’t trust the Parish Council to allow me this evening with my daughter. At any moment, the police might swoop down and carry me to jail. Though I hate being here, the carnival is the safest place for Fidelia and me. Eraclia wouldn’t dare have me arrested in a family-oriented place, much less in front of my daughter. That thought alone makes it worth sitting through the groaning rides and watching others gnaw on raw turkey legs. Even the dirt that crawls into my shoes is bearable, as is this tent that reeks of piss and stale beer.
I let my daughter drag me back to our corner, and we pick up where we left off. Fidelia tries to clench the diamond ring in those claws. It is the same look of concentration I saw on her face that horrible Monday. Initially, I’d questioned her motives for helping me in the office—Weren’t fifteen-year-olds supposed to rebel against their parents? Gradually, I grew accustomed to her company and took everything at face value. She prepared coffee, sorted mail, both of us calm and busy while the rest of La Puente slumbered. I stirred heaping teaspoons of sugar and Cremora into the steaming cups of coffee she poured. Doors were locked and curtains closed, as was my custom while counting the Sunday collection take. I removed the collection basket from the safe, documenting names and amounts of each contributor in the parish logbook while Willie Nelson played on the eight-track. All the coins were separated into neat round towers and then wrapped. Bills were stacked according to denomination and placed in envelopes. Once counted and documented, usually by the time the pot of coffee had been depleted, all the money and the empty basket were returned to the safe. By then, it was time to use the restroom. I returned a few minutes later, opened the curtains, and unlocked the door. Soon after, Fidelia left for school. On a whim, I checked the safe, only to find that the envelope stuffed with twenty-dollar bills was missing. I turned up the tape player to drown my sorrows about what my daughter had done.
Each time, I come so close to clutching the diamond ring in the crane’s jaws. The cable unwinds, the jaws plummet and smash the faces of stuffed puppies and giraffes. Each time, mom forks over another quarter. At some point I whisper my lie: “I left my tampons in the car. Will you take over for me? I really want that big diamond ring.”
She seems distracted but pulls out another quarter. “Sure, honey. Hurry back, OK?”
I float out of the tent, high at the thought of seeing Rico again. I turn and wave. I think she’s watching, but she is looking beyond me, searching again for Carlos, that elusive ghost, I guess. She probably doesn’t see me push open the flap of the tent or slip beyond its bounds, which confirms my belief that she is supremely selfish and that my decision to leave La Puente is the right one. I cannot tell her that I need her motherly advice, that I’m afraid of leaving the only town I’ve ever known or loved. One morning last February I tried telling her. We had just finished shoveling the sidewalk and were warming our hands over the coal stove in the kitchen when I said, “Life is crazy and hard, there’s something . . . anyway, life’s like shoveling ice. . . .”
“Don’t be melodramatic, Fidelia,” she said while rubbing her hands together.
Tonight, I won’t let mom ruin my good time or otherwise taint the carnival air filled with smells of popcorn. I skip down the fairway, unconcerned about the diamond ring or my mother. Rico and I spot each other at the same time. Ecstatic, I gallop toward his booth.
But he too looks beyond me, worry flitting across his face. I slow down and watch his body turn toward a blonde, clearly older than me, as she saunters away from his booth. She looks back at him, lingering long enough that he slicks back his hair and I become even more doubtful. I remind myself that I can say anything and he will listen. He is a man who is interested in me and my thoughts. I also think about Plan B, something I learned because mom was herself never prepared.
I don’t chase Genoveva and her daughter. I’m here to enjoy myself. I stop along the fairway and chat with a few couples from Blessed Sacrament. Afterward, I decide to play darts, my favorite game, and make my way to the booth. Once there, I marvel again at the pink snake dangling from the ceiling, flanked by other stuffed animals, as I gather five darts in my hand. If I burst a balloon, I win a stuffed animal the size of my palm. The more I burst, the bigger the prize. A perfect five gets me the pink snake.
I aim and throw the dart. It pops, I squeal, and the carnie bows. Anger drains from me. Like someone said after the Council meeting, there was shame in knowing that Genoveva attended mass and confessed her sins each week, all while documenting her lies in cursive writing. Genoveva fooled herself by telling only menial sins, the ones God doesn’t care about. She swept mortal sins under the carpet, and no one on the Council could overlook this except Herminio.
I aim the second dart, letting my hand glide back and forth, and release it. The dart hits the mark again. “You’re giving me a run for my money,” the carnie says.
I’m so happy that I almost believe I can forgive her, as I know Father Burnson will eventually command us to do. He is a priest, after all, but he is human, too, and we are a betting people. I let the third dart fly. It strikes the green balloon and hovers there for a moment, before falling to the floor like an engorged hornet. I feel sad, even though the carnie assures me that I have two more chances. More than anything, I want to win; the thought that I might not renews my hope that Genoveva will spend the maximum time at the state prison.
The fourth and fifth darts fail miserably as well. The carnie hands me a small stuffed kitten. “Would you like to play again?”
“Five more darts, please.” Who wants a measly stuffed feline?
Let this town call me what it wants. But make no mistake. Once Genoveva is jailed, I will be hailed as the town saint, even by Carlos. That’s how fickle La Puentians are. They will do as we the Council did this afternoon, wag their heads in that slow, knowing way that people here in the Valley do. Confirming what they thought they knew all along about her. Our town’s collective ugly history tangles all our memories, and we the Council forge ahead, certain in the knowledge that we can’t untangle them.
I let the darts fly. Then I look for a phone booth.
I nearly jump over the counter to throw my arms around Rico’s neck. He teases me with a peck on the forehead. His stubble scrapes my cheek, and his long hair hangs loose. I have memorized him since that evening I passed his booth and he called out, “Young lady, care to take a chance?” His jawline was tight. Diamond studs in both ears sparkled. He was dark from too many days in the sun, and his teeth were slightly crooked.
“A chance on what? What do you have that I might want?”
He held out his arms. “I’m the best prize of all.”
“I’d rather have the teddy bear.”
He laughed and handed me a rifle. I couldn’t hold it. He emerged from the booth and stood next to me, wrapping his arms around my shoulders and telling me to focus on a spot on the duckie’s body. I felt his breath on my neck but kept the duckie squarely in sight and squeezed the trigger. Water splashed. Soon, I was holding a blue teddy bear. “There’s more where that came from,” he said, holding me at arm’s length by both shoulders.
He holds me the same way now, as I try to wrap my arms around his neck. “Whoa, little girl. Don’t get carried away,” he says, though his hand grazes my breast.
I don’t care what anyone thinks about us, I am about to say in protest, but he reminds me that everything can go slow and easy like it had when we met a year ago. I’d come around, sometimes handing rifles to customers, sometimes brushing against him. The moments we lingered there made me forget the duckies and the customers. Over time, I came to know the workings of the booth and joked that I could run it myself. Rico said, “Why don’t you come with me?” I blew him off at first, but his wise twenty-seven-year-old way of talking convinced me that there was more world outside La Puente. “You deserve to see it,” he’d said.
A man and his girlfriend walk up to the booth, and he requests a rifle. Rico hands the man the gun. I ignore the couple and babble away about my day—the book we’re reading in English class about a lady with multiple personalities, the weirdo Jacob who sits next to me every day and tells corny knock-knock jokes. Rico nods as I speak, but mostly scrutinizes the man who takes careful aim at the bobbing plastic ducks.
“Did you bring your backpack?” Rico says without taking his eyes off the man.
Rico says nothing, and I wonder whether my fears are founded.
Relieved, I whisper in his ear that I have stashed the backpack near the river in a hole covered with leafy branches. I don’t mention that the backpack contains—in addition to clothes and socks and shoes—my panties, bras, and extra tampons. Guys don’t care about those things.
The man fires again, knocking the plastic duckie out of the water. Rico hands him a stuffed tiger, which the man places in the lady’s arms. She kisses him long and slow on the mouth, and they leave. It took three shots for the man to win the tiger. I got a teddy bear for one.
Rico motions to his friend. This geezer, who looks older than the carnival itself, takes Rico’s place, as if it had been planned. I feel special in a way I never have before, a scary, naked feeling that makes me stand taller and stick my breasts out.
Rico takes my arm and steers me behind the booth. We walk away from the carnival, but not too far. The air is still, and the natural world hums around us. We climb an embankment and run down it, holding hands. I lose my footing, and before I know it, I am tumbling down the hill, sand gathering in my panties. I’m hoping my bones aren’t broken so I can still leave La Puente.
Rico lifts me off the ground. “You’re OK.”
He wipes sand from my dress. Rico holds me, and I feel naked and scared again. My breasts feel heavy. Words crowd my throat. I walk toward the river, treating the backpack as a destination to distract myself from my nervousness. Near the water, I clear the branches and dig up the backpack. He wraps his jacket around my shoulders, and we sit beside the Rio Grande. My mouth is dry. The water’s currents are strong, and doubts wash over me: Am I doing the right thing? What will Mom do once she finds my empty bed and no note?
Rico places his fingers beneath my chin and turns my face toward him. The water rushes and the jangly carnival music screeches. I look into his eyes, and he bends toward me, lifting my face to his. His lips are sugary and soft. This feels right, and I don’t wonder anymore.
He holds me away from him while my entire body pulses.
“Do you have it?” he says.
I pull four white envelopes from the backpack, each one stuffed and sealed.
I am wearing a fake diamond ring. It cost ten dollars in quarters and lots of concentration, making me forget Fidelia. She has not returned, and I wonder whether Eraclia has cornered her at one of the booths. I stash the ring in my purse. The gas bill, sheathed in a white envelope, is in there, and I am transported back to last Monday again. Fidelia and I were in the parish office. I had drunk too much coffee and had rushed to the bathroom before finishing the money count. When I returned, I peeked through a crack in the curtains and spied Fidelia sliding a fat white envelope into her backpack. I was decimated but said nothing because I didn’t know what to say. I cleared my throat as I shoved open the door. Fidelia jumped. “You scared me, Mom.”
“All that coffee,” I said, fumbling for words. “Is there anything else I need to know about the collection, mija?”
“Everything’s cool,” she said.
“Stop being weird, Mom,” Fidelia said before bouncing out the door.
I croaked out her name, but she was already flying down the stairs. When it came down to it, I didn’t accuse her or make her open her backpack. I didn’t do any of the things a parent is supposed to do, just turned up Willie on the tape player and cried my eyes out in the dawn light. What was so awful in her life that my daughter would steal from the church? Did she owe someone money? What secrets was she hiding? Had this happened before?
I sat at my desk, unable to do more than doodle and worry myself with questions for which I had no answers. My legs were leaden, but my thoughts roamed until I remembered a National Geographic article about animals and their offspring. The mother bear became murderous when anyone threatened her cubs. It’s cliché, I know, but in that moment, faced with the possibility that Fidelia might land in jail, I became a mother bear ready to defend my daughter to the death. I decided then that Fidelia wasn’t the only one who could keep a secret. I recounted the rest of the money and placed it in the safe.
Spurred on by this memory, I step out of the tent and walk with purpose. I don’t see Fidelia on any rides. She is not throwing balls or darts. No pictures are being taken in the booths. She is not fishing or aiming rifles or petting goats at the petting zoo. I wait by the restroom for ten minutes to see if she enters or exits. Fidelia isn’t eating at a picnic table or standing in line for drinks or a funnel cake. I retrace my steps.
I finish talking with Petronia and head toward the rendezvous spot. As president, I am the only council member who will be present. I arrive at the funnel cake booth and wait.
Carlos walks toward me, and I am my younger, heartsick self again. I let myself dream that on this last night, I can leave the carnival with a pink snake wrapped around me like an expensive fur and my former lover holding my hand. I try to erase that thought because we are here on professional business, however distasteful. Carlos gives me a friendly hug, and we share small talk to pass the time, Carlos standing erect in his black uniform, clenching his police cap, and me pacing and trying not to fidget, my plain black slacks and white top making me feel even plainer. Carnival lights reflect off his gold badge. His face is neutral. “So, who’s the lucky person you told me about on the phone?” he says.
I point across the midway and say, “There.”
Carlos places his police cap on his head and follows the direction I’m pointing. Confusion spreads across his face when he sees Genoveva standing by the shooting gallery.
“Is this some kind of joke?”
“If only it were,” I say, placing a hand on his shoulder.
He gives me a sharp look but says nothing, and walks toward Genoveva as the old man hands her a pink snake that she curls around her neck. I console myself with the thought that Carlos will discharge his professional duties, as I was compelled to do, and that will bond us again.
The snake’s red felt tongue wiggles as Carlos talks to Genoveva. She looks meek and pliable, and I smile, not because I’m happy about her misery, but because justice has been done. The crowd gathers, and Carlos moves toward Genoveva. She steps back, her body poised for flight. Carlos might have to strong-arm her, a satisfying thought, but she holds her ground, drawing the snake around her like a shield. Soon, she is wailing, and I drop the kitty, unable to speak.
Suddenly her daughter—what’s her name?—appears from behind the booth and staggers toward her mother. The girl’s lips move, but nothing she says will change the outcome. Carlos handcuffs Genoveva, and they head toward us.
Rico places the envelopes in his jacket pockets. As I zip my backpack, he reaches for me and plants a wet, tongueless kiss on my lips. My mouth opens slightly. Air tickles my windpipe. In the fading light, I close my eyes, and he cups my face in his hands, kissing my eyes, each cheek, my neck, my lips. Our mouths open at once, but Rico takes his time letting his tongue touch mine. It is new and slippery and has its own mind. I follow it inelegantly. He is patient. Each time his tongue finds mine I cannot help but moan, and then we are enmeshed. I wrap my arms around him, and he pulls me into his lap. I don’t know how long we stay there, but at some point, his hand travels to my breast. I open my eyes, scared. His eyes are closed; it is dark. It is difficult to do, my body is throbbing, but I disentangle myself. “Let’s stop,” I say.
He sits for a moment, head bent, hair hanging in his face.
“We have a lifetime,” I say.
He says nothing, clearly irritated.
We stand and shake the dirt from our clothes and hair. I place the jacket around my shoulders, and he buttons his shirt. We walk back to the carnival. The sounds become louder with each step, but Rico doesn’t put his arm around me.
We emerge from the booth to see my mother exchange the toy rifle for a stuffed pink snake. The old man says something, they laugh, and then Carlos is walking up. Their story is old already, and I don’t know why Eraclia can’t let it go because, as any fool can see, Carlos only has eyes for mom. I soon notice what mom doesn’t, that Carlos isn’t laughing.
“Genoveva,” he says. “I’m here on official business.”
She wobbles. They stare at each other for a long time.
My body freezes, but my thoughts are wild, rushing currents. For the first time in months, I see myself as the selfish, stupid girl I accused her of being. I try envisioning the daughter my mother has kept in view this whole time. That’s the girl who runs toward her mother. Rico grabs my wrist, and I am snapped backward. He pulls me to him. I struggle to break free, but it is a half-hearted attempt. I sink into his arms and rest my head on his chest. He squeezes me like a python and the carnival music is far away. He is hard and pushes into me. I am whirling and melting. He is Utah and blue teddy bears. A slow cry circles my heart. Rico covers my ears with his calloused hands, but I cannot forget my mother who bellows like a wounded bear. Rico holds me tighter, I fight him, and he says, “You’re with me now.”
My mother collapses in Carlos’s arms.
I gather the strength to rip away from Rico and race toward my mother, yelling, “Leave her alone.”
Everyone turns toward me. Before I say, “I stole the money,” Carlos gives me a silencing look that says, “Don’t force me to make two arrests tonight.”
I reach behind me for Rico’s hand. He isn’t there. I turn and peer into the darkness.
Carlos helps my mother stand up. A layer of dust coats the pink snake.
I lurch forward and croak, “Mom?”
She swivels and without a word pushes the stuffed animal toward me.
I see the glint of metal as Carlos pulls the handcuffs from the holster, I witness the sad surrender of my mother’s wrists, I hear the clink of the handcuffs. Finally, the words, “Genoveva Medina, you’re under arrest.”
I breathe in. “I love you, Mom.”
Carlos leads her down the midway. The crowd breaks up.
I glimpse Eraclia’s tender, defiant smile. It’s almost identical to the one I wore each Monday morning after stuffing a white envelope into my backpack.
Carlos approaches. Eraclia has broken her promise, as I suspected she would. As I’m led to the police car, I look once more at my daughter. Fidelia is shaking envelopes at Eraclia. My ex-best friend regards me with a strange mixture of respect and pain. I bow my head and weep.
I look for Rico again, but he is gone. I rummage in my backpack for the other envelopes. Tomorrow he will arrive in Utah with envelopes stuffed with funny money from Woolworth’s. Plan B. Clutching the envelopes, I march up to Eraclia and yell too many things to remember, yell until my throat burns.
By the time the sun rises, and for a long time afterward, there will the droning buzz of a million questions. Mom and I will drain our coffee cups while coiling our way through the shame of leaving and being left, of trying to return ourselves to each other. I see a future beyond blame and promises where we are walking along the Rio Grande or jamming to La Famosa at a festival in Coleman Park. Or laughing about unimportant things like the pendejo who purchased a real star and gifted it, along with a certificate of authentication, to his girlfriend.
This future toward which I am stumbling, this plea for forgiveness, begins hours later when the sun goes down. I build a fire, wrap her in blankets, and smooth Avon lotion on mom’s wrists where the handcuffs grazed her. The fire crackles, she gestures toward a night sky brimming with stars, and I pinpoint hers, free of charge. I hope she’ll do the same for me. This weekend has already become my dividing line, between what was and what will be, between the cheap thrill of a man’s moist breath on my shoulder and the certainty that mom is my only familia, my only true home. This weekend is already becoming a memory, and that may be the best thing to come of it.
Catalina Bartlett’s fiction has appeared in Aster(ix) Journal and twice has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is currently at work on Comadres: Stories and a novel, When Fabiola Came Home. Her writing draws from her matrilineal family history and early life along the southern Colorado–northern New Mexico corridor. She teaches at Michigan State University.
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