The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 8, No. 1


by Susan Straight

Bridge Work She was there the first day we started the earthquake retrofit of the Palm Avenue underpass, coming out from the huge oleander bushes that lined the freeway banks. I’ve never been up close to a horse, only seen them at the races, but that’s what her legs looked like. Big and round at the thigh, narrow and long at the calf. She had on those tight bike shorts you see on all the hookers around here in Rio Seco.
           We all saw her slide down the loose dirt, hidden from the freeway by one pepper tree and the oleanders. The only other people you ever saw here on the steep banks along the shoulder were prisoners doing cleanup. Weekenders. Bright orange shirts and matching plastic bags. I didn’t like to look at them, since I usually knew some of the guys or their sons. Octavious Thompson was out there last month. I saw him from the truck. I figured child support.
           “Hard to tell if they’re men or women, since everybody wears ponytails now,” my wife Shelly would say, staring from the slow lane when we were driving on a Saturday. “I guess it’s better they pick up trash than just sit around in jail. I can’t imagine being out there in this heat.”
           I was out in the heat every day, with Gary and Les and Jose. We were happy to be sweating, because Sanderson Construction had gotten the state contracts for all the retrofits. Ten bridges in Rio Seco County, and this was my crew’s second. We were setting up the scaffolding, clearing out remnants of somebody’s house in the black cave of overpass. Newspapers, a box soft from sweat, Coke cans, and a pair of socks. Men’s socks. Not hers.
           She stopped at the edge of the scaffolding, and we all looked down. “Twenty bucks,” she said. “For whatever.”
           Her hair was dark blond, the color of dried foxtails along the street, and her lips were so chapped I saw a trace of blood in a crack. I thought that was why she kept her mouth closed when she talked.
           “Come on,” she said, nodding at Jose. “You want a guera, or what?”
           Jose was surprised, I could tell. “You speak Spanish?”
           “Sometimes.” She was breathing hard, her black tank top puffing up and then shrinking. “When I need the money.”
           Les laughed and said, “Go for it, Jose, come on. She wants you. You’re the one.”
           I watched Jose look back at the company truck parked in the sandy spot on the other side of the bridge, like he expected Danny Sanderson, the boss’s son, to holler at him over the radio any minute. Les thought that was hilarious. He was always messing with Jose, every minute of every day. “You can’t use the truck, cowboy, you gotta take her back to the bushes,” Les said. “Unless you don’t want none. Too early in the morning, right, cause in Mexico you always slept late? Cause you didn’t have a job.”
           “Shut up, man,” Gary said. He hated almost every word Les said. I tried not to listen, especially when Les talked about women, because I was the only one married and Les usually added onto the end of whatever sex story he was telling something like, “Well, damn, I guess Mike wouldn’t know, since he’s been screwing the same woman since the Iron Age.”
           Gary was only twenty, never been married; Jose’s wife and kids were somewhere in Mexico and he’d been here ten years; and Les was divorced. Twice. That’s why he didn’t like women too much, except in a bar and probably in the dark. His favorite line was, They all look good around closing time.
           “I got the same job as you now, cabrón,” Jose said, and the girl moved her feet in the dirt, turning around.
           “Whatever,” I heard her mumble, and then Les said, “Hey. Can you cuss good in Spanish? English, too? Can you say whatever I tell you to?”
           She shrugged, and Les climbed on down the scaffold. Jose said, “Stupid pendejo,” shaking his head.
           Gary called, “Hey, Les, I’m not doing your work, I mean it.”
           Les just disappeared into the oleander behind the girl. The bushes were taller than any of us, the leaves pointed like knives. The county had planted those oleanders along the new freeway when I was five, and I remembered the stems stuck like arrows in the dirt when we drove along the black road for the first time, me and my pops driving a truckload of oranges to LA.
           We didn’t hear anything, didn’t say anything until we saw Les coming back through the tunnel between bushes, the top of his blond brush cut bobbing along like a furry sun. He kept his head down because he was buttoning his jeans, and when he looked up, I could tell he wanted to make sure we’d seen him doing that.

“What’s a guera?” Gary asked the next day, at dawn. We hadn’t seen her since she came out ten minutes after Les and headed straight down the sidewalk. Maybe she’d come back after dark, I kept thinking while we were unloading rebar. Down Palm Avenue was a park, a KFC and a liquor store, and Holy Redeemer. She was too young to drink, I thought, but hell, she was too young to be asking for twenty dollars and laying down in the dirt. She couldn’t be much older than my daughter, Katie.
           “A blondie,” Jose said.
           “She’s not a true blonde,” Les said, with that shitty grin like he’d had yesterday, when I couldn’t believe he’d walked off the site without even looking back at me or the truck. “Not all the way down.”
           I hoped he’d shut up. It was my crew, had been for five years, and still Les did all the talking, some of the deciding about lunch, and less work most days than me. He was forty, four years older than me, and he got away with a lot because of his size and the way he could charm the secretaries and even the guys at the yard with his stories. Mostly we just wanted him to shut up, because every story got old at dawn on a job site, especially under a bridge.
           There were crews like mine working all over California, I figured sometimes, after all the quakes we’d had in the last ten years. I’d be smelling the pee and wet dirt and exhaust, climbing up and down the scaffolding, remembering when I was little and climbed the wooden ladders to pick Valencias with my father. Stop-and-go traffic bumped and screeched early all the way down Palm, but by ten the street was pretty quiet behind us. That’s when she came down the hill, scuffling and concentrating until she got to the bottom of the scaffold.
           Same shorts, same black tank top, same ankle-high black boots. Katie’d had some of those boots two years ago. Thrown them away by now, for sure. Shelly took her to the mall all the time before Katie left for college. Now Shelly went with her friend Brichee.
          The girl looked up at Jose again. “You don’t like gueras, huh?”
           Jose glanced at me, then at Les, who motioned his head toward the bushes. Then Jose looked back at me, and I thought, What the hell for? Real quiet, I said, “We got a whole lotta work to do today. We don’t start getting this rebar in, somebody’s gonna steal it.”
           Trying to see us up high, the girl laid her head back so far on her neck she looked like a broken Barbie doll. Except she was healthier. Those Barbies Katie used to play with always gave me the creeps. All colors, not just gueras, but all their bodies the same. Shelly had kept about twenty of them in Katie’s room, sitting on a shelf with their legs bent—spooky eyes and those boobs like road cones.
          “Hey,” she said, and something sounded torn in her throat. “Twenty bucks. Whatever you need today. Twenty bucks.”
           Her mouth was still half-closed, her words mumbled and all wet like she was going to cry. I walked along the wood planking away from her voice, pigeon shit dripping like fake icicles above my head.
           I heard Les laughing, heard him say something in Spanish, and I felt the shaking that meant Jose was climbing down the scaffold on the other side.

I had nothing to say, not when Jose came back after about an hour with no wrinkled clothes or marks on him, just a frown so deep between his thick eyebrows it looked like somebody’d run a tiny jackhammer into his skin. Not for the rest of the day, when Les wouldn’t shut up but kept asking what they did, did she blow him or did Mexicans only like missionary cause it took them back to their fucked-up Mexican past with all the nuns and the priests. It went on and on until Jose took a swing at Les down by the truck near quitting time, and it was still over a hundred degrees at four out there in the sand.
           I saw Les pull his head back like a turtle to avoid the fist. I knew Jose didn’t want to land it, and then Les laughed, and Jose cussed him out in a string of Spanish too fast for me to understand.
          I jumped down the last part of the scaffold and felt my ankles ring inside my boots, like red ants were under the skin.
           I grabbed for Jose’s arm, knowing right when I did it he’d get pissed cause I hadn’t stopped Les’s mouth earlier. But you couldn’t stop all those words flying out from his Marlboro Man teeth, all square and white like blank dominoes under his moustache.
          Jose started for his car, his sleeve ripping from my hand, and I yelled at them all, “Call it a full day!” But he was already almost to his old Nova, where he parked it near the church.
           When I got home, I took a long shower like every day, and left my towel and work clothes in the tub where Shelly wanted them­­—she said they were so dirty she didn’t even want them touching the other laundry. I saw her note—she was at a movie with her friend Kim. I could see she’d been to another estate sale, from the new junk in the living room. That was the only thing I hated, after all these years, the vases and doilies and plates that looked like other people, smelled like other people, made my house look like someone else’s. Someone who couldn’t throw anything away. I must have fallen asleep on the couch, because I woke up to hear Shelly’s voice in the kitchen, high and sweet as breaking glass.

The huge oleanders were like a line of black VW Bugs out there in the dawn when we got started. Gary had to ask. “You think she’s okay in there?”
           Les laughed. “Hell, yeah. She got forty bucks in two days.”
           “You really touched her?” Gary kept on while he unloaded the rebar. After all these years, the wrinkled iron still felt like giant antennas in my hands because that’s how I first saw them, when I was Gary’s age. My pops died then, heart attack in the grove, and my moms had been dead. I got a job with Sanderson Construction.
           “Hell, no, but she touched me when she blew me. It wasn’t worth twenty, cause she didn’t hardly know what she was doing,” Les said, drinking his 7-Eleven coffee. “But I got off anyway.”
           “I can’t believe you did that,” Gary said, his mouth curling up. “What if she’s got AIDS?”
           “Yeah, pendejo, you can get it from a sore and her spit.” Jose spat on the sand near Gary ’s boots.
           “How am I gonna have a sore on my dick?” Les threw his empty cup into the truck. “I don’t use it for a hammer. Shit. If her spit had AIDS, then she swallowed it. And some of me.” He headed toward the scaffold after me. I was tired of hearing it.
           But Gary was right behind us. “And what if you got it? AIDS.” Gary climbed up, tools clanking, and I saw Les’s boot heel fly past Gary’s face. Then they stood on the narrow planks. “You coulda gave it to her,” Gary said.
           I dropped the rebar hard on the planks so the whole damn thing shook, so they’d think about work, dammit. “Shut up.”
           “Yeah, shut up, babyface.”
           “You can shut up, too.” I pointed my goatee at Les. That’s better than pointing your finger, my pops used to always say, when you’re talking to someone like that. Point your chin. Look down on em, even if they’re taller or older or louder.
           The cars flew overhead like clouds we couldn’t see, just their shadows on the ground when the sun moved. Clouds full of steel that scraped along the asphalt and sometimes hit that one pothole over us with a thump like a huge heartbeat. I remembered when Shelly had the ultrasound with Katie, and her heart was about as big as a speck of rice, but the sound on the machine was loud. Boom, boom, boom. Scared the shit out of me.
           Gary said, “You know what—”
           Les yelled, “I don’t have AIDS! And if she doesn’t want it, she shouldn’t let guys stick their dicks anywhere, okay? Hey, asshole, I’m doin my job. She’s doin hers. You do yours.”
           We worked for a long time with nobody talking. Couldn’t even have a radio up here because you couldn’t hear it anyway. The rebar would look like a long, low jail cell when we were done, like the first bridge we did. Then we’d cover the whole thing with concrete, so all you’d see when you drove by was a smooth face where no one could sleep or light a cigarette or watch you roll past in your car.
           Sex wasn’t her job. I remember going to this club named Oscar’s when I was a kid—my dad selling orangewood for their barbecue pit—and I saw women who’d worked like that for years. They look different. Even their eyebrows and their hair. This girl was just here, in the oleander. There were homeless camps in other parts of Rio Seco, in the river bottom and downtown, in the park. Why was this girl living here, near this bridge?
           I’d been driving under this bridge all my life. My dad drove under here when I was little, to Holy Redeemer, and to the vet way down on Palm Avenue. We always had a sick dog back then, always one eating poisoned gophers or squirrels in the groves. We lived out in Agua Dulce, with two acres of Valencias and one of navels.
           When my dad would stop the truck here, I’d lean out the window and see the pigeons sitting under the trestles, their shit piled frosty white all long the cement. Except for on TV, it was the closest I ever saw to snow.
           The city put fake owls under here to scare the pigeons. Health reasons. I was married by then, driving Shelly under here sometimes on the way to the doctor. Then I used to come this way to take Katie to the orthodontist, when she was thirteen. She always thought the owls were real and wanted me to stop. When she called last week, she told her mom she was still wearing her retainer and she’d found an Urban Outfitters near her college. “That’s her favorite store now,” Shelly said, since I didn’t know.
           Back when Katie was about ten, I saw the first homeless guys under this bridge. Two or three men, two mattresses, lit cigarettes looking like animal eyes in the dark. Shelly would say, “Can you imagine? Not me, baby. I can’t.”
           She couldn’t imagine it because she had me. She’s had me since she was eighteen and her lips tasted like that strawberry gloss and her blouse unbuttoned with one hand.

Like before, we didn’t see her until the traffic thinned. Her boots crunched on the cement leavings. Was she just waking up now? Long night? Doing what? Did she take her twenty and buy fried chicken and sit in the park all day? Sleep in the church? Get high? Give the money to someone else?
           I doubted there was a man back in the oleander, but you never knew. Then I heard the Port-A-San door slam.
           We hardly ever went in there. We peed against the wall of the overpass, in the bushes on the other side. I thought about the smell, where she slept. Les said, “Oh, no, she’s gettin comfy. That’s what females do.”
           She came out pretty quick and I said, “You can’t go in there. Liability and all.”
           She didn’t even look at me. Jose hadn’t said a damn thing all morning, and when she mumbled, “You know the deal by now,” singling out Gary ’s face under the hard hat, Jose walked the other way on the scaffold, twirling his body past me where I had stopped soldering.
           “He’s a virgin,” Les shouted right away, not even looking down at the girl or shoving his hardhat up on his forehead. “Savin himself for somebody. Somebody who’ll probably lie to him anyway. Ain’t the first time, won’t be the last.”
           Les smelled like the alcohol already leaking out of his pores. Like nasty perfume, mixed with his aftershave.
           I didn’t know what the hell to do. Didn’t even want to look down at her again, and Gary’s whole face and neck were like fire in the orange light coming through our safety screen. He came over to me and whispered, “I can’t just drop money on the ground. That would be rude.”
           “You can just keep working,” I said, loud enough so she could hear me, too. I grabbed more rebar. He inched his way down the ladder and handed her a bill, and I saw her reach out and grab his wrist, whisper something to him. Then she walked down the street the way she always did. Black shorts dusted gold, her ass too big for California .
           That’s what Jose said, all nervous. “Man, she got a Mexican ass. Two watermelons. But you cabrones don’t like that here. You like them starving. Two tortillas.” He laughed his head off while he headed to the truck for something, and Les and Gary watched him.
           “Get to it,” I said, picking up the solder gun again. We’d be here for a month at least, and I couldn’t see watching this shit every day.
           Shelly’s ass was medium-size when we were in high school. Two what? Grapefruit? Hell, I don’t know. Two—two sacks of flour now, I guess. After Katie, and the two babies that didn’t make it past the ultrasound. She’d already heard their hearts, I always thought. That made it harder. But she had Katie. Shelly’s ass is fine with me, when it’s home. Who knows what my ass looks like now? I’m not a ballplayer or anything. Just a foreman.
           Katie’s little butt—she’s my kid, I couldn’t call it anything else—was tiny as an empty wallet when I tried to hold her after they came home from the hospital. She kept sliding down my chest, hollering, and Shelly kept taking her, saying, “Men can’t hold babies right. Nothing to prop her up on. Here, give her to me, Mike, it’s my job, not yours.”
           Her butt now—I guess it’s the same size Shelly’s was, when she was eighteen. When we got married. I guess some fool is probably touching Katie’s ass when he can. Like I tried to touch Shelly’s whenever I could. Except they’re standing in the hall at the dorm, or walking across the campus. Hopefully he isn’t a stupid asshole, and hopefully they’ve gone to class, which costs me something like five hundred bucks an hour.
           “Come on, guys, move it,” I said, and sparks flew off the rebar.

When we were nineteen, married a few months, we used to go to bed before the parties. If we got invited to somebody’s place, I’d watch Shelly get dressed and then I didn’t want to wait—the drive, the talking and drinking and dancing, then the drive home—I wanted it right then. Took off her clothes and she’d get all mad and say they were wrinkled. Take her so long to find a new outfit, we’d get there when the beer was gone and the sauce on the ribs all cold jelly.
           And one night, she just got pissed. I didn’t know she was pregnant. She couldn’t get her eyebrows right. Plucked them until the skin under the line of hairs was all swollen, stretched tight and red like fat earthworms arching over her eyes.
           Octavious Thompson and his girlfriend Glorette Picard were waiting for us in the parking lot.
           Shelly shook her head—like No, we can’t go now—and I must have looked at her like she was crazy. I couldn’t go without her, and I wasn’t staying home to look at her eyebrows, so I sat in my truck and drank two beers.
           Last month when I saw Octavious doing his weekends on the freeway, holding that orange bag of trash, his head was shaved. He has a goatee but some woman must braid the hair—he had five baby ropes hanging from his chin. Like the beaded curtain in Katie’s doorway, the one that used to clatter and drive me crazy when she went in and out all day taking showers and changing clothes.
           I throw my work clothes and wet towel in the tub and Shelly washes them during dinner, dries them while she’s watching Law & Order or ER while I’m crashed. In the morning the clothes are folded on the dryer. Sometimes she’s in our bed, sometimes she’s on the couch. She kisses me and her breath is hot and sour as mine. A few times she’s been in Katie’s bed, and her eyes were crusted around with salt, white as detergent streaks on her temples.
           Friday night she had made enchiladas but she was already at the church carnival. She left me a postcard from Katie. A picture of the campus. Old brick buildings with frosting-white trim. “Dad—Wanted you to see what you’re paying for, like you always say. Love and yeah, I’m taking advantage. Me.”
           I don’t know why I drove back under the bridge, heading to pick up Shelly that way. She was selling funnel cakes at the Holy Redeemer carnival, but I could have come up from a different street. I told myself I was checking to make sure nobody had ripped off any of the materials, but I knew they couldn’t get into the chain-link enclosure without making a lot of noise, and if the stuff was gone, nothing I could do about it until Monday.
           I saw feet dangling from the scaffolding. Then Gary came out from the material storage area, and in the streetlight his face was red as a burn under his slicked-back hair. He saw my truck, and instead of looking guilty or grinning, he started crying.
           The black boots lifted themselves up to the scaffolding and she pulled back into the dark.
           I opened the door. He got in and pointed toward his truck, parked down at the church lot, which was full. “What the hell you doing?” I said.
           “She wanted to see fake fireworks. With the solder gun. I only did it twice.”
           “Cops coulda seen you. I could fire you.”
           Gary held his knees like stick shifts. “She told me Les said, ‘Get on your back,’ but then he did what he said.”
           I could picture it, even if I didn’t want to.
           “He wouldn’t even let her sit up and—”
           “Okay. I get it.” I stopped at the light. His Adam’s apple moved like a doll’s head trying to get out of his throat. Why the hell is it called an Adam’s apple? Eve made him swallow the whole damn thing? I said, “And you? What’d you ask her for?”
           He took a big-chest breath. “Nothing. I wanted to give her some money to go away because I don’t like seeing her around.”
           “You know her?”
           He shook his head. “No. I just don’t want to hear it no more.”
           I looked at his stubby red fingers. “You sure you didn’t get in trouble?”
           He looked right at me. “Hey, I’m not getting AIDS, okay? Rubbers break. I didn’t touch her. And Jose didn’t neither. He just gave her ten bucks and told her to get something to eat. He said he doesn’t need anything like that.”
           He got out and walked over to his new Dodge Dakota. He could still give money away. He was only twenty.

On Sunday when I went to early Mass, left Shelly sleeping, I drove past Les’s white Toyota pickup, with the mottled primer on the hood where some woman had chucked a TV at him. The pickup was parked by the material storage but no one was in sight.
           He loved to say how inconvenient it was to wake up every morning with wood. How men and women’s timing was all off, cause they never wanted it in the morning.
           The girl wore only her tank top. She had her back to me. I had wound through the oleanders careful, like when I was a kid and afraid of the leaves. I didn’t see Les. The girl just stood there, between two bushes, blocking the view of her camp, but I could hear a little radio. Some song Gary liked, about going to Wichita.
           Her skin was pale, streaked with dirt on the ankles and legs. On her ass were brown marks. Old bruises, in a kind of circle on the left side. Like the burn marks left on a tortilla when Shelly heated them up for a few seconds on the stove. One spot for each flame. Five.
           Five-finger discount. Somebody had grabbed her hard.
           I heard Les then. He shoved through the bushes on the other side of her, because I saw her flinch. I heard him hawk and spit, like smokers do.
           “Turn that shit off,” he said. Not like to a woman. Like to a kid.
           I had about two seconds. I could kick his ass, hungover and spent as he probably was if he’d just gotten some. But then what? I couldn’t fire him. Sanderson Junior had to fire him, and he had the same little blond moustache drooping around his mouth as Les did. How would I tell Sanderson Junior why I was there in the first place? Even though Les was always more trouble, he could get away with this. He’d say I must have been planning to visit her this morning and just got pissed that it didn’t work out. Yeah.
           I picked up my feet and walked backwards. Like when we were kids pretending to be horses. Outside the bushes I headed quick to the bridge. The sun was blank and gray as a vending machine slug at the edge of the trees. I hadn’t even known I was hard until I felt something like webbing breaking on my skin, inside my fly. Dried slickness from Shelly, from this morning.
           Once I had tried to heat my own tortillas and left them on the burner for too long. They lit on fire, like black rags on the stove, and Shelly laughed until her eyes got red.
           Then she said, “You always say I’m crazy about the house. You think what I do takes about five minutes while you’re gone. My grandma was somebody’s maid in Louisiana, big old house with a silver crumb scraper. When I was little, if I didn’t get every crumb off the table after breakfast, she’d make me pick them up with my tongue. You ever taste Formica and Windex?”
           That little radio sounded all fuzzy. Not a CD player like Katie had. Personal, portable music so we didn’t have to hear it, she always said. This girl had a tiny transistor like my pops used to carry in his shirt pocket in the groves. He’d button it in there safe in his Pendleton so it wouldn’t fall out when he bent over to pick up branches.
           I saw the light glinting silver off Les’s windshield, the hood with primer like a blank map. Condensation on the windows. Fairy bubbles, Katie used to call them. I never knew what to do with a daughter. Every night after dinner Shelly would take this index card Katie wrote on years ago: My mama is Shelly and she is mine. No one asked her to—she just wrote it one rainy day when she was five. Shelly had it laminated, and she skimmed the card across the tablecloth and pushed the bread crumbs and dried rice or whatever into her palm. I don’t have anything like that. You can’t carry around the cardboard tie they made for Father’s Day in kindergarten.
           I picked up a piece of rebar from Les’s truck bed and broke the passenger window. Old glass, didn’t break like the shatterproof. Shark teeth in the frame. Then I broke the driver window. Damn—when I swung the rebar, my wrists felt good. I don’t get to move them like that. And the sound—the thump and then, sweeter than rain falling.
           I drove away fast. He’d have to pick up every piece or explain in the morning.

In the groves, my pops had a Cahuilla Indian friend who used to come around and sharpen axes, knives, saws every year. They would sit around a fire for hours. Beto told us he worked for a rancher for months and never got the pay he was promised. One night, out with the sheep in the river bottom, Beto shot a rabbit and told the rancher he’d roast it. He peeled an oleander branch for a spit, and stuck the sharpened end through the rabbit’s body, and turned it over the fire for a long time. Indian-style, he said. The rancher ate the whole thing and died from the poison in the oleander, but he didn’t taste a thing.
           I got coffee for everybody at around ten, when I knew Les would show up with a hangover. He bragged about them every Monday. I dropped powdered laxative into his cup.
           I saw a few slivers of broken glass by the chain link fence of the storage area. Les told Gary and Jose some asshole kid had shot out his window on the freeway. Probably a gang initiation. He didn’t say shit to me about being late. Never did. Then he spent all day in the Port-A-San.
           She didn’t come out. I hoped she was gone.
           I put some more in his Coke at lunch on Tuesday, those big green cups from Del Taco. He was in there again at three, when Sanderson Junior came around to check on the work. Khakis and a polo shirt. Clipboard. Five minutes. Long enough to ask where Les had hidden himself.
           “Been sick for days,” I said. Junior rolled his eyes.
           When Les finally came out, I said, “You know that’s the first sign of AIDS, man. Diarrhea. That’s why all those gay guys waste away. You seen them? Like skeletons.”
           “Shut up, Mike,” he said. Gary just stared at him, and Jose looked away.
           Les said, “It’s that damn Mexican food. Why didn’t you get us some hamburgers instead?”
           “You got any sores on your skin, you know, those sarcoma things?”
           Les threw down his tool belt and went to his truck.

She had to be about eighteen, same age as Katie. I waited for her on Wednesday. I had seen movement in the oleanders for two days, but I knew she heard Les’s voice and didn’t want to come out.
           He hadn’t shown up for work by ten. He was almost always late on Mondays, but he never missed Wednesdays.
           It was quiet when she walked out of the bushes, and I went down to meet her before she could mumble her usual. Gary and Jose were silent, and there was a lull in traffic overhead. I could hear the crows in the pepper tree.
           “What?” she said, hand by her mouth. I pointed my chin back toward where she’d come from.
           We walked through the dusty leaves, and it wasn’t far to the little clearing in the bank. The traffic here was a roaring wind that never stopped. I couldn’t hear any little transistor. The girl turned and said, “Your boss isn’t here today, so you want your turn, right?”
           I felt coffee at the bottom of my throat. “Les isn’t the foreman. I am. I don’t want a turn.”
           She sat back on the ground and swung her knees open and closed, moving like some weird exercise on TV. “What?” she said again.
           I could smell her. Cigarettes and hot sauce from the trash. She had as much stuff collected as Shelly’s kitchen. We were stocked for earthquakes, floods, fires. Shelly went to the market almost every day.
           But I smelled perfume. Or hairspray. “You know the oleanders are poisonous, right? You could get sick here.”
           “I don’t eat them. I don’t lick them.” She stared at me. Her hair hadn’t been washed. It had ridges and grooves, like when white guys comb through Brylcreem. Like the fifties. Like Sanderson Senior.
           “What?” she said again, louder. “I been with a black guy before.”
          “Yeah? I haven’t.” I watched her knees. “I don’t want you hanging around my crew, okay? I think you should move on.”
           “You do? You think I should mosey on down the road?”
           She sounded sharper, even with her mouth still mumbling.
           “You go to high school?”
           “I did.  Palm Springs.” Her knees were like two wrinkled faces knocking together and swaying away.
           “You graduate?”
           “Last year.”
           This all sounded stupid. Even if she’d lived here, in Rio Seco, she wouldn’t have known Katie. Katie was always in honors classes. But her eyes, the eyebrows like fingers pointing at each other, the shorts bunched up around her thighs like black tires ringing her skin. I remembered the movement then—Katie made me look at a butterfly on a bush one day, the wings fanning back and forth.
           Then the girl grinned for the first time. “What? You can’t fuck someone without a diploma?”
           Her front teeth were gone, most on the top and only two I could see left on the bottom, like tiny headstones at the corners of her mouth. “What happened to your mouth?”
           “A guy knocked them out. He said I didn’t need them anymore. They just get in the way.”
           She swung her knees one more time, then rubbed at her brows so the hairs drooped down like ferns over her eyes. “So, what? You don’t want anything or what? You think I can’t handle a black guy? That’s what your—”
           “My worker. I’m the foreman, okay?” I lifted my goatee again.
           She stood up and hooked her thumbs into the waistband of her shorts, slid the waistband down a couple of inches. A red line like a belt from the tightness. Like when I put the diaper on Katie, made it too tight.
           “Don’t you want to see it?” she said. I saw her hipbones like doorknobs above her knuckles. “My grampa said all black guys want a white woman.”
           I pointed my finger and drew a line up in the air. “Pull your pants up. Your grampa didn’t say black guy. He said nigger. And he wasn’t talking about me. And you’re not a white woman. You’re a little kid.”
           “Fuck you,” she tried to say, but she couldn’t even make the f sound right, without those teeth. She pulled the waistband back up and then knelt to tie her boots. Her fingers made scribble marks on the dusty leather.
           “I want you out of here before Les comes back. Today. I don’t want to call the cops.”
           She nodded, serious all of a sudden. “I wouldn’t let him come back anyway. He’s psychotic.” She brought out a scrap piece of rebar. “I have some of this stuff.” She turned her back to me, and I saw prints of leaves on her butt, dusty blades on her tank top. “I was going anyway. There’s plenty of bridges, right? Plenty of assholes.”
           I couldn’t say anything for a minute, as she moved around her little clearing and the tunnel, where she stuffed a blanket into a gym bag and then zipped it hard. The next thing I knew she had walked through the narrow hallway between the oleanders like the bushes were swinging doors, and disappeared.
           I walked up the chalky path toward the pepper tree, past piles of the pink berries Shelly used to collect when we were really poor, living near the arroyo downtown. She put pepper berries and bougainvillea flowers from the sidewalk into a big green bowl and said it was potpourri. Like from a department store. She dropped rose petals in, from someone else’s yard. I smelled the pepper berries when I stepped on them, and headed up the bank toward the bridge.

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