H. Lee Barnes
H. Lee Barnes served in Vietnam as member of the U.S. Army's Special Forces and moved to Nevada after his discharge. His published books include three collections of short stories, a novel, and Dummy Up and Deal, a nonfiction narrative that examines the working lives of casino dealers. His novel, The Lucky, depicts the changing aspects of the modern West and features the character Willy Bobbins who reflects the maverick spirit of the independent casino owners who pioneered legitimate gambling. He lives in Las Vegas and teaches in the English Department of the College of Southern Nevada.
Eddie and Jace ran a cut-rate parts distributorship out of a storage shed in the Pettibones's backyard. Beit engine, carburetor, or transmission, J & E, as the partners called themselves, filled the order. If such a talent exists, both had perfect pitch for engines. They'd listen as a car turned a corner and by hearing to it accelerate, identify the components in its power package. Eddie was the thief of the enterprise and Jace the chopper half. Pickup jockeys, airmen from Holloman, and even a few repair shop mechanics bought parts from Jace. On occasion he souped up a stolen car that Eddie would later unload in Juarez. As long as Eddie's projects left no oil stains, our parents overlooked the odd set of headers, gearbox housing, or carburetor lying in the backyard. They also seemed to have forgotten the six-month sentence he served in the state reformatory for car theft as well. After all, the state said he was reformed.
Eddie had pulled me out of more than a few scrapes, so when he called the last Tuesday in July and told me to pack clothes and be ready to stay overnight, I didn't question him, and when shortly after high noon he blew the horn of a red '70 GTO, I grabbed my overnight bag off the couch and hurried out. Eddie threw open the driver's door and stepped out.
“Nice wheels,” I said.
He nodded. “Yeah, get in the back.”
I tossed my bag onto the seat and slid in behind it. Gloria sat shotgun. He hadn't said anything about her coming along, but I knew better than to ask why, just as I knew better than to ask where he'd gotten the car or our destination or the purpose behind the trip. Gloria glanced back as I settled in.
I said, “Hi.”
Normally in greeting me, she called me Handsome Man. This time she raised a hand and said, “Hi, Nicky.”
Eddie slammed his door. His eyes obscured behind reflective sunglasses, he looked at me through the mirror. “Before you ask, we're goin' to Mexico.”
“I wasn't going to ask.”
By Mexico, he meant Juarez. Our previous trips there had been planned a week or more in advance, timed so that Eddie could take care of business early enough for us to eat, then cross the border to El Paso and catch a late bus to Alamogordo. This last-instant trip was unusual, even more so because Gloria was going along. Her mother Conchita, a devout Catholic, rode herd on her three daughters. She'd never approve of one going away overnight with a boy, especially Eddie, and especially to a sanctuary for sin like Juarez. Still, there sat Gloria.
I'd developed a fool's crush on her and found everything about her charming—the sneeze she never quite released and the way she burst into uninhibited laughter when something struck her as funny, then embarrassed, cupped a hand over her mouth and held it there until the laughter subsided. Her laughter was contagious and I often laughed right along with her. In between episode of wild laughter, we'd pause a moment, then one look from her would instigate another onslaught of laughter. Eddie would shake his head and tell us we were ridiculous, but it, that laughter that left our sides aching, was a shared joy.
“Everybody ready?” Eddie popped a stick of gum in his mouth and without waiting for a reply, pulled away from the curb.
Gloria looked back. She'd been seeing my brother for seven months, so I figured this wasn't her first ride in a stolen car, just as it wasn't mine. I smiled.
She was what we called a heart-break beauty—dimpled cheeks, Madonna eyes, and shiny dark hair that cascaded to the small of her back. Through she sometimes flirted with me, I didn't kid myself. Unlike Eddie, whose brooding good looks and indifference to them attracted girls, I was average and mostly intimidated by the opposite sex.
It was hot and the air conditioning didn't work. Eddie apologized for that and rolled down the windows. He ran his fingers through his slicked-back hair.
He glanced at Gloria. “You okay?”
Though they came out, the words seemed stuck in her throat. “Yeah, fine.”
“Good. Well, enjoy the ride.”
When we reached the highway and headed south, Eddie brought the car up to the hated double-nickle speed limit. Hot air poured in through the front windows. He turned on the radio. A newscaster interrupted the music to say Congress had approved Articles of Impeachment against Richard Nixon.
“Good. Put that crook in jail where he belongs.” Eddie spat his gum out the window. As the newscaster continued to enumerate the events leading the impeachment, Eddie turned the dial to another station. “We all know what he did.”
The music came on and Eddie turned up the volume. The Eagles sang “Life in the Fast Lane.” Eddie cranked up the volume. He nudged Gloria and urged her to sing along. She shook her head and stared out the window. I watched the flat landscape between the highway and the distant mountains drift by. Every once in while Eddie would shout above the sound of the wind, asking Gloria if she was okay. She would nod, but it didn't seem she was.
Realizing that I hadn't mentioned it, I said, “I left a note for Mom like you told me.”
Eddie, intent on Gloria, didn't bother looking at me. “Should I give you a medal?”
“Guess not,” I said.
“Leave Nicky alone,” Gloria said. “Why do you pick on him?”
Eddie ignored her.
Wild, sometimes cruel, especially with girls, Eddie was generous with me and often kind, characteristics hid from everyone else. On one trip to Juarez with him he'd marched me into to El Submarino, a bar off the main street, where he ordered two shots of whiskey. He downed one and pushed the other in front of me. Trying to emulate him, I gulped mine down and instantly fell to coughing spasms. He'd bent me forward at the waist, slapped my back, and told me I'd be okay as soon as the burning passed. Then he talked with near reverence about the test of Masai boys my age who carried only a spear and shield into the Great Rift Valley to kill a lion. He told me that shot of whiskey was my lion and now I was sort of a man, that the real test was a woman and if we had time he'd treat me to one. The idea of visiting a whore house struck fear in me. Still, I'd told him I was ready. “No you're not,” he'd said and ruffed up my hair with his hand.
“I asked why you pick on him,” Gloria said.
“'Cause he lets me.” Eddie smiled at me through the mirror.
As on our previous trips, Eddie drove straight across the international bridge that joined the U.S. and Mexico. He didn't take risks. Of course there was none in crossing into Mexico. It was all in returning to U.S. soil. I wondered as we neared the crossing if Eddie intended to unload the car or if upon our return, he had a story in mind to explain the car to Customs.
The Mexican agent stuck his face in the open window, grinned, and waved us through. We fell in behind a parade of bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Avenida de 16 de Setiembre, the street named for Mexico's day of independence. The air smelled of leaded gas, smoldering charcoal, and faintly of cured leather.
“Here,” Eddie said, “give me the directions.” He handed her a sheet of paper.
She unfolded it and placed it on her lap.
“Well?” Eddie said.
She swallowed and gazed out of the window.
“Come on,” he said, “read it off to me.”
She looked at the map. “Turn left. Two stop lights after the corrida.”
We drove past the corrida, the smell of manure and urine punctuating our passage. When I was ten, I'd gone to the bullfights with my parents. Mother found it disgusting, the way the matador drove a sword deep between the bull's shoulder blades, then cut off its ears and tail. She'd claimed the smell of blood was stuck in her hair. Dad had said it was her imagination. She'd told him not to talk. The remainder of the drive, whenever he spoke, she'd cup her hands over her ears and hum loud enough to drown out his words. Eddie, seated in the back with me, had whispered, “You gotta envy that kind of love.”
“Go straight up this street,” Gloria said, “and take the second street right.”
Eddie turned the car left, then took the second street right. The dirt road was blemished with potholes. Squat adobe hovels ran along the street sides. Fifty feet ahead a boy, maybe four, wearing only shorts, sat in the center of the roadway. The street proved too narrow for Eddie to maneuver around him. He brought the car to a stop and honked. The boy didn't move. Eddie shifted the car into park. It's idling engine rumbled.
“It's a sign,” Gloria said.
“A sign? Don't be stupid.” Eddie's mirrored shades locked on me as he pressed the horn and held it to the count of three before releasing it.
Gloria said, “Let's go back. I can't. I know I said. . .”
“Nicky,” Eddie said, “go move him.” He leaned forward providing me space enough to climb out of my seat.
Gloria said, “I changed my mind, Eddie. Please, let's just go back.”
“Goddamnit, Nicky, get him out of the way.”
I squeezed out and approached the boy. As I stood over him, he smiled up at me. He had a stick in his hand and was poking at a dead mouse. I looked back at the car and shrugged. Though the reflection off the windshield obscured my view, I didn't have to see Eddie clearly to know he was about to get furious. I'd seen his temper many times and had been the brunt of it on few occasions.
He poked his head through the open window. “We don't have all day.”
I picked up the boy and carried him to the side. As I sat him down, he swung at me with his stick and laughed. A yelling woman ran toward me. Her finger aimed at me, she fired off a string of invectives. The next instant the neighborhood came alive. Women spilled out of the shanties, some to bear witness, some to join the cursing mother. I retreated to the GTO. Eddie, in his haste to close the door, nearly slammed it on my foot. Gloria, a rosary looped over her wrist, crumpled the map into wad and threw it at Eddie, hitting him in the cheek. He caught it before it fell to the floorboard.
I finally asked what I knew better than to ask. “Why're we here?”
Eddie put the car in drive, but kept his foot on the brake pedal. “We're here because she messed up. And you're here because . . . Well, you're here and that's the way it is.”
Gloria held the crucifix to her lips, then touched it to her cheek. “Please, let's not. . .” She glanced in my direction, mumbled something, then her hands fell to her lap.
He pressed on the accelerator and the car lurched forward. The angry mother, now clutching the child to her breasts, jogged beside the car and spat at us as we drove away.
“Turn around, Eddie,” Gloria said.
Undaunted by all the commotion, Eddie drove up the block.
“I said turn around. Now.” Gloria said.
Eddie hit the brake pedal and brought the car to a stop. Dust rose and entered through the open windows. He stared at her. She stared back.
“The map doesn't say turn around.” He handed her the wad of paper.
She lowered her eyes. “Okay then, never mind. Go ahead.” She unraveled the crinkled map, took a breath, and held it up. “The next left one block on the right.”
The building consisted of three two story adobe shops, on one end a carnicería, in the middle a peluquería, and at the near end a farmacia. On the second story above the pharmacy a small sign with red lettering on white background that read “Comadrona Licencia” hung on the wall, mounted next to it, a cow's bell.
“This is it,” Eddie said and pulled off the road onto a dirt parking lot.
At the corner an old man peddled dulces out of street cart. He stared in our direction as we pulled into a parking space outside the pharmacy. The old man crossed himself and looked away. Eddie rolled up his window and told Gloria to do likewise. “They'll steal it if they get a chance,” he said.
“Who's they?” she asked.
He stared at her as he unlatched his door. “They are anybody here.”
She looked at the outside stairs that led up to the top floor of the flat-roofed building. Her lower lip trembled. Eddie locked his door, told me to stay inside the car, then slammed the door shut. He walked around to her side. As he did, she pressed the lock on her door. The car was hot wired. Without a key Eddie couldn't open a door. He pulled angrily at the handle and hollered for her to open the door.
“Damnit,” he finally shouted to me, “Nicky, unlock the door.”
“Don't,” she said, her eyes pleading.
She didn't understand the rule central to my relationship with my older brother. When I reached up to unlock the door, tears welled up in her eyes. She wiped them away with the back of her hand, said, “Remember this,” and lifted the door lock.
Eddie opened the door. She remained immobile as he, with uncharacteristic patience waited, his hand extended to her, both of them suspended in a wordless purgatory. Finally, she shook her head and set her feet on the ground. When she was upright, he slipped an arm around her waist. She jerked away from him, shook her head, and ascended the stairs with the lightsome grace exclusive to her gender. He caught up with her on the landing and rang the cow's bell. A squat Mexican woman opened the door. Eddie passed her a piece of paper. The woman read it, nodded, and all three disappeared inside. I stared up at the top of the empty staircase wondering how my brother had come to be the way he was—wild and determined, somehow always outside the boundaries.
Three hours later as the day neared dusk, Gloria and my brother descended the same stairs, her leaning against him for support. Eddie carried a paper sack in his other hand. He opened her door, gently helped her sit, and then got behind the wheel.
He parked half a block north of El Submarino where I'd had my first taste of whiskey.
“I won't be long,” he said, then leaving the two of us, walked to the bar and entered.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Let's don't talk,” she said.
She adjusted her position in the seat, struggling with something at her side. She turned her face at an angle so that I could see nothing but her one cheek, wet and glistening.
Twenty minutes passed before Eddie reappeared. He nodded to a man walking on the sidewalk from the opposite direction. He headed toward the man. The two of them shook hands when they met and walked to the next corner where they slipped into the shadows. The man handed something to Eddie, who left him loitering in the shadows and returned to the car. Eddie gestured for Gloria to roll down her window, stuck his head inside, and said, “Get ready.”
He returned to the man. There was an exchange words, a shaking of hands. Then Eddie came back and said, “Let's go.”
I'd gathered up my overnight bag. He told me to grab the paper bag and carry it. Then he hurried around to Gloria and opened her door. She grimaced as he helped her out. She clutched her purse to her abdomen. He eased it from her hands and slid the strap over her shoulder, then reached in and extracted a small suitcase from the floorboard.
“She's sick,” I said. “Can't we just drive across?”
“Don't be stupid.” He slammed the car door, wrapped his free arm around her, and propped her up. “It'll get easier as we walk. Come on.” He told me to walk on her other side and help if she needed it.
The walk was a mere four blocks, but it was still hot and the milling crowds of tourists slowed us. Two blocks from the border my armpits were drenched. I looked at Gloria. Sweat beads trickled from her forehead. She didn't complain, just kept her eyes on the looming bridge.
Eddie proved right. The farther we went up the 16th of September Avenue, the better she seemed. As we neared the U.S. side of the bridge, she said she could walk without help. She took a deep breath and straightened her back. “I'm fine.”
“That'a girl,” Eddie said. “No bus for you. I'll get us a car on the other side, a Cadillac or whatever you want. Nothin's too good for you.”
Her mouth turned up in a strained smile. “I hate you, Edward Bowen.”
“No you don't. This is all going to work out.”
She reached over and grasped my arm. “Tell him, Nicky. He'll believe you.”
Her grasp, weak but desperate, signaled that she meant every word. Around and behind us lights began illuminating the coming night. The bridge lit up. Street lamps glowed on both sides of the bridge. Neon signs flashed up and down Juarez's main avenue. We were bathed in light. I noticed a red blemish on her chin, her skin otherwise flawless. It was swollen and looked to be painful. She saw me looking at it and turned away. I became, at that moment, her confederate.
“She does. She hates you, Eddie.”
“Well, good,” he said. “Keep hating me. I don't care. Now, let's go.”
As we neared the Customs check point, my knees buckled. I worried that she wasn't going to hold up or that I'd do or say something stupid. I wanted run back to the GTO, drive us to the bridge, and crash the gate if need be. For the first time I understood what it meant to be helpless and desperate.
We fell in behind a half dozen tourist types who quickly passed through Customs and walked to the turnstiles, the last barrier to the U.S. side. An older couple carrying two shopping bags lined up behind us, then a string of visitors formed a long line.
Gloria went first. Her Hispanic roots from her mother's side showed in her dark features and olive shin. The Customs officer eyed her suspiciously as he asked her nationality.
“U.S. citizen,” she said.
“Do you have i.d.?”
Her hands trembling, she opened her purse and took out her drivers license. He studied it a moment and handed it back. “What was the nature of your visit?”
“Shopping.” She shifted her weight uncomfortably
“What'd you buy?”
She swallowed and in a voice thin even for her, said, “Nothing.”
“Nothing. I bought nothing.”
“Put your purse on the table.”
She complied and stood staring at her hands. Eddie coughed to get her attention, and in an attempt to steel her against the onslaught of brusk questions, nodded. She didn't acknowledge him. The officer dumped the contents of her purse on the table.
“Nothing to declare. Is that right?”
The man spread the items out, and seeing there was no contraband, pushed her property aside. “Okay, replace them in your purse.”
“Next,” he said and asked Eddie's nationality.
The officer told him to place the suitcase on the steel table and open it. “Do you have anything to declare?”
“No.” The man ran his hands under the clothing, turned over a blouse and skirt, both neatly folded, and said, “Looks like you came for a stay. This hers?”
I could tell from his hesitation that Eddie was considering a smart-ass answer. Instead, he nodded. The guard instructed him to close the suitcase, then narrowed his eyes on me and the sack I carried. “Citizenship?”
“Your satchel, put it here.” He pointed to the table.
I followed his instructions. He unzipped the bag and spread my clothes out, two pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks, and two t-shirts. Gloria winced and closed her eyes.
“Put those back in and set the sack here,” he said.
He turned the sack upside down and spilled the contents, half a dozen sanitary napkins. He looked at them as if befuddled. “Okay. All of you step over there.” He pointed to where another Customs man sat on a stool, talking with a Border Patrol Officer.
The elderly woman standing behind Gloria gasped and said, “She needs help.”
The officer looked at Eddie, then down where blood had pooled at Gloria's feet. Before anyone could move to stop her, she lurched forward, collapsed, and lay on the floor, moaning.
Though she was beyond whatever help we could offer, Eddie and I kneeled beside her. I whispered to him, “I hate you too.”
Of course the attention of the nation for months had been and was harnessed to the events of Watergate, the many players, and the mystery of Deep Throat. The day Nixon resigned, the populace, fortified by a renewed belief in the system of justice, seemed to breathe a collective sigh. The small stuff of life, however, the stories largely untold continued to shape us.
I spent the night and the next in a juvenile facility in El Paso. Because of my age and because I confessed what I knew, I was spared legal punishment, but my parents sent me to Idaho to live with my mother's father, a retired lumberjack, and his second wife. Eddie was arrested. He later pled guilty to a misdemeanor offense and agreed to join the service.
Gloria, rushed to a hospital, didn't die. Eventually, she married and became a civics and history teacher at Alamogordo High. She never had children. The septicemia made certain of that. Her students became her children. Thirty years later I bumped into her at a homecoming event celebrating the class I would've, under other circumstances, graduated with. Her hair was gray, a fact she didn't bother to hide. She took my hand and offered up a pleasant dimpled smile. She was with her husband, Harold, a man a few years her senior. We exchanged pleasantries the way polite strangers do. She asked him to get her some punch.
“Should I spruce it up?” he asked.
“A touch,” she said.
“And what do you want?” he asked me.
“Oh, I'm fine. Thanks.”
When he was out of earshot, she laid her hand on my wrist. “Did you marry?”
Lori, my wife, had gone to the restroom. “Yes. She's around here somewhere.”
“Good. Your wife, what's she like?”
“Lori's the organized one. Everyone likes her.”
“Two daughters, both grown.” I didn't tell her that we named our first born for her.
She pressed her teeth against her bottom lip. A bit nervous about the past emerging in some awkward way, I shifted my weight from one leg to the other and looked for my wife. In time Gloria asked what'd been on her mind all along. “Is it true about Eddie? About him dying?”
I nodded. “You could say he found himself in the military.”
I sensed she wanted more, perhaps to know if he ever expressed remorse, if he ever married, if he ever loved her, the ifs that haunt the hallowed ground of first love. To my relief her husband and my wife crossed the room and joined us at the same time. As she sipped from whatever was in the cup he'd brought, Gloria and Lori chatted, Lori about our vacation in St. Croix, Gloria about growing lilies in a greenhouse Harold had built in their backyard. He and I talked sports, the way men are trained to. As we did, I noticed the loving way he looked at his wife and wondered if he knew the secret she and I shared and the final story of my brother that I kept close to my breast.
Eddie became a crew chief on a helicopter and redeemed himself, if accidental death in a failed attempt to free hostages from an embassy in Iran is a form of redemption. A year before he lost his life, he attended my high-school graduation. I hadn't seen him since that night on the bridge. After Grandfather had said grace with all of us, even Mom and Dad, seated at the dinner table, Eddie whispered, “I believed I was helping her. I made so many mistakes, but that one. . .” He didn't need to finish the sentence.
Later he gave me a ring inscribed with his unit's designation, said he didn't know what else to do with it. He told me that mail from home was a small pleasure for a soldier and asked if I'd write. I said that I would and I did, once every two months. He did likewise. Nothing of importance was in those letters, just the common stuff that makes up life—complaints about food or weather, memories such as his seeing the expression on my face when I had my first shot of whiskey, words that revealed how thoughtful my brother had become. My final letter to him came back unopened. It's sealed in a box in a drawer next to his ring and the rest of his letters. Occasionally I think to throw them away, but don't. I'll leave the task of disposing of them to someone else.
I'll never know if bitterness pursued Gloria over those years. I can only know my own life and much of that is unknowable. My wife and I raised two daughters, April, the baby, and our own Gloria. My girls no doubt have suffered heartache and will have future troubles. At one time or another I'm certain they were disappointed in me. A father can be too hard on his children, and whenever they called me on it, I explained that I did so out of concern, that a wise parent must love in fear because the young are themselves so fearless.