Mira in the dusty hatchback spotted Tom on the Fifth Street overpass near San Miguel’s. She saw him crouching in the shade cast by a big green highway sign and when he saw her he stood, grubby in his work clothes, skinny as the day they’d met ten years ago, his face creased in the sun. She U-turned around the median and pulled alongside him and leaned over the seat to open the door from the inside. He plopped down, shoved his toolbag between his feet, and produced a wad of bills in a rubber band. “We get to pay rent this month!”
“You walked from downtown with that? And your tools?” As she spoke she tried to switch her voice from scolding to disbelief. “All that way?”
“Yeah. Nothing happened,” he said. “Obviously.”
“Is that enough?” Mira watched for a gap in the traffic.
“Stop worrying. It’ll do. Between this and the other thing, we’re clear.” He saw her clench the steering wheel until her knuckles whitened and his face hardened. “It’s a living,” he said. He waved the cash at her head. “It’s always been there when this wasn’t.”
A face appeared. A palm slapped Tom’s window. He shoved the cash under his thigh and slapped her arm. “C’mon! Move!”
“I can’t!” she snapped. The lanes were full. She couldn’t pull out. He’d smash Tom’s window, grab the cash, maybe the tools, and be gone. Mira already felt herself giving up to it. No one would let her in.
“Move, goddammit!” Tom yelled. Her resignation ignited into anger. She flashed a furious glance at Tom and started to say the hell you think I’m doing? Instead, she saw the person. A Mexican man, perhaps 30, about her age. An oversized green t-shirt hung off his shoulders. Unruly black hair tufted out from under a ball cap with a winery logo. She took this all in within a tenth of a second, but she thought his eyes would take years to fathom. Dark, stricken with sorrow, lost.
“Wait…” she said. He whirled his hand around to ask Tom to roll down the window. Tom balked. Mira pushed the button on her door and the window slid down.
The young man pleaded, “Can you give me a ride?” His hands clutched the door. Scars knicked his fingers. Black dust darkened his hands and face.
“Where?” Mira said.
Tom jumped in. “Paso? Sorry, man. We’re going the other way. Arroyo.”
The young man’s hands dropped and his face fell. “Okay,” he said to the pavement. He walked away down the sidewalk and put his face in his hands. Tom leaned out the window to say something but stopped. Mira moved the rearview mirror to watch the man, whose shoulders were shaking like he was crying.
Tom turned to Mira. “What was that? Let’s go…”
“Sorry. Yeah, we’ll go…” she said, watching the young man recede. She pulled into the lane. Tom clutched the cash and then shoved it behind him in the seat. He shuddered.
“Thought that was gonna be something else.”
Halfway across she took one last glance in the mirror and saw the green t-shirt disappearing behind the slope of the overpass like a small craft on the horizon of the sea. “What makes a grown man cry like that?”
Mira pulled a U-turn on the other side of the overpass and raced the car back. She saw the man slouching down the sidewalk about a block ahead of them and she weaved through the traffic and the lights and skidded into the gravel parking lot by San Miguel’s. His t-shirt appeared in glimpses in the spaces between the four lanes of rushing cars. Tom unclenched his hand from the overhead grip and rubbed his temples. “What are we doing?”
“Maybe he needs a phone?” Mira undid her seatbelt and opened her door. Tom shot out his hand, grabbed her knee, and pulled her back down into her seat.
“Are you kidding?”
“It’s nothing! I’m just gonna let him make a call!”
Tom exhaled and shook his head. “No. Let me.” He put his hand out and she dropped the phone in it. Tom popped out of the car and watched the traffic for an opening.
Mira saw the cash. It was wedged in the seat cushion. She worked it out and put it in her lap and covered it with her hands. How Tom would hustle and hustle to find a cash job—any kind of job—and then be so careless with the money itself. She watched him bound across the street like an antelope and wait on the sidewalk with his hands in the pockets of his hoodie. The man startled when he saw him. Tom held out the phone until the man took it. The man opened it cautiously and deliberately pecked out a number just as a semi halted for the stoplight and blocked them from view. When it pulled away Tom was waiting to cross back over. The man had stepped over a small fence and was crawling into a hollow spot in a thicket of tall brush.
Tom hurtled across the face of the approaching traffic and leaned in the open window. “No answer. He just stood there. His hands were shaking. When there was no answer he just started crying again. Then he went and crawled under those brambles.” He was rolling the phone over in his palm.
Mira stared across the street at the green t-shirt in the bushes. “Why is he hiding?”
Tom craned his neck to look. “Dunno.”
“Is he on something? Coming down?”
“No. Well, I dunno. Doesn’t feel like that to me.”
“Think it’s a gang thing? Why he’s hiding?”
Tom looked across the street, thinking. “No, it ain’t that, either.”
“Well, could we give him the ride?” Mira glanced at the fuel gauge. There was half a tank.
“Maybe. Guess I’ll ask.” Tom saw the money on her lap and motioned for it. She placed it in his hand. He reached down, unzipped his toolbag, and dropped the cash wad in it like it was a tennis ball. Her eyes followed its every move. He paused at the curb to let a truck roll by and dashed back across the street. She leaned over to the toolbag and shoved the bills deeper inside and zipped it closed. A lot could happen, even with her sitting right there. A man runs up. Reaches through the open window. Gets Tom’s tools and the rent. Cusses her out. She sits there frozen, too scared to move. He runs off, and they’re painted further into the corner. People do things like that. And she’d hate herself for not fighting, and Tom would act like nothing had happened.
She turned the key and closed Tom’s window, then pulled an old quilt from the back seat. As she stuffed it over the toolbag she felt something buzzing in its folds. The phone. Tom must’ve dropped it. She felt around the quilt for it and pulled it through a tear in the fabric.
“Hello? I get called from this number?” It was the voice of an older Mexican man still feeling his way around English.
“Yes, uh… I just let someone… make a call…”
She heard an intake of breath. “Who? A young man? Very skinny?”
“Yes, yes, with a green shirt, a t-shirt…”
“Where is he? I… I…” He was flustered. She assumed he must be angry. He sputtered, “I cannot find him!”
“I’m in San Luis… he asked us for a ride.”
“No! I come for him! You stay there!” he commanded.
Mira folded at the tone of voice. “Okay. We’ll stay right here.”
“That is my son. He has uh…” He hunted for the word, irritated. “Attack? Episode? His head is… not right. Acts… stupid. Foolish.”
She looked over at Tom. He was still crouching, talking over the fence at the trees. “Well, he’s not hurt or anything. Do you want to talk to him?”
She flinched. “Okay.”
She held the phone at her side to keep his voice away from her ear and flew across the street to Tom. She heard him saying the words It’s really no trouble. The young man was inching farther back under the branches. His arms were pulled inside his sleeves and he’d folded his knees up inside his shirt. Tom said, “He doesn’t want to come with us.”
She held the phone over the fence. “Hey…is this your father? He called back.”
The young man’s head snapped up, mouth agape. His eyes darted to the phone and after a moment of deliberation the point of his elbow appeared in his sleeve and his arm unfolded to snatch the phone from her hand.
“Papa? Si. Si. Si. Si. Si, si, si. Si.” He nodded at each si. There were candy wrappers and empty soda bottles scattered around his hollow in the bush. He shot his arm back out, dropped the phone into Mira’s hand, and pulled his arm back inside his sleeve. His eyes were set in his head like a convict who’d just heard the words of judgement.
Mira put the phone to her ear. “There he is.” She wished she hadn’t let this man talk to his son. She wished she’d never picked up the phone.
“Where are you?”
“Do you know San Miguel’s? By the Fifth Street overpass? We’re right by there. We can wait at San Miguel’s.”
“You stay there. Here, you talk to his sister—Marla! Marla!” He yelled right in the phone and then Mira heard snatches of Spanish exchanged between the two. She didn’t understand a word of it, but it seemed like his voice had changed.
A young woman’s voice came through. “Hi,” she said, and then she yelled after the man. “No tomes el camión! Muy lento! Toma mi auto! Es mas rapido!” Her voice returned. “Hi, sorry, he’s leaving right now. Oh my God! Benjy went missing days ago and his wife didn’t even tell us until this morning—“
“Wife?” Mira whispered.
“—and Papa has been, like, beside himself!” Her voice was soft and round, a lightly-accented, television-trained American voice.
“Well, he got down here somehow.”
“Oh my God, I know. Who knows what he did. I think he, like, took some money and got on the wrong bus or something. Listen, can you keep him there? I don’t know if he’s gonna try and run off or anything and… he’s not dangerous or anything. Just… unpredictable?”
“Okay. My husband’s talking to him now. He’s hiding in a bush.”
“Ugh, my God. Okay.” Marla paused, as if her exasperation had given her a headache that she was waiting to pass. “Just keep him there.”
“Sure. We’ll do that.”
“Thank you so much! Look, I gotta go get his kids now—“
“Kids…” Mira whispered. She felt her pity curdle into disgust. She wanted to ask, “How many, how old?” but Marla kept talking in her breathless television voice.
“—and…oh my God, what a nightmare, it’s been so crazy here. Anyway, thank you so much! Thanks for finding him! Tell him Papa is coming, okay?”
“I’ll tell him that.”
Marla hung up. Mira looked at Benjy. He was staring at the shape of his knees under his shirt. “Benjy, Papa is on his way. He’s driving here right now.” His eyes met hers. She found herself speaking to him in a clear and pedantic tone like she’d heard paramedics speak to nodding junkies. “And your sister, I just talked to her. Marla? Marla is getting your kids. Your wife and your kids, they all miss you,” she said, and added, “Your little kids,” twisting the words, she hoped, like a blade into his side.
He burst out of the bush like a quail and hopped the fence. As he gained his feet and turned for the overpass, Tom hooked his ankle with his foot and tripped him. Benjy clattered to the sidewalk. His arms were still inside his shirt and his hands pushed up from within to cover his eyes while he cried. Tom knelt by his head. “Sorry, man. Sorry.”
“He will not come for me! I have ruined it!”
“He’s coming man. He just told us.” Tom touched his shoulder.
“It is all ruined! I have ruined it!” He curled up in a fetal position to get away from Tom’s hand.
Mira mouthed, Police? Tom shook his head No and made a handcuffing motion. Cars and trucks rushed past the three figures on the sidewalk. “Okay, if we don’t, someone there…” She thumbed the road.
“Yeah,” Tom nodded, and he touched Benjy’s shoulder. “Benjy, you want something to eat? Wanna have a bite while we wait?”
Benjy took a few breaths and stood up. His shirt was blotted with tears and his eyes were rimmed red. Tom and Mira stood on either side of him and the traffic afforded them a long quiet stretch that let them cross back to San Miguel’s at Benjy’s confused, shuffling pace.
Benjy’s order came out first and his arms emerged from his t-shirt and cradled his plate as he pushed the door open with his back to sit on the outside patio. Tom and Mira followed him outside and sat across from him. He huddled over his tamales and his eyes darted from her to him and him to her.
“Do you wanna wash up first?” Mira asked, looking at the scars burnished in pale relief against the dark dust on his knuckles. He shook his head No. They were silent. Tom ate a taco in two bites and squeezed a lime over his rice. She couldn’t bear the quiet. “What’re your kids names? How old are they?”
Benjy coiled. The whites of his eyes shone against the dark smears of tear-smudged dust on his face. Tom saw it coming. “Shit…”
He sprang from his seat and burst for the patio’s edge. Tom lunged after him and missed. But at the low patio fence Benjy stopped short as if lassoed. There was a scraggly hedge of chaparral on the other side of it, and beyond that, the road. A city bus lumbered past leading a long trail of vehicles bunched up behind it. He watched the traffic like it was rapids in a canyon and he put his forearm over his eyes as if in terror of the sight. He collapsed into a chair at an empty table and leaned on his elbows.
Tom watched him for a moment and then walked his plate over to him. His bony frame leaned over and he patted Benjy’s shoulder while he handed him the plate, then he returned and sat across from Mira. She asked, “What’d you say?”
“I told him not to worry.”
“I only asked about his kids.”
“Maybe knock that off for now. It’s like it sets him off.”
“What’s wrong with him? He left his kids!”
“People do things. You know that,” he said.
Benjy was caught in a long slanted sunbeam that made its way to him from between two pyramid-shaped hills. He was shivering and his hands trembled. He picked up a tamale with both hands and shook the cornhusk loose and as he bit one end the filling spilled out of the other and he dropped the crumbling masa on the table. He started to pluck the pieces with his thumb and forefinger and stick them between his teeth.
People do things. Mira knew this, and that those words, that phrase, had originated in Tom’s mouth as a way of brushing off their hardships and getting on with the day. But in her head the phrase had hardened into something more fatalistic, a way to resign herself to the unforgivable things of the world. She often wondered if the phrase was Tom’s way of already offering an explanation for whatever thing he’d someday do and whether it was her way of already accepting it.
“He eats like a kid,” Mira said. “His father said he had some kind of episode, that he’s not right in the head.”
Tom leaned in. “Something’s up with him, for sure. Paranoid.”
“But his father sounds awful, too. I talked to him.”
“Angry. Sounds like Benjy might’ve stolen some money? I can’t tell. His sister said some stuff.”
Mira shook her head and looked across the patio. “I can’t tell. Maybe I’m reading into it. He sounds like… I mean, calls him mental but maybe he’s just a bastard to him. Maybe he just ran off. But he’s out of the house. Wife and kids!”
“You’re not making sense, babe.”
Mira looked at the table. She couldn’t tie anything together in her mind. “Did I ever tell you about when I ran away? When I was nine?”
“No. Maybe. Don’t think so.”
“I don’t think I was serious. I didn’t even pack a bag. I just ran off when no one was watching, before dinner. It was Summer.”
“Feeling crazy. No one believed me. So I ran off across the field—”
“—and… yeah, him… and into the neighbor’s field, and he had two big brush piles he was gonna burn, and I hid between those. And I just… stayed there. Didn’t move. But after awhile I realized how quiet it was. Just a summer evening, but it was getting cool, getting darker. So quiet! Know why it was so quiet?”
She looked right at Tom. He shrugged.
“No one was calling for me. I was listening for it. There was no one! Not even the neighbor—like, maybe they’d called him and he’d be walking around looking for me. Nothing! It was like no one lived out there at all, like I’d really run off somewhere no one would ever find me. But it gets cold there at night, even in Summer. So I went back. Went to the side door. Know what?” She blinked and paused to swallow and then spoke again through clenched teeth. “It was locked. Locked! Even Dad never locked the door, even when we went on trips. But they—he—locked me out!
“I went around the whole house. Every door was locked. All of them! They’d gone around and locked them all! I finally saw them in the living room. Watching a movie. He was letting the brothers stay up late and everything. And I remember slapping the window with my palm, and then Mom starts to get up like she’d been waiting for me—and Dad! Dad grabs her arm and sits her back down!
“They all knew I was there. I think he must’ve watched me leave. So, I got under the porch swing and I stayed there, with the cushions over me. I remember the lights in the house shutting off. People going to bed. And I don’t know how long it was until this happened, but I remember the sound of the door unlocking. The porch door. The only sound. Waited there a few minutes. Didn’t want to go inside and bump right into anyone. And I went inside and he wasn’t there. It was dark and quiet in there. The whole house was dark and quiet like the field was. I just tiptoed to my room and got under the covers. And that was it.”
Tom ruminated on her story a minute. “Did he give it to you?”
She nodded. “He waited a few days. I don’t think he said anything until then.”
Tom looked lost in a memory. Then he just said, “Yeah.”
They watched Benjy. His fingers rambled over the table and picked up all of the tamale crumbs. Then he chopped up the other one with a fork, brushed the pieces onto the table, and ate them as he ate the first. When he was done he arched his back and shoulders over the plate and held it in his forearms like he was guarding it. His eyes went everywhere except for Mira and Tom. On the other side of the fence was Fifth Street and its traffic, the lights at the intersection releasing it in whooshing surges. The sunbeam traveled as the sun westered behind the two hills and soon Benjy was back in the shadows. His arms disappeared back inside his shirt and his forehead touched the plate and he looked like he was dozing off.
A small blue Honda pulled into the San Miguel’s parking lot. It parked out of sight around the corner of the building. A car door slammed shut and Mira felt a sudden burn in her chest. She told Tom, “His father’s here. Maybe we can go now.” She thought of his voice and wondered what kind of cruel scene was about to play out.
“How do you know?”
“I saw the car. I just know.”
He put his hand on her forearm. “We’ll be good, right here.” She stared right back at him.
An older Mexican man walked onto the patio and scanned it. His chest was a barrel and he swung his arms when he walked. He was in a clean black hoodie that said Quality Grain Bakersfield and dark jeans with the cuffs rolled up and a ball cap with the logo of a winery on the front. Years of care and worry lined his face. When his eyes landed on Benjy the young man startled as if struck by something in the man’s gaze. When he saw the man he recoiled and gripped the edge of the table.
But the man held out his arms and cried out, “Mi niño!” Benjy sprang up and fell on him. “Papa?” he sobbed. He sobbed and sobbed. The man held Benjy’s head to his chest and stroked his hair. He said nothing, merely shhhhh-ing at Benjy, no words or reproaches coming from his mouth, his own eyes watering. Benjy’s arms found their way out of his sleeves and weakly embraced the man about the middle. Mira watched his fingers find each other and grip together as his hands finally clasped and the world that had been formed for her suddenly didn’t seem like it had to be her home any more.