2011 fall fiction yonder

by Matt Salyer

“How do we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?”
— Psalm 137:4

They’d crossed the impossible distance of a continent. Their lives were epic, fugitive, and none of it mattered. The saints stayed in their heaven and watched them run. The Virgin wept in the south and waited for their calls, and they called when they were sick or frozen or when someone grabbed Bigote’s beard and he killed them. Ran. It was always the part in the story where the heroes ran. Hid. Tempted the gods, fate. Remembered Troy. They made epithets, curses for each other. Were them. They slept four or five to a room like ballast and stumbled over a carpet of arms and legs when they needed to piss. Shit in a compound bucket. In other men’s shit. You can get used to anything after a while, Bigote told them. Even the smell. Even epic. The saints did.

The younger one came first, no longer Josemaría but Carmelo, the sweet one, and he moved north through a desperate succession of hefty puertorriqueñas with slicked ringlets of black and bright yellow hair and miniature pictures of things enameled over their fingernails: bulldogs, dollar signs, the Praying Hands. Things like that. He was their man and they knew all about what men were like; y’all is dogs, they told him and he nodded and they fed him and they cashed his checks and put the lights on in their names; y’all is dogs, and they knew the bullshit they weren’t willing to take from any man who was their man, from any man, and they knew how to take care of a man right and fuck him right and keep him from doggin. They told him so and he nodded. So that if he do get it fucked up, they went on, it ain’t on me cause I treat my man like a king, trust. And he nodded. He was their man.

And he ran. Hid. Tempted fate. He knew stucco and framing. Learned commercial work. Steel studs and five-eighths at forty sheets a day. One time he hung sixty. Taped. Learned to get the bubbles out and beat the third coat with a twelve inch trowel on the second. Found work. Worked. Waited. Worked. He sent his money South, three or four hundred dollars at a time, back to his worrisome mother who henpecked and scrounged and hated her middle age. She’s only forty, he reminded himself, maybe fifty at most. She wouldn’t say. She must still want things that women want, he thought. A man. Dancing. Going out for a drive. Forgetting to come home. Not caring who saw. Forgetting the empty house and the store with the blue stucco walls and the old Coke machine that his father broke before he left. The three oldmaid sisters, his sisters, who prayed and gossipped and ran their mother’s errands and came back to sweat under the big metal fans in the store. The jury of somber aunts who drew their gray, striped hair back in buns and lit candles for the men and said that they wondered why he had to leave Coahuila. It had become a matter of form for them to wonder, a preparatory rite for burning their fingers on the candles and invoking their private menagerie of garroted saints. Josemaria, such a sweet one, the handsome one. Not the bastard, the one the truck driver left in his mother. But in fact, they had been waiting all along for the sweet one to leave. Praying for it, he figured. They had been waiting to wonder why he had to leave Coahuila at all. They burned their fingers for him. They had been waiting to do that, too.

Once, before he left Danbury, his cousin found him at Nestor’s place and gave him a picture of a boy and a letter from a woman in Newark. His woman. No, his old woman, Carmelo said. His cousin shrugged. Didn’t care. There was an empty lawnchair folded up on the back porch and the men were all sitting on lawnchairs unfolded in the driveway, drinking and jostling and talking shit in a circle. Nestor’s woman was clipping their laundry out on a line that ran to a fat maple on the other side of the lot; the maple’s body was cracked and nicked and dry like the men’s skin; it shaded the driveway, the men. There was room on the line for his laundry. There was work for the men, for him. I don’t know this bitch anymore, Carmelo said. He didn’t know the boy, either (had never known him, seen him, cared to imagine him) but he stuffed the picture in his ass pocket with his picture i.d. and his money and his phonecards and he kept the letter zipped under the front flap of his backpack. When he finally left Danbury, he opened the letter and took out the picture and he placed the picture on Bigote’s dashboard so that he could see it while he read. The boy was three and his thick, black hair ran down to his shoulders and his eyes blanked red like the devil’s in the camera flash. The boy had a name and his old woman knew it, the letter said. The devil was her son and his and she’d tell him the devil’s name if he sent money for diapers and lights and rent. The black lady from the State was coming back soon. She’d take the child and give it to someone else if he didn’t send the money. This fucking bitch, he told Bigote. Showed him the picture and Bigote agreed. The child wasn’t even Mexican. This fucking bitch could go to hell. And the gringos could keep the devil.

When he sent his mother the picture, he told her all about life in Connecticut: things were good; yes, he’d quit drinking; he went to Mass once in a while; he was making good money; the gringos there all had wood houses with gutters and green yards and two cars that they parked in the houses and covered with tarps. He drew her a picture of how gutters worked. He told her the devil lived in a house with gutters and had a white mother who owned a little store like hers. They were getting married. No, not now, not yet he stopped her, but when he got citizenship. The devil had citizenship. It was an American grandson and he’d named it Juan Antonio for her father or her other son by the truck driver, which ever one she wanted. It was a good name, she told him, and Juan would be so proud to know. She taped the picture to the back of the cash register beside a holy card of San Lazaro and a note about buying on credit. She didn’t really believe in the gutters. And she didn’t care if the child was real. Juan was going to be so proud. He deserved something to be proud of.

* * *

And he was. He had always wanted one of his own but the time had never been right and he never seemed to meet the right girl in Coahuila. When he did meet the right girls, they tended to be married already or waiting for perfect marriages or counting the months until their beloveds came home from the North. And they never came home back from the North except dead. Everyone knew that. But he was too plain, too obvious, too rural for them to break their words with. He had swollen hands that hung from his arms like dried meat and flat, hardsoled feet that stepped on theirs when they danced. He was strong, but his shoulders were thin and his arms were thin and the weight that should have been there settled around his waist like a bell. His teeth were strong and flat and naturally clean but he had a gap in the front and two of the bottom ones on the side had been knocked out by his brother when he was ten. No, his mother thought, Juan isn’t the kind of man you want. Not the kind you risk losing another man for. Not like his father. But he was the kind you’d marry when the others didn’t come home. He was your neighbor’s husband who kept a garden and had a good truck and you secretly wished that you had married instead when you were too old to remember caring about anything else. All the mothers thought so. Loved him. Everyone’s aunt. Great aunt. Grandmother. They liked the way his hair came to a crest above his widow’s peak and the thin, clean pencil line of his moustache. It made him look solid, traditional. Like Pedro Infante, they said, but not too much. Just enough to remind them of the old unreal world of the cinema where everything was black-and-white and country men with gap teeth and Pedro Infante mustaches dressed in mariachi jackets and sang songs about sad love outside girls’ windows. They liked that kind of thing about the past. They liked it for other people and past selves.

When the grandmothers and aunts and the great aunts came to the store, he showed them the picture of his namesake and beamed. So solid, they thought, and he understands family. They put their hands on his cheeks and pressed them like the jaws of a wrench. They kissed him lightly on the mouth and they said prayers to the Mother of God that he’d meet a nice girl. And when they got home, they scolded their daughters and nieces and granddaughters for not being the answers to prayers. He was so good about family, after all. And children loved him. I know I know, the daughters would say, maybe someday I know because maybe and someday were places they could stow the old women in quietly like coffins. But it was true: he was good with children. He gave them Cokes and Sidral when they came in the store and let them sit on the floor reading comics until the day cooled and reddened in the dust. He showed them a trick for opening the bottles against a doorlatch. He’d open the bottles for them, one by one, and ask them about the kinds of things children did in the North. He had a nephew a little younger than them in the North. New York or New Jersey. Maybe the boy was with Josemaría now in Connecticut. They promised to show him New Jersey on a computer. He liked to picture his nephew surfing on a big yellow board and running across the beach to short green grass and a white wooden house. Is it like that? he asked them. They said it probably was.

On Saturdays, he let them pile in the back of his truck when he went to Saltillo and on the way back he drove them by the sites of old gringo battles and scalping raids and cartel fights. They passed roadside shrines littered with candles and dice and bullets photos of men whose blood cried for blood and he warned them about Santa Muerte. She works, he said, but all kinds of evil things work and he showed them how to catch snakes and hold them up by the tails and how to let them go again. Sometimes he crushed their skulls with his heel and he skinned them and the children fed. Learned to read tracks. Hear the coyotes’ distance, mood. When it was dusk, he’d drop them off, one by one, and idle the truck until he knew that they’d made it inside. And the next morning, they’d pile in again and he’d take them to church. You have to but you don’t go because you have to, he told them. You go because God knows every hair on your head. Sometimes, when the priest talked too much, one of them would put his head on Juan’s chest and say how many hairs does God see on my head? and fall asleep. And he’d count them, one by one, until the bells rang Sanctus and the child woke.

* * *

No one woke. No one expected him to go. He had always seemed so solid, traditional, but one morning the truck pulled out childless for Saltillo and it didn’t go to Saltillo. He put the picture of his nephew on the dashboard and turned north. And when the truck ran out of gas thirty miles south of Acuna, he walked the rest of the way on foot. Stark. Unhidden. A mote. He read gringos and scalps and caudillos in the lost foundations of great ranches. Stones lumped for cooking. Places for night fires. Bivouac. He caught snakes and crushed their skulls with his heel of his boot and he skinned them and fed. Rolled their moist, peeled hides up like dollars and tucked them deep in the pockets of his jeans to dry. Children loved animals and stories about animals and magic. My nephew will love these, he thought. He pictured himself unrolling the hides one by one on a beach where they sparkled like glass dust and saints’ grace. His nephew surfed on tall cowlicks of ocean that drew him toward the sand and snakeskin and the sand was nothing but snakeskin and he, Juan, moved his swollen hands over the skin of the Earth like a wizard.

When he came to the Bravo he peeled off his clothes and his boots and made them into a bundle and he carried the bundle aloft as he swam across. It was that easy. It was too easy, he thought, and he scrambled onto the bank, shook his nakedness clean, and waited for something to happen. He didn’t know what. The end. The beginning. A way of marking one from the other. When it didn’t, he walked the rest of the way, stark, unhidden, until the flat roofs of Del Rio slumped and flickered their variegated light in all directions like some immense and abandoned votive shrine. He hid in the shrine and waited. Found work. Worked. Waited. During the day he washed dishes or cut lawns or paved the State Highway and at night he slept in the dump. Piled stones for fire and kindled trash. Lopped the tops off of milk jugs. Caught water for cooking. Stabbed the milk jugs over and over until the small, sudden incisions bled water and he bathed. He watched the planes take off from Laughlin while he bathed and he learned to read their bodies like birds: Talons, Jayhawks, Beechcraft T-6s. When they landed, they were nothing but sound and contrails but that was all right. He liked it that way. I shouldn’t be able to see them, he thought, not after they’ve been up there. I won’t know what I’m looking at. It’ll still be all over their bodies. And he knew what it was called, at least. Stratosphere. It was enough simply to hear the word and see the word mediated for him, day in and day out, by the brilliant, glimmering aircraft that stormed his heavens. He thought about his nephew when the flights landed. His mother. He wanted to send his mother a picture of a Jayhawk and tell her all about it. She could put it over the spot where his nephew’s picture had been. He wanted to tell his nephew about contrails and Talons and the Beechcraft T-6s that the gringos called “Texans.” The boy needed to know about stratosphere.

The day he left Del Rio he met two of the men who had seen the stratosphere. They wore blue Uxbridge jackets and black polished shoes and the jackets were covered with badges and ribbons that marked their bodies in a secret language. Years of service. Deployments. Good conduct. Wings. The one in the driver’s seat had a heavy notch of stripes on his sleeve that creased at a star and a thick black moustache that ended abruptly where his lips creased. When he talked, the creases cinched and his heavy body shook; the stripes shook on his sleeve and his moustache shook like a part of a mask that was about to fall off. And the younger man, the pilot Juan thought, listened beside him and did not shake. He put his hand on the older man’s arm and said something in English and the man with the stripes just shook his head, exhaled, sighed well alllllright then, yes sir, that’s why you got that shit. When he said it, he flicked his index finger at the twin silver bars on the pilot’s shoulder. Then laughed. They both laughed.

I didn’t know enough English, Juan remembered, or the laughing, it was just laughing, people laugh, but I would have seen it coming if it had happened to someone else. No. He had let himself not know. Yes, that was it. No, it wasn’t quite like that, either. He had made himself not know. And I let it happen, he thought, no I made it happen but the man who paved the State Highway told everyone no, not everyone, the Mexicans, just the Mexicans, the men from Coahuila and the nacos who had never even seen anything as big as as Saltillo before to go home one day because he was bonded didn’t need the problems and because the State people wanted to see your papers if you built the roads for them that year but that wasn’t it either it was just because I was hungry, because being hungry is louder than anything else in the world and I wasn’t used to being hungry like that, not yet, and not before, not in Coahuila. The grandmothers who cooked for him and slapped him on the belly. The aunts who watched him and thought what a fine husband he’d be, so solid, for the right girl who fed him right. The children who watched him crack Sidrals open against the doorlatch like a sleight-of-hand trick. He would have done it, then, to be back in Coahuila. He did it because it wasn’t Coahuila. Because he was hungry.

And whenever he was hungry, remembered: the Land Rover pulled up to the bus station and the pilot told him to get in and handed him money there’s more when we take you back. Allright? You good, bro? and he counted the money and he took it. Let it happen; handed him money and he took it; made it happen. He didn’t bother to ask what the men wanted until long after they’d reached Laughlin and passed through the gate where the MP looked at the pilot’s twin bars and waved him straight through. Saluted. You had to be an officer to come and go like that, Juan knew. To fly. Pass through. Pass. You had to be someone. And he was no one. What could I have done then? he thought. No. Hunger is like that. Strong. He knew that he could have killed the men if hunger had driven him to it. And the guard with the pistol belt and the salute. And the invisible officers who lived as neighbors to the pilot in identical, government-issued houses with stock tile floors and stock shrubs. He could have killed them, too. Run. Hidden himself in the desert. Killed snakes. The Apaches did. But then he was in the pilot’s house and the white tile felt cool and clean against his bare knees, fists, forearms, shins; it felt good to be out of the clothes he’d been in since Coahuila. And he was so hungry. It was louder than killing, than Coahuila. Louder than himself. And it was easier than killing them and running and telling the other gringos and they could do it anyway, he thought. Bash my face against the tile and fuck me anyway. Fuck me worse. They could have killed him. Maybe by accident. Taken the money back on purpose. That would have been worse than killing him. Hunger’s like that, he said to himself, the strong hunger is. It pulled you to other people more than it pulled you from them.

That was what he told Bigote, two years later, after they’d found Bigote’s nephew in the empty house on Bishop and the big gringo cops, the Irelanders, came to tell him and snicker. With his cock out and his pants off, they said. The cock still hard. The body beaten, bitten. Slumped doglike. A cord around his neck. And it was the middle of winter. No, they didn’t know when, who. Care. Too cold to tell when from the body. But someone had covered him with a blanket. Maybe they thought he’d get cold, one of the cops offered. His partner grunted, suppressed a laugh. Then protocol: did he have next of kin; we know he’s illegal, doesn’t look like a Puerto Rican, must be yours; name, date of birth, place, how’d you spell that; someone has to sign for him; it has to be legal; you have to ship him, costs money. And Bigote said nothing. Smiled. Wouldn’t sign. Wouldn’t send his sister’s son back to Coahila beaten, bitten. His cock still hard in the coffin. And the cops shook their heads. They looked tired, unfazed. Y’don’t sign y’know they’re just gonna burn him at the end of the month, the big one said. Poof, like that. No mas, amigo. They liked being unfazed. They said things like that to make you know how much they liked it.

You don’t know what happened, Bigote said when the gringos left. Whatever shit he did they made him do. He was a good kid, my sister’s son. Slumped doglike. His cock still hard without blood rushes. Yes, Juan thought, he was. Maybe even like that. He remembered the way the man with the stripes looked when he took off his blue clothes and sat down on the couch to watch. You don’t know what happened, he thought. Or the way it felt to close your eyes or stare at the white tile and not know. You waited to feel it so that you’d know and when you felt and knew, you tried to feel nothing. You don’t know the way feeling, being, shamed you. The pilot’s body was lean and hairless and muscle linked to muscle across it like the parts of a plane riveted and seamed together. It’s shadow passed over his back, its arms outspread over his, like the shadow of a Jayhawk. Then it was in him. When he closed his eyes it was all he could feel so he opened them again. Stared at nothing. At the man on the couch. He counted the hairs on the man’s legs until it was done. He wants to watch the Jayhawk, he remembered thinking, just because its a Jayhawk. And when he saw the pilot move to the couch and kneel between the other man’s legs, he thought that the Jayhawk needs someone to see he’s a Jayhawk. When it was over, they brought him back to the bus station and he paid for his ticket with the money they’d given and waited for the the bus, for something to happen, change, and nothing had changed. No beginning. No end. He ate something. He was hungry again. He ate some more. He went to the men’s room and wedged the trashcan against the door and washed his body off in the sink until it was red.

You don’t know what happened, Bigote said when the gringos left. It was true. He didn’t. No, they didn’t know when, who. Care. Neither did he. He felt sorry for Bigote, for his sister’s son, and he pitied the invisible man who had done that to his sister’s son. He felt sorry for the men from the stratosphere, too, after a while. They’d hungered. It didn’t seem right to him that you could cover yourself in something like stratosphere and still hunger that much. To be seen. To see. To feel someone counting your hair. Maybe the stratosphere had done that to them. Bigote was still talking and he remembered to listen. Watch. He watched him fold the blanket they’d found on his sister’s son. The cops had forgotten to take it. This fucking place, Bigote said. Men are not supposed to be whores. Juan nodded no. Maybe men weren’t supposed to see the stratosphere, either. No, he thought, maybe they just weren’t supposed to be hungry for anything else. He watched Bigote put the blanket under his arm and he followed him down the back stairs to the gravel. Helped him start a fire and when it took life, Bigote threw the blanket into the flames and they watched the fire consume it whole, each in their own silence. The body broken, bitten and the fire in its hunger and a cord around his neck. Then only fire raging, driving itself, until it was nothing. Maybe it hadn’t been like that, he thought. Maybe it had been an accident.

* * *

He had only been in town for a week when it happened. He hadn’t seen Bigote since Coahuila and he had never met my sister’s son, but he had followed his brother north through uncles and cousins and distant naco relations until he came to Waterbury. He wanted to see his brother. He wanted to talk about life and the South and whatever happened to this one or that one; he wanted to take the train down to Newark with him. His brother could talk to the puertorriqueña and make up or argue or do whatever they did in the other room and he could meet his nephew. He’d unfurl the scaled hides he had carried for five years and flatten them out on the kitchen table and tell the boy all about Aztecs and old gringo battles and saints’ lives. His life. He could tell him about the stratosphere. After dinner, he’d sit on the couch with the boy and warn him about Santa Muerte. Hunger. He’d count the hairs on the boy’s head as he fell asleep and tell him that God loves you even more than this. He was sure it was true. He just couldn’t say how.

Bigote met him at the bus station with four of his cousins. His brother wasn’t with them. He was north. There was a commercial job in Holyoke and the builder had kept some of the men up there for the month. But at least that means there’s work, he thought. You won’t go hungry. He followed Bigote until the regular blocks of brick storefronts gave way to a labyrinth of three-families with split shingles and peeling clapboard and vacant lots where knotweed and vine roses spilled over piles of black contractor bags and dented chainlink that guarded wild grass. Gravel. Two flatbeds parked at angles in a driveway. Big diesels laden with clean red tillers and woodchippers and cylinder mowers. Things they used. The landlord’s things.

They passed between the diesels and a row of low, square planters, nailed together from scrap plywood and two-bys and filled with little fading annuals that someone had set into tidy loving rows of alternated colors. He stumbled behind his uncles in the gravel, studying everything like the first man in the world. Bigote and the other men went around to the house back and climbed the broken z of the fire escape until they disappeared behind fluttering rows of hung laundry. He followed. When they got to the third floor, he waited by the edge of the balcony while they went inside the house. Through the kitchen window came the muffled sounds of the man’s voice, then a woman’s, then the two together like a fugue. They were arguing. Every so often, he heard them mentioning his name but he didn’t care.

Bigote took him inside and he sat at the kitchen table while the woman in the fugue made him a plate of food and slapped it down on the table in front of him. Gracias. She said nothing. Bigote started arguing with her in English. Followed her into the other room and Juan’s uncles said nothing. Decided not to listen. Smoked and cracked beers and muttered sotto voce and pulled the kitchen chairs closer to the little tv sitting on the table. There was an ad for McDonald’s where everyone spoke Spanish and ate ravenously from bright boxes of food. The Puerto Ricans in the ad laughed and got one over on each other and wore white people’s clothes. They looked like they were about to go surfing. There was a talk show with a handsome young priest named Father Alberto. He held a microphone and walked through the audience like a man treading water. He listened to a panel of abandoned women cry and gave them sympathetic advice and didn’t offer the sacrament. When the McDonald’s ad came on again, it was followed by a news minute. A beautiful woman with an aquiline face. The right girl. A man in a dark suit who looked like Vicente Fox. A space shuttle launching behind them in a cloud of smoke. They talked over it. One of them said something that was supposed to be funny or clever and then they both laughed, one after the other, taking turns. Then the shuttle was gone and the man who looked like Vicente Fox and the right girl vanished in darkness. Then the screen was full of people and bright letters passed over their bodies: Sabado Gigante. There were interviews with famous singers and actresses from telenovelas. A mariachi band from Durango. A regueton singer. A skit where a schoolteacher with enormous white breasts beat a grown man in an infant’s clothes. Between segments, a fat man with a wild pompadour held a long, archaic microphone close to his mouth and stared out at you from the gaudy world behind the screen. He flashed headshots of famous people on one side of the screen and pictures of different dogs on the other. He pulled a nervous Mayan in shirtsleeves out of the audience and the Mayan matched them. A model in a green sequined dress kissed him and handed him the keys to a Ford Focus. The nacos always won and it made everyone cheer and chant the name of the man with the pompadour Don Francisco Don Francisco and when they had done it enough, he bowed, straightened the front of his double breasted suit, and invoked with liturgical solemnity SA ba do Gi GAN TE!

That night he lay at the foot of the bed where the Bigote slept on the woman in the fugue. He rested his head on his backpack, listening to the sound of unfamiliar bodies shifting and huddling around him on the floor, but he did not sleep. He lay awake until he could hear the heavy engines of the diesels gasping alive in the cold and the familiar claxon of the roosters that lived in wire enclosures beneath the back stairs. He thought about the game on the television. He wondered what kind of dog he looked like.

* * *

When it happened no, when someone found him, the sister’s son, they were working down the block. They saw the gringo squadcars parked in Vs across the street and the tired Irelanders in blue uniforms and the ones with the cameras and forensics kits who came later. But they’d grown used to the gringo cops here so they didn’t care. Didn’t know. Hear. Not this time. The windows were painted shut and snow beat against them to no end. It shook the lead sash weights in their cavities like rung bells, but in the room, the torpedo heater fumed, fanning a heat strong enough to make the men sweat, remove their thick flannels, and work in damp t-shirts until lunch. When they ate, they sat against the painted bay windows, littering the sills with beer cans and bent cigarettes; they tore flesh barehanded from a chicken glazed in red spice and passed a Styrofoam of black beans between them, spooning it down, one after the other, with strands of meat. When they were done, they watched the street behind the glass: it was empty, inconceivably serene, as though the city had been sanded smooth, the snow not snow but only so much plasterdust and dry compound, waiting to be swept clean before the painters came to cut and roll the surface of the world, and the realtors came to sell it. In the room, the tape lines ran along the ceiling and the walls like unplowed streets and sanded compound flecked the dry air with a snowy haze; it covered the bodies of the men and they scraped it, mudded with sweat, off of their skin until they were brown and gold again; it covered their hands, mudded with chickengrease, and it stuck in the back of their throats when they swallowed; it caked in their nostrils and they shot it back into their hands and wiped the chalky sputum down the dusty thighs of their jeans. One of the men was white skinned when he was clean.

You better wash that shit off, the gringo smirked, or you’ll all look like fucking gringos.

The other men laughed. Juan laughed.

Chinga fuckin gringo, another sputtered.

Nah nah nah, brother, you gotta wash your shit, Juan said, or you look Mexican.

The man who was still white grunted. Remembered that he was a gringo. And a patrón.

Nah cabrón, he said. I’ll still look Irish.

They didn’t know what he meant. They laughed anyway. It didn’t matter what he meant. Out the window, a brindle stray with a camouflage of mange had managed to scamper over the retaining wall facing the sidewalk and it rooted in the frozen yard with a kind of equine dignity. It found a pile of trashbags and it gnawed them open, one by one, burrowing its snout feverishly in the smirch. Its tongue snagged on some hidden edge and it began to whine above the threshing rhythm of the snow, the threshing whir of the sander. Then stopped. Cocked its head to the side and stared the raw bag down; it smelled its own blood on the hidden edges within and it barked. Rolled in the snow. The patrón saw. He counted the bare spots on the stray’s body. The snow stuck to its body and he lost count. Shed and he started back again from scratch. Grunted. It means something when he does that, Juan thought. It means something he wants to say but something he doesn’t have the words for. Or that sees something but he doesn’t know what it is.

Always looks better in the snow, the patrón said. Looks clean. The whole city.

Juan nodded.

Like how is it called, he said, a city del cielo.

I dunno.

Juan pointed through the top sash of the window at the atmosphere. It was white. So solid, he thought, and without end.

Cielo, he repeated. I’m sorry, in English cielo is space? Heaven.

The sky.

Okay, yeah, yeah, the sky.

Come back tomorrow, the patrón said. I got four walks and two driveways.

To fix them?

No, no, the patrón laughed. Too cold. I need you to shovel some cielo off so no one gets hurt.

Juan laughed. Grunted.

You just have to do it again, he said. Ceilo is too fucking big. Ceilo is fucking hungry.

So bring your whole goddamn family. Y’all are always dog hungry, too.

The patrón gave him some money. Nodded. Walked over to one of the taped walls and ran his hand along the length of a seam, shaking his head and pursing his lips, picking at a little dry ridge of compound with his thumbnail. He took one of the sanders and began to grind it into the wall with long even strokes. Juan took the lid off the compound bucket and began to scrape the flat end of a trowel against the rim of the bucket. By the time he was done, the dust had made them both white again.

About the Author

Matt Salyer is a writer and college instructor from New Haven, CT. His fiction and poetry have appeared in several journals including Long Poem Magazine and the Mt. Zion Review of Speculative Fiction. He writes regularly for The Nervous Breakdown at www.thenervousbreakdown.com/author/msalyer/, and he is currently finishing a PhD dissertation at the University of Connecticut on the British First Empire and the rise of the historical novel.

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