There were wolves howling at each other not far from their home. They were coyotes, there are no wolves in West Texas, not anymore, the sound was deeper, not a coyote yelp, but who knows. There are lights that dance in the desert a short drive away, no one can explain those either. An artist built the façade of an upscale boutique in the middle of the desert. An anomaly with a greater meaning, or perhaps irony, now just an ornament for tourists and their photographs. Look what we found in the desert. Pull over, we gotta take a picture, our friends need to see how clever.
His tight words expressed so much without implying anything. His lips quivered a bit, then sucked back, holding a lower lip packed with chewing tobacco. His place was filthy, a garage sale that never happened, stacks of National Geographic magazines from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, an entire room devoted to broken chairs, several dusty couches stacked on each other, a collection of tiffany lamps from New York and San Francisco, a pool table with a broken leg holding up a litter of old newspapers, receipts unopen mail, and ammunition.
A cracked window whistled from the kitchen. He said they hadn’t left the house all winter, said she disappeared somewheres in the house and hadn’t seen her in days. He thought the smell was coming from under the house where he’d thrown three boxes of rat poison a few weeks ago. Shooting them with his 22-caliber rifle lost its novelty. He’d shoot them at all hours, mostly at night, most were the size of kittens, but uglier. He was certain they were responsible for killing his dog. Said he’d found Molly down there last summer, bloating from the heat.
The sheriff knew them. He’d been there numerous times for domestic disputes. Merrideth did most of the talking. He knew the dusty driveway, knew which lights would be on, always expected to be greeted by Molly, and knew the gas station just a few miles down the road where he’d flirt with the young busty Mexican girl who’d never left town. He knew their excuses, but rarely bothered with the paper work. Thirty minutes later he’d be down the highway filling up and getting his complimentary coffee. He’d make eyes at her, made meaningless jokes, but maintained his manners, drifted back to his patrol vehicle and doze off.
Merrideth was a large woman from East Texas. Her drawl was thick, as distinctive as her foul mouth, her dirty over-sized grease stained clothes, and her clenched right fist. She fit the stereotype of rough Bavarian woman, muscle and fat without the strudel. If you didn’t see her, you could smell her, or feel her suck the air out of a room or the sidewalk or any space the woman occupied. Merrideth believed strange things. Mormons were all related, only selling subscriptions and they all had the same name, Elder. She was a direct descendent of Sam Houston and Pancho Villa. The moon landing never happened. She knew why the lights danced in the desert. She was once Hector’s care taker, now his third wife.
Angie, his first wife was on her way from Alpine, a half hour drive. Their youngest daughter picked her up on her way from work. There was no way they’d leave him there alone. She’d beat him senseless before, with her fists, with broomsticks, a couple of times with a plunger, and once a direct hit with a rock from 20 yards away as he ran into his pickup truck. He lay there for hours till his dog woke him. Molly had been barking at the coyotes circling the property. A nightly game they played on Molly, harassing her, laughing at her, jealous of her daily meals.
Small snow flakes came within ten feet of the ground and lost their shape before landing on the rocks and grass. The overcast clouds sat lower this morning, muffling all sound. A small doe came over the rise, stopping to survey the lone juniper stand a hundred yards away. She bent her head as if to eat, rose her head and moved a few yards further, dipped her head again. Her mother crept behind her, adjusting her ears to the same juniper stand, made her way past her doe, bowed her head into the grass. Hector adjusted the sights on his rifle, waiting for the 6-point buck he’d seen at dusk. The juniper stand kept him well hidden, upwind and uphill from the deer. Five minutes later another doe came over the rise. Thirty minutes later, no buck. He closed his eyes and dozed off, the women went about their way.
Hector sat up. There was cold coffee, and another can of snuff waiting in his pickup. His walk back was uneventful, a mile or so then 20 minutes back to Laura and the desert bungalow they’d built just outside of town. The home was small and handsome, three bedrooms, two baths, wood siding, wood shingles, plaster walls, a potbelly stove, antique fixtures scavenged from estate sales and antique shops all over Texas and New Mexico, and a large front porch with stout wooden columns in the style of older bungalows in San Antonio. There was nothing to keep the desert fenced in, the home and its well-manicured cedar and Texas madrone trees belonged to the landscape.
He met Laura 5 years after his first marriage with Angie was cut short. He’d admitted his faults to Angie, saved a friendship and a future with her and their two daughters. Hector made his round of amends to various people all over the state, some in California, a few in New Mexico, and one fella in New York. He apologized to the IRS through a modest payment plan. One gentleman pulled a shotgun, “Money’s in the envelope” Hector told him as he backed away from the front door, dropping the envelope on the ground outside the trailer. He cleaned his side of the street, $1500, whether the apology was accepted or not was none of his concern. This was his life now, a laborious daily chore, eventually a reflex, then a clean conscience and no more lies.
Laura was a Portland local, she had dark hair, fair skin, tattoos on one arm, a nose ring, a PhD in geology, and no kids. He was having a terrible day when they met, but he kept smiling, there was no reason to drag someone into his cloud. They talked about everything as they made their way from one speaker to the next. She too was sober. She was his height, taller in heels, they paid no attention to these details. She’d fly to El Paso, the closes airport to Marfa, and he to Portland. They saw each other once month for two years. She got to know the icy West Texas winters, and he the lush green forests of the western Cascades. He’d sold everything he owned and drove to her only to drive back to Texas a few months later. The dry heat was her favorite. There were no lies between them.
Will you marry me, she asked, he said yes. She wasn’t going to wait any longer. The McDonald Observatory erupted in applause. Handshakes, hugs, and congratulations, then on to see Saturn and Jupiter in the July night sky. Without telling him, Laura had asked Hector’s daughters and Angie to witness the event. You don’t have to call me mom, she said jokingly to the girls, wiping tears from their eyes. “I’m so happy for you” Angie whispered to Hector while they embraced. The moment was a sliver of time, but now a million years ago.
Did you poison her??
I don’t remember, sometime last week.
Oh Hector… Angie clasped his hands, hung her head.
Their daughter accompanied the officers outside, mumbling to each other. They took notes, she nodded, then more mumbling, she shook her head a few times, then more nodding and more mumbling. The room grew darker, the day ending. A rat zipped from the hall way and under the stove, another followed a few moments later. Angie looked at Hector. You can’t stay here.
Ok, he said and understood
Merrideth’s body was found on one of the couches in the third bedroom. February’s cold had kept her body from decomposing quickly. The whiskers on her upper lip had grown long, a teenage boy’s feathery first mustache. She’d eaten a bowl of macaroni and cheese, finished her beer and stumbled herself into the room, lay down to sleep.
The house was cold when the three men entered. The youngest one, only 18, skinny and lanky even in the level B hazmat suits they were wearing. His father told him to retrieve a bag and cleaning supplies from the truck, “we’re gonna need you outside” he said through the respirator, pulling on his left glove while the third man keyed the door open. They’d picked up three bodies this week. Hoping to return home to Odessa today, they couldn’t turn down another clean up. Winter was always good for business. A buzzard’s job, they always said, chasing death and cleaning up.
Her presence was no longer hulking its way down the long gravel driveway to the mailbox or taking up an entire isle of Garcia’s Market, she was expired. Jorge, the butcher, the only one she spoke with, never smiled at her, she like this about him, even if he was an illegal. Smiles were fakery, she thought “No one’s got the balls to be honest” shed tell him. Her body now shrunken, all anger had leeched out days before, leaving a feeble carcass. For the three men it was no different than carrying a hog to slaughter. Everything’s smaller when it’s dead.
“Mr Guzman, my name is detective…” Hector didn’t care to listen. The man calmly ran his lips without stopping to breath, reading a phone book of instructions and things related to Hector, some to him, and introducing the other man entering the brightly lit cinder block room.
“I know Lloyd” They nodded to each other as he entered the room with a set of folders, pens, and a paper cup of coffee
“Did they get you a coffee, sir?” Lloyd asked, gesturing to the door and whatever was beyond.
“No, I’m good, but a water would be fine”
Detective Phone Book looked young, oversized suit, cowboy boots, black hair parted down the middle like a child from the 20’s. Told Hector he was leading the investigation, went through all the procedures and asked him if he wanted a lawyer present. Hector’s eyes went from his bony wrinkled reddish-brown hands to the smooth muscular hands of the squat and round-faced kid. Lloyd waited patiently for his cue. Hector said nothing. Lloyd opened the door and asked a female voice for a bottle of water for Mr. Guzman.
Hector didn’t want a lawyer. He knew he needed one, it was part of the play. At 72 he was too old to care about life in prison, three square meals, a chance to write without interruption, a clean view and a new start, board games with alcoholics and kids from shitty homes and those who should’ve waited 50 years to kill someone, proof of their immaturity, no patience. He’d thought this through, the consequences, the disappointment, but also the escape from everything that decayed since Laura passed.
The porch had grown numerous holes. It’s tongue and grove boards frayed and soft where they used to hold each other. The paint, faded blues, peeled away in some parts, the white trim almost completely chipped in some areas, and the front door filthy with hand prints and grime, the door screen torn, gripping to the frame. It too had given up. From the highway the home and its weeds, it’s trash, and dry unkept trees sank into the desert.
Remember that house?
The one back there
I wonder what happened
Mr Guzman stood up in the front of the two men, removed his shirt and turned his back. A cured 2nd degree burn in the shape of an iron on his left shoulder and one on his lower right flank. “She loved me so much, she ironed my shirt while I as wearing it” he turned around to face them and pointed at his belly, a very old 8-inch scar stretching from his left flank, stopping short of his belly button. “An old Vietnamese man gave me this one a long long time ago. He probably loved me too.”
Merrideth’s family drove from the Houston area for the service. A sunny winter morning and northerly gusts joined the small group of fat people and their tall bony pastor as they lowered her body into the earth. One person cried. The others came out of guilt and a chance to stop in San Antonio on their way home. One young couple, distant relatives, stayed an extra night, went to the Saturday Night Star Party at the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis. They spent the night at the Indian Lodge, a remodeled hotel maintained by the United States Park Service. They made love for a few minutes and stuffed their meaty faces with pancakes and sausage the following morning. They loved each other, for now.
Hector remembered being young, sitting on a cliff with his crew, watching a curtain of white smoke slowly backing down a mountain, a westerly wind kept the smoke column leaning towards the slope. The sky behind them was clear. The only the sounds were of falling trees and the occasional torching pine hidden behind the smoke. A large helicopter approached from their left, chopping at the air, growing smaller as it approached the fire. Once it reached the size of a mosquito, releasing its payload of water into a sea of smoke, futility and arrogance.