Illustration by Kat Morgan

He must have known he would pass the men, because he’d been on this stretch of Salsipuedes before. He’d driven through this part of Ventana Beach two years earlier when he was visiting his mother for Christmas. That time, he was looking for a place called Corazón Cocina that sold enchiladas with rice and beans for ten bucks a plate, and he turned left on Zapatero instead of Torreón. Three blocks later, after pulling into the parking lot of a Jack in the Box to get his bearings, he passed the men—a dozen guys standing on the corner across the street from a place called Churros Calientes, next to a red truck with a large wooden sign displaying handwritten prices for things like Glovos Especiales and Manteles. At first, he wondered what the men were doing, which was stupid if you thought about it, because what else would they be doing but waiting for work, hoping some gringo would drive by looking for a day laborer to mow grass or paint a shed or chainsaw a tree that had fallen in a chingadera’s driveway. 

It was pretty obvious the men weren’t cruising, but seeing them there in that desolate part of town, away from the restaurants with scallops and haricots verts, and the stores that sold couches for $5,000 and handmade glassware from Italy, sent a current through Stewart’s groin, because whenever he was home visiting his mother it didn’t take long for him to feel like a caged animal, catering to her whims, managing her mood swings, doing his best to seem devoted and appreciative and loving. 

Stewart was forty-three years old and had a 401(k). He’d lived in New York for over two decades, but when he flew to California to visit his mother once a year, he was a child again, or if not a child, a teenager. His mother prodded him to eat foods he hated, came into his bedroom unannounced when he was trying to sleep, told him she loved him and needed him and wished he’d move back to live with her. “I have no idea what you see in that dirty city of yours,” she complained. “I’m an old woman. I’m all alone. I need you here with me.”

This year, because he’d been fired from his position as a senior paralegal and was now unemployed, Heike paid for his plane ticket, though that offer had come with certain conditions. “You always cut me so short,” she said on the phone when they were negotiating the length of his visit. “Stay with me for a while. Why rush back right away? I promise to leave you alone. I let you do your own thing.”

There was the customary haggling, and in the end she prevailed, and he booked a ticket from December 19 to January 9. Once he arrived in California, however, it didn’t take long for him to realize he’d made a mistake. It hit him at church on Christmas Eve, when the pastor was talking about the birth of Jesus and God’s love for the world, and Heike reached out to hold Stewart’s hand. He hadn’t meant to pull away, but he did, and she burst into tears. She riffled through her handbag for a Kleenex, and he felt the eyes of everyone behind him watching them. He hated it when his mother cried, especially in public. She cried constantly—at the movies, when they were looking at old photo albums together, when they went for walks on the beach (most recently, that morning when she asked him what she’d done to make him hate her so much). 

As soon as she posed the question, he inhaled and counted to three. “I don’t hate you,” he replied. 

“Of course you do. You come here out of obligation. I’m just a burden to you.”

“Jesus, not this again.”

“I should just commit suicide once and for all. Would that make you happy? Then you could get your inheritance and go on one of those gay cruises.”

The sky was clear, and each time the waves broke and the water retreated, teeming sandpipers frantically hunted for burrowing sand crabs. The birds’ legs were like twigs, so thin and brittle it looked like they would snap at the slightest hint of pressure.

“Response?” Heike needled. “Am I right?”

“I have no idea what you want me to say.”

“I’m asking you whether you love me. Is that such a hard question to answer? Do you love your mother?”

“Yes, I love you. Okay?” By “okay,” Stewart didn’t mean “Do you feel better now?” What he meant, of course, was “Can you please stop badgering me.” He was wearing shorts, and the sight of his legs—scrawny and pale—embarrassed him. 

“Thank you. Was that so difficult?” This was the point in the conversation when she started to cry, and Stewart wished he were back in Hell’s Kitchen, where even if he was single and unemployed and overcome with a sense of hopelessness, he could at least spend his days in peace, cruising for sex online.

He looked out across the ocean at what was probably an oil derrick, or maybe a ship full of people enjoying themselves. A couple—a woman with long blond hair and a Black guy with a six-pack—came walking towards them with a golden retriever. The woman was heavyset and the dog was carrying a stick in its mouth, and soon enough Heike was serenading the animal. “Naja, mein Schatz, du bist ein großer Mann,” she cooed, caressing the golden retriever’s stomach and asking how old he was. The dog rolled back and forth in the sand, tongue lolling out of his mouth in ecstasy.

The couple said eighteen months, grinning at each other, obviously in love. They smiled more than seemed normal for the situation at hand, and it occurred to Stewart they were probably high, and he wished he were high too—on pot or Molly or even Tina, which he’d recently tried for the first time and which he knew he needed to avoid. Heike launched into a story about her dog, Moritz, who’d passed away from cancer six months earlier. “He had so much pain, but there was nothing I could do. I paid the vet twenty-six hundred dollars for pills that did no good at all. The poor thing died in my arms.” 

The woman had henna tattoos on her arms and looked like she’d just made love to Siddhārtha, and Stewart had a hard time not staring at the man’s body, especially his penis, whose outline was impossible to miss in his skimpy floral trunks. Everything about him was perfect. The woman wore a sarong and had a glazed look in her eyes as Heike rambled on about how unfair it was that Moritz got cancer when he was just eight years old and how cancer had also killed her former husband Gerry, who’d been an engineer for Rockwell International until he retired. The couple listened while Heike told them that after she got back from Germany in March she was going to visit the Humane Society and adopt a new dog. “I’m all alone. My son lives in New York. Here I offer this beautiful setting and he tells me he hates coming to visit.”

“I do not hate visiting,” Stewart retorted, wishing he would vanish into a sinkhole. The golden retriever got up from the sand and began to chase the sandpipers, and the woman took this as an opportunity to wish Heike and Stewart a blessed day and continue down the beach, holding her lover’s hand.

“That’s the kind of dog Garfield told me I should get,” Heike said, as she watched the dog race into the water. “He offered to help me take care of it.” Garfield was his mother’s tennis partner-cum-handyman.

“Maybe you should,” Stewart replied, wondering whether he was getting tar on his feet and, if so, how he would remove it before putting on his socks.

“Dogs at least are loyal to you. Dogs are grateful.”

Stewart remained silent, imagining the woman’s boyfriend climbing on top of him and pinning his toothpick arms over his head.

“Did you hear me?” Heike said.

“Yes, dogs are grateful.”

“Exactly. They’re loving. They don’t cause you pain.” She wiped off the mascara smudging her cheeks. She was wearing pink shorts and a bikini top, her skin wrinkled from excessive sun. “My goodness, that woman was obese. I mean, really. Aren’t you happy your mom has such a good body? Garfield always tells me he’s shocked I’m in such fantastic shape at my age.” 

Stewart said nothing because he had no interest in complimenting his mother—the person who gave birth to him—on her figure. She asked him this question at least once per visit, and he’d decided it was necessary to start drawing boundaries.

“The Blacks usually have very good bodies,” Heike continued. “That’s why they’re so good at sports.” 

“Mom, you can’t say things like that. That’s racist.”

“What do you mean racist? I’m paying them a compliment. How can you call me racist when I spend so much time with Garfield?” Garfield was from Jamaica. When Heike mentioned Garfield, she always referred to him as her Black friend, her Black handyman.

“Just because you spend time with someone who’s Black doesn’t mean you’re not racist.” Stewart stopped walking and lifted his right foot to examine his heel and the area under his toes. 

“All you do is criticize me,” Heike said, not yet aware he’d stopped walking. “I don’t need you to come here and criticize me. I need some support.”

“Okay, sorry.” He took a deep breath and pictured his lungs filling with light, something radiant and calming.

“What are you doing? What are you looking at?” she said, watching him brush the sand off his foot.

“Nothing. I was seeing if I stepped on any tar.”

“Ach, there’s no tar. The beach is very clean. Now come on and keep walking. I want to get some exercise.” She turned around and picked up her pace. When he started walking again, trying to catch up, she turned and said: “How is it racist to say a Black person has a good body? That’s paying a compliment, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but you can’t make generalizations like that. Not all Black people have good bodies. Some Black people are nerdy and into science. Some Black people are really good artists. How would you like it if someone said all Germans hate Jews?” In college he’d taken a class on identity politics, and recently he’d read Between the World and Me.

“My God, fine. Anything else you want to correct me on?”

“No, but I don’t think you should refer to Garfield as your Black friend.” 

“But he is Black, is he not? How do you want me to describe him?”

“Just your friend.”

“Don’t be so snobbish, coming here to monitor everything I say. You tell me my couch smells. You accuse me of putting too much butter in the scrambled eggs. I need a son who is loving, not always running me down. Garfield doesn’t criticize me. He’s kind to me.” Stewart glanced at his mother, then looked away quickly, at the sand and the water and the expansive horizon.

“Good, I’m glad.”

“Yeah, so am I. He tried to get fresh with me a few weeks ago, but I’m not interested in him. He wanted to spend the night.” She had a grin on her face now. Stewart knew what this smile meant. This was the smile she used when Stewart was a boy and Heike told him about dates with men like Bob Kelley and Frank Blumenkrantz and other men who took her to the Sizzler and then made love to her.

Stewart didn’t want to hear about his mother’s sex life. He didn’t want to hear about the man she met square dancing who invited her over to his place for a Jacuzzi, or about the tenderness of her breasts. He’d told her he thought part of the reason he sometimes distanced himself from her is that she never established proper boundaries when she was raising him, but he might as well have been explaining the Pythagorean Theorem to a porcupine.

***

Ten days later Stewart found himself at the corner of Salispuedes and Zapatero again. The guy he picked up was probably half his age. He had a square jaw and high cheekbones, like an Aztec warrior. His skin was smooth and showed no signs of acne or razor burn or ingrown hairs, and when he got in the car Stewart’s heart was beating so hard he thought he might pass out. He felt a pressure inside his skull he’d never experienced before, a pounding in his temples and the crown of his head like he’d descended into the bowels of the Marianas Trench. He noticed a light sweat across his back, and he told himself that he hadn’t done anything wrong, that he had nothing to be ashamed of—at least, not yet. His mother had been complaining about the weeds in her little garden and the patches of dead grass, and he’d asked the guy, in his broken Spanish, whether he might be able to help him do some gardening.

“¿Puedes ayudarme en el jardín?” Stewart asked, and the guy nodded enthusiastically and they agreed on a price—$20 an hour—and then he was in the passenger seat next to Stewart, smiling and nodding and looking very grateful and sexy.

Stewart didn’t have a plan, or much of one. He hadn’t thought he’d actually talk to any of the guys on the corner across from Churros Calientes. He thought he’d drive by, furtively, hands sweating, and keep going. He thought he’d chicken out, as he’d done so many times in the past—not in relation to these particular men, but vis-a-vis other possibilities that might lead to sex. Wasn’t that what it meant to be gay? At least for a repressed, balding paralegal, or former paralegal? To nurture some farfetched fantasy, then pull back? How many times had he responded to an ad on Craigslist for a guy who was looking for someone to come over to his hotel room and get fucked bareback? How many times had he thought about hiring an escort who looked like a convict and not followed through—traded a dozen texts, gotten an address, then jacked off to the guy’s photos and gone to bed?

Stewart asked the guy where he was from. 

“Sonora,” he replied. “Hermosillo.”

He asked him how long he’d been in California. 

“Seis meses, Señor.”

Stewart didn’t want to be called Señor. “Me llamo Stewart,” he said, awkwardly, turning to shake hands.

“Emilio.” The worker’s hand was warm and callused, his handshake firm. Stewart didn’t like shaking hands, but here, now, he decided he had nothing to be ashamed of. So what if his palms were clammy? Stewart told himself that he held all the cards, that this guy from Hermosillo didn’t have any power in this particular situation. Sure, he was young and handsome and muscular, but he was probably undocumented. Even if Stewart did hit on him, he’d never come back and hunt Stewart down and bash his brains in with a baseball bat. Especially now, with a xenophobic lunatic as Commander-in-Chief.

Stewart told himself he needed to get control of his thoughts, that he was being a jackass. Was this the kind of person he’d become—someone who’d prey on vulnerable immigrants, people who had nothing? Just a few days ago a seven-year-old girl from Honduras had died at the border from dehydration. Stewart felt his stomach churning, and he thought about stopping the car and telling the guy to get out, or driving back to Salsipuedes and Pedregosa and dropping him off, giving him twenty bucks and saying he’d changed his mind.

That night, when he was lying in bed in his mother’s house, feeling guilty about everything that had happened, he wished that he’d never brought Emilio back to Heike’s place. He thought about the kind of person he’d become and wondered whether his mother was right—whether he had, over time, become more selfish and callous. He decided he was a hypocrite who, when push came to shove, was just like every other gringo around.

***

If Stewart was going to do something stupid, he should have waited until he returned to New York. It was January 4th, and he was flying home in five days, and even though he didn’t like masturbating at his mother’s place, he could have beat off without worrying that Heike would walk in on him. His mother had gone up to Chumash Casino with Garfield for the day. She’d wanted Stewart to go with them, but Stewart said he wasn’t feeling well and needed to rest, though of course as soon as Garfield picked Heike up, Stewart’s mind was immediately filled with the dirtiest, raunchiest thoughts he could conjure.

Maybe not the raunchiest, but filthy enough. He’d gone onto his mother’s computer and searched Pornhub for videos of thugs fucking raw, guys with pierced nipples and tattoos. He hated watching porn where the actors used condoms, which he knew was also problematic, politically. He used his mother’s hand lotion, the lotion in the floral pump dispenser with the lavender scent, to jack off. He drew the shades in the living room and sat on her lacquer chair at the dining room table and two minutes later he felt nothing but disgust and self-loathing. He told himself he was a pathetic excuse for a human being—not just for having been fired from the law firm where he’d worked and asking his mother to pay for his trip home, but also for lying to her about the headache and using her laptop for his sordid and illicit ends.

He cleared the browsing history from her computer, went to his bedroom, tried to read a book about a woman whose family moves to the rainforest to study a group of tribespeople who practice a primitive form of witchcraft, and then, after forty-five minutes, he ate six pecan sandies and took the keys to his mother’s car from the bowl on her dresser and got into her white Toyota Camry and drove downtown, ostensibly to get lunch, but not really to get lunch, because his veins were still humming with adrenaline and raunch.

***

After Emilio got in the car, Stewart decided this might be a good opportunity to practice his Spanish. He decided that perhaps he could redeem himself—compensate for his untoward thoughts and desires—by being nice to Emilio and buying him lunch and getting to know him. At the enchilada place, he learned that Emilio had come to the United States to live with an uncle, and that, while he missed his family in Mexico, he was also excited to be in California. He learned that Emilio had paid a coyote $850 to travel to San Diego and that he believed he’d be able to repay the loan within ten months, assuming he got steady work. Apparently, in just the past few weeks Emilio had earned $280 painting a woman’s kitchen, and laying brick, and paving someone’s driveway.

As they ate, Stewart admired Emilio’s biceps and the perfect shape of his fingers—the flatness of his fingernails, the manliness of his hands—and his smile, which was beautiful. Emilio wore a simple leather necklace with a small piece of polished rose quartz that he said his grandmother had given him as a gift. She’d traded it for two dozen eggs, and she told him if he wore it, it would keep him safe. His teeth were perfect: white and well-aligned, unlike Stewart’s which, despite having had braces, were crooked. Stewart’s teeth were like his mother’s, small and prone to chipping. They protruded, giving the impression that Stewart was buck-toothed.

Emilio wanted to be a pilot, he told Stewart. His goal was to marry an American girl so he could join the Navy. He wanted to fly F/A-18 Hornets and T-45 Goshawks. He asked Stewart where he’d learned to speak Spanish and seemed surprised to learn that Stewart had studied Spanish in high school and college. He said it was nice to meet an American who was un chingón instead of un pendejo.

***

Heike’s place was nothing special—a cramped three-bedroom with a 200-square-foot yard overlooking an artificial lake, ringed with similar houses. Her pre-fab was flimsy, and when it rained it sounded as if the roof might cave in. The place embarrassed Stewart, who’d always wished she lived in a nicer part of town, in one of the homes near the ocean with pools and large eucalyptus trees. She could have afforded a bigger house, but she was the kind of person who drove five miles out of her way to save three cents a gallon on gas, the kind of person who went to the movies on Tuesday afternoons because the tickets were less expensive. 

The Christmas tree in her living room was fake. This, too, embarrassed Stewart, who saw it as another sign of her tackiness, along with the plastic wreath on the dining room table and the Santa Claus that played music and gyrated wildly if you pushed a button near his plastic boots. But if you took one of the little orange pills he’d bought from a guy at The Ritz—the only bar Stewart went to these days, though recently he’d been feeling out of place there—the gyrating Santa didn’t seem quite as tacky. The music coming out of his trumpet seemed pitch-perfect, his jerky movements fluid and graceful.

On Christmas Eve, after he and his mother got back from church, Stewart took one of the pills—a tiny orange domino—and suddenly everything about being at his mother’s shifted. Sitting on her white couch, opening presents, was no longer irritating. When he unwrapped the striped shirt she bought him from Costco, he tried it on and gave her a hug and told her he loved her. The Christmas tree lights sparkled like tiny gemstones, as if they were diamonds and rubies and emeralds, and there—in the tiny living room that usually smelled like dog urine—he beheld his mother with love. He didn’t see a woman with sun-damaged skin, didn’t see someone who bought used sweatsuits for seven dollars apiece at Suzi’s Deals and cut her hair in front of the bathroom mirror with a pair of grocery store scissors; he saw a woman who made loaves of stollen and pecan sandies and rum balls because she loved him; a survivor who’d grown up in Germany during the war, subsisting on a few slices of bread per day and stealing grass from a neighbor’s field to feed to their rabbits; someone who had flaws, sure, but who was essentially a good person.

And now, as he watched Emilio outside on the patch of grass pulling weeds around the perimeter of his mother’s garden, trying to figure out whether he was going to take the plunge and proposition him, he didn’t see a destitute migrant with zero options at the beck and call of a horny gringo, a faggot who was too pathetic to find a proper boyfriend to satisfy his carnal needs. What he saw, as the third and last orange pill of his trip home was gaining traction, was the most beautiful specimen of a man he’d ever laid eyes on—a guy with thick black hair that hung down past his eyebrows and gorgeous lips and, Stewart was certain, the most perfect cock in the world.

The pills were elixirs, aphrodisiacs, magic bullets. Suddenly, Heike’s house smelled like hibiscus, and when Stewart looked at himself in the mirror he didn’t see a bucktoothed troll with pocked skin and the beginnings of rosacea; he saw a silver fox, the kind of guy who wasn’t embarrassed about his body and whose lips could give someone like Emilio the time of his life. “¿Quieres una cerveza, amigo?” Stewart asked as he opened the sliding glass door leading from the living room to the garden.

“¡A huevo!” Emilio responded, taking the beer Stewart held out in his hand. Emilio brushed off his hands on his jeans and gave Stewart a smile and took a sip, and Stewart pictured the god kissing him on the lips. That was what Stewart wanted more than anything: to taste this guy’s tongue.

Then Stewart could die, satisfied. His mother could put him in a cage and feed him mashed potatoes with sour cream and butter for the rest of his life. But of course, Stewart didn’t just want a kiss. He was a gringo with ambition, so he asked Emilio whether he’d ever had sex with a man, and when the guy’s smile vanished and he looked confused, Stewart continued: “Te pago $200. Para besar tu verga. Nada más.” 

Which is how Emilio’s cock, which was indeed perfect, ended up in Stewart’s mouth there in Heike’s living room, the guy’s pants down around his ankles and his ass on Heike’s faux-fur couch, and the head of his penis up against the back of Stewart’s throat. Emilio was hesitant at first, sure, but two hundred bucks was a lot of money for anyone, even for Stewart, and how bad could it be to get a five-minute blow job? Surely it beat weeding someone’s garden on your knees for hours on end. It had been months since Stewart had given someone a blow job, and his blood felt like helium coursing through his veins, and—despite the size of Emilio’s member—Stewart handled it like a pro. Stewart didn’t think about the power dynamics at play, about what his friends in New York would say if they could see him now, preying on someone who barely spoke English.

Maybe it was the sound of the ducks flapping around on the lake outside Heike’s place—landing and taking off and calling to one another endlessly—or the sound of Emilio’s reluctant moans as he was getting close, or maybe it was the pungent taste of Emilio’s semen in his throat. It might have just been the Molly, which had heightened all of Stewart’s senses, except, apparently, his hearing. For whatever reason, Stewart didn’t realize Heike was there in the living room calling his name until it was too late. She was standing next to the dining room table in her crimson outfit—her velour warm-up suit—holding her white nylon purse. “What on earth are you doing? Who is this you brought here? Who is this—this Mexican on my couch?” In the late afternoon light, her face looked haggard, skin splotchy and uneven, and Stewart realized his pants were still down around his ankles, and his penis was erect, and no matter how quickly he tried to pull up his underwear, it would be impossible to hide from his mother. After years of concealing himself and locking the bathroom door and refusing to take off his shirt in front of his mother at the beach, here, now, he found himself fully exposed to her gaze.

***

Stewart wasn’t sure when the rain began. The day started out with no clouds in the sky, and he remembered that when he picked Emilio up, it was still sunny, but it was raining hard now, though that was not, of course, the worst thing about the situation he found himself in. He wished his mother would have let him drive Emilio back to Salsipuedes and Pedregosa on his own—though, given the pill and the fact that objects outside the car seemed to be floating up from the ground, that probably wouldn’t have been a good idea—but Heike had no interest in lending Stewart her Camry. At first, she said she didn’t care if Emilio didn’t have a way to get home. “What problem is this of mine?” she yelled. “He can take the bus!”

Though there was no bus stop near Heike’s house, and Stewart had promised to drive him home, and the fact was that Stewart still owed Emilio $200. He needed to stop at an ATM to get six more twenties, because he only had $80 in his wallet. He told his mother he was sorry, said he’d made a mistake and felt terrible. He told her it wasn’t Emilio’s fault, said Emilio was straight and had been doing Stewart a favor.

“A favor? What do you mean favor? He put his penis inside your mouth as a favor?”

Jesus,” Stewart said, wondering how on earth he was going to ask her to stop at the ATM so he could get the cash he needed to make everything okay. Not that $120 would actually make anything okay. Emilio was clearly traumatized, sitting in the backseat of Heike’s car, in his stained hoodie, looking down, probably not understanding half of what Heike was saying. Thank God, because she was out of control. “How dare you bring this vagrant into my beautiful house,” she said when Emilio was still pulling up his pants and Stewart was wiping the jizz off his chin.

“He’s not a vagrant, Mom! He was helping me do some work in the garden.”

“Some work in the garden? What kind of work?”

“We were doing weeding.”

“Don’t be so fresh with me,” she said stepping forward and slapping his cheek. “You think I’m an idiot? Since when do you bring Mexicans over here when I’m away? You told me you had a headache. You said you needed to rest. How did you even meet someone like this?”

“I met him downtown. He’s a handyman. I brought him here to help with the garden. It was going to be a surprise.”

“That’s a wonderful surprise, thank you very much,” she said as she began to sob. “I have so much bad luck. God just spits down on me. What did I ever do to deserve such a son?”

“I’m sorry. I apologize. One thing led to another and we just started fooling around.”

“You call this fooling around? Doing this on my couch. You let him put his bare popo on my beautiful cushions!”

“I’m sorry.” 

“For years you complain about how dirty my couch is and then you let a farmhand sit on it with no pants. Did he at least take a shower?”

“I’ll pay for it to be cleaned.”

“Ach, you’ll pay for it to be cleaned. You don’t have a job. How can you pay for anything?”

Emilio, who had stepped outside into the garden, was standing under the little awning to avoid getting wet. Just give me the money and I’ll take off, Emilio had said, more or less, after he pulled up his pants. I’m not a faggot. Just give me the money.

***

For whatever reason, the traffic on the freeway was backed up, and Heike decided there must have been an accident and it would be faster if they took surface streets. When they first got into her car, a song by Ariana Grande came on, but Heike changed the station to something religious, some kind of sermon, and now, as they were stopped at a red light, Stewart heard a minister talking about the meaning of the word delight. “The scripture says if you delight yourself in the Lord, you will receive the desires of your heart, but what does it mean to take delight in the Lord? People always focus on the second part of the sentence and think that if they believe in Jesus they will get everything they want, but that isn’t how it works. You have to look at both parts of the sentence. Because delighting in the Lord places responsibility in you, it means you have to have the right kind of desire. Let’s look at first Timothy, verse nine. Those who desire to get rich are plunged into despair. Do you see that? This is where human responsibility comes into play.”

Stewart knew there was a bank a couple of miles up the road, in a small shopping center, and he considered how best to ask his mother for this additional favor. She didn’t seem quite as upset now. She was still saying things he wished she wouldn’t say, but she wasn’t as extreme as she’d been initially. He sensed a kind of resignation in the air, though when he finally asked her how the trip to Chumash Casino was the car filled with her agitation again.

“You want to know how Chumash Casino was? It was wonderful. We got up there and started playing the quarter machines and I offer to give Garfield five dollars and he accuses me of being stingy. He told me I should give him at least twenty, to help pay for the gas, because he forgot that last time we went up there, I paid for a full tank. I paid him $35 already, which is enough for several trips there.” Heike was narrating the fight with Garfield, how he accused her of taking advantage of him by asking him to do favors for her, when Stewart saw a woman in a yellow raincoat a few hundred feet in front of them approaching the sidewalk with a little dog, a tan cocker spaniel with fluorescent green booties. The dog wasn’t on the leash and Stewart saw him heading towards the edge of the sidewalk and into the street just as Heike’s car was approaching. His mother slammed on the brakes, and Stewart felt the impact of Emilio, who apparently hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt, hit the back of Stewart’s seat. 

Mein Gott im Himmel!” Heike screamed. “Did you see that?” She opened her door and ran to the front of the car to see whether the dog was okay, and immediately Stewart could tell the Cocker Spaniel was fine, because the woman in the yellow raincoat had the animal in her arms, and the dog was squirming and licking the woman’s face. 

It was still raining and the windshield wipers were moving frantically across the length of the glass and Stewart tried to explain to Emilio that he was sorry and as soon as he could get to the bank he’d get the $200, but Emilio was already opening the door and getting out of the car and saying the situation was fucked up. “Puta madre, este joto quiere chingarme.” It wasn’t the first time he’d gone to a gringo’s house and been cheated. Six weeks earlier, a bald man with bad breath had promised to pay him $100 to clean out a shed, but when the work was finished, he only gave Emilio $50, claiming the job had taken less time than expected.

Emilio said something else that Stewart didn’t understand, something that sounded like he was invoking a thunderbolt from the sky to come down and obliterate Stewart and his mother and maybe everyone in Ventana Beach, and as Emilio began to sprint away in the rain, Stewart got out his wallet and ran after Emilio to hand him the four wrinkled bills in his possession and, though Emilio slowed down for a moment to take the twenties, Stewart knew that apologizing to Emilio made no difference at this point, that Emilio didn’t want some gringo’s half-assed apology.

He thought about running after Emilio to try to redeem himself, though of course panting through the rain trying to keep up with Emilio wouldn’t redeem Stewart. All it would do was delay the inevitable, the return to his mother’s car, where Stewart knew Heike would launch into him, reciting the ways in which he’d disappointed her and betrayed her and caused her misery.

For years Stewart had resisted his mother, but he knew now that resisting her would no longer be possible. The acknowledgment of this fact felt strangely liberating to him then, and he felt a kind of resignation that he couldn’t remember feeling before. Soon enough, he would hear himself telling his mother that he’d been wrong and he loved her and he would do his best from then on to be the kind of son, the kind of person, he should have been all along. He promised her he would start going to church and praying for forgiveness and being grateful for everything she’d done for him in the past. He told her he’d stop criticizing what she said, and stop calling her racist, and eat the dinners she cooked without making a fuss all the time. He would say these things in a state of such heightened emotion—overcome with such sobbing and despair—that both he and his mother, there in her car in the rain, would believe everything he promised he would do from then on.

***

That night, he ate the liver and onions Heike prepared, and the Bratkartoffeln with bacon, and he did the dishes and then sat with her on the couch and watched Murder She Wrote on TV. Afterward, he looked at the photo albums she retrieved from the bookshelf with snapshots of him as a baby before his parents’ divorce. “Look how happy you were then,” his mother said. “We used to be so close to each other. I don’t know what happened to us. It makes me so sad.”

He nodded and smiled, and when she told him that it wasn’t her fault that his father divorced her, Stewart said of course not and called his father an asshole.

“I did my best,” she continued. “It wasn’t easy trying to make ends meet on the little I had. Be grateful you didn’t end up as a single mother on welfare. Be grateful you went to college.”

Stewart told her he was grateful and hugged her and later, when he was in bed, he lay awake, looking at the shadows on the walls, the way the shapes shifted because of the moon and the clouds. The rain had stopped by then, and the moon was bright, and the air coming in through the open window felt crisp. He thought about Emilio and wondered how he’d gotten back home. He wondered where Emilio lived, and whether he’d go back to the corner of Salsipuedes and Pedregosa the next day to look for more work.

Stewart knew that now that his mother wasn’t angry with him anymore, chances were high she’d let him borrow her car. He decided that tomorrow he’d offer to go grocery shopping for her and on his way to Whole Foods he’d stop at an ATM and then drive back to Salsipuedes to give Emilio the money he owed him. He knew that Emilio undoubtedly hated his guts, but he thought it was likely he’d accept Stewart’s cash. When they were eating lunch together, Emilio had told Stewart that one of the reasons he came to the United States was to save enough money to buy his grandmother a house in Hermosillo. Apparently, his parents had died when he was nine, and his grandmother had raised his sisters and him.

Stewart decided he’d give Emilio $400. It was more than he owed him, and Stewart didn’t have much extra money these days, but given everything that had happened, Stewart figured it was the least he could do. It wouldn’t make everything okay—wouldn’t make up for the things Heike had said, and the things Stewart had thought and craved and convinced Emilio to do—but he assumed that it was better than nothing.

Matthew Lansburgh

Matthew Lansburgh’s collection of linked stories, Outside Is the Ocean, won the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award and was a finalist for the 30th Annual Lambda Literary Award and the 2018 Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBTQ Fiction. His fiction has appeared in journals such as One Story, New England Review, Glimmer Train, Ecotone, Alaska Quarterly Review, Guernica, Electric Literature, and Epoch, and has been shortlisted in the Best American Short Stories series. Recent honors include fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Yaddo, and MacDowell.

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