Callejeros

By A.J. Rodriguez

Featured Art: Interiors with View of Buildings by Richard Diebenkorn

“Blood and gore on channel four.” That’s what people said whenever QBZ-4, the station me and Paintbrush Martinez pulled the graveyard at, came up in drunk or sober conversations. It wasn’t really a joke, but we said it jokingly. It was just part of our language—like singing a nursery rhyme or dappin-up your homie at some backyard pachanga. We recited it like scripture, hummed it before sitting down on our sofa pews, before hitting that prayer-book remote, before entering the church of our living rooms or the confession booths of our sorry-ass bars.

“Blood and gore on channel four” was smeared on the streets, projected onto the heavens, and hardwired into the body of everyone in Albuquerque from the picket-fence, northeast-side gabacho, to the straight-out-the-Pueblo Indio, to la chola chingona hustling South Valley. But on the lips of those living lives flooded with fortune and security—culeros on that white-collar, whiter skin shit—it was a punchline, something to say after a sneeze. Lodged in the throats of los demás, all those scared-ass vatos and their families, it was a Hail Mary, a bulletproof vest, a way to savor your breath, remember your heartbeat.

Like them, I grew up on “blood and gore on channel four,” rehearsed the line year after year as I watched folks from the varrio become actors, turn familiar places into TV crime scenes where they played out the role of “meth user,” “gang member,” “tragic shooting victim,” or “drunk driver.” But I never understood it, the reality within the words, the physicality behind the images—not when I ditched home to study film on some diversity-ass scholarship—not while working nights at the Q with Paintbrush—not till the shit with Graci, Tío Albert’s ruca, hit the fan.



PB was the only cameraman grinding those late-night hours, which meant he saw it first, digested it whole and raw for us. ’Cus the real shit? That authentic “blood and gore on channel four” shit? That came to life at 10 p.m., rising like a red curtain an hour after our inverted nine-to-five began. I figured that’s how homeboy hooked me up with the late-night video technician gig in the first place—’cus of the respect earned by being out there in the dark, defying the common sense we learned as Burqueños raised on the idea that one disobedience, one slipup, one fondness for some vice or maldita gente would end in a mugshot or too-short obituary.

Paintbrush brought the job up while kickin-it at his place after I rolled through with some Blake’s and a shitload of Monster to wake his ass up.

You don’t gotta do it, Güero, he said. It’s not like the movie-editing stuff you went off to L.A. for. It’s pretty much you sitting there, listening to the police scanner, ’n calling me whenever the action starts popping off. Otherwise, you’re just processing ’n uploading footage shot throughout the earlier shifts.

Beggars can’t be choosers, holmez. I don’t wanna be all picky ’n ungrateful.

Don’t think of it as a favor from me, man. To be real with you, it don’t pay well. I just don’t have a ride to the station now that the other guy quit, so it’s more you doing me a favor, y’feel?

I gotchu bro. Got nothing better to do. Just shittin ’round between my parents’ places.

I said this in between bites of my green-chile cheeseburger, tryna act all blasé like I wasn’t desperate for some kind of employment beyond Best Buy or some cellphone store in a strip mall—like I wasn’t the pendejo who wasted his time outta state on a useless art school diploma with delusions of making it big like all them Hollywood gabachos—like I hadn’t spent every day since moving back, after graduation and the subsidized-dorm living evaporated, posted-up in homeboy’s studio apartment to avoid stumbling through my family’s questions about the next big step in my life.

I swallowed the thought of failure along with my meal and threw out a grease-stained hand for PB to g-lock like we’d done for as long as I could remember, from the time we met at the daycare in the library where our mothers worked, back when we were two chamaquitos carrying the freedom that comes with having overworked, divorced parents. But there, on his combo-couchbed, with my crumbs littering the white sheets, homeboy hesitated, something I didn’t think he was capable of.

It’s tough, Güero. Last guy in your place didn’t just quit, he had a breakdown. I’m talking put-you-inna-ward-type breakdown. Camera-dude before me got wasted ’n drove his car into a Chuck E. Cheese.

Nah, f’real? Which one?

The one off Juan Tabo. It was closed, though.

No mames wey, that’s where I had my tenth birthday party, ’member? You pissed your pants tryna cover my ass after I broke the Skee-Ball ticket thing. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. Launched through the windshield. Cracked his skull open on impact—

Wait, hold up! I pissed myself, but we traded shorts ’cus it was my birthday.

—Didn’t die till the next day. Wasn’t even inna coma. Felt it all.

Damn, ese. Whatta fucken memory.

For sure, Güero. Unforgettable.

Paintbrush was the opposite of me, physically and otherwise: tall, fashionably flaco, good posture and cinnamon skin that would make César Chávez and Tonatiuh’s balls swell with pride. I was his squat, stocky, pale-ass sidekick—just a goofy pocho on some wannabe cholo shit, too fucken educated to be street the way eses I grew up around expect or gabachos outside Albuquerque predict.

But my homie PB? That vato owned himself: the length of his arms, the width of his nose, the color within his pores. He lived in the truth of his body, and no one seemed to mention the hand-me-down flannels or the holed jeans he always wore. The only questions PB dealt with were about his name. Is it really Paintbrush? It says Paintbrush on your birth certificate? And without even trying, homeboy would respond with some slick, poetic shit like, Yes, and I wear it everywhere.

His one flaw, that I could see, was that he cared too damn much about my foo-ass. No matter how many times I let him down with some pendejada behavior (sleeping through plans, forgetting favors, running from any sorta emotional conversation), the homie refused to let go of me. Maybe ’cus we’d been hurled at each other from the start, put together at the age when language and best-friendship cement themselves. I imagined Paintbrush as the type of vato who’d describe our relationship in some sorta journal with some corny-ass line like, We were planted in the same pot with only enough room that our roots could not help but interlock, grow into one another.

When I began the hellhole job PB put me up for, he’d only been working there for seven months, immediately landing it after his stroll through a photography degree at the college where his mami was employed. In the time since he started, time equivalent to how long it takes a newborn to start recognizing the faces of loved ones, Paintbrush had witnessed more shit than most yanqui soldiers see in their conquistador careers.

’Cus more often than not, the paramedics and cops needed him, needed him to help lift crushed or bullet-holed bodies, to use the spotlight on his camera so they could better operate or get a positive ID. They needed him ’cus he was first on the scene and gave more of a shit than any fake-ass public servant out there. Homeboy gave a shit that even if these people were damned to “blood and gore on channel four,” they were still part of something precious: brothers, sisters, tíos y tías, children, girlfriends, all seeds of the same tierra.

But I was stuck in the editing room at the Q, a windowless, soundproof space where the only light came from humming computers and blinking video equipment. In the beginning, it reminded me of the studios I escaped to at school— those caves where I sank away from the suffocation of gabacho university life and dissolved into the best part of filmmaking: that post-production shit, the point where you build the story, morph footage into sentences, breathe life into the light that eyes absorb.

Back then I’d wanted to paint something new on a screen, something other than headlines that put names like mine under a hoodrat microscope. But the more time I spent shrouded in that room at the Q, sifting through monotonous establishing shots, the more that passion faded. And for some reason, while in that space, I kept remembering how dark and distant the view outside the plane window looked whenever I flew home for the holidays. How disconnected I felt behind the glass, hovering between worlds.

The sole company I had in that editing room was the police scanner, which was also the biggest pain in my ass—learning how to decipher what spat through the radio fuzz. At first, all I could gather was intersections and directions. The patrols were always heading down some way in response to some code that reduced someone’s tragedy, or fuck-up, or destruction to a numerical category.

One night, while caught in a blizzard of street names and “27-8”s and “S.M.A.”s (which I later found out translated to Shooting and Hispanic, Male, Adult), I clicked on my walkie-talkie and started stammering all high-pitched into the receiver, pleading with the electronic babel to slow down and repeat themselves.

I didn’t say anything, Güero. What’s wrong? You good?

Embarrassment punched me in the gut, cutting my breath short.

You know the police can’t hear you, right? Just me on the other end of this.

That’s when I looked around the empty studio and noticed the dryness in my eyes, the pulse in my forehead, the weight of sleepless hours tugging on my neck.

Why wouldn’t I know that, cabrón? I was just fucken witchu. Get your ass over to Zuni ’n Wyoming. There’s some 27-8s ’n S.M.A.s goin-down.

A couple weeks in, on the kind of November morning where the hues of the desert feel all drained of color, PB asked me how I was handling the new gig. It was just after our shift ended, after the buzz from 5-hour Energies and Adderall had fizzled out (this was the most common form of payment gabachos at school gave me in exchange for writing their papers, which I learned to flip onto the rich kids who wanted a bender but were too lazy to score a prescription).

It ain’t that bad, holmez. Kinda cool being behind the scenes. Parta the story y todo.

Word, but how’re you feeling ’bout it?

I blinked, then frowned, tryna bring the vato into focus. The fatigue, the clouded sun turning everything gray, brought me back to that summer before I left for college—back when homeboy and I drew out our last days together— when the two of us pushed ourselves to stay awake for every minute we could jam into long drives, the loudest CDs, and the most caffeinated 7-Eleven drinks. I remembered embracing those moments, let the wide-awake hours numb a hollowness eating away at my stomach the closer my goodbye approached, the more I thought about unraveling myself from the town that’d woven the threads of my world.

On one of them final nights together, PB had asked a question that sliced the fibers in my chest. You think you’ll end up coming back? After school? Scared to address uncertainty, I waved it off and threw it back at him. You gonna miss me or some shit? Homeboy shifted his body as if I’d handed him a living thing, something he should handle with absolute care. I just don’t want you to forget us, Güero. There are too many forgotten things in Albuquerque.

As this memory played out, a headache started stitching across my skull, smearing Paintbrush’s frame into a watercolor. I could only shrug in response and offer a couple half-truths: It was nice to be back; I was grateful to have a job. The homie coulda called me out, always sensing when I was holding back, but I knew that wasn’t how he operated. As stillness and a lifeless dawn bathed our faces, homeboy just pushed the ends of his lips against the heaviness under his eyes. He was tryna build a smile for me.

I’m glad, Güero, but if you ever need to—I dunno—talk. I’m here for that, too.

Símon, holmez. It’s all love.

Tío Albert hit me up about a month into my gig at the Q. I’d been in Albuquerque since the start of that summer, which seemed so far in my rearview at that point, like driving east during sunset, but Tío was one of them late-to-the-game culeros.

My uncle’s life was all on-the-rebound then, which ain’t saying much ’cus the vato’s previous state personified Burqueño rock-bottom. He had a son, now a man, whom he’d never met and a babymama in jail for some DUI-related manslaughter, which my family considered the boiling point of the poison Tío Albert put in her all those years ago after knocking her up at sixteen. Once the hyna told him she was pregnant, homeboy walked out like a clinical sinvergüenza, leaving her at the mercy of católico parents who couldn’t dream of the money to pay for an abortion even if they had wanted one.

That shit just scratched the surface of Tío Albert’s sin-soaked existence. He managed, in a somehow sacrificial way, to carry out the worst traits every family has swimming in their gene pools. I’d always told myself I could never end up as bad as him: sunken, bitter, body chipped away by dead-end jobs and all them bar fights. Yet ever since returning home, back to the same place I started, I’d begun to question the trajectory of my life. The decision to see my uncle involved more doubt than I would’ve normally expected.

But on that afternoon in December, a week before Christmas, when New Mexico’s air feels the freest and the aroma of piñon seems to radiate from every casita, Tío Albert looked all right. He’d picked me up for coffee, which was a bummer ’cus part of me wanted a drink, but once I saw the security in his step, felt the warmth in his hands as he hugged me, smelled peppermint and aftershave instead of booze, I figured it was for the best.

So, the Q, huh? That’s big-league shit, carnal.

It ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, Tío. I just look at screens ’n listen to the police scanner it’s got my brain all fried.

Tryna be down-with-the-youth, Tío Albert had taken me to a café in a trendy hood that was once a primetime theater for “blood and gore on channel four.” There were mason jars for water cups and local art on the wall, available for purchase. It looked like it coulda been a liquor store at some point, with shelves running from the counter to the ceiling, or maybe one of them cash-for-gold joints that punctuate the strip malls along our streets.

Police scanner? Why you gotta listen to that shit? Ain’t the Martinez kid got one in the station’s van?

Nah, all he’s got back there is outdated film tech. The Q is fucken cheap when it comes to the night shift. It’s just me ’n PB doing all the work, him on the ground, me in the booth.

I always liked that boy. What’s his name again? Pencil?

Paintbrush.

What?

Paint. Brush.

Fucken odd. Unique might be a better word. Used to think he was a bit of a mamón as a boy. Good-lookin though—all tall ’n brown—bet the Anglo women dig that shit. His parents were too artsy-fartsy for me, liked Frida Kahlo. Mami was a piece of work, too. Never really knew the dad, but looks like the kid ain’t turn out half-bad, huh?

Yeah, he’s always been the same, Tío. Fuck, I’m sorry for swearing so much. Graci tells me I need to work on that. Part of our journey into the light together—least that’s what she calls it.

Sounds real nice, Tío. Tell me ’bout her.

They met in AA, which explained it all. A few months back, Tío Albert caught a stroke of luck usually reserved for rich gabachos. Cabrón wasn’t slapped with anything more than picking up trash off the highway and the twelve steps where this mamacita popped into his life, which was only the case ’cus this particular joyride from the bar resulted in just two casualties: his truck and some coyote. It was his second offense, but the first go-round with this sorta shit involved another borracho party, the two ramming head-on in the parking lot of a South Valley supermercado. The case over who was to blame created too much of a hassle for a split-seamed justice system, so this situation between two low-life beaners ended in some citations for property damage.

According to Tío Albert, Graci was a real by-the-books callejera before she met her salvation.

That’s why it works so damn well, kid. Me ’n her got this shared history—cut from the same cloth, y’know? Now we’re working on getting our shit together— not to get all spiritual or whatever, but she’s the answer to my prayers, man.

Seems pretty damn profound, Tío.

Wanna hear some funny shit? I think I used to roll with her half-brother or cousin way back in high school—or maybe I knew him from the bar. Either way, our world is so fucken small, huh?

Tío Albert’s laughter always felt like a massage on my neck, something that radiated power and love at the same time. He leaned back while bellows thundered from his chest, emphasizing the force with which they carried through the room. His hands, wooly and bronzed, traveled to the curvature of his beer belly, scratching an itch that never seemed to fade.

Goddamn, nephew, I spent all this time rambling ’bout the bullshit in my life. Been doing that a lot lately—can’t tell if I like it, but hey it’s new ’n I’m here. We’re here, man. I ain’t seen you inna minute. Not since last Christmas, right? Fuck, all this caffeine’s got me scattered—too damn awake.

Símon Tío; been over a year now.

I know you probably don’t wanna hear it, but I’m sorry for whatever dumbass stuff I pulled the last time I saw you. I was inna different place—a real bad one.

We’ve all been on one before, Tío. Ya sabes? No te preocupes, okay?

Truth was, I hadn’t seen him that past holiday season. Homeboy wasn’t at our Nochebuena get-together at Abuelita’s, but his borracho-ass must’ve been so faded he couldn’t get the days straight. My guess was that the blur of his former life led him to just apologize for everything like someone fishing with a shotgun while blindfolded. The pity in that thought kept me from correcting my uncle.

Besides, I always dipped from those fiestas to smoke with Paintbrush on the roof of the middle school we’d gone to. We’d figured out how to get up there during our prepubescence from some of the older kids, the ones who skipped class to swallow booze under the crumbling bleachers. Over time, the roof transformed into me and PB’s secret hangout—after those vatos grew outta their “troubled” youth and Albuquerque’s underfunded education system gave up on them, let them consume a fate as sacraments to “blood and gore on channel four.”

That roof offered a postcard view of our city, which we—upon turning old enough to sneak out and drive aimlessly in my two-decade-old, hand-me-down Corolla—learned was best experienced at night, under the dying stars, with weed cushioning our heads. It allowed us to laugh and feel the air in our lungs. I mean really feel that shit. The flavor of cold wind, the exchange of atoms, the gift of oxygen. On the ride home, Paintbrush would always tell me to play some CD he burned full of cliché-ass songs like “Stairway to Heaven” and “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” I never gave him shit for that; I liked having someone so enamored with the moment, someone to help me float away and look at our world from some elevated place.

You always speak this much Spanish, kid? Tío Albert asked. It ain’t a bad thing, but I never knew you had it in you. My brothers ’n me—not to mention your Tías—can’t speak for shit! But you got it down, carnal. All chido ’n suavemente.

I chuckled Tío Albert’s comment away, pushing back the redness bubbling to my cheeks as I relived the questions gabachos at school poured onto me about my background, my language, my family, why I looked so white for a beaner. Feeling a sudden yet familiar urge to avoid eye contact, I stared into the black of my coffee, which wasn’t half-strong enough to keep me awake, to deal with Tío Albert’s positivity, to accept the foreignness of a town that seemed so much more strangling than I remembered.

You speak Spanish with that Martinez kid?

He’s pretty much fluent—helped me learn some words. Doesn’t feel the need to speak it unless he has to. Sometimes I speak at him.

Whatta god-damn shame! Graci’s bilingual ’n speaks everything perfectly. I’m talking todo, carnal.

That’s real cool, Tío.

She says it’s a tragedy we’ve lost our tongue—like part of us is asleep, in the dark, ’n we’re never really our full selves with this darkness in us. I’m not sure if I agree with all that ’cus ¿sabes qué? I’m just grateful to be alive most days. But whatever, it’s how she deals with the bullshit. Can’t let go of that—no matter how loco or cheesy, right?

I hummed in agreement, and a pause materialized between me and my uncle. The silence droned, growing to the point that a high-pitch sound started drenching my ears. For a second I thought I was like one of them silver-screen soldiers post-grenade explosion, but then I realized the whine was coming from whatever hipster-ass noise-music the baristas were playing over the speakers. Tío Albert huffed a sigh, muttered something about pinche gentrification, and suggested we get the fuck outta there.

Upon dropping me off at PB’s place, the vato busted out his door and ran over to my side of the truck so I wouldn’t have to fiddle with the handle that’d stopped working after his slaughter of the coyote. Before I could thank him, Tío Albert wrapped me in an embrace that felt too close for the occasion, as if this was a goodbye that would last forever. His cheek pressed against mine, lipsbrushing my earlobe just enough to feel their cracks. His voice was a murmur, but filled my head like a song.

Feliz Navidad, sobrino. Keep on doin whatchu doin. It means so much to me.

I used Tío Albert’s words to carry me through the next week, which overflowed with the two-faced bullshit of Albuquerque’s holiday season. I spent part of my time cutting through footage for the daytime stories: soup kitchens, presents, soldados returning home, choir concerts, hot coco and light shows at the zoo. So many white teeth smiling at the camera while it illuminated the brighter side of “blood and gore on channel four.”

But the scanner refused to quit. Number after number, robotic speeches bleeding into one another, chords with no rhythm or orchestration. It felt like I was tryna bottle lightning, capture all those incomplete sentences that represented the moment when someone’s future ruptures or collapses or vanishes. These instances performed themselves out on the streets—the streets I chose to abandon, the streets I no longer recognized—only to leak through this dinky-ass radio into the padded black walls surrounding me. Everything was boxed-in; everything was so far away.

Paintbrush and I agreed to work Christmas Eve together ’cus the pay was fat and we didn’t want to be broke or separated. At that point I didn’t know what else to do with my nights. I couldn’t sleep and couldn’t celebrate shit without thinking about the darkness of that studio. Plus I didn’t want to be nowhere near Abuelita’s fiesta. I feared the new Tío Albert would be there, sipping mineral water and tryna atone for the life he’d lived.

PB’s mami didn’t believe in Capitalist-Christian holidays, and his pops was too ashamed to have a brown ’ijo around his wife’s pink midwestern side, so no matter which way you sliced it, homeboy was always free this time of year. That’s sorta why I insisted on our weed-on-the-roof tradition; I wanted the vato to have some company. Or maybe I just felt more at home with him than my family. While driving to the Q on dead-black boulevards, peering through frosted windows that my wack-ass heater was losing the fight against, it occurred to me that our tradition would break tonight.

You know you don’t need to tell me every little thing that comes through the scanner right, Güero? Paintbrush asked. I’ve got people on the street that give me leads ’n tips.

People?

Friends from the neighborhood—people we went to school with, grew up with, family of those people—people who know people that are involved with the stuff we cover.

A drill started spinning through my chest. How removed had I been? From this place, these people? Why had I been all cool calling them my homies—mis carnales—while off at gabacho university? I didn’t know where they were, who was alive or dead, who had and hadn’t survived “blood and gore on channel four.” Anyone of them coulda been a number on the police scanner. As that thought ripped through me, I fell back into the driver’s seat like I’d been pushed into a pool. Floundering, I reverted to an instinct of converting shame into anger, a reflex formed from something as tangible as the air I breathed. It poured outta me and onto Paintbrush.

Why the fuck wouldn’t you tell me that in the first place, cabrón? You got me goin all loco tryna decipher that chota talk.

I didn’t really think ’bout it till now, Güero. I didn’t notice how tired ’n stressed you are.

Who the fuck you calling tired, ese? I got my shit in gear. You the one looking like a goddamn zombie.

I just didn’t feel the need to bring it up ’cus I liked hearing your voice over the radio. It makes things less isolating—closer to home—like we’re kids again.

The drill in my chest was cutting through bone.

So you just let me repeat shit you already know? For what, foo’? Just so you won’t feel all fucken scared? They don’t pay me enough to baby your bitch-ass. I could be on so much bigger ’n better shit right now. Plus it’s Nochebuena! I should be with my fucken family!

I’m sorry, Güero. You don’t gotta come in tonight. You can just drop me off at the station. I’ll cover for you.

Fuck that holmez, we’re already here. Just don’t fucken talk to me.

Can I say one more thing?

Man, whatchu think, deaf-ass bitch?

It’s not pointless to me, Güero. It means a whole lot.

The drill reached my heart.

Jesus, bro. You sound like my shitty Tío.

What? Really?

Shut the fuck up, ese. I’m done with this pinche maricón shit.

I spent the beginning of my shift turning the scanner to the loudest setting, letting the noise flood my brain, hoping it could wash out this feeling of hollowness. Later I found myself punching my fists in the air as if boxing a swarm of bees (my foo-ass was too afraid to attack the equipment, too scared to deal with the consequences of breaking shit). Somewhere near the end of the night, after I exhausted my ability to fight the nothingness above me, I decided to check the stories planned for Christmas Day.

While skimming through the database, I noticed a folder containing the footage Paintbrush captured over the last month. Typically I uploaded his shit right when he returned from his rounds, making a point of getting it done quick, never opening his files. I felt some sorta ache at the thought of seeing what he saw, experiencing in real time those seeds we planted for “blood and gore on channel four.” But that night, with the fire in my words still an ember of regret within my mind, I concluded there was no better time to understand what my day-one vato went through every shift, what had made his face so gray, changed his voice to sound so damn drained.

I clicked on a random entry and the computer screen transported me to a panoramic shot of a wide, street-lamped intersection. I recognized the block from my elementary school bus route, wasn’t too far from where PB’s mami lived, around the point where I’d get all giddy to see him and talk about our moves for the day. But this nighttime setting was swamped in emptiness, save for the red-blue flicker of police lights and a faint wail coming from off-screen.

In order to make this shit suitable for broadcast, Paintbrush had positioned the camera so most of the graphic details were blocked or obscured, but he couldn’t dampen the sound, which poured over the stage as the lens panned right, glossing over a T-boned car with the perp nowhere in sight. It was a man’s voice, howling at such an earsplitting pitch that the muscles around my eyes tightened. As I parsed out the vato’s shrieks, it hit me that he was speaking Spanish, shooting out pleas for his ’ija who’d been in the backseat, which was now punched in like a beer can. He was calling on God, on Jesus, on anyone
who could answer him. Where is my girl? How could this happen? Why this child and not me?

I thought of Paintbrush, who understood this vato’s language better than me, forced to stand there and do his “blood and gore on channel four” shit while the swan song of some family stabbed at his ears. I pictured homeboy behind the camera, listening to what was silenced from all the news stories, and I couldn’t help but ask myself, with a needle of guilt in my neck, why I never bothered to check in on him, the way he’d always done for me. The swears I bulleted at him earlier jumped to my mind then, harmonizing with the father’s screams. I closed the file, along with these thoughts, my hands trembling.

But for some loco-ass reason, as my brain scrambled to beat away the echo of that man’s sorrow, to drive out the image of Paintbrush’s hurt face after I went off on him, the Virgen de Guadalupe clinging to Abuelita’s fridge sawed through my thoughts. I remembered how she hung there as the hands of my family reached behind her to grab beer bottles and limes, all colorful with them forgiving eyes. La Navidad was supposed to be a celebration of her, the ultimate babymama, even though homegirl ain’t really from Mexico or a virgin or give birth this time of year. This night, this holiday, all the drinking it brings, started with the myth of this woman—someone I only knew as a refrigerator magnet.

I reached for the walkie-talkie, compelled by some inexplicable need to hear PB’s voice. But before I could, my phone vibrated in my pocket. It was Tío Albert. He was drunk.

Órale, fuckhead. Where you at?

The station, Tío.

Thank fucken Jesus. You got the scanner on?

Why wouldn’t I?

Ay wacha, fuckhead. Ain’t no time to be smart. I’m in some serious shit.

What happened, Tío?

Can’t find my bitch—callejera walked off into the darkness.

Graci? She missing?

You think I’d say that shit if she wasn’t?

She drunk?

You think I’d be like this if she wasn’t, fuckhead?

She driving?

Mi hermano took the keys once he saw me take a swig of mezcal. It’s that good shit, fuckhead. Tu primo brought it all the way from Jalisco. How could we resist?

He kept blabbing on about the booze and how it wasn’t his fault. Head pounding, I told him I’d check the scanner and call if anything popped up.

Don’t fuck this up, fuckhead. You a big beaner now.

I radioed Paintbrush. He was already there. It happened so damn quick. The scene was immediately set ’cus the vehicle that pulverized her was a fucken ambulance. You’d think with all those flashing lights, all that training, all that responsibility and money wrapped up in a profession, that a motherfucker might be able to see a woman stumbling through the middle of an interstate before she’s wiped away, turned into a vegetable. But in this land of “blood and gore on channel four,” all that don’t count for shit. No one notices you till you’re on the fucken news.

The aftermath was longer than it had to be. Graci’s wilted padres had to confront their catholic definitions of a soul and ask themselves if a heartbeat with no brain function was really an alive thing at all. One whole week, starting on Christmas, ending on the New Year. Tío Albert was at the hospital for every second, never allowed to move further than the waiting room.

Afterwards, the vato showed me the eulogy he’d prepared, though he knew they wouldn’t let his ass anywhere near the funeral. It was short, gorgeous, and all in Spanish. He stumbled through each word in the booth of a South Valley bar with tears streaming down flushed cheeks. On the cab ride back to his place, I saw how his eyes had that drifted-away look again, like he was watching something take flight beyond a window none of us could see.

I thought of my uncle’s stare and words and life when I apologized to Paintbrush for tweaking out on him. The homie forgave me, like always, and said it would be okay. For a second, I believed the vato, but then Graci’s story didn’t make any of the reports. It couldn’t crack through the preplanned cheer of the holiday. As far as the station was concerned, she never existed. That shit angered PB, the one Burqueño who could tell you what the air felt like, how it tasted, how the sirens danced with the stench of diesel over a mangled figure that was once a person. Her erasure, the needlessness of his footage, wrenched the smoothness of Paintbrush’s face into a permanent frown. The pain of that change sat in my throat, making it impossible to carry on, to justify anything I did, to open the file of what he’d witnessed that night. In the end, all I could offer was that we put in our two weeks notice.

On the way home after our last shift at the Q, the sun hid behind an overcast, and homeboy was knocked-out in the passenger seat. Seeing his frame curled underneath a jacket I’d lent him reminded me of the time we went camping in my backyard when we were seven. It was our first time lying under the stars, and neither of us had or knew what a sleeping bag was, so we just stole sheets and towels from around the house and placed them over the dust of our city’s soil. It was the worst and best night of my childhood. I learned how cold the world is and how warm the bodies of those resting next to me are.


Born and mostly raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, A.J. Rodriguez is a graduate of Cornell University and resides in Eugene, Oregon, where he is an MFA candidate at the University of Oregon. He is the winner of Fractured Lit’s Anthology Prize, the Gival Press Short Story Award, and CRAFT’s Flash Fiction Contest. His work was also shortlisted for The Masters’ Review Short Story Award for New Writers.

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