The basic trainees at the counter looked over briefly while she was doing her divination. One made a joke under his breath. Both laughed.
“Not good, my son," Mother said in her best gypsy accent. "The leaves spell ‘Adversity.’ A troubled time is ahead."
“Profound," I said. "And so unexpected?
She tried to look offended. "Scoff if you must."
"I must, I must."
At the end of dinner Mother insisted on picking up the tab. Since I was down to spare change and a few maxed—out credit cards, I didn’t argue too hard. The two men at the counter paid for their meal and walked out behind us.
When you train long enough in tai chi, you get to a point where your eyes and ears start feeling like they wrap around you 360 degrees. You have to develop this unless you want to get hit over the head from behind while you’re protecting yourself in front, or turn a few inches too far and run yourself through on your opponent’s sword. My senses switched into that mode the minute we walked out of the restaurant, but I wasn’t consciously worried until we got to the corner of Queen Anne.
Mother was talking about the sorry state of the arts in San Antonio. The two men from the restaurant were coming up behind us, but they seemed to be at ease, joking to themselves, not paying us much attention. The neon lights from Broadway dropped into darkness once we walked onto my street. The two men stopped talking, but turned the corner with us. Without looking back, I could tell they were quickening their pace. They were about twenty-five feet behind us now. My apartment was at the end of the block.
“Mother," I said casually, "keep walking."
She had just been warming up on the subject of limited downtown gallery space. She glanced up at me, puzzled, but I didn’t give her time to say anything. Instead, I did an about-face and went back to meet our new friends.
They didn’t like their timing being messed up. When they saw me coming toward them they stopped, momentarily off-balance. Both were in their mid-twenties, with bland, square faces. They wore jeans and untucked denim shirts. Both had crew cuts. Their upper body development made it obvious they were bodybuilders.
They were trying hard to be twins, but one was a red-headed Anglo, the other a Hispanic with a tattoo on his forearm—an eagle killing a snake.
When I was five feet away they moved apart slightly, waiting for me to act. Behind me I heard my mother call, more than a little nervous: "Tres?"
“Tres?" the one with the tattoo mimicked. The red-head grinned. `
"Either you’re following us to get your tea leaves read," I speculated, “or you’ve got something to say to me. Which is it?"
I let Tattoo come closer, putting his chest close to my face. He was still grinning. Red moved around to my left.
"Yeah sure," said Tattoo. "We heard you’re one of those faggots from San Francisco. That true?"
He was about six inches away.
"You asking me to dance?" I blew him a kiss.
He almost decided that was worth punching me for, but Red stopped him.
Behind me I heard Mother call my name again. She was trying to decide whether she should come back for me or not. I knew she would eventually walk over and give these goons a piece of her mind. Whatever went down, I needed to make it happen before she did that.
"How hard you want to make this, buddy?" said Red. “I’d hate smashing a guy’s face in front of his own mom. The message is simple: Get the fuck out of town. Nobody wants you here."
"And whom are these joyous tidings from?" I said. I slid my left foot back slightly, rooting my weight more solidly.
“Anybody you want to guess." Red sneered. "Just go back to Pansyland if you want your face in one piece."
"And if I don’t," I said, "I suppose Tattoo here will chest-bump me all the way out of town?"
“You little shit—" Tattoo moved forward, meaning to grab my shirt with both hands.
The thing about bodybuilders is that they tend to be top-heavy. They can be incredibly strong, but their overdeveloped chests make their center of gravity, which should be right around the navel, much higher and surprisingly easy to unbalance. It’s also easier to grab someone who has lots of muscles; it’s like walking around with built-in handles all over your body.
I swept my forearms up under Tattoo’s wrists before they connected and redirected his arms out. When he was wide open, I brought my left leg up and knee—kicked him in the groin. Then I pushed. He went backward stiff as a cut tree. Red got my left elbow in his nose as he came in to tackle me. I grabbed him by his triceps and twisted my waist, shifting his momentum so he flew over my knee and landed on top of his friend instead of me.
“Tres!" my mother called. She was coming toward us now.
Tattoo wasn’t used to having his balls kicked. He stayed doubled over, communing with the pavement . But Red got his balance much more quickly than I’d expected. He came at me, more cautiously this time, taking a boxer’s stance, right fist out. I let him miss twice, turning my body in quarter circles out of the line of his punches. That screwed up his guard. He tried a left hook but forgot to follow with his right. It was easy to step inside the punch, turn into his chest as I grabbed his wrist, and send him flying over my shoulder.
Holding on to his arm, I twisted the joints so he had no choice but to roll over on his stomach or snap a bone. I put my knee into his back, then pinched down on the nerve just below the elbow joint with my thumb. He yelled.
"You want me to hold this until you black out?" I asked. “Or do you want to tell me a little bit about yourself?"
"‘Go fuck yourself," he groaned.
It must’ve taken a lot of stamina for him to speak. Or maybe he just knew that his buddy wouldn’t be down on the ground forever. In fact, Tattoo was staggering to his feet now, and we both knew I couldn’t pin Red down and deal with Tattoo at the same time.
I didn’t like it, but I twisted Red’s arm sharply. He screamed. Maybe I broke it, maybe I didn’t. But I had to give him something to worry about while I was busy with his compadre.
Tattoo was still walking funny. He tried his best to get me in a wrestler’s hold, but I slid underneath and hit him in the gut with my shoulder. I pushed up and forward, lifting him off his feet. He fell backward again, harder this time.
I stepped back toward my mother, catching my breath. Her face was hard to read. Her eyes were very wide, but not exactly frightened. It was more the look of someone who had believed in ghosts for years, but had finally had one shake her hand.
Red and Tattoo were still on the ground, cursing. I asked my mother for a pen and paper. She stared at me, then rummaged in her purse. On a large magenta Post-it note, I wrote: RETURN TO SENDER. Then I signed my name.
I stuck it on the front of Red’s shirt.
"Thanks anyway," I said.
Before they could decide they weren’t so badly hurt after all, I took my mother’s arm and we walked down Queen Anne. I got her into her car before she decided it was time to talk.
"Tres, what exactly—"
“I’m not sure, Mother," I said, a little harsher than I meant to. “I’m sorry you got involved. It’s probably some friends of Bob Langston, the old tenant I had to kick out. Rivas said he was Army. So were those guys, probably. That’s all."
I must not have sounded very convincing. Mother kept looking at me, waiting for a better answer. I felt tired, the hazy crashed feeling you get when adrenaline stops flowing. I tried to muster up a smile. “Look, it’s fine."
She turned and stared through the windshield.
"You’re my only boy, Tres."
She has tremendous strength, my mother. Despite all her eccentricities, she can harden to steel in sixty seconds flat in a crisis. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her cry, or look as shaken as she had a few moments before. Now she smiled at me, reassuringly. When I bent and kissed her on the cheek, I could feel the slight tremble in her skin.
“Call me tomorrow," she said.
After she drove away I went inside and locked the door. Robert Johnson sniffed my legs for the strange odors of Red and Tattoo while I sat in the dark and called Lillian’s number.
Her answering machine didn’t pick up after ten rings. Lillian should have been home from Laredo by now. It was almost ten o’clock. She was there, I decided glumly, choosing to ignore the phone.
I stared at the coffee table, at the packet of old news clippings Carlon McAffrey had given me that afternoon, my father’s grinning face still on top. Looking at his picture, I realized how badly I needed to see Lillian tonight. I needed something clean and physical with her that wasn’t part of our past. I pushed the news clippings onto the floor.
Then I went to the refrigerator and got two items I’d picked up at Pappy’s Grocery in a moment of whimsy: a six-pack of Big Red and a bottle of tequila. I went out to the VW. A summer thunderstorm was coming in over the Balcones Escarpment, but I took the top down anyway. Then I drove toward Monte Vista, thinking about the future.
There is no place in San Antonio quite as lonely as the Olmos Basin. You can drive across the dam road at night, looking over an ocean of live oaks, and see no sign of the city that surrounds you. Just you, your car, and the dam. Unless you are my mother’s old high school chum, Whitley Strieber. Then I guess you have the UFOs to keep you company.
Tonight, diffused flashes of lightning illuminated the Basin, turning it from black to deep green. Thunder rolled over the tops of the trees like oil over the surface of a hot pan.
Up and down Acacia Street, dogs were barking at the storm. Lillian’s house was dark except for the small cranberry glass lamp she kept on her bedstand. Fuchsia light seeped out through the closed miniblinds. Her car was in the driveway.
Next door five or six Rodriguez children, fearless and unattended, roller—skated up and down the sidewalk in semidarkness, screaming with joy every time the thunder cracked. The music from inside their parents’ living room was muted tonight, as if in deference to the storm.
I pulled up to the curb and got out, carrying my Big Red and tequila up to the front porch. Two grinning Rodriguez children almost sideswiped me as I passed them.
In the basket Lillian used for mail was a stack of letters and ad circulars. Two newspapers on the porch. She could’ve come in through the back. Or maybe she hadn’t taken her own car to Laredo; maybe she was still gone. I thought about whose car she might’ve taken to the border instead, and I didn’t like the options I came up with.
The buzzer didn’t work. I knocked as loudly as I could on the frame of the screen door but it was very possible she wouldn’t hear me. The wind was picking up. Ripped from their branches, petals from Lillian’s crape myrtle and antique rosebush were thrown across the yard like pink confetti.
After three knocks I tried the door and found it open.
I put my six-pack and Herradura bottle down on the coffee table and called her name again. There were magazines strewn around the floor by the couch, typical of Lillian’s "read and dump” method.
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