"What the fuck, kid, " he said, leaning his hand against the door frame. "You just about kimcheed this guy’s arm off. Give me a reason I shouldn’t treat you to some free accommodations at the County Annex tonight. "
I referred him to Gary Hales’s and my lease agreement, then told him about Mr. Langston’s less-than-warm reception. Rivas seemed unimpressed.
Of course, Jay Rivas always seemed unimpressed when it came to my family. He’d worked with my dad in the late seventies on a joint investigation that didn’t go so well. My dad had expressed his displeasure to his friends at SAPD, and here was Detective Rivas twenty years later, following up on low-priority assault cases.
"You made it out here awfully quick, Jay," I said. “Should I be flattered or do they normally send you out for the trivial stuff?"
Rivas blew smoke through his mustache. His double chins turned a beautiful shade of red, like a toad’s.
“Why don’t we go inside and talk about that," he suggested, his voice calm.
He motioned for me to open the screen door. It didn’t happen.
"I’m losing air conditioning, here, Detective," I said. We stared at each other for about two minutes. Then he disappointed me. He backed down the steps. He stuck the cigarette in his mouth and shrugged.
“Okay, kid, " he said. "Just take the hint."
"Which is? "
Then I’m sure he smiled. I could see the cigarette curve up through the whiskers. “You get your nose into anything else, I’ll see you get some nice cellmates downtown."
“You’re a loving human being, Jay."
“To hell with that."
He tossed his cigarette onto Bob Langston’s "God Bless Home" welcome mat and swaggered back to I where the two uniforms were waiting for him. I watched their unit disappear down Queen Anne Street. Then I went inside.
I looked around my new home—the bubbled molding on the ceiling, the gray paint that had started peeling away from the walls. I looked down at Robert Johnson. He was now sitting in my open suitcase and staring at me with an insulted expression. A subtle hint. I called Lillian’s number with the thirst of a man who needs water after a shot of mescal.
It was worth it.
She said: "Tres?" and ripped away the last ten years of my life like so much tissue paper.
"Yeah," I told her. "I’m in my new place. More or less."
She hesitated. "You don’t sound too happy about it."
"It’s nothing. I’ll tell you the story later."
"I can’t wait."
We held the line for a minute—the kind of silence where you lean into the receiver, trying to push yourself through by sheer force.
"I love you," Lillian said. "Is it too soon to say that?"
I swallowed down the ball bearing in my throat.
"How about nine? I’ve got to liberate the VW from my mother’s garage."
Lillian laughed. "The Orange Thing still runs?"
"It’d better. I’ve got a hot date tonight."
"You’d better believe it."
We hung up. I looked over at Robert Johnson, who was still sitting in my suitcase.
"Deal with it," I told him.
I felt like it was 1985 again. I was still nineteen, my dad was alive, and I was still in love with the girl I’d been planning on marrying since junior high. We were going seventy miles an hour down I-35 in an old VW that could only do sixty-five, chasing down god-awful tequila with even more god-awful Big Red cream soda. Teenage champagne.
I changed clothes again and called a cab. I tried to remember the taste of Big Red tequila. I wasn’t sure I could ever drink something like that again and smile, but I was ready to try.
Broadway from Queen Anne to my mother’s house was lined with pink taco restaurants. Not the run-down family—owned places I remembered from high school—these were franchises with neon signs and pastel flamingos painted along the walls. There must have been one every half mile.
Landmarks in downtown Alamo Heights had disappeared. The Montanios had sold off the 50-50 Bar, my father’s old watering hole. Sill’s Snack Shack was now a Texaco. Most of the local places like that, named after people I knew, had been swallowed by faceless national chains. Other storefronts were boarded up, their half-hearted "For Lease" signs weathered down to illegibility. The city was still a thousand kinds of green, though. In every block the buildings were crowded by ancient live oak trees, huisaches, and Texas laurels. It was the kind of rich green you see in most towns only right after a big rain.
It was sunset and still ninety—five degrees when the cab turned down Vandiver. There were none of the soft afternoon colors you get in San Francisco, no hills for shadows, no fog to airbrush the scenery for tourists on the Golden Gate. Here the light was honest—everything it touched was sharply focused, outlined in heat. The sun kept its eye on the city until its very last moment on the horizon, looking at you as if to say: "Tomorrow PM going to kick your ass."
Vandiver Street hadn’t changed. Sprinklers cut circles across the huge lawns, and wraithlike retirees stared aimlessly out the picture windows of their white, post-WW II houses. The only difference was that Mother had reincarnated her house again. If I hadn’t recognized the huge oak tree in front, the dirt yard covered with acorns and patches of wild strawberry, I would have let the cabby drive right past it.
Once I saw it, I was tempted to drive past anyway. It was stucco now—olive-colored walls with a bright red clay tile roof. The last time I’d seen the house it looked more like a log cabin. Before that it had been pseudo-Frank Lloyd Wright. Over the years Mother had become close with several contractors who depended on her for steady income.
"Tres, honey," she said at the door, pulling my face forward with both hands for a kiss.
She hadn’t changed. At fifty-six she could still pass for thirty. She wore a loose Guatemalan dress, fuchsia with blue stitching, and her black hair was tied back with a festive knot of colored ribbons. The smell of vanilla incense wafted out the door with her.
"You look great, Mother." I meant it.
She smiled, dragging me inside by the arm and steering me toward the pool table at the far end of her huge living room.
The decor had shifted from late Bohemian to early Santa Fe, but the general theme was still the same: "put stuff everywhere." Shelves and tables were overloaded with antique knives, papier-maché dolls, carved wooden boxes, replica coyotes howling at replica moons, a neon cactus, anything to attract the eye.
Around the pool table were three old acquaintances from high school. I shook hands with Barry Williams and Tom Cavagnaro. Both had played varsity with me. They were here because my mom loved entertaining guests with pool and free beer. Then I nodded to Jess Makar, who had graduated when I was a freshman. jess was here because he was dating my mother.
They asked the standard polite questions and I answered them, then they resumed their game and Mother took me into the kitchen.
"Jess is aging gracefully," I told her.
She pursed her lips and glared as she turned around from the refrigerator. She handed me a Shiner Bock.
"Now don’t you start, Jackson," she said.
When she called me that, the name I took from my father and grandfather, I never could tell whether she was scolding me or the whole line of Navarre men. Probably both.
"You could at least give the man a chance," she said, sitting down at the table. "After the years I had to put up with your father, and then years of getting you through school, I think I’m entitled to my own choices for once."
Since her divorce my mother had made a lot of choices. In fifteen years she’d gone from the pecan pie baking champion of the Wives of the Texas Cavaliers to a freelance artist who preferred big canvases, younger men, and New Age.
She smiled again. "Now tell me about Lillian."
“I don’t know," I said.
Expectant pause, waiting for an admission of guilt.
"You knew enough to come back," Mother prompted.
What she wanted me to say: I’d marry Lillian tomorrow, at the drop of a hat, just based on the letters and calls we’d exchanged since she’d phoned me out of the blue two months ago. Mother wanted to hear that, and it would’ve been true. Instead, I drank my Shiner Bock.
Mother nodded as if I’d answered.
“I always knew. Such a creative young woman. I always knew you couldn’t stay away forever."
"And your father’s death?"
I looked up. The air of frenetic energy that usually swirled around her like a strong perfume had dropped away totally. She was serious now.
“What do you mean?" I asked.
Of course I knew what she meant. Had I come back to deal with that too, or had I put it behind me?
Mother stared at me, waiting. I looked down at my beer. The little ram on the label was staring at me too.
“I don’t know," I said. “I thought ten years away would make a difference."
“It should, dear."
I nodded, not looking at her. In the next room someone sunk a billiard ball with a heavy thud. After a minute my mother sighed.
"It hasn’t been too long for you and Lillian," she told me. "But your father—that’s different. Leave it be, Tres. Things have changed."
Fifteen minutes later, after three attempts at automotive CPR and lots of strong language, my VW convertible coughed itself back to life and chugged fitfully out of the driveway. The engine sounded bad, but no worse than it had a decade ago, when I had decided it would never make the trip to California. The left headlight was still out. A cup I had been drinking beer from in 1985 was still wedged between the seat and the emergency brake. I waved to my mother, who hadn’t aged in two decades.
I drove toward Lillian’s house, the same one she had lived in the summer I left.
"Things have changed," I repeated, halfway wishing I could believe it.
"Now I know I’m in love," Lillian told me after she tasted her drink.
The perfect margarita should be on the rocks, not frozen. Fresh-squeezed limes, never a mixer. Cointreau rather than triple sec. No tequila but Herradura Anejo, a brand that until a few years ago was only available across the border. All three ingredients in equal proportions. And without salt on the rim it might as well be a daiquiri.
I sat next to Lillian on the couch and tried mine. It had been a few years since I’d worked behind a bar, but the margarita was definitely passable.
"Well, it’s not Big Red . . ." I said ruefully.
Lillian’s smile was brilliant, a few new wrinkles etched around her eyes. "You can’t have everything? Her face had a little too much of everything, just as I remembered. Her eyes were slightly large, like a cat’s, the irises flecked with too many browns and blues and grays to call them only green. Her mouth was wide, her nose so delicate it bordered on being sharp. Her light brown hair, which she now wore shoulder-length, had so many blond and red streaks it looked off-color. And she had too many freckles, especially noticeable now when she had a summer tan. Somehow it all worked to make her beautiful.
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