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Authors: Luis Alberto Urrea

The Water Museum (3 page)

BOOK: The Water Museum

But even Frankie's dad said Son was no-account. A hippie. “You can't eat poems,” he told her.

It was after the senior prom when Son came up to her at the bonfire at the foot of the cliffs. Everybody was drinking. Stick was blitzed and sleeping in his truck. The Colorettes were roasting marshmallows for the boys. And Sonny sidled up to her and smelled her neck. The bolts of lightning that shot down her body made her jump. Somebody was playing Seger on the tape deck. They locked eyes.

“Frankie,” he said. “Run away with me.”

She shoved him a little.

“Crazy boy.”

“No, seriously. Let's run away. Portland. I want to take you to that beach.”

She laughed.

“You're drunk.”

He kissed her lips.

She stared into his eyes.

“What are you doing?” she whispered.

“I don't know.”

He sipped his beer.

“Can I do it again?”


They kissed, hard. She bit his lips.

Son's breath was shaking out of him, and they leaned against each other—the huge perpetual shadow of the cliff looming over the entire town, the bottoms of the numbers writhing in the fire's light as if they were dancing.

“I want to touch your hair,” she said.

Stick staggered out of the dark and he and Son stood side by side, peeing on the cliff face.

The Colorettes shrieked, “Ooh! Gross!” and scurried about in a frenzy of faux panic.

Stick hugged Son.

“You ain't so bad,” he said. Went back to sleep some more.

Later, Frankie's hands clutched Son's hair and she cried against his bare shoulder. And ever since, she has thought she should have run. She should have gone. But you can't just quit. You can't just leave home behind to wither and die. You can't. You can't.

She drinks.

*  *  *

The empty house sits in the silent morning. The yearbook is still on the table, but the coffee cup is in the drainer. Outside, the little bull rakes his horns across the chain-link fence and, after a while, gives up and walks away. Nobody sees him go.

Above Frankie's house, a slab of numbers wants to fall. Ice has gradually pried it loose from the butte, and it is just a matter of time until it shatters in a storm of rock. Could be today, could be in a hundred years.

Inside the diner, Frankie's telephone is ringing.

The breakfast club has begun to gather. It's just The Professor and Ralph and Sally. No sheepherders.

The Professor: “Know what a dinosaur is?”

Ralph: “No, what?”

Professor: “It's a sore you get from sitting around in a diner all day! Get it?”

Sally: “Did you just make that up?”

Ralph: “Know what a seven-course cowboy breakfast is?”

Professor: “No, what?”

Ralph: “A six-pack and a fistfight.”

Sally: “I wonder where that girl's at.”

They check their watches.

*  *  *

Frankie had wanted to go to Bible school for a couple of years and come back to marry Stick and teach Sunday school at Christ the Redeemer. Stick wasn't into no college—he had his business all lined up, and his folks fronted him the money for a nice little house right outside town, where antelopes moved by like small sailboats in the golden grasses, and a family of foxes had a den in a little cut bank not a quarter mile from the back porch. But Son was going on to State, and he was going to read poems for gosh sakes. Poems. What was he going to do with poems? He drove her crazy sometimes.

“I'm going to
” he proclaimed. As if she wasn't alive. As if he'd be so much more alive than anybody else. It made her mad.

That night, he and Stick stole the paints from the Benson Hill janitor's room. Two cans of house paint.

They climbed together in the dark. It rained. Everybody remembers that rain, how different it was that rain came in so late in the spring. And they must have made it because the big yellow 77 was there, far above the other numbers. Those boys crawling up the rock in the storm, probably egging each other on. Probably competing. The numbers are so high, no one has ever climbed up there to look, but everyone's certain one of the sevens says
And people speculate still on which hand painted it.

Frankie is grateful she wasn't the one who found them, lying broken at the foot of the butte. It was Stick's poor father. He covered them with his coat and a tarp from the truck before he staggered out of there, forgetting to drive, hollering for somebody to get the sheriff.

*  *  *

Little pebbles drop from the Shoshone butte and sound like rain hitting Frankie's tin roof. At the diner, they press their faces to the glass and peer into the dark, as if she might have somehow snuck past and entered without their noticing. They hear the phone ringing and ringing until it stops.

“I'm starving,” The Professor says.

Miss Sally says, “What if…”

Dirt rolls down the street. It makes small patterns in the wind that almost look like little waves.

Once, when the valley was full of water, dragonflies as big as ravens rattled through ferns and tall spikes of grasses and cattails. Cool fog blanketed the face of the butte—the softest thing the valley had ever known. Sometimes, the last people of New Junction dream of it: fog. It comes to them like a memory they never had. It is the dream of the mountains. The word for fog that none of them know sounds like the pinging of pebbles on Frankie's roof. If only someone could say it, miracles might happen. The numbers hover in the haze. Peregrines dive. And the Shoshone word for the lost cool fog is

The Professor looks up. “She'll be here,” he says. “Right? Right?”

Ralph is already walking away.


o this was New Year's Day. This was sunlight. Seventy-eight degrees. This was the sound of the barrio awakening from the party: doves mourning the passing of night, pigeons in the dead palm trees chuckling amid rattling fronds, the mockingbird doing car alarm and church bell iterations in Big Ángel's olive trees in front of the house. Junior pulled the pillow over his head—it was those kids with their Big Wheels making all that noise.

Somebody knocked on the screen door.

Junior groaned, rolled out of bed. He was in his plaid boxers. Yeah, he was skinny, but he was working out after school every day. Big Ángel wasn't worth much lately, but he did put cement in two coffee cans and sink a bar in the middle so Junior could curl and get his guns pumped. He flexed in the mirror. Guns! More like derringers.

on the screen door.

“A'ight, güey! I'm coming!”

The living room was covered in sleeping vatos. They were tangled on the couch and on the floor and there were dead forties and vino bottles scattered all over. The TV was still on: ESPN2. Junior shook his head. His big brother, Little Ángel, was snoring. That damned Chango was on the floor. Junior gave him a little kick and shot Chango the bird as he stepped over him.

“I seen that,” Chango warned, though his eyes never opened.

They'd started arriving last night around ten. Poor old Big Ángel's first New Year's without Moms in the house. He'd invited them to enjoy the fridge and the eggnog and had gone off to bed.

“Egg knobs?” Chango had said. “What the fuck's an egg knob?”

This is why Junior did everyone's homework for them—he was only in tenth grade, but the seniors were doomed without his help. “Dude likes to read!” was the insult they threw at him, and of course he was forced to deny it. He hid his paperbacks under his bed. Still, they relied on Junior's smarts to pass their classes, so they didn't beat him up so much. Sometimes, though, Chango and Little Ángel shoved him in a kitchen cabinet and put a broomstick through the handles, leaving him till the old man woke up and let him out.

Junior squinted out onto the porch.

There he stood. Hair all crazy like some kind of hippie. Shadow García.

“There he is,” said Junior.

Shadow shouted Junior's name, using that fake Beaner accent he enjoyed when he was mocking everybody: “WHO-nyurr!” he bellowed.

Junior scratched his butt.

“Qué?” he said.

“Let's go to the beach, ese.”

Junior squinted.

“For reals?”

“Why not? You the only one awake, peewee.”

Junior grinned.

“Let me get my flip-flops,” he said.

Shadow lit a smoke and bounced on the balls of his feet.

“Uh-huh, homey. Bring a li'l bucket too, an' like a blow-up dragon an' shit,” he said. “Shit!” He cracked himself up.

*  *  *

The shirts were out of style, but the homeboys still had respect. It was poor old Big Ángel's thing, that veterano thing, where the old guys thought a lowrider car was the point, a zoot suit maybe, and a fine placa for the back window with a cool logo. They had gothic T-shirts printed, sleeveless, and Junior wore his.
Southside Raza Image Federation Y QUE c/s
in a double rocker-arch around a drawing of a loco wolf with a bandana around his brow and a gold tooth winking in his mouth. The lobo was saying “Orale!” and holding up a doobie.

“Lots of Chicano historical data in that shirt,” said Shadow as he steered his mom's station wagon. The radio was where it should be: zeroed in on the oldies station. They didn't go for that Lady Ca Ca stuff or that pinche gangsta crap.

Junior was slumped back in his seat, riding shotgun. He was burningly aware of the two girlies in the backseat, La Smiley and La Li'l Mousey. They were popping their gum, bored as always, filling the car with perfume. Hair all ratted out.

“Las morras back there got raccoon eyes,” Shadow confided.

Junior glanced back at the girls. The Sotomayor sisters. Damn. Their eyes were outlined in black.

“What?” said Mousey. “Mind your business, boy.”

He turned back and grinned at Shadow.

“You like that?” Shadow asked.

“Well, yeah.”

“You in love, vato!”

“I'm in love with the world!”

Shadow hooted out the window. “My man!” he said, nodding and jittering in the driver's seat. “My ma-a-an.”

He honked the horn.

*  *  *

They drove out to the Silver Strand. It seemed like all San Diego and all Chula Vista and half of National City were heading for the beach. Fat moms and swabbies from the naval air base and old farts in big Hawaiian shirts and all those wetbacks from Tijuana. The vatos didn't like the fuckin' wetbacks, that was for sure. Sureños from the south battled it out with Norteños from the north; Chicanos faced off against Mexicanos. Beaners versus rednecks. Everybody against the black brothers. And just forget about the Asians. It was natural selection, just as they had learned from Darwin as explained by Professor Junior. Nobody liked nobody.

“Yo, Junior,” Shadow said as he parked in the sandy lot across the highway from the beach. “What we reading next in Mr. Hitler's class?”

Mr. Hitler. Junior snickered. That friggin' Shadow.

“We're reading about Lewis and Clark.”

“What's up with Lewis and Clark?”

“They, like, took canoes and rowed all across America and checked shit out for the president.”

“No shit? Like who, Reagan?”

“No, ese. A real old dude. It was a hundred years ago.”

“Reagan, like I said!” Shadow announced.

He jumped out of the car, circling to the back door.

“Ladies,” he said, holding their door open. He was swooping on La Smiley—everybody knew it. Junior was worried: La Li'l Mousey was too much woman for him, he was sure of it.

“Did Louie and Clark find dinosaurs?” Shadow asked.

“You crazy.”

“Read that book, boy!” (Who, Shadow?)

La Mousey terrified Junior by putting her arm around his waist.

They walked to the tunnels under the roadway. Jet fighters patrolled the beach on their way to North Island. Border Patrol helicopters appeared and disappeared to the south. The concrete tunnels were sandy. People had tagged inside them—blurry messages and pictures nobody paid attention to.

Two shadowy thugs were coming their way, and Junior didn't even look at them, he was so enraptured by Shadow and so sweaty under La Mousey's arm. The first thug slammed his shoulder into Shadow as he passed. Shadow bounced off the tunnel wall. The thug said, “Lárgate, pocho.”

“What did you say to me, bitch?” said Shadow.

“Pocho puto,” the thug replied.


Shadow smiled. “You come into my country and talk smack to me? Really? Really? Okay.” He nodded. “Sure, why not.”

Shadow fired a right fist straight into the thug's ribs and followed with a left that knocked him off his feet—shoes sliding out from under him on the sand-covered cement. His head clonked like a coconut when he went down.

“Shadow! Shadow!” Junior yelled. The girlies backed to the wall and shrieked with pleasure.

“Do him, Junior! Do him good!” Shadow yelled as he kicked and punched the other Mexican to the ground. Junior turned to the fallen thug, who was groggy but rising. He drew back his foot, pausing for a second to consider his black Converse, then kicked the thug in the mouth.

*  *  *

“I'ma barf,” Junior said as they spun out of the lot and hurried toward the freeway. Shadow was crazy-happy, bloody knuckles and all. He punched the ceiling.

“You ain't gonna barf!”

“I'ma barf,” Junior said.

“You whipped that asshole but good, peewee!” Shadow hollered. “He's in love with the world!” he shouted. “Hey—don't barf. You do not barf in my mom's car.”

Li'l Mousey leaned over the seat and massaged Junior's shoulders.

“Junior?” she said. “You okay?”

He groaned.

“Honey,” she said, “you got a tooth stuck in your shoe.”

He barfed.

Shadow shrieked, “Not in my mom's car, homes! Damn!”

“Sorry,” mumbled the professor as they sped back to the 'hood.

*  *  *

The next morning Junior was in bed reading
The Stand
when that knock came again on the screen door. For a moment, he considered not answering. But he did.

Shadow. Bloodshot eyes.

“Heavyweight Champion of the World!” Shadow said.

Chango had wanted to hang the Mexican's tooth on a thong so Junior could wear it like some Apache warrior.

“Sup?” said Junior.

“Sup with you?”

Junior shrugged.

“Aquí nomás,” he said. “Sup with you?”

“Nuttin. I don't know. Sup?”


“I hear that.” They stared at each other through the screen.

“Chillin',” Shadow offered. “After the big fight.”

Junior chuckled.

“Tha's right,” he said. He made a muscle.

“No shame in your game!” Shadow announced.

They smiled.

“Um, I got you somethin',” Shadow said.


“Like a prize or some shit, right?” Shadow reached into his back pocket and pulled out a flimsy little pink paperback. “Check that out. I di'nt get a word of it, but I know you like that crazy stuff.”

Junior opened the screen and took the book. It was a bent and battered
Trout Fishing in America.
He already had one under his bed.

“Brautigan,” he said.

“Is that how you say it?” Shadow asked.


Shadow bounced a little in place.

“I got you something better, homes.”


“Simón, güey. Step out here.”

Junior stepped out on the porch.

“Check it,” Shadow said, pointing to his mom's station wagon. It had an aluminum canoe tied to the roof. “Sweet, right?”

“Shadow!” said Junior. “Where'd you get that?”

“I stole it!”


“I went out driving. I can't sleep, man. Can you? I can't. Yo, so I went driving, right? They got this Boy Scout camp up on Otay Mesa. Around the lake. Like, all these tents with sleeping Scouts. I snuck in and stole it. For you!”

“You're crazy!”

“I stole some paddles, too. They're in the car.”

They regarded the canoe.

“What are we supposed to do with a canoe?” Junior asked.

Shadow smiled.

“Louie and Clark, homes. Like, let's go discovering.”

*  *  *

The marshes and creeks were to the east and the south of Big Ángel's house. Between the barrio and the border, pretty much. The sloughs.

Back in the day, crabs were attracted to the clotted blood-water that oozed out of the little slaughterhouse about a quarter mile from the gravel parking lot at the bottom of the barrio hill. Big Ángel could catch some supper down in there. Nowadays, nobody went down there except maybe Chango. If Chango was there, nobody else wanted to go there. But Shadow could take Chango any day or night.

They carted the canoe over their heads, the gunnels breaking their shoulders. It weighed about nine hundred pounds, in Junior's opinion. “How can a piece of shit that weighs as much as a car,” Shadow wanted to know, “float on the water?” They staggered down the dirt road and skirted the gravel lot. Old motor oil in the dust still gave up its aroma of engines. Soda cans crushed flat in the gravel had faded pale orange in the relentless sunlight. Somebody had spray-painted tags on an old truck. Grasshoppers burst out of the weeds as the boys advanced, blasting through the air with clackety ratchet sounds. Jimmy noted the rolling passage of a tumbleweed.

Across the sloughs, the little slaughterhouse almost looked nostalgic. Occasional tides of blood and offal still pulsed out of there, making the sloughs stink worse than usual. It looked like the blood wasn't flowing that morning.

They heaved the canoe into the sludge that passed for water, and it hit with a flat smack. Shadow had to push it with his foot, hopping along until it seemed like it was bobbing. They watched to see if it would sink.

“There you go!” Shadow said. “Hop in!”

He steadied it, and Junior climbed in. Then Shadow climbed in. Their weight sank the bottom of the canoe into the muck and they sat there, moored like a commemorative statue of two idiots setting out for an adventure.

“Okay,” said Shadow. “So we ain't Lewis and Clark.”

They got out. The rancid blood-mud released the canoe with great sucking reluctance. They portaged it around the hill to the busted end of Half-Hill Road. The water there was almost four feet deep. They put in again and found themselves floating.

“Holy shit!” cried Shadow.

It took them a few minutes to coordinate their oarsmanship, but they finally made forward motion after a little floundering. Junior was in front and Shadow squatted in back. They moved down one of the braided waterways, scraping between crumbling humps of weeds and mud. A green crab threatened Shadow from one black bank. Junior looked down into the water. He could see rainbows of pollution and oil on the surface, and weird billows of yellow and green filth that rose from the gray bottom like small poisoned geysers.

They maneuvered around a slime-covered shopping cart. Junior pointed out a washing machine in the water. Corduroy pants on a hillock, brittle after years in the sun. They squeezed through a narrow passage and were startled to find themselves in a bigger stream. A heron raised its head and regarded them with disdain.

“Big fuckin' bird!” Shadow shouted.

The heron raised its wings and left the earth in slow motion and hove upstream.

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