This story is published in collaboration with the Austin-based literary journal American Short Fiction.
They’d been watching the renovations for days. The plan was simple: Cut a hole in the fence. Get inside the house. Grab the copper. Take it home. Sell it. Easy money if Lucas could just stick to the plan.
But there was something about the way his skull was born without a soft spot and something about the way his brain grew into the skull, pushing up against the stubborn bone, that made him forget all the little things. He would forget the day. He would forget where he was walking and sometimes why he was going in the first place.
He sat on the grimy kitchen counter—kicking his feet back and forth, worrying the dust—and repeated the plan over and over under his breath. In the abandoned house on Sherman Street where he and his uncle squatted, plywood covered the windows. They had hammered peepholes in the panels, and sunbeams shot like bullets into the stale, sweaty dark. One window at the back remained unsealed, glassless, with heavy curtains nailed over the frame, hot air seeping in with the growing rumble of the freight train.
Lucas cracked his knuckles and whispered to himself, “Cut the fence, get inside, take the pipe.”
“Write it down.” Chorizo’s voice came from the front room, where he sat on top of a thick blanket printed with a white tiger sauntering through tall grass. The glow of his handheld TV shone dull on his face.
“Naw, man. I’ll remember. See—pipe wrench, wire cutters, pipe cutters.” He counted the items off on his fingers.
“Just the pipe cutter. You only worry about the pipe cutter. I got the rest in my toolbox.”
“Should I get a flashlight too?”
“Nel. I got two flashlights.” Chorizo coughed into his fist and wiped it on his tattered jeans. He wheezed and breathed slowly into his hands, but the cough came on stronger.
Lucas walked over to Chorizo and pounded his back, trying to shake loose the blockage in his uncle’s lungs. “Whyn’t you just go to the VA?”
“I’m fine,” Chorizo managed, and he cleared his throat. “And don’t change the subject. We have work to do.”
“I’m just tryna look out for you.”
Chorizo breathed and let out a long exhale. “The government messed me up in the first place. And they don’t fix what they break. They just pretend they never broke it.”
“What about a regular doctor?”
“There isn’t anything they can do. And there isn’t anything you can do except what I’m asking you.”
“What about the duct tape, then?”
“I already got duct tape,” Chorizo wheezed.
“What about a hammer?”
“We won’t need a hammer.”
“So just the pipe cutter?”
“Simón,” Chorizo nodded.
“Búho would know about a pipe cutter.”
“If you’re going to see Búho, make sure you stay clean. I need you clean.”
Lucas waved him off. “I’m better when I got a little something in me.”
“Trust me. You’re not.”
“Look at me. I’m all stiff.” Lucas held his arms out to the side and his shoulder joints creaked. “I gotta get some kinda taste. Grease up my bones after months of nothing.” He fanned his hands around his face. “It’s like an oven in here. I gotta beat the heat.” He scratched his forearm and wiped the grime on his shirttail.
“Don’t you think I’d rather do this job myself? I gotta pay Martínez somehow, and I can’t move like I used to. I need you to stay straight. Mexico’s playing South Korea tonight. The neighbors never miss a game. The noise’ll give us cover.”
Lucas lit a half cigarette and blew smoke into the space between them. “I’ll be good.” He pulled the curtain back and climbed out the window.
“You better be. I don’t want you winding up like that teacher from the news. Or the Northside boy the week before. They think the man has killed down by the border, but now he’s here. And be careful you don’t do something to get picked up again.”
On his way to see Búho at the Jack in the Box, Lucas bowed to the blue-haired hairdresser through the window of Estrellita’s salon on Cesar Chavez. She smiled and saluted him, a straight razor in her hand.
He stooped to pet a black cat who stretched her limbs on the sidewalk and pushed her muzzle into his shin. “Hola, corazón,” he said. She rolled over onto her back, and he stroked the heart-shaped bald spot on her chest. An iridescent grackle perched next to a red-crowned parrot on the power lines above and squealed. The parrot squawked and flew away.
On the sidewalk in front of the cleaners, puffs of steam floated by and the high-pitched rancheras of Las Jilguerillas followed, the music warbled by box fans that urged the vapor into the street. He waved at the lady bent over the iron press singing along with the music, but she didn’t notice him. The wet heat hovered all around him and sweat tacked his T-shirt to his skin.
“Lucas!” Isabel approached him from behind, sweeping her spider-veined hand through the air. She pushed a grocery cart full of tin cans with a panting Chihuahua in the child’s seat. The dog was tense, its eyes bulging, its twiggy legs shaking under the weight of its belly.
“Cómo estás?” Lucas said to Isabel. “Long time.”
“Good. Good. I’m going on twelve months now.” She stuck her hand inside of her shirt and rubbed her stomach.
“Wow. Any day now, huh?”
“I want to keep it a surprise,” she whispered, her other hand covering one side of her mouth, “but I’m gonna call him Mago, like his papi.” Her dark-red lipstick was almost black against her brown skin, and it had rubbed onto her teeth. “He talked to me inside my dream,” she continued, “and said that he was finally coming back.” She giggled and crossed Avenue F. Her stomach was as flat as it had ever been. The Chihuahua barked at the big German shepherd sleeping on the shaded porch of Las Novias bakery across Canal Street. Isabel pulled a tortilla chip from the pocket of her pink apron, and the little dog snatched it from her fingers and wolfed it down.
Across the street from El Mercado del Sol, Martínez was digging in the back of his truck next to his sidewalk broom stand. His brooms were cheap and came undone after a couple uses, leaving thick lengths of straw on the floor. They weren’t fit for an amateur witch or the most uninspired homemaker, and hardly anybody ever bought them. Everyone in the neighborhood already knew the stand was a front for his real business selling prescription antibiotics and birth control smuggled from Mexico, alongside custom cures and brujería. Lucas had his doubts about Martínez. It all looked like bullshit—the tinctures and candles and exfoliating soaps to wash off sin. Lucas didn’t trust it, but Chorizo insisted on these herbal remedies.
Lucas hastened his pace and strode by, hoping Martínez wouldn’t notice him. It was always the same two things with that man—money and God. Lucas hit the walk button on the light post at the intersection of Cesar Chavez and Canal and watched the number 20 bus go by, streaked with the signature blue-and-white racing stripes of the Houston Metro. Two police cruisers passing each other honked in greeting.
“Lucas! Lucas!” Martínez’s voice grew louder as he neared.
Lucas rolled his eyes and turned around, forcing a smile. “Ey, man. I didn’t see you.”
Martínez threw his hands up. “Tell your tío Chorizo I need my money. I wish that I could work for free, but I need to eat and pay my rent. And estos diablos policías always want a bigger cut.” He nodded his head toward another pair of cops parked in front of the bakery, one munching on a cuerno and the other in serious conversation with the owner.
“We’re working on it,” Lucas said. “But you know—his cough is worse now than when I got locked up. How long are those drops supposed to take before they do anything?”
“God is perfect, but his servants are not. I cannot fix him overnight.”
“We’re pulling some money together, but this better not be no scam.”
“Scam!” Martínez spit into the street. “This world has broken my heart too many times for me to do it to someone else.”
“I don’t need no sob story. I just need you to do right by us.”
“By God, I will do what I can.” Martínez bowed, his hand on his heart.
Before the Jack in the Box, Lucas stopped at señora Candy’s house. The place was red brick with an arch above the gate and purple bougainvillea spilling toward the sidewalk. Her son answered the door. He wore long curly hair and a Hawaiian shirt. Lucas could never remember the guy’s name, so he just said, “Ey, mister. You ain’t got a sandwich?” Lucas lowered himself, muffling his voice deep in his throat, hunching his back so that the young fat man would tower over and feel sorry for him.
“Sit out here a minute. My mom’ll fix you something.”
Lucas rocked vigorously in a red patio chair, whispering to himself: “Pipe cutter, pipe cutter, pipe cutter—”
“Que cantón,” a voice shouted from the other side of the bougainvillea. It was Búho. They called him that because he wore tiny round spectacles that made him owl-like, and if he was well-enough lubricated, he could almost turn his head to see around his back. “Straight from one big house to another!”
Lucas shooed him away with both hands.
“Too good for me and my Coronas?” Búho laughed, holding up a sagging plastic bag, glass clinking as he raised it.
“Gimme a minute. I’ma come see you in a minute.”
“Whatever, cabrón.” He stumbled down to the corner.
Señora Candy opened the front door holding a Styrofoam plate covered with foil. Lucas stood a head taller than her, but her perfume hit him somewhere in his body that reminded his brain of something to do with his mom, and he felt littler.
She reached up and put her hand on his shoulder as he took the plate. He felt his back lengthen again as she walked him to the gate. “How’s your tío?”
“He’s alright. His cough is getting worse, but he says it hardly bothers him.”
“Did you know we lived in the same building when I first arrived? In the apartments across from the Fiesta Mart. He was one floor above me, and he would sit on his balcony every morning with a coffee and the newspaper. It was so nice seeing a man read. The town I came from, the best you could expect from a man was maybe he had a horse and maybe he wouldn’t cheat. And your tío was so handsome.”
“He told me he used to see you around.”
Señora Candy smiled. “Are you taking care of yourself?”
“Doing my best.” He shrugged his shoulders and dried his forehead on his shirtsleeve.
“Do you need some water?”
“No,” he said. “I got what I need.”
“Look, I don’t mind feeding you and your tío. Come by whenever you want. But don’t let me find out you’re giving my food to those people on the corner. You and Carlos need to eat.”
“No, señora. I wouldn’t do that.”
“Okay,” she said, smiling. “If you need anything, tell me. You can’t be too careful in these streets.”
In the parking lot of the Jack in the Box, Lucas traded his plate of food to Búho for a Corona Mega. He squatted, leaning his back against the trunk of a sprawling elm, and sighed, touching the cold glass bottle to his face and chest. He took a long chug, and the beer cooled him from the inside. A few yards away, a black Labrador tore into the trash bags set beside the dumpster, eating fries and licking spent packets of ketchup and ranch dressing. Búho sat with Brenda on a mattress under the tree. He put the plate on his lap and guided a Corona to his thirsty lips, while she used a corn tortilla to scoop the papas guisadas off his plate and into her mouth.
“Ey, you ain’t know where I can get a pipe cutter?” Lucas said.
“You a plumber all of a sudden?” This was Búho.
“I got a job with my tío Chorizo.”
“A job, huh? You gonna hook me up?” Búho spat on the ground around his shoes.
“It’s Chorizo’s job. I’m just tagging along.”
“Aw, come on. I need money too.”
“If it was up to me, I would. But it’s Chorizo’s thing. You know how he is.”
“Alright. See if I help you out next time I got a little something going on.”
Brenda squealed. The black Labrador was wedging himself between her and Búho, his front half on her lap and his tail whacking Búho’s face with every wag.
“I just need a pipe cutter, and in a few days I’ll be flush. I forget a lot of things, but I won’t forget this Corona.”
Búho held the plate of food above his head to keep the dog from stepping in it. “As long as you remember who’s got your back out here.”
“You know I know how to spread it around.”
Búho took a drink. “Try Jose at his junk shop on Canal.”
Brenda tore a piece of tortilla off Búho’s plate and gave it to the dog. He licked her palm after the tortilla was gone, his tongue making its way up her forearm until she was pinned, and he licked her neck. She giggled. “Búho, this dog could make us money. He could make us rich. Like that champion dog from the news.”
“I didn’t see no dog on the news,” Lucas said.
“You don’t even have a TV.” Búho scratched between his legs.
“Yeah, Chorizo got a handheld at the flea market.”
“Who cares about the dog?” said Búho.
“He was on the news! A show dog right in our own neighborhood. He won a thousand dollars. We could use that kinda money.”
“That’s the problem with society. You’re watching the news—talking about a dog, when there’s a murderer out there,” Búho said.
“Right,” Lucas said, “the murder.” He was into his second Corona now. “That’s how come I seen all those cops, huh?” He put the bottle to the dog’s lips and laughed before taking another chug.
“I didn’t see no murder. I fell asleep after they showed the dog,” Brenda said.
Búho shook his head. “I saw it on TV. And then I saw the cop cars and police tape at a house across Edison. I asked a neighbor who was out smoking on his porch. He says he saw them pull out the girl’s body—that a cop told him that her left hand was missing. They didn’t show that on the TV.”
“Missing? Like it ran away?” Lucas laughed.
“More like they cut it off.”
“Who’s they?” Brenda snatched the plate of food from Búho’s hands. “The cops?”
“Not the cops. The killer. Listen here, Lucas. I’m only telling you ’cause no one else’ll bother with you. If you’re gonna be hanging around at night—the cops are on the lookout.”
“Cálmate, cabrón.” Lucas took a drink from his beer and then blew rhythmically into his empty bottle. It was a polka. “Both of you got the story wrong. I remember it now.” He grabbed a dirty towel from the ground, rolled it up, and laid his head on it. His skin glistened with sweat, his eyes got crossed, and his voice was all foam. “Me and Chorizo saw it all on his TV. It was the dead teacher’s dog.” He tried to light a cigarette, but the lighter just flickered. “They found her in her kitchen. And the dog had ate the hand.” He tossed the lighter into the street.
“You made that up!” Búho said.
“No way I did. Ask Chorizo.”
“Then you remembered it wrong.”
“No. It was one of those sissy poodles.”
“Pendejo,” said Búho. “You’re getting it mixed up. It was two stories. And they never said nothing about no hand on the TV.”
“So the dog didn’t eat the hand?”
“No, he won a contest.”
“How is that news?”
“That’s what I’m saying. Dogs win dog contests, no?”
Brenda pulled the Lab’s scruff and petted his head. “The boy and his dog live in the neighborhood. That’s how it’s news. They beat out those River Oaks dogs. And that lady who used to cut my mom’s hair on Harrisburg—she’s the one who cut his hair.”
“The boy’s hair?”
“Goddamn it, Lucas. Keep up. She cut the dog’s hair.”
“So the winning dog ate the hand?”
“Vato, you got a problem. The dog and the killer were different stories, back to back. You must’ve been drunk.”
“Man,” Lucas said. “They do that on purpose to confuse. So anybody regular stays in the dark about real shit. Bill Clinton playing saxophone on the TV and getting a blow job, and bam”—he smacked his hand against his knee—“my cousin Periquín gets deported to El Salvador when he was really born in a car outside the Poppa Burger in Northside.”
“Why would they wanna confuse you?”
“To distract from bigger fish. Like secret wars and underwater cities. There’s always something,” Lucas said. “Ten million aliens living in the country. Are we supposed to believe that shit?”
Búho laughed. “Pendejo, we’re the aliens.”
“Maybe you.” Lucas said. “But I ain’t no alien. They can check my papers. These are my streets. I was born downtown.” He wrapped his arm around the Lab and turned its ear inside out.
“You better carry those papers in case you get picked up. The cops are looking out. They said the man hangs by the tracks at night. That he rode illegal on the freight trains all the way from Mexico.”
The streetlamps were flickering in the dark when Lucas finally stumbled his way through the junior high parking lot and found Jose’s junk shop. He stared at the hacksaw Jose put in his hand. “This’ll cut copper?”
“Shit,” Jose said, bending the brim of his old Oilers cap. “It’ll cut through bone with a little effort.”
The sound of music floated from down the street on the balmy nighttime air as Lucas staggered out of the shop, miniature saw in hand, following a yellow glow to a house near the corner of Maltby and Navigation. He stuffed the saw into his waistband and covered the handle with his shirt before approaching the crowd. They were holding hands and praying. Candles lined the fence, along with marigolds, roses, and bougainvillea branches with purple flowers. Notes were tucked into the chain-link, and two children held a poster board with a big red heart crayoned on it. “We 🖤 you Ms. Puente,” it read.
As Lucas watched, the crowd grew and spilled into the street and onto the lawns of nearby houses.
“Amor Eterno” played on a boom box just outside the yellow police line, the twin guitars keeping time underneath the lively exhale of the accordion and the mesmerizing sweep of violins. Juan Gabriel’s voice cracked over the steadiness of the orchestra, his pain shaking loose at the chorus, speaking for the speechless crowd.
Someone touched Lucas’s elbow. He whipped his head around. “I wasn’t doing anything.”
It was señora Candy holding a plate of pan dulce and a coffee cup. “Take a concha and pray a little.”
When the song ended, señora Candy took his hand and an old man came in close and took the other. Doña Lourdes, who owned the bakery, stood at the front of the crowd and led the prayer, fanning herself every now and then with a paper plate.
“Santa Maria, Madre de Dios,” Lucas said. But he never learned to say the rest, so he just moved his lips.
At the front of the group, a man sat on the sidewalk, his knees pulled up to his chest, his face hidden between them. A woman in sweatpants and a Pink Panther T-shirt stood next to him, caressing his head through his spiky black hair.
There were chickens in the street eating crumbs of pan dulce off the concrete. One hen knocked a churro away from a little girl wearing a Mexican soccer jersey with the Aztec calendar printed on the front, the sun god dead center, its tongue sticking out dagger-like from its mouth. The girl wailed as the brood descended on the churro and disintegrated it peck by peck. At the sound of her cry, the man on the sidewalk moaned. The woman crouched, took him into her arms, and brought his face into her chest.
All their bodies mashed together, and the heat was stifling. Señora Candy’s grip grew hot, and Lucas pulled his sweaty hand away from hers.
“Wait,” she said. “Take some bread with you to your tío.”
He grabbed a concha for his uncle and a marranito for himself. He bit into his little pig, holding it in his mouth as he ran across Macario Garcia, dodging the four lanes of one-way traffic, and then did the same across Wayside. When he passed the Jack in the Box, Búho and Brenda were still on the mattress, sleeping against each other, and the dog was lying in the grass.
Lucas rounded the corner onto Sherman Street, where Chorizo was already crowbarring a section of construction fence at the side of the house. Lucas held the fence up as Chorizo crawled into the yard. He followed, his back scraping against the galvanized mesh.
As expected, there was a party next door. Ramon Ayala’s blistering accordion burned through the wooden fence, and men threw gritos—their shouts wet with beer and excitement. Lucas peeked through a hole in the slats. The women drank wine coolers and wore short skirts. Smoke swirled over the fence and with it the smell of grilled corn and chicken.
“Come here,” Chorizo said, waving Lucas over to the back door. “Where’ve you been?” He boxed Lucas’s ears with his palms. “I can smell the booze in your sweat.”
“I barely had a taste.” He pushed his uncle’s arms away and handed him the pan dulce.
“Where’d you get it?”
“I passed by the lady’s velorio on accident.”
“The teacher from the news.”
Chorizo bit into the concha.
“Her family was out there. The whole block practically.”
“You catch her name?”
“Yeah, but I can’t remember.”
“You get the pipe cutter?”
Lucas pulled the miniature saw from his waistband and handed it to Chorizo.
“This isn’t a pipe cutter.”
“If you use it to cut pipe, then it’s a pipe cutter.”
“This’ll take forever to cut through anything. It’s barely good enough for this stale concha.” He sawed through it and put the unfrosted half in Lucas’ hands. “I ask for a pipe cutter, and I get a dollar-store hacksaw and rock-hard bread.”
“I can do it myself if you’re scared.”
“I ain’t scared. But I gave you one job, and you went out and got drunk. I knew you would. I don’t know why I thought you’d come through. I should just do the whole thing myself.”
“Man, I just had a taste and dozed off. It ain’t my fault. I can’t sleep on that dirty floor roasting like a chicken and the train rumbling all night.”
“Get yourself busted then. Sounds like you got used to the good life. Free food and a bed.” The last word caught in Chorizo’s throat, and he started heaving.
“Look man, you can’t move like I can. I could squeeze through a keyhole if I had to.” Lucas clapped his hands high above his head in a diving motion.
Chorizo beat the cough out of his chest with his palm. “Let’s get in and get out.”
They looked around the back for a way in. Their feet crunched the Bud Light cans the neighbors had chucked over the fence. Chorizo tried a bedroom window.
“Should we break it?” Lucas asked.
“Naw. We don’t wanna bleed on anything.”
“They already got my prints.” Lucas tried the back door, turning the knob through his T-shirt, but it was locked.
“Imagine if they had your DNA too. They got me when I was drafted, and I been trying to lay low since I came back.”
Flashlight in mouth, Lucas bent down near the back porch, broke a piece of plastic lattice off the skirting, and dragged himself underneath the house like a snake. He stretched his arms over his head and squeezed under a beam and then lifted himself carefully over a fallen drainpipe. The air felt different now, and he looked up. There was no flooring right above. He stood up into the house and shone his light. He was in the bathroom. A section of rotten flooring had been removed from where the toilet would’ve sat. The iron tub looked new, its clawed feet a shiny black, the interior enamel perfectly intact. He turned the porcelain knob, and the water rushed over his hand. He set down his light, stuck his head under the faucet, and felt the water run over the back of his head.
There was a gentle rap at the back door. “Lucas,” Chorizo called. “Are you inside?”
He unlocked the door and Chorizo came in.
“Why are you soaked?”
“I was checking the water.” Lucas slicked his hair back.
“That reminds me that we gotta turn it off or we’ll flood the place when we cut the pipe. They got a shut-off behind the hedges.”
Lucas put a wet hand under his shirt, and the cool spread from his chest to his toes. “I wanna shower first.”
“No.” Chorizo shook his head. “We don’t have time.”
“There ain’t no better time with that party next door.”
“We came here on a job.”
“Tell me it wouldn’t do you good to get clean. Look.” He put his palm against Chorizo’s cheek.
“It’s not a good idea to linger. We need to be quick.”
Lucas palmed Chorizo’s other cheek and looked into his eyes.
Chorizo sighed. “You gotta be quick, though. I’m gonna get to work, and in five minutes I’m closing the valve. You hear me? Five minutes.”
Lucas threw off his button-down, pulled off his T-shirt, and slid out of his trousers. The water ran down his body. He scrubbed his skin with his fingernails, and all the gunk from the past two weeks circled the drain and began to disappear. He stretched his arm across his body to scrub his shoulder, and he was surprised to be thinking of señora Candy. The weight of her arm on his back, the vanilla scent following her like a little cloud. He couldn’t remember his mother, but he hoped that she had been something like her. That she could make him stand up straight with a gentle touch. That she would’ve asked him if he was okay and sometimes what he thought and, when he was scared, maybe locked her hand over his and prayed. The truth is, he couldn’t remember that far back. But he did remember a time before the streets. Chorizo waiting for him outside his school. Walking him to their apartment where they sat on the living room rug in the dark and took turns spooning pinto beans from a can. The water stopped suddenly, and he shook himself off like a dog.
The men next door cheered. “Golaaazo,” they yelled. Then it was the sound of bottles breaking against concrete. Lucas put his face up to the window. Lights flickered inside homes all up and down the street. Feet stomped on the ground. The bang of pistol fire bounced against the walls and a shotgun blast rattled the windows in their loose frames. Then the back door slammed and Chorizo’s footsteps and his cough echoed all over the house.
Lucas jumped out of the tub, clothed himself, and walked into the front room, the fabric sticking to his still-wet skin. Chorizo wasn’t there. The closet under the stairs was empty. He looked in one of the back bedrooms, and nothing. In the adjacent room though, a large bundle of copper pipe, still fastened tight with plastic straps, shone against his flashlight. He kneeled and ran his damp hands along the length of it, and he shivered.
He found Chorizo sitting in front of the window at the top of the stairs, bathed in white moonlight, his knees to his chest, panting. Lucas moved up to him slowly, and Chorizo shielded his face with his hands.
“Ey,” Lucas said. “You’re good. Look, see.” He took Chorizo’s hand. “Feel that. We’re in the house. We’re about to steal some copper. All that racket—it’s just the game.” He took the pipe cutter from his waistband and put it in Chorizo’s palm. “Look.”
Chorizo held the saw for a minute and caught his breath. He folded his arms onto his lap and opened his eyes. “I heard the gunshots.” He coughed. “And I remembered.” He stared into the palms of his hands. “I mean I forgot.” He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.” His breathing eased and he cleared his throat.
“There’s a huge bundle of pipe in the back room just sitting there,” Lucas said. “I don’t get it, though. The water was running. All the pipe under the house was brand new. And there’s so much copper still in that room.”
Chorizo was quiet and then cleared his throat and smiled. “Contractor’s a thief,” he said. “We used to do that with roofing shingles when I was a kid. Roy’d sell back all the extra and take the crew drinking on Saturday.”
Lucas laughed. “They ain’t no better than we are.”
Next door, shouts came loud and fuzzy through the television speakers. “Luis Hernandez, el Matador!” Again, joyful gunshots thundered through the neighborhood. Two to one—Mexico, they said.
“Should we cut the stuff under the house?” Lucas asked.
Chorizo shook his head.
“I didn’t even get to use my pipe cutter.”
“That’s not a pipe cutter.”
They stood a moment looking at the road. Their little shack across the street was the only one missing the electric glow of the TV in the windows. The music next door cranked up. The bass rumbled in the street and the accordion floated drunk, ghostlike, in the warm breeze. The light in the window turned red. And then blue. And then a police cruiser stopped in front of the house.
“Shit,” Lucas said.
They crouched out of view, the cycling colors menacing through the glass.
“We haven’t stolen anything.” Chorizo drummed his fingers on his thighs.
“You think they’ll believe that?” Lucas’s upper body spilled onto the floor and his face landed between his knees.
“We’ll say we were squatting. They’ll just tell us to beat it, and we’ll walk away.”
“The cops know me.” His voice was muffled by his legs.
“See here,” Chorizo said, peeking out the window. “They’re still inside the car,” he said. “We’ll go under the house and stay till the lights go away.”
They ran downstairs, flashlights in mouths, and crawled through the opening in the bathroom floor. They dragged themselves to the front of the house, where they could see the cruiser through the latticed skirting.
“Don’t cough,” Lucas whispered.
Chorizo cleared his throat.
The clay soil was cold against Lucas’s damp body, and he inched closer to his uncle. Bass notes bobbed up and down and settled on the ground. The cruiser doors opened and shut. Two pairs of feet and legs appeared on the other side of the fence. He’d done just fine in jail, he thought. He’d do just fine again. Maybe he’d go away and finally stop drinking for good. Or he’d get religion and be a better person.
But the cops’ feet moved toward the party house. The music grew quiet and then stopped. The commotion on the TV lowered. Lucas couldn’t make out the words they said except that the cops talked in Spanish too.
“You think they’re coming over here?” Lucas said.
“Maybe it was a noise complaint? Or someone called about the gunshots.”
After some minutes, the legs appeared in front of the cruiser. The doors opened and closed. The lights stopped cycling. The car took off. And the volume next door rose again, not quite as loud as before.
Back inside the house, Lucas looked at the shiny bundle of copper and then at Chorizo, his eyes wide. He took one end of the bundle under his arm, and Chorizo cradled the other end. They walked slow, right through the front door, while the game wound down. They pulled the pipe through the loose fencing and walked the ten-foot heap across the street. The block erupted in a cheer again, just as Lucas and his tío slid the copper through the back window of their abandoned house, tearing the curtain off the frame.
That night they lay next to each other, Lucas’s hand on his uncle’s chest feeling the uneasy rise and fall through each of his breaths. The train was coming. The distant rumble of its engine trembled the floor long before it honked its heavy horn and long before the crossing gate lowered, red lights dinging. When it passed behind the house, the boarded windows shook and the back door rattled on its hinges. What had Búho said about the trains again? Then the block was quiet but for the crickets chirping in the grass and a distant owl hooting in the trees. Chorizo coughed in his sleep, turned over to his side, and began to snore. Lucas hugged himself. The softness of his scrubbed skin comforted him, and he began to doze off.
Then a crash broke through the quiet. A metallic clank, like trash-can drums beating down the road. And a sound like someone screaming whipped around the air. It crept through Lucas’s window and into his ears. Was it just a cheer? The game was over. Mexico had won.
And again—a sound like something screeching. Something hurt. Wild animals rummaging through trash. Raccoons cornered by groups of feral cats or staring down the rabid jaws of East End mutts. Maybe couples fighting like they only fought at night when nobody could see.
A parrot flew by their window, perched inside a tree, and squawked from high up in the canopy.
Chorizo, startled by the bird, woke and sat up. He coughed. “What is it? What’s happening?”
Lucas didn’t know. He took his uncle’s hand and tried to listen close. But now the sounds were gone again, and the warm breeze blew through the open window. “Nothing,” Lucas said, squeezing his uncle’s palm, and Chorizo lay back down on the white tiger blanket next to his nephew. His breathing deepened and his body looked more at ease. “Just the usual racket.”
Juan Fernando Villagómez is an Austin-based writer from Houston whose work has appeared in American Short Fiction, the Cincinnati Review, and Ghost City Review.
This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Dog Had Ate the Hand.” Subscribe today.