The only thing different, the only thing new.
When Tom arrived to the bar, a few tired laborers were sitting outside on old skid chairs underneath a metal awning, drinking beer, and celebrating the end of the workweek. The early October sun was still bright, keeping the days muggy. He bought a bottle of Pearl beer and uncapped the stubby bottle with an opener mounted on the wall and sat outside with the other men under the awning. Sipping his beer, he waved to some of the men. Raising his bottle, he softly agreed that it seemed to be getting hotter instead of cooler as the autumn days wore on.
"How 'bout you, Tom?" said Hollis. Hollis Grizzle was a yardman at Miller's Lumber and Materials. He had worked with Tom before Tom retired. Divorced and nearing his sixties, Hollis went to The Pecan Saloon after every shift in his work clothes and drank Goetz Country Club as a rule.
Tom nodded and took a sip. "Fine," he said, shaking Hollis's hand. "Yourself?"
"Oh, can't complain." Hollis grabbed a chair and sat down next to Tom. For a few minutes they did not speak to each other. They watched the evening sun dip; the traffic that honked and gunned its way up the boulevard. When it was almost completely night, the air got cooler, and a pretty wind kicked up causing the men to smile.
"And the missus?" said Hollis.
"Just fine." Tom let the conversation go silent again for a moment. "We're thinking about going to visit her sister down in Laredo."
Tom married Rosa in 1940. Attending the ceremony was his mother, who was glad her son had finally decided to start a family--even if he was already almost forty. There was also an uncle he rarely talked to and a couple cousins he hardly knew but were mainly there for the reception; and there were a few of the boys from Miller's who saw to it that Tom's side of the church didn't look so empty. On Rosa's side was her sister, Lucia, who smiled through teary eyes, happy that Rosa had quit the carnival and settled down to start a family in Texas. Also present were Rosa's other family from the circus: a strongman who wore a sleeveless tuxedo, a dog-boy who wore a top hat, and a tattooed woman who insisted on smoking cherry-tipped cigarettes during the service.
Tom, seeing no reason for Rosa to be employed, worked the first twenty years they were married as Miller's yard manager. In 1960, a year before his retirement, he was nearly crushed by a toppling pallet and spent most of his time working in the office. The week he retired, his mother passed away, leaving him the house he and Rosa now lived in. The thin pension given by Miller's Lumber and Materials was just enough for the two to get by on, some months being harder than others. After his retirement, Tom spent more time with Rosa, watching her grow bigger. By their twenty-second anniversary, Rosa could no longer walk without pain or exhaustion. He kept a wooden chair he bought at a garage sale by her bedside. He brought Rosa's meals on a tray and enjoyed watching her eat. Sometimes he brought a vase with a single flower along with her food. On Sundays, he would drive downtown and purchase a Spanish newspaper for her. They would sit in the bed together and she would read it aloud to him, translating the stories along the way. Within a few months, Tom found he could get away with speaking to Rosa almost entirely in simple Spanish. He was proud that he had picked up the language, and he knew that Rosa felt loved because he had. A year after his retirement, however, Tom found he no longer fit in bed with Rosa. Unable to afford a bigger bed, he bought an army cot that he unfolded every evening, placing it next to her. Listening to the radio, they held hands until it was time to go to sleep. On cool nights, Rosa would ask Tom to open the long window in front of the bed; she would kick the sheets down to her chubby feet and pull up her nightgown to let the air ride over her body.
Hollis took a drink from his beer and wiped his lips with his arm. "Imagine it'll be tough?"
"I imagine," said Tom. "But she ain't seen her sister in seven years. We'll find the money somewhere."
"What about the other thing. You know, gettin' her down there and all."
Tom didn't respond. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a pack of Lark cigarettes and put one in his mouth. He got out his matches and tried to strike one up. "I imagine we'll find a way."
Hollis got his gold Zippo, flipped it open, and lit Tom's cigarette. "Hell, you know I didn't mean nothin' by that."
Tom shrugged and nodded. He took in a puff, coughed, and put the cigarette out under his boot.
"I don't know why you smoke them cheap things. Have one of my Winstons."
An old Chevy croaked by. The sun was beginning to set. There were fewer cars on the boulevard. Tom went back into the bar, ordered a beer and asked to use the phone.
"Is it a local call?"
"My wife," said Tom.
"Hell, that's a first." The men around the bar laughed. Someone ordered another beer. Change rattled on the wooden counter.
Tom spoke in Spanish to Rosa, his Anglo accent unwilling to let him form the words properly so that he sounded as though he were half-asleep, half-drunk. He asked her if she was okay, if she needed anything, ending or beginning his sentences with "mi amor." He told her he was with Hollis, that he would be home in another hour or two; the light in the kitchen was on, so there was no need to wait up for him. Tom quietly told Rosa he loved her once more and hung up the phone, pushing it away. He could feel the eyes of the other men on him. He reached into his pocket, took out fifty-six cents, and bought another beer.
At nine in the evening the air became much cooler and a few more men came to sit outside. They tipped their beers and drank and talked about the things they were going to do over the weekend. Tom and Hollis sat off to the side by themselves.
"Tom, how long we been friends would you say?" said Hollis.
Tom shrugged. "Nineteen years I suppose, give or take."
"Almost as long as you and Rosa been married?"
"Yes," said Tom, "almost, I suppose."
Hollis got up from his seat and wobbled a bit. He pulled a Winston from his pocket and lit it. He took a few puffs and stomped it out, almost falling over in the process. Tom took another careful sip of his beer. "As long as we been knowin' each other, there's somethin' I been wantin' to ask you, and I hope you don't feel me out of line here." Hollis spit out his words the way someone might spit out wet grass. His nose was red. He closed his eyes as he spoke. "I wanted to ask, what's it like--I mean exactly how you and Rosa--you know, do ..."
Tom shrugged his shoulders and took another sip of his beer. The truth, which rolled around in his mind like a stray marble, was that he and Rosa did not make love anymore. Years before she had become completely bedridden, he and Rosa did have sex in an effort to conceive. Lucia had even mailed Rosa a pretty nightgown, soft and sheer, guaranteed to put any man in the mood, she said in the note attached. Rosa had Tom nail a crucifix over the bed. And though he protested, saying there was something strange about the Redeemer watching him as he made love to his wife, he still did it because she asked. But in the end, God gave them no child, and they stopped trying after a while.
A sharp whistle came from the darkness. A man Tom thought looked like a kid came ambling up the sidewalk in a funny kind of limp. He wore dirty dungarees and a newsboy hat a size too large for his head. "Howdy, gents," said the man. He flicked his hat and winked over at Hollis and made a click sound with his mouth to top it all off. "How's the evening treating everyone?" The men outside said howdy and tipped their hats and continued drinking, paying him no more mind than the flies they slapped away with their hands. Hollis, heavy and drunk, shook his hand.
"How 'bout you, Natural? This here's my compadre, Tom. Tom, this here's Natural Truepenny."
The young man gave a slight bow, which looked silly to Tom. "I figure I might stop in, wet my lips a bit. What say you fellas?"
"You might," said Hollis, "depends on what you wanna wet 'em with."
Natural laughed and wiped his forehead with his shirtsleeve. Tom had heard the joke plenty and so didn't give any smile to it but instead sipped his beer.
"No doubt, my friend, you'd be the man to ask. Let me get you good men a beer."
"A man of my own heart," said Hollis with a big grin.
"The devil recognizes his own," said Natural. "How about you, old boy? Another beer?"
"No, thanks," said Tom, shaking his beer. "I've still got some left."
"C'mon, Tom. The man's offerin' you a beer."
"The most important drink of all, I should say."
Tom smiled at the young man. "Four is my limit. Four is where I'll stay."
"Prideful boy," said Natural. "I always say pride is what separate us from the animals--everything except the lions." He boomed with laughter at his own joke. Hollis smiled. Tom sipped his beer. "Don't worry about money, old boy. This one's on Uncle Truepenny." Natural pulled a wad of bills from his pocket, fanning them in the night air.
"Aristo-crat," said Hollis.
"And a damn good one, it would seem. You say you won that?"
"Indeed. Over at the Desperado. It was no easy task I can assure you. But in the end, I was victor. And I won me four hundred dollars." Hollis whistled. Natural took an empty chair next to Tom and whispered into his ear: "Beat out five other men."
"Well I'll be," said Tom, holding his beer to his lips.
Hollis got up and walked towards the bar and paused just before entering. "Boys, I gotta take a piss." Natural perked up and handed Hollis a five-dollar bill, telling him to get three whiskeys on his way back. The good stuff. Tom protested a bit, but Hollis laughed and waved him off. He noticed that the other men had all gone into the bar, and now it was just him and Natural sitting outside in the balmy night. Someone had turned up the jukebox: Kitty Wells, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels." Tom tipped his empty beer back so as to pretend something was in it then put it down softly by his feet. He noticed Natural looking at him and probably had been for some time. He felt odd about it, as if the stare was cold and was making him cold. And there was something else about the way the man watched him. As if he'd been watching him for years from afar, maybe perched upon some high cobbled mountain.
"I best be going. Tell Hollis I had to leave. Congratulations on your card game." Tom got up and dusted off his pants and pushed his chair against the wall.
"Well, now just a minute, old boy." Natural chuckled. "You wouldn't happen to be going home would you?" He got up from his chair with Hollis's bottle of beer in hand, sucked its last drop, and tossed it.
"Can't spend all night here. A man's got obligations."
"You can't just leave in the middle of a whiskey. Why, it's bad form, old boy."
Tom stopped for a second and tipped his hat at Natural. "I never was one for form, and I surely do appreciate the drink. But I best be on my way."
"Now what's so important that you got to run off so early? The evening hasn't even begun."
"Surely, you're right. But mine's ended. Tell Hollis I'll see him next week."
Natural pulled at his suspenders, shifted his cap, and spat. "Is what they say about your woman true, Mr. Keller? Is your wife big as hell and half of Texas?" Tom stopped his walking. Putting his hands in pockets he thought for a moment, to ignore the drunken man behind him, to keep on towards his truck. But he did not. He thought to turn around, stare Natural in the eye, and let him have it. But he did not do that either. Tom kept his head down, his hands put away.
"You're drunk, young fella. And I've got to go now." Natural drew close to Tom. The boy's cap rubbed the back of his neck, his breath staining Tom's shoulders. Natural reached for Tom's arm and pulled him close. Tom's nose itched, and he thought the boy smelled of cheap booze and un struck matches.
"Mr. Keller, I have got one hundred dollars here--for you--if you'll just let me get one good gander at your lady." Tom tried to pull away, but Natural kept his arm, his mouth almost on Tom's. "One hundred and twenty dollars, old boy; five minutes is all I ask--just enough to wet my eyes."
"I've got to go." Tom ripped his arm away. Standing face to face with the kid, Tom saw that his face was not young at all. Natural had dark sunken in eyes with thick lines that ran out almost touching his ears. He had a long beard, wispy like spider web, which whipped and touched his shoulders in the wind. Fat, blistered lips stretched wide across his jaw and curled up at the ends like dried slugs just below a long, pointed nose. Natural peeled six twenty-dollar bills off with a thumbnail that was long and tough and yellow. He stuffed them in Tom's shirt pocket.
"Four minutes, Mr. Keller, then I'll be on my way." Tom went into his shirt pocket and pulled the money. They were damp bills and smelled like ash. He pushed them against Natural's chest, feeling the imperfect bone of Natural's plate against his knuckles.
"I'm no violent man you understand, son. But that's my wife you're talking about."
Hollis appeared in the darkened doorway of the bar. Behind him the neon glow of the beer signs burned a red haze around the shadows moving inside. Stretching his arms, Hollis gripped the top of the doorjamb and hung his body in the cool air. "It's good money, Tom."
Tom stepped around Natural. "Good God, Hollis, you in on this madness?"
"Hells bells, Tom, he don't mean no harm." Hollis stumbled out.
Tom felt something sink inside him. "I'm leaving, Hollis."
"Think about it, old boy," said Natural. Tom could hear the two men speaking lowly to each other as he walked away. Then he heard footsteps approaching. He heard Natural laughing.
Arriving at his truck, Tom jammed his key into the keyhole and unlocked the door. He got in and slammed it close. A tickling anger grew in his chest. His mouth felt dry and the hairs on the back of his neck stood like wiry soldiers. The truck cab felt small and the darkness on the street seemed to collect so thickly that any longer and Tom might lose where he was. He turned on the engine. It sputtered on then died. He pumped the gas pedal and turned the key. Again the truck sputtered on then quit. Hollis jogged over to Tom's door, resting his arms on the window frame and stuck his head into the cab. "Don't you worry, Tom, I told him what for. He won't be so much as lookin' in your direction anymore."
The truck engine turned over. Tom did not look at Hollis and seemed to only be staring at the rumbling hood in front of him. "It wasn't right what you did."
"And I know it."
"Rosa's a good woman, and she's had you in her house."
"I know it, Tom, and I am sorry. Don't leave so soon. It's only ten o'clock."
"I'm on my way."
"Lemme ride with you?" said Hollis.
Tom gunned the engine and the truck puffed and shook. "Just gonna leave your Chevy here?"
"I'll get it in the morning. That way we can talk," said Hollis. Tom said okay and he unlocked the passenger door for Hollis and Hollis jumped in and the truck roared away.
Coming down Presa Street, the night wind picked up. Inside the cab, the rush of air was loud. "I know it ain't my place and all, Tom, but one hundred and twenty dollars is a lot of money."
"Fast money spends fast."
"You ain't got to lift a finger."
"I'd just as soon do so instead of what that man's asking." Tom gripped the steering wheel tight and felt his skin pinch. "Besides I prefer working for my money."
"But still, it's not like you and Rosa couldn't use it. I know things are gettin' tight in the house."
"Just let 'im grab a sight, Tom. Real quick. Then he'll move on."
"Shit, Tom, even better. He won't wake her." Tom pulled up to a stop sign in a modest neighborhood of small houses and big yards. He swung the shifter into neutral then grabbed the wheel. The big engine rattled. "He won't wake her, Tom--quiet as a mouse on carpet."
"It ain't right." He put the truck into first and took off. The two did not speak the rest of the way and neither thought to click the radio on. When they pulled onto Tom's street, Hollis spoke up again.
"All I'm sayin' is if someone wanted to look at my wife for that much money, I don't think I could turn it down."
"Well you haven't got a wife anymore. And this is my wife. And she ain't for show."
"Good Lord, Tom, it ain't like he's asking her to get naked."
"Looking at a woman 'cause she's beautiful is one thing. Looking at her like she's some goddamn sideshow is another."
"It ain't all that new is it, Tom?"
Tom put his boot to the brake pedal. The truck skidded to a stop, throwing dust and rocks outward. Tom did not say a thing. He looked forward. The truck engine rattled. After a moment he turned off the motor and pushed off the headlamps, the two men sitting in the quiet darkness.
"We're at my house."
"I'll walk the rest of the way," said Hollis.
Tom's house was a two-story saltbox set in the middle of a grassy lot guarded by Pecan trees. Parked at the edge of the yard was a Chevy truck. "Hollis, what's your truck doing in front of my house?" he said.
A sharp whistle broke from inside the Chevy. "Howdy, gents!"
"It's your friend Natural Truepenny, Mr. Keller." Natural got out the truck and slammed the door. He took off his cap, slapped it against his thigh then placed it back on his head.
"How the hell you did you find where I live?"
"He just wants a look is all, Tom." Hollis got in front of Tom who was moving towards Natural.
"I asked you a question, goddamnit." He pushed Hollis away and walked towards Natural, who was leaning lazily against the Chevy door, his legs crossed in front of him. Natural had one hand in his pocket, and with the other he held a match that he was using to pick at his teeth. "Answer me! How the hell'd you find my house?"
Natural sucked at his teeth and licked his lips. "Oh, it ain't that hard to find people."
Hollis said, "You can't keep up like this. Can't afford to buy a new truck, can't afford to fix the one you got. No money for the house. No money for yourself. Hell! You can't even afford a decent pack of cigars."
"Two hundred dollars, Mr. Keller, for just a quick look. It's a gentleman's proposition." Natural had tossed his match and took the money from his shirt pocket, waving it around.
"Two hundred dollars, Tom. Think about it."
Tom raised his fist and struck out at Natural. His bony hand cutting through the darkness, he felt light headed. In between his knuckles, he felt his skin go taut--then the darkness came loud at him. A powerful wind blew through, flapping the money in Natural's hand, shaking the dying branches of some tree he caught in the left corner of his vision. Grounded leaves danced away. In mid punch, Tom thought about the moment--he and Hollis and Natural standing there and how lonely he felt about it all and how no one could tell him what to do. For a brief second he felt sorry for the two men--Hollis and Natural--and how sad and silly that they were the kind of men who couldn't find any heaven. They were boys lost in the fog, each one looking for his own way out. The next moment, however, Tom was angry again. His fist missed the target and he fell over. His ribs smashed the ground, his right knee plunking the cracked earth. He felt the sharp ends of fallen leaves poking at his cheek, and while he lay on his stomach, he heard Natural giggle, and he thought to just stay down. Maybe if I do, they'll go away, he thought. But he saw that their tattered boots had not moved and they were just standing there, watching him, waiting for him to get up. It was then that he realized they'd never leave him alone, never go away. Rising, Tom noticed the kitchen light he had left on, how bright it looked even from far away; he wondered if maybe that was how Natural had found his house. Maybe Hollis had told him it was a two-story thing on a weeded lot with the kitchen all lit. He dusted himself off, slouched his shoulders, put his head down, and walked past Natural and Hollis. Natural rubbed the square bills between his fingertips. Tom walked on, not giving either man any attention. He kept on to the house, stepping through the high grass, ignoring the cockleburs that collected under his pant leg and on his socks, and stopped a few yards short of his front porch. Standing beneath a pecan tree, he spoke: "Well are you coming or ain't you?"
"To the lonesome valley, it is, old boy," said Natural. He followed Tom closely, and the two went up the stairs onto the front porch and into the house. The bright yellow glow of the kitchen light hurt their eyes when they entered. "You're a smart man, Tom," whispered Natural. "I always say 'you can trust a man who can't recognize opportunity--trust that he'll bring you down with him if he gets the chance.' But you're a different bull altogether ain't you?"
Tom shrugged. He put his head down and took Natural through the kitchen: a clean white tiled room with a tan Chambers stove. He took Natural past the stove, up an enclosed set of stairs. He told him to keep quiet, to step lightly. The house became darker as they went up the narrow staircase. It was a tight fit for them and every creaking step seemed to echo. At the top of the stairs was a long, dark hallway. At the end, a large curtainless window let in a slant of silver moonlight. Moving down the hallway, Tom was embarrassed by the bareness of his home and how unlived it looked. At the end of the hallway was a door slightly open. Inside the room it was dark except for a chop of light that came in through a large window illuminating the bed. The room was cool. An electric fan blew strong on the enormous woman who lay prone, sleeping. Rosa's breathing was steady but labored. Tom and Natural watched her massive round body rise and fall with each breath she took. Rise. Then fall.
Natural moved closer to her.
"Where you going? Get back over here!" Tom said in a stiff whisper. Natural moved forward some more. He paid no attention to Tom, who still had not moved past the doorjamb.
"I paid to see her. I aim to see her," said Natural, looking back at Tom. Closer he moved towards the giant, sleeping woman until he was now almost on top of her-- hovering--staring down on Rosa like some obscene bird. "Lord, she is beautiful."
"Okay, you've had your look. Now let's go," said Tom, never getting above a whisper.
"Not yet, old boy. Not yet." Tom felt himself start to teeter between whisper and scream. He inched closer. He put out his hand to grab Natural by his belt. But it was too late. Natural had already sat down on the bed's edge, his right hand suspended just over Rosa's body. Tom saw him shiver as he reached over, stretching his arm as far as he could, and placed it on the other side of Rosa's body, his arm resting across her nightgown and across her stomach. Then Natural took off his cap with his free hand, placed it next to him on the bed, and rested his head atop her enormous breasts and closed his eyes. Natural rose and fell with each breath she took. Tom leapt at the man and grabbed him by the front of his shirt, almost lifting him off the bed completely. He felt the light weight of Natural's body in his hands, his ragged and bony chest. He felt Natural's knees give so that he hung like a wet coat in Tom's aging fist. He brought Natural dose enough to see the fear welling up in his eyes. With his other hand, he balled up his fist tight as if gripping the collected rage within him. He clenched his teeth. His back tightened. His shoulders went taut. And then, before he could bring forward his anger, he saw them-- the whites of Rosa's eyes, and in them bewilderment. Tom let go and Natural scampered away, clomping down the wood floors, down the narrow stairs. In a matter of seconds, Tom heard the front door slam against the outside of the house, the doors of the Chevy close, and the truck bang away.
Rosa did not rise. And she and Tom did stare at each other in that horrible moonlight.
"Tom?" asked Rosa.
"Yes, mi amor?"
"It's okay. I knew eventually. Eventually you would."
"I knew it, Tom. I knew it."
Tom's mouth went slack. He thought to turn on the lamp near the bed, but he did not. He stepped away from Rosa's eyes and took his place back in the formless dark just before the doorjamb. She could not turn her body away from him. Instead, she turned her head away, and the bed shucks creaked as she did.
For a moment Tom watched his wife. And then, it was all he could do to go downstairs and turn off that damned kitchen light.
Jason Rocha lives in San Marcos, Texas. He works as a lecturer in English at Texas State University where he earned his MFA in creative writing. He is currently at work on his first novel. He is proud to have his first publication with the Bilingual Review.