by Jonathan Danielson —
The morning after the law passed, I was already out of bed when Mom came in and turned on our light and told us it was time to go. I started pulling on my shorts, but she told me to put on pants because it was cold out. Fede hated getting up and groaned as Mom shook him. I didn’t know how he had slept at all, Dad outside our window loading up our truck with his tools and Mom’s mattress and plastic garbage bags filled with our clothes and photo albums and anything else that would fit.
“Federico,” Mom said after Fede pulled his pillow over his head. “Ahora.” She yanked off his sheets. She rolled them up and turned to me and said, “Javier, he better be dressed by the time I get back.” She only called me Javier when I was in trouble.
“Fede, get up,” I said, sliding open our mirrored closet. Half my clothes still hung in my closet because there wasn’t’ room to take everything. I pulled down a t-shirt, but saw my Larry Fitzgerald jersey balled up in the dirty clothes on the ground, the white eleven cracked and peeling because I wore it so much. Outside, Dad tossed ropes over our stuff. The night before we had to come straight home from my Little League game and pack, and Dad was still in his coach’s uniform and hat. Fede tucked his hands between his knees and buried his face in the mattress. “Now,” I said, putting on my jersey and a hoodie over it. “Or Dad’s going to leave you.”
After Dad finished loading what would fit, he showered and got dressed. His hair was still wet when he locked the front door. Our porch light was turned off even though it was still dark out, and our furniture and TV and toys were still inside where we had left them. Fede was asleep before we pulled out of the driveway, Dad’s window open so he could adjust his mirror and see around our stuff. SpongeBob barked in the yard because we didn’t’t have room for him in the truck. Dad said they left enough food for him until the pound came, and Mom nodded. As we drove away, Mom watched her mirror, at our house getting smaller and smaller, and every time we passed a streetlight I could see she was crying.
When we passed the Circle K, Mom asked Dad if he wanted to pull over and fill up, her voice cracking when she said it, but Dad said we had enough gas to get to Uncle Nino’s. That he didn’t’t want to stop until after we crossed the border. On the highway we passed the turnoff for our school, then the turnoff for Dad’s work, then the Cardinals stadium, and after a while we were in the middle of the desert, the sun coming up behind us.
Fede finally woke up after he smelled the McDonald’s in Quartzsite. He said he was hungry. He was always hungry.
“Not now,” Mom said, looking over her seat at me like it was my fault he had said something. Dad drove with both hands on the wheel, his eyes on his side mirror. “Todavía está allí?” Mom asked, looking out her window behind us.
“What’s going on?” Fede asked. He tried getting up to look, but I grabbed his pants and pulled him down.
“Sit down,” I said. “And shut up.”
“Don’t tell your brother to shut up,” Dad said.
“Ya se está moviendo,” Mom said. Dad’s hands tightened around the steering wheel.
“A cop’s behind us,” I whispered.
“Cool,” Fede said, and he got up again. Dad didn’t’ say anything, so I unbuckled my belt and did the same. Our stuff in the back was in the way so I couldn’t see anything. I turned around and looked in Mom’s mirror. The cop was passing the Mustang behind us. I thought he would keep going and pass us, but instead he brought his radio to his mouth.
“Está hablando con alguien,” Mom said. Dad breathed heavily out of his nose. “Vas muy rápido?”
Dad told her he’d get pulled over anyway if he went any slower, and Mom said don’t say anyway. The cop’s lights came on, red then blue. Fede put his hands over his ears and fell on his butt when Dad hit the brakes. The sirens were loud and then quiet as they passed. The cop pulled off at the next exit and raced toward the trailers and motorhomes in the distance. Mom started laughing. Dad didn’t’t even smile.
Twenty minutes later, Dad was praying for the truck not to run out of gas. Fede snored. When we came through the mountains, jagged and brown, we passed the turnoff for a rest stop and then crossed a bridge, the Colorado River shallow and green and gross beneath us.
“Puedes hacerlo,” Dad told the car. He patted the dash. “Shhhhhhh.”
We passed the blue Welcome to California sign and came to a checkpoint where officers behind mirrored sunglasses waved us through. After the checkpoint, Dad pulled off onto a smaller road that ran alongside the highway. “Puedes hacerlo, puedes hacerlo,” Dad told the truck, and when we couldn’t’ see the checkpoint anymore we pulled over and parked in a dirt field. Mom said síguele, but Dad said we broke down.
“At least we made it to Blythe,” he said after he took his key out of the ignition. He pulled his cellphone from his belt and gave it to Mom. “Call Nino,” he said, and opened his door. Warm air filled the cab. “Come on,” he said as his leaned his seat forward. I crawled over Fede while he undid his belt, and the three of us got in a line and peed in the bushes, laughing at who could go the farthest.
An hour later, Uncle Nino’s truck rumbled down the road, a cloud of dust behind him. “La migra!” he yelled after he parked and hugged my parents. He wore a white sleeveless shirt and tan lines ran across his biceps. He pulled a red gas can from his truck bed. “Qué pasa?” he said when Fede hugged him. “Qué tal Javy?” he said to me, and even from a few feet away I could smell his armpits.
“Good,” I said.
“Bien?” he asked.
“Bien,” I said.
While Dad counted out dollars from his pocket, Uncle Nino emptied the can into our tank. He wouldn’t’t take money from his big brother, he said. When he was done we got back in our truck and followed him past dirt fields and homes surrounded by chain link fences with plywood over their windows. At Uncle Nino’s house we parked beside his three dead trucks in the empty lot next door. In the driveway, my cousins and their friends played basketball.
Uncle Nino stood on our back tire and untied the ropes holding down our stuff and yelled for Eduardo and Junior to put down the fucking ball. Eddie took one more shot and missed. He had gotten huge in the two summers since I saw him last, when we stopped on our way to Disneyland and stayed for the night. He was half a head taller than me now, and his hands were huge like baseball mitts. When Uncle Nino tossed down the ropes, Eddie grabbed my mother’s white mattress and set it in the dirt.
“En su cuarto,” Uncle Nino told him. He handed Junior a blanket that came undone and dragged on the ground. Dad handed me Mom’s pillows. Fede kicked rocks under the truck.
Inside, Aunt Yolanda yelled as Eddie and his friend tried to turn the mattress into the hall. “Quítenlo del piso! Lo van a ensuciar!” she said, her one had on her pregnant belly and her other pointing and directing. “Mi hijito Javy,” she said when she saw me, and she hugged me against her stomach. “Les fue bien de viaje?”
“Too early,” I said, and Aunt Yolanda smiled sadly. Eddie gave the mattress another push and Aunt Yolanda yelled ¡levántelo! But Eddie got it to turn. His friend dragged it down the hall. The room was empty except for Eddie and Junior’s dresser and nightstand, their Laker posters and toys missing. Eddie and his friend dropped the mattress next to the closet.
“Where’s your stuff?” I asked. We had played PlayStation in the room the last time we were here, but now everything was gone. There was a hole in the wall above the dresser like someone had punched it.
“In the garage,” Eddie said.
“Why?” I put my mother’s pillows on the mattress.
“Because that’s where we’re sleeping.” His friend pushed the mattress against the wall with his shoe. “With you.”
Once everything was unpacked, I waited in the kitchen for Dad or Uncle Nino to tell me what to do next. Dad had taught me what it meant to be a good visitor in someone’s home—to always be helpful and always ready to help—and I was trying to impress Uncle Nino and Aunt Yolanda with how responsible I had gotten since the last time we were here. Dad eased himself into a chair at the dining table and asked if there was any coffee left from breakfast. Uncle Nino brought him a beer. In the kitchen, Aunt Yolanda fried chicken at the stove. Without looking at my mom, who sat at the counter with her hands in her lap, Aunt Yolanda asked if there weren’t more of my mother’s clothes to be brought in from the truck. Uncle Nino twisted his beer and tossed the cap across the table and asked my aunt why she was asking questions she already knew the answers to. Eddie came out of the bathroom and grabbed the Cheetos and lime juice off the counter before heading outside. Dad nodded for me to follow Eddie, and then he told Uncle Nino about all the tools he had to leave in our garage. Uncle Nino took a sip of beer. The pan sizzled as Aunt Yolanda turned the meat and nodded sadly, her lips bouncing into brief half smiles.
I followed Eddie out front where Junior and his friends were playing basketball, but everyone stopped playing and ran over to pull out dirty fistfuls of Cheetos once Eddie poured lime juice in the bag. We picked teams after that, me and Fede and Eddie and Eddie’s friend on one team, Junior and his friends on the other. Eddie didn’t’t pass the ball once to me or Fede. I took off my hoodie because I was tired of running around and having my Fitz jersey stick to my back with sweat. I tossed my hoodie over the tailgate of Dad’s truck, covering the magnet for his plumbing business back home. Eddie took a shot and the ball bounced my way. “Cardinals?” he said like he was accusing me of something. “Los Cardinales son maricones.”
“Fitz is like the best receiver in the NFL,” I said, picking up the ball.
“He’s all right, but he ain’t done shit without Warner. Besides, you’re in California now.”
“Big time,” Eddie’s friend said.
I dribbled the ball once in the dirt. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”
Eddie stepped toward me. “Raiders, baby,” he said, and pointed his chin at me when he said it. “Negro y plata.” I dribbled again, but he snatched the ball mid-bounce and ran to the hoop, laughing as he bricked it off the backboard. “Black and silver, baby,” he yelled. Junior got the rebound and scored. We played another game and then another.
“Eddie,” I yelled out by Uncle Nino’s trucks when Edie still wouldn’t pass, everyone else crowding under the hoop.
“Pásamela,” Eddie’s friend yelled, even though two guys were on him.
“I was open,” I said after the ball got stolen. “Eddie,” I said, grabbing his wrist so he’d look at me.
“No me llames Eddie,” he yelled. His palms dug deep in my ribs, and all my air pushed out of my chest. I was already on the ground before I realized he had shoved me, my hands scraped raw on the dirt of the empty lot. The net swished and snapped back after Junior took his shot. Eddie stood over me with his fists clenched until Dad yelled my name, him and Uncle Nino watching us from the porch. Blood clumped in the dirt on my hands as I got up and ran over. I thought Dad was going to ask what was going on, to get my side of the story first, but he just pointed at my chest and asked why I was wearing that.
He put his finger on my jersey where it said Arizona. Uncle Nino took a sip of beer.
Dad told me to take it off.
“Take what off?” I asked.
“No me hables así,” he said, and grabbed my collar. I raised my arms and closed my hands so I wouldn’t get blood on the inside. When it was off, Dad wadded it up and threw it in the dumpster around the house. He slammed the lid closed.
“Why’d you do that?” I yelled.
Dad slapped me. Eddie laughed.
“Go clean up,” Dad said.
“But why’d you—”
Uncle Nino told me I better not talk back anymore.
After dinner, Aunt Yolanda put on her soaps and me and Fede and Junior and Eduardo— not Eddie—sat on the couch in bored silence. When the episode was over, we waited for Junior or Eduardo to ask if we could change the channel, but no one did and another soap started. “Time for bed,” Mom said to me and Fede. Uncle Nino and Aunt Yolanda exchanged glances. “Continuar ahora,” Mom said, looking at them while scooting us toward the bathroom. After we washed our faces, Mom walked us to the garage. The fluorescent light flickered when she flipped the switch. The couch between Uncle Nino’s tool drawers was pulled out and next to the refrigerator were two sleeping bags. Fede jumped on the bed and Mom told him to get off.
“That’s where your cousins sleep,” she said, straightening the sheets.
“But they’re not going to bed yet.”
“Shhhhh,” Mom said. She knelt and pulled back the sleeping bag for Fede. I took off my pants and got into the bag next to him. Mom kissed us goodnight and turned off the light, but the bulb still glowed above us. The concrete was hard beneath me.
“I wish we brought our TV,” Fede said in the darkness after Mom left. “Then we wouldn’t have to watch Aunt Yolanda’s stupid shows.” I rolled over. The freezer’s compressor kicked on next to my head. “Maybe we can get Dad to drive back tomorrow and get it, and then we can put it out here and hook up our Xbox and—”
“Dad’s not going back for the TV,” I said. “Or Xbox.”
Crickets chirped behind the freezer.
“Just shut up, Fede,” I said. I rolled over hard, like I was showing the ground how much I hated it. I wanted to be back in my own bed, even if I did have to share it with Fede. I wanted to watch our own TV and play Madden, even if it was three years old. I wanted to play against Dad, who always let me play as the Cardinals even though they were his team too. Who took us to every home game because we had season tickets in the end zone. I kicked off my sleeping bag.
“Where are you going?” Fede asked when I pulled on my pants. “Mom’s going to be mad.”
“I’m going to pee, all right?”
Out back, the kitchen window was open when I creeped around the house, Uncle Nino’s voice and Aunt Yolanda’s soaps coming through the screen. A doctor told someone su padre siempre estaría en un estudo de coma. Uncle Nino told Eduardo to grab two beers from the fridge. Hunched over so I wouldn’t be seen, I went toward the gate for the front yard, but Eduardo appeared in the kitchen window, his back to me as he opened the fridge. I froze as glass bottles clinked together. I didn’t move until he let the door close and went to Uncle Nino and my dad at the dining table. The handle for the gate dragged against the metal pole. On the TV, a lady cried about her father’s condición.
Out front the dumpster was next to the garage. I had to keep the lid open with one arm and lift a bag of trash with my other to get the jersey from underneath. The mesh was wet with chicken juice and coffee grounds. Gently, I lowered the lid and shook out the jersey and shoved it in the bushes until I could clean it off and hide it. I went back through the gate and stopped to pee, so I wouldn’t’t lie if Fede asked, because Fede always knew when I was lying.
On the other side of the window Uncle Nino’s voice told Dad that Uncle Ricky was always looking for people to work for him in Fresno, but it might be a few weeks until then. Aunt Yolanda’s soaps went to commercial. Aunt Yolanda told Eduardo and Junior it was time to go to bed. Eduardo argued until Aunt Yolanda yelled at him. I wanted him to shut up so I could hear what Uncle Nino and Dad were saying, but I missed the next part and only heard that Uncle Nino would call Uncle Ricky in the morning. Until then, Uncle Nino said, he could get Dad a job in the fields with him.
With my thing in my hand, I stood waiting for Dad or Uncle Nino to say more about
Fresno or Uncle Ricky, who wasn’t’t really an uncle but we called him that anyway, but then Eduardo said, “You hold it that long, you’re playing with it,” and when I turned around he was watching me through the kitchen window.
The next morning Dad and Uncle Nino left before anyone woke up. Mom said they’d be back in the evening and for me not to worry and to go play with mis primos until then. Eduardo rode his bike with Fede on his handlebars, and I rode Junior’s bike with Junior on the handlebars, even though the bike was too small for me and my knees hit my hands every time I peddled. We rode past the canal and radio tower, apartments complexes and empty fields, the RV park until we were at the river, dropping our bikes next to the concrete beam for the highway onramp, a mural of America half covered in graffiti.
Except for Eduardo, who stood with his arms crossed over his Kobe jersey, we kicked off our shoes and ran barefoot in the sand. Junior and Eduardo should’ve been at school, we all should’ve, but Uncle Nino told Dad no siempre tenemos familia visitándonos, and what was the point of enrolling us with everything up in the air?
“Can we go swimming?” Fede asked, and he threw a rock in the river.
“In the summer, yeah,” Junior said. He skipped one out to the middle of the water. “Where would you even swim?” I threw a rock toward the truck stop and hotel on the other side. Toward the Welcome to Arizona sign along the highway. Toward the mountains we had driven through on our way here. “Our pool back home’s bigger.”
“It’s better than your pool,” Eduardo said.
“Yeah, in the summer the water’s like up to here,” Junior said, pointing to his feet.
I threw another rock and it splashed where the other had landed.
“So we can’t go swimming?” Fede asked.
“It’s too cold now,” Junior said. He picked up a rock and then another, then walked along the shore like he was searching for only the right ones to throw. “But when it gets warmer, yeah.”
“But you won’t be here,” Eduardo said. “Why not?” Fede asked.
“Cuz you’ll be in Fresno. Dad said so.”
“What’s Fresno?” Fede heaved another rock and the splash got his shorts wet.
“It’s ghetto there,” Junior said. He thumbed through the rocks in his hand, pushing certain ones to the ground.
“Five-five-nine,” Eduardo said. He said “Bulldogs” and barked.
“What’s that mean?” Fede asked.
Eduardo laughed. “Shit son, you don’t know now, you’ll never understand.” Junior said it was the gang there, and that they were lame. “You’re lame,” Eduardo said.
“Is it far?” I asked. Junior’s rocked skipped five times before sinking.
“Yeah man, it’s far.”
“San Francisco far,” Eduardo said. He barked.
When Dad and Uncle Nino came home that night, me and everyone were shooting hoops by the streetlight at the end of the driveway. Dad got out of the truck slowly, his face and arms dusty and sunburnt. Each step he took was heavier than the last.
“Where you been?” I asked after I ran to him.
Uncle Nino laughed and said Dad had just gotten soft plunging the toilets of white people. Dad handed me a tarp and nodded for me to follow Uncle Nino, who headed to the garage. When everything was brought in, Uncle Nino showered, and we watched cartoons until he came out with a towel around his waist, the black hairs on his chest wet and stuck to his skin. He took the controller from Eduardo and changed the channel. On the news people held Mexican flags and Arizona flags and signs with that said “No SB 1070” and “Yes SB 1070,” and they chanted and screamed at each other.
“You’re lucky you left there,” Uncle Nino said, changing the channel. “No se puede vivir allá.” On the other couch, Eduardo nodded. Next to him, Junior picked his nails. Fede watched the steam from the pan that Aunt Yolanda stirred.
“I want to go back,” I said as Uncle Nino flipped channels to a commercial for a car dealership in Indio. When the channel didn’t change, I turned to Uncle Nino. He was looking at me like he had never seen me before.
“Quieres regresar?” he asked.
“It’s better there,” I said. Eduardo snorted.
“Better?” Uncle Nino said, his eyebrows lifting. He stuck out his lower lip and nodded. Aunt Yolanda stirred the pan and said, “leave him alone Sergio,” but Uncle Nino said no, no, no, like it was no big deal. Eduardo watched us instead of the TV. “Why’s it so better?”
“I dunno,” I said. I thought about our house and about my friends and Little League team, but I didn’t say any of that because I didn’t want Uncle Nino to think I wasn’t grateful for him letting us stay. “It just is,” I said.
“Just is,” Uncle Nino said. He nodded. “Because your friends there? Tu maestra and stuff? You got a novia we don’t know about?”
“No,” I said, and I snorted like Eduardo had. “It’s just better.”
“Solamente mejor,” Uncle Nino repeated. He took his feet off the coffee table and leaned toward me. He squinted, as if to see me better, his wet hair falling in his face. “If it’s so better,” he said, “then how come they don’t want you?” In the kitchen, Aunt Yolanda said Sergio the way she says Eduardo when he’s in trouble.
The next morning I lay on the ground in the garage and listened to Uncle Nino’s truck rattle over the curb and head onto the road before I kicked off my sleeping bag. I stepped over Fede and then tiptoed past Junior and Eduardo on the pull out. Eduardo stopped snoring when I opened the door.
Outside, the sun hadn’t risen but an orange glow hugged the bottom of the sky. I went around and quietly opened the gate. I pulled my jersey from the bushes and it was crunchy and covered in ants. I laid it on the ground and unwound the hose and sprayed it, then tucked it back in the bushes so it would dry and I could hide it under my sleeping bag before Dad got home. I snuck back in the garage but the wind took the door from of my hand and slammed it against the house. Fede pushed his face in his pillow and groaned as the garage filled with light. Junior covered his face with his blanket. Eduardo didn’t move.
Later, the wind blew worse and the whole garage shook and woke me up. Junior and Fede stirred when I tiptoed past them, but Eduardo was awake and staring up at the ceiling, his hands behind his head. Outside, the wind kicked up dust and I pulled my shirt over my nose. When I reached into the bushes, my jersey wasn’t there. It wasn’t in the yard, and it wasn’t across the street. I ran into the garage, Junior telling me cut the shit and go back to bed, but I grabbed my shoes and went out front and grabbed Junior’s bike. My knees hit the handlebars so I dropped it and grabbed Eduardo’s bike instead. I took off into the fields, riding the canal, searching for any sign of red. The wind carried a plastic bag into the sky, swirling and twisting until it was gone.
When I got back, everyone was eating breakfast.
“Where’s my bike?” Eduardo said. He held his cereal spoon like a club.
“Come and eat,” Mom said, standing as I came in. I told her I wasn’t hungry and went out front. A few minutes later, Eduardo and Junior and Fede came out. “Nice shot, ladrón,” Eduardo said when my shot hit the rim and bounced toward the house.
“I’m not a thief,” I said. I kicked the ball out of the bushes.
“You stole my bike,” Eduardo said. “Sounds like a thief to me.”
“I didn’t steal your bike,” I said. “I brought it right back.”
“Let’s just play,” Junior said. He tried swatting the ball out of my hands, but I dodged him.
“No juego con ladrones,” Eduardo said. “Ball.”
“No,” I said.
“So now you’re stealing my ball?”
“I was playing with it first.”
“It’s my fucking ball,” Eduardo said.
“Yo, technically it’s my ball,” Junior said. “Can we just play?”
“I’m not playing with thieves,” Eduardo said. “Ball.”
Fede said I didn’t steal anything because, look, there’s your bike right there.
“Cállate pelado,” Eduardo said. “The brother of a thief is just as bad as a thief.”
“Don’t call him that,” I said, and I threw the ball at Eduardo as hard as I could. He caught it in his stomach.
“Don’t tell me what to do,” he said, and he threw it back just as hard. I caught it as he charged. I thought he was going to tackle me and we were going to wrestle like every other fight I had fought in school, but he punched me instead. I fell and he got on top of me, punching and punching until I jabbed my finger in his eye. He yelped and I got on him. I raised my fist, and when I was about to bring it down on his eye, already pink and bruising, Mom sprayed us with the hose. Fede stood next to her, his arms around her leg. Aunt Yolanda yelled as she wobbled our way, her belly cradled in her hands. In the driveway, Junior shot the ball off the backboard and got his own rebound.
I was made to sit at one end of the couch and Eduardo the other, and we weren’t allowed to look at each other as Aunt Yolanda watched her soaps. When our fathers came back, Dad dirty and exhausted, we had to stand and say what happened. Uncle Nino slapped Eduardo, two, three, four times, then yelled for him to go to the garage. Dad lowered himself in the recliner and told me to go play, but then Eduardo came back inside, his eyes red and watery, the one I poked green around his cheek.
“You left this in the bushes this morning,” he said, and threw my jersey at me. “You’re welcome.”
What was I doing with that, my dad asked. Why was I fishing garbage from the trash? He expected an answer. “I don’t know” was not an answer. Look at me, he yelled, and he got out of the recliner with a speed I did not expect. Qué es esto, he said, and I yelled I wanted to go home, and he yelled that home was with my mother and brother and him.
I yelled I wanted to go back to our house and school and he yelled that that place did not want us, so we would not want them. He tore the jersey from my hands and grabbed the collar and ripped it down the middle, the eleven becoming two separate ones. I screamed but it stopped nothing, and he threw the jersey at my chest and told me to make sure it stayed thrown away this time.
I didn’t cry until I was outside and the air conditioner on the roof kicked on and made a metal scraping noise that was loud enough so no could hear me. At the end of the driveway, the streetlight turned off. When I opened the dumpster, the smell was so bad that I could taste it. I tried to think of a way to fix the jersey, to get Mom to sew it when Dad wasn’t around, or learn to do it myself. At the bottom of the garage door, the fluorescent light seeped through the weatherstripping. Behind it, Eduardo’s rap blasted from the radio on Uncle Nino’s workbench, Eduardo singing along, saying bad words Dad would never let me listen to or say back home. The music stopped and Aunt Yolanda’s voice started yelling and Eduardo yelled, “Yo no lo puto aqui,” and Aunt Yolanda slapped him. She slapped him again and then the light turned off, leaving everything, Uncle Nino’s dead trucks, Dad’s truck, Eduardo’s and Junior’s bikes, the mountains on the other side of the river, in the glow of the moon.
I peddled Eduardo’s bike past the radio tower and RV park, my arms in the sleeves of my jersey which blew behind me like a cape. I cut over to the path for the bridge, but stopped before the onramp. The checkpoint was lit up like a prison. A police car was parked on the side of the bridge, its lights flashing where it had pulled someone over. I rode back under the overpass and dropped Eduardo’s bike in the dirt near the mural, red then blue then red again from the police lights bouncing off the river. Except for the lights, the water was motionless. Still and shallow. I picked up a rock and threw it, and could tell by its ripples that it landed almost on the other side. Almost on the side with the truck stop and mountains and our house a few hours behind them.
I took off my jersey and laid it on the sand. I took off my shoes and tied the laces together, then took off my pants and shirt and folded them, just like Mom had made me when we packed. I took off my underwear. I stacked everything neatly inside my jersey, my body shivering in the air. The coldness of the sand burned my feet and knees as I squatted and tied the jersey together. I dangled my shoes and jersey bag over the handlebars of Eduardo’s bike. I walked the bike to the water’s edge and put one foot in, but gasped and stepped back. The water was colder than the sand ever could be, and it burned my skin and crushed the bones inside my toes. I stepped from foot to foot until I could feel them again. At the check point, the brakes of a semi hissed. On the bridge, the siren of another police car beeped as it pulled up behind the first.
I would warm up on my ride home, I told myself. I would be so hot biking that I would appreciate the cold until then. I would have a whole closet of warm dry clothes ready to wear once I got there, SpongeBob barking when I rode up the driveway. I would turn up the heat all the way until Dad and Mom and Fede drove back to get me. I could make them stay, and we would never again sleep in Uncle Nino’s garage. We would sleep in our own beds and watch our own TV and go to our own games with our own stuff in our own home. I closed my eyes and stepped forward, the water rising up my shins, knees and thighs, the freezingness stealing my breath when my waist went under. I wanted to cry. I wanted to turn back. Another step and I lifted the bike on my shoulder. Two more steps and the water was above my chest and the bike’s handlebars and my jersey bag and shoes. I tried lifting the bike higher but it was too heavy, and then the weight lightened and the handlebars emerged and my clothes and shoes were gone. Another step and the ground disappeared and I tried to go back but couldn’t, my feet kicking in search of anything, the bridge and police lights drifting farther away, my head titled back to keep my mouth above the water, the weight of the bike harder to hold, and when I touched the ground something popped under my foot and pierced through my numbness. My mouth filled with river when I screamed. Bubbles swarmed around my face, and I finally had to choose between me or the bike, and I let go of the bike and swam toward the surface.
Very quickly I made it to the other side, my foot floating behind me, my arms and shoulders and lungs burning from the swimming. I hopped out of the river on one leg and fell, the ground rocky and without sand. My body shivered too much for me to catch my breath. In the moonlight, I could see the shimmer of a curved piece of green glass, like from Uncle Nino’s beer bottles, in the bottom of my foot. I tried to pull it out, but it hurt so bad that I couldn’t even touch it.
“Mom,” I yelled, knowing she couldn’t hear me. On the other side of the river, the lights of homes and streetlights made a halo in the sky. I tried calling for Fede, the letters repeating in my teeth, my heart keeping pace. “Mom,” I yelled again.
In the moonlight the river moved quickly, and the stars reflected themselves in the calm middle, the stars stretching from one end of the sky to the other in only the distance between shores. Even if I swam across and walked back, I would not have my clothes, and I would not have Eduardo’s bike, and I would still have the glass in my foot which left a stain in the dirt and throbbed the more I warmed up. I would not have anything. But I had nowhere else to go.
“Dad,” I cried.
Still shivering, still out of breath, I crawled back into the river, the water warmer than it was before. As the lights of the checkpoint and police cars drifted farther away, I raised my hand above the surface and took my first stroke, my arm sore and stiff the way Dad was when he came home from the fields. I wondered if Dad would be sore in the morning or if he would wake up and feel like nothing had happened. If he would wake up and be ready for the fields with Uncle Nino, or Fresno with Uncle Ricky, or wherever we would have to go. I reached out in front of me and my hand sunk when it entered the darkness. I reached out with my other arm, but it was so heavy I couldn’t get it above the surface. Far away at the truck stop, a car alarm howled.