Three months after his prison stint for starting a forest fire that killed a man, Armando’s father drives his family past the Supermax outside Florence, Colorado. He’s in good spirits.
“You know the guy that invented the Richter scale? Dude was a nudist,” he says.
The Diaz family laughs together inside their minivan as they head back to Colorado Springs after an overnight campout in the Wet Mountains. Fifteen-year-old Armando sits in the back seat with his younger sister. She holds her stomach and smiles. Armando half listens, half mentally undresses a girl in his grade named Avery who sports a pinkish birthmark on her cheek that resembles Wisconsin.
“I can’t help but imagine a naked guy, pool-side, when an eight-point-oh strikes a couple miles down the road. Bet he wishes he had some pants on.”
Armando’s mother smiles and play-punches his father in the shoulder.
“So you got gladiators,” he says, “and they battle it out and finally one stands over the other one, sword high, and he looks to the emperor to see if the near vanquished will live or die and the crowd gives the thumbs up. You say, ‘good news,’ right? No, my dear family. Pollice verso. With a turned thumb. The movies have it wrong. Thumbs down, sword down. Thumbs up, dead.”
“So we should give a thumbs down when someone does something right?” Armando’s mother asks. “Weird.”
“There’s a flower that only opens up at night,” his father says. “Bats do the work, not bees. Your turn.”
Armando extends both thumbs up and smirks at his sister. His mind works as a school bus passes the other way. “There’s blind fish in caves.”
“One huge, linked cave. In Kentucky. What else you got? Give me something good.”
“My English teacher says Shakespeare ripped his stories off.”
“Shakespeare didn’t rip anything off ’cause he didn’t write the plays. Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.”
“You’re full of it,” says Armando’s mother; then, looking back and winking at Armando, she says, “A half, maybe a quarter is true.” She reaches and squeezes just below his knee.
“Ask me anything about sports. Anything.”
“We got the Olympics,” she says. By “we” she means Mormons. The Diaz family has visited Salt Lake City twice: temple square, the tabernacle, two Jazz games. “We’re going.”
“Luge and ice hockey,” says Armando’s father.
“Maybe we can get him into luge,” his mother says, thumbing back at her son. Then, tone rising: “How many people can be into luge? A hundred?”
“A thousand, worldwide. Still good odds.”
“What do you say?” his mother asks, then looks back.
“That’s head first, right?” Armando asks.
“It is? Forget it then,” she says.
“But you’d be okay with feet first?”
“Figure skating,” says his sister. “I can see you in skates.”
“I could wear pink,” he says.
Armando’s father whistles, sees the approaching dotted yellow center line, flicks the left turn signal on, and accelerates out into the left lane to pass a brown truck doing fifty, but as their van draws even the truck speeds up, so he pushes the accelerator, but the truck matches him, and four seconds in he looks over and spots two shirtless boys, the young driver smirking, glancing at his speed, and nodding to his buddy, and Armando’s father presses the brake, but the truck slows as well, and Armando’s mother reaches up and touches her window and says, “Hey. Hey,” as the dotted line goes double yellow and Armando’s father smashes the accelerator down as they fly along a bend, the van tilting hard, and a car coming for them in the far distance flashes its lights as the van’s engine wails a high pitched squeal, and Armando freezes in the backseat and sees his father’s head lean forward as the van gains a bumper ahead, then a full car length, and his father turns the wheel and cuts the truck off as the oncoming car whips past, horn ablaze.
“Shit!” his father says, lifting his right arm up with a fist.
His mother moans.
“My God,” she says. “Slow down. Slow down. Now. Please.”
Armando’s father lifts his foot from the accelerator, but the pedal sticks. He presses the brake and the van shakes.
“Stuck. Pedal’s stuck. Shit,” he says. “Help me.”
Armando glances outside and watches the red rock and pine trees rocket by. Among his still-forming fear he wonders if they’re doing a hundred.
Later, Armando will know that his father’s mistake was not shifting the car to neutral or not making any attempt to turn off the engine. But no one in the minivan knows that now, so while his father hammers down his left foot on the parking brake and his right on the main brake pedal, his mother unbuckles her seatbelt and leans over the center console and yanks on the accelerator. The burning brake stench overpowers them. From the backseat Armando watches his mother’s lower back jerk and jerk. He’s never seen her body move so wild and the act scares him more than anything that’s happened up to this point until his body launches sideways then presses taut and he hears his father yell out “Na!” as the van begins its roll.
As his vision straightens, Armando sees his sister’s wet face and the ground at the window behind her. Something presses on his neck and he reaches there and grabs at flesh, bone underneath, and he moves it away from him. A dangling, shoeless foot on a leg—his mother’s leg extending out at an impossible angle toward her body. He hears voices nearby, and reaches out in the space in front of him, toward his sister, and sees his hands there as the darkness overtakes him.
One afternoon, eight weeks into Armando’s mother’s coma, Armando’s father picks him up from school in their loaner van and drives them past the luxurious Broadmoor hotel and out on Gold Camp Road toward Pike’s Peak. Aspen flank the packed-dirt path. They talk about the Broncos beating the Redskins, about John Elway, how he may have a few more seasons left in him.
His father says, “The guy once knelt on home plate at the Stanford baseball stadium and hurled a baseball over the center fence from his knees.”
Armando pictures young Elway kneeling on home plate before the throw. Elway’s in uniform, warming up, windmilling his massive right arm loose as a small crowd gathers near the backstop. Then a baseball appears in his hand, and in one superhuman motion he flings the ball high and deep. The ball still climbs into the sky passing dead center, headed for the clouds. Young Elway smiles as Armando shakes the vision out of his head.
After a small crest his father turns south, guiding the van into a valley. A mile down the bumpier road he pulls the van off by a stream and parks.
They follow the stream for a while and piss at the base of a rusted-out sign before peeling off and hiking up a hill and resting on a granite outcropping.
“Never eat an armadillo,” Armando’s father says. “Leprosy.”
“I’ll never eat an armadillo.”
“You never know when you’ll be tempted to try. New Mexico. Arizona. Some weird freaks down there.”
“What’s the weirdest thing you’ve eaten?”
His father smacks his lips. “Weird, of course, is relative. But, to answer your question, human.”
“You believe me?”
“I ate a rabbit eyeball for twenty-five bucks.”
“Hard Jell-O marble.”
Armando looks out on the modest vista—gray rock and trees scattered together. He picks up a small rock and tosses it down the hill. Tiny dust eddies circle into the afternoon. He looks at his legs and sees dirt on his jeans and swipes. He imagines Avery calling his house and leaving a message he’ll find later that night. He remembers the yellow shirt she wore at school, her exposed collarbone. Near the end of the day she mentioned to him that she wanted to see Se7en—he’s heard something about a severed head.
“Your mom will wake up,” his father says.
“I mean it, son. She’ll be back with us soon.”
“You gave her a blessing?”
“Doesn’t have to do with that.”
“There’s free will, but there’s God’s plan. There’s volcanoes and shit, too. God’s always watching, which is a pain in the ass. And, of course, Freud is always watching, which is less a pain in the ass, but still. So, there you go.”
The wind blows through the trees and they hear the branches move.
On the way down they stay silent, but as they near the van, his father tells him to wait by the stream. He walks to the vehicle and returns with a glass jug and matches.
“It’s getting darker,” his father says. “Okay.” He uncorks the jug and holds it out to his son. “Smell,” he says, smiling, but Armando can smell the gasoline from where he stands.
“Little smoke cause there’s no green on it,” his father says proudly, stepping close. “Always pick dead ones.”
It’s then that Armando notices the tree next to him. The tree is largely limbless save a few dead branches near the top.
“I’ll do this one,” his father says. “Now listen. You just burn one. I got too cocky. Out of control.”
He steps to the snag and pours gasoline over the bottom two feet of the tree.
“Wow,” his father says. “Yeah. That’s the smell.” He pinches a match and holds it in his left hand between his thumb and pointer finger.
Armando stares in wonderment. “They’ll see the smoke,” he says.
“Getting dark, son.” His father takes a deep breath. “And there’s no they.”
“Some of the law is good, but some of it’s shit.” He shakes out his arms. “You already know that. You may think different, and I don’t care. Just never say I didn’t know what I was doing. You understand? Don’t ever say that.” He points the match at his son’s chest. “That’s the worst thing you can say about someone, that they don’t know what they’re doing. If you have a drink, that’s fine. Your mother will wake up and disagree.”
“I try things.”
His father strikes the match on the side of the box and cups the miniflame. Armando’s head buzzes, and he steps forward.
“Can I?” he asks, but his father ignores him, and Armando sees his father’s mouth move, but there’s no sound. His father flicks the match at the base of the tree and the flame catches and climbs. The tree lights up quick—a twenty-foot torch.
Armando can’t find words to say, but in his mind many cartwheel by: beautiful, free, power, hot, trouble, crime, glorious, God, coma, dead, Avery, prison, run.
Then: his father’s voice.
“She said I was a slob or something. Things go back and forth, then you dig the good stuff up, and I end up calling her an über bitch. So she says she’s going to stay at her sister’s in Cortez. Fine. ‘Good,’ I say. And she gathers her stuff, her priceless diploma. Gets in the car. All ready to go. But she just sits out there forever. She’s not crying. Not doing anything. Just sitting. Not even touching the wheel. Finally, she comes in. ‘It’s Sunday,’ she says. ‘Can’t spend money on gas on Sunday.’ That’s it. She stays.”
“Can’t spend money on Sunday? Can’t live like that, man. Don’t talk about it.” He takes a step toward the fire.
“And they say I killed a man. Bull. He killed himself. Intent matters. We pay people to kill. We give them awards. We call people heroes just because they get shot down trying to bomb people. How does that make you a hero? You survive the Hanoi Hilton and you’re a hero? You firebomb Dresden or Tokyo and you’re a hero? Look up LeMay.”
“You need to know I’ve never killed anyone. Doesn’t make sense. Why would I do that?”
“Go,” he says. “I want you to go.”
Armando doesn’t move, still mesmerized by it all. His father walks over to him and gently squeezes his neck.
“Get in the car,” his father says. “I’ll see you at home. I mean it.” He turns his son to face him and smiles.
“Dad, I don’t have a license.”
“It’s okay. Drive slow.”
Armando opens the driver’s door and gets in. He sits in the seat and sees the burning tree, his father’s back to him, and he squeezes the wheel hard and he reaches his feet out to touch the break and gas pedals. He’d practiced driving twice in their old van, but this is a newer Aerostar, electric doors and windows and side mirrors, and already he’s decided not to adjust anything, but the seat is too far away and it takes him a few nervous seconds to find the button that brings him closer to everything. Armando turns the key in the ignition—keys left in the van—then lights on, dashboard to life, deep breath, a little break, and he grabs the shifter and feels the minor click to reverse, off the brake, and movement. The lights of the van spotlight his father as he pulls out, and once Armando reaches the road leading out, he gently shifts to drive, but keeps his foot on the brake. He wipes his hands on his pants and looks over. He’s not sure why the thought comes to him as he watches the lit tree, his father’s hands on the top of his head, but it’s then that he knows his mother will never wake.
On the drive back Armando keeps it at thirty miles per hour. He focuses on the road, how close the van’s right-side tires parallel the shoulder, scanning for oncoming headlights, late-night loggers, but after thirty minutes of slow driving he enters a space of half-awareness as he replays the tree lighting, the glass jug, his father’s shiny face ranting, the invisible smoke flowing into the night. He considers his father, a man who seemingly knows everything, but knows how to do little, who showcases benevolence and service, a diehard Broncos fan, a hugger, quick to smile and encourage. He’s also someone who attends every fire station open house to climb on the trucks, a man who lights a match and blows it out after every bathroom trip, a person who, no matter the intention, has burned someone to death.
While his father was in prison his mother would tell him and his sister that it was the dead man’s fault for not heeding the warnings as the fire crept toward his log home. It was never a passionate defense, but it was practiced, and soon she stopped talking about it altogether. Sometimes his mother wouldn’t come home at night, and he would call the dentist’s office where she worked, and they’d let him know she’d left hours ago. Once she called him from Raton to tell him that there were extra frozen waffles in the freezer in the basement, that this would take care of him and his sister until she returned. But she was always home on Sundays, when she would dress up and haul them to church, a family procession he didn’t mind unless it was NFL season and the Broncos had the early game.
Driving down off the Front Range, a large truck passes him heading the opposite direction and although he can’t see the driver, Armando imagines a Forest Service uniform and a sidearm. He slows the van and pictures his father standing near the fire. When the truck pulls up to the still-burning tree will his father run? Laugh? Align his wrists for cuffs? Then the thought that he might have to be the one to pull the plug on his mother if it comes to that. He doesn’t know the rules, but as he speeds back up for home, he thinks of standing over the hospital bed when the doctor hands him the form to sign, points, says, “Sign here.” He sees his messy signature materialize.
When Armando gets home his sister is watching Xena: Warrior Princess and eating a bowl of Corn Pops.
“You stink,” she says.
The next day, there’s nothing in the Colorado Springs Gazette about a fire, no rumors at his school, and when his father shows up at their house two days later he’s wearing new clothes.
“We’re going out to eat,” he says.
Armando’s mother wakes up twenty minutes after O.J. Simpson is acquitted. Thinned out and shaky, she carries some internal organ damage, but the doctors tell the Diaz family that their mother will be just fine, save a limp and the need to regulate her insulin for the rest of her life. Besides the needle, it isn’t that bad. The first thing his mother asks for is a chocolate pudding pie in a graham cracker crust.
“Just this once,” says the doctor. The dessert is Armando’s favorite, and just as she’s about to finish the entire pie she asks him if he wants a bite.
“No,” he says, amazed.
In the weeks after his mother’s return home she discovers she no longer likes to read, has perfect pitch, and the color yellow brings on headaches. Armando never hears her complain about the needles.
What he does hear is her singing. Never one to sing outside of church—and even then, quietly—his mother devours CD after CD as she sings along at top volume. Her favorites are Chicago’s The Chicago Transit Authority and Tower of Power’s Tower of Power. One day he comes home from school and his mother hands him a trombone.
“Learn, for me,” she says, eyes wide and expectant. “You don’t have to play at school.”
Soon Armando finds himself with his trombone in hand sitting down for private lessons in a padded room inside a rancher on the east side of town. The instructor is a blind man pushing seventy.
“Hot Cross Buns,” the man says, face toward the ceiling, already nodding. “First, second, third position. Ready. Play.”
The first thing the Diazs buy with the four hundred thousand dollar settlement from the car company is a two-story stucco home on a hillside near The Broadmoor.
This is the home where their family watches The Empire Strikes Back on an April Saturday night.
When the film ends Armando’s mother says, “The force is the gospel. That movie was inspired. I believe that.”
“Mark Hamill plus car crash equals ugly Skywalker,” his father says. “Kind of looks like Joseph Smith.”
“You’re not serious,” says his mother.
Later that night, while his family sleeps, Armando watches Risky Business in his bedroom. They have a free six-month HBO trial, so he has been staying up late. As Tom Cruise starts fondling Rebecca De Mornay on screen, he feels himself go hard and he wonders if he should masturbate for the very first time. He doesn’t know if there’s actual no-masturbation doctrine anywhere in the Bible or Book of Mormon, but there’s enough context clues in Sunday School to guess that God would be pretty pissed at a young man jobbing himself hours before taking the sacrament. But still, he’s sixteen, and De Mornay is ungodly hot, and he thinks he might come even if he doesn’t touch himself. He wonders if there’s a concession between release and salvation somewhere in the night, and within ten seconds he thinks he’s found a compromise as he grabs his penis, but doesn’t move his hand. If something happens, he thinks, then it happens.
Armando feels himself hard and pulsing, his heart and eyes and groin in heartbeat rhythm. He lets the pressure build and overtake him as De Mornay straddles young Cruise, smartly sliding up and down, up and down, and for a few seconds he thinks he may suffocate before hearing himself breathe. He slightly squeezes himself, and for a split second he thinks of dry humping the new couch, and he hates himself and absolves himself: he didn’t seek out this I-want-to-do-this-beautiful-woman-for-days urge but here it is, undeniable and strong, and yet, this sensation collides with the vision of a white-robed, muscular Caucasian God, looking down, shaking his head, shaking a tiny bottle of Wite-Out, taking out the little Wite-Out brush and painting over “Armando Diaz” on the “Welcome to Heaven” list. And then, too quickly for him and his racing insides, the sex scene ends, and fully clothed actors talk on screen in daylight and his blood slowly settles and a dull ache ebbs forth from his testicles. His penis goes limp in his hand, and already he thinks about how he’ll be okay if he’s asked to say a prayer in front of people in ten hours. He’s still clean.
Mid-July on the eleventh hole of The Broadmoor’s West Course and Armando clips his shot off to the left and the white ball splashes into a pond. It’s early afternoon and the clouds have just begun to gather over the peaks as he reaches into his bag for another ball, but he’s out. He’s a poor golfer, which he accepts, but he still waits a second before asking his mother for one of her balls. She used to be a scratch player, but now carries a four handicap. “My car crash four,” she calls it. She still maintains an effortless swing, but there’s a hitch now when the weight transfers to her scarred left leg, like she’s trying to stop everything a split second before it happens.
Armando’s mother wears a blue visor and a form-fitting white polo. Thirty-six years old and attractive, her slim waist and long hair are often a target of silent male acknowledgement. Armando notices the minor nervousness of the two strangers who play with them. One wears a bright yellow shirt. The other, he overhears, is a retired Air Force Academy economics professor. Mr. Yellow Shirt looks up at the sky and smirks each time Armando’s mother flattens her back and sticks out her butt during her pre-shot routine.
Armando’s parents married when his father was twenty-two and his mother nineteen. He was a return missionary from England, smart enough to showcase a sliver of his bad boy status by drinking Coke and growing long sideburns. His mother was a junior at Cornell. Within a year of their marriage, she was pregnant with Armando. His father never finished his studies at Brigham Young, opting for a decent-paying job in the diamond business, but his mother keeps her framed diploma in their study on the wall above their new Apple computer.
While always weary of the attention his mother’s looks receive, Armando is proud of her golf talent when they are alone on the course, but he isn’t thrilled to be humbled in front of strangers—including a stranger who responds to “Colonel”—by asking his mother for a ball, which he knows will be a pink Slazenger.
“Need one, Mom,” he says.
As his mother opens the side of her golf bag and reaches in, he sees a gun among the golf balls. It’s his father’s black 9mm. The Colonel and Yellow Shirt don’t notice, and Armando’s body clenches.
“In the ancient days these used to be made by stuffing goose feathers in a leather pouch,” his mother says, impersonating her husband’s voice. She fingers the ball before tossing it over. “Swing hard.” She smiles.
The rest of the round Armando catches himself staring at the Ping logo on his mother’s bag, thinking about the weapon behind the light-blue fabric. He loses two more of his mother’s golf balls, and each time watches as she unzips the bag and chooses a replacement.
On the way home he’s worked up the courage to ask about the handgun, but his mother says, “Tell me about Avery. How much should I be worried?”
That night, he and his mother sit at the kitchen counter eating chocolate pudding.
“You had a gun today,” he says. “In your bag.”
She swallows a bite, then takes her spoon and swirls the remaining pudding in her bowl. Her elbows rest on the polished granite slab.
“You never know,” she says. The tone in her voice signals the end, but Armando presses.
“You never know.”
“Let’s see,” she says. “I carry a smaller one pretty much everywhere. I don’t care if you know, but don’t tell your sister. Got it?”
“To Broncos games? Little League?”
She spoons some pudding up and eats it.
“I grew up with guns, and you drive around long enough and you see bad situations. It always comes across as this random thing, but it’s not. Do you understand?”
“I guess,” he says, mouth full.
His mother looks above him. “I never want a fair fight. I don’t know why anyone would.”
“Yeah. That makes sense.”
“Now eat your dessert or I will.”
As Armando spoons the pudding to his mouth he peeks over at his now quiet mother. She stares just beyond her bowl at the gray and white and black swirls of granite, so Armando sits there and listens to the sound of his mouth tasting then swallowing the pudding.
Her face has thinned and Armando wonders what she’s thinking about. Guns? Fights? Pudding? Although his dad is the talker, his mother has always retained a compelling intra-family authority. Almost all decisions for the family end with her approval: trips, major purchases, minor allowances, movies. This power enchants Armando and his sister—their father talks and talks and talks, then, in the end, waits for their mother’s head nod, smile, or grimace. When his mother was in a coma the family would encounter unsettling swaths of silence after a debate, no matter how minor, before realizing that her approval was absent. But as Armando thinks about it now, he realizes there’s something different about Sundays. The slow, lazy procession into stiff clothes. His mother, quiet and solemn. Mozart, Schubert, Rachmaninoff on the home stereo. The short drive to the building. Nice, old-smelling people. The men to Priesthood, the women to Relief Society. A boring hour altogether interrupted by bits of bread and tiny cups of water. On the way home his father spells out the plan for the rest of the day, which largely details the way in which everyone will leave him alone, no questions asked. Sundays. Begging to watch a Broncos game. Sundays. A fair fight. His mother in the car, refusing to turn the key. Can’t spend money on Sundays.
Under a cloudy and surprisingly hot autumn afternoon, Armando and his father rest on the corner of South River Boulevard and West Walnut Street in Independence, Missouri. The manicured grass surrounding them is a gorgeous, shiny green. Armando’s mother and sister are in one of the Temple Lot’s visitor centers.
“We’ll never know if all this is true unless we find out it isn’t,” his father says. “But if we’re right God is supposed to come down from the heavens and land right here. We’ll get the message, drop our stuff, and congregate at this exact spot. It’ll be busy.” He breathes in. “I tend to believe it. You’d think God would choose Tahiti or the Yucatán. But that’s too easy.” He scratches his forehead. “Missouri. Damn, it’ll take God coming down here to get me to relocate. Lots of fat people running around.”
“What about Jerusalem?”
“Jerusalem sounds more important, but it’s not. You know, someone in Jerusalem, right now, is high on dope or banging a prostitute or reading the Bible.”
Armando looks at the perfect mower lines in the grass, confused.
“Come on, Kansas City or Jerusalem.”
A city bus stops near them, then drives away. A man walks by with an ice cream sandwich. A note of fertilizer floats around them.
“Do we have to walk here?” Armando asks.
“That’s the rumor.”
“Is that written down?”
“Good point. I doubt you were trying to make a point, but still.”
“But we have to walk?”
“Walk to salvation with all of our friends.”
“People in Europe are screwed.”
“But what would happen if you didn’t? Say we drove here. Is God or Jesus going to tell us to go back home?”
“Put down your lendings. Put down your lendings.” He laughs. “‘The Fourth Alarm.’”
“Cheever. You’ll get to him one day.”
“If the difference between driving and walking to Missouri is the litmus test for eternal life, then most are in trouble. Yes.”
“So the prophet will let us know when.”
“I figure when we see the red chariot flying in the sky we’ll start our trek.”
“With bolts of lightning.”
“No, you’re confusing mythology with Revelations.” His father balls his fists. “You’re too young sometimes. Soon, you won’t be. It’s my fault. I’ve wished you older.”
“I know the difference.”
Armando looks at his father, who picks at the grass between his legs then tosses it at his shoes. His father does this time and again, picking away a small circle section of lawn.
“Let’s not talk,” his father says.
Armando leans back and stretches out on the ground. It’s too hot to get comfortable, and his gray shirt is starting to sweat through. He closes his eyes and listens to the traffic and his father pick blades of grass. He imagines walking here, to this place. His legs hurting, sleeping on the side of I-70 as cars and diesel trucks zoom by. How many will be with them. Then what? Do they live here forever? In Independence? What would they do? Look up at the sky and wait? Would they get bored? Is there a choice? He recalls a vampire book where the eternal bloodsuckers get bored out of their minds and need antidepressants to get through their days. Then, a Sunday School talk comes to him where the well-dressed speaker said that when contemplating the notion of forever the audience should think of a hummingbird pecking away at a piece of granite as big as earth. In comparison to how long it will take that hummingbird to peck through that granite, “Well,” said the speaker, “eternity is a lot longer than that.”
With Colorado driver’s license finally in hand, Armando makes Gold Camp Road his makeout parking location with Avery.
Avery is patient and understanding of his quirks: no gum, fascination with her birthmark, U2 and Bon Jovi slow songs. And him of hers: breaks for air when she says so, and once in a while a lazy George Strait song.
After school one day, while he and Avery hang out in the living room watching reruns of The Wonder Years, Armando’s mother walks into the room holding a banana and an unopened condom. She asks if he can put a condom on the fruit. She’d watched a television special the night prior where Tom Brokaw narrated a town hall on safe sex, complete with banana-condom demonstration. Though unsure, he says he can perform the task.
“I’m not condoning premarital sex,” his mother says.
Avery buries her face in her hands.
“If you are using this, you’re past the point of trouble. But if you’re past the point of trouble, use this.”
Armando’s mother puts the banana back in the fruit bowl and leaves the condom on the counter.
Armando’s father corners him one night after he’s late getting back from Gold Camp Road. His father holds up the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and points at the cover, two beauties instead of the regular one, leopard-print bikinis, gleaming smiles.
“The lineaments of gratified desire. Say it with me.” He pauses. “The lineaments of gratified desire.”
Armando squints and shakes his head.
“An orgasm is pretty awesome, son. You know this. But it’s not mystical. Semen shoots from your penis. It feels good. These pictures have nothing to do with that. People were having orgasms long before photography and papyrus.”
Confused, Armando waits for more from his father, maybe something about masturbation, pregnancy, late-night HBO, Armando has no idea, but his father only nods, somehow satisfied, and tosses the magazine at him and walks away.
Part of Armando’s chores now involves stacking his mother’s dialysis-fluid boxes every week after a large truck unloads them in their driveway. The machine in his parents’ bedroom stands on his mother’s side of the bed and makes puffing noises as it circulates her blood. Often this is where his mother will dispense her advice—hooked up, ready for bed—including her opinion that nothing good happens between teenagers after eleven at night.
Still, on weekend nights Armando and Avery drive out on Gold Camp Road and pull off in the trees, kill the lights, and try their best in the cramped backseat. He is the novice, and while he doesn’t know the extent of her experience, he knows she’s had a couple boyfriends, good and bad, but at sixteen, he doesn’t yet know the vast possibilities that separate good from bad.
One night they drive out to the spot where his father torched the tree by the small stream. They maneuver past their normal shirts off, her bra off, let’s see how far we’re willing to go stage, and she begins to unzip his jeans. In that moment he wouldn’t have said “Stop” with a gun to his head. He feels Avery at the top of his jeans, running her fingers in the thin space between denim and skin, then fumbling with the button, then slowly unzipping him. The roof closes in and spins. In that dark space, out in the middle of nowhere, he only wants to live forever just like that, and for a moment he does, weightless, alive, and king, and then he hears her, barely at first, crying.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m okay. Lie back down. I’m fine.”
But she isn’t okay, and he lets her cry for a while with night all around before reaching out for her and holding her, feeling her breasts and warm skin on his skin.
“It’s not you,” she says.
“Okay,” he says.
They don’t talk about her crying that first night in the shadow of Pike’s Peak or any other night. Not even after several late-night parkings and other attempts at unzipping him and the tears that follow. He never asks her to try again, but she does. It isn’t every time they park, but she says “relax,” and presses him down often enough that he figures she battles something fierce. Even after he tells her, “No, you don’t have to,” she ignores him like he isn’t there, and pushes him down and straddles him, her hands on his chest and stomach and hips, moving down.
So it is often, after their drive out into the front range and the mix of limbs and jaws, around midnight, Armando lies down staring up at branches and white stars through the rear window, listening in simultaneous pleasure and fear for a sign, waiting for her mouth on him, but always hearing her short breaths, then gradual sobs coming from the dark before taking her in his arms, then dressing, and driving home.
On the windy drives home there is plenty of time to ask anything he wants, but they mainly stay quiet, sometimes holding hands, a quick chat about Avery’s dream of living in Arizona, but often just listening to John Bon Jovi belt out “Bed of Roses” or “I’ll Be There for You,” not knowing at sixteen if he should ask, “What happened?”
Pairs of well-suited men begin to show up in the Diaz family kitchen. When Armando gets home from school there they are, crouching around the worn dining table, jabbing at papers as his parents nod along. They never glance in his direction, but it doesn’t bother him. Soon he finds out they are life insurance men.
One night, after the latest set of buttoned-up men flee, Armando hears his father say “uninsurable” over and over before flinging a stack of papers and stomping off to the backyard. His mother sobs while warming water on the stove. She isn’t a crier, and Armando thinks about going to her but doesn’t. She adds macaroni to the boiling water then steadies herself on the kitchen counter, head down. His father reappears and takes her face in his hands and kisses her on her lips. Armando knows they love each other, but anything longer than a public peck is unusual. He glances over, then down at the carpet, then back. His father runs his fingers down his mother’s blue blouse, and then pulls her close, keeping his right hip angled out away from her injection site.
Armando isn’t interested enough to ask why his parents are in the market for life insurance—or what life insurance even is—and his parents don’t volunteer the information. But he is interested in this lengthy kiss, and he stares at the strangeness of his parents pressed together for so long. He’s not sure why he wants to cry or how he knows to stay quiet, and as his mother tries to look away his father pulls her back and kisses her again, but she’s crying too much now and the kiss has moved from pressed lips to pressed faces, chin to forehead. When his father says, “Go somewhere else, son,” Armando walks to his room where, after thinking about his parents and his forest forays with Avery, he can’t help but think about how no one has ever taught him the right way to touch someone you love.
Eventually, one pair of insurance men circles back with frequency. The older one with gray hair always messes with his tie. His crumpled suit struggles to cover his bulging midsection. He and his younger partner come back, time and again, and after one particular visit Armando knows they will never return because his mother hugs them and kisses them on their cheeks and his father shakes their hands and hugs them and calls them “My brothers.”
That night Armando’s parents take the family to the Cliff House in Manitou Springs, where the family drinks Martinelli’s sparkling cider from champagne glasses and his mother sings “Saturday in the Park” on the way home.
One January morning, Armando’s mother undergoes a kidney-pancreas transplant in a gorgeous hospital in Denver. Two nights later—just he and Avery home—Armando swipes a five-foot-long thick cardboard tube used to ship fly-fishing rods from his neighbor’s trash. He gathers up a few racquetballs and tennis balls, a screwdriver, and a red gasoline can from the garage. From his father’s gun safe, he grabs a can of black powder, a fuse, and two M-80s. On their way to the backyard lightly dusted with snow he asks Avery to get a set of tongs and oven mitts from the kitchen.
He positions the tube at a forty-five-degree angle over the back fence, aiming toward the lights of downtown Colorado Springs. He pushes the screwdriver through the tube near the base and threads the fuse through. He places the M-80s in the can of black powder, and the can of powder in the tube, ensuring one of the fuse’s tips rests deep in the small, dark kernels. The pungent smell surrounds him. Once the contraption is stable, oven-mitted Avery dips two racquetballs and four tennis balls into the gasoline with the tongs, then drops them down the tube.
Armando pulls a lighter from his pocket and walks over to Avery, still mitted, as she backs away.
“Holy shit,” she says. “This is a great idea.”
“God forgive us,” he says. “Get the car ready. If it’s big we’ll take off.” He smells his hands.
“I want to see it.”
“Wash your hands first,” Avery says. “We should wash our hands.”
His still-damp hands hold the lighter and the fuse. A helicopter flies overhead so he waits. Then another.
“Fort Carson,” he says. “Invasion.”
“Go Army. Start up the tanks.”
Armando flicks the lighter and sees the small flame jump to life. He lights the fuse and backs away.
“Cover your ears,” Avery says, hands on her ears.
He can still hear the helicopters in the distance—the spinning rotor blades compressing the air tight. He watches his cardboard cannon, all potential, all rush, blood racing in his ears, floating, and then a fire illuminates the tube from within, a split-second reverie of light and heat before the orange-tinged explosion rocks the night.
Armando’s mother returns home three weeks later with someone else’s organs tied inside her body. Her face bloats from anti-rejection drugs, and she suddenly grows light blonde whiskers on her chin and a few strands hug her cheeks. If the new hair humiliates his mother, she never says so. In the few photos he’ll keep from this time, his mother still manages a toothy smile. Still, he wonders why she doesn’t begin to shave, but he doesn’t have the nerve to ask.
His community service for the backyard cannon explosion doesn’t start for another month. His father told him two things when the judgment was handed down: never confess and never do the same thing twice. They pay someone to fix the fence.
Armando doesn’t see the life draining from his mother until she grows scared of leaving the house, then, of walking, then, standing. Accompanying his mother’s growing fear of the physical is her entry into large swaths of silence. Her singing disappears, and now, lying on their green living room couch, drinking 7-Up and chewing saltine crackers, his mother won’t speak unless spoken to, and even then, she only offers one-word answers.
Armando, his father, and his sister try to play games with his mother or read to her every now and then, but mostly she lies there with a glassy stare. Still, at the end of the nightly story, or when he wins at Sorry or Uno she says “yes” or “good” and strains a smile, but the Diaz home grows sullen with the February snow, and he finds reasons not to return home until late at night. He kisses his mother on his way to bed and she looks up at him, still somehow knowing him, and although he hates himself for thinking it, he crawls under the bed sheets wondering if the quiet person confined to the couch is still his mother, or if she is something else now. On the worst days, when his mother barely moves or eats, he battles himself wondering if he should pray for a swift, pain-free death, but then the anger overtakes him and he forces images of his mother standing, walking, singing.
One night his family plays the game Taboo. The score doesn’t matter to them as Armando’s mother mainly stays silent anyway. This time, when it’s Armando’s turn, he draws the word “tower.” The taboo words eliminate his verbal resources, so he starts out with “It’s tall, straight, and long,” and before he says another word his mother shouts “Penis!” His father, his sister, and he freeze dumbfounded. For an instant, silence and perplexity mix, and then, his mother laughs, and laughs again, and her giggles swell into full throttle, full belly roars. The implausible sound fills the room, and she sits up and doubles over, grabbing at her belly.
“Penis,” she says, and her eyes water and she laughs and hoots and snorts uncontrollably, and Armando’s sister and he laugh, and his father wipes at his eyes, and his mother keeps saying “penis” and busting up, and grabbing at her stomach, and she can’t stop herself and they don’t want her to stop, and as she roars she says, “It hurts. It hurts,” and she grabs her body, and all of them can tell she’s in pain, but she keeps laughing.
“It hurts,” she says, and her cheeks are wet with tears, and she keeps her hands pressed to her.
“Stop,” she says. “Stop it.” But she can’t stop, and she laugh-speaks, “Help,” but it takes them a while to understand, so his mother says, “Help me,” and his father rises and goes to her. He puts his hands on her stomach and asks, “Here?”
“Yes,” she says, her laughter swiftly shifting to groans. “Press.” Armando’s father presses his hands and they sink into his mother’s scarred belly. His mother brings her hands to her face and wipes at her cheeks.
“Harder,” she says, so his father presses further in, and she moans and takes a deep breath. When his mother calms down his father helps her recline flat on the couch, easing her head down onto her favorite red pillow. With their bedtime near, Armando and his sister pick up the word cards and put the game away. Somehow his mother’s laughter still wafts in the room. They kiss their mother’s forehead and say goodnight. They walk down the short hallway together, to the bathroom, and Armando squeezes toothpaste on his blue toothbrush. His body tenses as he watches himself in the mirror, and as he brings the toothbrush to his mouth he sees his sister reach out and touch his arm.
“Mom’s okay,” she says. “She’s getting better.”
“Yes,” he says.
He brushes his teeth and his sister brushes her teeth beside him. They rinse, and his sister picks up her first tube of lipstick, still new and unused, that their mother and father let her buy in advance of her eleventh birthday.
“What was the secret word?” she asks.
“Tower,” he says.
“Tower,” she repeats, then pauses. “But you said ‘long.’ That doesn’t make sense. A tower isn’t long. You should have said, ‘blank of power.’ She would’ve gotten it.” She shakes her head and turns and walks away.
One morning, after another week of his mother’s slow sink into the couch, soundless, his father comes into his room as Armando readies for school.
“She wants you to play,” he says. “It’s no big deal. Just relax. But please. She’s asking for you.”
“Just do it. It’s okay. I know what you’re going to say. Please.”
Armando brings his fingers to his lips as his insides evaporate. He visualizes his blind instructor, his words, “No. Again. No. Again.” He hasn’t picked up his trombone in a few weeks, and hasn’t progressed past a few basic scales and simple kids’ songs.
He grabs his trombone and walks downstairs to the couch with his head hung. His father and sister have pulled up chairs. His mother is covered with blankets, and they’ve propped up her head. She looks off in the distance above, somewhere in the air below the vaulted ceiling.
“Mom,” he says.
“Chicago,” his mother whispers.
He shakes his head at his father.
“Play anything,” his father says. “It’s okay.”
“Anyone. Know. What. Time. It. Really,” she says.
“Mom, I can’t.”
His sister nods at him. His father holds his palms out.
“Just play. Anything.”
He brings the instrument to his trembling lips, smells the slide oil, breathes in, and exhales hard into the mouthpiece. A metallic belch echoes in the room. He lowers the instrument.
“Chicago,” his mother whispers.
“Play. Just play.”
His father walks over to him and lifts the trombone up.
“You can do it.”
Armando feels the humiliation, the impossibility, and the mouthpiece on his lips. He closes his eyes and blows.
Two in the afternoon, and Armando and Avery leave school early, drive up to the Air Force Academy, and watch cadets fall from the sky. Adjacent to the overlook, a pedestaled T-38 jet points skyward. Facing east, they can see traffic zip by on I-25 and, high above, a slow circling airplane. Wave after wave of tiny dots escape the plane in five-second increments before blooming red parachutes. On the other side of the lookout, a group of tourists take photos, their bus hulking behind them.
Avery has her notebook out, drawing landscapes, mainly high-desert-cacti scenes. She leaves a six-inch-by-six-inch square at the bottom right of each page for poetry. Armando has his hands in his pockets. He scans the level airfield and watches each cadet’s impact—a few graceful, standing landings, but most perform a speedy, weirdly managed feet-to-hip crash. Somehow they gather their chutes and walk away uninjured.
Although he lives only twenty minutes from this place, it’s just his third time on the base, the other two to watch the Thunderbirds perform at graduation, but when Avery saw him with his head buried in the crook of his arm during fifth period, she tapped his back and said, “Let’s go.” She didn’t plan on bringing him here, but driving north they noticed the parachute-spotted sky and pulled off the interstate.
Avery finishes a drawing and leans over and shows it to Armando.
“What’s the first word that comes to your mind?” she asks.
“Too many cacti?”
“I like cactus.”
“Have you ever seen the big ones?”
“The big ones are almost extinct. Phoenix and Tucson and places like that cut them down. There’s some at White Tanks by my grandma’s house.”
Armando looks at Avery and nods.
“You always look at my birthmark,” she says.
“I like it.”
“You don’t like it. You say that so I won’t feel bad.”
“Am I allowed to like it?”
“I don’t know. There’s no way to get rid of it. I’ve looked into it. Anything I do will just make it worse.”
Armando looks back to the crash-landing cadets. A pressure grows near the back of his head and he squeezes the base of his neck.
“I don’t expect you to understand,” she continues. “Your face is perfect. Not even a mark from chicken pox. Seriously, no crash on your bike? No sister revenge scratch?”
The large tourist bus starts its engine. Someone says, “Okay, it’s time. Next stop, the chapel.”
The plane has circled back high above and a new group of dots fall and bloom.
“My mom’s growing a beard,” he says. “I know you don’t want to come over.”
“I don’t blame you.”
“I’ll come over.”
“Listen to me. You don’t have to.”
“If you want me to.”
“No. You shouldn’t. It’s pathetic.”
Armando kicks at the sidewalk. His shoe squeaks.
“She doesn’t care she’s growing a beard.” He wipes at his cheek. “I want her to care about that. My dad doesn’t care. Nobody’s doing anything about it.”
“It’s not her fault.”
“I didn’t say it was her fault. Did I say that? I said no one cares about her beard. No one cares that she just lies there. We don’t even move her to the bed. Here, just hang out in the living room. Just stay there. Never do anything to help yourself. Mumble. That helps. Mumble.”
“Maybe she wants to be there. It’s comfortable.”
“Does that matter? It doesn’t matter. That’s the point. She doesn’t want to do anything. Stand up. Do something.”
“If she stands . . .”
“I’ll pick her up. I’ll stand her up. You don’t want to walk. Tough. You’re walking. Fall over. Cry. Mumble.”
“She . . .”
“You want another cracker? Tough shit. You’re eating real food. No crackers tonight.”
“She just . . .”
“You’re fucking eating steak. I’ll stick that shit into her mouth. She’s eating it.”
“She’s eating whatever the fuck I give her. Pizza. Ice cream. Eat it and get up.”
“You want me to play the fucking trombone, get off your ass and you play it. Pick it up and play.”
“She can pick that shit up.”
“Don’t defend her. I’m fucking serious. Don’t defend her.” He reaches down and grabs at nothing and stands. “Pick it up. I’ll force her ass to stand. You know I will. And if she falls, she falls. Done. But that won’t happen. You know why? When someone forces her ass to stand, she’ll stand. When someone jams goddamn steak down her throat she’ll swallow it.”
Avery clutches the notebook to her chest.
“Defend her. Oh, she can’t chew. She can’t hold a fork. She can’t lift her head. She can’t eat. Defend her. Fine. She’ll eat it all.”
In the near distance, a blue plane lands and idles on the runway while a new group of jumpers load up. Through the air, the low hum of the plane’s propellers. Behind the airfield buildings, northbound interstate traffic has slowed to a crawl.
Avery strokes the cover of her notebook. Her index finder brushes against the spiral binding. She looks down at the ground, over to Armando’s shoes. Black Nikes, white swoosh. A misshapen smile. A slanted “J.” An ice skate. Swoosh. A sound falling through the air.
The last day of school, restlessness everywhere. Armando’s government class watches the television as a Colorado jury sentences Timothy McVeigh to death for the Oklahoma City bombing. McVeigh is largely emotionless, but many of the jurors look tired and squeamish.
“The sad part is,” his teacher says as he mutes the television, “they’ll make it as comfortable as possible.”
Avery’s voice brings him back. “Who’s that?” she asks.
On the television screen, two elderly people weep uncontrollably behind McVeigh’s lawyers.
“Everyone has parents,” says the teacher.
As the class moves into a quarter-hearted discussion of the judicial system, Armando daydreams about a clear Oklahoma morning where he spots the moving truck, McVeigh at the helm, at a spotlight two blocks from the unbombed building. He imagines pulling a gun from a shoulder holster and putting a bullet in each McVeigh kneecap and one in each shoulder. When the cops show he holds up a photo with the alternative, no Armando Diaz intervention outcome—a gutted building, 168 dead—and they proclaim him a hero and decide, on the spot, to keep the bullets in McVeigh, to take him to some dank garage and foster life and pain as long as possible.
That afternoon, his father walks up to the school’s baseball field in the middle of P.E. class. The sun is out and Armando stands in the dugout shade, joking with friends.
“Your dad,” someone says.
He sees his father come through the gate in the outfield fence and step on the warning track. He stands and waves, but his father only nods, and suddenly Armando feels his legs go and he sits. His shoulders hunch up and he remembers to breathe as everything slows down. His father walks toward him, and it all seems to take too long, the length of the field, how many steps his father takes without getting any closer.
“Diaz, your dad,” someone says.
As he hits second base, Armando’s father scratches his chest. The P.E. teacher meets him at the pitcher’s mound and the teacher nods his head and points at the dugout and stares.
Armando stands and walks up the dugout steps into the sunshine. The sky seems close.
His father crosses the base path and takes his son in his arms.
On the way home Armando’s mind pounds out images of his mother on the couch—7-Up sips, Uno indifference, trombone disappointment—and he can’t get his mind to work back far enough to when she was whole.
When his father misses the turn home, he doesn’t ask where they are headed. His father drives past The Broadmoor and its blooming flowers, past stucco mansions with rock walls, and turns right, heading up into the mountains. As they gain altitude Armando looks out over the valley, all the way across the city to the eastern plains curving toward Kansas. Once the pavement turns to dirt his father says, “When Tesla was up here,” but he doesn’t finish the sentence. His father rolls his window down, inhales, then flips a U-turn. On the way back down Armando watches the city rise up to them.
When they walk through the front door, his sister rests on the couch where their mother had spent the last months of her life. There is no trace.
Armando retreats to his bedroom and sits on the edge of his bed and stares at a white wall holding up his room. His father comes in and sits down. Armando wants to tell his father that he thinks he’s okay, that he worries about his sister, that it’s really Avery he wants near, but he keeps quiet and inhales deeply, and sits next to his father, who begins to rub his son’s back, first slowly, then faster. Armando listens to his father breathe and feels his father’s hand circling fast, warming his back as they stare at the wall because neither of them knows what to say with the words they have left.
Jesse Goolsby is the author of the novel I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them. His award-winning fiction has been published recently in Narrative Magazine, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Sycamore Review. He serves as fiction editor for the journal War, Literature & the Arts. He currently lives and writes in Tallahassee, Florida.