Jerry Luján, a boy in a visor, is walking in a ditch alongside Menaul Street today. It’s Tuesday, five o’clock in the afternoon, and night is already upon him. In Albuquerque it gets dark like this, out of the blue, as if someone has suddenly yanked the tablecloth from off a table. Jerry Luján dawdles with his hands in the pockets of his windbreaker. We are in the land of trocas and truck-gear.
Meanwhile, in the center of Burque, the main library is slowly edging to a close, like a beast drifting off to sleep, as it prepares to shut its doors. Today is Tuesday, a golden, sad Tuesday in February, and the main library is half-full of downtrodden readers: Hopi Indians and beggars with backpacks. Jennifer, with long, thin blonde hair, lets her eyes range over the dirty carpet. She strikes the keyboard one last time and then waits as the computer shuts down, sounding its twilight music while a nearby lightbulb flickers (the same one as always). It is Tuesday. Jennifer drums her fingernails against the Formica table. Someone turns to look at her.
It is five o’clock and two girls come spilling out of a house on Gold Street, taking advantage of the last bits of afternoon sunlight, which in Albuquerque, depending on where you are, lingers and spills out like wine. The girls, who cannot be more than thirteen, smoke their last mentholated cigarette, which glides from mouth to mouth like a kiss. The girl with a ponytail says: “Look at the sky,” and the other says, “The sky sucks.” They both laugh. By the patio door is a rusty bicycle and on the clothesline hangs a pair of enormous women’s underpants.
Jerry Luján is not afraid. He keeps his hands in his pockets, and in the right one is a piece of rope which is fraying bit by bit; there isn’t anything in the left pocket, only his hand with its chewed nails. Jerry is thinking. Two minutes ago the last ray of sunlight disappeared behind some houses, but Jerry is not afraid. As he passes a power line at the corner of Wyoming Street, a flock of birds fly up and startle him for a moment, a dark-gray swarm. In front of the Walgreens on Wyoming Street, beside a rickety house, there is a woman who listens to the radio while sitting in a chair; her dog, meanwhile, a pit bull marked with scars, bounds playfully nearby. In the adjacent lot, an Asian man, whistling, cleans a car with a giant snout (a Buick for sure). Jerry thinks about his grandmother Dolores and Embudo, and about how his uncle washes cars with a special wax and a hose during those long soporific summer afternoons.
Jennifer gets up. Closing time has arrived. Hanging on the wall of the vestibule is a calendar with flowers and cacti. In the space behind the door, the rustlings of Mrs. Barrios can be heard as she gathers up the returned books and organizes them in curious mounds. You Can Also Be an Interesting Person, promises one title, imposing and with pictures. Another says Nightwood. Jennifer leans over to pick up her tiny pocketbook, where she carries a toothbrush and a synthetic change purse. In the reading room, lethargic readers procrastinate to put off their exit, nettled by sudden misgivings or impatience. Jennifer gets up and says good-bye to the usual people: Solita Smith, a husky Indian lady with ten children who scours the newspapers each day, looking for something that she never finds (hope?); Johnny, a tall thin black teenager unable, it seems, to smile; a couple of housewives in terrycloth jumpsuits, and a bit farther off Clemente, a beggar—thickly bearded and melancholic—arguing with himself, as always, over there at the back table while leaning over an opened encyclopedia turned to whatever page.
On Gold Street, the stars shine like lighthouses in the desert sky. The younger of the two girls disappears for a few minutes into the house, then returns with a forty of beer that the two sip slowly. The garden is already bathed in darkness but neither of them makes to turn on the porch lights. Why bother? They don’t say anything but they feel free. Father has not returned home from work yet, and it is possible that he will not come back until eight o’clock. In the neighboring house, separated only by a puny metal railing, a baby is sobbing and a drunken man shouts in a strange language, perhaps Russian.
He’ll be here any minute, thinks Jerry, and he thinks about what he will say to his parents. Sorry, I did not go to baseball practice, I missed the bus. And his dad will reply with that voice of his that ripples along the edges, the voice of a Mexican who speaks English and says watcha, huero, and ensiñorear; he will say, poorly done, son, and he will say deveras you should have called me at work. But at work, Benito—as Benny is called—never hears his cell phone ring. The noise of the machinery is powerful, and today he has other things to think about, not all of them particularly pleasant. Jerry will not tell him anything about De’Anza, that quiet kid who lives on the Indian reservation near Mesa Redonda and with whom Jerry gets along so well. The first time, De’Anza told Jerry—showing his friend the red stone that he wore hanging on a necklace—look, that’s the tierra, just the tierra, and Jerry was transfixed, his mouth agape, because he knew that De’Anza was a Navajo Indian, although he still did not quite understand what that meant. And today De’Anza told him come with me, I want to show you something, something you’ve never seen, and the two bolted out of school, and ran along an open reddish expanse behind Candelaria Street, where there are lampposts and vending stalls and signs advertising attorneys and plastic surgeons and where Jerry once saw a lone cow, pacing about in the middle of that sterile ground. His father had told him: “The cow’s lost.” Jerry thought that it looked unwell, and that it was not going to find anything to eat in the middle of the desert. But there was nothing he could do, there they had left it, the poor cow, run aground, staring back at them with pained eyes.
And now both Jerry and De’Anza—eleven-year-olds—raced against the clock through that barren patch between Menaul and Candelaria. The cow was not there. Jerry realized that it was getting dark and suspected that it wouldn’t be long before night fell, since everyone knows that in Burque the night is like a burial shroud that blinds the city, and then transforms it.
Jennifer said good-bye to Mrs. Barrios and to Solita, and gathered her things. The library with its lights turned off gave her a bit of a start, as though hundreds of eyes were suddenly watching her from the dark. José, the security guard, accompanied her to the bus stop, and once there held her hand for a while. He was a young man with thick, shaggy black hair; he wore beat-up Texan boots and a short-sleeved shirt that seemed to come from another era. He said to her: “Think about it.” He had never mentioned it in words exactly, but “it” hung between them as something understood. In a certain way Jennifer felt comfortable lingering in that parenthesis without resolution. He was a good man, as her mother said, a serious man, as her mother said. She contemplated him from the window of the bus with his hands locked stiffly against his short frame. He smiled and said good-bye with a look—and also with his hands, which fluttered open and shut unwittingly, as though blinking—while she pulled away toward the Rio Grande.
When he disappeared from view, Jennifer leaned back in the seat of the dilapidated bus. In the seat in front of her a stout Indian woman sang to herself, an aching sad tune. Alongside her a man with red hair was drinking from a bottle wrapped in a paper bag; Jennifer smiled to herself.
They ran and ran. And there was a moment in which Jerry noticed his hand hanging beside the damp hand of De’Anza, and he pulled it back. The evening was growing darker and increasingly unnerving. We’re almost there, gasped De’Anza, and there was a stony patch and a pair of big exposed pipes, cut-up arm-like shapes. From afar came the sound of traffic, and Jerry thought: “Right now, my mom is waiting her turn and soon will be opening the register and will carefully unload the packets of change,” and he could see, almost as if he were there, the caps of crunchy paper that sound somehow like food when they are torn open; and he could see her, Dolly Romero, with her sparkling white teeth and long, unbreakable porcelain nails, tapping out the difficult figures of the prices, fearful of making a mistake and having her manager scold her, or worse, throw her out; and he could hear the din from Sam’s Club at rush hour as everyone left work, which is a noise like a blast of wind . . .
And they ran and they ran. It was already nighttime.
The girls on Gold Street seemed to go quiet for good. They listened to the sobbing of the neighbors’ baby, as it grew shriller and more piercing. And then, putting out her cigarette, the girl turned to her friend and, revealing a sneering face and with a hiccup of laughter, said: “Good.” Then the silence returned, and the younger girl thought that her father would be back any minute. “Do you know that the night in New Mexico is the darkest there is?” she asked. There was a moment in which a breath seemed to leave her mouth in a cloud of smoke. “The night sucks,” the other responded. They took a long gulp of beer. A loud thud could be heard from the house next door, and the sobbing of the sick baby stopped.
Jerry and De’Anza had also arrived at their destination. It was difficult to maneuver in the dark, and although traffic seemed to roar by not too far from where they were, the lights of the cars didn’t reach their distant lot. Jerry kept tripping over stray pieces of trash. They arrived at a little hut that looked pointy and sad, and De’Anza said to him, “don’t be scared, vato.” They entered and De’Anza lit one match, then another. On the ground was a lone shoe, belonging to a man from the looks of it, and a milk carton and the dung of some unknown animal. The match went out again and De’Anza lit another, using his left hand to cover it. “Here it is, right here,” he said. And there was a thick silence, and Jerry noted that something like a stream of sweetness, or a whiff of perfumed air, flooded the shack and the land around them and even the night itself.
De’Anza motioned with his foot to a greasy woolen cloth lying beneath an upended plank. His young hands trembled while he held the match and said to his friend, grab it, and Jerry extended his chubby palms and felt something repulsive, as though he had touched an amputated limb or sputum; he reached out his hands. The bundle was hard and weighty. Jerry lifted it, and raised his eyes for a moment and saw De’Anza’s eyes sparkling with desire. He unwrapped the cloth, which was tied in knots by its edges. There it was: thick, black like an insect, pretty and distant. A .35 caliber in the penumbra.
Jennifer started to daydreamwhile the bus shook along through the pothole-ridden streets, but soon she eagerly opened the message she got today. Once she read it, she cradled it against her chest and later, on arriving home, would stick it under the mattress along with the others she had been receiving lately. The envelope was brownish, and the scrawl angular, mixing upper- and lowercase letters tied together in cursive strokes. Jennifer looked out the window, and gently twirled her sweet delicate blonde hair; she pinched with a certain distracted tenderness the unpierced lobes of her ears, still staring out the window. Behind the glass were fast-food restaurants and Mexican food carts, warehouses, and car dealerships. And then she saw that boy walking along through the ditch with his hands in his pockets. He was a small boy, and for a moment Jennifer said to herself, “It’s no time for a little kid to be walking alone.” But she could see that the small boy, aloof from everything, was smiling. Jennifer turned her body so she could watch him until he disappeared into the distance, into the darkness of the night. The bus crossed a bunch of long streets, in the direction of the interstate, and at Coors Street a man with a shopping cart full of clothes halted traffic. He was shouting. Jennifer tried to hear what he was saying but could only make out buck and shit, and she abandoned the effort as impossible.
Jennifer spread out the paper, brimming with spelling errors, and read the note of her secret admirer with a sensation not unlike warmth; it said: “I love you, you crap, and I’ll kill you.” After finishing, she closed her eyes and drifted toward her house while the reddened hills leaned out in the distance.
At the same time, in his cardboard hovel on Seventh Street, Clemente took a deep swig and got comfortable for the night. Next to him was a pile of papers full of letters and numbers. He muttered to himself: “I have to keep writing so that Albuquerque exists.” But he was too sad, and he closed his eyes, bathing himself in darkness. He thought: “Albuquerque, stop; I’m tired.” And he closed his eyes, and, almost immediately, fell asleep, although around him sirens wailed and hip-hop melodies thumped, and in the neighboring parking lot, some grungy teenager smashed the windshield of a truck. Clemente, exhausted as he was, barely had time to whisper to himself “see you tomorrow.”