Leo says that I’m not hard like I should be. That there isn’t any strength, only chickenshit and pulped fish inside. Tells me I’m like a dog, domestic and broken. So he calls me Perro and says it’ll take work to make me into a man.
There is new snow on the ground when I get up in the morning and see him out by the pit where he burns trash, and when I go outside to feed Una, he calls me over to him grinning. It’s still dark, but the yellow in his eyes is illuminated by the flames.
“Look Perro,” he says, “look what’s here.”
There in the flames are the jeans that Elisa and I spent all day Sunday pegging on her mom’s sewing machine so that I could look rock ‘n’ roll like Sid Vicious. All three pairs of pants, so that I have to spend the rest of February and March wearing my summer shorts to school.
And Leo says, “You want to wear girl jeans? Let the cold be a lesson, boy. What doesn’t kill you.”
The first time I see the coyote I’m walking home from school with Elisa and it’s there, sniffing around one of the new construction sites on Tolemac Way. I hear them at night from my bed, hi-yeeing to each other, but in the two years since Leo and I moved to Prescott, Arizona, this is the first time I’ve seen one.
“A coyote,” Elisa says, pointing.
“That’s just a stray,” I say. But when I move closer, it skirts me and there’s something feral and wolfish in the way it looks at me once and then not again. Its ears are two giant triangle flaps flat against its head and its mouth is pulled taut, smiling. The matted coat grey and red like the earth, so that if there wasn’t the white of the snow I think we might not have noticed. Its great tail is bushy, almost scraping the ground, and Elisa takes my hand in hers as it trots away.
She looks at me and she smiles. She speaks softly, “A wild thing runs free.”
Leo and I live in a ranch house on Woodside Drive, out on the northeast end of town and the arroyo out back leads up to the butte and in the distance are the mountains. The house is nothing to me. The rooms all reek of cat piss and the closets are full with decades of junk ordered off TV infomercials. A box stuffed up with television remotes, one of mismatched parts for off-brand food processors. The walls with rectangles of paint a shade off-color over patched drywall. The carpet worn so thin that the speckled grey underlay comes up in foam tufts.
The house is nothing to me. But it’s hard to put words to the beauty of the mountains and the expansive, unpopulated wilderness in between. I think the landscape might be fake, a kind of mirage. Some mornings I get up and walk Una straight through the desert toward it. Through ocotillo and brittlebush, over chuckwallas and the scat of mule deer. But the mountains, they never get any closer.
But I’m not alone here. I spend afternoons with Elisa. We walk Una through the canyon; we play gin rummy and cribbage, seated on the floor of my shabby little room. Leo spends his afternoons down at the Glenn Inn, drinking cheap beer and trying to out-story the other old drunks.
Elisa, of dark flowing hair and wide eyes. We met in her mother’s car. She lives down where Woodside Drive cul-de-sacs. Her mother, thin and priss-lipped, came by a week after we’d moved in and offered to carpool me to school. Leo’s supposed to pick us up in the afternoons, but that doesn’t really happen, so we walk. For the first couple of weeks I was Elisa’s shadow. Behind her in the bucket seat of the Town and Country, trying to answer her mother’s questions politely, and trailing ten feet after her on the way home, pretending I wasn’t going crazy trying to think of something to say.
Then, one day I’m wearing this shirt with the frog creature from Hi, How Are You that I drew on with a Sharpie, and Elisa turns around and asks, have I seen The Devil and Daniel Johnston? I told her I hadn’t even though I watched it once and all it did was make me sad. So that Friday we road our bikes to Blockbuster and rented it. I liked it more, there with her.
We went through all the rock ‘n’ roll movies after that: Velvet Goldmine, Party Monster, True Romance, Gummo... Our Friday night tradition, and it’s nice to have something to look forward to. Sometimes, when her mom’s in the other room, Elisa’ll lean into me and I’ll put my arm around her and feel wild horses in my chest like I can’t hardly remember.
And one night I put my mouth to hers; the kiss less like strawberries than I could have guessed, but still something galvanic. I slide my hand under her shirt, feeling along the fleshy part of her belly. My ring and little finger playing some, just starting to reach under her belt to feel the hem of what is underneath. She looks at me and her eyes are as big as I’ve seen them. And when she whispers, Wait, I take my hand out from under her clothes and let it rest there on top of her stomach.
The second time I see the coyote, I am in the car with Leo. It’s my birthday and Leo says we are going to have a party. So we’re up at five in the morning and out, into Leo’s ’86 Nissan Z, and it’s there as we turn onto County Road 10, loping along the side of the highway; its mouth hangs open and its eyes are two little slits. Its feet seem to hardly touch the ground as it bounds out into the desert. And I feel so alive inside it hurts.
We take the I-17 south through Scottsdale, onto the I-10 and then through Tucson. To Nogales, Arizona, where we park in a strip mall and walk across the street and through the revolving, one-way turnstile gates like we’re going to the zoo or a ballgame. And then we’re in Nogales, Mexico. Leo makes a couple of trips south every year but this is the first time he has brought me. Today I am fifteen years old and my father is acting like a human being.
The street vendors are already out, have been out for hours, Leo says. Small children, brown and skinny, missing fingers, a leg, an eye. They offer Chiclets in little paper boxes one for a quarter. There are men in charro regalia standing next to donkeys painted black and white so that they look like zebras—zonkeys, Leo calls them—and the smell wafts from carts with meat frying in oil scraped off the top of the river.
We walk down the main strip. On the side streets the shops are little more than dimly lit boxcar shipping containers, full with backpacks and leather jackets, fake Oakley sunglasses, glass pipes shaped like turtles and jaguars and ones made from hollowed bone. There are display cases lined up with switchblades and knives much larger.
“Don’t wander,” Leo says. “Little American boys disappear here.”
He buys carne on a stick and a cola, a churro for me. We sit on the curb with our feet in the gutter and we eat. A stray with a split eye and mange comes up looking for food and Leo kicks a foot at it.
“It’s a different world down here,” he starts. “I know you think your life is hard right now, but you don’t know a damn thing about real struggle. You think you know something about hardship because your mom died and the house we live in isn’t nice like the ones around it? Spend a winter in Sonora living in a tent and you’ll get goddamn appreciative.”
I follow him over broken cobblestones, down a side street, up another, into a little courtyard behind a sign that reads Posada Los Nogales.
It’s a motel, I can tell that from the spread of the rooms. We move into a covered patio area with six or so unoccupied tables and only the proprietor at the counter.
“Hola, Duro,” Leo says, and he rubs the stubble on his jaw. The man comes out from behind the counter and stares up at him. He smiles; he grips Leo’s hand like they are old friends.
“Chingala wey, que pasó?” the man says. His black hair is combed back and receding on the sides. The tanned skin on his face falls in heavy folds around his jowls, like plates on a rhino.
“Duro,” Leo says; he takes my wrist and pulls me forward. “Este es mi hijo. Today is his birthday, tiene quince años. Un hombre.” And their eyes meet in some shared acknowledgement.
I’ve never heard Leo speak Spanish before. Not like the way he does now, fluent and accented like he grew up with it. Duro brings out Coronas and Leo hands one to me. I sit at a small wooden table with them, and they speak so rapidly that—even with the three years I’ve taken in school—I can only make out the occasional word or phrase. But that’s okay; sitting there, sipping beer with my father and his friend, I feel good. Like I belong to the world. I try to smile when they laugh, and occasionally Duro asks me a question in Spanish, then repeats more slowly, then in English.
“I know tu padre when he was your age,” he says. “Pinche chingón wey. We work together, in Tucson, en la carnicería. Antes La Migra.”
The bottles line up on the table and the light grows dim in the sky, yellow around us from the bulb overhead. Only three of the empties are mine, but still, I feel unsteady when I stand.
Duro leads me and Leo down a hallway with lamps spaced unevenly; he opens a door numbered thirteen for me, and Leo cups a hand on my shoulder. “Feliz cumpleaños,” he says.
The room is as poorly lit as the hallway. I step inside and close the door; I pull my shirt off. I’m fumbling with my belt when I realize there is someone on the bed. I jump and turn toward the door. “Está bien,” the girl says.
Leo is there in the hall, like he knew I’d come out. Still, when he looks at me I can see his shame.
“Don’t chicken out on this, Perro,” he says. “Get back in that room.”
It is there, in the cool of the desert behind our house, when I take Una and think that this time we really will walk until we reach the godforsaken mountains, that I feel the coyote move into me.
A void, something blank in my heart, open and growing since the night before. Sometimes it’s hard to truly know what’s inside, what one can do.
When Leo wanted to be chummy this morning—cheery like I haven’t seen him in years—I couldn’t, and his eyes clouded and he said, “Boy, how do you fuck even this up?”
Then the long, silent car ride back from Nogales, in which I don’t talk to Leo about anything. Not about the brief, uncomfortable sex, or how I rolled over and cried afterward. I don’t say to him that the girl remained close to listless during, or that she looked to have been two years younger than me.
And when Elisa calls that night to ask about Mexico, I can’t tell her. I realize I can never tell her, and I feel the darkness inside of me wrench. I realize just how much I wanted my first time to be with her, how my life feels suddenly separate from the path I believed it to be on. And when I’m quiet she starts asking what she’s done, and the anger I feel for myself rises and comes out as malice. I tell her it’s not her, that she’s nothing but a self-absorbed child with a happy family; that not everything that goes on in my life or in the world around us has something or anything to do with her.
Una senses the other animal first. I see her sniff at the air and then she starts to whine. It’s okay, I say. I tug on the leash but she won’t take a step. Then I see it there, crumpled body curled into itself. A dusting of snow blown in patches over the matted coat, mouth open and tongue lolling out into the dirt. Eyes like chipped glass, staring blind.
Una takes a step back and when she tries to lie down, I drop the leash. I move forward and I feel the lump that’s been in my throat since Nogales swell and catch. Una keeps making the unhappy sound as I move around collecting branches of saltcedar and velvet mesquite. I pile the sticks over the coyote’s body, and that’s when I feel the emptiness inside of me turn and swirl and I know that she is there with me, inside me. She’s not living, she’s not moving through the desert or the city streets at night calling out, and the part of me that used to be like that isn’t either. But they’re there, together in there, the dead parts, and they’ll stay like that always.