duen·de /do͞oˈendā,ˈdwendā/ 1. a quality of passion and inspiration. 2. (in the folklore of Spain, Portugal, Latin America, and the Philippines) a supernatural being or spirit resembling a pixie or imp.
I was seven in 1957 – born smack in the middle of the century’s middle age – when I was hit by a ’57 Cadillac, crossing the road with my brother, Dutch. I know that’s a lot of sevens, making it seem like a lie, because no one is that lucky. But I am - we all are - and that’s no lie. This is what you need to know.
We were crossing the road when I was seven and Dutch was ten and we lived in grainy El Paso, just barely across the border from Cuidad Juarez. Juarez was poorer than its sister city by a Mexican mile, but more lively and beautiful with its glittery dust and black eyed women, selling real things like homemade tamales and the beautiful and soft red cowboy boots I was wearing that day. Ma had bought them for a few dollars because I begged for them and even though Dutch was her favorite and I was just her second son, for once, she humored me. She was glittery and bright too, like the Mexican dust, made even more lovely by the tequila (also purchased in Juarez) that she openly drank during the day when Pops was at work.
He was gone from 6am to 6pm, six days a week. A lot of sixes too, but those aren’t as lucky. He was a cook at Fort Bliss. When he was done with his long day, he would come home and cook again – supper for his two sons and two daughters – while Ma simmered on the battered couch in our trailer in the barrio. Pops could not stand the rank and file of living on an army base, so we were poor and resigned to living with the poor people not of our own kind. Pops was also a second son and a true patriot, a veteran of World War II where he learned to box and guard the Panama Canal. He was court-martialed once for failing to perform assigned duties in defense of his country. Ma told me this as she shone bright like the North Star one breathless afternoon, but that conversation was dropped because she had to attend to one of my little sisters and I never learned another thing about it.
Sometimes we just never know. Anyway, like the true patriot he was, Pops always extracted solemn promises from Dutch and I to never join the army, boys, as he cooked us fluffy pancakes and flat bacon, flipping them with military precision, for our own supper while Ma glimmered in the corner like a mirage.
And the sun hung low over West Texas.
On that day in 1957, when I was seven, Dutch and I set off for Maxwell’s corner store. It had just rained. It rarely rained in El Paso, but when it did, what rose up afterwards was a good smell, a clean smell as if everything bad was washed away, even clear down to original sin. Even at seven, that smell brought a lump to my throat, strangling my breath with longing for something I would never know. This is what Dutch and I smelled as we walked along, kicking at each other’s feet, gripping the wet earth.
(I have to tell you something here about Dutch because it cannot wait for later. He was my older brother, mean and hard already, just barely into double digits. He was not protective of me or our sisters, even though they were only three and five. While we were all blue eyed - Ma and Pops, both of German heritage - his eyes were icy and sly like a weasel who had mayhem on his mind or something worse entirely. My eyes were soft and round, like my two sisters and could only go cold if I was very, very angry. He was a special case, my brother, as if he already knew the rules would never apply to him. I was not entirely convinced that they would either. He stole and he swore and he lied and was bad, but my Ma loved him because of it and my Pops loved him in spite of it. I did not love him at all – I was only afraid of him – but he was all I had to play with so there it is, that is enough when you are seven.)
I knew when we were done at Maxwell’s I would go with him willingly to tease scorpions out from their holes in the flat, rain-damp ground behind the trailer court, and we would catch some and set them on fire and watch them burn, careful to keep distance from their poison. And after this, with little else to do, we would climb the lonesome mesquite tree that kept watch over us, its limbs grown low to the ground.
We made it to the corner, where we had to cross the four lane highway that separated our section of town from a better one. I knew that even then at seven, that life was not as bright and shiny where others lived, that we were somehow lucky to have the sparkling decay that followed being poor, that everything over there was muted and mellowed with money. There was a closer store for us to go to, where we did not have to leapfrog through the traffic. But Dutch had put a stop to that - given his penchant for filching small things, Senor Pena had finally called Dutch’s bullsheet and we were invited not to return. Ever. Too bad, because Senor Pena was a kind man with amber colored eyes, a hard worker like my dad, and his bodega was dazzling in its disarray, his merchandise made mysterious with a fine layer of red dust.
By contrast, Maxwell’s was orderly and subdued, neat and dust-free and well-lit. Dutch and I had raced non-stop across the busy highway, the traffic giving us a wide berth and buffering us from harm– him leaving me behind in my red boots as he looked out for himself. But it was not as inviting. To be fair, Mr. Maxwell was nice enough to me as we entered. Hi there, Frank – Nice boots! he called to me, with a hard ending on the k. He called me this, not because Frank was my name but because he said my young blue eyes reminded him of Ol’ Blue Eyes. I liked it, this special nickname, but it caused Dutch to roll his eyes, which made Mr. Maxwell like him less and less each time we walked in. Each time, his call of Hi too, Dutch, was less and less friendly and his smile tighter and tighter. Which I doubted bothered Dutch much at all.
Dutch might have been there to steal but I was there for a more specific purpose. Maxwell’s carried fake money. I had been admiring it for several weeks now. I had finally collected just enough bottles for redemption that I did not have to deny myself any longer. Today was my day.
I made my selection quickly and brought it to Mr. Maxwell, the plastic coins and thin paper money contained in its own paper and plastic wrapper. I counted out the forty-seven cents for it and solemnly pushed it across a counter I could barely see across. I refused the paper bag that Mr. Maxwell offered, his eyes kind as he pushed my bounty back across to me. His eyes then flitted, colder now, over to Dutch as he stood over the Coca-Cola cooler, as if he had any money. Mr. Maxwell looked at both me and Dutch and - for some reason I will never know, because he did not like Dutch - told us that we could have a piece of gum on him – this time. Dutch was suddenly beside me, a scavenger from birth, and he and I both grabbed a piece and I shouted thanks for both of us as we walked quickly out. I could not believe our good fortune. I did not want it to be reversed by chance.
We unwrapped the gum, throwing the wrappers down on the sidewalk where they skittered like fallen hawthorn as we made our way back to the highway. The gum’s sweetness kept the grit of El Paso at bay, out of our mouth and minds. Down two blocks from Maxwell’s, Dutch produced a rubber ball from his pocket and began to bounce it, smiling at me with his cold eyes. I’d never seen it before, but I did not say anything. It only made me a little sad, as I chewed on my gum and unwrapped my money, counting it as I walked. Dutch’s ball bounced, high enough to block out the sun, like a metronome influencing our pace as we hit the corner.
At that point, I barely could have told you my location, much less that I was in Texas or West Texas or most specifically crossing Houston Street on a dusty Tuesday in 1957. I was mesmerized - the raised plastic of the coins, round, perfect, as I popped them from their frame. The bills were thin and crisp and smelled of fresh wood as I held them up to my nose. I counted them, but I was only seven and I could not count as high as I needed to. It was a lot of money.
Dutch darted across the lanes. I followed slowly, because of my crisp, new money and my soft red boots, made slippery inside with my sweat. I saw the dull shine of the plastic coins but I did not see the Cadillac with its same-colored fenders, matte gray. The lady driver, with the same-colored hair, did not see me either.
What I did see was a sky that curiously matched the blue of the Cadillac and Dutch at the far side, body pointed at the sound of the squealing tires, and my red boots, cartwheeling in front of me. Also my money, as it arced in front of me, silvery, thin, like the stark West Texas sun.
And then - so much quiet.
Don’t be troubled – I survived. I broke my leg in two places and divoted a piece of my skull. Also, the red cowboy boots from Juarez had to be cut off. The loss of those red boots horrified me most and I suffered for days afterwards with longing. But Dutch managed to save three of my plastic quarters and presented them to me with great solemnity in my hospital bed. The bills, however, had blown away like dust on the West Texas wind and the ball was lost soon after I came home, underneath the silky blackness of the trailer.
With Dutch came Ma and she stayed, and the longer she stayed meant the less she could drink. Until one day she could not shake the sobriety off; it clung to her like faded hopes and she never had another drink again. If it made her less beautiful, less bright, less interesting, less engaging, if it made her dull with reality - well, that’s the price for rumbling with outsize forces.
Pops and the girls came too. With Ma more sober and Pops less sad, they brokered a truce, a laying down of arms, right there beside my hospital bed. Dutch turned a new leaf too – almost losing me under his watch was enough to keep him from throwing rocks and stealing and getting kicked out of school. It must have been me - no other explanation for it. He became a tax attorney. I swear. He could have become a criminal.
My little sisters, each bound for a life of starved dreams, both became successful businesswomen. The littlest never even married, so devoted she was to her job and her small Midwestern neighbors.
In the cool sterility of the hospital, amid bustling, starched uniforms and machines that breathed life into the lifeless, they forgave themselves their sins, left behind their old ways, peeling them back like the husks that cradled the tamales we all ate with abandon once upon a time in Juarez. They each made their bargains: if I just pulled through alright, they would act better; no – that they would be better. Their true selves would be revealed, they swore. A nd to a person, each one, they did. Because sometimes things just work out like that.
Sometimes things are bright, beautiful, like Juarez in my dreams, and not gravelly, like the sprawling El Paso we all eventually deserted, leaving behind the gremlins of memory, replacing them with something blacker, more trustworthy.
Sometimes the invisible hand helps you up, laying itself low to the ground like the mesquite tree behind our trailer and inviting you to climb on. Sometimes it lifts you up, instead of holding your head underwater, some rough magic.
Sometimes there are happy endings that do not involve hand jobs or hand grenades carelessly flung into a far-off Asian jungle under a sun that burns bright and brittle with lurid, everlasting promise. I escaped it, as did Dutch. Pops too - we all got soft, less bright.
Sometimes things turn out for the greater good. (Whose greater good? Irrelevant.)
Sometimes we are just plain lucky. (Don’t believe me? Roll the dice, pick up a newspaper, turn on the news, breathe the air - bitter is a flavor, but joyful is not. You know this - you've known it for miles.)
Please. Please don’t laugh or roll your eyes. Please.
It’s true - sometimes we just are.