La abuelita on her stool, rested her back against the trailer. She was seated next to the screen door that gave access to the inside where the young man was busy at the grill. She watched Flo's sideways approach.
Flo slid alongside the old woman, then sagged down, back against the trailer, so their eyes were level. La abuelita's eyes reminded Flo of cold stars on a clear autumn night.
"I don't know why you care," Flo said, "but I'm hungry, so I'll tell you about it."
The old woman did not seem to hear. She turned her face away, out at the blue northern sky. Her knobby fingers found the rosary.
"We couldn't really afford the gas to drive out there, but we decided to do it anyway, 'cause everyone had the day off and that never happened. Jimmy knew a place along the old highway where the river ran slow and we could make a picnic. Willow and I made sandwiches and we set Tristan in the backseat and we sat on both sides of him while the two men rode in front.
"We had the windows down and we sang songs on the drive out. Cash was acting sweet 'cause he wanted some and Willow knew it and so they were all giggles and nonsense. Little Tristan wasn't used to seeing his mom and dad smiling and laughing and the strangeness of it kept him from being a brat. Jimmy was always happy anyway, but that day the goofy smile was just pasted on his face.
"The bruise under Tristan's eye from when he fell down the stairs was faded and yellow and I was happy because Willow was starting to forgive me for it. Ever since it happened, all I'd heard from her was 'Ten minutes, Flo. That's all I wanted. Couldn't you keep him out of trouble for that long?' But she knew how bad I felt and she agreed that since it didn't look like I would be going back to school in the fall, I could mind Tristan while she was doing her shift at the nursing home. Sisters do these things for each other.
"We were living on a shoestring, all five of us crammed into a little one-bedroom. And we still didn't have two nickels. But Jimmy's new boss liked him so he was likely to get more hours and Cash had steady work at the gas station and nobody said anything, but we all felt it. Even Tristan. Things were starting to look up.
"Jimmy drove us south out of town to a place where yucca and willows made shade and the river did a slow bend around a sandbar. We set down our blankets and got the food laid out and then Willow and I took Tristan wading. He sat down in the shallow water and made mud patties and we stood next to him and let the water run over our feet.
"Jimmy and Cash had fishing poles and they waded in up to their hips to cast. When he saw them, Tristan just sat and stared. He'd never seen anything like it. Two men hip-deep in rushing water, standing firm against the current while everything around them got swept downstream. Cash caught a sunfish and he brought it to Tristan and you could see he thought it was the best thing in the world. Cash threw it on the bank and Tristan sat and watched its gills work until it died.
"When Cash went back out to try again, Tristan started to fuss. He wanted to go out, too, but Willow wouldn't have it. The current was too strong. We took him back and laid him down for a nap in the shade.
Willow asked me if I loved Jimmy and I said yes. Jimmy was honest and he had a good heart and he was good to me for the most part. But he sure wasn't what I imagined when Willow and I were girls. I always thought I'd marry someone who was big and strong and stood out in a room like Daddy. Not someone scrawny like a ferret and kept quiet all the time.
"Willow smiled when I said that. 'Cash is a good father and I love him,' she said, 'but he's sure not Johnny Depp.' We had a little laugh.
"Then I asked her if she thought we could make a home for Tristan. A better home than the one that we grew up in. A better home than the one Daddy gave us. She looked at me out of the corner of her eye and said 'I'm not gonna talk about Daddy,' and we left it at that.
"The men came back and we ate our sandwiches and drank beers while Tristan slept. Cash rolled a joint and the mellow afternoon came down.
"Jimmy and I went out for a walk and he told me he loved me and that things were gonna get better. And he said when we had a son he would have gold hair, just like Jimmy's mom. To tell you the truth, I never thought Jimmy would make a good father, but he was so sweet that afternoon and everything in front of us looked so smooth and easy that I let myself believe it.
"We went back to the picnic site and Cash and Willow wanted to go swimming, so she told Jimmy and me to stay with Tristan while they went down to the water. Jimmy and I laid out on the blanket.
"Jimmy leaned over and kissed me and I kissed him back and mostly we heard the river, but now and then we heard their voices and we knew they were still down there. And Jimmy put his hand up my skirt and I gave him a look, but I didn't tell him no. And we kissed some more and I really did think I could see that place he talked about. The little house and the little boy and the easy future.
"We were hot and heavy and I felt happy and hopeful like my heart was floating in a stream. And then Jimmy sets up all of a sudden. And the look on his face I never will forget. 'Where's Tristan?' he said. And I spun around and saw the rumpled blanket under the yucca and saw that Tristan wasn't there and my heart went under.
"From there it all unfolded like clockwork. Jimmy sprang up and started thrashing through the bushes. And when he didn't find Tristan he called out which brought Cash and Willow running back. And when they saw that he was gone, they they took off running every which way. Willow kept calling out 'Where's my baby? Where's my baby?'
"But I kept my eyes on the place where Tristan had been sleeping, hoping somehow that he was still there and we just hadn't seen him.
"Then, I heard them, Willow, Cash, and Jimmy, calling out from down by the water. And I knew they were looking in the wrong place. The water pushed everything downstream.
"And I knew what I would see when I turned and followed the current along the riverbank. And I dreaded it, but I couldn't stop. Something was pushing me to it.
"There was a place where the water was choked with snags and the noise of the river was loud. I looked out where the water was rushing over a choke of roots and branches and I saw a little arm sticking out of the swirl. Just a little arm sticking up, leaning into the current.
"Upriver, Willow was wailing like a ghost and Cash was bellowing, and the river kept on. And I couldn't go back up there to face them, to face my sister and her husband and the man who wanted to love me. I didn't want to see them with their confused faces standing at the place where the river had stranded them. So I just listened for a while.
"And then I turned and walked downriver.
La abuelita worried the beads between her fingers.
"When I got to the highway, I thumbed a ride and now I'm here. And I don't like to think about it and I don't like to talk about it and all I want is to keep moving."
La abuelita's face did not change. Her lips moved soundlessly. Rosary beads clicked a cadence.
The young man at the grill poked his head out the trailer door. "Is your lucky day," he said. "I made mistake order." He held out a white paper sack. "No puedo usar esto."
Flo kept her eyes on the old woman as she took the sack. The young man turned back to the grill.
In the sack, there were two big burritos.
To be continued...
Read Part I here.Read Part II here.
Read Part III here.
Read Part IV here.
Read Part V here.
Read Part VI here.
Read Part VII here.
Read Part VIII here.
Read Part IX here.
Read Part X here.
Read Part XI here.
Read Part XII here.
Read Part XIII here.
Read Part XIV here.
Read Part XV here.
Read Part XVI here.
Read Part XVII here.
Read Part XVIII here.