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Oh, Pioneers (Part II) | Matthew Salyer

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of “Oh Pioneers!”.  The first was published as part of our fourth issue, #4:MAD LIBS.

Where they brought him was half a mile from the bus station, and they walked until the regular blocks of empty brick storefronts gave way to a labyrinth of three-family houses with split shingles and peeling clapboard, vacant lots where vine roses spilled over piles of black contractor bags, and dented chain-link fences that guarded wild grass and unwashed Hondas with “low mls rns GOOD” scrawled across the rear windows.

His nose began to run and redden as the wind funneled the narrow streets, and he kept it buried in the front of his shirt, casting his eyes down until the concrete turned to gravel and he heard one of his uncles saying cmon cmon this is it. He looked up. There were two flatbeds parked at angles in the driveway, big diesels laden with clean red tillers and woodchippers and cylinder mowers, and someone had cursived EXECUTIVE LAWN on the doors of the cabs in fresh red paint. He ran his hand along the slick black paint of the bed rails where it ended behind one of the cabs.

These are yours, he said.

No no.

One of his uncles, a big man with a stone slab face and a long black rattail shook his head with a strange and involuntary obsequiousness.

They’re the landscaper’s, another said. The Italian people. We bring em home and clean the mowers, and in the morning we go down the street get five six people from outside Home Depot and Cunado gets the list for the houses and we bring em to the job. End of the day the Italian gives Cunado their money and Cunado tells em what they get and we bring em back.

Is that what I do?

Nah nah cabron you my sister’s son. You gonna fucking sheetrock get quick and put up forty fifty sheets a day maybe. Good money a sheet. Then you learn to tape and you sit on your ass and get fat thirteen maybe fifteen an hour.

Good money?

Yeah good money.

They passed between the diesels and a row of low square planters that had been nailed together from scrap plywood and two-by and filled with little fading annuals that someone had set into tidy loving rows of alternated colors; he stumbled behind them in the gravel, studying studying like the imbecilic discoverer of some strange and florid new world, as the men went round to the house back and climbed the broken z of the fire escape until they disappeared behind fluttering rows of hung laundry. He followed. When they got to the third floor, he waited by the edge of the balcony as the man with the black rattail went inside the house. Through the kitchen window came the muffled sounds of the man’s voice, then a woman’s, then the two together like a fugue. They were arguing. Every so often, he heard them mentioning his name but he did not care.

He watched the backs of the other houses where grandmothers in bathrobes stood smoking, gossiping through their laundry from landing to landing like a conclave of pigeons. Across a yard, gas throbbed through an open window from an oven heater, rendering the world beyond it into a kind of phantasm: the formicatop table with the metal legs, a Honduran girl with a long straight nose clipping her hair in, a Nextel chirping static and then a flat woman’s voice where you at beeoch, then static again. At the end of a long yellow hall, Sabado Gigante blared on a rented bigscreen, and a fat man with a wild pompadour held a microphone and stared, shouted back at him from the gaudy world behind the screen; he flashed pictures of dogs alongside headshots of actors with smooth olive faces and high cheekbones in the corner of the screen; he pulled a nervous Mayan in shortsleeves from the audience and the Mayan matched them; a woman in a green sequin dress kissed him and handed him the keys to a Ford Focus; everyone cheered, hollered the man with the microphone’s name Don Francisco Don Francisco, and Don Francisco bowed, straightened the front of his double breasted suit, and invoked with liturgical solemnity a world without end amen: Sabado Gi GANTE!

Cmon Cmon, one of his uncles was saying. The spell broke. As he turned back to the cramped landing, he felt dizzy as though even at that height he stood on the precipice rim of some bright bowl. The flat roofs of the city slumped below him, flickering in all directions with variegated light like some immense and abandoned votive shrine. To whom, he could not say.

Standing in the open doorway, a white woman with black straw salt-and-peppered hair and soft pocked skin crossed her arms and rested her hip against one of the jambs, wearing nothing but an oversized hoodie that covered her body as far as the knees with a sort of burka-like propriety. Where the knees creased, he could see a half a dozen little pricks where the blood had coagulated, visible sources of the wide blue veins that wound and flickered down her calves like jumper cables. She cocked her head to one side, smiled. Her teeth were bridged, stained along the bite.

My nephew, the man with the rattail said. Carmelo’s brother.

Why’d you have to bring the ugly one, she laughed.

Yeah but look pero look at his teeth he looks like he ate a gringo.

What’s his name?

One of his uncles came over to him and lifted his lip up high, careful as a dog groomer, exposing the even rows.

I don’t know he’s a bolio. Looks like a Mexican but pero he’s got white inside of him see?

The bolio did not resist; he muttered encantada and put his hand to his mouth as the woman laughed, bowed, said you too Bolio, and the man with the rattail put his arm around him and led him into the house. That night he lay on the carpet at the foot of the bed where the woman and the man with the rattail slept, resting his head on his backpack and listening to the sound of unfamiliar bodies shifting and huddling around him on the floor. But he did not sleep. He lay awake until he could hear the heavy engines of the diesels gasping alive in the cold and the familiar claxon of the roosters that lived in wire enclosures beneath the back stairs.

He wondered what kind of dog he looked like.

Matthew Salyer is a doctoral candidate and instructor of English at the University of Connecticut.  His work has appeared in the Long River Review and the Mount Zion Review of Speculative Fiction.  In 2010 he was awarded the third prize in the Wallace Stevens Poetry Contest and received the AETNA Grant for Creative Works in Progress for a novel manuscript entitled “Tenino.”

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