A man in drag holding a baby walked into a diner. Sounds like a bad joke, I know. But it wasn’t. Standing near the front door of Rosie’s there was an honest-to-goodness cross-dresser cradling a little boy, holding the bundle so tight that fingerprints dimpled the back of the blue velvet blanket. Callie led them to the rear booth and took their order. Arlen and I swiveled our stools around, watching as she tossed the ticket to Henry, the cook. Then she leaned against the counter and whispered to us, “Can you believe that?”
Now Arlen, he killed a lot of brain cells from the glue and spray paint he sniffed when he was younger. There are times when you’re talking to him that his eyes drift off and get that glossed-over look and you try to imagine what he’s seeing and it scares the shit hell out of you. But he’s not mean. Sweetest guy on Earth, which is bad for his tire shop because he often lets people pay on installment and ends up losing track and never collects on the balances. But Arlen’s good people. That’s what Toni used to say, and I’d agree with her on that if we were still together. So when Callie made her remark about the cross-dresser, hoping one of us would say something equally insensitive to egg her on, and we didn’t, she glared at us all vicious and bitter. Arlen looked down at his bowl of greasy clam chowder and ate without saying a word. When Henry dinged the little bell, Callie strolled over, took the plate of food and a bottle of ketchup, and served them.
Arlen finished his chowder, paid up, and bolted. Three o’clock in the afternoon, and it was dead inside the diner. Callie went around stacking plates on top of one another and wiping down the tables. Stick-thin with wiry arms, and legs like strips of rope. Skin twisted and stretched taut over her bones. The most tragic thing about Callie Ryan was that she was once beautiful. You could still see it; every now and again I’d catch her reflection distorted in the chrome sheen of the toaster. There it’d be. But too many years of hard drinking and chasing after men that came and went and never took her left Callie weather-beaten. It was tragic.
Still, I was forgiving. Even though Callie was partly responsible for what happened between Toni and me, I held no ill will. That was what drove Toni crazy, one of the reasons she claimed for leaving me. I was too nice. Too much of a pushover. I had no backbone. I wasn’t a man, and she deserved a man. Someone to defend her honor. Someone who’d take her places. Get her out of a pit like this, halfway between Los Angeles and the desert. A home for lost souls stuck in quicksand, for people who had crashed and burned too soon.
Callie put the plates down, then walked back over. “Got an e-mail from Toni today.” She folded her arms and sighed.
“Yeah?” I laughed. “Well, whoop-de-do.” I twirled a finger in the air.
“Living in Vegas. Her new man’s got himself a real sweet route now. Keeps him closer to home and not away so much. She’s a whole new person. Dyed hair. Collagen injections. Even getting a new nose. Working the blackjack tables at one of the big casinos. Wears a uniform with a bow tie.” She was smug. Telling it in a tone that was somewhere between arrogant and mocking.
“Must be nice.”
Toni would go down to Lucky’s with Callie, and they’d sit and reminisce about high school, when they were both hot shit and had the guys after them and the other girls hating their big tits and feathered hair. They started shooting pool with these truckers, Fidel and Oren, driving a route between Phoenix and Fresno every three weeks. Callie would get real blitzed and tell Toni she wasn’t meant for a place like this, that she should just leave me and get the fuck out of Cherry Valley once and for all and never look back. Toni wasn’t the best woman, but she was mine. I took what little I managed to save up, moved us out of the Vista del Lago trailer park, and into the two-bedroom on Pinol Way. Gave her everything I had. But Callie started feeding her wild ideas, getting her to think there was something better out there for her. So, after two years together, Toni split.
“That all you can say? ‘Must be nice’?” Callie chewed her gum now, and when she snapped a few bubbles, the cracking sound woke the baby.
“Look what you done,” I said.
“Since when are you Mr. Chivalry?”
I wanted to tell her to mind her own business. Instead, I took another bite of my pie, sipped my coffee, and scanned the want ads, looking but not looking for a job. Callie stood over me, arms still folded, shaking her head. She turned and nudged the kitchen door open with her hip. It thwacked, and I could hear her shouting at Henry. She said my name over the clatter of plates and cups and the rush of water. No sooner had she come back out, drying her hands with a rag, than I noticed the cross-dresser start to gather her things. Callie reached into the pocket of her apron and pulled out the ticket. There was a pause, a loud sigh, and then the sound of the baby cooing and whimpering.
“Wait,” the cross-dresser said. “My money? What happened to my money?”
I sipped my coffee, scraped up the last of the pie with the tines of my fork, trying not to listen. Then the baby started crying. Callie was getting real irate, shouting that she’d have to call the cops if they couldn’t pay.
“But the police,” the cross-dresser shouted. “They’ll take my baby away.”
Callie, hand on the phone, started dialing the number. Before I knew it, I was reaching out across the counter, snatching the phone from her hand, and slamming it back down on the cradle.
“You,” I said, turning to see the baby’s face, skin glistening with sweat. “What’s your name?”
“Take the kid and wait outside.”
Callie had her back against the wall, breathing hard, her flat chest heaving up and down, as Azucar ran for the door. “Henry!” she shouted. “Henry, get on out here. We got ourselves a situation.”
Henry strolled out from the kitchen. “What now?”
“Ed here just up and let a ticket walk out without paying. You know the rules, and the rules say—”
“Aw, fuck the rules. Fuck the rules and fuck you. Game’s about to start, and I got money on this one.” Henry turned and walked away.
I reached into my wallet. The fifty-dollar bill was the last one I had before the next unemployment check. I’d planned on paying for the pie and coffee and stretching the rest for as long as I could. Instead I said, “Here. For both.”
Callie took the bill, walked over to the register, and rang up the tickets. The drawer dinged open. She put the money inside the till, scooped out the change, and handed it back to me.
“Tip,” I said, sliding a five across the counter.
She reached for it, crumpling it in her hand, and I turned and walked away.
Outside, Azucar stood a few feet from my truck, rocking the baby to sleep. In this light, I could now see the masculine features beneath the lipstick and eye shadow. I tried not to stare.
“Thanks,” Azucar said. “You’re very kind.”
“My pleasure.” I laughed and thought about Callie, back against the wall, the look on her face. I pointed to the duffel bag. “Got your money stolen, huh?”
“Must’ve happened while I passed out in the bus terminal. God, I was tired. The bills were in my purse.”
Azucar was taking the Greyhound to Tucson. From there to San Antonio. Only got off because the baby was being fussy. Ended up falling asleep on a bench. Then it was midafternoon, and the bus had taken off without them.
“I stumbled in here. Rude waitress. Looked for my cash. You know the rest,” Azucar said.
I glanced inside the diner; Callie was still standing there looking out at us. I pointed to my truck and said that they were welcome to come home with me.
“Excuse me,” she said, holding the baby tighter. “But I’m not…you’ve got the wrong…”
“No. No. Sounds like you may be stranded for a spell. I got room. You can stay with me as long as you need.”
“You ain’t a psycho, are you?”
“Well, you never know. But, right now, I’m all you and the kid got. So take it or leave it.” I fished for my keys inside my pocket and headed for the truck. I hopped in and started the engine, staring at her through the windshield. Just as I was about to shift into reverse and back out of the parking lot, Azucar grabbed the duffel bag and ran over to the truck.
“Don’t murder me, okay?”
I chuckled and we pulled out, and it made me feel good imagining Callie standing there, mouth wide open, e-mailing Toni, You’ll never guess what Ed did today. I wouldn’t believe it, if I hadn’t seen it with my own two eyes.
We traveled up Cabazon Trail toward the foothills. In the rearview mirror, I could see the street behind us. A stretch of asphalt turned golden orange in the setting sun. That time of the day, when the light struck things—the dilapidated buildings along the streets, all graffiti tagged and busted up, the empty lots littered with old tires and couches and wild weeds—and it would all shimmer and glow, it’s like I was seeing the world the way it was meant to be seen. Flawed and everything, but still so fucking beautiful.
“So, what do you do? Just hang out at diners rescuing people?” Azucar asked.
I laughed. I didn’t do much of anything, I said, gripping the steering wheel. I talked about the years I spent working for John Bir in Fontana, one of the largest producers and distributors of wooden beams and trusses for construction companies west of the Rockies. I was lead factory foreman, responsible for supervising a team of more than 100 men and women. I was good at what I did and was nowhere near retirement when the company announced that it was up and moving to Idaho. Most of the senior guys and leads like me were let go with a modest severance package and a sterling endorsement from the chief of operations. And that was that. Too young to retire, I said. Too old for anyone to be interested in me. Plus, with my bad back, I was screwed. The baby was fast asleep, rocked by the motion of the truck as we continued up Cabazon Trail, past one of the last apple orchards left in town. The branches were coated with grit, and in between the knotted trunks, I could make out the shadows of a pack of wild dogs running along the furrows, their paws kicking up clouds of dust.
“That waitress said something that pissed you off,” Azucar mentioned as I took a left at Pinol, making my way down the street. “’Course, it’s none of my business.”
I smirked, took my baseball cap off, and scratched my scalp. “Toni. My girlfriend. The two of them were close. Callie convinced her to dump me. Mentioned her today.” I pulled up to the driveway and put the truck in park, and we sat there, the engine idling, the dark house before us sealed shut.
“If you wanted to prove a point to her by riding off with me, I think you did.” Azucar gripped the door handle. “But I’m not going to have sex with you. I’ll call my friend Inez in San Antonio. She’ll send me some money and I can pay you back for the meal. But we’re not screwing.”
“Not expecting it.”
The baby started fussing and screaming louder, its cries filling up the entire cabin. “I got to change and feed him. He’s getting cranky.”
“You can stay.”
“How do I know you’re not going to sneak into the room while I’m asleep? Stab me and take my baby?”
“I’ll put you up in back.” I hopped out of the truck, glanced up and down the block. None of the neighbors were out; only a few lights were on inside some of the houses. An RV was parked in the driveway of the two-story stucco where a rookie cop and his pregnant wife lived. There came the thump of a screen door slamming shut and a car alarm going off when a motorcycle engine revved. The baby’s cries were growing louder and louder, and I wondered if anyone was listening.
“In back?” Azucar asked.
“Yeah,” I said, beckoning her out of the truck with my hand to the gravel path along the side. “House has a separate guest room. Come on now. The baby needs tending to. Come on. Come on in. I won’t hurt you.”
Toni was the one who found this place, a two-bedroom rental with automatic sprinklers and central air and heating. Above the main house’s detached garage, there was a small room with its own kitchen and bathroom. It was perfect for her father, Toni said. We could be in the front house, and Mr. Rojas in the back. This way Toni could keep an eye on him and make her father’s last years as comfortable as possible. The old man was stuck in some nasty dump with stained wallpaper and bad food and rude nurses and caretakers. They scolded him, never fed him on time, forgot to bathe him, left the incontinent patients to roll around in their own filth for hours before changing them. We packed up all my things and moved out of the Vista del Lago trailer park and into the house. Everything was good at first. But then Callie started giving Toni advice, and the rest went to hell. I don’t know whatever happened to that poor old man.
I led Azucar through the backyard, past the loquat and lemon trees, and up the splintered steps. I unlocked the front door and stepped inside. The place was a little stuffy since it had been closed up, but it was clean. I pulled the curtains back and cracked open the windows. The counters and floors of the small kitchenette gleamed. A set of embroidered hand towels with little flowers and jumping rabbits hung on hooks near the sink. The microwave numbers flashed a row of red, angry eights because I never got around to programming it.
“It’s warm,” I said, turning the AC unit on. “But it’ll cool down fast.”
She was still out on the landing. The duffel bag sat on the ground near her feet, which were stuffed into a pair of blue high heels speckled with glitter. I leaned forward to reach for the bag, but she snatched it up and placed it on the coffee table across from the sofa bed. The baby started crying, and Azucar moved farther inside, her footsteps delicate, like a trapeze artist walking a tightrope.
She pulled a bottle out of the bag. “Smells nice in here.”
“Nobody’s used it.” I pointed to the bathroom and pulled out the sofa bed. “Sheets are clean. Pillows are in a shelf by the bathroom.” I programmed the microwave, even though there was no food in the place. I picked up the telephone and checked the signal. “Line works. If you wanna call your friend.” I pointed out, across the lawn. “I’ll be in the house if you need anything. Sleep tight.”
As I headed down the stairs, I heard the door close and the dead bolt slide into place and click shut.
I come from a long line of tough men. My grandfather Duncan left Wales when he was only eighteen and found a job working in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. Hour after hour roaming around in all that darkness. He used to talk about explosives that could rip your arm off, miners trapped in caves, the soot that coated every square inch of his skin and insides, and the constant snap and crack of the rocks straining under the weight of the world above. Sounded just like that, he’d say, cupping his hand to his ear over my bowl of Rice Krispies as my mom poured milk over them. Duncan left the mine when it shut down and, with my grandmamma Aileen, my uncles Morgan, Jack, and Drew, and my father, followed the stream of people flowing into California where the apple, almond, and orange orchards waited, where the land was vast and fertile, and the sun never went to sleep.
My father landed a job at Kaiser Steel in Fontana straight out of high school. He worked at that factory all his life, assembling steel plates for ships that battled overseas during the Korean War. He retired with a fat pension, solid insurance, and a good deal of money in his bank account. He died in his sleep, in the house he bought for my mother when he got the job at the plant.
My uncles were merchant marines, loggers, and welders. They built skyscrapers and dug ditches and tarred roads in the hot July sun. Their arms were scarred, their hands meaty and calloused, and they drank whiskey and loved wives who wore aprons and bore them many children. They were proud, red-haired men with high cheekbones and broad shoulders. I grew up admiring my uncles, wanting nothing more than to be like them. Listening to their talk, I imagined myself growing up to live such a life. Telling stories about Ronnie Ray with the glass eye who lost a finger in a threshing machine, of encountering the one and only Sasquatch on a remote mountainside in Manitoba, of pretty girls named Jill or Iris or Beth waiting in New Jersey, Florida, or Texas.
Instead, I graduated from high school with good grades and enrolled in community college. I met a friend, Paul, and we started a business together selling cell phones and pagers. But Paul turned out to be nothing more than a scam artist. He up and took everything, including all the money I’d invested, and disappeared, leaving me broke and scrambling to make ends meet, working all those years at John Bir to pay off the loans I got saddled to me. Just as I was about to pull myself out from under all that red ink, the factory announced it was moving the entire operation. I have creditors harassing me day and night.
Last month I turned fifty. My kid sister, Rosalie, baked me a cake, and I had dinner at her place. My brother-in-law grilled us fat steaks and told me about his golf game, about the new clubs he got, how we really needed to get me “out on the green.” My niece and nephew gathered with their parents to sing me “Happy Birthday,” and, after I blew out the candles, my sister kissed me on the cheek.
“If Mom and Dad were still with us, they’d be so proud of you, Eddie,” she said.
But I know she was only saying it because she’s my kid sister, because she always followed me around, because she always saw something special in me.
“My brother Eddie’s not like the rest of the boneheads around here,” I heard her tell her best friend, Mariah, one time when we were in high school. “He’s meant for something more. Everybody knows it.”
I decided to leave them alone the next day, figuring Azucar wanted to rest and the baby probably needed a bath. They were up there, though, because the window unit was still running. Later in the afternoon, when I got up from in front of the TV for a beer, I glanced out the kitchen window and saw a wet halter top and a pair of nylons draped over the stair rail, drying in the warm sun. I ran out to the grocery store for a gallon of milk, fruit, some bottles of water, and a jug of apple juice. All but two of the checkout stands were open, with Janice’s having the longest line. I liked Janice. She always smelled like perfume and called me “sweetie” and “babe,” so I maneuvered my cart toward her lane and waited my turn before placing my groceries on the conveyor belt.
Janice smiled at me. “How are you, handsome?”
“Getting by,” I said.
I saw the total, counted out my money, and came up eight bucks short. “Aw, shit. I don’t got enough. Just take something out.”
“It’s okay, Ed,” Janice whispered, waving at me with her hand, the gold bracelets on her wrist tinkling. “Go on. It’ll be our secret.” She winked.
Such good people, that Janice.
Out in the parking lot, I spotted Arlen. He walked over and asked me about Azucar, if it was true what he heard Callie telling everyone at Lucky’s the night before about me taking off with her and the kid.
“Yeah it’s true.”
“He has nice hair. And great boobs.”
“I’m pretty sure they’re fake, Arlen.”
“Oh.” He put his hat back on, turned, and walked across the parking lot.
It was a little after seven o’clock, and I was washing my dinner plate when there was a knock on the back screen door. Azucar was standing there, hair wrapped up in a towel.
“Can I come in?”
“Sure.” I wiped my hands and undid the latch.
We sat at the wooden table in the kitchen, and I asked Azucar how the kid was doing. He was fine, sleeping nice and deep. It was the first time he’d been so calm since they left.
“Oh,” I nodded. “I see.”
“You’re curious, right? How someone like me ends up with a newborn?”
“That’s none of my business.”
Apparently, the kid was abandoned on the steps of a clinic. He was wrapped in a tattered blanket with a note saying sorry, they couldn’t keep him. So Azucar panicked and took him. I rose, reached inside the cabinet, and pulled out a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. “Sounds like you could use this right now.”
Azucar gulped the first one down in a single swig, and I poured another. “You don’t know the half of it. I took everything I’d saved up, and we split town. I tried calling Inez last night. Number’s disconnected. All the money I had is gone. It took me so long to save it.”
“Putting it away for a vacation, were you?” I asked.
“No. For my surgery.”
“I see.” I took a shot and helped myself to another. “You did a brave thing.”
When the whiskey was finished, I went into my bathroom and rifled through a drawer until I found the baggie stuffed with weed and a packet of papers.
“Mota?” Azucar asked. “I could use some mota. To mellow me out.”
“I got some when my back was acting up. It’s good to ease the pain, but I’ve been saving it.”
I rolled a nice, fat joint. Azucar checked on the baby, then came back a few minutes later, towel gone, hair still damp, strands falling on her shoulders like pieces of licorice. She was pretty in the light, soft lips, high cheekbones, eyes that shone. And even though I could make out the man underneath the features, and even though I reminded myself what Azucar really was, I could see something rare and undefined resting just below the surface of her skin. Soon, the kitchen air was gray and hazy, the earthy smell of pot mixing with the scent of the chopped onions and garlic from my dinner. I talked, on and on, well into the night, about my father and my grandfather, and more about my job at John Bir. I pulled out a picture of Toni and me during the early months of our relationship. We’d gone to Santa Monica, and a Chinese tourist wearing a Windbreaker and leather open-toed sandals with black socks had snapped it.
Azucar touched the frame. “Look at you. Such a handsome papi.”
We took turns puffing the joint until there was nothing left. My head was buzzing. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt this good. This happy. Azucar rose now, gripping the edge of the table. I reached over and led us out back to the guest room. The night was cool, and all the stars were out, shimmering bright white against the blue-black sky.
“Stars,” Azucar said. “Estrellas! Estrellas!”
“Hallelujah!” I shouted up to them. “Hallelujah to the estrellas!”
We eased up the steps, carefully, because it was dark. I was about to turn around and head back when I heard Azucar whisper, “Ed, you are a very kind man.”
“And you’re a kind woman,” I said.
Azucar leaned in and kissed me on the forehead, then went inside.
I woke up the next morning with my head throbbing, my eyes squinting at the glaring light streaming through the bedroom blinds. Everything after rolling the joint came at me in bits and pieces. Estrellas, I remembered. Estrellas. I stumbled out of bed, brushed my teeth, splashed cold water on my face, and ran a comb through my hair before pulling it together with a rubber band into a ponytail.
I was in the kitchen making a cup of instant coffee when Azucar came to the back screen door. She was wearing a bright-red dress and a silver jacket with tassels running along the lengths of each arm and over the two front chest pockets. Dark sunglasses covered her eyes, the kind women wore on TV when they’d been beaten by an abusive husband. The kid was wrapped up in the same blue blanket, a white knitted cap on his head.
“Come in.” I opened the door.
“How you feeling?” The duffel bag was slung over her shoulder.
I took a sip of my coffee. “I been better. But I had fun. Where you headed?” I pointed to the duffel bag.
“I got a hold of a friend of mine in Tucson. He’s wiring me money for a bus ticket. I was wondering if I could get a lift.”
“Sure.” I set the mug down and grabbed my keys.
The money was under my name, apparently. When I asked why, she said they would check ID. I nodded as we headed down Cabazon Trail.
“I saw your last name on a piece of mail up in the room. I hope that’s okay.”
“This ain’t some kind of setup, is it? Something illegal?”
“No. I swear.”
I went up to the small window inside the check-cashing place, flashed my license, and the teller handed me a fifty, some twenties, and tens through the plexiglass slot. Back inside the car, Azucar took the money, breathed a sigh of relief, and the baby cooed and yawned.
“Where to now?” I asked, pulling back out onto the street.
“We got a bus to catch.”
When we arrived at the station, I hopped out of the truck, helped her with the duffel bag, carrying it inside the lobby. I told her she didn’t have to go. I said she and the kid could stay with me for as long as they needed to.
“Plenty of space,” I told her. “I ain’t a nuisance. I’ll stay out of your hair.”
“I can’t. Sorry.”
“Well, if you’re ever in a bind, you know where I am,” I hollered as she started to walk away.
Just before I headed out the front door, I watched her take the baby’s hand. “Say goodbye,” I could hear her say. “Say goodbye to Uncle Eddie.”
I didn’t want to go home. I drove around some and thought. Drove and thought. Pretty soon, I found myself pulling into the parking lot of Rosie’s Diner. I could see Callie inside, setting knives and forks on the tables, her other hand holding the red ear of a coffee pot. I could make out her slim fingers, nails painted bright pink, a pair of gold earrings shaped like pears glinting in the shafts of morning sunlight. She was talking to a customer, an overweight guy in denim overalls, laughing at something he was saying. I turned the engine off, got out of my truck, and went inside. I sat down at the counter and grabbed a menu.
“Who do you think you are? Coming in here after that incident the other day? I should kick you out,” she said, pouring me coffee.
“Yup,” I replied. “I suppose you should. But you won’t.”
She sighed and rolled her eyes. A group of high-school boys in letterman jackets strolled up and slid into a booth, punching one another in the arms, cursing and laughing. Callie ignored them, though. She stared at me for a long while, then shook her head, her earrings swinging back and forth and brushing against strands of dyed brown hair.
“What?” I asked.
“Just trying to figure out what the hell it is we all see in you, Ed.”
I had to wonder the exact same thing.