AW, MAN, WHO FARTED? Oliver wanted to know.
Don’t look at me, I said. Enrique?
Then we saw the field of cows to our right, stretching out into the horizon. Black cows and beige cows, white cows and spotted cows. The scent of manure filled the Buick like cigarette smoke blown into a beer bottle.
Ashley covered her mouth and nose with one hand. Gross!
Oh, Jesus, Enrique moaned.
Roll up the windows, Oliver said.
I lifted my shirt from the collar, covering my face from the eyes down. I looked at the cows. Some were standing and some were lying down. Some were chewing bales of hay stacked side by side along the fence. The ones that faced the highway and watched us zoom past looked bored. It took a good five, ten minutes before the stench left the car but an hour more before we stopped talking about the cows. Ashley vowed to become a vegetarian. Enrique vowed to eat more hamburgers. Oliver said his uncle in Texas works at a slaughterhouse, that he has to wear goggles and rubber gloves and galoshes because there’s so much blood splashing around.
I can’t believe how many cows there were, I said.
It was like Lollapalooza for cows, Oliver said. The Flaming Cows were playing.
And Modest Cow, I added.
The Polyphonic Cow.
Cows of the Stone Age.
Yeah, and the Cows, Enrique said.
We all looked at him. Even Oliver turned around for a second. The Cows? he said. That’s the best that you could do?
We drove on in relative silence. There was the soft hum of the engine and the pop of Ashley’s bubble gum and the occasional yawn from Enrique. I imagined there was probably a whole mess of other kids out there just like us, who listened to the same music and wore the same faded jeans, kids who drank the same beer, puffed on the occasional joint and laughed in the gray smoke, whose fathers died or beat them up. I looked at the empty field to my right and imagined all those kids standing there, the whole dissatisfied throng, T-shirted and disheveled and angry at the world.
I was there the last time my dad beat Enrique. I was there and saw it coming, how they circled around each other all morning, brooding, the air sizzling with tension.
Are you going to clean your room today? my dad asked from behind the newspaper.
Maybe, Enrique said.
What do you mean maybe?
I mean I might clean it or I might not clean it. Enrique opened the refrigerator and took out the milk.
I think you might want to if you know what’s best for you.
Oh, you know what’s best for me now?
Watch it, my dad said, peering over the paper.
I was sitting at the kitchen table, eating leftover pancakes from the Pancake House, my heart beating fast.
My Zoloft is what’s best for me, Enrique said, uncapping the milk and pouring it into a glass. Without that, I’m screwed. And I wonder why I’m so fucked up.
Don’t talk to me that way, my dad said. He put down the newspaper and walked briskly toward Enrique. Who the hell do you think you are, huh?
Enrique opened the fridge and put the milk back and turned around and faced my dad. I’m Enrique Mendoza, he said. I’m fifteen years old. I’m half Argentinean and half Peruvian. I live in Cerritos with my brother, Marcus, my mother, Nora, and my psychotic fath—
My dad’s fist landed square on his mouth and Enrique fell backward, slamming against the fridge. He covered his mouth and when he removed it there was blood all over his lips and chin.
A few weeks earlier I’d made a promise to myself that the next time my father hit Enrique I would jump in for a change, I would make him stop. But I stayed out of it like I always did, cutting my pancakes with the side of the fork, wishing I had the guts to do what my mind was screaming: Stop him. Fuck your pancakes and just stop him.
Enrique spit blood on the kitchen floor. See, he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. You’re psychotic.
My dad raised his fist and punched Enrique on the mouth again. There was a crunching sound like pebbles under a tire. Enrique was on the floor holding his mouth, the blood dripping steadily now onto his shirt. Then my dad lifted his leg and kicked him in the stomach and when I heard Enrique moan, I jumped from the table—yes, finally I did something, finally I put down my fork and scooted back so the chair legs screeched, finally I stood—and lunged at my dad and put him in a headlock. Enrique grabbed his legs and we wrestled him to the floor, grunting, our bodies banging against the cabinets, the dishwasher. I heard the glass door open and my mom shouting, What’s going on? Stop it, stop it!
Motherfucker, Enrique growled. I could see the bloody destruction of his mouth, the large gaps in his teeth.
My dad flailed and cursed, an elbow caught me in the ribs, and the pain was an electric current through my body. I tightened my grip around his neck and he squirmed and coughed. My dad was choking and I didn’t care. No mas, Marcus, he wheezed.
I let go. We all stopped and the only sound was the sound of our collective breathing, of my mother’s quiet whimpering in the living room. Enrique rose and stood before the sink and spat blood down the drain. My dad went into his office and banged the door shut. I went to my room and turned on the stereo and sat on my bed, my ribs throbbing where my dad’s elbow had stabbed me. We were like repelling magnets that pushed against one another to the corners of the house.
Later on in the afternoon my mom and I crouched down on the kitchen floor and cleaned up the blood with sponges and paper towels. We found two of Enrique’s teeth. They looked like chips of white marble. She put them inside a plastic Baggie and would carry them in her purse when she took Enrique to the dentist the following week, thinking perhaps they could be glued back in place, as if Enrique were a model airplane with a snapped-off landing gear that could be repaired.
That night, Fourth of July fireworks cracked and boomed a few blocks from our house. I watched the horizontal blinds of my bedroom window glowing pink and emerald and blue. Every now and then a bottle rocket whizzed overhead and popped like a cap gun. I allowed myself to cry a little and fell asleep with my cheeks still wet. In the morning, Enrique woke me up.
Asshole’s gone, he said. His mouth was swollen and purple with a crimson cut down the bottom lip. He held my dad’s handwritten note, the lined piece of paper that read: I’m leaving. Don’t look for me.
Finally, he was out of our lives.
Or so we thought.
This is wrong, you guys, Oliver said. I think we missed our freeway.
We were driving through a town called Crows Landing, a town—from what we could see from the highway—that was no town at all. Just hills and a high chain-link fence to the west. The hills were blond except where blackened patches from a brushfire swirled through the landscape. It looked like marble cake.
Why’s it called Crows Landing? Enrique asked while chomping on some Cheetos. I don’t see any crows.
I flattened out the creases of a map of Central California and followed highway 5 with my finger. I glanced over the blue veins of rivers, followed the black veins of roads and freeways. I found many cities—Los Banos, Santa Nella, Gustine, Newman—but no Crows Landing.
Come on, Marcus, Ashley teased. I thought you were our navigator.
Sorry, guys, I said, feeling incompetent.
Do we need to turn around? Enrique wanted to know.
No, I said, my eyes racing around the map. I don’t think so.
Oliver sighed. If Nub was Columbus’s navigator, we’d all be living in Greenland now.
The backseat erupted with laughter.
Catface began to meow. Someone’s hungry, Oliver said.
You think she’ll eat some of my Cheetos?
She’ll eat anything. She’ll eat her tail if you put ketchup on it.
I finally found Crows Landing on the map—way north of the freeway that would take us straight to Monterey. Shit, I said. We need to turn around.
Great, Oliver mumbled.
I knew it, Enrique said.
Ashley held one of the Cheetos up to Catface. She hesitated, then leaned forward and sniffed at the orange treat. Come on, Ashley said.
Catface sneezed and shook her head wildly.
Great, I’ve got cat snot all over my hand! Ashley held her arm out stiffly as if she were wearing a cast.
Enrique laughed again and I looked at his tongue, orange from the Cheetos. I looked at his perfect teeth. I couldn’t even tell that he had caps. The dentist had told us that three were knocked out, not two. We figured the third one must’ve slid under the refrigerator during the scuffle and was now collecting dust.
Our dad had been gone for almost a week when I found the third tooth. The dark purple bruise around Enrique’s mouth was now yellow, as if someone had taken a highlighter to it. My mom was ironing one of her blouses and watching a soap opera, her eyes going back and forth from the screen to the board. Enrique was on the couch, his feet kicked up on the coffee table, and I sat across from him with my sketchbook. He was foreshortened, a tricky angle to draw—his legs were crossed and pointed toward me, his head small beside the bottom of his shoes. The iron hissed. There was melodrama coming from the television, shouting and tears and moody piano music. Enrique yawned and scratched his head. Stop moving, I said. Hurry up already, he replied. I’m bored to death. That’s when I saw it, his third tooth, wedged between the treads of his shoe like a piece of white plastic, like a chip of seashell, some fragment washed up on the shore with all the other broken things.