IT WAS EARLY AUGUST and hot as a furnace. Every breeze felt like a large blow-dryer was pointed right at me. I stayed inside most of the day, downloading music and watching TV.
My mom walked in with a serious look on her face. I hit MUTE on the remote.
Did Grandma die? I said.
What happened then?
It’s your father, she said. He wants to come back.
I felt the blood leave my face, my heart thumping under my shirt. Please tell me you’re joking, I said.
She looked out my bedroom window.
Did you talk to him or something? I asked.
We’ve been talking, she said. Yes.
For how long?
For the last couple of months. He’s been sending me money.
What the hell for? I was yelling. I was shocked.
Marcus, we can’t afford to live in this house, she said. I don’t get that much waitressing at the Palace. Without your father’s checks, we would be living in a motel.
Jesus, I said. Why didn’t you tell me?
I’m telling you now.
I mean before.
Mijo, I wasn’t sure how to tell you.
What about Enrique? Have you told Enrique? He’s going to flip out.
I’m going to tell him this afternoon, she said.
My mom sat on the edge of my bed and looked out my bedroom window again. There was nothing to see but our street and the Phillipses’ yard and stucco house. They had a red and white BEWARE OF DOG sign on their gate even though their dog died years ago. I don’t know what to do, my mom finally said.
My heart was still going crazy under my shirt. Where is he? I asked.
In Monterey, she said. He’s doing construction work again, building houses.
I don’t believe this, I said, shaking my head.
He wants to see both of you, she said. He wants to apologize.
Oh, he does now, does he?
Yes, he does.
I don’t believe this, I said again. I picked up my sketchbook and pencil and began doodling spirals down the page, black smoke coiling out of nowhere.
He wants to talk to you.
No, I said.
I don’t think it would hurt you to talk to him.
I said no.
My mom stood up and sighed. Just think about it, okay? she said.
As if I could think about anything else.
For hours I thought about it. In my bedroom with music, with the blinds closed, I thought about it. After my mom told Enrique we both thought about it in our separate rooms.
Our dad. Our goddamn dad.
In the hallway, Enrique and I bumped into each other. He looked distraught, his hair wild as if he’d slept on it. This fuckin’ sucks, he said.
No kidding, I said.
I told Mom I’d run away if he ever came back.
I don’t blame you.
Where the hell’s Monterey, anyway? Enrique wanted to know.
In California. Up north somewhere, I think.
Is it close?
I’m not sure.
Let’s find out.
Enrique followed me into my bedroom and I opened up my Web browser. A few mouse clicks later and a map of central California came up. There, I said, pointing at the yellow star on the map. It’s pretty close to San Francisco.
Sonofabitch, Enrique muttered. His face was rigid, the muscle along his jaw line flexed.
I was pissed too, and as I had at Mr. Thompson’s funeral, I imagined killing my dad. With a hammer, a bat. With my own two fists.
Enrique stared at the monitor and bit on his thumbnail. He turned to me. I’ve got an idea, he said.
What? I said.
Let’s go to Monterey.
Are you serious?
Dead serious, he said.
And do what?
Enrique smiled wickedly.
A half hour later we were all talked out. Enrique’s eyes were wide, excited. The plan was reckless, yes, but there was something appealing about it. Maybe a part of me was also becoming like my dad.
Later on that evening I casually asked my mom for his address. She was in the kitchen, chopping carrots into fat orange tokens on a cutting board. I want to send him a card or something before I talk to him, I said.
My mom put the knife down and wiped her hands on a dish towel. Why the sudden change? she said, looking right at me.
I just, you know, I said, stammering.
My mom studied my face. You just what?
I just would rather send him a card first, that’s all.
There’s a few things I have to get off my chest, I said. I don’t think I could say it to him over the phone.
Okay, Mijo, she said. She brushed the back of my head with her fingers.
Minutes later she returned with his address written on a piece of paper and folded in half. If you want, I could help you pick out a nice card.
No, thanks, I said. I can do it myself.
She lifted the knife again. I’m proud of you, she said, chopping. I’m really proud of you.
Holy shit, Oliver said.
We were standing in front of the abandoned house where the drug addict was shacked up with his cat. Half of the house was eaten away by a fire and the other half was charred black. We could see the sky through the ribs of the roof.
Damn, I said. What the hell happened?
There was a fire.
Duh. I mean I wonder how it started.
The junkie, Oliver said. That’s how.
You think he died?
There was yellow CAUTION tape around the front yard, turning and twisting in the wind. The fire was days old, but the scent of its burning was still in the air. The chimney stood naked in a pile of debris like a brick monolith.
I thought of the fire alarm in my own house, how one night it chirped incessantly in the middle of the night and woke everyone up. Enrique and I stood in our pajamas, rubbing our eyes as we watched our dad pull the fire alarm from the ceiling. He opened the back side and yanked out the battery. Go back to bed, he told us. But I couldn’t. Nothing would warn us now if a fire started somewhere in the house, swallowing the curtains, the walls, the furniture, and finally us.
So tomorrow, Oliver said.
Yes, tomorrow, I said.
We should leave early so we don’t hit any traffic.
Hey, we have to take my dad’s car.
The horn, he said. My mom doesn’t want me to drive that far without a horn.
Just as we were about to pull away from the curb I saw the junkie’s cat coming out of the bushes. She looked mangier than ever and was meowing like crazy. I opened the passenger door and the cat hopped in. She wouldn’t stop meowing.
Shut that thing off, Oliver said as we drove.
Dude, she’s hungry.
We pulled into the drive-through at Taco Bell and ordered a burrito for the cat. When I held it up to her mouth, she sniffed the warm tortilla a few times before she took a bite. Then she was devouring it, ground beef and little strips of lettuce falling onto my lap. By the time we got to Britt’s house the burrito was gone. She slid her tongue over her black lips and blinked in the sun. We named her Catface.
’Sup, bitches? Britt said. He was pushing a lawn mower out of the garage and down the driveway.
’Sup, Bongoloid, I yelled from inside the car. You got the you-know-what?
Yeah, hold on a sec.
Britt left the mower by the grass and trotted back into the garage. Catface sat up on my lap and I rubbed the back of her head and she purred, a little motor revving inside her throat.
She probably has rabies, Oliver said.
Cats don’t get rabies.
Mangy cats do.
Don’t make me sic her on you.
She’s got rabies, man. I can tell.
Catface, sic Oliver, I said. Sic ’im!
Britt walked up to the truck and pointed the gun at my head. You talkin’ shit, Freak Show?
You crazy sonofabitch, I yelled.
Calm down, Nub. It’s not loaded.
I don’t care, I said, and pulled the gun from his hand, irritated.
Don’t lose it, man.
Can I take this thing off? I said, fingering the red plastic ring at the end of the barrel.
I dug my fingernail under and peeled off the plastic ring and handed it to Britt. I slipped out the gun’s cylinder and made sure all the chambers were empty.
You sure you don’t want to come with us? Oliver asked.
I can’t, Britt said. I’ve got to help my dad paint the garage this weekend. Whose cat is that?
Mine, I said.
So you finally got pussy.
I aimed the starter pistol at Britt and squeezed the trigger. It clicked loudly like a snapped pencil.
I went to the market later that night, this time with a short list. Just eggs and milk and tinfoil. I was opening up a carton of eggs, making sure none of them were busted, when Mrs. Thompson came up to me rolling an empty cart.
You’re going to think I’m following you, she said.
I laughed. How are you doing, Mrs. Thompson?
Gloria, she corrected me.
That’s right, I’m sorry.
How are you doing, Gloria?
I’m getting by, she said. It’s still hard, you know? She leaned on her empty cart.
I’m sure it is, I said. I can’t even imagine, I added. I didn’t know what else to tell her. There should be a book, some manual out there for situations like this:
How to Talk to a Widow Without Sounding Like a Dipshit.
So Oliver told me the two of you are driving to Las Vegas, she said.
We sure are, I said, which was a lie. Oliver said he’d drive us to Monterey if we could go to San Francisco afterward to try to score some drugs from his uncle. We told our parents that we were going to Las Vegas to see Cirque du Soleil.
When are you guys leaving?
You keep a close eye on my Oliver, okay?
I always do, I said. Another lie. I was racking them up.
I need some eggs too, she said, reaching for a carton. She opened the lid and the next thing I knew she was crying. With one hand she covered her eyes while the other still held on to the open carton of eggs. I took the carton away from her and placed it back on the shelf.
You’ll be okay, I said, even though I had no idea if she would.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, she said, her voice cracking. I miss him. I still love him.
I know, I said. And then I said something completely stupid: He still loves you, too. Which was a truckload of crap, really. Mr. Thompson was underground in a casket with a heart pickled in embalming fluid. He wasn’t ever going to be able to love Mrs. Thompson again.
I gave her a hug and remembered I had her lacy underwear stashed in the back of my closet. Standing there, my arms around her, hers around mine, I suddenly wanted to be completely loaded. I wanted my head numb and the world distorted around me. Everything was too vivid—the chicken breasts wrapped in plastic, the shopping carts that rattled behind me, the humming freezer, the child singing in the next aisle.
She continued sobbing.
It’s okay, I said. I looked at the shelf of eggs over her shoulder and thought about their brittle shells.