“Teo, Teo, Teo,” Álvaro sings into the phone. “You’re not going to believe what I did today. Even after I tell you you’re still not going to believe it.” His voice is all keyed up, like he’s calling to tell me it’s my turn to collect on la tanda.
Chingao, I think. Now what?
“You remember Lupe? Chick with the green eyes, used to live over on Flamenco?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“You think so, güey? Don’t even try that shit with me, Tadeo! You know exactly who I’m talking about. You lusted after her for literally years of your life.”
“So what about her, güey?”
“What about her? What about her? Just that she lives in Campestre. And her hijo de papi husband had a new dishwasher delivered this morning. And because he was at work and couldn’t let the delivery guy in himself, he left the key at the guardhouse Left it, as a matter of fact, in the filthy brown hand of one Álvaro Hernán Rodriguez Mendoza.”
“How come you’re just now telling me she lives in Campestre, culero?”
“That’s beside the point.”
“What is the point?”
“The poooint,” he says slowly and emphatically, like Father Juan when he’s about to crack a joke and wants to make sure the congregation’s listening, “is that right at this moment I happen to be holding a copy of your girl Lupe’s patio key that nobody but you and me even knows exists. Sometimes,” he finishes expansively, “life is too beautiful to be believed.” He takes a hard drag off his cigarette, then adds, “You’re welcome.”
“Piss off,” I say. I imagine him sitting in the guardhouse, the white shirt of his uniform all wilted in the heat, greasy smudges around his lips, and his fingertips stained Dorito-orange. Then, because these are our last few weeks together, I add, “And thanks,” before I hang up.
In point of fact, Álvaro was wrong about one thing. It was never lust with Lupe. It went deeper than that, so deep that when she married her rich lawyer and got the hell out of Tepeyac, I was glad. I felt nothing but happiness for her. You don’t envy the angels.
Later, when Álvaro brings over the key, I pat him on the head and tell him what a good boy he’s been.
“Chinga tu madre,” he grins, his silver tooth gleaming under the naked lightbulb.
“Sit down,” I tell him. “Want a cheve?” I’ve already bought the beers; they’re waiting, cold and golden, in the fridge.
“Need you ask?”
I spit through the bars of the rusty front gate into the patch of sand where the sidewalk’s broken. My chair creaks grudgingly when I stand up. One day, I think, this thing is going to fall to pieces when someone sits on it. I step onto the cement block and through the open doorway of the kitchen.
By the time the beer’s converted itself into a humming tingle that stretches its way outward from my stomach to my limbs, I’ve got it all worked out: what the key means, why fate brought it to me. Muñeca watches, her ears up, eyes shifting from me to Álvaro. I swear, sometimes it’s like she’s reading my mind. I look away.
When we’re alone again I turn off the patio light and slide down onto the cool concrete floor beside her. For an instant an image leaps into my mind: the bloody, moaning ball of fur I pulled from a tangle of barbed wire up at the goat farm. You saved her life, the vet said, once he’d finished sewing her back together.
“Muñeca,” I whisper, my eyes closed. I push my face against her neck and breathe in the close, doggy smell of her flesh. “It’s our lucky day, chica.”
For two weeks I wear the key on a red string around my neck, right over my heart. Then, on October 28th, I light a candle for Saint Jude and call Álvaro.
“Today,” I tell him.
It’s like slicing warm butter: Álvaro in his uniform, official, unassailable. The silent house and patio. We’re in and out before you can say Campestre. In Tepeyac there would have been forty witnesses, but los riquillos like their space. They want to feel like they live in the middle of a fucking forest.
When it’s over, Álvaro throws an arm around my shoulder and pats his wallet pocket. “I got the cheves tonight, güey.”
I want to say something, to thank him—for this, and for everything—but my throat’s too tight to speak.
I wait two more weeks, then, when I know she’ll be home alone, I put on my best pair of jeans and stuff my curls under a cap. Not a baseball cap, mind you, a golf cap—I found the thing for thirty pesos in el mercado, probably once belonged to a rich old gringo. It’s like a limp animal on top of my head, but at least I don’t look like me. I even put on Tío Eugenio’s reading glasses, but the ground tilts under me, so I take them back off. Not that Lupe would know me if I went as myself. Those luscious green eyes have never lit on me, even for a split second. But I figure it’s better not to take chances.
I take out the sheet I typed up at the ciber on Avenida Cinco de Mayo last night. I’ve got it on an old clipboard of Tío Eugenio’s, with a clean manila folder stuck behind to cover the mess of stray ink marks and Wite-Out.
“Buenos días, señorita,” I say in a crisp, professional voice when she comes to the door. “I’m with the Purina company, research division, and I’d like to ask you a few questions this morning, for marketing purposes. It won’t take two minutes of your time.”
She looks hesitant but pulls the door shut behind her and comes down the stone steps. She’s plumper now than when I saw her last, but it becomes her, like a rounding off of sharp corners. She moistens her lips with her tongue and I get a glimpse of her straight white teeth, so perfect it hurts me. The only thing between us now are the wrought-iron bars of the gate. Her cool green eyes rest on me, expectant.
I clear my throat. “Do you have any pets?” I read from the paper.
“One dog,” I repeat as I write. “Age?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “We’ve only had her a couple of weeks.”
I look up. “Is that right?”
“Did you buy or adopt from the perrera?”
“Neither,” she says, and I can see that it’s a story she’s told before, a story she enjoys telling. “She came to us. I came home one afternoon and here she was, in the patio. It was the strangest thing. She’s too big to fit through the bars, and I don’t see how anyone could have lowered her in over the wall. The neighbors didn’t see anyone. It was like, a miracle.”
“A miracle,” I repeat. I have to fight the temptation to reach through the bars and rub my hand along the milky skin of her jawline.
“Well, I had just been telling my husband that I wanted a dog.”
“No kidding,” I laugh.
“And it was the feast day of Saint Jude.”
“Saint Jude, huh? Hopeless cases.” I scratch the back of my head, under the cap. “Maybe the dog needed you.”
“That’s what I think, too,” she says, and the look she gives me is something I’d like to hang on a red string and keep next to my heart until I die.
“Well, I only have one more question. Are you familiar with these?” I pull a bag of dog treats from my backpack. Muñeca’s favorites.
I pass the bag to her through the bars. “Here’s a free sample for you. I think your dog—what’s her name?”
“I think Gema will love them.”
“Thanks.” She stretches her hand out, so close to me that I can make out every pale star in the constellation of freckles on her arm.
“No problem,” I say.
It’s the big bag, the 70 peso one. She sets it down at her feet.
“So… that’s it,” I tell her, slipping the clipboard into my backpack. “As a matter of fact, you’re my last survey… ever. In a couple of days I’m leaving for el norte, going to make my way in the big wide world.”
“That sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale,” she says.
“Yeah, it does.” Then I laugh. “I guess that makes me one of the pigs.”
She laughs too. “Well, you’d better build your house out of bricks then.”
“I’ll do that,” I tell her. “Good luck to you and Gema.”
I walk the long way back, along the malecón, where the water’s so clear and rippled it looks pixelated. When I get home I’ll empty my backpack and pack a couple of changes of clothes and my birth certificate, sealed in a zip-loc bag so it won’t get wet. I’ll write a letter to the great-uncle who gave me a home after my mother died, and a second one, to Álvaro—things I could never say in person. Finally, I’ll count out the money for the coyote who’s going to take me, like old Charon in reverse, to a new life. I’ll be like Lupe, who made it from Tepeyac to Campestre. She’s a border-crosser too.
“Gema,” I say aloud, savoring the feel of the syllables in my mouth. Gema. Lupe’s gem. With a sudden whoop, I snatch off the golf cap and throw it, frisbee-like, into the malecón. For as long as I can see it, it floats there, on top of the water, as if that was exactly what it was made to do.