The Painted Box
The young man stepped out onto the cool patio stones, beyond which lay the abandoned orchard and the tiny field of oats and, past that, the desert. He peered eastward, toward the faint lightening on the December horizon like a wash of watercolor. He cocked his head, hearing what might be the soft footfalls of his ancestors, their soles crunching against the cool morning sand.
"Alonzo!" His mother had stepped outside to see about him.
"I'm coming, I'm coming," he said, though he wasn't.
Alonzo was not yet ready to face his mother. The screen door hinges squeaked as she gave up, returning to her cooking. The door bounced against the frame, its latch rattling.
He heard her flipping the morning's tortillas from the press onto the griddle. She would pour honey on them next, he knew, sprinkle them with cinnamon and roll them up into tubes that looked like his tio's cigarillos. Alonzo knew that she did this with great love. This was why his mother's food tasted like heaven, his Tia Frida said. "Your mother's kitchen is supervised by the angels."
Resisting the scent of spices, Alonzo jogged to the corral and called to his pony. She wandered over to him in her strange up-and-down gaited way and nosed him for oats.
"You can wait to eat," Alonzo said. He cinched the saddle up against her tight belly. She blew out her breath, stamped a foot.
He rode out past the small grain field, into the desert, toward the glinting sunrise. Alonzo loved the sound of hooves landing predictably against the earth, the way the vibrations rose up through his pony's body and into his. As if he, the pony and the earth were all connected by that low, rhythmic hum. His Tia Frida would say it was the sound of his forefathers chanting to keep him safe. Resting his forearms on the saddle horn, Alonzo lay his head against the pony's mane and let her run.
When they got to the spot, Alonzo dismounted and fished around in the saddlebag for the small garden spade he had packed. He dropped to his knees and began to dig at the base of the ancient sahuaro that arched into the sky.
Working in the slim shade of the cactus, he dug until the tool struck the top of the weathered wooden box. He lifted the box out of the hole and wiped the dirt away from its surface. If he squinted, he could just make out three small, faded figures painted on the lid, dancing girls in skirts. He hinged open the box and fished around, touching each item to make sure it was still there. His green and black swirled aggie, a few baseball cards. Four twenty-dollar bills. And among his childhood treasures: the bunched-up wad of white cotton, edged in lace. He considered, then moved the bills and cards so they covered the cotton.
Alonzo closed the lid and held the box carefully in front of him like a relic. After a short time, he returned it to its shallow grave, filling the hole again as he had six months before.
The night before he had dreamed again of his father, whose face in the last five months had become indistinct in his memory. Alonzo could no longer make out the thick black eyebrows that collected together like thunderclouds above his deep-set eyes. The eyes themselves had become empty sockets. In the dream, the man's meaty hands gestured only once, motioning toward something, but, as always, it was unclear what he wanted. Alonzo had awakened sweating and lay in his bed until he could tiptoe past his mother's room without waking her even earlier than he knew she would arise on her own.
When he returned to the corral, Alonzo's mother was sitting on the front porch, smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee, which was her habit after breakfast.
"You said you were coming," she said, accusing, but only gently.
He sat on the stones at his mother's feet and put his head in her lap. "It was the dream again," he said. His voice was muffled a little by her skirt.
She pulled at his curls and puffed.
"What did he want from you?" she asked.
Alonzo shrugged. He didn't want to move. He wanted only to feel her hand in his hair, to listen to her humming an old tune, sipping her coffee.
As the sun became a full and blazing presence in the low sky, he started to drift off. It seemed that these days Alonzo could only sleep without dreaming when the sun was full in the sky; when the bright shield of the day was strong enough to keep the ghost of his father away.
His father was shouting in the way that meant now, so Alonzo lay down his guitar and ran toward his voice. It was July, when the heat was so intense it sucked the breath right out of a person. Though he was only twelve and a fit boy, Alonzo stopped when he reached the small grain field, needing to pull air into his lungs.
His father was in the middle of the patch of oats, which swayed around his chest in the hot wind like feathers. His face red and covered with a film of perspiration. Alonzo carefully made his way to him, stopping only when his dad raised his hand. Alonzo recognized the dingy lace-edged cotton panties dangling from his father's middle finger.
The weekend before, when his aunt and uncle had come for Sunday lunch after mass, Alonzo had been playing with his eight-year-old cousin Rita. Without warning, she had slipped off her underpants in the field so that she and Alonzo could compare the differences down there between boys and girls.
Alonzo opened his mouth to explain, when he felt the force of his father's heavy palm against his cheek. He turned, thrashing his way clear of the oats, and began to run.
Behind him, he heard something that didn't belong in the moment, a sharp gasping and gurgling, like a chicken's throat being cut. Alonzo stopped and turned to see his father clutch at his chest, stagger through the thin grassy sheaves and collapse on the barren ground at the field's edge.
He fell on his face just as his son reached him. Alonzo dropped to his knees.
"Papa! What are you doing?" Never in his life had he yelled at his father. "What's wrong?" He pounded his father's thick back, shook his shoulder, but his father didn't move. Alonzo looked up toward the house, and back down at the red and black plaid of his father's shirt stretched tight against his shoulders. The pattern swirled and Alonzo wiped his eyes.
Beside him, his father lay still, his moans sifting down through the layers of sand and silt and rock, past the ancestors' graves, all the way, Alonzo imagined, to the center of the earth.
He turned away, then back again. He reached down and slowly pulled the garment out of his father's fist. He stared at the dirty panties, his mind spinning. Then, shoving them into his back pocket, Alonzo turned again and ran toward the house as fast as he could.
He saw his mother coming off the porch to meet him, worry lining her face as if she, too, had heard her husband calling out to his kin, their voices gathering to greet him.
Alonzo's father was put to rest in the church cemetery a week later. Alonzo's mother held his hand tightly in the front pew during the funeral service. It was the only time he had ever known her to wear gloves. They were white, of a soft cotton that just covered her wrist bones, and which was pulled together at that delicate spot by a pearl button. Alonzo stared at the button on the gloved hand that held his. It felt strange not to feel her skin against his; strange for there to be a layer between them.
His mother hadn't spoken to him much since that day in the field; only when she was annoyed with him.
"I am perfectly capable of making supper," she said one night when Alonzo had only offered to lop the ends off the green beans, a task she often delegated to him.
This woman bewildered him. She still looked like his mother but was not her. This woman's tone was sharp, like biting into a Santa Rosa plum before it was ripe. This woman regarded Alonzo suspiciously, as if he had slapped his father that day in the field, and not the other way around. She had seen the welt on his cheekbone but had remained silent.
After his father's remains were deposited under a lump of loamy earth, friends and family came to their house for the velario. Alonzo sat vigil in the living room, which his mother and tia had filled with candles and vases of dahlias and marigolds. He played dominoes with his cousins in the flickering light, but avoided Rita. The adults sang and drank and played rummy and laughed. He listened to the stories: His father snagging a thirty-five-pound striped bass in Lake Havasu and falling overboard; his father so handsome in his wedding suit, but late to the church. Stories he had never heard before, and stories he had heard many times.
Alonzo would sneak glimpses at his mother, who was still the other woman from the funeral. She would look up with a hollow smile if someone spoke to her. Her empty manners and gestures seemed to be controlled by invisible marionette strings that twitched when required, forcing a mechanical reaction to a joke, to a gift presented to her, or to a gentle whisper in her ear.
One sweltering June afternoon, a year after his father's death, Tia Frida came for Sunday dinner. Alonzo's mother had slowly returned to her old self, now only loosely bound to her grief, rather than being imprisoned in its initial, fierce grip.
From the night of the velario on, his father's appearance in Alonzo's dreams was a relentless, silent pantomime that often woke him, trembling. At Dia de los Muertos that fall, they had meticulously constructed the ofrenda to welcome his father's spirit into the home, so it couldn't be that he felt shut out. Family members offered various opinions. Once, Alonzo suggested that his father might be angry with him, but the clan discounted this as improbable. Alonzo could only shrug. What did they know?
At dinner, Tia Frida offered the theory that perhaps there was unfinished business between father and son. Alonzo's mother shushed her sister.
"He's not getting enough sleep as it is! And you want to grow this fear in his head?"
"He's thirteen," Tia Frida said. "You're the man of the house now, eh, mi sobrino?"
Later that night, Alonzo slipped out of the house, and rode out to the sahuaro. He dug up the box and opened the lid to see the swatch of graying fabric, the bit of elastic, glinting in the moonlight alongside the rest of the box's contents.
The lighter sparked twice before it caught. Though there wasn't much left to burn, a thin swirl of tangy, acidic smoke rose in the crisp night air, a sulphur-like scent that dissipated on the breeze as soon as the last trace of cotton and childish lace was gone.
After he returned his pony to the corral, Alonzo crept into his bed, listened to his mother snoring, soft and rhythmic, on the other side of the wall. Tomorrow he would deal with the aphids settling into the oats crop.
For now, he pulled the covers over his head and sunk into a deep and peaceful slumber, a sleep that no ancestor, including his father, felt a need to disturb.
"The Painted Box" previously won second place in the Society of Southwestern Authors Short Story Contest