Fiction by Alfredo Lafarga
The summit of the mountain was in view, gray and barren against the blue sky. Alex paused to catch his breath, the cold air drying out his mouth as he inhaled and exhaled rapidly. For a couple of seconds, he thought he might hyperventilate, his lungs filling with air but apparently not enough. He could feel the sweat on his back trickling between his shoulder blades where the backpack pressed against it. The brass urn in the backpack had shifted position, and it pressed uncomfortably against his spine despite the padding of the pack.
He forced one last deep breath and set off once more. The lug soles of his boots crunched against the gravelly soil, sinking slightly with every step. His feet felt swollen within the boots, hot and sweaty in the wool socks that had promised moisture-wicking but somehow failed to do so. Probably never been tested with out-of-shape fat guys, Alex thought. Voices and laughter drifted towards him, and he looked towards the summit. Descending, two young women were talking. They each held a water bottle, one with the right and the other with the left hand. Large reflective sunglasses protected their eyes, and one covered her hair with a bright orange bandana while the other wore a trucker-style hat with the North Face logo in white on it. They moved easily, almost like they were strolling, taking the steep path towards him assuredly in magenta and sky-blue colored boots, not appearing to worry about the precipitous drop just yards away from them on either side of the trail. Alex had snickered when he’d read the name of the trail – Devil’s Backbone – but now he thought he understood where the name had come from.
Alex stopped and moved to the right side of the trail to let the women by, glad for another short break. He nodded and smiled at them as they walked past, trying to take on the camaraderie he had experienced from other hikers as they passed him on the trail, and they smiled back at him.
“Almost there,” the one with the hat said.
“Yes,” Alex said. “Thanks.” He watched them for a few moments, their confident strides reminding him that he still faced a long downhill hike after dealing with his brother.
* * *
Alex was at his desk, scrolling through a spreadsheet on his computer screen, his mind on auto-pilot as his eyes scanned the numbers in the neat columns. His iPhone rang on his desk, the screen displaying a number he did not know with an area code he did not recognize. Fucking spammers, he thought as he declined the call.
A minute or so passed when the iPhone buzzed that the caller left a voicemail. Surprised and annoyed that the telemarketer had actually left a message, he swiped to the message and pressed play, intending to delete it as soon as he confirmed it was a crap call.
“Hello. Hi.” A woman’s voice, hesitant. Maybe a wrong number? Alex moved his thumb away from the delete button.
“I’m trying to reach Alex. Alex Corona. It’s about…it’s concerning his brother. Jesse. I got this number from him, I hope it’s correct. I don’t want to — I need to speak in person — I mean live — I don’t want to leave what I have to say in a message. Please call me back. This is Brenda. Thank you.”
Alex let the echoes of the message play through his brain for a minute. Jesse. He tapped the screen to play the message again, listening more intently, eyes closed, trying to extract meaning from the woman’s unspoken words.
Alex put the phone back down on his desk and stared blankly at the computer screen in front of him. Jesse. Fucking Jesse. He hadn’t heard from his brother in over two years; no one in his family had. Alex thought of his mother. The toll of not knowing her older son’s whereabouts, or even if he was alive, had whittled her down. She was smaller, thinner, quieter, her dark brown eyes less animated, often downcast, seeming to look inward instead of at the world. Every time he saw her, he cursed Jesse for what he’d done.
He snatched up the phone and listened to the message again. As the woman’s voice played in his ear, Alex felt a slow tightening of his chest, as if a giant hand had wrapped itself around his upper body and squeezed. And then he knew. The woman’s tentativeness, the request to call back. If Jesse wanted something, he would have called himself. He always did. That meant he couldn’t call. That meant the motherfucker was dead.
* * *
Brenda opened the sliding glass door that opened onto a small concrete pad, about ten foot by ten foot, set in what Alex had assumed would be the backyard of the mobile home. However, there was no fence around the property, the nearest neighbor about a half-mile back up the road Alex figured, so the backyard stretched out in all directions. There was nothing but short scrub brush between Alex and the horizon. The flat, reddish-brown earth cut a straight line across a sky whose deep blue color was one he was unfamiliar with in Los Angeles. This was a blue that came from the universe, free of car exhaust and the rancid exhalations of too many humans.
A weathered wood rocking chair sat in the middle of the cement pad. Dozens of cigarette butts filled a red clay flowerpot next to the rocker.
“This was where he liked to sit,” Brenda said. She placed her right hand on the top of the chair and pulled back gently. The chair rocked back and forth a few times, and as she watched it a tiny smile appeared on her lips but quickly vanished. “Jesse could sit out here for hours.”
Alex turned from her face and looked at the weathered chair, the wood gray and streaked with light stains. The original stain and varnish had worn away, but he could not see much damage to the wood itself. With some sanding…, he thought. As he inspected the chair, he saw the initials JC carved into the seat near the front edge, right between where a pair of legs would rest.
“He did that?” Alex asked, pointing at the initials.
Brenda nodded and smirked. “Jesse was always leaving his mark on things he liked.” She extended her left arm, raising the wrist closer to his face. “He gave me this a few months back.”
On her inside wrist, on the spot where someone might check a body for a pulse, was a crudely drawn heart with JC at its center.
“He did that to you?”
She touched the tattoo with her other hand. “Yeah. It hurt a little. Sometimes he went too deep with the needle.”
The memory made her frown. Alex watched her face intently for a second, trying once again to guess at her age. Mid-thirties? Forty? Her voice, in person as on the phone, sounded youthful, but her face was aged, the tanned skin showing soft creases and wrinkles around her eyes and mouth that would continue to deepen. Too much sun, too much fun, Alex thought. Her hair was black, and there were traces of a blue streak still visible from a dye job that had not been maintained.
“So,” Alex said.
Brenda looked at him. Her lips parted as if she was going to speak, but instead, she turned away and looked out over the landscape. As he scanned the horizon, Alex became aware of the silence around them. At first, the silence was an absence of sound, but as he focused his attention on it, the silence started to feel like something physical, something present not absent, stretching out in all directions. Its immensity magnified the slight wheeze of the air through his nostrils as he breathed, amplified a minuscule buzzing in his ears as they searched for sound. He turned his head right and left searching for something that would replace the sounds in his head, but there was nothing but space and silence before him.
“So,” he said, loud.
* * *
Two more steps and the ground leveled beneath his boots. Alex paused for a moment, leaning back to stretch his lower back. He squeezed his shoulder blades together and let the backpack slide down his arms, the air immediately cooling the sweat-soaked shirt.
With the backpack in one hand, he walked forward. A few other hikers were on the summit, taking pictures with their cell phones. A man and woman were taking selfies by a large metal plaque attached to rocks on the ground. Alex walked in that direction, finally having caught his breath enough to look around at the surrounding view. Never before had he been on a mountain higher than everything else around it, and the feeling that came over him was powerful. In any direction he looked, the landscape was beneath him, rolling away from him, fading in the distance. Alex felt an odd stirring of dominion over the land before him, some ancient, primitive echo of invasion and conquest. He thought he could understand how Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar might have felt as they looked out over their new domains. The elevation, he was sure, was adding to his intoxication.
The couple that had been taking pictures by the plaque moved off, and Alex went over to read it.
Alex squatted and touched the plaque, running his fingers over the raised letters. He was finally here. All his life in Los Angeles, this mountain had loomed over him, sometimes snowcapped, mostly not. It had served as a point of orientation when traveling through unknown neighborhoods in the days before cell phones and GPS. Even when it was not visible behind the haze or smog, its absence marked its presence like a painting temporarily removed from a wall. Now he was finally here. Not for himself but for Jesse, whose remains rested in a brass urn at the bottom of the backpack Alex had trudged up the mountainside. It had seemed a weird, almost perverse last request when he’d read it in the handwritten note days before. Certainly illegal. Jesse fucking with him one last time. But now as Alex turned his head left and right and stared out at the late afternoon sky, it was beginning to make sense.
* * *
Released from the torments of catechism school, the Apostles’ Creed playing in a never-ending loop in his brain, Alex hurries home. He is hungry and looking forward to a Farmer John bologna sandwich or quesadilla in front of the television and forgetting about God and Jesus for a little while and thinking about the Dodgers. An early game against the Reds will be on soon. Stupid Pete Rose, he thinks. Stupid Johnny Bench.
He takes the shortcut through the alley, staying as far away as he can from the neighbor’s barking dogs who strain against the chain-link fence that pens them in. Alex enters the duplex apartment through the kitchen door. “Ma,” he says as he closes the door. “Ma.”
There is no answer, so he moves through the small kitchen to the refrigerator, opens it, and stares at the containers and packages. He grabs the package of bologna and peels it open, pulls a slice off, and pops it in his mouth as he puts the package back and closes the door. He moves to the living room and is surprised to see Jesse sitting on the sofa staring at the television with the sound off. Jesse’s eyes are half-closed and his head wobbles a little as if it’s struggling to keep from falling backward. He is usually nowhere to be found on the weekend, their father cursing as he cleans the yard or some other chore he did not do.
“Hey,” Alex says. Jesse does not respond. “Where’s Ma?”
Jesse says nothing. Alex sits down on the sofa at the far end away from him. On the television, an old black and white film is playing. Alex watches as some guys in charro outfits ride horses across a desert shooting at other guys in charro outfits riding horses farther away. Alex grows worried that his mother might be watching the movie, so he won’t get to watch the Dodgers.
“Where you coming from?”
Alex turns to Jesse, who hasn’t moved, so for a couple of seconds, he is unsure whether his brother actually spoke.
“Catechism,” he says to play it safe.
Jesse’s eyes close completely, and a small smile comes to his lips. “Our Father, who art in heaven…”
Alex does not respond. He is tired of prayers, tired of rote responses. All he wants is to watch the Dodgers or some cartoons. “Can I change the channel?”
Jesse’s eyes are still closed and his head wobbles a bit more freely. “You going to be a good Catholic boy,” he says, “you going to be an altar boy one day.”
There is silence as Jesse does not continue. Alex sighs and is about to get up from the sofa when Jesse springs towards him and grabs his arm and pushes him against the sofa back. Jesse’s eyes are bloodshot and bug-eyed as he brings his face up to Alex. There is a huge grin on his lips.
“Who is the Lord?” he asks.
“Let me go,” Alex says and tries to slither off the sofa.
He squeezes Alex’s arm harder, brings his face closer. “Who is the Lord?”
“Let me go! Ma! Ma!”
“What’s my name? What’s my name?”
“What’s my name?” Jesse peels his eyes open even more as if the answer is written on the back of his eyeballs.
Alex pushes his head against the sofa to get away from his face. “Jesse. Jesús! Jesús!”
“Who is the Lord?” he asks.
“Jesus is Lord,” Alex says, his brain clicking away trying to understand.
“Who is Looooord?” he asks again.
“You are,” Alex says, finally understanding. “You are Lord. Jesse is lord.”
They both turn their heads to the sound of their mother’s voice. “Suéltalo!”
She moves quickly towards them and swats at Jesse’s back till he lets go of Alex. Jesse throws himself back to the other end of the sofa. “It was just a joke,” he says. “He just didn’t get it.”
“Tienes el diablo dentro de ti,” their mother says. She sits next to Alex and pulls him into her arms. Alex stares at his brother.
Jesse stands up and moves toward the hallway that goes to the bedroom. “It was just a joke. Shit.”
He disappears from view and a few moments later the door to the bedroom he shares with Alex slams closed.
His mother hugs him and strokes his head, she says something quietly, and Alex thinks he hears her praying in Spanish. Alex stares at the television. The charros are now strumming guitars, but all he sees are Jesse’s eyes.
* * *
Alex sat in the rocking chair, a half-empty bottle of Budweiser between his legs. He had positioned the bottle on the chair so that his brother’s carved initials were now ringed by a circle of moisture, staining the wood darker. The chair faced east, and now that the sun had almost completely disappeared behind the mobile home, the blue of the sky intensified. He tilted his head back and lifted his eyes to the darker sky directly above. Starlight pierced through.
“I still can’t get over how quiet it is out here,” he said, closing his eyes for a moment. “It seems unnatural or something.”
Brenda exhaled cigarette smoke in the other direction. She had brought out one of the mismatched chairs from the dining set near the kitchen to sit with him. She sipped at her beer bottle. “This is the way it is supposed to be, though. Right? This is what the real world sounds like. Not cars or television or people yelling.”
Alex looked at her. In the disappearing light, her features were softened; the wrinkles smoothed away, the sun-dried skin once again lustrous. Her youth returns in the twilight, he thought. He glanced at his hands. Does mine? He sighed. “Maybe. I have trouble imagining a life without sounds, music, other people’s voices. Too much silence would drive me crazy.”
“What if it’s the other way around?” Brenda locked eyes for a second before turning away. “What if all the noise of the world, all the people, all the voices, are making you crazy? What if your head is already filled up with its own noise and you just can’t take any more from anything or anyone else? Wouldn’t this be a kind of paradise then? A sanctuary?”
Alex rocked back and forth in the chair listening to his own breathing, the sound of Brenda drinking some beer then the tiny snaps and crackles of the cigarette burning as she drew smoke into her lungs. “Is that why Jesse was here?”
Smoke poured from Brenda’s nostrils, and Alex thought of dragons. “It’s why he stayed.”
Alex shook his head. “So why did he kill himself? If he found this place to get away from everything, why did he kill himself? Why didn’t he just stay here and let us know, tell us he was okay?”
He watched her as she took the last drag on her cigarette, stubbing it out on the concrete, exhaling the smoke with an audible sigh. Brenda leaned back against the chair and stared off into the darkening landscape. All the colors were fading into a deep black that seemed to encroach around them, smothering light, threatening to swallow everything in an eternal darkness. Only the starlight from more stars than Alex had ever seen kept the darkness from overwhelming them completely.
He waited for Brenda to answer his question, but she did not. They sat in silence for what felt like a long time, but Alex was unsure. After Brenda had shared the necessary details of Jesse’s suicide, blocks of time seemed to disappear for Alex. One moment he was standing and looking at the horizon, the next he was sitting in a rocking chair with a beer in his hand; one moment the sky was blue, then it was black. He looked at the stars, thought about Jesse staring up at the same sky. What did the stars tell him?
“I never really liked Jesse,” he said, speaking to the stars. “He always scared me. As a kid, if he was around, I was always waiting for him to fuck with me. It’s like he didn’t know any other way to relate to me. And then one day he was gone. He left one night while we all slept. Just grabbed some clothes and some money my mother kept in the kitchen. For me, it was a relief, but my parents always worried. Always.”
From the darkness, Brenda asked, “You never heard from him or about him till I called?”
“About two years ago he completely disappeared. Before that he’d drop by the house to see our mother, get some money. She couldn’t say no although my father yelled at her afterwards. Then we wouldn’t see him for months. It was his pattern.”
“Jesse was living with me the last two years.”
“Huh,“ Alex said as he finished the beer. “Well, I guess that solves that mystery. I thought he was dead all along. And now he is.”
Alex heard a faint sound coming from Brenda, and he realized she was crying. For the first time since he had arrived at her home, her grief became apparent to him. Her shock at his death. He had only been thinking of the impact of Jesse’s death on his family, his mother. His brother’s death was more of an inconvenience to him than an incitement to grieve. Jesse’s suicide had required driving to the outskirts of an unknown Arizona town in the middle of a desert to pick up his remains from a woman who was a complete stranger to him. Yet this woman mourned his brother, cried for him before a man who was a complete stranger to her.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Brenda sniffled, swallowed, exhaled loudly. “I wish he was still here. I miss Jesse. I miss him.”
In the darkness that surrounded and pressed in on them, Alex imagined he could see Brenda’s tears as they spilled from her eyes as clearly as he could hear the restrained sobs coming from her body. Instinctively, he reached for and found her hand, and held it tight. From her hand, he could feel her pain and grief, and in the darkness, it was easier for him to assume some of it as his own.
* * *
The urn sat on top of the dresser in front of the television. From the motel bed, Alex contemplated the urn, tried to reconcile that what remained in this world of his brother was now kept in satin brass. How do you fit someone like Jesse in a foot tall jar? Alex wondered.
Brenda had paid for the cremation and the urn. Alex had offered to pay her back, but Brenda declined.
“No disrespect,” she’d said as she handed the urn to Alex, “but Jesse was my family for the last two years. I’m only giving you his ashes because that is what he wanted, for his mother.”
She’d also handed Alex a sealed envelope, addressed to him. “From Jesse,” she said.
Alex had planned on driving straight back to Los Angeles, but the late start and the encounter with Brenda had left his body exhausted, his mind thick and dull. So he had pulled off the 10 in Blythe and found a motel room. After calling his wife and reassuring her that he would be okay, he had dropped onto the bed and expected to fall dead asleep. But he found that his eyes would not close. Light from the security lamps in the motel parking lot seeped around the heavy drawn curtains; the steady sound of cars and trucks rolling past on the street buzzed at his ears like mosquitoes. His body lay on the firm mattress humming, vibrating, restless from the long drive.
Alex sat up and scooted to the foot of the bed. He paused then reached out and put his hand on the urn. This is what it all comes to? he thought. He closed his eyes to help himself recall images of Jesse. As the older brother by four years, Jesse had always been taller, stronger, more physical. Although he tried to picture him, Alex more easily recalled the dread and fear he had felt when his brother was around. Even as adults, when Alex finally caught up in height and passed him in weight, he had flinched whenever Jesse made an unexpected move towards him.
On the nightstand, the still unopened envelope sat next to his wallet. After Brenda had handed him the envelope, he almost opened it, but he decided it was not the proper place. On the drive home, he had decided that he would open the letter when he saw his mother, but now he wondered if that was a good idea. What if there was something in the letter that would hurt his mother? Alex turned on the lamp and picked up the envelope. He looked at the urn.
“Actually, this crappy room seems like the perfect place to read your letter,” he said to the urn. He read his name spelled out in block letters, then flipped the envelope over and tore open the flap.
I know. You’re probably thinking this was a fucked up thing to do, right? Sorry to impose.
Tell Ma and Dad I’m sorry for the pain. From before and now. But tell them I’m okay now. Really.
Tell them I stayed away because it was the best thing I could do for them and for me. Lucky for me, I met Brenda (I guess you have too if you are reading this). Sometimes you meet a person that just fits. That gets you from the start without having to explain everything. That is Brenda. I fit in her life somehow too, but I’m not sure how. But it makes me feel good that I do. That I can be good for her. Together we can just be. I never felt like I fit in anyone’s life before. But with Brenda it is easier. Living.
I know you and Ma and Dad will want to know why I had to go. All I can say is, it is just time for me to go. I have come to realize that it is a gift to be able to decide what happens to you. And I’ve been given this gift. You learn a lot about yourself if you have the time to listen. And I have listened. I can’t explain it any other way. Brenda will be sad that I had to go. So will Ma. Not sure about Dad. Or you.
I have one last request as they say. Please scatter my ashes on Mount Baldy. That way Ma will always know where I am. All she will have to do is look at the mountain. I hope you will do this for me.
I’m sorry if I ever hurt you or Ma or Dad. It was never intentional. But my head was in a different space then.
Not sure what else to write.
Alex folded the note and slipped it back into the envelope. He rested it against the urn and leaned back on his elbows. The note had answered nothing, given no real or satisfying reason why. Time to go? What the hell did that mean? Alex shook his head. He imagined what his mother would say when he translated the note for her and his father. Por qué? Time to go. Like he had a flight to catch or a dinner reservation. Fucking Jesse.
“You’re an asshole,” Alex said to the urn. “You were an asshole as a kid, and you’re still one.”
Time to go. Had Jesse not been able to see a life for himself in the future, a life that could have included Brenda, his family? What did he see out there in the desert that made him think Enough?
Alex sat back up. He listened for a few minutes to the traffic rolling by outside, an occasional voice, a slammed door. In the room next door, Alex could make out the voices and sounds from a television set. The window air conditioner kicked back on, struggling against the hot Blythe night, and wiped out all the external noises with a loud rattling. He looked back at the urn, again having difficulty reconciling the fact that Jesse was nothing more than ashes. Time to go. He must have felt unbound, Alex thought. No ties to anyone, no commitments. Looking out from the rocking chair at the vast expanse of space before and above him, he must have come to some realization about death. Now or later? Did it really make that much difference? Probably not when you believe you have nothing or no one to hold you back. Could I have stopped him? Alex thought.
He stood up and picked up the urn with both hands, felt its weight in them, the way his fingers supported the tapered shape, and the sensation triggered a memory of picking up his newborn son years before in a dark bedroom and bringing him up to his chest to comfort the crying child. Alex had felt an almost frightening obligation, an inherited responsibility towards this child who was still a stranger to him but required his love and care nonetheless. My son, he remembered. My family. The memory lasted for a brief moment before fading, but Alex still felt the weight of the memory in his hands.
* * *
The sun was setting, the huge bright orange ball floating above the horizon. A few hikers still walked around the summit taking pictures, reluctant perhaps to start the seven-mile hike back down to the parking lot.
Alex had eaten the granola bars and trail mix his wife had packed for him, but he had forced himself to save the small amount of water that still remained in the plastic water bottle, knowing he would need it at some point in the descent. He tried to remember if there was a water fountain at the top of the ski lift he had hiked by earlier in the day, but he couldn’t recall. I’m going to die on this mountain, Alex thought and laughed out loud.
To the east, the light from the setting sun had brought forth a landscape of jagged paper peaks of dark gold fading into blues, purples, and grays. Already, a few stars were faintly visible in the darkening sky overhead. Alex lifted the backpack from the ground and walked towards the eastern slope of the summit. He sat down on the ground and looked before him, turning his head from one side to the other, a panorama different from the one in the desert but with a similar feel. He could almost imagine Brenda sitting next to him. The only thing missing would be the rocking chair.
Alex unzipped the backpack and pulled out the urn, setting it on the ground between his legs. He turned his shoulders so he could look back at the hikers still on the mountain, but they were entranced by the sun as it disappeared beneath the horizon, watching it on their cell phone screens.
“This is a good place, huh?” Alex said to the urn as he unscrewed the top. “Great view, and the night sky must be fantastic.”
He looked in the urn for the first time. The remains didn’t look like ashes at all, more like the gravelly ground he was sitting on. This is Jesse, he thought. But then he shook his head. No, it wasn’t. A person isn’t what is buried or scattered; a person becomes the absence felt by those who remain. Jesse continued to live in Brenda, in their parents. Even in me, Alex thought.
On his knees, Alex poured the ashes into a small pile on the ground, a tiny mountain on a mountain. “I hope you like it here,” Alex said. And for the first time in a long time, Alex wished he could have said the words to Jesse’s face.
He sealed the urn and returned it to the backpack. Standing up, he noticed that all the other hikers had left. A small section of the sun still burned above the horizon providing enough light to make out the trail before him, but not for much longer. Alex knew it would be dark soon, but the backpack was somewhat lighter and the temperature was definitely cooler. With easier steps, Alex started down the mountain.