“In the City of Murals,” by Blake Sanz

Blake Sanz

The following is chapter from Blake Sanz’ book The Boundaries of Our Dwelling, reprinted with the permission of University of Iowa Press.

In the first days of the couple’s unlikely marriage, it became the airbrush artist’s habit to follow his American wife about the tiny kitchen of their rented house, daydreaming aloud to her in Spanish as she prepared dinner. Most often, he shared his plans to open a screen-printing and art shop in the small town where they lived, near Bayou Teche.

“Hoy hice el letrero, Pearl. Mañana lo montaré.” I made the sign today, Pearl. I’m putting it up tomorrow.

She understood only her name and mañana. Spiced chicken cubes sizzled when she spilled them into the pan. His hands held her sides to feel when she needed to move past him, for there were many places for her to be when she cooked. He continued in Spanish:

“It’s big and blue with black letters: MANNY’S. Each letter is in a different font. I made the M and the S big, and they connect, like an underline. The apostrophe is a little shirt. You can come soon and tell me what you think.”

As he paced behind her in the small room, he had to watch for cabinets ajar and the sharp edges of counter corners, and so he could not look at her as they moved like a two-car train from the counter to the stove to the sink.

“I’m going to make the first shirts for the festival tomorrow. Would you like me to screen one for you?”

She stood over the faucet washing her hands of raw chicken and chili powder, the room thick with the smell of cumin and cilantro.

“Mmm, bueno,” he whispered into her ear.

She understood that word, too, and smiled. During their brief courtship, she’d prepared him Cajun dishes from recipes handed down to her by her mother. Since the wedding, though, she’d cooked with tortillas and onions, tomatoes and cheese. He liked the shift, but the new dishes didn’t resemble the food of his childhood. This was his fault. He could’ve shared more about his life in Mexico, but he wanted to think of himself only as American now. For this reason, Pearl’s imagined version of his youth in Veracruz became a false oasis shimmering at the edges of their interactions. But because he saw how it made her feel about him to imagine it, he didn’t want to dissolve her vision. And anyway, he liked her attempts at Mexican food, even if they weren’t authentic.

They returned to the stove so she could prepare a sauce. He let go of her and walked to the living room, where he felt her gaze as he looked at one of his pieces tacked to the wall above the old couch. It was a sparrow in profile cut out of cream construction paper. In the middle of its breast he’d burned a hole through which showed light blues and whites the color of the sky and the clouds.

“Would you like me to make you a shirt from this print?” he asked her in English.

She smiled at him. “Yes,” she said.

She chopped garlic and chilies for a sauce and put them into a castiron pot with onion. She took store-brand cheddar from the fridge and cut a big cube into a pan to melt it over the stove. Though this was a special dinner, the fresh vegetables had left no money for good cheese. She placed a stack of tortillas in a cradle of foil and put them in the toaster oven to warm. She joined him in the living room then to wait for dinner. They sat down on the couch, a hand-me-down from Pearl’s mother, and sank into its broken springs. He draped his arm around her, and she laid her head on his chest. He could feel the weight of her wrist against his abdomen.

“Are you sure the loan will go through?” she asked. The sauce bubbled beneath their words.

“Of course,” he said.

“It’s been a while.”

“That’s why I went ahead and started. I didn’t want to wait on the bank forever.”

“Even if you didn’t know about the loan? But what did you have for collateral?”

“This is a small town. They understand the problems of starting a small business. Yesterday, Harry—”

“Harry. From the bank?”

“He said that he would visit the store tomorrow to give me the final yes.”

“He’s said that twice already.”

“Which is why he won’t cancel again.”

She asked if Harry had questioned his citizenship. He deflected the question, but she persisted. “I know you’re a dual citizen,” she said, “but that doesn’t matter to them.”

He reminded her patiently, for the umpteenth time, that his mother’s family had lived here respectably for years. He was, in fact, only half Mexican. His grandmother, a quiet and humble member of the Prejean family known in these parts for generations, was a friend of Harry’s aunt. When, as usual, this didn’t assuage Pearl, he resorted to defending the promise of his business based on how their small town had recently begun to support the arts with the inception of a new local festival. Yes, he was new here; no, he wasn’t a gamble.

She admired his confidence though she didn’t share it, and to distract herself from her worry she focused on his looks. Her Manuel had jet-black hair, and he was much taller than most Mexicans. He was light-skinned and you could see traces of his ethnicity in his facial structure, both the Cajun and the Mexican, though when he spoke Spanish, most people around here usually saw only the latter. As he’d told her, he was capable of speaking English without an accent. As a child in Veracruz, he’d learned English well enough from his mother that he knew from an early age what it should sound like. When he concentrated, he could make himself sound American, but mostly he found the effort distracting. To think about his own words too much made him forget what he was trying to say. And so, more often than not, he spoke with a slight accent, just enough for people in Rayne to question whether he was foreign.

“What if it doesn’t go through? What will we do then?”

He didn’t want to think of it. With savings, he’d bought airbrushes and screen presses and inks, and he’d even succeeded at getting a $500 line of credit, but only the bank could front the money to rent the store space. He’d secured this first month’s rent with the old, senile landlord by borrowing from Pearl’s father to pay upfront, promising additional months’ payment with the eventual loan approval.

The loan application had asked questions that had indeed made him nervous, and so he’d fudged. Where it asked for income projections for the first year, he ballparked and bullshitted the best he knew how, exaggerating his work with an art education venture in the Distrito Federal to show proof of past financial success. Where it asked for a personal financial statement, he mentioned how he’d saved two thousand dollars before applying (it had really only been five hundred), and he drew on his fleeting law school days to give them jargon about a studio he’d managed in the months just after the Olympic massacre in Mexico City—a time when financial sustainability, he wrote, was difficult to achieve. Where it asked for tax returns from the prior three years, he confidently included the Mexican documents, reassured by the absence on the form of any question that referred to nationality. He hoped these answers made him look worldly and not simply Mexican. The waiting period was stressful, but the ability to become whoever you needed to be at any given time—wasn’t this what made for a good businessman?

Pearl’s concern carried their silence. He ran his fingers through her hair absentmindedly, and she sighed to remind him she was there. “Well, dinner smells bueno, doesn’t it?” she said.

She got up from his embrace and returned to the kitchen. As she left, his arms fell from her body and into his lap. He watched her from the couch through the open doorway between the two rooms. The cheese had melted, the sauce had thickened, and now the toaster oven, filled with tortillas, dinged. Pearl collected silverware and napkins and brought them to the living room. She placed them on the old black trunk in front of the sofa. She took two tortillas from the toaster oven and laid them on a plate. She dumped the chicken into the sauce and spooned the mixture into the tortillas. She dabbed the melted cheese on top and brought the meals to the sofa. As a gesture of thanks, he smiled at the offering, and Pearl took it as her due. They dined to the clanging of railroad bells at the end of the street, where soon a freighter came thundering by. Their glasses rattled on the trunk as they ate. When the roar and rush faded, the glasses stopped jittering and they were left with the familiar sound of a train in the distance blowing its horn.

“To my Manwell,” she said, trying to pronounce it like he’d taught her. “On the eve of his new business.”

***

He dressed the next morning in one of his self-made T-shirts and a pair of jeans. He combed back his hair and plucked the stray hairs from his nose and eyebrows. When he finished, Pearl was waiting for him in the kitchen. She’d made him a bag lunch, like her mother always did for her father, and now she gave it to him with a smile. “Good luck,” she offered.

He smiled and kissed her on his way out. Walking along the railroad tracks into town, his huaraches exposed diamond patterned bits of his feet and left his ankles bare. The sun shone bright in front of him, hovering just above the pines and live oaks on the side of the road. Along the way he passed Saint Joseph Cemetery. In the small plot, tombs stood aboveground to survive floods. Grass and weeds grew in rows between the stones and led back to the church’s sacristy. As he’d heard twice already in his short time in Rayne, it was the only Christian cemetery in the world that faced north-south. Looking out at the graves, he gave a soft laugh at the thought of how Harry had explained it to him:

You see, cemeteries are built east-west so that the headstones face east, the setting of the sun and all. Here in Rayne, when we built the railroad depot, folks wanted the church to be moved closer to it. Well, they weren’t going to have a new church without a new cemetery, so they built Saint Joe’s. But for whatever reason, they put the headstones facing north. By the time the city realized what it’d done, a heap of us’d already been buried. You can’t just dig up your own kin for the sake of some symbol. Dead people don’t know which way the sun sets.

It reminded him of the old junkyard near his family’s house in Veracruz. As a kid, he’d sneak out of the house at night to get away from so many people. He made his way there by the moonlight and then lost himself in sorting through rusted bumpers, broken headlights and mountains of flattened chassis, plastic cupholder rings and hubcaps. Imagining what else they could be, something beautiful they could become: those had been the first times he’d considered being an artist.

The railroad ties showed themselves in front of his feet, trailing back to Texas and Mexico behind him, stretching east in front of him to New Orleans. He passed the church and walked into the tiny business district, where his rented store space awaited. Approaching it, thinking of his own murals project, he thought of the murals on the concrete slabs beneath the single interstate exit for Rayne. The concrete there had been painted with big frogs in bright greens and pastels. They donned big mouths and smiles. On first arriving, he hadn’t known whether to take them as a sign of welcome or drunken revelry. A sign by the concrete slabs announced Rayne to visitors as Louisiana’s City of Murals, and also the Frog Capital of the World.

Murals of frogs adorned storefronts on Main Street, too. Walking the main drag, he studied them closely. They were painted over the outer brick walls of the hardware store, the side of the convenience store, and even the city court building. Some depicted frogs in top hats at a town meeting, their necks swollen as they ribbited or spoke. Some were realistic depictions, like the one on the side of a warehouse of two tree frogs, painted a light lime green with red eyes and thin, black, vertical pupils that stared out at all who passed. Others were like fairy tales that depicted frogs in conversation with snakes and birds. Everywhere, frogs.

Summer would end in two weeks with Labor Day weekend, when Rayne would celebrate its first annual Frog Festival. The mayor had promoted it across south Louisiana, and he boasted that visitors would be coming from as far away as Opelousas and Baton Rouge to see the murals and hear the Cajun music. They’d even booked Clifton Chenier. Manuel had already begun to make templates for T-shirts. He’d brainstormed phrases for airbrushing and screen-printing: Rayne’s Ribbiting Experience, Frogging on the Bayou, Rayne Frog Fest ’72: A Hopping Good Time. He’d talked to authorities in town about setting up a booth at the festival that would advertise Manny’s, but a formal process of obtaining appropriate permits stood in the way, and time was slipping by in the settling in and the getting used to his wife.

He came upon his rented shop, sandwiched between a BaskinRobbins and a jewelry store. The plateglass windows on either side of the wooden door were tall and narrow. Manuel had printed Grand Opening leaflets at the local copy shop, taped them to the glass, and distributed them to neighboring shops, and they fluttered now with the passing of cars down the street. He looked through the window but couldn’t see very far back in the weak light of morning. His new hand-painted wooden sign leaned against the glass from the inside and announced him to the community.

The door squeaked as he opened it. Turning on the lights, the fluorescent bulbs buzzed and filled the empty spaces between the things he’d taken such care to arrange: a circular rack of plain T-shirts to the right, bought wholesale from a distributor in Lafayette; behind it, a collection of his canvassed art stacked upright for leafing; to the left, the sales counter with a register, a calculator, a fan, a phone, the loan papers, and an air compressor from Pearl’s father; behind it, the large square workbench for making shirts that held a scattering of felt letters, a few wooden screens with fabric stretched tight across them, and an iron standing upright; above that, on the wall, a shelf of aerosol and liquid paint cans, purchased from a dime store; next to that, the ticking clock, which read five to nine.

He examined the space like a priest alone at his altar before mass. He rested Pearl’s bag lunch on the workbench, walked to the circular rack of T-shirts, and passed a hand through their shoulders. They rifled through his fingers like fresh playing cards. He walked behind the desk and picked up the phone to check for a dial tone. He ran his hands over the sanded wood of the desk, a present from Pearl’s father, a woodworker in his spare time. He breathed in, and the store smelled of aerosol paints and new T-shirts. A cutout piece of cardboard stared back at him from the window. Open, it said. He smiled, until he realized that it was facing the wrong way.

No one gave patronage to Manny’s in those first few hours of business. People stopped at the post office across the street and looked through his window. A few even pointed and spoke, though he couldn’t hear anything but the buzz of lights and the quiet hum of the fan. He spent his time preparing shirts for the festival. He made many in kids’ sizes with cartoon designs. The phone rang once, but it was just Pearl checking to see how things were going. She had called a number of local businesses to ask directions to Manny’s, a kind of free advertising. He chided her for it, but she was immune to his complaints, deflected them by telling him he should eat the lunch she’d fixed.

Near eleven, the door squeaked open: his first customer. The woman was striking. She wore a tight T-shirt tucked into her jeans and carried a pink purse that hugged her side. She had high cheekbones, her brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and she had a tight, compact face. Her nose was mousy, and the independent way she moved about the store made him think it best not to welcome her. Some people liked to be left alone. She browsed with intent, rifling through his art prints. The door whined open again, and he turned to see a man in a business suit burst through.

“Hey there,” he said.

“Hello,” Manuel responded.

“Hotter’n hell.” The man took off his sunglasses and clipped them to his collar.

“Yes, it is. May I help you, sir?”

The businessman stroked his pockmarked face. “Y’all have anything—I don’t know, some of those flower-type shirts? Not for me, mind you. My daughter, she wants one with this leaf on it, like a sevenfingered one. You got any of those?”

Manuel smirked. “We don’t have any, but I can make one for you if you like.”

“You mean, special order it?”

He could hear the woman leafing through his art in the back, but he focused on the man.

“Yes. It will cost five dollars. I can have it ready for you in fifteen minutes.”

“Fifteen minutes, you say. Five dollars? Hmm.” He stroked his face again and thought. “Why not? Gotta act on impulse every now and again, you know? Keep yourself honest, right?”

“Yes, sir. Would you like it on a plain white?”

“What’s that? Oh, the shirt. Yeah, whatever you got’ll be fine.”

Manuel drew a quick sketch on paper with a green bit of charcoal, a marijuana leaf. It was textured and shaded so that it appeared to be three-dimensional.

“Is this what she wants?”

“That’s it! How’d you know? Must be you kids. Y’all all think alike, huh?”

“You can come back later to get it or you can wait and watch.” He was speaking more for the benefit of the woman.

“I’ve got a lunch meeting with the boss. Can I come back in an hour?”

“As you wish.”

“Hey, thanks, buddy.” He smiled and looked around the store. “I like this place. You new to town?”

“This is my first day.”

“Hey, great. Well, good luck. See you after lunch.”

“Goodbye, sir.”

After the door closed shut, he was left in the woman’s presence. He didn’t eye her, though he wondered if she might feel ignored since she could now compare his warm welcome of the businessman to his silence at her arrival. Or maybe she’d fondly noted his attention to how to treat different types of customers. Too late, he realized he was verbalizing his worries out loud, in Spanish.

“What?” she asked, turning to face him.

He dismissed his mutters with a wave of his hand and smiled. Her face gave nothing away. He stretched a plain white tee across the bare wooden screen and smoothed over the taut fabric with his hands. Hunching over the workbench behind the sales counter with a black marker, he outlined the silhouette of the leaf on the torso in quick and certain movements.

“How much is this one?” she called from the art rack. She held up a print of his sky bird, the one that hung in his living room. “I like it.”

“Thank you. I made that one only last week.”

“You made all these?”

He nodded.

“Wow.”

He smiled and let a bit of air out of his nose, something like a gesture of thanks.

“So, how much for this one?”

“Fifteen.”

“Not bad.”

He returned to the marijuana shirt. He sprayed it with green aerosol, blurring the sharp contrast of the thick black line against the white of the fabric.

“I think I’ll take it,” she said.

He stopped his work to address her. “I’m glad you like it.”

“The sky showing through the bird, that’s what I like.” She put it on the counter. He kept his eyes on the register, focused on the procedure of making a sale. He took a twenty from her, punched the numbers and the sale button, and watched as the register rang and the money drawer opened. It was empty.

“Well,” he said. The woman laughed, and they smiled at each other. Manuel reached into his pockets and took out his wallet. He offered her the correct change and apologized.

“Of course. Don’t worry about it. It must be hard starting a new business.”

“There are many things one never thinks of.” He put the bird in a bag, handed it to her.

“Thanks,” she said.

“My pleasure. You are my first customer. May I frame your bill and put it on the wall?”

“Isn’t that sweet! But don’t you think you could use the money?” she said and winked.

They held the stare, and then she said goodbye and left. He was alone again, though this time with something to do. Turning his attention to the businessman’s shirt, he grabbed the aerosol can and sprayed the paint onto the white of the cotton tee. When he’d filled inside the black outline with green, he put down the can and turned on the air compressor. As he waited for it to warm up, he grabbed his airbrush and a few plastic bottles of liquid paint from the shelf behind him. He connected the airbrush to the gasket atop the bottle and also to the end of the compressor’s rubber tube. The airbrush had a button at the top that released the air, and a trigger at the bottom that sent the paint into the tube, but it lacked the usual control at the tip that mixed the air with the paint and sent it smoothly down onto the fabric. He could thus control the mixture of air pressure and paint, and hence the thickness of the line, only by placing his thumb over the opening, like a garden hose. Once the business stabilized he’d be able to afford a better airbrush and another two small compressors for each of the primary colors, which would allow him to work quicker. For now he could only rely on his father-in-law’s.

Manuel took the airbrush in his hand and placed the tip almost against the fabric. He opened the valve and moved it along the middle of each part of the leaf evenly, following the outline of the permanent marker. A smooth green line appeared on the shirt. It would only take a twitch of the thumb to ruin it, yet he moved swiftly and without any thought of a mistake. He drew the stem. Its dense color stood out against the soft, earthy shade of the rest of the leaf. He finished the piece and turned off the compressor. His thumb was moist and green. A metallic taste hung in the air and mixed with the paint fumes. He stepped back from the shirt and looked at the leaf. It was a simple design, but well executed. He turned the fan on high and placed the shirt in front of it to dry. The loan papers fluttered at the corners.

He wiped his hands on a rag and looked out the window. It was nearing the lunch hour and people were milling about on the street. He walked outside and the brightness hit his eyes and forced them into a squint. He stretched his arms above his head and felt the warm air against his skin, pleased at the feel of the sun against his ankles. Cars inched down the road. No one was in much of a hurry. He could distinguish each separate motor. A waltz sung in French drifted out of the music store a couple blocks down. A steady stream of kids and mothers and fathers made their way in and out of Baskin-Robbins. Men in suits dropped letters in the mailbox outside the post office. The faint smell of Cajun cooking wafted to him from Lola’s Restaurant. A mailman walked the block and put envelopes in the slots of businesses’ doors.

Harry approached, and Manuel called out to him.

“Hello, Manual. How’s your first day?”

“Henry, my friend! I just sold my first print and made my first shirt.

Come in.” Manuel ushered him through the door like a king into the shop.

“Great! The festival ought to help you get started.”

“Yes. I’m making frog prints for the children.” He pointed to the shirts he’d airbrushed that morning.

“Good,” Harry laughed. “Looks like the frogs around town.”

The men looked at each other through the heat.

“So, do you have good news for me?” asked Manuel.

“Listen, Manual, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea here.”

“Is something the matter? The papers are sitting right here, ready for your signature.”

“Well, there’s a thing I need to ask you about. About your past.”

“What past?” He thought of his time in the Distrito Federal, the student protests he hadn’t attended prior to the Olympics, the massacre on the grounds in front of the church. But these thoughts passed quickly: this was a place where things like La Noche de Tlatelolco weren’t mentioned, weren’t even known.

“Your past business experience. Looking over your loan application, you mention your experience at a—at what sounds to me like a charity in Mexico. I’m just not sure—”

“It was artistic work, like this store will entail.”

Harry sighed. “I’m sure it was hard work, but things are different here. I don’t see much experience in America listed on the application.”

“Are you saying that the loan is rejected?”

“Well, Manual, there are lots of questions I don’t have answers to, like why you went ahead with renting the store before knowing about the loan.”

Because he was driven. Because of urgent premonitions. What other answers could make sense?

“And well, and so, what’s your experience with business in America?”

He had none; he hadn’t even thought to make up any on the loan application.

Harry sighed audibly, satisfied at having made a point on solid ground. “I don’t mean to be judgmental, but I’m sure you see why I can’t approve you. I’m sorry, Manual, it’s just not good business. Knowing you and your grandmother, my gut tells me to give it to you, but you have to see it’s an investment for us. I’m sorry.”

Manuel kept his thoughts from escaping his lips, either in Spanish or English. Harry tipped his hat and left. A hot draft of air touched Manuel as he watched Harry open the door and walk out of sight. He didn’t move, just stared through his store’s window to the street. He breathed a heavy sigh and ran his hands through his hair, gripping at his scalp and pulling the skin of his face tight up against his bones. He put his green thumb to his lip and winced.

Looking down at the brown bag, he realized he hadn’t eaten since the previous night. Reaching into it, he found a note, “Please put this in the mail. Best of luck! Love, Pearl.” There was a letter addressed to her father, and he knew what it must be about. To put it out of mind, he stuffed the envelope in his pocket. Reaching farther down, he found an egg sandwich with vegetables, and he took it out. The eggs had been scrambled lightly, mixed with just a bit of milk so they were fluffy, with diced bits of green pepper and onion. The toast was browned just right. As he put it to his mouth, the door opened again. It was the businessman.

“Hey there, buddy! Great news!”

Manuel could hardly muster a smile, but he put down his sandwich nonetheless to listen.

“Guess what, friend? Boss man just told me he’s moving me up to the New Orleans branch! Said I been doing a crack-up job, and it was about time I saw something for it. Giving me a day off next week to go on up and look for houses. The wife and kids and I wouldn’t move for a while, I suppose, but he got me so excited, I got to thinking maybe I should ask him to let me go for the day, and so I did, and he said okay! You believe that? Twenty-five years of service, and they finally throw
you a bone.” He rubbed his pockmarked face. “I tell you.”

“Congratulations. Your shirt is ready.”

“Would you look at that? Ain’t that something? Georgia—that’s my daughter—she’ll just flip when she sees it.” He was all smiles. “I’m sorry, friend, how much I owe you?”

“Five dollars.”

“Here you go—and don’t worry about the change, hear?” He put a twenty on the counter, took the shirt, and looked it over. Manuel watched him feel the texture of the painted marijuana leaf with his hand and put it up against his chest, guessing at the snugness of the fit.

“Hey, buddy, you do some damn fine work. Best of luck to you with the shop. Take my card. You should call me. I got some people at the office looking for some stuff for the festival. I see by the frogs you’re gearing up for the show. City of Murals, I tell you. That’s something, ain’t it?” He handed Manuel the card and left, smiling.

The clock showed it was only midafternoon. He put the card in his pocket, picked up the papers from the bank, and threw them away. All about were paints and shirts and airbrushes and screens for printing and the compressor and other things borrowed or bought on credit. The luck of this space being available, the chances of it being owned by an old Cajun whose wits were far gone enough to forgo checking Manuel’s earnings before agreeing to rent it—these things seemed now in retrospect a cruel string of useless luck.

The egg sandwich lay uneaten on the counter in front of him. He picked it up and bit into it, watching people walk by his store as he chewed. The egg was soft and cold against his palate and he kept it in his mouth a long while, feeling the vegetables give beneath his teeth and wishing that he could just eat the rest of the day, never getting full and never getting hungry. Sooner than seemed fair, the sandwich was gone, and there still remained the balance of the afternoon till closing. Opening the register to put the businessman’s twenty away, he saw the other bill from his first sale. It reminded him of the sky bird print and the woman who’d bought it. Only then did he remember that he’d promised his wife that he’d screen it onto a T-shirt for her. It was gone now, sold, and though it probably didn’t matter, he thought that maybe it was a good time to paint her a new sky bird. He worked on it the rest of the afternoon, but he was distracted by customers who came in and browsed without buying. He never got around to finishing it. He only got as far as the clouds and the sky.

At closing time he took the two twenties from the day’s sales out of the register. He straightened them against the counter and pocketed them and then closed the shop and went to the bank to make change. Waiting in line between belted walkways, he looked through an interior window and saw Harry talking to the businessman. They were laughing and joking together, and he couldn’t hear their words through the pane of glass. At the teller’s station, he asked for forty ones out of the two twenties so that the stack would be more substantial in his wallet.

As he walked toward the house where his wife was waiting, he looked at a tree frog mural on a warehouse wall. The red eyes stared back, in search of small prey. He passed more frog murals, the fairy tale one and the city council one and the others. Turning west onto the country road that would take him by the railroad tracks, he stuck his hands into his pockets and felt his customer’s business card and Pearl’s envelope. She would likely be on the porch with a cup of diluted lemonade for him and a handful of questions he couldn’t answer.

He thought of the businessman and his trip. The man’s daughter was probably his age. “Veinticinco años de servicio,” he muttered. A car approached, a navy blue, mud-flecked Chevy Nova, and trying to make light of his situation, he stuck his thumb out in jest. But it stopped and the boy inside rolled down his window.

“You need a ride? I’m headed for New Orleans,” the boy said.

“Is that a Nova?” Manuel asked. He gave a soft laugh when the boy shrugged. He kept his hands in his pockets. “Do you know what ‘Nova’ means in Spanish?” he asked.

“Can’t say I do,” the boy said.

“No va,” Manuel said out loud. The cemetery lay in the distance. The boy’s car faced him. The Nova’s engine idling was the only sound. It was a humid evening in the City of Murals, far from his home and yet very near the new place he rested his head at night. Manuel faced west, the glare of the setting sun angling straight into his eyes, and yet he was aware of it only as a backdrop, as if it were no more or less than a mural.

 

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