By Fred Arroyo
Excuse me, honey.
I saw her approaching from the end of the aisle and thought, My God, no, already hearing her wheezing through her mask. She was in a wheelchair, a flowered yellow and blue housedress, her arms skinny as a foal’s legs, her hair pulled back, the steel gray severe. Made me wonder how strong she might have once been. An oxygen tank was cradled next to her thigh, the translucent green tubes twisting up behind her surgical mask. For some reason I didn’t move out of the way, lost in my own concerns, turning some cheap baking pan over in my hands. I quickly regretted not moving out of the way—wondered, what is wrong with you. I had not been around anyone for some 6 months. December to February had been rather bleak. There were some nights shaped by bourbon and wailing. Yesterday I had five hour-long online conferences; unexpected, exhausting. They left me frazzled, on edge, blurry.
She coughed, a phlegmy smoker’s cough.
Excuse me, I finally said, and leaned closer to the shelf. I felt her wheel brush the back of my thigh.
A Sunday. The dollar store. I had some razors, dish soap, the Advil I needed. I added the baking pan to the basket to make some cornbread to go with a pot of red beans. I had recently come from upstate New York, about 15 miles from the border, and there was a Dollar Store out on the highway on the edge of the village. I never went inside. I’d slow down as I passed. There were always these beautiful gleaming black horses and carriages in the parking lot. Sometimes I’d see the women leaving the store in their bright calico dresses and white-fringed bonnets like clouds hiding their eyes. I thought of my father’s horses. The black flies were horrible in August, and he had these gray masks—a fly mask he called them—to keep them from biting his horses. This was another thing that reminded him he wasn’t in Puerto Rico. The masks. The flies. He could sometimes be humane, I realized, once he passed away, especially when it came to his horses.
The old woman arrived to what she seemed to be looking for: a little rug with a swirling pattern, reds, blues, and golds, perhaps for her kitchen or bathroom. I could see it under her slippers as she watched the sad and astonishing news that marked these days, a cigarette smoldering in the ashtray on her lap, maybe a cup of coffee or a glass of bourbon sitting on a little table next to her cloth chair, her oxygen leaning against the small crossbar near the bottom of the table.
She held the rug before her eyes, turned it to consider the rubber backside.
I wondered if it was a dollar too. My mask was getting itchy and hot.
My father died in early June. In those very early and confusing days, saying it was the virus wasn’t always the case. For my father, the shame was palpable; he had told me that he would never want it to be known if he died of the virus. He had always been angered by a cold or the flu. Another reminder that he was no longer living on his island. In the end, his breaths were too shallow. His heart gave out. There was a nurse with him, holding his gnarled hand. I accepted the cardboard box with his ashes. Drove them up and walked along his back fenceline. I took out my pocket knife and cut open the box, sliced the plastic bag, and let his ashes fall where they wanted as I walked along. I couldn’t understand if it was hopeful or sad how lovely early July appeared—the bright birches thrashing in the breeze, their leaves like silver currents, the sea oats in the distance along the dunes gold and swaying, the puffy clouds drifting by, the hummingbird whirring from wild rose to wild rose. The lake a deep Prussian blue with white cursive-like waves. I pulled a pair of fence pliers from my back pocket. My father called them mi paso finos. A translation to a fine pass or a fine gait isn’t what he meant. They were his paso finos. I cut the barbed wire, listened to the singing, snip after snip. I whistled, waved my arms, and—red of earth, coal black—they smoothly passed over the fence line and trotted through the green woods towards Lake Superior. How long would it take for someone to round them up? I imagined them free. Maybe in the winter they’d cross into Canada. I took to the road, drove twelve hours south, letting the miles burn away the memory of his horses.
I took the pan out my basket and placed it back on the shelf. The red beans would be enough, if I became hungry.
When I was driving south I got off the interstate to follow the old Lincoln Highway for a bit. There are these spring green hills that roll forever, the fields of corn and grasses swaying, and you have a feeling you might be in another country under all that bright blue sky. I think my father may have loved that stretch of road, and if he were anywhere close, I remember how he’d find his way to those hills, his hands looking soft, young, without regret or rage on the steering wheel. I had forgotten the news; maybe a week before a derecho had passed through—the corn and grasses lay flat, as if a giant steamroller had smashed them down. Trees were snapped in half, splintered. So many cedars and oaks destroyed. Powerlines hung from tilting poles like stretched bridles swinging in the air, or were twisted along the edges of the fields like giant snakes. Silos and barns were ripped to pieces or rolled into odd shapes as if they were made of aluminum foil. There was a farm that I remembered as a kind of petting zoo with some mules, racoons, an old sleepy looking black bear in a cage not fit for a dog. Lots of chickens and ducks scratching and waddling around, and these majestic peacocks. It was all flattened, gone. All that was left of the farmhouse was the stone foundation—the house picked up and thrown who knows where. The outbuildings looked like piles of wood for a bonfire. Matchsticks. There was a manmade pond that used to hold catfish, giant goldfish, and frogs, and for a nickel you could buy a handful of pellets from an old peanut machine, fling them into the pond, and the fish would rise like ghosts from the murky bottom to catch the pellets just as they hit the surface of the pond. On its edge, staring at the highway, was a camel. Its hair matted and dusty, a bald spot near its left shoulder looking sunburnt and tender, a large tooth hanging over its bottom lip, the skin around the camel’s mouth bloody. Those coal black eyes seeming steady, yet frightened. Derecho. Derecha. For a moment I confused the words. Maybe that’s life—one right turn after another right turn. That lonely camel. A right turn into nothing.
The old woman draped the rug over her lap.
Whenever we had to move for some new work, I remember the silence most, growing in the truck cab for miles as we crossed one state line after another. Sometimes my father would suddenly seem to rise from the bench seat, his hand light on the steering wheel, and he’d laugh softly, smile. A la derecho, he’d say at the road ahead. Manny, we’ve gotta drive straight through.
The old woman’s shoulders rose, bony as a bird’s wings. She farted several times, exquisitely it seemed to me, without excuse or care. She knew where she was going. She wheeled down the aisle with her new rug and passed around the corner.
Fred Arroyo is the author of Sown in Earth: Essays of Memory and Belonging (University of Arizona Press, 2020); the collection Western Avenue and Other Fictions; and the novel The Region of Lost Names. His writing has appeared in the anthologies Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing and The Colors of Nature: Essays on Culture, Identity and the Natural World. “Paso Fino” is from a manuscript in progress: The Book of Manuels.