Riding Shotgun

Ralph knew that it wouldn’t last, but he liked how her hair hung blonde to her waist, the bones of her face, all the curves of her. They came together in spouts, at the end of the day, after long talks on the phone about prom and graduation, and all those things that were passing and they never even knew it, and the only logical thing to do was share their bodies, in sunlight, in the heat of their room, the little old fan whirling, the kick of denim at their ankles. Then came a baby, a manifestation of all that, the sex of that little boy on the screen; they were able to trace out his baby profile, trace it out with their fingers, naïve frantic fingers with cheap white gold they had bought from a pawn shop. No one could have told Ralph that it was a shotgun wedding. He loved the bones of her face.

It was the sunshine. Henry’s car hummed old school, I watched her from my mirror, spelled my name R-A-L-P-H in the bit of window that crept up, a tiny triangle of glass, the trees cut by like blades, cool sunshine, and my mom smiled sweetly, faintly, my china doll in the mirror.

Ralph was back there again, back in that same place where he started, where he knocked his girl up, only that old bed was gone. His mother had replaced it with a futon to save space, and now, now he was taking that space once again, that space de-sexed, the hope to make it the same again hung in the air. He had argued with his wife the day before. His bones and all his flesh ached, his eyeball sockets even felt the weight of her, the legality of wife weighed the pain of it. He had kissed his infant son on his chubby brown cheek, said bye in a sputter, watched him off in the night, then cursed the one who bore him. And as Ralph got ready to go out that first night back, he took that promise, that new promise of sex and dressed up in it, shaving his jet-black stubble in the mirror, he noticed that his mother was watching him from the hallway. She smiled faintly, sweetly called him baby, she said Baby I’m so glad you’re back here with me, even if it’s just for a little while.

Henry was a good neighbor. That was one thing I had been sure of. Henry had come to us in a flicker. We must have been living in this apartment complex for months, going in and out of our little apartment. Mom walking me to school in the hot morning sunshine, in her tight jeans and tank top and her beat-up huarache sandals, and her hair sprayed liked some spider web. I asked her to let me walk to third grade alone, but she refused, said I was her teddy bear, and she would fall apart if something happened to me. She said I was still small enough to pick up and throw in a trunk, so we walked in the sunshine together. Henry came first in flickers. We would see him climbing out of his little white car, or unlocking his mailbox, or pulling sheets from his laundry room. There was always a smile, a how’s it going, how’s it going, a sort of singsong that would only last a few footsteps. Henry has a pretty wife who goes to work taking care of old people. She goes at all different times of day, in a scrub top and pants, in Easter egg and cartoon colors. I used to watch her swish to her car, watch her glide, her kind smile. The lines around her eyes held her hellos in them.

Ralph planned to meet his wife at the beat-up burger spot on Clinton and West, and when he walked in, he saw his little boy there, sitting on the tabletop, chubby brown hand tugging on his mother’s hair and another pulling on a blue straw in a strawberry soda. The little boy looked at him, and he smiled and laughed at him until his girl looked up at him with large brown empty eyes and he remembered she wasn’t his girl anymore. She asked him if he got the papers and he said, yes they had come to him only a few days before, with a knock on the door, a young white man in khaki pants and a polo shirt, that big manila envelope was still sitting on his mother’s kitchen table. He could smell the perfume on her, powdery and sweet, but then it stung when he saw the red half moon on her neck. He wanted to think that it was something else, that red half moon hickey on her neck. His son, dark eyes large, tugged hard on his jacket and then let go.

The first time Ralph gave us a ride, it was chilly out. The wind was whipping us, whipping through my mom’s hair and jacket. It burned, and I thought my mom would fly away. Henry pulled up in his little white car and asked us if we wanted a ride, and I jumped in the front seat without even asking her if it was ok, and she jumped in the back, and it felt good. The heater was on, and the car was clean, and Henry smelled clean as soap, but still smelled like cigarettes. His smell matched my mom’s smell. Clean and smoke at the same time. Except his skin wasn’t white like hers, it was brown like mine, but more like sun-beat leather. He drove us to school, and I jumped out without even saying thank you, my mom yelling bye baby, and I didn’t look back until I was far off, and then I looked back to wave at her, saw her tiny little body, black jacket and jeans, saw her wave at me and climb in the front seat of Henry’s car.

Ralph used to think that his mother was a china doll. He used to think so because of her curly black hair and the way she used to line her eyes dark and because her face was so pale. He used to put his chubby brown arm next to hers and compare the skin of them, and she would smile and laugh and kiss his cheek; she would smile and laugh and look him close in the eyes and smile and blink. And now she wanted to talk with him about the cute girl he had met at the club. She fixed him coffee and breakfast, and they sat in front of the television; the sun up and bright in the window, she laughed, the rasp of her voice, the clang of her coffee cup, all of it hung there in the walls of that little living room. Another knock on the door, another young white man with an envelope, this time asking Ralph to sign his boy away, and he felt his mother’s voice fall off those walls and shatter.

The day we went to buy a Christmas tree, Henry wasn’t home, so we couldn’t get a ride. We picked out a really small tree, and mom paid extra so that the kid at the tree lot could spray it with some frosty glitter spray to look like snow. He gave me a handful of itty-bitty candy canes, and I stuffed them in my pocket. We walked down Clinton Avenue, with the cars roaring by, my mom shook and pulled her hood over her head, walking backward down Clinton, we carried the tree, her hair flying in the wind, a china doll in her black hooded sweatshirt. She flipped off some guy who drove by and stuck his tongue out at her, and I laughed so hard I peed my pants. When we got home, I made a bath, so I could soak, and I lay there in the strawberry shampoo soap, and I traced the lines of our old bathtub, and wondered how long those lines had been there, felt the warmth on my face. I floated. I wrapped a towel around myself and had to open the door because I couldn’t take the steam of my tub, but their steam was a chemical, colorless like water. My mom yelled at me to go to my room. Their steam was heavy and sweet. Sweet chemicals. I lay naked on my bed and pulled my sheets over me. I heard Henry’s laugh tangle up with my mom’s laugh, their highs and lows, they came together, dragged across the hallway. I got up and got dressed in a white t-shirt and sweatpants, went to the living room, switched on the stereo, and started dressing the tree. It was all chemicals. It smelled clean, and it glistened like snow.

Ralph met a cute girl at the nightclub named Nikki. She told him right off that she was taking classes at the community college. She wanted to be a nurse, and he even helped her study with flash cards and helped her color pictures of muscle and bone. He liked the way she laughed. The first night they slept together, he took her to the burger spot on Clinton and West and then he took her home. Her name was Nikki. He asked her not to laugh at his futon, but she did anyway. The futon squeaked with the weight of her body, that metal skeleton, the bones of it taking her into it. Ralph crushed against that girl, her laugh; her kiss crushed against him, and as he lay tangled, done, all he could think of was that red half moon and the tug of his little boy’s hand on his jacket. As he made his way out to take Nikki home, he found his mother in the living room, laying half up, half down on the couch, Cleopatra-style. He introduced Nikki, and she looked up the girl, rolled her eyes, and then began to flip channels.

It made my stomach go when my mom and Henry went in the room. It took hours; it took infinity. I didn’t know why it was so quiet. I would even creep down the hallway as far as I would dare and then step back. I would go outside, sit on the white wall, wait for Henry’s wife to drive up in her cartoon colors, wait for my mom to come out and beg me to come back inside, out of the cold. It cut my face, my ears, my hands, the fade in my hair, the black gravel of the beat-up driveway, the patches of sky. I wanted to taste the sky.

Ralph saw his wife when he happened to be with Nikki. He saw her in another guy’s car, her arm propped up in the window, her blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, and she didn’t even see him with his new girl. He watched them drive off, and Nikki grabbed his hand, and he saw her eyes. He saw her dark hair, the dimple in her face, her eyes large and knowing. She smelled like petals, pink petals and he felt himself crush against her. Nikki smiled at him, and he pulled away and let the car glide.

My mother was a fisted flower. My mother bled; she cried down the hallway, curled on the carpet in a tiny crescent; she bled. I grabbed all the towels I could find and held them between her legs, her tiny legs thin and pale; she shivered; her curly black hair strawberry clean and tangled, clumped in her tiny brown bud mouth, my mom, she bled. One day, she told me what that was, a tiny seed, an almost was. But then, I only felt the warm red on my hands, it seeped through, smelled salty, felt warm.

It was the sunshine. Henry’s car hummed old school, I watched her from my mirror, spelled my name R-A-L-P-H in the bit of window that crept up, a tiny triangle of glass, the trees cut by like blades, cool sunshine, and my mom smiled sweetly, faintly, my china doll in the mirror. At the hospital, they let me stay as late as I could. When my mom woke up, she held her gown in a tight fist so that her white skin would not spill out. She called me to her and held me close. I had eaten everything on her yellow hospital tray. The chocolate, the graham crackers the little juices, the little milks. I realized that I had left nothing for her to eat, and I hunched over her tiny white shoulder blade, and I began to weep.

The day before Ralph got married, Henry knocked on the door and asked him for a jump on his car. Ralph put on his slippers and made his way out, the screen door bumping behind him, found Henry over his little white car; brown skin beat against metal, quick brown hands on clamps, the engine woke up and came alive. Ralph shook Henry’s hand and got two cigarettes, one for him and another for his mother, went inside and lay with his girl on his mother’s polka-dotted couch. He laid his head on her lap, wrapping her dyed yellow strands of hair around his fingers while she flipped channels, the stereo blaring, his mother walking in and out of the apartment with boxes and garbage bags, in tiny shorts and a tank top, her tiny pale frame humming, singing, and then Ralph felt his boy kick from inside his girl, that rounded out part of her; his boy kicked him on his head. His girl laughed clear as a bell, and Ralph laughed, and the TV screen glowed, and his mother was going in and out of the tiny dark.

My mom is chemicals. She twirls around, and smokes that rock, she smokes that shit. My mom puts on the old school station, and she twirls in the mirror, and she listens to “Candy Man” by the Mary Jane Girls, and she lights the tip of her cigarette, and she still smells like smoke and soap. My mom and Henry were like twins, but only for a little while. I still watch his wife and wonder. Once in a while. Watch her swish to her car, while I sit on the wall, with the cold blowing from my mouth, sometimes she smiles and sometimes she doesn’t. Henry always says what’s up to me, though. The other day, we smoked against the wall. He laughed at me and said that my voice was changing. It’s good that my mom got that car, so now we can go anywhere we want to. She’s teaching me to drive, even though I’m only twelve and can’t get a license. Made me sit on last year’s phone book and cussed out every person on the road that gave us a dirty look. But most of the time she drives, and I watch her tiny white hands on the wheel, watch her tiny feet pump the pedal, watch her huarache, the chipped pink polish on her toes, she smiles at me when we get to the light. I smile back with the green light, and she lets the car glide.

Ralph had asked Nikki to meet up at the courthouse, and now he was trying to count out the time it took his ex-wife to get to her car, count out her tiny steps, her blonde hair pulled back severe. They had only caught eyes a few times, her lawyer a small woman too, a small brown woman in a navy blue skirt set. Ralph sat outside the courthouse, sipping the soda he bought from a truck, people walked by like tiny insects; he felt the soda buzz in his throat; he could not figure out why he bought that soda; the outside air chilled him, and his hands played with the aluminum. His fingers crushed that soda can, the same fingers that signed away his only child. His only child he signed away, in black ink, in curvy script, those same fingers he opposed, those same fingers had betrayed him, they crushed that can like a wad of wax. Soon, he thought, soon it would be so cold that you could not see.

He watched the people walking by, lawyers and county workers, vendors selling things from bicycles and cardboard boxes, and that air cut him, and he began to remember the time he stood outside his apartment shivering, waiting for his mother and Henry to drive up, so they could go to Christmas Tree Lane. That night they went, they rolled down all the windows, car after car humming down Van Ness, all those lights on big fancy houses, old houses, those houses glowed with the light, the greens the blues the reds. Ralph would not go unless he could sit up front, the three of them laughed in the cold black night, and Ralph felt he could claw out those lights and put them in his room, hang them in the ceiling sky. Ralph could feel Nikki walk up and he felt himself shiver, like when his mother said that night, let’s go, when he heard Henry’s car come up the driveway, felt its engine humming, she said Let’s go, let’s go, she said, she said, let’s go.

 


Monique Quintana holds an MFA in Creative Writing from CSU Fresno, where she was the president of the Chicanx Writers and Artists Association. She is a Squaw Valley Writers Fellow, and was the Senior Associate Fiction Editor of The Normal School literary magazine. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Huizache, Bordersenses, Mount Island Review, Lunch Ticket, Ragazine, Madcap Review, and Heather Press, among others. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of razorhousemagazine.com.

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