In addition to its other powers, the Arizona heat compels decay. My forty-year-old apartment building with its Class C construction and Title Eight clientele didn’t stand a chance. The stench had overtaken my bedroom months ago, the epicenter of my carefully assembled physics experiment. Even with a bandana tied around my face, the room stank like clam bellies festering in the desert sun.
I tossed another stack of torn and stained newspapers, Gila Bend Suns and Arizona Republics, onto the edges of the enormous trash heap and then angled my metal grabber, dropping Tuttle’s typed letter on top of the pile. At this point, my self-constructed stellar nursery was taller than me, taller even than my twin brother, Agustin, or any other full-sized man.
I’d done my best to get things right. Under all the carefully selected trash was a mattress, a small side table, and two of our most precious family heirlooms: the Pointer Sisters’ album Energy and a polished circle of pyrite. Mama’s favorite song, “Fire,” was on that album.
Didn’t matter. I still had only ten days left.
My hand wobbled and the grabber dipped into a syrupy pool of sludge about one-third of the way down the room’s molding heap. “Christ,” I muttered. Bok globules might be the smallest sites of star formation, but building one in your bedroom was filthy work.
I needed that plastic claw for more than nursery care. Being a little man, a little person, in a hick town like Gila Bend meant everyone noticed when I couldn’t reach the bread shelf at Sunrider’s Grocery. It also meant no one lifted a finger to help. I was just that “little Jack Rodriquez with the asshole chip on his shoulder.”
I shook the worst of the sludge off the claw and watched as one corner of Tuttle’s letter fluttered against the eddy of air that followed. I couldn’t see the actual words. I didn’t have to. This was just the latest in a string of official notifications. They all boiled down to the same two words: ¬¬ten days. I had ten days to transform this mound of trash. Ten days to beat Agustin through my yet-to-be-completed portal door and chase down Mama and Papa. In less than two weeks, Mrs. Rhonda Tuttle, the complex manager, and her squadron of cleaners would dismantle all my work and toss it into one of the green dumpsters at the edge of the parking lot, even if I wasn’t done.
Out beyond our solar system, Bok globules are the cottage industry of star creation, the backyard vegetable patch, as compared to the industrial-scale star formation found in places like the Orion Nebula. And like actual garden patches, Bok globules are far more numerous than those massive corporate farms. Mama and Papa weren’t the galaxy’s only small star farmers, but they were my only parents, and I wanted them back.
Of course I wouldn’t be making any stars down here on earth. I was enough Papa’s child to know it just wasn’t possible. Didn’t matter. All I needed was sufficient energy to find my way to all that black space between the stars. A hard enough task, though I refused to use the word impossible. It’s just that it takes a hell of a lot of energy to leave this world behind. And now, as Rhonda Tuttle and her letter had reminded me, after all my work, after all my failures, I was almost out of time.
I held my breath against the stink as I stared at the still-transforming bedroom. Let my brother chatter on about solar masses, molecular clouds, and hydrogen-to-helium conversion. I knew the truth; portal creation was spirit magic, shamans and fermented cactus juice unlocking the bonds of mere human flesh.
Joni Mitchell and Mama said it best:
We are stardust.
We are golden.
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.
Lots of people collect things. Lots of people build things, homemade things. Of course, most people involved in bedroom trash collection would be diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. In my case the diagnosis would be wrong. I was creating just enough energy to return to that quadrant of the sky where Mama and Papa now resided.
Everyone treated Mama and Papa’s disappearance as a death. Angels in Heaven, the funeral director said as we sat in his office, making the arrangements.
“Angels in Heaven my ass,” I muttered. “Mama and Papa are in the heavens, not Heaven with a capital H.”
The man ignored both me and my glower.
“And the ashes, Mr. Rodriquez?” the funeral director, Mr. Avenidas, asked, as though I hadn’t even spoken. He looked at my brother, Agustin, from across the wide desk. “How would you like to handle the ashes?”
“Agustin,” I said, louder this time. “Agustin, you planning on buying a casket for Mama’s cat, as well? Or are we going to pretend it ran away?”
Agustin grunted but said nothing more. He still couldn’t believe they’d left without him.
“An urn, perhaps?” Mr. Avenidas persisted.
“For crematorium burnt wood?” I protested.
“It’s okay, Jack,” Agustin said. “Perhaps an urn…” Agustin was always better at the human stuff: the college boy, the honors student, the son who played the clarinet in the school marching band. Once he even had a girlfriend, Veronica, though Mama and Papa hadn’t liked that much. A girlfriend, or any kind of friend, was far too earthbound for their two children.
“Christ, Agustin.” I slipped down from the leather armchair and stalked out of the office, slamming the door behind me. Agustin might be the brilliant brother, but I was the hot-tempered Rodriquez, the one prone to regrets.
I started building my own sacred platform mound, or gravitation sink as Agustin and Papa termed it, that very day. My indoor structure didn’t quite match the old Tonaj mounds found at the edge of town. Still, I knew my training was sound. I placed Mama’s polished pyrite mirror in the center of the room along with her faded macaw feathers. The pyrite might not open the door, but it could at least show me the way. These were the old relics Mama pulled out at the height of summer, when the saguaro fruit ripened and she and Papa danced on wobbly legs, drunk, long after Agustin and I fell asleep.
You don’t grow up with Claudio and Isabella Rodriquez without learning a few things. By day there were songs—the Pointer Sisters, Joni Mitchell, older, tonal songs without any actual words—and harvesting trips into the Sonoran desert. As well as the saguaro fruit, there were prickly pear pads and the saltweed and dried mesquite pods Mama ground down for flour. At night our family TV was the backyard and the darkened sky. The stink of creosote and a sweeter scent, like oranges, filled the air. Sometimes you’d hear aircraft from the nearby Air Force training grounds. In early summer, the sound of cars from Interstate 8 competed with the chorus of frogs and crickets that emerged after sunset. The sounds didn’t really matter and, it seemed, neither did the light from the houses on our street. Agustin, Papa, and I stood looking up at the sky, scanning for those holes in heaven, the small dark patches that signified a Bok globule. We looked for other things too: galaxies, nebulae, even individual stars, but in the end, Papa always returned to those same little masses. Both Agustin and I learned the basics of astronomy on those TV nights.
“The universe is filled with little star factories, mijos. Tiny families, waiting to release their energy out into the universe,” he’d say. “All you have to do is look.”
“Multiples, Papa? What about binary stars?” I pressed one night as Agustin fiddled with the telescope, a Dobsonian reflector, his back to both of us.
“Binary systems are the worst. Tricky, anyway,” Papa amended, glancing at me. The light from the waning moon illuminated both of our faces: a small brown-skinned boy and a taller man staring at each other through the surrounding darkness. “Sometimes the molecular cloud fragments into two protostars,” he continued. “But the minute you get two, the possible problems rise exponentially. A hypergiant often captures mass from its smaller companion. You might even end up with a brown dwarf.”
“Brown dwarf?” I scowled at Papa. “Well if I’m a brown dwarf, you’re a brown jerk. All you care about is Agustin, your big, giant star!”
Agustin shifted his position at the ‘scope but remained silent.
“Kiâ’hâd,” Papa said, using my proper name instead of the usual “Jack”. His voice had a sudden edge to it. “We’re talking stars here, astrophysics, not people.”
“Go on, Papa,” Agustin said. He’d turned to face us both. Even in the dark, I recognized that look. He loved it when Papa told us something new, as though it were yet another proof of Papa’s love. Agustin was a fool, despite all his brilliance, that’s what I thought. Mr. Langlois, our science teacher, told us stuff in school all the time. Didn’t mean he liked us. Never saw how love even came into any of the things Papa explained. Agustin, though, always blamed me for Papa’s moods, as though I’d chosen to be born this way. As though Papa would ever hold either of us the way Mama did.
“Let’s just look for the damn space station, all right?” I said.
Papa frowned, looked over at Agustin and the dark night sky. Even in profile, I could see his frown disappear as Agustin smiled up at him. Of course, I didn’t care, not one little bit.
“A brown star occurs when the core fails to ignite, Agustin. No atomic collisions. No star. Got it?”
“Yeah, Papa,” Agustin said. “Plus you’ve—”
I didn’t hear the rest. Agustin and Papa could talk about brown dwarfs, but they’d be doing it without me. I headed back into the house, slamming the glass door on my way inside.
In my memory, my childhood is a series of dark nights and slamming doors.
Rhonda Tuttle’s first letter declared her determination to inspect my apartment, something about the smell and the flies. She delivered it in person.
“Hey, Miss Peterson,” I said through my cracked-open front door. Rhonda had been an ass back when she was just a teased-out blonde cashiering at Sunrider’s. Forty pounds and one husband hadn’t changed a thing.
“My name is Mrs. Tuttle, not Peterson,” she replied. Why Rhonda had shown up on my doorstep was beyond me. It was the weekend for God’s sake, Sunday even. I’d been about to head out for my weekly dinner with Agustin.
Despite being over one hundred degrees, “Mrs. Tuttle” was wearing a pantsuit, bright press-on nails with swirly designs like tiny spiral galaxies and melty make-up in a shade of off-orange that she’d matched with thick clumping mascara. She could have been Tammy Faye Baker’s western cousin.
“Yeah? What do you want, Mrs. Tuttle?” My mouth tasted foul. I felt the sweat and oil underneath my beard. My whole face itched like hell. I’d subtracted personal hygiene as the latest part of my process. Phase Two, I called it. They might have ditched me, but I still loved my parents, even Papa. Phase Two was my proof. Despite his own mudroom experiments, I could tell Agustin just didn’t have the same level of commitment. The closest he got to Phase Two was that tattered bathrobe he wore around his house.
“May I come in?” Rhonda asked, one hand propping open the screen door.
“I’m on my way out,” I said, curtly. A few flies slipped through the opening and out into the parking lot. What was her problem? My green terrycloth robe was smeared with brownish stains, but it was tied tightly across my waist despite the heat. It hung down past my knees. She couldn’t even see the tomato-sauce-stained underwear I wore underneath. Some days I spent hours rearranging the contents of my bedroom. It was hot, disgusting work. I usually left the robe off.
“Mr. Rodriquez, here.” She extended a sealed envelope down in my general direction as she tried to peer past me into the apartment. She was a good couple of feet taller, but the door itself got in the way. She couldn’t see shit.
“Mrs. Tuttle.” I leered up at her. “So forward. Guess you’ve heard what they say about little men…Certain things on a woman fall at just the right height.” I gave a little shudder and smacked my lips. I couldn’t seem to stop myself. It probably didn’t help that I could see the flush of distaste on Rhonda’s face.
My entire body itched like hell. Even worse, I was about to see Agustin, the star expert, the golden boy, the inheritor of all our family’s earthly possessions. I was a good person, a good son. Why did no one ever seem to notice?
“Enough, Jack. Your apartment,” she stopped. “Your person,” she tried again. “Well, there’ve been multiple complaints. Flies. Roaches,” she looked directly at me, a grimace of disgust stuck somewhere beneath all that make-up. “We run a clean building, and we expect our tenants to do the same.”
“You took my money.”
“You signed our lease.” She waved away a dive-bombing fly. A second one buzzed just out of reach.
“You know what? Forget the offer. I doubt even Bob Tuttle touches that wide ass of yours.” I slammed the door on Rhonda Tuttle’s face. I tossed the envelope and its contents onto my bedroom pile and reached for my wheelie cart. Perhaps I’d find something worth collecting on my walk over to Agustin’s.
Names can hurt. I know that. Unkind words are the worst; they make you want to crumple up and hide. They make you want to disappear from this universe.
Rhonda was standing outside the office when I left a few minutes later. She seemed to be trying to get the key to work in the office door’s lock. Her face was scrunched up. It almost seemed like she was going to cry, though maybe not. Maybe it was just the stink that wafted out as I slammed my front door, slipped on my sunglasses, and headed down the road.
Despite Agustin’s two years of ownership, our old family house looked exactly the same: a small flat-roofed ranch on a street of ranch houses that ran just north of Interstate 8. Fifties-era construction, it looked like a glorified trailer home covered in faded yellow siding. Inside the yard’s chain-link fence nothing grew except for the two palm trees that towered above their enclosure. Agustin stood in the open doorway, his lips pressed tightly together. He must have been watching for me through the window.
“In your case, the life of a star has got to be an improvement,” he said from the entryway. “The liquid plasma would burn off all the dirt. Even Mama wouldn’t kiss you smelling like that.”
“Just shut up, Agustin.” If I could have reached that high, I would have smacked him in the face. He acted like I enjoyed this filthy existence. Romulus and Remus, Cain and Abel, Osiris and Set. Fascinating stories, sure, but killing your brother hardly seemed enough material for immortality. Brother hate, it had to be as common as sheep shit, even in the ancient world.
“Just forget it, Jack,” Agustin sighed. He looked tired suddenly. Not angry at all. “Why don’t you come on in?” Agustin swung the door wide to let me pass.
We both knew what came next: the two-man parade from the living room to the kitchen. Agustin didn’t breed flies and larvae. He never touched garbage and he barely skipped a bath. Instead, he’d added his own spin to Papa’s mudroom collection of recyclables. Each week as I walked through the rooms of my childhood home there was one more constellation on the living room ceiling, one more NASA poster hanging from the wall. Two months ago he added a new picture of the Omega Nebula in the hallway. Today, when I stepped inside, it was a photograph above the living room sofa, framed.
“A composite image of the SN 1006 supernova remnant. From the European Southern Observatory,” Agustin said, making sure to stop for a moment so that I could admire it. No choice really, he was in my goddamned way.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he said, as though admiring a recently acquired archival replica of Van Gogh’s Starry Night or, perhaps, a Frida Kahlo. He coughed. “Some friends and I are planning a trek this summer to all the radio telescopes in the VLB array, even Hawaii.”
Agustin was acting as though his star obsession had nothing to do with our family travel plans. I knew better.
“Nice,” I said, which seemed to be the magic word.
Agustin finally moved. We crossed through the hallway and into the kitchen. That’s when I saw the glowing, greenish-yellow light, leaking out from under the mudroom door. There was even a faint scuffling noise.
Agustin remained silent. And why not. The glow said it all: soon. Soon Agustin would win. Again.
A couple of days later, Rhonda Tuttle left yet another letter. This one demanded that I clean up the “premises” for “health reasons.” I believe she used the word “hazard” as well. More paper to toss on the bedroom pile.
The days continued forward. Another dinner with Agustin. Another chance to observe the mudroom glow. I thought I heard a crinkling, perhaps a faint meow. Agustin didn’t seem to notice. “How are you feeling, Jack?” he asked instead. “When’s the last time you saw Dr. Conz?”
At night I barely slept, stretched out on the couch, sweating. Even with rolled up towels pressed against the cracks, the heat leaked through the bedroom door and out into the apartment’s tiny living room. This was more than the usual summer heat. I could feel the minute gravitational force of each object in the bedroom starting to bend toward one another. All those years watching Papa tend his own collection of cardboard and paper was paying off. No light emissions yet, but I knew my craft.
“Equality is an illusion,” Papa used to say, as if that were some consolation for all the differences between Agustin and me. “Balance. Equilibrium. That’s the important thing.”
“Tricky, mijo,” Mama would interrupt with a slight frown. “So tricky. Sometimes a runaway star is the best possible outcome. Separation.”
Perhaps I stood a chance, despite Agustin and his goddamned glow. Charmed or not, Mama and Papa had left both of us behind.
Gila Bend was the only home Agustin and I knew: two thousand residents, two power plants, one one-thousand-year-old archeological site and a convenience store that doubled as the town’s only grocery. In its own way, Gila Bend was a tiny dust cloud in the galaxy of Arizona. Even the petroglyphs people associated with our town were actually eighteen miles out.
I talked to the deputy sheriff for less than five minutes, but it was the deputy, not Agustin and his goddamned glow, that finally tipped my world over the edge.
After Tuttle’s stealth inspection and her second letter, the deputy, some newcomer fresh from the academy, showed up at my front door. He wore aviator sunglasses and very little hair. His pink skin glowed, oily from the summer heat, as he stared down at me. I thought I saw his nose wrinkle as he bent down to give me the papers.
“I don’t want them,” I said, trying to wave him away. This was only partially true. Paper was always a useful addition to the collection. It was the words written on them that I didn’t want.
“I drove all the way out here,” the deputy said in slow, careful tones, as though he was sure I’d somehow never noticed the County Sheriff’s substation on my walks around town. As though my tiny stature indicated a tiny brain.
Stupid Arizona hick. I knew the titles of most works in the Phoenix Art Museum’s Latin American collection, along with a handful more in the Heard. I spent my time with Vik Muniz, Mario Martinez, and Gabriel Orozco. When I looked at their works, I felt myself stretching high into their private universes. Breathing was easier inside those frames.
“Mr. Rodriquez?” the deputy repeated, frowning down at me. He’d shifted one hand to his gun belt.
“Yes, all right.” I took the papers. The first one had a title, Summons of Forcible Entry and Detainer, and an official-looking seal. I noticed the word eviction somewhere below in the mix of sentences and signatures.
“Court date’s on the paper,” the deputy said, and then turned and walked back to his air-conditioned cruiser.
I marked my calendar and tossed the papers on top of the bedroom pile. God, people were weird. The deputy and I both knew that if I failed to appear I’d automatically lose the case. And yet he’d made a point of mentioning the hearing.
The judge was not as ambiguous. In less than five minutes, he made his judgment of “guilty” and requested the keys to my apartment.
“I know my rights. Goddammit! I’m Title Eight housing. For Christ’s sake, my SSI check isn’t going to stretch to sticker-priced apartments. Ninety days. You have to give me ninety days’ notice, not ten!”
“Mr. Rodriquez, you will quiet down here or in the Maricopa County Jail,” was the Honorable Harold R. Cookman’s only reply. “The ninety-day rule doesn’t apply to health hazards.”
I quieted down, but I didn’t hand over the keys. Ten days and counting. The heat in my apartment might be spreading, but Agustin was the one who’d managed to conjure an actual glow. I was close but not close enough.
My brother, Agustin, and I only ever agreed on one thing: it’s hard enough being human. Being human in Gila Bend is even worse, or at least it was for our parents. I think after a while all that desert heat was like a never-ending reminder of everything Papa and Mama missed from their before-time. I wonder if they speak English in their new home. I wonder if they speak at all.
A list of things I’ll miss when my time comes: the Phoenix Museum of Art, strawberry ice cream, the sound of crying coyotes, Ax Men on the History Channel, and the Desert Shrimp Festival—well, at least the shrimp scampi they serve. I could do without all the staring. There’s not much in the way of good food here in Gila Bend. Not much in the way of little people, either.
My biggest complaint about our parental separation? Agustin got to tell me the news. “They’re gone?” I asked when he called me that July morning. “Where to?” I was standing in my apartment’s kitchenette, digging through the refrigerator. 10 a.m. and the place was already broiling.
“The mudroom isn’t hot anymore. Why don’t you come over for dinner tonight and I’ll show you?” he said. “The least I can do for my little brother. Maybe you can help me look for Mama’s cat. She seems to be missing as well.” And just like that, Agustin took possession of both the house and Sunday dinners. And why not? After all, he was the son who had returned home, despite his college degree, to care for our aging parents. He’d taken that degree of his and found a job at one of the solar companies scouting Gila Bend and its overheated blue-sky days. He’d started an astronomy club, cleaned the windows of the old house. He’d even driven Papa and his frail human bones down near Tuscon for a special night viewing at the Kitt Peak Observatory.
Didn’t matter. I’d moved out that same week. Now I had my own home at the Oasis Estates along with all those art books Mama had given me.
Papa may have taught us astronomy but it was Mama who taught me about the stars. Every year Mama drove me out to a specialist in Phoenix where I was weighed and measured and declared “perfectly fine.” After the medical cataloging was complete, Mama and I headed to the Heard Museum of Native Cultures and Art.
Our ritual was always the same. After taking in Mario Martinez’s Sonoran Desert: Yaqui Home mural, we’d walk the few blocks to the Phoenix Art Museum. The two of us, Mama and I, would stare for hours at the bright colors of Rufini Tamayo and the darker tones of José Chávez Morado. One Morado painting, Carneval en Huejotzingo was dominated by a powerful dwarf on a hobby horse battling death itself. At least he looked like a dwarf to me. I knew the word dwarf was only acceptable when associated with a star: dwarf stars, hundreds and hundreds of times larger than our own massive earth. Somehow, I was only a “little person.” Seemed to me, I could use whatever term I damn well pleased.
“Dwarf looks fucking fierce,” I said, trying out the word. “Like he could actually win.”
“Mm,” Mama replied, ignoring the swear word. “The small ones always last longer. Even your Papa knows that.” Her smile seemed to light up her entire face. “It’s getting dark, Jack. Almost time to go home.”
I knew exactly what she meant. This was my favorite moment, the reason we saved the Phoenix Art Museum for last. I held Mama’s hand as we headed outside, not even worried about what other people might think. We walked to a spot on the southeast corner of the museum, and then Mama and I both tilted our heads up. On a second-floor wall, a couple walked across an LED display. The piece was entitled Julian and Suzanne Walking, but Mama called it The Light Brite Family. In the darkness, they looked like star people walking across the night sky.
“Solid matter,” Mama said, glancing down at me, “is overrated.”
“Do you think I’ll battle death one day?” I asked, my mind still half on the José Chávez Morado painting and its unnamed dwarf, half on that recent visit to my doctor.
“Everybody does,” she replied. “Dwarfs and stars alike.”
Just a week after my court date, the deputy sheriff showed up for the last time. It was Sunday, my Agustin day. What was it with these people and their weekend hours? Tuttle and her cleaning crew were waiting behind the deputy, wearing rubber gloves and carrying a roll of garbage bags.
“Step right in,” I said, as though unaware of the deputy’s holster and handcuffs. I would not yell. I would not lose focus. Not now.
“Mr. Rodriquez,” Tuttle called from her safe distance.
“Yes. Yes. I won’t be a minute. I need my special gear, you know.”
I pushed the wheelie cart out of the apartment just as the crew started to unroll the bags. The cart contained all the essentials: my grabber, my stool, my art books, including the José Chávez Morado and Tamayo books that Mama had bought me. I even had Mama’s Ladies of the Canyon album by Joni Mitchell and the circle of polished pyrite. The album’s cardboard sleeve had disintegrated in the bedroom pile, but the vinyl itself seemed unwarped.
That’s when it hit me: that bitch Tuttle, Judge Cookman, and even the deputy sheriff had all done me a huge favor. It didn’t matter who built the portal. The first one through won.
“You remember Mama’s cat, Bonita?” Agustin asked as he pushed the bowl of prickly pears toward me. We were both sitting at the kitchen table. Agustin faced the stove while I watched the mudroom door. My eyes were on the greenish light. It was definitely brighter. Hotter, too. Sweat ran down my neck and back. Soon. It was going to be soon.
“Mama’s cat?” Agustin repeated.
“Always thought it was a dumb name,” I said. “Who calls their cat Pretty?” I took a couple of pieces of prickly pear from the dish, licked the purple juice off my fingers. “Mama’s recipe, right?”
“Right,” Agustin said. He smiled at me. “I’ve been trying out a few things. Even made some fresh nopales for the astronomy club. Did I tell you Veronica joined? Drives down from Phoenix. She’s going on the club’s VLB array trip.”
“Veronica Rosales, your old girlfriend?”
“You know, sometimes I hear Mama’s cat meowing,” Agustin said, ignoring my question.
“Bonita. Mama’s cat.”
“Oh, right, Bonita.” I waved my hand as though shooing a fly.
“Did you?” I shifted off my chair and stood up. Along with the light, I could see a stream of smoke rising from the mudroom door. The glow was actually scorching the wood.
Mrow. This time the sound was quieter. I could imagine Bonita’s head tilted to one side, questioning.
“Jack, you’re my brother. I—”
“Agustin, can you just shut up for a moment?” I started toward the mudroom, my slippers shuffling on the worn linoleum. Agustin, miraculously, remained silent.
The sound was so soft. Damn cat had probably already found its way back through the portal.
“Jack, life isn’t really that bad,” Agustin said. “Maybe we could—”
“Just this once, Agustin, let me go.” I reached for the mudroom door. The knob was hot, but not painfully so.
“Anyway,” Agustin said, his voice barely above a whisper. “You know, you should be the one to find Bonita. I know Mama would have wanted that.”
I could hear the sliding of a chair somewhere behind me, the clink of plates. It seemed Agustin was cleaning the table. Maybe it was a trick, but I turned anyway. Agustin was my twin, my brother. “What about all the time you’ve spent?”
“Jack,” Agustin said. “I’m busy.” His voice seemed calm, but his face was all wrong. His lips were quivering. “At work we’ve just begun designing that new solar array. And Veronica is supposed to drive down from Phoenix next weekend. Guess I’m not quite up to chasing Mama’s cat.” Agustin took a slow breath and then looked down at the kitchen table, fussing with the dirty plates.
Through the sliding glass doors I could see night descending. Already the stars were filling up the sky. I turned back toward the greenish light, quickly twisted the mudroom knob and stepped inside. Despite the glow flowing out from under the door, the room was darker than I expected.
The dinner plates crashed to the floor.
“No take-backs,” I whispered, pressing the pop-lock into place.
I could hear the beat of Agustin’s footsteps rushing, and then the handle started to rattle.
“Jack. Jack.” Agustin’s voice sounded farther away than I’d expected, muffled. “Look. Why don’t we both leave this for another day?”
“It’s okay, Agustin,” I said. Silence was Agustin’s only reply. The handle, however, was shaking harder than before. Funny.
For some reason the mudroom’s heat didn’t even bother me. Dim starlight came through the far window along with the orange-yellow of a nearby house light. However, it was the greenish glow that held my attention. It spread out across the teetering stacks of paper piled across the floor and continued along the shelves that lined the length of the right wall.
The shelves were pure Agustin. Covered in overflowing stacks of screwdrivers and random lengths of pink string, I could see Agustin’s order underneath the mess. Tools on the third shelf. Cleaners near the top.
Agustin. He wasn’t that good a clarinet player, no matter what Mama had said as we sat through yet another band concert. Or was it swimming and a swim meet? Pole vaulting, perhaps? All of it so hard to remember. All those wasted hours watching Agustin. Agustin winning and smiling and holding his trophies aloft.
And now he’d managed to construct the portal ahead of me. If it were me, I wouldn’t have let my scrawny ass anywhere near that mudroom door.
“Jack, Agustin has to try so hard, honey,” Mama once tried to explain. “He’s like a roaring fire made of nothing but paper. He just doesn’t have much time. Do you see?”
But I didn’t see at all.
On the other side of the door was silence. The handle was still. Agustin seemed to have stopped trying to convince me of anything. Inside the room, it felt like a starlit, summer night. The heat, the smells, even the sounds.
A rough crinkling came from the far left corner where the newspapers and magazines were deepest. In the dimness, gleams, like campfire sparks, slipped out from beneath the moving papers. I could hear a faint whooshing noise.
Meow. Bonita cried from the stack, farther anyway than before. It was almost like the cat was guiding me through.
Agustin. It always came back to Agustin and his clarinet or oboe lessons. The long hours I had to sit listening as Agustin recited one constellation after another.
“Over there?” Papa would prompt him, using a red laser pen, pointing to something in the northwest quadrant of the star chart laid across the living room floor.
“What month?” Agustin would counter.
“Aries, then.” Agustin said. His voice sounded confident.
“Jack, do you agree?” Mama called from the kitchen, trying to make it all sound fair.
“Sure.” But my reply was as far from “sure” as I was capable of making it.
“Supernovas, mijos,” Papa had responded to some question I never actually heard. Agustin, I was convinced, had made sure to ask it at the perfect moment.
Now that same grown-up brother had sent me to collect Mama’s cat.
Meow, Bonita said from inside the depths of the dusty mound of papers. A tuft of gray-black fur hung like a jaunty flag from the corner of an Astronomy Now magazine. More sparks. Below the sparks the ground seemed like a ring of fire leading toward the cat and all those super-charged, stardust particles.
Mama wore starlight woven in her hair, her long black locks falling in waves, silver threads holding the gold in place. “Dust everywhere,” she would say whenever Agustin complained about the latest mess. Rings in the tub. Tumbling weeds growing beneath our beds.
“Dust, Mama, my life is filled with dust.”
“Yes,” Mama would respond. “Of course it is.” And then she would smile at him in that certain way and touch his hair, as though checking him for something. Whatever it was, Agustin must have passed. Because, after the smile, and the hair, always came the food, dusty clouds of flour rising up from the kitchen counter, spreading across the kitchen floor.
Mama didn’t hide a thing, not really, not if you were really paying attention. She was always singing Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.”
“We are stardust. We are golden.”
“How did she know?” Mama would say with a smile and a shake of her head.
Agustin must remember something entirely different. After all, he was going to Hawaii with Veronica and his astronomy club.
Meow, Bonita called again, and then came the music. “I Love the Night Life,” The Pointer Sisters’ “Fire,” a whole litany of songs tumbling out from the papers, scattering across the mudroom floor.
I stepped forward, hands slipping beneath grease-stained fragments and crumbling clods of broken earth, slipping farther, my skin unable to hold me back. My wrists and elbows and thighs were sliding, all of me slipping through, following Bonita’s meow.
Mama and Papa couldn’t say I hadn’t tried. After all my work, there was no way they were going to be disappointed Agustin hadn’t come through…
No more Sunday dinners. No more posters. No more taller brother looming over me.
My arms and legs. I’d had arms and legs just moments ago. I remembered them just as I remembered those nights with Mama in Phoenix staring up at The Light Brite Family.
Memories are an animal thing, chemical connections in the brain. Somehow, I’d never considered that before. The taste of the sweet pear slices was long gone. I couldn’t even smell the loamy scent of Agustin’s papers. No cat’s meow. Instead, my particles were filled with a pulsating light. Perhaps Mama and Papa wouldn’t even notice I’d made it through.
And Agustin. I might not notice Agustin staring up from one of his earth-bound telescopes. I might not even care.
Such chemical worries.
This is a reprint of work originally published in Isthmus.
Julie C. Day’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in over two dozen venues, including Necessary Fiction, Isthmus, and A cappella Zoo’s best-of anthology, Bestiary. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and a Master of Science in Microbiology from the University of Massachusetts. She is also the host of the Small Beer Press podcast and an occasional narrator on a variety of other podcasts. You can find Julie on Twitter (@thisjulieday) or through her website: http://stillwingingit.com.