Kneeling on cement, the lifelike nutz dangling in her face, Daniela tried to work the screwpin out of the anchor shackle, but she was unable to unjam it from the lughole, her press-ons flexing dangerously against the hitch. When the nail popped off her ring finger, she closed her eyes and whispered, “Fuckfuckfuck.” She glanced at the acrylic nail settled in the driveway grouting, and then looked up, evaluating Rozco’s short sale.
She hated it, the only brick house on an adobe street, its lattice carport and sorry landscaping. She picked up the nail, wiped the dust off her knees, and walked across the dirt lot, dispersing small earless lizards. I finally got my own saguaro! Rozco had said the day he moved in. Like hell. Daniela nodded out of politeness, though she wasn’t even sure the dying saguaro, with its soft rot and exposed ribs, was even on his property. The shindaggers were planted unevenly. The prickly pears’ nopals were coated in a white fungus. The tilted palo verde tree was uprooting and would surely tip over when monsoon came in a few months. It was sorry-ass.
She floated her head into the den. “Can’t you just show me how?” she asked. “Real quick?”
Rozco resembled the palo verde, leaning so far off the couch as he played his video game, just an ounce of ass left on the cushion, all toes and haunches as he massaged the controller. “Baby, you just need to take the screwpin out.” He spoke as her commander.
“I know. It’s stuck.”
Just then, Rozco’s soldier slid across the screen and into a bunker, where he reloaded his weapon. In a defensive stance, the soldier peered out of the bunker. Daniela’s shoulders were in the room too now. She watched the soldier kick a barrel filled with napalm. North Vietnamese were virtually obliterated. Why replay Vietnam? she thought.
“You’re gonna hafta come over here if you want to get my nuts off,” Rozco said to her perversely, the kind of friendly fire trash talk that could really get her down.
“Don’t speak to me that way,” she asked.
“What?” Rozco said, actually cocking his head a little bit her way now, to the edge of the screen, closer to reality, but not quite there, not quite looking at her. Another inch, and he would have seen how desperate she was, running late for class, unable to get the Truck Nutz off the hitch, fearing this most recent quarter’s efforts would be trivialized in the parking lot: her professor, a classmate, the dean, whomever catching her step down from the Silverado’s aluminum running boards, the pale polyethylene testicles, anatomically-correct, swinging obscenely beneath the bumper.
“I can’t drive to school that way,” she told him. “You know that.” She hated that she was beholden to him—the truck with balls, the short sale sleepover. If she had a car or a house, she’d keep them nice. When she had her own house, she’d hire a couple landscapers, cute boys in cut-off tees from the university to design her adobe oasis.
The nutz were from Rozco’s friend, Eli, who—Daniela liked to point out to Rozco—didn’t have nutz on his truck. Eli’s girlfriend would never have it. She thought about pointing it out just then, but she could tell he wasn’t budging. He was wearing the basketball shorts with the stubborn thread that seemed to be woven into the fabric of the couch. He was on campaign mode. For Rozco, removing the nutz from the hitch was as good as a literal castration. Daniela got her nail glue from the bathroom and left the house.
Daniela parked the Silverado in Sir Veza’s parking lot, an eighth-mile away from the college. Maybe she’d have a beer after class, a tall Dos Equis, and if lucky, maybe they’d have limes.
It had been fourteen months since Daniela’s first tour of the strip mall campus. Until that day, when she passed by the college—if she ever made it that far in Tucson’s east—she had always thought it was a bank: its continuous sidewalk and mounds of black mulch, the oversized parking lot and commercial signage. In the back of the building, there was still a cart corral from when the site was a home improvement store, and which the custodian now used to keep rakes, brooms, and shovels.
Daniela, who was not a smoker but liked the company of the smokers, puffed just two cigarettes a week while munching vending machine Combos. After seventy-five minutes of instruction, Daniela was back in the parking lot, listening to Angel shit-talk Chris.
He was saying, “No, no. You’ve got it backwards, retrasado. Financial aid, student loans, that Stafford shit, is all just another way of saying debt.”
If nobody was bumming, though Chris often was, two packs would last Daniela exactly one quarter. After her final, she’d suck her last cigarette down to its tipping paper, then slam dunk it into the receptacle’s sand. If the final went well, she felt just like the fair-skinned Latina in the commercial, for whom college was easy and financing it easier still. If it went badly—she had failed Introduction to Statistics twice now and was postponing her last redo—she skipped the victory smoke and sobbed in the Silverado.
Another seventy-five minutes, and class was over. Daniela was back at the designated smoking spot. Even though no one was there yet, she put a cigarette on her lips and pretended to puff as she watched the custodian. He bundled the pruned branches from the palo verde trees, his shears in a holster on his hip. Daniela thought he was sexy in a friend’s hot tío kind of way. She wandered what his yard must look like. She imagined chaparral with subtropical flourishes, the best landscaping in the barrio to be sure.
Sometimes, with nothing better to do after class, students just watched the custodian. Angel had once made a self-righteous comment about how a degree would free him from that kind of work. “Not going to be that kind of Chicano anymore,” he said, and Daniela wanted to smack him.
Daniela turned her phone on, and Rozco’s voicemails, all four of them, coursed from her palm to her elbow like an electroshock, like a Taser. Instead of listening to them, Daniela lit her cigarette. Someone would join her eventually.
Daniela had never noticed, but the custodian’s right shoe had a large rubber heel to compensate for his short right leg. Because he was often carrying heavy items, his limp had always been implied by his work. Daniela watched as the custodian tossed the bundle into the bed of his truck and walked toward the door, about to leave. Daniela took one step outside of the spray painted rectangle.
“¿Qué onda?”she called to the custodian.
He shrugged and took a step toward her. They were still a ways apart, a few couch lengths. Daniela was disappointed when he replied in imperfect English.
“I just finish,” he said.
She had heard him speaking Spanish on his cell phone and to the contractors who occasionally came in for projects outside the scope of maintenance. She persisted.
“Soy Daniela. ¿Quieres tomarte unos tragos conmigo?”
The custodian cocked his head at her. Daniela instinctively looked at his holster with the shears. She wasn’t sure if his hesitance was due to her insistence on Spanish or whether it was because she had just asked him to get a drink with her.
She pointed at Sir Veza’s just east of them for clarification. “En el garaje de taco? Ahora?”
“Gracias,” he said, “but no. I just finish. I can’t drink so close to where I work.”
Daniela considered asking where she should meet him then, but decided it was too forward. Maybe he had a ring to put back on now that his denim work gloves were off. Maybe he kept it in his pickup’s sticky drink holder.
“Gracias, though, Daniela,” the custodian said her name, bouncing into the front seat of his truck, door still ajar. “It’s a rain check.”
Daniela butted her cigarette in the sand, wondering what a rain check was worth anyway in the Sonoran Desert. Adiós, Tío Sexy, she thought as they waved goodbye to each other, more a long-distance high five.
The michelada stunk. Daniela sat inside the taco garage, beneath televisions screening ESPN, former athletes trying to speak, trying to digest the stats from the NFL scouting combine. The men in the bar (they were all men) looked up at the screen and watched hefty linemen speed through the twenty-yard shuttle.
“Now, how important of a barometer is this?” a sportscaster asked.
“It’s a pretty important barometer,” an analyst parroted.
Daniela lowered her nose to the salted rim of the glass, sniffed the tomato juice and clam broth of the Clamato. Still good? She saw the Tecate swirl. One man watched Daniela—or rather, her cleavage—instead of the screen. It was as if his intense perception had formed the cleft in her chest. Daniela twirled away on her barstool.
Outside, two teenagers kneeled at the Silverado’s bumper.
Goddammit, Daniela thought.
One posed homoerotically with the Truck Nutz, his tongue outstretched while the other took a picture on his phone.
Fuck you, Daniela thought.
She averted her eyes, looking at the glass box above the door’s entrance. Inside the glass box was a pair of red Tecate boxing gloves signed by a Mexican boxer. Not Oscar De Le Hoya, but someone known, worthwhile.
The bartender, who had mild Tourette’s, cryptically blinked at Daniela’s goblet. “No good?”
“Not really,” she said, wrinkling her nose.
The bartender nodded and replaced it with a Tecate. “It’s on me.”
“Thanks,” Daniela said.
Daniela reached into her purse for her phone to see how many more Rozco calls she had missed. Just one. She listened to the threatening voicemail. He made the payments. He filled the fuel tank. He needed to be in Chandler by seven a.m. to sandblast the sealant on SR 87. Daniela put her phone away pretending she had heard an apology too.
She tugged her camisole upward to cover her cleavage and left Sir Veza’s.
Daniela loved the anticipation of waiting for her mother’s voice over the phone.
“¡Hola?” her mother said.
“Hola, Daniela!” Ernesto sang in the background. Her mother’s boyfriend, a sweetheart man.
“I was thinking about coming home for a couple days if it’s OK,” Daniela asked her mother.
“If it’s OK?” her mother laughed. “It’s OK, Daniela,” she assured her. “Siempre bienvenido! ¿Estás bien?”
“Estoy bien,” Daniela assured. “I just get bored at Rozco’s, you know? He’s leaving again, dos días o tres días.”
“Chandler, I think.”
“Bleh,” her mother said.
Daniela heard Ernesto ask a question too. She waited for her mother to explain.
She didn’t always like the way her mother spoke to Ernesto. He was seventy years old, and yet he was treated with inequity—as if his status as a divorciado was beneath her mother’s as a widow. La Viuda Respetable, Daniela sometimes derided her mother.
Daniela could hear the giggling. She could tell they were a little drunk. “What are you guys up to? Want me to get some cervezas?” she offered.
“No. We’re sitting in the yard now. It’s mostly dark—”
“Tell her about the swan,” she heard Ernesto say.
“Ernesto sees this constellation. He’s been talking about it all night. He’s looking at it more than he’s looking at me, but I don’t see a thing.”
Tucson’s golden skyglow was faint. Daniela checked the black glass of her rearview before signaling.
“Well, I’m almost there,” she said, a fair warning. “I just need to take the truck back.”
She was driving in the slow lane now, five miles per hour under the speed limit. The radio was on its lowest volume. Long fiddle notes were bowed over the Silverado’s engine, a sentimental coda.
“Bienvenido,” her mother repeated before the inevitable quip. “Ernesto, not so much."