The first time Lilian saw her siblings’ hands sprout from the fertile earth, she hid behind her father’s leg and begged him to be careful. She tugged his fingers as the infant-cries rang through the twilight of crickets and fireflies, telling him that they should hurry before mom came back from the store, but he didn’t listen. Her father looked down with watery eyes and knelt to the ground, trembling. He removed the soil from the newborn babies, took them into the kitchen, and placed them in the sink. Monoecious plants, one boy and one girl. Her father cleared all the dirt from their bodies. With a fresh towel, he cleaned their tiny hands, wiggling feet, faces, their grumbling stomachs—dusting off the tiny ants and soil stuck to their eyelids.
The village lay on the south coast of Cornwall. Every day the fog came over the ploughed fields and sucked at what lived beneath. Gweek would have been called a fishing village, if there were any fish or fishermen left.
We went to the bathhouse because it was Dorian’s thirtieth birthday and, being the kind of friend he was, he wanted to do something for himself—partying at Chicago’s Boystown, a neighborhood we’d frequented when we’d been undergraduates at Iowa—and then something for us, especially for Aviraj, who was Dorian’s closest friend and still a virgin. He had flown for this, Aviraj had; I had flown, too, but it wasn’t as big of a deal, because I had come from New York—costing me around $250—and he had from Mumbai—which could’ve cost shy of $1,000 (not that I asked). This infamous holding-out on Aviraj’s part had come, on the one hand, because of his spiritual beliefs and, on the other, because—idealistic as he was—he had never been able to keep a man, which had brought about that soothing old joke of ours where we told him not to worry; he was surely the type of guy who never dated and then, bam!, he’d marry on his first try. The group would laugh at this jealous joke, yet a jealous silence would always follow, for not only did we believe it to be true, but we also believed Aviraj to be the only one of us who had marriage in him.
Good vibes started at Movida, my favorite paisa club in Bakersfield, because it was real. Other clubs were only restaurants during the day or warehouses on the fairgrounds. Movida was a big-time deal, built especially for visiting artists who came from everywhere—L.A., Mexico, sometimes Central or South America. It was the dance spot you took your girl to, if you wanted to be among the best dressed, the most beautiful.
The baby would be fine, Saeed’s wife said. As the family gathered around the dinner table for his special dessert, a beet cake with yogurt icing, and his home-brewed beer, Saeed agreed to watch the kids on Thursday so that his wife could have a day to herself. They were his grandchildren, too, after all. Although it was only his fifth day in the new country, he had already gotten over his jet lag, touched and kissed his family multiple times, and been given a tour of the neighborhood. He had also bought a road bike and signed up for a spot at the community garden. Now it was time to get acquainted with the grandkids.
I met Jacinta in the migrant camp where we grew up. I remember that it was the beginning of June, a few days into the start of the harvest. At that time, Jacinta had lived for nine springs—she was two years younger than me—and for obvious reasons she still used her given last name, López del Campo. Those of us who saw her timidly climb the stairs and enter the last shack, which served as our classroom, with her butterfly notebook pressed to her chest and her gaze glued to her sun-toasted legs, never imagined that in less than ten years she’d be proclaimed the artistic heir to Joaquín Murrieta, a figure shrouded in dustbut fondly remembered within the Mexican communities settled in the central lands of California.
This piece is an excerpt from The Cemetery Boys, a novel in progress.
Sunday had arrived—Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord thy God—and brought with it a strong exhale that breezed over various labor camp sites of the San Joaquin Valley. Resourceful worshipers set up sanctified spaces and stretched borrowed tarps between sun-scorched oaks to contain the cool shade. The ground was covered in the white grime of harvest dust. The traveling priest presided in front of his truck’s flatbed, renovated to serve as an altar for Catholics, but for anyone, really, who had a righteous belief in divine intervention, joyous faith in a higher power.
Something was crawling underneath Helen’s skin. Or wasn’t? Or was? She leaned in closer to her bathroom mirror and squinted at the S-shaped bump, red and angry around the border, with an edge of self-disgust. It had been there for two days. First, tucked timidly underneath her eyebrow, easily mistaken for an irritated hair follicle, which, no big deal, but now, if her eyes weren’t playing tricks, it had scooted its way smack-dab in the center of her forehead, spotlighted by the offensive bulb overhead. Could it have been something she ate? That rubbery shrimp in the food-court lo mein? Or an unwitting encounter with some poisonous leaf in Punta Cana last week? When she stumbled into that bush after one too many coladas? She thought of texting Bob to see if any curious growths had appeared on his pallid body but decided she’d rather physically suffer than emotionally exhaust herself in a forced flirtatious exchange that would no doubt end with a dinner invitation she’d say yes to, even though the idea repulsed her.
He ate Limburger cheese and smoked fat cigars. When Bruno tossed off his Hush Puppies, ready to pass out on the Lazy Boy, it wasn’t long before the room smelled like boiled cabbage. If he took off his socks, you could see fungus scaling his feet. Close up, his sweat smelled like semen. Not long ago, near Strawberry Fields in Central Park, I was assaulted with the memory of my father sweating shoeless in the recliner. I was passing under two flowering Bradford pears, whose blossoms smelled like dead fish. (To make sure I was right, I looked it up in The Hidden Life of Trees). We called it the Thursday Night Stench because the rest of the week, day and night, he wasn’t home. I’m twenty-eight, and I can’t get near a cigar or look at cabbage without wanting to gag, and the smell of semen, to my chagrin, always reminds me of Bruno.