Image: Jeannette Wood
Interview: "Music and Lyrics"
Kent Nelson explains how the 1960s folk scene and the poetic language of James Joyce inspired him to become a writer.
Último Vargas had been in Hatch, New Mexico, only six months, since March, and already he owned his own business to compete with Netflix, delivering DVDs and video games to ranchers and people who lived within 20 miles of town. He had worked out a deal with Señora Gaspar, who owned the video store, to pay him 90 percent of the delivery fee, and if he took out more than 50 videos in a week, a premium on the extras.
Último had a moped, which made it feasible. Gas prices were high, and delivery and pickup saved customers money. Also, it was convenient—they didn’t have to wait till they had an errand in town. Most of the customers were Mexican families who worked the land for Anglos, or Anglos who owned cattle or pecan groves. Último organized his schedule to avoid random trips. It was a lot of riding on the moped, but he liked the terrain—the low hills, the bare mountains, pale blue in the day and silhouetted in the evenings, the vast sky. He liked seeing the fields of onions and chiles, the pecan trees, the alfalfa growing, the cattle grazing. He saw hawks, antelope, badgers, and deer, and learned their habits.
In a few weeks he knew most of his customers—the Gallegos family out on Castaneda Road, who grew green chiles, the Brubakers farther on, the widow woman, Señora Obregón, who still ran the Bar SW ranch. The Michaels family was a mile east, the Garcias were on the other side of Interstate 25—they owned the bakery—and Tom Martínez lived in the turquoise trailer a mile past. Many of the families grew chiles—that’s what Hatch was famous for—and marketed them to the co-op in Albuquerque or along the town highway, pickled or fresh, in jellies or as ristras. Everyone knew Último, too, the chico loco on his moped.
The more people knew him, of course, the more people knew about his business. He was strong, had a good smile, and was a natural salesman. He talked to the Mexican families in Spanish, asked where their relatives came from, who was left in Hermosillo or Juárez or Oaxaca. He talked to the Anglos to improve his English and to show he was a serious businessman. He expected great things of himself one day.
Último’s English was passable, because he’d worked almost a year in Deming before he came to Hatch. He’d washed dishes at Sí Señorita from six to two, and at four he mopped floors at the elementary school. In between he spent his off hours at the Broken Spoke, where he met people, even some women, like Brenda, who was a hairdresser, then unemployed. At eleven one night Último was walking home to his trailer, and Brenda stopped in her Trans Am with the muffler dragging. She gave him a ride, and one thing led to another. He fixed Brenda’s muffler and relined the brakes, and she fucked him like there was no tomorrow. After a month, Brenda wanted to get married—she was pregnant, she said—and Último said why not. Two weeks after the wedding, he found out there was no baby, and Brenda ran off to California with a wine salesman.
To pay off Brenda’s debts, Último used his meager savings and took a third job unloading freight at the train yard, though he still wasn’t making enough money, or sleeping enough, either. One evening, after Último was threatened with eviction from Brenda’s apartment, his boss at the school found him dozing at a teacher’s desk, and he was finished in Deming. He walked north with his thumb out, but no one picked him up. In two days, 46 miles later, with nothing but the clothes he wore and a blanket he’d brought from home, he staggered past Las Uvas Dairy and a few broken-down adobe houses and into Hatch, where he saw a Help Wanted sign in the window of the Frontera Mercado. He went in and got a job stocking groceries.
Hatch was in the fertile cottonwood corridor along the banks of the Rio Grande River, with the interstate to the east and open country in every other direction—ranches, pasture, rangeland. The days were getting warmer by then, and he slept in the brush along the river, shaved and washed himself there, and ate for breakfast whatever he had scavenged from the mercado the day before. If he wasn’t working, he spent sunny mornings in the park and rainy ones in the library. Then Señora Gaspar hired him to work the morning shift at the video store, checking in rentals, cleaning, replenishing the stock of candy bars and popcorn. He established a more efficient check-in, organized a better window display, and built a new sign from construction waste: Gaspar’s Movies, and in smaller letters, Pregunte sobre nuestro servicio de mensajería.
“What delivery?” Señora Gaspar asked.
“Our delivery,” Último said. “I have bought a moped from Tom Martínez.”
Some of his customers ordered movies for the company Último gave them. Señora Obregón, 55 years old, had lost her husband and wanted someone to talk to. She reminded Último of his abuelita in Mexico, and he often made the ranch his last stop of the evening so he had time to sit on her porch and listen to her stories. Her husband had been killed two winters before, when, as he was feeding the cattle in a blizzard, a 1,500-pound bull slipped on a patch of ice and crushed him. They’d lost 100 head in that storm. Her children were in Wichita, Denver, and Salt Lake City, two sons and a daughter, and none of them wanted anything to do with the ranch. When he visited, Señora Obregón dressed well, as if Último’s presence meant something, and she offered him steak and potatoes, and always leftovers to take with him afterward.
Another person who ordered movies was the Garcias’ daughter, Isabel. She was 17, had bronzed skin, short black hair, and a good body. One day in June, she called the store and ordered Babel, “pronto,” she said. Último was alone, so he put a CERRADO sign in the window and took off on his moped. Isabel came to the door in a tank top. “Let me find the money,” she said. She didn’t invite him in, but she paraded around the room pretending to look so Último could see the sunlight on her body. She found the money and came back to the door. “Come again,” she said, and handed him a $5 bill.
Elena Rivera also ordered movies. She had lived all her life in Hatch—her family owned a small dairy that competed with Las Uvas—and she was married to a village trustee, Manuel, who grew chiles. Manuel was often there when Último came by, as was their son, Aparicio, 12 years old, who was sick. Elena Rivera thought it was good for the boy to see other people, and Último obliged her by playing games with Aparicio and telling him jokes. The more time Último spent with Aparicio, the more movies the Riveras ordered.