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.
Último was born in the village of Ricardo Flores Magón and raised there with two older sisters without being much aware of the wider world. Growing up, he thought of his father, Fidel, as already old. He slouched, his face was wrinkled, and he wore a straw hat with the brim coming apart and a gray heron’s feather in the sweaty red band. “This hat keeps me alive,” his father said. “You don’t know.” His mother kept goats and chickens and a small garden, watered by hand, and made baskets from yucca fiber and marketed them in Chihuahua. Then his father disappeared, no one knew where, and money arrived from different places Último had never heard of. His mother said that in the States, money grew in the gardens like squash and beans.
Último was an altar boy—every boy was—but he had doubts about God. He had been to Chihuahua with his mother once and felt the energy of the city, had seen the lights and the cars, the radios and TVs, the clothes, soaps, and a thousand other things, and why would God make such things that belonged to so few?
Último did well in school without much effort, and girls were kind to him. When Último was 14, the padre warned him of sins Último had never thought of, and when he inquired of his sisters’ friends, they laughed and kissed him and showed him what pleasure a boy might receive from their hands and mouths. Último was troubled that God should not want him to do what felt so joyful.
So he passed his days reading and learning from the girls and playing soccer. When he was 17, his father came home for several months. He had a car and nice clothes and wore a hat that was useless against the sun. He told stories of Fresno and cotton-picking, of Castroville, where artichokes grew, and Yakima, Washington, where apples were heavy on the trees. If a man was willing to work, he said, there was money everywhere.
His father wanted to take Último back with him to California, but Marta, the older sister, was pregnant in Buenaventura and needed help, and the younger sister, Lorena, couldn’t be left alone. Most of the day she sat with their abuelita under the thatched awning, but sometimes, without warning, she screamed at a lizard or a bird, and once she’d torn off her shirt and run through the village crying out, “God is chasing me.” Another time she took the knife she was slicing papayas with and stabbed herself in her arm. The abuelita was too old to do what was necessary for Lorena, so when his father went back to the States, Último had to stay longer in Ricardo Flores.
Elena Rivera appreciated how good Último was with Aparicio and saw no reason not to help a tall, good-looking boy who had gotten himself to the U.S. That’s what she told Último one afternoon in September when he brought over a video of Abu and the Giraffe for her son. “What will you do when it gets cold?” she asked. “You can’t sleep at the river all winter.”
“Maybe I will rent from Hector Lopez when his pickers are gone.”
“My parents have a vacant house a little ways out of town,” Elena Rivera said. “There is a spell on it, because a child was killed by a rattlesnake.”
“The place by the dry arroyo?” Último asked. “It has tires holding down the tin roof.”
“That’s it,” Elena said. “The windows are broken, and who knows what else is wrong with it. You’d have to do some repairs. Are you afraid of snakes?”
“Yes and no,” Último said.
“No,” Último said.
“If you’re interested, I will ask my parents about it.”
At the end of his days in Ricardo Flores, Último had a girlfriend, Alba, three years older, a friend of Marta’s, whom his mother had gone to help. Alba was devout and shy, and she went to Mass every day with her mother. She wasn’t one of his sisters’ friends who’d shown him what pleasure was, and he knew better than to coax her or try to kiss her. Instead, he asked to see her naked body.
“Once,” he said. “I want to remember you when I’m gone.”
“You can remember me with my clothes on,” she said.
“I promise I won’t touch you.”
“You will look at me with lust. That’s a sin.”
“I might look at you with lust,” Último said. “That will be my problem.”
“Why would you ask this,” she said, “when you know I cannot do such a thing?”
“There is no cost for a question.”
The next day, as they walked outside the village, Último asked again.
“I have already answered you,” Alba said.
“You might have changed your mind,” Último said. “You might have decided there could be no harm in it, because I will be in the States.”
“When are you going?”
“Soon,” Último said. “When my mother comes back from Buenaventura.”
“In any case, where could we do such a thing? Lorena and your abuelita are at your house, and my mother is at mine.”
“In the church is a room behind the altar where we used to wait before Mass,” Último said. “No one is there in the afternoon.”
Alba laughed. “You’re as crazy as your sister.”
“Only once,” Último said. “I want to walk all the way around you, so when I am in the States, I will remember clearly your whole body.”
“Without touching?” Alba said.
“It won’t happen.”
A week passed. Último tended Lorena, who was seeing the Virgin Mary in the clouds. He humored her, sang to her, told her she would live to be 103 years old. They threw stones into the ravine. Último read her stories from a magazine.
Their mother returned, grieving for a lost granddaughter. “It was God’s will,” she said. “The child was never well, but did it have to die?”
“God’s will,” Último said. “What is that?”
A few days later, Último filled two plastic bottles with water and loaded his backpack with food that wouldn’t spoil—peanut butter, bread, cans of stew—and said goodbye to Alba at the tienda where she worked. “I am leaving tomorrow before daylight,” he said. “I am going alone so I won’t get caught. I promise I’ll write.”
“How will you find your way?”
“I am destined for great things,” Último said.
“I have changed my mind,” Alba said. “I will do what you asked.”
Último said nothing.
“At two o’clock I have a break,” Alba said. “I will meet you at the church.”
“Promise?” he asked.
At two o’clock that afternoon, Alba appeared at the church as she said she would. The room Último remembered was behind the altar, though he had forgotten how barren and simple it was. There was only one square window high up in the wall, and light fanned down onto the plaster of the wall opposite.
“You have to turn around,” Alba said.
Último turned around and stared up at the light. He heard the swishing of clothes, a dress fall to the floor, then quiet.
“Now,” Alba said.
He turned back slowly and saw her body, her small, dark-tipped breasts, her long black hair over one shoulder. She did not hide herself with her hands, but she lowered her eyes. He was aware of her face, the expression of chasteness, but joy, too, as if she was both ashamed and glad of the moment. Último walked all the way around her so that, for a few seconds, his shadow fell across her body, and then her body returned to light.
Elena Rivera’s parents agreed to let him have the house in return for his labor fixing it up. An abandoned shack was what it was, with waist-high weeds in the yard. The door was padlocked, but Último looked through the jagged glass of the broken windows. Swallows had nested on the rafters, and the stuccoed walls were covered with graffiti—Venceremos! Viva Zapata! Anglos suck eggs. There were three rooms, one with a sink, but no running water. The outhouse in back was functional, but it leaned two feet toward the dry arroyo where cottonwoods grew. A barrel stove had heated the place, but the barrel was in the yard, and the stovepipe was gone. Último tried the outdoor pump and gave 30 pulls on the long, curved handle. Dirty water came out, but in another 30 pulls the water came clear.
Early mornings in October, before he went to the video store, Último cleared the weeds and burned them. He borrowed tools from the Riveras—hammer, saw, chisel, level, tape measure—and bought plaster, nails, window glass, glazing compound, and a stovepipe. At night he scavenged for plywood, warped two-by-fours, one-by-fours with nails still in them. He fixed the hole in the floor, repaired the damage to the clapboard outside, jammed rocks into the holes raccoons had made under the house. He scraped away the swallows’ mud nests, covered over the graffiti with fresh plaster, moved the barrel inside, and cut the stovepipe to fit. He propped two cottonwood branches against the outhouse to make it stand straight. The electricity was turned on. From his customers he cadged two lamps, two chairs, a mattress, and a card table. He saw no rattlesnakes—it was getting cold.
October 25, he moved in, and not long after, an unusual thing: one evening he stayed for steak and green chiles at the widow Obregón’s and drove home late on his moped. It was windy and dark, and when he pulled up to his shack he was chilled. The moon illuminated the tin roof with the tires on it, and the stones in the yard were silver. When he opened the door to his house, the moonlight came in with him, and there was Alba in the kitchen. She had on shorts and a pale blouse—he couldn’t see what color in the dark—and her face was conflicted with desire. “Let me make a fire,” he said. “You must be cold.” He turned on the light, but no one was there.
Último knew people claimed they’d seen Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary and even Jesus Christ, but this was Alba, an ordinary girl from Ricardo Flores. Despite the promise he’d made, he hadn’t thought much about Alba. In Deming he had written her several letters, scrawled on torn paper, and he’d received three from her, written on a lined school tablet, the last of which offered him more of her if he came home. But he was with Brenda, and he hadn’t written back.
The night after Último saw Alba, he came home from his last delivery with a keen anticipation of seeing her again. Perhaps she’d be at the table or lying in bed, or she’d be at the window looking west into the moonlight, but when he opened the door, the house was empty. He thought it might have been a difference in the clouds, or in the moon’s waning by a single day. Several weeks went by, each night getting longer and colder, and he got over his disappointment and wondered whether he’d ever seen Alba at all.
It rained. At the Goodwill he bought a coat and hat and gloves. With the dwindling light, people had longer evenings to fill up, and he hustled videos even harder because Señora Gaspar was always getting in new movies and his premiums were good money. But with the cold and the early dark, deliveries were more of a burden. Yes, he was familiar with the signs, the location of the poorly banked curve on Canal Road, the washboard gravel by Jaime Delgado’s adobe house where seven people lived, but Último couldn’t see the blue hills in the distance or the hawks circling or the silhouettes of the mountains, except as a jagged black line against the stars.
His solace was his house. Each day he became more used to it, more comfortable. The barrel stove was smoky, but it heated the rooms. He had built a platform for his mattress, and he slept well. For a couple of months, he sent money home to his mother and Lorena.
In December, Elena Rivera’s parents asked for rent, starting in the new year. “You’ve lived for free,” Elena Rivera said. “What you spent for labor and materials has been accounted for.”
“How much?” Último wanted to know.
“Two hundred a month. I’ve argued your case, but the dairy business is not going well, and my parents want what’s fair.”
“There’s no heat,” Último said. “No running water. I’m already paying the electric.”
“That’s why it’s not 400,” Elena said.
“I understand,” Último said. “I will pay the rent.”
At Christmas, Señora Gaspar went to Albuquerque to visit her son, and Último was left in charge. He opened the store, answered the phone, logged in the returned videos. He called the people whose DVDs were overdue and offered pickup service. Of course, Señora Gaspar needed someone in the store when Último was making deliveries, so at three her niece, Rosa, came in with a four-pack of wine coolers. When Último returned half-frozen from his pickups and deliveries, Rosa was sitting on the stool with a space heater under her, reading comic books.
The next morning the till was short $22. To avoid suspicion, Último made up the difference from his own pocket. The next morning, another $15 was missing. He didn’t know what to do. Señora Gaspar would be gone another 11 days.
Último was saved from one despair by another, because the next night when Rosa closed the store, she left the space heater on, and too close to the wastebasket. It melted the plastic and set fire to the computer tear-offs and then to the desk. It was three in the morning, and by the time the volunteer fire department arrived, the building was ablaze, the inventory destroyed, and Último’s livelihood gone up in flames.
For several weeks after the fire, Último sat by the barrel stove and looked out the window at the gray sky. He bought a cheap bottle of red wine and drank it, but felt no better. He slept. Only a week before the fire, he had sent money home, so when he paid his rent, he had no money left. His only possession to sell was his moped, but it was a mile to town.
He might have looked for his father in California, but where? Or, of course, he could have gone home, but in Ricardo Flores he could not do the great things he expected of himself. Then, on a dark morning, he was lying in bed, dozing, waking, pondering, when Alba came again. She was in the doorway of his bedroom, embracing the wooden jamb, hiding her breasts from view. He sat up and pulled his blanket up to cover his chest and shoulders. Alba’s expression was no longer conflicted, but wanton and eager. Último called to her softly. She wouldn’t come closer, so he stood up to go to her, and she disappeared.
He interpreted this vision of Alba as a sign to stop moping, and that afternoon he asked Señor Garcia for a job in the bakery. Último had to go in at 4 a.m., and each day he understood his mother’s desperation. How had she endured the long journey to Chihuahua to sell baskets? What had she thought, leaving her children behind?
One of the Garcias was there, Mercedes or Alfonso, and Último helped prepare the dough, knead it, and put it into the pans. He learned to make dulces and churros and cinnamon rolls, and at six, they opened the store. Último brewed the coffee. There were three tables for sitting inside.
At eleven, Mercedes or Alfonso, whoever was there, took a break for lunch and left Último alone for an hour. He was not allowed to sit at the tables, but he might drink coffee in the back room, from which he could watch the store. One day, as he was behind the counter gazing at the street, Isabel Garcia touched his shoulder, and he jumped. She had come in through the back door from the alley.
“Are you alone?” she asked.
“I am here where I’m supposed to be,” he said.
“They say you are a good worker and do what you’re asked. Would you obey me, too?”
“That depends,” Último said.
Isabel slid past him, and he smelled her scent. “You don’t come to see me anymore.”
“I never came to see you. I delivered the movies you ordered.”
“Hatch is the end of the world,” she said. “I can’t wait to leave.”
“For me it is the beginning of the world.”
She took a bite of a churro. “I’ll think of something,” she said. “Be ready.”
On the day Último left Ricardo Flores he had said goodbye to his abuelita, who was old, but not to his mother, and hitchhiked to Buenaventura, where he got a ride north to Las Palomas. In the evening, he hiked west into the desert, and a three-quarters moon led him into the mountains. In the morning he hid in a cave and the next night walked again. He followed animal trails, and in the morning he was in the United States, at the edge of an encampment of RVs. All that day he watched what the people did there, who was leaving, and at mid-morning of the second day, he saw a couple on their way out stop their small motor home at the restroom. Último ran from his hiding place, climbed the ladder to the roof, and lay down.
The ride was easy. He held on to a vent to keep from rolling off on the turns. Most of the time he lay on his back and looked at the sky, the same one that arched over Ricardo Flores, and he daydreamed of Alba—her bronze skin, her black hair, the shame and joy on her face as she revealed herself to him. Several times he raised his head to see where he was, but everywhere around him was desert and mountains.
Once they stopped for no reason Último could see, and he heard voices—questions and answers. Someone opened the back of the camper. Último didn’t move. If he couldn’t see anyone on the ground, no one on the ground could see him. Then the RV gathered speed again and kept going. A half hour farther on was a town with stoplights, where the couple pulled into a gas station. Último climbed down from the roof and ran.
One afternoon after work in the bakery, he was in bed, but hadn’t gone to sleep yet. He’d got a raise of 50 cents an hour and was calculating how much he could send home when he heard the door open in the living room. For a minute, he didn’t hear anything more. Maybe it had been the wind, maybe Alba. Then the floor creaked. He opened his eyes, and Isabel Garcia came into his room.
“I thought of something to ask,” she said. “Do you want to make love?” She walked to the bed and pulled her shirt up over her head. “Move over.”
He moved over—he had no choice—and she slid in beside him.
Isabel visited every few days, and it wasn’t punishment to feel her hands on him, her mouth, the weight of her body. He liked her sighs, the notes of pleasure she sang to him, the urgency she felt, but he didn’t feel love. He felt an uneasy peace, and he slept after, but he worried who had seen her car there, who might talk, and he knew his days at the bakery were numbered.
He went to talk to Elena Rivera. “I want to grow chiles,” he said.
“Everyone in Hatch grows chiles,” she said.
“That’s the idea,” Último said. “I want to be everyone. But I will grow the best ones.”
“Do you know anything about growing chiles?”
“I will learn.”
“And where will you grow them?”
“On the land around the house that has tires on the roof, on my land.”
“You want to buy it?” Elena Rivera asked. “I laugh at you. My parents will laugh at you. But in case they don’t, how much are you intending to pay?”
“Ten thousand dollars,” Último said. “The house is barely a house, and there are rattlesnakes. Two thousand now, and a little at a time over five years.”
“Will you be here in five years?”
“If I get the land.”
“The land is full of stones,” Elena Rivera said, “and the creek is dry.”
“More reasons for your parents to sell.”
“But how will you grow chiles there?”
“Magic,” Último said. “I am destined for great things.”
A week after he had talked to Elena Rivera about the land, she came into the bakery. She bought two cinnamon rolls. “Aparicio likes these,” she said. “I’ll tell him you made them.”
“I did,” Último said, “only for him.”
“I talked my parents into selling,” she said. “Who else, I told them, would buy a house like that on a field of stones with tires holding down the roof?”
“Others like me,” Último said.
“There are no others like you. They want $15,000, $3,000 now, and the rest in four years. They will charge no interest.”
“Give me two weeks,” Último said. “I will find $3,000.”
But he had no idea how he would get the money. He tried the bank, but, as he thought, he had no assets and no credit, and even Elena Rivera’s recommendation got him nowhere. He thought of asking the widow Obregón for a loan, but that would change their friendship. He had only one other idea, and on a Thursday after work at the bakery, he drove his moped to Deming.
He went first to the Broken Spoke, where the bartender remembered him. “Your hair is longer,” the bartender said.
“You’ve gained weight and look prosperous,” said Larry Munzer, sitting on the same bar stool he had been on a year ago.
“I am almost a chile grower,” Último said. “Do you understand what that means?”
“You’re almost a man,” the bartender said.
“I’m looking for Brenda,” Último said. “We’re still married.”
“She’s back in town,” Larry Munzer said. “She’s started up the Hair You Are Salon. She married a nice guy from California.”
“All the better,” Último said.
Brenda was surprised and not at all happy to see him. The upshot was, in return for $3,000, he offered her a divorce, silence, and forgiveness of the money he’d paid on her debts. She used the money from her loan. It took a few days—Último had to ride back to Deming another time—but he signed the contract to buy his house and the land around it.
Before offering to buy the property, Último had examined what he was doing. The cottonwoods along the arroyo were healthy, and though the arroyo was dry, the hand pump in the yard was good. Último disassembled the pump and measured the well casing—15 feet, not very deep. He borrowed an electric pump from Tom Martínez and ran an extension cord to the house. Whether there was a stream underground or a reservoir Último didn’t know, but the pump produced five cubic feet per second, which was plenty to irrigate five acres of chiles.
Now Último eyeballed the highest point on his property, figured out how he would get water to it, and then traded away the moped to Alex Tomar for the use of his tractor. On Sunday, when the bakery was closed, he plowed up the stones. The plow blade broke, and Último welded it. It broke again, and he welded it again, and he finished plowing in the dark. On Monday, surveying the field of loose stones, Último had more work than ever.
For the next two weeks, every spare minute, he carried stones. Aparicio helped. They gathered the stones into a pile, loaded them into a wheelbarrow, and wheeled them to the arroyo across a plywood trail laid out over the broken ground. The wheelbarrow was too heavy to dump, so Último turned it on its side, and they heaved stones into the arroyo.
After work now, Último had no time for siestas. He loaded and unloaded the wheelbarrow hundreds of times, each day creating more arable ground. Then one day when he came home, Isabel was there and asked her same question.
“I can’t now,” Último said. “Come back when it is too dark to work.”
“You’ll be too tired.”
“I’m too tired now.”
“Would you want me to tell my father about us?”
“What have I done but what you wanted?” Último asked. “What love is it if you force me?”
“Better than nothing,” Isabel said. “Come inside, Último. I need you now.”
When the stones had been carried away, Último broke apart the clumps of earth with a hoe. That took another week. Then he borrowed back his moped and visited the widow Obregón and asked to buy manure.
“You can’t buy it,” she said. “I will give it to you.”
“Can I rent one of your trucks to haul it?”
“I will lend you the truck.”
“Thank you,” he said, and he listened to her complain about her son in Wichita who worked for Cessna but never came to visit her.
Último spread the manure with a shovel, 15 loads over 10 days. He hoed furrows three feet apart, arranged a flexible plastic pipe to the highest point in the field, and irrigated the dry ground to the north so it could get used to moisture it had never experienced except as rain. He did the same thing from the highest point to the south.
He spoke to other chile growers he’d met when he delivered movies—to the Gallegoses, who marketed their chiles to Safeway, to Arnie Yellen, who grew chiles on an acre behind his house and sold them on the highway, to Alfred Saenz, who was the biggest grower in the Hatch Valley. He talked to Ned Cruz, the owner of the Chile Store, who sold chiles year-round as paste and in powder form, dried, fresh, and frozen. In the library he read in Spanish and English about green chiles and red chiles, their growing seasons, the ways to keep insects off the plants, how to make sure the chiles flowered. He called the agricultural extension agent of Doña Ana County for recommendations and learned that the less water chiles had, the hotter they were.
As the weather warmed, the bakery became busier. Locals shed their winter isolation and moved outside. Motels were full of spring travelers, and these people wanted dulces and coffee for the road. Último came in at 3 a.m. to make more bread, more cinnamon rolls, more churros. Even Isabel helped. She was at the cash register before school and came back for an hour at noon and complained the whole time.
Still, Último labored every afternoon on his land. He had carried the stones away but continued to find new ones; he broke the clumps of earth smaller and smaller; he irrigated the ground. Then, finally, in April, he was ready to buy seeds.
There were many choices—sweet or mild, hot, super hot. A habañero was 50 times hotter than a jalapeño. There were bird chiles, Bolivian chiles, Peruvian chiles, all undomesticated, plus bell chiles, Cherrytime, Hungarian Hot Wax, Hot Cherry, red, cayenne, and Serrano. And there were specialized versions of these too, like Cherry Bombs, Marbles, and Bulgarian Carrot, as well as hybrids like Ancho 211, Thai Dragon, Conchos Jalapeño, and Serrano del Sol.
He was pondering what to buy when Isabel came over and asked him to go with her to Las Cruces to find an apartment. “I’m moving as soon as school’s finished,” she said.
“Is it all right with your parents?”
“I’m not asking.”
“When do you want to go?”
“Now,” she said, “right after you fuck me.”
Isabel had read a newspaper ahead of time and had marked the ads, and by three o’clock she’d found a one-bedroom not too far from the university. The manager of the building wanted a month’s rent in advance, which Isabel supplied. “You can visit me anytime,” she said to Último, “and you’d better.”
“Since we’re here,” he said, “do you mind if I run an errand? I want to buy a hat.”
They found a hat store in the Yellow Pages, and Isabel drove him there and waited in the car. He bought a straw hat with a brim to keep the sun from his face.
“You look silly,” Isabel said.
“It’s a hat like my father’s,” Último said. “Now I have to go to the university.”
“I have a friend there,” Isabel said. “I’ll see if he’s home.”
Isabel let him off on the corner of Espina and Frenger, and Último found the Chile Pepper Institute of New Mexico State. He asked to see the director, and after a short wait was ushered into a small office. He sat down across the desk from a young woman. “I am going to grow chiles in Hatch,” he said. “I need magic.”
He set seeds in the ground in rows three feet apart, each seed 18 inches from the one he’d planted before. He marked every seed, fertilized it, and watered it by hand from a bucket he carried along. He moved on his knees from one planting to the next like a pilgrim crawling for miles to atone for his sins. It took Último three days to plant the seeds—the experimental ones the institute was paying him to grow.
Then he waited.
To make sure the water wouldn’t evaporate in the heat of the day, he irrigated after sundown, again at midnight, and a third time when he got up to go to the bakery. On his break at 9 a.m., he ran home and turned off the pump.
One afternoon he came home and saw two trucks parked along the arroyo, an old one and a new Dodge. He recognized Señora Obregón sitting in the shade with her hired man, Paco. Último came up, and they all shook hands.
“It was my turn to visit you,” Señora Obregón said. “I see how hard you’ve worked.”
“I have planted chiles,” Último said. “I can offer you a drink of water. It is a humble house.”
“I would like you to bring me chiles from the harvest,” Señora Obregón said.
“I will be glad to,” Último said, “but the harvest is far away.”
“Closer than you think,” Señora Obregón said. “That’s why I’m here. How would you bring me chiles without a truck?” She nodded toward the old truck. “The tires are worn, and it has 100,000 miles of use, but it’s a Toyota and has lived well.”
“I am honored,” Último said.
“The title is on the seat,” Señora Obregón said. “Here’s the key. Now you can visit me again.”
May 21, a long day. Último had hardly slept, because at two in the morning, something made an eerie, quavering sound in the cottonwoods. He stepped outside with a flashlight and heard the unmistakable buzzing of a rattlesnake. He found the snake in the beam of the flashlight, coiled, with its head raised, its tongue flashing. Último got to his knees and shone the light into the snake’s eyes. “I will leave you alone,” he said, “if you will leave me alone.”
The snake didn’t answer, but Último believed they had made a deal.
He heard the quavering again—like a saw blade being played—and he skirted the snake and walked to the arroyo. The sound came from upstream in dark billowy trees, but each time he reached the place he thought it was, it moved farther away.
The night was cool, but the stars were out, and as Último waited to hear the sound again, he urinated into the arroyo. Like every man in history who had done the same thing, Último felt the enormity of the sky, the deepness of space, and his own tiny greatness in the effort he had made in his field. Then the quavering came again from the trees nearby.
Último shone his light back and forth into the leaves until he found the shining eyes of a small owl. It was 30 feet away and a little above where Último stood, and Último made a deal with the owl, too, never to die.
Último lowered the light, and the bird flew deeper into the trees.
He set the water and went back to bed, but he still couldn’t sleep, because he felt the air move through the house, sweet air, humid with the earth’s smell. He got up when it was still dark and went to bake bread.
At nine o’clock he drove his new old truck home and cut off the pump and sat for a minute on the smooth stone he had put down as a step to his door. He was wearing the straw hat against the sun. The snake’s path was carved in the dust in the direction of the arroyo, and the cottonwoods chattered in the breeze. Because he hadn’t slept, Último felt part of everything that lived nearby. He remembered his mother and Lorena in Ricardo Flores, Marta in Buenaventura, his father in California, wherever he was, and wished they all could see him at that moment, tired and exultant.
He closed his eyes for a moment and leaned back against the door, and when he opened his eyes again, he saw tiny sprigs of green coming up through the soil. He stood up and ran into the field. The chiles were coming up, three feet apart in the rows and 18 inches one plant from another. He knelt down in a wet furrow between two rows and kissed the ground, and when he looked up again, Alba was a few feet away, gazing at him. She wore jeans and a white blouse, and her expression was dreamlike, as if she had believed in him all along and was answering his call.